SITZ-i-zen

SITZ-i-zen

by Bim Angst

Bim Angst_Sitzizen

The child was dead before Irina Putavich plunged her hands into the scalding water and lifted him startled-faced to the air. The baby was limp. As his round nose and the fat cheeks with which he so powerfully suckled rose above the shining scrim of clear water, he did not open his small heart-shaped mouth to suck in air. His head flopped back as Irina lifted him, the skin of her hands reddening around his waist as she drew him to her bony chest. Misha Misha Misha she whispered, as if she were trying to wake him.

It was the smell of Irina’s hair smoldering that brought her mother, Vlada, trundling to the kitchen, where Irina knelt on the floor, the heat from the cast iron of the stove searing the loose ends of her hair. Vlada slid her felted feet across the new linoleum rug to peer over her 16-year-old daughter’s shoulder. The beatific face of her grandson was losing its startling russet color. Crystalline droplets from the few golden curls at the back of his head broke ripples in the washtub from which still rose fingers of steam.

*

At the drowning of his son, Laszlo Putavich was not called from the mine. Instead, he returned home at the normal hour. The bricks of the alley walkway were wet, as he might have expected, but no trousers hung on the clothesline, and the washtub was tilted against the arbor as if it had been thrown. Laszlo entered the quiet kitchen to see his wife rocking in the big chair near the stove. Irina was wrapped in a sheet, her chin on her chest as if she were asleep, yet, softly, she moaned.

On the kitchen table sat the laundry basket, one wicker handle hanging loose. Laszlo did not detect the odor of the lye soap Irina used to scrub the miners’ frayed clothes. Neither did the kitchen smell of lard or onions as it should have, but instead of hot metal and something that burned his nostrils and made his windpipe catch, something like the torching off of the last fur on a hide.

From deep within the house came the drone of prayer and a muffled half-sob. In the far room, Vlada was on her knees—how did she get down, he marveled, how would she haul her great bulk up? Vlada’s oxen shoulders heaved. Beside her knelt Father Yspecky, the prayer for the departed on his lips in Russian.

It was then that Laszlo turned to the basket, where he saw the face of his swaddled son.

*

She had not been a beautiful bride, nor eager, but Irina had done her best to please Laszlo in the year and eleven months in which they had lain as husband and wife. It was not Irina’s fault, Laszlo pondered, that Vlada was of the old country and treated Irina as if she were an ignorant serf. The new version of serfdom and soldiering as Franz Josef’s conscript were exactly why Laszlo Putavich’s parents had sent their sons from the vineyards of Uzhhorod Raion, why, in the company of his older brother, Laszlo had trudged across Europe to Hamburg wearing three layers of clothing, a pair of too-big shoes, and an uncle’s overcoat.

Irina was, Laszlo knew, his best chance to avoid becoming the lost soul of a man without a country, a man without a family, a man who prayed but did not worship, who worked hard but lost his pay in the bottle. And so, when his friend Mykhail Kruchevich was crushed by a coal car that broke loose when the pillars were robbed in the Number 9 Clareville mine, Laszlo took old Misha’s lunch pail to the home of his wife and daughter and sat with them through the wailing and banging of pots that followed. Two days later, in his embroidered shirt, Laszlo Putavich entered the blue-domed Russian Orthodox church for old Misha’s funeral, not only to smooth the pall and bear Misha’s poor coffin but to return from the graveyard with the dimpled hand of Misha’s rotund widow tucked in his elbow and the offer of her remaining daughter in marriage pouring like oil into his ear. Before the month was out, Laszlo had an American-born wife and Vlada had a strong-bodied wage-earner under her roof.

At fourteen, Irina knew hard work and laundry. She rose to make her father breakfast, to pack his lunch into the metal pail while her mother slept, Vlada’s rheumatism and bad heart swelling her limbs and giving her reason to lay abed. Irina’s hands were raw and the texture of burlap. Yet Irina’s narrow fingers worked nimbly, and she could starch and press flat the fine seams and lace edging of the table linens in the big houses of the English families to whom Vlada farmed her out. Irina was of America and knew both how to pinch the edges of pierogi and how to slice vegetables into the ridiculous shapes of budding flowers. Irina was of two worlds and knew both how to season halupki and how to braise a rack of lamb not big enough to simmer a broth. Before wax in a kistka hardened, Irina could draw a layer of design on an eggshell as had Christian women in the old country, and yet as a woman in this new place she could with a needle reattach a fancy mother-of-pearl button without a prick to the neck of the squirming boy still wearing the shirt. What Irina did not know of either world, Laszlo would gladly have taught her, if he had known any more than she.

All that Laszlo brought with him from the old country, beyond the poor clothes, were sunflower seeds and rootstock from the four varieties of grape his parents tended for the owner of the Slavic land on which the family had lived longer than anyone could recount. The night before her sons’ leave-taking, Laszlo’s mother pulled up a hot stone with a poker and withdrew a small jar of coins from the pit below. These few she had split into two pitiful stacks, sewing each coin and cuttings from the grapes into pockets she had fashioned in the hems of the threadbare overcoats she gave to Laszlo and his brother, Vasyli. Laszlo kissed his parents and sisters, and the next morning, he followed Vasyl’s back, scraping seeds from the dead heads of his mother’s sonyashnyki into his pocket as they passed. The boys settled into the feel of wearing shoes as they shuffled through the fields to a dirt road Laszlo had never seen before, the light of the known world burning up in the Carpathians behind them. One at a time, Laszlo ground the sunflower seeds of home in his teeth, flicking shell off his tongue to the dirt as Vasyli talked, talked, talked, and the two of them walked, walked, walked. Eventually, they met the ocean. Vasyli cut the coins from the hems of their coats and paid their steerage across.

The boys were like so many others on the far side. So many families. So many young men. Vasyli followed a braggart shipmate and his vodka bottle to a Hunkie settlement in Canada. Laszlo drew from his pocket a worn slip of finger-softened paper on which his mother had with the help of the priest carefully written in ink and capital English letters the name of the town to which his father’s friend’s cousin’s eldest son had emigrated in the New World: CLAREVILLE. Beneath, in script, she or Father Grigori had penned Pennsylvania. Somehow, he did not remember how, Laszlo had arrived.

He had also been taken in, all three Orthodox churches welcoming him as yet another son of the motherland. After nights of sleeping on a storeroom floor, after days of eating red-beet eggs offered from a jar in the barroom he was allowed to sweep, Laszlo located countryman Stanis Shandrushavich and, for a time, shared a boarding house bed with this pal who could vouch for him when he made the rounds, using his most important new and difficult-to-pronounce word: work.

By the time he was invited to join the company of men smoking and sharing a bottle in the payday shade of Mykhail Kruchevich’s back porch, Laszlo Putavich had through polite deference and the showing of adequate American cash secured his own bed and meals in the house of Baba Smolnyki, kitchen matron of Saint Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church. Laszlo was not only well fed but adopted by the church’s murder of crow-garbed babas, who were alarmed that he approached the age of 20 without a wife. This, along with the amount of coal he could shovel into a lokie car, assured that Laszlo’s days as a man without family or roots would not last long. His name was mentioned more than once to Mykhail and Vlada Kruchevich.

Of Mykhail Kruchevich’s five children—all daughters—only spindly Irina, age fourteen, remained at home. Irina caught no one’s eye. Behind Irina, the babushka-ed Vlada loomed, casting a dark shadow on any thought a young man might entertain about the wraithlike girl. Even had Irina flesh and sway to spare, the men of Clareville who could speak English would have diverted their gaze to the sky or the frayed tips of their hand-me-down shoes had Irina drifted into view.

And drift Irina did. The child was, to all appearances, without a mind of her own. Some mistook this for stupidity, but Irina’s quiet obedience to Vlada’s barked commands shielded her not only from confrontation with the quick-to-slap matriarch but nurtured the fragile shoots of Irina’s dreams. In her mind, Irina ranged widely. Sent beyond the confines of their yard to purchase butter or deliver laundry, Irina peered into yards and windows, walking fast enough to avoid Vlada’s wrath. Irina saw that not all gardens grew cabbages. Beyond the patch, the windows were covered by lace—and in lamplight, the walls beyond the fine curtains were papered with colorful cloth and hung with gleaming mirrors. These led her to believe: She might, God willing, one day live a different life.

And then Laszlo happened onto the porch of the patch house Irina called home.

*

The morning before the afternoon Laszlo and Irina stood together hands on a Bible in the priest’s wife’s parlor, Vlada hauled herself up the sagging stairs to the second floor. She directed Irina to gather her church dress and bundle of nightgown, bloomers, and summer and winter stockings from the back bedroom she had shared with her sisters. Then, Vlada   led Irina to the larger front bedroom dominated by the imposing headboard of what had been Vlada and Mykhail’s marriage bed. On the coverlet, Vlada laid a gossamer white nightgown with smocked bodice. After the keg in the church hall smoker foamed its end, Laszlo appeared at the kitchen door with a paper sack of belongings. Vlada, who had been waiting in the rocker, led Laszlo on his first visit to the second floor, where the door to the front room was open, a lamp was lit, and Irina was curled under the quilt. Vlada laughed as she closed the door.

Laszlo set the sack on the floor and hung his jacket. He smiled shyly at Irina before he sat on the edge of the bed and removed his shoes. And then Laszlo Putavich, still wearing his new American-made shirt and trousers, stretched out on the felt mattress, nestled his beer-brained head into a pillow whose feathers still bore the scent of Mykhail Kruchevich’s oiled hair, slung his arm over Irina, and fell drunk asleep.

The next morning, Laszlo Putavich presented Irina for the first time with the only fully mature and functioning male member she would ever encounter. The sound of a heavy stream in the night-pot woke Irina as dawn greyed at the windows. Irina had, of course, seen male privates in the snail- and grub-like forms they took on the small boys her duties required her to prepare for school or naps. But the member that her new husband Laszlo shook over the pot was as big as the spigot of a water pump. Laszlo had stepped out of his trousers and knee-length drawers, the hard globes of his tallow-white behind glowing. Still wearing his new shirt and white socks, Laszlo turned, his part in his palm. Seeing Irina awake, Laszlo grinned, and the thing in his hand stiffened.

Laszlo climbed back into the bed and lay gazing sweetly at Irina. Irina pulled the covers to her chin. Laszlo’s thing stretched the sheet, pointing toward the ceiling with persistent rigidity. Once she had seen it, Irina could not take her wide eyes away from the spot where the dark tip pressed a bit of wetness onto the sheet. As the sun rose and Irina became more visible, Laszlo began to believe he was married and that there was now a woman next to him—and that she was his wife and would not refuse him.

Except refuse him she did. When Laszlo reached to embrace her, Irina slapped his face and bolted down the hall shrieking about Laszlo’s deformity. His member not yet calmed, Lazlo was struggling into his pants when Irina reached the stairs, where Vlada blocked the retreat and commanded Irina to return to her marriage bed and attend to her wifely duty.

Laszlo let his trousers drop.

*

After a few weeks, female wailing and whimpering ceased to seep around the door and out the windows of the front bedroom of the house that had been Mykhail Kruchevich’s.  Irina’s cheeks grew rosy. Laszlo whistled as he walked.

He brought her chocolates and cherries. She fried for him the biggest piece of meat and at the kitchen sink scrubbed his back with a brush. She burnished his getting-married shoes with melted candle wax and, when his barked knuckles split and festered, she salved his cuts with rendered chicken fat, wrapping his hands in clean strips of old sheets.

It was Vlada who pronounced the pregnancy. Watching her daughter throw laundry over the lines strung across the kitchen, Vlada gestured from the rocker for the girl to come close. Vlada’s gnarled fingers cupped Irina’s belly.

“Before the green leaves go red,” she announced to Laszlo, who beamed.

Irina pondered how the baby had come to be in her belly, but Laszlo, his head on her shoulder as they lay in the big bed, thrust an index finger in and out of the circle he’d made with the other hand. Irina’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, Laszlo imitated her, and they fell on each other laughing.

When baby Misha arrived, he brought with him the strings and clots of Irina’s insides, washed from Vlada’s slippery fingers after she pulled him from her screaming daughter the dark Sunday he was born. Misha’s birth stained permanently the bed on which he had been conceived. Misha thrived, and Irina survived the fever, but the stitches with which the old doctor days later closed the bleeding chasm between Irina’s legs healed into a scar half the size of a towrope and just as taut.

Relations for Laszlo and Irina changed.

*

In the weeks following little Misha’s death, Irina Kruchevich Putavich returned to the back bedroom and curled like a potato bug to a ball. Morning and night, Laszlo touched her shoulder, which had no warmth. He bent to hear her breath and kissed her forehead when the brief breeze at her nostrils revealed her yet alive.

Grief, worry, and loneliness forced Laszlo Putavich to drink, and drink returned him to the company of Stanis Shandrushavich, his pal of boarding house days. Drink, however, especially whiskey, which they gulped with a slap of the thick-bottomed shot glass on the bar, led the normally sweet-tempered, happy-go-lucky Stanis to a state of mean-mouthed pushiness. But Stanis was known to produce, as if by magic, small goods and oddments—lengths of lokie rails his neighbors used to support their porches, metal piping and jointures used, alas, in their stills, along with lumber that mysteriously appeared beside their doors as they found need to repair the cladding of their outhouses. However, Stanis’s material benefactions could not prevent those on the receiving end of his insults from sometimes punching his drunken, smirking maw.

Laszlo Putavich stood beside Stanis when Tador Milzewkevski missed his aim and stumbled, mashing his nose on the hard brass of the foot rail at Yushko’s Bar. Tador’s head slid off the rail in blood running as wide and thick as the stream at the butcher’s drain. They let Tador lie.

Tador lay so long that Buzzy Lukavuch rolled him over with a foot, and the men at the bar, Stanis included, peered down at him, beer glasses in their hands. Someone threw water on Tador’s face. He did not stir.

That night, it took five Cossacks of the Coal and Iron Police to pummel Stanis to the floor of his rented room while furniture broke and Baba Smolnyki, wailing in her nightgown, covered her eyes. Stanis was wearing only the union suit he slept in as he was dragged through the front door. The trial was swift, the verdict predictable. His name could not be found in the records, and illiterate Stanis could produce no document, consign no property, which would convince a lawyer to take his case. With sadness, Laszlo Putavich, himself possessing no document save the slip of paper on which his mother had written his American destination, held the roll of Stanis’s clothes as Baba Smolnyki bound it with the knot-mended laces of his boots. Said bundle she pressed into the hands of Dorcas McElhenny, the Mick girl who peeled potatoes and onions for boarding house meals, with instruction to send it with her half-idiot brother William, whose lilting tenor could be heard blocks before he arrived to deliver ice at the county jail.

Stanis’s name, like Laszlo’s, was recorded nowhere but at the port of entry and in the Cyrillic script of St. Michael’s church ledger, the pages of which Father Yspecky held in one hand as he gathered the hem of his cassock to mount the marble steps to the courthouse and plead for Stanis with Judge Hargrave Ellicot. Before he took the trolley back to Clareville, Father Yspecky knelt to say the benediction with the blubbering Stanis in his cell. Before the month was out, Stanis was on the train to Philadelphia under Coal and Iron guard, and no one in Clareville, not even Masha Trushkonic, who in shame bore his child seven months later, heard from or of Stanis Shandrushavich again.

*

Mykhail Putavich son of—Laszlo knew it proclaimed as his fingertips traced the English letters of their names, carved in stone only in Amer-EE-ka. Laszlo’s grief burned into a desire for the recognition that would establish him as head of his American family, more real to him than any before. Laszlo prayed to become a SITZ-i-zen.

Irina had finished third grade. When she satisfied Vlada that she could read and reckon well enough not to be cheated by butchers, farmers, tinkers, sheenies, and the ragman, Irina was no longer sent to school. No decent, hard-working man would marry a woman who might confuse him with fancy words or waste time on reading. A good wife could cook, sew, bear healthy babies, raise respectful children, run a clean and pious household, and without a hitch wring the neck of any chicken she raised. If she could grind and season kielbasa, so much the better. Fair looks were not to be prized above these wifely skills. An educated girl was a ruined woman. She guaranteed that even a good husband would, eventually, be driven to drink, may the saints forgive him. Mykhail’s hosting of the Saturday bottle-passing and uneducated Vlada’s wiles and sharp tongue were never discussed—though what these might suggest was sometimes pondered.

Laszlo himself read in Ukrainian and Russian and could reckon well enough to track in his head and to the penny what his pay should be for the lokie cars he’d loaded and the total he ran for shovelheads and cowhide gloves, but he could neither write his name in English nor read the documents which might secure him a place in this new country of America.

On a little tablet, Irina penciled her few purchases—most recently green thread matching the voluminous plaid skirt she had taken from the rubbish at the home of her Tuesday-Friday English employer, cloth Irina had carried home to make a winter jacket and two pairs of jumpers for poor, then-growing Misha. They had lost the child, and although God had secured their bond, Laszlo would see that American law kept him with Irina. The salvaged length of plaid wool was spread across Irina’s knees, and she held the wooden spool of thread. Laszlo opened the fabric, stacked Misha’s garments and diapers, and rolled them into the wool along with the spool. He kissed Irina’s head and set the bundle in the empty dresser drawer. Laszlo would take the test for citizenship in the United States of America. He would have his papers.

Before Laszlo returned to sit beside Irina, he took her tablet and pencil from the top of the dresser, along with the McGuffey’s primer that she had slipped from a shelf and dropped in the deep pocket of her skirt while dusting the bedroom of sickly, sissy Luther Hathaway. Laszlo adjusted the pillows against the headboard and helped Irina slip off her shoes. He opened to a page marked with a prayer card, set Irina’s finger on a line, and urged her to say the letters. Laszlo, looking first to the book, watched her mouth intently, pronouncing the sounds he thought she’d made. Each time Irina pointed to her mouth, signaling him to watch how the American sounds were shaped by lips and tongue, Laszlo wanted to kiss her but refrained.

Within a few weeks, Laszlo had filed his declaration of intent and could recognize the letters of the alphabet large and small, delighting Irina when he correctly identified all the capital letters of self-rising flour, and the small script o, c, l, and a in Coca Cola. Irina began to run her finger along a whole word, and Laszlo sought to move those words from his mouth, though they emerged sometimes as if they were shards of glass or tangled lengths of string. The J of June and July fell out of his lips as a halted breath, his Slavic tongue resting low in the channel of his mouth. The H in Heinz arrived accompanied by a back-of-the-throat growl Laszlo could not suppress, and inevitably, wherever the letter occurred, he rolled the R. The vowels were deep and released with the mouth open. Work was wahrrk and over was ovair. Some sounds were followed, inexplicably, by a sound similar to a soft, plosive E, not fully a sound of its own but more the halting of the tongue at the back of the teeth. And yet Laszlo caressed the words in his mouth and began to rrEEdeh. Each time he spoke a word in English, the words spelled United States of America.

Laszlo and Irina sat together on the overstuffed parlor sofa, the McGuffey’s Third Level Reader across their adjacent knees. Laszlo followed Irina’s finger and read word-by-word, his understanding keen, but the mechanisms of his tongue and teeth, his lips and breath, tumbling like stones at first but then dancing a heavy-footed mazurka that real Americans, if they listened carefully, might almost understand.

From the rocker, Vlada listened to the lessons in the parlor, her block-like feet pushing the old chair into the train-like rhythm with which she had for one year, two months, and fourteen days lulled and cooed Misha to sleep. Laszlo rested his hand on top of Irina’s hand. Several evenings later, Laszlo’s hand progressed to Irina’s thigh. And then, one night, holding the primer, Irina settled not only onto the sofa but into the arm Laszlo slid around her shoulders. Vlada’s fat fingers rolled the beads of her rosary and she prayed.

After the birth of Misha, Irina had lain with her back to Laszlo, who folded his muscled arms around the spikes of her ribs and shoulders, the back of her frail skull resting against his chest. She could hear his heart. He could smell the sweat and Ivory Soap in her hair. In the six months Misha had been with God, Irina had learned to force her body to rise, and she busied herself with chores and laundry. When Laszlo returned from the mine, the bricks in the alley had been swept and the air was heavy with the scent of frying onions. As Laszlo left his dirty boots at the door, Irina met him, and from the top step that made them even, she wiped the coal dirt from his face and kissed him. Though Vlada dozed in the rocker, Laszlo stripped to his drawers, washing not like a peasant from a bucket in the yard but like an American, at the kitchen sink.

The scar that roped the opening of Irina’s private parts had diminished. Finding the scar no longer froze the air in Irina’s lungs, and though she held her breath sitting down, all she felt there now was a numbness that grew in her groin and belly to a hard, Misha-sized heat. She missed the child, the loss a great gaping space inside her. She had, as all mothers must, she felt, come to think of the child not as the sun around which the earth moved but as sun and stars themselves, as heaven and earth combined. Misha had clung to her, crying to be lifted, his tears when finally she held him sparkling on his cheeks like drops of dew and summer rain on the petals of flowers. Misha had nuzzled in Irina’s neck, played with her hair, and purred in her ear. Irina ached to feel that shape of love again.

