Dead Women (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Dead Women

The dead women are the topic of conversation at dinner. One in a dumpster. One, a hunter found, in the wooded swamp outside of town. One, with a hand that had fallen open, palm asking please, please don’t forget me. One in a river, three in the swamp. Some degraded beyond recognition. The most recent, on the side of I-10. All together eight women, all of them sex workers, white girls and black girls, found in Jennings, New Iberia, Iowa, Louisiana.

It is not the conversation for polite company, but Moira and John pride themselves on the subversive. Of course, these dead women will be discussed over moderately priced cabs.

I love this about them.

Moira and John host: Moira, a history professor at the local university, and John, a chemical engineer at one of the plants. Some of the guests, I know, and some I do not.

It is the end of Moira’s semester, and they were so happy when I arrived. They demanded I stay the night. You could head out first thing. You could at least have coffee with us. Once, I would have acquiesced, but tonight I’m only thinking of my trip back home, willing myself to stay sober enough to drive. Just an hour, east on I-10, a straight shot home to Lafayette.

On the table sits a big bowl of potato salad, yellow and shining. I watch it while the others stand around the table, chatting and watching Moira and John. Moira has tight, dark curls, and a face that isn’t quite pretty. She is smart and loud and funny, so it doesn’t matter.

From the corner where I stand in the dining room, I can see Moira standing over the stove, telling her husband that the pot is too hot to set on the table.

“A towel?” she yells. “It’ll burn through.”

“Who’s the scientist, Doctor?” John replies. John is tall and all arms and legs. He towers over Moira who looks up at him with her hands on her hips.

I take a seat at the table, put my purse on the chair back, and stare at a bottle of wine. I want more but think of the cops monitoring the highway home.

Finally, John marches out of the kitchen, holding the boil pot with potholders on both of his hands. Moira fusses behind him with a hot plate and a towel. She puts the hot plate down, just by the potato salad, then drapes the towel across it and folds it back over, a sacred ceremony. She gestures to her husband: put the damn pot down.

There is comfort in the steaming pot, the scent of the thick broth, of venison sausage, of pulled chicken.

“Sit!” Moira commands the guests. They mill about, make moves toward the table. “Go sit by Erin,” Moira pushes a man near my age. He is also tall and thin, a young John with shaggy hair. He looks down but obeys. I feel my phone buzz in my purse, against my chair back. Maybe it is Sam. I want to get home to him.

Moira carries bowls of rice from the kitchen and places them in front of people at the table. All together, we are twelve.

With my bowl in front of me, I ignore the man to my side and ladle gumbo into my bowl. I take a large spoon of potato salad and throw it on top. The first bite is life-affirming. No decision I make today is so crucial that it can’t be changed. It is thick and silky and salty.

Moira hovers over the table, making sure everyone has filled a bowl before she fills her own. John watches his wife. Brown, gravy dots his beard.

“Erin, Adam, Adam, Erin,” Moira says, taking her seat at the head of the table. Adam is the man beside me. “Adam is John’s nephew and a Chemical Engineer too. He interviewed at Citgo yesterday.”

I smile, and he gives a small wave.

“I’m not sure I want to leave Texas.”

Moira waves this away. “You’ll love it here.”

He starts to speak, but someone yells down the table to Moira.

“The girl on the highway, her throat was slit. Who do you think killed her?”

“Her arms were covered in bruises,” says someone else.

I feel a creeping feeling in my stomach, drawing away the heat from the gumbo. I refill my wine glass a third time.

Moira shakes her head. “Conspiracy.”

“Serial killer!” John calls from the kitchen. “It’s a serial killer. All of those girls dead in a thirty-mile radius.”

Moira crosses her arms and sits back. “Her throat was slit. Someone didn’t want her to speak.”

“We are talking about eight dead prostitutes, Moira. Doesn’t that sound like a Jack the Ripper?”

She waves her arms at him. She is drunk. “Their innards aren’t decorating the highway. Serial killers like a show.”

“I’m glad I’m not a young woman,” one of the other teachers says. “They are almost all under 30.”

“It’s a cover up,” says Moira. “You have to know these towns. That many dead girls?”

Women, I think. I do not want to think about dead girls or dead women. I want to think about Sam who wanted me to stay home to begin with. His wife is out of town for the whole weekend. I’m not too drunk to drive, I think. I know which exits the cops hang out at. I resolve to stick to the speed limit.

 

I knew about the previous murders. I wasn’t afraid. They were all sex workers; they worked out of the same hotel. They had rap sheets, drug habits. Crimes like this just remind you that they can happen, not necessarily to you.

The guests carry on.

“The Lafayette paper said –”

“Yes, but did you read—”

They mention neck bruises, the particular mix of semen in the vagina, the dirt and blood under the nails.

“Our paper says it’s a serial killer”

“Parish cops are not incorruptible.”

My stomach turns again. This morning, Sam asked me why I wanted to hang out with “those old people.” We were lying in my bed, his arm around my shoulders, his other hand moving slowly down my stomach. I didn’t bother mentioning that he was closer to their age than mine.

“They’re my friends,” I said. “I haven’t seen them in months. Come with me.”

Sam laughed at this. Of course, he wasn’t going to come.

“I’m going,” I said.

“What about the slit throat?” This question brings me back to this dinner, which now feels as if it will never end. I want my little studio apartment. I want to curl up with Sam, spend a slow Sunday morning with sunny-side eggs and black coffee.

I think about my apartment: my own, without roommates, above a garage, one big room and a tiny bathroom. I feel years have passed since I lived in Lake Charles, even though it has just been one. My parish job pays more than any job before. I don’t miss the years I spent in Lake Charles: grad school and then low-paying jobs. It was easy living, late dive bar nights, weekends at camp houses on Big Lake, a far cry from my Tennessee home.

The apartment, now, is my haven, full of crazy, mid-century furniture inherited from an aunt: a wooden cabinet with an art deco inlay, two short, puffy little chairs that almost curved all the way around you, a wooden desk with hairpin legs. I bought a couch and a bed for myself. It is cozy. I love it because it is my own, because I have the entire say in how it looks, because I can see every corner at once. It feels safe. Amidst the chatter of murder and conspiracy theories, I want nothing more than to be home, door locked to the world outside.

“Hellooo.” Moira is standing at the head of the table. “Erin?”

“Sorry, what?”

“What do you think? Serial killer or conspiracy?”

“It’s really grim isn’t it?” I ask. “Talking about them at dinner.”

“It’s current events.” She is not the least bit worried.

“I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it.”

“You should wildly speculate like the rest of us.” John is smiling, sensing my unease.

“I’m a historian, John. My job is to wildly speculate on events. These just happen to be very recent events.” The attention turns back to Moira and John, and everyone laughs. John gets up to grab another bottle of wine.

I take a sip of my wine. Adam says, quietly, “it is grim, isn’t it? I saw the news, but I hadn’t really thought of it until now.”

“I hadn’t either. I should, but I don’t want to.” Thinking too hard might bring me somewhere unsafe.

He puts a hand on the back of my shoulder. It is warm and friendly. The others start to get up from the table, moving to help in the kitchen or sit on the couch.

I glance at Moira; she is oblivious, talking to John, gesturing with her entire body.

“Do you want more wine?” Adam moves his hand to his own empty wine glass.

“I have to drive back to Lafayette.”

“Tonight?”

“My boyfriend wants me back.”

I watch the implication cross his face.

“Moira led me to believe otherwise.”

“She doesn’t know.”

“Complicated?”

I nod and take another sip of my wine. I close my eyes to taste it, let it burn the back of my throat.

“Maybe stay?” he says.

“I’m going to get some air,” I say.

I stand on the back patio, wishing I was a smoker with a reason to be outside. The bricks on the patio are sweating in the December humidity, it’s still above 60 degrees outside and as humid as a swimming pool. I draw a line in the condensation with my foot. I feel too tipsy to drive right now. I worry in an abstract way, that there are too many things to manage, to think about.

I look around their yard. It’s dark, but the patio’s floodlights cast harsh bright stripes on the yard. There are stakes in the garden for tomatoes, but no vines. Beyond the garden, the low chain-link fence cannot hide where the land slopes into bayou. Cattails grow haphazardly. The water ripples at a disturbance. I shiver, thinking of womens’ bodies settling into the murk. I take one deep breath and turn to go inside.

Inside, I pass the guest room where the door is only half shut. Adam is in there; his shirt off, his back to me, and I can see the broad definition of his shoulders. I feel a sudden ache, and I want to crawl to him. He could curl around me. I stand and watch him a second longer, dead silent. He starts to turn, and I run to the bathroom.

I look at my face in the mirror, flushed red with smudged eyeliner. The humidity had melted my face. I squeeze some toothpaste out on my finger, then put it in my mouth and swish it around. I spit, run some water on toilet paper, and wipe off the makeup under my eyes. I check my phone, no word from Sam, but his existence feels like a heavy weight all around me.

*

            I finally leave around 11:30 with that hour drive ahead. I feel sober. On the way to the highway, I drive through the downtown strip: lots of young people are out in front of the bars drinking and smoking. From the car, they all look beautiful and happy. For a second, I want to stop and join them. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

The highway calms me down. There are few other cars, and the road is well-lit and freshly paved. Why had they insisted on talking about those girls in that vague, glib way of people drinking? Of academics, always at a distance, always analyzing, asking everyone to zoom out.

I call Sam to let him know I am on my way. No answer, and I leave a message. Hey, I’m headed home, you coming over?

The stretch of I-10 between Lafayette and Lake Charles is completely flat, lined by rice fields and littered by fast food restaurants. I know the stretch by the exits: Iowa, Welsh, Jennings, Crowley, Scott. Otherwise, there is little to tell each mile apart. Almost midnight, the streetlights along the highway grow intermittent. Not all of them work. Any traffic has thinned. My mother would tell me to watch out for drunk drivers. Moira told me to watch out for drunk drivers as I left. She had been faux-enraged that I was leaving. “We have everything you could need here! Look at this handsome nephew! If you have to leave, take this food!” The highway stretches infinitely ahead. I try Sam again.

The phone rings, and all I see is Adam, shirtless, back turned. We had barely spoken, but the appeal of this new person is easy, all potential, no baggage and dead weight. I shake him from my head, shake away the option. Sam wants me back tonight. I like that about him, that he wants me close, whether or not he stays the night with me. Still no answer on the line.

I begin to worry, just a little. He can get so irritated when I don’t answer, and our plan is to meet at my apartment, assuming all went well with his wife. Or, as well as it could. He would stay with me for a week or two. It had felt like a good idea to be out of town when he told her, though now I wish I had just stayed home. I don’t know much about his wife; she is a dentist. I can care less about her the less I know about her. Sam doesn’t talk about her much, unless it is to say he can’t get away for the evening.

I realize I have been driving in silence when I pass the Welsh exit. I find the Cajun station; it is playing Zydeco, which is usually irritating. Right now, though, the accordion, the nasally butchered French lyrics are a comfort. They lighten the night.

When I see the Jennings exit ahead, police lights flashed red and blue in my rearview mirror, as if on cue,

“Fuck,” I say. I slow, as I drive up an overpass to park under the streetlight at the top. To my right, the gas stations and fast food restaurants off the exit ramp are bright and not too far away. I stop the car and watch the cop in the rearview mirror, typing into his computer, doing whatever cops do for ages before they finally get out of their vehicles. I am sober; I am certain. I don’t see any other cars on the horizon.

“Fuck,” I say again. I chug an old plastic bottle of water, watching him in the rearview mirror, swishing it in my mouth. The water tastes like plastic. I think of my apartment and its safety. I look out into the night: the low-lit highway, the haze of humidity, the lingering exhaust. This is too vulnerable. This is unsafe.

He gets out slowly, and I can see his beer belly as he shuts his car door. A car races by on the interstate, but he doesn’t even look at it. I take my eyes off of him to watch the car ride away; its taillights shrink to faint red dots on the horizon. I roll down my window; it is still humid out. The moisture billows into my car. I can smell exhaust and tar and wet grass. I reminded myself what I am doing, where I am going, who I am.

“Ma’am” he says.

“Yes?”

“You’ve got Tennessee plates?”

I try to make these words make sense.

“Sorry?”

“Your license plate, it’s not local. Are you from Tennessee?”

“Oh,” I say. “Yes, I moved to Lafayette not too long ago. There was so much to do. I hadn’t thought about them.” Mostly true, I did completely forget about my plates. The car is still in my mother’s name, though I have lived in this state for almost four years. I realize I have avoided the hassle of tickets or getting pulled over my whole life here.

“You need to do that. How do you like Louisiana?”

“Oh,” I start, wondering where this is going. “It’s good.” I try and stop a shiver.

“Good. I’ve never been to Tennessee. What brings you down here?”

“Work.” I try to say it cheerily. My cell phone buzzes once on the console.

“What kind of work do you do?”

I will another vehicle to pass by, for it to be daylight. I want to have made different choices. Sweat pools under my legs on my car seat. I feel it drip from behind my knees.

“Social services,” I finally say. “Social work.”

“You definitely have a Tennessee accent. Have you spent any time in Jennings?”

“I haven’t.”

“You should visit sometime. We got better gumbo than Lafayette.” The fear of a DUI dissipates, but a new one creeps up my spine. I do not want to talk about gumbo on the side of a highway after midnight.

I think of the dead women in Jennings, about Moira’s suspicions of police corruption. A couple of cops had been taken off the force, and it was rumored to be related. That was what someone said at dinner. Or maybe they were on extended leave? Did they always get everyone though? That was the thing about corruption. It runs deep.

“I guess I will.” My phone begins vibrating again on the console. “My husband is probably worrying about me. It’s so late.”

The cop frowns. A truck speed by; my car shudders faintly in its wake.

I swallow and put on my serious voice that I use for clients: “did you want anything?”

“I noticed your plates. You need to change them. It’s a residency requirement.” His casual chat has turned abrupt.

“Yes sir,” I say.

The silence hangs thick between us. I barely dare to breathe.

“Can I go?” I finally ask.

He nods slowly and turns back to his vehicle but doesn’t walk away.

“You should come to Jennings sometime. I’m Mike.”

I look up and out of the window to see him. He isn’t looking at me; he is looking out over the splendors of the exit, at the Shell and Tobacco Plus, Popeye’s and McDonald’s. His hands are on his hips, which makes his belly poke out even more.

“Ok,” I say, quietly.

Mike takes a step toward his car and looks back at me. The right side of his face is illuminated by the lights. He looks sad, maybe. Then, he turns again and walks away.

I move slowly inside my car, scared to move too fast and catch his attention. I put my foot on the brake, slide the car into gear, then nudge the gas. My car moves easily, as if it knows slow movements will calm me.

*

 My apartment is an over-the-garage, mother-in-law suite, separate from the main house where a family with young children lives. They were happy to rent the apartment to a young professional who was no longer a partying college student. When I pull up in the driveway, the garage floodlight switches on. On the left side of the garage, a wooden staircase leads up to my small deck and door. The porch light is also on. I feel relief to think that Sam must be there.

I turn off the car and grab my purse and the grocery bags with leftovers that Moira sent with me.

Inside, Sam is sitting on my round little chair, and the floor lamp next to him is off. I can only see shadows on his face.

“You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

“I got pulled over.” I put my bags down by the door. “It was really weird.”

“Sure.”

“What?”

“Pulled over? You drive like a mawmaw.”

“I know. It was weird.” The back of my neck prickles.

I walk over to him and lean to give him a kiss. He turns his head to the side. I turn on the lamp next to him and look at him, his long, pronounced features, his Roman nose, his high cheekbones. He gazes at some spot on the floor, away from me.

“Are you okay?” I go to pick up the bags and start to put the food away.

“Fine.”

It strikes me suddenly that Sam is drunk. I can smell it now, like a switch has flipped. He doesn’t drink often, but now the scent of whiskey is everywhere. I open the fridge.

“Do you want something to eat? Eggs or toast or something?” I pull out the eggs.

He crosses his arms. “Where were you?”

“I told you. I called when I left Lake Charles. I got pulled over in Jennings.”

“Where’s your ticket?”

“I didn’t get one. It was weird. It was like he just wanted to talk to me.”

Sam stands up. “What happened with the cop?”

“He just asked me a bunch of questions.”

“And let you go?” He says this as if it was the most preposterous thing he has ever heard.

“What’s going on Sam?”

“Was he hot?”

I put the eggs on the counter. “What the hell, Sam.”

He stands over me, a good six inches taller, thin, wiry muscles.

“Was. He. Hot?”

“What the fuck kind of question is that? Jesus Christ. Getting home was hell. You need to drink some water.”

In a second, he has both of my arms in his hands, tight. I pull away, but he grips them firmly. “Just answer me.” I start moving.

“Let go.”

“Answer me, and I’ll let go.”

I look up in his eyes, they are dark and blank. His brow is wrinkled, furrowed.

“No, he wasn’t hot, Sam. He had a beer belly. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he wanted something from me. I don’t know. He let me go. I’m here. What else do you want?”

“The fucking truth, Erin.” He let me go, like he could throw my arms to the floor.

“What happened with Regina?” I move toward him, but I can tell by his face he’s told her nothing.

“I want you to tell me why you took so long to get home. Did you meet someone at Moira’s? Cops don’t just let people go without a ticket that late at night.”

“You need to leave.” I say it firmly, tiredly.

Before I can move, he has both hands around my neck, and I’m against a wall. I try to push his chest, to slap at him, but he is stronger than I can ever be. I cough, choke, struggle for breath. I think of the dead women. How someone was close enough to them to bruise them, to slit their throats. Even if it was a stranger, a serial killer, they had to trust them enough to get that close.

I gasp for breath and let out a ragged scream. Against all logic, I hope the family does not hear me. I think how I do not even want the police to help. Sam loosens his grip and shakes his head. I put my arms between his and push them off of me. His shoulders slump, and he will not look at me.

“Sit down,” I say. “I’ll make you some food.” I watch him walk toward the table and sit, still gazing down.

*

Earlier, when I was leaving Moira’s house, John had walked me to my car.

“You okay, kiddo?”

“I’m okay. Just a lot going on.”

“Ignore her. She thinks she knows what’s best for everyone. You don’t have to see Adam, we’ll still invite you over.”

I laughed. I had wanted to tell him everything. That I was dating a married man, that he was leaving his wife for me, that I found his possessiveness exhilarating and at times a too much. That I was terrified to leave, to head home, but that my home was the only place I wanted to be. That I was completely spooked.

“Invite me over next time he’s in town,” I said.

John gave me a hug and opened my car door for me.

“Be safe out there,” he said.

*

I put a frying pan on the hot plate and crack the eggs into a pint glass. I hold each end of the egg between my finger and my thumb and tap it once on the countertop. Then, I break the egg into the glass. I add a little water and beat the eggs with a fork.

“I didn’t tell Regina,” he says from the table.

I keep beating the eggs. I don’t look at him.

“Why not?” The pan is hot, and I pour in the eggs, throw shredded cheese on top.

“I can’t.”

I keep cooking. Maybe the cop had just wanted to talk to someone. Maybe Sam had just had too much.

For the first time all night, I feel not fear or anxiety, but anger.

“Why didn’t you tell her, Sam?”

I hear him inhale, but he doesn’t answer, and I don’t turn around. I finish the eggs and turn off the heat, lifting the pan. I feel the creeping feeling in my neck again, and I whirl around.

I know that Sam is right behind me. I know that the pan hits his arm. He yells, almost a bark, and I strike him again with the pan, maybe on the shoulder. The eggs are on the floor in a glistening mess. I grip the pan and breathe heavily. Sam stares at me and clutches his arm with his other hand. We stand, staring at each other: me, with my back to the stove, and Sam, with the rest of my apartment behind him. I feel the adrenaline course through me; I see how his eyes cannot focus.

I feel anger and power and powerlessness and sadness, and I try to make a decision. I will put the pan down and leave the eggs. I will run cold water over a rag and put it on Sam’s arm. I will send him to his car, and that will be it. I will leave him to explain his injuries, to account for his own scars, to make his own choices about his marriage. I will keep moving forward. I will make it.

Tomorrow, Moira would call to check on me. She would share more rumors and speculation. The murders would never be solved. Moira would invite me over. I would never make that late-night drive again. Maybe I would let Adam wrap his arms around me. Maybe I would always choose something safe over something exhilarating. Maybe not. Maybe I would give in to impulse again and again. I had to own my story. I knew I controlled it. This was my only power.

I put down the pan, but keep my eyes on Sam. I get out a rag, turn on the faucet, and feel the cool water run over my hand.


Allie Mariano’s writing has appeared in CutBankThe Citron ReviewAnother Chicago Magazine, New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune, and other places. This year, her short story collection, Dead Women and Other Stories was a finalist for the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found biking in the Ouachita Forest.

Young Americans (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Young Americans

What was the one thing he couldn’t do without? Like, if he was stuck on a desert island forever. He knew his answer right away but took a few moments to ponder so he didn’t seem so strident. “A pencil and a sketchbook, I think.”

“Sorry,” Raquel said, “but that’s two things. The point is, you can only choose one.”

Harry smirked at her, so alert in her posture at the driver’s wheel. A textbook pose from her drivers-ed class. “You can’t have one without the other–they’re an essential pairing.”

“I don’t make the rules, dad. Only one thing.”

“Well, if it’s a desert island, I guess I only need a stick, so I can draw in the sand.”

She threw her head back and laughed without taking her eyes off the road. “You can say anything in the world, and all you want is a stick?”

He showed his palms. “Hey, I’m a simple man. What would you choose, a graphing calculator?”

She peeled her eyes off the road to roll them at him. With her math mind and zeal for detail–about to embark on a degree in civil freaking engineering–she would surely be able to build a beautiful house on her desert island. But maybe he’d sounded sarcastic? He was about to take it back when she said, “I need my music.”

“So an iPod or something?”

“Just a device with all my music on it, that never runs out of power.”

