Diane Payne’s most recent publications include: Obra/Artiface, Map Literary Review, Watershed Review, Tishman Review, Whiskey Island, Kudzu House Quarterly, Superstition Review, Blue Lyra Press, Fourth River, Cheat River Review.,The Offing, Elke: A little Journal, Souvenir Literary Journal, Madcap Review and Outpost 19. Diane is the author of Burning Tulips (Red Hen Press) and co-author of Delphi Series 5 chapbook. She is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas at Monticello.
The dogs take off running toward the lake while the woman cranks her head upward, determined to find an eagle. Any eagle. An eagle in a nest. An eagle sitting on a branch. An eagle diving into the water. Maybe Arkansas is just too damn warm to attract eagles this winter. She curses global warming. Ponders El Niño. Never considers carrying binoculars.
She remembers the dogs, then sees them by the lake fixated on something. Probably an eagle.
She heads over and sees a furry head. Definitely not an eagle. Whatever Furry Head is, she wants the dogs to leave the animal alone. She runs down the road certain the dogs will follow. They aren’t budging. The dogs know she wouldn’t take off running if she finally spotted an eagle.
She walks toward the dogs, slowly, since she’s not sure who belongs to that furry head, and the last thing she wants is for a fight to break out between the dogs and Furry Head. The woman does a little yippy-do-dah dance when she’s certain Furry Head is a bobcat. She forgets about her quest to spot an eagle, and realizes it’s the first time she’s seen a bobcat. She’s not sure if a bobcat will attack her dogs or if her dogs will attack the bobcat. They’re still engaged in the stare down.
She wants harmony.
She calls the dogs. They refuse to move. She walks closer and the larger dog starts barking at the bobcat. Then the smaller dog joins in and she realizes it’s not a bobcat, but a Cat Cat, like the four cats she has at home. She’s hysterical, begging the dogs to leave the cat alone. The cat swats at the dogs and the dogs force her off the rock and into the frigid water. Then the dogs take off swimming after the unfortunate cat who was probably trying to snag a minnow, never expecting two dogs to ruin her day. The woman has never seen a cat swim, and this cat can swim faster than her dogs. The woman steps into the frigid lake and begs the dogs to return.
The larger dog returns to shore because:
- He likes cats.
- The water is cold.
- The woman is upset.
The other dog keeps swimming after the cat, and when she tries to grab the cat with her front paws, the cat turns around and bites her on the ear. The woman is rooting for the cat. She’s awed by the cat’s tenacity.
Defeated, the dog returns to shore.
“Come back, Cat! We’re leaving. Please come back,” she screams.
She puts leashes on the dogs and drags them away from the lake. She stops, looks back, hopes to see Cat returning, but she sees nothing, just the waves gently stroking the shore, the waves she’s hoping Cat is riding. She imagines the cat standing like a surfer, and imagining this vision gives her comfort, and she’s hoping the power of imagination will make the cat appear riding a wave to shore.
The eagles remain in the trees.
The dog with the bloody ear pulls the leash hard, determined to be with the cat. The woman stops, one final look for the cat, then walks onward with a sickening feeling, no longer worrying about global warming, El Niño, the evaporating lake, the absence of eagles.
Her only thought is about the role she has played in why the unfortunate cat is out in the lake, just swimming and swimming and swimming.
Sharla R. Yates lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her flash and poetry have been published or forthcoming in Albatross, Lynx Eye, The Boiler Journal, Hartskill Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Poetry City, USA, Shadowgraph Quarterly, and Pretty Owl Poetry among others. Her poetry manuscript What I Would Say If We Were To Drown Tonight was a finalist for the 2015 Villa Paper Nautilus contest.
Two Truths and a LIE
I’m attracted to men who are Taken. Claimed. Off-The-Market.
I slept with Harmony’s boyfriend. Harmony, who ate with her mouth open, eyeing everyone like she wanted to punch them in the throat, who scavenged for attention like a dog chained for too long, held too little. Harmony, who drove forty-five minutes to check out some boys from Job Corps fishing on the South Umpqua even though I asked to go home. Harmony, who blared Steve Miller’s Band through broken speakers, and who wore her jeans so tight that her belly hung over them like rising dough in a bread pan, who would glance at me during arguments with her parents and smile because trouble was the only thing we had in common. Harmony, who slammed the sliding glass door and stomped back to the car because Nate had turned off the porno when it made me uncomfortable.
Harmony had left me behind alone with Nate.
So that’s how it began.
I liked that Nate apologized to me when he wouldn’t to Harmony. I made him apologize a lot. For being late. For kissing too hard. For calling me from County.
“Call her,” I said. “She’s pregnant.”
I hung up the phone before he could finish saying sorry.
If I knew your husband was cheating, I wouldn’t tell you.
I’ve made that mistake before. I told my sister, Sharon, that Dan had pressed himself down on me, squeezing my breasts while moaning, and I had to force him off. Dan had said with brewery breath, to keep it our secret. When I called Sharon, told her what had happened, she listened in a hushed stillness. I heard distant ambulance sirens on her end of the line and imagined her standing outside Whole Foods; empty cloth bags wadded under her arm, cellphone pressed to her ear, her nostrils flaring like an angry kid. For two years, she never returned my calls.
I understand why she chose Dan over me. Husbands are hard to come by, especially third husbands.
I wouldn’t tell you if your husband was cheating because once he squeezes my inner thighs, and his thick tongue enters my mouth, I’ll wish it was over.
My husband was married before.
Sometimes I need him to remember. I ask him questions about what she was like. I make comments about how strange it is that he once was with someone else. I reminisce aloud about how much time has passed since I went to church that Sunday. Remember that Sunday?
Someone hands me a bulletin and asks me how I know the deceased.
I say, “I thought there was church service today.”
From the back of the room, a home video plays on a white projector screen. I wonder why I’m still here, but figure I have to wait to catch the bus anyway, so I might as well stay. In the home video, the twenty-something woman, whose picture is in the bulletin, uses a handheld camera. She turns it on her friends and herself, making faces. She knows already that she has terminal cancer. She’s talking about the Chemo, what to do with her expensive bra collection.
She takes a drag on a cigarette and says, “My mom’s going to be so mad at me.”
Then someone behind the camera chuckles.
After the video goes black and the music clicks off, it is possible to hear chair legs scraping the floor and every sniffle and cough. Her husband stands and addresses the crowd.
“I’m here to remind you how much she loved you,” he says. “That’s what she would want. She would want you to remember how special you were to her.”
I think I want to be loved that much.
Months later, I would learn her dying wishes. He was only twenty-eight. Finish school, she said. Travel the world. Get out there and date somebody.
We were engaged a year later.
We keep her ashes in an urn at his mother’s house until the time we can spread them in the Thames. Another demand— go to London.
There are still times I ask him to say something to conjure her ghost into the room. I want him to say that she was the best person he had ever known, the smartest, the funniest. She shimmers in those moments. Translucent glory: red hair, a white mink coat, gold fingernails. She laughs as if she just heard the most delicious joke.
Have you heard the one about my widower and his new wife?
I was just dying to introduce them.
Amanda Boyle is a short story writer from New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Her stories have also appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Sweet Tree Review, Critical Quarterly, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
About half a year after I died, I saw Greer at the supermarket. Greer and I went to high school together. I’d always had a bit of a crush on her.
Grocery shopping, after my death, was a calming force to my mom: here were concrete things to collect from a list, and a sense of completion at the end of it. She could even do it alone. At first, my parents wouldn’t go into town without the other. A teenage son, and so sudden. I heard—sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken—the comparison to Greer’s death. Her parents had had warning, time to come to terms with their daughter’s fate.
I walked behind my mom; she rattled her cart sharply around corners.
“Richie, hi!” I turned around, half jumping because no one called out to me anymore. Greer was walking towards me, smiling and waving, wearing a light blue bathrobe over a t-shirt and sweatpants.
Greer had been unpopular and while we were friendly because our mothers were friends, I never felt comfortable enough to ask her out. She was a “weird” girl, whatever that meant. Then she was diagnosed with leukemia before senior year, and it was like that was just another weird thing about her in the eyes of our classmates, like her mother’s heavily accented English, or that she was the only girl that did crew for the school shows. After the diagnosis I distanced myself from Greer even further, but I pretended it was for the same reasons as before. She was half homeschooled that year and the teachers were very understanding and people were kind of jealous about that. She graduated, and went off to college, but had to leave before first semester finals, and she died after New Year’s. Some of the people that’d made fun of her in high school made Facebook statuses about her, using these words that who even used, like that she had a “vibrant personality” or that she “gushed with life” even when she was sick.
“Let me see it,” Greer said, pointing to my chest. I let her open my flannel shirt to see the bullet wound, the blood all over my t-shirt.
“Did it hurt?”
“Yeah. But it was quick.”
“Jealous,” she said, letting go of my clothes.
“I heard my mom talking about the accident, and I went to your funeral.”