And so, one evening Irina closed the book of American history passed down to her by Baba Smolnyki, whose current boarders were not fit for reading, and took Laszlo’s hand. His head tilted, and in answer, Irina led Laszlo to the bedroom, where she unpinned her hair and set his hands to the button at her nape.

*

At noon, the 19th day of February, 1920, Laszlo Putavich, born most likely in 1894, a son of Zakarpattya Oblast in what was now Czechoslovakia, stood with 20 others in the cavernous, oak-paneled courtroom of the Anthracite County Courthouse, kissed the last of the foreign coins his mother had sewn in his coat, and took the oath of American citizenship. Behind him as he signed each round letter of his name in English stood his wife, Irina, her cheeks filled out, her hair shining, her belly showing a definite roundness under the green plaid of the shawl draped over the shoulders of her winter coat.


“SITZ-i-zen” is from a manuscript of linked stories titled At the Surface of the Mine, set in the anthracite area. Bim Angst lives in Saint Clair, Schuylkill County.

Night Walks

Night Walks

by Shanna Merceron

Shanna Merceron_NightWalks

Sometimes I feel like someone’s going to shoot me, right between my shoulder blades, when I’m walking alone at night. It’s just me, the sidewalk, and the occasional dog shit most of the time, but other times I get the sense that someone is focusing right in that space on my spine. I try not to turn around and look, but I can’t help myself; I want to catch the person in the act. I’ve only ever caught ghosts though. Just phantoms who kissed my neck and left. No one follows me.

I like to walk alone at night. I like to walk uphill, feel the burn in my calves, and wonder who takes their eyes off the road to look at me as they drive past. When cars move only in a blur, I turn my body into their speed, letting their wind ruffle my hair and spray the scent of gasoline in my face. I breathe in deep.

I wonder if, when you are shot, your body registers the sound of the bullet flying towards your spine first, or your body isn’t listening at all, but instead dropping to its knees as a hot flash of blood spreads in the space between your shoulder bones. Eyes were there first, but now a bullet lies there. It has wiggled its way into your skin, buried its head and tucked its knees in for a good slumber. Your blood is a blanket. Your unconsciousness signals its takeover.

My Aunt Cheryl used to say I’m always looking over my shoulder because I let trouble follow me. I was walking alone, on the night he called me over. I’ve entertained the idea that I look like a madam or a whore. I’ve got long hair to grab onto and a shape to beg on your knees to touch. Dangerous. I won’t change my shoes of the day for my nightly walks. Working at an art gallery called for stiff skirts and standing on sticks all day, and I never bothered to change, never bothered to throw on a jacket. Shouldn’t my confidence be intimidating? I am invincible.

It didn’t surprise me when I got whistles and men clicked their teeth at me from the steps of their houses and offered me a cigarette and other ways for them to blow off steam. But I just walked past them. Sometimes that’s when the spot on my back feels the sharpest; that’s when I think the shot is going to happen.

He pulled alongside me in his car and drove real slow, his wheels crunching the beer-bottle glass littered on the side of the road.

“What’s your story?” he asked. I tried not to look at him and just kept on with my walk, but his eyes were on my throat and I wanted to move them to my face. I turned to him and stopped walking. He stopped driving. I leaned my forearms on his rolled down window, shoving my hands into the space in his car where hot air blew right onto my fingertips. I smiled at him, and I prepared my accent⎯the one where I sounded like Aunt Cheryl⎯and wished I had gum in my mouth. Aunt Cheryl always had gum.

“Fifty dollas for whatevas in my pocket,” I said. I would have smacked a bubble right then. I gave him a wink. My pockets were empty.

“I don’t want what you’ve got in your pockets,” he said. I was too close. I could only see his mouth. It was a good mouth, plump dark pink lips and a jaw that hadn’t been shaved for three days. The game is harder when they’re pretty.

I pulled my hands out of his car. I kept on with my walk. He drove over more beer glass.

“I asked you for your story,” he said.

“Just because ya ask doesn’t mean I have ta give it to ya,” I almost forgot to channel Aunt Cheryl; my words were weak. It had been too long since I lived on the shore. It didn’t matter now anyways; Aunt Cheryl was dead.

I stopped walking. He drove too far past me, so he reversed, one tire ending up on the curb. I glanced up and down the dark residential street. I stayed closer to the lights, closer to the road. Farther from the steps of the houses and metal grates designed to ensnare the heels of my shoes.

“My story is whateva’s in my pockets.” I put my hands on my hips. “That’s all I have for ya tonight,” I said. He leaned his body to the window and shoved a fifty dollar bill my way. I took it. He smiled. I tucked it into my bra and then pulled out the insides of my pockets.

“I’ve got nothing,” I said. His face heated and a muscle feathered in his jaw. I stepped back before he could say anything. I kept walking.

He drove past me again the next night. I was wearing my favorite dress; it was covered in black sequins that took on the amber color of the streetlights. But I had on the same bra from the other night, it laced up in the back. Another layer of protection. He didn’t come in slow this time but instead pulled his car right up to me and stopped. The halt of the car caused the crystals on string hanging from his rearview mirror to jingle and clank together.

“What’s your name?” he said, attempting friendliness. I admired the effort. He didn’t scare me, this man, with his questions and his money and his five o’clock shadow. He should have, like the men usually do, but his eyes didn’t linger and sizzle my skin. When his car was next to me, the target on my back was gone. I felt relieved; I could focus on the threat of him rather than an omniscient one. He’s not dangerous.

I tucked a piece of hair behind my ear and looked at the ground when I drawled, “Annabelle.”

“The fuck it is,” he said. He looked like he wanted to spit. Men like to spit on the ground, and sometimes you can tell it’s been too long since they last entertained the impulse. He pursed his dark pink lips like spit wanted to fly out. Instead he said, “Annabelles don’t walk alone at night and pretend to sell drugs. Annabelles go on dates at ice cream parlors and never cut their hair.”

“You’re right,” I said. “The name’s Rita.” I puffed out my chest and rolled my rs, tried for a saucy wink. If he wanted to play, we could play.

He leaned over and opened his passenger side door. “Get in,” he said. I felt a rush of heat roll through me. Game on.

I got in.

Aunt Cheryl was killed in her own home. It was a robbery, the man wanted the Christmas presents under the tree. Taking out her gun to shoot him, Aunt Cheryl told me to leave the house. I heard the shots fire. She was dangerous. I went back into the house. Two guns fired, two bodies dead. She wasn’t invincible. I always knew Aunt Cheryl would die at home. She had agoraphobia; she only left the house for church. I walked out of the house that night and I’m still walking.

His car was very clean. I wish I knew what kind of car it was, but I couldn’t tell the difference between anything but a truck and a sedan and a blue one and red one. His car was black. His license plate had three zeros in it. Maybe a five. I reached up to touch the crystals, but he smacked my hand and told me not to fuck with them.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Why, Annabelle Rita, we are going to get ice cream.” He kept his eyes on the road. I rolled the knob to turn on the radio and kept hitting the seek button until smooth jazz filled the car. I felt a small smile curve my lips.  He couldn’t kill me if smooth jazz was playing; that would be ridiculous. My stomach churned with hunger and anticipation. Ice cream was harmless, I guessed. I wished I was walking. It was stifling in the car. I tried to unroll my window but he had them locked.

He pulled into the parking lot of an all-night diner, and he was out of the car before I undid my seatbelt. The heels of my boots fell onto gravel as I slipped out of his car and trudged up to the front of the diner. I realized that I could run away. I could turn around and walk back to my house and I wouldn’t know what would happen with this man, but maybe it was for the best. That was the problem, though; I wouldn’t know the outcome if I left. I had to keep playing.

He went into the diner and I was alone in the parking lot. I felt a chill spread in goose pimples on my thighs and the spot between my shoulders grew hot. I turned around but no one was there. The lot was empty save two trucks and the car I came in, the crystals glinting in the light from the neon diner sign. I hurried inside.

He sat in a booth in the back of the restaurant, his back against the wall, watching me as I walked over to him. He looked like he belonged in that painting, the one with the men with hats and the women in the diner in the dark. His un-brushed hair was wild and his dark eyes flashed a puzzle I wanted to piece together. Why hadn’t I noticed he was wearing a suit? He had four rings on each hand, and they were tightly gripping the sides of his arms. I suddenly wondered if I had made the right choice. I felt cagey and my eyes darted to the woman working behind the counter. She was probably seventy years old, but she weighed two times what he did and I could use her as a shield if I had to. I waved at her, catching her attention over the milkshake glasses she had lined up on the countertop. Her mouth opened but her expression didn’t change.

“Chocolate or vanilla?” he said.

“Strawberry,” I said as I slid into the booth. I realized that all I could see was him, and the peeling yellow wallpaper behind him with a framed photograph of some local celebrity.

“Switch seats with me,” I said.

“Why?” He was running his eyes all over my face, like little ants they were, trying to find something worthwhile.

“I gotta face the door,” I said. Aunt Cheryl always kept her eyes on the door. I got out of the booth. I hovered over him with my arms crossed. I debated tapping my foot but then decided that would be too much.

He gazed up at me, meeting my eyes this time, and I could see my face in his pupils. I looked pale and angry. My eyeliner was smudged on my right eye. I swiped at it and gestured for him to move with my other hand.

“I like to see the door too,” he said.

“Why?” I said.

“Safety.” Dangerous.

“Me too.” My spine began to itch in an uncomfortable way. I felt the urge to shudder and try to work it out. I slid into the booth next to him, forcing him into the corner.

“Now we can both see the door,” I said. He grunted. We sat in silence, watching the door until the old lady came over to our table.

“What will it be?” she said. She didn’t seem tired or bothered by our presence. I wondered if time existed differently for her.

“Two cups of strawberry ice cream, please,” he said.

“Strawberry? We still have some chocolate, Knox.” The woman almost smiled.

He shook his head. “No, thank you. Her choice,” he said.

The woman walked away and I realized I had never asked him for his name. “Knox. That’s your name?” I said. He looked uncomfortable. He twisted the ring on his thumb.

“I go by Knox, yes.”

I took him in. His hair was black like oil and it curled around his face. His eyes were dark too, shadowed by thick eyebrows and eyelashes. But there was still warmth in his face. He was thirty, maybe; I wasn’t good with numbers. He either hadn’t shaved in days, or he purposely kept his face like that. His suit was gray; it was well-made and well-worn. His rings were all silver. One of them had a purple crystal in it. I liked him, I decided, dangerous or not. Was he dangerous? I wanted to find out. Did I want him to be dangerous? I twisted the taste of that thought in my mouth for a moment.

“What are you doing?” he said. He muttered his thanks when the old lady gave us our ice cream and then shuffled back behind the counter. She watched us, clutching a towel in her hands. Was she worried for me or him? I debated giving her a wink.

Knox picked up his spoon and pushed back his sleeve, making sure not to stain it strawberry. I kept my spoon on the table and ran a fingernail along the cold steel. “You don’t look like a Knox,” I said.

“Oh?” He took a bite that was basically his entire scoop of ice cream. I watched his tongue flick to the corner of his mouth and clean up the cream that was stuck there.

“I imagine Knox is a redneck who steals from gas stations, or a skinny nerd who hacks computers,” I said. My accent was long gone at this point. Aunt Cheryl said I spoke like how my momma used to, without any salt or pepper.       “Both of those examples were criminals,” he said. He put his spoon back into the empty bowl.

“Are you a criminal?” I asked. He could be. He gave me money for imaginary drugs. Would he have kidnapped me if I didn’t get into the car? He could have a gun. I thought about pressing up against him to check for one. Maybe he thought I was a prostitute and this was our pre-coital meal. I once walked to a convenience store with a man because he said he would buy me a Slurpee but then he wanted a blowjob in the bathroom.

“No,” he said. He motioned for me to eat. I took a bite of the ice cream. I hated strawberry.

“You know my name. Tell me yours. For real this time,” he said.

“Why are names so important anyways? Call me woman, call me Person A. I’m just another human sharing the same space as you.” Bullshit.

“It’s important that I know your name.”

I forced down another bite of ice cream. “Angela,” I said. I wanted to say Cheryl. I wanted to be Aunt Cheryl, but Aunt Cheryl didn’t lie every time her mouth opened and Aunt Cheryl didn’t risk her life for entertainment, and Aunt Cheryl didn’t have voices in her head.

“Nope.”

“Claire.” I tried for a thin-lipped smile.

“No.”

“Edna.” I clanked my spoon back in the bowl. He pushed himself further in the corner of the booth to get a better look at me. The old lady came over to get our dishes. I caught the name on her nametag. Edna.

“Oops,” I said. Knox frowned. He wasn’t as pretty when he frowned. I put my hands over his on the tabletop. “What do you want to call me? Pick a name and you can call me that.” I was earnest and sincere, like a Cassandra, maybe. But he held his frown.

I gazed into Knox’s eyes and forced a smile. His expression was unreadable. Is he dangerous? Is he dangerous?

Edna came over with the check. She handed it to Knox but he jabbed his thumb at me and said, “She’s got it.” I gulped back my shock and took the bill.

“I thought you were treating me,” I said.

“I am.” Knox reached over and put his hand on my shoulder. He slid his hand down and into the collar of my dress, reaching for the fifty-dollar bill still tucked under my bra strap. He put the money on the table and shoved me out of the booth. I was chilled. How did he know the money was still there? Dangerous.

Knox led the way out of the diner and back to his car. He turned to me before unlocking it. Before he could speak I said, “It’s Makenna. My name is Makenna,” Maybe my honesty would throw him; I wasn’t going to back down.

But Knox just nodded and unlocked the car. “Kinda weird,” he said.

“Your name is Knox!” I shouted, but he shut his door on my words.

Once I was in the car, he sped out of the lot. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw the diner sign flicker off behind us.

“What do you do for a living?” Knox asked me. He put on his blinker and merged to go onto the highway. “Are you old enough to have a job?”

I sucked a sticky stain of ice cream off my finger. When my parents died and I went to Aunt Cheryl, she forgot to enroll me in pre-school because she didn’t think I was old enough. It seems I’ve kept my youthful glow. “I’m old enough,” I said. “I take a lot of walks. I like to walk.”

“That’s what you do? You walk?” he said. He thought I was crazy.

“I’m not a streetwalker, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m just telling you something about myself. I like to take walks.”

“At night? Alone? Dressed like that?”

“Aw, I’m going to adopt you as my dad.” I tried to pinch his cheek, but he swatted my hand away. He was right hand dominant; I remembered to check. Aunt Cheryl always told me to check. I looked at his suit again. His jacket was tucked behind the seat belt clicker and I could see his silk shirt. No holster, no gun. His hand left the wheel to briefly scratch his belly. He’s not dangerous.

I settled into my seat more. I put my feet up on the dashboard, my boots sprinkling some gravel onto the carpet. “It’s my call of the wild,” I said, “I feel like I have to walk, even if I don’t want to, but I like to do it.  The air is better at night. The sounds are different, and I’m alone. I can listen to myself.” I spoke like it was bullshit, but it was truth.

Knox got off at an exit. “You’re kind of crazy,” he said.

“You picked me up off the street.”

“You got in.”

We let that sit.

We came to a red light and Knox ran a hand through his hair, disturbing one of the curls that perfectly wound around the curve of his ear. I tore my eyes away from that disaster and watched as the light turned green. Did I like this man?

“Why did you talk like you were from up north earlier?” he asked, looking at me, looking at my own ears maybe.

“The light is green,” I said.

“Are you from up north?” The light turned yellow.

“Jersey,” I said. I didn’t miss New Jersey. Too many people where I lived. They overcrowded the sidewalks. Aunt Cheryl is dead. Aunt Cheryl is dead.

“Huh.” Knox wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel, gripping it so tight his knuckles turned white. Then he let it go. The light turned red.

“Accent wasn’t bad. Nice and subtle,” he said.

“The light is green again, aren’t you gonna go?” I looked in the rearview. No one was behind us.

“We’re talking,” he said. “I’m in no rush.”

We sat through three more light changes. I thought I saw a car pull up behind us, and I turned around in my seat. Nothing was there.

“Do you ever feel like you’re being watched?” I asked.

Knox stiffened, but he kept his eyes on the changing lights. “Sure,” he said, “who doesn’t?” He reached up and tapped one of his hanging crystals.

“I always feel like I’m being watched.” I felt like I was religious again and I was in confessional. Aunt Cheryl used to take me to church,  saying it would tame my wild ways. She told me I danced with the devil too much. I told her the devil was in my head.

Knox turned his body to face me. “You do?” he asked. I nodded. He drove through the red light, driving fast, and he took us to a children’s park, a place usually busy in the day, but desolate at night. Dangerous.

The light of the street lamps shone on the candy-slick red of the super slide situated next to rows of monkey bars and a climbing wall lined with knotted rope. I used to walk to a park on the weekends from Aunt Cheryl’s house. She couldn’t go with me, so I went alone. But when a little girl went missing she forbade me to go again.

Not meaning to say it out loud, I said, “You’re going to murder me.” I glanced up at him, as he turned off the car. “You’re going to kill me.” My stomach fell to the floor. I was sweating everywhere, even between my fingers. My shoulders started to ache. How could I be so stupid? Somewhere Aunt Cheryl was laughing.

“Stop, I’m not going to kill you, geez.” Knox twisted off the ring with the purple crystal on it. He held it up to me, the light from the street lamps breaking through the car window. “This is a raw amethyst. It will help with your intuition. It will bring you clarity, stability, and inner peace.” He dropped the ring into my hand. “I want you to have it,” he said.

My panic was replaced with comforting confusion. “Does this mean we’re engaged?” I said. Knox closed his eyes, probably in frustration.

“Ask me what I do for a living,” he said.

“What do you do for a living?” I tried on the ring but it was too big for all my fingers. I tucked it into my bra for safekeeping.

“I like to go for drives. I like to drive, usually at night, because at night there are fewer things happening but more to see. Things are easier to notice. My crystals guide me. Usually I am an observer, but sometimes I choose to intervene.”

“Cool, so you have a job like mine. I thought you were going to say you were Buddha.”

Knox sighed. “Makenna, I saw someone following you.”

     You’re not invincible.

The panic came roaring in. My back caught fire, my shoulders aching with pain, the target, the bullseye on my back burning into my skin. “Did they have a gun?” I asked.

Knox shook his head. “No,” he said. My spine iced.

“Oh,” I said, “alright.” I rolled my neck and shoulders, tried to shake away my sinking feeling. My heart was pounding like organ keys at church and my mind was stomping its feet on my skull. I knew it! I knew it!

“Who was it? Why were they following me? Why did you follow me too?  Do I collect stalkers?” I said. I thought about getting out of the car. My hysteria needed more space. I tried the handle. He had the damn child lock still on.

“I’ve seen you walking for a long time, but I never thought much of you. But the past few nights I saw this man get up and trail after you. That’s why I pulled my car over the other night. It scared him off.”

“This is weird,” I said.

“I know,” he said.

“I always had a feeling, I’ve always felt like someone was there,” I said. You’re going to get shot, you’re going to get shot. Someone is going to shoot you

Knox tapped my chest, right where I put the ring. “Let it guide you,” he said.

“Can you take me back to where you picked me up? I want to walk home.” My head was spinning. Maybe it was his damn crystals. I still didn’t know if I could trust Knox, or who he was, really, but he did what I asked. The drive was short and silent. I was upset, yet a hot rush of anticipation was rolling through me again. The game was still on.

I got out of the car and slammed the door. “Thank ya for the ride, hun!” I waved like Aunt Cheryl would. Knox nodded, or at least I thought he did. I could only see his mouth again from my vantage point on the sidewalk. He drove away. I walked home.

At work, I would watch the sun set through the wide windows of the gallery, watch as the coming of night distorted the faces of the figures in the paintings once I turned off the accent lights. I didn’t stop my walks. I wore what I wanted. I traversed the streets as if they were my own, because in a way, they were. I started wearing a jacket, though; Aunt Cheryl always told me I could tease Satan without inviting him inside.

I’ve made it this far, I thought to myself, a week after the encounter with Knox, as I trudged up one of my favorite hills, the rise showcasing the lights of the city behind the residential street. I felt the burn in my legs again and savored the feeling. If I’m going to be shot, I’ll be shot. You’re invincible. I tried to rationalize away my feeling of unsettlement. Aunt Cheryl never got out much and she died having done and having seen nothing. But I’m going to walk and see it all. You’re dangerous.

I almost miss-stepped and ruined the heel of my shoe. I wore the crystal ring on a chain around my neck like a trophy. I felt it get hot, searing into my chest, the way I would feel between my shoulders. I turned around and I saw him.

