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Book Review: Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future

by Sarah Leamy

The Infinite Future likes to mix its genres, stories, and narrators. Released in January 2018 by Penguin Press, Tim Wirkus’ work is a novel that is broken into two sections. There is the search for an ancient manuscript, and the manuscript itself: Two tales live within this one book.

In the first story, Danny, a Mormon student and struggling writer, joins the obsessive librarian, Sergio, and a disgraced Mormon historian, Madge, in the search for a lost text—the novel’s second story. The second half of the book is pure science fiction, a very different literary experience compared to the first part of the novel, which takes on the form of the missing text these three characters have searched for throughout their travels in Utah, California and Brazil.

The Infinite Future is laden with stories told within stories and told by narrators who often switch-off within the chapters. Often, a new voice is simply introduced by a first line of the following storyteller’s montage, which then relays another incident to the listeners. As readers are told of one tale, another emerging tale soon blends into one after another, and so on. Throughout the novel, the overall tone of the first part of The Infinite Future varies from conversational to formal, often sounding quasi-academic and tinged with a regionalism derivative of Idaho and Utah.

Within these stories, and the tales within tales within them, the settings range from the tight knit world of Mormonism to the cities and landscapes of Brazil, both richly descriptive and inviting places while with Danny, Sergio and Madge’s continuing search for the lost text.

The second half of the book is quite different, in terms of style and tone; it is the discovered manuscript, which starts off with an entirely different narrator and begins with her saying “I was emptying rat traps in our convent’s dusty under croft.” This narrator is a nun, a sensible-sounding storyteller whose voice of reason informs readers of the novel’s world being under threat. The narrative style of the manuscript reverts to Wirkus’ stylistic telling of a story within a story. This technique seems to be an element that Wirkus is happiest working in, especially given his use of spinning all these tales within tales together. Readers will be left admiring Wirkus’ ability to keep track of the many details threading the novel’s manifold genres and voices.

Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future may be appreciated for its original use of weaving and enjoyed as a literary-journey suited best for those who love to sit back and be told of tales marauding within tales, from a safe distance.

*Advance Reader Copies were generously provided to Vermont College of Fine Arts  literary publication, Hunger Mountain, by Bear Pond Books.

Bear Pond Books, 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602 

 http://www.bearpondbooks.com

Hardcover, 390 pages
Published January 16th 2018 by Penguin Press

My Darling Detective by Howard Norman

by Sarah Leamy

The novel opens with Jacob Rigolet, a young man who’s employed by a wealthy art collector, sitting at an auction in Halifax. The photograph by Robert Capa’s Death on a Leipzig Balcony is placed up for bidding, but before anyone can say anything, his mother, Nora, walks up the aisle and throws a bottle of ink across the famous image. Jacob had thought his mother, Nora, was “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Home. Jacob’s fiancé, Martha, is the lead investigator, the “interlocutrix,” and she discovers that Jacob’s father is not who he’d thought.

Norman plays lightly with classic film noir with a mix of romance and an old-fashioned crime story with snappy dialogue and a certain melancholy that we expect from him. The noir genre is suspense driven, and in My Darling Detective there is a subtle yet mounting sense of impending threat. The language remains simple as we’d expect from the film noir but is less lyrical than usual for Norman.

A cold case of two unsolved murders dating back to 1945 is lead by Detective Tides and Hogdon, archetypal and clichéd bad cop and good cop. Their working relationship and dialogue is another nod to the 1940s, with a back and forth of one liners, creating a lighter tone than we usually expect from Norman, but it was one that didn’t always work, The two detectives were too much of a stereotype for the novel’s realism yet they grew on me, and the image of one of the detectives singing and dancing during a tense interrogation sticks with me. These supposedly hard-boiled and cynical detectives ended up playing well in contrast to the gentle innocence of Jacob, a bookish and somewhat lost narrator: “Look Jake, sorry if my sense of irony might not be as refined as yours,” Detective Hogdon said.

Howard Norman brings his usual preoccupations of Nova Scotia, WWII, photographs and libraries but with a lighter touch this time, yet the overlying atmosphere is again melancholic. Whimsical and bizarre events such as two children born in the library are held in check with the emotionally raw and realistic letters from the trenches in 1945 Germany, from Nora’s husband, the man in Capa’s photograph, Bernard Rigolet.

Norman’s works are often rich with historical details that give a depth and weight to the narratives. They are rooted in reality such as here when we learn that the “Region of Delay” was “a term that applies to journeys, not always perilous ones, but journeys at seas.” Bernard Rigolet writes letters to his wife from the 1940s, describing the journey from Canada to Europe to fight in the WWII. One of the other soldiers, a Greek and philosophical man, warned them that they “have to have some perspective, some philosophy about what we’re entering into or else it’s all going to seem useless.” Yet war is hard to understand or rationalise and through Rigolet’s letters we witness his slow decline into violence and the inevitability of terror during combat.

Norman is a master of atmosphere and despite the levity of the parallel detective stories, My Darling Detective has these touches of such realism that we, the readers, leave with a stronger sense of the anti-Semitism of the era, the threat of violence, and the trauma of war on a personal level.

Norman’s signature setting of Nova Scotia is less well-described in this novel, without enough of the physical context; it’s as if Norman trusts us to have read his other novels and that we remember and can imagine Halifax fully. There are less sensory details than needed to bring the town and community alive.

Consistently, Norman brings to his novels the importance of books and art, of photographs, letters and libraries, and as usual he evokes those well. These themes offer a hope for humanity, implying that the arts are a sanctuary, an idea that resonates with me.

Jacob, the narrator, turns to the library as it’s familiar; he was born there, grew up there, and after his mother’s breakdown, he decides to become a librarian for mixed reasons. The Halifax Free library is his safe space during the investigations into who his biological father might be and the search into the murders of the cold case from all those years ago. Norman keeps us turning pages as we try to make sense of the various threads.

One of the images that linger with me is when Norman wrote that how feeling disjointed and unprepared can be “like when an orchestra is warming up. All those disparate sounds – oboe, violin, bassoon, French horn, tympani – you can’t imagine how it will all turn into something beautiful.”

My Darling Detective is very much the same for me: The layered plot, the clichéd touches of the ‘homage to noir’ and characters didn’t immediately grab me, persuade me to keep reading, yet I’m glad I did. The lasting impression is one of a cohesive novel, and the lives and deaths of the characters touched me. Jacob and Martha are such an odd detective and librarian couple in a world and culture unfamiliar to me except through Norman’s novels.

Where Norman will takes us next? Is this the start of a lighter body of work within the darker themes he often deals with?

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 243 pages. $26.

 

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.

 

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

Art by Kerri Augenstein

https://hungermtn.org/visiting-with-sheldon-bellegarde/

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.

 

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

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Claire Burgess (they/she) is a writer, teacher, metaphysical practitioner, and ever-shifting human being. Their short fiction has received a 2014 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, been listed as notable in Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest 2016. You can find their stories in JoylandThird CoastAnnalemmaPANK, and elsewhere. Claire received their MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and was a founding editor of Nashville Review. They wrote the weekly blog column “This Week in Short Fiction” for The Rumpus from 2015-2017, where they covered one newly published short story a week, with an intentional emphasis on LGBTQIA+ writers, female-identifying writers, works in translation, and writers of color.

Visit with Claire Burgess

Comics = Cultural Criticism: An Interview with Bill Kartalopoulos

by Gina Tron

Cartoonist Bill Kartalopoulos.

Bill Kartalopoulos once lived in a large apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known as the Cartoon House. In 2012, VICE called the home “a giant flophouse where cartoonists live.” Cartoon House was full of goodies: crazy art on the walls; easels and cartoonist’s desks; a giant bubble-letter neon sign that read “CARTOONS”. It was a space where the big names in the art world often came to hang out and drink wine (or more likely, Pabst Blue Ribbon).

In addition to cartoonist parties, the space hosted numerous creative theme parties, including one inspired by the Harmony Korine film, Spring Breakers. I had the luck of attending a few of these soirees, which is how I first met Bill. He was always pleasant, seemingly unfazed as he spewed dry humor with ease. When I think of him, I imagine him as he looked then: clad in a sweater and circular-framed glasses, always appearing effortlessly cool.

Kartalopoulos is a critic, teacher, and author, as well as the editor for Best American Comics, the #1 New York Times best-selling series published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In addition, he is writing a history book about comics to be published by Princeton University Press. Kartalopoulos has written on the topic of comics for publications such as The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, World Literature Today, American Book Review, The Comics Journal and others. He teaches Comics History in the MFA Visual Narrative program at School of Visual Arts, and Graphic Novels at Parsons’ The New School. Currently, he is the programming director for the MoCCA Arts Festival.

GT: Do you still live in the Cartoon House? I love that place.
Kartalopoulos: No, I left it about three years ago and it got turned into a nicer, more expensive apartment — like most places in Williamsburg.

GT: How did you become the series editor for the Best American Comics?
Kartalopoulos: The Best American Comics series has been running since 2006. It’s part of a bigger line of titles, such as Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, et cetera. They all pretty much follow the same model where there are a series editor and an outside person who doesn’t work at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who works on the books for a certain number of years but also collaborates each year with a special guest editor, typically a more well-known person in the field.

Matt Madden and Jessica Abel — a husband-and-wife team who are both comic artists but also teachers — had that [series editor] job for six years, but they left because they got a residency in France.  I guess they recommended me to the publisher and I went in and interviewed. It worked out well.

Working on the book has been interesting and enriching in a lot of different ways. It’s also a very visible project.

Comics can respond quickly to an event and communicate a response.

GT: What are the responsibilities of a series editor?
Kartalopoulos: The way these books work is that they each have an open submission process. There is an address that anyone can send work to. An author or comic artist can send their work in and it doesn’t matter if it’s been published or self-published. On top of that, it’s my job to, in essence, make sure that we get everything that we should be getting. So, in addition to the large volume of stuff that comes in through the open submissions process, I also do a lot of outreach.

If I see that an artist has posted something about a comic or zine that they have self-published, I may individually email them to ask them to send their stuff in. I spend a fair bit of time just looking around at comic book stores and comic shops to see if there is anything that is not in the submissions pile that I should have. I go to festivals and walk around and ask people to submit their work. I also talk to colleagues and friends who know a lot and they sometimes have been really helpful in recommending work that may not have been on my radar. So, I end up with a huge quantity of comics. I also look around online because there are so many people posting comics online. It’s not possible to keep up with all of it but I at least make an effort.

I spend a ton of time reading through the various works I’ve accumulated then I make a pre-selection of about 120 pieces that I think are the most outstanding pieces to send to the guest editor. Then, the guest editor makes the final choices about what goes into the book. They have some latitude, too, to bring in some material that they have discovered on their own. I’m always surprised in a good way to see the final choices the guest editor has made.

Once they have made their choices, then I have to reach out to all the artists and get preliminary formal permission to include their work in the book. I write a foreword to the book every year and the guest editor writes an introduction. I also compose a list of about 100 notable works that we also list in the book in addition to the work that we are printing. That is a place to at least mention the work that I saw and appreciated but didn’t make it into the final volume.

I also have to communicate with the art director at the publishing house and the designer. We deal with decisions that come up in the course of figuring out how to design and organize the book. We find an artist to draw the cover for the book. We’ll also commission some original art for the book, even though much of the art is already published.

GT: Are there any factors you consider when making your choices on the art?
Kartalopoulos: During my conversations with the guest editor, I try to feel out the kind of work they like to see and if there is anything, in particular, they are interested in so I’m not wasting their time.

GT: What kind of influence does your past work with Art Spiegelman have on your work with Best American Comics today?
Kartalopoulos: Working with Art was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics. On top of that, he also has a really strong analytical and critical point of view. Spiegelman — together with his wife, Françoise Mouly, who is the art editor of the New Yorker (and has been since 1993) — edited in the eighties and early nineties a comics anthology magazine called Raw, which has a reputation for being one of the best comics anthologies of all time. They were very selective about the material that they chose and were attentive to design and presentation.

The standard that was exemplified in Raw persists in Art when he is looking at new work. He is always interested in knowing what is new in comics, but at the same time, he also has a real high standard for excellence. On top of that, Art works very hard; he has a perfectionist tendency towards the projects that he gets involved in. So, all of those things have, to a greater or lesser extent, informed a lot of the projects and work that I have gotten involved with.

Working with Art Spiegelman was a huge education because he has a real encyclopedic knowledge about comics.

GT: Tell me about your upcoming book.
Kartalopoulos: I’m writing a general history of comics for Princeton University Press, focusing on North American comics. It’s a book that is badly needed, I think. It’s something that comes out of my teaching. This book would certainly be useful for me to have in my teaching, but it would be of interest to general readers too.

There are a lot of books about individual subjects in comics that have come out in recent years, ranging from multi-volume reprints of well-known comics like Peanuts or Little Orphan Annie to biographies of comic artists, like the creator of Wonder Woman.

There are also a number of books about specific subjects such as American comics in the 1950s. The list goes on. But there isn’t a Comics History 101 book for someone who just wants to understand the broad overview of the story and to see how all those other pieces fit together in a sort of narrative. So it’s a little backward, in the sense that we have all these very specialized books, but we don’t have a book that should function as a starting point.

GT: Why are comics so important right now?
Kartalopoulos: There are a lot of reasons why comics remain relevant. For one thing, I think they are unlike a lot of other visual media — ones that require budgets; a lot of people; access to technology, or all of the above. Somebody can make a comic with pretty modest means. It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that. You can create an entire visual world that way, whether it’s a personal world or a fantasy world.

I also think that we live in a visual culture. I don’t really think comics are necessarily on the cutting edge of that visual culture like they used to be because technology keeps moving forward. I think that comics at one point seemed like a step beyond prose towards a more visual narrative, but now we have so much video and interactive online content. Comics start to look more traditional somehow by comparison.

Comics take a bunch of images and put them together in a coherent and articulate way, where you go from image to image, and from text/image combination to text/image combination. Then you look at it all and it all adds up to something. If there is an intelligent cartoonist at work then there is a design behind it all. By the time you get through reading it you can comprehend the design and see that there is maybe a larger concept behind it. I think that that in a way is almost like the equivalent in poetry relative to our visual culture, which is so incoherent. We just go from web page to web page, from video to message, from this to that to the other thing. You can get really drowned by this mosaic of stimulation over the course of the day as you consume media, but by the end of the day, it may not add up to anything or you may have to struggle to make it add up to anything.

It does not take a lot to make a comic. It’s basically just pen and paper. In theory, you can do anything with that.

Artist Nadja Spiegelman with “Resist!” at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

I feel like comics process all those elements and present them in a coherent design. It models a deeper understanding of fragments of text image combinations. I think, from a media studies point of view, there is something to that because it is a very direct medium and should have an ongoing grassroots appeal as a way to express oneself visually.

GT: How can comics be utilized in our current political climate?
Kartalopoulos: There is a newspaper that just came out called RESIST! that was edited by Françoise Mouly and her daughter, Nadja Spiegelman. It was full of comic strips and cartoons — mostly drawn by women — initiated after the presidential election and published in Time for the Women’s March on Washington. They made thousands of copies of it and gave it away at the March. That shows how comics can respond very quickly to an event and communicate a response, a point of view.

Other work can be much more considered. There’s an artist called  Joe Sacco who creates book-length journalistic comics. He goes to war zones, and has been in places like the former Yugoslavia and Palestine, and has created these very journalistic research-based projects where he interviews a lot of people, does a ton of research, takes photos and creates sketches, and then goes home and works for years to produce hundreds-of-pages books about a subject.

That certainly does not permit an instantaneous response like the newspaper I was just talking about, but there is a lot of value to that work because it shows something about how long comics can document something real, true and important in a way that other media can’t. He can put the reader in places where the camera can never go. He can present these characters, real individuals, in a way that represent their points of view intimately. It’s closer to the way that a writer would work, but he is able to provide visuals in the manner of a documentarian without the need to provide the kinds of happy accidents that make a good documentary.

A Good Medicine
by Jude Whelchel

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Tabor and his twin are eight years old when his father walks out the door to live forever with the family he’d spawned in Moultrie.

“Your mother’ll worry over you, Hoke, but you’ll make it fine.” The father ruffles his brother’s muss of hair.

“I’ve left you everything.” He speaks to the mother of the mercantile and their home on the second floor.

She does not look at him. Her eyes are fixed on the wide plank floor, waxed and spit-shining, it reflects their foursome as vague bodies, as ghosts.

“You got a mind going for you,” he says to Tabor.

The father opens the door, ringing the little bell at the hinge meant to alert at the arrival of customers.

“God Almighty curse you,” the mother says.

“If God cares to bother.” The father crosses the threshold, his feet quick clops across the wood porch. Tabor counts 1-2-3-4-5-6—his father’s feet down the steps to the cobbled road. The mother stretches her arm, holding the bell silent as she closes the door behind him.

Tabor goes to the window. It is a crisp, autumn day. The trees have gone to gold and crimson; the sky is clear but for a high wisp of cloud in the distance. His father is a big man; he is taking longs stride away from them. He does not look back.

“Come away from the window,” says the mother.

Tabor takes a final glimpse—his father throwing his head back, his mouth wide like he is drinking air, like he is breathing for the first time.

* * * * *

The following day, the mother burns the father’s photograph in the hearth, shoveling the ash into the chamber pot. Never again will she utter the father’s birth name.

“He’s dead to us,” she says. “Bury him over in your mind, six feet in a grave.”

* * * * *

A week passes. Two. It is evening when Tabor finds his mother studying herself in the hall mirror, her dark hair unbraided to her waist, her blouse unfastened and peeled from one shoulder, the pebble center of her breast standing at attention. Her throat is milk, her cheeks the soft pink of new apples.

“What are you looking at,” says Tabor.

She cups her breast and shovels it into her garment, buttoning her blouse like she is finishing a chore.

“Take this to the attic.” She lifts the mirror from the wall.

 * * * * *

If the mother spoke it to her sons one time, she spoke it a hundred. As she renounced their husband, she vowed herself to them, turning her attention to the business of the mercantile, to making more of life for the sons than the husband ever managed, fit determined to compensate for their double cursing—the absence of a father coupled with the discrepancies of their birth—Hoke born compromised in mind, Tabor compromised in body. Each son some shadow of a man.

Hoke ripped at the mother, coming first, covered in lanugo, thick as pelt.

“Jesus on the Cross, I never seen such,” said the old midwife, wondering aloud if her mind was slipping, the infant soft-furred as a pup.

The second infant showed no interest in coming. Despite the groaning and urgings of the mother’s body, and with every effort on the part of the midwife to coax it down, the infant curled high and stubborn under her rib. The midwife, already counting the child for dead, reached inside the mother, arm to elbow, to pull Tabor, waxen and bilious, into the world. Hued like midnight, tied in umbilical, he arrived an emaciated plug of flesh.

“Jesus on the Cross,” said the midwife. She removed the cord to rest the limp infant at the foot of the bed.

“Be grateful in your heart you was given one living child,” she continued. “I seen it plenty, one thriving, one dying. It’s the way of life.”

It was only for the mother pushing herself to her elbows to catch a glimpse of the one she’d lost that she caught the jerk of the blued body and gasped so the midwife turned and saw herself the flailing arm of the infant.

“Jesus on the Cross.” The old woman took the infant’s face to her mouth, forcing breath through the pucker of lip, the mother thinking the little thing piteous, thinking what life it lived, if it lived, would surely be lived sickly and jeopardized.

* * * * *

In the months that go to a year that follow the father’s going off, Hoke, making solace for himself, folds into a cadre of boys: Harvey Rutland, Dit Mellon, Buddy Hester, and the rest of them. Like a pack of dogs, they are off, knee high in the creek beds, following no path but some shared instinct of direction into the woods, some spirit stirring between them they cannot name but celebrate in the snake coiled and rattling, the stink and disgust of a turkey buzzard died and gone to rot and maggots.

Tabor wills himself to keep pace, chin to chest, tracking the boys though he is ten paces behind, twenty paces, struggling for breath, and when he no longer has sight of them listening for the direction they have turned, straining to hear over his own breath, which comes tight, sounding a high-pitched whistle in his chest. It is more days than not he loses the boys—though one afternoon he is sure he hears them in the understory. He moves through trees and thicket toward the sound of voices.

“I am here! Hoke? Boys?”

The voices go silent.

“Boys?”

He hears a cough.

“Hoke?” Tabor calls again. Another cough. Or a snicker? A stifled laugh as the understanding flashes hot: they want rid of me, the thought is blocked off and sent away as fast as it forms, leaving a shadowy residue of misery that has Tabor fleeing, running as if he is chased by something that would strike him down, suffocate him to a final stale exhale. He stumbles, runs a few paces, stumbles again, headed for safety which is the window seat in the sitting room where his chest is a storm of wheezing and he is watching the road through the pane glass, and though he knows in some corner of his mind there is nothing coming for him he puts aside reason for his delusional monster, preferable to the hard truth that his twin wouldn’t be coming down the road to find him.

2 + 2 makes 4.

4 + 4 makes 8. The simplest equations come first.

8 + 8 for 16.

16 with 16 for 32. His breathing slows. He feels his back pressing the wall, the sharp bones of his hips into the seat cushion. Fear, in one costume or another, will chase Tabor Rawls for the entirety of his life. He is decades from the day he will turn to it, the day he will look fear in the eye and not once blink, but for now he molds brick from numbers, he masons a wall of security from equations.

“I can figure 64 times itself. 4096,” he tells the mother.

“I figure you don’t need to be inside, nice a day as it is.”

“Name any figure, I’ll divide!”

She shakes her head—she won’t have it. She shoos him from the seat.

“4096 by 72 and you got 56 with 8 remaining.”

“Out the door with you!”

“I’ve been out already.” He raises his arms in attempt to slow her, unaware until his hands are before his face that he is trembling. He tightens to still himself.

“Not long enough.” She pushes Tabor out the backdoor—the door closes behind him with a harsh clap, the bolt scrapes into the catch.

“4096 times 8 gives you 32768.” He knocks at the door. “Please!”

The door does not open and he knows it will not open for however long he knocks. He sinks to the plank step that is tucked beneath the doorframe. Laundry lines string the alley, stained bed sheets and work shirts fight for air and sun. Cans of garbage and slop buckets. Strewn scrap and wood crates, an ironing board and shit pan gone to rust. It is a mudway of stench. Against their house, a carriage bed, stripped of wheels, is turned on its side, a moth-eaten rug thrown over it, a rag mop upturned beside it. He takes the mop stick and crawls behind the carriage, curling into a corner. It smells of cats and piss, but it is better that walking the alley. There are too many shadows.

* * * * *

Hoke, the son with no interest in learning, is the son the mother wants turning numbers. Reading books.

“Figure 8 and 8,” she insists.

He counts on his fingers—she pops his head.

“God gave you a mind.”

He looks at the ceiling. He counts dips in the bead board. “15.”

“No. No. No. You’re ten-years-old! Your brother knows his facts.”

He will write equations and keep writing until they are fixed in his mind. The mother starts a single column on the slateboard.

2 + 2 =
2 + 3 =
2 + 4 =

And Hoke will read the blessing at supper. He turns pages in the Penny Whistles book, back and forth, until he comes to the one he chooses every time:

It is very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink,
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place.

“Amen, “ says the mother. Her lips stretch across the bridge of her teeth in satisfaction. This is the only smile she has, a hard-earned, grimacing cut across her face.

“I expect manners.” She stands to plate the meal.

“You’ll eat every bite,” she says to Tabor.

Tabor twirls a fork through his meatstew, dipping it into a mash of potato that sits on his tongue thick as sap. He rearranges carrots to make a boat, buttered peas into mast and sail.

“Eat like a girl and you’ll have no get-up to you,” the mother instructs.

Taber pierces peas with a fork prong. He nibbles at a cut of bread while Hoke laps up the last of his stew with an edge of crust, taking a second helping of potato, asking for pie.

The mother watches the wall clock. Ten minutes to the second—Tabor’s dish is nothing but a stir of portions. She is up from the table to collect the beltstrap she keeps coiled in the drawer of the sideboard.

“I was only letting my portion cool!” Tabor forces a towering spoon into his mouth.

She won’t have excuses and he knows better than resist. His knees surrender, coming together in a pinch as the mother wraps the belt once, twice around his thighs, beneath the chair seat, pulling the strap through the buckle until his chin thrusts forward, his lips purse.

“Hurry yourself and you’ll be out of it,” she says.

“And you.” Her voice stops Hoke who is making his way to the door. “You’ll not run off this afternoon.” She exchanges his plate for the Penny Whistles book.

“Take your seat.”

Hoke’s shoulders sink, he returns, dejected, collapsing into his chair. She pops his head. “Knock the poor attitude from yourself—one day you’ll thank me that you read decent.”

When the mother is gone to the kitchen house, Hoke leans to Tabor and takes spoons from his brother’s plate into his own mouth. He swallows down Tabor’s milk.

“Read, Hoke,” Tabor whispers. “She’ll be back.”

Hoke opens the book to the thick illustration page where there is a round, shoeless child arching the sky in a rope-tied tree swing. Hoke begins:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Tabor covers the words with his hand. Hoke continues:

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

“You’re not reading,” says Tabor. He covers the next stanza.

Hoke smiles and continues:

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“I read by heart.”

“Mother won’t count your heart,” says Tabor.

The mother is back to the table with a slate and chalk. She eyes Tabor’s plate. She looks at Hoke.

“You’ll have a whiplashing if I catch you eating for your brother.” She snaps chalk on the table, breaking it into two pieces.

“The Lord’s Prayer. Start to finish.” She takes Tabor’s milk glass and the breadbasket to the kitchen.

Hoke furrows his brow. The fine muscles in his hands gripping the chalk, he makes slow, deliberate marks on the tablet, his fingertips going white, magnifying the dirt arches under his nails:

Ur fatder hoo art in hiven

Tabor shakes his head. “O.” He makes a circle of his fingers.

Hoke eyes the door for the mother’s return. He sighs and rubs off the slate with his shirt cuff.

“I’ll write for you, Hoke,” Tabor says. He pulls the slate across the table.

“You won’t tell?” says Hoke.

“I won’t tell ever.” Tabor writes quickly, in a script messier than his own.

“You want me to eat the rest?” Hoke’s fingers pick at the cane seat of his chair.

“Eat or don’t eat. I won’t tell.”

Hoke takes Taber’s plate into his lap. He makes a spoon of stew.

“I know I am a stupid boy,” he says, his mouth churning.

“Don’t feel bad, Hoke. At least you run good.”

*  *  *  *  *

Tabor takes steps two, three at a time. He belts canned goods to his ankles to make muscles in his legs. Left, right. Ten repetitions. Ten more. He suffers meals matching his brother, portion to portion, also bowing, no complaint, to whatever and all treatments the mother concocts. Ablutions of iced water, vapor fumigations, camphor amulets, poultice of garlic to the ear. There are scalding towels followed by rubdowns with remedies and elixirs that tout the benefits of brawn and vigor, reeking potions derived from Eucalyptus, cayenne, turpentine. Once a brown, translucent paste claiming genuine snake oil derived from Chinese water moccasins. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, fever or no fever, he strips bare and rests atop his bed, his face into a pillow.

