Category Archives: Fiction

Blue Lyra Review’s fiction, short stories, prose pieces, and longer fiction pieces

Brett Beach

Brett BeachBrett Beach’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Hobart, The McNeese Review, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

Brother

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?”

Claymont shrugged.

“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.”

“Different how?”

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 can’t.”

“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.

Shaun Turner

Shaun TurnerShaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is the Assistant Fiction Editor for the Cheat River Review. His fiction can or will be found in the following great publications: Cleaver Magazine; Word Riot;  JONATHAN; and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, among others.

 

 

Dissolution of Care

Summer burns my corneas jasper, and your head blooms from the pool-water like a morning glory. It flowers slowly, then all at once. I wipe an errant stream from my forehead. You kiss me like you are in love.

In six months, we struggle in appeals. You inherited the way you sit from the grandmother that raised you. She would make you suck in your stomach to where the breath caught. Wipe your bangs across your forehead. Check the hands, folded neatly in your lap.

You stand in front of the judge. Your eyes are distant. Your tone firm. You list our inadequacies—our irreconcilable differences—and I remember the first time you loved me: Over dinner, our hands touch over a stiff piece of bread. We were twenty-seven and still beautiful.

You tell the judge about the silences. You tell him about no children. How I would often sleepwalk—once, down the street to Huddle House—and how you would wake up to grass—or, one time, blood—tucked into your inherited cotton sheets.

I have chosen to defend myself. And I will not deny the stains your wet hands sometimes left on my back or the time I found you cross-legged at the bottom of our swimming pool. How you coughed in deep swallows of air like you were a newborn, and I was the doctor and your first good spank.

I will say that done is done.

That, in this day and age is, the infant is rubbed down with a nubby towel. If required, light suction is applied to clear its airways, thus starting the first breath of life. In more modern times, I will say, more gentle ways are available and spanking is no longer common, or desired.

Sara Henning

Sara HenningSara Henning is author of a full-length collection of poetry, A Sweeter Water (2013), and a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews, and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming from Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

 

A New Year

New Year’s Eve and I’m at a Steak N’ Shake twelve miles from Graceland.

This side of Memphis is haunted by strip malls, women ready to cat fight for a plum parking spot. This side of Memphis, it’s smart to lock your doors against the men shape-shifting, cruising for something easy. They’re sometimes boys, sometimes ghosts, sometimes here already, ready to slip right into you.  

The most I know of Memphis is a friend’s mister before she dumped him, tight jeans, six-string, empty cans of Keystone like a halo around him when he’d play through the night.  Always the same man over and over. She had a thing for being able to picture the next move. That way you can fall into everything, she’d tell me. That way you know how far you’re going to fall.

She didn’t have to tell me: when stereotypes become real, that’s when to run.

At the Steak N’ Shake I’m waiting for a storm to pass. Mississippi to Memphis, torrent to torrent. I’d forgotten how a southern wind can bite harder than a dry cold—the kind wet enough to reach past my coat and clutch my hips, softest part of the sacral ledge. The place where a woman bends and is liable to break. Because I’m far from home, chewing through my straw, because I’m hours from a new year crowning in its lunar canal, I watch the thick wasted blonde a few booths down, her jeans 80’s shredded up to the crotch. She’s ignoring her fries, her man is biting into his burger over and over. I wonder if they are on a date. I wonder if they are drunk. I wonder if this is the first booth they’ve sidled in next to each other, or if they just have nowhere else to go.

Once I lived on a road where women sold their bodies for a fix. There was this one named Tammy—acid washed capris, peek-a-boo stilettos, her toes painted crimson. I was friendly with her in the way a girl needs to be in order to survive, to be open but not so open that what’s breaking inside of her has a chance to slip through her blouse. Open but not so open that the parts of her cossetted and stained by winter don’t surge out like some epileptic miracle.

When I was twenty-four, I drove from Virginia to Georgia through the night without stopping. Two interstates, Atlanta’s Spaghetti Junction.  Every twenty minutes, a voicemail.

He’d say, I’ve smashed everything you left with a hammer. He’d say, I’ve burned all of your clothes. Over and over.

New Year’s Eve, Steak N’ Shake, how the TV station will switch from the baby dropping in Jackson Square to the peach dropping in Atlanta at midnight, always something dropping. Always a sacrifice in order to start over.  And if I stay long enough, I can watch the couple slip past me and out of the door. I can watch them drive off into the night.

And what can I say, I’m always running.

I’m wondering if they’ll park somewhere, go home together, what they’ll mean to each other by morning. 

James Chaarani

James_Chaarani-1James Chaarani’s articles and essays have been published in Instinct, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Fab Magazine. His play, Everybody’s Whore, was named “Best Bet” by Eye Weekly Toronto, and his interactive narrative, Painting the Myth, received a Gold National Post DX Award.

 

White

As we drove north, I watched the city skyline slip away in the rearview mirror. I sighed, releasing a knot from my throat, and took a deep breath. Dylan and I hadn’t said much to one another since I picked him up. I ate my breakfast sandwich and looked up at the sky every so often. There seemed to be murmurs in the clouds as they gathered and rolled.

“Look at it out there,” Dylan said once we left the city limits.

The snow was thick on the highway and molded into the shape of tire treads. The car skidded when I changed lanes. The trees were also covered, balancing heaps of snow on their branches.

“Since we were in University you got me to do stupid shit,” he said. “I think everybody needs a crazy gay friend.”

“They do this stuff all the time in those nature documentaries on the BBC,” I said.

Dylan laughed and turned the radio on so low that we could barely hear it. He began tapping his thumbnail against the side window.

“What would you be doing instead this weekend?” I asked. “Watching TV?”

“Come on, I’m excited. It’s more the unknown that scares me.”

“If you read the winter camping book like you said you would there’d be fewer unknowns. It’s not fair that it’s all on me if something goes wrong.”

 “Well, if you let me drive then you could read it to me. We have five hours, don’t we?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I guess I’m nervous too,” I said.

He nudged me. “We’re going to have fun. Even if we don’t.” He turned and began tapping his thumbnail against the window again.

 *****

We got to the entrance of Algonquin at a quarter after two. The girl at the gate said that it would take us a couple of hours to trek to the lake where we were camping. I loaded the sled with our bags while Dylan sat in the car fiddling with his phone. There were two long poles at the front of the sled with shoulder straps so we could pull it without using our hands. Once I figured out how they worked, I dragged it in a circle a few times to practice. I looked back over at Dylan, who was still in the car. “The sun goes down at five-thirty,” I said. “We should get going.”

He didn’t respond.

“Setting up camp is another half an hour, and we don’t want to get caught on the trail in the dark.”

“It’s not even two-thirty. I just need to do a few things. There’s no reception once we get in there, right?”

“It is the wilderness.”

“Isn’t it better that I get this stuff done now so I don’t worry about it all weekend?”

“I guess so.”

I strapped the sled to my shoulders and turned, staring at the opening in the trees where the trail began. Large birch trunks stood out on either side like pillars leading to a strange world. There was a long hush in the breeze that swam through the branches, which was followed by a silence so loud that it heightened my senses allowing me to feel the depth of the landscape—it was daunting like the open sea. When the wind picked up again, it sent a chill through my body, and brought me back.

I heard Dylan approach from behind so I moved forward with the sled. He mumbled something, but I couldn’t hear him so I stopped and turned but he was just talking on the phone. He put his toque on with his free hand so it sat crooked on his head. I could tell that he was talking to his girlfriend, Sarah. He had an impish grin that he got when she was around. He was a much quieter guy before he met her. Since they’d hooked up though, he seemed to form opinions about things, often trivial things like the lack of taxis in the city, or how they should remove bike lanes because they held up traffic. His opinions often seemed like Sarah’s, to be quite honest. It was annoying, but I guess it was better than him being impartial to things.

My last serious relationship ended just as theirs had begun. Dylan met Sarah the day I broke up with Fouad. Five years of my life felt like a waste, but I knew it was for the best. I’d been trying to convince myself that I loved him for the last two years that we were together, saying “I miss you,” or “I can’t wait to see you,” because I didn’t want our relationship to fail. I was lying to him, as he put it, but I was thirty-three and I should’ve been settled. The thought of going to bars and clubs again to meet people was enough to keep me in the relationship. I think I was also afraid of dying alone, but I guess that’s inevitable. We tried to remain friends after we broke up, but our conversations always turned sour, and I didn’t have the energy for it. We stopped reaching out to one another after only a few phone calls. Maybe I should’ve tried harder.

I continued dragging the sled towards the entrance of the trail.

“Where are you going?” Dylan said, covering the mouthpiece of the phone.

“I won’t go far.”

“Wait for me in there.”

“Okay. Say hi to Sarah for me.”

“Yeah. No, no, don’t worry. We won’t die. Yeah…”

I headed far enough into the forest so I couldn’t hear him talking. There was a beauty in the lack of symmetry of the forest. The land was thick with birch, spruce, and red and white pines, creating an elaborate maze with their branches crisscrossing above me like a gothic canopy. Everything seemed so timeless and uncomplicated, void of the distractions of civilization. This is why I came, I thought.

Some time before Fouad and I had broken up, I found out that I had cancer: stage two Lymphoma. I needed chemotherapy. At first, I thought that if I ignored it and didn’t do the treatments, it would go away, but then I started to smell something rotting inside of me. It was like the scent of human flesh burning. When I started to smell it more regularly, I knew that the cancer was growing. I could almost feel my bowels splitting from the tumors. I finally agreed to the treatments, which were to begin the week after the camping trip but decided that until my hair started to fall out and I looked emaciated, nobody was going to know, not even Dylan. Things were hard enough and I didn’t need the sympathy and tears.

After finding out that I was sick, I focused much less at work, and made inappropriate jokes about world issues during meetings. This got me promoted. At dinner parties, hosted by my more affluent acquaintances, I’d get excessively drunk and ask perverse questions that I’d always wondered about, like whether or not lesbians could be into fisting. Dylan believed that I was committing social suicide, but my comments only guaranteed me a seat at the next party. I also began spending the money I’d saved for a waterfront condo on expensive dinners, designer shoes, and an eight ball of coke here and there. It felt great at first: I was getting all the things I’d ever wanted, but the more I bought, the less satisfied I became.

“Where are you?” Dylan yelled.

The sound of my snowshoes crunching the snow made it hard to hear, so I stopped. “I’m up here waiting for you!” He must’ve been far behind because I couldn’t hear him walking through the snow. It was completely silent.  I read that it was much quieter in the park during the winter because snow absorbs sound. In the absence of sound, the landscape became more potent. I closed my eyes, and felt the air moving around: brushing and stroking me. The smell from the pines lingered in my nostrils. I could feel bark on my skin. It gave me shivers.

“Are you alright?” Dylan asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“‘Cause you had your eyes closed.”

“I was just thinking.”

“O-K,” he said, laughing, like I was mad.

There was a charm in Dylan’s meek manner, but unfortunately he was becoming aware of it. I was happy to see him more confident. He’d come a long way from that quiet kid in class who had all the answers but was too scared to speak. He’d always surprised our professors when they called on him because he was never wrong: statistics, marketing, French—it didn’t matter; he always knew the answer.

He recently got promoted to National Director of Sales at the agency we both worked at, and bought a Lexus the very next day. I didn’t think he was the material type, but when I asked about it he said, “Haven’t you always wanted a Lexus?” There was something different about him after that. I could see it in the way he rolled his eyes, and how he talked back to, say a waiter or a store clerk, when asked a simple question. Beyond his soft smile was an arrogance that sort of crept in.

The truth was that he reminded me a lot of myself only a few months before. Not anymore though.

As we continued on, the trail became more rugged, making it harder to pull the sled through the narrow passages between trees. We had to be extra careful when we crossed a creek so the sled wouldn’t fall into the water. We were losing light, but I didn’t want to say anything to Dylan that would make him worry. Instead, I asked him about Sarah, her friends and family, and whether he thought they’d get married. They’d already discussed it, even though they’d only been dating a few months. He wanted to wait until he had enough money to buy a house uptown. Then we talked about my two-year-old niece and how cute she was. Dylan asked whether I wanted kids, which I sort of did, but thought I never would have, what with my illness.

“Why not?” Dylan said.

“Because.”

“‘Cause they’d get in the way of your career?” He laughed.

“Not at all,” I said.

“What then? Isn’t it easy for you to adopt a kid from some country?”

“I don’t know if it’s easy, but it’s possible.”

“‘Cause of Fouad then? You’re a great guy, you’ll meet someone new.”

I turned to him and shook my head. “I could care less about Fouad. Nice guy, but I’m over him.”

“Well, you’re either lying or you’re in denial. Or you’re hiding something.”

“Why isn’t ‘because’ a good enough answer?”

“Because.”

“Cute. Let’s change the subject.”

As we lost more light, it began to snow. It started with just a few flakes, but soon it was falling everywhere, filling in the forest and clinging to the hemlocks and spruce. Our conversation became thin: we talked about our mutual friends, our mutual enemies, my mother and my sister, and then nothing.

We marched silently.

The forest was endless and there was no lake in sight. After about three hours of trekking, I began questioning whether we’d taken the wrong turn. It was 5:02pm, and the sun was to set at around 5:28pm. “Let’s take a break,” I said.

“Are we almost there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are we lost?” He pulled off both straps from his shoulders and let his backpack drop into the snow behind him.

“I don’t think so. We’re looking for a lake.”

He laughed. “Where’s the lake?”

“Relax! The worst thing to do is to panic! You’d know that if you read the damn book!”

“Okay, okay…easy…let’s think.” He kneeled down and leaned against his bag. “Why don’t we use the compass?”

“Do you know how to use a compass?” I said.

“Are you kidding me? Of course not! You don’t?”

“There’s a trail—why would we need a compass?”

“The snow is covering up the trail!”

“Look, I’m going to run up ahead to see if we’re close to the lake,” I said. “It could be over that hill.”

“You’re going to leave me alone?” he asked, standing up.

“If it’s not close, we have to camp here. We still have to set up camp and we don’t want to do that in the dark. We have twenty minutes of daylight left.” 

It didn’t take me long to get beyond the hill without the sled, but it just led to a valley of trees that stretched miles. I began running as fast as I could thinking I’d find the lake quicker, like it would just appear beyond the next hill. My body heated up, and I could feel sweat forming along my back. It gave me a chill, which was dangerous, according to the book, because it could lead to hypothermia, but I kept running anyway. One of my snowshoes slipped off and I found myself knee deep in snow. It was a struggle to get it back on but I finally did by rolling onto my side and lifting my leg up. I was in the stomach of the forest, every inch of me being digested. The trees teamed up, making it hard to pass, poking and teasing me along the way. I felt that I could beat them, that I had it in me. I grabbed a branch that was at my face, and twisted it, hoping it’d break. It flung back, whipping my cheek. I had to stop. It was getting too dark to continue so I turned around. As I walked back, I undid my shirt so I could get some air to my body. When the wind touched my lower back I knew the weather had changed: it must’ve been at least twenty degrees below zero Celsius, and dropping.

Dylan was still standing in the same spot when I returned, shivering. “Now what?” he asked. It was like he was mocking me, like I was to blame. He could’ve at least read the damned book!

“We set up camp,” I said.

“Where?”

I pointed to a clearing amongst the trees. “It’s just as good of a place as any.” I walked over and flattened the snow with my snowshoes by stomping back-and-forth. Dylan watched for a few moments, and then grabbed his headlamp. It didn’t take us long to set up camp in the dark. When we were done, he got inside the tent and stuck his head back out. “I’m going to sleep,” he said.

“It’s still early. It’s not even six-thirty and you haven’t eaten.”

“I don’t care. I’m cold and tired.”

“It’s because you haven’t eaten.” I grabbed my bag and pulled out a power bar. “Here, have this.”

“I don’t like power bars.”

“I don’t either, but it’s what you’re supposed to eat when you do stuff like this.” I grabbed a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese and handed him a few wedges. “Eat these then.”

He unwrapped one and shoved it into his mouth like a starving child. Then he unwrapped another and another. The edges of his lips had bits of cheese that he didn’t bother wiping off. “Can I have some more?” he asked.

“Here. Did you want a bagel?”

“No.”

“Did you want something else then?”

“No, thank you.”

When he was done, he went back into the tent, so I followed him. As I zipped the fly up, I could suddenly smell the rot inside me again. It came out from my sweaty hands and sat in the air, filling up the tent. I wondered whether Dylan could smell it too—the scent was more acidic than usual. “Are you awake?” I whispered. He didn’t say anything so I got into my sleeping bag and placed my hands in between my thighs. I felt nauseous and light-headed so I rolled on my side and closed my eyes. After an hour of tossing around, I finally fell asleep.

 *****

When I woke up in the morning there was a thin layer of ice on the inside of the tent. I reached up and slid my finger across the surface. Drops of water formed and slid down my hand. Dylan was asleep with his back towards me, breathing heavily. I put my head down and closed my eyes. Just as I was about to fall asleep I heard something tumbling in the bushes outside, followed by the sound of footsteps. I jumped and looked over at Dylan again. “Did you hear that?” I whispered. He didn’t respond. I listened for a moment but all I could hear was the wind whistling through the front zipper of the tent in long strides. I grabbed my pocketknife from my pants, and unzipped the front of the tent. When I stood up outside, blood rushed to my head.

The sun was still below the horizon, creating a silhouette of the entire forest. I could see the outline of an animal, but it took my eyes a second to adjust. After a few moments I realized that I was face-to-face with a large black wolf. I swallowed my scream before it passed my lips. My heart beat violently, pounding at my chest.

The wolf growled. It’s large body bullied with a mass that doubled my own, bulging and flexing to exaggerated proportions. Don’t run, I thought to myself. It’s ears stood up like it heard my thoughts, and puffed, creating a cloud of stream in front of its face. I pointed my knife at it but knew it was too small to fend it off. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst. “Go away. Go away,” I said quietly. The wolf finally turned its head like it was disinterested and retreated into the bush. I listened to it wander back through the forest. I couldn’t believe it was just there, a real wolf, standing in front of me. Is it really gone? I thought. It could’ve killed me.

A great silence fell all around me but with so much more force than before. I was bewildered by it at first, by its vast emptiness that echoed. After a few moments I collapsed onto the snow. “My God!”

“What’s going on?” Dylan said, unzipping the fly of the tent and poking his head out. “What was that sound?”

“That sound?”

“What’s wrong?”

“There was this wolf, it was just right there.”

“What? Where?”

“It was…I scared it away. It was incredible!”

“You’re kidding?”

I don’t know why but I started laughing. “No. I’m serious.”

“What?” Dylan put his hand over his mouth and looked down at the snow. “Jesus. Jesus. We need to leave.”

“Wha-why?”

“Do you realize that those things stalk you?”

“You can’t leave me.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“I need to stay. We scared it and it’s gone.”

“What’s going on with you?”

“It was an animal. What do you expect? We’re in the forest.”

“We’re going,” he said, disappearing back into the tent.

“Why? So you can…go back to the city…and drink your no-foam latte and just pass time…until you die?”

He stuck his head back out. “What are you talking about?”

“I need to do this. I really need to do this.”

“Need to do what?”

“If you don’t stay I’m going to continue by myself,” I said. “This is probably one of the most important things I’ll ask you to do for me.”

“There’s something going on with you that you’re not telling me.”

“We’ve been best friends since university. We do crazy shit for each other, and we haven’t died yet. Remember in Mexico City when we bought that weed?”

“You mean when the drug dealer wouldn’t let us go?”

“We saw a side of Mexico that not everyone sees.”

“We got kidnapped and were taken to the slums!”

“But it didn’t kill us and it’s a great story.”

He pulled out his sleeping bag from the tent and stared at the ground. “Aren’t you supposed to be gay?”

“Is that a yes?”

“We leave first thing tomorrow morning,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “We wake up and go. And if I hear or see another damn wolf, we’re leaving. Both of us! I’ll drag you by your goddamn face! Now let’s go find that lake so we can, I don’t know, snowshoe on it. That’s why we’re here, right?”

“Thank you!”

“You’re nuts!” I thought he was going to cry.

“No, we’re nuts.”

“No, you’re nuts. And you better cook something nice when we get there. I’m so damn hungry I can hardly fuckin’ stand.” He shook his head. “There’s something going on with you.”

“There’s nothing. We’ll be fine. We always have been.”

We packed up camp and continued on. I used the movements of the tree branches to help guide us through the forest. Dylan followed along quietly. When I thought about how I was able to guide us like that, it all stopped. It was as though my mind needed to be inactive in order to obtain those abstractions. I was somehow able to sense our direction through the negative space of the forest. It took us no more than an hour to reach the lake.

“It does exist,” Dylan said.

Most of the lake was covered in snow and ice, reflecting the blue haze of the morning light. The air was moist with light flakes of snow drifting through the sky like ashes.

“This is actually kind of nice,” he said.

“Aren’t you glad you came?”

“Glad might be too strong a word.”

We slowly walked along the edge of the lake until we found a place with enough room to set up camp. “Why don’t I take the sled out and collect wood,” I said. “You can start digging out the fire pit.”

“What do you mean?”

“You use your snowshoe like a shovel and dig out a big hole. Like in the book, remember?”

“Ha-ha-ha. You and your damn book. Where do I dig this hole?”

“Far enough away from the tent so we don’t burn it down.”

As I pulled the sled back into the forest, I lost my breath. It was like the cold had sucker punched me out of nowhere. I fell over going up a hill and when I tried to stand, I fell over again. I pushed on, straining each muscle with thoughts of cooked food warming my stomach. Most of the loose branches were buried beneath the snow which made the collection of the wood a much more difficult task. I found a large tree that’d tumbled over, half-submerged in the snow like a drifting vessel. The smaller branches snapped right off with my bare hands. The larger pieces put up more of a fight so I used the saw that I brought with me. The first few were easy to cut, but I began feeling even dizzier and had to stop and rest. I eventually collected enough wood for breakfast and decided to gather more after we ate.

When I returned, Dylan had finished digging out a fire pit. He was sitting on one of the bags, facing the lake. “I’m so hungry,” he said. “I really can’t stand up.”

 “I know you don’t like those energy bars, but you should really have one just to tide you over until the food is ready.”

“Give me one of those damn things.”

I grabbed one that I’d stored in my sleeve. “It should be soft—I’ve been keeping it warm.” I dragged the sled over to the pit. “You did well. You got all the way to the ground below.”

“Huh?”

“You did well.”

“Shhhh!” Dylan said, turning his head. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I thought I heard a bear.”

“Bears are hibernating now.”

“Not if they’re psychotic.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Then it was the wolf,” he said, looking out into the forest.

“If it’s the wolf, the fire will scare it anyway,” I said, hoping that was true. I built a teepee in the fire pit with the smaller branches and drizzled them with lighter fluid that I’d brought, careful not to use too much. It was only for emergencies. When I threw the match into the pit, the surface of the wood burst into flames, but the fire went out. I had to use more fluid to get it going. After a few minutes, I threw one of the larger logs onto the fire to help produce heat.

“The damn logs are frozen,” Dylan said. “They’re never going to burn.” He was right; it sizzled for a bit and turned black but wouldn’t light.

I could suddenly feel the presence of something watching us.

“I saw a video on YouTube,” I said. “I don’t understand. I did everything right.”

“There’s a damn wolf out there and you’re talking about YouTube?”

“How else am I going to learn?” I drenched the log with the remaining fluid and threw another match onto it. It only stayed lit for a moment and went out again.

I quickly went through the smaller pieces, trying to keep the fire burning. I didn’t take my eyes off the flame, not once, fearful that if I did it would kill the fire altogether.  It didn’t appear to be getting any warmer, but I stared relentlessly with my snowshoe at hand ready to fan at any sign of weakness. I have to be strong, I thought. This isn’t going to kill me.

Twenty minutes had passed, but with no luck.

There was definitely something rustling in the bushes.

“Do you hear that?” Dylan said. He was sitting with his arms tucked into his sleeves.

As I threw the last branch on, a small flame began dancing along the body of the log. I dismissed it at first, and put my head down, but when I looked again the flame had doubled. Within a few minutes the log was burning all the way through. From there on it howled with strength, so I loaded it with more logs.

Whatever it was that was in the bushes left immediately. I was so happy that I did a jig. I hollered, and hollered again. I even attempted a cartwheel but I just fell over into a snowdrift.

I placed the grill over the fire and cooked those damn steaks so they were nice and juicy. I ate mine with my hands, licking my blisters clean.

“Food has never tasted this good,” Dylan said with his mouth full and juice gushing down his face.

Afterwards, I roasted potatoes, toasted some bagels, and melted snow for drinking water. The book was right, you can burn snow, and it tasted just awful like roasted pine needles and metal, but we drank it and appreciated every drop.

 *****

After breakfast we sat next to the tent and looked out onto the lake. Out of the corner of my eye, I felt a surge of light bleed across my lashes. The early afternoon sun peeked in through a break in the trees. Rays of light blasted through the rising smoke. The sun disappeared and reappeared again, each time rising higher than the last. Shadows dragged along the snow like moving stencils, many arrangements displaying the shape of the land. When the sun reached the top of the sky, its light reflected off the snow on the lake. I knew I had to go out there.

“I need to tell you something,” I said. I stood up and closed my eyes. “I have cancer and I might be dying.” Dylan didn’t say anything. He’d fallen asleep. “You’re kidding me,” I laughed. “Well, now you know. So what do you say we go out onto the lake? No? You don’t feel like it? Okay, I guess I’m going alone.”

I walked over and stepped onto the ice at the edge of the lake. It was so much warmer in the sun, so I took my jacket off. I walked to the middle of the lake and looked back at the surrounding forest. I could feel eyes watching me from the shadows of the trees. Maybe they were wolves like Dylan suggested. Maybe it didn’t matter. I got down on my knees so my thighs were half submerged in the snow crystals. I removed my glove and lowered my palm into the snow. Clusters of flakes stuck to my hand. They quickly melted and turned into water, returning back down to where they came from. It was magnificent.

I could still smell the rot inside of me, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. 

Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer is a winner of the 2013 Lilith Fiction Prize, and has had fiction published in Joyland, S-Tick, Extract(s), LABA Journal and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a journalist in New York City with nonfiction bylines in The Forward, The Rumpus, LA Review of Books, Vulture, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine and The Nation, among many other places. Her novel-in-progress, “Joy, Somewhere in the City,” was awarded a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

 

Disorder

Kat was born into famine; her sister Rina into plenty. Kat was black and adopted; Rina – white and “biological.” Kat pursued science, and Rina, drama. Kat was mellow to the point of being taciturn, while Rina had been a babbling fountain of foolishness and song.

Had been.

Kat was alive and Rina was dead.

There were similarities, too. Rina and Kat had both been known as tall, broad-shouldered, standouts. Rina – everyone said in the days after the accident – had been kind.  So had her sister. Such sweet girls, everyone said.

Yet as her grief bit into her, tore into her, melted her bones, the usually mild-mannered Kat, who as an adult had engineered her life to not offend the white people who made up her community, could feel herself turning mean.

