Invasive Species & Their Habitats

Alexander Weinstein

Teczotchicin Vine

The vine’s voraciousness dwarfs even the kudzu of the Southern United States, whose growth of one foot per day is a snail’s pace compared to the Teczotchicin’s rate of up to twenty-five meters. It’s one of the rare plants one can watch growing beneath one’s feet, birthing folktales of murderous qualities. Indeed, the vines have been known to devour whatever they encounter, entangling wild boars in their constriction, swallowing homes of nesting birds, and suffocating local banyan trees which reach thirty meters into the air.

In 1894, explorer Santos Beniz saw the wild vine from his ship and believed the tips of the undulating plants were people waving. Upon sailing to shore, however, Beniz watched as creepers slithered into his crew’s dinghies, seizing oars and wrapping around the legs of crewmembers. Beniz planted a pole through the abdomen of one of the vines and claimed the land in his name, watching as the speared sucker reached its tendrils skyward to consume the flag. Here, he promised—removing his machete and hacking his way inland—a paradise on earth would be built, and he sent back for crew after crew of men who would build a city named after him.

Incredibly, the city of Santos Beniz still exists with beach access, scuba lessons, and a sandy downtown plaza inhabited by chocolatiers, rum distilleries, and tiendas selling conch shells and shark’s teeth. But while the water surrounding its shores is turquoise and the sea is filled with parrotfish, nudibranchs, and glowing pink anemones, it’s hard to relax when gazing through the snorkel’s goggles. At all hours, one hears the swinging of machete blades and the grunts of workers battling the jungle foliage. The city must employ a maintenance crew of over three hundred to keep the vine at bay; they pull roots from the ground and set brush fires, while the vine’s tendrils snake between their legs, reaching for the city’s visitors and children.

Every hotel owner in Santos Beniz has the same nightmare: the doors of their main entrance widening, vines tumbling toward the front desk. Every restauranteur has the same fear: liana breaking through kitchen tiles to seize butcher knives in their leafy grip. Tourists who visit the beaches of Santos Beniz close their eyes, attempt to enjoy the sunshine, but can never truly rest. Though it’s only the breeze tickling their legs, they leap from beach chairs, expecting at any moment to see the tips of vines slithering between the plastic straps, the maintenance crews dangling from the cliffs.

 

The Monster Snake of Typhon

In adulthood, the Monster Snake of Typhon reaches over five meters in diameter and one hundred and fifty meters in length, its magnitude surpassing that of a London underground train. Its native habitat is the rainforests, where its prey consists of water buffalo and rhinoceri. However, since the encroachment of local cities, the Monster Snake has been found in Typhon’s financial district as well as populated tourist centers, overturning trucks, smashing store windows, and swallowing entire tour buses, digesting them slowly as it escapes down subway tunnels. To see video clips of its attacks is like watching Japanese kaiju films, where scaly-backed giants terrify cities. One watches the shimmering blue, diamond-backed pattern as the snake overturns a hot dog cart and opens its mouth to swallow an SUV.

Two decades of research by Typhon’s Academy for Reptile Studies has helped quell the city’s panic over the creature. Dr. Lefraig’s paper, “The Monster Snake and Characteristics of its Prey: Zero Evidence for Across-Population Targeting,” revealed that the reptile does not choose prey randomly:

“To assess foraging habits, we utilized pheromones of men, women, and children, analyzing variations in composition, breadth, and niche overlap regarding prey’s age, social status, and profession. Six male Monster Snakes were sequentially presented with the scents of over two thousand subjects to determine which scents stimulated gland secretions and predatory prehensile movements. Chemosensory tests indicated that the Monster Snake chose prey consistently, targeting specific members of the test group. Variables for its preferred diet included the prey’s 1) distance and association with offices of international banking firms or world trade organizations; 2) political involvement with energy lobbyists and/or a history of climate-change denial; 3) identification as a corporate lawyer.”

Subsequent research examined death records and revealed confirmation of the study: every one of the victims served as pharmaceutical CEOs, insurance-claim deniers, and/or bank directors. The tour bus of victims? All lawyers.

Most of Typhon’s populace has since come to admire the Monster Snake. Like the common garden snake, who may look frightful but can rid basements of rats, the Monster Snake has purged the city of the least savory part of its population. In recent years, there’s been an exodus of bureaucrats and investment bankers to countries far from Typhon’s jungles. As for the rest of the world, there is great interest in the creature, particularly among American zoologists who have petitioned to bring the snake to the United States for study. To date, the US has vetoed any such actions.

 

The Seahorses of Cajor

While few have seen the giant seahorses of Cajor, legends of their heyday are plentiful along the coastlines of Argentina. The poet and naturalist Phillipe Chante wrote one of Argentina’s most read eco-essays, “Flames of the Sea,” which is both an ode to the majestic creature and a testament to his infatuation with the animal. While many scholars admit Chante’s writing veers uncomfortably close to the erotic, we include one of his less impassioned descriptions here:

“Large as their terrestrial brothers and sisters, the seahorses sport aqueous manes which flow like seaweed from their crown, and like their diminutive counterparts, their tails curl beneath them in a question mark. Fitting, given all the questions we have. Where have they come from, their trumpet-like snouts emerging from white waves during their watery stampedes? To what God do they pay tribute, circling our shoreline like dancers in the dusk? Look how the sea is filled with the creatures, so plentiful that while I sip chardonnay, I watch herds passing along the coast. How I wish to call to them, to watch them emerge from the sea, to come riding to this table where I drink, but they have no hoofs, so must race seaward, their backs glistening in the setting light.”

Though some consider Chante’s essay a fairytale, there are photographs aplenty. One need merely look at the faded black and whites of the sea gauchos who tamed and rode the creatures. Umberto Cézanne, one of Argentina’s last living sea gauchos, passed away in 1964, but he traveled widely giving lectures about the old days of ocean-wrangling, when men in town would head out with harpoons and fishing nets to haul in the day’s catch. Cézanne often appeared intoxicated during his talks at oceanographic institutes, starting fist fights with marine biologists. Such behavior was consistent with the machismo of the gaucho life. Heavy drinkers, fighters, and letches, they spent their days wrangling fish from the backs of seahorses, which they treated brutally, and gave rise to the proliferation of whisky bars along the coastlines. A growing number of single mothers were left to raise their children.

Perhaps it was the gauchos’ behavior which led to the seahorses’ sudden and mysterious departure. One evening, as sunset spread along the coastline, the sea gauchos lay on the backs of seahorses, drinking and cursing. Suddenly, as though responding to a call, the horses lifted their snouts toward the horizon and took off, dragging the men with them. From the shoreline, witnesses could see the men hanging on as hundreds of seahorses thrashed the water white, their gallop a polyrhythmic splashing of sea foam, leaving no trace of their existence except for the small waves which lapped against the pebbled beach.

If Phillipe Chante questioned their appearance, today scholars question their disappearance. Where did the great seahorses go? And why did they kidnap the men who, like the horses, were never to be seen again? Despite these mysteries, the coastal towns grew more peaceful after the men were gone, and children and women flourished as keepers of their villages. As for the seahorses, their images adorn the tile mosaics and paintings in restaurants along the coast. Sitting at a cantina today, one can almost hear the wet spray of the vanished herds, their neighs echoing across the water.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Alexander Weinstein is the director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the author of the short story collection CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD (Picador 2016). His fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, World Literature Today, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2017.

Come On, Come Here, Talk to Me

Lydia Conklin

Sabrina took a shortcut to the party through the field between the Manor House and the Gehry building. The field was supposed to have ticks but no one at Bard cared. People were scoring crack on trips to Brooklyn, sporting fluorescent sores at parties. If you whined about ticks, people would call you a pussy forever. Still, whenever the grass tickled her thigh, she feared it was the tickle of eight legs and a thumbtack body.

When she saw the skunk, she knelt in the grass. She didn’t consider her white dress and white tights, or the possibility that Bill, who’d just dumped her, would see her dirty later. She just fell into the heady vegetable scent of the shaved blades.

Sabrina had never seen a skunk, wasn’t sure they lived in her hometown in Southern Florida. This skunk’s tail was as substantial as his body, and he dragged it like laundry lint as he turned circles. His shiny eyes were so inviting that Sabrina almost spoke to him. She almost asked if he was disoriented, if a lawnmower felled a landmark toadstool or fern. If he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. If he didn’t want to go to Ray Mather’s party either, if later he wouldn’t feel like saying no to coke even though maybe was yes and yes was staying up all night talking to some boy with rosacea.

Sabrina was saved from conversation with the skunk by someone pushing through maples a dozen feet away.

“Hey,” called the someone, who sounded like a prepubescent boy.

“Be careful,” Sabrina said, but the person rested their shoe beside the skunk’s fragile skull anyway. The person was Jojo Myers. Jojo lived in Steinway and had a curled flip of bangs and a moustache she could’ve clipped it was so long. She was so bouncy and small and big-eyed that she looked like the first boys Sabrina had blown, years ago, in parking lots and house party bathrooms.

“You scared me,” Jojo said.

“Well, yeah.” Sabrina pointed to the colorless fur in the grass.

Jojo leapt back. “Oh my god. Are you serious?”

“He’s not doing anything. Yet.”

Jojo held out a cigarette but Sabrina shook her head. Jojo tucked it behind her ear. Sabrina had seen Jojo at parties and Maximum Queef Attack shows, but they’d never talked, because they were in separate departments. Sabrina studied zoology, though there wasn’t much of a program, the classes dependent on visiting researchers. Jojo was in art, with a specialty in “decorative archery,” which consisted of tying bright fl oss around sharpened dowels in ROYGBIV stripes. She stole tropical feathers from the Bronx zoo and sliced them into rhombuses. Her arrows were beautiful, but they weren’t even straight. Even if you had a bow, you couldn’t shoot them. Jojo lined them against the wall at student shows, waited for girls to touch them.

Sabrina had been to the shows with Bill, her sceney boyfriend who wore multicolored t-shirts rescued from the eighties and pants so tight they could’ve been stockings. Sabrina had gone to every event with Bill for all of Bard. This was the fi rst time she was showing up somewhere alone, and she wondered if people would recognize her without his freckled arm around her neck. She still didn’t know why Bill had dumped her. He must’ve fi nally realized she wasn’t cool. She certainly hadn’t been any kind of big deal in high school back in Florida. For Bard she’d tried something diff erent, dyed her ashy hair until the ends broke into Y’s and then Y’s on Y’s, dressed in stiff , formal kids’ clothes. Even though her skin was rough and run through with rivulets where she’d scratched out bug bites in the swamps back home, her eyes were as dark as the last sky of each day, and she knew how to touch a guy.

“Is he lost?” Jojo asked. “Or maybe he’s, like, retarded?”

“He’s circling. So I guess his inner ear could be shot.” Sabrina had never before used information from a course in a social situation.

“I guess that’s cool. Hey. Are you going to the party?”

Sabrina parted the grass with her shoe. “I guess.” Ray Mather’s house was one of the least appealing places she’d ever visited.

“Pretty epic parties,” Jojo said. “They could be memorialized in some kind of, like, party museum.”

Sabrina didn’t want to think about those boozy, feverish hours lined up one after another. The occasions—Keg Khristmas, Drag Week, FU Finals, Lizbeth Lung’s birthday, Crackuation—blurred together in a sea of rabid house music and sloppy public hookups. Halloween was most vivid, with its furries and sexy rotten zombies, and Bill in his rubber salmon suit, scaly flanks jiggling under the cop’s flashing signal lights.

“I was just thinking,” Jojo said. “If we have to go, why not go together?”

The skunk was turning circles so tight that his arrow nose was lost in his tail. Sabrina didn’t want to leave him. “Maybe.”

“Hey, aren’t you dating Bill Miles? Or is it that other girl, Agatha May or something?”

“Agatha Pray. Everyone thinks we’re the same person, even though she’s got that skin tag.” All over campus people called Sabrina Agatha Pray, tried to hug her, accused her of fucking their boyfriends, told her they’d had a fun night while pointing finger guns at her and smirking. She hated to think of what these guys put poor Agatha Pray through. Bill had never made Sabrina do athletic sex. Half the time, they just cuddled. He stroked her hair and sang her homemade lullabies.

“So Bill’s with Agatha Pray?” Jojo asked.

Sabrina shook her head. “I’m Bill’s. Or was. Until last night.”

“That’s raw,” said Jojo. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s probably for the best. I probably couldn’t eat any more ironically horrible fried chicken. I probably couldn’t stare at him staring at a synthesizer for one more hour.”

“Right,” said Jojo. “Maximum Queef Attack.”

“I have permanent ear damage. I live in a faulty smoke alarm.”

The skunk stopped circling and looked out between them, to the middle distance.

“I can’t believe he hasn’t started warning us yet,” Sabrina said.

“How would we know?”

Sabrina stuck her butt in the air, kicked her feet, and hissed. This wasn’t a fully accurate demonstration of aggression mode, since she didn’t have a tail to swat, but Jojo laughed anyway. Sabrina blushed. And then, because she’d wanted to since the moment she’d seen him, Sabrina reached under the skunk, cupping his belly, which felt full of water. She expected him to squirrel away, but he let her lift him.

“Are you serious?” Jojo was still talking in her affected teenage boy voice. Sabrina wondered when she’d relax.

The skunk’s eyes were bright and healthy, his pelt unbelievably soft. Softer than cotton balls, softer than fleece. She wanted to rub him against her cheek, but that would be too much. “Did you know skunks are more trainable than dogs?”

“We can get him to fetch the paper. That would be sweet.”

Sabrina pictured sitting in a breakfast nook with Jojo, eating oatmeal, waiting for the skunk. Her face heated.

They left the glade, crossing out of the overgrowth to where they could see the stars, at least the major constellations. The North Star was obvious, and they walked to the east of it. Sabrina held the skunk ahead of her like a figurehead, so his milk chocolate eyes could see first what was coming. The campus was lush, nature softening the drugs and body fluid art projects.

“You ever hear that thing about plays with guns?” Jojo asked, more tentative now.

“No.”

“I took a class in dramaturgy or whatever. If you have a gun in the first act, it has to, like, shoot someone’s face off in the third. Or second, I forget.”

“You mean it’s only a matter of time?” Sabrina bounced the skunk in her hands.

“I guess the good news is, if it happens at Ray’s, no one will notice.”

Sabrina laughed, throwing her head back, disproportionately amused. She let go of one flank of the skunk, batted Jojo’s arm. She performed the gesture automatically, like she’d done to get Bill in the first place. Jojo smiled, so tight and nervous that you could almost believe she didn’t do this with everyone.

The party was crowded. There was a crust of vomit on a couch cushion beside a girl with her skirt above her bellybutton. The skunk relaxed against Sabrina’s hands. She felt the warmth of his blood, the pulse of his breath.

“I hear there’s decent heroin in the back bathroom,” Jojo said, winking.

The people who bothered to notice the skunk laughed at him, pointing out the soft flag of his tail and claiming it was a boner, which made no sense. No one was disturbed or surprised by his presence. Every girl at the party knew Jojo. They said, “Joey, Jo, come on, come here, talk to me.” They requested kisses, which Jojo delivered to their cheeks, even when they lurched at her lips. Sabrina wanted Jojo alone again. They couldn’t maintain a conversation here.

“You’re too popular,” she said. “Maybe ’cause I’m not hugging a skunk.”

But when Jojo took the skunk, girls shrieked, “Cute panda,” and stretched to stroke his fur.

In the eye of the storm, they found Agatha Pray. So many people had called Sabrina Agatha Pray so far that evening that Sabrina almost expected Agatha Pray to start applying makeup, assuming Sabrina was a mirror.

Instead, Agatha Pray lunged at Sabrina, carrying the heady smell of vanilla. “I’m so glad we don’t have to share anymore!”

“What do you mean?” Sabrina asked, wriggling free. Agatha Pray skipped into the encroaching wall of bodies. Sabrina turned to Jojo. “What was that?”

Jojo looked down, stroking the skunk. “Do you think he’s hungry?”

“Maybe.” Sabrina pressed a cheese curl to his lips.

They found a corner where they could talk. Jojo leaned on the wall over Sabrina and Sabrina examined her mustache, which was so perfectly lined that it could have been drawn with pencil. If it were on a boy, she’d hate it, but on Jojo, she liked that top flap of lip leaning closer in. Then closer. The skunk was still between them, so Jojo couldn’t get too close.

After discussing Jojo’s arrows and her theories of “non-practicing archery,” their past lives in Detroit and Belle Glade, Sabrina was interrupted by a shout of “Beans!” She cringed. Ever since the first week of classes, Bill had called Sabrina Beans.

Sabrina only had to look at Jojo to realize there was some kind of mess behind her. She steeled herself and whispered, “Get me through this.” Jojo nodded.

There were Bill and Agatha Pray. Agatha Pray’s eyes were shut in bliss, her skin tag straight and soft like a baby penis glued to her eyelid.

“How’s it hanging?” Bill asked. “Coming to the show later?”

His tone was so casual that Sabrina questioned what she thought she suddenly knew. Bill was leaning on Agatha, very lightly, but the pressure was certainly from his end. Sabrina didn’t like Bill’s freck-les in her eye line, spread out like splashes of chocolate milk. They were the one thing Bill hated about himself, and the one thing Sabrina could still love about him.

“What show?” Sabrina asked.

“MQA, duh. Come on. You’re always at our shows.”

Agatha Pray reached up and tapped one of Bill’s freckles, spotlighting it in red.

Sabrina filled her lungs. She always went along with whatever Bill wanted. She lifted her shoulders. “That’s just because we were in a relationship.”

Bill frowned, his shoulders falling. “I thought you liked our music.”

Sabrina grimaced. “It’s okay.”

That was the worst thing she could’ve said. Bill stared at her with giant, animal eyes, then stalked away, Agatha Pray following. They hadn’t even mentioned the skunk.

Sabrina turned to Jojo. “That was a nightmare.”

“Beans,” Jojo chirped.

“Shut up.” Jojo was trying to dissolve the scene and Sabrina appreciated that. But Bill was her only friend. She had to know. “They’re fucking, right?”

Jojo gauged Sabrina before she answered. “Looked like it.”

“You know what I mean.” The words came out like syrup. “Since before we broke up. Since forever. Everyone knows. Right?” In her head the revelation hadn’t sounded as bad as it sounded now, heavy in the air between them.

Jojo pulled her lip into her mouth so two chipmunk teeth sat forward. She nodded.

Sabrina looked at the puffy faces floating by. These strangers had known more about her relationship than she had, and no one had bothered to tell her. Jojo could drop the skunk and everyone would put their feet on his roadway stripe and not even care. The creature would be paper-flat, and they’d keep dancing.

“He’s a douche bag, right?” Jojo said. “You know that now.”

“Easy for you to say.” There was a pair of boys on the couch cinching their arms with a prep school tie and yelling that the needle tickled. Sabrina didn’t know how to do this without Bill. Yeah, he was a jerk, but she’d loved him. He’d made her laugh, had navigated her through Ray’s parties without her wanting to kill herself, like she did right now.

Behind all the red skin, there was a window. Outside, it was raining the kind of summer rain you can barely see, that you have to feel to know for sure it’s there.

“I need to get out,” Sabrina said.

“I’ll go with you.” Jojo held up the skunk. “We both will.”

Sabrina pushed through the sweaty forest of bodies, batted limbs, spilled drinks.

“Agatha Pray,” people called. “Watch out!”

But Sabrina kept going. The window was farther than she thought.

“Agatha Pray’s gone crazy,” people said. “Look at her go!”

Sabrina knocked over a boy barfing into a nut bowl. Almond soup splattered the floor. She jumped onto the windowsill. The party was on the first floor, but the fall looked high. Outside, the rain made the backyard murky. Sabrina didn’t see Jojo. Of course, Jojo had left the second she got the chance. She thought Sabrina was pathetic, too.

The whole party watched her now, more people than had ever looked at her before at once. When she jumped, they cheered.

Sabrina hadn’t thought about what would happen when she landed. Because one minute she was on the windowsill, with the yelling and the clapping and “Agatha Pray! Agatha Pray!” behind her, and the next minute she was on a carpet of grass, planted with sepia cigarette butts and bottle caps. She was nowhere magical. She was just in Ray Mather’s greasy backyard.

Then the ground vibrated and Jojo was beside her, carrying with her a smell that was chemical and sharp, and Sabrina realized she had smelled skunk before, somewhere in the Florida swamps, even if she’d never seen one. She remembered catching the scent on an open highway, and it felt comfortable, like she could lean into it. Actually rest on the meat of the odor. The smell made her think of places that weren’t here, and for the first time all night, she breathed.

Jojo approached with the bundle in her arms, half a grin under her moustache. Her face grew larger as the smell got stronger. Sabrina was impressed that Jojo hadn’t dropped the skunk when he sprayed, that she was still holding on.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Lydia Conklin has received two Pushcart Prizes, scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from Princeton, Emory, MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Millay, VCCA, Sitka, and Harvard University, among others. Her fiction is in a forthcoming compilation of the best of the last twenty-five years of the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Lenny Letter, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

Redirect: In Response to Tanya Gill’s “Shared Horizons”

Shelly Oria

One thing about fear is that it’s stronger than the average human body. Another thing about fear is that it spreads quickly in large crowds. The Director wants his viewers to keep these facts in mind when watching his film. He realizes, of course, that this isn’t about what he wants; he was commissioned to make a documentary about a humanitarian crisis. Still, it’s his work. His art. That matters, too.

The Director is considering using subtitles to offer context: Since the rise of the regime in the neighboring state, X number of people have attempted to cross the border; of them, Y have succeeded, Z have failed, and approximately two dozen have been executed. XYZ is just how the Director is thinking about it for now—hopefully by the time the project is in post-production, things will no longer be weird with Andrea and he will once again feel comfortable saying, for instance, I need those numbers by tomorrow, whatever you have to do please, in that tone of his that means or else. For now, he is still tiptoeing, trying to gauge her mood before asking for a fucking glass of water, which is just such total bullshit considering he didn’t even ejaculate.

His aesthetic taste is kind of classy, clean, so he’s thinking: a simple white font on a black screen. But he’s also wondering if the subtitles are even necessary? Wouldn’t the average viewer likely know all about that regime? Maybe there’s no need to offer stats about those poor people trying to escape their country. It’s not that he minds more research; it’s that he minds needless work.

Bird’s eye view, camera way up top looking down down down, getting closer slowly, gently, only close enough for the pink red stain to pixelate into dots to become a sea of people, become many people, become specific people in a big crowd. Let’s pause here: freeze frame. We are about to get closer, and if the goal is to leave no dry eye in the audience, then there are many easy, obvious choices. But no. The Director wants his job to be hard. There’s a particular kind of male who’s the beneficiary of so many privileges that he develops a need to challenge himself, because he believes these self-created challenges legitimize him in a way he can’t quite articulate but knows is otherwise missing. The Director is that particular kind of male. So he chooses his artistic constraints: no elderly bodies, no people with pre-existing sickness. That would be too easy. No, to be the center of this zoom-in, one has to be of age and sound mind, and to have arrived at the checkpoint healthy. The goal is to still reveal, somehow, pain and despair—and not just any pain and despair but the kind that soundlessly screams: My country has disavowed me, I am a body trying to survive, etc. This screaming is done through physical language, facial expressions: clean camera work. Radical honesty is how the Director is conceptualizing it. For the sake of these poor souls, he has to reveal the angst in a manner that employs no trickery. People are dying, he tells himself, and he repeats the last word for effect: dying. Then he makes the face of a man who feels the gravity of death.

In the editing room months later, the Director is looking at so many different shots, an infinite number of shots, the kind of footage you end up with when your DP is undiscerning. The Director is annoyed, frustrated. Nothing feels right. The faces on the screen show no feeling at all, or appear to be faking, trying too hard. He is numb and he’s been doing this long enough to know what numbness in the editing room means. It means it’s all shit. Sometimes you have to power through this kind of despair until the sweet moment when—magically, mysteriously—you find yourself on the other side of the thing. You’ve crossed over. But this doesn’t feel like one of those times.

For a while now, the Director has been working with his therapist on being present. The therapist is practicing something called Nontherapy Approach. It’s kind of hard to explain Nontherapy, and to be honest it bothers the Director that the therapist has no diplomas hanging on his wall. It feels way too late—they’ve been working together for a year—to inquire about the man’s qualifications, although once or twice the Director made a joke about a Nondiploma Approach, hoping that the therapist would understand the joke to be a question (and offer an answer) but also understand the joke to be a joke (and therefore not resent the Director). The therapist seemed not to get the joke.

But most of the time he tries not to worry about the therapist’s training, because Nontherapy has been helping him accept himself. When he makes a mistake now—any kind of mistake, professional, personal, whatever—he knows it’s because of his past, so he tries to Locate the Authentic Area of Blame (usually his parents) and Redirect. Sure, his parents always meant well and did their best, but they also made a lot of mistakes, and never apologized. He walked in on them mid-orgy when he was six years old—this is really only one small example—and his mother shrieked and kicked him out, explained nothing. When he asked the next day—he had no idea what he saw—she pretended to be confused. She said he must have had a bad dream. In his darkest hours, the Director fears that this memory has rendered him incapable of love.

Redirecting helps. Free from feelings of false self-blame, the Director is able to inhabit his body, connect to the right now. Right now, in the editing room, he stretches. After long hours in a swivel chair, his muscles appreciate this momentary kindness, and he moans. It is a quiet, tame moan, a whisper of a moan; and yet it’s enough to invite memories of other moans. The Director’s mind is now moving away from the refugees who are seeking safety, away from the question of whether they’ll be granted asylum. Will they be shot dead? Or survive?It’s not that he doesn’t give a shit; it’s that he’s inhabiting his body. And his body is sending a clear message. There’s a buzzer in his work area, right next to the monitor, and he presses it. Andrea, he says, can you come in, please? I need you.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Shelly Oria is the author of NEW YORK 1, TELAVIV 0 (FSG & RandomHouse Canada, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently, she co-authored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s; the novella received two LOVIE awards. Oria’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere, has been translated to other languages, and has won a number of awards. She lives in Brooklyn, where she co-directs the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute.

Creek Dippers

Robin MacArthur

“You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks. It’s a Tuesday night in late July and we’re on the porch drinking Myers’s rum doused with lemonade. She’s wearing cut-off cargo pants and a Grateful Dead T-shirt full of holes; her cracked toenails are the chartreuse of limes.

“No,” I say, to which she snorts and throws her cigarette butt into the wet grass, where it hisses before losing its flame. Mist rises from the field. Baby grasshoppers pop. Clouds drift.

I don’t want to go down to the creek with my mom. Nor do I want to be living here at sixteen in this deciduous/coniferous northeastern no-man’s-land of Vicksburg, where we were both born, forty square miles of intersecting roads, intersecting streams, failing farms, and rocky ledge. Populated by ghosts and animals and lonely women. Frickin’ heaven, my mom calls these woods.

 

Heaven: like she’d know. She’s thirty-three years old and pocked with life’s failures: her sun-lined face and cheaply tattooed arms and soot-lined lungs. My mother has cleaned houses, waitressed, logged, gardened, trained horses, hammered nails, groomed dogs, hung Sheetrock, and killed other people’s livestock for a living. It’s made her body crooked, wrinkled, callused, bent. But she’s a tiger, too. She has a tattoo of a mountain lion on her left thigh that reminds me, every time I see it, of the love-warrior inside her. The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, “Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o.”

 

Angel? Your mother named you Angel? 

What is it with us and our mothers? The way we both love and hate them. The way they define ugly and yet we catch their face in our mirror and surprise ourselves with—gladness.

The last mountain lion they saw in our state was in 1883. They shot it in the hills above our town, and now it’s stuffed in a museum in Boston, tawny eyes aglow. My mom tells me she’d like to steal that motherfucker someday. Free it from its goddamn stillness. She’s only one-sixteenth Abenaki but claims that cat as her spirit animal all the same. And so that tiger tattoo, inked across her bony thigh.

But tonight she’s talking about dogs. About how she thinks we should raise them to sell. For money. Always dreaming of money. Always in need of more. She gets up and pours us each another glass; coyotes yip down by the creek: a fresh kill. Her words drift to wolves. “Did I tell you about Alaska,” she says, taking a sip, handing me mine.

Yes. She has told me about Alaska. She’s been telling me about Alaska my whole life. Roy and a trailer surrounded by wolves, surrounded by pines. The only place she’ll ever go other than here.

 

My mother and I have lived in this house, this hunting cabin on concrete blocks she stuffed with insulation, since before I was born. There’s a creek below, a field out front, a gravel road that runs straight for a while, and this porch. This porch. What is it about houses? The way their simplest elements contain who we are, say things for us. I was born on the living room couch, a mattress over a couple of crates. There was blood and my mom’s great-aunt Sugar with bundles of herbs and warm, thick hands.

“I think we could make good money raising dogs,” my mom says, nodding her head, as if I’ve agreed. “Half-wolf breeds. Half wild. Big buckeroos. Big stinkin’ buckeroos. Don’tcha think, Angel-o?”

She doesn’t wait for me to answer.

“Wolves,” she says, balancing her wide, bony foot in the air, touching the moon with its silhouette, laughing. “There were goddamn wolves in Alaska.”

She’s getting drunk, I can tell. I close my eyes and she disappears. I don’t want to be a pioneer. I am silently naming the places I might go: Chicago. New Orleans. Amarillo.

We’re waiting for the storm, which we can smell coming through the trees. We’re waiting for Robbie, her boyfriend with the bad teeth. We are, in some regards, waiting for dawn, or tomorrow, or next year. Leaves shuffle. Milky clouds stream past. The creek calls the water in the clouds home. My mom says it smells like desire and tips her head back, sniffing.

Desire. For a moment I know we both feel it: our shared loneliness. A deer steps into the far edge of the field—stick legs, dark pools of eyes—then turns away into the gray trees.

Objective correlative. I learned about it in my course on twentieth-century American literature. The way we anthropomorphize the world around us. I read Faulkner and Hemingway and Eudora Welty, books by frickin’ dead white folks, my mother said at the time, reaching for her Pall Malls.

Yes, I didn’t say, eyeing the bitter streak of her cancer stick, but those books are beautiful. They make me think of nights like this, on the porch, clouds and crickets and this blue hunger, only they turned it into something other. Took it off the porch and into the air. They got the fuck out of Dodge, those men and those women. An aunt of mine lives alone in West Texas. Another on a mountain north of here. Is this hereditary? Some kind of messed-up, errant gene?

But back to the here, the now.

“Fuck, it’s hot. Just a quick dip, Angel-love?” my mother whispers hoarsely, opening her eyes for an instant before closing them again.

I don’t respond.

Someday I’ll talk about this porch. I’ll tell a story about Sue, my mom, weeping or yelling amidst the blackberry canes and fireflies, the wild roses. About the way she drags the TV out here sometimes late at night to watch scenes from the Iraq War: the explosion of far-off bombs, the sad companionship of the box’s blue flicker. About how she throws shit at the screen every time George W. Bush’s face appears, whispering Motherfucker. Or maybe I’ll just say “porch.” Porch. My mother had a porch, resting on telephone-pole piers, on which she lived.

“Let’s go,” she says, stubbing her cigarette and downing her rum. Robbie, we both know, will show up soon in his rusted-out plumber’s van, shuffle up the steps with a six-pack of beer. There is nothing wrong with Robbie. Absolutely nothing wrong with or extraordinary about Robbie.

We head toward the creek—Silver—its banks lined with rocks and moss and roots and tangled ferns. We’ve dammed a spot with logs and sticks and concrete blocks so that there’s a three-foot-deep pool of clear running water, a patch of sandy bottom. Not much, but enough on nights like this. We strip. Wade in. Feel the cool climb our shins. The aunt in West Texas lives in a trailer at the edge of town with a view of the Big Bend Mountains, a dog named Peco, and a truck named Rose. What the fuck, I want to say to the blood-dipped moon.

My mother goes first. Butt, chest, shoulders, then flips onto her belly and dips her whole head under. I go next. Underwater you can see the glisten of stones, the toss of ferns (ostrich, lady, wood). My mother’s white, magnified body resembles a whale, beached in far-too-shallow water. My own? Downed birch trees? Coiled wire? A deer?

The water is ice-cold, mountain melt from higher ground and deeper springs. I raise my face and look up at the dark sky, peppered with holes.

“Goddamn fucking lovely!” my mother shouts, grinning, stepping out of the water. She rubs herself down with her Grateful Dead T-shirt, slips into her underwear, heads toward the light. “Robbie’ll be here soon. You coming, Angel?”

“Nah,” I say. “I’ll stay.” I’m freezing underwater, my body a cube, but diaphanous with stillness. My mother disappears up the footpath, and I dip my face back under, head tipped back like a dolphin, like a bracken fern, like an old wheel, spinning.

I think of those people I will someday give my body to. I think of the girls I go to school with, their normal mothers. I think of these roads, fields, creeks, ephemeral mountain lions.

I stand up in that shallow lit by moonlight and stay there for a moment—naked amidst the eyeless trees—then step out of the water, dry off, and slip into my clothes.

There are voices on the porch. Candlelight, Robbie’s van, smoke rising. I’m freezing out in the field, but I’m made of bronze, too. Cast iron in T-shirt and jeans, barefoot and far from pregnant amidst the grasshoppers and trees lit by moon.

What is is about fields? The way they make all directions viable. The way they give houses, porches, voices perspective. The way the word itself—field—makes you feel both domesticated and wild, both wolf and human, capable of heading toward that porch with its smoke and laughter, or toward the woods, where you could quietly and, without a sound, start walking.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 20: Edges, which you can purchase here for $8, or consider a two-year subscription for $18.

 

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rav Grewal-Kök

Rodrigo took Rosa’s clothes out of his closet and laid them on the bed beside her toothbrush, face cream, and paperbacks. He called to say she could come for her things while he was at work. It was almost nine. He was shaved, scented, and ready to leave.

“Trust me,” he said, “there’s nothing I want to keep.”

He wasn’t lying, though she had a pair of black panties he loved. He’d never put them over his face or taken them to the office in his pocket or anything. He’d just liked seeing them on her or on the floor. But he had folded the black panties and arranged them on the sheet beside her t-shirts and her old pair of yoga pants. In the end, there wasn’t much. He thought she could fit everything into a medium-sized cardboard box.

In his ear she was saying, “This is great, just great.”

Rodrigo told her she could leave the key in the planter outside the front door when she’d finished.

She said, “You don’t have to be such a dick,” and that was it.

This job he had, he went weeks without thinking about the city or other people. He got to the office at nine-thirty and stayed until midnight. He had meetings, client dinners, flights to catch. He worked weekends. Then, after he completed one of his major projects, the pace would slow for a time. He could take an afternoon to get a haircut or buy a new shirt. On his nights off, he went to bars. He walked in, trim, clean, looking to throw some money around. Often he left with someone new. Once a month he got together with his old friends: men who were, more or less, men like him. They ate bloody steaks, and drank blood-colored wine, and maybe put a little powder up their noses. After dinner they went to a club where they watched women dance topless on a stage. Some nights—on some of the nights he spent alone and on some of the nights he spent with others—he thought of Rosa, but he never called her.

One August, he decided to move. He had been living in the same two-room apartment since he’d arrived in the city, five years earlier, but he’d been promoted twice and could now afford something better. He took a place on the top floor of an Edwardian row house, in a neighborhood of row houses and coffee shops. It had a dining room, a study, and gleaming appliances. Although the new neighborhood was not far from the business district, it was on the other side of a line of hills, and its streets felt quiet and contained.

Rodrigo hired a moving company one of his colleagues had vouched for. The men employed by this company—really, it was more a foundation than a business—were all recovering addicts or ex-convicts. Rodrigo’s colleague said the men were loud and coarse, even frightening, but he also said they worked hard, and that it felt good to help people who’d undertaken to better themselves.

The movers were to pack his books and clothes but Rodrigo decided to sort through his important papers on his own. From a drawer in his nightstand he gathered his passport, birth certificate, and old tax returns. He found some love letters he’d kept for years, letters girls had sent him in high school and college, back when people still took the time to write love letters, and also a story about romantic obsession he’d written for a college class and had never thrown away. From another drawer he bagged hundreds of loose coins, and tore up old statements for his savings and retirement accounts. He found a spare set of keys to his apartment and a key to a bicycle lock that had vanished long before. At the back of the drawer, beneath the coins and papers, Rodrigo found two other keys on a pink plastic ring. They were unlabeled but he recognized them at once as the keys to Rosa’s apartment. She had never asked him to return them. Three years had now passed since their breakup. Rodrigo put Rosa’s keys in his pocket. He continued with his organizing and packing.

When the day arrived, the movers worked as diligently as Rodrigo’s colleague had promised. They urged one another on as they stacked Rodrigo’s books on the floor, arranged them in boxes, and carried the boxes down to the moving van. After each trip to the curb the men sprinted back up the stairs. Soon their clothes were soaked. Even the boxes were marked with the sweat of their hands and chests. The foreman, who had a shaved scalp and an incomplete set of teeth, asked Rodrigo if he had read all these books. The movers had packed forty boxes in all. Rodrigo only smiled.

He felt like a different man in his new apartment. At night, when he walked over the pine floors and through the wainscoted dining room, when he inspected his shiny kitchen and the study with its bookshelves that reached almost to the ceiling, he no longer wanted to be elsewhere. He still worked into the evenings but now he tried to come home in time to broil a chop and drink a glass of wine before he went to bed. If he did go out, it was usually to walk the streets of his new neighborhood. The night air in the valley was clean. There was always a hint of salt. Rodrigo kept his eyes down. He came to recognize the neighborhood’s dogs but not their owners. He slept well in his bedroom, which faced away from the street. Sometimes he woke early and went outside, or read a novel for an hour before he showered and dressed, just as he’d done when he’d been a student. He didn’t visit bars as often. Entire months passed in which he didn’t sleep with a woman. And though his old friends still got together at their steakhouse, Rodrigo began to make excuses, and didn’t always join them.

At dawn one day, Rodrigo left his apartment and saw mist drifting along the roofs of the darkened houses. The street was empty but he heard gulls calling from somewhere out of sight. He began to walk in the direction of the cries. The street rose from the valley to a ridge. From it he could look back over his house to the hills that marked the neighborhood’s opposite border and, beyond them, to the towers downtown. Rodrigo paused at the summit, taking the sharp air deep into his chest. He was panting from the climb. The street ahead dropped into the mist. Though the gulls were still hidden from him, they were crying more distinctly now. Rodrigo decided to keep walking. That morning he was thinking of the sea.

It was two miles to the water. The street fell and rose and fell again, its blocks soon becoming unfamiliar. The row houses gave way to newer homes, small apartment buildings, bars, clothing boutiques, furniture stores. Even this early, the traffic had thickened. The day was brightening, with patches of sky showing through the mist. He could see the birds now as they circled in light and cloud. Rodrigo climbed one final, brief rise, and then he was standing over the shore. A few men and women were running near the surf on the otherwise empty beach. Rodrigo looked left and right and realized he had stood on that headland before. Rosa’s old building, a three-story contemporary, was a block to the south. This city, he thought, was full of surprises. Rodrigo walked closer. The curtains to Rosa’s old apartment, on the building’s first floor, were lime-green: a different, much brighter shade than he remembered. They were drawn shut. Rodrigo didn’t linger. He turned and began to walk home.

He was late to the office that morning. Sitting at his desk, he could not concentrate on his work. The hours dragged. At a lunch meeting with a client, Rodrigo let a junior colleague do the talking. Early in the afternoon, he told his secretary he wasn’t feeling well. He hailed a taxi outside his office but when they got to his apartment, he asked the driver to wait while he ran upstairs. From the bottom drawer of his nightstand Rodrigo took out the pink plastic ring with its two keys. Then he went back to the cab and gave the driver the address.

The curtains to Rosa’s old apartment had now been pulled open and fastened beside the window sashes. Rodrigo paid his fare and stepped out of the cab. From the street, the front room was brilliant in the afternoon sunlight. There were white shelves along one wall, rows of books, a new sofa upholstered in orange cloth. After a few minutes at the curb, during which he saw no movement inside, Rodrigo walked up the three steps to the building’s front door. The key he had still fit the lock. He turned it and went into the foyer. Rosa’s apartment was the closest to the building’s entrance. Its door had been freshly whitewashed. Rodrigo knocked. When no one answered, he tried the second key. It turned as well.

The moment Rodrigo stepped into the apartment he was certain that Rosa still lived there. The same print, Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, was on the wall opposite the front door. The same shoe rack was on the floor, filled with shoes he didn’t recognize along with a pair of black stilettos he did. The hall was longer than he remembered. A few steps past the Newman print, Rodrigo found the vintage Che Guevara poster he had bought for Rosa years earlier. It had Che’s head superimposed over a red star, with the slogan “HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE!” beneath. In the living room—which, like the hallway, seemed to have expanded since he had last seen it—Rodrigo saw photographs he knew (Rosa as a child on her mother’s lap; Rosa’s parents in middle age), and others he didn’t (Rosa in a bikini on the sand; Rosa and her girlfriends in short black dresses outside a restaurant or club). She had straightened her hair, which Rodrigo appreciated. There were also pictures of a man Rodrigo hadn’t seen before. He looked to be about Rodrigo’s height, and had the same wavy black hair, but his nose was smaller, and his chin more prominent. It was almost as if Rodrigo were looking at a younger, more handsome version of himself. Before he left the apartment, Rodrigo went to Rosa’s bedroom. In the lowest of a set of drawers in her walk-in closet, amidst the bras, briefs, thongs, tights, and socks, he found her black panties. The hem was frayed at the waist, and the fabric worn almost translucent at the seat, but he knew it was the pair he had once loved. Rodrigo held the panties for a moment. Then he folded them and put them back where they belonged.

The next day, Rodrigo arrived at the office at ten. He arrived the following day at ten-thirty, and on the days after, at eleven. He rarely stayed past six. At least once a week, he left at lunch to visit Rosa’s apartment. There, he gazed at the pictures in her hallway and living room. Often he sat for a few minutes on the couch, whose cushions were scented with the perfume she had always worn. He looked at the spines of her books. There were fewer of them, on fewer shelves than in his own apartment. Most were novels by Latin American writers. Their titles were improbable and often obscure: Woes of the True Policeman; Autonauts of the Cosmoroute; Diary of the War of the Pig. He did not know the authors, yet their names lingered with him after he left.

At night, Rodrigo lay in bed, sipped a glass of wine, and thought of Rosa: how her hair used to spread across the pillows while she slept, lightly snoring; how, in the mornings, she would turn away from the light to bring her face close to his; how she would often wake him in the darkness to make love. He thought it strange that he’d once decided to let her go.

The telephone rang in Rodrigo’s office late one December morning. He had just gotten in. By then, he had been visiting Rosa’s apartment for three months. The company’s director was on the line. He said he had been trying to reach Rodrigo every day that week, but that Rodrigo never answered. The director said there was a significant problem. He’d once considered Rodrigo to be a promising young man. Indeed, Rodrigo had been one of the most promising young men ever to have worked at the firm. But all that promise was evaporating. Rodrigo had done almost no work since the summer. He had missed meetings and dinners. Clients had complained. Rodrigo’s managers wondered whether he was nursing some secret addiction. The director said the company was not going to award Rodrigo a holiday bonus. Moreover, if Rodrigo did not return to form, and very soon, the company was going to fire him.

“You have days to save your job, Rodrigo, not months, not even weeks. Do you understand? You are teetering on the edge of an abyss.”

“I understand,” said Rodrigo.

The director hung up.

Rodrigo stood, put on his coat, took the elevator down, and began to walk.

He reached Rosa’s apartment late in the afternoon. The winters were mild in his city but that day a cold wind was blowing in from the sea, and Rodrigo’s ears and fingers had gone numb. He was glad to let himself inside. He wiped off his shoes, made a cup of herbal tea in the kitchen, rinsed and dried the kettle, and went to the walk-in closet. It seemed larger than ever. Rodrigo put the cup on the hardwood and spread his arms. He could not touch both walls at the same time. On the far side of the closet, opposite the drawers, and behind the blouses, dresses, and coats that hung from a rod, the ceiling angled sharply downward until it met a brick wall. Rodrigo went to his hands and knees. He crawled beneath the clothes on their hangers. When he lay with his legs curled to his chest, he could fit in the gap between the rod and the wall, with the dresses and coats forming a kind of curtain. He thought Rosa would be unlikely to see him there, even if she were hanging something on the rod. Rodrigo crawled back out from the space onto the closet floor and picked up his cup. He sipped tea while he waited. After he finished he began to feel drowsy. He lay down and was soon asleep.

He awoke when the front door opened. There were two sets of footsteps in the hallway. He heard Rosa laugh. Then a man spoke but Rodrigo could not make out the words. He crawled with the empty teacup back under the clothing rod, and had just curled into the space behind the dresses and coats when the light went on in the bedroom. Rosa and the man walked in, their voices now clear. They were talking about the movie they had just watched. Rosa thought it had been hilarious. The man did not. The two of them went into the adjoining bathroom. Rodrigo heard them turn on the taps, flush the toilet, once, twice, and return to the bedroom. One of them switched off the light. They talked for a few minutes longer, Rosa giggled, and the springs of the bed began to creak. Soon Rosa was moaning. Then she was saying the man’s name: “Rey, Rey.” All this seemed to go on for a long time, although in the dark Rodrigo couldn’t check his watch. Finally, Rey grunted—“Yeah” or “Uhh”—and the creaking stopped. Rosa got up to use the bathroom. Rodrigo heard water running in the pipes. Rey was snoring before Rosa came out. Rodrigo waited until he heard Rosa’s breathing slow, and then he let himself drift back into sleep.

Rosa came into the closet in the morning. Rodrigo huddled on the floor in his secret space while she selected a dress. Down in the shadows, with her clothes pressing against his face, and the sunlight on the ceiling above, he felt like a small animal hiding in meadow grass. He stayed there until Rosa and Rey had left the apartment. Then he came out, showered, dried himself with Rosa’s damp towel, and went to the kitchen. He ate a little granola and yogurt, and drank what remained of the coffee. He washed the dishes he had used and replaced them in the cupboards. In the living room, he took Rosa’s yoga mat from behind the couch, unrolled it on the floor, and performed three sets of thirty sit-ups. After he put the mat away, he examined Rosa’s bookshelves. He chose a volume by Horacio Castellanos Moya because he liked the writer’s name. He read until late in the afternoon, returned to the kitchen, ate a slice of cheese, and drank water from the tap. He felt entirely satisfied. He shut himself in the walk-in closet.

 

That night, Rosa and Rey made love twice. The second time, on waking to the creaking of Rosa’s bed, Rodrigo crawled out from beneath her clothes to put his eye to the gap between the closet doors. His vision had adjusted to the darkness. Rey was lying on his back with Rosa astride him but facing his feet, her hands on his thighs or knees. It was, thought Rodrigo, an adventurous position. Rosa was rocking back and forth and moaning. Rey was breathing hard. Rodrigo realized that not only was Rosa looking at the closet doors, but that her eyes seemed to be fixed on his own. Rodrigo’s right hand drifted to his lap. Rosa was moaning more loudly, “Rey, Rey, Rey!” Then she shouted Rey’s name. Rey shouted at the same time. Rodrigo discovered that he had climaxed too.

 

The next day the apartment was full of light. Rodrigo opened the windows once he was alone and took the salt air deep into his lungs. The sky was clear and silent. He felt only the faintest stirrings of hunger. Someone had left a crust of bread on a plate in the kitchen sink. Rodrigo ate it and was full. Then he washed his underwear, hung it to dry, and performed his exercises on the yoga mat. He spent the rest of the day on the couch with Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral. In the middle of the afternoon, he read the sentence, “The house smelled of illness,” and had to put the book down while a wave of sadness washed through him. By then he understood that he was not going to leave.

 

And so it went. Sometimes Rosa came home with Rey, sometimes she was alone, and occasionally she didn’t return at all. On those nights, Rodrigo presumed she was at Rey’s apartment, but even then he slept in his space between Rosa’s clothes, the flaked ceiling slats, and the brick wall. During the day, Rodrigo hardly needed to eat. Often he took only a slice of papaya or drank a little milk from the jug in the refrigerator. He exercised regularly on Rosa’s yoga mat. He read the novels on her shelves. When Rosa and Rey made love, Rodrigo watched with his hand in his lap. Sometimes they left the bedroom lights on. Rodrigo saw that Rey had a thicker chest, and hairier and more muscular arms than he did. While their penises seemed to be of about the same length, Rey’s clearly had more girth. Rey was blessed with a mule’s endurance. He would keep his face between Rosa’s thighs, while she moaned and clawed at his back, for as long as she wished him to. Rodrigo’s own jaw ached just to watch. Rey, he recognized, was a better lover than he had ever been. Meanwhile, Rosa was growing more beautiful by the day. Rodrigo had entered a new land. His erotic life had never been richer.

 

Six months after Rodrigo moved into Rosa’s apartment, Rosa slept alone for two nights. On the third night, she came home with a small cardboard box. She unpacked it in her room, looked at the clothes and books spread over the bed, and began to cry. Rodrigo, peering out from the closet, realized he would never see Rey again. He felt an overwhelming desire to comfort Rosa. He too began silently to cry. But he only buried his face in one of her dresses and waited for his tears to pass.

 

The following day, Rodrigo carried a sheet of paper from Rosa’s wastebasket and a pencil from her desk into the closet. He had something: not an idea, not yet, but the beginnings of one. He wrote a few lines by the light that entered through the gap in the doors. Then he read over what he had written. The sentiments seemed false, the language awkward. He left the closet and returned the paper to the wastebasket. He spent the afternoon on the couch with a fantastical novel by Carlos Rojas, which he found unconvincing.

The next morning, Rodrigo took more scraps of paper out of the wastebasket. He wrote on them for an hour before he put them back. He did the same the following morning, and the morning after that. On the fourth day, he took a page he had written, folded it twice, and tucked it into a tiny gap between two bricks at the far corner of the closet.

 

For a week, the two of them were alone in the evenings. Rosa drank tea and read novels on her bed. Rodrigo lay in his space in the closet and thought about writing. Then one night Rosa brought a man home. Their encounter was brief. The man didn’t stay. There were other men on the nights that followed. Some of them did stay and some, it seemed, made Rosa happy. One man visited more often than the others. He had short black hair and a middleweight’s frame. From the closet on those nights, Rodrigo saw Rosa’s eyes shining out of the darkness. He saw her teeth when she panted or moaned. Rodrigo watched with some interest but he was also, at times, impatient for these sessions to end. He needed to rest for the work he was doing during the day.

Rodrigo began to take blank paper from a ream on Rosa’s desk. His stamina steadily improved. Soon he was writing in the closet for hours on end. Often, he didn’t emerge at all. Rosa replaced the sheets of paper on her desk as fast as he went through them. Rodrigo discovered that he was writing the story of a man who walked at night from one end of his city to another, through gardens, parks, and deserted industrial zones. This man had become bored of his work. He had withdrawn from his colleagues and friends. He was alone, he had no lover, but he was nonetheless happy. Each night, as he strode great distances under the cover of darkness, he felt himself growing stronger. Indeed, he had never been so free. He knew he was on the verge of discovering his life’s purpose. At the close of each day, Rodrigo used his growing manuscript as a pillow. Two months after he began, he had one hundred pages. In another month, he had three hundred. He could not see the ending, but he was certain that when it arrived, it would be a triumph.

The Man I Could Be

Brenda Peynado

Once, my dad tried to give me the jacket the Army awarded him for serving in Korea. It looked like a varsity jacket, soft blue felt, pale arms. On the back it said, I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve been to hell. I was fifteen, and I thought a lot of my dad, where he’d been and how he’d built each of my family’s three houses with his bare hands. And there he was, trying to give me the jacket that stood for all of that. Son, he said, you have it.

I was a greedy little shit. I took it.

As soon as I did, a man grew inside the jacket. He had my red hair, my freckles, my short legs with big shoulders. But he was older. He looked upright and clean cut. He wore fancy shoes and his hair swept to the side in just the perfect way I’d never been able to produce.

Son, he said, I’m the man you could be. He saluted me.

I was horrified. I shoved him and the jacket into the closet, scaffolded on a hanger.

~

The next day, getting ready for school, the sleeve of that jacket whacked me in the face. The man kept grinning at me. I looked at the stupid skull T-shirt I’d grabbed and then at the jacket. I saw the hole in the armpit of the T-shirt, how it was stained yellow on the neck. I got goosebumps, since that fall morning was cold. Finally, I gave in. I slung the jacket over my shoulders on the way to the bus. It perfectly hid my shirt.

The man I could be was still in the jacket, and I wore him like a skin, like a cyborg suit. I let him do all the talking and moving, and the me that was still a kid shriveled and cowered and lay back inside of him. He picked up a girl’s books when someone sent them flying to the floor. He did not spit on the senior that tried to slam his head into the locker, like I usually did. He just held up his hands and crouched low to the ground. The senior didn’t know what to do except stare. The man told the hottest girl in school that she was beautiful, and she was all his if she’d let him, and he brushed past her arm in the hallway. Her pupils dilated and everything. He signed me up for JROTC, when I’d never even passed the gym ten-minute mile test. I was always staring at the clouds and the girls that would never love me. By lunchtime, when I walked down the hallway, everyone at school who before had been slamming their lockers and laughing, pressed up against the metal of their lockers and gave me wide berth. The principal called my name on the school speakers.

The man I could be marched me in there. He saluted the principal and sat down in the chairs in front of the desk. He leaned back, legs crossed so easily, like a cat of prey resting.

What do you think I’ve done wrong? he said.

The principal said, So, your daddy’s been to hell, has he?

I respect my father, I said. So should you.

This isn’t Columbine. How many guns do your parents own?

More than your parents, I told the principal. And I have impeccable accuracy.

I could tell how afraid he was of me. His lip quivered when I stood up, and he shrank in his chair.

You’re suspended today, the principal said.

That’s exactly what I wanted, I said to him in Russian, his parent’s language, one I didn’t even know how to speak.

I went home. I hid in the closet with the man I could be, both of us cross-legged on the floor, until my parents came home. I was terrified. I was impressed. What else can you do? I asked.

I know how to make love to a woman, he said. I can speak seven languages. I’ve been on every continent. I’ve killed a man. You could be me, he said.

Dread climbed up my spine like a monkey on my back. Would I have to wear the jacket for the rest of my life, to be this man? When I took it off, would I be skinny and atrophied, worse than I had been? Would I be a passenger in my own life? The truth was, I didn’t deserve to say I had been to hell until I had. It had felt miraculous that day, but also shameful, lying to everyone. I wanted to earn the jacket. I wanted to be that man, not wear him.

I hung the jacket up for safekeeping in the old shed behind our house, alongside my dad’s old army gear, canteens, boots, flashlights.

You’re making a mistake, the man said, arms out on the hangar like I had crucified him.

I locked him in the shed with a double padlock.

~

Girls all looked my way when I showed up on the school lawn the next day, but one by one their faces fell. I was smaller, ragged, my hair going every which way. My teeth were crooked. I was not what they’d dreamt about the previous night. They blushed and looked away, hoping no one else had caught them making eyes at such a boy. When I entered the front door, the principal stood behind a policeman who fingered his taser. The officer wanded me with a metal detector and told me to lift my shirt. I showed my puny ribs, and the principal squirmed, feeling silly that he had ever been afraid of me.

The senior who liked to bash my head into the lockers was waiting in the hall with a group of his basketball buddies. Where’s your fancy jacket? he asked, knuckling a baseball bat.

I wanted to spit on him. But I thought about the man I could be, and what he would do. I thought about what my dad had survived. So I invited hell. I spread my arms out wide. I could feel my stomach draining out through my legs. I smiled. Go ahead, I said.

The bat exploded in my face, and I saw galaxies. I fell down, frozen with pain, adrenaline commanding me forward towards the man with the bat. They held me down to the floor while he kicked in my ribs. I could hear my body breaking. I thought this was what war must be like. I thought I was going to die.

A sweet voice trickled down the hallway through my pain. You’re all so small, the voice said.

They let me go, and I heard sneakers running away down the hall. One of my eyes still hadn’t swollen shut. A girl stood over me. Rosario, the girl I had picked up books for yesterday. She couldn’t see that I was not the same person. But I wanted to be.

I went to the hospital several times that year, before the senior graduated. The principal and the police officer did nothing. I kissed Rosario in the eaves of the grade school playground. I didn’t tell her about the jacket or the man inside it, but she didn’t even seem to notice I was less of a man. I kept her away from the padlocked shed across the meadow, although sometimes at night I swore I heard the man singing. Rosario often had dinner with my dad and I. He liked her, and that meant a lot to me. I was fifteen and stupid, and I thought I would marry her. We hadn’t yet had sex because I thought that was the honorable thing to do.

~

One day Rosario was out from school sick. I came home to strange noises in the shed, like hands clapping. I sprinted across the meadow, blackberry vines snagging me the whole way. The chains swung loosely over the door of the shed. The windows rattled. I burst through the door.

Rosario had let the man off his hanger, and he was hunched over her. She lay naked in a pile of old sleeping bags on the floor. His face was buried in her hair, and he was telling her he loved her, words I hadn’t yet said. I wanted to puke.

What are you doing? I yelled.

He’s you, Rosario said. Almost.

I lunged. While she scrambled up from the floor and grabbed her clothes, he got in front of her like he was protecting her. But I wasn’t going for her.

He flipped me over, and the breath exploded from my chest. I lunged again and spit at him. I fell flat on my face, cold dirt grating my eyes.

I waited for the finishing blow I had felt so many times in that high school hallway, the one that sent me into the stars, that blacked out who I’d decided to be in that moment.

I won’t hit a boy while he’s down, the man said.

I will always remember you, he told Rosario. But you better not see him in this state.

It isn’t really cheating, Rosario said from the door, not if it’s a version of you.

He sent her out, and she left, as compliant as a lamb to his wishes. Then the man squatted down on his heels to watch me recover, snot and shameful tears mashing with the dirt on my face.

You could be me, he said. You could still be me, and you can wear this jacket.

When I finally got up, I wrapped chains around his arms. I dug a hole in the dirt floor of that shed, and I buried him up to his stomach. I didn’t go any further because I respected the jacket too much to sling dirt all over it. Meanwhile, he just sat there, taking all of it, looking like a god in full martyrdom. He watched me with pity. With pity! My rage boiled over. I added five padlocks, all with different keys and codes. I blacked out the windows. I camouflaged the shed in green paint and laced it with barbed wire.

Rosario never spoke to me again. I kept other girlfriends away from my house for as long as I could. Everything would be fine, and then, inevitably as clockwork, they’d get this distant look in their eyes. They’d gaze longingly in the direction of the shed. How they could possibly know what was in there? Maybe they could hear him still singing. They’d sigh and push their spaghetti around on their plate, and then finally they would leave me.

My father’s shadow was long and sometimes I drowned in it. So I left town for college. I studied meteorology. Something about the ways those women would sigh and look up at the clouds and then leave me made me want to figure it out. Then I left the state. I started a career. I appeared every morning at seven, eight, and nine on the local TV station. Eventually, I forgot about the man I could be.

~

Years later, my father died. I went home to bury him, clear out our old things, sell the house. My girlfriend drove down with me. We organized my father’s affects into boxes, tagged the furniture into what we would take with us, what we would sell, what we would bring out to the curb. She picked through my old toys, pictures of my mother. My mother had died before I could remember much of her and this only made my girlfriend more curious. I gave her a box of old photographs to pack up. When we were done, we sat on the porch and watched the ducks ease into the pond. I could smell her sweat from the day’s effort, like bread and lemonade, plain and good.

What’s that? she said, pointing across the meadow.

Then I remembered what I’d been avoiding all this time. I said, It’s nothing. It’s an old shed with nothing in it.

Hmm, she said. She turned her face towards the pond. She took in the meadow where my mother’s ghost picked white flowers for my father’s grave. The old, familiar fear loomed large in me, but eventually she looked away.

Later, while she was inside gathering her toothbrush and things from the bathroom before we headed out, I ran across the meadow.

The roof of the shed had caved in. I could hear soft little thuds in the dirt. When I pulled the door of the shed, the whole frame came off in my hands. The man was in there, still buried to his hips. He was spinning coins around his knuckles and dropping them into the dirt. He’d lost a few teeth. Mud and birdshit had dripped into the shed from the giant holes. The jacket I once told myself I would earn had rotted in tatters and bloomed mold on the shoulders. The man winked at me. It was so shameful. Someone should have taken better care of them.

Have you come back for me? he said. Have you finally given in?

I came back because my father died, I said.

And who are you now without him?

I’m a weatherman, I said. I can tell when it will storm.

Son, he says. I can skin a bear. I can kill any man within ten feet of me. I can speak languages no one even remembers. You see storms. You see storms? I can feel a storm in my very soul. I am a storm. I could let myself out. You think I’ve been waiting here all this while because I couldn’t get out?

He rose out of the pit effortlessly, hunching like a tiger.

I backed away.

He whipped me in the face. He stuck his hands out a hole in the wood and shook the chains. Let me out, he said. What are you so afraid of?

I know how you get, I said.

He hit me again. I spit out a tooth rattling inside my mouth.

You don’t trust her? he said. Why not let her decide?

He started singing this deep crooning song, so beautiful I almost cried.

Please, I said. Don’t make me. I love her.

Man up, he said. Let me put it this way. I’m not asking for your permission.

Finally I could see I would never escape him. So I called her name from the shed. I wailed to her inside the house. Dread hung on me in giant folds.

When she appeared in the doorframe of the shed, the light glinted behind her in sharp spears.

She saw the man. She squinted her eyes at me. She put her hands on her hips.

Everything I had ever done to her loomed in my memory. She had been with another man who treated her right when I decided I wanted her. We were in a movie neither of our partners wanted to see, and I put my hand on her leg. Don’t, she’d said, but I did anyways. I’m happy with him, she said, but she kissed me back. Years later when we were living together, I remembered her telling me about her past lovers while we walked around a lake, and once, I called her names because I was never okay with all the people she has loved, still continued to love. She cried. I had enacted countless, countless other sins against her. She took all my things to the dump and made me sleep in the backyard. I begged for forgiveness for months. Grow up, she said. And I did. I hadn’t yet asked her to marry me because I was afraid of what she’d say.

I burned with shame. I was filled with fire. I burst at the seams of my ordinary life. I could see, just behind her, my mother’s ghost flitting in and out of the meadow through the house.

You vindictive brute, my girlfriend said, pointing at my crooked nose, broken from all those years of fighting.

You lazy toad, she said, pointing at my gut. You’re a donkey, you’re an idiot.

She kissed me on the neck so softly her breath was like feathers. She knew me so well. Chills jolted up my spine. I put my hand in a box of my mother’s old clothes to steady myself.

My girlfriend took the moldy jacket off that toothless man I could have been. She pinned onto my chest every award that had rusted and rotted off to the dirt. The man shook his head, crushed the padlock in his fist, and left. He walked down the field, naked.

I slipped my mother’s moth-eaten white dress over my girlfriend’s shoulders, kissed her freckles on her collarbone, the chicken pox scar by her nose, the pinky that had grown bent after breaking. I would love her better.

Will we ever be enough? she said.

We stepped out into the meadow. Grass poked through the gaps in our toes. It was like all my guts lay open in that field in the dusk light. The sky was wide open and turning orange. A storm brewed low on the horizon. We were walking naked into it.

White Knights

Howard Frank Mosher

“The Knights need a teetotaler driver tomorrow, Jimbo,” Harlan Kittredge said. “Be you a teetotaler?”

It was the evening of June 20. Tomorrow the White Knights of Temperance, formerly the Kingdom County Outlaws, were headed to Boston to catch the twin bill between the Sox and the Yankees. They’d gotten together tonight at the Common Hotel to put the finishing touches on their plans for the trip.

At fifteen Jim Kinneson, the Knights’ shortstop and lead-off hitter, was the team’s youngest player. Unsure what a teetotaler was, Jim looked over the top of his Orange Nehi at his older brother Charlie for assistance. Charlie was ogling Miss Pinky, the girl singer in the hotel band. A cat-eyed crooner out of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with a voice like a rusty yard pump, Miss Pinky could belt out “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey” loudly enough to be heard all the way from the hotel barroom to the United Church at the far end of the village green. For months Charlie had been begging her to accompany him on an all-expenses-paid romantic weekend in Montreal. In fact, the entire baseball team was in love with Pinky. Jim was infatuated with her himself.

At present Miss Pinky and her fiddle player were taping a cardboard sign over the bar. It said, “We Still Love You Hank.” Miss P had hand-lettered it with a red crayon in tribute to the late, great Hank Williams, who, at just twenty-nine, had died this past New Year’s Day. That was the day the Outlaws had taken the pledge and changed the team’s name. Right here in the hotel barroom, with Armand St. Onge, the proprietor, as a witness, the boys had raised their right hands and solemnly sworn to let the hard stuff alone for an entire year. Beer was still permissible. It was a well-known fact, at least to the Knights, that you couldn’t become an alkie like Hank on beer. Even Armand said so, and he should know. Armand drank two six packs of Black Label every weeknight and three apiece on Saturday and Sunday.

Still, suds and long-distance driving didn’t mix. If the Knights were to get to Boston tomorrow, they needed a sober driver. Jim didn’t drink beer or hard stuff. According to Charlie, the team’s attorney and catcher, the fact that Jim didn’t have his driver’s license yet was immaterial. Like most other teenagers in the Kingdom, Jim had been driving for years.

Miss P shimmied her way over to Jim and Charlie’s table, shut one eye and surveyed the “We Still Love You Hank” sign to see if it was plumb. She had long dark hair down her back and a complexion the color of Armand’s black-cherry bar. She was tall and slender and sang with a Cajun accent. The fact that she was the only Yankee fan in Kingdom Common made her even more exotic.

Armand stepped up to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “straight from the Lou’siane bayou, Mademoiselle Pinky, dark as chocolate and just as sweet.”

Pinky rolled her eyes as the boys hooted and stomped. The fiddler played a bar of “Jolie Blon” while she adjusted the mic.

“Listen, all y’all,” Pinky croaked in a voice like a swamp bittern. “Whichever one you alkies, you, bring me back a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio, I’ll take you up on that weekend in Montreal.”

She pointed a long finger straight at Jim and winked. “That include you, hotshot.”

~

Snub-nosed and hunch-shouldered, the team bus sat in the hotel parking lot in the mountain dawn. It had formerly belonged to an automobile junkyard dealer from Pond in the Sky who Charlie had gotten off the hook for possession of stolen property. The dealer had paid Charlie in kind with the property in question. The words “Burlington Transit Company” could still be faintly discerned on the side of the bus where the junkyard owner had tried to sand them off.

Harlan Kittredge had painted the team’s new name just below the imperfectly deleted “Burlington Transit Company.” In fire-engine-red letters a foot high Harlan had inscribed the words “White Nights of Temprance.” Someone, probably Charlie, had added an inebriated-looking “K” in front of “Nights.” No one had bothered to correct “Temprance.”

The bus had a new name of its own: The Ark of the Covenant. It had been conferred by Charlie in commemoration of the vow they boys had made to leave the hard stuff alone.

They headed out just after five a.m. Jim had been practicing for the trip by driving the Ark to away games. Shifting through its six forward gears was the biggest challenge. “Shift!” the boys hollered as the Ark headed south between the village green and the brick shopping block. Jim mashed down on the metal clutch pedal and ratcheted the floor shift to the next gear up.

At the end of the brick block, Jim’s dad, Editor Charles Kinneson, was unlocking the door of The Kingdom Monitor. He glanced over his shoulder at the bus but didn’t wave. The editor was down on the Sox because they hadn’t yet broken at the color barrier in Boston by signing on a Negro player. Neither for that matter had the Yankees. Jim’s dad hadn’t told him that he couldn’t go to Boston with the Knights, but Jim knew that he didn’t approve of the trip.

The night before, planning the drive to Fenway, the boys had closed down the hotel barroom. This morning they had frequent recourse to the team’s water bucket and dipper. Approaching Kingdom Landing, they began to sing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The song petered out at eighty-five bottles. By the time they reached St. Johnsbury most of the players were asleep.

Jim’s only disappointment was that he would miss seeing Ted Williams play. Ted was serving his country in Korea. Seeing Joe DiMaggio would be the next best thing, even if he was a damn Yankee. In Jim’s jacket pocket was a brand-new, official American League baseball Charlie’d given him for his fifteenth birthday. If they arrived at Fenway in time for batting practice, Joltin’ Joe might sign Jim’s baseball for Miss Pinky.

~

“Just Ahead Second Longest Covered Bridge in the World.”

“Swing in there, Jimbo,” Harlan said, pointing at the pull-off beyond the sign. “Pit stop.”

Jim nosed the Ark into the pull-off beside a green trash barrel. He got out and stretched. Across the river in New Hampshire the sun was just coming up behind the White Mountains. While the boys went down to pee in the river, Jim read the historical marker beside the entrance of the bridge:

“This covered bridge over the Upper Connecticut River was built by James Kinneson in 1789. In 1812, ‘Abolition Jim’ rallied a contingent of local loggers, trappers, Abenaki Indians and farmers, and declared the independence of ‘God’s Kingdom’ from Vermont and the United States over the issue of slavery. In 1836, in a day-long battle at this bridge, James and eight of his fellow abolitionists were killed by federal soldiers sent from Boston to put down the insurrection, and Kingdom County was duly reincorporated into America.”

It seemed strange to Jim to read his own name on the historical marker. It was almost like reading about his own death.

“I guess old James was pretty independent-minded,” Jim said to Charlie.

“He was pretty crazy,” Charlie said, laughing. “Now you know where I get it from.”

“Well, looky there, boys,” Harlan said, coming back up the bank tugging at his fly. He pointed at an ad painted in white over the arched entryway of the bridge: “Whittemore’s Country Store 1 Mile Ahead in Woodville N.H. Coldest Beer in the Granite State.”

“They sell beer at Fenway, Harley,” Charlie said.

“It’s still early in the forenoon, Charlie K. We’ve got what, seven hours to get there? We’ll put her to a vote.”

The Knights voted fifteen to two, Charlie and Jim dissenting, to make a beer run to Woodville. Harlan would direct the Ark across the bridge while Jim drove.

Harlan walked backward into the bridge, holding his arms out at eye level and waggling his fingers for Jim to come ahead. Suddenly there was an incredibly loud, crunching noise, followed by the clatter of falling timbers and beams as the entryway of the second longest covered bridge in the world collapsed onto the roof of the bus.

Jim tried to throw the shifting lever into reverse. Instead he hit first again. His sneaker slipped off the clutch and the Ark gave a bound forward. Jim twisted the steering wheel to avoid Harlan. The bus smacked into the north wall of the bridge, knocking some boards down into the river. Finally Jim located reverse. The bus bucked sideways and the black shifting knob came off in Jim’s hand. The Ark was wedged diagonally across the bridge with its back wheels and three feet of its rear end hanging out over the river.

Standing in a jackstraw heap of beams and timbers, Harlan nodded. “Yes, sir, gentlemen,” he said.

~

“One thing now,” Harlan said as the Knights got out to assess their handiwork.

“This ain’t young Jim here’s fault. Nothing would do but we must make a beer run. I was directing. I checked for width but never looked up. This ain’t on Jim’s head.”

The boys agreed that Jim was in no way responsible for destroying the bridge. Charlie said they should call for a tow truck. He dispatched Cousin Stub Kinneson to a nearby farm on the Vermont side of the river to put in the call. Harlan and the Riendeau brothers volunteered to slope across the river to Whittemore’s Country Store and fetch back a case or two of the coldest beer in the Granite State.

Jim walked down the bank and stood beside the river. In the deep pool under the bridge a school of suckers flashed their reddish fins as they scavenged their way along the sandy bottom. Downriver a hundred yards the Boston and Montreal railroad tracks crossed the river on a wooden trestle. The tow truck would have to arrive soon for the Knights to make batting practice at Fenway.

Harlan and the Riendeaus showed up with eight cases of Black Label in a blue wheelbarrow. Harlan eyed a notice tacked to a soft maple tree near the trash barrel: “Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages Prohibited within 100 Feet of National Monument.” Harlan peered inside the trash barrel, then turned it upside down and dumped some sandwich wrappers and empty pop bottles over the bank. He shouldered the barrel, carried it down to the river and sozzled it out. He brought the barrel back up the bank, got out his church key and began opening the bottles of Black Label and pouring their contents into the barrel.

“We’ll drink turn and turn about out of the water dipper,” Harlan explained. “In case anybody comes along.”

Cousin Stub returned from the farmhouse to report that the Woodsville wrecker was down for transmission repairs. He’d tried Bradford but couldn’t get through. Finally he’d gotten hold of White River. The White River wrecker was out on call but would be up as soon as it got back.

“Hark. I do believe I hear the sound of a si-reen,” Harlan said.

Jim heard the siren, too, from across the river. It was coming their way.

A white Ford sedan with blue flashers and “Town of Woodsville Constable” stenciled on the driver’s door in red pulled up to the far side of the second longest covered bridge in the world. A rotund man in a blue uniform and a blue hat with a black chinstrap got out and started across the bridge.

Jim could feel his heart going faster. Maybe the accident wasn’t his fault but he’d been driving at the time.

“What’s this all about?” the constable said. “Didn’t you fellas see the load limit sign?”

The officer looked into the barrel. “Have you boys been drinking?”

“Certainly not,” Harlan said. “We’ve all tooken the pledge. Our driver, Jim Kinneson here, is sober as a judge.”

The policeman surveyed the Knights out from under the brim of his hat. “There’s no drinking within one hundred feet of the bridge,” he said. “It’s a national monument, up on the historical register. I’m afraid I’ve got to write you boys up.”

Traffic was beginning to back up on the Vermont side of the bridge. The driver of a milk truck with Massachusetts plates laid on his horn, then backed up the hill and turned around in the farmer’s barnyard. An older couple from Mississippi stopped to read the historical marker. They stared at the bus trapped in the bridge. “Look at this,” the man said to his wife. He pointed at a flyer tacked to the bridge beside the entryway: “Minstrel show 7 p.m. July 4 Kingdom Common Town Hall. Music, Skits, Amos and Andy, Walkin’ for de Cake. Admission Two Dollars, Chirren under 12 Free.” The woman from Mississippi shook her head. “Vermont,” she said to her husband.

Three carloads of Pony League ball players on their way from Bradford to a game in North Conway began to chant, “Throw the cop in the river.”

“Here now,” the policeman said, putting away his citation book. “You boys want the truth, I’m just a part-time constable, weekends and evenings. Mainly, I’m a Hoover repairman.”

The morning was wearing away. There was no word from the towing service in White River. Jim overheard Harlan tell Charlie that Boston might be out the window.

The Pony League team took their lunch down beside the river and had a picnic. Afterward they played flies and grounders in the farmer’s cow pasture. Charlie arranged with their coach for the White Knights of Temperance to play them, the Knights to bat left-handed. The part-time constable agreed to umpire from behind the pitcher. By the second inning the Knights were down 16 – 0.

In the top of the fourth inning the farmer appeared to report that the first game at Fenway was in the seventh inning stretch. The Yankees were ahead 7 – 2.

“What’s the story with White River?” Charlie asked.

“Still out on call,” the farmer said. “Their wench cable snapped in two. They had to send to Barre for a new wench cable.”

Later that inning, a blue hound with a frayed hank of rope around its neck ran out of the woods onto the playing field. “Look there, boys,” Harlan said. “Somebody’s nigger chaser done got loose.”

“Jesus, Harley,” Charlie said. Then he looked at Jim. “I hope you’re getting all this down in your head, Mr. Storywriter.”

Without quite knowing why, Jim took himself out of the game and went to sit in the bus, where it was cool and dim and quiet. After awhile he drifted off. When he woke up it was late afternoon. The Pony Leaguers had gone home to Bradford. The Sox had lost the first game of the twin bill and were behind 4 – 0 in the nightcap.

Some of the boys were skinny-dipping in the pool under the bridge. A passenger train with a glass-domed excursion car went by on the trestle and the Knights whooped and wagged their business at the excursionists. A lady looking out of the observation car put her hands over her eyes.

The farmer returned to report that there was no further word from White River and the Sox had now fallen behind 8 – 1 in the second game. The Yankees’ ace pitcher, Allie “The Chief” Reynolds, had given up only two scratch hits.

An argument broke out between the Knights over which one of them could “get a bat on one of the Big Injun’s fast balls and at least foul it off.” Jim believed that he knew the answer to this question but didn’t offer his opinion.

~

Toward evening the Knights decided to hold a temperance meeting. They stood around the trash barrel in the pull-off and passed the last dipperful of Black Label from hand to hand. Each team member took a sip and spoke a short piece.

“My name is Stub Kinneson and I believe in a higher power.”

“My name is Porter Quinn and I am not an alkie on account of you can’t be on beer.”

“My name is Faron Wright. I use to be an alkie until I quit the hard stuff.”

Faron handed the dipper to Jim, who passed it along to the constable.

“Jim don’t drink,” Porter explained to the officer. “Not even beer.”

“Jim here is living proof that you don’t have to drink to have a good time,” Stub said.

The constable held up the dipper to toast the White Knights. “From this day onward I am a full-time Hoover repairman,” he said. “Here’s your tow truck, boys.”

The driver from White River wore a cap that said “Junior” over the visor. Junior backed the truck up to the shattered entrance of the bridge. He hitched the tow hook of his new cable to the rear axle of the Ark and winched it back onto the floor of the bridge. A few more timbers and boards rained down into the river.

While the boys negotiated payment, Jim got his jacket out of the bus and walked down to the river one last time. He took the official American League baseball Charlie’d given him out of his jacket pocket and tossed it up in the air and caught it. Then he cocked his throwing arm. Just before Jim hurled the ball as far down the river as he could, Charlie grabbed his wrist. Charlie took the ball from Jim, and on it, with his ballpoint lawyering pen, he printed, “To Jim’s girl, Pinky. Love, Joe DiMaggio.”

Charlie flipped the ball back to Jim. “Enjoy Montreal, bub. You can borrow my pickup.”

~

To Jim’s surprise, the Ark of the Covenant was still drivable after its ordeal, though the steering wheel pulled hard to the right and he had to fight it all the way back to the Common. They arrived at the hotel just as the last strip of light was fading from the sky. The barroom was quiet. Armand was setting the charts upside down on the tables. The stage behind the chicken wire protecting the band from flying bottles was dark and empty.

“Like thieves in the night,” Armand said, handing Jim a Nehi. “The darky run off to Montreal with her fiddler like thieves in the night. I sent the others home for the evening.”

Jim got out his signed baseball and set it on the table. He wished that Charlie had said something more to Harlan about the stray-dog remark. He wished he’d spoken out himself. He supposed that he should feel relieved that he hadn’t had to watch the Sox lose twice to New York, but he didn’t. Nor did Pinky ever return to God’s Kingdom. For that Jim could scarcely blame her, but for a long time afterward, whenever he thought of her long dark hair and husky voice and the way she’d winked at him, he hoped that she would.

Flash Flood

Alexa Hudson

Mama put a hand to her wide hip, plucked the cigarette from her mouth, and took a long look at Cliff. Pulled her eyeglasses halfway down her nose and said, “No you didn’t.”

“Mama, be nice,” I said. It had taken five years and three days for me to build the courage to bring him home.

Cliff wore ironed khakis that fell an inch above the ground, brown loafers with bow-tied laces, and a blue and white checkered shirt, the cuffs rolled twice.

“Ma’am,” he said, his forehead perspiring. “Wonderful to meet you.”

“Clifford,” Papa gushed, walking in from the back door and through the kitchen, past the table piled with unwashed plates. “Clifford.” He took up both of Cliff’s pale pink hands in his. “How wonderful to have another man in the house.”

The house. Bags of torn clothes, cigarette stubs collecting on piles of books, a child with a finger in her mouth, pots of flowers, healthy enough and blooming, but dirt overflowing onto the hardwood.

“Name me a president,” Mama barked.

“Kennedy,” Cliff shot back.

“Name me a homeless shelter.”

Cliff’s cheeks flushed and he glanced at Papa.

“Always pay attention to the little people, son,” Mama said. “If you’re going to be who you’re going to be.”

“Mama!” I moaned.

“What’s gotten into you?” Mama said and turned her wide hips to face me, looked me up and down. “You knew how this was going to be. You with your fancy-toed shoes and your fancy education. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you!”

“Who’s this?” Cliff interjected, pointing to the child.

“That’s Bella,” Papa said. He sat on a three-foot high stack of records and pulled the girl onto his lap. “She won the school spelling bee today.”

Cliff dropped to his knee and smiled. “Can you spell school?” he asked.

“Can you spell patriarchy?” Mama said, and sat down in a chair.

The girl pulled the finger from her mouth. “P-A-T-R-I-A-R-C-H-Y.”

“Very good,” Mama said. She drew a sugar cookie out from the folds of her shirt and threw it at the girl.

At once, it seemed, the house became a jungle: myriad cats stalked out from behind chairs and boxes and stacks of books. A dog ran in from the back door. A lizard scurried across the ceiling. A raven landed on the windowsill, black eyes blinking. The girl stood from Papa’s lap and held the cookie in her hands. The animals watched. We watched. The girl held all the power in the world and all of us, even Mama, could not stop looking at her. Bella brushed dark hair from her forehead with one hand.

I saw her twenty years later, sipping wine at a café along the river. She wore a white wide-brimmed hat and told a handsome Italian about her crazy Aunt Gloria and the animals, slanting light falling across her gorgeous collarbone.

Now she crumbled the cookie in her hand and scattered the crumbs on the floor. “A little for everyone,” she said. The cats pounced on the crumbs and disappeared. The girl walked out the front door into the blinding sun.

“That used to be you,” Mama said, and extinguished her cigarette on an old hardcover book. “But then you became a capitalist.”

“Who is she?” I asked.

“My cousin’s cousin-in-law’s niece,” Papa said. He stood and stretched his hands to the ceiling, belly a mess of black hairs.

“So. When you get into the office are you going to take care of the brown people? The immigrants?”

“Gloria!” Papa grumbled, and let his hands fall to his sides. “Leave the boy alone.”

“What office?” Cliff asked. His hands searched for his pockets.

“You don’t know it yet, son, but you’re headed for high ground.”

“Cliff,” I said, and touched his elbow. “We can go.”

Beneath his shirt, the skin of Cliff’s arm puckered into ridges and canyons. During the war, a car bomb had exploded on the side of the road. He had been the only one in his Humvee to survive. Most of the time, he could not feel my touch beneath his latticework of melted skin.

“What do you mean, high ground?” Cliff asked.

“Have you ever stood on top of a mesa when the clouds buckle and every drainage flash floods?”

“No, Ma’am. I’ve never been to land like the land you live in here.” Cliff had his hands free of his pockets now and his middle finger twitched like it did when he felt unsteady.

Mama leaned towards him, elbows on her knees. “When you do—when you get out there—remember not every night is the same. Sometimes there’s a moon. Sometimes there’s stars. Sometimes there’s light from the cities.”

“Ma’am?”

Mama stood up and put her hands on Cliff’s arms, just above his elbows. I wondered if she could feel his scars beneath the shirt.

The dog suddenly stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, transfixed by Mama on her feet.

“In the fourth grade you owned baseball cards that went missing one day and you always thought it was Herman who took them but it wasn’t—it was your sister who stole them for her boyfriend but don’t get too mad at her, she tried to get them back, tried and tried, but he had already left her for another seventh-grader and then he switched schools.”

Cliff shuddered. For a moment, he furrowed his eyebrows and his shoulders caved. But then he recovered and pulled his shoulders back up. He looked as he always looked—happy.

“We can go,” I said again.

“Ok,” he said, and turned away from Mama’s arms.

~

Outside, the sun blinded us. When our eyes adjusted to the fence, to the garden of red rocks and wilting globe mallow, trimmed scrub oak and tall cacti, we saw the little girl. She bent above a prickly pear and cut off a lobe of the small cactus with a knife, her little fingers trying to avoid pricks from the needles.

“Here,” Cliff said, and stepped towards her. “Let me help you.”

“No,” she said. “I can do it on my own.”

In the car, Cliff rubbed his forehead with his fingers. “Jesus,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“How did she know that about my sister?”

“She knows things,” I said, not sure how else to explain. “You OK?”

“Sort of,” Cliff said. “That was pretty weird.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, but I only felt partially sorry. “She’s crazy,” I said. “She is.”

He ran his hand along the dashboard of the car, swiping at a layer of red dust. “Do you know things?” he asked.

I looked out the window. Knotted sagebrush and clumps of brown grass dotted the flat earth to where it dropped a thousand feet into a canyon. I could see across the canyon to its far wall, streaked in black stains from thousands of years of water runoff. I knew my first pet, a guinea pig, was going to run away. I knew the coal plant was going to close one year before it did. I knew that Cliff lied to me about his infertility.

“I used to know what everyone in my class had for breakfast,” I said. I shut off the air conditioning and rolled down my window. The smell of sage flooded the car. “It was a game we played. Guess the Breakfast. But when I moved to the city and went to school, all the new things I was learning and hearing and seeing seemed to drown out everything from before.”

Cliff sat still for a long time and looked across the desert. “Once in Iraq,” he said, “I was lying on my cot and suddenly the world got really quiet. Not even humming from the generators.” He rolled down his window too. “I felt, or maybe I saw, this huge mortar blast and my guys strewn about the yard. I told myself I was being ridiculous. All night I couldn’t sleep. The next day we got shelled. My guys were everywhere just like I knew they would be.”