“No way, I was at my funeral too. I didn’t see you.”
“I sat in the back,” she said.
“Yeah, I sat up front, by my parents. I didn’t stay for the whole thing.”
“I saw your parents walking out and your girlfriend. She’s really pretty.”
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know yet how to refer to Emily. Calling her my girlfriend didn’t seem exactly right as we weren’t still dating, but we hadn’t exactly broken up either, so she wasn’t my ex.
I realized I’d lost track of my mom, she might have left the store. I started walking towards the cashiers, Greer followed. “It was like your parents didn’t notice that your girlfriend was there, I noticed. And she was standing right next to them.”
“Uh, well, they had a lot on their minds,” I said.
“I wasn’t judging them, I just noticed and you said you left early, so I thought I’d let you know.”
I spotted my mom at the cash register, and stopped to wait by her. “Okay, thanks, I guess.”
“You seem to want to hang out with your mom, but let’s hang out later.”
“Yeah, definitely,” I said, although she hadn’t said it as a suggestion.
Greer was the first person I knew that died while I was alive. I had dead relatives, but they’d died before I was born. Greer was the only person I knew who’d died, until I did.
My roommate Blake was the one who shot me. “Come visit and we’ll go hunting,” he always said.
I watched, in the dark early morning, blood leaking out of my body onto the ground. He crashed off through the trees, and I waited, sat down next to myself. I tried to hold my hand.
It was still dark while I waited. It’d be a few hours before the sun rose. We’d gone to sleep at ten and woke at three to get ready. I knew that this was the procedure for hunting so I hadn’t complained. It took me awhile to fall asleep; it always did in an unfamiliar house. Blake sprayed this deer piss scent on us; it’s what you do so the animals don’t notice your foreign human smell. We were walking together through the woods and he was whispering stories about chasing down deer and boars. “And then you just,” he turned towards me, to mime shooting.
Blake came running back I don’t know how much later with two policemen and his father.
I tried hanging around Emily after I died, splitting my time between her and my parents. But she was always crying, and I couldn’t do anything, and she starting failing her classes. I needed some time away; I kept saying I’d go back to school to keep her company. Just things I said to myself. Not that I could say them to other people. Then leaves were back on trees, then it was summer and my dad tried to suggest a weekend beach trip to my mom. Emily would be back home and I didn’t want to intrude there, I said to myself. So I stayed away from her some more, following my parents on their well-trod paths through the days.
We sat on the grassy area outside the fence of the town pool. Greer pulled at the grass, none came up. “When I was alive, I would get really bad allergies sitting on the grass.”
“I remember that,” I said, startled at myself. “Some gym classes we’d go outside and have to sit on the grass while Mr. Case talked about like, the history of ultimate Frisbee, and you’d be sniffling a lot.”
“Yeah, it’s nice I don’t have to deal with that anymore.” She paused. “I wish I could show you my last New Year’s.”
“My dad went and bought a ton of tinsel, and he and my mom and Tara decorated my room. It was all silver and gold and glittering. I was able to help a little, too. They brought the iPod speakers into my room with all the holiday songs that I liked playing. Then they all sat on my bed with me, and we played trivia games and charades and card games. My mom even allowed snacks. We did that for hours. Tara fell asleep there with me.”
“That sounds nice.”
She stared at the kids jumping and splashing in the pool, long enough that I laid down to watch clouds shifting, long enough that I considered she might want to be alone. “The next morning I woke up, and all the tinsel disgusted me. I was angry that this was it for me and I tore it all down. I was so tired afterwards I couldn’t even walk to my bed, so I had to lay down on the floor for like half an hour before my mom came up and found me there. She cried at all the tinsel.”
I sat back up. “It’s more than other people get.”
“You said, that that was it for you, a New Year’s Eve celebration. You got last good byes.”
“No,” she said, “There was so much I didn’t get to have. I never even had sex.”
“Oh, I—I didn’t understand that’s what you meant.”
“You know what Richie? Don’t compare your death to mine,” she said.
She stood up and stormed away.
I crossed lawns to get to Greer’s house a street over. I didn’t have a lot of options for company. A handful of old people hanging around their kids and grandkids, Don who’d been the one homeless guy in our town until he died from hypothermia one winter, and now Greer. Don actually wasn’t so bad, but sometimes he went on rants about the town, including my parents. Greer hadn’t done anything like that yet, and besides, she was kind of my friend.
Inside in the living room were her parents, her older sister Tara and a guy about Tara’s age that I realized, as I circled around the group, was her fiancé. “Huh, congratulations,” I mumbled. I didn’t know where Greer was, or if she was still annoyed with me. I wasn’t sure if I was annoyed with her, or why I was.
I tried to remember how much older Tara was than us. Five years? Six? I never knew her well. She looked similar to Greer, or Greer looked similar to her, but her features were more petite, and I noticed she had hazel eyes instead of Greer’s brown. She stood at the mantle and held Greer’s framed senior portrait up next to her own face. Greer’s smiling looking off camera, wearing a navy sweater and pearl necklace. “This is one of my favorite pictures of Greer,” Tara said, “She’s beautiful.”
Greer did look beautiful in the photograph, because, even though she was pissing me off in the moment, Greer was always beautiful. But it made me sad that the photo was Tara’s favorite. It was a blank canvas, not even the way Greer normally dressed. Tara had plucked the photo from a collection of framed Greer photographs. I liked one of her by the ocean, standing on large rocks, laughing, hugging a sweater closed while the wind blew her hair—long hair like she’d had most her life. Or another one of her dressed in all black standing outside our school auditorium, holding a bouquet of pink and white lilies, from one of the school shows. I went to them all, watched for her in the dark when they rushed out to change sets, tried to choose her from the darkness. I always considered that I could pick her out, that I knew the way she moved.
Tara brought the senior portrait, and another photo of Greer as a child at an arts and crafts table, over to the couch to show the fiancé.
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “So cute, look at her just diving into that finger painting. My brothers and I used to love that.”
“It’s such a special bond between siblings,” Greer’s mother, who was sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea, said, “Tara and Greer were so close. I’m sure she’s smiling down on us right now, so happy for you two.”
She probably knew about this engagement, but I couldn’t get a hold on the fiancé and how Greer may feel about him.
He was in the middle of agreeing about the surely angelic Greer looking down in benevolent tranquility when his cell phone started to ring. “Ah, sorry, I gotta get this. I’ll just be a second.”
Greer’s family smiled, of course, of course, and I followed the fiancé as he walked onto the front porch. He sat on the front step, answered the phone. He kept his voice lowered.
“Hey man. No, it’s okay, they’re talking about the sister again. I just never know what to say, so hopefully they’ll be on another subject when I go back in. What’s up?”
He mostly listened, putting in a few “mhmms,” a chuckle. I went to the hanging flowerpot beside him, grabbed a fistful of dirt to throw in his well-groomed hair. No dirt moved, I hadn’t expected it to but it felt better to try to do something. I had to be satisfied with snapping my fingers near his ears for the remainder of his call.
I didn’t see Greer again before I left. I figured that she’d left town, and then I decided to do so, also. It was the end of August, I saw with a jolt on my mother’s kitchen calendars, and junior year would be starting for Emily and everyone else. I took a train down to Maryland. That was new. A free Acela ride, and plenty of seats in business class for the dead.
I sat next to an attractive woman in her thirties because why not. It took me awhile to realize that she didn’t have any bags or that the conductor wasn’t asking for her ticket; it took her awhile for her to notice the blood on the top of my t-shirt. She crossed her arms, “Get away from me.”
“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t realize, I just wanted some company.”
“Fuck off, I don’t care.”
I stumbled away. She wasn’t marked, how was I to know.
Back on campus, I wandered through crowds. With certain people I knew, it was some crazy revelation to see them again. Like, “Oh right, you’re a person!” Then I followed them. It was kind of similar to Facebook. Say a memory from high school pops up of playing beer pong a couple of weekends with some guy who was in my math class for one year. Then I’d think of how long it’d been since I thought of him, and I’d log onto Facebook and look through his profile. He’d gained weight (all that beer and no exercise) and had new friends with interchangeable faces. There was a girl in a few pictures but it was unclear if she was a girlfriend or not. He looked happy, but you can’t really tell with pictures because you’re supposed to smile and people only take pictures of people looking happy.
This was so much better than Facebook. I followed these old acquaintances—people who lived on my floor freshmen year, guys I used to drink with—to their classes, to lunch with their friends, back to their dorm rooms where they played video games or smoked pot. They all had these full lives that had had little to do with me when I was alive, and nothing to do with me now that I was dead. Girls they liked, tests they were worried about, pressure from their parents. It was like realizing there was a missing subplot in a novel I’d read. Or like I’d been writing a novel that I thought was wholly original but all the while about ten other guys were writing novels on the same subject.
One time I followed this girl I knew through Emily. They’d been friends and then grew apart the way people do, but remained friendly. Back in her dorm room she took a pair of scissors from the desk and cut herself high up on her arm, two cuts. I didn’t know what to do. I just left.