“Bite this.”

He ignores the rag the mother offers. He sucks the fat of his lip between his teeth, bearing down until he tastes blood like a wheat penny on his tongue. She grinds menthol into his flanks, twisting, digging. He bites hard and harder and he can do this because in his mind the familiar recessed door opens and leads him to the river:

2 x 2 makes 4.

4 x 4 makes 16.

16 x 16 makes 256.

256 x 256 makes 65,536.

He multiplies himself from his body. He floats on his back, eyes to the infinity of sky.

65536 times itself… Numbers hang in the trees like leaves and he reaches for solutions. 4, 2, 9…

“Your blood’s stubborn,” the mother says. She goes to fetch a scalding towel from the kitchen—it will feel like fire, like skin coming from his bones.

“Scalding gets to circulation like nothing else,” says the mother.

“Will it help me run faster?” Taber asks

* * * * *

In celebration of their eleventh birthday, the mother orders Sunday suits from the Sears and Roebuck, matching breech pants, double-breasted sailor coats with yellow neckties. New socks, white with grosgrain trim. She keeps their good boots polished and gives her sons centerline hair parts. She oils their cowlicks into submission. They will go to church and anywhere with their heads high. She tells them though they have no father, they have one another.

She kisses them on the forehead. She says she loves them with a fierce love that wakes her at night—what lengths she will go for them!

* * * * *

Tabor is with the boys when they come upon the injured fawn under a catch of gallberry. Half-starved and ate into at the haunch by something Hoke predicts to be raccoon.

“Or maybe bobcat, though a cat would have drug it off,” he instructs. Hoke lifts the fawn, a stench of rot so given-up its only protest is a weak snap of the chin.

Buddy covers his nose for the stink.

“I smelled ten-times worse,” says Hoke.

Hoke stands at the center of the boys. These boys follow his lead, when he steps, they step. They will follow his plan—carry the animal down the road to the river, wash the wound, giving it drink, maybe caging it with log and limb until they come back to it with an offering of milk, making a nipple, if it comes to it, from the finger off a glove pulled over a glass bottle. In his arms, the slow blink of the fawn’s eye is the only sign of life.

“What you thinking?” There is a challenge baked into Harvey’s whispered tone and it calls the magnet of some internal compass in his twin to a darker and unconsidered pole. They are walking the road to the river, when Hoke suddenly stops. Tabor considers that the road they are on branches to a thousand paths extending to a thousand possibilities. Hoke could do any number of things in this moment.

“You got a machete in your shed?” Hoke asks Dit Mellon.

The boys are like hungry dogs around Hoke. Dit points back up the road to his house in affirmation and when they are there, the boys are whoop-cheering and watching the fawn, ears back and desperate, its awkward, bent limbs pathetic, pawing at the high grass. The head is arched sharply to the sky as if reaching would ward off the blows before they come, the first one hard but off aim, hitting bone. There is quick spray of blood and spasm of limbs before the second blow of metal sends blood up Hoke’s arms, his chest. The fawn exhales a melt of blood through the soft of her nose as the blows come and come and though the head is cut away the machete is cutting earth.

“You could stop now,” says Tabor.

Hoke throws the machete to his side. For a long moment there is only the sound of the boys’ communal breath and then a raptor calling from the high pines.

They carry the body, Hoke holding the head, back into the woods, marking the place they entered from the road with a tear of fabric from Harvey’s shirt. They use the rest of the shirt to tie the carcass to an oak. They bury the skull to keep rodents from having it.

* * * * *

Something is different. The smell of his brother has turned—like the sun has blistered and burned off a layer of Hoke’s skin that was holding back something pungent and gamy.

Tabor traces the skull with his fingers. It is fragile in a way Tabor had not expected, fine as a tea cup. He dips his thumbs into the cavernous eye sockets. He presses a fingertip against a molar.

“Is there a bone for me?”

“Boys got them all.” Hoke is sitting on his hands.

The boys have gone without Tabor to claim bones.

“All the ribs taken?”

Hoke shrugs. “You weren’t there. You can hold the skull much as you want.”  

Tabor turns the skull once more in his hands then reaches it to Hoke.

“You might’ve got something for me,” he says.

* * * * *

I got a mind. I got a very good mind. A quarter off a million makes 250,000. A third taken of 250,000 makes 83,333.3333…He has immunity; he is fortified. 83,333.3333. The numbers will never stop. To the end of time—that is endurance. His mind will run faster than any feet. Endure any challenge. An eighth of 83,333.3333? 10416.6666. Repeating not slowing, not stopping. Never.

10416.6666 to the second quotient? Tabor works his mind—108,513,889—until his body is all sweat, sour as a dog.

* * * * *

“It’s not fair as I’m not sick at all,” says Hoke. A fever has come over Tabor the mother has Hoke stay in with his brother.

“You’re inside not for being sick in the body but dull in the mind.” The mother brings the McGuffey from the shelf. “You need to be reading everyday! You don’t want ignorance holding you back.”

“I read good enough,” he says.

“You read remedial. Far below your brother.” The mother nods at the book to say to Hoke that he has no choice in the matter.

Before she is out of the room, she instructs Tabor. “Correct his mistakes—it is what a brother does for a brother.”

Hoke opens the reader. “It’s like a soup of letters,” he says to Taber. “If I could remember and not forget.” The intensity of Hoke’s look could implode the page. He presses his fists to his eyes. The book slides from his lap, striking the floor.

“I hate all books,” he says.

As if she has emerged from air, the mother is there, as a storm cloud through the room.

“You’ll get nowhere! Nowhere, I tell you!” She plants the book back into Hoke’s lap. “You want to be nothing but a farmer?”

A rope of snot comes from Hoke’s nose. He sniffs, wipes his shirtsleeve across his face.

“You practice in your head then you’ll read it to me.” She is across the room to tidy the bureau.

“Just say words about the pictures,” whispers Tabor.

Hoke wipes his nose again. He purses his lips to concentrate his exhale in a slow stream of breath.

“A girl and boy went walking off to the schoolhouse.” Hoke looks at Tabor. Tabor nods for him to continue.

“They was holding hands and a little old mutt dog comes on up the road after them.”

The mother slams a drawer. “Books are written in proper English!” Her feet drum the floor planks as she moves across the room. She thrusts her finger at the page.

“Come friends! We must go to the school. Do come along with me.” She dots the words with an angry finger. She points for Hoke to read the next line. He coughs back a sob.

“You read it, Tabor! Show your brother how it’s done.”

“I will lead you.”

The mother grips Hoke’s face in her hands.

“That is how it is done,” she says, leaving them in a huff of frustration.

Hoke bends to his lap and it occurs to Tabor to touch his brother’s arm, but he keeps his hands to his lap, turning to the window. The sun is soft through the glass like an invitation. He chews into his tongue to hold back a smile.

* * * * *

The day before the boys make twelve an afternoon rainstorm rolls in with dark, hard winds and thunderclaps. Lightening fires low and sharp. From the window of the mercantile the mother and sons watch as a high pine branch bursts to flame then extinguishes in the hard rain.

“This sort of storm don’t last long,” says Hoke.

“Doesn’t,” corrects the mother. “They can do a good bit of damage.”

Rain pelts the glass like marbles.

“We shouldn’t stand so close,” she says. “You’ve got chores.”

They retreat to the storeroom where there are no windows, but still they hear the storm fuming against the house walls. The mother fumbles with a lamp. Hoke will unload the crate. There are jars of goods, sugar sacks, sardine tins, and salt crackers. Tabor takes a rag to dust off and polish bulbous jars swimming pig feet, pickled cukes, peppermints. Hoke is in and out of the room stocking shelves, pouring sugar into a barrel. He drops a sack of flour that breaks open and spills the floor. They save what they can, Tabor sweeping the remnant into a dustpan. There is a low rumble of thunder. A soft flash of lightening comes through the doorway.

“Storm’s dying,” says Hoke. He lifts a pallet and moves it against the wall.

Tabor mops the traces of flour, the timbre of rain slowing its beat.

The mother points Hoke to a load of fabric bolts. “I want them displayed neatly in the front window.”

The bell at the storefront door sounds.

“It was a tornado! Hoke! You got to come!”

The twins go with the mother and meet Dit Mellon, breathless at the counter. He appears to have swum the river, clothing clinging his limbs, water pooling at his shoes. There are mud tracks across the floor.

“It was over the quarry. We seen it spit down out of the sky, spin and do its thing ‘til it was sucked back up from where it come. Hoke, you got to come with us to see the damage. All the boys are coming.”

“You’ll finish the bolts first,” the mother says to Hoke. “And you, Dit Mellon, will clean the mess you’ve made.” She takes the mop Tabor is holding.

* * * * *

The sky shows no evidence of the storm, but its footprint marks the road, thrown branches and leaf, a laundry line of clothing collapsed in a twisted knot, a roofing sheet come from some building. Tabor has left his brother and Dit inside to their choses. He steps over debris, a tree limb—this is the cleanest sort air and he breathes a long deep sack of it.

One and quarter mile to the quarry. 120 strides per minute—each stride a yard and two yards per second. Hoke and boys will come behind him. He can see them in his mind making a line in the dirt. They get ready, they get set. But Tabor is gone before them. His mind racing fast ahead. 1760 yards to a mile. 1 second makes 1/3600 of an hour. (2/1760)/(1/3600) equals to (2/1760)*(3600/1) and come to 4.09 miles per hour. Slower than the boys, but he turns down the alleyway calculating short cuts. Past the loading docks and the hotel back entrance, across hen yards, weaving chop blocks and kitchen houses, because if he can scale the link fence at the train yard and have a straight way over the tracks, beneath cars, if a station man doesn’t catch him, he might, he could do it, get to the quarry before the fastest boy. He is at his best clip to the fence high as two stories and he scales the link fence at the train yard, ignoring the cut to his knee by a jag of wire—he could climb even higher, to the height of the high trees, but he is over and dropping to the ground and up and darting between cars, ignoring also the high whistle wanting into his throat. He pushes it down. Blocks it with his mind, gives it no power.

“Boy!” calls someone from a platform. Tabor does not slow. There is wind to his back as he slips into the woods, running like an unbridled colt, unafraid until he comes to the quarry, bending over his knees, head up, he searches for the boys.

Tabor takes in breath, breath, breath. No boys. More breath, whistling breath.

The voices of the boys come through the trees—coming fast. A tight race. Tabor strips his clothes and climbs the granite tooth that juts over the water, his body a white streak against blue sky as the boys burst through the tree line, dogging for victory, they collapse, heaving into a scuffling bonfire of limbs. They are litter of mutts and Tabor wants in the middle of them.

“I’ve won!” he calls.

They do not hear him. He calls again, punching the words from his throat.

“Look here. It’s me. Tabor Rawls! I’ve won!” He steps to the edge of the rock face, sweeping his arms above his head, pumping wide, spastic motions of victory. The boys are still, leaning over one another, looking in his direction.

“Me!” Tabor jumps from the rock and in his brief moment of falling, he sees the boys, all eyes upon him, except for Hoke, his eyes steady and fixed beyond Tabor on the solid rock face.

10-9-8. Tabor counts as he sinks. He has never felt this before—7-6-5. Victory. Belonging—4-3. And pleasure. 2-1. He pushes against the rocky bottom, propelling himself to the surface.

The boys are wading into the shallows, coming for him, Hoke at the middle. Tabor takes quick strokes in their direction, sucking and blowing water from his mouth in a little fountain of celebration. He is in waist-high water when he is close enough to touch them, and he stands, the good stink of their skin in his nose. He reaches out, both arms for the embrace he imagines, and craves, and seems he has chased to a finish line. Dit and Buddy each catch an arm, someone is behind him, hands on his shoulders. His arms are pulled into a cross, stretching him wide. Tabor waits in this short, glorious moment, to be lifted over their heads, carried back to the bank and wrestled into the dirt in some ritual of concession.

They grip tighter and he does not understand what is coming which is Hoke’s hard fist, fast and mad, clipping his front teeth, catching his nose in a spew of blood and phlegm. One punch. 2, 3 punches in his gut. There is a kick to his ass and at the back of his knees so Tabor collapses, face down, down in the water, hands and feet hold him there—1, 2, 3, no breath. 4, 5, 6. No breath and he is sucking water because there is a fire in his chest. 7. He inhales water. 8, 9. More water. 9. 9. The next number? What is the next number?

* * * * *

Tabor is vomiting water into the dirtbank, hutched over like a dog. Hoke is sitting at his side.

“Where’s the others?”

“Gone away.”  

“I won.” Tabor turns and rolls to sitting. “I beat every one of you.”

The brothers are facing the quarry, the water smooth as glass.

“There’s no prize for you, Tabor,” says Hoke.

* * * * *

Tabor’s nose and bruises will heal, but his center incisors hang, broken-off and chipped away, like the entrance to a down-reaching cave. The mother makes Tabor a salt bath, takes a cloth soaked in camphor to his face.

For the first time in a long time, Tabor thinks of his father and tears come from the corner of his eyes.

“Hurt?” says the mother.

“A bit.”

“I’m sorry it was your brother done it,” she says. “But it’s a good medicine for you.”

Tabor takes the cloth in his own hand, pressing it against the swell of his nose. The pressure makes it easier to bear what rises in his mind.

It is his father who took the prize.

 

The Slide
by Jennifer Hasty

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

When I first saw my own living blood cells through a microscope, I suddenly had the idea that science could tunnel into the truth of me. I saw a vast population of pillowy discs drifting as if blown by a tide, some clumping together in long rolls, some bumping into strange spongy objects. And tiny bright dots, like stars, shooting this way and that through the traffic.

And it was me, all of it. No more doubt, no more worry about what was real and what was imagined. Here was an invisible realm that I could see with my own eyes.

“Pretty cool, huh?” said Mr. Howard, “The discs are red blood cells, well not cells really, because they don’t have a nucleus. The larger, grainy ones are white blood cells.”

“What about the littlest ones, the wiggly ones?”

“Bacteria, most likely,” he said.

“So the white blood cells attack the bacteria?”

“Sometimes you can see it, a white blood cell chasing down an invader.”

There were so many of the little ones, these wily specks, more than the spongy cells could handle, apparently.

“Is it bad, so much bacteria in my blood,” I wondered.

“Not necessarily,” he said, “There are so many red blood cells, so many that they can usually do their job pretty well no matter what. Bacteria are everywhere; so you always see some in your blood. And some bacteria are actually good. They say it boosts the immune system, having them around. Some are quite helpful, especially in your gut.”

I considered this, watching the drama acted out before me on the slide: the workers doing their work, the invaders looking for trouble, the police fighting for order in the chaos. The red blood cells were the virtuous ones, of course, the ones who ferried oxygen dutifully throughout the body, but they were boring, shifting mindlessly like cattle over a flat plain. The bacteria were the ones that caught your eye, made you wonder just what they were, what they might do next. Would this one find some cozy nook within me and divide itself into a full-blown infection? Or would it be discovered by a white blood cell and devoured whole?

I kept watching, couldn’t stop watching, as Mr. Howard went back to his desk to grade papers. After a while, I looked up at the clock and realized that I had totally forgotten that I had to be home to babysit my brother and sister so my mom could go to a church meeting.

Weaving through cars as I rushed home on my bike, I felt like one of those tiny bright spots maneuvering through the large, heavy globules rolling slowly through town. And I thought about my body, the inside of my body, where this kind of secret journey was endlessly unfolding—but with no destination, no resolution, just moving and dodging and surviving, on and on until the end.

I rounded the corner to my street as the late afternoon sun leaned down into the broad windows of our new A-frame church, reflecting an annoying light into my eyes as I slowed into the driveway.

I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the little disks and spongy specs and pricks of light passing through my blinded field of vision, as if I were still looking through the microscope.

I was brought up to believe that we are, every one of us, part of the body of God. My father often said this in his Sunday sermons.

If that is really the case, I thought, then what I saw under the microscope is what God sees, looking into each of us: a struggle, not good or evil, but a struggle, thrilling, beautiful, and strange.

 

Something went wrong with me when we moved from Hollow Knob to Centerville. Or maybe something was wrong to begin with and I just began to realize it then. Hollow Knob had been a slow place, a quiet place, hardly a town, really, more like a scattering of farmers and small businessmen with shops in the few strip malls along the state road. Centerville was the big city to me, the third largest town in our state. We moved into a new housing development in the southern part of town where a lot of well-to-do people lived. Ours was the house built for the pastor’s family, right next to the church, smaller than the other houses in the neighborhood but built in the same mottled brick with a mailbox that looked like a birdhouse planted next to the curb.

It was the beginning of my sophomore year, just starting high school, really the best time for me to change schools, my mother said, sympathetic to my fear of the unknown. And everyone will be making new friends, she said. But in the first few weeks of school, I came to realize that this was not the case. The other kids all knew one another from their various middle schools.   They congregated in their cliques in the halls and at the lunch tables. Inconspicuously, I examined each group, looking for kids like me, or better yet, kids like who I wanted to be.

Most of the girls had a sort of look about them that I found mysterious. They wore very simple clothes, with very few ruffles or pleats, but even their plain polo tops were cut in such a way that their bodies seemed athletic and powerful. While the girls at my old school wore obvious perfume and make-up, these girls had a completely natural look, their smooth skin glowing, fresh and healthy. Their lips looked stained with cherry juice but glassy, dew-kissed. They smelled like fruity soap. They wore little jewelry, just small stud earrings, gemstone or pearl, sometimes small golden hoops, never anything large or dangly. Their hair was either long and loose or cut straight in a simple bob that fell across the cheek on one side. They did not wear braids or buns.

I had never known any girls like these and I could not imagine what their lives were really like outside of school or what I might say to one of them if I wanted to make friends. When I came near any one of them, in line at lunch or brushing past in the hallway, I felt a strange surge inside that left me breathless and confused.

There were a few other girls like me, with our braided hair and ruffled tops from Walmart.   We often wound up sitting together at lunch, sometimes sharing notes or helping each other out with hard homework problems. But in general, we were not that interested in each other, so we were an oddly quiet group, awed into silence by the power of those magical beings surrounding us, chattering away in their parallel world.

 

My parents were so involved in starting up the new church that they forgot to check the courses I was signing up for at my new school. I picked biology class. I knew that we had particular ideas about nature but I guess I thought I was old enough now to sift out the truth from the lies. My father told me that scientists don’t lie on purpose, at least not usually. So they weren’t evil, really, just misled, and therefore not terribly dangerous to believers like us. Or so I thought.

In the first few days of biology, we had an overview about the scientific method and the various things that biologists study. I found this a bit boring so I skipped ahead in the textbook as Mr. Howard gave us his first lecture on “The Scope of Biology.” I found a part about the origins of life, how lightening may have struck lifeless chemicals to make a “soup” of living molecules when the earth was young, about three and a half billion years ago. Some people think the energy from volcanoes or deep sea vents started life instead. And some scientists even think that life may have begun on Mars or on a comet and some collision brought little pieces of it to earth.

Somehow I felt relieved that there were different possibilities, that you could choose one to think about but you didn’t have to really commit to it because it could turn out to be wrong when some new evidence came along. You were free to change your mind. You didn’t have to be wrong forever.

 

My father found me leafing through the textbook one evening in the first week of school. I had found another interesting chapter in the middle of the book. There was a diagram of a tree with different categories of living things.

“Whatcha readin’?” he said lightly.

“It’s biology, Dad,” I said, closing the book and folding my hands on top of it. “Did you know that there are more species of beetles than any other animal? And that they benefit from global warming? Someday beetles may become the dominant species on earth!”

“No,” he said quietly, seriously, “I didn’t know that.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and took the book from under my folded hands. He flipped to the table of contents, then began shaking his head.

“Let me take a look at this,” he said. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”

And I knew that I would never hold that textbook again. There was a long chapter on evolution, Chapter Fourteen. As I lay in bed, I cursed my own stupidity. Why did I have to go and tell him about the beetles?

The next day, when I came home from school, he called me into his office where he was going over church accounts. The big green textbook sat on the front corner of his desk, with a number of yellow post-it notes like a parade of militant little flags marching down the top.

“I’ve read some of your biology textbook,” he said gently. “And I think it would be best for you to take a different class.”

I heard myself heave a sigh. “I know you don’t believe in some of the ideas in that book….”

“We don’t believe, Nevaeh, not just me,” he said, his hand on his heart. “As a church, we believe in the truth of God’s creation. That’s what it means to be a Christian. This book is wrong. I don’t want you to study things that are wrong.”

“But to study them doesn’t mean I have to believe them,” I exclaimed, louder than I had intended. “I’m old enough to know about it without losing my faith.”

He took a long sip of coffee, then put the cup down in front of him and gazed into the cup for a moment. “Let me put this in a way I think you’ll understand,” he said, looking back up to me. “You know that I love your mother dearly, right? he asked.

I nodded, because of course I could not disagree.

“Well, what if a beautiful woman came into my office one day and told me she loved me and begged me to kiss her? What would you want me to do? What should I say to that woman?”

Although I wanted to turn the conversation a different direction to avoid the trap that was coming, the very idea of his infidelity deeply offended me so I took the bait, resigned to the lesson. “That you love Mom, that you would never let anything come between you and Mom.” I said, reciting my lines.

“That’s right, and it’s true, I never would let anything damage my relationship to your mother. My marriage is sacred to me. My family is sacred, given to me by God.”

I stood quietly, knowing that my attention was all that was required to get through the rest of this conversation.

“Your relationship with God is special and sacred, Nevaeh. This book has come into your life to tempt you, to test your faith. Its ideas are very seductive,” he said, flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, full of diagrams and nature photographs. “Will you let this book come between you and God’s word? Will you let its ideas damage your relationship to God?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, and for some reason, I saw behind my eyes the tree-like diagram of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order and the other descending levels of biological categorization. When I opened my eyes again, my father was studying my expression, kindly, patiently.

“I see that you understand me,” he said. “I know that this is difficult for a girl your age to deal with, especially a quiet, thoughtful girl like you. You don’t need to say anything, Nevaeh. I’ll write a letter to the principal and you can take a different class, one that won’t harm you.”

I closed my eyes again, savoring the image of the diagram that was still there. But as I held it in my mind, the words blurred together and faded away, leaving only the faint outline of a tree.

 

And so I transferred into the only remaining elective class that wasn’t already full, Home Economics. On the day I joined the class, they were learning how to make scrambled eggs. We broke into small groups and set to work in the several mini-kitchens along one side of the classroom. I was surprised to discover that many of those magical girls, the ones that looked so fresh and powerful, did not even know how to turn on the burner. But I knew a technique for making really fluffy eggs, so I suggested we try it. First you separate the eggs, then you whip up the whites into a foam, and then you recombine them along with some whole milk and immediately pour into a very hot, well-buttered pan. One girl in my group asked me how I knew so much about cooking eggs.

“Did you look it up on your phone?” she whispered, looking at each of my hands. I held a whisk in one hand and a potholder in the other.

I told her that eggs were my father’s favorite breakfast so my mother and I took turns seeing who could make the fluffiest ones. “I learned a few tricks watching my mom,” I said.

“Ohhhh,” she said, nodding slowly. Her eyes then flickered over my hair, my clothes. “I guess my mom doesn’t spend too much time in the kitchen.”

She picked up a stainless steel spatula and I moved away from the stove so she could stir the eggs. But she remained where she stood, studying the reflection of her glossed lips in the spatula. After a moment, she continued.

“And she says she doesn’t want me to get trapped there.”

“Trapped in your kitchen?”

“But this class is supposed to be an easy A, good for my GPA.”

As the teacher sampled our eggs, nodding her approval, an image came into my mind of the oven door snapping on my thigh like the jaws of a mouse trap as my classmates watched in horror. In the fantasy, I just stood there, one hand in an oven mitt, the other holding a spatula. I knew better than to struggle while everyone was watching.

 

I had a study hall in fifth period. Walking to the bathroom, I discovered that Mr. Howard taught Biology II during that period. So I started taking long bathroom breaks, standing just outside the biology classroom to hear ten or fifteen minutes of his lectures on symbiosis, bioluminescence, immunity, all sorts of fascinating things. As I stood listening to him talk about mass extinctions, he meandered over to the doorway. Pausing for a moment between sentences, he leaned his head out the door.

“Come talk to me after school,” he whispered, with a fatherly smile.

I was forbidden from taking biology class, but nobody said anything about chatting with Mr. Howard after school. I came by that afternoon. And the next. And the next. He even let me try some of the experiments his students were doing.   Most of the time, he set me up with some equipment then just went back to grading his piles of homework.

Even though he was there, it felt like I was alone, like no one was watching.

 

As she always used to tell me, my mother was raised to believe that girls should be seen and not heard. And then after saying it she’d laugh, as if to tease me with the prospect of enforcing this ridiculous idea.

In social studies class, we were studying the persecution of witches in Salem, Massachussetts in the 18th century. Mrs. Painter posed a question to the class about what factors led to the witch hunt. My own answer sat in my mind like in some kind of promising yet potentially disruptive event, like an unpopped kernal of corn. But as usual, I just sat there, scrutinizing the font in our textbook. I remember expecting the usual hush over the classroom after which I was often called upon.

And then I heard another voice, not my own, but with a similar oscillation between loud and soft, high and low, and going on much longer than other students ever did and saying something like, “some people would probably say that they were hysterical or full of teenage angst, you know, the psychology, or even that they were really possessed, which would be the religious angle. But I was thinking, their world was really changing, part of the town getting wealthier and the other part left behind. I think the girls maybe felt torn between different ways of understanding what was happening.”

The voice was coming from the back of the classroom but I was too shy and too stunned to turn my head to look. What I saw, instead, was Mrs. Painter’s expression, how her eyes warmed, her mouth pursed, her chin nodding slowly.

I don’t even remember when I actually laid eyes on her, probably after class when I could turn naturally, gathering up my books and backpack, stealing a glance across the room in the direction of the voice. But I knew before then, before I even saw her, that she was one of them, one of those girls with their fresh clothes and their radiant bodies, the girls whose movements constituted a sort of system in which the rest of us, both boys and girls, found ourselves oriented in one way or another.

Somehow I heard that in her voice, a determined pitch that turned my ear like a compass. What made me think about her so much—that day, and the next, and the day after that—was the other thing I heard in her voice. It was something uncertain, roving, searching, something as familiar to me as the cadence of thought in my own head.

Her name was Audrey Cooper and it turned out, she was in three of my classes, not only social studies but also English and Algebra II.

 

I found myself listening for her, in those classes, and even in the hall as I navigated the current of bodies streaming in both directions; I listened for that tone of shrewd conviction that seemed to rise up and around all the other voices, quieting the rest of us with the assuring constancy of her insight.