Cliff never talked about Iraq. Over the four years we had dated, and the one year and three days we had been married, I had heard Cliff talk about Iraq three times. Whenever I had asked, he left the room, squinted out a window, turned up the radio. So I knew he needed to talk right then, in the car, I knew he needed me to ask. But I no longer had it in me.

We were the only car, on the only road, bumping over embedded sandstone boulders and tiny road ravines where unleashed water had sunken the soil. The flat red rock desert rolled up into hills dotted with sagebrush and green grasses. It was like driving between waves of a green ocean, except it had not rained in thirty-one days.

After a while, he said, “What a view,” and smiled wide. His middle finger twitched violently.

~

Near town we hit pavement, ate dinner at a bar. We fell asleep in our motel, with space big enough for a small body between us.

When I woke up, Cliff was gone. Light filtered in through the curtains. I got up and looked out, thinking he might be at the car in the lot. Dark water hung low and heavy in the clouds. In the distance, a sliver of lightning cracked across the mesa.

He was not there. I pulled on my jeans and grabbed my keys. When I opened the door, the smell of wet sage, dank and spicy, overwhelmed me. I had become used to the smell of San Francisco—of seawater blown into wind, of banana peels browning on the sidewalk. I closed the door and leaned my head against the wood. What was happening to us?

I drove through town, and checked the faces of men clumped against the drizzle, peered into the half-lit bars. No sign of him. I sped toward the crossroads. When the road hit dirt I cracked the windows. Tiny rivers broke the edges of the road and spread like ponds over the surface. I rolled through, careful not to hit hidden rocks with too much speed. Dark clouds unleashed sheets of rain and moved across the mesa towards me, until I was enveloped in the torrents. I could no longer see. I stopped and waited.

When it let up, I crawled onwards across the mud. He could have been picked up by the water, thrown against moving boulders, crushed at the bottom of a canyon. He had no idea what it was like out here, how dangerous water and earth could be. When I pulled up in front of Mama’s and let go of the steering wheel, I shook my hand. I had been gripping so hard all the blood had drained away, and I could no longer feel anything through my skin.

~

“What do you mean you don’t know where he is?” I yelled at Mama, who sat on her stool and hardly moved at the sight of me rushing in with my hands on my head, as if they would protect my hair from the rain. Mama lit her cigarette from a match. “What use is it if it doesn’t work?” I said. Mama looked at me coolly. “Why won’t you answer me?” I screamed. “He’s drowning somewhere!”

“You need an answer for everything, don’t you?”

The little girl walked into the room. Parakeets on the windowsill looked down at her. “I think I know where he is,” she said. The room seemed to grow quieter, as if all the animals around had stopped breathing. She brushed her hair out of her eyes. She looked at Mama, then at me. “Should we go?”

Mama drove the old Chevy that she had bought ten years ago across the border. It rode so low I thought we would get stuck. The little girl sat between us in the single long seat and hummed Mexican polka tunes, the only thing that came through on the radio out here.

Out the window, the sky rolled with dark gray clouds, light gray clouds, white clouds, all fading in and out of one another, mixing together like God was stirring the sky with a spoon.

“Please dear God,” I whispered.

“What was that?” Mama said.

“Nothing.”

“Go there,” the little girl said, pointing down a wash.

Mama turned in between two walls of dirt and rocks, each taller than the truck, where floods had carved out a winding lane just wide enough for the Chevy. Water ran underneath our tires. I knew that if the clouds let loose uphill all the rain would drain into this wash, gather speed and debris, and crash into our truck.

“Isn’t this dangerous?” I said.

Neither Mama nor Bella responded. I tapped my foot against the plastic mat on the floor.

“Stop that,” Mama said.

“I don’t think we should be in here,” I said.

“Do you want to find him or not?” Mama said.

I thought of what I had seen when I was Bella’s age. Mama and I had gone to the top of the mesa to watch the flash floods. The storm was peaceful enough, at first. But then, all around, lightning started striking greasewood bushes, lit them in flames. “Get down!” Mama shouted, and we made ourselves small. A bush fifty feet away exploded. The rain extinguished the fires quick enough, and the lightning passed. But then we heard it—a rumbling—and when we turned we watched a wall of water rush the canyon, carrying boulders the size of cars and full, uprooted trees. We were safe, up high on the mesa, but I swore then that I would never be caught in a canyon in a storm. I thought now of those boulders and trees crushing the Chevy and our bodies. The water spreading our bones across drying earth, bones cracking like soil in the sun.

Ravens began to circle overhead. The little girl looked up at them through the windshield. Her eyelids fluttered. “Um,” she said. She twisted her hair, gripped the edge of the seat.

“What is it?” I said.

Right then the canyon widened and the walls became gentle slopes that rose to meet the mesa.

“Pull off!” Bella screamed.

Mama made a hard left and gunned it up the slope. Behind us, rumbling and cracking grew louder until it roared. Bella grabbed my hand. Just as we crested onto the mesa, we turned and saw the barreling water below slam against the walls of the canyon, rip off slabs of sand and buried rocks and carry it all downstream. At once, the canyon was a dirty, wild river.

The three of us climbed out of the truck and stood on the mesa. We watched the river beneath us. Over the girl’s head, Mama looked at me wild-eyed. Bella started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.

I picked her up, cradled her against my hip.

“I didn’t know,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said.

Mama came over and stroked the little girl’s dark hair with one hand. She kissed her on her forehead. She kissed me on my forehead. “I need a cigarette,” she said, and went back to the truck.

I held Bella a long time. We watched the river sink low and die to a trickle. I held her little body. Cliff said it was the blast that had made him infertile. But he was lying. It was the war, I thought. He didn’t want to be responsible for another life.

“Girls,” Mama called from where she sat on the front hood of the Chevy. “I think I see him.”

I carried Bella to the truck and put her down. The three of us squinted across the sagebrush flats into the distance.

“Do you see that little white speck?” Mama said.

“No,” Bella and I said.

Mama dragged on her cigarette. “See where the land out there slopes up just a little? There are two juniper trees. Right next to those trees is a white speck.”

“I see it,” Bella said. “I see it.”

“I think it’s moving,” Mama said.

“I can’t see it,” I said.

“It’s right there,” Mama said, and pointed across the desert.

I shaded my eyes with one hand. I saw red land, shining wet plants, clouds of all shades, but no white speck.

“It’s right in front of your face!” Mama cried. “Just look right there!”

“It’s moving,” Bella said.

Mama jumped off the hood. “Let’s go,” she said. Mama walked around me and opened the driver’s door. She helped Bella up into the truck.

I stood still.

“Get in the damn car,” Mama said.

We drove over the mesa but mud slowed us down. Mama swerved the truck around clumps of cholla, whose needles would puncture our tires. I looked for the white speck in the distance but I saw hundreds of white specks: the flowers of cactus, blooming in the rain.

“It’s him,” Bella said, shading her eyes with one hand.

Suddenly, I could see him. White polo shirt, khaki pants. “It’s him,” I said.

Cliff stood beside a juniper tree and watched our truck.

I rolled down the window and stuck my head out. Pellets of rain sliced my cheeks.

He didn’t move. I saw a look I had never seen on his face—his nose and mouth twisted up like gnarled roots, an upswell of dirty emotions ripped across his skin. And then the expression disappeared, replaced by a smile.

Mama stopped the truck. The desert was quiet but we could hear the sound of our feet in wet sand, like paper on wood.

“Not even within a single night is the night the same!” Cliff cried. “Rain, then the bright moon, then the city lights. Then rain! Thunder and lightning and rain.”

“Take it easy, son,” Mama said. His polo shirt had short sleeves and she saw, for the first time, his mangled skin. She didn’t look long. She just reached out and touched him.

“The earth was dry,” Cliff said. “Dead. And then the rain—all this rain—moved the rocks and—look! Look! That cactus is blooming. That red flower is standing up now.”

It’s true, the desert looked lush. Tall straight green grasses, shining dark juniper boughs, prickly pear blooming white flowers.

“For a while there was nothing to see or hear,” Cliff said. “I just smelled plants. This one—what’s this one?”

“Ephedra,” Bella said, and told him he could boil it and drink the water for energy. She showed him the stiff stalks of Horse’s Tail, told him of its ancientness. He bent to them, shook his head.

Bella walked to a shrub that bloomed little white flowers. “Smell this one,” she said.

Cliff bent and smelled. “Yes!” he said. “This is what I smelled. It smells like the tea Iraqis make for a cold.”

Just as he reached out to touch a flower, a jackrabbit exploded from the bush like a gunshot. Mama and I jumped, and Cliff hit the ground, facedown, and covered his head with his hands.

He looked up. “What was that?”

The jackrabbit stopped. Its huge black ears turned toward us like satellite dishes. It eyed Bella and sniffed the air. Bella took four steps to the animal. We watched, transfixed. She reached out; her fingertips brushed its grey back. Very still, its black eyes pulsed, its nose twitched. For a moment, Bella looked just like any other little girl with a bunny. The jackrabbit hopped away.

Cliff stood up. “What was that?” he said again.

“Jackrabbit,” Bella said.

Cliff stared after the wild bunny longingly. He had never wanted us to find him, I thought. An upswell of emotion again ripped across his face. “Once,” he said. “A man was walking across the yard into his home and I shot him. Brains exploded everywhere. Then his wife ran out of their house. Then two tiny children. They didn’t think of their own safety. They just wanted to touch him as he died.”

Bella walked over and put her hand in his hand. He looked down at her. His face melted back into calm.

“I made nests,” he said. “Look.” Two juniper trees had been stripped of bark, which can be pulled off like sheets of paper. Cliff had wrapped the bark into tiny nests, placed them in the branches.

“For who?” Bella asked.

“I saw birds,” Cliff said.

Bella looked pleased.

“He died five feet from home,” Cliff said.

Mama walked to him and put her hands on his arm.

Mama was touching him. Bella was touching him. Still, to this day, I wish I had reached out and touched him. Years later, he would win a seat in the House. I would look up interviews to hear his voice. I would record the television to study his face. I would call and call.

I knew this.

But still I didn’t move.

“The air was very clear,” he said. “No radio waves. No pheromones. Not even light rays, or sound waves, until the light changed.”

He looked at Mama. “It was very clean,” he said. “I feel very clean.”

Mama and Bella nodded.

“Son,” Mama said. “I think it’s time we go home.”

For the first time, Cliff looked at me. “I don’t know if I want to go home.”

“You can’t stay out here forever,” Mama said.

He looked at me with big wet eyes, but still, I didn’t go to him. Many years behind us by then, and never once had he asked me what I wanted. I should have let it go, I should have told him we would survive. I should have at least touched him. But he was not reaching for me either, and I wanted, like him, to suddenly find myself in a flooded desert, after a lighted night, with a hand inside my hand. I wanted to be the kind of person who could risk it all to touch love as it died. But I didn’t have that kind of bravery.

I stood there, very still.

Later, I would listen to him. He wouldn’t talk about the changing light, or the smell of Ephedra and Horse’s Tail, or cleansing space. He wouldn’t talk about the juniper that grew bark like hair, or stripping it, wrapping it into a nest, leaving it in a tree for a bird and her eggs. Nor would he talk about the crazy woman he met who could see through time, or the father ready to bite his own hand, or the little girl who took his breath away. He would talk about the drought in the West. He would talk about drilling. About cattle and wolves. About emissions. About erosion. And he would talk about Iraq.

Mama watched us. “It’s time we go,” she said.

“One more minute,” Cliff said. He pulled off his white shirt. The scars of his skin puckered into mottled ridges, thick rips across his chest.

He lay down on his chest in the mud. For a long time, he lay still. When he stood up, earth filled in the dents of his skin and smoothed it all over.

“Okay,” he said. “We can go.” He followed Mama and Bella past me to the truck and climbed onto the seat. The mud dripped all over, into every crevice of the fabric. The mud dried there and later it turned to dust.

Shirts and Skins

Brian Evenson

1.

On their first date, a so-called blind one, Megan took Gregory by the hand and he let her.  She led him into a space afflicted with mood lighting and for a moment he though it must be a bar, a remarkably empty one, but no, it was not a bar but an art gallery.  Or, rather, the cloakroom of a gallery, with a row of hooks on the left wall of the narrow room.  On those hooks were a series of what he thought were sweaters but which, as his eyes adjusted, he realized were shirts.  So, maybe not a cloakroom after all.  She was tugging at his hand, pulling him forward and then he was there, glimpsing beside the row of hanging shirts a small, unobtrusive card glued to the wall.  He bent down, squinted.  “Shirts.” read the card.

But she was already heading through the doorway and what, blind date or no, could he do but follow?  So he followed, out of that room and into the next.  The same narrow room, the same series of hooks, nothing hanging from them this time.  And there, just there, just beyond, another unobtrusive card.  “No shirts.” it read.

Correct, he thought, ludicrously.

There she went, heels clopping.  Why had she worn heels?  It was a blind date but they had agreed to a casual date, during daylight hours.  Didn’t casual preclude heels?  Was she the kind of girl who would wear heels on a casual date or was she on a different sort of date than he was?

He followed.  Same room, same row of hooks, a few shirts scattered on them.  With dread, he moved toward the small white card.  “Some shirts.” it read.

What the fuck? he wondered.

She had circled back and caught hold of his hand, and now tugged him forward, through a door at the far end of the room, one with a metal bar in the middle of it.  She pushed down the metal bar and an alarm went off, screeching, and he stopped, but no, she dragged him through.  And then they were out in an alley behind the gallery, blinking in the sunlight.  A man was sprawled there, in a mound of trash.  He was wearing a coat, zipped closed despite the heat, and a pair of mismatched sneakers, but had no pants.  His flaccid penis curved sleepily to one side.  Shirt or no shirt? Gregory wondered about him.  With the coat, he couldn’t tell.

He looked for a white card.  He turned to her, confused.  “Is this part of the exhibit?” he asked.

He was surprised when Megan became happy, inordinately so.  “Yes,” she said, her face lighting up in a broad smile, “exactly!”

 

2.

A week later they had moved in together.  Gregory couldn’t help but feel that their relationship had been established on a misunderstanding.  He still couldn’t figure out what had happened at the gallery exactly, nor behind it, nor why the sequence as a whole had led to him having what could only be described as profound difficulty asserting his own personality and desires when he was with her.  It was as if, their relationship having gotten off on a particular foot, the other foot—the more independent, healthier one—had been lopped off, and so now he had to hop.  Not just the foot, he sometimes thought, but the whole leg.  When he was with her, there was less of him and what was there she was somehow in charge of.

She was older than him as it turned out, though she had lied about her age when they had first met, and, indeed, continued to lie about it.  But he had glimpsed her proper age, the year anyway, on her driver’s license when she had been buying liquor at the grocery store.  Her age wasn’t, he told himself, a problem in and of itself except to the degree that she felt entitled to run the relationship.  For it was she who decided where they would go, what they would have for dinner, how they would spend their day.  When they had decided to move in together it had been, in fact, she who had decided they would move in together.  And he, even though a part of his mind was screaming the whole time at him to run, had simply gone along with it.

Have I always been like this? he wondered.  Passive?  That, as much as anything, was what worried him.  But no, he didn’t think so.  He’d had relationships in the past.  They had, admittedly, all been bad—or at least had all ended badly.  But he’d been able to assert himself, to make his will known.  For instance, in those other relationships he hadn’t, as he now did in this relationship, taken up running because she ran every morning and simply took it for granted he would too.  He hadn’t, as he did now, been willing to sit for two or even three hours at a stretch watching marathons of a formulaic and unbearable dramedy about a perky New Yorker who moves to Alabama on a channel inexplicably called “the CW”.  The whole time he had felt himself going crazy inside.  What is this relationship doing to me?  he wondered.  What will be left of me once it’s done?

“You’re the best,” she said, during the commercial break, leaning over and stroking his cheek in a way that made him want to flinch.  “You’re my favorite boyfriend ever.”  A part of him tried to smile weakly back at her, but it hardly mattered; the commercial had ended and her eyes were already glued to the screen.

 

3.

On their six-month anniversary, over a dinner that she had chosen the recipes for but insisted he make, she brought up the art show again.  Now that he’d lived with her as long as he had, he had an even harder time understanding why she’d taken him to it.  It didn’t fit, at least to his mind, with the other sorts of things that she liked.  They hadn’t gone to a gallery together since.

“Wasn’t it wild?” she was saying, “I mean:  shirts?”

“Umm,” he said.

“And that guy, in the back, his junk all out?”

“I,” said Gregory, and straightened.  “Was he an actor?  Was he part of the show?”

She laughed, in a way that he had rapidly come to think of as forced.  “Yes, exactly,” she said.

Yes?  Exactly? What did that even mean? he wondered.  A dull rage began to rise in him.  He seemed liked such a nice, normal guy, he imagined the neighbors saying.  But then he just snapped.  He lifted his wine glass and drained it.  When he reached for the bottle, she playfully batted his hand away.

“Slow down, cowboy,” she said, and smiled glubbily.  It was like being smiled at by a mudskipper.

He was not a cowboy.  Why would she call him that? When she got up to powder her nose, he poured himself another glass, filled almost to the brim.  By the time she was back at the table, she had managed to drain it.

It was that, probably, the wine.  And drinking it so fast.  Before he knew it, he was talking, parts of himself coming out that she had until then kept battened in.  “I didn’t like it,” he said.

She snorted.  “You cooked it,” she said.  “It’s your own fault.”

“No,” he said, “not that.  The art show.”

For just a moment he saw the naked hurt in her face, but it was quickly gone, submerged beneath a more practiced expression.

“You loved it,” she said.

“I hated it,” he claimed.  “I really hated it.”

“No you didn’t,” she said, her lips pressed in a line.

“But I—”

“You’ve had too much to drink, and now you’re saying things you don’t mean.”

“But—”

“You’re just being mean,” she said.  “And on our anniversary too.”

He stared at her, confused.  No, he knew, he was being honest, much more so than he’d been through the rest of the relationship.  Was he?  Or maybe she was right—she was always right, in the end.  Maybe—

“I want to break up,” he managed, while he could still speak his mind.

“No,” she said.

“No?”

“You heard me,” she said.  “No.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, voice faltering.  “I don’t want to?  Or that I can’t break up with you?”

“Both,” she said.

 

In the morning, he had awakened, head throbbing, and stumbled downstairs where she was already sitting at the table, sipping her coffee. He sat down beside her, ready to be scolded, but she pretended like nothing had happened.  Instead, she proceeded to recount a glowing version of their six-month anniversary the night before that had, he knew, no resemblance to what had actually happened.  This scared him much worse than her anger would have.  She had already started to shape the event, make it what she wanted it to be, kill what it actually had been.

Just as she had shaped him, and would continue to do so, he knew, until they reached the point where he wouldn’t recognize himself at all.

“Your turn to cook breakfast,” she said.

It was always his turn to cook breakfast.  And always, he knew, would be.

 

4.

It was like looking at his life through a smaller and smaller window.  Like he was watching it but helpless to control anything. In the end, he couldn’t help but think, it would be like she was having a relationship with some sort of version of herself as he tapped his finger on a tiny but thick pane of soundproof glass, calling silently for help.

He needed friends, friends would help.  But he didn’t have any friends.  As a couple they had friends, true, but these were really her friends—she hadn’t found his friends suitable.  It was as if she had carefully and systematically trimmed away everything that he was connected to except for her.

But why couldn’t he be honest with her?  Wasn’t that his fault?  And now it had gone on so long that it was impossible for him to end it.  How could he end it?  Just say, “Megan, I’ve been unhappy since the moment I met you” and then walk out?  What did that say about him, the fact that he’d allowed her to go not only for days but for months—and now years—without revealing to her his real feelings?

No, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it—and even if he did, she’d just say “no” and go on pretending that they were still in a relationship, as if nothing had actually happened.

She was older.  Maybe she would die first.  Maybe he’d even get a few years to himself, eventually, three or four decades from now.

 

5.

During the fourth year of their relationship, she let him know that they were engaged and lifted her hand to show him the ring she had taken the liberty of buying on his behalf (“I have the receipt here; you can pay me back in installments if need be”).

“We’ll get married in the spring,” she said.  “I’ve always wanted a spring wedding.”

But I don’t want to be married to you at all, Gregory thought, but said nothing.

A day later she arrived at the apartment with a huge stack of bridal magazines, and demanded he sit with her as she went through them one by one.  He dutifully did.  He even tried to make comments, until she made it clear that it was not his job to make comments.  His job was just to sit and listen, not to react.

Kill me now, he thought, as he had thought many times over the last four years.

“Oh, and look!” she said, finishing one magazine and lifting it away to reveal a blue flyer between it and the magazine below it.  She passed it to him.  A name he didn’t recognize, dates, a location.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s our artist,” she said, and squeezed his hand.  “The one you took me to on our first date.  He’s back in town—new show.  We’re going!”

 

All the way to the gallery she babbled on.  It’s the same artist!  It’s like renewing our relationship!  Was it the same show? he wanted to know—or didn’t want to know exactly, but felt he had to say something.  But no, of course it wasn’t the same show, she told him—how could it be?  Don’t be an idiot.  But it would be even better!  Just as their relationship had matured and become even better.

He felt a growing sense of dread. She held his hand, dragged him along.

And then they were there, going through the door.  She had been right:  it wasn’t the same show as before, not exactly, but it was close enough.  That same initial dark, narrow room.   A series of hooks with dim shapes on them—a little higher on the wall.  He thought:  Shirts.  But no, as his eyes adjusted, he realized that they weren’t shirts after all—the shape was wrong and they were too long.  He reached out and touched one and found it soft and dry to the touch.  Leather.  Where was the card?  There it was.  “Skins.” it read.

He turned back to the hooks with a sort of wonder.  It was like a series of men had peeled off their skins and then hung them up.  Where were—but she was giggling, pulling him forward and out.

The same narrow room, but no hooks this time, only a series of statues of men, complete except for the fact that they had been flayed.  “No skins.” read the card.  Or maybe not statues after all.  Were they real, bodies preserved somehow?  He wanted to think they were, but didn’t know why.  Megan was still laughing and giggling and now had taken him by the hand again and was tugging him on.  It was like she was not seeing what he was seeing, like she was in a completely different exhibit altogether. Or as if she had already decided what the experience was going to be and was enjoying that instead of what was actually there.

Her heels clattered against the floor as she walked. A third room, just as narrow.  A sequence:  hook with skin, body, hook with skin, body, hook with skin.  Skin tingling, he moved toward the small white card.  “Some skins.”

Yes, he thought, exactly.

She was gesturing back to him, moving toward a door at the far end of the room, one with a metal bar in the middle of it.  Fire exit, he thought.

“Come on,” she said.

“Right behind you,” he said, and when he took a few steps toward her, she pushed at the bar and opened the door.  An alarm went off.  Light poured in and then she was through.  As soon as she was, he pulled the door shut from the inside.  He was alone.

Her heard the sound of her trying to open it.  A moment later she began to pound on the door, calling his name.  Slowly he backed away from the door and faced the skins, the bodies.  He reached out.

 

She would find him eventually.  He knew that, sure, he wasn’t fool enough to think he was free.  But for a moment at least he could pretend, could enjoy the glorious feeling of crouching alone beneath someone else’s skin.  Maybe it would give him something to look back on.  Maybe it would give him enough to sustain him through at least one or two of the long and bitter years to come.

Ruby Thursday

Richard Adams Carey

Single, childless Augustus Cyril St. Clair would have filled both vacancies with the same presumed applicant, would have married David Biffenbaugh’s daughter the moment she touched his shoulder and trailed a finger like a hot wire through the hair on the nape of his neck. Then, on her way out of the kitchen, Orrie leaned down to whisper in his ear, inaudible to her parents, “Tell Ruby another day.”

Ruby? Gus didn’t know any Rubys, but he clasped her message to his heart like a lock of her hair. Should the opportunity arise, Ruby would be told. Another day it would be.

Orrie went to school. Mother Cheryl went to work, dropping Orrie off on her way to her job at the American Bank, Port Henry branch. Gus lingered at the breakfast table with David, who nodded towards a calendar hung by the window over the sink. “Well, look at that—the middle of April. Took you long enough, didn’t it?”

Gus shrugged, sipped his coffee. “Marcus has jobs up the wazoo, man. He wasn’t happy about me coming over today.”

“Or you could have come over on your own time when the roof was caving in—how long ago? Two fricking weeks, I think. Just a thought.”

“If the roof was caving in, I would have. But it wasn’t, and I work for Marcus, David, not you.”

David smiled more to himself than Gus. “Well, when you’re not working for—what’s his name? Jerry?”

“Jeremy. Yeah, we’ve been busy.”

“That so? You’re getting new gigs?”

“Now and then. Mostly we’re working on that new CD.”

“You have a distributor for that?”

“Jeremy’s working on it.”

“I think it was Cheryl told me she heard Jerry—excuse me, Jeremy—was auditioning a new bass player.”

Gus blinked twice and gazed lengthily at David. “Well, I guess they decided to stick with me.”

“Well, I guess you don’t want to quit the day job, just in case. And what have I got to complain about?” David lifted one hand to the sunlight that glowed like sanctifying grace through panes of stained glass in that window. “It only leaks when it rains.”

This was the first day in two weeks without rain, the first good day for Gus to run estimates on replacing all the shingles on David’s back roof, or else just patching the leak around the skylights. “Lemme tell you, I am not in the mood for another big job with that fucking control freak,” Marcus had said that morning. “If what’s-his-name—Beef-’N’-Bawl?—just wants to patch it, okay—maybe. But if he wants the whole damned roof, you can blow up that estimate like a rubber doll. Fine with me.”

That put Gus in a tricky position. Once upon a time David was the drummer for the Jammerwocky, a bluesy psychedelic jam-band that Gus had started in high school. David was also the procurer of most of their hallucinogens—plastic bags of dried liberty caps in a gray-matter tangle of stems and collapsed cones, tabs of LSD on pink blotter paper marked faintly with the imprint of what was either a dragon or a winged serpent, they could never decide. “If I could get receipts for this shit, someday we could take it off our taxes,” David once said. “Business expenses—besides being the food of the gods.”

That presumed the gods had income, which mostly they didn’t. The Jammerwocky got a little too wocky, perhaps, and broke up. David quit both the drums and the acid in college and became a lawyer for Weyerhaeuser. Gus gave up lead guitar and became the bass player for a series of hard-scrabble bands. For the last seven years he had played for Wounded Heel, a band whose sound lead singer Jeremy Paltern described as neo-grunge or post-punk country, depending on his mood.

But Gus and David stayed tight. Gus envied, without admiration, David’s money and his trophy house on a hillside overlooking Puget Sound—a house on which the Seventh Day Roofers had replaced the front shingles last summer, Marcus and David wrangling all the while. Gus saved his admiration for Cheryl, who wasn’t afraid to stand up to David, and particularly for Orrie, whose beauty had grown in concert with her own willingness to rebel.

For his part David admired Gus for sticking it out, for chasing that whiff of immortality once so palpable to the Jammerwocky and their teen-aged fans. He also envied the practical skills Gus had picked up along the way with wood and plumbing and shingles. But another part despised Gus for his duplex housing on Port Henry’s east side, the long nights out with the band for next to nothing in pay, the late rent checks and deferred car payments. Lately, after Gus’s girlfriend Marcie had left, David started referring to him as Peter Pan.

“Are you all right, Mr. Pan?” David had said when Gus arrived that morning.

Gus stood dazed in the driveway after Marcus had dropped him off. Gus thought it was just the day’s burst of light that had stopped him in his tracks, the unaccustomed outline of his shadow. Then he found that it wasn’t just the light that had stunned him, but all creation, looking that morning like it had been hung and tacked into place just twenty-four hours ago—the blue firmament, the winking waters of the sound, the ripening grass in David’s lawn, the early shoots of the herbs in Cheryl’s rock gardens, the scent of blossoms in the pear tree at the side of the house.

Gus gave David the same rapturous grin he had once worn counting out tempo for the opening number of a Jammerwocky gig. David stood on his porch in pleated slacks, his tie still at loose ends. Gus lifted one arm to the sky, his index finger out straight, anticipating the jolt of a divine spark: “If you start me up….”

David waved Gus into the house and set about knotting his tie. “No thanks,” he said. “And I don’t listen to the Stones much any more.”

“Oh, man—no more sympathy for the Devil?”

David shook his head. “I think his place is drier than mine.”

“Is that Gus already?” Cheryl called from the kitchen. “Come on in, Gus. Have you had your breakfast? I’m fixing sausage and eggs and toast for Orrie. Would you like some?”

“Had breakfast. Thanks anyway.”

“Coffee, at least?”

“I could be tempted.”

In the kitchen, yellow-crested with pearly white feathers, Avens the cockatiel paced from side to side on the lower of his cage’s two perches. Willowy in a gray flannel pantsuit, Cheryl moved in frantic transits between the counter, the table, the refrigerator, the stove. “David, could you be tempted to lend a hand with the links here? Oh, no, wait —show Gus your tree first. He’s got to see that. Then come help. We’re late. And where’s Orrie?”

“Oh, yeah, the tree.”

The game room was lit by a pair of skylights. Its wide French doors opened to a cedar deck and a grove of Douglas fir out back. David hastened past the jury-rigged contraption on the pool table and put a foot on the stairs to the bedrooms. “Orrie, come on—get your ass down here!”

Orrie’s voice was smoky with sleep. “Mom said I could stay home today.”

“I think not. Cheryl?”

“I told her she could stay home if I could get the day off, which I couldn’t.” Cheryl’s voice rose above the sizzle of the sausage and a whistle from Avens. “Orrie, I told you that last night. Come on—let’s not spoil your birthday.”

“Birthday? Today?” Gus asked. “She’s what—fourteen?”

“Sixteen, but not sweet. Not even close.” David stared at Gus. “Neither are you, actually. What did you say? Fourteen?”

“Well, she was thirteen—”

“My friend, you’re going to have to start turning the pages on the calendar. You can’t look at Miss January all year long. Orrie!”

“Augustus?” The voice from the bedroom sounded like a moan, a dreamy sort of plea.

“Happy birthday, Orrie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’ve got to check your daddy’s roof.”

“Yeah, it leaks like a bitch. You gonna fix it?”

“We’ll see. Come on down and have some coffee with me.”

“Oh, shit.”

“What’s that?” David said.

David and Gus had to wait a moment. Then, “Nothing. Yeah, okay­­—I’m coming.”

“That’s a good girl,” David said. “Just do it quick.”

“Does she drink coffee yet?” Gus whispered.

“That’s the least of her vices.”

David turned to the pool table, gesturing—with sulky pride—to the structure that linked it to the cathedral ceiling. Gus gazed up at three clear plastic trash bags staple-gunned by their spread openings to the ceiling, each enclosing one or more of the brown water-stains ranged across the ceiling. At their opposite ends the bags had been cut open to feed into the inverted upper half of a single one-gallon plastic milk jug. The jug’s bottom half had been cut away and the remainder dangled upside down from the ceiling by four lengths of yarn secured with tacks. The mouth of the bottle even yet dripped water into an aluminum funnel whose flexible tube fed into the raised end of a length of white PVC pipe. The pipe was bound with baling wire to the leg of a bar stool set in the middle of the pool table. Then the pipe sloped over the edge of the table and out the French doors to the rear deck. David tested the wire on the pipe. He picked up a pair of pliers from under the stool and set about tightening it.

“Shit—you couldn’t just put a bucket there?” Gus wondered.

“I did. I put up several those first three nights after I called Marcus, and I had to get up all night to empty them. This, you’ll notice, takes care of itself.”

“David, Marcus told you last summer you needed to have work on the back.”

“What was the point? I couldn’t afford it.”

“Maybe not after you bought that boat. But that was later.”

“I probably still can’t afford it.”

“Well, you still got the boat.”

“I also thought I had a buddy in the business. I thought my friend Peter Pan could float over here, sprinkle a little fairy dust.”

“Yeah, well, Peter Pan’s got a day job, and then he goes out nights to Never-Never Land.”

“Uh-huh. And that’s just what I started telling myself—never-never.” By then David had climbed on top of the pool table, and was squeezing moisture out of the bags and into the milk jug. Beneath the stool, billiard balls lay scattered like fallen fruit on water-stained green felt.

David’s loafer found the seven-ball, and he nearly fell: “Shit.” Then, “Whatever you do today, just don’t touch this, all right? The way things go in Never Land, I might need it next week—or next winter.”

“David, it’s not Gus’s fault,” Cheryl said from the kitchen. Then louder, “Orrie, I’m leaving in ten minutes. I’m warning you, you’d better not make me late.”

~

David wondered if Orrie wanted to go to the yacht club tonight. Orrie picked at her eggs. “For what?”

“For dinner. For your birthday.”

“Sure. Whatever.”

“The yacht club?” Cheryl asked. “I thought we were going to Tío Pedro’s. She likes Mexican.”

Orrie sat next to Gus at the kitchen table. Gus couldn’t help viewing Orrie differently on learning she so suddenly had gotten older, on feeling the stirring in his groin as she pronounced his complete first name from her bedroom, on gazing on her in his mind’s eye as Miss January under the sheets. She arrived in the kitchen dressed like the girls of Cheryl and Marcie’s generation, of the decade of the Jammerwocky—a flower-embroidered tank top, a full-length peasant skirt slung low on her hips, her lean brown belly a slice of almond above its top. Gus couldn’t tell if it was her perfume or the air through the window over the sink that smelled of pear blossoms.

“The problem at Tío Pedro’s is no liquor license,” David said.

“She’s only sixteen.”

“Yeah, but I’m not.”

“You know, here’s the thing,” Orrie said. “I’m old enough to get married now, legally, you know, as of today in the State of Washington. But I’m not old enough to vote, and I’m not old enough to have a beer or even a glass of wine. So, like, what’s the deal with that? Is that lame, or what?”

“I don’t know,” Cheryl said. “David, it isn’t your birthday. It’s Orrie’s.”

“The point being—?”

“Shouldn’t we go where she wants to eat?”

“She likes the yacht club. Orrie, where do you want to eat tonight?”

“I don’t care. Wherever. But what’s the deal with that?”

“With what?”

“That marriage thing? I’m sixteen now, and I can get married and have, like, six kids, but I can’t buy a beer. So, like, you’re a lawyer. Can you explain that to me?”

“We’ll get you some wine at the club tonight.”

“David, that’s not what she’s asking.”

“You know, I don’t even know if I’ll feel like going out tonight. I don’t feel so good now.”

“What do you mean?” Cheryl said.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s these eggs, or what. But my stomach feels like shit.”

“Young lady, you watch your language,” Cheryl said. “You’re not old enough to curse like that—especially at the table in front of guests.”

Orrie glanced sideways, smiling. Her eye was a hazel gem in the midst of its liner and shadow. “Do I offend you, Augustus?”

Gus blushed and raised his coffee mug to his lips, hiding behind it. “Well, you know we never use harsh language in the building trade.”

David laughed, leaning back in his chair and jabbing at his mouth with his napkin. “Okay, I think I know what this marriage stuff is about.”

Orrie’s head snapped towards her father. “What are you talking about?”

Cheryl laughed too. “Oh, Lordy, I’d forgotten.”

“What? What are you guys talking about?”

“You don’t remember?” Cheryl said. “You always used to say—well, you said it for years when you were little—that the very minute you were old enough you were going to marry Gus. You don’t remember that? It didn’t bother you at all that he already had Marcie.”

“Is this the day?” asked David. “He’s available.”

“If she’s old enough by now,” Gus offered, “she’s old enough to know better.”

“I don’t know,” Orrie said. She leaned suddenly to her left and buried her face in Gus’s neck, inhaling deeply. Gus, startled, hunched his shoulders, then slackened them, welcoming her. “He still smells good,” she said.

“Fine with me,” David said. “I don’t know about his prospects, but I like Peter Pan a lot better than that Rory character.”

“Dad, Rory was, like, months ago. I think you can quit it with Rory.”

“Todd wasn’t so bad, at least by comparison.”

“Ditto with Todd.” Orrie nibbled at a sausage and returned it to her plate. “So you wouldn’t mind, for example, that Augustus is poor?”

“Orrie!” Cheryl said.

“I think the term is lower-income,” David replied, “and I don’t mind lower-income. I was lower-income myself once. Gus just chose to make a lifestyle of it.”

Gus nodded. “Money’s great, but it can’t buy poverty.”

“What about dinner tonight?” Cheryl said.

“Mom, I don’t even care about dinner tonight. And I really don’t feel good. I don’t think I should be going to school today.”

“Do you have a fever?” She stretched across the table, spilling the salt, as she slapped a hand on Orrie’s forehead.

“No, I told you, it’s my stomach. Maybe I’ve got—I don’t know—stomach flu.”

“Have you thrown up?”

“Well, like, any minute now.”

“It’s just as well I couldn’t get the day off,” Cheryl said. “You’ve missed too much school as it is.”

“Jesus, what’s one more fricking day?”

“Orrie,” David warned.

“Oh, Jesus—’fricking?’ That’s not even cursing. Give me a fricking break.”

Cheryl rose hastily from the table. “David, can you clear the dishes? We’ve got to go this minute. Gus, help yourself to more coffee. Orrie, come on, honey, get your coat.”

“Fine. What the hell. My life is ruined.”

That was when Orrie had touched Gus’s hair, and had leaned down to whisper into his ear, though it had looked to her parents as though she were absorbing more of his after-shave.

“Orrie, leave Gus alone,” David said, “or you’ll ruin his life too.” He sponged salt from the table and emptied Orrie’s sausage into the wastebasket beneath the sink.

“Happy birthday, Orrie,” Gus said again as Cheryl’s legs whisked down the hallway, flannel whirring, followed by Orrie’s taut almond stems moving silently beneath her skirt. A blue tattoo on the border between her back and her rump was only partly visible above the skirt’s waistband: the once-familiar image of a dragon, or else a winged serpent.

~

Gus thought Orrie must have been around ten the night she climbed the pear tree and claimed she couldn’t get down. Gus and Marcie were there for steaks barbecued on the rear deck. Cheryl was ready for people to sit down to eat, but Orrie was holding everything up. Finally David dispatched Gus to climb up and get her.

He didn’t need to. Orrie had descended to one of the tree’s lower branches and was squatting there among the thorns and fruit like a monkey in her summer shift. She threw herself at Gus with a shriek as soon as he was close enough, wrapping her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist, clamping her trunk so hard against his that he could feel the arch of her pubic bone against his stomach. “Whoa, little lady,” Gus laughed.

Orrie’s cry bubbled to the brink of a laugh, but then it died in her throat. She buried her face in his neck and shoulder, much like she would at breakfast years later. She breathed deeply. Still inhaling, she drew her head back to stare into Gus’s face. He could almost hear the thought running through her mind—So this is what it is, so this is what people do—while he tried, ashamed, to deny the same thought in his own. Then Orrie bit her lip, looked away, and relaxed the pressure of her hips. The girl slid down his torso like a wet towel, snagging herself for just an instant on the knob of his crotch. She landed with a shiver on the ground and flew across the yard to the deck. “That wasn’t so hard,” said David.

By then it had been several years since Orrie had vowed marriage to Gus. But she mentioned it one more time a month later. David still had the sloop he called the Wet Dream, the boat that preceded the big ketch he kept now at the Port Henry Yacht Club. Gus and Marcie were supposed to go with the Biffenbaughs on a day trip to Orcas Island, but Marcie had stayed home in a snit, mad that a vacation she had planned with Gus had been pre-empted by a series of gigs Jeremy had put together in Portland and San Francisco. Orrie took Marcie’s usual seat in the cockpit at Gus’s side as the sloop motored out of the harbor, and then she burrowed into his flank once the wind caught the sails and the spray began to spit. On the island Orrie took hold of his hand as the four walked up from the landing to the stores and houses nestled in the firs above them. Orrie let her fingertips dance on the calluses of Gus’s hand as she told her mother that someday she wanted to live in a house like one of those, on an island like Orcas, with a man like Gus. “Well, who wouldn’t?” Cheryl laughed.

“I think this place would be a little too quiet for someone like Gus,” David said.

“He’d be happy with me,” Orrie said.

“Happy enough to give up being a rock star?” asked David.

“Happy enough to give up his right arm,” she pronounced.

David and Cheryl laughed, and Gus joined in, squeezing the hand that nestled like a sparrow in his. Inside he nearly wept to consider how readily he would have sacrificed that arm, or nearly that much, to start over, to return to the beginning, to be almost that young himself, to need nothing more out of life than a little log house on an offshore island with a girl like Orrie, or the woman he thought she’d become.

This is what Gus wondered, once David had cleared the table and left for work, once he was alone in the house—if in fact the statutes of the State of Washington had made Orrie into such a woman today. And more—was there anything left of that little-girl crush she had on him? And what about that new tattoo? What was the deal with that?  Finally, after Gus had locked the front door, and then the French doors, feeding the wet end of the PVC pipe into a salad bowl from the kitchen, all to slow things down in case David or Cheryl came home unexpectedly, he wondered if it was all that or something else that tempted him through the game room, past David’s hydraulic tree, and up the stairs to Orrie’s bedroom.

Was it just something as creepy as her underwear? A more factual image of what lay now beneath Miss January’s tops and skirts? Was he really going to paw through her drawers? Maybe he didn’t have to. A pair of boxer shorts, checked in rows of apples and oranges, lay crumpled on the carpet in a beam of rose-colored light. The light came from one of the panes of stained glass David had installed in each window of the house last summer. Gus poked at the shorts with the toe of his boot. He hoped she had more fetching options than this in her wardrobe.

The bed was unmade. There was a Port Henry High School sweatshirt hanging halfway out a dresser drawer, a pair of gym shorts draped over her bed stand lampshade, a lone sock looking to wriggle its way into the closet. A Limp Bizkit poster—a histrionic, hip-hop-flavored band that Gus didn’t care for—was thumb-tacked above the dresser. A piggy bank in the shape of a toad stared from the dresser’s top, and behind it pranced a row of plastic horses in various hues and sizes. Taped around the mirror of her dressing table, and tacked to an adjacent bulletin board, were prize ribbons from her girlhood equestrienne days, also a gallery of  photographs—snapshots and digitals and even a couple of Polaroids.

Most were of girls, a few of whom Gus recognized as keeping company with Orrie. In one shot a pair of boys, dim in the dusk, mooned the photographer, their pants and underwear corded about their knees, the cheeks of their butts as hard and white as cue balls in the harsh light of the flash. In another Orrie was pulling up her halter top in broad daylight, the shutter clicking an instant before the image became indecent. A silver stud winked from her navel. Three photos, two of boys and one of a girl, contained faces crossed out by angry strokes of a pen. One had been slashed through its paper by the pen.

He searched with an unadmitted longing for photos of himself, and found one. It was a fading, dog-eared shot from that very trip to Orcas Island, taken by David. Gus and Cheryl and Orrie stood arm in arm and smiling at the head of the Cascade Creek Trail to the top of Mount Constitution. Gus stared at the photo, his throat tightening. It occurred to him that if he were to show that photo to a stranger and say that this was his own wholesome wife and lovely young daughter, the stranger would surely believe him. In one person’s mind, at least, the statement would be true. If the stranger repeated it to someone else, it would be true in two minds. He wondered how long that would have to go on before the rumor was granted the substance of fact, and it was David who had to live in Never Land.

Gus straightened, turning away from the bulletin board, preparing to go outside to look at the skylights, finding himself still unwilling to do so. He went to the dresser to give the piggy bank a shake. It was empty. She was as broke as he was. But what if he had money? What if Jeremy quit auditioning bass players—as if Gus were to blame for all the band’s problems—and this new CD they were doing struck a spark somewhere? Or what if the right well-connected person came to listen at one of their gigs? What if the dreary nights at bars and afternoons at county fairs turned into Nirvana-scale stadium shows?

Then, Gus considered, he’d have his pick of hot women. No doubt Marcie would ring him up again. He’d send Marcie some money, no hard feelings, but he’d remember Orrie, who loved  him when he was nobody even before Marcie did, and he’d buy Orrie not just a house on an island, but the whole damned island. It would have to be somewhere way the hell out in the Pacific for them to have any privacy, not too far from Brando’s probably. He’d buy Orrie a horse to ride, and he’d also bring in horses to run wild. He’d have a horse as well, and he’d learn to ride it. Together in the morning mist they’d gallop through the island’s meadows and pick their way along its rivers. Herds of—what? antelopes?—would blanket the meadows, moving peacefully out of the way of their horses, hardly disturbed. The antelopes had no predators except—what?—the Komodo dragons that lurked near the watering holes.

Those were subtle, dangerous bastards. One of them might spook Orrie’s horse when she took it to water. The animal would buck and send her flying. Orrie would twist her ankle when she hit the ground. Then the lizard would come lumbering out of the brush with its great red tongue flicking the air. That would be the one day he’d left his .30-06 back at the house. He’d have to stop the beast with only his sheath knife. He’d take off his shirt and do the matador thing, dancing away from its first lunge behind the cover of the shirt. Then he’d vault to its back, holding on like Velcro while the creature twisted and rolled over on him. He’d stab repeatedly until he found its heart. Finally, at sunset, they’d ride along the beach, where the coconut palms swayed in the breeze. They’d take off their clothes and swim, and then make love as the waves broke around them.

By then Gus was going through Orrie’s drawers after all. He had decided that if Orrie still had that crush on him, the evidence—photos, memorabilia, maybe diary entries?—would more likely be hidden away than advertised on her bulletin board. Then there was that tattoo. Why that design? Was she dropping acid now from the same vendor her old man had once used? Could the Arroyo brothers somehow still be in business, going on for generations like Sears or Coca-Cola? Or was David tripping again, and was Orrie getting into his stash? Or did David just have some of those old blotter papers hanging around? Some people collected those. There was money in them now. But if Orrie was dropping acid, what else was she doing? There was some bad shit out there, most of which Gus could tell her about. She’d listen to him more than she would David. He’d have to talk to her if he found needles or spoons or OxyContin or shit like that. He wouldn’t tell her why, exactly, he was talking to her. He’d just say that she’d reached a dangerous age, and this was precautionary. Let me tell you what I went through, or my buddy Mitch, your dad’s too, a good bass player who’s dead now, a guy who thought it was all part of the business expenses of being young and stupid. If she listened, cool. If she didn’t, he wouldn’t buy her that island. He didn’t want to get stuck out there with a junkie.

By then he was into the bottom drawer of her dresser. So far he had found socks wrapped into little balls, a few empty CD covers, some wadded clumps of underwear (bra size—32B, another pair of boxers, but also some scanty thongs—nice), a pack of Tarot cards, another pair of running shorts, three candles, a rosary-length necklace of small bells and tiny dice, a rainbow coalition of tank tops, a Slim-Jim still in its wrapper, the skull of something like a mouse or a gerbil, a box of sanitary napkins, a couple loose stacks of jeans and t-shirts, an electronic remote with its battery case open and empty, a tube of lip gloss, an empty tin of Altoid mints with a simple gold ring inside, and a cardboard jewelry box. A number of gaps suggested that some of her clothes were missing.

~

Gus nearly shoved the jewelry box aside. But because it and the ring were in the bottom drawer, rather than the top, where he would expect jewelry to be kept, he elected to pluck at its lid, and then fell still, staring.

Nestled primly between sheets of cotton, the three-inch length of flesh lay bent in a crescent-shape, curled like a silkworm, inside its box. Its color was a sort of blonde mahogany, like smoked meat, its surface smooth and vaguely striated, not so different from the Slim-Jim in the other drawer. He would have considered it just that, an unusual piece of smoked meat, if not a preserved worm or caterpillar, had it not been for features not clarified until he had lifted the box from the drawer and held it up to the light—a fleshy pair of joints, a nail with dirt or grease still visible beneath its cuticle, a stump end with a nick of bone nestled like a wee pearl amid dry and coral-tinted tissue. It was a pinky, from its length and width, or else a child’s finger, and it gleamed in the light from Orrie’s window. He sniffed at it. Varnish. Someone had varnished it.

The electric buzz of the front doorbell seemed to lift the finger out of its box all by itself. Gus snatched at it in vain as the box and its contents flew from his hands and fell scattered across the carpet. He stepped by accident on the bottom half of the box, crushing a corner and two sides. He jammed a layer of cotton back into it just the same, but he couldn’t find the damned finger. The buzz came again, in three quick jabs, as he went on his hands and knees and looked under the dresser, the bed, behind the ladder-back chair in the corner. Was it just blending in with the beige carpet? He felt his stomach begin to strain at its moorings as he trailed his hands across the carpet. The buzz came again, this time one long, sustained summons.

He thought about waiting it out in Orrie’s room. It might be a UPS delivery man who’d go away in a minute. No, this was someone more determined than that. It might be David or Cheryl without a house key, or even Marcus. Gus sprinted down the stairs and past the tree as the buzz was replaced by a rhythmic pounding on the door.

He stopped in front of the door to catch his breath, compose an excuse, before he unlocked it. He threw the door open just as his opposite stood poised to deliver another blow. For a moment he and Gus stared at each other in mutual surprise. “Sorry,” Gus breathed. “Can I help you?”

Gus couldn’t tell if he was white or black or Hispanic or some combo thereof. He was in his mid-twenties, tall and broad-shouldered, with skin like creamed coffee, a spare, hyphenated moustache, and hair that hung to his shoulders in Rasta braids. His shirt was an immaculate white linen pullover with flowers embroidered into its yoke. This hung loose over baggy cargo pants that trailed down to sharp-toed snakeskin boots. Gus saw behind him, parked in the driveway, an old Chevy Impala with a cracked windshield. The visitor glanced about as if he wasn’t sure now that this was the right house. Then he checked his watch. Finally: “I’m looking for Orrie Biffenbaugh.”

“You’re looking for Orrie? She’s not here.”

“Not here? What do you mean?”

“I mean this is Thursday. She’s in school.”

The visitor peered narrowly at Gus. “You’re not her old man. Who the hell are you?”

Gus stared back at him before answering. “I’m a friend of the family. That’s who the hell I am.”

“So what are you doing here? What are you doing here now?”

“Well, excuse me, but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“Okay, whatever—I don’t give a shit. Listen, can you just tell Orrie, if you don’t mind, that Ruby’s here?”

“You’re Ruby?” Gus hadn’t imagined a Ruby like this.

“Yeah, I’m Ruby.”

“Okay—Orrie left a message for you. She told me to tell you, ‘Another day.’”

He saw Ruby stare blankly at him. “Tell me what another day?”

“‘Another day.’ I don’t know what. She just said, ‘Another day.’”

“You mean not today?”

“I don’t know, man. I don’t know what she means. I’m just telling you what she said, all right?”

“Another day? What the fuck’s up with that?” He put both hands on his hips and turned away. He checked his watch again. Gus saw that on his watch hand he wore a gold ring, and that only a nubbin of flesh stood where his pinky had been. “This is bullshit,” Ruby said, turning back to Gus. “She knows it’s got to be today. Damn, I got everything set up today.”

“Yeah? What’s got to be today?”

Ruby put on a bitter smile. “Well, excuse me, but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“Would be if Orrie’s involved.”

“Friend of the family? Not good enough.”

“Well, whatever—another day.”

“Hey, Mr. uh—.”

“Pan.”

“Right, Mr. Pan—did her old man put you up to this?”

“Put me up to what?”

Ruby smiled again and shook his head. “Fuck it. Just tell Orrie I’m here, okay?”

“Maybe I’m not speaking loud enough? She’s not here, man. She’s gone.”

“You’re bullshitting me, right? And what the fuck are you doing here if she’s not here? You cleaning house? You her old lady’s handyman?”

Gus smiled, swinging the door back and forth in a narrow arc like a cat switching its tail. “So what happened to your finger?”

Ruby made first to shove his hand into the hip pocket of his pants, then changed his mind. He smiled again, lifting the hand to Gus’s face. He clenched the remaining fingers into a fist, thrust them out straight, wrapped them together again, then straightened them once more, making waggling motions in the air, like he was plucking harp strings. Gus wondered if it was the absence of the pinky that made the remaining digits so long and serpentine. The stump of the pinky twitched eerily in accompaniment. “Maybe you can tell Orrie I’m looking for this.”

“Maybe you’re one sick bastard,” Gus said as he began to shut the door.

Ruby stopped it with that left hand. “Listen, please, just tell her everything’s cool, but it’s got to be today, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Tell her she’ll understand once we get going. But we gotta get going. Please. And no offense, but I know she’s in there.”

“None taken.” Gus took hold of Ruby’s forearm and removed his hand from the door. “This is goodbye, Ruby,” he said as he shut and locked the door.

~

The rest went down like a dream. Gus watched from the living room as Ruby stood with his head bowed on the porch step, as he stalked back to his car. Ruby sat motionless behind the wheel of the Chevy until Gus lost patience and went upstairs to look some more for the missing finger. The damned thing seemed to have vanished like it never existed, as if the guy were born with that stump and Gus had only imagined the contents of Orrie’s jewelry box. Eventually it occurred to Gus that he hadn’t heard the Chevy’s engine start.

The stone that burst like a bomb through Orrie’s window sent him sprawling back into the dressing table, bruising his ribs. He felt a sliver of glass glance off his cheek, saw pastel shards rain on the rug about Orrie’s shorts as the stone banged to a stop against the opposite wall. He heard Ruby yell to Orrie from beneath the window that he knew she was in there. If he had to, he’d come in to get her. It had to be today.

Gus didn’t want to be seen at Orrie’s window. He stayed low and abandoned the room as a second stone glanced off the frame of its other window, and then a third broke through. He sprinted downstairs in time to see Ruby striding back to his car. Gus threw open the front door. “So what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Ruby granted him scarcely a glance as he removed his shirt, folded it carefully, laid it on the Chevy’s back seat. Then he went to open the car’s trunk. “Those windows cost a lot of money, man!” Gus continued. “Your ass better be good for them!”

Ruby stood up with a pump-action sawed-off shotgun in his hands. Gus slammed the door when Ruby leveled the weapon in his direction.

The dispatcher who answered Gus’s call to 911 warned him to stay inside. Ruby was shouting at Orrie to stay in her room and not to worry, sounding like Hell’s version of that dispatcher. Gus, a wide-eyed Kilroy, peered from the kitchen window as Avens squawked and leaped from perch to perch, as Ruby circled to the back of the house and climbed the stairs to the rear deck. Tattoos ran in blue and scrambled profusion up and down his arms and across his back and chest. Splayed across the breadth of his chest was the same sort of winged serpent Gus remembered from David’s blotter papers, now also from the crest of Orrie’s rump. Gus wondered if David was just having a flashback today and if he had somehow gotten drafted into the middle of it. That had always seemed to the Jammerwocky like something that could happen, and this was more like David’s nightmare, he thought, not his.

Gus saw Ruby come to a halt before the French doors and pull at their handles. Then he saw him position the gun on his hip and fire a slug through the glass. That was followed by the sound—he guessed—of the aluminum funnel and the PVC pipe and the bar stool clattering in collapse across the pool table. By then Gus had backed himself under the kitchen table with Cheryl’s bread knife in his hands. A second blast blew the French doors open. Gus heard Ruby’s footsteps climbing the stairs to Orrie’s bedroom. Then he heard Ruby calling for her above the cockatiel’s shrieks.

One part of Gus wanted to get out, to escape through the front door into the light, into that sense of time being born that he had bathed in earlier. But the dispatcher had told him to stay inside. He stayed, wondering if that was just an excuse for the lassitude that gripped him, for the slack despair that drained all spark from his muscle fibers, amplified the ache in his ribs, that had drenched his own pants with piss. Mystifyingly, another Rolling Stones tune had come into his head, one that the Jammerwocky used to cover:

There’s no time to lose, I heard her say

Catch your dreams before they slip away…

He heard Ruby come down the stairs at the same time that he heard a pair of heavy vehicles pull rapidly into the driveway. Ruby walked past the shattered French doors and into the kitchen, halting when he saw Gus under the table. Ruby’s forehead was beaded with sweat. He cradled the shotgun in his right arm and carried in the palm of his left hand, with its ring and three fingers, the lost pinky. He gazed without blinking at Gus, who squinted in near blindness from the sting of his own sweat.

The racket from Avens and the loudspeaker outside seemed eclipsed by Ruby’s silence and immobility. Gus drew his knees against his chest to comfort a bone-deep chill, to relieve his feeling of nakedness. He heard the ticking of the clock on the wall. He saw Ruby’s red tongue come out and circle his lips. He watched Ruby look down at the finger in his hand. Gus said, “Where—where’d you find that?”

“In her drawer,” Ruby said without looking up. “Just lying there in her shit like it was a piece of lunch meat.” He stared at it a moment longer and then raised his head. “You know where the trash is?”

“Under the sink.”

Ruby moved ponderously to the sink, opened the door beneath it, dropped the finger into the wastebasket. Then, ignoring Gus, he took the shotgun in both hands and walked out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards the front door.

But Gus didn’t see that because by then he was in the middle of a flashback himself, or a dream. The years had been washed away, and he was only a boy again, sixteen himself, and he was at the helm of a little sloop with a girl just like Orrie burrowing into his side. They were on their way to Orcas Island, its bulk raised against a rainy sky like the contours of Never Land, while behind them Port Henry burned, throwing black and oily smoke into the clouds.

Night of the Spiders

Sheldon Bellegarde

It’s almost midnight but I have got to clean out my bedroom closet. It’s packed with junk and has, like, the most vicious spider problem this side of a radioactive-arachno movie. I’m delving into terror. At least I don’t have a big shoe collection, since spiders like to hide in shoes. For a girl who’s supposed to be at her most fashion-conscious age, style is not my middle name.

I haul out blouses, skirts and jeans in armfuls, hangers clinking, dropping, hooking to my cardinal-red wool sweater. Sweater and I are in the middle of a three-day hug. I change underclothes—I’m not a dirtbag. It’s just cold in here.

Shoes next. Shoeboxes would be great. I find a dusty stack beside the Payless-style shelves, behind a spiderweb with no visible owner. I tuck my fist into my bloated sweater and split the icky threads and open the top box.

Oh. Yippee. Pictures.

Here’s a Cortland family photo, from before my parents became zombies. The three of us over-cheesing—you know, when someone goes, “Say cheese” and then takes too long to get the picture, and you’re saying “cheese” for, like, 15 years, and finally it’s not a real smile anymore, if it ever was. Over-cheesing.  This was at Niagara Falls, and Mom’s all swollen because it’s right before Miller burst out.

“Katy?”

Speak of the devil.

“Be in bed, Miller.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he says through my door.

Miller is nine years old.

“Then go, twerp.”

Silence. It’s golden. I like that everything I say has been said forever, so everyone knows what I’m talking about. A spider is trying to creep-show skitter up my sleeve, but it’s tangled in the frazzled fabric. I tug the cuff of my other sleeve over the heel of my hand and I don’t scream and I squash the clingy insect.

“Could you take me?” Miller says.

“It’s five feet away. Take yourself.”

“The light’s off.”

He wants a freaking escort to the freaking bathroom.

He looks like a pale-bellied animal in his Boston Celtics warm-up peejays, frozen in the hallway with big, dark eyes. He’s experiencing a thumbsucking revival. He grabs my hand—unnecessary—and I tote him the five steps to the bathroom he’s used by himself a thousand times and I hit the lights.

“Happy peeing.”

“Wait right here til I’m done, okay?”

He doesn’t close the door.

The light’s on in his bedroom. It slices the floor at a diagonal, so it looks like…I don’t know. A slasher-fest poster? On one bill, tonight only! Witness the horror of Child’s Play—fear being Alone in the Dark—thrill that I Know What You Did Last Tuesday—all leading up to A Nightmare on Taylor Court.

“To have (a fight) and to hold (a grudge).” Some B-movie tagline.

“Spiderweb on your shirt!” Miller shrieks, actually shrieks, and his face peels back like a Samara victim’s until I gather up the strands and roll them in my palms, way over-cheesing.

“Happy?” I say.

I slam my door in his face. He’s always right on my heels, latching on like an insect. I refuse to coddle him, but he’ll go downstairs and tell my mom blahblahblah the boogieman, and she’ll let him lie on the couch and watch R-rated movies. Then she’ll wonder what his problem is.

I boxtop the photos. Shoes next. I like thick soles. Some of them could do damage. I’m totally pacifist, though. If Gandhi was a chick, he’d be me.

I used to collect comic books. I had tons of boy friends (not boyfriends). They were in it for the spandexed mutant hotties, though—I read romance, mostly. My box ofYoung Romance and True Stories of Romance and Kiss Me Quickly is of course webified. I coil the demon silk around my sweater sleeve and slip it off like a bracelet.

Spider! I flutter my hand like the stupid thing’s on fire. The little demon flips off my thumb to the floor and I grab a sneaker and rain down a fistful of hot rubber. It’s clobberin time, insect.

Mom and Dad’s first Young Romance moment—high school, separate classes, opposite sides of a courtyard. Window seats. Band practice, Mom doesn’t even know what song, but the music was serene and dulcet and stuff and it wafted up through the courtyard, and Mom and Dad spotted each other. Years of pent-up desire blossomed. They raced downstairs and met in the courtyard on springtime grass and they danced a perfect slowdance, while grades nine through twelve tossed torn bits of loose-leaf paper confetti. And they lived happily ever—

“Katy?”

“I swear to God and the fiery pits of hell, Miller.”

“My wall’s making scratchy sounds.”

No mood. I’m in no mood for this. My closet’s too hot and I’ll never kill all the spiders, they’ve probably laid eggs. It’s Aliens in there. The young’uns are ready to crack.

“Tell Mom,” I tell Miller.

“She said go to bed.”

“Ditto.”

“Katy?”

“Miller?”

“Mom is crying.”

“No, she isn’t.”

“Katy?”

What?

“I think I’m having a nightmare.”

Ew. I don’t need a kid telling me that. That’s how Freddy movies start.

I kick the brass plate of my bedroom door.

“Miller Cortland! Bed!”

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you

I can’t walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes right now. I think I might break up with my boyfriend, who’s not exactly my boyfriend, but we’re kind of going sort of out. We see other people. Well, I don’t.

I have some heavy-duty shoes.

I don’t want to be a freakin cliché. I don’t want to be sad forever.

I have a music box somewhere in here, a gift from Dad. There’s this ballerina pirouetting or whatever and she’s holding…I forget. Not shoes.

Out, CDs! Out, ratty sweaters! Out, out, soccer cleats! If kicks could kill, if the shoe fits. But they never did.

No end to the webs. I’ll probably find cracks in the walls way in back. Spiders pouring out. I once picked up an orchard apple and turned it over and it was crawling with spiders. I freaked. Mom said spiders don’t eat apples since they’re carnivores so they weren’t spiders. I believe that spiders are carnivores. I hate apples.

I think it was an apple the ballerina was holding. An apple of discord? Does discord have to do with music? It was a pretty tune, though. Here’s what I learned in school, when I was supposed to be dancing in courtyards—a bunch of gods were at a wedding but the goddess of discord, Eros, wasn’t invited, so she crashed with a bad apple.

Wedding’s ruined, everybody’s fighting, Linda’s swallowing the groom’s soul, bride’s swinging heels—how pissed off do you have to be? Never mind. Our garage is Dad’s hotel. Mancave. I bet when he sleeps spiders crawl all over his face.

At my age you don’t say things are like nightmares. Nothing’s safer than sleep, when you can do it.

“Katy?”

“Miller, if you aren’t in bed in ten seconds, I’m gonna squash you flat.”

His footsteps shake the whole house. When Miller was born, my dad told me I would always be loved very much. “We both love you very much.” They feed me that cliché like pizza. Amy, my best friend, when it happened to her she withered like a bad apple, she rotted from the inside. She was afraid of her own shadow. “We’ll always love each other,” my parents promised back then. But, I mean, come on: love, war, same thing—passion. They also said that if I ate my apple-a-day—to keep the doctor away—that I could stay up late, but late was only eight o’clock. But I kept believing them.

Forget the music box. Sweat’s squishing in my armpits. It rains, it pours.

She was the apple of his eye.  Dad’s. Now I am. This is all word-for-word. Miller was never the apple because Miller practically is Dad—a chip off the old block. In those shoeboxes, I have a picture of Miller age three and one of my dad age three, framed together, and the only way you can tell the difference is the Nintendo DS. They both looked like Damien from The Omen.

All of it’s for you, Damien.

I think that if you can prove your parents are rotten self-infested hypocrites you should be allowed by law to skip school and sleep around and get plastered at fifteen. That’s your reward. Because you’re fucked.

I’ll need a broom for these ceiling webs. Broom’s in the garage. I’ll need shoes. I pick the suede Skechers with the full-inch soles that I haven’t worn in a year, even though they look adorable with flared jeans. They look like hell with my gray sweatpants.

I’m not going out to the garage.

Let them move and I’ll stay, they can pay my bills. I won’t feel guilty. I’m a babe in the woods. Not with these gray sweatpants, though.

I hated Linda right away, I knew something was up, right there in the woods on my dad’s company picnic. Linda. Think Exorcist, pea soup, though she brought egg salad. She shook Mom’s hand and then later, I’m serious, she braided Mom’s hair. At a picnic table.

We used to do family things.

Usually I don’t mind spiders in the woods, that’s where they belong. Not in closets or on apples.

Forget them moving out. I have my sweater which is practically an RV and my shoes which are practically boots, which are made for walking. More hypocrisy—they eloped. I guess Gramp and Pop-pop didn’t buy into courtyard slowdances and plus they didn’t know Mom was seeded. My mom almost had that fruit plucked before it got ripe. She told me this. She said I’m her little redemption.

“Katy?”

“Miller, if I open this door, you’re a goner.”

“Can I sleep in your room?”

It’s the dead of night. I can’t figure out if that’s cliché.

“It’s not bedtime for me, Miller.”

“Something’s in the wall.”

“I’m cleaning my closet. Go back to bed.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re lying. Everyone’s lying.”

His bellyaching is making my belly ache. I’ve covered too many miles on too many guilt trips, and I need a broom, or a walk, or maybe I’ll call my boyfriend and have him come get me, so I can dump him. Either way, I’m not my brother’s keeper.

I open the door and he jumps five feet in the air. If I coddle him like they do, everyone in this house will be waking me up in the middle of the night.

“See, twerp? Closet. Disemboweled.”

Miller scoots in. He’s nosy. He has my dad’s nose. People tell me I look like my dad—do they realize I’m a girl? I don’t look like either of my parents.

“You have a big closet,” Miller says.

“You have a big problem.”

“I can hear them fighting.”

Both of their faces ripened-red. Shoes can be a weapon, those heels I’m not allowed to wear or cute sneaker-boots or anything, if you’re angry enough. If you want to hurt somebody.

“I can’t hear anything, Miller.”

“You could build great forts in here. No one would be able to get you. Is this for the light?”

He flips the switch, which is outside the closet. The switch glows in the OFF position, to find it in the dark. Like a closet’s the first place you go when the lights are out. He flips it again and again, click-click-click.

Miller has rocks in his head. Miller’s afraid of his own shadow. Mom says that. We all say stuff like that.

“Go to bed go to bed go to bed, Miller.”

“I can help.”

“I’m not your mommy, kiddo. Take it like a man.”

“But I don’t wanna,” he whines. His face ripens, his lips and cheeks and brow swell. “The boogieman’s in my wall.”

See? I knew he’d play that card. The boogieman exactly.

I shove him into the closet and slam the door and I wedge my big sole against the bottom. He pushes, pounds, but the door is made of whatever, some strong wood, and he’s trapped.

“Katy! Katy, let me out! Please!”

Hysterical already. He goes straight below the belt for the jugular, he’s a squeaky wheel and a bad seed.

I shut the light off.

“Katy Katy Katy KATY!”

You can get bored with the wicked teen getting gored by the movie monster, you can say and see that so many times that it doesn’t matter anymore. After a while, you just expect it to happen, monsters killing kids with whatever’s lying around. After a while, you look forward to it.

“Katy, quick, the boogieman Katy quick!”

“Know why I was cleaning my closet, Miller? It’s full of spiders. They’re everywhere, Miller, with skittery legs and razor-sharp pincers, thousands of them. They’re all around you, Miller.”

He gasps the oh-god-a-spider gasp, like he’s about to leap onto a chair and squeal, but there’s nowhere to leap except down a peg, no one to squeal to. The shoe is on the other sibling.

He pounds on the door. It shakes my sweater.

Please Katy let me out, please I’ll go to bed just please let me out Katy they’re on me Katy please!

What does it mean that it’s normal to feel things that aren’t there? That’s the kind of stuff you should be able to wake up from.

Miller screams. He screams like a thousand spiders have leapt into his warm-up peejays and torn his skin and filled his ears and eaten his eyes. Now they’re spinning him up in sticky webs, weaving him into a neat little wad, fruit for a carnivore.

Katy please let me out, let me out I’ll go to bed!

Mom and Dad will find him shriveled up, crawling with boogiemen. They’ll wonder what our problem was. Then they’ll hold each other tight and cry their eyes out. How’s that for a horror image.

Cliché.

A spider skitters out past my foot and I jump. I forgot I was wearing shoes. I crush it.

The screaming stops.


 

Visit with Sheldon Bellegarde

Dentist of the Wild West

Deborah Vlock

Right while I’m getting my braces, and saliva I can’t swallow is pooling in the back of my mouth, Doc Hallowell tells me about square dancing.

“I do it every Saturday with Linda,” he says, “and after we’re done we go to Bobby Ray’s for a nightcap.”

I can see Linda holding “Mr. Thirsty” off to the side, and I silently curse her for not using him.

“Yep,” he repeats, “Bobby Ray’s for a night cap.”

Alrighty, then. Bobby Ray’s for a nightcap. This guy is nutty, and I don’t want to think about him square dancing with Linda and whatever they do afterwards. I don’t like that visual. He seems to expect a response, but I can’t answer him because the spit tide is rising in my mouth, so I roll my eyes and grunt.

Doc Hallowell wears a blue lab coat and has severe body odor. I think he never washes his clothes. Other dentists I’ve used have worn button down shirts or sweaters—one even wore a bow tie. But this one is always in the blue smock, and it always smells like B.O.

For a dentist he’s fairly good looking, but not in a way that makes you feel insignificant. Linda is his lax assistant—she doesn’t even consider using Mr. Thirsty until I’m drooling onto my pink paper bib—and I think she’s his girlfriend, too. What with the square dancing. She has bad breath, I’ve noticed, so probably they are a match made in heaven, The Couple That Smells.

He makes you call him “Doc Hallowell,” never “Doctor Hallowell,” when you are sitting in his chair and have a question or need to get up and use the bathroom (which I’m sorry to say has happened to me twice before; something about the atmosphere in this place makes me have to void). This makes him sound like a dentist from the Wild West, but it’s what he prefers so I say it even though it’s embarrassing.

“Square dancing,” he tells me while tamping a molar band down on my wisdom tooth, “is a fine art. It’s very complicated, and if you are not careful, you can lose yourself.”

I wonder what he means by lose yourself. I lose myself when I read—all right, I’m just going to say it—romance novels. Anything by Olivia Hartwicke. I forget my name and the fact that I have to cook supper or wash my dishes, take out the trash. I can see losing track of the sequence of steps, which seems rather tricky, while square dancing, but I can’t really see floating off into the ether, which is what happens when you lose yourself in the heaving bosoms of Regency England. At least, that’s how it is for me. But then, the last time I square danced was when I was in junior high school and we had to, for gym. My partner was always The Boy in Plaid, and he had moist palms and on his cheeks severe acne that was itself a sort of plaid.

I realize I am old to be getting braces—thirty-eight, with a ribbon of gray off my right temple—but last month I decided I’d lived long enough with this chaotic smile, so here I am in Doc Hallowell’s lime green dentist chair, getting acquainted with Mr. Thirsty.

“Square dancing,” continues Doc Hallowell, breaking my reverie, “is the Sin of My Old Age. I’m forty-nine.” He winks and pulls down on my chin so he can get a better look in there. I drool.

“Ung,” I say, thinking: where the hell is Mr. Thirsty?

“Linda has a great costume. Brown calico skirt with a frilly petticoat beneath. I think her shirt is purple. Linda?” he calls out. Linda has left the room and can’t see that I’m about to gag on my own spit. “Is the shirt purple or red?”

Linda’s voice, thin as a strand of her lank gray hair, answers: “It’s mauve. Mauve.”

Brown and mauve don’t go so well together, Linda.

Doc Hallowell pats my shoulder and tells me I can spit at the little fountain near the chair. My saliva is pink.

“It would be fantastic,” I say, avoiding his face, “if Linda would vacuum the spit out of my mouth occasionally, so my shirt doesn’t get wet.”

“Your shirt’s wet?” he asks, with honest surprise. I present my shirt. He frowns and shakes his head. I notice that his eyebrows meet in the center. “Next time we’ll double bib you.” This guy’s almost worth the price of admission. The three thousand dollar ticket.

“Brackets next month!” he sings in a shaky tenor, and then I go out to make my next appointment with Grace, the receptionist out front.

“Poor Doc Hallowell,” I say sarcastically to no one as I get into my car. What a loser. It seems the two most exciting things in his life are square dancing and the brackets he’s going to glue to my teeth next month.

~

I’ve taken the afternoon off from my job as receptionist at Vlad’s Cut N’Curl. I am the only quasi-educated employee there, what with my two point three years at Skidmore College. I guess I’m the poster child for unrealized potential. And so what? Vlad’s Cut N’Curl is better than the last job. Ten years as a cashier at Animal Universe, where I also filled the vending machines with llama pellets. Vlad’s is certainly a step up, even though Vlad has a face like a feral dog. I think he may be a descendant of the Impaler—a good reason to take a little work holiday.

I will spend my half day going to bookstores to look for an Olivia Hartwicke romance among the new releases, and if I score, reading said romance. I used to only borrow from the library, because Vlad is the stingiest beautician in the whole Leatherstocking region and I didn’t want to spend five dollars on a book, but now I mostly buy, because the last time I took a Hartwicke out of the library—it was one of the Regency Romances, Highland Lover, I think—I found, written in a man’s scrawl, the words “Gina your a cunt and it smells like bad tuna.” Then I lost my appetite for the library.

There is no new Olivia Hartwicke. I go home, disappointed, and make myself a bowl of pasta and a green salad for supper. While rummaging in the crisper I find something black and curled and apparently dead under the bag of radishes. I pick it up in a napkin and flush it. The cucumber was not in contact with the black curled thing so I peel its skin off in snaky strips that my cat Figlet will fish out of the trash and store under the hall rug. Then I sit down in my comfy chair, Figlet and his sister, Meat Foon Foon, parked on the floor next to me with two bowls of Fancy Feast, and watch the six o’clock news. There is nothing interesting happening here, besides the mayor’s arrest for cyber stalking a junior varsity cheerleader. He emailed her a picture of his naked ass, simply a picture of his ass, and now he’s holding news conferences and crying over humiliating his wife and kids. The ass turned up online and went viral. I notice he has a sacral dimple like I do. How nice that we have something in common.

~

Doc Hallowell has a column in the Herald Gazette. Once a week he writes about orthodontia—how it can make your life better—and at the end he invites you to come by for a free consultation. He makes it sound like you can just drop in off the street and he’ll take a look in your mouth—come on down!—although the truth is it took me three weeks to get in there and have my teeth seen. His picture is above the column—Doc in his blue lab coat, but with a tie underneath, and without his glasses. Every week I read the column, because there is simply nothing worth reading in that paper, and once, when it was devoted to adult orthodontia, I cut it out and taped it to my refrigerator as a joke. Now he looks at me every time I go in for a coke or a piece of pie, and sometimes I salute before I open the door and peer in. Once I even gave him the finger, just tried it out to see what it felt like, disrespecting him like that, and I immediately felt bad about it. There is something about that man that makes me feel like a rat.

~

At my brackets visit, the waiting room is full to bursting. Every buck-tooth kid in town is sitting on Doc Hallowell’s Naugahyde office furniture, thumbing through magazines and elbowing their siblings and picking their noses. I try to ignore them. I am the only person of a certain age here who isn’t the parent of a buck-tooth child.

I wait for Linda to come out and call my name, lead me into the treatment room, but after ten minutes someone else, a heavy bleached blond woman with a large, shelf-like rear end, brings me back. “Miss Bernard?” she asks, fanning her flushed neck with my chart, and then I get up and follow her to the lime easy chair.

While I wait for Doc Hallowell, I pass the time by looking at the plaster teeth lined up on shelves in a glass case on the wall. Most of them are crooked and look like crap. I wonder which one is mine, and whether I could take it home with me, maybe paint it with tempera paints. I could see doing pink gums and a gold front tooth. After I’ve studied each plaster mouth in turn, I sit back and close my eyes, fantasizing about my impending new teeth, which I will own in about two years’ time. I reach beside me for Mr. Thirsty, without opening my eyes, and feel his smooth shaft and the stark edges of his oval orifice.

The first thing I notice when Doc enters the room is his lab coat. It’s green, not the usual blue, which must mean the blue one’s in the laundry. Not a moment too soon. I am about to ask him about Linda when he says, “Have you met my new assistant, Betty? Linda’s moved on and Betty’s come on board, all in the past month!” Betty, who has materialized out of nowhere and is looming over me, smiles. She could use braces herself. I say hello, and ask Doc Hallowell whether he is still square dancing on Saturdays. He looks sad.

“I haven’t got a partner anymore. Now Linda’s gone. I guess I’ll have to find another girl, pronto.” I think it’s funny that he says “girl”; Linda must be fifty. He smiles weakly beneath his mask and fixes the blinding overhead light so it beams directly into my eyes. I squeeze them shut.

“Open please.”

“Uh huh.”

“Read any good books lately?” he asks with a look of deep concentration as he probes around in my mouth.

I try to nod and he steadies me by pressing on the crown of my head. Mistress of the Moors, I try to say, but my mouth is propped open, and I am engaged in swallowing the saliva that pools in the back of my throat. I make a sound like “ung ha ga” and gag on the saliva. Betty swoops in with Mr. Thirsty and vacuums me out.

Doc Hallowell has not noticed that my spit almost killed me. “I like mysteries,” he remarks. “Anything with a corpse and a lot of suspense.”

I must be frowning, because he raises his eyebrows and says, “No?”

I shake my head. “Okay,” he says. “When your brackets are bonded you can tell me what you read.” This seems a bit intimate, considering what’s happening here is basically a cash transaction—purveyor of orthodontic service meets consumer, and straight teeth ensue. Although he is friendly enough, and in a different context I might confess how much I like the feel of Mr. Thirsty under the pads of my fingers.

~

My braces hurt. I have called Doc Hallowell’s office and demanded that he see me this afternoon. Grace put me on hold for five minutes and then told me okay. Three-thirty. Vlad will have to answer his own phones from three to four-thirty, as the walk is twenty minutes each way. I eat my salami sandwich carefully at the reception desk, trying not to dislodge the four lumps of wax in the back of my mouth. But one dislodges anyway, and I roll it around in my mouth and spit it into my napkin. “Barbara, you do a shampoo!” calls Vlad from the sinks, and I wipe my mouth and go grudgingly to the back of the shop. “Mrs. Feingold,” he tells me. “Wash the color out.”

“Where is Martha?”

“Out,” he says shortly. I shrug and go collect Mrs. Feingold. Vlad never tells me anything, but he pays me the big bucks so I guess it’s my duty to wash the dye out of Mrs. Feingold’s non-existent hair.

Mrs. Feingold is an old lady with osteoporosis—she is curved like a shell and has St. Vitus’ Dance, but she still gets her hair colored once a month, and wears clothes that must come from The City. There is no store here that carries such clothes, all silky and bright, much too fancy for an old lady, in my humble opinion. She must have a daughter in New York who dresses her. She smiles at me as I lead her from the styling station to the sink, her eyes bright.

“Barbara,” she says, “I see you have braces on your teeth. You’ll be fending off the men after your teeth are straightened.” Mrs. Feingold knows that I am single.

“I don’t know, Mrs. Feingold. Anyway, there are no men here I would go out with.”

“Oh, now, you’re too picky,” she scolds as I try to get her settled in the chair.

“Put your head back, Mrs. Feingold.”

“I like that,” she tells me, as I spray warm water on her scalp, running my hands through her thin hair. “Do you ever see the Barnes boy anymore?”

I slept with the Barnes boy on and off for six months last year, and now I avoid him like the plague. He’s seen me naked. “No, Mrs. Feingold. He lives in Amsterdam now.”

“Oh, Amsterdam. Have you ever been there? To the real Amsterdam? I have. Mr. Feingold proposed to me there in nineteen forty-eight.” She closes her eyes.

“No, I haven’t, but I’ve read about it. There’s a Hartwicke romance that takes place there. The heroine is a receptionist in a podiatrist’s office who saves up her money and travels to Holland.”

“And what happens to her there?”

“She meets a wealthy Dutch businessman and falls in love.” I know it’s dumb, but I just can’t help myself.

“Naturally,” agrees Mrs. Feingold. “And the Dutch are so germane.”

“Ah—sure,” I say, not knowing what she means.

“Barbara!” barks Vlad.

“What?”

“Please, dry Mrs. Feingold with a towel and take her to the styling station. You work too slow!”

I pat Mrs. Feingold on the shoulder. “Time to get up.” She does, with difficulty.

“You listen to me, Barbara,” she says sternly. “There will be men, when those teeth are straightened, and you will take one of them.” She says this with finality, to let me know the conversation is over. I sit her down at the styling station and go back to the front desk. I spin idly in my chair for about six minutes and then I put my head down for a brief nap. After a while a violent snore wakes me and I look around to see if anyone heard, but Mrs. Feingold is under the dryer and Vlad is smoking in the parking lot. No one else is around.

At three o’clock I yell goodbye to Vlad and walk five blocks down Elm to South Main. A homeless woman and her child sit, as they always do, on the low step in front of the First National Bank. I can see her a block away. I watch a police officer walk over and nudge her with his foot. She moves around the corner. I stand still and watch some more. After a couple minutes she sidles back to her perch on the low step. Squatting down, she takes out a dingy breast for her baby, rocking like a boat while she feeds it. I fish in my paper bag and offer her the uneaten half of my salami sandwich. She grabs it out of my hand and I half run the rest of the way to Doc Hallowell’s office. “You have a good day now, Hon!” she calls out hoarsely after me, and the baby lets out a strangled shriek.

~

The first thing that happens while I’m sitting in Doc Hallowell’s chair and he’s fiddling with my wires is that I have to go to the bathroom. I sit for five full minutes without saying anything, because I’m embarrassed, and then, when it feels as though my bladder is going to burst, I raise my right hand and waggle my fingers back and forth. It takes him a moment to notice, and then he steps back and peers into my face.

“Everything okay?” he asks.

“Actually, no,” I tell him. “I have to use the bathroom.”

“That’s a thing with you, isn’t it? Sit in the dental chair and you’ve got to pee. Maybe it’s because the chair is the color of seawater.”

I shrug and smile weakly. “I’ll be right back.”

When I return to the treatment room Doc Hallowell is seated, face in hands, on a round, wheeled stool next to the green chair. He looks as though he might be crying.

Oh, Jeez. Jeezum Crow. I try to cheer him up. “I like the color of the chair. Seawater. Nice.”

He glances up at me. “Seawater, nice? You breathe in that stuff you’re going to last thirty seconds max. It’ll feel like your lungs are on fire.”

“Breathe in—”

“Seawater.” And he drops his face back into his hands.

Oh. My. Jeez-um. I clear my throat. “Uh, Doc Hallowell?”

“Hmm?” He looks up.

“You okay?”

“I have to find another girl for square dancing. Bobby Ray expects it.”

“Oh.”

“You wouldn’t happen to—”

“Oh. No, I don’t square dance.”

“That’s what I thought,” he says, sighing. Then, suddenly chipper: “Okay, let’s bend those wires!”

By the time I leave the office the pain in my mouth has eased, and I have agreed to accompany Doc Hallowell to the Masonic Temple on Saturday.

~

I lie in my bed and try to remember square dancing from junior high school, but I can’t remember anything except the way the Plaid Boy’s pimples erupted with a kind of yellow crust on top, like dried lava, and that he looked at my feet, not my face, when he do-si-doed me. “Do-si-do” I remember—the word and not the step—and then, suddenly, “promenade” too, but that’s all. The rest is like white noise: something you can’t define but know is there in the back of your consciousness. And then after a while you don’t even know it’s there anymore, you just go on living your life in spite of it, and for all intents and purposes it has disappeared. Square dancing is like that for me. It was a part of my life once, and then it wasn’t—and if I try real hard I can dredge up buried pieces of it, like “do-si-do,” and the humid odor, like fungus, of the Plaid Boy as he promenaded me listlessly around the square. I get a little hot, in spite of myself, when I think about Saturday.

~

“I’m not a member,” Doc tells me as he holds open the glass door of the Masonic Temple, “but this is where they have the dancing.” I know the Masonic temple a little, having had a friend in high school whose father belonged, and having accompanied said friend to a Christmas party here in 1988. It was a party for losers, with a polka band so normal people couldn’t dance, but on the upside my friend’s brother backed me into a corner and French kissed me. And there was a gag gift someone got, a pair of boxers with hearts all over them, and the giver said “they’re the boxers with the hearts-on.” That was another upside.

I chuckle at the memory, and Doc says, “What?” which makes me blush.

~

The square dancing takes place in a large room lined with folding chairs around its perimeter. We seem to be somewhat late, as people are already squared up and chattering madly. Doc takes my coat off me and places it tenderly on a chair. Then he takes off his own jacket, sits down and replaces his street shoes with a pair of sneakers. Uh oh, I think, looking down at my strappy shoes. He notices them too, and says, “You’ll have a little trouble on this floor with those shoes. I should have told you to bring a pair of sneakers.”

