Good Grief

by Pete Able

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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

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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. 

 

 

 

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

Patricia Sammon_McGlinnSecondPlace

Clay

Sam asks, “What are we doing here?” and you don’t know if he means here, in Flanders, or more generally, here on God’s green earth, which here, in Flanders is not green but mud-covered and cratered and incapable of sending up any other crop but barbed wire. Or if he means still here, at the edge of this pit—because the horse that was drowning in the mire is now still.

So you tell Sam that “What are we doing here?” is a rich man’s question. Then you step back inside the billet and tell Charley that if the three of you set off right away for the trenches there’ll be time for a quick swim before you have to report for duty. Charley can understand what people say to him just fine. It’s answering with any sense that’s impossible for him. Charley picks up his helmet and canteen and says, “Hymn 34, all rise.” The three of you set off across the three mile distance from the billets to the trenches as easily as if you were still sewer workers living in Manchester and setting off down Portland Street for another day of tunneling beneath the city.  A Red Cross wagon swerves in front of you. Charley chimes, “Lord High Mayor likes butter on his toast” and at once such a happiness seeps into your raspy mood—not unlike butter into toast—because the two best people to have in a tunnel with you are Charley and Sam. Down in that deep dark, inside that scraping silence, you want to be with men you’ve known all your life. The time the sewer main caved in, and the heavy hand of earthworks was pinning the three of you in place, infiltrating nostrils, eyes, lips, Charley whistled a tune – and you knew it was his wordless way of saying what he had no words for: Be absolutely still. Panic uses up the little air we’ve got. Rescuers will be here presently.

Yesterday an officer with an important look about him pulled you aside and said, “You sewer moles are easy to spot— you’re all too small and too old to be soldiers. A German spy with perfect English could overhear that simpleton in your crew and strike up a friendly conversation, asking how the tunneling is going. Your fellow will chat away about how the tunnel is now all the way across No Man’s Land. How, in fact it’s almost directly under enemy front lines. How we’re just a day or two from setting our mine and blowing a few thousand Germans to Kingdom Come. That daft fellow of yours is a danger to our mission.”

In response, you stepped up onto a crate of canned meat and you faced the officer, very close: eyes, nose and mouth. You didn’t say, “The one thing Charley can’t do is join in a chat.”  Instead you said, in words as solid as a landlord’s fist to a door, “Charley is Charley. Nerves-of-steel.” To which the military man said, “If you were a proper soldier, I’d have you court martialed for…” But just then the klaxon sounded and everyone, even the officer, had to put on a gas mask, and that was that.

Walking along with Charley and Sam toward the front lines you concentrate on keeping clear of the motor lorries rushing officers to and fro, and the mule teams laboring to bring rations and water bags to the trenches, and the general supply wagons hauling armament so that the low thud of shelling and the high clatter of machine gun fire need never cease. Sam points to a German aeroplane lifting into the blue. When the three of you reach the canal you see that there will be no swim. A thousand concussed fish, floating on their sides, are staring up at you as you stare down. You look back at the scene behind the billets. An immense observation balloon is being winched down. The man in the balloon’s basket is still aiming his long lens at the German lines. Not for the first time the basket puts you in mind of the one that’s said to be positioned at a chopping block to catch the head of an executed man after the axe falls.  You are grateful never to have seen such a sight. Sam has told you that here in Flanders, someone guilty of desertion or cowardice is killed by firing squad, and you’re glad never to have seen that sight either. The shadow of the oblong balloon washes over the three of you, conferring some kind of luck, or perhaps not.

When you enter the reserve trench, you hunker along, careful to keep below the lip of the sandbags while also being careful not to lose your footing on the slick boards. Twenty yards along, you take a left, up a communication trench and you nod to a group of soldiers swallowing scoops of mud colored bully-beef. One of the soldiers says, Hey, sewer moles, how’s the peace and quiet down there?—and you laugh because, fair enough—these Tommies have only to raise a helmet on a stick to find out how many snipers are dedicated to goal of killing them. You continue along another support trench and eventually approach the sentry who is guarding the mouth of the tunnel. Today’s password is Lord Nelson. The three of you wait for a length of time that is equal to a quick dip in the canal and then, sure enough the night tunnelers appear. As they climb up the ladder of the shaft, they are blinking. They give you their report: seven and a half feet dug. Good progress. Candle went out twice but probably not monoxide because the mouse in the cage didn’t swoon. No sounds of Fritz digging. All in all, a quiet shift. Then the off- duty tunnelers unwrap the pads from their boots and hand you the cotton batting and then they set off on their three mile walk to claim the cots at the billet. You don’t tell them about the fish in the canal. They’ll know soon enough.

The sentry pours each of you a measure of rum which, when gulped, briefly and warmly acquaints you with the entire reach of your throat and the hollow of your stomach. You wrap your boots and descend the shaft and begin to make your muffled way along the tunnel. There is a sequence by which the sounds of the surface world fade: the first to be lost are the small sounds such as the moans of wounded men. Then, a hundred feet along, it’s as if machine guns were never invented. Another hundred feet of trundling, and the shrieks of mortar fire are no more. You continue your crouched journey, your helmet skimming the dirt ceiling, your shoulders almost fully claiming the breadth of the passage. You have to mind your footing as you step along the tracks for the wagon trolleys while you also try not to step on the air hose.  At regular intervals you have to step past a single wagon trolley. You’ve traveled almost the full half-mile length of the tunnel, aware of the warm smell of earth and the cold smell of stones, all the while thinking of home and you’re worried that thinking about home could be a bad omen. You think of the cellar room in the alley off Portland Street. Your wife, sitting at the wooden bench, taking up her knitting. Her cousins, Nellie and Mary, home from their shifts at the cotton mills, both as stooped as you are as you continue jogging the distance. In the dark of your head you persist in contemplating the whole lamp-lit scene of the room, all the while wishing you could stop because maybe the oblong shadow meant today there will be an invisible pocket of monoxide, Or maybe today you will accidentally breach the wall of a German tunnel—and then what you would come upon is not your wife, setting down her knitting needles but the whole lamp-lit surprise of three Germans setting down their shovels and reaching for their revolvers.

You reach the utmost end of the tunnel. The night crew has left the lamp to dig by. The candle and the caged mouse are both trembling though the air seems satisfactory. You place your hand to the working face of the tunnel, a little ritual you perform at the beginning of every shift, for no particular reason.  Then you lean back on the diagonal of the wooden board. You take up the grating tool between your legs so that your feet are on the cross bar, and your hands are on the handles. No one had to tell you Flanders clay is just like Manchester clay: same sweet slip of almost oily earth. You press the grafting tool to the wall of earth and kick out the first brick of the day which Sam grabs and drops into a burlap sack and which Charley gathers as the first sandbag of the day and sets in the trolley. Within moments the three of you—kicker, bagger and trammer, have the rhythm. You are deep inside the elation of knowing you are good at your work and that you’ll never have to stop because the war will never end.

Behind you a sapper quietly guides the full trolley back up the track a ways so he can unload into the waiting trolley and return.  Another sapper is carefully setting down a few wooden boards to have at the ready.  As you press and twist and tug, you indulge a lovely thought: wouldn’t it be fine if you and Charley and Sam were the very crew that completes this particular tunnel. After so many months of rotating shifts and a half mile of digging, you’d have the great excitement of having the sappers rushing along to you, unspooling the detonating wire, packing the explosives into the earth, tamping them well in place. Then all of you would be making a waddling sprint for the shaft ladder and up on the surface you’d be finding a hiding place so you could look across No Man’s Land and see thousands of tons of earth lift high into the air and hang there, heavily aloft, for several additional seconds, before relenting and returning to the surface in the form of dead men and armament and wood and steel. And what had once been a hillside would be dirt that belonged to nothing.