Case 1: After the news of Rina’s gruesome and tragic death in front of a subway train plastered the tabloids, Kat’s phone began to ring with regular insistence. Most often, the flashing screen bore the number of her childhood “best” friend Joy. Kat pressed “reject” on her cellphone for two days in a row.

Joy began to try the house phone. Some people could not take a hint. Kat heard her mom, Ellen, sobbing over the receiver in some far, but too near room; imagined her mother and Joy cradling each other’s voices in apartments half a mile apart. Evidently, Ellen did not share her surviving daughter’s aversion to Joy’s partaking of the family tsuris, their loss that was now the entire city’s.

Kat sat at the kitchen table, which smelled of tobacco and sour wine, listening to her mother’s choked voice. She heard her mom say, “Oh, Joy,” and start crying afresh. Her heart hardened even as it broke. She moved to the floor of the hallway, leaned against the wall and listened to her stomach growl, a relentless tiger. She lit another cigarette and erased Joy’s number from her phone.

Case 2: During shiva, she had been given pills by Cameron, her sister’s best gay friend. They loosened her tongue, thus, when she was regaled with Rina stories – some debauched – by Maya, her sister’s best female friend, she replied caustically, “Why should I care?” (But she cared, she cared.)

Case 3: While the cold meats were being put away, she rolled around on her bed with her pseudo-ex Ezra – if endless sexual experimentation in high school and occasionally in college qualifies one as an ex. Ezra was her sister’s best straight male friend, a too-sensitive socialist who was always cause-hopping, being holier than thou, and getting into trouble. As he zipped his pants back up, she told him he needed to “get his shit together.” By which she meant, I want you, but fuck you for not being my sister.

Case 4: There would be no case four. Look at the way things stood. Her sister had had a best friend in every demographic, it seemed. Kat had only her sister, and Joy.

She had to be better, to make Rina proud. So she asked her mom for Joy’s number and arranged to meet her old friend on a stoop on One-Hundredth between Broadway and Amsterdam, a place their childhood selves had determined with mathematical precision was halfway between their homes. Lounging, soda cans in their hands, they’d once regularly discussed Rina’s doings as part of the confabulation. Now Kat relented. They would discuss Rina’s lack of doings and she’d behave.

Rina had died on a stifling August night weeks away from her first marquee role on Broadway; these were stifling August days. Rina had fainted from the summer heat, stumbled, floated through the air onto the tracks as the train pulled in. Or so the cops told them. Perfect drama. Quintessential Rina. These “incidents” with girls fainting, they happened all the time, the cops said. The left side of her had taken the blow; when they asked her family to identify her, they covered that side with a sheet. The rest of her body, tall and broad-shouldered, was recognizable only as the shell that had housed an unstoppable – no, a stoppable – a stopped life force.

“Broadway Beauty Mowed Down by L,” the headlines read. New Yorkers, ravenous for horror, turned the pages on their morning commutes, sweaty fingers staining the paper. Kat lost four pounds. She smoked twenty cigarettes. She had zero sisters.

Rina meant “joyful” in Hebrew because that’s what her parents had been at her birth. Kat had arrived in their arms curled up like a kitten; her older sister had named her on the plane home from Ethiopia. The namer, the knower, Kat’s guardian ever since. Rina had swatted hands away when they tried to touch Kat’s hair; she had snapped “she’s my sister,” when people puzzled out their relationship, and “the Upper West Side,” when they asked where Kat was from. When Kat interrogated her family about her origins, as she had inevitably done at age 15, Rina had supported her: “Yeah, where? Why?” She had approved of the black feminist novels, the African art on Kat’s wall, the radical treatises on her desk, her demands at the dinner table, to her family. “Admit that your white privilege is a problem.”

“We admit it, Kat.”

Of course, Joy had wanted Rina to look out for her, too. Who would not want a protector unafraid to snap unwanted attention from you towards herself? 

Kat and Joy stood in front of their stoop, their empty stoop, unable to make small talk because of the momentousness of Rina’s absence. Kat tried to dismiss the ironic echo, the similarity in meaning between the names of her sister and her former best friend.

“How are you coping?” Joy asked.

“How do you think?”

Kat raised both her hands, gesturing at her face, hoping the deep circles under her eyes might steer the conversation.

“Did it turn out that Rina had been drinking that night?” asked Joy. “I know I shouldn’t ask. But my mom and I were just wondering, you know, if there was anything else to explain…”

“Some wine. Nothing she couldn’t handle,” said Kat. “You knew her.”

“Why wasn’t anyone with her?” Joy asked, her tone quieter yet.

“She wanted to study her lines,” Kat said, feeling the stoop scrape against her bare thighs.

“I just – I’m just trying to understand how it happened. I’ve even gone to that platform myself, you know, to see where – ”

“Okay, so have I. I’m a scientist. I’ve tried to piece it together, but. . . enough, Joy,” said Kat. Enough Joy, to her ears. Her sister had been happy, hadn’t she? Kat’s voice came out cold, but her insides cycloned and roiled. She would never release all of her tears; she would remain a nasty piece of work even as a grandmother, snapping at her grandchildren, unable to forgive their ignorance of Rina.

“How do you think she fell, I mean, did they catch it on camera?” Joy’s voice barely above a whisper. 

Kat didn’t answer. She recognized what Joy was doing, as her own family had done for days, would probably do for years: turning the big question mark about why it happened into little ones about how.

“Was she – was she depressed? Or on any new drugs or anything like that? Sometimes they can make people do things, you know. . . feel things.”

“I don’t know,” said Kat honestly. “Can we take a break from this line of questioning?”

“You know, the last time I emailed your sister, she never wrote me back.” Joy’s voice was plaintive now. “You guys are tough to pin down. We all used to be so close.”

Kat could have told Joy that Rina, busy with rehearsal, always needed to be bugged to respond to emails. She could have told her about her theory – about the heat and Rina’s even more vegan, even more restricted diet for the new role, and about Rina’s history of fainting. She could have told Joy that the idea, this hovering idea that some clandestine fear, depression, agony, misery had gnawed at Rina, and that Rina hid it away from Kat – that this above all threatened to utterly unman her, leave her crawling on the sidewalk, an insane thing, an insect whose wings had been plucked by a cruel child.

So Kat clung to what she couldn’t un-know: intense heat, screeching, thuds, pain, a body broken – all in an instant.

The conductor of the train, his flashlight ducking between the cars, had tried to reassure Rina that help was on the way. She seemed, he told the press, “so lovely, so beautiful.” (Classic Rina – to look beautiful in death – the half of her not mangled, at least.) But no help or comfort arrived.

“I spoke with her that night,” said Kat, amazed that her voice sounded like a voice and not a wail.  “She seemed normal.”

Omitted – the call had been a wheedling request that Kat take care of their parents’ anniversary present. Had she been settling her affairs, or just dumping the task on her sister?

For the life of her, Kat couldn’t remember whether the call had ended with “Love ya” or not. But she had felt it, right? Sisters and best friends, that’s what everyone said at the funeral. “My sister, my shield, my partner,” Kat had said in her eulogy, even then recalling the lines that Rina had needed to rehearse, full of dudes and mans and groovys.

She didn’t tell Joy that after the police had called, had come to pick them up, she had been sure it was a mistake and called her sister, and called her again, and again, and again, hearing the click of the voicemail so many times that she finally had to lean out the window of the police cruiser and throw up.

And then she’d kept calling until, at the precinct, she saw the phone she was trying to reach in a small plastic bag with red smears on its insides.

Now with Joy, Kat let her first barb slip out.

 “I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest. I appreciate your concern, but I feel like we had kind of slipped into an occasional coffee friendship, you know? This heart-to-heart thing is weird.”

Of course, their meeting didn’t feel weird at all, because of the physical memories embedded in this ugly stoop. If things had gone on as they should have, they would just have continued their yearly faux-delighted get-togethers, feet tapping with impatience, or fingers smoothing the velour couches of some coffee shop, bookended by disingenuous assurances of “we should do this more often.”

Joy turned bright red. “Well, we were best friends,” she said defensively. Then her mouth turned into a trapezoid; she whimpered.

Kat sighed, irked by the surge of pity she felt. A wide-openness about the girl reminded her of Rina the way a copy of a painting on a postcard tried too hard to duplicate the original.

But here was the difference – when Rina rushed up to friends’ parents or new acquaintances, and threw her arms around them, when she pulled Kat to her side and said “my sister,” she became addictive. But no one craved Joy beside her, no one.

Joy’s thumbs wiggled inside the tight pockets of her jeans, causing a vibrating anxiety in Kat’s gut. The twitching inched Joy’s shirt up, showing a soft white belly, a previously well-hidden heft protruding over her skinny legs. Kat knew Joy’s body intimately.

They had been best friends.

“Remember playing star fairies?” asked Kat, thinking of their bare legs flashing through the grass in Central Park. “Remember Rina instructing us on how to cast a spell – as if she knew!” Her sister, Kat had come to see in high school, had really not been cool in the traditional sense. She had just been so defiantly herself.

“She seemed to know everything,” said Joy. Joy had never figured out the secret to Rina’s poise.

Joy had despaired when they stood side by side in front of the mirror, as though Rina’s coltish beauty lay hidden on its other side. Kat hadn’t cared, perfectly content with her own practical build. But then, of course, she’d had a sister to call her beautiful.

 “Shall we eat, maybe?” Kat asked.

Kat in these weeks had felt a filmy curtain, a shimmer in the air between herself and the physical world. She reached a hand forward, tried to push through. She struggled mounting and descending the curb, having lost her ability to fathom where her feet should go. She came down too hard or wavered mid-step. She felt like she might pitch forward or back if a gust of wind or an impatient pedestrian hit her, just like her sister had. She groped at door handles and gripped railings like she was old, frail, her bones brittle.

In that trance-like state, Kat led them into a pasta place with an aroma of starch and sweet tomato paste that leaked onto the sidewalk. Only after the bread basket came and Joy eyed it vindictively did Kat learn that her friend was on the South Beach diet.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were off carbs before we went for pasta?” she asked. Joy had been afraid to displease the sisterless one, she guessed.

Joy looked hungrily at the bread. “I need to lose ten pounds by my birthday,” she said.

“October,” said Kat instinctively. “A week after Rina’s. You were birthday buddies.”

They smiled at each other, tentative. Maybe it would be tolerable between them.

Joy ordered a salad that arrived with pale green lettuce and a scattering of purple and orange. She scraped her fork across her small plate while Kat twirled long, dripping pieces of thick spaghetti into her mouth. She ate out of spite and in hunger. The life force asserting itself despite all the cigarettes, the nausea.

“Do you remember how in the children’s choir, Rina always got to do a solo at shul, for Oseh Shalom?” Kat asked, marveling that the joyful words her sister had trilled as a young girl were the same words that closed the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer they’d now say over and over again for her.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

“Yes. Her voice was so. . . I don’t know. Angelic? But goofy; do you remember the trip to Rockland County?” Joy asked.

“She had you singing the ‘Comet’ song.”

Joy chortled and they sang a few bars together, under their breaths. “Comet, it makes your mouth turn green!”

“I thought it was so funny,” said Joy. “Your sister was a budding director, even then. And I was her ingénue.”

Kat detected an emphasis on the “I.”

Kat had gone searching for newts and tadpoles, had held their slimy bodies in her cupped hands, presenting them to the adults, hoping to elicit a shriek. But Rina and Joy, unaffected by nature, put on song and dance routines. It was true: Rina loved to use Joy as a prop, a chorus. Joy would stare at Rina with those round eyes and do whatever she was told.

Kat had been the odd one out, with her science and her stubborn avoidance of show biz.

“Truly epic. How about the summer we got obsessed with judging each other’s dives at the pool?”

“The Barbie soap operas we devised?”

The stories accumulated, exquisite and excruciating.

“Do you remember how you’d always bug Rina when she tried to do her homework?” Kat asked. “You would pad down the hallway and peek into the maid’s room, then Rina’s room.”  The two of them had watched the older girl bent over her homework, or a script, in the light of her lava lamp.

“Leave her alone,” Kat would say. “She’s got to learn her lines.” Rina’s legs would splay out on the bed, spectacularly. Her hand with a pen in it would prop up her chin for so long that her arm fell asleep.

“Yes! And her arm, the thing she’d do? Whipping her arm around and around to get the feeling back?”

When Joy wasn’t around, Rina would let Kat perch on the edge of the bed and braid her older sister’s hair, or massage her shoulders or listen to her run her lines. But Joy was around too often.

Kat waited, pinned down by dread.

“Do you remember how everyone used to think we were sisters?” People always did – always had. They pegged Kat as the friend, the third wheel.

Why had Kat shared so many of her life’s now-finite Rina moments with such a parasite?

At least there was the comfort of the times she’d mocked Joy with her sister, who of course hadn’t always been kind, or generous, or even thoughtful. “Deviated septum my ass,” Rina once said to Kat in a moment of candor, sitting on an island between two lanes of Broadway’s zooming traffic with frozen yogurt cups on their laps.  “Joy’s nose,” they’d squawked. Once aquiline, it lost its bump. Kat had been delirious that day on the street with her sister, arms linked against the world, buoyed by Rina’s vivid energy.

“What are you smiling at?” asked Joy. They stood to leave.

“Oh, just a private joke. Well, not so private, I guess. It was about your nose. My sister found its transformation very amusing.”

Joy’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh,” said Joy. “I didn’t realize you knew.”

You moron, thought Kat. Everyone knew.

“Okay, well, so. . . I guess I just wanted to ask – can we be friends again? Real friends?”

 Kat recited her lines stiffly: “Sure. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

And then the last blow surfaced from deep within her, from a place thick with bile and envy. “Oh, and let me know how the no-carbs thing goes,” she said. “If you do drop those ten pounds, or fifteen maybe, you could fit into Rina’s clothes. Well, her shirts, anyway.”

She didn’t look to see the expression her words left on Joy’s face. She turned around and walked back to the house of mourning, forward on a long black ribbon of time that would take her from this curtained-off half-life to a life that was diminished, but a life nonetheless.

She supposed they would run into each other at some point, and sure enough, about three years after they parted that day at the stoop, Kat arrived at an engagement party on Park Avenue, a twinge in her memory’s muscle asking if she’d see her old friend there. Kat didn’t cry as often now, but she popped antacids like candy.

Sporadic Facebook binges and gossip had told her enough. Maya had had a nervous breakdown; Ezra had become an Orthodox Zealot in Israel; Cameron was gentrifying Brooklyn. And Joy?

“I’m delighted that Joy is doing well again,” said the bride-to-be, Zoë, with a sigh as she ushered Kat through the room. Sporting a big diamond ring, a smile, and a willingness to gossip, she led them to the balcony. To Zoë, this was mere idle gossip.

Kat felt the familiar gauzy curtain fall, partitioning her from her surroundings. Her free hand gripped the brick wall behind her until it hurt. She stopped sipping her champagne, its taste suddenly acrid. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? Have you guys lost touch? Her eating disorder got really bad. She had to be hospitalized and fed through a tube. Poor thing. She’d been dieting obsessively and then it just tipped right over that line.”

Her eating disorder? Was that the South Beach diet? Hospitalized? Kat remembered of course that she’d said a cruel, cruel, thing to her old friend – the words sparkled, knife-sharp, piercing through the humid shroud of that unspeakable summer.

Zoë clucked and hushed her voice.  “You guys growing up together and so on, the thing with your sister hitting her so hard. I thought maybe you’d heard, somehow. Parents or something.”

“Oh,” Kat said, putting on her too-sad-to-talk-about-it face, feeling the brick scrape her palm. Rina would know exactly how to weasel out of this.

“I guess I wasn’t in good touch with anyone for a while.”

“Understandable,” said Zoë. “La vie, eh? So tough. I wonder if she’ll come tonight. I invited her. She’s doing so much better, you know.”

A year before, Kat would have rolled her eyes, unable to shoulder the concept of anyone else’s suffering, even if she’d precipitated the slide into hunger, anguish, feeding tubes. Even now, a sliver of her judgment found something contemptible in Joy’s succumbing to such an illness, an illness that, despite all the medical truths she’d learned about genetics and brain chemistry, she found, well, somewhat narcissistic.

Still, Joy’s round eyes, her irritating questions, her relationship with the mirror and with Rina’s theatrical poise arrived in a new light of desperation, and Kat felt her soul clench with remorse, genuine remorse. Yes, Rina was her sister, hers alone. But Kat had wanted to siphon the sorrow for herself when there was plenty to go around.

What did the scarred-over wounds between them signify, anyway? Joy was “doing great” now. Joy had conquered her demons. Joy had soldiered on without Kat, the shattered sister.

Kat let her champagne glass rest, trying to stitch back together the newly-reopened gashes. Joy showed up half an hour later. The two women circled each other, exchanging pleasantries with others. They smiled over strange shoulders like prospective lovers.

At last, Joy approached Kat, armed with a new confidence, a slimness in the belly, a sense of having survived, and won.

“How are things?” Joy asked. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“It’s been – ” said Kat. “Well, it’s getting better. Well, not better, but bearable, I guess. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch.” She looked down at Joy’s shoes, which came to an abrupt point. Power shoes. Probably Joy had just been asking how things were, in general. She probably didn’t want a report about where Kat had arrived in the five stages of grief.

They spoke of this and that, of Joy’s new career in arts administration – she was working at a theater – and Kat’s promotion at her lab.

“You always did like experimenting,” said Joy. “You must miss Rina. You still go to synagogue right? I’ve gone a few times, wondered if I’d see you.”

“My family stopped going. Like, totally. I don’t really know why, but I actually do go pretty often on my own, and I always go for Rina’s yahrtzheit, just to hear her name and say Kaddish. It’s actually next week,” Kat said, surprised at the rush of words, the lilt in her voice. As though she was asking something of Joy.

“I know it’s next week,” said Joy. “I wouldn’t forget. Hmmm. You shouldn’t go alone. I’ll try to make it.”

Despite herself, Kat nodded.

“That would be so lovely,” she said.

The next Saturday, Kat arrived at the synagogue and looked for Joy, but didn’t see her friend in the lobby. She chastised herself for holding expectations. Why was she here anyway? Because no one else who was close to Rina was. Because here in this crowd, with no other family or friends to mourn, Kat could hear her sister’s voice and be alone with it. Selfish to the last.

But she wasn’t alone. When Kat was nine and lost her grandfather, they called his name from the bimah each Sabbath for a month. Every Friday night, her family stood up to acknowledge their loss, always to Kat’s humiliation and Rina’s perverse pleasure. But on the fourth Friday, Joy came and sat with them. And that night they stood together. They stood up as one family suffering one loss. One family, knit together by Kat, Joy and Rina’s friendship, their voices murmuring the words of the Kaddish in unison. Rina’s voice the clearest, the highest, a voice people said was “destined for the stage,” a voice whose sudden silencing would never, ever end for Kat, even as it receded behind layers of time.

Now, Kat sat in a corner, finding herself looking at the same stained glass, finding faces and patterns in it as she had when she was a girl. Strange that she was the only one in her family who came here, the one who wasn’t born a Jew, the one who baffled people. There were so many things she’d lost since she’d lost Rina. She’d lost her parents coming to shul, she’d lost her ability to empathize, she’d lost her sister as a shield and protector, and she’d lost – she’d pushed away – Joy. They might not have stayed close. But a yearly coffee didn’t seem so terrible.

Loss builds upon loss. A sudden wind sneaks through a cracked window and every thread of the curtain inside is displaced by the movement of its neighbors. The ripples go back and forth, from the threads that are nearest the wound in the glass to the edges of the cloth and back again. 

Kat never imagined she could bear such a thing, but here she sat. She was still here.

She stood up in the pews when the Rabbi read out Rina’s name and craned her neck around to find any other mourners standing. But she was alone, as always, the eyes of the congregation on her, on her skin and on her hair and on the hole beside her where her sister should be. She recited the words of the Kaddish by heart, loud and unafraid, because it gave her comfort, because she would remember always as the ripples slowed but never ceased.

They would never cease for her, but they would never cease for Joy either – for Joy, somewhere in the city, walking forward in her power shoes with her head high, touching the other side of a thousand-threaded curtain, an endlessly shifting curtain of lamentation.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

 

 

R.A. Santos

R.A. Santos is a Filipina-American artist based out of New York City. Her writing and photography have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Kartika ReviewRio Grande Review, and Cleaver Magazine. R.A’s work explores notions of place and impermanence. She currently works in public affairs with a larger focus on art and activism. 

 

Body in Hands

1.         You met him on the street, at fourteen. It was daylight and you were passing around cheap vodka mixed with Sprite in a Poland Spring bottle. Marlene was the one who knew him from a math class; she’d texted because the two of you were bored and he lived close. She offered you a Camel and you took it. He watched as you exhaled, and you felt the hot spotlight of his gaze. The feeling of a man’s eyes on you was a paradox of craving and detesting something all at once. It made you want to hide in your skin.

But he was not a man. He was a skinny, ninth grade boy. And when he said, I love the smell of cigarette smoke, you didn’t notice that his voice cracked, because those were the first words he had spoken to you and not your friend.

People walking on the street stared at the horrific picture of the three of you. Children smoking and drinking in broad daylight. You introduced yourself, and he said, I’m Sam. He watched as you exhaled and you passed him the water bottle.

In a strange way, Sam made you feel comfortable, even in those moments between meeting and knowing. The space between you is fear and love. And even years later, you will be close, but sometimes still exist in silence, like people who were just introduced. He will still sit in your cloud of smoke, breathing in your toxins, never complaining about the closed windows or the graying walls. Still be there just because you asked.

You remember your mother told you once that there are some people who meet and they barely have to speak. They don’t need to think. It happens that fast. It’s like nature, or physics, or a sunny sky after a rainy week. They meet and they never stop meeting. As if they’ve known each other for longer than they’ve lived.

2.         Sam knows nothing about you at home and everything about you at school. He knows how much you hate math, and how much you like to take pictures. He knows that you do homework in your free periods and that you are friends with all the security guards because you stay in the library every day until they lock up.

He is like everyone else in that he gets this look on his face when you speak Tagalog on the phone to your mother. He becomes mystified, in awe. Tries not to make it noticeable, but concentrates extra hard on the floor so that he can listen without looking. Hard consonants spin him into a spell.

He sees your body like the rest of them do, too. Your bra size is that much more exaggerated in his mind, your boobs bigger than even the most voluptuous of your classmates. Your waist is somehow smaller than other girls’ waists. Hair that much longer. Lips fuller. Sometimes, at school, you wonder if people really see you or if they just see some old World War II trope. Everyone says your skin is dark but when you compare it to theirs, it looks more similar than different. The New York winter ravages it into the same dry patches. Skyscrapers block the sun from your pores the same as they block it from everyone else’s.

3.         Sam holds onto his Jewishness like a lifeline. You never really discuss anything too personal, but it is in the way you categorize your lives that you start to know each other. He speaks about his religion in facts: Purim, Passover, Bar Mitzvahs, Seders. You tell him about Confirmation and Communion, how many beads are on a rosary, and together you count how many invisible lines make up the Sign of the Cross.

4.         It was in the way he wanted to know your opinion. It was when he asked for a drawing from your notebook. How he went to your first exhibit at the art school. His face when you talked to other boys. His face when you talked to him. The time when something came up but his phone died, so the next day he told you, I waited for two hours. It was in the four years that you saw each other every day but he never stopped looking. In the way his friends called you exotic and mysterious, but he always said smart and distant.

5.         You hate the idea that we could be together, he told you when you were sixteen. This moment you will remember forever. I don’t know what you’re talking about. His breath was the whole contents of an Old English 40 oz. and his temper was carbonated. You know what I’m saying.

One of your friends stumbled over and dragged you away. I’m stealing her! She’s mine! They handed you another beer and tugged at your hands until you were dancing, but you could feel his eyes on your back. Later, when the last song had run its course, you tried to find him to take the train home like always but he’d already left.

6.         It was always at night when it would happen and it was always while you were asleep. The only way you knew was, when you’d open your eyes and a figure snuck out the door. Your room was so dark sometimes you felt blind.

7.         One day he starts sitting at the opposite end of the room. He has been talking to a girl with wavy hair and long eyelashes. She is nothing at all like you. She is calm and laid back. Likes comic books and is good at science. Her family has cartons of Parliaments that they share, because they smoke openly in their house.

He begins leaving class for ten minutes at a time and coming back with a goofy smile on his face. In the library, they do crosswords together, hunched over the table looking for words they don’t actually care about finding. Someone tells you that they went on a date. Another person says they saw them at the movies. He stops answering your texts, and when you hear her whisper to her friend, Sam asked me out, you feel your whole teenage universe come crashing down. It’s in that moment that everything you ever wanted becomes so clear and then so far. This is how you know.

8.         He disappears, gradually, from the parties. Spends time with her indoors. Every Friday and Saturday, you find yourself dressing with the idea in your head: I wonder if he’ll be there? And even if he never is, you repeat this cycle every seven days.

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

 

9.         In May, the letters come in. Everything becomes about tuition. For some people, the story of school is about serendipity: I felt at home as soon as I stepped on campus. For others, it is about bills: Where can I get the most money?

Everyone has their dream place, but few get in and few can pay. Really, when a decision like this comes around, it is not a question of want and more a question of ability. Financial aid is announced and you go one place. Most people from your school go to the state university. I don’t really have a choice, he tells you. But then he leaves something out. One day you walk into the college counselor’s office, and there is Ana, putting a deposit into an envelope with a familiar address. Suddenly, you feel like you’re watching your whole life ending with one lick of a stamp.

10.       At graduation, he says the first thing he’s said to you in months, which is, I wish she and I were going to different places.

And you say the last thing you’ll say to him for months, which is, But you aren’t.

11.       Everyone puts up pictures in their dorm rooms, but you wish you could put up your memories. In a perfect world, you would pin that first cloud of smoke with a thumbtack. Your bulletin board would have all the words he’s said to you. Pushpins would anchor knowing grins across classrooms. Blue tacks would connect the walls around you to the sound of two people laughing at once. 

12.       College has you on the computer constantly. You start taking photography classes and when you’re not looking through a lens, you are looking at a screen. You spend your time editing, manipulating, saturating, animating. Making life into something else. On late nights, you log into instant-messager, hoping for some old friend to be awake and willing to procrastinate alongside you. It becomes clear that his name is always there. That username – a mess of adolescent humor and misspellings – constantly plastered in the space of the screen that Adobe does not fill. It is there every day – popping up at night and staying until the morning. You cannot hear Sam or see Sam but you watch, nonetheless, until Sam becomes just a name, or a word. A screen. A conversation that does not get started. You wonder if he is also looking at his computer and watching for your word to become a message. If somewhere in upstate New York he is also waiting with tunnel vision.

Those minutes on those nights are seas of anxiety. Names on lists glare back like pennies in a tourist wishing well. The minutes are the quietest galaxies where nothing is said and everything is hoped. They make you wonder: where are the words in silence?