“Oh. No big deal.” The truth is, I’ve got on the closest thing I could find to square-dancing clothes, a blue and gold paisley skirt with white eyelet lace sewn along the hem, and a white blouse, and there’s no way I was going to put on a pair of sneakers.

Then he takes my hand and leads me to his square.

“Marty, my man!” says one of the guys, an older man with a large belly and a western-style shirt paired up with a pair of Sansabelt slacks. So his name is Martin. Somehow I hadn’t known that. Then the others weigh in—so glad to have you back, love your shirt, never liked that Linda anyhow. And then they turn their attention toward me.

“What’syer name, Precious?” asks a woman whose face looks like a piece of driftwood, and whose stiff blond hair is in a mad state of confusion, pointing in eight directions at once.

“Barbara Bernard,” I say coolly. What a specimen.

“Welcome, Barbara Bernard!” she says in a cordial way, which I totally don’t deserve.

“Thanks.” I allow the corners of my mouth to rise the slightest bit possible.

“Barbara,” says Doc Hallowell, “is my star patient.  She always wears her elastics, don’t you?”

Oh, Jeezum.

“Barb,” says the tanned blond woman, “tell us.  Are Bob’s fingers as clever as I think they are, what with all them elastics and wires and—small work?” She winks indiscreetly at me.

She’s obviously the boxers with the hearts-on type.  The best way to deal with a person like that is to ignore her. I turn to Doc Hallowell and say, “You’ll have to show me the steps, as I’ve forgotten exactly how they go.”

“Piece of pie,” he replies, and smiles. He looks good when he smiles, not rugged or outdoorsy or elegant—not like in Olivia Hartwicke, and I must admit she’s spoiled me for real men—but decent and kindly. I start to think that Linda’s made a mistake, and that maybe her error could work to my advantage. I think that for a millisecond and then I remember the B.O. and the general goofiness and the fact that he’s almost fifty. And then I sigh and blow my bangs off my forehead and figure if I can just get through this date I will go home and read The Heiress of Bingsbury in my tub, make the water so hot my legs and stomach go dappled and the humidity makes my hair frizz.

I stand next to Doc Hallowell, thinking how the hell am I going to square dance? The driftwood blond is staring straight at me—I think she’s got her sights on Doc. The last thing I want is to look ridiculous in front of that mummy. As I’m fretting over this, a man with an enormous wattle under his chin—two chins, three chins!—and a stomach to match, sidles up to a microphone and greets the dancers.

“’Lo, Ladies and Gents. Another Saturday night. I see Gladys Pepper’s got her red skirt on tonight,” he says with a wink. “Way to go, Gladys. The Lady in Red.”

Assorted murmurings from the crowd. Gladys, a wizened old woman with red glasses to match the skirt, drops a curtsey. I sneer inwardly and try to appear icy. The frigid temperature in the hall helps—my fingers and toes and the tip of my nose are frozen.

The man with the microphone and the wattle inserts a tape in the boom box. “Right then, squa-are up!” he shouts. And our undisciplined group squares up.

~

It’s hard to keep track of my feet and listen to the fat man’s commands at the same time. And the rules of square dancing do not come back to me, although I feel again the moderate embarrassment of a girl paired up with a boy even lower on the social ladder than she, as if it were just this morning that the Boy in Plaid walked me through those complicated figures. But Doc Hallowell smiles and offers encouragement: that’s right—do-si-do!. . .Cloverleaf! Peel off there and hook up with Scotty on your way back! You’re doing great! Whew!

After fifteen minutes of this I am no longer cold and ready to call it quits, but the dancing continues for two hours. Then sweaty cups of beer and two bottles of scotch materialize. Before I know it I’ve drunk two beers and a shot or three, and need to sit with my face between my knees. Doc Hallowell, who has drunk two large scotches—neat, he calls them—trips over my right foot but recovers before he hits the floor. I look up and he looks back and our eyes meet and we laugh. Then I rush to the ladies’ room and hang over the toilet for ten minutes. When nothing happens I splash water on my face and go out to find Doc.

It’s ten o’clock by the time we walk out into the cool night. My bangs are stuck to my forehead; the wind on my damp hair and face makes me shiver. Doc smells like booze. I like it. He takes my elbow and guides me across deserted Main Street to the post office.

“It’s closed,” I point out.

“Yes, but we can sit on the steps and talk. Linda and I did this every Saturday after square dancing.”

We sit. The wind picks up my skirt, exposing my thighs, and I slap it down. Doc looks down at his own thighs with a half smile.

I have no idea what to say to him, so I ask if elastics come in different colors.

“Yes, I have almost any color you can imagine. Mostly it’s the kids who want the colors, though.”

“Although,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind fuchsia, to match my bra.”

He startles.

“Kidding!”

Then we sit in a drunken silence.

“Barbara?” says Doc Hallowell after a while.

“Hmm?”

“There’s something I want to tell you,” he says. But he doesn’t.

“Go ahead,” I urge him.

“It’s a dark thing.”

“Because you’re drunk?”

“It’s dark any which way.”

“What is it?”

“It’s that— Shoot. I mean, you might change orthodontists after this.”

“You’re the only orthodontist in town.”

“Oh, right. Well, here it is. I once shot a man. I killed him.”

I am shocked. And also aroused. “Why did you do that?”

“It was an accident, more or less.”

“Did you go to jail?”

“No. Manslaughter, suspended sentence. It was a hunting accident. They took away my hunting license.”

“You’re a hunter?” I ask. Unbelievable. Isn’t there an Olivia Hartwicke novel about a hot cowboy who accidentally shoots some guy and gets charged with manslaughter, until his lover (the sheriff’s daughter) gives him a glowing character reference and the judge voids the conviction? Or did I dream that?

“No,” he says, his voice grainy. “I’m not really a hunter. Not a hunter per se. It was my first time. I got the license because I needed something to do on weekends.” He stares at his splayed fingers. “Wait, what was I saying?”

“You got your hunting license.”

“Yes. That was before I started square dancing. I hadn’t gotten the hang of the rifle yet and it went off when I thought it was locked. I told the guy it was locked, and he made a joke about walking into my line of fire. Then I shot him.” He snorts, and then the laughter turns to sobs. Jeezum Crow, I mutter, and he looks up at me wetly.

“What did you say?”

I dig a crumpled Kleenex out of my purse and offer it to him. “I wasn’t allowed to say Jesus Christ when I was a kid. I’d get whacked. So I made up Jeezum Crow. It kind of stuck.”

He starts to cry again.

“Hey,” I say. “If you want, I can get you twenty percent off a hair cut at Vlad’s Cut N Curl.” I know it’s lame but it’s the best I can do.

“Thank you, Barbara,” he says, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “You’re a kind soul.” Then he jumps up, suddenly energized. “I almost forgot. Bobby Ray! Come on, we still have time!” And he pulls me to my feet.

~

Bobby Ray lives in the middle of nowhere. Doc mostly drives on the right, except around snaky curves, where he drifts a bit. I take this philosophically.

I ask where we are headed, and he tells me Salbury. “Salivary?” I ask, frowning, and he replies, “No, like Salisbury, without the I and the S.” We drive past open fields and trailers, dinky houses with dogs staked out front, cows and horses. By the time we pull up to Bobby Ray’s house, it is ten to eleven and the moon has gone under a cloud.  The darkness is heavy.

Instead of knocking on the front door, Doc Hallowell goes round to the back, takes out a key and turns it in the lock. The house is completely dark, and he quickly flips a light switch next to the door.

“Is no one home?” I ask, and he says, “Jenny’s home.”

“Who is Jenny?  His wife?”

“You’ll see.”

~

As far as I can tell the house is empty. There is no sign of Bobby Ray or Jenny. Doc Hallowell goes about the house, turning on lights. I can see now the trophies—deer and moose and pheasants, mounted on the walls. A beaver sits expectantly on its tail on a table by the fireplace.

“I don’t like dead animals.”

“They died of old age,” he says with a short laugh, and I laugh too, but inside I think, shit.

“Is he a hunter, then?”

“Was,” he says ruefully, “He had to give it up.” He motions toward the couch and I sit down, smoothing my skirt beneath my legs.

“Jenny will be out as soon as she hears the can opener,” he tells me, and then I know that Jenny is a cat. Sure enough, as soon as the electric can opener hums in the kitchen, a black cat emerges from the dark hallway and snakes around his legs. She looks a little like Figlet, only Figlet is fatter.

Doc Hallowell makes kissing noises and reaches down to scratch her head.

“You’re looking better, Jen,” he purrs. “Not so skinny.” She eats the cat food in big gulps, and when she has finished he picks her up and holds her slung over his shoulder like a baby. I can see her claws kneading the back of his shoulder, the way Meat Foon Foon kneads my stomach in bed.

“Sad girl,” says Doc Hallowell, and, “Poor girl.”

“Where is Bobby Ray?”I ask after a while, but Doc doesn’t answer.

“Will he be mad that we came right in?” I persist.

“No,” says Doc. He looks at his watch. “Give me twenty minutes, just for Jen’s sake, and then I’ll take you home.”

I am quite uneasy. The recesses of this house are dark. And it’s filled with bad karma, what with all the dead animals. I wonder what Jenny thinks of living here with them, poor thing.

Where the hell is Bobby Ray? I snap my fingers impatiently. I remember Doc Hallowell telling me about visiting Bobby Ray after square dancing with Linda. Maybe Bobby Ray is a strategy for luring women into this house. That might be okay—I’m starting to find him attractive. For a dentist. I mull this over, and after a few moments he pushes Jenny off his lap and comes to me, sits next to me on the couch.

“Hi,” I say, and my heartbeat quickens.

“Hi,” he echoes softly, and after a moment of idleness his head drops onto his chest. I think about what to do, and decide an elbow to the side would not be ill timed. I elbow him and he snorts awake. Then he leans over and kisses me. It’s a sad, boozy kiss, and after I’m over my surprise I kiss him back. We’re stone still for a moment, and then he says, “Bobby Ray would have liked you.  Jenny was his cat, you know.”

I nod and look around the room. Deer, moose, pheasant, beaver.

“Was it an accident, really?” I murmur.

He doesn’t say, just leans in for another kiss.

Last Dog

Claire Burgess

Joel was worried about the dead dog in his trunk. Heat rose off the road in front of him, rippling the air like a photograph warping over a flame—he was beginning to regret his decision to pack the ice inside the trash bag with the dog. In this heat, he knew, the ice would be melting, soaking the fur, and if there’s a smell worse than dead dog, it’s wet dead dog. What he should have done was put the dog inside its own bag, put that bag inside another bag filled with ice, and then put that bag in the suitcase. That way, the dog would have stayed dry. Every time he hit a pothole or made a sharp turn, he could hear the suitcase with the dog in it thump and slide. He thought he could hear sloshing water too, but he couldn’t be sure.

The dead dog belonged to Joel’s dying father. He had lung disease, and when he called Joel and said that the dog, a coonhound named Hound, had beat him to the grave and he was going to follow him soon, Joel had checked out of the motel he had been staying in since his wife said she needed some “time,” and had flown straight down to Forte, a town where the waters of the Gulf seeped up through the ground to form marshes, undermine the foundation of houses, and breed enough mosquitoes to outnumber the humans. When he arrived, he found his father skinny and stooped, but with joints swollen and huge, as if they belonged to a larger animal. Skin hung off his bones like a turkey’s wattle, and his eyes seemed to have a translucent film over them, like a second set of eyelids constantly closed. Joel hadn’t been born until his father was thirty-six, which Joel had thought was too old to be having your first child. But then here he was, two years past that age and childless. And jobless. And possibly soon to be wifeless.

Upon the dog’s death, Joel’s father had gotten the boy down the street, in exchange for a silver dollar, to carry it to the garage for him and store it in the large freezer that formerly held venison from his successful hunting trips. Joel had tried to transfer the dog into his father’s biggest cooler for transport, but the animal was frozen solid, or maybe stiff from rigor mortis, or both. Either way, it wouldn’t fit, and Joel had to improvise with the trash bags and ice and his big rolling suitcase. He had dumped all his clothes onto the blue-carpeted floor of his childhood bedroom, where they formed a pitiful, odorous pile, and he had reflected on the meaning of that pile, which contained everything he had brought with him to the motel after leaving the house he had shared with his wife but now did not. The pile meant this—failure, regret, defeat. And then he dragged the empty suitcase to the garage and stuffed a frozen dog into it.

But it probably didn’t matter about the ice, Joel thought, since the dog itself was probably thawing by now. He had been lost for the last twenty minutes, cursing his unhelpful GPS and weaving through roads that should have been familiar, but now were not. Nothing looked the same, or maybe everything looked the same as everything else. He drove past live oaks trailing Spanish moss, past brightly painted Victorians, past rusted-out trucks and tilting sheds and jungle-like vegetation that swallowed fences and spilled onto the road, as dense and unsurpassable as steel wool. It was stranger than Philadelphia had been, or Chicago, or Louisville, Joel decided, because it was familiar and strange at the same time.

Joel squinted at the passing landscape, hunched over the steering wheel like his father used to do before his eyesight got too bad to drive, hoping for something to trigger a memory. He used to know these roads like he knew his own face in the mirror, but then again, he didn’t really know his face anymore. Like his face, Forte had become strange over the years, had changed while he wasn’t looking.

Joel had left when he was eighteen. He had only returned for Thanksgivings (they had done Christmas with his in-laws), his mother’s funeral, and for the occasional visit to his father after he got sick, but on those visits he seldom drove anywhere except to pick up groceries from the Piggly Wiggly down the street or to take his father to the hospital in Mobile. He hadn’t ventured onto these roads since the weekends in high school when he and his friends took six packs into the swamp and shot bottle rockets at each other. And now here he was again, bouncing through the beat-up back roads of his youth in his father’s Buick, but this time he had no friends or beer or bottle rockets, just a thawing dog in the trunk.

When he finally found the taxidermist’s, he came upon it by accident. He rounded a curve in the road and there it was in front of him, sprung like a bobcat out of the swampy underbrush to stare him in the face, unexpected and startling and sadly obvious, like everything else in his life.

The shop was on the ground floor of a squat house the color of dried moss, right next to a partially abandoned strip of shops which included a tanning salon, a Chinese buffet, and a hunting gear store. “Herbert Taxidermy” said the sign out front. Joel pulled into the gravel driveway and then wondered if he should roll the whole suitcase in, take the dog out first, or walk in and ask. They might not even do dogs, after all. Mounting a pet seemed morbid to Joel, but then again, mounting anything seemed morbid to Joel. For a period of time when he was young, he had refused to go into the den unless his mother covered his father’s trophy animals with sheets and pillowcases. When he wasn’t looking directly at them, he swore he could see them move.

Joel decided to go in and ask first.

Inside, heads clustered the walls—deer, bucks, boars, even a moose. The front room had been converted into a showroom dominated by a standing and dusty black bear. A random assortment of tables and shelves held exhibits of small game and fowl, and a large desk blocked the doorway to another room shielded with a camo-print curtain. The desk looked like it would be better suited to a smoky study, not a taxidermy shop. On one corner of the desk, a small white bunny was mounted on a shiny disk of wood. The room was so packed with animals that at first Joel didn’t notice that he was the only human in it.

“Hello?” he said. His voice sounded very loud. In the corners of his vision, glass eyes rolled towards him.

The camo curtain moved to reveal the head of a girl peering at him. The head had red hair the color of a candy apple, which in some places would be a statement color, but here was just the color people dyed their hair when they went red.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the head. “I was so caught up I didn’t hear you come in.”

“It’s okay,” said Joel. “Are you Herbert? Sorry, do you pronounce the ‘H’ or not?”

The candy-headed girl emerged the rest of the way from the curtain and tugged it closed behind her. She was wearing a sundress and cowboy boots, and on her upper back, where it wasn’t covered by her hair or the straps of the dress, part of a large tattoo was visible.

“The Cajun way: ‘A-bear,’” said the girl. “And yes, I’m Abear.”

“Oh,” said Joel. The girl, Abear, was young, mid-twenties, Joel guessed, with a nose like a smooshed muffin and a large purple birthmark that spread like an ink stain from her left jaw under her ear up to her cheekbone, nearly covering the whole cheek. Joel strained to not stare and to look at her eyes instead, eyes that were a brown so dark that the irises were barely distinguishable from the pupils. They reminded him of the eyes of an animal—not the glass ones in the mounts, but live, blinking animal eyes.

“Can I help you with something?” she said.

“Yes,” said Joel. “It’s, uh, it’s kind of embarrassing, actually. And please don’t hesitate to say no if you’re uncomfortable with it—”

“What, you want to mount your wife?” said Abear with a smirk, the left edge of her lip drawing towards the birthmark.

Joel was silent for a moment, and then expelled a nervous laugh that sounded more like choking. “No, uh, it’s a dog,” he said.

Abear’s smirk disappeared. “A pet?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure your want to mount it?” she said. “Mounting it won’t give you your dog back. It’ll give you a statue of your dog. Have you considered cremation?” It sounded like she had given this speech before.

“I’m sure,” he said.

The edge of her bra was visible under the sundress. It was the flesh-colored kind his wife wore, which she called “sensible.”

“Most shops won’t do this kind of work, you know,” said Abear. “Too much buyer’s remorse.”

Joel knew. That’s why he had come here, because the ad in the phone book said they did “unusual animals,” which he assumed to mean exotic animals, but he was hoping the choice of the word “unusual” would mean they’d make an exception for this one dog. He thought of his father sitting on his cigarette-burned armchair in the wood-paneled den with the animal heads, his oxygen tank at his side, and said, “Please. It’s important.”

Abear eyed him for a moment, her eyes squinting as if trying to see him better, and then shrugged and offered her hand.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it.” When they shook on it, she gave his hand a reassuring double-squeeze at the end.

“It’s in my trunk,” he said, pulling his hand away.

When he opened his trunk, Joel was embarrassed to see one plastic-covered paw protruding beyond the zipper of the suitcase as if the dog was trying to escape. He glanced at the girl to see her reaction, but she only raised one finely plucked eyebrow.

The dog was thankfully still frozen solid, but some of the ice had melted and wet the red-brown fur. It had also escaped the trash bag and soaked the bottom of his suitcase and some of the trunk upholstery. He was sure he would never get the smell out.

“It wouldn’t fit in the cooler,” Joel explained as he stooped to remove the dog from the trash bag, but he was so busy watching Abear’s two-toned face that the trash bag slipped and the dog water and remaining ice slushed onto the parking lot and into his shoes.

“Goddamnit!” he said, almost dropping the dog. He could feel his cheeks going red, and then redder when he realized they were going red. For a moment, he had an out-of-body experience. He could see himself from the girl’s point of view—a middle-aged man with rings of sweat under his armpits, holding a dripping, frozen dog in his arms, standing in wet shoes, blushing. He saw his receding hairline at the temples, the expanding, pit-like pores on his nose, the growing water spot on the front of his shirt where he held the dog against his softening belly, the gap of his mouth slightly open with embarrassment, his eyes dull and a bit out of focus with humiliation.

And then he was back in his body. The water in his shoes was freezing.

“It’s only water,” said the girl. And then she reached out and touched the dog. She stroked the matted fur on the top of its head as if it were alive.

“He looks like a nice dog,” she said.

Joel couldn’t meet her eyes, so he stared at the edge of her bra and said, “He was.”

~

On the way back to his father’s house, Joel called his wife. He knew she wouldn’t answer, but he did this anyway, every day. She always sent him to voice mail, but she never outright rejected the call, which meant something. It meant he had a foothold. It meant he was still present in her life in the form of his messages. It meant she couldn’t cut him out completely.

Joel had a plan. He would get back in through her voicemail, convince her to take him back through persistence and eloquence. Every message was carefully pondered and planned out before he left it, and he often pressed four to replay the message and then two to erase and record it again until it was perfect. He would listen to her voice on the recorded greeting, the brisk alto of it, shiny and full and cold like brass, and every time he could feel longing and hope swell in him and then get cut down by the sharp muscle spasm of remembered heartbreak.

The whole thing seemed terribly romantic to Joel. His carefully crafted messages were love letters, hand written, corked inside a bottle, set into the outgoing tide of a grey sea. He imagined her listening to them while standing in the kitchen, the scene of their break, possibly while eating a solitary meal at the new granite island they had just installed six months ago, before he lost his job, on which Joel had broken two plates and three wine glasses (granite is notorious for breaking things—you have to be very careful, and Joel was never careful enough). He imagined that she would imagine him across from her as she replayed his messages, imagine him sharing her meal. He could see her face—her upper lip with the dip over it the shape of a dew drop would tremble slightly—her huge blue eyes that protruded from her face in a way that stopped just short of buggish and landed on startling would be closed—she would run one hand through her blond hair from front to back, the way she did when she was stressed or upset. She would save the message. She saved all his messages. He imagined.

“You’ve reached Danielle Riggs,” the greeting said. “I’m away from my phone right now, but please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thank you. Bye.”

Riggs. That was his last name. Riggs. He cherished it, her name joined with his. It was his favorite part of the message. His second favorite part was when she said “Bye.” So polite, automatic, and completely unnecessary.

“Hi, honey,” he said after the beep. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m in Forte now. My flight was good, clear skies the whole way. I wish you were here. Dad would love to see you. He doesn’t have much time left. I would take you to that seafood restaurant you like, the one with the fresh oysters from the Gulf. Do you remember the first night we went there? And what we did when we went back to Dad’s? Good thing he’s hard of hearing. Ha-ha. I haven’t heard back about that interview at AmeriBank, but I’m going to follow up in a couple days. Oh, and Hound died. It’s very sad. Dad says he has nothing to live for anymore and he’s going to go soon. I wish you were here. I love you. Bye.”

He pressed four to listen to his message, and his voice held the perfect mix of sadness and intimacy. That one might bring a tear to her eye. She liked Hound, even though she had animal allergies. She had always wanted a dog but could never have one, and sometimes she would look at Hound longingly from across the room and sneeze.

~

“She said it will take a month at the least,” Joel told his father when he found his way back to his house. “Probably more.”

“Not good enough!” his father wheezed at him as he dragged his narrow green oxygen tank to the recliner beneath the 8-point buck. “I might be dead by then.”

“Don’t talk like that, Dad. The doctor said you could have years left,” said Joel.

“The doctor doesn’t know shit,” his father said. “He’s a third my age. He doesn’t know what dying feels like, but I do. I can feel it all over my body. I predict I have three weeks.”

“Dad.”

“Don’t ‘Dad’ me. You don’t know what it feels like either.” He paused to have a coughing fit and hack something from his lungs into his palm. He held it out to Joel, cupped in his wrinkled hand in a way that seemed tender and careful. It reminded Joel of how his father used to scoop tadpoles out of the swamp ponds that were everywhere around here and show them to Joel, pointing out the ones with legs, the ones with legs and arms, the ones with nothing. He would press his fingers together to try to hold on to the water, but it would always seep out, leaving the tadpoles squirming on his bare palm.

Joel looked into his father’s cupped hand. In it was something dark and viscous, like black snot.

“See?” his father said. “That’s what death looks like. It comes from inside you and fills up your lungs and chokes you.” Then he flapped his hand over the trash can beside his chair until it flew into the plastic lining with a thwack, the wet sound of finality. Joel imagined he could feel his own skin getting loose, his joints starting to compact, his eyes starting to blur.

“Tell that girl to hurry it up,” he said, pointing a yellow-nailed finger at Joel. “Tell her it’s a matter of life and death.”

It was too late to call the taxidermy shop, so Joel decided to call the next day. Or maybe he would go there in person, just to get out of the house, get away from the wheezing and the talk of phlegm and death. When he thought of seeing Abear again he felt nervous. He didn’t know what he would say. “My father is dying soon and wants the dog ASAP,” didn’t seem right, especially since Joel had lied and claimed the dog was his. Well, he didn’t say that, exactly, but he didn’t correct her, either. Why had he done that? he wondered.

She’s so young to be in such a grisly trade, Joel thought while he was lying in his old bed in his old room that night. It was a twin bead, and his feet hung off the end, vulnerable, cold. He wondered what Abear’s first name was. He wondered if she hated that birthmark. He wondered about the tattoo on her back, what was behind the curtain in her shop, if all her bras were flesh-colored, or if she had some that were colorful, or black, or lacy even.

And then he thought of his wife, and he had a feeling like he was collapsing onto his knees, even though he was lying in bed.

Danielle needed to take some time for herself, she had said a month ago in the kitchen. It had been ten o’clock at night, and she hadn’t called, and Joel had been waiting on a stool at the island for her to get back. She needed to get some perspective on things, she had said. Joel had stared at her lips, the insides of which were stained purple with the wine she had just been drinking wherever she had been, with whoever she had been with. He had wanted to rub his thumb across them, rub away the stain.

She needed to re-evaluate her life, she said. She had turned into a person she never wanted to be, she said. Her life was not the life she dreamed of in high school, she said. It was maybe his fault. He had asked what he did to ruin her life.

“You asked me to marry you.”

He thought about his knees tucked into the backs of her knees, her hair tickling his nose.

“I fell in love with a different man,” Danielle said. “You were exciting and fun and did things. You had beliefs. And then you became a bank manager. And I became whatever it is I am now, and I hate this person.”

“Well, I’m not a bank manager anymore,” Joel said, joking.

It was the wrong answer. She had thrown up her hands, spun around, and slammed the kitchen door behind her. Joel heard her car start up and pull out of the driveway. He had sat at the island for another half hour, stunned. The kitchen seemed suddenly foreign, a kitchen in someone else’s house that he had accidentally walked into, thinking it was his. He watched the door, waiting for her to return, teary-eyed, and take everything back. She didn’t.

The next morning, Joel packed the rolling suitcase and took it to the Residence Inn by the interstate, which had rooms with kitchens and rented by the week. He left a message on Danielle’s phone saying that he had left so she could have the space she needed, and she should stay in the house. Then he called back and left another message saying that when she was ready, he would make everything up to her, and to please call him back.

When he got to the motel, he slept for a long time. Then he went to the grocery store and bought potato chips, bagels, and a box of wine. He put the wine on the nightstand by his bed and the bagels and chips on the side of the double bed that he wasn’t sleeping on, and for most of the next week he stayed in bed and watched the hotel’s cable TV, drank wine from a Dixie cup, ate the potato chips and bagels for meals, once creating a potato-chip bagel sandwich, and slept in his crumbs, only getting up to use the bathroom. When he ran out of food and wine, he went to the store by their house and hoped to see his wife there. But then he realized what he looked like—unwashed, stubbly, orange Doritos stains on his sweat pants—and left quickly, darting furtively down the aisles. In the third week, he got a call from AmeriBank, one of the many banks he had submitted job applications to after he lost his job during a merger due to “redundancies.” He bathed and shaved, and he put on his work suit for the first time in three months. He clipped his nails and shook hands and answered questions about his strategy for leading a team and situations in which a problem arose and he had solved it. After the interview, he went back to the grocery store, confident this time, and hoped to see his wife. He walked up and down the aisles but couldn’t find her. The next day, he started leaving the messages. And then a few days ago, his father called. And so here he was.

Joel hung up and thought about the taxidermy girl and what she would be doing to Hound right then. Would she be taking off his skin, he wondered. Would she be letting his fur dry before she took off his skin? Would she be petting him behind the ears?

~

The next day, he avoided calling the taxidermist. He thought about it frequently, but for some reason it made him nervous, and he found reasons to put it off. He got a roast from the Pig, which was one of his father’s favorite dinners, and which would take all day to cook. He cut the grass in the yard and took off his shirt when he started to sweat through it and felt manly and vital and only a little self-conscious about his gut, which wasn’t nearly as flat as it used to be. He dusted the mounts in the den and avoided looking them in the eyes. And all the while, his father watched TV and breathed loudly and spouted bits of wisdom during commercial breaks, like—“Women have no heads for numbers. They always bid too high. The one that says One Dollar—almost always a man.” And, “Religion is a defense mechanism to deal with death. But don’t tell God I said that.”

At 4 o’clock, Joel’s cell phone rang. Something like electricity or nausea shot through his body as he dug it out of his pocket, almost dropping it in his haste, his hands suddenly damp. It was an unknown number.

Not Danielle.

All feeling vacated his body—he was a limp sack of flesh. And then he realized it could be AmeriBank, and he mustered the will to answer.

“Hi Mr. Riggs,” said the voice on the other end. “It’s Susanna Abear from Abear Taxidermy?”

Susanna. Her name was Susanna. Oh, Susanna, he sang in his head.

“Of course. I was actually about to call you,” he said. He glanced at his father in his recliner and snuck out of the room.

“Have you changed your mind about your pet? People often change their minds, so I always wait a few days before starting.”

“No, no. I haven’t changed my mind,” said Joel. “I was actually going to ask if there was any way you could get it done sooner than a month, so I would prefer if you go ahead and start.”

“That’ll be difficult,” said Susanna. “It’s a whole process, you know. It’s hard to speed it up. It takes time to tan the skin, sculpt the form, let everything dry out.”

“There are extenuating circumstances. If you get it done early, I can pay you extra.”

Susanna was quiet on the other end of the phone.

“But what were you calling me about?” said Joel.

“I was going to ask for a photograph. Of your dog. It helps to get the expression right. Pets have a way of looking at their master that’s impossible to duplicate from the lifeless form. It’s actually really hard even with a photograph. The eyes are the hardest part.”

“Oh,” said Joel. “Of course. I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Thanks, Mr. Riggs. And I’ll do my best to get your dog mounted sooner.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Oh, and one more thing. What’s his name, your dog?”

“Hound,” said Joel.

On the other end of the line, Susanna laughed. “Perfect,” she said.

~

Joel’s father had a whole shoebox of photos of Hound. When he relayed Susanna’s request, Joel’s father directed him to the hall closet to retrieve the box, nearly packed to the brim with glossy four-by-sixes. Joel brought it to the kitchen table, and his father wheeled his tank over and pointed at pictures and told their stories—here’s Hound as a puppy in your mother’s lap, before he got too big to sit in laps. He used to pee everywhere, his father said—we had to get the carpets cleaned professionally three different times. There’s Hound and me on a hunting trip, the time Hound tracked down the bobcat on the mantle. Hound in a pile of leaves. Hound and me sitting on the porch. Hound and me shaking hands. Hound and me hanging our heads out the windows of the Buick.

Joel wondered if there was a shoebox somewhere full of photos of him.

Joel rifled through the photos, looking for one of him and Hound. He didn’t know if such a picture existed. Hound had never been his pet. His father had bought him years after Joel left, after Hound’s predecessor, a dog named Dawg, got into a neighbor’s garage and ate the poison left out for rats. Joel didn’t know why he wanted to give Susanna a picture with him in it, preferably one of a younger, more attractive him, but he did. He wanted her to study the picture for Hound’s expression and find that her eyes kept straying to the side, to Joel’s face. She was too young for him, of course. It wasn’t a sexual thing, he told himself. He just wanted someone to see him, that’s all. And maybe to make up for the moment yesterday with the ice water, when he was sure he looked so old and pitiful.

Then he found it. Joel was sitting on the front steps with one arm around Hound, smiling into the camera. He was wearing jeans and an undershirt, and his hair was longer than it was now and artfully mussed, as if he and Hound had just been rolling on the ground together. His jaw was shadowed with stubble, and his teeth looked incredibly white in comparison. On his wrist was a watch with a brown leather band that his wife had given him on their first anniversary, a watch that he lost two years later when they went on a vacation to Florida and he took it off beside the pool and someone walked away with it. That made him between thirty and thirty-two in this picture, then. He looked like a different man. He looked happy and exciting and fun. He looked like he had beliefs. This was the man his wife fell in love with, he realized. This was who he thought he had been all along, but wasn’t. It might have been his wife behind the camera, taking the picture. He slipped the photo off the table and into his back pocket.

Beside him, his father leaned back in his chair and sighed. “He was a good dog,” he said. “May he rest in peace.”

“How will they do it?” said Joel.

“Do what?”

“Mount him.”

“Ah,” said his father. He sat up again and leaned towards Joel over the table. “Why the interest now? Want to start hunting? Maybe I’ll let you have my mounts when I die.”

“I’m just curious, Dad.”

“Well, it’s a whole process. I don’t know much about it, really. They skin them first. I’ve done it before with bucks. It’s surprisingly easy. A few cuts here and there, and the whole thing just peels right off like a banana. And then they tan the skin and do some other stuff, and then they add the original teeth and some glass eyes, and then you’ve got yourself a pretty mount.”

“And you’re okay with doing that to Hound?” said Joel.

“Darn right I am,” said his father. “Don’t give me that face. It’s a gesture of respect. It’s an art form, boy, an act of reverence. Why would I have this bobcat and that deer and that bass and not want my dog?”

“But why only Hound? Why not any of the other dogs?”

Joel’s father was silent for a moment. His breath rattled in his chest and he adjusted the oxygen tube over his ears.

“‘Cause he’s my last dog,” he said.

~

That night, Joel called Danielle’s answering machine—“Hi, honey. I’m still in Forte. My father is having Hound mounted. How messed up is that? I think he’s just lonely and doesn’t want to die that way. Of course he doesn’t. No one wants to die alone. I’m just hoping that he’s not going to ask me to get him mounted next. Ha-ha. I found a photo of me from a little after we were married. I can be that man again, just with less hair. Ha-ha. But really, we can be happy. I can make you happy. I love you. Bye.”

~

The next morning, Joel was planning on taking the photo to Susanna, but as his father was eating his oatmeal in his recliner and Joel was doing sit-ups on the floor in front of the TV (he had decided to fight back against the advance of his gut, reclaim that flat stomach, be the man his wife loved), his father started having chest pains. He tried to set the bowl on the coffee table, but he missed the edge and oatmeal spilled across the carpet. Joel heard the clink of the bowl and spoon knock together as they hit the floor and turned around to find his father bent forward, bunching his shirt-front in a gnarled fist and struggling to breathe. His breaths were shallow and gasping and loud with phlegm. The skin around his mouth and eyes was going blue.

Joel knelt in front of his father and turned up the oxygen. His hands fluttered around the edges of his father’s form, not touching him, not knowing where to land. He settled on his hand, the one that wasn’t grabbing his shirt, and his father’s burled fingers closed around his and squeezed. Joel could feel the bones through his father’s skin, narrow and light, but still strong. His grip was actually causing Joel pain. “It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “Try to breathe slowly. Try not to hyperventilate. Just breathe.”

After a few minutes, his breathing got better, but the pain in his chest was still there, and he couldn’t draw breaths deeply. Joel helped his father to the car and drove the forty minutes to the hospital in Mobile, against his father’s protests. In the passenger seat, with the oxygen tank between his knees, Joel’s father wouldn’t look at him. He stared out the window the whole drive, and Joel watched him out of the corner of his eye. He watched the hunch of his upper back and shoulders, curved so far forward they didn’t touch the seat. He watched the skin that hung from his neck sway with the movement of the car, looking thin as a cobweb, able to be brushed away with the swipe of a hand. He watched his father’s hands, curled and inert in his lap like broken game traps.

In the ER, Joel’s father didn’t want him in the room when he was called back, which didn’t take too long since they used the magic words “chest pains,” so Joel sat in the scooped plastic chairs of the waiting room by himself and called his wife. But this time, instead of sending him to voice mail, she rejected him.

“The caller you have dialed cannot be reached. Please try again later,” said an automated female voice that wasn’t his wife’s. Joel’s lungs felt suddenly filled with blackish fluid, rising from the inside, choking him.

~

Joel’s father was checked into the hospital to stay overnight. They took another chest x-ray and were running more tests. It was probably an infection that was exacerbating his condition, the twenty-something-year-old doctor said. He asked Joel how long his father had been coughing up blood, and Joel remembered the black fluid in his father’s palm two days before, and said, “I don’t know.”

“Your father knows that he should come in at the first sign of hemoptysis,” said the doctor, and Joel assumed that ‘hemoptysis’ meant coughing up blood. “The fact that he didn’t does not bode well for his mental state. Many patients his age with conditions like this stop caring about their lives. It’s a good thing you’re with him.”

Joel tried to sleep on the chair in his father’s room, but his father wouldn’t let him. His nasal tubes had been replaced by a full oxygen mask, and his voice sounded muffled and far away when he talked. Joel wondered if this was one of those things you hear about where an elderly wife dies and the husband follows the day after the funeral, except Hound was a dog and Joel’s father outlived his wife by ten years. Joel asked his father why he didn’t go to the hospital days ago, asked him what he was thinking.

“Do you want to die?” he said.

“Don’t be a sensitive ninny,” his father replied, and then told him to go home and not to come back tomorrow unless he brought the stack of National Geographics from the coffee table with him.

Joel drove back to Forte alone and did not get lost on the way. But he did drive for fifteen minutes with his headlights off, not noticing how dark it was, not noticing the cars flashing their lights at him, until he got to the back roads and realized he couldn’t see a thing. He tried to call his wife again and was rejected. He imagined her in their house in Philadelphia, seeing his name on her cell phone, pressing reject. But he didn’t know what he would have said, anyway. He felt as if his insides were hollowed out by a grapefruit spoon, his outsides scrubbed pink with bleach.

~

His father stayed in the hospital the next night, and the next. It was, as the doctor suspected, an infection that had set into his lungs and was inflaming them and causing the chest pain and making his breathing even more difficult than usual. It doesn’t look good, the doctor said, but they were doing everything they could, and he might pull out of it. He should have come in sooner.

Joel wanted to talk to his wife, to someone, but the only person he knew anymore in Forte was Susanna the taxidermist. He found himself thinking of her often when he was in his father’s trophy room. He thought about her making precise slits on Hound’s body and removing his skin as easily as unzipping a jacket. He imagined her sculpting Hound’s form, paying special care to the place behind his ears. On the umpteenth time he thought about this, he started imagining Susanna gently pulling off Hound’s skin while wearing nothing but her sensible, flesh-colored underwear. He considered that these thoughts might be perverse, but he didn’t care enough to stop them. So he let himself think of her skinning Hound in a nude underwear set, the birthmark vibrant on her cheek, completing her back tattoo with his imagination, a different tattoo every time—a tree, some flowers, a dragon, a moose head, a house. Then he imagined her holding up Hound’s skin and giving it a shake like airing out a sheet, and then swinging it around her own shoulders, draping herself in it, shaking her nail-polish-red hair down her back over Hound’s brown-red fur. He imagined that the skin would still be warm, but not bloody. In his imagination, he removed the blood. He imagined her in a Hound sundress. A sundress of fur.

On the third night, when Joel was having trouble sleeping, he decided to try his wife again. It was the middle of the night, and she would have her phone on silent so it wouldn’t wake her up, and it would go to voicemail, and he’d be able to leave a message. The blue screen of his phone when he opened it was so bright in the dark room that he had to close his eyes for a second. He squinted at the photo of his house he used as a background, and it felt like looking into the sun. He pressed her speed dial.

“Hello, you’ve reached Danielle. I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave a message, and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thanks. Bye.”

Joel’s whole body went numb. His muscles felt like well-baked chicken, ready to fall off the bone.

Riggs. There was no Riggs.

He was so shocked that he forgot what he was going to say in the message, and when it beeped, he fumbled the phone trying to end the call and dropped it off the bed, chasing it onto the floor before hanging up.

On the floor, he could feel his heart pumping madly, spurting adrenaline into his veins. What a stupid muscle it seemed, with its dumb, reflexive pump, its instinctual clench-clench-clench, moving his passive blood all over his body. He was amazed that it hadn’t given up, hadn’t got tired after these thirty-eight years of him wandering just as stupidly and reflexively through his life, hadn’t just called it quits and relaxed, loosened, gone still. He was amazed that things like this could happen—separations, divorces, deaths of parents—things that end your life, or what had been your life, over and over and over again, and in the dark inside your chest your heart just keeps blindly pumping, pumping, pumping, unaware that your life is over.

Joel stayed on the floor, the soft blue light of his phone beside him, and stared forward into the dark, seeing nothing and thinking of everything, until it all became nothing, too. Joel felt as if his skin had been peeled off and tugged over a fiberglass him-shaped mannequin, but also like what was left over, the living red meat of him exposed, white veins of fat glistening, lipless teeth bared, lidless eyes wide open.

~

The next day, Joel thought about calling AmeriBank to follow up on his interview, but he didn’t. He thought about calling his wife, but he didn’t. He took his wedding ring off and put it back on again. Took it off and put it back on again. He took the photo of him and Hound out of his wallet and looked at it. His youthful smiling face, Hound’s pink lolling tongue. He still hadn’t taken it to Susanna. It was bent now.

In the hospital, a purple bruise spread on the inside of his father’s arm around the IV needle, and he coughed up blood, and he breathed behind his mask.

“See?” he said. “T minus two weeks. You’ll see.”

Joel drove straight from the hospital to the taxidermist’s, and this time, he didn’t get lost.

~

“I was beginning to think you forgot,” Susanna Abear said when Joel walked in, his thumb worrying the bare skin on his ring finger like a bad tooth.

Joel stopped in front of the desk and looked at her. Her hair was pulled back from the temples with bobby pins, and her skin was bright and firm and flawless except for the dark bruise of her birthmark. This was only the second time he’d seen her. She looked different than he made her in his imagination, her nose and her figure a little less shapely, but close enough. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt this time. He remembered the fur sundress of his imagination and blushed.

Her line-less brow knitted, possibly in response to the sudden reddening of his face, and she said, “You okay, Mr. Riggs? Do you miss him?”

Joel looked at her concerned face, and her youth suddenly seemed tragic to him. Nothing is how you expect it to be, he wanted to tell her. You have no control. The most formative events in your life will not be your wedding, your first child, your promotion—they will be the things that rear up and punch you in the face, the things you don’t see coming that knock you down and you can’t get up for a long time and when you do eventually get up—which you will always do, you’ll always get up and get up and get up—all you can do is just wait for the next thing, knowing it’s out there, knowing you’re always travelling towards it, knowing it’s crouching somewhere, waiting, and there’s nothing you can do but walk right up to it.

“He’s not dead yet,” said Joel, and then he realized she was asking about Hound’s death, that she didn’t know about his father, that Hound wasn’t even his. Susanna looked at him, confused.

“Oh, Hound,” said Joel. “I thought you meant my father. My father’s dying.”

The look on Susanna’s face was like wings opening.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“It’s his dog. That’s why I need it sooner.”

Susanna nodded. “Okay.”

“I brought the photo,” Joel said, pulling it out of his wallet and handing it to her. “It’s from six years ago. I hope that’s okay.”

“Good picture,” she said, looking from him to the photo. “You look exactly the same.”

Joel watched the part in her hair, incredibly white next to the red.

“Hound lived a good life,” she said, looking up at him with seriousness. “I can tell.”

“He was a dog,” said Joel.

“I know, but I mean it.”

“Well, what makes you think that?”

She shook her head. “You’d think I’m crazy.”

“No I won’t.”

Susanna looked at him, her eyes narrowing as if trying to squint enough to see through Joel’s pupils and into his head. Her face settled into some sort of resolution and she said, “Okay, follow me.”

She held the camo curtain open for him and he stepped into a dim room. He could make out the forms of more mounts, but there was too little light to see what they were. Behind him, Susanna turned on a lamp.

The room was filled with mounts, but of animals he’d never seen. On the table in front of him was a creature with the head and wings of a hawk and the body of a cat. To the left of it was a hare with the curled horns of a ram, then a baby crocodile with the wings of a bird of prey.  There was a lamb with a unicorn horn, a bobcat with a lion’s mane, a rainbow trout with small out-spread wings. On the wall were a two-headed deer with red plumage on its throats and a boar with antlers. Joel stood frozen, staring, his eyes wide as the eyes of the mounts.

“This is my private collection,” said Susanna, walking up to a large squirrel with a fox tail and stroking its head. “I make the animals into what they want to be.”

Joel wanted to look at her but couldn’t stop looking at the animals. The shift from fur to feathers to scales was perfect, seamless, organic. They looked so real. So whole. So this is what the ad meant by “unusual.”

“What do you mean, ‘what they want to be?’” he asked.

“Our outsides rarely fit our insides,” she said, casually, with a shrug. But one hand rose unconsciously to the dark spot on her cheek.

“And how do you know what they want to be?” he asked. He found he was whispering and didn’t know why.

“I just get a feeling when I touch them. I look at them, and I can see it. Sometimes I’ll get a warthog and think ‘turtle,’ or a mallard and think ‘goat.’ It’s weird, I know. Some people can write music, just like that. I make animals.”

This is crazy, Joel thought. But he also wondered what he would be. What would she make him into? Would she slide fish scales under his skin, growing from his flesh like fingernails? Would she crown him with the curled horns of a ram, the fuzzed nubs of a fawn, the rack of a buck? Would he have a tail, a fin, claws, hoofs, a shell? Would he have wings? Would his face still be his face, or would he have the face of an animal, furred and snouted and wet-nosed? What would he be?

“Are you going to do this to Hound?” he asked.

“No,” said Susanna. “Hound was exactly what he wanted to be. Hound was Hound, through and through.”

Joel was silent for a moment, and then asked, “And what about me?”

Susanna smiled at him and shook her head. “Doesn’t work with humans,” she said. “Too complex. All I know is myself.”

“So what are you, then?”

“Would you like to see?”

Joel nodded.

Susanna turned around and pulled up the back of her t-shirt to expose the rest of her tattoo, bisected by the strap of her bra. It was wings. Dark, mottled wings, like an owl or a grouse. Of course, he thought. Of course she would be a bird. Everyone thinks they’re a bird.

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“Not as much as you’d think,” Susanna replied, her back still to him, her shirt still up. Then she said, “Do you want to touch them?”

Joel did. He really did. He reached out one hand slowly and touched the tip of her left wing, lightly. He ran the tips of his fingers over the ink, expecting it to be raised and scar-like, but it was all smooth, deep in her skin. His hands ran over the strap of her bra, nude like it was in his imagination, and he wanted to take it off, to remove it so he could see her wings free and unobstructed. Nothing is permanent, he wanted to tell her. You think you’ll have these forever, but they’ll fade and blur and sag with the rest of you. You will look behind you one day and find them changed, unrecognizable. You will wonder what happened. But he said nothing, because, for now, they were perfect. They held so much hope, those lame, flightless wings. He wanted to bend down and put his lips on those wings, trace the feathers with his tongue. He felt bold, strong, reckless. He could feel the animals watching them with their glass eyes, and he didn’t care. He felt as if he was on the edge of something, and he was going to throw himself off, goddamnit, and see what happened. He thought maybe he was a bird, too.

And then he did it.


 

Visit with Claire Burgess

Day Trip

Noelle Catharine Allen

I had killed the engine, filed my nails, organized my wallet, and done a sketch of my left hand. Since we still hadn’t moved, not even a few feet, I started on a detailed drawing of Thomas Jefferson riding a dragon through a peach orchard. Next, I drew the goddess Sekhmet (woman’s body, lion’s head) riding a bicycle down a city street. Every half hour I ran the AC for a few minutes and listened to NPR for the traffic report. At seven p.m. I heard the announcement:

If you are in the back-ups on I-95 and 1-66 heading towards Washington, turn off your engine to avoid running out of gas. Please stay near your car. Announcements will be made every half hour. In the interim, turn off your radio to conserve your car’s battery.

“What? Why are they saying that?” Matthew asked from the back seat.

“They don’t want us to run out of gas while we’re waiting to start driving again. The traffic jam goes all the way to DC. I don’t think we’re going anywhere for a while.”

“Does that mean I can take off my seat belt?”

“Sure.”

I stepped out of the car and the heat thrust its damp, heavy body against mine. I breathed in the exhaust-saturated air, stretched my arms overhead and felt the blood tingling gloriously back into my limbs. As far ahead as I could see, countless cars glittered in the evening sunlight, a sparkling stream going nowhere.

All right—we were stuck. It wasn’t the end of the world. We’d surely be back at my brother’s house, where we were staying for the week, by what—midnight? Still, I did a quick mental inventory of all the things we had in the car: a picnic dinner in a quilted cooler bag, a blanket, two bottles of water, two Captain Underpants books, A Suitable Boy, and a flash fiction anthology. And I had one last syringe for my injection, with the necessary alcohol wipes and Band-Aids.

I sent up a sort of thank-you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe. It was left over from our weekend visit to Rachel and Fernando. I always take a back-up syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection, and I had never taken it out of my bag. Now I might be needing it.

Word to the wise: always, always carry an extra syringe with you, and two wouldn’t hurt.

All around us, doors were popping open. I dropped one sandaled foot behind me, let the knee of the other leg bend, arms in the air again: Warrior One. When I shifted to Warrior Two, I saw the green glow-in-the-dark soles of Matthew’s sneakers pressed to the inside of the car window, his body easily slung the length of the backseat as his dark eyes darted across the pages he held overhead.

I tapped on his window until he opened the door.

“Let’s call Baba so he won’t worry about us.” I ducked into the car for my phone.

Tariq’s deep, rumbly voice was comfort distilled into sound.

“Where are you?” he said.

“My guess is fifty miles away.”

“Are there any exits in sight?”

“Nope.” Scraggly pines lined the highway as far north and south as we could see. There wasn’t even a speed limit sign. “Matthew wants to talk to you. I’m going to walk around a bit.”

I handed over my scratched-up Motorola and heard Matthew say, “Yeah, Monticello was cool! They had this small elevator just for their food, and do you know what they used to write with back then? They actually—listen Baba!—they actually took a feather off of a bird—”

I followed the dashed white line, a thread stitching its way through the back-up. On either side of me, the bleeping of video games leaked from the cracked windows of SUVs.

The phone, the phone! The venerable, aging flip phone that I’d clung to for four and a half years, my gesture of protest against the tech race, had a relic of a battery that went out as fast as a shooting star. I sprinted to the car and took the thing from Matthew.

“I’m hanging up so the battery doesn’t run out, Habibi. We’ll probably be home in a few—” but already I could hear that particular silence that meant I was talking to no one. The battery had died. I slipped the phone into my pocket.

“What are we going to do now?” Matthew asked.

“You have two books, don’t you?”

“Finished one.”

“Well, read the other.”

 

~

 

For dinner, Matthew and I split one of our sandwiches (chicken on whole-wheat, everything organic, cage-free, local, scrutinized down to the last ingredient in the mustard) and drank sparingly from a bottle of water. I turned on the car radio for the nine p.m. announcement—it hadn’t changed.

Ideally, I would have done my injection as night fell, but I needed someone to give it to me, and Matthew was out of the question. It had occurred to me to walk among the cars and tap on windows, asking for help, but I didn’t like the idea of a complete stranger plunging an inch-and-a-half needle into my butt. Better to wait, see if the cars started up, which might happen at any minute. I read A Suitable Boy by the pale orange light of the nearby highway lamp, not knowing the time. After forty pages, I contemplated truly spending the night, or part of it, on the highway, in which case it was probably wiser to save the syringe for the morning.

I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK until we reached home. But if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night. Matthew was already asleep in the back seat, the sweet sleep of a nine-year-old worn out from a day of looking at the inventions of a different era and chasing a dog around the lawn of Jefferson’s estate. I could get away from the car while he slept and he wouldn’t have to see the rabbits. Getting up in the morning would be rough, but with the injection I’d be strong enough to drive us home.

I curled uncomfortably across the two front seats, my back against the stick shift, and woke to the sun washing through the passenger side window, heating my legs.

“Finally!” Matthew said. “I thought you would sleep forever!”

“There’s nothing wrong with sleeping so long,” I said.

“Unless I wake you with a gong!” Matthew said.

“A morning gong is like a song.”

“It makes you strong when it goes bong.” He was on a roll.

“So come along, you won’t go wrong!” I managed.

“And join me for some ping-pong!”

For breakfast we split an orange, which I pulled from between ice packs in the cooler bag. It was, miraculously, cool to the touch.

“Can’t we eat the other sandwich?” Matthew asked.

“What if we’re still here at lunchtime? Wouldn’t you rather have it then?”

“Oh,” Matthew said, apprehension flashing across his face.

“Don’t you wish we were back at Monticello, where there was a café, and all those peach trees, and the apples, and the raspberry vines?”

“Yeah!” Matthew said. “If we were there, we could have anything we wanted to eat!”

“We will when we get home,” I said, kissing the top of his head. “You’ve been really patient so far. You haven’t once told me you’re bored.”

“Only one problem,” Matthew said.

“What?”

“I’m gonna get bored really soon. I’ve read both my books.”

“Can’t you read them again?”

“I already have read them again.”

“What about making a comic book?”

“No paper.”

“I’ll see if I can find you some,” I scanned the scene. Car doors were open, windows down. Our fellow travelers lingered outside their vehicles, trying to catch what little breeze there was. “Do you want to come with me?”

“Nah, I’ll wait,” Matthew said, pulling a piece of snarled blue string and a muscled, military-looking action figure from his pocket. “I’m gonna see if the Dominator can beat the Snake Dragon.”

 

~

 

“You want paper?”

“For my stepson,” I told a woman about my age in a blue Prius. As I talked, I scooped the hair from my perspiring neck and fished in my pocket for a ponytail holder. It couldn’t have been much past eight, but already the air was like the hot, panting breath of an animal. “He’s bored. He wants to make a comic book. Look.” I held up the flash fiction anthology. “I can give you this in exchange.”

“Flash fiction? What’s that?”

“Very short short stories, only a page or two long,” I flipped open the book so she could see. “David Foster Wallace, Ha Jin, here’s one by Julio Cortazar, the one about winding the watch—a classic.”

“I’ve actually got plenty of paper,” the Prius driver said. “Do you have any food?”

“Sorry,” I shook my head. Not quite a lie.

“I’ll take the book, then. Or you can just have some paper. It doesn’t have to be a trade.” She got up and opened her trunk, pulled open a Staples bag and extracted a ream of paper. Matthew had popped up by my side.

“Paper!” he cried out.

“This is Matthew,” I told the woman.

“Paper!” he said, jumping up and down. He held the Dominator up in front of his face. “We like paper!” Matthew rasped in his Dominator voice.

“How much do you need?” she asked.

“I need a lot! Twelve pages! I’m going to make three comics! The first is about Thomas Jefferson!”

She slid her finger into the folded end of the wrapping, broke the seal, handed Matthew a generous stack of crisp sheets.

“Paper! Paper! Paper!” Matthew said, bouncing on his toes.

“What do you say, Matthew?”

“Thank you, Paper Lady!” The paper lady and I laughed. Matthew turned and jogged back towards our car.

“My name’s Lucy,” she said, extending a hand.

“I’m Noelle. Nice to meet you.”

“Listen, do you want this book?” She pulled a paperback thriller from her trunk. “It’s pretty awful, but it’s the only thing I have in the car. I finished it last night.”

“Keep it,” I said. “The book I’ve got is long enough.” I asked her what she usually read, already resigning myself to Eat, Pray, Love.

“Oh, you know I just read that one about the two magicians, Dr. So and So and Mr. What’s-his-name—wow, that’s embarrassing!” She gave an easy, alto laugh.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell!” I wanted to hug her. “Didn’t you just love it?” Her face broke into an ample smile, and we leaned against the shady side of her car, skipping from Susanna Clark to George Eliot, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman.

“Listen,” I said. “I want to check on Matthew. Do mind if we walk over to our car?”

“Not at all.”

Matthew was making his comic book. I turned on the engine long enough to put down the windows for him, and Lucy and I walked on.

“I have one, too, you know,” she said.

“One what?”

“A stepdaughter.”

“Really?” I didn’t know any other stepmothers, not my age. “Do you have your own kids, or just the stepdaughter?”

“Just her.”

“As if that’s something to say ‘just’ about,” I laughed.

“Oh, I know!” Lucy said.

At last, someone who might understand. My friends had babies and toddlers, which was joyous and difficult, but in a way that didn’t shred your heart. I went on and on to them about the frustrations of sharing a child, sending him back, at the end of a summer of organic food, reading, and drawing, to a house where there were no time limits on TV, and chicken nuggets and Cocoa Puffs were standard meals.

But it was more than that. When he was gone, it was the way it was impossible to help Matthew with his math homework long distance, the way there was no one to play the rhyming game with, no one to read a few pages to before bed, no one to help me pick the last cherry tomatoes of the season. When he was with us, it was the tantrums that set in at day five and lasted to day twelve, and the way he said, “My mom would let me do that!” It was the way the arrival and departure of one forty-pound house guest flipped you instantly, mercilessly, from one universe to another.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Six.”

“Oh, what a fun age!”

When Matthew was six he was all sweet innocence and Spider Man. Each summer came with a startling update of the person I thought I’d known.

“Do you like it when she’s with you?” I asked.

“Oh, of course! But I also like it when she’s gone, the way everything is so quiet, and we can go out to dinner on the spur of the moment, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said. But I wouldn’t trade it for Matthew, not if I had a choice.

“Still, I’ll probably cave and have one of my own in a year or two,” she said, almost absent-mindedly. Lucy was a good three inches taller than me, with black curls and porcelain skin, broad in the hips, a loping carelessness to the way she carried her body.

“Listen,” I said. “I need help from someone. Do you think you could give me an injection?”

Lucy’s eyes widened.

“I go queasy when I see blood,” she said. “But the guy in the Lexus next to me is a surgeon. I’ll introduce you.”

The doctor, Max, gave me the injection while I leant against the side of his spotless, bottle-green SUV.

“Why don’t you come by and play a round of cards with me,” he said as we chatted afterwards.

“You’ve got cards?” I ran and got Matthew. We stayed for hours, playing Go Fish, War, Hearts, and Blackjack.

 

~

 

“Really, you’re going to drive to Monticello?” My brother had teased me two nights ago, when I asked to borrow his car for a day. We stood on his six-foot-square back porch, nestled in a brick-and-concrete bend of the alley behind his house, slapping mosquitoes while he barbecued enough shrimp skewers for his family and mine. “I thought you wouldn’t go anywhere if it wasn’t on the Metro or your bike.”

“I can stand a car for one day,” I laughed. “You know Matthew’s obsession with seeing everything about the founding fathers while we’re here. When we were at Mount Vernon, this tourist told him about Monticello. He’s been barraging me about it since then, so I uncled. Besides, we need to do something on our own the day Tariq has his interview.”

“Sure, you can take our Honda. We don’t need it Wednesday so it works out fine.”

“Thanks,” I said. “The drive should be easy as long as we can avoid traffic.”

“Did you hear about the traffic jam in Singapore that lasted six days?” my brother asked.

“Very funny.”

“No, for real. It was in the news.”

“It’s just like that Cortazar short story! This guy’s driving back to Paris. He doesn’t make it home for weeks.”

“It could happen,” he said.

“Trapped on a highway for weeks? You think that’s possible?”

“Not weeks. Six days. Or maybe seven,” he countered.

“Why not eight?”

“Make it eight then. I’d say eight days is the ideal length for a traffic jam.”

 

~

 

Now it was noon, and spending twenty-four hours or more in a traffic jam seemed all too possible. Teenagers came through on bikes, selling bottles of water and peaches out of backpacks. Supply was limited, we were allowed only one of each item.

“Are the peaches from your farm?” Lucy asked as she handed over four dollars.

They stared at her wordlessly, their faces somewhere between sullen and bewildered.

“We bought them at Food Lion,” one girl said at last. She was skinny, flip-flopped, with a dramatic fringe of mahogany bangs.

“Oh,” Lucy said, disappointed. “Where’s the Food Lion? Where do you live?”

“Thornburg,” the girl scoffed out, as if it scarcely needed to be said.

None of them had news of what was causing the back-up. As they were about to pedal off, Max stopped them, saying he would pay top dollar for a hamburger. A boy with a crew cut promised to come back in a couple hours.

Max was smart, I thought. I wished I had cash.

The peaches were flavorless and watery. We ate them with our hands under our mouths to catch the drops that ran down our chins, licking the anemic sweetness from our fingers. It only left my stomach hurting with hunger.

“It’s time for us to let you be,” I told Max. “Matthew, why don’t you work on your comic book while I take a nap?” We went back to the car and split our last sandwich between us.

From the bottom of the cooler, I pulled a battered Ziploc containing a handful of raisins and almonds. It had been our reserve. I handed it to Matthew.

“I’m still hungry,” he said after he had eaten the last of it.

“I know you are, sweetie. Just try not to think about it. Did you know if you have enough water you can survive for months, even if you’re hungry? Imagine we’re on a survival adventure.”

“I don’t need to imagine it. We are on a survival adventure,” he said.

“And I bet this is all over the news. You can tell all your friends about it when we get back to Seattle.”

At that he cheered up considerably and began a comic about being trapped in a traffic jam. In it, he turned into his secret self, the superhero Independence Boy, and flew over the cars to find the bad guys who had bombed the bridges into the city and all the monuments in Washington.  

 

~

 

In the late afternoon, National Guard helicopters flew overhead, raining down bottled water, Power Bars, and plastic-sealed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The Power Bars landed with satisfying thwacks on the car roofs. Matthew ran after the choppers, catching the food as it fell to earth and handing it to whomever was nearby.

There was no longer fear of hunger, although the processed food brought with it other fears for me.

All is well, all is well, all is well, I told myself as I curled up to sleep again with my back to the stick shift. We had food to eat. We had water to drink. Even if the rabbits came, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’d been through it countless times before. I would survive.

We woke to the sun marching through the passenger side windows. We played cards, we read, we made comic books and drew monsters. Night fell. Morning came. The days went by. It was what I imagined a miles-long, minimum security prison might be like.

I longed for news from Tariq. Had he flown back to Seattle without us, so he could go to work? Or was he still at my brother’s in DC, worried, waiting?

After the sun set and Matthew fell asleep in the locked car with the windows gapped a few inches for air, Lucy and I would walk up and down along the dashed white lines, talking. She told me how her first marriage had unraveled, how her ex became obsessed with his status at his law firm, working eighty hours a week. “I ate dinner alone every night for a year. It was awful,” she said. In an attempt to get him out of the office, she signed them up for tango classes. When he didn’t show up, she went by herself and fell in love with a guy in the class, a GAO analyst.

“It wasn’t the most honorable way to end a marriage,” Lucy admitted, “but I didn’t realize just how miserable I’d been until I met Andrew.”

I confessed to her what I’d told no one before, not even Tariq: there were times I secretly wished Matthew’s mother dead, so I wouldn’t have to share Matthew. Teach a kid how to ride a bike and how to make scrambled eggs, and it hurts to let him go.

“You can’t have kids of your own?” Lucy asked. The orange fluorescence of the highway lights gave everything a dim, ghastly glow. Another night stroller threaded among the rows of cars, holding a flashlight that bobbed with every step.

“No,” I said. “It has to do with my medical condition, why I needed the injection.”

“How often do you need it?”

“Twice a day,” I said.

“And you haven’t done it since the first morning? Are you OK?”

“So far I am,” I shrugged and looked away, hoping she would be perceptive enough not to press for details. “Things could go at any moment, but what can I do? I’m getting quite skilled at not thinking about it.”

Lucy looked worried.

“If you need any help that doesn’t involve needles or blood, just ask,” she said.

 

~

 

Griping about the lack of air conditioning was good etiquette. The unmitigated July heat, which pounded sweat from every pore in our bodies, was taken as an affront, a violation of our inalienable right to be comfortable. The opening gambit of all polite conversation was a complaint—something along the lines of “how they expect us to survive out here without a drop of AC is beyond me,” (as if some form of government could parachute down and create a climate-controlled pavilion out of the median strip). This was a ritual to be upheld before talk moved on to other matters, usually speculation about the cause of the back-up.

Over the first few days, when the luxury of news access was something some of us indulged in—before we all started taking the issue of conserving batteries very, very seriously—there was no explanation for the back-up from the media. We heard only the same message about cutting your engine and staying near your car. (This we did. Although there was always talk of walking to the nearest exit, no one went. We didn’t want to be caught away from our cars when the traffic started, which might be at any moment.) Once the batteries for the iPhones ran out and there was no way to recharge them, not without idling and wasting precious gas, we designated one car out of thirty to tune in to the radio announcement on the half hour, then not at all. If it was time to start our engines, the word would spread like anthrax on the wind.

In the void, rumors circulated: a terrorist attack on the Pentagon, a tractor-trailer containing biological weapons overturned on I-95, all the bridges across the Potomac River blown up at once.

There were lesser rumors as well. Four miles ahead, they said, a woman had given birth to twins (or sometimes triplets) in the back of a minivan; closer to DC there had been a shooting (in one version it was a murder) during a domestic dispute; there was a band of meth dealers who were pedaling their wares at night to teenagers. And so a citizen’s patrol group formed, a curfew was established.

During the day Matthew worked on his comic books or played with the two girls—eight-year-old Sonia and ten-year-old Iris—who were in the silver minivan twelve cars up. Or he found Max, who was teaching him to be an expert at Blackjack and Poker. The water supply was ample enough that from time to time we could use a bottle to douse our necks and armpits. Soap was said to be available for cash fifty cars to the south, but as I walked that way and made enquiries, the fabled soap was always fifty cars away.

I asked Lucy for more paper and drew her portrait. Soon I had requests. I drew family portraits, couples standing in front of cars, kids standing in front of cars, occasionally just the cars themselves. It was a souvenir of the back-up, one that didn’t require batteries to come into existence.

Although I didn’t charge anything, people paid me: cash, PowerBars, toilet paper, a string of blue glass beads—nothing I wanted. What I wanted was one of those helicopters to lower a ladder down and lift me and Matthew out of here. Because I was a special case, because I couldn’t go on eating hydrolyzed soy protein and hydrogenated vegetable oils without it catching up with me, and the effects of the injection couldn’t last forever. But then who would drive our car once the traffic started? And how would I make such a request, to whom, and what would I say that had an ounce of credibility?

 

~

 

On the fifth day, just as the women from the white Ford Focus and the old green Volvo were inviting Lucy and me to join their book group (we would read selections from the flash fiction anthology, which was making the rounds), we heard a wave of human voices, traveling toward us from up the highway.

We quieted, straining toward the sound. It drew closer, resolving into words.

“Run! Run!”

“Run to your cars! Start your engines!”

We ran.

“Matthew!” I shouted. “Matthew! Where are you? Matthew!” I cranked my voice until it went no louder. I made it back to the car, opened the door and stood on the edge of the doorframe, twisting around, hoping to spot him from that height. An hour ago he’d gone to play with Iris and Sonia. They knew not to go farther than the white service van twenty cars down and the yellow SUV twenty cars up. I couldn’t see them. “Matthew!” I called.

“MATTHEW!”

Far, far up the highway there was a ripple—cars were in motion. All around me engines started.

“Get in your car!” someone behind me shouted. “You’re gonna hold us all up!”

“My son!” I screamed. “Where is my son?”

The ripple drew closer. The yellow SUV was moving. Lucy’s blue Prius was moving.

“MATTHEW!” I screamed one last time, then dropped into the car, closed the door and turned the key. I put down the window, yelling as I drove. I didn’t make it out of second gear before the brakes of the black Accord in front of me lit up. I stopped.

We had moved a few hundred feet. An unbroken, double-stranded necklace of red lights burned in the summer haze. Five more minutes and we had all shut off our engines. A figure darted among the cars. Matthew.

“We went to Sonia and Iris’s car for some water,” he panted. “Their mom told me to stay with them.” I kept him near me for the rest of the day, but how do you keep a nine-year-old tethered to a car for more than a few hours? The next morning I had to let him go play again. They’d invented a game of hiding behind cars of a designated color. There were superheroes involved, and the string of blue beads had turned into a magic object at the center of it all. I exchanged addresses and phone numbers with the girls’ mother, told her next time to send Matthew to our car. He knew to wait for me if I wasn’t there yet.

 

~

 

Like the Hanukkah oil that lasted nine nights instead of one, the one injection Max gave me lasted longer than I could have possibly hoped. But it didn’t feel like a miracle—more like one serving of uneasiness divided among too many meals. There wasn’t too much of it, but it was always there.

On the afternoon of the sixth day, as I was sketching the couple from the green Volvo, I felt the first wave of nausea. No, it wasn’t even that—just a little lurch, a wiggle of queasiness, easy enough to ignore if you shimmy your shoulders for a moment and stretch your arms, then concentrate on getting the swoop of the woman’s hair and conveying the exact, reassuring knuckliness of her boyfriend’s hand on her shoulder. But by the time I’d finished and handed them the portrait, the rabbits were undeniably on their way. The queasiness was mounting, soon it would be true nausea, and there was nothing I could do.

My skull cramped in on itself like an angry fist, my heart shoved up against my lungs. I drew my breath through a narrow straw. The heat beat upward from the asphalt, clanging off the metallic painted surfaces, battering at my ears, face, arms, and legs. The air was crammed with more heat than it was designed to hold. And I wasn’t meant for this, not for this Teflon world, these highways it had taken countless human generations to achieve. I wanted nothing more of this habitat of steel and tar and concrete, even if it had—undeniably—nourished me, raised me to be who I was.

Matthew, thank god, was sitting in the car, reading the Percy Jackson book Iris had lent him.

“Matthew,” I said. The nausea was now an immense pressure, bullying its way out of my body. “I have to tell you something. You know the injection Baba usually gives me? Well, I haven’t had it for days, and now I’m about to get sick.”

Matthew looked frightened. I should have phrased it differently, but the words were out, I couldn’t reel them back.

“Do you want me to get Max?” he said.

“No, no, it’s not something he can help with. And it’s only a little sick, actually. But the thing is, it lasts a while. So I need you to help me.” The scratching had started in my stomach. My words were choked. “Find Lucy. Tell her I’m going to be in the woods. Then come back here and stay at the car until I’m back.”

Matthew’s eyes were wide, but I knew his eyes like that meant he would do what I told him. He usually did, regardless. He was a good kid.

“It’s really important,” I said. “Sonia and Iris can play with you here, OK? Don’t go farther than three cars from ours in any direction. Wait for me to come back.”

He nodded again.

“Now GO!” I crept to the right, bent over with the discomfort, almost stopping to lean on a searing metallic black hood, thinking better of it, forcing myself on across the pallid, scrubby grass at the edge of the shoulder, into the no man’s land of unattractive pine trees.

It was cooler beneath the trees, and I felt a little relief and even wondered why no one had thought to come in here any sooner. Then another wave of nausea hit. I coerced my legs forward—twenty, forty more feet—until I guessed I was out of sight of the cars. I let my body drop to the ground, which was packed and pebbly, but ultimately hospitable in that it was horizontal, in that it held me up.

Thanks to this illness, I will never have my own child, but I can well imagine the horror of childbirth. We are designed for it, our bodies a vector pointed toward reproduction, and yet the birth canal tears apart.

And for me, when the rabbits come, the nausea crests and then crests again, until it feels as if my body might rip from it, and then the scratching starts. The frightened creature claws in my stomach, feeling for a way out. My belly swells and contracts, and I am sweating, clammy, shaking with how desperately I want this beast out of my body. I heave and heave, until the scratching finds a direction: up and out. The thing feels like it’s taking my insides with it, but for a wild, bargaining moment, that’s OK—anything, dear god, dear god in whom I’ve never believed—anything to get this thing outside me.

My esophagus stretches beyond its accustomed capacity and the world goes black for an instant as my throat and mouth rupture for the slick-haired and clawed beast. The thing uses every millimeter of my widened jaw to make its way into the world. And then it’s over—for an instant at least. The first one is out. The first one is always the worst.

 

~

 

It was at that moment, as I lay spent, panting into the golden, slowly blinking eye of the first rabbit that I felt Lucy’s hand on my shoulder.

“Oh dear, Noelle, oh dear,” she said.

 

~

 

When it happened the first time, while I was watching TV in my solitary apartment one night years ago, I thought, naturally, that I was going insane. When I woke the next day and the rabbits were still there, and I saw little turds dropped on my rug, I considered I might not have imagined it after all. But if I’d imagined vomiting up rabbits, why wouldn’t I imagine they had crapped and were still there the next day as well?

I panicked silently for hours. My mind skidded in and out of netherworlds as I paced and stood paralyzed, then shook myself into motion, towards the phone or door, only to stop before I could dial or make it through the threshold.

At last I gathered the creatures in a laundry bag and took them to the animal shelter. With my heart exploding ninety times a minute, I carried the bag through the front door and showed it to the receptionist. Could they take these rabbits? I opened the sack. The woman nodded, gave me paperwork to fill out, another staff member arrived and the rabbits were instantly elsewhere, on the other side of a very ordinary, very beautiful door.

As I made my way home, it occurred to me that this, too, I had imagined; but with the rabbits gone, it was easy to go on. Things were normal again, and I’d gained a reverent appreciation for normalcy. I pleaded laryngitis at work, made up the missing day and a half over the weekend.

When a week later I felt the nausea and scratching while I was at the office, I knew it would not be so simple. For three months I rushed home at all hours of the workday, ignoring the doubtful looks of co-workers. I preferred to vomit up my insanity in the privacy of my apartment. I made up for lost hours on evenings and weekends. I set my alarm for four a.m. and released laundry bags of rabbits into the dark, dewy garden of the large apartment complex at the end of the block.  

When I’d used up all my sick leave and half my vacation, I took the train to my parents’ and I told my mother that in all likelihood I had gone insane. When she witnessed the first rabbit come out of my mouth, she gasped, then pulled my sweaty hair back from my face, dampened a washcloth and wiped my forehead. She would fix this, she said, she would drive me to the doctor the next time it was about to happen.

Three days later, I was at the family doctor’s, vomiting rabbits in his examining room while he moaned a very particular moan—of not knowing what to make of reality, and I knew then the rules truly had changed.

Or, if I had gone insane, it was a seamless, complete insanity that encompassed the far corners of my mind’s universe. Perhaps I had imagined my mother’s reaction and the doctor’s, too—just as I had imagined the rabbits; perhaps everything was taking place in my own head, and I was now living in a dream world from start to finish. But if so, why worry? Dream had traded places with reality. I might wake up, I might not. For now, I could only operate inside these new laws of biology. At least I wasn’t being checked into an imaginary psych ward.

 

~

 

Dr. Turnbull ran test after test, found I had an overactive thyroid and adrenal glands, my thymus was not functioning correctly and most significantly, he thought, I had a genetic liver disorder. My liver did not clear synthetic chemicals from my body the way it should. So he blamed the confluence of toxic chemicals I was exposed to in daily life—the traces of pesticides, steroids, and artificial estrogens in the water supply, the unregulated chemicals in laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo, dish-washing liquid, the slightly more regulated chemicals in our food.

“How this results in the rabbits—your guess is as good as mine,” he said, extending his hands in a weary gesture. “But there are things we can do to help your liver and with any luck control this symptom.” I was to eliminate anything artificial to the extent possible, buying everything at the organic co-op. And there was the injection, twice a day for the rest of my life.

 

~

 

Lucy and I stared at that first rabbit as it sat quietly blinking in the light of the world. It was large and gray-brown, each nostril and hair so real, so complete that Dürer could have drawn it. I hated the thing.

That made four, I thought numbly: my mother, Dr. Turnbull, Tariq, and now Lucy.

I closed my eyes and gave myself over to my few moments of relief. The absence of suffering is a pleasure in itself, the sweetest pleasure imaginable when it arrives. I sank down into that heavenly, blank feeling, knowing it would last about two more minutes.

“Are you OK?” she asked. “What should I do?”

“Find Matthew. Keep an eye on him. I’ll be here a while. Three or four more come after the first one,” I rasped. There were twiggy, pebbly bumps mashed against the cheek I was resting on the ground. I didn’t care, felt only the beauty of my body’s weight released into the ground, the bliss of the earth holding up my heavy head.

“Do you want me to bring you something, water?” Lucy asked.

The word “water” and my stomach lurched.

“Just find Matthew,” I said. “Tell him I’m OK, he can play with the girls, or cards with Max, but be sure you know where he is.”

“OK, I’ll go,” she said, running a soothing hand across my back for an instant. “Don’t worry. I’ll watch him.”

 

~

 

There were five of them altogether, and they had the nerve to stick around, licking their already wet fur and letting it dry in the sluggish air. Didn’t they have somewhere to hop off to, I wanted to know. Wanted to shout at them to go away instead of sitting there, observing me as I suffered through vomiting up another of them. But I could spare no energy for speech, wouldn’t have attempted it with my throat as raw as it was.

After the fifth, I lay panting on the earth, pine needles and dirt covering my tank top and shorts, bare arms and legs. Was I done? Two minutes passed, five, then ten. It was over. Let my limbs crush themselves into the earth. Let me rest, let me sleep. And just as I felt secure in that absence of suffering, just as I thought I might let sleep cradle me under the shady trees, I heard a wave of voices, shouts from the highway.

I jolted up, stumbled on trembling legs back to the road. When I stepped into the dazzling sunlight, everything wobbled. I blinked, reaching out my arms to find something that would steady me. My hand landed on a car’s scalding hood.

“Hey, lady! Get back to your vehicle. We’re gonna be moving soon!”

Where was my car? I pushed my weak legs forward. It was in the far lane, a few cars back. I staggered towards it. Engines were starting all around me, but no one was moving yet.

I was at my brother’s Honda. It was locked. Matthew was away with Lucy. I pulled the key from my pocket. A swelter of air burst from the door as I opened it. The two of them would be here any second, or Matthew would come on his own.

I craned my head. Where were they? Lucy’s car was six up from mine, one lane over. My clawed throat stood no chance of calling to them. Matthew must be in the Prius, or he was in the van with the girls. I had their mother’s number. I had no phone.

The cars up the highway were moving now, the ripple drawing towards us.

“Matthew!” I rasped into the muggy air.

“Hey, Honda! Don’t hold everyone up! Get in your car!”

I slumped into the seat, closed the door, lowered the windows. Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! I should have made a plan with Lucy, I should have gone to her car first. The Accord in front of me was moving. I eased off the clutch, pushed the gas pedal. I didn’t have Lucy’s phone number. Everyone’s phone had been off after the first day. We’d existed in a world without contact lists or even hand-written notes, simply walking from car to car to find each other.

The speedometer was up to twenty. I shifted to second, to third. I caught sight of the blue Prius up ahead, one lane over. Matthew must be with her. I would follow her into the city.

Did Matthew have any way to contact us? Of course not. No one memorized phone numbers anymore. We were just names in his mother’s phone and on Skype. I realized that after all this time, he didn’t even know my last name, would have no way to look up my family in DC information. He was nine after all. I was just “Noelle,” or sometimes, “Tante Noelle,” my brother and sister-in-law simply “Uncle Peter” and “Aunt Melissa.”

With a feeling of endless plummet, I thought how if we’d been in Seattle, things would be different. He could rattle off our address, or give Tariq’s name. But I hadn’t thought to give him contact information during vacation, and I should have.

If I could just get a little closer I might be able to see Lucy’s license plate number. Now we were up to thirty, forty miles per hour. Lucy’s lane was moving faster. She was pulling too far ahead. I needed to catch up, signal to her. I flashed my lights. She should drop back, get over to my lane. Did she see me in her rearview? Was it deliberate? Was she stealing Matthew?

No, those things didn’t happen. I was just nervous, exhausted—my imagination running wild. She had been my friend, my temporary friend. Did that mean I could trust her? She had been good company, but what did I really know about her? She was a stepmother. And she had cheated on her first husband.

The Prius was just barely in sight. In an hour and a half I would pull up to my brother’s block with the back seat empty save for a hand-written comic book. I put on my blinker, shifted to fourth, but the cars to my right were moving faster and faster, while my lane stayed at forty. I couldn’t get over.

Faces at the Window

Sara Schaff

Our house was too big. It dwarfed me and my mother, who cried every year when we received the first winter heating bill. It left room for ghosts in every season.

But to the kids on my bus ride home, the house looked like a grand place, with columns and porches and gray shutters on tall windows. It didn’t matter that up close you could see the cracked paint. My schoolmates couldn’t tell that the flat roof was covered in moss and leaky shingles. Inside we had water-stained ceilings and black mold in every closet. The rooms were wallpapered with peeling, hideous prints (lime green bald eagles in my bedroom) and carpeted in stiff, brown rugs laid down in the ’70s by the sister of the woman who had been my kindergarten teacher. The sister died alone, her naked body found decomposing in a waterless bath, a suicide. Soon after she was discovered, my mother got a deal on the house. We moved in just before I began the first grade, just the two of us. I did not know my father.

The house was surrounded by two acres of meadow, several of woods, and one of grass kept trim by a widowed dairy farmer who loved my mother even though she was unkind to him. We lived far from the small elementary school I attended, and I was always one of the last students off the bus in the afternoons. During the 45-minute ride along back roads—all we had in Helena were back roads—I stared out the window and waited. When I was in the fifth grade, I was teased almost daily by two girls, Angela and Tuesday.

“Rich girl,” they would chant, their pretty mouths stained red from cherry lollipops. “Your parents have 100 cars.”

Inseparable friends, Angela and Tuesday dressed alike: long, dark blonde hair in scrunchies at the tops of their heads, oversized sweatshirts that made them appear large and resilient, even though they were string beans underneath. I felt meek in the wrinkled button-downs my older cousins sent me from Elmira.

I should have known not to argue. “It’s only me and my mother. And we just have one car.” A Pontiac Sunbird with mustard-yellow, plastic seats. The car smelled like mothballs, and my mother had needed to borrow money from the dairy farmer to buy it.

“I bet you have 50 more in the garage.”

“Or behind the house.”

“Hidden in the woods.”

When the bus finally stopped, Angela and Tuesday and the other remaining children would watch me cross the street. Sometimes I would turn around to see their faces pressed against the windows of the bus, licking the glass and laughing.

Once I was safely making my way up the long, uphill driveway, the bus would shudder and lurch on, and I would watch it go with some relief. I did not love my house, but I did not envy Angela and Tuesday theirs in the trailer park a mile away, where the homes were crowded into grassless, haphazard lots. The owner of the park tended the area only insofar as he threw gravel down on the main drive once every spring. In the winter, the drive went unplowed. One time I told my mother I’d heard some trailers had no reliable running water or electricity, and she shrugged. “That could be,” she said, but she didn’t look as aghast as I expected. It turned out she blamed the park for keeping the value of our property lower than she believed it should be. “I’ve put everything into this money pit,” she said. “Don’t you think some day I’d like to sell the fucking thing for a profit?”

~

People who met my mother often told me she was beautiful, and it made me swell with pride to hear others say it, though I didn’t always see it myself. Even when she wore her wrinkled scrubs to the grocery store after work, men turned from rows of canned soup to look at her, but she never seemed to notice. She was too busy planning how to keep our house from complete disaster.

My mother had dreamed of being rich and comfortable, but as an undergraduate she fell in love with her married Spanish Literature professor, got pregnant with me, and had to drop out of college to work a series of jobs that disappointed her. According to her, my father said he supported her decision to have a child but not her wish that he be a part of my life. Instead, he gave my mother a small sum of money and asked her to go away. He would not let this mistake break up his family, he said. As I grew up and asked about him and whether there was ever a chance I could meet him or just see him from afar, she told me he had moved away, to some college town in the Midwest. She would not name the exact town or state, would only refer derisively to Ohio, Michigan, Iowa—places she had once driven through on a conflict-filled road trip with her parents and sisters. Her tone drew a picture for me of a kind of landlocked purgatory—a place with worse winters than ours.

Most of my mother’s family did not have money, but she had gleaned her desire for wealth and a big house from them all the same. They had lived in thrall of Aunt Evelyn, my great-great aunt and namesake, who had married a much older man, a former lumber baron from Maine.

My mother never called me Evelyn. Just Eve or Evie or sometimes E. Sometimes nothing at all.

In her closet, she kept a box of crystals that had once dangled from Aunt Evelyn’s dining room chandelier. She took these out at Christmas to hang on the tree in front of the colored lights she preferred to the plain white ones I asked for. Our tree always gleamed with tiny rainbows. When my mother wasn’t looking, I would sometimes take down the crystals, and in front of a mirror, hold them up to my ears. I thought they would make lovely earrings, but they were actually quite heavy. We could only place them on the sturdiest tree branches—usually those toward the bottom or interior of the tree.

My mother worked late hours—first as a nursing student, then as an emergency room nurse, and before she left or when she came home, she’d take a bath and drift from room to room in her terrycloth robe, gazing from windows with her damp hair in a towel. She treated that bathrobe as if it were a silk dressing gown—hand wash only, line dry even in winter—though she’d bought it on clearance at Sears.

She loved meandering through the house; she said it made her feel like an aristocrat looking after her manor. Although she cursed the house for taking so much time and money that she didn’t have to give, it did deliver tall ceilings and a grand staircase that swept upwards from the front entrance—double doors with intricate molding and the original hand-blown glass windows, which she said reminded her of the front doors of Aunt Evelyn’s Queen Anne in Peekskill. On summer days, my mother liked to leave these doors open and sit outside in her bathrobe on the front porch to survey her land and the few cars that passed by on a road that was once paved with bricks. The house had a sense of history, which she said was important in a home.

She did not mind that a woman had died there. I once asked if she thought Mrs. Anderson’s ghost lived in the house. My mother laughed. “If she does, she’s got a lot of company.” Our house was nearly 170 years old, built by one of the founding families of Helena. In a nearby cemetery, I had found ornamented headstones with their family name on it—de Groot. Many of the graves were small—little rows of graying molars—which my mother said were for the children who had died of cholera or scarlet fever.

Their lives had probably been both more opulent and more difficult than mine. Prettier clothes, shorter life spans. I used to worry that if I ever encountered one of them in my travels through the house, they would take one look at me and dislike what they saw: a healthy girl with a rambling house almost all to herself.