Emily was all around. Well, I walked around looking for her. But there was also this guy, someone I didn’t know. I kept seeing them walking together and he kept making her laugh.
I went to Morris Street, where everyone hung out and did shopping. The pizza place and Chinese restaurant Emily and I used to like. The dry cleaners, the small grocery store. And the dive bar that never carded.
As I walked by the bar, Blake walked out, and right into me. There was no sort of impact. He swung his backpack onto one shoulder. I followed him.
Nearing campus, he crossed paths with Tyler, a friend of his I’d never been close to. “Hey dude, what’s up?” Tyler said, putting out his hand, Blake shook it. “You been drinking?”
“Ha, yeah,” Blake said.
Tyler laughed, “Now that’s the way to start a school year. You off to class?”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later. Wanna hang tonight?”
“I don’t think I can man, but this weekend, definitely.”
On campus, people stared pretty openly at Blake, and I noticed a few of our friends start suddenly in the other direction when they saw him. I’d had enough of him myself.
I was surprised when Greer arrived on the main quad one day. I was sitting under the big tree on the corner near the library. A steady trickle of students walked the pathways in one direction or another. “I missed you,” she said.
“You’re not still mad at me?” I said as she sat down.
“I was mad at you?”
“Yeah,” I tried to figure out how long had passed, “like two weeks ago. Maybe a month.”
She was blank.
“It was about, uh, death.”
She still looked at me blankly. “No I’m not mad with you. Have you been here since then?” I nodded. “Why?”
“Why? Why not? Emily’s here, my friends are here.”
“You have fun hanging out with them?”
I shot her a dirty look.
I told her about Emily’s friend cutting herself, but didn’t tell her about seeing Blake. Greer frowned and patted me on the arm. “It happens,” she said.
“What? She’ll either grow past it or she won’t. People get sad, some people are sad a lot. There’s nothing we can do about it. We probably couldn’t do something about it if we were still alive.”
“Did you ever do that?” I asked.
“Cut? No.” Then she said, “Let’s go somewhere else, seriously Richie.”
“Being here means something to me.”
“You can come back. You can come back for the rest of time, here or to wherever Emily is.”
“I think she likes this guy. At least this guy, he likes her.”
“I’m sorry.” Greer watched the students walking. “Emily is very pretty.”
“Shut up, you don’t care.”
“No, I don’t. Eventually you won’t either.”
She hung around, and I didn’t mind it, she was company.
I walked behind Emily down a brick pathway to class. She was alone. Greer walked a little behind me.
“I came here about two months after I died. It’s a nice campus,” Greer said, “I thought I’d just stay for a day or two, but I got sort of wrapped up in your world. It wasn’t just you and being happy at the familiar face. The last few months of my life, and those months afterwards our house was a bleak place. It was refreshing to come here and see you being normal, and seeing you get this normal college experience I’d tried to have. I’d go to the gym with you, read books over your shoulder. I went with you for some of your and Emily’s dates.”
“Just a few!”
Emily entered a building, and we continued walking. “What did you do next?”
“I started taking rides around the country. If I went to New York City, I just walked into a Broadway show like who’s gonna stop me! Then I’d go up to Niagara Falls. And then from there, wherever. I only go to visit my parents, or Tara, occasionally.”
Greer shrugged. “There’s a lot of things to do. I’ve met people—people like us, had some fun with them. I even met Marilyn Monroe, I really liked her. And she says she doesn’t hang out with JFK at all.”
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” I said, “when did you meet her?”
Greer thought about it. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been right after I died but…I don’t know.”
We walked in silence for a bit.
“I guess our parents will be with us again sometime down the road.”
“Right? It isn’t always easy. Tara’ll have kids, and they’ll never meet me until they’re dead.”
I didn’t say anything about the fiancé. I’d thought about it, and when my parents used to bring up Greer’s death, or just Greer in general, I’d always change the subject. Maybe he was like how I used to be, someone whose family hadn’t been touched by death, really, and didn’t want to dwell on other peoples’ dead parents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. Didn’t know what to say.
Greer stopped walking and faced me. “You used to feel bad for me in high school, I always knew that. Then you felt bad for me after I died. And yeah, if I could have some option to go back and it was my choice to live or die, I’d want to keep living, but I can’t change it. You can’t change what happened to you, either. Stop feeling bad for yourself. Let’s get out of here.”
“Wow, sorry I’m not as enlightened by death as you are yet, Greer, you can leave if you want, but I still want to be here.”
She stared at me. “Show me Blake.”
Blake, like many other guys I shadowed, was playing video games. A girl was leaving as we entered his room. Blake played video games with Tyler. They were playing Call of Duty, a game Blake and I used to play, a multi-player game full of shooting and grenades. Life imitating video game.
Tyler said, without looking away from the screen, “So what’s that all about?”
“Huh? Oh, her?” Blake asked. “We’re in this class together.”
“Yeah, and she totally wants your dick.”
“What? She’s got a nice body, you’re not into it?”
They continued to play, without much comment. Greer turned to me and made her voice deep, “She totally wants your dick, bro.” I laughed quietly, I still wasn’t totally used to the fact that people couldn’t hear us. She started walking around the room, peering at books and discarded food packages.
“I think I’m going to ask Emily out,” Blake said.
I froze and for a second I felt like I had bodily feelings again: a tightened throat, pounding in my head, sweaty palms.
Tyler let his controller drop, and his player was killed. He sort of laughed, but it was choked. “Dude.”
“What? I’ve always felt that there’s something between us.”
Tyler turned around in the chair and looked at us. He scanned the room. Sometimes people did that when we were around and I was starting to believe some people felt presences, although I wouldn’t say Tyler was the type of person to ever think that, even if he did feel us there. Greer moved to my side, and put her hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to go?” she asked.
“I want to stay, I fucking, I fucking want to—”
I lunged at Blake, punching with one hand and clawing with the other, kicking even, like a Riverdancer with bad rhythm, unsure of what would be my best attack method. Greer circled around us, perched next to the TV. When I tried jumping up to body slam him, like a wrestler, she laughed. I paused, stalled not knowing what to do, and Greer swooped in. She led me away by the arm. “It isn’t our world anymore, Richie.”
As we were leaving, Tyler said, “I kinda feel like that’s a bad idea.”
Greer decided that we should go to the beach. It didn’t matter what beach. We walked across the quad. I stopped. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Why can’t you just say no?”
“Because I don’t know! I don’t even know Emily, how would I know what she would do.”
A lie would have been kindness.
We walked to a nearby diner and found a car leaving town. We sat in the back, each staring out the windows. Three long chapters of an Audiobook in I said, “Why aren’t we talking?”
“I was listening to the book, weren’t you?”
“Sort of but, that’s not what I meant.”
“Richie, we have eternity, it just feels less important to talk all the time. Or, time not talking seems less. You’ll see, or you probably won’t notice it, I don’t really.”
“What is the it I won’t notice?” I asked.
“The way…time takes up a certain amount of space, in our perception of it, and the longer you’re here, this afterlife, the more that space lessens.” She looked back out the window. I guessed, with an Audiobook in and all, our driver was going some distance, but he seemed to prefer back roads through small towns. She watched trees pass, leaves blurred. “Do you think, for a tree, a year seems to them like a second or a minute might to a human?”
“And what about us? A tree’s entire life, it’ll be like, what, a yawn to us?”
She smiled at me. “Personally, I’ve never yawned in my death.”
“And so what? We could pick up this conversation again in five living years and think there was only a pause.”
“Just one of us checking out the window,” Greer said, and she turned back to do just that.
We got out when our driver stopped at his friends’ house. A man and a woman his age ran out the front door, all smiles, hugged him and laughed.
Greer and I stood at the end of the driveway. The couple barely let the driver get in a word. They rattled anecdote after anecdote.
“They must lead very boring lives,” Greer said.
“Well hey now, let’s never be like them,” I joked. Not a very good joke. Or maybe the best joke ever.
I stepped closer to the people. I could hear their conversation. The woman from the house had freckles across her nose and cheeks. The man had a large gold ring and a habit of running his other thumb over it while he listened.
When I turned around, Greer was gone.
How long had I been watching the three people?
I started jogging towards where I thought the main road was. “Greer?” I called out. I followed signs to the beach area. She wasn’t there, either. What the hell, Greer, I thought.
I didn’t know what to do. Where to go. Finally, I returned to the main road, and found a gas station. I picked a parked car, driven by two middle aged women. They pulled out of the gas station. When they started talking about the rest of the trip—“What do you think we’ll need, one more refill, or two?” the driver asked—I realized they were heading further south. There wasn’t anyone in that direction for me. But then I thought, why not the change of scenery? Maybe Greer had had that same thought, when she’d either forgotten about me or decided to ditch me. I decided to ride with the women to their destination.