“Don’t you also need headphones? That’s two things.”

“No, it’s just a device that plays any music I want, any time I want.”

“So a transistor radio, with an infinite library of tunes.”

“I guess so, but it has really good sound.”

“So you invented a magical device with access to every song ever recorded, but I can’t have a sketchbook to go with my pencil?”

She made an I-regret-to-inform you face at the road and shrugged. It was the kind of conversation that could last them all the way to California, which was the whole point of this road trip–a last bout of father-daughter bonding before she vanished into college and California and adulthood. He didn’t know if she was feeling as melancholy about it as he was–how could she, with all the excitement and possibility?–but he felt like he was visiting a beloved house for the last time, turning off the lights, closing all the doors.

Movement in the mirror caught his eye with a spike of adrenaline: a truck’s grill and headlight completely filling the sideview. He twisted around to look out the hatchback. The front end of a very large late-model Ford pickup surged at the window, less than a car-length back.

Raquel, both hands gripping the wheel, shot glances in her rearview. “Holy shit, he came out of nowhere.”

“He’s way too close,” Harry said, teeth clenched. Their cruise control was set at 65, precisely the speed limit on this gently curving stretch of desert highway. The center line was dashed, with no oncoming traffic, and there was no reason why the truck couldn’t just pass. Harry lowered his window. Wind battered their cocoon as he jutted an arm out to wave them around.

The truck fell back then gunned ahead, coming within inches of their back bumper. “Steady, Raqui.” He reached over to kill the cruise control. “Let it slow by itself. Hands on the wheel, nice and steady.”

The truck fell back again, then surged forward and cut sharply to the side. With a burst of throaty engine roar, it passed. Someone in the passenger seat banged on the truck’s door as it zoomed by, with shouts that were torn away in the wind. With an abrupt lurch, it pulled back into their lane and sped away, middle fingers flying from both windows.

“Jesus,” Raquel said, slumping but keeping her hands locked at ten and two.

“You’re fine,” Harry said in a calm voice even as his heart slammed. “You did great. Just slow down and let him get some distance.”

“You should’ve wished for a gun instead of a stick.”

           *

            They pulled off at the next town to switch drivers, and ended up scarfing a dinner of beef jerky, corn chips, and soda pop on a picnic table beside a gas station. A galaxy of moths pinwheeled around the Conoco sign in the twilight. Harry was counting off in his head how many more meals he was going to have with his daughter. This might be their second-to-last one, he thought as he chewed. In two days, everything would be different and irreversible. He didn’t say anything about that, because why paint someone else with your own shadows?

It was another hour to Menden, the town where he’d reserved two rooms in a boutique hotel. Harry drove with his eyes flicking from shoulder to shoulder and mirror to mirror, alert for crossing animals and road warrior pickups. Antelope stood bright-eyed and frozen off in the brush, and small critters zipped across the pavement. He slowed when they came around a bend and saw the strobing lights of a police cruiser at the side of the road.

An ambulance was just pulling away, flashing and shrieking and heading back towards the freeway. Harry slowed to a crawl as a cop standing by the squad car’s bumper waved them past. Their heads swiveled as they went by. A compact car lay on its crushed roof at the end of a rutted debris trail about thirty feet off the road. Yellow caution tape demarcated the whole area.

“Dad,” Raquel breathed. He knew what she was thinking but he didn’t want to say it. She did. “Those assholes in the pickup ran somebody off the road!”

“You think so?”

“They were just looking for it.” She twisted around to stare at the wreckage even as Harry sped up. He wanted to tell her to look away and keep the sight of car wrecks out of her head, the same way he tried to ignore a TV in a bar. Why fill yourself with garbage and pain? But he didn’t want to nag. Besides, she had a good head on her shoulders; she could decide what she paid attention to. In the mirror, the ambulance sped away, a UFO streaking across the desert.

*

            Their hotel was a chintzy affair, in the only three-story building in downtown Menden. The town was a leafy oasis in a shallow valley, with lunar crags and mesas surrounding. They’d chosen the town as their stopover on the way to LA because of an article Harry had read about a thriving art gallery scene. “The Marfa of Utah,” the article had called it. A tiny community of ranchers and hippies, with a cabal of transplanted artsy weirdos that made the place feel like a sliver of SoHo relocated to a desert oasis. He knew that Raquel would have preferred to stick to the freeway and stay at a Comfort Inn, but she’d agreed to his plan since this would likely be their last road trip together. Artsy weirdos were his tribe, the way math freaks and programmers were hers.

Raquel disappeared into her adjoining room as soon as they got in. She wanted to check in with friends and get a good night’s sleep, so she’d be fresh for their last day of driving. “You should check in too,” she said, wiggling her phone. “Let her know you’ve been thinking about her.”

He waved his hand to dismiss that, but he’d been thinking all day about a short and clever message he could send to the woman he was planning to see in Santa Monica tomorrow night. He splashed cold water on his face, tousled his greying brush of hair, and pulled on a blazer to head out to Main Street, sketchbook in hand.

*

            A single ink line ascends a blank page, two-thirds of the way up, before cutting to the side to describe a gentle curve, then a collection of interlocking squares and rectangles. The tip of the pen never leaves the page, and its progress across the creamy paper never quickens or slows as it accumulates lines, turning back on itself, dipping into another curve, then finishing with a waving line embellished with tiny tassels.

When he finally lifted his pen, he took a sip of red wine and looked at what he’d done. A straight-backed rocking chair appeared to fly like a kite, high at the end of a string. He chewed his cheek and tap-tap-tapped his pen on the café table. The drawing was decipherable, but lacked zing! He turned the page, this time starting with a wavy ocean horizon across the bottom of the page before sending the string upwards again.

An hour passed, at the end of which he had five pages of flying rocking chair kites. Paging back through them, he found that the fourth one had something special: a looseness to the line, with a higher, smaller chair that really looked like it was pulling at the end of its tether in a landward breeze off the ocean. This was the one.

He pulled out his phone, propped the sketchbook up at an angle to catch the light, and snapped a photo. Then he zapped it off in a message to Jackie in Santa Monica, without explanation. The phone swooshed to confirm delivery.

The table where he sat in the back of the Café Cosmos appeared to be a marble and iron artifact transported here from a Parisian sidewalk brasserie, but it was the only table like that. All the furniture was mismatched, with tapestries and draperies hanging everywhere. Pinpoint Christmas lights gleamed like constellations embedded in the folds of fabric. An arched doorway looked over an outdoor terrace where more tables and chairs were arranged under a pergola that dripped with glowing webs of light.

Besides himself and the bearded man at the counter, the place was deserted. Sixties French pop grooved on the speakers. Gazing through the archway at the softly illuminated courtyard with its archipelago of tables, Harry had a feeling of dislocation. Was this Paris? Istanbul? Barcelona? It felt more like any of those places than a small town in the desert.

The man behind the bar said, “Oh my god!”

Harry glanced up. The guy stood behind the bar holding a phone to the side of his face, eyes wide. Then: “What!”

Their eyes met but the guy didn’t seem to be seeing him. He was fully submerged in whatever scandal was currently unfolding inside his ear. Presently he said, “Jesus, poor Deborah. Does she know yet?”

Harry felt his own adrenaline pumping out empathy for whatever this barista and Deborah were going through. He bent to a fresh page and started a new sketch–another rocking chair kite, this one flying even higher and more distant than the others, tossed by a swirling wind that pulled the string taut. He tried to block out the one-sided phone call. The barista finally wrapped up the conversation and killed the call. He stared at Harry. “Dude, do you drink?”

Harry glanced at his nearly empty wine glass. Before he could answer, the barista came out from behind the counter with a half-full bottle of Bulleit and two shot glasses. He took a seat at Harry’s table and poured two fat shots. He held his up and stared over the top of the shimmering booze with shining eyes. “To life,” he said.

Harry picked up the other shot, raised it. “To life.”

They swallowed and set the empty glasses back down with twin clicks.

The barista—long black hair framing a scruffy face, Jack Sparrow-esque with a scarf and bracelets and a paint-spattered shirt—nodded towards the counter. “That was a death notice.”

“A death notice?”

The barista waved at the archway that opened onto the terrace, a blank white wall on the far side. A scaffold there held paint buckets and tools. “The guy I hired to paint that wall–a muralist–he just got killed in a car wreck on 27.”

“Jesus. Highway 27?”

“Rollover accident, went through the windshield.” The barista poured two more shots.

“Wait–I was just on that highway a couple hours ago. I think I saw that wreck.”

“Completely dead,” the barista said, pouring and raising a fresh shot. “You never know.”

Harry raised his too. “You never do.”

The barista sighed and downed his shot. “Transformation, man.”

“Transformation,” Harry said, and drank.

*

                       That was the beginning of their transformation from sobriety into drunkenness. They finished the bottle of Bulleit and moved on to a bottle of Johnny Walker, taking occasional breaks to step onto the terrace and smoke a joint that the barista offered up. The guy’s name was Julio and he was originally from Juárez, but he’d grown up in the American southwest, and he’d opened this place just last year. He rose to attend to other tables when people trickled in, but always ended up back at Harry’s table where their shared bottle stood. They’d become boozy compatriots in solidarity against death. Julio tapped the closed sketchbook on the table between them. “Sorry, I cut your inspiration. What were you working on?”

“Have a look, if you like.”

Julio spent ten minutes paging through, making little twitches of surprise or interest. Finally he closed the book and narrowed his eyes at Harry. “You’re a real artist.”

“Well, it’s only a sketchbook. Just the raw stuff.”

“You’re a real artist, though. I can see it.”

“Actually, I’m the art director for a greeting card company. There isn’t as much art involved in that as you might think, but yeah. You could say I do art for a living.”

Julio watched him, a wry wrinkle at one corner of his mouth. His eyes glittered.

Harry knew what was coming next. He saw it as clearly as a sign along the side of the highway.

*

            Muted light throbbed behind the drawn hotel curtains as Raquel’s voice called from the hall. “Anybody alive in there?” she said, rapping on the door. Only when he dragged himself back to consciousness did he notice that his phone alarm was chirping. His head was splitting with the ghosts of wine and whiskey and weed. He couldn’t quite remember how the night had ended, only that he’d been out past midnight. And had he agreed to paint Julio’s damn mural? The sketchbook lay on the bedside table and he leafed through it. Several pages were torn out, raggedy edges along the spine.

He remembered that he’d sent Jackie a snapshot of a sketch, and when he checked his phone, he saw her reply: Am I the kite, or am I holding the string?

Yes, he replied with a dimple in his whiskered cheek.

Her response, moments later, was a googly-eyed smiley-face, every bit as ambiguous as his reply.

*

            Raquel laughed when she saw his face as he shuffled into the breakfast room. “Did you get hit by a truck last night?” she said, then sealed her lips, apparently realizing that the phrase was in poor taste after what they’d seen.

“I made a friend,” he said. He sloshed black coffee into a mug and slurped it down standing by the machine, then poured himself some more.

“How about I start us off driving?” she offered.

“Perfect–I can get caught up with my Instagramming.” He meant it as a joke, and grinned, but Raquel gave him an earnest smile and grabbed a couple of bananas from the fruit bowl. Was this what happened on the cusp of the empty nest? The teen transforms into an adult, and the parent regresses back into adolescence. It felt like that switcheroo had been happening for years now, but the pieces had finally clicked into place. All her life, Raquel had been a proto-adult, and Harry had been an overgrown kid. Time had simply sealed the deal.

*

            Harry swiped left, swiped right, swiped left again, as Raquel held their Prius to a steady 75 across the southern flank of Utah. “How about this one,” he said, reading glasses low on his nose as he read the Tinder profile aloud: “‘Social justice warrior bent on world domination via the synergy of good whiskey, hot jazz, and absurd conversation. Be as sharp as you are tall.’ Wow, I think she’s got my number.”

Raquel blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Dad, please–she sounds amazing, I’ll give you that–but don’t you think you ought to step away from the Tinder for a while? You’ve got a date lined up already. Don’t be a douche.”

“A douche! I’ve never been a douche!”

Raquel snorted. “Said every guy ever.”

Harry hooked an eyebrow at his daughter. “Have boys mistreated you? You never talk about that stuff.”

She scoffed. “Boys mistreat everybody. They’re boys.”

“Well, not every–”

“Dad! You don’t need to worry about me, honestly. Guys really don’t bother me anymore. I can handle myself.”

“Of course you can, Raqui, I know that.” He held his phone out for her to see the woman’s profile pic. “Look at her. She looks like Annie Hall.”

Raquel wouldn’t even glance at it. “My eyes don’t leave the road, dear father. Swipe left, and step away from the app.”

He sighed and clicked the phone off. “I’m just hedging my bets. Jackie could be a total bust.”

“Are these lines from your upcoming part in The Douche Dialogues?” Smirk.

“Okay okay, let’s just concentrate on driving.”

“And what about this ‘friend’ you made last night? What’s up with that?”

“It was just a dude. He owns the café across the street from the hotel.”

“So what if it’s a dude? Love is love.” More smirk.

“Raquel. The road.”

“I know. We’ve met.”

*

            Across a corner of Arizona, through a descending canyon of shipwreck cliffs, in and out of Las Vegas and then into the traffic-congested desert flats of outer California. Raquel stayed behind the wheel, fueled by bananas and corn chips. Harry’s date with Jackie was set for this very evening, 8 pm, on the Santa Monica pier. He hadn’t seen her since high school, until she’d improbably popped up on Harry’s Tinder when he set his location for Santa Monica in anticipation of this trip. He’d recognized her right away: the big eyes and heart-shaped face, the black curtains of long hair parted straight down the middle. She’d been a stoner freak in high school and Harry had been more a part of the goth weirdo crowd, but they’d connected through mutual friends and spent a season hanging out in her bedroom after school smoking and listening to mixtapes of Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend and Sisters of Mercy. Her natural beauty had intimidated the hell out of him, and he’d never made a move to kiss her, although it was nearly all he thought about during those autumn days. He was certain she never thought of him that way. Then she got a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle, and she wore leather pants and sleeveless Harley tees to school for the rest of the year. The deathrock afternoons came to an end. Senior year, she moved away, and he never saw her again–until he stared into her nearly unchanged face on Tinder twenty-five years later. “Haroldo!” she’d responded to his initial message, the only one who’d ever called him that. “You haven’t changed! Did you sell your soul to the Devil? How much did He give you?”

He’d changed plenty, of course. His hair was still thick, but it was entirely grey now. Still, his face was thin, but in a hollowed-out way. Were there really any traces of his 16-year-old self left? He peeked in the sideview mirror where the sun fell directly on his face. Death Valley unspooled all around. He looked haggard, dark under the eyes. Not just hungover but used up. Jackie was not going to even recognize him tonight. Maybe he should just cancel? What were they going to do anyway–sit on the pier and google deathrock tunes on their phones?

*

            The sun pinned them from above. Harry felt better after Barstow, but Raquel wanted to keep driving. He tried to engage her in conversation about her living arrangements, sharing a one-bedroom off-campus apartment with a girlfriend from high school, Priya, but Raquel kept her responses monosyllabic. He started to get the feeling that she wanted to be behind the wheel as an excuse for avoiding conversation. By this time next week, he’d be on the highway back home, alone, and he’d be childless. She’d be a grown person, out in the world, and all his biological duties for propagating the species would be over. “You know, Raqui,” he said, looking out over the plain of cacti marching off to the sun blasted horizon, “the finest line is knowing when to trust, and when to be on guard.”

She glanced at him, then scowled at the road.

“And at your age, you need to err on the side of being on guard.”

“Oh-kay.”

“I think I’ve been more of a friend than a dad these past few years, and that was probably a mistake. I’m sorry, sweetie.”

She glanced at him again, starting to look alarmed now. “Dad–I get it. But you have to get over mom.”

“What? I’m fine. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Don’t get all guilt-trippy about it, dad. You did the best you could–the best anyone could. We’re both going to be fine.”

He looked back at the cactus procession. “The best I could,” he said. It sounded like an epitaph. He kept quiet until they entered the outer freeways of LA.

*

            The hug and kiss that Priya gave Raquel when they arrived outside the apartment confirmed a suspicion in Harry’s mind. Raquel’s grin was supernatural, a vision of a long, rich future full of love and challenge and triumph.

They unloaded the car in a headlong rush, Raquel dumping her things in what was clearly Priya’s bedroom. The ocean was visible out the front window in a sliver of space between two buildings across the street, partially eclipsed by a leaning burst of palm trees. But the air was laced with sea salt and sunlight. Twilight flared over the water as Priya poured them each a shot of tequila. They toasted standing on the balcony where the landward breeze played with their hair. “To fathers,” Priya said.

“To the future,” Raquel said. She leaned into him and clinked her shot to a second time and said, softly, “To you, dad. Thank you.”

Harry grinned. “To love,” he said, and all three of them blushed, and downed their shots to hide it.

Raquel looked a degree of magnitude happier than he’d ever seen her, almost to the point of not being recognizable. For his part, he felt sadder than he’d almost ever felt, except for the days and weeks following his wife’s death. But tonight was a different kind of sadness, tinged with a certain satisfaction. He’d gotten his child this far, after all, and she was going to be all right. Even better–she was going to thrive. You could tell just by the look of her.

Dinner plans took shape quickly. Raquel and Priya were meeting friends of theirs at a local watering hole. Priya invited him, but Raquel put an arm around her roommate’s shoulders and said, “Actually, my dad’s got a hot date tonight.”

“Oh?” Priya said, eyes wide. “Who’s the lucky girl or guy?”

Harry waved a hand. “Just an old friend. We’re going to compare aches and pains.”

Raquel nudged Priya. “Old high school sweethearts–and she’s actually hot. I checked out her profile.”

The tiny apartment became a whirlwind of primping and Fiona Apple, and before he knew it the two girls were heading out. Harry realized that his last dinner with his daughter had already come and gone. He thought of that picnic table in the weeds beside the gas station in Nowhere, Utah, where they’d chowed beef jerky and Fritos, in what had turned out to be their last sit-down meal together as father and child. From here on out, they’d just be two adults. A stricken smile played on his face as first Raquel and then Priya give him a kiss on the cheek.

“Do twice as much listening as talking,” Priya said as she went out the door, finger in the air. “Make her feel respected.”

“Who?” Harry asked, bewildered.

“The hot date.”

“Ah, of course.”

Then they were gone and he was alone on the balcony with an empty shot glass. The sun melted towards the edge of the world. He went back inside to put himself together.

*

            He found the arranged spot on the pier–the farthest end, under one of the last lamp posts–and leaned there in his blazer, shivering with the twilight breeze that whipped off the water. A guitar dude was set up nearby with a tiny amp and microphone, playing folky covers of old Bowie. The guy’s CDs were for sale in his open guitar case for twenty dollars. Harry watched him from his lamp post, feeling annoyed to have a soundtrack imposed on the moment, even if it was Starman.

Halfway through Let’s Dance, a woman walked up to him on clacky heels. She wore a gauzy scarf around dark hair, and kept her hands plunged into the pockets of a long leather coat, a vintage find by the looks of it. Her smile was immediately familiar even if the rest of her was not. “I was waiting for Ch-ch-changes, but it was starting to get cold.”

“Jackie. Damn, you look great.”

They shared a hug, then went back to shoving their hands in their pockets against the wind. “So you’ve been waiting a while?” he said.

She waved at a spot a few lamp posts away. “I just wanted to get a look at you first, make sure you were yourself.”

“So I passed that test! I’ve been wondering if I’m myself, you know.”

She squinted at him. “You’ve improved a lot with age, Haroldo. It’s weird.”

“A lot?”

She regarded him, shaking her head, almost angry looking. “Men get to do that–sexy aging? As if you didn’t have all the advantages already. Dudes just never stop getting away with it, right?” Then she broke into a grin.

“Well,” he said, “you’re one to talk. You look amazing.” He wasn’t even sure yet if he meant that, only that it had to be said. But his first glimpse of her suggested that her features had sharpened in a fortunate way. The rosy roundness of her face had diminished, replaced with sculpted angles and lines. He pushed an extra spark into his eyes.

Her look matched his. “Sounds like we’re both going to get lucky.” She laughed and slipped her arm through his.

 *

            Dinner in a bistro along the boardwalk where rented beach cruisers coasted past and people strolled as night settled over the shore. He’d expected to reminisce about Bauhaus and all the elements of their junior year as kindred outcasts—the Aquanet, the Benson & Hedges, the Bartles & Jaymes, Ronald Reagan’s bullshit, their future visions of themselves as famous artists and rock stars—but none of that came up. Instead, she asked question after question about his life, his daughter, his work, his prospects. Harry found himself answering as fully and truthfully as he could, aware that he was dropping the ball on Priya’s advice. He finally said something about that. “You know, my daughter’s ‘roommate’ told me to listen twice as much as I talk, but you’re not really letting me do that.”

Jackie leaned forward in the circle of spotlight that illuminated their small table. The tablecloth was littered with crusts and crumbs of the baguette they’d demolished with their bowls of French onion soup. “Why did you say it like that? With air quotes?”

“‘Roommate’? Well, I think there’s more going on that she hasn’t shared with me.”

“But she did share with you. She brought you into the apartment where she’s going to live with this person, and she didn’t try to hide the hug and the kiss, or any of it. That was sharing.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“And it sounds like this ‘roommate’ knows what she’s talking about when it comes to dating scenarios.” They both fingered the slender stems of their wine glasses.

“Okay then,” he said, “now I ask the questions.”

She laced her fingers in front of her, squared her shoulders, and beamed.

*

            She’d been married, ten years, to a chef. During that time, she’d gone to culinary school as well, and they’d opened a restaurant together in Silver Lake. A gourmet vegetarian joint with craft cocktails. But the husband kept screwing the waitresses and hostesses, and she’d finally left him and opened her own place not far from here.

“Why aren’t we eating there?” Harry wanted to know.

“It’s where I freaking work, you know? Besides, I always like to see what the competition is up to.” She looked around with slitty eyes, tenting her fingers together.

