Category Archives: Issue 3.3 (Fiction)

Issue 3.3 Special all fiction stories issue

Issue 3.3 April 2014 (Fiction)

Fiction Only Issue

Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

"Adieu" art by Erin Cone
“Adieu” Art by Erin Cone

"Desiderata" art by Erin Cone
“Desiderata” Art by Erin Cone

"Etiquette" art by Erin Cone
“Etiquette” art by Erin Cone

Brett Beach | Brother
James Chaarani | White
Bernard Grant | The Child
Brandon French | Dolores Our Lady of Sorrows
Sara Henning | A New Year
Hall Jameson | Strategy
Nicole Nelson | Passengers
Shaun Turner | Dissolution of Care

Hall Jameson

halljamesonHall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Montana with her husband, Val, and a menagerie of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Cream City Review, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall enjoys kayaking, exploring ghost towns, and cat wrangling.

Strategy

My grandfather loved oranges and black cherries; he preferred citrus or berries to chocolate and other sweets. Each Saturday morning I would stop by the farmers’ market for fruit before our weekly backgammon game.  “Don’t choke on the pit,” I’d said to him, trying to get under his skin. He ignored me, the morning light accentuating the spray of wrinkles fanning from the corners of his eyes and the perfect, college-ruled lines spanning his forehead. He leaned to one side in his armchair as he studied the board. He looked frail and vulnerable in his baggy clothes and ancient slippers. The dark red juices from the fresh cherries tracked down his chin; his attempt to distract me. I moved to blot away the juice with my napkin, but he pushed my hand away, then spit a cherry pit into the trashcan.    “Don’t fuss over me, Ella.” He wiped his chin with the sleeve of his flannel shirt and nodded to the board. It was my turn. The backgammon checkers stuck to the pads of my fingers, tacky from dividing an orange. I studied the board, so focused on our game–I must win–that I put the doubling cube into my mouth instead of an orange segment. Bright flecks danced before my eyes as I gagged for air. My grandfather pounded me between the shoulder blades until the cube shot from my throat and landed on the board, trailed by a ropey string of saliva, revealing the number sixty-four. He poured some water into a plastic cup and handed it to me. I drank without meeting his eyes; instead, I watched his gnarled index finger slide his final checker across the board and then remove it. Next, he blotted the wet spot of my dribble from the board with his sleeve. I need to launder that shirt, I thought. He looked at me and shook his head. My shirt is fine, his look said. Stop worrying. “I win,” he said aloud before popping another cherry into his mouth. He smacked his lips as the juices raced down his chin. He tilted the bag of cherries in my direction, but I shook my head. He picked up a backgammon checker and offered it to me as if it were a cookie or piece of chocolate, his eyebrows raised. When I frowned and fixed him with a chilly look, he erupted, his laugh, one of my favorite sounds. Then he spit another cherry pit into the trash.

Bernard Grant

Bernard Grant is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. He lives in Washington State and has work forthcoming in Gravel and Barely South Review.

The Child

 

Family Man

A month ago a man came to show us a Kirby. He poured juice on the carpet, then sucked it all up, the vacuum screaming. Pink soap bubbled up on the floor. Mamma bought the Kirby. Early this morning, wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, he comes into the kitchen where I’m eating cereal. Winnie the Pooh laughs behind me. He pours a glass of orange juice and says he wants to take me out today.

Mamma comes in wearing a robe, sips from his glass.

“Aren’t you sharing germs?” I ask.

Mamma laughs. “What?”

“Only when it’s family it’s not germs.”

“Don’t worry about it, child. Did Mr. Leon tell you he wanted to take you out today?”

I tell her he did. At first I thought he was a stranger, and you’re not supposed to go with strangers. But his orange juice didn’t make Mamma sick, so he’s family.

We spend the morning at the park, playing basketball. He never says much, except when he whispers on the phone. When we go to the movies I eat too much popcorn during the previews. His phone lights up, and he says we have to go; he wants to visit his friend. The movie hasn’t started.

Lit by orange streetlights, the houses sliding by are smaller than the ones in my neighborhood. Barred windows, chipped paint, graffiti. The streets are dirty, marked with trash and holes. The lawns too. There are old rusted cars; some don’t have all their tires. The only place I feel safe on the east side is Grandpa’s house. When I ask to visit him, Mr. Leon says no, and then he says, “Stay quiet. Don’t tell your mamma we visited my friend and I get you some McDonald’s.”

He stops at a dark house, makes a phone call, and his friend runs out.

Mr. Leon turns to me, puts a finger over his lips.

I don’t speak—not now or after Mr. Leon gives him money, and the guy, who smells like nasty cigarettes, hands him a plastic bag bulging with yellow pebbles. I don’t speak when a lighter sparks and a flame tips into a glass tube sticking out of his mouth. Liquorice-smelling clouds his head, scatters. The only time I speak is on the way home, when McDonald’s slips by and he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t say anything either. I wish Mamma would have gotten sick, cause now he’s family.

