Sharla R. Yates lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her flash and poetry have been published or forthcoming in Albatross, Lynx Eye, The Boiler Journal, Hartskill Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Poetry City, USA, Shadowgraph Quarterly, and Pretty Owl Poetry among others. Her poetry manuscript What I Would Say If We Were To Drown Tonight was a finalist for the 2015 Villa Paper Nautilus contest.
Two Truths and a LIE
I’m attracted to men who are Taken. Claimed. Off-The-Market.
I slept with Harmony’s boyfriend. Harmony, who ate with her mouth open, eyeing everyone like she wanted to punch them in the throat, who scavenged for attention like a dog chained for too long, held too little. Harmony, who drove forty-five minutes to check out some boys from Job Corps fishing on the South Umpqua even though I asked to go home. Harmony, who blared Steve Miller’s Band through broken speakers, and who wore her jeans so tight that her belly hung over them like rising dough in a bread pan, who would glance at me during arguments with her parents and smile because trouble was the only thing we had in common. Harmony, who slammed the sliding glass door and stomped back to the car because Nate had turned off the porno when it made me uncomfortable.
Harmony had left me behind alone with Nate.
So that’s how it began.
I liked that Nate apologized to me when he wouldn’t to Harmony. I made him apologize a lot. For being late. For kissing too hard. For calling me from County.
“Call her,” I said. “She’s pregnant.”
I hung up the phone before he could finish saying sorry.
If I knew your husband was cheating, I wouldn’t tell you.
I’ve made that mistake before. I told my sister, Sharon, that Dan had pressed himself down on me, squeezing my breasts while moaning, and I had to force him off. Dan had said with brewery breath, to keep it our secret. When I called Sharon, told her what had happened, she listened in a hushed stillness. I heard distant ambulance sirens on her end of the line and imagined her standing outside Whole Foods; empty cloth bags wadded under her arm, cellphone pressed to her ear, her nostrils flaring like an angry kid. For two years, she never returned my calls.
I understand why she chose Dan over me. Husbands are hard to come by, especially third husbands.
I wouldn’t tell you if your husband was cheating because once he squeezes my inner thighs, and his thick tongue enters my mouth, I’ll wish it was over.
My husband was married before.
Sometimes I need him to remember. I ask him questions about what she was like. I make comments about how strange it is that he once was with someone else. I reminisce aloud about how much time has passed since I went to church that Sunday. Remember that Sunday?
Someone hands me a bulletin and asks me how I know the deceased.
I say, “I thought there was church service today.”
From the back of the room, a home video plays on a white projector screen. I wonder why I’m still here, but figure I have to wait to catch the bus anyway, so I might as well stay. In the home video, the twenty-something woman, whose picture is in the bulletin, uses a handheld camera. She turns it on her friends and herself, making faces. She knows already that she has terminal cancer. She’s talking about the Chemo, what to do with her expensive bra collection.
She takes a drag on a cigarette and says, “My mom’s going to be so mad at me.”
Then someone behind the camera chuckles.
After the video goes black and the music clicks off, it is possible to hear chair legs scraping the floor and every sniffle and cough. Her husband stands and addresses the crowd.
“I’m here to remind you how much she loved you,” he says. “That’s what she would want. She would want you to remember how special you were to her.”
I think I want to be loved that much.
Months later, I would learn her dying wishes. He was only twenty-eight. Finish school, she said. Travel the world. Get out there and date somebody.
We were engaged a year later.
We keep her ashes in an urn at his mother’s house until the time we can spread them in the Thames. Another demand— go to London.
There are still times I ask him to say something to conjure her ghost into the room. I want him to say that she was the best person he had ever known, the smartest, the funniest. She shimmers in those moments. Translucent glory: red hair, a white mink coat, gold fingernails. She laughs as if she just heard the most delicious joke.
Have you heard the one about my widower and his new wife?
I was just dying to introduce them.
Amanda Boyle is a short story writer from New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Her stories have also appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Sweet Tree Review, Critical Quarterly, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
About half a year after I died, I saw Greer at the supermarket. Greer and I went to high school together. I’d always had a bit of a crush on her.
Grocery shopping, after my death, was a calming force to my mom: here were concrete things to collect from a list, and a sense of completion at the end of it. She could even do it alone. At first, my parents wouldn’t go into town without the other. A teenage son, and so sudden. I heard—sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken—the comparison to Greer’s death. Her parents had had warning, time to come to terms with their daughter’s fate.
I walked behind my mom; she rattled her cart sharply around corners.
“Richie, hi!” I turned around, half jumping because no one called out to me anymore. Greer was walking towards me, smiling and waving, wearing a light blue bathrobe over a t-shirt and sweatpants.
Greer had been unpopular and while we were friendly because our mothers were friends, I never felt comfortable enough to ask her out. She was a “weird” girl, whatever that meant. Then she was diagnosed with leukemia before senior year, and it was like that was just another weird thing about her in the eyes of our classmates, like her mother’s heavily accented English, or that she was the only girl that did crew for the school shows. After the diagnosis I distanced myself from Greer even further, but I pretended it was for the same reasons as before. She was half homeschooled that year and the teachers were very understanding and people were kind of jealous about that. She graduated, and went off to college, but had to leave before first semester finals, and she died after New Year’s. Some of the people that’d made fun of her in high school made Facebook statuses about her, using these words that who even used, like that she had a “vibrant personality” or that she “gushed with life” even when she was sick.
“Let me see it,” Greer said, pointing to my chest. I let her open my flannel shirt to see the bullet wound, the blood all over my t-shirt.
“Did it hurt?”
“Yeah. But it was quick.”
“Jealous,” she said, letting go of my clothes.
“I heard my mom talking about the accident, and I went to your funeral.”
“No way, I was at my funeral too. I didn’t see you.”
“I sat in the back,” she said.
“Yeah, I sat up front, by my parents. I didn’t stay for the whole thing.”
“I saw your parents walking out and your girlfriend. She’s really pretty.”
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know yet how to refer to Emily. Calling her my girlfriend didn’t seem exactly right as we weren’t still dating, but we hadn’t exactly broken up either, so she wasn’t my ex.
I realized I’d lost track of my mom, she might have left the store. I started walking towards the cashiers, Greer followed. “It was like your parents didn’t notice that your girlfriend was there, I noticed. And she was standing right next to them.”
“Uh, well, they had a lot on their minds,” I said.
“I wasn’t judging them, I just noticed and you said you left early, so I thought I’d let you know.”
I spotted my mom at the cash register, and stopped to wait by her. “Okay, thanks, I guess.”
“You seem to want to hang out with your mom, but let’s hang out later.”
“Yeah, definitely,” I said, although she hadn’t said it as a suggestion.
Greer was the first person I knew that died while I was alive. I had dead relatives, but they’d died before I was born. Greer was the only person I knew who’d died, until I did.
My roommate Blake was the one who shot me. “Come visit and we’ll go hunting,” he always said.
I watched, in the dark early morning, blood leaking out of my body onto the ground. He crashed off through the trees, and I waited, sat down next to myself. I tried to hold my hand.
It was still dark while I waited. It’d be a few hours before the sun rose. We’d gone to sleep at ten and woke at three to get ready. I knew that this was the procedure for hunting so I hadn’t complained. It took me awhile to fall asleep; it always did in an unfamiliar house. Blake sprayed this deer piss scent on us; it’s what you do so the animals don’t notice your foreign human smell. We were walking together through the woods and he was whispering stories about chasing down deer and boars. “And then you just,” he turned towards me, to mime shooting.
Blake came running back I don’t know how much later with two policemen and his father.
I tried hanging around Emily after I died, splitting my time between her and my parents. But she was always crying, and I couldn’t do anything, and she starting failing her classes. I needed some time away; I kept saying I’d go back to school to keep her company. Just things I said to myself. Not that I could say them to other people. Then leaves were back on trees, then it was summer and my dad tried to suggest a weekend beach trip to my mom. Emily would be back home and I didn’t want to intrude there, I said to myself. So I stayed away from her some more, following my parents on their well-trod paths through the days.
We sat on the grassy area outside the fence of the town pool. Greer pulled at the grass, none came up. “When I was alive, I would get really bad allergies sitting on the grass.”
“I remember that,” I said, startled at myself. “Some gym classes we’d go outside and have to sit on the grass while Mr. Case talked about like, the history of ultimate Frisbee, and you’d be sniffling a lot.”
“Yeah, it’s nice I don’t have to deal with that anymore.” She paused. “I wish I could show you my last New Year’s.”
“My dad went and bought a ton of tinsel, and he and my mom and Tara decorated my room. It was all silver and gold and glittering. I was able to help a little, too. They brought the iPod speakers into my room with all the holiday songs that I liked playing. Then they all sat on my bed with me, and we played trivia games and charades and card games. My mom even allowed snacks. We did that for hours. Tara fell asleep there with me.”
“That sounds nice.”
She stared at the kids jumping and splashing in the pool, long enough that I laid down to watch clouds shifting, long enough that I considered she might want to be alone. “The next morning I woke up, and all the tinsel disgusted me. I was angry that this was it for me and I tore it all down. I was so tired afterwards I couldn’t even walk to my bed, so I had to lay down on the floor for like half an hour before my mom came up and found me there. She cried at all the tinsel.”
I sat back up. “It’s more than other people get.”
“You said, that that was it for you, a New Year’s Eve celebration. You got last good byes.”
“No,” she said, “There was so much I didn’t get to have. I never even had sex.”
“Oh, I—I didn’t understand that’s what you meant.”
“You know what Richie? Don’t compare your death to mine,” she said.
She stood up and stormed away.
I crossed lawns to get to Greer’s house a street over. I didn’t have a lot of options for company. A handful of old people hanging around their kids and grandkids, Don who’d been the one homeless guy in our town until he died from hypothermia one winter, and now Greer. Don actually wasn’t so bad, but sometimes he went on rants about the town, including my parents. Greer hadn’t done anything like that yet, and besides, she was kind of my friend.
Inside in the living room were her parents, her older sister Tara and a guy about Tara’s age that I realized, as I circled around the group, was her fiancé. “Huh, congratulations,” I mumbled. I didn’t know where Greer was, or if she was still annoyed with me. I wasn’t sure if I was annoyed with her, or why I was.
I tried to remember how much older Tara was than us. Five years? Six? I never knew her well. She looked similar to Greer, or Greer looked similar to her, but her features were more petite, and I noticed she had hazel eyes instead of Greer’s brown. She stood at the mantle and held Greer’s framed senior portrait up next to her own face. Greer’s smiling looking off camera, wearing a navy sweater and pearl necklace. “This is one of my favorite pictures of Greer,” Tara said, “She’s beautiful.”
Greer did look beautiful in the photograph, because, even though she was pissing me off in the moment, Greer was always beautiful. But it made me sad that the photo was Tara’s favorite. It was a blank canvas, not even the way Greer normally dressed. Tara had plucked the photo from a collection of framed Greer photographs. I liked one of her by the ocean, standing on large rocks, laughing, hugging a sweater closed while the wind blew her hair—long hair like she’d had most her life. Or another one of her dressed in all black standing outside our school auditorium, holding a bouquet of pink and white lilies, from one of the school shows. I went to them all, watched for her in the dark when they rushed out to change sets, tried to choose her from the darkness. I always considered that I could pick her out, that I knew the way she moved.
Tara brought the senior portrait, and another photo of Greer as a child at an arts and crafts table, over to the couch to show the fiancé.
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “So cute, look at her just diving into that finger painting. My brothers and I used to love that.”
“It’s such a special bond between siblings,” Greer’s mother, who was sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea, said, “Tara and Greer were so close. I’m sure she’s smiling down on us right now, so happy for you two.”
She probably knew about this engagement, but I couldn’t get a hold on the fiancé and how Greer may feel about him.
He was in the middle of agreeing about the surely angelic Greer looking down in benevolent tranquility when his cell phone started to ring. “Ah, sorry, I gotta get this. I’ll just be a second.”
Greer’s family smiled, of course, of course, and I followed the fiancé as he walked onto the front porch. He sat on the front step, answered the phone. He kept his voice lowered.
“Hey man. No, it’s okay, they’re talking about the sister again. I just never know what to say, so hopefully they’ll be on another subject when I go back in. What’s up?”
He mostly listened, putting in a few “mhmms,” a chuckle. I went to the hanging flowerpot beside him, grabbed a fistful of dirt to throw in his well-groomed hair. No dirt moved, I hadn’t expected it to but it felt better to try to do something. I had to be satisfied with snapping my fingers near his ears for the remainder of his call.
I didn’t see Greer again before I left. I figured that she’d left town, and then I decided to do so, also. It was the end of August, I saw with a jolt on my mother’s kitchen calendars, and junior year would be starting for Emily and everyone else. I took a train down to Maryland. That was new. A free Acela ride, and plenty of seats in business class for the dead.
I sat next to an attractive woman in her thirties because why not. It took me awhile to realize that she didn’t have any bags or that the conductor wasn’t asking for her ticket; it took her awhile for her to notice the blood on the top of my t-shirt. She crossed her arms, “Get away from me.”
“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t realize, I just wanted some company.”
“Fuck off, I don’t care.”
I stumbled away. She wasn’t marked, how was I to know.
Back on campus, I wandered through crowds. With certain people I knew, it was some crazy revelation to see them again. Like, “Oh right, you’re a person!” Then I followed them. It was kind of similar to Facebook. Say a memory from high school pops up of playing beer pong a couple of weekends with some guy who was in my math class for one year. Then I’d think of how long it’d been since I thought of him, and I’d log onto Facebook and look through his profile. He’d gained weight (all that beer and no exercise) and had new friends with interchangeable faces. There was a girl in a few pictures but it was unclear if she was a girlfriend or not. He looked happy, but you can’t really tell with pictures because you’re supposed to smile and people only take pictures of people looking happy.
This was so much better than Facebook. I followed these old acquaintances—people who lived on my floor freshmen year, guys I used to drink with—to their classes, to lunch with their friends, back to their dorm rooms where they played video games or smoked pot. They all had these full lives that had had little to do with me when I was alive, and nothing to do with me now that I was dead. Girls they liked, tests they were worried about, pressure from their parents. It was like realizing there was a missing subplot in a novel I’d read. Or like I’d been writing a novel that I thought was wholly original but all the while about ten other guys were writing novels on the same subject.
One time I followed this girl I knew through Emily. They’d been friends and then grew apart the way people do, but remained friendly. Back in her dorm room she took a pair of scissors from the desk and cut herself high up on her arm, two cuts. I didn’t know what to do. I just left.
Emily was all around. Well, I walked around looking for her. But there was also this guy, someone I didn’t know. I kept seeing them walking together and he kept making her laugh.
I went to Morris Street, where everyone hung out and did shopping. The pizza place and Chinese restaurant Emily and I used to like. The dry cleaners, the small grocery store. And the dive bar that never carded.
As I walked by the bar, Blake walked out, and right into me. There was no sort of impact. He swung his backpack onto one shoulder. I followed him.
Nearing campus, he crossed paths with Tyler, a friend of his I’d never been close to. “Hey dude, what’s up?” Tyler said, putting out his hand, Blake shook it. “You been drinking?”
“Ha, yeah,” Blake said.
Tyler laughed, “Now that’s the way to start a school year. You off to class?”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later. Wanna hang tonight?”
“I don’t think I can man, but this weekend, definitely.”
On campus, people stared pretty openly at Blake, and I noticed a few of our friends start suddenly in the other direction when they saw him. I’d had enough of him myself.
I was surprised when Greer arrived on the main quad one day. I was sitting under the big tree on the corner near the library. A steady trickle of students walked the pathways in one direction or another. “I missed you,” she said.
“You’re not still mad at me?” I said as she sat down.
“I was mad at you?”
“Yeah,” I tried to figure out how long had passed, “like two weeks ago. Maybe a month.”
She was blank.
“It was about, uh, death.”
She still looked at me blankly. “No I’m not mad with you. Have you been here since then?” I nodded. “Why?”
“Why? Why not? Emily’s here, my friends are here.”
“You have fun hanging out with them?”
I shot her a dirty look.
I told her about Emily’s friend cutting herself, but didn’t tell her about seeing Blake. Greer frowned and patted me on the arm. “It happens,” she said.
“What? She’ll either grow past it or she won’t. People get sad, some people are sad a lot. There’s nothing we can do about it. We probably couldn’t do something about it if we were still alive.”
“Did you ever do that?” I asked.
“Cut? No.” Then she said, “Let’s go somewhere else, seriously Richie.”
“Being here means something to me.”
“You can come back. You can come back for the rest of time, here or to wherever Emily is.”
“I think she likes this guy. At least this guy, he likes her.”
“I’m sorry.” Greer watched the students walking. “Emily is very pretty.”
“Shut up, you don’t care.”
“No, I don’t. Eventually you won’t either.”
She hung around, and I didn’t mind it, she was company.
I walked behind Emily down a brick pathway to class. She was alone. Greer walked a little behind me.
“I came here about two months after I died. It’s a nice campus,” Greer said, “I thought I’d just stay for a day or two, but I got sort of wrapped up in your world. It wasn’t just you and being happy at the familiar face. The last few months of my life, and those months afterwards our house was a bleak place. It was refreshing to come here and see you being normal, and seeing you get this normal college experience I’d tried to have. I’d go to the gym with you, read books over your shoulder. I went with you for some of your and Emily’s dates.”
“Just a few!”
Emily entered a building, and we continued walking. “What did you do next?”
“I started taking rides around the country. If I went to New York City, I just walked into a Broadway show like who’s gonna stop me! Then I’d go up to Niagara Falls. And then from there, wherever. I only go to visit my parents, or Tara, occasionally.”
Greer shrugged. “There’s a lot of things to do. I’ve met people—people like us, had some fun with them. I even met Marilyn Monroe, I really liked her. And she says she doesn’t hang out with JFK at all.”
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” I said, “when did you meet her?”
Greer thought about it. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been right after I died but…I don’t know.”
We walked in silence for a bit.
“I guess our parents will be with us again sometime down the road.”
“Right? It isn’t always easy. Tara’ll have kids, and they’ll never meet me until they’re dead.”
I didn’t say anything about the fiancé. I’d thought about it, and when my parents used to bring up Greer’s death, or just Greer in general, I’d always change the subject. Maybe he was like how I used to be, someone whose family hadn’t been touched by death, really, and didn’t want to dwell on other peoples’ dead parents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. Didn’t know what to say.
Greer stopped walking and faced me. “You used to feel bad for me in high school, I always knew that. Then you felt bad for me after I died. And yeah, if I could have some option to go back and it was my choice to live or die, I’d want to keep living, but I can’t change it. You can’t change what happened to you, either. Stop feeling bad for yourself. Let’s get out of here.”
“Wow, sorry I’m not as enlightened by death as you are yet, Greer, you can leave if you want, but I still want to be here.”
She stared at me. “Show me Blake.”
Blake, like many other guys I shadowed, was playing video games. A girl was leaving as we entered his room. Blake played video games with Tyler. They were playing Call of Duty, a game Blake and I used to play, a multi-player game full of shooting and grenades. Life imitating video game.
Tyler said, without looking away from the screen, “So what’s that all about?”
“Huh? Oh, her?” Blake asked. “We’re in this class together.”
“Yeah, and she totally wants your dick.”
“What? She’s got a nice body, you’re not into it?”
They continued to play, without much comment. Greer turned to me and made her voice deep, “She totally wants your dick, bro.” I laughed quietly, I still wasn’t totally used to the fact that people couldn’t hear us. She started walking around the room, peering at books and discarded food packages.
“I think I’m going to ask Emily out,” Blake said.
I froze and for a second I felt like I had bodily feelings again: a tightened throat, pounding in my head, sweaty palms.
Tyler let his controller drop, and his player was killed. He sort of laughed, but it was choked. “Dude.”
“What? I’ve always felt that there’s something between us.”
Tyler turned around in the chair and looked at us. He scanned the room. Sometimes people did that when we were around and I was starting to believe some people felt presences, although I wouldn’t say Tyler was the type of person to ever think that, even if he did feel us there. Greer moved to my side, and put her hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to go?” she asked.
“I want to stay, I fucking, I fucking want to—”
I lunged at Blake, punching with one hand and clawing with the other, kicking even, like a Riverdancer with bad rhythm, unsure of what would be my best attack method. Greer circled around us, perched next to the TV. When I tried jumping up to body slam him, like a wrestler, she laughed. I paused, stalled not knowing what to do, and Greer swooped in. She led me away by the arm. “It isn’t our world anymore, Richie.”
As we were leaving, Tyler said, “I kinda feel like that’s a bad idea.”
Greer decided that we should go to the beach. It didn’t matter what beach. We walked across the quad. I stopped. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Why can’t you just say no?”
“Because I don’t know! I don’t even know Emily, how would I know what she would do.”
A lie would have been kindness.
We walked to a nearby diner and found a car leaving town. We sat in the back, each staring out the windows. Three long chapters of an Audiobook in I said, “Why aren’t we talking?”
“I was listening to the book, weren’t you?”
“Sort of but, that’s not what I meant.”
“Richie, we have eternity, it just feels less important to talk all the time. Or, time not talking seems less. You’ll see, or you probably won’t notice it, I don’t really.”
“What is the it I won’t notice?” I asked.
“The way…time takes up a certain amount of space, in our perception of it, and the longer you’re here, this afterlife, the more that space lessens.” She looked back out the window. I guessed, with an Audiobook in and all, our driver was going some distance, but he seemed to prefer back roads through small towns. She watched trees pass, leaves blurred. “Do you think, for a tree, a year seems to them like a second or a minute might to a human?”
“And what about us? A tree’s entire life, it’ll be like, what, a yawn to us?”
She smiled at me. “Personally, I’ve never yawned in my death.”
“And so what? We could pick up this conversation again in five living years and think there was only a pause.”
“Just one of us checking out the window,” Greer said, and she turned back to do just that.
We got out when our driver stopped at his friends’ house. A man and a woman his age ran out the front door, all smiles, hugged him and laughed.
Greer and I stood at the end of the driveway. The couple barely let the driver get in a word. They rattled anecdote after anecdote.
“They must lead very boring lives,” Greer said.
“Well hey now, let’s never be like them,” I joked. Not a very good joke. Or maybe the best joke ever.
I stepped closer to the people. I could hear their conversation. The woman from the house had freckles across her nose and cheeks. The man had a large gold ring and a habit of running his other thumb over it while he listened.
When I turned around, Greer was gone.
How long had I been watching the three people?
I started jogging towards where I thought the main road was. “Greer?” I called out. I followed signs to the beach area. She wasn’t there, either. What the hell, Greer, I thought.
I didn’t know what to do. Where to go. Finally, I returned to the main road, and found a gas station. I picked a parked car, driven by two middle aged women. They pulled out of the gas station. When they started talking about the rest of the trip—“What do you think we’ll need, one more refill, or two?” the driver asked—I realized they were heading further south. There wasn’t anyone in that direction for me. But then I thought, why not the change of scenery? Maybe Greer had had that same thought, when she’d either forgotten about me or decided to ditch me. I decided to ride with the women to their destination.
I don’t remember much of what I did in that time away from Greer. I don’t know how long we were apart, either. Something would jolt me, occasionally, remind me of Greer and I’d set myself north. I knew that she could easily be in California or Alaska instead of the Northeast. But there wasn’t an anxiety. I had the time. Just one of us checking out the window. And then I’d get sidetracked, willingly, or my mind would be taken off Greer, and I’d forget about her for a bit.
I got to New York City. I went there because I had a faint memory of Greer saying she’d go to Broadway shows. I’d been to New York a few times as a kid. I just walked around. It was nice when I stumbled upon the NYU area, being around people my age. But were they my age? Or: were people my age, still my age? I was stuck at an age, but I remembered Greer had said she’d spent months following me at my college without realizing it, and I couldn’t really say how long I’d been travelling. How old was Emily now? And Blake? I remembered Blake saying he wanted to ask Emily out on a date. I wasn’t struck as hard by the recollection. I didn’t want to find Blake and somehow try and attack him. Hadn’t I tried to do that?
I thought: there has to be someone dead around here who can give me directions. I was around some university buildings and most people were carrying bags, something that marked them as alive students. There was a park, and that seemed like a perfect place to find the dead. I started walking up to people sitting on benches, lying on the grass. People that didn’t seem to have anything with them. “Hi,” I said, over and over. On the grass I saw a hippie guy with long hair lying by himself. I walked over, “Hi.” He pushed himself onto his elbows. “Hi.”
“Great, you’re dead,” I said, and sat down next to him.
“You’re so young, little dude,” he said, “that always bums me out.”
“Sure,” I said. “But could you tell me where Broadway shows would be?”
“Broadway,” he said.
“I meant, how can I get there?”
“An arts lover, right on. It’s Times Square area, like forty blocks north of here. You walk that way,” he said, and pointed.
“Thanks,” I said, and walked in that direction. I considered for a moment that the guy didn’t look like he’d been that old when he died. How long, in alive time, had he been lying in that exact spot in the park?
Times Square was bright, and crowded. I tried to overhear families’ conversations and see if they were going to some play or musical. I finally found one, and followed them. They were going to a Chekhov revival, but I didn’t think that’d be what Greer would seek out in her death. I started walking into theaters advertising musicals.
Maybe it was a sign that it hadn’t been that long, that I hadn’t been travelling for years, that I knew I could call out Greer’s name and not disturb anyone, but when I did it I kept it as whispered as I could. “Greer?” I said walking down the aisles, “Greer?”
I didn’t see her that day, or the next when I came back. I went back to the park. The hippie was still there, and I asked him if I could join him. I laid there, maybe a week. I liked watching the students. Then I sat up. It seemed to be afternoon. “I think I’ll try to find her again.”
The hippie looked over to me. “Good luck, buddy.”
Back on Broadway, I stepped into more theaters, searching the audience and whispering her name. Finally I saw her. On stage was a big musical number, with the whole cast dancing, and Greer was dancing with them,or more weaving through them, trying to turn when they did. She wasn’t good at dancing, and she clearly wasn’t familiar with the steps, but she was laughing up there, twirling in her blue bathrobe. “Greer!” I shouted out.
She heard me over the music and the dancing, and squinted out into the audience. I ran towards the stage, waving my arms, and finally she started waving. She hopped into the area where all the musicians were, then made her way out of there. “Richie!” She hugged me. When she pulled away she tilted her head back towards the stage, “I always wanted to act in high school. Don’t get me wrong, I liked crew, but I wanted everyone to watch me sometimes.”
“Where have you been?” I asked. “I didn’t know where to look for you after you left.”
“When I left?”
“Yeah, I can’t remember when it was, but we were supposed to go to the beach, and you left.” The musical number ended, and the audience applauded. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We walked into the lobby, and sat on a bench there.