“That explains all the cockroaches in the soup.”

Her eyes popped for just a second before they disappeared into crescents under the smile that was unchanged after all these years.

*

            They finished a bottle of wine, then walked back to her condo where they had sex, watched a couple episodes of The Office, had sex again, and fell asleep on her couch. Harry awoke, disoriented. The dawn sky was a grey sheet hanging over a grey ocean outside her balcony door. Jackie’s hair curtained over his face as she leaned down to peck a kiss on his forehead. She was in a bathrobe, puttering in the kitchen where a kettle started to whistle.

“Why didn’t we do this twenty-five years ago?”

“You were too shy,” she said, heading for the stove.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A gull hovered in mid-air, almost close enough to touch, just beyond the balcony railing. “You mean if I’d just said something?”

“Well, it depends what you said.” She joined him on the couch with a tray of tiny earthenware teacups and an iron pot that wafted the scent of jasmine.

He pondered. “So it took me twenty-five years, but I finally found the words. Which ones were they?”

“It was all of them, in combination.” She poured steaming ribbons into both cups. “Plus general horniness, and a desire to recapture youth. And the Bowie songs. And the wine. Don’t forget the wine.”

“I won’t forget anything.”

Up close like this, in the pale dawn without make-up or wine goggles, he could see the age on her face, but it worked for her. He hoped the same was true of himself. She seemed to like looking at him, at least.

“You said you were only going to be here a couple days,” she said quietly. “Is that still your plan?”

“No. At this point my plan involves never leaving this couch.”

“I see.” She scrunched her lips in thought. “That means we’ll probably end up screwing a few more times before I get tired of you and kill you.”

“A few? Could be worth it.”

*

            He ended up staying two more days, ostensibly occupying the couch at Raquel and Priya’s tiny place, but actually spending both nights at Jackie’s. She was gone for twelve hours both days and came home exhausted and already a little drunk to find Harry sitting on her balcony making sketches of the street below. The rooftops, the palm crowns, the ocean horizon. She never made him feel unwelcome or that she wasn’t happy to see him, but he knew that the time had come for him to go after they skipped the sex on the third night. He’d dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, and it was time for him to ease back into his own and get it flowing again.

His farewell dinner with Raquel ended up being a home-cooked affair with Priya, who helped him slice onions and garlic. They rustled up a batch of linguini and asparagus with cream sauce. It was simple and good enough. “I never really taught her to cook for herself,” he said to Priya as they were plating nests of noodles. Raquel was setting the table out on the balcony under a web of lights. Strange music made puzzle pieces in the air. “I meant to teach her how to make salsa, and omelets, and beef bourguignon. All she ever wanted to make herself was ramen and cereal.” It felt like an admission of failure.

Priya caught the look on his face and patted the counter between them. “Well, Mr. Stills, you got her this far. Now she’s got people.”

“Please, call me Harry.” He grinned into the warmth of her smile. “And thank God for people.”

They ate under the gradual twilight with the ocean murmuring. “To the future,” he offered, and they clinked their white wines. There was nothing else momentous in their conversation, just a lot of easy chatter about TV shows and antique shops and coffeehouses that stayed open late. Harry felt himself faking a smile at first–he really would be leaving, any minute now–but before long the smile was real. With a crust of bread he drew a face on his plate in a puddle of sauce.

Later, as he was saying goodbye to Raquel at the curbside, she gave him a tight hug that went on and on. Finally, wet-eyed, she pulled away, gave a smile, and ran back up the walk without a word. Harry raised a hand but she didn’t see it before slipping inside. He almost called out, then let her wordlessness linger. What would more words do? He drove out of town, out of the city, in no particular direction.

*

            The Pacific Coast Highway held his attention for a few days. He found rooms in small towns and motels in a meandering route that took him back over the mountains and into the same desert they’d crossed a couple of weeks earlier. His sketchbook had grown full of cross-hatched drawings of vineyards seen from rest areas, lines of telephone poles marching to the horizon, distant thunderheads.

Coming back into Menden in southern Utah, he cruised down Main Street under the noon sun. There it was on the side of the café, on the courtyard wall: a rocking chair straining at the end of a kite string, buffeted in the wind. Bold black lines on a white background, with colorful clouds and mesas along a low horizon. Someone’s name–not his own–was stenciled in the lower right corner, along with birth and death dates. A dedication, he supposed, to the late muralist. He saw it all while stopped at a light and moved on when a horn bleated behind him.

Freaking Julio–the café guy had stolen his sketch! Or–here Harry paused and considered–had he offered it to him? He couldn’t remember the details. Now his design had been recreated on the side of the wall, with Harry’s name nowhere in sight. He smiled to himself. Am I the kite, he thought, or am I holding the string?

He sat pulled over at the side of the road, looking at the wall. The chair strained against the line, reaching for the sky. You make things you love, you send them into the world, and then you let go. And then the next thing happens, and the next thing after that.


A.C. Koch is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has been published in literary journals such as Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, the Columbia Journal, and F(r)iction. A story of his was selected by Robert Olen Butler to win the Raymond Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine in 2003. In addition to short fiction, he is an aspiring novelist, and recently completed a draft of a generation-spanning story about a small group of humans leaving a dying Earth to settle a new planet. He lives in Denver, Colorado, where he teaches linguistics at the graduate level and makes music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.

Twitter and IG: @henry_iblis; Music: firstimers.bandcamp.com

Sometimes I Need To Be Dragged

by Jeff Klebauskas

FIC_K

Steve hasn’t left his apartment in a week. The panic attack hit him while he was walking to the restaurant he works at over on 12th and Passyunk. Katrina told me that he told her that every time he sees the glowing La Birra sign hanging over the building’s brick façade, it happens; he hears a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside his own brain—BOOOOOM—then his vision starts to dim, and he has to run back home before he faints.

He’s sitting on the bare futon across from me. I watch him pull strands of tobacco from a plastic pouch then haphazardly scatter the dried leaves along the concave of a white zigzag. The tobacco that doesn’t make it into the final product lands on the coffee table underneath his outstretched arms, where it lays with all the other tobacco that didn’t make it into the previous final products. He doesn’t seem to notice the pile forming as he twists the cigarette and lights up. This is the ninth time I have seen him do it, and I’ve been here for, maybe, forty-five minutes.

We’re posted up in his third-floor apartment on 5th and Mifflin in his half-assed living room with its two decrepit pieces of furniture, its random posters hanging unevenly on the wall, and its single wooden bookshelf in the corner that looks like it was made by him in shop class back in seventh grade because it was.

He’s lying on the futon now, shirtless and supine, with his knees bent and pointed at the ceiling like his eyes. Gravity is pulling the hem of his black mesh shorts down mid-thigh. There’s a gigantic tear in the fabric running up the right leg. He takes a drag, exhales the fumes and says, “I just…” He stops to spit out stray bits of tobacco then continues. “I just couldn’t maintain anymore. I had to quit that job, felt like my heart was dying.”

I’m over here on the beat-up loveseat, finishing off my third bottle of Red Stripe, staring at the flyers on the wall with our defunct band’s name on them.

There’s us in Chattanooga, 2006. There’s the promo poster for that east coast tour we did. There’s that basement show we played in Long Island City in front of seven people. We left with fifteen dollars and an eighth of dirt weed.

Decent memories, but I’m just not into music anymore. I uprooted myself, settled in a city that isn’t my own in search of something more than what I was given. I’m hanging on because I don’t know where else to go. I’m thirty now. Too old to start over, too old to move forward. I’m stuck.

Pete sold his guitar, moved back to Scranton. I haven’t talked to him in almost a year, but I heard he’s got a job with the Sewer Authority. I guess that means he’s doing okay. Katrina will be fine. She’ll do something with that Psychology degree. So now it’s just me and Steve and by the looks of him, I’m starting to worry it’s just going to be me soon.

I slam the empty bottle down on the table and check the stash by my foot on the floor. There’s only two left, but there’s more in the fridge. I grab a fresh one, pop the top off with Steve’s Bic, start pounding it down while he laments some more.

“We weren’t supposed to end up like this, Josh. We were supposed to have an impact.”

I try to balance him out.

“Katrina really wants to talk to you.”

Which is true. She said he had stopped speaking to her, that when she told him she was leaving he just stared at her like she was an inanimate object. I told her I’d go see him. So here I am. And he hasn’t gotten up from the futon the whole time.

I lay down some Hallmark card shit.

“She cares about you. Don’t push her away.”

“I’m just gonna keep disappointing her. Everything’s too fuckin’ much.”

I know exactly what he is talking about. It happened to me when I was going into work a few months back. I was on the 57, heading west on JFK Boulevard, packed into the bus like a book on some bibliophile’s shelf, each person a different story, a different set of themes, a different purpose. My brain said, Josh THINK, and I thought, there’s so much pain out in the world, just floating, and my problems are just a speck, a dot on the map amongst billions of dots. I am no longer on the outside looking in. The collective mind frame applies to me. I am just like everybody else.

I bolted from the bus when it stopped at 19th Street, four blocks before I was supposed to get off. I ran through the swarm of people crowding every single inch of the sidewalk, trying to get away from something, terrified because I had nowhere to run to. The panic attack left me gasping for air on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, grasping my cellphone as if I could call someone for help. I ended up calling in sick instead. I just couldn’t mop floors and scrub toilets that day. I couldn’t bottle up the emotions that came with the realization that my existence is inconsequential enough to make it through the eight-hour shift. I hailed a cab, went home, and collapsed on my bed.

Now I just walk everywhere, haven’t ridden a bus since.

But I’m good. I’ve scarred over. Steve will too if he just stops caring, if he comes to grips with his own worthlessness and realizes there is no point to any of this, that nobody in the world is right about anything, that we were all born directly in the middle of the human continuum with no clear understanding of anything that has happened, that is happening, that will happen. There is no need to have an impact.

I give him the abridged version.

“Stop thinking so much.”

He’s not listening to me. His face is in the crook of his elbow now, lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s not moving.

I go over to the open window, check out the scene on 5th. It’s July—seven-thirty on a Saturday night. Nothing crazy. No violence. No anger. Just kids running around on the sidewalk, their moms watching them from the stoop, smoking Virginia Slims, and yelling, “Hey! Get back over here,” every time they get too close to the street. Just hipsters walking their hipster pit bulls. Just the non-stop hum of about fifteen air conditioners hanging out of the row apartment building across the street.

I say over my shoulder, “Come look at this, Steve. Look at all these people, just out here living. They don’t care about having an impact.”

I get nothing in return.

I walk away from the window, downing my fourth Red Stripe, and place the empty bottle on the coffee table next to the other three then pop open another, the last one I have out here.

Steve is in the same position on the futon, the cherry on his cigarette about two centimeters away from singeing his lip.

I grab the American Spirit, take the last drag, then drop it into one of the empty beer bottles on the coffee table.

He doesn’t move. He doesn’t care that I’m here at all.

I backhand his knee.

“You gotta get out of the house, man, seriously. You’re creeping me out.”

I take down the rest of my beer in two huge gulps, and I’m still thirsty.

I have to peel my chucks off the sticky, beer-soaked linoleum floor as I walk across the kitchen towards the fridge.

The place is an eyesore. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. A lead paint warning duct-taped to the fridge by the landlord, reminding his tenants that if the wall chips and the dust gets in their lungs their risk of getting cancer doubles. Two baby mice on the floor in the corner, squeaking and flailing their tails back and forth, trapped in that glue trap for the rest of their short lives. Remnants of Katrina: the flowers on the table, the quadruple photobooth pics of her and Steve magnetized to the fridge next to the lead paint warning, the organic, cruelty-free health food on the shelf—dried seaweed chips, dried kale chips, dried apricots looking like shrunken heads, all lifeless and small. The inside of the fridge itself is mostly empty except for my four Red Stripes and a bottle of Sriracha.

I grab my beers and head back out into the living room.

And there’s Steve in the same position.

I try to pull him out of his hole, drag him up to my level where nothing matters anymore.

“What’s up with all that seaweed out there?”

I get nothing back. Well, not exactly nothing. He’s got his leg resting on his kneecap, toes tapping the air like they’re slamming down on a bass drum pedal. That’s something, I guess.

I say, “So, what you’re done talking now?”

More nothing.

I’m running short on ideas.

I’m out.

The streetlights are on now. The kids and their mothers have gone in, but those air conditioners stay humming as I press on alone, all loosened up and drunk, looking for something to get into. I got four bottles of Red Stripe banging around in my front hoodie pocket, pulling the neck of my sweatshirt down, making me look like a slob. I’m down for whatever.

I take a right on Mifflin. A plan takes shape—follow this up to 20th. There’s a show at JR’s tonight. I’ll run into somebody I know.

Identical row homes loom as I stumble-stomp down the sidewalk like I own the place. Watch me drain this bottle of Jamaican pride and ditch the empty in the community garden off Broad Street. Watch me take a piss behind the elementary school where that fight scene from Rocky V was shot. Watch me tower over restaurant-goers eating their Americanized Mexican dishes on Passyunk as I strut my stuff towards the bar.

I hit 20th, take a left. Two blocks up I see figures on the corner where JR’s stands. I walk a block, make out the glowing tips of cigarettes. I walk a half a block, see who’s holding them—Joan Jett-looking chicks decked out in leather and denim, minuscule mini-skirts hiked up to their upper thighs, almost revealing everything they’re working with.

I get to the corner, try to bum a cigarette off one of them, but they’re having none of it. Maybe it’s because I tripped when I was stepping onto the sidewalk and instinctively grabbed one of them by the shoulder to keep from falling on my face. Or maybe it’s because after I regained my balance I said, “Yo, let me get a cigarette,” instead of apologizing.

Whatever. They don’t know me.

I pull the door open and get blasted with a wall of noise. Every band sounds bad to me anymore. They’re all the same. Everything’s been done before.

I check out the flyer on the wall to see who’s playing tonight.

Suburban Death Squad from Boston.

Manchurian Candidate from St. Louis.

Headlining is Philly’s own ASSASSINATION.

I barrel through the small group of people hanging out by the entrance. Will’s working the door. He knows me. He won’t make me pay the cover. He’s guzzling a forty, looking bored, staring at his phone. When he sees me, he perks up.

“What’s up, Josh?”

I pull a bottle out of my hoodie pocket.

“What’s up, what’s up? You got something I can open this with?”

He says, “Yeah. Don’t let the bartender see that, though.”

He hands me a Bic. I pop the top, drink, swallow, make a face at him like, I don’t gotta pay, right?

He gestures toward the room the band is playing in with his head like, Nah, go ahead. We clink our bottles together, and I head into the show.

I’m watching three kids from St. Louis do their thing on stage. I don’t know their exact story, but I can fill in the blanks. Their band fund’s in the red. They’ve drawn less than twenty people at every show they played. They believe in what they’re doing.

I home in on the bass. The kid’s playing bullshit lines. Basic octave patterns in nothing but minor scales. Old news. I want to stop the whole charade, tell him that my Fender did that a decade and a half back when I first bought the fucking thing.

They finish their set and get a weak round of applause from the audience.

Good. Manchurian Candidate needs to know how unimportant they are, so they can grow up, get all bitter and apathetic like the rest of us.

By the time ASSASSINATION takes the stage, I’m in the back polishing off my last Red Stripe, brooding in the dark, analyzing the scene in front of me. The alcohol depression is starting to hit. I’m catching nothing but bad vibes.

The singer is bouncing around like a straight-jacketed maniac in some antediluvian insane asylum. I estimate his age at nineteen, maybe twenty. Only people that young get that excited. The measly crowd is already starting to thin out, and they haven’t even finished their set. They finish up with a song called ‘Dachau.’ The lead singer introduces it by ranting about the evils of Nazi concentration camps like he’s bringing something new to the table. The drummer kicks off the song with the prototypical four stick clicks and the noise starts, all redundant and fast and sloppy and indistinguishable to the untrained ear. I can tell what they’re going for, but it’s not working. The drummer is a half-step behind on his blast beats, and the guitar player has a lazy right hand—his strumming can’t keep up with his fingering. The bass player’s holding it down though. I guess that does something for me.

‘Dachau’ is done in less than a minute. The singer sends out the word that they have t-shirts for sale in the back. Ten dollars.

Will’s counting money when I get over to the door. One of the St. Louis kids is standing in front of him. He gets his twenty dollars then walks outside.

The cash count continues, one-dollar bills with the occasional five. Without looking up, Will says, “So how you been, Josh? Y’all playing again or what?”

I scoff at the question.

“Hell no. I can’t do this shit anymore. Pete’s gone, and Steve won’t even leave his apartment.”

One of the Boston kids comes up to Will for his pay-out. He’s full of life, starts telling a story about state troopers searching their van somewhere outside Atlanta.

Will feigns interest, gives him his twenty-dollar cut of the door money then goes back to counting. The kid catches on, leaves without finishing his story.

I watch him as he goes then I say to Will, “I feel so out of place. I think I’m getting too old for this.”

He takes a sip from his Olde English, smirks.

“Josh, you were too old for this when you were nineteen.”

The bands are loading equipment into their vans when I get outside. Busted-up cabs and heads are lifted, strategically placed into the back like they’re pieces to a puzzle.

I remember doing that. Bass cab first, then the drum hardware case, then the guitar cabs, then the bass drum. Toms and cymbals and the snare go on top of the hardware case. Guitars get slid in between the cabs and the side-rear window. The van had to be packed in that order, every night, or else nothing would fit.

I’m sitting on the steps that lead up to JR’s, eyeing them all down.

Boston regurgitates the van search in Atlanta. St. Louis talks about how bad their van smells after living in it for three weeks in hot-ass July. Philly regales their listeners with the story about that time in Chicago when they came back to the van from the house they were staying at to find all the windows smashed.

Everything revolves around the van when you’re on tour. It protects you from the elements when you’re two weeks in and starting to crack. You can crawl in the back after all the equipment is loaded into the venue, and your bandmates are out wandering around Cincinnati or Syracuse or D.C. and just lay there, milk the small amount of alone-time for all it is worth.

Will comes out. I shift my body, give him room to walk down the steps. When he gets to the sidewalk, he half-turns to me and says, “You good to get home? I’m riding with ASSASSINATION.”

“Yeah, yeah I’ll make it.”

Now it’s just me.

I head north on 20th. It’s a little past midnight, and the streets are basically empty except for homeless cats and an old homeless woman who asks me for something, but I dip by her. Her life is just something I can’t deal with right now.

I hope that Korean joint on the corner of 18th and Mifflin is still open, so I can get more beer. I look both ways at 19th and see it to my left—the 57-bus rolling up the street towards me.

The trigger.

My brain says, Josh THINK. I think about what Will said. How I was always too old, always hateful, always self-absorbed. It all comes full circle. The beer dulls the panic but gives the low mood swing a wide berth to work with. I don’t fight it. Let it drag me down to Steve’s level where everything matters. I hear a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside my own brain, like an atomic bomb explosion in slow motion.

BOOOOOM.


Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia and is currently an MFA student at Temple University. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Confetti Head.

Good Grief

by Pete Able

FIC_Able pic

It was September, the beginning of a new school year, and I was having a snack in the teacher’s room when I was told about my parents’ accident. I left the school without hardly a word to anyone, knowing I’d never go back. I needed time to figure things out and, also, I’d just inherited several million dollars. As devastated as I was, it was some consolation to know that I’d now be free to follow my dream of not being a middle school math teacher. For the time being at least, I could not be one to my heart’s content.

The realization of this particular dream began that night when I drank several vodka martinis on a school night and continued into the next afternoon when I got out of bed at the crack of noon and went to IHOP for waffles. I went with the Belgian and gobbled up three. Then it was back to my place for Bloody Marys. I kept up this general routine for several weeks. I thought the alcohol and comfort food would help me to grieve, and, in some small way, I think they did help soothe the confusion as I learned how to deal with the loss.

I’d made the arrangements and gone to the funeral but, after that, I was mostly avoiding friends and family. I hunkered down in my miniature, one-story, two-bedroom house and didn’t take any calls. But one night I got a call from a familiar number that I decided to answer. It was the principal of the school, expressing his condolences and asking how I was doing. I said, “Oh, you know, fine, more or less,” but I don’t think my tone and slurred speech were very convincing.

“Andy, a lot of people in positions like yours benefit from support groups.”

I was confused and looked around my messy house.

“My position?”

“Yes, needing help is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t know…”

“The meetings are pretty innocuous. You could even give a fake name.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Anonymity can be like a suit of armor in a way.”

I was just inebriated enough to jot down the address of the group he’d researched for me. With a martini in hand, almost everything sounded like a good idea, or at least highly possible.

 

The group met at 2pm in the basement of a church on Pacific Avenue, not far from the Atlantic City beach where I’d spread my parents’ ashes into the surf. That Wednesday I limited myself to one mid-afternoon Bloody Mary and drove into town to see what it was all about. I figured, at the very least, it would be educational. As a former educator I was a big proponent of getting a well-rounded education.

The church was an ornate, faded, stone structure. It had two short spires at the front corners and one taller spire in the center. Or was it a steeple? I didn’t know. It was a lovely building. Unfortunately it represented something I didn’t believe in and couldn’t condone. But I had to admit the architecture and stained-glass above the large wooden doors were beautiful, and there was organized religion to thank.

I’m not a tall man but still managed to bang my head on the ceiling as I made my way down the stairs. The floor was green shag carpet and the air had a musty smell, like someone’s outdated and forgotten fallout shelter. It could have been the piles of books, the exercise equipment in the corner, or the stacks of canned food on the shelves, but there was definitely an end-of-days feel to the space.

Ten metal folding chairs were arranged in a circle and one open seat remained in between a large, mannish blond woman and a small, Middle Eastern man in a mechanic’s blue jumpsuit. As I took my seat the man smiled a warm but crooked smile, made more noticeably crooked by his thin black mustache.

