Narrowing

Mark Powell

She was still sick from the Lortab they had given her in the emergency room, but at least she was finally sitting up, finally drinking a Met-Rx shake through a silly straw, her jaw wired shut. All of this beneath the camper shell of her boyfriend Kenny’s Tacoma, all of this somewhere in East Texas. Uvalde or maybe Utopia. Some place where the wind was howling at dawn and Kenny was out stalking whitetail.

She drank as much as possible—just a sip, really—and laid back against the inflatable mattress slowly bleeding air so that she could feel the truck’s ribbed bed beneath her. They had put two stitches in her tongue, dissolvable things but she could feel them scratching around the soft of her mouth, doing whatever damage they were doing.

She’d been in the truck since Vegas, their having decided to drive. Eighteen hours and in hindsight what a stupid decision. But no one had thought she would end the night in the ER at Sunrise Medical. Certainly no one had thought she would lose the fight, least of all her. She was a 10 to 1 favorite but caught a left hook not thirty seconds in and her mouth started bleeding and there was something about that blood. Not the coppery taste of it, exactly—she knew the taste of blood—but the simple fact of it being there, pumping into her mouth with an arterial glee. It unsettled her. Her feet never felt set. She kept drifting closer, and closer was the one thing she knew not to do. You keep your distance from a counter-puncher, you go to the mat, do the ground work. She was a grappler, after all.

And then the roundhouse popped in her head, a little flashbulb of surprise, a little afterthought of regret … stupid, stupid … and they were helping her up off the mat. Or not helping her, lifting her, and she could hear the crowd somewhere out there through the grainy darkness of concussion, the crowd totally losing its shit, cheering, booing. Someone asked could she wiggle her fingers. Simona? Can you wiggle your fingers for me, Simona? Her neck felt warm and it occurred to her that was her warm blood, spilling from the cave of her warm mouth.

Can you squeeze my hand?

They walked her after that, to the locker room and to the waiting ambulance and on to the hospital. She didn’t shower until she got back to The Sands but by then the blood had dried and she came out of the shower thinking, Clean, thinking, Sleep, until Kenny saw her and started crying and she was all, What?, and then Kenny taking the washcloth and making to wipe away the dried blood but then not. Kenny just sort of collapsing against her, crying right there in the master suite with its minibar and zebra curtains. Something about it hurt her more than losing, the way he crumpled. As if she wasn’t herself anymore, no longer the person she had been, and Kenny crying like he was mourning her. Kenny crying like he was grieving the future. But then soon enough she was crying too.

They sat up all night, her head pounding, eyes dilated, adrenaline lingering. Then the Lortab settled over her like ground fog and it was, I’m so tired, Kenny. And Kenny was all, Stay awake, babe. Hey, hun, look at me, okay? Her trainer came the next morning with a doctor from the Nevada State Athletic Commission who looked in her eyes with a tiny light. She signed something, some sort of release, and they made their solemn nods and left.

She slept after that, she and Kenny both, slept the day away while outside the hotel the paparazzi had gathered, not that she wanted to know. She’d turned her phone off just before the fight and left it off. No Twitter, no Instagram. No reassurances to her fans or calls for the inevitable rematch. They slept and at dusk crept out to the parking garage. The paparazzi with their Vespas and telephoto lenses were gone. Everyone was gone. Fuck them, Kenny said, screamed, into the concrete cavern with its elevator and pale cancer light. Fuck all them. They left around seven and drove all night and part of the next day. Nevada to Texas. Stupid but who could have seen it coming, the future, the left that opened her mouth, the roundhouse that shut it?

Now, alone in the camper shell, she arched her spine, feeling it open.

Above her was a generalized light she saw as much through her eyelids as the pain medication. November. The truck parked in a field of blue grama on the edge of the pines. Kenny was out there. She could yell for him if she needed to, she could bang one foot against the glass. But she wasn’t going to do that. She was flat on her back, half-covered by the nylon of her sleeping bag, socked feet up on the cold metal of the tire well. One of the windows was propped open and despite the wind she smelled something. Despite the pain medicine she had a sneaking suspicion she might have shit her pants. Also—oh Jesus—she was about to vomit again, which was its own manner of suffering what with the broken jaw.

She pulled herself onto hands and knees, began the long crawl to the back of the truck just as it came through her clenched teeth, stringy heartburn bile. On all fours, head hanging over the tailgate, eyes tearing, while a part of herself—maybe the realest self she had—began to wonder if this hadn’t been what she’d wanted all along.

That realest self asking if just maybe she had let herself get kicked on purpose?

The thought was on the verge of articulating itself when another spasm pushed through her and—Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

As if that had become her name.

And in a way, it had.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Her name before that, her real name, was Simona Kin, and until she lost that night in Vegas she was the girl who could not lose. 27 and 0 here in her 27th year, which felt magical until it didn’t. Not that she hadn’t suffered before. She’d been to the Olympics—a fuck up of colossal proportions, but had rebounded, recovered, spiraled but pulled out of said spiral to reinvent herself as a mixed martial artist. To become relatively famous and moderately rich.

Yet, mostly, she hated herself.

Still, hate or no hate, she had risen.

By twenty-five, she had endorsements with an energy drink and a manufacturer of headgear. By twenty-six, she had her own protein bar, had fought in nine countries, flown in a hot air balloon, and been wooed by a Serbian count obsessed with Systema. Yet it felt like nothing. It felt, in its way, like shit. She had a trainer and a manager and a boyfriend but she still felt alone. She had almost $600K in the bank but she still felt poor. By twenty-seven she knew she always would.

She’d grown up working-class poor in East Tennessee until her daddy stroked out one night sitting in the cab of his F-250 outside the gym he owned and operated in dying heart of Elizabethton, Tennessee, his central nervous system preloaded with enough Dianobol and cocaine to float him through twenty sets of heavy squats. Thereafter, her mother took her to Florida where they exchanged their working-class poverty for poverty of the unadulterated kind. The ketchup sandwiches and I-4 motorcourts. The good-hearted shoplifting at the Orange City K-Mart.

Her daddy was junkyard mean and wide as a table. He would strut his 6’3” 255 pound frame down East Elk from where it crossed the Doe River all the way past the pizza shop to Iron Mayhem, Walkman clipped to the running shorts into which he tucked a pressed wifebeater out of which flowed two giant hairless arms. Attached to the right one was an eight-year-old girl smacking her gum.

She loved him, her daddy.

He might have been a bastard—even at eight she understood this—but he was her bastard and she didn’t care. The world was like that back then. Then being in the days of Blockbuster Video and spray-on tans. Then around the time Bill Clinton was not having sexual relations with that woman.

More often than she wished, she thought of those days.

Her daddy’s side of the family were Scots-Irish, his own father part of the original SAS and said to have murdered Germans in North Africa with his bare hands. In France, he made a practice of defenestration—snipers, prisoners of war, rumored collaborators, it didn’t matter. Though eventually it did, and when charges quietly materialized they were just as quietly dropped when he demonstrated a willingness to immigrate to the United States.

Her mother was a Soviet Jew of spiritualist bent, then, later, a newly saved washed-in-the-blood Baptist turned Jehovah’s Witness refugee with a Seventh-day Adventist fetish currently studying A Course in Miracles and opening her chakras. Her parents, the nameless grandparents Simona would never meet, were refuseniks who had brought their young daughter to New York during Brezhnev’s thaw.

You lived a life to be rid of it—that was the moral of the story.

Still, Simona did the best she could.

She was a good child. Trusting and honest, if always moving. Bold. Sometimes too defiant her mother would think, though it was an authentic defiance, a curiosity. She was ingenuous, and people recognized such, people were drawn to her. Her kindergarten teacher such a kind heart, the woman giving out Kool-Aid and Big Sixty cookies at Vacation Bible School such a pure little thing. Children too. They played detective on the case of her father’s missing ring last seen in a change dish by the exhausted hand soap dispenser. Sang songs from Matilda because sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty. But mostly she went with her father to the gym and her mother to church or temple or circle or gathering. So it was all God and the hundred pound concrete sphere her father hauled over his shoulder before racing the length of mirrors. It was the Universal Intelligence and the pull-up bars she began first hanging and then swinging from until the local gymnastics teacher saw her and offered free tuition.

Her daddy’s world: Everyone in a circle, cheering on the rubberized flooring, while Big Pete attempted to deadlift twelve plates. On the walls a sign that read DON’T BE A LITTLE BITCH beneath a muscular woman in lime green Lycra.

Her mama’s: Everyone in a circle, kneeling on the carpet, jeans shiny at the knees. On the walls the Ten Commandants and a great cartoon rising, people pulled from a stadium into the clouds, Do not lay up your treasures on Earth, a hand-drawn Moses (white beard, bulbous eyes) parting the Red Sea as if the waters were a televangelist’s pompadour.

How she had wound up at the confluence of the Doe and Watauga Rivers was never made plain to Simona. What was clear was how it ended.

Her daddy in his truck, skin the color of pork, body slumped like a side of beef.

That was when they left. In the wake of her husband’s death, in wake of his abandonment (as she came to call it), in the wake of the disaster that was probate (there was no will, but there were back taxes and two outstanding liens against Iron Mayhem), after the yard sale and the drive south, the I-95 traffic barrels and construction mesh and thirty-nine-dollars-a-night no-tell motels, Sim’s mother experienced a sort of vision and who should stand before this once-perfectly American woman now reduced to widowhood and the ash of the once great Soviet state, but Jesus Himself, so blue-eyed and clear skinned he appeared to have emerged from swimming in a Norwegian fjord so recently he had yet to take up the sword or the flame or the serpents that surely laid in wait out back in the swamp of live oaks and retaining ponds behind their new stucco efficiency somewhere in the mire of Central Florida.

That was when her mother began to live on her knees. Every moment save those she wasn’t cleaning toilets or whisking the carpet at the Knight’s Inn on LPGA Boulevard or plating strawberry crepes at the IHOP she was at church, dopesick for some sort, any sort of love.

It was a pull that wasn’t lost on her daughter.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Kenny came back what time—eight, maybe. Nine if she was guessing.

He opened the back glass and instantly, despite the sleeping bag and blankets and Polar fleece, she was freezing. It was November and the sun was an area of light, white and heatless in the overcast sky. The wind gusting. He hadn’t seen fuck all. Plenty of sign but he’d been all morning in a stand on the edge of a field of red clover and there’d been nothing but a big tom turkey easing through the sedge like he owned the goddamn place which, he told her, he reckoned it did.

He mixed her another Met-Rx in the shaker cup even though she hadn’t finished the first.

There was dried vomit on her chin and on the collar of her North Face jacket, clotted blood on one cheek.

The hell, girl. You all right?

He was sipping a RockStar, he was going back. There was a blind about a half mile away and maybe he’d just give it another hour.

That all right, babe?

That was all right, sure, that was fine. Everything was fine because what else could she say? She nodded and for a moment he gently brushed the puff of her lower lip, purple and split, but then he looked like he might start crying again and she turned away, pulled the blankets back over her and he nodded, finished his RockStar, and was gone.

Nine, maybe ten o’clock in the morning now but it all felt so indeterminate.

Herself, she meant. About the others, she knew what they were saying. 10 to 1 odds which meant how much money had changed hands? Which meant how many pay-per-view subscribers in how many bars had stood there, drinks in hand, saying, Oh, shit. Bitch just got knocked the fuck out? A $900K purse which right about now—less the take for her agent and trainer and all the rest—was shifting into her account. They would be talking about that on sports radio (“I guess I’d let them break my jaw for that, Tom.”). On ESPN they would earnestly discuss her refusal to touch gloves (“It’s hard not to see this as her comeuppance.”). Every man everywhere—it would be all men, or mostly men—would be holding forth on whether or not that uppity bitch got what was coming.

She took her phone out, held it, but then put it away.

Her face hurt in a way that made her aware of its shape.

Which was a strange thing to be.

She lay back on the mattress and slept.

 

○ ○ ○

 

On the second day it occurred to her she had four more days to get through and then it occurred to her that probably she could, that probably she deserved it: the cold truck, the stinging face, the diarrhea in the freezing woods.

They had planned it different.

The trip was meant to be celebratory, a sort of carnal asceticism, just the two of them and a Yeti full of good food and good Jack Daniels. They’d done the same a year ago. She was coming off a big year, five fights, a string of endorsements. The first intimations of celebrity. Lunch at the Chateau Marmont. Her own line of t-shirts. They spent six days alone, laughing and drinking, hunting in the morning and then driving into town in the afternoon to loaf around, have an early dinner of ribeyes and Shiner on draft. Back to the truck where the sex was mind-boggling, some sort of ongoing wonderfuck, sometimes vigorous and exhausting. Sometimes slow and delicate, and sometimes—impossible as it seemed—both at once. They had been together over a year by then, properly together, and it felt right, it had begun to feel permanent. He had a Halon 32 compound bow and they both got a buck and rode into town with them tied to the front bumper, laughing and honking the horn. She put a shot on Instagram holding her deer tag like a prize, everybody’s sweetheart, the grinning girl-next-door with her blue ribbon like she’d just won the spelling bee.

At the end of the week, they drove over to San Antonio and spent Thanksgiving with his parents, all piled into the living room with their turkey and stuffing and the Cowboys on the TV the way God intended.

The next morning they had gotten up early, the house still sleeping, and ran together through the warm pre-dawn streets, sprinklers flashing, streetlights flickering out. Three miles that turned into four and then five and then something happened—it was hard not to think of it like some rom-com moment turned into a cheesy gif, but okay, whatever—but something happened and running along past a brake-and-tire place and then a McDonald’s and then the turn lane to the Costco, they made eye contact and tacitly agreed to just keep going, to keep running, but also—she felt later—to keep going in some larger way. They realized—she felt this later too—they were in love.

She had met Kenny at the MMA Masters Gym in Miami. He was a light-heavy and she was new in town, straight off the nineteen dollar GoTo bus from Orlando which was its own form of sad, but again, whatever. She’d been a judoka growing up in Daytona Beach, a dojo kid taking the dojo bus from school to practice where her mother would pick her up, check her homework, check her lunchbox. The vocabulary words and the sevens table. The apple the yogurt the whole wheat bread.

When she was eighteen she started at a gym in Daytona. Two hours of Jiu Jitsu and another hour of sparring after. Mats closed with duct tape and mopped with Clorox and still you got the ring worm, the burst capillaries where the skin pinched, the—what was the word?—the contusions.

The coach was a middle-aged guy named Rolly and Rolly had trouble taking her seriously. Woman, female, what the fuck was she doing in his fight gym? He put her to hitting twenty rounds on the heavy bag, a shits and giggles thing for the boys gassed after open mat. Then she went and did it. That night, next night, every night—twenty rounds. It was limitless, what she could endure. Broken fingers and floating ribs. The nail flipped off each big toe like the cap off a bottle. Burst capillaries appeared as red starbursts.

She was working three jobs. Bartending at Booth’s Bowery. Dressing like a pirate at the shrimp place near Ormond. Something else Rolly couldn’t remember. Putt-putt maybe, only it wasn’t putt-putt. Go-cart attendant at the place you got the coupons for? It didn’t matter. Twenty rounds and he wonders one night, when does she eat? Where does she eat? So he gets takeout from Golden Wok, orders extra everything. Thinks she’ll refuse and he can tell she’s going to, can tell, too, that she’s starving so he preemptively insists. This after twenty rounds after sparring after rolling after how many jobs behind her and how many jobs to go?

