By Maryetta Ackenbom
I stared into the mirror, my mind playing with a feeble attempt at humor. I didn’t look empty. But I felt empty. I brushed back my graying hair from my forehead. Maybe I should get it tinted.
Longing to stave off the effects of aging, I fought to stay awake in the evenings, but I often fell asleep in my recliner, a book open on my lap. I wasn’t sick—I just had a weariness. Even my addiction to computer poker games faded out after I’d played a hand or two.
The French class I taught tired me more than anything else. I needed my exercise at the club, and the piano lessons inspired me and kept my fingers nimble. So, I cut the French class, and felt empty.
I turned away from the unreliable mirror. I’ll go for a walk. That always peps me up.
I put on my sandals and walked briskly under the early morning sun, breathing in the fragrance of my neighbors’ climbing roses. Halfway down the street, I heard someone crying. My neighbor’s little boy, about five years old, sat on his front steps, hands over his face, making little mewling sounds.
I turned up the sidewalk toward him. “Ernie, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
He lowered his hands. His face was flushed, his eyes puffy, his t-shirt damp and none too clean. “My mama.”
Bending toward him, I took his little hands in mine. “Is your mama sick?”
“She won’t wake up.”
I straightened. “Is anyone else at home?”
“No.” His hands covered his face again.
His parents had divorced last year. He was an only child.
“Do you want me to see what I can do?”
“Come inside with me.” I took his hand and pulled him up beside me, brushing back his tousled sandy hair. “Do you have a tissue for your eyes, and—uh—your nose?”
He nodded again and led me into the house.
The blinds were closed as if it were still dark, but in the bright summer morning, we didn’t need to turn on the house lights. The dim twilight gave the house a somber feeling. Stark modern furnishings lent a morose but delicate touch to the rooms.
“Ernie, did your mama get up this morning?”
He shook his head.
“Show me where she is.” I released his hand and let him lead me to the bedroom. In the darkened room, I made out the bed, with sheets and a blanket in an untidy pile at its foot.
I never had any medical training, but I knew at once that Ernie’s mother was dying, if she had not already succumbed. She lay on the bed in a thin nightgown, her body straight and her head thrown back over the pillow, her mouth open. I touched her neck, thinking to find a pulse. I felt nothing but the cool skin--too cool, even in the warm, stuffy bedroom. The slits of her eyes in her pallid face showed just a bit of white. I detected an odor, not unpleasant, in the room.
I crouched beside the boy. “We have to call an ambulance. Your mama is very sick. Where’s the telephone?”
Ernie and I sat in silence on the uncomfortable living room couch for the fifteen minutes it took the ambulance to arrive. The young blond paramedic in charge of the crew asked me a few questions, which I couldn’t answer with any authority. When Ernie turned away for a moment, the paramedic confirmed to me in a low voice that the woman was dead. I gasped. Somehow I sensed my life changing.
I turned to Ernie and put my hand on his arm. “Do you want to come to my house for awhile, until we find out more about your mama?”
I told the medic I planned to take Ernie home with me until some other arrangement could be made, and gave him my name and address.
I asked him, “Do you think it would be all right for me to look for the boy’s father’s address and phone number?”
“Ma’am, I’d wait for the police to search for that.” He stooped toward Ernie. “Son, do you know your dad’s phone number?”
Ernie shook his head.
When the ambulance left with Ernie’s mother, I found the house keys on a table near the door and left with Ernie, locking the front door. We walked the half-block back to my house.
I settled him on the sofa, with a pillow and a light blanket in case he needed to nap. He bounced a little on the soft cushions of the sofa, so different from the one in his house. I went to the kitchen, intending to prepare something for his breakfast.
I whirled at the sound of his small voice.
I blinked. “Que… What am I doing? I’m making you breakfast.”
“Je ne le veux pas.”
I led him to a chair at the kitchen table and sat beside him. “I know you’re sad. But you need something for breakfast. What about a glass of milk?”
Before he could say “non,” I had the milk poured into a glass and set before him. He looked at it, put his small hand around the glass, lifted it, and took the tiniest possible sip.
“Do you speak with your mama in French?”
He gazed at me without responding. I translated.
“I understand English. Ma mere…my mama is French.” He took another sip of milk.
I found a bran muffin in the cupboard and put it on a plate for him. Slowly, he reached for it and crumbled a bit, putting it in his mouth. A small grin. “Good. Merci.”
“You’re welcome. My name is June. You can call me Aunt June if you want, or just Auntie.”
When he had eaten most of the muffin and drunk the milk, his head started to droop. I took him back to the sofa, took off his shoes, and he lay back and fell asleep.
Here I was, attempting to limit my activities, and stuck with a small boy. I never had children. My short-lived marriage happened thirty years ago, long forgotten, and my teaching career had been in high schools. What would I do with a child? I didn’t even know if he needed help going to the toilet—I had no brothers, only an older sister.
When the doorbell rang, Ernie stirred and stretched but did not wake. The police arrived, wanting more information about Ernie’s mother.
The polite policewoman soon realized I knew nothing about the family. “Usually we take the children to Social Services in a case like this. But I heard from the paramedics that Ernie doesn’t know how to reach his father, so if you don’t mind taking care of him for awhile, I’ll go and search the house, to see if I can find out how to contact the father. We don’t even know the lady’s last name.”
“Officer, I have no experience with little boys, but he seems to be calm and well-behaved. I’ll be happy to have him here for awhile.”
She smiled. “I have two little ones at home. You’ll learn quickly—they let you know if you’re not doing something right.”
An hour later she came back from Ernie’s house. “We found the father’s phone number and called him. He lives about 100 miles away; he’ll be here this evening. Can you keep the boy until then? It would save a lot of transportation and paperwork.”
“Of course. Is there any word yet on the cause of death?”
“Nothing. The autopsy will be later this afternoon.”
When she left, I looked in on Ernie. He was sitting up, with my tabby cat, Jules, purring contentedly in his lap.
Ernie smiled at me. “We never had a cat. Or a dog. Oh, we have some fish—and I forgot to feed them.”
“I’m sure they’ll be all right for awhile. Your papa is coming tonight.”
“No. No, I don’t want to see him.”
“Why not? Your mama can’t take care of you. Your papa will take you.”
He started to cry. “No! Can’t I stay with you?”
My heart lurched. I was too old for this. “Why don’t you want to be with your papa?” I didn’t want to know the answer to my question.
Jules jumped off Ernie’s lap, and the little boy turned his face toward the back of the sofa and sobbed. I sat beside him, rubbing his back and shoulders, ready to weep myself.
My mind was filled with questions and possibilities. I spent the day puttering around the house, doing odd jobs I always put off indefinitely. Ernie slept for awhile, and then tracked me down in an upstairs bedroom where I was changing the sheets on the extra bed for the first time in some months. He sat on the floor near the door.
I bent over him. “I have a can of cream of tomato soup. That would be nice for lunch, wouldn’t it?”
“Je ne sais pas.”
“Well, I know. I’m going to heat it up now. Do you like peanut butter?”
“Did you find the bathroom? I forgot to ask you if you needed it.”
“Yes. I’m okay.”
He ate well—half the can of soup and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—and spent the rest of the afternoon playing with Jules.
I heard nothing further until about seven that evening, when Officer Grant, the young policewoman, called me. “Could you keep Ernie until tomorrow?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t explain right now, but I’ll stop by in the morning. Would that be all right?”
“Well…If he doesn’t mind sleeping in an old shirt of mine. Could I get some clothes for him from the house? He only has those shorts and a dirty t-shirt.”
“How about if I come by about seven-thirty in the morning, and I’ll go over to the house with you?”
That would have to do. The officer seemed to be in a hurry, and ended the conversation.
I found an old deck of cards and started to teach Ernie how to play poker, one of the few card games I knew. He learned quickly and made some good plays, but only stayed awake another hour. I tucked him into the bed I had just made and kissed him on the forehead.
As I turned to go, he said, “Thank you.”
I no longer felt empty.
My piano lesson was at eleven the next morning, and I didn’t want to miss it. But I felt comforted to have someone else, even a small boy, in the house. If he needed to stay longer, I would certainly offer to keep him. I’d take him along to my lesson in the morning—such a quiet boy would be no bother.
Officer Grant arrived a little early. Ernie looked up from his bowl of corn flakes. I told him we were going to find his clothes, and he nodded, spooning more cereal into his mouth.
“He doesn’t talk much, does he?” The officer led the way to Ernie’s house, keys in hand.
I frowned. “No. I don’t know whether he’s been affected by these events, or if he’s just that way. I don’t really know him well. But he’s a sweet boy.”
“Our problem now is that Ernie’s father can’t take him. He has a medical condition. Ernie’s mom has no relatives here—she came from France. The father has a sister living here in town. We’re trying to contact her now.” She turned the key in the lock and we went in. “By the way, the autopsy reported her death due to a massive stroke.”
“So young?” The young mother had seemed so healthy.
Officer Grant looked at me and nodded. “I think there may have been some medical history.”
A voice bleated through the radio on the officer’s belt. “We’re coming to meet you at the house. Miss Bryant is with me.”
“Ten-four,” replied Grant. She turned to me. “That was my partner. He’s with Ernie’s aunt and they’re on their way here. Will Ernie be all right in your house for awhile?”
“I believe so. I’ll check on him again in a few minutes.”
She walked toward Ernie’s room. “I’d like for you to be here, to meet Miss Bryant.”
“Is that Ernie’s last name?”
“Yes. His aunt is unmarried. That’s what his father told us.”
We gathered a couple of sets of clothing for Ernie. I found a plastic bag in the kitchen to pack them in. I looked around for toys and games he might want and added an intricate transformer shaped like a dinosaur and some movie DVDs. Whether he stayed with me for a few days or left right away with his aunt, that would have to do. We couldn’t spend time packing up his things now. I envisioned taking him to the mall to look for some new toys. My throat tightened.
The police unit pulled up in front of the house. A tall, dark-haired woman, dressed in jeans and a bedraggled t-shirt, got out, accompanied by the other officer. She walked toward the door with a slight swagger.
“Hi, I’m Gail Bryant,” she moved through the open door with her hand out toward me. I took it, returning her strong grip. “You must be the kindly neighbor. Thank you for taking care of Ernest. I’m so sorry to put you to this trouble.”
I smiled. “He’s been no trouble at all. I’m sorry about your sister-in-law.”
“Thanks. We were not close, but it was a blow. Problem is, I can’t take Ernest either. My brother is a drug addict—that’s why they divorced—and my lifestyle does not lend itself to caring for a little kid.”
“Oh. Is there anyone else?”
“No one. I would have no problem taking legal custody, but he couldn’t actually live with me. My partner is an activist and rather flamboyant. It would be uncomfortable.”
Officer Grant stepped between us. “I think we’d better take him to Social Services until this gets straightened out.”
I brushed back the hair from my forehead. I was getting a headache. “I’d hate that. I’m willing to take care of him, at least for a few days. He’s such a sweetheart.”
Miss Bryant grinned at me, a loose, joyful expression on her face. “Perfect, if it’s legal. Mary—that’s my partner—is a lawyer, and she could take care of the paperwork. I’m just a simple landscaper.”
“Then let’s leave it at that for now,” said Officer Grant. “I’ll talk to my chief about it, and to the Social Services representative. And I’ll be in touch.” She began to herd us out of the house.
“Wait. I need to feed the fish.” I glanced at Gail Bryant. ‘Would you like to see Ernie? I could take you home later.”
“I’d love that.”
Gail and Mary came to visit us often, happy for a home-cooked meal. All of us enjoyed a trip to Burger King occasionally.