Knox was leaning against a lamppost, trying to pull a cigarette out of his pocket like he had been there for a while. I knew better. I strode over to him, the decline of the hill making my steps louder and harsher. You’re dangerous. Knox gave up his charade with the cigarettes and threw the box down on the ground. He met me in my descent. I could smell whisky on his suit. He said, “What’s your story?”

I stopped walking. A spider worked its way down my spine. He moved toward me, slinking his body around me, fitting it where it didn’t belong. “What’s your name?” he said. His breath smelled like strawberry. He splayed his hand on my chest, the rings glinting under the streetlight.  I shoved him off. He came at me again, and I hooked my foot behind his right leg and took him down. His head hit the ground with a crack, causing his curls to bounce around his face. He smiled at me as if he felt no pain. Dangerous. I wanted a gun. I wanted to roll him over, and fire, right between his shoulder blades. Watch blood swallow him whole. I would roll my neck, shake my shoulders; call myself Free. But Knox was still smiling at me, and I was still standing there, empty handed. You’re not invincible, you’re not

A car pulled up, its tires hitting the curb. The locks unclicked. A man rolled down the passenger window. His face was in shadow and he said, “Get in.”


Shanna Merceron is a fiction writer born on the Jersey Shore but raised on the East coast of Florida. No one believes her when she says she’s from “Flah-rida.” She is in the second year of her MFA at Hollins University, currently at work on a story collection thesis that explores the darker aspects of humanity and pushes the boundaries of the strange. When not writing she is an English language teacher and photographer. Her work has been featured in the Florida Times Union and the Hollins Critic. This is her first fiction publication.

Windmills, The Boys (third place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

farnsworth

 Windmills, the Boys

A Short Story

By Laura Farnsworth

The boys drown in the pond on Myrtle Dag’s property. Windmills, the two of them, arms and rocks and driftwood and pinecones painting the water with rings and diagrams and dusk, and then the postures of dare, pulleys for shoulders, rope for arms, run farther and throw farther, hoot and shout and leap, catch the rock, the pinecone, farther, and still farther. Dive to save the boy who takes the dare.

Windmills, the boys, arms and arms and arms. And then.

And then nothing.

Myrtle sets her binoculars on the drainboard.

Percolator, decaf, two lumps. She peels potatoes for supper, leaves them cold in the sink. Rain titters overhead, becomes heedless applause, and then fists. Denial, anger. Rifles of lightning.  Sobs.

And then nothing more.

Myrtle signals the dog to her bed. She stands there, at the kitchen window, until well after dark.

Sheriff’s car. Lights, a wet ribbon up the dirt road, toward the boys’ mother, her house, her wondering kitchen table. Good boys have fried chicken for dinner, milk at bedtime, oatmeal at sunrise, before the school bus. Good boys, smart boys. Once, a teacher drew a red line through a spelling word on her Jack’s paper. Boy. Buoy. Float, boy. Float.

Myrtle puts the binoculars in a casserole dish in the cabinet. She fills her mug, sits at the kitchen table, watches the dog sleep. She lets her head set itself down upon the Mount Rushmore placemat, turning what has been witnessed today sideways.

The pond stirs beneath its bed sheet.

Lou paws a dream in which she is a puppy again.

Then, all sides of the sky, an envelope full of pink.

Myrtle scrambles an egg for herself. For the dog, some leftover squash, the last of the cottage cheese. Lou goes out the side door and does what she needs to between the rosebush and Jack’s old swing set, her piss pooling neon atop the mud.

Binoculars, Myrtle holds them to the window. Down the dirt road come the searchers. Hounds, the kind with very long ears. Something flagging from an officer’s hand, a child’s pajamas, scents of sleep and toast and morning cartoons. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You; Myrtle always liked that one, the giddy sameness every Saturday, ghouls, pancakes, chores.

Doorbell. She puts the binoculars behind the cookie jar.

Ma’am. Mrs. Dag, is it?

A deputy. He sweeps his hat clockwise, sets it on the porch hook where Roy’s always hung. Shoulders poking at the fabric of his uniform, forehead smooth as piecrust. Fidgeting on her sofa, where to put his hips, his elbows. The dog sits her chin on top of his knee, lets out a long, patient breath. He wears the mirrored kind of sunglasses. She could reach for them and wipe away the smudges with her shirt, hand them back. He folds them into his pocket. He looks about twenty-five. Her Jack would be twenty-eight.

Mrs. Dag, ma’am. You were home yesterday. Afternoon and evening.

Well, she was, yes.

We’re looking for some missing children. Brothers. The deputy shows her a photograph. Birthday party, chocolate ice cream.

You must know them. The family. Questions without marks.

She has watched the boys with their mother. Walking, with tote bags, kites, sometimes a Frisbee. Down the dirt road towards town, and then back up again. The mother launching kites upward, handing over the spool, yelling run, run, the boys’ bodies leaving earth for moments at a time.

A proper asking: did you see the boys yesterday?

Will it help to answer this question, Myrtle. She tells herself this the way a person would address a child when the answer is a foregone negative, when there is no other acceptable response. No, it would not help a thing, the worst thing that can happen to boys has already happened, done and over, and eventually they will be found looking nothing like their mother’s memories of them and is that not better than telling a man with a notepad what she has seen in this life.

Would she tell him about windmills, and how she set her binoculars on the drainboard.

Well, then. Myrtle Dag, he writes in his notepad. No.

If you think of something.  You can call.

Well, then.

The boys’ mother will be sitting on a kitchen chair telling a notepad every truth. Good boys, walking to the churchyard to climb trees, letting them have a little freedom, be home by dark. No, they never get lost. Yes, they always come back. Weeping, skin of her nostrils crude, snagged hair in the prongs of her unwedding ring. Or maybe she is on the sofa, knitted afghan smelling of cheese and sweat and modeling clay, her eyes spread round like gravy. We’ll find them, someone will say, they will be just fine. The mother will try very hard not to scream at this.

There will be things said in town. Those boys running loose all the time. Late for school. Often absent from church. Probably, she tipped herself back onto the sofa, closed her eyes a spell, and then they were gone. Going it alone, you know, can’t be easy, but still. People examining cause and effect, wanting their own contentments guaranteed.

The boys’ father left awhile back, Myrtle heard, moved away. Boise, maybe. Spokane. Someone will have called him, he’ll be on an airplane, coming to help, to look, asking the flight attendant for orange juice because the boys always liked it and because he doesn’t know what else to ask for.

They all have names. Myrtle cannot recall a single one.

She fills the coffee pot with suds to soak away its brown tidemarks. She wipes a cobweb from the window.

The deputy’s hounds call out, and the searchers change slant.  Myrtle lifts her binoculars. Some cross the dirt road into a potato field, the backs of them dominos in a line. More of them now, townspeople in caps, work boots. Women, too, other mothers, blue jeans, windbreakers, setting up card tables along the road with water jugs and juice and muffins, on a Saturday, after a storm, because two boys are gone, just gone.

The deputy accepts a cup of water.

Then: a car in the gravel drive. Janet, from town. Myrtle sets the binoculars in the fridge.

Myrtle, hiya, sorry to just drop in and all, but the phones are all out, did you know? I suppose you’ve heard what they’re up to out there, I see those boys all the time when I head up to your place. Made me think of your Jack and your Roy and all, and I’m sorry for mentioning it, but Myrtle. Can’t help it, you know? And I wondered if you’ll be needing any groceries, I can swing back by later. Nothing? That’s fine, hon, hope you didn’t get too wet last night, our sump pump’s goin’ like runaway horses. Make it harder, I suspect, the scents washed away and all. For the hounds, I mean. Okay, Myrtle, take care of that hip, and bye now.

Her Jack.

Jack, who was a boy.

Myrtle who was a mother.

Stuck in Myrtle’s head at the age of nine, homemade buzz cut, like a kitten to pet him, stuck there because he was still hers then, stuck there because he was still happy, tree swings, quail’s nests. Hay bales, horseshoeing, helping her with canning, apples peeled in one curling serpent’s tongue. Chasing after sheep on his pony. A road trip once, just Myrtle and Jack, South Dakota. A sack of donuts powdering the air between them. Hank Williams, hamburgers. No worries at all about love, no wondering: is there any other kind except mother and son.

Boy Jack swung at baseballs from the apex of a dirt diamond, Myrtle tucking her hands between her thighs and the bleachers, pinching her knuckles numb in a sort of prayer: connect connect connect. Once, it worked: the violence of wood on leather, red stitches wincing as they went airborne, away from a mother tipsy with pride, a father who willed the ball into the second baseman’s glove.

Roy stood his son in the field to practice batting that night until he crumpled.

Myrtle plastered Jack’s shoulders with salve and Epsom salts.

You cannot make him into something resembling a man with that nonsense. That is what Roy said to her. Why does a boy need to resemble a man, and doesn’t that come along soon enough in this life.  That is how she answered him.

Who would Myrtle Dag be without a boy to fix?

A boy that does not become a man is a useless effort. Roy’s final word on the subject. Roy, who has never sat up all night in the rocking chair, loving away an earache. Roy, who put newborn lambs next to the skin of his own chest. Farmer, father. Rancher, reaper.

No more ballgames after that. No more Junior Mechanics meetings, 4-H competitions, marksmanship meets. She bought Jack a puppy, named her Lou, showed him how to rub the felt of her belly until she snored, demonstrated housebreaking and the rites of obedience until he shrugged. He learned to drive, and they never did ride together anywhere again.

Then Jack turned seventeen, sideburns on a sapling, stabbing at his meat until blood turned the potatoes pink, eyes plain and blank and chrome. Churning up the north hill, after dinner, down to the club of cottonwoods by the stream.

Where are you going, boy?  He never answered that.

Myrtle didn’t have to follow far, just up to the old smokehouse. The tiny, west-facing window. Binoculars. Her son. And that Ricky. A miner’s kid, trouble, shoplifting, smoking. Talk of him in town. Another kind of love, a starving, seething tussle, denim jackets and ball caps and birch-white legs, not the love of a man and his wife, but something else. She went to the smokehouse once, and understood. And then twice, and she no longer did.

She loved her son just the same as always, like a boy, her boy, but that was the wrong thing to do, reaching out to smooth his hair, put a biscuit on his plate. Jack hurled back at Myrtle hunks of her love, because he wasn’t a boy now.

That day, that night:

Roy gave Jack a hard time about not putting the hay in the barn before supper and Jack spun a kitchen chair across the room and through a window, Roy, in that chewed-up way of his, asked her: do we have a problem here, and Myrtle had shaken her head no. Because to say yes would be giving life and a name to a thing that was better off not living under the steepled roof of Roy’s mind.

Jack ran off after he threw the chair. The smokehouse, follow him, she wanted to, to be sure he was fine, just angry, just young. Jack, Ricky, bodies like books, bodies like blades. No, Myrtle, the man you’ve named Jack needs to run. She stayed back and dealt with all the broken things.

Roy drove away to count lambs in the back pasture. Evening watch.

***

Doorbell. The young deputy again, dark birds of sweat on his uniform.

Bloodhounds seem to have a scent, along the broken fence and toward the pond. We’ll need to go over your property. Before it storms, Mrs. Dag. Urgent, as you can see.

Yes, Myrtle can see. She beckons the dog, bends to breathe the cornbread smell of her ears.

What’s her name? The deputy smiles.

Lou. She was my son’s.

Mrs. Dag? Are you all right?

The pond. It is hollow. It is full.

***

The night her family broke:

Myrtle heard two shots, perhaps a third. Roy’s rifle. She knew the cough of its discharge, the following echo. Dusk. Coyotes. He’d be warning them off. Myrtle picked up the puppy and shut her in the bedroom, away from the shards of their evening.  She swept the shatters into piles, the piles into islands, the islands into continents. When Roy came back to get a thermos of coffee, before the overnight watch, she would try to describe for him the terrain that was their son.

Dark arrived. Roy had not.  Neither had Jack. Myrtle unclothed herself of expectation. The boy needed to come home of his own mind. She turned down the bedding, ordered the lock to a position of welcome. Well, come.

For Roy she filled a sack, swellings of meatloaf between bread, a taste of it dropped for Lou, red beet relish in a jar, to see him through overnight watch. She hung this on the porch hook for him to find. For Jack she left an oatmeal cookie on a napkin near his pillow. She made up the sofa with a sheet, a feather pillow, a cotton blanket, just in case. In case of lost boys.  She found Roy’s brandy, the bottle inside his old boot at the back of the closet, for the worst nights, the longest deliveries, and wet her coffee cup.

Over the busted window she taped great white incisors of poster board, Jack’s old science projects: kill cabbage worm larvae with lye soap and vinegar, one percent iodine solution on squash beetles, graphs and sketches and the teacher’s remarks in red, points subtracted for penmanship.

Then Myrtle and the puppy stirred, settled, slept to the sound of thunder closing doors, rain stewing up a fog for morning, and nothing else.

Myrtle sometimes allows this account of events to be truth.

***

The men are searching Myrtle’s property. The hounds wear stockings made of mud.

Fracturing without regard, the skies. The sheriff’s deputy and the local men back away from lightning above the pond. One of the men wraps his arms around the boys’ mother, dragging her to the safety of Myrtle’s porch. She kicks, her heels blunting the man’s knees and shins.

The hounds are ordered to the patrol car. The searcher team and the boys’ father lean themselves against the house, beneath the overhang. Myrtle fills the percolator. Offer comfort, she could. She dumps it into the sink.

Water rises to the level of the kitchen door.

The deputy knocks. Mrs. Dag, please.

How simple it would be to save them all.

Mrs. Dag? Please, we need a blanket for the boys’ mother. Soaked to the bone, do you have some tea, set her here on the sofa, let’s get the fireplace going. Equipment on the way, drain the pond, footprints at the edge, only clues, almost erased, no sign of them elsewhere, fearing the worst. The boys.

Swallowed. In the pond, too many truths.

You are very kind, Mrs. Dag. To let us disrupt things this way.

The mother is a fallen tree. She has the smallest hands, Mandy, so much smaller than Myrtle’s.

Mandy. The name of a young mother whose boys are gone.

Myrtle could tell her things about that. About making ready, watching out windows.  About beds unslept, toast unmade. Sweatshirts unwarmed by the arms inside of them, the ribs, the sweat.  How a woman bags the shirts and the boots and the Superman sheets for the church charity. Then leaves the bag in her trunk. Then stops going to church. Then stops going anywhere.

The pond. What does a boy come to believe when the water’s surface is out of reach? Calling out to the algae. Drifting, into the innards of tractors, astonished rubber tires. Does it seem hopeless? Myrtle allows these questions, answers herself that dying must offer something gentler.

She sits down near Mandy on the sofa. Tucks the afghan tighter around her shaking limbs. Lou offers the comfort of her fur.

***

Myrtle knows the story of a man with a rifle coming upon his son in the woods. The son grappling with a boy the father has seen around town, their denim jackets and Wranglers and work boots and briefs discarded, their skin dirtied by the tumbling-away sun. The man, seeing a problem that cannot be reconciled otherwise, raises his rifle. The boy from town slants toward his jacket, his own weapon in its pocket.

Two shots, three.

The man, the boy, the son. Letting go their redness onto sand and rocks and the bones of trees. The mother hearing, seeing, knowing, from the smokehouse, kneeling down and retching.

This true story she knows becomes about the Dag family, a speckled old filmstrip, a war.

Roy’s truck at the side of the road, door aghast.

Myrtle running, shoeless, to the trees.

Help me, Myrtle, help. Get the boy in the truck. Get his legs.

Help me.

Ricky is not Ricky any longer, the bare whole of him small and wrong and limp in her hands. Roy is not Roy, his shoulder joint showing itself, a peeled spud. Jack is shaking. She wraps him in old towels, the lambing rags from the truck. He can’t see her, something wrong with his eyes, he can’t, is she there, mother, and shush, she tells him, these things can be fixed, we will get this fixed, and yes, I am here. I will fix you.

Ricky and Jack, in the back of the truck, spread out on the old mattress that is for lambs and calves. Roy at the wheel, Roy, the father of a ruined boy, a boy he ruined, speeding away, the door handle snapping at her wrist, before she can jump in the truck and tell him to take highway fourteen to Sheridan, paved all the way, hospital, Jack is allergic to aspirin, gives him hives, sleepwalks sometimes, likes to be sung to when there’s thunder, can’t abide cold feet.

Myrtle runs after them, down the dirt road. Blood in the spaces between her toes.  She was screaming. She must have been.

The truck slows. He’s remembered her, Roy has, that she is the one who mends things, the blisters, the frostbite, the barbed wire stuck through flesh. In reverse now, she can catch him, catch right up and jump in the back and watch over those boys all the way to Sheridan, but the truck swings wide, punching her off her feet, and onto the knothole of her hip.

Roy arrows his truck through the fence at the edge of the Dag’s property, sundering clover and early red sedge, staggering over dead timber. Myrtle sees one arm rise from the back and fall back down. Jack. The truck finds the pond, spitting mud behind, gagging on gravel and moss and the pale ooze of carp. The pond is a swallowing thing.

Myrtle crawls. The slowness of a baby. The urgency of its young mother.  She crawls to the pond until mud takes her wrists, her shins, her knees: stop, you see, there is nothing to be done. There is nothing to save. There is nothing to fix.

This is sometimes the case with stories that are true.

She could tell Mandy about the pond holding her in its teeth that day, until the rain began, and for a long time after.

 

Laura Farnsworth is a Denver-based writer, artist, and gardener. Her work appears in The Progenitor and Aquifer, and she was recently awarded the Meek Prize for short fiction by The Florida Review. She is currently at work on a story collection exploring the humanity hidden within seemingly incomprehensible behaviors. 

Sugar Mountain (second place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

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Sugar Mountain

By Stacy Austin Egan

When we first moved to Bellaire, my mom thought that my soon-to-be stepsister Brooke and I were eating “healthy” to get “bridesmaid ready.” Brooke crossed off the days until our parents’ wedding on a kitten calendar that hung in the kitchen. She did this because it endeared her to my mother.

My mom met Brooke’s dad on eHarmony. Compatibility matching didn’t fail them; they’ve been married for years, but no algorithm had matched Brooke and me. I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for Brooke because her mom died of breast cancer three years before, but she was so manipulative that, at fourteen, there was only so much sympathy I could muster.

“It’s not anorexia or bulimia,” Brooke said by way of introducing her idea to me. “It’s very effective.”

Even though I’d only lived with Brooke for a few weeks, I knew from weekend visits that she was a person whose suggestions were prophecies. My mom ended the lease on our townhouse in Austin early to move to Houston the second my school year was over because “Brooke needs some time to adjust,” and I had to share a room with Brooke, even though the house had bedrooms to spare, because Brooke thinks “sharing will bring us closer.”

Brooke was less than two years older but acted as if this necessitated that she make all our decisions, so I knew I was in trouble when she recited the diet like a menu: A cup of raisin bran with skim milk for breakfast, a low-fat turkey sandwich with a piece of fruit for lunch, a granola bar for a snack, and yogurt and oatmeal for dinner.

“That’s crazy,” I said. We were lying out on floats next to the edge of the pool. Brooke had snuck a beer from the cooler and was splashing herself with water occasionally to stay cool.

“No, it’s not,” Brooke said, “my mom did it all the time.”

Brooke mentioned her mother often: never around my mom though. She was waiting for me to say something about my father, but I was too embarrassed to tell her that we had no relationship, that he’d once told my mother he didn’t believe I was his.

“I’m only a four,” I said. I took a sip of beer only because I wanted her to see that I wasn’t afraid to.

Brooke swept her dark blonde hair into her hand, pulled it over the back of her float, and leaned her head back so the perfectly straight ends brushed the concrete. “I guess you think those uniforms are more forgiving than I do” she retorted. That was another thing Brooke was getting her way on: her dad had already pulled the strings to get me in at the Episcopal High School, and I was going to have to sit through church services on Wednesdays and wear an itchy polo daily. “Besides,” Brooke added, lowering her Lilly Pulitzer sunglasses, “Haven’t you ever heard of vanity sizes?”

Brooke has always been one of those girls who constantly dangles her approval so it’s closely in reach but never actually grasped, but back then, I thought her games were winnable.

“I guess we can do it,” I said, “If you really want to.”

Though I pretended that I didn’t need Brooke to like me, we both knew it wasn’t true. Brooke had already given me some of her clothes, negotiated an allowance for me with her father, and taken me to get my hair colored “the right kind of brunette.” She’d told me whom to avoid (our neighbors, the Davidson twins, seniors at the Episcopal school, were “creepy and awful”) and how to stay on her father’s good side (“make good grades, make your bed, and don’t wear make-up”). Her help came with conditions, but I’d make a show of weighing my options.

“That’s what I like about you,” Brooke said. She smiled her Crest-whitening strip grin. I’d have the same one by summer’s end.

My mom came out on the patio, and Brooke crunched the can of beer into the float’s cup-holder.

“You girls look so cute,” my mom said, holding her phone out to get a grainy picture.