“It was after we left my school,” I continued.
“Do you remember why you left?”
“No, I don’t remember leaving, or planning a beach trip at all. I’m sorry.” I knew she meant it.
“I missed you.”
“Are you upset?”
“No. I’m really glad to have found you.”
“Me too,” she said, “what’s next?”
“Do you want to go to the beach?”
We took several trains pushing us further out onto Long Island. At the announcement of one stop, Greer looked at me and shrugged, “Why not this one?”
We walked to the beach. There were a few people there, three groups scattered. Mothers or nannies, with very young children. The people were dressed in long sleeves and wore floppy hats, the brims moved slightly in a wind I couldn’t feel.
I walked in. I looked into the water and saw the bottom half of my body, my jeans, the bottom of my shirt. Greer walked in, too. “Did you know you can walk on top of it?”
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” I laughed. I pulled her toward me, wrapping my arms around her body and hugging her. She climbed into the hug, nestling her face into my shoulder. She kept her arms folded to herself, though, pressed against my chest. I could feel her, just slightly; she felt like what a shadow must feel like, a whisper. Would I ever forget the feeling of pressing skin to skin. “How long could we stand here for?” I asked.
“Years,” she said.
Ashley Kunsa creative work has appeared in or is forthcoming from more than a dozen journals, including Bayou Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and Tahoma Literary Review. She has been awarded the Orlando prize for flash fiction from the A Room of Her Own foundation and tied for first prize for the Eastern Iowa Review’s Experimental Essay award. Currently she is finishing a PhD in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband and son.
There are maybe times when you could be anybody, but it’s important to recognize this isn’t one of them. A good neighbor, a long-distance runner, the vice president even, or, better, the vice president’s wife. What was it all the gifted girls carried on about in middle school—marine biology? Saving sad, fleshy creatures from the doom wrought upon them by other sad, fleshy creatures? Manatees and walruses etched in purple pen across the fronts of spiral-bound notebooks, purple hearts on lassos leaping out of the waves, looping their wide, fat necks.
As if chaining a thing with love could save it.
Those girls thought they were so smart, with their essay prizes and A’s in algebra. How smart would they be now in this too-warm waiting room, with all the choices whittled down to two? Someone will drown here: you decide who.
And of course I say you to distance myself from all this. To prove I had nothing to do with it. Which is untrue. I said stay. I cried and whispered and purred it—Stay. But it was like talking to myself. Please, I tried, and Don’t leave me. My words were water balloons slapping the pavement. It had never been a matter of words between us anyway. It was biology. His and mine. Selves opening into each other, a thing that needs, a thing that feeds.
So, too, at the end. Knowing words had finally failed us, I sought our salvation in something deeper, its roots spun together, our humanity inextricably linked. Ticking the days off the calendar, I stared at the tiny pills, secure in their foil packets. Stay, that night just inside his apartment door, stay, my tongue begging his to speak our language again, stay, our bodies cleaved to one another until long afterwards, stay, when six weeks later I stood outside his building in the angry November wind, the test stick in my hand. Stay stay stay.
And of course the gifted girls, budding saviors, would never find themselves in a rumpled cotton gown, waiting to spread their legs before a stranger. They were born to soar. Only a fool believes she can bind biology with biology.
Of course he didn’t stay.
When the door opens and the woman with the tired eyes shuffles in, you will tell her. You will say the words that feel like screaming beneath the water’s surface while the whole ocean fills you up inside.
Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review, which nominated her poem, “Minor Planets” for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, KYSO, Sandy River Review and Panoplyzine and is forthcoming in Delmarva Review and Joyce Quarterly. She has also written five mystery novels.
Say you’re on the Downtown IRT – one of the new trains that stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see, lurching along underground like a demented caterpillar, and it’s so crowded people are pressed up against each other and you happen to see a man reach his hand into the Michael Kors bag of a woman standing to your left. You know it’s a Michael Kors because your ex-wife is a publicist whose firm specializes in accessories and one of the perks of her job, which doesn’t pay much and entails long hours, is getting freebies from overpriced fashion companies: Burberry wallets. Calvin Klein scarves, Marc Jacobs belts. Your ex-wife would walk through the door, carrying her latest acquisition and you would look up from your laptop and grin because you were damn glad to see her. Maybe you’d run her bath water or pour her a glass of Chardonnay, the expensive kind because she liked the taste of money.
You can’t identify the precise moment when things changed. There was Before, when she still loved you. And After, when she left – on a Tuesday evening in April when you’d come in from playing softball in Morningside Park, with mud on your cheek from sliding into second base too hard. You noticed the mud when you went to hug her goodbye and some of it got on her forehead. Before and After. But the part that really mattered happened in between.
If you could go back you would search for it in the hollow place in bed where she slept next to you, her stomach curled against your back like a question mark. You would look in the spaces between her smiles. You’d examine the silences that you once took for quiet compatibility but now flash like traffic lights you sped right through. You would have had a beautiful life together. The life you envisioned on your wedding day, standing under a chuppah in the Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel surrounded by 250 people, the men in black tie, the women in tight black dresses, listening to the rabbi saying the two of you were bashert, meant to be, and trying not to worry about how much the evening was going to cost.
Now you question everything. What you see with your own eyes, what you fail to see.
The man on the train reaches into the bag and you’re thinking you could call him out and be a hero and maybe the woman would be so grateful she’d offer to buy you coffee and the two of you would hit it off and start dating and fall in love, the whole process starting again but cleaner this time, more satisfying.
The man’s hand disappears and appears again. You never see the wallet.
At the next stop, the woman gets off the train and so do you, keeping her in sight amid the horde of commuters, like a birddog beginning the hunt.
Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog resides at: http://megtuite.com
Beth takes the bus to a workshop on setting boundaries. Shoes are lined up outside an entrance with a wooden sign that says, Tae Kwon Do. She slips off her gray slippers, walks inside. A group of ten women sit on pillows in a huge, open warehouse. She slides down on a pillow, looks around. Some of these women are antiques: dusty, hidden treasures, but for the smell of mothballs. They are lost in their bones, hands that detour, divert around a mosquito bite they can’t quite locate. They must have a hard time with maps like her. One girl is the border patrol. Her head bobbles a full-on affirmative every time the therapist speaks. She writes in a notebook as though the circumference of her being will slip away if she doesn’t frame it in print. One girl verges on a barbed fence of tears that rim her weary, pink eyes. The therapist begins another landmark statement on how to climb over the so-called ‘dead limbs’ that have stifled them in their past and mark their new terrain, piss on it. One girl’s perimeter closes into a knife of a smile as pee that was in her bladder changes its mind and sucks back into her kidneys.
The therapist says they are going to perform some exercises. The first exercise is to stake the fence. When he gets too close they should say ‘stop’, but not just some half-assed stop, more like screeching up to a yellow light just as it turns red instead of a stop sign. He says, hold up your hand, belt it out. He lays his hairy fingers, spread eagle, on his belly and blasts it out in operatic baritone. STOP! Bark it out like a dog protecting his territory, he says. The women stare at him. He paces back and forth, his storm cloud getting larger as his gestures bank the walls of any frontier, conducting an explosive outpost that frightens Beth as she battles the inner prison that withers her. Don’t be shy, he says. This is a safe place to explore those core emotions of rage, grief and fear. He lifts his tufted knuckles, curls them at the group, lifts his chin and howls. The women snicker and wheeze on either side of Beth. A strange sound like a person dying gurgles from her throat. Okay, the therapist says. Who’s going to go first? Border patrol is still writing notes. The rest of them look around the radius of the group without making eye contact. They remain still, sacks of rice. The massive room smells of unwashed bodies and terror. The therapist lifts his impressive eyebrows, beastly strands long enough to cover the empty patch where a hairline should have been, and studies each one of them. Come on, ladies. This is going to change your lives, he says as he claps. The eyebrows waver.
I remember I was scared shitless, walking on the ice across Lake Michigan in the middle of February with my friend, Joyce, and my little sister, Eliza. We followed Joyce’s rocky lead as she screeched at us, ‘It’s going to change your life.’ Something her dad always said. He was a fat, old lawyer with a swollen face and body, mean as hell. “You,” he’d say, pointing at me. “What are you going to do? Make pancakes for the rest of your life or become something?” I didn’t know what he meant. My mom made my pancakes. I was only twelve at the time. What was I going to do? Probably die before I got to high school hanging out with his daughter. Joyce had dared me to jump across three-story roofs, pretend I was blind, run into people on the street, shoplift and once I even stole a hubcap off of a cop car just to hear her frantic high-pitched giggle. God, I loved her.
Beth’s hand raises itself slowly like some fucking flag on the Fourth of July.
Great, come on up, says the therapist. Her head shakes as she takes her place beside the excited man and looks out at an expanse of glassy eyes that flicker in and out of vision. He smells better than he looks; some kind of incense permeates him. She wonders if he’s a Buddhist. Remember, this is about boundaries. Is there anyone in your life that you haven’t been able to say no to? Was he kidding her with this? She nods, hears that demented cackle of Joyce’s again. Okay, she says. Let’s do this.
The therapist walks away from Beth across the wood floor. He is talking as he recedes. Try to visualize that person in your mind. Forget about everything else. She hears scratch marks of Border Patrol’s pen. The rest of them barely breathe. When he is around 50 feet away from Beth he stops, turns toward her. Her heart palpates around the periphery of the building as she huddles inside the fog of her body. She can’t feel her feet under her when this man starts to run.
Joyce pushes me, giggling, and I push Eliza. “Come on,” Joyce says, “let’s get to Michigan.” It’s all thunder. Blinding acres of white sky and storm sheen glazed ice as far as I can see and I’ve got the whole day to get to Michigan. I’m an explorer. Few have barely touched the frozen shoreline and never come close to passing the buoy. The three of us are well beyond that. Eliza is all breath, complacency and silence in her shiny parka and matted hood. Joyce and I don’t wear hats. We stuff them in our pockets as soon as we are past parental range. Joyce’s ears are purple rafts on either side of her white pigtails. I can’t feel my ears, and snot has frozen little spitballs in my nose. The wind is one long, empty moan. Everything is glass, muffled grunts, moldering dead fish and wind that feels like it could gut me. I see some jaggedy, thin spots of ice that look like you could fall right through. Joyce talks but her words are weathered blind. We are in Antarctica, the lone survivors of a ship caged in and swallowed by two icebergs. We are down to two Snickers bars, a pack of Doublemint gum, and four Kents I swiped from Mom’s purse. We will have to eat snow when we are thirsty. The globe is all-invading and disfigured. I wonder if we should turn back. It’s a long way back to land. Eliza hasn’t said a word. She looks numb. There are no curves except Joyce’s mouth, still a dripping stalactite of gutted insults. Patsy wets her bed; Ellen has like fifty teeth in her mouth, have you noticed? Jesus. And Cynthia? You think her or her brothers know anything about soap? Joyce keeps tabs on her traitors. They rarely thwart her, but the worst actually have the nerve to ignore her. She is her own continent.
I hear the crack. Eliza drops like the branch of a tree. She is under ice. I scream, grab at her sleeve with the red mitten dangling from its clip. Her face is murky and gray under frozen water. I see bubbles. I bite my tongue until it bleeds, catch a hold of her parka and pull. A sagging handful of blue cloth breathes the air, steam rises off of it as the face beneath fogs into quivering ripples. The reek of black, stagnant water and the poison stillness gasps as the water starts to win. The blue coat is heavier, darker, slithers between my throbbing, pathetic grip. Eliza echoes from the shores of Chicago all the way to Michigan over and over. Eliza, I scream, but there is no world out there that answers back. Is she okay? Joyce asks. I look up into a splotchy red, under-animated face.
The man breathes hard in front of me. Why didn’t you say stop? he asks. The man sighs as if I’m an imbecile. Didn’t you hear my instructions? Why didn’t I say stop? Why did I ever go? I slap him hard across the face. Red garnishes the surface across his cheek.
The stifled room begins to erupt. Ladies unchain from whatever hems them in. They jump up, growl and yell. Beth sees their mouths open, one cavernous hollow that will never be filled. They’re all hopped up on adrenaline surging new life into them. Beth is feeling it, too. She can hear curses pelting her as she staggers out the door.
Eliza was only seven when she drowned. The splintered parts of Beth scream for vodka. She still hears rumbling, animated voices coming from inside the seminar. She sits down on the bench, studies the crowd of shoes, picks out purple sandals with some jewels on top and a two-inch heel that actually fit. To hell with the ratty, gray slippers. She buckles up these beauties and admires them. Maybe a pedicure would help. She gets up and wobbles off to the Owl Liquor store trying to remember how to walk in heels over concrete, click, click, wobble, wobble.
Beth buys ten tiny airplane size bottles and loads her purse with them. No matter who’s behind the counter, Beth is told that the larger bottles are much cheaper. She’s not an idiot. Hide the evidence. She knows she will drown, as well.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals including, Gravel, Cleaver, Garbanzo, and the previously named, Newer York. She’s published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod, & Prairie Schooner and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. Additionally, she’s published stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.
Sooner or Later
Mama run away again. Pap says she is high strung and she’ll be back when the strings loosen. Gram shakes her head and gives me a shave of chocolate. I don’t cry anymore cause I’m big now and I know things just is. I think about going out to pester Pap’s old yellow dog, Hy, under the cottonwood tree, but he don’t always like being woke up and he might nip me and it ain’t worth that. I might go down by the creek but I gotta be back to do chores for Gram before dinner and it’s easy to forget time down the creek. I start dreaming or pretending and when I’m late, Gram’s mouth is one straight line and she looks disappointed and I feel bad. If it wasn’t for her and Pap, I’d be in an orphanage and Mama would be locked up in a crazyhouse or even jail. The world doesn’t take kindly to the high strung, Pap says.
Sometimes Mama is sweet and calls me her best baby even tho I ain’t a baby but I like it when she’s nice and holds on to me. I wish she would be that way all the time, I wouldn’t mind the baby calling. Gram said I had a brother once but he died before I got here. I’m not allowed to talk to Mama about him but I know where he’s buried. I wish he wasn’t dead cause he could help with chores.
Mama gave me a secret. After I found the knife under the bed she said this is our secret. I couldn’t tell Gram or Pap. I found it when I was putting my treasure box under there – some stones and shiny buttons and a bird’s bone head with the beak and all – Pap called it a skull. Don’t they need the knife, I asked her, Gram and Pap? It’s not their knife, Mama said. It’s ours. I don’t know how she got a knife, maybe one of those times she run off.
The thing is, she took it with her. Maybe she needs it to get food in the woods. When she comes back, I’m gonna ask her did she kill a squirrel? Maybe it’s in case somebody tries to hurt her though I don’t want to think about that too much. She would stab them dead fast as lighting – that’s how I see it.
After he finds the paper with the scratch marks remarking how many days Mama’s been gone, Pap cautions me not to worry, she’ll be back like she always does. I consider telling him about the knife but I don’t. I wonder does the knife make a difference on when she’ll come back – sooner or later? If she don’t come back, I’ll tell about the knife.
Heather Dewar is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, New South, The Dirty Napkin, Utne, The Common Review, and the Chicago Reader among others. She lives in Minneapolis.
“It’s usually the easy answer.”
Billy looked up.
The girl sitting next to him smiled. “It was just that you seemed worried.”
He thought she might be making fun but her smile looked like she meant it. Billy opened his mouth to speak.
“No helping.” A man frowned from behind the front desk. Billy turned back to his screen. He was here to replace his license. He had been living in Chicago six months. Three weeks before, he had been walking home, late, when a man with a gun stopped him on the street and demanded his wallet and phone. Billy emptied his pockets onto the pavement. Afterwards, he vomited into the street.
The girl slid out of her desk. Billy watched her walk to the counter. He wondered how she had known he was nervous. He furrowed his brow when he was tense. Sometimes, he jiggled his leg. Now, he put his hand on his thigh to stop it.
A picture of two cars colliding appeared on the screen. To avoid an accident you should know where your vehicle will be in: a) 5 to 10 seconds; b) 10 to 15 seconds; c) 15 to 20 seconds. Billy chose answer “a.” Since the mugging he couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes the night replayed. The gun at his chest, the bile in his throat, the feeling that someone had kicked in his knees. They found the guy who did it. They picked him up at an ATM. The detective who had been working on the case called to tell him. One more asshole off the street, he had said, but Billy didn’t feel better.
He read the next question. When driving in a fog you should use: a) fog lights only; b) high beams; c) low beams. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the girl. She was standing behind a white line on the floor, smiling for her picture. In college he had played a game with his friend, Pete, called ID. When you saw a girl, you had to remember everything about her: the color of her hair, her eyes, her skin, how tall she was, the size of her boobs. You had to be able to pick her out of a line up. Billy got so good his nickname was Photo. After the hold-up the police had asked him for details. Anything you can tell us, they said. What did you see? Billy remembered only the gun.
The driving test came to an end. Billy stood and pushed in his chair. He walked to the counter. A man in a blue work shirt told him to stand behind the white line for his picture. “On three,” he said, when Billy was ready, and Billy stood and waited for the flash. There were things he remembered about the night of the mugging. The walk from the train had been cold. He’d wished he’d had gloves. Snow had been falling, silent and fast. He had come from a bar that was noisy and full and as he walked he’d felt glad for the silence, for the sudden feeling of space. He’d put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the sky.
“We’ll call your name when it’s ready,” the man said, and Billy walked to the end of a row of blue plastic chairs. The girl was leaning against a counter now, scrolling through her phone. That night he had felt a slow certainty, of himself, of his life. The gun had emptied his confidence onto the pavement.
The girl straightened up from the counter. She glanced in Billy’s direction.
“Okay Photo,” Pete said, each time they played. “What do you see?”
Billy thought of the fast falling snow. He thought of the cold and the silence and the open night sky.
“William Sims,” the man said, and Billy stood to retrieve his ID.
Michelle Elvy is an editor and writer based in New Zealand. She edits at Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook, and is on the editorial teams of Flash Fiction International and the Best Small Fictions series. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in numerous print and online journals. See http://michelleelvy.com/
Black and White and Grey
In the gloaming she sees his tall shape across the street, hunched shoulders under a black coat slumped to worry. She steps off the curb and hurries to him. She wants to ask him how was your meeting, did you get the red wine for dinner, do you remember that the Lamberts are coming but it’s cold and the wind hurts her teeth so she lifts her head slightly to the left instead and as she slips her palm into his she feels him grip her small hand and squeeze tight.
In the gloaming he sees her silhouette crossing the street, small neat steps with white socks peeking from under tailored trousers. He wants to tell her they read my father’s will today, my brother says my sister won’t come, I forgot to get the red wine for dinner but he feels a chill on his spine and in the moment that she tilts her head toward him he knows he doesn’t love her but he squeezes her hand anyway and notices that her grey felt cap looks just right.
Katie Cortese is the author of the collection Girl Power and other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015). She holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Willow Springs, and The Baltimore Review, among other journals. She currently teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.
Allie shouldn’t call the house and hang up when he finally answers. She shouldn’t cruise by after work to make sure he’s brought in the mail, slowing to judge by the slit in the curtains if the living room light is on. She shouldn’t worry if the house is dark. He’s probably just sleeping. Or out walking the dog, the rangy retriever who’ll need hip surgery in another year, and whose breath always smelled to her of hot dogs.
She knows she shouldn’t Google Map his address either, those familiar numbers that used to be hers. The site hasn’t been updated for their town in a year and a half and the car in the satellite picture is her gray PT Cruiser. She shouldn’t linger on the webpage in the den while down the hall and around the corner, Gregory hums over his ratatouille in the kitchen. She knows it was her decision to leave. It wasn’t quitting, they told her. She was just rebooting her life for the happier one she deserved.
Allie shouldn’t keep a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment, or sneak puffs in the driveway, facing her new house like a prowler scoping out the easiest point of entrance. After each cigarette, she tells herself she’s quitting, right then and there. Sometimes she does, until something else reminds her. The triggers are unpredictable. It’s not always the apple-cheeked babies in the life insurance commercial. They’re simply other people’s children. And the terrible one about whooping cough with an asthmatic wheeze for a soundtrack—that one makes her nauseous, on principle—just not in a personal way.
But at least once a week, something triggers a memory, sharp as a blade, of her life in the blue ranch on the corner of Liff and Persimmon, the one where now the hedges go untrimmed. Last week she woke up to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” on her radio alarm and sat up in a panic: no cry had woken her in the night for feeding or a change, or just the touch of her hand. She’d thrown the quilt off her legs and had made it to the hall before she remembered where she was, where she’d lived for a year now, a Cape Cod on Jubilat, with Gregory, who was a good man, and patient with her grief.
Tonight it was an email, just an automated reminder from the pediatrician’s office about shots her son no longer needs. Tomorrow, I’ll quit, she thinks, stubbing out her cigarette in the driveway. Her same old promise; not quite a lie, since tomorrow never comes to collect on all she’s owed. The charred end of the Marlboro leaves a dark blemish on the smooth concrete. She spits on it and scuffs the spot with her toe, but only spreads the ash around.
Inside there is a fire in the woodstove, it’s chilly enough to need one now. Inside there is a man who never met her infant son, the child who no longer sighs sour milk into his jungle-themed sheets. Inside are shelves and shelves of books and the lingering smell of supper. Inside is peace, if she wants it, and sometimes she does, but still she feels for her keys in the pocket of her peacoat, slides behind the wheel of the Cruiser her former husband had mocked when she bought it, though if given the choice, he’d take it to the store instead of his Camry.
Automatically, she puts the car in reverse. Just a quick look, she thinks, adjusting the heater, and then tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll quit.
Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh.
The coffee shop is full, or full enough. I hide in the back, wait. My maybe-date doesn’t show. “The alarm clock didn’t go off,” he says to me when he calls. To get to the coffee shop on time, I sprinted through my morning brushing of teeth like a comedy routine, throwing on clothes, making hasty decisions, pissing off the dog and the cat and my neighbor, Jim. But still. I’m polite on the phone, as he talks about late nights and the need for a new, better alarm clock.
I do doubt the problem is the clock, but I encourage him to, yes, buy a new one. I say it’s okay, because it seems he will not stop apologizing until I do. I hate that I’m bullied into forgiving him, and when he calls to reschedule I pretend like I’ve accidentally deleted his message. There’s a kind of joy in fooling yourself and then lying about a mundane detail.
“Oh, I didn’t get that message.”
And I take joy where I can; these tiny moments add up. As I’m walking my dog I think about all the missed opportunities, all the rushing. What if you got that back—like a time refund?
And today there’s my near-date, in fact, sitting in a different cafe on a different day talking to a different woman as I walk by. I turn, walk by again. I turn, walk to the plate glass and tap. Tap-tap. Wave. He looks up, touches the woman’s hand to stop her mid-sentence, nods to me and then heads out into the cold without a coat. I’m bundled tight and ready to wait this out. The dog sits, sensing this will be a long one, deciding to be a good boy because perhaps he remembers that this particular cafe has doggy treats inside by the register.
“Hey,” the almost-date says. “I tried to call you to hook up again.”
“Oh, hey,” I say. “I didn’t get that message. Weird.”
“Weird,” he says. We both look at the dog, who looks across the street, his main focus being sitting like a good boy. Shoulders back. Ears up. “So,” he says. “Let’s reschedule?”
I look inside the cafe at the woman with her back to me, sipping on a cup of tea, fiddling with the paper flag attached to its string. Her fingers are fine and beautiful. Her hair looks nice from the back, auburn and wavy and lush. I wonder how many people he has in his life. I know I don’t have very many to meet up with these days. I feel homesick for something. I suddenly feel so much at once.
“I just can’t bear to be stood up again,” I say. “So let’s just call it that, okay? It was a date and now it’s run its course without even starting up. Efficient.”
He looks inside the cafe, perhaps thinks the woman’s hands are beautiful too. Maybe this is the moment that he falls in love with her? In a few years they will marry, this man and the woman with the tea. They’ll walk arm in arm around the neighborhood and smile at me in the dwindling light. They’ll get a dog of their own. A beagle who eagerly sniffs my dog’s ass.
For now, my own dog has decided his good dog time is up. He whines a little and then lifts off his haunches and pulls gently on the leash. “Okay,” the man says. “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
“Not sensitive, really. Just pragmatic,” I say. “Plus, you don’t know me at all.”
He sighs then, looks across the street at the rows of houses lined up and quiet in the mid-afternoon city street their window boxes stuffed with dying flowers. He says, “I’ve seen you around this neighborhood for months. I always thought it was beautiful, the way you stepped carefully with your dog. I loved watching you walk and walk around the blocks around here. I loved that you smiled at me. Just wanted to let you know that.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, touched my arm. “I also know,” he says quietly, “that sometimes I can be an ass.”
I nod. I say, “Thank you.” The dog pulls steadily now and barks once. I smile at the man. “Thanks.”
I think about all of this later, of course. After he’s married. I think about time stretching and bending and moving in other ways instead of this one. I imagine him showing up at the coffee shop. I imagine ordering tea, playing with the tea bag while he talks to a woman for too long on a cold fall day, outside the cafe, my back turned to him and her, but feeling the heat of their conversation through the window. I imagine waiting patiently while conversations inside murmur all around me. I imagine turning to look out the window, as this beautiful woman does just now, and seeing him with her, touching her hand then hugging.
I wonder which woman I want to be.
Neil Carpathios the author of three full-length poetry collections and various chapbooks. Fictions have recently appeared in: The Ampersand Review, Underground Voices, Mayday Magazine, LitroNY Magazine, Miracle Monocle, and Lime Hawk Quarterly (which nominated my short story, “Poets and Scholars” for a Pushcart Prize). He also recently edited an anthology of regional literature, Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). Carpathios is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
The Man with No Future
Nathan had just finished his pork fried rice and spring roll when the waitress brought him the bill and complimentary fortune cookie. He cracked the cookie in half but nothing was inside. He checked to see if maybe the tiny slip of paper was jammed in one of the cookie’s crevices, but there was nothing. This had never happened before in his life, let alone at Chang’s where he stopped for lunch a couple of times a week. He called the waitress over. He pointed to the broken cookie. He explained.
The waitress apologized, reached into her deep apron pocket, and handed him another one. He broke the new cookie open—and once again, there was nothing inside. He stared down at the yellow cookie pieces, then became self-conscious and wondered if anybody at a nearby table noticed. Did they see his puzzled face, or was it scared, or maybe even a little relieved, as he looked at his watch then balled up his napkin and stood up, starting to walk, peeking one more time over his shoulder at the shards like ancient relics in a museum on his plate?
As he stood at the register paying, he imagined that somebody who witnessed the scene thought it was like a one-act play called “The Man with No Future.” This made Nathan smile to himself. He handed the waitress, who now was the cashier, a ten and told her to keep the change.