I’m back to teaching French, and I’ve conquered my evening lassitude. I no longer feel empty. A small boy, becoming livelier every day, has entered my home and my heart. He goes to school, and has learned to speak only English to others, but at home we speak a mixture of English and French. He goes to the French class with me, plays online poker, and he’s even taking piano lessons. My cat Jules is fond of the aquarium we moved from his house.
Maryetta lives and writes in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, where both the people and the weather are warm. She published her first novel, "Georgia's Hope," a couple of years ago. She has a book coming out soon, entitled "Hope Abides, a Dallas Story." She has published a number of short stories online.
* * *
By Aaron Berkowitz
*In Memory of Menachem and Chaya (neé Langer) Berkowitz
Every few months he would go around to the local butcher shops and ask for horsemeat.
They never told him no, they told him to check again in a few months. He persisted like it was a profession. It wasn’t that Velvel enjoyed the not-quite beef taste or consistency; it was that it comforted him. He ate it during the war while he hid in the woods. He fought and bartered for it, there was never enough. It was what sustained him while his siblings starved in a concentration camp.
Now he was in America, a land where he could get any meat he wanted, except for horse. It wasn’t fit for human consumption the government said. Where he came from, people would kill each other for a bite. Velvel saw someone stab their own brother just to get the last forkful of flank from on top of the forward bowel—its gamy, tender, sweet taste was sung about in some local folk songs, and no one could predict the next time there would be any kind of beef to consume. The man hadn’t really liked his brother anyway, and often referred to him as “the shvantz.”
It wasn’t just the beef that was sought after though, the hooves made a thick gravy or stew, much like any other animals’ feet would, much Velvel guessed, like his own boiled feet would. He heard of others that resorted to that kind of thing. He never sank to that level, but sometimes he wondered.
The worst were horses that had shoes hammered onto their hooves. Luckily, most of his fellow countrymen were too poor to afford that luxury so most of the feet that came across his plate were free of the metallic taste. A Muscat could help hide the tinge of iron, but the only time he paired grape and horse was when he stole a bottle from a ransacked tavern. He scrounged under the bar and dead bodies perforated with bullets littering the wood floor. There were puddles of red surrounding the green glass container he thought might have cracked in the melee; fortunately it was intact. Velvel bartered with a pair of men. The unexpected alcohol allowed each of them two cups of wine and one bowl of horsemeat. Velvel considered it the best trade he ever made in his life.
Ten years of searching and he still could not find any horsemeat. Not in the seedier parts of Brooklyn, not even in the alleys behind the butcher shops where they unloaded meat at 4am so the inspectors couldn’t see that the refrigerated trucks only kept the animal product at a cold enough temperature to stave off the larger flies. The cold necessary to keep the meat fresh cost too much to be feasible. How was an honest fellow supposed to make a buck in this farshtinkene city? Still, he looked.
Velvel never told his wife, however. She was in the camps, had survived on bread, if you called the black slab bread, boiled water with a turnip thrown in on the lucky days. No one bothered to call that “soup.” His wife wouldn’t understand his desire to relive the food of affliction. Memories should be left in the past. To bring them back with not just your mind, but your senses? That was unthinkable, the sign of a madman. She slung enough names at him--schlimazel, schlemiel, schvantz--that he did not want to give her another opportunity to impugn him. And so Velvel looked alone, searching to regain something he could not name, a taste he could not forget.
In January of 1954 he walked into Yankel’s Butcher Shop and asked his usual question, the response though, was unusual.
“We have horse.”
Velvel had turned to leave as soon as the question was asked presuming the answer, so he stopped and looked at Yankel. “You do?”
Yankel shrugged as he cleaned his hands on a bloodstained rag. “Just came in yesterday.”
“I see.” He didn’t want to ask the follow up question—what would he do if the answer was no?
“Come to the back, I’ll give you some.”
“That’s it?” Velvel put his hands in his pockets, they were shaking and he didn’t want Yankel to see how much he needed the meat.
“What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’”
“No denial? No haggling?”
Yankel shrugged and put the rag down on his butcher’s counter. The red spotted cloth looked much like the wood chopping block it now rested on. “What’s there to deny? I have it. Why haggle—I can’t sell it to you, it’s not on the menu.” He indicated a black board with prices scribbled next to cuts.
Velvel walked passed Yankel as the butcher held open the divider keeping customers away from the pink-red bounty that sat under white lights and headed into the back of the shop. Yankel followed, pulled out two metal folding chairs and placed them at a small breakfast-nook appropriate table. He closed the door to the front of the store.
“Do you eat back here a lot?” Velvel sat as Yankel went to the walk in refrigerator.
Yankel spoke loudly from inside the cold. “The life of a butcher isn’t that exciting. I have a lot of free time so I come back here to sit.”
Velvel took his hands out of his pockets, rubbed them against his outer thighs to warm them. “The butchers I encountered were always busy.”
“This was back in the old country?” Yankel put a parcel wrapped in parchment paper down on the table, held a large knife with gold rivets in his right hand.
“Anything that ever happened to me happened back in the old country.”
Yankel laughed. “I know what you mean.” He opened the package and began cutting thin slices of the dried-blood colored beef. They were extremely thin, uniform in shape. Velvel admired the skill. “Those butchers were of a different breed.” Yankel didn’t look up while he sliced the meat.
“Of course.” Busy was an understatement.
Yankel shook his head. “I shall take it as a compliment that I am nothing like those butchers.” He fried the thin slices on a small portable grill.
Velvel smelled the crisping fat, the protein being remixed with sugars deepening the brown color of the beef. This room of gray cement wasn’t as hospitable as the last place he ate horsemeat. There were no trees, no fresh air. There was the gray though. The air ten years ago was always gray.
When the meat finished cooking the butcher put it onto a paper plate and set it in front of Velvel—he had two forks. He didn’t wait for Velvel but took a piece on his fork, wrapping it around like spaghetti and ate it in one bite. “I don’t like cutting it,” the butcher said in response to Velvel’s look, “seems to lose flavor.”
“I usually cooked it in stews, never ate enough to really get a good bite of it.” Velvel followed Yankel’s example and chewed slowly. There was too much of it, but they ate all of it.
Yankel finished his sixth piece and put his fork down. “Yes, well, at this point I have had enough of it to know which way to serve it best.”
“This is something you have often?”
Yankel looked towards the front of the shop. “I have it once in a while.”
“I’ve been in here before.”
Velvel put his fork down, one piece remained on the plate. “You didn’t offer any horse to me before?”
Yankel stood and pulled a clear bottle of liquid down from a shelf, poured it into two small glasses. “I made this myself.” The men shot the liquid back. It a hint of metal mixed in with the alcohol. It didn’t particularly have any sensation attached to it. “Hmm. This batch didn’t really sit long enough.”
Velvel put his glass back on the table.
“Why didn’t I give you meat before?” Yankel refilled the glasses. “It’s too weak. You need more than one when it’s this weak.” He smiled, put the bottle down on the table. “I guess I wanted to keep it for myself.” He swished the liquid around the glass. He poured less for himself than he did for his guest.
“Selfishness is something I remember when it comes to horsemeat.” Velvel sipped slowly. “But this time I am full.”
Yankel laughed. “Yes, I can see that. When was the last time you had it?”
“Must have been ten years ago I think. In the woods outside of Jelenec.” What did this butcher see? Had he eaten the meat too quickly, greedily?
Velvel coughed heavily. “You know it?”
Yankel shook his head. “I’ve heard of it.”
“You’ve never seen it…”
“If you’ve seen one Slovakian woods, you’ve seen them all.” Yankel kept drinking.
Velvel stared now, sat straight. “You’ve seen your fair share?”
Yankel stared at his empty glass, rolled it around in his fingers. There was a slumping to him, though his back wasn’t bent. He sank on top of the metal like an accordion. Memory weighed him down. “I saw enough.”
Velvel put his hand on the schnapps and left it there.
“Nu…enough.” Yankel shook himself and sat back up. He pointed to the bottle and Velvel poured him another shot.
“So why now?”
The butcher finished his cup of clear liquid. Poured a fourth, full this time. “I could see you really needed it.” He offered the last piece of beef to Velvel. He declined. The butcher quickly ate the slab of meat and drank his alcohol. “Thank you for sharing in the meal with me.”
“You’re not worried I’ll tell someone?” Velvel finished his alcohol, sat looking into the last little drops of liquid that sat there.
Yankel looked at his guest. “Who could you tell? You ate too.”
“People have been known to be self-sabotaging. You know, enjoy punishment...”
“Retribution?” The butcher laughed. “What retribution? We paid for this sin long before we ever committed it.”
“Paying for sins never did create silence. In fact, it typically ends in quite the opposite fashion.”
Velvel was feeling the weighty sensation creeping into the spaces behind his eyes. He didn’t usually drink.
“You’re getting too philosophical for me now.” Yankel shrugged, lifted the empty glass to his bottom lip and left it there. “I’m just a simple butcher.”
Velvel said nothing, put his cup down, rose to go to the door.
“Am I going to have to worry now you’re going to say something?” Yankel didn’t leave his seat, didn’t look at his departing guest either.
Velvel shook his head. “No, you were right. Who am I going to tell?” He headed for the door, turned under the lintel. “Thank you for the meal.”
Yankel inclined his head, made eye contact as his chin rose. “So what did you think of the meat?”
Velvel burrowed his hands into his pockets. “It was different, something was off.”
“The texture, the taste. It was too rich, too much? I don’t know. Meat is your business.”
The butcher laughed. “Nu, these are American horses, not European. They aren’t going to taste the same.” He shook his head like he was scolding a child.
Velvel shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get used to it the next time.”
“You said you eat it once-in-a-while.” Were they going to have to perform this charade again?
The butcher rose and thought about what he should do with this desperate man. He had seen men like this before, during. They did silly things. “I’ve said a lot of things today. But what do my eating habits have to do with you?”
“Jews look out for one another, don’t you know that?”
“Is that what I was doing here, looking after a fellow Jew?”
Velvel grew warm, wondered why the bell out front refused to ring. It was Friday, there should be people buying meat for Shabbat. “Better I should starve?”
“You speak like there are only two options.”
It was Velvel who shook his head this time. “Life and Death, that’s it.”
The butcher slumped into his seat again. “Check back in a few months. Maybe I’ll have some then.” He thought about what his father told him; don’t argue with a fool.
“I’ll see you soon.” Velvel left the shop knowing he would return and there would be no horsemeat. “It’s fine,” he assured himself, “this butcher doesn’t know anything about horsemeat. Who gets so much of it, gives it away for nothing? Next time I’ll make sure to go to a butcher who denies having it, gives you just enough, makes me pay too much, that’ll satiate me.” Velvel walked home anticipating his continued search in the coming months.
Aaron Berkowitz earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is an educator for the CUNY Start Program at Bronx Community College. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Jewish Literary Journal. His work has been published or is forthcoming from New York Dreaming, The Society of Classical Poets, and Crack The Spine Literary Magazine, among others.
* * *
Toward Better Symbiosis
By Soramimi Hanarejima
Aspiring to develop new varieties of doubt better suited for modern urban life, you become a breeder of doubt. With meticulous care, you create pedigrees intended to thin out ferocity, heft and obsessive territoriality. Your living room becomes home to myriad doubts residing in rows of glass terrariums, which you take care to hermetically re-seal after performing the necessary feeding and cleaning, lest the doubts get out and take up residence in your mind; though they’ve been comfortably provided for, they’d surely seize any chance to jump into your mind, to inhabit a more expansive realm.