And then, after a couple of weeks, I found myself raising my hand in response to her comments. I never looked at her, kept my gaze fixed on the teacher, but Audrey was the one I was talking to. I found myself saying the most surprising things. In English, when Audrey said that free-form poetry allowed for more emotional expression, I argued that forms like the sonnet and the haiku imposed a kind of discipline on pure feeling, forcing it to become more subtle and more powerful at the same time.   In algebra, Audrey argued that we shouldn’t have to do word problems because numbers are inherently more pure than words. But words and numbers are both impure, I said. Only pure thought is pure. Only God is pure.

I could not turn my head to see how she reacted to my constant objections. But I could see how the teachers in those classes started turning to me after Audrey spoke, expecting my rebuttal. And the pleasure I saw in the eyes of those teachers was a pleasure held in tension between Audrey and me.

 

I went to Mr. Howard’s room nearly every day after school. Whenever I came in, he’d smile and nod, turning back to his piles of grading. Since I came in so often now, he just left the day’s lesson plan out for me on the black-topped lab table. I checked to see that the lesson was there and then turned away, keeping it in my peripheral vision like a piece of pie at the edge of my placemat. I’d started doing a few things around the lab to help out, feeding the tadpoles, misting the moss collection, making sure the sponge was moist in the domed habitat where ladybug larvae hung upside down in their cocoons, metamorphosizing.   After my chores, I read the lesson and then found the equipment to reconstruct his demonstration—Mr. Howard always had some kind of specimen or experiment to illustrate the lesson.

One afternoon, in late January, I dropped in to find him leaning over a wire cage.

“Hey Neva,” he said, his voice wavering with enthusiasm. “Come and see our latest subjects.”

He leaned away from the cage and I peered over his shoulder. Two white rats were snuffling around in a carpet of fresh yellow wood shavings. One of them paused to acknowledge our gaze, its pink eyes rolling up in its skull like small beads of glass.

“We’re starting the unit on animals next week,” Mr. Howard explained. “Our specimens arrived this afternoon.” He turned back to them, his face fascinated and bemused.

On the table next to the cage, I saw a packing slip. For some reason, I picked it up. It was a regular receipt, the kind you might find in any package arriving in the mail. “Outbred Rats,” it read, “Quantity: 2.” The total price was $52.17.

It struck me as odd somehow to purchase living beings the same way you bought any other piece of lab equipment, like a petri dish or a microscope slide.   But then, people bought cats and dogs and birds for pets, even mice, why was it weird to buy a rat for a lab specimen? Because it was an instrument like any other in the lab?

“What do you do with them?” I asked, wondering if I didn’t really want to know.

“Well, first I use them to illustrate the distinctive features of mammals, the fur, the mammary glands, the beat of the four-chambered heart, the differentiated teeth.”

“Only mammals have those things?”

“Yes,” he said. “Then we talk about animal behavior, aggression, cooperation, learning, sexuality.”

“You can see all of those things in rats? They cooperate?”

“Oh yes, rats are very social” he said. “If you put up a partition between them and set up a system where one rat has to pull a lever to give food to the other rat, they start cooperating so they both get enough to eat.”

“Did you see them do that? In this class?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking up from the cage. “It was a student project, modeled on some recent research.”

I felt my eyes widening.

“After the lesson on animal behavior, we have a class competition. Each student writes a research proposal to carry out a study on these two little guys. As a class, we vote on the top three proposals and the students who designed those studies become our principle investigators.”

“And you do the experiments?” I said, astonished. “Right here? In this class?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “And then we write up the results. It’s their final paper for this class.”

“So what other kinds of experiments have you done in the past?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, looking out the window, “one year we did a nutrition study where we had one rat eat raw vegetables and the other one eat only hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s.”

“And what happened?”

“We had to cut the experiment short,” he said, “for humanitarian reasons. The fast food rat became obese and immobile.   We were afraid it was going to die of dehydration because it couldn’t even get over to its water dispenser. It was sitting in its own waste most of the day.”

I must’ve made a face. He held up his hand as if to reassure me.

“We stopped the experiment in time,” he said. “After a few weeks on the veggie diet, that rat was back to its normal weight. We wrote up the results and they were published in a youth science journal.”

“Wow,” I said. “You can really discover something, right here, something that nobody ever knew before.”

“Another year we altered their day-night cycles by putting them in different cages, putting blankets over the tops, and setting lights on differently programmed timers. Then we tested the effects on their cognitive abilities by timing how long it took each one to get through a maze.”

“What kind of maze?”

“Oh, let me show you,” he said and he went off to a corner of the room, searched through a stack of boxes and pulled a smaller one out from under several large ones. The front of the box depicted an astroturf grid with plastic panels that could be fitted on the base to construct a maze. At the top right-hand corner was a small cell with a bait tray. With my finger, I traced the path of the maze in the picture, thinking of the series of decisions the rat would have to make to get to the prize. Realizing what I was doing, I pulled my hand away.

But Mr. Howard was looking out the window again. Then he looked back at me.

“Nevaeh,” he said slowly, as if pronouncing a quiz question, “what do you think you would do if you could conduct your own experiment with our rats?”

I thought for a moment. What would I want to know?

“I would put them together for a while, let them get to know each other.” I was thinking as I spoke, my words fueled by rising curiosity. “Then I would separate them and put them on opposite ends of the room, where they couldn’t see or hear each other. For at least a week. And then, I’d take them out and put one in the bait area and the other one at the starting gate. To see if one would go through the maze just to be with the other one.”

He considered this, nodding. “And what would you be testing, specifically?”

“I guess,” I hesitated, “Love, I guess, or desire. To see what a male would do to be with a female—or the other way around.” My project was refining itself in my mind. “And I would time them to compare the male’s desire with the female’s.”

Mr. Howard raised his eyebrows. “There’s just one problem with this scenario,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed.

“These rats are both females.”

“Oh,” I said, again.

“We always get two of the same sex,” he added, “to avoid procreation. We don’t want an unexpected pregnancy mucking up our research.”

“No, you wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“But you know,” he said, “I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same experiment with two females. In fact, that might be a lot more interesting.”

“Really?” I said. “Do you really think it would work though? Would a female go through the maze to be with another female?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “but that’s what you want, a question worth asking because you don’t know the answer.”

We gazed into the cage. Mr. Howard cocked his head as if considering his next comment.

“I got an email a couple of weeks ago. There’s a group of women professors at the university doing a science contest just for high school girls. You write up a proposal for an original research project, you carry it out, and then you write up the results. There are ten first prizes and each winner gets to choose between a telescope or a microscope.”

“I wish I was in your class,” I said, “so I could do it.”

“You don’t have to be in my class,” he said, “or at least the email didn’t say that you do. So just write up your proposal. We’ll be finished with our class experiment in April. The students will be writing up their results in the month of May. The rats will just be sitting there, idle, all that month. You can use them to do your own study.”

“So if I write it up, you’ll turn it in for me?”

“Sure,” he said. “You should do it, Neva, you really should.”

I was suddenly frightened at how much I wanted to. I looked deliberately at the rats. They snuffled about in their wood shavings, nudging up a pile in the corner. One of them climbed on top of the pile and turned, as if to encourage the other one to join her.

“What happens to them after school’s out?”

“I take them out to the country,” he said. “And I set them loose. They’re not very self-sufficient so they probably don’t last long out there but at least they get a taste of freedom before they get eaten by snakes or owls.”

I imagined them, two females, set free in a vast field of tall grass and wildflowers. Would they head off in different directions? Would they want to be together or each go in search of a male to mate with?

“I want to know,” I said, “I want to know the answer.”

“Do the experiment,” he said. “And then you’ll find out.”

 

Although early March was still dreary and cold, some of the girls began wearing short-sleeved polos to school, draping their pastel cardigans over their shoulders as they sat at their desks, crossing their shivering arms in refusal of the lingering chill. This was how I came to realize that spring was coming, a shift in the physical world that included us, embraced us as shifting bodies longing to, destined to return the embrace.

But for us, for me, early March meant Lent, turning away from the flesh, as my father said, turning inward to the contemplations of duty and fated sacrifice. I gave up lunch and saved up my lunch money, intending to donate it to a fund to help a woman at our church get an eye surgery she needed. Without lunch, my own vision was blurry by the end of the school day. I felt ghostly, floating through the hall into my last class of the day, Algebra II.   I gripped the edges of my desk as I descended slowly into my seat next to the long row of louvred windows. I was uncertain that my desk would really hold me in my place the entire class period.

We’d just started a unit on imaginary numbers.

Audrey was unconvinced. “If the square root of negative one isn’t possible, then it doesn’t exist and it can’t be a number at all,” she said. “It’s not a thing, it’s not out there in the world.”

But to me, buoyed by the faintest scent of new grass drifting in through a tiny crack in the glass louvres, anything seemed possible. I raised my hand.

“But a number, any number, isn’t a thing, it’s an idea,” I said, my words dancing off ahead of me. “It can seem to have a physical existence, when you place any quantity of things together, but even if those things are destroyed, the number still exists.”

“No,” Audrey interjected. “Then that number is gone and you have zero, a different number.”

“It’s like a person,” I continued. “If a person dies, the physical presence is destroyed but that person is not gone, not entirely. It’s not like they never existed. The person continues to exist as an idea.”

“As a memory,” Audrey responded. Then she stopped herself and checked the teacher’s expression, to make sure we hadn’t gone to far. But he was leaning against the chalkboard, happy to relinquish the class to our debate. So Audrey continued. “A memory of a thing that was once real, that once had a physical existence. But the square root of negative one never did have a physical form, never can be real in any way.”

“But maybe it will,” I said. “Maybe imaginary numbers will take form someday. Maybe we just haven’t found out how, not yet.”

At the end of class, I was zipping up my backpack as Audrey sauntered up to my desk.

“That really blew my mind,” she said, her eyes widening as she laughed.

I thought: this is really happening. Audrey had never spoken to me outside of class discussion. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So you’re the smart girl,” Audrey said, still smiling, her eyes probing curiously into mine. I held her gaze for an instant, then my eyes slipped down the placket of her shirt, wandering over to the pale wedge of shadow beneath her small bosom. I caught my breath.

“No,” I said, with certainty. “You’re the smart girl.”

“Well,” she said, flipping her head so that the hard edge of her bobbed hair lifted from her cheek and fanned out backward over her ear like the pages of a open book. “Smart girls rule.”

“At least in the realm of the imaginary,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically, as if she hadn’t quite heard me, then nodded as if she’d suddenly gotten it. “But it’s real,” she said, beaming again. “It may be just an idea, but it’s real, right?”

“That’s right,” I said and she turned to go.

And I thought, yes, this really happened.

Audrey and me, it’s real.

 

I wrote a proposal for an experiment with Mr. Howard’s mice. I was babysitting the neighbor’s kids and I put them to bed at their regular bed time, as instructed by their mother. They complained, begged to watch another episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but I was thinking about my project and so I stood firm, tucking them in precisely at nine pm. Then I turned off the TV and sat on the couch with my notebook on my thighs, savoring the expansive quiet, the time to consider what I most wanted to think about. Mr. Howard had given me a brief lesson about how to write a research proposal but he hadn’t given me the handout he gave his students. We both knew that I wasn’t allowed to have that. So I’d listened carefully to what he said and now I recalled the lesson, point by point. I stayed up until midnight, refining my research question, designing the experiment, thinking how I would analyze the data.

“Fantastic,” Mr. Howard muttered, as if commenting to himself. “You can get started at the beginning of May.”

I kept coming by after school, doing my lab chores and reading the lessons. But now everything I did was freighted with anticipation, taking on meaning as preparation for what was to come.

 

I started my experiment in the first week of May by putting the two rats together in one cage and enriching their environment with a few toys they could play with together.

I kept them together for two weeks, letting them grow accustomed to playing together, eating together, sleeping together. Then I took them out and put them in separate cages, stashed in corners on opposite sides of the room.

In home ec, we started doing final projects in May. Each group had to prepare a nutritional four-course meal for a family of four in thirty-five minutes.

“In the real world,” the teacher told us, “you’ll often have less.”

Each group had a day to prepare and present their meal while the rest of the class worked on a mending assignment. As a class, we all sampled the meal and shared our comments in group discussion.

My group was doing cashew chicken casserole. I came to class one Monday, our assigned day, to find the whole kitchen area marked off in yellow tape that read “Hazard: Do Not Cross.”

I went over to a girl in my group, the one with the glossy lips. Her name was Sophie and I’d gotten to know that she was a friend of Audrey.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“Haven’t you heard about the rats?” she giggled.

“In here?” I said. “Rats, in this classroom?”

“Mr. Howard’s rats,” she said. She leaned close to me as if sharing a juicy tidbit of gossip. “His lab rats escaped over the weekend. When Mrs. Mulvey came in here this morning, she found them running all over the counters and stovetops. We’re all in trouble ’cause she says it means we haven’t been scrubbing the kitchens properly after we cook.”

“My rats,” I whispered. “My project.”

“Your rats?”

“I mean,” I stammered. “Not my rats, they weren’t my rats. It’s just that I used to have a pet rat. He used to escape all the time.”

“Oh,” she giggled again. “Then you’re not going to want to hear what happened next.”

I met her laughing eyes. Despite her warning, she continued.

“The custodian thought they were just ordinary rats so he set out snap traps and caught them both. He’d thrown their bodies in the garbage out back by the time Mr. Howard found out about it.”

After school, I went to see Mr. Howard. He was sitting on the lab table, holding one of the cages. The other one was on the table next to him.

“It’s really a mystery,” he said.

“It’s ruined,” I said. “All that research and now I’ll never know the answer.”

“Look here,” he said, pointing to the severed latch on the door of the cage. “It looks like one of them chewed through the wire holding the door shut. “See how it’s chewed through, on the inside of the door?”

“But both of them got loose,” I said.

“Well then, look at the other cage,” he said, putting down the first cage and taking up the second one to show me. “The same wire is chewed through on this one, see? But it’s the part of the wire on the outside of the door.”

“But how could she have chewed open a wire on the outside of the door?”

“It didn’t, Nevaeh,” he said. “The first rat must’ve chewed itself free….”

“Then found the other one in her cage across the room and set her free.”

“I’m sorry your study was ruined,” he said. “But I think those rats gave you an answer after all. Maybe not what you were looking for. Maybe what they were looking for.”

 

A feeling set in, life surging around me, under me, but I held on motionless as a leaf caught against a rock in a swollen creek. It was better that way, stillness. I thought of my rats, caught motionless in their snap traps, life continuing on after them, without them.

On Friday afternoon, I sat on the bench in my gym clothes as the other girls dressed. I didn’t feel like opening my locker, changing clothes, going on to another class. I just wanted to sit there, letting normal life carry on around me as I became still and quiet, removed and undisturbed. I sat there inert with one gym shoe still on and the other one in my lap unlaced. One girl asked me if I was ok and I said, yeah, just tired.

“See you later,” she said, turning to leave and I realized that she was the last one to leave from that class and girls from the next class were already coming in, getting their gym clothes from the locked baskets at the back of the room, then stripping down in front of their lockers, some of them chatting with friends as they hurried their shorts up their legs and shimmied them up over their hips. I pretended to relace the shoe in my lap, though this made little sense; I was just waiting for this crowd to pass into the gym.

And then Audrey was there, beside me, pulling her yellow polo shirt up over her head, unzipping her short white skort. I continued lacing, noticing in the corner of my eye how she folded her clothes so carefully as she stood in her white socks, pink cotton panties, and pink stretchy bra. Another girl said something to her and she laughed. The girl reached over to Audrey’s back and snapped her bra strap. Shrieking, Audrey lunged at the girl, her fingers shaped into hooks. At that moment, Coach Loomis, the girls’ gym teacher, came barreling through the locker room, telling everyone to hurry up and get to the gym. “You two,” she said, pointing to Audrey and the other girl, “quit horsing around and get going.”

And in a few more moments, they were gone. I’d never skipped class before and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I laid myself down longways on the bench, staring at the industrial florescents for a while. And then, with sudden curiosity, I sat up and looked over at her locker. The locker door was closed and latched but the padlock hung open. Distracted by the playfight, Audrey had left it unlocked.

I listened for a moment. I could hear occasional shouts and thumps from the volleyball game in the gym but the locker room was quiet. And then I was at her locker, slowly pulling away the lock, lifting the latch, opening the door. Her clothes were stacked neatly on top of her loafers, her backpack hanging from the hook above them. My hand went to her shirt, tracing the edge of the collar down the front placket, under the seam to feel the buttons, then reaching below into the folds of her white skort. There was the beady edge of the zipper, the waistband, and deeper, the seam between her legs, still warm and slightly wrinkled from sitting in the previous class. My thumb crossed over and over the seam where the front piece met the back.

And then I heard a sound, a kind of urgent hum that grew into a soft moan. My eyes flew open as I realized that it was my own voice and not Audrey’s, as I had somehow imagined. And I stepped back, holding that hand out in front of me as the other hand went up to my throat. I felt the hardness of the gold cross under my fingers and my hand closed over it. Before I could formulate the prayer I meant to say to myself, I yanked the cross away from me and thrust it into the pile of clothes, holding it there for a moment, then releasing it into the warm folds of cotton. I took my hand away, closed her locker and locked it.

And then I got dressed and went to my next class. I slipped in, fifteen minutes late and the teacher didn’t even seem to notice.

Ashamed and horrified, I sat in class after class for the rest of the school day, replaying the incident over and over in my mind, inspecting every movement, every sensation, every thought that occurred to me as I did whatever I had done alone in the locker room. But I hadn’t been alone; God had been watching, this I knew. But what had God seen me do? Audrey’s clothes were so pretty; I was admiring them, that’s all. And I hadn’t stolen anything, after all, actually the opposite. And you could say (couldn’t you?) that I had left something sacred and beautiful for Audrey, that I was reaching out to her as a sister in Christ.

But I could not shake the feeling that I put that cross there to nullify something sinful, something from my own hand. Then I found myself thinking about how she might have found the cross there in her clothes, how she might draw the chain up around her neck, the cross swaying gently against her chest, how it might settle against her skin, now a part of her as it had been a part of me.

But she wasn’t wearing it in social studies and not in algebra.

After school, I went to Mr. Howard’s room but for some reason, he wasn’t there.

Walking home, I tried to force myself to pray but I just couldn’t. I tried singing softly to myself, the lyrics to my favorite song at the time, “Lifted Away”:

 

I fell into the shadow of dark desire

on the path from sin to infinite fire.

Then Your light touched my face

with Your power and grace

And you lifted my soul away, so high.

Your hands lifted my soul away.

 

That’s what I wanted more than anything, to be lifted away from this life, enveloped in a kind of selfless peace, free from doubt and struggle. When I got home, my mother was babysitting several church kids whose mother was in the hospital and the house was swarming with chaos as they played hide-and-seek with my sisters and brother. I knew that I would soon be put in charge of this mayhem so that my mother could cook dinner. I went to the bathroom just to have a few more moments to myself.

My period had started, ruining a nice new white pair of panties.

It must be punishment, I thought, for what I did today.

And I knew that I would never be lifted away, not by God and not by Audrey.

 

Even though my experiment had been ruined, Mr Howard wanted me to write up the results anyway.   In the last week of school, I found out that I’d won one of the first prizes. There was an awards ceremony but I couldn’t go because it was Wednesday afternoon when I had to go to prayer warriors. So Mr. Howard went for me, to pick up the microscope I’d chosen.

On Thursday, after school, Mr. Howard opened the box and pulled out the microscope, a huge and gleaming apparatus with dials and buttons and little red indicator lights. This was obviously not a toy. I knew I could never take it home with me.

Mr. Howard said he’d keep it for me in the science supply closet. He handed me a black magic marker and I wrote my name on the side of the large box. He hoisted it up to the top shelf.

“It’s right here for you,” he said, encouragingly. “You can use it when you come to the lab after school. Just go right in here and take it down when you want it.”

“Thanks,” I said but it came out like a whispery gasp.   I couldn’t catch my breath. I was remembering the feel of the cool metal arm in my hands, the teeth of the dial against my fingertips.

“And you can take it with you when you go away to college,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said again, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the box above my head.

“College,” he repeated. “Don’t forget.”

 

That night, when I turned out the light and lay down in my bed, I stared into the darkness above my face, prolonging the interval before my eyes adjusted and I could again discern the shapes around me: the dresser, the rocking chair, stuffed animals on a shelf, my younger sister’s body in the twin bed next to my own.

You see these things in the daylight, I thought, that’s what your eyes are designed to do. But when the lights are off, your eyes reach out, touching the darkness, opening up like fingertips seizing on a prize. If you’re awake, if you’re alive, you cannot stop yourself from touching darkness. You cannot stop your eyes from seeing what they grasp. Unless you close them, give in to sleep and close them forever.

My father tells us that we should think very carefully about what God sees when He looks deep inside each one of us. But now that I have my microscope, the question I keep wondering is, What does God mean for me to see?

Living in Stereo: An Interview with Alex Green

by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

 

Writer Alex Green.

Four years ago I found a Facebook message in my inbox. The sender liked an essay I had written and wanted to read more of my work. His name was Alex Green. Me being me, I Googled him to make sure he wasn’t a stalker. He wasn’t. I soon found out who he was, though.

Green is the author of The Stone Roses, a book about the influential British band of the same name, published as part of Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 series. He’s also the editor of Stereo Embers, a music and entertainment e-zine. When he asked me to write for the site, I told him that if he was looking for someone to say that One Direction was nifty keen, I wasn’t his girl. He didn’t, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Since then Green has released two more books: Emergency Anthems, a collection of poetry and short fiction; and his debut novel, The Heart Goes Boom (published last year by Wrecking Ball Press). The Heart Goes Boom details the journey of Kieran Falcon, a C-list actor who is told he must find true love in a matter of weeks. Falcon enlists the services of a writer, a magician, and a wise man to help him along the way.

When he’s not writing, Green is busy interviewing authors at Kathleen Caldwell’s A Great Good Place for Books (located in the Oakland’s Montclair district), teaching English at St. Mary’s College, and hosting a top-ten radio show on Primal Radio called … what else? The Heart Goes Boom. He also still produces Stereo Embers, which recently received a fan letter from Amy Winehouse’s mother, Janis.

Somehow in the midst of everything, Green managed to have time to answer some of my burning questions.

JKG: The Bay Area has been home to many writers, including Anne Lamott, Michael Chabon, Jessica Mitford, and YA novelist Yvonne Prinz. How has the Bay Area affected your writing?
Green: It’s affected it a great deal; I’m a bit obsessed with Northern California. It’s fertile ground for artists. It’s always been a community that’s alive with theater, music, bookstores, and indie movie theaters. Plus, the terrain is so redolent with promise, beauty, and heartbreak, it’s an irresistible thing to not write about.

California itself has appeared almost as a singular character throughout my writing, kind of like the hotel in The Shining, but less creepy — or more creepy, depending on how you view my work.

JKG: We share an appreciation of the absurdities of pop culture. Tell me about your first pop culture love.
Green: The movie version of Hair rocked my fourth-grade world: the hirsute bravado, the shaggy rebellion, the unexpected tragedy. Then MTV sucked me in back in 1981, and nothing was ever the same. Bowie, The Specials, Talking Heads … maybe even that J. Geils Band video, “Centerfold” — a portal opened that knocked me out.

JKG: Music is woven in all your work, be it Stereo Embers or your books. What was your first record? What are you listening to right now?
Green: My first album was The Police’s Ghost In The Machine. Now I’m listening to The Vaccines, The Paper Kites, Modern Space, Golden Curtain, and for some weird reason The Babys.

JKG: Would you describe Emergency Anthems as poetry, short fiction or both?
Green: Short fiction disguised as poetry that’s disguised as an 85-page homage to the Twilight series.

JKG: The Heart Goes Boom starts off with an emergency when the protagonist, Kieran Falcon, is pushed through a psychic’s window. What attracts you to writing about emergencies and calamities?
Green: My therapist might answer that question better than I can, but what’s always interested me about emergencies is what comes after. The emergency itself is largely uninteresting.

What’s compelling to me is how people assemble in the aftermath of a seismic event. They can grow cold or warm — it can go a number of ways, but you see who people really are when the struggle is over and the dust is settling.

JKG: Kieran Falcon has a Lorenzo Lamas vibe about him. Did you base him on Lamas, or on any other 1980s heartthrob?
Green: I based him on every ‘80s heartthrob; he’s a composite of them all. He’s also based on a character from a 2006 film called The Big Bad Swim. Originally he was based on a guy I taught tennis with back in the early ‘90s, who was such a tennis pro cliché that he literally slept with every woman in a 438-mile radius of the club. He may or may not have had a new strain of chlamydia named after him. Worth Googling.

JKG: Falcon also has a Ted Baxter/Derek Zoolander quality. Were you scared he could fall into the himbo stereotype?
Green: I was scared that people might not like him and that they wouldn’t hang in there to see if he could be redeemed. He’s a sweet guy who hasn’t grown up, so his teenage obsession with sexual triumph is a skin he’s never shed and he absolutely needs to. The book kind of suggests that that mentality will prevent you from experiencing real love and will guide you smoothly down a long and lonely path to oblivion. So it was a risk because his behavior is awful, but I thought people would take a chance on seeing if someone who’s so lost can ever be found. By the way, that last part may or may not be stolen from an Ed Sheeran song.

JKG: There are many current pop culture references in The Heart Goes Boom. How did you choose which ones to use?
Green: 
I picked ones that are absurdly famous and I picked them to poke fun at the extremity of celebrity culture. I also picked ones that used to be absurdly famous because they’re where the currently absurdly famous are headed.

JKG: Aren’t you worried those references might date your book?
Green: A little worried, but I thought I could change it every year and swap out [Canadian pop star] Justin Bieber for [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau.

JKG:  What are you working on right now?
Green: I’m working on a YA detective novel about a black market organ ring that’s set against the backdrop the thrash metal scene. It’s a Christmas novel.

Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick.

JKG: When you interview authors for A Great Good Place for Books, do you ever get nervous about asking questions that sound great on paper, but possibly goofy aloud?
Green: I never bring questions. I have no idea what I’m going to say until the interview starts. A risky move, but it just feels better that way.

JKG: Does that means that your interviews turn out to be more conversational and free-flowing?
Green: Conversational, free-flowing and I’ve been told, utterly devoid of thought or meaning.

JKG: Recently Stereo Embers heard from Amy Winehouse’s mom, Janis, about an essay you ran on the site about the late British singer. Can you say more about that letter?
Green: She wrote it to the author of the piece, Paul Gleason. Paul’s a lovely guy. He was very moved. It was a brilliant piece and her mother quite liked it. I was happy to see that our little magazine is reaching a bigger audience and that sometimes that audience is related to the subjects we write about. That’s a very cool thing.

JKG: You’re a funny guy. How do you incorporate humor into your writing?
Green: Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick. It has an instantaneous way of making the terrifying seem silly.