The head guru in charge, a middle-aged woman with tan skin, black hair, dark red lipstick and a clipboard resting on her crossed legs, welcomed me as a newcomer and asked if I’d like to introduce myself. I kept it short.

“My name’s Andy. I’m 28. I’m a middle school math teacher. I recently lost my parents in a freak skydiving accident. I inherited some money and took an indefinite leave of absence from my school. I’m doing okay but well… I guess I’m here because I’m wondering if maybe I could be handling it better.”

The guru woman asked me some questions, as did some of the other members, but I felt a little squeamish about getting too personal with a bunch of strangers. When I told them as much, the guru checked something off on her clipboard and we moved on to focus on other group members’ issues. Space freed up in my chest when the attention was taken off of me.

The youngest member by far was a teenaged girl named Sam who recently lost her first boyfriend to leukemia. She was having issues with depression and anorexia and was struggling to keep up with her college-prep classes. She kept a sullen expression, had a lip ring, streaks of green and purple in her hair, and said “fuck” a lot.

Javier, a short, muscle-bound Mexican man, was dealing with the grief of having his wife and two small children deported. He sent almost all of the money he made in his landscaping business to them but he still felt guilty and wasn’t sure staying in the States was the right thing to do. After wrapping up his share he said, “It’s so hard,” and sobbed into the crook of his muscly, tattooed arm.

The Middle Eastern mechanic sitting beside me introduced himself as “Sai, the widower.” His wife had drowned in an undertow in the Atlantic two years earlier and he was lonesome and sad and on the verge of being suicidal. In a soft voice he thanked everyone present for being there because, “this group really helps.”

To this Sam said, “You’re welcome but, just so you know, I’d literally rather be anywhere else.” So far, she was my favorite.

A woman, probably in her forties, with long blond hair and two impressive front chompers, whose name I didn’t catch, talked rather eloquently about grief as a process. Among other things, she said, “I thought I’d be through at least some of the five stages by now. And yet I keep going back and forth between them as if they were the strings of a banjo and someone was plucking out a complex melody.”

Eventually, the woman leading the group, whose name was Jasmine, “like the tea,” thanked everyone for their shares and closed the meeting, saying next week there would be Rice Krispies Treats courtesy of Sarah, a silent, frumpy woman wearing a plaid shawl sitting on her right.

It was a heavy first group. All of that concentrated sorrow and grief sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I was angry and then depressed from one second to the next on the drive home along the marsh on Route 30. I was sure I was experiencing at least three of the five stages of grief myself, and all at the same time. I didn’t feel under control again until I was starting in on my third martini, swallowing my ninth stuffed olive.

It seemed more often than not my dinner consisted solely of vodka and vodka-soaked martini olives.

 

I took up dancing after letting loose one night at a local bar. I had always been a terrible dancer and avoided it so as not to embarrass myself. But now I didn’t care. It came as a much-needed release. I’d go out, have several drinks or more, and then sway or shake my parts around to whatever music happened to be playing. Over the next few weeks, I would singlehandedly clear more than a dozen dance floors.

Whenever I found myself dancing alone I’d make my way to the bar, but, the moment I’d see someone starting up again, I couldn’t stop myself from getting back out there and executing more of my awkward, chaotic moves. Not once did a woman engage with me on the dance floor, and if they had been talking to me at the bar before they saw me dance, they quickly shut that down after seeing me dance.

“What were we talking about before?” I’d ask.

“I think you were mostly talking to yourself,” they’d reply.

“Yeah, that checks out.”

Sometimes I was too drunk to feel lonely. Other times I was too lonely to feel all that drunk.

I tried making waffles late one night but the batter came out thicker than cookie dough and I couldn’t get it off of the spoon.

 

I remembered to duck my head as I made my way down into the basement of the church my second time there. I don’t remember the real name of the church now, but I got to thinking of it as The Church of Perpetual Sorrow. I couldn’t recall anything bumming me out more than that group did. In fact, I surprised myself a little by going back. Each time I descended those stairs I felt like I was attending my parents’ funeral all over again.

“When I lost my little Bobby four years ago,” said a woman with curly hair who looked as if she was both born and lived to be a mom, “I thought I’d never find meaning again. But now, fostering dogs is just my everything.”

This was sad. But to me Sam’s story was still the saddest. She was only 16 and her parents were, by all accounts, dysfunctional, poor and mean. I wanted to hear more from her but she didn’t take a turn this time. Javier spoke more about how he was depriving himself in order to send more and more money to his family in Mexico, which to me sounded a little severe and unnecessary. Though he had a successful business he was eating only rice and beans and ramen noodles every day. Sai went on for a while about being grateful for the group. He sounded sincere, but I had a tough time relating to him for some reason. A couple of the other members spoke too, hitting similarly pitiful notes. When it came to my turn I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

I parroted Sam and said simply, “I pass.”

Though they were a little hard and stale, frumpy Sarah’s Rice Krispies Treats were still the highlight of the session. It certainly wasn’t the flavorless, lukewarm coffee we had to wash them down.

Jasmine took me aside after we closed things down. She put a hand on my back and drew me closer, smelling like my mom’s herb garden. “If you’re going to continue to drink before our groups, I must ask you to start using mouthwash and/or cologne. Some of our members battle with alcoholism, and I like this to be a safe space for them. It’s nothing personal, nor an affront to your mode of grieving. It’s just out of respect, you understand. Okay, dear?” From an apparent bottomless well of understanding, she smiled and gave my shoulder a good squeeze.

From the church I walked to the boardwalk to have a look at the ocean. It was only a couple of blocks. On the way I pulled the hood of my coat down tight against the wind and wished things were different. It seemed strange that I could see no real use for my parents’ millions. Why was it that I could see only the things money got me out of doing, and not any of the things it could allow me to do?

The blue-gray Atlantic rolled, crashed and receded, but gave no answers.

 

It was around then that the third stage of “bargaining” kicked in for me. I started thinking in hypotheticals. If only their parachutes had opened. If only they had taken up bungee jumping instead. If only they hadn’t gone to that bargain skydiving company they found on Craigslist. Whatever way you sliced it, I was in a desperate state of mind. If anything, I felt my sadness was deepening. I sometimes pictured myself stuck at the bottom of a bottle of maple syrup, unable to move, able only to exist and feel bad.

I used the first $104 of my inheritance to buy a comfortable pair of shoes so I could stay out on the dance floor longer. That’s where I felt things clicking into place. That’s where, I thought, I would discover how to move forward.

With my arms up in the air I could almost reach the pipes and wooden beams of the ceiling at Earthworm, my favorite bar for dancing. It was a bit of a dive, nothing much to look at from inside or out, but on Saturday nights it was always packed because the headlining deejay had a reputation. He was this tall, weathered-looking Asian guy with dreadlocks who played the choicest current stuff but also peppered in classics from the 90s and early 2000s and 2010s. From 11 to 2am the place would echo with the most beautiful and intense vibes. While his tracks played people seemed to set aside their differences and personal struggles and moved as one large organism, almost as if in a trance.

As far as moves go, as I’ve said, I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I kicked my feet out. Sometimes I brought a knee up—clapped my hands. My facial expressions were out of control too. I tried to smile but would get distracted and bite my lip, open my mouth, make duck lips as I moved my hips in little circles or from side to side. I must’ve looked like I was having a seizure half the time. But at the very least I was out of the house and getting exercise. And I thought maybe, just maybe, I could sweat out some of the sorrow and loss I was feeling. Towards the end of the night, as my shirt would become soaked through, I’d imagine some of the demons were evaporating from my body.

 

The nights I didn’t go out to the bar I watched old movies in my living room and played drinking games with myself. I’d watch old Meg Ryan movies and would take a big sip of martini every time she did something adorable. I had a bit of a crush on her, so halfway into one of her movies I’d be fairly wasted. I can’t even count the number of times I blacked out watching When Harry Met Sally… (I literally can’t count them. I don’t remember.)

People continued to call, of course, but I wouldn’t answer. I’d apologize out loud to the white ceilings of my small, crummy house as their numbers appeared on my phone, listing imaginary excuses.

“Sorry, George, I’m swamped with paperwork.”

“So sorry, Aunt Carol, I’m indisposed in the bath.”

“Oh no, Aunt Lucy, it’s terrible timing! I’ve just been drafted into the neighborhood watch!”

I didn’t feel right ignoring my grandpa though. He was my dad’s dad and we were pretty close. I put him on speaker and let his raspy voice fill my increasingly filthy living room. In the middle of the conversation he stopped and repeated my name, as if he didn’t already have my attention.

“Andy,” he said, “Listen to me! You have to keep going. No matter what! It’s what your parents would have wanted.”

Grandpa had lost an arm in Vietnam and had a sort of combative approach toward life.

“Okay, Grandpa.”

“No, Andy, listen. No matter what! Even if life sucks and it’s a terrible, terrible burden. Keep going! You owe it to your parents!”

“Okay, I will.”

“Andy, I mean it! Even if you get sick and you’re in horrible pain! Don’t be a wuss!”

“Okay, Grandpa. Thanks for calling.”

 

Another Wednesday found me once more in the basement fallout shelter of The Church of Perpetual Sorrow. I was stone-cold sober and so, a little shaky. The quote of the day from guru Jasmine was, “Ends are also transitions into new experiences.” Most everyone except Sai the widower, who still appeared to be in some form of denial, seemed put out by the statement.

Sam, in her shrill, girlish voice, said, “I don’t want to fucking transition!”

I couldn’t help but admire the disgruntled, distraught teenager for her spirit.

Then I heard frumpy Sarah speak for the first time when she said that she didn’t have the energy for new experiences. “I’m 65 and my husband is dead,” she said. “Everything I worked at all my life is gone, and I’m too tired to start again.” She looked surprised by the words that had come out of her mouth, her face flushed.

And the fun continued…

A chubby, bald man I hadn’t seen in the group before was all blubbery, “I’m afraid… Without John—I’m afraid of everything. I don’t want to face the world without him.”

“I can’t take it no more,” said Javier. “I’m going back to Mexico.”

And Sam chimed in again. “This is bullshit! I’m too young. If this is just the beginning, I’m not sure I want to see how it all turns out.”

Many more grumblings filled out the hour, and then the kindhearted Jasmine closed out the meeting by telling us to continue to “explore your grief.” Saying, “it may be uncomfortable, but you will be rewarded.”

On my way up the stairs, I was imagining Jasmine in some spotless, amenity-flush apartment listening to old-timey jazz music for some reason, when I banged my head on the ceiling again.

 

That night, to properly explore my grief, I didn’t drink. I watched Joe Versus the Volcano, and every time Meg Ryan did something adorable, instead of sipping a martini, I sobbed a little. Teardrop by teardrop, I lubricated my soul for a new experience. I began to feel different somehow. I guess “sober” is the word, but also something more. After meditating during the end credits of the movie, I got changed and headed for the club at the Borgata Hotel and Casino.

The Premier Nightclub at the Borgata was a swanky establishment. The bar was long and black. The booths, along with their leather cushions, wrapped around the large low tables of the VIP areas. The purple and red lights set just the right atmosphere, leaving just the right dim glow in the wide, sort of intangible room. Everyone was dressed smartly and flashily. To me, who had been dancing in nothing but crummy bars, it felt as if I had leveled up or been promoted to a higher floor.

Almost immediately, I discovered I was a much better dancer without alcohol. I guess it took a clear head for me to properly feel the music. I stopped rushing my movements and let the rhythm come to me, discovering a sense of style. Women began to take notice. A few smiled in my direction, and some even brought themselves into the orbit of my flow. I wasn’t terrible looking after all, with a decent shave and haircut.

Elated and full of energy, I didn’t want to leave the dancefloor, but after two hours or so I got tired and went to the bar for a drink. As it was Wednesday, it wasn’t all that crowded, and I was able to find a spot easily.

“I’ve been watching you dance,” said a girl with short yellow hair and jade green dangling earrings. She was sitting on the edge of her stool in a black miniskirt, grinning at me.

“Me?” I said. “That’s embarrassing.”

“You must be thirsty.”

“I am. Can I get you something to drink?”

She seemed more interested in me than my previously rock-bottom spirits would’ve warranted. We did a shot of tequila then I ordered myself a water and we began chatting over the club music. She was with her girlfriends, visiting from Delaware. One of them had gotten a promotion and they were celebrating.

There was a break in the conversation and she looked down at her hands.

“Do you have a room here?” she asked.

“No, I live nearby.”

“Really? Do you work in the casinos?”

“No, I’m not working now.”

For the first time since we began talking, the corners of her mouth drooped down.

“I’m in a bit of a transitional stage,” I explained. “I recently lost my parents.”

I realized I’d never said this out loud outside of the group before.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the girl. But she was already looking away. Back out toward the crowded dance floor. And that was fine.

 

The following week outside of the church before the group, Sam was leaning against the stairway railing, smoking a cigarette. It was a cold November day and she was wearing a cream-colored hoody with the hood up, a gray coat and matching gray fingerless gloves. Compared to the stained glass reflecting in the sunlight on the church front above her, Sam’s colors were dreary, but there was a brightness in her eyes and her features didn’t seem quite as morose as they usually did.

I didn’t know whether I should stop and engage or not so as I approached I just nodded my head and kept heading for the side door that went down into the basement.

“Hey,” she said.

I stopped and turned toward her.

“Hey.”

“Do you think you’re really getting anything out of these groups?” she asked.

I had a feeling of déjà vu. It was like when one of my students asked me a question about algebra. Only now I didn’t have the answer.

“I don’t know.”

Sam took a puff of her cigarette and looked off over my shoulder.

“Sai seems to think so, but then why is he still coming, two years later? It’s fucking depressing.”

I stuffed my hands into my pockets.

“If I’m still coming to this group in two years, remind me to off myself,” said Sam.

“I wouldn’t worry. You’re young. In two years, you’ll be in college. You’ll be too busy to be depressed.”

“Oh yeah, college, sure. Are you kidding? I’m not going to college. I can’t afford it. Besides, my parents don’t want me to go. They want me to get a job.”

I thought then that if my parents’ money enabled me to help this unlucky, bitter girl get an education, then maybe I could find a way to move forward with my life. Maybe I could find a sense of purpose. That wouldn’t be the craziest thing I’d ever heard.


Pete Able’s work has been published in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Blue Lake Review, Spillwords Press, and others. He lives in southern New Jersey.

End Times

Headshot.MelanieMoyer_FICTION

I stare at my therapist’s coffee cup the entire time she talks to me about the importance of communicating. I’m focused on the yellow Sunoco logo that hasn’t changed since 1995 when I would see its sign across from our first house on Lewis Road. What I’m truly thinking, as she talks about advocating for yourself and not running from conflict, is if I can really trust the advice of someone who gets their morning coffee from a shitty gas station that doesn’t even let you pump your own gas. Did she pay the grizzly old man with oil-stained callouses to run inside and grab her this too?

I nod and nod and wait for the small timer to go off because I know it’s got to be time soon. I give little mmhmm’s when a pause is long enough and wonder if getting her a Starbucks gift card for Christmas is passive-aggressive. Do you get your therapist Christmas gifts? Is that like a conflict of interest?

Time’s up.

The chime is still going off by the time my coat is slipping on, and I’m on my feet. Unless she has a patient lined up right after me, she always finds ways to make it all go another 10 or 15 minutes, until my left leg starts bouncing. I tell her bye, that I’ll think about what she said, that I promise to actually keep that thought journal she asked me to do from two weeks ago and look into reading that book about love languages.
I choose to miss the bus and run to the coffee shop across the street to sit for a few minutes. One of us should have a reasonable cup of coffee.

#

The good news is Aly thinks I spent extra time with Dr. Wasterman. I finish the coffee before I get home and toss the cup in a trash can outside a different coffee shop two blocks down from our apartment. This one has stickers with rainbows and things about trans rights and all that good stuff in the window, but the one barista creeps me out. He works on Sundays and right when they open on the weekdays and always looks pissed off.

The bad news is she wants to go out.

I really would rather only do one thing a day. And therapy is like three things already before 11am. But she wakes up when I’m already gone and gets stir crazy waiting for me to come back and the sun is popping in and out between clouds today with a nice, even high of 55 or so. She wants a hike. Fresh air, open space. I can’t accuse her of cornering me if the conversations I don’t want to have given myself over to the wide-open outdoors where I have everywhere to run. That tactic didn’t come up in Dr. Wasterman’s long monologue about communication. Or maybe it did. I was focused on the coffee cup.

On the edge of the city lies a valley of trees and climbable rocks. Over a couple hundred or thousand years, a few streams scored through the trees and ground, causing ridges to rise up on either side and eventually dumping into the Schuylkill. This is where she wants to go. She looks me dead with green eyes and says, Diana, you said we could do something today. I meant puzzles or baking something or finishing any of the fifteen shows we were trying to watch at once.

Yeah, okay.

I change into boots and put on pants that I care a little less about. I fill up the water bottle she got me for my birthday. She packs snacks, and I realize it’s not going to be a short hike. I ask if we can stop for coffee.

#

We take my car because it’s the one that has the parking permit. We cut through Manayunk and up the hill into Roxborough. While we drive, I ask if she ever thinks about how many dead bodies are probably just strewn and hiding in the woods around the city. She shakes her head and tells me something is wrong with me.

People talk about the bodies in Washington Square. Something like 20,000 under the nice, clean concrete paths and fountain welcoming you to Old City. It’s not just me.

I didn’t think I could afford therapy. I’m pretty sure I still, technically, can’t. This therapist has a way of billing for like four sessions at once. Rather than $80 a week I see an occasional bill of a couple hundred, followed by incessant payment reminders on my phone. She once refused to take my calls or set up an appointment until I paid off the $50 that I owed her. I get it. We all have to make a living. But everyone saying we should all be in therapy like it’s something anyone can afford or something insurance companies give a shit about.

After our third reenactment of the same fight, I had a moment of some kind of clarity and said fuck if we’re doing this again. Everyone talks about insanity and its definition as doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a new result. I don’t know if that’s true, but every time a line like that came out of a book or a TV, I felt them talking to me

Why am I the only one of us in therapy, though?

I think about the bodies again because this place is old. Not old-old, but it saw a colony and a revolution and all sorts of other stuff. A friend from my old D&D group out in the suburbs once said that you can tell there’s a body because the ground does kind of a six-foot by three-foot dip where it’s decaying, and the earth is filling in. Like I said, it’s not just me. But Aly doesn’t like macabre or do horror.

We pull off to park along Hermit Lane because she wants to take the Yellow Trail to Lover’s Leap–the long way–probably take a photo and call it a day.

The first paper mill in British North America was here, she says while we walk along the trail. This was all industry. I nod. She tells me about the Battle of Germantown that happened farther down the trail, about an abandoned trolley bridge, about the legend of a Native American couple who couldn’t be together because of tribal disputes jumping from the rock we’re heading to. She never does her research halfway.

On our first three dates, she was swimming with facts. I had smiled and nodded and found it cute. Figured it would go away the more comfortable with me she got. It’s almost two years later now.

We walk to the trailhead beside a cream and yellow house with a sign outside that says Hermitage, with some stories about the Russian entrepreneurs who lived there and made a couple gazillion for their descendants. I follow her down the trail, which bends and turns sharply. The leaves hide the path every couple of yards, and I think about grabbing her hand to make sure she didn’t slip.

I want to show you something cool. I nod and follow and think about Dr. Wasterman and how she tells me things like You’re afraid of vulnerability and it’s okay when relationships don’t work out. I wonder when you know. Is it in the first couple months when something is just not working? Is it when you get to a year and no one wants to tell anyone else that they love them? What happens when you’re two years deep and you feel numb in your shared apartment, numb when she’s holding your hand?

America’s first doomsday cult was here, she says. The Hermits of the Ridge lived out here and waited in the woods for the world to end.

That I can get behind. She shows me a stone plaque next to the black mouth of a small, man-made cave. Inside it’s about the size of a guest bathroom, rectangular, and surprisingly tucked away from the air of the park outside.

Johannes Kelpius used this place to meditate and think and study–

And just wait for the world to end.

She tells me about how they built a tabernacle and observatory, how they practiced chemistry and astronomy. People say they had the philosopher’s stone, and that Kelpius had thrown it into the Schuylkill before he died, or that it was buried with him, depending on who you ask.

Where’s he buried?

She shrugs and tells me no one knows.

I think again about the bodies.

#

I don’t want to go to this party, but I need to get better at being social. It’s all her friends and people who now say they’re my friends, but if we broke up, I’d never hear from them again. I add that to my growing list: how do you deal with a failed relationship when it makes you a friendless loner afterwards?

We walk south, cross Baltimore, and make a few turns I don’t track, but she knows West Philly better than I ever will. It’s some kind of housewarming party a few months late. We know every housemate, but it will be fun to guess which guest got invited by which person. We’ve brought a bottle of wine that’s just for us because they’re the kind of people who offer Yuengling and PBR to guests alongside cheap tequila and vodka.

It’s loud. I always wonder what neighbors are doing when parties are this loud. How close are they to calling the cops?

I stick close to her, our hands laced. It’s a survival tactic. There’s no soft grip or thumb running across the soft skin at the back of either of our hands. It’s hot and tight, and I wonder exactly how many people this apartment floor can hold while a group of women jump around to Robyn playing over the laptop speakers. Furniture has been moved out of the way to create a makeshift dance floor, and we find a spot on a couch in the corner of the room. No cranny is quiet, but we feel separated from the crush of bodies. We pass the wine bottle back and forth and look at each other. We give up on trying to shout over the music and we’ve stopped holding hands. A year ago at a party, she pulled us out to the balcony and asked if we could make out, and we giggled and held each other where no one could see us. Now it’s like that first night in the Mexican restaurant where we couldn’t keep eye contact. The difference is that back then felt like a start. This feels like we’ve finally tunneled to the other side of the Earth and said now what?