Big

My skin burns. Cousin Ray and me spent all morning playing out in the sprinklers, staying full off pecans and Japanese plums he picked from the trees. In three years, when I’m a teenager, I’ll be as big as him, and I won’t have to climb. I’ll just reach up and twist off plums.

We’re inside for lunch, sodas and Beanie Weenies. Uncle Walter pours half of my soda into a cup, but Ray gets to drink his straight from the can. The whole thing.

Back out in the yard, the grass is wet but it still pricks my feet. Uncle Walter rolls out the Slip ‘n Slide, a blue mat he put under the sprinklers. Every time I run onto the mat I fall back and hurt my neck, but I don’t say anything. I don’t whine that my back stings. I don’t stop running onto the mat either. I don’t want Ray to call me a baby.

I try a belly-flop, hear a smack and feel it. I can’t see the sunlight flashing through trees like before, just the street coming closer before my face hits dirt. Then I spit grass and realize being a teenager might not be so great.

At bath time—I’m spending the night—I take off my clothes and jump into the kitchen sink, but I can’t get all the way down.

“Get out that sink, boy,” Uncle Walter says.

“Why can’t I bathe in the sink? I used to bathe in the sink all the time, when—“

“When you was little, that’s right. You too big now.” He tosses his thumb over his shoulder. “Go on, now. Get in the tub.”

I climbed out of the sink. “If I’m so big,” I ask, “why can’t I drink a whole soda?”

“You ain’t that big.”

 

Knives

Mamma went to the grocery store. Cousin Ray’s in charge. He been home alone before. But he’s never been in charge. It doesn’t matter though because I can watch myself. I tell him just that. Then I go to the freezer to get a frozen spaghetti. He snatches it, lets it clank on the counter.

“I’ll make it,” he says.

I sit, pick and flick a red crust off the table. The table’s glass, and through it I can see my feet kick above the floor. His feet touch the floor when he sits.

The microwave beeps. He presses buttons but he can’t get it started.

I get up from the table. “A microwave is easy,” I say. “If you can’t use one, maybe you shouldn’t be in charge.”

“I got it.” He presses the black rectangle. The door springs open. The plastic on the frozen spaghetti isn’t cut, and I tell him so.

“You open it when you want to eat it,” he says.

“You’re supposed to cut it first, so it doesn’t blow up.”

I grab a knife. He grabs one too. Light skips off his blade. We’ve done this before, we’ve done it a lot, we even practice. Whoever stops the blade between two fingers wins. He swings. The knife rips the web between my thumb and pointer finger. One time I fell from a tree and ripped my shirt on the way down—the slice sounds like that. There’s blood on the floor.

Mamma’s gonna whip me.

 

 

 

Brandon French

Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, a playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a mother. Eighteen of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.

 

Dolores Our Lady of Sorrows

The aunts from Toledo stood outside the sliding door of the bedroom closet, staring disconsolately at the dozens of stacked hatboxes. It was 1971 and American women had stopped wearing hats.

“Perhaps we can give them away to the coloreds,” she said to her sister. “They still wear hats to church, don’t they?”

They had flown out together from Ohio to Los Angeles for their sister Lois’s funeral and since her husband Walter was too distraught to be of any use, they took over the onerous task of clearing the house of Lois’s possessions. They assumed Walter would need to sell the house in the upcoming months and it would be easier to show it to potential buyers if it was empty. Practical women, they managed their grief by focusing on the tasks at hand—funeral arrangements, catering needs, the obituary announcement, the death certificate, the medical bills. And the hats.

Lydia, the younger sister, a plump little woman with a soft, sweet face and bird legs, opened one of the boxes and reached into the crushed tissue paper, withdrawing a black velvet cloche adorned with a deep red rose.

“Remember this one?” she asked her sister Cecile, her voice quavering.

Cecile’s eyes widened in recognition, her mouth set in a solemn straight line.

“We’d better not,” she said, turning her head away.

 *****

When Lois’ daughter Jenna arrived after a seven-hour drive down from San Francisco, the hatboxes were already piled high in the entryway, confronting her like naphthalene ghosts as soon as she cleared the door. Months earlier, although weakened by the cancer, Lois had come out into the driveway in her flowery bathrobe to greet her daughter.  Now it was only her hats.

Jenna felt a fleeting impulse to open one of the boxes but thought better of it. Whatever specters escaped would probably be too much for her to handle at that moment, and so she passed into the living room where her stepfather Walter was asleep sitting up on the beige satin sofa. His head was tilted back and his mouth hung open, creating strangled snores in his throat. Almost none of the bottle of Mouton Cadet on the coffee table in front of his knees remained.

Jenna, a small, boyishly slender psychologist in her late twenties with dark eyes and the plush cheeks of an infant, walked through the hallway toward the sound of voices, discovering her aunties in the master bedroom going through her mother’s clothes.

“Long drive,” Lydia said by way of greeting, taking her niece in her arms and hugging her warmly. “You must be exhausted.”

“Are you hungry?” Cecile asked. She was tall and stout and her face had the hard marble sheen of a lifetime of dutiful service. She had famously told her daughter, a glamorous daytime soap actress, “Life is not about having fun, Lisa.”