JKG: Who are your comedic influences?
Green: Woody Allen. George Carlin. David Letterman. Without them, I’d be glumly selling real estate in Oregon.

JKG: Do you think you can sustain that sense of humor in the Trump era, or is it gone with the wind?
Green: It’ll never be gone. It’s the only way I can make sense of the world.

Straight Forward: In Conversation with Fiction Writer Jensen Beach

by M. Demyan

Jensen Beach.

He’s fluent in Swedish. He has numerous tattoos. When he’s not on the mountain, soaking up fresh pow days while skiing with his kids, you can find Jensen Beach in a classroom, sitting at a comfortable (and self-described) “sixty-degree slouch,” meditating on Melville’s obsession with the color white during one of many classes he teaches at multiple Vermont colleges.

Beach is also the author of two story collections, For Out of the Heart Proceed and Swallowed by the Cold. In addition to being a writer and instructor, Beach serves as the fiction editor for Green Mountains Review.

I recently met up with Beach while we were both in Washington D.C. for the 50th Annual AWP Writer’s Conference. He was there with GMR, in the back room of A&D Bar, celebrating the release of two titles published by the newly-launched GMR Books: Alyse Knorr’s poetry collection, Mega-City Redux; and Christopher Kang’s When He Sprang from His Bed, Staggered Backward, and Fell Dead, We Clung Together with Faint Hearts, and Mutely Questioned Each Other. Kang’s 141-page book, a collection of 880 stories, was also the winner of The GMR Book Prize winner (selected by Sarah Manguso).

Beach and I shared ski lodge stories over a flask of scotch, then made plans to set up this interview. We ended up talking late into the evening over the phone, as Beach was fighting off the flu he brought back with him from the nation’s capital.

MD: You were just in Washington D.C. for AWP. Any highlights or absurdities on your end?
Beach: There’s good food there. My last night there, I ended up in a cigar bar. They were serving alcohol until about three in the morning, which was terrible because I think that’s what got me sick.

MD: Tell me more about the GMR event you hosted in D.C.
Beach: We ran a contest last year for a book of prose and book of poetry. I was looking for books that might have otherwise not have found a home — weird stuff, strangely imagined books — and we were lucky to find two great ones. The event we hosted in D.C. was a lot of fun: a reading from both writers at a bar. We sold books, got to meet our audience up close, and introduced our writers to people there at the event, then later at the conference itself.

MD: When you’re not attending events like AWP, teaching at various universities, or working on your own writing, what are some of your extracurricular activities?
Beach: Teaching is such a fun career. I think of it is a thing I get to do that is both recreation and a career. I actually like teaching. It takes up a lot of my time, but it’s something I find really energizing and invigorating. I get to move from one classroom to the other, I find that fun.
I love to ski, I love hanging out with my kids, I’m big into traveling. I’m not a hobby kind of a guy. I like to read and I like to teach. It’s pretty straightforward.

MD: When it comes to your process, you said in a previous interview that some stories have taken you several years or tries to “get it right.”
Beach: It’s always a new set of problems, and I’m a really particular and slow writer. Which is ironic because I’m always telling my students: “Hey, have stories to me by Wednesday” or whatever. Is that irony or coincidence?

MD: Irony, I think.
Beach: (laughs) Tragic irony in fact. I’m inclined to take things slowly. I think about stories for a really, really long time.

MD: You wrote your first book, For Out of the Heart Proceed, during graduate school, correct?
Beach: A little bit before, and some during that first year.

MD: Did that process, and the experience of a graduate program, influence the way you approached writing your second collection, Swallowed by the Cold?
Beach: I didn’t even know an MFA was a thing, but then I started applying. Some of the stories I used during my application I later workshopped; they made their way into the book. But it was sort of separate if I can make that connection. It was just stories I collected and then I thought, oh shoot, I got 27 stories or something, and I thought this could be a collection.
Then, with Swallowed by the Cold, I wanted to do something that I had never done before. I didn’t feel ready or confident enough as a writer to write a novel, so I wanted to write a book that did something in between what I had written and what I wanted to aim for. I’ve always loved stories. I think I will always be a short story writer. With the second book, I wrote that first story and I liked it. I thought I could just keep writing these Sweden stories, so I kept going and kept pursuing that and seeing what would happen. The thing that became my MFA thesis, of course, ended up being about 30% or something of that book.

MD: Did you purposefully set out to write a collection of linked stories, or did it just develop that way?
Beach: The answer is both. I don’t think I necessarily started with the idea that the book I was writing would be linked stories because I didn’t know I was writing a book necessarily. I didn’t set out to write it. It developed as I started writing the stories. I had this cast of characters and I started to see pretty early on, maybe about by the fourth story I had written, that the characters shared a lot of common traits…in terms of personalities. I started to pursue that, but still didn’t feel the confidence I needed to make the weird connections and tethering I ended up making in the book, so I just kept producing work thinking that that was the thing that I could do and I kept experimenting with – form isn’t the right word, but with shape or story structure, or seeing if I could do things in weird ways. To be totally honest with you, I was just trying to teach myself how a story worked.

MD: You lived in Sweden for a while, isn’t that right?
Beach: I did live in Sweden, for about six years. Also in Massachusetts and Illinois. I grew up in California. I find places really generative and exciting. That fuels a lot of my creativity; I often write about place and find a lot to mine in the notion of geographies and topographies and directions and histories. I just always loved travel and adventure and, I have to admit, the hassle of it all. I find that really exciting. Maybe a little less so as I get older.

MD: As the genre walls continue to blur and writing forms move more toward hybridity, are there any writers currently doing things with their work that is particularly interesting to you?
Beach: I tend to bring the kind of things into the classroom that I am most excited about. I use the classroom as space for me to be excited as a writer and a teacher and to be among peers, frankly. To be like: “Hey, you guys are nerds about this just as much as I am, let’s ‘nerd’ out.” So in a way, I think it’s just that. The [John] D’Agata anthology that just came out [The Making of the American Essay], it’s that [Max] Porter [Grief is the Thing With Feathers], it’s that Idra Novey novel [Ways to Disappear] that weirdly plays with mystery tropes and translation ideas and language and all sorts of goofy stuff. That’s the very stuff that inspires me.
I think I look, in certain respects maybe a step ahead. I might be at AWP or another book fair or something to pick up a book that I know and have heard about that is coming down the pike that is a thing that might be in my own … (sighs) I’m going to use two terrible clichés like, in my own wheelhouse. Something that I think is to my own interest, or to my own teaching interest. But honestly, the stuff I teach is the stuff that I’m the most jazzed about. It’s the stuff that I return to. I like to use the classroom as an experimental platform. I think it’s important to do that. I don’t want us teaching the same stuff over and over again because I think that does a disservice to our students. The landscape changes.

MD: I read that Porter book on the train back from AWP.
Beach: It’s so good, right? I saw him read this anti-Trump poem at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, at this outdoor bar with these lights strung, like, Friday Night Lights style. He’s standing there in this dirty, dusty, fuckin’ backyard bar, he read this thing and it literally took the breath out of the audience it was so good. He’s amazing.

MD: How about you? Is there anything new in the works?
Beach: I’m working on a novel about transitions right now.

MD: Transitions?
Beach: Yeah. I know that’s a weird thing to say. I’m just writing a novel. I’m writing a novel that’s sort of doing weird things with time and with its setting — its space and location — and with historical context. It’s called Slow to Anger.

MD: Are those some challenges that you specifically set for yourself?
Beach: No, they’ve been things that have kind of emerged as I‘ve dug into certain projects; those projects have sometimes been very personal. It’s the things that come out of my own life or the reading that I’m doing, or things that I’ve heard from friends or whatever. But in this case, I think it’s just been an ongoing evolving project that had adapted to the realities of my own life, and [it] has pushed me in different, undeveloped, or interesting dimensions and areas to explore. It’s nothing that I came in with ahead of time, for sure.

MD: So beyond this novel in progress, what does the future hold for Jensen Beach?
Beach: I’m working on some translations. Editing work is ongoing. And teaching is a thing I put a lot into and get a lot out of. I have some travel lined up for the spring and summer, which I am excited about. It all just keeps moving forward, and I’ll try to steal some time to write in it all, too.

MD: What does the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick mean to you?
Beach: (laughs) How do you escape this question? I don’t know — the whiteness of the whale, what does it even mean? I’m fascinated by Melville’s idea in that chapter, the idea of its own contrast, how white can be both pure and terrifying. I’m also fascinated by the larger questions that chapter poses about whiteness, and not even about whiteness but about the contrasting notions of a particular concept. Like, how do we understand things, and how are we as humans capable of dropping into them and turning our faces in every direction at once? I don’t know if I’m even capable of forming a coherent thought regarding this, but to me, it’s just sort of deeply fascinating. It’s kind of a wild piece of writing.

We Are Pleased to Announce the Judges for Hunger Mountain’s 2016 Literary Prizes

The judges are:

  •  Janet Burroway- Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

  • Robert Michael Pyle – Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

  • Lee Upton – Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

  • Rita Williams-Garcia – Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Janet Burroway, photo: Mary Stephan

photo by Mary Stephan

Janet Burroway, awarded the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing by the Florida Humanities Council, is the author of eight novels including The Buzzards, Raw Silk (recently re-released by Open Road Media), Opening Nights, Cutting Stone, and Bridge of Sand. Plays includeSweepstakes, Division of Property, and Media With Child (Sideshow, 2009), which have received readings and productions in New York, London, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Chicago; Parts of Speech, winner of the Brink! Development prize of Renaissance Theatreworks in Milwaukee; andBoomerang, winner of the Sideshow Theatre Company’s Freshness award in 2015. Her textbooks Writing Fiction (the most widely used creative writing textbook in America) and Imaginative Writing, are in 9th and 4th editions respectively. She is the editor of a 2014 collection of essays by older women authors, A Story Larger Than My Own, from University of Chicago Press, and her memoir Losing Timappeared in the spring of 2014 from Think Piece Publishers. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University.

Robert Michael Pyle (photo credit: Florence Sage)

photo credit: Florence Sage

Robert Michael Pyle dwells, writes, and studies natural history in rural Cascadia. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and a Guggenheim Fellow, he founded the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Pyle’s eighteen books include Wintergreen (winner of the John Burroughs Medal), Sky Time in Gray’s River, The Thunder Tree, Where Bigfoot Walks, Chasing Monarchs,Mariposa Road, Walking the High Ridge, The Tangled Bank, Evolution of the Genus Iris: Poems, and a flight of butterfly books. Pyle has taught place-based writing at Utah State University, as Kittredge Distinguished Writer at the University of Montana, and in many other venues from Alaska to Alabama, Tasmania to Tajikistan. He is currently making poems and music with his friend, neighbor, and Grange brother, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.

Lee Upton photo
Lee Upton
‘s sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, recipient of the Open Book Award, appeared in May 2015 from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Poetry, Best American Poetry, and in numerous other journals and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, received the BOA Short Fiction Award and was selected by Kirkus Reviews for their listing of “The Best Books of 2014.” She is the author of the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; and four books of literary criticism. She is the Francis A. March Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Lafayette College.

Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of the novel One Crazy Summer, a Newbery Honor book of 2011, a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The sequel, P.S. Be Eleven, was also a Coretta Scott King Award winner and an ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers. She is also the author of six distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book); Fast Talk on a Slow Track (ALA Best Books for Young Adults); Blue Tights; and Like Sisters on the Homefront, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York, and is on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children & Young Adults Program.

For more information, visit hungermtn.org/contests.

Where I Find Myself

P.E. Garcia

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m trying to write nonfiction.

I have published some fiction, so I think of myself as a fiction writer. I have published some poetry, so sometimes I think of myself as a poet. I have published a few essays, but I have never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.

I’m not a nonfiction writer. In fact, I don’t even believe nonfiction can exist. All writing is fiction by virtue of the fact that words can never be equal to lived experience; I can say I’m writing truth, but all I’m doing is constructing a mirror of the truth, a mirror of lived experience, using words as symbols to do my best to communicate what the truth is.

Ferdinand de Saussure is famous for saying there are two things in all communication: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is arbitrary; there’s no inherent reason to refer to a dog as a “dog,” except that, as English speakers, we have agreed on this word to signify the animal we think of as a dog.

But the word “dog” will never be an actual dog. Words will always be words; words can never be truth.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog.

I’m here, in Philadelphia, because I’m working on a PhD in English at Temple University. I want to study Rhetoric and Poetics and Creative Writing pedagogy and identity and race and literature and anything that has to do with words, really, and how they can connect to our lived experiences. This is why I’m here.

I have an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I was getting my MFA, there were creative nonfiction writers in the program, but they were separate from me. They were people who had led interesting lives, done interesting things, grown enough that they could offer some perspective on reality that I couldn’t. I was only a kid, 25 years old, from a small town in Arkansas; I’d barely traveled anywhere, hadn’t seen much of anything; what could I add to the already abundant world of nonfiction?

I was a kid. In many ways, I’m still a kid, trapped in the extended adolescence of the post-irony, post-sincerity millennial era; I came of age in America under the Bush Administration, a world where words, masquerading as truths, became tools for war. Fictions posing as nonfictions created disaster. Why would I even want to pretend to be able to tell the truth?

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m looking in a mirror.

This is the story I’m telling about myself, and for the most part, it’s true. That is: it’s easy to believe that there’s a place called Philadelphia, and I am in it, along with my couch and my dog. I say these things; you think these things; therefore, they are.

Brian Street has said before that sometimes we form identities in our narratives: we tell stories about ourselves, and in doing so, we figure out who we are. By creating a fiction, we create ourselves.

That isn’t true, of course. I mean, not truly true—we can’t be the actual fictions we make out of ourselves; we will be ourselves, and the words will be the words. In writing, I play a character in a story: I am in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog; in reality, I’m much more than that.

I’ve been reading a lot about identity lately, mainly because I’m trying to figure out who I am. It seems strange to be me, in the literal, physical sense, and yet to not really know what it actually means to be me. What does it mean to be here? What does it mean to be a fiction writer? What does it mean to never want to tell the truth?

I used to be mad whenever anyone would read one of my stories and critique it as though I was the main character. That still isn’t a critique I would support, but certainly, a character is a part of my imagination, isn’t it? In the way that a child might reflect a parent, a character reflects me, irrevocably tied by creation, if not always by advocacy.

If then, in my fiction and poetry, you can see a blurry reflection of me, why would that be less true of my nonfiction? The reflection, albeit blurry, is still a reflection, isn’t it? I look in the mirror, and I know that the reflection isn’t me—it lacks my entire interior life—but doesn’t that reflection still contain at least some aspects of who I am?

Why should I give a shit if my signifier and signified aren’t entirely equivalent? Symbols are the only things I have to express truth with, and even if they don’t convey all of the truth, they can convey some of it. The truth inherently bleeds into my fiction, and so maybe there is no fiction, but instead, only nonfiction.

In every fiction there is an aspect of nonfiction. In every signifier, some image of the signified; in every word, some aspect of myself.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I have written nonfiction. I have always written nonfiction. I am a nonfiction writer.

The 4-D Dog
by April Kelly

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Considering the number of dog owners in America, it is safe to speculate that on any given day a small percentage of the population wakes to find an unpleasant mess on the floor, as did Dylan Carter one Thursday in March. The difference between him and the others who made such a discovery that morning is Dylan did not own a dog. And he lived one hundred and twelve stories up on the card-access-only penthouse floor of the newest and tallest building in Chicago.

A year earlier, when he’d made partner in one of the most successful law firms in Illinois, Dylan believed he had added the third and final point to his golden triangle of desirability as a man. The Carter family fortune—by then laundered through four generations to cleanse it of its unsavory robber-baron origins—had ensured his privileged position in society from the day of his birth. It had also led him to view the rarified spectrum from which he would eventually select a mate as a quite narrow strip at the zenith of womankind.

A second unearned gift, that of good genetics, had made Dylan tall, well-proportioned and movie star handsome. A glance at photos of his maternal grandfather assured him he would never succumb to male-pattern baldness, and he would keep his meticulously razored hair well into old age, one day seeing it turn from black to silver.

He understood his lofty position and unlimited money could attract a top-quality woman, but the addition of incredible good looks guaranteed he could aim as high as he chose for that one perfect gem of femininity who deserved to share his life.

Making partner had fanned away any lingering whiff of the spoiled trust fund baby surrounding Dylan Carter, as he had worked hard to earn the reward on his own. Ready at last to begin an earnest search for a wife, he stopped dating the actresses, supermodels and avant-garde artists who had assisted him in sowing (without germination) the wild oats of his raging-hormones twenties, and started seriously assessing the debutantes, heiresses and royalty-adjacent European beauties who comprised the lofty plane of females in which he felt entitled to browse.

The heiress sleeping in his bed that morning when he slipped from under the covers to go make coffee had taken the reins of her family’s company at age 28, after her father had a stroke. For the six months it took him to recuperate and return, she kept things running well enough to show the old man he would not have cause to regret the lack of a son when the time came to turn over the company for good.

Paige was refined, intelligent, a Vassar grad and definitely on Dylan’s radar screen as a potential. They had sniffed each other out at galas, fund-raisers and charity 10Ks for months before having dinner at Henri last week, and their second date had ended in mutually gratifying sex the night before. Paige had checked all the right boxes on his application form for the future Mrs. Carter, Dylan thought.

Right up until his bare foot sank into a pile of excrement on his cream-colored wool Berber carpet.

The one-word expletive he cried when he looked down was singularly appropriate to the occasion. He reflexively jerked his foot up from the stinking mess, which threw him off balance so that he had to set it down again immediately to prevent falling over. This action left a perfect print of five toes and the ball of a foot rendered in umber ten inches from the mother load.

After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his outcry hadn’t woken Paige, he hopped to the kitchen on one foot, stopping in front of the sink and holding onto it with one hand while opening the cabinet below with the other. He was fairly sure Carmen stashed the cleaning supplies there.

Having never been required to wash anything other than his own body for thirty-three years, Dylan paused before the dizzying array of cans, sprayers, sponges and wipes. The bottle promising a “fresh scent of citrus” seemed just the thing to counter the foul smell wafting up from his suspended foot, so he squirted liberally before using a wad of paper towels to scour his sole.

Two more rounds of spritzing and swabbing finally satisfied him he was no longer tainted, so he carried the bottle, the roll of paper towels and the kitchen trash can out to the living room, where he knelt to do what pet owners have been doing since the first dog was allowed into the first cave.

Fifteen minutes later Dylan carried the plastic garbage bag to the chute by the elevator, returned to scrub his hands multiple times, then put up the coffee. He watched the liquid drip into the pot, unnerved by the events of the morning and, when Paige emerged from the bedroom, drawn by the aroma of Jamaican Blue, he eyed her with suspicion but dared not ask the question.

It wasn’t a story he could repeat to his colleagues at Durham, Kempe, Walliston, Finch and Carter, or to his family, but Dylan needed to vent. Luckily, Gary Delgado was free for lunch. Dylan didn’t ask his assistant to book a table at any of his usual high-end restaurants, as Gary was certain to show up wearing a tee-shirt from his eclectic collection, most likely with at least one offensive word in the humorous saying splashed across his chest. He asked Gary to meet him at Jo-Jo’s, their school days’ haunt.

They sat outside at a small metal table, its pedestal as wobbly as it had been twenty years earlier when the two had exercised their newly gained teen independence by dining al fresco on hot dogs and curly fries. The Carters had frowned on their son’s friendship with Gary. Although the children attended the same ultra-exclusive private school, the Delgado boy was on full scholarship, fluked in on the bases of scholastic achievement and high IQ, rather than the guidelines more predictive of future success: millions and millions of dollars.

Gary was one of those quirky people of whom can truly be said doesn’t live up to potential. Too scattered in his thinking to focus on a single career path, too inclined to follow every Alice down every rabbit hole, and too willing to test drive the latest club drugs, Gary earned a living doing what he called “this and that,” basically whatever held his attention right then. Several ingenious patents guaranteed a flow of income, but Gary let it accumulate in a savings account, never motivated to invest it, move it to a higher-interest resting place, or spend it on a more genteel life. He didn’t run in Dylan’s circle, but he had never aspired to, valuing the friendship despite their worlds intersecting so rarely.

After a debate over the ideal condiments for a hot dog, one that had pitted mustard and relish against ketchup and onions for two decades, Dylan recounted the story of the morning’s events. Gary, no newcomer to the world of peculiar sex practices and the wide range of strange indulged in by human beings, took the story at face value and asked Dylan if he was going to see her again.

“Oh, hells no!” Dylan’s usually impeccable communications skills always relaxed in his old friend’s company.

The last of the shared curly fries fell to the quicker fingers of the man in the business suit and the two did their backslapping good-bye, assuming a couple months would pass before they saw each other again.

That’s why Gary was so surprised by the early phone call the next morning asking him to come to Dylan’s condo ASAP. The doorman gave Gary the stink-eye, blanching when he read the tee-shirt, but allowed him in after calling Mr. Carter to verify the guest’s welcome.

Dylan threw open the door before Gary’s knock was done. “Come and take a look,” was all he said before turning and heading down the hallway. Gary shut the door and followed. The first thing he saw on entering his friend’s bedroom was Dylan, still in pajamas, pointing at the floor a few feet away. Even without the gross visual Gary would have known what was on the carpet by the disgusting smell.

“Dude, I thought you weren’t going to see her again.”

“I didn’t! I was alone all night and when I woke up, that was here.”

Gary considered this for a moment before asking, “Are you by any chance using Ambien?”

“No, why?”

“Well, some people who take it get up and eat in their sleep, and others try to drive their car. I thought maybe you could be a sleep-crapper.”

“Jeez, Gary, look at it. That’s from a dog, not a person.”

With sealed windows and only the one entry, there was no possible ingress for a canine unless it knew what code to paw into the keypad. And that’s after it talked its way past the guard.

Dylan and Gary opened every drawer, closet and cabinet. They checked the screws in the vent covers for the heat and A/C, felt along the walls for hidden seams that would indicate a secret panel or trap door. Nothing. And no sign of a dog. At the end of the two-hour search, a frustrated Dylan asked, “How is some filthy mutt getting into my condo?”

“Okay, I think we’re dealing with one of three things here,” Gary said. “A ghost dog, a canine-like alien or a dog from another dimension.” When Dylan stared at him incredulously, Gary hastened to add, “You’re right, the first two are stupid. What you have is a dog from another dimension.”

Queried as to why a dog from the fourth dimension would choose this particular condo in which to leave its three-dimensional poop, Gary pointed out they didn’t know for sure Dylan’s condo was the only one.

“And it isn’t necessarily the fourth dimension that it comes from. There are many other choices. Are you familiar with String Theory?”

When Dylan held up a hand to indicate he was not open to a physics lecture, Gary suggested he ask around to see if any of the other owners were having the same problem. Dylan couldn’t imagine how he would frame an inquiry of that sort to the chairman of the board of directors for the Chicago Symphony or the elderly widow who had founded the prestigious Cornelius Foundation.

Gary left, promising to give the problem a good, hard think. Dylan, too embarrassed to leave a note asking Carmen to dispose of the mess, cleaned it up himself. It was a humbling experience to do a job he wouldn’t ask his housekeeper to do.

For three more nights the poop fairy visited the condo, and Carmen had to add paper towels to her grocery list even though she was certain she had bought six rolls the week before. On the afternoon of the third day, Dylan’s assistant told him a Mr. Delgado was on the line.

“I think I have a fix,” Gary said. “What time do you get home?”

When Dylan’s driver stopped in front of the building, Gary was already waiting with a ten-pound bag of Purina One. The doorman didn’t dare cast a skeptical glance at the wild-haired man in the outrageous tee-shirt—Mr. Carter was among the building’s best tippers at Christmas—so when the men entered the lobby together, they were both greeted with a smile.

Once the elevator doors closed and Dylan slotted in his access card, he turned to Gary. “Dog food? I’m trying to get rid of the thing, not invite it to move in permanently.”

“Have you ever heard the old saying ‘don’t shit where you eat?’ Well, it isn’t only a morality guideline for horny businessmen.”

They filled one of Dylan’s hand-thrown ceramic pasta bowls with kibble and a second with water, then put them on a towel to protect the kitchen’s costly bamboo flooring. The next morning the food bowl was empty and the water was half-gone, but Dylan’s carpeting bore no unwanted gifts. He called Gary to tell him the ploy had been successful, but they both knew it was only a stopgap. Gary promised he was working on something more permanent.

Grocery shopping was a new experience for Dylan, but he had been unwilling to designate the buying of dog food to anyone who might ask questions. That’s why before leaving for work each morning he washed, dried and put away the two mementos of an old fling with a leggy blonde ceramicist. What Carmen didn’t know wouldn’t give her a reason to quit.

He and Gary spoke by phone several times a week, with Gary hinting he was on to something and asking Dylan to be patient. Meanwhile, Dylan fell into the routine of a dog owner, filling the large plastic bowls he had finally picked up in the pet food section of Albertson’s and setting them out every night before going to bed.

After a Friday evening wine tasting that had morphed into a serious putting-away of Grand Cru claret, Dylan came home and fell into bed without remembering to leave food and water for his invisible pet. He awoke the next morning with a hangover and a surprise on the carpet.

Five weeks after that first night deposit had disturbed his orderly existence, Dylan woke to a soft scrabbling sound coming from somewhere inside the condo. A glance at the digital clock on the nightstand told him it was 3:18 a.m., and, assuming the sound was being made by his canine visitor gobbling the kibble, he slipped from his 1200-thread-count cocoon and took a small flashlight from the drawer. He would finally get a look at the 4-D dog.

Moving silently across the carpet with the flashlight held loosely in his right hand, he exited the bedroom, deciding to leave the light off till he got to the kitchen so he could lay eyes on the dog before it had a chance to beam itself up, or whatever the hell it did to leave the condo every night. As he ninja’d his way down the wide hall, he realized the sound was not coming from the kitchen straight ahead, but from the living room to his left. Easing over to the archway that opened onto the vast sunken area dotted with leather couches, Eames chairs and Tiffany lamps, Dylan craned his neck to look inside. The tall windows that made up the west wall of his condo let in enough moonlight for him to see the empty space over the fireplace where his Matisse had hung and two very human figures taking down the Kandinsky from a multi-canvas grouping across the room.

With pounding heart he instantly knew the dog fiasco was part of an art theft scheme. He wasn’t sure how it all fit in—maybe to get him inured to sounds in the night so he wouldn’t wake up—but that had to be the answer. He was angry knowing he had been screwed with and angry his priceless paintings were being stolen, so he flipped the wall switch without considering the consequences. When light flooded the room, the two black-clad intruders dropped the Kandinsky and spun around to find Dylan bringing up his right hand.

“You! Stop!”

The first man saw a metallic glint off the flashlight and yelled, “Gun!” The second man whipped a pistol from his waistband and fired.

Thunder echoed off the high ceiling, but Dylan didn’t hear it until after the bullet had slammed him back against the wall. He slid down, pain radiating through him, as a second bullet exploded into the surface inches over his head. He watched the intruder walk toward him, weapon steady. The next shot would be the fatal one.