People talk to her. People who have known her far longer than I have and maybe still know her better. I sip the wine from the mouth of the bottle, grip tightly at the neck like I could snap it, and smile when I make eye contact with people. The heavy weight of the wine settles over me all at once when it’s half gone from the bottle and the clock is just past midnight.

She’s good in a crowd. She wouldn’t agree. But she’s good with her friends. All fifteen of her closest friends in one room. I don’t talk to anyone from my college. Maybe I should have been in more clubs.

#

I have a dream about the cave. Or, at least, because of the cave. The outside was the same, but this one went deep and winding. I was pushed down into it by something behind me, and I was tumbling for hours or at least what I understood to be hours in dream time. I never find the bottom because eventually, a work alarm goes off.

I’m in the shower thinking about how cold it’s going to be today and wondering if, with my boss up at the New York office for the day, I’ll have time to just put Netflix on in the bottom corner of my screen and watch something .

I do end up having time. But instead, I google the cave.

Johannes Kelpius was born in the same village as Vlad the Impaler. I hoped that would lead to stories of human sacrifices and Satanic carvings along the ravine in Wissahickon. But the monks were surprisingly kind and open to anyone who stumbled on their sanctuary. When the end of the world came and went, they did too. No fanfare, no Kool-Aid, no shootout. The world didn’t end, but that part of their lives did and they moved on.

I go home and we talk about absolutely nothing that matters over dinner. She puts on sitcoms from the couch, and I clack away at my laptop reading about Kelpius and a faction of historians who actually went on dredging missions in the Schuylkill to see if the philosopher’s stone was really down there.

Aly says she’s going to bed and closes the door without much else, and I’m left in the kitchen by the light of my laptop screen. I wonder if they put enough thought into this elixir for all diseases to make it cure mental ones too.

#

A week later my therapist is talking, and I’m not listening until she says the words break up, and I lift my head. I think it’s a joke for a second. I think maybe she said it because she knew I wasn’t paying attention and wanted me back in the room. But she repeats it again with dead eyes at mine, and I feel that tightness you get at the front of your throat when a good cry is going to come on.

I think it’s something you need to consider, whether this relationship is healthy and sustainable. I wonder if therapists are always this blunt. But I have been focusing on her shitty gas station coffee for two weeks, so I don’t have much to compare it to.

I actually do consider it on the walk home down Chestnut. I pass the City Tap, where we went one Saturday night on the way back from watching a friend play indoor soccer. We got two beers and maybe a little tipsy and didn’t have to pay for our pizza and then went home and had sex. I move past the bagel place we would go on Sundays, trying to get there before the Penn students roused themselves from sleep. A bookstore with a friendly, fat cat that I constantly sent her pictures and videos of. A beer shop where we built overpriced six-packs and got popsicles when it was summer. I can feel all these memories rotting under a time-lapse video like a carved out pumpkin left too long on a stoop. They belong to another part of me now. I can see the pair of us, young, moving down the street, holding hands, and thinking this has to be for forever.

I walk past them. They’re farther behind now. I can’t even hear their footsteps. I do not go back to our apartment.

I get in my car and drive. I think I put on my seatbelt. I don’t remember the car dinging at me. I use turn signals and don’t think I blow through red lights, but I also don’t remember the drive as I move out of West Philly and up through Bala Cynwyd. I cross the river and bob and weave through the tight turns to get to the top of the ridges of Manayunk. I’m not sure what the speed limit is.

I park my car as the sun settles low beneath the trees. Without the leaves, slices of sunlight slide easily between the thick trunks. I follow the path and think about dead bodies and cheap coffee.

It looks like the shadow of a jail window.

She’ll have noticed an hour ago at least that I’m not back yet. I think about meeting her parents and how much I’ll miss them and how I’m supposed to tell my mother that we’re breaking up. How many clothes I’ll have to return. How many gifts strewn through my stuff are things she gave me that will forever carry her aura. I think about sleeping in my bed by myself and all the times I used to wake up confused in the middle of the night when we lived in separate places, and I wondered where she’d gone. Would that be my world, now?

How did those guys camped out here think the world was going to end?

I sit on the dirt floor of the small cave. People could think in here, meditate if you were good at that sort of thing. It’d be even easier back before the screaming cars on Lincoln Drive and Henry Ave.

I think if the world would just die in its sleep, that’d be best. Maybe this is how you do it. In this cave. It’s chilly in here, and the sun’s gone now. I’d like to sleep in here, but I’m not sure I can do it. Hours must have passed now. Is my phone still on?

If you knew the world was going to end, what would you do? It was one of the questions she asked me on an early date. She had at least one odd question every time we went out somewhere. I wondered if she picked it up on other dating apps or had done one of those strange speed dating things. I told her I would eat everything without worrying about carbs or sugars or what happens to my hips and stomach. The answer was the same as if I knew I had a terminal disease that would get me in a couple months.

But I guess I lied. I guess I’m doing this.

I see why he did it. It’s small and contained and a little chilly, but nothing a fire couldn’t handle. I can do it, I think. Trees and leaves and eating berries and finding dry wood and making a small civilization onto myself out of nothing. Monks who were alive and kicking before George Washington ever set foot in Valley Forge did it. And the Lenape long before them. Maybe that Bible passage they named themselves after, the woman in the wilderness, was me after all. Is this how messiah cults start? With someone deluding themselves into thinking they’re the second coming? At three in the morning, anything feels possible. Maybe I’ll find that stone at the bottom of the river. Everything will suddenly click into place, the base metal of our waning relationship transfigured.

The sounds from the road slow and fade, the lights from Center City are something I understand exist but cannot see. She is in a warm bed somewhere in a pocket outside of me, and I think it’s best if she stays there, gets used to it, learns how to live there. I’ll do the same.

#

And then the sun comes up like it always does. Outside the cave there are animals and early morning hikers and the sounds of Henry Ave and racing cars. I step out of the hole and walk back to my car, which has not been towed. I charge my phone to a herd of missed texts and calls, and I’m terribly hungry, and I think maybe gas station coffee wouldn’t be so bad because coffee is coffee and sometimes life is like that.

When I get to our front door and she hears it open and comes running into the living room with dark circles under her eyes and justified anger, I don’t know what I’ll say. I didn’t like that cave. I don’t do well with long silences.

I start by opening my mouth. I think it’s the better route.


Melanie is a copywriter and author living in Belmont Village. Her short fiction has been published in Ghost Parachute, Meat for Tea, and A Woman is a Cinema. Her nonfiction reviews and criticism have appeared in Boulevard, POPSUGAR, Prometheus Dreaming, DIYMFA, and Write Now Philly. Her debut novel was published in 2018 through Waterton Publishing, and her forthcoming second novel is set for publication in 2021 through Lanternfish Press. When not writing she serves as the Marketing & Outreach Coordinator for the 215 Festival, cooking, and exploring Philly’s restaurant scene.

Tend

Natalie_fiction

Sam’s final aching breaths, and the silence between, woke Miri, and she rose from the tangled blankets she slept on beside his hospice cot to hold his hand until it went cold in hers. She had been prepared for weeks now, and the phone was hooked up beside his cot. Her family arrived by dawn, first her grown daughter, Sonya, and then the rest. Some of her cousins brought food when they arrived. After embracing Miri, they pulled off the lids to show her what they had brought—soups, fruit salads, pasta dishes—saying, “So you’re all set for now.” They piled the containers in the fridge and began filling their air mattresses. Miri had insisted that no one get a hotel. She had plenty of space. She helped her family scatter their mattresses around the living room, where she had already dismantled Sam’s cot, and she moved back up to their room, alone.

Under Miri’s direction, her family busied themselves with the arrangements, all the appointments, the calls that needed someone to attend to the line during holds, the normal bills that, in this time, still needed to be paid. Whenever possible, Miri went at tasks alone. Alone she selected the prayer to be read for Sam. She chose the cards she would send out to all who came to the funeral, including the same family members who surrounded her now. She failed only at writing Sam’s eulogy, beginning several times over and never writing more than, What am I going to do without you? What am I going to do? Sonya placed her hands on Miri’s shoulders, almost motherly, and then slid the paper away from Miri. The eulogy no longer her responsibility, Miri asked her cousins what she could do to help make their stay more comfortable, but they always shook their heads, no, no. Eventually she could only stand back and watch the activity around her. Everyday someone had to do laundry before the appointments, the funeral, the reception, the burial. Everyday someone swept the kitchen to attack the footprints of too many shoes. Downstairs, in all moments, there were the sounds of squeaking sneakers on the polyurethaned floors, the faint beeps when someone lifted the phone from the receiver and dialed, the low murmurs as her family tried to prevent Miri’s overhearing. These sounds layered over the silence Sam had left in his wake, and over the many years of his laughter, the scratching of his frantic note-taking each morning before they left for work, his soft coughs of habit, and rendered his presence in their house gone.

The last morning, after all others had departed for their homes, Sonya cooked breakfast for Miri a final time.
“I’m making extra oatmeal. I’ll leave the pot in the fridge, so you can just heat it up this week. Raisins are in and everything.” Sonya placed the pot next to the containers Miri’s cousins had left her. Sam and Miri had never kept this much food in the fridge. On the fridge door, Sam’s picture was posted. The two of them. Miri didn’t know the year it was taken, but it hadn’t been in the last two. In the picture, Sam’s cheeks were not yet gaunt. In the picture, he held her close.

Sonya served this morning’s oatmeal. When Sonya ate, Miri did too. She hardly tasted the oatmeal. It dropped to her stomach and sat heavy there. Sonya’s car waited in the driveway. They both looked at it as they ate. When Sonya said she could stay no longer, they stood and shared a long, uncomforting hug.

Miri murmured, “I’ll call you later, when I expect you’ve settled in.”
Sonya shook her head. “I’ll call as soon as I get home.”

Miri didn’t argue, knowing this was Sonya’s way of expressing care, of needing care. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right around 5:00.”

Falling silent again, Sonya tucked her chin over Miri’s shoulder and squeezed hard. Miri let her, as she had let her daughter try to take care of her all week. Though Sonya was grieving, expressing her grief in the same outreaching manner as Miri, Miri did not worry for her. Sonya had always been close with Sam, and she’d visited enough these last years. And, when she finished the drive, she’d be back to her work, her own life, her own husband. They were hoping to have a child soon. Miri knew Sonya must be in deep pain too, but she was not experiencing the same final loss, the beginning of solitude.

The house went silent once more. Miri reclined on Sam’s side of the couch and closed her eyes for hours.

In the early afternoon, she trudged upstairs and busied herself to try to quell the ache. She made their bed. She only had to tuck the covers over her side. She did not need to lift the covers to her nose to know that they no longer smelled of Sam. He had not slept in their bed for months. She wiped the bathroom counters. Opening the medicine cabinet, she counted Sam’s bottles, six, then tucked them behind her own medications and closed the cabinet. In the mirror she watched herself lift and drop her shoulders once, twice. Through the silence cut the loud crackle of her joints. Miri studied her reflection as she brought her hands to her neck and rubbed. The ache endured.

Downstairs, she unpacked the fridge and freezer, decorated the kitchen table with Tupperware containers. She pulled off the lids. Miri’s cousins and Sonya had preserved the food perfectly, all of the quick-to-spoil foods in the freezer. With the fruit salad alone, she had enough food to last for days. Tiny crystals formed on the berries, reflecting under the kitchen lights. Miri replaced all the lids and returned the food to the fridge and freezer. She would eat another time, later. She did not look at Sam’s face as she closed the refrigerator door.

Drawn curtains darkened the living room. The shadows nearly obscured the carpet imprints where her family had set up their mattresses, where Sam’s cot had stood. Miri would not go in there again, not right now, and she retreated back into the kitchen until she stood near her walking shoes. After studying them a moment, she put them on.

Outside, the temperature had risen since she’d last been out. “It is summer,” Miri whispered. Soon sweat bloomed on her brow, and the arthritis in her knees warmed, flared. She would not turn back yet. It was only 2:00 when she left. She did not have to be home for Sonya’s call for hours. She pressed through, kept going, went all the way downtown. She had nearly reached the river and could go no further, and she thought to turn back, but to her left she spotted a cafe she and Sam had never been to. She would order sparkling water, or iced tea, and return home. She chose a table outside under an umbrella.

A quiet waiter brought her a menu, and Miri requested water, said she’d have to look over the menu. When he went inside, she did not open the menu right away. Only a few cars were parked on this street, and fewer drove by. Nothing caught her eye, and she soon thought of home, of the grating, interminable silence. Only two or three months ago, when Sam had the strength to sit up, she’d moved him from the living room cot to the porch for a few hours. He knew it was her spring gardening weekend, and he said he’d like to watch her work. She could not bear to tell him that she hadn’t been able to buy the topsoil this season—she hadn’t been able to step away from home to do so. She’d left him on the porch to catch her breath inside; and even now, replaying this moment, she fought to keep her breath unchoked.
But seated in the shade, the breeze was good on her scalp. Her sweat began to dry, and she first forced and then allowed herself to pay attention to the wind lifting her hair.

The waiter returned with her water and asked, “What else can I get you, ma’am?”

Miri hadn’t looked at the menu. She wanted nothing, felt no hunger, and said so, but added quickly, “An iced tea will do.”

“That’s a good choice for a day like this. Sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“Oh…” Miri started, thinking of the piles of food at home that her cousins had prepared for her, how if she let it go bad, she would not be returning their care. But to get to the food, she’d have to reach past Sam’s picture. She’d be haunted, while eating standing up in the kitchen, by how she ended up with this food. By the silence around her.

If she ate a bit now, she could delay it all, and she said, “Perhaps you can point me to something light.”

The waiter gestured as though to hand Miri the menu, then stepped back, clutched the menu to his chest. “The scones are good. They’ll brighten your day. Just baked this morning.”

Miri nodded, and he returned inside.

Under the umbrella, she was no longer overheated, was simply warmed, swaddled. The sun was not directly overhead anymore, but still it couldn’t be near 5:00, when Sonya would call. Soon, Miri would have to trudge home to catch Sonya’s call—soothe her from a distance, assure her there was nothing more they could do for her father—but not yet.

Miri watched those passing by, and those coming to the cafe for a light bite. A family entered—a couple with a young child, perhaps nine. Soon a man and dog approached the cafe, and the man secured his dog’s leash near Miri’s table. He went inside. Miri watched him order, watched him wait. He glanced toward the door often, craning his neck to see his dog, checked again for his food at the counter. His dog, large and long-eared and hairy, some sort of spaniel, stood patiently, panting in the sun. Miri scooped an ice cube from her water glass and threw it to the dog. The dog sniffed the cube, licked it once, then sat up straight again and resumed panting. Droplets formed on his tongue, fell to and darkened the sidewalk. It was the hot part of the day, perhaps unsafe for a dog to sit in direct sun on concrete. Miri patted her thigh, and as she hoped, the dog scooted closer and stood within the umbrella’s reach. The dog looked up at Miri, the whites of his eyes flashing, his mouth open as though smiling, and then faced the cafe, watching again for the man.

Miri reached out, hovered her hand near his shoulder. The dog did not turn to snap, and Miri extended her fingertips to touch his coat lightly. The dog shifted his stance, his hip against Miri’s leg, almost leaning. Miri rested her hand on his back, warm and damp beneath her palm, but then the cafe door opened, and the dog leapt from her touch to greet his companion.

The man flashed Miri a quick smile but did not speak as he stooped to untie his dog. She watched them go, holding her water glass. Her palms chilled once more. Sonya would be crossing the state border soon, would speed up, mesmerized by her nearness to home.
The waiter came out and presented her with a scone on a little dessert plate.

“This is one of the last of the day. They sell out quick.”

“I’ll be glad to eat it. Thank you,” Miri said and waited until he was inside to try the scone. It had a cakey quality, the butter a little too noticeable, but it crumbled nicely with each bite, and the subtle flavor did not overwhelm her. On this day, this was something she could eat, and she ate it slowly. When she finished, she leaned back in her chair. The sun lowered and grew more glaring.

When the waiter brought out her check, he met her eyes and smiled at her, but other customers needed him, and he said no more before returning inside. Miri might not have another unstrained exchange for weeks. She reached for the bill and held the edge. The thermal paper crumpled easily, and she rolled the bill’s edge between her fingers, made the paper even softer. Then she tucked it back into the presenter, but not yet with her payment. It had to be nearly 5:00 now, and Miri could not walk home in time. Sonya would soon call to tell Miri she arrived safely. If Miri were home to pick up, she would note the relief in Sonya’s voice, always present after a long drive home, but weaker than usual, toned down perhaps for Miri’s sake. In the background, she’d hear the blaring TV as Sonya’s husband watched his after-work show. She’d point this out to Sonya, draw her back to her life and the goodness in it, and soon Sonya would excuse herself from the call. Other family members would call too, arriving home after long drives or flights, asking one more time if Miri needed a gift card for additional meals. And their check-ins, Sonya’s included, would overbrim with love, and yet they would each take something out of Miri.

Warm in the day’s last strong rays, Miri did not have it in her to push her aching body away from the chair, rush home, and listen. The calls would end, and she’d be left keenly aware of the empty house, its hush.

Now the city was growing louder. Sitting outside this cafe, she heard the traffic in the distance, the voices of workers leaving corporate buildings down the street, and the afternoon wind rushing the river along. Miri sat awhile longer, listening to these sounds. She clasped her hands together and placed her chin atop her folded, warm hands. She closed her eyes.


Natalie Gerich Brabson is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and holds a BA in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Her fiction has been published in Cleaver Magazine, New World Writing, and Eunoia Review. In 2017 she was selected as Go On Girl Book Club’s Unpublished Writer Awardee. She lives in West Philadelphia and is at work on her first novel.

Head On

Bill Hemmig final headshot

The construction truck in the opposing lane, exceeding the speed limit, careers into my lane and right at me. I am immobile, staring, my hand not getting the signal to blast the horn. I might manage to dive onto the shoulder but the truck’s driver stops doing whatever distracted him and sees me and, with two car lengths between us, slides back into the correct lane. We pass each other and continue as we were.

This was a country road long before my lifetime and it is now a two-lane route number winding through suburb after suburb with too many vehicles, too many traffic lights, and too many vehicles making left turns where there are no traffic lights. I find that I am oddly tranquil. Everything moves as if it’s all choreographed, anticipated, unfolding in accordance with some plan. Only the careering construction truck felt real. Nothing since.

It strikes me that perhaps nothing since the construction truck has been real. The human brain is capable of breathtaking deceptions. Immanuel Kant wrote that our experience of the world is created entirely in our minds. What if none of this is real? Did the truck driver remain distracted? Was there a head-on collision back there? Am I now smashed and contorted between my dashboard and the seat, the steering wheel in my chest, the air bag smashed flat, left in unimaginable, unendurable pain? If so, my mind has shut my senses down and has chosen as a frantic grasp at endurance to put up a world around me in which I am driving home on this two-lane route number with too many suburbs and too many traffic lights and left-turning vehicles, and all of it choreographed and anticipated and tranquil.

Am I in shock, deluding myself in an extreme form of anaesthetic?

I think forward. My next turn is coming up. I will take my place behind a half-dozen or so others waiting for the light to change. The light will change and a few of the cars ahead will wait to turn left after the oncoming traffic has passed. The rest of us will snake around them and I will turn right. I will accelerate to forty-five miles per hour unless the cars before and after me want to go faster in which case I will oblige them. A concealed police car will not pull the middle car over for speeding. I will chuckle at the monumental pillars on my left flanking the entrance to a driveway leading to a modest house.

I take my place behind one two three four five six seven eight others and we wait for the light to change. The light changes. The first, third and fourth cars have their left turn signals on waiting for oncoming traffic to pass. The rest of us snake around them. The sixth car turns right and I follow. No one follows me. The sixth car accelerates to fifty at least but with no one behind me I could be the one pulled over and so I accelerate only to forty-five and am soon traveling alone. I chuckle condescendingly at the monumental pillars and the modest house.

I arrive at home. Everything is familiar and unsurprising and I enter the house as if in a recurring dream. Appropriately, and as usual, Amina’s sleepwalking aria from La Somnambula drifts into the background of my mind. I remember it’s Thursday and one of Laura’s gym evenings, which means she will be home around seven with takeout Thai food. I deposit the mail on the front hall table and hang my blazer in the closet where I also leave my shoes. I can’t remember why we all started leaving our shoes in the front hall closet many years ago, but it’s what we do. I wonder when, if, I’m going to return to reality, and how great the pain will be when, if, I do, and Amina is interrupted by that Radiohead song with the persistent lyric to the effect that what we experience isn’t necessarily true. I wonder again if the front man for Radiohead, whose name I can never remember but always try to, ever read Kant. I wonder if help has yet arrived.

I find the morning newspaper in the living room on the coffee table where Laura always leaves it and where I never have time to look at it in the morning. Settling onto the couch, I notice the sideboard across the room and consider fixing myself a whiskey and as I always do, having already sat down, decide against it. Radiohead is interrupted by the unsurprising sound of gunshots from upstairs. Alexander is lying on his bed, having been home from work for the past hour, binge-watching a true-crime program. Twenty-six years old and this is his life: works menially and without interest, arrives at his parents’ home by five-fifteen, goes to his room, and binge-watches true-crime programs on television. Laura will come home around seven and she will have green curry chicken because it’s Thursday and she brought home vegetable pad Thai the last time. Alexander will pause the television and then the three of us will sit at the dining table and repeat the usual predictable banalities between silences and then Alexander will return to his room and unpause the television until bed time. (At his age, I will silently note as I always do, I was cramming for the bar exam and dating my future wife.) And then my wife and I will unpack our laptops and sit on opposing sides of the living room listening to public radio and catching up on our work email without urgency or conversation until bed time.

I must still be trapped in my car. I suppose that if I continue to, as I do, once again, without plan or motive, sit on this couch in stocking feet perusing the newspaper without interest listening to gunshots upstairs, followed by sirens—or are they the sirens rushing to my crushed M5?—and it all does not just stop, I suppose that means I haven’t died. It means as well that living remains unendurable.