13.       It happens at night in the middle of a heat wave. You are home for the summer after college and he shows up at Marlene’s apartment. You and some friends have been drinking wine from the bottle all night and lamenting the lack of air conditioning. When he knocks on the door, he finds you gulping down Riesling that still has the price sticker on it. You have not seen each other in at least a year, but when your eyes meet it becomes the most uncontrollable reaction. Mouths turn up into wide smiles. Shoulders relax. I missed you.

The heat wraps around the room like a wool blanket. He takes out rolling papers and makes you cigarette after cigarette. Ana smokes, he explains. Yes, you say. You remember. She doesn’t like to buy them, he says. So I just sort of picked it up.

The night unfolds like a pre-pubescent crush. You sit closer and closer to one another until finally you are both on the couch. A few people have left, but neither of you pays attention and eventually his arm finds its way behind your back. It’s high school all over again. No more computer screens, no blinking cursors waiting for an instantaneous response. Just the two of you, talking. Staring.

Marlene yawns and pulls you and him over to the mattress on the floor. You all lie down and the two of you are awkward at first, but then you find a place between his shoulder and his forearm and it feels too safe to leave. It is not long before Marlene gets bored of the bed and wanders into another room, where the last guest is packing a bowl.

You take the final drag of your cigarette before stubbing it out. This is the closest proximity you’ve ever been to him. It is the line in desire between fantasy and reality. The wine has you drunk, but you start to get nervous thinking about all the times you’ve dreamed of this and all the time he has, too. His body is as bony as it was when you first met him. You are about to comment on this, but then he says, In high school, I liked you. It is an avalanche of upset. You cannot find your words. It becomes ping pong game of secrets:

                    You were so hard to get close to

I was afraid

                    It made me hate you

I made a mistake

                           You are so beautiful

__________ __________ __________

                             I wish I had known

I wish you had too

                              It’s too late now

Everything changed

                               Sometimes, I wonder if it had been you and not her.

I wish we were still kids.

He touches your waist and asks. but doesn’t wait for a response. He kisses you, and in an instant it’s a thousand thoughts spinning out of control inside your head. You are still lying down and his body is on yours. If he were a flavor, he’d be sweet. You have a preteen reaction to his lips: shock, confusion, awe, but most of all, self-consciousness. Panic. The two of you have always been so in tune and it’s been a year but he still knows your feelings when you say, I don’t know what I’m doing.  And you still know his feelings when he says, I can’t do this.

15.       All it ever takes is a pause, and when that happens, everything is retracted. If the night is in motion, you are the finger that presses Rewind.

Limbs between limbs and

Lips on lips

His hand on your face

Can I kiss you?

In one second, you reverse. Your hand on his chest and your breath on his neck. He gets up a million times and lies back down again. Don’t leave. Tries to kiss you and you pull away. You avoid his eyes, but stare into his shirt. Please stay. You want to be in this place forever. 

I feel like I don’t know you at all, he says. 

Sometimes it’s like talking to a stranger. 

Tell me something,

               anything. 

16.       Your body can tell the story of all the things he doesn’t know.

Your feet could say the places they’ve walked. The hallways they’ve wandered. Dirt roads on trips back home. Churches and seminaries. Chapels and convents. The cold linoleum tile of a sterile outpatient ward. How one anti-depressant made all the blood rush to your toes. How another made you feel like you were walking on clouds.

Your thighs speak to the one time, when you were younger, when your dad was still drunk every day. Your thighs know the kaleidoscopic web of burst blood vessels that decorated your legs. Continental-sized bruises coloring your limbs blue, yellow, purple. The place where the other end of the belt hit and the metal latch dug into the muscle so that when you tried to walk away, you limped. The next day was the first time your dad went sober, and your mother slept with her arms wrapped around you for three weeks.

Your wrists still have the shadows of middle school. Soft, pink lines where scar removal cream failed. It would be the story of pocketed XACT-O knives from the art supply closet. The sting of your mother’s tears as they fell into open wounds.

The torso holds memories of skin on bone. An upper body that looked like a harp, every rib a string to be plucked. Anyone who got close enough could hear the symphony of an empty stomach. The rumbling of gas and air as you digested vacant space. Your concave gut singing the song of six years spent chewing gum. Of losing vision when you stood. Hair falling out. Stripping naked every morning on a scale full of hope. Sometimes, your heart might say, the sound of speeding up whenever Sam was close.

But your breasts could tell the most. They are oversized and full, perfectly formed in acute post-puberty. Even now he looks at them, like they all did in high school, but if he really saw them he’d find tiny white stretch marks that trace lines along the undersides of each breast. They are like rings on a tree trunk: they tell you about years. This one is 2001 and you’re twelve, and your chest inflates too quickly for your skin, so as they grow, they leave marks. This one is 2002 and the tissue swells, overflows until you cage them in underwire. Men stare at you on the street, calling, Nice tits. Shouting, I’ll show you what a real man feels like. This one is 2003 and your uncle lives with you. The lines are a young body in old hands. They are the things you can’t say.

17.       The next week becomes a series of messages written but not sent. It is a full Drafts folder and an empty Inbox.

On Tuesday you write, I was too drunk. And on Wednesday you try, Can we talk? At dinner with your parents on Thursday, you type under the table, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Friday night, Marlene invites you to the bar where she works. There might be a job opening up and you’ve been looking for extra hours. It’s a cigar joint right next to that famous steakhouse in Williamsburg, so it’s not difficult to imagine their clientele. The tips are unbelievable, Marlene told you. All I have to do is light their cigars and laugh at their shitty jokes. Wear heels and put on some makeup. The one time you’d worked as a hostess, you got fired because you refused to flirt. That’s dumb, you told your boss. That’s the job, she told you.

The bar is not very big and you show up wearing both heels and makeup. You have a sheer nude shirt on and it contrasts against your skin, which is so yellow in the winter but so brown as soon as the sun comes out. Marlene told you to wear the black skirt, so that is what you have on, and while you walk from the train to the subway you hear the anonymous echoes of men’s thoughts escaping their mouths.

                         Chinita, you are so fine.
                                   Hey Baby, I like how you look.
                                       I could watch you all day long.
                                 Mami, I wanna know your body.
                         Come on. Give me a smile. 

Marlene greets you the way she greets the businessmen who filter out of the restaurant and into the bar. She grins and runs a hand through her hair. Good evening, welcome to Velvet. A tall, handsome man comes up behind her. He has evenly-tanned skin and a shaved head. No more than forty, you think. Maybe forty-one. He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and his upper body is sculpted with the dedication of an obsessive vanity. You know him already. He is Marlene’s boss, Phillip. You like Phillip because he played along when you said, I’m twenty-three, I promise, and he let you drink for free since, Marlene’s his girl.

So, you down for the job? he asks. His eyes scan up and down your body, lids lifting and falling as he goes from head to waist to hips to soles. You’d be great. I could train you after we close. 

18.       After hours, the bar is quiet and small. You sit on a stool and he shows you how to light a cigar. Use the tallest flame, he explains. Rotate it like this.

Together you go through a bottle of red wine as you go over time sheets. You’re better than Marlene, he says. She’s the best hostess, but that’s all she is. You are something else. It is not very clear what he means by this, but with recent events, you take it as a compliment. He invites you to his apartment upstairs for a cigar, and then a joint. Smoke with him and talk to him. Think, this will be good. Think, a job will distract me.

When you look down to stub out the cigar, he takes your face in his hands and kisses you. I’m nineteen, you say. That’s fine, he says. You take a
second to pause and consider it, and even though that’s not what you came for, you realize, like a little girl, that this is an opportunity. Okay, just for practice. The fortyyear-old man looks at you and laughs. What the fuck?  So you say, I don’t have a lot of experience, as if that is a logical argument.

But even if you are a prude who’s been lost in her own fantasies, the first time you realize the way a kiss can escalate is always a shock. It starts with you thinking, I’m going to practice making out, and it becomes your legs on either side of him. Heart rates go up and each breath becomes a gulp. Phillip carries you up the stairs and onto his bed. It is very dark in the room. He starts at your feet and moves his hand up your thighs. Kisses your stomach, then your ribs. He pins your wrists above your head. Unbuttons your shirt. Unclasps your bra. With both hands, he touches your breasts.

               Your body can tell the story of all the things Sam doesn’t know.

Being naked like this is a disorienting experience. It’s like being an adult but feeling like a kid. Phillip is the farthest thing from a boy; he is a man, and now the story has become an old body in young hands.

When he spreads your legs, you let him. But as soon as he touches you, your nerve endings die. You go numb. Cold. It’s like something switched. As if you are floating somewhere above yourself. You’ve heard about this kind of thing happening, but you didn’t know it would be so literal.

There is no feeling, but there is movement. At that moment, he is the most alive person you have ever seen. There is a tangible difference between you. He keeps looking at you but you look away. He is here and you are somewhere else. Finally, you say, I’m tired, and move to the edge. On your side now, you feel his arms around your waist. Hear his voice in your ear, Goodnight, Yana. Soft strands of chest hair against your back. His breath on your neck. You want to cry and when it seems like he’s fallen asleep, you crawl out of Phillip’s bed and cover your body with blankets. At four in the morning, you sit on the floor of a man’s room, and you write a note to a boy. 

19.       Years later, in college, you stand at the back of the crowd for an event led by a women’s group. It has been months since you’ve even thought about Sam. Messages were, as always, never sent. Words never spoken. And when you returned to school, you decided, chance missed. Sam still wrote to you now and then. Told you things about him and Ana. You talked about your work, the photo thesis you’d been planning. I’m glad you kept up with it, he said. I remember your stuff from school.

By now, you have met someone else and it has been the greatest revelation because, in some way, you never thought it would be possible. He is the first person to make you think, maybe that wasn’t it, and his words and his thoughts consume you like the strongest gust of wind. The first night you spent together, he pointed to the black-and-white blow-up on your wall and smiled when he said, That’s my favorite picture.

When he looked at you, he saw your eyes before anything else. In the morning, you didn’t even realize that it was your first morning with anyone. Sunlight from the window washed your bodies in honesty and every piece of you that was ever shrouded in darkness or quiet or creams was suddenly there, but you kissed him with closed eyes and you couldn’t see the light, all you could do was feel it.

And yet, six months later and here you are again. Behind a sea of people with him at least one hundred bodies away from you, standing at the front, holding the hand of a girl whom, after a moment of silence, takes the stage to say the words that many other girls before her have said this night. The event takes place in the dark, and the only ones speaking are the women at the podium, so that the rest of you stand to listen in a hush, faces lit by candles. It is beautiful, really. It is tasteful, really.

When you lost your voice was when you lost your nerves, the second you were touched but not looked at. You were in bed with him and it happened again, just like you remembered it did with Phillip, just like it did with Sam. The next day, your voice box was empty, and sitting in class with him became an out-of-body experience of looking at your hands shaking, legs jerking, hairs standing up and pores brimming over with a cold, nervous sweat. It became painful to watch yourself, and he said the same things that Sam did. He said, communication and closeness. Why won’t you talk to me and Say something. Say anything.

His new girlfriend is standing at the podium and her voice is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard. She is amplified by the supersonic power of the microphone before her, and she says the words, keeps saying the words, that you can never seem to say. 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ , 

          they go on forever 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ . 

                    as if she’s said them before and she’ll say them again 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _______________________________________ _____________ ! _____________ _____________ 

                              and you listen in the quietest galaxy of a crowd in tears 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________  _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ ? 

          you watch as he goes up to hold her when she starts to cry, too

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________, _____________ _____________ _____________

               think, 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ .

 

               my body can tell the story of all the things She will always know

 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ 

wonder,

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ , _____________ _____________ _____________ .

                                                                                                                   where are the words in silence

 

 

Sara Henning

sara henning picSara Henning’s poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Bombay Gin, Willow Springs, and Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

 

 

Cutting It Down

My mother, the apple tree, her house in Des Plaines.

My mother, turning pages with juice-stained fingers, entire afternoons of books and wind. Sparrows’ toes tempting her to become part tree, part girl.

Then Dean Martin gushing through the living room windows. Then time to hide the children.

Memories are made of this, her father’s voice joining the lilt. Sixth Martini. You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.

Her body dropping reckless from branches, plucking toys from her sibling’s hands. Sister on her hip, palm hard against her brother’s back. Up the stairs, shoes shorn for soft stepping, into closets. Cotton and leather to swathe the body. Silk for the face.

Always a different location. A game of memory.

Bedroom, crawlspace, bathroom cabinet. Wherever their bodies, contorted into shapes of fear and corduroy, could slink. Linen or bivouac. Whichever safety would hold them.

Breathe lightly, she’d tell them. Gather your breath into a small orb of light and hold it in your chest.

Stockings stained with cinder, upstairs fireplace. Children still as lamps, children behind curtains.

Hold it there. Like they’d entered a game of waiting.

Try not to let go.

Needle grafting the record’s face, the return to song. Her father’s voice, her mother’s voice.

Leave them alone, like her mother would say on Saturdays in autumn, when he’d spend mornings raking, then burning leaves. When he’d return to the pile from a break with the paper to find the gold and burnish ravaged, stains of laughing and jumping, a trail of things dead and glowing.

Her youngest running to show her the rake-shaped marks on her legs.

Leave them. The bodies, tucked away. The bodies unheeded.

Leave them. First, soles of leather shoes slapping wood. Then restlessness, small things curling away from their latitude, their longitude. The ripping apart of drawers, waspish oblivion. Kicked cat, kicked dog. How his body looks when it touches the bed. How his body, in blackout, is still reaching.

Gather the children like apples, turn them over in her hands.

When she returns from school and the apple tree is gone. Hollow, he’ll tell her, spectacular with rot. The next storm would fill it with a rage of water. The house would lurch when it split the roof. Have mercy, he’ll tell her, on a thing that will fall.

The tree, not the fruit now bitten.

The book, not the hands that clutch it.

The wind, toes of sparrows, not the leaves that hang, not the rain still clinging.

Never the apples, brutal.

Never the storm.

Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman - Broken LinesJudith Skillman’s poems and collaborative translations have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, Ezra, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, The Pedestal Magazine, and numerous other journals. She’s the recipient of an award from the Academy of American Poets for her book Storm (Blue Begonia Press.) Two of her twelve full-length collections of poems (Red Town and Prisoner of the Swifts) have been finalists for the Washington State Book Award. Visit www.judithskillman.com or see her blog on techno-bling: abricabrac.com

                                                         

Me and Claire Marie

           Theresa Vadio is one year and three months older, but she likes to hang out with me because, as she says, “You’re cool for a ten year old.”  I’m cool because I’m growing breasts, and Theresa already has them, but no one has breasts the size of her older sister, Claire Marie—not even the pin-up girls her father keeps under the phone books, on the night table beside the bed.

          “Not there, here—put it on top of the other one, Eva, in the same order,” Theresa says.  Order is important when storing her father’s Playboys.  

          “Where’s August?”

          “August hasn’t come yet, silly.  It doesn’t come ’til the end of July,” Theresa says, bossy because she knows more than me. She doesn’t want me to ask questions about the women posing naked on the shiny pages.  They stand with their hands on their hips, and sometimes their backsides face us as if there were nothing to be ashamed of.  Twisting her head around to pout at the camera, one of them looks barely older than Claire Marie. 

          “This model is like your sister,” I say.

          “Yeah, just look at her expression; she’s sulking over something,” Theresa says.

          The centerfold, Miss July, lies on her side, propping herself up on one elbow.  Her see-through pink nightgown has fallen open but she doesn’t seem to care.  She should be embarrassed, lying there naked, but she smiles and winks at us as if she knows some secret she’s not going to tell. 

 

          Our townhouses in Maryland—converted barracks built during World War I—have the same floor plan: living areas on the bottom floor, three small bedrooms and a bath upstairs.

          In our house the third bedroom is my father’s study, where he peers at columns of numbers from behind thick tortoise shell glasses all night long.   The numbers have something to do with the age of the sun. They run across the pages, quick and mysterious, like the roaches that come out from hiding places at night to eat crumbs. 

          The third bedroom in Theresa’s house, barely larger than a closet, belongs to Claire Marie.  Sometimes her mother, a plain, quiet woman, walks upstairs and stands in front of the closed door.  She stands there for a long time, on the verge of going in to talk to Claire Marie, who spends, in her mother’s words “too much time alone in her room.” 

          I give her all my love…

          That’s all I do–oo.

          And if you saw my love

          You’d love her too–oo.  

          Theresa puts the needle in the groove for the twentieth time.   It’s easier to slow dance than to do the twist in the heat.  Our arms make circles in humid air, exactly the right amount of space a boy would take up. The air conditioner, a brown dinosaur, set into the casement window at the top of the stairs and held there by metal clamps, makes a ruckus, but does nothing to cool us down. 

           We have to sit out “Love Me Do,” flapping the newspaper fans we’ve folded painstakingly in half-inch strips.  The ink has rubbed off on our fingers, and our palms are gray.  We love to discuss which Beatle is our personal favorite.  Theresa’s stuck on George. 

          “George is the genius behind John,” she says.  “John’s name may be on more songs, but the songs belong to George.  Come on, Eva, you have to love him. Besides, he’s so skinny.  He has brainpower.  OOOOOOhhh.”

          It scares me when she squeals.  I worry she’ll faint in the heat and I’ll have to revive her.  For weeks I have been trying to talk her over to Paul, but he’s the popular one and she steers away from the in-crowd.  Maybe because she’s kind of fat and looks drab in her school uniform.  She’s not the sort of girl that boys would look at secretly or ask out.  Maybe because she’s so smart.

          Once, while we were in the kitchen making root beer floats, I overheard Theresa’s father.  He called Claire Marie a bimbo, and said she would only be good at staying home and having babies.  I asked my friend what a ‘bimbo’ was.  She thought it meant that Claire Marie was failing ninth grade.

          The flowers on Theresa’s living room sofa are so large and dark they look like stains.  I like her house because of its different smells and tastes.  The odor of schmaltz doesn’t exist here, with its cloying richness, but in its place is something I like better: bacon.  The slabs are flat and pink when Theresa’s mother lifts them from plastic; then they crumple and twist on the frying pan.  The house is full of the sound of their sizzling.  Even though I promised my father I wouldn’t, I take the slice that’s offered.

          I live for the TV dinners Mrs. Vadio serves on Saturday evenings, when we each get our own folding metal “TV table” and sit together in front of the color TV watching Walt Disney.   With the lights darkened, the square of the TV screen hovers in the corner, the color of coral, emitting those mysterious waves my father warned me about.   After the show, on summer nights when it stays light until 9, we open the drapes.  Even the way evening falls is strange–on account of the word “catholic,” which I heard my father use while talking to my mother after dinner one evening, just before he switched to Yiddish.  They use Yiddish when they don’t want me to understand them.  It works.

          “I’m worried about Eva, spending so much time with that goy family.”
          He thought I had gone upstairs to my room, the one that faces Theresa’s across the playground circle.  But I was hovering on the bottom step, within earshot. 

          “Shhh…she has big ears,” my mother said.

          “So her ears are radar dishes.  We need to discuss this.”

          “The girls are friends.  What right have we to separate them?  This isn’t Germany.  There are no more ghettos.”

          His reply was guttural.  “Ses passt nischt.”  It had an air of finality, and my mother turned back to her dishes, banging the pots and pans with such a vengeance that I was afraid I might not be able to see my friend Theresa anymore.

          In Theresa’s house there are statues of Jesus in the dining room, the living room, and bedrooms.  Some are porcelain, some plastic.  His brown eyes are like a doe’s, and he stares down from pale eggshell walls, bleeding continually from small wounds in his wrists and side.  Theresa has a rosary that reminds me of the red beads my grandmother wears around her neck to keep away the evil eye.  She shows me how to say the prayers.  You hold a bead and say, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  Then you move on to the next bead.

          “No, Eva, you’re running the words together.  You have to pause between each part.  Take your time. Otherwise you have to go back and do it all again.  Remember the time when Claire Marie went to confession, and she came home crying and stayed in her room for three days and wouldn’t eat? She had to say a hundred Hail Mary’s and fifty Our Father’s.  You can bet she took her time over each word.”

          “What did she do? ” I ask.

          “I have no clue, but it was a mortal sin for sure,” Theresa says.

          “Mortal instead of venial?”  I am shoring up my knowledge, trying to use the right terms.  Theresa likes to explain things to me.

          “Yes, definitely mortal.  If you have just one mortal sin on your soul when you die, you go to hell.”

          “With the venial kind you go to purgatory—”

          “You go to purgatory and burn until you have been purged and then you move on up to heaven,” she finishes.

          Claire Marie walks into the living room.  She has dark smudges around her eyes, and her lips look like she’s just finished eating a cherry Popsicle.  She wears short-shorts and a halter-top that criss-crosses. 

          “Hey punk,” she says, grabbing Theresa by the arm.  “Let’s slow dance.”

          “Dad told you not to make fun of me and my friends,” Theresa says.

          “I’m not making fun,” she says, and starts singing “My boyfriend’s back so we’re gonna have a party, hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back,” waltzing Theresa back and forth across the room.

          “Claire-Marie.  Come here,” Mr. Vadio calls from the kitchen.

          “Is Dad home?  Jesus, I thought he was at work,” Claire Marie says.  She grabs Theresa’s sleeve and wipes the make-up off her eyes and lips.  Then she walks slowly into the kitchen.

            “What’s this about your boyfriend?” Mr. Vadio asks.   “I thought we had an understanding.”

          “Dad, that was just a song.  It’s number one on the charts,” Claire Marie, says, her voice rising.

          “Go to your room.  You are too young to have boyfriends.  Go to your room and think about what you’ve done, and then we’ll see,” I hear her father say from the Formica table in the next room.

          “But Dad, I have to study for summer school,” she pleads.

          I hate the sound of supplication in her voice.  As if she knows it’s futile to plead but she must beg anyway.

          “Claire Marie, you lied to me.”

          “Dad, I told the truth, I swear.”

          “Don’t swear young lady.  Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Mr. Vadio says.

          I see Claire Marie standing with her back to me, in the doorway.  She clasps her hands behind her back and extends her middle finger.  “She’s giving him the finger,” Theresa whispers in my ear.

          “What’s that mean?” I say.

          “It means she’s still going to have boyfriends.”

          Her father opens the fridge and gets himself a beer.   It makes a great big pop. We know her mother will be mad when she gets home, and we direct our prayers to the virgin mother to atone for Claire Marie.

          While my lips move over the prayers, I sit in my corner by the coffee table.  I get a knot in my stomach, and worry that Mr. Vadio will see through my lies as well.  I’ve promised not to eat bacon and not to say prayers to Mary or Jesus.  I’ve told my parents that Theresa and I go roller-skating, when we really listen to music and say the rosary. 

          If Claire Marie is going to hell, I must be going there too.  There’s nothing I can do about it, nothing anyone can do.  The fact that hell also exists in my house, in a different way—as a “conception,” my mother says, “a place as awful as you can imagine,” makes me worry even more, and I get my first pimple—a red dot on my chin.   

          “Dear God,” I say to the ceiling at night, “Please don’t let Mr. Vadio find out that Theresa and I read his magazines.  Anyway we never really read them.  We just looked at the pictures.”

          My mother is cleaning my room because it’s a pigsty.

           “How can you live in such a pigsty?” she asks, her voice rising, but it’s less a question than a statement of fact.

          Because I’m a pig, I think to myself.

          “What’s this?” She pulls out my prize from under a pile of clothes and shoes, the necklace of glassy red beads Theresa gave me, and holds it away from herself, at arm’s length.  The silver cross hangs down, flashing like a mirror.  “Oy vey.   Oy vey zmere,” she hisses.  “A rosary?  Your father will have conniptions if he sees this.   He’s afraid the Vadio’s will convert you, make you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, of all things. Go and flush it down the toilet.”

          To my mother the rosary is a threat only in that it has the power to keep me apart from my friend.  She doesn’t believe that I’ll fall for the story of Jesus the Savior of mankind, hook, line and sinker. 

          She squints at me and says some things in her other language, strange sounds deep in her throat.  My rosary.  When I drop it in the bowl it coils at the bottom.

Michelle Auerbach

Michelle Auerbach’s work has been published in Van Gogh’s Ear, Bombay Gin, Xcp, Chelsea, and The Denver Quarterly, and anthologized in The Veil (UC Berkley Press), Uncontained (Baksun Books), and You: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person (Welcome Table Press).  She is the winner of the 2011 Northern Colorado Fiction Prize and has a book of poetry forthcoming from Durga Press.  Her novel, The Third Kind of Horse is out soon from Beatdom Books.

 

Geriatric Safe Sex

I found my niche at the AIDS Hotline without even planning it.  When I was hired, I wondered why.  I don’t speak Spanish or French; I don’t represent any community in need of services.  When Kevin was hired, we all knew he was the junkie, but me?  I figured they hired me to get the coffee.

The phone rang one day and Melody answered it.  She kept yelling into the receiver, “I can’t understand you, I don’t speak German.”  Melody has no patience, so she put the call on hold and looked around. I tried to seem busy doing something other than looking at Simone. 

“Lyssa, can you take this?  I can’t understand a word the woman is saying.”

“Sure.”

I punched the button and got someone who could have been my grandmother speaking a mixture of Yiddish and English with a heavy accent. 

Nu, you are?”

“My name is Lyssa, can I help you?”

A gezunt ahf dein kop, Lyssa.  It’s difficult, but I think I might have a farshlepteh krenk, the AIDS.”

“How’s that?” I’m thinking how is this possible?

“I live in the Montefiore retirement community, shayna, you heard of it?”

“Yes.”

“Up here, none of us, we cannot get pregnant, and my Morris, zikhroyne livrokhe, he’s gone, and so we spend some time together, intimately, you know?”

“Who does?”

“Well, tukhes oyfn tisch, shayna maildeleh, we all do, Mr. Krupnick, Mr. Goldbloom, Mr. Fingerman . . . “

I had to pause to take a breath here and not scream, “My grandma’s getting some.” Instead I sound really professional and not very interested.

“I need to ask you some personal questions Mrs. . . . “

“Call me Dottie.”

“Dottie, are you having intercourse with those men, or oral sex, can you tell me?”

“Intercourse, yes.  And oral sex, but dear, it’s not just me, its all the girls. A deigeh hob ich, but I do worry. You know some of them men are still good dancers, and some can still schtup.  I prefer the ones who can schtup. A volf farlirt zayne hor, ober nit zayn nature, you know, you may get old, but you feel young.”

“How many sexual partners have you had this year?”

“Excuse my gerbochener Englisch, bubbeleh, I think ten, or twelve.”

          So this is what they are doing in old folks homes.  Maybe by the time I’m eighty there will be lesbian retirement communities.

“Are you using condoms?”

“No dear, no one here can have babies any more, and a lung un leber oyf der noz, I don’t want to think myself into getting anything else.”

Great, how do you convince someone like this to use a condom?  I decide on my best granddaughter voice.

“If I sent you some, would you use them, Dottie?”

“Could you?  Is that your aitzeh? That would be wonderful, we are balebatisheh yiden, you know, good people, we want to do right.”

“Perhaps you should think about getting tested for HIV, we have a center in the Bronx, could you get there?”