From the kitchen a snarling white shape launched itself at the gunman, fully airborne when it crashed into him and took him down. One shot went wild as the gun flew from the man’s hand and skidded across the floor. The second thief dived to retrieve the firearm.

Fighting to remain conscious, Dylan scrambled to his feet and made a dash for the alarm panel in his bedroom. Screaming sirens filled the condo but weren’t loud enough to cover the blast of another gunshot and an inhuman howl of pain. Knowing the building’s security team would arrive within minutes, Dylan shut and locked his bedroom door.

Gary found him in the emergency room four hours later, shortly after police detectives had taken Dylan’s statement. “Does it hurt?”

“Probably. But the drugs they gave me are working re-e-e-eally hard to prevent my knowing that.”

“The doc said you could go home, so I called Jimmy to bring your car and pick us up. I’ll stay with you and maybe try one of your happy pills.”

“Gary,” Dylan mumbled through his pharmaceutical haze. “They shot the dog. One of those scumbags shot him after he saved my life.”

“Oh, boy, those are good drugs.”

As Gary helped his friend into the tee-shirt he had brought, Dylan kept insisting the 4-D dog had come to his aid and been shot. Maybe killed. “And all to save my sorry ass.”

After Gary got his friend home and to bed, he inspected the living room. A vertical streak of dried blood on the wall next to the entry arch marked where a .38 slug had passed through Dylan’s right armpit, grazing a rib and missing the bones of the shoulder joint by inches. The forensic team had pried it out of the wall, along with the bullet that had narrowly missed his head. The third hole was high up near the ceiling across the room and Gary figured it must be from the shot Dylan had said went off as the huge white blur slammed into the gunman.

The police had found three bullets, but if Dylan was right, a fourth had gone into the dog. Gary stayed the rest of that day and night, filling food and water bowls in the evening, remembering at the last second to put down a towel to protect the floor. The kitchen floor in Gary’s own small apartment was impervious not only to water, but to anything short of a direct hit from a drone. When he checked them the next morning, the bowls were untouched.

“Knock, knock,” Gary said from the door of the bedroom.

“Did the dog come back?” Dylan asked, pushing up into a sitting position.

Gary shook his head. “No, but Paige sent a fruit and wine basket.”

“From Glendon’s.” It was a statement, not a question.

“How did you know?”

“It’s my set’s go-to place for births, deaths, weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it. Glendon’s is Walmart for rich white people.”

“Ah. When you care enough to have your assistant send the very best.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve got stuff I need to deal with. Are you going to be okay here alone?”

“Yeah. I’ll call Carmen and ask her to pick up soup from Whole Foods.” He fidgeted with the silk duvet. “I just wish I knew what happened to him.”

Gary promised to stop by the next day, and an hour later Carmen arrived to tell Dylan the breaking news on the in-house grapevine. His condo was one of three that had been targeted. All were art thefts by criminals who hacked the building’s computers to get access codes, tied up the doorman and guard, then cleared out the most valuable pieces from two other residences before breaking in to his. Everyone was talking about how brave Mr. Carter was for stopping the bad guys.

“You are like a superhero, Mr. C.”

Dylan knew the real hero had four legs, not two, and he spent his day alternately napping and worrying about the dog. As a child he had begged for one, but his father claimed allergies and his mother claimed they were inherently filthy. Dylan only now realized the carpet color he had chosen for his condo was the very same pale cream his mother had vehemently defended against her seven-year-old’s hypothetical dog.

At 9:30 that evening Dylan filled the bowls and set them on the floor, not bothering to put down a towel first. He sat next to them with his back against one of the custom cabinets that had cost him a fortune, hoping the dog would show. It was the first time in his life he had felt empathy for another living creature.

His parents had always been supportive, but in an abstract way. Cool; distant. They had expected him to be perfect and he had, for the most part, lived up to their wishes. He saw Gary only at school or on the sly, not willing to bring a friend his parents considered undesirable into their pristine world of privilege, and he now wondered if that had ever bothered Gary. Dylan had done without a pet and learned to regurgitate his mother’s views on canine filthiness like a young religious zealot raised on a steady drip of someone else’s idea of God.

Women had been nothing more than exciting toys until his decision to acquire a wife. And then he had evaluated them the way an HR person might screen candidates for a top-level position. Dylan wondered if he had ever felt love. He thought he had a few times in his twenties, but looking back he suspected the concepts of love and sex might have gotten confused. He fell asleep sitting on the kitchen floor, waking early to find the bowls still full.

Messages filled his voicemail, flowers arrived from the law firm, and three more baskets came from Glendon’s, two from the tenants whose artwork had been recovered and one from his parents. He left the messages unanswered and insisted Carmen take the flowers and baskets home to her family. His own doctor came by to check his wound and proffer a higher-grade pain med, but Dylan declined.

Gary never came as promised; instead, he called mid afternoon to say he was finishing up something important. “I have to go see a guy in Springfield right now, but I’ll swing by your place tomorrow.”

Dylan was used to his friend’s attention being diverted by one mirage or another, so he wasn’t surprised, although he would have liked the company. Facing a second lonely night, Dylan filled the food and water bowls, and began his vigil, once again falling asleep in an awkward seated position cradling his strapped-down arm. He dreamed he heard a scraping sound. A whimper. Panting.

Dylan jolted awake to find a huge white dog lying next to him. Crusted blood matted the hair on its right side, the side that faced upward, as the dog panted heavily and tried to lap from the water bowl. Each time he lifted his head, though, his muzzle bumped the bowl and it scooted forward, always staying out of reach.

Dylan tilted the bowl and held it in place while the dog slurped noisily. After getting half the water down his throat and the other half all over the bamboo floor, the dog laid his head back down with a low groan.

“Easy, boy. Easy,” Dylan said softly. He put his left hand on the dog’s neck, feeling the silky hair flatten under his reassuring strokes. The big eyes closed and the pained panting subsided into whimpering sleep.

It took numerous phone calls and the inducement of a five thousand dollar bonus above the fee, but a veterinarian finally agreed to come to the condo immediately. On the basis of Dylan’s description of the injury, the vet brought everything he needed to perform surgery on the scene with a one-armed helper. A little after four a.m. Dr. Mitchell left the condo and Dylan stroked the dog’s neck and shoulder while he waited for the anesthesia to wear off.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning pulled him from his too-short sleep. A drying smear of blood and a scattering of dog hair were the only signs an injured animal had lain on the kitchen floor a few hours earlier. The phone was in the bedroom and on his way to answer it Dylan automatically looked around for the big white dog.

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Gary announced enthusiastically.

“Well, Gare, you’d better pick up some coffee and come on over, because I’ve got a pretty unbelievable tale myself.”

Gary managed to hold still and stay quiet through the recounting of the night’s bizarre events, but the moment Dylan wrapped his story Gary was on his feet and pulling rubber bands off the rolled-up tubes of paper he had brought with him.

“The dog’s name is Bear. Short for Mr. Polar Bear.”

“How do you know that?”

“Stay with me,” Gary said, unrolling the first poster-sized sheet onto the kitchen counter and anchoring the corners with four ceramic coffee mugs he took from a wooden service tree. “This is a picture of the Chicago skyline taken from the Adler Planetarium.”

Dylan leaned in to look, but recognized almost nothing. “Are you sure?”

“You mean because you don’t see your building in the photo? That’s because this was taken on March twenty-ninth, 1933. That date ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

“Okay, what night did your caca drops begin? Never mind, I’ll tell you. March twenty-ninth.” Gary pointed to a hard-to-see object in the photo, above the skyline but far to the left. “That’s an airplane,” he said. “Specifically, a 1931 Ford Trimotor.” In rapid succession he unrolled three more large prints, slapping each one down and indicating the left-to-right path of the aircraft over the city.

The fourth photo, which should have shown the small plane directly centered above the skyline, instead featured the black, white and gray bloom of a mid air explosion.

“Three cameras were running on timers, so I have more shots of the plane blowing up, but this one’s best for our purposes.” The next large sheet he unrolled was clear acetate with only one image, that of the Clarion Tower, the building in which they were standing. When Gary laid the acetate over the photo and adjusted it so the Clarion stood in its correct position among the many skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous, the top of the building overlapped the exploding plane.

As Dylan tried to wrest some meaning from the show-and-tell, Gary took out a smaller sheet of paper, a copy of a newspaper photo. It was folded in half, and he revealed the partial image to his friend with the casual aplomb of Vanna White unveiling a consonant.

“Did the dog in your kitchen look like this one? Because he was in that plane when it blew up.”

Dangling in the air in front of Dylan’s eyes was a dead ringer for the animal he had helped operate on six hours earlier. The same blocky head and straight white hair. The same eyes that had seemingly pled for help in getting to the water bowl. Dylan knew it was the same dog, and yet he understood it couldn’t be. After teetering on a fulcrum of doubt, he came down on the side of rationality.

“If I understand you correctly, you believe a dog was flying that plane when it exploded, and now it has overcome time and death to visit my condo.”

“See, this is the tone I hate. It’s the same dismissive voice you used when I showed you the cockroach shoes I invented when I was ten.”

“They didn’t work, Gary, and you broke your ankle when you tried to climb the wall.”

“If duct tape had been as sticky back then as it is now, cockroach shoes would’ve been awesome.” He unfolded the photocopy so Dylan could see the other half. “The dog wasn’t flying the plane, she was.”

Dylan looked at the grainy image of a beautiful young woman. She and the dog leaned against each other as she held up a trophy topped with a replica of a biplane.

“Her name was Susan Quillian, but a reporter nicknamed her Suzie Q when she won the San Diego to L.A. air race in 1927.”

That was the year Charles Lindbergh made his nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, and public interest in aviation was almost manic for the next decade, with female pilots of special interest. Suzie Q and Bear became top draws at flying competitions and air shows across America, overshadowed only slightly by Amelia Earhart.

Suzie Q dazzled the crowds with Immelmanns and loop-the-loops in her de Havilland Tiger Moth, while her dog, too heavy to carry in an aerobatic routine, waited on the ground. For cross-country races she flew a four-place Stinson Detroiter and Bear rode second seat.

When she suddenly dropped out of competition three years after that win in her first race, rumors flew. One said she’d married a tycoon who forbade her from risking her life in the air. A second claimed she had a terminal illness and could no longer muster the physical stamina to fly. The most outlandish rumor, by far, was that she had been hired by Al Capone to smuggle contraband. And that one was true.

Dylan listened intently as Gary went on to tell a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnny Torrio killed his uncle, Big Jim Colosino, and took over his operation. Bootleg liquor, whores, protection—Johnny sold it all with the help of his young henchman, Al Capone.

Among the many small businesses Al and two backup thugs shook down for protection money was Angelina’s, a restaurant on the South Side owned by Joe Bartolo, a man struggling to pay off medical bills and keep up with college expenses. His wife had died of cancer in 1921 and his daughter Susan had entered Northwestern in 1923, but his restaurant was popular and he managed to stay a half step ahead of financial ruin.

All that changed when Johnny Torrio and an estimated 30 million of his closest friends retired to New York in 1925, leaving the syndicate short-funded when it passed into the hands of the ruthless Al Capone. The new boss’s first order of business was to step up income from all sources, and suddenly protection cost more than Joe Bartolo could afford. The first time he couldn’t cover the vig they smashed up Angelina’s; the second time they smashed up Joe.

“How did you learn all this?”

“You’d be surprised at the number of gangsters who wrote their memoirs once they were locked away and knew there wouldn’t be any future income from criminal acts. So, after the beating, Joe takes out an insurance policy on himself. Two months later his restaurant burns down and he dies in the fire.”

“Capone torched the place?” asked Dylan.

“Maybe. Or maybe Joe knew a suicide would negate the policy and leave his daughter with nothing so he made it look like something else. There was plenty of history to point the finger at arson and murder, courtesy of Al Capone, so the insurance company paid.”

“What happened to his daughter?”

“Now, that’s a mystery. Susan Bartolo dropped out of Northwestern at the end of her second year and disappeared, never to be seen again.” Two years later, however, a young woman named Susan Quillian appeared on the flying circuit with a pair of biplanes and a big white dog, drawing media attention with her surprise win of the San Diego to L.A. cross-country race. She courted publicity for three years, her beauty garnering it even when she didn’t win first prize. And then she quit racing and hired on with Al Capone.

“That makes no sense,” Dylan said. “Why would she go to work for the man she thought caused her father’s death? And how do you know it’s even the same girl?”

“Revenge,” Gary said with a smile. “And Joe Bartolo’s wife’s maiden name was Quillian.” Suzie Q’s good looks and minor celebrity got her in the door, where she pitched Capone the idea of ferrying cargo from place to place via plane. His trucks were getting hijacked by rivals or intercepted by G-men more often than his greedy business model allowed, so the idea appealed to him. Plus, he liked her dog.

After a few test flights with only sawdust in the sealed boxes—Capone had to make sure she wasn’t working for the feds—Suzie Q began air-muling whatever needed a safe ride from one place to another. As trucks full of contraband fell into the wrong hands once or twice a month, Suzie’s SB-1 Detroiter maintained a perfect record: on time and without loss.

“So, Capone is trusting her more and more, even upgraded her wings to a Ford Trimotor. All-aluminum body and capable of carrying a much bigger payload than the Stinson,” said Gary, getting more exited as he told the story he’d been researching for more than a month.

“What was she waiting for? Sounds like she routinely got close enough to kill him.”

“She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted to rip him off. Take the money he’d shaken her father down for, and then some.” Suzie bided her time until late March of 1933, when an armored car transporting gold ingots from Cincinnati to Philadelphia vanished without a trace. An early morning call ordered her to fly to a makeshift airfield near Cicero the next night for a pickup headed to a Montreal warehouse owned by one of Al Capone’s Canadian business associates.

A dozen men with Tommy guns guarded the grassy landing strip as the Tin Goose was loaded, first with a dummy consignment of perfectly legal items in the passenger cabin, then with nondescript 20-pound boxes that went in the hidden, drop-down cargo holds below the inner wing sections. Suzie tried to appear as disinterested in the goods as always, but she surreptitiously counted fourteen of the small wooden boxes before she was given the okay to go. She climbed into the cockpit, fired up the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines, taxied across the moonlit field and flew away, never to be seen again.

“Okay, lets say she landed somewhere, hid the gold and then took off. What I don’t buy is that a photographer just happened to be at the Adler Planetarium that morning. With his cameras coincidentally aimed at the exact spot where the plane exploded? Come on.”

“The photographer didn’t happen to be there. She hired him the previous afternoon to shoot her pre-dawn flight over the city,” said Gary. “Told him she wanted to generate some publicity to restart her flying career. What Suzie Q actually needed was proof of death so Capone wouldn’t come after her with everything he had.”

Gary had spent the day before in Springfield with the photographer’s grandson, who had grown up hearing his grandfather speak of the tragedy.

“My granddad felt terrible about the young woman dying in the explosion,” the man had told Gary. “And almost as bad that he lost her dog.”

When Gary pursued it, the man said Suzie paid his grandfather $100 to watch her dog for a week, but sometime that night Bear broke the chain that held him in the yard, jumped the fence and ran away.

“Grandpa didn’t know what he would tell her when she came back for her dog, but after he saw the plane blow up he knew she wouldn’t be coming back.”

His grandfather sold the photo to the Chicago Tribune and it made the front page, ensuring Capone would see his cargo blasted to kingdom come.

Gary and Dylan sat in silence a few minutes, then placed a phone order for Chinese. While they waited, Dylan asked, “What do you think happened?”

“I think she put a bomb on a timer and parachuted out at the last minute. It was still dark enough for a jumper to go unnoticed, especially with the fireworks elsewhere in the sky. She retrieved the gold and lived a long and happy life far away from Chicago.”

“But if your theory about some Dr. Who time tunnel is true, Bear had to have been in the plane when it blew up. Why would she take him with her if she knew that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “Maybe he found his way home that night and hid in the Trimotor. Or maybe he went to the airstrip in Cicero where they’d made so many pickups before. After the boxes were loaded, the mob guys would’ve been watching the perimeter, not the plane, and Bear might have snuck on while Suzie did her pre-flight check.”

Gary was closer to the truth than he knew. Susan Quillian had thought Bear was safe with the photographer when she made an unscheduled stop ten minutes after taking off from Cicero, but once she locked away the last of the boxes she had spent thirty minutes unloading, while she was buckling into her parachute harness, the big white dog leapt aboard and stowed away. Only as she approached Chicago had she felt the familiar wet lick on the back of her neck, and by then it was too late.

At five-feet-three and 102 pounds, Suzie couldn’t possibly carry the 90-pound dog while she parachuted to freedom. With twelve seconds left on the timer and an ache in her heart at the unfairness of it all, she hugged Bear one last time and made the hardest decision of her life.

The smell of shrimp fried rice and broccoli beef hung in the air long after Gary had gone, but Dylan left the open cartons on the counter when he went to bed. He was haunted by thoughts of poor Bear. Abandoned. Left in that plane to die. And if Gary was right, the dog had wandered in some never-never land for more than eighty years until the Clarion Tower had been completed ten months ago and a portal of some kind opened in Dylan’s condo on the anniversary of the accident. Now that the passage was open, the dog could apparently go back and forth at will between the condo and…whatever.

It was all too sci-fi and woo-woo for Dylan to wrap his mind around, and yet, Bear was real. He ate real food and shat real poop, though, thankfully, in that other place now. And a veterinarian had done actual surgery on him. Dylan tried to sleep, but pain in his armpit and worry about the big white dog kept him tossing fitfully for hours.

Sometime deep in the night he heard scuffling and a thud on the floor alongside his bed, so he inched to the edge and looked down. When he saw Bear curled up on the carpet a lump formed in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He draped his good arm over the side and tentatively put his hand on the dog’s neck. He heard a heavy sigh and, a few minutes later, untroubled snoring. Dylan stroked the silky hair until he, too, fell asleep.

Early morning light filtered through the bedroom curtains, gently coaxing him back to consciousness, but when he opened his eyes he snapped awake. Bear sat next to the bed, pink tongue hanging out and tail rhythmically thumping the floor. Standing beside the dog, scowling down at the man in bed, was the beautiful girl Dylan recognized from the grainy news photo.

“So,” she snarled. “Are you the son of a bitch who shot my dog?”

Italians call it the thunderbolt. Less creative Americans call it love at first sight. Dylan had aimed high for a wife, but he never suspected he’d find her one hundred and twelve stories above the ground.

 

Random Sample
by Alan Sincic

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

So not but a week after the funeral and this thing, this crazy thing that happens. I’m trekking through Midtown – no temp job that day – past CBS Headquarters. You know, Black Rock. You’ve seen the pictures: black as a burnt marshmallow, thirty-eight floors of granite, kind of a cross between the Tower of Sauron and that mystery slab of interplanetary licorice got the chimps so ginned up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s lunch-break at high tide, crowd so thick it tumbles out across the intersection, not in a cascade like spilled rice, but chockablock, in chunks, as if calved off a glacier where it meets the sea. Two years in the city but only now am I beginning to realize that I am not Paganini’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, the lost Rembrandt, the Flambeau a l’Orange garnished with Spears of Cilantro and imported hand-whipped Tangelo Topping. I am not a novel. No. I am a punctuation mark, a bubble, a blip in a crystalline grid. I try to sling the backpack off my shoulder but I’m pinned at the elbows and swept along, pushed up the curb and into that fresh boil of people pouring out the building. Somewhere down here beneath my (bobbing-along-with-the-other-heads) head, down below this sea of shoulders rocking back and forth in the sun, the bottom half of my body surrenders to the tide.

Say you take the state of Texas, shake the cattle loose, and then fold it in half. Then in half again, then again and again however many times till you get all those millions of people stacked up on top of one another –you know, vertically integrated, some billion bullion cubes all pounded down into a hunk of rock you plop, drop into the middle of this river where it meets the sea. That’s Manhattan. A modernified version of the Lone Star State with all the wilderness sucked out of the equation – all them buffalo and jackalope and armadillo sledge-hammered down into a slab of spam, all them cow-pokes and strip clubs and alfalfa silos sucked up into a teaspoon of subatomic niblets, like on the surface of a neutron star. Bracing. Breath-taking. And – since you can pack, per square inch, more tuna into a tin than you can into an ocean – the height of efficiency.

Cowabunga, right? Unless you happen to be the tuna. A fat guy in a pinstripe suit – you know, all buttoned up like a Christmas ham – stops to hail a cab, rocks backward, body-checks me into a pretzel stand. Flash of perfume as I rebound again, as I bump another soft-as-a-blossom secretary, impale myself on the heels she carries to wear at the office, rebound back into the billion-legged crush.

I trip over a cardboard suitcase looped shut with a belt, bumper past the kid on guard above it. Skinny kid, Nigerian or Haitian, slipped like a coat hanger into some kind of skid row polyester Zoot Suit. Bare ankles, beat-up old Oxford Wingtips, packing twine for laces. Smells like a bouquet of wet cardboard. He climbs up onto a fire hydrant to hawk his wares. A head taller than the crowd now, he whips his hands up into the air as if to stir it.

“Um-brel-lah, um-brel-lah, two dollah, two dollah…”

It starts to rain.

“… um-brel-lah, three dollah, three dollah, um-brel-lah…”

I can’t seem to unstick myself from the shoulders of the people around me. Wildebeest stampeding up a riverbank, that’s what we are — I think as I break stride, as I fall back a step — meals on wheels. And that’s when the guy with the clipboard hooks me by the sleeve. You’ve seen the documentary. It’s always the infant, the aged, the injured the croc strikes first. Says he’s got tickets to a show — focus group screening, CBS sitcom, invitation only.

Invitation? For me? Population of a whole village flits by in the second it takes me to scratch my nose. The earth skids on another thousand miles through the black. The odds are astronomical. That I should be the one grain of pollen plucked out of this avalanche and held aloft for all to see, that I should find myself a member of that most exclusive of all clubs, the Random Sample?

“Got your ticket right here.” He tilts the clipboard to show me the goods, slides his thumb back and forth across the CBS logo pressed into the linen bond. “Free.”

The rest of the group he’s already assembled, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème who follow him out the crowd and into this alley, this cut-out between the skyscrapers. Grammy and Pops in the lead, knuckles all a-tremble as they toddle up the curb, as they clack-clack-clack together like a set of salt and pepper shakers; behind them, this Mommy/Baby combo with a hand-woven sling, all cinnamon-twisty-ed together into a tight little pastry; then ground zero, yours truly; then this big block of a guy in work boots and blue khakis, followed by a batch of chub-a-tubby middle-agers, snapped and clipped and velcroed together into swatches and sweats and elasticized fanny packs that vibrate when they walk, then the rearguard, the typical city fare — potpourri of tourists in sunhats and shades and lemon-yellow sneakers, all gaping up at that crust of sky between the rooftops as if Jesus himself were about to jump.

We gather in the shade of the tower.

“Watch your step,” says Clippy, and then: “Oh.” Everybody stops. He glances down at the torn leather jacket slung over my shoulder. “And don’t forget to leave the motorcycle behind.” This gets a laugh.

“I don’t have a motorcycle,” I say.

“Looks like helmet hair to me.” He reconnoiters the fizz, the frozen explosion up over my ears. “My mistake.”

“Bomber jacket,” I say.

“Fifth Avenue. That’s where we park the bombers.”

The group laughs – no. Strike that. Explodes. Brick through a bay window, laugh inside of the center of which I stand. I smile. Clippy pirouettes slowly inside this stir that he’s created, pushes open the wrought iron gate, ushers us inside. I smile. I picture those teddy bear mascots truckers decorate their rigs with. I picture Clippy stripped to his skivvies, bungee-corded to the grill, crispy-crittered right up to his little button eyes with insects and tar bits and random flecks of roadkill. I smile.

As we shuffle down the walk, one of the tourists, lady with dogs on her shirt, friendlies up to me.

“Are you from around hee-er?” The dogs are purebreds, all the top flavors and not cartoon dogs either, but serious, intent, like the presidents on the dollar bills. “You look like you’re from around hee-er.”

Mee-chigan’s where she’s from, land of the squashed e. Into my eyes is where she looks but I look down at the bulldog on her collar, at Winston Churchill there glaring back at me. President Churchill.

“Well, yes. I mean…” I spend so much time alone now I tend to fumble the small talk. Note to self: stop leaving notes to self. “I mean, no.”

“No? Not from hee-er?”

Not the same here, her here and my here. In China they sing-song ten different meanings from out the very same word. It’s all in the pitch. And you gotta warm up first. And God help the tone deaf. The roast shoe. I will have the roast shoe.

“What I mean is, not exactly here.”

“But around hee-er?”

She’s thinking up the hill over yonder by the Mill Pond. At twelve hundred bucks a square foot I’m thinking, just the imprint of my shoelace hee-er would set me back a month’s pay. “No not here, but from the city, sure. Upper West Side.”

“Oh.” She cocks her head to one side and smiles up at me. Too old to flirt now – you know, the big eyes, the head toss, the tumble hair that girls deploy to win the hearts of men – but not too old to work the smile, to squeeze out that last little drop of charm.

“Step it up now,” says Clippy as he unlocks another gate and then plunges us, one by one, through a big brass revolving door and into an empty lobby. Strike that. Lobby filled with air. Black arches booming up and – as in a cathedral – out across the cavern to meet the black granite girders overhead.

“The West Side… ?” She smiles and glances up at the ribs of steel that hold the skylights in place, the chunks of cloud that go skidding by. “The West Side. Which way is that?”

“The Upper West Side.” I lift my hand into the pointing position. Tough to find a landmark when you’ve got no land to mark. We could be in Uruguay for all I know. I turn back to Pedigree, wave in the general direction of the sun. “Up that way. That’s where I live.”

“By yourself?”

“No, no. A bunch of us share – ”

“You look so young.”

Again she smiles. I redden. I open my mouth to say… what? That I don’t look young? That I’ll try, that I should aim to be… what? More older? I smell the sunblock on her cheeks as she steps closer, count the spikes of gray in her hair. Kind of motherly-looking, verging on grandmotherly, but not so bad to look at probably, back in the day, you know, when her skin fit, when gravity was her friend, when the men would all triangulate her position on the xyz coordinates.

“But that’s okay,” she whispers. She pats me on the sleeve – more like an airbrush than a touch – as she glances up into my eyes. “I think it’s sweet.”

Sweet. Sweet is what girls call you when they pinch you between their thumb and forefinger and dust you off into their cappuccino. Sweet is what motherly women call you when they dab at the whiskey stain on your tie and promise to fix you up with somebody intrepid, the magic word that shrinks you down to HO scale so you can be hot glued onto somebody else’s train set.

“Here,” she says. “You could use this.” She’s holding up a discount card, the kind they stick under hotel doorways. “It’s a two-for-one. You get a dozen bagels. For free.”

“H&H.”