As always I pause to consider getting up to get a whiskey, or to set the table for dinner, or to climb upstairs to talk sense to Alexander, but I don’t. Because that’s never what happens. None of this is happening. I am waiting for someone to pull me from the wreckage.


Bill Hemmig spent the first 25 years of his life in Pennsylvania and recently moved back after 23 years living in New Jersey. He has twice been named a finalist in the New Millennium Writing Awards (43rd and 47th). He has been published in the online journal Children, Churches & Daddies and in The World Takes, an anthology of writings about New Jersey. He is also the Dean of Learning Resources at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania.

Comedians

Sarah_Westbrook_headshot_FICTION

Standing before a group of strangers is the closest thing Angela has to achieving her dreams or making her mark on the world. She seesaws her arm, delivers a joke about a merman who pools his money with a sea urchin to get a triton.

As part of the deal for getting a regular slot, Angela closes the bar down, mopping the sticky puddles off the floor, thinking they look like amoebas, now tritons, now clouds. The crowds at her shows have been meager. Live performances can’t compete with the larger-than-life entertainment programming available at the fingertips of every person with a mastery portal.

When she decided to pursue comedy full time, she faced consternation from each person she told. “No really, I’m happy,” Angela said, her face taking on the earnest insistence of a preacher, a believer. The friends, but mostly the family, looked back bewildered.

“But you make money by telling stories about yourself onstage,” her mother said, perplexed. “Honey, why don’t you tell us some of those stories instead of parading them around to strangers?”

“Maaahm,” she said playfully. She and her mother had never understood each other. What’s the deal with all the people related to you being so vastly different from you? “They’re not just stories,” she said. “They’re funny stories.”

“What makes you think they’re so funny?” her mother said, and Angela could only think of the moments at home when she was young when everything was still and the lamp by her mother’s chair was on as they sat silently at their solitary projects—her mother sewing, her father reading a book, and she drawing in the margins of newspapers—and how only with years passing was it possible to see anything humorous there at all.

 

On the walk home, the wind blows straight through her jacket, infiltrating her skin, her muscles, until it reaches her organs, dancing low in her kidneys. The deep cold always unearths the questions settled in her gut. Like, can you do something just because it’s good? And, what are the masses of the collective good things you’ve done in your lifetime, how much do they weigh, and would you be willing to part with them? The questions are like stale beer—they sit wrong on the tongue but settle in the bloodstream.

 

“You can take off your shoes,” the nurse says, “and then step up on the scale.”

Angela obediently removes her boots. She is on the scale, her body and her goodness being added in, although she guesses that goodness would be so light, so particular, that it would vanish if you tried to capture it.

“How do these things usually go?” she asks the nurse once she has stepped off the scale and is zipping up her boots. The light in the room illuminates everything, the dark circles under both of their eyes echoing each other like tidal moons.

“Now that I’ve gotten your vitals, I’ll finish entering them into our system, and the doctor will look them over and be in with you—”

“No,” Angela says, shaking her head. “I don’t mean that. I mean This.” She gestures at her left-side chest.

“It’s very simple,” the nurse says, snapping her chart closed. “As you know, the heart is not adequate for modern life. The stresses of interacting with the mastery portal, high-demand jobs, and the implementation of the extended work week made it just too unsafe not to intervene. The heart is fragile. But with this surgery, we plant an electro-synthetic bolstering mechanism around it, increasing the average life span by at least ten percent. The full procedure takes a little more than two hours, plus an overnight in the hospital for recovery time.”

“Just one night?” Angela asks. That seemed fast to be back out in the world after having your chest cut open.

“Yes,” the nurse says briskly. “It’s a marvel of modern medicine.”

 

Outside is bitter, the clouds hanging low and close to the buildings, everything dingy in the grey afternoon. In front of the clinic, a few people are passing out pamphlets from a small stand. How wild, Angela thinks, that we are not all deeply religious in such a terrifying world.

She takes a pamphlet as she walks by, but just because she feels sorry for them. Fringe groups, these odd preachers that sprang up a few years ago, yet no one can place them—they have no doctrine to sell, no real name. They seemed interested in awe, in the unnoticed beauty of experiences, and maybe this alone made them awkward, unmanageable, improperly located in the world.

 

As she enters her apartment, Angela realizes she has begun to feel safer knowing that she—that her heart—will be protected soon. Her building is one of the tallest at fifteen stories, and the windows in the kitchen peer out over the sweep of city and water. This is why she chose the apartment: for the view, the sense of her own smallness.

The pamphlet springs open when she sets it on the coffee table, where she eats and keeps her mastery portal. The portal stores electronic books and projects her to-do list onto the wall every morning, the blue letters sitting immoveable, impersonal as they halo out onto the plaster.

She turns the portal light off and examines the pamphlet more closely. Do they want money? Always the first concern. But no, it didn’t appear so. There was a quote from a Sister Bernadette. Were they reclaiming something old, something Catholic, something so out of style it was now back in style? Sister Bernadette said, “If you regard the world as a work of art, it helps you understand things. The world is filled with a creative beauty, employing only a few principles to make elaborate structures. This is something we can choose to do: to use beauty as litmus test.”

But a litmus test for what?

 

Sometimes if she is nervous onstage, she plays a trick where she tries focusing on a random variable. The weather is popular. The order you buttoned the clasps on your shirt. The name your parents picked for you. From the stage, everyone is hard to make out. Her adrenaline is usually pumping so quickly that she can’t focus enough to see details. Her eyes sweep over faces, blobs without lips, lips without voices. She thinks of them taking her in from their end of things, everything about her highlighted in the too-bright stage lights. Every curl of her hair drawn up like a singularity, small nose on a delicate face, the rich brown of her eyes impossible to see unless you are close, like you are going to kiss her or tell her a secret thing about you. Pick one of these things and you’ll see that you can’t pick just one, that they can be followed into each another, like wormholes, tunnels into a different time and then back again.

 

Sister Bernadette from the pamphlet also says this: Making a discovery is more than just stumbling into a revelation. Real discovery takes recognition of what you’ve found and a desire to pursue a world that is more beautiful.

And Angela has a new project that has crept up on her. She has decided that she wants to write a commencement address. Or something like it. No one’s going to read this one from a podium looking out at a field of shining, upturned faces. Could it still be a commencement address if it never made it to a commencement ceremony?

She liked the feeling of having done something, if not the doing itself, which maybe made the commencement address her perfect medium. The ultimate retrospective, doling out advice one did not necessarily have to have taken. She is not sure if she’ll use it as material for her show yet, if it will be funny enough. But there is also something to be said for stumbling into things, trying them on, giving them a whirl, throwing caution away for the irrepressible what-ifs. Sister Bernadette would doubtless agree.

 

“I understand, I really do,” Angela says, her throat tight. Her free hand flies up to touch her heart.

“Uh-huh. No, it’s no problem. Okay. Thank you. Bye.” The cell phone lies leaden in her palm. How typical of her to thank them for her show’s rejection. Another waste of time with who knows how many nights spent hunched over the coffee table, drafting humor from life’s encounters. Nothing to show for it. She slides the phone into her back pocket and wipes at the bottom of her eyes. So. There would be no further auditions for her comedy show—the executives had decided that it wouldn’t work on any of the networks, that portal audiences didn’t want comedy; they wanted drama and suspense. High emotion, crying or gasping only. Angela could picture the other people in her building, and in hundreds of apartment buildings just like hers, absorbed in a show projected by their mastery portals, sunk into their couches, watching shadows fall in love or lose their lives or have children. She sat for a second on the too-soft couch cushions, blinking.

First, no heart implant. And what were the odds of that? They’d not even called her but left an automated voice report at her apartment, the mechanical voice echoing against the windowpanes. Everyone got approved for it. It was supposed to be a gesture toward equality. Or at least of standardization. They had told her that less than one percent of people were ineligible. God. Speaking of which, what would Sister Bernadette say about this?

 

“I want it gone,” Angela says.

“All of it?” The barber looks uncertain, her fingers sifting through the long layers that reach Angela’s lower back. But Angela only nods her head yes.

The barber cuts Angela’s hair short and blunt, across her neck and above her eyes. Angela wants to let something about herself start over, to watch it grow from its roots like something stricken and shorn, an unexpected comeback, the plant you have forgotten to water for months suddenly flourishing in a beam of sunlight that had been out of reach—forgotten rotations, shifting hemispheres.

 

“Aren’t you relieved?” His face is fierce and open, long cheeks that have always reminded her of windowpanes. But he does not open like windows do.

She makes a face at him. “No, I wouldn’t really say that was my first reaction. Disbelief? Disappointment? Any of those might fit a little better.”

“All right, all right,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m saying you should be relieved.” He sips his coffee. Half milk, no sugar, too much like watery mud for Angela’s taste. “Or could be,” he adds, seeing the way she’s staring at him, not altogether friendly.

“Well that’s just great. I’ll make a note: ‘Could be relieved.’ Nice to have options.”

“Fine. I’m just saying that it might not be the worst thing in the world not to have the implant. There are risks.”

“Everything has risks,” she says, drawing her lips together. He is a sometime lover from after college, the period when she was desperately trying to make it, hustling to get a few minutes of stage time at some club or another. Desperately trying, too, to feel less alone. He was the technical stage manager for one of her first shows, a guy uncomfortable with attention, preferring to turn the volume up on other people. These days they drift toward and away from one another, months of quiet preoccupation floating between them. But they have eventually returned to one another in some form.

He seems about to say something, his mouth chewing a phrase over, but he meets her eyes and stays quiet.

“What?” she says. She can’t always read him, but he seems softer than last time.

“You wanna get outta here?”

She thinks of a bit of poetry as they walk. Part of her feels so tenderly toward him that she wants to take him in her arms and keep him close enough that they can hear each other’s hearts beating as if they are contained in one another. But he cannot erase her loneliness.

What was it some poet had said? Or was it her doctor? She couldn’t remember. She did know that it had been something about going out onto her heart. As onto a vast plain.

 

A month passes, cold days that dissipate as the sun sets and seem to turn the world more bitter. Trees dotting the city intersections darken and drop all their leaves. I guess we’re all giving up, Angela thinks, standing at her window and watching the wind ripple across the river.

On Saturday, she drags herself out of the apartment for one reason: on the back of the pamphlet she’d taken from the preachers was information about a support group for people who are ineligible for the heart implant.

Her recent disappointments feel like they have come at great cost, perhaps even the price of her future. Yet, Angela forces herself to look harder at what else might be there. She thinks this is what Sister Bernadette might suggest. Which is how she finds herself in the half-submerged bottom floor of a community center that is in seriously bad shape. Dislodged tiles expose the dirt underneath the floor, paint peels in irregular strips from the doorframes, and water damage pocks the ceilings.

Taxes go to mastery portal efficiencies and entertainment shows. That’s where voters had decided the money should go, not community buildings. The last library near her had closed three years ago, and Angela is surprised this center still exists and hasn’t been transformed into one of those nightclubs where people can watch everything on camera from their portals without attending in person.

Angela takes in the crowd milling around the deteriorating room. She starts for the table with the paper cups and the coffee urn, and then she sees him adding cream to his cup of coffee that she already knows is diluted beyond any acceptable coffee-to-milk ratio.

“Oh my god, what are you doing here?” she whispers, tugging him away from the group.

“I’m just getting a coffee,” he says, ripping open yet another creamer and smiling at her like this is actually funny.

“What? So now you’re stalking me?”

He laughs. “No. But I do want to support you.”

“Yeah, that’s why I came to this support group. For support.”

He sighs through his nose, and he seems about to reach for her hand, but he’s still holding the coffee. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks. Besides, I really wanted to hear your commencement address.”

“How did you even know—”

“I didn’t. I come here sometimes myself,” he says, ducking his head a little and sipping.

Angela’s stomach knots. “You do? Why?”

“I never went through the process of going to the appointments and getting approval for the implant and all that, and I don’t intend to. Like I told you, I think it has risks. And those risks aren’t worth it to me.”

She stares at him. He seems completely unknown to her. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He shrugs. “I don’t say a lot of things that I should. But I’m saying it now. And I hope you don’t mind that I’m here because I would hate to miss this mediocre coffee and the chance to hear the wisdom you’ve committed to paper in your commencement address.”

Angela’s heart thrums and the voices in the room mingle in a hymn of life going on. She closes her eyes, feels everything coursing through her like she is the conduit to another universe, like she is the real portal. But maybe that’s not quite right, she thinks. Maybe we all are.

When she opens her eyes, he’s standing there, looking a little concerned. “Okay,” she says. “But you’re the one who’s going to have to live with my devastatingly impactful speech possibly changing everything about your life.”

“Deal.” He grins, and they make their way back over to the circle of people.

The group has gathered some fold-out chairs, and a woman with cropped hair is speaking.

“I declined to receive the implant when I turned thirty and it came time for my procedure. I just got really scared, and I thought, why go through all that? I don’t need to live ten percent longer or whatever they promised. I’m like, why am I not just spending my time doing the things I already want to do, instead of taking artificial steps to supposedly prolong everything? What’s there to prolong if I’m not doing things I really care about? You know, they never even did that many studies about the implant or its effectiveness. And here we are, having our bodies sliced open for a surgery that promises things that have never even been proven.” She shakes her head and runs her hand over her face.

“I just don’t want that kind of life. That’s all. I want to find my own way to the things that matter.” There’s a gentleness in the room, a waiting for someone else to share.

One man talks about how he started going through the process of getting the implant, but then his doctor told him he’d only be eligible if he first got plastic surgery to fit the standardized body size requirement. An older woman shares that her daughter was one of the first to get the implant and died of complications. After that, she didn’t want anything to do with it, even as they were phasing in later generations.

The circle of speakers continues. No one has the heart implant, and no one wants it.

It’s Angela’s turn. She reaches into her back pocket and unfolds a square of paper she salvaged from the wrapping around her egg carton. This is where she wrote her commencement address, added beauty to the world where nothing before had been articulated.

Her heart is pounding, the song of her body unrelenting as the wind outside undulates the water around the city. The people sitting before her shift and murmur in their seats.

This is what she has, and it is real. And so, she speaks.


Sarah Westbrook is a writer from New Hope, Pennsylvania. She received her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Oberlin College. She is an editor at an organization that researches social policy.

Litter Entries

Litter Entries

By Dog Cavanaugh

 

Days 1 and 2

On the first two days, we did what they called shadow dumps. Several of us were in training. We followed people around outside different government buildings and watched them pick up litter and trash. When there was a big enough pile of bags, we helped carry them across the street to the compactors behind City Hall. Sometimes people talked to us about what they were doing, but mostly it was all about watching. Someone told us they did things this way because too many people baled on the job in the first week. Why spend so much effort training people who decide they’re too good for trash? We definitely felt like shadows.

No one knew anything about my background. They hadn’t asked for a résumé, or even a list of references. I figure I got the job because I appeared young and strong and at least semi-social and presentable. I was also actually interested enough in the work to ask questions during the interview — like why are some trash bags black and others this kind of clear blue?

Lorenzo Doxley is the crew chief for the City-wide Clean Team (CCT). Most people call him Dox. He worked his way up from ditch digging on an asphalt team to rubbish truck driver to crew chief. Dox wears CCT badge #0031. I became badge #0974. We all wear official forest-green tee-shirts that say CCT on them, except for Dox who wears full button-down twill work shirts and a walkie-talkie on his belt.

 

Day 3

On this, the third day, Dox pulls me aside and says I’m with him. He will turn me loose “when it seems apparent.” LOVE Park is going to be my beat — across the street from the Municipal Services Building, caddy-corner to City Hall.

“Okay now,” Dox says. “Need you to watch. They’s three of ‘em over there.” He swings a finger to the side without looking. I see a woman in an over-sized white tee-shirt — dirty bare feet, unwashed legs, swarthy brown skin, long gray matted hair. I also see a Black teen with big popping hyperthyroid eyes, matchstick arms and legs, bucked teeth, a shaved head, baggy jeans, and a tunic-like black 3X sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. There’s also a shiny amber-skinned guy near a corner of the park. He’s round and fat and his jeans stick somehow just near the base of his butt. You can see a yellow-gray pair of boxers. His tee is two sizes too small for him, pinching his arms, making them look like loaves of rye bread. His skin is only slightly darker than mine.

All three slowly rotate their heads from side to side, staring at the ground, stepping carefully. It looks like an early morning martial art they’ve invented. The woman stops, squats, picks something up, puts it to her lips, and stands. It’s a two-inch stub of cigarette. She lifts the hem of her giant tee-shirt and slides a hand inside a tight pair of workout shorts. An orange lighter comes out pinched between the tips of two fingers. She ignites the stub, inhales, then closes her eyes. A half-smile tugs at her pursed lips. Smoke trails from her nose. She leans back and turns slightly towards the sun. Ripples of heat swarm the smoke around her face. She takes another deep pull and seems like she’s in ecstasy.

Dox nudges me and points again. Two older people, a man and a woman, stand over a trash can. “They looking for the easy ones.”

“Easy?”

“Folks smack out smokes with they foot, then actually put ‘em in the trash. Like Good Samaritans.” He smiles, then produces a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. I watch him light up, then turn my face enough so that I won’t be forced to breathe his smoke. A big slap of heat flashes against my cheek. Someone walking close by says, “You could light a smoke with that bitch sun.”

“Just want you to know,” Dox says. He’s looking at the two people still digging through the trash. “Always give time in the morning. They do your work for you. And not just smoke butts. They take care of half drinks and leftover food, clothing, newspaper, stuff like that.”

I let my vision swim out and over the whole park. Dox takes another shot off his cigarette. “Gotta watch careful. Some of ‘em know to put shit in the cans. They the long timers. Pick up around here just because it’s something to do.”

His cigarette is only half spent, but he bends down from his seat and carefully nudges the ember out on the cement. I figure maybe he’ll slide it back in the pack for later in the day. Instead, he gently lays it on the bench and stands.

“Give twenty minutes more. Most of ‘em be up and do what they do. Then get in to your day.” I stand and stretch a little like I’ve just gotten out of bed. He gives me a chuckle. “Strange, huh, how you feel like them when you watch too much?” Before I can answer he says, “Come on then, I show you where we keeps the bags and pokes and brooms and other tools of trade you gonna need.”

We head around the perimeter of the park. “If you feel like all this is making you a little crazy, let me know. Remember, too, they changes up the people sometimes. We don’t know from days who we got. And just for the record, I do not know what happens to anyone.”

I should have paid more attention to those words, but I am too busy watching a beautiful blond woman in sunglasses and a tight business skirt strutting through the middle of everything on her way to work. It is surprising how much stuff I ended up collecting that day. I remember very well beginning to wonder about counting stuff and keeping a decent enough record of what I was doing.

 

Day 9

Dox declares to us at lunch today that LOVE Park is a jewel in Philly’s crown, but he also says it’s not officially called LOVE Park. The nickname comes from the statue of the word “LOVE” mounted on a rack at the park’s east corner. The real name is John F. Kennedy Plaza.

LOVE is spelled out as a block of four letters, two to a row, the big, gaping, sloppy O swung sideways. The fountain beyond the letters, in the center of the park, sprays water into the light-blue sky that streams off into the city’s white summer haze.

Beyond the LOVE statue and the fountain is Ben Franklin Parkway, which looks like a long, straight river flowing away from the center of things. The Art Museum of Philadelphia bobs off in the distance at the top of the hill ending the Parkway, with its famous Rocky steps from the movie. Jean Brown, who was in my shadow dump group, got assigned as the sanitation specialist in the Art Museum area. Dox told us she’s got more space than I do but less people who spend the day. He said that for some reason when the tourists are down there they don’t litter much. They like to run the steps and take photos with the Rocky statue off to the side at the bottom of the steps, but they take care of their litter.

 

Day 22

I collected 76 sections of newspaper today and 19 magazines. I also picked up 37 plastic bags blowing around, 11 hoagie wrappers (after the partially eaten sandwiches were devoured by my people), 103 plastic beverage containers, 19 Styrofoam™ salad clamshells, 7 empty pizza boxes, 6 glass bottles, 24 foam and/or paper coffee cups, and 143 cigarette butts. We have special blue bags for paper and plastic bottles. I tried talking to Dox about recycling the glass, but he said it was too dangerous. If you break any of the glass in a bag of recyclables, it means you have to throw everything away. Cardboard is a funny thing for us to deal with. People use it to sleep and sit on. We usually leave it. Somehow it takes care of itself.

I didn’t happen to count the clothes I picked up, nor the shoes that appear and then disappear. These are left by all the homeless people in the park when church groups arrive with bags of donated clothes. What gets left by one person usually gets picked up fast enough by someone else. The only clothing I had to deal with was drenched with body odor or was partially coated in some indeterminate kind of liquid.

 

Day 41

Today is hotter than yesterday. A few old men play chess, shirtless in the heat. A group of six are focused on a card game in the shade. A man and a woman lie together spooning on a bench in another shade patch. He is unshaven with long hair straggling off the back of an otherwise bald head; she has a severe gap between her two top front teeth and wears pink polyester slacks. I can tell she’s braless in her tee-shirt that says “Coca-Cola” in that famous stylized lettering.

Every once in a while, the man adjusts behind her and slips his hand under her shirt. I see him playing with her breasts. Two spent McDonald’s sacks lie on the ground in front of them along with wrappers and cups. I don’t know if this mess is theirs or not, but I don’t move to pick it up. They’re junkies without doubt because yesterday I watched them score whatever it is they put in themselves at this same bench. They gave each other double high-fives and kind of danced around a little, then they started making out to the point where sex was inevitable. I turned away. A few other people did, too. Now they are strung out sleeping.