I don’t remember much of what I did in that time away from Greer. I don’t know how long we were apart, either. Something would jolt me, occasionally, remind me of Greer and I’d set myself north. I knew that she could easily be in California or Alaska instead of the Northeast. But there wasn’t an anxiety. I had the time. Just one of us checking out the window. And then I’d get sidetracked, willingly, or my mind would be taken off Greer, and I’d forget about her for a bit.
I got to New York City. I went there because I had a faint memory of Greer saying she’d go to Broadway shows. I’d been to New York a few times as a kid. I just walked around. It was nice when I stumbled upon the NYU area, being around people my age. But were they my age? Or: were people my age, still my age? I was stuck at an age, but I remembered Greer had said she’d spent months following me at my college without realizing it, and I couldn’t really say how long I’d been travelling. How old was Emily now? And Blake? I remembered Blake saying he wanted to ask Emily out on a date. I wasn’t struck as hard by the recollection. I didn’t want to find Blake and somehow try and attack him. Hadn’t I tried to do that?
I thought: there has to be someone dead around here who can give me directions. I was around some university buildings and most people were carrying bags, something that marked them as alive students. There was a park, and that seemed like a perfect place to find the dead. I started walking up to people sitting on benches, lying on the grass. People that didn’t seem to have anything with them. “Hi,” I said, over and over. On the grass I saw a hippie guy with long hair lying by himself. I walked over, “Hi.” He pushed himself onto his elbows. “Hi.”
“Great, you’re dead,” I said, and sat down next to him.
“You’re so young, little dude,” he said, “that always bums me out.”
“Sure,” I said. “But could you tell me where Broadway shows would be?”
“Broadway,” he said.
“I meant, how can I get there?”
“An arts lover, right on. It’s Times Square area, like forty blocks north of here. You walk that way,” he said, and pointed.
“Thanks,” I said, and walked in that direction. I considered for a moment that the guy didn’t look like he’d been that old when he died. How long, in alive time, had he been lying in that exact spot in the park?
Times Square was bright, and crowded. I tried to overhear families’ conversations and see if they were going to some play or musical. I finally found one, and followed them. They were going to a Chekhov revival, but I didn’t think that’d be what Greer would seek out in her death. I started walking into theaters advertising musicals.
Maybe it was a sign that it hadn’t been that long, that I hadn’t been travelling for years, that I knew I could call out Greer’s name and not disturb anyone, but when I did it I kept it as whispered as I could. “Greer?” I said walking down the aisles, “Greer?”
I didn’t see her that day, or the next when I came back. I went back to the park. The hippie was still there, and I asked him if I could join him. I laid there, maybe a week. I liked watching the students. Then I sat up. It seemed to be afternoon. “I think I’ll try to find her again.”
The hippie looked over to me. “Good luck, buddy.”
Back on Broadway, I stepped into more theaters, searching the audience and whispering her name. Finally I saw her. On stage was a big musical number, with the whole cast dancing, and Greer was dancing with them,or more weaving through them, trying to turn when they did. She wasn’t good at dancing, and she clearly wasn’t familiar with the steps, but she was laughing up there, twirling in her blue bathrobe. “Greer!” I shouted out.
She heard me over the music and the dancing, and squinted out into the audience. I ran towards the stage, waving my arms, and finally she started waving. She hopped into the area where all the musicians were, then made her way out of there. “Richie!” She hugged me. When she pulled away she tilted her head back towards the stage, “I always wanted to act in high school. Don’t get me wrong, I liked crew, but I wanted everyone to watch me sometimes.”
“Where have you been?” I asked. “I didn’t know where to look for you after you left.”
“When I left?”
“Yeah, I can’t remember when it was, but we were supposed to go to the beach, and you left.” The musical number ended, and the audience applauded. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We walked into the lobby, and sat on a bench there.
“It was after we left my school,” I continued.
“Do you remember why you left?”
“No, I don’t remember leaving, or planning a beach trip at all. I’m sorry.” I knew she meant it.
“I missed you.”
“Are you upset?”
“No. I’m really glad to have found you.”
“Me too,” she said, “what’s next?”
“Do you want to go to the beach?”
We took several trains pushing us further out onto Long Island. At the announcement of one stop, Greer looked at me and shrugged, “Why not this one?”
We walked to the beach. There were a few people there, three groups scattered. Mothers or nannies, with very young children. The people were dressed in long sleeves and wore floppy hats, the brims moved slightly in a wind I couldn’t feel.
I walked in. I looked into the water and saw the bottom half of my body, my jeans, the bottom of my shirt. Greer walked in, too. “Did you know you can walk on top of it?”
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” I laughed. I pulled her toward me, wrapping my arms around her body and hugging her. She climbed into the hug, nestling her face into my shoulder. She kept her arms folded to herself, though, pressed against my chest. I could feel her, just slightly; she felt like what a shadow must feel like, a whisper. Would I ever forget the feeling of pressing skin to skin. “How long could we stand here for?” I asked.
“Years,” she said.
Ashley Kunsa creative work has appeared in or is forthcoming from more than a dozen journals, including Bayou Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and Tahoma Literary Review. She has been awarded the Orlando prize for flash fiction from the A Room of Her Own foundation and tied for first prize for the Eastern Iowa Review’s Experimental Essay award. Currently she is finishing a PhD in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband and son.
There are maybe times when you could be anybody, but it’s important to recognize this isn’t one of them. A good neighbor, a long-distance runner, the vice president even, or, better, the vice president’s wife. What was it all the gifted girls carried on about in middle school—marine biology? Saving sad, fleshy creatures from the doom wrought upon them by other sad, fleshy creatures? Manatees and walruses etched in purple pen across the fronts of spiral-bound notebooks, purple hearts on lassos leaping out of the waves, looping their wide, fat necks.
As if chaining a thing with love could save it.
Those girls thought they were so smart, with their essay prizes and A’s in algebra. How smart would they be now in this too-warm waiting room, with all the choices whittled down to two? Someone will drown here: you decide who.
And of course I say you to distance myself from all this. To prove I had nothing to do with it. Which is untrue. I said stay. I cried and whispered and purred it—Stay. But it was like talking to myself. Please, I tried, and Don’t leave me. My words were water balloons slapping the pavement. It had never been a matter of words between us anyway. It was biology. His and mine. Selves opening into each other, a thing that needs, a thing that feeds.
So, too, at the end. Knowing words had finally failed us, I sought our salvation in something deeper, its roots spun together, our humanity inextricably linked. Ticking the days off the calendar, I stared at the tiny pills, secure in their foil packets. Stay, that night just inside his apartment door, stay, my tongue begging his to speak our language again, stay, our bodies cleaved to one another until long afterwards, stay, when six weeks later I stood outside his building in the angry November wind, the test stick in my hand. Stay stay stay.
And of course the gifted girls, budding saviors, would never find themselves in a rumpled cotton gown, waiting to spread their legs before a stranger. They were born to soar. Only a fool believes she can bind biology with biology.
Of course he didn’t stay.
When the door opens and the woman with the tired eyes shuffles in, you will tell her. You will say the words that feel like screaming beneath the water’s surface while the whole ocean fills you up inside.
Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review, which nominated her poem, “Minor Planets” for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, KYSO, Sandy River Review and Panoplyzine and is forthcoming in Delmarva Review and Joyce Quarterly. She has also written five mystery novels.
Say you’re on the Downtown IRT – one of the new trains that stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see, lurching along underground like a demented caterpillar, and it’s so crowded people are pressed up against each other and you happen to see a man reach his hand into the Michael Kors bag of a woman standing to your left. You know it’s a Michael Kors because your ex-wife is a publicist whose firm specializes in accessories and one of the perks of her job, which doesn’t pay much and entails long hours, is getting freebies from overpriced fashion companies: Burberry wallets. Calvin Klein scarves, Marc Jacobs belts. Your ex-wife would walk through the door, carrying her latest acquisition and you would look up from your laptop and grin because you were damn glad to see her. Maybe you’d run her bath water or pour her a glass of Chardonnay, the expensive kind because she liked the taste of money.
You can’t identify the precise moment when things changed. There was Before, when she still loved you. And After, when she left – on a Tuesday evening in April when you’d come in from playing softball in Morningside Park, with mud on your cheek from sliding into second base too hard. You noticed the mud when you went to hug her goodbye and some of it got on her forehead. Before and After. But the part that really mattered happened in between.
If you could go back you would search for it in the hollow place in bed where she slept next to you, her stomach curled against your back like a question mark. You would look in the spaces between her smiles. You’d examine the silences that you once took for quiet compatibility but now flash like traffic lights you sped right through. You would have had a beautiful life together. The life you envisioned on your wedding day, standing under a chuppah in the Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel surrounded by 250 people, the men in black tie, the women in tight black dresses, listening to the rabbi saying the two of you were bashert, meant to be, and trying not to worry about how much the evening was going to cost.
Now you question everything. What you see with your own eyes, what you fail to see.
The man on the train reaches into the bag and you’re thinking you could call him out and be a hero and maybe the woman would be so grateful she’d offer to buy you coffee and the two of you would hit it off and start dating and fall in love, the whole process starting again but cleaner this time, more satisfying.