“Pardon?”

“Up by me. Best bagels in town.”

“That’s perfect then.”

“But you should – ”

“No-no. We’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“But you could – ”

“No-no. I want you to have it. You and your friends could – here.”

She cups my hand from underneath, pries the fingers open, presses the card into my palm.

“You and your friends – ”

“We’ll have a bagel party. Thanks.”

I pocket the card, try to picture myself with friends. Sweet she calls me. And they say cattle don’t mind being branded? I know you’re supposed to smile when somebody calls you sweet. I get it. I smile. Smile but on the inside I buzz like a beehive whacked with a stick. Back in second grade again is what I am, propped up on a window ledge outside Miss Conner’s room, varnished in sweat, squirming with chiggers, garnished with Cheeto dust and sandspurs and a speckling of gnats, scab on my knee curling up like a radish peel and, head-to-toe, basted with a hand-dipped mélange of mucilage, play dough, asphalt, pine sap, creosote, Kool-Aid, Six-12, sour milk, fig Newton, chalk dust and snot. Miss Conner reaches up to brush the flecks of candy corn from my hair. “You are just the sweetest boy.”

Spoiled for life. Haunted by the notion that there lives in me a sweetness that I am somehow answerable for. I see it in other people all the time. We’ve all of us got the curse. We are each of us convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the sweetest piece of real estate in the universe can be found somewhere – if only we could find it – tucked inside of ourselves. And that would be… where, exactly? Childhood gone and nothing to show for it, youth half spent, the moment here gathered in a sieve. Where did the sweetness go?

There’s a jam-up back at the revolving door. Grandma’s got her tote bag stuck between the curve of the glass and the rubber sleeve of the doorframe.

“Stay put,” says Clippy as he hustles out a side door. The crowd stirs. A pudgy little tourist presses through with the hubby in tow. She bobs up out the chop like a buoy, hefty and plush and orbicular, the both of them in their marshmallowy sneaks and pumpkiny jog-togs like bread on the rise, like bumpers, the Bumper Twins, to clear the way for Grandma.

Grandma tugs at the strap. Still got it hooked to her elbow, yanks like she’s snagged it on a folding lawn chair and not a billion ton monolith. There’s this blocky guy in Bermuda shorts, got his hand wedged in the rubbery flap. Grunts. Grunts again. “Don’t touch the door,” he says, cuts through the din with this splintery voice, raw, brass horn with a blown valve. “Don’t push!” Red’s the word for this guy – buzz cut blonde, Rolex the size of a Mayan sundial, fat calf in a quiver up out of that genuine leather moccasin.

Somebody jolts me from behind. Just get a glimpse as he flashes by. Slim guy. Tall. His T-shirt smells of grilled onions and cold beer. He’s got a face like a broken cookie and a strange little hitch to his walk, as if all those years in the sun had warped him right down to the chassis.

“Stand back! Everybody stand back!” says Red, but the tall guy he slides in there, smooth-like, to unravel Grandma’s elbow. He skates her out the way and then fierce – like you crack a whip – yanks the bag free. Whoa. Grandpa drops the umbrella he’s been pointing with. Tall Guy picks it up, swirls it back together with a twist of his fingers, hands Grandma her bag, Grandpa his umbrella. A cocktail umbrella is what they really need, you know – delicate, like a blossom, like they should be floating in a little thumb-sized outrigger at the bottom of a Mai-Tai.

Something about the height of the dome, the emptiness, the echo of the hubbub unsettles me. I skirt the edges, slip out of sight into gap between the pillars, out between the ribs of the dome and into a little anteroom no bigger than a pantry. I slide up onto a metal stool, the only seat. Just room enough for a window, window sill, radiator box – wood-framed and white-washed, all of it, even the glass even, like a sheet of spilled milk. The paint puckers where the sun hits the glass but on the inside, in the chalky light that stirs the shade, it’s cool.

While the others bustle around I drop the pack and slide the bomber jacket up over my shoulders to drape it there… you know, the sleeves empty, my body the hanger. Then, with my hands on the lapels, I slide down into the hollow of the coat itself, just so, like people when it rains, you know, caught out in the open, they pull the jacket like a cowl up over the head? Anybody sees me I pretend, oh, just shaking off the rain is all.

The seams of the leather, rough where the lining used to be, rake up over my cheekbones and, well, raw would be the word it, this stupid jacket. Portable glory is what Dad called it. V-E Day he swapped a Lugar for it. What the Bombardier wanted was a bona fide (beyond the flack in his thighbone) piece of Kraut memorabilia, whereas Dad – having busted his nuts across the hedgerows of Normandy – wanted something more poetical than a hunk of steel. “Besides,” he said as we waited for the bus to steal me off to college, “if you want to be more than a grunt, if you want the girls to picture you, you know…” – he gestured up at the clouds, openhanded sweep like you brush the flanks of a horse – “… you gotta look the part.” Damn straight. Don’t have to fly to look like a flyer is what he meant, is how he pictured himself. All leathery and buff as he rainbows up over the horizon. But that’s my old man for you. Was my old man. Not so big on words, no. Clapped his arm up over my shoulders and, so as not to embarrass me, looked out to where (and for the same reason) I was looking: the burst of red neon up there on the pillar where the buses converge, the leap of the greyhound up out of the gate. Talk about awkward, but hell. Sometimes just not moving, just standing there where you stand, that’d be an action, right? And then the bus came, and then he hesitated, and then – I could tell it was the impulse of the moment – stripped off his jacket. “Don’t worry,” he said as he tossed it up over my head like a serape. “You’ll grow into it.”

The radiator smells like the underside of a pier. I loosen my grip on the jacket, drop it back over my shoulders.

“Restrooms this way,” says Clippy off to the far side, the group at his heels, clipboard clap-clapping his squidgetty hips in a march up the steps to a little mezzanine.  “Ten minutes.”

I don’t even notice, at first, that the jacket’s fallen, so lost am I in whatever this is that I’m lost inside of, this little patch of darkness I portage around with me. You wouldn’t know trouble if it pooped in your pocket is what he used to say. Talk about a eulogy. Or on the gravestone, yeah. That would’ve gotten him. He would’ve laughed at that. I press my palms up into my face, palms like a parenthesis, wait for the wave to pass. I reach down for the jacket, and now when I stoop I see, up under the ledge there, where the stone window sill lips out over the radiator box, just room enough to slide a hand, this little packet. I reach in, pinch the edges, pull it out into the light: Chocolate bar the size of a shingle, shiny and smooth and slippery-ed up onto the cover of an old magazine—Dungeons and Dragons, Issue 27. “Top Ten Spells” it says. “Killer Moves.” “Dazzle Your Team.” The cover shot’s a big black and red volcano that bubbles over with a molten gold that, as it spills down the flanks, spells out, “Secrets of the Elvin Horde.”

I’m trying to imagine what kind of old ex-cop security guard would stock the bunker with all this Medieval geekery and, at the same time, a slab of Ghirardelli’s 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Intense Dark Chocolate. Pocket handkerchief guy, I’m guessing. Crispy boutonniere. Sings opera in the shower. Shines up his bullets every night with linseed oil and a clean shammy cloth. And treats himself to… now that’s odd. The bar looks intact, but half the chocolate’s gone. The hollow wrapper’s been nicely – primly, that would be the word – slid back into the sleeve. Not a crease or even a dent in the foil, as if the missing half had – like the mysterious hollow you get sometimes in the center of a malted milk ball – simply evaporated out into the universe at large. Almost magical… I think as I liberate the last of the chocolate, ease the foil back into the wrapper and, just as primly, slip the magazine and the wrapper back into their little crevasse… Like an offering to the gods.

Clippy’s voice echoes out from behind the columns as the herd migrates into my territory, the Bumper Twins in the lead. “… And even though, in the pre-war era, it was radio that dominated the airwaves…”

This must be the ceremonial entrance. Outside around the block, on the other side of the building, the CBSer’s – the people who pump out the product – buzz back and forth en mass through an archway the size of an airport hanger. All that bustle. All that fizz, fizz that fills the airwaves from one end of the continent to the other. Empire of the Air is what they call it.

I gather my pack, slide off the stool, and (gingerly, as if on ice) step back onto the flagstone. Here we are in the still center of the empire, the Westminster Abby of the Broadcasting Imperium. I look for the plaques of bronze upon the walls, the urns of all the old guard stashed underfoot, the bones bricked over. You know, splinters from the cross: toenail clippings from Rin-Tin-Tin; Ed Sullivan baked into a flying buttress; Lassie’s ashes and Lucy’s red locks and Edward R. Murrow finally stubbed out, grinded down into an ashcan no bigger than a coffee mug and stuffed like a potato up under the granite pavers.

“… because here at the CBS family of broadcasting affiliates,” says the disembodied voice of Clippy as they go trip-tropping along the rim. “We’ve always looked upon our little slice of the TV dial as a public trust…”

Nothing. Sleek as a silo but for one thing. All by itself under the dome stands a bust on a pedestal. As the shadows strike it, the face – burnt by the years to a darker bronze – falls away. All but the nose. The nose is gleaming. So many people have touched – keep touching – the nose, that that’s the only part that still shines. Poor bastard, nose up there all aglow like a priest with a couple rum toddies under his belt. Guy spends his whole life mapping the Northwest Passage or nailing the Triple-Lutz in the tucked position, and all we get in the end is the tip of the nose, this little nibble, this little chip of light.

Like back in the days of the vacuum tube, when you’d click on the set and ping, out of the darkness would pop – like the blip that set the big bang in motion – this little chunk of punctuation, this white dot that’d flatten out, squish down, shoot off to the left and to the right in a single line, sharp as a laser, to cut the void in half. The screen would hum. You’d lean in. The line would flutter and then – boom – spring open like a Jack-In-The-Box with a whole new universe inside.

“Please don’t touch the artwork,” Clippy calls out from his perch on the stool I’d just abandoned, the group all gathered around him, his voice a perfect blend of melodious nanny and puppy-peed-on-the-carpet-again fatalism. All eyes on me.

“It looks like – ” My thumb’s already there, so I scratch the itch, give the nose a rub.

“Walter Cronkite.”

“That’s it. Cronkite. Walter Cronkite. Wasn’t he – ”

“Thirty thousand tons of granite went into the construction of this dome,” says Clippy as he turns away and swings hippo-like down from the stool, heavy but at the same time precise, as if he were, one step at a time, embossing the pavement with a sign of his passing. The group looks up as he points to the pillars of sunlight overhead, at this majesty to which I have already contributed my 00.00004371 percent. “The support beams and the cladding, both. Granite, all granite.”

He shoulders through the thick brass door that swings out into the booming lobby. The group sweeps in behind him. “Welcome to CBS.”

As they disappear through the doorway, I glance back at the bust, blink and blink again, try to match the face fixed there with that animated flipbook of Cronkite we’ve all assembled from years of viewing. Like a frozen waterfall, that bust.

I hustle up behind Pedigree as we skirt the edge of the lobby – buzzing with traffic, big enough to berth a dirigible – past a big black reception desk, then on to a black marble elevator marked Employees Only.

I squeeze in just as the door closes. Belly to belly. Up into the clouds we go. Clippy tracks the light as it slowly pings across the numbered squares above us. It is his job to will the machine upwards. He tries to turn so it’s my elbow and not my belly-button rub-a-dub-dubbing up against him, but Grammy and Pops, immovable as stalagmites, hold him in check. He looks down. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clippy stops smiling. No sign he’s anything less than thrilled to be inhaling the same air as me, but I can’t help but notice he seems to be strangely fixed, not on me, but on the little shards of Twilight Delight rappelling down the snow-colored slopes of my Kmart Ban-Lon double-knit shirt. The clipboard crackles under the pressure of his thumbs. The papers – rosters, carbons, flyers, maps – all warp up into a fat sandwich in the center of which glints the spine of a glossy magazine, red and gold, color of the Elvin King.

The door opens and he pushes past me. Off we go again, past another black marble desk only this time smaller, as if scaled down – a base camp on Everest – to fit the higher altitude. Clippy’s picking up speed but I stay with him, pin myself to his shoulder, down the corridors, offices, cubicles… broom closets and fuse boxes… air ducts and indentations and architectural punctuation marks that continue to shrink as we wind our way in toward the tower’s center, toward the heart of the realm.

At last… a boardroom. Of a sort. Instead of a table there’s a batch of chairs laid out not in rows, but in a grid, like a marching band at parade rest. If rest is the word for it. The whole place has got that reconstruction-of-a-downed-jetliner feel to it: half the paneling shucked away; raw plasterboard mottled with plumbing specs and blueprints; autographed headshots of the old guard – Perry Como, Snooky Lanson, Tommy Leonardi – pitched (cracked frames and all) up onto a pallet of floor tiles in the corner. I glance up at the two survivors (too high to reach without a ladder) that cap the doorway. Arthur Godfrey strumming a ukulele (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine) and Eydie Gorme (Love ya, Kid) taking her bouffant out for a walk, eyes kicked up to high beam, smile singing out with an equal and infinite love for all that she surveys: me and Clippy and the gang, that T-Square rammed down a tube of old wall-paper samples, that paint can petrified shut, that Post-It flaking off the ceiling fixture, those wires shooting up out the floorboards, webbing out in every direction, thick as a wrist, industrial, juice enough to set a casino ablaze.

“Watch your step now – by next week all of this will be fully computerized, top of the line, IBM, everything.”

Half the group’s already surged around him to grab the bucket-style swivel chairs. Nice touch. Homey. Fake leather padding on a plastic frame, snug but not too comfy, like an airport lounge or the lobby of a Volkswagen dealership. So much for the Tiffany Network. The ambiance here? More Happy Hour at a Scranton bowling alley than, say –given the scale of Paley’s estate – high tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I try to scope out a seat down front, but… where is the screen? Here at the top network in the top city in the – from the Mammoth-bone condo to the Lunar Lander – top of the top country that ever was? Where’s the secret revolving wall activated with a flick of 007’s sterling silver lighter, the geometrically arrayed like-the-eyes-of-an-insect multiple monitors, the itty-bitty Jetson-style personal display pods levitating up out of the floorboards?

“Find a seat quickly please.”

Clippy flips aside a bolt of Vis-Queen to reveal what, at first glance, looks like a chunk of mahogany the size of a steamer trunk. He swivels it around to face us. A box TV, smuggled out the lobby of a Holiday Inn or the living room of some upscale Baltimore dentist, about as flashy as a wheel of government cheese.

Not that I’m disappointed. Hey, Genghis Khan slept in a yurt with a goat nibbling at his toes. Enrico Fermi split the atom in a pilfered squash court. Even Neil Armstrong peed in a diaper on his way to the moon.

I scoot up onto a padded leather bistro stool at the back of the room.

Clippy steps up. “That’s my seat.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

I wait for an explanation. Clippy’s eyes land on this patch of plaster behind me, as if it was a map of Gaul, and he was Caesar, and I was a bucket of horseshoes. But I’m getting good at this now. I pause. I wait… just long enough to make him wonder what the code for Security is… then slide off the stool with a look of love in my eyes.

“If it’ll make you happy.”

There’s a seat up there by Tall Guy and Pedigree’s apple dumpling of a husband. And that’s when I first notice it – what I’ve been trying to tell you about. Out of every armrest of every chair sprouts a white cable with a bud on the top, also white, like the bud of a lily. Clippy tells us that, see, inside that bud’s this button you push. You wrap the bud in your fist as you sit in the chair – one bud for the right hand and one bud for the left. Red button in the left fist, green button in the right. Like this – see? Both hands at the ready, now… thumbs up. I hold my fists out in front of me, as if expecting someone else to do the choosing… one potato, two potato, three potato, four.

“So long as you like the show,” whispers Clippy with a hand on my shoulder, “press the green button. Don’t like? Press the red button.”

“Hold it down or just press it, punch it?”

“Hold it down.”

“The whole time.”

“The whole time you’re liking it.”

“Like, starting when?”

“From when you first start to like it.”

“But then when I… ”

“When you stop liking it, then stop pressing down, see? When you don’t like it, whenever you’re not liking it, press down on the red button.”

“But if I’m not sure… ”

“You decide. Red or green.”

“Absolutely. But – ”

“Let’s begin.”

He clicks on the video. Flint to the fire. Moonrise over Olduvai Gorge. What gang of chimps ever squatted so still as we do now, waiting in the dark for that glow to begin?

Up comes the opening logo, the big CBS eye. You know they ripped that thing off the Shakers? The Eye of God. Tack it up over your barn door to zap the horseflies. Blast the sinners out from under the rocks, scrub down the righteous with bristles of light. That was back in the day when you couldn’t peel an orange without – you, oops, you pop an earlobe off the Blessed Virgin Mary there glaring up at you from out the pulp. The warble of an angel in the crank of a drill. Holy Ghost on a graham cracker. Jesus God Almighty breaching out the smokehouse chimney, thrashing his way upwards, hand over hand, straight up into that pillar of cloud. Dog paddle. Backstroke. Australian crawl. Believe. Show me that you believe. The Eye of God commands it.

I mash down on the green button.

Tall Guy, he doesn’t miss much. Glances over at my fist, back at the screen, back at me again. The others start to look at their fists, back to Clippy, back to me. Am I breaking the rules? Clippy slides from his stool and makes his way down the aisle.

Now when I mash down on the green, am I telling the universe that yes, this one mouthful of air, this one here, tastes good? Thumbs up? My compliments to the chef? But then the next breath. Do I release the button to vote again or do I… what? Say yes to the breath that I’ve yet to take? I look back at the Eye of God. Does it deserve the green button? Has it earned its place in the great, grand, unscramble-able gumbo of life? So it’s not Joey Heatherton in a white string bikini, Brooks Robinson spearing a line drive, no, but compared to the fleck of guacamole embedded in the beard of Mr. Tourist over there, the cracked yellow toenail of Grandma Moses over here, the empty jacket here I navigate from place to place?

The logo evaporates just as Clippy reaches me. The screen’s dark now. Nice touch. Clears the palette. I give it a green. Then the show begins. Lights, music, titles. Everybody gathers up their buttons, both hands at the ready. Balancing a tray of breakables is what they’re doing. Green. Red. Red. Green. What will it be?

Me? Green. The green party. Go green go.

Funny thing. Don’t recall much about the show itself. Not a bad show. Big Irish-American family. Lots of freckles. Big kitchen. Neighbors popping in, popping out. Incredible, the grooming, everybody – not a zit, not a smudge, not the faintest beetling of an unplucked brow. You’d think they had a whole battalion of people just outside the door to dust the crumbs from off of their Dockers, flick the lint from the fringe of their leg-warmers, pump the hair back up to the maximum recommended PSI.

I try to pick up on the plot. Teenage daughter’s got a crush on the Pope. Or something. Hard to keep it all between the crosshairs what with Clippy just over my shoulder, marinating the air with his invisible ions.

I keep thinking about the difference between the room that we’re in and the room that they – the TV people – are in. In their room, everybody’s all chipper and firm. They know exactly what they want and they’re not afraid to say so. Even when they get angry they do it in a cute way, as in Look at me. Am I not making a spectacle of myself, rascal that I am, carving this turkey with a penknife? And all because the (don’t say a word!) Lumberjack 5000 Electra-Glide Poultry Sword you got me for Christmas just (I am so steamed!) electra-glided clean through its own power cable! This is the kind of anger we like to see. Anger with a punch line, anger you can count on. Not like you’re going to come down in the morning to find the furniture all busted up and spaghetti on the ceiling.

But that’s not all. In their room, every time somebody opens his mouth, there’s laughter. Laughter comes vibrating out the pores of the walls of the room itself. It’s like they’re all living on the inside of some giant percussion instrument somebody keeps striking and striking, over and over again, like a gong.

Okay. So tickle it all, right down to the atoms, but – or so they say – you can’t have the laughter without the tears, sunshine without rain, mammals without 3,000 kiloton asteroid impacts at the tail end of the Cretaceous. So I wait. I lean in. I tilt my head but… so far the only sad things that happen are sad in a cute kind of way. Baby turtle gets flushed down the toilet and goes to heaven. Dad buys a tin of shoe polish to hide the bald spot on the top of his head, but it’s a dye. It’s permanent. And it’s cerulean blue, crest of a cockatiel from the rain forests of Brazil. If only he had a hat like the Pope wears! Again the laughter, but surely there must be a sniffle now, say maybe somewhere just under the surface – sliver of dark chocolate, say, just poking out from under the Crème Brule? Say Grandma gets a boyfriend who dumps her for a younger oldster and she – love on the rebound – decides to hit on a younger man: distinguished, hand-carved mahogany cane, full set of dentures, night watchman down at the fish factory. Who turns out to be gay. Or something. And in love with the Pope. Or something. Bittersweet.

But not here, not now, no. Candles on a cake that’ll never be blown out, that’s what these people are, complete opposite of what you get in the movies nowadays, where like a billion bucks they spend to get the costumes all dustied up, to get that old weathered look, to make it look real. They even pay a costumer to wail away at every stitch of clothing – scuff and tear, scratch and pound, bleach and stain and smear to make the shirt sweat, the pants buckle, the shoes crackle with grit. Professionally distressed is what they call it. And all the while us amateurs out here in the seats, we do it all for free – no camera, no script, no score beyond the sound of our own breathing.

Two handed I’m pressing now, green green as I hunker down, elbows on my knees. Labor of love is what it is, is why we do it. Been wailing away at ourselves for decades now, see, shoes and clothes and teeth and hair – even the bones that hold it all together. And not just Ma and Pa Brittle back there, kiln fired down the years into a pair of porcelain miniatures, no, but all of us. Pedigree all rigid from the strain of smiling as she helps the oldsters press the buttons, eyes bright as candy but the skin, when she squints, crimped at the edges like a cellophane wrapper. And the Bumpers as they lean out over the pair to whisper advice – plumping at the edges, ripening into middle age, oozing out the cracks in their Ken and Barbie exer-wear. As the center of the universe, honeypot at the heart of the piñata, I should be the exception but – cuffed up into the coat of a cow (alas, as they say, no longer with us) – I’m not. And neither is Big Red there as he cocks one fist and then the other Rock’em Sock’em Robot style, right-left, right-right-left as he grips the buttons, as he banks like a skier with the poles tucked, as he burns himself red from the inside out.

From the inside, from the outside, every last one of us we’re burning up, quick like a blaze or slow like a smolder, or cold even, cold like rust, or like fruit, when it ripens, ever so slow, as if there were no end to it, ever, as if nothing that ever ripens will ever die. Clippy pretends otherwise, sure – churns down the aisle to take charge, reaches up to brush a hand through a shock of hair that vanished decades ago, but ripe is what he is, ripe as the pinkish out-of-towers slowly melting into the upholstery, ripe as Tall Guy (Bristlecone pine is what he is), scored by the wind to a twist of iron, all askew, ropey scar down the hollowy cheek. Ripe even as the mother there, buoyant as a plum, rubbing at the crease on her brow as if the palm of her hand were an eraser.

My thumb’s beginning to hurt.

“Sir…” It’s a man’s voice. “Sir…” Clippy leans over to insert this wedge of a word, this sir, straight down into the cleft of my cerebrum. “Sir. You can’t just press down on the green.”

“What do you mean I can’t? I’m doing it.”

“That’s not the way it works.”

“I don’t get to do the button, then?”

“The purpose of the button is to judge the show.”

“Then I get to do the button, then.”

“Yes. But the show…”

I half-point, half-shrug in the direction of the show. But no, the show’s… it’s the screen now, the screen that’s empty but… no. Static. It’s filled with static. Ok. Ok. So I’ve been voting for air.

“So…”

“I know how the buttons work,” I say.

“Good.”

“Okay.”

Clippy’s face flickers on and off in the light of the static. His smile never leaves him but he seems frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, something that involves me. They say you face off against a bear in the woods, you should mirror the bear’s behavior. Or something. Or the opposite maybe. Or maybe I’m the bear and he’s the…

He looks down at my right hand, then back up to meet my gaze.

“Okay. So. So now you have to take your finger off of the button.”

I look down. I’m surprised to discover that I am still pressing the green button. He gives me that raised brow, that toothy smile of his, glaze of a cake in a glass counter, polyurethane all the way. Some people, it’s not enough to smack them. You want everybody to smack them. You wake the family, you sent out the invitations, you catapult the signal flares up over the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

“You see what I’m saying,” he says.

I don’t say a word. I hold up my fist, cable trailing, and stir it in a gentle semi-circle, as if I’d just captured a handful of fireflies and were trying to count them by feel alone.

“You can take your finger off,” he says. “Take your finger off of the button.”

“What for?”

“I just said.”

“But I’m judging the show.”

“But you gotta – here.”

He grabs my fist with both hands. I clench it tighter.

“You gotta…” He tries to pry my thumb loose, but I’m a ballplayer. I do push-ups on my fingertips.

“No. Just let me…” Poor Clippy. The people look up. He’s got one hand around my wrist and the other clawing away at the thumb and they’re all thinking… what? Hillbilly manicure? Finger puppet of the damned? He doesn’t even notice the rest of me now, so intent is he on the thumb. And not a one of us – unless you call rhythmic grunting a conversational gambit – uttering a word.

Even the air itself falls silent. The set hums like a tuning fork. A test pattern pops up on the screen: chief in a headdress smack in the crosshairs of some kind of giant rifle scope, all these other targets sprinkled out around him like consolation prizes. I hear the others creaking up out of their seats, a gasp or two, a woman’s voice in the shape of an oh -– but not a word, a real word anywhere, as if the whole thing’s taking place in this gap between the words, the regular words we use to talk about regular things.

Fist in a bowl of cake batter is what it feels like, Clippy’s fat hands clamped around mine, the hinge of the elbow that hooks me up under the chin, barrel of a belly that presses up into the curve of my spine, bends me like a bow, the both of us twisty-tied up into this little hydraulic mambo.

Like Mama always said – it’s the personal touch that counts, right? And not such a bad-looking guy after all, Clippy, when you get him up close, get a good feel – the brawler’s clinch, the sandpaper kiss – for that face of his, the real one I mean, handsome in a balloonish sort of way, like they took the master and packed it up for shipping and what we got now is the batting – not Elvis the whippet but Elvis at the end, you know, spatula-ed up into that white buckskin jumpsuit with the Liberace tassels and the too-late-by-a-decade Beatle cut. Crisco Elvis.

And like Elvis, alas, calling out to the crowd from under that rhythmic kiloton of ballistic gel, Clippy calls out to me as I burrow my way through the folds of his neck, as I acupressure his spleen with the blade of my elbow, chisel my way up under the buttons of his perma-press blazer and into his secret self, the real Clippy, the cat hair stuck to the tie-clip, the bourbon on the breath, the pierced ear that waits, at the end of the day, for the talisman – paper clip? Golf tee? Cameo singlet of Evel Knievel? – to appear. Clippy, oh Clippy, who waddles home to dream… what? A Zeppelin? A sub? A house in a cloud, a house in a tree, an ancient cedar maybe, tall as a tower, high above a bay where the condor wheels and the water breaks?