I was imagining senior day at the DOH.

“Yes, I want to know if I am ahf tsore, in trouble.  Can I make appointments for a bunch of alte kochers too?”

“Your sexual partners?”

“Them too, alten boks, all of them.”

I made appointments for twenty-two old folks to get HIV tests.  God save them if any one of them is positive, with all the partner swapping and bed hopping.

After that Dottie would call just for me, she refused to speak to anyone else.  I got to talk to many of the residents of the Montefiore Senior Home in the Bronx, and they were having a lot more sex than I was.  Mr. Liberman did not want me to tell his daughter he was talking to me.  Mr. Berger wanted to know if I would come and visit, was I cute?  Mrs. Steinberg wanted more condoms.  One woman, Mrs. Cohen, she had four partners that week.  She wanted to know if it was okay to sleep with that many people in a week.  I told her, as long as you’re happy and safe.  She said she was.  “I miss my late husband, don’t get me wrong dear. I miss him like a hole in the head every day.  This is good.  But it’s not like being married.”

In the category of things that make you think, this one stopped me.  Promiscuity is good, but not as good as commitment.  I looked across the desk at Simone.  What would it be like to come home to her every day, to pass my day under the light of her brain.  I’d probably never find out.  How could I even tell if I’d get to go home with her again?

Why is it that the gay boys get to do it, the old folks get to do it, and the lesbians are so behind the times?  Looks like we got to the party just in time to clean up.

Tiff Holland

Tiff HollandTiff Holland’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in dozens of literary-magazines, e-zines and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel is available through Pudding House Press. Her short fiction chapbook Betty Superman won the 2010 Rose Metal Press Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.

 

Hungry

After the rape, three of us drove Stacy from the hospital to her trailer in the woods. She couldn’t stand to be alone. She kept talking about the guys, the guys in orange jumpsuits who had abducted her at a gas station. We told her not to talk about it. We told her we’d fix her some supper. She dozed in the car while we planned the meal: some mashed potatoes maybe or Stove Top stuffing, comfort food. Stacy lived a long ways out in the woods, far from the college. She had folded herself tight into one corner of the backseat. She was barefoot. She wore a sleeveless white t-shirt with blood dribbled down the front. She mumbled in her sleep. Julie sat beside her and stroked her head and whispered, while Alex drove. In the front seat, we were skeptical.

“What do you think?” Alex asked.     

“About what?” I was trying not to think. “You know, I mean. Jeez, do you think she was really?…”  

Back home, my ex-boyfriend, Ethan was a cop. He used to tell me about girls who faked rape reports, but I was never sure if I believed him. A few weeks before, Ethan had sent me a video of himself, naked, along with a note saying how much he missed me. Each shot was angled so that I couldn’t see his head, just his body. I turned the rearview mirror so I could look at Stacy more closely in the backseat. Her head, with its short spiky hair, looked huge sticking up from her tiny shoulders. She had a big multi-colored bruise on one cheek and just under her chin.

It was hard to know about Stacy. Every semester brought a different crisis. Last fall she had some kind of cancer. Then her cat got hit by a car. She accidentally drank part of a bottle of nail polish remover. In the spring someone broke into her trailer, and there was always her anorexia. Twice since our freshman year, Stacy had to be hospitalized when her electrolytes became dangerously depleted. Some of the other students jokingly referred to her as “Skelator.” I thought hard for a moment. Sometimes, I thought Stace was just lonely, but we’re all alone here.

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter?” Alex was tired of what he always referred to as Stacy’s “drama.” He had sighed heavily on the phone when I called to tell him I was heading to the hospital, and muttered something about “the girl who cried wolf.”

 “Yeah, I mean, there’s something wrong with her. Maybe there really are guys in orange jumpsuits, maybe there aren’t. Maybe she’s really worried they’ll find her, but even if she’s not, she’s too freaked out to be left alone.” Alex slouched down in his seat. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a stick figure drawing of some up-and-coming indie rock group. He was really smart and always knew the best groups, and I could probably go for him if he cleaned up a little better.      

“Look, we’ll have some dinner. Then, you can leave if you want to. I’ll stay with her tonight.”

“Are you sure?” He looked relieved but not unconcerned.        

“Sure, just stop by my apartment and walk Jake for me, okay?” I dug in my pocket and handed Alex my keys. If I wasn’t there when Ethan called, or better yet if a man answered, maybe Ethan would finally get the message.

It had been three months. I couldn’t get the stupid video out of my head. In one shot he tickled his own behind with a feather, in another he did a bump and grind right up against the camera. In that shot he was wearing a red thong. As near as I could tell he was rubbing the thing against the camera lens by the end of that part.

Still asleep in the backseat, Stacy muttered, then shouted, but it was hard to make out her words.     

“What’s she saying?” I asked Julie over my shoulder. Julie patted Stacy’s arm.

“I have no idea.”  

Stacy woke up just as we reached her turnoff.     

“Good,” Alex said, “remind me which way to turn?”

Stacy seemed confused as she looked out first the driver’s side and then the passenger window. Alex raised his eyebrows as she turned to look out the back.        

“We just turned off Highway 16,” I told her. She gave Alex the directions and then started talking about the men again, how the whole thing kept running over and over in her head like some kind of bad dream. She rubbed hard at one wrist. 

“The handcuffs were so tight,” she moaned. Ethan had a weird shaped key on his keychain. It was long and thin with just one nub at the very end. He said it was a handcuff key, universal. I never saw his handcuffs, though. I only saw him in uniform once and he wasn’t wearing his gun belt.

Stacy started shaking and then told Alex to pull over because she had to puke. Alex and I hung back by the car while Julie rubbed Stacy’s back while she threw up into some weeds.

“Maybe it really did happen,” Alex said, turning back toward the highway. I nodded, but I didn’t say anything, thinking when I was a teenager and got so upset that I threw up even though nothing was really wrong. “Maybe I should stay, too.”

Stacy started to stand up, holding tight to Julie’s wrist, then bent back over for another empty heave. Julie dug in her pocket and brought out a tissue, but Stacy waved her off and wiped her mouth with the bottom of her t-shirt. They headed up the embankment towards us.        

“She didn’t say anything about handcuffs before,” I said finally, turning back towards traffic. Once we were all back in the car, Alex clicked on the radio and Stacy went back to sleep. At the trailer, Stacy made Alex go in first, check the place out. Once we were inside, Stacy went from room to room pulling the curtains as if the men were just outside the trailer looking in. Alex headed for the kitchen and stood in front of the open refrigerator. Then Stacy told us she felt dirty and wanted to take a bath.  

“That’s a great idea,” Julie told her. “Do you want me to come sit with you?”      

“Would you?” Stacy started to cry and Julie gave her a big hug. I took a step closer to them but wasn’t sure if I should hug Stacy, too. Finally, I reached over and rubbed her shoulder. In the kitchen Alex closed the refrigerator door. Once the water was running, I headed for the kitchen.      

“What’s for dinner?” I asked Alex. He stepped aside.     

“Take a look for yourself.” I’ve never seen the inside of a refrigerator look so bright. Inside were a bowl of apples and three packs of fat free microwave popcorn. That was it.        

“Well, let’s check the cupboards,” I suggested.    

“Dammit, we should have stopped at the store,” Alex grumbled. He opened the doors over the counter. There were a few spices and a box of oatmeal. I thought of the food back at my apartment, boxes of cereal and rice in the cupboards, meat and frozen vegetables and TV dinners in the freezer, condiments lining the refrigerator door. I kept all my dry goods in giant plastic bags or Tupperware containers. Stacy had teased me about it the few times she’d been to my place. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring any food with me when I grabbed my keys and headed for the hospital. I hadn’t planned on taking Stacy back to her trailer. I thought I’d stop by, offer support, go home and have dinner in front of the TV with Jake like always, listen to the phone ring at seven or eight or nine. Or maybe, pick up, if I was lonely. In a way, it seemed stupid to worry about food. 

“We can’t even get a pizza delivered way out here,” Alex complained.

“How about that gas station at the turn-off?” I asked.     

“What about it?”   

“Maybe they have some food?”

“I doubt it.”

“It’s worth a shot. Do you want to go or do you want me to?” I shut the cupboards quietly so Stacy wouldn’t hear. I had hoped to have dinner ready when she got out of the tub, and then we would eat and everything would be okay again.     

“I’ll go,” Alex answered. While Alex was gone, I wandered around the trailer. I could hear Julie and Stacy talking in the bathroom. Julie had an amazingly soothing voice and I strained to hear her not for the content, but for the tone. After a while, there was more crying and then it got quiet again. I tried to imagine Stacy naked. I was glad Julie was in there and not me. Finally, the bathroom door opened and Julie came out.  

“How is she?” I asked.   

“Ok, I guess. She’s getting dressed. She’s got a lot of bruises, but they don’t look too bad.” Julie tucked a strand of hair out of her eyes and glanced around the trailer.   

I wanted to ask about the bruises, the size and the shape, whether they looked like they came from one set of hands or two, but I didn’t.

Where’s Alex?” Julie asked.     

“He went to get some food.”   

“Oh.” Julie plopped down on the ratty couch. She pulled open the shade and looked out.

“What? Are you worried, too?”

“No, I just…” Julie closed the shade. “It’s getting late. I have a German exam tomorrow.” She picked up a magazine from the table, thumbed through it, put it back down. “Shit.”  

“Well, maybe we can leave. I mean, she’s okay now. How would they know where to find her anyway?” I spoke quietly. There was just a curtain hanging between the living room and the bedroom. On the other side of it, I could hear Stacy opening drawers and closing them.       

“I guess they stole her wallet. I guess they could get her address from her driver’s license,” Julie paused. “I wish I had thought to bring my German book.”

“I wish we’d brought some food,” I joked. Julie laughed. There was a soft bang from the other room. Julie raised an eyebrow at me.    

“What was she doing way out there anyway?” I asked.  

“I think she was coming back from taking Ian to the airport. Kinsman is half-way, I think.”     

“Who is Ian?” I looked toward the bedroom which was suddenly very quiet.        

“Some guy she met,” Julie lowered her voice, “on the Internet, I think.”        

The curtain parted and Stacy walked into the room. She was wearing gray sweats despite the fact it was at least eighty degrees out and warmer in the trailer. Even though the windows were open, none of the breeze was making it past the drawn shades. Stacy stepped over the coffee table to sit between me and Julie on the couch. I didn’t have a chance to think about whether or not I wanted to hug her before she pulled both of us to her and started crying again. My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t help but notice how hard she felt.  After a moment, I slipped away. Stacy turned her full embrace toward Julie. I wondered how she had managed to escape if she had been handcuffed and what had happened to the handcuffs. I stared at Stacy’s wrist where it clutched Julie’s neck. It was smooth and so thin I could see how the bones joined together. We all jumped a moment later when we heard a car door slam. I peered through the shades. 

“It’s just Alex.”    

“Alex?” Stacy looked up, red-eyed and dazed.      

“Yeah, he went to get some supplies, for dinner.” 

“Oh, good. I’m famished.” Stacy said. She paused, “and tired.”        

“Maybe you should lie down,” Julie suggested. Stacy looked toward the bedroom.

“Go ahead; we’ll keep an eye out.”    

“Ok, that sounds good,” Stacy started to rise to her feet, then dropped a little, as though she were about to pass out.     

Julie took her by the elbow, “Here, I’ll help.”        

After Stacy was safe in bed, Julie headed back to the kitchen where I watched Alex unloading supplies.      

“It was just that little gas station. They didn’t have much.” He put a large jar of spaghetti sauce on the table along with a box of pasta and a twelve pack of cheap beer. There was also a roll of those refrigerator rolls that come in a tube, a large bag of potato chips and a jar of generic peanut butter.      

“Peanut butter?” I asked.

“For the rolls,” Alex explained. “They didn’t have any margarine.” Julie scowled at the beer.

“You said comfort,” Alex said. “What is more comforting than a little buzz?”
I was pretty sure Alex and Julie had gone out a few times, but neither of them ever mentioned it. There always seemed to be a tension between them, and Alex’s new girlfriend, Katie, a fashion major, didn’t seem to care for Julie at all, and everyone liked Julie.

At the end of Ethan’s video he turned from the camera and walked to the dining room table. I could see his whole body then, or the back of it, his curly blond hair with that weird white spot at the bottom left behind his ear. Seeing that spot made me miss him for a minute, a real ache. He took a swig of beer from a can on the table, picked up a picture, I think it was a picture of me but I really couldn’t tell. Then he turned around, walked back towards the camera, his face still out of frame, and, looking at the picture, began to masturbate.

Alex tore open the carton and handed me a beer then offered one to Julie who passed with a shake of her head. I don’t usually care for beer, then shrugged and popped the top. It tasted surprisingly good, sweet and filling. I was surprised how hungry I was; although I had noticed that I was almost always hungry around Stacy. We’d all go out for Mexican and Stace would munch a few chips and nurse a margarita, and I’d find myself devouring a burrito and three or four enchiladas. I wasn’t the only one, either. It seemed we were all hungry around Stacy.        

Alex took his beer into the living room and turned on the TV.

“Maybe there will be something about those guys on the news.” He put his feet up on the coffee table. Julie looked toward the bedroom.       

“Well, keep it down. It might upset her if she hears anything.” Alex nodded and started flipping through the channels.   

“So, what about this Ian?” I asked Julie as we looked for a pan.

“He was here all weekend, I guess, flew in from Florida or some place.” Julie pulled open the metal drawer and found a frying pan but nothing big enough to boil pasta water.  

“I thought Stace was gay,” Alex said from the living room.      

“Shh,” Julie and I whispered together.        

“I thought you were watching TV.” Julie accused. Alex dropped the remote on the couch and walked back to the kitchen, tore open the bag of chips.      

“Nothing on,” he told us, mouth full, “‘sides, I have to go to the bathroom.”        

“Now, who’s Ian?” I asked once he was gone.       

“All I know is he flew in from Florida, and he’s a drama major. I don’t think they hit it off, though, because Stace had said he was going to stay all week, be here for the big party on Friday, but instead she took him to the airport yesterday.”     

“And she met him on the Internet?”        

“Yeah,” Julie chewed on a fingernail.  When I had finished watching Ethan’s video, I yanked the tape from the cassette in long threads wondering what made him think I wanted to watch him do that, what made him think that I wanted to watch him do that without seeing his face. He called me a day or two later and begged me to destroy the tape, to do it while he was listening. He said he was afraid I’d put it on the Internet. I didn’t tell him he was safe, just that he should have thought of that before.

“How weird is that?” I asked finally.  

“I feel sorry for her. No one here will have anything to do with her,” Julie considered her words carefully. “Lots of people hook up on the Internet.”        

Alex returned from the bathroom holding a large pot in one hand. He shrugged as if to say, who knows why she keeps her pans in the bathroom, then handed it to Julie who set to washing it. While there was almost no food in the kitchen, there were cleaning supplies everywhere, bleach and ammonia under the sink and Ajax and a bunch of spray cleaners in the tall cupboard by the fridge, the place at my apartment where I kept all my canned goods. Alex offered the open bag, and I took a few chips.     

“Is she gay or not?” he asked. Stacy had gotten into a huge fight with some girl named Trish a few months earlier, and there was much speculation as to whether they were lovers.   

“I guess she’s bi,” I shrugged. 

“Of course,” said Alex and took the chips with him back to the living room where he started poking around on Stacy’s desk.        

“You were at the hospital,” I said to Julie as she set the water to boil on the stove. “Was she raped?” 

“I don’t know,” Julie shook some salt into the water, dumped the jar of sauce into another pan. “The doctors and nurses wouldn’t talk to me. A social worker came down and talked to her, and she talked to me after, but she just asked about Stacy’s eating habits.” To my surprise, Julie reached for a beer. 

“Didn’t you hear anything?”    

“There was semen. I heard something about a swab. That’s it.”        

I stared out the kitchen window into the woods. Maybe there were men in orange jumpsuits out there right now, lurking among the trees. I wondered if one of them raped Stace or if they took turns or maybe they did it at both at once like in porn movies.  I felt sick and headed into the living room. It was time for Jeopardy. I found the channel. The last champion had won five games, so there were three new contestants. Johnny Gilbert introduced them: a teacher, a lawyer, an accountant. It seemed like there were always teachers and lawyers. I decided to root for the accountant.    

“Hey, look at this,” said Alex from Stacy’s desk.  

“What are you doing? That’s her private stuff,” I said but drifted over thinking: five to one the lawyer wins anyway.      

“E-mail print outs from that Ian guy, pretty hot,” Alex held out some sheets of paper.    

“Really?” I couldn’t help but look. I scanned them quickly. They were hot and kind of kinky. Ian and Stacy were evidently planning a week of hot sex.     

“Maybe she didn’t put out and he got mad and that’s why he left early.” Alex surmised. 

There were pictures, too, one of a guy, about our age, with dark curly hair, and another of a pretty girl with shoulder length blonde hair and a confident expression.       

“The guy must be Ian,” said Alex.     

“Yeah, but who’s the girl?” I asked. Alex shrugged, pushed a few more chips into his mouth.  

“Hey, Julie, do you know who this is?” I held out the picture. Julie turned the water down under the pasta and joined us in the living room. She stared hard at the picture for a moment.    “I think that’s Stacy,” she snaked her hand into the bag of chips. I took a few, too and stared harder at the picture.   

“Nah,” said Alex.  

“Yeah, see that’s her nose,” Julie pointed.   

Of course, it looked fuller than Stacy’s nose, but there was definitely a resemblance. The girl in the picture was incredibly pretty, model pretty. She looked a little like Jodie Foster. “Do you think so?” I handed the picture back toward Alex but Julie took it and pointed to the girl’s hand.  

“See,” she said triumphantly, “that’s the ring Stacy always wears.”   

“Well, if Ian came here expecting this,” Alex nodded to the picture, “and got that,” and then toward the bedroom. He mock-shivered as if he were creeped out. The Stacy in the picture could have any guy she wanted.        

“Maybe Ian did this to her,” Julie said just as the thought popped into my head. I looked at Alex and could tell he had thought the same thing.     

We put the printouts back on Stacy’s desk and headed to the kitchen. Julie handed me the tube of rolls. I tore off the wrapper and pressed a knife to the seam in the cardboard, and the rolls popped out. Julie and Alex leaned against the counters, watching.   

“What kind of guy would beat up some girl just because she wasn’t what he expected?” Julie asked after a moment. Neither Alex nor I had an answer.       

“What kind of girl would say she was raped if she wasn’t?” Alex said after a moment. He started playing with the faucet, turning the water on, then off, on, then off, faster and faster until Julie reached over and pushed the faucet down, moved his hand away.  

“What kind of friends would ask these questions?” I thought out loud. “I mean, is it really any of our business?”  

“She called us,” Julie said        

“She always does,” said Alex.  

“Maybe we’re not doing her any favors, always coming when she calls,” I said finally.  

“But what if she really was raped?” asked Julie.    

“Then there’s nothing we can do anyway,” said Alex. “We can make dinner, I guess.”

I began to arrange the rolls on a cookie sheet. Julie stirred the sauce and Alex set Stacy’s tiny dining table. She only had three chairs, so, he dragged in one from behind her desk. Then Stacy appeared, rubbing her eyes.    

“Mmmm… smells yummy,” she said, pulling one of the chairs out and sitting down on it cross-legged. She had taken off her sweatshirt and was wearing another white sleeveless tee. The knobs of vertebrae stretching above the shirt up her neck were almost as white at the shirt. There was no comfort in her body. I thought about how lonely she must be out in the woods, how lucky I was to have a dog to eat with, to curl up with every night. For a moment, I missed Jake and wished I hadn’t promised to stay with Stacy. I longed to bury my face in his soft fur, to feel him place his neck over mine the way dogs do in a pack to protect one another.

Stacy adjusted her silverware with her long fingers, straightening her knife and spoon so that they were straight and parallel and moving her fork to the left side of the plate.   

“What are we having?” she asked, spreading out a paper napkin and letting it fall unto her lap, only she had no lap, so it collapsed into the hollow between her crossed legs.       

“Spaghetti,” Julie told her, lifting the pan of water from the burner and draining the pasta at the sink. 

“Oh, wait,” said Stacy and jumped up, leaving her napkin to flutter to the linoleum. She reached into a cabinet above the stove. After a moment, her fist emerged. She turned it over, opened her palm wide, “Here,” she offered. In the middle of her hand a clove of garlic was knotted. She placed it in the middle of the table. The rest of us sat down. I tried to imagine her with long blonde hair. She took one of the rolls. I let my eyes blur so she was slightly out of focus. Stacy looked like a chipmunk chewing. With her cheek rounded out by the roll, I could see the resemblance to the girl in the picture. What had happened to her?

I took a roll from the plate Julie passed. Stacy took another. She spread peanut butter on it, then piled her plate high with pasta and sauce. She held the roll with one hand and wound spaghetti around the fork she held in the other. She pushed in a bite of pasta, still chewing the roll. I took my own fork to my mouth and looked at Alex and Julie. They were just sitting there, motionless, watching. I bit down. There was nothing on my fork. I set it back on the table. The garlic sat on the table between us, the three of us and Stacy, as we watched Stacy eat.

Tim Tomlinson

Tim TomlinsonTim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing.  His recent fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Asia Writes, Caribbean Vistas, Citron Review, The Dirty Napkin, Extracts, Full of Crow, The Tule Review, Unshod Quills, Write Place At the Write Time, and in the anthology Long Island Noir (Akashic Books).

 

 

B.A.R.

Dad was antsy. He hadn’t worked overtime for a week. He’d made it home for dinner six nights in a row, a record. He sat at the dining table in a sleeveless t-shirt, looking around at things like he wasn’t sure where he was. The crèche on the china closet. Lights twinkling on the Christmas tree. The wicker basket of holiday cards on the kitchen counter.

“We got anything for dessert?” he said.

Mom sat at the kitchen window. With a damp sponge, she moistened sheets of green stamps and fixed them into coupon booklets.  She wore a bathrobe cinched at the waist.

“Whatever you didn’t finish last night,” she said, without looking up.

Dad said, “You didn’t get something for tonight?”

When she didn’t answer, he told me, “Cliffy, go look what’s left.”

I opened the closets, I opened the freezer. I knew there was nothing. I held out my empty hands.

Dad shook his head. He said, “You talk about how I dress at the dinner table, and you sit around the house all day in that robe.”

Mom said, “The house is freezing.”

“Then do something,” Dad said. “Try a little work.”

In a sing-song voice, Mom said, “You’re boring.”

Dad said, “I’ll give you boring,”

With her lips, she made a sound that resembled the sound of farting.

Dad said, “And she calls me vulgar.”

Mom squeezed her sponge over a small bowl and moistened the next sheet of green stamps.

“Cliffy, reach me them cards,” Dad said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the wicker basket filled with Christmas cards.

Mom said, “Are you gonna start that again?”

I leaned back in the chair and grabbed it.

“Don’t lean in the chair,” Mom said.

Dad said, “He’s getting something for me.”

“Not if he falls on the floor he isn’t,” Mom said.

“Watch you don’t fall on the floor,” Dad told her.

Mom sang, “So boring.”

Dad sorted the Christmas cards sent to us by his sisters, his mother, and a nun who was close to his mother.

“Get your crayons,” he said to me, “and give me a hand with these.”

There were some sent by ex-Marines and several current Marines, and others from his co-workers at LILCO. The rest came from bodybuilding buddies from his competition days back in Brooklyn, and from his bodybuilding fans. Three, all women.

He set the cards in stacks on the dining room table.

“Your mother don’t like I have all these fans,” he said. “She gets jealous.”

Mom said, “Fans? The house is freezing and he’s talking about fans?”

I said, “No, he means fans.”

“She knows what I mean,” my father said.

She said, “You know what this means.”

She made another fart sound.

I laughed.

“Hey, come on with that,” he said, “in front of the kid.”

“You come on,” my mother said.

He glared at her, then continued. “She don’t like that total strangers admire my body.”

“Somebody should,” she said, “other than yourself.”

“No one admires yours,” he said, winking at me.

“Touché,” she said. “Isn’t that what I’ve been complaining about?”

He stopped his stacking.

“Enough already, all right? You’re gonna give the kid ideas.”

“What ideas?” I said.

“Never mind,” he told me.

She picked up a basket of laundry and carried it to the basement staircase.

“Cliff,” she said, “don’t forget your list for Santa.”

Neither of them could leave a room without issuing a final order.

“He’s helping me,” my father said.

“Cliff,” she said, “did you hear me?”

“He heard you,” my father said. “And then he heard me.”

“Clifford?”

I looked at my father.

“Answer her,” he said.

I said, “Yeah.”

“Hey,” my father said, “you don’t say ‘yeah’ to your mother.”

“Yes,” I said, “I heard you.”

“You heard me what?”

“Hey, Jackie, hah? We’re doing something here. Come on,” he said, snapping his fingers, “give me the scissors.”

I pushed him the scissors.

“I want him at his desk in fifteen minutes,” she said.

My father said, “Yeah, yeah.”

“I mean it,” she said.

He started crossing out the greetings written inside the cards.

“Oh,” he said, looking up as if surprised to see her. “You still here?”

I started laughing.

“Laugh now, mister,” she said. “You have fifteen minutes.”

She opened the basement door.

“You ever gonna change out of that robe?” Dad asked her.

She said, “You ever gonna change out of that shirt? I can smell it from here.”

He yanked the shirt over his head and threw it at her. It hit her chest. She let it fall to the floor.

“Pressed and folded,” Dad said. “No starch.”

She left the t-shirt on the floor and descended, pulling the door behind her.

My father circled a finger around his ear. “You hear what I’m saying?”

“I know,” I said. “I already did my list. I told her.”

“Well, do it again,” he said. “And don’t call your mother her. She’s your mother. Come on, give me the crayons.”

I passed him the crayons.

He filled out addresses in various colors on the backs of envelopes: purple, orange, brown. Above or alongside the crossed-out greetings inside the cards, he crayoned in new greetings. “Yo, schmo,” he wrote, or “Howdy, putz.” He slid the cards into envelopes and handed them to me. I licked the stamps.

“Don’t we like any of these people?” I said. “Aunt Elsie?”

“We like them all,” he said.

“So how come we do this?”

“Do what?”

“Send used cards to people we like. Why don’t we send them new cards, like they sent us?”

“Because it’s wasteful. All the money.”

“Yeah, but—”

He looked up abruptly.

I said, “Yes, but—”

“And it’s nonsense,” he said, gesturing all around him at the crèche, the wrapping paper, the tinsel. “All this Christmas bullshit. The lights, the tree, the reindeers on the roof. We don’t like it.”

I said, “Mom likes it.”

“I said, we don’t like it.”

“I like it, too.”

“You won’t.”

“How come?”

“You’ll see,” he said. “Come on, work while you talk.”

“Mom says you don’t like it because of your unhappy childhood.”

“That what Mom says?”

“Is that true?”

It was easy to believe. Nana was full of gloom, and Poppy, while full of fun, was also full of Rheingold and whisky. Garbage water, she called it. Poppy’s wallet was never full.