The man’s hand disappears and appears again. You never see the wallet.
At the next stop, the woman gets off the train and so do you, keeping her in sight amid the horde of commuters, like a birddog beginning the hunt.
Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog resides at: http://megtuite.com
Beth takes the bus to a workshop on setting boundaries. Shoes are lined up outside an entrance with a wooden sign that says, Tae Kwon Do. She slips off her gray slippers, walks inside. A group of ten women sit on pillows in a huge, open warehouse. She slides down on a pillow, looks around. Some of these women are antiques: dusty, hidden treasures, but for the smell of mothballs. They are lost in their bones, hands that detour, divert around a mosquito bite they can’t quite locate. They must have a hard time with maps like her. One girl is the border patrol. Her head bobbles a full-on affirmative every time the therapist speaks. She writes in a notebook as though the circumference of her being will slip away if she doesn’t frame it in print. One girl verges on a barbed fence of tears that rim her weary, pink eyes. The therapist begins another landmark statement on how to climb over the so-called ‘dead limbs’ that have stifled them in their past and mark their new terrain, piss on it. One girl’s perimeter closes into a knife of a smile as pee that was in her bladder changes its mind and sucks back into her kidneys.
The therapist says they are going to perform some exercises. The first exercise is to stake the fence. When he gets too close they should say ‘stop’, but not just some half-assed stop, more like screeching up to a yellow light just as it turns red instead of a stop sign. He says, hold up your hand, belt it out. He lays his hairy fingers, spread eagle, on his belly and blasts it out in operatic baritone. STOP! Bark it out like a dog protecting his territory, he says. The women stare at him. He paces back and forth, his storm cloud getting larger as his gestures bank the walls of any frontier, conducting an explosive outpost that frightens Beth as she battles the inner prison that withers her. Don’t be shy, he says. This is a safe place to explore those core emotions of rage, grief and fear. He lifts his tufted knuckles, curls them at the group, lifts his chin and howls. The women snicker and wheeze on either side of Beth. A strange sound like a person dying gurgles from her throat. Okay, the therapist says. Who’s going to go first? Border patrol is still writing notes. The rest of them look around the radius of the group without making eye contact. They remain still, sacks of rice. The massive room smells of unwashed bodies and terror. The therapist lifts his impressive eyebrows, beastly strands long enough to cover the empty patch where a hairline should have been, and studies each one of them. Come on, ladies. This is going to change your lives, he says as he claps. The eyebrows waver.
I remember I was scared shitless, walking on the ice across Lake Michigan in the middle of February with my friend, Joyce, and my little sister, Eliza. We followed Joyce’s rocky lead as she screeched at us, ‘It’s going to change your life.’ Something her dad always said. He was a fat, old lawyer with a swollen face and body, mean as hell. “You,” he’d say, pointing at me. “What are you going to do? Make pancakes for the rest of your life or become something?” I didn’t know what he meant. My mom made my pancakes. I was only twelve at the time. What was I going to do? Probably die before I got to high school hanging out with his daughter. Joyce had dared me to jump across three-story roofs, pretend I was blind, run into people on the street, shoplift and once I even stole a hubcap off of a cop car just to hear her frantic high-pitched giggle. God, I loved her.
Beth’s hand raises itself slowly like some fucking flag on the Fourth of July.
Great, come on up, says the therapist. Her head shakes as she takes her place beside the excited man and looks out at an expanse of glassy eyes that flicker in and out of vision. He smells better than he looks; some kind of incense permeates him. She wonders if he’s a Buddhist. Remember, this is about boundaries. Is there anyone in your life that you haven’t been able to say no to? Was he kidding her with this? She nods, hears that demented cackle of Joyce’s again. Okay, she says. Let’s do this.
The therapist walks away from Beth across the wood floor. He is talking as he recedes. Try to visualize that person in your mind. Forget about everything else. She hears scratch marks of Border Patrol’s pen. The rest of them barely breathe. When he is around 50 feet away from Beth he stops, turns toward her. Her heart palpates around the periphery of the building as she huddles inside the fog of her body. She can’t feel her feet under her when this man starts to run.
Joyce pushes me, giggling, and I push Eliza. “Come on,” Joyce says, “let’s get to Michigan.” It’s all thunder. Blinding acres of white sky and storm sheen glazed ice as far as I can see and I’ve got the whole day to get to Michigan. I’m an explorer. Few have barely touched the frozen shoreline and never come close to passing the buoy. The three of us are well beyond that. Eliza is all breath, complacency and silence in her shiny parka and matted hood. Joyce and I don’t wear hats. We stuff them in our pockets as soon as we are past parental range. Joyce’s ears are purple rafts on either side of her white pigtails. I can’t feel my ears, and snot has frozen little spitballs in my nose. The wind is one long, empty moan. Everything is glass, muffled grunts, moldering dead fish and wind that feels like it could gut me. I see some jaggedy, thin spots of ice that look like you could fall right through. Joyce talks but her words are weathered blind. We are in Antarctica, the lone survivors of a ship caged in and swallowed by two icebergs. We are down to two Snickers bars, a pack of Doublemint gum, and four Kents I swiped from Mom’s purse. We will have to eat snow when we are thirsty. The globe is all-invading and disfigured. I wonder if we should turn back. It’s a long way back to land. Eliza hasn’t said a word. She looks numb. There are no curves except Joyce’s mouth, still a dripping stalactite of gutted insults. Patsy wets her bed; Ellen has like fifty teeth in her mouth, have you noticed? Jesus. And Cynthia? You think her or her brothers know anything about soap? Joyce keeps tabs on her traitors. They rarely thwart her, but the worst actually have the nerve to ignore her. She is her own continent.
I hear the crack. Eliza drops like the branch of a tree. She is under ice. I scream, grab at her sleeve with the red mitten dangling from its clip. Her face is murky and gray under frozen water. I see bubbles. I bite my tongue until it bleeds, catch a hold of her parka and pull. A sagging handful of blue cloth breathes the air, steam rises off of it as the face beneath fogs into quivering ripples. The reek of black, stagnant water and the poison stillness gasps as the water starts to win. The blue coat is heavier, darker, slithers between my throbbing, pathetic grip. Eliza echoes from the shores of Chicago all the way to Michigan over and over. Eliza, I scream, but there is no world out there that answers back. Is she okay? Joyce asks. I look up into a splotchy red, under-animated face.
The man breathes hard in front of me. Why didn’t you say stop? he asks. The man sighs as if I’m an imbecile. Didn’t you hear my instructions? Why didn’t I say stop? Why did I ever go? I slap him hard across the face. Red garnishes the surface across his cheek.
The stifled room begins to erupt. Ladies unchain from whatever hems them in. They jump up, growl and yell. Beth sees their mouths open, one cavernous hollow that will never be filled. They’re all hopped up on adrenaline surging new life into them. Beth is feeling it, too. She can hear curses pelting her as she staggers out the door.
Eliza was only seven when she drowned. The splintered parts of Beth scream for vodka. She still hears rumbling, animated voices coming from inside the seminar. She sits down on the bench, studies the crowd of shoes, picks out purple sandals with some jewels on top and a two-inch heel that actually fit. To hell with the ratty, gray slippers. She buckles up these beauties and admires them. Maybe a pedicure would help. She gets up and wobbles off to the Owl Liquor store trying to remember how to walk in heels over concrete, click, click, wobble, wobble.
Beth buys ten tiny airplane size bottles and loads her purse with them. No matter who’s behind the counter, Beth is told that the larger bottles are much cheaper. She’s not an idiot. Hide the evidence. She knows she will drown, as well.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals including, Gravel, Cleaver, Garbanzo, and the previously named, Newer York. She’s published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod, & Prairie Schooner and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. Additionally, she’s published stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.
Sooner or Later
Mama run away again. Pap says she is high strung and she’ll be back when the strings loosen. Gram shakes her head and gives me a shave of chocolate. I don’t cry anymore cause I’m big now and I know things just is. I think about going out to pester Pap’s old yellow dog, Hy, under the cottonwood tree, but he don’t always like being woke up and he might nip me and it ain’t worth that. I might go down by the creek but I gotta be back to do chores for Gram before dinner and it’s easy to forget time down the creek. I start dreaming or pretending and when I’m late, Gram’s mouth is one straight line and she looks disappointed and I feel bad. If it wasn’t for her and Pap, I’d be in an orphanage and Mama would be locked up in a crazyhouse or even jail. The world doesn’t take kindly to the high strung, Pap says.
Sometimes Mama is sweet and calls me her best baby even tho I ain’t a baby but I like it when she’s nice and holds on to me. I wish she would be that way all the time, I wouldn’t mind the baby calling. Gram said I had a brother once but he died before I got here. I’m not allowed to talk to Mama about him but I know where he’s buried. I wish he wasn’t dead cause he could help with chores.