There really was nothing strange about all this, Nathan thought. In fact, what was strange is that this had never happened until now. Surely mistakes were made in factories where fortune cookies were produced. He pictured an assembly-line of cookies shaped like small seashells, Chinese workers in white smocks quickly stuffing them with fortunes. The workers start to gossip, get distracted, and miss a few here and there.
The next afternoon, Nathan went to open the mail box slot with his apartment key. He hated these cramped mailboxes; the mail usually jammed and twisted the letters to fit. There was one envelope. Nathan reached in, squeezed it out. He flattened it against the wall with his palms to crush the wrinkles. It was addressed to Blake Graham, his birth name before he started going by his middle name, Nathan, and his mother’s maiden name, Hercules. It was twenty-odd years ago when his father committed suicide and he felt compelled to shed his skin, to take on a new identity—at least in terms of his name. He was a teenager and thought the pain and confusion might die away if he could imagine being a brand new person. His mother, who despised his father and was divorced from him, encouraged Blake to discard his father’s name and was pleased with Nathan as well; her husband had decided on Blake, which she never liked much.
Odd, Nathan thought. He had not received any mail with his birth name for longer than he could remember. Everyone, even bill collectors, knew him as Nathan Hercules.
Nathan didn’t wait to get back into his apartment. Standing there in the hall in front of all the other mail slots, he opened the envelope. Before he could pull out the paper, a woman in slippers he didn’t know although he’d seen her a few times walked up to get her mail. She used her key; the little metal door opened like a small safe. She coughed, nodded to Nathan, and then he waited for her to leave along together with a trail of cigarette stench.
Alone again, Nathan pulled out the paper which was neatly folded. It was clean white stock, nice quality. He unfolded and looked: the page was blank. Not a mark.
“What the hell?” Nathan thought. There was no return address on the envelope.
“Shit happens, I guess,” Nathan told himself as he walked back up to his apartment.
A few days later he was walking on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building on his way to the drugstore. He was out of band-aids and had another paper cut—occupational hazard from handling the hundreds of papers his college students turned in. With his index finger wrapped in a napkin, he took long strides, wanting to quickly walk the three blocks there. He nearly stepped on something. He looked down. In the middle of the sidewalk was a small bird’s nest. Nathan picked it up. There were no trees anywhere nearby, so how did it get there, he wondered. The nest was empty.
It wasn’t until the weekend when he was at Walmart buying new socks, he picked a bargain CD out of a bin for $2.99, “Johnny Cash Greatest Hits”— which was his father’s favorite artist, and his own, because as a kid he’d stand in the driveway watching his dad work with tools on a truck’s engine while “A Boy Named Sue” or “Ring of Fire” floated in the air from inside the garage—Nathan got inside his car in the parking lot, peeled off the tight plastic wrapping, opened the CD case eager to pop in some music, and found the case empty. He couldn’t ignore the strangeness any more.
The next morning before heading to the college he pulled a dictionary off his shelf. He looked up the word coincidence. “Exact correspondence in substance or nature” and “a concurrence of events with no apparent connection.” The word that jumped out at him was “correspondence.” Nathan looked up the word correspondence. “A close connection. A similarity. A communication or message sent or received.”
His father and mother divorced when Nathan was twelve, so amidst the normal chaos of adolescence the emotional earthquake of a family split intensified teen tectonics. His father moved away, took a job somewhere else. Nathan rarely saw him, and his mother discouraged long-distance visits. She also worked on her young son’s mind to create false memories and paint a portrait of a negligent, hard-drinking, and callous father. And when his father let the train run over him in the middle of a September night, and Nathan’s mother explained what had happened, Nathan felt more than just an earthquake. He couldn’t help imagining what it felt like to have a train crushing your body or why anybody would choose to die that way. For years after, the quaking, exploding, tremors— whatever word might come close—kept him awake nights and tortured him into self-destructive behavior such as drinking and drugs, and eventually pushed him toward the decision, nudged by his mother, to replace his name. He buried Blake Graham in a deep hole inside his chest.
For the whole week, Nathan was distracted. He had trouble getting through his classes. He couldn’t grade papers. He felt as if he were sleepwalking through the days. He hardly slept, didn’t have much appetite, and kept noticing other things: a plastic water bottle in a twenty-four pack he’d bought at the grocery without any water; a malted milk ball he bit into with just chocolate and no hardened milk center; a peanut shell he cracked open sitting on a stool at his favorite bar, Rocky’s, without a nut.
Nathan’s father was a simple man, he thought. At least those were his memories of him. He worked on cars, smoked cigars, and watched football. He had been a landscaper in summers and snow remover in winters. Manly stuff. Nathan remembered how his hands were always cracked and creased, black grime permanently lodged under his nails. His mother used to scold his dad about it.every morning during coffee and every night during supper.
“Damn, Leo, can’t you at least clean your hands! It looks like you’ve been digging crud your whole life.”
He remembers his father lifting coffee to his lips, thick fingers wrapped around a white mug. “Well, sweetest petunia, these hands are what bring home the bacon. Besides, a man should have a little grit and grime on him. Or would you rather I manicured and held my cup with a pinky sticking out like some fruitcake?”
His mother would sometimes let up, just huff, but sometimes not.
“Come on, Leo. It’s disgusting to look at when we’re trying to eat. Conjures all sorts of disgusting thoughts.”
“Like what, for instance?”
Now they’d be looking right at each other, eyes sending out beams of searing anger like death-rays in some science fiction Martian movie.
“Like you scratching up deep somewhere in private where the sun don’t shine. Or wiping without toilet paper. Or you…”
“Shut up. The boy is sitting right here between us. Do you have a brain in your head?”
The landscaping and snow removal business had been declining every year. There was just too much competition. Nathan remembered his father taking part-time jobs, once giving him a ride in a taxi when he briefly filled-in driving for a sick friend. This increased tensions between his parents, the squabbling intensified. Lack of money, dirty fingernails—it all added up.
Then one day, the talk when they sat him down.
“Son, your mother and I have decided it would be best for me to move out. We just don’t get along, I know you know. We’re nicer when we’re apart. Hell, two angry birds need their own space to fly so they can maybe turn nicer. It would be best for you, too. You must be sick of all the squawking around here.”
“Yes, Blake. Your father is right for once in his sorry life. And it has nothing to do with you. Don’t you ever think that. This is between your father and me.”
So it went. Like so many other families all over. Nathan knew that the settings might be slightly altered, the key players different, but the basic drama was universal. Most of his own friends had come from divorced families. Then his father moved out. Moved from upstate New York to southern Ohio to take a job with an old pal who owned a tire repair shop. Then his pal’s business went under and his father was hired at a local grocery store loading and unloading food delivery trucks.
For a while, Nathan received letters, cards, and packages from his dad. In fact, his father seemed more expressive than he had ever been when he lived in the same house. Maybe, Nathan thought at the time, the old truth was in play—how a person who loses something suddenly tries hard to get it back. Maybe his father felt guilty about leaving. Maybe his father was doing it all just to feel better about himself. At first, Nathan would sometimes call and thank him, once even wrote a letter back. But then Nathan started to resent how his father ran out. He should have stayed to fight it out, he thought. The correspondence slowed down, eventually stopped.
Nathan remembered the last thing his father had sent him. It was a small box with muscle car magazines, candy bars—and one strange item: a fortune cookie. In the enclosed note, his father wrote:
They were handing out fortune cookies at the store, promoting some new Chinese noodle lunch packs. I took one and thought of you. My future doesn’t matter much, but yours does. I hope it’s a good one!
Nathan tore open the plastic wrapper, then broke the cookie open. He pulled out the tiny slip of paper and read: Freedom is not the bird’s flight, but its decision whether or not to fly. Nathan remembered not understanding, thinking what a stupid fortune. Of course, now he only vaguely recalled it having something to do with a bird, or flying. He crumpled the paper and crammed the tasteless cookie chunks into his mouth, crunching. A week later, his mother greeted him at the kitchen table with the news.
Nathan was not superstitious, but if his dead father was trying to send him some kind of message, trying to correspond after all these years, what was he trying to tell him? Empty things, things missing, things suddenly turning blank or silent. Or was it something other than his father trying to connect with him? Was he crazy to even consider such notions?
It was a little after nine in the morning, a Saturday, and Nathan sat drinking coffee on his couch that he had strategically placed to face the small window looking out onto the street. The window was round unlike most windows, like the porthole of a ship. He wondered if the architect had been a naval man. From outside the round windows gave the building a uniquely odd appearance. He listened to the muffled sounds of passing cars and gazed up at a dirty gray sky. The view was lousy but he was grateful to at least have this small opening which he sometimes imagined was the apartment’s eye or nostril or ear from which inside the room’s skull he peeped out. He was a prisoner of the apartment’s brain, he’d think to himself, trapped behind bony walls. He’d leave the apartment and continue the little drama, pretending to escape, finally free, standing on the sidewalk looking back at the apartment building which resembled a hulking brick beast.
Nathan gulped the last of his coffee, grabbed his leather jacket, and headed out. He did not stop this time, but did look over his shoulder at his small window, that today resembled a pore in the bricks’ skin allowing the beast’s rust-brown body to breathe. Then he looked again, and noticed it may have been the blow-hole of the building, the kind a whale has. He thought if this were a one-act play it might be called “The Man Who Thought Way Too Much about a Window.”
He probably thought way too much about everything. That was his problem. So what that his parents divorced? So what that his father killed himself? So what that things happen without any real explanation? Maybe that was the message his father was trying to send him: to stop trying to make sense of it all, just let the mystery of living unfold. Maybe that was the real fortune in those cookies written on invisible paper in invisible ink. He just couldn’t see them. Then he caught himself thinking about the blank paper in the envelope, the nest, the TV, the radio, the other things. “There you go again, asshole,” he actually said out loud to himself as he strode looking down at sidewalk cracks. “There you go like an obsessed lunatic.”
Or maybe, he thought, he was just not smart enough to figure out little clues that most people would easily decipher. He imagined his father orchestrating the recent doings, starting with the fortune cookies, getting frustrated that his son wasn’t “getting it.” He saw his father rolling his eyes somewhere, probably thinking his son would have to be hit over the head with a hammer before he understood.
Nathan slapped himself on both cheeks with the palms of each hand. “Stop thinking, dammit.” He looked up and saw a crow on a phone line looking down at him. “My dad disguised to spy on me.” He slapped himself again.
Outside Chang’s, Nathan stopped to look into the big front window. It was still early for lunch and he watched workers setting tables, one sweeping with a broom. The special today, hand-printed with red ink on poster-size paper behind glass, read: Sweet and Sour Fortune Cookie Chicken and Orange Sesame Fortune Cookie Cupcakes. Nathan moved closer to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. He read more: In honor of National Fortune Cookie Day. It was September 13. He had never heard of such a holiday. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said out loud. In smaller print at the bottom: The first fortune cookie was invented in 1920 at the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, California.
“Wow, my dad is using that hammer now,” Nathan thought. “OK, dad, you want me to do something, what is it? Go inside and order the special? Or is this a test? Let’s see, you want me to keep walking and forget about it? You want me to have lunch but resist the temptation of anything having to do with fortune cookies and order something else? You want me to go to Walmart and buy another Johnny Cash CD? You want me to say I’m sorry? You want me to forgive you?”
The door of Chang’s opened and a young Chinese man with blond-dyed hair and a stud earring poked his head out. “We’ll be open in a few minutes. Happy Fortune Cookie Day!”
Nathan nodded. Then he looked back to the crow, but the crow was gone.
“A group of crows is called a murder,” Nathan thought. “Maybe a single crow is a suicide.”
A young couple came up and paused looking at the poster in the window. The man in a black beret and woman with one long ponytail read, then simultaneously looked at each other and said, “National Fortune Cookie Day?” They broke up laughing, then looked over at Nathan.
“If this were a one-act play, what would you call it?” Nathan asked the couple. They looked at each other again, slightly confused. Then Nathan walked away, passing shops, crossing streets, weaving in and out of bodies on sidewalks, sometimes looking up at the phone lines wondering about that crow, not sure where he was going, but the day was crisp and the further he walked his head felt—at least for now—suddenly clear.
Philip Kobylarz has been published in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. His collection of fiction, Now Leaving Nowheresville has been recently published and his book-length essay “Nearest Istanbul” is forthcoming.
What’s On The Other Side Of Doors
You always hurt the one you love, so they say. Maybe they meant the one you love is always hurt. For some, it’s like trying to write a letter in the rain. The kind of rain it rains when the sun is shining, tucking in and out of grey weather clouds. The kind of rain that feels cold at first, then becomes warm as it soaks into the skin, like a bitter liquor falling down the throat. Maybe it’s more like gardening with someone like a sister: bending down, getting dirty, digging holes, with nothing to say to each other about that vague conception called a family, plans for the future, sibling small talk and advice, and simply working some good fingernail clogging, back breaking work that’s more about the spaces created between stalks and holes in the ground than the growth of something flowery and green. Or it’s like waiting for the mailman on a day when there’s nothing to do—knowing his name (only the first) and about the time he comes, knowing he’ll be wearing the same clothes that he is by law required to wear, knowing he’ll look just like he did yesterday only a little less or a little more tired, knowing that someone maybe he doesn’t even know or care to delivers his mail and wondering if he makes the same types of gestures, on Saturdays, to him, a forced hello how are you, a smile that says you have something that’s important for me to want, then to watch him go to the next house, and the next, in an unending series of lawns, shrubbery, sidewalks that finally results in his own, to a kiss from a hardworking lover and a few gurgled cheers from a baby almost old enough to talk, and a pile of bills, flyers, car payment booklets, summons to court, alimony checks, subscriptions to paper-covered magazines all sent to the wrong address.
Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, and she is an Associate Editor for Bound Off. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Learn more at www.ashleycowger.com.
“I just thought you should know,” is what the woman says, her voice smug. “If I were you, I would want—” and then Lenny disconnects her.
May watches as the little red light on the camera goes dim. Carl must have signaled Mike to stop shooting.
“Sorry, May,” he says into May’s earpiece.
May offers a put-on smile and shrugs. “No biggie.” But she can see by the reaction of the crew that this is not the appropriate response. “I mean, it isn’t your fault, Carl.” May can feel little beads of sweat forming along her hairline. The lights seem abnormally strong today.
“Let’s, uh, why don’t we take a minute, huh? To regroup,” Carl says, not to May, but to the crew.
Mike leaves his post, walks swiftly toward the bathroom, and Melissa approaches May with that little bowl of face powder she always seems to have on the ready. “Touch up?”
May forces a smile. “Oh. Sure.”
Melissa swirls the giant brush around in the powder, then dabs it all over May’s face and neck. “What a bitch, huh?” Melissa says.
“Who?” May asks.
Melissa snorts. “Right.”
“Oh,” May says.
“Mahhhgaret,” Melissa says, taking on the caller’s faux British intonation. “You can just tell by the way she says her name she’s a bitch.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge,” May says.
Melissa doesn’t seem to have heard. “I can’t believe she would call you on the show like that.”
“Melissa,” Carl says. He sounds like a stern father, like he means business.
Melissa, who is still of an age where a stern father means trouble, jumps.
“May looks fine. No more makeup.”
Melissa walks away without argument.
Carl leans in with his stale coffee breath, puts his lumpy hand on May’s shoulder and squeezes. “You okay?”
“’Cause if you need to take some time, we can just call it a day and pick up fresh next week. Show a rerun.”
May thinks about it for a moment, but shakes her head. And do what? she wants to ask Carl. Go home and face Sam? He probably knows she called. She probably told him. “I’m fine,” she tells Carl.
Carl squeezes her shoulder again, then lets go. “Show must go on, right?” He lifts his hand up, and for a second she thinks he’s going to hold it out for a high five. Thankfully, he just runs it through his thinning hair. “Soon as Mike gets back then, eh?”
“Sounds good,” May says. She crosses her legs and folds her hands neatly in her lap. She is wearing a yellow dress today, yellow with brown dots. She feels attractive, summery. Sam bought the dress for her last summer. It’s probably the only time he’s bought her a dress that she actually likes and fits well, both. He loves her in the dress, tells her every time she wears it. Wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, May knows, if it weren’t for Margaret, whose name May didn’t know before now.
It worked well that way, not knowing her name. She was just a shady figure in the background of their lives, one it was easy to pretend away. Sam had been so much happier these past few months, and May didn’t have to deal with his constant groping. She could make dinner now, brush her teeth, without him coming up behind her and nestling his dry lips into her sensitive skin. She didn’t have to come up with excuses anymore—headache, backache, exhaustion, arthritis pains. On top of that, Sam had been extra giving in other ways, out of guilt, May assumes. A few times, she’d suspected he suspected that she knew, but she played dumb and he bought it, and he would buy her a ridiculously expensive bouquet of flowers afterwards, or take her to dinner at Chez Pierre.
But now, all of that is over. Now she’s heard the woman’s voice. Now she knows her name: Mahhhgaret. Everybody on crew knows it, too. Everybody knows that May knows. Sam probably already knows, and if he doesn’t, he’ll find out soon enough. Her blissful life of feigned ignorance is over. And she doesn’t know what to do.
Mike comes back from the bathroom, a sheepish grin on his face, probably for having taken so long, which he always does.
“Everyone ready?” Carl asks.
Mike readjusts the focus on the camera and gives a thumbs-up.
“Let’s see some teeth, hon.”
Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). She writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Emily is a graduate of the MFA writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. Her short fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, The Good Men Project, Dark Sky, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. Her work has received mentions and awards from Unstuck Magazine, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Wigleaf Magazine, and others. She resides in Berkeley, California with her man and her dog.
In the belly of the dark the bomb is dreaming. The bomb is dreaming about a woman in a brown dress. The bomb imagines her in fits and starts. It imagines her falling into rhythm with the fits and starts of the darkness that surrounds it, which is sometimes pierced with light. The darkness is jostled and pierced in a light rhythm. The jostling rolls the bomb lightly—but only lightly—against the mechanisms that hold it. As it rolls and jostles, the bomb imagines the woman in the brown dress singing out a little rhythm. She is singing out a little song, as if to soothe it, and it is soothed, rocking so very lightly in the mechanisms that hold it. The bomb does not know the woman who is singing, as it does not know anyone, least of all the men who built its mechanisms. The bomb does not know sorrow, but the look on the woman’s face is sorrow as she is singing, and the song is a sorrowful song about the little body that will not be soothed. The woman’s voice is rising and rising, never failing. In the woman’s face is sorrow about the men who built the mechanisms that hold her from her rising, and who built the unsoothable body she holds, unfailing. The bomb does not know that it is dreaming as it imagines rising up from the mechanisms. It knows the singing face of the woman, and where there were mechanisms there is a screaming, unsoothable body rising up and up and up. The bomb is rising up, and the woman’s face is looking up, away, and they are light and rising. In the jostling, rolling dark, they have never dreamt of falling.
Charlie Sterchi is an MA candidate in creative writing at Auburn University. He serves as an assistant editor at the Southern Humanities Review and Fiction Editor at Kudzu House Quarterly.
The Running Dog
Grandpa’s on suicide watch, but I’m not allowed to watch him anymore. Not by myself. Not after the incident involving his Buick, a smashed retaining wall, and the manually disengaged passenger side airbag. Grandpa’s on suicide watch, and here I am in the bosom of his creaking home, in his bedroom, by his window that looks out over the hills stacked one on another like the layers of dung and rotten cabbage in a compost heap, watching him with his breathing tubes and the shudder of his breathing machine; his pills and his bag of piss and his skin like spent wax paper; the smell of diarrhea and applesauce and the smell of vintage tweed from the open closet. I am not alone, but with my sister who’s brought her cello down from Maryland to watch us both and to join in our perspiring. Decades of daily use and nightly disuse have rendered the air conditioning busted.
“Does that thing have a quiet setting?” I say.
My sister says, “The breathing machine? Don’t be stupid.”
My sister wipes her brow with one of grandpa’s monogrammed paisley hankies.
“Sister,” I say. “Fetch me a drink, won’t you?”
“And leave you alone with grandfather?” she says. “I don’t think so.”
I look out the window and watch the dog running circles in the yard.
Grandpa says, “Cathy always told me, ‘Take what you can get, Johnny.’ So, I took what I got and I made an ice-cream of it.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
My sister says, “Very good, Grandfather.”
“Grandpa, you’re unintelligible,” says I, “and, oh, how those pills make you slobber.”
I receive a merry wink from the old man.
I go downstairs and pour my own drink. On the other side of the kitchen window, which is open, the dog still runs, his tongue dragging across the dirt where he’s trod and he’s trod again.
Grandpa used to take the dog and me hunting. We’d shoot doves from behind the mulberry bushes. Then the dog would disappear into the scratching of the marsh reeds. We’d listen to the fading bustle of the dog. Often, all traces of the dog would disappear into the fog. We’d wait without exchanging a word, without stomping our boots to keep out the cold of morning, and I would wonder how we’d find all of those dead doves if the dog never came back. The dog always came back. Its name is something like Sally-Go-Home-Lucky VII or Cyrus of Westover. I don’t remember.
I become aware of my sister’s cello sliding down the banister. It’s playing something from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, which opens up the air in these halls. It breaks up the curtains of dust, sends a breeze through the structure, and I inhale as if with the assistance of a brand new, third lung. I rattle the ice against the walls of my glass in a counterclockwise motion because it amuses me to do so.
I watch the dog for a while and I wonder if the dog will ever die, or if instead the dog will continue running circles in the yard, dragging its tongue and sniffing around for dead doves beyond the time at which my grandfather joins the soil and manifests in the pears from the tree by his waiting grave, beyond the time at which I, too, manifest as a sheet of tears dropping from the same pear tree to rot or to be eaten by deer, beyond the time at which the pear tree dies, and the deer die, and the dove marsh and its doves become no more than a film of dust on the earth’s fallow crust, beyond the time at which all else – the strip malls and the golf courses, the Taj Mahal and the Little Ceasar’s Pizza on Chapman Highway, all else – has fallen to the great yellowing gyre of the sky. It strikes me as probable that even in the second scenario the dog, having borne the weight of perpetuity, will cease to lick the dirt and will in turn be licked by the dirt.
Rahad Abir was born and bred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in The Penmen Review, Aerodrome and Toad Suck Review. His wining short story ‘‘I am in London’’ is appearing in an anthology from England. He has worked as journalist, university teacher and interpreter. Currently he is working on his first novel.
He knew it was simply unfair to go out on a date with his student’s mom. It involved risk too. But he said yes when she asked him. He was confused and fascinated and lost. The relationship was about three months of old, mostly talking and texting over the phone. Every evening he visited her home to tutor the second grade boy, and she hardly ever seemed to take any opportunity to talk to him then.
On an early somnolent afternoon in July, he waited by Curzon Hall gate of Dhaka University, and his roving eyes fell upon every rickshaw and CNG auto-rickshaw (little semi-taxi) that appeared at the gate. He endeavored not to notice the beggars—either elderly or kiddies—who only walked up to the passengers at the very moment they reached their hands for wallets or purses to pay fares so that it’d be psychologically embarrassing for them to refuse their request for alms.
She turned up around half an hour late. A leg, so light-skinned, and then another, slipped out of a CNG auto rickshaw, he watched. A small woman, wearing a black sari, approached him with short steps. Four eyes met for a moment. A smug smile came out of her crimson lips. He smiled her back.
The dating spot on his mind—Curzon Hall pond—by that mid-afternoon, got almost full of people sitting by the pond’s edge. Fortunately, an unoccupied concrete bench was found.
‘‘You look gorgeous,’’ he said.
She gazed into his eyes.
‘‘Well—’’ he looked at her—her hair, her black dress, which she had put on for him. His eyes tried to read hers—her beautiful light eyes, twenty-seven-year-old olive skinned face, full crimson lips. Shortly, a naughty grin appeared on her face.
He remembered the same grin over that face, when one evening the young pretty mommy of his pupil brought a tray of snacks in the middle of their The Very Hungry Caterpillar studies; but whilst leaving the tray she, unlike the other days, looked into his eyes and grinned, ‘‘Have a nibble.’’ There was something else in that look, the way she grinned—everything thrilled him.
Later that night he received a ‘‘you’re so handsome’’ text on his phone from an unknown number. The following night the same text buzzed, at the same time. He called the sender, however, no one answered. Weeks after, one late night his call was received. But the receiver was completely silent. His voice turned impatient, ‘‘I know it’s you, it must be you; if you like me why’re you scared of talking to me?’’ And, that night, she spoke.
Later, he would imagine that it was not him, it was her who killed him, and he would remember the same grinning face with disgust, and curse himself, in the last and long five minutes of his life. He was a soft sort of guy—sentimental.
‘‘Why not we take a rickshaw ride instead?’’ she said, holding his arm.
He glanced at her, rolling his eyes from the water striders in pond. Her hand was soft and warm and real. He figured that she wanted more intimacy. Shortly, as two bums squashed into a rickshaw, the warmth of her body ran through his, but her face didn’t glow, changed no color. She asked if he was uncomfortable being with her because he’d not held her hand yet. He blushed, grasped her hand straightaway, and in a moment as her breast erratically touched the back of his arm, he trembled. He trembled again, after the dark fell, being with her in a CNG auto rickshaw, on the way home. This time he put his arm around her waist. For the first time in his twenty-two-year life, he couldn’t resist the temptation to rub a woman’s naked fat little tummy and she couldn’t stop drawing her face to his, and finally the lustful lips met, carefully escaping the driver’s eyes.
Beyond this intimacy, beyond this heading for home, beyond this purposeless rickshaw riding he bought her green coconut juice from a street vendor. While nibbling Chinese nuts he talked about his Hindu upbringing, his old family house, and his ties with relatives living in Kolkata, India. Likewise, he learned from her that she made up a story to her mother-in-law about her whereabouts this afternoon. What’s more, he learned about her unhappy relationship with her husband, whom at the time was working in Dubai. Although not being a devout Muslim, he, during the early months of their marriage pressured her wear a burka which she refused. He also learned about her first-and-only unsuccessful love affair (here she chuckled since the second attempt was turning out to be wonderful) before getting married.
Another late afternoon, they met at British Council on Fuller Road. Unlike the first day, he hired a rickshaw to Elephant Road, where he’d arranged to have use of his friend’s flat for an hour. During the rickshaw ride, he held her hand. Though, his hesitant hand tried to be convinced that the age difference between them was not evident. His roving eyes searched for any familiar eyes on street. Somehow, later, his fear would come true when a pair of eyes would fall upon them on Johnson Road, just for a moment, without his knowledge.
They met in a small shared flat, under a naked hundred-watt Philips bulb. On a yellowing, tatty bed-sheet. This happened again. While, another day, her mother-in-law was picking her son from school.