A year later she’s at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder.

United States National Judo Team.

There’s a word for that sort of rise if he could just remember it.

 

○ ○ ○

 

On the third day, they drove into town, or Kenny drove and she sat in the passenger seat with her still-swollen face pressed into her balled coat. She wanted just being out of the camper bed to feel like something but it didn’t. She wanted a few other basic things as well. She wanted to shower and they got a room at the Best Western off Highway 90. She wanted to shit on a toilet except, by now, there seemed nothing left to pass. The Lortab made her skin itch. Her jaw ached. She kept swallowing blood. She wanted Kenny to unwire her jaw and he sat on the corner of the bed staring at her, not quite believing.

Are you serious?

She made clear that she was and he had her sit on the lowered toilet seat in the overlit bathroom, head tipped back. There were horizontal arch bars, impressive spidery things, but only a single vertical wire connecting them. He unwound it slowly, meticulously, and then she sat there, rubbing her jaw but not yet sure if she should open it, or even how.

I don’t think you should, he started to say, but then she did, as wide as possible, and the pain, even through the Lortab, was like the greater part of her, like it was this corporeal thing to which her body was just another appendage. Her eyes watered. She thought she would vomit. She sat on the toilet seat with Kenny telling her to breathe through her nose, breathe through your nose, babe. Slow, slow.

She showered a second time and they drove to a bar on Getty where she drank a pitcher of Coors. The beer so cold and her body so empty that for the first time since before the fight she felt nothing, and it was such a welcome thing, this nothingness.

We could drive on to my parents, Kenny said.

Three of her teeth were loose, one of them a molar.

Hey, hun? You hear me?

She did, but she didn’t want to go to his parents. She didn’t want to go anywhere.

She was beginning to wonder again if she had let herself get kicked on purpose.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Kenny had come into her life a year after the Olympics, twelve full months after having flamed out in the Rio semi-finals, an inexplicable and unforgiveable fuck up that was no more and no less than having purely and simply choked. You see Bob Costas over there by the NBC cameras, hear the national anthem, finger the expensive tracksuits they let you keep and you realize it’s bigger than you, the expectations, the consequences.

You get dizzy and lose on points to an Israeli, weep in the locker room.

It’s not a joke.

She’d gone back to Daytona after that, back to her mama’s prayer, back to her own small dreams. Locked herself in the bedroom and gorged on hard candy. Her mama talked her out and whatever shit she carried against her mama she would always owe her for that. The prayers, the nagging, the anointed prayer cloth her mama brought home from church, a handkerchief sopped in olive oil she dropped across Simona’s sleeping face.

What the hell is this?

That’s the hand of the Lord, child. I ain’t gonna let you die on me like your daddy did.

Two weeks of cajoling and pleading and threatening and finally she puked Jolly Rancher and went online. Turns out the best fight gym in the eastern US was in Miami.

Her mama bought the ticket.

She met Kenny on her third day though he told her later he had noticed her on her first. Been watching you, girl. It hadn’t seemed so creepy at the time. Had my eye on you. The gym was full of pros and would-be pros and there was a family-vibe, cookouts and surfing and trips down to Largo where they all snorkeled off somebody’s boat. She thought it would take her a year to be ready to fight, but three months later she stepped into the ring. A warehouse up in Liberty City. Ten-dollar admission and five-dollar Bud Lights. She knocked out a big Seminole woman in something like fourteen seconds and for it took home two hundred bucks which was nothing but also very much something. By the end of her first year she was undefeated, seven fights, seven knockouts.

She started fighting thousand dollar undercards in Vegas. 10 and 0. 11 and 0. For a while she fought every Saturday night because when you can win in less than a minute why not? Training was harder. Rolling, sparring. The whisk-whisk of the jump rope. The battle ropes. The weight circuits. The burpees with head colds. Pull-ups with raw palms.

Kenny was still in Miami, but she was making enough to fly him out every other weekend. He wasn’t really fighting anymore, but neither of them seemed to notice. She went to 18 and 0 and got an endorsement deal with a third-rate energy drink and a spot on the undercard of a UFC event. She won with a sudden overhand right to the temple of a red-haired Oklahoman, a woman who looked built from the scraps of oil derricks, and went down like a felled tree.

By her second UFC card she was a name, she was somebody.

There’s a word for it.

That word is meteoric.

 

○ ○ ○

 

She didn’t want to go to his parents, but the next day that was exactly where they went. Spent the night in the Best Western wondering if her teeth would fall out and maybe she’d just choke to death on a molar and how would that be any worse, any more humiliating than what had already happened?

They’re worried about you. Kenny saying this, Kenny driving. Lots of folks are.

But lots of folks didn’t get it. It scared them. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough—which was maybe why she’d let herself get kicked?

She thought of that on the barren ride to San Antonio.

She put her forehead against the glass.

Hey, Kenny was saying, hey, babe?

She didn’t mean on purpose like intentional, like, Yes, please kick me in the face. More like this subconscious wandering, this desire to know how fragile it really was. You survived the building of this world but could you survive the taking apart?

It was the thing you were holding, but it was also the thing holding you.

Was that ridiculous to think? Was that the Lortab talking?

Maybe it was just another form of pain management.

She watched the trees and the billboards and pasture giving way to tract houses.

Hey, hun? Kenny kept saying.

 

○ ○ ○

 

His parents gave her space. They’d seen the fight. His mother had cried. Two days, three days. I was just scared so bad, you laying there like that, not moving. Sim was cooling out on the Lortab, and there were moments of honest lucidity, or at least the possibility of such. Unwiring her jaw had been the right thing. It was still all Met-Rx and a Dairy Queen Blizzard but it felt like the right thing. On the fifth day after the fight she was supposed to visit a neurologist out near the Air Force Base, but blew it off. She was starting to think about going home. Not even Miami but Daytona. Getting back to training. Maybe getting back to training. Cardio, she guessed. The recumbent bike. In another week she could probably swim at the Y.

She’d been like this after the Olympics, but actually she had never been like this.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Thanksgiving came and it was a small house. A two-bedroom rancher with a garden gnome and busted stoop. Her phone had remained off, but Kenny’s wasn’t. Kenny was in touch, talking to her trainer, her agent, the press. She wondered who the fuck he thought he was, speaking for her. But she was grateful, too. At times she was wildly grateful.

We need to talk to the media, babe.

But she didn’t want to talk to the media.

This dude from Rolling Stone keeps texting. Then there’s this other motherfucker from FOX Sports.

She didn’t want to talk to anyone.

She lay on Kenny’s childhood bed beneath his poster of Troy Aikman, Roku remote balanced on her stomach.

I reckon y’all will be in a hurry to head back, his mother said that evening from her glider, now that the holiday’s passed.

What’s that, mama?

I said—

She thought of the way the roundhouse had seemed to appear, to materialize out of the noise and light. Like she never could have seen it. But also like she had seen it so long she had grown bored with it. When she first started fighting, she would sometimes take a single intentional blow. Something to clear her head, to make plain the stakes. But it wasn’t like that. Or maybe it was.

His mother was smoking Kools and watching Dancing with the Stars.

Y’all are probably getting restless, I reckon, she said. I know I would be.

 

○ ○ ○

It was a solid twenty hours back to Vegas.

Kenny was on the phone with the guy from Rolling Stone. The stitches in her tongue had dissolved. The paparazzi were long gone. Otherwise, they could have gotten a pic of her entering The Sands, the great purple slug of her lower lip, the crescent moon of bruise that mapped the left side of her face. They could have gotten Kenny on the phone with the guy from FOX Sports. She didn’t know what to think of it all, but suspected if she could get kicked just one more time she would. There would be sudden clarity. It would solve something. But she wasn’t going to get kicked again, not now and not ever. She was finished fighting.

There was a scene in the room, inevitable, but not as bad as she’d feared.

I can’t believe this bullshit. Kenny saying this. After all we’ve goddamn been through, to have come this far.

Kenny irate, screaming, but then recalibrating: Kenny all conciliatory.

Look, I get it, babe. Take some time off, collect yourself. You relax, get your shit together, come back when you’re ready.

But there would be no coming back. There would be no ready.

Her mama picked her up at Orlando International and they said mostly nothing. Take-out from the Pollo Tropical off I-4. Her old room, her old dreams, all of it sitting on plastic Judo trophies like dust. She tried to eat the chicken but couldn’t. She did manage to gum the rice, her teeth a little more stable, a little more secure.

She considered this.

She looked for signs.

She thought about going to see her old coach Rolly but then didn’t.

She turned her phone back on, but there was nothing from Kenny or anyone else. It made her a little sad. A little angry too, though she knew it was a matter of giving her space, as Kenny had put it. That was fine. It all felt behind her. It felt over. It felt—

The word was meteoric.

Rapid, dazzling, swift.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Christmas came and somehow she got herself interested in Dilaudid, found herself dabbling in it, though it wasn’t really something to dabble in. It was, in fact, a gratuitous fucker of a drug, almost like it was personal, almost like it was the part of her she’d spent her life going without, the missing piece that would see her dead. The same thing her daddy had been chasing out in his pickup with his roids and his blow. This was intriguing, this theory, and back there in her childhood bedroom she told herself her interest was philosophical, though in truth she had simply run out of Lortab and Dilaudid was easier to come by.

Whatever it was, it got her out of the house.

In February, she went to South Beach. She met a guy named Logan and they wound up buying benzodiazepines at a Lincoln Drive teahouse from a green-haired girl and her shaved-head boyfriend, swallowed two pills each with their verbena, and walked back to the hotel. She didn’t want to touch him but then, when she finally did, realized it was exactly what she wanted. Human warmth, the tensile friction of his hands beneath her clothes. His slim body howling above the fork of her legs. She woke sometime later to the dim awareness of someone else in the room, some flare of confusion that steadied into recognition. Logan was in the corner with the green-haired girl and the man from the teahouse, shooting up.

When she woke again he was crying, both hands wrapped around his lower leg.

“I don’t love you,” he said.

There was no one else in the room.

“What happened to your leg?”

“I don’t love you. I don’t love him.”

He had heated a coat hanger and burned a three-inch curve into the meat of his right calf.

“Let me see.”

“I don’t love anyone, you bitch.”

The flesh was white and puffy and hot to the touch.

He put his face in his hands and wept.

“It’s supposed to be an S,” he said.

“Christ.”

“For Simona, for you.”

She was disgusted with herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was all, for lack of a better word, stupid. The small joys, the pleasures—all unfathomably stupid. She found a tube of expired antibacterial cream and wrapped the whole thing in a Maxi-pad, regular
absorbency.

A week later she bought ten 2 mg Klonopins and something happened to them. She took them, she supposed, over the course of some number of days, though after the fact had no direct memory. Just the smell of her unwashed body, the whatever that had
dried in her hair.

Her phone had died.

Someone had left the refrigerator door open.

Her mama prayed for her daily.

Kenny texted occasionally.

She was becoming narrow.

She was losing herself. This much was clear. But wasn’t losing herself maybe the point?

 

○ ○ ○

 

It was March when she started swimming at an outdoor pool in Oak Hill. The air too cold but that just meant she had the water to herself. A campground on the edge of Mosquito Lagoon, the St. John’s River marking the rear of the property. The pool itself
was shaped like the state of Florida, shaped like a gun. Which meant she followed the curve of the Gulf to get her twenty-five meters, and then a quick flip-kick, and she was headed south again. Pensacola to Tallahassee to Tampa to Miami to the Keys. A mile, two miles. She’d quit taking anything when she realized she couldn’t disappear into it, her nascent habit simply altering her context so that she was a different version of herself, but still very much herself.

Instead, she swam, her muscle elongating, leaning out.

After, she would stand by the giant ice cooler—ten-pound bags for two bucks—towel over her shoulders, and shiver. Around her RVs and their Rust Belt retirees. Brown sawgrass in hummocks. Time was passing, life organizing itself in disappearing increments.

Kenny had started leaving voicemails.

She didn’t know what she was doing.

Only that she’d turn twenty-eight in a few weeks.

Only that her teeth felt stable.

She listened to the voicemails at night, shoulders trembling from her laps.

The messages kept arriving, signals from another planet.

Are you out there?

Hey, hun, he would say. Hun, are you out there?

She liked the way he seemed to be addressing someone she couldn’t quite remember. There were days, standing in front of the mirror she’d tacked to the wall, she hardly recognized herself.

 

○ ○ ○

 

A man arrived, a doctor who had done time in the penitentiary upstate. Seven years for buying 100 Oxys from a narc outside the Hungry Howie’s in DeLand. He sat shirtless in a chaise longue and watched her swim. Drank Mountain Dews. Told her she
needed to eat.

“Look at you,” he’d say. “How skinny you’re getting.”

And it was true, how skinny she was getting. Narrow, lean. Girl, you turn sideways and you disappear. But that, maybe, had become the point. How far could she swim? If she were an eel, she meant. That thin. Thin enough to disappear through the cracks. The night Kenny had unwired her jaw she had realized that her body, this body, was just an appendage, something that hung on her, weighed her with sorrow, and if she could do without it she could … She realized that was what Logan had been doing with his heated coat hanger and heroin rig. She realized it was what she had been doing all along. The way she had waited for that roundhouse. Knowing it was coming and then letting it come all the same.

You live a life to be rid of it.

Stupid, sure, but what was she supposed to do with her stupid?

Eat it?

Ignore it?

Live with it—that was what you could do.

She went with the doctor back to his trailer only a few times, three or four, she counted. But why count? she wondered. One day he said, “Holy shit. You’re the girl that got knocked out. I didn’t realize that.” Only it wasn’t true, or was no longer true, whatever difference that made. Hey, Sim, he called, you hear me? She did and didn’t. She made her flip turn. She had found something in the water, moving along with the current, and when it crawled from the pool she followed it down to the banks of the St. Johns. The next day she began to swim in the river behind the RV park. The largest north-flowing river in the Northern Hemisphere, and she fl owed with it, every day farther north. Day after day after day. And then one day she found herself passing beneath the bridges of Jacksonville out of the mouth of the river and into the Atlantic. It was a glorious thing—her entire life was down here and how had she not known? Along the seafloor she found her old Judo trophies. She swam through her old room at the Sands, past Kenny’s mother on the couch. Her own mother in prayer. Her father smiling at her before dropping into another set of squats.

She swam a thousand miles, let the current carry her. Folks didn’t get it. The kind of focus, the kind of single-mindedness that was necessary to do anything important. You staked everything on it. People like to admire perseverance but not really. Perseverance, the real unadulterated thing, scared people. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough. But it was different out here. Everything was diff erent.

She was so narrow now, out among the fi sh and tortoises, the giant container ships on the horizon. She realized she could keep going and one day began to follow a family of eels. They told her of the darker places, the places without light, introduced her to the beaked whales diving to seven thousand feet. They could take her with them if she wanted. She could go with them forever, and why shouldn’t she? Her teeth were stable. Her body was lean. She could just keep going.

She made her flip turn, put her face beneath the water.

Wasn’t that the reason she had allowed herself to get kicked in the first place, so she could just keep going?

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Mark Powell is the author of five novels, most recently SMALL TREASONS from Gallery/Simon and Schuster. His novel Firebird will be published in 2020. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and in 2014, he was a Fulbright fellow to Slovakia. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina where he directs the Creative Writing program at Appalachian State University.