Doubts multiply quickly, so a couple weeks into the project, you’ve got several strains that are fairly innocuous, even affable. One batch is particularly frisky, often pouncing but only lightly, prone to clawing at your attention but only tentatively; to your delight, you find that you enjoy handling these doubts and end up routinely playing with them. Through the protective gear you wear, they tug at your confidence and prod your curiosity, murmuring question after solicitous question. You seem well on your way toward a companionable, docile breed of doubt.
One evening, you’re a little too pleased with this progress you’re making. Distracted by glee, you neglect to properly seal one of the terrariums after taking measurements of representative individuals in the latest generation. This young brood escapes, running away into the night in search of new homes and fresh pastures.
The following morning you see the empty terrarium and panic. There’s no telling how far uncontained doubts could have gone by now. They could be anywhere, and there’s no way to track down these doubts before they proliferate to plague countless minds and take tenacious hold upon the city. You pace about the living room and kitchen, alternating between berating yourself for getting careless and imagining worst-case scenarios.
When you’re able to calm down for a moment, it seems there is but one recourse: formulate a negacide that will wipe out all doubts, to prevent—or at least curtail—an outbreak of mass uncertainty that the escapees could cause. Though you know the negacide’s indiscriminate eradication of negative sentiments will lead to an epidemic of overconfidence, you see little choice in the matter and take solace in the likelihood that the period of widespread hubris will be brief.
You work relentlessly until early afternoon, when—exhausted by your intensive work on the negacide—you need a break. The kind with fresh air.
You are reluctant to go out, to find out how the escaped doubts have taken their toll on the confidence of city residents. But you’ll have to see the consequences of your carelessness at some point. That might as well be now.
To your surprise, nothing seems out of the ordinary as you walk down the block. It’s just traffic in the streets and pedestrians on the sidewalks, all moving with their usual pace and density. No one seems distraught with uncertainty. You wonder if the doubts took no interest in this neighborhood and sped off to find more appealing ones, corners of the city with a greater abundance of thoughts for them to gnaw on.
The normalcy of everything encourages you to go to the park nearby. Along the way, you walk by two men having a jovial conversation at a bus stop, and the inquisitive tone is striking.
“Isn’t there something—oh, I don’t know--ironic about these pride swallowing contests held here every summer?” you overhear the taller one asking.
“Ah, perhaps, but doesn’t your question presuppose the answer to the question of what the true prize or purpose of the contest is?” the bearded one asks in return.
Their back and forth of questions intrigues you, but having no interest in pride swallowing competitions, you continue on your way.
For a Wednesday afternoon, the park is unusually lively with parkgoers, many of them talking as they stroll the gravel paths; others sit on benches snacking on chips or granola bars, while some simply gaze upon the landscape made newly lush by the recent rain; a few scribble away in notebooks. They create a social atmosphere of geniality and leisure, befitting of the mild temperature and ample sunlight.
You pause at the edge of the lily pond to be revitalized by the blossoms on its glassy surface. There, ducks nap in the shallows, and fragments of conversation intermingle with the warm breeze, as though the air has turned gossipy, eager to spread personal tidbits it is privy to.
“But maybe he’s not intentionally flirting with her,” a bright voice suggests.
A worried one replies, “Is it possible to unconsciously or accidentally flirt with someone?”
“Sure,” comes the first voice again, undaunted. “There could be times when you don’t know you’re coming off as flirty. Like you’re innocently curious about someone and get carried away. Is there a chance he’s just… quirky and aloof?”
“But might you get so far ahead of yourself that she won’t be able to catch up to you?” asks someone from a nearby picnic table.
“I don’t know if the lack of intercognitive fidelity necessarily means romantic incompatibility,” remarks a man as he walks past you in the company of a woman who seems to be a work colleague.
“What would it be like if that kind of bird weren’t here?” comes the voice of a child.
This you can’t let pass you by. You turn in the direction of this question and see a small boy and his mother. They’re looking at a meadow lark on the ground a few feet in front of them.
“I’m not sure what you’re asking. Tell me more about what you’re thinking,” the mother says.
“Like if those birds all disappeared, would there be too many worms in the ground?”
“Oh, that’s what you mean,” the mother says. “I don’t know what the world would be like without them. Maybe we can find out at the nature center.”
And with that, a shift in the city’s psychology becomes palpable to you. It’s easy to write off all these conversations as merely chitchat, but these words are tinged with consideration that is lightly but unmistakably doubtful in character.
Uncertainty that pride swallowing competitions aren’t as valuable as they’re purported to be. Uncertainty toward the apparent flirty-ness of a romantic partner or interest. Uncertainty about how advantageous it is to be ahead of one’s self. Uncertainty over what can be taken for granted.
None of that uncertainty is frantic or debilitating. But instead curious, humble, even exuberant.
A wave of relief sweeps through you, nearly crumpling you to the grassy ground. Then, with your conscience cleansed of that harrowing guilt, your skin becomes tinged with an exuberant warmth, like are wrapped in the glowing delight accorded by your accomplishment.
You have succeeded in cultivating cordial skepticism. And what better time for it than after the April showers?
Fascinated by the ways in which fiction can serve as a means of metacognition, Soramimi Hanarejima crafts stories to explore the nature of thought. Soramimi is the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium (Montag Press Collective, 2017) and works on information design projects that seek to articulate aspects of subjectivity.
* * *
The Beetle & Mr. McGillicuddy
By Bretton B. Holmes
She kept trying to convince herself that the key was to stay in the present. She wanted a cigarette. It had been days since they’d seen one. Cigarettes were abundant on campus, but they were nowhere near the school.
The more they walked, the more the desire in her grew. It was like a lead weight around her neck, until the smell of a cigarette arrived and the unmistakable pungency would grip the bowels like a pair of warm hands. The first inhalation would bring tacit ease where nothing else mattered. God, she thought as they walked, there used to be cigarettes everywhere.
A cigarette would mean that for a brief span of fifteen minutes, she could focus on something other than the pain in her foot.
She didn’t how long they had been on this trek. The malleable time continuum usually escaped her during these endless slogs. For her, it was like driving somewhere (back when she still had a car), feeling like the return trip hadn’t really taken that long.
Her scuffed black combat-style boots were worn without socks, rubbing against her ankle, bringing the kind of pain that made everything else seem worse.
“You ever notice how none of the lost socks in this city end up in the bins at the shelter?” she asked the boy walking beside her.
He was tall and lanky with bad skin and a six-month difference in age. She thought of him as a boy because he didn’t have what she referred to as “believable determination.” She could see, though, how the cog was turning toward a simple truth - the impending moment he would either be relegated to his current fate or find some avenue of self-actualization. She also knew that her view of him was a privilege of her gender.
He thought his lankiness was because he’d been forced to eat too many potatoes as a child. Pale and prone to blistering, there were spots on his skin he would pick at whenever they would stop to rest. They hadn’t stopped today. His hair spilled out from his skull in dark unwashed rivulets that danced slightly whenever a car would speed by.
She looked to his feet now, clad in old Converse All-Stars, the rubber tops poking out from beneath the now worn-tassled edge of his blue jeans with each step. They were darkened with oil and dirt around the lower leg from all-weather walking. The luxury of doing laundry had long since become historical. His feet moved in automatic succession, resigned to their task of a forward momentum that never seemed to translate to progress.
“I never notice that about socks in this city,” he said.
She knew he was exhausted. He said ‘this city’ as though there were others with which to compare; as though they’d just arrived off some great cruise, ending after a durable but pleasant time at sea, and were trekking to their seasonal apartment, which they’d quickly purchased with the disbursement from a dead relative so as to avoid some tax or other; to arrive there exhausted but comforted by the familiarity of the place, and to be greeted by the spoons and napkin holders they’d so carefully picked out together.
“What time is it?” she asked. The road noise drowned the heel-scrape of his shoes on the endless pavement. She’d told him at the shelter they were the wrong shoes after hearing him complain, but when another male snickered at her admonishments, he’d worn them in defiance. Now he suffered.
She noticed a syncopated tension in the way his gait changed after she asked about the time.
“I think there’s a bank ahead with a clock on the sign…why would you ask me that?”
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
“Well I don’t either,” he said, jutting out his wrist to show the lack of a timepiece. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I owned a watch?”
The sound of the cars going by went unheard. She felt a hot prickly wave of shame pass through her. She hadn’t meant the question to be an assertion about his station in the world.
“I’m…sorry.” she said.
“…I’d tell you but it’s been so long I can’t remember…” he said, his voice trailing off as if trying to avoid some memory of a grandparent presenting him with one on his birthday.
She watched the steps his feet made and recalled a 9th grade class trip she’d taken to Barcelona. “All the way to Spain with a bag” her mother had quipped, standing in the middle of the airport, looking down at her with an odd half-smile, hands on her hips. She now knew that the look was one of veiled disdain, because her mother had wanted to go instead. The whole trip seemed like some beautiful half-recalled dream when she thought of it now.
She was too young then to grasp the significance of travel to an entirely different country as a potential inoculation against either bewilderment or homelessness. Her mother had reservations about the whole thing, asking her repeatedly what she would do if she got lost. She answered she would be with other kids and there were chaperones going; hand selected by the administration, which garnered a barely discernible grunt from her mother.
Now she had a different answer for her mother. There was no “lost” anymore; unless you counted the fact that her mother had long since disappeared. The chaperones were of a much different ilk these days.
A dormant feeling from in the pit of her stomach spilled into her limbs as if panic might overtake her. This happened, not often, but often enough that when the feeling came on, she had a hard time fighting it off. She always wondered how she’d arrived at the idea that her mother might provide some sort of a safety net in case things didn’t quite work out. The feeling in the pit of her stomach was the result of the knowledge she’d made up the entire notion herself. Each pulse contained acute regret. She hadn’t yet added the necessary action to overcome the feeling.
Spirit could be both weak and strong in alternating ways and under differing conditions, but Spirit was not to be trifled with. All mammals were susceptible to its force, but the most enlightened did not make vain efforts at control. Like a see-saw, much of the ease one might find came from the center. Spirit could ebb and Spirit could flow, but Spirit always demanded respect. Her mother, she now knew, had only cared about her wellbeing, but at the time, her mother had felt put upon. Now with her heel being scraped raw by the inside of her boot, she wanted things to be as they’d once been.
They were in the belly of the slog now; too far to go back and not far enough to have arrived. She’d made it perfectly clear they weren’t together, but she didn’t want to be by herself. Safety in numbers. He waved a fly away as they trod along and when it came back moments later, he ignored it.
The road lurched ahead; stores speckled the north side where they walked, with a train track parallel on the other side. They had not seen a train go by since they’d begun walking.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Oh, I know. There. We’re going there…” she said, like an elitist matriarch preparing to discuss the ridiculous rise of Fascism from her protected perch of denial; much in the same way she had felt anytime her mother opted for condescension when an unapproved response was given.
“Anyone ever say you ask a lot of dumb questions?” he said, not looking at her.
She didn’t answer the irony. As a woman in the world it was one of the things you had to deal with. Some male unable to handle pain, the result of his mother making him eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with crusts on. This persecution had grown into a muted crusade against all women everywhere. She called it The Resentment of Desire – the whole “can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot em” joke. She remembered a scene from a Dirty Harry movie she’d watched with the neighbor’s kid decades before. A prostitute, in the back seat of the sheriff’s car after a rather close scrape, just eviscerated the guy. There was nothing the bumbly sheriff could say to Harry other than ‘You gonna let her talk to me like that?’ Harry replied ‘You’re the one wanted to talk.’