Traffic was always crazy and awfully slow on Old Dhaka narrow streets. To get out of it, some drove wherever it was possible to drive—lest it was the pavement or the opposite wrong route—resulting in more traffic. Being stuck in English road traffic for twenty minutes in a CNG auto-rickshaw, while heading back home together in one evening, he worried because she was running late. Glancing around he then remembered that Dhaka’s largest brothel once operated a block away, set up by the British. During his school days, as he passed the brothel street one day, many strange-behaving and odd-looking women of different ages, standing by the outside doors, waved at him. Laughed at him. He was both charmed and unnerved.
The CNG auto-rickshaw reached near the Judge Court on Johnson Road. Here he should have left. She grasped his hand tightly. He looked into her eyes. She blushed, and laughed, and said, ‘‘I love you.’’ He shuddered. Her lips moved, saying something. He slowly walked down the street, not knowing that this happened to be their last and final meeting.
A little later, he walked into the apartment for the tuition. The living room’s light wasn’t turned on, and instead of the little boy, the grandma emerged. She looked cranky and her voice sounded hysterical. ‘‘He’s not feeling good tonight, we’ll call you when he gets better.’’
The very next day he got a call. ‘‘You bastard Hindu, son of a bitch.’’ The unknown voice began swearing all at once. Before he could swallow the bubble of shock and say anything, the unknown voice apparently tried to grab him over the phone and shred him to pieces. They found out everything, must have seen them last evening, he feared. He went cold. Forgot to breathe. Sweating like a pig.
He never contacted her. He changed his mobile number the day after. For three weeks he mostly stayed home, telling others that his finals were coming. He worried about her, wished she wouldn’t have been in big trouble.
The air began to get dry from mid-November and there was a whiff of winter. Looking through the only window from his tiny room, he thought of her. Thought of a pair of crimson lips.
Two months after, in one night at about nine thirty, his mother told him that someone came to see him, waiting in the stairway. His heart sank when he saw the boy, who was member of a so-called street gang.
‘‘I’ve an urgent need to talk with you, can you come outside for a moment?’’ the boy said.
He scanned the boy’s face in the dimness of plaster falling old yellowish walls, glanced over his left shoulder down the stairs. The main door of this two-storey building, over a hundred-and-fifty years old, remained open till eleven at night. Two ground floor rooms were rented to a book-binding factory.
‘‘What’s it about?’’ He asked, ‘‘Say here.’’
‘‘It’s private. Just come out for a minute, bro.’’
‘‘I got my finals, I’m busy.’’ And to his surprise he saw another boy climb the stairs. ‘‘OK—’’ he was about to close the door.
‘‘Bring him down,’’ a voice burst out, following the second boy.
The first boy grabbed his hand.
‘‘Leave him!’’ his mother screamed.
Momentarily, a small crowd gathered there. His mother, father and his younger sister managed to free him from their hands, obstructing the three guys from entering.
‘‘Do you want us to break into your house?’’ the man roared, ‘‘Bring him here now.’’
‘‘Tell me what happened,’’ the father repeatedly asked.
Crowds had already filled the stairway. ‘‘Your bloody son slept with a married Muslim woman,’’ someone blurted out, ‘‘Hand him over to us. We’ll figure this out’’
The news incited a sudden excitement in the crowd. He could feel this even shrinking into a corner of his room, locking the door well. Out there, there were overheated arguments, shouts, broken swearing at his father. The crowd threw bricks into their street-facing windows. Later, when everyone had left, he learned that they grabbed his old father. Slapped him. Ripped off his shirt. For a moment, a burning fire inside him wanted to take the big knife from kitchen and go after the scoundrels in the street.
But that night he neither opened his door nor went out nor went in front of his father. His mother cried. She swore at him sitting by his room’s door. Moaning how he put the whole family at risk. Why did God still keep her alive? To see all this disgrace? To see her husband beaten by young hooligans? If she knew this before, she’d have choked him to death when he was a little boy.
His best friend called and informed him that his student’s mom was in the hospital and fighting for life. She had become pregnant, taken drugs to abort the baby that resulted in nonstop bleeding. He also told him to stay safe. If possible to go into hiding somewhere for a few weeks.
It was not only about his safety, his father, and especially his sister should take care, too. Father in no way would agree on leaving the house vacant. The local commissioner had long been trying to evict them and grab the house. But above all, the reality was he had brought shame for his family. How could his father, an upright man, go out in the neighborhood now? Who’d want to marry his sister now? ‘‘Blood will have blood,’’ he shivered with fright. If he could, he’d have slipped away into a CNG auto-rickshaw by night and never be seen again.
With this thought, he jumped up out of his chair momentarily. He looked for something hurriedly in the closet. The second shelf from the top belonged to his sister. A long scarf came to his hand. His eyes watched the spinning ceiling fan. Spinning, round and round. Winter was not that intense in the old part of Dhaka. He made a loop at one end of the scarf. He turned off the fan and tied the other end around it. Then he wept.
He stood on the top of the bed head, facing the loop-end that waited for his neck to embrace. He took it. Now, just a little jump, and everything would be over. A bit of smile crossed his lips. How would her baby look if it had survived? He wished he’d have believed in God. ‘‘Please, let there be another world after death,’’ he said. He imagined his hanging body from the ceiling fan; still, calm like the serene morning light. The light had slipped through the window, and in the middle of the room he was hanging; hanging by a long scarf. He took a long breath, and glanced at the wall clock. Seven to two in the morning. He gasped as the big thinnest red hand neared the last minute. When it was ten seconds to two, he counted every move of the red hand. ‘‘Fifty one, fifty two, fifty three, fifty four, fifty five…’’
Eliana Osborn is a mother of two, wife of one, who works part-time as an English professor at Arizona Western College. She is an essayist and fiction writer whose work has been featured in Blood and Thunder, Dash, Segullah, and many other journals. She has commercial work in venues including the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and many others. She’s at work on her first novel about the Chinese-Mexican population on the US-Mexico border.
When his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness she gave up her Buddhism, then everything about being Japanese. There were no more chopsticks in the house; macaroni in a blue box instead of soft formed squares of udon. Pictures of a blonde Jesus instead of an ancestral shrine. They wore shoes inside, sat on straight backed chairs at the dinner table.
He was forbidden from saying gaijin, even if it was true. By the time he left for college his middle name, Mori, was just an oddity from the past. His mother had dropped it and went by Kathy Morris.
His father was dead, his mother a math professor. He was stranded with straight black hair, student loans, and a neighbor who wanted him to join the Asian American Student Association. He made up excuses but she kept dropping by.
“This is how you network Nolan. You meet some people, spend time with them, then when you’re looking for a job after grad school you have connections. You can’t trust outsiders with your future—in AASA the alumni look out for us.”
The next week she brought some Japanese girls with her. One was short and round with bangs cut too short, leaving an inch of forehead above her glasses. Another was shorter still and wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.
Nolan raised his eyebrows, wondering how this group of three awkward Asians could possibly be the best and brightest, the thing that kept America running ahead of the rest of the world.
Mickey Mouse giggled when he said ohaiyo but wouldn’t explain why. Bad Bangs stuck out her hand formally and gave a surprisingly strong shake.
“Melissa Kazuko, glad to meet you.” She nodded and stood back at attention waiting for the interview to begin.
“So why don’t you want to join the association? I don’t get it.” Melissa stared right at him. He tried to keep her gaze but finally looked away and made busy work adjusting the band of his watch.
“No-lan,” his neighbor began in that disturbing southern drawl, “we need you. The dances are so bad right now, you don’t even know. Everyone told me college would be different, that boys wouldn’t be scared of smart girls. But there’s five times the number of girls as boys among us Asians. I had to dance with some Hmong guy for every slow song at homecoming. All he could talk about was his parents on some boat. Hello? This is supposed to be romantic?”
He considered what it would be like to date an Asian girl for once. Or even better, to be in a club with desperate women.
“I’ll do it.”
There was a stunned silence then Mickey Mouse giggled and covered her mouth. The neighbor smiled broadly while Melissa simply nodded her head, turned, and walked away.
Nolan felt a twinge in his groin and wondered if maybe he liked girls with bangs. He’d have to pay closer attention now that he had options.
Marie Mayhugh is a writer and poet. She received a BA in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is an intern a BkMk Press in Kansas City. She is also a writing tutor at Longview Community College in Kansas City where she engages students with her love for the written word.
An Old Cowboy’s Dirge
Weston and his grandpa with dirty suede skin sat at the DMV. Weston’s eyes darted between his phone and the Now Serving digital system. The clerk behind the counter consistently announced the numbers over the speakerphone.
The old man leaned close to his grandson, who thumbed his phone.
You don’t need no license, the old man said. I got you a quarter horse.
I don’t have a quarter, Weston replied.
His sire’s New Ash.
I told you, I don’t have cash.
Name’s Blue Okie.
The old man removed his hat and poked his grandson with its rim.
Say, you know I can pull my own teeth out, the old man said.
Please don’t, Weston said. He tucked his phone inside his right denim pocket.
Got your attention, the old man said. He snickered and patted Weston on the shoulder.
Weston slid his chair over.
It takes guts for a man to lose his teeth, the old man said, but more courage to wear falsies.
Weston hunched and rested his elbows on his knees. The old man put a cigarette between his lips and patted his fringe-leather jacket for his lighter. The clerk behind the counter called on him to notice the No Smoking sign. He sighed, crumpled the cigarette, and put its remnants in his pocket.
I thought you’d want to be a rugged man like me, the old man said. He lolled in his chair and spread his arms, an eagle’s wingspan, resting each arm on top of seat backs on either side. His shaved head flinched as it rolled back against the icy window.
Outside, a Dodge pickup, with the word Ranger branded on its side, parked. Two officers hurdled out of the truck and strolled into the DMV.
They ain’t Rangers, the old man boasted.
Weston shook his head. You don’t know what you’re talking about, he said.
Sure I do. That’s a truck, the old man said. Those men hold their steering wheel at the ten and two O’clock. Real rangers ride saddleback and steer their horse with reins. They keep fists parallel and thumbs near for best rein control, similar to the way you hold your phone some of the time.
Weston glimpsed at the old man.
If you knew anything about your great-great-granddaddy, the old man said, you’d know he was a real cowboy. Cowboys keep both reins in their lead hand that rests on their lap, but their other hand remains free.
Weston reclined back, pulled his denim jacket’s collar up, and slid his hands inside his pockets. But the old man was just getting warmed up.
You can’t lasso your target or fire your Colt from a car, the old man said, both hands have to be on the wheel. He moaned as if he begun a wail. It takes a man to ride a saddle. Cowboys knew their range and how to ramble the land. Show me any place on a map, and I’ll tell you how many strokes it’ll take to get there. Cowboys don’t need no GP, or whatever you call it, to find your way. We went solo.
That’s GPS, Weston said.
No GPS for me, the old man said, but maybe a girl pretty on her saddle.
Weston sighed. He flicked his floppy hair over his eyes. The clerk behind the counter called number twenty-six.
Maybe, if you walked like me, the old man said, you’d have hard soles. He pointed at his own right thumb. You see there, that’s a nice clean thumb from hitching rides cross-country. He rested his left foot on his right knee and began to tug at his boot. I’ll show you my feet, they’re blistered from travel.
Please don’t, Weston said. He drew his right hand out of his pocket with his phone, and began to single handedly tap it.
The old man fingered at his grandson’s phone. You see there, the old man said, you’re holding your phone in your lead hand, but your other hand remains in your left pocket. It ain’t free.
Weston didn’t respond, but checked the digital number on the board. Only a few people in the waiting area read or remained quiet.
Who you calling? The old man said.
I’m texting, Weston said.
Is she pretty like one?
Hey, did you ever hear from your brother?
Well, how’s he getting along in Florida?
Fine. Weston sighed.
I hear he’s got himself a Lassie from Tallahassee. The old man chuckled.
The old man leaned back in his chair. He put on his hat, lowered its rim, and said, You want to be alone, but you’re just like your own. He slipped his hands inside his pockets.
Gordon Ball’s story is from a volume of short fiction, On Tokyo’s Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan. He lives and teaches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
It was Tokyo l950, before the end of the American Occupation. In the parents’ bedroom closet stood a Russian submachine gun, in the father’s dresser lay an unfirable German Luger, trigger melded into housing. Five hundred miles away raged the Korean War, the source, through multiple hands, of the Soviet weapon.
The boy had seen Russians once or twice from afar in the hotel across the street from his father’s office building. They were always men, and though in coats and ties and overcoats–even “western” hotel lobbies were cold–they seemed rougher, gruffer than other grownups: Americans of commerce and finance; French and Germans and British of many years’ experience in Eastern trade; wiseacre tieless young journalists just arrived from the States or Singapore or London; self-effacing Japanese in brisk, herring bone double breasted business suits who worked with–for–his father. “They are Russians,” someone would say. Their faces, with their heavy eyebrows, looked vaguely asiatic, like his father’s.
Sometimes after school the boy would play by himself at home, ten miles from Tokyo’s hotel and business center, in the shadowy side yard bordering their white stucco French colonial house. There, crepe myrtle trees and aucuba bushes abounded, making for his small frame a forest to stalk in. With his toy rifle he’d hunt enemy soldiers–the enemies being American–through the bushes and trees, and around the small tool shed adjoining them at one end. The Russians were not involved, but it excited him to imagine himself a Chinese Communist, calves wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth leggings as he’d seen in photographs.
At the same time, he’d draw pictures of American war heroes, celebrating their exploits and the numbers of Chinese and North Koreans they’d killed in a single encounter. He’d get this information daily on Armed Forces Radio. “Why don’t you draw something constructive?” his older brother, serious with horn-rimmed glasses, asked as he looked at the boy’s drawings.
The boy didn’t know the meaning of “constructive” nor of the shadows of branches he’d see on his pale wall at night, but the patterns frightened him. He was even more frightened one evening when he heard loud voices from his mother and father’s room, where Luger and machine-gun were stored. He didn’t know if the machine-gun had bullets but it was so heavy he couldn’t imagine anyone using such a thing–yet he knew they did every day in Korea.
“I’d rather be strangled than kept here,” he heard his mother wail at his father one evening. “I want to go back to Marietta!” Their door was open, but he was afraid to draw close. It was dark and the only light was broken by bony configurations of branches on the wall.
The next day two friends of his parents, Major Grimes and Mrs. Grimes, came to visit. She was carrot-haired and he had big ears that stuck out from the sides of his head, reminding the boy of Sad Sack in the stateside funnies they’d be able to get every once in a while.
Major Grimes and his wife lived in the U.S. Army compound at Pershing Heights. They brought him a gift for his birthday, a khaki U.S. Army overseas cap and various gold and blue and white insignia. “Where are you from, young man?” the Major asked.
“The world,” the boy responded.
“What do you like to eat?”
“Food,” he answered.
He behaved like that for several minutes before leaving the room, then after the guests were gone he overheard mother and father talking there, in the space between the white mantle and the large brown metallic gas stove from whose dusty white porcelain teeth blue flames flared. It was near the very spot where he’d lain on the carpet some evenings, staring at the pictures in a strange, large, heavy and musty book by a man named Hogarth. He’d taken it from the glass bookcase, and as he looked he’d wondered if those people with their intestines falling out were real. “I think he needs a spanking,” he heard his mother say.
The next day was Saturday and there was no school. The squat little tool shed that bordered the shadowy place with the acuba bushes and crepe myrtles had a sliding door with windows of translucent glass about a foot square. Inside were various old tools and contraptions he’d rummaged through before; this morning he slid open the door and took one of them, a small short-handled dusty axe with a dented blade. Then he slid the door closed and broke every window on it, and every window to its left and to its right. “I know this is wrong,” he said to himself, with every stroke.
Katherine Bell is a writer and Communications and Marketing Coordinator from Frederick, Maryland. Katherine has been published in the East Coast Literary Review and she has short stories forthcoming from Connotation Press and Welter. With her boyfriend, she writes and publishes a blog called We Write Together.
The Sulphur Sink
Every night, we boil our tap water so it’s hot for baths. The water goes into the cheap aluminum pots I bought at a yard sale, and we watch as it rolls and bubbles on the stove. We put oven mitts on our hands and slowly carry the pots up the stairs one-by-one from the kitchen to the bathroom, where we pour the water into the tub and watch it steam into a big cloud as it meets the air. Then we do it again.
My daughters don’t complain, but sometimes I wish they did. I know they want to be normal and have a mom who doesn’t wake them up in the middle of the night with her screams. They’d rather have a mother who doesn’t forget what time they need to be picked up after school or which of them is the one who likes to go to the library every weekend. But they don’t complain about me. They don’t complain about anything.
Two weeks after we bought the house, the hot water heater stopped working and I couldn’t afford to buy another one. One week later, it rained. That was when we learned that the roof had holes no one told us about. There was one that would push rain through like a funnel, tiny pinprick holes made a mist and turned our upstairs bedroom into a rainforest. In September, the first frost of the year cracked our siding and we could feel the wind on the inside whenever it would blow on the outside.
One day in November, my youngest, Denise, brought home The Little House on the Prairie. I was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for the oven to warm so I could put in the store-bought pizza. Denise dropped the book in my lap. “I’m just like Laura,” she said.
I reached for the book, thumbed through its pages. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like living in the old days,” she said. She was smiling so proudly. “Laura didn’t even have running water.”
She twisted her brunette curls around her finger. Her pink shirt was just barely too small for her, and her jeans were ripping apart at the knees. “Oh,” I said. Her smile faded away and I couldn’t look at her anymore. She left me sitting at the table alone with her book in my hand.
The wind was fiercest in January and the four of us had to snuggle in my bed to stay warm. It reminded me of Fort Jackson, the nights the unit would stay up too late seeing who could do the most shots without throwing up and falling asleep wherever we passed out, all despite our 04:30 First Call. My daughters will never know about that part of me.
I would wake them up every morning with a new round of screams. Jenny, my oldest, shook me awake each morning. I would come to in her arms with the last scream on my breath and freeze, paralyzed from the mix of the dream-world and reality colliding and coagulating in my brain. One night I dreamed she was alongside me in the Humvee wearing a flak jacket and kevlar helmet. When the IED exploded, like it does every night in my sleep, I lost my grip on her wrist and she started sliding away from me, dead or dying.
When Jenny woke me up, I didn’t know where I was, and I couldn’t stop screaming. When I finally realized I was in bed and she was safe, I hugged her so tight I thought her internal organs might implode. She didn’t push me away. She hugged me back and stroked my hair. “It’ll be okay, Mom. You’ll be just fine.” The rest of that night I hid away in the living room enveloped in blankets reading the Little House on the Prairie to keep myself awake.
When I was deployed for fifteen months, they lived with their father. Living with that man for over a year was enough for them to be happier with me in the cold and the filth of a broken-down house. I can’t ask my daughters what happened while I was gone. The bits and pieces they’ve shared have made me uneasy and I imagine that they were fighting a war with their father while I was fighting a war in a foreign country. Still, they had hot water. They had salads and cookies and pocket change to buy candy and magazines. They had Internet, Wi-Fi, and cable. Jenny saved up for a few pedicures. Denise could purchase her own books, rather than be a slave to the library. Lucy bought a leotard and ballet slippers. It’s more than I can do for them.
I once suggested they move back in with him. I was instantly silence by three pleading looks around the dinner table. “No,” Denise said. She left her seat, pried open my arms and forced herself between them. As I brushed her hair out of her eyes, I knew she would never tolerate such a suggestion again. Jenny and Lucy stood and joined the bear hug. Together we all felt whole. The kitchen around us was so silent I could almost hear their thoughts. We were different members of the same team. Team Harrison. I stifled the urge to shout “Hooah!,” at the dinner table.
Valentine’s Day marked the date of my divorce, a yearly reminder of the two soldiers in my unit that we lost that day. Throughout the day I vacillated between sleep and distraction, between pillows and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I had trouble staying focused on the pages, and whenever I would close my eyes, I would hear the roar of the IED as it tore through the convoy and upended our Humvee.
I’d see the way my best friend Maria’s face changed in seconds from laughter to seriousness to pain. When I looked down and there was a crimson mess where her left leg had been, I remember that I gaped at it before taking action. It felt like I was in some movie where the camera was zooming in and out and going from slow to fast motion without stopping. I couldn’t even tell who else was alive.
I counted the hours I had left until my daughters would come home from school. Finally they did, Jenny with a bouquet of roses, Lucy with a box of chocolate, and Denise with a bag full of cards and candy.
Lucy handed me the box, a medium-sized red heart. “This is for you, Mom.” She set it in my lap. I brushed my hand over the embossed packaging and tore the plastic away.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I had a piece of chocolate?”
The girls nodded. “Since you bought the house.”
“What are you going to try first?” Lucy’s voice brought me back to myself. I glanced from her to the box and removed the lid.
“Which one would you recommend?”
Without hesitation, Denise stepped forward and pointed to a round light-colored truffle. So I picked it up and popped it in my mouth. I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time, something hard to describe, but the closest I could come would be happiness. It was fleeting, but it felt real. That feeling might never show up again.
I handed the girls the box, and they chose their morsels with consideration and thoughtfulness. They weighed their options and chose strategically, trying to maximize the flavors of chocolate that each person could taste. I watched as Denise took control, speaking to the principles of division and reason. “If there are twenty candies total and there are four of us, then we each get five. Mom and I don’t like white chocolate, so by default, Jenny and Lucy each get one of the white ones. That leaves nine milk and nine dark. But, Lucy, you don’t like dark, so the rest of your four are milk. There are five milk left and three people. Who likes milk just a little more than dark?”
As she talked, she lit up. Math was easy. She could use facts to reach a decision. She was the youngest, but she was masterful in her decision-making. The older girls deferred to Denise and chose their chocolates. Jenny ate hers slowly. She was always careful and delicate, like when she helped me write out lists, sitting next to me in bed. She pasted them up so that I could see them and remember things.
Lucy grabbed at the chocolates, stowing hers away. She had such drive and motivation. She wants to be a dancer and, tries to learn on her own—watching lessons on YouTube in the library after school, taking notes, and practicing on the makeshift barre she’d built out of aluminum cans and duct tape in the basement. My girls were so different from one another, but so familiar to me.
Jenny called me on my cell phone during my VA appointment. I could hear her sigh. “There’s a problem at home,” she said.
As I pulled the phone from my ear, I heard her add: “I love you.” I would have said it back, but it was too late, I was already pushing the button to end the call.
I drove up and down the mountain roads, through the budding oak, red maple, and cherry trees until I made it back home as the sun set. Our twisted gravel-paved driveway, sinister as the shadows fell, led to the house, which looked clean and stately on the outside, disguising the problems on the inside. I killed the engine and sat in the driver’s seat. “Come on, soldier. You can do this. You’ve been through so much, one more little thing won’t kill you. Let’s go, soldier! Hooah!” I was my own drill sergeant.
Before I got out of my car, I took one deep breath and let it out slowly. All of the lights downstairs shone brightly, but those upstairs were dark. Through the illuminated hallway and into the kitchen, I crept, listening for my daughters’ hushed whispers that quieted as I approached.
They all sat around the kitchen table. Denise looked from Lucy to Jenny as though she was the mastermind behind whatever plan they’d concocted. Lucy’s hands were folded in her lap, but I could hear her picking at her fingernails. Jenny wouldn’t look at me, her hands crossed over her chest.
“What is it?” I looked from daughter to daughter.
“See for yourself.” Jenny stood. She walked past me to the sink and turned it on.
Something yellowish sprayed everywhere, like an invisible thumb was pressing up against the spigot. It reached the ceiling, dripped over our cabinets, and the floor.
It hit me. The rotten egg sulfur stench. It came in through my nostrils and burned my eyes. Immediately, I was in Iraq, trying to push Maria’s patella back into her leg. Her skin turned white as each drop of blood hit the sand. That stench hit me, the chemicals in the IED smelled like gut rot and I teared up for the wrong reason. Maria cried. She babbled incoherently until I placed a finger across her lips. Then she cried and I just cradled her head and cried with her, shaky, ugly and harsh.
Then I was standing in the kitchen with the smell lingering in my nose and tears streaming down my face. My girls stared at me, frozen in time. They didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what to do next. The sobs came fast, faster than I was expecting and I sank to the floor. I didn’t have anyone to pray to, but the girls joined me on the floor. Denise grabbed my right arm; Lucy grabbed my left. Jenny came over. She sat down right in front of me and crossed her legs. She took each of her sister’s hands, forming a circle.
“Mom,” she said. Her voice was even and calming.
I nodded and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
They knew they deserved more, but loved me anyway. Lucy rested her head on my shoulder. Then, for what felt like hours, we sat together like that, in a circle on the kitchen floor and making plans for the future.
Kevin Finnerty received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Parting Gifts, Milk Sugar, Mobius and other publications. He lives in Minneapolis.
Rachelle Hates Wearing Clothes
Rachelle hates wearing clothes. She’s not what you would call a nudist. She doesn’t parade around naked in public. And, as far as I know, she’s never attended one of those camps where everyone sheds their clothes and lives in harmony for a week or longer. Rachelle simply removes her clothes most days as soon as she returns to our apartment.
Rachelle’s my friend and roommate, not my girlfriend. That’s her choice. I’d like us to be a couple. We’ve made out on a number of occasions. I’ve even touched her entire body from head to toe, though only on the outside. She’s never let me put anything inside of her. We’ve never even French kissed. But I should stay focused; this is Rachelle’s story.
I always know when Rachelle’s had a tough day. She’ll rid herself of her clothes immediately upon entering our apartment without even waiting to go to her bedroom. Sometimes she starts undressing in the hallway while simultaneously inserting her key into our lock.
Rachelle works as a hostess at one of the fancier restaurants in our city. She’s exceptionally pretty but not intimidatingly beautiful. Rachelle stands 5’7” with shoulder-length brown hair with red highlights. At work, she tends to wear skirts cut an inch or two above the knee and black hose. She leaves the top two buttons of her blouses undone. Restaurant patrons would never guess that she hates wearing the clothes that seem so right on her.
The restaurant’s owners pay Rachelle well to smile a lot while being helpful and pleasant. They recognize it’s not as easy as it might seem to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.
Rachelle started working at the restaurant two years ago, right after she graduated from college and we moved in together. We met four years earlier when she was a freshman and I was a senior and the T.A. for her spring introductory history class. We chatted a few times before I learned of her hatred of wearing clothes mid-semester.
She told me she couldn’t live in the dorms for another year. I suppose she expected I would have known why. It’s a little surprising that I didn’t. Hers wasn’t the sort of story not to spread, even in a large university like ours, where obscurity is still possible.
Maybe I was too focused on my studies then. Or too into what I was into in those days to the exclusion of everything else. I’m not that way anymore, but this isn’t my story.