“No,” Jenna said, “I ate on the way.”

“We’ll all go out for dinner tonight,” Lydia said, “as soon as we finish sorting through your mother’s clothes.”

“Did you know she bought eight new pair of shoes last month?” Cecile asked. “Never even took them out of the boxes.”

“She must have been frightened,” Jenna said, feeling queasy. She had spent her childhood fending off her mother’s anxiety, developing a nervous cough, diarrhea and chronic stomach aches which the pediatrician said were “signs of stress.”

“She probably convinced herself that she wasn’t dying by buying the shoes,” Jenna said, thinking out loud.

“Did she do things like that?” Lydia asked, looking distressed.

“Sometimes,” Jenna said, sorry she’d brought it up. The aunties were fiercely protective of their sister and would not tolerate any suggestion that she was unstable, even if they suspected it. There was no way for Jenna to tell them what it had been like as a child to watch her parents fight so violently that she was afraid they would kill each other. And even if she tried, they would just blame her father.

“What size are your feet?” Cecile asked.

“Seven.”

“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Your mother was six and a half.” She bent down and lifted up four of the shoeboxes, putting them next to a stack of dresses. “We’re bringing all of this to Hadassah Thrift tomorrow. You should take a look in case there’s something you want.”

 *****

At dinner that night—a seafood shanty with an Italian name in Redondo Beach —- they discussed the funeral and catering arrangements. It would be a closed casket of course, Lydia said, because the cancer had left little of their sister but tumors and bones. Jenna could not imagine her mother, who had plowed through life like an army of red ants, brought to such a merciless halt. Even having a conversation with her had been a challenge because she almost never stayed still.

“Could you write something?” Cecile asked her niece. Jenna nodded yes although she had no idea what she might say. “The rabbi will speak, and then you can give the eulogy.” She turned to Walter. “Do you want to say something?” she asked.

“Well. . . ,” Walter said, his mind foggy with alcohol and sorrow, not only for the loss of Lois but of his first wife Sonja, who also had died of cancer. “I suppose I should, she was such a great gal. . .” He had forgotten the times he hurled dining room chairs at her, shattering the sliding glass doors to the patio, and still she would not stop enraging him, her sense of self-preservation trumped by her compulsion to criticize and humiliate.

“That’s all right,” Cecile said, deciding for him. “We need you to greet the guests and help get them seated.”

“Do you think there’ll be a lot of people?” Jenna asked.

“Of course,” Lydia said. “Your mother was very beloved.”

 *****

Later that night, Jenna looked through the clothes, the bright rose pink and sherbet orange chiffon dresses, tweed suits, fur coats and high heel shoes, her nostrils assaulted by her mother’s waxy scent. She had volunteered to transport everything to the thrift store early the next morning so the entryway would be cleared when the mourners came back to the house afterward. How sad, she thought, that her mother would not be here to feed and fuss over them; she had loved to entertain company. And she adored being with her sisters, they were like three teenage girls when they were together, laughing and teasing each other and retelling the same stories so often that Jenna knew them by heart. “Remember when Lydia was driving and asked, ‘Is that a red light or a green light?’ And I said, ‘Let me out of this car right this minute!’” —followed by shrieks of laughter. It was one of the few times Jenna remembered her mother being relaxed and carefree. And at these times, Lois would chide her bookish daughter, “Why are you always so unhappy, so withdrawn? Why can’t you laugh and dance and play with the other children?”

 *****

Jenna had saved the hats for last, gingerly opening one of the boxes, which instantly loosed the toxic reek of mothballs. Enrobed in tissue paper there was a wide-brimmed black straw cartwheel with a black satin bow that women wore in the forties with their shoulder-padded suits. Like a movie flashback, Jenna’s mind returned to Chicago at the end of World War II and for the first time in twenty years she remembered Dolores.

Dolores the milliner had lived in a modest house on the west side of Chicago, but not as far west as the apartment where Jenna’s family lived. Lois and her daughter had to take two buses to get there because Mr. Chenoweth was busy at the Furniture Mart selling bedroom sets. He wouldn’t be available until after dark, picking them up in the old Chevrolet that no longer had any paint color to speak of and vibrated with what he called ‘the death rattle.’

It was always light when they went into the house and dark when they left. And Jenna was always hungry at Dolores’ because it took so many hours to create a hat.

There was a parlor next to the entryway of the house but it was dark there and dark also in the adjoining hallway. All the light was reserved for the next room, an enormous studio with huge mirrors along one wall. Beneath the mirrors was a ledge lined with stuffed blank heads for the hats, spools of colored thread, pins (Dolores always had pins in her mouth, sticking out from between her lips), and chiffon, lace, velvet, satin ribbons, feathers, netting, cherries, flowers, and sequins, as well as scissors, hand mirrors, and pink and gold metal ashtrays, the same cheap metal from the five and dime that Dolores used for cold drinks, tall pink and gold tumblers with rough edges that raked your lips and gave a funny taste to the soda pop, which was what people used to call it.