The set – the whole room now – flickers like a damp cigar. Tall Guy tries to shuck him loose. And still I keep my fingers locked on the green. The wires rip and the chair pitches over, but to me it’s all about the hand. I think of this cheesy King Kong I saw as a kid. Not the one thumping his chest and smacking fighter planes upside the Empire State Building, no, but a poor man’s Kong, bobbed up one Saturday out of that weekly stew of black and white B-movie chillers on Channel 9’s “Theatre X” – The Deadly Shrew, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Hand Of… something. Doom maybe. Crazy flick about a chopped-off hand crawling through a mansion turning doorknobs and playing Mozart on the baby grand and throttling all the houseguests. Awesome pics. Every last one. But Son of Kong is the one I’m talking about. Cheap sets. Goofy special effects. And actors you never heard of even, stars who, as the credits unroll, as their fame evaporates in the California sun, veer off into cigarette commercials and puppet theater and Fresno real estate brokerages. But still. In this movie Kong, he never gets off the island, but you still get the girl in the slinky dress, kind of satinish-white, some kind of haute couture jungle jammies, you know, with the nipple-sharp darts, and Kong’s got a hold of her at the end as the island – I don’t remember why, volcano or something – sinks into the sea. He holds her up in his hand, up over his head as the rest of him disappears under the water. Nothing left now but the giant hand with the pretty girl inside it. Hero comes by in a rowboat to rescue her, but it’s Kong, he’s the hero, the dopey ape. He’s drowning but still, still he manages to save her.

Not that I’m exactly thinking all this in the two-point-five seconds it takes Clippy to jujutsu me over his shoulder and into the drywall, but it’s in there somehow, click-snap, like all at once.

Anyway. That’s how it ends. Ka-boom. Clippy all bulldozed up into a heap at the foot of the TV, me in a tangle of wires between the seats, and Tall Guy standing over us, King of the Hill. He’s ripped the collar clean off of Clippy’s shirt and tossed it back into his face. Spray of papers everywhere as the whole gang – even the oldsters – push through the debris to reach me.

“What the hell – ”

“My God – ”

“He just…”

“What happened?”

“I saw the guy –”

I break in before they get a chance to turn on Clippy. “It was my fault. I called him a name.”

“Don’t touch me” is all that Clippy says. Sits. Just – slick as a newborn – sits there. Puffy. Scratched. Waxy with sweat and, over and over again, and under his breath don’t touch me, don’t touch me as he blinks out at… well, at nothing. At a screenfull of snow.

Tall Guy hauls me up onto my feet, up into that stubble of his, that slab of burnt toast you scrape the cinders off with a knife. “Get your stuff,” is all he says.

I grab my backpack. Gather the jacket, the shreds of the jacket, everything but the swatch of rawhide welded to Clippy’s fist.

“This way,” he says, says he… and I… hey, what can I say? I follow him. Sometimes you need a straight-line kind of guy – shortest route through a triple half-hitch is the blade of a hatchet… packet of C4 in the fishing tackle… Mr. Padlock, meet Mr. Twelve-Gauge. Even the tattoo on his collarbone says it: an imitation of a wound, a single cut in a cross-hatch black but stippled red in the center, bright as a strawberry, as if the wound were still fresh, the knife still zinging through the air.

I’m thinking if somebody stops us we say… what? That man on the floor over there, clipboard all smacked upside his head, shoe sprung loose, spritz of hair stuck to the glowing screen? Never seen him before. But nobody says a word. We’re out the door without a backward glance. And I’m so busy lugging my backpack, lacing my boot, hop-scotching down the hall to even register how we finally got there, inside the cage, rattling down the freight elevator, striking out across the lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk.

Not till we hit the curb do I notice my leg blazing up, my fist clenched, my body cantering from side to side. A sprained ankle. We press on through the crowd. No sign of a posse. The usual pillage: Black Rock booming straight up as the people pour out the base, out from under the black facade, out across the granite steps in every direction at once, like it’s a single thing, like it’s a pepper shaker sprung a leak.

I turn back to say something – Adios, CompadreSemper FiVeni, Vidi, Vici… Something rough, bluff, some little sliver of freeze-dried, whiskey-fied, testoster-ized wit to nail down my credentials as a tough guy, but Tall Guy? Pfft. Gone. Back into the gene pool.

The crowd bulldozes me onward. I feel a tightness in my right forearm, the tendons wrench, the burn like a bootlace in a cinch. I look down at my fist. I step out of the crush and into this niche between the buildings. Tree and a trashcan is all. Vest-pocket park. What do you do when your own body won’t obey you? You pry open the fist with the free hand, crowbar up under the fingers to break the seal. And then I remember the reason for the fist. And then my hand cracks open and there it is, embedded in my palm, lozenge the size of a quarter, smooth as Mentos, not a groove or a hook or a loop to link it to anything other than itself: the green button.

Down through the branches the sunlight splinters, strikes me on the back of the hand. I flip the button, somersault it over and over again between my thumb and my fingers. It’s like a wind that fills a kite, what happens next, the smile that rises up inside me. I picture the batch of us there back in the room again, all of us together again, picture after picture, like when you shake a snow globe and all the flakes that fall, the faces in a flurry, and a flake is what I am, yes, but also and at the same time, the sky through which the flake falls. I shake the sky. I fall through the sky that I shake, and here, and as I fall, inside of these snapshots in a shower, sharp like a slideshow is what they are, helter-skelter like an avalanche, like you chunk a rock at a flock of pigeons and they blast up into the air but, inside of a blink, they get this crazy impulse to order, to compose themselves in flight – sift the avalanche, sort the confetti as it falls.

I see Clippy and me sumo wrestling there in the dark. Tall Guy with a hammer-lock on Clippy’s head, the bone of his shoulder in my face, the three of us all muscled up into this monkey’s knuckle of denim studs and splintered wood and shredded polyester. Elbows. Kneecaps. Baby fat. Gristle. Our breathing all braided together here as if it were a single sound, the single note from out the bigger score, the billions all bubble-wrapped round and round the globe, the millions in the city, the dozen here tumbling by. I see Bumper Hubby as he stretches out a pudgy arm to shield his pudgy wife, see them speckled in a glow of static, see the streak of white across her face where the Ray-Bans end and her cheeks have been – like a pair of Easter eggs dipped in red dye just up to the halfway mark – burnt by the sun. I close my eyes and I see them. Bumper He and Bumper She and that old pastry of a lady beside behind them with her glazed hair and the blown glass eyebrows and the pancakey orange cheeks. Who, I ask, will be true to her? The brittle-as-a-dragonfly fingers and the wilting lily tilt of the neck but there – still burning there, and bright as the day she kissed her first boyfriend – the pepper-red of the lips? That would be me. I will be true. True. And true to Pedigree with her bobbed hair dyed and sprayed a color not seen in nature – sunset on Mars maybe, halo slowly hardening to a helmet –Pedigree who wonders if the Geiger Counter still clicks when she walks by, if the men still burn to her touch. Yes I say to her, and yes I say to the bent hands reaching out to pull me up into the light, yes to the heave and the shudder of the body below, to Tall Guy, to Red-face, to Clippy in all his secret glory, to the out-of-towner crew with the fluorescent culottes and tote bags and fanny packs blown as if at random into a single bouquet, to the mother with the Gerber Peach Puree stippled up the front of her cotton shirt, gold on black in a tiny arc, like the hash marks on the face of a clock and yes, yes, even yes to the baby she holds in the sling, the baby who – as fiercely as I grip the green button – grips the cloth that binds him, and squirms in his cocoon and, with open mouth but not a sound, sweeps it all, and all of us with it, into his widening eyes.

Theories
by B. Boyer-White

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I have a mouthful of hot tea when it hits. A boom in the walls like a wrecking ball blow, then a whole series of them, pounding. Nothing breaks but the windows snake-rattle in their frames.

You flip to a new page of your magazine and say, “She must bowl in her hallway and get a lot of strikes.”

“No,” I cough. I swallowed weird and huffed a vapor of Earl Gray. “She dresses in a suit of armor and drills Stop, Drop, Roll.”

You laugh and run a hand over my ankle, down my foot that rests next to your butt on the couch, and I’m about to reach for you, too, but then the ceiling shrieks like it’s being raked and instead I spill tea on my shirt.

The building is from the 1930s, downright historic by California standards, with the original molding and hardwood floors but with updated appliances and plumbing. The right kinds of aged charm. Still, boards creak under our feet and knobs stick. The sliding closet doors are arthritic and protesting, a thing we could ignore when ours were the only ones screeching.

Then, a month after I moved in with you, she moved in. The upstairs neighbor. What is she possibly doing up there? we ask each other. The crashing over our heads is incessant. The thumping along the walls, excessive. She doesn’t open and close the closet doors; she tortures them like she’s The Inquisition. How is she so, so noisy?

We propose theories. We say things like, she must hold karate classes for tap dancers. Or, she has a stiletto pogo stick.

 

She wears a pirate costume and can’t get the hang of the peg leg.

 

I moved in with you after my job disappeared, abandoning my own apartment so I could save on rent while I looked for work. The hunt could take a little time, we both acknowledged, smoothing our optimism with healthy, adult realism. The economy is bad, the markets have crashed, a recession has hit—all just different declarations of why normal things are suddenly so difficult, or so gone.

It was a kind thing for you to do, taking me in, but also selfish, we say. You want me here; we are ferociously in love; you don’t even have to leave your place for sex; we would have done this anyway, sooner or later. So what if it’s sooner?

So what if this was the reason?

So what?

 

She juices shell-on coconuts for her all-smoothie diet.

 

Upstairs is young, more so than you and me but not by much. She could be a student at the university but she’s no bubbly sorority girl. I gasped the first time I actually saw her, through our kitchen window, hefting trash bags to the alley. “I think she’s a hunchback!”

You all but ran over. She’s never in the common entranceway we share with the three other units in the building, where the bank of four mailboxes open in the wall with four little keys. She never wanders in circles over the grass out back, talking on her cellphone in the purply twilight the way we do when one of our mothers calls.

We saw I was wrong when she reappeared sans bags, lurching but smooth-shouldered. There’s just something slothy about her, with a twisting, bent quality. She won’t pick up her feet to take proper steps and instead drags them like she’s wearing flip-flops even when she isn’t.

Still, our only sightings are like that first one: through the window, when she carries her huge bags to the alley where the cans are. The bags are stuffed so oddly full for one person. We’re curious, but, when we see them in the cans while taking out our own trash, we’re too skeeved to open them and find out what’s inside.

 

She’s a dominatrix and her whip has bad aim.

Every day that you work, I cook dinner, even though we’re supposed to take turns, the way we still do take turns buying groceries though it’s always you who actually buys them, saying, “Rainy day,” as you fold your hand over my wallet. You’re tired when you come home from the clinic. Your scrubs smell like the nursing procedures you’ve performed all day so although I know you’ve washed your hands so many times your knuckles have chapped, I urge you into the shower because I can’t believe you’re not covered in the essence of conditions whose pictures make me snap shut my laptop when I pull them up on Web MD. So dinner will be ready faster if I make it, because for now, while my master’s degree sits in a shiny frame at the bottom of a hastily packed box of some-of-my-other crap, I’ve got the time to watch a pot of water come to boil. Just for now.

While we eat you ask what I applied to that day and I tell you, explaining why I think I’m qualified, and when you agree it isn’t patronizing, it’s sincere. I let you do the dishes because this house is a democracy, and then we take a walk, another part of our newish routine of Living Together. The trees hang low and shadowed in the evening, tropical species not native but thriving in our California dreamin’ weather, and for some reason I find the whole atmosphere sexual—the trees rudely crevassed and swollen, their leaf-blood smells perversely thick and rich. Or maybe it’s just you walking next to me, holding my hand. I want to shove you against the nearest trunk and press my palms into the clammy cool bark on either side of your face to feel the contrast, since your mouth will be hot, I know.

But we just swing arms and talk, intuiting which streets the other would like to turn down. Half the houses we pass are empty and silent like something underwater. Apparently we’re under siege by a “housing crisis,” but there’s no shortage of houses; we pass them everywhere, vacant and ready. It’s just that the people who need them are no longer allowed to live in them.

Hard times, everyone at the top says. Lean times, end times. Times to test our mettle. They throw theories out like sneezes and I wake up in the morning and eat your cereal and drive, wearing an honest-to-goodness outfit, to fill out job applications in coffee shops so I have somewhere to go, too.

The houses that still have people inside are warm-vibed and aglow with lamps. I’ve already admitted that I like looking into the windows. I like seeing the living rooms and dining rooms arranged, their furniture more modern and sterile or overstuffed and grandmotherly than I can comprehend wanting.

“Does it make me creepy?” I ask, my face turned toward the glass between my life and a stranger’s like they’re a museum exhibit.

“Totally. Creepy McCreeperson.”

If I find a face looking back from a dining chair or recliner, I turn my head away quickly. If I can’t see you then you can’t see me. I wasn’t looking. I was never even here.

 

She runs a bootleg mini golf course up there. The moats explain the water stains on our ceiling, too.

 

I practice answering job interview questions in the shower so I’ll be ready when the call comes.

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

My position was dissolved when the organization lost its funding. Ninety percent of the staff was let go.

That’s unfortunate. And what was the nature of the work you did?

We were a nonprofit who worked, broadly, in community aid. I was a coordinator for our job services department.

Could you elaborate?

Absolutely. I acted as a liaison between employers and agencies, and connected the people we served with them, finding the right fit for individuals who were having a difficult time securing employment due to their experience and situation—so the economically vulnerable, single parents, veterans, people with criminal records, or just people who had been laid off, hilariously. I’m sorry. Not “hilariously.” It’s just funny, but not “ha ha” funny. I just mean it’s ironic, that I used to help people find employment and now I can’t find any. Not because I’m not qualified, of course. It’s just a hard market. Really, I’m a valuable asset. Sorry, I don’t think I’m expressing myself well. Did I use “ironic” correctly, just now?

I don’t think so.

Can I try this again, please?

Sure, but you get one chance to make a first impression, and you just burned it.

I know. Fuck.

 

She has a clumsy poltergeist.

 

The sound is part clatter, part high-pitched whine. Eyes to the ceiling, you propose, “Let’s have really loud sex to get back at her.”

“Okay. We’ll get a headboard with huge pillars made of organ pipes. Put the keyboard under the mattress.”

“Please, you’re loud enough as it is. You, Miss, holler like a cat.”

“You wish.”

“Have you had sex with you? I can’t believe I’m not deaf.”

Just to prove you wrong I tackle you and initiate a round. I prove myself wrong. I pound my fist against the wall a few times to punctuate my oh gods to prove how very wrong.

Why don’t we say anything to Upstairs, ever? Poke the offending ceiling with a broom handle? Chuck a tennis ball against it the way we learned in college dormitories to give a warning knock? We could go to her door and politely ask if she’s aware that people live beneath her, and that sound is a thing that travels? Leave a note, like chicken shits. But we never do. Even if we were, finally, to come face-to-face with her on the front walk or at the mailboxes, we would say nothing.

Because she is young and alone and clueless. Because she is possibly sad and definitely weird. Her weaknesses are also her defense; the same reasons we hate her make us love her, in that humane, Thy-Neighbor-Golden-Rule way. Agape, like my Renaissance humanities professor drilled us on years ago—the Latin for love based on charity. Far superior to cupiditās, base and carnal love, the kind you and I splatter the sheets with. I can smell it on my hands, on my upper lip, as I move around the house an hour after you’ve left for work, before I do the thing I don’t want to and wash us off.

I wonder if she can hear us? I think we’re considerate but maybe we forget ourselves and let shampoo bottles fall in the shower, get too many ringing phone calls, laugh too loudly while we have each other and she has no one.

 

She’s a watermelon farmer and Gallagher is her secret roommate.

 

“How did you even remember Gallagher?”

“How did you?”

 

She practices her lumberjacking on model trees.

 

We take a long walk after dinner, cross the highway, and pass the university’s sprawling grounds and the five-story hospital where you work. Beyond that lies the open land with its peppering of trees and there, against the twilight, the distant lamps of the tent city glow.

At first, there were newspaper stories covering the fights in the city meetings and the courts, about all the newly homeless still being part of the public and therefore, entitled to access public land. When the land was finally allowed, the fights began about how much of a shelter is too much. Fabric and coverings, fine, but wood and structure, no. Personal possessions okay but furniture, absolutely not. If someone crossed a line, Demolition was called in.

I look hard at the sky above the small, weak lights—hung lanterns, propped flashlights—and search it for smoke. I like picturing that they have a fire going to warm their hands and cook their food, a nucleus around which everyone gathers in the evening like family. But I know better. The real city said fires are prohibited and would cause the tent city to be shut down. “Shut down,” like an amusement park ride. Like it wouldn’t be torn down, mown down.

“Can you imagine being Demolition?” I ask.

“No. It would be horrible,” you say, brows bent under sincere ache, and I remember why I love you for time ten thousand and eighteen.

I look back at the pale shapes of fabric roofs sitting still as a lake. I say, “It’s like someone turned off their lives. Like a switch.”

“They’re not dead.”

“But they’re gone. They disappeared from the rest of us. Like a light gone off. Click.”

And as though I’m a wizard, one of the far-away tiny lights vanishes. You shiver. “Let’s go home,” you say. You put your arm around me, warm.

 

She’s testing the gravity of her entire shoe closet.

 

Which must be extensive: packages upon packages for her arrive via UPS, from Penney’s and Zappos and whatever girl chic boutique. We know because the UPS guy has to ring the buzzer several times until you finally let him into the common entranceway—she never answers the building’s front door herself. Ever. You politely set her packages at the foot of the stairs where she’s sure to see them. “Jesus,” the UPS guy says to you. “She orders a lot of shit.”

For what? She must never go out, because she’s never not-here, making noise. She never has anyone over. Every time I see her she’s in sweatpants, worn thin and showing off the way her underwear cuts a line into her rump like string around a roast.

We come through the building’s front door to no packages where there was a small pyramid. They’re always gone the next time we look. I tell you in a whisper that I think she orders things on the internet expressly so she can cram them, item by item, into trash bags so she’ll have something to carry into the alley.

You aren’t listening. Someone has dropped their junk mail—again—on the floor in front of the mailboxes, and you rant as you crouch to pick it up. People in this building have no respect. We should move. I can’t deal with this anymore.

I rustle a hand through your hair in a half-baked show of solidarity. You’re generally cheery but this kind of thing gets your back up, the blatant disregard of others. Oil spills because contractors cut corners. Taxes hiked as teacher salaries are gutted. Tainted beef. Our neighbors parking badly so they take up just enough of the curb for our car to not fit. Et cetera. You believe in the simple math of one good deed deserving another. I know part of why you first noticed me, fell in love with me, is what I do for a living. Did.

 

She has to dribble a basketball five hundred times a day as part of her religion.

 

I’ve brainstormed all the ways I could freelance, stamping myself with ambiguous, jargony titles. I’ve posted myself to Craigslist like an old dresser that, it turns out, no one needs.

“I might try for a job at a store,” I tell you. I’ve been mulling it over. Retail hell versus unemployment hell.

“And make minimum wage?”

“It’s what a lot of people make.”

“You’re not a lot of people.”

“That is so fucking elitist.”

“I just mean you’re too qualified. Something will give. Wait it out.”

“But while I’m waiting I could make a little money. Help out.”

“You help out plenty.”

“No, I don’t. At all. I’m like a dependent.”

“Cut it out.”

“It’s weird. I want to do more.”

You kiss me. “Just find your dream job.”

“I’m not an invalid. I don’t need babied.”

The next day I bring home hanger steaks and a too-nice bottle of wine, bought on my dollar just to make the point, any point. You smile and we grill them and drink the whole bottle until we’re singing with the radio making croonie, disgusting music video faces at each other, but that night as I’m drifting to sleep I feel you whisper on my neck, “Hey, Big Spender, don’t do that again. I just want you here.” And right then and only right then, in the seashell of the moment that is your legs tucked behind my legs tucked behind yours, that’s good enough.

 

She runs a derby for those mini Icelandic ponies around her coffee table.

 

Nights when we get home late and park across the street, we can see into the top half of her bedroom because her blinds are always open, windows lit for the long night of whatever-in-the-world ahead. We can see that she has shelves hung and on them, figurines of horses standing in lines. They stare across the room at the opposite wall on which are taped posters. Of horses. Horses standing in the grass next to a weather-worn fence. Horses running through a field of poppies. Horses asserting themselves in her bedroom, everywhere, like saints in a Catholic church.

 

She’s a stay-at-home bullfighter, and her apartment is a china shop.

 

All of the stores I apply to tell me the same thing: try again in the fall for the holidays. Which is months from now. Which reminds me that the six-month grace period on my student loans will end soon. If I still don’t have a job, I’ll need to defer the payments again, for further “hardship.” How can I claim hardship when we drink eleven-dollar-a-pound organic Fair Trade coffee every morning? How can I pay on my loans when I have forty-seven dollars in my checking account and nightmares about finally, finally having to ask you for gas money?

I have a dream that I stop on the sidewalk to look into a window. I step closer and feel the wet, slight suck of lawn and soil on my feet. The light through the window is dim and golden like it’s filtered through a glass of beer. Inside is our bed, and you’re in it asleep, and as I stare longer I start to feel my skin crawl before I realize why, even before I’m hit with the sudden knowledge that you’re not alone, that I’m there, too, but in the mattress, sealed, like a Bog Man in the mud.

You’re awake with me. “Bad dream?” you ask.

“Yeah.”

“You jumped. Were you falling?”

“Yeah. One of those falling dreams.”

You try to pet my face but your arms are sleep-clumsy and you only mash your hand into my nose like wiping it. You say, I was dreaming about parrots, weird, huh? and then, We should go to brunch tomor, and then your breath is deep again.

Six months of grace, which is another word for charity. We understand that it can take up to six months to find a job, of course, good luck. But longer than that and clearly, you’re the problem.

 

She mines for copper wire in the walls with an old-fashioned pickaxe.

 

“And dynamite.”

“Yes, but saves that for nights I have to get up early.”

 

Her kitchen tiles are tectonic. Her floorboards calve like glaciers.

 

“Can you get some more coffee today?” you ask. “We’re out.”

You’re making the movements of an early morning bustle—mouthwash gurgling, keys jingling. Your scrubs are the color of Comet.

I plant my feet into the floor. “Why don’t you get it on your way home?”

“Can you just get it? It’s easier. I’ll have to backtrack, you know.”

You don’t say that I have nowhere else to be and you do, but I hate you momentarily even if you didn’t because it’s true.

It’s not your fault I’m in a bad mood. I did it to myself. Yesterday I walked to the view of the tent city alone, like I owed it to them to visit, to witness.

The thing is, they had begun to disappear before they moved out there, so when they finally did, no one noticed. Phone calls had already stopped coming, friends had quit inviting them out because they knew they couldn’t afford it and that’s so awkward. Even if they could have bought a new shirt, they had no reason to because they couldn’t wonder how everyone at the office would like it. They were winnowed down to one random name in an applicant pool of hundreds, seen for a moment and flushed—there are new, sinister reports of applications being sorted by computer programs combing resumes for keywords, an algorithm of not-giving-a-shit.

If I buy a new shirt and you, the only person who sees me anymore, fail to notice, do I still exist?

Your kiss pelts the top of my head. “I left money in the dish. Oh hey, and bananas? I’m having this weird craving.”

 

She runs a shelter for hair band drummers laid off between tours.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization folded unexpectedly.

I see. Was it something you did?

No, I was great at my job. A real asset. Pardon me, but was it alright that I used the word “folded” in that context?

Yes, it showed you’re casual under pressure. Confident, but a real human being.

Good. I was worried it was unprofessional.

That too. Get out.

 

She’s a freelance crash test dummy with a home studio.

 

I still write two to three cover letters a day but I’ve stopped going to coffee shops, to save on gas and the overpriced cup of tea it takes to rent a table and Wi-Fi. I could ask you for help, but already, you bound into the house evenings in your athletic shoes, fit and flushed with your day, and I feel sexy as a run-over lizard. Putting on anything but fuzzy plain garments in concrete colors feels vulgar so I don’t. When you joke that it’s like I’ve joined a cloister of monks, the Order of the Brothers of Hanes, I smile, but when you repeat it I realize it isn’t a joke, it’s a protest without the sack to say so, and I pull my hood further over my hair.

One of the diners I dropped a resume at actually calls, but only to say they can’t hire me because I’m overqualified, and have no restaurant experience—so, under-qualified. I am cancelling myself out. I have a dream about the tent city, only now I’m in it, in one of the tents, and I can’t sleep because someone is outside the canvas stitching away, closing its seams, and I start to panic because I realize they haven’t left an opening for a door. Then suddenly I’m outside, looking at all of the tents spread for miles, only we’re underground, soil hanging over our heads where sky should be, clumps and roots like clouds with worms tunneling through in tendrils graceful as hair in a breeze and the real world happening above us, banging loudly overhead on its way. So loudly.

I wake up, and I can tell you do, too, when you roll over. I squint at the clock’s digital face, see that we’re looking at midnight in the rearview mirror. A sound chews the ceiling, roaming and destroying.

“It’s like a rolling pin on a spine,” you say.

“Yeah. A giant spine.”

“But also like a tree mulcher.”

“Eating a giant spine.”

“Oh my god. She can’t be.”

She can. She is vacuuming.

 

She plays Whack-a-Mole with blacksmithing equipment. And iron moles.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization lost its funding. Nearly everyone was let go from the bottom, up.

And you think you gained enough experience in that time to qualify you for this job?

Well—

More than the other ten percent of the state’s population who are also out of work?

Uh—

Who had careers while you were still in high school? Who have families to feed?

I—

We’re waiting.

 

She’s a tattoo artist for mannequins, the hard plaster ones, and her gun is a semi-automatic.

 

It’s part of our new routine of living together, me asking if I should just not live here anymore. (As if I have the option, or any options.) We fight, and I ask it, though it comes out more like an accusation than a question. I say I’m tired of you pitying me, so I can’t imagine you aren’t tired of it. When you say you aren’t, I grow suspicious. You say, “Oh Jesus, I meant I don’t pity you, not that I’m not tired of it.”

“So you’re not tired of pitying me?”

“Are you hearing yourself?”

“All I’m saying is, the power must be seductive. It would be for anyone.”

“Oh my god, are you fucking kidding? Yeah, I like lording it over you.”

“I’m just saying you must have your reasons for doing it.”

“How about that I love you? Or maybe I’m just, I don’t know, nice?”

You sit down on the floor like I’ve exhausted the legs right off you. You say, “How can you love me but not believe that I’m good?”

“But you’re the only one who gets to be good. That’s the problem. You give and I take. Can you imagine how that feels? How low it makes me feel?”

“Why would you even say that to me?”