There were no homeless feminists just like there were no foxhole atheists. One learned survival by surviving, and she was sometimes entertained by the notion that she could always make money and he would be relegated to whether or not someone would pay him to dig a hole somewhere. There were more men on street corners begging than there were women.
But now it was she who was on the street, one foot in front of the other, walking next to this male who likely wouldn’t raise a finger to help her if things went pear-shaped. He wasn’t the worst sort (she could hear her mother’s tongue clacking against the roof of her mouth admonishing her about “settling”) but he wasn’t the best either. He was, as most men were, childish and emotionally unavailable.
He’d told her his sad story about being in high school and the truck that his father had saved up for. They’d lived a meager life after his mother had died when he was eleven. There had been no talk of the future, a good thing he said as his father died two years later. He’d stared into nothingness as he remembered:
“I’d done the schoolwork, not great or anything, but I’d done it. The wind that blew around in the halls on cold days, with the leaves coming in from outside and being chased by both the unseen force of the air and the janitors never made me wonder about what everyone else had planned. I never saw the leaves and thought, ‘yes, I too should be somewhere else’ you know, ‘on to other things.’ I didn’t know what options were. The din of talk about the future had turned into a sine wave of static in my brain. I mean, sure, others were talking about shit like having visited colleges, staying in a dorm of a weekend and stuff like that, but it was so far out of my realm of experience. All I knew was that I had X number of days before I didn’t have to walk through those halls anymore or go into those same smelling and same looking rooms anymore. Then there was the cap and gown thing, and the circumstance of it hit me but the pomp hadn’t I guess, somehow, and I walked across the stage and shook hands with a man whom I never spoke to in the four years I’d been there. Then it was over and I didn’t feel anything. I saw how happy everyone else was and I wanted to feel that too, but it just wouldn’t come. I was like a man being released from prison, expected to go on outside and find his way, but I hadn’t been prepared for it at all. Then this rich kid I’d hung out with during senior year came up to me. We would usually walk down to the 7-Eleven and smoke cigarettes and eat cheap hot dogs because he liked them and they were all I could afford, and he came up to me with this big smile on his face, happy, and started going on about the brave new frontiers we’d be setting off toward and wasn’t it awesome?! I forced a smile because I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, I figured he’d taken some of the good drugs he had access to, being rich and all, and then he said something about some big party everyone would be going to and turned around and I never saw him again.”
The assertion in her mind as they walked was that men, for thousands of years, had fucked up the world. Their effigies of cock filling the nothingness of sky, each one bigger and uglier than the one before. Some even covered in mirrors as though to make them appear larger. The problem was that women (or so the loudest among them would have everyone believe) were ready for their shot at reversing this course of domination. The unfortunate truth was that vaginas made for good paintings but not good buildings. The problem was that many of those same women had, over the course of their lives found it necessary to inculcate themselves with the doctrines and practices of the men who surrounded them, sleeping with their oppressors as it were, so the end result was the same. In order to run among wolves, one had to become a wolf.
Well, she thought, that and the fact that the evidence things were a mess surrounded them yet no one seemed to really mind. There was struggle and Fate no matter where you were. Random events would creep up that appeared to have some order in their ultimate demise, but not often enough to register on anyone’s transom.
Fate: A beetle begins the long arduous task of crossing a sleepy street in a quiet neighborhood. The beetle has no concept of the task ahead it simply picks a direction. It may not even do that – maybe it just starts walking. Then, a Mr. McGillicuddy, shall we say, from over a mile away and even further from the beetle’s consciousness, gets his double-vacuum stainless steel coffee cup nestled into the faux wood grain receptacle of his Jaguar XJS. The beetle has no idea what a car tire is as it laboriously trods along across the expanse of street. The beetle will never know what a car tire is. The beetle will never be aware that finding some reason to dawdle, a moment to discover a new leaf perhaps, to just be a beetle, that by the time Mr. McGillicuddy’s left front Pirelli tire with 15,322 miles logged on it arrives on scene, the beetle would quite possibly have missed a very sudden and very flattening death.
Then again, one could argue the beetle does not ever question its place or purpose in the world. As a result, and although entirely unproven with empirical evidence, the beetle’s next moment is exactly the same as every moment that came before.
She knew that this was what she was now, a beetle on a sidewalk and she wondered how it was that the male next to her seemed entirely oblivious to this fact. One explanation might be that he thought, somewhere deep down, he would be the one driving the car over all the other beetles some day. This, of course, he would say was his birthright and privilege as a male. This was also what kept him plodding forward without any real progress.
Could it all be this simple? Was it all a matter of perspective? Many of those whom she saw at the shelter fairly regularly had long ago dispensed with rational thought, howling nonsensical gibberish to the point it wasn’t even viewed as abnormal anymore. They seemed to understand Zen more than anyone else. Nothing within one’s control so why not let go completely?
Perhaps it had more to do with the increasing absence of skin on her foot as it rubbed against the inside of the moistening leather boot. Blood was the only natural liquid she could think of that turned hard without any change in temperature or by adding another substance to it. Well, the only natural liquid possessed by both sexes. Funny she thought as she passed the Reisen Donut Shop, (thinking while looking at the well-worn sign how everything but people got better with age), how that had been the first time she’d thought about sex in the last two weeks. She supposed this had more to do with some sort of survival instinct having taken over than any real lack of interest.
It wasn’t the pain of the skin being rubbed off that bothered her as much as the lack of forethought about obtaining something as simple as socks. There was a time of course that she would have made a list, including the necessity of ensuring she had socks on hand for an eventuality of being stranded. She used to be prepared, she thought, but the obsequious notion had resulted in nothing more than her current state of homelessness. Now that she was without a pair of socks, making up a list of necessary provisions in her head didn’t seem to improve her spirits as it had in times past.
The sidewalk became uneven and this aggravated the condition of her foot to the point it felt like someone had poured warm water into the leather boot. She knew this to be blood. The pain made the mind come up with all manner of unforeseen explanations as to what might be happening, each one worse than the previous thought.
“Can we stop?” she asked.
“No, not til we get to the next cross street. Hargrove I think it is…”
“Not even just for a bit? My foot is—“
“You want to stop go ahead. I’m gonna keep going.”
The pain in her foot, his entire lack of concern and obvious lack of a rationale for not taking a short break brought out her Mother.
“What, you got a JOB interview you’re gonna be late for or something?”
He said nothing, opting instead to fume. She could tell her words caused an avalanche of self-doubt and self-recrimination. It was a blow to his delicate nether-regions, that area most tender of all maleness. She hadn’t meant him to feel bad, but now with tears coming down his cheeks in wet rivulets that cut through the dirt there, she felt bad. He, like many of his ilk, could serve but not eat. She felt her blood pressure rise, the hot liquid inside her pressing into her chest, making it feel tight and strong. She no longer cared about her foot. Had he decided to say something at that moment, she was certain she could have stomped his guts out right there in front of a Goodyear tire store even with a “Help Wanted” sign out front.
There would be no job. There had been a time when he’d had a job, but that was a long time ago and the person who’d hired him had left the printing company and the new guy had been a real pain in the ass (from what he’d told her) and they ended up in a tiff over something left in the break room fridge. Fed up with co-workers eating his lunch every day, he’d taken the initiative and had baked some brownies mixing a very strong laxative in with the cocoa powder. Half the shipping department was out for two days and one guy, Larsen, a middle aged male who was prone to dehydration because he drank too much alcohol, was hospitalized because he’d eaten three of the damn things.
And that was when he’d been given his walking papers and as he was fond of saying to other males, “I been walking ever since…”
What she couldn’t understand, even with the pain in her foot gnawing into her calf and knee now, was how someone who could be so properly motivated in one situation could lose the entire plot elsewhere. The thing didn’t make sense, and she’d thought to ask him about this, but changed her mind. Once a man started to cry you just had to let them get it over with.
They walked past the Hanson Hardware Store with all the mowers out front beckoning to be covered in cut brown grass clippings. The scene reminded her of standing at the window while still an adolescent watching her father in the sweltering heat making rows with the loud machine. The yard he mowed died much in the same way he had when they’d turned it into the northeast section of a Wal-Mart parking after he’d lost their house. He’d eventually started sleeping on the sofa in the living area of their apartment until 1 or 2 in the afternoon and from there it had only been a matter of time.
The store looked fairly abuzz for a…what day was it again? She couldn’t remember. Funny that, she thought initially, but then a chill of panic went through her. This is where it begins. The simple things start to fall away. The things you once thought were so much daily rigor and routine. The number of times you said if only time didn’t exist and it could be whatever day you wanted it to be.
And now that time it seemed had arrived…
How stupid she’d been about…everything.
They came upon a bus stop. Deserted now, it proffered a modicum of shade from the beating sun but no protection from the heat of the concrete. Her ankle felt as though someone was using a vegetable peeler on it with every step.
But the bench of the stop was a welcome oasis and they eased into sitting as if to savor that initial moment of rest, that moment when the body understands the arduous journey it has been on. They leaned against each other in a not so abandoned way, and from the look of them across the street they appeared to be close to one another, like two soldiers after a fight in some distant land where neither spoke the language and were glad to have a small moment to breathe.
“I’m tired,” she said. The boy leaned against her and almost immediately found a spot on his arm to dig at.
“Yes, me too,” he said.
“I wish we had a cigarette…”
“Haven’t you heard smoking kills?”
She laughed. “Why do you think I want one?”
Levity. The moments were few and far between, usually only appearing from the most arduous of circumstances.
“How’s your foot…”
What’s this she thought…concern? Where’d that come from?
“It hurts like fire,” she said.
“I’ve got some plastic bag…it’s clean. Might do as a barrier.”
“Tear off a piece, double it over and put it on the spot where it is rubbing. It’ll stick because of the blood but once it’s on there it will keep the leather from rubbing for a while…here…”
He reached into his pocket and pulled the plastic bag out. It was clean and she watched as he tore a circle out and knelt down in front of her. She watched, knowing that he was going through something without any real frame of her own reference. Taking her boot off revealed a half-dollar sized area where the skin was gone.
“You should have told me,” he said. The remark came out as genuine concern and she was touched.
She felt bad about not having said something sooner. On these mean streets that had little regard for the practice, survival necessitated honesty.
“Sorry” she said. Perhaps it was that he understood something she didn’t; something having to do with severity, even though he couldn’t pick the right shoes out of the bin at the shelter to save his life. She thought this fact might be part of his knowledge somehow. That in order to be able to deal with severity one had to practice it. Like monks wearing hair shirts or sitting on ice-caked mountaintops in the Himalayas trying to dry freezing wet sheets with their minds. Perhaps he was some kind of modern monk. She wasn’t sure, but she figured they’d have kicked him out because of his attitude. She giggled at the thought of him being sent on his way by the brothers, none of them realizing he was the most devout and pious among them.
He opened her boot as wide as possible so her foot would not touch the sides and move the plastic. “Alright, let’s get on with it Cinderella.” This made her smile at first but then she thought he might have meant it to be condescending.
She’d always wondered at that story; how those of Cinderella’s own ilk had caused her to gain what appeared to be at first blush all manner of good fortune. What the story never got to was the psychotic neediness of the prince. “Who the hell falls in love at first sight?” she thought. No, for her it had to be based on something more than crashing some random party thrown by what was ostensibly some rich frat boy looking for something he couldn’t obtain by just starting off with “Hi, my name is…” No, the mothers of America had done their sons a huge disservice for the most part. Not teaching them manners, instead some twisted version of what they wanted in a man.