Mama gave me a secret. After I found the knife under the bed she said this is our secret. I couldn’t tell Gram or Pap. I found it when I was putting my treasure box under there – some stones and shiny buttons and a bird’s bone head with the beak and all – Pap called it a skull. Don’t they need the knife, I asked her, Gram and Pap? It’s not their knife, Mama said. It’s ours. I don’t know how she got a knife, maybe one of those times she run off.
The thing is, she took it with her. Maybe she needs it to get food in the woods. When she comes back, I’m gonna ask her did she kill a squirrel? Maybe it’s in case somebody tries to hurt her though I don’t want to think about that too much. She would stab them dead fast as lighting – that’s how I see it.
After he finds the paper with the scratch marks remarking how many days Mama’s been gone, Pap cautions me not to worry, she’ll be back like she always does. I consider telling him about the knife but I don’t. I wonder does the knife make a difference on when she’ll come back – sooner or later? If she don’t come back, I’ll tell about the knife.
Heather Dewar is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, New South, The Dirty Napkin, Utne, The Common Review, and the Chicago Reader among others. She lives in Minneapolis.
“It’s usually the easy answer.”
Billy looked up.
The girl sitting next to him smiled. “It was just that you seemed worried.”
He thought she might be making fun but her smile looked like she meant it. Billy opened his mouth to speak.
“No helping.” A man frowned from behind the front desk. Billy turned back to his screen. He was here to replace his license. He had been living in Chicago six months. Three weeks before, he had been walking home, late, when a man with a gun stopped him on the street and demanded his wallet and phone. Billy emptied his pockets onto the pavement. Afterwards, he vomited into the street.
The girl slid out of her desk. Billy watched her walk to the counter. He wondered how she had known he was nervous. He furrowed his brow when he was tense. Sometimes, he jiggled his leg. Now, he put his hand on his thigh to stop it.
A picture of two cars colliding appeared on the screen. To avoid an accident you should know where your vehicle will be in: a) 5 to 10 seconds; b) 10 to 15 seconds; c) 15 to 20 seconds. Billy chose answer “a.” Since the mugging he couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes the night replayed. The gun at his chest, the bile in his throat, the feeling that someone had kicked in his knees. They found the guy who did it. They picked him up at an ATM. The detective who had been working on the case called to tell him. One more asshole off the street, he had said, but Billy didn’t feel better.
He read the next question. When driving in a fog you should use: a) fog lights only; b) high beams; c) low beams. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the girl. She was standing behind a white line on the floor, smiling for her picture. In college he had played a game with his friend, Pete, called ID. When you saw a girl, you had to remember everything about her: the color of her hair, her eyes, her skin, how tall she was, the size of her boobs. You had to be able to pick her out of a line up. Billy got so good his nickname was Photo. After the hold-up the police had asked him for details. Anything you can tell us, they said. What did you see? Billy remembered only the gun.
The driving test came to an end. Billy stood and pushed in his chair. He walked to the counter. A man in a blue work shirt told him to stand behind the white line for his picture. “On three,” he said, when Billy was ready, and Billy stood and waited for the flash. There were things he remembered about the night of the mugging. The walk from the train had been cold. He’d wished he’d had gloves. Snow had been falling, silent and fast. He had come from a bar that was noisy and full and as he walked he’d felt glad for the silence, for the sudden feeling of space. He’d put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the sky.
“We’ll call your name when it’s ready,” the man said, and Billy walked to the end of a row of blue plastic chairs. The girl was leaning against a counter now, scrolling through her phone. That night he had felt a slow certainty, of himself, of his life. The gun had emptied his confidence onto the pavement.
The girl straightened up from the counter. She glanced in Billy’s direction.
“Okay Photo,” Pete said, each time they played. “What do you see?”
Billy thought of the fast falling snow. He thought of the cold and the silence and the open night sky.
“William Sims,” the man said, and Billy stood to retrieve his ID.
Michelle Elvy is an editor and writer based in New Zealand. She edits at Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook, and is on the editorial teams of Flash Fiction International and the Best Small Fictions series. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in numerous print and online journals. See http://michelleelvy.com/
Black and White and Grey
In the gloaming she sees his tall shape across the street, hunched shoulders under a black coat slumped to worry. She steps off the curb and hurries to him. She wants to ask him how was your meeting, did you get the red wine for dinner, do you remember that the Lamberts are coming but it’s cold and the wind hurts her teeth so she lifts her head slightly to the left instead and as she slips her palm into his she feels him grip her small hand and squeeze tight.
In the gloaming he sees her silhouette crossing the street, small neat steps with white socks peeking from under tailored trousers. He wants to tell her they read my father’s will today, my brother says my sister won’t come, I forgot to get the red wine for dinner but he feels a chill on his spine and in the moment that she tilts her head toward him he knows he doesn’t love her but he squeezes her hand anyway and notices that her grey felt cap looks just right.
Katie Cortese is the author of the collection Girl Power and other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015). She holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Willow Springs, and The Baltimore Review, among other journals. She currently teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.
Allie shouldn’t call the house and hang up when he finally answers. She shouldn’t cruise by after work to make sure he’s brought in the mail, slowing to judge by the slit in the curtains if the living room light is on. She shouldn’t worry if the house is dark. He’s probably just sleeping. Or out walking the dog, the rangy retriever who’ll need hip surgery in another year, and whose breath always smelled to her of hot dogs.
She knows she shouldn’t Google Map his address either, those familiar numbers that used to be hers. The site hasn’t been updated for their town in a year and a half and the car in the satellite picture is her gray PT Cruiser. She shouldn’t linger on the webpage in the den while down the hall and around the corner, Gregory hums over his ratatouille in the kitchen. She knows it was her decision to leave. It wasn’t quitting, they told her. She was just rebooting her life for the happier one she deserved.
Allie shouldn’t keep a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment, or sneak puffs in the driveway, facing her new house like a prowler scoping out the easiest point of entrance. After each cigarette, she tells herself she’s quitting, right then and there. Sometimes she does, until something else reminds her. The triggers are unpredictable. It’s not always the apple-cheeked babies in the life insurance commercial. They’re simply other people’s children. And the terrible one about whooping cough with an asthmatic wheeze for a soundtrack—that one makes her nauseous, on principle—just not in a personal way.
But at least once a week, something triggers a memory, sharp as a blade, of her life in the blue ranch on the corner of Liff and Persimmon, the one where now the hedges go untrimmed. Last week she woke up to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” on her radio alarm and sat up in a panic: no cry had woken her in the night for feeding or a change, or just the touch of her hand. She’d thrown the quilt off her legs and had made it to the hall before she remembered where she was, where she’d lived for a year now, a Cape Cod on Jubilat, with Gregory, who was a good man, and patient with her grief.
Tonight it was an email, just an automated reminder from the pediatrician’s office about shots her son no longer needs. Tomorrow, I’ll quit, she thinks, stubbing out her cigarette in the driveway. Her same old promise; not quite a lie, since tomorrow never comes to collect on all she’s owed. The charred end of the Marlboro leaves a dark blemish on the smooth concrete. She spits on it and scuffs the spot with her toe, but only spreads the ash around.
Inside there is a fire in the woodstove, it’s chilly enough to need one now. Inside there is a man who never met her infant son, the child who no longer sighs sour milk into his jungle-themed sheets. Inside are shelves and shelves of books and the lingering smell of supper. Inside is peace, if she wants it, and sometimes she does, but still she feels for her keys in the pocket of her peacoat, slides behind the wheel of the Cruiser her former husband had mocked when she bought it, though if given the choice, he’d take it to the store instead of his Camry.
Automatically, she puts the car in reverse. Just a quick look, she thinks, adjusting the heater, and then tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll quit.
Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh.
The coffee shop is full, or full enough. I hide in the back, wait. My maybe-date doesn’t show. “The alarm clock didn’t go off,” he says to me when he calls. To get to the coffee shop on time, I sprinted through my morning brushing of teeth like a comedy routine, throwing on clothes, making hasty decisions, pissing off the dog and the cat and my neighbor, Jim. But still. I’m polite on the phone, as he talks about late nights and the need for a new, better alarm clock.
I do doubt the problem is the clock, but I encourage him to, yes, buy a new one. I say it’s okay, because it seems he will not stop apologizing until I do. I hate that I’m bullied into forgiving him, and when he calls to reschedule I pretend like I’ve accidentally deleted his message. There’s a kind of joy in fooling yourself and then lying about a mundane detail.
“Oh, I didn’t get that message.”
And I take joy where I can; these tiny moments add up. As I’m walking my dog I think about all the missed opportunities, all the rushing. What if you got that back—like a time refund?
And today there’s my near-date, in fact, sitting in a different cafe on a different day talking to a different woman as I walk by. I turn, walk by again. I turn, walk to the plate glass and tap. Tap-tap. Wave. He looks up, touches the woman’s hand to stop her mid-sentence, nods to me and then heads out into the cold without a coat. I’m bundled tight and ready to wait this out. The dog sits, sensing this will be a long one, deciding to be a good boy because perhaps he remembers that this particular cafe has doggy treats inside by the register.