~

One bitter February afternoon, Angela and Tuesday swept into my seat, shoving me against the window so the three of us were crammed in together. Angela sat on the outside. As if trying to block my escape, she held her hand against the seat in front of us. Her nails were painted a soft lavender, and where the polish had chipped away, I could see the dirt tucked underneath.

“You think you’re too good for us,” she said.

“You think you’re better than everyone.” Tuesday sat in the middle, jacketless, her arm pressed against the length of mine.

“I don’t.”

“Look at your stupid outfit,” Angela said. “Your stupid face.”

She had green eyes. Not long before, I’d run into her in the bathroom at school, just as she was fishing something out of her eye, rapidly blinking away tears. As I washed my hands in the sink next to hers, she’d said hello in a friendly, unembarrassed way that caught me off guard. When she’d traipsed out the door, waving good-bye, I’d felt lightheaded with pleasure and surprise.

Now I tried to imagine what she saw. I agreed that my outfit was stupid; I was tired of hand-me-downs. My coat was puffy, my jeans sat too high on my waist. But my face? I did not mind my freckles or pale skin. I liked how one of my cheeks dimpled, but not the other. I thought it might be a trait I shared with my father, although I’d never even seen a picture of him.

“What’s wrong with my face?”

“Baby face,” Tuesday said.

Angela nodded. “Because you’re a spoiled baby.”

I felt heat in my cheeks. A boy sitting in front of us turned around to peer over the top of his seat. “This should be good,” he whispered to no one. His mother worked at the post office, where our mail was delivered.

I scowled at him and he grinned.

Angela and Tuesday chanted: “Rich girl, spoiled girl, baby face.”

“At least it’s not an ugly face.”

Tuesday leaned close, her lollipop breath on my skin. “Ugly?” she said, mouth contorted.

I shook my head, ready to take it back, knowing it wasn’t true.

Angela squeezed in further. I felt my chest compressing. “You think we’re ugly?”

The words appeared to me, and I said them: “At least I don’t live in a shithole.”

They were quiet for a moment, and then Tuesday lashed out. Swiftly, with the palm of her hand, she smacked my head against the window, and the crack rang out around the bus.

The boy in front of us gasped along with others I had not realized were watching. Angela watched me steadily. Her fingers tapped the plastic seat. Against my will, I started to cry.

Angela laughed first. The sound was bright and contagious, and everyone around us started laughing, too. “See what I mean? Baby, baby, baby.”

As I climbed my driveway later, I felt revolted at myself—for caring what Tuesday and Angela thought, for crying in front of them, for saying what I had and proving their point. It was the first time I’d ever sworn in front of someone, and now I felt embarrassed. Shithole. I stood on our back porch and cursed the rotted steps. Some animal had crawled underneath them and died over the summer, and even through the chill in the air I could still smell it.

Inside, I could see my breath. I turned up the thermostat, then wrapped ice in a towel and held it to my head. I was alone as usual.

In my mother’s absence, I wandered from dark room to dark room, lingering over the heating vents to warm my feet. I would let the hot air catch in my shirt, then walk to the vent in the next room. Some rooms did not have furniture. We could never fill the house with the few things we owned.

I stood over a vent in the upstairs hallway, gazed into one of the antique mirrors my mother found at garage sales, and surveyed the gash administered on the bus. It was already red and hurt to touch. I kept touching it, replaying what I had said, what the girls had said, the moment Tuesday took hold of my head.

High above, the hallway light flickered and dimmed. A shadow passed behind me in the mirror, but when I turned, I saw nothing.

“Hello?”

Again, a flicker and a shadow. The de Groot children, Mrs. Anderson? I did not want to see the old woman—if I did, I imagined she would come in the form in which she had left the world, and the idea of her rotting skin terrified me. My own skin tingled with anticipation. Behind my reflection, I could almost make out the shape of a child, braiding her hair. I tried to smile, but the girl did not seem to notice my overtures of friendship. She remained indistinct and disinterested, nodding her head to a melody only she could hear.

I made myself a bologna sandwich and ate it in front of the television. Every so often, I would look up, hoping to see the girl again, but she did not reappear. The house remained still. My skin no longer tingled, no lights flickered, no shadows crept. Before, I had been afraid of meeting a ghost while alone in the house. Now I understood that being alone was the thing that haunted me.

~

The next morning, an angry welt developed above my eye. It was a Saturday, and I heard my mother humming in the kitchen while I read on the living room couch. She approached me, carrying her coffee and a powdery donut. Her hair was long down her back, dark against her white bathrobe with its satin cuffs.

“What happened?” She touched the welt with her donut-eating hand, and I blinked away the powder that fell from it. Her touch was clinical and competent, as if she were inspecting a bruise on her own elbow or a wound on a patient’s leg. I felt relieved to submit myself to her care, and I was nearly ready to tell her the story about Angela and Tuesday when she smiled mildly and sipped her coffee. “Another battle scar sustained at recess?”

She could be forgiven for assuming; I’d been known to take a kickball or tetherball to the head. I shrugged because it took less energy to agree with my mother’s view of the world. Also, I was still embarrassed by my weakness and my own, easy cruelty.

“You put ice on it?”

“Yes.”

“Poor baby. Always had your father’s coordination.” She offered me the last half of her donut, which I accepted with an open palm. She bent down to inspect my hand.

“Filthy,” she declared. “Make sure you wash under your fingernails, too.” She took away the donut piece and dropped it in the trash.

When she left, I licked the powder off my fingers, very slowly, savoring my anger: my head was purple, and she wanted me to wash my hands!

My mother rarely spoke of my father, except at times like this—to blame him for our current woes or to attribute my flaws to him: my lack of coordination, my self-containment, my sizeable ears. In her blame, I now saw regret—what a life she could have had without clumsy me! And in this regret there was room to mold my family’s history to my liking. Though I had never met my father, he felt as much a part of the house as the ghosts that belonged to its bricks and mortar and ugly rugs, and with his filmy presence surveying me, I decided that my mother was wrong: my father did want to know me, but it was she who had never let him see me. I suspected I had received other, more fruitful gifts from my father, and I wanted to uncover them, but I worried my mother would never tell me.

~

A few weeks later, Tuesday climbed onto the bus alone, and I assumed Angela was sick or skipping school. She often bragged how her mother didn’t care if she went to school or not, how she could stay home whenever she wanted. And yet as far as I could remember, she hadn’t missed a day.

She did not appear the following day, or the day after that, and by the end of the week, I could hear everyone whispering on the bus: I heard Angela’s name. In the afternoon, I chose a seat close to Tuesday’s and leaned across the aisle to get her attention. She was staring out the window as we waited for all our fellow classmates and riders to come streaming out of the school and onto the bus.

“What happened to Angela? Where has she been?” I spoke nervously and kept my distance. Tuesday stared at me, annoyed.

“I don’t know. With her father. Probably in Pennsylvania by now.” She turned to the window, then after a pause, back to me. “Why do you care? She’s not your friend.”

I didn’t answer, because I knew the reason would sound unlikely—that I was drawn to Angela, even though she seemed to hate me.

My mother returned home while I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed.

She stood behind me as I finished flossing. Her usually creamy skin looked flushed and blotchy in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes were baggy and tired.

Something about her face like this, drained of its usual beauty, made me want to confess everything to her—my loneliness, my hatred of our house, my longing to know my father in spite of what she’d said about him. Instead, I told her about Angela, how she usually rode my bus but suddenly didn’t anymore, because she’d gone somewhere with her father.

My mother was quiet for a long time, and I couldn’t tell if the reflection she was studying was mine or hers. When she finally spoke, what she said surprised me.

“When I’m gone, make sure all the doors are locked. Do you lock all the doors like I’ve told you?”

She had never told me to lock the doors, nor had she expressed concern about me being alone in the house. Her question now made me nervous. There were three entrances; I used the one key I had to let myself in through the back door. I never bothered checking on the security of the rest.

“And never let anyone inside, even someone you know.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

My mother sighed and sat down on the closed lid of the toilet seat. And then she told me about what had happened to Angela. How she’d been home alone, watching her baby brother in the trailer park when her father showed up and kidnapped her. “But not the baby,” my mother said. “The baby wasn’t his.”

By the time Angela’s mother returned home from work, Angela and her father were long gone, and she found the baby shivering on a blanket on the bathroom floor, his diaper only half-changed. Angela’s mother had rushed him to the hospital.

That was how my mother knew all this, because she was the attending nurse. The baby was still in the hospital for observation.

“I feel sick about it,” my mother said.

She was watching me, and I couldn’t figure out what she wanted me to say, though I was pretty sure she didn’t want to hear I wondered what it would be like if my father showed up at the house one day, unannounced. Did he even know where we lived? Would I recognize him in some deep part of me, even though I had never seen him? I felt certain I would. While I sensed that there was something dark and terrifying about what had happened to Angela, my chest prickled with envy.

“How can a father kidnap his own child?” I said.

She misunderstood my question. I know! Some people just shouldn’t have children.”

~

I woke at the sound of my mother’s shrieks rising through the house. As I sat up in the dark, I became aware of an unfamiliar heat rippling beneath me. Quickly, I rushed from bed and ran downstairs to find my mother at the top of the basement steps, a tall, metal pot in her arms, water sloshing over the sides.

Seeing me, she cried out, “Call 911. The fucking furnace caught fire. And take Aunt Evelyn’s crystals outside.” She put the pot down on the ground long enough to whisk off her bathrobe and hand it to me. “This too. I don’t want it to get burned.”

Underneath, she was completely naked, and I looked away, but I did as I was told. I made the call. I grabbed the box of crystals from my mother’s closet. I folded the bathrobe and carried it and the box onto the back porch. The robe already smelled of smoke and burnt polyester threads. I returned inside, filled up as many bowls as I could find, and carried them to the top of the steps for my mother.

“What are you doing?” she yelled when she saw me lining them up for her. “Stay outside!”

At the door, I turned around. There she was again in the kitchen, filling her pot with more water. Her skin was wet with sweat, her angular profile alit with fear. She leaned over the faucet long enough to catch a drink in her mouth, then stumbled with the laden pot toward the open basement door.

Waiting for the fire department outside, I held the bathrobe and the box of crystals to my chest. I felt my nostrils freezing together and thought of Angela’s mother discovering her baby boy alone on the floor, then driving to the hospital with his shivering body. I wondered if she kept him on her lap to warm him.

When the firemen arrived, they waved me over to their truck and instructed me to wait there. They said it wasn’t serious, it wouldn’t take long, everything was going to be fine. My naked mother met two men at the door. One was our car mechanic, and the other sometimes spent the night and made us scrambled eggs in the morning. I liked him; he was a good cook. I could hear both of them asking her gently to leave the house, but she just kept shaking her head. Now I think, what strange courage it must have taken her to stand in front of them, but then I just felt ashamed.

~

A few months passed, and the dogwoods in our yard started to bloom white flowers that looked like snow. Angela returned suddenly and without fanfare, just when we were starting to forget about her. Her hair was chopped boyishly short, her lips pale and chapped. On the bus, she sat apart from all of us, even Tuesday. She stared out the window, listening to a new, purple Walkman the entire way to school and back home. Some kids said she’d gone all the way to North Carolina with her father. Some said they hadn’t even left town.

I sat behind her one afternoon and touched her shoulder lightly. “Angela,” I whispered. “I’m glad you’re back.”

She slid an earphone from one ear. She didn’t speak or turn her head.

I fumbled for what I wanted to say. “You were right,” I said. “I was a baby before.”

She flashed her profile, paused. “Fuck off.”

It wasn’t like when Tuesday pushed my head into the window. I didn’t cry. For a delirious moment, I even thought I could still win her over and convince her to talk to me. “I don’t know my father.”

Slowly, Angela turned all the way around, and in her face I saw neither the disgust I feared nor the interest I hoped for. Her eyes were glassy and bored. A faded yellow bruise bloomed beneath the edge of her collar.

“Let me tell you something.” Her voice came out flat and soft, and she almost smiled. I leaned closer, as if we were about to share a secret. “Your daddy doesn’t want to know a dumb bitch like you.”

She flipped her headphones back on. She never said another word to me.

I fell back in my seat, dizzy and sick to my stomach. I did feel dumb. Here I’d been inventing a kinship with Angela, when I didn’t know anything for sure about her except where the bus picked her up every morning. Yet somehow she understood this one terrible thing about me, and as I replayed what she had said, it was not her voice in my head but my mother’s.

Inside my house, I could finally wear a t-shirt and not feel chilled. While I ate dinner standing up in the kitchen, my gaze wandered over the water-stained walls, the food on my plate, the cabinets my mother had painted white but were now smudged with fingerprints—everything my mother had worked so hard for. I thought of Angela’s dull stare, her yellow bruise. I told myself I should feel lucky, but I didn’t.

I washed my dishes, then went upstairs, where I searched her closet for letters, mementos, photographs—anything my mother might have saved from my father. I peered under her shoes—the high heels she never had any reason to wear—and ran my hand along the soft fabrics of summer dresses I’d only seen in photographs. I went through the pockets of her old coats and stood on a chair to search the top shelf. I found only Aunt Evelyn’s old crystals, in the same inlaid-wooden box they’d always been in.

I removed two of the heaviest crystals and held them up to the lamp next to my mother’s wrought-iron bed. I felt their cool, solid mass in my palms. Each one so carefully wrapped and cherished, while I could not find even a scrap of paper from my father.

As I held them, I saw my mother’s bathrobe on the back of the door. Her silly, terrycloth bathrobe that she believed was so fine. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the burn marks like spilled coffee on one sleeve. Like our house, I remember thinking—better from a distance.

Believing I would be relieved to get rid of it, I slipped the robe from its hook. For years the memory of this movement—my arm reaching up, gathering the cloth to my chest—would fill me with regret.

It was dark when I took the bathrobe and a flashlight into the woods. I did not feel afraid as I made my way along a path used mostly by deer. At the back of the cemetery, well away from the embellished stones of the de Groot family, a few thin graves lay flat to the ground, names of the deceased worn to indecipherable curves. I knelt down next to them, almost relieved. We were all quiet and unknowable here. A satisfying viciousness throbbed in my chest.

With just my fingers, I dug a shallow hole next to those stones. The vigorous digging tired me, and when I lifted the bathrobe, it felt bulky in my arms; the fabric, a little damp still from my mother’s afternoon bath, had a solid, human weight to it that suddenly alarmed me. I laid it in the hole and patted clumps of damp earth around it.

Back at the house, I saw my mother had returned from work. I stood outside the kitchen window, watching her heat leftovers in the microwave. She still had on her scrubs, and I could tell she was looking at her reflection in the window, not at me outside, because she raised a hand to her hair and smiled.

This is still the image I see whenever I hear my mother’s voice. Just one word on the phone, and I’m stumbling out of the woods again, the grass brushing my ankles. In my memory, the night is impossibly dark, and the kitchen is the only room that is lit. Framed in the window, my mother’s smile fades, she remains very still. All around her is the house, like a vast and unsteerable ship. I take a clumsy step deeper into shadow, sure she has realized I’m spying and knows what I’ve done. But then I hear the little ding, and she opens the microwave door and removes a plate heaped with the chicken and pasta that two nights before I complained was too bland. In the sliver of light from inside, I can see my hands. They are covered in earth, and I wipe them back and forth on my jeans before I go inside.

The Hierophant

Lee Ann Dalton

Emanuel lets me keep his deck of tarot cards under my bed. He got it for the pictures, but he says I’m the only one who really knows how to read them.Every morning, first thing, I shuffle the deck, draw out a card, and tell him what his day is going to be like while I’m at school. Sometimes I tell him what the card really means, according to the deck instructions. But most days, I make it up, weaving into his fortune all the things I know he won’t do if I don’t tell him to, disguised as some kind of spiritual guidance that makes it sound like he’ll find nirvana if he follows along. Today, as soon as I draw a card and flip it over, I know it’s going to be a shakedown day, so I call the absentee line and make my voice low and slow like his when he has to speak to anyone with any degree of authority.

Emanuel has never been very good at getting things done in the way you’d expect, though when he was working, everyone said he was the best detailer Figuero Auto Palace ever hired—slow as molasses, yet a fine eye for a curlicue, a real master with the airbrush. He has an eye for a curlicue, alright, but not everyone who notices beautiful things can actually make them appear in their own front room. Everything in our house looks off, somehow, because he’s touched it, trying to turn it into something elegant, like in a fancy decorator magazine, until he realizes midway that he doesn’t have the tools or the knowhow or the materials, and it really does cost big money to fix things, and anyway, this house is too tiny, too old, too one-story for a spiral staircase and a solarium, and he gives up. He passes it off by saying he has an eclectic style. I’m pretty sure that’s not the word the wide-eyed social worker who started showing up at our house every few months after my grandmother died would use, but you can’t take a kid away from his father just because there are chopped up satin Goodwill dresses hanging from the curtain rods, dead pine branches stapled to the kitchen ceiling, and a metal pole circled by ascending fruit crates standing next to the TV. I put a few plants on the crates and wound little white Christmas lights up the pole, so now it looks a little less like a firehouse and an apple truck collided in our front room. One time I came home to find that he had tried to hot-glue bricks to a wall in the kitchen. There’s still a half-wall with bricks piled against it in there, the rest of the ruined plaster all covered with spackle in a kind of a makeshift stucco pattern, sponged with rust-coloured stain—just like ancient terracotta, he says—and sometimes when the 4:55 freight train goes by, a brick falls down off the half-wall. He picks it up and lovingly places it back on the pile. Our own little ruined Rome, right in our kitchen, he says. There isn’t anything I can do to make it look good, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I leave it alone.

Before my grandmother died, our house was a cozy little four-room bungalow, somewhat slouchy on the outside, but well-kept on the inside, with ironed and starched curtains, sparkling white walls, carpets that smelled faintly of the castile soap she used on everything, a bay window she kept so crystal-clean that the sun poured through the front room straight into the kitchen, the leather-bound 1967 Encyclopedia Americana volumes on the hallway bookshelf gleaming, not a speck of dust in sight, the gold-lettered titles practically jumping off their spines in that sunny glow, and even the knickknacks and fixtures and doorknobs everywhere just as shiny as you please. I keep trying to make it look like it did back then, but the longer she’s been gone and the more ideas Emanuel gets, the more things fall apart. Sometimes I get pretty close, after I’ve taken the better part of a weekend to scrub the house down, sprawled out on my belly with a book on the newly-clean braided rug in the front room, facing into the clear bay window, away from the failed-staircase plant tower and the kitchen’s brick pile and the pine branches. But if Emanuel decides he’s going fishing, meaning he’s going to dumpster-dive and scan sidewalk trash for stuff to bring back home and turn into his latest big idea, I have to leave the house in its dingy state and go with him, cleaning up enough to keep Social Services happy, but never enough to stop the downward slump toward dumpy old house. I can’t trust Emanuel to come home from these fishing trips with less than half the landfill, especially when he’s in a state, all quivery and full of big plans.

And Emanuel’s got nowhere but here to unleash his big plans. The accident at his old job made sure that he wasn’t going to get to practice his eye for the masterpiece on people’s smashed-up cars anymore. Mr. Figuero settled out of court, so Emanuel got out with a permanent disability check and a back that looks like a web of white lace neatly superglued to his real skin. His clothes cover it up, but you can tell it still hurts him, the taut way he bends and walks like a jumpy, tightly-strung science-lab skeleton. On those days when he’s all riled up and ready to change the world, or at least turn the house upside down in an effort to make it something it’s not, it’s almost like he’s on fire again, his skin all prickly and painful to live in, overcome by a panicky instinct to do something—anything—to put the fire in his head out.

My grandmother used to say Emanuel always had big ideas, even when he was little. She would tell anybody who would listen that Emanuel could have gone to the state university and become a big name artist with a gallery showing every year. And every time she said it, she’d look at me with a sad little smile set into her wrinkly cheeks, and then back at Emanuel with that same sad smile, as if to say, well, here we are now, Emanuel, and there’s nothing for it but to keep on making the supper and starching the curtains and dusting the furniture and watering the plants and going to church and taking care of your boy. I was too little to remember much about the day Emanuel brought me home, but I do remember that’s the first time I met my grandmother, and the only time I ever saw her cry.

On these shakedown days, I don’t really mind not being at school. I get pretty good grades because I read fast and remember things well, so the teachers don’t push me, mostly because they know I’m alone now with Emanuel, and who wouldn’t be a little bit absent some days anyway in that poor kid’s shoes, and isn’t it a shame about the accident, and his grandma gone, too, it’s amazing he still does his homework. They don’t even make me talk in school anymore, which is a good thing, because I hate having to stand up in front of people, knowing full well they think I’m weird, that I don’t even dress like a real boy half the time, and they all know I’m poor besides.

It didn’t start out that way in school, when the being poor was easily concealed, all of us in our rubber boots lined with sandwich-bread bags to keep our feet dry, with our oversized snowsuits that all looked the same, and our peanutbutter and cheese sandwiches in our rusty lunchboxes, and our t-shirts equally ragged because we all climbed trees and hung from monkey bars and got dirty and lost marbles and cussed each other out and piled back into the school somewhat ready to do what was in front of us, with not much of a notion of who was good at anything and who was bad, who was poor and who was rich, who was smart and who was kind of dumb. But that all changed once we got past elementary school. There’s a big difference between the fade you pay big bucks for off the rack and the fade you get in the dollar-a-pound pile at the Congo church sale, between reading the books teachers assign you and reading because you can’t stand to be anywhere but inside a book, and everyone knows it. Try to pretend you don’t, and you’ll get put in your place.

So after the accident, the principal decided that I’d be bullied if the teachers paid me too much mind, since I kind of stood out already, and they just stopped asking me to participate in class. I have a case manager who brings me sandwiches and writes me hall passes to go cool my heels, and a special dispensation that lets me write my reports instead of having to talk about them. I don’t think anyone even remembers my name anymore. The teachers and my case manager all call me “Dear” as if I needed extreme care to keep my head together, and the other kids don’t call me anything at all to my face. They used to call me “Faggot” and “Pimp-Boy” when I’d come to school in my snow boots, sporting one of my grandmother’s beloved polyester sateen blouses because it felt nice, over my Superman t-shirt that used to be a pajama shirt, with a somewhat ratty rabbit-fur patchwork coat I loved beyond reason draped over my shoulders like a cape, but the accident put a stop to that. Now, I’m just “that kid whose dad got burned,” and I only wear that get-up on shakedown days, when none of the other kids can see me, and anyway, Emanuel tells me on the days that he can really look at me, straight on, that I look beautiful to him.

This morning, Emanuel is up before me, already dressed in his best “going fishing” clothes, his beat-up leather jacket hanging at the ready on the edge of a kitchen chair, him pacing from the kitchen to the front room and back, waiting for the coffee to hiss and whine its last drops into the pot, making lists, tossing couch pillows to look for change, scanning the front rooms of the house, wide-eyed and twitchy, as if he were a designer on a TV show with only five minutes to create an entire interior decorating plan. Morning, Emanuel, I say. I call him Emanuel because my grandmother did, and when I say Emanuel, he looks up and stops, if only for a few seconds, as if he is waiting for her to tell him what to do. I don’t remember ever calling him Dad, a fact the social worker writes down on her notepad every single time she visits, as if me calling him by his name is somehow a sign that things between us are disintegrating beyond repair. In fact, saying his name keeps him close to me, stops him from veering off course and not coming back. He doesn’t call me by my name, either. He calls me Baby, because that’s what I am, he says. Talk about freaking out the social worker. No one calls their son Baby, but Emanuel says it like he’s my mother, my father, and everyone in the world who could possibly care about me all wrapped up into one, and it reminds him that I’m his kid. The last time he saw my mother, he came home with me in his arms and that was that, I was his Baby, and there was nothing to be done about it but come home to his own mother and raise me and call me Baby.

Emanuel is already riding the guilt train at full speed this morning, with his lists of stuff to find, stuff to buy, ways in which he is going to make things up to me and be a real dad, starting with going into town and buying me some clothes at a real store, like the consignment store downtown or Gordy’s Levis store, and then he is going to the hardware store to buy paint to make the walls in this place really pop, and then he is going to the Goodwill because there are still some good deals there and you can get cool stuff that no one knows came from the Goodwill and maybe we can even find you a Gameboy, that’s what the kids are playing with now, right, Baby, and have you seen the disability check or did I cash it, and we can even go to the grocery store and fill the fridge and make a big dinner with brownies for dessert and you can read to me if you want, Baby. He runs his hands through his hair like he wants to pull it right off his head.

Emanuel, I say, don’t you want to see today’s card first? I show him the Hierophant, and his face brightens. See, Baby, I told you, you can get anything you want today, you’re gonna be my guide to all the good stuff. I tell him, yes, Emanuel, I’m your guide, I’ll be your navigator through the world of the spirit today, so sit down and drink your coffee, and hand over those lists. Emanuel rolls his eyes, perches on the edge of his chair and looks like he’s going to split his skin, but he hands over the lists. I go to the fridge and open it, even though I know what I’m going to see because we’ve been eating hardboiled eggs and peanutbutter on spoons for the past three days. I don’t want to make him feel bad, but I’m hungry, so I say, listen up, Emanuel, the spirit world says fill your belly before you fill your house. His disability check doesn’t come until Monday, and we have about ten bucks left, which I have in my pocket. I tell him, Emanuel, let’s get a box of donuts for the road and go window-shopping. The Hierophant’s only a lucky card if we stay grounded and keep our eyes open, I say, but you never know what we might find. Emanuel looks chastened, but still jumpy and somewhat gleeful, like he’s going to finally get what he wants today. Right, Baby, if anyone can find the good stuff, it’s you, he says. He breathes out a huge puff of air like he’s already lifted all he can carry this morning, and there’s still another hundred and twenty pounds to move, but he’s ready to roll. There has to be something on his list that he can acquire, something that he can finally make happen, or he’s going to come apart at the seams.

The Hierophant, according to religious tradition, is a kind of a priest who connects the earthly experience to the heavenly for his followers, but in tarot card readings, he’s a not-so-gentle smack upside the head, letting you know that you’ll probably be okay, whatever it is you’re asking the cards to tell you to do, but you better not buck the system while you’re at it or you’re screwed. Whenever I pull that card, it’s a shakedown day, a day where Emanuel realizes that he has to open his eyes and see what’s really in front of him. Sometimes the shakedown day happens when he’s in a funk, in the middle of a week or two not of being able to get out of bed, and I have to pry him out of the house, set him down in the passenger seat of my grandmother’s old Dodge Dart, strap him in, and drive him around, avoiding all the typical places where a cop might be trying to fill his weekly quota of tickets, because I’m old enough to get my license but it costs an arm and a leg to take Driver’s Ed, so I’m still not street-legal. I take the back roads to the ocean, and he sleeps along the way. I park and wake him, a funky-looking imprint of the naugahyde piping decorating the side of his cheek where he fell asleep against the seat, and haul him out to the rocks, set him down to watch the sun glint off the waves, and I talk about how all the huge boulders got there and what they’re made of, and how they’re millions of years old and isn’t that amazing that here we are sitting on them when they used to be way under the earth’s crust, and I make the seagulls say stupid things about why didn’t we bring them Fritos, and Emanuel cracks a tiny smile and then I know I’ve done my guide job for the day. I bring him back home, give him coffee and a peanutbutter sandwich and a cut-up apple, he eats it like it’s the best thing he ever tasted, and I read to him from the Encyclopedia Americana, all the names of the Birds of Paradise, describing their colors to him as if they bring news from the world that not everything is crap, that there are beautiful creatures out there dressed in feathers and fluff that will knock his socks off, and he listens as if this is all brand new to him, even though he’s heard me do this a hundred times or more, and then he really smiles.

Other times, the shakedown day happens when he’s been at it with the hot glue gun and the stapler and the big plans to bring home half the dump and transform this place into a palace again, determined to turn over a new leaf and be the good dad who invites his son’s nonexistent friends over, telling the neighbors all about the house-painting business he’s going to start, trying to shoot the breeze with the guys at Gerry’s about building a new deck for the old bungalow, freshen the old girl up a bit, all the while oblivious to the fact that people are staring at him with a mix of revulsion and pity, not because they’re interested in what he’s saying, but because they can hardly believe their eyes, this wild skeleton-man with his shoulders poking out of his leather jacket, his salt and pepper hair sticking up in the back because I did a crappy job cutting it, his hands flying as he talks, his eyes darting everywhere, and me standing there in my snow boots and my rabbit-fur coat, my Superman logo peeking out the open neck of my silky sateen blouse that reminds me of my grandmother getting things done without a second thought and makes me feel rich even though I know it’s just cheap polyester, standing there just as cool as a cucumber, as if this is all normal, and I wonder how the other hierophants do it, how they translate “doing the right thing” for people who flail and twitch and grasp at everything, need the world to open up for them so frantically right that minute they can’t stop themselves from spiraling out of control along the way.

Emanuel is getting progressively twitchier, so we finish our coffee, grab our coats, and head out to the Dart, pile inside, and I turn the key. Nothing. I’m going to have to pull out the gas can and walk down to the BP station to get her going again on Monday after school, but right now, we’re on empty, so I tell Emanuel, looks like we’re walking, at least it’s nice out today. You look like you could use a walk anyway, Baby, he says, which makes me wonder how this day is going to go, if he’s already worrying about me and whatever it is that I need that he’s not giving me. I can practically see the twister of guilt, panic, and need circling above his head, like in those cartoons where the angel and the devil are sitting on opposite shoulders, but in Emanuel’s case, it’s like they’re fighting with each other so fast and furious all you can see is the whirlwind around them. My stomach feels like it’s imploding, so we head over to Gerry’s for that box of donuts I promised him. I get Emanuel a banana, too, for the potassium, not that it makes a big difference, but I figure a sugar crash is only going to make him feel more like he has to tell me all afternoon what a bad father he is. I need him to be okay for the next few days so he can cash the check and I can feed us before he lands himself in bed, and I don’t want to talk about what I need because I know it will tip him right over the edge. I hate to watch the slide, knowing full well I can’t yank him out of it until he crashes to the bottom. I make Emanuel wait outside so he doesn’t start chatting up Rory out back about the new deck we’re not going to build, and when I come outside, he’s jumping up and down like he’s on an invisible pogo stick, grinning wildly at me as I hand him a powdery donut and the banana. Baby, you’re the best kid ever, he says with his mouth full of doughnut, powder settling into the corners of his mouth, jump-walking next to me as we cross the street and head for downtown.

We look into the window of Gordy’s Levis shop, and Gordy looks back out at us as if to say, what the hell is that kid doing out of school, so we decide we don’t want to bother with his attitude, and we can’t afford anything in there anymore anyway. Even when Emanuel is as high as a kite on good dad fumes, he can’t stand Gordy, who insists on calling a pair of pants a “pant,” and tries to dress me in clothes I hate. Emanuel once got into a fight with Gordy when I was about seven or eight, because I tried on a shirt that was in the girls’ section and Gordy wouldn’t let him buy it for me. He shouted at Gordy, told him he wouldn’t know a beautiful kid if it smacked him in the head, we were ushered out of the store, and we haven’t been back since. We hit the travel shop instead, flipping through all the guides to islands with palm trees and parasol drinks and impossibly blue seas, where everyone wears a sarong and no one looks like they’ve ever had a bad day in their life. We try on all of the sunglasses, and I tell Emanuel he looks pretty swanky in almost all of them, even the dorky white Wayfarers, until the shop owner comes out from behind his book and asks us if he can help us with something, and I tell him we’ll come back, we just have to go get our money from the bank, and out we go, trying not to laugh until the door closes behind us, Emanuel still looking like he has donut stuck in the corners of his mouth. Geez, Emanuel, I say, wipe your mouth, and he can’t stop laughing, puts an arm around my shoulders, and we keep walking, passing the bookstore because being in there without money is like being a starving man standing in a butcher shop, and head for the consignment store, where we know that even if we’re the weirdest thing the shop owner has ever seen, she’s not going to tell us so because she’s too nice and knows a tough time when she sees it.

The consignment store is my favorite shop in all of downtown, not just because the owner calls everyone Honey, but because she masks her horror at Emanuel’s jumpiness so well, and she has never called the truant officer in the entire time we’ve been coming to her store. When Emanuel is on a tear, he looks like he’s on drugs, he’s so skittery, and everyone tries to avoid looking at him, turning to me instead, first with that oh you poor kid look, and then they spend the rest of the time we’re in their store trying to figure out if I’m a boy or a girl. I cut Emanuel’s hair, though not very well, but I pretty much don’t do anything to mine unless it starts to get in my way, so I have what could be kindly referred to as a mop. Pair that with the fact that I’m wearing a Superman shirt and snow boots, along with rabbit fur and sateen, and I’m a walking, talking gender mystery, especially when I head for the rack with the furs and the satin prom dresses. Emanuel comes over to the rack with me and touches the furs, letting out a gasp at how soft they are. How much, Baby, he asks, and I say, too much, Emanuel, eight hundred dollars. Whoa, he says, you’re going to have to get yourself a good job when you grow up. I tell him I’m going to have two or three fur coats someday, and I’ll let him borrow one if he wants. Then I pull a pale blue satin ball gown off the rack. Look at this one, Emanuel, I say, and hold it up to myself in the mirror. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I say, and Emanuel says, yep, you would look beautiful in that, Baby, and he’s right, I would. I’m sorry I don’t have the money for it, Baby, he says, and I tell him it’s okay, Emanuel, but look at how the satin shines, feel how soft that is, and he touches the fabric. You can practically see the whirlwind above his head slow down. He stares at the dress, whispers to himself, beautiful, and I have to turn him around and guide him out the door.

We head down to the river with our donuts and our heads full of wanting furs and satin dresses, Emanuel looking all hunchy and distressed, and we walk onto the mud flats to look for treasure. This river is fresh water up above the dam, but below the dam, it’s tidal water, and the mud flats are exposed at low tide, revealing a lumpy mass of old demolished brick and algae-covered rocks. A couple hundred years ago, people used to dump their trash into the river, and eighteenth century trash is a lot more beautiful than the crap people throw out today, so we find treasures every time we come down here. Fragments of pottery and china, tiny bubbly glass bottles and apothecary jars, and the occasional silver spoon or fork all hide between the rocks, covered with a thin layer of river slime. Once I found a working penknife, and Emanuel found a tiny china doll body without its legs and arms. It’s hard to spot the good stuff underneath the mud, but if you’re patient, you never come away empty-handed.

I keep watch on Emanuel. He looks so gutted, every time he knows he can’t give me something I want, and he’s the only person I know who doesn’t laugh at me for wanting it. I used to worry that if I ever left the house for good, Emanuel would never survive by himself, but there are times I think I won’t survive if I don’t have him around to act like I’m the most normal kid he’s ever met. We spend hours searching through the mud, until the rising tide of the river starts to lap at our feet, and Emanuel finds a pretty good-sized fragment of blue willow china, my favorite pattern, along with a piece of pottery with a blue-gray salt glaze on it, the handle of a jug. He’s still thinking about the blue satin dress, and his lists, and the house, and what he hasn’t done today, and he keeps slipping on the rocks, jumping and staring and frantically searching the slime for something he can find for me that isn’t broken. I go over to him, slide my arm through his, say, Emanuel, look, and hand him the tiny blue bottle I’ve found. He stops jumping, and turns it over in his hand, amazed at how small it is. It has a crack down the side of it, but it gleams in the sun, the little bubbles in the neck of the bottle clustered together like miniature stars. I tell him, Emanuel, your guide says it’s probably time to go home. I’ll make you a peanutbutter and donut sandwich. He glances up at me, looks out across the water at the seagulls congregating on the opposite shore, shakes his head like he’s trying to clear out a storm, and looks back at me, cracks a tiny smile. We bring home our treasures in our pockets, shiny and blue, broken and beautiful as they are.


 

Winner of the 2014 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Robin Black.

Saturday-Night Special

Terrance Manning, Jr.

I started wrestling because of Eddie Barno. I saw him wrestle at a high school match with my dad—he went to all the matches. Dad was State Champ when he wrestled in the ‘70s, two years in a row. All the time, he told me how he trained every night in his room, taking low-leg shots against the wall just to get faster, quicker—to build the reflex. How wrestling made him a better fighter in everything, but mainly in streets, in bars. He’d move side-to-side, laugh.

Never go down to the ground with a wrestler.

And I’d shake my head all, Right, damn right, hell right, because it felt good to know he was a tough bastard, and I’d always, since I could remember, wanted to be a tough bastard. So I went to the matches with him while my mother stayed home with my baby sister.

The year before I started high school is when I first I watched Eddie, the 103-pound freshman, limp out onto the mat. Everyone had said he was sick, hadn’t eaten to make weight, had caught the flu, and he acted like it: ill-looking, haunted, blue-green in the face. People stomped the bleachers. The gym filled with screaming voices from the crowd, the teams, coaches. Turn ‘em Eddie, twist him; move, move. I felt exhilarated, electric—I stood up. Everyone stood up.

Eddie spilled onto the mat, his face twisted. My father screamed, but his voice disappeared in the cacophony of voices in the gym. I wanted to scream too but didn’t know enough to say anything so I kept laughing and cheering for a guy I’d never met before, my father grabbing my arm occasionally, grinning.

You see that, Josh? Watch, watch.

The other wrestler wiped the mat with him, whipped him around like a strip of rubber, and for nearly three full periods, Eddie had taken it without getting pinned. Grunting, growling as he lay on his stomach, cheek pressed against the mat.

He’ll tech you, Eddie, stand up, the coach had shouted. People pushed into me as the timer clicked away, bright red numbers descending. I had this feeling like running down to help him, kicking the other guy. I could hardly contain it, the anxiety and thrill, the energy.

Then it happened. As if it materialized from a shadow. Eddie screamed this half-man scream, reached his arm around, legs spreading the guy open. People must have recognized it—the most elusive move in Flysdale—the Saturday-Night Special.

Every wrestler I would ever know said he invented it; more than a move, kind of a Spladle, like a Banana Split, but reversed—a leg ride, face in the mat. Something more than a Nelson, a Cradle, an Arm Bar. The ‘Special broke boundaries. Created style, color—like an art form. Everybody wanted to master it. But it takes a double-sided wrestler, a guy who can lead with his left foot or his right, to circle the mat lightly, meticulously, a whimsical face frightening his opponent. Some guys would smile—teeth out, delirious looking. Others sneered. Most on the other side of the move were scared and they showed it, eyebrows raised, nostrils flared, shifting their weight to hide their shaking chests. But you could never tell the guy about to wrap you up in the Special. He’d move like he could read your mind, and that motherfucker was scary. Not because of the movement, or the smile, or the wrestlers screaming, Hurt him, break him, from the bench, but because in his eyes, in his glistening, narrowed eyes, he wanted to hurt someone. Walking off the mat heaving, vanquished, was not an option.

Eddie won that night. Pinned the guy. He stood straight up after the ref had slapped the mat and faced a screaming crowd, green cheeks brightened with red, his eyes crying, flexed his arms and chest and stomach, growling in all the noise and the vigor and the hair stood up all over me. Beautiful, that feeling. Doesn’t last forever; never does, but to feel it, for that second, is worth all the hours waiting, hoping, working. My father signed me up my freshman year, and it didn’t take long before I wrestled varsity.

* * *

Mid November, my junior year, Eddie broke his neck in the mat room—a wrestle-off with Victor Davis. Eddie was a senior, and by then no one questioned whether he would start; he was the best. Victor was my age and had wrestled most his life. We all knew the rules: if two guys wanted to wrestle the same weight, they wrestled off for it—a simulated match at the start of practice.

Victor had smiled as he stretched. Eddie tied his wrestling shoes and clenched his jaw, periodically, like he was chewing gum.

Everyone laughed, even the coaches. Scott Jacobs said he had five hundred dollars on Eddie. But there was an uncomfortable atmosphere spreading across the mats—the feeling that it wasn’t funny stinking like sweat in the room.

Victor was a rough wrestler, a guy that pinched skin, smashed his forehead into ears, jammed his chin into your spine. He laughed on the mat in the middle of matches. Used to freak everyone out, even the crowd, with his scary clown laugh like he’d been toying with his opponent, vindictive, frightening. I loved it; we all did—because he won every match. Would walk off the mat with a huge smile and six points for the team.

He was a good guy outside of the mat room—when he wasn’t grinding ears into cauliflower or tight-wasting your stomach so hard you couldn’t laugh for a week, he was decent. I wrestled him every day in practice—on purpose—to get tougher, stronger. My first two years, I had braces. Victor made it a priority to cross-face me like a punch across the mouth, to slice my gums. Once, he brought his wrist so hard across my mouth, it blew one of my brace-brackets straight through my cheek. He apologized without expression, and I wanted to fight him, not wrestle him; fight him. But he made me a better wrestler, a stronger, faster wrestler. He was better than me, and I owned it.

Eddie, though, was the best. Eddie was a natural, the guy that rolled around almost beautifully, as if he painted moves on, they were so precise—a real damn artist. He was a chess-wrestler, knew all the moves, the counter moves, the counter to the counter moves. So when Victor wanted to wrestle Eddie for his weight class, we were all a little tense, but glad, thinking it’s about time someone beats Victor down. No one expected Eddie to break his neck.

Painful to watch. Eddie didn’t see it coming; no one did. They locked up. Victor took the inside arm, grabbed the elbow, and with vicious execution, spun himself like an axle, jamming Eddie’s face hard into the mat without an arm to protect himself. A loud smack snapped through the silence—could have killed him. We all thought it had, until Eddie lay there groaning, sounding terrified, as if he didn’t understand what had happened, but knew he shouldn’t move.

Coach sat next to him. Victor popped back for a second, a glimpse of shock and fear across his face. Someone called 911, and we were all, You’ll be alright; it’s alright, pull through, as they took him out of the mat room on a stretcher, past the boilers, up the steps, and into the winter cold. People whispered, but no one actually spoke it: Victor Davis screwed up. Maybe did it on purpose.

For a while after that, I was the only one who would wrestle him in practice or talk to him in the locker room or while running. Until the coach sat us down and said it wasn’t Victor’s fault, that it was no one’s fault, and every time we walked onto the mat, we were at risk of the same thing happening. We were wrestlers.

Can’t be afraid to get hurt. Accidents happened.

Get tough or stay home.

Victor stared at the floor while the coach spoke, but later, when we were running far ahead of everyone else, like always, he told me he didn’t feel bad.

“It happens,” he echoed the coach. “The minute you’re too scared to wrestle’s the minute you lose.”

I nodded, added an occasional, “Sucks, you know.”

“Yeah,” he said. “For Eddie.”

“Hope he’s alright.”

“I’m not too worried,” Victor said, and I felt angry, like I should tell him he was wrong, and that he hadn’t understood what he’d ruined. Or that I had seen his face, had seen that look pouring into Eddie’s broken body. But I ran beside him in seething silence, my steps hardly contained from sprinting ahead, alone.

We finished out the season. Most of us lost in Sections. Couple guys made it to Regionals, but no one went to States. Should have been Eddie winning States his senior year. Instead, he had a broken neck, and he and the other seniors graduated, Flysdale Area High School, known mostly for the police that patrolled its halls and for failing to produce a State Champ out of Pittsburgh for nearly a decade.

* * *

When Eddie showed up my senior year to visit, a month into the season, everyone cheered for him. He looked brand new, no neck brace, but fatter. He must have weighed nearly one hundred and fifty pounds. He smiled, but it wasn’t the same Eddie smile, the same I-don’t-give-a-damn-because-I’m-the-best smile he used to have. He looked beaten, almost out of place in the steaming heat of the mat room, the ceilings feeling lower with him there, concrete walls feeling darker. Made me look away, toward Victor, who didn’t cheer, but tucked his shirt tighter.

“Eddie,” my coach smiled. “Back from the dead.” Everyone laughed and Eddie shook his hand.

“I just want to wrestle,” Eddie said. Coach grinned.

“You’re welcome here, you know that.”

“Don’t stop practice for me,” Eddie said. So we started wrestling, each with a partner. Victor and I paired up—mainly because we were close in weight, some because we were the best on the team, but mostly, we’d become close friends.

By then, most of us were doing speed before our matches. Scott Jacobs would sneak Adderall into school in his socks, walk right through the metal detectors and searches at the school’s entrance, and later we’d push our food away at lunch, talking non stop, speeding, spitting thick white foam into bottles to shed those last few ounces before a match. We’d skip our late classes and head out in Jerry Paler’s old ’82 Toyota Camry to smoke cigarettes and blast the Beastie Boys—“Brass Monkey” banging straight treble through the parking lot—and Scott or Jerry or I would flip off the security guard and laugh our asses off until we turned onto the street. We’d always make it back for practice, though—wash the smell of smoke from our hands and faces before we walked into the locker room.

To see Eddie standing there, whole again, thick, a sad smile smeared on his face, made me happy and angry at the same time: happy to see him, angry he couldn’t wrestle, or that something had changed that I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted to hug him, shout, You bastard, I thought you’d never come back, and laugh like we used to laugh when I first started wrestling and he taught me every move, every reversal. Like when I asked him my sophomore year why they called it the Saturday-Night Special and he said, “Just another move.”

“It’s not just a move,” I said, leaning against the frosted window on the bus to a match, one I’d lose, and Eddie would win in the first minute without effort or struggle.

“Coach told me he invented the Special.”

Eddie laughed.

“Everyone invented the Special. Eric Goodman told me, when I was a freshman, that he invented it. Named it after the gun his brother used to shoot himself.”

“Told you that?”

“Don’t know why. Maybe he lied—wanted to freak me out. But it made sense to me. Of course it was, I told him. Named after the gun. Of course it was. And I meant that, man, I really meant that, because why not? Why the hell not? He named it after a gun, his brother’s gun, and that seemed right.”

“Seems right,” I said.

“Maybe it is right.”

“Jerry says his dad came up with it in the ‘80s. After a drink. Whiskey or something; I don’t remember.”

“Jerry’s a prick,” he said.

I laughed and kicked the seat in front of us, where Jerry sat, and he turned around to face us.

“You’re lucky I’m not a lightweight, Eddie,” he said and turned back around. Eddie flipped him the finger.

“Maybe that’s it,” I said. “Maybe you have to invent it to use it. I don’t know. I can’t hit the Special.”

“Maybe,” Eddie said.

I can barely ride legs,” I said.

“I mean maybe you’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

“No, maybe you’re right about the Special. We invent it, man. Why the hell can’t we? It’s too damn pretty, I’ll say that. Let some old wash-up name it after a drink. Nah, it’s not a drink. It’s a ride, man.”

“A leg ride,” I said, and dangled my legs over the seat in front of me, beside Jerry.

“A leg ride, yeah, but it’s a ride, man. At this amusement park I went to for the first time when I was a little shit, bout this big,” he said, smiling with his hand flat out in front of him.

“Played music, oldies—fifties music. I still go there, every summer. Down in Brownsville.”

“Chipper Park,” I said.

“Yeah, Chipper Park! You know the ride? Spins round and round. Just a big old circle.”

“I know the ride,” I said. Perfect ride to take a girl on, let her sit on the inside, throw your arm around her. The moment the thing started spinning she was smashed right up next to you laughing, her hair blowing back in the wind. And the music!

“Great damn music,” I said.

“You can hear the music, man, from all around the park,” Eddie said, a big smile across his skinny face.

“Sinatra, Bobby Day, Elvis. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ jammin’ in the trees. That was it, brother: the music, the stars. Every summer, the Saturday-Night Special. Always the last ride of the night.”

“That the name?”

“If it’s not, it should be,” he said. “The lights, the spin. That’s what it feels like man. That’s it. Never lasts as long as you want, but why the hell should it? Any longer and the match is over, the night’s over.”

And I remember thinking Eddie was right, with all the life and energy he used to throw around, voice so booming you could hear him, like the ride, from all over the school. But standing in the mat room again, my senior year, a little fat in his cheeks, a little rubber in his arms, I didn’t see the energy; couldn’t feel it, or hear the boom in his voice, and that made me angry. Like the old Eddie had died when he broke his neck, and the beauty and the art and masterfulness of the way he wrestled died too.

He stood beside Victor and me wrestling and watched. For some reason, I pushed harder, faster, like wrestling a real match, and I felt Victor do the same. Maybe to impress Eddie, or intimidate him. I couldn’t tell, but I could feel him watching, analyzing our moves. I tried to remind myself that the old Eddie was gone, that this chubby reincarnation probably couldn’t take a shot, or lock up. Still, I pushed. Victor pushed. I felt frustrated, pissed. Why didn’t I stop wrestling, turn and shake his hand, the guy that made me want to wrestle in the first place? I wanted to say, You should have won. You weren’t supposed to break. Then suddenly, Victor and I were pushing harder than we’d pushed all season. My heart raced. Maybe Eddie was impressed, surprised. It felt good to think of how far I’d come, how much better of a wrestler I was, how tough I’d grown, used to cross-faces, mat-burn.

Then, before I could see it coming, Victor dropped me hard on my face, the same Gator Roll he broke Eddie’s neck with, and though it hurt, he’d perfected it, understood how to use it: inflict pain, win—no broken neck. For a moment, I was afraid to look up, afraid to see the look on Eddie’s face, but when I did, I saw him reaching his hand down to help me.

“Looks like you’re training for States,” he said, trying to smile that old Eddie smile. “You have what it takes, man; you really have it.”

* * *

I had wrestled 145 for most of the year, had won my matches, a couple tournaments, and had a strong chance at taking States. Had a winning streak growing when Victor, who wrestled 140, decided he wanted my weight class. He didn’t tell me; he told the coaches. Before practice, Coach yelled, “Wrestle-off: Josh Wheeler and Victor Davis—for 145.”

“The hell is this?” I said.

“You don’t own the weight,” Victor said, smiling as he opened his gym bag. He pulled out his shoes.

Eddie walked out of the office shaking his head. He had stayed on as a sort of assistant coach that year.

“Vic,” I said. “I can’t wrestle 140. I’m hardly making 145 without skipping lunch.”

Eddie pointed at me through the cages, waved his hand for me to follow him.      “Vic,” I said again while he pulled his shorts over long-johns.

“Josh, come with me,” Eddie said. All the other wrestlers were piling in, shouting, taunting, Wheeler and Davis, bout time, and laughing.

Victor smiled, but wouldn’t look up.

When I followed Eddie through the back hallway and into the weight room, he turned and said, “You can win this.” I felt dizzy with anger. Like Victor had betrayed me somehow, even though he was right. We didn’t own the classes. Anyone could wrestle the spot if he wanted it enough, or was good enough to take it. I couldn’t wrestle the next class up. The 152-pounder, who dropped nearly seven pounds to make weight, would break me to pieces.

“You’re better,” Eddie said. “You can beat Victor.”

“I can’t.”

“He’s got half the talent you got.”

“Wrestled his whole life.” I felt childish and disgusted and angry. “I worked for it. I can win at 145. Why’s he have to take it?”

“He’s six pounds over,” Eddie said.

“So am I—five over. I can’t wrestle up.”

Eddie shook his head. “Just wrestle.”

“Bullshit.”

“He’s got no discipline, man. Not like you.”

“Bullshit,” I said again and kicked the flat bench over. “He hurts people. Fucking bullshit.” Victor walked in as I said, “Selfish asshole.”

“Don’t cry,” he said.

“Get out, Davis,” Eddie shouted.

“Try me, Eddie.”

“Dirty fucking prick, man,” Eddie said.

“Get over it,” Victor laughed the clown laugh he used on the mats, a maneuver to rev people up, to crawl under their skin, to win without having to win.

I gave him all three periods in the wrestle-off, crushing my forehead into any part of him I thought I could hurt, but in the end, he won. I’d have to drop ten pounds. Wouldn’t be the first time, but I had already started stretching out the days without meals. A piece of jerky and a few sips of water before the matches. But ten pounds—I would have to cut the jerky, peel the regimen back tighter. The thought of it made me sleepy, like I could sit down right in the school hallway, my back against the cool block wall, and fall asleep. I’d have to wear bags in practice—hated wearing bags. Only the bingers wore bags; they’d eat anything they wanted until the day before the match and drop water weight, throw up, wear plastic under their clothes, and mostly, those guys lost. I made weight: slow diet, running faster, pushing. Builds strength that way—true strength, winning strength.

Somehow, it didn’t seem fair. After Victor had won, not even I would practice with him. The assistant coach had to wrestle him. I knew I was overreacting, that if I wanted to change things, I would have to wrestle better, be better. But the fact that every one of us knew that I could never wrestle better than Victor Davis pissed me off. I wasn’t going to run ahead of everyone else with him again, laughing, talking about the girls we’d had sex with, or how annoying Jessica my ex was—the only girl, really, I had ever had sex with, that told me I was handsome, despite the pocks in my cheeks from a few years of acne—or whether or not you could take more than one Adderall without it looking obvious you were speeding. I wasn’t going to wrestle him, give him the right to hurt me with impunity, knowing I’d never complain because I wanted to be stronger, tougher. No, fuck him. I’d practice with Paler, or Eddie, Scott if I had to, even though Scott sucked, or with the heavy weight, whatever it took to shed the weight, both mine and Victor’s weight, all ten pounds of it, until I weighed one hundred and forty pounds—powerful, fatless.

* * *

That night at dinner, I told my dad I couldn’t wrestle 145 anymore, that Victor had taken it because he couldn’t make weight. He licked mashed potatoes from his spoon, then told me it was 140, yeah 140, that he took States.

My little sister, Sandy, who was eleven and still slept with the Tasmanian Devil she’d had since she was a baby, slopped her chicken in gravy, gnawing every last strip from the bone, talking through a mouth of half-chewed food.

“Mmm, so good,” she sang.

“Shut up, brat,” I said, a glass of water a quenching presence in front of me, shots of pain striking in my ribs on the left side—probably from practice, or the wrestle-off, or the tight-waist Victor sliced like he’d wanted to skin me.

“I thought you said 125. That you were a lightweight?”

“At one time.” My father took another scoop of potatoes. “140 in States, though.”

“This is boring.” Sandy dropped her forehead onto the table.

My mother came in from the kitchen. “Sit up,” she said.

“What year?”

“Every year,” my mother laughed. “The Olympics, too!” She winked and slid a salad in front of me, pulling her graying hair back as she sat.

“Can’t eat that,” I said.

“Just eat,” she smiled

“He has to make weight,” my father said.

“Just eat it.” Sandy reached into the bowl, took a piece of lettuce and ate it.

“Mmm,” she said.

“What year, dad?”

“Weighs as much as a fingernail.” My mother pushed the salad closer.

“Years,” my father said. “But your grandmother threw it all out. Threw out all the trophies, the medals. Everything’s gone.” She had needed the room in the basement, he would say.

“Listen, you’ve got more of a chance now. You’ll be a 150-pounder wrestling 140.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Eat the salad,” my mother said. “You’re thinner every day. I don’t like it.”

“The kid’s started something,” my father said. “Now he’ll finish it.”

“Can’t finish without eating.”

“I’ll finish,” I said.

“He’ll finish.” My father looked up and pointed with his spoon. “Piece of lettuce won’t kill you.” He glanced at my mother, but she was watching the salad in front of me, waiting.

I picked out a round leaf of lettuce and spread it on my burning tongue just to feel it there, cool, sparking taste buds. She was right, my mother. I could have eaten it, could have eaten the entire salad—wouldn’t have gained a pound. But it wasn’t about eating the salad, or the lettuce. I could always throw it back up; it was breathing it in, the smell, watching steam rise up off of the chicken, noticing a line of potato that my father had missed drying on the spoon.

“Junior Year,” my father said. “Freddy Sanchez came to our school. That was the ‘70s. Everything was different. Weights were different. Used to bench press with sand, can you believe that? Sand? Me and Freddy, couldn’t get us off the mats.”

I wanted to move away, crawl into my bedroom, sleep. I had my first 140 match that Friday, and I wondered what would happen, if, just before the match, I made a little cut on my ankle—after all the running and the sweating and the hunger and the spitting until there was no more spit left to spit—if I just gave a cut to let a little blood out, just to drip a few extra ounces. Or if that might make me weak. If you needed all that blood in your body to wrestle. We bled all the time in matches: from the mouth, the nose, our eyes even. I could make weight if I let a little out, from my ankle, maybe, where I could hide it with my socks.

“Half the battle,” my father said. “Making weight is half the battle.”

I watched him shout the same stories he’d shouted a hundred times before. Funny how little you care when you’re hungry. I pictured wrestling my father and winning, crushing him. He didn’t get it the way I got it. I wished he could understand that. I thought he looked old, or weak, nearly pathetic telling those same damn stories. The way he tilted his head and the skin on his neck folded and the smile on his face hooked into his dry, hanging cheeks. Tell me about States, Daddy, I wanted to say, Talk to me of winning, but instead, I listened, a pain ripping through my ribs and into my chest on the left as he said, “You’ll wrestle 140 for Senior Rec, then, before Christmas.” Must have torn something. Victor wrestled tough. 

* * *

On Saturday, after I had won the match the night before in over time—a Granby Roll kicked straight out from the bottom—I drove with Jerry Paler and our buddy Luke to a pizza place on the other side of Pittsburgh. We usually went there to look at pretty girls and hang outside stuffing our mouths with pizza we’d regret the next week in practice. We’d smoke cigarettes and swear loud so people could hear us. Victor was there that night with a girl, gorgeous, as usual, like Victor had more than a strong face, but some kind of charm, at least enough to have a girl like that sitting by him in a booth. Paler and Luke shook his hand and I ignored him. Couple of guys with soccer letterman jackets walked in after we’d sat down in a booth in the back.

“See these fuckers?” Paler said.

Luke stared, but didn’t say much. He never said much. He was the type of guy to mirror, give the okay, okays or the right, rights that said, I’ll think what you think; I’ll do what you do.

“Soccer,” I said loud enough for the group to hear. “Fucking pussies.”

“What’s that?” One of the soccer guys said, his arm around some girl, a pretty blonde girl with a pink skirt wrapped tight around her tall, smooth legs. Their letterman jackets were yellow and blue.

Jerry stood up; we all stood up.

“Eat shit,” Jerry snarled.

“You scum drive out here every Saturday night.”

“To fuck your girls,” I said.

“Stay in the slums,” the blonde spit at us, shifting her legs a little, looking sexier standing there as she turned to me and yelled, “Go to hell, scar-face; I don’t screw monsters.” And I felt sick with anger, with something like jealousy for these guys that didn’t know us or what we’d done or seen or who we’d become or hoped to become and there were many more of them than us. But I knew—we all knew—that you never go down to the ground with a wrestler. We had that. If nothing else, if they took us to the ground, we would always win. Off the mat, wrestlers never lost. The three of us believed that.

Eddie had told me the night before to start wrestling on Saturdays and Sundays. That I should stay after practice for a few hours with him—work harder. He said he’d teach me the Special, that my shot was slow. Christmas was coming, and every year around that time was Senior Rec night, the one time when everyone came to the matches: friends, parents—all the girls. It’s the one night the gym is packed—glory night. Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, all the blues and greens and reds glowing on the bleachers, dipping down in smiles across the walls, a giant lighted tree at the back of the gym. Everything colored, bright, and glowing. We’d run out, some song blasting, spilling into the gym, shaking the floor, transporting everyone for a moment away from Christmas. Lights dimmed, spotlight hitting the center of the mat—thrilling. After all the work, the sweat, the bingeing and purging, so many sit-ups you’d find yourself crying into your shirt when you’re working out, but happy to be crying because it’s weight—the tears are weight, and you can shed that too. After everything, you’d run onto the mat, lights melting all over you, stretching while the crowd cheers—the one time in all of our lives we’d ever feel that important, like great men, cherished. Before everything faded, disappeared, and most of us would end up working trades, welding, steam-fitters, heavy highway, dead or in jail or jobless or finishing some degree from college that would mean nothing when looking for work in the cold of winter, wishing to be back in that mat room, the smell of steam and sweat, the smell of tears, of perseverance, dreaming for something we couldn’t understand, that we were never willing to understand.

Eddie had said that everyone thought the Special was nothing more than a reversed Spladle, that if you mastered the Spladle, you had the Saturday-Night. He told me if I put the time in, he’d show me how to really know it. You invent it, man, he told me. Your words—we all did. But by then, I didn’t believe it anymore. I barely believed in Eddie the way I used to—admired him, trusted him the way I once did. I didn’t need him pushing me. What did he know? He’d become the wash-up we made fun of, the guy naming the move after a drink. How could he teach me anything, if he couldn’t wrestle?

The thought made me sick, disgusted with myself, and I wanted to crush this guy in front of me at the pizza place, punch his face in, take his girl home, touch her damn fine thighs, but before I had a chance, as they were calling us scum and shouting for us to go back to where we came from, back to Flysdale, where good people never came from, Victor swept in and grabbed the first guy by the face, open palm. He bent him backward over a booth with a huge smile on his face as if he enjoyed it, shoving his fingers into the guy’s eyes while he punched him, his pretty girlfriend crying, please, please stop, while Jerry and Luke and I went after any soccer player we could reach.

Later, when we were arrested, our own faces smashed against the counter, arms behind our backs, Victor and I were turned toward each other. He laughed the whole time, that clown laugh, and I was forced to stare him in the face. I couldn’t close my eyes; I couldn’t look afraid—not in front of him. So I watched him laugh the same demonic cackle from all his matches, his cruel moments, as our cheeks flooded onto the wooden counter. For the first time, I noticed he had tears in his eyes, and something shifted in me. I suddenly wanted to run from Victor, from the police. I wanted to disappear.

* * *

The next match I wrestled at 140. I had hardly made weight, lost in the first period—pinned. My chest burned, and the pain in my ribs felt worse, like maybe I’d broken a rib. Victor couldn’t wrestle; coach wouldn’t let him for getting arrested, and he wouldn’t let me wrestle 145 in his place. Only the heavyweight had won his match, by forfeit, because the other team had no one to wrestle the spot. Eddie kicked his chair, the one he sat in beside the coaches, shaking his head while I left the circle.

After the match, as we rolled up the mats, quietly, all of our minds already on the drills and the sprawls and lunges we’d endure as punishment, Victor’s dad, Barry, started shouting.

“Tough guy, huh,” from beside the bleachers. “Big tough guy now.”

I looked up, leaning into the warm foam of the mat I was carrying. Some people still lingered in the gym. Coaches talked to parents. Wrestlers stacked chairs, talked to their girlfriends. Everyone noticed Barry shouting, Victor in front of him saying, “C’mon, dad.”

Barry had a leather vest on with a jean-jacket beneath. Had a long and dirty beard and looked too old to be a dad, too haggard, like maybe he was Victor’s grandfather. He wore black boots, black jeans, and had been asked, quasi-politely, to leave the gym on a number of occasions for smoking inside.

“Little fucker,” he said. “No respect for your old man.”

“Dad, please,” Victor said, everyone turned to watch. The coaches had stopped talking and turned toward them.

“You don’t wrestle,” Barry said. “I’ll knock that fucking coach in his mouth.”

“Dad.”

“Hey, Coach. You fucking tie-wearing piece of shit.”

We all stood gawking. I felt ashamed, self-conscious. I wanted to look away. I said, “Let’s go, guys” to some of the wrestlers rolling up the mats to steer the attention from Victor, but without much conviction. We all watched, waited for the security guard to intervene.

Coach walked over to Barry with his arms out, not maliciously, but as if to say, My hands are tied.

Barry spoke louder.

“Dad, please.” Victor didn’t shout, didn’t disrespect, or call his father a drunk. He kept repeating, Please, dad, and, Just go, dad; go home. One of the parents of a freshman, a large man whose son had hardly made starting line, who sat on the bleachers every match yelling wrestling moves that none of us had ever heard of, walked over to Barry.

Victor didn’t push back when Barry pushed him. He didn’t walk away when his father slapped him. And there was no more laughing. Once in a while he turned around, faced us with a reddened face and smile that tried to say, I don’t care, but said, instead, I’m sorry, or, I could crumble now, and turn to dust.

The freshman’s dad stirred Barry up some, but eventually, got him to leave; Victor left with him. Everyone laughed when they left. I laughed. Don’t know why, it wasn’t funny, but I laughed anyway, even though I was embarrassed and sad for him and angry I had lost my match, angry that I had starved again to make weight and lost without a fight. All I wanted was to curl up under a blanket and sleep forever.

Outside, the night was cold. Snow had fallen for days, but that night we were left only the cold, snow freezing into ice over grass. Eddie walked with me beside the school, the wind washing over us, my face burning with want of sleep.

“You sucked, man,” he said. “Let’s face it.”

“Tired, Eddie.”

“We’re all tired,” he said and I thought of saying, All of us? What have you done? You come to practice, stand over me like a damn bird, critiquing every move, telling me to push harder, harder, Josh, you have to push to win, but what have you done? You’re a no one now, Eddie.

“My chest hurts,” I said. “Think I bruised a rib.” Tried talking about how “Victor’s dad’s an asshole, right?”

“Hell with Victor,” Eddie said.

We reached the bottom lot, the one with the football stadium behind it, lit up and glorious; massive. Even in the cold and inactivity of the winter, it seemed better and brighter than everything around it—better than the gym, better than us, the wrestlers.

“If you want a chance at States, you have to practice. I’ll stay with you. Teach you anything, Josh, you know that. You’re better than this, man—getting pinned first period.”

“No I’m not,” I said. “I didn’t get no shit tonight, is all. Fucking Scott. Was supposed to bring the shit. I’m tired, is all,” I said, wishing Eddie would leave me alone, go home, stop pushing me.

“Don’t take that, man,” he said. “Makes you weak.”

“I wrestle faster,” I said, thinking, Who are you, Eddie, Mr. Goddamned-know-it-all, talking to me like you got all the answers?

When we reached our cars, he said, “Shit’s for pussies, man.”

“Fuck you, Eddie,” I said.

He stopped, a confused look on his face. He looked cold and chubby and hurt. I only wanted to sleep—wanted to forget losing the match, forget the prying pain in my ribs. Wanted food, any food, a pickle, pasta, salt. I wanted salt. Could take a salt shaker and dump it in my mouth. Maybe then my head might stop hurting; the little headaches in the back of my eyes might go away.

I wished I hadn’t said it, wished I could tell him, Listen, I’ll stay after practice; I’ll push harder, buddy, I will; I just want to go home tonight and rest, but I said, again, “Fuck you, Eddie,” and watched him shake his head like, Okay, if it’s like that, as he dropped into the driver’s seat of his old Acura Legend. And I thought for a second that Eddie should have been a king. He was the best. He changed wrestling, invented it. I hated Victor for ruining that, hated myself for seeing how chubby Eddie looked in the cold, the football stadium glowing behind him.

* * *

The practice before Senior Rec, we all burned for losing. Coach had turned up the heat in the room, shouted, You’ll pass out before you die while we ran, made us sprawl, pushup, sit up, shadow wrestle; he paired me up with Victor. Eddie didn’t show to practice—no one mentioned it. Victor was quiet. We wrestled in a painful, sweaty silence, each with the thought of Barry showing up to the match still rolling in our memory.

After practice ended—after a couple sophomores took turns puking in a bucket we had shoved outside of the mat room; after coach, for the first time, stepped onto the mat and wrestled with us, with the 185-pounder; after my nose had started bleeding down the top of Victor’s shoulder and he wiped the blood away, wrestled harder; after everyone had given up their tough-man pride and screamed, or cried, and the heat had reached a point that we began to feel like floating—the assistant coach blew the whistle and everyone dropped to the mat simultaneously—heaving, spinning. So much sweat in the eyes, we were nearly blind. The coach flicked off the lights and blackness filled the room like ink in water.

“Take this time,” he said. “To imagine your match tomorrow night. This is how you feel when you reach over-time.”

In the darkness, the smell of the room circulated, different scents of sweat, half-deodorized armpits. Heat dissolved everything, like we had ceased to exist in the black. Coach’s voice seemed everywhere at once, as if it came with the dark.

“What will you do now? When you have nothing left. You’ve wrestled all your moves,” he said, his voice sounding honest. I thought, then, of sleeping. Maybe I would doze—just a minute.

“You have to find power,” he said. “We can’t walk onto the mat with you. We can’t throw the Half, or hit the reversal.”

I wondered if people imagined their match, seriously, while I pictured my father, in his truck the night before, the look on his face while he told me, “Just eat something, Josh. I’m worried.”

“Two pounds,” I said. “There’s nothing left to lose.”

“Just eat,” he said.

“You know I can’t,” I said, somehow feeling like I could, if he’d approved, but also that he was supposed to know what it felt like to drop weight, to hunger for more than food, to thirst.

“You look terrible. Your eyes,” he said. “I’m worried about your eyes. They’re dark, Josh.”

In the truck, I leaned heavily into the seat, reached my hand up to rub my temples like an attempt to will away the pain.

“I think I’m falling apart,” I said.

“Pull yourself together.” My father, the old hero, the State Champ. “You can wrestle a different weight,” he said, knowing that it wasn’t true, that I’d never beat Victor, that I was too light to wrestle 152 or any other weight, that I would be forced to string myself out just a little longer, long enough to shiver off the two pounds, wrestle 140, and sleep. After the match I would sleep.

“How will you win,” my coach said, and I opened my eyes in the darkness, the heat surrounding me, to let the sweat burn in them. “How will you win tomorrow night, in front everyone?”

I tried to imagine my moves, my stance, circling to the left, but I could only see the mat, could only smell the foam, dirty rubber liner, the stink of sweat. I could see my father driving his truck, telling me to eat, looking like he wanted to say more but didn’t know where to begin, or how. I could see Eddie, hitting the Saturday-Night Special with beautiful precision, his opponent a canvas to paint any move. The bleachers filled with empty faces shouting, cheering cheers I couldn’t hear. Victor’s embarrassed smile when he turned around. My father laughing as he told us the same stories he’d told a thousand times, Freddy Sanchez, his best friend, the way they’d ruled the mats those years, how good it was then. The way my father’s cheeks had grown pale over the years; had lost the color in them.

* * *

Scott pulled through, and that’s all that mattered. I made weight: one hundred and forty pounds to the ounce—naked. Shaved my chest, my face, even my legs—no extra weight. Spit, pissed every last drop, and waited to float the rest.

We took Adderall on the way to the mats before warm-ups and we were all hyper, laughing. You see all the people out there, Jerry, stuffing chicken he’d saved for after weigh-ins into his mouth as we stretched. I smiled at Victor and he smiled back. In the locker room my coach had pulled me aside and said, “You got a fish,” big smile on his face. “The kid’s a Junior, but don’t toy with him. Show him that Wheeler talent. Get the Pin. We’ll need the points.” And I wished he hadn’t told me.

Eddie hadn’t shown again, and in a way, I didn’t know what to do without him standing over me, arm around my shoulder, telling me to watch out for this or that. My chest still hurt above the ribs, and I wondered if I was only feeling the initial shake, the wavy, nervy stomach feeling before most of the matches. Everyone had come. Coach’s kids; Victor’s dad—pacing by the door with an unlit cigarette hanging from his bearded face. Half my family was in the stands, somewhere. I wasn’t hungry anymore, like once I’d stepped on the scale I didn’t need food—wouldn’t crave it until the next match, then the next one. I wondered if I ever needed to eat again.

When we ran out onto the mat, everything was the way we had imagined, or I had imagined or dreamed it would be: entire gym packed, lights wiped across the walls. Christmas tree. An iridescent gymnasium, the faces, the lights, the music pouring in from the speakers as we ran around with a spotlight on us in our warm-ups. It felt good, and my heart was flying. I saw Eddie for the first time since the night in the parking lot, standing by some people on the gym floor, talking, and when we finished stretching he waved at me and said, “Just wrestle.”

He must have known before I did that I could never just wrestle, that I didn’t understand it the way he did, that I would lose. But that night, beneath the lights, drowning in the screaming voices of people who had never come to see us any other night of the year, we were supposed to win—it was tradition. You win at Senior Rec. And I had a fish; a punk, a squid, just a damn kid, like we were men or something. We were nothing but kids ourselves, thinking we were brave because we’d faced the last few months—disappointment, starvation—like it might shape us into people, good people. We’re good people, we must have thought.

My heart was massive inside of me. I felt like a bull—could hardly contain it, the energy, the excitement. I saw my father in the stands with my mother, who had balloons in her hands, and my little sister standing next to her waving to get my attention. Everything had fallen into place and after that, hopefully: Sections, Regionals, States. It takes a tough bastard to win States, and I was a tough bastard. I wanted, with everything in me, to be a tough bastard and a State Champion—all that had ever mattered in the first place.

Two or so minutes into my match and I had racked up nearly ten points on this kid, bent him sideways, pulled his legs out from under him to drop his face on the mat in front of the cheerleaders, the crowd, his team. I wanted him to hurt, to feel it. I wanted him to be so ashamed of how much he sucked that he would quit wrestling. People like him shouldn’t wrestle. Cowards. Weak. I didn’t have the patience for it, none of us did, so I tried, with every slick move I could muster, every ride, fall, or roll to hurt this little son-of-a-bitch, little fish, squid.

Then I felt my heart trying to claw its way out of my chest, stabbing me from the inside. I could feel the fish flopping in my hands, but I couldn’t see him. My eyes hurt, suddenly, flames in my face. My skin burned, and I was turning this fish to his back without seeing, dizzy, everything a colorful blur around me as pressure left my hands, as the sound of cheer-screaming voices exploded, as my heart raged, as the blurry lights grew more luminous, more magical, as, cutting through the voices and the lights, the stomping bleachers, I heard Eddie’s voice laughing, It’s a ride man, just a ride, as the Saturday-Night Special came alive, transported me, spinning, laughing, a pretty girl smashing against me smiling, her hair whipping all over me as every organ in my body shifted in the turns and the heat of the summer, the wind soft, innocent, crashing into my face, as C’mon let’s twist again! sang in the spinning, the laughing, Like we did last summer, as the night grew darker, colors brighter, clearer, as Eddie said, The last ride of the night, and I believed for a moment that I understood—the Special—as the rest of the world fell away, music dying, girl in my arm disappearing, smile on my face dripping off my chin like hanging spit, as the last spectacle left was the glowing lights against the night, the feeling that it might last forever, though it never does, as everything fell away, disappeared, and blackness, fear and sleep stole everything back from the light.

* * *

What doctors later called “a transient ischemic attack,” or a mini-stroke—a combination of the non-prescription drugs they found in my system, high anxiety, high blood pressure, and the abuse I’d put my body through over the months preceding the attack—is what I referred to as the reason I never wrestled again. Not because once they discovered the speed, they tested the team, and along with me, half the seniors wouldn’t be allowed to finish the season, or that, after an attack like that, no one could finish the season, for fear maybe, but because I had lost the vision, or most of it, in my left eye, as well as the ability to lift my left arm above my shoulder.

Victor, one of the only seniors who wrestled in Sections, lost in semi-finals to a guy who was unafraid of his clown laugh, a guy who won more matches, had wrestled longer, and when it came down to it, had more talent. I went to all the remaining matches, sat in the bleachers, shouted for my friends on the mat. Eddie, who had stood beside the stretcher on my way out of the gym that night I stroked out, giving an easy win to a fish, who had driven down in the ambulance with my father to the hospital, who had been the only great wrestler to ever come out of Flysdale, never came to another match. We kept in touch for a while, but a year later, he wrestled an open tournament, was scouted and asked to join a college wrestling team, where he excelled, despite his being one hundred and sixty pounds, despite his breaking his neck two years before, and he finished a degree. Eddie was the best. Anyone who watched him wrestle saw that. He saw everything like a canvas lying open and empty to fill up with something that mattered. Not like me, who saw the end. Or Victor, who saw the win—who never wrestled again after high school, who crawled away from everything, who I lost touch with quickly, a guy I had loved in the face of his cruelty. Eddie saw through a different lens, and he wrestled like it: beautifully.

Some of us would show up in the mat rooms the next year, accept the damp cheers of the younger kids who’d become seniors, fighting for the same things we had fought for, electrified by the same, You pass out before you die type rhetoric that festers in the heart for years after wrestling. We’d stand there, shake hands, smile like some old heroes, and say, “I just want to wrestle,” until those kids graduated, and eventually, there’s no one left, no one to stand witness to the struggle, the hurt, the rage, the fear you felt of losing, the blood and sweat you spilled onto the mats, and all the original team that you had fought with and loved was gone, working, in jail, away at school, or just gone.

Before I started work as a layout man at a tubing company east of Pittsburgh, years after high school, my father, who had worked in the Herr’s warehouse, stacking boxes filled with chips for most of my life, told me, “Keep your head up. You’ll be alright. Before you know it, you’ll own the whole damn tubing company.” And he smiled when he said that, his eyes large and beautiful, really, inevitable, shining, sad and wonderful as he spoke.

 

Total War

Richard Farrell

All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.

-James Dickey, “The Firebombing”

 

10 0733Z Mar 45

With all four engines turning, one Superfortress rattles the ground like an earthquake. With more than a hundred bombers roaring on the tarmac—their Wright Cyclone radial engines generating the noise and rumbling equivalent of 800,000 horses—it sounds as if the brigades of Hell have been unleashed on Guam. The propwash carries aloft sharp, choking vapors of high-octane fuel. Twenty-knot trade winds further swirl the grit and oil scud across the airfield until a dense, brown haze settles six feet above the south ramp, where Captain Lou Remiker finishes his preflight on Millie’s Muffins.

The heat is unbearable. Even as the sun goes down, it’s 104˚ in the shade.

Remiker slides his palm along the silver B-29’s smooth, sizzling belly. He counts a dozen flush rivets with his finger before climbing through the forward hatch. A third-generation West Pointer, he carries a creased photo of his wife and two young sons in his flight suit pocket, tucked between his survival knife and crew light.

A year ago, Remiker was an instructor pilot in Oklahoma; now he’s a war-seasoned aviator. He loves the job. He loves his crew like family. He loves flying the complex sixty-ton bombers—the newest planes in the war. He loves the long hours in flight, the procedures and planning. He even loves the risk, the fight, the chance to stare Death in the eye and not flinch. He’s figured out how to use fear to his advantage.

“All the great ones loved fear,” his father once told him. And so he does.

Remiker’s father tasted mustard gas under Blackjack Pershing, and his grandfather took a musket ball in the neck holding Jubal Early’s line at First Manassas. Remiker doesn’t think his brand of valor measures up to his heritage and he’s the first to say so. For an officer with a Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, this is hardly a logical conclusion, but he never sidesteps his own shortcomings.

Remiker climbs up a narrow ladder through a twelve-foot tube that leads to the cockpit. Inside, the sweltering plane melts like a candle, spicing the air with aromas of hydraulic fluid, engine oil, and canvas seating. There’s also a stronger odor today, an overwhelming blast of kerosene coming from the bomb bay.

As he climbs, he visualizes procedures. Taxi. Takeoff. Departure turn. The long steady climb-out. He also has oppressive thoughts of the ocean, that familiar but abysmal space which he will soon have to cross again.

Some fifteen hundred miles away, the sun descends on Tokyo, the frail-beating heart of the once-mighty empire. For so long out of reach, so much of this war has been fought only to get close enough to finally drive this dagger home. Over three hundred planes will attack Tokyo in parallel, simultaneous launches from here on Guam and from Saipan to the north. It will make Doolittle’s ’42 raid on Tokyo look like a child’s prank. Quite possibly, this mission will deliver the decisive blow in the war. Even the thought of Tokyo inspires awe. But first, the American bombers must cross a merciless ocean. They must endure agile Jap fighter planes, anti-aircraft guns, hydraulic leaks, magnesium fires and a thousand other things that can and often do go wrong on these missions.

Trust the process, Remiker knows. He flips on the auxiliary power switch, and the familiar whir of gyros spooling up settles him.

A moment later, Duffy Lasko, the young copilot and husband of the eponymous Millie, with her explosive muffins, climbs into the cockpit, grinning and whistling a tune.

“Evening, Pops,” Lasko says. “Great weather for a fight.”

A newsreel rookie, Lasko sports a silk scarf and a Clark Gable moustache. Though this will only be his fourth mission, his ignorance is counterweighted by his unabashed arrogance. But Remiker likes his young co-pilot, even admires his cockiness, the way he has conceived of heroism and glory long before earning it.

Lasko winks and pulls out a bourbon bottle. Though it clearly violates regulations, there are other codes that matter, unwritten, fraternal rituals. Remiker splashes a belt into his canteen of pineapple juice, twists the cap and hands the bottle back to the flight engineer, Captain Gase, who has just climbed into his station behind the pilots. Before the war, Gase was a geologist in a Mojave mining town. Now he’s an inveterate drunk. By the time they arrive on station, he’ll be walloped. But even drunk, Gase is methodical and precise, more capable than most fliers are sober. He pulls a swig off the bottle and then cycles the hydraulics, beginning the long process of priming the four fuel pumps.

Millie’s Muffins will be the very last bomber to depart this evening, the least enviable spot in the batting order. Losses are always highest at the end. But as the 315th Bombardment Wing’s schedules officer, Remiker never asks another man to do something he won’t do. His boys understand and seldom complain.

‘Tit’ Swetnam, the bombardier, climbs in last. He squeezes forward to his seat inside the Superfortress’s giant glass nose. From the hill country of North Carolina, Swetnam is a tea-totaling Southern Baptist, a preacher’s son with a gift for gab. He’s also the only one who doesn’t drink bourbon. Instead, he crams cut-leaf tobacco into his cheek and swallows the juice. The back of his leather flight jacket is festooned with a large Confederate Flag and row upon row of silver bombs marking each completed mission

The bombardier station rests a full two feet below Remiker’s seat, so that in the refracted, afternoon light shining through the plane’s massive, Plexiglas windscreen, Swetnam looks every bit like a boy riding on the handlebars of a bicycle.

Lasko twirls the control wheel. An aileron rises and falls on the starboard wing. Remiker checks the port wing and gives a small nod.

It’s the same all across Guam. For over an hour, hundreds of pilots and crews have run through the same start-up routines. Hundreds of boots fluttering rudder pedals, hundreds of hands adjusting seats, saying prayers, twisting tiny knobs on altimeters until the numerals line up—28.95—and the field altitude of eight feet above mean sea level registers as the slightest clockwise tilt of every needle on every instrument panel’s face inside every bomber.

As the first plane begins its takeoff roll, a twinge of fear snaps inside Remiker’s chest, a feeling almost sexual in the way it takes over. He notes it, welcomes it, and from his thigh pocket, pulls out the Before Take-Off Check List and begins.

~

Inside a sweltering Quonset hut, Colonel Jeremiah Pike stands at rigid attention. His uniform shirt is drenched in sweat. Because of a wooden prosthetic peg attached to what remains of his right knee, Pike leans noticeably left while standing still. Engine noise rattles up from the ground, through his wooden leg, shaking his whole body.

“We have three new downs, General,” Pike reports. “Two fatigue cracks and an oil sump.” There’s an elegant calculus to war. Everything is counted, inventoried, checked and re-checked. Warriors and accountants. Pike has been both in his lifetime, though he is neither now.

“Goddamned targeting selection is my decision,” Lemay says, shouting at a telegram in his hand. The general stomps back and forth across his cramped quarters, clenching the telegram. Thick shouldered and barrel-chested, a linebacker pilot with a bulldog head, Lemay is always in motion, as if to say that resting men are lesser men. Though just six months older than Pike, Lemay’s dark, centerline-parted hair has already begun to gray. His stern face, with wide jowls and a rounded chin, never smiles. To hide a palsied droop in the corner of his mouth, Lemay constantly chomps on the nub of a never-lit cigar. He keeps his khakis freshly pressed and his boots sparkle with polish. He doesn’t even sweat, which Pike can’t figure, because it’s over a hundred degrees.

Telegrams have been arriving all day—well-wishes, weather reports, intel on ship positions, fuel quantities from depots on the Marianas, even the occasional protest from a theater commander, as this one apparently is.

In one stroke, Lemay has boldly changed American strategy. For the first time, they will be bombing a civilian population without mercy, a clear violation of long-standing traditions. Pike knows this a radical shift, verging on the criminal. It’s never been done before by American fliers. There’s a frenzy about it all, though Lemay remains certain and unapologetic. It is either a masterstroke of military genius or utter madness and, as Pike well knows, the difference is negligible.

“Let ‘em burn,” Lemay snarls at the telegram. “It’s war, not goddamned diplomacy.”

The general bites down on his stubby, unlit cigar and continues to pace. The vibrating Quonset hut is thick with tropical humidity and darting gall midges. The thirty-eight year old wing commander has either forgotten to or decided not to put his peg-legged adjutant at-ease. At attention now for almost five minutes, Pike needs to shift his weight or fall over. The pressure in his stump throbs, like a toothache multiplied by a kick in the balls.

Buried in the palm of Pike’s hand is a steel propeller the size of a quarter. For weeks now he’s been building a surprise for the boys—a toy, something he works on in his precious off-hours. He pinches the blades into his skin, drawing blood to the surface, hoping that one pain will erase the other. The noise grows more deafening as each new plane starts up.

At the very center of the hut, suspended from a large nail in a wooden beam, hangs the general’s holstered service revolver. The gun rattles on its post. And the beam rattles too, as do the corrugated tin walls and the ceiling itself, as does the attachment brace on Pike’s wooden leg, as does everything in the hut, even the ground beneath it, all of it vibrating and churning like the teeth of a colossal sawmill.

For his part, all Pike wants is his opium. Four hours have passed since his last drop, and he feels the cold, creeping, hand of sobriety stabbing pins into the emptiness where his leg used to be.