But not this one, she thought. Sure, he had a fairly constant disgruntlement about him, but he had something most men didn’t, a sense of empathy for another human being.
He began tying her boot. He cranked on the laces too tight.
“Jesus, that’s too tight!” she said.
“No help for it. You want it loose it’ll cause more problems than it solves.”
“Yes, a bit…please.”
He untied the boot and loosened the laces as she moved her foot and then retied them.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Alright, break time’s over. Let’s hit it.”
They got their bags together. Her ankle felt a bit better. The pain was still there but not as bad and the plastic seemed to do the trick he’d suggested. What she felt now was the break they’d taken. Having walked so far for so long, anytime they stopped to rest everything seemed to seize up, like a horse drawing a heavy load and having to lurch hard forward to get moving again. She tried walking around the covered bus-stop to work out the kinks.
“Plastic working?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, definitely. I’m just stiff.”
“We’ll get some water. Gotta be a water fountain in the office building up the street there.”
She looked ahead and the building looked to be much further than the way he’d made it sound.
As they made their way toward the intersection, she felt as if she was walking in Jell-o. Green Jell-o. Each step seemed to be stuck in something and the going was hard. She looked ahead and noticed the signal indicating it was safe to cross. The traffic perpendicular to them was practically non-existent.
He went on ahead, not looking back at her. She saw his feet pick up their pace a bit and begin to trot slightly in order to get across the street. They were entirely the wrong shoes to be wearing but she supposed they were his to wear. She looked down and noticed that the boot housing her injured foot was untied. “Good grief” she thought, “he can’t even tie and shoelace properly.” She let the weight of her bag fall from her shoulder and onto the pavement as she knelt down to tie it and then realized this was their lot in life, untied shoelaces. No, she thought, better to be grateful that there was a boot on her foot that she could tie than to get frustrated with him. She tied the boot deliberately and as neatly as she could and felt the satisfaction of closure in the task.
It was the sound of the engine that first alerted her that something might be wrong. The sound came in above the normal hum of the street in a way that deliberately quickened her heart rate. As she let go of the laces and began to look up, time slowed. A beetle lumbered by just in front of her, making it’s way across the sidewalk. It was a curious thing, how an organism with such spindly legs and such a relatively enormous weight on its back could plod forward like that, lugubrious and doleful, yet unremittingly.
She first heard the oxygen-piercing scream of a woman across the intersection witnessing the final second before impact. When she looked up, all she saw were the sad shoes, resting there in the street as if he’d simply stepped out of them and disappeared.
Bretton B Holmes holds an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Southern California. His work has been published in various publications and produced across the country. He lives in Texas. You can learn more about him here.
* * *
Friends' Night Out
By Norbert Kovacs
Irene McNulty had not really cared when Roger Truman, her colleague at the insurance company, told her he was gay. She thought being gay an interesting way to be, nothing else, and, when Roger mentioned breaking up with his boyfriend, Daniel, she had only a casual thought about gays having trouble to commit to serious relationships. No, the real reason Irene was interested in Roger was that he had proven so funny poking fun at the dysfunctions of their workplace. It was refreshing to hear Roger spin his humor on break at the water cooler after facing a long, drawn out meeting with the stuffy, highbrow managers of their department. She liked Roger’s wit enough that one day, after hearing him ridicule their boss’s unreal expectations for them, she invited him to go on a friendly night out together.
“It’d be fun,” she said. “Neither of us has a partner. There’s no one to fear making jealous.”
Roger smiled. “I’d have no problem with going out as your friend.”
So, the two went to a busy bar downtown on Thursday the same week. The two took a tall corner table and, after a drink a piece, Roger gently held forth on their co-workers as Irene listened gleefully.
“Poor Marjorie!” he began. “You should have seen her the other day. ‘Oh, my goodness! How can the boss ask that all these letters be typed at once?’” Roger rolled his eyes and warbled like the woman in question. He was a boyish man, who had a light brown crewcut, dark, happy eyes, and an attractively thin body.
Irene laughed through her red glossy lips. Her dark clusters of curls and fine blue eyes danced at him.
“I don’t think she gets that her voice becomes old maid-like when she’s excited,” Roger continued. He put a quaver in his voice as he tried to imitate her. “‘Leave that file there on the shelf! Make these copies!’”
“She can be a hoot.”
“She may not suspect anyone thinks it.”
Irene laughed. How ridiculous Roger made Marjorie out! She encouraged her friend to new humor.
"What do you think of our boss, Mr. Turley?" she asked.
"I have to say he sadly overestimates his leadership. He claims we're doing well when our morale is poor."
"An oversight by any means. Do you feel encouraged by our department because of it?”
“I see my limits staying with our unit. I can never become chief like Mr. Turley, for one. I usually understand how things go really.”
Irene shook her head with a expression of mischief.
“What do you think, generally, of the other people in our department?” she asked.
Roger took a sip from his water and reflected. “Well, do you ever notice how most of them are uneasy when someone is promoted? They immediately start hoping they had been instead. And the person who was hired up becomes guarded, dropping doubts about anyone paid less than him.” Roger shook his head. “Our co-workers might stand being a little more relaxed. "
"Of course, I would never accuse you of being too tight, Irene.”
Irene smiled, so that a light came into her eye. “I may be ambitious all the same.”
“I’m not aspiring very high. I only heard our chief is hunting for a new liaison. I thought to try for it. I might like the role, helping connect our company’s departments.”
“The job would challenge you. The departments in our company communicate too little. They each follow their own track without mind for much else.”
“What if I got them to communicate and to mind?”
“They'd scoff at and spit at you for it.”
Roger knew how to kid her, Irene felt.
Roger moved his glass of water to a side. “How is your friend Amy doing at the firm around the block? Still seeing that boyfriend of hers?”
“Oh, yes. He calls to talk with her three or four times a day. Sometimes it gets a little much for her.”
Roger's eyes widened with surprise. “I don't see how."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that if someone has a problem with a boyfriend, it should be for hearing too little from him. Isn’t it easy to forgive someone else for doting on you too much?”
“I think many people would like a boyfriend who gave them that problem. If she doesn’t like him for it, I might be happy for his attention…”
“There you go talking.”
The waiter came over. He set a diet Coke before Irene and an orange soda before Roger, the second round of drinks they had ordered. Irene took a long swallow of her soda as she looked warmly at Roger.
“How is your friend Shirley?" Roger asked after putting down his own drink. "Is she still seeing that guy whom they say is so possessive?”
“She is, and he is. He wants her only to talk to him, nobody else. The other day he called her out because she phoned her friend, Carl, whom she has not seen in an age."
"Her boyfriend watches her like a hawk around other guys. He asked once what she meant bumping into this guy’s seat at the club.”
Roger shook his head. “If you love someone, you don’t mistrust her like that.”
Irene nodded. “I think so too.”
“Or else be suspicious back to show him a lesson.”
“Shirley brought up the idea. She might.”
“I tell you there’ll be fireworks.”
“We will see. So what has been going on with you? I don't remember hearing that much of your gracious life this evening.”
“Oh, I'm blue. Still getting over Daniel.”
“He’d been seeing someone behind my back. I didn’t learn until he said he was going. He might have been more honest with me. I mean, I always was up front with him. He should have done the same.”
Irene studied the bubbles rising in her soft drink. “It is terrible when two can’t get along like that.”
“I’d been with him over two years. I don’t like to think of what he did without telling me. Or what our relationship really meant to him.”
“I bet you second guess everything about him now.”
“Sometimes it feels I will, you are right.”
“Well, Daniel doesn’t sound the most fun topic to talk about. How about your friend, Barbra? What’s she up to?”
“She told me she’s on a diet. She means to become more attractive.”
“How do you think she’ll manage?”
“She will. But the diet’s given her a new problem: she thinks too much about her weight. If anyone ever glances at her a little too long now, seems needlessly amused, or avoids her, she blames it on her weight. It’s made her irritable and depressed. I’m trying to get her to be more reasonable.”
“Good luck to you.” Irene was impressed by Roger’s consideration for the second time that night.
“And what about you, Irene? What have you done of interest lately?”
Irene reflected. “Would you believe I'm taking dance lessons?”
“Wow. How are they going?”
“Worse than hoped. I step a lot on the other people's feet.”
“You’re not thinking to quit because of it, are you?”
“Not yet. I like dancing too much.”
“I bet then you’ll keep at your lessons. You'll get better. One day, you'll dance without crippling anyone. When you make it onto Dancing with the Stars, you will say, ‘How many feet I broke to get here!’”
Irene laughed. Roger's joke was too funny. He has a very friendly sense of humor, she reflected. And a wonderful smile. He’s always happy to see a person in a good mood; he’s never really mean. He’s very nice.
The two emerged from the bar into a warm, clear August night with Irene leaning on her friend as she tried to contain her latest burst of laughter. There were many people out enjoying the warm night on the long, busy street by the bar.
“How about our having a stroll along the street like everyone else?” Irene asked. “I know some nice cafés around here we ought to peek inside.”
“I’m game.” The two started to walk down, Irene sticking close to Roger. She thought it a wonderful way to be ending their night together.
They had gone about a half block when Roger called suddenly to a young man walking in their direction, “Sam Sanchez, is that you?” The fellow came up smiling. He was a handsome man with a fit, thin body and glossy, black hair. He had taken some care to dress well that night as was clear from his sharp, black shirt and well-fitting, blue jeans. When the fellow reached them, Roger stepped over and without hesitating gave him a kiss on the cheek. Irene realized at once that Sam, like Roger, had to be gay. She had heard gay guys greeted each other that way sometimes. She knew also that the kiss was only a friendly greeting. They had not touched lips. However, the kiss unsettled her all the same. How can Roger do that to another man when I’m standing by him?, she asked herself and felt something like worry.
“How is it you’re here?” Roger asked his friend Sam.
“I checked out Tony’s, the new bar they have down the street. It turned out pretty decent.”
“Well, this is a lucky meeting. Here, Irene, this is Sam Sanchez, an old friend. Sam, this is Irene McNulty. She’s my friend from work. We’re having a friends’ night out.”
Sam nodded to her. Irene smiled back quietly.
“So, how are you doing?” Roger asked Sam.
“Super busy. Arranging for Derek's party.”
“The crew knows how to abuse you.”
“I know how to abuse them back. But are you doing alright?”
“So-so. I broke up with Daniel.”
Roger re-told his recent history with his old boyfriend. Irene thought he seemed as eager to talk about it with their sudden guest as he had been with her at the office and the bar. It troubled her and she fidgeted a little beside Sam’s well-made, handsome form.
“Well, I’m glad we had this chance to run into each other, Sam,” Roger said finally.
“I’ll look you up again soon.”
Roger and Irene started again down the street. As Roger pointed out a well-lit pub they were passing, the first real attraction on their way, Irene said, “Here, Roger, why don’t we go to the park instead?” She meant the large park across the street. It was one of the largest in the city and a well-known oasis from the summer heat.
“O-kay. But might I ask why the change of plan?”
“It’ll be less busy and quieter than here.”
The two crossed the street and went into the park. They found it very quiet. The wide-headed maples by the road buffered the sound of the people passing by the cafes at the street as they took a short path and arrived at the lake that formed the main attraction of the park. The lake was a large, freeform blotch rimmed by a grassy bank. A few black ripples moved over its silver surface. Tall trees like a barricade stood on its opposite shore.
“I think,” Irene said, “I could watch the ripples spread on this lake all night. Unless I was watching the stars overhead. Or the dark trees in the moonlight.”
“You've became poetic suddenly.”
“It’s the place that makes me.”
“It’s a very nice lake.”