It was hard for a while not to picture Rachelle naked after she told me. Most people, we know as only clothed, even though they all spend a considerable amount of time naked. They just don’t bring it to our attention.
Back then, Rachelle’s hair reached the top of her behind, and she rarely wore makeup. But what I remember most was she had the habit of opening her eyes and mouth wide—without ever saying anything—whenever anyone did something she couldn’t believe, such as propositioning her upon meeting her or telling her of their random, drunken sex experiences.
Rachelle was more innocent than good at the time, which is to say she was both, but her goodness appeared to be the product of her innocence. It never occurred to her to be bad, or to believe that others might want to do what she considered sinful, until she lived with and around those who thought nothing of fulfilling their needs and desires by exploiting others. Now she’s simply a good person.
Rachelle fought to conform during her year in the dorm. Aside from always sleeping naked, she only removed her clothes a few times a month, and only when she believed she had her room to herself. But college dormitories are no place for secrets. Too much activity 24/7. Someone eventually learned Rachelle’s habit, exposed her, and nothing was ever the same.
I’m quite sure Rachelle was still a virgin (in the sense of never allowing penetration) when she arrived on campus, but her dorm-mates soon labeled her a skank, a whore, puta. Just because she hated wearing clothes.
I felt sorry for Rachelle before I understood her. She wanted her own place so she wouldn’t have to live her life in a manner inconsistent with who she was, so I helped her move into my apartment at the end of May when I moved out. I hadn’t expected to need it any longer as I’d always intended to enroll in graduate school in another state in the fall, but life doesn’t always proceed according to plan. I ended up remaining in the area.
But this is Rachelle’s story, not mine.
I ran into her about six months later. Actually, Rachelle ran into me.
I had just left a meeting with the chair of the history department in which we’d discussed the possibility of my enrolling in graduate school the following fall when Rachelle zipped around a corner and plowed into me.
I didn’t recognize her at first. She wore a big down jacket, wool hat, scarf and ear muffs. She looked nothing like a person who hates wearing clothes, though she appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
“Sorry,” she said.
“What’s the rush?”
“Got to get home. Didn’t know you were still here.”
“It’s me underneath all this.”
She was practically bouncing. I presumed she was cold.
“What’s waiting for you at home?”
She looked at me through the small slit between her scarf and hat as if she expected me to remember. It took me a few seconds but I eventually did.
“Can I walk you there?”
“You can jog along if you want.”
We practically ran through the ice and snow until we reached her place, which had once been mine. The back of my throat burned from the cold air hitting it. I tried to think of how I could ask Rachelle if I could come inside without it sounding creepy.
Eventually, she grew impatient and kissed me on the cheek. “I got to go. Let’s get together some time.”
Over the course of many months, Rachelle and I met for coffee, then at campus events, then for drinks, and finally dinner. Well, pizza.
Our get-togethers always ended with our hugging and her giving me a peck on the cheek until the night when we shared pizza. As we stood outside the restaurant, she maintained a greater distance between the two of us than normal.
“If I asked you something would you not take it the wrong way?”
“What do you mean?”
“If I asked you to come over to my place?”
“Yeah, I know we’re friends.”
“And you know me.”
“So you’d be okay even if I ….”
Sometimes, a lot of times actually, when we were apart, I thought of Rachelle naked and took care of things. But by this point in time, when we were together, I didn’t. I saw her as her. Not naked Rachelle, nor clothed Rachelle. Just Rachelle. So her words took a few seconds to register.
“Oh no, no problem.”
“Yeah, you want me to…?”
“Keep your clothes on.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
I always kept my clothes on. For the next two years anyway. When Rachelle and I were really good friends but not roommates. Just as well anyway. In those days if I spent time with Rachelle at her place or mine and she was naked, it was impossible for me not to become excited. She probably could tell anyway, but it wasn’t as nearly as obvious as it would have been had I not been wearing pants.
We didn’t fool around back then. Rachelle seemed to be in a hurry to find a partner for life, so she dated a lot, though few of her coeds became boyfriends.
Many of the guys failed to recognize that her habit was not a sexual invitation. Some managed to control themselves when they first saw her naked but could not help but brag to their bros about the free-spirited girl they were dating. Others lasted longer but ended the relationship once they realized Rachelle’s nakedness was not the average woman’s nakedness: it was not only for them.
When Rachelle and I weren’t living together, the guy didn’t see it right away. But there always came the day when he’d come over to her place wearing a smile on his face until he saw Rachelle and I sitting together on the couch, me fully clothed and she buck naked. She’d get up and run over to him to give him a kiss but he’d stare directly at me like I should be ashamed of myself.
Rachelle told me she wanted us to live together after she graduated because her parents would no longer pay for her room and board. She claimed she needed a roommate and no one else would accept her. That may or may not have ben true, but Rachelle had to realize the effect her decision would have on her chance for other relationships.
The only guy she’s been close to since we’ve lived together ended it the first morning he emerged from the bathroom and saw Rachelle and I—me in boxers and she in the buff—at the kitchen table sipping coffee. He rubbed his eyes hard, certain they had to be deceiving him, but once he realized they were not, he gathered his clothes and left, never speaking another word to Rachelle.
I’m sure all of Rachelle’s guys imagined the worst happened when they weren’t around, when she and I were alone. But Rachelle’s never cheated on anyone. That’s not her. The times we’ve been physical we’ve both been single. And lonely, I suppose.
Maybe I should take Rachelle at her word and presume it was a pure economic decision to become roommates. Of course, I’d told Rachelle my story long before we moved in together. I had to. I told her shortly after she exposed herself completely to me in her apartment that first time. It only seemed appropriate to reciprocate.
I told her what had happened, why I hadn’t moved away after senior year as planned. Rachelle appeared stunned, and we went a little longer that usual without seeing one another afterwards. But once we did, she never mentioned it again, and I’m not going to now. Remember, this is Rachelle’s story.
Our two years together have gone by fast. Things happen when people live together. You see so much of one another, you can’t help but show your true self. No one can be false all the time. You either accept and deal, or you don’t and move on.
After we shared our place for about two months, Rachelle asked if I ever considered being naked at home.
“I don’t hate wearing clothes,” I told her.
I did and what I expected occurred. She pretended not to notice, and eventually things changed so I wasn’t aroused all the time.
Once that was the case, Rachelle suggested we kiss, touch and caress each other on occasion. For the most part, whenever she suggested it, we were very loving. When I did, the whole thing seemed more sexual. I’m not sure why except that I lack Rachelle’s purity. Sometimes I felt she took care of me out of pity. But maybe it was really just due to her goodness.
Last night was good. Great, actually. Rachelle came into my room when I was asleep and got into bed with me. When I awoke, I asked if something was wrong but through the darkness she put her finger on my lips.
We kissed and petted not unlike we had done in the past, and even though there still wasn’t any insertion or penetration, our acts seemed to be filled with greater passion. We grabbed each other and pulled one another closer, tighter. Then, for the first time, she slid down my chest and kissed, licked and flicked until I came.
I wanted to go down on her not just to reciprocate but to make her feel as fantastic as I felt, but she pulled me up and placed my hand on her sex instead. She guided it to show I was only to rub the outside. I did as instructed with as much love and affection as I was capable.
I’d heard Rachelle cum before. Behind closed doors. Both when alone and with someone. But it was different hearing her do so beside me, because of me.
We spent the night in each other’s arms.
She was already awake by the time I opened my eyes. We smiled at one another. Hers appeared a little forced. Or maybe she simply wasn’t beaming as I was.
I kissed her softly on the lips. She accepted it, waited a few seconds, then kissed me on the lips before getting out of bed.
I sat up, confused, and went to her room. She had put on sweat pants and was in the process of throwing an old tee shirt over her head.
I stood before her naked.
“Do we need to talk about last night?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“But I’m not ready for more. Not with you. Not yet. I’m sorry, I thought I was.”
I imagined it was because I wasn’t as tall or as built as her Ex-es. I feared it had to do with the size of my equipment. But I knew she only dated nice guys. Well-groomed, well-manned, decent young men.
Rachelle opened her eyes and mouth in the way I hadn’t seen in years. She softly placed her hand on my cheek. “You know why.”
“I feel bad.”
“Because you’ve always accepted me the way I am. Nobody else has. Not my parents, my sister, my friends, my Ex-es. Only you.”
I pulled her into an embrace and attempted to lift her shirt. She resisted for a second then allowed me to remove it. She got rid of the sweats herself.
I cupped one of her breasts with one hand and placed the other on her behind. She rolled her head into my chest. I felt tears sliding onto me.
She took me in her hand. More in a loving way than a sexual one. I began to grow.
“I want to be more like you. You’re better than me. I wish I could take in all of you the way you do me.”
I knew then. I’d known all along. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it.
I’d scared her with my story more than I’d realized. I don’t know if I can ever fully recover in her eyes. If I do, that will be my story. This one’s hers.
My friend Rachelle hates wearing clothes.
Leslie Santikian has an MFA in fiction from CSU, Fresno. Her work has appeared in the Santa Clara Review and San Joaquin Review. She lives in Fresno, where she teaches college composition and rhetoric and fiction in CSU, Fresno and Fresno City College.
An Old Fashioned Voice
I perform in a lounge in the Central Coast every Wednesday and weekend, a place constructed of wall-length windows that make it look like a transparent, breakable jewel box. Right now, I forget the words to a song. It’s old, from the 60s, and involves drinking brandy in the morning. I knew the words an hour ago. I rub a finger along the edge of Mike’s piano, and to make things extra hard on myself, try to remember what the brandy represents in the song—heartache? A way to stop sadness? I know the words to most songs by now, since my profession, last time I checked, is “singer.” I adjust the mike.
Outside these windows, the ocean churns, choked by clumps of seaweed and bright streaks of foam. If I look to the right, past eucalyptus and fragrant red dirt, I see the smoke that curls from the chimneys of the lounge’s adjoining hotel, the Highwoods Inn, where each room has a fireplace and logs to burn. A lot of couples honeymoon here. When I think about that, it reminds me that forgetting the words to a song isn’t the worse thing I could do. I could be married and stuck in a bedroom with someone when I really want to be alone.
Tonight, I’m not drunk, despite the fact that it’s Saturday and I’m sometimes drunk on Saturdays. Alcohol hasn’t yet sunk in, its sharp, clean scent wafting from my skin like an invisible fence, like a warning, similar to the way skunks use their smell to scare away predators. In other words, I look better than usual tonight. My hair, combed then curled with an iron, looks good. My dress with its strips of emerald fabric and sequins—a torn mermaid look—was like this when I bought it. Despite what Louis, the manager of the hotel and my boss, may think, I didn’t tear my dress while in a boozy rage before coming to work like I did with that white dress I loved last summer.
The smeared lipstick, though, is newer for me. It happened a few minutes ago, when I was making out in a bathroom stall with Jeff, a waiter seventeen years younger than my 41. We make out a lot: in the bathroom, in the kitchen when the cooks go home and turn off the lights. He plays the drums in a band and calls himself a musician, though I think he still has some growing to do. Jeff’s one of the few things in my life that’s both easy to start and easy to end. We made out for half an hour tonight, and then I walked out here, ready to “perform.” Ready to be on. I need a drink.
Mike catches me staring at the piano.
“About ready, Gabby?” he says, his voice amused. It tells me I don’t have a choice in my answer. His eyes are gentle, though. He’s always been good to me, Mike.
He’s been my piano player for a few years. We’ve been together so long—Gabby and Mike—that I know he checks his reflection in the mirror and smoothes his hair, still dark and thick despite his middle-aged years, before every performance. I like having him around because he doesn’t comment on my life, and talks music with me. A father figure, you could say, since my dad left and mom is dead. She’s been dead 10 months ago today. Pancreatic cancer. I remember the last time I held her hand in the hospice. It was as if her bones were strung together with air instead of skin, hollow like a bird’s.
“Yeah, I’m ready.” I do a little flourish with my hand, as if I were saying “ta-da” in a magic show. “Warm up the keys.”
Mike laughs. “Sure, kid.” He knows I’m good, even if I can’t remember the brandy song words right now. I’m a soprano, know all the good big band songs old people, or young ones who romanticize the past, like. I sing about moonlight or stardust, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” I know all the good songs. What I don’t always know is how sober I’ll be, but I’m working on it.
Despite what people—Mike, Jeff— try to make me believe, it’s not a simple thing to be an alcoholic. It’s not easy. I used to think I was a social drinker, before I got smart and accepted the truth. Two bottles of wine with dinner when I’m eating alone. Gin or vodka with tonic, scotch on the rocks in one of my mom’s aluminum cups from the 30s. Amaretto or sambuca when I want to pretend that alcohol isn’t a drug but a dessert, something I could drink with friends late into the night. This assumes I have people like this in my life, which I don’t. Just Mike and Jeff. And the audience. Songs aren’t people, though, and nothing new happens when I sing them.
With me, it’s the same information. Sometimes, I sit up in bed and all I want to do is carve open my chest and pour some alcohol inside. It’s humiliating, being so weak.
Talking and laughing, the sound of heels on the floors and booze being poured, hums all around me. It’s deafening.
I look at the clock: 8 p.m. Time to start. I want a gin and tonic to ease my throat into singing, but Mike’s watching. He’s been harder on me these past few months since I’ve stopped rehab. I’ll take a sip here and there, especially if someone cocky and handsome in the audience buys, but nothing serious. I need a paycheck to make rent, buy groceries. It’s not like Mom can give me money anymore.
Mike nods to me, his fingers hovering over the keys.
“Well hello, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the crowd. I force my voice to sound husky—the opposite of frustrated.
I still can’t remember the words. In my head, I panic. My body feels sluggish.
Forget the brandy song, I tell myself. I’ll just start with something else.
I adjust the mike until it’s even with my mouth. Tonight’s crowd is a mixture of newly-wed or engaged couples (the Highwoods Inn boasts a reputation for elegant weddings and receptions); old patrons with old money to spend, a few out-of-town travelers, some of them families.
One of those families sits a few feet from me, and all of them have the glazed look of people used to getting what they want: a mom and dad, three girls of different ages. Two of the girls have a cocktail in front of them—a French Peach Bellini; a Kiwi Lemon-Drop, rimmed with sugar—so I assume they’re 21 or older. Still, I could be wrong. Most of the people who come here have money and are returning clientele, so the lounge doesn’t deny them, or their offspring, anything. Same for spouses, partners, etc.
The third girl with a cocktail holds a wine glass with either water or vodka, and crushed ice. Condensation runs down the sides, drips onto her dress like weak rain, leaving splotches.
“I’d like to begin with a love song,” I say. “It’s called ‘Time after Time’.”
As I sing, grasping the gangly body of my mike, I look towards the back of the room and see Jeff lowering a platter of buttermilk-batter calamari onto a table where three pristine old women sit, glasses in their hands. He’s wearing his black pants and pressed white shirt that creases in all the right places. His hair looks shorter; neat, clean. Did I tell him that I like men with short hair? I might have said something last week, when he was clearing dishes from tables and everyone was gone, and I leaned close to his ear and whispered “Hi.”
The song’s finished. People clap. I say the requisite couple of words—“Thank you”—and start another song, this one about being on a train and missing someone. It’s a tear-jerker with the right crowd, especially for those who’ve seen combat.
A couple sits close to each other in the front, near enough to throw things if they wanted to. Newlyweds—I’m sure of it. Their faces have the same dumb look, and they hold hands like they’ll evaporate if either one of them lets go. I smile at them so they don’t think it’s odd that I’m staring while I’m singing, and they smile back. Then I notice that the guy is no longer listening to me.
Instead, he rubs his nose against his wife’s neck, rubbing his lips all over the soft place behind her ear. The wife looks like she wants both their clothes gone and the varnished wood and glass and light from this room to melt into a bed, sheets, moonlight, darkness. I want a gin and tonic so much that I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next song.
I tell the audience I’m taking a break. The husband lifts his face long enough from his wife’s neck to call me over. My emerald dress sashays a little, but my body’s buzzing and uncomfortable. I don’t want to deal with this “please the customer” thing now. When do I ever want to deal with a “please the customer” thing?
“You were so great,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. Not a bad looking man, kind of like a young William Shatner with darker skin. Muscles, too. I can tell.
“Oh yeah,” says his wife. “I really love these old songs.” I nod. She looks a good ten years younger than me, with one of those blonde bobs that almost no one can pull off, including her.
“Thanks so much” I say, my smile stretched tight. Their compliments and clean, grateful faces kill me. Customer kindness, even when sincere, is always patronizing. Thanks for wowing us with your old-fashioned voice! Thanks for being our night’s entertainment! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to applaud or not depending on our mood, thereby reasserting our power over your self-worth! My body’s buzzing again.
“So, when did you guys get married?” I say. I can feel Mike watching me, shaking his head in amusement at my attempt to be civil with this couple.
“Two days ago,” says the wife. She’s beaming. “Or, should I say, two nights ago?” She laughs low, and eases her hand into the crook of her husband’s arm. “We got married at night.”
“Aw.” I want to mean it. I do. Or not.
“Hello again. Would either of you like more champagne?” Jeff’s next to me, holding both his hands behind his back and standing straight. His voice is a wonderful tenor, a smooth, warm sound. He’s trying to act like the perfect waiter to make me laugh. I smile down at the floor, holding it in.
The couple says yes, and Jeff goes to the bar to get it. I have ten minutes left of my break, so I follow him.
“Well, that was nice,” I say.
“Better than you were.” He grins, leaning against the bar cut out of one giant redwood. He’s waiting for Tony, the bartender, to open a fresh bottle of champagne—the stuff with the nice label that slides down like water, too good to give you a hangover. “Even I could tell you didn’t want to talk to them.” He touches my waist with his hand, his touch so light that if I close my eyes, I almost wouldn’t believe I was feeling anything.
“How do you know? Maybe I did.”
I shrug, tucking a curl behind my ear. “Not really.”
“Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.” His eyes are bluish-green, like seaglass. They make me want to look at him more than I already do.
“No, I’m fine. Just tired I think.” I smooth my dress with my hands while Jeff watches, even though the fabric is wrinkled on purpose. It’s the look.
Jeff grabs the two glasses of fresh champagne and places them on his tray. “Well, just keep it real up there. Maybe we can do something after.” He runs his fingers down my waist to my thigh, touching it with his fingers before breaking away. The heat from his hand disappears instantly. “You know, I didn’t want to talk to them either. But it’s my job.” He sounds playful, but the implication pisses me off.
“Right.” My throat feels dry, like cracked earth. I ask Tony for a glass of water, and drink it in four swallows. I wipe my mouth, and gesture to the warm golden champagne in two crystal flutes, which Tony poured and put on Jeff’s tray. “Hey, sneak me a glass of that.”
He looks at me, then laughs, as if anything I just said surprised him. “Right, Gabby. I’ll give you champagne.”
“That’s the spirit,” I say. I sound like the woman in her 40s that I am. Like I’ve seen it all.
I walk back to the piano and the rest of the show.
The first time Jeff and I made out, we were in a stall. That’s the clearest memory I have. Arms, lips, and the small, confined space that felt oddly comforting.
He sat on the toilet in his waiter’s uniform while I straddled him in a black dress with diaphanous see-through sleeves. We’d locked the ladies room door so no one, not even the older women with their heavy perfume and propriety, would come in.
It was my first week working in lounge—about eight months ago, a time when I still wanted to give up drinking and rehab was an option.
He kissed my collarbone. I grabbed his hair as my legs clenched around him.
Part of me wanted to push him back, away from me, that I remember; but I needed something for the feeling that I was disappearing. That numbing feeling, the not drinking-cold. It was as if everything tangible about me—skin, bone, muscle, hair—was evaporating into a fine mist over my head. I’d only been sober a month.
Jeff kept my body there. He kept me in my skin.
I moved his face up from my chest and kissed him, my hands clutched around his face. Towards the end, I wanted to cry. The kisses weren’t working, and I knew what would.
My performance ends. The last song—“Moon River”—finished, I take a bow and let the applause surround me. It doesn’t come in a tide like it would in the movies, but at least there’s enough that I can feel it vibrate the air.
Mom used to love “Moon River.” It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s fault. Mom was a romantic. She owned a used bookstore in Mountain View that she started with my dad, which she kept for 20 years after he left her. She watched Travel Channel, then planned trips for us to places like Tokyo and Croatia. She went antique shopping one day, and came back with a locket that had someone’s hair in it. She even wore the thing.
Sometimes when I drink, it’s like I’m telling her I’m trying to care about the world again. She’s dead and I’m still telling her things in my head.
I can’t start crying now.
Jeff walks by, so I grab his arm. Some patrons look at me.
“Hey,” I say. Under my eyes, my eyeliner feathers to the edge of my dark circles. I know what my liner does after a night of singing.
“Hey,” he says. I swallow.
“So we should—after we’re done here tonight. Do something.”
He looks at me like he did before, when I wanted the champagne: like he understands some, but not all, of the words I’m speaking and has to translate it all in his head before answering. Like he’s afraid of getting it wrong. “Uh, sure. Sounds good to me.”
“We can go out, find a place.” I lean closer. “We can be even more alone than we are right now.”
He thinks I’m crazy, but I know what I’m saying. I leave him to the audience, then walk to the bar, where I ask Tony to pour me a gin and tonic. I fight to keep the brokenness out of my voice. A strained voice needs lubricant, so I’m getting it. Tony doesn’t need to know about strain: he can just take my money. I have twenties in my clutch.
“You’re sure?” asks Tony.
I get the drink into my hands and sip, and a lushness falls over me. My skin feels extra smooth, like velvet.
“I’ve widened my repertoire, did you notice?” I say. My lips are rubber and can say anything. “Gershwin and Porter, Mancini.”
“That’s some good stuff. I was getting tired of the older tunes.”
I finish my drink then ask for another.
“Wait a bit, sweetheart. You know. Give it time.”
I slide a twenty on the counter, and my cheeks hot. It feels so good to have someone call me sweetheart that I fight the urge to cry all over again.
I want to grab the bottle from Tony’s hands and run in my stupid heels to the bathroom—no Jeff to kiss, no bodies or mess. Now I’m crying for real, and Tony freezes, not knowing what to do.
Mom called me sweetheart, at a time when my hair still curled on its own. I remember her taking me to Golden Gate Park for my fifth birthday, when she bought me a soft pretzel and let me ride the merry go round horse with rusted knobs of gold on its bridle. A band played in the park that day, and I sat in her lap on the grass, listening to drums and voices and trumpets, watching the people dressed in red and white stripes like candy. She called me sweetheart then. Be careful, sweetheart, walking with me to the playground. Riding down the slide’s hot metal. Getting ice cream. Ten months, and I still can’t let her be gone.
I’m having trouble breathing. “Oh God,” I say. Voices swirl around me—people talking to other people, glasses being clinked. I couldn’t care less if they exist or not. I reach into my clutch, dig another twenty from inside. “Tony, come on. I’m paying you double.” He hesitates, but eventually starts pouring, like I knew he would. Jeff’s probably behind me somewhere, watching my glamorous torch singer meltdown, the tray shaking in his hands.
Tony slides my gin and tonic to me without a sound.
I down this one, too. My fingertips melt into the wood.
“I need to tell Mike something,” I say, talking to no one in particular. I meant to say Jeff, but the names of the men in my life—father figure, fling—get jumbled. I don’t even know what I want to tell Jeff. But I need to talk while I’m drinking. I need to talk to someone and not be alone.
Jeff’s in the kitchen, I guess, because when I turn around, I don’t see him. I don’t feel lush anymore, or strong, or whatever I thought drinking would make me feel. My liner’s everywhere, streaked down my cheeks.
“Stay calm,” I say to myself. “Be cool.”
I fall onto a bar stool, but don’t quite make it. My body hits the ground, hard. I’m on my back.
I don’t care who sees me. Look at this, audience.
Ten months ago. Mom in the ground, a cold dead body. Mom, in the ground. It hurts too much to breathe.
I need to stay calm, so I picture all my bottles at home, pretty in their cart. I think of what I’ll do with them while playing some blues, and the thought overwhelms me. I want the idea of going home to be like Christmas morning, so I focus on the bottles. Christmas without candy or lights strung along the house, winking through trees. Christmas alone, the opposite of Christmas when I was little. Mom not there to make me go to bed early, making me wait for the good things I stayed up all night for.
Migara de Silva is a 25 year-old Barrister, educated in London but currently living in Sri Lanka, who dreams of living in Manhattan to write. She is in the process of trying to get her first novel published. Her interests include but are not limited to Manchester United, Louis de Berneires, the Rolling Stones, and being generally unencumbered. This is her first publication.
There was a fence and it separated two lands. “Good fences make good neighbors”. I never understood that. There were two trees that grew on either side of the fence. They were the exact same tree except they were different trees. There was a house on either side of the fence. Sidath lived on one side and Maya lived on the other. They loved each other with a fire red. In short they were in love. They were at that place where everything is sexual and everything is a temporary madness. There were endless hoards of “I love you’s,” sighs like furnaces and pledges of death if the other should ever leave.
Then Sidath had to leave for a year to make his fortune. The goodbye was tender and the passion was intense like the sun. Off he went and Maya felt a pleasure in the amount of tears she cried. She was in love with him. She cried all day. And the next day. But the day after that she went back to trying to look pretty. “One must always look pretty while one is” she would say. She was as beautiful as the day is long, her limbs, also as long as the day is long glistened in the hot tropical sun. She did not want to be robbed of her youth.
She had many admirers. At first she wouldn’t even allow them to talk to her, she was in love. But eventually she yearned for compliments and breathlessness. So allowed them to visit her and bring her gifts. She never had the slightest intention of leaving Sidath for any of them, but what she thought of herself depended only on what everyone else thought. She needed to feel beautiful. It wasn’t enough to be beautiful. It never is. The men brought gifts and rumors of Sidath’s sexual escapades. Gradually they got to Maya. Even her best friends were talking about it. The village was alight with gossip. Her parents muttered in corners.
A year passed. Maya fell out of love. She married the richest man in the town. Sidath was unfortunate enough to come back on their wedding day. He moved into the house in which he had lived before he left. Maya’s house was demolished and replaced by a concrete monstrosity. The only thing that remained tying that land to the earth was that tree.
The years passed like flowing water. Sidath never married. Maya hated that tree. It reminded her of Sidath. She did not want to think of him. He slept with whores and he never denied it. But she also never asked him. They hadn’t spoken in 50 years even though the lived next to each other. “Good fences make good neighbors” and Maya’s husband had erected the best fence.
Maya could no longer bear the sight of that tree. While her husband was at the brothel she asked the servant boy to cut it down. It took him the best part of five hours to do it. The tree cried and screamed and then fell and splintered. The whole ground shook. As Maya’s tree fell so did Sidath’s. She looked up towards his house to see him standing on his doorstep, tears in his eyes. Maya’s heart broke.