Press of feet, twist of hands, you kick out another slab and another—like a succession of stillborn babes being dropped into sacking and consigned to eternal rest. You’ve never seen a baby being born, stillborn or alive, but you’ve seen three young children, each wrapped in a winding cloth and lowered into a pauper’s grave with all the other typhus victims. Yes, you’ve seen that. To shiver off the thought you almost say aloud that it would be fine indeed to be the crew that completes the tunnel, but of course you say nothing. There’s no talking down here. The work must be conducted silently. The boots must be padded. The burlap bags must be placed, not dropped into the trolley, because, as close as your tunnel is to the German front lines, there must surely be Hun tunnels setting off in the opposite direction, perhaps no more than a few feet above or below, and the enemy diggers must not learn of your existence.

The sob comes on you of a sudden and almost in time, you manage to muffle it in the crook of your elbow. It was just the choked thought of that beautiful horse that lost her footing and slipped into the muddy crater. Just the sight of her clambering uselessly in the slime. You knelt down on both knees at the edge of the crump hole, and looked into her great, searching eyes. They were the color of rich earth. Her whole body was the color of rich earth. There was no way to tell her that rescue was impossible. That she could not be hauled up out the sins of mankind. That her thrashing was only hurrying her drowning. So, yes you took out your revolver.  It was a merciful thing to do in a wrongful world.

Sam signals Wait, Stop. You know he’s mistaken your sob for a burst of monoxide that is theoretically possible because you deviate from time to time out of the clay and into jumbles of shale and gravel. You oblige and hold up the little mouse that seems untroubled by any monoxide, or by the fact that he is in a cage, in the companionship of men under No Man’s Land. You reach into your pocket and crumble a little iron cake into the cage—just for the pleasure of seeing the mouse’s pleasure—the quick tongue, the twitch of whiskers. You crumble another bit of rations.  A few weeks ago Sam pointed to the fields behind the infirmary and said that one day farmers would have to crumble lime onto the ground because so much chlorine gas had rolled across this place. The thought startled you—that the ground itself would need to heal.

 

Charley has the steady nerves and Sam has the keen hearing. Sam’s pointing upwards, wide eyed. You can hear nothing except the feeble issuance of the air hose but you continue to look up at the blank of the overhead clay.  Sam nods, excited, alarmed. Charley hands you the long stick that’s stored near the trolley. You slide the stick into the ceiling of the tunnel and then you bite the protruding end, clenching your jaw. Instantly you can feel an intermittent trembling. Minute vibrations are buzzing through your lips, jaw, sinuses. Sam is right. There are Germans digging very nearby—above and off to the right.

If it were not the case that your tunnel now reaches almost to the German front lines—if the tunnel were perhaps only halfway across or even three quarter’s across, then you’d dig in a fury towards these enemy diggers and you’d attack them the way a lamprey strikes through the dark waters and latches onto the side of an idling trout. But with the tunnel so close to being able to deliver a mine that will blow up a thousand Germans in their trenches, you do not attack the diggers. You do not reveal yourselves. But your mind, thinking of them, is like an unexploded shell in their midst.

Sam gives the signal to keep digging. Making not a sound, you slide the grating tool into the yielding clay. Sam guides the brick into the burlap bag, passing it to Charley. In an hour you have achieved almost a foot of distance. You set a plank on either side to support the newly won distance.

But then, loud—a sneeze. You look at Sam and Charley. You know. It’s the German diggers. They have also been making progress. They are now directly overhead. And they are not taking care to be quiet. Perhaps they feel safe because they’re still so close to their own front line. One of the men is dragging a shovel or spade. He’s tired. One of them, perhaps the one who sneezed, has a runny nose. There is repeated sniffling. You and Sam and Charley take out your revolvers and make ready for the possibility that the Germans will tumble through. For some un-clocked amount of time you remain halted, motionless, while they proceed overhead.

Eventually the sounds of their digging become barely discernable, faint as the smell of coal smoke in the socks that arrive in a package from home. But Sam is Sam. He delays giving the start gesture so you spend the time wondering if the reason you keep thinking of home today is because  the next letter from home will bring bad news, or because your wife is about to receive bad news about you. When the mouse squeaks for no reason, you flinch such that you almost tumble from the board. The tempting notion that it would be your crew, today, that would complete the tunnel was fanciful; and now the time lost to motionless waiting has ensured this will not be the case. Nonetheless, when Sam gives the start gesture you slam your feet onto the tool and you twist it fast. Clay to bag, bag to trolley and another board up. The only sound is the slide and suck of clay as it is being claimed from its quiet and sent up to the surface as stacked sandbags.

If talking were allowed, and if you were a talkative type, you might try to find words for a mysterious quality possessed by the clays of Manchester and Flanders. When stared at directly they have a brownish-gray color, but as you look away, they gain a momentary bluish cast. The gliding blue is not an ordinary color—it is the departure of a color. The day you were departing Manchester, you and your wife stood in the crowded square. You told her goodbye and she said she’d send you wool socks. Then she said something else but the sense of the words was submerged to the general noise because you were already turning away, attending to the orders of the sergeant calling for the tunnelers to file in. You’d like to tell Sam and Charley that the flash of blue in the clay puts you in mind of how your wife said one more blue thing to you and how it was beautiful because it didn’t have to become ordinary words such as “Mind, be careful, Luv” or “They say you’ll be home in a month.” The blur of sound remained everything she would have said if she had words sufficient to the pride and fear and anxiety she felt. Continuing to dig, you decide you will not speak to Sam and Charley this evening, as you are strolling back to the billet, about a shade of blue that cannot be directly considered. The words to speak of it glide out ahead of you.

As you work the grating tool you wonder if perhaps the clay of Manchester and the clay of Flanders are not merely similar. Perhaps they are one in the same. Perhaps the layer of clay you used to dig through to construct the sewers continues southward beneath places you’ve never seen—Birmingham and London, then beneath the English Channel that the ship crossed as it carried you and Sam and Charley to the war, such that the layer of clay reached into the depths of Flanders. You have just learned that such a distance is not so very great. In the most recent letter from home, written in the hand of the minister’s wife, your wife told you that recent explosions in Flanders were said to have shaken the windows of London and startled Prime Minister Lloyd George and wasn’t that a remarkable fact. But perhaps your wife had not dictated that sentence. Perhaps the minister’s wife had read an article in the Manchester Times and suggested to Annie that her husband might like to know such a remarkable fact and Annie, puzzled—even frightened at the thought of rattled panes of glass, had agreed to the sentence being written and then she’d folded the letter and placed it into the parcel with some tins of condensed milk, some tobacco, some thick wool socks. But now that you think of it as you press your feet to the cross bar of the grating tool and grip the handle, maybe it wasn’t your wife who’d sent the several pairs of woolen socks. Maybe it was Charley’s wife or Sam’s. The three of you always share whatever arrives in a parcel—not just the socks and tobacco but also the news about people who are nothing more than names to you.

Sam relieves you at the board. He’ll do the clay-kicking for a while and you will load and bundle the burlap sacks.  If the war never ends that would mean the parcels would never cease coming and this is as pleasant a thought as the one about being the team who completes this tunnel.