My mom was adjusting well to life in Bellaire. She’d left her job as a nurse at St. David’s and wouldn’t be looking for a new position. Not working or worrying about bills anymore made her look even younger, and recently, we were asked if we were sisters. Brooke’s dad, Joel, was almost fifty.

My mom brought us a picture from Martha Stewart Weddings of champagne colored bridesmaid dresses in silk chiffon and told us she’d booked a fitting for the next day. If she smelled the beer on our breaths, she didn’t say anything, and she skipped her usual lecture on sunscreen too, though we were already pink, and it was clear we’d soon burn.

*

Brooke said we were eating 1,200 calories a day, but I was skeptical. I was reading for AP English and started with Madame Bovary, which I had to put down constantly; my mind was always on food. For two people that hardly ate, we talked about food a lot.

“What would you give for a Dairy Queen Blizzard?” I would ask.

Brooke would correct me: “The only milkshake I care about are the ones at Avalon Diner.”

It was in this way that I quickly learned that everything about my past life (walking with friends to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees, riding bikes to I Luv Video, and watching movies in garages) was irrelevant history. None of the kids here rode bikes: they were chauffeured from country club to club sports, and they didn’t rent movies: they watched The Sopranos or The Wire.

We’d list various indignities we’d willingly suffer (going to school without a bra, court ordered trash pick-up) for an Avalon milkshake before settling on the same 110-calorie granola bar from the day before.

Joel had Neil Young’s Live Rust on vinyl, and we’d play “Sugar Mountain” on his Audiofile turntable and dance around his pool table. It became a joke, and one of us would break into the chorus when we craved food: “Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons, you can’t be twenty on sugar mountain.” We’d sing twenty like it was an absurdly old age and argue about what a barker was.

The diet brought us closer, the way I’d imagined real hunger does: a joining born of desperation. Brooke would run her thin fingers over my ribs, counting the new definition. I sometimes wanted to quit, but I told myself as soon as our parents were married, it’d be over. Brooke’s attention fed me in ways food didn’t. She could be viciously demanding. Bathroom products had to be lined up by height; she’d once opened her window to throw my book outside because my reading light was “poisoning her.” But I’d forgive these trespasses to be treated like a favorite doll. I was lonely and homesick, and I’d imagined that Brooke was too: that we were each other’s consolation prize.

A few weeks into our diet, we were playing volleyball in the pool outside. I was horrible at volleyball and hated the bruises it left on my arms, but Brooke claimed playing on the intramural team would elevate my social status exceptionally. I served, and Brooke leapt from the water and hit the ball over the fence into the Davidson’s yard.

“Nice job” I said, climbing the pool ladder.

“What are you doing?” Brooke asked. She rested her arms on the ledge of the pool, her face suddenly angry.

I hesitated, trying to figure out what I had done. “Getting our ball,” I said, squeezing the water out of my hair. Brooke had taken to fixing it in a French braid daily.

“It’s gone,” Brooke said shaking her head. “Forget it.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said, slipping on my flip-flops.

Brooke inhaled like she’d stepped on glass. “Samantha,” she said, one of the only times she’d used my full name, “it’s gone.”

“Why?” I said. “We can’t abandon Wilson, right?” Brooke always acts as though everything is replaceable, a Bellaire mentality I’ve never adopted.

Brooke didn’t laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, wrapping a towel around herself. When the ball showed up on the doorstep later, she looked sick, and she didn’t finish her oatmeal or yogurt.

*

In July, six weeks into our diet, I woke up feeling my hipbones jutting into the mattress. Brooke huddled on the end of her bed, her knees pulled to her chest. She was just sitting there, staring straight ahead.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I forgot that you live here,” she said.

I stretched my thinned arms and yawned. “Only for a month and a half.”

I climbed out of bed, cleaned my face with the Clarisonic Brooke swore by, and retreated to the kitchen to get our Raisin Bran.

“I’m late,” I said, handing Brooke her cereal.

“Hm?” Brooke said. She insisted we eat our cereal with baby spoons. It was comical to watch.

“My period,” I said.

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Amenorrhea is not good,” I said. “And I’m losing my boobs. Do you see this?” I lifted my shirt to show my gaping bra.

“I don’t even want boobs,” Brooke said. “Everyone thinks they’re so great.”

“This isn’t healthy,” I said.

“Just because your mom was a nurse, you think you know everything,” Brooke said. She took insanely long pauses between bites: she made eating a bowl of cereal a half-hour ordeal. I’d secretly poured myself a cup and a half of Raisin Bran.

My mom knocked on the door. “We all have a fitting in an hour,” she said.

“Only 32 days to go!” Brooke said cheerfully. I thought of her cloying kitten calendar.

Our parents picked the only Saturday at the country club that wasn’t booked for the summer. August in Houston is miserably muggy, but my mom acted like the school year was a necessary deadline: as if we all needed to be related before she could attend the teacher meet and greet or sign-up for volunteer committees.

After Brooke heard my mom on the stairs, she said, “Look, you aren’t pregnant, so don’t worry about it.”

“My mom is a nurse,” I said. “Technically.”

“Okay, whatever,” Brooke said. She pulled on her skirt without unzipping it.

*

I knew it was bad for us, but there was a secret joy I felt when Lenora, the seamstress at Winnie Couture, bitched about having to take in both of our dresses. It wasn’t being skinny that I cared about: it was that Brooke and I were allied. Every inch gone was a pledge of sorts: that this hungered suffering together was better than any pleasure we could feel alone.

“Girls, should I be worried?” my mom said in the car. She still had her old Jeep Cherokee with its Dairy Queen stains and Lake Travis smell. This was before Joel bought the Lexus as a wedding present. I watched the towing company take the Cherokee, the last remnant of our old lives, while they were on their honeymoon in Cinque Terre.

“About what?” Brooke asked sweetly. She always rode shotgun.

“Lenora thinks this diet is a bit out of control,” my mom said.

“We’re just so excited for the wedding,” Brooke said. “You want to go get ice cream, Sam?”

The deception felt too easy. I wanted my mom to see through our attempt, but she accepted Brooke’s easy explanation and seemed reassured when Brooke wrapped an arm around her in line.

I ordered a cone of my favorite flavor, mint chocolate chip, and kept Brooke in my peripheral vision as I ate.

My mom talked most of the time. Her stories used to be about what was happening at the hospital: avoidable tragedies, grieving families, the doctors that she preferred to work with and why. Our conversations that day were about her tennis and golf lessons and how the Davidsons bred their dog and were expecting a litter of Golden Retrievers.

“I wish we could have a puppy,” I said.

“What do you think your dad would say?” my mom asked Brooke.

Brooke laughed. “He’s not a dog person.”

The truth was Brooke wasn’t a dog person. I tried to imagine a puppy in her room chewing on one of her Tory Burch sandals.

My mom changed the subject to how Mrs. Davidson thought Brooke and I should join swim team next year with the twins.

“I don’t like races,” Brooke said. “They give me anxiety.”

“She doesn’t like the Davidson twins either,” I said. Then, unsure, I shot Brooke an apologetic look.

“I thought you were friends,” my mom said.

“Kind of,” Brooke said. She chewed the last piece of her chocolate chip cookie dough. “But I have Sam now anyway.”

I felt a twinge of pride in having been preferred.

Brooke continued, stealing a bite of my mom’s ice cream for show. “It’s not that we’re not friends, it’s just that we’re not friends, you know?”

“Sometimes you grow away from people,” my mom said. It made me nervous to wonder what relationships she had replaced in her life and anxious that I’d done the same to my friends back home. I wondered about that kind of dissolving: whether it was fast like the first time you put on jeans after summer to find them too big or drawn out like your swimsuit bottoms slowly becoming too loose until you feared being exposed.

Brooke decided we should skip the bread on our turkey sandwiches at lunch. “That way,” she said, “we cut eighty calories.”

“Oh, to live on sugar mountain,” I sang.

Brooke joined in and reiterated that a barker had nothing to do with dogs.

*

When Brooke’s dad traveled, my mom had Tuesday dinners with Mrs. Davidson and the Junior League. The week before the wedding, Brooke and I were curled up on the couch. She was watching HBO, and I was reading Wuthering Heights, when she said, “You know they want a baby, right?”

“Cathy and Heathcliff?” I asked, thinking Brooke was spoiling the plot; she did that sometimes and then would pretend she “thought you’d already read that part.”

“Our parents,” Brooke said, “want a baaaaby together,” she drew out the word as if I’d never heard it.

“No, they don’t.” I said. “My mom doesn’t,” I added, less sure.

Brooke took my hand and led me to the master bathroom. “Come look,” she said. She opened the cabinet under one of the sinks and pointed to a box of pregnancy tests and something else. “See?” she said triumphantly.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said, examining a purple box that proudly claimed to identify twice the number of fertile days.

“You have to try when you’re thirty-seven,” Brooke said. “These tell you when to have sex.”

“Why would they want that?” I said, sitting on the edge of the tub. I felt suddenly hot: the idea of sharing my mom with a newborn was infuriating.

“This is what people do,” Brooke said, tracing her finger down my spine.

Looking around the bathroom, I realized how little of my mother I recognized in it. She used to own a couple of shades of Covergirl lipstick and some Maybelline foundation, but now the counter was littered with M.A.C. eye-shadows, highlighters, lip and brow pencils, and several jars of creams that claimed to fix wrinkles and dark spots, problems she didn’t even have.

“She didn’t say anything to me,” I said.

Brooke, already bored with my disbelief, flipped through one of the magazines my mom had left on the tub. She stopped on an article “19 Reasons He Won’t Tell You What He’s Thinking.”

I felt my stomach rumble for want of mac and cheese; the idea of eating oatmeal again was nauseating.

“I think the Davidson’s dog had puppies,” Brooke said. “I bet if you go over there, they’ll show you. That might cheer you up.”

“I thought you hated them.”

“Just because you go doesn’t mean I have to,” Brooke said, though this was the first time all summer she’d suggested we should do anything apart. She picked up my mother’s hairbrush and started to brush my hair, tangled from dried pool water.

“We can’t have one anyway.” I let her pull my entire head back as she combed.

“I bet if I asked my dad, he’d say yes,” Brooke said in a singsong voice; she moved a hair tie from her wrist and held it in her mouth, concentrating as she braided.

When she was done, we headed to the kitchen. “Can’t we eat something different?” I whined.

Brooke squeezed my waist. “I bet you can almost fit into Abercrombie Kids.”

I could hardly eat my yogurt. I kept thinking about my mom and wondering if she hadn’t found time to tell me or if she had just picked up tests on a whim while shopping for bananas and hearts of palm.

“Are you going next door?” Brooke pushed.

“Can’t you come with me?”

“I thought you loved puppies,” Brooke said. She stirred her strawberry yogurt into her banana-nut oatmeal. She had this absurd idea that food had fewer calories if it was cold.

*

I stood alone at the door, poised to knock but unsure of what to say; I’d spoken four words (“nice to meet you”) to the twins since moving in.

The twin that answered wore a green polo shirt and khaki shorts and seemed too ordinary for Brooke to despise.

“I was wondering if I could see your puppies,” I said.

He smirked, his dark eyes looking me over. “See what?” he said.

I felt myself turning red and took a step back.

He held out his hand. “I’m Caleb. You’re Sam, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I just moved in a couple of months ago.”

“The puppies are in the pool house,” he said. I followed him past the formal dining room and various living areas. The Davidson’s home was much like Brooke’s, but with more televisions; flat screens blended into the walls. In the kitchen, a woman was washing dishes.

“That’s Lucy,” Caleb said. I waved awkwardly, not sure if I was supposed to keep with the spirit of formal introductions.

I doubted Mrs. Davidson ever set foot in the pool house: Maxim spreads of curvaceous women were taped to the walls, an unmade full-sized bed sat in the corner, sheets covered with crumbs and ashes, a two-foot bong stood in the middle of the floor next to the dog crate, and the whole room smelled like weed.

“Sorry for the mess,” Caleb said. From the bed, his brother, Mark, barely looked up from his laptop to acknowledge me.

“What are their names?” I asked, kneeling next to the crate.

“This one’s Roger,” Caleb said, handing me a warm ball of fluff with ears and paws too big for his body. “And that’s Timber, Asher, and—where’s Marshmallow?”

“I have him,” Mark said, holding up a puppy in his right hand.

“Those are…funny,” I said sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“People never keep the names anyway,” Caleb said, sitting next to me.

“Did you find a home for all of them?” I asked. I held Roger in my lap, stroking his head. Not bothering to open his eyes, he moved his chin so it sank over my knee.

“Only Timber and Asher,” Caleb said, pulling the wrestling puppies off one another.

“Aren’t you Brooke’s sister?” Mark asked from the bed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well—in two weeks.” This was the start of it: my belonging to Brooke.

“Where’s Brooke?” Mark asked.

I told him she was at home. Roger sighed and shifted in my lap. “His ears are so soft,” I said.

“Does she know you’re here?” Mark asked. Caleb looked at him incredulously. I shifted to my side, pushing my knees tightly together.

“Yeah,” I said, more to the puppy than to Caleb or Mark. “She’s right next door.”

“You wanna smoke?” Caleb said, resting his hand on my shoulder. His fingers slipped under my tank top, rubbing the strap of my bra.

“I should go,” I said. I didn’t want to leave Roger, but I put him back gently.

Holding my breath, I found my own way back to the front door. On the way out, Lucy called to me: “Chica, cuidado! ¡El piso esta mojado!” At the time, I’d thought this was a reprimanding, but later, it occurred to me that she’d given me a warning: one that I hadn’t heeded.

*

That night, I waited until Brooke was asleep and went down to my mom’s room. Since she was alone, I didn’t bother knocking. I climbed into her king size bed; the feel of linen sheets was so different from her flannel ones we’d bought on sale at Target. The bed still smelled like Joel’s cologne. No matter how nice he was to me, it was still an imposition to share her.

“Mom,” I said, shaking her gently. “I need to talk you.” I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice from breaking. “Why didn’t you tell me that you and Joel wanted to have a baby?”

My mom pursed her lips. “I don’t know why you think that, sweetie.”

I went into the bathroom to show her what I’d found, but the boxes of tests were gone. I was having a hunger headache, and on top of it felt equal parts rage and relief.

“I guess I misunderstood something Brooke said,” I told my mom. I wanted to march upstairs and scream at her that I knew she was a liar, but instead, I snuggled under the covers.

My mom rolled over to face me and tuck my hair behind my ear. “What did Brooke say?”

I yawned, forcing myself to act casually. “She was on the phone. I guess she was talking about some TV show.”

I thought about Brooke waking up alone and wondered if it would seem different than awakening to me, a slowly disappearing girl. It wasn’t enough for her to wither my body; Brooke wanted to chip away at every relationship I had until I was only hers. I curled into a ball and held my knees to my chest, and it was reassuring to find myself still there.

*

The next day, at our final fitting, Lenora stuck her turning tool down the back of each of our zipped dresses and pulled to show my mother the extra inch.

“Everyone loses weight in the summer,” Brooke said. I could tell she expected me to agree, but I only stood in front of the mirror. Since I couldn’t explode with my mother around, I punished Brooke with silence.

“I’m sorry, Lenora,” my mom said, obviously flustered. “I promise it’s vitamins and family dinners from now on.”

At dinner that night, we picked at our organic Whole Foods chicken, even though it was the best chicken I’d ever tasted. Joel was home, and Brooke, as usual, dominated the conversation, talking to take the focus off eating.

I spent the evening in the living room, reading. I overheard my mom in the kitchen arguing with Joel. He got defensive, deflecting back to his line that “change was very stressful for Brooke.” I half wanted to never eat again, so my mom would worry about me, but I knew if I ate a few Oreos, it would piss Brooke off royally.

“Sam, sweetie,” Joel said as I pulled apart my Oreos. “You think Brooke’s okay, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, liking both my newfound ability to please him and the way my mother shook her head and left the room.

I planned to wait until Brooke was asleep to go upstairs, but at 11:30, she was still wide-awake and stretched out on her bed, feet hooked over the end.

“Hey,” Brooke said, casually.

“Unless you’re going to apologize for lying, don’t even bother talking to me” I said. Brooke looked at me bewildered. “I know that you made that baby stuff up.”

“I was just joking,” she tried.

“Really funny,” I said sarcastically. I went to brush my teeth, but Brooke followed me.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said. She looked with horror at the remnants of Oreo that I’d spit out when brushing my teeth. “What did you do?”

In my mind, it’d been a perfect rebellion, but now, I couldn’t explain what I wanted it to mean.

Brooke grabbed my arm and dragged me to the toilet. “Get rid of it,” she demanded.

“Tell me the truth,” I countered. Relinquishing control of my body was the only thing I’d learned to trade for leverage with Brooke.

Brooke showed me how to use the end of my toothbrush to make myself gag. There was a stinging in my throat and nostrils. I wanted to push Brooke against the wall or to rush, crying, into the arms of my mom or even Joel.

Brooke watched until it was gone, flushed, and then said, “I bought that stuff, and I put it there.”

The admission of guilt wasn’t satisfying. “Why?” I pressed, hoping for remorse. I didn’t understand it then: that Brooke would spend her life trying to impose on others all the grief she couldn’t expel.

Brooke only shrugged.

“You know what,” I said, leaning against the counter. “You don’t get permission to be an asshole just because your mom died. I haven’t had a dad ever, and I’m not manipulating everyone all the time.”

Brooke retreated to the bedroom and turned off the lights. I re-brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and lay in bed, too angry to sleep but too tired to argue.

Brooke didn’t say anything, but then she whispered, “You know how sometimes on the weekend, you wake up, and you kind of want to get out of bed, but there’s not a reason you have to, and you just can’t make yourself?

I closed my eyes, imagining it, but I didn’t say anything. Asking for details felt too much like forgiveness.

“I felt heavy like that all the time,” Brooke said. “Even when I was walking around.”

When I couldn’t find a job after I finished college, and my first serious boyfriend and I failed to make a post-graduation relationship work, I remembered Brooke’s description of depression, and it was like finally understanding drug use innuendos in a song you’d spent your childhood thinking was about falling in love and going to a dance.

“I want to tell you something, Sam, but you have to swear: you can’t tell anyone.”

I debated ignoring her, but I was curious. “Whatever,” I said. I turned, facing her and hugged a pillow to my flat chest.

“When I was really bad, one of the Davidson twins had sex with me.”

“What do you mean?” I said. I turned on my reading light. Sex, as seen on HBO, was usually about an exchange of power, so the act seemed beneath Brooke who always automatically got her way.

Brooke pushed her hair behind her ear. “We were in the pool house. I thought I’d feel better if I smoked, so I took a hit.”

You smoked pot?”

“I felt like it would help.”

“Did it?”

“No, it really hurt,” she whispered.

“The smoke?”

“The sex.” She paused.

I didn’t know the right thing to say. “Who was it?” I asked, moving to the end of her bed.

“I don’t know.” Brooke flipped to her stomach and pressed her forehead into her elbow. “I didn’t stop him because I thought maybe it would change something. He kind of pulled my hair the whole time.”

I thought about the bed covered in ashes and crumbs, the pictures from Maxim on the walls. “Did you tell someone?” I asked. I thought of Lucy. “Was anyone home?”

“Their dad is, like, so mean to them, Sam.” She had her face in the pillow.

“Why did you let me go over there?” I said. The anger in my voice surprised both of us.

“Nothing would’ve happened,” she said.

I felt frozen on her bed thinking about how she’d braided my hair before I’d gone to the Davidsons.

She was crying; she grabbed for me and pulled me to her, our first hug outside of one-second side ones on end of weekend visits. I felt her shoulder blades as she shook and knew mine were identical the way that bone pushed hard against skin.

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“Two Octobers ago,” she said quietly.

She looked past me, but I forced eye contact. “You sent me over there by myself,” I said incredulously.

Brooke grabbed her hairbrush from the nightstand. For a moment, I thought she was going to hit me. She must’ve seen me flinch. “I made you safe,” she said. “Stand up, and I’ll show you.” She used the end of her brush to measure the gap between my thighs. “See? You aren’t want they want now.”

I thought about Caleb’s hand on my bra strap. “I don’t think it works that way.”

Brooke walked to her window, which overlooked her pool and the Davidsons’ and the pool house too. Both were eerie with emptiness, and the fence between seemed too short from above. “They’ll be at college in a year,” Brooke offered.

“I’m not going to keep starving myself until then.”

Brooke started humming “Sugar Mountain,” but this time it wasn’t funny.

I noticed she’d been gripping the hairbrush firmly, and I gently took it from her. “Whatever happened to you—” I wanted to name it, but I didn’t have the word. “It wasn’t because of how you looked.”

“I made us safe, Sam,” she said like she wanted to believe it but couldn’t.

I nodded, even though I knew it wasn’t true.