 

Extermination

Tiphanie Yanique


The worst thing that ever happened to me happened to someone else. You know that story. About how I was there. How it was so loud, that field where we stood. How I saw the shuttle go up and up. How there was a blast and we all cheered. Dumb as we were. Because that was the astronauts dying. I was fourteen. I was there for Dr. Ronald McNair. Sure, he was the second African American in space, but the first had been a Challenger man, too. Pop liked the name of the shuttle. Liked that the work of it all was there in the name. Pop, he believed in things being hard. Jenelle, that wild streak of a sister, was gone by the time I got back from Florida. Like she and the space shuttle disappeared the same.

The worst thing that ever actually happened to me proper was when I was an adult. And that worst thing was your father. See, my name is Ellenora, but you and everyone from Memphis to Atlanta knows that I lived with my husband’s first Ellie from the beginning. The same year he parted from that other Ellie—1990. Same year I met Gary, married him, got in the family way, started quilting the marriage quilt, then had you. No one knows really about that other Ellie. Some schizo white girl your father once drove across the country with. But for most of our marriage, Gary kept a picture of that one on the mantel. The skinny girlfriend standing in front of their beat-up car. Family folks might think a mother-in-law is bad, but there is no way to compete with the only woman who ever loved your husband before he married you. Wife isn’t power, you see. Wife is work. A marriage is a wife’s challenge. Which is to say that I was a wife who felt very married.

It wasn’t like that for my parents, I don’t believe. The hard thing for Pop and Mama was us girls. Which is why I thank God I never had one, a girl. Instead I had only you. Though it wasn’t me who was so difficult. It was my sister, mostly, to be honest. I am loyal to Jenelle something fierce, I am. But I’m her sister and so that’s my place. Doesn’t mean she deserves it.

We all used to watch Star Trek, especially the reruns. Lieutenant Uhura, young and sharp faced. Mama would be quilting and the rest of us would be sitting with our dinner plates warm in our laps. “Jennie. Ellie. Take a look at that Nichelle Nichols,” Pop would say. “Now ain’t she fine.” Mama would stay quiet, stay on her quilting. But when she put us to bed she would say, “Uhura isn’t just fine.” Though she would never say what else.

During my marriage to Gary, we watched a world’s worth of TV. I watched much of it by my lonesome. The set was better for company than having visitors, if I am being honest. Which I always am. Visitors might see the picture of that other Ellie and have pity on me. I wanted to cut that cracker woman out. Cut her. But she’d already cut herself out. Your father taught her how to drive, then she drove away without him in a car he built with his own hands. Never giving him a good reason. He used to say he needed the picture of her to remind himself to hold on tight to me. To remind himself that I might leave him, too. I never said what I felt, which was, Why aren’t I enough to remind you?

It’s true I put a square of a spaceship in the marriage quilt. The spaceship was just a symbol. I didn’t need you to be an astronaut. You could be whatever you wanted to be. But a vehicle marks a boy’s manhood in America, it does. Any vehicle might do. And also, your father had loved to build things that would vroom around. Bikes when he was a boy, cars later. When I decided to marry him, I envisioned guiding him to being an airplane mechanic, a space shuttle engineer. Not exactly leaving me for space. No. But having a role in the great thing. I had something like that in mind. I made the quilt, made it more than once, I was putting everything I had into it. That is how art is, so they say.

It’s your grandmother who was the quilter. Though she didn’t do it serious as I have done. She did it often and easy. At first my plan was to make many, as she did. But a woman plans and God laughs. I have completed just the one quilt. I made it for you and your wife-to-be. I haven’t told you the whole of that story, and I can’t say I ever will. This is not me speaking, really. This whole story is from a part of me I can’t even hear. Don’t need to. Don’t want to.

Truth be told, I won’t speak this to you or to anyone—not even God. That would be a giving up of power, and I’m not going back to being the kind of woman who gives up any power, no matter how small. This is a story and this is my truth. You see, the character of the mother always has power. A mother is power. Any TV show makes that plain.

A wife, I suppose, is something different. When I started that quilt, my plan was to pass along your manhood from my hand to your wife’s. Proper. Different from what your father had. Like my mother did for wealthier people, for their daughters’ weddings. But when I married, Mama told me she’d taught me the skill. So it would be on me to quilt for my own family. “Done enough for you girls what with all the doing I’m doing for your sister,” she said.

The first patch of the quilt I did up for you, the center, was the square with you inside. That patch is still there even now. I used brown felt to make you, and I cut carefully, I did. Made you like a boiled peanut. Sweet and soft as you were from the beginning. Though it wasn’t soft nor sweet, my marriage. Not for me. But my story of my learning to be a mother begins, I believe, years before you and Gary even showed up in my life.

That day in ’86. I was sixteen and I was there. See, when Jenelle and I were wee things Pop had written to NASA to make sure the first shuttle was named after the Star Trek one. And it was. Space Shuttle Enterprise. That name was a great success of his. But there was no Uhura on the real Enterprise. Then came the Challenger with Dr. Bluford, and then after him, Dr. McNair. Not fine as Uhura, but brown as her. We knew about those men in our home. And so I knew all about the Challenger. Sure enough, I had written an essay. Pop had made me. He was into space, he was. I wrote how the very first Challenger, the one from the olden days, was a sea shuttle. Sailed around South Africa. I made that connection, yes, I did. With how the first Challenger and our Challenger were both important for uplifting the Black race. Got a good grade, an A, as I’ve told you. Got sent to Florida for the launch. How I got to my first tragedy. By being a good daughter. Obedient daughter.

I was the good child. Patient and kind. Of course, I wound up a patient wife to your father. And I was kind. At night in bed beside me, Gary would whisper to the voices in his head and I would kindly and patiently hold back my tears, hold in my screaming. His speak-back voice didn’t sound like his normal voice. It had a foreignness to it. It was frightening, to be true. In the mornings, I would play Al Green on the stereo, so Gary might know I was trying. I wasn’t boastful and I wasn’t proud. I was mostly ashamed. I was all that stuff the Bible required, even when it was clear Gary didn’t give the Bible any primacy. I would even play wild Ike and Tina, once I knew Gary liked a little wildness. I meant them as love songs for Gary. But he would always make me turn them down, off, when he wanted to play the Moslem music or the Jew tunes.

At the launch that day it was cold. Real cold. Too cold for the South. And it was windy. The wind was rightly gusting. We kids were right there. Waving little American flags that had been handed to us. I remember that. That year there had been a launch every few months, it seemed. Failed. Aborted. But so many successes before. So no one can blame any of us for believing back then. There was that teacher making news as the first teacher in space, and our Dr. McNair.

On TV that year there were some other black wonders. Mr. Mandela had been released from prison. They showed him waving. He was an old man then. Had been in jail his whole life. There was that South African connection, like the Challenger, again. Mama and Pop didn’t say anything to us about him, Mandela. Not then and there when we watched the news, not later at tuck in. Mr. Mandela was supposed to be dead but he had lived. Then not too long after, I was watching all those astronauts die. Could barely tell they were dead, from my vantage point. For weeks it seemed like they were still on their way to the moon. I can’t see what the point of death is. Death doesn’t seem to make anything really go away. That is the truth.

Take my life, for example. What is a dead first love up against a living wife? Turns out, it’s everything. Better I was a co-wife, like it’s said they have in South Africa. Better me and that Ellie could stand and compete. Better we were both there in the marriage kitchen—me outcooking her, outsexing her. In the picture Gary held onto, the girlfriend has yellow hair that I could tell, even from the picture, hasn’t been washed in weeks. I wash regularly. More classy, I am. And yet, in the few pictures he has from his youth my husband looks as unkempt as that white woman does. He’d never worn sloppy clothes like that with me. We never went for cross-country drives. He never suggested anything freaky in the bedroom, though I learned, I sure did, that he wanted a little freak. As though it was not really him with that woman. Or not really him with me. Which is to say I did fail on one of those Biblical commandments, because I sure was envious of that other Ellie.

Just a picture of her, I tried to convince myself. But gone people have power. Even people who have never lived at all have power. Because it started with that TV character Lieutenant Uhura. We can all see that now. Now that we are looking back.

Though, truth be told, space didn’t work on me like it did my sister. For Halloween when Jenelle was fourteen and I was twelve, she dressed up as Uhura. Wore a wig for the hair, but Jennie had Uhura’s skin and bones. I was pretty, to be sure, but not in that way. “I don’t approve,” my father said that night when Jenelle came out of the room. I wasn’t going out anywhere. Too young for the parties, but too old for trick or treating. My mother had come in from outside with a watering can in hand to see my sister off, but now Mama turned and went back to the garden.

“Thanks, Pop,” Jenelle said, and flounced out, as though he’d said the opposite of what I know he’d said. I’d thought, My, so that is how it works.

I wouldn’t say that Jenelle came back late that night. I was still awake, after all. I heard her in the kitchen fixing something to eat. Which meant she’d been dancing. We lived in Memphis, after all, and most everything was a dance party. Live music to start. And when the band tired, then Milli Vanilli blasting from someone’s boombox. I didn’t sneak out to the kitchen. Sneaking wasn’t allowed in our house. “Sneaking is lying,” Mama would say, “commandment number nine.” Pop would whip us for sneaking. So I just walked out to my sister. Tried to be loud, so she knew I was coming.

But Jenelle was standing there with a pan in her hands like how that Arthur Ashe used to hold his tennis racket. And Pop was standing there too. “Nichelle is pretty but she ain’t a lady—kissing on that cracker,” he said. Pop’s right hand leaning on his cane, his left up like he was making a big statement. “No girl child of mine will be doing that.” Honest, Jenelle and I had never watched that specific episode, the one where the captain kisses Uhura. I still have never watched it, to be honest. “Don’t take one step closer to me,” Jenelle said to our father, “or I’ll burn your face off.”

It hadn’t dawned on me then that the pan Jenelle had at ready was filled with hot oil. And I wondered then if Jennie would do it. Burn up our father. I wanted her to, to be honest. I can’t say why. “Go on and do it then,” our father said.

You have to try and see it. Jenelle was Uhura, Lieutenant of the Starship Enterprise. Our father was just a Pop in pajamas. They stood that way for a long long time. The pan must have gotten heavy because Jenelle finally put it down, turning her back to him like there was a force field around her. But Pop was already raising the cane. I left the kitchen and went back to Jenelle’s and my bedroom. I can’t say they ever saw me there, because they never looked my way. But back in my bed I heard them. Her screaming. Him yelling. How Mama slept through that racket I can’t say. Next day Jenelle’s pretty face was fine, but she stayed in bed, the blanket wrapped around her like some healing cocoon. She didn’t go back to school until the bruising on her back went to normal. Took time, it did.

Some things just take time. You’ll remember, that it wasn’t until after the break in that I made Gary move that Ellie’s picture from our mantel. Because that is when I knew that it wasn’t just a picture. No sir. Gary had never given that Ellie up, her dirty body and her dirty ways. Which is to say that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to outsex her, after all. She treated him like an animal, they treated each other that way maybe. I supposed he liked that bit, but I say she was using him. A little dark fantasy for her. I made him move the picture from my mantel after I knew what I knew.

Right then. That’s when I did a square of Gary and his other Ellie. I did. I drew them in my own hand, which was crude. You were sixteen already and I was hoping you’d marry early, as I had. I pictured you and a nice young Christian African American girl laying up under that quilt working on grandkids for me. I’d quilted in a square of a cross from the day you were baptized. A square with some islands felted onto it, representing the place your father felt he was from. A square with the letters MEMPHIS on it, so that you might know that was where I was from. A square of Jenelle’s boy, your cousin Brent, in his peewee uniform. Your family.

I quilted that other Ellie and your father as the final square to fit. Put them in decent clothes, not like what they ever owned when they knew each other. A red mini dress for her, though in the picture he had she is wearing a long skirt to her ankles. A proper blue dress shirt for him, I did. Like Uhura and Spock, I know. Why I did that, I can’t rightly say. Maybe a penance for having that Ellie removed from my mantel. Maybe a way to overcome my own un-Godly envy. I colored in her dress with a cloth marker. Her yellow hair. I wasn’t good at it, the drawing. Still, I did it careful as I could. I worked on it for days that week after the break-in. Didn’t want Gary to see. Though maybe I did.

I left my quilting room open often that week. Then, low and behold, Gary did the same. Left his office open. That’s when I saw that he hadn’t discarded his image of the other Ellie at all. There she was on his worktable. Same picture, just now in his private room. Alongside his bug sprays and rows of rat traps. Gary never could let his past go. If we’re speaking plain, I suppose I couldn’t let the past go either. Not his. Not mine.

So I ripped the quilt to pieces. That’s the truth. What I couldn’t get with my fingers, I took with the scissors. Did I cry? Can’t say I really remember. Most of the squares were in shreds. All but the one of you there, my boiled peanut, at the center. I started over on that quilt after that, though. Started over determined to do better. What I’m telling you is that I worked hard, so hard, on my marriage. I worked it for you.

I can’t really blame the man, my husband, for not letting that Ellie go in his heart—I say my husband because he’s been my only one and I can’t see myself doing that again. It’s true I’m not much of a Christian woman these days, but I still abide by what Paul said about marriage. That it’s forever. So you know why I can’t fully blame Gary Lovett. See, he and that Ellie were young together. And I suppose they were crazy together, too. The girlfriend was eighteen when they ran away to get married, though they never did. I married Gary in my eighteenth year, as well—not even a year after that other Ellie. But I lasted longer. I’ll give myself that. I was a real something. Not like a TV show. Marriage is a real something, even if it’s no good. Remember that.

My Pop and Mama. I can’t say they had a good marriage. Can’t say good was what they were after. They worked hard. They watched TV after they worked. In fact, even after that incident with Jenelle we kept watching Star Trek and Papa kept saying how pretty Nichelle was. But Mama didn’t tuck us in to tell us that Uhura was more than fine. We kept watching Star Trek until Dr. Bluford and then Dr. McNair gave us the real thing.

One thing we knew, what Pop was always going on about, was that Dr. McNair had picked cotton when he was a boy. Pop had done that, too. Still did, when we were having a hard go of it. “Gonna get you girls down there,” he would say when we watched some new advancement about the Challenger on the news. My sister thought he meant get her down to NASA, and in our room she would ask me what I thought it would be like. “But Jenelle, you sure he didn’t mean down to pick cotton on the farms?” I know for a fact that is what Pop meant.

But Jenelle didn’t want any part of that. Me neither, to be honest. Which is why it was all too easy when Gary Lovett came along. No, my pop wasn’t the kind of man I wanted for myself. Gary was my get out. Though when you were finally born a year later, 1990, I didn’t drop you off with your Gram and Pop, like Jennie did Brent. A summer here or there with your grandparents was the most I ever allowed. I went far away from him. Though, Pop never did worry my mother as Gary worried me. I’ll give Pop that. The space stuff was the only thing that made Pop different to other men in Memphis. See, most people in America weren’t paying attention to the Challenger as early as 1983. But we were. Had been giving that ship our undivided attention ever since Dr. Bluford. On our TV, our family watched the star ship wheeled down a runway getting ready for its early missions. We watched Dr. McNair. His big smile. His big voice. And he was a musician. Not singing, but a sax. Still, you see how it went for me.