In front of the ledge there were five black wrought iron chairs, each one a foot apart from the next, without cushions. The chairs had backs and legs that twisted and curved around sensuously. They looked like the chairs in Jenna’s little children’s book about Madmoiselle Fifi, a milliner like Dolores except that she was very glamorous and lived in Paris with a black French poodle. The hats and the poodle were fuzzy on the pages and Jenna found it soothing to rub the tips of her fingers on them as she read.

Lois would sit in the second chair, and Jenna would sit in the third until the metal which was cold and hard beneath her six-year-old bottom made her restless and she moved onto the floor, lying on her belly with a book, always a book, in most instances one from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.

Dolores would begin with a shape. Sometimes it was a floppy circle of straw and sometimes it was a stiff triangle of felt that swooped up into a curl and sometimes it was a fedora, or a toque, or a pillbox—that’s what Dolores and her mother called it although it wasn’t anything like pills or boxes or pillars or boxers or pillows, but something in the shape of a corsage container for orchids or pink and white carnations which Jenna would save up to buy for her mother on holidays.

Things would be wrapped around the shape, then draped, adorned and pinned with the pins from Dolores’ mouth. Jenna’s mother would tilt her head to the right and to the left, with pursed lips in an experimental smile. Then she would sigh and the pins would come out of the hat and go back into Dolores’ mouth and another fabric would be draped or wrapped or hung, in another color, from another position, at a different angle, until it became inky outside the windows that were reflected in the mirrors. Dolores would have to stop and feed her children who were always quiet and younger and not at all fun for Jenna to play with. Dolores’s husband worked nights and slept during the day, so he was never around when they arrived at Dolores’ house in the late afternoon after Jenna’s mother had finished teaching.

“I don’t think he makes much of a living,” Lois would say to her husband in the car driving home, although the same could be said about Mr. Chenoweth as well. “I don’t think Dolores wants to work anymore,” she would add, “but she hasn’t any choice.” Then Lois would think about having to get up and teach 32 public school fifth graders the next day and the thought would make her sigh.

 *****

The most wonderful hat Dolores made for Lois was a peacock blue pillbox. It sat on top of Lois’s black hair like a small, arrogant bird, and had little purple berries along one side. Bird food, Jenna’s father called it, but told Jenna they must not say that in front of Lois, who was very sensitive about her hats. Still, every time Lois wore this particular hat, they would sneak a look at each other, mouth the words bird food and stifle their secret laughter. It was a wonderful hat.

“Dolores is a very talented girl,” Lois always said, except once when she didn’t like a hat after she’d paid for it and thought that Dolores had pressured her into it. But Dolores wasn’t really a girl. She was thirty-five with a plump little pig’s face, a bouncy beach ball-shaped body and a fringe of blond hair that was always the same length but never any particular style. There was, though, something girlish about the way Dolores talked because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s which came out like w’s, and even her l’s were odd, they got caught too far back on the roof of her mouth and hung there like uvulas.  To Jenna, her little girl way of pronouncing words made Dolores seem very adorable.

Dolores was also a good cook. One evening, Lois began to cry because Jenna’s father had gone and got drunk again and ended up in the psychiatric ward at Michael Reiss Hospital. Dolores brought them back into the kitchen, where there was a little breakfast nook, and warmed up some dinner.

“The doctor humiliated him,” Lois told Dolores. “Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling a man in a public hallway that he is a disgrace and a failure?  He started to cry. He begged me to take him home. But how could I? He’s liable to hurt himself. He has no judgment when he’s drinking. He fell from a curb the other night and was almost hit by a car. The whole side of his body is bruised. Oh, Dolores, I’m so ashamed to tell you this. I’m so ashamed.”

Jenna was also ashamed. It felt as if her mother were showing pictures of her in her underwear to strangers. She wished so hard her mother would stop that she bit down on her top lip until the tinny taste of blood reached her tongue.

Dolores served them macaroni and cheese, which was warm and creamy and salty and something Jenna never got at home, because they were meat and salad eaters. But Jenna had lost her appetite. And her mother keep lifting her fork to her mouth and then forgetting why.

 *****

There are photographs of Jenna’s mother in many of the hats that Dolores made for her. She is wearing a floppy tan straw hat with a yellow polka-dot scarf on her honeymoon in Miami Beach, leaned up against Jenna’s father in a flirtatious pose. On a boat ride to Catalina Island, taken when she and Jenna visited her brother in Los Angeles, she wears a dark green bonnet, holding it down on her head with both hands against the wind. At the exorbitant all-orchid wedding with carved-ice swans that Aunt Lydia threw for her oldest daughter Jillian, Lois wears a purple toque with a sequined veil to go with her silk pansy-print sheath dress. Six-year-old Jenna, wearing a yellow dress with a crisp white pinafore, stands next to her holding a basket of flowers. Jenna’s grandmother is on the right, wearing a pale gray satin gown, her jaw set in stone and her face as frozen as the swans. Way in the back behind a crowd of people is Jenna’s father, leaning against a pillar and looking sardonic.