He needs it more than sleep, more than food, even more than getting off this island. His refuge is yellow tar, the laudanum tincture he creates with an ounce of raw Burmese opium, two pinches of saffron, one of cinnamon powder, a pint of ethanol, all of it mixed together and ground in a ceramic bowl. Batches of it—cured for days and bottled—wait for him in tiny glass vials like jewels buried deep inside his footlocker.

Lemay doesn’t glance up as Pike slaps at a fly and shifts his weight. The relief is unimaginable. Blood flows again to the stump. Pleasure trickles up and down his thigh, a rekindling of muscle and nerve, an ecstasy almost as thrilling as the opium he craves.

Four hours, Pike thinks. Four hours.

The first planes thunder skyward as Lemay continues to snarl at the telegram.

~

On the island’s southernmost beach, three Chamorro boys gaze up as, one by one, an endless train of roaring, silver-skinned bombers launch overhead. Again and again, giant machines lift off with a furious rumble, climb, retract gear and raise flaps. Massive wings bank left over the reef with the slow, graceful certainty of terns in flight, puffing four oily smoke trails like dark, parallel scars across the otherwise pristine sky. The boys keep a tally in the sand. They watch one shrink, rising to the southwest before disappearing, only to be replaced by the next bomber, and the next, and the next.

Skimming the shore, a proa approaches. White sails billow against blue sky. On deck, the boys’ fathers are busy gathering nets out beyond the reef. The boys whoop and holler, splashing between land and sea, trying to gain their fathers’ attention, but the thundering planes drown out their voices. Their frantic waves are not returned. They chase after the boat, shouting and whistling, until it tacks and vanishes beyond a point on the southeastern side of the island. The relentless noise continues. It goes on like this for almost two hours, until the boys have long lost count and interest, until the final plane has departed and a wave has erased rows of tally marks in the sand, leaving behind a deep stillness over the beach, and the boys have rushed into the water to swim.

 

10 1320Z Mar45:

Moonlight paints the fuselage and illuminates a ravishing likeness of the young Millie Lasko straddling a map of Japan. She holds a picnic basket—gingham cloth covering a brimming bounty—in the crook of her left arm. Her breasts are bursting out of a flapping denim shirt, à la Rosie the Riveter, and a look of pure ecstasy radiates from her face. From between her legs, flaming bombs fall toward a bull’s-eye painted atop the Ryukyus.

The bomber clears a dark atoll at forty-five hundred feet and begins to climb again. For five hours and fifteen hundred miles, they’ve been staircasing up and down at irregular intervals to avoid detection. They’re climbing now, back to seven thousand feet, for the remainder of the run.

It has been smooth flying so far. The first wave of bombers, already heading back, report light flak. Heavy turbulence. Rich targeting. Happy Hunting!

“Good to go, right sir?” Lasko asks.

Although the reports are encouraging, Remiker knows they’re fast approaching the mouth of the dragon.

“It’s time to tell you about ‘O’Leary’s Law,’” Remiker says to his young co-pilot.

“Dear Lord,” Swetnam groans over the interphone. “A sermon? Now, sir? You woulda fit right in with my daddy.”

Remiker has told this story so many times that he wonders if it really happened, or if it is a preamble to a larger lie. But he remembers Artie O’Leary. He remembers his sandy hair and gap-toothed smile.

Gase grabs the bourbon, switches on the auxiliary fuel pump, and closes his eyes. Swetnam unbuckles and scratches his nuts. The physical demands of the long flights are unrelenting. Twelve hours of utter boredom and two minutes of terror.

“Dumb-shit thought he was smarter than everybody else,” Remiker says.

O’Leary was, in fact, smarter. Much smarter. A better flier. More courageous. Remiker was his mentor, his instructor pilot, for ten weeks of multi-engine training.

“It was just over a year ago,” Remiker says, though it feels like a century. “O’Leary decided to cut a few corners and copied another student’s flight plans.” Remiker remembers the hangars in Oklahoma, the work stations, the pages and pages of aircraft manuals. Grueling then, those days return fondly now, the innocence of training like a pleasant dream.

“O’Leary vectored north in near-blizzard conditions,” Remiker says “Two hours later, he overshot the runway in Laramie instead of Laredo. Slid his Havoc into a snow bank and snapped five propeller blades.”

Lasko groans.

“Next thing he knew, he was at parade-rest in front of an honor board on Hatbox Field.” In fact, Remiker cast the deciding vote. He doesn’t tell Lasko this part.

Millie’s Muffins hits a patch of turbulence and wobbles. The plane cools as it climbs. Engine noise becomes a steady drone after awhile, enough to lull an entire crew to sleep. It’s happened many times before. Remiker checks their altitude and continues. He glances down at the ink-black sea.

“Shipped off to the regular army. Three weeks later, while slogging his way across a snowy Italian mountain pass with a Fifth Army infantry unit, Arthur Nash O’Leary took a German bullet just above the bridge of his nose. They shipped his body home with a wax plug in the bullet hole so his brains didn’t leak.”

Every flier has one of these stories. They’re passed along, acquired with the procedures and techniques of flight. They’re sermons, cautionary tales, intended to scare rookie pilots, to bully them into trusting procedures and obeying rules. But did it really happen? Sometimes Remiker isn’t sure, though the guilt he feels over O’Leary’s death is real enough.

Remiker wonders about all the effort, the carnage, the great vacuum of war. He tries hard never to think about the vote he cast.

They level-off at seven thousand feet and Remiker resets the autopilot. A handful of stars shimmer out the window. Below is only the interminable darkness of the ocean, unchanging and perpetual.

“That was one unlucky son-of-a-bitch,” Lasko says.

“There’s no luck in any of this,” Remiker says, though he knows, all too well, luck is often the only thing a pilot has. “You work hard. No shortcuts. Know every inch of your airplane. She’ll tell you what’s going on.”

Remiker wants to teach his young copilot everything, but there are parts of O’Leary’s Law that will remain unspoken. For he knows the beating heart of O’Leary’s Law has little to do with what happened in Oklahoma. O’Leary’s Law isn’t about honor codes or shortcuts or unhappy endings. It’s about knowing the answer to a simple question. What do you most fear?

No one could answer this question for Remiker. He has discovered it on his own, in the countless, ass-clenched hours spent over the ocean. The answer, when it came, arrived as something of a shock.

He’s never feared flying. A natural pilot, a real stick-and-rudder man, he has no fear of this unstable B-29 with its propensity for magnesium fires, oil leaks, and structural failures. He can handle the airframe. Neither does he fear Lemay, his commanding general, with his wild missions and desire for glory. Accustomed to discipline, Remiker has been following orders his whole life. And despite the wild risks, he’s not even afraid of combat. A man should experience battle at least once in his life. This, he believes. Besides, he knows the Japanese are already defeated. All that remains is how much it will cost to win the peace.

What Remiker fears most is water.

He has crossed the Pacific enough times to feel its vastness like a disease. He gathers the ocean’s emptiness in a place that must be his soul. Water is everywhere at once. It surrounds, overtakes, erases. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this, for how the ocean so fully reduces and expands. Not the till plains of his childhood with their slicing blizzards and indescribable summer mornings. Not the giant runways at Hatbox Field, which seemed to stretch forever, but were still never long enough. Not even the sky feels so singularly large, because no matter how high he climbs, Remiker can always see ground below him. But out over water, everything is swallowed by emptiness. The ocean extends without limit or border.

Airplanes don’t crash out here. They evaporate. They disappear. Vanish without so much as a single canteen of the crew-preferred but command-prohibited bourbon and pineapple juice bobbing to the surface. Out here, Remiker knows he won’t be as lucky as O’Leary if something goes wrong. There’ll be no luxury of landing in Laramie. No reassignment to an infantry unit. And his cold corpse won’t be shipped home for burial beneath sugar maples in Saint John’s cemetery. Out here, mistakes and miscalculations lead to a place worse than death. They lead to oblivion.

“O’Leary’s Law is arithmetic,” Remiker says to his co-pilot in lieu of the truth. “If everything is lined up, then the answer falls into place. The plane flies true. She tracks her rhumb lines and delivers on target. She brings your sorry ass back home. O’Leary’s Law is about carrying the ones and place-holding the zeros. Think of flying like a vast, complex equation. You solve it carefully, by following the steps. That’s all.”

Remiker can’t bring himself to mention water. A man must learn some lessons on his own.

The bomber wobbles again. Sheet lightning flashes to the south, a distant crackle of white in an otherwise perfect, pitch blackness.

“So that’s O’Leary’s Law,” Remiker says to Lasko. “You do this job long enough, you’ll find something to believe in. You make sure that your logbook balances, that your takeoffs and landings come out even.”

Do that, Remiker thinks, but doesn’t say, and you can at least give your pretty young wife a goddamned body to bury.

Ahead of them, Remiker spots the first streaks of dawn breaking in gold-orange ribbons of color above the water. Except they are heading west, and the sun should be rising at their tail.

~

Six hours after the last bomber departed and Pike still can’t sleep. It’s been days since he’s closed his eyes. Even the opium doesn’t help anymore. The more he takes, the less he sleeps.

He obtains the supply easily enough. Even on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific, the war has created a contraband system as complex and varied as anything he witnessed on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Almost anything can be purchased, except silence and peace. But with enough opium, Pike can make the noise and the fighting almost disappear.

He hears a rustling in the dark as he glues the final propeller cap onto the tiny nacelle. The small blades are catching. Drops of glue have spilled onto the axel and impede the propeller’s movement. Carefully, he rotates the blade and cracks off the glue, until the stuck propeller twirls as freely as the other three.

Pike has soldered together two, brass, .50 caliber casings, fashioned wings and a tail out of scrap metal and paint, and has shaped the nose with putty, until the whole thing bears some fair resemblance to a real Superfortress. On the wings he painted the star roundel and blue bars, miniature squadron numbers.

He has christened them after The Three Stooges, the inseparable Chamorro boys who he’s come to look upon almost as sons, though they’ve never exchanged a word. Though Pike has misnamed them—the one who is clearly the leader, clearly the Moe of this group, he calls Curly. The one he calls Moe has a long nappy hair and should be Larry.

He wonders why they are up so late. He drapes a towel over his pestle of scorched yellow opium tar and another towel over the model airplane.

Stars tumble in the sky. Coconut palms appear to gambol around his tent. He wonders, sometimes, if the boys are real or merely hallucinations. Pike hears giggling in the darkness, and shines his crew light out to the trees until the boys step closer.

“You should be asleep,” he says.

Six eyeballs stare from a few yards away. He tosses a sleeve of saltines their way. The boys quickly gobble them up.

Curly, the bravest, steps closer and points toward Pike’s missing leg. The boys never tire of seeing it, if an absence is something that can be seen. Pike shakes his head. He’s in no mood.

A .30 caliber tracer round had sizzled through his P-51’s fuselage over Belgium and melted his tibia and fibula. He should have bled out in the sky, but the steaming bullet cauterized the wound, and he limped his damaged fighter plane back across the Channel. Along the way, Pike managed to splash two ME-109s, his fifth and sixth kills, making him an ace. Stars and Stripes ran the incredible story, including a picture of the nearly exsanguinated pilot being extracted from his chewed up plane. Three months later, Lemay wanted “tactical eyes” on staff and summoned Pike to Guam. As far as he knows, Pike is the only one-legged colonel in the Pacific Theater. He may also be the only opium addict, though this seems less likely.

The boy points again toward his leg.

“No,” he says, stronger than intended, sending the boys scampering back. Pike decides that he will not give them the toy plane, as though he is punishing his own children. A moment later, he changes his mind.

He has made things for them before—dog tags bent together into tops, lug nuts attached to tie-down pennants and transformed into parachutists, oil cans and spoons fashioned into drums—but nothing so elaborate. Curly reapproaches half a step and points at his leg.

Something worries Pike, something just beyond the haze of his opium-addled brain. It feels similar to waking from a dream in which he has perpetrated an awful crime—murder, rape, something monstrous and irredeemable. A sense of the awful act trails from sleep and will never be forgotten or erased. It is like that now.

He limps back inside and comes out with the toy. He holds it up in the tent light and motions for the boys to approach. They remain still. He twirls the toy plane sideways, flying it through the air. Again, he urges the boys to come closer but they don’t budge. Then he holds it out, trying to show that he’s made it for them.

Curly points again at Pike’s missing leg.

“No, you little rascal. Not tonight. Take this. I made if for you.”

The boys scurry backward and make no attempt to retrieve the toy.

Frustrated by their lack of surprise, by their ingratitude, Pike lifts his pant leg a little and reveals his wooden peg. Moonlight turns the smooth wood an eerie, purplish gray, like a slab of boiled beef. He gives it a shake and they scatter back into the night, howling with laughter.

“Go to bed, you devils,” he says. He pulls the tent flap closed, leaving the toy bomber outside.

~

Vulcanizing stacks belch thick plumes of putrid smoke skyward. Along the Ohio, coal barges float downstream. Men on deck with charcoal faces slump against the rails. The boy—the general at age nine, skinny and tall—pedals a bicycle away from the bluffs, toward an open field, through emerging stalks of yellow rapeseed and stacked honeybee hives, then turns a corner and is suddenly pedaling through a snow-strewn Montana prairie, chasing the white horizon on the same bicycle, the one his father refused to buy for him, snowflakes kicking up behind its wheels like ash stirred from a fire pit.

“Curtis!” the boy’s father calls to him from across the gorge. But the old man’s voice dissolves in swirling wind. Snow-ash streamers rise and dance from behind him. The air is rich with smells of springtime, of overturned earth and mud. He pedals the bicycle faster, away from his father, up into the endless horizon. His lungs burn like they have been scarred with phosphorous. He shouts back toward the old man but the words dissolve in the snow, wind and ash. Everything cools and whitens as the bike lifts off the ground and begins to fly.

Lemay startles awake. The lingering chill of prairie snow melts quickly in the humid night. He checks his watch and, for a moment, forgets where he is. He reaches out for Helen’s hand but finds only stacks of paper. He closes his eyes until his breathing slows. Then Lemay rolls over and farts.

The first planes will be over Tokyo by now. Whatever happens, he has acted decisively. No half-measures here.

Authority. It is something the general feels in his bones. All the great ones did. The uncertainty he experiences in his most private moments, those crippling doubts—more oppressive than the island’s heat—he has learned to shove aside. First, he defeated his doubt. And once conquered, the rest came easily.

He will destroy Tokyo tonight. He closes his eyes and tries to reenter the dream.

 

10 1411Z MAR45

Horrible vibrations rattle along the longitudinal axis as Millie’s Muffins begins to climb. The air inside the cockpit smells vaguely of digested beans. The sky should be inky black but glows orange, brighter than noon.

“I can’t see a cow’s ass on platter,” Swetnam says over the intercom. “Too damned bright.”

“Three minutes out,” Remiker says. “Find a hole and release.”

The pilot’s hands tremble on the wheel. At this point, he’d be better off releasing control and letting the bomber fly itself.

They have been over Tokyo for less than a minute. The entire city glows, a cauldron of orange magma, like a furnace door has been thrown open and they have flown the bomber inside. Remiker feels intense heat against the wheel, his seat, his skin. He worries the heat will ignite bombs still inside the plane.

A stomach-heaving updraft buffets them and they surge upward, three, four, five thousand feet a minute. Gase cuts power until the plane’s nose drops off and they fall.

“Fuck me,” Lasko says.

“Power back,” Remiker says to Gase after the engineer has already done so.

“Idle it. Idle it off.”

Remiker checks their altitude. They’ve gained almost two thousand feet in just a few seconds. Impossible! He has never experienced anything like this. On the front windscreen, water droplets condense into huge tears. It is like they have entered a volcanic thunderstorm, except the sky above and around is clear, while everything below them glows like the sun. Another updraft pushes their starboard wing and the plane begins to roll.

“Grab it,” Remiker says evenly. “Ease it back now. Don’t let go.”

Lasko struggles to keep hold of the wheel. More than once, his hand slips off entirely. “We’re going to split the spar,” he says. “We’re ripping the wings off.”

Remiker pulls hard against the wheel to keep the plane from rolling onto its back. Checklists and procedures don’t cover this. His greatest fear, of crashing in the ocean, suddenly seems mild and cool by comparison. Anything would be better than this. The airspeed drops to near stall then races up again to over three hundred knots as the nose topples down. He calls for power then immediately cancels his command.

“What the hell is it?” Lasko asks. “Flak?”

“Just ride it out,” Remiker says. “How we doing, Tit?”

“Not one damned thing, sir. No city down there. Just flames and smoke.”

“Find something,” Remiker says.

“I’m tryin’ sir,” the bombardier says. “Maybe we should just shit fire and save the matches.”

They need to release their bombs and get the hell out, but Remiker wants a target. After 1,500 miles of open-ocean flying, he’ll be damned not to put his ordinance on station. His boys need to understand that they can’t hightail it home just because it’s getting rough. The metal moans as wings bend and twist.

Lasko and Remiker pull on the wheel and crush boots against rudder pedals as their sixty-ton bomber is battered about like a rowboat in a typhoon.

Though calm on the surface, Remiker has begun to worry about structural failures. Lasko isn’t far off. The wings might literally snap off. The airframe was never designed for this kind of loading. Once again, the Superfortress lurches upward, reaching a near vertical, past-sixty-degree pitch, before it settles down again. In the negative G’s, Remiker floats against his seatbelt. He reminds himself to be calm, to teach these men how to act in the face of terror.

“I see somethin’!” Swetnam shouts. “I got a bridge. I got a bridge.”

“Take it,” Remiker says. “Take it now.”

A second later, the bombardier pulls up on the release lever and begins the electronic sequence of bombing. In center racks, M50’s and M69’s begin to fall. The entire release sequence lasts less than ten seconds.

Millie’s Muffins lightens and lifts as she empties her payload, and then begins a long, steep turn to the south.

 

10 1414Z Mar45

Tokyo’s final evening as a city. Bombs accelerate down towards the already flaming streets. At five hundred feet, gravity fuses on M69’s begin their firing sequence, exploding aluminum casings off and spraying clusters of five pound napalm shells in every direction. The impact radius curls out indiscriminately. Napalm sticks before it burns: it splashes onto the back of a doctor on the sidewalk; it lathers a cherry tree then fries it; an old lady—a tea merchant once, who has a son at Cambridge—feels her throat fill with the gel. A six-year-old girl, hiding beneath a stone wall, imagines water as the cool gel lands on her cheeks before it ignites.

A quarter mile away, two dozen M50s, fused by an impact initiator, detonate in a sequence that happens in the flash of a millisecond. White explosions bleach everything, gone beyond color and into the pure emptiness of heat. Sidewalks melt. Glass windows and porcelain cups melt. Alveoli inside lungs of pregnant women melt. Emperor Hirohito is covered in a soaked blanket and shoved into an armored car—its trunk stuffed with gold, silver, priceless jewels—and evacuated to the countryside before the Tama River begins to boil.

 

10 2015Z Mar 45

Dawn. The airfield churns with uneasy energy. Everyone waits for the returning planes. Medics ram each other in a makeshift game of football. A crew of engineers, already working, installs metal stanchions for new approach lights at the end of third runway, hastily being constructed. Islanders, hired for a dollar a week, hack away at underbrush and wild bougainvillea for new taxiways.

Above Lemay’s head, olive-drab loudspeakers lashed to the tops of bamboo poles belt out the scratchy voice of Perry Como singing “Till the End of Time.”

Lemay waits and watches the sky waiting for his returning planes. Pike stands next to him, holding a clipboard and the manifest. He will be counting the planes as they return.

“Do you miss it?” the general asks.

“Flying, sir?”

“I resent not being up there with my boys,” Lemay says before Pike can answer. “I learned to fly in open-cockpit tail draggers and made six bucks a week barnstorming at state fairs. All I ever did was fly. Four, five times a day. No ear protection. No pressurized cabins. You just flew the goddamned things until you landed, crashed or died from exhaustion. I don’t admire these young men, their routines, the mechanization of their skills. No seat-of-the-pants anymore. No code. You can’t get that from a checklist. I hate what war has done to flying, even if it was inevitable.”

Pike nods. Opium lifts from his brain like advection fog rising off a lake on a warm morning. He no longer expects to make it home. Once it was all he dreamed of, seeing May again, seeing the kids, the sweet smell of their small pantry and the way August painted their front room gold and blue. Now he feels certain that he will die in the war, maybe that he already has, and that the Army just hasn’t gotten around to letting him know.

Pain, uninvited but familiar, like an old friend at the door, slowly gathers in the place that used to be his toes and spreads upward. He flips through his manifest and tries to focus. He must get the count right.

“I hate this part,” Lemay says. “No way to be sure. To calculate risk and reward. No way to know how many were lost, or how many bombs fell on target.”

“Yes sir,” Pike says. “Nothing worse than the waiting.”

A young soldier walks by, salutes sharply. The general tips his head toward the man and Pike salutes. Lemay’s eyes devour the empty pale horizon. In his mind, he’s already fighting the next war.

Nearby on a grassy dune, the three island boys scramble up, leap-frogging each other. Curly scampers close. He holds the toy in his hand and zooms the small plane through the air in an exaggerated mimicry of flight.

The sight of the boys with the toy momentarily lifts Pike’s spirits like a cool breeze. Curly loops the plane in front of him, clearly gesturing toward Lemay, who winks at the boy, and then grabs into his pocket for the nub of his cigar. The other two boys scamper up near Curly and sit in the sand.

After a few minutes, though, there is some jostling for position and a scrum to hold the toy. The plane falls to the dirt and one wing breaks in half. The boys begin to fight. Curly wallops Moe and Larry in rapid succession—the first in his mouth, drawing a howl and blood, and the other in his stomach, crumpling him back into the sand. Pike wants to scream out, more at the sight of his broken plane than at the boy’s violence, but he remains standing next to Lemay, as propriety demands. Curly picks up the one-winged plane and runs off with it. A moment later, the other two boys dust themselves off and follow.

~

When the first planes appear in the sky, they are as meager as mayflies, tiny dots between puffy cumulus clouds gathering north of the island. The dots grow larger, more distinct, descending. Soon the whole sky becomes a swarm of fuel-starved B-29’s.

Lemay strikes a match, suspends the flame a moment, and, for the first time, ignites the cigar. A wave of sweet smoke rises in front of Pike’s face. For the next ninety minutes, the B-29s return in steady intervals. Pike checks their tail numbers against his roster.

~

Millie’s Muffins is four hundred sixty-two nautical miles north-northwest of Guam when Remiker realizes they won’t make it. The port wing fuel pump won’t cycle, and the forward auxiliary fuel pump has stopped responding too. Even though there’s fuel in the tanks, it’s not being transferred. Gase cycles through every possible procedure. Nothing works.

“Try the booster pump,” Remiker says to his engineer.

Remiker wonders if somehow the bourbon is to blame. Gase, stubborn, drunk, might well have missed something and now they’re in trouble and a long way from home. He feels a slackening in his bowels.

“What now?” Lasko says.

“How you boys feel about the elementary backstroke?” Gase deadpans.

Swetnam turns back from the seat and stares at Remiker. The bombardier’s face looks bewildered, angelic, like that of a child. Remiker thinks of his father. Gomp Remiker was a hardened, cruel man. He drove his sons mercilessly. Every hour around the man was a battle. Remiker wonders if his father was preparing him for this exact moment, though he can discern nothing in all the belt-lashing and backhands that will inform his current dilemma. What he wants to do is go to Swetnam and the others and hug them. If they are to die out here, he wants to offer compassion.

“Calculate for Saipan?” Lasko asks.

Remiker knows there’s no divert option. They’re much closer to Guam. They have two choices and only two. They can hunt the open sea for a piece of land and try to ditch nearby, or they gamble it all and pray for steady tailwinds to Guam.

The plane cruises along as the first ribbons of sunrise begin to paint the eastern horizon.

 

10 2143Z Mar 45

Pike watches as the final bombers circle and land. He has fumbled the count, somehow, and knows he will have to start over. He will have to walk along the tarmac, checking each tail number against his list. It will take hours. He can’t do it without another hit. Pike craves opium more than air.

The last few bombers shut down and an eerie stillness descends over the field. The pain in his head throbs, but a question forms, just on the edge of his ability to articulate it. Have they broken a code? Have they surrendered the very values that justified fighting this war?

“What have we done?” Pike says to the wind.

~

The mess cooks have burned Lemay’s toast again, and, in spite of living on an island filled with tropical fruit, the jelly appears to have been made from strained kerosene. He scrapes the charred edges off the toast, smears on jelly and chokes it down.

Vigilance. This is the word Lemay keeps thinking about. Vigilance. They have struck the opening blow in a war that will continue long after the coming peace. Regardless of what happens next, they must remain vigilant. It is a good word, he thinks. Strong. It brooks no doubt.

Like a religious vision, Lemay sees the future. He sees skies filling with faster, deadlier planes, with more annihilating raids, with missiles and bombs, with single weapons that can do what it took three hundred planes to do last night. He sees how flying will be taken over by machines, how pilots will be less and less important.

But he’s never been a sentimental type. If this vision is true, and he’s about damned certain it is, he sees himself at the vanguard of it, guiding the way.

~

The last drops of fuel from the forward tanks sputter out and the engines begin to quit. One by one, Remiker and Lasko feather the props. Only the outboard starboard engine continues to turn.

They have climbed to almost twenty thousand feet and are descending. Remiker and his crew have squeezed every last drop of available fuel and dumped the rest. Guam now lies visible off the port wing, an emerald jewel surrounded by a ring of sand and coral. But once that last engine quits, it’s anybody’s guess if they’ll make it. Remiker is running through checklists.

Everyone has donned yellow life vests. Ditching over the reef is risky, but so is bailing out. The most dangerous choice is to stretch for home and miscalculate, and then have no safe place to put down.

But with each second that passes, Remiker grows more confident that they’re going to make it.

They cross the outer reef at ten thousand feet and begin a procedure turn to line up. Can they convert altitude and airspeed into enough distance? Remiker isn’t sure, but it’s still a damn pretty sight to see those planes on the tarmac.

“We can swim from here,” Remiker tells his crew.

Swetnam, the Bible open on his lap, sits in an empty gunner’s chair by the escape hatch. It takes an inordinate amount of rudder pressure to keep flying straight with only the #4 engine firing. Just as they hit the outer approach beacon, the last engine conks out. The cockpit becomes deathly quiet.

“Six thousand feet,” Lasko reports.

Remiker feels it then, that surge of wild energy as dread turns into hope and hope turns into certainty. There’s nothing like it in the world.

He’s conquered it again, this vast, miserable ocean. He’s brought his boys home. He can just make out the rectangular shape of the runway ahead of him. A smile breaks across his face.

“We got this boys,” he says.

He pulls the bomber— a glider now, hollowed out of fuel and bombs—around and lines up its nose with the runway centerline.

~

Captivated by silence after so much noise, Pike has removed his brace and wooden leg and is stretched out on his cot. He should be out re-counting the planes, but he needs a moment alone. Just outside his tent flap, Lemay shakes hands and backslaps squadron commanders. Smiles and salutes, like a politician. Whatever comes next is of little consequence. Pike holds an eye dropper in his hand. Three more drops of opium and then he will recount.

A moment later, Pike spots the boys on the airfield. They are flying mock approaches along the runway with the toy plane. Somehow, Curly has reattached the broken wing. One by the one, the boys run, lowering the plane to the ground and swooping it back into the air.

There it is. A small burst of joy amidst all of this. If there’s a way out, a way home, a way back to the pantry, to May and the girls and August light blazing into the gold and blue front room, it’s this sight. Boys playing. With his dropper, he sucks at the dregs from a vile and lifts it to his mouth.

~

The boys don’t glance up as the massive shadow darkens the ground around them. Pike shouts in vain from his tent. He tries to leap forward out the door, but stumbles over his missing leg and crashes to the ground. Lemay spots them, too, but feels only anger at their interference.

Millie’s Muffins silently glides toward the runway. Lasko and Remiker have cajoled their fuel-starved plane across hundreds of miles of open ocean and brought it onto a nearly perfect approach, with enough airspeed to lower flaps and pull into the flare. Lasko calls out the airspeed and altitude one final time.

Only at the very last second does Remiker spot the three tiny shapes on the runway. There is nothing that can be done.

˜

All day, the fathers pulled manahak from the sea. Their nets bursting with silver fish, they row for home. A good day of fishing. They approach the inlet where they will tie up and spot the priest from Agana standing on the pier. He’s a strange sight to behold, his dark clothing ill suited to this weather. As the sun disappears below the horizon, the men lash up their boat and begin hauling out their catch.

The man who is Curly’s father watches as another great, silver bird rumbles down the island behind the trees, roaring louder than thunder. The plane clears the reef and climbs out to the west while the priest approaches the boat.

The Last Car

Anne Cocroft Adams

When people say there aren’t any accidents I just feel kind of sorry for them, the way you might feel about newborn rabbits, so defenseless and ignorant about everything. But the people who say things like that are usually people you can’t tell anything to, and you especially can’t tell them there’s something they don’t know.

We had an accident, Keith and me, back in high school, out there beyond the woods where that woman was. Some accident of fate or whatever had happened to her and it was an accident that happened to us, too. There wasn’t any reason at all but plain bad luck that made us choose that old gray Buick on class trip day in the fall of 1996.

~

A black car in the summertime is not the best choice, but it’s Keith’s pick, so we’re sitting inside and sweat’s making a little stream between my breasts and I’m wet under the arms. Keith’s staring out front like he’s looking down the road.

“I’m dead for sure,” he says. “But you might be all right.”

“You don’t know that,” I say. “Maybe you weren’t wearing your seatbelt and got thrown clear and landed on a bush or something. And I might’ve just hit my head like that guy in the book in Mr. Taylor’s class that got that mark on his chin and that was all but he died.”

“James Agee,” says Keith. He knows everything, of course. Just like he knows he died in the crash and I didn’t. Well, I let him have his way since we’re about to make out and that puts me in a good mood. That’s why we’re in the back seat. The BMW is kind of big, not one of the little boxy things, those ancient 2002s that are cute but they don’t make them anymore and you mostly see them in places like this or else all fixed up, maybe painted lavender or orange, and the guy behind the wheel is thinking he’s just the coolest guy on the road.

The black car’s hood is smashed in like something came at it mostly on the driver’s side. It has a scrunched-in place and broken glass all over the front seat.

I didn’t even want this one. I wanted the Town Car. Those seats! But no. Keith wanted the BMW. The car snob’s wearing his brown T-shirt today. It’s just an old shirt but he looks so cute in it. My boyfriend is definitely the hottest guy in school. Don’t my girlfriends all get jealous, and wouldn’t every single one of them push me under a truck to get him. Not Jen, of course, but she’s got Mark.

Keith goes down on me and then me on him. Just once today for each of us. That’s all the time we’ve got since we used up half an hour picking cars. Still, we sit for a minute. He smoothes my hair with his fingers, making them like the comb that’s back home in my book bag, which I forgot. Which I hope my mom doesn’t start poking around in.

When we graduate in the spring we’re going to get an apartment together. College can wait. Keith’s going to buy a car with what he saves from work. We’ll both be eighteen then and nothing they can do. I want it so bad. We both do.

“We have to get back,” says Keith. He gives me his hand, so sweet, and we walk to where the woods start and then to where the path forks, left to his house, right to mine.

My mother’s Subaru is in the driveway when I get there. She’s working through a pile of papers on the kitchen table and my book bag’s sitting in the hall where I left it. I grab it and run upstairs. She’s shouting something up the stairs, like I could really hear her with the door shut. We used to talk a lot, Mom and me. Now she works all the time, nights, weekends, whether Dad’s around or not. She’s going to be a real estate agent as soon as she passes the test. She’s got to study, study, study.

The next day I wear my Gap jeans and white long-sleeved shirt. That’s my favorite outfit. Now that my hair’s down to my waist (at last!), I look pretty good. I dress for Keith, just Keith. He doesn’t dress for anyone. “What?” he’ll say if I try to talk clothes. “Huh?” Like it’s too worthless to be a subject of conversation.

We talk about other stuff. What we’ll do when we get out of here. Where we’ll live. Poetry, sometimes. He writes these poems that he recites to me when we’re in the car. Usually after we do it, but sometimes before. One time he even says some lines right when we’re starting and keeps saying them when he’s inside me and he can barely breathe anymore but still he’s saying the words almost up to when he comes and then we just fall against the sides of the car and laugh and I say, “Nice poem.”

Now any time of day, in class or at the cafeteria or whatever, all I have to do is say “nice poem.” It makes everybody else kind of mad since they don’t know what we’re laughing about, but there’s an excuse for us I guess because we’re in love and they know it so they just make a face or look off somewhere else, that little eye roll thing.

Sex. They have to talk about it in health class, and that’s when we just about fall asleep or groan or maybe even act like we’re really interested, asking dumb questions and all, which makes us crack up. This is what gets me: they come at us like some freaking Moses to tell us the big news. Wow, like if you have unprotected sex then you’ll get pregnant or you’ll get AIDS and die young and beautiful like what’s his name. A beautiful corpse. So don’t have sex but remember to use a condom.

Keith wrote this silly poem during health class one day and passed it around the room, which got us all laughing or at least awake again but the teacher never noticed anything. It went like this:

Remember the text

When you’re thinking of sex

Don’t be dumb, use that condom

Or you’ll get stuck with a kid

Like your mom and dad did

 

We met in the middle of tenth grade. His family had just moved here and everyone thought that being from New England he’d be stuck up. You know, we live in Virginia where the land’s red clay and everyone’s a chicken farmer. He was just quiet, which everyone took for totally conceited at first. Our lockers were next to each other and for a long time we wouldn’t even talk but then one day he’s standing there laughing and he smacks his hand on his cheek and I ask him what and he says he’s forgotten the combination. Just like that. Knew it for three weeks and then forgot. Now that’s funny, I think, and I laugh too and we stand there laughing until he walks off suddenly which I found out later was to the office to get reminded. After that we began to talk and then all the rest. The sex, the cars, the love.

One day Jen says to me, “What do you two do all the time, because I know you’re not hanging out at your house with your mom there and doesn’t Keith’s dad work at home?” But I don’t tell her, even though she’s my best friend and ever since the eighth grade I have basically told Jen everything and the other way around. The truth is, I don’t tell anyone. Neither does Keith.

The first time we see it we’re walking in the woods behind his place, which is six blocks from my house and close to where the town stops and the country starts. It’s mid-September and so hot even the gnats and the deer flies don’t have much pep. Daytime is about the only time we get to hang out since Keith started working nights at the restaurant. We walk in the woods because his dad and my mom each work at home so much. My dad, well, he’s gone a lot, especially lately. Business trips. Which sometimes get extended while he’s away. Once when it’s just Mom and me home I straight out ask her is there something wrong. But she just stares out the window like I never said anything.

Anyway, we’re deeper into the woods than we’ve ever been before. It’s pretty hot even here and I’m all for stopping where we are but Keith keeps going. The path’s real narrow and I’m watching his shoulders and the way the muscles move and the way his back trims down toward his hips when I hear him say “son of a bitch” kind of quiet like.

“Keith?” I say.

“Look at that, Ida. Just look at that. Who knew it was even here?”

Beyond the woods there’s an open stretch thick with tall grass and weeds that slopes down to a field with cars all over the place, lined up row after row.

Keith looks at me and raises his eyebrows and then we’re out of the woods and starting down the hill. It’s grassy and steep and I’m slipping and so is Keith and we take off and run the rest of the way down. When we stop we’re dizzy, which makes us feel trippy, and it’s like the cars are all vibrating. A Dodge truck a Chevy Caprice a Toyota Corolla and an ancient VW bug practically rusted into the ground. We’re naming them as fast as we can. He says Ford Falcon, I say Lincoln Town Car; he says Honda Prelude, I say Jeep Cherokee. We keep going as fast as we can while we walk around. Then we quit with the names.

A big old cloud comes over us and it’s suddenly cool and Keith puts his arm around me and holds me against him and I can feel his heart beating so close to mine.

“What if someone comes?” I ask, thinking somebody owns the place and brings the cars here.

“I don’t think there’s anybody around,” he says, tugging my arm. “Come on.” Then we start checking out the cars.

“Whoa, look at this baby,” he says, his hands flat down on the hood of a long black Cadillac. We’re looking at all the chrome and he says, “1982.” He’s like that with cars. It’s hard to see what’s wrong with it until Keith pries the hood up. No engine. Plus it’s all bashed in on the passenger’s side.

“Just think what it’d be like if we could get the parts for this baby,” he says. “Keith and Ida’s partymobile.”

I call him over to a little Ford Escort, a kind of bright royal blue. It’s smashed in on the roof and the driver’s side, and there’s broken glass all over the front seat and I can see a magazine and some other stuff. A tiny pink shoe. I can reach the magazine by leaning through the broken window. It’s a People from 1987. Princess Di on the cover. I put it back on the seat. The rule just started itself right off: We look at stuff but we don’t take anything. Everything stays the way it is.

We’re sitting on the hood of an old Pontiac when Keith gets that dreamy look.

“Let’s get in the back. In the shade.”

He opens the back door on the driver’s side and I scoot in and he gets in and shuts the door. We smoke some weed and roll the windows up and down with the handles, which are the funniest things, going around and around. A breeze floats through and it’s nice and cool and Keith leans back against the seat and looks out the window. I’m looking at the line of his jaw and that little place on his neck where I like to put my tongue.

“It’s ours,” he says.

“Ours what?”

“Our place. Our cars.”

We sit there a while and then Keith touches my cheek and moves his hand under my shirt, his fingers light like a breath on my breasts. I lay my hands on his chest and kiss his neck and he groans and grabs my shoulders and pushes me down hard on the seat and then we’re grabbing at each other’s clothes and our own clothes and we didn’t bring anything, we didn’t think we’d really be doing it today but we are.

So that’s the first car we fucked in. A 1979 Pontiac, green, with four flat tires. Since then we have moved on to Jettas and Plymouths and quite a few AMC Eagles, which Keith says should have been sent here straight from the factory to save people all the trouble. We even found an old Pinto. Each time we sit in the front seat and take turns at the wheel and decide whether it’s the right car. One day we sat in maybe ten cars before one felt right.

Keith says it’s the karma. Like if there wasn’t anybody who died, but they just got banged up some or maybe not any and the insurance company totaled the car and the people sold it to a junker and got a new one. The bad ones we usually don’t do it in, but there are exceptions. Like the one we decide on today.

“So what,” I say. “If a car’s cool enough it’s exempt?” Because anyone looking at the Audi can tell the driver didn’t walk away.

“Something like that. Listen, Ida. I have to go away next Saturday. It’s my dad, well, both of them. They’re dragging me to look at Virginia Tech. I told them I’m not going to college yet and you should have seen them. Totally apeshit. Mom starts doing her crazy speed talking and my dad’s trying to calm her down but at the same time giving me that look, and just to shut them up I said okay.”

“Well, let them think whatever they want, right?”

“Yeah, right.”

Then Keith gets a serious look and says quietly, “I want to marry you, Ida. Right now.”

I just look at him.

“We’ll be old enough pretty soon,” he says.

I know how he feels, and I don’t say anything but only fold up beside him and the next thing you know it’s almost dark and we must have been sleeping for a couple of hours. We’re putting our jeans back on when we hear the sound of an engine.

“Shhh,” says Keith. “We’d better lay low.”

There’s no way we can get all the way to the woods now without being seen. There’s a tow truck coming toward us, pulling a car. Keith and I squish down as much as we can in the back of the Audi. The rumbling is so close that I’m sure they’ll see us when they go by but then again it’s dark enough maybe they can’t. The truck pauses right near us and I hear a whispered “fuck” from Keith but the truck goes on past. We peek out just in time to see it go down a ways from where we are, and a guy gets out and starts with the hand motions to the driver, who backs up, and the car, a big long thing, slides into an open space between two wrecks and the truck keeps backing up until the car is pushed up against some bushes and then the driver gets out. He’s a big guy, and tall. Both the men walk around the car toward the back and it sounds like they’re arguing and then they come back to the front of it and bend down. They must be undoing the hitch. They straighten up and get back into the truck and drive away.

We don’t say a word. We just get out of the Audi and walk fast to the woods and it’s so dark in there and when we come to the fork Keith says do I want him to walk me home and I’m like yes, I do.

When we get there, he gives me a quick kiss and then he’s gone down the street. Mom’s in the kitchen with some work papers spread out on the table. There’s a half empty bottle of wine on the counter. It’s not that she drinks all that much. Just enough, she says.

“Where have you been?” Not even hello.

“Studying with Jen.”

“I told you to call. I was worried.”

She gives me a little hug and I feel kind of bad that she believes me just like that. I tell her I’m sorry, and she thinks I mean about being late.

~

Class trip day for Keith and me is class skip day. We have it all planned, even down to the fake notes from home. We’re all set. We’ve got four beers, half a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jam, Goldfish, an Almond Joy for me and a Reese’s for Keith, a knife and a water bottle.

We head straight to the woods. We walk along not talking. It’s like, I don’t know, the woods are a church this morning and we’re quiet because it would be rude not to be. The sunlight makes streams of gold and dark in the treetops and I get dizzy from walking along staring up. I bump into Keith and when he yells “whoa!” it startles us both.

When we get there it feels all right to talk again. The sun is shining and all around us are the cars, so many of them we’ve sat in and made love in and even slept in a couple of times. Plenty of trucks, too, but the seats are too high and stiff and we prefer the cars. There’s a breeze here and the tall weeds are swaying back and forth and the blue of the sky is so bright, with clouds floating along like puffs of whipped cream, and we just flop down where we are and lie there for a long time, looking up.

The beer’s warm but we don’t care. We pop the tabs on two. It feels like there’s endless time stretching out. We’re in no hurry, for once. It’s bliss. Then Keith has to go and spoil it.

“They’re dragging me to some other places. UVA, maybe even up north.”

I just look at him.

“I know, I know. But it’s weird. It’s two against one. I’m just waiting them out, I guess. Checking out a few colleges, it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re going somewhere eventually.”

“Look,” I say. “You go if you want. You must want to, because you keep talking about it. Do you or what?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

Then he’s lying down with his eyes shut and I’m mad but he’s so handsome and the sun’s shining on his hair, some brown, some blonde, and there’s this little pimple on his cheek that kind of breaks my heart. I put my hand on his arm.

He opens his eyes. “Let’s not fight.”

“You started it.”

“Kiss and make up?”

Later, we start looking around. It’s mid-October but it’s turned out to be a warm day. We leave our stuff where it is and walk to a new area, one with cars that we’ve never even sat in.

Keith says it’s probably an animal in the woods. Just an old rotting carcass of a deer or something. Whatever it is, it smells bad. I’m for getting out of there and trying a different place, but Keith wants to check things out here first. There’s a dark green rear-ended Porsche. He’s trying to get the driver’s door open but it’s stuck shut or maybe it’s locked. The smell’s not so bad now. Maybe the breeze shifted. Keith gives up on the Porsche.

“Hey, look at this,” he says. There’s a rusty little car with no tires. It’s really cute. A Morris Minor, Keith says. Is there any car he can’t name?

“I want this one,” I say, and we both laugh.

“Contortionists Do It in Minor,” he says.

He’s been doing headlines ever since we read The Shipping News in Mr. Taylor’s class. God I love him.

“Now here’s something promising.”

He’s looking at a gray Buick that’s in front of some tall bushes near where the woods start on this side. It’s pretty tight in between two other cars, but we can slip in and get the door open just enough. I slide in and then Keith. He drives.

“Well?”

He looks at me.

I try to feel it.

Both of us are kind of in a hurry by now.

“Come on,” he says and flips over onto the back seat and I do too and we kiss and the seat’s big and wide and he lies back with his head against the arm rest and his arms up and I pull his T-shirt over his head and fling it into the front seat and we tug off our jeans and we’ve got everything off and we’re burning up. I straddle him, there’s plenty of room, and hover over him a minute just to tease and then I move lower until I feel him inside me and I move up and down a little and he says I’m killing him and then I can’t not lower down more and we’re looking into each other’s eyes almost the whole time.

“Should have picked the Morris,” he says when we’re done. I give him a little slap on the cheek and he laughs. We aren’t in a hurry. There’s the whole afternoon ahead of us. But we start putting our clothes on. The smell’s back. I’m still getting dressed and Keith’s flipped over into the front seat and looking in the glove compartment. He turns around and holds up a map.

“Hey, want to drive this baby to Florida? We could go to the Keys, hang out, maybe meet Hemingway.”

“He’s dead.”

“No kidding. We could see where he lived. My uncle Stan says he had this big old house with a ton of cats all over the place that still live there, well, grand kitties and great-grand kitties I guess. There’s even a graveyard with tombstones with the cats’ names. A lot of them were named after movie stars.”

He folds the map and puts it back in the glove compartment. We’re about to go get our stuff and have lunch when Keith notices the trunk isn’t quite shut. We never pass that up. I’m bending over tying my shoes and when I straighten up again he’s backing away from the open trunk.

“Fuck,” he says. “Jesus.”

Whoever she is, she’s curled up with her face away from us, long dark hair covering her cheek. She’s wearing a green dress and there’s a big dark stain on it and this is for sure where the bad smell is coming from.

Keith slams the trunk down and we start running and keep running until we’re back where we left our stuff. I spew up breakfast and beer all over the ground. Keith gets a cloth out of the bag and hands it to me.

Keith’s shaking his head and saying “fuck” over and over again and we’re looking around scared like somebody might be coming any minute to stuff us in a trunk too and then Keith grabs up everything we brought and jams it into the bag.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says without looking at me, even.

There’s nobody downstairs when we get to my house. Keith stays for a little while but we’re so nervous we can’t seem to keep track of what we’re talking about for more than a minute.

“Do you think she could be from around here anywhere?” I say.

“We’ve got to tell somebody. We’ve got to tell the police,” he says.

I feel so bad for her but I can’t think of what to say. I feel like we shouldn’t have left her there. I feel like we ought to tell somebody right away. But I don’t want to talk about it, either.

“Ida, we’ve got to tell people.” He kisses the side of my face. “I’ll call you later.”

“She was there the whole time,” I say.

He calls me that night, late.

“You asleep already?”

“No way,” I say. I’ll probably never sleep again. My mom has a migraine and she’s in her room, like she was when I got home. The blinds closed. The tiniest noise makes it worse.

“This is all way fucked up,” he says. There’s silence for the longest time, like there’s nobody there. “Look Ida, we could get in trouble.”

” We didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“I mean trespassing or something. I don’t know,” he says. “It’s weird. You know how my dad is, reading the newspaper every single day of his life. And he never said anything about anybody missing.”

I don’t know what to say. I’ve got the phone wedged between my left shoulder and my cheek and I’m just winding the little yellow balls of thread on the ends of the curtains around a pencil until they take on the shape and then I ease the pencil out and go to the next one and wrap that one around the pencil until pretty soon I have the whole curtain full of little tails of thread twirled into this weird funnel shape and I’m thinking how bizarre it looks and I start to laugh but right away I stop.

Keith says good night. Just like that. No Ida, no nothing.

It’s raining when we meet in town the next night. The kind of dark downpour you can’t really see through. All you see is the rain slicing down in front of you and you could be in your hometown or some place a million miles away.

Keith has it all figured out, how we’ll call from a pay phone. “That way nobody can trace us. You know how it is. What’s the first thing everyone thinks? The one who calls has something to do with it, right?”

It’s not really that, though, because who would seriously think two high school kids would do anything like that. They’d make us talk, that’s what they’d do. About the place. Why we were there. We can just hear the questions. It’s been our secret place for so long we can’t tell anyone, not our parents, not the police, not anyone.

I should be the one to call, we decide. Keith’s got his arm around me as much as he can with me standing in the phone booth and him trying to fit in too and not get soaked. But still, I’m so nervous I could puke. We have the number on a piece of paper. My hands are shaking when I dial, and it just rings and rings. Then a recording comes on saying leave a message or if it’s an emergency press one. The voice says leave your name and a number where you can be reached in the daytime. I tell them the exact car and how to find it and then hang up.

~

We never go back to the junkyard. After a while we don’t talk about it anymore. And there’s no good place to make love, and when we do it at his place when his dad’s out it feels weird, sort of like she’s there, too. When we start, it’s the way it used to be. But then, no matter where we are, while we’re taking off our clothes, it’s as if she’s there, waiting, and when we’re done we’ll find her all over again.

One day after school we’re smoking weed down by the pond at Keith’s place and he starts up again about college. He’s thinking about the future, he says. How the sooner we go the sooner we’ll be done. As if years from now is a fine time to get our apartment.

“We could go to the same school,” he says, but he’s not looking at me.

“And we’ll what, live in a dorm?” I can’t believe this. I squint my eyes at him and he just shrugs and passes me the joint.

A few days later, I’m heading to history class when I see Keith way down the hall, leaning against some lockers and talking to a couple of guys I don’t know very well. They’re laughing about something but I can’t hear what.

I rummage in my pack and get out the newspaper with the article about the police finding out who the woman was, where she lived and everything. It’s such a sad story. I walk up to them and stop next to Keith and he looks as me and says, “Hi, Ida.” Very casual. I could be anyone. Then he turns back to them, as if he could be just anyone, too. I stuff the paper back in my pack without looking up so they won’t see my eyes.

Keith ends up going to college in Boston, where I heard he met some girl. His parents moved back to Massachusetts. Mine are splitting up, big surprise. Still, I didn’t think my dad would move all the way to California. His job, he says. Where she lives, my mom says.

I work at The Gap all summer and then I end up going, too. Virginia Tech, actually. Jen’s at Tech, too, but we aren’t close the way we used to be. There’s stuff I can’t talk to her about, for one thing.

We lived in the same dorm the first semester, but then I found an apartment in town, just a bedroom and a kitchen, plus a tiny bathroom, above the Donut Hole. A week after I moved in I was walking home from class and there was this bedraggled little black and white dog wandering up and down the sidewalk. She didn’t have a collar and as far as I could find out she didn’t have a home, either. I named her Bandit.

In good weather, when classes are over for the day, I go back to the apartment to get Bandit and head down to the quad and throw the Frisbee for her. Then we just hang out. Bandit sits next to me and keeps an eye on everything, the students and their dogs and the skateboarders whizzing along the paved paths. Every once in a while, when the sun’s warm on my back and the breeze passes over me like a breath, I get this feeling. It’s like I’m back in one of the cars and if I open my eyes real quick I’ll see that brown hair streaked with blonde falling over those brown eyes.

Sometimes I want to call him up. The thing is, I don’t know his number or even where he lives anymore. But I think about it, how I would call him, just to talk for a few minutes. Of all the people in the whole wide world, he’s the only one I could ask. What if we hadn’t found her?

Of course, you know how it is. Even if you could find him, he wouldn’t be the person you really want to ask. The person you really want to talk to is the one you knew back then, when it was just the two of you all by yourselves at the center of the world, and nothing could ever change that.

 

Lovesaw

Lam Pham

When your friends ask you what he’s like, you’ll tell them he looks like Rock Hudson, the way he chews his words like gristle and hides his smile behind his drink. You’ll tell them how he got you to quit smoking weed, his love for plaid, the fastidious way he greases and combs his hair back every morning. You won’t tell them how he finally convinced you to sleep with him, how he told you he’d never sucked dick before, how he wanted you to be his first. You remember feeling his wedding ring when he gripped your thigh. You also remember not minding.

So when he asks you to pick up his twins from school, you say yes. “When?” you ask. “At four,” he says. His old lady is out of town. He’s working until seven, can’t shake it both ways, needs you. Whenever he gets serious, Patrick squares his shoulders and cracks his knuckles. He gives you money for gas and food, tells you his daughter is going vegetarian and the boy will eat any goddamn thing. A year ago, you would’ve found him objectionably unattractive: the accent, his height, your age difference of almost two decades.

It’s 3:45 when you pull up to the school, the galvanized steel railing encircling the brick building like a rack of spears. It’s the first time you’re on time for anything. You wait outside in your ’97 Toyota Camry with the radio on and the windows rolled down. When you bought the car five years ago, the owner’s manual said the color was “beige pearl.” Now it looks like day-old shit. The interior smell has been described as part roadside motel, part Chinese buffet. A rosary chokes your rear-view mirror; it’s Patrick’s. You want to believe it lends you some form of grace.

You instantly recognize them by the shapes of their eyes, like baby Angelfish. It’s a miracle really, out of that swell of navy blue blazers and bleached dress shirts. You see Seana first and watch the daylight burnish her hair a deep tangerine as she gallops towards your car in buckled shoes, her brother sauntering behind her. You wave to them. The sleeves of your Oxford shirt are buttoned at the wrist to hide the concertina wire tattoos circling your forearms.

Seana piles in the passenger side and pumps your hand like an over-caffeinated intern. “Nice to meet you,” she says. “You’re a lot younger than I thought you’d be.”

Ciaran sits behind you, pulls out his smartphone, and says nothing. There is something violent about his eyebrows, shunting out of the broad and flat pan of his face like porcupine quills. As you shift into drive, you hear someone call the girl’s name. A nun moves to the passenger window, her habit a cut of shadow. She signs the cross with her eyes, scanning the inside of the car for evidence of your evil, and asks Seana where her mother is. Behind you, a line of waxed minivans and sedans slide away from the curb, unbothered.

“It’s okay, Sister Frances,” Seana says. “He’s a family friend.”

“He’s Dad’s special friend,” Ciaran clarifies.

The nun looks at you with a special brand of suspicion normally reserved for prison convicts and the homeless. “Remember to tell your father about the PTA meeting tomorrow,” she says. Her tone promises trouble. Questions.

You pull into a McDonald’s down the street and tell them no combos, something light so they don’t spoil their appetite. The kids are gleeful. Seana orders a Premium Bacon Ranch Salad without the bacon and soaks her greens in five packets of dressing. Ciaran orders a snack wrap stuffed with processed meat and melted cheese. “Mom never lets us eat McDonald’s,” Seana says.

“Sounds like she knows what she’s doing,” you say.

“Mom doesn’t know shit about anything,” Ciaran mutters behind you.

“She means well,” Seana says.

“She hates black people,” Ciaran snarls.

“She’s afraid of them,” his sister corrects.

“Mexicans, too,” he adds. “She says they’re the reason why people are unemployed and the economy sucks.”

Exhaust blooms in front of you as a dinged pickup hiccups out of the drive-thru.

“She hates you and Dad the most,” Ciaran says.

~

Before you met Patrick, you suffered from insomnia and worked for your Vietnamese landlady as a private English tutor. She lived down the street next to the 24-hour convenience store her husband owned, manned by their child army. You felt sorry for their children the same way you felt sorry for the shackled animals in the PETA commercials, the skeletal horses and kittens with fur like ripped Velcro. You think it’s because your family came from the same country. Pushed you the same way.

Your high school guidance counselor, Mr. Oswald, had a bald spot that dilated in the morning sun. He was arrested for molesting your best friend your junior year. He told you once that he believed in you. It should’ve made you sad that he was the only one, but it didn’t. You knew you’d leave eventually – southern California, your parents, the friends you took for granted. Forty class credits and twenty-five thousand dollars in student loans later, you’re back. The house you grew up in is no longer there. Neither are your parents.

As you make your way onto the 405-S onramp, the sun tie-dying the sky ochre and lavender, you try to give the twins a crash course in secular education. You tell them that the Avengers are whack and that the X-Men are the first and only superhero team to challenge the heterosexist, uniracial society of the West. You talk about the Milgram experiment and warn them about the dangers of authority. You promise them that Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, and Lao-Tzu will change their lives forever. You forget that they’re only twelve. When Seana asks you if you really love her daddy, you tell her yes even though you’ve yet to say it to anyone and mean it.

You take them to your apartment. The heating in Patrick’s place still hasn’t been fixed and the last time you were there, you found a family of rats in his kitchen. Your apartment unit isn’t exactly immaculate either, but you at least strive for some semblance of hygiene. That morning before you left to pick up Seana and Ciaran from school, you spent nearly two hours cleaning your place: laundering the sheets, towels, and bathmats; mopping the floors; hiding the cap vials of poppers and packets of lubricant. When you let them inside, Ciaran comments that your place smells like a new car. You tell the kids to get started on their homework as you prepare for dinner.

Two hours later, Patrick arrives and finds you in the living room sandwiched between his children, watching Louis C.K. on your laptop. The pot roast is simmering on the stove and the tang of beef slow-cooked in onions, garlic, and red wine fills the apartment. You nudge them both off the sofa to go say hi to their daddy. Patrick snorts into their hair, girdling their narrow shoulders with arms like low-hanging tree branches. “How was school?” he asks them.

“We drew Punnett squares and mated fruit flies,” Seana says.

“I got kicked out of choir,” Ciaran announces.

Patrick looks at you. “And how was your day?”

The question barely reaches you under the weight of its meaning. The both of you have traversed into unfamiliar territory under uncertain terms and you imagine telling him there are stranger families in the world, that you can handle this, that you want to. His kids are adorable and, for some reason, they like you. But in the four months you’ve been together, his wife still hasn’t filed for the divorce papers. And parenthood? Appearances aside, you’re still making sense of your own life and you’ve always been a slow learner. But the kids are looking at you and waiting for an answer too, so you kiss him and tell him exactly what they want to hear.

~

It was the mid-nineties. You were sixteen. All of the white kids at school were listening to The Smashing Pumpkins, the malcontents to Marilyn Manson, and you and your minority friends had Public Enemy. Everyone believed the end was nigh: Kurt Cobain and Tupac, the Oklahoma City bombing, the summer heat wave that killed seven hundred plus Chicagoans, Hurricane Gordon, fucking Beavis and Butt-head. All signs seemed to point towards south of hell, which you had on good authority existed somewhere in the sweltering San Fernando Valley where your best friend Wei Long made headlines and got himself killed. He dropped out of school after Mr. Oswald touched his dick and ended up joining the ABZ Crips soon after. The two of you spent your weeknights getting loaded on the poor man’s speedball and shoplifting Walmarts. You stopped calling after he started carrying his .38 on your runs.

There was no funeral, but you buried a shoebox where Wei Long had presumably taken his last steps. “He went out like a true O.G.,” his boys told you. “Guns ablazing, real Western shit.” You filled that shoebox with his favorite CDs; a gram of Jack Herer sealed in a zip lock snack bag; your old Zelda Nintendo cartridge, the sparkly gold-plated one that’d become a collector’s item, just like he’d predicted; new Nikes; a few condoms. You wanted him to have some real shit for the afterlife, things he could remember so he wouldn’t have to come back and haunt you for being an uncaring asshole.

You were on a real horror kick back then, devouring Stephen King and Clive Barker in between binge-reading comic books and jerking off to gay porn sites that took half an hour to load on the dial-up. You wanted to believe in real evil, the kind that drank blood, walked through walls, and lived in the dark. Sunday Mass used to terrify you. The Pauline epistles gave you nosebleeds every time. You couldn’t explain it. Your parents were convinced you had cancer. When the CAT scans revealed nothing abnormal and your doctor diagnosed you with somatoform disorder, they attributed it to an overactive imagination.

“White people make up disorders to excuse their weakness,” Dad told you. He blamed himself for the laxity in your life. That summer, he prescribed a strict regimen of SAT prep classes, private tennis lessons, and physical labor. You spent your weekends working on a dude ranch in Riverside County, where you learned how to horseback ride and mend fences with baling wire. It was also where you lost your virginity.

The ranch’s guesthouse where you stayed sat atop a dumpy hillock. Wind and rain had dashed grass, rush milkweed, and brittlebush into crusted streaks of yellow and green across the knoll. The younger hands called it the Vomit Dollop. Sometimes, when the moon opened its carriage and spilled its old silver over the Santa Rosa Mountains’ twisted and rumpled spine, you’d slip naked onto the hidden path that wound through a copse of blue oaks behind the house, the wind brushing against the turns of your hipbones, the cool grass like soft glass beneath your feet. You still think about that place sometimes, the gamboling shadows and rust-colored thickets springing from the meaty earth.

The owner’s wife’s nephew was working off his community service hours at the ranch that summer. “Petty larceny charges,” he told you and you thought that must’ve been the attraction, the mutual deviancy. But it was really his ass. He had one of those white boy hams that no pair of jeans could ever suppress, that waggled even in repose. You dreamed about that ass, biting it, kneading it like dough. Everyone was always touching him, his neck and arms and shoulders, and it used to piss you off. Not because of any jealousy or sense of ownership, but because of what they’d say when he wasn’t around: he’s got a butter face, that’s why he works out so much; he’s got a small dick; he never showers.

One night the nephew followed you into the woods. There was no fanfare, no talking. He kissed you, stripped, and the two of you rolled around trying everything your porn-instructed mind could think of. You remember thinking how ticklish you were, how rough his skin felt. He made you come in five minutes, your fingers gripping his hair like a steering wheel, but you still wanted more. When you asked him if he had a condom, he told you not to worry about it. “I’m clean,” he said, which you came to understand meant he was both STD-free and had had an enema. Finally, that ass was yours.

Good sex, you discovered, was addictive. You’d spend the entire week anticipating that Friday evening when Dad would drop you off at the guesthouse for the weekend. You tried for some measure of restraint at first, working all day with a mad case of blue balls like a pair of dumbbells swinging between your legs. After he scheduled his shifts to coincide with yours, you couldn’t keep your hands off of each other. It got bad; he grew cavalier and you grew careless. The both of you were late to everything, always together. People took notice as your silent staring contests and mutual game of grab ass got a little too frequent, a little too familiar.

It wasn’t long before the stable boy spotted the hickeys stitching the side of your neck. The trail girl overheard him calling you babe. It didn’t mean anything until one of the trail guides caught the two of you in the barn, sucking each other dry in a makeshift bed of hay. On that last night together, you begged him to leave with you. “We can be together,” you said, your breath hitching in the dark as he quietly listened. You told him your desperate, eleventh-hour plan, how the two of you could leave for the Bay that night, find work as baristas or drive-thru cashiers, fuck your brains out and be accountable to no one. Just, try.

~

Seana blinks at the mirror. She looks like a kabuki demon. It doesn’t help that your bathroom walls are papered with cherry blossoms and the windowsill is lined with a procession of Buddha statues. You can hear the boys down the hallway cheer and scream. You suspect that you’ll never understand Patrick’s love for boxing. Seana doesn’t understand it either, and after dinner, when she told you she’d never put on makeup before because the school and her mother disapproved, you took it upon yourself to teach her the ways of womanhood. You have no experience with this sort of thing, but you’d secretly hoped that being gay afforded you some natural talent at makeup. It didn’t.

“We can try again,” you say doubtfully.

“I look like that one actress,” she says. “You know, the one all the boys like.”

“Oh yeah,” you say. “The girl from that one movie. So hot.”

Seana laughs. “Can you do my hair next?”

The glare of the fluorescent lights cruelly spotlights the carnival horror of her face, but she’s enjoying herself and you’re surprised to discover that you are too. You grab Patrick’s sculpting gel and the twenty-dollar hair straightener you picked up at the corner store with the mascara and rouge.

“I read on the Internet that you can pierce your own ears with a pin and an ice cube,” she says.

“Not tonight, Seana.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to be responsible for giving you an ear infection,” you say. “Now stop moving your head.”

Every Sunday, your mother used to spend four hours prepping for mass. You and your father were barred from the master bedroom as she waxed, showered, tweezed, and burrowed in her closet. Your mother had an old phonograph she’d inherited from her great-grandmother and only two records survived the test of time: Frank Crumit’s “True Blue Sam (the Traveling Man)” and Elsa Murray Shelly’s performance of Chopin’s “Etude in E”. She always played them right before she’d emerge from the bedroom, dressed in a long silk dress with her hair tied so far back it made her forehead shine like plastic. You knew that etude by heart. Even now Chopin’s silver melodies never fail to evoke the smell of your father’s pipe, the whistle of a tea kettle, and the spice of ginger snaps pulled fresh from the oven. As much as you hated church, you loved Sundays. It was the only time when neither of your parents felt the need to talk about how you were fucking up your life somehow.

“What did you want to be when you were a kid?” she asks.

“A superhero,” you say. “Tight spandex in primary colors, a girlfriend, telekinesis.”

“A girlfriend, really?” she giggles, opening her eyes.

“I was young.” You shrug. “I thought girlfriends were like personal assistants you’d occasionally kiss for doing a good job.”

“I don’t think that’s very far off.”

“You’re too young to think that way,” you say.

“As if you know anything about having a girlfriend.”

“Don’t they teach you to respect your elders at Jesus camp?”

She grins at you, all teeth and lipstick. Seana has that same special sincerity that drew you to her father, the remarkable way she unremarkably sets people at ease. You remember how Patrick strolled up to you at the bar, sat down beside you without introduction, and asked you how you were as if you’d known each other for years. Everyone else there was shopping for meat, staring at each other through the flickering strobe lights to gauge the likelihood of a hot, unattached fuck. The two of you discussed Celtic punk, the worst sports to watch on television, how dogs were better than cats. That night, he didn’t ask you to go home with him; he gave you his number. You still have the napkin.

“I wanted to be a nun when I was younger,” Seana says. “Travel all over the world to help starving people and children without shoes. Like Mother Theresa.”

“What changed your mind?” you ask her.

“I met Sister Frances.”

“What’s wrong with Sister Frances? You know, beyond the obvious.”

“Nothing, other than the fact that she’s like every other Catholic,” she says. “She’s against abortion, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, Harry Potter…”

“And this surprised you because?”

“Because she should be better than that,” she shouts, startling the both of you.

There’s a knock on the door and Patrick comes in to ask if either you or Seana would like some ice cream. He nearly chokes when he sees her, and behind him, Ciaran falls to the floor howling with laughter. You’re immediately at her defense, telling them both to close the goddamn door and pick up some butter pecan for you. Patrick dutifully tells Seana that she looks beautiful before quickly ushering his son out of the hallway. On the bathroom counter, Mick Jagger is singing his hope that the Lord will shine a light on you. His voice is tinny through your phone’s mp3 player, as if he swallowed a fistful of tin foil.

“You won’t get anywhere in life if you’re constantly disappointed in people,” you say gently. “We’re all fuck-ups.”

“I know that,” Seana says, her fingers clenching her plaid skirt. “It’s just, I don’t know what I want to be anymore.”

“That’s okay, you know.”

“Yeah,” she replies, unconvinced.

“Listen, go to college,” you tell her. “It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for, but it can’t hurt to learn more. Just make sure you get as far away from your parents as possible. Get your heart broken a few times, travel to some place you’ve only seen on television, don’t stop for anyone. Once you’ve done all those things, we’ll pick up this conversation again.”

She smiles at you and it’s sad and a little comical with all that face-paint caking her face. “I never would’ve pegged you for a romantic.”

“Most people wouldn’t.”

~

A month before that night, Patrick asked if you knew of any affordable tattoo parlors. It was Sunday morning. He was wearing his favorite greasy wife beater and your Mickey Mouse boxer shorts, hair unkempt, cooking scrambled eggs on your stain-crusted stovetop with a wilted cigarette in his mouth. NPR was featuring yet another exposé on the Church. On the table were two empty handles of Jagermeister and a coffee cup overflowing with cigarette butts. You told Patrick that you knew a few places, but warned him that if he wasn’t absolutely certain what he wanted, he ought to wait.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” he said.

“It’s not a crucifix, is it?”

“Do you want toast? The bread’s a few days past the sell date, a little stale but it tastes okay.”

“If you get a tribal, I’m taking back my keys,” you said.

He handed you your plate, stamped out his cigarette, and lit another. “For your information, I’m getting a tribal cross with ‘Carpe Diem’ in capital letters,” he said, snaking a hand down your shirt. “Maybe a couple of shamrocks, too.”

You closed your eyes and leaned back. His aftershave smelled like lavender. Outside, a car alarm blared. Pale yellow light stretched across the tiled floor and you thought you could smell the salt of the Pacific through the open windows.

It was noon by the time you both got out of the apartment. A young Chinese family was picnicking at the park across the street. You hoped that they checked the grass for needles and broken glass before rolling out their Pottery Barn tablecloth. The kids were young enough to be innocent, but old enough to know better, wiping their hands with napkins and helping their parents toss trash into the waste bin nearby. You remarked how precious they looked in their canary yellow sweaters and cardinal red sneakers. Though you mistrusted happy looking families, you couldn’t help but want what you saw.

You took him to a little brick house parlor in Eagle Rock. The pregnant receptionist with a safety pin through her nose gave Patrick the procedural form. She then told you how she landed this job by way of the owner who’d been in her father’s platoon during the Vietnam War. Her safety pin caught sunlight and quivered like a sprung trap as she leaned over the counter.

“So, how long have you guys been dating?” she asked.

You asked her if it was obvious that you two were a couple. You told her that most people couldn’t tell.

“The way your eyes keep moving back to each other,” she said, tracing invisible lines with her index fingers between you and Patrick.

Old Porter – the seventy-year-old owner and tattoo artist who inked all three of your tattoos – trundled out of the back office and barked at the girl to stop bothering his customers. He opened his arms and told you to get your queer ass over there and give him a hug. It was a balmy seventy-five degrees outside, but he still insisted on wearing the camel-hair coat you got him from the Salvation Army a couple of years ago. The tattoos inked across his scalp had blurred over time, the images bleeding together into a faded swirl of colors like an Impressionist painting.

“Porter, there’s someone I want you to meet,” you said.

Patrick extended his hand and introduced himself. Porter shook it, but said nothing. Porter furrowed his brows and drew back his front lip, revealing three missing teeth and purple gums. He dropped Patrick’s hand and asked you if you were planning on getting your fourth tattoo today.

“No, but Patrick’s thinking about his first,” you told him.

“So what do you want, Paddy?” he asked. “Celtic Cross? How about a shamrock?”

Patrick blushed and stammered. “Uh, no, I was thinking about…”

“Because I got to tell you, I’m sick of you micks coming in here and asking for the same goddamn tattoos,” Porter said, crossing his arms. “Just the other day, this Irish fuck comes in here and asks me to ink him an arm sleeve of fucking shamrocks. A sleeve of shamrocks. Christ on a pogo stick. We’re tattoo artists, Paddy, emphasis on the word artists. So if you’re thinking of getting a clover on your mick ass, get it somewhere else.”

The first time you’d gone in for a tattoo, Porter had called you a slope and a gook, told you that he’d killed a dozen of your uncles and aunts during the war, and he didn’t want your fucking yellow business in his establishment. You’d replied by telling him to step outside because he was about to get his ass handed him to him by a Vietnamese faggot. That was how your friendship began. You’d wanted Patrick to earn Porter’s approval the same way you had, but for a moment, you wondered if you should have warned him first.

“Yeah, I do want a goddamn shamrock you fucking asshole,” Patrick said. “And if you call me a mick one more time, I’ll fucking bury your fat old ass, friend or not.”

Porter paused and looked at you. “I like this one.”

“He ain’t too bad,” you agreed.

“What?” Patrick asked.

“So you really want that shamrock or was that just your blood talking?”

The tattoo was a quote. You helped Patrick choose the font. It was French and he told you that he’d translate it for you once it was done. Due to its size and the amount of shading involved, it took nearly two hours. The entire time Porter yakked and yakked as the needle gun droned like a hungry mosquito and small beads of blood blossomed across Patrick back. Porter talked about how he met you and how much you reminded him of the son he’d lost to AIDS.

“Wasn’t afraid of nothing, my boy,” Porter said. “Full of piss and vinegar.”

“How do you move on from something like that?” Patrick asked. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to either of my kids.”

“I knew I did right by him,” Porter said, leaning into Patrick’s back as he rubbed the needle into the outline of a letter. “It took me a while to accept it, but our kids have lives outside of ours, as much as we try to make it otherwise.”

It took you nearly two hours to get to the west side from northeastern Los Angeles. A rig had crashed into the highway median barrier. The semi-trailer’s fifth wheel coupling had detached from the rig’s kingpin and lay on its side with its ridged belly ripped open. White fabric spilled out and the police had set up a line of flares that cut off the three rightmost lanes. On the other side of the highway, eastbound traffic was completely halted. Two EMTs slowly picked up a body covered in a white sheet and set it on a stretcher. A slab of concrete had smashed through the windshield of the sedan behind the rig. A man in a yellow polo shirt and grey capris squatted on the shoulder with officers on either side of him, his face buried in his hands.

As you pulled the car into the parking garage, Patrick said, “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.”

You looked at his clenched brow, the locked jaw. The tension in his forehead could squeeze water out of rocks. It scared you how beautiful he looked in his remoteness, like a mountain stabbing into the sky from the distance, forever out of reach. The radio warbled out a Miles Davis number, filling the car with sweet strains of trumpet. You wondered when you’d finally get to meet his children. He’d told you their names, their age, Seana’s grades, and Ciaran’s obsession with anime. Would he still want to be with you if they didn’t like you? Should he?

“What does it mean?” you asked.

“If youth only knew; if old age only could.”

~

When the boys return with ice cream, you light candles around the apartment and turn off the lights. You suggest watching a movie before bed. Seana wants to watch something foreign. Ciaran requires a certain amount of violence. As always, Patrick is open to suggestions. You settle for a Kurosawa film. Seana keeps her makeup on despite her brother’s constant teasing and the four of you clean out the entire bucket of butter pecan in the first half hour. It takes another hour into Ran before the kids start to yawn. Patrick tells them to get ready for bed and if they want to shower to save some hot water for him. As he sets up the futon, you tell him that the kids are taking the bedroom tonight and the two of you will be camping out in the living room.

“Are you sure?” Patrick asks. “You hate this futon.”

“What are you talking about? I love this lumpy, itchy mattress. We can pretend it’s the frontier and we’re roughing it like cowboys or something.”

“You’re kind of weird amazing,” he says and maybe it’s the trick of the laptop light, but his eyes look glassy to you.

“I know, I’m the tits,” you say. “Smoke a cigarette?”

“Go ahead, I’m going to grab your pillows from the bedroom first.”

“What will the kids use?” you ask.

“Each other for all I care,” he says, heading down the hallway. “They’re getting the bed tonight.”

Ciaran returns to the living room with a toothbrush jammed in his mouth to ask if you have a smartphone charger. “I forgot to pack mine,” he says.

You direct him to the charger plugged in the kitchen next to the coffee maker and tell him that he can find extra towels in the hallway closet. You grab Patrick’s sweatshirt, your lighter and pack of smokes and head out the door. As you’re closing it, you hear Ciaran ask, “Whoa, is that a real samurai sword?”

“Don’t take it out of the sheath,” you yell inside.

“What’s a sheath?”

“The cover!”

“Is it real?” Ciaran asks, coming to the door.

“Yeah, my great grandfather made it and passed it down to my grandfather and so forth and so on,” you say.

“Cool,” Ciaran whispers, fingering the silver scabbard.

“I’m joking, you nitwit. I’m not Japanese.”

“But is it real?” he asks again.

You take the sword from him and slowly pull out the two-foot blade. You tell him it’s actually a wakizashi, a companion blade to the longer samurai sword. “It’s real steel,” you say, showing him the Kanji inscription near the hilt. “That’s the maker’s name.”

“Can it cut stuff?”

“Go get a napkin,” you tell him.

Ciaran dashes inside and returns with a single napkin. Blade side up, you tell him to gently place it on top. “Gently,” you repeat.

He gingerly places the napkin on top and squeals as the paper slices neatly in half. “Holy shit, that’s so cool! Where did you get this?”

“Germany of all places,” you say. “Remind me to tell you about it someday.”

“Okay,” he says, suddenly awkward. “Uh, thanks for having us over tonight. It was a lot of fun.”

“I had fun too,” you say, sliding the sword back in its sheath before handing it to him. “Go hang it back up for me, alright? And be careful.”

You close the door behind him and light a cigarette. It must be fifty-five outside tonight, cold for California. The stars look like shattered glass rubbed across dark purple quilt and you can hear the roll of traffic on the 405-S ebbing and flowing.

Wei Long told you once that all parents secretly hated their children. Parents committed abominable acts under the guise of love all the time, and you were simply the product of your mother and father’s need to procreate, nothing more. The two of you were in his beat-up Civic in front of your house, smoking cigarettes and rummaging through that night’s stolen merchandise: CDs, books, a radar detector, packets of AA batteries, a new designer shampoo he’d wanted to try. You never asked about the purple bruises taping his forearms and his busted lip. You didn’t need to.

You’re only halfway through your cigarette when Patrick and his kids come outside. The twins wish you goodnight and you tell them that you’ll see them tomorrow.

“Are you picking us up again?” Seana asks you.

“I’ll be your ride tomorrow, little lady,” Patrick says. When they head inside, you remind Patrick that he has a PTA meeting tomorrow.

“Better lay out your nice suit tonight,” you say, handing him your cigarette. “You lost some points today when you asked your gay lover to pick up your kids.”

He drags it and pitches the burning butt into the parking lot below. “I have half a mind to pull the both of them out of that fucking school. God knows neither of them are happy there.”

“Your old lady would rather kill them first. Their only hope is college.”

“Don’t I know it,” Patrick says, hunching forward to hang his forearms over the balcony railing. “So, have you decided to dump me yet?”

“Why, because you didn’t do the dishes again?” you ask.

“Well that, and getting roped into daycare duty. I know it’s not ideal, being with someone who has children. And a bitch wife to boot.”

You think about the clock maker you met in Berlin; the teaching assistant in your sophomore literature course who spoke seven different languages; your former roommate who joined the Peace Corps and never came back. You remember little things about all of them, tokens of memory that would occasionally resurface to the forefront of your mind like old photographs you’ve forgotten: how the clock maker took his coffee, the teaching assistant’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses, how your roommate’s left eye was a darker shade of green than his right. But you don’t remember any of their names, not even the farm boy you loved so many summers ago. It was easier to live that way, sawing away the parts that make you feel and expecting nothing from anyone.

“I wouldn’t worry about the kids,” you say, jabbing his side. “I’d be more concerned about your age. What’s going to happen when you can’t get it up anymore?”

Patrick moves behind you and squeezes you close. “Want to go for a test drive?” he growls into your ear.

Finally, a relevant question.

~

The ranch owner’s wife ended up telling your father about what you did and your mother couldn’t bring herself to look at you. The conversation you had with them would have broken your heart had it not been broken already. In the end, the nephew chose to stay at the ranch. Your last fuck had felt like death, the end of all ends. You couldn’t forget the weight of his body curled up against yours, the rise and fall of his chest underneath your arm, the way he always smelled like grass. When your parents handed you a brochure for the Christian conversion camp, you made plans to leave the country. The money you’d saved working at the ranch was just enough for a one-way ticket to Heathrow Airport.

The week leading up to your flight, you spent every evening at the matinee. They were showing Godard’s films that fall and the only other people there were old, married couples you envied, holding hands and sipping diet soda. You thought about the nephew as you lusted after Jean-Pierre Léaud. How would it have gone had you told him how you felt instead of assuming he’d divined it on his own? Would it have ended differently had you pushed first?

You took a taxi to LAX at two in the morning with a single backpack stuffed with underwear, socks, your only dress shirt, a travel guide you stole from the library, and a carton of cigarettes you’d convinced one of your classmate’s older siblings to buy for you. You’d never seen the 405-S so empty. You thought of the river Ameles in Plato’s Republic as the stretch of highway unfurled beneath you, pulling everyone you’d ever known behind it: your mom and dad, Wei Long, the nephew. As the plane lifted from the runway and Los Angeles opened like a glittering jewel box below, you promised yourself that you wouldn’t give yourself so completely to anyone ever again. Not unless he was worth it.

~

You decide to have sex in your car because neither of you feel comfortable fucking in the living room while the kids are sleeping in your bedroom. The logistics are a little tricky. Patrick’s frame takes up too much space and your head keeps bumping into the roof handgrip. You idly wish that you drove a minivan. But eventually, you forget all of this as your prostate starts to hum with his rhythm inside you. Patrick tells you again and again how tight your ass is, punctuating his statements with grunts like a bad porn script. He’s the only lover you’ve been with who verbalizes during sex. You’ve always found it slightly embarrassing how much it turns you on when he asks you how badly you want his dick, and tonight is no exception. You come without touching yourself, which is a first.

Once you’ve both recovered your ability to string complete sentences together, you tell Patrick that you’ve never done that before. It all felt very high school.

“I lost my virginity in the back of my brother’s sedan,” he tells you, wiping you down with his shirt. “I don’t even remember what she looked like, I had my eyes shut the entire time.”

“How old were you?”

“Fourteen.”

“No wonder.”

“No wonder, what?” he asks.

“That it wasn’t a challenge for you to get hard.”

“It helped that my teammate was watching us from the passenger seat,” Patrick winks.

You laugh. “You’re so fucking perverted.”

“You love it,” he says, running his fingers down your chest. “And I bet you were downright depraved as a teenager, rutting boys left and right. Orgies, older men, tearooms.”

“Nice to finally know what you think of me.”

“Well, how’d you lose your cherry?”

You touch the tattoo on Patrick’s back, reading the raised letters with your fingers like braille. You feel like a river climbing uphill, leaving the things you would no longer carry in its shoals with the past and present on opposing shores. Your parents showed you exactly who you weren’t. Wei Long taught you not to follow trauma’s misdirection. The nephew testified the difference between love and passion, and how neither should be blind. And in the past twelve hours, you determined that Ciaran would benefit from exposure to hip-hop and Seana was in desperate need of a new wardrobe. You learned that Patrick needed you as much as you were afraid to need him. You discovered a family of your own.

You begin your story with, “It was the mid-nineties.”

Next of Kith

Jacob M. Appel

Through thirty-six years as a general surgeon at New York Episcopal Hospital—during which she extracted over two thousand gallbladders, fifteen hundred appendixes, scores of thyroid glands, three miles of small bowel, and eighty-four foreign bodies, including a tie clip left behind by a colleague—Dr. Emma Inkstable had grown increasingly skeptical of human weakness. Let the headshrinkers spew their claptrap about clinical depression and generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress; in a handful of extreme cases, they might have a point. So might the social workers with their tragic tales of stolen childhoods. Yet as far as Inkstable was concerned, all that most able-bodied people required to keep themselves on track was a strong work ethic—and, failing that, an equally strong kick in the pants. If she—the homely daughter of an unmarried switchboard operator—could hold her own against the good old boys in the OR, she didn’t see how anyone else had a right to complain.

“I make no apologies for how I see the world,” she told Sarah Steinhoff, the spirited high school junior who’d come to write her profile as part of a special college prep summer course. “I do realize I’m not going to win any popularity contests for what I’m saying. But if I sound callous, even heartless, it’s because anybody who’s lived as long as I have and doesn’t sound a tad heartless must have her head in the sand.”

“How old are you, Dr. Inkstable?”

The girl appeared oblivious to her own impertinence. She was a pretty creature, pert and busty, with a mane of auburn curls. Inkstable was glad they’d sent her. When she’d volunteered for the program, which paired aspiring female journalists from broken homes with recently retired professionals, all graduates of Hunter College, she’d feared getting stuck with some mousy, spiritless child who hid from her own shadow. Instead, they’d given her Mike Wallace in a low-cut blouse.

“I’m old enough, young lady,” replied Inkstable, “to remember a time when it was considered indecorous to ask a woman her age.”

“And how old is that?” inquired the girl.

Inkstable grinned, in spite of herself. “Next question.”

This was their third interview. On the first—the morning after the surgeon’s final day at the hospital—she’d given Sarah a realtor’s tour of the apartment. During the second, she’d shown photographs from her two-year stint at the National Institutes of Health. This evening, they sat in Inkstable’s kitchen, the air-conditioner groaning under the July heat, adversaries united in mutual-if-grudging respect.

“So however old you are,” said Sarah, brandishing her microphone like a stiletto, “you’ve obviously lived through a lot of changes during your career. What I want to ask you about next is the AIDS crisis. Specifically, what did you do to confront it?”

“I’m really not sure what you mean.”

“It was the 1980s. All of these men were dying,” pressed the girl. “How did you change your life to help them? For example, you could have opened up a clinic….”

Although Inkstable recognized the question as absurd—no more reasonable than asking what she’d done to end the Cold War—the girl’s sincerity unsettled her. She’d always thought of herself as living a life that mattered. She’d spent her days plunging blades into human flesh. She’d forestalled death. If she’d taken a pass on marriage and children—well, marriage and children weren’t the whole ball of wax. But over the last several weeks, as the sixty-eight year-old surgeon contemplated her future (and, if she took good care of herself, that future might extend another three decades), she’d experienced a subtle yet disquieting sense that she should have accomplished more. It was a new feeling for her. Not of failure, exactly, but of detachment. Now, Sarah’s cross-examination exacerbated that unease.

Fortunately, before any need arose to deflect the girl’s questions, the telephone sounded in the foyer. She reached it on the second ring. “Dr. Inkstable speaking.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” replied the caller in a tone genuinely apologetic. “My name’s Dr. Sucram. I’m one of the medical doctors taking care of Harry Hager.”

Inkstable didn’t recognize the name, but that was not unusual. She fielded countless phone calls about former patients she didn’t remember—though rarely at home on a Tuesday night. What seemed strangest was that the patient apparently had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. Hardly a matter for a general surgeon.

“I think there’s some misunderstanding,” interrupted Inkstable. “Are you sure you want Dr. Inkstable from general surgery?”

“Oh, you’re a doctor,” said the caller, obviously surprised. “Sorry, Mrs. Inkstable—I mean Dr. Inkstable. I didn’t know. You have to understand that Mr. Hager isn’t lucid at the moment. But he had a note in his wallet with your name and phone number, so the attending asked me to call you.”