Gary. He had that big smile. And that big voice. And he knew all about all kinds of music. The girlfriend had driven across the country with him in his car. The music he sang for her saved her, so he said. I’d believed him in the beginning. But it became hard to know what was his crazy and what was his truth. Either way. When that girl left him, he stopped working on cars. Fixing vehicles was what he’d loved as a boy and what he felt he’d failed at. It wasn’t his fault. That other Ellie, she took his gift for working on cars. By the time it was Gary and me, he’d send our car to the mechanic for every doggone little thing.

And do I remember that time at the gas station …? You were still a tiny thing. My breasts hard as two bags of rocks, because you never could get the feeding right. It was a too hot day and I just didn’t want to pump the doggone gas, I tell you. Not with my husband in the car like that. Shaming me. So I went inside and I asked the cashier. He said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I am not to leave my register.” I told him that my husband was sick and could he pretty please. Where I got the gall, I can’t say. It was a young white boy, face prickled with pimples. Still, he came out, nodded at Gary, and pumped. On cue, Gary covered his ears, started in on the voices. There he was, asking them to left him, in that bush accent that would come over him. I watched the gas make the air look swimmy. You were in the back seat—in a fancy child chair you were always squirreling out of. But you hadn’t budged since we parked. Instead you started to cry. Gary kept chanting to the voices. I kept staring at the thick sweet air swirling. Made believe I was a girl again, and there I was at the launch, watching Dr. McNair and his saxophone from the sky to the earth.

And that white boy kept pumping. Didn’t even charge us for the gas. When Gary finally started the car and drove us away, he seemed calm. You calmed, too. It dawned on me then that maybe Gary wasn’t all crazy. Maybe the voices weren’t a demon. Maybe he was talking to her—that Ellie. Maybe it calmed him to make her leave him again and again. But I tried to let that go, I did. Instead, I had it in mind that maybe you might grow up and become a car mechanic—doing the thing your father had never been able to do. That night, I tucked you in and told you life was good. Despite your crazy father. I told you about Dr. McNair and all that he’d overcame. You won’t remember that, Earl. I didn’t tell you then about all the astronauts dying. It was a bedtime story. I told you about how Dr. McNair played that saxophone on the space shuttle, a lullaby. After you went down, I started on quilting a square with a wrench.

It was so many years later that I found out about that nastiness and saw Gary wouldn’t even let that other Ellie’s picture go. I decided to do the quilt different. There would be no wrench, nothing of your father’s past. By this time you had an afterschool job, a responsible young man you were. I had the TV on, as I was trying to find inspiration. I can’t say I was still a woman of much faith, but some things are a force of habit. So, yes, I was watching the Christian channel. Not that I was really listening.

Sometimes, my eyes would be on the TV but my mind would be there in Florida. Watching the Challenger go up and up and then explode. But there was a TV pastor asking, “Where is your marriage physically located?” I stared at the TV and focused. And I knew. My marriage wasn’t in space or back in Memphis or on the mantel. My marriage was in the quilt. I held your brown boiled peanut body, the felt cutout I’d made of you that is, in my hand and I just knew. I turned the TV off and went to Gary’s office. I looked at the picture of the other Ellie but couldn’t think of what to say to her. I searched around and found one of Gary’s work shirts and cut out the pocket where his badge was. I found one of his rags that had an advertisement for bee repellent on it. Before I left the office, I turned back to that picture. “Leave us!” I said to that white girl. “Leave us alone!” Which felt like the most right thing I’d ever said, though I was saying it to an inanimate picture. Then I went into our bedroom and found a clean short sleeve that I myself had bought Gary. Something he might grill in or cut the lawn in—though it’s true he cut the lawn but never grilled. The grilling was just a wish of mine, something other husbands did. I stitched all those things of the Gary who was now your father and now my husband into your quilt. I stitched in a square with the A’s and B’s of your third-grade report card. One red square because that was your favorite color for a while. Ripped it out for a blue one, when you changed to that instead.

I didn’t play Nut Bush or any nonsense. Played saxophone music all through the house, like what Dr. McNair played. To give me a new inspiration for the quilt. And Gary didn’t deny me that. I didn’t do a dignified patchwork like my mother always did. See, I’d been to the museums by then. Seen how the fancy quilts could look, how creative the quilters could be. I planned to make a great quilt of the present and the future. One that was most definitely better than my mother’s. In the new one you are still there, a little boiled peanut, at the center. Your father’s shirt pocket, and all that new stuff, encircling you. You see, I stitched a crazy quilt the second time around. A jazz design, like the sax I listened to. Like the thing was a maze to make your way through. Like manhood.

I’d decided that in that quilt I would let everything dead go. It’s true I used to imagine Gary was Dr. McNair. Before that I used to imagine Dr. McNair was Pop. No more of that, I told myself. Besides, it was like I said—wasn’t me, so much as my sister who was moved by all that space. She’d gotten into her head that she was gonna be the first black woman astronaut. She wanted to get away from Pop. I supposed space seemed far enough. I didn’t think at all about what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I figured it would find me and I would marry it. Hadn’t worked out exactly. Not like my sister planning her life up seemed to work so well, either.

And it does seem Pop mellowed after Jennie left. Never raised his voice or that cane again. Not as far as I know. If he ever put a hand on you? Well. I made a patch of a cane in the new quilt, then drew an X over it. Then I cut out the X. Let the cane go all together. The kind of woman’s magic Mama taught me.

Your father had his problems but he wasn’t a man of impulsive passions, like Pop. He was a calm man—except for the voices. He spoke hard to the voices sometimes. Other times, though, he would sing to them. He’s a singing man, my husband. Exhusband. Sang all around our house, is true. Hymns, chants, gospels, azans—the whole cat and cradle. He was always singing to God, Gary was. Always a different god, as he could never settle. I gather that he sang love songs for that other Ellie. He never sang love for me. But you managed to love music, despite. I quilted in a guitar when you took lessons for a few months. Quilted in three African drums in all. Tried to make them look close to the three fancy drums you had me buy you for high school graduation. Beautiful, strange things. Cost me a pretty penny. By then I didn’t want you to be a mechanic or an astronaut. A musician, that is what I knew you were made for. Gary and me, we made you for that.

In the revision crazy quilt, there was no Bible, no cross. No pills. Nothing crutch like that. There was a musical note. There was the name of that shop where you got your first afterschool job. There was your name, the one I gave you: Earl. There was you, boiled peanut, at the center. It’s true I quilted in the letters of the shuttle, but I did leave out the last one. I wanted you to have a challenge, but not one that would rise up from the past and kill you. I never put myself in the quilt. Though of course, my hand was in the whole thing.

But you had to leave, like sons do. Not the moon. College. I even quilted that ugly mascot. You were close enough to drive back to me sometimes. I wouldn’t have encouraged it any other way. A long road and a white woman had ruined your father. A road and a woman can do that. Ruin the full life of a man. Gary had to go and become an exterminator, getting rid of pesky things that got in the way. Rats, mice, roaches. Then me, eventually. Two years after I made him move the picture, he was packing up everything, that picture included. You were well into your first year of college by then. He left me. Imagine that. And he was the crazy one. Certifiable. Took the pills to prove it. The Good Pills, I called them. Like the Good Book that we both ignored eventually. The pills made it so we couldn’t have another child. The pills took that from me. But we lived by those pills, we did. I did, anyway.

Here’s something that I would say, out loud, because I want it to be known now. When I stitched that quilt to a close Gary had just left the house, but it was okay. Because I knew that the quilt could be done now. My marriage was done after all. And you were on your way to a wife.

Well, even the smartest people make mistakes. Look at NASA. All those smart people and look how they messed up the Challenger. And not one mistake: a whole planet full of mistakes before the big one. Pop made us watch them all. One where the shuttle didn’t even move off the launch pad. One where it lifted off but came back down minutes later. The last you know, we all know, where it blew up. And everyone died. Now if they can make that kind of mistake, you can see how maybe you can make a mistake. With this Maristela. Take just her voice. Sounds like your father’s voice when he wasn’t taking his Good Pills.

And I’ve tried with that one. I have. Tried to discuss smart things with her. But she’d never even heard of the Challenger from the times of ocean exploration. Which tells you all you need to know about the kind of marine biology teacher she must be. Not that I’m judging. I don’t have that Christian discernment in me anymore. It’s only that it feels rightly like a mistake, this Maristela and you. Just like those other women, before and after me, have been my husband’s mistake. I am a mother. I want the best for you children. The both of you, really. But I know that Maristela Jones is a loose woman and unnatural in her looseness. Just like your father’s first Ellie and her unnatural animalistic desires. Feels like you gonna go off and marry this woman and blow your life up.

You are stubborn. Now, that is a strength in a man, I believe, but Maristela needs a husband who will know how to manage her. Earl, you are not a managing type of man. Take heed. You had to get on the road, all the way to heathen New York City, to stumble upon that woman.

And you don’t even know the worst of her. Things went missing that weekend you brought her to meet me. Not fancy things. Not things a different homemaker might notice. But I am meticulous. Had to be, married to a pest controller. See here, Maristela took a mug I bought myself that said “World’s Best Mother.” And a commemorative magnet from the one time my husband took me to hear the opera in Atlanta. Been on my fridge door a decade. She took the extra soaps I kept in the bathroom cabinet, shaped like starfish. Low down. Like she thought my house was a hotel. Might have stolen the very quilt I’d been stitching, if I hadn’t hid the thing.

But don’t you worry, son. I’ll play supportive at the wedding, if you make it there. I’ll even put on a nice dress and heels and a nice face, too. I’ll get the license and marry the two of you my own self. Even if I don’t approve. Can’t say I ever will.

But I will say the truth here. Because what does it matter? You’ll never know. You know the story I’ve told you about the shuttle. Yes. That was the morning Pop asked Jenelle to stand up at breakfast. She hadn’t eaten her food that day or the day before. “Stand up,” he said. “Oh, let her be,” Mom had said, standing up herself. “Let them go. Today is launch day.” But, “Take off your dress,” Pop said to Jenelle. Jenelle stood. And mom started to cry and pray, “Please God,” she cried. Jenelle lifted her dress.

And there was Jenelle’s belly, which I’d paid no mind to at all before. Too innocent, I was. It was tight and round, and then, right then, a little fist punching out, like there was a space creature inside her. Pop stood up, raised his cane and knocked her to the ground. Broke her collarbone. And other things, too, I guess. Which is to say, I wasn’t at the Challenger launch. Not really. Couldn’t have been. I was in Memphis. I was on the way to the hospital with my sister. Mama driving us, though up until that day, I can’t say I even knew Mama could drive. You see, a mother always has her secrets. We waited in the waiting room for Jenelle.

And that’s when we saw it. Everyone crowded around the TV. The star shuttle Challenger gone. Rerun, rerun, rerun. Which is to say, being at the launch wasn’t really the worst thing to ever happen to me, because I wasn’t there at the launch at all. I didn’t even watch it live on cable TV, like I know some kids did at school. The lines of smoke curling to the earth. Like arms stretching out to hold a person. That is what I saw. Dr. McNair dead. Him and his saxophone and his Challenger, all in the sea. My sister didn’t come out either. She was alive. But she stayed in there. Two nights. Something about the baby. And then she didn’t come back home. We didn’t see her for months. I don’t think Pop has ever seen her again. “Raising your sister was a challenge,” Mom would say. Pop never said a thing. I always think of Jenelle, pretty in that little red Uhura dress.

And what of Gary’s white heifer? I have to guess her story is that she married religious, had babies and babies for God. Did her nastiness with Gary and then left me with that. I didn’t get the chance to marry a good Christian man, thanks to her. I didn’t get a chance to have babies and babies for God. Just you. And I can’t say rightly that we raised you for God. Honest to goodness? I raised you for me.

And that pastor on the TV? That white man, with slicked-back silver hair and a strong Georgia voice. “Where is your marriage physically located?” he’d asked. I never forgot that question. My answer hadn’t been right, I suppose. I worked so hard on that quilt. Though, I always hated quilting. That is God’s honest truth.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Christian Colton, curated by Dana Lyons.

Tiphanie Yanique is a Fulbright Scholar, a National Book Award 5 Under 35 awardee, winner of the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the United Kingdom’s 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for a First Collection, the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award and Pushcart Prize. Her books include LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING, HOW TO ESCAPE FROM A LEPER COLONY, and WIFE. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor at Wesleyan University.

Muertos

Gabriela Denise Frank

On the Day of the Dead, souls of the departed return to earth to commune with loved ones. But I wasn’t at my mother’s grave in Phoenix, I was at a bar in Tucson, waiting for the parade. The silver blare of trumpets, the thud of drums, would rouse Catrina the way I wished my mother would quit her dirt bed. I pictured Catrina’s onyx eyes blazing in the dark, their spirit light catching flame. Did she enjoy the warm press of human hands as her attendants, plump and alive, thrust the shriveled stubs of her hobbled feet into shoes, and lay her body on the silk pillow to clothe her skeletal form of old driftwood and corn husks? Did she sense how gently they placed her arms, her hand bones, chipped and scattered, held together by steel wire, through the rough cloth of her dress, before stringing her up on the parade float? Did she mind the scratch of yellowed lace? La Catrina, Zombie Bride, had been revived thousands of times—could she remember what happened when they removed her from the casket, year to year? Had rats and insects gnawed her nose away? Were her mandibles reduced to desiccated straps of sinew? I imagined Catrina’s withered green tongue licking at the stringy pain of rebirth into her brittle skin, her blackened lips stretched back into a horrible smile. Could Catrina sense the burgeoning decay on the marigold wreath they placed atop her head?

Is this how you look, Mom?

I imagined death as blissful oblivion from the tedious pain and heat that was living in Arizona. Falling into cactus. Burning myself on the seat belt. The lick of my father’s belt lashing my legs. To be alive was to smell the stink of melted wax and rotting flowers at funerals.

Did my mother’s limbs ache, her lungs burn, in passing from life to death? Could my mother see me from the other side?

The day we buried her, it snowed in Phoenix. I was sixteen. Powder falling in the desert, a sonorous silence of white. A dream, yet I lived it. Six years later, the memory still troubled me: tiny snow drifts gathered in the gravel, in the shrugging shoulders of saguaro cactus, inside the tiny cups of sage-green mesquite leaves reaching skyward. Silent, and unnatural. The crystals melted with the warmth of my hand.

Six years after her passing, I missed my mother enough to hug her dead body, embrace her even if she were nothing but gristle, hair and bone. A ghastly thing. Love turns us desperate. And faithful.

 

To my boyfriend, Alan, Día de los Muertos in Tucson was merely another party, another reason to meet our best friends, Kurt and Luke, at a bar on Sixth Avenue.

“I’ll get the first round. You guys in?” Kurt asked when we arrived at Che’s Lounge.

Yeah-yeah, we nodded.

At 230 pounds, Kurt had the best chance of pushing his way to the packed bar. Alan went along to pay and carry while Luke and I held the table. Kurt and Luke were roommates, an odd couple—the hefty, tattooed ex-Marine and the over-educated ex-English teacher-slash-visual-artist—but they were both monastic in their housekeeping and got on well. The four of us had formed a close-knit party squad in college.

“You seem jumpy, Grasshopper,” Luke shouted in my ear against the din. He called me that despite being a mere two weeks older.