*

There’s a photo from the wedding that my mom loves. Our parents had it printed on a large Canvas. It’s Brooke and I in those strapless bridesmaid dresses, the color of Rosé. We are back to back, and, like mirror images of one another, our shoulders formed hard angles rather than rounded curves, and our collarbones were more noticeable than our pearls. We were on the golf course at the country club; the sun setting behind us was that August orange-red.

The photo that is Joel’s favorite is on his desk in a silver frame. The photographer had pulled us away after dinner. I’d eaten my first full meal in months while Brooke had picked at her dinner salad. In the photo, Brooke is leaning in to whisper, a hand cupped over her mouth, to tell me we were getting a puppy: a wedding gift from her father. My gaze is off to the side of the frame, but my smile is genuine and smudged with frosting from a piece of wedding cake I’d just eaten. “He’ll be a barker,” I’d joked, and that had set us both off giggling, bent and gasping for air. Though we were fourteen and sixteen, we look much younger in that one: carefree, weightless.

Sometimes I find one of those prints in a deserted drawer, and I stop to contemplate it. What’s missing from the image makes it better than memory. From Brooke’s open grin, she looks un-phased and forever fed. My eyes glisten with tears from laughter and reflect back only Brooke and that sunset, and there is nothing or no one to tell what we’ve already had to leave behind.

 

Stacy Austin Egan holds an MFA from McNeese State University. Her fiction chapbook, You Could Stop it Here, was released by PANK Books this spring. Her fiction appears in PANK Magazine, Driftwood Press, The New Plains Review, The MacGuffin, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She lives in west Texas with her husband, Brendan, and their daughter. She teaches literature and writing at Midland College.  

Leslie (first place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

lauren_green_photo

Leslie

By Lauren Green

Michael leans over to flick off the heat, catching a whiff of Rick’s half-eaten apple in the cup holder. He had thought the fling with Rick would maybe last a night or two. Fifteen months later, they are driving home to see Michael’s ex-wife, Leslie, who is throwing herself an end-of-life party.

In the passenger seat, Rick extends his arms overhead and begins to spell out O-H-I-O, not for the first time this trip. Michael knows that Ohio means little to Rick, who has spent all twenty-four years of his life in New York City, where Michael met him at a tacky Chelsea bar called Rawhide.

“Did you know there’s a river here that’s flammable?” Michael asks.

“Huh?”

“The Cuyahoga. It’s so full of pollutants, it once caught fire. Literally.”

Rick snorts, the way he always does when he finds something either amusing or lame. Michael is unsure which category his fact falls into. He sets his gaze ahead into the near-dark once more, where a sliver of moon lances through the lacy canopy of sycamores that flanks the side of the road.

Leslie had been sick once before, long ago. She had told Michael this on an early date—how she spent her fourteenth year propped-up in bed, teaching herself card tricks from a paper booklet while doctors pumped her body full of delphinium-blue poison. By the end of the summer, the whites of her eyes were tinted blue, like sky reflected in a corner of windshield, and she could levitate the queen of spades.

And now she is dying. Second cancer—that was what she called it on the phone. Not a recurrence but a separate entity altogether. Michael was in his office at the YMCA when she rang. As Leslie’s voice floated toward him, he imagined her in their old kitchen, worrying the landline cord into a coil between her slim fingers, crossing one slick, shea-buttered ankle over the other.

“Come,” she said. “I mean, if you want. If you still love me—” she said, but she did not finish the sentence.

The end-of-life celebration seemed somber and hellish to Michael, who had no desire to return to his former existence. “It’s not exactly like she’s ever been the life of the party,” he grumbled to Rick. Life of the party. The words were like tinfoil against his teeth. Jesus Christ, he thought.

But Rick had insisted he go, and had offered to accompany him, most likely in the hopes of purloining some medical cannabis. So, it was decided.

Michael casts a sidelong gaze to the passenger seat. A deep red nick dents the cove beneath Rick’s ear where he cut himself shaving this morning. His cheeks are unsullied, young. “Arizona,” Michael says.

“What?”
Michael gestures to the license plate of the white semi-trailer that looms like a cloud in the reddening distance. “Arizona,” he says again.

“Oh, nice.”

Rick drapes his brown leather jacket over his lithe body and wriggles it up to his chin. His head lolls to one side. Blue-black twilight peeks through the lines on the window glass where he has fingernailed away the frost. “It’s so boring here,” he says, his voice husky with sleep.

“Welcome to Middle America,” Michael answers, with a small laugh. He waits for the reward of Rick’s quick snort, which does not come.

Nighttime bounds across the highway and far into the plains. Darkness spreads over the soybean fields and hoods the silver Camry. Michael lets his thoughts drift to Leslie. Leslie in the bed, late at night, waiting for him to come home. Leslie on the twig-littered drive, watching him pull away.

A car streams around them, blaring its horn, and Michael careens back into his lane. Beady red taillights glare out at him from ahead. “Maryland,” he says. “Did we already get that one?”

He glances over at Rick, who has lapsed into sleep. Outside, wintry currents howl. Michael reaches over, turns up the heat, and tries to think again of Leslie.

*

The rules to Leslie’s party, which she had emailed out to her twenty-five or so nearest and dearest, are simple:

  1. No using the words “death” or “dying” or “cancer” or “time.”
  2. If you need to cry, step outside.
  3. If I need to cry, you are not allowed to judge me.

*

The roads grow more and more familiar. Michael spots the Sunoco station he and Leslie frequented whenever they drove to the airport, the mossy bog they meandered around when spring fever spiked, the convention center where Michael got down on his knees for a man whose name he did not want to know.

He nearly misses the turn onto his own block, the one he took every day for twenty-two years. He passes the Claffeys, the Morgans, the Haberfields. He slows as he approaches the stone-and-stucco house that once belonged to the Fletchers. A “For Sale” sign gnashes its long, white fangs into the overgrown yard.

The Fletchers were a young couple who had perpetual, mystifying tans, which they emphasized by dressing exclusively in pastels. They lived in the house with their toddler, a flaxen-haired boy named Jacob. Michael and Leslie sometimes watched Jacob through the window as he raced his Tonka steel cement mixer up and down the drive.

“Why isn’t anyone out there with him?” Leslie would ask. “Someone should be watching.”

“You don’t know that someone isn’t,” Michael would counter.

One day, Mr. Fletcher strapped Jacob into his car seat and drove to the reservoir on the outskirts of town, where teenagers would venture in the gauzy days of July to get lucky. The reservoir was two miles long and sixty feet deep—lightless and shimmering as a black snake. Later, the skid marks would indicate that Mr. Fletcher didn’t even brake—he drove full speed ahead into the water, which swallowed the car in several large gulps, down into the belly of all that glimmering black.

For nights after the tragedy, Rachel Fletcher’s wails kept Michael and Leslie up at night. When they passed by her in the supermarket, her grief seemed otherworldly. Her eyes darted unsettlingly in their sockets, as if her pupils were an etch-a-sketch trying to erase what they had seen.

Michael and Leslie adopted Rachel Fletcher’s name for any pain that was too great to bear. When Leslie’s father died of heart disease: Rachel Fletcher. When Michael was laid off: Rachel Fletcher. On that final day, when his car was packed, and he drove away, watching her disappear in the rearview mirror: Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher, Rachel Fletcher.

Rick stirs and rubs the sleep from his eyes. “This it?” he asks, taking in the abandoned house.

“No,” Michael says, easing his foot down onto the pedal. “Next one.”

He pulls into the drive. A single light glows firefly-yellow through the kitchen window. “Maybe you should stay here,” he says.

Rick shrugs. “It’s not like she doesn’t know I’m coming.”

“I know, but—”

Rick palms Michael’s thigh. “Don’t,” he says, squeezing. “It’ll be fine.”

Michael stares into the nettled gulley behind the yard, waiting for his headlights to catch on a pair of gleaming eyes or the scales of a leaping fish. He is considering restarting the car and checking into a motel for the night when Leslie appears backlit in the doorway, a pilled cardigan sashed loosely around her middle.

“Hey, stranger,” she calls, as Michael kills the engine and clambers out of the car.

The air is crisp. The breeze smells of rainwater on pine. Leslie waits on the landing, staring at Michael with what he imagines to be painkiller-induced joy. He walks to her and wraps her in a hug. She is all bone beneath his fingertips. With her mouth still nuzzled into his neck, he gently cups the back of her wigged head.

He hears Rick behind him and pulls away. “This is—”

“Rick.” Leslie extends her hand. “So nice to meet you. Come on in. Ignore the mess. I’m still trying to get everything set for tomorrow.”

She leads the way into the kitchen, where moonlight pools on the ground beneath the French patio doors. Michael’s eyes flicker to the frames on the wall. Leslie riding the Raptor at Cedar Point, arms thrust into the air; Leslie at her nephew’s wedding, face dewy and wide. He tries to reconcile the woman in the photographs with the one who stands before him now, her pallid skin impressed with a filigree of purple veins.

“Long drive?” she asks, collapsing into a cushioned chair. She rubs the back of her palm against her forehead, smudging one penciled-in eyebrow to a long, brown streak. “Can I get either of you a drink?”

“I’ll take soda if you have,” Rick says.

“Pop,” Michael corrects. “I’ll get it.”

He pads to the pantry where they keep the drinks. The shelves are stocked for tomorrow’s party with foods the Leslie of his memories would be loath to purchase: chips and candy, soda and beer. Michael fingers the plastic rigging between the soda cans. Leslie always used to complain that the rings were an environmental hazard, liable to pollute the oceans and strangle sea turtles. But what should she care for oceans now?

When Michael returns to the kitchen, he finds Rick standing in the planetary blue light of the refrigerator, wielding a bulbous head of ginger.

“It’s for me,” Leslie explains.

Michael cocks his head. His wife is gone, but here is this woman sitting in his wife’s chair, wrapped in his wife’s freckled skin, wearing her same kind and weary face.

“Soda?” Rick asks.

Michael tosses him the can, and listens to the snap of the tab, the hiss of the fizz. He has forgotten how eerie the woodlands’ silence can be. Rick tips his head back and allows the brown liquid to stream into his gullet. Then, with alarming strength, he crushes the can in one fist and sets its flattened body down on the marble countertop.

Michael turns to Leslie, whose eyes are shut. “Do you need help setting anything up for tomorrow?” he asks.

“Mmm,” she says, “I think I’ve got everything. My mom’s been staying here, so she did most of the setup. I just need to finalize my outfit.”

“Can we see it?” Rick asks.

Leslie pauses a moment, then blinks her eyes open and labors to her feet. “Sure,” she says. “Just give me a minute. I’m slow going up.”

Michael watches as she shuffles across the hardwood floor. He waits for the open mouth of the hallway to devour her frail body before shooting Rick a savage look.

“What?” Rick asks.

Michael shakes his head. “Let me show you the rest of the house,” he says.

He leads the way from the kitchen, flicking on lights as he goes. In the dining room, he is overcome by the urge to yank open every drawer and catalogue all the objects she will leave behind. He reaches for the china cabinet, where he spots Leslie’s favorite vase sitting on the topmost shelf. The vase is turnip-shaped, the white-waves color of the Atlantic on a drizzly day. Michael grips it by the neck and uses his shirtsleeve to swab dust from around the rim. Then he sets it in the center of the dining room table.

“Look at this,” Rick calls.

Michael glances up and crosses the threshold to the living room, where Leslie’s mother has arranged a semi-circle of folding chairs. Streamers festoon every surface. Rick stands at the foot of a bridge table set off to one side, studying the objects neatly arrayed on its surface. A sign above, scrawled in Leslie’s trembling hand, reads “HELP YOURSELF.”

Michael runs his fingers over the keepsakes: Leslie’s porcelain hand-mirror; her camera; a set of scalloped, earthenware bowls; a watercolor of a lily. He is about to turn away when he catches sight of a familiar glass bottle, dangling from a silver chain. The bottle is the size of his thumb and filled with pink sand from the beach in Greece where he and Leslie honeymooned.

Michael pinches the chain and lifts it into the air, watching as the coral granules in the bottle tumble one on top of the other. He had given Leslie the necklace when they first married. He closes his fist around the glass and worms it into his back pocket. He can feel Rick’s eyes on him and looks up, daring to be challenged. They stare at each other, soundless and unmoving.

Just then, the patter of Leslie’s footfalls jolts them. “Where did you boys run away to?” she calls, and the kettle in the kitchen begins to sing.

*

Michael remembers little from the honeymoon. He remembers only the tract of sky at sunset: febrile, the color of a skinned tangerine; the sizzle of his feet over the hot cobblestones once walked by emperors; a donkey braying; the lassitude of the Mediterranean. He remembers the day he walked down to the beach alone. Leslie, sick with sun fatigue, had gone back to the whitewashed villa early.

Even now, Michael can picture the tanned face of the young man folding up umbrellas on the salmon-colored sand. The man, who couldn’t have been more than a boy. The man, whom Michael slipped a Drachma banknote in exchange for a blowjob. The man, whose flushed cheeks and vacant brown eyes tormented Michael every day for the next twenty-two years of his life.

When all was said and done, Michael sat down in a webstrap beach chair and regarded the young man with the disdain he reserved for the people who reminded him of his most monstrous self. The man finished folding his umbrellas and strode back up the path, whistling.

*

When Michael and Rick reenter the kitchen, the room is dark. In the silvery moonlight, Leslie’s edges are feathered and blurred, as though she has been done in crayon. She stands with her arms crossed, in a red silk gown that Michael recognizes. He and Leslie had squabbled about its exorbitant price two years ago; at the time, she had no occasion to wear it to. I just want to feel beautiful, she had said. Why was that not enough?

“Can one of you get my zipper?” she asks, walking toward them. She moves slowly, fisting her hair away from her neck. Rick steps forward and tugs the zipper up its track, his hand hovering at the clasp.

She spins around. “What do you think?”

Rick lets out a long, slow whistle of approval.

Leslie scans Michael’s face. “It’ll be better with makeup,” she says.

Michael swallows down the lump in his throat. He levels his eyes on Leslie. She suddenly feels very large to him, and far away, like a city glimpsed through an airplane window. “You look…ravishing,” he says.

He has the desire to say something more, but every word that comes to mind seems trite. They stand in silence until, at last, Rick clears his throat.

“It’s late,” he says. “I’m gonna turn in.”

Leslie nods. “I’ve set you up in the guest room, just up the stairs, first door on the left.”

“Great, thanks.”

Rick swings his backpack over one shoulder and slinks toward the staircase. He has a dancer’s physique, and his slim hips pendulum from side to side. After a few moments, Michael and Leslie tilt their heads up at the ceiling, where they hear Rick moving about in the room above.

“He seems nice,” Leslie says. She crosses to the sink to put away the last of the dishes, humming to herself a tune that is more breath than music, and impossible for Michael to place.

“I’ll get those,” he says.

“They’re already done.”

She shuts the cupboard and wipes her hands on a blotted, balding rag. “So, what’s he getting out of this?” she asks.

Michael opens his mouth, then closes it again. He thinks of Rick, of his youth, his boundless energy, of the rainbow-pride flag that hangs in place of a window curtain. He thinks of the night they first met. Michael had worn a too-tight paisley shirt, which pulled between his shoulder blades. Uncanny taxidermy fixtures jutted out from the wooden pillars overhead. Shot glasses sweated on the ebony bar.

Rick stood in the center of the room, pretending to rope the mechanical bull with an invisible lasso. At the sight, Michael felt a judder inside, and placed one hand over his heart; he had forgotten what this muscle could do. Later, the men kissed beneath the bristled snout of a boar, whose marble glare kept vigil over the crowd. Rick tasted of pizza. When he opened his mouth to speak, Michael was surprised by the faint Colombian accent that barbed his voice. Top or bottom, Cowboy?

Recalling the line, Michael feels the tips of his ears burn. At the start, he had liked how both he and Rick were, in some ways, beginners. He liked how Rick, at twenty-four, had never known a single person who had died, not even a grandparent. He liked how Rick called him Mi corazón—my heart.

Michael is about to ask Leslie what she knows about being someone’s heart, when he notices that her hand has paled on the countertop. Her shoulders begin to tremble. The fabric of her dress dimples in the concave shadow of her stomach as she doubles over in pain.

“Hey,” he says, stepping forward. He pries her fingers up one at a time. She yields to his touch, as though she is boneless, made of water. “I’ve got you,” he says, cinching an arm tightly around her waist.

*

For so long, the cheating had seemed almost too easy. Leslie never questioned why Michael decided to take up piano as an antidote to middle-age malaise, nor why he insisted on taking lessons twice a week with Jonathan Claffey, the neighbors’ son. She never questioned the underwear with the stain in the crotch that she found nearby the gulley, which Michael said must have belonged to one of the hooligans who egged the Fletcher house. She never questioned why her husband was so frigid at night, rebuffing her every advance. Or, if she did, she never expressed these worries to him.

Perhaps Michael could have kept the charade up had he and Leslie not run into one of his ex-lovers—a striking, Irish-sort—at the Cinemark, whose eyes widened when Leslie introduced herself as Michael’s wife. Leslie looked to Michael, her pupils dilating, jaw tensing, and in that instant, he knew that she knew.

In the car ride home, her hair smelled buttery, of popcorn. “I feel like my whole life—” she said. Michael waited, but she did not go on.

They pulled up to a stoplight, and Michael turned to face his wife, his throat gummed with excuses. Black trails of mascara coursed down her cheeks. Her expression was blank. She stared at him vacuously, as she would a stranger, and he wondered how she had so quickly secreted away whatever intimacy lay at her surface.

“What do you want me to tell people?” she said.
A car behind them honked, and Michael turned back to the road. “What?”

“I mean, do you want me to tell the truth?”

Michael sieved through the simple kindness of her question, hoping to catch something sharp lurking in its tenderness. “Tell them whatever you want,” he said, too scornfully.

Tears pricked at his eyes. He told himself this was what he had wanted all along. Leslie reached over and laced her fingers with his over the gearshift. Her touch was warm, loving. Michael did not know how a person could be so good.

*

Upstairs, Michael sets Leslie down on the bed they once shared. The sheets smell of rotted flesh. On the bedroom carpet, he notices the oval impressions her slippers have left, like tracks in snow.

“Will you get the light?” she asks.

He does. In the darkness, he fumbles to the bed, sits at its edge with his head hung and his hands clasped in his lap. He hears Leslie’s effortful breathing behind him. “Do you need me to get you anything?” he asks.

She runs her hand over the space beside her, smoothing the wrinkled sheets. “Lie down, will you?”

He climbs into bed, careful not to pull on the red silk of her dress. His body commas around hers. She is smaller than he remembers. The warmth that radiates through her back is shocking. He wonders for a moment if the doctors have it wrong, if she is not near to death at all.

“Wait,” she says. “Shut your eyes.”

“My eyes?”

“Are they closed?”

“Yes.”

The mattress shifts as Leslie pitches forward. Michael hears a faint rustling and the clacking of bobby pins against the cherry-finished nightstand. He imagines her buzzed head, the down that frosts her skull.

She lies back down, closer to him, and he can feel her breath hot on his neck. “Hey, you have silver in your beard,” she says. “You know that?”

Michael feels her fingers tracing over the basin-like curve of his chin. Her hands stall. Then, slowly, she leans in and kisses him. He can feel the ridges on her chapped lips, the places where her skin is flaking. She pulls away and nestles her head into his chest.

Just then, Michael hears the floorboards creak and glances up, startled. A shadowy figure stands in the half-lit doorway. Rick.

“I should go,” Michael says, watching in his periphery as Rick turns around, making a hasty retreat.

“Wait.” Leslie prayers her hands beneath her head and opens her eyes. “Stay.”

Michael scratches at his beard. Groggy with exhaustion, he rolls from the bed. “Give me a minute,” he says.

He plods his way from the room and down the hallway. The light is on in the guest room. Michael imagines entering, only to find Rick repacking his toothbrush into his toiletry bag, slipping his feet into his brown loafers, readying himself to leave. Michael will take Rick into his arms, explain the gossamer-thread sort of love that sprouts in the corners of a lifetime spent together, where neither party thinks to look. He will ask why it should not be possible for him to love them both. But Rick will merely snort, shove Michael away, say he is nothing but a foolish, dirty old man.

When Michael arrives at the room, he is surprised to find Rick standing by the window, hands balled into the pockets of his jeans. “What are you doing?” Michael asks, setting one hand to rest on the doorframe.

“Thinking,” Rick says.

Michael strolls over to him, so that they are mere inches apart. Rick is a head taller, at least, and larger. Michael feels his heart quicken in his chest, the way it always does when he walks past someone on the street he knows could hurt him.

“How is she?” Rick asks. He is standing so close, Michael can make out the golden flecks in his brown, wrinkleless eyes, and the scar on his cheek where he scratched at a chicken pock when he was a boy.

Michael purses his lips. He waits, knowing that Rick will uncover the answer he cannot provide.

Rick nods and gestures to the window. “Look,” he says.