“You were in love with me. Being in love is something any fool can do. As the saying goes, love is what is left when being in love has burnt away. You were in love with me but I love you. To me it was inconceivable that we should part and that’s why I never moved. Our roots, like these trees have become too entwined. There is no one without the other. It seems like you have discovered too late, what I always knew. This was one tree and not two.”
Robert Joe Stout’s books include The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, “a rich chorus of voices, which produce not a song but an energetic discussion and argument about the soul of Mexico,” according to Publishers’ Weekly; Why Immigrants Come to America, the novels Miss Sally and Running Out the Hurt, and the poetry volume A Perfect Pitch. A graduate of Mexico City College (now the Universidad de las Americas) he has won national journalism awards for spot news writing and his fiction and poetry have been anthologized in a variety of publications, including New Southern Poets and Southwest.
A Big and Wonderful Now
That Alison went alone to the women’s health center and told Yoshio afterwards shoved something unwanted into their relationship. Not that the relationship was clearly defined: Neither he nor she had given it a name or described themselves as belonging to it. Something sparked between them when they were introduced by a mutual friend and they made excuses to see each other afterwards. Yoshio went to hear her sing with a little jazz group entertaining in a hangout near the university campus; she made a point to be near the finish line when he completed the lake-to-lake half-marathon a week later. Conversations led to a dinner date and the dinner date to a night—and many nights afterwards—in her little north Austin rental. They became an “item,” happily involved in each other’s presence. Then despite their precautions, Alison missed her period. The visit to the women’s health center confirmed that she was pregnant.
And not for the first time. Alison’s daughter Lisa was eleven; Yoshio’s seven-year-old son lived in San Antonio with his ex-wife. He and Alison talked about their kids but not about a kid-to-be. That is until Alison, in her flat Midwestern way, confirmed, “Well the news is yes, I’m pregnant.”
Yoshio responded, slowly, by embracing her and received a cold and rather rigid response.
“So, what do we do?”
We. A term they used frequently in conjunction with meals, weekend trips, dancing. This was different. “So what do we do?” Alison repeated and Yoshio, instinctively, “What do you want to do?”
“Me? So it’s up to me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You sure as shit did.”
Invariably that’s how their arguments began. And invariably Yoshio, the serious one, professional, security coordinator for the city of Austin’s government employees, reframed whatever they were arguing about to give Alison space to win small victories or gracefully give in. But having a baby—or getting an abortion—wasn’t about small victories and graciously giving in. Either way it was a life-changing event, one that could have disastrous consequences for their undefined relationship.
Yoshio didn’t like disastrous consequences—he’d seen too many of them—so he cajoled, “I asked because ultimately you have the right to choose. It’s your body—”
“That’s a cop out.”
“No. I want to be part of the decision. But I want to make sure that what we decide is best for you.”
“What if there’s no ‘best’?”
“In any situation there are better choices and choices not so good. We didn’t expect this but we have to deal with it. Decide—”
“Don’t lecture me! I’m not seventeen!”
“So what do we do?”
The retort flashing across Alison’s broad features made her recognize that he was repeating her phrase. Jerk! The word, mouthed but not audible, culminated in a snort of laughter. Head averted she groped for his embrace.
“We could go make love. I sure as hell can’t get more pregnant than I already am.”
Yoshio knew he had to be careful. Alison was the best thing that had happened to him since the initial months of his first marriage and he didn’t want to make a mistake. He knew it always was possible to make a mistake but he hated mistakes made out of stupidity, lack of investigation, lack of honesty.
Alison, instinctive, flippant, spontaneous and sometimes irrational, had retreated into exaggerated bluster to cover her evasions but hormonal changes already taking effect made her edgy, cross, inappropriately exuberant. Carefully Yoshio listed points he needed to make and noted them in his pocket agenda. Sunday’s was:
“It’s time to tell Lisa.”
“Tell her what?”
“That you’re pregnant.”
“That we don’t know what to do about it?”
“That we’re trying to decide and want her input.”
“It might help.”
“Shit!” But with a you’re probably right sigh. “I’ll—we’ll,” she amended, “do it.”
Without looking up from her cell phone, “So you decided to tell me,” Lisa winced in her pre-teen that’s-all-we’re-having-for-dinner worldliness.
“It was that obvious?”
“Either that or the two of you were planning to assassinate Obama.”
Yoshio laughed. Alison cursed. Then grimaced, “So how many others know?”
None of them had that answer.
Next on Yoshio’s agenda was consulting a marriage and family therapist.
“So she can tell us what to do?”
“It’s a way of processing. A third party asking questions, sifting answers that we’re stumbling over.”
“I’m stumbling over,” Alison corrected but admitted she was a tumble of doubts, wishes and fear and agreed to a consultation.
The therapist, a pudgy fiftyish pipe smoker with an affable countenance but grumpy voice: “You’ve talked about it with each other? And these conversations? Can you describe them?”
They could and couldn’t. And they could and couldn’t articulate how either decision would affect them. Yoshio, carefully, explained that his main concern was for Alison, what either decision would mean to her.
“How can I know? There’s too many if’s! Twenty more years as a single mother?”
“We’d be togeth—”
“What if you leave me? What if he’s ugly? What if—?”
She stopped abruptly. “Well,” she turned to face Yoshio. “Japanese-Norwegian?”
“She could be devastatingly beautiful,” he replied.
Not that the decision was airtight. Alison fretted; Yoshio gritted his teeth. The future that for years had been short-term stretched towards eternity. “It’s not what either of us imagined,” he confided and Alison hiccupped, “What did we imagine?” When he didn’t answer, “Making love again tomorrow”—that and only that. A big and wonderful now! Now the present was a mere particle, incidental. Everything was future, exaggerated as the end of the first trimester passed and the decision became irrevocable. “Don’t expect me to babysit!” Lisa warned. Then, “It’ll be nice to have something besides stupid adults around the house.”
The house. They would need something larger than Alison’s little rental. A three-bedroom apartment. Yoshio calculated its impact. Despite a good salary and job security he’d be paying child support for ten more years. Travel, restaurant meals, spontaneous gifts would diminish. Alison fretted and pulled away. Arguments flared. Finally after cabernet sauvignon on lawn chairs in the little backyard, “You’re about to leave me, aren’t you?” Alison pouted.
“No, I want to be with you. For a long time.” Although it was two weeks before the date he’d marked on his agenda, “There’s something we need to talk about. Consider.”
Her what? was a mere whisper.
“What?” voice running up scales to a high b-flat.
“I want you to marry me.”
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Inward gasps directed to herself not him. “Yos-Yoshi…” she spluttered, “I, I, but—” Her toe caught the leg of the lawn chair as she lunged to her feet and she stumbled, the wine from her glass gushing across Yoshio’s face. “No!” she wailed, lips twisted downwards and tears filling her eyes. “I, I, I…” Yoshio, laughing, daubed his cheeks, wiped his glasses and beckoned for her embrace. She stumbled into his grasp, spluttered coughing interrupting her attempt to laugh. Head against his neck she wiped her tears on the short sleeve of her dark cotton blouse and panted, “Okay, okay, Iloveyou, yes, but jesus it’s, I mean, so frigging much, a baby, marriage, I never—I mean, it’s, it’s—”
“Scary,” he finished for her.
“Shit yes. Yoshi, I don’t, see, we—we’re not talking tomorrow, next week, this is long-term stuff, I can’t even pict—”
“Maybe the therapist?”
“Shit! He’s not involved! This is me, you, the rest of our lives!”
Yoshio nodded. He’d already calculated the odds: Marriage gave a sort of stability—fragile perhaps, disruptive perhaps, but identity, a base. Remaining single with two kids to support: Intolerable. And detrimental to a career: Divorce and child support is one thing, divorce and support for two from different mothers indicated emotional instability. Emotionally unstable Yoshio was not.
“Besides there’s Lisa!”
“I could be a good fath—.”
“Yeah but she—!”
“We should ask her.”
Ohshit! He heard under her breath. And I haven’t said yes for Christ’s sake! But she assented—because, he knew, she’d put consideration for Lisa on the table and couldn’t back down.
Thumb running images across her cell phone screen Lisa listened to her mother’s abrupt and he’s talking I mean, wants us to get married… and shrugged.
“Should be better’n you going it alone.”
“Could you stand me as a father?” Yoshio interrupted what he could see was going to be Alison’s retaliatory thrust.
Thumb still moving, “Could be worse,” Lisa shrugged. Then, peering directly at Yoshi, “I just hope I do so well when it comes to having a man.” A quick glance at Alison, then back to the cell phone, “And if I do, unlike my mom, I’m going to realize how frigging lucky I am.”
She slammed the cell phone cover closed.
“Now any idea which of you is fixing supper? I’m hungry.”
“We’re ordering pizza,” Yoshio confirmed. “And maybe champagne for three.”
Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His fiction can be seen in Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, and The Tulane Review.
The Lost Ones
“There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you,” Doctor Johnson said, looking up from his charts. “Medically speaking, you should be able to have a child.”
Emily was hoping this doctor, this expert, would be able to offer her some news about her condition. She had gotten used to the words seem and should. They were terrible words that offered no comfort because they came with no cure. No matter what the tests said, Emily knew, as any woman would, that three miscarriages don’t just happen. The situation wasn’t just unfortunate; it was scary. And without a definitive medical reason, her miscarriages were terrifying. Statements like: this is just one of those things, or the bad end of statistics didn’t give Emily any consolation. Neither did Dr. Johnson’s assurances that Emily was as capable of having a child as anyone else. She was a completely healthy twenty-nine-year-old woman with many child-rearing years left in her.
After the appointment Emily met her mother for lunch.
“Did he say anything different?” Emily’s mother, Lauren, asked after hearing about the appointment. “Anything helpful?”
“Not really. He said it’s a good sign that I’m able to get pregnant and that I should keep taking the fertility pills Dr. Kumar prescribed.”
Lauren shook her head. “This is just awful what they put you through. Just awful.”
“All we can do is keep trying,” Emily said, lifting her glass of water.
“What does Tom think?”
“About what?” Emily asked. She was looking around the restaurant more than she was looking at her mother.
“Did you tell him what this doctor said?”
“No,” Emily admitted, “he doesn’t know about this appointment.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” Lauren said, with an all-too-motherly furrowed brow, “You shouldn’t sneak off to a doctor without telling Tom.”
“I know. He’s just not much for second opinions, much less fourth.”
“Still, you should tell him. He is your husband.”
“I’ll tell him tonight,” Emily said.
The first pregnancy had been Emily’s longest. It lasted about ten weeks, long enough that she could feel the baby kick, or at least Emily thought she felt the baby kick. It was just as likely some indigestion mixed with wishful thinking. Emily and her mother had started planning the nursery. It was going to be a gender-neutral yellow color with teddy bear wallpaper. Emily, who taught second grade, was determined to finish the room before her summer break was over. She spent a week priming and painting the room with her mother, and another week cutting out and pasting the teddy bears along the wall. The room was golden yellow and when the windows were open light bounced around, giving the eyes of the teddy bears actual life.
The Friday they finished they went to the mall for a celebratory lunch, both looking and not looking at baby items. They ended up buying a mahogany rocking chair with a soft white cushion. The chair had flat legs instead of round ones and swung more than rocked. Emily felt it was a good reading chair. She planned to start reading to the child in utero. And since the chair came with free delivery, it seemed the perfect deal. It arrived the same day it was purchased and Emily was set up and reading by the time Tom came home.
“Wow,” Tom said at the doorway.
“What?” Emily said.
“You look like a real mother.”
Emily gave a playful frown.
Tom kissed her, first on the forehead then the stomach. “You look beautiful.”
“So you like the chair.”
“Good, cause it’s non-refundable.”
Emily listed the things she had seen that day. She particularly liked a stroller that could fold into quarters. It was only twenty pounds but very stable. She also thought the crib should be placed away from the window, so the sun wouldn’t bother the baby in the morning, and the changing table could go near the door and the rocker in its current spot because it seemed the focal point of the room. Emily talked so fast that there was hardly a space between the words for Tom to agree or disagree. He just smiled and took in Emily’s excitement.
“So what do you think?” Emily offered at the end.
“I think you might not need me at all. You and your mother have this whole thing worked out.”
“Well, you helped,” Emily said, patting her still flat belly. “A rather enjoyable help at that.”
“Is there anything else you wanted to do before you go back to work?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I was just thinking,” Tom was rubbing Emily’s shoulders as he talked, “maybe we could take a few days, just for ourselves at that cottage at Castle Lake. We might not be able to get a real vacation next year with the baby.” Tom was now kissing Emily’s neck between words, “How’s that sound? A couple of days, just us?”
The night of Emily’s fourth opinion, Tom came home around eight. Emily had left him a pork chop and green beans on the kitchen counter with the note, “went for a jog.” Tom was watching TV and napping when Emily came back and didn’t hear her until she started drying her hair with the electric blower.
“Did I wake you?” she asked, when Tom sat up.
“No, I was up.”
Emily was combing her brown shoulder-length hair.
“I like Patricia if it’s a girl and James for a boy,” Emily said.
“I thought we liked Andrew and Julie,” Tom responded.
“That was for the last baby.”
Tom got up and took off his dress shirt and pants, hanging the pants neatly in the closet.
“So,” Emily asked in a slightly high-pitched voice.
“Do you like the names?”
“I don’t know why we have to pick new names—I like Julie, Jules for short.”
“We can’t use that name.”
“But we never told anyone. No one will know.”
“I’ll know,” Emily said, putting her brush down.
Tom went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he came back he said, “Why don’t we just wait until we get pregnant before picking out names?”
“Okay,” she said, “but they have to be new names.”
Tom agreed to this condition and apologized. It was easier than fighting. And he supposed Trish was as cute as Jules. He kissed his wife. And remembered how he used to pick fights with her when he was in law school just for the chance to make up with her later. Back then she bought underwear at Victoria’s Secret, surfing the online catalog late into the night. He hadn’t seen a colored bra in what seemed like years. It was just standard white Hanes these days. He caressed his wife, first on the stomach but then moved upwards.
“I’m not ovulating,” Emily said without moving. Tom stopped his playful advances and rolled to his right. They were back to back, separated by a foot of clean white sheets. “Next week,” Emily whispered.
Tom could remember a time before babies when sex was fun. When his wife coming out of the shower was a call to action, when she’d slowly remove her towel and perform a small dance before ripping off his clothes in passion. He remembered a time when waiting five minutes was excruciating, and if they touched each other’s hand at dinner, they’d race to the bedroom. He remembered sex that was full of moans and looks of ecstasy, a feeling of connection with his wife that was now easily postponed with the words “next week.” This of course was only a promise of intercourse, not passion, not sex. After the act, they didn’t kiss or hold each another anymore; they didn’t even talk. Emily would immediately move into some yoga position that supposedly helped conception, often chanting herself into a trance that would remove bad energy from her body. At this point Tom would be unneeded, and he’d retreat to the basement.
“Did you tell your parents, yet?” Emily asked.
“Tell them what?”
“About the miscarriage.”
“They didn’t know we were pregnant.” Tom didn’t turn his head from the road; he didn’t need to turn to feel his wife’s glare. It was their fifth miscarriage, and Tom had decided to stop talking about the pregnancies until they got to the second trimester. This pregnancy, Baby Susan, because Emily was sure it would be a girl, had only lasted three weeks from the positive pregnancy test to the pains that sent Emily to the bathroom.
“I just didn’t want to tell them in case this happened again,” Tom finally said, still feeling his wife’s glare.
“Whatever’s easier for you,” Emily said.
They drove in silence the rest of the way. When he pulled up to the church, he asked Emily if she was sure she wanted to come.
“She’s my niece too,” Emily said.
“I just wasn’t sure if you. . . I can make an excuse if you don’t want to see everyone.”
“I’m fine,” Emily said with a plastic smile.
They walked together to the church, but separated once inside, as Tom, the godfather-to-be, was needed in the annex.
After the priest gave some brief instructions Erin, Tom’s sister-in-law, offered Tom the baby to hold. Lily’s eyes opened wider when passed to Tom and she gave a soft coo that made Tom smile in a sad clown sort of way. His eyes were glossy, not quite wet but full of wanting. Tom pulled Lily a little closer, feeling each light exhale against his lap.
“You and Emily have any luck?” Tom’s brother, Jim, asked.
Erin shot him a look.
“You don’t ask such things,” Erin said.
“He’s my brother,” Jim said.
“It’s not polite,” Erin replied.
“We lost another one,” Tom said, letting Lily grab his finger.
“I’m sorry, Tom,” Erin said, putting her arm around his shoulder.
“Three days ago. We weren’t going to tell anyone.”
“Is Emily doing okay?” Erin asked. “If you guys don’t feel up to . . .”
“I told her she could stay home. But she wanted to come.”
“I feel terrible,” Jim interrupted, “Lily was an accident. And you. . . ”
“She wasn’t an accident,” Erin said, “She was a surprise.”
“I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense that they’re trying to have a kid and can’t and we’re not trying and have one.”
“Don’t say it like that,” Erin said.
“I feel bad, is all. It’s like we took his kid.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tom said, “one has nothing to do with the other. We’re just unlucky.” Tom pulled Lily into a hug against his chest. “But for the sake of my wife, let’s try not to let anyone bring it up at the party.”
“Honey,” Tom said, coming back to the living room, “did you move my stuff?”
There was no reply, so Tom went to the kitchen. “I had some adoption pamphlets from this guy at work. Did you see them?”
Emily looked at the kitchen trashcan.
“I go to the bathroom and you throw out my papers?” Tom asked.
“I’m just not ready to give up yet.”
Emily turned her attention to the onions, cutting them in loud thuds.
“It’s not giving up. It’s just looking at options.”
“That’s not an option,” Emily said, still focused on cutting vegetables.
“Well, it’s like a three year process, so I thought we should at least look into it now. I thought you wanted more than one child.’
“I’m not ready to raise someone else’s baby.”
“It would be our baby.”
“Do we have to do this tonight?”
Tom stopped talking and poked his head over the trashcan. He saw the pamphlets at the top, but knew better than to fish them out. Instead, he returned to the living room couch and flipped through the channels, never settling on a show to watch. Emily’s cutting continued for about ten minutes, until she went to bed without cooking anything or saying goodnight.
It was at Castle Lake that Emily had lost the first baby, Justin for a boy, Nancy for a girl. She had had bad cramps for hours before saying anything to Tom. The nearest hospital was a two-hour drive, and Emily was screaming as Tom drove. About twenty minutes before they got to the hospital a calm feeling came over Emily, some type of relief. Tom didn’t ask if she felt better or not and didn’t point to the blood that was seeping through her sweatpants.
When the doctor reported the baby was lost, that there was nothing anyone could have done, Emily slapped Tom across the face. “Why did we leave home? This wouldn’t have happened at home.” Then she turned into her pillow and cried. Tom’s own body had gone numb with the news; he reached out to touch her shoulder but Emily pulled away. For a few minutes he tried to think of something to say, something comforting, but the words never came. He finally sank into a chair and watched as Emily emptied herself through tears.
Emily was discharged from the hospital, and they went back to the cabin to collect their luggage. It was a quiet ride with neither music nor conversation, just the sound of the engine. There was a small blood spot on the passenger’s seat that forced Emily to sit in the back. She stared out the window as they drove. The trees were still green, and the sunlight of the day made everything look alive and feel terrible.
Within a week Tom would sell the car rather than clean it. But for now they had to avoid the spot. About an hour down the road Emily put her head next to Tom’s headrest.
“I’m sorry for what I said at the hospital.” Emily’s voice was soft, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”
Tom gave her a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll get pregnant again soon.”
They didn’t say much after that, but the car ride didn’t feel as eerie. For a while Tom even put his right hand between the seats so he could hold Emily’s hand as he drove. That was enough to make him think things would be all right.
“This calls for a celebration,” Lauren said upon hearing of her daughter’s pregnancy. “I’ve been waiting three years for this.”
Tom smiled at his mother-in-law as she got the champagne glasses from the top cabinet. She had been asking for grandkids since she first heard that Tom had proposed and now the promise of their arrival gave Lauren a pregnancy glow all her own.
“I was so worried about you guys. Three years.”
“Well, we weren’t exactly trying all this time,” Tom said.
“Mom had trouble conceiving,” Emily said, “she assumes everyone else does.”
“It took us six years,” Lauren said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not anyone. But when you feel that first kick, when you feel the baby growing inside, that’s when you really know what love is.” Lauren gave Emily a Hallmark smile that made Tom snicker. “I almost feel sorry for you men,” Lauren continued, “You’ll never know what that’s like.”
“Well,” Tom answered, “from what I hear labor is no picnic. So I’m quite happy to not be the pregnant one.”
“Don’t you listen to him,” Lauren said, “it isn’t that bad.”
Lauren poured two glasses of champagne. “I wish your father were here,” Lauren said, handing a glass to Tom. “I hate to celebrate without him.”
“Hey, where’s mine?” said Emily.
“You can’t have alcohol,” Lauren said.
“I don’t think a sip of champagne is going to matter, Mom.”
Lauren grudgingly poured a third glass much smaller than the first two and offered a congratulatory cheer before the three drank.
When Tom entered the bathroom, Emily was on the floor holding her stomach. “Call an ambulance,” she said. Tom knew immediately the baby was lost. As they waited for the ambulance to come he got on the tile floor with her, holding her hands in his. It was the way he used to hold her when they were first married and spent Saturdays lying in bed together.
“Why can’t I be a mother?” Emily asked.
Tom kissed her on the forehead. He couldn’t comfort her anymore than that. That was the third miscarriage, the Andrew or Julie miscarriage.
In addition to seeking her second, third, and fourth opinions about her physical condition Emily also started going to church after that miscarriage. At first it was just an occasional Sunday, but then it became more regular, and finally included bi-weekly counseling sessions with Father Mark.
“Am I being punished,” she asked the priest, “somehow tested like Job?”
“I don’t think that’s the case,” the priest answered.
“But the doctors tell me I’m healthy. They can’t explain why I keep losing these babies.”
“We must always have faith in His plan,” Father Mark said. “We can’t always explain it, but we must have faith that it is right.”
“My husband thinks we should adopt.”
“I’d be more than happy to recommend a good agency; Catholic Charities does wonderful work.”
“Could you really love a child as much, knowing it wasn’t actually yours?”
“I know many people who have adopted,” Father Mark answered, “and they are just as loving as any other parents.”
It was the answer Emily expected, the argument Tom had always provided. But there was something inside of her that doubted its truth. And in the wake of her “good health” she couldn’t see how adopting was the right solution, even if adopting a foreign child, as Tom now suggested, sped up the process. She couldn’t see herself loving at first sight the way her mother had loved at first feel.
Tom didn’t recognize his refrigerator anymore. There used to be soda and beer and nacho cheese on the door. The peanut butter used to be Jif with pieces of peanuts in it. Now it was some Whole Foods goo, the oil rose to the top and needed to be stirred for twenty minutes to make a sandwich. Tom used to get 2% milk and white bread; now there was only soy milk and whole wheat multigrain. Tom never brought his lunch with him to work anymore. It was the one chance a day he got to eat what he liked.
But it wasn’t just the food that had changed. Emily herself had. She did yoga in the morning, waking at five to do her stretches before school. She also went to the gym in the evening, for light calisthenics. There was only about an hour a day when he could actually sit and talk with her. But even that was difficult because all she wanted to do was talk babies. There were no more “how was your day” pleasantries, no more funny stories about what her kids had done in class. It was all business. We need to try this or that. She read medical journals like a pharmacist and knew which pills she might consider trying next. After her sixth miscarriage, the Daniel/Danielle miscarriage, she found a doctor who would prescribe Cervexus, an experimental drug that strengthened the walls of her uterus, one potential cause for miscarriages, though he noted like the doctors before him, that her uterus did not seem particularly weak. Still, the drug gave Emily a new sense of accomplishment and her regimen of exercising, cleaning, dieting, existential breathing, and researching made her feel in control.
The house was different too. It had been clean before, but now it was spotless. Emily ran the dishwasher every night, not wanting any germs in the house, and scrubbed the tile of the kitchen floor and bathrooms religiously. Since no one could tell her exactly what was wrong she wanted to eliminate any possible cause of her unhappy life. Cleanliness became a calling for her. And the house was almost a museum where Tom couldn’t touch or use objects because he was not as clean as them.
But the most jarring change for Tom was the crucifix that hung over the bed. It was a testament to Emily’s new life as a devout Catholic, a promise that if she was deemed worthy enough to have a child, she would raise it in the Church. Tom didn’t mind the religion entering her life. He too was Catholic, if only in name. What disturbed him about the crucifix was how Emily looked at it with unwavering intensity, offering it small prayers before they had sex.
What had started as understandable eccentricities for a woman under stress had developed into an insane routine. Tom no longer saw the woman he married in his wife, and when she looked at the cross as they made orgasm-less love, he had no idea who she was.
Emily locked herself in the bathroom. They had a full-length mirror on the door and she was looking at herself with her T-shirt rolled up. She was a thin thirty-two-year-old, merely three days pregnant, or at least it had been three days since the positive pregnancy test. Emily arched her back and tried to make herself look fat. Not satisfied with the reflected image she rolled down her shirt and pushed her stomach out. In a few months she’d look this big.
She continued playing in the mirror, trying to imagine herself in the third trimester. The door handle jiggled.
“I’m in here,” Emily said.
“Is everything all right?” Tom asked.
Emily fixed her shirt and splashed some water on her face before coming out. Tom was sitting on the edge of the bed, a pale look on his face.
“Is everything okay?” Tom asked, nodding toward her stomach.
“You were in there for forty minutes.”
“I was just— you know women in the bathroom.”
Emily sat next to Tom on the bed gently rubbing his thigh.
“I thought. . .” Tom stopped his words.
“What happened at the lake isn’t going to happen again. We’re going to be fine,” Emily said, giving Tom a kiss. “I feel so much better this time.”
Tom smiled. It would be another week before he’d get called to meet Emily at the emergency room.
For Tom’s fortieth birthday Emily had the whole extended family over for dinner. It was a light fare of lemon chicken with brown rice and carrot cake for dessert. It was great to eat dinner with the whole family. Tom had two nephews, Andy and Scott, and two nieces, Lily and Brittany, whom he loved but rarely saw.
“How old are you, Uncle Tom?” asked his five year-old niece Lily as Emily started lighting the candles on the birthday cake.
“I’m this many,” he said flashing all ten fingers four times.
“This many,” he said and flashed his fingers up again.
“You’re old,” Lily said, still unclear of his exact age.
“I know,” Tom agreed, “I think I need help blowing out the candles.”
As the family began singing Happy Birthday, Tom lifted Lily to his knee. He filled his cheeks with air anticipating the amount needed to blow all the candles out. Lily mimicked her uncle, and when the song was over they worked together to get all forty candles out.