The ground all around you shudders violently, causing the three of you to jounce about. Never before have you experienced such a cataclysm. Sam is grinning. He gestures that some gargantuan shell must have landed just above. And he smirks as he points to himself and then moves his hands apart. Yes—it was probably a British shell that almost killed you, falling just short of German lines.

 

Coming to, the first thing you realize is that you were knocked out. You reach for the grating tool, the plank beside you, the mouse in its cage, the nearness of Sam and Charley but by the flats of your hands, your feet, your forehead you know you are trapped in a man-sized gap of air. Sam, Charley you call out and the immediate dirt keeps the names for itself. Cave in you inform yourself. You wonder if you are on your belly, facing the entire thickness of the world that includes China, or if you on your back looking up through a mere forty feet of dirt. Without strength or space in which to kick, you manage to arch your back. You turn your face so you can take a deep breath. Dirt falls into your ear.  Entombed. It was the word you had meant not to think but now it is the word that is keeping you company as you consider the casket of your predicament.

A small part of you—perhaps the quivering mouse that is your heart, is desperate to tell you, before you lose the ability to think, that perhaps you are thinning to oblivion because carbon monoxide, which is the true enemy, is already moving through the passageways of your bloodstream. At this thought you send up a great foisting of panic that does not enlarge the gap whatsoever. You whistle some notes over and over. They are not part of any tune but they don’t need to be. When you have stilled yourself, you conduct the interview that Sam would conduct when checking for gas poisoning: headache, confusion?

If Sam were here he could hold a lamp and check you for a bluing of the lips.  You don’t think you are suffering poisoning. The slump of your limbs is due to the cave-in, not gas. You feel yourself to be alert. In fact that is all you are. You are a buried alertness. You are something that the earth is thinking about—with fixed concentration.

The warmth of your body joins itself to the warmth of the dirt in a general numbness. You are no longer awake but you are not asleep. You are gliding in place. By means of shoulder blades and kneecaps, ankles, wrists you are traveling the pebbled layers, the gravels and the boulders, the totalities. Stuttering along, you come upon all the dead men—those buried in an instant by a land mine or a mortar shell, or buried with care in the infirmary cemetery. You know them to be young men from Dorset and Bavaria, Brittany and forests of the Ardennes. In a juddering embrace you hold them all. You are the slants of water tables. The secrets of seeds. You are widespread. You are too vast to be rescued. What stretcher could hold you? What stretcher bearers could bear the weight of you? You are all of Flanders. You are a trembling that is matched to no shell or exploding mine. You are the tremendousness of the ground itself.

 

Quick as the scraping sound that startles you, you shrink back into the smallness of a man: two arms and two legs, hungry lungs, eyes meant for sky. Someone is approaching by means of a shovel. You fill the inch of air above your mouth with shouting. Even if it is a German tunneler about to come upon you, well—better to be found and then shot and become the color of rich earth and no longer foundering, than to live for some forgotten time before ceasing to.

Some sort of rod strikes your belly. You gasp and dirt falls into your mouth. There is an odd snort of expelled dirt that is different from your own snorting and spitting. The rod is a tube. Someone is blowing through it to clear the end of dirt and now he is speaking to you. Could it be the very officer who was in a flap about Charley; has he come all the way to the end of the tunnel to supervise the rescue.  In your wild relief you can make no judgment about a high born accent.

He is giving you an instruction.  “Wait for me to move the tube from my mouth to my ear and then give me a shout.”

How long ought you to wait, you wonder? What is the distance, measured in time, between lips to ear as he turns his face?

“Here!” you shout. “Here!”

You listen to his response. “Conserve your air, chap. We’ll very soon have you on velvet.”

Already you are forgetting you were once someone fully alive in the living ground, joined to its mineral quickness, its trickling and seeping. Already you are forgetting what it was to be held by the dead earth, to be joined to all the stones and bones within it.  Already you are becoming someone who, if told the blue in the clay was like the earth thinking of the sky or like the earth thinking of the water, would have no idea what that meant.

Already you have shrunk into yourself. And who else should you be but one of the diggers of the 170th tunneling company and proud to be so.

Already there is lamp light. Arms reaching. And then a voice making the report. “We’ve got the third one.  We’ve got Ed.”


Patricia Sammon was born and raised in Canada. She graduated from Cornell University and then returned to Canada to complete graduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She now lives with her family in the United States.  Her stories have appeared in December, Narrative and MidAmerican Review.  Among her awards she has won a Nelson Algren (back when they had several winners a year), a Cecil Hackney and an Asheville Writers’ Workshop.  One of her stories is being anthologized in this year’s Best Non-Required Reading.

 

 

 

 

Mysteries of the Universe (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

thumbnail_Roger_Hart

Mysteries of the Universe

The premonition hits as I walk down Park Street to the university. One foot up in the air and bamm! Knocks me back like a punch in the gut or a mysterious pain in the chest. A premo that sends a chill down my spine despite the warm spring morning. I try to shake it off. I have things to do.

Crows squawk in the maples and oaks, a holy racket. In the distance the university band rehearses for the halftime show of the first home football game four months away, another holy racket. The smell of fresh baked bread and donuts drifts from Sweet Melissa’s Bakery on Lake Avenue.

I try to wash the ugly inkling, the déjà before the vu, out of my mind by concentrating on the cottonwood fluff floating in the air, the noisy crows scolding me, the fat dandelion blossoms blanketing the lawn. A large limb from a sycamore tree has fallen across the sidewalk in front of the physics lab. The dew-covered grass in the shade of the red bricks and ivy of Rodman Hall needs mowed. Cleaning up downed limbs, mowing, trimming, mulching flowerbeds, seeding the muddy areas around the greenhouse. Maintenance stuff. My job. Need to get everything looking tiptop for graduation.

The premonition gnaws at the sunny day. It’s a dark thundercloud threat just over the horizon, lightning flashing, thunder booming. I hope it’s a false warning, a fake forecast.

I’ve had a few, both good and bad, fake and not. Take the one when Sloane and I were camping in the Boundary Waters, our first date, although we didn’t think of it as a date. We’d known each other three weeks. Morning fog blanketed the campsite so thick we couldn’t see the water a few feet beyond our beached canoe. Dew dripped from the needles of the pine trees, landed on the rocks with little plops. I closed up the camp stove, and we took our cups of coffee inside the tent, sat on our sleeping bags with Yogi hunkered down bear-like between us. “A moose,” I mumbled a few minutes later, just as the coffee was beginning to cool.

“What?” Sloane asked.

“Outside the tent,” I said. I hadn’t heard a thing, no hooves crunching on pinecones or sloshing through water, no chomping of aspen, no snorting. Pure premonition.

Sloane gave me her Ph.D. in theoretical physics look. I couldn’t even recite the title of her doctoral thesis, which had something to do, she explained, with cosmic rays called Oh-My-God particles. I had no clue what Oh-My-God particles were despite her attempts to explain, but I took comfort in her admitting no one else knew much about them either. Sloane says space-time is curved by gravity and that virtual particles pop in and out of existence, but she doesn’t buy into premonitions, prophesies, omens, or signs.

Holding onto my cup, I crawled to the tent flap and flipped it aside. Ten feet away and staring at our red canoe was a giant moose although, I guess, all adult moose are giants. I touched my finger to my lips and pointed. Yogi, curious but cautious, watched, sniffed the air. No growl or bark. The moose grazed around our campsite then stepped into the lake and urinated, which sounded like a bucket of water being dumped or a waterfall dropping from a respectable height. “Premonition,” I said a bit smugly.