Outside, the world is lacquered a chilled pink. Clouds scud across the lightening sky. Rime cloaks the winterweed. A slender-tailed bird alights in the tree just beyond the windowpane and begins to coo.

Rick reaches down and takes ahold of Michael’s hand. Then, gently, he leads Michael back to the door. Michael suddenly feels very small. He remembers how, as a child, his father used to usher him to the bus stop at the end of the road each morning, where the other St. Jude’s boys constellated in their woolen gray uniforms.

Rick crinkles his eyebrows. He gives Michael’s hand a hard squeeze. “She needs you now,” he says.

*

On the day Michael was set to leave Ohio, two years before, he paused in the kitchen before the French doors, wondering how he got here. Just yesterday, it seemed, he was a teenager whose pinky inched along the church pew toward the pinky of the boy who sat beside him. The next thing he knew, he was standing at the altar, staring into Leslie’s eyes, and then, in a single blink, he found himself a middle-aged man, with back pains and a mortgage and a problematic hairline. The years were pancaked together, and he could not unflatten them.

The night before, Leslie had sunk down to the floor of their bedroom, wanting to know if it was her fault. He told her it wasn’t and asked why it needed to be anyone’s fault. But she was hurt, and he was hurt, and where there was hurt, there was blame. So he said, “No. I should have told you.”

They did not kiss, but they apologized, each of them saying, Sorry, I’m sorry, over and over again, until the words had lost their meaning. She cried, and maybe he did, too, though in his memory he hadn’t. In his memory, he held her, and she sobbed into his shirt, until two dark spots, the size of nickels, bloomed on his chest.

And now it was morning. In the daylight, Michael looked at his house, quiet and flooded with sun. He saw the kitchen as though for the first time, imagining what it would be like without him here. Leslie entered in her bathrobe, shaking him from his reverie. “Are you ready?” she asked.

Michael walked out to the car, lugging the last of his boxes. She watched him as he jammed the trunk shut. She said she wanted to watch his leaving for herself. Otherwise she would wake up in the middle of the night, expecting him to return.

“I’ll see you,” he said. He said it as if he were setting out for the supermarket. He turned the key; the engine sputtered to life. Michael waved, and then he drove away.

Exit signs studded the highway. At each one he thought maybe he would turn back. He drove and drove, until the world stopped looking like a place he knew. He drove until his body ached and he couldn’t drive anymore. Then he parked the Camry on a seedy corner nearby the Holland Tunnel, where the whir of cars travelling in and out of the city lullabied him to sleep.

*

When Michael gets back to the bedroom, Leslie’s eyes are closed. He crawls into the spot beside her and watches her lashes flutter as she drifts in and out of dream. Luminescence gathers in the folds of her red gown.

Beneath him on the sheets, a round object kneads into his back. He reaches down, and his fingertips land on a smooth, curved edge. Michael pulls it out and turns it over; the pink sand streams from one end to the other. He leans toward the nightstand and sets the bottle beside the wig.

Leslie stirs. “Everything alright?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says, “go back to sleep.”

She curls her legs up beneath her and reaches out, drawing Michael closer. Her eyes are wet and shining. Michael cups the soft of her shoulder.

“Are you in pain?’ he asks.

“A little,” she says. “The hospice nurse will be here in the morning.”

Michael’s stomach churns. “How bad is it?” he asks.

The room is quiet, save for Leslie’s wheezing. Michael waits, wondering if she has fallen back asleep. But then, at last, the corners of her dry lips curl. She does not say it, but the words hang in the space between them: Rachel Fletcher.

Leslie yawns. “Will you wake me if I fall asleep? I want to see the sunrise.”

“Sure.”

Michael glances out the window. The first golden rays of morning have begun to dapple the sky, and pour into the room, swathing him and Leslie in ribbons of yellow.

“Thanks for coming,” she whispers. She reaches over and clings to Michael’s sleeve.

“Of course,” he says, aware of her pulse beneath his fingertips, steady but faint. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

 

Lauren Green currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a fiction fellow at UT’s Michener Center for Writers. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and Conjunctions, among others. She recently graduated from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts.

Underwater

We sit in a semi-circle booth at Max’s Ultimate Sports Bar, nibbling out of obligation on hot poppers and fried mozzarella, silently absorbing the familiar comforts of a chain restaurant. Our eyes emptily follow unremarkable images on the muted, 52” plasma television. We wait. A commercial for a deceptively low mortgage rate segues into this segment of the evening’s national news: a brick and beige vinyl-sided 1986 raised ranch being sucked away by a violent body of water. The bulletin below: FLOOD WIPES OUT HUNDREDS OF HOMES IN IOWA. Then—a penetrating yowl, unmistakably that of my 14-year-old daughter Kelly, followed by a boy’s voice–“Isn’t that our house?”

I carefully examine the details of the house on the screen as they loop the footage. Two-car garage on the left. Brown shutters, one missing on the right side of the upper left window. Weathervane that always pointed south because it was never oiled. Large, listing pine tree at the end of the submerged driveway. Undoubtedly our house.

Kelly struggles to catch a breath. My husband Matt turns a pale marble color as he becomes utterly motionless, his eyeballs locked on the television, but his gaze focused far beyond it into either his past or his future. I look to our son Nick. He does not notice the ice cube falling from his agape mouth just before he utters, “Holy shit.”

 

Already, I only vaguely remember that house, the one we lived in until just three days ago. It was not our first. But, it may very well be our last.  The kitchen was always sticky. The living room carpet was stained and embarrassing. The hot water heater struggled to make my showers tepid. I do not miss any of it. As I watch it wash away, the leaden weight of home ownership lifts from my aching body. I smirk and look off into nowhere, my eyes defocusing, and allow myself to envision a whitewashed condo with new bamboo floors– a rental in the city near a park.

“Yup,” I reply, stuffing my mouth with salty, yet flavorless fried food. Matt looks to me, jaw slightly dropped. It takes him a moment to move from shock to surprise to anger. I guess he expects me to cry; to show the children that I share their sorrow, to show him that I comprehend the gravity of our enormous loss. Perhaps I am expected to give a rousing speech about how God has a plan for us. God’s plans are hilarious. I want to laugh out loud they are so funny, but refrain so that Matt does not think I am laughing at him.

It briefly occurs to me– this could be the flood that saves our marriage. It could prove our mettle, unfurl our courage. It could be the only test we ever pass. But instead, the man I married cries. They all cry: father, daughter, son– immediately missing the minutiae of their lives in that cookie-cutter plywood box. I can see it all in extreme detail: dirty, abused dolls; broken skate boards; piles of game consoles; a new red lawnmower that he can ride like a cowboy; photos of those always over-remembered happier times. It’s sordid and unholy.

I order another beer. And a shot of Jim Beam. The news repeats that footage of our house being demolished over and over, sending my nuclear family into a state of inaudible terror. As we sit among the unaffected, dissolving like flesh in a bath of acid, I can feel the intact families nearby pick up the scent of our infection. No one wants to be near an unraveling person, no less four of them. A mother across the aisle looks to me with a mix of confusion and contempt. Keep it together, woman I can hear her say in my head. It’s a mean voice. A god-like voice.

 

I used to believe that a disaster was a large and public event. The Titanic. The Great Fire. A tornado. A flood, such as the one that just gutted my life. But, I have come to see that most disasters are aggregate and private. They are the product of slow erosion that no one else can see, like when you stand in the ocean and the sand washes away from under your feet, a little more with each retracting wave, until you cannot balance anymore. Eventually, if you stay in the same place long enough, you fall. The other people on the beach, reading their summer novels and slowly tanning? They don’t feel your panic. They don’t even realize there is a problem because it is not their problem. This is the way life works.

I want to tell them that it’s not worth crying over. That house wasn’t so great. Those things weren’t so great. We are free now. Now, we can be who we want to be. We can live in a tent. We can eat French fries every night and wash them down with beer and whiskey. Nothing really matters. I don’t have the heart to tell them this as they sob into their trivia-covered place mats, looking deep into the spiral maze meant to busy children so the adults can talk. I put back my shot and look one more time at our $284,599 house washing away before they cut to commercial.

“Well, there’s the insurance,” Matt blubbers, “But that probably won’t cover it. We were upside down…”

Kelly asks weakly, “What’s that mean?” I think that it is best not to explain.

“Matt, is your phone working?” I ask. He pulls out his cell phone, rubs it on his shirt and holds down a button. “Looks like it,” he says. “Three messages.”  Matt pulls the phone to his ear, covering the free ear with a quivering, cupped hand. The kids look to nowhere, dejected. I need to act fast.

“At least Six Flags was spared. Bet it will be empty tomorrow.” They look to me with disgust. I stifle a giggle while hailing the waitress for another Beam.

 

Before the rain began four days ago, I’d already had a terrible morning. I had still not gotten my period and a wicked headache prevented me from getting out of bed until after 11. Just as the pain subsided, the mail came. Amidst a stack of credit card offers, I found a letter notifying us that we were behind on our property taxes and there would be a sheriff’s sale. Then the phone rang. I let it go to voicemail because I knew the caller would say, “Thank you for applying for the job. We have hired someone else. Good luck with your next endeavor.” At least they called. That was nice. I sat on the porch and watched the downpour. They said that it would be a lot of rain, that it might flood, and I hoped that I would be washed away.

We went to bed to the pounding sounds of a vindictive, unhinged sky. Matt fell into a deep sleep so suddenly, I wondered if he had overdosed. But I remained awake, rattled by the violent storm. I imagined it to be a woman like myself, wanting to destroy everything she touched, and riding high on the endorphin-soaked rush of doing just that. But I was not the storm. I was a middle-aged woman without a job. I was beaten and discarded, awash in indecision and panic. I would never be a storm. I would only ever be a house.

Sometime past two I drifted into a dream where I was floating down a slow, winding river on the roof of our mini-van. The kids’ stuffed toys were floating past, clinging to one another for dear life, groveling for help. Then something soft, like paws, grabbed my ankles and pulled me down into the murkiness. It was warm down below, in the muddy morass. Comforting. Silent. I wanted to stay there forever. But an alarming sound woke me up. The sound of water lapping. I was damp. The water had wicked up the sheets and I realized the flood was worse than they predicted. Our room was on the second floor.

The shot on TV, the one where our under-appraised house floats away with a silent rush, doesn’t show us being rescued by the man in the rowboat. No, at the moment when that lucky cameraman caught our lives dissolving like a sugar cube, we were in a gymnasium, fifty miles away, sipping instant coffee in other people’s dry clothes, listening to word-of-mouth reports, unaware that the destruction of which they spoke was our own. Now we know.

“They’re coming to pick us up. I’m gonna call and let them know where we are,” Matt relays. The kids perk up. Matt dials, and puts the phone back to his ear, looking at me with the grin of a man on the verge of control. He cups his hands again, burying his head almost under the table. The restaurant isn’t even that loud, but I try not to judge.

“When can we move back?” asks Nick. I ignore him. Matt argues with his mother, probably about directions. Kelly finally answers, “Dipshit—did you see our house? It’s gone.” I always admired her directness.

Nick looks at me, a selfish sadness draining the color from his pimply face. “Mom,” he begins, “Where are we going to live?” Kelly turns her attention to me now. She is waiting for me to fail to answer his question. Nick continues, “What’s going to happen now? We’re homeless. And you don’t even have a job.” This statement pushes me further down in the pleather banquette and a constriction of my throat makes it difficult to swallow my beer. It’s like I always suspected. They want me to drown with them.

Sabrina, our effervescent waitress, comes over to check on us. Her smile fades when she sees our long, wet, faces. “C-can I get you guys anything else?”

“I’ll have another beer,” I chime.

“No she won’t” Matt interjects.

I look into Sabrina’s hazel eyes, dipped in sparkly mascara and outlined in shadow the color of a perfect day. “ I would love a Budweiser this time,” I say with a broad, reassuring grin. “Sure,” she smiles back, “I’ll be right over with that.” And she is gone. I look back to the television. They have moved on to celebrity gossip. The tall one has left the blonde one for the brunette, who just shaved her head and is pregnant. I can relate.

“We’d all like to tie one on right now, Meg,” Matt spits. The kids look away, nowhere to go.

“I’ll buy them a beer. Put it in a paper cup-”

“This is no time to be like this,” he steams. I want to tell him that the liquor makes this situation tolerable while also mitigating the nausea. So, in fact, I do have to be like this. “Seriously. Grow the f—grow up, Meg. We just lost everything. Everything.”

I haven’t a retort. We have lost everything. I stand. “Don’t drink my beer kids. Mommy will be right back,” I say and then stumble to the bathroom.

I am relieved to find that it is one of those restrooms where you can lock yourself in, alone. Quiet. Privacy. I check for a window, but am disappointed. Can’t escape from here. Can’t escape. I start to sweat. The smell of the bathroom- urine mixed with bleach and a strawberry scented soap- makes me sick. I turn, bow, and vomit the unmistakable symptom. Now I know. I am drowning.

I wonder what it will be like. Will it have Down’s syndrome? I am 44. Will it be pale enough to pass? How much does an abortion cost? Do they take credit cards? A knock at the door. I rinse off my face. The woman on the other side of the door is large. Her hair is wet. She pushes past me without looking at me, saying only, “Jesus. It stinks in here.”

Now devoid of hot poppers and booze, I am disappointed to see that Sabrina has cleared the table and Matt has taken over my beer. He maintains a stern gaze over me as he puts it back. The kids try not to look.

“Grams will be here in an hour, mom,” Kelly informs me.

“If she doesn’t get lost,” Nick adds before blowing his bangs out of his face.

I wish I had my cell phone. I want to call him, to let him know what we have done. I wonder if he has tried to call me…if he worries about me. But that phone with his number washed away with all the other numbers, all the baby albums, all the symbols of normalcy and responsibility. They are in the Mississippi by now.

“Where will we go to school?” Kelly asks in a new round of tears.

“We’ll get an apartment in the same district. No disruptions,” Matt answers definitively.

“An apartment?” Kelly sneers, “I’m not living in an apartment. Poor people live in apartments.”

Matt and I look to one another. In those shallow green-grey eyes, eyes that the baby will not have, I see surrender. I see a grave of credit cards and back taxes. I see a fifteen hundred dollar lawnmower chewing up a lawn of cash. I see anti-freeze evaporating from ATMs on fatherless Friday nights. I see a family photo degrading in a pool of indifferent rain. I see waves of a silty ocean pulling me under, sucking me into a saline sac of fluid, keeping me safe until my momma welcomes me with single mother arms.

Mother. Mommy. Momma.

“Mom,” Nick pokes me.

“What?”

“You’re spacing, dude.”

“I’m tired.”

“You’re drunk,” Matt says.

“Dad, leave her alone,” Kelly snaps.

 

Dinner together at Max’s is exactly as I remember it was at home. Four different diners in four different spaces. At least I can say I tried. I tried AA, too. That’s where I met Charlie. I had gone for the kids’ sake. But, when they didn’t seem to notice the difference, I pursued something selfish. I found a man who was also looking for a reason to stop trying. We had fantastic sex a dozen or so times. Then, he stopped coming to the meetings. He stopped calling. Maybe his wife found out. I wonder if he has changed his number.

Sabrina slides the check toward Matt. When she is gone, he slides it toward me, saying, “This one is all you, champ.” It’s funny for obvious reasons. I pull out a credit card. He says, “Not the joint one. It’s frozen.” I glare, bothered, but not surprised, into that swollen middle management face and pull out another card. I apologize to the kids for all the adultness they have to witness.

Sabrina pauses before the television above us. The image is now of a highway awash with windswept water. “Shit!” she unwittingly utters, “How am I gonna get to my boyfriend’s?”

Matt, recognizing the stretch of road, also lets out a profanity. I laugh. I really am drunk. He whips out his cell phone and dials up Mother-in-Law. “Ma… ma… the Interstate is flooded. You can’t get through.”

News that Mother-in-Law will not be able to rescue us from one another is a huge relief. She’s a stupid woman with stupid convictions, though I would have loved to tell her. It would have killed her to hear that a black man knocked up her son’s wife. And it was consensual. She would not believe that.

 

Kelly cries harder. I don’t see why. But, I wish she would stop. It’s beginning to annoy me. She’s got her whole life to buy more clothes and take more pictures and accumulate the trash of human existence. Why she is so attached to one poorly built raised ranch and a pile of scratched CDs, I don’t understand. There is so much about her that I don’t understand. I find myself staring at her, getting lost in her hair, so straight and pale that it seems like a wig put on for a fashion show. She notices, winces, says, “What? Like you’d understand.”

 

When they are babies, we know everything about them: every fold of skin, every wisp of hair, every budding tooth. We know what they like to eat, what they can’t eat, what could kill them. Now, I don’t know anything. I look at Kelly and I realize that I don’t know when she gets her period. I should. But, I don’t. I wonder if she’s ever been pregnant. She’s 14. It could happen. I start crying. I can’t help it. I look at my sad family, full of useless food and shattering into four sharp pieces, and I can’t stop. I don’t understand why we have children. All we do is ruin them.

Nick puts his arm around me and says, “We’ll build a new house, mom. Right where the old one was.” I laugh. That house was the only house. Those things were the only things. There is nothing more for them. There is no prom gown. There is no summer vacation. There is no college fund. They will hate us. They may never forgive us. They will think of me as stupid and selfish and they are right. When I am old, they will put me in a home and not visit me. They will not name their children after me.

I stand up, slightly off-balance. I look around the restaurant. People are eating quietly under smiling Mickey Mantles and slam-dunking Larry Birds. Parents and children, grandparents and babies, teenagers and elderly folks in wheelchairs- they don’t feel it. They don’t feel the sand being sucked from under my feet. They are still in their beach chairs, enjoying their sunny day.

I walk to the door and out into the misty night. I walk into the parking lot. Dozens of new cars silently wait for their contented owners, the mist collecting into heavy drops on the windshields. I look back. No one is coming for me. My gait quickens.

I move toward the truck stop next door. It is an island of brightness. Shiny cabs with chrome stacks beckon me. I jog. Behind me, the crackling call of my daughter, asking me where I am going. I run. Kelly, younger and fitter, catches up with me. She grabs my wrist and tries to drag me to a halt.

“Stop! Stop! Mom- where are you going? You can’t run away. You can’t just leave!” Tears mix with the mist on her young, flushed cheeks.

I turn to her, admiring her smooth face, devoid of wrinkles, puffy like a cherub. I look into her small brown eyes, perfect without makeup, and say, “Kelly. I’m pregnant.”

She is puzzled. “Oh. Okay.”

“It’s not okay. It’s not your father’s.”

She stands, stunned. She stops crying and wipes her cheeks with the cuff of her sweatshirt. “Whose is it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does.”

“Some guy I met at AA. It’s going to be really obvious it’s not your father’s. I really fucked up.”

She takes a minute to collect, looking to the damp ground for some pattern of logic. “It’s okay,” she says, nodding, “We’ll take care of it. We’ll… my friends all go to Planned Parenthood. It’s like, three hundred bucks. I’ve got three fifty in my savings account. You can have it. I’ll make up some bullshit excuse for dad and we’ll go tomorrow. He’ll never have to know.” She looks dead into my eyes. “He doesn’t ever have to know. We can fix this.”

She slowly wraps her arms around me, laying her head in between my ear and my collarbone, and I realize suddenly how cold I had been. In her warm, soft stranglehold, I can tell that she knows that there is no prom dress. She knows that there is no Myrtle Beach. She knows that the iPod is gone. The television is gone. The dollhouse I made for her eighth birthday is gone. The pictures, the good times, all underwater.


Kristine Kennedy was recently named a semi-finalist for Ruminate Magazine’s Van Dyke Short Story Prize. She has won the Set in Philadelphia Regional Writer Award and been a quarterfinalist for the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Nicholls Fellowship. She has written for the Ritz Filmbill, Philebrity and WHYY’s arts and culture blog. Kristine lives in Philadelphia and works for an ad agency.

Cut and Dry

I’m not even halfway out the door when one of my girls starts screaming at me over the sound of her hair dryer. I don’t care about her date with her boyfriend; she can close down the salon for one night this week. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you’d think I’d asked her to jump off the Walt Whitman Bridge. I don’t ask them for much, but when I do, I expect my girls to be sharp.

“Gina, this ain’t fair,” she says to me. “Since when is it my job to lock up? Where do you need to be all of a sudden?” She looks like she’s going to have a stroke with her vein popping out of her head like that. She’s as red as a tomato.

I tell her, I say, “If you keep getting this riled up, you won’t need to wear any more blush.” She’s around my daughter’s age, and they’re all too young to be wearing so much makeup – the contouring, the smoky eye, the bright lipstick. By the time they’re eighteen, they’ve learned how to hide every flaw. But have they learned how to write a check or do their taxes? I mean, I’m not shy to pile the eye shadow on myself, but I’m pushing fifty. The bags under my eyes can carry more than my purse. I’ve got my own tricks to keep up appearances: layers of concealer, gallons of hair dye, and hours in the mirror every morning. They don’t need all that hassle at their age.