“Your mother’s been watching too much Channel 13.”

“But was your childhood miserable like she said?”

He swept his arm across the table, pulling in the envelopes near me as if he was raking in poker chips.

“Go ahead,” he said. “You better go downstairs, finish your list.”

I said, “It’s finished.”

“Yeah?” he said. “What’s on it?”

I said, “It’s for Santa.”

“Well I might be talking to him later, you know, save us a stamp.”

“You can talk to him?” I said.

My father shrugged. “Yeah, him. His wife. A elf.”

“I asked for a dog,” I said.

He nodded. “That’s it?”

“And guns.”

“Guns,” he said, “what kind of guns?”

I told him every kind of gun I could think of. A Winchester, an M-1, a snub-nose .38.

“You don’t want the B.A.R.?”

“The B.A.R.?”

“The Browning Automatic Rifle.”

“What does Wally have?”

“Your brother?  I don’t know—a bolt-action Springfield, I think.  Thing went out in the Depression. But the B.A.R., Cliffy, that’s the strongest rifle there is. For the strongest Marine.”

I liked the idea of having a gun stronger than Wally’s, but I knew that I wasn’t as strong as Wally.

“I want a pearl-handled Colt .45.”

“Colt .45?” he said. “You want to be a cowboy, or a Marine?”

I chose a cowboy.

“All right. You better go do what your mother tells you.”

“But I already did.”

“Now,” he told me, gesturing with his head toward the stairs. He resumed with the crayons and the cards like I wasn’t even there.

I stopped at the top of the stairs. I said, “My childhood is miserable, but I still love Christmas.”

He looked up. “What, you’re still here?”

*****

For my Uncle Vic, Mom had purchased a pair of gloves. They were leather on the outside, fur on the inside. They came in a flat box with a red top and a black bottom. She set the box upside down in the middle of shiny gold wrapping paper, then she dragged an open pair of scissors in a straight line along the wrapping paper’s roll.

“How’d you get it so straight?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Practice,” she said.

She taped one edge of the wrapping paper to the bottom of the box, then she pulled the cut sheet tight over the top, folded it, and brought it around to the bottom again where it met the first piece of tape with just a quarter inch of overlap.

“Tape,” she said.

I handed her another piece of Scotch tape.

Now she trimmed a little excess wrapping paper from either end of the box. She pressed in the empty edges so that the open ends folded over. With her fingernail she pressed a crease along the edge where the paper met the box, folded the end over, and asked again for tape. She repeated the process on the other side. When she was finished, the box was wrapped as neatly as my father made beds – tight, no creases, pinches, bulges, no excess paper. It was as if the box had been wrapped by a machine.

“How do you get it so perfect?” I asked.

She said, “You have to love the person the gift is for.”

“But Dad says Uncle Vic is a jerk.”

She shook her head. “Your father loves my brother.”

“So why does he call him a jerk?”

“Your father says a lot of things,” she said.

“But is he a jerk?”

“Who doesn’t your father call a jerk?” she said.  “Or worse?”

“So is Dad a jerk?”

“No,” she said, “who told you that?”

“In school,” I said. “Miss Thornhill says calling names makes the person who says them the jerk.”

“Well, maybe she’s right,” she said. “He is a jerk, sometimes. Sometimes I’m a jerk.”

“No you’re not.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “you don’t know.”

“You’re not.”

“OK, I’m not.  Tell it to your father.”

“He already knows.”

“That’s not what he tells me.”

“It’s what he tells me and Wally.”

“Really?” she said. “What does he tell you?”

“He says, whenever we hear the two of you fight, no matter what it is, no matter how wrong you sound, that we should be on your side because he’s the jerk.”

She looked at me.

“He said that, huh? No matter how wrong I sound.”

“He said, ‘Your mother is always right.’”

“Hmm,” she said. “That’s interesting.”

She took the gift wrapped for her brother and set it under the tree on top of other boxes already wrapped perfectly. They might appear to have been just tossed under haphazardly, but Mom placed each box with great care, after which she’d step back and study the arrangement before making final touches, either to the placement of boxes, or to ornaments hanging from the tree. Once she took us to the city, to Lord & Taylor’s on Fifth Avenue, where she stood silently in front of the display windows as if memorizing the details. Santa Claus occupied every corner, shaking music from bells.

*****

Snow came on Christmas Eve. Wally and I knelt on the couch at the picture window and watched it gather like icing on a cake. First it was an inch, then it was two. Then the phone rang.

My mother looked at my father.

“You’re not going in,” she told him.

“Hand me the goddamn phone,” he said.  “Yeah?” he said into the phone.

As he listened, he snapped his fingers and pointed for her to hand him a pencil and a pad. She started looking through drawers.

He covered the phone.

“I told you always keep a pad and pencil by the phone.”

She said, “And I told you you’re not going in. My brother and his family are coming.”

“No one’s going anywhere in this weather,” he said. Into the phone, he said, “Sorry, one minute.”

He snapped his fingers at Wally and me. “One of youse, find me a goddamn pencil.”

I handed him one from the TV table.

“Go ahead,” he told the phone. He started writing on the wall.

Her jaw dropped, then she folded her arms.

“Got it,” he said, and hung up.

“Cliffy, find my keys. Wally, boots from the garage.”

“You’re not doing this,” my mother said.

“I need my long underwear,” he told her.

She turned from the kitchen. “Don’t expect anything when you get back,” she said.

We all braced for the door slamming. It slammed.

Dad winked at us. “When I install a stop on that door, it’s gonna close as quiet as a mouse pissing on cotton. That’ll fix her.”

Wally said, “Mom says you don’t know how to fix anything.”

He looked at us.

“Come on, the two of youse. Off your ass. The boots, the keys.”

*****

Noise in the living room woke me. I tiptoed to Wally’s room.

“Wally,” I said, shaking him.

“I’m awake,” he said.

“Listen. Is that Santa Claus?”

“There is no Santa Claus, you idiot.”

“Then who’s out there trying to be quiet?”

He sat up. “You’ll hear in a minute.”

I listened. Soft footsteps in the living room, the kitchen. The refrigerator door sucked open. I could picture Dad guzzling milk from the carton, wolfing cookies. Then his footsteps approached their bedroom.

“Now,” Wally said.

First there was whispering.  Then shouts.

“I don’t care who I wake up,” she shouted.

“How do you expect me to pay for all this shit?” he shouted back. “That sled?  Those rifles?”

“It’s Christmas,” she shouted.

“You lower your goddamn voice,” he shouted.

She shouted, “You lower it.”

*****

In the morning we opened our gifts. Wally got a sled, a Flexible Flyer. “From Santa Claus to Wally,” the card said. Wally snickered.

“What’s that about,” my father said, pulling on his coveralls.

“Santa Claus,” Wally sneered.

“Yeah?” my mother said.

“Nothing,” Wally said.

My father said, “Right.”

I got a B.A.R., the Browning Automatic Rifle. It was made of hard plastic but it looked like a combination of real wood and metal. It came with a bipod and a bayonet.

“You like it?” my father asked. He was lacing his boots.

Wally said, “It’s too big for him.”

“This is more powerful than your carbine,” I told Wally.

“Seven times more powerful,” my father said.

He handed me a can of 3-in-One oil and showed me where you poured it into the B.A.R.’s muzzle. When you pulled the trigger, the oil made smoke.

“You don’t point that at anyone,” my father said on his way out the door and back to work, “you hear me?”

“Can we go play guns?” I asked my mother.

My mother said, “I don’t care what you do.”

Outside, it was the Battle of the Bulge, with thick heavy snow falling on a thick layer of snow. Our galoshes sunk past the top buckle. Still, no matter where Wally hid I found him with my B.A.R. I left the bipod on so I could just fall in the snow, find him in my sights, and pull the trigger until I was lost in a cloud of oil smoke and he was so dead. In less than half an hour he quit. He said he was too cold.

No kids were outside playing.

It was Christmas.

I walked up and down the block, shouldering the B.A.R. I aimed it at nativity scenes on lawns. I aimed it reindeer on the roofs. I aimed it at lights flickering along gutters and around door trim. I wondered when Dad started hating all those things. I wondered if he’d feel any better if I blew them all into dust with the B.A.R.

Mr. Di Lorenzo came outside. He said, “Hey, Cliffy, don’t point that gun at this house.”

“I’m not,” I told him, setting the gun on my shoulder. Right-shoulder arms, like the drill sergeants say.

Relatives from the city pulled into the Di Lorenzo driveway. They climbed out of the car, their arms heavy with gift-wrapped packages adorned with ribbons and bows. If they could come out, I wondered, why couldn’t Uncle Vic?

“Merry Christmas,” Mr. Di Lorenzo called to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

I wandered inside with nothing to do.

My mother watched TV in her bedroom with the door closed. Wally and I ate Oreos in the kitchen.

“How do you think that B.A.R. of yours makes smoke,” he asked me.

“The oil,” I told him.

“I know the oil,” he said, “but how?”

We looked in the instructions, but they didn’t explain, either.

“You want to find out?” Wally asked. He went downstairs and came back with a ball peen hammer and a flat-head screwdriver.

“Are we gonna be able to put it back together?” I asked.

“Sure,” Wally said. “If we’re careful.”

We spread newspaper on the floor, and the B.A.R. on top of the paper. Wally set the screwdriver against the stock, and reached back with the hammer.

Half an hour later, the plastic fragments and the metal springs and coils on the floor looked distressingly like garbage. We had broken it completely apart, but we were no closer to an explanation.

 

Kirby Wright

Kirby WrightKirby Wright was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii and lectured in China with Pulitzer winner Gary Snyder. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic. He is the author of the companion novels Punahou Blues and Moloka’I Nui Ahina, both set in the islands. His futuristic novel will be released in 2013 in Dublin, Ireland.     

 

Burt and the Christmas Tree

In memory of Joyce Kilmer

Burt Henke clerked for Lorain Water Utilities in Ohio. It was a dead-end job, but life wasn’t so bad. Judith Landers, a co-worker, was his girlfriend. Judith was Junior Controller and the only one who complimented Burt when he wore his Aloha shirts to company picnics and parties. They had an agreement she wouldn’t bring up his weight if he avoided calling her “Shorty.” Burt spend weekends and holidays with Judith, that is, when they weren’t flirting beside the water cooler or sharing paperback lunches in the employee lounge. He’d given her a promise ring during a TGIF bash on Lake Erie, but no wedding date had been set. They couldn’t decide on a location. Judith was from Iceland. Burt was a Lorain native. To top things off, Burt suffered an attack of cold feet after Judith gave the thumbs up for Water Utilities to hack down an oak on the beltway, one whose ancient roots had caved in the water main and caused a stream to percolate up. The stream ran the beltway’s shoulder, spurted over a concrete berm, and flooded a popular park.

“Will you kill the oak?” Burt asked Judith.

“Yes.”

“That seems drastic.”

“Remember the equation, Burty. One dead oak equals 500,000 gallons a month in saved water, a safer beltway, and a park to play in. Now that seems like a fair exchange.”

“I guess so,” Burt mumbled.

*****

Burt was crazy for Christmas. Everything about it excited him, including mistletoe kisses, Santa, flying reindeer, and opening presents. He loved running colored lights along his eaves, sticking plastic Santa signs on the lawn, and plopping a Season’s Greetings mat outside the door. 

Burt selected a six-foot pine at Home Depot. He sunk it in the plastic tree stand in his living room and tightened the steel anchoring prongs. He ‘trimmed the tree,’ as his mother used to say, which meant stringing garlands of white lights and hanging the hand-me-down ornaments his big brother had sent after clearing out their parents’ house. Burt switched on the lights and stood back to admire his work. This tree seemed different. It had an emerald hue and its needles seemed perky. The spine was as straight as a board and there was elegance in the way its branches swirled around the trunk like the arms of a ballet dancer. “Sweet, sweet tree,” Burt said.

He always spent Christmas with Judith. But this year she was off visiting relatives in Iceland. He didn’t mind. He smirked thinking how hoards of sheep had deforested her country by munching everything with roots. On Christmas Eve, Burt played holiday music and cracked a bottle of cognac. He opened Judith’s gift and found a set of copper wind chimes. He unwrapped the rest—mostly joke gifts from office pals. He’d quit exchanging presents with his brother after their parents died.

“To mon belle amie,” Burt said to the tree, raising a silver shot glass. Speaking French made him feel sexy. He loved this tree. She was brilliant, with sparkling garlands of light circling her amber trunk and shapely branches. The ornaments glistened like jewels. “Wilma,” he whispered, “votre nom est Wilma.” He took down a few more shots and stroked her needles. Just for fun, he splashed cognac in Wilma’s reservoir of water. He hugged her as Nat King Cole crooned, “O Tannebaum.” He pretended they were waltzing in a big ballroom with French Provincial décor and crystal chandeliers. 

*****

New Year’s Eve came and went but Burt still had his tree up. Wilma wasn’t losing needles and he loved the lights and ornaments. She drank water like a fiend and Burt refilled her reservoir dutifully. But he knew the day would come when the level wouldn’t change, needles would fall, and branches would droop. Then it would be time to rewind the strings of lights, pluck ornaments, and chainsaw Wilma into little pieces for recycling.  But the drinking continued. Wilma guzzled past Martin Luther King’s birthday and made it to Valentine’s Day. Burt quit switching on her lights—he didn’t want neighbors to start asking questions. He quit answering the doorbell.  

Wilma didn’t wilt. Instead, she seemed to be growing. On the Ides of March, she sent out bouquets of new green shoots.  Burt wondered if she needed more light. He hired a contractor to help him tear down a wall and they replaced it with a picture frame window. A skylight followed, one that bubbled out to make room for Wilma’s rising crown. Then her trunk expanded, cracking the plastic stand. Burt came home from work, sloshed through wet carpet, and found the reservoir bone dry. He was sure this was her death blow. He unscrewed the steel prongs that kept her anchored and peeled off the stand. Surprising, Wilma didn’t topple over. Then Burt saw something truly strange—a root system had developed at the base of her trunk and seemed attached to the floor.  Burt snipped away carpet. He found chunks of foundation cement. He scooped the chunks out and spotted roots entering the dirt below. “Oh, Wilma,” he whispered, “qu’avons-nous fait?”

*****

Burt consulted Dr. Bone, a renowned hortacologist, through Skype. He carried his laptop into the living room and tilted the screen.

“That conifer’s got a mind of its own,” chuckled Dr. Bone.

“What kind is she?” asked Burt.

“A pinyon. A scrub pine and hybrid of the great conifers.”

“She’s a mulâtre?”

“I’m sorry, Burt. I’m not familiar with French.”

“Is she a mongrel, doc?”

“Let’s put it this way,” the doctor said through the laptop, “never burn her inferior wood in your fireplace.”

*****

April arrived. The cold snap was over and families flocked to the park. The old oak had been removed, the main repaired, and locals no longer had to wade through water to reach the playground and the park’s spacious lawns. Judith got promoted to Senior Controller for all her hard work.  

Burt figured the decorations were torturing Wilma, especially after her growth spurt. Her crown was bending against the bubble skylight and she’d grown husky off the extra light from the picture window. Burt pulled off the vine-like light strands and unhooked the ornaments. “Voici, mademoiselle,” Burt bowed, “être bien naturel.” 

Judith knew Burt had an obsession. She’d been over at his house on Saint Patrick’s Day when he toasted “mon magnifique arbre,” pouring frothy Harp beer over the tree’s branches. She’d quit dropping by after that. On Good Friday, she stuck her promise ring on Burt’s desk and took off to go skiing in the Alps. 

*****

The doorbell rang on Saturday morning. Burt swung the door open before realizing his mistake. A pair of Girl Scouts stood on his Season’s Greetings mat, a red wagon between them.  The wagon was loaded with boxed cookies. The girls seemed frozen, lips parted, as they gazed in at Wilma.  Burt spotted a mother over the blonde one’s shoulder—she stared disapprovingly at the door, as if he’d said something off-color or made a lewd gesture.

“What is it, Emily?” the mother called. “What’s going on there?”

“Got thin mint?” Burt muttered.

The redhead handed him a box. Burt thrust her a fiver, shut the door, and slid the dead bolt. He held his back against the door and waited until he heard little steps chatter away over the sidewalk. 

*****

A week after Arbor Day, Burt knew it was time. He went to the Lorain Planning Commission and made the arrangements. A fleet of trucks pulled up to his home. Workers piled out and unloaded chainsaws, jackhammers, and mallets. A baby bulldozer arrived towing a buzz saw.  

“Jesus,” Burt said, looking through the picture window, “Oh, Wilma.”  

Neighbors gathered on the sidewalk.  The two Girl Scouts stood frozen in the gutter, even though it was 70 degrees. 

“What’s that they’re doing?” Burt heard Mrs. Bloomberg say.

“Chopping,” answered the Girl Scout mother. 

“Chopping what?” asked Mr. Darwin.

“A Jolly Green Giant marijuana tree.”

Men came in and dropped a canvas shroud over Wilma. 

“You’ll have to leave now, sir,” the foreman told Burt. 

One worker shattered the picture window with a mallet. Another marched in through the front door with a chainsaw, its steely teeth flashing.

“Poor Wilma,” Burt moaned.

The foreman led Burt away from the house.                           

*****

It was mid-morning on July 4th. Wilma stood in a tiny park, her magnificent crown rising for the sun and emerald branches fanning out. Burt’s quarter-acre had been rezoned under a special exemption clause, thanks to Judith’s pull with the Lorain Planning Commission. It had taken three months to demolish Burt’s home and replace it with a miniature park. 

Burt rested under Wilma’s bows. He was reading the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. He loved the sounds of wings caressing the air and the wind moving through branches. “I think that I shall never see,” Burt read out loud.

“A poem as lovely as a tree,” came a voice from a picnic blanket. It was Judith. She’d reclaimed Burt’s promise ring and let him move into her Lake Erie bungalow. Their wedding was set for Christmas Eve right here at the park, with Wilma decorated and gleaming in her holiday finest. 

 

Notes:

être bien naturel:  to be natural
qu’avons-nous fait:  what have we done

 

Elizabeth Edelglass

Elizabeth EdelglassElizabeth Edelglass’s stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (winner of the Lawrence Foundation Prize), Lilith (short story contest winner), In The Grove (winner of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize), American Literary Review, Passages North, New Haven Review and more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices and has won a fiction fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She is currently at work on a collection of linked stories and two novels.

 

Family Circle

“Over there,” Ma instructed, handing Ruth a tin pan heavy with her homemade apple cake oozing caramelized brown sugar and cinnamon, a few burnt bits just begging to be plucked and devoured. “Put in front,” she said. And Ruth knew she meant in front of the store-bought babka Uncle Harry’s wife Hannah had brought in a string-tied box, then set out on her own fancy cut-glass platter from home. Ruth had already noticed Ma nudging Hannah’s cake to the back of the counter.

“Thinks she’s such a big shot, can afford store-bought,” Ma grumbled, “then pretends like homemade with the fancy plate. Never mind if she baked herself, dry like straw.”

“Ma,” Ruth whispered, trying to be casual, pretending not to be shushing her mother. The other wives stopped blowing across their hot tea to listen, but Hannah-Harry’s took a big slurp as if they weren’t talking about her.

Ruth and her mother were in the kitchen with the women, laying out food for the men—Pop and his brothers, number-two Harry and the rest, plus a couple of their cousins, a tribe of shiny Brylcreemed heads tilted towards their joint reflection on the polished wood of the table where they were about to carry on their family circle meeting as seriously as a gathering of the Supreme Court. Ma always said they rented this otherwise bare Brooklyn basement for their monthly meetings just for that table, never mind the narrow alley kitchen where the women couldn’t help but brush bosoms past shoulder blades, someone’s soft tush against someone else’s girdled hips.

“It ain’t her turn, anyway,” Ma said, whispering now, but a loud whisper, loud enough for Hannah to hear, maybe wanting Hannah to hear. Hannah’s babka was as good as in the trash. It was Ma’s month to bring the food, and she didn’t like the other wives trying to show her up, although she would grouse later if they didn’t offer to lend a hand in the kitchen.

As soon as Pop smacked down his gavel on the table to call the meeting to order, he and the men offered a better target for the women, better than carping among themselves.

“Who do they think they are?” Uncle Abe’s wife Channah snorted.

“The Tsar’s generals plotting war?” Uncle Phil’s wife Ann added.

“Or the Knights of the Round Table?” Ruth chimed in, but the wives turned to stare. “What I’m studying in school,” she mumbled.

“Here, cut,” Ma said, handing Ruth a bakery bag full of rolls and a knife long and sharp enough to butcher a cow.  Ma might not mind what the other wives heard her say, but she was cautious about what Pop might hear.

Ma’s cousin Fanny, always stylishly corseted with breasts at attention, started to unwrap the whitefish and herring—Ma trusted her only blood relative in the room with the most expensive part of the meal.  Channah-Abe’s and Ann-Phil’s got busy arranging slices of tomato and onion and sweet Muenster cheese in decorative shapes like Chinatown paper fans. Now that Ruth commuted to college in the city, Fanny sometimes invited her downtown for eggrolls and fortune cookies and even the occasional fruity cocktail with a paper umbrella. Don’t let the umbrella fool you, Fanny always said if Ruth downed hers too fast. 

Fanny had a job in the city. It was a factory job, stitching shirtwaists amidst a gaggle of girls, who were really women, all bent over their machines with their fingers flying, like the men bent over the table with their mouths flapping today. Not much, some might say, not much Pop did say, on a regular basis. But it was a job, and it was hers, instead of a husband.

Pop’s cousins’ wives dawdled quietly in a corner, as if trying to fade into the chipped paint, like the second-class citizens they knew they were in the family circle. They were not helping, but also not interfering. Hannah-Harry’s, on the other hand, was already making herself a sandwich, grabbing the first roll out of Ruth’s hand, plucking cheese and drippy slices of red tomato from the pretty fans as fast as Channah and Ann could fashion them, even trying for a forkful of whitefish if Fanny hadn’t slapped her hand away.

Ma handed Ruth a dishcloth, from a pile she’d brought from home, to mop up Hannah’s mess. Ma’s dishcloths were rectangles of the softest bleached linen that she had hemstitched herself, finer than any fabric she used to make her own shirtwaists.  These were precious remnants from Ruth’s old Rosh Hashanah blouses, a new one brought by Fanny each year when she arrived for brisket and tzimmes. Probably smuggled out of the factory in Fanny’s big black purse, Ruth’s fine once-a-year blouse, and at what risk? The cloth in Ruth’s hand now bled the red of ripe tomato juice.  Ma pushed Channah and Ann aside to doctor the plate herself, hastily rearranging new, only slightly crooked fans.

The men wouldn’t care about fans, would attack the spread as soon as Pop banged down the gavel to end the meeting, as if they hadn’t been fed since they’d left Russia. The men were always hungry, scarfing down Kaiser rolls and pot cheese, never mind poppy seeds and curds catching on the scruff of their chins that had been clean-shaven just that morning, as if fighting with their only relatives in America made their beards grow faster, five o-clock shadows appearing before lunch.

It would end up a late lunch, two- or three-o’clock, European lunchtime as Ruth had learned, not from Ma, but from her well-traveled teacher in Eur. Hist. 101. The first one to start college from the first generation of her family born in America, and what was she required to study first thing freshman year? European history. But Ruth didn’t think of Ma and Pop as belonging to that Europe. What did Przasnysz have to do with Paris, shtetl rebbes with the Reformation? 

Today’s meeting had gotten off to a late start, Ma’s apple cake requiring a slow oven back home. “Quit dawdling,” Pop had hollered, standing in the street with the car door open. But Ma wasn’t about to turn up the heat and risk burning her cake, so they didn’t get on the road until she and the cake were good and ready. Secretly, Ruth knew, Pop didn’t mind being late. The meeting couldn’t start without him, family circle president by dint of being the oldest. Let the others wait.  But his foot had jerked from gas to brake and back again all the way from Newark, and Ruth’s stomach had sloshed in the back seat, her long legs tucked up to her chin and her tush wedged tight between her brothers Joey and Izzy. Never mind she was the oldest—stuck in the middle because she was a girl.

The biggest reason lunch would be late was that the brothers were embroiled in their monthly argument about the cemetery, a hundred grassy plots purchased with family circle dues, their parents, Ruth’s Bubbie and Zaydie, buried smack in the middle. The brothers and cousins might live scattered throughout the five boroughs and adjacent suburbs, but in death they would be reunited with their parents, wives, children, uncles, cousins, and the whole mishpocheh in the Jewish-cemetery-heaven of South Jersey.

The question was: how would they be reunited, who’d be more reunited than whom? Who would get buried next to Papa, who next to Mama? Whose wife’s sister was deserving of a plot, whose wife’s cousin was not. This argument had preoccupied every family circle meeting since the unveiling of Bubbie’s and Zaydie’s headstones last year. Not that any of the brothers were dying, nor even sick, but they were planning ahead, staking their claims while they were still young enough and strong enough to fight it out, even with fisticuffs if it should come to that.

“Forget about it,” Pop scoffed in answer to a suggestion from one of the cousins, Hymie or Heshie, that they toss a coin to see who would sleep where for all eternity. When Zaydie was alive, Hymie and Heshie had been stuck in second-class silence on account of their father, Zaydie’s brother, never made it to America. Now, one or the other brought up the coin toss every month, and Pop shot it down every time. As the oldest, and the family circle president, Pop had first dibs on the plot next to Zaydie, and he wasn’t about to entertain any doubt or any question.

“As if any one of them would let go of a nickel long enough to toss,” Hannah-Harry’s muttered in an undertone meant only for the kitchen. Then she sidled her babka in front of Ma’s apple cake, ostensibly to cut herself a piece, which she proceeded to eat with dramatic lip smacking and finger licking, as if it were tastier than any cake any of the women could remember their own mothers ever baking back home, those cakes growing in memory with the passing of miles and years. 

When Hannah went off to the bathroom, a mustache of white sugar failing to mask the ugly black mole on her upper lip, Ma pushed her babka behind Ruth’s pile of rolls and sent Channah and Ann to check on the kugel. Ruth knew Ma wouldn’t take the kugel out of the oven until Pop had sounded the gavel to end the meeting, time to eat, but the oven was near the bathroom door, the better for the other wives to get an earful of Hannah tinkling and passing gas. 

Zaydie had never needed a gavel when he ran the family circle. He’d never even needed to raise his voice, not with four strapping sons who bent to hear every gruff whisper. It was Ruth’s brother Joey who’d suggested a gavel when Pop took over, not a real gavel, just a hammer from Pop’s toolbox. But when Joey had shown Pop to hit the table with a loud smack that made everyone jump, then who cared that Pop had never heard the word gavel before.

So now here was Joey, seven years younger than Ruth, already sitting at that table with the men, butting his nose in like practicing for his own turn to take over. Joey, who had lately started helping out on Pop’s plumbing calls. His hand on Pop’s hammer showed new calluses and a nasty red arc where he’d been burned by the welding torch—either he’d been too slow to get out of Pop’s way, or Pop couldn’t be bothered to wait. But the scars were not a sign that he was still just a careless boy. To Pop, they proved him more of a man even than when he’d loomed a head over the rabbi at his Bar Mitzvah last month. 