Sloane shook her head.

I tried throwing a little of her theoretical physics stuff at her. “Didn’t you tell me yesterday as we were paddling across the inlet that quantum things in the future can influence the present? Maybe the future moose in front of our tent signaled it would be there.”

Sloane smirked. “Future events influencing the present is only true in the quantum world,” she said.

Sloane is driven in an indoors/office/journal reading sort of way. Although she had traveled to conferences in several countries and a dozen major cities, this was her first camping trip. I wanted to ask how one thing could be true in her quantum world and not ours, but the moose had moved on, and she was packing up, preparing to move out.

Later that day, the moose day, two young women wearing nothing but hats paddled by us, which has nothing to do with this story.

“Morning,” I said, doing my best not to focus on their as yet un-tanned breasts.

“Morning,” they answered.

After they’d rounded a bend behind us, Sloane, sitting in the bow, turned, cocked her eyebrow. “Well? No comment?” She spoke softly as sounds carry over water, and she didn’t want the topless paddlers to hear.

“I’d worry about mosquitoes and sunburn,” I said, “but it’s a free world.”

Sloane puzzled over my answer for a second. “In the spirit of sisterhood,” she said, and then facing forward, pulled off her sweatshirt and bra.

I stared at her back, the way it narrowed near her waist, the smooth skin, the soft bumps of her spine. “Oh, look,” I said, pointing at an island behind us, tricking her into turning around. “Thought I saw a bear.”

She squinted at the island, and then at me. “Yeah, right,” she said, daring me to stare.

A bare-breasted theoretical physicist sitting in the bow of my canoe. Who could have imagined?

Sloane says we met by mistake, but I say we have a cosmic connection. When the science department has a lecture I attend. I like seeing slides of galaxies, nebulas, the colorful clouds of Jupiter. When I was in high school we had careers day, and I signed up for cosmetology, which I had mistakenly assumed was cosmology. The instructor, a woman with fluorescent blond hair and bright red lipstick, asked each of us to describe our interest in cosmetology. “Wrong class,” I muttered.

Sloane, applying for a position in the physics department, gave a lecture on dark energy and mistook me for another prof. Instead of wearing my maintenance clothes, boots and a blue shirt with Russ, my name, stitched in red above the pocket, I wore a sport coat and tie, having come from my niece’s recital. (Lucy’s only ten and plays the violin.) After the lecture I complimented her, and she asked about my research focus. “Oh, I go in circles,” I said, referring to mowing the lawn, but she thought I was talking code for work with the Hadron Collider. We went to dinner where her mistake became obvious as I had no clue what she was talking about: Hilbert space, vacuum energy, the fine tuning problem. She laughed when she discovered I mowed the lawn, and when we returned from our Boundary Waters canoe trip she moved in with me, saying I was a mystery and she liked mysteries. We’ve been together nine months, something my mother calls a pregnant amount of time.

Her look: white blouses and not a wrinkle in them. Black skirts that show off her long legs. She’s thin and has reddish-blond hair, which she wears in a no-nonsense, professional above-the-collar cut, a style the instructor in the cosmetology class might have liked. Her lips stretch across perfect teeth and her hazel eyes sparkle when she smiles. She doesn’t wear glasses, which is surprising her being a theoretical physicist who is always buried in a book.

Anyway, all this has little, maybe nothing, to do with my premonition, but, as Sloane says when describing her quantum particles, we really have no idea what is real and what isn’t, so I’ve included it here in an effort to be as honest as possible even though honesty is a seldom admired characteristic today despite lip service by politicians, religious folk, the FBI, and the Boy Scouts.

The spring semester is almost over, and dandelions cover the campus commons. Arnold Dickey, the head of maintenance, ordered ten gallons of Roundup and told me to spray last spring and fall. I don’t trust Roundup despite assertions by DuPont that it’s safe. I got rid of it, burned it in the incinerator, then sprayed the lawn with water. I don’t understand Arnold’s love of Roundup. He was in Vietnam, got sprayed with Agent Orange, which has been linked to his Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was made by Dow Chemical, which is now part of DuPont, so you’d think he’d be suspicious of chemical sprays and chemical company claims.

Arnold catches me as I approach the maintenance shed. Before he went through chemo Arnold looked like Willie Nelson what with his beard, western hat, and long, white pigtails, but his hair and beard are gone, replaced by bald, although he still wears the black western hat. I think he’s going to warn me about the dandelions, which isn’t really a premonition as much as a hunch. There’s a difference.

Arnold owns a hangdog expression and gets right to the point. “Sloane,” he says. “How do you feel about her getting the trip?”

Trip?  I squint. “What trip?”

He waves his hand in the air, trying to remember the name. “The Antarctica thing.”

I don’t know about any Antarctica thing. Sloane going to the South Pole is something I can’t imagine. Our canoe trip to the Boundary Waters was her equivalent of going to the moon.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe she’s going to surprise you.”

“When?” I ask.

“Maybe over dinner. I don’t know.”

This is the way Arnold talks, expecting you to fill in between the lines. Arnold also has spells, gets confused, maybe the chemo, maybe something else. Arnold calls me Wes sometimes when I’m Russ, maybe a beginning dementia thing, maybe exposure to Roundup. “No,” I say, “I mean when is the South Pole thing?”

He looks up in the trees, maybe trying to remember, maybe watching a squirrel. With Arnold, everything is maybe. “This summer, I think. Going to be there six months.” He pauses, points at the dandelions and shakes his head. “That Roundup ain’t doing shit,” he says. And then remembering, “Maybe she said something and you forgot.”

Sloane works late, sleeps late. Much of her work is done at her office desk. Most of it is math without numbers, just letters and squiggly lines, sometimes a graph. I’ve seen it. Why would she want to do that in Antarctica? “Must be a mistake,” I say. “She’s a theoretical physicist. They go to conferences in big cities, sit indoors. They don’t go to the South Pole. We’re going camping this summer.”

“Can’t be in two places at once,” he says.

But you can, or at least those quantum things Sloane talks about can. Here and there at the same time. Unbelievable. It’s like a habit with them.

I haven’t talked with Sloane since lunch yesterday. She nudged me with an elbow to the ribs when the alarm went off this morning, but she went back to sleep before I rolled out of bed, so we haven’t had time to talk about the South Pole or her being in two places at once.

Arnold, like me, has not had much luck in his love life, and he tends to be cynical about relationships. That’s why he worries about Sloane. He thinks she’s stringing me along, which has nothing to do with the string theory of the universe she often mentions.

I dismiss Arnold’s off-hand warning the way I dismissed ten gallons of Roundup and this morning’s premonition. I toss Antarctica in my mental incinerator. Melted. Gone.

I’ll stop by Sloane’s office later, after I take care of the sycamore limb blocking the sidewalk next to the physics building, after I pretend to kill the dandelions. We’ll have lunch together, and she can tell me something new, maybe explain how gravity curves space or how those quantum things can be in two places at once. I’ll ask about the Antarctica thing, which goes to show my mental incinerator is not working.

When Sloane goes for a walk to ponder, she takes Yogi. What a sight! Yogi weighs 140, twenty pounds more than Sloane. When we went to the Boundary Waters, Yogi and I swam despite the water being so cold my fingers, toes, and personal body parts went numb. He stayed by my side, kept an eye on me. That’s the Newfoundland way. His chin is white and his eyes are milky. He is slow to get up, and he sits gingerly, but he loves to swim.