If this girl, Lisa, wasn’t one of the best hairstylists in South Philly, her attitude would’ve gotten her kicked out of my shop a while ago. I’ve owned Bella Luna Salon for almost ten years now. It isn’t big, but every inch of it’s mine, from the sleek shampooing stations to the hair dryers to the neon signs out front. Sometimes, I have to remind her that she works on my schedule not her boyfriend’s. The sooner she learns that the better. She’s a headache, but I have to remember I was that age once too. Besides, she can work wonders with hair. She can fix a part that’s as crooked as Passyunk Ave.

I’m not going to answer her question and broadcast my real business to everybody in the shop, so I lie. “If you have to know, it’s my friend Rita’s birthday. She lives out in Jersey. Happy?”

Poor Mrs. Pizzelle has to sit there the whole time and listen to me scream at this girl. I need to send that woman a thank-you card or a gift certificate or both. She’s a regular at the salon – schedules her hair appointment on Sundays after mass. She always says, “I have my church, but your salon is my retreat.” Ain’t that nice? She gets to brag all day about her family while I rinse her hair.

Before Lisa and I started this screaming match, Mrs. Pizzelle was telling me that her youngest boy, Joey, got into law school.

“Tell him divorce court is where all the money’s at. They say over half of marriages fail nowadays. You can’t beat those odds,” I said. “I’m walking proof.”

I’m always chatty when I cut hair, but she doesn’t like when I bring up my divorce. I couldn’t help myself. She didn’t say anything, of course, she just changed the subject like always. I felt her shoulders tense when I snipped the dead ends of her hair.

Just so I can stop the chaos in the salon, I say to Lisa, “If you can’t handle it, I’m sure Dawn can always take over your appointments.” That fact shuts her up real quick. Dawn’s a sweet girl, but everybody knows the damage she can do to hair. Instead of auburn, the girl dyed Marta Caputo’s hair bright orange. Lisa just grinds her teeth, and gets back to drying Mrs. Lombardi’s curls. I’m still not sure why I keep Dawn around. Mostly, I think, it’s to shut Lisa up at times like this.

It’s quiet once I slam the salon door behind me, but I don’t get any relief. It’s so hot in the city today. All the families must’ve gone packing for one last a trip down the shore. I’m already sweating from running around all day. Sure, the hair dryers don’t help, but I blame our chatter for spreading around even more hot air. My hair has frizzed enough already. I wish I was really meeting Rita. Now, I have to worry about having a sit down with my ex-husband, Ray, with this mop top.

I haven’t told the girls who work for me yet that I let Ray sleep on my couch last night. They have no clue, which is crazy because usually I can’t shut up about him. Forget installing TV’s in the salon, my life is the soap opera. They know all about the cheating, the missed child support, the new girlfriends. They don’t know that Ray showed up desperate on my doorstep yesterday.

After working in heels all day, it wasn’t easy to stand in my doorway and watch him find the words. He said, “Gina, I know we have our issues, but hear me out.” Issues? Ray and I have got the whole subscription.

I was twenty-one when I got pregnant with Maria. That was that. Ray and I were getting married and fast. There was no time to work anything out besides table settings. God forbid I waddled down the aisle of St. Catherine’s with any kind of a belly. The whole neighborhood might have a collective heart attack.

I should’ve realized Ray was cheating on me. I blamed it on the little things: his job working for his father, my time away at cosmetology school, starting the salon, the pregnancy. After I had the baby, he used to say that my thighs looked like coffee cake. I knew he wasn’t serious, but I’d run my hands along the fat on my legs. I should’ve smelled the perfume or found the stray hairs, but I didn’t want to. Instead, he just sat me down one morning and told me all about this new girlfriend. This new “love” he said. I could’ve thrown the entire bathroom sink at him. I’m glad I didn’t. He wasn’t worth nearly as much as all my beauty supplies.

We both got lawyers and set court dates. I got to keep Maria and our shitty house on Eighth Street in the divorce. From day one, I wanted to keep him in my life. I couldn’t picture it without him. I thought it’d be good for Maria too.

Ray was a good father at first. I’d catch him lying on the floor with her on his chest, both of them out cold, Big Bird still yapping on the TV. But he’s been in and out of her life since then. Now, she’s off at college. She’s almost nineteen years old, but when she’s with him, she acts like a little kid who doesn’t want to scare away a butterfly that’s landed on her finger.

And Ray still had the guts to ask me to crash on the couch. He ran his father’s sheet metal business into the ground and his latest girl kicked him out of the apartment.

He still looked good though, and I hated it. Why does he get to be fine wine and I’m last night’s leftovers? First, I told him go find a hotel. But he leaned in and looked at me with those big brown eyes.

“Please, Gina, I’ve got nowhere else to go,” he said. “It’ll just be one night. I promise I’ll stay out of your hair.” So, I caved. He hugged me. I crumbled like a coffee cake.

Sure, I’ve dated here and there since Ray. There are lots of great guys out there, and a few have made their way into my life. But I’ve changed since the divorce. I cut my hair short now. I tease it out for volume so it barely touches my shoulders. It’s dyed bright blond. Ray says I look like a mad scientist, but I don’t care. It’s loud and obnoxious. I think it fits me.

 

Ray was my biggest crush in high school. Forget my posters of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. I used to make Rita drive past his house on Friday nights. She lived right next door to me and her older brother would lend her his beat-up convertible. We’d have our own stakeouts. I’d wait to see which party Ray went to that night.

He always dressed so well. No jeans and sneakers like the other neighborhood boys. He wore button-downs and snuck into the discos. He was a couple years older too. His brown hair was long and feathered and perfect. He looked good and he knew it. He’d have a different date almost every week. They’d walk off into the night together to go dancing. God, someone should’ve called the cops on us for all that stalking we did. Well, someone should have arrested me. Poor Rita was just my getaway driver.

I officially met Ray at Pete DiPalma’s eighteenth birthday. I made Rita drive us after getting ready at her house. She was hopeless with makeup, almost stabbing her eyes out with that eyeliner pencil before giving up. Rita never felt like impressing anybody. If she could, she’d just wear her school uniform everywhere. Book smarts: that was more Rita’s thing. So, like usual, I took over. I gave her big Cleopatra eyes just so we could get out the door.

Of course, I knew Ray and his friends would be there. Why else would we go? Why did I do anything in high school if it wasn’t to get Ray’s attention? That was back when I straightened my curly, brown hair on an ironing board every night. I knew that’s how he liked it. All the girls he dated had straight hair. I must have looked like a cocker spaniel. I probably had the puppy-dog eyes to match. But the heat damage and burns to my scalp were all worth it the second he looked at me.

I did everything like the magazines told you. Look hard to get, but not uninterested. Before I knew it, we were chatting and he was putting his hand on my waist. My heels dug into the shag carpet. He made fun of my earrings, but only so he could touch them. I had to give Rita the slip so he could walk me home that night. But after Ray kissed me goodbye, I wouldn’t hear any of it. My face must have been bright red. I could feel it burning even when his lips were gone.

I still have our prom photos in an old shoebox somewhere. Boy, that was some updo I concocted that night. Ray said he’d never seen hair so big. We danced for hours and the sweat deflated it all. That’s when he started calling me “mop top.” Ray took me dancing almost every night. I was much shorter, but I wore platform shoes so we could be perfect partners. I’d invite him over for dinner. My mother made him ravioli, and he made her laugh till she cried. Sure, everyone said Ray never stayed with one girl for too long, but it was my turn. I wasn’t going to give him up so easy. I knew how he operated. I let him go out with his friends just as long as he came back to me. Even though the rumors started to swirl, I made it work. I used to call up Rita to update her on his record.

She’d probably crack up if she heard this news. She’d love to know how desperate Ray is now. I almost wanted to call her up, but things have changed. She stopped watching “The Ray and Gina Show” a while ago. She got a job as a travel agent and got out of South Philly. She lives out in Cherry Hill now with three kids. Can you believe it? I always knew she’d leave the neighborhood, but I never wanted it to happen. I lost my partner in crime. I’m the godmother to one of her kids, but I’m lucky if I get to see her once a year.

 

When I get back to the house, Ray’s watching TV. I toss my keys onto the kitchen counter and start boiling water for whatever pasta I decide to make tonight. Cooking always calms me down. It reminds me of when Maria still lived at home and I made thirty-minute meals every night – when it was just the two of us.

Ray hears me and jumps up from the couch like lightning. He always said I make too much noise. The bracelets, the heels, the key chains, and now the pots and pans. Everything I buy is too gaudy, he says. Like his shiny shoes and big belt buckles are so classy. I expect him to mouth-off one of these same old complaints, but he sweet-talks me.

“How are the girls at the shop?” he asks.

“As crazy as always, but they get it done,” I say. I want to open a jar of sauce to get it heating in a pan, but the lid is too tight. Ray says he’s got it, takes it from me, and pops the top off without so much as a grunt.

“You always knew how to keep it together. You run a tight ship,” he says, handing it over. I turn back to the stove. I can feel his eyes on me. I know he wants me to turn around to face him. Maybe give him a chance to explain himself. When I don’t, he goes for the silverware drawer. He actually starts setting the table. I haven’t seen him do that in years. I don’t know what he’s doing. By the way he lays out the napkins, I don’t think he knows either. When he’s finished, he sits at his old seat at the table. He always liked that spot because it had the perfect angle so he could watch TV and eat. God forbid we ever had a real conversation. He’d just sit there silent, splashing more sauce than the baby.

“How’s Maria liking college?” he asks while I put the bowl of pasta down between us.

“So far so good. Thinks chemistry’s going to be a lot of work.” I say it all the time, but I don’t know where Maria got the brains. I tell her there’s nothing under my hair but air. She definitely didn’t get her smarts from Ray. He barely passed high school so his idea of college is Animal House.

“I’ve been meaning to call her,” he says, piling the pasta onto his plate. “Never got to give her my big college talk.” He smiles and waits for me to bite.

“Oh yeah?” I can’t help but be interested in whatever tough-guy advice he’s concocted now. “Let’s hear it.”

“Well I want her to stay focused, ya know? College has a lot of distractions.” He scrunches up his eyebrows like he’s trying to act like some college professor. “These boys they all want the same thing. I know what an idiot I was at that age.” He looks down at his plate and rubs the back of his neck.

“I’d say you were more of a jerk.” I smile and pass him some more sauce.

“I deserve that,” he laughs. We both pick at our pasta without really eating. “But seriously,” he starts up again, “now that she’s on her own, I want her to be careful. You know all that makeup she wears? She doesn’t need so much. All those boys will think, well, you know, that she’s easy.” He whispers the last word like it didn’t come straight from his own mouth. Jesus Christ, he’d love it if she just became a nun like the ones who smacked his hands in Catholic school. He has no idea that she’s already had a boyfriend. That he was a nice boy. That I never let her go anywhere near his house until she finished her homework. But she doesn’t tell her father all that. Why should she?

“You know she learned it herself. You don’t think she looks nice? You don’t think she knows what she’s doing?”

“Of course, I trust her. I just don’t want her to send out the wrong signals. Give the wrong impression.” I give him one loud laugh, shake my head, and keep poking at my pasta. “Look I didn’t mean for you to get all upset,” he says. “I’m a worried parent just like you.”

I can’t stomach this meal anymore. I put my plate in the sink and go off to my room.

After a while, I hear Ray doing the dishes. I hadn’t bothered with them myself. I usually just leave them soaking for too long. I’d rather run through all my silverware before I empty the sink.

When he’s done, I hear him walk into my dim bedroom. He doesn’t turn on the light. He just lays down beside me. I turn my back to him. I don’t want to be the first to apologize. Why should I? For a while, neither of us says a word. No loud noises. No yelling like we want to wake the neighbors. I just listen to his breathing and try to remember the last time my bed wasn’t empty. When he starts to rub my back, I don’t stop him. His hands don’t feel different, but they feel heavy. He pulls me close and says he’s sorry.

“Remember your long, brown hair?” he asks me as I turn over. He looks into my eyes like he’s trying to look into the past. He smiles and says to me, “You always looked so good.” He looked at me like we were kids again. I can’t lie. I wanted to let it all go, to have it all back for a second. I’d let him stay. He could run his fingers through my hair and spin me around like we were back on the dance floor.

 

When I came into work this morning, I had to look at myself in the mirrors that cover almost every wall. I didn’t have time to re-apply my makeup so I look like one of those sad clowns. Even with all the hairspray, I still have bed head. The girls already opened up shop and are busy on the first morning customers. Dawn has Annette with her head in the sink. Lisa snips away at Mrs. Tomasi’s bob. I should really hire another stylist, but I’m not sure I can afford it now. I’ll have to check the books later tonight. I think the shelves also need restocking. I can do that too while I’m at it. Lisa pulls me aside and offers me one of the cannolis she bought from the bakery down the street.

“I know I gave you attitude yesterday. I want to make up for it,” she says. I tell her not to sweat it and grab one for my breakfast. I didn’t have time for my usual Starbucks run either, so before operating any heavy machinery, I decide to make a pot of coffee. I’m not even done pouring the water when I hear another customer come inside.

“Good morning, ladies. It’s been a while,” Ray says. I almost drop the pot and shatter glass everywhere. My heart goes into my throat. It’s like I swallowed that cannoli whole. Ray hasn’t stepped foot in my shop since before the renovations – back when it was an old laundromat.

“I thought I’d stop by to get a little trim. What do you think, ladies? I look like a hippie, right?” All the typical commotion in the shop stops. Dawn has to remember to turn off the sink so water doesn’t run all over the floor. All eyes fall on me. Ray grabs my waist and gives me a quick kiss. The girls must be in more shock than I am.

“Take a seat,” I say, pulling away as fast as I can. I’m usually a natural in heels, but I can barely make my way over to my station to grab my scissors.

“It’s just a trim, but I understand if this is a little awkward,” he says. “I’m sure I can get one of these lovely ladies to get the job done.” He scans Lisa up and down. “What’s your name, sweet heart?”

I spin his chair around before any of the girls have a chance to talk, so it’s just Ray and me staring at each other in the mirror.

“This place really looks great, Gina,” he says. I can’t remember how many times I begged Ray to visit me at work. I always wanted him to see that all my time away had paid off. But now I feel sick. I have to resist this urge to shave his whole head with the electric trimmer.

Instead, I just wet his hair and start cutting. I move the comb across his scalp. I expect it to all feel the same, but it’s thinner than I remember. He talks about things while he waits – about his plans and about our future. In the shop’s lighting, I can see more of his gray hairs. But I can’t see us staying together. This is what happens when I let myself lose control. This is the first time in over ten years that I’ve kept my mouth shut during a trim. I just keep cutting. I cut until there’s barely any hair left. I didn’t mean to, but I give him a crew cut like they do before they send guys off to the army. It makes him look older, which I never thought was possible.

“I guess I’ll see you for another dinner later,” he says when I take off his apron. The girls have all gotten back to their routine. The regular rhythm picks up again around the shop. Ray goes to kiss my cheek, but I cut him short.

“I’m going to have to close down the shop tonight,” I tell him, “and I need the house empty when I get home.” I don’t even sound like myself. If this was anyone else I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs. I just stare at him. I didn’t shout it, but he knew I meant it.

He doesn’t say anything at first. He just rubs his forehead like he’s trying to iron out all the wrinkles. I had given him every reason to think we were fine.

“Is it the hair?” he asks, trying to laugh. Those big brown eyes look up at me for one last chance.

“No, I love the hair,” I say. That was never the problem. I look around at the girls working on a few customers. I tell him maybe I’ll call him and we can talk later. He loses his smile after that. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He looks around the shop like he’s never seen it before. Like he’s walked into some trap.

“Real nice, Gina.” He shakes his head at me. He asks me if this is how I treat people. If this is how I operate. How does anybody ever have a chance with me? He says I have a problem. He even says he’ll say a prayer for me. Anybody else would say that he turned into a completely different person.

At this point, all the girls are looking at me to make the call. They’re waiting for me to let them off the leash so they can say something to this guy. I just follow Ray to the door. I hold it open for him on his way out. He doesn’t say goodbye. He just strides down the sidewalk going God knows where. All I know is that it’s even hotter outside today. When the door closes behind me, I feel my hair frizz and the heat vanish.


Amanda recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with degrees in English and Writing Seminars. She currently lives in Southern New Jersey where she grew up going to beach and swimming in the ocean. Along with writing for local newspapers, Amanda works as an ocean lifeguard. She has always felt a strong connection to her hometown and a desire to share its stories.

Coal

8_Rob_Lybeck_The_Looming
The Looming by Rob Lybeck

Ángel works at a print shop, casting logos onto sweatshirts, white letters on black tees. TGIF. LONG HAIR DON’T CARE. YOLO. KEEP CALM AND…

He’s been in hiding from pop culture for a while and this is a crash course he feels unprepared for. “Get back on Facebook,” his sister recommends, but Ángel enjoys the mystery. WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK. I GOT HOT SAUCE IN MY BAG, SWAG.

He sometimes gets orders from organizations on shoestring budgets, asking for five hundred shirts by the end of the week. “C’mon, buddy, it’s for the cause.” Though his boss discourages it, Ángel does his best to meet these last-minute deadlines, stenciling RAISE MINIMUM WAGE and NINGÚN SER HUMANO ES ILEGAL late into the night. It’s a strange, satisfying loneliness: fluorescent bulbs, sweat pouring down his chest, shirts hot-tumbling into boxes. The dark parking lot outside occupied only by his bike, a Suzuki Supermoto with chipping yellow paint. At the edge of the pavement, crickets. And beyond them, the bright snake of highway where cars roar in and out of Philadelphia.

Occasionally there is a different kind of order to fill: ALL LIVES MATTER, BUILD THE WALL. He worries, pushing paint across the screen. This is how it feels to be a cog in the wheel. A slave to capitalism. The chemistry post-doc who plodded wearily toward the creation of the atom bomb. Who can predict with what hatred these shirts will be worn, what anger they will incite? Who can predict who will shoot, who will die?

His bike has a broken rearview mirror, but after orders like these he takes the highway anyway, revving up to eighty, ninety. He keeps his shirt on so as not to attract attention from cops, though he’d like to feel the wind on his skin, sweat droplets flying, a cartoon shower of sparks behind him as he burns up the pavement toward home. He stops before he hits a hundred despite his clawing adrenaline, his muscles’ ache for higher speeds. It’s a promise, made to his mother back when she caught him racing. He tried to explain the necessity to her: It’s not about winning. It’s about driving his body to the burning core of its capabilities, a place of nerve and smoke where one thing snaps and he’s dead. Seeing himself, from that place, reborn again and again.

She didn’t understand. “I don’t want you reborn. I want you alive. Promise me.”

He did. It’s been ten long years since then.

At home, early mornings, his mother serves him last night’s dinner with coffee. His sister sings along with Beyoncé, getting ready for work, and his daughter Mariángel knocks on the door. Her mother brings her by every morning on the way to kindergarten for a kiss, which is allowed, and a sip of coffee, which is a secret, dark and sweet, gulped just inside the front door. Then Ángel says, “See you later, mi reina,” and sinks onto the couch and sleeps, until the alarm goes off and it’s time to get back to the shop.

On sunny days he plays old salsa, Hector Lavoe and Jerry Rivera. “This is some music,” his boss says, smoking and tallying up numbers at his desk while Ángel leans over the Spider, a metal stand with six hands, one for each colored screen. He makes ten pink bridesmaids’ shirts: I WOKE UP LIKE THIS. Then thirty cheerleading practice shirts: FLAWLESS. “Do girls listen to anyone besides Beyoncé?” Ángel wonders out loud.

“Huh?” says his boss, then shrugs. “Hey, you got me.”

Fall is coming and they’re printing logos on Varsity jackets, blue onto red onto yellow, the colors sinking perfectly in place. Like sculpting a sunset. He wishes Mariángel could see. She likes pastels and watercolors already; “definitely your baby,” his mother says, taping up pictures of flowers and rainbows.

But not all the orders are colorful. #ERICGARNER. #FREDDIEGRAY. He has started predicting it by the tone of the caller, a brittle focus, an almost-deadened attention to detail. “The name has to be spelled right,” the callers say. “Please make sure the name is spelled right.”

He doesn’t tell them that, Facebook or none, he knows how to spell these names. He doesn’t tell them they’re speaking to Ángel, who once marched beside them, Ángel, who stretched out in the Vine Street Expressway, stopping traffic to demand justice. The organizers waited for him to reappear once word got out he’d come home from jail, in the same way his neighbors waited for him to sit back down on his mom’s steps and put a little money in their pockets. He hasn’t done either of those things. He hasn’t even gone back to doing tattoos. He took a job at the print shop because he thought it would be simple, far from the drama, a little like art, and sometimes it is all those things, and sometimes it is none. When the activists come to pick up their shirts, they do a double take. “My man. Where’ve you been?”