A glimmer of insight kindled in Inkstable’s mind. Maybe Harry Hager was mustached “Mr. Hager” from apartment 2B. Of course! She’d seen the name on his mailbox thousands of times over the years. But while she’d always been friendly with her neighbor—he’d worked at a library, she believed—their conversations had been largely confined to small talk in the elevator and laundry room. Hager had always impressed her as being an extremely private man, as someone nourishing a rich inner life. How strange that he’d have her name and number on his person.

“Which hospital are you calling from?” she asked.

Inkstable jotted down the floor and room number. Under the circumstances, the least she could do was to pay a visit.

When she glanced up from her pad, she found the young journalist spying on her from the kitchen doorway. “Do you want to make a sick call?” Inkstable asked. She didn’t have the energy to reproach the girl for eavesdropping.

~

Forty-five minutes later, they rode the elevator to the neurological ICU at Manhattan County Hospital. They’d caught the public bus—since her retirement, Inkstable was trying to take fewer cabs—and the surgeon enjoyed thinking that other passengers might mistake the girl for her daughter. As she’d informed Sarah en route, the care delivered at “County” was “slightly better than at a veterinary clinic.” Her companion had dutifully scribbled the remark in her notebook.

On the seventh floor, the air smelled pungently of disinfectant. Fluorescent tubes cast a hideous pink glow over the tiles. At the entrance to the neurological ward, a double-sided yellow sign warned that the floor was wet.

“Does it feel strange?” asked the girl—following Inkstable past the nursing station. “To be in the hospital now that you’re retired?”

“Not really,” lied Inkstable. “In the OR, maybe I’d feel different.”

They arrived at the curtained alcove where Harry Hager lay attached to a ventilator and a wall of monitors. You didn’t need a medical degree, reflected Inkstable, to realize that things looked dire. Her neighbor had always been on the lean side—wiry, with delicate features—but in his hospital gown, he appeared downright scrawny. The secret truth was that she’d once thought him handsome, albeit in passing. He was only three years older than she, she learned from his wristband, although she’d always suspected that a solid decade stood between them. For the first time, it struck her that taking a high school student to see a dying stranger might require parental permission.

She clasped Hager’s discolored hand; on instinct, she felt for his pulse.

“What are his chances?” asked Sarah, cool as ice.

“We all have the same chances in the long run,” quipped Inkstable—a remark honed on years of junior surgeons.

“And in the short run?”

“That,” replied Inkstable cautiously, “is a question for a neurologist.”

The neurologist arrived several minutes later, Dr. Sucram herself, a second year neurology resident. Behind her, looking rather like an injured lamb, stood the intern, Dr. Borrelli. “Are you Dr. Inkstable?” Sucram asked, offering up a hand with five burgundy fingernails. “I believe we spoke on the phone.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Inkstable. “I take it things are as grim as they look.”

Her comment seemed to fluster the resident. “I can’t tell you how glad we are that you’re here,” she finally said. “We have to make a decision about surgery. His best bet is to put in a coil and drain some of that fluid—but, as I’m sure you know, he might come out of the OR pretty damaged. So the alternative is to let nature take its course…”

A long silence ensued, punctuated only by the rhythmic bleats of the cardiac monitor and the angrier tones of the IV pump as the saline solution ran low. Suddenly, Inkstable realized that they wanted her to decide.

“I’m not a relative,” she explained quickly. “I’m just a neighbor….”

“Do you know how to get in touch with his family?”

The short answer was no. She didn’t even know if he had family.

“In that case,” said Dr. Sucram, “as a neighbor who knows him better than we do, you’re allowed to act as his surrogate. If you’re willing, that is….”

“And if I’m not willing?” asked Inkstable.

Dr. Sucram toyed nervously with her engagement ring. “It would be really helpful if you could make a decision,” she said. “You did know him, after all….”

“What you mean,” replied Inkstable, unwilling to brook nonsense, “is that you don’t want to call the attending at home to tell him you can’t find a relative.”

That caught the junior physician off guard. Sucram shifted her weight from her right leg to her left, and for a moment Inkstable feared the young woman might flee in panic. It was July, after all, probably the resident’s very first night as the ranking house officer on call. Inkstable immediately regretted her harsh words—and especially uttering them in front of the high school journalist.

If she’d been in her neighbor’s shoes herself, Inkstable knew, she’d never have wanted the surgery. Better to end up dead than half-head—locked away in some nursing facility weaving baskets and re-learning how to count. But just because those were her own wishes didn’t mean they were Harry Hager’s. What if a relative showed up and said he’d have wanted every heroic measure?

“Okay, I’ll decide. For now. Until you can locate his family,” she said. “You’d better put in that coil and drain what you can.”

~

Inkstable left her cell number with the resident—“in case of inopportune developments”—and returned to her apartment. The next morning, at the start of visiting hours, she was back at Hager’s bedside. Sarah Steinhoff had secured permission from her summer program to accompany her. “It will be good exposure for her,” the girl’s aunt told Inkstable on the phone. “Maybe it will convince her to go into medicine like her grandfather.” While the surgeon suspected that the opposite might prove true—that a day beside the stroke victim could permanently kill any thoughts of a medical career—she didn’t have an axe to grind either way.   She wasn’t even sure why she’d come to the hospital herself, seeing as she had no formal connection to Hager. The poor man remained unconscious, his head now wrapped in gauze.

Sarah continued the interview during their visit: What was the worst mistake she’d ever made in the operating room? How did she feel about caps on malpractice lawsuits? What had she done to advance the cause of women in surgery? To this last question, she wanted to answer: “I existed.” Instead, she humored the girl with twaddle about all of the junior colleagues she’d mentored. Meanwhile, Harry’s ribcage rose and fell with his breath, his eyes swollen beneath closed lids, the cloak of impending death draped over his emaciated body.

Dr. Pastarnack, the neurology attending, made an appearance in the early afternoon. He was a pudgy, egg-bald gnome of a man; his lavender bowtie matched the handkerchief in his breast pocket. “So you’re the next of kith, I hear.”

“Excuse me?”

“When we can’t find a patient’s next of kin,” explained Pastarnack, beaming, “I like to say that at least we’ve found the next of kith.”

I’m not even that, thought Inkstable—but it wasn’t worth explaining.

“Mr. Hager,” called the neurologist. He rubbed the patient’s sternum, yanked open an eyelid, pressed his reflex hammer against the man’s nail beds. “Earth to Harry. Earth to Harry.” Inkstable’s neighbor remained unresponsive. Pastarnack turned to her and said, “I just looked at the imaging. That bleed did quite a number on his noggin, but we probably won’t know too much for a few days yet.” Then Pastarnack scanned the vitals clipboard at the foot of the bed and waved goodbye with a high-pitched “toodle-oo” that might either have been earnest or ironic.

“Sarah, dear,” said Inkstable, as soon as he’d departed. “Do me a favor. If you ever become a physician and, for some inexplicable reason, you’re tempted to refer to a stroke victim’s brain as his ‘noggin,’ or to call a surrogate ‘the next of kith,’ kindly resign your medical license at once.”

That led to a long discussion on the decline of formality in doctor-patient relationships, and in society more generally. “When I flew to my first medical conference,” recalled Inkstable, “I dressed up for the plane flight. I even wore jewelry. Nowadays, people travel first-class in dungarees and t-shirts.  They go to the theater in dungarees and t-shirts. I’ll never get used to that.” To Inkstable’s amusement, her ‘biographer’ embraced the other side of the argument. They were still debating the subject with gusto, two hours later, when Harry Hager blinked himself awake.

~

At eight o’clock the next day, Inkstable found Zyke, her Latvian doorman, and described what had happened to Hager. Unfortunately, the box beside her neighbor’s name on the building’s “emergency contact” list stood blank. (Inkstable was jarred to realize that her own emergency contact, a childhood friend, had been dead for five years.) After several lengthy conversations with the building agent, which also involved input from the management company’s attorneys, Zyke used a spare key to let her into Hager’s apartment.

2B was the mirror image of her own 2G. Its contents were largely as she might have anticipated: a living room lined floor-to-ceiling with hardcover books, a bedroom as sterile as a hotel suite. The only surprise was a peculiar musical instrument—Inkstable believed it to be an English horn—resting on the nightstand. She couldn’t recall her neighbor ever playing; she’d certainly have heard him practicing from across the courtyard. No television, no photographs. More significant for Inkstable’s purposes was the absence of an address book that might contain contact information regarding Hager’s family. As close as she came was a post-it note stuck to the refrigerator which read ‘Cousins in Israel,’ followed by an international number, but she phoned multiple times and reached only a machine. Eventually, she left the hospital’s info after the beep. Without even the cousins’ names to go on, what more could she do? Under Zyke’s watchful gaze, she also packed an overnight bag with her neighbor’s clothes.

Over the ensuing days, Hager displayed flickers of recovery. He managed to sit up in bed and even to swallow the Jell-O that Inkstable fed him, although he remained delirious throughout, and kept mistaking the surgeon for his grandmother. He had a vague notion that he was in a hospital—but couldn’t remember its name, despite daily reminders from Drs. Sucram and Borrelli. To Inkstable’s surprise, the budding journalist continued to join her at Hager’s bedside. “I want to see you in action,” explained the girl. “In New Yorker profiles, the reporters follow people around.” That drew an authentic laugh from the surgeon—her first laugh, she realized, since retirement.

The only unpleasant aspect of Inkstable’s duties—and that was how she thought of them—was the fifteen minutes each afternoon when Dr. Pastarnack stopped by to check on his patient’s progress. “So the next of kith is still with us,” he declared, as though the witticism were falling on virgin ears. “And how’s Harry’s ‘noggin’ doing?” He’d close each visit by pressing the stroke victim for some absurd task: Are you up for translating some Sanskrit today, Harry? Or Ready for some differential equations this morning? Or If you name the Roman Emperors in order, Mr. Hager, I might just let you go home…. Inkstable’s neighbor responded with a benighted smile. Occasionally, he added a “thank you,” if he concluded that gratitude was in order. As soon as Pastarnack left, Inkstable threatened the air that she’d report him to the state licensing authorities.

A lesser inconvenience of her newfound duties was that they required the surgeon to postpone several ventures she’d set up to launch her retirement. She’d previously committed to teaching scientific literacy in a GED program and to recording mental health journals for distribution to vision-impaired psychotherapists. Both of these endeavors, she postponed until September. She also put off a long-planned trip to Seattle, where her college roommate had settled, pleading “an illness in the family.”

Would she have gone to these lengths for a different neighbor? Possibly not. The truth was that during her long hours at Hager’s bedside, and especially during the bus trips to and from the hospital, Dr. Inkstable replayed her encounters with the man—numerous, seemingly trivial interactions—and she concluded that the poor fellow had been (as her own dear mother might have said) sweet on her. One time—she’d nearly forgotten—she’d run into him in the lobby, returning from her fiftieth birthday party, her canvas bag brimming over with presents; he’d congratulated her—and then knocked on her door several minutes later with a present of his own: A biography of the pioneering surgeon William Stewart Halsted. She’d never actually read the book, although she’d told him, on their next encounter, that she’d enjoyed it very much. On another occasion, only a few years ago, he’d received a crate of oranges from Haifa, and he’d invited her to claim as many as she wanted. Again, she never followed up. At the time, it hadn’t even crossed her mind that his conduct was more than neighborly—she was an old maid, after all, and not pretty—but now that they’d found her name in his wallet, she saw how oblivious she’d been. Not that she had any real regrets. She was simply disappointed in her own blindness.

“You used to have a crush on him, didn’t you?” asked the girl.

That was five days after Hager regained consciousness; they were chatting in the visitors’ lounge, waiting for him to return from an MRI. The only other occupants were a pair of obese sisters glued to a telenovela.

“Don’t be foolish.”

“I knew it. You’re blushing,” gloated Sarah. “I have very good intuition about these sorts of things.”

“Well, in this case, your intuition is dead wrong,” said Inkstable. “I don’t believe I exchanged more than one hundred words with Harry Hager in my entire adult life.”

“Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t have the hots for him.”

Inkstable glanced across the room, afraid the sisters might overhear her. “Enough of this nonsense already,” she warned. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“It could,” replied the girl. “What if he gets better? I know the odds are low, but if Mr. Hager made a full recovery, would you go out with him?”

“If grandmother had testicles,” said Inkstable, “she’d be grandfather.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just an expression I shouldn’t have used.   But the point is the same: Harry’s not going to recover, and I’m far too old to be dating anyway.”

“But that’s not true. My aunt’s mother-in-law got remarried at eighty—”

Inkstable held up her hand. “She’s her. I’m me,” she said. “New topic.”

And yet, from that moment forward, the remote possibility that Harry Hager might make a full recovery, and that she might ‘go out’ with him, was never far removed from her thoughts.

~

Hager’s condition improved at a glacial pace. He had good moments, when he seemed to recognize Inkstable, and one breakthrough, when he remembered her name was Emma, but ten minutes later, he was calling her Granny Louise and asking her for help with his schoolwork. Yet cognitive reconstitution after a stroke, Inkstable recognized, often took many months. Even years. She’d read somewhere about a firefighter in Iowa or Idaho who’d awoken from a post-hemorrhage coma after three decades. Compared to that hapless fellow, Harry seemed in strong shape. By the end of his second week in the hospital, he’d been transferred to a general neurology unit and she’d somehow managed to get him into his own clothes.

“Thank you kindly,” he said, admiring his new look in her pocket mirror. “I’m not sure who you are, but I do appreciate your assistance.”

Even in his impaired state, one sensed her neighbor to be a gentle soul—in many ways, the spitting opposite of Inkstable. Since his stroke, he’d sprouted a fine white beard to match his mustache. Much of the bruising around his nose and chin had resolved. Once he’d traded in his hospital gown for a collared shirt, he managed to throw the cloak of death off his frame. Now she could not deny the truth: Harry Hager was indeed a strikingly handsome man.

“And who is this young lady?” he asked, smiling at the girl.

“I’m Sarah,” she said.

“Are you my daughter?” asked Hager.

Sarah smiled. “I’m not. I’m just a friend.”

“Are you her daughter?” he asked again, glancing at the surgeon.

“I’m nobody’s daughter,” said Sarah. “I’m a friend of Dr. Inkstable.”

The girl’s answer upset Inkstable—unreasonably so. She found herself wishing that Sarah had lied. Why not claim she was her daughter? In fact, why not say she was her daughter and Hager’s daughter? It was fantastical nonsense, she understood, but wasn’t everyone entitled to a small dose of fantastical nonsense?

“I’m glad you’re here anyway,” said Hager. “If I did have a daughter, I’m sure I’d want her to be like you.”

Later that day, when Sarah left for a dental checkup, Inkstable found herself alone with Hager for the first time since he’d regained consciousness. She held a straw to his lips, helping him drink a boxed juice. His right arm remained entirely paralyzed and he still had difficulty manipulating the fingers in his left hand. “It looks like it’s just the two of us this afternoon,” she said.

“I’m grateful for the company.”

“Do you remember who I am?” she asked.

He stared at her blankly. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t.”

“It’s Emma. Emma Inkstable. From across the courtyard,” she said. “You carried my name around in your wallet.”

“I’m sure I did,” he agreed. “If you say so.”

“Try to remember, Harry. Please. You gave me a biography of William Steward Halsted for my fiftieth birthday…and one time, you received a crate of oranges from your cousins in Haifa and you invited me to share them.”

“That’s right. My cousins,” he said.

“So you do remember?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I think I might have cousins in Israel.   But if I’m mistaken, please don’t be angry at me.”

“Nobody’s going to be angry at you, Harry.” She felt her frustration mounting, the urge to shake him like a broken vending machine until coins fell out. “I’m just trying to jog your memory.” She took a deep breath and added, “You had a crush on me once. We were going to go out together…like a couple.”

“Were we?”

“Yes, we were,” she answered decisively. “But we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that later.   Once you’ve regained your strength.”

They were interrupted an instant later by the shift nurse, performing her afternoon temperature check. Her presence reminded Inkstable of how different it felt to be a visitor: On surgery rounds, she’d have asked the nurse to return once she’d left. When they were alone again, Inkstable asked, “Do you play the English horn?”

“I don’t know,” answered Hager. “Do I?”

Inkstable regretted not having brought the instrument with her. She’d seen videos of amnesiacs playing Chopin and Tchaikovsky on the piano. Mightn’t Hager pipe out a sonata or two on the English horn? She even considered asking Zyke for the spare key to Hager’s apartment again—but realistically, she knew, they’d have little patience for brass performances on the neurology ward. Besides, when she’d mentioned the instrument the next morning, he had absolutely no memory of their conversation.

~

She knew what was coming, even before the nitwit Pastarnack asked to speak with her alone in the corridor. He’d traded in his bowtie for what looked like an honest-to-god ascot and he sported a peculiar silk scarf around his neck. “I hate to be the one to tell you this,” he explained, “but I spent all morning on the phone with the insurance company. Alas, your kith has to depart.”

“All morning,” echoed Inkstable. “Really.”

“You’ll have to talk to the social worker about your options. Quite frankly, I don’t see him getting much out of sub-acute rehab. It’s either home with services or a skilled nursing facility—but I’ll leave that for you to sort out.”

“How thoughtful of you.”

“In any case,” said the neurologist, “Harry’s fortunate to have you. Strong family—or non-family, as the case may be—support is the most important factor in a patient’s long term prognosis.”

This was too much for Inkstable. “Do you really believe that, Dr. Pastarnack? More important than the extent of tissue damage? So a patient with a massive mid-cerebral bleed and a loyal wife is better off than a loner with a tiny infarct? In my day, they taught that social support was valuable—but rarely determinant.”

The look of sheer bewilderment on the neurologist’s face brought Inkstable a surge of pleasure, the same joy she’d always felt making fast-paced decisions in the OR. Unwilling to sacrifice even an ounce of her satisfaction, she turned on her heels and abandoned Pastarnack before he had a chance to respond. But, nitwit that he was, he’d been correct in one regard: Harry was lucky to have her.

She consulted with the social worker early the following morning, Sarah Steinhoff joining them in what was almost a ‘family’ meeting. It turned out that Hager had been a patient at “County” once before, for a hernia repair, and so they had all of his records—including details on his supplemental insurance. He’d been a planner. Thanks to multiple, overlapping policies, he’d have a strong claim for 24-hour nursing care. (Inkstable couldn’t help wondering about her own insurance arrangements, which she doubted were nearly so generous.)   By the end of the day, they’d arranged for Hager to return to his own apartment. “It makes the most sense,” she assured the social worker. “This way I can visit him every day—even more often, if necessary. And maybe the familiar settings will jog his memory.”

“I do hope so,” agreed the social worker. She filled out a series of computerized forms while they spoke. At one question, she asked, “And you are his…?”

“Girlfriend,” Inkstable declared.

Sarah threw her a puzzled look—to which she responded with a stern glare.

Once they’d left the social worker’s office, she said, “It’s easier this way. What does it matter if they write ‘girlfriend’ on some pointless form anyway?”

“You don’t need to sound so defensive,” answered the girl, smirking. “If you want to be Harry’s girlfriend, who am I to disagree?”

“Impertinent little fiend,” said Inkstable. “That’s what you are, young lady.” But that didn’t stop her from taking the girl out for pizza.

~

The Israeli cousins, Bonnie and Albert, arrived while they were eating. When Inkstable returned to the neurology ward, she found the wife in a heated discussion with the social worker.   The pair were standing at the foot of Harry’s bed. Albert, who looked to be in his seventies—considerably older than his wife—sat by the window, reading The Wall Street Journal.   “Am I interrupting?” inquired the surgeon.

“Not at all,” replied the social worker. “I was just explaining the arrangements we’ve made to Mrs. Nalaskowski….” She lowered her voice—although it was unclear who could possibly overhear. “There seems to be some disagreement….”

“Bonnie. Harry’s cousin,” said the newcomer, extending a hand. She spoke with a faint accent. “His uncle was my father. And you are?”

“Emma Inkstable,” answered the surgeon. She was tempted to add, ‘his girlfriend,’ but she didn’t dare. “I live in his building.”

“You’re the neighbor who phoned us, aren’t you? I’m sorry it took so long to get here. We spend our winters in Maine. They’re supposed to forward our calls, but….” She shrugged. “You know how it is….”

“I should excuse myself,” interjected the social worker.

“Please don’t,” objected Bonnie. “I’d like to get this all sorted out quickly.”

Inkstable detected menace in the cousin’s tone. Behind her, Sarah Steinhoff was dutifully scribbling notes in her journal. “What’s to sort out?” asked the surgeon.

“We’re planning on taking Harry back to Israel with us,” said the cousin. “This week. We’ve arranged for a place in the same nursing home with my parents….”

“But I’ve already set up round-the-clock care,” insisted Inkstable. “I realize you have the best of intentions, but I’m confident Harry would have wanted to stay here.”

The woman stood arms akimbo, her eyes fierce under heavy liner. “Who are you to tell me what Harry would want?” She looked to the social worker for support. “My understanding was that family has the final say….”

“I’m afraid she’s right, Dr. Inkstable. They are cousins.”

“And what am I?” demanded the surgeon.

Yet she already knew the answer. Nothing. To Harry Hager, legally speaking, she was no more than a hunk of stone. If she’d had a scalpel at that instant, she had little doubt she’d have carved open the Israeli cousin’s chest.

“I appreciate your efforts,” said the woman—in a voice more hostile than conciliatory. “But family is family. Surely, you understand….”

~

Inkstable remained inside her own apartment for the next several days, knowing that movers were likely at work across the corridor. Those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves would need to be emptied from her neighbor’s apartment; everything—even that strange brass instrument—would have to go, all of the poor man’s earthly goods sold on E-bay or donated to charity or discarded. To distract herself, the surgeon rifled through her own closet until she uncovered Robustelli’s biography of Halsted, which had gathered years of dust atop a box of bird-watching guides. It was a fascinating read and a well-earned diversion. By the end of the week, she’d managed to recognize her relationship with Harry Hager for what it had been: a pipe dream. For all she knew, he’d had her name in his wallet because he wanted to complain about noise from across the courtyard or to solicit her vote for the co-op board. Who could ever know? And if she wanted to ‘go out’ with someone—which seemed rather silly, at her age—she could do a lot better than a cognitively-impaired stroke survivor. On Friday afternoon, she checked with Zyke, and was relieved to learn that Harry’s cousins had cleared out his apartment. Even the name “H. Hager” had been stripped from his mailbox in the vestibule, leaving behind only a pale band of discolored metal.

Inkstable was feeling ready to re-launch her retirement—to put this unfortunate interruption behind her—when the doorbell rang, shortly before noon on Saturday. She answered the door in her bathrobe, expecting a delivery. Instead, the young journalist stood at the threshold. The girl sported a backwards baseball cap and a spaghetti-strap top that exposed far too much midriff. In spite of that, Inkstable was delighted to see her. To the girl’s surprise, Inkstable offered her a hug.

“To what do I owe this honor?” asked the surgeon.

“I finished my biography,” replied Sarah—holding out a report binder. “I thought you’d want to read it before I turn it in.”

She’d almost forgotten about the writing project. She flipped through the crisp, white pages. The girl had obviously put in a great deal of effort.

“I thought maybe you’d read it while I’m here,” said Sarah. “It’s not that long.”

“I guess I can,” agreed Inkstable. “Why don’t you come into the kitchen and I’ll get you a nice glass of milk. And would you like some fruit? I have fresh cantaloupe.”

Only when the girl was finally settled at the table with a slice of melon and a bowl of white grapes did the surgeon open the manuscript. The title page read:

 

EMMA ESMARALDA INKSTABLE: A POSSIBLE LIFE

BY

SARAH LAUREN STEINHOFF

 

She turned the page and entered the world of her own childhood: the years spent in the railroad apartment above the cobbler shop, where the air always stank of rotting leather; her mother’s death from esophageal cancer; the scholarships that gave her enough of a financial foundation to work her way through Harvard and Yale Med. She was about to compliment the young journalist on her cogent, colorful prose style, when on page seventeen, she found herself meeting Harry Hager in the elevator. It was Christmas Eve, and she’d had a smidgen too much eggnog at the departmental holiday party. When her heel broke—she didn’t even wear heels!—and she twisted her ankle, the librarian helped her back to her apartment. By the following week, they were an item.

She skimmed through the pages that followed. She saw the words “wedding,” “anniversary,” “children.” Each blow hit her in the chest like artillery and her entire body started to tremble.

“What have you done?” the surgeon demanded. “What have you done?”

A look of alarm swallowed the girl’s features. “I didn’t mean to get you upset, Dr. Inkstable. Honestly, I didn’t,” she said. “I was just trying to be creative….and it has a happy ending. I thought you’d like it this way.”

And then the girl was sobbing, and Inkstable was sobbing, and somewhere, far away, a stranger was blowing the first joyful notes on her newly-acquired English horn.

To the Waters

Debra Rook

You don’t stay here on account it’s convenient. You want convenience, you go to Norfolk or Virginia Beach, Richmond or Raleigh. Somewhere hundreds of miles away from the blackwater swamps of the Alligator River, the Albemarle and Pamlico. Here, there is nothing for the city crowd, those what need electricity and hair dryers. Plenty for those who know how to see. Cypress, rust-water thick, knees knocking against each other in clumps of billowing muck. Snakes tangled like cut ropes looped by the current. Broad black mud with a stink so sweet you gather why the gators and deer and bear wallow in it. There’s raptors floating on the updrafts in a robin’s egg sky. Ospreys, bald eagles, buzzards, falcons, all swirling, scanning for dinner. And the fish. Tannic rivers and creeks bleeding with croaker and shad, bass and blue-gill and soft shell crab skittering in summer. Mud turtles and wood ducks and crotchety herons evolved to life in these pocosin waters. Man’s mark is here too, in the rawboned trunks of cut-over forest and falling-down tobacco barns. You see it in the coming-upon of a crab apple in a woodland where not one is native. But even those marks are fading with time. The land reclaims her own. Birthing new generations. Stealing back her territory. Like the wolves.

It was the wolves for me. Red wolves. Thirty years on since those first days trapping the leftovers in Louisiana swamps and people still arguing about red wolves being real wolves and deserving federal protection. Once we argued about human beings being real human beings, slaves and women. When will people educate from their mistakes?

I live here on the Alligator River, always have. Not much of a river. Finger of the Albemarle Sound more like, but currents slug some and river’s the name what stuck. Sometimes that’s the way life is, drops out of the sky or crawls from the water and sticks, a tick burrowed under your skin.

I called her Tick day I found her, thunder storming, huddled next to the wolf pens. She was soaked wet, bruised and scratched with something more than branches and brambles. Hurt she was, by someone who knew how. She wouldn’t tell her name, wouldn’t say a word, just locked her fingers through the chain link of the pen and held for dear life when I pulled her elbows. She wouldn’t bathe, terrified of the water, so I took a cloth to wipe muck enough to see the pinky-white of her skin. How’d she get to my wolf keeper’s cabin in the middle of the swamp I don’t know. No matter how I asked it, soft or booming or bribed with cookies, Tick didn’t answer me. Only sound I heard her make was howling at night when the wolves mounded their calls to the sky.

“Tick, where’d you come from?” No answer. “Tick, what’s your name?” She let on she could hear with a shake of the head, a flick of the tongue over her skinny brittle lips. Made soft sounds too, a whimper, a sigh, when she thought she was out of earshot, but none else.

Wolf would have been a name for her, but it was already took. I am Wolf Woman, weird and strange and living in the swamps. Sixty odd years I been muddling my life out of these woods and waters and muck. Crabber’s daughter, born here and bred on catfish and crabbing before the wolves came in ’87. Moved us to Mann’s Harbor they did when the government took the land for the wildlife refuge. Mama and Daddy were old, and didn’t mind the new house with lights and bathrooms. I did. Too much of the wrong kind of noise even for a place what’s a blink of a town like Mann’s Harbor, a jut of firm land with houses bumped out of the ground like knots on a log. The stars was duller what with watch lights glaring all night and road traffic buzzing by on the highway, vacationers droning to Outer Banks beaches in their bloated cars, metal flies flocking to white-sand honey.

Six, maybe seven, is Tick’s age I reckon. I should have told the authorities, I know, but out here in the swamps you get to thinking there’s no law but nature’s law. Tick came in the storm, child of the storm, though I know’d all along she belonged to someone somewhere. I should’ve told them at the beginning.

~

“Tick, hand me that scoop.” She does and I scoop the dog food we feed the wolves in the pens. Follows me around everywhere like a lost pup, Tick does, eyes big and hands turtled inside the rolled-up sleeves of my old jacket. Good worker. Tick does whatever I tell her so long as it don’t involve talking or leaving my sight. Scared little thing. How could I not fall in love?

“You know, Tick, these are wolves. Not dogs. Red wolves. Special wolves. They went almost extinct, killed them off we did, save but a few. Bred them. Brought them back. Reintroduction we call it. Wolves running free in North Carolina again. Not for a couple hundred years did wolves run free. Now they’re back. Home. Where they belong.”

~

Them months in Mann’s Harbor caring for Mama and Daddy, I missed the turning of spring buds and the grunt of black bears stealing apples. I spent what days I could fishing in Daddy’s flat-bottomed johnboat tied to a stump. I’d wade through the brambles and get deep in the pocosin, sit for a while. Listen. Flitting birds. Squirrels scattering up a tree. Tread of a deer herd on sprinkled leaves. A bear wading through a ditch, flinging water drops from his coat on the other side. The wolf. I saw her back then, one of the first four what was released to make their way to wild survival. She did, partnering with a male, whelping a litter of fuzzy pups. I saw them in my days sitting and waiting and blending into the swamp water, a silence ignored by the forest long as I kept from threatening. The wolf, she saw me too. Looked dead at me, head low, sussing the risk. Yellow eyes, like goldenrod blooming in summer. She nosed her pups around me, almost out of sight, well out of reach, slipped down a rabbit path in the cane and disappeared.

~

Tick has yellow hair. I couldn’t tell with the muck in it, but weeks on, she trusted me enough to close her eyes. I tipped her head back and swooshed it with warm water heated on the wood stove. Not too hot, mixed with cold enough to be just right. Goldie Locks. Her new name? The Algonquins, ones who used to hold this land, if land can be held at all, took new names when weighty events pulled on their lives. Birth, death, coming of age. Washing of hair, closing of eyes—trust. “Tick ain’t no name for a goldie-haired girl,” I tell her, smoothing my fingers over her head, water dripping like summer rain. “Can’t call you else but Tick now. You’ve got under my skin.”

~

When I buried Mama and Daddy, died quick they did, six months one from the other, I took the job of wolf keeper, minder of the penned wolves what’re not quite ready to run free. The sick, the injured, the too young or too tame to survive on their own. I heal them, raise them up right. Teach them of predator and prey. My job is bound to make even the sanest strange after a time I suppose, living like I do, single room wood slat cabin what’s got no plumbing or electricity. What gets me is I’m thought odd for wanting my first sense on waking to be brightness streaming through my windows, breezes shushing the branches, not the beep of clocks or metal machines roaring down the road. Don’t get why wanting here more’n anywhere makes me a kook. When I wander to town, eyes watch me like they would a bear what wandered out of the swamp. Noses flair, catching my scent. Feet shuffle sideways. Hands fish for children and reel them back. Beware the Wolf Woman.

~

Tick darts now, a dragonfly defying the air. Fall’s on and the weather’s cooled. Balmy days, chilly nights. Indian Summer. Not afraid of leaving my sight now. She’s up a tree, down a deer path, splashing through runnels of creek water. Darting all the time, humming. Happy. Still no words, not happy enough for words, but I don’t push. Words will come I suppose, one day, but until they do she has new sounds. Tread of feet on moist earth. Brush of her breeze when she zips past. Laughter.

Defensive she is. Always defending her territory. She captured a corner of the cabin for herself, staking a tent from branches and an old sheet. She growls when I get too close but I smile and whisper soft and duck away. And the wolves. She’s taken to the wolves. Since she’s found her legs, she’s found her way to crawl over the fences and into the pens. I caught her playing with juvenile pups, rolling and nipping like she was one. The parents tolerated her but kept to a corner, undecided on the goldy-haired girl what smelled like soap. I tell her get out, not to go in there, but she don’t listen to me. Hardly let me go in to feed the wolves myself for a day or so, growling at me like she was guardian. “You hush up there!” I scolded and puffed and growled right back so she’d know I mean business. She backed off and let me by. I hugged her after, let her know I weren’t mad. She kissed me. On the cheek. No child ever done that before. I dropped my arms and she laughed and darted away, up the side of the cabin and on the roof before I could tell her to get down. My little hummingbird. Bright, tiny, flitting, territorial and beautiful. Oh so beautiful.

There’s a hunter in the swamps. They come this time of year to run dogs and deer. This one, his tracks tell a different story. Alone he is. Always. No buddies. No dogs. Boots with the toe crumpled on the right. Lumbers like an angry bear, probing, pushing, not like any hunter I’ve seen, more like he’s tearing things up. I see the tracks ‘bout a mile from the cabin down near an old cut-water creek. Trash and tracks and bullet casing from his rifle scatter around where he fires at cans set on a falling down stump. I leave his leavings and hurry my way back to Tick. I’ll give the bearman his bit of forest, hoping he’ll stay clear of my refuge.

 ~

Rick steps from his truck, and quick as a squirrel, Tick darts up a tree, peering through the leftover leaves of late autumn. “Who’s this, Mae?” asks Ranger Rick. Least, I amuse myself calling him that. “Hey little girl. Don’t you fall now,” he says laughing at the frail, shaking cub in the tree. I feel the Mama Bear rise up, but don’t take him on. Rick is okay, never bothers me. Harmless, like a box turtle. Usually Tick’s gone long before his truck winds down the sandy drive. Must not have heard him today. “She’s my niece,” I lie. “Didn’t know you had family,” he says all smiles. I mimic his face, friendly, defenseless. Like the turtle, I know how to hide too. “Just found out not too long ago myself.” I cross my arms and plant my feet. No Ranger Rick is getting past this Mama Bear. He shifts his cap. “Don’t guess home office needs to know ‘bout visiting relatives.” He nods. “Don’t reckon they do.” Rick and me lifts supplies from the truck bed, Tick watching from her perch in the sweet-gum tree. We shake hands when he leaves and I hold the feel of its roughness long after. All our years working out here and he never touched me before. Tick slips her hand in mine. I didn’t hear her come out the tree. We stand still, watching the light fade and the bats quiver and listen to the penned wolves howl their missives to far away relatives running the swamps.

Homer is the blind wolf. After the poet. One thing about genes, they go bad when they get too cramped together and don’t have enough room to stretch out right. It’s happened to the red wolves. Seventeen came out of the swamps back in ’78. Only fourteen paired up to breed. All the red wolves in the world today came from those fourteen. When you think, it’s amazing there are red wolves at all, but those fourteen were just too cramped in their genes. Blindness set in. Hereditary. Curses passed down through the lines. Homer lives in the pens with his brother, Alpha. Follows him everywhere, depends on him. There was a third brother once. He died. More gene trouble. Now, only Homer and Alpha sing their song come nights. Neither one ever passing on their genes. Never given the chance. Too risky I know, cramping the genes up more, but I wonder if they’re singing sad songs, mourning for their stolen sons and daughters. I wonder when my heart pulls and feels the same thing. I’m too old for babies myself. Over sixty is too old. Wanted them only when I grew too old to have them. When it was safe to want them again. Then Tick dropped from the sky, crawled from the backwater. I wonder when I listen to the wolves if I can hear the mourning of her mother, out there somewhere, crying for her child. The pull of genes is strong. I wonder where it leads.

~

Tick’s filled out some from the summer. It’s frost now, winter settled in to freezing slow-water edges. “You need schooling,” I tell her. I know this much is true, a child needs to go to school. I went myself. Didn’t like it much and they didn’t like me. Shoved me into the slow class on account of my strangeness. Teacher used to smack us with a wooden spoon if we mussed up our lessons. I cried so much Mama kept me home after awhile, filled me with books what Daddy checked out from the library over the water in Manteo. Never learned arithmetic more than settling up poundage for crabs, but don’t need too much numbering out here in the swamps. Still read though. Ranger Rick brings a stack of books for me every two weeks on his supply runs. Time to teach Tick to read.

She grins at me and darts away. A game, chase and catch. I wait. My own game. I pretend she’s a speck of dust floating in the sun. She can’t resist and stretches forward like a bobcat watching my eyes for a give-away. I snatch her from the air, a swallow on the wing. We laugh and shriek, all a game. I tuck her into my shoulder and settle her on my lap. “We’re going to read,” I tell her and I do. I read for hours. Poetry, because stories taste mostly of sadness. Poems, now, poems are gumdrops. Even when they’re sour, they’re over ‘fore you feel it too much. I pop gumdrops in Tick’s mouth, one for each poem, to keep her still. We work through my favorites, the ones my mama read as a girl and the ones she learned me. Tennyson and Longfellow and Whitman, the great ones. The raindrops of Emily Dickinson so small I scribble them on slips of paper and tuck them around the cabin walls. And Yeats. Yeats most of all.

“Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

Tick stills when I read that one, like she knows, like she’s seen. I hug her tighter, breathe her smell of murky woods and gumdrops. Tick—a poem.

 ~

“Eat,” I tell her. Tick looks at me. Used to be she’d guard whatever I put in front of her, hungry, stuffing her mouth and hands, afraid I’d snatch her peanut-butter bread or oatmeal. I’d catch her with pockets stuffed with green tomatoes and bitty cucumbers no longer than a finger. She’d see me tend my garden and sneak food when I weren’t looking, that’s how starved she’d been. Who knows for how long. Now, with meat on her bird bones she affords pickiness. “Eat your squash or you won’t get no cookies.” Ranger Rick brings one pack of Oreo cookies on his supply trips once a month. I hide them, make them last. One a day, no more, save the day he comes with a new pack. With Tick here, I order two packages. “You know these things’ll kill you,” Rick laughs when he scans my order list. I hint a smile, no more. I like Rick, but never say more than I have to. Never quite sure who you can trust, who’s a wicked faery what come to steal you away.

~

That bearman rumbles, circling my refuge. A blue truck rattles by us out on the refuge road. Tick bolts to the cover of the brush. He drives by, smiling, nodding at me. Can’t see his boots but I know he’s the one, a rifle in the gun rack behind his head. He waves, I don’t, and when he’s long gone down the straight road out of sight, I find Tick hiding in a blackberry bramble. She’s scratched and shaking and peed on herself and my gut knows. I know.

It takes an hour to get Tick out of the brambles and back to the cabin. Another hour to treat her scratches with antiseptic and get some warm food in her belly. I watch her as the evening dims to dusk and dark and when I’m tidying up the dishes, I hear her playing with her pinecone family, whispering, “Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.” She smacks one pinecone against another. I have to stop sluicing the water to make sure it’s her voice I hear, the outside dark pressing through the windows against my two fragile lamp lights.

~

First words is supposed to be celebrated. Da-da and Ma-ma. Bubby and Sissy. Family. These ain’t no good words falling out of my baby bird’s beak. My belly twists over the whispered hiss. Don’t tell. I won’t say a word O human child. I wait for her to fall asleep on the braided rug before moving her to her cot. The rest of the winter’s night I toss about the cabin, worrying my knuckles until they ain’t nothing but an ache.

~

Release day. Tick’s plopped on the seat between me and Ranger Rick, driving to the remote pen where one of my breeding pair’s been waiting to be set free. When red wolves are ready to run, they’re moved to a pen way out in the forest, deep in the refuge swamps. We lay off feeding them as much, switch to game meat instead of dog food. Road kill deer if it ain’t rumbled too bad. Wild rabbits Rick raises and lets go in the pen. Gives the wolves hunting practice, lets instinct teach lessons of hunter and hunted. I won’t let Tick watch wolf kills. The screaming of the rabbits is almost too much for me. Want her to see the release though, the day we open the gate. Rick parks a ways away and hauls a deer carcass from the pickup to the pen in a wheel barrow. Tick’s hand grips mine, eyes scampering like a songbird. Me, wolves, deer, Rick, trees, path, back to me. Always back to me, a pup checking with her mother for permission, for safety. Wordless, I help Rick open the gate and dump the carcass. The pair huddles at a far corner, watching us, noses tickling the air. Tick’s locked her fingers round the chains, staring at the wolves. We leave the gate wide and back away, Tick between us, each enfolding a tiny gloved hand. “This is the last meal we’ll feed them,” Rick whispers. “I’ll come back in a few days and they’ll be gone. Off to find a new home, claim territory, start a new pack.” He smiles as Tick ducks behind my legs. She’s not scared I can tell, just playful. Rick’s smile extends to me and I feel that bit of warmth inside I ain’t felt for many a year. First Tick, now Rick. My pack’s growing.

 ~

“Mama.” It’s Tick. Her first real word said to me. Mama. Me.

“Come on.” I pull her little hands from the covers, tucked under the sleeping bag and quilt and Army blanket. It’s cold, February cold, and like a hummingbird Tick hides from cold. But she won’t want to miss this. I’ve warmed her clothes by the stove, her boots and sweaters and socks and jackets, all child-sized. Rick knows she’s still here with all my ordering clothes, but he says nothing to the powers that be. I carved a wolf’s head from knot in a maple tree struck by lightning last summer to thank him. He tucked it in his pocket. Said nothing, like me, but he knows what I meant. I wrap Tick in my arms and carry her to the fire, dressing her like a squirmy baby doll. “Stop that now, little bird. You’re going to want to see my surprise.” She stops wriggling long enough to let me pour some oatmeal down her belly. Warm enough she darts outside to the pens, howls to the wolves, gloved fingers wrapping round the chain link. Alpha swifts to the far side of his pen, calculating a good distance from the ruckus. But Homer, he knows her I think. Not close he comes, but not hiding either. He sniffs the air just to her left, right, over her head. He’s learning to trust. She knows how he feels. “Mama, he likes me,” Tick says and I nod, my hands flicking open and closed. Come, come away. I wonder of the mama who taught her to talk. Where is she now? How could she let her baby get lost in the forest? Tick darts, there’s no other word, and we load up the canoe. I paddle for the both of us but she wants to try until she splashes herself with cold and leaves off. She waits until we see them, hundreds of them, a lake, a sea of white feather swans. Tundra swans, bigger than Tick is tall. Massive, grace-filled birds. Supple and snow with black beaks on a slate gray day. Whoo, whoo, whoo they cry as they fly in loose Vs over our heads, splash landings on the water. We watch, paddling around the waters, awed at their agile necks, their liquid movement. Elegance. I knew she’d love them.

Home again, Tick mimes a bird, arms like wings, legs racing in flight. “Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo.” I watch as I put up the canoe, watch as I feed the wolves in the pens. I know I have to ask with her talking now. I don’t want to. I want her to stay my little bird forever, but you can’t lock up a bird. Or a child.

~

Eighteen when I met him. Old for a girl with her first boyfriend maybe but I was happy on our scrap of planted land, just me and Mama and Daddy, the goats and chickens and crab pots. Eighteen was the summer Daddy hired a hand, Jimmy, and I caught the need for other people in my world. He was handsome, Jimmy was, with a strawberry smile and teeth not yet stained by chaw. I told him straight up I weren’t kissing no boy what tasted like tobacco. He spit the wad out right there and popped a few spearmint leaves from Mama’s garden in his mouth. Smiled at me, sun warm on my skin, the hum of honeybees in my ears. Sometimes I catch a whiff of Ranger Rick’s spearmint gum, smell of cigarettes on his shirt. Tobacco and spearmint. Two plants what tipped my world over.

~

“You’re talking now,” I tell her. Tick grins. Mischievous. Pocahontas, means Little Mischievous One but most people don’t read enough books to know that. I take Tick’s hands and settle each with a cookie, look straight in her eyes, signal her attention. “You’re talking now,” I say, “and you’ve got a name what ain’t Tick.” She looks away, out the window, cookie stuck to her damp lip. Is she trying to hear the wolves shifting in their pens? I squeeze her wrists, gentle still. No wooden spoons for her. “What’s your name?” “Tick, Mama.” I shake my head though my heart pulls. “Not my name for you, what’s the name they called you?” No answers. I pick up her pinecone family, the ones she plays with splayed on the rug like a mud turtle sunning his back. “Who’s this?” I ask. “Mommy,” she smiles, touching a finger to her favorite pinecone, the one what’s slim and smooth. “Who’s this?” I ask of another two. “Granma and Granpa.” “And these ones?” “Rick and Mama and Tick.” I put the family back on the shelf before she gets distracted. “My name is Mae,” I tell her. “I was lost once, like you, but I found my way. What’s your name?” Tick gums a cookie, lost in sunlight.

Jimmy. We had us a summer season. Crabbed right through September. A hurricane blew that year, knocked our big old oak tree out of the sky, but the power of winds and rain never compared with my Jimmy. Eyes grey as river water at twilight. Tall and strong and wiry, he let his beard get scraggly when I said I liked a bearded man. He never touched tobacco again once I said I weren’t kissing him if he did. And I did kiss him. Under that old oak tree first, then in the goat shed, up on the straw bales. Kissing and holding me like I was worth more than catfishing and crabbing and sky and water and land together.

~

I could turn her over, turn her in. They’d find out who Tick is, find her kin. I don’t though. Those what hurt her may be kin.

With spring coming on, that man is back, circling the refuge in his truck, stomping through brambles, flattening brush-grass, disturbing deer and rabbit paths. But you can’t find someone what don’t want to be found and Tick surely don’t want to be found. I have Tick burrowed down.

~

“Mama! Three puppies!” We thought they had them, the pair next to Homer’s pen, but weren’t sure. Weeks since she went in the den, a plank and plywood box salvaged and nailed together a couple years ago. Used to be Mama’s old goat shed. Hauled it off our strip of land. Our house was bulldozed when they made the refuge, but they left a few falling down outbuildings. I scrounge amongst them every now and then when the need for scrap wood arises. I could have Rick haul in what I need of course, but I like having a reason to visit the old place. Like having a reason to keep that goat shed around, made new, made into a den for fuzzy, blue-eyes red wolf pups born to run free.

~

Bobby. I wanted to name him Bobby what for the man on the radio wanted to be president and my great-grandaddy named Robert. “You like Bobby for a name?” I asked Jimmy. “Works both ways. Bobbi or Bobby, with a ‘y’ for a boy, an ‘i’ for a baby girl. Family names are as good as land to pass down.” Jimmy’s teeth gnawed on his lip some, scabby from all the nipping. “Yeah,” he said and spit a clear wad, rubbed it out with his boot toe. Gum ain’t quite enough to smash the need for chaw, but Jimmy ain’t touched snuff since his lips touched mine. Months on and my belly full of baby, his lips full of promises. I didn’t want him to go, but Jimmy, he was the kind with big plans. Go to work the boat yards in Norfolk, make good money, build us a house, get married. “Even a honeymoon in Florida, Mae,” and he’d kiss my hesitations away, my worries. Then he left. Gone four months before we got the news. It were a storm, a bad one, and Jimmy was drunk, walking on the deck of a ship, swaying into the wind. Fell over. Found his body two days on, nibbled away by fish and crabs.

 ~

Tick darts past me. Early July. Almost a year since I found her crouched beside the pens in a thunderstorm. Thunder Moon the Algonquins called the July full moon for all the storms what blow through the sky this time of year. A woodpecker laughs, clatters his eerie cackle over our heads. Messenger to the gods them Algonquins thought. Sacred bird.

She musta had a birthday sometime this year. Missed it like I did Christmas and my own birthday. And Jimmy’s and Mama’s and Daddy’s. Don’t take the calendar much into account out here in the swampwater. Breeze foretelling a thunderstorm or the sun rising early and setting late. But Tick deserves a birthday with colored candles and cake. I’ve already hung on to my baby bird longer than I should. Rick’s been asking how long she’s gonna stay and if I need to think about school come August. Real school, not just my poetry lessons and the little bit of counting we do of deer tracks and bird feathers found. There’re rules for what happens when lost things return and I know I don’t got no say in it. So I hang on to her a little longer though my rope’s getting frayed. Something’s bound to break.

~

Bobby Kennedy. Assassinated. I asked the doctor what it meant. “It means we’ve killed all hope.” Nurse give me a jittery smile, shuffled Doctor out the door. I could hear them talking in the hall. Squeezed Mama’s hand holding mine. Daddy pacing the waiting room. “What’s wrong?” “Baby’s turned is all,” she said. It weren’t all.

Bobby, little Bobby, he came out of me without a holler. Dead. “Stillborn,” Doctor said. “It’s a shame, but you’re young. You’ll have more babies,” Nurse said, patting my forehead with a damp terrycloth. Mama said nothing, just looked at the wall, her hand limp and slick like a dead fish. I asked for him, my Bobby, but they took him away. Never got to lay eyes on him myself. “Better this way,” Nurse said. “You don’t need the memories.” I still don’t believe her.

~

Clouds blow up, drop their shadow. Breeze turns cool, slashing the water with bloodless light. Thunder on the way. “Mama, let’s go back,” Tick says. “In a minute,” I say. We’re almost there. I pluck the tall grasses some, but leave off after a time. Orange tiger-lilies decorate the clearing, planted there myself years and years ago. Wild now, they’ve spread across the ground, popping gentle heads from the earth. Life continuing. There’s no grave, no house now either, but I planted my flowers in memory. “We’ll go home now.” Tick tucks her hand in mine and we walk through the rain back to the cabin on the road, raincoats keeping us dry, Tick splashing in puddles left from the ruts of a truck.

~

He comes close on toward dinner time, his blue truck rumbling up to the cabin. Tick, jabbering about the snakeskin she found, freezes, fork in her hand crashing to the tabletop. “Get under the bed,” I whisper to her ear when the knock comes. She scrambles as I walk toward the door, wishing my lock were stronger than a hook-latch. “Evening, Ma’am,” that man says tipping his ball cap at me. “How are you doing this evening?” I see his crumpled up boot toe and know for certain this is the hunter what’s been dogging around my refuge for nigh on a year. “I’m mighty fine,” I answer, sliding through the thinnest gap in the door I can manage and on to the porch. “Mighty fine. Yourself?” That man shuffles his feet and lifts his cap, rubbing his cropped head of hair. Not a grey one amongst them and muscles on his arms. For the first time in my life I feel the weight of being in the swamp. When I’m the only human around for miles, nothing but calm accompanies me, but with Tick hiding inside and that man clomping on my porch my gut twists. “Ma’am, I heard tell in town something strange.” I cross my arms. “And what would that be?” That man shifts his weight, leans in. “I heard tell you’re keeping a kid out here in these woods.” I clamp my mouth tighter than an oyster. “You see, Ma’am, I lost a little girl, my little girl, out here a while ago. I’ve been looking for her for a long time. Ain’t you seen the posters up in town?” “I don’t go to town,” I say, raise my chin a bit and tuck my hands down to keep from shaking. That man frowns at me, smacks at a mosquito on his arm. “Ma’am, I don’t want no trouble, but if you do have a little girl I want to see her. See if she’s mine.”

I lie. “There’s no kids around here,” I say, though he can see the child-size boots lined up by the door and the toy truck Tick’s been driving over the sand hill I dug up for her to play. That man stares at me. “Okay,” he says slow, nodding, quiet. I stand my ground. A wolf defending her territory, her pack, her pup. “You got no business here,” I tell that man. “It’s time you should leave.” He nods and smiles and walks off my porch to his truck. He don’t pull away though. Just sits there. He knows how to hunt prey. He knows how to hold his patience.

Inside I latch the door and pull the dresser over to block the way. I have my phone, can call Rick for help, but I ain’t run the generator for a while so the battery’s dead. “Tick,” I say and when she don’t answer I get down on creaking knees to look under the bed. She ain’t there.

Window’s open over the sink. A sneak look outside shows me the truck is here, but that man’s gone, gun rack empty. Rip up the floorboards where I hide the Oreos and my shotgun. Old and ain’t been cleaned in a year on account Ticks’ been here and I weren’t wanting to bring it out. Check the barrels, slip two slugs in, snatch a handful into my pocket. Shove my way out the cabin and down the path past the wolf pens.

~

Tick could be anywhere, but that man ploughs his way through the brush, laying a path clear to those who know how to see. Follow him. Keep back a ways so he don’t know the Wolf Woman’s on his trail. Lose him at the ditchwater, find his mud tracks on the other side, press on. He will not be hurting her again.

Voices up ahead on the road. Slow and watch through the trees. A scrim of brush keeps me from them, but I see what’s what. Tick a fledgling at a snake’s mercy. “What happened to your Mommy shouldn’t have happened, but you didn’t do what I said, did you?” Tick, eyes wide in fright, shakes her head, a tiny “No” slips from her throat. She turns, ready to run. That man takes another step toward her. “Katie! You have to come with me or bad things will happen.” Poison leaks from his lips, infecting her. Not Tick. Katie. She whimpers. One step. Two. A couple more steps and she’ll be too close for me to do what needs to be done. I raise the shotgun to my shoulder.

~

We hike out of the refuge by the road. Tick, now Katie, cries like a pup for its mother and I carry her draped across my front, arms aching. I leave my shotgun to rust by the roadside. I get her back to the cabin and cut on the generator, charge up the phone, call Rick. I don’t tell him nothing. Just I need him and since I never call, it ain’t an hour before his truck’s parked outside. Katie won’t let go my hand, still sniffling from her sobs, so I tell Rick where he can find that man. He goes off while Katie and me split a whole pack of Oreos and watch the bats eat their supper. After a time, Rick comes back, head hangdog from what he’s seen. He flips off his cap and twists the brim in his hands, rolling and rolling until I’m sure it’ll roll in on itself and disappear. “Mae, I’ve got to talk to her,” he says and I let him, but Katie holds my hands and won’t let go. “What’s your name?” “Katie.” A whisper. “And who was that man?” She looks at me, checking. “You can talk now,” I tell her. “You can say anything you want.” “He’s Mommy’s boyfriend,” Katie whispers. I stroke her yellow hair, hold her head to my chest and hum soft-like.

“Do you know where your mama is?” Rick asks. “In the water,” she says, a quiet breath, and I know what I’ve known for a year underneath the fear her mama would come steal her away. I’m the only mama anymore.

We sit for a time, me rocking my girl and Rick talking to his friend in the police. Later, headlights blink through the trees as cars drive past the cabin and down the road to where he lies. Katie sleeps, leaning against me, and Rick squeezes my free hand. “What will happen, Rick?” I say low. “There will be questions, Mae,” he says. “You’ll have to talk to them, tell them everything.” I rub Katie’s back. “I ain’t afraid of questions.” I’m afraid of where the answers lead.

~

Release day. Ranger Rick takes her in the morning. His friend in the police, she waits until Katie’s full awake and washed and breakfasted before taking her to the social services woman. Katie’s looking anxious waiting in the truck, twisting hands, her pinecone family on her lap, but a good kind of anxious is working in there too. She’s learned all I could teach her. My little bird is migrating. I won’t go. Can’t. This place, it won’t leave me and Katie needs school, real school, and somewhere with electricity and plumbing and more family than I can give her. I know soon I’ll have to leave too. Face the police and the courts and the questions. But not today. “I’ll do what I can,” Rick promises. I watch his hand close round the wolf’s head I carved, pull it out of his pocket, thumb rubbing the head, fingers clutched on warm wood. “Thank you,” I tell him. “For all of it.” He gives me a smile, a sad one, but a smile. Shakes my hand again. I don’t wave when they drive away. I know Rick’ll make sure she’s taken care of. Good man, he is. Trustful, enough to hand him over my most precious pup. Can’t help my watering eyes though. I wander down the path to the wolf pens. Homer paces the fence line. I know how he feels. I kneel on the softy pine needles, fingers through the chain link. He steps close, whimpers. “Come away, O human child, to the waters and the wild,” I hum to him. A true poet, Homer steps, wavering closer, his cold nose grazing my fingers.

Hallucinating Arkansas

Cody Walker

Herve was snoring—a little whir-whir on the rollaway—when Walt turned off the TV and the light. I can hear myself think, Walt thought. Or not think. I can lie here and hear myself not think. The snow outside caught his attention: it fanned out, reconvened, made circles around the neon WELCOME sign. A couple made a love cry in the adjoining room. Then again. Then, from the same room, there was a third voice. Welcome, Walt thought. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Walt and Herve had been at the Motel 66etc. for nearly a week, and Walt hadn’t slept well. Reasons included the lure of the remote control (Court TV! The Jeffersons!), the love cries from room 10 (“Oh Count Chocula!”  “My little Booberry!”), and Walt’s terrible dreams. Herve’s snoring was a non-issue. In some ways it soothed Walt, the way a train’s motion might soothe him, or a creaky porch swing, or a debate between a bum and a sparrow. Walt found room 11’s wallpaper—that old hunter and quarry pattern, in cream and teal—soothing. He found the sounds from the ice machine soothing. Even the snow—so desirous to shape itself into a lamppost, or a highway, or a station wagon—he found soothing.

But the dreams were relentless. “I’m the wrong guy!” he’d cry, as giant black birds enfolded him in their wings. The birds wanted to take him away from Arkansas, wanted to drop him in Togo, or Denmark, or places cartographically suspicious. Was there really a land where the moon was kept locked in a giant swamp? Or where dogs dominated the watercolors market? Or where the body temperatures of women were twice that of the men? Walt would have liked to ask Herve, but the dwarf snored on and on and on. The ever-constant Herve: undisturbed, impervious, something like a lord.

 

“Motherfucker can’t read,” Herve said. “Can’t tell liposuction from leprechaun.” Walt looked up, trying to imagine a sentence where the two words might coexist. The blind dwarf had already run through four Reading Angels, and Walt considered taking on the worst client in Word Up’s short history himself.  But it was July, and the sun was on fire, and the bees were making their electric-bee racket, and what Walt really wanted to do was take off his Rockports and Dockers and Nordstrom’s Big Man’s jacket and just go outside, feel the New Angeles day on his skin. The phone rang. Could Walt round up a copy of 200 Home Runs: A Magical Season! for the Eagelton boy? This is what I do, he reminded himself. I bring people the news. The stories. Welcome. Welcome to storyland. Can I take your story?

The Eagelton boy, Walt suspected, could probably manage the story of Tiny Bonds on his own. The kid wore glasses as thick as doorknobs and was always eyeing the Fitzbister twins. But Walt would find the book, and he’d find an Angel (maybe Dolores?  She liked reading stories with exclamation points), and Word Up would get another gold star in someone’s tally book. The situation with Herve was harder. Herve wanted Blake, and he wanted Cervantes, and he wanted sociological studies like The Rules and Growing up in New Guinea and Oprah on Oprah on Oprah. And Herve wanted Angels who would inhabit the stories, who would become, for an hour or so, Los or Dulcinea del Toboso or some forgotten South Seas pygmy. Most of the Angels were retirees, or househusbands, or bored teenagers, or women who felt they hadn’t done enough during the war. Actors, they weren’t. Poor Herve. He wanted sweaty frenzy and legs-in-the-air shrieks. Word Up offered a chaste peck on the cheek.

 

When Walt turned forty, he made a list of things up with which he would no longer put: deliberate cruelty, Churchill jokes, warm yoghurt, the comic strip “B.C.,” suicide threats from relatives, sagging upholstery (in a car.) He would refuse to sit in awkward silence with someone on a sofa. He would wear an article of clothing at least twice during the year, or else he would throw it out. No more cheap tableware. No more generic soap. No more staring at his unshaven face in the bathroom mirror at 3 a.m., wondering what little gypsy boy (on the bus in Rome? and there had been signs!) had stolen his soul and sold it for a bag of anchovies or nectarines. He wrote the list on a purple legal pad, which he then slid under his futon mattress. Every so often he thought he could feel the pad, thick with pronouncements, jutting under him as he wrestled with sleep. It was like a pea, Walt decided. A flattened, rectangular pea. And Walt was a princess. Welcome to storyland. Can I take your story?

 

“It’s not like I couldn’t have been of use, man,” Herve was saying. “A blind guy, especially a little blind guy—he’s like a bat, man. Swoop, swoop.” Herve had military diagrams spread on Walt’s desk with sloppy X’s marked over places like Uzbekistan and Chad and the People’s Republic of Florida. He was dressed in designer fatigues; Walt wondered how many offices of institutional patience Herve had exhausted before arriving at the doors of Word Up. “You target the industries no one thinks about,” he continued. “Band-aids. And toothpaste. And eyeglasses. Then you get a bunch of guys running around with pus dripping out of open cuts and breath so bad that nobody wants to talk with anybody. And they’re doing that blind man’s walk—arms out, tentative, not knowing who to shake hands with, who to shoot. That’s an army primed for a New Angeles whooping. And an honest-to-God, been-used-to-it-for-a-while blind guy could be of a lot of use.”

Walt didn’t see it. But the weather had turned ugly: an oil-slick sky, shapeshifter clouds, birds hurling themselves against traffic helicopters. Herve could talk all he wanted. Later Walt would read him “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and the president’s latest warning, and the youth-league basketball scores. John Wesley Harding spun discreetly in the CD player. “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor,” Walt heard, and he thought, Yes, that’s what I am, too. He looked over at Herve—poor Herve, barely four feet tall, bright purple shades under a mat of glossy black hair. Who was going to love Herve in this lifetime? Who was going to hold the photograph that was Herve in their heart?

 

Sometimes Walt felt that he was living in wartime, and sometimes he didn’t. He’d gone along with the security measures—no travel east of the Mississippi; scannable tattoos; restricted usage of powdered sugar, white flour, craft sparkles, carpet cleaner—but his attention was always elsewhere. When was the last time, he wondered, that he’d heard a really good joke? And why couldn’t the New Angeles Scattershots ever close out a playoff series? OK, there was the joke about the therapist and the patient dressed in Saran Wrap. And the NA team’s woes could be traced to its relief pitcher (a shell-shocked war hero was a nice rallying idea, but the results, which included the poor guy covering his head every time the umpire called “strike,” were discouraging). Other people built spore-proof community shelters, or sent patriotic ditties to the online newspapers, or raised money for the troops at lasagna and cannoli bake-offs, but Walt just went to work, brooded, sometimes dreamed. Was it crazy to spend one’s day fiddling with time tables and reading recipes for wartime blintzes to blind people who were also, as often as not, asleep people? Welcome. Welcome to therapy. I can clearly see your nuts.

 

By mid-August the news stations stopped running weather forecasts. “Magic 8-Ball forecasts”—that had been the joke, and like most experiments with the Magic 8-Ball, you could get good results if you shook it enough times. At 11 a.m. the day might be toaster-oven bright; by late-afternoon there’d be oak trees in the streets. Walt took to bringing shorts, a peacoat, and emergency flares to work. “Hot enough for you?” some wit might say in an elevator, and by the time you reached your floor, the temperature would have plummeted thirty degrees. “No, it’s not,” you’d shrug. Small talk shrunk to microscopic proportions.

Walt’s feelings about the weather mirrored his feelings about the war. Were there really three-armed people being harvested in the former states of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee? Walt certainly hadn’t met any. Electronic news updates scrolled over the NA intersections: 72 killed in Moray eel mishap; British policeman exposed as spy; Mayor-for-life Andrew Giuliani receives kidney, heart, and left hand transplants. Walt read the news like a visitor from another planet might: curious but detached. He found himself thinking more about Herve. What did the dwarf do for entertainment? Had he joined in the skijoring craze? (The bipolar weather allowed for huskies to be running two or three times a week, even in August.) The picture of Herve careening wildly behind sled dogs struck Walt as unlikely; there was something too measured about the man. Herve’s theories, of course, were often madcap (three-armed men designed to be super-lovers? No, impossible)—but his self-possession was total. If asked what piece of furniture Herve most resembled, Walt would have chosen a butcher’s block. Solid, handsome, knew its role—well, maybe not the last one. But hard to move. Unless on wheels.

 

One benefit of the war, Walt sometimes thought, was the improved quality of the downtown graffiti. Gone were idiocies like “Snookums in the hood” and “High-hatted hammer boys”; instead, taggers were constructing elegant ideograms and cautionary koans. Some were left unsigned, and when was the last time that had happened? And then there were the swooping birds, the exploding musical notes, the faces breaking apart in laughter, and the signature, always the same: “voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs.” When the weather allowed for it, Walt would take his lunch—a pastrami sandwich, two pickles, a box of grape juice, a bag of Oompahs—and sit by the abandoned buildings. He’d memorize those birds, terrible in their painted weight.

 

Room 11 of the Motel 66etc. had no working clock. Or else the time really was 88:88. The snow had stopped; Walt focused his entire attention on the snoring Herve. What did the meditation teachers always say? Start with the breath. Walt started with Herve’s breath. In, out. In, out. In, out. Soon the sound wasn’t just coming from the dwarf on the rollaway; the room itself was breathing, and Walt joined in. There were two Walts, in fact: the chorus member Walt (in, out; in, out); and the Walt who got to watch everything, who monitored the breathing—this breathing that was keeping the world whole. Herve made it look easy: a suck and a sigh. At some point the snow again started battling the chokeberry bushes and circling birds. When, Walt couldn’t say.

 

Think of it as a very short film. Walt wanders away from a Labor and Employers’ Day rave and lies on his back in the New Angeles night. It’s about two in the morning; Monkey Fizzes race through the big man’s bloodstream. The stars are looping in their double-helix way, and Walt has a thought. No one sees the stars like I do this instant. No one has this exact relationship with them. If I can’t ask anyone to see the stars as I do, then I can’t ask anyone to see anything as I do. Monkey fizzes or no, it seems important. New Angeles is quiet—no woodchucks chuck, no grasshoppers prance, no birds sing. Now, the cinematic moment: the sky explodes. Not bombs, but meteors—the Leonid shower, with its three centuries of cosmic dust. Over 4,000 shooting stars, striking the Earth’s atmosphere at 160,000 miles per hour. Welcome! Welcome! Meteor streams from 1767, 1699, and 1866. If the earth and, what, space? can’t worry about chronology, then Walt won’t either. He’s an infant Walt. And a right-now Walt. And a future Walt, wizened and careless. But he’s no other Walt. And no other Walts are he.

 

September was designated the sixth consecutive What-Have-You-Done-For-The-War-Effort? Month, and already the testimonials were filling Word Up’s holding room. Quickie publishing efforts from psychics and chefs, hockey players and scandal-plagued senators, with titles like I’m Visualizing the Enemy Making an Unbelievable Mistake and Check This! What I’d Like to Do to Those Slimy Motherpuckers, arrived and arrived and arrived. Walt hired seven more Angels (who, the following month, made a bundle off a book called How We Read Pantry of Courage and Damn If I’m Letting the Enemy and a Lying Fourteen-Year-Old Bring Down This Country to Blind People in Anticipation of Publishing Opportunities During the Seventh Consecutive What-Have-You-Done-For-The-War-Effort? Month, a work so tonally baffling that rubber-stamp reviewers and jaded critics alike praised it). Herve got interested in the I’ve Done Five Things chapbook series, a staple-job published every few weeks under the nom de plum Whacka Tack. Author Tack’s early-September entry included the following chapter headings: (1) I’ve Renamed the Sparrows in the Red Maple Trees “Liberty Sparrows”; (2) I’ve Thrown Out My Shirt That Says “Evil Evil Devil Devil”; (3) I’ve Written Three More Chapters in This Edition of the I’ve Done Five Things Chapbook Series; (4) I’ve Had Bad Thoughts, and Then Replaced Them with Good Thoughts, Twice; and (5) I’ve Dusted the Blinds, To Better Keep a Watch on the Neighbors. Tack’s fourth chapter, which included the admission that he had momentarily suspected the president of being a corporation-sponsored hologram, won the author a place on the administration’s Suspicious Persons list. “Read it again,” Herve would demand of whatever Angel was on hand. Walt looked on, counting invoices and brooding.

 

Stop the music of the day-to-day and the world continues in pantomime. Walt’s hands, it’s now clear, are outside his control; they move as birds move: swoop, swipe, hover. He’s a sorcerer’s apprentice in a large man’s frame, and he’s muttering something: a rote prayer. On the other side of the room, Herve receives news. The news comes in the form of a three-hour aria. A relative is dead, or a train has been misrouted, or a currency transfer hasn’t worked. Herve responds by drawing circles in the air—key chains, balloons, little solar systems. He might have a heart attack at any time. Outside, on the sidewalk, a thousand people dance in the silent midday rain.

 

September also sees the debut of a new television show: Robot Bob. Bob joins the battle against the Southeastern Aggressors, braving grenades, bullets, and the taunts of paying “war-watchers” from neutral countries such as Iceland and East Timor. At four-feet five-inches, Bob becomes something of a small man’s celebrity; Herve listens religiously. Each episode involves a heroic escape: dental assistants and rodeo clowns and reformed pimps come to Bob’s aid. The show’s theme song, “Bobbing for Justice,” plays in auto shops and government buildings and urban malls. Some nights it’s the last thing Walt hears before he surrenders to sleep.

 

Birds. Butterflies. Balloons. Things that start with a B. Things that bob. Things that are buoyant. Things that live in the blue beyond.

Walt makes a list: Audubon’s warbler, bobolink, chiffchaff, dipper, English sparrow, finch, grackle, honeycreeper, indigo bunting, jackdaw, kite, lily trotter, merlin, nightjar, oriole, plover, quetzal, razorbill, solitaire, towhee, Ugandan shrike, vulture, waxbill. It doesn’t help. All the clocks in his room have stopped—their insides pecked apart by tiny beaks.

When Walt was a child, his mother took him to Mexico, in winter, to see the Monarch butterflies breed. Outside of Valle de Bravo, the mother and child hiked to an elevation of 7000 feet. Walt remembers the adjustment his lungs had to make: the longer breaths (in, out), his mouth agape at the air. At the top of the trail: butterflies, butterflies (“Five trillion; I counted,” Walt told friends on his return). Wherever Walt turned, he saw glints of orange light, covering the treetops, petaling the pathways, hogging the sky. “A regal ruckus,” the guide said, three times. If they weren’t so pretty, Walt thought, we’d all be running. Substitute bark beetles. Bats. Blue boobies.

In the Word Up office: balloons. Lots of them. It’s September 26. Walt’s half-birthday.

 

One hundred years later, the postcard might be captioned “War celebration (?).” The card’s designers, sticklers for accuracy, won’t commit. Balloons bunch in one corner, exclaiming “40 1/2!”; a large-print edition of Biotoxins: Worse Than They Sound lies on a glass coffee table. People are caught in that open-mouth snapshot moment, just about to say, “Exactly,” or “Under the right circumstances,” or “Maybe if I were an imprisoned and double-jointed yoga instructor.” A man with graying stubble and broad shoulders stares out a window, focusing on . . . —but here the card announces its border.


Winner of the 2013 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Michael Martone

Pavlova

Kendall Klym

Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Recipe
5 jumbo egg whites, room temperature, if the room is cold and dark
1 1/4 cups caster sugar kept dry, despite dampness
scant 2 teaspoons brown malt vinegar
1 1/2 cups cold, fresh whipping cream
1 tablespoon sifted cornflour
4 ripe kiwis
2 ripe passion fruit

 

  1. Wielding a wire whisk, mix whites with vigor, as if your arm and hand have suddenly become possessed by the desire to dance. Stop when whites begin to take on shapes of things you’d rather forget.
  2. One tablespoon at a time, add sugar, whisking relentlessly until you can see the shadow of your sweaty face glistening in the meringue.
  3. Spoon mixture onto metal tray lined with parchment to avoid stickiness.
  4. With rubber spatula, smooth into shape of theater in the round.
  5. Bake at medium temperature for 90 minutes or until pavlova is hardened and dry, like a brand new pointe shoe, ready to break in.
  6. Having switched off oven, open door and leave ajar for dessert to rest briefly.
  7. Whisk cream in chilled bowl until peaks resemble scenery from Kingdom of Snow.
  8. Peel and slice fruit into corps de ballet of equal portions.
  9. Decorate cooled pavlova with cream and fruit.
  10. Serve immediately after final standing ovation.

Note: Dessert is delicate yet unwieldy. Be careful with assemblage.

Notes on recipe
Created and named in honor of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova after her 1926 tour to New Zealand, the dessert is well known worldwide. This version has no author or date of publication. We don’t even know what country it comes from, but the terms cornflour and caster sugar help to exclude the United States, where Pavlova dreaded dancing in 1913. However, a prominent food anthropologist classifies the references to meringue as distinctly American. Handwritten in elegant script, this recipe appears to exist only on a three-by-five note card sandwiched in a collection belonging to American balletmistress Zella Muris of Missouri. The ingredients are basic. No one at Midwest City Ballet, where Muris works, is known to have allergies to any of them. But one thing’s for sure: When Alexander Green first ate the pavlova, he morphed into one of the strongest male dancers of all time.

Notes on prima ballerina
Pavlova lived to be one of the world’s greatest and most celebrated ballerinas. Still worshipped by many a dancer, the Russian icon of grace is known for her elegance, etiquette, and determination. Despite her allegiance to all things feminine, she presided with a heavy hand over her male partners. If they failed to live up to her expectations, she slapped them, often in public. Eighty-two years after her death, Pavlova is still recognized for her ability to intoxicate audiences, particularly through the roles of the Dying Swan and the Butterfly.

Corrine’s perspective 
I don’t like to say negative shit, but Alex Green is too short to be in the company. Most of the women are at least two inches taller. And at twenty-five, he isn’t getting any younger. Why he was hired I’ll never know. Politics. To make things worse, he’s oh so holier than thou: “Ballet is my lover, my life.” Give me a break. Probably a latent homosexual. Worst kind. And Zella, his little advocate, she’s too old and dried up for anything. Couple of bitches: both of ’em. Well, at least one’s gone. You know, before he left, that excuse of a man got away with violating the company contract. Nobody can get that big and buff in such a short time. Must’ve taken something. Or Zella slipped it to him. Probably a witch. That’s what you should be investigating—the two of them, not me.

Dancer’s Contract, Midwest City Ballet, Section 7B 
Despite requests for dancers to lose or gain weight, which may be issued at any time (See Section 35C), the Company officially condemns any self-destructive behavior, including but not limited to actions that resemble or lead to the development of eating disorders, to the consumption of illegal substances, and to unwarranted surgical and other medical procedures. Dancers who fail to comply with this edict will be dismissed and replaced immediately.

Excerpt from a review of Midwest City Ballet’s winter performance
Grafton’s Lightness of Foot pays tribute to the devil-may-care playfulness of Gugnoni’s score. A series of vignettes that fluctuate between petit allegro and adagio movements combine classical vocabulary with contemporary gestures, making the choreography as light and up-to-date as the dancing. However, an unwelcome serving of irony was offered up in the section titled “Whipped Topping,” when one of the dancers landed heavily from a series of jumps.

Tony’s take
Corrine is the one who landed like a lead weight in that performance. Of course nobody’ll admit it, including Grafton, and he’s the artistic director. Corrine didn’t just come down heavy; she would’ve fallen if it hadn’t been for Alex. When he saw what was happening, he placed his hands on the small of her back to keep her upright. Instead of thanking her savior, the bitch issued a complaint—said Alex caused her to land funny because he was standing too close. Alex denied it, there was a company hearing, and nothing happened. Grafton stood up for Corrine, and Zella for Alex. Us dancers thought it was all over, but Corrine refused to give up. Had to find something to cause more grief. So she got out the contract. Convinced Grafton that Alex was underweight.

Notes on Zella
If you saw her walking down the street, you’d know, despite the cropped white hair and slight limp on the left, that Zella Muris was and is a ballerina. Not a modern one, but the kind you read about in books. A woman organized equidistantly between vertebrae—so elegant that even the most inept and poorly mannered step aside to let her pass. Her figure is trim, her expression amenable. Once she was great. Zella’s voice feels like maple syrup filling the squares of a waffle. When she speaks, dancers listen. You are one of the few. You have been chosen for a life unlike any other. Sex, family, computers: they come later. You won’t relate, no matter how hard you try. Going to the bathroom: even that is different. Doctors will see the X-rays and say something is wrong with your spine. But it is straight because you know how to stand straight.You are a dancer. Like the members of the Imperial Ballet—the first, along with political officials to be escorted to safety when invasion was imminent, you are commissioned to preserve order in a world of chaos.

Excerpt 1 from Alex’s diary, left in a storage unit on the outskirts of town
Zella wants to talk. I know what she’s going to say—gain weight or my contract is up, except that’s not how she’ll say it. She’ll speak in a way that makes me feel both special and unworthy. Must have been a nun in another life. Huge surprise! Zella’s invited me to dinner! Tells me not to worry. Dessert’s fantastic. Meringue cream thing with kiwi and passion fruit—named after Pavlova. Don’t know why, but feeling lightheaded, kinda giddy. Zella loves the way I jump. Must have forgotten about the contract. Feeling too good to worry.

Interview with Tony
Yes, it’s true: Alex gained ten pounds and not a bit of body fat. The whole thing happened in a week, when Zella fed him the pavlova. He said he loved it; it gave him confidence. You have to understand: Alex is straight-laced. That means no drugs, no alcohol, no smokes—nothing. Not even caffeine, and that includes chocolate. No, he’s not religious. Married and monogamous to his art. Probably straight. Just my luck. Alex started acting strange after he ate the dessert. Started going out late at night. Said he wanted to get in touch with nature. What that has to do with getting buff I’ll never know. With extra activity, he’d be losing weight, not gaining it. But, as you can see in the picture, the man looks like a god—one of those Greek statues you see at museums.

Notes on Alex’s picture
No one knows who took it or where it came from, but the pic is running around the Internet. Alex’s expression is confident yet distant, the open-lipped smile a sign of ease, the far-off gaze an indication that part of him is somewhere else. His outfit is contemporary—light blue form-fitting sleeveless shirt and red skinny jeans, which outline his forceful chest and powerful quads and calves. Yet somehow he appears anachronistic, as if he came from another time, and someone photoshopped the clothes onto his body. His kinky hair appears almost as a halo. Around the lower right corner of Alex’s lip is a tiny speck of white—not milk, for the consistency appears thick like whipped cream or meringue before it is baked.

Interview with Zella
The recipe is basically sugar, egg whites, cream, and some fruit. Ask anyone with the least bit of knowledge of nutrition, not to mention anatomy and physiology, and you will see that what you propose is preposterous. Of course I am no expert, but these are hardly the substances that build muscle. I made the pavlova to cheer up a downtrodden dancer. That’s all. Alexander worked very hard to perfect his art. Why not give him the credit? Yes, it may appear to some that he developed quickly, but I’m sure you are familiar with the concept of hyperbole. Dancers are notorious for it. Life is either perfect or doomed, performances great or worthless.  No, I’m not sure where the recipe originated. It’s been in my family for generations. Of course I miss Alex. He was one of our finest.

Interview with Grafton
I have no idea where Alex went after he left the company. We don’t keep tabs on our former dancers. Have you checked the Internet? How about the IRS? Now I really must be going. I have a meeting with the Midwest Prairie Alliance. Our company is collaborating with conservationists to preserve classical ballet, the nation’s most unappreciated and endangered art form, alongside the prairie, the nation’s most unappreciated and endangered ecosystem. If you want to do a story on this exciting development, I’d be happy to meet with you next week.

Alex’s Diary, Entry 2
She makes me call her Mademoiselle, and I must bow whenever she enters the room. At first I thought it was a dream, but once she slapped me, I knew Anna Pavlova was real. It’s true: she’s as light as the dessert created in Her name. Pavlova is teaching me all kinds of things I never really knew. When a man dances with a woman, he must worship her. He must make it look as though he’s in charge, but underneath it all, she is. That’s how it works. She wakes me up at three in the morning. I bow and kneel before her, and then we head out to the prairie preserve. When I’m with Anna, I never feel cold. The stage is filled with leftover snow and dirt, but somehow we manage. We rehearse until six, and then I take her back to the apartment. We share a slice of pavlova, and then she disappears until the next night. Despite all the extra activity, I feel rested, ready to dance. My body is changing—fast.

Tony’s final statement
There’s something I forgot to say. Before tech rehearsal for the spring performances, I went to wish Alex merde—that’s what dancers say instead of good luck or, God forbid, break a you-know-what. Well, I got to his dressing room door and stopped short. I distinctly heard a woman with a Russian accent screaming at him. Then what sounded like a slap. When I knocked at the door, I heard furniture crashing to the floor. When Alex opened the door, the left side of his face was all red, a chair was overturned, and the room was empty, except for the two of us. Yes, I’m sure. I know what I heard and saw.

Excerpt from a review of Midwest City Ballet’s spring performance
Rarely do soloists outshine the principals, but such was the case in Grafton’s Prairie Progression, when Alexander Green and Tony Perugina took flight in a feverish series of man-to-man suspension lifts and supported jumps. Reminiscent of lightning spawning a wildfire, the two men epitomized not only the strength and beauty of the male form but also the stoicism of our ancestors arriving in covered wagons. Kudos to Grafton and his collaboration with the Midwest Prairie Alliance. Good luck to MCB. With dancing and choreography like this, companies on the coasts can’t compare.

Alex’s diary, last entry
Last night was strange. We talked more than we danced. Both captivated by nature—open landscapes, beetles crawling in grass. Think I’m falling in love. Anna says she could easily replace Corrine. Finally together in front of an audience. I asked how she planned to do it. She made a joke—called herself The Phantom of the Ballet. I laughed. Asked why she didn’t go to New York. “Because you are here,” she said. I’ll never forget those words. My wrists slipped during a press lift, and she punched me. The frozen grass clinked in the wind. The prairie was laughing.

Notes on YouTube video
Extensive investigation, but no one knows who posted the video or where it came from. It’s called Boa. The picture is clear: Alexander Green partnering none other than Anna Pavlova. Alex looks like a Greek myth come to life—beige dance belt and nothing else but his sparkling brown ringlets dripping with sweat as he lifts his partner high in the air. Pavlova, skin tanned and expression distant, sports a black bikini. Her hair is buzzed to a bristle. The choreography is distinctly twenty-first century—unabashedly sexual, moments of sustained extension followed by repetitive, spastic moves—peace before the storm. Pavlova constricts her partner to death. The final scene focuses on Alex, eyes rolled back, face blue, expression slack. Three comments posted on the accompanying YouTube page: “bout time,” from sexyladycub; “gr8 hairdo pavvy,” from pickleloverspoon;  “What happened to human tenderness? Violence gratuitous,” from MidwestSpiritWeaver.

Excerpt from arts section of Midwest Tribune
Despite local, state, and national funding, Midwest City Ballet and the Midwest Prairie Alliance received a heavy blow today. Late Summer Dance on the Prairie, held at and supported by the privately owned Midwest Prairie Preserve for the last forty years, will be discontinued. The land has been sold to the Mall-Mart Corporation, and construction for a new Mall-Mart Megacomplex will begin within the month. The site will include multiple stores, a ballpark, two daycare centers, a one-acre prairie preserve, and a new four-year college featuring the highly popular Corporate Studies major. “Once the construction is done, the ballet can perform at the ballpark,” said Hugo Spitz, spokesman for the multimillion-dollar project. Midwest City Ballet Artistic Director Frederick Grafton, who received the International Green Space Choreographic Award earlier this year, was unavailable for comment.

Front-page story in Midwest Tribune
“Mall-Mart Project Swallowed Up”
After a month of rumors and jokes claiming that the Mall-Mart Megacomplex was jinxed, haunted, and doomed, the project caved in on itself—literally. Only two days after the completion of nine buildings and a ballpark, a giant sinkhole swallowed up everything except one acre of prairie, leaving no trace of the $80 million complex. No one was injured, since the cave-in happened sometime between 3 and 6 a.m., according to police. A worker who wishes to remain anonymous said he found piles of kiwi peel at the construction site during the last month. The cause of the sinkhole is under investigation.

Statement from a baker in rural North Dakota
Fat little dude—called himself Al Green. Hired him because of the look on his face. Real depressed. Getting out of a bad relationship, he said. Only worked here a short time. Crazy about the prairie, he was. Talented baker. Never tasted a pavlova like the ones he made. So light—gave you energy, made you want to dance.


Runner-up in the 2013 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Michael Martone

A Man Is Not a Star

Josie Sigler

A man does not set himself on fire.

A man works. Strapped to the ceiling, dangling over a half-made truck, he welds, he solders, twelve hours, fourteen hours, weekends, overtime.

Thus, he is tired at day’s end. He does not lie awake, waiting out the dark hours open-eyed and jittery, shocked by the few quick splashes that haunt the bridge of his wife’s nose, headlights from the rare car out in this weather—folks coming home from the VFW hall a mile up the road.

A man enjoys a beer. His first beer, he enjoys the most. Twelve years old. Pabst on tap. Bunch of old drunks leaning over card tables, slapping him on the back. The women biting their Virginia Slims Menthols, hugging his boyish face to their breasts. His father’s hand ghosting itself on the chilled mug and the beer was so smooth—

Or was it bitter?

Yes, that’s right. Before he was a man, he had looked around that hall and silently vowed never to go to war. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing a leg, the terror that rose in him whenever he saw the strange pattern of burns that moved down his father’s back like the red-bellied snakes in a fallow cornfield.

No. A man is courageous. He is willing to fight. Sometimes he is just born in a good month, has the right letter beginning his last name, misses the draft, lands himself a fine job.

But this is not how a man’s memory works, the truth slipping back and forth like that painting thick with blue and yellow paint.

Painted by a madman, his wife had said.

Of course, a man pays no attention to art, and his soul certainly does not slip a bit in his chest over a damned painting. But maybe he could make an exception for this guy, crazy or not, who had captured so exactly the landscape of his youth, the blurred lights of distant smokestacks rising up beyond the hills, blazing in the night.