Why would I? I can almost see myself like I’m watching my own body, how gnarled I’ve become, hunching over my reasonings like they’re food, a kill. Why can I say the worst things and not manage the truest? That I’m scared and going crazy and don’t know what to do anymore because I want to be here because I want to, not out of need, because wanting is the state of lovers and need the state of charity cases. I want to be able to just want again.

“I just want you back,” you say. You’re crying a little, in your quiet way. It’s the second time I’ve made you cry in a week, and all I can think is, why are you still making this about you?

 

Bees. Just lots of bees.

I get an email, asking if I’m available to come in for an interview the day after tomorrow. It’s for a real job I applied to two months ago, three maybe, with a real salary at a real company.

The night before I go in, I take an extra long shower, for the practice.

 

After dark, she turns into a giant hamster and rolls around in one of those plastic balls. A huge one.

 

The back porch of her place hangs directly over ours and, suddenly, it’s full of cages. There are five of them, the kind of wire cell in which you would keep a larger animal like a chinchilla, or a team of hamsters. They’re all empty.

This new development sets us ablaze. We say, she’s the general of a hamster army. The bedroom horsies fight the hamster squadron in cacophonous, tiny battles.

It’s like someone has opened a window between us. Light and air rush in. We say, she has a huge rodent tail she unrolls when no one’s around. That’s the sound of it wagging into things.

You laugh until you have to hold your stomach and that makes me laugh and I still can’t get over how great your smile is when it’s split wide like that, when you’ve really given it all away.

 

Two words: River. Dance.

 

I get a phone call this time. They want to do a second interview—I’ve made it to the round of final candidates. They use my first name like they know me.

You insist on cooking dinner, celebration-mode, treating-me-mode, and when our plates are empty you ask if I want to go for a walk but I shake my head and start kissing you, “start” because I’m beginning something. For a crazy moment when we’ve peeled down to nothing but us, I worry I’ve forgotten how to do it. But I haven’t, and anyway it’s like riding a bicycle—you, my sweet bad bicycle, when we come it’s like coming home.

 

She’s hoarded the Terra Cotta Warriors, who she puts on fashion shows for, and if one doesn’t like her outfit she breaks him with a blow dart.

 

“Elaborate.”

“Too much?”

“No. Well-played, actually. You’re my hero.”

 

She practices The Worm wearing rollerblading gear.

 

The call comes just as I’ve gotten home. I found a perfect parking spot and have to set down the bags of groceries on the sidewalk to answer my cell. I take a breath when I see it’s the company.

They loved me. I’m perfect for the job, a great fit for the direction they want to go, and I was their top pick. There have been unanticipated budgetary changes, and they can’t hire for the position after all. They wish me the best. Someone else will be lucky to get me.

I say thanks, pocket my phone, and pick up the grocery bags, all of which is a miracle because my hands are numb. Contending with the keys inside the common entranceway, I stop.

She’s there. Upstairs.

We gape like two different species meeting suddenly at a watering hole. She stands at the boxes, and I see that her hands are small, almost child-sized, around her mail. Her bottom lip doesn’t quite close to her top as she breathes. Her skin looks like she picks at her face too much.

I look directly into her eyes, which are brown. I say, “I didn’t get a job I interviewed for.”

There is a slide like in a child’s playland between our eyes and I am sliding down it, whoosh, smooth, so I will end up in the pit that holds her heart and she will end up in mine with my heart and we will know each other. I say, “That happens to me all the time, not getting jobs, but this time was supposed to be different. I had two interviews.”

She stares.

“Two. They were very serious about me and they just called to tell me I didn’t get it.”

Her eyes are blank.

“Just now,” I say. “On the sidewalk out there, I got the call.”

“Huh,” she says. She turns to lurch up her stairs, and before she does she drops her unwanted mail to the floor. The PennySaver flutters down like so many given-up leaves and comes to rest at my feet. Forty percent off window tinting.

When I walk into our apartment, I throw the front door shut behind me. I slide the grocery bags over the floor, releasing them down and out like they’re bowling balls and when they fall over, I don’t set them upright, I don’t inspect my damage. Instead I walk in a circle around the biggest part of the room, the spot with the most empty square-footage, as fast as I can without running. When I’ve made a perfect middle with my walking, I hop into it, bending at the knees, and squeeze my skull between my hands hard, feeling that I can’t crush it no matter how I try—I am cancelling myself out, I am stronger than I am strong. Some cherry tomatoes have escaped their plastic prison and are making a break for it across the floor, but I ignore them and go straight for the coffee, seizing it and feeling the beans give under my fingers like bugs as I carry it to the kitchen and there, I begin. I start to grind the whole bag, and when that doesn’t do it I have a moment of great inspiration, kissed by tongues of flame am I, and set the grinder on the glass cutting board, the one we hate and hardly use because the shrill clack of the knife coming down on it is so awful, the bony rattle of it rocking on the tile counter with our movements is so awful. But I want it, I want it this loud when I pour in the beans and hold down the button and let it wail, just fucking wail, louder than it should be, than it even believably could be, because I need all of you to know that I’m here, I’m here—for who knows how long—I am here.

 

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.

 

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

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Lee Ann Dalton is a fiction writer and poet currently working on three poetry manuscripts, a manuscript of short stories, and is setting up research opportunities for the outline of a novel.

Hunger Mountain Announces Winners of the 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

One first place winner and one runner-up awarded prize money and publication

Montpelier, Vt.—Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal of the Arts, today announced the winners of the 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize: Hope Chernov, of Maplewood, N.J., placed first for her short story, “Things I Think About While Swimming;” and Lisa Nikolidakis, of Newburgh, Indiana, is the runner-up for her story, “Heliciculture.”

The contest received over 300 entries and was judged by Daniel Torday, novelist, National Jewish Book Award winner, and director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.

“I read the finalists with great interest,” said judge Daniel Torday. “What stood out about ‘Things I think about while swimming’ was a clarity of vision and hard-nosed edge to the language, and a kind of clear-eyed sense of voice that made me think of Joy Williams, Deborah Eisenberg, even Miranda July and George Saunders. The writer’s humor and precision really made this piece stand out as the winner,” he said.

“This story, ‘Things I Think About While Swimming,’ by Hope Chernov, is why we do this,” said Hunger Mountain Fiction Editor Barry Wightman. “We read and read and read, story after story, and then, one morning, a piece like this one rolls across your desk, onto your screen—it’s lit up, fizzing like a roman candle, ready to explode. And we smile, marveling at this rare pleasure—a story fraught with emotion, voice, humor, risk. A virtuoso performance. It’s a joy to find and publish a diamond such as this,” he said.

The winner receives $1,000 and publication in the next print issue of Hunger Mountain, due out in the spring of 2016. The winning story will also appear, along with the runner-up, in a special online prizewinner issue of Hunger Mountain.

The full list of finalists are listed on the Hunger Mountain website at hungermtn.org/contests.

###

 

About Hope Chernov

Hope Chernov was born and raised on the mean streets of Northeast Philadelphia, where her formative years were spent eating hoagies, cheering the local sports teams and plotting her escape. After a few detours, she settled in New York City and worked as an actor for over a decade. She now lives with her husband and two children in Maplewood, N.J., where she is at work on a novel.

 

About Daniel Torday

Daniel Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West, recently published with St. Martin’s Press. His novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. Torday’s stories and essays have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Glimmer Train, n+1, The New York Times and The Paris Review Daily. A former editor at Esquire, Torday serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. He is the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.

 

About the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Named after Howard Frank Mosher, award-winning author of thirteen books—four of which have been made into acclaimed feature movies—the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize began at Hunger Mountain in 2004, to recognize outstanding fiction writing from emerging authors. The inaugural contest was awarded to Josh Wilker of Chicago, as judged by Robin Hemley. The prize is open to all writers, who may submit one original, unpublished story under 10,000 words. The deadline for the 2016 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize is March 1, 2016, with judge TBD.

 

About Hunger Mountain

Founded in 2002 by Caroline Mercurio, Hunger Mountain is a print and online journal of the arts publishing fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, young adult and children’s writing, and literary miscellany. The mission is to cultivate engagement with and conversation about the arts by publishing high-quality, innovative literary and visual art by both established and emerging artists, offering opportunities for interactivity and discourse. Its editorial offices are located at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in historic Montpelier, Vt. The print issue comes out annually in the spring, and online content changes on a regular basis. Learn more at hungermtn.org.

 

A B.S. in Environmental Science

Rebecca Thomas

Hector’s brother, Berto, wakes him at a quarter to midnight. He slaps Hector’s face with his fingertips until Hector throws out his arms, swinging. Hector starts to shout, but Berto puts his hand over Hector’s mouth and points to their sister, sleeping.

The streetlight coming in through the blinds stripes Berto’s face. He grins, and his teeth gleam white in the darkness, transforming him into the Cheshire Cat of Ash Street. “Undie run,” he whispers.

Hector gets up.

Their parents’ door is closed. No light escapes under it. But the two know that even if their parents were awake, their dad would talk their mother into letting them go. He would grin and say, “Boys will be boys,” and they’d wait for their mother’s death stare, then eye roll, then wave of her hand before they left.

They grab coats and put on their sneakers outside, shutting the door behind them, so only they can hear the click. They can see their breath outside, white plumes from their mouths. Berto nudges Hector, winks, and pretends to smoke. Hector joins him. The two grin before looking away. They haven’t pretended to do that in seven years, not since Berto went into junior high and Hector was in fourth grade, but it feels perfectly natural now that they should be out pretending to smoke in the middle of the night. Berto nods, and with their shoes on and coats zipped, they walk down the stairs and head east toward the nice part of Old Towne Orange that starts just half a block away. They walk without talking, their footsteps pushing them closer to the college, away from the train tracks and the defunct packinghouses, to a place where people run in their underwear to celebrate finals week.

“You came up just for this?” Hector asks.

Berto nods. “Well, that and Mom said she had a batch of my laundry done.”

“You been to this before?”

Berto nods again, slower. “Oh yeah.”

The houses transform from Craftsmen with barred windows and chain link to ones with landscaped lawns and crisp white fences. The doors become windowed. Furniture stands on porches with throw pillows and outdoor rugs.

Closer to the university, girls’ laughter blankets the air, light and fluffy and full of next-day misgivings. They stop next to a falafel place closed for the night, and Berto pauses next to the dark windows. Suddenly, he takes off his jacket, stuffing it in the bushes. He strips off his shirt and moves to his pants.

“What’re you doing?” Hector asks. He looks around, but all he sees are houses and shops shut up tight.

“Blending in,” Berto says.

“This is blending in?” He points to Berto’s bare legs.

Berto’s jeans are bunched in his hand. “What did you think we were doing?” He stuffs the jeans in the bushes, too.

Hector shrugs.

“This isn’t like a parade or something, Hector. You don’t stand on the street and watch girls jog in their bras. They’d have us arrested or fined for being out past curfew…for you at least. ” He stares at his brother. “So if we’re going to do this, we need to do this.”

Hector’s heartbeat covers his body. He can feel it in his fingertips. He looks around, checking both sides of the street as if he were going to cross it, before taking off his jacket. He takes off his pants next, and then he’s left standing next to a restaurant in nothing but navy Walmart boxers and an undershirt. He glances at his brother, who’s wearing Christmas-themed boxer briefs with ho ho ho over the crotch. Berto stretches in the cold, his six-pack goosebumped. Hector smooths his undershirt into place.

“The shirt next, bro,” Berto says.

“Come on.”

Berto nods, points to the shirt.

The night is cold on Hector’s face, but he can feel the heat as he blushes. He checks the street again.

“You won’t get a girl in an undershirt, dude,” Berto says.

“Who said anything about getting girls?”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t to hear that. The shirt goes next.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

“Mind your own business. Do you want to get a girl or not? The shirt next.”

Looking at the ground, Hector pulls off his shirt. He can feel the tug of cotton on his belly as he takes it off. He shoves it in the bushes with the others.

“Better.” Berto grins and gives Hector a Santa hat. “It’ll make you seem festive.”

“Where’s yours?”

Berto winks and puts on an elf hat.

“Really?” Hector’s body shivers. He can feel his belly jiggle as he moves. He’s begun to dance from one foot to the next, pulling his knees almost up to his chest.

Berto puts an icy hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Girls like it if you can make fun of yourself. No one wants to date an asshole.”

“Who said anything about dating?” Hector hears panic in his own voice.

Berto punches him in the arm. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Hector shrugs and puts on the hat, brushing his black hair away from his eyes.

Berto starts walking and Hector follows. “Now,” Berto says, “what are you majoring in?”

“Nothing.”

“You need to be majoring in something. Something preferably endearing.”

“I’m a junior in high school.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that, and please don’t tell them that, Hector.”

They turn the corner and enter through the university’s gates.

“Environmental science,” Hector says. It’s the first thing he thinks of, but he stops and realizes how good that sounds. “You know, yeah.” He nods. “I like biology and these guys came into class last year and talked about it. It’s kind of cool, looking at problems and figuring stuff out.” Music flashes into his head seconds later. Girls like musicians.

Berto nods, his face serious. “Environmental Science is good, dude. That’s some smart-ass shit right there, and it looks like you care about the earth. That’s on point.”

“Thanks. I was going to say music.”

Berto touches his shoulder, looks him in the eyes. “You made the right choice. A music major is a nerd.
A music enthusiast is a man who gets laid.” He holds up a finger, pointing to Hector and then to the heavens. “And tonight, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you.”

Hector grins, but he can feel the sweat pool in his armpits. “What about you? What’s your major?”

Berto snorts. “Econ.”

Hector pauses, stares at his brother. “Why not make up something better?”

Berto holds up a hand. “Okay, first off, econ is awesome. Don’t act like it’s not. My degree is the shit. Second, econ makes it seem like I know money, and knowing money means that I’d make money, and making money is good to bring up to women. And finally, I know econ.” He leans forward. “And this brings me to my first rule of the night….” He pauses. Hector rolls his eyes, but Berto continues, “Always keep your lies as close to the truth as possible. You get in less trouble that way.”

“Whatever, dude,” Hector says. “You still go to Fullerton or here?”

“Here, of course. Otherwise, why would I be here? Think, Hector.”

Across the university, streetlights pool, illuminating patches of cement, grass, art. The two pass a statue of the founder sitting in a copper chair surrounded by orange trees. They pass a plaza complete with a fountain that shoots up water in a cascade of ever-changing colors. They pass the college’s original buildings, painted to Victorian-era specifications, and then they stand next to the hundred-year-old auditorium and see a sea of underwear. They stop. Hector stares.

Never, not even at the beach in August, has Hector seen so many undressed people.

Berto leans next to him. “Isn’t this worth losing some sleep?”

Hector stands in his navy boxer shorts, white socks pulled up to his knees, black converse flat against the sidewalk. He nods as a flock of girls passes in bras decorated with twinkle lights.

The crowd builds, and packs of girls huddle together to keep warm as if a magical magnet connects them all. Bottles snake through the groups, being passed around like collection plates on Sunday. Everyone freely takes, until someone presses the bottle into Hector’s hands and Berto grins and Hector drinks. It burns his throat. It’s not the first drink he’s taken, but the burning still surprises him, makes him sputter. Girls giggle. He drinks again, longer this time, until he can feel the heat straight from his lips through his esophagus and deep into his belly.

Berto places his hand on the bottle. “Share the wealth,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t make me kill you,” he whispers. “I am not about to handle your drunk ass, and Mom would murder us both if you woke up hung over.”

Hector gives him the bottle. Berto holds it up, the clear plastic bouncing in the streetlight, and drinks a quick drink before passing it along. He leans over to Hector. “Rule two, don’t get drunk in a strange situation. It will always end poorly.”

In front of them, two girls with the symbol for Delta Gamma on each ass cheek suck something from a baby bottle. Their straight hair, dyed in different shades, floats behind them.

“And rule three,” Berto says. “Being the sober one can pay off.” He walks up to the sorority girls, cheering. They cheer back, and Berto gives them a high five before maneuvering them into a side hug. The girls cheer again, sandwiching him, jumping up and down, and Berto winks at Hector.

Hector can feel the alcohol swirl inside of him, eating its way through his stomach lining. “I am an environmental science major,” he says. “I like the earth and music.”

All at once, they run. The mass of people surges and moves. Hector’s Converse beat against the pavement, the night air against his chest, his back, his legs. Everyone bounces back and forth as they make their way past the lawn and the sign that announces the school, crossing onto public property. Hector’s body moves without him telling it to. He can no longer feel the air on his chest. He is warm, and there is underwear everywhere. He runs, staring at a lacy black bra. His body grows red. Things swell, and he looks away. “Concentrate,” he whispers. “Concentrate.” He does, making himself look at the buildings instead of the girls—the law school, the dentist, the lawyer, then the abogado right next door, the Craftsman refashioned into a café, and the gas station changed into a restaurant. They pass the halfway home, the mechanic, and move on to the true downtown. To the church that used to be a vaudeville stage (and once was a pornography theater), to the sandwich place that used to be a key and safe store and originally was who knows what, to the antique stores, the record company, the candy store, the facades for countless films set in the fifties. Hector focuses on this, the buildings’ past that his father always talks about. His body calms as he reaches the park in the traffic circle.

A giant tinsel Santa and Frosty wave. Already, students are getting into the Nativity scene. A girl pole dances on the menorah. The crowd bunches as it reaches its destination—a fenced-off fountain in the middle of the circle. The city blocked it off after one too many semesters went by with college students bathing in the historic water. Students try to climb over the fence—guys being extraordinarily brave, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their loose boxer shorts; women being extraordinarily wonderful, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their cross-trainers and panties. Cops lift the students off the fence, and Hector joins the crowd in booing.

He looks around for his brother, but Berto has disappeared. He cannot see that green hat anywhere. Of course, Hector thinks. Of course, Berto would do this—trail off with some girl when he has a sweet-ass girlfriend already; of course he’d pretend to be all friendly and then ditch him the first chance he gets. With nowhere to run, Hector jogs in place. He likes the bouncing up and down. It gives him something to do. It lets him forget that he is actually just a half-naked sixteen-year-old boy who has to wake up in six hours for school.

Plastic clatters to the ground. A girl curses. He turns to see a bright pink bra and a girl with braided pigtails, bending over. He checks out her ass. It’s small but good. And then he has to remember to concentrate and focus again. She points to her phone on the ground and curses again. He looks for friends of hers, but she’s by herself, pointing, cursing, bending, swaying. Berto’s warning about staying sober enters his head. Okay, so he’s not entirely sober, but he seems more sober than she is. Plus, she’s pretty. He could go to school here, he thinks. Yes. She doesn’t know. He nods to himself. He jumps up and down, and hits his leg twice. “Let’s do this,” he says, and then walks over to her. “Hey.” He keeps his voice calm.

She looks up. She has green eyes. Freckles. Her face is flushed.

Hector grins, and he can tell that it’s his creepy grin, the one where he just parts his lips slightly and keeps his teeth together like those cabbage patch dolls his sister had.

“Hi,” she says and looks back down. She sways.

“Need help?” He’s still grinning.

She holds up her phone and the case, reassembling it, using her beautifully flat stomach as a prop. “I got it.” She looks back at him, smiles. “But thanks.”

“I’m an environmental science major,” Hector says.

“Okay.” She grins again but a bit more uncertain.

Get it together, Hector reminds himself. “Where are your friends?” he asks.

She huffs. “Well, my roommate ran off with some guy.”

“He wasn’t wearing an elf hat, was he?”

She laughs. “No, but I like you, Santa.” She blushes. “I mean, your Santa hat. I like it.”

“Thanks,” Hector says. “How’s your phone?”

“Works fine. See?” She holds up the lit screen to Hector.

They exchange years and names—she’s a sophomore. Her name is Samantha—and Hector, without thinking, admits to being a junior. “A junior?” she asks. “You look so young.”

“I graduated early,” he says. “From high school. I graduated early from high school because you need a high school diploma to go to college.”

Samantha tilts her head. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen?”

“You’re like Doogie Howser.” She shouts it as if this is the discovery of the night.

“Okay.”

“Because you’re young and stuff.”

“Okay.”

In front of them, police usher everyone back. A bullhorn tells them to return to school. The crowd moves again, slower this time, with less urgency. A few people stay around, pop into the bars, but the rest move en masse to campus.

Samantha asks about finals. Hector says he has six. She asks about his other classes. He says he’s taking history and science and art. That’s her major, she says. Art. And when he asks her where she’s from, he can hear the lie in her voice when she says, “New York City. How about you?”

“Here,” he says. “I’m from down the street.”

“No.” She bats at Hector, her hand on his shoulder. “Not where you live. Where are you from?”

“Here,” Hector says again. “I grew up two blocks away.”

She sighs. Leans forward and moves her hand to Hector’s chest. Concentrate. Focus, he reminds himself.

“No,” she says again. “Where are you from? Like…” She waves her other hand. “You know, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala. Like, I’m Irish. What are you?”

“You’re from Ireland?” Hector asks.

“No.” She shakes her head. “I’m from here.”

“Me, too,” he says.

But she sighs. “Come on. Tell me. What are you?”

Hector closes his eyes. “Mexico, then, I guess. I was born in Mexico City.”

Samantha takes her hand from Hector’s chest and puts it over her mouth. “That must have been so hard.”

Hector looks away. “Being born?” he asks. “I don’t remember.”

“No, silly,” Samantha says and bats at his chest again. She trails a finger along his stomach. Everything inside of him clenches. Concentrate, he reminds himself.

She tilts her head to the side. “Like, it must have been rough transitioning. I once took a class—”

He interrupts her. “I was two when we moved here, so I managed.” He looks at her hand on his stomach. He looks at her chest just a few inches away. “But, you know,” he says. He takes her hand. “It’s never…” He searches for something to say, anything. “It’s never easy?”

Samantha leans on him, nods. “You, sir, are brave.”

“Okay,” Hector says.

Her eyes grow wide. She smiles. “You want to walk me home?”

“Yeah,” Hector says. “Where do you live?”

“Lemon. You?”

“Over on Ash.” He points left.

“Where?”

“Ash,” he says it louder. “One street over from you.” Her face is blank. “Last one before the train tracks.” Still blank. “By the parking lot.”

She stops and stares. Her green eyes look over Hector, and he instinctively covers his chest, making an x across his nipples.

“Really?” she asks.

“Yeah, in the apartments.”

“I didn’t even know there were apartments there.” She laughs. “Rent must be ass cheap.”

“Why?”

Samantha looks down at her shoes, pink Pumas, before looking back at him. “Oh, you know.” She lets her voice trail off.

Hector looks at Samantha, at her tan body with pink, pink, pink. He wants to tell her that he has to go back to his street that is cheap for a reason, but isn’t cheap like she thought. Back to his life that apparently is hard and worthy of bravery, but he sees her and follows her down the street, heading towards both of their homes. Her street is quiet. It isn’t crowded with cars or shadowed with empty lots. It is a street where people are sleeping deeply.

She leads him behind a yellow and green Craftsman to a backhouse covered in ivy. “This is me.” She leans against a bright blue VW Passat.

He waits for her to say more. He thinks this is the moment where girls invite guys in.

“Thanks for walking me. I always feel a bit unsafe around here at night, you know.”

His stomach pushes him forward into her, and he kisses her, hard. But she kisses back, and she tastes like Fruit Roll-Up. She’s in a bra, he thinks, she might be kind of racist, but she’s in a bra—he pushes closer—she’s in panties, too.

She pulls away. “This is nice, yeah?”

“Yes!” He leans in for more.

But she stays back. “We should do this again.”

“Yes!” Hector steps forward.

Samantha steps back again, but he finds himself reaching out for her, touching her waist and pulling her towards him. They kiss, and she leans into him. Half of his brain is telling his body to behave. The other half of his brain is focusing on her body. The latter half wins. He backs away from her, hoping she won’t notice.

“Come here.” She leads him up the stairs. He follows. His eyes widen.

Her apartment is pastels. Candles. Framed pictures of Rome and Paris. There are throw pillows on the couch. They match. Hector notices this, but he doesn’t have time to process the information. Instead, he stares at her ass and follows. They sit on the couch, and Hector sweats against a purple fleece throw.

“You want to watch a movie or something?” She points to a collection of romantic comedies.

“Sure.” Hector brings his shoulders up to his neck once. Sweats some more.

She puts in a movie. Hector doesn’t pay attention to what it is. This is happening, he thinks. It’s happening. Holy balls. It’s happening. She sits back on the couch and kisses him. She lies on top, pushing her weight into him, until she pauses and leans back. “I’m not really from New York,” she says.

“I’m from Indianapolis. New York just sounds better, you know.”

“Mmhmm,” Hector says, rubbing his hands up and down her back.

“And here you are from Mexico City.”

“I’m from here, really. Orange. I grew up here.”

Samantha shrugs. “Yeah, well.”

“I’m from one block away.”

But she isn’t listening. Instead, she’s prattling on about Mexico. How’s she’s always felt an affinity with the region. How she wants to go there and see the culture. She’s not afraid, she wants him to know. She’s heard about the shootings, but she’ll get along. She’s tough, she says. She wants to see their art museum. She finds Frida Kahlo dreamy.

Hector leans his head back. He laughs. He can’t help it. “Dreamy?”

“So what if I find her dreamy?” She moves to the other side of the couch. She coughs, once, her cheeks bright red, and turns back to the movie.

“Hey,” Hector says.

“I’m watching this.” She crosses her arms.

Music plays. A phone on the television won’t stop ringing. Hector can’t stop looking at her, trying to catch her attention, but she keeps her eyes locked on that screen like it could save her life. As the movie plays, he moves down the sofa like a caterpillar, inching along until he’s by her side. His leg grazes hers—his bare leg all hairy and goosebumped, hers smooth. “Hey,” he says again, only now he looks at her face.

She’s asleep.

He pushes his leg against hers, but she doesn’t budge. She doesn’t wake up. “Fuck, man,” Hector says. He tries again, but she’s asleep. He checks out her rack one last time, gets up, goes. On his walk back to the restaurant, he can see others heading home, but no one is near. He can walk without having to make eye contact, without having to nod his head hello. He pulls on his clothes to the sound of drunk people trying to walk quietly.

Hector slaps his feet against the cement as he walks home, trying to fill the night more with his steps and less with his thoughts. Behind him, he can hear an occasional shriek, but for the most part, the night is quiet. At his apartment building, he creeps up the steps, and there is his brother waiting for him.

Berto grins. “Where were you?”

Hector opens his mouth to explain, shuts it, grins, laughs. He sits down next to his brother. His breath poofs white in front of him. He nudges Berto and pretends to smoke. They smile.

 

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.

 

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

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Terrance Manning, Jr. is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in Creative Writing. His work has won the Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction, Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Prize, and Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Witness, Ninth Letter, BoulevardCutbank, and The Florida Review, among other magazines.

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.

 

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

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Richard Farrell is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming inContrary, Numéro Cinq, A Year In InkDescant, New Plains Review and upstreet. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a novel. He lives with his family in San Diego, CA.