“Around,” he says, shaking his head in a half-guilty, half-dogged way. They give him fliers and new numbers. They say they’ll look for him at the next rally. He says he’ll be there, but he won’t. The rallies are where the cops first spotted him. A few trips to his block, a couple tapped phone calls, and that was that. Targeted for politics, arrested for weed. He’s abandoned them both for good measure.

The world is an earthquake. He’s keeping himself far from the epicenter.

But the orders keep coming. The worst are the calls for fifty white tees, always the same thing, a loved one shot, a grainy photo, a cursive RIP. He can see these women, heads bent over cell phones in dark living rooms, voices layered tremor upon tremor. He wishes there was a better thing to say than, “Yes, ma’am, I can do that for you.” A greater reassurance than, “It’ll be ready by tomorrow.” He says nothing sympathetic or inviting. The women weep anyway.

In October a customer comes in, bell tinkling, a gust of smoky autumn air. Ángel is six months free and still breathless at old smells, his mother’s quiet smile, the things he hadn’t known he could lose so fully until he did.

“Our order with someone else fell through,” the woman says. “You come recommended. We’re marching this Saturday. We need three thousand shirts with an assortment of hashtags. What do you think?”

Ángel looks around the shop. His boss is out for the day. “I can’t do it,” he says. It’s like standing at the top of a chorusing waterfall, deciding not to jump. His arms slacken with disappointment. “I’m supposed to cut back on my overtime.”

“Oh,” she says. He avoids her eyes. In the old days, let a mother come to his door saying her kids were hungry, a friend whose brother needed bail. A family in deportation court without a lawyer. Whatever it was, Ángel would come up with it; he’d come up with it and if he couldn’t, he’d march. He’d lie down in the street.

Once, growing up in Puerto Rico, his brother had cut himself in the leg with a machete. Ángel can still see it: green vines closing in, his brother’s terror, the helpless flap of skin, blood billowing out. Ángel had screamed for help. He’d stripped off his shirt and knotted it around his brother’s leg, but when even this soaked red and no one came, he turned the machete against himself. He didn’t know why. Did he think it would solve the problem, his mother demanded later, and he said no. It was just what his hands did, in that sickening moment of stillness.

His father had set a hand on his back. “When the world bleeds, Ángel bleeds,” he’d said to Ángel’s mother. “Can’t you see?”

His father is gone now, and his brother, and all that blood, and even the scar, replaced by muscle and exhaust pipe burns and the tiniest nick of a bullet and then nothing at all. “It’s not about other people anymore,” his P.O. says. “It’s about Ángel now.”

But who is Ángel, if not the person he’s always been? Who else can he possibly be?

“We’ll figure something out,” the customer says, giving him an undeserved smile.

He tries to smile back. Late afternoon sun pours through the windows, igniting the cardboard boxes orange. The Spider watches like a pit-bull, awaiting his command.

“I got you,” he tells the woman. “Don’t worry. They’ll be ready by Friday.”

 

“What’s wrong with your hands?” his boss asks. “Are those blisters?”

Ángel says they’re mosquito bites. “Too much sitting outside.”

His boss whistles. “In November? Hey. Have you been here all night? Go home and get some sleep.”

No, he hasn’t been here all night. And he’s an insomniac, doesn’t need sleep. The lies come easily.

In truth, he’s been working. Typing up hashtags, printing shirts. He made three thousand shirts for that march, and then the next one, and now, though there are no more events, he can’t stop. Coal in his veins, a thing existing in order to burn. Too many names that need printing, too many stories begging for fabric and paint. #SANDRABLAND. He thinks of his sister, whose car always breaks down. #KORRYNGAINES. His mother, at home alone. #AIYANAJONES. Not his daughter. Not his daughter. He prints until his skin rubs raw against the wooden squeegee, until his palms crack open and his eyes slip shut and his body curls into itself. Cars hurtling down the highway. Crickets at the window like humans, crying for safety.

 

His boss hauls out six cardboard boxes, stacks them up like a police barricade and crosses his arms. “Ángel. We need to talk.”

No, the shirts weren’t made for pre-existing orders. No, he didn’t ask permission to print the shirts. No, he doesn’t have money to pay for them. No, he has nothing to say.

His boss pulls out one after another, like a crazed mother looking for proof of her child’s delinquency. “Hashtag Janet Wilson. Hashtag Keith Scott. Look, Ángel. Look, buddy. I agree with you. I’m on your team. But we’re talking six hundred un-ordered shirts. You bringing down the system? You overthrowing the government? ‘Cause I’ll tell you where you’re headed, man. I make one call, you’re headed straight back where you came from.”

Ángel never finds out if he means jail or Puerto Rico. His boss tears up his last two weeks’ check and sends him home. He understands he should be grateful.

 

1_COVER_Linda_Dubin_Garfield_Light_of_Morning
Light of Morning by Linda Dubin Garfield

His mother is incredulous. “Now what will you do? Sit on the couch? How can this be, Ángel, with your talent and your skills?”

He’d planned to give her a hundred dollars, the same way he does every week. Instead, in the face of her disappointment, he gives her six hundred and fifty. His last two hundred he gives to his daughter’s mother. His pockets are empty.

But he’s home to oversee Manhunt, setting cones at the end of the block to stop traffic and sending kids inside when the streetlights come on. He’s home to help his daughter learn to write her name. MARIÁNGEL. The accent is important, he tells her. Don’t let your teacher forget it. It’s like the sun, falling through the middle of the word.

She doesn’t like it, she confesses. Her mom’s phone underlines it in red; “that means it’s spelled wrong. My name is spelled wrong.”

He writes his own name for her. He adds the accent. “Look, reina. It’s right there, the sun, shining.”

He is home, too, to hear the domestic disputes, the police raids, the fifteen-year-old killed over a basketball game. And he’s home to see the gunshots nearly every morning on Fox 29. Over and over, an endless reel.

His mother doesn’t serve him dinner. She’s tired, she says. He eats hot dogs, pretzels, canned pears. His parole officer, believing he’s still employed, congratulates him: eight months free. There is lead in his shoulders and his neck, lead in his spine, lead driving his bones into the sofa cushions, pulling his body toward the ground. If there is one thing he does not feel, it is free.

Fall turns to winter. He does odd jobs, shovels snow, patches leaking pipes. He tries to do tattoos but his hands shake at unpredictable moments. It’s not worth the risk. Besides, even tattoos require tears, RIPs.

How not to try for rebirth, he wonders sometimes, when everywhere, every day, there are so many ways to die?

But his daughter is growing. She has fire-black hair and bright eyes. She can write her first and last name.

In February, on his birthday, she brings him crispy M&Ms and dandelions she pressed in summer, brilliant flat heads tipping into his palm. Examining them, he finds a four-leaf clover, unknowingly harvested and preserved.

At the print shop, one of the T-shirts said: WE ARE THE GRANDDAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU WEREN’T ABLE TO BURN. He watches his daughter’s blazing smile. She is luck, he is sure of it. She is magic. She is victory.

 

Sometimes when there’s a knock on the door, he thinks his time is up, they’re coming for him. His parole officer, or the organizers, or the men on his block who are out of a job, or people who want tattoos, or his father and his brother who have been dead for years, or his sister, or his mother, or his daughter. As he gets up from the sofa, he imagines they’re standing in the street, chanting his name. Their words collect and swell and break and then they’re chanting something else, but he can’t understand them, and he can’t quiet them the way he used to, with a steady breath and a silent raise of a hand. He’s trapped in the entrance. Soon they’ll climb the steps, pound, break down the door.

“Ángel, qué te pasa, it’s your sister!” his mother says, and his fear crumples and slides, ashamed, to the edges of the room. He rubs his eyes and opens the door.

 

He has this recurring dream where his phone is ringing. “We’re marching,” they say when he picks up. “We’ve shut down 95. We’ve taken City Hall. Come on, man. You need to be here.” But he’s printing shirts, a million this time. “Gotta get these done,” he says. “Last minute. No one else in the shop, it’s got to be me.”

“But what are they for? The revolution is now. Leave the shirts. Get down here.”

He can’t answer, because every time he looks down, the letters blur. He can’t read them. But he has to finish. A million shirts to save the world. Black tees, more black tees, more black tees.

 

Four months since he was fired. The sun sets over rooftops.

Mariángel watches cartoons beside him. “Bye, brujita,” he says when her mother picks her up. That’s what he calls her now. Little witch. She calls him monster, a playful revenge, though sometimes, when she’s sad to leave, she calls him king, rey.

He’s been feeling empty. Like his blood has dried up, leaving nothing in his veins. His P.O. is happy: almost one year down. Is this what he’s been spared for? Watching the sun go down and up, another couple hours of sleep, another coffee?

“Rey o monstruo?” he asks as she hugs him. “Which am I today?”

“Rey. Y monstruo,” she says, her breath sweet, sticky hands cupped at his ear. “You’re both, Daddy.”

He stares at her, startled, strangely relieved.

When night has fallen and his mother and sister are asleep, he takes his bike out for the first time since fall. He cruises down the block and onto the highway, all the way to his old exit, the dark parking lot. He rummages in the trashcan for the spare key.

The designs only take a little time. He could write these letters in his sleep.

There are two thousand black tees in stock. Then white tees, five hundred, white on white, impossible to read. It doesn’t matter. #ÁNGEL, he prints. #ÁNGEL. #ÁNGEL. After a while, he switches to the second design. #DIABLO. #DIABLO. #DIABLO.

He’s thirsty. The clock ticks toward one, two, three.

He leaves the shirts everywhere. In boxes, on the floor, stacked ten and twenty to a pile. Some dried, some sticky. The bottoms of his shoes soaked white. The floors, the desk. They’ll find them here. Enough to plaster the world at its seams.

He gets back on his bike. Merging onto the highway, he pumps the engine to a hundred, a hundred ten, a hundred twenty. Hair flattened to his scalp. Tears flying. Each second a scorching celebration: alive! alive! alive! Faster and harder than his life has ever permitted, past his exit, past this city. As bold and as brilliant as the world is not ready, burning at his very core, at his epicenter, finally.


Sara Graybeal is a writer, performer and teaching artist living in Greensboro, NC. She co-founded the Poeticians, a spoken word and hip-hop collective based in Point Breeze, Philadelphia. Her writing has been published in Moon City Review, Floating Bridge Review, Sixfold and Tempered Magazine, among others, and her poem “Point Breeze, 2015” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Field of Rye at Twilight

6_Alice_Chung_Peace
Peace by Alice Chung

How do you explain to your six-year-old daughter, who stays with you two weekends a month, that you killed a dog?  That while you were returning from market in the van—you driving, she sleeping—a dog ran into the road, and you hit it.

The driver has just turned thirty and thought the number would protect him from such uncertainty, from social awkwardness of all kinds, but now he squats in the gravel shoulder of a country road, holding a bleeding dog’s head.

The thud of the impact woke his daughter from her late afternoon slumber.  Her mouth formed the word, “What?” as he pulled over.

“Stay in your seat,” he told her.  “I’ll investigate.”  He still felt thirty years old.

But now, left with the certainty that the dog’s breath is not warming his hand—the dog no longer has breath—he feels his maturity running low. Paralyzed as he is by the question, he may as well be the same age as his daughter.

At home with her mother, his daughter has three cats and a dog.  When the man visits his friends, and his daughter goes along by default, she sits rapt for hours stroking their pets.  He is grateful for a chance to talk to adults.  Though sometimes the long days with chickens and crops for company leave his mouth empty of words and he decides to cut out early.  The last time this happened, his daughter refused to leave.  She forced him to stay another half hour so she could pet a Siamese who hissed every five minutes.  His daughter was not deterred by the hissing, just lifted her hand until the animal resettled herself, then resumed petting.  She went home without a scratch on her.

Now the man looks at the dog more closely.  No collar.  Nondescript breed and color.  Not a dog he has seen before, though he has driven by this field of new rye before.  Earlier, in summer, corn was grown and the dried husks, turned back into the soil, glow in the setting sun.  The man doesn’t know the grower, but he admires his methods.

The man looks across the field for a house or clue where the dog lives, but sees nothing beyond the field of rye.  Narrowing his vision back to the road, he checks the dog one last time.  Nothing.  Just mangled fur and blood, thanks to him, to his slow reflexes and bad brakes.

The man lifts the dog, one arm under each set of paws, and moves the cooling body to the side of the road.  Maybe his people will find him there, settled amongst the green shoots of rye.  The shoots stand only six inches high, but the sun is so low that they cast a long shadow, fingers of new growth reaching across the dog’s body.

The dog’s shadow looms monstrous, covering the gravel shoulder and stretches all the way back to the spot of road stained with his blood.

He glances back at the van and sees his daughter’s face pressed against her window.  She has stayed in her seat, but watched every move.  She knows.

He walks back to the van to write a note.  He is prepared with a ream of brown wrapping paper he keeps in the cab for making impromptu signs at market.  Before he can reach for the green marker he carries, his daughter says, “Dad?”  She sees the blood staining his jacket and her brown eyes stretch wide, her neck freezes in a twisting posture that makes her look like a wild animal.

“What happened to the dog?”

“Be right back,” the man says.  He wishes then that he is forty years old, instead of only thirty.  Perhaps another decade would give him the words he needs for his daughter.  He wishes too for another adult—his parents, his daughter’s mother—they would know the right thing to do.  The right thing is not returning to the dog right now, he knows that much, but he needs more time.

He lets the question play and replay as he scrawls on the page.

He writes, “I’m sorry I hit your dog.  He ran right into the road, and I couldn’t stop in time.  He died after impact, and I moved him to the field.  Beautiful rye!”

He signs his name, proceeded by the word “love.”  Then he adds the name of his farm, just five miles down the road, in case anyone wants to see him about the accident.  He tucks the paper around the paws that aren’t bleeding and lets the dog’s dead weight hold it.

Then he turns back to the van where his daughter sits staring, her neck still frozen in that crazy twist.  He motions to her to roll down the window.  She hesitates, then cranks it down.

He says her name, that beautiful name her mother picked.  He remembers the night he agreed to the name, imagining a life where they would call their daughter that together.  Now he stands by the side of the road and says the name alone.

“Eden?”

His daughter doesn’t move.

“Eden?” He says her name again, then the truth, the truth that was so easy to write to whomever knew and loved the dog.  “I’m sorry I hit the dog.”

She won’t look at him.  She’s staring into the field at the motionless animal.

“Eden?” he says, beseeches her to look at him.  When she refuses to turn her head, he says, “It was an accident, and the dog died.  I’m sorry.”

His daughter knows what death means.  At the farm, she has seen chickens, killed by foxes at night, being torn apart and eaten by their former coopmates by day.  But this is not such a violent, cannibalizing death, just an accident, just a dog who ran at the wrong time, and a man who couldn’t stop until it was too late.

“He’s at peace now,” the man says, the words coming to him from a deep, familiar place.  “He’s at eternal rest.”

Yet, he looks back across the field, the sun tucking down behind the farthest hill, and knows that if the dog’s people don’t come before the turkey vultures, things will get messy and there will be dog organs and guts strewn everywhere, just like the dead chickens back at the farm.

Then he realizes too, the origin of his words.  That Baptist funeral he went to the week before for his ninety-seven-year-old neighbor.  Ninety-seven.  That woman knew a lot.  He wanted to hear about that, how she really knew how to live, but it was just some man she’d never known giving the same speech he gave every time.

He curses himself for repeating these meaningless words to his daughter.  He had wanted her to grow up knowing only peace and love, milk and honey.  Wasn’t it bad enough that he was driving around killing dogs?  He didn’t have to infuse her with Baptist preacher-talk on top of it.

“Eden,” he whispers, and she finally moves, pulls at her long wild hair, putting in the tangles he can never comb out or explain to her mother.

He takes off his jacket so his daughter won’t have to look at the blood while he drives, then rolls it up, and places it into an empty vegetable box.  He hops up into his seat and turns to see if she’ll let him hug her, but she hangs back.

Then they both look up and see the sunset shooting off across the horizon and the long trails of red look like nothing but streaks of blood.

 

A week later, the man is returning from market alone, the sun setting in his line of vision, when a shape bounds across the road.

A moment or two passes, and he wakes up and realizes he’s been in an accident.  His foot has left the clutch, and the van is stalled.  Everything has gone dark, and at first he thinks he’s blacked out so long that the sun has set, but then he sees that the hood of the van is crumpled against the windshield so that he can no longer see out.  His ear is ringing from an object that’s flown off the dash and struck him.  Turning, he sees empty vegetable and egg boxes tipped from his careful stacks and tumbled across the back of the van.

He checks himself for soreness, but other than the ringing ear, he feels fine.  He says a prayer of thanks that he was alone, that the small body of his daughter was not strapped into the backseat.

Adrenaline takes over and he jumps down from the van, looking for the cause of collision.  He remembers the shape, then sees a deer, bounding along the top of a farmer’s field.  The animal darts into the distant woodlot and disappears.

The man looks closer at the field and recognizes the shoots of rye, the freshness of the green in the otherwise brown, November landscape.  Yes, it is the same field, the rye an inch higher, but he is a quarter mile closer to home from where he collided the week before.

He walks around the van and surveys the damage, amazed that an animal could crumple the hood onto the windshield and still run away.

On the passenger side of the van, he sees a dirt driveway with an old-time farm collie guarding the mailbox.

“Salut,” he says, his greeting to all dogs.

The collie doesn’t move or bark, but his green eyes, catching the light of the still-setting sun, see everything.

The way he’s staring, the man knows that no matter how many years he accumulates, they will not give him the right answers for his daughter.  She will always have more questions.


Louise Bierig grew-up in the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania and now lives in the Southeastern corner. In both corners, she has enjoyed writing as well as growing native fruits and vegetables. Currently, she leads the Lansdowne Writers’ Workshop, grows a small garden, and raises her sons. She has published her work in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Soul Source newsletter, The Swarthmorean, and wrote a column for the Lansdowne Fresh Picks newsletter titled The View from Lupine Valley.

The Receipt

Like I usually do at the end of every day, before making the climb up my apartment building’s steps, I reach into the breast pocket of my denim jacket to find my apartment key. Sifting through loose change and tangled headphones, my hand wades through my pocket until the cool brass surface of the key meets my fingertips. I make a grab for the key only to end up grazing past a crumpled receipt beneath it. The paper crunches under the key. My legs halt their campaign up the staircase. I unconsciously slip past my keys. My hand flirts with the waxy parchment for a moment. I know what the paper is. I can picture the words printed on it. Slowly I bring the receipt out into the open and uncrumple the document until each line of text is present. Through various stains of dirt and coffee the faded ink reads,

“BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO RENTAL

Good Will Hunting

Run Time: 126 Minutes

Rental Date.: 12/05/2007

Return Date:  12/15/2007

Total: $5.35”

The key no longer matters. My apartment stairwell melts away in surrender to a dream. The memory has begun again– I can’t do anything to stop that now. Without consent the receipt has made me eleven years old again. I am home in my living room. Three sides of paisley wallpaper have appeared. Dad sits parallel to me on our olive corduroy couch, manning his usual position next to our cat, Patches. His Feet resting on the ottoman. I’m sitting on the hearth of our fireplace, my back to the flames. The Saturday night ritual begins. Tonight’s communion: Good Will Hunting. A light smoke rolls out of the fireplace and engulfs the room in the smell of burnt cherry tree. Mom materializes from the darkness of the kitchen, three cups of tea in hand. Robin Williams is on the on TV telling Matt Damon how he ditched the 1975 World Series because he met his future wife. Mom shoos Patches off the couch and sinks into the sofa under Dad’s arm. A light layer of sweat forms on my back from the heat of the fire. The wind howls outside, but tonight we are sheltered together, kept warm by the familiar comforts of our Saturday night rite. Matt Damon goes in to kiss Minnie Driver. Mom nudges a few inches closer to Dad. Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes” plays from the TV.  I sip my tea from my freckled mug. I sip it again, and again, and again as I always will every time I revisit this flip book memory, or grab for loose change or reach for my headphones, or just want to experience a time when reality felt concrete. But isn’t that what we all want? To live in the past again, even if it’s only through a two way mirror.

2_Martha_Bryans_Pressure_Changes_Everything
Pressure Changes Everything by Martha Bryans

My living room slowly dissipates. The paisley wallpaper, the warmth of the hearth, my parents sitting together on the couch all vanish in the smoke. I am in front of my apartment door now. The receipt is still in my hand. My phone vibrates in my pocket, with a text from Mom.

“Do you know if you’ll be spending Easter with me or your Dad this year?” I crumple up the receipt and go inside.


George Fenton is currently a senior at Saint Joseph’s University studying English and marketing. Born originally in Zug, Switzerland, he immigrated to the United States in 1996 and spent his formative years in Bucks County. He now resides in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia. George’s work has also appeared in the literary magazine Crimson and Gray. Along with writing, George also puts most of his creative energy into his band Parius.