Students greet me as they head to their classes. “Hi, Russ, “Morning, Russ,” they say. My name is stitched in red letters above the pocket of my blue shirt, which I have already mentioned, so they know me and that I can unlock their dorm room doors when they forget their keys. They watch, a few do, as I cut up the sycamore limb and haul it away. Sycamores love water and the physics building is on high dry ground, so I have no idea what the tree is doing here. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here, too.

Anyway, by the time I finish taking care of the limb and pretend to Roundup the dandelions, it’s lunchtime, and I enter Rodman Hall, the physics building. Sloane’s office is on the third floor, the floor with the view of the football stadium and the river. I knock on her door and it swings open. “Oh,” she says. “Is it that time?”

In the beginning we ate lunch together a couple times a week at one of the tables in the faculty lounge off the cafeteria, days when she didn’t have meetings or a class, but we stopped doing that for reasons I don’t know. It happened. A mystery. When the weather warmed up and everything began to green, we sometimes walked home and had lunch there, sat on the back steps and watched Yogi sniff around the yard, cock his arthritic hip on the bushes.

Today, however, the day of the bad premonition, I order delivery from Busy Day Café before heading to Sloane’s office. I don’t have to specify what we want. It’s always the same. “Lunch for Russ and Sloane,” I say. I’m in Sloane’s office five minutes when Jerry whose-last name-I-don’t-know shows up with the white bag holding our sandwiches, a vegetarian wrap for Sloane, a steak sandwich for me. Sloane drinks Coke despite my warnings about it being a lot like Roundup. I drink water.

We make small talk. She’s amused by my granting amnesty to the dandelions but otherwise she’s preoccupied. Sloane is desperate to understand the universe. “Is it those Oh-My-God particles?” I ask, nodding at the papers on her desk.

She goes, “What? No. Just thinking. We need to talk.” She looks at the office door the same way Arnold went blank staring off at the squirrels and for a second I think something is going around, a distraction bug or virus.

I wait for the talk we need to have but none comes. I avoid the Antarctica thing because I don’t believe it’s true and because I’m afraid if I ask it will be, sort of like those quantum things that come into existence when you observe them. There’s a connection here I can’t explain. “Hey,” I say, trying to drum up a little enthusiasm. “I’m looking forward to the lecture tonight.”

She sips the Coke, leaving a smudge of lipstick on the straw. “Oh, Russ, are you sure you want to go?”

I take a bite of my steak sandwich. It’s huge. Her veggie wrap is green and small. Maybe that’s how Sloane stays so thin. I’m confused as to why she thinks I might not want to go. I go to all the physics lectures. I like hearing about the unknown, and I’ve not made a fool of myself by asking a question, stupid or otherwise. I just listen. “Sure,” I say. “I’m going.”

“Going where?” a voice behind me asks.

Rocky, the grad student she’s supervising. I want to say, Oh my god, it’s Rocky, but what I actually say is, “Hey, Rock. The lecture tonight.”

Rocky’s eyes never look straight at you but off to the side, like you’re really six inches to your left. He’s thin and pale and cultivating the Einstein look with his wild hair. He wears dark-rimmed glasses and needs to change his name or switch his major to geology.

“Excuse me,” he says to Sloane, stepping behind me and my steak sandwich. “Do you have time this afternoon to look at my calculations . . .” and then his voice trails off as he mumbles things like Planck’s constant, dimensions, and vacuum energy.

Sloane gives me a look that says she needs to take care of this and it would be a good time for me to run home and let Yogi out for a few minutes. She can say all that with one look, a twitch of an eyebrow, pursed lips.

I grab my sandwich and thermos of water—no plastic bottles for me— and nod to Rocky, who flinches despite my not touching him. I save the last two bites of the steak sandwich for Yogi, who will give me a look that says thanks.

 

Later, after sitting on the back deck with Yogi and him giving me the look that says thanks, I walk back to the university where right off I’m confronted by two students, a young man wearing flip-flops and a tie-dyed shirt and a tiny, wide-eyed, granola-type girl, who may or may not be his girlfriend. Both are holding cell phones, like this might be the way they talk to each other. “Russ,” she says. The tone of her voice suggests she’s locked herself out of her room. Again, this is not a premonition but a hunch based on voice, body language, and her blocking my path.

“What can I do for you?” I ask, and she points at the grass, at the tiny pink flags warning that the dandelions have been sprayed with an herbicide and they should stay off the lawn for twenty-four hours.

“You’re poisoning the environment,” she says. Her tie-dyed friend nods.

“It’s not poison,” I whisper. “I put flags there so everyone would think I sprayed the dandelions.” I hope this doesn’t get back to Arnold who would be sorely disappointed in me.

The girl, wearing a Greenpeace badge on her jean blouse and half a dozen silver rings dangling from her ears, takes a defiant stance. “Herbicides are poisonous,” she says. She snaps a picture of the pink flags with her cell phone. “You’re killing microorganisms in the soil. Animals will track this back to their homes. Birds will eat poisoned worms.”

I bend down and snap off a dandelion. She jumps back like I’m going to attack her with it. I bite the dandelion. She gasps. The guy stares at me. “Cool,” he says.

For a second I think the dandelion has a sickening sweet smell, a bitter taste. I worry that Arnold came out with more Roundup, real Roundup and not water, and dowsed the dandelions. I pick another, a fat, bright yellow one with moisture still clinging to the bloom. I sniff. There’s no sweet smell and the blossom tastes like salad without the dressing.

The girl is confused. Maybe I’ll die in front of her and maybe I’m telling the truth. She tugs at the sleeve of her boyfriend’s tie-dyed shirt, and they slip away, careful to not step on the grass.

Another thing I learned from Sloane was that things, quantum things, exist only when they interact with other things. If they don’t interact, they don’t exist. I asked Sloane to explain. She started, took a deep breath, stopped. “Electrons, photons, all the tiny bundles of energy that make up atoms, don’t exist unless they interact with something.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But how is that possible?”

“It’s hard to explain,” she said.

Although she assured me I had nothing to worry about, I welcome these interactions with students. We exist!

A lot of the things I learned from Sloane came during our canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. “What came before the Big Bang?” I asked as we paddled across a smooth stretch of water. Yogi’s ears perked up like he wanted to hear the answer too.

“There was no before,” she said. And then she asked, “What’s wrong with those trees?”

“They’re aspen. Probably the Aspen Blotch Miner. It’s an insect.”

“Will it kill them?”

“Probably not. And how can there be no before?”

“There was no time.”

We paddled close to shore. The wind had shifted and we were alert for any sudden change in the weather while I tried to grasp how there could be no time. A few seconds later—see, there’s time—I touched my finger to my lips and pointed at the bird swimming ahead of us.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“A loon.”

We went back and forth all afternoon, me asking questions about the universe, how an electron could be in two different places at the same time, what is dark matter, and Sloane asking questions about the Boundary Waters, what were the smooth rocks where we beached the canoe, why was the area so rich in iron ore, what was the story of the Native Americans who had lived here, and where had they gone.

I’ve heard dozens of science lectures, and I’ve read a few books, but I’d never had a chance to ask questions of an expert. My job during those science lectures is to be quiet. Talking with Sloane I felt the way a music lover taking a canoe trip with Adele or Prince might feel, like a football fan talking with Jimmy Brown, the greatest running back of all time.