“I just wanna get to the parade.” I fidgeted with a snag in my secondhand jeans from Buffalo Exchange.

“You sure that’s it?” Luke said, pressing his thigh against mine beneath the table. Luke’s brazen flirtations reassured me that I was wanted. I couldn’t tell whether he actually loved me, or how serious I was about him. For years, we tiptoed at the edge of making moves on each other, laughing off our coquetry.

“Maybe,” I shrugged, sweeping the frizzy ends of my bob behind my ears.

Like me, Luke had known tragedy growing up. His dad ran off with another woman, leaving his mom with six kids to raise. His siblings, even his mother, turned to Luke, the responsible middle child, age ten, to hold them together. The side of him drawn to suffering embraced the never-ending demands of his family—the sort of obligation we Catholics revere.

“Anything I can do to take your mind off things?” he said, stroking my knee.

I fought the fuzzy, excited flutter between my legs and tried to see whether Kurt and Alan made it to the bar. There were too many people and too much clutter. Even without the crowd, Che’s was a messy labyrinth, a tumbling of cheap wicker chairs,wobbly glass-top tables and olive-drab canvas couches. The red walls made me dizzy.

“I don’t know,” I teased, running my nails up the inside skin of his thigh. “You tell me.”

“Hey now,” he said, pushing himself straight in the chair. “Watch it, Grasshopper.”

My gaze flicked to Alan, who was laughing with the bartender at something Kurt said. How long did it take to get a round of drinks?

That day, everything irked me: the high-pitched chatter of freshmen with fake IDs, the Beavis-and-Butthead heh-heh-heh of muscle-head jocks, the jostling of elbows and knees as people passed our table, the speakers squelching the opening notes of “Bittersweet Symphony,” and the squawk of waitresses shouting, “Whaddaya want?”

“Here we go,” Kurt said. He set down two pitchers. Alan followed with shots of whiskey on a tray, two for each of us.

“Día de los Muertos!” Kurt said, thrusting his into the air. His white teeth gleamed against his skin, tanned the shade of burnt sienna from the past four years at the University of Arizona. We hoisted our shots, clinked glasses and tipped the Jack Daniels into the thirsty hollows of our throats, slamming pints of beer behind it.

Alan pounded on the table, hooted and brought my chin forward to plant a sudsy kiss on my lips. I ignored Luke’s sideways glance and fell into Alan’s embrace.

 

Alan and I began as drinking buddies, always last at the bar, spouting the sort of cockeyed philosophy that only makes sense to blitzed liberal arts majors. First, we drank because we made it through finals, then we drank because we had graduated, then because we were young and bored and living in Tucson. We would have gone on trading inebriated doctrines and light flirtations, had I not broken up with my controlling boyfriend and unwittingly moved into Alan’s apartment complex the summer of ’96.

“Hey you,” he called from the second floor.

I looked up, sweaty from schlepping boxes in the blistering heat. “What are you doing here?” I said, skinning a lock of mouse-brown hair behind my ear.

Alan leaned over the stuccoed balcony, sweaty pint glass in hand, and laughed. “I live here. Wanna come up for a beer?”

He pushed his wire-frame glasses up his nose, beaming down a lopsided, friendly grin. He was funny, cute, smart. I was newly single, seeking attention—and a drink. This was damned convenient. My mild crush on him tripled right there.

We never acknowledged our dependency on good times with Kurt and Luke, the unwitting co-conspirators in our well-lubricated relationship. We didn’t speak much about anything serious. Alan was sweet and lighthearted. We partied, blacked out, never thought twice. Nothing could be worse in our small college town than sobering up to admit that, by getting serious with Alan, I was making the wrong choices.

 

Kurt insisted the view of the parade was best from Sixth and Alameda where the tunnel came up from beneath the railroad tracks. We’d have a clear vantage of LaCatrina and her tuxedoed groom waking from the dead to dance the herky-jerk with their skeleton posse.

The once-familiar street was strange with drum beats. Blue-black dusk fell hard, crushing the last sliver of orange sunset beneath billowing bullet-gray clouds. The parade route was lined with torches and policemen, the air expectant with frenzy. Hoots from drunk college kids went off like firecrackers amidst rapid conversations in Spanish, children’s shrieks, and grumbled impatience from Tucson’s elderly residents sprinkled throughout the crowd. Little girls, their heads wreathed in orange marigolds, danced to mariachi music, their dresses fluttering in the chilly air as they spun. Vendors sold frybread, popcorn, hotdogs, tacos, nachos, and cotton candy. The sweet-sick aroma of street food was set off by black plastic trash bags burping hot garbage from the alleys. Beneath the cacophony lay a harried silence; the pause before a jagged crack of lightening.

The kettle drums, skins stretched to the verge of breaking, throbbed in my chest, blunt bellows of force meeting resistance. My innards vibrated inside my wet gut, soft tissue tremors rolling with the tympani. At five-foot-four, I could barely see above the throng lining the roadway. Given the press of the crowd, which extended miles in both directions, a couple hundred thousand people had gathered.

I always felt twitchy this time of year. Halloween of eighth grade was my last night of childhood normalcy, sneaking out with my two best friends. Mom’s diagnosis came November 3.  Three years later, she went into the hospital for the last time on November 13. By Thanksgiving, she lost the ability to speak. On December 18, she died.

Years didn’t matter; it was the entire season.

The air felt splintered and dry, like it would never rain again.

“Here they come!” Kurt bellowed. The parade crew, a squadron of undead attendants in skeleton body suits, bore Catrina’s litter, leading the way with flips, cartwheels, and walk-overs that made us Oooo and Aaaah. We chanted to welcome her,“La Calavera Catrina!”

Emboldened by a sip from his flask, I grabbed Alan’s hand and pushed past a gigantic man wearing a black “IRON MIKE / IRON BITE” T-shirt with a growling photo of Tyson on the back. Tattooed on his biceps were two writhing anacondas. He seemed oblivious to the cold.

“Hey, wait!” Alan called.

I squirmed to the front of the barricade, losing his grip. My head spun from drink; I tried to focus my eyes. We called her to join us in the world of the living, to dance: ¡Despierta, Catrina! ¡Levántate, Catrina! ¡Baila, Catrina!

Catrina turned, arms raised, to survey the crowd. She howled like a wolf, long and piercing, up into the black sky. Her laughter reverberated against the concrete walls of the one-story warehouses surrounding us. Eyes searching, she was now alert, awake,baring her skeletal teeth. Her undead husband swooned her into a dip to our cheers. In life, they were Bride and Groom; in death they remained verged on their wedding night.

La Catrina shook off the stiffness of her death sleep and threw sprays of pastel candy into the crowd. I prayed for her to throw a handful at me—evidence of life beyond the grave, the sort of skulls I could catch and keep. My hands outstretched, the swell of the undulating crowd pushed my body forward, my spine threatening to snap against the wooden barricades, the force of hundreds of bodies pressed on mine as we fought for the same cheap prizes.

The crowd chanted, “Awake! Awake!” ¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Viva! Live, live, live! I chanted, too—privately, to my mother: Live!—through hot, fat inebriated tears. I searched the crowd, wondering if she heard me, if she had woken from her grave. She had promised, long before she was sick, that she would never leave me.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Mom said to me, slung in her lap. We curled up to read books together in bed at night.

“How much?” I asked. I loved it when we repeated these lines.

“I love you more than anyone in the world. Did you know that you’re my favorite person?” I looked up into her eyes and saw she meant it. Her words, a protective charm; her love, more home than home. “I will always take care of you,” she promised, hugging me to her chest.

There was no reason to doubt her, even in death. If I was patient, she’d find me.

On passing, Catrina’s glittering eyes met mine. “Viva Catrina!” I shouted, sparking the grace of her undead smile. The pink skulls she tossed landed softly in my hand.

 

I let Alan rescue me from the crowd after Catrina’s float went by. “Are you okay?” he kept asking, putting his arm around me. “Yeah,” I said, pulling away to wipe my swollen eyes. I wanted to hit him when he treated me like glass.

“Wanna go to The Buffet?” he asked. Our favorite dive. My cure-all.

“Nah. Let’s hit it on the way home,” Kurt said. “I’m in the mood for someplace new.”

“A place on Congress just opened—Divine or Velvet,” Luke said. “Something with a V.” He always had a line on the new clubs; per usual, we followed him.

The flat desert air made me wish I had worn something warmer than a T-shirt and denim jacket. I pulled the edges closed with the hand Alan kept trying to hold and quickened my pace. Though my head felt thick, I wanted another drink, fast.

Crossing Sixth, I glimpsed a woman who resembled Mom—tall, dark brown curly hair, olive skin. I stopped cold. Had my prayers worked?

It wasn’t her, of course. This woman laughed and put her arm around some guy. My mother lay buried, surrounded by dead senior citizens in Sun City, a 50+ master planned community, three feet away from my grandfather in the soldiers’ section. We didn’t know where else to put her; burying her by herself seemed lonely.

How the hell could I ever explain depressing, random thoughts like this to Alan, whose life revolved around music, movies, and drunken foreign exchange adventures in Europe?

There was a line outside Velvet or Divine, whatever name hung in hot purple neon script in the club’s window. Alan was entertaining Kurt and Luke with a story about getting drunk and throwing up on his sergeant during the first day of basic training in Georgia. Normally, his tales amused me, but I moved away to stand against the storefront glass of the dark stationery shop next door. I could feel the chill of my mother’s hospital room like I was still there. The cold glass at my back was reminiscent of the hard, wooden visitor chairs, impossible to get comfortable in, and the icy air conditioning of Mom’s room where I spent every night after school.

“You okay, Grasshopper?” Luke asked, putting his arm around my shoulders. His body warmed me where his torso met mine.

“Mm-hmm,” I said, trying to smile.

“Don’t believe you.”

“Not trying to fake it,” I sneered.

“Jesus. Why are you always such a bitch?” he laughed, shaking his head.

“Comes naturally,” I said, though I didn’t really want him to go.

He shrugged and returned to where Kurt and Alan stood in line. I lit a Marlboro and marveled at the lightheaded detachment that carbon monoxide conjured, watching Alan’s eyes twinkle as he launched into his next story, about partying in Koblenz: at the sight of the full moon, he peeled off his clothes and ran up a grassy hill, howling like a werewolf until his squad, unable to dissuade him, joined in. To be free like that.

Eventually, the line moved and we made it inside. I was glad the pulsing music was too loud for conversation. I tapped my feet to “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” without the slightest desire to dance. Fuck this. Fuck the trendy blonde girls spilling drinks on me, slinking by in slutty black dresses, with their doting parents who drove down on weekends with care packages and clean laundry. I needed a cocktail. It must have been apparent. Alan brought me a Long Island Iced Tea, which I drank in one steady guzzle before polishing off his.

“Bloody hell,” he said. “Want another?”

“Sure.”

“Seriously,” Alan said, pulling his chair close, his hands on my knees. “What’s wrong with you?”

I hated his sympathy. When I was in a bad mood, his addle-brained kindness always made me feel worse. “What’s wrong with poor old me?!” I slurred. “Are you kidding? You’d never understand.”

“You always say that. Why don’t you try me?”

“You wouldn’t know what to do! You’re a—” I stuttered. How cruel did I want to get? “You’re a spoiled Mama’s boy,” I said finally. “You’ve never had it hard.”

“Well, fuck you!” he said, sitting back. “Whatever’s eating you, get over it!”

I was thrilled to see him in distress. I half-hoped he would hit me. He generally handled me better than anyone, except Mom, and for him, like her, I mostly behaved. As much as I thought I wanted a good guy, particularly after my last boyfriend, a year of Alan’s nothing-but-fair-skies love made me feel trapped. Sometimes I liked dwelling in the tidy cage of his affection, but I’d be lying if I said it always fit. It’s like he didn’t know bad things happened to good people, and that good people sometimes did shitty things. He wouldn’t like the real me. I hated him for not knowing who he was dealing with, and really, whose fault was that?

“What’s wrong with me?” I spat, my heart racing. “It’s you, with your perfect family! You grew up with everything, and you don’t even know it!”

Whenever Alan’s parents visited, they took us out to fancy dinners with expensive wine. Alan got his storytelling capabilities from his dad, an airline captain, who loved to talk about the big, drafty old Craftsman they renovated in the suburb of Chicago where Alan grew up.

His dad regaled us with tales of TITS—Tennis Invitational Tournament Spectacular—for which he made custom baseball hats with plush pink boobs on them for their otherwise buttoned-down friends. Alan’s mother told the cute stories, like about Alan’s paper route: he had rigged up a sled to their Husky dog who pulled it through the snow. Alan spent summers at camp and had more gadgets and clothes than a kid could want—plus three colleges that his parents paid for, which he partied his way out of prior to joining the military. He didn’t return to school until he turned thirty, which is where I met him. Life did not demand much from him, it seemed.

I didn’t realize until that moment how jealous I was.

“What are we even fighting about?” Alan sputtered.

“Nothing! Everything!” my voice cracked. “You have no idea how hard it is for me,” I choked. “You don’t get what it means to have no one—to have nothing.”

“You have—”

“I’ve got no mother, no father, no one to take care of me. I don’t have the luxury of screwing up. You’ve had chance after chance, and your parents always save you. Even now, at thirty-three!”

I shattered my glass on the concrete floor and stormed off, shoving the bodies of strangers from my path. They swayed back and forth, a gauntlet of human sandbags. I elbowed through with a savagery that shocked the nugget of my normally quiet self, now cowering deep in my gut.

I made my way to the front of the club, the ejaculations of, “Ow!” and, “Hey!” splashing in my wake. My eyes narrowed on the glowing green EXIT sign hovering above the front door. I wanted to punish Alan for being stupid enough to love me and I wanted to punish my mother for dying, but I mostly wanted to punish myself because pain seemed to be the one thing I could feel. Everything else—even love and sex—was dull.

I broke the portal and stepped into the night.

 

I turned off Congress, not wanting Alan to find me too easily; I was sure he was right behind me. I walked left and then right down dimly lit streets, through stagnant puddles of dumpster sluice and pools of sulphur lamplight. A volcanic rage propelled my legs into the south of downtown Tucson. I crossed lots I didn’t recognize, my mind focused on one mantra—Alan doesn’t understand, he can’t understand—pounding bruises into the meat of my thighs.

I could never really talk to my friends in junior high and high school about my mother’s death, either. They didn’t probe; maybe they thought they’d hurt my feelings by asking. I wasn’t about to offer stories about her sobbing in a ball on the bathroom floor, mourning over the loss of her breast, the ugliness of her baldness, the burnt skin of her chest from radiation treatments. When I hugged her, the gadgetry of the IV port stemming from her aorta poked me. Did she know that I backed off so I wouldn’t tug or displace it? Did she think I was repulsed by her, too?

Her last night alive—should I talk about her blue-gray pallor? Her cold, sallow flesh, spiny with dark brown hairs that pushed through the skin of her legs? That last hasp of breath, the sound of her fogging an invisible mirror? Did Alan want to know that? Did he want to hear about my father’s rage after my mother was gone? His calloused mechanic’s hands on my face, my body? Asking me to take him to the emergency room the night he thought he broke his hand swinging at me, only to punch a hole in the drywall instead? On the drive to the hospital, he told me to lie if the nurses asked me how it happened. “They’ll take you away from me,” he warned. As if that would be a bad thing.