“Hey,” the almost-date says. “I tried to call you to hook up again.”
“Oh, hey,” I say. “I didn’t get that message. Weird.”
“Weird,” he says. We both look at the dog, who looks across the street, his main focus being sitting like a good boy. Shoulders back. Ears up. “So,” he says. “Let’s reschedule?”
I look inside the cafe at the woman with her back to me, sipping on a cup of tea, fiddling with the paper flag attached to its string. Her fingers are fine and beautiful. Her hair looks nice from the back, auburn and wavy and lush. I wonder how many people he has in his life. I know I don’t have very many to meet up with these days. I feel homesick for something. I suddenly feel so much at once.
“I just can’t bear to be stood up again,” I say. “So let’s just call it that, okay? It was a date and now it’s run its course without even starting up. Efficient.”
He looks inside the cafe, perhaps thinks the woman’s hands are beautiful too. Maybe this is the moment that he falls in love with her? In a few years they will marry, this man and the woman with the tea. They’ll walk arm in arm around the neighborhood and smile at me in the dwindling light. They’ll get a dog of their own. A beagle who eagerly sniffs my dog’s ass.
For now, my own dog has decided his good dog time is up. He whines a little and then lifts off his haunches and pulls gently on the leash. “Okay,” the man says. “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
“Not sensitive, really. Just pragmatic,” I say. “Plus, you don’t know me at all.”
He sighs then, looks across the street at the rows of houses lined up and quiet in the mid-afternoon city street their window boxes stuffed with dying flowers. He says, “I’ve seen you around this neighborhood for months. I always thought it was beautiful, the way you stepped carefully with your dog. I loved watching you walk and walk around the blocks around here. I loved that you smiled at me. Just wanted to let you know that.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, touched my arm. “I also know,” he says quietly, “that sometimes I can be an ass.”
I nod. I say, “Thank you.” The dog pulls steadily now and barks once. I smile at the man. “Thanks.”
I think about all of this later, of course. After he’s married. I think about time stretching and bending and moving in other ways instead of this one. I imagine him showing up at the coffee shop. I imagine ordering tea, playing with the tea bag while he talks to a woman for too long on a cold fall day, outside the cafe, my back turned to him and her, but feeling the heat of their conversation through the window. I imagine waiting patiently while conversations inside murmur all around me. I imagine turning to look out the window, as this beautiful woman does just now, and seeing him with her, touching her hand then hugging.
I wonder which woman I want to be.
Neil Carpathios the author of three full-length poetry collections and various chapbooks. Fictions have recently appeared in: The Ampersand Review, Underground Voices, Mayday Magazine, LitroNY Magazine, Miracle Monocle, and Lime Hawk Quarterly (which nominated my short story, “Poets and Scholars” for a Pushcart Prize). He also recently edited an anthology of regional literature, Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). Carpathios is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
The Man with No Future
Nathan had just finished his pork fried rice and spring roll when the waitress brought him the bill and complimentary fortune cookie. He cracked the cookie in half but nothing was inside. He checked to see if maybe the tiny slip of paper was jammed in one of the cookie’s crevices, but there was nothing. This had never happened before in his life, let alone at Chang’s where he stopped for lunch a couple of times a week. He called the waitress over. He pointed to the broken cookie. He explained.
The waitress apologized, reached into her deep apron pocket, and handed him another one. He broke the new cookie open—and once again, there was nothing inside. He stared down at the yellow cookie pieces, then became self-conscious and wondered if anybody at a nearby table noticed. Did they see his puzzled face, or was it scared, or maybe even a little relieved, as he looked at his watch then balled up his napkin and stood up, starting to walk, peeking one more time over his shoulder at the shards like ancient relics in a museum on his plate?
As he stood at the register paying, he imagined that somebody who witnessed the scene thought it was like a one-act play called “The Man with No Future.” This made Nathan smile to himself. He handed the waitress, who now was the cashier, a ten and told her to keep the change.
There really was nothing strange about all this, Nathan thought. In fact, what was strange is that this had never happened until now. Surely mistakes were made in factories where fortune cookies were produced. He pictured an assembly-line of cookies shaped like small seashells, Chinese workers in white smocks quickly stuffing them with fortunes. The workers start to gossip, get distracted, and miss a few here and there.
The next afternoon, Nathan went to open the mail box slot with his apartment key. He hated these cramped mailboxes; the mail usually jammed and twisted the letters to fit. There was one envelope. Nathan reached in, squeezed it out. He flattened it against the wall with his palms to crush the wrinkles. It was addressed to Blake Graham, his birth name before he started going by his middle name, Nathan, and his mother’s maiden name, Hercules. It was twenty-odd years ago when his father committed suicide and he felt compelled to shed his skin, to take on a new identity—at least in terms of his name. He was a teenager and thought the pain and confusion might die away if he could imagine being a brand new person. His mother, who despised his father and was divorced from him, encouraged Blake to discard his father’s name and was pleased with Nathan as well; her husband had decided on Blake, which she never liked much.
Odd, Nathan thought. He had not received any mail with his birth name for longer than he could remember. Everyone, even bill collectors, knew him as Nathan Hercules.
Nathan didn’t wait to get back into his apartment. Standing there in the hall in front of all the other mail slots, he opened the envelope. Before he could pull out the paper, a woman in slippers he didn’t know although he’d seen her a few times walked up to get her mail. She used her key; the little metal door opened like a small safe. She coughed, nodded to Nathan, and then he waited for her to leave along together with a trail of cigarette stench.
Alone again, Nathan pulled out the paper which was neatly folded. It was clean white stock, nice quality. He unfolded and looked: the page was blank. Not a mark.
“What the hell?” Nathan thought. There was no return address on the envelope.
“Shit happens, I guess,” Nathan told himself as he walked back up to his apartment.
A few days later he was walking on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building on his way to the drugstore. He was out of band-aids and had another paper cut—occupational hazard from handling the hundreds of papers his college students turned in. With his index finger wrapped in a napkin, he took long strides, wanting to quickly walk the three blocks there. He nearly stepped on something. He looked down. In the middle of the sidewalk was a small bird’s nest. Nathan picked it up. There were no trees anywhere nearby, so how did it get there, he wondered. The nest was empty.
It wasn’t until the weekend when he was at Walmart buying new socks, he picked a bargain CD out of a bin for $2.99, “Johnny Cash Greatest Hits”— which was his father’s favorite artist, and his own, because as a kid he’d stand in the driveway watching his dad work with tools on a truck’s engine while “A Boy Named Sue” or “Ring of Fire” floated in the air from inside the garage—Nathan got inside his car in the parking lot, peeled off the tight plastic wrapping, opened the CD case eager to pop in some music, and found the case empty. He couldn’t ignore the strangeness any more.
The next morning before heading to the college he pulled a dictionary off his shelf. He looked up the word coincidence. “Exact correspondence in substance or nature” and “a concurrence of events with no apparent connection.” The word that jumped out at him was “correspondence.” Nathan looked up the word correspondence. “A close connection. A similarity. A communication or message sent or received.”
His father and mother divorced when Nathan was twelve, so amidst the normal chaos of adolescence the emotional earthquake of a family split intensified teen tectonics. His father moved away, took a job somewhere else. Nathan rarely saw him, and his mother discouraged long-distance visits. She also worked on her young son’s mind to create false memories and paint a portrait of a negligent, hard-drinking, and callous father. And when his father let the train run over him in the middle of a September night, and Nathan’s mother explained what had happened, Nathan felt more than just an earthquake. He couldn’t help imagining what it felt like to have a train crushing your body or why anybody would choose to die that way. For years after, the quaking, exploding, tremors— whatever word might come close—kept him awake nights and tortured him into self-destructive behavior such as drinking and drugs, and eventually pushed him toward the decision, nudged by his mother, to replace his name. He buried Blake Graham in a deep hole inside his chest.
For the whole week, Nathan was distracted. He had trouble getting through his classes. He couldn’t grade papers. He felt as if he were sleepwalking through the days. He hardly slept, didn’t have much appetite, and kept noticing other things: a plastic water bottle in a twenty-four pack he’d bought at the grocery without any water; a malted milk ball he bit into with just chocolate and no hardened milk center; a peanut shell he cracked open sitting on a stool at his favorite bar, Rocky’s, without a nut.
Nathan’s father was a simple man, he thought. At least those were his memories of him. He worked on cars, smoked cigars, and watched football. He had been a landscaper in summers and snow remover in winters. Manly stuff. Nathan remembered how his hands were always cracked and creased, black grime permanently lodged under his nails. His mother used to scold his dad about it.every morning during coffee and every night during supper.
“Damn, Leo, can’t you at least clean your hands! It looks like you’ve been digging crud your whole life.”