Lois usually has the same experimental smile on her face in the pictures, as if she is saying Why-are-you-taking-this-picture-of-ME and Oh-heavens-hurry-up-and-TAKE-it and What-do-you-think-of-my-HAT and I-don’t-CARE-what-you-think-of-it. When she really smiles in a few of the pictures, the I-don’t-CARE part takes over and she looks like Carmen Miranda.

In the Los Angeles pictures, taken after she and Jenna moved there, Lois wears no hats, because nobody in California wore them. But she brought them all with her from Chicago, precious objects protected as much as possible from the ravages of moths and mildew, as if she thought time might circle around like a boomerang and give her and the hats a second life.

 *****

Jenna was nine when her mother, by this time divorced, learned from a friend that Dolores had died. She’d had a massive heart attack and was dead on the floor of her studio when the husband woke up to go to work. Jenna had wondered if Dolores had pins in her mouth when she had the heart attack and whether she had swallowed them. It made the muscles in her throat ache, as if she could feel the pins sticking her as they went down.

“I never knew she had a heart condition,” Lois said, slicing an orange into quarters and then eighths for Jenna’s dessert. “She never mentioned anything about it. I wish I hadn’t argued with her about the last hat.  What a tragedy. Thirty-nine years old, with two young children.”

What will happen to the children?” Jenna had asked, feeling little flutters of fear in her stomach. She closed the book she’d been reading, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which she had hidden inside a Misty of Chincoteague cover. Years later, her mother would donate the book to the school library in Lawndale where she taught, only to learn—much to her horror —of its secret identity.

“The dad moved in with his sister in Skokie. The sister’s taking care of them,” Lois replied. “Dolores was the same age I am,” she said, handing the bowl of orange slices to Jenna. “She was still a young girl,” she added, giving her daughter a nervous little smile.

Then she scooped up the dinner dishes and took them over to the sink, immersing them in soapy water. “Well, honey,” she said, “it just goes to show you.”

“What will happen if you die, mommy?” Jenna had asked, picking at the orange with her fingers.

“Oh, listen, kiddo,” Lois said, rubbing the plates vigorously with a dishrag. “I’m not going to die.”

 *****

What had she meant by “it just goes to show you?” Jenna wondered now, examining each hat carefully, her fingers alive with the sensations of the contrasting textures, lush and crisp and lacy and woven and silky smooth. What did it show? That life was short and death could be sudden and merciless? That today was all we could count on? Memento mori, they used to say in medieval times, their pale, pious faces looking up toward heaven in hope of God’s mercy.

And now Lois was dead, a mere four years after Jenna’s father had succumbed to leukemia, and Jenna, orphaned with no sisters or brothers to help shoulder the losses, was left to ponder what she should do with the hats. Pack them into the car and drag them back to San Francisco, let them languish in another closet until she, too, died? Her fingertips searched for an answer as if she were reading a Braille message from another dimension of time. What came was the memory of elephants she had seen on the Discovery channel reverently stroking the bones of a departed loved one, and the low, nearly inaudible rumblings of grief and goodbye.

Aunt Lydia came out into the hallway in her blue satin quilted robe. “How are you doing, honey?” she asked, her voice hushed and tender.

“I’m okay,” Jenna said, trying to smile.

“Are you seeing anybody?” the aunt asked, the inevitable question when a young woman in the family wasn’t married.

“I was, but it didn’t work out,” Jenna said, thinking about her ex-lover Robert, who was always on the verge of leaving his wife but never did.

“It’s going to be very hard without her,” the aunt said, thinking that she was intuiting her niece’s feelings.

“It was very hard with her, too, for me at least,” Jenna said, feeling immediately anxious about how her aunt would react to her candor.

“She loved you very much,” Lydia said, and Jenna knew then that she mustn’t continue. The price of her aunties’ love was Jenna’s silence. “Have you decided what you’re going to say at the funeral tomorrow, sweetheart?”

“Yes, I guess so,” Jenna said, feeling the depth of her loneliness as she walked with her aunt toward the bedrooms. She knew what they wanted her to say—how hard Lois had worked, how good a person she was, how much people had loved her. She could say all that, because it was true enough. But it was so much less than the intense experience of her mother, the glamour, drama, and terror that were her essential and indelible signature.

This was the woman who had screamed at Jenna, “Nobody will ever love you except me!” This was the wife who’d picked up a heavy Bakelite telephone and slammed it into the back of her husband’s head, running to him afterward weeping with remorse. This was the girl who couldn’t bear to read serious books or watch sad movies or listen to the atrocities on the nightly news and was mystified by a child who was exactly the opposite. This was the mother who had longed for a playful son named David who would always be her baby and instead gave birth to a studious daughter named Jenna who preferred solitude and her father’s company. And no living soul would ever know the real truth.

“I want to give away her hats at the funeral,” she suddenly announced to her aunt, and felt a rush of joy at the idea, as if she were a thousand feet up in a plane about to release them into the wind. “And then I want to tell her favorite stories, mostly about you and Auntie Cecile, because I loved seeing my mother happy.”