We fell into something special on that trip, if not love, something moving in that direction. Sloane had a wicked sense of humor and several times we laughed so hard we almost tipped the canoe. At night, after the mosquitoes quieted down, we’d stretch out on the smooth slab of rock along the shore, hold hands and stare at the stars while Yogi snored beside me. I tried to imagine a universe that went forever and then tried to imagine one that didn’t. Was there intelligent life somewhere out there staring back at us?  How did this universe get started and why were we here? Sloane was looking for the answers. Loons called back and forth, their songs both beautiful and haunting.

Sloane talked all winter about the two of us going on a return trip to the Boundary Waters. “I want to see a bear,” she’d say. I have the permit and a couple weeks off in August. That’s why I don’t think Antarctica is a real thing.

I get ready to mow despite the mower’s roar annoying the professors who are trying to teach electricity and magnetism, particles and waves. A few professors have become so outraged by the mower’s roar that they fight back. We have battles. The physics professors have threatened to shoot me with lasers and turn on powerful magnets that would suck the fillings out of my teeth. I let the tractor backfire and make an extra sweep past their windows when these things happen. I hate cutting the dandelions, but a job is a job, so I make sure the mower deck is secure, fire up the tractor, and begin making loops around the green. Mowing is a good time to think.

Do premonitions have an expiration date? How can you tell the fake from the real? These are things Rozzi and I argued about when we were on patrol outside Kandahar. Rozzi claimed if you never told anyone your premonition it wouldn’t come true. He hoped it might keep at bay the nightmare scenarios we all foresaw. He also said premonitions had no expiration date. I argued everything died sooner or later, even premonitions.

I can’t shake this morning’s premonition, which is like a bad dream, a disturbing movie playing on a screen behind my eyes. Made me feel hollow. If this premonition were a movie there’d be sad music playing, maybe a cello or bagpipes, maybe the theme from the movie Starman at the moment Jeff Bridges is about to leave and never come back. I would describe it except for hoping Rozzi was right. If I keep it under wraps it won’t happen.

I go around and around, the circle of mowed grass growing smaller with each loop. I take comfort in knowing the dandelions will be back. The sun is fat and bright, the first really hot day this spring, and my neck is burning.

After work I walk home, I call Sloane’s office as I put a pizza in the oven.

“Russ,” she says. “Sorry. I’m going to dinner with Dr. Franz and Dr. Ahman before their presentation tonight. We’re on our way now.”

I hear other voices and laughter in the background. “Okay,” I say. “I love you.”

“Okay,” she says. “Got to go.”

I eat half the pizza. Yogi’s bones are tired, and he ignores my offerings of the crust.

As I walk toward the lecture hall the whistling of the spring peepers and the smell of fresh cut grass cheer me although they do not wipe out the ghost of this morning’s premonition. When I arrive the room is half full of grad students and their friends. I don’t spot Rocky’s wild hair. The two giving the lecture and the physics faculty have not yet shown up, still hobnobbing, I suppose, at the Other World Tavern across town.

I take a seat near the front and save the seat next to me for Sloane although she will probably sit in the first row with the other physics professors. This does not bother me. I understand how she might want to lean over and whisper a quantum question or comment to one of her peers who will whisper theoretical things to her.

Five minutes before seven they show up and take their seats in the first row. Sloane turns in her seat, spots me and nods. I wink back and let out my breath, which I didn’t realize I’d been holding. After long introductions the lecture begins.

The first speaker, a physicist responsible for experiments with photons, explains that when two quantum particles are close to each other they become entangled. They can then be sent their separate ways and still, somehow, maintain a mysterious connection when thousands, even millions, of miles apart.

I like the idea two particles can remain connected when far apart. I think Yogi and I have that. I hope Sloane and I do, too.

Next up, is an older woman who repeatedly swings her head to the side to get her long, going-to-gray hair out of her eyes. Her theory is that the universe is a hologram, nothing more than a projection stored in a two dimensional membrane surrounding the universe. “Which is real?” she asks. “The three dimensions we think we know or are we and our world like the images in a mirror, mere projections?”

I can’t sit still any longer. Maybe it’s the weight of the bad premonition. The thought that we are nothing more that images is too much. I raise my hand.

The woman smiles, leans forward and nods.

“But we’re more than images,” I say, hoping I haven’t missed the entire point, hoping, too, I’m not embarrassing Sloane. I tap my chest, the spot over my heart. “I’m solid.”

The woman nods a few more times to acknowledge my question. “But you aren’t solid. You are mostly empty space. And that very tiny bit of you made up of protons and neutrons and electrons? Well, they’re not solid either. They’re bundles of energy that pop in and out of existence. It’s a great mystery, isn’t it?” And then there are more questions, eager grad students wanting to impress their professors and each other. I stop listening. When the lecture is over, when the speakers have been thanked and everyone heads for the door, there’s a tap on my elbow.

“Russ?” she says. “You okay?” She sits, one vacant chair between us.

“Are we entangled?” I ask.

“That happens only in the quantum world,” she says.

“Are you going to the South Pole?”

She doesn’t appear surprised by my question. “Yes. I don’t like the cold and it’s outside my realm of experience. But I’m looking forward to it.” She glances at her group as they wait for her by the door. “We can talk later.”

I say I understand although I don’t. I want to ask about our trip to the Boundary Waters and if she plans on living with me when she comes back from the South Pole, but I already know the answers. Sloane pats my knee and says she has to run.

The auditorium is mostly empty when I leave. On my way out the door I bump my elbow. Solid.

As I walk across campus my mind races from one thought to another. Yogi is having trouble getting up and down and this may be his last trip to the Boundary Waters. A couple sitting by the lake laugh and lean into each other. The spring peepers sing. Usually I take comfort in seeing the night sky full of stars, but tonight is an exception. I feel alone. Temporary. My premonition haunts me. I feel like I’m no more than a character in someone’s story, and I might, my entire world might, at any moment, blink out of existence.


Roger’s stories and essays have been published in Natural Bridge, The Tampa Review, Passages North, Runner’s World, and other magazines and journals. His short story collection, Erratics, won the George Garrett Contest and was published by the Texas Review Press. “Fireflies” was awarded first place in the Third Coast fiction contest. “Numbers” was awarded first place in The Ohio Writer fiction contest, and his short story “My Suff” was featured in a dramatic reading at the Cleveland Playhouse. As a former science teacher he’s still fascinated by the mysteries of the universe and the human heart. He now lives in Iowa with his wife, Gwen, and two giant dogs.

 

Acorns

 Ramona__DeFelice_Long_Photo_Fiction

Dennis can’t believe Terry and I will give up a vacation day to visit the family cemetery, but once I convince him that I’m not kidding, there is silence on the phone. I hear him breathing—a concerning wheeze that carries across the ether of our connection—until he says, “Well, if you’re going to be there, check to see if he’s in it.”

He, meaning our father.

I promise I will.

 

There’s a speed trap at the edge of town. I don’t remember it until I see the worn WELCOME sign with seagulls and a shrimp boat painted in dulling colors. The sun glints off the bayou, slightly choppy under a breezy December sky. On a piling ten feet from the edge of the road, a pelican perches. At first I’m not sure it’s real, but it moves, turning slightly to face the sun.

“Look at that,” Terry says, like the tourist he is. “Is that usual for this time of year? I mean, don’t they migrate someplace warmer?”