He remembers his father lifting coffee to his lips, thick fingers wrapped around a white mug. “Well, sweetest petunia, these hands are what bring home the bacon. Besides, a man should have a little grit and grime on him. Or would you rather I manicured and held my cup with a pinky sticking out like some fruitcake?”
His mother would sometimes let up, just huff, but sometimes not.
“Come on, Leo. It’s disgusting to look at when we’re trying to eat. Conjures all sorts of disgusting thoughts.”
“Like what, for instance?”
Now they’d be looking right at each other, eyes sending out beams of searing anger like death-rays in some science fiction Martian movie.
“Like you scratching up deep somewhere in private where the sun don’t shine. Or wiping without toilet paper. Or you…”
“Shut up. The boy is sitting right here between us. Do you have a brain in your head?”
The landscaping and snow removal business had been declining every year. There was just too much competition. Nathan remembered his father taking part-time jobs, once giving him a ride in a taxi when he briefly filled-in driving for a sick friend. This increased tensions between his parents, the squabbling intensified. Lack of money, dirty fingernails—it all added up.
Then one day, the talk when they sat him down.
“Son, your mother and I have decided it would be best for me to move out. We just don’t get along, I know you know. We’re nicer when we’re apart. Hell, two angry birds need their own space to fly so they can maybe turn nicer. It would be best for you, too. You must be sick of all the squawking around here.”
“Yes, Blake. Your father is right for once in his sorry life. And it has nothing to do with you. Don’t you ever think that. This is between your father and me.”
So it went. Like so many other families all over. Nathan knew that the settings might be slightly altered, the key players different, but the basic drama was universal. Most of his own friends had come from divorced families. Then his father moved out. Moved from upstate New York to southern Ohio to take a job with an old pal who owned a tire repair shop. Then his pal’s business went under and his father was hired at a local grocery store loading and unloading food delivery trucks.
For a while, Nathan received letters, cards, and packages from his dad. In fact, his father seemed more expressive than he had ever been when he lived in the same house. Maybe, Nathan thought at the time, the old truth was in play—how a person who loses something suddenly tries hard to get it back. Maybe his father felt guilty about leaving. Maybe his father was doing it all just to feel better about himself. At first, Nathan would sometimes call and thank him, once even wrote a letter back. But then Nathan started to resent how his father ran out. He should have stayed to fight it out, he thought. The correspondence slowed down, eventually stopped.
Nathan remembered the last thing his father had sent him. It was a small box with muscle car magazines, candy bars—and one strange item: a fortune cookie. In the enclosed note, his father wrote:
They were handing out fortune cookies at the store, promoting some new Chinese noodle lunch packs. I took one and thought of you. My future doesn’t matter much, but yours does. I hope it’s a good one!
Nathan tore open the plastic wrapper, then broke the cookie open. He pulled out the tiny slip of paper and read: Freedom is not the bird’s flight, but its decision whether or not to fly. Nathan remembered not understanding, thinking what a stupid fortune. Of course, now he only vaguely recalled it having something to do with a bird, or flying. He crumpled the paper and crammed the tasteless cookie chunks into his mouth, crunching. A week later, his mother greeted him at the kitchen table with the news.
Nathan was not superstitious, but if his dead father was trying to send him some kind of message, trying to correspond after all these years, what was he trying to tell him? Empty things, things missing, things suddenly turning blank or silent. Or was it something other than his father trying to connect with him? Was he crazy to even consider such notions?
It was a little after nine in the morning, a Saturday, and Nathan sat drinking coffee on his couch that he had strategically placed to face the small window looking out onto the street. The window was round unlike most windows, like the porthole of a ship. He wondered if the architect had been a naval man. From outside the round windows gave the building a uniquely odd appearance. He listened to the muffled sounds of passing cars and gazed up at a dirty gray sky. The view was lousy but he was grateful to at least have this small opening which he sometimes imagined was the apartment’s eye or nostril or ear from which inside the room’s skull he peeped out. He was a prisoner of the apartment’s brain, he’d think to himself, trapped behind bony walls. He’d leave the apartment and continue the little drama, pretending to escape, finally free, standing on the sidewalk looking back at the apartment building which resembled a hulking brick beast.
Nathan gulped the last of his coffee, grabbed his leather jacket, and headed out. He did not stop this time, but did look over his shoulder at his small window, that today resembled a pore in the bricks’ skin allowing the beast’s rust-brown body to breathe. Then he looked again, and noticed it may have been the blow-hole of the building, the kind a whale has. He thought if this were a one-act play it might be called “The Man Who Thought Way Too Much about a Window.”
He probably thought way too much about everything. That was his problem. So what that his parents divorced? So what that his father killed himself? So what that things happen without any real explanation? Maybe that was the message his father was trying to send him: to stop trying to make sense of it all, just let the mystery of living unfold. Maybe that was the real fortune in those cookies written on invisible paper in invisible ink. He just couldn’t see them. Then he caught himself thinking about the blank paper in the envelope, the nest, the TV, the radio, the other things. “There you go again, asshole,” he actually said out loud to himself as he strode looking down at sidewalk cracks. “There you go like an obsessed lunatic.”
Or maybe, he thought, he was just not smart enough to figure out little clues that most people would easily decipher. He imagined his father orchestrating the recent doings, starting with the fortune cookies, getting frustrated that his son wasn’t “getting it.” He saw his father rolling his eyes somewhere, probably thinking his son would have to be hit over the head with a hammer before he understood.
Nathan slapped himself on both cheeks with the palms of each hand. “Stop thinking, dammit.” He looked up and saw a crow on a phone line looking down at him. “My dad disguised to spy on me.” He slapped himself again.
Outside Chang’s, Nathan stopped to look into the big front window. It was still early for lunch and he watched workers setting tables, one sweeping with a broom. The special today, hand-printed with red ink on poster-size paper behind glass, read: Sweet and Sour Fortune Cookie Chicken and Orange Sesame Fortune Cookie Cupcakes. Nathan moved closer to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. He read more: In honor of National Fortune Cookie Day. It was September 13. He had never heard of such a holiday. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said out loud. In smaller print at the bottom: The first fortune cookie was invented in 1920 at the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, California.
“Wow, my dad is using that hammer now,” Nathan thought. “OK, dad, you want me to do something, what is it? Go inside and order the special? Or is this a test? Let’s see, you want me to keep walking and forget about it? You want me to have lunch but resist the temptation of anything having to do with fortune cookies and order something else? You want me to go to Walmart and buy another Johnny Cash CD? You want me to say I’m sorry? You want me to forgive you?”
The door of Chang’s opened and a young Chinese man with blond-dyed hair and a stud earring poked his head out. “We’ll be open in a few minutes. Happy Fortune Cookie Day!”
Nathan nodded. Then he looked back to the crow, but the crow was gone.
“A group of crows is called a murder,” Nathan thought. “Maybe a single crow is a suicide.”
A young couple came up and paused looking at the poster in the window. The man in a black beret and woman with one long ponytail read, then simultaneously looked at each other and said, “National Fortune Cookie Day?” They broke up laughing, then looked over at Nathan.
“If this were a one-act play, what would you call it?” Nathan asked the couple. They looked at each other again, slightly confused. Then Nathan walked away, passing shops, crossing streets, weaving in and out of bodies on sidewalks, sometimes looking up at the phone lines wondering about that crow, not sure where he was going, but the day was crisp and the further he walked his head felt—at least for now—suddenly clear.
Philip Kobylarz has been published in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. His collection of fiction, Now Leaving Nowheresville has been recently published and his book-length essay “Nearest Istanbul” is forthcoming.
What’s On The Other Side Of Doors
You always hurt the one you love, so they say. Maybe they meant the one you love is always hurt. For some, it’s like trying to write a letter in the rain. The kind of rain it rains when the sun is shining, tucking in and out of grey weather clouds. The kind of rain that feels cold at first, then becomes warm as it soaks into the skin, like a bitter liquor falling down the throat. Maybe it’s more like gardening with someone like a sister: bending down, getting dirty, digging holes, with nothing to say to each other about that vague conception called a family, plans for the future, sibling small talk and advice, and simply working some good fingernail clogging, back breaking work that’s more about the spaces created between stalks and holes in the ground than the growth of something flowery and green. Or it’s like waiting for the mailman on a day when there’s nothing to do—knowing his name (only the first) and about the time he comes, knowing he’ll be wearing the same clothes that he is by law required to wear, knowing he’ll look just like he did yesterday only a little less or a little more tired, knowing that someone maybe he doesn’t even know or care to delivers his mail and wondering if he makes the same types of gestures, on Saturdays, to him, a forced hello how are you, a smile that says you have something that’s important for me to want, then to watch him go to the next house, and the next, in an unending series of lawns, shrubbery, sidewalks that finally results in his own, to a kiss from a hardworking lover and a few gurgled cheers from a baby almost old enough to talk, and a pile of bills, flyers, car payment booklets, summons to court, alimony checks, subscriptions to paper-covered magazines all sent to the wrong address.
Issue 1.1: Summer 2012
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