“They rent out boats for people to row across it in good weather. Wouldn’t that be fun to try?"
"Rowing a boat?"
"Sure. The two of us together in a boat. How might we arrange it?...I know. You could man the oars, and I—I'd sit in the end seat, lazy and comfortable, as you rowed us across.”
“I’d make you row part way whether you liked it or not.”
“I’d laugh if you did. I’d say ‘Always so funny, Roger!’.”
“I wouldn't laugh.” He smiled with a friendly tilt of his head.
Irene's eyes lit. “Here, I have to show you my special spot. It’s off the path around the lake.” She tugged on his hand.
"I'll show you. Come."
The two walked the path that followed the dark trees alongside the lake. The moonlight dimmed by the trees and the path fell into shadow. The lake itself darkened so only some grey showed at its center. The very tall trees on the other shore had nearly fused with the night.
“Let’s stay close,” Irene said. “I don’t want us to get separated here.”
“This place is pretty dark. There hasn't been anyone else on the path really, either.”
“It's not that lonely. I knew someone who walked here with her boyfriend at night sometimes.” Irene stopped and turned to the sky beyond the trees on the lake's far shore. “How nice are the stars beyond the city! I think a poet said once that gazing on a star takes us from ourselves. Stars inspire us to become different.” She studied Roger when she said this.
“Did your couple like to watch the stars when they walked here?”
“And they never caught cold? This walk is making me chilly. I wish I had on a coat.”
“We’re almost to my spot. Think warm thoughts.”
The two walked another couple of minutes when Irene exclaimed, “There it is.” She pointed to a small patch of grass and flowers among the trees a short distance ahead; in the middle of it was a stone bench that faced the lake. Irene led Roger there and motioned for him to sit. He did but with a question on his brow. Irene took a seat beside him. For a moment, they surveyed the trees and the daisies nearby without speaking. Then Roger asked, “Well, what did you want here, Irene?”
“Don’t you think this place beautiful? Don’t you like being here with me?”
“Sure, but is this so special to have come here?”
Irene moved so her leg touched against his. “You know, I've thought you a very nice guy. This evening especially.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I hope you take it the right way but I never realized you were so attractive until tonight.”
She craned her face toward his. “I do like you, Roger.”
“But I can’t love you.”
“I’d be happy with you if you did.”
Roger turned aside. “Irene, please!”
Roger stood and walked from the bench. Then he halted.
“You know why, Irene.”
“You know why.”
Irene stared at Roger’s back, then dropped her face. She remembered how Roger had gone to kiss Sam by the cafe. She understood then and lowered her head, abashed. She had hoped very much, too.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared or soon will appear in Squawk Back, Corvus Review, Ekphrastic, No Extra Words, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
* * *
Rays of a Divine Inner Being
By Margo McCall
All Carly felt like these hot, summer days was melting into a lawn chair and looking up at the sky. She was on the verge of something—something big. It was an irritating feeling, like when you want to sneeze but can’t.
She searched the shapes of clouds. She had one rectangular patch of sky, through which blackbirds flapped and jets secreted silver vapor trails. Concrete buildings and slithering black transmission lines blocked out the rest.
Some days her palms itched. If it was the left one, she could expect some money to come her way. If it was the right one, it meant she’d probably have a hard time coming up with rent.
Mrs. Lopez the fortune-teller predicted Carly would experience a great change, but she didn’t say what it would be. Carly waited in the airless afternoons when nothing moved but the swirling clouds, wondering when it would hit.
Her skin turned to walnut. She kept it well oiled, and imagined herself slowly cooking from the inside out. The suntan oil made grease spots on her library books. She was reading about the Mayans, how they disappeared one day without a trace. One book said it could have been space beings, landing deep in the jungle to take the people to a new land.
Carly thought she might like to disappear, not like the people in the National Enquirer who got taken to Mars and came back with just a slight sunburn, but turn into an atom of matter too small to be seen.
She felt like that at the Broken Oar, gliding through the dark with her drink tray, catching snippets of conversation rising up from her customers. She floated around like a wisp of ectoplasm. She was a pair of arms placing drinks on cocktail napkins. Nothing more.
Jeff came in to see her almost every night. He dragged his lean body up to the bar, resting his cowboy boots on the metal rail, wearily sucking air into his hollow cheeks. He looked like someone who had seen bad things happen, and he had.
“Hey honeygirl, what’s up?” he’d ask in his Texas drawl.
“Same old, same old,” Carly answered, cracking him open a Lone Star beer.
She stood and talked to Jeff when she wasn’t taking drinks to the tables. He said she was the only woman he felt comfortable around. He thought himself horribly disfigured by acne scars, but Carly told him looks don’t count for much anymore.
Jeff had been to war and killed men slinking around in black pajamas. He still had dreams of stepping on IUDs and having his feet blown off at the ankles. It was a bad war, he said, and it wasn’t over yet.
He used to live in a boarding house with other men just like him. But he preferred Carly’s bed, with its thick comforters and stuffed animals. Nothing much ever happened in Carly’s bed, except once in a while Jeff woke up screaming.
He’d recently enrolled in night school to get training in electronics. “Do you know electricity can cook you?” he asked her one day.
She believed it was possible. Anything was. Right now she was reading about lasers and how they could be used for all kinds of things. In movies, they burned black holes in flesh. But in real life, they scanned items in grocery stores.
In her spare time, Carly cut pictures from library books and taped them to the living room wall. The latest was a diagram of Mayan celestial bodies, lizards, crocodiles, and large carnivorous birds that winked at her with beady eyes. She didn’t think the library would miss it.
Carly called her mother once a week. Usually, the conversations went like this: “How are you, mom?”
“I’m fine, honey. Anything new?”
“Well don’t worry. Something will turn up.”
Her mother lived with her second husband in a mobile home estate in Tampa. She wanted her only daughter to do something with her life. After they ran out of things to say, her mother put Joey on the line, and the parrot would screech, “Hello Joey, hello Joey” until Carly hung up.
Carly kept her tip money in an old Sparkletts bottle. Every so often, she spilled the stream of silver onto the sculptured carpet and sat cross-legged, dropping coins into brown paper tubes. When she got enough saved, she wanted to take a trip to the cradle of civilization.
At school, Jeff’s class was making color organs. He brought his project to Carly’s house and hooked it up to the stereo so the colored lights pulsed along to the music. They spent one Friday night sitting on the couch in the dark watching bright blobs blink along to “A Thousand Light Years from Home.”
Carly found a new library to visit. It had dark, oily wood walls and librarians who didn’t stare. She read about giant radio antennas NASA was setting up to find evidence of intelligent life in the universe. Scientists would be listening to millions of radio frequencies for signs of civilizations in deep space. Carly liked the sound of the words “deep space.”
Carly wondered if the radio stations there would have easy listening music and traffic reports, or talk shows where people called up and complained about their lives. Sometimes she tried to get the stations on her car radio, but only got static. In the fuzzy roar, she thought she heard someone speaking a strange language, but it turned out to be a pirate station from Baja.
Jeff told her she was getting too tanned. “Do you want people to think you’re from some other country?” he asked.
He decided to see a dermatologist to have acid poured on his acne scars, but all it did was make his face puffy and red. Carly wondered what became of all the burned detritus. Did it crystallize into the air or become part of the sticky ooze covering his raw face?
She read that in ancient times priests used to cut off the skin of people sacrificed to the sun and put it on, like trying on a new coat in a department store.
Carly’s new thing as she laid in her yard was closing her eyes and watching sunlight sparkle behind her eyelids, then opening them up to the burning, white-hot rays. She liked the idea that the rays came from nuclear explosions on the sun. Jeff warned her about doing it. “Don’t you know that can make you go blind?” he said.
Jeff was halfway through his class. He’d already rewired Carly’s bathroom and put in a light with a motion detector that activated even when nothing was there. He seemed excited about his accomplishments and had only been shocked once or twice.
Carly was still waiting for the change. She scrutinized customers who wandered into the Broken Oar, wondering if they held the key. One night a man in a tuxedo growled at her as she passed. When she looked back at him, all she saw was a pair of glowing eyes.
She took up painting. She’d had art classes when she was a little girl and used to paint monsters with orange dripping fangs. Now, as she dipped the brush in pots of acrylic and made huge swirls on the canvas, it felt as though another hand was guiding her, like the teacher’s when she was first learning to print the alphabet.
Her first painting was pink and green and yellow and blue, with clouds and sparks like a terrible explosion was taking place somewhere. She added hieroglyphics and a creature that had a lizard head and claws.
Carly went back to see Mrs. Lopez in August. “Nothing’s happening,” she complained. The fortune-teller rolled her eyes and said, “The cards never lie.” Carly gave Mrs. Lopez two tubes of quarters and left.
She took a ride out to the country with Jeff. They stood under the power lines and listened to the energy crackling through the wires. Jeff said they shouldn’t stay there too long because high tension lines were linked to cancer. After the sun went down, they climbed some rocks and looked down on the city’s pulsing grid of lights. Carly shouted at the top of her lungs,
“Hello out there. Hello out there.”
She read in a tabloid that space aliens had delivered a space baby to an infertile couple. It looked healthy and human, but inside, x-rays revealed it had seven hearts. She remembered a movie about a woman who married a man who got taken over by squishy space aliens that could
turn into smoke. The aliens were moving into people’s bodies and the only creatures who noticed were the dogs. Carly asked about getting a dog, but Jeff said they couldn’t afford to feed one.
She started a painting of two worlds. She painted the one she knew first: humans with smooth skins of all colors and concrete buildings and lines of cars zooming over roads. The new world bleeding through had scaly beings with glittering eyes and domed skulls and trails of sparkling stardust scattered through a galaxy of black space. She added the baby to emphasize common ground.
Jeff found Carly’s paintings “interesting.” In the mornings, he stood holding his cup of coffee, gazing into their infinite vastness, before heading off to school to work with voltage meters and alternating current.
Carly made the mistake of telling her mother about parallel universes. It worried her mother, but it didn’t bother Joey. He still screeched, “Hello Joey, hello Joey, hello Joey.”
Carly watched an afternoon television show about people who had been taken from this world and given free medical exams. One woman believed some creatures had harvested her eggs, while a man found small scratches on his privates when he got back to Earth.
Carly painted a large, black radio tower like the one she had seen in Jeff’s textbook. It had little black lines at the top like it was sending out signals. Around it, in a swirling blue and yellow sky, Carly drew power lines and hundreds of atoms of energy.
Her boss at work had taken to watching her. He would hide in the shadows making sure she rang up all the drinks, but Carly knew he was there. She could see the light reflecting off his domed skull.
One night after work she watched a late show about men who went to outer space in a rocket that looked like a cardboard box and disappeared one by one into an ocean of sand filled with giant crabs, when the reception went out. Behind the flickering pattern of gray and white dots, Carly saw the finger beckoning.
Jeff checked the set and told her the cable line had been loose. But after she went to sleep, Carly dreamed of that hand with its long, snakelike finger motioning for her to follow it home.
Business at the Broken Oar was slow. Her boss said he would have to let her go. Carly didn’t know what she would do when her tubes of quarters ran out.
During the day now she tried to stay still to see how long she could do it. She thought something might happen if she did it long enough. She fell asleep and felt herself rising out of her body. She dreamt she was flying over a forest on the way to the ocean. When she woke up she was more tired than ever.
She drove around listening to the radio, and even heard music in her sleep. Jeff said it was because we are all being constantly bombarded by invisible radio waves, and the waves are stronger at night. After that, Carly stood in the yard to see if she could feel them prickling her skin.
Carly’s mother came to visit in late August, just before Jeff was to graduate. She didn’t bring her husband, or Joey either, just a small white suitcase containing some clothes.
Carly was embarrassed about the house. She’d rearranged her furniture and built a display with her electric appliances, all connected with slithering black extension cords. The sink was filled with broken dishes and there was paint everywhere from the mural of an ancient civilization she was making on the wall.
Carly’s mother said she thought things would be better if Carly and Jeff got married. That way, Jeff could support her once he got a job as an electronics technician. Carly’s mother thought the paintings were “weird.” Carly didn’t bother telling her what they meant.
They were sitting in lawn chairs on the cement the next day when Carly’s mother suggested she go see Dr. Daruka, who helped her mother sort out things after her divorce.
When she went, the doctor asked about parallel universes and the radio tower in her painting. He wanted to hear about everything. But Carly didn’t tell him. If he was really a doctor, he would have been able to figure it out by himself.
He said he wanted to run some tests. He produced blobs of ink much less interesting than Carly’s own artwork and word-association sequences repeated again and again. When it was all over, they took her to a concrete building surrounded by chain link fences. Transmission towers stretched over the hills as far as the eye could see.
A man there told Carly she was one of the chosen. That soon a new race of people would come and take the most evolved to a new land. Carly told him about Jeff and asked if he could come too. The man said he’d think aboout it, but never mentioned it again.
The people in charge kept them locked up as though they were precious jewels. Carly missed the sun and noticed her skin turning yellow. The only rays there came from TV and fluorescent lights.
She spent the afternoons standing the middle of the room with her arms outstretched, trying to hone in on radio frequencies. If she concentrated hard, she could hear the voices, garbled and fuzzy like they were coming from another world.
One night, a man in a feathered cape led Carly down the hallway, and set her on top of a stool so she could reach up to the electrical socket and taste the current rippling over her tongue. Blue sparks shot out of her fingers and toes and she felt herself rising. A song on the radio came in loud and clear.
It was dark where she was going, but everything was there as it should be. She saw a temple in the jungle, and trails laid out all around it, showing her the way.
Margo McCall’s short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Wazee Journal, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Toasted Cheese, Writers’ Tribe, and other journals. A graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge, she lives in the port town of Long Beach, California. For more, visit here.
* * *
Maine and Portage
By Gary Pierluigi
There was no embryo, no static incoherency’s or lost pain as the Manitoba prairie expanded and blazoned before us like a vision of hope. There was bound to be peace, peace and happiness feeding on the roots of troubled times, for we had fled on too many broken dreams, granite and snow tricking reflections of cold forgotten substances. We had been passengers in an artificial womb, the sun blinding eyes that preyed on signs of worshipful meaning. The frosted thawing land and cindered faces had been like nightmares weaving their pain between breath and heartbeat, the highway demons thundering across the unyielding land like third dimension cinema-scope licking bloodless wounds. The car we were on moved not on wheels but in mid air like a quivering arrow, sucked by a powerful wind current into the expanding vastness of the prairie.
The windy city. The city where the Golden Boy statue, perched atop its domed structure, pays a lofty homage to its stalwart citizens. Future possibilities now turned like tumbleweed in our minds. Feeling the flush of our new found aspiration and excitement, we eagerly strapped on our backpacks, smiled warmly at one another, and proceeded, after waving a cheery goodbye to our driver, along downtown Portage Avenue.
We passed loud advertisements, chestnut stands and Sam The Record Man, weaving our way along the wide sidewalk. I strained wearily into the wind that unleashed its fury and debris. Chuck cut into it, squinting ahead with a grinning, yet intense gaze. Rock music vibrating from record stores seemed an integral part of the evenings rush hour melee. Men panhandling on street corners asked us for spare change. Chuck thought that was hilarious; so much so that he almost stumbled from the curb, but for myself, this warm, pumpkin colored evening had a distinctness peculiar to itself; a clarity of shape and form. High rises were irrevocable masses of interlaced steel, their windows catching the sun and throwing it back onto the street, anchored like gargantuan coffins to the earth. Even the affectionate couple ahead of us, giggling and feeding popcorn to each other, seemed ten feet tall, as if superimposed on a giant movie screen.
We stopped at the corner of Main and Portage, and despite the weight of our backpacks,we had to brace ourselves against the wind. A young man leaving a coffee shop turned to look at us standing there wondering what to do next. He approached us with short, jaunty strides,smiling into the wind, his whistling sounding a shrill reveille. He was wearing a multicolored silk shirt open to the waist and faded corduroy pants. He inspected us for a moment with a mixture of amusement and fascination, and then asked us if we had a place to stay for the night. Chuck couldn’t resist telling him that we had reservations at The Fort Gary Hotel. Still smiling, he brought us to a city park where other hikers lay waiting for a hostel called The Crypt to open its doors.
Wishing us luck, he walked jovially back towards Portage, stopping every few yards or so
to talk to someone. Chuck sprawled himself out on the supple grass like a man about to sleep for a thousand years. “Wake me only if it’s an emergency, Reg, or if it’s food-or if a hundred dollar bill comes floating to you in the wind.”
A wind that tickled the whiskered underside of my chin; gastric implosions, one after the
other, played havoc with my hungry stomach. But I was not nearly as hungry as the derelict I saw poking about in one of the parks wastebasket. His black eyes were like polished marbles, and his full dark beard was caked with dust and particles of food. He took out a Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch box, sat down on a park bench, opened it, and picked clean the bare bones inside, then ate a crunched up napkin stained with ketchup.
Night descended with the wind tiring like an overworked boxer. Chuck woke with a start, breathing heavily. “I hope you found a hundred dollar bill.” Yawning, he added that he was just about to hop in the sack with Raquel Welch. I told him that he was sleeping so soundly it would have been a crime to wake him. I also told him that The Crypt was a dungeon where wayward transients were tortured and their corpses left to rot. He surveyed the park and its surrounding high rises disparagingly, but then quickly brightened. “Well then, we’ll just have to get ourselves a bedtime snack.”
I sat on my backpack in front of a nearby variety store, waiting for Chuck. My face was so greasy it felt like an oil reservoir. My hair was just as bad. I tried brushing it back from my forehead, but it stubbornly fell back in large clumps. I checked out my skin and bones physique. Neither of us had had a decent meal since leaving our comfortable, suburban homes.
Chuck reappeared and held out the loaf of bread and can of beans he had bought, claiming that his purchase would be more fulfilling and appetizing than the superfluous sundries he had so carefully examined. I couldn’t help but smile. Chuck, his backpack still on, looked like a miniature parachutist. Unlike myself, he was far from being the caricature of Ika-Bod Crane, tall, thin, and gaunt. He looked more like a reject Viking, his short stature a cruel joke. Had he been tall, his Nordic features; long blonde hair and Kirk Douglas chin, would have made him a singularly fierce looking individual. As if knowing exactly what I was thinking, he gritted his teeth and suggested, in his best Kirk Douglas imitation, that we return to dine in the park-as any decent tramp would.
The beans were cold and the bread day old. Undeterred, I spread a glob of beans on my bread and gulped it down whole. The hunger demon had to be appeased, even if it meant catching a single bean that had somehow managed to escape my incinerator of a mouth. Chuck, watching me with a discerning gaze, abruptly erupted into a sudden fit of laughter.
“What’s so funny?” My apparent manner of phrasing and inflection convulsed Chuck
into another fit of laughter.
“You! You should see yourself.”
“You think you look any better?”
Chuck laughed now so insanely hard and long and with such total abandon that large tears began to trickle down his cheeks. I too began to laugh. Chuck straight armed me and rolled onto the grass, performing somersaults and other various acrobatic feats with all the grace and finesse of a polar bear. Our unceasing laughter seemed to go on forever before we were able to regain some semblance of composure, and even then we were subject to erratic fits. I looked down at myself as if expecting to see some sort of aberration.
“To bad we haven’t got anything to drink. We could make a toast.”
“And who-exactly, would be the lucky recipient?”
Chuck looked genuinely disgusted. “Only we could be stupid enough to get ourselves into this predicament. But eh-I’ll drink to that.” Chuck guzzled down an imaginary drink. “And to our future wealth of course.”
“You certainly have a point there, professor Slurphenheimer.”
“I always have ze point. It is my profession.”
“So tell me, o wise professor. What is the point of all this?”
“Ze point, pinhead, is to laugh ourselves to death. It is ze only way to go-next to being ravaged by a horde of sex starved amazons.” He glanced up at one of the apartment buildings, sniffing the aroma of cooked food. Suddenly sober, he rolled out and snuggled cozily into his sleeping bag. I mentioned the prospect of city hall finding us accommodation until we found proper lodging.
“Fuck that. We’ll make it on our own, Reg.”
And with that final note, he quickly drifted off to sleep in the warm summer breeze. I too finally settled into deep slumber, only to find there the foaming phallus, the harpsichord heart, fireplace bazaars and ashtray stubble grasping pirouettes across empty words melting marshmallows on stained bed sheets...yellow frozen lines under pink-one fuck-two fuck-three fuck-steamboats, supposed to be steamboats, cries whispered in empty spaces sipping coffee, endlessly sipping coffee, mechanical motion spewing palpitations, she said man does eat by words alone and set down the steaming bowl.
Two in the morning, and hamburger Joey’s hard at work.
Penguins percolating poisonous pus, descending softly into mammoth breasts, nipples swaying in the mellow, pumpkin light. Don’t daddy. It hurts. It hurts.
Cornered solitude creeping
I LOVE YOU-I LOVE YOU-I LOVE YOU said the bitch goddess...vulva to the promised
Gary has worked in Social Services while continuing to write. Since first being published in Quills, he has been published in numerous poetry journals, including CV2, Quarterly, On Spec, Filling Station, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, and Grain. He was short listed for the CBC 2006 Literary Awards in the poetry category, a finalist in the Lit Pop Awards and received an honorable mention in The Ontario Poetry Society’s “Open Heart” Contest. His first poetry book, Over the Edge, has been published by Serengeti Press. He is currently completing his first novel.
* * *
The Last of the Romantics
By Aleyna Rentz
Marcus Pendergast sees Zelda Fitzgerald for the first time at a party, recognizing the reckless figure from the tabloids while she’s bent over tying her shoe. The laces on her low-heeled Oxfords—much better for dancing than high heels—have come undone. These are what keep her together, he thinks, from exploding into some dazzling sunburst, some black hole that could swallow him entirely and end his existence.
He wouldn’t mind this, for he has fallen in love with her.
This is the first party he’s been to since he moved to Paris two months ago. He only came to put in an appearance, to quietly announce himself as another expatriate writer to look out for in issues of The Saturday Evening Post, to see something besides the windowless walls of his apartment.
What he sees is Zelda. Scott has left to replenish his drink, so she’s kneeling alone in the middle of the dance floor, the couples bouncing around her slowing to a halt. Marcus takes note, understanding her beauty is sufficient to pause time. He’s heard she’s crazy, but nothing about her appearance suggests insanity. Staring at her dark lips and severe eyes, he decides she stands out among the party’s guests like a beautiful line of prose in an otherwise tepid novel. She is a sentence he could read over and over and discover a new meaning each time, but parties are hardly ideal places for reading. Before leaving, he steals one last glance at her, committing her to his memory, a place cluttered with gloomy trenches and machine gun fire, yet somehow she is the loudest and brightest thing there.
The novel he’s writing sits unfinished on his desk, stale laundry piling up on his typewriter. Marcus Pendergast is a name he can clearly picture on a book jacket. While shaving, he sometimes looks in the mirror and mouths his name slowly, wondering what its five syllables would feel like in somebody else’s mouth. In Zelda’s mouth.