 

Day 44

By far, the worst part of this job is picking up cigarette butts. They’re everywhere and somehow they’re also almost always separate and alone on the ground. No other litter gets near cigarette butts. So, they’re a pain to pick up, especially when they’re flattened after a heal crushing. I collected 154 today. They’re like little exotic dead roachworms. That makes about three hundred in two days. It’s insane, I know, but I’m going to keep that tally going. And, no, I am not saving them or anything like that. Also, I’m only talking about real butts here. I occasionally pick up stubs and halfies, but generally I leave them for the homeless and others.

 

Day 47

A short dark woman with a crew cut of copper-colored hair, missing a few front teeth, wanders up to me. She wears a seersucker smock thing and carries yellow foam rubber flip-flops in her left hand. I anticipate being asked for some kind of help or money, but I’m sure I’ve seen her around some, which might mean that she knows not to ask me. Regardless, I prepare myself.

“Do a nice job, boy.”

“Thanks,” I say. She gives me a big grin. I’m thinking fast. “I got nothing for you.” I intend to sound decisive, maybe even authoritative. It comes out like I’m an asshole.

“Can’t you take a compliment?” She puts her hand to her chin, looks from side to side. “But, okay. Give you a nice blow?” she whispers. “Take my teeth out.” She places her right thumb and forefinger in her mouth and removes her top teeth.

I try to laugh. “I’m fine.” Except, I’m also an asshole.

She shakes her head almost like she can read my mind, but also forgives me. “Been watching you.” She moves her index finger in and out of her mouth, then comes to a stop and raises her eyebrows. “I’m Emma. Pretty good when ain’t no teeth in.”

Emma might be in her late thirties, but her face is aged in too many directions. She could also be in her late fifties. I realize I can’t really tell whether she’s Latin, Italian, Black, or some kind of Asian. Probably other options, too. Maybe she’s some of everything like me. Everything and nothing, I think. How easy for people to do to me what they have to her.

“I’m sorry, Emma. I already have a girlfriend.” I offer this excuse as politely as my embarrassment will allow. I had a girlfriend, but I was moving too fast with my emotions and showing my vulnerable side a bit too much.

Emma takes a step back and shakes her head. “I dint say I’d bone you, boy. That’s different.” She puts her teeth back in and begins to rummage around in the pocket of her smock.

My confusion and embarrassment probably looked pretty funny from any vantage point in the park. “Hey, I just work here,” I manage.

“Wanted to share my gratitude is all.” I watch her move down the walkway. She’s got a full cigarette between her fingers and a blue lighter in her other hand.

A few hours later, I see Emma sitting in the shade of a trash bin I’d just emptied. She was staring down at the blue lighter in her hand, crying.

 

Day 55

I’ve taken to smoking sometimes when Dox offers me one. Sometimes, too, I find good stubs on the ground. I should probably leave them to people who need them, but somehow I’m getting that itch and it feels normal. Maybe everyone should see what I see.

 

Day 61

They’re unfolding stands all around the park today, getting ready for tomorrow night. I was told to be extra vigilant with all litter. Dox and I steam-clean the two piss areas on the north edge of the park. One is for men (it’s worse and more public). The other is for the women.

I’ve seen Emma crouching behind a large boulder with some of the other women, talking and wiping with beige napkins — mostly from Subway and Starbucks. Seeing women wipe themselves is very touching. They all have different ways of doing it. Some are quite decisive and swipe kind of hard. Some are quick and nonchalant, using one or two flicks and then they’re out of there. Others dab carefully. Emma keeps her eyes on the ground in front of her. A lot of them don’t. They look around to see if anyone is watching. I know I’m an asshole for making myself aware of any of this, let alone writing it down, but I mean it when I say it’s touching.

 

Day 62

“Gonna be difficult today,” Dox says, looking down JFK Parkway to where they’re constructing a stage at the base of the art museum steps. The stage is next to Rocky. Someone has put a flag or a robe on him. This is all nearly a mile down the parkway, but I can see red white and blue on Rocky, a flowing cape with sparkling stars, even from such a long distance, like they’re ignition buttons for a whole bunch of things that are going to happen soon enough.

I ask Dox why it’s going to be a hard day.

“Gotta keep ‘em from pissing here until tomorrow ‘round noon when new folks begin to arrive.” He waved his hand at the whole park. “You know any of ‘em yet?”

“I…well, yeah, some….”

“Get the word out, then. Tell them not to piss in them corners. Go down to the subway. I got it cleared with SEPTA. They leave ‘em alone. But keep your eye out. I hate cleaning this shit up, then having folks piss on it again before an event. ‘Specially because they’re probably getting replaced.”

“Replaced?”

He squints out at the park and shakes his head. “I told you, kid. Don’t worry about it. Who knows what? Just take it all on for me.”

I stage myself, switching back and forth between the two piss areas for a while after Dox leaves. When they amble up looking like they held it long enough, I step forward and point to the train station steps. “Gotta stay clean for the celebration. Subway’s cool for you today. We got permission.” People head down, but they look uncomfortable with what I’m asking them to do, more uncomfortable than seems normal.

 

Day 66

I drift around LOVE Park with my broom, my pan, my spike, and a black plastic bag tied to my belt. I follow free newspapers blowing all over slabs of granite wall. I have a special net I use to spoon things out of the fountain.

I didn’t make it down here over the weekend so I don’t know what happened, but today the homeless, even the regulars, are nowhere to be found. We have beautiful summer weather and a nice breeze. It’s not too humid. People of all kinds — except the homeless — mill around. Jetting a thick column of water a good fifteen feet in the air, the fountain alternates from red to blue to foamy white. Mothers and kids sit around, eating lunch, wading, throwing coins, and making wishes. A few younger professionals take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pants. They sit with their feet in the water eating lunch, talking on their cell phones. Two of them look like cleaned-up versions of the amorous junkies I’ve seen doing their thing. These two are dressed like young lawyers or investment bankers, but they’re being highly physical. Some people glance at them, amused, others are clearly perturbed. The coins will be gone by morning if my homeless people return.

 

Day 67

It’s the next day and a lot of my people are back, although I don’t see my girl Emma. Somehow, they’re more subdued. They seem oddly hung over, or run over, or something. A lot of them keep yawning. After the lunch hour, most of the office workers having come and gone, nearly all of my people are napping in the shade. A number use several layers of flattened cardboard for cushioning and their shoes for pillows.

 

Day 73

A new kid named Miggy has taken to sleeping all day on a subway grate. He appears to be pretty young, maybe sixteen. He wears baggy jeans, no shoes, and a dark blue tee-shirt too small for his belly which sags onto the grate when he rolls on his side. Cool air spins up from underground, but it smells like a mixture of Pinesol and piss. Miggy wakes up, talks to himself, heads off to the piss area, then comes back and lies down, curling one arm around the top of his head and the other under his face as a pillow. I find a piece of foam rubber in the trash late in the day and clean it off as best I can. When he gets up to pee I place the foam on the grate where he sleeps. He comes back, stares at the foam, then tosses it onto the sidewalk.

When he talks to himself sometimes, I hear, “I am not a toy. They can’t do that.” He whispers a good amount, but he also says those words over and over again out loud. “I’m not a toy.” It’s not like he’s actually mad, or annoyed even. It’s more like he’s trying to convince himself that he isn’t a toy. And that it actually shouldn’t be possible to make him feel like one. “They can’t do that.”

 

Day 78

I picked up my 10,000th cigarette butt today. I’ve been averaging a bit more than a hundred twenty butts most days. I started collecting lighters and matches people leave behind or drop, but I gave up counting those and pretty much everything else. I leave the good butts in small groups on different walls around the park. Some of the population here has become so accustomed to their situation that they skip my good butts and simply light up filters to smoke. That’s a nasty and probably deadly habit if ever there was one. These days, a lot of filters are made of plastic and fiberglass.

 

 

Day 86

Dox and I are doing what he calls tree bagging. The dry, gray-leaved oaks that Dox says don’t grow no matter what, collect plastic grocery bags. It’s easy to pick the low-hanging ones out, but inevitably some float high into the treetops and sit there for weeks and weeks until we liberate them.

Sometimes, too, bigger black plastic bags get caught high up. If you come by here during a rainy summer day, a lot of these people are still out playing cards and sipping beer wearing trash bags and using battered umbrellas abandoned by commuters in windstorms. I don’t know where the other people go who don’t have plastic bags or broken umbrellas. It’s like they just evaporate.

We use a telescoping pole with both a grappling hook and a pincher on the end to get the easy bags. Later in the morning Dox shows me how to change the hook and pincher for a pruning shear and how to run rope through the eyelets on the pole and then cut the branches where bags are too tangled for easy extraction.

“It’s always about sharp,” he says.

I wait between Dox’s cuts, watching the ground. Sometimes litter is nearly impossible to see. You need to wait for the wind to move it. But litter wants you to find it. This I’ve learned. It waits for the unification of a patient mind and the powers of nature. Sometimes clouds dull sunlight down to visible pulses and reduce the spectral register enough so that what was invisible under the usual sun can be glimpsed long enough to make it into your litter-hunting brain.

Dox keeps working the trees. “Sharp cuts through branches.” I watch him as best I can, but litter on the ground continues to move around. I need to know where it’s going in order to pick it up later. Sometimes I feel like the only person left to want the things I pick up.

 

Day 98

Weirdness is going on here. I’m picking up a lot more trash. Lots of Chipotle stuff. I’m not even sure where the nearest Chipotle is. There are some Taco Bell wrappers, too, and a lot of paper bags mixed in as well. Also, pizza boxes up the yin-yang. Doesn’t make sense.

 

Day 99

I hear the word “watch” everywhere. It’s coming out of new and different mouths. Younger people growing in numbers by the day. They make signs on the ground. They sit in large groups with one person standing and speaking. They talk about New York and Washington and the Presdient and the “ninety-nine point nine.”

Besides “watch,” I hear versions of words sprayed around like “envero,” “cleansion,” “banksy,” “justeece,” “force,” and “tentacles.” They wear black tees with big block white lettering on the back that says “WATCH.” I have no idea what this means and realize I don’t pay enough attention to TV anymore. Even though I collect them for a living all day, I haven’t read a paper in weeks. And I can’t remember when I did anything on the internet with my phone.

Late in the week, about a dozen cops show up on horseback. They wear knee-high, shiny black boots, silver helmets kind of like football ones without the faceguards, and black leather gloves that go half-way up the forearm. Most of these guys have on mirror shades. They just show up and sit astride their trusty steeds in what I figure has to be called a formation, looking down on the fountain area where the WATCH people make their signs. The kids converse in low voices, doing their best to ignore the cops and their horses. I understand something political is happening, but I honestly don’t have a clue what. It’s obvious I need to watch TV sometime soon. I stand on a bench at the periphery of things and realize I’m probably going to be okay if a riot breaks out because I’ve got my green CCT tee-shirt on. As I look out over the scene, though, I realize that all the homeless have completely disappeared again.

 

Day 100

This morning on TV, they showed people refusing to leave a park in New York City. They kept talking about “watching the center” and “big banks,” and “corporate interests.” Even though I was finally watching TV, I was still a bit confused. News coverage isn’t like it used to be. Everyone’s aware of the way cameras and commentators don’t go deep inside things anymore. These days it’s not so much fake as it is just really, really ambiguous and incomplete.

They interviewed a young Black man with a goatee who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a black polo shirt with an arrow pointing up on the left breast. “To be in the one-tenth,” he says with disgust, “you need to have twenty million or more. There are nearly one hundred and thirty thousand American citizens in that group. A whole city. I don’t know if we see them as evil so much as we just want them to help out and pay more in taxes. They have as much wealth as the bottom ninety-percent of the country. It’s very sad. Heartbreaking even.”

The news woman seemed a bit amused by this. She kept talking about the Vietnam War protests and Occupy Wall Street. I kept thinking about the civil rights demonstrations my mother used to tell me about. But I could also see that trash was really building up on the edges of that park in Manhattan. Horizontal planes push pieces of life no one wants out to the edges and corners. And yet, stuff people throw away is still connected to them until it is carted off to the landfill or burned in an incinerator.

 

Day 104

My job could very likely be coming to an end. I realized that about two hours into the morning. You can’t clean up trash fast enough when six hundred people are camping on granite slabs, surrounding a fountain in the heart of your city. I was sitting with a dark-skinned girl named Mallory who is one of the Watchers. She was eating tuna out of a can with a twig. Her hair was spun into alternating dreadlocks that were colored dark brown and a caramel shade that was almost golden in direct sunlight. She had a rainbow bandana around her neck. It was a warm morning. She said she liked how her black tee-shirt was heating into a fire. I was drawn to her because she was so cheerful and positive on such a hot morning.

“What do you do here?” she asked, swirling her stick around the edges of the can.

“Pick up litter, mostly.

She let her chin pop out, then snorted.

“It’s not funny,” I said. “Someone has to do it.”

“No. Sorry.” She looked me in the eyes and put her hand on my knee. “It’s just that….” She glanced out across the park. The fountain was spraying dark blue water straight into the air. “Sorry. Really,” she went on. “It’s just that we aren’t going to leave.”

“You aren’t?”

“No. That’s what watching means. We’re here to pay attention and observe. We’re going to grow. This is where everything will be watched. You are going to have a little city on your hands of people paying attention to everything around them. You can’t handle all the trash we’re going to create. We won’t let you. That’s part of everything.”

I stared at the dark blue water tumbling around in mid-air and wondered if any of the girls and young women I had tried to love in my life would understand what she was saying. This girl named Mallory seemed so much more in tune with life. Things really felt like they to mattered to her. She was definitely superior to me. I imagined she had studied the history of social movements. She was waiting for me to say something. The best I had was, “You all are the new Occupy, then.”

“Not Occupy,” she smiled, then shook her head somberly. “That was too confusing. WATCH is permanent until those clowns in Washington get rid of that regime of idiots.”

We sat in silence. I tried to focus on my breathing. There were people everywhere. You could smell butane camp stoves, frying food, the stink of hard-boiled eggs, and the heavy scent of coffee.

“Are you really a trash guy? I mean…sorry to say this, but you seem a bit too intelligent for that.” She leaned forward to catch my eyes again. “Plus, really? Picking up trash? For the man? Isn’t that a stereotype for someone like you? How about fighting global warming at least, or something important?”

I bobbed my head up and down, more like I was ducking than agreeing. “I was going to start grad school next semester,” I said, “but I think I could maybe stick with this through the fall. I’ll probably quit in December, take the month off, and then shift gears in January. I needed ground level, you know? Life the way no one thinks about it because no one cares.”

She put her tuna tin down next to me, then threw the twig into some bushes. “Wow. Grad school.”

“What do you do? I mean, where do you go?”

“I live with my parents and take classes at Temple. I make money waitressing sometimes. I’ve been thinking about starting a catering company. It depends….”

We both watched the blue water flowing into the air, then falling back into the pool, a roil of foam and dark noise. It was a column of something trying to get into the future. I wanted to say that to her. Instead, I said, “That water is the only non-human thing in this park that can move. It’s clean and innocent.”

“Innocent?”

“Pure,” I say. “Doesn’t have a shred of intelligence.” We sat in silence with that. I admit that I felt profound.

As I turned to see her face again, it passed through my mind that I might be able to fall in love with her. But she was gone. I didn’t even see her walking away.

 

Day 106

After Chinese take-out, I turned on the TV tonight. They were showing my park. Night shots: horses and glistening police; sharp red blurs; smoke, something more; people covering their faces, running; a few police on foot, dropping riot shields, batons out, long mesh fence-like contraptions used to surround groups of people; another group of cops using police bicycles to push people into corners near open vans. My best thoughts were about my people and how I was glad they were nowhere to be found. I also knew I needed to go back to school sooner rather than later.

 

Day 129

I said goodbye to Lorenzo Doxley today. I also said goodbye to Emma and handed her a twenty-dollar bill. It was the least I could do.

“This a tip?” she asked. “I dint do nothin’ for you.”

“No tip,” I said. “I just thought you could use it. I’m moving on, Emma.”

She folded the money into a tiny package and put it somewhere under her shirt. “Well, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You know what I’m a do with it, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“So, thanks as much as you can take.”

“You’re welcome, Emma…as much as you can take.”

“Where you goin’?”

“Back to school. It’s a little late in September, but they’re taking me anyway.”

She dropped her jaw, then bobbed her head and let her mouth stay wide open.

“Is that funny?” I asked

She shook her head. “Nah. Kind of sad more like. You going away to some school place and we be here same as ever looking to do what we want.” She took out her teeth. To tell the truth, it was kind of sexy the way she did it. “Little sugar for your long road?”

I shook my head and stood to go. “Emma, I truly don’t know if you’d be doing that for me, or if I’d be doing it for you. Either way…” I shook my head slowly back and forth, “…either way, we’d both be sad as hell when it was over.”

She put her teeth back in carefully. “You right.”

I turned to leave.

“Hey, you ever wonder what happens to us when other people come along?”

I thought for a moment. “Yeah. I do. I mean, I figure there have to be a lot of places you all know you can go to….”

She shook her head. “Not hardly. God is cruel and unknowing, Mr. Litter Man. You either take part in that or you miss out. And when you miss out, you might as well not even be living.” She gave me her big sly grin, then started to walk away. “Have a good enough life,” she said as she half turned back to me.

I raised a hand, then bent down to pick up a very nice, long cigarette stub. In the end, though, I left it lying on the edge of the walkway and went in the opposite direction. A few seconds later, I turned to see if Emma was watching me. There she was, picking up the stub I’d left, her blue lighter in her other hand.


Dog Cavanaugh is an Afro-Irish American author. He and his wife are based in Philadelphia.

Camp Vampire Kids (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Dornich_Photo_revised

Camp Vampire Kids

Mom and I are driving to camp and playing the game where we think of jobs I could one day have that won’t compromise my condition. That’s how she phrases it. Mom and I spend a lot of time avoiding things that might compromise my condition.

“What about a blackjack dealer in Vegas?” I say.

Mom groans in that way that makes her nostrils flare.

“What’s wrong with that? There are no windows, plus casinos are busier at night.”

“So are emergency rooms. You could be a doctor.”

“You always say that,” I say, then turn and stare out the window. We pass a field and some white cows that look purple through the protective tint. “I could be a bouncer.”

“Yeah?”

“At a strip club.”

Mom takes her eyes off of the road just long enough to look me over¾all elbows and knees and reedy angles. “Who are you going to bounce?”

“Hey!”

She smiles and blows me a kiss.

The game continues. Mom and I go back and forth, suggesting jobs that are noble and practical (hers) or silly and adventurous (mine). What we don’t say, what we never talk about, is that I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to do any of them.

Mom pulls the car onto an off-ramp. “We need gas. You coming inside?”

I nod.

“Then get your gear on.”

“I don’t need it. I’ll just run from the car to the store. I won’t get burned.”

Mom hits me with the full wattage of her pleading gaze. “Can we please not do this? Not again?”

“Fine.”

 

Mom and I also stopped at a gas station the first year we went to camp. We were lost and went inside for directions. I had my gear on then too—the gloves, the jumpsuit, the face shield. I remember the man behind the counter, the way he stared at me even when Mom started speaking to him.

“Craryville?” he finally said, dragging his eyes from me to Mom. “What do you want to go there for?”

“We’re headed to Camp Fun Without the Sun,” Mom said, and when the man asked what that was, she told him about the camp and the kinds of kids that go there.

“Yeah?” he said, a smirk stretching across his face. “Like little monsters? Little vampires?” He turned to me, brought his fists to his mouth, and made fangs with his index fingers. Then he hissed.

Mom lost her mind. Truly. There was a moment of micro-insanity where she just screamed questions at the cashier—What the hell is your problem? What kind of person are you? Can’t you see he’s just a little boy?—things like that.

The man didn’t know any of the answers.

Mom put a hand on my shoulder, steered me towards the door. Then she stopped, turned around, and kicked over a display of Cool Ranch Doritos.

She was still fuming as we bounced along the camp’s gravel driveway and entered the clearing in the Craryville forest. The other mothers took us inside, sat Mom down, poured her a jelly jar of white wine. They told her how they’d all been there before, how they’d all heard some version of judgment and cruelty spit at their kids. How people follow them through stores, snapping not-so-surreptitious pictures with their phones.

“Some jackass asks if my son is a vampire at least once a week,” one of the mothers confessed. “Which is just so stupid. So ridiculous.”

And it is. When I met Cameron a little later, he was, with his chubby cheeks and ginger crew cut, the least vampire-looking kid I have ever seen.

We’ve also been called Midnight’s Children, Children of the Moon, Children of the Night, Shadow Kids, Nightwalkers, and Night Dwellers. Other people simply point or stare, exchanging whispers and laughter in a classless language all its own. But the most common attempt at creativity, the pejorative we hear again and again, is Vampire Kids.

I wish it were accurate. Imagine a vampire. Now take away the strength and the speed and the immortality, and what are you left with? A pale guy with a terminal reaction to the sun. That’s who I am.

That’s who we all are.

We’re all born this way, but our genetic disorder lays dormant for a while. Depending on the particular variant, we’ll get anywhere from four to six years of day living before it kicks on. Four to six years of pool parties and playgrounds. Of normalcy. Of friends.

I was lucky. I was eight when my immune system could no longer protect my body from the sun. Cameron jokes I was a late wilter. Then, I was young enough that Mom could coax me into my gear by playing to my imagination and sense of make-believe. She’d remind me that my UV-protectant jumpsuit was the kind astronauts wore. She called it my “special costume,” and, for a while, it did make me feel special. Unique. Now it makes me feel like a freak everywhere I go. Everywhere but here.

 

Mom and I are one of the last families to arrive. We park beside the camp’s main building: a long, single-story structure with dorm rooms on each side, and a kitchen and dining hall in the center. Us kids bunk up on one side of the building so we can stay up all night, watch movies, and play video games. The moms stay on the other side so they can talk, and drink wine, and sometimes cry and hug each other when they think we’re not watching.