She was crying now, at last, choking on tears that felt like pebbles and wet sand in her throat, while mucus gushed from her nose in explosive bursts.

“I’m going to open up the boxes,” she said, forcing the words out between sobs, not asking for permission any longer, sounding a little crazy even to her own ears. “I’m going to set the hats free.”  

Brett Beach

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. 

Nicole Nelson

Nicole NelsonNicole Nelson is a guest host for “Writers on Writing” on KUCI 88.9 FM in Irvine. She is a longtime member of the prestigious Writer’s Block Party Workshop in Orange County, CA, and holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics from Rutgers University. She also plays flute in a community orchestra. “Passengers” is her first piece of published fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @nan_nicole.

 

Passengers

At the beginning of the museum tour, passengers stood in front of a green screen as large as a small billboard. The gift shop at the other end charged fifteen dollars for one souvenir shot of guests on the Titanic’s grand staircase, or in front of underwater wreckage. The gift shop cashier showed them the choices on a computer screen. The staircase pose came with the option of having ghosts inserted in the photo. Josh meant to ask Rachelle whether those were big sellers.

He waved at Rachelle, who wiggled her fingers in return before swinging out the glass door to Balboa Park. Their shifts had changed ever since she traded with someone else to take her trip to Cabo a couple of weeks before. She worked the cash register at the gift shop next to the exit of the museum exhibit, just past his post by the list of names. After work sometimes, they would go for a beer at the dank but cheap bar by her apartment.

Rachelle didn’t ask a lot of questions. He hadn’t had to hide the fact that he lived at home still, because she didn’t inquire. When she did, if she did, he would tell her he was just saving money, and would move out when he could. She was two years older than him, and graduated from San Diego State that spring. She was taking a year off to apply to graduate school in anthropology. Josh played viola, and studied music at the community college. He also played bass in a band with some buddies from the college’s orchestra. Rachelle once came to their gig at a coffee house. Josh blew the bridge in the first song, he was so distracted by the dip in her tight black tank top, revealing more than the burgundy polo from the museum uniform.

His mom was a professional musician, a cellist. In high school, Josh played chamber music with her. That depressed him though. First, because he was aware that there were things he would rather be doing than playing these pieces with his mom, but he felt too sorry for her to say no. But also because there aren’t many duets for cello and viola. They would play string trios or quartets, meant to include violins, but they would have to just hear the violin parts in their heads.

Josh’s dad left when he was four. His mom didn’t talk about it much, just that he left after an argument and never came home. Through comments his aunt had made, and a diary entry Josh once regretted reading, he gleaned that his father had run off with another woman. Sometimes he sent a card on Josh’s birthday, but not always. He had missed the last three years, which included most recently his twenty-first birthday.

 *****

The boarding passes were a gimmick, Josh thought at first during the employee orientation meeting. The visitors-as-passengers thing felt like a cheap emotional ploy to engage people who had paid a lot of money for an exhibit that just plain didn’t have a lot to show. Each passenger was given a card a little smaller than a greeting card that listed the name, class of travel, origin, and other facts about someone who had really ridden on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Every person on the ship the night it went down in April 1912 was represented — over two thousand different cards.

He doubted people would buy into the passenger idea. He assumed they would just toss the ticket and forget about it. But almost everybody held the card in front of them, re-reading it, and checking it against the different tidbits on the posters throughout the hallways. And when they came to the end, they wanted his assistance.

“Can I help you find your passenger?” he asked every couple of minutes, as people stared in silence at the names on the last wall before the exit. There were four columns: First, Second, and Third Class, and Crew. The survivors were listed first in each column, then a line, with those who died underneath.

A tall, twiggy teenager on a family vacation from Oregon stared with earnestness at the wall until she found the name she was holding. She didn’t even acknowledge Josh’s offer to help, her focus was locked so tightly on the lists. He could tell when she found it. Her arms dropped to her sides. She exhaled. “She made it,”, she said, looking around, making eye contact with Josh before continuing to meet her family at the gift shop.

One man in a football jersey and Armani sneakers teared up when he found his passenger below the line. “She was third class. I knew her odds were bad, but she was only 19. My daughter’s 19,” he said. He stayed longer, looking at the names, before lowering his sunglasses onto his nose and leaving.

 *****

On his way to his post by the tour’s end, Josh passed the glass cases with stacks of dishes. A photo showed the same dishes, gently spilled out like dominoes along the ocean floor. He passed the oddly well-preserved leather satchel (the curing of the leather protected it, even in the in the two-mile-deep waters), the British currency found inside the satchel, and the pair of men’s boots without laces that were photographed right next to it on the ocean floor. The pictures of the dining rooms, copies of menus, and cabin room reproductions struck him as dated and eerie. First class was too lavish for his taste. His reverse-snob simplicity was drawn to the small but comfortable-looking third class shared rooms. It must have been like a mobile youth hostel, he figured. And the long tables and benches in the dining hall looked more communal, friendlier than the stodgy, dark, ceremonious first class chandelier-riddled dining room.