Alan’s parents loved and cared for him above all.

I was afraid he’d see how much more I wanted them than him.

 

After Mom died, I fantasized about killing myself. Not slitting my wrists or taking pills like the Jennifers and Jessicas in high school. I wanted something awful to happen to me, outside of my control. I wanted the permission to give up, to lose, to be put out of my misery.

I started smoking when she went into the hospital, fishing used butts from the ashtray at Thunderbird Samaritan. I drank at parties until I passed out; I don’t know how I got home some nights. I dated controlling guys, went off with strangers I met at parties, had unprotected sex and a pregnancy scare my senior year of high school. An abortion my freshman year of college.

Storming out of the bar, alone, at night, drunk, on the Day of the Dead, in order to punish my goody-two-shoes boyfriend and put myself in danger—in context, what I did was understandable.

 

The spring before I turned eighteen, I stood in my bedroom, thigh-high in a herd of cardboard moving boxes, making difficult choices. Most of my beloved books lay at the bottom of the larger ones. I had reserved five favorites—The Pie and the Patty-Pan, The Pushcart War, A Light in the Attic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and The Stand—in a smaller box.

“You’re behind,” my father growled during his stop at home that morning. He had come from his girlfriend’s apartment to shower and change clothes; he lingered at the door of my mostly unpacked room. “We move in three weeks. You’d better get your butt in gear.”

He remained at the doorway.

“And do the laundry after school,” he spat. “It’s piling up.”

I flipped him off after he walked down the hallway.

He slammed the front door, rattling it in the frame.

My father didn’t notice that I had spirited away a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry in the sealed boxes, as well as travel photo albums from her single days, a tie-neck purple blouse that still smelled of Chanel No. 5, and a hand-sized prayer book inlaid with mother-of-pearl—a present for her first Communion. After Mom died, Dad had packed away these belongings. Proof of her existence disappeared; to walk through our house, you’d never guess that she had lived with us—or lived at all. He started dating Sandy that spring. Shortly thereafter, he donated or tossed most of Mom’s things, except for three boxes at the back of his closet from which I pilfered.

Two weeks later, a van pulled into our driveway while Dad was at work. My grandmother—his mother, who we called Nanny—hired movers to transport my clothes and a few boxes containing my entire life into her house. She urged the men to move quickly. Nanny didn’t have much extra space at home; my piano, which she had bought for my tenth birthday, went to Uncle Don’s for safekeeping. My beagle, Sheba, I had to leave behind.

That day, my lineage was effectively erased. The remaining proof of my childhood, my mother, and our family of three resided in the scant memorabilia I took.

It wasn’t until that afternoon at Nanny’s house, unpacking my boxes in her guest room, that the sense of fucked-upedness descended. Neither of us said it aloud: she helped me run away from home for fear my father would beat me—or worse. The move felt sudden, though we had plotted my extraction for months.

Despite my fear of and hatred for him, I left Dad a note. I didn’t want him to think something horrible had happened to me when he returned to an empty house. Why I felt obliged to alleviate his worry says something about my sense of childhood debt, I suppose.

That evening, upon discovering my letter—when he realized that I had pretended to pack those boxes, that I had left him—he phoned Nanny in a rage. His rambling howl, recorded on her answering machine, was more animal than human. The words we could make out were, “You think you can get away with this? You’ll fucking regret it, both of you!”

That night, at Nanny’s ranch-style house in Sun City, I could only worry about the two of us: Dad was armed. A Colt .45 in the glove box of his red Trans Am, a .38 Special and a Winchester rifle in his closet. My body stiffened when a car rumbled past, its headlights sweeping yellow-white beams across the walls of what was now my bedroom. For many nights that summer, I anticipated the thud of his fists beating down the front door. Mom, buried in Sunland Memorial Park nearby, could no longer protect me like she promised.

 

I had been walking for hours. I was somewhere in South Tucson; it was past one or two o’clock in the morning. There were few areas in our college town where a woman alone would be in trouble, and I was in it. I kept going.

Nothing looked familiar. I didn’t have a clue where my anger had taken me. I was exhausted and drunk. I had to pee. I paused at the lip of an alley, looking around. Not a soul. Metal music played a few streets over, a late-night bar that I probably didn’t want to find.

I looked up at the black sky. No moon. I stepped into the alley a couple of feet, unzipped my jeans and squatted next to a stack of cardboard boxes. A warm flood of relief splashed between my feet.

Without warning, the silhouette of a man stepped into a pool of downcast lamplight at the far end of the alley.

I sucked in my breath and crouched deeper, squat-walking back against the grimy wall. Did he see me? I stretched out my legs and pushed back into the bricks so that I could stay low while zipping up my jeans. Dashes of urine wet the inside of my underwear.

I had nothing on me—no weapons, not even car keys—except my driver’s license, a pack of cigarettes, and the candy skulls inside my pocket. Cell phones, a new thing even for business people, were out of reach for broke receptionists like me.

“Hey!” the man shouted, his voice bouncing off the walls of the narrow passage. His silhouette was massive, his face cast in shadow.

I stood slowly, my legs trembling.

We stared each other down across the distance of the alley, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet. His wet eyes shone within the dark void of his face, two flashing mirrors. His hands wavered at his sides. Was he lost? Homeless?

My blood iced in my limbs as he began to walk towards me. In that moment, I felt just how far from home I had come.

Walk, whispered my mother’s voice. Go. Now. Turn and step the other way.

I pivoted, slowly, to the left and stepped one foot, then the other in the direction I had come. No sudden moves. I stepped through broken concrete and gravel where the sidewalk used to be. From behind, a heavy rhythm of sneakers slapping on asphalt—the man was chasing me.

I took off.

His grunts echoed off the shuttered storefronts. I ran, my breath jagged, my legs on fire, turning one corner and the next. I just needed to get to Kurt’s house and I’d be okay. Alan would be there. I’d fix everything.

“Hey! You! Girl!” the man boomed. He was closer than I thought. Faster! my mother urged. I ran harder, my legs surging with adrenaline. The sulphur street lamps blurred past.

Slap-slap-slap-slap!

He was behind me, gaining.

I ran up one street and down the next, 20th to Scott to 19th, turning sharp corners, hoping to lose him by zig-zagging towards the lights of the university district.

Slap-slap-slap!

How much longer could I keep this up? A searing pain bloomed in my asthmatic lungs; I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked.

“Get back here!” he shouted again.

I ran and I ran and I ran.

 

Death was the door to a world that held my mother. It wasn’t until I ran for my life that I realized my death wishes were actually about an ease from suffering rather than a call for it.

I ran harder than I thought possible, no breath for stopping or screaming. Who would hear me, anyway? The storefronts were papered up, the office towers dark. I had a sick laugh at the four years I nearly failed P.E. for not being able to run the mile in less than fifteen minutes. If only Coach Youngberg could see me now.

My chest ached as I imagined La Catrina’s lungs burned, too, from breathing more air than a dead body can rightly exchange. Is that how my mother felt in her final breaths going down, the wretched, jagged exhales of the comatose? Don’t worry, her nurse, Michael, said in between sucking rasps, she can’t feel anything.

I cut a vacant corner and nearly ran right into a few kids my age. They had spilled out of the side door of Club Congress, their skin glistening from dancing in the small, crowded room.

“Hey!” one of the girls said when I brushed her arm.

“Sorry, this guy—” I turned around and he was gone.

I hung my head between my legs, a gurgle of sick rising in the back of my throat. The girls blew smoke and laughed at me.

“What the fuck is her problem?”

“What-ever. Freak.”

I panted, unashamed, until my heart slowed.

My hands trembling, I walked past the mumbling junkies slumped inside the Fourth Avenue Tunnel on my way to Kurt’s. Compared to what I had just been through, their gauntlet didn’t frighten me like it normally would. I kicked a path through their jetsam and turned right on Ninth.

Most of the duplexes and motor court apartments were dark. Their weedy yards, eerie in the moonlight, held graveyard scenes leftover from Halloween. The one bright spot was The Buffet Bar and Crock Pot where three men flopped face-down out front where the doorman had bounced them. The Buffet stayed open past two a.m., although God knew what time it was. The place reminded me of Cannery Row; if Mack and the boys had transformed the Palace Flophouse into a bar, it would have been The Buffet. It was one of few places in town I felt happy.

This is where Alan and I had kindled our friendship, where he taught me to hold down my first shot, where we played thousands of games of air hockey, where—on a dare—I tossed my bra over the moldering buffalo head mascot on the shiplap wall above the bar. A person could get properly drunk at The Buffet at nearly any hour of day for a reasonable price. They served hot dogs, cooked in a crock pot, plated on coffee filters with sides of chopped onion, pickle relish, and champagne mustard. On slow nights I lingered in the ladies’ room, deciphering sage advice from decades-old graffiti carved into the wall.

Ninth Street grew darker as I carried on, or maybe it was my eyes; the adrenaline ebbed from my body. Shadowed row houses paraded by slowly on the walk east, like a rotating canvas backdrop in a school play. With every footfall, I felt my moment of choice arrive.

I could dump Alan for Luke, who had no assured future beyond his art, whose affections were thrilling but uncertain as my own—or I could be smart and marry Alan, like he had been hinting at for the past few months. With my mother gone, I needed someone to save me, and he was the only person who kept volunteering for the task.

 

With Alan I knew I had the upper hand. The night of the homecoming game, that year we actually won, on the walk back to Kurt’s, I pulled off the weedy sidewalk to light a cigarette. Poof. I cupped my hand to shelter the shivering shard of bright, dipping my Marlboro into the fire. Alan and Kurt ambled on, shouting lyrics to “Bear Down Arizona.”

Luke put his arm through mine. We pushed at each other, pretending to squabble, knocking hips. He tickled my armpits. Child’s play.

Luke put his arm around my waist. I watched for Alan’s glance. I sort of wanted him to be jealous. To fight for me. I leaned into Luke’s humid body. It was too early to be as tired as I felt. The temperature hovered at 85 degrees after sundown, after we had been jumping up and down for three hours shouting bawdy cheers.

Hot air rushed out of Kurt and Luke’s side of the duplex when we opened the door.

“Wanna see something?” Luke asked. I shrugged.

“Want another beer?” Alan called at me from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be right there.”

I followed Luke into his room. He closed the door. It was a little cooler in his cell, albeit crowded with boxes and luggage stacked waist-high. It reminded me of my childhood bedroom, only Luke was coming rather than going. Luke had returned that week from a two-month backpack tour of Africa with old school chums during which he had lost thirty pounds. He looked cuter and blonder than I remembered.

He cleared a place for me at the edge of his bed. I imagined what it might be like if he threw me down and made love to me right there. My heart beat faster. Is that what he wanted to show me? I hoped he would crush me with desire.

He dug inside a box, tossing crumpled newspaper out of the way, and extracted a soft flat package tied with string. He unrolled the parcel slowly, turning it over and over until the brown paper fell away. A small handwoven tapestry lay in his hands. He held it out to me.

Giraffes, lions, antelopes, and cheetahs, sewn in black and gold thread, lounged at a watering hole beneath a large round circle of sun. Mouth thrown open mid-roar, the lion’s red tongue held the sole dash of color. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed. He looked me in the eyes, the way guys do when they’re going to plant one on you—a queasy expression. The idea of actually kissing Luke was like going over a waterfall. I clung to the tapestry; I needed to grab hold of something. After years of build-up, he gave me the quickest of pecks, a testing kiss.

That was it?

I searched for something witty or sexy to say.

“You kissed me,” I stuttered.

“You noticed,” he said.

He broke the spell by drawing the underside of my chin to his. He leaned in, his breath passing inside my mouth, his warm, wet lips mashing mine.

Without warning, my stomach churned.

Shots of rum and tequila were fighting with the lukewarm beer I drank during the game. My hand flew to my face; I fled to the bathroom, slamming the door. Vomit sputtered out of me in slushy chunks, partially missing the porcelain.

“You okay in there?” Alan knocked. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” I burped, sinking to the tile while my guts churned.

Alan stroked my hair, wiped my mouth with flimsy toilet tissue, rubbed his hand on my back in circles like Mom used to do.

“She okay?” Luke asked from the hallway.

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I got her.”

 

Relief flooded through my body when I saw the front yard of Luke and Kurt’s place, painted in golden porch light. Alan’s car was out front. I had made up my mind. He would give me the family I desperately needed; besides, didn’t everyone say that you should marry your best friend?

I ignored my intuition, which said that our I-do’s would likely come undone—that I would be the one to break them. Like Catrina, I buried myself that morning, along with my desires. It never occurred to me that I had another choice that involved neither Alan nor Luke.

The shadowy man had run down a part of me, even though my body escaped. He made me feel how unsafe I was on my own. I sloughed off my independence right there in the yard, a moth-eaten fur coat left atop the trash with the rest of the dead things.

My mother was never coming back—not through magic or prayers. Her voice, conjured in the dark spells of the night, was gone. It was November 2, the red fingers of dawn beginning to scrape across the sky. I was tired of fighting and too scared to face the world alone.

Without knocking, I stepped inside to find Alan on the phone with the police. He was furious and happy to see me, hugging me and yelling at me for running off . I had to affirm for the cops that I really was okay; they were sending a squad car by to be sure.

After we hung up, I had a hard time meeting anyone’s gaze. Kurt’s scolding, followed by a bear hug, was the easiest to take; Luke mumbled that he was glad I was okay, then slunk off to his room. Alan took me into his arms with a roughness that gave me hope.

Alan kissed me, and I felt the long-ago spark from when we first dated. That exciting newness when it was just the two of us, before we revealed our romance to our friends.

Maybe it will work, a part of me thought. His protective embrace felt more home than home, or I told myself it did. That’s what I wanted more than anything. It was the first time I understood that something wrong and something right could be the same thing.

The pink candy skulls, now crushed, remained in my pocket.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CIVITAVERITAS: AN ITALIAN FELLOWSHIP JOURNEY. A writer of fiction and essays, her work has appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by fellowships, residencies and grants from 4Culture, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, The Civita Institute and Vermont Studio Center, where this story was composed. Special thanks to Sigrid Nunez who contributed critical feedback on MUERTOS.

Two Monologues from Winesburg, Indiana, a small town between Fort Wayne and South Bend and not that far from Warsaw

Michael Martone

Mario Talarico’s Peonies

My favorite variety is the Eleanor Roosevelt. I am very conscientious in the spring. I stake and cage the plants. I am careful to deadhead the side branching buds to lessen the weight. I know, you are thinking about the ants, but I don’t mind the ants. The ants are as drunk as I am on waiting for those buds to bloom. In the winter I review all the catalogs but I always go back to the Eleanor Roosevelt. Most people think the peonies wilt in the heat, but that is not the case. Peonies are heat tolerant. No, what they need is cold. The crowns need to be frozen, frozen solid. I take no chance. I mulch my peonies through the winter with snow and more snow. All the snow that falls I shovel onto the dormant beds. When it doesn’t snow, I’ll head down to Ed Harz’s Standard Station and retrieve bags of ice to pile on the crowns. It’s the tradition in Indiana to plant peonies in rows along the drive way or next to the white siding of the garages and they do look good that way, that peony green of the leaves, that exploding splatters of red. But I have planted my peonies in drifts, the icy pale pink blossoms piling up together, a dream of winter.