Those are stars, his smallest daughter said.

A man knows when he’s bested. He could have simply said: Sure are.

Instead, he turned his too-clean hands up, stuffed them useless into his pockets, and wandered away. When no one was looking, he tore the painting out of the magazine and filed it deep in his wallet.

A man does not tremble in the dark as he extracts himself from a woman’s arms. He pulls on his old white tube socks, union suit, grease-stained Wranglers, flannel, UAW hat—Local 594, Pontiac Assembly Center, used to be Truck and Bus in the good old days. A man loves these clothes even if a woman hates them, even if she’s wished for him in a suit and tie or even in one of those faggy black turtlenecks the guys in her art magazines wear with pleated beige pants.

Though she might tell you otherwise, a woman born and bred in Michigan loves a Big Three Man, the black-crusted half-moon fingernails, the life-line on his palms a telling river of oil. A man like that can always reassure a woman. He never has to tiptoe away like a criminal. Like a loser who has nothing to show for his thirty-one years. An idiot who could have just gone ahead and enlisted like everybody else, gotten his balls all full of Agent Orange. If he’d survived, he’d at least have benefits to offer his family. Something besides the life insurance policy sold to him by that shiny-faced guy who went door-to-door.

A man does not dream up accidents, no matter how much nothing he finds turning out his pockets.

Before a man leaves the house in the night, he checks on his girls. His youngest has crawled in with the middle girl on the bottom bunk. Their faces are pressed together as if they have been telling secrets.

The middle girl loves to dance—at least, she used to love it, wandered around in a tutu most of her second-grade year. He took her to the VFW hall with him once—a secret he knew she’d keep from her mother. There, he twirled her, taught her to do the Achy Breaky Heart. Now she’s dyed her hair green and wears nothing but the tattered black t-shirts she’s scavenged from her brother’s closet. She looks like a mourning leprechaun and he tells her so.

Goddamnit, now. A man stands beside the women in his life, does not leave them to fend for themselves. A man pays for their weddings, sends them to college. He’s worth more alive than dead.

He looks at the face of his oldest daughter, the one who dreamed of going away to school but settled for some classes up at the community college. Because a man never thinks about what he takes from a woman, he’s erased the memory of that desperate year when everyone was out a job—Flint was closing—and this girl sat awake with him like a woman at the table in that small trailer at four in the morning while her mother scrubbed the floor of an office building in the city, trying to make up the difference.

He was drunk. He cried.

A real man walks his girl back to bed, tucks her in with a glass of milk—real milk from a jug with a red cap, Vitamin D fortified, not that powdered crap issued by the state. He tells her to have sweet dreams even if worry and loneliness drown his heart.

He hardly knows this daughter now. She is for another man to know.

A man might pause briefly at his son’s empty room. He does not lift a white undershirt to his nose and inhale, trying to get at the musky smell that remains in the cotton. He picks up his boy’s football and tosses it up in the air to watch it spin and come neatly back to his palm, but he does not hold it in the crook of his arm and think of his boy as a baby: sweet-faced, too kind to murder anyone, even for his country.

He presses the button on the fire detector to make sure the green light still flashes, but he does not send its small bleep echoing through the hallway until his youngest girl moans for him to stop.

A man takes pleasure in passing through the door to his garage. It’s just your standard door, but it leads to his own world. And at least once a week he’s entitled to fiddle at his workbench or sit in a green plastic yard chair amidst the junk cars, wound up orange extension cords, and old power tools. A man smokes and sips whiskey, warms his feet by the small kerosene heater, listens to the old country songs his girls hate. Hick music, they call it. A man knows he’s not a hick. He’s not an alcoholic. He’s worked hard in his lifetime. Thus, a man has to have his space. He can’t have his foreman screaming in one ear and his wife in the other twenty-four seven.

A man does not hunt the shelves frantically and nearly weep to find that he gave the last of the kerosene to the neighbors. Everybody’s hurting. It’s a man’s job to make sure the people he knows get what they need. It’s a man’s job to solve difficult problems. He’ll have to take some canisters up to Larry’s. It’s the Super America, now, open twenty-four hours, but before that it was just Larry’s, open ‘til ten.

He emerges from the side door of the garage carrying in his flanneled arms two old gas canisters from his boat, one of them slightly dented, a crease in the red paint that bothers his thumbnail. He stares into the snowy sky, suddenly remembering those barn kittens his brothers did that autumn long ago. No, he was never green, a virgin in his thirteenth spring, and helpless. He was never thin enough to fall in with the young saplings at the pasture’s edge where he watched his brothers hold those late summer kittens by their tails and dip them into a bucket of gasoline. The kittens mewed and arched their terrified backs.

Don’t do it. Please. He’d never beg like that.

Surely he admired his brothers’ rippling arms as they hefted the burlap sack. They said the kittens would be like balls of fire rolling down the road.

Hot damn.

A man does not hate his brothers for their cruelty, even if his girls do hate them, even if the middle girl, upon hearing this story, says she’ll never talk to Uncle Buddy again. But a man can’t hold a grudge against a guy whose wife hasn’t given it up for years. A man does not think: If I were his wife, I’d sleep in another bed, too. Kitten-Killer.

This is the equation between father and daughter: He protects and cares for her. He asks nothing in exchange. He swears he’ll murder anyone who hurts her. And maybe he does it, too.

A man does not leave a house full of women for two years and his son barely sixteen, even if General Motors says: it’s that or lose his job.

This middle daughter, the one who looks most like him, was eleven when they forced him to take the transfer to Baltimore. There, a lost bird, wounded, flew onto the balcony of his shitty apartment where he lived by himself. He set its wing, nursed it back to health. A man does not believe the bird was his daughter’s spirit calling him home to save her. When he was returned to his family, he took his girl on his knee only to have her cringe away. A man would get angry about what happened to her, not scared.

Tonight his breath is a cloud in the air and his truck—beautiful Silverado 1500 extended cab, half-ton, American-made—leaves tracks that will soon be covered by more loose white powder. He takes the back roads where he taught his boy to drive. A man loves the moment his boy understands the release of the clutch and the car chugs violently forward.

It was spring, then. Everything was green.

A man does not imagine the moment his boy’s shaved blonde skull is destroyed by shrapnel, grenade, bullet. It’s probably the middle of the day in Iraq and his son might be driving over some gravelly dusty road, maybe thinking of him, too. It’s hot and sunny in the desert and a man who believes in his country and its power has to believe his boy is safe because his boy has always been brave. Courage, a man thinks, leads to surviving any risk. A man is proud of his boy, weapons-of-mass-destruction or no.

His boy was the only person who understood how close they had come so many times to losing everything. These are the things with which a man trusts a son: layoffs, bankruptcies, strikes, the houses that seemed to slip through his hands like so much sand. A man can admit this much of the past: the harder he held to any life, the faster it ran out, and at the last moment, when it seemed he had grasped something solid, it was skin on skin. But he tries not to think about the jobs he worked during the lean years. He’s proud of how he and the boy managed things, but won’t tell you about stints sweeping parking lots, selling vacuum cleaners, mopping floors right alongside his wife. Jobs you can’t even find anymore.

The boy took up a Sunday paper route to bring in grocery money. That’s a good boy.

But a man does not consider the days he came home, exhausted and dirty, to find his son, just thirteen, patching a hole in the roof or his daughter wearing an apron while her mother slept, all of them forging the signatures on the report cards and stifling their thick winter coughs in a chorus of grateful suffocation. He does not ask: what must that have been like? That childhood?

Some creep pulled his middle daughter into a car as she walked home from her dance class and opened her body. Her father was not there to gather her as the others in their sheer pink tights were gathered. A man does not pretend this did not happen. He doesn’t lock himself in his garage and drink whiskey. He doesn’t rest until he finds out who he ought to kill. He remembers a particular pair of eyes in the VFW hall one of those twirling nights, a specific skinny punk playing basketball in the park. He does not look at other men and discover every single one is the one who hurt his girl.

He guns the engine. The white cloud that lifts into the air behind his tires might give him a flash of the compact his mother opened to take the shine from her nose in church. But the snow does not suddenly smell to him of incense—a kind of clean, washed holiness. The stars do not become her eyes, staring at him, admonishing him. A man does not remember how the incense clung to her even as she walked out into a bright Sunday afternoon. A man does not bury his face for just a moment in the grey curls that peek out from the green silk kerchief. He does not suddenly hold his mother with an urge strong as sex to press her birdlike ribs against his cotton T-shirt.

And if she dies the next morning, if her body lies alone on the floor in the hallway for days after that, a man is allowed a field or two of open grief. But no more.

Paused briefly at the junction where he’ll turn onto the highway, even a man will admire—just briefly—how the snow’s weighed down the long broad arms of the pine trees so they are like his mother was too, carrying so much but still standing, still moving toward him. A man doesn’t ask: What would she think if she could see him now? Were her sacrifices worth nothing to him?

And his father! Second Infantry, “Indianhead Division.” His father was pushed face down in a pile of muck along the Yalu River in Korea, taken prisoner. His old man didn’t lay eyes on him until he was three years old. A man does not admit that he was scared of the strange soldier who limped up the driveway from the mailbox. That he is still scared of the man who thrashed him for forgetting to latch the gate to the hog pen, for spying on his sisters, for crying when Sister Margaret rapped his knuckles because he insisted on writing with his left hand. A man admits he had it coming. He had it coming every time it came. His old man did the best he could.

Having endured the cherry-hot pincers that left the scars on his back, his pops should not have to endure, too, raising a son fond of watercolors, a quiet boy who loved to sit in the corner of the kindergarten class and stare at A Child’s Introduction to Art. A father should not have to tolerate a boy who cried like a baby when his brothers played some stupid prank with a bunch of useless barn cats. And if a father does get stuck with such a son, why would that son subject him to this final insult? This final sissy act?

And what about his own son coming back from Iraq to find—No.

A man wouldn’t even think about this. He would not, in fact, think of any of this—except perhaps that his father was a hero for having endured “Death Valley” and it means he is a hero’s son even if he did not sign up to go to Vietnam.

A man swings his legs from his truck, feels the slight crunch as his feet sink into the unplowed parking lot. He is full of pride, not shame, as he walks into the station, shakes his sodden boots off on the mat and greets an old buddy with a slap on the back.

Ain’t the same, he thinks, now that the Super America come in and razed everything, got rid of the porch and the salvage out back. The old men in UAW hats who read the paper there, too, seem to have disappeared.

A man rolls with the changes.

He doesn’t use grief or fear, insomnia or depression. He says his balls are still on midnights after all those years of taking what he could get.

He doesn’t say unfair. Those fuckers who buy foreign, he says. Fucking gas prices and President Fucking Bush.

Larry says he thinks that’s the real name his momma give him.

A man says, Bailouts or no, I’m getting raped.

Larry asks how the boy is over there.

A man nods, tightens his lips. The boy’s holding up. He’s carrying fifty-six pounds of gear on his lanky frame through the Iraqi Desert. A man can face the footage—thank God on CNN and not their local news—in which his boy—he knew it was his boy right away—kicks the body of a dead Iraqi. For sport, the reporter had said. Sport. A man doesn’t whine, even to himself: What else could my son do? What choice did my boy have? He says: That’s what war can do to a man. It changes a man on the level of the blood. A father simply accepts a fiercer son, one whose face revealed his pleasure, not his rage, as he slammed his heavy foot into that body.

Larry cracks a beer even though it’s past two in the morning. A man pounds his friend on the back some more—nothing in the world as good as putting beer on your whiskey—and drains the Stroh’s to the can’s bottom. He could ask Larry for more whiskey and Larry’d surely pony it up, but only if a guy’ll say something about why he’s here in the middle of the night. Fight with his wife. Trouble with the neighbors. No time for fishing. But a man cannot tell an old buddy the truth. He can’t turn to Larry as they come back in through the milk crates and toilet paper and hold him and say that he just can’t take it anymore.

He says his garage heater’s out—he’s trying to watch the replays of the game—asks about the kerosene.

Them red cans are for gasoline. Can’t letcha fill ‘em with the kerosene, buddy, Larry says.

You shitting me? he asks.

No way no how. Super America rules.

Crock of shit, a man says. But he takes this in stride like a man would, chooses gasoline.

Careful with that, Larry says. Can’t use it in the kerosene lamp.

But a man can do most anything the packaging of an appliance warns you not to do. And he does not think: Bingo. The insurance company will eat that up like candy.

Go home to your wife, now, asshole, Larry says.

A man, after carousing, returns himself to a woman who stood by him while other families were broken by layoffs and shutdowns and fear. He forgets all of those things that could have sent a jagged crack into their union, wakes in the morning, drinks a hot cup of coffee. Maybe he buys some night crawlers and tries his luck in the lake. But after that, what does he do? What does he do if there is no place to make cars?

The first time he peered under the hood of an old Model-T, that tangle of rubber and metal was more familiar to him in a glance than his own innards and veins, more familiar than the women he loved in that car paid for with his own barnyard sweat every Sunday. And once he bought it, he was a man. A car was what made you a man. A man, everyone’s got to understand, cannot just sit around with his union suit hanging out of his jeans and watch The Geography Channel all damned day.

A man does not, as he hauls those stinking canisters into the garage, merely shrug when his woman appears at the door in her tattered grey robe to ask: It’s midwinter. It’s the middle of the night. What’s the need for gasoline, now?

She’s thinking it’s the house he’s going to do.

A man takes her in his arms, says, I would never risk that. We’re going to make it, a man says. He tells her they were out of kerosene. His feet were cold.

A man does not get nervous when she rests her hand on the small green aluminum boat as if she’s going to stay awhile. A man is never forced to sell his real boat, the one that carried him far enough out into the blue to feel he had escaped, to claim a dented patchling like this one. A man’s boat has his own wife’s name on the side and its tiny engine is not rigged to the gunnel with a coat hanger. His boat ranks up there with his truck, his tackle, his favorite wrench.

If a woman persists, a man tells her that it’s just an Irish errand, as his mother always said when she did something he could not understand.

A man kisses his worried wife’s forehead, and sends her back to bed.

He does not stare for long hours out the window from his seat in the garage. He’s made to last. He’s like a rock. A man makes a truck and drives the truck he’s made. He smells of the factory—oil, grease, sweat—where he has worked for thirty-one years. He believes the great American automobile will rise again.

He might tease his sweet and ruined daughter as she walks through the garage just after dawn, all gelled up and ready for school.

She might say, Anything wrong, Dad?

Not a thing, he says. He smiles and rubs his hand over her spiked hair, asks why, when God give her such nice hair, she’s done the shit she done to it.

Even though they both know why, a man and his daughter laugh.

A man simply does not do this thing in front of her, his bird who doubles back, worried.

He does not give his youngest this constellation as she cries and pounds on the glass of the garage door leading to the kitchen and screams: No.

Nor does he do this in front of his oldest—a man does not offer her this dream, unforgettable, burned onto her eyelids for the rest of her life so that she never sleeps again without seeing it: this flailing, spinning, screaming angel of fire whose wings rise suddenly into the rafters.

A man does not do this to a woman who loved him when he was down to nothing and fed him and his children and in all the years he’s known her has never once hurt him or them nor complained. A woman who smiled every time she felt him watching her in the dark.

A man does not do this.

But he’s not a man, anymore.

Freed from all the rules he’s ever known, he bolts his side of the garage door. He wails as he would have his entire life if a man were allowed to wail. He opens the cap on one of the canisters and holds it over his head. He pours and shakes his hair, the way his murderer son used to do with water between plays on the football field. He even opens his mouth, letting the gasoline coat his tongue, sting his nostrils. It soaks him, trickles down into his shoes. Because he wants to be sure of this thing, he empties the second canister. He makes sure the kerosene heater gets a good dose and stands before it. He takes up a match.

They are behind the glass of the door. Their eyes and mouths beg. His wife brings up her fist wrapped in the sleeve of her tattered terry-cloth robe to break the door’s glass, but not soon enough. He wants to stop, let her save him again. But they’ll be better off without him.

He strikes it.

A man would find another way. If he were a man, he’d be sorry. But if he had a whole town, he’d be the thick yellow moon in the sky. He’d never waver. If he painted himself, he’d be the bright star rising above the trees and he’d sail right over everything that’s left here.


Runner-up, 2010 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Steve Almond

 

Levitation

Tricia Springstubb

Right around the time that Martha’s marriage fell apart, her only child became a runner. A distance runner. A runner of distances so long and arduous that some nights Martha crept into her room to examine her daughter’s sleeping feet. How did they do it? Mile after mile, hill after hill? The slapping and pounding! In the light from the hallway the twin soles glowed slick as sea stones. Martha could remember when they were brand new, and fit into the palm of her hand.

Emma had always been a sedentary child, probably too solitary, certainly no joiner. When she decided to go out for the high school cross country team, Martha at first assumed she wanted to lose the baby fat that jiggled over the waistband of her jeans and swayed at the back of her arms, the very same places Martha jiggled and swayed.

“I should start running, too,” Martha said, when Emma came home after the first practice. Her hair was plastered to her brow. Her skin—not only her face, but her arms and legs and that heart-breaking scoop above her sweaty tank top—was the color of bruised rose petals, the terrible blue-pink Martha imagined skin would be during a heart attack. She’ll give this up before the week is out, Martha told herself, and the thought made both regret and satisfaction crowd up inside her. That’s how she was these days—conflicting emotions elbowing each other as if she were an elevator crowded with panicked passengers.

Emma looked up from unlacing her shoes. Her round face was hopeful.

“You really should,” she said.

“I should,” echoed Martha, though she’d already forgotten what she’d proposed.

Emma did not quit. Soon she was running twice a day, once on her own and once with the team. Jon, her father, Martha’s husband, was encouraging.

“I used to run in high school. Did I ever tell you that, Em?” He leaned his chair back on two legs.

Martha, sitting across the table grading spelling tests, set down her green pen (she never graded in red, she was not that kind of teacher). Jon had been teasing chairs that way as long as she’d known him, which by now was more than half her life, and only lately had the habit come to annoy the hell out of her.

“But I was a sprinter,” he went on. “Anything longer than the 200, I died.”

Martha snorted, and he gave her a wounded look. Emma took a quiet suck on her water bottle and drifted out of the room.

˜

Martha had been a mere child when they married. What did she know? How to bake whole grain bread, how to get A’s on all her papers, how to rouse the handsome boy with the dark curls perpetually dozing over a volume of poetry in a back corner of the college library. Back then, Jon wanted to be a writer, and she had a misty vision of herself skimming up narrow, dark stairs to a narrow, dark apartment where a poor, stricken family waited for her. When she entered, they all lit up—the children ran to her, the parents managed dignified smiles. And Martha did work as a county caseworker for the first few years of their marriage. She’d taken children away from mothers, she’d left children with mothers who subsequently abandoned them. She’d threatened landlords, found her windshield smashed. Martha quit sleeping and started drinking lots of wine. Jon, who was in grad school by then, told her to quit. But Martha persisted, sure she could get it right. An older co-worker, a woman with dark purple dents beneath her eyes and a voice ragged from the cigarettes she could not, so help her Jesus, quit, stopped her in the office hallway one afternoon. “You’re breaking my frigging heart, honey,” she said, “just when I was sure it couldn’t break any worse.”

Jon convinced her to go back to school for a teaching degree. She could still help children, but she’d get to read them stories, take them to the zoo. What did she know? In the inner city school where she taught third grade, she was still a caseworker, only now she had to ruthlessly drill children to pass state tests, too. Every year at least one student begged Martha, Take me home. I want you for my Mommy. When had Martha stopped being moved by this? When had she come to realize it wasn’t her that the little girl in the dirty blouse, her chin bisected with the scar from a dog bite, yearned for? It was any old refuge, any hint of permanence and safety. When one of these children abruptly stopped coming to school, leaving behind a small sweatshirt limp on its hook, a desk crammed with broken pencils and failed spelling tests, a dewy-eyed caseworker would appear in the doorway of Martha’s classroom. She’d hesitate, her long hair lustrous, the earrings her boyfriend had given her for her birthday twinkling in her little ears. Martha strove mightily to be civil to these nymphs. These angel wannabes.

What did they know?

Jon was the one who should have become a teacher. It was more in his nature than hers. He loved pointing things out, leading people to his cheerful point of view. Instead he adhered to his original plan, more or less. He was an obit writer for the local paper, and free-lanced for Waste Age Digest and Refrigerated Transport. For awhile he’d been on the staff of Welding Distributor, but they’d recently down-sized. He submitted poems to electronic journals, where they appeared for a while then evaporated.

These days she’d still find him dozing on the couch, a volume of Yeats or Goethe spread across his chest like a large, drowned moth. But now only rarely did she wake him.

˜

A month or so earlier, during the last days of the school year, the two of them had taken a walk by the lake. The day was hot and gusty, and downtown shimmered in a gritty haze. Bits of trash blew against their legs. Jon had just sold a piece on laser-powered food warmers, and, in a jubilant mood, pointed out the way the gulls all sat on the sand facing the same direction, and how the Terminal Tower remained superior to every other building in the skyline.

“Says you,” she replied, the wind snatching away the words. The need to contradict everything he said was exhausting, yet she couldn’t kick it.

He skimmed a rock out across the choppy water. His curls—the very curls that luxuriated on Emma’s sweet head—were still dark, but they were retreating, like the front line of a spent army.

“What a day!” he cried. “It gives you such boundless…”

Martha squinted out at the lake, waiting for him to finish the thought. The arthritis in her big toe ached. She’d overheard Emma crying on the phone, but couldn’t get her to talk about it afterwards. For the past week, her student Anthony had arrived later and later each day. He gobbled his breakfast, then lowered his head to his desk and fell into a sleep so sound even the other children respected it, hushing their voices.

“Boundless what?” she asked.

“Oh Christ, I don’t know. But boundless is the crucial word.” He shouted into the wind. “Immeasurable! Unbridled!”

When she didn’t reply, he took her hand. “Remember what we wrote into our vows? Our promise never to measure life in coffee spoons?” He grinned and swung her hand. His cheerfulness was unwarranted, simple as a child’s. Some of her students seemed older than he did.

“If you ask me,” she said, “there are boundaries. Cement walls. With barbed wire on top. Embedded glass.”

“You always get like this at the end of the school year.” The sand whirled, and he held up an arm to shield her. Martha could see where he’d be sunburned tonight: the bony pink swath that time had cut through his inky forest

“Hey,” he said, not resisting as she pulled away from him. “It’s almost over. The finish line’s in sight.”

˜

Home from her first meet, Emma bounded up the stairs to her room. “I took thirty seconds off my PR!” she cried.

Martha felt a stab of anxiety. Time was not normally a concern of her bashful, pensive child, yet now Emma was referring to her time, as if she’d forged a private continuum. Was something really happening here?

“That’s terrific, sweetie. What’s a PR?”

“Coach says I have boundless potential.”

“Wow. I didn’t think coach-types used words over two syllables.”

Emma made a face, then tugged the slippery red singlet over her head. Martha glimpsed the little roll of tummy, the round slope of shoulder and breast. This was a view she was no longer allowed, and she attempted a rapid-fire inventory of latest developments before Emma covered back up.

But to her astonishment, Emma, in nothing but sports bra and panties, sat on her bed and leaned back on both hands.

“She’s a French teacher. She’s run the Boston marathon twice. And her mother helps us, too.” Emma looked so adorable when she blushed. “We call her Coach Mom.”

Anxiety and meanness crowded together inside the dark shaft that was Martha.

“Good name for a tacky TV show.”

“Make fun, I don’t care. She’s an Olympic athlete. She threw the discus in the1960 games, and she has a lot to teach us.”

Emma retrieved her uniform from the floor. As a baby, she’d plucked her father’s socks off the floor and toddled to the hamper with them. She’d wept when a crayon snapped in two.

“I need spikes,” she flung over her shoulder, disappearing into the bathroom.

“Ooh. Medieval.”

The bathroom door clicked shut.

Jon was the one who’d stayed home during Emma’s babyhood. He’d coaxed her first step, written a sonnet on the day she spoke her first word, light. Fourteen years ago the arrangement had still felt daring, a slap upside convention’s head, and other women repeatedly assured Martha how lucky she was to have such a mellow, easy-going man. Driving home after school Martha’s arms would begin to ache so badly for her baby, sometimes she could barely hang onto the wheel. The place would look like a cartoon house: milk puddled on the table, a rubble of clothes and toys on the floor. By the time she made it to the living room Martha’s bereft arms would be loaded with damp onesies, board books and plastic blocks and gnawed, gummy zwiebacks. The two of them would be watching Oprah, which turned out to be Emma’s second word. Jon claimed he tried to put PBS on, but Emma cried Opa, Opa. She’d press the fat moon of her cheek against the screen, bubbles of affection glistening on her sweet, red lips. Martha, arms full, could only watch, too.

“What’s Coach Mom like?” Martha called through the shut bathroom door.

She raised her voice. “Em? What kind of things does she teach you?”

Water thundered, the first of many lengthy showers. Martha and Jon’s water bill doubled that fall, not that Jon, who left the bills to her, noticed.

˜

The next week Emma magneted a list of vitamins and minerals and the foods that supplied them to the refrigerator door. Martha skimmed it daily, wondering, Maybe if I ate better. Maybe if I paid more attention to my body’s needs. The secretary at work took a dozen vitamins a day. She kept the jars lined up on her desk, and offered them to haggard teachers as they stumbled through the office.

“B-6, Martha,” she’d call, shaking the jar like a magic maraca. “Iron for your poor tired blood.”

Emma scorned supplements. Coach Bentayou advocated nutrition, a solid eight hours of sleep, and—above all—hydration. Emma carried a water bottle everywhere.

“Remember how much you loved your pacifier?” Martha asked her at dinner. “That water bottle makes me think of it.”

Emma was working her way through a plate of mustard greens (calcium) Jon had cooked for her. Her dessert banana (potassium) rested beside her plate.

She took a hearty pull on the water bottle and said, “We ran ten hills today.”

“You were four years old and refused to give it up. Finally I started hiding it.”

“What hills?” asked Jon, also forking up the slimy greens.

“The sledding hill in Forest Hills Park.”

Jon’s eyes went wide. Martha, however, could not get off the pacifier.

“You found it no matter where I put it. Once in my sewing basket, once in the bread drawer, once in your father’s backpack.” Martha paused, remembering. “You just wouldn’t quit.”

“That mother of a hill? Ten times?” Jon tilted back his chair. “That’s like, supernatural.”

Emma lowered her eyes in a failed attempt to hide her pleasure. “I finished first.”

Jon righted his chair and fist bumped her. The two of them went back to huge, enthusiastic mouthfuls of greens.

“I could have just thrown it away. The pacifier, I mean.” She paused, but neither of them asked the obvious question. “I wanted it to be your decision, Em.”

“I remember this.” Jon pushed his plate away. “It was torture.”

“I never wanted to be an enforcer,” Martha said. “That’s not how I ever saw myself.”

And yet just that morning she’d hustled her student Anthony to the office. He’d decked De’Andre, accidentally knocking out Eternity’s loose tooth in the process, blood and tears and snot raining over Morning Meeting. A few feet from the office door, Anthony tried to make a run for it, but Martha dug her fingers into the baby skin above his elbow. Anthony’s head jerked back and her own heart leaped, partners in twin astonishment.

“You’re hurting me!” yelped Anthony, a sullen, fat boy who surely, surely, had been hurt by adults before. Yet he’d trusted her, at least up till now. Who am I? she wondered. How did I get here?

Jon gazed at her, rubbing the side of his face in a way she’d once found comically sexy.

“But you kept hiding it from her. You didn’t really leave the choice up to her.”

Emma took her plate to the sink, rinsed it and set it in the dishwasher.

“It was ruining her bite, the doctor said.”

Jon’s cheeks were boyishly pink from his self-massage. He leaned forward, both hands on the table. “Every time she found it, you took it away again.” As usual he focused on the wrong detail. “Why didn’t you just…”

“Because! You think it was easy? Being the bad guy? Ha!”

She’d almost let go of Anthony’s arm. No child deserved to fall into her principal’s clutches. The woman dressed like a depraved evangelist, in flamboyant synthetic suits and false eyelashes, and Martha had witnessed her reduce fifth grade boys to tears within seconds, and leave kindergarteners curled in the fetal position, all for their own good. Yet Anthony kept erupting, frightening the other children, who were not easily frightened, and Martha drew the line at bloodshed. Through the office door they’d marched.

“Someone has to do these things!”

“I’m glad as hell that someone’s not me.” Jon stood up. “And it never will be. Me.”

Emma had slipped out of the kitchen. They could hear her, running the stairs to the second floor and back down. Her feet in their socks struck the carpeted stairs with a muffled yet definite thump, the house’s heartbeat suddenly made audible. Tears welled up in Martha’s eyes.

“Isn’t she overdoing it?”

“Can’t you say one positive thing?” He lowered his voice, condensing its anger. “Damn, Martha. Finally something she can star at.”

He left the room, pretending not to see Martha was crying, a crime he’d never committed in all their years together.

The pacifier. She’d never thrown it away. Just in case. It had broken Martha’s heart to stand by and watch Emma hunt for it! Hunt and hunt, for something she had to learn to do without, that was all there was to it. But flinging it away among the eggshells and coffee grounds—no, Martha couldn’t bear that. She kept it, she had it still, in the corner of her jewelry box, shriveled and brittle as something unborn.

˜

Emma finished fourth in that weekend’s race. She came home wearing a bright yellow tee-shirt that said WINNER on the back. Martha worried that it was a fluke, that all the really good runners had been sick that afternoon, or missed their bus to the race. False hope was a thing she simply could not tolerate these days.

“Look at this,” said Jon. He held out the Sunday sports page, on which Emma’s name appeared in infinitesimally small type. “You’re in the news, babe. The paper of choice!”

It was their small city’s only paper, and shrinking by the day. Martha paged to the obituary section, but there were no write-ups, unusual on a Sunday.

“They’re cutting you back, aren’t they?” she asked Jon.

“Huh? What? Nah.”

“I’m just asking. No need to be defensive.”

“If there’s one sure thing, it’s obits.”

“Papers are shutting all over the country! It’s nothing personal.”

Emma had moved to the doorway, against which she braced her arms, head bent, as if determined to take the wall down.

“Hey,” said Jon, jumping up from the couch. “Okay if I try to keep up with you for a few hundred yards?”

˜

I can be rich, Anthony wrote in his journal that week, officially designated by the principal I CAN Week. I can drive a Lexus. I can have a million games. I can buy my grandmother a house. I can have a million dollars.

At least that was what he told Martha he’d written. IKRIKLILG $$$10000000000000000 is what she saw on his paper.

She’d brought in the newspaper clipping, Emma’s name and time highlighted in cheerful yellow.

“That your daughter?” Anthony peered at it. His uniform shirt stretched tight across his belly. The free glasses he’d gotten that fall had disappeared, and he squinted like an old man.

“Yes, that’s her name right there.”

“She rich?”

Martha plucked a bit of lint caught in his hair. “You know why I’m so proud of her, Anthony? Because she works really, really hard. She tries her best and she doesn’t give up.”

An absurd speech to give to someone so young and neglected. But what else did she have to offer? He eyed her, chewing his thumb.

“Last year she couldn’t even run at all.”

He’s listening, she thought.

“She has a coach who helps her. She tells Emma how to get better and stronger, so she can win.” Martha swallowed. “Guess what, Anthony? I’m your coach.”

“That blows.” His voice was low and private, the voice he used to talk to himself in the time-out corner.

“No, listen. You’re smart. You know you are! You shouldn’t be getting into so much trouble. Let’s try this. How about it? I’ll coach you.”

He slid the chewed-up thumb into his mouth, then curled the fingers of his other hand around his fist.

“We’ll both win,” she said.

He fixed her with a liquid gaze, and nodded.

˜

In the dim staff room, where the clock on the wall had read 3:00 for years, Martha read the newspaper. Obit writing allowed little room for creativity, yet Jon always managed to inject a whimsical turn of phrase, and the quotes he chose from the deceased and family always came off as sincere, even the worst clichés. “He makes everybody’s life interesting,” Emma once wrote in a grade school essay, MY HERO. “Especially if they are dead.”

But again, today, his by-line was nowhere to be found. It was as if he, like one of his subjects, had ceased to exist. Crossed to the other side–passed, her students said, as if referring to yet another test. Why wouldn’t he confide in her that he was losing his job, about to be laid off? Why wouldn’t he admit it?

On the way home she stopped for a bottle of good wine, their favorite, a faintly sweet white they’d considered theirs for twenty years. Emma wouldn’t be back from practice yet. Martha would tell him all about Anthony, how he’d put her at the end of her rope, how she dreamed of running him over with her car, how she was making her last, desperate stand with him. Or maybe instead of talking, she’d just kiss Jon. His kissing was one thing that never, ever disappointed her. It had the power, at times, to transform her into a different, much more likeable person.

But he was dozing on their bed, unshaven, eyes crusted with sleep, The Complete Book of Running open on his chest. Martha banged hangers together in the closet, kicked her shoes into a corner, until he said, eyes still shut, “Listen to the message on the machine.”

“Bon jour, this is Claudie Bentayou, Emma’s cross country coach. It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Logan, at our last meet.” Pause. “I hope you, too, Mrs. Logan, will attend a meet at some point.” Longer pause. “What a delight it is to coach your daughter.”

“Of course it is!” retorted Martha. What a snotty, mellifluous voice the woman had.

“Quiet!” Jon commanded. “Listen to this part.”

“…her progress. Her work ethic is outstanding, but beyond that, she possesses enormous natural talent. After a decade of coaching, I know a winner when I see one. My mother, Coach Mom, would love to adopt her!” A small, artificial chuckle. “Again, I hope to see you both soon, and au revoir!”

Jon, sitting up by now, immediately tapped the machine again. Martha watched his lips move along with the words I know a winner when I see one.

“How many times have you listened to that, may I ask?”

She only meant to tease him, but her tone was sickeningly off, and he bolted up.

“What’s with you?” he shouted. He rubbed the side of his face as if he’d been attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. “You’re vinegar! You’re brine!”

“Kiss my ass. I just came home from a terrible day at work. That makes it about a thousand terrible days in a row, and….”

“Okay okay, the world sucks, we’re circling the drain, all the more reason! Your daughter’s a winner! Come to a meet! Be happy for a change!”

Happy! The flimsiness of that word! One day, and Martha somehow knew it would be the very day she came to watch, one day Emma was going to lose, she was going to race full speed ahead into crushing disappointment and cruel doubt, and Martha would have to comfort her, You gave it your all, you did your best and that’s what counts, that’s what matters. It was absolutely required of mothers to say these things, no matter how heavy their own hearts were, how many dreams they’d personally waved goodbye.

“It bothers me to see you taking such vicarious pleasure in her success,” Martha said.

“Why?”

“It feels pathetic.”

“More pathetic than you taking pleasure in belittling me?”

“I don’t! I…I don’t feel any pleasure at all in anything at all any more. At all.”

The late afternoon, autumn light fell across the side of his face, bathing the tortured, whiskery skin in soft radiance.

“It’s just a bad stretch,” he told her. “We’ve been through them before. We’ll come through it. Out the other side.”

But instead of kissing her, without so much as touching her, he turned away to close the blinds. Later, after she’d put the unopened wine away, she discovered its twin in the refrigerator. When had he bought it? She visualized him in the store choosing it, carrying it home, anticipating the toasts they’d make.

˜

Anthony came to school in gleaming new LeBron James shoes. He told everyone they made him run faster and jump higher, but at recess, tiny De’Andre beat him in a race, and Anthony used his bright, beautiful shoes to kick his friend in the butt. A recess lady dragged him to the office, where Martha found him blubbering on a bench.

“You’re sorry,” she told him. “It feels so bad to hurt your friend.”

“Granny’s gonna beat me,” he sobbed, showing her how dirty he’d gotten the shoes.

While the rest of her class went to toot recorders, Martha scrubbed his shoes clean, and read him a story about a gentle bull who’d rather smell flowers than fight.

“My daughter always loved this book,” she told him.

Anthony took his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, “She cool.”

A few days later, the principal stopped Martha in the hallway. She’d left off her false eyelashes today, revealing a face so unguarded Martha felt uneasy, as if she were the one stripped of disguise. The school had received bad news: their state test scores made them an official “academic emergency.” Unless things drastically improved, the principal was headed for the curb. The whole school, in fact, would be dissolved and “reconstituted,” like toxic sludge.

“Good news, Mrs. Logan.” The principal’s eyes were streaked with red. Even her ears looked tired. “I finally got the go-ahead on moving our little Anthony into SBH.”

Martha slumped against the wall, rumpling a WE CAN BE DRUG FREE poster. Relief and guilt clashed thug-like inside her. If Anthony went to the Severe Behavioral Handicap dungeon, relative peace would reign, but she’d never see him again, or at least not for ten years, when he’d try to carjack her.

“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve been working with him. I’ve got some new ideas, I just need some time.”

The principal gave Martha a disgusted look.

“I moved mountains to get that move through.”

Martha straightened her shoulders. “Can’t I change my mind?”

“FYI, Mrs. Logan, I don’t have time to take a crap, let alone second-guess decisions.” She narrowed her naked, lash-less eyes. “He’ll be moved next week.”

˜

Jon moved out on an afternoon when the trees had turned overnight, without warning, having heard some starter pistol audible only to green leaves. The sky was brilliantly, boundlessly blue. When he told Martha it would be better all around, she could only gape at his optimism, this pure, bone-chilling spring that fed at a source fathoms deep. If he got out of the way for a while, he said, things might sort out. She and Emma could have some time together, for the first time. And the last, before she left home for college.

“That’s years away!” Martha accused. “It’s just an excuse for you to walk away instead of face your own problems! You coward! You shirker!” Her throat closed up. “You chicken shit,” she managed to croak.

She watched from the window as he trudged away, bent beneath the weight of his pack, the autumn sun a spotlight on his bald, bony ridge. Did he know he was getting old? If not, who could blame him? Oh, she’d understood the years would pass, of course, but who’d guessed they’d pile on this way, moldy blankets heaped one atop the other? She’d imagined time wafting by, like a fragrant breeze ruffling her hair, a chuckling stream massaging her toes.

She pressed her forehead to the window glass. She was still there when a van drove up and Emma jumped out, her lean legs a mile long. Look at those cheekbones, jutting out like little shelves. The muscles played across her arms as she grabbed the backpack another member of the team held out to her. Bits of her had melted away when Martha wasn’t looking. How much less of her there was to grasp!

“I already know,” Emma said, the minute she came in the door.

˜

His new apartment was only a mile away, and since they couldn’t afford a second computer, he came over during the day, when no one was home, to work. Martha found herself hunting traces of him—a chewed pen cap, a bitten fingernail. Once he left behind some post-its, the top one dark with moisture.

Martha touched it, then put her finger to her lips, tasting for salt.

Mysteriously, his obits began to reappear, and it seemed to her they took on a new, almost manic zest. Everyone from oncologist to homemaker to the night-shift security guard crippled by gunshot wounds had lived a full life.
He’s miserable, she told herself. He’s consoling himself by inventing happy endings.

The alternative, that he was free to sing his own song for the first time in decades, couldn’t be true. If that was true, they’d ruined one another’s lives, and how was it possible to believe that and keep on going?

People did, she knew. People kept on going in the most appalling circumstances.

She visited Anthony down in the basement whenever she could, despite the disapproval of the SBH teacher, who considered Martha a disruptive force.

“He almost always goes on red after you leave, even if he’s been on green all day.”

“Screw you,” Martha said under her breath.

“This weekend’s the league meet,” she told Anthony. Just when the sore on his cheek had at last started to heal, he’d picked off the scab. Beneath his uniform shirt he wore the WINNER tee-shirt she’d given him—Emma owned so many by now. “Know how far they run, Tony? Over three miles.”

“Far away.”

“Far away.”

These days, Emma sitting still was unnatural, like a gazelle in a zoo. Since Jon had moved out, she was either running or sleeping. Laying down the miles, she explained to Martha, before tapering for the last, really big meets. Piling up her kilometers, hoarding her strength.

“Don’t go.” Anthony grabbed her sleeve.

“I have to go get my…my other kids.”

“I wanna come back upstairs.” He kicked his desk, and the teacher loomed over them.

“Orange,” she threatened.

Martha stood up. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she promised.

Things had deteriorated in his home setting, the teacher told her. There was a better than fifty-fifty chance he’d be back in foster care soon. As the teacher unlocked the door to let Martha out, Anthony jabbed the point of his pencil against his WINNER tee-shirt again and again.

˜

A photographer for the paper caught Emma flying down the home stretch of the league meet. She was so far out in front that, looking at the photo, you’d think she’d run the race solo. Martha’s little girl was a goddess—her arms tucked to her sides, neatly folded like wings, and neither foot touching the ground. Her face was composed, serene, as focused as if she were in prayer.

FRESHMAN PHENOM read the caption, and when Martha went to school on Monday, the secretary had posted the picture on the office bulletin board. What vitamins did that child take, she demanded?

Coach Mom had the photo enlarged and laminated. Emma left it lying on the kitchen table, and the next afternoon, it was gone.

“I told Daddy he could have it. I didn’t think you’d mind.” She was rummaging in the refrigerator, moving around half-empty bottles of fish sauce and capers.

“One thing I wonder, Em. On the course. When you’re passing all those other kids. When you’re leaving them in your dust.”

Emma kept her head inside the refrigerator.

“Do you ever feel sorry for them?”

Emma turned around, a crusty ancient jar in either hand. “Sure I do.” She marched to the trash and dropped them in. “For half a second.”

Martha watched her methodically clear the refrigerator, then pull out the shelves and wash them one by one in the sink.

“Not everyone’s made for distance,” Emma said. “Though Coach Mom says it’s 99% mental power.” Without turning around, she paused for a suck on her water bottle. “Coach Mom says marriage is like a marathon.”

“Coach Mom sure has a lot of…”

“She says you’ve got to run it in sections. One stretch at a time.”

“I thought she threw the whatever-you-throw. What does she know about running?”

“She knows!” Emma spun around, brandishing a shining shelf like a shield. “She knows a lot, about all kinds of things! She’s a real grown-up!”

“Emma. Oh honey. I’m so sorry you had to talk to her about this.”

Martha took the shelf from Emma’s hands and linked her arms around tight strung bones and coiled sinew, skin hot with fury.

“I thought he’d come back by now,” Martha said. She tried to hold her daughter, though there was not a single familiar element in this jack-knife of a body.

“He can’t!” Emma’s breath came short and fast in her ear. “He can’t make any decisions! He’s too depressed.”

“He is?”

Emma pulled free.

“You both are, I hope you know!”

“At least I go on! I face things, I work, I support you. Did you forget that little detail?”

“I don’t want to talk any more.” Emma was shoving her feet into her running shoes.

“I thought that’s what you did want! You talk to her!”

Emma put her foot up on the table, yanked at her shoelaces.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Martha cried. “It’s dark out!”

She was so fast, there was no telling where she’d disappeared by the time Martha found her keys and backed out the car. She could be blocks away. Six minute miles—she could be nearly to Jon’s by now. Choosing him over Martha, who would blame her?

Searching for your child in the dark—here was the waking version of every bad dream Martha had had since she was born, since she first broke free of the safety of the womb. Martha once dreamed that Emma was no bigger than her finger and had vanished into a sea of tall, waving grass. Another time that she’d left the baby in a strange cradle that, on second look, was lined with teeth and bones.

That Emma would turn her back and run away as fast as she could had never been one of the nightmares.

Martha gripped the wheel, the car driving her, and when she saw the silver fireflies winking on the black road, impossible for October, the sweat rolled down her back. Her daughter’s feet, her leathery, award-winning, reflective feet, running past her father’s street, running, just running running running, so unflagging and determined that who would ever catch her? Who would dare to pass her? Relief left Martha too weak to even consider rolling down her window and trying to persuade Emma to get in. Instead the car nosed along in the winking silver wake, as if Emma were towing it.

˜

Martha lay awake half the night, and when she slept it was Anthony she dreamed of. Anthony in a dilapidated lifeboat, adrift among snapping serpents. Lost in the alleys of a city made of dirty glass. Anthony forced to run, his basketball shoes on fire.

Anthony needed her. That alone made him unique in the world.

When she woke her skin itched, and her eyes were as hot and swollen as if she’d cried for hours. She knew this feeling. The membrane separating her from the world was beaten so thin every sorrow, every ugliness and cruelty rushed in and possessed her as if it were her own. She didn’t dare look at the newspaper or turn on the TV. Her heart was lumpy inside her, like something that had melted and hardened into the wrong shape.

A notion had crouched at the back of her shadowy mind for weeks. Now, defenseless, she watched it burrow to the front. Day by day, the light was draining from Anthony’s eyes. His tough little shell was growing thicker, hardening from the outside in, so who knew what was left inside him, what sliver of space remained for the curious, big-eyed boy he’d been. Anthony was growing less loveable. Soon, no one would want him. If the child-protective system swallowed him up, that could be the end of him

The system she was part of! You worked and worked and in the end, were never sure if anything you did made a difference, if you’d even put a drop in the bottom of the filthy leaky bucket. But with one child, one specific child, you could know. Martha drank her extra-strong coffee and walked through her house, past the computer where Jon wrote his happy endings, up the stairs and to the foot of Emma’s bed, neatly made, a pile of tee-shirts folded on top of the quilt. The world could still be brought to order, she thought, good things could still be made to happen.

Martha dressed, hurrying. The idea of taking Anthony in beat its wings inside her, stronger and stronger. She was not naïve, no longer an idealist, but she could help. She knew how to make some things better. Driving to school she berated herself for hesitating so long. Giddiness jittered up inside her, the way it had when she was young, as if she were on her way to meet a new boyfriend, or fling herself off a cliff. This was who she used to be.

She led her class through Morning Meeting, where she taught the state-mandated lesson on empathy, then, tossing aside the lesson on fractions, passed out the precious markers and let them draw whatever they wanted.

Outside the window, narrow yellow leaves streamed by like a school of fish. She brought the class to gym a little early but the teacher, a darling young man the kids loved, didn’t mind. Martha dashed to the office and unpinned the photo of Emma levitating, then ran down the stairs to SBH.

The teacher was surprised to see her. Hadn’t Martha watched the news this morning? Her voice was lightly triumphant, for she’d been proven right after all. Martha gripped the back of Anthony’s empty chair as the teacher related how the grandmother’s boyfriend had finally gone too far, beating her unconscious as the children watched, and how all of them were in county custody. All except the fourteen year old brother, who was being held for shooting the boyfriend in the leg.

Here the teacher, who was not, after all, a monster, gave a soft groan.

It wasn’t Martha who’d made the boyfriend go berserk. Martha’s stingy pessimism hadn’t put the gun in the brother’s hand, her being too late hadn’t pulled the trigger. This was just the kind of thing that happened these days. These days when the world itself was worn out, liver-spotted, incapable of miracles.

“I was going to show him this picture.” She offered it to the teacher, who glanced at it but had to dart away to stop a girl who’d begun pulling her own hair.

“You tried,” said the teacher over her shoulder. “We all did.”

It was no one’s fault. And yet if Martha wasn’t responsible, what was she doing here? Could someone please tell her that?

˜

“Madame Bentayou and Coach Mom will drive us down.”

Emma had come in first in districts, first in regionals. Martha had read all the stats in the paper, viewed the photos a teammate’s mother had put on-line. Emma and that teammate had qualified for the state meet, being run a hundred miles south. The whole team was going, to cheer them on. They’d leave early the day before, spend that night in a hotel, and run the race the next morning.

“It starts and finishes in a big stadium,” Emma said, rolling white socks and putting them in her suitcase. Four days ahead, she was packing. “Like thousands of people come. Coach Mom says when they shoot the starter gun, the roar is deafening.”

Martha’s own pulse roared in her ears. Emma tugged at the suitcase zipper, long black curls curtaining her face.

“Dad’s driving down Saturday morning. He can’t afford a motel, since the newspaper finally gave him the pink slip.”

“It did?” Martha leaned against the doorframe. “Poor Dad,” she whispered.

Emma strung her spikes with new laces.

˜

Martha had tried to track down Anthony. He and his siblings, except for the oldest, had gone to live with an aunt in another city. It was good the siblings got to stay together, people agreed. No one could tell her much more.

Two new students arrived in Martha’s class, one a small Chinese boy who couldn’t speak English and the other a girl nearly as tall as she was, a third grader who already got her period.

˜

The Friday before the state meet, Martha called in sick. When the coaches arrived to pick Emma up, Martha met them for the first time. Madame was at least six feet tall, with dreds spilling halfway down her willowy spine. She took the hand that Martha held out, then leaned in and air-kissed her on both cheeks.

“Quel plaisir de te recontrer!” Stepping back, she scanned Martha’s face with the practiced, assessing look of a coach.

Coach Mom was short and stocky, with a weathered face and grizzled, cinnamon-colored hair. Her blue windbreaker had an American flag sewn to the back, and her red spandex pants showed off her muscled thighs. The orange and green running shoes, those she must have gotten on discount.

“You can trust us.” She squeezed Martha’s hand with a discus-thrower’s might. “We’ll take good care of your baby.”

“Is that your Olympic jacket?”

“Why yes. It is.” Coach Mom’s smile was broad and kind. “I only take it out for special occasions.”

Martha squeezed her hand back. “You’ve made all the difference for her.”

“Well now, I don’t know about that.” Coach Mom allowed Martha to grip her hand far longer than was normal before she gently withdrew her fingers. “Emma’s a very determined child.”

Coach Bentayou handed Martha a packet of information about the race, including all the numbers where they could be reached.

“And here,” she said, tapping the paper with a long, square-tipped finger, “here are the driving directions.” She looked up. “It’s only about two hours.”

Emma came rushing down the stairs.

As the three of them walked toward the van, Martha called, “Bon chance!”

“Oof!” Madame shook a finger. “Chance has nothing to do with it!” With that, they whisked Emma into the car and away.

˜

Martha was still awake at 5 AM when someone knocked on her door. She tried to convince herself she was having an anxiety dream, but the knock was persistent, and there was no denying her eyes were wide open. She could see the clock, and beside it Emma’s school photo, her smile as pained as in every picture she’d ever posed for.

When the knocking stopped and a key turned in the lock, Martha picked up the photo and carried it with her, like an Egyptian preparing for the after-life.
Jon gazed at her from the bottom of the stairs. He was thinner. He wore new running shoes, which made his feet look like something he had yet to grow into.

“I’m on my way to Emma’s meet.” He pointed at the photo she held, as if Martha might need a visual aid to understand.

“She told me.” Martha descended the rest of the steps to stand on the last one, eye level with him. “Thanks for going.”

His eyebrows shot up. Thin as he’d grown, with those puppy feet, he was close to the boy she’d gone hunting in the college library. Back then, as she tiptoed up to him, his eyes would fly open, and she was sure it was her heart, thumping so loudly, that waked him.

“Why thank me?” he demanded. “As if anything could keep me away!”

The window in their front door framed darkness.

“Did Emma forget something? Why’d you stop here?”

“I’m not letting you miss this, Martha.” He crossed the hallway and yanked open the door of the closet. “You’re coming.”

“Oh no.” She clutched the neck of the tee-shirt she’d slept in. “I can’t.”

He was rifling through the jackets. “You don’t even know what you’re missing. Do you realize that? You’ve never seen her race!” He held out her winter coat. “Come on.”

“What…what if I jinx her?”

He tried to fit her arm into the coat, but she shook him off. She tried to turn and go back up the stairs, but his fingers dug into her.

“I’m not letting you do this to yourself.”

“Let go! You’re hurting me!”

“And I’m not letting you do it to her.”

Martha clutched the banister. “Don’t be so righteous,” she said. Only the very last syllable didn’t make it out of her mouth.

He threw the coat over her shoulders.

“I had a dream where she fell on the course and everyone ran right past. No one even noticed,” Martha wailed. “What if she goes out too fast, and can’t finish? What if she gets cramps?”

“Winning doesn’t even matter at this point.”

“Don’t lie! You know that’s not true!”

“She’s in this for the long haul. If she falls she’ll get back up, trust me.” He shook his head, as if this were something a blind person could see, then touched her face. “Christ. She’s your daughter, Mart.”

˜

It was like an encampment of hundreds of armies, with tents and banners and uniformed combatants warming up everywhere you looked. The stadium was cupped by rolling land, fringed with woods stark and bare in the November light. It was all gorgeous, like so many battlefields before the bloodshed began. As Jon went to buy Emma a souvenir shirt, Martha searched the beautiful, lithe bodies for the one that belonged to her.

Instead she saw Anthony, already taller than the last time she’d seen him, with a new, slick haircut. He stood in the distance, on the edge of a group of older boys in warm-up suits, one of whom she watched play-wrestle him to the ground and not let him back up. She cringed, expecting Anthony to spit or bite or kick the boy in the balls. Instead he rolled up like a bug till another boy, grinning, gave him a hand back up. Anthony bounced on his toes. He crouched and danced, rocking his pelvis, jabbing the air with his splayed fingers, little tough guy in the sunshine. Martha had never seen him outside the dingy walls of the school. She’d never witnessed this joy that lived in him, this exuberant, heedless geyser bottled up side by side with his anger.

“What are you looking at?” asked Jon, coming up beside her.

“One of my students.”

“Are you sure?” He followed her gaze. “Down here? That’s a pretty big coincidence.”

It was Anthony, wasn’t it? She should call to him, go speak to him—night after night she’d lain awake, thinking of all the things she wished she’d said to him.

“You see your kids wherever you go, don’t you,” Jon said. “You can’t ever leave work behind you.” He rubbed the side of his face. “I always counted on that tenacity. I figured it’d make you stick with me, no matter what.”

Anthony and his boisterous, athletic crew drifted farther away.

“Opposites attract,” Jon went on. “Lately I’ve been thinking that’s a real understatement, when it comes to a long marriage. Opposites are a necessity.”

She was letting Anthony, this happier, more hopeful Anthony, disappear, borne away on the buoyant crowds of runners and spectators. What if the sight of her, the embodiment of his past, poisoned his joy? Or even worse, what if it turned out not to be Anthony? What if this hopeful vision of him resurrected and resilient was only a figment of her own moronic, dogged will to right the world? Her conviction that she had the power to make Anthony happy or sad, make him succeed or fail–it was hubris, that’s what it was, because in the end it was all up to Anthony whether he made it or not. That was the hard truth, that was the bullet you had to bite. What this boy latched onto, what he let pull him under or over, was all up to him. The burden and the glory of every child. Every human. Martha closed her eyes, delivered to a terrifying place.

“Hey!” cried Jon. “Hey look!”

Martha looked. As long as it had been since she saw her child run toward instead away from her, she became even more disoriented.

“Don’t run!” she commanded Emma. “Save your energy!”

That made Emma laugh. “You came.”

“Just do your best,” Martha whispered, folding her close, and Emma laughed again, because it was far too late for advice like that, for any advice, from her mother. Or maybe not.

“I’m so glad you came,” Emma whispered back.

˜

At the sound of the pistol the stands roared, and the runners surged across the field toward the stadium’s opening. In a heartbeat they were out of sight. Jon, who’d studied the course, knew where to be to watch them just before they entered the woods. He took Martha’s arm and they ran, too, Martha stumbling in her clogs, struggling to keep up.

And here the girls came, rounding a curve, thundering down an incline. Martha’s heart banged so furiously, she leaned on Jon for support. The runners had thinned out into an endless string, and at the front was a small pack, four or five girls, which did not include Emma. Martha clutched her chest. Then she saw her, ten yards back, eating up the ground, narrowing the gap stride by stride.

“Emma!” they both bellowed. “Emma!”

The lead pack was tight and impenetrable, and Emma had to go wide of them, close enough now Martha could see the dark pearls of sweat at her hairline. Her concentration was so fierce, Martha didn’t dare call to her again. Their girl sailed past, eyes on the ground, and then, just beyond where they stood, she took the lead.

Martha had never seen anything like it.

The stampeding pack disappeared into the woods.

“Over there, by those cones—that’s where they’ll come out.”

They pressed forward along with all the other families and friends, the stadium in the distance now. Martha caught a glimpse of Coach Bentayou loping across the grass, clutching the stopwatch around her neck like a crown jewel. Coach Mom scurried behind, her face wild.

All of them, all the spectators, knotted by the edge of the woods, waiting.

Emma had looked so strong, unbeatable. But it was a torturous race, and way too early to predict. Anything could happen. A hush came over them as they squinted toward the trees, at the dark tunnel where the runners would emerge. The cold sun beat on Martha’s head and shoulders. Her blood pounded in her ears. She was dizzy with fear and hope, woozy and tipsy, practically air-borne.


Winner, 2009 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Andre Dubus III

Shout Her Lovely Name

Natalie Serber

Runner-Up 2009 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

June

In the beginning, don’t talk to your daughter, because anything you say she will refute.  Notice that she no longer eats cheese.  Yes, cheese: an entire food category goes missing from her diet.  She claims cheese is disgusting and that, hello? she has always hated it.  Think to yourself…okay, no Feta, no Gouda—that’s a unique and painless path to individuation; she’s not piercing, tattooing or voting Republican. Cheese isn’t crucial.  The less said about cheese the better, though honestly you do remember watching her enjoy Brie on baguette Friday evenings when the neighbors came over and there was laughter in the house.

Then baguettes go too.

“White flour isn’t healthy,” she says.

She claims to be so much happier now that she’s healthier, now that she doesn’t eat cheese, pasta, cookies, meat, peanut butter, avocados, and milk.  She tells you all this without smiling.  Standing before the open refrigerator like an anthropologist studying the customs of a quaint and backwards civilization, she doesn’t appear happier.

When she steps away with only a wedge of yellow bell pepper say, “Are you sure that’s all you want? What about your bones?  Your body is growing, now’s the time to load up on calcium so you don’t end up a lonely old hunchback sweeping the sidewalk in front of your cottage.”  Bend over your pretend broom, nod your head and crook a finger at her.

Nibble, Nibble like a mouse, who is nibbling on my house? Cried the old witch, “Oh, dear Gretel, come in.  There is nothing to be frightened of. Come in.” She took Gretel by the hand, and led her into her little house. Then more good food was set before Gretel, milk and cheese, with avocado, cookies, and nuts.

Your daughter stares up at the kitchen ceiling, her look a stew of disdain and forbearance. “Just so you know, Mom, you’re so not the smartest person in the room.”  She nibbles her pepper wedge, and you hope none of it gets stuck between her teeth or she will miss half her meal.

Alone at night, nearly google Eating Disorder three times.  When you finally press enter, you are astonished to see that there are 7,800,000 pages of resources with headings like Psych Central, Body Distortion, ED Index, Recovery Blog, Celebrities with Anorexia, Alliance for Hope, DSM IV.

Realize an expert is needed and take your daughter to a dietician.  In the elevator on the way up, she stands as far away from you as she possibly can. Her hair, the color of dead grass, hangs over her fierce eyes. “In case you’re wondering, I hate you.”

Remember, your daughter is in there somewhere.

This dietician—recommended by a childless, 40-something friend who sought help in order to lose belly fat—looks at your daughter and sees one of her usual clients.  She recommends 1400 calories a day, non-fat dairy, one slice of bread, just one tablespoon of olive oil on salad greens.  You didn’t know—you thought you were doing the right thing,   And you are now relegated to the dunce chair forever by your daughter who is thin as she’s always wanted to be.  

The sixteen year old part of you—the Teen Magazine subscribing part of you that bleached your dark hair orange with Super Sun In and hated, absolutely hated, your thighs, the part that used to sometimes eat just a bagel so if anyone asked you what you’d eaten that day, you could answer, a bagel and feel strong—that part of you thinks your daughter looks good.  Your daughter is nearly as thin as a big-eyed Keane girl, as thin as the eighth grade girls who drift along the halls of her middle school, their binders pressed to their collarbones, their coveted low-rise, destroyed-denim, skinny-fit, size double-zero jeans grazing their jutting hipbones.

 

Low Rise Waif

Low Rise Waif

100% cotton, toothpick leg, subtle fading and whiskering, heavy vintage destruction wash, low rise skinny fit, imported

She is as thin as her friends who brag about being stuffed after their one-carrot lunch.

“It’s crazy, Mom.  I’m worried about Beth, Sara, McKenzie, Claire….” she says, waving her slice of yellow bell pepper in the air.

Google Eating Disorders again. This time click on the link, understandingEDs.com.

July

Don’t talk to your daughter about food, though this is all she will want to talk to you about.  Spaghetti with clam sauce sounds amazing, she’ll say, flipping through Gourmet magazine, but when you prepare it, along with a batch of brownies, hoping she’ll eat, she’ll claim she’s always detested it. She’ll call you an idiot for cooking shit-food you know she loathes.  “You know what, Mom,” she will say with her new vitriol, “I never want to be a chubby-stupid-no-life-fucking-bitch-leach-loser like you.”

After you slap her, don’t cry.  Hold your offending palm against your own cheek, in a melodramatic gesture of shame and horror that you think you really mean.  Feel no satisfaction. When she calls you abusive and threatens to phone child protective services, resist handing her the phone with a wry I dare you smile.  Try not to scream back at her.  Don’t ask her what the hell self-starvation is if not abuse. Be humiliated and embarrassed, but don’t make yourself any promises about never stooping that low again.  Remind your daughter that spaghetti with clam sauce and brownies was the exact meal she requested for her 12th birthday, and then quickly leave the room.

Lovely’s 12th Birthday Brownies
2 STICKS unsalted butter
4 oz best quality unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup WHITE FLOUR
1 teaspoon salt     
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 350°Butter large baking pan.  Melt together butter and chocolate over a very, very low flame or better yet, in a double boiler.  Watch and stir constantly to prevent burning.  Turn off heat.  Add sugar and stir until granules dissolve.  Stir in eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated and the batter shines.   Blend in vanilla, fold in the flour until just mixed.  Add raspberries.  Bake for 30 minutes.  The center will be gooey, the edges must have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.  Try your best to wait until the brownies cool before you slice them. 1

Enjoy

Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter.  She will tell you she didn’t mean it when she called you chubby, hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest.

“The hallmark of anorexia nervosa is a preoccupation with food and a refusal to maintain minimally normal body weight. One of the most frightening aspects of the disorder is that people with anorexia nervosa continue to think they look fat even when they are bone-thin. Their nails and hair become brittle, and their skin may become dry and yellow.” 2

Prepare meals you hope she will eat: buckwheat noodles with shrimp, grilled salmon and quinoa, baked chicken with bulgur, omelets without cheese.  When you melt butter in the pan, or put olive oil on the salad, try not to let her see.  Try to cook when she is away from the kitchen, though suddenly it is her favorite room, the cookbooks her new library.   Feel as if you always have a sharp-beaked raven on your shoulder, watching, pecking, deciding not to eat, angry at food, and terribly angry at you.

Begin to have heated, whispered conversations with your husband—in closets, in the pantry, in bed at night.  He wants to sneak cream into the milk carton.  He wants to put melted butter in her yogurt.  He wants to nourish his little girl.  He is terrified.

You are angry, resentful and confused. You want help. You are terrified.

“She’s mean because she’s starving,” he says. “How you feel doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, but I have to live in this house too.”

“How you feel doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, but she used to love me.”

“This isn’t about you.”

Later, after you once again do not have sex, get out of bed, close the bathroom door behind you, close the shower door behind you as well, then cry into a towel for as long as you like. Ask yourself, is this about me?

September

Take your daughter to the doctor.  Learn about orthostatic blood pressure and body mass index. Learn that she’s had dizzy spells, that she hasn’t had her period for 4 months.  Worry terribly.  Feel like a failure: like a chubby-stupid-no-life-fucking-bitch-leach-loser.

When the pregnant doctor tells your daughter that she needs to gain five pounds and your daughter starts to cry and then to scream that none of you-people live in her body, you-people have no idea what she needs, you-people are rude and she will only listen to herself. You-people (you and the doctor and the nurse) huddle together and listen.  You don’t want to be one of you-people, you want to be hugging your frightened, hostile daughter who sits alone on the examination table.  But she won’t let you.  The doctor gives her a week to gain two pounds and find a therapist or she will refer her to an eating disorder clinic.  You want your daughter to succeed.  You want her to stay with you at home, to stay in her new high school, to make new friends, to laugh, to answer her body when she feels hunger.

You watch your daughter watch the doctor squeeze her pregnant belly between the cabinet and the examination table and you know exactly what your daughter is thinking—fat, fat, fat.

Before you leave, the doctor pulls you aside and tells you that your daughter suffers from “disordered eating.”  She tells you to assemble a treatment team: doctor, therapist, nutritionist, family therapist.  “You’ll need support; you’ll need strategies.”

You’ve never been on a team before.  Ask the obvious question  “Eating disorder vs. disordered eating? What’s the difference?”  Get no answer.  Try to go easy on yourself.

“Knowledge about the causes of anorexia nervosa is inconclusive, and the causes may be varied. In an attempt to understand and uncover the origins of eating disorders, scientists have studied the personalities, genetics, environments, and biochemistry of people with these illnesses. Certain personality traits common in persons with anorexia nervosa are low self-esteem, social isolation (which usually occurs after the behavior associated with anorexia nervosa begins), and perfectionism. These people tend to be good students and excellent athletes. It does seem clear (although this may not be recognized by the patient), that focusing on weight loss and food allows the person to ignore problems that are too painful or seem unresolvable.” 3

Remember, you were always there to listen to painful problems, to help.  You kept your house purged of fashion magazines, quit buying the telephone-book-sized September Vogue as soon as you gave birth to her.  Only glanced at People in the dentist’s office. So why?  How? How did this happen to your family?

Karen Carpenter, Mary-Kate Olsen, Gilda Radner, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Winslet, Anne Sexton, Paula Abdul, Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mariel Hemingway, Sally Field, Anna Freud, Elton John, Richard Simmons, Franz Kafka for Christ’s Sake

You should have never paid Cinderella to enchant the girls at her fourth birthday party.  Cringe as you remember the shimmering blue acetate gown and the circle of mesmerized girls at Cinderella’s knees, their eyes softly closed, tender mouths slackened to moist O’s. Cinderella hummed Cinderella’s love song, she caked iridescent blue eye-shadow on each girl while they fell in love with her and her particular fantasy.  Know in your heart that, even though you cancelled cable and forbade Barbie to cross your threshold, you are responsible.  You have failed her. 

Barbie's New Waist

Barbie’s New Waist

After the doctor’s appointment, drive to your daughter’s favorite Thai restaurant while she weeps beside you and tells you she never imagined she’d be a person with an eating disorder.  “If this could happen to me, anything can happen to anyone.”

Tell her, “Your light will shine.  Live Strong. We will come through this.”  Vague aphorisms are suddenly your specialty.

“I’m scared,” she tells you.

For the first time in months, you are not scared.  You are calm.  Your daughter seems pliable, reachable.  For the entire car ride, the search for a parking space and the walk into the restaurant you are filled with hope.  And then you are seated for lunch and she studies the menu for eleven minutes, finally ordering only a green papaya salad.  Hope flees and this is the moment you begin to eat like a role model.  You too order a salad, you also order Pho and salmon and custard and tea.  Eat slowly with false joy and frivolity.  Show her how much fun eating can be!  Look at me, ha-ha, dangling rice noodles from my chopsticks, tilting my head to get it all in my mouth.  Yum!  Delicious!  Wow! Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha!

October

Rejoice!  Your daughter adds dry roasted almonds to her approved food list.  She eats a handful everyday.  She also eats eight-dollars-a-loaf mother-grain bread from a vegan restaurant across the river.  You gladly drive there in the rain, late at night.  In the morning, she stands purple lipped in front of the toaster, holding her hands up to it for warmth.

“People with anorexia nervosa often complain of feeling cold (hypothermia) because their body temperature drops. They may develop lanugo (a term used to describe the fine hair on a new born) on their body.” 4

Your daughter furiously gnashes a wad of gum.  She read somewhere that gum stimulates digestion and she chomps nearly all day.  You find clumps of gum in the laundry, in the dog’s bed, mashed into the carpet, stuck to sweaters.  Seeing her aggressive chewing makes your skin crawl. Tell her how you feel.

“Why?” your husband demands.  “How you feel is irrelevant.”

“Good for you,” your childless friend tells you.  “Your daughter shouldn’t get away with railroading your family.”

“How’d that conversation go?”  The therapist pinches a molecule of lint from her stylish wool skirt.

“She called me pathetic-cunt-Munchausen-loser.”  Where did your daughter learn this language?  You don’t even know what that means. Your daughter has been replaced by a tweaking rapper pimp with a psychology degree.

The therapist, in her Prada boots and black knit dress, speaks in a low voice.  She has very short hair and good jewelry.  Stylish, you think, your daughter will like her.

“She means you are making up her problems to get attention, Münchausen syndrome by proxy,” the therapist says.

You still don’t know what that means, so you volunteer information.  “She chews gum.”

“They all do.”

“I hate that bitch,” your daughter shrieks in the car on the way home.  “I’m never going back.”  Remember to speak in calm tones when you answer.  Remember what the therapist told you about the 6 C’s: clear, calm, consistent, communication, consequences…you’ve already forgotten one.  Chant the 5 you do recall in your mind while you carefully tell your daughter that she certainly will go back or else.   In between vague threats (your specialty) and repeating your new mantra, feel spurts of rage toward your husband for sending you alone to therapy with your anorexic daughter.  Also feel terribly, awfully, deeply guilty for feeling fury.  What kind of monster doesn’t want to be alone with her own child?  During this internal chant/argument/lament cacophony, right before your very eyes, your daughter transforms into a panther.  She kicks the car dash with her boot heel, twists and yanks knobs, trying to break the radio, the heater, anything, while screaming hate-filled syllables.  Her face turns crimson while she punches and slaps at your arms.  Pull over now. Watch in horror as she scratches her own wrists and the skin curls away like bark beneath her fingernails.  All the while she will scream that you are doing this to her.  Don’t cry or she will call you pathetic again.  Remember that your daughter is in there, somewhere.  Tell her you love her.  Refuse to drive until she buckles into the backseat.  Wonder if there is an instant icepack in the first aid kit.  Wonder if there is a car seat big enough to contain her.  Yearn for those long ago car seat days.  Think, we’ve hit bottom.  Think it, but don’t count on it.  Then remember the last C: compassion.

For some reason, driving suddenly frightens you. When you must change lanes, your heart thunks like a dropped pair of boots, your hands clutch the steering wheel.  You shrink down in your seat, prepared for a sixteen-wheeler to ram into you.  You can hear it and see it coming at you in your rearview mirror.  Nearly close your eyes but don’t; instead, pull over. Every time you get into your car, remind yourself to focus, to drive while you’re driving, to breathe. Fine, fine, fine you will be fine; chant this as you start your engine. Be amazed and frightened by the false stability you’ve been living with your entire life. If this can happen to you, anything can happen to anyone.

When your husband leaves town for business, worry about being alone with your daughter.   Try not to upset her.  When she tells you she got a 104% on her French test, smile.  When she tells you she is getting an A+ in algebra, say, WOW! Don’t let her know that you think super-achievement is part of her disease.  Don’t let on that you wish she would eat mousse au chocolat, read Simone de Beauvoir’s, Le Deuxieme Sexe and earn a D in French.

Begin to think that maybe you are always looking for trouble, Munchausen-by-proxy.  Be happy when she has a ramekin of dry cereal before bed.

K

 

Hug her before you remember she won’t let you, and don’t answer when she says, “Bitch, get off me.”

In the middle of the night wake her and tell her that you miss her, that you’ve had a bad dream.  Ask her to come and sleep in your bed.  When she does, hug her.   Comfort her.  Comfort yourself.  Remember how she smelled as a toddler, like sweat and graham crackers.  Remember how manageable her tantrums used to be.  Whisper over and over in her perfect ear that you love her.  That she will get better.  Know that she needs to hear your words, believe that somewhere inside she feels this moment. In the morning, look away while she stands, purple-lipped before the toaster.

When your husband dedicates every Saturday afternoon to your daughter, taking her to lunch, shoe shopping, to a movie, use the time to take care of you.  Kiss them both goodbye and say with a forced lilt, “Wish I could come too.”  Quickly shut the front door.  Try not to register their expressions, the doomed shake of your husband’s head, your daughter’s eyes flat as empty skillets.

“Take a little me time,” your childless friend has suggested.  “Get a facial…a massage…a pedicure, buy a cozy sweater, read Oprah Magazine.”

What to Do When Life Seems Unfair?
Do you ask, Why me? 
What is your life trying to tell you?
How you choose to respond to difficult things
can mean the difference between a life of anger
…or joy 

Instead, take a long bath. Light aroma therapy candles and incense. Pour in soothing-retreat-bath-oil.  Even though it is only eleven o’clock, mix a pitcher of Manhattans.

Mommy’s Manhattan, 2 oz blended whiskey, 1 oz sweet vermouth, 1 dash bitters, cherry

Play world music and pretend you are somewhere else.  Except of course you aren’t.  You know you aren’t somewhere else because as you were filling the tub you noticed raggedy bits of food in the drain.

Continue adding hot water. Wouldn’t she vomit in the toilet?  Your daughter must be terrified for herself to leave behind Technicolor clues.  Continue adding hot water.  Drain the water heater.  Notice, as the water level climbs, that your stomach is nearly the last thing to go under.  Months of role-model eating have changed your body.  Try to love your new abundance.

When your husband and daughter return and you are still in the tub, she slams her bedroom door. Your husband slumps on the toilet, his head in his hands.

Listen quietly.

“She pretended not to know where the shoe store was.  We walked for forty-five minutes. Really, it was more of a forced march.”

Say nothing, though you feel more than a dash of bitters; you feel angry and tired of being angry.  Stare at your wrinkled toes.  You are each alone: your daughter in her room, your husband on the toilet, you in the tub.  You’re each in your private little suffering-bubble.

“Exercise is verboten.”  The doctor has given you both this directive.

“I know.”  When his voice breaks and his hands shudder, get out of the lukewarm tub.  Climb into his lap, and put your arms around him.  Cling together.

November

Hooray! Your daughter has added whole-wheat pasta to her approved food list.  At the doctor’s office, her blood pressure is amazing!  She’s gained five pounds!  You people are all smiling.  This time in the elevator, your daughter stands right beside you.  For days you are happy.

Until you find her in the kitchen blotting oil out of the fish fajitas.  When you confront her, tell her that is anorexic behavior, she throws the spatula across the room.

“Persons with anorexia nervosa develop strange eating habits such as cutting their food into tiny pieces, refusing to eat in front of others, or fixing elaborate meals for others that they themselves don’t eat. Food and weight become obsessions as people with this disorder constantly think about their next encounter with food.”5

Your daughter claims oil gives her indigestion, the food in the drain is because of acid reflux, you are the one obsessed, you are the one who is sick, she is fine.

You say, “Bullshit.”

“Ssshhh,” your husband says. “Can we please have peace?”  Like a middle school principal he calls you into his home office to tell you that she doesn’t need to be told every single moment that something isn’t right.  “Stop reminding her,” he says.  “Leave her alone.  It’s hard enough for her without having to faceherproblemeverysingleminute.”

He can’t even say the word anorexic.

Properly censured, return to the kitchen. Your daughter eyes you with smug satisfaction and eats barely one half of a whole wheat tortilla—no cheese, no avocado—with her fish.  A vise of resentment tightens around you.  Anorexia has rearranged your family.

di·vorce [di-vawrs, –vohrs] – noun, verb -vorced, -vorc·ing.

1. a judicial declaration dissolving a marriage in whole or in part, releasing the husband and wife from all matrimonial obligations.
3. total separation; disunion: a divorce between thought and action.
4. to separate by divorce: The judge divorced the couple. 
5. to break the marriage contract between oneself and (one’s spouse) by divorce: She divorced her husband.6

Fantasize about how you will decorate your living room when you live alone, when you disjoin, dissociate, divide, disconnect.  Imagine your new white bookcases lined with self-help books: 

The Best Year of Your Life
The Power of Now
When Am I Going to Be Happy
Course in Miracles
Get Out of Your Own Way
Essential Living
The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need
Feel Welcome Now
Why Dogs Make Us Happy

You’re filled with a thrilling flutter of shame.  When did this become about you?

Snoop.  Look through your daughter’s laundry basket for vomity towels.  Stand outside the bathroom door and listen.  Look in the trash for uneaten food.  Though you want to call her school to see if she is eating the lunch she packs with extreme care everyday (non-fat Greek yogurt, dry-roasted almonds, one apricot) Don’t.  When you find her journal, don’t read it.  Her therapist has told her she should record her feelings, her fears.  You are desperate to know what it says.  The journal screams and whispers your name all day long. Later, when you are folding laundry, and can no longer resist, go back upstairs to her room and find that she hasn’t written a single thing.   Despair.

At Thanksgiving you realize the difference between Grandpa’s overdrinking and your daughter’s undereating is slim. Deny, deny, deny.  The rest of the relatives are acutely aware, and between watching alcohol consumed and food left on the plate, your gaze ping pongs from your daughter to your father.  Both start out charming enough.  Your daughter sets a beautiful table: plump little pumpkins carved out, their tummies filled with mums and roses, thyme and lavender, slender white tapers rising up from the center and flickering light over the groaning table.  But as the afternoon progresses and Grandpa’s wine glass is filled and emptied again, the turkey carcass is removed and pies emerge, your daughter’s mood fades to black.

“Junk in the trunk,” Grandpa slurs, patting your abundant rear as he walks behind you.  “Next year, we should all fast.”   You want to kill him.

Your starving daughter pushes away her plate, her face pinched, disappointed, angry. You can see her mantra scroll across her eyes like the CNN news crawl…loser… failure….pathetic…chubby….  What she calls herself is neither worse nor better than what she calls you.   It’s a revelation and you repeat your C’s: calm, consistent, compassion, communication, calamitous, collapse, cursed, condemned.

At the hotel, your daughter insists on taking a long walk, stretching her stomach she calls it. You and your husband say no.  She throws a tantrum and you are all trapped in the hotel room, staring at a feel-good family movie involving a twelve-step program, cups of hot coffee, and redemption.

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

By the next doctor visit she’s lost six pounds and she cries and cries.  Your body goes cold.  You feel like a fool, slumped on the pediatrician’s toddler bench, staring at the repeating wall paper pattern: the dish running away with the spoon, the gingerbread man, cat and the fiddle, Little Miss Muffet, curds and whey; Mother Goose and her fluffy outstretched wings hovers above them all with bemused tolerance and extreme capability.   An infant cries in the next room and you yearn for the days of uncomplicated care and comfort.

“I am so angry,” your voice is not angry, it is depleted. You are not competent as Mother Goose, you are the woman trapped in a shoe, with only one child and still you don’t know what to do.

Your daughter agrees to go on anti-depressants, to help her adjust to her changing body, the doctor says.  When you leave the office you drive straight to the pharmacy and then to a bakery and watch her consume a Prozac and a chocolate chip cookie.  Her eyes, her giant, chocolate pudding eyes drip tears into her hot milk, her hand shakes.

“Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of major depressive disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Anyone considering the use of [Insert established name] or any other antidepressant in a child, adolescent, or young adult must balance this risk with the clinical need. …Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.” 7

“It’s not my fault,” she sobs.

“Oh, Lovely.”  You shake your head, review the many theories that Google dredged up: genetic predisposition, a virus, lack of self-concept, struggle for control, post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I didn’t want this,” she says.

“Of course you didn’t.”

“The voice scares me.”

“Voice?”

“My eating disorder. Tells me I suck and it never shuts up, only if I restrict.”

Pay attention. This is language that you haven’t heard before.  Watch. Listen. Mood swings. Suicide ideation.  Changes in behavior.  Be terrified about everything. Ask with nonchalance, “This voice, is it yours?”

Her skin goes pale, the transparent blue of skim milk.

Later, when you are alone, call your husband on his cell phone.  He is standing in line, waiting to board a plane.  Don’t care.  Scream into the phone.  Imagine your tinny, bitchy voice leaking around his ear while men holding lattes, women with Coach briefcases, students and grandmas try not to look at his worn face.

“Say it out loud.”

“She has an eating disorder,” he mumbles.

“Not fucking enough,” you shriek, your hands shake.  Until he says it loud, admits it fully to himself, you will not be satisfied.   You may have gone crazy.

“My daughter is anorexic.  There.”

You let it lie.

“Are you happy now,” he whispers.

Oddly enough, you are momentarily happier.

March

She’s back.  Your daughter dances into the kitchen, holding a piece of cinnamon toast.  She wants milk, 2%.  She also wants a cookie and pasta, a banana, a puppy and a trip to Italy.

“I want some of those,” your husband whispers, nodding to the prescription bottle on the windowsill.

You want this to continue.  She may not be eating Brie and baguette, but she’s laughing.  Her collarbones are less prominent. She’s. Given. Up. Gum.

“The voice is leaving, Mom” she confides.  “It polluted everything.”  She smiles, hopeful and charming, so wanting to please.  Even though it may not completely be true about the voice, she wants it to be and for now desire has to be enough.  That she talks about the voice without anger or tears takes a grocery cart of courage.

“Quit worrying and watching me so much,” she says.

You nod and smile.  You will never quit worrying and watching.

Weak spring sunlight fills your kitchen.  Your daughter, with a hand on her hip, stands before the open refrigerator, singing.   You still are not certain keeping her home and in school is the right choice.  A clinic may be inevitable. You’ve followed advice, you have your team, yet letting go of watching and worrying would require a grocery cart full of courage that you do not have.  Just yesterday you checked her web history and found she’d visited caloriesperhour.com.   

“I’m hungry,” your daughter says.

You haven’t heard those words from her for nearly a year.  Grab onto them, this is a moment of potential.  Look for more.  Remember them.  String them together.  Write post-it notes for the inside of your medicine cabinet.  Almonds!  I hear me!  2% Milk!  I’m hungry!  Dream of the day when your cabinet door will look like a wing, feathered in hopeful little yellow squares.

Then Gretel, suddenly released from the bars of her cage, spread her arms like wings and rejoiced.  “But now I must find my way back,” said Gretel.  She walked onward until she came to a vast lake, “I see no way across….”

Picture you people: your husband, the physician, the therapists and nutritionist, family members—all standing across the water, waving, calling; a part of her remains listening on the other side, afraid to lose control, afraid to fail, afraid to drown.

Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her.  Say her lovely name.  Know that it is up to her.  Shout her lovely name.


1 Lovely’s 12th Birthday Brownies are based on a recipe at  http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1710,155163-239207,00.html

2 From NAMI.org, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.naminh.org/NAMI-Fact-Sheet-Eating-Anorexia.pdf

3 From NAMI.org, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.naminh.org/NAMI-Fact-Sheet-Eating-Anorexia.pdf

4 From NAMI.org, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.naminh.org/NAMI-Fact-Sheet-Eating-Anorexia.pdf

6 Definition of divorce is from Dictionary.com

7 From http://www.fda.gov/


 

A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

George Saunders

In 2009, we reprinted George Saunders’ FIRST published story.  This story originally appeared in 1986, in Volume 24, Number 2 of The Northwest Review. If you’re a George Saunders fan, you’ll love this story. It’s beautiful, raw, funny, and heartbreaking, and it takes place in the George Saunders dreamworld of meta-reality and unconventional kindness. When we first ran this story at Hunger Mountain, we included an introduction by Tobias Wolff, who had been George Saunders’ graduate creative writing professor, about first reading this story as part of George’s application to the Syracuse MFA program. We hope you enjoy the story and Tobias Wolff’s commentary. –the editors


It’s like this, and it is no dream: First off, a plastic palomino and its stiff-armed rider float above a toybox. The rider is a dyed Custer, and everything’s red. I mean boots and kerchief and holster and eyebrows even. He is one ruined and reduced cavalryman, he was poured and solidified with horribly bowed legs, simply because his only reason for existence is to straddle the palomino. Denied Comanches. But the horse and rider float and revolve anyway, on the lookout for marauders. They rotate at about a revolution a minute, as per specs. Also: a velour basketball, half the size of a real basketball, hangs mid-aired over a crib. In the closet, the arms of tiny jackets and sweaters wave and salute wildly. The threads of the carpet flatten out like grass under a helicopter, and then circular waves run outward from the middle of the room. When the waves die down, it’s just a regular carpet again. The whole cycle takes three and a half minutes. An empty rocking chair rocks faster than any mortal granny could.

Out the wide window across the room, it’s a crescent moon in bough-crook kind of thing; caramel lights through sectioned panes in houses of white wood, trees blown and slanting like smoke. Windows and doors of the houses wide open with Trust. Children breathe pillow air. Hills roll away behind the row of houses in a fairly pastoral manner. It is a kind of smooth blue Ireland. And the blue is in the room too. It is the blue of night scenes in animation. The cloak of night and all that. It is very much like the nights when little kids point at the moon and say odd things. There is the smell of very clean carpet. There is no sound of bugs and no sound of rocking chair or wind or of anything scraping the windowpane. But you can hear the air conditioning. I rub my window clean and enjoy a soft drink.

Here’s something, basically the abuse of an elderly couple. Watch: when they first step in, I’m not worried. They stand in the doorway. He pushes back his baseball cap. She goes for the camera and says, “Cry Pete, woudja lookit all this…” All is well. His hands are behind his back and he steps in, to figure out how it all works. She inspects the finish on the dresser. That she can touch. I have no problem with that. He gets closer and closer to the window (and the village of the caramel lights) and, by gar, it still looks real. It even looks real when his toes touch the crib. Which sits protectively in front of the window. But then he puts his dusty boots on the crib, and his hands on the window frame, and pulls himself up, leans in close to the pane. I cannot have that. I key the mike: “Please refrain from interaction with the components, sir!” Is that any way to talk? Still, it’s a living.