He felt the coolness blowing off the SUV-sized chunk iceberg installed in a dark corner under dim lights, the last stop before the section of the exhibit dedicated to the details of the collision. A steamy vapor came from the surface, even in the air-conditioned room. A sign explained that salt in the water lowers the freezing point, and the water that night was twenty-eight degrees–four degrees below freezing. Many perished from hypothermia in the water, waiting for the Carpathia to rescue them. The exhibit’s iceberg had dozens of holes, each about an inch in diameter, where passengers had felt the iceberg for themselves, over and over.

*****

Josh’s mom seethed when he told her he had been transferred to the artifact exhibit from the dinosaurs.

“You can’t switch back?” she asked.

“Mom, it’s fine. I was getting tired of that one, telling all the small kids to stay off the T-Rex. Half that skeleton is fake, anyway.”

“But the scientist who discovered the wreckage site didn’t want it disturbed! It should have been left down there.”

“He found the ship, but it’s not his property. The museum has been really respectful,” he said.

She snorted. “Respectful,” she said. “Respect would have been to leave the souls in peace. To work instead on averting future disasters. The fortune they spent insuring the exhibit! They could have used it to fight global warming–build a wind farm with that money.”

“Just don’t say that to my boss, please.”

“This planet is going down, just like the Titanic. People think it’s unsinkable, but there’s an iceberg, or rather a missing one, straight ahead.”

“OK, Mom,” he said.

 *****

Brogan, Josh’s friend from high school, worked for a small company that sold scented, brightly-colored, bio-degradable plastic bags for picking up after dogs. Brogan had said his job was chill. It paid two dollars more than minimum wage, included health benefits, and his main responsibility was to maintain the website, track online orders, and manage customers’ accounts. Brogan told him once about a job opening at the company, and said how great it would be to work together. Josh would have liked that in principle, the working together, but he knew himself well enough to be sure he couldn’t embrace employment by a company whose product’s sole purpose was to clean up poop. Even if the product was high-end, and good quality. Even if Katy Perry was a customer. He would dream about dog shit every night. But now he thought, maybe dreams of dog shit wouldn’t be so bad, better perhaps than drowning nightmares.

*****

“Do you get them too?” Josh asked. He lay in bed, his arms under his head. Rachelle’s red hair brushed against the inside of his arm as she repositioned herself. They’d gone out for a beer after work, and back to her apartment afterward. It was the third time they had slept together. He looked over and touched the tattoo of a shark above her hipbone. It was new, since the trip to Mexico.

He had just told her about his dream the night before, sitting with strangers on a bench, holding hands and praying as the water climbed higher, pouring down a ceiling vent, and through the bottom of the locked door. He woke with an enormous gasp.

“No,” she said, leaning on her elbow and propping her head in her hand. “I try not to over-think it.” She scratched her jaw and sighed. “People pay so much for reproductions of blankets, fake china with the Titanic’s logo on it – it’s such a racket. For me, it’s a show, a business, very removed from the actual people who died.” They both stared at the ceiling in silence.

“What if you were a relative of one of those passengers?” Josh asked her. He pinched his thumbnail and watched the color drain from the nail bed. “Wouldn’t it be excessively weird, say, to have several strangers a week impersonating, to a certain extent, a dead great aunt who you never got to meet?”

“I think it would be mostly cool. It would keep her memory alive, right?”

He considered it, and sighed.

“Think about it,” she continued. “My real, dead great-aunt doesn’t get that much consideration. We just have her nicked side table that my mom doesn’t really like, taking up too much space in the dining room. No one walks around, wondering about her life, hoping that she actually survived her heart attack.” She rolled onto her stomach. “They’re all dead anyway,” she said. “Didn’t the last one die a few years ago?”

“Yeah, in 2009. On the ninety-eighth anniversary of the launch of the ship,” he said.

“You take your job seriously,” she said, poking him in the side of his stomach, where he was ticklish.

He flinched and pulled up the sheet in defense. “Maybe I need a new job.”

“I’d miss you.” She smiled as she said it. He looked into her sea-blue eyes, and hoped that she meant it. They both turned on their backs and lay in silence. Then she slid her face toward him, followed by her whole body.

“You live with your mom, don’t you?” His mouth opened to reply, but he had difficulty forming a response.

“I thought so. You never invite me over. I need a roommate. You have a steady job. We get along.” She lifted one side of her mouth in a half-smile and wiped the hair from her eyes. “It’s until I go to school in the fall–I don’t know what will happen then. But I think it would be fun for both of us, and good for you, to get your independence, spread you wings.”

Josh’s chest tingled. A girl, an older woman – a sexy, smart, woman that he was worried he might love was asking him to move in with him. He felt intoxicated, and light enough to float.

“Yes,” he said. She laughed.

That hurt his feelings, but then she said, “No one can say you’re not spontaneous.”