“Did you make a wish?” Tom asked.
“What did you wish for?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot.”
After cake Tom let Lily open the gifts for him. She tore through the paper in seconds, barely looking at the contents, mostly shirts and books, before moving to the next package. As Lily played with the discarded paper Tom looked at his wife, hoping to share a moment. But there was a bleakness in Emily’s eyes, as if she were in her own world far away from Tom and Lily.
After the guests, left Tom and Emily went to bed. As Tom took off his shirt, Emily lay on the bed, seductively calling him over with her index finger. Tom slid over the top sheet then kissed his wife on the neck and shoulders. After a few minutes of kissing, Emily got up and gave Tom a little strip show. He took off his own clothes, remembering his honeymoon and sex before pregnancies. He thought tonight would be like the old times, but as Emily climbed back in bed she wasn’t staring at Tom, but rather at the crucifix that hung over the bed.
Tom laid Emily on her stomach and stood behind her.
“What are you doing? This is not the ideal position for conception,” she said, wiggling to her back.
“I thought tonight could just be about us. Maybe we can mix it up. You know like we used to.”
“I don’t want to waste my most fertile days.”
“Do you really think position matters that much?”
“The experts say it helps.”
“Well, can we just do it for real. . . You know, for my birthday. I mean, do you have to just lie there?”
“I have to focus on my breathing, create an inviting space for the baby.”
“I’m just saying once a year, can we have sex like people who love each other, not people trying to create a baby?”
“We only get one good chance a month. Shouldn’t we do everything possible to get pregnant?” Emily said.
“You really think staring at that crucifix and breathing every six seconds matters? Our problem isn’t getting pregnant. We’ve always been able to do that.”
“This time it’ll be different. I’m on those pills now, and we’ve started a new hormone treatment. It’s going to happen, I deserve it.”
Tom was sitting on the bed now. “Deserve it,” Tom repeated.
“I know I can carry to term,” Emily said, “I know I can. Once we get pregnant it’ll be different. You’ll see. We’re going to do it this time. We’ve been doing everything right—diet, exercise, prayer, everything.”
Tom turned to Emily, “And what if it doesn’t happen?”
“It will,” Emily said.
“It’s not a question of deserve. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”
Emily was silent.
“I don’t know what our problem is,” Tom continued, “but I don’t think our milk and bread has anything to do with it. I don’t think position has anything to do with it.”
“What harm does it do to try everything?” Emily asked.
Tom looked at Emily, “I think you need to start seeing a therapist about this.”
Emily laughed, “I talk to Father Mark once a week.”
“No, I mean a real therapist.”
Emily was silent.
“What harm could it do to try one more thing?” Tom asked.
They didn’t have sex that night or the next day or the day after that. They skipped two more of Emily’s cycles, and Tom spent most nights in the guestroom. Emily didn’t want to see a therapist and still wouldn’t talk of adoption. Her only reason for denying both requests was that it wasn’t time to give up, though she wouldn’t say, even now entering her late thirties, when the exact time to give up would be.
They were married in Jamaica in 2000. Emily wore a strapless white wedding gown that flowed with the breeze coming off the ocean. Her hair had small curls, and she took deep breaths to keep herself from crying.
Tom wore a light hemp pants suit with a cotton button-up shirt and no tie. He wasn’t moved to tears, but he couldn’t help smiling and couldn’t look away from Emily. She was captivating even through the deep breaths that held back happy tears.
As Tom repeated his vows the world seemed to slow; he could feel every movement of his mouth and feel Emily’s hands tighten around his. The justice of the peace then turned to Emily whose voice was barely a whisper as she spoke, yet unmistakably happy. As soon as she got the words out, she jumped into a kiss before a pronouncement of marriage could actually be made. The justice of the peace made a small joke about Emily’s excitement that seemed to take away her tears. Or maybe it was just Tom’s arms around her waist.
Tom thought about that day often when preparing the paperwork for the divorce. He would let her keep the house and gave her more of his personal assets- 401K and stocks- than she’d ever think to ask for. He loved her despite everything, which made signing the divorce decree difficult. She hadn’t looked at him directly in any of the meetings with the lawyers, which made leaving easier. Had he seen her face, her eyes, he would have been tempted to sink with the ship.
As the plane rolled toward the runway, Tom closed his book and looked out the window. It was his first flight ever without someone he knew beside him: his ex-wife, his brother, his father. It was a twenty-hour flight to Vietnam, and the return flight would be just two days later. Just enough time to sign forms and make everything legal.
As the engines geared up, Tom felt both nervous and excited. His whole world was about to change. And the roar of the plane gave the trip the feeling of reality. The flight attendant went up the aisle checking everyone’s seatbelts. It was a full flight, so the process took several minutes. But Tom didn’t care. It was a bright cloudless day; nothing would stop the trip now.
Some fifty miles away in the home they once shared, Emily sat alone in the Teddy Bear Room. The room was still empty save for the chair that sat by the window, in which she quietly rocked. In her hand was a rosary, and as she recited her Hail Marys, she watched the neighborhood kids play touch football in the street in front of her house. Johnny, who lived three houses down the street, was playing quarterback for both teams and threw dead-on spirals as he marched the opposing squads up and down the field. Emily smiled as they celebrated the latest touchdown and tried to wave at the boys, but they didn’t see her. So she turned her attention back to the rosary, falling into a slight trance as she prayed. Everything was going to work out. If nothing else, Emily was sure of that.
Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Montana with her husband, Val, and a menagerie of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Cream City Review, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall enjoys kayaking, exploring ghost towns, and cat wrangling.
My grandfather loved oranges and black cherries; he preferred citrus or berries to chocolate and other sweets. Each Saturday morning I would stop by the farmers’ market for fruit before our weekly backgammon game. “Don’t choke on the pit,” I’d said to him, trying to get under his skin. He ignored me, the morning light accentuating the spray of wrinkles fanning from the corners of his eyes and the perfect, college-ruled lines spanning his forehead. He leaned to one side in his armchair as he studied the board. He looked frail and vulnerable in his baggy clothes and ancient slippers. The dark red juices from the fresh cherries tracked down his chin; his attempt to distract me. I moved to blot away the juice with my napkin, but he pushed my hand away, then spit a cherry pit into the trashcan. “Don’t fuss over me, Ella.” He wiped his chin with the sleeve of his flannel shirt and nodded to the board. It was my turn. The backgammon checkers stuck to the pads of my fingers, tacky from dividing an orange. I studied the board, so focused on our game–I must win–that I put the doubling cube into my mouth instead of an orange segment. Bright flecks danced before my eyes as I gagged for air. My grandfather pounded me between the shoulder blades until the cube shot from my throat and landed on the board, trailed by a ropey string of saliva, revealing the number sixty-four. He poured some water into a plastic cup and handed it to me. I drank without meeting his eyes; instead, I watched his gnarled index finger slide his final checker across the board and then remove it. Next, he blotted the wet spot of my dribble from the board with his sleeve. I need to launder that shirt, I thought. He looked at me and shook his head. My shirt is fine, his look said. Stop worrying. “I win,” he said aloud before popping another cherry into his mouth. He smacked his lips as the juices raced down his chin. He tilted the bag of cherries in my direction, but I shook my head. He picked up a backgammon checker and offered it to me as if it were a cookie or piece of chocolate, his eyebrows raised. When I frowned and fixed him with a chilly look, he erupted, his laugh, one of my favorite sounds. Then he spit another cherry pit into the trash.
Bernard Grant is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. He lives in Washington State and has work forthcoming in Gravel and Barely South Review.
A month ago a man came to show us a Kirby. He poured juice on the carpet, then sucked it all up, the vacuum screaming. Pink soap bubbled up on the floor. Mamma bought the Kirby. Early this morning, wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, he comes into the kitchen where I’m eating cereal. Winnie the Pooh laughs behind me. He pours a glass of orange juice and says he wants to take me out today.
Mamma comes in wearing a robe, sips from his glass.
“Aren’t you sharing germs?” I ask.
Mamma laughs. “What?”
“Only when it’s family it’s not germs.”
“Don’t worry about it, child. Did Mr. Leon tell you he wanted to take you out today?”
I tell her he did. At first I thought he was a stranger, and you’re not supposed to go with strangers. But his orange juice didn’t make Mamma sick, so he’s family.
We spend the morning at the park, playing basketball. He never says much, except when he whispers on the phone. When we go to the movies I eat too much popcorn during the previews. His phone lights up, and he says we have to go; he wants to visit his friend. The movie hasn’t started.
Lit by orange streetlights, the houses sliding by are smaller than the ones in my neighborhood. Barred windows, chipped paint, graffiti. The streets are dirty, marked with trash and holes. The lawns too. There are old rusted cars; some don’t have all their tires. The only place I feel safe on the east side is Grandpa’s house. When I ask to visit him, Mr. Leon says no, and then he says, “Stay quiet. Don’t tell your mamma we visited my friend and I get you some McDonald’s.”
He stops at a dark house, makes a phone call, and his friend runs out.
Mr. Leon turns to me, puts a finger over his lips.
I don’t speak—not now or after Mr. Leon gives him money, and the guy, who smells like nasty cigarettes, hands him a plastic bag bulging with yellow pebbles. I don’t speak when a lighter sparks and a flame tips into a glass tube sticking out of his mouth. Liquorice-smelling clouds his head, scatters. The only time I speak is on the way home, when McDonald’s slips by and he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t say anything either. I wish Mamma would have gotten sick, cause now he’s family.
My skin burns. Cousin Ray and me spent all morning playing out in the sprinklers, staying full off pecans and Japanese plums he picked from the trees. In three years, when I’m a teenager, I’ll be as big as him, and I won’t have to climb. I’ll just reach up and twist off plums.
We’re inside for lunch, sodas and Beanie Weenies. Uncle Walter pours half of my soda into a cup, but Ray gets to drink his straight from the can. The whole thing.
Back out in the yard, the grass is wet but it still pricks my feet. Uncle Walter rolls out the Slip ‘n Slide, a blue mat he put under the sprinklers. Every time I run onto the mat I fall back and hurt my neck, but I don’t say anything. I don’t whine that my back stings. I don’t stop running onto the mat either. I don’t want Ray to call me a baby.
I try a belly-flop, hear a smack and feel it. I can’t see the sunlight flashing through trees like before, just the street coming closer before my face hits dirt. Then I spit grass and realize being a teenager might not be so great.
At bath time—I’m spending the night—I take off my clothes and jump into the kitchen sink, but I can’t get all the way down.
“Get out that sink, boy,” Uncle Walter says.
“Why can’t I bathe in the sink? I used to bathe in the sink all the time, when—“
“When you was little, that’s right. You too big now.” He tosses his thumb over his shoulder. “Go on, now. Get in the tub.”
I climbed out of the sink. “If I’m so big,” I ask, “why can’t I drink a whole soda?”
“You ain’t that big.”
Mamma went to the grocery store. Cousin Ray’s in charge. He been home alone before. But he’s never been in charge. It doesn’t matter though because I can watch myself. I tell him just that. Then I go to the freezer to get a frozen spaghetti. He snatches it, lets it clank on the counter.
“I’ll make it,” he says.
I sit, pick and flick a red crust off the table. The table’s glass, and through it I can see my feet kick above the floor. His feet touch the floor when he sits.
The microwave beeps. He presses buttons but he can’t get it started.
I get up from the table. “A microwave is easy,” I say. “If you can’t use one, maybe you shouldn’t be in charge.”
“I got it.” He presses the black rectangle. The door springs open. The plastic on the frozen spaghetti isn’t cut, and I tell him so.
“You open it when you want to eat it,” he says.
“You’re supposed to cut it first, so it doesn’t blow up.”
I grab a knife. He grabs one too. Light skips off his blade. We’ve done this before, we’ve done it a lot, we even practice. Whoever stops the blade between two fingers wins. He swings. The knife rips the web between my thumb and pointer finger. One time I fell from a tree and ripped my shirt on the way down—the slice sounds like that. There’s blood on the floor.
Mamma’s gonna whip me.
Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, a playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a mother. Eighteen of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.
Dolores Our Lady of Sorrows
The aunts from Toledo stood outside the sliding door of the bedroom closet, staring disconsolately at the dozens of stacked hatboxes. It was 1971 and American women had stopped wearing hats.
“Perhaps we can give them away to the coloreds,” she said to her sister. “They still wear hats to church, don’t they?”
They had flown out together from Ohio to Los Angeles for their sister Lois’s funeral and since her husband Walter was too distraught to be of any use, they took over the onerous task of clearing the house of Lois’s possessions. They assumed Walter would need to sell the house in the upcoming months and it would be easier to show it to potential buyers if it was empty. Practical women, they managed their grief by focusing on the tasks at hand—funeral arrangements, catering needs, the obituary announcement, the death certificate, the medical bills. And the hats.
Lydia, the younger sister, a plump little woman with a soft, sweet face and bird legs, opened one of the boxes and reached into the crushed tissue paper, withdrawing a black velvet cloche adorned with a deep red rose.
“Remember this one?” she asked her sister Cecile, her voice quavering.
Cecile’s eyes widened in recognition, her mouth set in a solemn straight line.
“We’d better not,” she said, turning her head away.
When Lois’ daughter Jenna arrived after a seven-hour drive down from San Francisco, the hatboxes were already piled high in the entryway, confronting her like naphthalene ghosts as soon as she cleared the door. Months earlier, although weakened by the cancer, Lois had come out into the driveway in her flowery bathrobe to greet her daughter. Now it was only her hats.
Jenna felt a fleeting impulse to open one of the boxes but thought better of it. Whatever specters escaped would probably be too much for her to handle at that moment, and so she passed into the living room where her stepfather Walter was asleep sitting up on the beige satin sofa. His head was tilted back and his mouth hung open, creating strangled snores in his throat. Almost none of the bottle of Mouton Cadet on the coffee table in front of his knees remained.
Jenna, a small, boyishly slender psychologist in her late twenties with dark eyes and the plush cheeks of an infant, walked through the hallway toward the sound of voices, discovering her aunties in the master bedroom going through her mother’s clothes.
“Long drive,” Lydia said by way of greeting, taking her niece in her arms and hugging her warmly. “You must be exhausted.”
“Are you hungry?” Cecile asked. She was tall and stout and her face had the hard marble sheen of a lifetime of dutiful service. She had famously told her daughter, a glamorous daytime soap actress, “Life is not about having fun, Lisa.”
“No,” Jenna said, “I ate on the way.”
“We’ll all go out for dinner tonight,” Lydia said, “as soon as we finish sorting through your mother’s clothes.”
“Did you know she bought eight new pair of shoes last month?” Cecile asked. “Never even took them out of the boxes.”
“She must have been frightened,” Jenna said, feeling queasy. She had spent her childhood fending off her mother’s anxiety, developing a nervous cough, diarrhea and chronic stomach aches which the pediatrician said were “signs of stress.”
“She probably convinced herself that she wasn’t dying by buying the shoes,” Jenna said, thinking out loud.
“Did she do things like that?” Lydia asked, looking distressed.
“Sometimes,” Jenna said, sorry she’d brought it up. The aunties were fiercely protective of their sister and would not tolerate any suggestion that she was unstable, even if they suspected it. There was no way for Jenna to tell them what it had been like as a child to watch her parents fight so violently that she was afraid they would kill each other. And even if she tried, they would just blame her father.
“What size are your feet?” Cecile asked.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Your mother was six and a half.” She bent down and lifted up four of the shoeboxes, putting them next to a stack of dresses. “We’re bringing all of this to Hadassah Thrift tomorrow. You should take a look in case there’s something you want.”
At dinner that night—a seafood shanty with an Italian name in Redondo Beach —- they discussed the funeral and catering arrangements. It would be a closed casket of course, Lydia said, because the cancer had left little of their sister but tumors and bones. Jenna could not imagine her mother, who had plowed through life like an army of red ants, brought to such a merciless halt. Even having a conversation with her had been a challenge because she almost never stayed still.
“Could you write something?” Cecile asked her niece. Jenna nodded yes although she had no idea what she might say. “The rabbi will speak, and then you can give the eulogy.” She turned to Walter. “Do you want to say something?” she asked.
“Well. . . ,” Walter said, his mind foggy with alcohol and sorrow, not only for the loss of Lois but of his first wife Sonja, who also had died of cancer. “I suppose I should, she was such a great gal. . .” He had forgotten the times he hurled dining room chairs at her, shattering the sliding glass doors to the patio, and still she would not stop enraging him, her sense of self-preservation trumped by her compulsion to criticize and humiliate.
“That’s all right,” Cecile said, deciding for him. “We need you to greet the guests and help get them seated.”
“Do you think there’ll be a lot of people?” Jenna asked.
“Of course,” Lydia said. “Your mother was very beloved.”
Later that night, Jenna looked through the clothes, the bright rose pink and sherbet orange chiffon dresses, tweed suits, fur coats and high heel shoes, her nostrils assaulted by her mother’s waxy scent. She had volunteered to transport everything to the thrift store early the next morning so the entryway would be cleared when the mourners came back to the house afterward. How sad, she thought, that her mother would not be here to feed and fuss over them; she had loved to entertain company. And she adored being with her sisters, they were like three teenage girls when they were together, laughing and teasing each other and retelling the same stories so often that Jenna knew them by heart. “Remember when Lydia was driving and asked, ‘Is that a red light or a green light?’ And I said, ‘Let me out of this car right this minute!’” —followed by shrieks of laughter. It was one of the few times Jenna remembered her mother being relaxed and carefree. And at these times, Lois would chide her bookish daughter, “Why are you always so unhappy, so withdrawn? Why can’t you laugh and dance and play with the other children?”
Jenna had saved the hats for last, gingerly opening one of the boxes, which instantly loosed the toxic reek of mothballs. Enrobed in tissue paper there was a wide-brimmed black straw cartwheel with a black satin bow that women wore in the forties with their shoulder-padded suits. Like a movie flashback, Jenna’s mind returned to Chicago at the end of World War II and for the first time in twenty years she remembered Dolores.
Dolores the milliner had lived in a modest house on the west side of Chicago, but not as far west as the apartment where Jenna’s family lived. Lois and her daughter had to take two buses to get there because Mr. Chenoweth was busy at the Furniture Mart selling bedroom sets. He wouldn’t be available until after dark, picking them up in the old Chevrolet that no longer had any paint color to speak of and vibrated with what he called ‘the death rattle.’
It was always light when they went into the house and dark when they left. And Jenna was always hungry at Dolores’ because it took so many hours to create a hat.
There was a parlor next to the entryway of the house but it was dark there and dark also in the adjoining hallway. All the light was reserved for the next room, an enormous studio with huge mirrors along one wall. Beneath the mirrors was a ledge lined with stuffed blank heads for the hats, spools of colored thread, pins (Dolores always had pins in her mouth, sticking out from between her lips), and chiffon, lace, velvet, satin ribbons, feathers, netting, cherries, flowers, and sequins, as well as scissors, hand mirrors, and pink and gold metal ashtrays, the same cheap metal from the five and dime that Dolores used for cold drinks, tall pink and gold tumblers with rough edges that raked your lips and gave a funny taste to the soda pop, which was what people used to call it.
In front of the ledge there were five black wrought iron chairs, each one a foot apart from the next, without cushions. The chairs had backs and legs that twisted and curved around sensuously. They looked like the chairs in Jenna’s little children’s book about Madmoiselle Fifi, a milliner like Dolores except that she was very glamorous and lived in Paris with a black French poodle. The hats and the poodle were fuzzy on the pages and Jenna found it soothing to rub the tips of her fingers on them as she read.
Lois would sit in the second chair, and Jenna would sit in the third until the metal which was cold and hard beneath her six-year-old bottom made her restless and she moved onto the floor, lying on her belly with a book, always a book, in most instances one from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.
Dolores would begin with a shape. Sometimes it was a floppy circle of straw and sometimes it was a stiff triangle of felt that swooped up into a curl and sometimes it was a fedora, or a toque, or a pillbox—that’s what Dolores and her mother called it although it wasn’t anything like pills or boxes or pillars or boxers or pillows, but something in the shape of a corsage container for orchids or pink and white carnations which Jenna would save up to buy for her mother on holidays.
Things would be wrapped around the shape, then draped, adorned and pinned with the pins from Dolores’ mouth. Jenna’s mother would tilt her head to the right and to the left, with pursed lips in an experimental smile. Then she would sigh and the pins would come out of the hat and go back into Dolores’ mouth and another fabric would be draped or wrapped or hung, in another color, from another position, at a different angle, until it became inky outside the windows that were reflected in the mirrors. Dolores would have to stop and feed her children who were always quiet and younger and not at all fun for Jenna to play with. Dolores’s husband worked nights and slept during the day, so he was never around when they arrived at Dolores’ house in the late afternoon after Jenna’s mother had finished teaching.
“I don’t think he makes much of a living,” Lois would say to her husband in the car driving home, although the same could be said about Mr. Chenoweth as well. “I don’t think Dolores wants to work anymore,” she would add, “but she hasn’t any choice.” Then Lois would think about having to get up and teach 32 public school fifth graders the next day and the thought would make her sigh.
The most wonderful hat Dolores made for Lois was a peacock blue pillbox. It sat on top of Lois’s black hair like a small, arrogant bird, and had little purple berries along one side. Bird food, Jenna’s father called it, but told Jenna they must not say that in front of Lois, who was very sensitive about her hats. Still, every time Lois wore this particular hat, they would sneak a look at each other, mouth the words bird food and stifle their secret laughter. It was a wonderful hat.
“Dolores is a very talented girl,” Lois always said, except once when she didn’t like a hat after she’d paid for it and thought that Dolores had pressured her into it. But Dolores wasn’t really a girl. She was thirty-five with a plump little pig’s face, a bouncy beach ball-shaped body and a fringe of blond hair that was always the same length but never any particular style. There was, though, something girlish about the way Dolores talked because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s which came out like w’s, and even her l’s were odd, they got caught too far back on the roof of her mouth and hung there like uvulas. To Jenna, her little girl way of pronouncing words made Dolores seem very adorable.
Dolores was also a good cook. One evening, Lois began to cry because Jenna’s father had gone and got drunk again and ended up in the psychiatric ward at Michael Reiss Hospital. Dolores brought them back into the kitchen, where there was a little breakfast nook, and warmed up some dinner.
“The doctor humiliated him,” Lois told Dolores. “Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling a man in a public hallway that he is a disgrace and a failure? He started to cry. He begged me to take him home. But how could I? He’s liable to hurt himself. He has no judgment when he’s drinking. He fell from a curb the other night and was almost hit by a car. The whole side of his body is bruised. Oh, Dolores, I’m so ashamed to tell you this. I’m so ashamed.”
Jenna was also ashamed. It felt as if her mother were showing pictures of her in her underwear to strangers. She wished so hard her mother would stop that she bit down on her top lip until the tinny taste of blood reached her tongue.
Dolores served them macaroni and cheese, which was warm and creamy and salty and something Jenna never got at home, because they were meat and salad eaters. But Jenna had lost her appetite. And her mother keep lifting her fork to her mouth and then forgetting why.
There are photographs of Jenna’s mother in many of the hats that Dolores made for her. She is wearing a floppy tan straw hat with a yellow polka-dot scarf on her honeymoon in Miami Beach, leaned up against Jenna’s father in a flirtatious pose. On a boat ride to Catalina Island, taken when she and Jenna visited her brother in Los Angeles, she wears a dark green bonnet, holding it down on her head with both hands against the wind. At the exorbitant all-orchid wedding with carved-ice swans that Aunt Lydia threw for her oldest daughter Jillian, Lois wears a purple toque with a sequined veil to go with her silk pansy-print sheath dress. Six-year-old Jenna, wearing a yellow dress with a crisp white pinafore, stands next to her holding a basket of flowers. Jenna’s grandmother is on the right, wearing a pale gray satin gown, her jaw set in stone and her face as frozen as the swans. Way in the back behind a crowd of people is Jenna’s father, leaning against a pillar and looking sardonic.
Lois usually has the same experimental smile on her face in the pictures, as if she is saying Why-are-you-taking-this-picture-of-ME and Oh-heavens-hurry-up-and-TAKE-it and What-do-you-think-of-my-HAT and I-don’t-CARE-what-you-think-of-it. When she really smiles in a few of the pictures, the I-don’t-CARE part takes over and she looks like Carmen Miranda.
In the Los Angeles pictures, taken after she and Jenna moved there, Lois wears no hats, because nobody in California wore them. But she brought them all with her from Chicago, precious objects protected as much as possible from the ravages of moths and mildew, as if she thought time might circle around like a boomerang and give her and the hats a second life.
Jenna was nine when her mother, by this time divorced, learned from a friend that Dolores had died. She’d had a massive heart attack and was dead on the floor of her studio when the husband woke up to go to work. Jenna had wondered if Dolores had pins in her mouth when she had the heart attack and whether she had swallowed them. It made the muscles in her throat ache, as if she could feel the pins sticking her as they went down.
“I never knew she had a heart condition,” Lois said, slicing an orange into quarters and then eighths for Jenna’s dessert. “She never mentioned anything about it. I wish I hadn’t argued with her about the last hat. What a tragedy. Thirty-nine years old, with two young children.”
“What will happen to the children?” Jenna had asked, feeling little flutters of fear in her stomach. She closed the book she’d been reading, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which she had hidden inside a Misty of Chincoteague cover. Years later, her mother would donate the book to the school library in Lawndale where she taught, only to learn—much to her horror —of its secret identity.
“The dad moved in with his sister in Skokie. The sister’s taking care of them,” Lois replied. “Dolores was the same age I am,” she said, handing the bowl of orange slices to Jenna. “She was still a young girl,” she added, giving her daughter a nervous little smile.
Then she scooped up the dinner dishes and took them over to the sink, immersing them in soapy water. “Well, honey,” she said, “it just goes to show you.”
“What will happen if you die, mommy?” Jenna had asked, picking at the orange with her fingers.
“Oh, listen, kiddo,” Lois said, rubbing the plates vigorously with a dishrag. “I’m not going to die.”
What had she meant by “it just goes to show you?” Jenna wondered now, examining each hat carefully, her fingers alive with the sensations of the contrasting textures, lush and crisp and lacy and woven and silky smooth. What did it show? That life was short and death could be sudden and merciless? That today was all we could count on? Memento mori, they used to say in medieval times, their pale, pious faces looking up toward heaven in hope of God’s mercy.
And now Lois was dead, a mere four years after Jenna’s father had succumbed to leukemia, and Jenna, orphaned with no sisters or brothers to help shoulder the losses, was left to ponder what she should do with the hats. Pack them into the car and drag them back to San Francisco, let them languish in another closet until she, too, died? Her fingertips searched for an answer as if she were reading a Braille message from another dimension of time. What came was the memory of elephants she had seen on the Discovery channel reverently stroking the bones of a departed loved one, and the low, nearly inaudible rumblings of grief and goodbye.