He jumps down like he’s been pinched on the inner thigh and chunks his elbow on the crib and loses his hat in the plastic birds of the mobile. He has acquired a hot and red face, with awkward strands of white hair plastered across it. They stand in the doorway for a long time. He breathes hard. They don’t want to look like they’ve cut and run.

I opt for the Juarez at the Hollo-Chick Haus. It’s a South of the Border Taste Riot. A Hollo-Chick is a kind of chicken conglomerate, the size of a football and hollowed out. You can have whatever you want in there, croutons or sweet-and-sour pork or a light salad even. The Juarez is the one filled with sour cream and refried beans and some little sliced black things. I opt for extra sauce packets.

Hollo-Chick Haus is national. Everyone knows Hans the Hollo-Chick. In the TV ads he strolls along an alpine trail, steam pouring from his beak. One enormous and multi-colored wing is draped over some kids. They look pleased. The voiceover says, “The chicken with the inside as big as all outdoors – and better tasting!”

I finish my Juarez and return the extra sauce packets to Annie, my girl. She used to work at the Haus by the storage units. But then she got transferred in. She says the food set-up is the same, but in here, atmosphere is imperative. At the counter she tells me she has to stay late. This is an Employee Objective Assessment Evening. I forgot. I hang my head and thumbprint the stainless steel counter.

Bart the Manager squeezes between Annie and the heat lamps, in the unit’s Hans suit. That really hacks me off, that squeezing. He puts his left wing on her and tells me he’ll get her home, not to worry. At least that’s what I think he says. It’s muffled through the beak. He squeezes back the way he came. I wonder how much he can feel through that suit. Annie sneaks me a free Coke and I drink it in the tunnel, on the way back to the Room. You’re nuts if you think I’m making any of this up.

˜

I shut it all down manually and come out. Everything floats slowly down and the lights come on in the room. It’s bright enough to see the paint strokes on the white furniture. The window has gone blank and looks like a movie screen, set up in someone’s living room and waiting for films of Uncle Pete’s trek across the Mojave. Overall, it feels like morning in the real room of a real kid, though it’s actually just after midnight. I vacuum the carpet and scrub the baseboards. I check the wiring in the Palomino Quadrant. I remake the bed and dust the dresser. When it’s like this, it’s easy to believe that Employee Parking is behind the window. Which it is. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to grind against Annie down there, at my car. Even in her brown polyester uniform. And rust vest. And hair net. And lederhosen. I just can’t help it. I’m a man.

On the phone, Annie tells me about last night’s dream: Bart the Manager, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, picks her lock and compels her to don odd lingerie. He looks almost svelte, out of the Hans suit. He kisses her with his overly red mouth and his wispy mustache. Again and again, and with the TV on. They make popcorn, he keeps kissing her. She tastes the butter and salt on him. He tells her a pitiful story from his youth, something about his bathing trunks and a schnauzer, and persists in the kissing. She begins to warm to him. And on and on. It gets mildly kinky; some kind of strange submission scenario where he forces her, at butter-knifepoint, to carry the TV down into the parking garage and back up again. They reach new heights. “I swear, it seemed so real!” she tells me, in a tone of wonder. I tell her it’s interesting.

˜

The couple is young. Their eyes adjust to the dark and she says, “Hot Damn!” He looks around coolly and says, “Shout down Babylon.” She says, “Still, there’s something about it,” and he says, “Ay, ‘tis dreamlike, lass,” and squeezes her breasts from behind. He slinks around in front of her and faces the same way she does and takes her hands, slides them down over him. He pushes her back against the wall, beside the picture of Mother Goose in the sensitive garden. For a while I think it’s going to be okay, but then she actually opens his pants. I have my finger on the mike button but then they move so fast and fine, there is a flurry of clothes and his buns shine globe-like in the light from the caramel village. They really start moving then, together. Above the waist she is dumplings on tramps. I do not key the mike. I do not say anything. And it is not mere voyeurism either. And it is not just the idea they are fucking, standing up, in the Floating Object Room. It is their talking. They have each other kind of by the ears and they’re staring at each other hard and bucking wildly too. And the talking never stops. There is something about a time by some train tracks. Wild geese, seen from a porch. He says he will tomb with her. But first Mexico, and all that implies. God, what are they talking about? It is a foreign tongue. I want it.

I still just stand there, even when, at the end, he reaches out with some kind of broad and calloused hand and whacks the basketball out of the air and across the room. It jangles the metal trash can in the corner, that which has never been jangled before. I let them finish. Boy do I.

He is breathing hard after, with his face down in her hair. He says, “Babylon has been shouted (gasp), in a sense…” and I hit the mike button without thinking and say, “Damn right!” For just a second they’re as stunned as the old couple and it makes my stomach hurt. But then they’re themselves again and he says come out come out wherever you are and I do, grinning like an initiate. He beats my ass from here to Topeka. He wipes my lip-blood with the velour basketball. The room is a mess.

I feel them help me up. I see the tidy, coyote-less hills of the night scene, and the trees still appearing to blow in a fictional wind. I smell her next to me, her sweat and what’s left of her perfume and the smell of them on her. He is saying some things. At first I am just waiting for the words to stop but then I start to hear them. They sound a little like an apology, or at least an explanation. He says I violated something. He says a lot of things. The words sound like instructions and then finally they sound like an invitation.

˜

We drive in a fine and maniacal desert. We drink cheap wine and mine tastes bloody. But I don’t care. We see pink stars over glaring mesas and delicate red and white mini-marts and a hitchhiker dressed like Bing Crosby. The desert is all prophets and loam and rusty gas tanks, if you see what I mean. I’m sitting between the two of them and our knees touch. He keeps calling me bud. We’re singing obscure songs I didn’t know I knew. Dusty folkloric ballads and oddball songs from the sixties, songs about unions I guess, and simple blond girls on next-door porches, freightjumpers, that kind of thing. We’re having a hell of a time. We sing them loud. We rollick.

After a while I ask to be left in the desert and they leave me in the desert. They give me a bottle of wine. I drink it on a big rock. The rock has little pits in it and a smashed Mountain Dew can. My lips hurt a lot but I keep drinking and starting up those songs. I sing them as far as I know them. The foreman said well bless my soul. Everything in the black and hacked desert is twinkling like mad and I throw red rocks like arrowheads into the dark, and sit in that desert and think, think, think.

 

Genius: an Introduction to George Saunders’ “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room”

If it takes a kind of genius to strike gold, then I am a genius. In fact my genius blows me away sometimes. Today, reading George Saunders’ story “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room” for the first time in many years—since 1986, to be exact—I am transported to my old living room in Syracuse, New York. It’s late January, the wind is no doubt howling at the windows, the snow flying sideways, and I am sitting on a big red chair with a mess of manila folders scattered at my feet. The folders contain application manuscripts to the graduate writing program, and over the past couple of weeks I have read many thousands of pages, some good, some impossible, most drearily competent and well-behaved, and I am bleary-eyed and bored and thinking of becoming a forest ranger, if they’ll have me.

And then I pick up this story; or, more truly, I am picked up by this story and taken for a ride through antic dips and loop-the-loops and headlong plunges into the unexpected. I haven’t read anything like it this year, nor, indeed, in all my years of reading applications. It went right to the top of the pile, and stayed there, and a few days later I was calling George Saunders with the offer of a fellowship. If memory serves, he was then living in Amarillo, Texas, playing guitar with a folk-country band, and doing maintenance at a motel for his keep. He took the proffer, bless his heart, and the rest is history.

So what did I see in this story? I saw the future, nothing less—the writer destined to be the  consummate poet of American corporate-speak (“They rotate at about a revolution per minute, as per specs”), a great chronicler of human desire struggling to define itself against a world of manufactured, themed, reality—life subsumed by franchises and doled out in market-friendly dollops drenched in novocaine language: “This is an Employee Objective Assessment Evening.” And the story was really, really funny. What did it all mean? Search me. The thrill was in the ride, not in the arriving. Later he’d work out the destination piece, plenty of time for that. And so he did, again and again. He has become a writer of masterpieces.

So what a joy it is to read this again, and feel the renegade heart beating against the ribs of the story, and know that I am a prophet.

 

First Call

David Hancock

Bobby Alamo’s dead. Just don’t know it yet. No footprints. Hair stopped growing. Sense of taste is gone. He only exhales now. Like he’s got one last breath inside him and needs to dole it out.

We’re not bodies with souls. We’re souls with a body.

Couple of Providence wise guys down at Mayflower Lanes argue about how and why an ace in the hole like Bobby Alamo got himself whacked. They bowl candlepins on Tuesdays. League night. Knights of Columbus team. Out with their goomahs. Deals are made over pizza and warm beer. Legacies are reevaluated. Stories told.

Bobby Alamo? One hell of a cleaner.

Mr. Diddle was his downfall.

That Vegas job?

Father Niko’s on the team. And the septic tank guy who launders the cash. Stinky Muffin Top. Swears he’s seen Bobby Alamo with his own eyes. Looking like death warmed over.

Bobby Alamo? With the Yoda tattoo?

Shooting the shit at HoJos.

Like he done every morning for twenty-two years. Ever since he timed out of Walpole. Same booth. Same tired look in his eyes. At least when he’s in town. Between jobs. Disappears for days at a time and then shows up like a tomcat. All flirty with that waitress.

Joey the Peanut’s niece.

Francine.

The retard?

She’s a little slow is all. Shy.

Two scrambled. White toast with grape jelly. Bobby Alamo always mixes the jelly in with the eggs. Francine noticed that first thing. The purple-gray sweetness, with just a hint of salty.

You gonna play with it all day?

I should have married you when I had the chance.

Francine and Bobby Alamo get up to the occasional nooner. Strictly informal arrangement. Francine’s got six kids at home. Piece of shit husband to feed.

The one that works down at The Dunk. Driving the Zamboni.

Bobby Alamo and Francine fuck at the Holiday Inn. That suite in back overlooking I-95. They make it quick. That is, if it happens at all. These days they’ll mostly just cuddle. Watch some tube. Maybe talk old times. Sometimes Bobby Alamo squeezes the skin around his Yoda tattoo and makes him talk dirty.

Francine pussy, Yoda like.

It’s a fleeting pleasure for both of them.

Do me again, Bobby Alamo. Like you mean business.

I’m tuckered out, babe. Let’s just watch the TV for awhile. Something old. Where you can tell the good guys from the bad.

Francine’s never seen Bobby Alamo’s cock. He’ll climb under the covers in his underwear like a boy at camp and then strip down. Curtains closed in case some fed is watching. Lights off. She’s had to learn his body through touch. Afterward, Francine lets him sleep. Puts her uniform back on. She smells of bacon and pancake batter.

Escalade.

What?

You said that in your sleep, Bobby Alamo. You whispered “Escalade.”

Bobby Alamo’s a cleaner. Best in the business. Somebody screws the pooch, he gets rid of the mess. Scrubs the crime scene. Disappears the bodies. Most cleaners are street-smart. Bobby Alamo’s book smart too.

Master’s degree from BU.

No shit.

Father Niko’s got a turkey going. Lane five. The lucky one.

Molecular genetics. Rumor has it. Fella can really wipe down a crime scene. Take a first-class clusterfuck and turn it into chocolate cake.

Father Niko’s using that orange Day-Glo bowling ball. The one he had custom-made.

Bobby Alamo cleans the clusterfuck, sure, but then spins an alternate story that he wants the cops to hear.

Bobby Alamo carries an aluminum suitcase with him. Filled with vials and packets. Petri dishes. Test tubes. Sprinkles DNA like fairy dust.

Has the CSI geeks running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Bobby Alamo’s got virtual savvy as well. Internet presence. Credit history. Facebook. Public records. All that jazz.

Just think of the possibilities. Erase anybody you want. Clean up all your snafus.

Bobby Alamo’s got an iPad. Film-editing software. Hacker code. Knows how to augment the matrix. Doctor surveillance tapes. Medical records. Dental X-rays.

He’s got a guy he goes to for code.

That fat fuck from the ’Tute.

Captain Jack.

Real mamma’s boy. Lives in her basement over in Braintree.

Captain Jack sits in front of the tube all day. Gamer. Pizza boxes and Mountain Dew cans. Stacked six feet high. Sweat suit. Never brushes his teeth. Except when Bobby Alamo visits. Then he scrubs himself clean. Take a nice long bath. Puts on a suit and tie. Gets his mamma to fix a lasagna. Old-country spices. Hand-pulled mozzarella. Tomatoes and peppers from her garden.

She put a bunch of single servings in the Tupperware. Extra sauce on the side. Just like you like.

Thanks, Jack-o.

Captain Jack hands him a flash drive.

Everything you need is burned onto here.

Bobby Alamo’s puts the flash drive in his jacket pocket. He pats it a couple of times just to make sure it’s there.

Woof woof woof woof.

Bobby Alamo’s cell phone rings. He’s got it set to “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Woof woof woof woof.

Bobby Alamo doesn’t need to look at the number. He’s know it’s Tony Vega.

A thing went down in Philly, Bobby. You need to be on a bus tonight.

Next morning Bobby Alamo’s in back of a Walmart, stuffing a security guard’s corpse into the trunk of a rental car with some kid he’s never met. Bobby Alamo prefers to work alone, but the kid is Tony Vega’s nephew and so there’s nothing he can do about it. Kid’s a real wiseass. Calls himself “Kid the Kid.” Washed out of the army or whatever and now he’s trying to learn a trade. Kid the Kid’s spent the morning trying to jerk Bobby Alamo’s chain.

I heard you were queer.

They’re on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Driving through Amish country. Looking for a good place to dump a body. Kid the Kid keeps trying to get under Bobby Alamo’s skin.

I heard you can’t get it up with Francine no more.

Bobby Alamo flicks his cigarette out the window. Doesn’t say a word. Kid the Kid keeps trying to put Bobby Alamo’s panties in a twist.

I heard Francine rubs her pussy all over you, but all you do is watch cooking shows on the tube.

Finally, Bobby Alamo’s had enough.

Look, Kid, I’m dead, all right? There’s a lot of human emotion that don’t interest me no more.

Kid the Kid squints up his eyes, trying to decide if Bobby Alamo’s pulling his leg.

What do you mean you’re dead?

I’m dead. What more can I say?

You mean you’re dead like you’re a marked man?

No. I mean I am literally dead. As I appear in front of you.

You mean right now?

Yes, now.

Kid the Kid don’t seem fazed. He acts like he’s seen it all before. Like he’s seen a lot of a crazy shit in the past couple of years and talking to a dead cleaner is just another day on the job.

Sure, man. Whatever toots your horn.

The wise guys down at Mayflower Lanes sit in rapt attention as Father Niko describes the scene. He’s heard the story from somebody in confession who heard the story from another guy who heard it from Tony Vega himself.

After they dump the body, they stop at a titty bar Bobby Alamo knows in Harrisburg.

Where do they dump the body?

Some farm. Amish guy feeds him to his pigs. Owes Tony Vega a favor.

At the titty bar, Kid the Kid and Bobby Alamo buy a few lap dances. After awhile, Kid the Kid goes in back, into one of the executive suites, and bones some ginger with tiny tits and a cesarean scar and a Hello Kitty tramp stamp who’s putting herself through nursing school. Something about Nursing School Ginger is familiar to Bobby Alamo, but he can’t say what. Bobby Alamo hangs out with a girl called Brandy Moonshine. Brandy Moonshine asks Bobby Alamo if he wants to ride around the block in the massage limo but Bobby Alamo says he’d rather sit and talk. The two of them sit there for a few minutes in dead silence until finally Brandy Moonshine decides to break the ice.

You’re dead, aren’t you?

How’d you guess?

Had an uncle who died. Walked around just like you. Vacant on one hand, but on the other hand filled with remorse.

I think a lot of folks are walking around dead these days.

Maybe we’re in the end times.

Maybe Heaven is too full with souls and now God is filling up the slums.

They sit in silence for a few more minutes. Then Bobby Alamo sighs.

I just don’t know why I’m still walking the Earth.

Brandy Moonshine holds Bobby Alamo’s hand.

Maybe you’ve been chosen for a higher purpose.

Bobby Alamo closes his eyes.

It’s exactly like you see in the movies. I’m lying dead on some street, but I’m looking down at it. My soul is just sort of hovering above my corpse.

Back in Providence, Stinky Muffin Top is playing Ms. Pac-Man in the arcade. Father Niko chugs down the rest of his beer. One of the wise guys pours him another glass from the plastic pitcher on the table. The other wise guy looks at his watch.

You fellas got some place to be?

Father Niko’s getting pretty sloppy. He knows it and tries to focus his mind on the theological implications of Bobby Alamo’s predicament.

Bobby Alamo is in both locations at once, you see. He’s both here and there. Dead on the street, but also at the titty bar.

Brandy Moonshine takes Bobby Alamo out to the parking lot. They sit on the hood of his rental car. Like a couple of kids in high school getting ready to watch a drive-in movie on a hot summer night. Brandy Moonshine strokes Bobby Alamo’s hair. Tells Bobby Alamo she’s been sent to help him with his journey.

How do you feel?

You mean here with you or there with my body?

With me here, Bobby.

Bobby Alamo’s body is hundreds of miles away. Somewhere in southern California. His last job. On the way to LAX. Body lying on the street. Next to an Escalade.

Bobby Alamo was shot in the Escalade and tried to crawl away.

Stinky Muffin Top asks Father Niko if he has any more quarters for the machine.

I’m working on the high score.

Bobby Alamo is bleeding out. One hand grabbing the gutter. Like he was trying to lift himself up. The bugs have already found him. A fly has landed on his eyelid and is laying her eggs beneath his cornea. Bobby Alamo wonders why he’s being given these visions.

If I suck your cock here, Bobby, do you think maybe your body will get hard there?

Bobby Alamo chuckles. Embarrassed. Nervous.

Worth a try, right?

Brandy Moonshine unzips Bobby Alamo’s fly. Digs around for his cock. Pulls it out.

I let my life slip by. I tried to grab the good times. I clutched at love and it went right through my fingertips.

Bobby Alamo closes his eyes. His body is hundreds of miles away.

Escalade.

What’s that?

Brandy Moonshine’s come up for breath.

I just remembered. There’s a guy in the passenger seat.

Bloody face. Air bags deployed.

Mr. Diddle.

The fella Bobby Alamo was cleaning up after when the shit hit the fan.

The wise guys are in the men’s room at Mayflower Lanes. The walls are decorated with silhouettes of pilgrims bowling. Father Niko is in a stall. Puking his guts out.

(Meanwhile, somewhere in southern California, while Bobby Alamo is getting blown on the hood of his rental car in the parking lot of a titty bar, two archangels are moving cautiously toward the Escalade with their pieces drawn.)

They’re after Mr. Diddle’s shoe.

Father Niko wipes the puke off his mouth with his sleeve. There are bits of pizza in the puke. Mixed in with the beer. One of the wise guys hands Father Niko a linen handkerchief. The handkerchief is embroidered with the initials “T.V.” Father Niko leans up against the wall next to the urinals. He unzips his fly and uses the handkerchief to pull out his cock. Father Niko cradles his cock in the handkerchief, like it’s an unclean thing in his hand. He pisses. He tries to aim at the deodorant puck in the urinal, but ends up pissing on the floor. The wise guy closest to Father Niko has on a pair of thousand-dollar shoes. The piss sprays over the fine Corinthian leather. Later, at the sink, the other wise guy helps Father Niko clean the puke off his collar.

The angels are after the shoe?

Mr. Diddle’s shoe. What’s hidden inside the heel.

Bobby Alamo met Mr. Diddle in a high roller’s suite in Vegas. Mr. Diddle was a producer at one of the big studios. He had a dead call girl in the toilet and Bobby Alamo was there to make her disappear.

You the guy?

I’m the guy.

Tony Vega sent you?

That’s right.

Sure took your time getting here.

Mr. Diddle unlatches the chain on the door and lets him in. Bobby Alamo sets his suitcase on the bed. He opens it and takes out rubber gloves and an apron.

Where is she?

Toilet. The one off the master bedroom.

Mr. Diddle’s cell phone rings.

Listen, I gotta take this. There’s some coke in there if you need a little something to get you through.

Mr. Diddle walks out onto the balcony. Bobby Alamo steps into the bathroom. It’s really gaudy. Golden swan faucets. The shower’s the size of a garage. Three shower heads.

To wash up after a threesome.

There are two toilets and two bidets.

For the Japanese clientele.

Just then, the emergency exit of the strip club opens. Nursing School Ginger steps out into the evening. She’s wearing Kid the Kid’s leather jacket. He’s nowhere in sight.

There’s a scuzzy area in back where the dancers hang out. Smoke cigarettes. Give cheap hand jobs behind the dumpster. Plastic baggies on the ground. Crack. Some harder stuff. A few syringes. Bouncers sometimes roll drunk frat boys. Put empty wallets back into their pockets. Pour them into taxis. Send them back to the suburbs. A couple of folding chairs to take a load off.

Nursing School Ginger has a white sheet. She and a couple of the other dancers attach the sheet to the dumpster with duct tape. Like a movie screen.

Bobby Alamo and Brandy Moonshine are still sitting on the hood of the rental car. Nursing School Ginger sees Bobby Alamo and sneers at him. Bobby Alamo feels a rush of adrenaline. A sudden racing heart. It’s an unfamiliar sensation.

Fear.

Brandy Moonshine snuggles up to Bobby Alamo. Strokes his hair.

You’re perfectly safe with me.

After she finishes hanging the sheet from the dumpster, Nursing School Ginger sits in one of the chairs and starts painting her nails. It’s like she’s waiting for a movie to start. Bobby Alamo stares at Nursing School Ginger for the longest time.

You know her?

She was on the floor. In Mr. Diddle’s bathroom.

The dead girl is so small that at first Bobby Alamo doesn’t notice her. She’s barely ninety pounds. Naked, except for a pair of plaid socks that make her look like a schoolgirl. Bobby Alamo can tell she’s been around though. Cesarean scar. Hello Kitty tramp stamp. Needle marks between her toes. There’s a spoon on the sink, next to a lighter and a bag of smack.

Meanwhile, in the titty bar parking lot, the dead are gathering. Hookers. Soccer moms. Schoolteachers. Mechanics. Pizza delivery boys. Baseball players. Gamblers. Rodeo clowns. Security guards. Accountants. Priests. Bikers. Bartenders. Freaks. Showmen. Convenience store clerks. And a mall Santa Claus. Bobby Alamo recognizes them all. These are the people that Bobby Alamo has cleaned over the years. Some were intended victims. Others were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But all of them Bobby Alamo made disappear.

Brandy Moonshine rubs Bobby Alamo’s earlobe. She twists it around in her fingers. She smells like baby powder and musk. Some of Brandy Moonshine’s enchanted body glitter gets caught in Bobby Alamo’s eyes.

You erased them all, Bobby. They don’t have names or memory.

Back in Vegas, Bobby Alamo cleans up Mr. Diddle’s mess. After he’s done in the bathroom, Bobby Alamo makes Mr. Diddle strip on a sheet of plastic. He digs through his wallet and other personal effects. He places everything in a burn bag. He tells Mr. Diddle that he has to leave town for a few weeks. Mr. Diddle doesn’t seem happy at first, but the gravity of the situation has begun to sink in.

Anything else you’ve forgotten to tell me about?

Mr. Diddle hesitates. Then he takes off one of his shoes. Opens a secret compartment in the heel.

Roger Moore gave it to me. He used these shoes in one of the Bond films.

Inside the compartment is a reel of Super 8 film. Bobby Alamo wants to put the film in the burn bag, but Mr. Diddle won’t let him.

That’s my meal ticket, Bobby. I’m gonna use it as leverage with the old man.

Tony Vega?

God.

In Providence, the wise guys walk Father Niko out to his Toyota. Father Niko’s a little wobbly on his feet. He’s starting to regret telling the wise guys about the film.

It’s just a rumor I heard in confession. Nothing to be taken too seriously.

The film is a collection of lost seconds. Those moments that slipped away without our noticing. Mr. Diddle said he found the film in Orson Welles’ secret vault at RKO. Welles invented a metaphysical technique where he installed a movie camera in his head so he could film Heaven after he died and project it back to the editing room.

Meanwhile, in the future, a white limo pulls up outside the titty bar. It’s a block long. Strobe light flashing inside. Throbbing music. Techno mix.

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard…

The archangels step out of the limo. They glide over to the projector. They load the film and begin to project it onto the white sheet.

It’s the film God plays us when he’s reviewing our lives.

Father Niko pauses for a moment, to let that sink in. The wise guys aren’t even listening. Something else is on their minds. Something pressing.

God doesn’t play our entire life. He doesn’t have time for that. Instead he picks out fifteen mundane seconds.

Father Niko belches. Tastes greasy pizza in his mouth. Yeasty beer.

Those fifteen seconds are actually our most tragic junctions. Moments where we could have decided to take a better path and didn’t. When you could have turned off the television and taken a walk with your wife. When you might have hugged your boy instead of pouring yourself a drink. When you could have stopped your car and helped out a stranger. We’re forced to watch the memories over and over and feel the regret.

Father Niko steadies himself against the Toyota.

Heaven isn’t what you think it is.

In the parking lot of the titty bar, the Orson Welles film begins to play. Images flash on the screen. A lost dog. A forgotten toy. An unattended funeral.

One by one, the people in the parking lot step up to the bright sheet. They see a familiar image, touch it, and then are consumed by a bright, holy light. The light turns them into dust. As each soul touches the sheet, the pile of dust grows on the cement. It’s as if all the lost souls that Bobby Alamo has cleaned over the years are once more filled with their humanity.

They exist again, briefly, in their loss. That pain allows them to die.

An image of a blue beach ball floating in a wading pool plays on the screen. Nursing School Ginger must recognize the backyard, because she walks up to the sheet, touches it, and is consumed. Brandy Moonshine sees a little league baseball game on the screen, kisses Bobby Alamo on the forehead, and disappears too. In a few minutes, the parking lot is empty. There is a huge pile of ash and dust next to the screen. The archangels hand Bobby Alamo a golden shop vac and make him clean up the mess.

In Providence, the wise guys put two bullets in the back of Father Niko’s head. The wise guys dispose of it in one of Stinky Muffin Top’s septic tanks, since Bobby Alamo isn’t around anymore to disappear the body.

How to Prepare for a Disaster

Kirsten Clodfelter

Camilla often fantasizes about plane crashes. On the long, tedious commute up the GW Parkway to her two-bedroom apartment in Rockville, she imagines herself on a doomed flight out of BWI airport. She thinks about how smoothly the boarding process and take-off will go, a false promise of what’s to come. Traffic creeps along the interstate—she lifts her foot from the gas pedal and rolls forward before tapping her brakes in unison with the minivan in front of her.

When Harrison told her, Camilla had been standing half-dressed in the doorway of their closet, getting ready for work. Her husband had come up from behind, rested the palms of his hands on her bare shoulders, turning her around. He hugged her for a long time, long enough for Camilla’s limbs to begin to feel like they were filling with colonies of ants from being held so still. When he let her go, she kissed his cheek and pulled a silk camisole over her head. Harrison adjusted the thin strap of her shirt where it twisted and told her, quietly, “I think we both know that this is over.” But Camilla had not, in fact, known this at all. She had let herself believe that they would re-build their marriage, a new beginning, as if hoping for a thing was enough to make it true.

Still, she let Harrison keep the house. She wanted a fresh start. She took Thompson, their cat—now her cat—and was happy to have escaped baggage in the form of three bedrooms and a perpetually soggy, tree-lined backyard. She was ready to forget what their furniture looked like.

Inching north out of D.C., Camilla turns off her audio book and imagines that toward the end of her flight, when they’re close to landing, something goes wrong. There’s an electrical fire, or one of the 767’s two turbofan engines falters—the consequence of an unfortunate collision with a black-tailed godwit that had wandered off course, separated from his mate and the rest of his migrating flock. The reduction of shorebird to a few lingering feathers forces the plane to the ground for an emergency crash-landing, the pilot shouting directions to flight attendants and crew over a crackling PA system, leaving the godwits headed inland one bird short in the right-hand line of their V-formation.

Camilla pictures herself in an aisle seat next to a young redheaded woman who clutches their shared armrest with her eyes shut tightly, a silver rosary disregarded in her lap. With each sudden, terrifying plunge in altitude, the young woman hyperventilates in the darkness next to Camilla, who’s whispering, “Shhh, try to relax,” as a mantra, her arms and head in the crash position, waiting for the oxygen mask to drop.

It’s important to stay calm during an emergency. Camilla and her sister Macie were taught this lesson early. Their father used to stack the picture books his daughters brought to him at bedtime on the nightstand, unread. Instead he coached the two young girls on appropriate plans of action for various emergencies. Before his retirement, he had been the chief of the Bloomington Fire Department for twenty years, so Camilla and Macie had those plans on good authority. Their dad straightened matching flowered comforters across the girls’ shoulders while they lay in bed, Macie in the top bunk, Camilla in the bottom. Staying calm, he reminded them, could be the single dictating factor in surviving or not surviving a disaster.

But despite her exhaustive preparation—the memorization of detailed escape plans or the timed drills to see how quickly she could get to a window, attach, and then climb down the retractable fire ladder that her father insisted they keep in the closet of every second-story room—Camilla has never been in a fire, a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake, a flash flood, a volcanic eruption, a train derailment, a communicable virus outbreak, or a terrorist attack.

She did, however, stay perfectly calm when Harrison told her about the affair. He came back downstairs to the kitchen after breakfast one Saturday while she finished her coffee and watched the news. This was less than two weeks after they’d spent an entire afternoon at a Labor Day cookout at the Claytons’ house down the block, kissing and half-dancing and walking around with their hands in each other’s jeans pockets.

In the kitchen, Harrison stood next to the chair where Camilla sat, watching TV with her until the weather report. He was wearing a faded, forest green button-down that was too short in the arms, and he kept pulling at the sleeves, which fell awkwardly above the knobby bone of each wrist. Out of the corner of her eye, Camilla watched him do this five or six times before he asked her, “Can I tell you something.” Everything about his tone gave him away immediately. His eyes narrowed with what Camilla could only later guess was resolve. She turned off the television, wondering if she was going to vomit. Harrison sat down across from her and took her hands in his. He rubbed his thumbs lightly over her knuckles, the way you deliver grim news to someone you once loved.

The woman was a stranger, thankfully, and Camilla feels this anonymity has been Harrison’s one gift. He started with how they met—an innocent conversation several months earlier in the waiting lounge of a Jiffy Lube. He’d been drinking lukewarm complementary coffee from a Styrofoam cup, she’d been reading a celebrity gossip magazine. He’d been there getting the oil changed in Camilla’s car, a favor for her after an especially stressful week at work. There was a note of surprise in his voice as he told her this, as if it had never before occurred to him that such a banal encounter between two strangers could one day end with him loving someone other than his wife.

After Harrison’s explanation, Camilla gently pulled her hands from his and held them up, surrendering. She told him firmly but without raising her voice, “I’d prefer not to know any more details.” And then, calmly, as her father had taught her, she’d turned the television back on and finished watching the news. Only later that night, after locking herself in the bathroom and turning on the shower while Harrison slept down the hall in the guest room, did Camilla finally allow the crying to come.

~

Camilla takes the Falls Road exit off of I-270. As traffic thins she accelerates to the posted speed limit for the first time since leaving the parking garage in the city. She points and flexes the foot she’s not using to drive, feeling the tingling crawl of her skin beneath her pantyhose from sitting in the same position for so long. The warm air blowing from the vents makes her lips feel dry.

Camilla imagines the way she will coach the people sitting near her as the smoking plane descends rapidly from the clouds. “It’ll be all right,” she soothes the ponytailed girl in an oversized sweatshirt flying home from college. The girl’s nails are painted electric blue, chipped where she’s bitten them. Her entire face is red and swollen from crying. Camilla squeezes her trembling hand. She tells her, “You’re brave enough to get through this.”

To the nervous, wheezing man returning from a business trip, she says, “Focus on a single moment at a time, don’t worry about five minutes from now. Just breathe.” The man nods and turns one of his cufflinks around and around in the buttonhole on his sleeve.

Then, Camilla pictures herself turning and looking across the aisle at a mother holding a screaming toddler on her lap. In those last minutes before the metal body of the plane strikes the Earth, Camilla struggles to her feet, and once standing, urges the woman to belt her crying son into the seat she’s just vacated. The mother has been rendered paralyzed with fear—Camilla puts her mouth right against her ear. The warmth of the woman’s skin makes Camilla’s ribs tingle, and she speaks low and even, “Let me help you.” Camilla has read the statistics. She knows that infants and toddlers sitting on the laps of their parents do not survive plane crashes. The G-force at impact is too strong. No matter how fierce a mother’s death-grip, physics always wins. The child will be ripped right out of her arms.

Camilla imagines herself strapping the seatbelt across the toddler’s lap, then springing forward to belt herself into a vacant seat three rows ahead. She is lucky. But even if she hadn’t been, it would have been worth it. She would want someone to make this sacrifice for either of her sister’s small children, or for her own, if she had any. Once Camilla finally convinced Harrison that a child was the right choice, that at thirty-five and after ten years of marriage they were ready to be parents, her body overrode the decision. Resilient, she and Harrison rallied, and in the beginning there were nights when they’d sit up late, side by side in bed, reading aloud to each other from fertility books or comparing notes from Camilla’s doctor, making lists of things they could do differently.

But shortly after her thirty-eighth birthday they had their third loss—the third trip to the emergency room, the third unanswered begging to please stay, just a little longer, please, the third car ride home from the hospital in agonizing silence. The afternoon they returned to the house, Camilla saw the red blinking light signaling new messages on their answering machine and burst into tears. Harrison brought her upstairs to draw her a bath.

He leaned against the counter and watched her while she washed the tangled curls of her ash-blonde hair—he looked at her with a tender sort of skepticism, as if she might disintegrate in the water if he didn’t watch her carefully. Once he was sure her bones were solid, he turned and began to rearrange things in the medicine cabinet, his face hidden, and told her that maybe three was enough. Camilla argued and cried and argued again, but in the end Harrison had both health and biology on his side. A few weeks later he came home early from work with a much tinier, feistier Thompson—his orange-spotted fur fluffed up around his little face, chasing a felt mouse inside of a cardboard box—and the issue was not discussed again. That was a year before the woman from the Jiffy Lube—a year before the one disaster for which Camilla had not prepared.

The plane that Camilla is on, when it crashes, stays mostly intact. This is not a mid-air collision or a break-up at cruising altitude from depressurization. When this plane crashes, it falls to the ground from a survivable distance. Camilla has researched the facts. This is something else her father taught her—the more prepared you are, the more you know, the calmer you’ll be.

On average, 56% of passengers and crew live through commercial airline accidents. After factoring for the survivability of the crash itself, most of the variables that account for which side of that percentage an individual will fall are self-determined—counting the number of rows between your seat and the nearest exit when you first board the plane, tightening your seatbelt low across your pelvis, wearing unrestrictive clothing and shoes that are easy to walk in, assuming the crash position and bracing for impact, not panicking.

In the emergency scenario that Camilla envisions on her drive home, the plane narrowly misses colliding with a row of houses in a quiet subdivision. Instead, it makes ground contact in a nearby field without landing gear, skipping and sliding 400 yards or more. When this happens, she is ready. Her oxygen mask is secured over her nose and mouth, her palms are pressed down on the seatback in front of her, one hand over the other, fingers spread wide but not laced, arms out but not locked, head bent and resting against the knuckles of her hands, elbows to ears, eyes wide open, alert. Her feet are pressed flat against the carpeted floor and positioned behind her knees to prevent the instantaneous breaking of her shins upon impact. Her legs are pressed together. She moves her tongue out of the way of her teeth.

Surviving the physical crash is only the first disaster of two. Then comes the difficult part, the part over which passengers have the most control and thus the most room for error—the evacuation.

To get off the plane successfully, the most important thing to remember is this—stay calm. The second most important thing is that jet fuel burns at fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and a flashover can occur in as quickly as a minute and a half. But stay calm. Breathe in. Then out. There are two hundred seventy-nine passengers aboard this flight. Sixteen flight attendants. Three crew members. Two hundred twenty-eight individuals who survive the initial collision. Four of six viable exits. One row of working emergency lights along the floor of the starboard aisle. Ninety seconds. Ninety seconds. To make it out alive, you have to be quick. You have to be prepared. You have to be calm.

Camilla pictures everything—the smoke-filled cabin, the tears in the aluminum alloy frame of the plane, the live, loose electrical wires hanging from the ceiling like black, sparking vines from some exotic jungle canopy.

~

Fifteen minutes after getting off the interstate, Camilla realizes she’s only a few streets away from her old neighborhood. She tries to remember missing her turn off the boulevard for her own apartment, but she can’t bring the fuzziness of her drive home into focus. It’s been over three months since she’s been here, since she last saw Harrison or their house. She eases into the left lane so she can make a U-turn at the light up ahead, but at the last minute she finds herself compelled to turn into the neighborhood instead.

Camilla thought that the house would look different, that the white jasmine she had planted for a winter garden would be uprooted, that the two wicker chairs on the front porch might be replaced by a swinging wooden bench or a hammock, or even that the siding and shutters would be repainted, as if a new house had dropped on top of the old one in her absence. She imagined she’d coast by and just barely be able to make out the bodies of her husband and his mysterious lover through the bay window by the front door. She had been sure it would be like it was in the movies—she watching from the outside as Harrison and the woman made dinner together, sharing a bottle of wine while they talked and laughed, he reaching up to brush her long bangs off of her face, their bodies already uninhibited, moving with the ease of familiarity.

But when Camilla parks along the curb across the street, her old house is dark. No one is there. Except for a few bags of rock salt in front of the garage door, everything looks exactly as it had when Camilla still lived there. She feels the heaviness of wanting to go back start to build in her chest. It makes her nauseous—her stomach rising with an uncomfortable flutter.

She turns off the heat and unzips her coat, resting the back of her head against the seat. She thinks that since she’s here, she might as well wait. She’d like a chance to talk to Harrison anyway, now that they’ve had a few months apart and can look at things without being so close to them. Camilla thinks this is a good opportunity to tell Harrison how she’s been feeling—that she deserves something different than this, that she could have used more support, that he didn’t make it any easier. But she also wants to touch the rough, dry skin of his hands and tell him that she built plenty of her own walls—that she let her sadness and her disappointment and her anger take over everything, even what had been good, and didn’t they at least owe it to each other, to themselves, to give it another go?

~

As she attempts to exit the plane, Camilla forces herself to think clearly. She leaves her carry-on bags, even her purse, and squeezes into the aisle. She bends low as she shuffles against the tightly crowded, sweating bodies of the other passengers, making an effort to avoid both the brunt of the smoke above her and the danger of being trampled. She tries to keep track of how many seconds are passing, but time is distorted—she could’ve already been here for days. The noise of the screaming passengers and the hum of what’s left of the airplane builds louder and louder until Camilla forces herself to focus and push the din into the background—to concentrate on the present moment until she is safe.

Camilla twists out of her cardigan and winds it around a gash in the arm of a tall, gray-haired man who’d been sitting one row in front of her, whom she’s now pressed closely against in the mayhem of evacuation. She ties the bandage using her belt as a tourniquet, the way her father once showed her. The man grimaces when she tightens the bind.

“Show me tough,” Camilla tells him.

The man asks through gritted teeth, “Girl Scout? This is impressive.”

When she finishes, he locks her gaze. Camilla notices how delicately the corners of his eyes are creased with worry, that his eyes are the clearest blue she can ever remembering seeing. She wonders if the clarity is an illusion, an effect of the surrounding madness. She decides it doesn’t matter. She presses the hem of her cream-colored blouse to the man’s damp forehead, and even though they’re both stooped close to one another, Camilla has to lift the bottom of her shirt all the way up to her neck to reach him. Smiling, she says, “I’m not usually this forward on the first date, Scout’s honor.” The man, who Camilla would like to think is a little smarter and a little funnier than her estranged husband, takes her hand in his and laughs.

Camilla yells to the passengers over their collective pushing and shouting to stop panicking, to follow her out. With the stranger’s hand still connecting the two of them, she leads her small group carefully and quickly through the smoke and debris to the nearest exit.

Camilla understands then that she will stay beyond the recommended maximum of ninety seconds. She abandons the goal of making it out before the clock runs down to zero, of escaping in one piece so she can return alone to the ugly, small apartment she doesn’t want to think of as hers. She chooses instead to stand at the window of row twenty-seven and assist passengers down the inflated emergency slide. She stays even after she sends down the gray-haired man so someone can stop the bleeding in his arm. She holds her post and takes shaking hand after shaking hand after shaking hand of bewildered, unprepared strangers, helping them to safety. Finally, a breathless and wide-eyed flight attendant reaches Camilla’s section of the plane and waves her off, insistent.

As Camilla takes her place at the top of the slide, she watches the chaos below. The night has suddenly grown quiet, the frantic screaming from the ground now a distant buzzing, and before she takes a single deep breath and lies back, before she crosses her arms over her chest and pushes off from the window, Camilla feels as if in this single moment she can see everything. She is one of the last refugees in the exodus.

Camilla tries to stay near the wreckage so she can continue to assist dazed passengers, yelling for a blanket or a jacket to cover an elderly woman she finds in shock or to help stop the bleeding of a boy’s head wound. She does this until the first responder firefighters, men much like her own father, had he still been alive, pull her away from immediate danger into the back of an ambulance, where some of the other rescuees are huddled together, holding one another in weary disbelief, waiting to be taken from the crash site.

Only then, as her adrenaline begins to dissipate, does Camilla realize that her left wrist is broken. Reporters with microphones and audio recorders and cameras swarm their small group the minute the ambulance stops, shouting over each other to ask what happened, how they feel, how many dead? A woman with blood drying over the entire left side of her face turns away from the EMT trying to bandage her and points to Camilla, yelling, “That’s the woman who got us out, who saved us!” There’s a brief and frenzied moment of pandemonium before the police and hospital security can remove the reporters and get the wounded passengers inside the ER. That next morning and for days after, The Washington Post and The Times run headlines that cite Camilla as a hero, Washington’s own. The President holds a memorial for the victims of the crash, and after a tearful eulogy, he meets with the survivors to commend their fierce spirits. He lauds Camilla personally for her quick thinking, for her choice to help others above herself even while knowing the danger she faced, and then he presents her with a Purple Heart, or a Citizen’s Award, or whatever honor is appropriate to bestow upon civilians who do brave things.

~

When Harrison pulls into the driveway, Camilla lets him get out of the car before she opens her door. He smiles and waves, but he’s squinting at her as though she’s someone he met only once many years ago and can’t quite place. For the amount of time it takes her to walk up the driveway to where Harrison is standing, it feels like it always did—as if they’ve both just gotten home from work and are getting ready to go inside and start their evening together. Camilla resists the urge to take his hand when she reaches him. She looks right in his eyes instead, hoping he’ll recognize the bright anticipation that’s pulsing through her body without her having to say anything.

“Hey,” he says. He holds out his arms to bring her in.

Camilla presses herself against him and begins talking, but the words are muffled by his heavy coat. When Harrison breaks the embrace and steps back, Camilla holds her smile so she does not give away her disappointment.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m not really sure. I brought myself without meaning to.”

Harrison squints harder. “Are you all right?”

Camilla tries to keep the sharp edge of nervousness out of her laugh. “I mean, I just drove here after work without even thinking about it. Just on autopilot, I guess. I didn’t notice until I was practically in the neighborhood.”

Harrison nods. “An easy mistake.”

“Well, I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, exactly.”

“Either way.”

There’s a moment where neither of them say anything. Then Camilla tells him, “It’s strange being here.”

Harrison nods but says nothing.

She wishes he would touch her, but he doesn’t, so she fumbles for the next thing to say. “Not strange in a bad way.” The wind blows strands of her hair into her eyes.

“Sure.”

“Sorry. I should go.” She waits to see if Harrison is going to look up from the ground at her face, and when he doesn’t, she turns to walk back to her car.

When she’s halfway across the street, Harrison calls her name. Camilla freezes and turns. She feels the warmth of relief spread through her chest as he jogs the distance between them so he doesn’t have to shout. “I feel weird asking this,” he says, “but do you think you could call next time if you’re going to stop by?”

“Oh,” she says. She feels suddenly dizzy, and she nods in agreement while she waits for the right words to come. Finally she finds her voice and tells him, “Yes, of course. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea for either of us to start showing up unexpectedly.”

“Absolutely. Too messy and complicated.”

“Okay,” Harrison touches her arm lightly. “It was nice seeing you.”

~

The thing is, Camilla thinks, as she turns out of the neighborhood toward her own apartment, people will always need the most help right inside the plane or right out of it, where both victims and rescuers are also the most vulnerable. Ninety seconds just isn’t enough time. And even if the explosion doesn’t happen, even if we do survive after that initial minute and a half, there’s no guarantee—nothing prevents the plane from then igniting at minute three or minute eight instead. If the fuselage is going to blow, then it will. It doesn’t matter, it can’t—there are lives to be saved.

When she pulls into her reserved space in the parking lot of the apartment complex half an hour later, the last hold of twilight has finally dissipated into night. From the glow of the streetlights, Camilla can make out the vague shape of Lynne, her downstairs neighbor, bringing in grocery bags from her car. The wind whips inside Camilla’s unbuttoned coat, a shock of cold that rushes up from her stomach to her neck as if chased. She shivers and hurries to collect her things from the passenger seat, balancing them in one hand: travel coffee mug, cell phone, keys, purse. Her teeth begin to chatter. She waves with her free arm to Lynne. The woman waves back from across the parking lot but doesn’t call hello.

Camilla thinks about the packaged vegetable lasagna in her freezer that’s ready to be put in the oven for dinner as soon as she gets inside. She knows that when she walks through the door, Thompson will be waiting in his favorite hiding spot under the couch, listening for the familiar scrape of the metal lid being pulled from a can of cat food. Once he hears the signal for mealtime, he’ll prance into the kitchen and rub against Camilla’s leg in greeting or thanks—this is their evening routine. Before she climbs the three flights to her apartment, Camilla lifts her head and stares across the blanketed darkness above her. For a moment she searches for two blinking lights that look like stars but are really airplanes, and then she takes in her next breath of cold, January air and doesn’t expel it, holding it in the walls of her lungs, holding onto it like something lost that she’s just found again—hoping for a collision that will light up the night sky.

Not Knowing

Stacy Patton

She’d repeated the story often, imagining it so clearly—the dark eyes of the boys, dusty hair and dirty fingernails, the heat like a fist. She felt like it had happened to her, though it hadn’t. It was just a story she told.

~

The street where she parked dead-ended in an expanse of chain-link that divided the river parkway from Delta Bend. A narrow gate led directly out onto the levee, where she usually began her run, overlooking the deserted backyards of houses where people must have lived but never seemed to be—cold barbecues, placid pools, empty patios.

The levee separated the houses from a hundred yards of riverfront. The top of the embankment was about as wide as a residential road, but poorly paved. On weekends, parents trailing small children on bikes, dog walkers, and the occasional park maintenance truck trundled in a steady stream along the ridge. For more serious cyclists, the cycling path below sliced through the floodplain about halfway between the levee and the river, and beyond that, a rough-hewn horse trail divided the land again, meandering through blackberry thickets and the deep shade of trees along the riverbank. Footpaths, worn by years of hikers and runners, wove among paths like tangled yarn.

On her way through the gate onto the levee she passed three loud-talking boys coming out, sun-washed and maybe a little drunk, two of them shirtless. They were all a head taller than she was, as boys of that age are, and their bodies filled her vision as they came, flat nipples and thin muscle, ribs and skin so close she side-stepped to avoid brushing against them. She flicked her wrist and wrapped the leash another turn around the back of her hand, pulled her dog close to her hip.

The boys passed behind her, and one of them whistled low. She pretended not to hear. She knew who he was whistling at, but she was alone, and they were boys, more than two. She tried to be flattered instead of afraid. She’d worn a new athletic skirt with quick-dry fabric and shorts underneath, and the summer heat rose from the asphalt, warming her legs, strong and tan from daily runs. The boys were laughing, the doors on their pickup thudding shut as she passed through the gate, remembering days when rowdy boys whistled more often—days when she might have gone swimming all afternoon with boys like that, instead of stealing a quick run before spaghetti night with her husband and two kids. A low-slung camp chair in the shallows near the shore, the current flowing round her calves, bikini straps slipped off her carefully oiled shoulders. And a beer, of course. A cold bottled beer sluicing the back of her throat, watching boys show off on a rope swing nearby.

~

What happened in the story was this: a college friend had traveled to Guatemala. He’d left the bus in the first village he came to between Guatemala City and Atitlán, intending to hike overland to the caldera. He’d walked alone for miles over steep and dusty trails, climbing into the heat of exposed ridges, descending into the cool shaded hillsides, admiring distant villages where undulating lines of colored washing danced on lines outside low-slung houses.  He heard something behind him. Thunder? But almost immediately he realized no—the sky overhead was painfully blue, and he recognized the sound of running feet a split-second before three boys overtook him in a pounding wash of noise and motion. And then gone. The power of their passage reverberated in the quiet left behind, and her friend stopped for a moment, his heart pinging in his ears. But then he kept walking, feeling the crunch of dry earth under his boots, the sweat gathering on his skin, wondering if he should turn back because some boys ran by. He was in a foreign country—but hadn’t he come to experience things he didn’t understand? There was surely a logical explanation—they had lost a goat, or they were running a traditional footrace. They were late for some mid-day celebration he didn’t know about. He was still turning the possibilities over in his mind a short while later, still thinking about them when he rounded a bend and found them waiting, clutching knives and asking politely for his money, his backpack, and his boots.

~

“Com’on, Dogg, we’re up. I’m hungry.” The younger one opened the pickup truck door while the mean one looked down the levee after her. He looked back at his friends. “You see them cakes on her?”

The yes-man said, “Yo, how old was Betty, you think?”

“Who gives a fuck?” He came back to the truck, walking fast, and climbed in, forcing the younger one to draw his knees up and scoot to the middle. “Drive up to Western.”

There was another entrance to the parkway at Western Avenue, about a mile upriver. Sometimes kids drank beer in the weedy parking lot there. The young one ran a hand through his wet hair and said, “I thought we were going to eat.” The yes-man gunned the engine up to the main road, jerked a rolling turn through the stop sign towards Western Avenue, driving fast.

~

The light was gold and low as the boys came off the levee, tumbling through the gate nipping and snarling at each other. There were three—one ropy and bare-chested, two with baseball caps. She couldn’t say which two. One or all of them might have had wet hair. They were white boys—not teenagers, exactly, but not much older than that. Or maybe they were skinny men pushing thirty. She couldn’t be sure; she’d looked away quickly, trying not to draw their attention. One of them made a noise at her. A vulgar sound.

She wanted the dog out of the car. She gripped the key, focused on sliding it into the lock without dropping it, fighting the urge to steal a glance at them across the street. The hatchback rose with a hiss and she ducked under it, clipped the leash to Diva’s collar and stood to one side as she dropped to the asphalt in a two-part thud. She controlled her breath, moving deliberately, even obliviously. Convincing them—she hoped, should they be watching—that she wasn’t concerned with them in the least.

Now that she had Diva out, something shifted on the street. The boys turned away, went on about the business of packing up to leave. But as she crossed to the parkway gate, one of them said something to the others she didn’t quite hear. Didn’t matter. She wasn’t looking at them, why would they be talking to her? But he repeated it, louder, tossing it after her into the street like a challenge: “Hey, Breezy, you’re looking fine, Girl. Come on back here with them goodies. Why you high sidin’?”

~

“Why doncha step off that girl?” The youngest one opened the pick-up truck door. The mean one stood at the gate, watching her walk away. He looked back at them. “Bitch was fine, wasn’t she?”

The other one, his sidekick and general yes-man said, “I dunno, Hoss, I seen two car seats in the backa that wagon. She’s somebody’s mother.”

“Who gives a fuck?” The mean one stepped through the gate and out onto the levee. She was moving fast along the top of it away from him, shaking her ass under that little skirt. The dog trotting alongside. Maybe college, he thought. It might not be her car. You could be sure a girl like that went to college.

The youngest one said: “Roll up,” but the mean one stayed where he was. He tried again. “Com’on, B, I’m hungry.”

The mean one patted his pants pockets. “I think I left something down at the river. Gimme my shirt, I’m a go see if I can find it.”

“What’d you forget?” said the yes-man, tossing him a damp t-shirt.

“Aw, hell no,” said the young one. “I’m starving, yo.”

“I said I forgot something, Motherfucker. I’m going to get it, and you two assholes stay here and wait for me.”

He took off over the levee, walking fast.

~

She didn’t have time to wait them out. Colors were deepening, darkness bleeding along the horizon, her shadow long and thin beside her. She should turn around, maybe come from an unexpected direction. And if they were behind her? If they were behind her on the trail she could turn and cut through the brush closer to the river—maybe get behind them. If they had gone ahead, up toward Western to intercept her, then she would have outsmarted them. She turned impulsively and took the footpath down to the water, looping back through the trees, Diva panting, every flickering leaf and snapping twig unnerving. She moved quickly. Those boys were probably off having pizza somewhere, probably on the couch in someone’s apartment playing Xbox. Her life was not a paperback thriller. Talking about “goodies” like she was something tasty, something sweet. He’d called her something—what was it? They so fully occupied her thoughts that by the time they stepped out on the trail in front of her, she felt like it had already happened.

~

A fine girl. It had been a while since anyone referred to her as a “girl,” and even longer since she’d been considered a fine one. How fine would she look if they had seen her as she usually was—pushing a stroller, buckling a grubby toddler into a car seat, cradling the baby in her arms, nursing at her breast? She crossed the street from her car to the levee gate, letting Diva lead the way at the end of the leash, her tail high. They were only boys. Just young, not criminal.

She’d read somewhere it was important not to act like a victim—behaving like prey made you more attractive to predators. Or something. To show herself unafraid, to prove the innocence of the situation, to them, maybe—to herself, surely—once she reached the gate she smiled and called over her shoulder, “And way too old for you!”

A confession of her age would make her immediately less attractive. If she said she was old, then they would see that she was, and she’d slip beneath their attention. She imagined their disgust at seeing her body up close—her soft stomach, deflated breasts, the cellulite on the back of her thighs.

Never too old for a nine-inch cock! one yelled.

Mine’s nine-and-a-half! said another. It’s tool time, baby!

She pulled Diva closer to her hip and resisted the urge to run, though that’s what she’d come to do. Running suddenly felt like an invitation to get chased. She looked out across the field below the levee and to the cycling path. A lone cyclist spun past far below, 40 yards off, and a pair of ponytailed joggers bobbed in the distance, lit in the final glow of the lowering sun. Up on the levee, a breeze lifted her hair, the cooling shadows rising up to meet her. Where were all the people?

~

“Leave her alone, why doncha?” The youngest one opened the car door. The mean one stood on the levee, watching her walk away, whistling low. He looked back over at them. “Breezy was fine, wasn’t she?”

The yes-man watched her, too. “I don’t know, Dogg, she might’ve been old.”

“Shut-up, Cletus,” said the mean one. “She was fine.”

“Where’re we going to eat?” said the younger one.

The mean one climbed in the truck next to him, squeezing him to the middle, making him draw his knees up. “I’m all outta cream,” he said. “Let’s go to Giovanni’s and you assholes can buy me some fucking pizza.”

~

As they came through the narrow gate, pushing and shoving each other and talking loud, she immediately wished she’d brought Diva. She felt them noticing her, alone in the street next to her car, as they gathered around their truck. She busied herself at the car door, trying to decide whether she should just get back in and leave. They’d think she forgot something. And who cared what they thought, anyway? Maybe they wouldn’t even notice. She was confident, practical. Getting back in the car was something her little sister might do—she lived generally as if the rest of the world was poised to attack her, to take something from her. Her sister triple-locked every door, clutched mace while crossing every parking lot, kept watchful guard on her purse at the grocery store lest a fellow shopper attempt to lift it. Such tiresome vigilance. She probably flattered herself thinking she was desirable enough to be targeted. If she got back in her car and drove away they would look at each other and laugh. They would shake their heads with quizzical expressions, like—Did she just leave because of us? Because of us! Ha! Ha!

Christ, they were just boys coming back from a swim.

But she opened the car door anyway, leaning in as if she forgot something in the front seat. She rummaged around, trying to decide whether to get in or get out, too aware of her legs beneath her skirt, the soft backs of her thighs exposed. She wished she hadn’t worn it. She resisted the urge to tug it down. She’d just decided to get on with her run when somewhere close behind her one of them said, Yo, Breezy, where you think you’re going?

~

She usually walked straight down the hill and across the cycling path to the river, to let Diva swim, maybe stopping to throw the ball in a field along the way. Today she stayed on the levee, away from the riverbank, away from the trails where the shadows wound round the trees. Her mind touched on things three good-sized boys could do—the pain they might inflict with teeth and fists and cocks, Baby, of whatever size.

There were more people along the cycling path, so she came down from the levee and walked alongside it. It was designed for the serious cyclist, smooth and flat, banked in the curves, a bright yellow center stripe tracing 50 miles between downtown and the fish hatchery. On a summer weekend, families on bicycles and hard-core athletes streamed by like colored ribbon.

Today she’d stay near the people, what few there were. She’d consider carefully her route back to the car. Maybe she’d circle around and come from another direction back through the neighborhood. She’d take her time. If they were waiting for her, she’d wait them out.

~

They stepped out on the trail in front of her, and without a thought she pivoted hard on her next step, cut a tight buttonhook on pure instinct.

She ran.

She ran as if a giant hand lifted her up and away, her heart rising, pulling her forward. She was pure speed, Diva surging alongside her, glancing at her now and then, pleased, surprised. She didn’t look back, didn’t break stride as she leapt over ruts and rocks and tree roots. There was an opening on the trail ahead, a spur leading back to the cycling path, to the levee, to the people.

She cut the corner, stepping high through dry grass. Diva, trying to keep pace, stumbled over the leash, clipping her heels and bringing her down. Her wrist jammed hard against the ground; she tore her shin from knee to ankle on something hidden in the grass. She staggered to her feet, maintaining forward motion, trying to regain her stride.

She risked a glance over her shoulder. They weren’t there.

She kept running, though not quite so fast. With every step her wrist throbbed. Her knee hot with pain. She reached the cycling path, a team of cyclists streaking by in citrus shades, hunched low over their handlebars. One of them turned his head as he passed, as if his chin were connected to her shins by a string. Blood ran thick and bright down her leg, staining her sock. Diva trotted up, trailing the leash and nudging her thigh, dancing a tight pattern in the dust around her heels. She clutched one hip with both hands and bent over, her breath a knife in her side. Afraid to really stop moving she took up the leash and crossed the cycling path, making her way back toward the levee. Her limbs felt disconnected, her hands fluttering at the ends of her arms, like broken birds. She inhaled and counted. At three she picked up speed, walking faster. At five, she lengthened her stride, and by ten, she was running again.

~

Yo, Breezy. Where you think you’re going?

All the sounds in the world winnowed down to that one voice, a strange silence warping the words as she swung her body into the driver’s seat, slammed the door and hit the power locks. They were laughing, maybe, as she jammed the keys at the ignition. She couldn’t bear to look.  The keys slipped from her fingers to the floorboard, and her cheek struck the steering wheel hard enough to make her eyes water as she lunged and grasped for them under her feet. They pressed around the car like rising water. One stood next to her door, another leaned against the fender, just outside the windshield. He adjusted his cap and crossed his pale arms, his skin taut over stringy muscles. She stared at those arms, avoiding his face, his unimaginable eyes. A tuft of brown hair peeped from his armpit; fuzzy tattoos littered his forearms.

He glanced away as a car cruised by on the street below. “You wanna party with us?” he said, as casual as if they were standing around a keg together. “We got that good shit—you wanna get on the line?”

She kept her fingers on the keys in the ignition, but she didn’t start the car, didn’t reach for her cell phone, locked in the glove box. Not yet.

“Don’t think she likes us,” he said to his friends. From inside the car his voice was muffled. She sat, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the ignition, like an exhibit under glass. What did they see? Did they see the car seats jammed side-by-side in the back, the toy trains and juice straws and crayons and crumbs? He tucked his chin and peered through the windshield at her, inserting himself in her line of vision, bobbing his head like a bird seeking a better angle on a worm.

~

She dropped off the levee and wove her way round to the footpath along the riverbank, unclipped Diva’s leash, and lengthened her stride. She liked the rough terrain, running in and out of shadows, imagining the muscles along the back of her thighs growing longer and stronger. Imagining the years of deskwork and child-friendly food peeling away to reveal the thighs she’d had at seventeen—a body she had fretted over at the time but would expose with glee if she had it today.

The younger one had smiled at her. Maybe. A shy smile, more at the ground near her than at her, actually. He would have been the one. He lacked confidence—she could tell by the way he followed the others. He probably had no idea how cute he was.

She’d have let him sit next to her in the shallow water, watching his friends and bringing her beers, shiny drops of water clinging to the tips of his short hair. She’d make him laugh, and later, when she caught a ride home with them, she would make sure she sat next to him—or on his lap, maybe, if the car was full. She’d drape her arm along the seat behind him, her forearm brushing the sun-warmed skin along the back of his neck. And that night, at whatever party that surely followed such a day of swimming and drinking, she’d lure him to the backyard, lead him around the side of the house where she’d let him kiss her and grope her until they collapsed in the grass, where he’d feel her up until she came.

~

He dropped down over the levee and crossed the field toward the trails by the river. He’d seen which way she’d gone and he followed, moving fast under cover, slowing down in the open, and it wasn’t long before he saw her again: a smudge of color in a field between paths, the dog off the leash.

The weight of his daddy’s hunting knife hung in his belt. He didn’t use it much, but he was in the habit of keeping it with him. You never knew when you might need to end a fight quick, and he’d ended more than one with a well-placed jab. People freaked out when they got stabbed—all the fight went out of them, even if they weren’t hurt that bad. A dog wouldn’t be different.

The girl left the trail and walked out in the clearing. She threw the ball—the dog, a big German Shepherd, chased it. He faded back into the brush, watching. She threw the ball pretty good for a girl, and the dog raced off and fetched it back, raced and fetched, stopping in front of her with the ball in its mouth, tossing it back to her with a flip of its big head. After a while, the dog slowed down, trotting after the ball instead of running, until finally, it loped off and lay down about 30 yards away with the ball between its paws, chewing.

The girl put her hands on her hips. “Is that it?” she called. She cocked her head at the dog and made a big show of turning to walk away. She moved toward where the boy crouched, behind a thick wooded bush just off the trail. After a few paces she stopped short, looked up and down the trail, then hard out over the river. He stayed absolutely still, breathing slow and quiet through his nose.

He didn’t think she saw him, but she turned abruptly, walking away fast towards the levee. She shouted, “Come!” and the dog jumped up and bounded back to her, the ball still in its mouth. She clipped the leash to its collar on the move, glancing back over her shoulder. A stream of cyclists slipped by on the path between them.

~

She started the car, jumped when the music blared out of the stereo. She looked up now, met his pale gaze and shook her head. “Get off my car,” she said, not quite loud enough. She felt old. Fragile. She thought of the cell phone but she’d have to take the keys out of the ignition to get it out of the glove box and she’d read somewhere that in a bad situation, a woman locked in her car with the engine running had some options.

“Come on, now,” he said, “why you hate-n?” He grinned, revealing a set of crowded yellow teeth. She dropped the car into gear. Out of the corner of her eye the third one appeared at the passenger door. He reached for the door handle. It was locked, of course, but the casual way he reached for it made it all too easy to imagine it opening for him. She stepped on the gas and the car lurched away from the curb. Something thumped against the back of the car as the one on the hood reached up and slipped his fingers over the edge of the sunroof she’d left cracked open in the heat. He pulled himself further up on the hood, and held on as she tore hard right at the intersection, trying to spin him off. He threw his head back, whooping and cackling through the curve, like her car was a teacup at Disneyland. On the straightaway she reached up and jammed the button on the sunroof, closing it on his fingers, those pink buds encroaching into the safety of her car. She made 40, then 50 as she approached the bend at the end of the street. He was cursing now, the tips of his fingers blooming purple, the sunroof motor clicking mindlessly as she held the button down, no purchase for his other hand. She slammed left down a side street, the main road up ahead, two cars in line at a four-way stop. His body rolled across the hood, his arm twisting in its socket with a wet snap that arched his back like a fish on a line. They passed an old man watering his front yard, water flowing in cool arc, white hair, his free hand in his pocket. She slowed, reached up and cracked the sunroof open, and the boy slipped from the hood into the street.

The old man dropped the hose on the grass and jogged towards his front door as the pickup screeched up behind her. She gunned it, swerving around the line of cars at the stop sign and out onto the main road. She headed for the highway.

~

She usually let Diva off the leash when she reached the horse trail, past the cycling path before she reached the river. Although it was marked with the occasional brown sign depicting a horseshoe, she’d never seen an actual horse on the horse trail. It was isolated enough to let Diva off the leash without bothering anyone. It was also mostly out of sight of the levee where the occasional Park Ranger rumbled by in a dull green truck, handing out tickets for dogs off-leash. A web of footpaths connected the horse trail to the river itself, and to spots along the river bank—fishing holes and swimming holes, abandoned campsites where teenagers partied or homeless men slept—places hidden from view unless you were on the water, watching the banks unfurl from the safety of a boat. Sometimes she sought out these places. She liked to forget she was in the city, if only for half an hour. She’d sit on the bank watching a bobbing strand of ducklings, or sunning turtles, or wild geese skidding in for a landing over the water.

~

He crouched in the brush, breathing slow. She called the dog, and moved back toward him. He stayed absolutely still until the moment she passed him, when he stood up, took hold of her arm, jerked her off the path and punched her in the back. Her knees buckled and she went down with a soft grunt. He let her fall then yanked her by the hair so she tumbled backwards into the dirt. He stepped over her and brought his fist down in the middle of her face, bloodying her nose and ensuring she’d stay down until he was done with the dog.

He unclipped his knife from his belt. When the dog came charging he grabbed the loose skin near its collar as it leapt and jabbed it in the throat, twisting the knife, ripping it free. The snarl died away in a liquid burbling. It crashed to the ground and struggled to get up, collapsed and lay heaving. He grabbed its collar and pulled it deep under the bush where he’d been hiding, sticking it again for good measure. His veins sang with pure voltage, surging in his chest, racing to the tips of his fingers, filling his arms with power. He was already hard and he felt strong, armed and ready like a soldier in the jungle, eyes bright in a paint-smeared face. The dog had been a kind of bonus. He wiped its blood on his thigh, folded and sheathed his knife and turned back to the woman, who was gasping now, on her knees with her back to him, dripping blood in the dirt. He stomped her ass with his boot, sending her sprawling. He chuckled, feeling huge, enormous, a fucking giant. He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the trees.

~

The point of the story about the boys on the trail in Guatemala, when she told it at cocktail parties, was that sometimes your body knows more than your mind. He knew something was wrong when those boys ran by, but he ignored it. Beat it back. She said she believed in trusting her instincts, but in practice instinct is hardly distinguishable from paranoia. How do we choose, in a given moment, between justifiable fear and nervous stupidity? Are we brave or do we hesitate?

~

They stepped out on the trail in front of her. She brought Diva up short, pulled her right up close to her hip. They blocked the path, two abreast and one behind. One of them squatted, reached out his hand as if offering Diva something. She extended her neck, nostrils flared, but the woman looped the leash tight around her hand, gave a sharp tug, pulled her back.

“Are you going to let me by?” She was surprised at the even sound of her own voice, the steadiness of her hands. She’d jogged along, fearing they might materialize on the trail, pretty much exactly as it happened, and now that they stood in front of her she felt strangely ready. She wasn’t unafraid, it was just that the fear existed somewhere outside her body, allowing her to speak without squeaking, to move without shaking. The hair on Diva’s neck rose—she made a low noise in her throat, audible in the evening around them.

“Go on by,” said the one in front. He stepped to one side of the trail, made an open gesture with his hand. “We ain’t stopping you.” He smiled, baring his teeth. Diva barked once, then twice more. A warning. The boy in front stood absolutely still, his eyes fixed on the woman. The younger one, standing behind the other two, farthest from her, took a step back.

She singled him out. “Your mama know where you are?” she said. His eyes flickered, and she almost smiled. “I thought not.” She turned back to the leader. “Just what exactly are you trying to do?”

“Easy, now,” he said, his eyes hard and bright as wet pebbles. “Maybe we’re just out walking, like you.”

She looked him full in the face for longer than she wanted to. Without breaking her stare she said, “Why don’t you boys go on back to your truck? Get back to whatever it is you were doing before I came along.”

He took a step toward her. She loosened her grip on the leash and stepped back as Diva lunged, snarling.

~

They had ruined her run, is what they’d done. She couldn’t get them and their Nine-inch cocks, Baby, out of her head.

Every day she looked forward to this time alone, breathing deep, stretching her legs as the sun went down over the river. She let the leash out a bit, but kept Diva on it. She’d run to the Landing and turn around. Or maybe run to the Landing and cut back through the neighborhood, return to her car from a different direction.

There were a few vehicles in the parking lot when she got there. One of them was a dark red pickup. Had their truck been red? She resisted the urge to turn around. Random crimes were rare, she thought. Cue the discordant violins: her life was not a B movie. But that’s what everyone thought, right? That’s what everyone thought just before they took a flashlight down the basement stairs.

And it was them. Two of them, anyway, standing by the truck next to the trail. Where was the other one? She looked around. She had to decide what to do. Stop and turn and they’d see her. Pass right by and they’d surely see her. Slow down and walk? That’d make her nice target again, wouldn’t it? One of them leaned against the bumper of the truck and took a long draw from a can of beer. The other with his shirt still off and his ball cap low over his eyes, motioned up the trail towards her, as if he were pointing her out, or toasting her.

Cheers, Motherfucker. She met his eyes as she passed.

~

Usually she headed straight down for the shady privacy of the horse trail, but today she was spooked. Where were all the people? She stuck to the levee, where people were more likely to come and go, more likely to hear if she called for help. Called for help. Seriously, what did she think those boys were going to do, chase her down the levee and attack her in broad daylight?  She just needed to keep moving, put a little distance between them and she’d feel better. She wanted to look back, but what if she looked back and they were watching? As long as she didn’t look, it was silly to think they might be there.

Diva strained against the leash, pulling her to the levee’s edge, anxious to get down to the river. She wanted off the leash, wanted to chase the ball. She kept Diva close. There had been three of them. All she could hope, aside from the fact that she was being ridiculous, was that a German Shepherd was enough of a deterrent to make her too much trouble. Surely it was easier to pick on a girl without a dog. She should’ve kept her mouth shut, though, and shouldn’t have worn the stupid skirt.

Her heart was beating too fast. Or was it the walking? She’d come far enough now that they would have had to follow her a good long way, and they couldn’t have gotten ahead without her seeing them. Could they?

Believing herself both brave and sensible, she took the next path down to the cycling trail and crossed, made her way down to the river and kept pace. They’d ruined her run, is what they’d done. She couldn’t get them out of her mind. Every bend, every bush, every clutch of trees had become a sinister hiding place for them. What if—this just occurred to her—what if they drove up ahead, accessed the trail in front of her, and then just lay in wait? She hadn’t really gotten a good look at them—what if they hadn’t been boys at all, but men? Maybe even men just out of jail.

That’s actually how she described them later, when she told her husband about it and when she called her sister, and later still her girlfriends, to tell the story. She said, “They could’ve been anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two. They might’ve been kids, or they might’ve been men just out of jail.” It was the not knowing that made the story worth telling.

Vishnu Floating on the Cosmic Ocean

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

The Little Carrillo Camp Store has been out of marshmallows since your family arrived, so all week you’ve been using gummi bears in your breakfast s’mores instead. Your dad pitched the s’mores as a special treat, much better than, say, the bacon cheesy eggs he botched on day one of your trip. Every morning he watches as you thoughtfully impale the bears on your roasting fork and wait for their heads to bubble over the sputtering fire. You use your fingers to spread their Technicolor jelly across the graham crackers, no Hershey’s needed. The bear jelly never quite washes from under your nails. At night in the tent, you suck at it finger by finger. You kind of even like the grit of the beach sand it collects during the day, that crackle it gives the jelly when you grind it between your teeth. Every night of boys-only camping so far, you’ve faked sleep until Dad and your brother Quentin are snoring in their sleeping bags next to you, then sat up to savor that private cache of gelatinous sugar. This is how you’ve stumbled into Little Carrillo’s most secret hours—sugar-wired and dreamy, watching the headlights of the last surfers’ cars make their weird spectral flight across the nylon of the tent.

Last night while you tasted each finger, you swore you heard the breakers on the beach getting louder. The creeping Pacific was ripping away at the coast. You know from Science Wednesdays about how the tides work, or at least you remember something about the moon wanting to pull the water close, like it’s tired of its lonely free-float through space. But the moon has the wrong idea.  The Pacific you can hear just across the highway is devouring, not hugging, and roped with snaky black kelp that reaches infinitely into its depths. That ocean is bottomless. That ocean is waiting to pull you under.

This morning, you can mostly hear gulls and Quentin banging through the pots and snapping sticks trying to get you up, but you are always half-listening for the growing tear of the ocean. If Mom were here you wouldn’t mind its sound, not to mention a breakfast of high fructose corn syrup and Red Lake #88. But all that communing with the wide and terrible ocean last night told you how vulnerable you are, how tenuously your family is held safe to the shore. Now you see s’mores for what they are—a desperate cover-up for parental inadequacy, a sorry excuse for a breakfast. Even the graham crackers aren’t the right kind, some off-brand with a lazy-eyed koala for a spokesanimal that Dad confusedly selected.  Mom would never have made such an egregious error. You cinch the sleeping bag around your head so only your face sticks out.

“Slugman, come on!” calls Quentin from somewhere near the fire pit. “Dad has to leave soon.  It’s family breakfast time.”

You open your bag just wide enough to let out a hand and run your pinky down the net of the tent. It catches in a hole the size of a nickel. This must be how the ants are getting in. Inside the tent feels like an incubator, with so much trapped sun heat and the shed cocoons of Quentin and Dad’s sleeping bags beside you.  The safest times you can remember are here, nested between your mom and dad and idiot brother and all that down.

“Mom would’ve made pancakes. With blueberries,” you say, and then add experimentally, “No crappy gummi bears. I never want to see another gummi bear in my life.”

“Don’t say crappy, Slugman” says Quentin. “You’re too young. And anyway, this is a campground, not a trailer park.”

“Yeah, a crappy one,” you say. Quentin bangs the pots louder.

“I’ll make pancakes for you boys tomorrow, Dewey, I promise,” says Dad. But you see through the haze of the grey screen that even mentioning the pancakes is a bad idea. Mom used to make them shaped like sea turtles for your birthday.  Dad pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes and goes inside the van.

The van is a dented, banana yellow VW, the same one where Quentin says you were probably conceived, just up the road from here. Mom always called the van the VW Library.  It is just one of the many nests she built for you.  She was a maker of pillow forts and Radio Flyer pioneer wagons, the mind behind the canopy of origami whales over your bunk bed. She trailed scarlet runner beans up a teepee in the back yard just for you, and even that wasn’t as good as the van.  Mom nailed up shelves in the back for all Dad’s summer reading, those stacks of photocopied articles from the Stanford library that blew around the backseat like some kind of strange shorebird, and more shelves for Quentin’s history books.  She built pull-out drawers under the seats for your shell collection. The curtains printed with tiny flowers on the windows were for her, even though she was a conchologist and a scholar, too. Since before you were born, your family spent a weekend every summer camping with the van at the real Leo Carrillo sixteen miles up the coast, a real state park with real rangers and real nature. There are quail here at Little Carillo, too, but they drink at night from the glowing blue swimming pool by the camp store. When you pointed this out to Dad and Quentin, Quentin said to give Dad a break.

Quentin yells for you again. “Dewey, I said he’s leaving. Don’t you care about our family anymore?”

You rip the hole in the tent mesh a little wider. Through the gray gauze of the screen, you watch as Dad gives Quentin money from his wallet, which hopefully means explorers’ two-way magnifying glasses and twiggy pieces of jerky that come individually wrapped from the camp store if Quentin is in a good mood.  Maybe you can ask Quentin to get you a safety whistle, although he’ll probably argue that you’d abuse it.  Dad’s blurry shape stops in front of the tent and you listen to the whir of the zippered door. When he sticks his head in, you can smell the ocean that’s soaked into his skin from his practices for the free dive contest tonight.

“Can I pick you a book from the van before I head out?” Dad says. “How about the Vishnu Purana? Remember when I read it to you, how Vishnu turns into a fish?  Quentin can help you with it. Or how about your shell book, for collecting later? Or something else? Anything? Is there anything I can do for you? You gotta give a me a clue, Dewey.”

Secretly you want both books, but you lie back in your sleeping bag so you don’t have to look at him anymore. “All I want is pancakes,” you say. You hear the telltale whir of the zipper again, more banging around the campsite, and the sputter of Dad starting the van. When you’re sure he’s gone, you sit up. He’s left both books for you, leaning against the rock by the remains of the fire.

~

“Okay, that’s it.  You’re getting up,” says Quentin. “I’m not letting you spend all day in there wallowing.”

Quentin is six years older than you and serious about everything, especially rock criticism and the life and legacy of John Lennon. When you still had Mom, he used to be a conchologist, too. Before her accident, you and she and Quentin spent that perfect vacation week every year in the back of the van with your samples, keying out bursidae and conidae. Now he seems awkward with his Little Golden Guide to Shells and keeps it stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans, a sort of vestigial limb he’s not sure how to use anymore.

Quentin unzips the tent door and throws himself on top of you. You squeal and try to worm away, but he’s got your feet and wrestles you out like toothpaste from the tube.

“God, Dewey, what happened to your legs?” says Quentin. You look down.  Below your shorts, you’re dappled with fiery red welts that make the rest of your skin look even blotchier than normal.

“It’s the ants,” you say. “They got in my bag.”

“Does it itch?”

“I guess. A little.”

“Well, dude, it’s certainly disgusting,” says Quentin. “What did you do, rub yourself with sugar? We have to get you cleaned up.”

You’re still cowlicked and groggy when Quentin extracts you from the tent and you walk barefoot down the road to the bathrooms, your toes curled up to avoid the prickle of the asphalt. The canyon is gold and green and grey except for the scatterings of surf gear and the wild parrots that speckle the tops of the trees.   Sun pours in from above the canyon, flecking the air with glowing particles of stirred beach dust. The same dust clings to the grass and to the leaves of the chaparral and scrub oak so they look as if they’re slightly faded, as if time stopped for them a year ago too—in coming here, even to this fake Leo Carrillo, you’ve stepped back into your own unsheddable past. In some ways, though, it hardly matters—there’s no place you could be that doesn’t bring you back to Mom.

It’s close to eleven, but the rest of the campground is quiet. Aside from one Asian family who you always see washing dozens of white socks in a salad spinner in the utility sink, the population of the campground is entirely other free divers who’ve come for the competition tonight, the 14th Annual Solromar Deep Dive.  Most of divers head out before dawn in order to stake out the best waters, the places where the ocean runs warm but deep. A whole flotilla of cranberry-red buoys tug in the currents off the coast, each attached to a guide line that leads to the ocean floor. Some divers have been here for weeks already following those cords, throttling themselves towards the deep. Your dad’s out there now, too.  He’s always practiced with terrifying single-mindedness in the days before Solromar, but this year he lets the ocean swallow up whole days. Every morning, he drives up the coast to find somewhere to dive.  If it weren’t for you and your breakfast hang ups, he’d get a deep but warm spot.

Last night around the fire, over the snap of burning salvia branches and slow fizzle of melting plastic bottle caps you’d discretely tossed in, Quentin asked Dad what it feels like when he’s diving the Pacific. It’s a question he asks every year before the competition, a sort of talisman against the unspeakable fear you both have that the ocean might not return him to you.

Dad says that from the moment your face meets the cold of the ocean, your heart knows what to do. Even as you reel to orient yourself in the directionless blue, even as your lungs crave breath, your heart is adjusting to the strange suspended time of life underwater. Its faithful lub-dub winds down until it matches the secret pulse of the ocean. Dad calls this the mammalian diving reflex—this slowing that keeps you going, keeps you breathing, when there is seemingly nothing to sustain you. The deeper you dive and the colder the water gets, the harder your body works for you. The fragile webs of your capillaries seal themselves off until your feet and fingers go numb. Blood vessels constrict in your arms and legs and send their warmth inward. Your spleen bubbles with new blood cells that ferry air to your neediest limbs. If you dive deep enough, under the downpress of so much sea, your insides will rebalance themselves to take on the pressure. All this to let you see what’s at the bottom of the ocean and return. All this to protect and keep beating your most vital organ—your heart.

You think of the mammalian diving reflex when Quentin turns on the spigot meant for filling canteens and tells you to wash off. The ice of the water you splash on your face pulls air into your lungs and runs goosebumps down your legs. Quentin makes you take off your shirt and wash your armpits, a ritual you both know is ridiculous since he’s the stinky one and anyway you only brought one tee-shirt, the one Mom bought you at Frog Town when you went for your birthday last year.  It’s the only shirt you ever want to wear. You like to think of her washing it for you and leaving it folded on the edge of your bed. Quentin showed you how to do your own laundry since Dad never remembers, but it never comes out smelling right.

“Dad’s going to do great tonight, you know?” says Quentin. He hands you a towel without looking up from the book he’s reading, his fifty-millionth Lennon biography this month. “I think this year is his year.”

“I hate it when he dives,” you say, and you do. Yesterday at the camp store, you overheard a hippie-haired diver report seeing the dull silver tail of a shark darting into the kelp stand just off Solromar Beach. But that’s the least of your worries. You hate how fast you lose sight of your dad when he throws himself off the deep water buoys. You hate the thought of the absolute dark down there, dotted only with the light of the bioluminescent snares of its most demonic fish.  But most of all, you hate the idea of that horrific suspension of time and breath.

“Don’t be a baby,” says Quentin. “You’re just scared of the ocean. You can’t even swim.”

“Am not,” you say. Anyway, you were going to learn to swim at the end of last summer. Mom was going to teach you, even though she said she understood that you’re really more of a shore person like her.

“Fine,” says Quentin. “I’m not arguing with you. I don’t want to spend vacation that way. Dad says if you don’t want any more gummi bears, I should get you something at the store. Okay? Dewey? You can even have that awful jerky.”

“And a camp whistle?”

“No way, Picklebreath. You’ll blow it all the time.”

“I will not. I’ll treat it with respect.”

“We’ll see,” says Quentin.

The camp store is guarded by two wild parrots that squawk and drop fruit pits on you from their perch in the wisteria that climbs over the door. Inside, the store’s no bigger than your bedroom at home, but it’s ringed with shelves offering all manner of strange and fantastic rations you’ve never encountered anywhere else—there’s practical stuff like shark repellants and cords of wood bound up with twine, but also pocket-sized kites and off-kilter yo-yos, six packs of grape juice in glass bottles shaped like rocket ships, compasses whose needles twirl as if eternally caught in magnetic storms. The bounty of the place, and the irritation of the parrots just outside, zing you out of the stupor of the rest of this trip, this year. You find some excuse for Quentin to bring you here every morning. Usually, you’re greeted by Stan, the owner of the campground who has a bead shaped like a sea turtle threaded into his hair and who offered you guys an extra night’s stay if Dad would let him borrow the van to meet up with some real chill guys up the coast later this week.

Instead, there’s a girl or maybe a woman—you’re not sure where the categories begin and end—by the counter today. When you come in, she’s balancing in arabesque on a plastic milk crate, reaching to hang a bag full of jacks back up on the display. You’ve caught her mid-motion, suspended for a moment in the tumult and glitter of the shop. You watch in silence as she stretches her arm forward, forward, shifting her weight with a cautious grace. When she safely snags the jacks on the hook, you let out a gasp. Only then do you realize you’ve been holding your breath.

“Who are you?” you ask. Quentin pretends to consider the postcards of Malibu at night and the Port Hueneme Artichoke Man, but looks through the twirling rack at the girl.

“I’m Desi,” she says. “Stan’s daughter? The guy who runs the campground?”  She’s behind the counter now, where she has a little sandwich assembly line set up. She peels rounds of baloney from a plastic sleeve and uses them to make neat, all-American sandwiches that she tucks, one by one, into the cooler right next to the rocket ship juice. You can’t remember the last time you saw food so nutritious.

Desi does not look like Stan. She’s got a thick braid of wavy, beachy hair, and wears an immaculately white bikini on top but rolled-up jeans on the bottom, like she’s part mermaid and part lighthouse keeper. From across the counter, you can smell the tang of her sunscreen. You remember Mom joking you into standing still while she put Coppertone on your cheeks with the softest brush of her fingers. Dad and Quentin never remember the sunscreen, and when they do, they do a lousy job rubbing it in.

You have to say something to her, anything. “Is there more Hershey’s yet?”

Desi scrunches her nose up and says no in a way that’s also a laugh.

“How about some gummi bears, then?” you say. “We have this system for melting them, so they get really gooey. It’s awesome. I could teach you if you want. I know how to pick the right part of the campfire for moltenization.”

“You just said you were sick of gummi bears,” says Quentin. “I thought you’d rather eat you