It’s always pretty dark in here. Shadowy patches are intermittently interrupted by the faint glow of a few Edison bulbs. The building has plenty of windows, which are covered with a UV-protectant film, but they’re also draped in a coal-black fabric with the heft and thickness of Victorian theater curtains. Dan and Karen don’t like to take any chances. Mom and I have the same tint on our windows back home, but she, too, takes the curtain precaution. Our house doesn’t get a lot of light either. All of our plants are plastic.

I shed my gear, and when my eyes adjust, I race down the hallway to my room and find Cameron. He’s sitting cross-legged on his bunk amid piles of clothes and DVDs and video games. Cameron and I have been roommates at camp for the past four years, and since then, his method of “unpacking” has been to just dump everything on his bed, retrieving items as needed.

“Check it out,” he says, holding up his copy of Time Fighters II. “You will soon succumb to the awesome power of my Mayan warrior.”

“Yeah? Not if my knight’s broadsword has anything to say about it.”

“You two are a couple of dorks.”

I look over and see Hannah lying on my bunk, her black hair fanned out on my white pillowcase like inverted starlight.

I met Hannah last year, her first at camp. A bunch of us were in the game room, flopped on beanbags, watching a movie. She came in and sat on the small square of available carpet beside me. I noticed the faint band of cinnamon-colored dots that run under each of Hannah’s eye and over the bridge of her nose. “I like your freckles,” I said, which, admittedly, is not the smoothest line ever uttered in the history of mankind (it’s probably not even the smoothest line in the history of that game room), but even so, Hannah smiled, brought a self-conscious hand to her face.

“Thanks,” she said. “The result of my moonbathing I guess.”

I know she was joking, but I still couldn’t help myself from picturing Hannah in her backyard, in a bikini, supine in a band of silver light. I almost fell off my beanbag.

And now here she is again. After the grim limbo of home-schooled loneliness, she’s back in my room, on my bunk, grinning that she’s caught me in a moment of unguarded nerdery. It’s fine. Hannah can criticize our video game obsession all she wants, but we all know that she’s logged more hours in the Time Fighters arena than Cam and I put together.

When the rest of the kids and moms have settled in, Dan and Karen gather everyone in the dining hall.

“Helloooo campers,” Dan resounds with his usual showman flare, smiling through his beard that’s gone grayer since last summer.

The lighting from the Edison bulbs lends a theatrical glow to the dining room. It’s an affect Dan embraces. It’s a behavior Karen tolerates.

“Karen and I happy to see a lot of familiar faces and to welcome some new families.”

I look around and spot some new kids, maybe five or six years old, most likely recently diagnosed. I envy them. They sit beside their mothers, giddy at the prospect of a week filled with games and playmates, and no such thing as a bedtime. They don’t yet know how camp also offers a break from the outright judgment or veiled pity of strangers. They haven’t yet come to depend on it.

Dan continues his speech. He runs through the schedule of field trips and nocturnal activities, the ways in which all of us will spend the week “embracing the night.” Then Dan introduces Katie, his and Karen’s daughter, and the reason they started this camp.

Katie is the oldest person with our condition. Not just here at camp, or in the country, but in the world. When I first came here, I didn’t think much about that, or maybe I thought it was cool. But now I sometimes lie awake and think about how difficult and lonely that fact must be. Katie is the living embodiment of all of our hopes and, at the same time, all of our fears.

She’ll be twenty-five in August.

Katie is in charge of the junior counselors, and now that we’re thirteen, Cameron, Hannah and I are old enough to qualify. She welcomes each of us back, reminds us of our various duties and responsibilities. She tells us the Assignment Board will be finished after dinner. Then, while the rest of the campers finish unpacking, the moms head to the kitchen to prepare a feast.

 

It’s mainly moms that accompany us kids to camp. Some of the dads who live close enough and can get away for the weekend drive up for the last two days. Those days are always hard for Mom.

Dad didn’t take my diagnosis well. He always enjoyed a beer or two after work, but the day we came back from the doctor’s, I watched him pull a bottle of bourbon from the top of the fridge and drink from it straight. He started going out more and more, staying out later and later. One night, he climbed into the back of a police car and demanded to be taken to an establishment called “The Tit Mouse.” When the officer informed Dad that was he not a cab driver, and his cruiser was not a taxi, it was then that Dad became what would later be described as “insolent.”

So, some Thursday night/Friday morning, this cop knocked on our door only to find the sleep-smeared face of an eight-year-old on the other side. Mom was working nights then.

“You here all alone?” he said.

“My dad is supposed to be watching me.”

The cop spent the next few seconds looking at me, and then over at his cruiser where Dad was slumped against the window, asleep in the backseat. The cop had this look on his face, as if the effort of turning from me to his car was causing him a deep and mysterious pain. Eventually, he let Dad go, saying that he wasn’t going to arrest him because Dad had no priors. Which I didn’t understand. At the time, I thought “priors” was police slang for priorities. It turns out that cop and I were both right.

Mom tried to defend Dad, telling me that he was just scared and confused. She said that, given time, he would be back to his old self. But less than a year after that night, Dad left us and moved to Phoenix, a place that averages 351 days of sunshine a year. So enough about Dad.

 

As I’m finishing my second helping of Karen’s lasagna, I see that Katie has somehow intuited my most secret of desires, or it’s just a stroke of amazing fortune, but either way, I’m overjoyed when I check the Assignment Board. Hannah and I have been assigned Lifeguard Duty for Midnight Swim.

 

Dan and Karen buy glow-in-the-dark items in bulk. I sit on the dock, watching a lake teeming with phosphorescent beach balls, Frisbees, and pool noodles. Neon green inner tubes glowing like giant radioactive doughnuts. Campers splash around, and luminescent blues and greens and yellows reflect and ripple in the dark water, the colors pulsing and undulating like some submerged aurora borealis. Hannah sits beside me, our legs dangling off the edge of the dock, our feet in the water. Our knees nowhere close to touching.

I think about mentioning my aurora borealis comparison to Hannah. Things haven’t been going as well as I’d hoped. I’ve spent the majority of our shift trying not to stare at Hannah, then smiling awkwardly and quickly looking away when she catches me. Instead, I tell her about the Ipomoea Alba, how it’s a night-blooming morning glory. I don’t tell Hannah I know this because it was the topic of my botany paper. Mrs. Sedota, my online science teacher, let me choose it. When I admitted I selected that flower because I thought Hannah would like it, that it would give us something to talk about, Mrs. Sedota said I had “admirable foresight.”

But now as I hear the words spill from my head, I realize that only someone who doesn’t really interact with other people would think their science paper a suitable source of flirty banter.

“It’s commonly called the moonflower,” I say, “because when its alabaster petals unfold, they resemble a full moon.”

“That’s . . . cool,” Hannah says. Then she raises her eyebrows, offers a slack-tightrope smile.

Even in the dark, I can tell it’s a look of forced interest. I wish one of the campers would start drowning and save me.

“Yeah,” I continue, like an idiot. “Even though many people consider the moonflower beautiful during the day, it’s at night when they really come alive. Kind of like—”

You. Like you. Like you. Just say it. Why can’t I say it?

“Kind of like.”

“Mushrooms,” Cameron yells as he rumbles past us, leaps from the end of the dock, and cannonballs into the lake.

Later that night, Cam and I are in the game room, slumped on beanbags, awash in the kaleidoscopic glow of Time Fighters II. The Time Fighters franchise allows players to choose warriors from various epochs and then battle to the death. Mom doesn’t care for the violence, but it’s not like she can tell me to go outside and play either. Currently, my medieval knight is getting his gallant ass handed to him by Cameron’s Mayan warrior.

“You should just tell her how you feel,” he says. “Let her know how infatuated you are.”

“Who?”

Cam is good enough at Time Fighters to turn away from the screen, to stare at me and through my bullshit while still fending off attacks from my knight. If there is a perk to a life spent indoors and with little social interaction, it is that we are all excellent at video games.

“Yeah, fine, I like Hannah. But I wouldn’t say I’m infatuated with her.”

“You spent all of last summer writing her that poem. Comparing her skin to . . . what was it . . . midnight snow?”

It was moonlit snow, and I only spent half the summer working on it. Not like it matters. Not like I gave Hannah the poem, or even finished writing it.

Cameron nails my knight twice with his Jaguar Claw Strike before I can parry with my broadsword.

“Either way, you better get moving,” he says. “Her mom told my mom they might not being coming back next year.”

“What? Like not coming back to camp? Why not?”

Cameron shrugs his shoulders. Then his character catches mine upside the head with his obsidian war club. There are cartoonish bursts of bright red gore, and I’m a goner.

 

The next afternoon, I roll over from a nap to find Hannah standing over my bed. She’s backlit by this soft, ethereal white light. She looks like an angel, and I must be dreaming.

“You have a lot of drool on your pillow,” she says. “Like, more than seems normal.”

“What?” I sit up. “What’s happening?”

“Check it out,” Hannah says, and then steps aside to reveal the window, its curtains drawn, and beyond them a sky choked with clouds the color of dirty cotton.

I can’t decide which is more beautiful—the view from the window or the smile on Hannah’s face. These shadowless gray days have, over the years, come to represent one indelible thing: freedom. The freedom to be outside during the day, to feel, however briefly, like ordinary kids. By the time we scramble to the door, Mom is already there, measuring the UV index with her solar meter. It’s a 0.8, the lower end of the potential threat spectrum. Still, Mom groans.

“I’ll wear a hat.”

“And long sleeves,” she says.

“Fine.”

I change clothes, and Mom warns me not to smile at the sky so my braces don’t get struck by lightning. Then she laughs. Because yes, as if having an extremely rare and deadly allergy to the sun wasn’t enough of a genetic kick in the dick, I also have crooked teeth.

I return to the clearing just as Cameron and Katie have almost finished picking teams for kickball. Cameron has snagged Hannah. It’s between me and Jacob, one of the new five-year-olds, who is running around chasing a grasshopper. It’s Katie’s pick. We lock eyes. I try to project a neutrality, to suppress all emotion, but my face must not be cooperating because Katie shoots me a sly, knowing grin. Then she picks Jacob.

Cameron places Hannah in centerfield because she possesses an athletic grace, a seemingly effortless speed. Cameron sticks me in far leftfield because I do not. Just as we’re about to run to our positions, Hannah removes her hoodie. She’s wearing a white tank top underneath. Even with the cloud cover, this is a careless and dangerous degree of exposure. I think about saying something. Then I notice how Hannah’s tank top allows some of her black bra strap to wink through, and I keep my mouth shut.

Instead, I think about what Cam said.

“Dan told me they might put in a zip line next year,” I shout across the outfield. “That’ll be pretty cool, huh?”

“Yeah. Maybe,” she shouts back.

“Maybe. Why maybe?”

Hannah points toward home. Mom is up. She does a little shimmy at the plate, rubs her toes in the dirt like a bull about to charge. Then she smiles and waves to me.

“Move back,” Hannah says. “She’s got a good leg.”

“What? No she doesn’t.”

But Hannah shakes her palm at me, urging me farther back, farther away. I walk towards her.

“Hey. You’re coming back next year, right?”

“Maybe. My mom is still deciding.”

“Deciding what?”

And then, sure enough, a deep, rubbery whomp rings out across the field, and Mom sends one flying into the gray sky.

Hannah sprints across the field, gets underneath the ball just in time to pluck it from the air. She throws the ball back to the pitcher but doesn’t jog back to her position.

“Deciding what?” I shout once more. And then again.

But Hannah just stands there, staring at home plate, not answering.

Just as we get our third out, the clouds begin to dissipate, and the sky shifts from gray to blue like battlefield smoke, and we all run for cover.

 

Hannah’s been assigned Dish Duty for all of dinner, and I don’t see her again until we’re all headed to the fire pit. Dan builds a bonfire, and we sit around it, listening to the crickets and cicadas, staring at light-drunk moths that fly too close to the flames. We listen to Dan’s scary stories about the spectral inhabitants of nearby farmhouses or the variety of monsters that lurk in the woods. His stories are silly, or dramatic, but overall ineffective at inducing fright. None of us kids are afraid of the dark. As someone starts strumming a guitar for a sing-along, I see Hannah stand up. She walks halfway around the fire pit, nudges my foot with hers.

“Wanna go for a walk?”

We head into the forest. A summer breeze swirls through the branches, the leaves, making their moon shadows flutter. We arrive at the lake, shed our shoes, and walk around its bank. I feel the cool hug of mud around my feet.

“Sorry about this afternoon,” Hannah says.

“S’okay.”

“It’s just that my mom didn’t want me to say anything until we knew for sure.”

“That you’re not coming back?”

“That I’m getting better.”

“What?”

We stop walking. Hannah stares at the moonlit lake, its inky shimmer. Then her face breaks into a huge smile. “It’s actually kind of amazing.”

Hannah tells me how her dermatologist has been incrementally increasing her exposure to UV light, and that, so far, she hasn’t been burned.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her, because I don’t.

“I know, right? I think my doctor is even more excited than my parents. He says I’m like one in a million. Can you believe that?”

Yes.

“We’re still being careful, making sure I respond well to the treatments and that my tolerance is increasing, but if it’s true, just think about it.”

I do. I imagine Hannah outside during the day, walking along a beach, playing in a park. I imagine her with other kids, and while their faces are blurry, nondescript, I clearly see them basking in the sun’s warm glow. They are unharmed and unafraid. They are not me.

I feel my face flush, and my vision goes watery with tears. I wipe my eyes before Hannah notices, grateful, once again, for the dark.

“So you’re not coming back to camp then?”

“Well, I mean, not if I’m getting better. Mom thinks we should give the spot to someone more—”

“Sick?”

“Deserving.” Hannah cocks her head and what’s left of her smile falls. “Are you mad at me?”

We just stand there for a second. Fireflies blink on and off. Sounds from the sing-along drift through the silence. This Little Light of Mine. I never minded that song, if I even thought about it at all, but now the lyrics sound sickeningly sweet.

“No. You would be missed is all. Cameron and I would miss you.”

“Aww,” Hannah says, leaning in for a hug. “I’d miss you guys, too. You two are like my best buds here.”

And while I’m so grateful to be this close to Hannah, to feel her body against mine, to have her arms wrapped around me, I’m even more grateful that she can’t see my face.

 

Later that night, we all load up into a rented school bus. Dan stands at the front, tells us we’re getting a special midnight tour of the Albany Zoo. Whoops and cheers bounce around me, echoing throughout the bus’s metal interior. We wander through the Reptile House, staring at snakes and lizards indifferent to our curiosity. We see zebras asleep in the middle of a field, huddled together in a herd of black and white. The grand finale of our tour is the tiger exhibit. A crescent moon of moms and campers belly-up to the enclosure’s concrete railing. Soon there’s the clang of an unseen gate, and a group of tigers slowly pad out into the night. Everyone is instantly captivated—by the deep orange of their fur, their stripes as black as a new moon night. By the two cubs that drink from a makeshift watering hole, the pink wink of their tongues. Even Cameron nudges me in the side with his elbow, points to a massive tiger raking his claws along the length of a log.

A zookeeper tells us that most of these tigers were born here, which means in captivity. Which means they are forced to ignore their nocturnal instincts, to conform to the zoo’s daytime schedule and perform for its sunlit pageantry.

That’s what I see anyway. I see a group of animals who look angry and annoyed at being awakened to entertain some sick kids. I see their orange fur turned a sickly yellow in the light of the zoo’s sodium arc lamps. I see one tiger rub its head along the side of another, both of them making a low, repetitive, guttural sound. The zookeeper tells us this is called “chuffing,” that it’s the way tigers greet one another.

Tiger chuffing sounds like Mom blowing her nose when she has a cold.

Over in the far corner of the enclosure, I spot a medium-sized tiger. She stares right at me, narrowing her eyes, and flashing her fangs. Then she turns her back to me, lifts her tail, and shoots out a jet of pee.

On the bus ride back to camp, I take one of the seats in the back, sprawl out, and feign sleep so no one can sit next to me, so no one will bother me. It works for a while (I use the bus’s occasional bumps to sneak a peek). We hit what feels like a pretty good pothole, and I peak Hannah’s legs beside my seat. She must know that I’m faking, that I’m not really asleep, because she stands there for a really long time. I force my eyes all the way shut, and when I crack them open again, she’s gone.

At some point, my sleep feigning must work because I doze off. The next thing I know, Mom is shaking me awake. We’re back at camp, back just before sunrise, the sky purpling, a red thread of light on the horizon. Everyone scurries inside and gets ready for bed.

Maybe it’s because I napped on the bus, but I have trouble falling asleep. I’ve spent the last few hours tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling. Finally, I sit up. I pull the curtains aside. Sunlight streams in through the tint, lending a lavender glow to the room.

               Why does Hannah get to be better? What makes her so special? I think, even though I could answer that question a hundred different ways.

But maybe it’s not just Hannah. Maybe the rest of us can get better too, can start being normal again. Maybe we already are.

I get up and dig through the dresser for some clothes. Cameron rustles in his sleep, cocooned among his treasures like some Egyptian Pharaoh. As I ease the door closed and make my way through the hallway’s shadowy emptiness, I think about my odds, the way hope can quickly devolve into delusion. I know I’m not getting better, and I hate that Hannah is. I want her to be sick and weird, like me. With me. I’d rather Hannah be sick and with me, than healthy and with someone else.

Maybe that cashier all those years ago was right. Maybe I am monster.

I grab the handle of the front door and take a breath.

Maybe if this doesn’t work out, I deserve what I get.

 

Some kids have said getting burned feels like being stung by a cloud of bees; others imagine it’s like getting pierced with hundreds of arrows—an invisible assault that is both localized and all-encompassing. But when I step outside and into the clearing, all I feel is the sun’s warmth on my skin. It’s a sensation that, after years of dormancy, ignites so many memories. Picnics in the park. Fourth of July parades. Dad and I at the beach, playing in the waves, and then secreting some seawater back to the sand to pour on Mom’s back.

But then something happens. The warmth grows hotter and hotter, almost as if someone is turning a dial, exponentially increasing the output of sunlight. My memories get eclipsed by a searing pain, the sun’s needle teeth tearing into my arms and face. I have trouble catching my breath. It feels like I’m drowning in heat. I try heading back towards the safety of the building, but doing so makes me dizzy. Pockets of nausea bloom and burst in my throat. My vision goes blurry. The cars in the parking lot and the woods beyond melt into one another.

The sky swirls, or I do, but either way, I stumble and find myself on my hands and knees. The waxy blades of grass feel cool to the touch, and there is a blink of relief as my face is out of the sun, shielded by the back of my head. The pull to stay like this, to somehow crawl inside the safety my own shadow, is too strong, and my body goes limp.

 

I wake up in my room. A dull but persistent heat pulses from my body. I can feel my heart beat behind my eyes. Mom sits on the edge of my bed, applying aloe to my arm, which is swollen and blistered and the raw, inflamed color of a glazed ham. Mom must feel my eyes on her because she stops, lifts her head. Her face is puffy and slick with tears. Her eyes are as red as my arms.

“Hi,” I say.

“What the hell? What were you thinking?”

“I’m sorry.”

“No,” she yells, startling us both. Two new tears leak from her eyes and trail down her face. “That’s not good enough. You have to give me more than that.”

So I tell her about Hannah. About how she’s getting better, and how envious and angry and scared that makes me.

“I don’t understand,” Mom says. “Aren’t you happy for her?”

“Yes. And no. Not completely. If Hannah gets better, she’ll start a different life. She’ll no longer need us. She’ll leave and she won’t come back.”

“What makes you think she’d do that?”

“Dad did.”

Mom goes silent. The wrinkle between her eyes deepens, and her mouth moves as if to say something, but nothing comes out.

I place my hand on her balled fist, give it a squeeze. “How long was I out there?”

“Two minutes. Maybe less. Katie saw you go outside.”

“Is she the one that—?”

“Yes.”

“Oh shit,” I say, and Mom’s eyes widen. “Sorry. Is she okay?”

“She got some minor burns. She says you’ve heavier than you look.”

We just sit together for a while. Then Mom finishes applying the aloe and bandages my arms. She gives me some aspirin, tells me to get some rest.

 

The throaty rumble of the bus’s engine wakes me up. Dan and Karen are taking everyone to Mega-Fun Zone, a bowling alley/arcade that touts the largest Laser Tag arena in upstate New York.

When they’re gone, I decide I need some air. I get up and get dressed, wincing with each movement. I shuffle down to the fire pit, ease myself down in one of the Adirondack chairs. A breeze blows in from the clearing, cooling my skin and stinging it at the same time. Birds—or if you believe Dan’s stories—bats flit through the trees.

I hear the rustle of leaves and swing my flashlight to the source, illuminating Katie’s face. She shields her eyes, and I kill the beam.

“You didn’t want to go bowling?”

“Nah,” she says. “The used shoes gross me out.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’m sorry you got hurt.”

“No big thing.” Katie waves off my apology, but I can see her hand is bandaged. She sits beside me.

“Still. Thank you.”

“Of course. You know this morning was the first time in almost nineteen years that I’ve felt the sun on my skin. With each birthday the doctors and reporters return, marveling at another year, another record set. They all want to know what I’m doing, how I’m outwitting our disease. But in all of these years, none of them ever bothered to ask if I’m happy.”

“And are you?”

“I am today. I felt needed. Instead of just hiding in the shadows, waiting for the sun to set, I got to save you from doing something stupid.”

I pick up a twig, toss it into the pile of ashes and charred logs. “I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I just—”

“Wanted to feel normal? To feel like an ordinary kid and not a freak?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“I get it. You liked someone who didn’t necessarily feel the same way?”

“Yeah.”

“And in the anger and confusion of your heartache you did something foolish?”

“I suppose so.”

Katie stands and smiles. She pats me on the shoulder with her burned hand. “Well then, you’re in luck. Because that’s about as normal as it gets.”


Joe Dornich is the author of The Ways We Get By (Black Lawrence Press, December 2020). His stories have won contests and fellowships from The Master’s Review, Carve Magazine, South Central MLA, Key West Literary Seminars, and the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Joe lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee.