A Moving Target
By Edith Gallagher Boyd
Amy drug the wooden chair across the porch. "How many times are you going to scrape the floor?" I asked her, slightly annoyed.
"I want to get a better look at the road. And we're just renting the place, Julie. Sip your drink, and leave me alone."
I had fallen in love with the beach cottage we had chosen for our reunion, and felt hurt when Amy dissed it. Amy and I were roommates, but some of us hadn't been together since college. It had only been five years, but in the emotional turmoil of twenty-somethings, it felt like a very long time.
"I hear she got married recently,” Amy perked up and pulled her chair closer to mine. Both of us wanted to spot Isabel the moment she arrived. The cottage was directly across from the ocean, close enough to see the sand pipers scurrying at water's edge. Amy and I were on a mission. We were going to rectify our shabby treatment of Isabel.
When Isabel accepted in an e-mail, I sent Amy a text.
"Did you see who accepted?"
"Some of us work, Julie" was the response. I knew Amy had seen it. She checked her e-mail like a maniac, and her tart response proved it.
It all started with a dare.
Isabel had been a bit of an outcast. Introverted and extremely intelligent, she became an enigma for her house mates in the home we shared during school. Amy and I were already friends when we set up our living quarters, newly emancipated from the stifling dorm. Isabel arrived at our front door holding one of the notes we attached to a cork board on campus.
Amy and I needed the rent money and would have accepted just about anybody.
I was going through a mean stage when I opened the door to a geeky girl with glasses.
She was fodder for the evil that coursed through me, reeling from my break-up with John. She held up our note advertising for roomies, and I invited her in. Amy and I promised we would jointly agree on whom we accepted. Just when I began to fret, Amy arrived from her job at the campus book store. Gesturing in the language of good friends, I pointed upstairs where
Isabel was checking out the place. "She's kind of geeky," I whispered. "But not scary or anything."
"You didn't accept her without me, did you?"
"No, Ms. Bossy. Go upstairs and introduce yourself," I told Amy, who was already en route. I eavesdropped as best I could, picking up tone and nuance. Amy liked Isabel just fine.
And that's how it started.
"I forget what the rent is," Isabel said resting after her tour, sipping Amy's green tea.
"How can she not know the amount?” I hissed to Amy when Isabel went back upstairs to check out her room.
"Didn't you hear her say her parents are paying? “A hot fury arose in me, never far buried in the dregs of my break-up. She's obviously smart and rich, I thought, looking for a target. I was not too thrilled with Amy's dopey smile, spiffing up the living room, either.
The other room, as we later named it, was a revolving cast of characters, some of whom were joining us for the reunion.
I jumped when Amy snapped her fingers in front of my face.
"I still could kill John for what he did to you, Julie."
"The worst part was my being mean to Isabel,” I said, regretting how quickly I admitted it. Amy played a part in the set-up too. After Isabel was comfortably settled in, we learned she had a huge crush on Matt Miller, one of the hottest guys on campus. It bothered me that she felt she could arouse his interest with her unkempt, nerdy looks. I had a pick on her from the start.
Amy topped off my wine and we relaxed on the porch of our cottage.
“They should have named our place zoo central," she said pointing to a white bird.
"Lucky we weren't busted with some of those parties," I said remembering the scent of weed and beer, stragglers asleep on the living room floor.
Maybe the wine was getting to me, but I wanted to blame Amy for setting up Isabel.
“You didn't kill anybody, Julie,” she said, when I started to re-play the incident.
“It was an off time for you. Not that big of a deal. Forgive yourself, but don't blame me.”
"You suggested the note from my brother with guy's handwriting."
“Julie that was just an offhand statement. You were more than happy to run with it."
And run with it I did. I told my brother I needed certain words written in a guy's handwriting. I caught him when he was distracted and mumbled something about a writing class. I told him what to write and asked him to sign it Matt.
"What's it for?" he asked pen aloft.
"We're studying differences in men and women's writing. Part of a puff course."
I knew asking him to do the envelope was too much so Amy asked her boyfriend to do it. He would have flown to the moon on a scooter for her, on a bad day.
Isabel was on her way to a class when I pointed to the envelope on top of our mail table in the hall. “It was put through our mail slot," I told her as I brushed by her, veering right behind her to our living room. She placed it inside her old-fashioned school bag and said "See ya Julie," as she gently closed the front door.
Did I imagine the wistful look as she slid her glasses to her head when she read her name? Or had the seeds of guilt harassed my vision?
I needed to keep the message simple or my brother wouldn't have gone along.
I insisted my brother leave enough room for me to put in something else between the comment and the signature. Amy and I agreed it had a compelling romantic allure as it was. Simple, yet mysterious.
Seated comfortably on the porch with Amy, I allowed myself to re-live the moment Isabel curled up to Matt Miller, tipsy and confident, and his attempts to untangle himself from her, our couch, and our party. It was Amy who heard him say kindly. "Isabel, I never sent you a note."
"You're starting to obsess, Jules," Amy said, as I shook my head letting the salt air tickle my nose. "I heard Karen Turner works with a trainer, and looks like Rambo," I said, forcing myself back into the present. "I've seen her posts on Facebook," Amy said. "She changed her status to single recently. She and her boyfriend were together forever. I wonder what happened."
"We'll know soon enough," I said walking my wine glass into the kitchen.
"Let's walk the beach. We don't own the place, as you mentioned. We can leave a sticky note on the door."
I let whoever arrived first know Amy and I were walking the beach. I requested a text upon arrival. I had stuck an extra key under a jagged rock near the porch, but chose not to advertise that on the note.
“Isabel asked for my contact info and sent me a text," Amy said when we descended the short wooden staircase to the beach. The sand was fine and soothing to my feet. It had been a while since I felt that soft cushion.
While leaning down to roll up her jeans, Amy said, “Isabel said her husband may drop her off at the cottage.”
“Ironic that she's the only one of us married. I'm not much on Facebook and haven't kept up with everybody, so I'm not sure," I said, as we picked up our pace at water's edge.
"We know Karen is single, and I'm not sure about some of the others," Amy said.
"Now you're making me paranoid that somebody turned into a crack addict or something," Amy added. "We pulled this reunion together quickly.”
"It will be fine," I said, surprising myself with my sunny outlook.
Much of Amy's friendship with me was akin to a jail term, with my inability to move on past John. I had hook-ups, but nothing serious since that time outside my dorm when he pulled up the hood on my rain jacket, and told me he needed space. I'm still humiliated how badly I crumbled in front of him, my disappointment rendering me helpless. His rejection tapped into my worst fears that I was unlovable, lacking in something basic. I had visions of the perfect woman for John, and hoped he had not met her yet.
The visions changed from the clean-cut preppy look, to the physics prof with glasses. And we all know what happens when the glasses get shed. I hated all of them, these imagined women, able to earn John's love, while I was left with space, acres and acres of empty space.
My reverie was broken by the slight buzz in my pocket - a text from Karen Turner that she was on the porch waiting for us.
Amy and I hosed off our sandy feet and hurried back to the cottage.
"Don't forget to compliment her strong physique," I said, as we crossed the street.
“And let's avoid any questions about her ex," Amy added.
Karen looked spectacular...and happy.
"You guys look great, too" she said, as she entered the kitchen rolling her suitcase.
"The De Angelo twins were right behind me on the road," Karen said, as she plopped down onto the couch.
"Those guys were the best people in the other room," Amy said.
"Oh, for heaven's sakes, Amy. They were slobs. Stoned all the time, and cleaning us out with the munchies," I said.
"But for guys, they were good about re-stocking the fridge. And they paid the rent on time," Amy said.
A renewed flash of envy shot through me thinking of Isabel's parents paying a year in advance.
After Karen settled into her room, she joined Amy and me on the porch.
It wasn't long until we heard the rumble of the twins' F 150.
Although fraternal twins, the De Angelo brothers looked nearly identical. Tony, rounded the truck with a "Yo," and Karen stood up and waved.
After a few awkward moments, we were fairly comfortable with them even though they both looked more attractive than I remembered.
Amy shot me a look while standing up straighter, fingers stroking back her hair.
She saw it too. The twins looked great.
Although we didn't know Karen too well, I saw tightening of her biceps and a good deal of cleavage as we settled into the living room.
Always good at providing for themselves, the De Angelos brought a cooler of beer brimming with ice.
We started naming the inhabitants of the other room, several of whom were joining us.
"Let's not get plastered," I said. "We're grown-ups now."
Amy shot me a look that proved to me she was into Nick De Angelo. “Not that we get plastered a lot..." I added lamely, not wanting to deter Nick from Amy.
More friends arrived. Some brought guests, and there were a few coin flips for the pull-out couches and futons. I gave up hope for an organized reunion, and felt a flush of whimsy. But my natural sense of order did check the ice maker, and filled a few ice cube trays for back-up. I didn't want to be stuck with the ice from the twins' beer cooler.
While stirring the ice in the freezer bucket, I heard a weird tone to Amy's voice as she said, "Here comes Isabel." I froze in place.
Although it never fully surfaced that I was the perp in the note fiasco, Isabel knew. I could feel her long looks at me when my back was turned stirring a pot of chili, or cleaning out the fridge. Her gracefulness blossomed under our roof, knowing perhaps, that she was on her own.
My meanness backfired on me, as is so often the case...
There were jovial greetings in the living room; the evening becoming a party.
I felt him before I saw him.
"Julie. How have you been?"
I'd know that voice forever.
Even after all this time, his physical presence rocked me. I leaned against the stove and said, "John, we didn't expect you."
"I'm not staying. I'm dropping off my wife."
The word “wife” sliced through me. My spy network had scattered Post College, and I knew John wouldn't go for social media.
“We’re newlyweds," he beamed, and caught himself.
Had I become so neutral in his affection that he forgot how I might take that? I struggled to speak, trying to say congratulations.
They best I could do was to ask where they had met.
"I met Isabel in the lab in grad school."
In the midst of my shock, I thought of the physics prof with glasses, the fictional target of my ire. Isabel. John married Isabel. The enormity of it. The irony. Or was it?
“John, did you know we were house mates?"
“I don't know," he said, as he darted his eyes. His protecting her hit me as strongly as his marriage.
“John, you need to get going," Isabel said as she circled his waist with her arm.
“Hi Julie. You look good," she said. Glowing. Triumphant. The nerd telling the cool girl to stick tithe nerd with the only man I ever loved. Normal. Fitting in. Married.
Amy skidded around the corner to rescue me, her loyalty as big as her heart.
Seeing my trusted friend and John in the same room, I began to open a bit to this shocking news.
"Best wishes to you both!" I said, not quite meaning it, but feeling as if I were emerging from a cave into the light.
My limbs felt heavy with loss, and yet I felt a sliver of hope.
I still loved John. Probably always would, But it was time to get among the living.
Time to stretch and sway with growth.
Take that dance class.
Learn to speak French.
Give Amy the friendship she deserved.
Open my heart again.
While I turned back to the fridge, Amy tapped my shoulder. Alone in the kitchen, we hugged each other fiercely." That was tough stuff," she said. I squeezed her a bit longer.
Tony De Angelo peeked into the kitchen and said, “You two are missing the party."
So we joined our friends, who were laughing and swaying to the soft music, its tone above a whisper, but enough for us to join in the dance.
Edith Gallagher Boyd is a graduate of Temple University and a former French language teacher. Her published short stories can be viewed here.
* * *
By David Haight
Resting her forehead on the front door she stared down at her shoes, black flats. Tilting her foot sideways she recalled causally mentioning to a man she had been sleeping with how the soles were thinning but still serviceable. He insisted on buying her the current pair.
Her phone rang.
The cloying, needy tone of the comedian’s voice could almost be twisted into affection when you were high, or act as a buttress to that anxiety that struck like lightning the moment you were alone if you didn’t think too hard about it.
“I’m locked out of my house.” She pulled on the doorknob and turned the key again.
“Are you just getting home? I don’t understand,” he said before she could answer.
Yes you do, we both do, she thought. But she wasn’t in the mood to get into this right this second, however unavoidable.
“Do you know anything about locks?” He didn’t. She let him go.
She had dated a man named Bob who was some kind of handy man. She had dumped him in a rather unpleasant manner she refused to think about. Scrolling through her phone, she gave his number a nice long look, gave the key another turn. It relented. She let the phone tumble into her purse.
She was barely inside the entryway of what could only be described as a modest home when that lightning struck. There were hours before she could go to bed with a clean conscience. She placed a hand upon the door frame to steady herself. How am I supposed to fill the time? Especially a day without her daughter Madeline.
Abandoning her purse and keys she staggered into her little girl’s room. She had spent nearly every day of her short little life with her but the divorce cleaved their time to a scant and random three days a week depending on how her schedule aligned with Luke’s. Every week she handed him a copy of her schedule and the next night he would tell her when she would see her daughter. Taking a pinch of fish food between her finger and thumb she released it into the slowly leaking aquarium on the dresser crammed with ceramic kitties, two barbies, one white, one black, and several gold star stickers, and ignored the quietly growing puddle circling its base.
Surveying the yellow walls a thrush of disgust came over her. Madeline had asked for her room to be painted purple for a long time: six, seven, eight months and (this was no surprise, she thought) she had never gotten to it.
She wandered into the garage, took a seat next to a small purple pool of oil, pulled out the blue and gray pipe, lit it up, took a protracted hit and let the effects of the marijuana, which numbed her and made her blossom like a cotton ball tree, come over her. Just the anticipation of getting high brightened her day, every day. Tracing the closest edge of the oil pond she wasn’t sure if it was the weed or the invisible force of habit that now relaxed her. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t do without it.
Her phone rang.
“I’m feeding Beck.”
“So you got inside?”
She gave a short sarcastic glance at the phone, “Obviously.”
“I still don’t understand how you are just getting home. I thought you were going to come to my set,” he said like a spoiled dopey child and waited. She was certain he was staring at his feet.
“I had planned on it.”
“But if you had to work late how was that going to happen? You know I hate when you lie.”
“I never lie. I’m like superman.”
“Superwoman,” she said correcting herself. He didn’t laugh at or acknowledge her joke. This came as no surprise. He never laughed at other people’s jokes. He could analyze jokes, tell you why they were successful or technically funny despite getting no laughs but he couldn’t admit that anyone else could be funny, in his insecurity it could only mean he lacked talent.
He waited again. It felt like a long time.
“A girlfriend.” She knew his feelings were hurt. It gave her a sweet rush like stealing candy from a grocery store. “Stacy. Her boyfriend got drunk and got all weird about the guns again.”
“She really needs to kick him out.”
“That’s why I went out with her. Otherwise I would have been there.”
She was glad to have found an excuse to miss his set. She dreaded going. He had been doing the exact same set, jokes, facial expressions and pauses, the entire time they had been sleeping together. She was obliged to laugh. He was constantly gauging the audience and the success of his set based on her reactions.
“Your face is like a beacon to me,” he claimed. She was convinced she could do the material as well, if not better, than him.
“Didn’t she have anyone else she could commiserate with?”
“She needed my support Jason.”
“I needed your support.”
“Can I call you right back?” she asked and hung up when he agreed. They all agreed, did whatever she asked (which wasn’t much, normally getting high at her place and watching television), told her she was unlike anyone they had ever met. In the beginning, after the divorce (which she referred to privately as “the incident”) it helped - being singled out and all that fawning attention. It was just the admission price into her bed. She tried to convince herself it wasn’t about the sex but what else could it be about? For them or her?
Examining herself in the mirror one bloodshot morning, as one of them (and they were just that - a mass ‘them’) lie reflected behind her on the bed she alone had purchased (with a swelling of pride that brought a chuckle of tears in the furniture store parking lot) she concluded, “Pretty, but no masterpiece.” Anyway, they never were seeking anything long term and she would never marry again, at least not until Madeline had grown. Madeline was the reason she got up in the morning, grocery shopped, purchased a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, didn’t sink into oblivion that desired her with the strength of a thousand sirens.
She took another hit, then another.
In these moments, alone, in the garage, after work, before the logistics of feeding the fish and (God forbid) herself, before the monolithic despair of loneliness pressed down upon her, before sleep, and the prospect of another numbing day of work she felt, well, not happy and not quite content, although that was closer, but the distance between her and the life she had never asked for, didn’t care for and tried to avoid at all costs drew close enough to convince her to go on. Her life, never bountiful, had shrunk.
She unhooked her bra and pulled it off through her sleeve, stripped down to her underwear and crawled into bed. 7:30. Did she have Madeline tomorrow or the day after? The thought that it might not be the day after tomorrow, her day off, filled her with an ocean of anxiety. How would she fill an entire day? She could paint Madeline’s room. Even if she could find the strength to get out of bed on her day off it would be a week before she went to Home Depot, another deciding between the purple samples, weeks to get back to the store that wasn’t a mile away and buy the paint and months before she convinced whoever she was sleeping with at the time to paint it for her.
This was a despicable thought best avoided.
She took several deep breaths. It did not help. Eventually after coming up with a makeshift plan that included everything except painting her daughter’s room: clean the house, go grocery shopping, see if Deborah could go to lunch at that Chinese buffet she loved (none of which she would end up doing) she drifted off to sleep.
The phone rang.
“Can I come over?”
“I’m already in bed. I was asleep. I had a not-so-great day.”
She waited for the protracted follow-up and inevitable imposition but started to drift.
“We don’t need to hangout.”
She had no idea what she saw in the comedian. It wasn’t his looks. He was fat, bald and buck toothed. She had a hard time looking at him straight on but like the sun had to approach him sideways or by squinting. But looks weren’t everything and she prided herself on seeing past appearances. At least that’s the lazy logic she fell back upon when her friend Sarah pointed out what a troll he was and refused to speak to her for a week. He was funny. At least when he wasn’t on stage. He knew an interesting group of people. And I get out instead of smoking weed and staring at the television, she thought.
“I just told you I’m in bed Jason.”
“Isn’t this a day without Madeline?”
"I mean we get so little time.”
“Can I just come over and sleep with you. Not sex,” he said hurriedly, as she seemed less and less interested in that. “Just in the bed with you. I just want to be near you. My set went poorly, just like you had a not-so-great day,” he said parroting her words, “and I need you.”
She waited a long time before answering. The night before she left Luke they had been at some family function, circling each other without ever making contact. She watched as he listened to her mother tell a story, smiling politely, hating every second. For some reason she leaned over, put her hand on his wrist and whispered, “We’ll be together forever.” She didn’t know what she saw in her ex-husband either.
I’ll leave the door open,” she said into the phone pretending to forget that the comedian never asked to help her get into the house he now so desperately wanted to enter.
David Haight received a degree in English and later an MFA in writing from Hamline University where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and Lemon, a collection of short stories in 2015. He is working on a second collection of short stories.
* * *
Worms and O's
By Jessica Kester
Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson. Jamie Johnson occupies the cubical directly across from Martha Zimmer and thinks Martha Zimmer is nice. Both work at East Telemarketing as, well, telemarketers, and both will undergo their six-month evaluations tomorrow. If the evaluations go well, the women will receive an additional fifty cents per hour.
On an Adkins Is Working For Me notepad, Martha Zimmer calculates: 40 x .50 = 20 extra dollars a week! Martha Zimmer thinks about how she will buy new panties, in a smaller size. Martha smiles, reaches into her desk drawer to retrieve an extra big hunk of beef jerky from a plastic bag, and shoots the bird toward Jamie Johnson’s cubical.
Jamie Johnson scribbles look x-tra prof. for eval. tomorrow on the inside of her left hand, adjusts her headset, and calls her boyfriend Javier. She asks Javier if he could swing by the candy store on his lunch hour and bring her just a widdle bit of gummy bears. He complies and Jamie gleefully reaches into her handbag to recover the last six gummy bears from a rainbow-striped plastic pouch.
Martha Zimmer overhears Jamie Johnson’s widdle request. Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson and her body’s tolerance for refined sugar. Martha Zimmer squeezes the fat around her stomach with her thumb and index finger, and thinks of Jamie Johnson doing the same thing, only laughing because there’s not even a widdle to pinch.
When Jamie Johnson leaves for the evening at three o’clock, she pops her head into Martha Zimmer’s cubical to say, Bye-bye sweetie! Good luck tomorrow!
Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson. Martha Zimmer doesn’t need luck. Martha Zimmer deserves a raise—and new panties.
At precisely nine in the morning Martha Zimmer confidently walks into her supervisor’s double-wide cubical. She has already celebrated her impending raise with a splurge, in the form of toast and jelly during breakfast. Martha Zimmer hears Blah blah blah blah maybe in six more months blah blah blah more calls mean more sales. Martha Zimmer says fuck quietly to herself and needs, desperately, to use the restroom.
A few minutes later, Jamie Johnson offers her supervisor a gummy bear, which he accepts. She then sends a red gummy soaring toward the ceiling before catching it in her lip-glossed mouth with ease and a giggle. Jamie Johnson’s supervisor likes to look at Jamie. He sits on the edge of his desk, stroking his tie, and congratulates her on her hard work, sparkling personality, and fifty-cent raise. Jamie Johnson is giddy and excuses herself to the restroom for a mid-morning potty break.
While fanning her puffy eyes and splotchy skin in the bathroom mirror, Martha Zimmer sees Jamie Johnson bound through the door. Jamie’s heels click loudly on the tile floor as she scurries into a stall. Martha Zimmer feels stupid, so she lies. Jamie Johnson believes Martha Zimmer when she says, there must be something in the air today. My allergies are going crazy. Martha Zimmer asks Jamie Johnson if she got the raise. She did. Martha Zimmer lies again. Jamie Johnson believes Martha when she says, me, too.
Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson.
Jamie Johnson emerges from the stall, congratulates Martha Zimmer with a bent wrist half-hug, and uses her personal hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. Then Jamie excuses herself and heads back to her cubicle—already twelve and a half cents richer.
Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson.
Martha Zimmer decides to kill Jamie Johnson—with kindness.
Back at her desk, Martha heaps two palmfuls of peanuts into her mouth, makes two hours worth of calls, and writes: Step One: Buy J.J. gummy bears as congratulatory present. Step Two: Tell J.J “tootles” before going anywhere. Martha Zimmer laughs, tells Jamie Johnson tootles! and heads out for lunch.
Martha Zimmer feels good when she returns to work. She internally recites her new mantra--kill her with kindness; kill her with kindness. This action makes Martha feel better than good. Being in control makes Martha Zimmer feel skinny. As a bonus, her stomach is full of meaty goodness from Luby’s buffet.
On her way to Jamie Johnson’s cubicle, Martha rhythmically rubs her purse, which contains a large bag of gummy worms and gummy O’s. The mall candy store was unexpectedly out of gummy bears, but she figured the substitution in shape incidental.
Jamie Johnson is at her desk chiding Javier about all the widdle things he doesn’t do around the house when Martha Zimmer approaches, gummies in hand. At the sight of the glorious gummies, Jamie Johnson flings her headset onto her desk and hugs Martha—arms circling Martha’s neck like a gaudy pendant. Because of your raise Martha stammers, resisting the temptation to physically unclasp Jamie Johnson.
Jamie Johnson gushes over Martha Zimmer, thanking her until Martha insists that she must get back to work. Jamie Johnson then reclines in her chair and lets the gummy worms and O’s dive off from her upwardly extended grasp into the swimming pool of her mouth.
And then it happens. One, or many, of the gummies gets stuck, and Jamie Johnson panics. She topples backward off her already reclined chair. The clatter is heard throughout the office, and alerts Martha Zimmer and others of Jamie’s predicament. Someone tries the Heimlich, another the back pat, and still another is sent to dial 911. But all are useless—the gummies are exacting revenge.
By the time help arrives, it is too late. Martha Zimmer and the rest of the employees are excused from work for the rest of the day, and Jamie Johnson’s belongings are boxed and sent away with appropriate efficiency.
Martha Zimmer does not hate Jamie Johnson.
In fact, at the moment of Jamie’s death, Martha’s hate releases its grip, instantly, and without fanfare. But later that night, just as Martha is setting into her Adkins Approved T.V. dinner, her mind wanders to Jamie Johnson, the mantra, the candy store. Martha imagines that the mall candy store did, in fact, have Jamie’s usual, smaller, gummy bears. Martha re-sees the choking, re-hears the clatter from the office chair, re-visions the alarmed co-workers running toward Jamie’s cubicle. All this happens, just as before, but Jamie Johnson is not dying. No, Jamie Johnson is not dying! She is puking! She is puking brightly colored streams of sticky gummy glucose onto the office floor in front of her admiring boss and the rest of the office staff. Martha Zimmer imagines how pathetic Jamie Johnson would look crouched on the floor, hands and face and hair coated with her masticated gummy-bear goodness—her eye make-up streaked, her voice thick with mucus. She thinks about this scenario for a long, long time, even neglecting her dinner and seven o’clock Jeopardy. Martha Zimmer weeps. Martha Zimmer weeps for Jamie Johnson, and for the scenario that will never materialize.
Martha Zimmer hates Jamie Johnson.
Jessica Kester received her MA in writing from DePaul University in Chicago. Currently, she is an associate professor of composition and creative writing at Daytona State College in Florida.
* * *
By Pam Laughlin
I grasp the scissors in my left hand. My hand trembles. A quick once-over around the room and I swallow my unease. Nobody notices. Good. Everyone here has their own problems, their own issues. Nobody judges. Nobody cares.
Steady, girl. I breathe and count backwards: ten, breathe, nine, breathe, eight, breathe. I do this until I reach one, like they taught me at the center. When my shaky hand calms, I begin.
First, I unhook my patches and stack them into a pile in the red plastic bin next to me. Then, I cut off the sleeves, fold them in half and place them in too. Nice, neat and tidy. I snip away the collar that choked the life from me. It’s strangling me now, cutting off the oxygen, even here where I should feel safe. I pitch it in the bin.
I unbutton the shirt and cut away the left side. The side that rested against my pounding, pulsing heart for the four years I served my county. Here’s for my tattered heart. Heave-ho, in the bin it goes. Then the back. For all the officers who turned their backs on me when I spoke the unspeakable.
A sunbeam flickers on the golden blades of embroidery scissors at the counter, next to the man with dragon tattoos plastered on his bulky forearms. The flash burns my fatigued eyes, and for a second or two, I squint, before nodding. “Hey, you finished with them?”
“All yours.” He hands them over, point first, like a razor-sharp dagger. My knees weaken. I push away the feeling, but it shoots back and hits me like a taut rubber band. The harder I pull, the stronger it snaps.
I grab the counter’s edge and squeeze until my fingers ache. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Replace bad thoughts with good ones. That’s what they taught me. In a field of gold, I dance and twirl, open fists raised to the sky like a brave Indian warrior—a rain dancer. My eyes open and refocus. Taking the scissors from his chapped, red hands, I snip off the buttons, one by one. Each makes a ping, ping sound when it drops into the bin.
Across the counter is a seam ripper. I take it. With my finger, I trace the raised, embroidered letters of my surname. Soft and silky. L–A–C-E–Y. When I first joined, I was proud to serve my county. I wanted to do something meaningful and important with my life. I wanted to change the world, make a difference. I rip my name off the breast pocket. It’s tattered and torn, just like my life.
Four years ago, I could have slashed it apart with my teeth like an angry pitbull. Strong with a bad guy reputation, that was me. Unstoppable; that’s the word everyone wrote in my yearbook. Stopped dead in my tracks is more like it. I assess all 96 pounds of myself, so skinny that my breastbone protrudes and my wrists look like they belong to a ten-year-old. Where is my old body? The strong and muscular one? The one that never let me down? Who replaced it with this shaky, useless one? Was it the work of the black-cloaked grim reaper?
Taking the first piece of cloth in my hand, I cut a two inch slit and rip, throwing my whole body into the task like a strong ditch digger. I don’t stop. Anger creeps in like a monster without a name, and feels good.
I think about the years I gave my country. Nowhere to run and nobody to help me. Caged and trapped like a red, white and blue prisoner of war. Terror fills up my cells, one by one. I rip and say, “I was so over my head.” I rip again. “I never expected it to be so bad.” I rip and rip. “I did terrible things. Unforgiveable things.” I rip and tear and shred and slash and with each tear of the fabric I begin to feel just a little bit better.
“Hey, girl, take it easy, or you’ll burst a bubble.”
“My bubbles were burst a long time ago,” I tell him.
“Here, move aside. Let me show you how it’s done.”
I glare at this asshole. “It’s my uniform, my memories, my project. You work on your pain and I’ll work on mine.”
I gather my fabric, stained with the dirt, blood, and memories of combat and deposit them in my bin. I go next to the wall where I can be alone with my anger and guilt. It’s mine and I don’t want to share it.
The older man next to me smiles. “He must have been a sergeant. He’s still trying to give orders.”
Coming at him jaw first, I bark, “Yeah, except I’m not listening.” The scrappy me—the one always ready for a fight—isn’t here anymore, so I soften.
“You don’t have to. This is your project. Not mine. Not his. Just yours.”
His words soothe me. “Have you done this before?”
“Me? No. This is my son’s uniform. He was stationed in Afghanistan. Hit by an explosive from a suicide bomber. He didn’t come back. I’m doing this for him. In his honor.”
I nod. There’s nothing I can say.
“I was there, too. I’m doing this for me.”
He nods. There’s nothing he can say.
Snipping the strips into postage-stamp sizes, I stack towers of them in front of me like chips in a poker game with life and death stakes. I put my cloth pillars into a pail and head to the beating room down the hall.
A huge tub is filled with running water with squares of fabric floating round and round. When it’s my turn I dump my pail upside down and let my scraps go play on the aquatic merry-go-round. “Grab the golden ring,” I tell the castoffs.
My snippets run through the beater until all that’s left is a mash of pulpy mess. Wincing, I use my hand like a claw to drag it from the water, and I think of seaweed—tones and tints of green and brown. The water drips through my fingers—cold and dank and my eyes fill with tears. Shaking my head, I try to blink them away, but they slide down my cheeks anyway. Quickly, I wipe them away. Not here. Not now. Not again.
Placing the wet mound on a framed, wire-meshed screen, I smooth it with my fingertips until level and free of lumps and bumps. Another screened frame locks on top. My pounded and pulverized uniform is trapped inside this contraption everyone calls a “deckle.” We’re out of hand’s reach, my uniform and I. Safe and unencumbered, I can finally exhale.
Placing the screen in a slushy solution, I gently sift and shake, like I’m making a shake and bake dinner or panning for gold. Pulling the deckle up, excess water drips like blood from an open wound. My battle scars.
In a trickle, pressure is freed. The muscles in my neck begin to relax. Dropping my chin to my chest, I roll my head side to side and crack my back. The release is natural, the way it should be, a little bit at a time. Too much at once and the release would be violent, flinging bits of my life on the walls and ceiling, like an exploding pressure cooker. Little by little the pressure diffuses so the anger can pass. This is the first time in ages that I don’t feel the dull burning pain in my chest that has taken over my life. The empty hole where my heart used to be.
I hang my cottony clean paper on the clothesline with the others to fly freely in the air like a flag until it dries. Four years reduced to a twelve-by-twelve piece of paper. What will I do with it? Fold it into an airplane and let it soar away? Save it for my children? Make a dress for Project Runway? A sailor hat? Use it to clean up a spill?
Instead, I let it dry and with a fat, black sharpie I scribble across the front “I’m sorry I took your life. I’m not a monster. It was my job, but I wish it wasn’t.” I place my souvenir on my lap. I release the brakes, put both hands on the handrails and move my hands forward to propel my wheelchair down the long corridor. Outside, I wait for my ride.
She smiles at me—fresh-faced and friendly—my Uber driver. She reminds me of myself, before. She looms over me and touches the paper with her fingertips, softly like a whisper. I feel like a preschooler as she admires my art project. So proud of my own accomplishment.
“It’s beautiful,” she says.
I don’t argue. I don’t fight it. I feel uncombative. At least for today.
Pam had the honor of meeting Combat Paper participants when she was asked to write a human interest story about their workshop which is designed for veterans to work through the effects of war through art. The veterans struck a chord with her and were the inspiration for this story. This is her first short story to be published.
* * *
Peasants at a Party
By Sona Maniar
We started with pot, then did a few lines of coke, crashed into some schmuck’s party happening a few blocks away, and later picked up some random chicks. We then repeated this routine, 3 nights in a row, when on the fourth I found myself exhausted and decided to stay in with kebabs and Netflix instead. It was the lifestyle of idle men and idle we were. That summer of 2010, Darren and I found ourselves as a couple of unemployed investment bankers on the east coast, adding to an ever-increasing pool of finance professionals who got tossed out into the streets as the banks scrambled to contain the mess they had cultivated through decades of laissez-faire policies. It was a time when everyone seemed to be sorting out something: the politicians -the economy, the firms -their solvency, the homeowners -their mortgages and us - our lives.
Me: We are decimating our bank balance, by doing what we are or rather, by not doing what we should be doing.
Darren (rolling up a joint): Don’t worry, bro. Think of being on a ferris wheel – like the London Eye. You should enjoy the view as the wheel turns.
Me: Yeah, this too shall pass, as they say.
Darren (passing the joint to me): I had this real strange thought the other night while I was in mid thrust with Susan - that Susan had transformed into Elliot and he was begging for more.
Me (utterly amused by this revelation): Darren, you do realize that you are turning into a total pothead. When you imagine the girl you are banging to be your ex-boss, that..that is a pretty sure-fire sign!
Darren (throwing his neck back onto the couch): Got to land our next hustle soon.
Darren and I had been room-mates my sophomore year in college, gone our own separate ways and then reconnected again three years ago when we both started working for TJ Combs. We were both the same age -32, but Darren certainly had more street smarts than me. He never did speak much of his family but once when we were roommates he had casually mentioned that his dad was a truck driver and that I, with my upper middle class upbringing, would never know what real struggle was. I just decided that he had labored real hard to put himself through school and to land a career in investment banking.
Summer slowly transitioned into fall and there were still no signs of any concrete job prospects, just some leads that I was pursuing half-heartedly. Darren had started spending more time in my apartment. I eventually figured out that he had given up his own.
It was a lazy Sunday morning in early September. I was by the breakfast table, brewing a fresh pot of coffee when Darren came rushing in from the adjacent room, a towel barely covering his bits and bobs.
Me: You seem pretty excited for a Sunday morning.
Darren: What I have to say could well be the ne plus ultra of hustles.
Me (setting the pot down): Well, you have my utmost attention in that case.
Darren: So, I was with Gloria last night.
Me(interrupting): You mean, you slept with the housemaid?
Darren: Better than paying for a prostitute, n’est-ce pas?
Me: Hmm..I sense real desperation creeping in, man.
Darren: Will you let me continue? She worked part time at the Ol’ Ed Mislinski’s house.
Me: As in the world-renowned artist – Ed Mislinksi? The one who passed away a few days ago at 88?
Darren (smiling as widely as possibly could): Indeed.
Me (invoking Shakespeare as I sensed a real hustle): Beware. There's daggers in men's smiles.
Darren: Some time ago, while the old man was still alive, Gloria discovered 8 of his paintings in the trash. Ol’ Ed had painted them in his youth and did not like them anymore. Gloria asked him if she could keep them. Ol’ Ed couldn’t care less.
Me (getting real excited now): The valuations of those artworks would be in the stratosphere, now that old chap is no more.
Darren: Gloria wants our help in selling those artworks.
I took a big stride towards Darren and gave him a sharp high five. A treasure had been dropped into our laps, just like that. We asked Gloria to bring in those oeuvres to us straightaway.
My cousin Val was an experienced art dealer and I immediately suggested that we consult him on the valuations and sale of the paintings. At his gallery, Val examined the Mislinski works most keenly. He explained that most of the works dated back to the period when Ed was an art student living in Amsterdam. The Dutch influence on his painting style was plainly evident- the pictures depicted real life rather than ethereal beauty. One, in particular, was a painting titled “Peasants at a Party”. It seemed to be derivative of the work of the 17th Century Dutch painter Jan Steen. Jan Steen portrayed real life in his paintings – peasants puking, being messy and vulgar. In fact, there is even a Dutch proverb – “een huishouden van Jan Steen” – that translates into a “Jan Steen household” to describe a messy scene. Val offered a cool 10 million for the lot – 7 million for the 7 paintings and 3 million for the painting titled “Peasants at a party”. It was staggering. Fucking brilliant. I couldn’t conceal my delight but Darren bit his lip hard, his mind rapidly swapping options internally. He decided that we would take 7 million for the 7 paintings and retain the “Peasants at a Party” painting for ourselves. It was the best of the lot, and had the potential to appreciate even more with the passage of time. We agreed to pay Gloria one hundred thousand dollars and split the rest i.e. the earnings from the sale and the ownership of the peasants’ picture in a 60:40 ratio. Conclusion of this deal opened the gates to an unbridled celebration that night.
Darren: What did I say? Remember the Ferris wheel and all that?
Me: You are the resident Mr Miyagi. I salute your wisdom. You are indeed wise beyond your years on this planet.
We snorted a few lines of finely powdered cocaine. The stuff was strong, I felt as if I was pushing my head through ice cold bubbles. Darren threw his arm around me. Suddenly I felt uncomfortable by this level of intimacy, the sense of his breath on my neck, his skin touching against mine.
Darren (continuing the conversation): Sometimes you have to be ruthless to obtain something.
As he said that, the word “ruthless” seemed to pierce through my drug induced state of consciousness. I pulled his arm off my shoulder and looked at him straight.
Me: Darren, tell me. Can I trust you?
Darren: This is a strange question to ask. You’ve known me for years.
Me: There is something I was just reminded of. An incident that happened when we were roommates. You remember Jonathan Levy.
Darren: Of course, that dickhead who knocked you off your bike and refused to apologize.
Me: And you beat the shit out of him in return.
Darren: You bet. All for you mate.
Me (hesitantly): You know, his girlfriend came up to me a few days later. She told me a different version of what happened between you and Jonathan.
Darren: Oh yeah, what?
Me: That you went up to Jonathan’s room and found eight grand lying around. Jonathan caught you in the act and then you beat him up.
Darren: That bitch was lying. Why didn’t he go to the cops?
Me: ‘Cause he was shit scared.
Darren: That is all baloney. I’m surprised you even brought this up after all these years.
Me: I feel relieved now to hear this from you.
Darren (turning to the painting which had now been placed above the fireplace): Look at the peasants making merry. Where did Mislinski find them? In the Red Light District?
Me (examining the picture intently): That one in the corner reminds me of Luke Travis - Head of Alternative Investments, he’s lifting the skirt of this other peasant woman.
Darren and I both burst out laughing.
Me: Shouldn’t we put this painting in some place more secure?
Darren: It’s perfectly fine here. It’s important for people to know we have this. (Taking a swig of his drink, he continued) You know you have arrived when you sense envy in those around you. This possession of ours - this painting of some lowly farmers in an inebriated state – is going to make people envious of us and will serve as a conduit of our arrival in the business world.
A sheath of sentimentality came over me. This deal had really brought Darren and me closer together.
Though we had a disparate upbringing and would always view money differently, circumstances had dragged us both through mud and somehow, we had managed to emerge victorious hand in hand. We were friends before, and now partners, with the bond between us stronger than ever.
We still had to deal with Gloria who fell into an astonishing murderous temper when she heard that her payoff from the paintings was a hundred thousand dollars. She accused us of short changing her and cheating her out of millions. I pulled Darren aside. “Perhaps we should offer her a million”, I suggested. But Darren was adamant. “She had no resources to sell the paintings. I was willing to offer her a hundred grand, but now with her abuses and threats, I’m not even going to part with that”. He made a single call to the immigration authorities. Within a week, Gloria was deported back to Mexico on the instance of inadequate paperwork. I did think that the step was a bit too harsh, but I was also relieved that the Gloria chapter was over and that we could enjoy our spoils in peace.
Darren then thought that it would be good to let the world know about our latest possession and he invited a reporter from “Home and Art” to the apartment for a privileged view of the peasants’ painting. When it came to divulging the provenance of the painting, Darren concocted a story with riotous detail. He told the reporter that the particular painting had been stolen from Ol’ Ed by none other than the dreaded Colombian gangster Don Pedro and that it probably would have remained captive with Don Pedro, had it not been for one of his aides who escaped with the painting just before the FBI raided his den. The painting then changed hands a few times before it came into our possession. Through this tall tale, Darren intended to enhance the lure of the painting and thereby its valuation. At the end of the day, there would be no dispute to his version of events. Don Pedro and his close aides had all been killed in a gang shootout. And according to Darren, when it came to valuing art, the story was everything.
His trick worked. Shortly after the article was published, we got an offer of 5.5 million dollars for the painting. “I think we should just take the money and move on”, I said to him.
“Patience, my mate. We deserve more”, he replied.
“I don’t know Darren, I’m beginning to have a bad feeling about this – like we’re stretching this too far”.
“Don’t be paranoid”, was his retort.
A month after the article was published, Darren and I were at the apartment, going over plans of launching a dedicated art fund for investors to profit from rising art valuations. The “Peasants at a Party” hung over the fireplace, reminding us of our arrival into the big league. That was when a couple of Latinos barged in through the door and entered the living room.
“Fuck, who the hell are you?”, Darren screamed at the big loafers. One of the guys lurched towards the painting and pulled it off the pegs.
“I am Riccardo – Don Pedro’s son”. I threw a quick glance at Darren, then jumped at Riccardo and tried to dislodge the painting from his strong grip. He pulled out a gun to my surprise and fired exactly three bullets. One cracked the TV screen, one punched me in the shoulder and the last ricocheted off the chandelier and struck Darren in the chest. I lost my balance and fell to the floor, only to watch Riccardo and his accomplice do a runner with the painting. I crawled over to Darren, who lay flat bleeding profusely.
“We did stretch this too far”, I managed to say.
“They are not going to enjoy it either” was Darren’s feeble response.
I woke up in a hospital, a cop and nurse watching over me.
“You’re going to be alright, sweetie”, the nurse assured me.
“What about Darren, how is he?”, I inquired.
“He did not make it”, the cop grimly replied.
A dull pain ran through my body.
“But we did catch Riccardo and his aide”, the cop continued. “They were running off with a fake. Do you know where the original painting is?”
I looked up in utter surprise: What original? The one hanging in the apartment was supposed to be it. And it was then that Darren’s bloody con dawned upon me. I thought of Jonathan Levy and Gloria and realized that I was just one in a line of several folks, who had been willfully used by Darren. For all the bro talk, I was but expendable merchandise for him. I imagined Darren switching the painting in my absence and parking it in some vault somewhere, the whereabouts of which would always remain a secret. That was what Darren meant when he said that “they are not going to enjoy it either”.
The “Peasants at a Party” painting had now disappeared down some unknown rabbit hole for good. I offered the cop the only answer I could think of: It was a hustle. And like all hustlers, we underestimated the risks.
Then as an afterthought I added, “And who knows the depth of the evil amongst us?”
Sona Maniar is a chemical engineer from UT Austin and a MBA from INSEAD (France). She’s currently working in strategy for a large engineering conglomerate. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online magazines such as Woman’s Era, Jellyfish Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Quail Bell Magazine, among others. More of her work can be viewed here.
* * *
The Dew Drop
By Joao Ricardo Ferreira
She had been dead for three days, or four, maybe. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I cannot truly say whose house I am currently residing in nor really, can I say why I walked inside. The door was open after I saw the scurry of some strange gentlemen who determined the usual run was not enough and needed to leap, jump and dive in order to color the usual banality inherent in running. I think some would have admired his individuality had there been space for it. Running was something they made us do. Those at the rehabilitation centre. Running is good, therapeutic, important. That’s what they said, I think. I had spent time, a lot of time, all my time in the institution. I cannot clearly recall when. I think it was, never mind. I stopped sharing in those meetings at a point. The therapist remarked about it once, twice maybe. I said I had nothing to share. Slowly she believed me. I mostly listened. Listened and listened. I remember slightly, lightly, someone with a familiar voice saying through their tears: I know, I know I shouldn’t feel this way but I do and I don’t control it. There is an emptiness here. I think she pointed to her chest. He said that the void was filled sometimes by a gravity pushing her down on the bed, closing in on the sun which once shone. That was what he said, I think. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Does it matter? No. I don’t know where I’ll go. Yes. It doesn’t matter.
The therapist said I was cured, free. No more addiction. The lady at the front was to give me my things, accessories I submitted over when entering. A bargain. Give and receive later. A new life for a while. I stood waiting and listened to her saying something. Her lips loosened, showing anger or maybe she was happy. I don’t know. She gave me my things, told me to go wait outside and then she sat down, turned to her computer. I could see her eyes venturing to find me in the corners of her sockets. She must have been busy but she wasn’t doing anything, nothing. Nothing. I was to go home. Home. I didn’t move, not for a while at least but the digits on my watch linked with those on a note given to me by the therapist saying my mother, or maybe my father, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, was coming to fetch me, take me home. Home. Should I go, I don’t know. I should stay, and so I’ll go. On our way my mother was saying how good I looked, how clean, or that I must stay clean, to remember the difficulties, the despair, all the problems. Remember. I mustn’t go back to jail. Either one. Especially the one I came from. Expensive I think.
I went to a new cubicle, one with my own bed. I looked around. I never had much, anything, nothing but I didn’t want anything. I went to bed but I didn’t sleep but I wasn’t awake. I could hear my mother cooking, my sister cleaning, my father screaming. At what? I don’t know. I didn’t get up, didn’t move. Where to go? What to do? The passage of days ceased, the flow of time creased. Once at the table, I watched my sister toying with her plastic analog knife and fork. My mother had a red face. It took me a moment, maybe many, to realize she was speaking to me. She was saying what happened to you or what is happening to you. I don’t know. They talked about basic things. Days passed, maybe more. My dad complained about me, said I must move, do something. He would shake me, shout and scream again. Soon though, he stopped. Stopped coming into my room. He stopped, he left. Gone.
My mother continued to cook. I continued to eat, sometimes. She came to my room once, her face was wet, she had sugar or powder in her hand and she kept saying take it. Take it. Come back to me. I couldn’t understand her spasmodic speech; her tears were a well acquainted accomplice, furthering her inarticulate attempts. It was ok, she was ok, I think. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I wandered out my room one day, I don’t know why and saw her in the room, sleeping. She must have been tired with all her clothes still on. She still had the powder. The rims of her nose were powdered white. Why? The waterfall of her eyes had left little lakes which mingled with the mountains making up her face, black and dry, the well, drained. Finished. Gone. I walked outside. My neighbor’s door was open and that was when I saw the man running. I went inside and the women was there, dead. Another woman from another house seemed inclined to enjoy frantic fits of needless noise when looking inside. She interrupted my breakfast, or the man’s breakfast or maybe the ladies breakfast, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, she began to scream, point, contort and court the attentions of passing strangers rushing to see her advertised dread or maybe she was excited. The door was left alone. She went away, maybe to solicit some water, maybe, certainly. I continued with the cereal. Two policemen playing with their pistols began to hold me. One pushed me to the ground. I started bleeding or it was blood from the women. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. They pulled me up, tied my hands, and placed me in the car. I was told I was going to be incarcerated. The men were shouting. I think they were angry; they kept smacking each other’s hands. They said I wouldn’t have anything more to do, nobody to see, nowhere to go. I wouldn’t need to devise anything anymore. I remembered, while we were driving, the faucet in our house which was leaking a little. A single drop was hanging and then, in time, it fell and then no more, the last, the faucet had nothing left. It was the last dew drop.
Joao Ricardo Ferreira is a twenty five year old South African. He graduated from Monash University in Psychology and Philosophy. Joao Ricardo has meaningless aesthetic proclivities toward absurdity and insanity.
* * *
Sorcha's Cosmic Divorce
By Shawn McClure
Even as a tiny wisp of a thing, Sorcha wanted to be touched. She curled like a lonely animal around her pillow, imagining how a hug would feel. This, she remembered into old age. Try as she might, she could never remember any bodily contact with anyone. There was her mother, sitting on the couch, reading, as she tried to get her attention.
"Are you hungry?" Mother asked, absently.
There was also her father, tinkering in the garage, drinking his gin, equally distant, always on the Warpath.
When Sorcha met her first husband, Franke, a simple hug heated her into a blushing red mess. She touched his hand once in an uncharacteristic expression of gentleness and desire. His brown eyes twinkled. "I don't think you're a virgin," he said.
They were married on a numerologically significant date, stained his thrift store sheets with her innocence and had a sweet winter curled up in his micro-fiber bedspread watching obscure art flicks from the sixties.
They were divorced only four months later when Franke was busted as a polygamist. His wife returned home from the Navy, furious that he had moved on and even more furious that he didn't bother to divorce her first.
Sorcha's second husband, Tim, was adorable, but too young. She would swing by and pick him up after high school and bring him around the city. They spent half of her paycheck and all of his allowance on 90's alternative rock and tuna casserole down at the Red Moon Bar and Grill. They drank craft beer, shared each other's origin stories, and made love for the first time with a thunderstorm raging outside, lightning occasionally lighting their bodies and the mess of his bedroom with a bluish glow.
Sorcha took this as a sign that they were meant to be. So when he asked, she said yes. She spent this three year marriage going to college in the city, and seeing Tim every weekend. Tim, in the meantime, had moved on. One Friday night Sorcha called up and asked him what time she should be there.
He said, "Oh, I'm going out drinking with Rusty and Bill tonight "
"Oh." said Sorcha. After a slight hesitation, Sorcha said the only thing she could think of.
"I want a divorce".
Tim's new girlfriend, Natalie, paid for it.
In the midst of the flurry of potential third husbands, Sorcha had a prophetic dream. In the dream, she was driving with Tim, and she asked him to pull over, so she could gather flowers at the side of the road. When the car slowed, and she saw the flowers up close, she noticed that they were not flowers at all. They were phallic mushrooms, crawling with flies. Sorcha gagged and woke up with a new sense of clarity. The message of the dream was clear: all of the men in her life were Stinkhorn mushrooms like the ones in her dream. She ditched them all, to clear the path for the real man, the husband who would touch her, and sooth her away her ancient hunger.
It was then that her third husband, Dev, came to her like a bodiless angel, bathed in the electronic white light of an online dating sight. He was all words, a pure psychic energy that instinctively knew her likes, her dislikes, and best of all, had seen her art, and had fallen in love with her inner self before ever setting eyes on her. Unfortunately, he lived so far away, and poverty held them both at bay.
Her previous failures had her employed at the flea market, selling unused china and bed linens from her marriage to Franke, and her mint condition vinyl record collection that Natalie had allowed her to keep in the divorce agreement with Tim. Dev, too, made his ends meet at his flea market on the other side of the world. He sold comic books and a vast supply of vintage sari silk inherited from his grandmother. It was enough to live on, but there was nothing left for airfare.
Dev and Sorcha commenced their long distance relationship as best they could with letters, packages, and dirty phone calls in the night. Dev was gifted in that respect. He had a Delhi accent that drove her mad. This suited Sorcha, who had never really been accustomed to human touch, anyway.
Sorcha and Dev were never married in the normal sense. Yet, it was as real to her as Franke's breadcrumb chicken, and more poignant than Tim’s lazy eye scanning her body with every flash of lightning. Only once, early on in this union of souls, did Sorcha and Dev argue. Dev flew off the handle at Sorcha for some now forgotten offense. With no further explanation, he refused her phone calls and ignored her letters. She spent the winter in tears, projecting her very soul over the miles toward an indifferent Dev.
After five months, there was a letter.
"I miss you" Dev wrote. "Are you still my girl?"
Sorcha cried and almost threw the letter over the route 71 overpass on her way to the flea market, but when she wiped away her tears she knew she simply couldn't say no. Soon after this reunion, Dev declared their relationship a cosmic marriage. It was consummated with some dirty selfies, a shipment of homemade gooseberry preserves, and a copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover. They were inseparable in spirit for four solid years.
Then one day, Sorcha had noticed that Dev's attention had dropped off. He was still there, but his adoring letters seemed more like a courtesy, dashed off to satisfy, like a husband who will tongue kiss his wife on the way out the door, but is always too tired at bedtime. Sorcha had too much life experience to be fooled.
"You have a girlfriend, don't you, Dev?" said Sorcha, when she caught him on the phone. He admitted it right off, even though he could have lied without her ever knowing.
Like a cut rate magician, Dev pulled the tablecloth out from under Sorcha and her cosmic marriage, upsetting the carefully placed dishes of her mind and thoroughly breaking the gold trimmed sugar bowl of her heart.
After he was gone, Sorcha carefully closed up the wound he had slashed open from afar. She read voraciously as a means of escape, devouring books as quickly as she picked them up at the used book stall next to her own spot at the flea market. She found a litter of grey kittens, adopted them, and took up oil painting. The kittens purred against her neck at night, soothing her need for touch, and pushing paint around hushed the questions repeating in her mind. She painted the kittens, discovering a talent for gesture and light. A gallery took a shine to her, and Sorcha had a semi-successful gallery show, selling enough cat paintings to pay her rent and buy more canvas.
She moved on to painting children. She never had any, so she was able to bestow a sentimental quality on them, which parents were were willing to pay dearly for. She became everyone's favorite artist, and her card was passed around as swiftly the common cold goes around the kindergarten.
Eventually, Sorcha had enough savings for airfare and a nice hotel, too. She could visit anyone she wanted. There was no place to go by then. Dev was long gone.
She did occasionally think of Dev but as the years went by, fantasy and reality blended. She became unsure, and even caught herself wondering how she placed such trust in him.
Even so, sometimes Sorcha threw her neck out when certain voices, similar to his in tone and register, spoke in her vicinity. Sometimes she would curl up and breathe out his name as she drifted off to sleep, to dream of that man she loved, who never once touched her.
Shawn McClure is a visual artist and writer who lives in central New Jersey with her family. Her writing has appeared in Unbroken Journal, Calamus Journal, Entropy, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and other places around the web.
* * *
By Charles Scott
I am presently hiding under a blanket in the back seat footwell of my husband’s car waiting to catch him with one of his nurses. The front seat of his Lincoln Town Car has no console. Rather it has an old style bench seat. The back seat is large enough to hold a small audience. My husband, Edwin, is a cardiothoracic surgeon. It is a late fall day in 1978. My name is Katie Carlton and I am a nurse by training, retired to raise our two children, two boys.
This may strike you at first as a sad state of affairs and indeed it is if looked at only in a certain way. I was born into an era when most women were expected to gain their identity from their husbands. And while I had managed to be educated toward a career, it was never anticipated that I would use that education to actually pursue that career long term. The birth of two children had meant my days would be occupied for some years.
My husband’s schedule was punishing, yet he still allegedly found time to sneak into unoccupied patient rooms and broom closets with some of these younger nurses. This I knew from hear-say and from a nurse acquaintance of mine from my own nursing days. I was not the only Doctor’s wife to possess such knowledge or suffer such suspicions.
At the moment, my concerns are of a more practical nature. Should I remain hidden? I need only scant evidence after all. But what to do with that evidence is quite another matter. It has taken me years to get this far. And I quite surprised myself in coming here at all. Even now, I wonder why I have come. Never have I done something so out of character.
The mere meeting in the front seat of this hulking and darkened car is enough surely. I don’t want or need to hear too much, let alone see too much or have it go on too long or for heaven’s sake interrupt. If indeed it ever came to that ultimate act, though about that I have my doubts. And it is really that which I have come to discover. The matter of degrees of deceit. The question of the greater intimacy.
On the other hand, what if they are too quiet and, smothered under the blanket, I am unable to hear, to truly know. It is more important for me to know than to prove. In a way, I believe I could put aside all perceived and imagined slights from the past, save for this present one, as if all resolution lay in this random meeting to which I now bear witness. All would be resolved in this encounter one way or another when I learn that what I have come to believe all these years about the limits of my husband’s infidelities is indeed true, that there are certain things that are just between us, that these encounters are trifling.
I wonder to myself if they will climb in through the same door, or come from opposite sides and fling themselves at one another in the middle of the seat, whiskery old man kisses on young porcelain skin.
Decades of practiced fumbling against just a few years of learning when and who not to resist. The clichés of deceit played out against the conformity and acceptance of my own life. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had chances myself. But we telegraph our availability or disinterest. We draw in, we attract or we repel, we hold at bay or we simply keep walking.
I hear footsteps and the passenger side door opens.
“Son left his bloody things in the back,” Edwin growls. “Nevermind.”
They slide in, the both of them, getting in on the passenger side of the car, the passive side. Cozy, adolescent, romantic even. I am all quiet in the back seat, tucked into the footwell. If they are to discover me, it would be now. I feel that even my breathing is too loud. The girl’s muffled, silly giggle punctures the silence. I hear the sound of lips, of muffled touching, a tremble that almost vibrates through the seat. Is it from the seat or is it my shaking? A break now, some conversation ensues.
“Edwin, really it feels so funny in a car. And not even the back seat.” More giggles.
“Well now, you know our bargain.”
Nothing hurried. Encouragement. Touching now, I could hear it. Still, I did not reveal myself. I had enough. I had more than enough. This would be the time to reveal myself. I remain concealed.
I selected my blanket carefully. Edwin was correct as he entered the front seat, our son had left some things in the back seat. I replaced his heavy blanket, used to attend a concert at a park, with a lighter weight one of a similar color so that the heat beneath it would not be too great. Still, I begin to glisten, the heat under the blanket weighting me like a damp cloak.
I had given thought to the best position for crouching, even practiced at home in our bedroom. First I tried sitting, knees up, head bent down, almost between my knees. Fortunately, I am very flexible. Then I tried kneeling and bending at the waist. This brought me lower, but was less comfortable. I decided to risk the sitting position and the generous footwell rewarded me with some comfort. I feel the front seat rock against me as they press into it, as they continue their superficial carrying on.
As I sit folded against the backside of the front seat, my back has grown stiff. Up front, Edwin and his nurse are pressed against one another and into the other side of the seat. I feel as if I am joined with them through the seat itself, through the springs, the three of us engaged in an absurd, unknowing menage of tenderness and regret. I reach a free hand out and touch the back of the seat, pressing my hand there as if to feel the heat myself, while the nurse exercises her temporary, limited will.
After our first child, there came the first nurse. Whispered about, transmitted through acquaintances and through my old nursing school friend. Never completely able to be confirmed. And never the slightest detection of any change in our marriage, his commitment, his desire for more children, children that only I could give him. Children who he willingly came home to.
On one of many such nights, the side door from our garage to the house opens and closes and Edwin is home. I give him a reclaiming kiss. We gather in the living room with scotch and wine. He is easy, relaxed, the surgical day behind him. Edwin is not on call tonight. Alex and Charlie come in one by one with small talk, a homework question. Edwin and I are sitting together on the sofa, not in separate chairs. This was worth the keeping.
There seemed to be a new nurse with each baby. Word would filter back to me from different sources of the moment and from my nurse friend, whispered, inferred. But seeming to be definitive. The birth of Alex brought a young blonde who may have been named Debbie, never confirmed, never encountered, but my friend knew her. Did Debbie have any sense of her effect upon my life, the vulnerability I felt being a new and first time mother. I never had the opportunity to ask her, if indeed there was a Debbie. Like the others, she wasn’t kept around for long. My husband moved on. I was his nurse at home. The birth of Charlie brought a brunette who may have been named Andrea.
I never met these women, but I created a persona for each of them. I came to view them as outside of myself, outside of my world, my circle. I had my hands full. I enjoyed my children. My husband enjoyed them. We were we.
I never broached this subject with my husband. I felt that the gossipy nature of my random sources of information was unseemly. I realize this victimizes me, but while I did feel certain some of them were true, I never knew which ones. And to risk confrontation over the wrong interlude with a man like Edwin risked disaster.
Many of the Doctors had dalliances with silly young nurses. It was almost expected. Indeed, I should have received these instructions in some sort of owner’s manual before I accepted my husband in marriage. Now I was inches away from the girl of the moment. How old was she? Twenty-two? What did she see in Edwin? Surely not a future. His only future can be me.
I was age 25. The time of the first nurse, following the first baby, little Alex. I sat at home next to the telephone. Alex was taking a nap. I was suffering a post partem loneliness of a sort, long isolating days with an infant I was just learning how to care for, yet expected to take to naturally.
“Thank you for calling to tell me,” I said.
My nurse friend. Her suspicions of Edwin. I began to perspire then as under the blanket tonight. I had to will myself off that sofa when I heard Alex begin to cry, bleary myself now to find that in the room of our intimacy I was no longer alone.
But I could not confront Edwin. By the time he came home, I had regained myself. It was a combination of uncertainty and simply wanting to will it away. So I learned to dissemble and then to accept and then to anticipate. For my husband, I have never believed it was acceptance, rather that he lived his disciplined life in cold compartments, each separated from the other, the edges never actually touching, so that he could move from room to room, as it were, opening and closing heavy doors to that no sound emerged as he crossed, nor was any lingering voice intelligible from the room next door.
You may be interested that I too was one of his early nurses. Of course, he was not married then. So, I have a familiarity with the hushed and pressed fumbling in the quick empty patient room or the broom closet, though we really had no reason to sneak. Perhaps it is just Edwin’s nature to sneak, to keep up a perpetual chain of the illicit.
It is quiet up front now, save for occasional lip smacking and sighing (her) and a faint noise of paper rustling, until came her plaintive whisper,
“Please Edwin, can’t we just………...”
Then there was an abrupt halt, as if one of them sat upright. That would be Edwin, I imagine. It was the kind of thing he would do.
“I’ve explained to you that I can’t do that. I can only be with my wife in that way and you must respect that. This is something, well, different. If you cannot accept this, I will be happy to take you home at once.”
“Please,” came the only reply. I could hear some nibbling and cajoling.
But Edwin held fast.
“You’ve broken our bargain, I’m afraid,” he said. “What am I to do with you?” An older man now scolding a young girl.
How then did I end up here, huddled into the footwell of Edwin’s car? Did I really think I was ready to confront him or was I just flirting with the idea. After all, we are no longer young. We have had our children. We are slowly growing old together. Our love life is intermittent, but it persists, now no longer for the purpose or with the promise of procreation. This must be something. Still, I am ever the receiver and it seems something inside of me has quietly taken flight in recent years. I’ve found myself again listening at the keyholes of those heavy compartment room doors for a sound, wanting something I was content not to want before. It was this, I suppose, that led me to my stake-out
I walked to the car tonight fantasizing about revealing myself, about confronting Edwin finally in a mad rush of embarrassment and surprise. I rise from the back seat quietly, saying nothing. It takes a moment, but the two of them sense a presence, somehow feel that they are not alone in the car anymore, that they never were. Edwin looks back in horror and shock, not believing what he is seeing. A phantom perhaps. He sputters, trying to regain his composure. Years of confident deceit have abandoned him in an instant. I have broken our covenant, our inviolable endurance, like a shared object wrapped tightly and never unwound, rather rewrapped tighter, ever binding.
Yet, I knew once I settled into my concealment tonight that this is not what I would do. I am only here to verify. I sit crouched here needing to prove to myself that my beliefs, my system of living, my own very way with my husband are true and valid. My husband is a breath away from me with another woman and yet we do have something, however stilted and odd, however wrong. There are limits. I want to call out to him, to tell him we are all right. Send her away as you have sent the others away.
Naturally, after my husband took his stand with the girl, there were tears and he told the sniveling young nurse he would walk her home to her apartment next to the hospital and I heard them exit the car, each from his own side now. After several moments, I sat up, emerging from under my blanket, and rested upon the back seat, collecting myself, kneading my sore back, and looking out over the empty parking lot, where the car is parked in a distant corner. A few remaining dry leaves skittered about in that large open space. I finished gathering myself, smoothed my hair and retrieved my small purse for the walk around the corner to my own car, glancing over into the front seat and discovering what appeared to be a love note from the girl. Not reading it, I put the silly thing into my purse and left the car. My husband would be home soon and there were preparations to make.
Charles Scott is a writer and business owner living in Ohio, who studied English lit in college. He has a story forthcoming in June in the journal Third Wednesday.
* * *
The Universe of Images
By Phil Nerges
This morning, I was jarred from sleep by a bad dream, about fishing on a party boat with a friend. I don't remember which friend. Thugs on the boat stabbed him, threw him overboard. He looked at me for an instant before being swallowed by the black liquid. His gaze haunted me. I don't know if he thought I had anything to do with it, or he was disappointed I couldn't save him. I got up, shook it off, drank black coffee, and made ready for work. Moonless outside, dead still, the eyes of heaven staring at me from between the clouds.
After supper, I wondered about Joseph, my younger son. He's not home much and he doesn't come here much either. I wanted to drop off two boxes for him, one with his trophies, the other with framed black and white pictures of his athletic days. I found them while cleaning out the attic, and thought he should have them. They had been up there for years. He texted me to leave them at the door of his apartment, unconcerned anyone might steal them.
The pictures had decorated our family room after their mother left, the room which my older son, Carl, sarcastically called the Baby Brother Museum. The images became objects of jealousy for him, a pronouncement based solely on the number of pictures. Baby Brother commanded more wall space than Carl did, and that served as proof of favoritism to him. I saw them in a larger context. They were objects of my affection, true; Joseph was the youngest. But they were objects of pride for me too, on multiple levels. I may have been the only one who understood that. My image monomania grew from some kind of obsessive-compulsive root, below the surface. It might be Joseph in the picture, but that was my art on the wall, and my vanity. I viewed pictures through technical eyes, marveling at resolution and tone. Carl only saw his brother.
When I asked Joseph if he wanted the pictures, he answered, of course, they're history. But then nothing for more than a month, no visit to pick them up, no call, and he only lives five minutes away. I had to wonder: does he really want them? Does he even want me to be part of his life?
I can recall shutter speeds of photographs, 1/1000 second the most common for daytime sports, quicker than the blink of an eye. Those photographs represented increments in the calculus of existence, the past frozen and plotting a given point in a life, a moment that meant something I wanted to remember. At that point I wanted to record a pitch, a slide into second base, moments of high school glory displacing uglier moments now buried in the past, images of a collapsing marriage, of tears, arguments and policemen in our house. I used to think of photographs as slices of reality. They can be. But reality is incomplete at best. What we won't photograph tells another story.
In the end, they were moments in time, points dividing the way life was from what I wanted it to be. The boys are men now. I moved three times. The Baby Brother Museum ended up in the attic. I came across them recently as I prepared to move again. The memories had faded, but came back as I pulled one from the box, and felt something inside of me, an emotion fused with image. I wondered. How much does 1/1000 second tell you about a life? An entire picture album doesn't represent more than a minute of time, adding up the combined exposures.
Pictures tell stories. They tell stories about the photographer too, their ideas about what's important, and the identity they want to construct. But the photographer wasn't in those pictures. He was behind the lens, separated from all he loved.
I took the Baby Brother collection down in anger. Joseph did something that shocked me, though I can't remember what he did now, but I remember the year, 2004. It marked an epiphany for me, the point where I recognized the error on my part. The identity I had been trying to construct on the walls of the den suddenly seemed little more than failed strategy. Pictures of Joseph's successes had lifted my sagging spirits while Carl went through his police troubles, but success and failure never last. Up to the attic they went.
Not long after that, I took the job in Iraq trading one set of problems for another. I learned there I would never be a real photographer, someone willing to record the unvarnished truth about who we humans really are, good and bad. In two years, I took one good picture, a footprint in the mud. I emailed pictures to the boys to convince them I was safe, pictures of foggy Iraq nights, but it wasn't real fog, not that time of year. It was September dust milled from the earth by convoys, fogging the night air below the street lights. Up above, stars filled the sky.
It has been a dozen years, and I wonder whether I sent the pictures home to convince myself I wasn't foolishly risking my life. They were sensitive to details like that, after losing their mother so young.
But still, the Baby Brother collection was comprised of first-rate action photographs, and it would be a shame to discard them. They belong to a hierarchy, the best photos for the best players. Lots of athletes would love to have photos like that, so I tried to convince myself.
Once again, Joseph wasn't home. After carefully marking the boxes with his name and apartment number, I left them at his door. I still rang the bell, and hesitated before leaving. Those boxes contained pieces of my life. So, I asked myself. Who were those pictures for? Really?
As I walked away, I thought of a box of pictures my mother had passed on to me. I looked at them briefly, and put them away. Some were of her grandparents and other people, whose names she could no longer recall. No one wrote the names on them. They ended up in the attic too. It must have been Joseph who stored the pictures while I was in Iraq. If it pained me to part with these pictures now, it must have been harder for him then.
Almost a week went by without a response from him and I wondered if he got them. So, I texted him. Did you get the pictures?
Yes I did. I love you, Dad.
Phil Nerges is a lifelong New Jersey Resident, who worked as a contractor in Iraq between 2004 and 2007. His short stories have appeared in Amoskeag, The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. His play, Don't Feed the Cats, a collaboration with musician/songwriter Vic Ruggiero and the Letter of Marque Theater Company, was performed at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
* * *
The Story of Casper Proudbottom
By Tyson Sadleir
The story of Casper Proudbottom is one of remarkable fortune and enviable luck. It also enjoys the benefit of being relatively short.
Like most men, Casper was mired in the drudgery of everyday life. Compromise, indecision, and a lack of passion left him middle aged and stuck in a detestable job. He did not believe himself to be an inherently incompetent man, but relentless henpecking by his superiors left him feeling completely without value. Everyday he resolved to quit his employment, to chuck it all and do something new. But morning after morning, debt and anxiety carried his protesting body to the suffocating office in which he worked.
Sitting at his desk as the hours before six o’clock hobbled by, Casper often indulged in explicit fantasies of leaving behind this trifling hellhole. In one reoccurring scenario, he burst out the door at a full sprint as his incensed boss, temporarily blinded from scalding coffee, chased futilely behind him. Another favorite saw Casper calmly gather his belongings and disappear without a word. “Where’s Casper?” “Eh, he’s probably on the toilet.”
One Wednesday, while returning home after another tedious day of work, Casper was inspired to stop into the corner market to buy a lottery ticket. Casper had never purchased a lottery ticket before. He had never even considered it. He had no moral aversion to gambling, of course, but he knew no gamblers in his life, and was, therefore, never exposed to the activity. Nevertheless, the idea burrowed into Casper’s brain like a tick, and out of utter desperation for a change in his personal circumstances, he entered the filthy market with its urine-stained facade, and removed several bills from his wallet.
A gangly cashier with sagging jowls and a raven ponytail folded his arms and rested them heavily on the sales counter as Casper approached. “Which numbers?” he coldly asked, his unwelcoming demeanor and wobbly neck creating the impression of a volatile rooster. Casper's face flushed and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “How many do I choose?” he sheepishly asked, embarrassed by his ignorance of lottery procedure. The cashier stared blankly into Casper’s timid eyes, and tapped his large turquoise ring intermittently on the glass countertop. At long last, he pushed his gawky torso up off the counter, pursed his meaty lips, and wiggled six spindly fingers.
For the better part of Casper’s adult life he had suffered from debilitative anxiety around strangers, particularly when required to perform some action in their presence. No fewer than a dozen times had he ordered a meal that he had no interest in eating simply because a busy waitress stood ready over him with pen and pad in hand. Faced now with this familiar angst, Casper hastily scribbled the first six numbers that came to mind and handed them clumsily to the cashier.
That night Casper scrutinized his lottery numbers, displeased at their inauspicious appearance. “Seven and seventeen do not go well together,” he concluded. “Nor do twenty-four and fifty-four!” He tossed the ticket on the end table and reclined in his worn leather chair. “Why am I so timid in front others?” he groused, pulling a knitted brown and green blanket over his slender body. “If I had been calm and collected, I certainly would have chosen better suited numbers.” He shut his eyes and wondered when and how it happened that he developed such a nervous disposition. In his youth, Casper was charming and congenial, and he thrived in the company of others. But as he grew upward, he grew also inward. He began spending more and more time alone, so much so that on the rare occasion that he did spend time with others, his behavior was painfully stilted.
As the noises of city life subsided in the growing darkness, Casper’s thoughts turned from his overwrought character to the lottery and what he would do with forty million dollars. First and foremost, he would pay off the entirety of his debt with a single check. Then he would call his boss to say that he would be approximately four hundred, possibly five hundred hours late to work, and that his boss could interpret that information however he pleased. After hanging up the phone with a satisfied chuckle, Casper would buy a one-way, first-class ticket to someplace exotic. Perhaps Iceland. Maybe Bavaria. There he would frequent the neighborhood bars, learn the local dialect, and possibly even become a decent photographer. Casper readjusted himself on the couch and simmered blissfully in this decadent stew of reverie until sleep gradually overtook him.
The next morning Casper was awakened suddenly by the horrendous cry of a leaf blower. “Should I live to be two hundred years old, I shall never understand why leaves must be blown during the nascent hours of morning!” he huffed. “What in their organic composition resists compressed air past breakfast?” After begrudgingly accepting that he would not be returning to sleep, he kicked the knitted blanket off his legs and toddled to the bathroom. Casper maintained that the only thing more unsightly than the naked male body was the naked male body wearing two black socks, but he was exactly two black socks away from showering when he remembered his lottery ticket lying innocently on the end table. And so, in this most unflattering outfit, he ran back to the living room to check his numbers against the winning six digits.
He switched on the television and pounded the top of the box until a picture came into focus. Flipping from channel to channel, he stumbled upon an infomercial for catheters and paused out of curiosity. The enthusiastic recipients of the advertised product raised Casper’s eyebrows, and he gasped in horror as a petite, elderly woman in an enormous wheelchair feebly described her experience in rather explicit detail. “Good Lord!” he shuddered. “They’re holding these poor geriatrics hostage, depriving them of their meals until they agree to endorse these medical grade, silicone death tubes!” He sympathized with the frail prisoners for another moment and then continued flipping through channels until landing on the Florida Lotto channel. Plopping his naked, white flesh onto the leather chair, Casper wiggled into a comfortable position and prepared to compare figures.
When the man with the spray-on suntan and bleached smile read the first two numbers into the microphone, Casper was tickled pink. “Yippee!” he cried gaily. “Only four more to go and I’m a millionaire!” The machine churned the plastic balls madly and then spit the next number out. The orange man snatched up the ball, adjusted it upright in his hand, and read the number aloud: “Six! The next number is six!” Casper quickly scanned his ticket for the number six. Seeing no such number, he rubbed his eyes and checked again. Alas, no number six appeared on his ticket and Casper Proudbottom was not to become a millionaire.
I think I remember saying that this story was one of remarkable fortune and enviable luck. What I meant to say was that it is not one of remarkable fortune and enviable luck. But I also remember saying the story was relatively short, so I got that part right.
Tyson Sadleir is an attorney in Tallahassee, Florida. His love of Russian literature prompted him recently to begin writing fiction of his own. Tyson's work has appeared in Offcourse Literary Journal and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
* * *
A Cab Fare to John Lennon's
By Jhon Sanchez
Thanks to Martha Hughes, Sam Ferri, Nan Fryland, and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky for their editorial comments
Without paying attention, Gonzalo heard what the woman in the passenger seat said, “At least you must have music in this cab, or don’t you have that either?”
The backseat complaints were something he heard all the time. On a summer night like this one, “A cab without air conditioner?” During winter nights, “No heat here at all?” And the most patient passengers would ask, “Is this a church bench?” as they had keenly observed the backseat’s cushioned red kneeler, wooden cross rails and gothic-carved arms.
“Did you hear me?” The woman cried out and Gonzalo imagined how her wide buttocks would shift sideways to ease the pressure from the wood. Her ballooned stomach made her sit in the middle of the car in between the two front seats, having her two legs separated. She had placed her leopard-print, pony fur portfolio in between her knees, and she pressed them, deforming the briefcase’s shape.
“Music must be mandatory; I think it is,” she mumbled.
As he took the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he started to hum “Bésame Mucho.”
“Besaaaame ta-tataaaa. Ta-tataaaa…”
In the mirror Gonzalo saw how the woman lay back against the bench as the locks that held each of its sides creaked. She turned around and saw a pit behind the bench connecting with the trunk. There were two wheels and a jack.
“I don’t think this is legal, not even in Brooklyn,” she said as she poked her finger at Gonzalo.
“If my phone wasn’t dead, I would call the police to let them know—”
“Ma’am, you don’t have to pay if you don’t want to.”
She stumbled against the bench, her huge dewlap inflated, and she blew out from her nose. An already known reaction for Gonzalo; he did not want to make things even worse.
“You can give me a bit of money if you feel like it.”
“Drop me off at any subway stop—”
But the wind of the highway came so strongly that it quieted her voice like splashing water on a flame.
Gonzalo came to a stop at the tollbooth, but suddenly he realized that he was in the wrong lane, the line for E-ZPass.
He extended his hairy right arm with drops of sweat like morning dew over the grass and said, “Stick out your hand; wave it. Do you know how to whistle?”
The woman nodded, confused.
“We need to change lanes. Go quickly.”
The woman put two fingers in each corner of her lips, and the sound came out strongly.
“That was good. Who can believe that you are able to whistle like that. None of my passengers had had lungs as good as you. Most of them do not know how to do it.”
“None of your passengers?”
“Well, I do not use the honk. We do not have a honk, but with your lungs who needs it?”
“I am baffled. You don’t have a HOOORN. I will be grateful if I arrive alive.”
Showing three missing teeth, Gonzalo giggled. “In more than thirty years, I have not had a single accident. Not even a speeding ticket.”
The traffic came to a stop. She moved her head to look at a multicolor jam of cars’ lights in the same side of the highway without a single car coming in the opposite direction.
“I am glad I am not in a hurry,” she said.
After ten minutes, her eyes took some air of desperation, and she put her head in between the two front seats. “It is an accident or a terrorist attack. Who knows?” The air from her mouth blew Gonzalo’s white thin hair that died out in some kind of light yellow.
“Nothing better than wait.” Gonzalo looked at her with a smile without a hint of irony.
The reaction, instead of calming her, enraged her.
“What kind of psycho are you? I can’t survive in these conditions. Not even someone to talk to. If you have something in mind, I will start to cry. I can cry for help like a crazy. I will cry,” she said as she punched the front passenger seat with her right hand and squeezed wrinkling the leather of her leopard print briefcase.
As Gonzalo was looking for something in the front passenger seat, the woman lay back and grabbed the edges of the church bench. Her neck took the same position as a cobra in attack but decorated with three layers of pearls.
Gonzalo took a parrot and put it on the top of the front passenger seat, and he mumbled, “Don’t eat it.”
“God, what is that? A parrot? A parrot? I can be allergic. You don’t know. What company is this?”
“Principito was sleeping,” Gonzalo said apologetically but ignored the woman.
“I should never have gotten off LIRR in Crown Heights. Never. This is hell. That’s why nobody wants to buy apartments there.” She took out her cell phone and shook it.
The parrot started to lick his finger and moved from side to side swinging his head. “RRRRR! Where are you from?”
The traffic started to move slowly.
“I should never have gotten this limousine taxi. I can be raped or—you know, this is animal torture,” she cried.
“RRR! Where are you from, BITCH? BITCH, where are you from?”
“BITCH! Did he actually me call me bitch?”
“He can also say Puta marranana.”
“RRRR! Puta marrana, gorda hijueputa.”
“Can you quiet that animal?”
“Bitch, puta marrana, gorda hijueputa. RRRR!”
Waving his palm down with his long yellowish nails, he said, “Calm down, ma’am. He is not going to be quiet until you answer the question.”
“Question?” She brought her well-manicured hands to her mouth and bit her index finger nail, breaking it.
“Where are you from?” Gonzalo asked.
“Where are you from? the parrot echoed.
She hugged her briefcase. “What kind of information you want to extract from me? I protect my buyers. They trust me to get their homes,” she mumbled.
“PUTA MARRANA; GORDA HIJUEPUTA. PUTA MARRANA. BITCH,” The bird said even louder.
Gonzalo glimpsed at her freckled, cushioned arms and said calmly, “Just look at him and tell him.”
She sighed, “Ohio…Columbus.”
“Columbus,” said the woman.
“No, he is saying that he is Colombian.”
“Talk quieter. He may become nervous and loud again.”
She kept quiet for a while. Suddenly, covering her mouth with her hand full of rings, she laughed when the parrot moved his head twice.
“I guess there in your country, Colombia, there are a lot of animals like this one. What is his name?”
Gonzalo went on without correcting the woman’s pronunciation. “All kinds of animals and fruits.”
“So, why did you come here? So you can drive this cab with animals with all those illegal things,” she said as she fanned her neck with a New Yorker magazine.
“I never come here,” he said as he dried the sweat of his nape with a towel with black stains of car oil.
“You are mentally ill, a really crazy person, and crude, to boot.”
“Crazy, crazy,” said the parrot.
“If you have not realized, you are already here.”
“Ma’am, I meant, I did not come here under my own will…a long story. After many years, I can say that I was swallowed or I slipped in…”
“That’s why I don’t like to travel. You never know if you are able to return. I have gone only once to Paris, the most terrible place in the whole world. They did not even speak English, and everybody is drunk. Can you imagine if for some reason and couldn’t come back? If there is some kind of war…slipped in. Ah…quicksand, you meant?”
“Not exactly. I meant swallowed.”
There was a long silence. Even the parrot seemed to sense that something had hit the conversation.
“Can you guide me to Central Park West, the John Lennon building, you said?”
“Oh, God,” she said as she shrugged and rolled her blue eyes. “What kind of cab driver are you? Everybody knows the building where John Lennon was killed. Go along 59th Street and make a right at the circle. I’ll show you.” She took a pill with some water. “You should take one of these. They prevent you from sweating,” she said, moving her eyes from his wet neck to the dirty towel that now was on the center console.
Gonzalo ventured, “They say that Yoko Ono made him a sculpture, Imagine.”
“Imagine.” And the parrot repeated three times. “Imagine, imagine, imagine.”
“I have never seen it,” said Gonzalo, gently pulling the corner of his chevron-style mustache.
“This is only for tourists and the park has a curfew after eleven. I have never—” She bit her lip. “I guess you are like me too. There are things you never do.” She dropped the intonation, thinking it over. “I have never walked without shoes, not even when I had to sell Japanese houses.” Her fingertips sensed the side of her briefcase and pulled out among the files a pair of sandals, plastic gloves, and a silver fork. “I always have my sandals with me.”Gonzalo thought how it would be to live with never feeling in the skin of his feet the roughness of the rocks, the wetness of the grass, or the crunchiness of the dry leaves.
Gonzalo wanted to say that when he was a child, he ran barefoot over the mud, sand, and the ponds left by the rain in his neighborhood, but he bit his lip. “I have never seen the Statue of Liberty either,” he said it with a goofy smile.
“Either? Wait a minute, you told me you have been driving for more than twenty years.” She took out from the briefcase a small container with piece of tiramisu, opened it, and threw its plastic fork to the floor. Then she grabbed the silver fork and started eating.
“Night time only. As I told you earlier, I feel as if I have been swallowed by a huge animal, and I am living in his belly. Living here in New York, I bounce from corner to corner, from wall to wall, being digested. The news, the passengers are acids that bleach me to bring me…to what is acceptable, I guess. I have been eaten with everything that was me, from Colombia. I am inside of a huge animal.”
A pitchfork demolished the standing tiramisu cake as she said, “A whale, you mean.”
“Perhaps,” he sighed. And the parrot repeated, “Whale, whale.”
“My mission is to let people know what my survival is. This cab is a glance of survival from my country or what is survival…at least for me.”
Then, she opened her mouth and shoveled a spoonful of tiramisu. Gonzalo imagined how she crushed it with her front teeth, she ground it passing the dough from side to side. He almost felt how the saliva warmed up her mouth and felt the sweetness moving toward the middle of her palate to swallow the bite with a slight pressure coming from an up-and-down movement in her throat.
Surely the saliva with sweet coffee flavor on the tip of her tongue made her smile. She gazed at the ruins of the tiramisu triangle on the plastic container. Gonzalo felt sad for its destroyed beauty.
“You can leave me here,” she said and handed him a $20 bill. “Is that OK for you?”
Gonzalo turned his head and grabbed the tip of the bill, saying, “It is a donation, ma’am, as I told you earlier. Survival is mostly donation. Even a captured lamb resigns to live under the lions claws. It donates its life to the lion.”
“I do not donate anything. I throw you a twenty and don’t ask for more.” She crumpled the plastic container with some crumbs of tiramisu and tossed it. The container tumbled on the kneeler near the plastic fork. She stopped for one second and bent over to pick up the plastic container and the fork and threw them in a plastic bag, sighing.
As she was moving heavily toward the door, she turned around, pointing to the dark park and said, “‘Imagine’ is someplace behind those bushes. Right next to Strawberry Fields.” Then she mumbled, “I always come too late so I am not able to enjoy Central Park. Who wants to be arrested?”
The parrot bit the cushion of the front passenger seat and repeated, “Arr, rrrr,arrrested.”
She got out and left the door opened. Gonzalo sighed and stretched himself to reach the handle and closed the door.
Gonzalo looked at his watch. 11:50.
He drove along Central Park West and saw a car leaving an empty spot. He smiled. He parked there, looked at Principito, and said, “Let’s see that monument.”
He put the parrot on his shoulder, and the parrot made his ‘R’ noise, biting Gonzalo’s hairy earlobe.
Gonzalo went inside the bushes and walked on the path. The place was dark and suddenly he felt, or perhaps he wished, that the fat passenger’s naked feet were running to hide inside the grass. He followed the movement with his eyes. Then he saw the letters written in black and white tiles. “Imagine.” He smiled again and squinted without finding another smile behind the trees.
Jhon Sánchez is a native of Colombia, but obtained political asylum in the United States. He received a JD/LLM from IU, an MFA from LIU, and he is also a contributor to Pressenza IPA. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for the Best of the Net.
* * *
Shakespeare & Co.
By Susanna Solomon
“No, it’s true, I used to live here,” he said with a grin. “Just upstairs.”
“You used to live in a book store?” I asked.
“Can you think of better company?”
I ran my hands along the spines of the books tucked under a staircase at the back of the Paris’ bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. I was there for a week and it was my second visit.
“Name’s Tom,” he said, extending his hand.
“They have bedrooms upstairs?” I asked. “An apartment? A studio?”
“Of sorts.” Tom laughed. “Sleeps three. Two single beds and a fold-out Murphy. People stay up there for years.”
“Windows?” I asked. I don’t like small spaces and was feeling a little too tucked in at the back of the shop under the stairs.
“A view of the Seine,” he said. “And Notre Dame.”
“Good Lord,” I answered and sat down on a stool.
“You have to ask gently, and not be aggressive in any way. It’s like anything – if you make yourself a pest. There’s a fine line. I wanted, I asked, I got in. Took two years.”
“And now?” I asked, thinking of the comfort of my hotel room with the ensuite bath.
“All you have to do is stack shelves for two hours a day and read a book a week,” Tom answered, making space on a shelf for two paperbacks he held in his left hand. “But there are … stories.”
“Ghost stories?” I asked. Sleeping in a bookstore anywhere in the world would be fun. But Paris! “Like Scott Fitzgerald, or James Baldwin, or Hemingway? James Joyce?”
“Hardly,” Tom laughed. “A thin ten-year-old in a white nightdress holding a candle.”
“You’ve seen her?” asked an American girl to my left. Too many braces, too much hair color, but she certainly had a healthy literary appetite which was good. Her hands were full of books.
“Two years ago. After the shop closed. At midnight. Fernando, the Murphy bed guy, he was out in the Marais, and the other resident,” Tom pronounced the word res-i-dent, “had just moved out. So it was just me. Mostly. I was holding a cup of espresso.”
“You drink coffee that late?” I asked, scanning the owner’s picks.
“I could drink it twenty-four hours a day. Coffee doesn’t do a thing for me – but doobies do.” He sighed. “But I hadn’t even struck a match when I saw her.”
“She was floating by the door?” I asked.
“On my bed actually.” He thought a sec. “Not quite under the covers. Standing over it, like apparitions are supposed to do.”
“A character from a novel you just read?” I said. “Madame Bovary?”
“When she was twelve, miss?”
“Mona. It wasn’t Madame Bovary when she was twelve. No one knows what she looked like then.”
“Show me. Show me now,” I asked. “Upstairs. Just up there. Would the owners mind?” I gestured to the front of the store. He towered over me, but still, there were possibilities ….
“If you buy at least three books,” Tom answered.
“Now?” I asked. I wasn’t really ready to choose a book, much less three. I steered the conversation back. “So, tell me, the ghost – “
“The apparition, Cammi? That’s her name, you know.”
I nodded, my palms sweaty.
“She was crying, sobbing quietly. I asked her why.”
“What did she say?” I nudged closer.
“’If you’d been stuck in an attic a hundred years, you’d be crying too, buster,’ she said.”
“That’s kind of modern language.”
“Don’t you think she reads too?” Tom replied.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said dryly. “I mean, how can a ghost read a book, much less hold one?”
He didn’t take the bait.
“She leaned toward me. I was trying to back up to the stairs – those stairs just above my head. Then she stopped, held out her hand, and spoke again. ‘Get me out of here, Tom.’ Hearing her speak my name, I practically fell down the stairs. They’re steeper than you think.”
“You’re pulling my leg,” I said.
“‘I won’t hurt you,’ Cammi said. She was wearing a bright white bow in her hair, like those photos of those Victorian girls you’ve seen. ‘I couldn’t find a brush,’ she said. ‘Pardon my somewhat disheveled appearance, but there are no beauty supplies here, as you can see.’ She ran her hand through the air and sparks flew out of the ends of her fingers. ‘Only guy stuff,’ she said. ‘No good for me. Don’t you guys ever bathe?’”
“How could I tell her?” Tom went on, almost in a trance, ignoring my attempts to participate in the conversation. “There’s a sink downstairs, at the back of the store, and a shower at the Youth Hostel down the street, but … But. She scowled, wagged one finger at me, sending sparks. ‘You’re afraid I’ll be seen, if I go out on the Quai?’ I wasn’t sure what to say, so I sat down on the bed.”
“Were you afraid, Tom?”
“She sat beside me. About four-ten, her legs stuck out as her feet in her blue shoes were too short to set on the floor.”
“Did you try to touch her?” I asked. “Did she feel like fog? Or water? Or maybe jello?”
I watched as Tom returned to the present. He seemed surprised that a few more people had arrived and were now leaning in doorways, listening.
“You have some kind of wild imagination, Mona,” he said, remembering, apparently, who I was and that he was talking to me.
“And?” I asked.
“Mist, yes, that’s right. She felt like mist. Cool. Young. Beautiful.”
“And sad,” I added.
“From living a few hundred years too long?” I suggested.
“No. From people asking her stupid questions.”
Oh, that shut me up fast. Stung, I caught my breath. “You’re the one who started it.”
He went back to ignoring me. “We spent some hours together. She told me a little about her home in the ninth arrondissement. The walk she took on her way past St. Sulpice, down the alley, the strong hands that grabbed her. She hadn’t planned on being out after dark, but she’d been playing with Sophie – and had lost track of time.”
“One of the Rive Gauche murders,” said one of the onlookers. His face was lined, his body thin and wiry. He put one hand on the banister going upstairs. “I’ll protect her.”
“No!” Tom cried, pulling up his long form and pivoting so he was at the stairs, his one hand on the stranger’s arm. “She doesn’t handle visitors well.”
Just then an ear-splitting scream came from the front of the store. We all ran. Ten to fifteen of us crowded the front of the shop and pushed our way to the door.
“Ca n’est rien. It’s nothing. No one. A pickpocket. He was caught,” a gendarme said. I saw the cop cars, heard the woo-woo of sirens, and thought about the ghost upstairs. She could have used a gendarme that night.
While everyone was at the front of the shop, I snuck back to the stairs and started to climb.
“Cammi?” I called gently, hoping no one would hear the creak of steps. Two, three, four steps. “Cammi?” I pushed open the door, expecting an apparition, a girl not even half my age, a girl who had never had a chance.
“Can I help you?” answered a voice, a gravelly man’s voice, a man with a fashionable two-day stubble. “Customers aren’t allowed up here, miss.”
I blinked my eyes. “Tom…he was telling me about … about …,” I felt so strange, couldn’t get air.
“Ah. Oui. Thomas. Again,” the man said. “The ghost.”
I nodded. “You seen her?” I asked.
“Only through Tom’s eyes,” he said, walking toward me. He was very tall and looked down on my face, then took my hand. “You are not the first, dear…”
“I should say not,” I answered.
His hand was dry and warm, holding mine.
“We are in a shrine, a sanctum, of storytelling, miss. A monument for the greats. A place where dreams are made. Did Tom give you a dream? That you believed?”
I turned my face. I couldn’t look at him.
“Would you expect anything else at Shakespeare and Company? In Paris?” He grinned. “Can I offer you some Kir Royale? Or, perhaps Absinthe? Come take a look from here. You are not the first and you won’t be the last, but you are the prettiest.”
How could I resist? I was in a haunted attic above one of the world’s most famous bookstores, standing by the window, while the sun cast its last rays on the spires of Notre Dame.
“I’m Georges,” he said.
I was about to tell him my name when his lips closed on mine.
Susanna Solomon is the author of Point Reyes Sheriff's Calls, (HD Media Press 2013). Her second collection, More Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls, came out in 2016. Her stories have been published in the Point Reyes Light, The MacGuffin Literary Review, Meat for Tea – the Valley Review, in Foliate Oak Magazine and in the Redwood Anthology (five times) and online in the Mill Valley Literary Review and Harlot’s Sauce Radio. She gets her inspiration from actual sheriff’s calls in the Point Reyes Light and makes up wild and wacky stories. Lately she’s been writing ghost stories set in Paris.
* * *
The Boy. The Guy. The Man.
By Lance Turner
Aaron held his phone in his hand, resting his hand on his leg. It was late but he wanted to text someone. Maybe find a guy to come over. He sat in the passenger’s seat of his friend’s car as she drove him back to his apartment. He spent most of the day with her because he had the day off from work. She had some beers in her refrigerator. Earlier, they had popped the bottles in the freezer for a few minutes before pulling them back out and twisting them open.
Aaron focused on the bright bulb of the upcoming streetlight. He blinked his eyes and dipped his head back down. The light was strong. He had drunk too much. As the car passed under the light an orange hue enveloped the edges of the windows and shined off the hood. He looked over and saw a guy running along the sidewalk in gym shorts and a tank-top. He looked like he was a college guy, early twenties maybe. Sometimes Aaron missed being in school. It had only been a few years since he graduated, but still. He missed being around all the people. Aaron watched as the man sprinted ahead of them and then alongside them and then behind. Aaron swore to himself.
“Did you see that?” Aaron kept looking out the window, turning around in his seat, leveraging his body around, pulling himself around by gripping the headrest.
“See what?” He saw her look over at him turned around in his seat, but she didn't turn far enough to see the guy running in the cold.
“That guy. Running.” He pointed behind the car and turned back in his seat.
“No.” She adjusted her gloved hands on the steering wheel.
“He was in like shorts and a tank-top.” He liked catching sight of the runners in the summer, when a lot of the more defined guys ran without their shirts, simultaneously showing off, tanning, and making Aaron feel embarrassed he did not workout more. Aaron began to look at his phone’s contacts. “Fucking idiot,” he said.
Aaron got out of bed and opened the curtains hung over his bedroom window. He saw new snow on the tree outside. He wandered passed the kitchen, catching an aroma of blackening banana peels and microwave pizza. Trash needed taken out. He would have cleaned up the apartment before he left, but he didn't think he was going to be bringing Ward back home with him. He hated it when he went over to another guy's place and felt the urge to keep his clothes on, fearing if he tossed them on the floor they'd be lost among the other articles of clothing needing picked up and washed. But Ward had texted him after he got off duty, wanting Aaron to go out for a drink. They hadn't gotten together before. After chatting online and exchanging numbers, their texts mostly consisted of “Hey. What's up?” followed by “nm u?”
He opened the curtains on the front window in the front room and turned away from the sunlight. He walked back through the kitchen and turning into his bedroom his foot stepped awkwardly on a shoe. He stumbled forward and sprawled across the floor, the thud of his body echoing into the apartment. He cursed and kicked the shoe up against the wall.
He saw Ward move in bed, lifting his head up from the pillow. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Aaron sat up on the floor. He saw Ward's uniform draped over the back of the chair Aaron kept by the closet. He thought it fit Ward well. He was a policeman and Aaron called him a rookie last night when they got back to his apartment. It was the first time Aaron was cuffed in bed. Aaron didn't remember putting the uniform over the chair. Ward must have gotten up during the night and hung it up, he thought. Great. He has one of those apartments. He'd clean it up after work.
Aaron unlocked the door to his apartment. “That's cool,” he said, motioning Michael inside with a slight nod of his head.
“Yeah, it's hard getting into the labs you want,” he said back. Michael was a senior in psychology trying to figure out his class schedule for the spring semester. He went into Aaron's apartment, his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “You have to either really know the professor or be studying something related to what their studying.”
It was a Saturday afternoon and Aaron drove to Michael's apartment to pick him up because Michael didn't have a car and he had roommates. They had fucked at Michael's place once, but Aaron kept thinking his roommates were going to come in and wonder what the hell was going on.
Michael was beginning to meet up with Aaron about once every month now because Michael liked playing with toys. It was why he chose misc/fetishes as one of his interests when he filled out his online profile. Blindfolds, paddles, bondage straps, dildos. Aaron kept them in his bottom dresser drawer. He knew how to use them. It took a steady hand to take the time to work the thicker toys in slowly.
Michael's hair was shaggier than Aaron remembered and at first he thought Michael needed a good trim, but then Aaron thought it made him cuter and a little younger even though Aaron was already three years older than him.
“Well that sucks,” Aaron said, shutting the door. “Sounds like you always have to be teacher's pet then.”
“Eh, you at least have to get in good with the TA's. They help you out.” Michael looked around the apartment.
Aaron nodded. “Cool. So things are good?”
“Pretty much the same.” Aaron set his keys down on the coffee table.
They went through the banal small talk before the sex, the talk that made it seem like they were not meeting up to just fuck. They were acquaintances that way, and almost friends. They texted and chatted online. They knew each other. It was not at all random.
Aaron liked the small talk.
He used both hands to type out a text on his phone. It was Wednesday afternoon and Aaron was bored-and-horny. It was not a good combination. He was horny and wanted to get off. Aaron knew it would be easier just to take care of it himself and masturbate in front is his computer while looking at the websites he bookmarked because then he would be able to actually focus on other things besides porn and masturbating and maybe do something worthwhile afterward, like workout.
Cumming automatically gave him focus. After shooting he would sit back in his computer chair and look at the clock surprised to see he spent two and half hours edging while chatting and watching videos online. Then he'd sign out of his messenger, hop in the shower, and finally start thinking about what to eat being that he missed his usual supper time by a couple hours. But he did not want a hand-job today. He wanted body contact. He wanted to feel someone against him. It had been over a month since he was with a guy last. Work was consuming most of his time and the guys he wanted kept on being unavailable when he was free.
He was hard as he sat on his couch sending the first couple texts. The timing was against him. It was mid-afternoon and not the most convenient time for anyone to drop everything and come over but he had to try. He picked his recipients somewhat carefully, thinking about who he would not mind seeing, who might be free, and who might even be free soon. He could have just sent a mass text and seen who responded like on the days when he was only bored and not bored-and-horny, sending out a “Hey. How’s it going? J,” to everyone in his contact list. The smiley face made the message more personal and less like a blanket message. But Aaron did not want to hear from everyone so he kept the message to a few guys, the ones that were cool about hooking up but did not want to merely fuck and leave. Aaron liked to have a little contact, a little making out and fondling. It was difficult when he ran across the guys who didn't like making out, the ones who only wanted sex. He didn't understand the guys who wouldn't kiss because making out got him excited. Putting his hands on the other guy's body, feeling his chest, pushing up against him.
Aaron got a few responses and asked what a couple of the guys were up to. He could picture them, matching the guys up with the names he stored on his phone. Their responses dwindled as some said “at work” or “Class” but there was a promising “not much bored u?” from Brian, otherwise known as skittles_24. Aaron knew five different Brian's and none of their last names. He distinguished between them by saving their screen-names with their contact information. Aaron ditched the small talk when he replied and simply texted back, “Wanna cum over?”
“Sure,” skittles_24 responded. Then another message came, “15 min?”
Aaron listened to some music on his computer as he got ready. He wasn't sure why he wanted Eric to come over anymore. He was hard when he invited him over, but as he straightened his apartment, putting dishes in the sink, and closing the door to his closet, his erection faded and he grew tired. He checked his clothes hamper. He’d have to do laundry in the morning to clean up the stains on the sheets from the bed. Sometimes it felt like it was too much trouble to fuck. Sex was a hassle, he thought, as he sprayed air-freshener around his apartment and turned on the ceiling fan above the couch.