Sue Johnson, Parking Enforcement Officer

I have one of those new digital wearable fitness devices that counts the number of steps I take each day. If you aren’t moving enough there is a tiny picture on the tiny screen, a frowning face. If you are moving the face changes to a smile that gets bigger and bigger as you take more and more steps. That’s all I do is walk. I chalk parked car tires, circling the downtown parking spaces of Winesburg every two hours. That’s all you get of free parking, two hours. I time my walks. I have been doing this long enough I can mark the time by the number of steps I take. The marks I make with the chalk look like smiles too, smack dab on the treads of the driver’s side rear tire. Tire after tire. Two hours later, my pedometer smiling its biggest smile, I come back around. I mark the more recent parked cars, the tires a blank slate. But then there are the ones with the telltale mark from two hours before. I have to write them up. I can do that while I am walking, writing up the summons as I circle the infracting vehicle. I leave the ticket under the windshield wiper blade as I march in place. You can say I am motivated to move even as I enforce the sustained periods of standing still.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

Two More Monologues from Winesburg, Indiana, a small town between Fort Wayne and South Bend and not that far from Warsaw

Michael Martone

Maurice Milkin, Eraser Carver

I go to the Pink Pearl factory store at the factory and buy the ones, discounted, beyond their expiration date. Stale erasers. I have been sculpting for years. Sculpting is about seeing what is not there, the negative space, the foil, the relief. It isn’t lost upon me that in my way I am erasing the eraser, whittling it away one rubber sliver at a time. In the end I have a rubber stamp embossed with a word. I use the stamp to stamp. It stamps STAMP. I have turned these erasers of flat language, turned them into these words with enough depth, a lip. It’s a slug of spongy type. I tool these one-word stories, use blue impermeable ink. MOM for instance. DAD. GRAM. YOU. DEAR. LOST. GONE. ?.

The Weeping Willow Windbreak of Winesburg

FDR himself came to Winesburg and planted the first few saplings. Well, he didnt actually plant them himself but sat up in the Sunshine Special and directed things. He wanted to build a grand shelterbelt from Canada to Mexico. We wanted to do our bit. The President motored away in that big old Lincoln, and he left a contingent of the CCC behind to finish the landscaping. That was years ago, and the shelterbelt was never really realized in the aggregate. But here in Indiana there is this little baffle of depression-era willows. Roosevelt was haunted by the roiling clouds of dust, dreamed of something to knock the dirt out of the thin air. Well, the wind is with us here. We always say there is nothing to slow it down, the wind, as it slides off the mountains out west. There was an oracle in ancient Greece where the priests got their instructions in the rustle of the breeze in the leaves. Oak leaves, I believe. The lachrymose leaves of the willow are all muffled, mumbling mostly. They are pretty to look at, I suppose, this memorial copse, this limping crippled orchard smudging the horizon.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

The Good Shepherd

Michael Nye

Every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck delivered dogs to the Sullivan farm. A six-man crew unloaded crates of canines, each worker filing into the four industrial size barns and herding the dogs into neat rows and stacks of steel cages. Pruitt Sullivan’s job was to fatten the tens of thousands of dogs, keeping them warm and fed and hydrated, fattening them up until Fayetteville Farms returned to collect them for slaughter. It was a routine Pruitt knew well, one that defined the rhythm of his grandfather’s, and then his father’s, chicken farm here in rural Arkansas for as long as Pruitt could remember.

They came in a series of semitrucks with long trailers, and from his porch, Pruitt could hear the frenetic barking. He knew he was not to interfere while the Fayetteville Farms men unloaded the dogs, but it always struck him as something he should interfere with. The men got out and didn’t mill around; they went straight to the back of the trailer, entered an electronic keycode to unlock the doors, opened it up, and led dogs out, the large ones on leashes and the smaller ones in crates. The dogs trotted with merry curiosity as if they were stars of a small town parade. These were dogs of all sizes and breeds but the majority were mutts with obvious pit bull in them.

But what really unnerved Pruitt was that the Fayetteville Farms men wore baggy green suits with thick, rotund helmets, their skin protected from the air. Like they were delivering something toxic.

The dogs were led to what had been his grandfather’s chicken houses, now converted into appropriate storage for the dogs, a series of low buildings with studded round silver ventilation fans every fifty yards in order to properly ventilate the barn during the hot Arkansas summers. On both sides of each barn was a massive bay door that could slide open like a loading dock, and this was where the men entered with the dogs.

Today, the green men were followed by a Kia sedan and from this car stepped a man of medium height, medium build, and nondescript clothes. He stood erect, hands held directly to his side. He spun and scanned the entire farm before walking briskly toward Pruitt, taking the steps to the front porch two a time. He offered his hand to shake; he wore neither a watch nor a wedding ring.

Mr. Sullivan? I’m Dr. Thomas Cook with the Fayetteville Farms Company. I’m a vice president of research and development. I was wondering if you had a moment to talk.

Of course. They shook hands and moved down the porch away from the front door. What can I do for you, Mr. Cook?

Please. Call me Thomas. How’s your operation going?

Fine. Nothing to add. I send in my weekly reports via the server. Everything I observe and record is there.

I know. I’ve read your reports, Pruitt. Very detailed. Very thorough. Is there anything you want to add? Something that you felt uncomfortable about putting in a written report?

No. Why?

Cook shrugged. Sometimes with our farmers, I find it helpful to speak in person. More of a connection, an understanding.

Pruitt frowned. His reports, using a proprietary software provided by the company, detailed the weight, body fat percentage, and heart rate of each dog, along with twenty-six additional metrics of their health. His report also included information about the water filtration system, air temperature and quality, stool consistency, and other details that were measured daily and broken down in his weekly reports with an executive summary, spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar graphs. Pruitt didn’t miss a thing. Including the fact that since Cook had stepped on his porch, the dogs, who normally barked off and on all day long, had gone silent.

You should get more exercise, Cook said, studying Pruitt’s face. You should run. Every morning. It’s just like basic. Get up, head outside, and run.

Pruitt wondered how this man knew he had served. I don’t remember enjoying that.

Running is glorious. Cook turned. He smiled out at the yard like a preacher beaming at his congregation. With our work, it’s easy to forget the simple things that make our lives so beautiful. Like the dawn. Feeling our bodies warm as we move through the world. I love to run, Pruitt. I love it so much. The way your legs burn with the effort and the steady sound of your breathing in your throat and ears. You used to run, I can tell. You should get back to it.

I’ll think about it. Pruitt cleared his throat. He sensed that Cook knew something about him, something about who he had once been and who he was now, and that this pale man was peeling something back that Pruitt wanted to remain hidden and unearthed.

You do that, Pruitt. Cook reached into the left pocket of his pressed, clean chinos and withdrew a business card. If you have any problems or concerns, you give me a call. I’m happy to help. But the most important thing, Pruitt, is that you buy a pair of running shoes and get outside every morning. I promise this will be a big help.

Pruitt said sure, took the card, and looked over Cook’s shoulders. The Fayetteville Farms green men were coming back from the dog houses, free of leashes, carrying the empty cages, their delivery work finished. They climbed into their trucks and when they turned the ignition and shifted into gear, Thomas Cook said goodbye and walked toward his Kia. Pruitt watched them leave, then stood on the porch staring into the distant Ozark hills for several minutes. Then he went inside, opened a beer, drank it greedily, sat down at his computer, and spent fifteen minutes comparing running shoes before ordering a pair that would arrive on his doorstep in just two business days.

 

The morning after Cook’s visit, the dogs started to die.

Pruitt found one of the dogs nearest the door dead, keeled over on its right side, unmoving, the fact that he was no longer alive so obvious and factual that Pruitt wondered if it was real. He moved down the rows and found that eight other dogs were dead, collapsed on their sides, their mouths and eyes rigidly open. Pruitt pulled his shirt collar up above his mouth and nose and then beelined for his dilapidated garden shed.

He returned to the dog house wearing a white surgical mask and yellow latex gloves that stretched up his forearms. The dogs bayed and barked and howled as he searched for the dead bodies, detaching their catheters, dumping their shit and piss on the stainless steel pan into the mixture of blood and pus that had come from their mouths and paws, and sliding the body out from the cage, careful not to spill their waste on the dogs below. Their rotten bodies were like deflated balloons, their tails sloughing off the body when he tried to scoop them out of the cage.

The dogs were housed in cramped wired cages stacked six high in six rows running the entire length of the house. Vulcanized bags for urine and fecal matter, coated with a chemical designed to prevent sores, were attached to each dog, and directed into a trough behind each cage where the waste poured down to a massive treatment vat at the end of the building. The dogs barked wildly at the sight of Pruitt, not, he believed, with joy or fear but with the simple awareness that his presence meant food and they were always hungry.

The food that Fayetteville Farms provided Pruitt to feed to the dogs was a formula, created in research labs using the best of modern science to synthesize the appropriate combination of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to maximize muscle growth and density in the dogs. It was also laced with a material that coated the dog’s stomachs to encourage them to eat more. All around him, stacked above his head, these dogs were overweight; if they weren’t in cages, organized by genetically tested breed and size, Pruitt doubted these dogs could run, or maybe even walk. Their bodies were both muscular and blob-like, whales with snouts and tales. Far worse than their barks was the rhythmic clatter of their stupid tails banging against the cages, a trilling drumbeat of bone on metal that amplified their state of confinement.

Pruitt dumped the bodies in a wheelbarrow. He looked up at the fans, pictured the pathway of the air pushed through the ventilation system, and wondered if the room was somehow too hot or cold. Per the company’s instructions, he kept the room at sixty- one degrees. He didn’t know how they reached this calculation. He didn’t know what was in their food, what clear chemical treatment he added to their water, why the regulations for the cages’ width, length, and height were so specific, why he wasn’t allowed to have five or seven stacks of cage. It had to be six. Which was roughly the same number of dogs he could drop in a wheelbarrow before it was full and he had to cart the dead out into the yard.

He picked a spot downwind from his house, dug a large and deep grave, spread a tarp along the bottom, and then dumped the bodies.

Despite his daily, insistent phone calls, Fayetteville Farms didn’t come any earlier. They continued to arrive every Tuesday morning. They continued to unload dogs and lead them into the cages.

Don’t y’all wanna take a look at this? Pruitt asked the man with the clipboard.

Pruitt led the foreman to the pit. Flies hovered above the rotting, chemical stench of the bodies. When he looked down, all Pruitt could make out were the teeth, twisted and grinning, like happy snarls.

Did you put this tarp down? the foreman asked.

Seemed like the smart thing to do.

Sure was. Okay. We’ll collect the bodies, and bring you a fresh tarp.

What’s the problem?

Don’t know until we get them to the lab.

Want me to change anything?

The foreman looked down at his clipboard, squinting at as if the words were written in a foreign language. He then spoke slowly, as if he was uncertain of the pronunciation of his words.

No, don’t make any changes. Average dog weight and mass are in-range. Chemical elements in the food and water are all clear. Could be the temperature, I suppose.

Pruitt pointed down into the grave. Temperature explains that? Them dogs are bloated and purple. Look like goddamn grape jelly.

The foreman looked directly at Pruitt. We don’t yet know what’s going on. I want you to keep everything the same. Same foods, same cleaning process, same temperatures.

So I get paid the same amount?

The foreman clucked his tongue. You’re paid based on the weight of the dogs we pick up for slaughter. Not for the dogs that are dead.

This ain’t my fault!

Frankly, Mr. Sullivan, we don’t know that yet, now do we?

Pruitt looked down at the grave, and made a quick calculation of how much money this was going to cost him.

My margins are already slim, he muttered.

The foreman laid a hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s gonna be fine, Pruitt. You’ll see. Gonna be fine.

Not to Pruitt it wasn’t. He was up all night, sitting on his porch, the beers under his feet, shotgun leaning against the house, drinking and watching the dog houses. There was no howling, just the occasional scratch of claws against the cage, a dog shifting in place in their presumed sleep. He half expected those dogs to come barreling out of the house, a pack of Cujos, to tear his skin and muscle from his bones with their sharp, devilish teeth. Sometimes, he wished they would.

 

Three years ago a chicken flu swept across America, and even today no one could identify what caused this specific strain of H5N1, why it only attacked chickens rather than starlings or chickadees or cardinals, why it only attacked the birds that the average American ate 94 lbs. of every single year. What was clear was that chickens were unsafe and Congress was not about to export a product that could be unsafe, despite no one getting sick from American chickens in Europe or Asia.

Instead, the chicken companies just decided to change products. That three thousand dogs were executed daily struck someone as a market inefficiency that could be made profitable. The political machinations of this shift never much interested Pruitt. That’s not what he remembered about those turbulent six months when legislation was whipped and rammed through, when rebranding of food from the same people that rechristened chicken as poultry occurred, when Americans dissociated their beloved pets from the food on their plate.

What Pruitt remembered about this time was his father’s suicide. His father, the fourth generation of Sullivan men, a family that had moved from Providence to Arkansas for a large swath of land and the opportunity to live somewhere other than city slums, had at first treated the paperwork from Fayetteville Farms with earnest focus. After all, Sullivan men had a standing relationship with the company, going back decades, long before their financial contracts effectively made the Sullivan’s tenant farmers. The living room table was soon covered with paper, first slim white envelopes, then large manila envelopes, then stacks of paper filled with legal jargon and threatening letters from law firms. The pure amount of paper that corporations, banks, and law firms could generate to someone as insignificant as Pruitt’s father was spectacularly cruel.

It always struck him as peculiar that he could not remember the sound. What woke him was this sound he couldn’t recall, a single shot from his father’s .38, a shot fired by his father into his temple, standing out in the backyard in a spot that, to Pruitt’s knowledge, held no significance. It was a Saturday morning, the light creeping around the blinds of his window, and though he couldn’t locate the sound, he continued to look around his bedroom in search of a source, as if his body knew something his brain did not. It was as if his father walked outside that morning, started to walk toward the chicken coops, and then thought, why bother? His father did not leave a note. Pruitt figured that his father, who never liked to trouble anyone for the simplest of things, hadn’t wanted to burden him with one more piece of indecipherable paper.

 

Cook returned exactly one week after the first dogs died, right after Pruitt had finished a run. He had waited until the day’s heat was at its peak, the humidity pressing into his body like a hot iron, flattening him out. He found that he couldn’t run as far as he wished but that each day he ran a little bit farther, a little bit faster, and that skipping a
day of running made him feel squirrely and on edge.

You’ve been running, Cook said, staring at Pruitt’s shoes.

Every day.

It’s quite addicting, isn’t it? And invigorating. Nothing makes you feel more alive. Pruitt, I could talk about running all day long, but I received a message that you have some concerns about the dogs.

Pruitt scanned the yard, checking his 25, 50, and 100 yard markers as if he was still in Iraq. There was no one. There was a Kia sedan in the driveway and no other cars. The world was still and the dogs had ceased barking.

If I’ve interrupted your dinner, Thomas said, I can come back another time.

Pruitt thought about the pretzels he had been munching on last night while he drank beer and listened to the Cardinals game on the radio.

Now’s good. Would you like to come in?

It’s nice out. Let’s sit on the porch.

Beer?

Yes, thank you.

Pruitt pulled what remained of the case from his fridge and came out to the porch. He took a seat and handed Thomas a beer, which he opened but did not drink. Pruitt opened his beer and took a deep gulp.