Warmer than Louisiana? I shrug. I don’t know. I haven’t lived here in forty years.

“Slow down,” I say. “There might be a cop car hiding behind that sign.”

Terry slows, his foot hitting the brake too hard, and my hand whips out to the dashboard. While we’re being welcomed to town, the speed limit abruptly drops 20 mph.

We both turn to check behind the sign. No cop car.

“False alarm,” I say. “There’s usually one hiding back there. Everybody knows about it.”

“Everybody, huh?” Terry teases. “How old were you when you left this place?” The way he says “place” instead of “town” makes clear his first impression.

“Seven. Dennis was five,” I say, but I’m staring out the window, looking for familiar sights. Memories. Is that red brick building the hardware store where I got my first bike? That pinkish one with Library painted on the door where I got a library card? A shuttered white building on the bayou side might be a snowball stand, a tumbling down one with a rusting pole reaching to the sky the old Frostop.

There’s no traffic. It’s a Tuesday, mid-morning, and a bypass was built behind town so the oil industry workers could zip along in their white pick-ups without getting caught in the speed trap. An abundance of white pick-ups means the economy is healthy, someone at the conference told Terry. We’ve been counting white pick-ups all morning on the drive from New Orleans toward the Gulf.

There are no white pick-ups going through town. The locals must be sleeping in.

I continue my memory tour. The Sheriff’s Annex looks new, but it’s in the same spot as the old one. Why do I remember where the jail would be? I am not sure, but as if a hand touches the top of my head and swivels it, I turn and peer through the windshield, across the bayou, across the road, to a street on the other side. My hand lifts, my index finger points.

“Across the bayou, on that street. First house on the right side,” I say. “Where we lived.” Directly across the bayou from the sheriff’s office. Maybe that’s why I remember the jail?

Terry slows—if you can go slower than 20—but there is not much to see. A street lined with wooden houses, some of them shotguns, some of them cottages, one square red brick which sticks out like it fell from the sky. Yards full of azaleas and china ball trees. Chain link fences, one or two strung with Christmas lights.

A few houses are painted pastels, but when we lived here, your house was white. If it was painted at all. I glance down at my feet and picture myself sitting on an unpainted porch, dangling my bare toes over tangles of sweet peas, while through the screen door behind me voices argued. Where was Dennis? Not beside me, and I dropped into the too-long grass and went hunting for him. He had a few regular hiding places—under the cistern, beside the shed, beneath the front porch when the weather was dry, behind the small concrete statute of Our Blessed Mother in the front yard. The statue was painted blue and white, and seasonal flowers grew around it: lilies in spring, petunias in summer, some hearty bloom in fall. I don’t recall finding Dennis, but I must have. I always did, always sat beside him and waited out the fight, while across the bayou, black and white police cars sat in front of the Sheriff’s Annex.

I turn my face and stare at the road. Now I remember why I remember. Daddy used to tell us if we were bad, the Sheriff would put us in jail. We believed him because one of the deputies was his brother, my Uncle Dale.

 

“The church is coming up,” I say. “After the school.”

Terry points to a small, pale purple building painted with green vines and bright pink flowers. It sticks out more than the red brick house. A sign in front says MOIRA’S DINER.

“Should we stop first?” Terry asks. “I could use coffee, and some more of those beignet things if they got ‘em.”

“You’re such a Yankee,” I say, but I’m glad we’re stopping. For the coffee, and the beignet things, and to gather myself.

I can’t recall anyone in my father’s family named Moira.

I take his hand as we walk the few steps to the diner. Terry is always amiable, but since Dennis’s diagnosis, he’s been extra solicitous. Dennis and I are all that’s left of my mother’s family—no cousins, no family reunions, no Thanksgiving meals reminiscing about how your mother was always stoned and your father disappeared one day. After Mama overdosed, Grandmama told Dennis and me we’d always have each other; before she was gone, we had to promise to stay close. We didn’t keep the promise physically, but we talk or text almost every day. Grandmama’s heart would be warmed, but she was wrong. Dennis and I won’t always have each other.

With no treatment, weeks to months. With treatment, two years.

“You’re not taking this trip because of me?” Dennis asked. “You don’t think you’ll go in the family cemetery and find a headstone that says ‘Died of liver cancer at 45, so avoid liquor and fatty foods’?”

“Yes, Dennis, that’s why we’re going, because everything has to be about you,” I say. The old joke between us. Which, we’d both admit, is a little bit true. “But if I see a headstone like that, I’ll Instagram it to you.”

“Please do,” he says.

 

Moira is a white-haired lady in a dark purple dress that matches the bistro tables and chairs. Suns and moons and stars are painted on the dark blue walls. The ceiling is yellow.

Terry pulls out a chair for me and whispers, “Did we take a wrong turn?”

There are no beignets on the menu, only tea cakes, muffins, and scones. Lots of teas, but also coffee. Moira might be an anomaly on the bayou, but she has business sense. We order coffee. Terry, sad resignation in his voice, orders a blueberry muffin.

Moira is back in no time with our order. She’s frankly curious about us, so frankly that she asks. “Where’rey’all from? I can tell you’re not from around here.”

Terry says, “Philadelphia. We’ve been in New Orleans for a conference. I wanted to see the Gulf of Mexico, so we drove down the scenic route.”

The response sounds practiced, like a cover story. Which it is. But I am intrigued by Moira’s use of “where’rey’all” as one word, so I add, “I was born in the area.” I name the town of Grandmama’s birth, not really in the area but where we escaped to after Daddy disappeared. Before she can ask for details, I say, “What about you? Moira’s not exactly a down the bayou name.”

She laughs. “Oh, my darling, I gave myself this name. My given name’s Mary Madonna. There were four Marys and three Madonnas in school with me, so I changed it. I thought it would make me special.”

“It fits you,” Terry says, jutting his chin toward the stars and moon and the sun ceiling overhead.

“Or maybe I fit it,” she says, but she’s eyeing me, and I start thinking of Marys and Madonnas in my father’s family. Surely there were some, whether I remember or not.

I ask to use the restroom and stay in there as long as possible. When I return to the table, Terry’s had my coffee put into a go cup and his muffin is down to crumbs. I want to bless him for the hundredth time.

“Moira was getting a wee bit nosy,” he says as we go back to the car.

“I know.” I am shaken, as if encountering a white-haired lady in a purple dress was dodging a close call.

 

I don’t have to point out the church to Terry. The sign is planted almost aggressively close to the road, and the white stucco exterior is striking against the towering live oaks overhead. We turn into the parking lot, and I tell him to drive around the back of the church. I have no reason to go inside, though Dennis and I were baptized here, and I wore a white dress and a hat with an itchy elastic chin band on the day I made my First Communion. We were gone before Dennis made his.

There is a tall black fence surrounding the cemetery. That is new, and my stomach drops. What if it’s locked? Would we have to find the pastor and ask permission? I am not sure I want to do that.

We get closer. The gate is open. I sighed, relieved. Terry frowns as he side-eyes me.

“You all right?”

“Yes,” I say. “See if you can find us a good parking spot.”

The line of spots alongside the church is empty. Terry pulls into the first one. We both jump as something hits the roof of the car.

“What the hell?” Terry says.

“It’s just an acorn,” I say, knowing before I see it. “The church grounds are surrounded by oak trees.” I explain briefly how the deep roots are supposed to keep the in-ground graves from floating away during hurricanes.

The wind has pushed piles of acorns against the edges of the parking lot. They crunch under our feet as we get out of the car.