He nicks his chin with his razor. Mutters obscenities. He imagines his name has a gravitational pull, strong enough to draw people toward bookstore windows where they would peer past their reflections long enough to ask, Marcus Pendergast, who is that?
He tries to remember, thinks back to before his deployment: halcyon days at Columbia, internship for The New Yorker, polished shoes and parties in fraternity houses where he could be found hovering close to the door, watching ice cubes drift lazily around his drink.
Then there was the war, deafening and crowded and illuminated by fireworks. Not so different from a party, Marcus thinks, if you look at it the right way.
Feeling beleaguered by the endless lights and sounds of New York, he joined the mass exodus of writers leaving America for Paris after the war. His short stories have found homes in several journals, but are usually returned to him in yellow envelopes. Perhaps one day he’ll become a famous writer and outsell even Scott Fitzgerald—a Princeton man, no less. He hears rumors of men sipping tea in Gertrude Stein’s salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, dining at Michaud’s near James Joyce and his family, lives that move from one meal to the next. Measured out in coffee spoons, he thinks. He knows how to reference poetry. Often he wonders what poets Zelda likes.
Byron maybe, the reckless lover.
Romantics exclusively, and Zelda, the girl who rides on top of taxis and wades in fountains and stops time when she ties her shoes, is the last of them.
The last of the romantics.
This might make a good title for his book, which follows a writer stationed on the Western Front who escapes through a magic foxhole that transports him to all the places he’d rather be. A quiet armchair at the New York Public Library; the Coney Island Wonder Wheel on a brisk autumn night; his boyhood living room on the 9th floor of an apartment on Riverside Drive, old books bought with old money and fresh flowers always in the vase on the piano.
Months pass and Zelda fades in his memory, becomes amorphous, everyone and no one. He tries to remember her but instead sees other faces. His mother, an image of St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus in his childhood cathedral, a field nurse in France gently dabbing his forehead with a warm washcloth and telling him it’s all right, it’s just a broken leg, before long no one will ever know you’ve been hurt.
At last his prayers are answered—he sees her again, this time at breakfast as he sips coffee, his pencil poised against paper but not moving. Wearing ruffled sleeves and pearls, she sits with Scott at a table in the corner of the cafe. Marcus leans closer, watching, listening. A waiter comes over and pours a bottle of applejack on her omelet. Flames leap up from her plate, and she and Scott cheer wildly, faces red with laughter.
Getting up, Marcus bangs his knee against the table, trips over a loose floorboard on his way out of the cafe. Halfway down the sidewalk, he realizes he left his notebook, but he can’t go back now, can’t go back ever, can’t face the confused old lady he’d left frightened in his wake, Scott’s Princeton smirk, all those blank pages, and Zelda, certainly not Zelda. They’ll think he’s unsophisticated, that he’s never seen anything prepared flambé.
Crêpes doused in powdered sugar.
He’s seen fires that not even Zelda would believe.
While kneading dough and dusting pans with flour at a boulangerie near his apartment, he waits anxiously for her to walk through the door. Every time the doorbell chimes, he feels warm, sick. One day he’ll look up and she’ll be at the counter, asking for a baguette. Maybe she’ll prove she’s insane after all by lighting it like a Roman candle and tossing it into the sky.
He wants this and doesn’t. If she comes in, he’ll smash his face into a pie, smear it with flour, render it past recognition.
Perhaps he could apply for a job following her around until her laces need tying, or until she desires to watch her breakfast go up in flames. He imagines taking her by the hand and leading her to his little apartment building, no hot water, landlady that curses him in inscrutable French, and throwing a lighted match at its feet. He would set himself aflame if it meant she’d watch, enraptured, before throwing back her head and laughing, genuinely happy.
Genuine happiness—even though he is a writer, this is something he isn’t able to express. He cannot give words to something he doesn’t know. Sometimes happy children come to the boulangerie and ask for cinnamon buns and chocolate éclairs, laughing gleefully when he hands them over, as if these pastries have just told them some secret joke. He’d like to know what’s so funny. He’d like to know just what the punchline is.
Whenever he sits down at his desk to write he starts strong, his pencil igniting land mines and spreading mustard gas across the page, but eventually loses focus. He wanders away from the front lines into Paris, past the bookstore windows that will one day display his name and into waking dreams about Zelda. They are exchanging witty repartees with Dorothy Parker over lunch; they are admiring a Picasso painting hanging in Gertrude Stein’s living room. Sometimes he pictures their smiling photograph in the gossip section of the New York Post beside the bitter details of her divorce from Scott.
There is one recurring fantasy he cannot explain and embarrasses him, in which he reveals to Zelda that his life is coming to a premature end. Each time, he tries out different sicknesses, deciding which one he likes best, which contains the most heart-wrenching pathos.
An intestinal parasite picked up in a muddy trench.
Some defect of the heart.
They are always huddled together on a white bed in some darkened bedroom. After he announces his imminent death, she allows him to collapse against her, his head on her chest, where he can feel her body shudder with sobs.
This is what he wants: a pain he can articulate, a tragedy he can share.
If he had a magic foxhole, he’d hunker down and emerge with Zelda in a field strewn with daisies, the two of them crazy together, holding hands and spinning in mad circles until the world collapsed around them. They might be transported to Versailles, the moon, his parents’ flat in Manhattan, where he could say he is better, the limp is gone, the novel is finished, he has at last found love and this is her name—Zelda.
He doesn’t need the foxhole, for he finally sees her again. Another party. Irving Berlin, the Charleston, feathers and sequins. Scott has his arm around the waist of another woman, and Zelda has thrown herself down a flight of stairs. Tomorrow bruises will blossom on her arms and legs like violets. Crying, she hides her face in her hands. What is she now? Broken English, a poem with erratic meter, iambs scattered randomly. Her shoes don’t have laces, but one of their buckles has come undone.
This is his chance.
Perspiring and shaky, as if afflicted with a sudden bout of flu, he approaches her and kneels down as if at an altar, his quivering hand reaching out. The golden buckle is just inches away, the only thing capable of holding her together. It is cold in his fingers, slippery. People have gathered around, are whispering and pointing. He doesn’t care who is watching, or else forgets to take notice. If he could just buckle the shoe, make sure it never comes undone again--
She removes her hands from her face, revealing eyes wide with fear. He notices something in them he hadn’t seen before. Deranged sadness, some suppressed and unspeakable emotion.
“Who are you?” she shrieks, kicking him with the sharp heel of her dancing shoes. “Go away!”
Surprised, he drops the buckle. “I’m Marcus Pendergast,” he says, but the words have lost their gravity and feel wrong in his mouth, like the name of a stranger, somebody he knew long ago.
Aleyna Rentz is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University's Honors Program, in which she is pursuing an English/writing double major. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Blue Earth Review, Hobart, Entropy Magazine, The Collapsar, Black Fox Literary, Deep South Magazine, and others. She is also one of the founding editors of Moonglasses Magazine.
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The Incineration of Esme Smeck
By Audrey Rhys
If you were to look at Esme Smeck, you would not be able to pick her out of a police lineup, or a crowd, or a small group, or even out of a room containing her and her alone. She has a small upturned nose and pale, high cheeks and grey eyes, but that is about all about her that is notable, at least to sight. Her hair is long and usually worn braided, and of an unimportant color. She is not blonde.
Esme Smeck walks down the street and nobody cares, nobody looks at her. She stares into the eyes of the bothersome faces and finds them soft and empty and receptive. What things would Esme Smeck whisper into those pearly white eyes if she had the chance? We will never know.
We will never know because Esme Smeck is convinced that in a half an hour she will spontaneously and inexplicably burst into flame at her seat at the park bench halfway across the Loons in the Elderberry Park downtown. The story of how Esme Smeck came into possession of this idea is a long and sordid one and you will have to forgive us if we do not share it; but suffice it to say that Esme Smeck is heading there now with no doubts or worries or cares. She is holding a bagel with cream cheese and clings to her purse with the other hand. It’s cold out today so she’s wearing a coat and a hat and she has her hair up. A long scarf trails behind her teasingly, asking someone to grab it and rip it from her neck and twist her into an embrace, but nobody does because nobody can notice Esme Smeck.
Ever since Esme Smeck was a little girl people had been losing track of her. Once when she was three her parents lost her in the middle of their living room and spent the next two hours searching for her while an increasingly upset Esme Smeck wailed plaintively to them from where she still sat in the middle of the carpet. They found her eventually.
When she was in high school, she held the record for the least classes attended in the entire school, even though she was always there in class. Esme Smeck would watch, incredulous, as her teachers’ eyes would slide right across her face without pausing, as smooth as egg yolk or molasses, linger on the desk and chair, and move on to the next person with a quiet murmur of ‘no Esme again’ or similar. Esme would raise her hand and wait to be called on but she never was, and then eventually when she would say something the teacher would jump and look up and finally see her and become very cross. Without fail her teachers would always ask where she had been and never accept that she had been there the entire time. Esme spent a lot of time in detention.
A drop of rain falls on Esme’s cheek and she looks up at the sky. It is very white and cloudy and grey; Esme likes these days, especially when there is a cool breeze blowing. She opens her mouth idly, hoping to catch a raindrop, but they all veer away from it and land on her shoulders or hair or cheeks. After a while she closes her mouth and looks around sheepishly. Nobody seems to have noticed.
So Esme Smeck keeps walking. The park is very near now. She likes the park; it is small and green and quiet. Hardly anybody goes there because it is so small. There is a playground and a lake and a field and that is all; you can see clear across it, from one end to the other. The bench Esme has in mind faces the lake, so she can watch the kingfishers and the storks and things as she waits.
It is raining in earnest by now and she tucks her hat forward a little more to shade her face. There is a puddle ahead at the curb and she has to leap over it. She trots along the crosswalk. A man in a van with the name of a glass company emblazoned along the side doesn’t see her and barrels along the road as though it were clear; Esme sees him, though, and ducks back just in time. She watches the van go without expression; she is used to it.
The park is a block away. She runs her hands along the great wrought-iron fence that line the park, glancing all the while between the spikes at the glistening body of the lake, feeling like she is peeking at something very secret. The park is nearly completely empty. There is a man in a yellow raincoat on the far side of the lake, going for a walk, but other than that there is no one. She goes through the gate and along the path, watching her feet to avoid stepping on any worms that have crawled out to feel the rain. The surface of the lake boils with the raindrops and far off in the distance there is the mounting whiplash of thunder, cracking itself over the earth, or, more likely, across the lightning rod of some building elsewhere in the city.
She sits at the bench and crosses her legs. The rain slowly stops and the clouds draw back. The sun shines off the surface of the lake like the glint of a knife. It smells like water and wetness and she breathes in and out, in and out. She closes her eyes and she can hear the waves. There are footsteps; a runner passes by on the path around the lake. She watches him run. Esme looks at her watch, then takes it off and puts it in her pocket. She thinks for a moment about how she has not written a will. She wonders if she should have.
The breeze rushes over the water and sits down next to Esme and wraps her in its arms. The trees glance over and watch carefully, raking their knotty gaze over her skin and lips and bones. The squirrels in their boughs sniff and smell Esme carried on the wind, the birds feel her beneath their wings, the fishes in the lake taste her in the rushing water. With the heat of the sun on her brow and the smell of the rain in her nose, Esme closes her eyes and folds her arms over her stomach and drifts away into sleep.
Audrey Rhys is an ophthalmologist from Florida. Her true passion, however, is writing.
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