Aaron sat at his computer, chatting online with some random guys, seeing if he wanted to meet up with any of them. He was masturbating off and on as he chatted, wondering whether or not it would be worth it to get dressed, comb his hair, brush his teeth, and drive over to meet up. But the chatting got heated with messages discussing skin and flesh and loads and positions. He came and the want to hook up passed. Aaron was able to focus on the other things needing done, like just taking the time to be away from the computer and giving his hand a rest.
Sitting back in his computer chair, he stretched his arm out and thought about how just a few moments before he wanted the feeling, the touch of skin on skin, the breath, the tightness of someone else. Aaron remembered the first time he met up with someone, a guy named Jason. The fact that he was ex-military was a total turn-on. Jason emailed him a picture of him in his uniform. Then a picture of him flexing. Then a picture of his cock. They chatted online, back and forth, for weeks. They said what they liked doing, but Aaron was new at it, he was a college-aged virgin. He was twenty and a junior. Jason was twenty-seven. Aaron made up what he liked, saying what he thought he wanted to get into.
They met up in the afternoon at Jason's apartment. He was taller and more filled out than Aaron. He was stocky and nicely grown into his body, an abstract tattoo running across his left shoulder. They kissed in his living room, and he laid Aaron on the floor, on his back. And then they were naked and tonguing and Jason was hard and thick and Aaron was inexperienced. Afterward, Jason said, “I hope that wasn’t too fast for you? You were just so hot.”
Aaron said, “No, it was good.”
Before his first fuck with Jason, Aaron could masturbate and did not know what it was like to be with someone else. He didn't know what he was missing out on by not being with another guy, feeling him against him, being connected with someone. He fantasized about it in his room, pretending his hands weren't his own, mimicking the movements he watched online. But he didn't really know what it was like.
But when he was no longer a virgin, when he knew what it felt like to have a guy inside him, to breathe on him, to hold, to lay under him, he wanted to be with someone. He wanted to feel him. And as Aaron sat back in his computer chair, cracking his knuckles and bending his wrist, thinking about his first time and what to do with the rest of the day, he came to the conclusion that Jason showed him what it felt like to be alone and not have someone else to be with. Jason provided him with a comparison, fucking versus masturbating.
His first time fucked him up.
Trudging up to his apartment building, Aaron splashed in a puddle from the overnight rain. Once inside the building, he opened the fire door at the bottom of the stairs and walked up. The climb seemed harder today, the steps seemed higher and his legs were sore. Aaron opened his door and kicked his shoes off, pushing them over onto the mat beside the door and, without turning on a light, staggered over to his bed and lay down on his stomach with his hands underneath his pillow. Sunlight filtered in through the curtains.
Aaron had stayed at Brian's apartment overnight; this Brian's screen-name was rstorm.
Lance Turner is a writer from the Heartland, currently living in New York. He has an MFA from the University of Kansas and a BA from Kansas State University. His work has appeared in CultureCult Magazine, Loveliest Magazine, Route 7 Review, Blinders Literary Journal, Gravel, Indiana Voice Journal, and The Pierian.
* * *
On a Bench
By Lester Weil
I have a bench by a mesquite tree overlooking the canyon. I like to sit there in the early morning and drink a cup of coffee, waiting for the sun to clear the mountains to the east. The summer mornings are pleasant and I can listen to the doves below and the other birds around the feeders. Sometimes there are deer or javelina across on the flat, and on occasion the herd of coatimundi that wander up and down the canyon will be there.
On this morning the creek in the canyon is running strong from last night’s storm and is louder than usual. I decide it is time to go get another cup of coffee and reach for my cup to finish the last swallow.
But something strange happens. As I go to lift the cup, I can’t. I am kind of numb all over and I can’t seem to make my hand or arm obey. It is as if I am frozen. I can’t even move my head. I can see my hand holding the cup on the wide arm of the bench—at least I can move my eyes.
As I sit here, I try to figure out what is going on. Nothing remotely like this has ever happened to me before. I haven’t eaten anything yet his morning so it isn’t some kind of allergic reaction. I decide the most likely thing is some kind of stroke.
I try to remember what to do in case of a stroke, but all I can remember is that you should call for help immediately. Probably good advice, but I can’t move. I can’t call out, only mumbled sounds come forth. And even if I could call out, there is no one to hear me since I live alone. My closest neighbor lives a half mile away as the crow flies, and on the other side of the hill to boot. The only house I can see is three miles away, nestled in the foothills across the canyon.
The only person likely to drive down my ranch road is a meter reader, but he would just park by the barn, read the meter on the far side of the house and leave. I am expecting a UPS delivery, but he will leave the package in the box I have by the gate for UPS and Fed-Ex. Even if he needed a signature, he doesn’t have the combination to the lock on the gate.
As my situation becomes clear, I begin to panic, and it is frightening. I feel trapped, and my panic is exacerbated by my inclination toward claustrophobia. The helpless feeling is overwhelming. I want to scream, but I can’t even do that—pathetic moans and mumbles are all that come out. I can’t seem to get my breath. All reason disappears in blind panic.
* * *
It is a good long while before the panic eases and I can begin to think and reason again. I start controlling the speed of my breathing and concentrate to force my heart to slow down. Soon my mind is somewhat under control again—at least to some extent. Things are back to normal, at least the new normal, as I still cannot move.
Most people, when something bad happens to them, they yell and curse and carry on and fret and waste time dwelling on what happened. But I have always just stoically accepted the fact that whatever happened has happened and get on with fixing it instead of wasting time rueing and cursing fate. So I resign myself. I am just going to have to sit here awhile until this thing passes and I can move again, so no use fretting about what I cannot change. And since the sun has cleared the eastern mountains, I might as well enjoy the view. After all, this is my favorite place in this world.
When I tell people in other parts of the country I live in the desert, they immediately picture sand dunes a la the Sahara. The Sonoran Desert where I live is not remotely like that. Although most of it is rugged and mountainous, the variety of plants and shrubs is astonishing. I am sitting by a mesquite tree, and a little further up the slope is a Mexican palo verde tree and further yet a blue palo verde, currently covered with small yellow flowers. Across on the canyon side there are several juniper. In the canyon bottom are alders and cottonwoods, desert willows and Mexican walnuts. Further down there is even a struggling cedar tree; some seed must have washed all the way down from the mountains to the east.
Across the canyon on a rocky hill in back of a grass and mesquite covered flat, I can see several varieties of yucca, ocotillo, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. There is a variety of brush, including the now blooming ‘bottle brush’ plant, some flame honeysuckle, brittlebush, turpentine bush, and others that I never learned the name of. There are even a few red splashes of coral bean flowers, though they are about through for the season.
As the sun rises higher in the sky the contours on the hill seem to change with the shadows. Different rocks now reflect light while shadows hide others; rocks change shape as the sun hits different parts of their contours. Sun reflects bright off of a flat prickly pear branch that was inconspicuous minutes before. Suddenly a ‘light’ shines like a beacon, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that the sun shining through the foliage of the juniper tree is now reflecting from a bare dead white branch. It is like watching a kaleidoscope.
* * *
I have been dozing. When I wake, I look across the canyon to the flat and see a stampede of javelina. The are over a dozen javelina—I lose count after eleven—running full tilt across the flat and disappearing down into the canyon on one of their many trails. I wonder what they are running from, but I see no other movement, save for a hawk circling overhead.
After a time—I am having a little trouble gauging the passage of time—I see the cause of the stampede. From around the large boulder on the flat comes a jaguar. He is not the usual tan spotted variety that has been seen and captured in the mountains to the west. He is black with a tinge of dark brown in his black fur. I recognize him from pictures taken by the motion activated camera I have on the flat.
There are some things that are ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrences. I am living one of those now, seeing a live jaguar outside of a zoo. The jaguar looks across the canyon at me, unconcerned, probably because the canyon here is 60 yards wide and 55 feet deep. Though this is the first time I’ve seen him live, I have the feeling that he has probably watched me numerous times. I figure this must be the northern part of his range, which would cover hundreds of square miles and lie mostly in Mexico, whose border is just a few miles to the south.
I watch him move into the canyon and disappear. All is quiet except for a cluster of black-breasted sparrows who are scratching around to the left of the chair and the doves who are still calling.
* * *
I have been sleeping and when I wake, the sun is directly overhead. The sun is hot through the thin foliage of the mesquite tree. I wish I were wearing a hat. The heat adds to my drowsiness. I doze and dream.
I sweat as I struggle into the undergrowth. I breath through my mouth to try and lessen the sound. The Viet Cong are close and I hear shots; they're making sure the rest of my squad are dead. It seems an eternity till they leave. I sit with my back to a large mammosa tree and cradle my rifle. Again I wonder how a country can be so hot. My mouth is dry and I shiver with fright while time seems endless as I sit in fear that the VC will come back.
I can now hear the VC walking on the path and tighten my grip on my rifle and...
I am startled awake. There is someone on the javelina trail that comes out of the canyon to the left of my chair. Out of the ‘white noise’ of the creek, I often imagine hearing voices. But I am sure these voices are real. And now a dislodged rock rolls into the canyon.
From below on the trail I hear, “Alto. Hay alguien allí.” I try to translate, but my Spanish is piss poor. Alto means ‘stop’. I recognize hay, which means ‘there is’, and allí is I think ‘here…or there’. Probably “There is someone there”—meaning me. The voices stop and I hear nothing. Soon there is quiet conversation, but I cannot make out any words.
They are probably migrants heading for Tucson and points north. Migrants do not normally come this way because the canyon makes for a rugged route. When they do, it is usually because they got lost. If they are on this javalina trail, they must have entered the canyon to the west and followed up the canyon. This is the first halfway decent trail out of the canyon heading north, and the deep pool here blocks the canyon so you can’t go any farther.
I hear them again, they are climbing up the trail. Sounds like three or four people. The trail comes out to the left and behind me so I cannot see them. I hear them hurry on. I try to call, but my mumbling is too soft for them to hear.
The disappointment of not contacting them almost brings on another panic attack, but I struggle to keep control. After a moment I hear footsteps behind me and hear, “Señor?” I mumble back incoherantly.
“Señor?” A young man comes around in front of the chair and looks at me. He is short and very dark, very ‘indio’, probably from southern Mexico or Guadamala. He asks questions in Spanish to which I mumble in return. He touches my arm and again asks a question. Were this not so dire, it would be comic. A dialogue between Spanish and mumble. I wonder if the United Nations has a mumble translator. “And what languages do you speak?” “Oh, I am fluent in English, Spanish, German, and mumble.” The absurdity of my mind’s travels just adds to my frustration.
The young man soon gives up and I hear him walking away. I feel tears of frustration on my cheeks and the panic returns, stronger than before.
* * *
The sun is almost behind the mountains to the west, and it is cooling off a bit. My mouth is ‘cotton dry’ and my face is 'sun burn' hot from being in the sun all day. The irritation of my crotch where I have wet myself is lessened as my pants dry. I think about astral projection, wish that I could do ‘out of body’ travel.
The closest I ever came to ‘out of body’ was once on my motorcycle traveling up near Picacho Peak. I remember gradually seeing the handle bars from farther and farther away, as if I were Plastic Man and my arms were stretched and lengthened until I could see my cycle from fifty yards up in the air. I was afraid I’d crash so I shut down the throttle and coasted to the roadside and walked around until I felt normal enough to dare continue my trip. I spend time trying to recreate that feeling now to no avail. Shutting my eyes, I imagine myself above the canyon looking down, but it is no use.
* * *
The sun has disappeared behind the mountains and it is dark and cool. A slight breeze blows up the canyon and I listen to the great horned owls call back and forth. Last season they raised three babies in a hole in the canyon wall across from the bench. I remember the fuzzy white owlets, their faces developing until they looked like the adult owls. One morning they were just gone.
The sky brightens and I see an almost full moon rise above the Grosnevor Mountains to the east. There follows a repeat of the morning’s kaleidoscope, but in much darker shades. I watch until I fall asleep.
* * *
I am alone in my double bed. My dead wife comes and sits on it next to me. “Do you miss me at all? It must be chilly on these cold nights sleeping alone. But I see Buster is curled up at the foot of the bed. You know I never allowed the dog on the bed. But I suspect you'd miss him more than you do me if he were gone.” I try to protest but she pays no attention and keeps on talking.
Cries of coyotes wake me. I am very cold. In the waning moonlight I see a coyote pack on the flat across the canyon. They soon quiet down and disappear. I begin to believe that I will die here, and start to recall events from my life, wondering how things would have been if I had made different choices. What if I had stayed in the army? What if I had kept working at the smelter instead of going back to grad school? What if… I let my mind wander through different scenarios until I fall asleep again.
* * *
I look down and I see my dog Buster. He comes and lays his head on my knee and I reach out to stroke his long ears.
“Good dog, Buster, good dog. But you can't be here. I had to take you to the vet and put you to sleep last year. I hated to do it, but you were in so much pain and couldn't get up by yourself.” Being able to touch him again is soothing. I have missed him so much and feel tears rolling down my cheeks.
“Do you remember the time you got into a skunk and I opened the door before I realized? You barged into the house and before I got you out on the porch to give you a tomato juice and dish soap bath, the whole house smelled so bad I had to open all the doors and windows even though it was 30 degrees out.”
I continue petting and talking to Buster until I sleep again.
* * *
The dark sky starts to brighten in the east. The sky turns from grey to pale blue to orange/red and there are thin clouds in horiontal strips. Javelina are coming up the trail. Although I cannot see them, I can hear their small hooves and can smell their musky odor. They will probably root up the new agave cactus I planted in front of the house a few days ago.
The jaguar comes up and smiles into my face and says “There goes my breakfast” before padding off after the javelina.
The sun feels harsher on my face than yesterday and my mouth is so dry. I keep fading in and out. It is so hot today and I am so thirsty.
* * *
When I wake again, Buster is licking my hand. I reach down and scratch behind his ears and get up from my chair. I feel good. My bad wrist doesn't hurt, and it has hurt constantly since the accident forty years ago. I do a couple deep knee bends and my knees don't hurt. I feel better than I have since… I can't even think when I've felt better.
“Wanna go for a hike, fella?”
Buster gives a bark and we head down the trail into the canyon, Buster in the lead as always.
Lester L Weil is an ex-professional bassoonist, ex-professor, ex-custom furniture builder, ex-house builder. He is retired in Arizona near the Mexico border.