Joey might’ve been tall, which on him, unlike on Ruth, was considered an asset, but he was still a kid, sitting at Pop’s elbow, brandishing the gavel through the air whenever Pop wasn’t looking. And Pop wasn’t looking, too busy yelling at the brothers and the cousins, all of them flailing smoldering cigarettes, ashes threatening to fly off and burn, everyone yelling, half Yiddish, half English.

When the tea kettle whistled its interruption, Pop shot Ma such a look that she yanked it off the stovetop without first shutting off the burner, gas flames licking into the air, lapping at the apron hanging low over her ample bosom. 

“I’ll pour,” Ruth said, pushing Ma back from the flame.

But Fanny shouldered them both aside. “You got homework, go do it.” She pointed Ruth towards the book bag she always brought in hope of sneaking in some schoolwork between serving and dishwashing. “And you,” she turned to Ma, but then they leaned in close, so Ruth couldn’t hear the rest.

While Ruth settled into the only spot available for studying, a corner of hard linoleum, and waited for her heavy history text to transport her to the Crusades, Fanny poured two steaming glasses of tea and strode to the table, where she slopped them down in front of Pop and second-oldest Harry. “Watch out, it’s hot,” she warned, daring to interrupt Pop, whose mouth startled shut for an instant before he remembered whatever he’d been hollering about and carried on as if Fanny didn’t exist.

Fanny, who wore red lipstick and the nicest lace-trimmed shirtwaist in the room, actually paid dues to the family circle, had somehow been finagled in by Pop before the other brothers had had time to think better of it. Ordinarily, wives’ relatives didn’t count as family. It wasn’t that Pop cared boo about Fanny, but he’d liked putting one over on the other brothers.

Even as a dues-payer with no husband to represent her, Fanny wasn’t invited to sit at the table, never mind to speak. But she had the nerve to approach the men for a listen under the pretext of hot tea, while the wives waited in the kitchen for her to report back. They knew Fanny wouldn’t say much except to Ma, but still they plied her with the first slice of apple cake upon her return, two cubes of sugar in her tea set out on the kitchen counter, with a chair pulled up, she should take a load off, let the others eat standing up, balancing plates and forks and glasses.

“Papa… Mama… Papa… Mama,” Fanny whispered to Ma, but loud enough for all the women to hear. Her contented sigh at the first bite of Ma’s apple cake said more than all of Hannah’s licking and smacking over her store-bought babka. “Enough already with the Papa and the Mama.” Fanny set down her fork to free a hand for flapping in disgust.

With that one gesture, Fanny dismissed all the jockeying for cemetery position next to Papa and Mama, but not because it was laughable in the way Ruth and Joey used to laugh about it before he took up his seat at the table. The women had no patience for this argument that seemed like it would never die. Not these women whose own papas and mamas had been left behind long ago. Women whose parents might be dead already, with the letter to inform them still months in transit, parents maybe buried who knew where across the ocean, if they were lucky in a familiar shul graveyard that would only ever be seen again in memory. No, these women didn’t care who would end up buried next to Papa, who next to Mama. Even the cousin who might get ostracized to the farthest corner would still be here in America, his children able to walk across the plush green grass to set a stone on his grave. 

“Why not first come, first served?” Hannah murmured for women’s ears only. “You want to get buried next to Papa,” she explained, brandishing the knife she’d used to cut her babka now in the direction of her own husband Harry, “you gotta be the first one to drop dead.  Problem solved.” And the other wives chuckled in agreement.  Even Ma, who covered her mouth to hide the fact that Hannah had made her smile.

All of a sudden Pop was summoning Ruth to the table, probably to ask her opinion, to show off what she was learning at that expensive college he was paying for, never mind her scholarship, let them think he was paying.  She tucked in her blouse, licked her lips to mimic the sheen of Fanny’s lipstick, pulled herself up from the linoleum to her full height, shoulders back. 

But no, he just wanted a sheet of paper from her notebook, paper for Joey, of all people, he should draw a picture of the cemetery, a map of where everyone should end up, settle this in writing once and for all. “And a pencil,” Pop called after Ruth when she went to fetch her book bag. “You got a ruler?”

“I brought history, not math,” Ruth said, returning with paper and pencil but no ruler, holding out the history text for explanation.

“History?” Pop said. “Like we don’t already know what already happened?” And he looked around for nods of agreement from the men. “Arithmetic you could use in the real world, measure a pipe, figure the water pressure. Ain’t that right, Joe?” with a big smile at his son. Now all of a sudden it was Joe, no more Joey.  “But history, who needs it? Just a bunch of girls.” 

Goyls was how he pronounced it. And the room grew quiet. 

The grown men, who’d begun to lean forward to watch number-one son Joe perform a miracle with Ruth’s paper and pencil, now backed up straighter in their chairs.

Even the women in the kitchen ceased their chatter.

What nasty words would bubble up Ruth’s throat? What smart retort would burst forth from her mouth?

And then, what new and different fight would break out?

Thump…thump…thump—the only sound in Ruth’s ears for a moment—not her dangerous heartbeat, just innocent Izzy and the younger cousins out front tossing their rubber ball against the stoop. She felt the weight of the history book in her hand, heavy as a baseball bat, a sharpened sword, a medieval pollaxe.

“Kugel’s ready,” Ma announced. And she appeared, as if from the trenches instead of just the kitchen, with her huge steaming pan just yanked from the oven. Only a couple of dishcloths protected her hands from the scalding tin as she hefted the trough onto the table directly in front of the men. They barely had time to pull their own hands out of the way. 

Pop had no choice but to bang down his hammer, calling for lunch. “Leave Joe in peace,” he said with a satisfied grin. “Let him concentrate.”

There was nothing left for Ruth but her corner and her books—battles and blood and battering rams and burnings at the stake. The pages in front of her eyes faded into a blur of penciled-in notes and crisscrossed underlining, the remnants of previous owners that had made the book cheap for her to buy, but would make it harder for her to resell.

“Come, Ruthie, eat.” It was Fanny offering a plate of kugel and a generous helping of whitefish, tender flakes she’d scooped from the belly of the fish, which Ma usually saved for Pop, not the bony dregs near the tail. If Ruth felt slighted by her father, there’d be little sympathy from the wives. Boys grew to be men and girls grew to be women and that was life. But Fanny, who worked all day for boss men without one to call her own, maybe Fanny had an inkling. “You helped fix this food,” she said, “you might as well eat it.”

It was out of the ordinary for the meeting to carry on through lunch. The men brought their plates back to the table, scattering fish bones and hard-boiled-egg shells, so Pop himself had to push aside the mess, clearing a space for Joe to work.

After cake had been served, and more tea, and also watery coffee for the few who wanted, Joe presented his plan, a neat grid of squares and rows, showing how all four brothers could lie near their parents by putting one next to Papa, one next to Mama, one at the parents’ head, and one at their feet. “It’s easy,” he said, “like geometry. Four brothers, four sides.” And he pointed out designated quadrants for the wives and the children and the future generations. The four outer corners of the sizable property, he’d assigned to cousins Hymie and Heshie and Fanny and old man Teitelbaum, a friend from the old country whom Ruth had been taught to call Uncle even though Ma could never entirely explain if or how he was related. 

In a way, it was absent Teitelbaum, maybe purposely-absent, cowardly Teitelbaum, who’d started this whole megillah when his wife died last winter and everyone arrived at the cemetery for the funeral to find the plot next to Mama opened up to receive her. There was nothing they could do at the time, what with the casket already out of the hearse and the frozen ground around the hole covered with snow.  But don’t think the brothers didn’t have a plan to dig up old lady Teitelbaum and move her just as soon as they’d figured out where to move her to. They would get her into the corner by next week, if they could vote today to approve Joe’s proposal.

But Uncle Harry, who was penciled in next to Mama, didn’t like that Joe had assigned Pop, his own father, the prime spot next to Papa. And Uncle Phil, the youngest, wasn’t at all keen on lying for all eternity next to Mama and Papa’s feet. “Their feet?” he said.  “Their feet?”

Then Pop must have realized that if Uncle Abe was placed at the top, next to Mama’s and Papa’s heads, why then he’d be next to both of them, both of them. All of a sudden the burial plot next to his father that Pop had been claiming for months didn’t seem like the place of honor after all. “So, okay,” he said.  “Abe wants next to Papa, I give in, I’ll switch.”

“Never mind, I keep what I got,” Abe said.

Meanwhile cousin Hymie pushed back his chair with such force that it clattered over as he stood. “The corners?” he said. “You giving us the corners?” meaning him and Heshie. “We ain’t good enough to lay next to you? Our money was good enough when you wanted to buy the place!” And he stormed out of the apartment in his shirtsleeves, Heshie running after, both of them side-stepping the ball that flew through the unexpectedly open door and landed with a threatening thwack at Pop’s feet.

So the argument took up where it had left off before Joe had been assigned to save the day. It was just the four uncles now, which in some families might have been less fractious than with the cousins thrown in. But here the opposite was true, the brothers free to curse at each other, to denigrate each other’s physiques and intelligence, without having to pretend a united front against the cousins. 

At some point, somebody must have felt the need to tear Joe’s master plan into angry shreds, which Ruth didn’t mind sweeping up with the cigarette butts and eggshells after one of the aunts handed her a broom. Joey, once again Joey, had long since abandoned the gavel, snatched up the ball and fled outside to join the game.

The gavel lay silent on the table next to Pop, just a rusty hammer again, the only thing silent at that table. Not that anyone had any further hope for the argument to end today, but the meeting couldn’t be called to its conclusion until Hymie and Heshie returned, or else how would their wives get home? None of the women knew how to drive, and none of the uncles would be in the mood to offer a ride—the aunts knew better than to ask.

So Ma put up another pot of tea and started pulling wax paper wrappings off the leftovers. She would regret this tomorrow, when she’d normally have served the leftovers at home for lunch. She didn’t stomp around or complain the way Ruth might have, but she balled up the wax paper into the trash instead of folding it neatly to re-use.

Ruth retreated to the tiny bathroom, the one Hannah-Harry’s would have been wise to avoid earlier, practically in the middle of the kitchen as it was. That practically public bathroom was the reason Ruth rarely ate much at family meetings, definitely not onions nor glass after glass of sweet tea. But now she squeezed in with her history book and her notebook, sat on the toilet with the door ajar for light. She’d have to copy out notes, the textbook too obscured by its previous owners for another round of underlining. But instead, she found herself doodling on the note paper, her own plan for the cemetery, like Ma’s apple cake cut into eight wedge-shaped slices, one wedge for each brother, and one each for the cousins and old man Teitelbaum. They could all lie in a circle, with their heads next to Papa and Mama, or their feet. 

Maybe they would alternate heads and feet, like the younger cousins did when they were all put to sleep across one bed after a late-night Passover seder. Ruth leaned her back against the toilet tank, her oxford shoes up against the far wall, which of course wasn’t really far at all, her knees skewed at an awkward angle. But she could almost forget where she was, having fun now sketching the brothers lying prone in their graves, Pop with his glasses, Phil’s daring goatee, Harry’s prominent paunch that Ma always attributed to Hannah’s cooking, fatty and filling. 

She drew in trees and some pretty flowers, even though Jews don’t do flowers on graves. She was just adding the mole to Hannah’s lip on the body next to Harry and his paunch, a smear of black that she’d always wondered how it might feel to the touch—like an angry raw pimple or a swath of fine velvet?—when she heard the apartment door slam, followed by the immediate bang-bang-bang of Pop’s hammer, time to pack up. Pop would be in a rush to beat the Sunday night traffic, once again late, probably cursing every red light all the way home.

Ruth came out of the bathroom to find the brothers standing and stretching, putting out their cigarettes and putting on their hats. Hymie and Heshie were back, their mouths shut, at least until next month.

“Where you been?” Hymie’s wife asked.

“Around the block,” Hymie said, barking the words in a tone that every woman in the room knew meant none of your business.

“A long time for around the block,” the wife said. “You must be getting old, pretty soon you’ll need that corner plot.” It was the most Ruth had heard from either of the cousins’ wives all day, and her instinct was to back away in case Hymie’s fists should fly.  But Ma and all the aunts were inching closer to Hymie’s wife, practically surrounding her, as if at any moment they might whip out shields from under their skirts to form one of those protective tortoises like Ruth had been reading about in her history book, medieval siegecraft.

The room simmered for a moment, until Hymie turned away to fetch his hat from its peg on the wall, and Pop himself swung open the door that Hymie had slammed and hollered out to the younger cousins, enough with the ballgame, time to go home.  Then the women set to packing up the leftovers for a second time, in new wax paper torn fresh from Ma’s roll—a few remaining slices of cheese, a bit of whitefish with the head still attached—Ma always brought extra, she shouldn’t look poor, nor cheap.  Then they, too, scattered to find their hats, powder their noses. Most of the wives took turns in the bathroom, before riding off in different directions towards home, except for Ma who never used the toilet outside her own house. Ruth always wondered how had she once made it across the ocean?

It was Hannah-Harry’s who came out of the bathroom holding what looked like Ruth’s cemetery pie chart. How could that be? Wasn’t it here in her book bag? Ruth zipped and unzipped frantically, shuffling through papers, Hannah’s eyes meanwhile scanning the room in her direction. Ruth saw Fanny pause with her hatpin in midair, as if ready to wield it in Ruth’s defense. But Hannah didn’t look angry.  She was smiling, then chuckling, then laughing out loud, gesturing for the other wives to come take a look. 

“Women’s business,” Hannah said, pushing Harry back out of the kitchen when he wanted to know what was what. Then, “I pay you a dollar for this, Ruthie,” she said, unsnapping her pocketbook.  Hannah, who never unsnapped her pocketbook. “Gonna buy a frame at the five and dime, hang this up in my bathroom.  Harry can have a look every time he takes a you-know-what.”

“You can keep your dollar,” Ma said. “Ruthie don’t need.” 

But then it was Ma who put the last forkful of Hannah’s babka into her own mouth, chewed and swallowed, licked the powdered sugar off her fingers with the careful pink tip of her tongue. “Come Ruth, it shouldn’t go to waste,” she said. 

So Ruth licked her own forefinger to dab up a dusting of white sugar left on the rim of Hannah’s plate, leaned forward to pinch up the last crumbs of babka from plate to mouth without scattering any across the bosom of her blouse, not an ample bosom like Ma’s and the other wives’, but perhaps someday enough. Hannah’s babka turned out to be moist and sweet after all.

Then Ma washed and dried Hannah’s plate and wrapped it in several of her own handmade dishcloths. “It shouldn’t break in the car,” she said to Hannah. 

“But your cloths,” Hannah said.

“So you’ll give back next time I see you.” Ma held out the padded and protected plate, which Hannah grasped from the other side. Their hands, both Ma’s and Hannah’s, were red and raw from dishwashing, but all the women had proper gloves to put on for the trip home. 

 

Annaliese Wagner

Annaliese Wagner is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. She has published her poetry in HUMID and The Blue Route, and has published fiction in Far Enough East.

 

How to Jump Rope

1) Start with the rhyme she liked to sing Miss Mary Mac, Mac, Mac. Bring the rope around and start jumping all dressed in black, black, black. Feel your sneakers smack the concrete. Close your eyes with silver buttons, buttons, buttons.

2) Remember to keep saying the rhyme. Squeeze your eyes shut. The pavement is hard.

3) Remember the pavement. Remember to close your eyes. Keep rhyming. Remember that today you went to the hospital and there were tubes in the veins of her hand, in the insides of her elbows, in her nose, down her throat all down her back, back, back. The pavement is hard. You want to hit your sister. Your sister is a bad word you can’t say. Say the bad word. Say her rhyme she asked her mother, mother, mother.

4) Your sister is beautiful. She took lots of pills. She is in a coma. She is not your sister. She is the bad word you said. She does not love you. Feel your knees ache. Feel your breath catch in your lungs as you chant her rhyme for fifty cents, cents, cents.

5) Remember you wanted to hide behind your father. She took a lot of pills and they were blue and white and orange and they mixed in her belly and they got into her brain and now there are so many tubes to see the elephant, elephant, elephant. Your knees ache and you can’t keep your eyes closed anymore because keeping your eyes closed doesn’t make any difference because you still see the tubes anyway and you are breathless but you keep chanting jump over the fence, fence, fence.

Abbigail N. Rosewood

Abbigail N. Rosewood writes in order to make sense of the world and in hope to connect with others just as lost as she is on the human journey. Her works have previously been published at BlazeVox, The Missing Slate, Greenhills Literary Lantern, The Bad Version, Pens On Fire, The Rusty Nail and forthcoming at Thoughtsmith. She studies Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University and works as an editorial assistant at The Missing Slate. She can be reached at www.abbigailnrosewood.com.

 

The Ones We Keep

Right after the constructors finished adding a second floor to the brick house, Tai confessed his affair to Ngoc. It was more of a declaration, touched with a little pride and some courage from a man who was prepared to leave his family. His destruction was implacable and he anticipated tears. Surely Ngoc would not have expected it. She was the more attractive one of them, and much younger. On their honeymoon bed, Tai had asked her for a secret, one she never told anybody before. And Ngoc, hands patting her flat and defined stomach, spoke in speedy, slurred words like water spilling from the mouth of a baby when it first learned to swallow. ‘Since I was young, I always made sure that I was better—prettier, younger—than the man I date so he would always feel lucky to have me. That way I won’t be the one afraid to lose him.’

The house was filled with commotion. Downstairs, the TV was on, Tai’s mother chatted with her sister in a hushed and self-important voice that old ladies sometimes do, somebody was in the kitchen, too. Ngoc could hear the sound of a blade hacking at the cutting board rhythmically. For nine years, she shared this space with Tai’s mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, his brother’s children. Now that her own child was at that age of unfathomable mood swings which were at once serious and shallow, they have decided to build an upstairs so the family could have its first glimpse of privacy, even though the ceiling was thin and everything that was said on the second floor can still be heard downstairs.

‘After all these years they finally let us have this extra space. You think they will let you leave?’ Ngoc smirked. She wasn’t afraid, in fact, she felt the strength of the time they had already spent together pushing at the tip of her finger. She stabbed the needle forward then backward on Tai’s pants with the impatience of one who was all too familiar with the tear.

Tai wasn’t much for words. In these verbal games, his wife always gained grounds no matter how twisted her reasoning. Already he felt the irrelevance of his admission to adultery. Kim, his mistress, was twenty-six, not that much younger than Ngoc. She wasn’t exciting, or had an unquenchable sex drive like he had heard of some his coworkers’ mistresses. But she was willing. Willing to wear the new dress he bought her even though it wasn’t her color. Willing to sit on his Moped as he drove aimlessly through the city, the fish market or the tourist shopping center. Her willingness to get lost, perhaps, was why he liked her. Ngoc always knew where she wanted to go and the route to get there. Her efficiency impressed Tai and reduced him little by little from her world.

On a Tuesday four months ago, he had skipped tennis to be in Kim’s bed. He’d reasoned that it was the right thing to do after having exhausted the amount of coffee, fruit juices, and cocktails they had ordered together. She had sat with legs slightly parted, encouraged him to talk about everything and nothing. She seemed to want so little from him, which inspired in him a magnificent generosity, to give her everything he possibly could. Still, he wasn’t leaving his family for love; he knew that much.

‘Why the threats? If you mean to keep Phuong from me, you can’t, she is my child, too.’ Tai suddenly felt the need to be either frank or cruel. He wanted to jolt Ngoc out of her constant self-composed calm.

‘I’m not keeping anyone from you. You are the one. Remember that.’ Ngoc tried to keep from trembling. In her head, she had already started to plan. The kind of job she would need to support herself. Serving homemade coffee to construction workers brought in some extra vacation money, but it wasn’t enough to live by. What would she do? There was no way she would continue staying here in Tai’s mother house, where he might show up with his—. She felt her head spin and could not focus on her husband’s words. His throaty voice sounded like scolding, as if this culmination of their marriage was somehow her fault. The heat in the room was becoming unbearable and the odor of burnt meat rising from the kitchen made her nauseous. She needed something to lighten the situation, to regain her apparent loss of voice in the matter.

‘I’ll help you pack,’ she said.

She didn’t mean it, of course, but sometimes she had released words just for their effect. Calculated syllables that made her own heart throb, and somehow when she felt its spasm, she knew she had done something right. Mostly she knew he had felt it, too.

She left the room, leaving the pair of pants without pulling the last thread, letting the needle hang from the rip. The sun was cooking them both. Beads of sweat glowed from his forehead. Perhaps he would understand the message she was trying to leave. She was proud of the steadiness of her own voice. In these moments, she knew what they needed weren’t the explicit and honest communication that happy couples claimed to have. Symbols alone could bolster her strength and give her the vague assurance of direction. No matter which path they found in this marriage, she would get there first and wait for him. She wouldn’t be caught surprised. Not again.

The first thing Ngoc did was weigh herself on their rusty scale in the bathroom. She hadn’t stepped on it in a long time, hadn’t cared to know. Somehow, she was absolutely certain that Kim, the one Tai hoped to run away with, was thinner than her. Ngoc felt no hostility toward the girl. After all weren’t these kind of things as common as soup and salads? She and Tai had discussed the adultery of their friends, relatives. Laying with their damp backs and staring at the mosquitoes swirling above them, they had gossiped about everyone’s affairs but their own. Tai had aggressively defended the wives whose husband strayed, while she found more faults with the women for not knowing how to keep their family together. She wouldn’t cry and act so pathetic as those women did. If tears indicated that somebody had lost, as long as she didn’t cry, there was no victory for anyone.

On the sink, behind the faucet was a tube of lipstick. The cap was as tarnished as the scale. She twisted it open and sniffed the stale, concentrated scent of vanilla. Somebody had told her once that the shape of the lipstick revealed something about the woman. The tip could either be round or pointy. She had always thought that the pointy tip meant a promiscuous woman. Hers was round. Suddenly, she felt an urge to shave it off, to give it the edge it never had. She could have been that kind of woman.

Han, Tai’s mother called her for help from the front yard. The old lady was always sweeping even when there were no leaves on the ground. Ngoc was used to seeing her with the broom in her hand, as if it were an extension of her arm and she would be incomplete without it. ‘Ngoc! Are you ever going to wash the dogs? They stink like tunnel rats,’ the old lady shouted. ‘Which dog?’ Ngoc silently resented, ‘There are at least ten of them.’ In this heat, the fleas multiplied layer by layer on the already malnourished canines. For hours, they sat chewing at themselves until their fur was sticky, their raw skin red and exposed. Ngoc felt sorry for them and the showers that cooled down the dogs temporarily, didn’t help. Yet the old lady kept letting them breed. Litter after litter, the little ones barely opened their eyes before they were already lunged into the misery of the world.

‘Where are you going?’ The old lady asked as Ngoc appeared from the staircase. Her tone was accusatory but Ngoc knew it stemmed from her fear of being forgotten, of aging into invisibility. Despite her constant irascible demands, Ngoc felt an irrational love for the old lady. Perhaps it was because Ngoc knew that only she alone could concoct the perfect beef stew for Tai’s mother, or slaughter the hen in the meticulous manner that the old lady wanted—with a sharp cut at the neck that allowed bright red drops of blood to drip into a clean, white bowl.

They needed each other in this way, in a busy and discriminating manner that let them receive and reciprocate blame—Han disparaging Ngoc for not being worthy of her son (Because she was from a provincial town and because her father worked in a factory that produced fish sauce. “Even his money doesn’t smell good,” Han would say), and Ngoc incriminating the old lady as the reason for Tai’s refusal to buy a house for his wife and kid, lest Han should be too weak and lonely to manage on her own.

‘Your mother is not weak. She’s stronger than me.’ Ngoc would say to him.

‘Still she can’t be alone,’ Tai would reply.

‘She’s not alone. Your brother—his wife, kids. There are four other people here to keep her company!’

‘You think I’m that selfish? Forcing my younger brother to take care of her by himself?’

That was how the conversation went. When Ngoc had the energy, she would add ‘He doesn’t take care of her. I do,’ but for the past few years, she’d only sighed and gone to join Han in front of the TV.

Now as she looked in the old lady’s questioning eyes, she recognized that imminent sense of departure, of knowing Han would soon be gone and the frame of her standing there now still, was somehow irrelevant. For the first time, Ngoc understood for she felt it in herself, too.

In the temple’s courtyard, men in long sleeved shirts and women in high collared dresses gathered around the bird cages. While the city’s population proliferated with colorful tourists and their overweight backpacks, the temple remained for the most part unchanged. There were but a few foreigners with their canon T3is strapped to their necks, kneeling at the marble staircase in an attempt to capture the seventeen animal statues on each step of the stairs, before a monk pointed the sign prohibiting photography out to them. A short, thin man of around five foot and a dark chestnut complexion was buying fifteen birds, possibly because that was how long somebody he knew had been gone. It was a common practice, the people bought birds to release them because one must do something good in the sanctum of God.

Ngoc watched the birds fly away with glee. Their dull, brown wings were little specks of dirt amidst the white clouds. The onlookers were disappointed, as if they expected something not quite so understated, as if they thought the brown creatures would suddenly explode with colors once they were free.

‘It wouldn’t be long until those birds were captured again, to be sold here.’ Ngoc said to the man.

‘I know,’ he nodded.

‘So why do you buy them?’

‘Because freedom isn’t free, even just for a little while,’ he smirked and then started to laugh. His light and complacent laughter startled Ngoc. ‘I’m just joking,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I do it. I come here to place incense for my daughter and buy some birds. At first I thought I did it for her, that she would have liked seeing some dozen birds flying off at once, but then I realized I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t find out about her existence until—‘ He stopped to check if Ngoc was still listening then resumed. ‘Well let’s just say I only got to know my daughter here, at this temple. And releasing the birds just makes me feel a little less heavy on my feet. After all, isn’t that where the spirits go? Up? Being light would help don’t you think?’

Ngoc didn’t come here to pray to the dead, but to see the living. There was a boy from her childhood who had loved her, perhaps the only one beside Tai. Long was an orphan and grew up in the monastery. His fate was sealed even before they met. Not that he didn’t have a choice, but that he wouldn’t survive anywhere else being raised by the elder monks who had taught him how to pray well and read scriptures, but not to barter, lie, or pretend his heart wasn’t broken.

In her early twenties, Ngoc didn’t feel too bad tantalizing Long. Everyone needed a source of unconditional love without having to return it. Perhaps that was what she was for Tai, and then her daughter Phuong when she was born. Ngoc paid fifty thousand dong for some dragon fruits, mangos, and oranges from a trembling old lady. ‘I could do that, sell fruit. Mourners are generous people,’ she thought, ‘I will leave Phuong with Tai’s mother until I save up enough to bring her with me.’ She continued to walk past the pond leading to the columbarium.