He looked back to her, and rubbed his thumb lightly over her shark tattoo before sliding his other hand behind the small of her back and pulling her on top of him, as she let out a surprised but happy shriek.

 *****

Josh and his mom had a standing date on their mutual day off, Wednesdays. He planned to move on the first of the month, in just five days. He had put off for a week telling her about his plans, even though he had already packed two suitcases. It was his chance to arrange the outing, so he chose to take her to the Titanic exhibit. In spite of her initial distaste at his new job there, he felt attached to the exhibit, more so the more time he spent there. Part of him hoped to change her mind about it. And he would be on home turf, as good a place as any to tell her.

The night before in his bed, he alternated between rolling around, trying to move away from the worry that he was letting his mother down, and writhing from nightmares. In the one that woke him up, a version of his recurring one, he was sitting on a bench in the dark, where the bench lifted off the ground when water gushed into the dining hall where he had gathered with other people, and where someone had since locked the doors. The water rose, as it did every night for him, carrying the bench high enough so that his head knocked against the room’s ceiling.

Josh’s mom held the boarding pass between two fingers, not wanting to commit it to her purse, but not throwing it out either. They walked in silence through the beginning of the museum, as Josh rehearsed in his head. His mother stopped at the poster of the eight men in suits, the Titanic’s orchestra. The text explained that they had dressed in their green uniforms and overcoats, and began playing upbeat music, waltzes and polkas, as first class passengers were loaded onto lifeboats. As it later became clear that there were not enough lifeboats, the musicians continued to play. They could be heard from the small vessels below. Survivors reported that one of the last songs the orchestra played before the ship disappeared into the water was a hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” All eight died.

As she read the poster, her right hand crumpled the card, first curling it into a tube, and then crunching it smaller and smaller.

“Mom?” he said, trying to break her trance in front of the poster.

She turned to him, fanning herself with her free hand.

“Why did you take me here?” she asked. “It’s so sad. So many souls lost. Those poor musicians…”

He wondered whether having the conversation at his place of employment was a good idea. He didn’t want to make a scene, but he took a deep breath and began anyway.

“A friend of mine from work, Rachelle, she needs a roommate. It would help her out, and I have enough money saved; I was thinking of moving in with her.”

His mother smiled to herself and pulled her paisley scarf down so it was even, and tight against the back of her neck.

“That’s wonderful, Josh. I’m glad you found a place that you like.”

He waited, assuming that more of a reaction would come. When none did, he asked, “You’re not upset?” touching her elbow. She took a step away from him.

“Why would I be upset?” she asked. He looked for her shoulders to pull back in distaste, or the sides of her mouth to draw down. But he saw none of it – anger, disappointment – only a relaxed expression that confused him.

 “Just don’t make any little Joshes until you are married,” she said, looking straight at him. This was his mother’s version of a sex talk, he thought–direct, and vaguely accusatory. “You are interested in this girl, I imagine? Are you dating?”

“It’s complicated,” he said. “She leaves for graduate school in a few months.”

She nodded. “Birth control is a good invention–don’t take it for granted. It wasn’t always so easy.”

“And in your day? Do you regret marrying my father?” he asked.

She stopped walking in front of the iceberg, with all the finger holes dotting it.

“Your father was alluring; we were young. You have his good looks,” she said. He felt she had searched to find something nice to say to stop from saying something negative.

“He was a bad person, leaving you and me like that.”

“It was a difficult time,” she said. “But without him, I wouldn’t have you, and that, I couldn’t bear.”

He crossed his arms. His mother seemed different to him. All his life, he had assumed he knew what she was thinking, but his confidence in that evaporated.

“Why don’t you go on dates?” he asked her. “Isn’t there anyone in the orchestra who asks you out? How about Mr. Zimmer at temple?”

“Ira and I have met for coffee quite a few times,” she said quietly, sticking her finger in one of the already established holes in the ice.

“You have?” He scratched his head. He tried to picture his mother sitting across from a man her age, leaning into the table and flirting. Then he tried not to picture it, accepting that, whatever was going on with Mr. Zimmer, Ira, she was content.

“I will just be living across town,” he said. “Can we still meet Wednesdays for dinner?”

She pinched her son’s cheek, which she hadn’t done in at least a decade. “You bet,” she said.  They were one room away from the end of the exhibit. “Oh! I have to run,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “Coffee with Ira. I’ll see you later at home.”

She turned and jogged out the door, and he tilted his head, silently blinking. They had ridden together, and she didn’t mention anything before then about not driving home with him. He stood there alone, just a few paces from his post at work. As his mother’s figure disappeared in the direction of the bus stop, her head bowed, he saw her wipe at her face with her scarf. He worried that she wouldn’t see where she was going and might trip, but he let her go without following. His boarding pass stuck out of his front pocket. He pulled it out, straightening the edges, and read the entry for the first time.

A male child. Third class. He scanned the column of passengers from the bottom up. When he got through the long group of names below the line, his eyes widened. Then he found him, a survivor. He smiled and surprised himself with the force of his sigh. He folded the card in two and put it in his wallet before continuing to the gift shop.