So, Pruitt. What’s wrong with the dogs?

Isn’t that what your green men are for? I don’t know. I’m following protocol.

Temperature is set correctly, A/C is working. Their food is the formula y’all give me and they’re getting the right amounts. Water is filtered, unpolluted and clean, just like y’all demanded.

Cook turned and looked at the chicken houses. Pruitt still thought of them this way—chicken houses—though they hadn’t had chickens inside them in almost two years. The only noise was the steady hum of the fans that cooled the buildings.

That’s spooky, Pruitt said. Usually them dogs are barking and howling.

Dogs are different from us. They understand things instinctively that we do not.

Cook turned back to Pruitt and stared at him. Were you in the service?

Three tours.

And now you’re home.

I did my part. Now I got a chicken farm without chickens.

The food industry has changed.

My granddaddy started our family farm. Couple of chickens in a pen, and next thing you know, boom, he’s got this great big business. My daddy is who sold to y’all.

Do you ever talk about the war with anyone?

Not much to say. Thomas crushed his beer can and opened another. People always ask shit like, Did you kill anybody? Or really general stuff. What’s it like over there? They don’t really wanna know the answer. They just like being near soldiers, pretending they’re heroes, too.

Tell me.

Pruitt stilled. You know, there’s actually a lot of downtime when you’re just sitting there waiting for the next assignment, when nothing happens, and all you do is play Call of Duty and shit. And you’re not really thinking about going out there, but you’re also not not thinking about going out there. Just keep playing that game, moving your hands over them buttons, and if it goes bad, you just start a new mission. We played for hours.

Tell me more, Thomas whispered.

He could feel it, then, the way the world zeroed in on the monitor, the way he could ignore the heat and the tent flaps and sand that seemed to embed in his skin. Just keep playing those games until the sergeant said it was time to move out. Not peaceful, exactly, but cocooned off from a world that required his full attention.

Pruitt wasn’t sure how long he talked but when Thomas said, Well, Pruitt, thanks for talking to me, I’ll be seeing you, it was like a trance had been broken. On the floorboards were eight empty cans of beer; Thomas’s remained untouched on the railing. Pruitt staggered upright and watched the Kia pull out of the driveway, and once the car was around the bend, the dogs began to bark and howl.

 

Soon, Dr. Thomas Cook appeared on Pruitt’s porch every Wednesday night. He would knock on the door and politely decline to come in, preferring to remain outdoors. He asked Pruitt to turn on the Cardinals game, though he otherwise never showed any interest in baseball. Pruitt would open a beer and hand it to Cook, and he would always graciously say thank you, then never fail to not take a sip. He always stood, his ramrod posture like a sentry. And Pruitt would talk.

He talked about his deployment. He talked about the desert, the inexplicable heat, the weight of all that gear he had to carry on his back. He talked about the first time his squad was attacked, and how chaotic it was to have bullets zipping around his body, to not know who was firing at him, or from where, or when there was an explosion, there wasn’t fire and bright oranges and reds but just dust, so much dust, clouds of it rolling over him, coating the back of his throat. Pruitt had never been wounded in combat, a fact that always seemed to surprise people back in the States. His friends had died, some immediately from an explosion, one moment there and the next gone in that cloud of dust, others slowly in triage from shrapnel or bullets that couldn’t be dislodged from their pale, skinny bodies. I don’t feel lucky, he said to Dr. Cook, or blessed or anything. The whole thing made no sense.

Not that it made any sense when he received his honorable discharge and returned to Waldron, Arkansas, to discover that his family no longer owned a chicken farm, but a dog farm. His grandfather, oxygen tube in his nose, dying from the lung cancer brought upon him by a lifetime of Marlboro Reds, explained that Fayetteville Farms offered more money, a lot more, if they signed a contract to provide their chickens exclusively to the company.

So we’re tenant farmers? Pruitt asked, running his hand across his still military short hair.

We’re partners, his grandfather wheezed. Not the same thing.

Contract don’t read that way.

Your father and I agree. This is the best thing to do. We can’t afford the land we’re on and we can’t afford to compete in the market as individuals. This is a guaranteed income.

You sure?

Goddammit, you weren’t here, were you?

Pruitt shrugged and spit tobacco juice off the porch. His grandfather shook his head, the tubing around his nose remaining firmly in place. He had a blanket over his legs despite the fact that it was early summer.

We will be fine, his grandfather said. Your father knows what he’s doing.

Three months later, his grandfather was dead, and Pruitt and his father were the sole proprietors of a chicken farm, where every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck would come to pick up chickens for slaughter, the terms and conditions of the chicken houses built to their specifications based on the best science. Fayetteville Farms, of course, did not pay for the necessary upgrades: that was on Pruitt and his father. They took out bank loans and for a few years, the money was good, the work was straightforward. Everything about their financial arrangement was just fine. Until one day, like high winds and storms that suddenly form into a tornado, it wasn’t.

 

What happens to those dogs? Pruitt asked.

Thomas smiled thinly. They’re slaughtered.

I know that, I mean, you know, how.

I see, Thomas focused on a point over Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s quite elegant. We control all facets of meat production now. We collect dogs from shelters all throughout the region, check their health, then bring them to you. We genetically test their breed, or breeds, as it usually is with mutts, and scientifically determine the best food for their size in order to optimize growth. That’s why your houses are so different, why particular breeds are taken to particular houses. We want to make sure they are eating the proper mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and amino acids. We transport these dogs to you, you feed and care for them for eight weeks, and then we bring them back to the plant, where they are funneled into chutes.

Chutes? Like a slide?

It’s beautiful to see, the efficiency. Thomas’s eyes were glassy. The dogs are hung upside down on hooks and decapitated, then skinned. They travel down a line for disassembly. People in hairnets and white aprons and white masks and white hats cuts them apart by hand. Then we take the meat and batter it, cook it, and freeze it, sealing the product in airtight bags. Then we ship them to the appropriate markets.

Don’t seem right. Thomas stood very close, towering over him, and a tremor of fear bubbled through his chest. I just want to live in peace.

And you will, Thomas said. You always will.

He was lightheaded, feeling weightless and unsteady. He set his beer can down on the arm of the chair.

Something ain’t right, Pruitt said.

That is so true, Pruitt. That is very, very true.

The dogs were quiet. No scratches, no sounds. Pruitt rolled his head back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was dawn. Thomas’s car was gone. Around his feet was a larger collection of beer cans than Pruitt remembered drinking; there was even an empty bottle of Old Crow floating in the cooler water. Did they drink whiskey? Pruitt’s vision fogged, and he stumbled into the kitchen and made toast and drank orange juice and tried to shake the visions from his head, the visions of dogs attacking him, his legs churning, feeling teeth grip his flesh and pull the muscles from his bones.

On the morning of his father’s suicide, Pruitt had slid out of bed and tugged on the jeans and t-shirt he found on the floor directly next to his bed, the discarded pile of a drinker. He thumped barefoot into the hall and down the stairs, his mouth dry and cottony. He drank two glasses of water from the kitchen sink and then went to the coffee machine, freshly made but only half filled, and assumed his father had been up for a while. His father had always been an earlyriser. Pruitt poured himself a cup and set it down on the counter. He stared at it for a moment, chewing over the idea of pouring a splash of bourbon into it, aware that his was the behavior of a drunk, and yet the idea gripped him like a fist, and he didn’t quite know what to make of this desire, this need.

He picked up his coffee. No bourbon. He stepped out on the back porch and took a long gulp of the hot coffee, savoring the way it almost burned his throat. He held the chipped Razorbacks mug with two hands and leaned against the railing. It’s pretty here, he thought, a thought as clear and sonorous in his mind as the desire of bourbon had been just a moment ago. Funny how the brain works. He shook his head and lifted the mug to his lips. When his eyes were over the mug’s lip, he saw something in the yard that didn’t look right. His thoughts slowed. This was a shape. This was the shape of a man. This was the shape of a man that resembled my father. This is my father. What’s he doing in the grass? Why isn’t he moving?

Pruitt always came back to, this moment of indecision. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had known his father shot himself; the bullet that went into the right side of his father’s skull had killed him instantly. And the grief he felt, the type of terrifying bone wrenching he would feel for months, even now, sometimes, as he walked away from the dogs and back to his father’s home, would always remain, would always be unavoidable. There was nothing to do. Yet, Pruitt could not shake the belief that his hesitation, his inability to see his father in that moment, was a character flaw so deep and intractable into who he was that he could not help but puzzle over it, turn it in his hands, feel the hardness of this enigma, and study this flaw with inexhaustible patience.

 

As the summer dragged into autumn, Pruitt watched his bank account dwindle. Fayetteville Farms set the price for its dogs based on weight, and when there were fewer dogs, there was less money. The men in the green toxic waste suits continued to collect the dead dogs, continued to deliver new ones, continued to get their data reports from the computers that helped control the dog houses. All of it was programmed by Pruitt: the automated feeders, the ventilation systems, the water lines, the thermostats, and he had been following the guidelines with precision. And still dogs were dying.

Pruitt hadn’t been sleeping. He might as well be in the desert again. Now when he brought the dead dogs out, he knew the living are barking and growling not at the corpses, but at Pruitt. It was his fault. All of this was his fault.

It was late October and Pruitt sat at the dining room table, the entire surface covered in paper—bank statements, legal threats, credit card statements, torn envelopes, foreclosure warnings—and in front of him was a plate with a half-eaten Pop Tart. He didn’t know what to do: his mailbox was filled daily and his phone rang all day, always unanswered, from numbers he didn’t recognize. His voicemail was filled; he didn’t even bother with his email. All across the area, chicken farmers had gone bankrupt. His father had seen that coming for years. But the dog farm was supposed to be the way out of his problems. How did he not see this coming?

 

When the dogs stopped howling, Pruitt knew that Cook was here. He sat upright and listened carefully for the sounds of the Kia crackling along the gravel, of footsteps, of a doorbell. There was no noise. He had a sudden, powerful wish to have his gun. When Cook knocked, Pruitt took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then said as loud and calm as he could, Come in.

Cook entered, the screen door batting once against the frame, and he looked down the hallway into the darkness before turning and facing Pruitt. He smiled at Pruitt, then smiled at the papers covering the table. He stepped closer and stood tall and true at the opposite end of the long table, and wrapped his fingers on the nearest chair. It’s not over yet, Pruitt.

I’m broke, Thomas. Can’t make the payments.

There is always a solution, Pruitt. Always. You just have to think through your problems, consider the possibilities. Look at Fayetteville Farms? Chicken, beef, pork. What to do, where to go. Why not dogs? Why not a different type of meat? Who would have thought of that? Only a company unwilling to break, unwilling to say ‘It’s over.’ Do
you see my point, Pruitt?

The dogs are dying, Thomas. It ain’t my fault.

Cook released the chair and walked along the side closed to the windows. He ran a finger along the table as if checking for dust and when he was close, he stopped and made a fist.

Did you really do everything you could, Pruitt?

Sweat ran down his face; he was hot and cold at once, his skin sticky. Yet, he could not move, as if his limbs were no longer a part of his own body. Fear gnawed at him. He thought about the papers he would have to sign to declare bankruptcy. All of it would be gone: his grandfather’s land, his father’s business, his entire life. It had been just six months, barely a half year, since the first group of sick dogs had arrived.

I’m lost, Pruitt said.

Thomas smiled cruelly at Pruitt. He raised his fist, uncurled his fingers, and placed his hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. His touch was shockingly cold and a tremor of shame ran through Pruitt’s chest. I’m sorry, Pruitt blubbered, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

I know you are, Pruitt. But what I want to hear is what you’re going to do about it. Break down to build up. Do you see? Do you understand?

Pruitt raised his head and looked the length of the dining room table, across the hallway, beyond the dark family room, and out the window into the woods. With a calm whose source he could not find, he said, Yes, I understand.

Good. Pruitt released his shoulder and without another word turned away, crossed the room, walked out the front door, and drove away. Pruitt sat with his hands in his lap, listening for a long time to the silent night, before rising and walking through his house to turn off every light. He showered, shaved, and then slipped naked between his sheets and stared unmoving at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

In his nightmare, there were shadowy figures outside his blinds. The silhouettes moved toward his air conditioner, lifted and opened a sack, and tilted its mouth down into the vent. The air conditioner kicked on and the machine blew a thin white powder into the room. Poison. Pruitt knew it was poison. Yet his legs were paralyzed. He kicked and kicked and they refused to move. The cloud drifted toward him, swimming like it had arms, like it was gently paddling over to his face. When he opened his mouth to scream, no noise came out. He tried again. Nothing. He stretched his jaw as far as he could and screamed from the pit of his stomach, a burn rippling through his throat, and an ear-piercing silence filled his ears.

Pruitt sat up. He was awake. Sunlight laddered through the blinds. He was soaked in his own sweat. He bolted to the window, fingered open the blinds, and saw the driveway was empty. He pressed his forehead against the pane, the cool October air making the glass soothingly cold. Pruitt tapped his skull against the pane. Then he did it again, harder. He heard the glass crack.

Pruitt pulled on his jeans and work boots and went into the living room. He took his shotgun from the closet, loaded the weapon, and pocketed extra shells. He ripped open the front door and aimed the barrel out into the yard. He checked his 25, his 50, his 100, and the treeline. No one. The stench of his own sour breath filled his nostrils. He stepped outside, and when he was certain there was no one waiting for him, he raced to the nearest dog house.

He entered and immediately the barking began. He logged into the computer and tapped in his code. The lights turned on. Pruitt keyed in his command. The monitor stated, Are you sure? Pruitt confirmed it, and all the low level cages sprang open. Pruitt scrambled between the rows, and reaching behind each dog, unlatched the catheters from their hinds. The stench was horrible. The dogs staggered out of their cages and snarled. Pruitt went from cage to cage, unlatching each dog. He climbed up the ladder and detached each and every dog. His hands were covered in shit, piss, and blood, and he wiped it off on his jeans and jacket until it no longer did any good.

Still carrying the shotgun, he strode to the CAT and turned the key. He turned the forklift toward the cages and brought them down as many at a time as he could. The dogs stumbled out of the cages; some fell out, some limped, some collapsed on the concrete floor, their tongues panting out. Some of the dogs in the cages were already dead. A few dazed dogs stumbled out through the open barn door and stood sniffing the Arkansas air.

Run! Pruitt screamed. He fi red two shots into the ceiling. The dogs howled and scattered into a semicircle, staring at Pruitt. It didn’t matter. They would know. They had to know. Pruitt raced to the second house, looking back over his shoulder at the pack of dogs standing uncertain on the field.

He kept thinking he heard sirens—police cars, fire trucks, he didn’t know what— but no one came. Nothing stopped him from dislodging all the dogs, from emptying all the cages, and then there were thousands of dogs, thick and muscular like small bulls, not running for their freedom but standing in confused groups surrounding their cages. Pruitt, covered in the waste of dying and deceased dogs, stood and watched as their muzzles turned up toward the sunless sky, their nostrils tremoring with the distant smells of the Ozarks. Not a single one barked. The silence of the dogs was unnerving and Pruitt knew he stood with his mouth open, that he wore an incredulous expression of amazement and fury and horror. Why did they stand there? Why didn’t they run?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Nye is the author of two books, the story collection STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION and the novel ALL THE CASTLES BURNED. His writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among many others. He is the editor-in-chief of Story.