At the bottom the stairs, Ngoc could see Long on the balcony. He was talking to an elder monk with exaggerated hand gestures. They were both laughing as if they had just heard a dirty joke. From here, neither of them looked like they belonged in a monastery. She waved to Long before walking up the steps but his eyes were squeezed together, still laughing mildly, and didn’t see her.

‘Hey there,’ Ngoc smiled with some difficulty. She suddenly felt fraudulent, like she didn’t have the right to be there.

‘Hey!’ Long turned and hurried toward her. His overt enthusiasm startled Ngoc, who expected a shy youth and not a man so unruffled by her presence.

‘So good to see you,’ he said, ‘Are you here to visit your father-in-law? Funny, I just cleaned his urn and was thinking about you.’ He lifted the bangs from his eyes and looked at Ngoc for the first time.

‘I brought some fruits—’ Ngoc managed softly.

‘Great! I will put them in the altar right now.’ He walked over the large golden plate in front of the Siddhartha statue, took away the desiccated oranges and replaced them with the new fruits, still green so they would last a while. ‘So how have you been? How is Tai?’

‘I came to see you, Long. Can we talk somewhere?’

He shrugged as if disappointed that this wasn’t just a friendly visit, but one with motivation. With eyes still tearing from the smoke of the incense, he nodded. ‘Sure, let’s go sit by the pond.’

An orange tabby peered up at them from the space between the walls. Ngoc folded her legs on the bench and sighed lengthily. ‘I wish we could have done this more often, you know, before I married.’

‘We did. We went to Turtle Lake and talked nearly every weekend.’

‘So you don’t regret anything?’ She asked.

‘Things turn out as they should. You’re happy, aren’t you?’

‘What if I had married you instead?’

Long laughed, incredulous. ‘You wouldn’t be very happy.’

‘I think we might have been. I think so.’ She was emphatic. The words floated above her. For a moment, she felt like a young girl again, with important choices to make.

‘I’m gay,’ he said somewhat reservedly, his voice tinged with a little self-doubt, but mostly deliverance.

The two words stunned her and Ngoc didn’t look at him, nor reply. She merely swallowed over and over again. The back of her neck burned. Though a minute earlier she was admiring the soft hue of pink on the lotus and its bright yellow filaments, now she no longer saw them.

‘I know what I said to you Ngoc—the promises I made.’ He looked up at the clear sky as if searching for answers, ‘There’s the person you love before you know who you are and then there’s—. Well that’s it.’

‘You asked me not to marry Tai.’ Ngoc said. She felt as if she had just opened a wrapped present to find nothing inside. The box would have held hope, if not, given her wonders and a passing smile when she had little left. No more.

‘I know’ he said like a mantra under his breath, ‘I know’.

The upstairs room looked unusually spacious even though much of Tai’s belongings still leaned neatly against the wall. Two folded stacks of clothes, one for jeans, one for t-shirts. Both Tai and Ngoc had quietly lapsed into a routine of coming home on separate days. All confessions induced change, yet neither could admit that they were removing bricks from the foundation of their marriage. Ngoc took a job as a cook for an elementary school in the city. She had rented a bed in a small apartment behind the market. The smell of livestock, rotten vegetables, and rain permeated the walls. At night, she curled up inside the mosquito’s net, slapping her hands together at the mosquitoes that landed outside of the net. Their blood left a dot of brown stain on the blue mesh. Ngoc was astonished at how naturally one life slipped from her and another began without pause. No intermission. No great epiphany. Her wrists were sore from the repeated motion of untying, washing, cutting bundles of vegetables, but she felt the same as always. Without the familiar salty smell of Tai next to her and his erratic gasps for breath during the middle of the night, she found it hard to sleep at first, but eventually thought the extra space comfortable. Her childhood recurred to her more frequently and vividly than her life with Tai. When she was not back at the two-storied house, she rarely thought of her daughter. The girl, like her father, was slipping into a dark room in Ngoc’s memory. She felt as if she were looking at them through a smudged window and the more she cleaned the glass, the more distorted the image became.

Ngoc stood at the door watching her daughter sleep. Phuong’s cheeks were round and full but the fat had begun to disappear and a square jaw line was barely visible. Hearing the floorboard creak, she opened her eyes and looked at Ngoc.

‘Sorry I woke you,’ Ngoc said.

‘I wasn’t sleeping.’ Like her father, Phuong hated to be caught sleeping during the middle of the day. ‘Will you be staying the night, mom?’ Her voice was sulky like a young child still, but there were dark half moons under her eyes and she looked much older.

‘No, I have to go back to the apartment. It takes too long to drive to my work from here.’

‘Can I come with you?’

‘There’s nowhere for you to sleep there. I share it with two other women.’ Ngoc spoke impatiently. She was angry at her daughter for her suffering. When you were unhappy, it was better to be callous than sentimental. Phuong’s question had made Ngoc want to weep.

‘I can sleep anywhere mom. All I need is a fan, and I can live anywhere—’

One evening Ngoc dropped Tai’s mother off at her singing class. Since Ngoc and Tai’s separation, the old lady had filled her day with classes, group meetings, community services. It was Saturday, Phuong would get out of school at three instead of five. Instead of rushing back to the city, Ngoc sat on a low stool on the front porch picking fleas off the emaciated canines. The mother had brown fur with mean streaks of yellow on her forehead. She truly looks like a rabid dog, Ngoc thought. Her breasts hung from her stomach, raw and bald from the suckling of her babies. Ngoc felt sorry for her. The little ones didn’t look like their mother—with fluffy, white coat. Only the runt had the recognizable spots of brown fur on his tail.

Tai pulled up to the front gate. His powder blue t-shirt matched the dress of his passenger, a girl with hair as straight as if each strand had been measured with a ruler. Ngoc could tell he was more agitated than surprised to see her; they were supposed to stay with the schedule until they figured out what to do next. It seemed to Ngoc her husband already had made up his mind. His pretense of indecision was supposed to spare her time, to give her a chance to become used to or perhaps even comforted by his absence.

‘We’re just here to check out the dogs. Kim might adopt one.’ Tai said.

‘I love dogs,’ the young girl smiled, eager to please the soon to be ex-wife. She reminded Ngoc of when Tai first brought her meet his mother. The girl was desperate for Ngoc’s permission. No doubt she had suffered the guilt of a home wrecker. Her friends had thought her profoundly stupid for throwing away her youth on a middle-aged man who was neither wealthy or handsome. The fact that he was married was not one of their concerns.

Even though their age wasn’t too far apart. The young girl’s face possessed that vacant beauty unlined by experience. Ngoc frowned a little and said more warmly than she intended.

‘Sure, take as many as you want.’

Around the pond the air smelled of moss and wet stones. The grey sky thundered but there was no rain. Inside the cage the puppies were hushed. The slight joggle of Ngoc’s walking swayed them to sleep. With both arms, Ngoc carried the cage pressed to her chest. Their distinct puppy scent was a mixture of mud, milk, and wild grass. Ngoc wanted to press her face onto their soft bodies. Tomorrow Kim would come back for the runt. Immediately she had picked him among his noisier, livelier siblings. Apparently a simple girl with a soft heart, she was attracted to his frailty. Ngoc almost laughed. She could picture the scene unfolding—Kim taking the puppy home, coddling him with boiled chicken and raw cod, letting him snuggle up in between her and Tai. Ngoc’s husband would indulge his girlfriend at first until he lost patience and tossed the dog off the bed. If the runt happened to whine, he might kick its rear to quiet it.

Once Ngoc put down the cage on a dry, flat rock, the puppies stirred. She lifted the top open and they directed their noses upward, their senses awakened to a clearer, thinner air. Ngoc took the runt out first. He would get his first swim before joining his new family tomorrow. Holding him in her left hand, Ngoc walked out toward the middle of the pond. Without hesitation, she put him down into the cool water. Ngoc had done this before. She liked to think of herself as a swimming coach, showing them one by one how to float and turn the water around them into a light substance that lifted their small skeletons rather than weigh them down. Her daughter, Phuong, too had learned to swim this way. Ngoc would hover her hands under Phuong’s stomach and thigh, pretending to give support while Phuong was buoyant on her own. In the same way with one hand under the puppy’s belly, Ngoc let the runt kick his legs, creating tiny whirlpools around his body.

With a deep breath, Ngoc pulled herself under the water. She pressed the runt against her breasts and felt his newborn claws dig into her skin. Ngoc held her breath without creating bubbles with her mouth. She blinked several times, trying to keep her vision steady but the water, a dark olive green began to turn black. Still with arms locked tightly around the runt, she remained submerged in water until he no longer struggled but laid limply, contentedly in the cradle of her arms. Ngoc felt her nose grow warm. Whether or not she had cried, she could not tell.

It seemed the sky had stopped threatening to rain. The clouds moved aside, making way for the forceful flares of the sun. The pond was undisturbed, a rigid reflection of the sky. It held in its wet belly the same floating clouds, piercing rays of the sun. Another version of the heavens.

The other puppies too, left behind, wandered without purpose on the safe edge of the pond. One sat upright, peering at the far side of the water. His brothers and sisters heard him whimper and one by one they joined in his mourning.

The old lady was already home when Ngoc got there. Han sat alone on the ground in front of a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup.

‘You never came to get me so I had to take a cab. I don’t have that kind of money—’ Han was about to go on but Ngoc interrupted her.

‘I’m sorry. I meant to come get you.’

‘My son would always be on time. He wouldn’t let me wait.’ The old lady paused, as if suddenly she remembered something, ‘I don’t see the puppies. You didn’t sell them to the restaurants, did you? Those bastards, always stealing people’s dogs—’

‘No I left them at the pond. They won’t make it.’ Ngoc said.

A quick flash of sorrow showed on the old lady’s forehead. Her lips formed a tight line that seemed be frowning. But perhaps it was only age with its damage to facial expressions. ‘Oh—’ Han breathed. There was an almost imperceptible surprise in her voice.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ngoc repeated while standing there transfixed as if waiting for the call of a jury. She imagined being in the courtroom and signing the few last pieces of paper that were supposed to severe two people’s ties to each other forever and all she could mutter was those syllables. Not as an apology but more of an empty catchphrase one might be repeating in meditations, as an anchor to hold fast onto any remaining peace and numb out other thoughts.

‘It doesn’t matter that much. The bitch will be pregnant again soon.’ The old lady said matter-of-factly and slurped noisily on the soup bowl. She paused, looked inside the swirling surface of the bowl as the elders once did with the pattern of Pouchong leafs inside tea cups to predict the future. ‘The ones we keep end up dying anyway—,’ she nodded to herself, as if confirming with her memory of all the dogs they’d had.

Ngoc waited for Phuong to fall asleep before heading back to the city. Next door, the neighbor was burning a pile of garbage. The smoke colored the sky an ash grey. She could hear the motor on Tai’s Moped approaching and counted the seconds until the front door opened and a few seconds more when his footsteps hit the wooden stairs. The climb was slow and arduous. He had probably had a few drinks with his colleagues. Over the years, she’d accepted his alcohol intake as she’d accepted anything else—the dog getting pregnant while her last litter slowly died off, Phuong being bullied in class for wearing the same maroon uniform for three consecutive years. Ngoc had tried hard not to ask for more than she could have, to accept life’s little indifferences. She had been so willing to bend down and take the weight that she forgot to fall in love with what was around her. Here she was again supporting her husband’s flaccid body mass on her whole back and carried him to bed without questions or curiosity.

‘Hey wifey.’ Tai spoke childishly as Ngoc unbuttoned his shirt. He rolled over to let her pull the shirt off his back. ‘Do you still love me wifey?’ He said loudly in that jesting way of his, unconcerned with the silence of the household . Phuong stirred on the mattress against the opposite wall.

Ngoc felt a dull throb inside her chest. ‘If you can’t understand it without being told, then you can’t understand it being told,’ she recalled what Long had once said to her, except he was referring to an old religious pamphlet he’d found.

In the corner were the pants Ngoc had never finished mending. She picked them up and started to insert the needle back and forth. In between the steady and boisterous rhythm of Tai’s snores were Phuong’s softer, shorter breaths. Even as Ngoc focused on the stitches, she never took her eyes off them. The night rolled on like a music disc set on repeat.

Ngoc sat with her head against the wall. Unconsciously she measured her breathing to match with Tai’s so that it could not be heard.  With her legs folded beneath her, the muscles ached but she did not budge, afraid the floor board would squeak and wake them up. Like a statue, she looked as if she had fallen asleep herself except with eyes wide open, dazed in a secret kind of love, the kind that only unraveled itself when nobody else was there to see.

Matthew Dexter

Like nomadic Pericú natives centuries earlier, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

The Value of a Good Camel Toe

My mother would never let me enjoy the nude beach, so I had to improvise: flaunted my camel toe as I followed footprints up well-trodden dunes polluted with half-burnt charcoal briquettes toward teenage surfers who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes on their boards, my flip-flops hanging from my middle fingers as I imagined a goddess should hold her bikini at the mythological shore on the other end of the island, the one my mother referred to as Forbidden. Our neighbor, the convivial widower and double-arm amputee, would swim naked every weekend. This I learned from Paco Villarreal, our other neighbor, who sold dime bags out of the emergency medical kit inside the hatchback of his mother’s Subaru.

I peered through our kitchen window every morning as we worshipped blueberry pancakes stuffed with chunks of chocolate and peanut butter, watching Mr. Wilson’s nurse lather his hairy chest and legs with baby oil. Severed my sweet cherry from the stem, inhaled a pyramid of whipped cream as he stretched in his living room with the nimble dexterity of a gymnast, with wrinkles and arthritis. Mr. Wilson wore shorts, but Paco was trustworthy–up until the day his mom rear-ended Emily Wheeler.

Emily Wheeler was a skater chick who happened to be the daughter of a cop. They thought Paco’s mom was drunk. Emily rolled with a drug-sniffing dog famous for finding contraband at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel carnival. The German Shepherd humping the hatchback, incredulous Mrs. Villarreal obliged arriving officers by opening up. Barking and licking the Velcro where bandages and rubbing alcohol were jammed against a large plastic Ziploc stuffed with thirteen smaller baggies. Such ended the drug career of one of our hood’s most ambitious and promising entrepreneurs. From then on, we had to steal weed from Karle Shaprona’s father when her parents went out for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.

***

So there I was with my camel toe all jammed in tight and with these deliberate strides like a cheetah stretching, I orbited a constellation of freckles, pimples filled with puss as the boys rubbed their longboards with Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. My shadow drifted across their legs.

Brown Pelicans landed on pink shoulders of children who had yet to learn the value of a good camel toe. I could feel mine at the perfect angle. When it was too sandy, I knew something had shifted. But the children didn’t pay me much attention. They were more interested in the ugly girls who didn’t shave perfect; the ones where they could see the pubes peeking from the bikinis of those honor students who wouldn’t know what to do with a sack of nuts if it smacked them in the cheeks.

I had been rehearsing what I would do with testes since I learned how to spell the word. In fifth grade, I studied the VHS movies Paco’s father began collecting from the adult video store with the black-waxed windows next to the arcade. Paco’s mother never returned from her stint in county jail. A few hours before her early release for good behavior, Mrs. Villarreal took a broomstick–not just to the hatchback, but to the head.

***

I still wanted to see that nude beach, what it had to offer, the promise of more than cotton and polyester dampened within the crevasse of knowledge. The three of us headed out one humid afternoon in early July when our parents thought we were getting dizzy on The Gravitron at the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel carnival. Emily Wheeler approached as we rode our bikes uphill. Her dog instinctively headed for my crotch. This was where we kept the weed in case we were confronted by security forces.

We were unsure how much to wax, so we carried shaving gel and a pink razor, just in case. We permitted Emily Wheeler to accompany us,without her dog. While Emily skated down Hillside Avenue, slaloming between parked cars, we sat on the side of the cul-de-sac behind an enormous maple tree and shaved our elbows, and made sure our pits were clean. When she returned we were in the middle of the cul-de-sac tanning our kneecaps.

The ride was smooth. Sweat was juicy. My camel toe was already swollen with excitement. We did not run from the rain. We washed our spokes and waited for the sun shower to dissipate. We would undress at increments, shedding our layers like rattlesnakes and doing cartwheels on wet sand to attract attention. This was our moment to shine.

The nude beach itself was not as majestic as fabled.It was scarce and rocky on one side, broken by dandelions and uncut brush. We went to hide our bicycles, but encountered an elderly love triangle. The breeze carried the sea salt, attracting thirsty dragonflies which hovered above our heads as we joined the circle to watch.

There was no boundary and nobody questioned why we had such swagger. Emily Wheeler had her skateboard under her arm. We wondered when would be the perfect moment to start stripping. Would there be a sign? Then it happened. It looked like a shark attack. The lifeguard dragged the woman from the white water. The nudist hit her head with her board, the lifeguard unhooked the band from her ankle and bandaged the wound beneath the shade of his umbrella.

Emily wheeler was doing the wheelbarrow butt-naked, nothing more than ethereal cartwheels and specks of backwards summersaults. She started at the rocky side and followed the shoreline toward the shadows cast by spray-painted cliffs on the far crescent. She became the angel of the beach. We waited an hour until the appendages were nothing more than fingers and toes and Emily Wheeler had worn herself out so that all she could do was lie on the wet sand and wait for the big waves to roll her over. The larger ones would drag her downward with a gush of receding foam. Our neighbor was waving his leg from an inflatable raft. We felt closer to Satan and Jesus and everything meaningful that afternoon. Nothing seemed so fuzzy anymore.

***

We hit the nude beach every day. We knew everybody: Mr. Wilson, the gym teacher, the postman, the guy who delivers the pepperoni calzones, the woman who works at the fitness center, the alcoholic with gout who collects disability. Nobody told our parents. Nobody talked about it. There was nothing to say. It was spoken through sundrenched atonement in the tabernacle of Forbidden.  The spell rode itself timeless and fierce.

***

The Indian summer was ending. Soon would be seventh grade, layers of clothing, skin so distant and cold. Sundrenched chestnuts roasting would be nothing but another Christmas carol. The present unraveling, we sat by the tall grass and sipped cabernet sauvignon with daffodils dangling from the corners of our lips in the shadows of the cliffs where the elementary school janitor with shingles was making love to the young single mother who worked at the Laundromat. We were tempted to join them, but instead followed the footprints of Emily Wheeler toward the shoreline where she was building an elaborate sandcastle adorned with pink shells.

Emily lost herself as a rogue wave smothered us out to sea. We knew we could have paddled horizontal to the shoreline to escape the rip current. We could have yelled to the lifeguard on the other side of the beach, held out our hands, hoping he would notice us drowning in the shadows where swimming was forbidden. We didn’t though. We unhooked the boards from our ankles by the Velcro. We swam till our arms and legs ached and then tread water and waited till time was ready to take our naked bodies under, as it would have done soon enough. We wanted the waves to take us together and hold us for a moment of sublimity. To let the current wash us away, wash us clean. 

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including Gone to Soldiers, The Longings of Women and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as her critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. She is the author of eighteen volumes of poetry, including The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980-2010 and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. Also, PM press republished Dance the Eagle to Sleep in December and Vida this year with new introductions.

A popular speaker on college campuses, she has been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. Her poems are read frequently on The Writer’s Almanac.

Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists — Piercy is one of our country’s best selling poets — she is also the master of many genres: historical novels, science fiction (He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom), novels of social comment and contemporary entertainments. She has taught, lectured and/or performed her work at well over 400 universities around the world. http://margepiercy.com/

 

What and When I Promised

I was ten years old and visiting my grandma Hannah in the mixed poor Jewish and African American ghetto where she lived upstairs in a wooden tenement. Part of every year, bobelah stayed with us in our little asbestos bungalow in Detroit and we shared a bed. But several times a year, we went to Cleveland, where most of my mama’s family lived. I loved Cleveland. It was an escape. Loving embraces and good food and houses with books and music, even when the apartments were small and crowded. I was absolutely sure my grandma loved me; I was only as sure about my cat Buttons. I was doubtful about my father, who did not think much of me, and my mother and I were often at each other in kitchen skirmishes.

The big war of my childhood had finished the summer before. A great crowd filled the Campus Martius in downtown Detroit and everybody was yelling, shooting off firecrackers, kissing, dancing. I thought it was great. In our neighborhood, we kids had a parade with our bikes round and round the block waving a couple of flags and some balloons, banging on drums and shaking noisemakers left over from some New Year’s Eve. 

Grandma was my only grandparent. Both my father’s parents were dead and my maternal grandfather’s head had been bashed in by the Pinkertons when he was organizing the bakery workers in Cleveland. I had nearly a dozen and a half aunts and uncles and gaggles of cousins, but only Hannah to tell me stories from the stetl where she had grown up till her marriage, stories of wonder-working rabbis, of the golem and Lilith and dybyks and Cossacks. She had been hungry often, she had often been afraid, but she had belonged, the daughter of a rabbi, and she had many girlfriends with whom she bathed and washed clothes at the river and gossiped and shared her dreams. I knew that since the war ended, she had been trying to get in touch with relatives and old friends back there in Lithuania.

Grandma’s apartment was tiny and mostly we sat in the kitchen with her cat Blackie and sometimes one of her neighbors who went to the same shul, where she would take me and we would sit behind the mehitzah. At that age, I did not mind the segregation because I was petted and made much of by the old ladies who had the same thick accent as my bobuleh. They told me how smart I was and what pretty black hair I had, worn in two braids down my back.

Hannah was short and stout with dark brown hair streaked with white. She wore it in a bun, but at night when we shared a bed she would let it down like Rapunzel. I wished I had long hair like hers, but my mother cut it every two months. My mother’s hair was as black as mine but kept very short. She curled it from time to time.  Mine was straight and there was a lot of it. My mother would complain when she washed it with tar soap [she didn’t trust me to wash my own hair] and then rinsed it in cider vinegar that I had enough hair for a whole family of girls. 

Hannah wore thick glasses. She had made money doing embroidery but now she had cataracts and she said, “My eyesight, it’s going too fast. Soon I’ll be blind like a stone.”

In Hannah’s kitchen, neighbors came and went while her cat supervised from a high shelf. Most were Jewish and some were Black. That did not surprise me, as we lived in a Detroit neighborhood Black or white by blocks.  My parents were openly prejudiced, but I had never lived in an all-white world.  My first boyfriend was Black. That lasted until my parents found out and I was beaten hard by the wooden yardstick they used on me.

My parents had driven off to see one of my father’s younger brothers in Youngstown, Ohio, leaving me overnight with Hannah. That made me happy, as I was the oldest and she insisted the smartest of her grandchildren instead of a disappointment to my father from being born a girl. Also the woman married to my father’s brother was just anti-semetic enough to make sly hints and drop little phrases like, “That woman at my yard sale, she was trying to Jew me down on the price of the crib.” Her sons would pick on me when we were out of sight of the grown-ups. No, I was delighted to stay in Cleveland.

We had bagels and lox for breakfast with thick slices of onion and cream cheese that didn’t come in a Philadelphia package as it did at home. I had brought my best doll.  Hannah was making a dress for her out of an old tablecloth that had almost disintegrated. She could no longer do fine embroidery, but she could still sew by hand or on her old treadle machine.  Late in the morning she sent me down to get the mail from her box. Proudly I brandished the key. Our mail at home was generally left on the front steps. Unlocking a metal box felt special. At home, I had just gotten my own house key that I was expected to wear on a string around my neck when my mother needed to be out when I was due home from school. Keys were very adult, I felt. I was old enough to be left alone.  Kids were more independent in those days. At twelve I would be babysitting until two in the morning.

An electric bill, a postcard with palm trees from my uncle Danny in the merchant marine, a circular for a new dry cleaners and a thick official-looking letter from a Jewish organization. I carried them all carefully upstairs, proud of my errand and myself for doing it so well.  I hadn’t dropped anything and my hands were clean. I even brought up the circulars.

Hannah was laying out plates for lunch, the plates with roses around the edges that I loved. To this day, when I am a so-called adult and in fact a senior citizen, as they say – Bobah would just say, old lady – I am fussy about my dishes, my mug for coffee, which sheets I put on the bed.  My husband thinks this is crazy. I say it’s because I’m female.  Or maybe I’m just fussy. 

She had soup boiling on the old gas stove that always stunk a bit. “It leaks a little – like me,” she would say if I mentioned the smell. (I won’t give you her accent; that would turn her into a caricature and I had no trouble understanding her, including the Yiddish.)

She had a little radio sitting on the shelf that Blackie preferred, and often it would be turned to classical music or else the news. But whenever I came into the kitchen, she would turn it off. “Who wouldn’t rather listen to you than some stranger?” she’d say. “What a nice voice you got.”

“At school the music teacher won’t let me sing. She taps me on the head to shut up.”

“What does she know? A nice low speaking voice is nice for a woman.”

Everything about me could use improvement according to my mother, and was just perfect by Hannah. 

I put the mail on the table. She riffled through it and pounced on the official looking letter, tearing it open and squinting at it. “Ketselah, read it to me.” 

“Dear Mrs. Adler,” I read. That was her name from her second marriage. “In regard to your query about the following persons,” and there was a list of perhaps twelve names I sounded out slowly.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “Mach snell, ketselah.  Who lives?”

“We regret to inform you that all the inhabitants of…” I could not pronounce the name as there were too many consonants and almost no vowels.

She spoke the name and stared at me.

“All the inhabitants were killed. There are no survivors we have been able to trace.”

She made a noise like I had never before heard, a shriek that went on and on as she beat her chest and shook back and forth. “Alles….alles…”

I read on. They had been shot, the entire village, and left in a mass grave. Relatives were trying to raise money for a stone monument.  I did not know what to do except to rise and hold her by the shoulders, standing behind her chair. I was afraid. I felt too young to deal with her grief. I felt helpless and shaken myself. I tried to imagine what it would be like if everybody I knew died, how I would feel.

When she stopped shaking she said, “Because they were Jews. That’s all. Little babies, my niece Rivka, my neighbors who had only one cow and two hens, the rebbi my father taught, what did they ever do to anybody? Just because they were Jews, made to dig a big grave and then shot and piled in.”

When she was cried out, she just sat in her chair, shoulders stooped and grey in the face. Her grief scared me. I had cried when my previous cat Whiskers had died. I cried over a baby robin I tried to save. I cried when I got beaten up at school. But never had I seen anybody weep like Hannah. The soup had boiled over on the stove and I shut off the burner. The scorched smell filled the kitchen but she did not seem to notice.

Finally she said, “Soon they will be no more Yids. They will wipe us from the face of the earth. We will be done. Four thousand years, and no more.”

I tried to think what I might say. “Bobah, I will always be a Jew. No matter what, I will remain a Jew so long as I live.”

She looked up into my eyes. “Promise. Your mother has forgotten everything. She doesn’t know who she is any longer. Your father has no religion.”

“But I do. I promise.”

“As long as you breathe.”

“So long as I have breath in my body.”

She nodded. “I need yarhzeit candles. I go to find out the day of their death so I can light candles for them and say Kaddish.”

“I can write a letter for you.”