Aunt Lydia came out into the hallway in her blue satin quilted robe. “How are you doing, honey?” she asked, her voice hushed and tender.
“I’m okay,” Jenna said, trying to smile.
“Are you seeing anybody?” the aunt asked, the inevitable question when a young woman in the family wasn’t married.
“I was, but it didn’t work out,” Jenna said, thinking about her ex-lover Robert, who was always on the verge of leaving his wife but never did.
“It’s going to be very hard without her,” the aunt said, thinking that she was intuiting her niece’s feelings.
“It was very hard with her, too, for me at least,” Jenna said, feeling immediately anxious about how her aunt would react to her candor.
“She loved you very much,” Lydia said, and Jenna knew then that she mustn’t continue. The price of her aunties’ love was Jenna’s silence. “Have you decided what you’re going to say at the funeral tomorrow, sweetheart?”
“Yes, I guess so,” Jenna said, feeling the depth of her loneliness as she walked with her aunt toward the bedrooms. She knew what they wanted her to say—how hard Lois had worked, how good a person she was, how much people had loved her. She could say all that, because it was true enough. But it was so much less than the intense experience of her mother, the glamour, drama, and terror that were her essential and indelible signature.
This was the woman who had screamed at Jenna, “Nobody will ever love you except me!” This was the wife who’d picked up a heavy Bakelite telephone and slammed it into the back of her husband’s head, running to him afterward weeping with remorse. This was the girl who couldn’t bear to read serious books or watch sad movies or listen to the atrocities on the nightly news and was mystified by a child who was exactly the opposite. This was the mother who had longed for a playful son named David who would always be her baby and instead gave birth to a studious daughter named Jenna who preferred solitude and her father’s company. And no living soul would ever know the real truth.
“I want to give away her hats at the funeral,” she suddenly announced to her aunt, and felt a rush of joy at the idea, as if she were a thousand feet up in a plane about to release them into the wind. “And then I want to tell her favorite stories, mostly about you and Auntie Cecile, because I loved seeing my mother happy.”
She was crying now, at last, choking on tears that felt like pebbles and wet sand in her throat, while mucus gushed from her nose in explosive bursts.
“I’m going to open up the boxes,” she said, forcing the words out between sobs, not asking for permission any longer, sounding a little crazy even to her own ears. “I’m going to set the hats free.”
Brett Beach’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Hobart, The McNeese Review, and elsewhere.
After college, Mary worked as a secretary in a high school on the east side of the city. Each time the news ran a story on students bringing guns into classrooms or selling drugs in bathroom stalls, her mother called to ask, “That’s not you, is it?”
She really meant, When are you going to get a real job? She was saying, Do you think I’ve always had this much gray hair? Let me tell you, young lady, I most certainly did not.
Mary didn’t know why she liked lying to her mother so much. She just couldn’t help herself: the words tasted as sweet as melted caramel on her tongue. She’d been working at the school for two months when her mother called, frantic. “You have to get out of that place,” she said. She’d just read a newspaper article about two boys who had gotten into a fight during their gym class; one boy had stabbed the other.
The school where the incident took place wasn’t even in Mary’s district. Still, she hedged in a way that implied a personal knowledge of the incident, and told her mother not to believe everything the newspaper reported.
“Well,” her mother said, “one boy was taken to the hospital with stab wounds. I think that’s pretty serious. Children with knives, shanks, whatever they’re called.”
“They didn’t have knives,” Mary said, seeing the lie unfold like a bright tapestry in front of her. “They had sporks.”
On the other end, her mother gasped and said, “What on earth?” Her voice got quiet. “Is that a gang thing?”
Mary excused her own lies because her mother was gullible enough to believe any terrible half-truth,; and because, no, her school wasn’t the one in the news that particular evening, but it could have been. The inter-office communication was still pecked out on old typewriters, and copies churned out of the machine with a sound like a locomotive engine. The teachers passing in the halls scowled with dark feral looks aimed at students and faculty alike, as if their only goal was to survive the day. More than one carried a small canister of mace, flashing from a belt loop or inside the big pouch of a purse.
The high school was not at all like the private one Mary had attended when she was a teenager, St. Ursula’s, with its nuns and plaid-skirts and white blouses buttoned up to the collar. Because of this, she felt brave returning to the school each morning. She saw herself lit anew with courage. Before the first bell, a line of boys posted near the front door whistled at Mary as she approached. She tried, and always failed, to not smile at them. On the days when her boyfriend Claymont dropped her off, the young girls huddled around their cell phones looked up and hooted as he waved at them from the driver’s seat.
“She know how it is,” a girl said one day, pointing across the main office to where Mary sat behind her typewriter. The girl was pregnant, and her boyfriend had punched her in the face after he heard the news. She stood now with a wad of brown paper-towels pressed to her nose. The girl cocked her hip and said, “You know why she know?” She ticked her finger at Mary. “She got a brother.”
That night, Mary told Claymont about the girl. They were lying in bed, in Mary’s small apartment on the west side of the city. Claymont tipped his head back to laugh. His teeth glimmered, white and perfect, and Mary wanted, very suddenly, to kiss him. “So now I’m a brother,” he said, rolling toward her. “And you got me. I’m yours, girl.”
He pulled himself close to her, draping his arm across Mary’s chest, the length of his body pressed against hers. She felt secure in his warm wet sleepy breaths on the back of her neck. Blue moonlight came in through the window. A breeze pushed through the screen, and Mary fell asleep, trying out the words: I got a brother. I got a brother.
Mary had gone to college with one goal: to inhabit a different universe, to reinvent herself and do it right this time. She saw her teenage blunders like a dress after a party that she could slip out of and leave, wrinkled and stained, on the ground. But the girls living on her dorm floor were no different than the girls she’d known in junior high and high school. They were all part-time vegetarians. They all had long-term boyfriends who called faithfully each night, boys who put up with various rages and inarticulate abuses. These girls kept photographs of their childhood pets taped to the walls above their dorm room beds. Mary had her own picture taped up: Mr. Tucker, the yellow lab she’d tearfully led through the halls of the vet’s office after his diagnosis of cancer. She’d kissed his snout and whispered nonsensical chants into his ear as the vet put him to sleep. She had considered it, at the time, the saddest day of her life.
The boys Mary invited back to her dorm room touched the batik fabric draped over her nightstand lamp and smelled the dried flowers tied around her bedpost, as if they were all dancers following a routine they’d learned on Orientation Day. They examined the photos of her family taped to the wall, the snapshot of Mr. Tucker drooling in sunlight, the poster of John Belushi in his “College” sweatshirt. The boys looked at Mary in a bemused way, as if they knew the secrets of her heart but liked that she tried to hide them. The girl they wanted to kiss was not the girl Mary thought herself to be, and certainly not the woman she was aiming to become. She didn’t fool herself into ever believing she was in love, but she also wasn’t strong enough to hold out. So she pretended for one boy and then the next and then the next. She liked how they made her feel: pretty and important and wanted. Why change now, she thought every so often, why bother? Only rarely did Mary worry that she was forgetting how to be herself.
In the summers she worked as a waitress at a chain restaurant and lived alone in a series of cheap studio apartments off-campus. Her parents treated this exercise in enforced poverty with a humored skepticism. Mary’s mother, visiting a particularly grim one-room walk-up, asked if Mary had a case of white guilt. She’d read about the condition in a magazine, and pulled the clipped article from her purse. “Well,” she said after a long pause, “I think charity work would be more effective. It gives back. Directly.”
But Mary liked the long thoughtless hours of serving food. Each customer presented a new start: if she messed up, if she forgot a side dish or dropped a cup, the mistakes were forgotten fifteen minutes later. She came home each night with aching calves and a wad of dollar bills and loose change in her pockets. She counted out the tip money and wrote the figures in a marble-covered notebook, tallying the proof of her efforts.
The summer after she graduated, Mary discovered that her waitressing job, which she’d always considered temporary, was the one constant in her life. Gone were her dorm room and her hall mates; disappeared were the boys who called out her name from down the hall, who brought her flowers to dry and hang from the bedpost.
She noticed Claymont one June night. He was sitting at the counter opposite the front door. He had high cheekbones and a thin curl of hair along his jaw line. He was beautiful, not just handsome like the frat boys, or solid-looking like the business majors. He ordered a meal to go and waited, propping his elbows on the countertop and folding his hands under his chin. It was a slow night, and Mary wanted to feel his sleepy brown eyes turn to her, so she walked over and offered him a drink. He seemed not to hear at first, but later she realized he must have, because he looked at her and then away and asked for iced tea. She returned with the glass, and he touched one of the ice cubes floating on the top. He sat for another forty-five minutes, even after his food was ready and bundled beside him on the counter in a to-go bag with plastic handles and a set of wrapped silverware inside.
He asked Mary when her shift ended, and if he could come back and possibly drive her home. “Or,” he said, “we could get coffee. Or tea. Whatever you drink.”
Later, Claymont said that he thought he’d offended her. He was always careful about what he said when he went out. It was because of the city they lived in, he explained, and because the people in the restaurant saw a different situation when a guy like Claymont spoke to a girl like Mary.
But she’d heard none of his hesitation, none of the cautious edging he’d laid between them. “Coffee would be nice,” she said. His mouth was already relaxing into the grin she’d come to love, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes making him seem both old and young. She told Claymont she expected to be finished with work by eleven.
“All right, then. I’ll be outside.” He nodded. “Eleven.”
Mary’s mother often said that men who were good-looking like Claymont expected things from young women, and that any young woman would be smart to avoid those heart-breakers altogether. Mary guessed her mother was partially right, but perhaps she wasn’t. She picked up a rag from a bucket of soapy water kept under the counter and wiped at the ring of moisture where Claymont’s glass had rested on the countertop. When she looked up, he was still there, watching her.
“Eleven,” she said. “You promise you’ll be right outside?”
“Girl.” Claymont leaned his head to the side. He stood a foot or two back from the counter, with the carry-out bag in one hand and his check in the other. It felt like the beginning to Mary, like a moment she’d want to remember even if she didn’t know its significance yet. He smiled at her. He said, “I promise.”
Claymont’s sister lived on the east side of the city, not too far from Mary’s school, in the house where she and her brother had grown up. Mary had dated Claymont for close to three months before she met Annette, though the two had spoken before when Claymont’s cell was dead or he forgot to pay his bill and had to use Mary’s phone.
Annette stood waving on the front porch when they arrived, looking just as Mary had imagined: a pretty, softer version of her brother in a sweater and jeans.
The street, however, was not how Mary had pictured it. Elms and oaks lined the front yards, and a canopy of October leaves shadowed the driveway. The houses were large, with wooden porches that stretched along the fronts like ship decks. The second-story windows were capped in half-moons of stained glass and the sky overhead was unusually bright, blue and cloudless. Mary said, “My school is so close to here. I can’t believe I’ve never been over this way before.”
Annette smiled, not unkindly. “Why would you ever come over here?”
The house was old but revealed its age in a stylish manner, with intricate paneling around the doorways, and a series of checkered tiles in the hallway that had the faded look of a well-used chessboard. The bathtub’s metal claws were green with oxidation. Behind the gold-plated mirror over the sink Mary discovered a box of Band-Aids and a half-finished roll of toothpaste. She hadn’t meant to snoop, but then she was checking through cabinets, peeking in doorways, trailing her hand along the wall in the hallway. She paused to look at photographs displayed on a shelf in the front room of the house. She was struck by the complexity of entering another person’s life. There were so many faces to remember, so many people she didn’t know but wanted to know. How could anyone ever decide to stay alone, she wondered, how could anyone not feel curious and lustrous in the glow of someone else’s family, with all of their secrets and their love and their history? She thought of people she’d known in college who would have only found the house intriguing in its eccentricities; the type of people who would present the worn-down staircase as a sign of their bohemian sensibilities, but would never be curious about the people who had lived in these very rooms before them.
She came upon Claymont fixing the closet door in Annette’s bedroom. He squatted beside the doorframe, screwing a new hinge into the wood paneling. Mary watched him from the hallway. “You know, if you ever sell this house, you guys could make a fortune,” she said.
“Sell.” He repeated the word as if were in a foreign language.
“I know a ton of people who’d buy a house like this.” She walked across the room, over to the window. Metal bars slatted over the glass, the four of them still warm to her touch from the afternoon sun. “I mean, look at these,” she said. “It’s so weird. But kind of cool. Who would put these here?”
“What do you think those are there for?” he asked. He stared at her. “Girl, where exactly do you think we are?”
Mary turned away first with the feeling of a chastised child.
In the kitchen, Annette cooked dinner while Mary watched her daughter totter between the cupboards and the table. The little girl was just learning to walk and her steps were tentative but heavy, her bare feet slapping down on the linoleum.
“Tell me something,” Annette said. She stood at the stove, stirring a red sauce with a wood spoon. “You went to college, right? So why are you working at that school? Secretary. You know you could get a better job.”
“I like it there,” Mary said.
“Hey, I love this city as much as the next person, but that school is dangerous.”
Mary clapped her hands at Annette’s daughter. The girl wobbled toward her, arms outstretched. “That’s what everyone says, but I’ve never felt scared.”
“It doesn’t matter what you feel,” Annette said. “I’m telling you, I wouldn’t even work there. Me.” She gestured with the spoon.
They ate dinner in the living room, with a game show on the television and the curtains pulled open to frame the street. The houses and cars outside grew purple in the dusk. Neighborhood boys on bicycles circled the block, hoods pulled tight over their heads, until only the sound of their tires on asphalt could be heard.
“You guys seem to get along,” Mary said to Claymont as they drove back to her apartment.
“We used to fight like you wouldn’t believe.” He smiled over at her, as if to see if she believed him.
Mary asked, “Do you think Annette likes me?”
“She didn’t say anything to you?”
“I don’t know,” Claymont said. He was driving, but he took one hand off the wheel to find Mary’s. “We don’t talk like that to each other. And I wasn’t asking for her to like you.'”
“So you don’t care?”
“That’s not what I said. I just meant that it’s different for us.”
Claymont lifted his hand from hers to make a right turn onto Mary’s street. The car’s headlights flared bright against the fronts of brownstones. He said, “You see a space?”
Mary wanted to ask what he’d meant when he said “us,” but he was distracted in his search, and she wasn’t sure of the point anymore. He’d called forth a group to which she’d never belong as if he were reciting his address: so easily dismissing her, without thought. She felt words brimming in her chest, a sort of righteous indignation that had no aim. Was Claymont to blame? No, she couldn’t go that far; he hadn’t meant to belittle her, she was certain. But surely she couldn’t take on all the responsibility, simply by feeling this difference between them when he didn’t.
Mary’s college roommate got married at the end of April, in the groom’s hometown three hours upstate. Both Mary and Claymont agreed that renting a hotel room was a waste of money, but the drive would be too long to make after the reception. Mary’s parents said they could stay over; their house was forty-five minutes from the reception hall. Eileen even offered to leave a key under the potted hydrangea on the front porch, in case they arrived in the middle of the night.
Mary finally consented. “But we can’t stay long,” she told her mother. “Claymont has to be back before noon.” The lie was insignificant in the history of untruths Mary had unspooled for her mother; she simply didn’t want to do the strained-silence-breakfast, the early-morning-false-conversation. “Oh, how interesting,” she imagined her mother saying to Claymont, when she really meant, Do you have to cover up your gang tattoos when you’re at work?
In the end, the wedding reception didn’t last much later than midnight. As the last song played and the staff packed bottles of liquor into cardboard boxes, Mary sat at a table strewn with napkin balls and toothpicks. She spotted Claymont by the door, talking to some of the groom’s buddies. All night, he had danced well and Mary had floated around the room on his arm. She felt the whole evening had been a success, but in the parking lot, Claymont unlocked the doors of the car and got in without a word.
“What?” she said. It was hard to see his expression in the odd light. The car keys hung from his hand, tinkling like little bells each time he flicked two of his fingers together.
“Just go to sleep,” he said. “You’re exhausted.”
“I’m not drunk, Mary. I’m fine to drive.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She sighed. “You don’t know where the house is.”
He put both of his hands on the steering wheel. He was looking straight out the windshield, but nothing significant lay before them: a few other cars, a dark hill and a distant blinking red light atop a radio tower. He said, “I’ll wake you when we get close, then. You can direct me.”
He parked on the street outside the house and they shut the doors gently, to avoid making noise. Mary had never snuck a boy into her house as a teenager, but walking with Claymont through the familiar hallways and up the stairs, she understood the appeal. A girlish giddiness made her forget being tired. When they passed her parents’ bedroom door, she reached for his hand as if he might go into their room by accident. She laughed as she stepped out of her heels and turned, asking Claymont to unzip her dress. He did, quickly, and without touching her. Mary hoped to dispel whatever irritation had overcome him, so she draped the dress over a chair and walked toward the bed naked.
Claymont was sprawled out with his eyes closed. He looked like a slumbering giant; his feet nearly hung off the end of her bed. Mary said his name, and then again, but he didn’t respond. She touched his shoulder. His chest rose and he exhaled a slow sleeping breath.
In the morning, her mother made pancakes and set out a bowl of fruit salad. While they drank coffee, Mary’s father offered Claymont advice on which highways and bypasses to take. Once they were in the car, Mary told Claymont to go the way they’d originally planned. “He just needed something to say to you,” she explained.
“Oh,” Claymont said, “was that it?”
He navigated through the neighborhood and soon they merged on the interstate. They had a straight shot south now, a little less than two hours to go. The land on either side of the road unfurled into stretches of cornfield, like a billowing yellow cloth held down at the corners by barns with rusted rooftops, hemmed in by wire-strung fences. At first the sun was hidden by a copse of trees in the distance, but as they drove the branches lit with a fiery dawning light.
Mary asked, “What was going on with you last night?”
Claymont reached for the radio and scanned through the stations.
Mary turned the radio off. “Can you at least tell me what you think I did wrong?”
“Okay.” He glanced over at her. “Okay, tell me something. What do I do? What is my job?”
“You work for the city.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a garbage man, Mary.”
“Right. And the Sanitation Department is part of the city.” Mary felt the beginning of an ache in her stomach. “Is this really what you’re mad about?”
Claymont said, “I’m in the union. I make good money.”
“I don’t understand. You’re acting like I lied.”
She hadn’t, not exactly, not the way she lied to her mother. She’d told people at the wedding Claymont worked for the city because it sounded better. She knew how those people looked at the world; they wouldn’t see him like she did. He’d tell a joke and they’d think only of the green-outfitted men working in the hours before dawn, the sound of clattering garbage cans against the sidewalk, the big truck motoring down the street. She’d wanted to protect him.
“I’m not ashamed of myself,” Claymont said.
“But you think that I am.”
Mary had to look at anything but at him. She tried to focus on the back of the car ahead of them. She thought that if she stared at the rectangle of the license plate long enough, she wouldn’t cry. She asked, “When have I ever said that?”
“Never,” he said. “You’re right, you never said that.” He lifted his shoulders, then let them fall. “But I guess in my mind, if you can only prove it to me by saying it out loud, it’s the same thing.”
At the end of the school year, Mary was called into the school’s personnel office. It was just after the last bell and the hallways were ghostly in their stillness, with loose pages of notebook paper pushed against lockers, and classroom doors shut against dark interiors. The woman in the office, which was actually a janitor’s closet packed with a desk and a lamp, explained that Mary wouldn’t be needed over the summer, or for the following year. “There are school-wide cuts going on,” she explained. Bad test scores were to blame, high-dropout rates. “And frankly, there’s no more money.” She held out her hands to display the empty air.
The lease on Mary’s apartment came up for renewal around the same time, and because the timing felt serendipitous, and because things seemed to be lining up to push her in this direction, she decided to move back in with her parents. Temporarily, she told her mother.
“Of course,” Eileen said. “But know that you’re welcome for as long as you need.” She mentioned a receptionist position she’d heard about, with an engineering firm up north.
Claymont took the news quietly, sitting in the living room with his elbows propped on his knees. “So you’re leaving me,” he said.
“No,” Mary said. “You’re not listening.” She just wanted to save money, and the city was too expensive. It had nothing to do with him.
“Exactly. You did all this stuff without even talking to me.”
Well, yes, she thought, but no. She was tired of the dirty city streets and walking with her keys brandished like a weapon. She hated having to check that her doors were always locked. The sense of urban exploration she had once felt was now gone. She wanted to get out of here, and she wanted Claymont. Why couldn’t she have both?
“Come with me,” she tried.
“I live here.”
Mary reached for his hands. “I want you to come with me.”
“To your parents’ house?” He made a raspberry sort of sound with his lips and brushed her hands away.
“We can still be together.”
“I know what this is,” he said. “You want me to say I can’t go. Then you get your exit. You’re just too scared to say you don’t want to be with me.”
“Don’t do that,” Mary said. “We can figure this out.”
“You mean,” Claymont said as he studied the ground between his sneakers, “that I’ll have to figure it out. Because you already have a plan. Really, you’ve been out the door for a while and I just didn’t want to see it.”
“Stop,” Mary said. “Be nice.”
“Nice? You want to talk to me about nice?” Claymont lifted his face to gape at her. “Girl,” he said, “I loved you.”
In the worst parts of the months that followed, Mary believed that Claymont really did love her and that she had ruined a good thing. When they first began dating, she’d made him list out the reasons he liked her. She was pretty, he’d said, and she had a wild laugh. She was interested in things, and he respected how she listened when other people talked, even if she didn’t agree with them. She regretted never telling Claymont that he was the most sincere person she’d ever met, that she always worried he would recognize how unworthy she was of being his girlfriend. She’d made him work and work but never given a bit of herself back; she felt, retrospectively, lucky that he’d stayed with her as long as he did.
Most days, she ate lunch at her desk, and she turned down offers to go out to drinks or dinner with the engineers after work. Some days she had an off-center feeling in her chest. Other mornings she woke from a dream of Claymont lying alone on his bed, whispering, You had a brother, you had a brother.
Eileen was perplexed. “It’s not as if you were going to marry him.”
“But we were practically engaged,” Mary said. It was a lie.
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “No. No, I doubt that very much.” She reached to touch her daughter’s shoulder but stopped short of the actual gesture. “Listen. You moved to a different city. What did you expect? I just don’t think you two were very serious.”
The more and more Mary thought about it, the more and more convinced she became that her mother was right. It helped to believe that she had never been serious. At best, Claymont and his life and her job at the high school were some grand experiment to her. Worse, they were details in a story she’d tell about how she had slummed for a year or so. She’d been trying out a life that would never be her own, and then had gotten caught up in surprise by the reality of it all.
In the spring of the following year, an engineer named Josh transferred down from the firm’s Michigan branch. He asked Mary out to lunch on a bright day when the sun filled the windows of the office with yellow light, and she said yes. Something in her mind clicked when he looked at her. Enough, she decided, enough. She was tired of eating lunch alone. She wanted to go outside and talk to someone.
They sat on the patio of an Italian restaurant. The traffic on the nearby interstate made a looping sound like wind blowing through a tunnel. Josh explained how the foundation had been designed to best compliment the landscape. Mary didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, just as she couldn’t decipher the large blue maps that passed through the office, or the green and black computer models the engineers clicked and fretted over. Still, she liked how Josh made off-ramps and overpasses sound beautiful. He tried to show her what he saw when he looked at the world. A sign, she thought, of a good and compassionate man.
A week later, Josh asked Mary out for a second, official date. When she told him about her last boyfriend, the terms she used were vague and the details hazy as if she couldn’t remember. Not lies, exactly, but a refusal on her end to examine too closely what had happened. She felt ashamed and didn’t want Josh to know that part of her, not yet, not ever if she could help it.
He asked Claymont’s name on that second date, and when Mary told him, he said, “That’s not one you hear every day,” and then didn’t ask any more questions.
A few days before Christmas, Josh took Mary out to dinner in the city where she’d once lived. The restaurant was expensive and in a neighborhood she’d never been to before. It had snowed while they ate, and now a great white cloth had spread itself over the street. Her mother had said on the phone that she thought Josh would propose soon, perhaps that very evening. Mary felt almost certain she’d say yes.
“Let’s walk a little,” Josh said. He took Mary’s hand to lead her. A block over, visible between the tall corporate buildings, a pine tree stood decorated in cords of gold and silver. White lights in the branches reflected against the windows of the nearby buildings. In the plaza, a man sold hot chocolate in white disposable cups, and foreign-looking women in shawls wandered around with baskets of roses.
A small orchestra of men in overcoats began to play holiday melodies. The players were arranged like a tableau of metal figurines on a wooden stage to the left of the tree, and polite applause followed each number. Josh went to buy hot chocolates and returned in a cloud of steam trailing up from the cups in his hands. He smiled and stood once more beside Mary.
“Look at how many people are here,” he said in a pause between songs. “Traffic’s going to be a mess.” He always noticed what Mary did not. She’d missed the swell of bodies, how the crowd had grown thick and the air steamy with so many people talking and laughing. No one applauded for the carols anymore.
Mary wondered if she would see Claymont. She imagined the crowd moving to reveal him, standing just beyond the pine’s branches with his sister and her kids. She was certain he’d be wearing a ski-cap and scarf, but no gloves. She remembered, in a winter that felt like another life, taking his hands between her own and rubbing his fingers to circulate the blood.
She stared across the square, trying to find him. What had seemed a possibility now became a certainty in her mind. He had to be here, this was his city. But he was not by the glimmering tree or by the stand where hot chocolate was sold. She looked toward the stage and then watched the cars gliding past on the street, smears of red taillights projected onto the snow banks, bodies paused at the intersection.
She wanted to see that Claymont was happy, his life continuing on without her. Then she didn’t want to have to think about him anymore. She thought of a distant future, of a better version of herself who had learned from this experience. But not yet: what she’d done still unnerved her. She had never imagined hurting anyone the way she hurt Claymont. He’d cried when she left. Cried, which was so sad, but also kind of exhilarating. She’d always been out of place with Claymont; she could see that now. She wondered how he’d never seen it. Or how he’d never let it bother him. But Mary didn’t think a person could live like that, feeling like a quasi-symbol of progress. She’d tried, though. Didn’t that say something about the type of girl she was?
A second group of performers lined themselves in rows on the stage. They lifted brass bells on wooden handles and held them partially aloft, poised. The first peal broke through the air, and then many more, until the chorus of reverberating notes became endless. The wind ruffled the branches of the pine tree. The star on top of the tree, oversized and previously unlit, broke open into five glittering white points. A few people clapped. Someone whistled.
Mary looked for him one last time, but it was hardly more than a gesture. Because of course Claymont was not here. Just as she had followed him to unknown parts, he could never have come to this place without her.