“Cripes, you sure can’t sneak up on anybody here, can you?”

That is probably a good thing, but after a few feet of cringing after each step, we start laughing. It’s so loud, it’s absurd. I expect flocks of blackbirds to fly out of the oaks, but though I hear them cawing between our steps, they stay put.

At the gate, I stop. “Oh, shoot, I forgot the papers in the car,” I say.

Terry says, “I’ll get them. You look around.”

He crunches away. I hear another “Cripes.”

At home, I did research on the grave sites of our relatives, but I am certain from memory that our grandparents’ tomb is on the fifth row on the right side. Daddy would bring us here on Father’s and Mother’s Day and lament the loss of his parents. His father died at sea when a rogue storm blew in and nearly capsized his shrimp trawler. He pitched over the side and drowned before his crew could pull him in. Daddy was a teenager. His mother died later, in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.

The tombs are above ground, in the sun, and the cemetery blazes as if buckets of whitewash have been poured over the whole plot. It’s December, only a month after All Souls’ Day, and even after forty years away, I know the social ramifications of not white-washing the family tombs by the day after Halloween. We did it in the morning, half-sick from too much candy, Mama dragging us here with Grandmama helping. Daddy was the oldest son and it was his responsibility to tend his parents’ resting place. Which meant it was Mama’s job, which meant Grandmama did the actual work. Grandmama who moved in when I was a baby because Mama was incapable, and stayed after Dennis was born for the same reason. Grandmama had Dennis and me help paint the low parts or the back of the tomb, where nobody would look. When Daddy asked if we helped, we could honestly answer “yes.”

Fifth row, second tomb, right side. I shuffle through scattered acorns and stand as far back as I can, the backs of my knees butting against the grave behind it. My maiden name in carved across the top is unsettling. My grandparents are listed one after the other—beloved husband/wife and father/mother—followed by Uncle Dale. His death was twenty years ago. I hadn’t heard.

Beneath Dale is my father’s name. His date of birth. A hyphen. A blank.

So now I know—though I assumed all along, because we’d have been alerted by some government agency or lawyer or something, but the stark black letters on the family tomb makes it official in my mind. He’s never been found.

I take a photo and text it to Dennis. I don’t know what to say so all I send is the photo. A few seconds later, he texts back: Not very helpful, is it?

I text back: He never was.

 

Terry returns with the papers I printed with the locations of my cousins and aunts and uncles. We go up and down the rows, kicking aside acorns, and find them. I take pictures of each one and text Dennis, who sends back responses:

A long and happy marriage, bless ‘em.

Is that name for a man or a woman?

Thank him for his service.

Seven months? That’s sad.

  1. The Spanish flu, maybe?

There are a few tombs with photographs attached to them, small oval pictures behind convex glass coverings and a silver framed embedded next to the deceased’s name. These freak Terry out.

“That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, recoiling, but I find them fascinating. I study each one—usually old women or men, some so warped I have to check the name to figure out the gender. There are a few couples, but no children.

Only one of our relatives has a photograph, a woman who died in the 1960s at an advanced age, though the photo must have been taken at midlife. Still, the black and white photo shows a face lined from working outdoors, gray hair pulled back in a bun, a sharp chin and hawkish nose, arms folded over a plain dress and striped apron. No smile. I suspect she’d had a hard life, but I feel sympathy about the photo. Who chose to memorialize her with this unforgiving image?

Then again, maybe there was a good reason.

I hear crunching of acorns. Terry. I point at the photo.

“I wonder if that’s Moira’s grandma,” I joke.

He bends forward. “Yikes.”

I send a photo of her to Dennis with the text: Cousin Violina

He texts back: You have her eyes.

 

We stay an hour. Terry is getting restless; there’s only so much to see in a small cemetery half covered in acorns. There are no more photos to send to Dennis, no evidence that we were pre-deceased by anyone with the same liver disease that will take my brother away too soon.

But that’s not why I came.

We walk back together, debating po-boys or gumbo for lunch, but when we reach the fifth row, I tell Terry, “Go on ahead. I want another minute.”

I run my fingers along my father’s name. I can’t picture him, and that my brain’s choice if not mine, because the human mind sometimes protects itself from what’s too hard to recall. Traumatic amnesia. I have a mended bone in my right arm from the time he broke it, and Dennis…Dennis has more. He remembers more, too, though he was younger.

My hand turns into a fist. I press it into his name. “You son of a bitch,” I say.

“He was that,” a man’s voice says, and I swing around, so startled I can hardly catch my breath. I didn’t hear any acorns.

The man is tall and lean, wearing a deputy’s uniform. I turn back to the tomb and double-check the date. Dead twenty years, but here he is.

“Uncle Dale?”

He tips his old-fashioned police hat as if I am a stranger on the street.

“I figured you might come back someday,” he says. “How’s the boy?”

The boy. Dennis. My little brother. We were supposed to always be together.

I shake my head. My eyes fill with tears. “Not so good,” I say.

He doesn’t look surprised. “I’m sorry to know that,” he says. “Tell him, when the time comes, I’ll be watching for him this time. I should have done a better job of that before.”

He pulls off the hat, turns it in his hands. A breeze rushes up, and the acorns begin to roll, twirling and bumping up against each other before settling back into a pile.

I try to remember. There was a fight, but not with Mama. Mama was with Dennis and me, hiding. We were in the front yard, crouched under the porch, Mama rocking Dennis back and forth, his head bloody. His eyes were open but he wouldn’t cry.

Above us, voices raised and footsteps pounded and then it was silent. We stayed under the porch, but I could see clear across the bayou at the Sheriff’s Annex, and after a little while, a cop car pulled out from in front of the jail and showed up at our house. Not to take us away because we were bad but because Grandmama had come in . . . and said never again . . . no more . . . .

“You knew where he was?” I say. Guess. “You knew all along?”

Uncle Dale nods, says yes, and puts his hat back on.

I face the tomb again and look at the blank behind Daddy’s name. No date, no information I can confirm or verify.

I ask. “Where?”

I turn around, but Uncle Dale is gone.

I back up and, ignoring the sacrilege, sit on the lower grave behind me. There is no wind and, I realize, the blackbirds have all gone silent. No one else is here. No one else has come since we arrived.

On the tomb, black letters say Beloved Husband and Father beside the grandfather I never knew. I look at Daddy’s name, but I still can’t picture his face.

Maybe a person can only disappear if nobody goes looking for them.

The grave feels cold and hard under my bottom. Dennis wants to be cremated. No grave or marker or brick in a remembrance wall. Fling me to the winds. Don’t waste a bunch of money on funereal nonsense. I agree about the nonsense but not the flinging. At night, I look at urns on the Internet but I don’t text photos to my dying brother. I wish I could ask Grandmama: If I put him on my fireplace mantle, is that staying together? Would that be keeping the promise?

I think of what Uncle Dale just said. Tell him, when the time comes, I’ll be watching for him this time.

Around the tomb, the piles of acorns quiver. I stand to go. Terry is waiting in the car.


Ramona DeFelice Long’s short fiction and personal essays have appeared in regional and literary publications such as The Delmarva Review, Literary Mama, the Parhelion Review, Lunch Ticket, and the Arkansas Review. Ramona has received multiple writing grants, and in 2017 she was awarded a Masters Fellowship in Fiction from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She is a transplanted Southerner now living in Delaware though she can most often be found at open mics, literary readings, and writing retreats.