“Do it. There’s paper in the drawer of the little table.” She pointed. I fetched paper and pen and wrote the letter she wanted and addressed an envelope. She sealed it and kissed the envelope. “This is all I can do.”

“Should I go mail it?”

“Go ask my nextdoorsikah if she got a stamp.”

I knocked, got a stamp and came back. “Okay.” She nodded wearily. “Go mail…. Do you mean what you promise me?”

I did. And I have kept the promise ever since.

John A. McDermott

John A McdermottJohn A. McDermott, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas where he teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University and coordinates the BFA program in creative writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Florida Review, Juked, Seneca Review, Treehouse, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

The Hole in Orion’s Belt

When I returned from the week spent consoling my mother, burying my father, and organizing his belongings, the only mementos of him I brought back were a trio of oversized wool suits, a pair of brown shoes that needed polish, and a brown leather belt, much too big for me. My father’s waist was wide. These were things I didn’t need and would never use, but my mother insisted I have. I wasn’t really ready to start taking Dad out of her house, but I guess she was.

She thrust them at me, the suits in a 1970s Samsonite and the shoes stuffed into a brown paper grocery bag, the scuffed tips jutting beyond the serrated lip the way stalks of celery and bottles of wine may have weeks earlier. She made me promise I’d use them. They were my father’s best clothes, but it would be decades, if ever, before I could fit into them and even then, I would have to eat more, much more, if his forty-six inch waist was my goal.

They sat in the back seat of my sedan, slouched and lumpy like a sullen child, while I drove from Milwaukee back to Madison. I tilted the rear-view mirror so I didn’t see the bulging bag or the suitcase beneath the back window.

The night was clear, traffic light, the February deep freeze keeping most people at home. Rounding the curves of Lincoln Memorial Drive,  I watched black water slap the shore, Lake Michigan’s waves white-tipped in the moonlight. Hot air blew from the dashboard vents. Downtown lights burned the sky and it was only traveling beyond the suburbs I could see stars, stuck, gleaming shards above me. I rested my left hand against the window, the cold glass smooth beneath my skin.  I-94 was nearly deserted and I could safely look at the sky, the only other car two red dots in the distance.  I recognized some of the constellations, though not many.  Cassiopeia.  Ursa Major. The brightest star in Orion, Rigel. I turned off the radio and drove, glancing up occasionally as if I were tracking my position against the sky and not the green mileage signs on the right side of the road. I felt like an old-time sailor.

And then the center star of Orion’s Belt went out. While I was hurtling somewhere between Johnson Creek and Sun Prairie, home still more than thirty miles away, the sky went black in one familiar spot.

“Like somebody hit a switch?” my wife Janelle asked later. She wanted me to describe it. We talked in our kitchen, over the clean table. I didn’t have much to say about the days with Mom, about packing up Dad’s things for St. Vincent’s, about hearing his voice in the house and knowing it was just in my head, about smelling him everywhere, in every corner of every crowded room, even the rooms he didn’t like much, like my old room. They never did figure out what to do with it after I left. It lacked…something. I didn’t have much to say about that. But Janelle asked about the star and I could tell her.

“Yeah,” I said. “It vanished just like that. Click. Somebody hit a switch.” And it was gone.

***

The world learned more about Orion’s Belt in the next seventy-two hours than I’d imagined there was to know. The star’s name—the missing star—was Alnilam, Arabic for “the string of pearls.”  Alnilam had been a blue supergiant, ten thousand times more luminous than the Sun. I heard that from a middle-aged MIT professor interviewed by a CNN reporter. I paused in the doorway to the living room, a basket of clean laundry in my arms. Janelle was on the couch eating toast, absorbed in it all, every “Star Crisis” update. She thought I was bizarre for not gluing myself to the TV, for doing the dishes and making the bed. The entire country was more enthralled than a national election, than a Super Bowl, she told me. I shrugged and leaned against the doorjamb and watched the man talk. He was Asian, gaunt but healthy, smiling. I could feel warm t-shirts, stacked in a folded pile, against my chest.

“And though the three stars of Orion’s Belt seem to stretch in a line,” another professor began, this time a young woman with glasses,  “they don’t.”

“Didn’t,” the stern, concerned reporter corrected.

“Yes, of course,” the woman said, pushing her glasses to the bridge of her nose, nodding her head. “Didn’t.” The camera lingered on the first professor, his lips tightening. In theory, disappearing stars seemed neat. In actuality, they were unnerving. I wondered what was in the coffee mugs that both professors were sipping. Maybe they hid bourbon. Janelle ate cheese puffs from the bag.

Of the trio, Alnilam was actually the furthest away from earth, thirteen hundred light years from Moscow and Milwaukee alike, while its bookends—Mintaka to the west and Alnitak to the east—were only 900 hundred and 800 hundred light years away. I noticed the only in that scientist’s sentence. Only. Of course, whether you’re 900 or 1300 light years away seemed the same to me. Impossible to reach is impossible to reach. Gone is gone; every kid learns that with floating goldfish and stiff gerbils.

“Alnilam’s gone,” I said to Janelle, “and all these talking heads aren’t going to get it back.”

 “But maybe they’ll figure out where it went. Or why, at least.” She shrugged.

“Maybe,” I said.

She ate more puffs and the bright orange dye stained her lips.

Two days later I was putting away another load of laundry. It seemed I was going through more clothes, Janelle less. I was working out a lot, some days for several hours, and dirtying every pair of underwear and white socks I had. Janelle wore the same jeans from day to day. Tucking away a sweater in our bedroom closet,  I saw my father’s suit squeezed in on the far end of the metal rack. I’d stuck it there, next to my only other suit, a gray one I’d worn to his funeral but otherwise ignored. The brown shoes sat on the dusty floor, between a battered pair of high-top tennies and Janelle’s least-favorite slippers. The enormous belt hung beneath my bathrobe, a snaky leather divider that ran the length of the hollow-core door. I could hear the television in the living room, astronomers strident as fashion critics. Janelle was blowing her nose.  Her eyes were red now; she cried more than before.

The scientist said: yes, Alnilam was an old star, well into the late stages of its evolution, even near the end of its lifespan, but this, this sudden poof, gone, we didn’t expect. Stars went through phases, recognizable states. We should have seen this coming, he said. We should have been able to clock its departure with some accuracy. It wasn’t supposed to leave us like this.

But it did, I thought. Deal with it.

Janelle honked into her tissue.

Within a week of the star’s disappearance a religious cult in southern Indiana declared it a sign from heaven. They claimed Mintaka and Alnitak were “the Eyes of God” and began a pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the world, a group in Pakistan blamed NASA for the fresh black gap and announced that Allah was angry with Western vice.  Both groups made the network news. But, oddly, they didn’t seem to frighten anyone. Janelle found them comforting, like a rerun. She said they were so predictably nuts, a staple of every world crisis, they were a sign that things were really very normal. Even the anchors grinned when they reported on the Hoosiers’ progress—walking, only at night—all the way to California.

My father had lived in San Diego before the Second World War. The city had changed, he often told me, grown up a lot after he left. It used to be perfect, he’d said. He told me stories.  I’d never been to California, but that wasn’t why it was hard to picture my father, young, slim, on an empty beach. Sometimes I tried to start the stories again for Janelle, but they never seemed real. They seemed preposterous, so long ago, stories from another man who couldn’t have been the father I knew.

***

The scientific community, befuddled, stuttered and struggled to accept what everyone in the world saw nightly. “Stars don’t just vanish,” said a widely-quoted Palo Alto researcher. (The headline echoed in several national papers: STARS DON’T JUST VANISH EXPERT SAYS.) “We see them go through stages. There was no sign that Alnilam was transforming or going through a shift of some sort. It’s as if someone just reached out and snatched it from the sky.”

Janelle said she wished she’d seen it go. I’d seen it, but didn’t dwell. I didn’t need to think about the cosmos if everybody else was stuck on it. And Janelle had always been more aware of the sky. She was the one who’d taught me that those three stars were Orion’s Belt in the first place, right after we were married. There’d been a football field by our first apartment and on summer nights we would walk to the fifty-yard line and stop, our chins up. My attention followed Janelle’s raised arm as she pointed out the constellations, brilliant dabs from some calligrapher’s pen. We both stood, sweating and slapping mosquitoes, connecting the dots and smiling.

Three weeks passed and then everyone tired of thinking about the sky. The world suffered from Alnilam-fatigue. As great as it had been, for centuries, the star’s absence didn’t make that much difference. Life went on. There didn’t seem to be less of either good or evil in the world. Muggers mugged, nurses nursed. Even the scientists seemed a little tired of the topic. MIT had to move on. There were bound to be other things happening, even in the sky. Maybe especially in the sky.

I came home one night and found Janelle had unmoored from the living room. The television was on, but she wasn’t watching. She was working in the kitchen, defrosting the freezer. Pans of hot water sat in a snowy ring on the upper shelf. Short, raggedy towels were spread out on the checked linoleum floor. Janelle stood in front of the open door, stabbing at thick slabs of ice.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, still in my winter coat and watchman’s cap.

“What?”  She kept digging, thin white shavings fluttering into the water pans and onto her sweatshirt sleeves.

“Dig with the pick. You could mess up the whole thing. Puncture the coils or something.”

“You’re an expert on refrigerators?”

“It’s what I’ve been told.” I held a can of orange juice concentrate in one hand and jiggled my car keys in the other. I’d only ducked out to fill up the tank and buy the juice for breakfast.

“It’ll take forever if I don’t help it along,” she said with a short jab.

“What’s the rush?”

She turned and pointed the metal tip at the mound of frozen food on the counter and spilling over the sides of our plastic cooler, bags of peas and corn, cellophane-wrapped ground beef, frost-covered cod fillets. “You want to waste all that?”

“Why can’t we put it in the car? It’ll keep.”

Janelle set the pick down on the counter and picked up the fish. She faced me, kissed me, handed me the cod, and patted my hands. “That’s why I married you,” she said.

It took me three trips. Janelle was going to help, but I told her she didn’t have to. She went to take a bath, soak in the tub. It was a good sign. She hadn’t done that in a while. Our bathroom was yellow and blue, very sunny. Held on to heat well. And no newscasts. No radio at all.

I shut the trunk on the last load and looked to our apartment building. Ours was smack in the middle of the second floor. It looked like everyone in every apartment was home; so many lit windows. The Kellys. The Mitchells. Our living room, bedroom, bathroom. Above the building, the sky was overcast, the moon nearly full but hidden by gauzy clouds. I sat on the trunk and sucked in the cold air. It seared for a moment, then softened, like cold water after a hard July run. It sort of hurt, but I wanted more. 

The parking lot was quiet, far enough from the street for traffic to be muffled. Another breath and I fingered the keys in my jacket, about to go in, and our bedroom light went out, click, just like that. I supposed Janelle was going from the bedroom to the bath, probably wrapped up in her bathrobe and carrying a magazine. She liked to read in the tub. And it shouldn’t have thrown me, but it did. Three windows in a row. Light, black, light.

I sat on the hard edge of our car and wept. The tears hurt. It was too cold to cry outside, my cheeks chapped, but I didn’t want to move. I looked at that dark window and then up at the sky and just sat there, breathing and holding my keys. I sat there until I heard somebody walking across the lot toward the dumpster, probably with a big bag of trash, but I didn’t look. I went inside.

Janelle was still in the bathroom, the fan whirring behind the closed door the only noise. The television was off. I hung my winter jacket in the hall closet, then checked on the fridge. Water was spilling over the drip pans and the towels were damp, but that always happened. I put on the kettle for a cup of instant coffee and set the mug down on the counter, next to the ice pick. It was an old ice pick, with a faded wooden handle and a tarnished blade. I couldn’t remember where we got it. A hand-me-down from Janelle’s parents or mine.

I picked it up and walked into the bedroom, flipping on the switch with more thought than usual. In our room, I could hear the upstairs neighbors, heels clicking, the television mumbling. I opened the closet door and tossed my bathrobe on the bed, plucked the belt off the hook and sat down next to my robe. I could hear Janelle splashing and humming over the fan.

I gripped the ice pick in one hand, the handle smooth from a hundred earlier hands, and held the belt taut with the other, the far end tucked between my legs. I started out poking gingerly at the thick leather, but that didn’t get me anywhere. I had to jab the hide, prod, wheedle the sharp end of the pick against the grain. I wrestled that belt, made small thrusts, then more, a little fiercer, until it finally went through all the way.

The new hole was tiny, too narrow to buckle. I jostled the edges, cleaned it out, expanded it, then tossed the pick on the coverlet. I held the belt to the overhead light, both arms up, the ceiling beige above me, and looked through the jagged tear. It wasn’t big, but it was light, light right through the hole I made. I stood up  and wrapped the belt around my waist. I cinched it and left the end to dangle.

I heard the neighbors shout, running, click-click on the floor above me. Their TV grew louder. Quick words and applause. There was a sudden buzz about the building. A shout and a laugh came up from the parking lot, where chatter from a car’s radio bubbled beneath two cheers, a man and a woman’s. “It’s back,” someone shouted. “It’s back.”

And then there was Janelle standing in the doorway, a small smile, all wet hair and white towel and scrubbed limbs. Tell me, she said, or perhaps she didn’t.  Maybe it was simply in her eyes, her eyes clear and kind, as she sat with me on the edge of the bed. Tell me about your father’s California.

 

Kristen Blanton

Kristen Blanton is currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Idaho. She received her B.A. from the University of Arizona in 2009 and lives in Moscow, Idaho.

 

Fast Water

I made Natalie breakfast once, the first time she stayed over at my house. When we finished, I took the plates and she followed me into the kitchen. I started hand-washing them and she offered to dry.

Above my sink is a photograph a friend took for a photography class last year, the summer my ex-boyfriend, Mark, and I lived together. I want to shock my class, she said, they’re all Mormons. In the picture my fingernails are digging into his flesh hard, scratching his reddened back. When the summer was over, Mark told me to move out. He sat there solemnly while I packed. He didn’t cry until I asked him to help put our cat into her carrier.

If Natalie had asked about the photo, I’d have said, he was just an ex, with promises to tell her more stories another time, but I’m not sure she even noticed it. I handed her plates while I washed the dishes from yesterday, and she asked me where each item belonged in my kitchen.

At the thrift store we look for paintings and frames to decorate the bare walls of Natalie’s new apartment. We’re sorting through them when I find a picture I know she’ll hate, a little boy dressed in a suit like a pretend adult, handing a flower to a little girl wearing a hat and dress. The little girl’s holding the flower in her right hand up to her nose, and she’s smiling like she knows something. The little boy is kissing her cheek.

“Jesus, Molly,” she says. “No.”

 “What if it were two girls?”

 “They don’t make sentimental photos with baby lesbians.”

 She buys the frame because I said I liked it.

“We can change the picture,” I say, like decorating her house is our project, like someday soon I’d be saying things like “We enjoy chow mein.” The signs are there, though: we leave panties that aren’t ours on each other’s bedroom floors. We adopted her dog – Toby – together. We have toothbrushes from cheap Walgreens’ 2-pack deals in each other’s medicine cabinets.

“This won’t ever be anything,” I told her.

In the car, she laces her fingers in mine and touches my thigh, and it’s like I’m somewhere I don’t belong.

We drive out to the country and park in a field where she drinks Yellowtail Pinot and I drink Tisdale shiraz from red plastic Dixie cups while we sit on her dog’s blanket and I lay my head on her stomach and she touches my arm.

She keeps touching my arm and tells me about how her mother criticized the way she folded socks. I like being a voyeur into Natalie’s life.

“I wanted to hold your hand at the bar last night,” she says.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you want me to?”

Her dog chases a squirrel.

“I’ve never had anyone’s hand to hold for any length of time,” she says, almost to herself.

“I know,” I say.

 “You couldn’t care less,” she says.

“That isn’t true,” I say, taking her fingertips and kissing them. “Don’t be mean.”

She kisses me. “I want to take you camping,” she says. “Let’s have a weekend.”

 “Where?” I ask.

“There’s this place I’ve been wanting to go camping. The Wallowas.” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “We should probably invite other people.”

She bites her lip for a minute, then nods. “Because nothing’s real, right?”

I laugh.

“Nothing means anything, right?” she says.

“Stop,” I say.

“Fine,” she says, smiling. “We’ll find someone else to invite.”

***

Natalie and I arrive at the mountain at five in the afternoon. We hike three or so miles with Toby, this little black lab that she’s strapped a backpack to, so it can carry its own food.

“She’s earning her keep,” Natalie jokes.

She makes mac and cheese for dinner and teaches me how to use a camp stove, boiling the water above the small flame and pouring the noodles in. She says since it’s just the two of us, we can eat out of the pot, so we do.

“What do we do all night?” I ask.

“We can play cards, I don’t know,” she says.

“It’s getting cold,” I say.

“Let’s go in the tent,” she says.

We open a bottle of cheap champagne, passing it back and forth while she shuffles the cards.

“Do you remember how to play rummy?” she asks.

“Sure,” I try to recount the rules to her. “What are you, stupid?” I say. I smile, but I hear Mark’s tone in my voice.

We get silly from the champagne. The dog stomps around the tent and tries to find a place to lie down.

“Let’s zip our bags together,” she says.

In the single sleeping bag she takes me in her arms.

“Can you think of anything better than this?” she asks me.

She kisses me shyly, waiting for me to kiss her back, waiting for me to say, “It’s okay.” She touches my stomach, and is more familiar with the terrain of my body than I am.

Natalie and I don’t say I love you, and I know we never will. I touch the scar on her breast, where they put a broviac catheter when she was a kid. She’d pointed it out to me once, said, “Look how ugly.” I wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.

***

In the morning, the dog pukes on the bottom of the sleeping bag.

“God, Toby!” she cries, scrambling all over herself. “Get out of the bag,” she says.

“It’s fine,” I say.

“Jesus,” she says, pushing the dog out of the tent. “That’s what she gets, eating all that grass. Look at this fucking mess,” she says, while I try to shift out of the bag so she can take it outside and wash it off. I pull on the jacket I was using as a pillow.

“Hey,” I say, “it’s really okay.”

When Toby was a puppy Natalie would take her for rides in her mother’s car. Toby got carsick, and she threw up on the new leather seats, her mom shouting, “Natalie!” I wished that I had been in that car so I could have said, “It’s not her fault,” or maybe, “It wouldn’t kill you to be nice about it.”

I get up out of the tent and watch Natalie pour water from her Nalgene onto the bag and hoist it over a branch so it can dry.

Natalie makes coffee in her French press, and after it dries we stuff the bag into a stuff-sack. We put our packs on, and I carry the coffee while she leashes Toby. We hike three more miles in. There are the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and mountains so beautiful I didn’t know they existed in real life. I keep stopping and gasping, saying, “Natalie, look!” like maybe she wasn’t leading and looking at the same mountains. She had been here before, and I can tell it makes her happy that she knows a place to take me that would shock me like that, so I play it up more than I should.

We’re supposed to cross a river to get to trails that will lead us to a lake she wants to show me. Natalie says she’ll go first. She takes her pack off to see if it’s safe to cross. She sits on the ground and unlaces her boots, peels down her socks, stuffs them into her boots. She folds her shorts to the middle of her thigh and begins across the river.

The dog gets in after her. The dog is paddling hard, but she’s not going anywhere. Natalie’s being pulled hard by the current too.

“Natalie,” I call out. She can’t hear me above the sound of the water rushing downstream.

“It’s too fast!” she yells to me, halfway across the river. The water’s not high, maybe up to the middle of her thighs. She turns around and starts back.

The dog sees Natalie turn and turns back, too.

“Natalie,” I call again. Then, “Toby.” But they don’t hear me.

Natalie’s thighs are red from the cold, the water pushing against her. Toby’s struck against a fallen tree, trying to paddle, to get out.

I think of what would happen if we don’t get that dog back. I think of what Natalie’s scream would sound like if we lost the dog. I think of Natalie blaming herself. I think of holding Natalie while she cries, wishing I was anywhere else but there, wishing that I were anyone other than the person who had to be there to care.

Then I get this image of Natalie’s and Toby’s bodies floating down the river. What I would do. We’re six miles in and I’m not sure if I know how to get us back. Would I follow the river and fish her body out of the water when she hit a log? How long could she swim? If I managed to find my way out of this wilderness, would I call her mother? Her mom barely knows who I am, because we’re not really dating. “We” are not something Natalie will talk about with her mother.

Toby’s head goes under the downed tree and I can’t see her for a minute. Then she bobs back up on the other side, and the current is partially blocked by that fallen tree, and she swims to the shore and pulls herself up.

Natalie approaches the shore.

I run toward the dog, not twenty feet away, and grab her collar.

“Good girl, Toby,” I say to her. “Good girl.”

Natalie sits on the bank and looks across the river. She sits and the dog comes up and licks her face.

“I’m sorry,” she says, petting the dog. “I don’t think we can cross.”

“That’s fine,” I say, laughing. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The trails on the other side are better,” she says, taking her socks out of the boots she set on the shore. “I’m fucking cold,” she says.

“Do you want my jacket?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, shivering. The dog keeps panting.

“We can just hike around here today,” I tell her. “Did you see Toby?”

She shakes her head.

“She was fighting pretty hard,” I say, thinking maybe that will make it less scary for her.

“I’m a terrible dog owner,” she says. “I didn’t know it’d be so strong.”

“You’re not,” I say. “How would you have known?”

She has this look on her face, and I can tell it doesn’t matter that the dog didn’t drown, all that matters is that she could have, and Natalie won’t be able to forget it. I hate seeing her like this.

“Natalie,” I say, sitting beside her and running my knuckles against her cheek. “It’s okay. Nothing happened.”

She keeps looking at the river.

“If we leave now, we’d be back to the car before dark,” she says.

***

When we get to town we stop in at a bar near my apartment with a patio so we can bring Toby. It’s dollar-fifty wells, and we start on gin. Natalie’s good for two G & Ts.

On our third round, Natalie tells the waitress that knows us, “Toby had a rough day.”

She tells her what happened as if she’s confessing, reluctant but forced, like the waitress needed to know that something almost happened to Toby today. After five gin and tonics, Natalie says, “Let’s go to your apartment.”

We pass my neighbor, Andy, sitting on our joint patio, drinking a beer.

“You want to have a drink with us?” I ask him. Natalie looks at me, annoyed, like she wanted this to be a couple’s thing, the end of our night.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be over in a minute.”

After we walk into my apartment, Natalie starts kissing me. “Come here,” she says, pulling me into the bedroom. Toby follows and jumps up. We fall down on my bed and she continues kissing me. She’s pushing her tongue into my mouth in a way she doesn’t when she’s sober. “Why did you invite him over?” she whispers, kissing behind my ear.

“It’s just a beer,” I say.

“I’m so tired,” she says. “Tell him to go away. I just want to be in bed with you.”

I get out of bed and pour her a glass of water from the faucet, take two Advil from the cupboard. When I return, she’s already asleep. She’s fully clothed so I pull the covers over her and set the water and the Advil on a table beside her head. There’s a particular pleasure I have in taking care of her, making sure she’s okay, seeing what she’s like when she’s drunk.

I answer the door. Andy’s holding his beer.

“Natalie already passed out,” I tell him.

“That was quick,” he says. “Do you still want a beer?”

“Let’s sit outside.” I say.

We sit on patio chairs and smoke cigarettes. Andy moved in a few weeks ago and he says his ex-girlfriend is moving in with him the next weekend. He says he needs help with the rent.

“That doesn’t sound like a good situation,” I say.

He shrugs.

“You have plans to reconcile?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says.

We’re both silent for a minute, then I say, “I have records.”

We sit on the floor and I open a banker’s box filled with all my records and begin to finger through them. He doesn’t say anything about Natalie being in my bed, so neither do I.

“Have you ever used a record player before?”

He shakes his head.

We sit on the floor and I put on a Beatles album.

“Everyone likes the Beatles, right?” I say and suddenly I’m nervous, don’t know what to do about being alone with Andy.

“I don’t really like them,” he says. “But it’s fine.”

“I can change it,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

Andy keeps talking about his ex. He says she didn’t understand that he had friends. He says she got jealous. He says he doesn’t need to fuck his friends, that he knows guys like that, that it’s not his thing, like he’s offering an explanation for why he’s not fucking me.

I think, What if he wanted to? Then I think of Andy on top of me on the carpet, of him breathing and his beard rubbing against my neck and the noises that he would make, and what it would feel like.

But Andy doesn’t matter. He’s just a guy.

“You should leave after we finish this beer,” I say, “I’m getting tired.”

After I close the door, I take my clothes off and walk to the bed and I see Natalie sleeping. I get into bed, naked beside her body. I run a knuckle across her hips. I look at the curve of her ass, down her legs. I put a hand on her flat stomach and smell her hair, that long white-blond hair. I think of my friends who, when I showed them pictures of her, said lesbians aren’t supposed to have long hair, and I think she probably keeps it long because once she didn’t have any.

I want to live inside this body, I want to be this body. Then I would know what it was like to spend a year in waiting rooms wearing hats, fingering the glass on the tanks where they keep the fish. I want to feel a man’s hands run across this skin marred by a surgery and I want to feel a man’s lips and his mustache across these nipples and this neck and I want to arch this back and moan with this voice.

I touch Natalie’s hips again and look at the bedside table. The Advil’s gone. I see her waking and finding me getting fucked on the carpet and I’m glad it didn’t happen. I move to be closer to her. I lie flat on my back with my arms by my side and I don’t want to touch her.

**

In the morning she rolls over and puts her arms around me. “Baby,” she murmurs. “When did I go to sleep?” she asks, sleepy-eyed.

She kisses my neck and I think this is the last place I want to be, in my bed with this woman.

“How late did you stay up?” she asks.

“I don’t know why it matters,” I say, closing my eyes. “Late.”

I feel her sit up on her elbow. I open my eyes, look at her, and I can see she’s waiting for an explanation, for me to say something else, but I don’t.

“Why are you being like this?” she says. She waits for a minute. Then she sits up. “Did something happen with Andy?”

“Why do you have to ask me that,” I say.

“Something did, didn’t it?”

“We’re not dating, Natalie,” I say.

“I know,” she starts crying. “You did, didn’t you?”

I play with my earring stud.

“That’s just like you, isn’t it?” She gets out of bed. She walks into my living room and throws herself onto my couch, crying.

“I’m being dramatic,” she says, like a child scolding herself.

I get up and follow her to the living room and sit at the end of the couch, the way I imagine her mother did, sitting on the foot of Natalie’s tiny bed while Natalie cried about something. I try to remember her mother’s name. Janice. Jean. Janine?

“You don’t even care,” she says.

 “That’s not fair, or true,” I say.

I look at Natalie, watch her shoulders rising and falling. Each time she cries harder I tell myself, I did that. I move to the floor and sit.

Maybe I should rub her back and tell her it’s okay. I know she wants me to touch her.

“What about our weekend?” she says, like it was something that happened years ago, like we’re looking back on this weekend as if this is when it all began to fall apart.

 “I’m sorry,” I say, “Maybe you should go.”

She doesn’t rise, just shivers and sobs, and I wonder how long I can watch someone cry.