By Akilesh Ayyar
Palm-wide bars of impersonal morning light painted acoustically hollow white walls which housed unfurnitured space. The world swung with my steps, the carpet thick and unyielding beneath my little feet. The world to me now was 2 rooms: the room where I had done it, which was the living room, which carried my beloved Thomas the Tank Engine train set and its wooden rails all laid out in partial disarray, and the room where She was. I walked towards Her unclad from the waist down; my diaper lay abandoned in the first room. I tugged on Her skirt, a dark-green sacred fabric bell which never rang but rustled, and enclosed darkness.
“Where did you put your diaper,” came down the voice, the color of orange sun through a filled beer stein, rung through with a mandatory note.
“Ucki,” I said, and pointed her to the next room, which we walked to.
There it was, in not exactly the middle of the room. I had been learning to go potty. I thought, if thought is the right word, that She might be pleased. I held my head high, and smiled broadly. I lived in that natural state of knowledge in absentia which held space for future knowledge the way the vacant mind of the budding seed is held within the penciled sketch of the full-grown plant.
I could feel, sense, her body tense, though she didn’t hold me. Her face contorted, voice tones turned rigid, like the prongs on a rake, sharp but also thick and metallic.
A single elongated undulation sounded, like the effect of a ground tremor eddying through that sunlit beer, blast from some revenant foghorn, then, “Bad boy! Bad boy!”
Blunt electricity twice coursed through me, or rather through that original tangle of electric cords that wires all bodies. I saw only the uncomprehending white walls. They seemed blank and mute, helpless or unwilling to help.
From the ground one moment, altitude increased the next, and there was a smacking once on my bottom, what must have been my filthy, unwashed bottom. It was more sound than sensation, this clap, and then, as in the third of three separated images, I found myself carpeted again.
When She left I did not cry but staggered. The vague intimations of happy shared joy in my gift had turned a fugitive fantasy, a chalk mark on an already erased slate board. A state of disgrace caged me now in streaks of malevolent light. Between these two images was a space like that between the graphs of two asymptotes in time.
I might then, or perhaps it was later, have felt the first stirrings of a white, puke-warm discomfort and repulsion, a segmented worm rippling thickly through my solar plexus.
“Bad boy, bad boy, bad boy,” I whispered as I wandered through the house, and clapped weakly again and again the bottom of my pants.
By Akilesh Ayyar
You'll be talking to someone, and suddenly, micro-fissures erupt in the conversational landscape: a slight inflection is taken wrong; "there are good people who like to skate" is taken to mean that "all good people" like it; your hesitating breath pausing to take stock is taken to indicate disagreement; your hasty and confused attempts to clarify things only confuse them further. Some magical bird normally so swift it is invisible, employed to sail meaning across gusts of words, has been interrupted in flight and revealed to be a crude chewing-gum-and-aluminum affair.
Akilesh Ayyar is a writer and attorney in Brooklyn.
* * *
By Caitlin Barasch
I left the house on Tuesday at seven thirty, yawning, in a pair of worn jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. I started my old dirt-streaked Jeep and rolled down the quiet suburban street en route to Janie’s, the little local diner. Ever since my wife left me five years ago, I’ve been going there for breakfast every morning. It’s the one place Charlotte would never go, so when she left, it seemed reasonable and appropriately ironic to make it a part of my daily routine. Nevertheless, it’s harder to replace her than I ever imagined. Six days a week, I join the ranks of lonely diner dwellers. We all twitched to grab a hold of our coffee with the same tired eyes. Yet even in a town full of early risers and floundering divorcees, seven thirty was a quiet time at Janie’s.
Every day, as soon as I slide comfortably into my usual booth in the corner, Lucy descends upon me with an unflappable smile. Anyone else would describe it as an infectious one, but I don’t often smile. Lucy is the diner’s only waitress above the age of thirty-five (she’s sixty-eight) and also the friendliest. On my first day eating there, I ordered scrambled eggs and toast with jam. She smiled and had my food ready for me within five minutes. The second day, she made a beeline for my table and told me how delighted she was to see me again. She introduced herself as Lucy and asked what I wanted (scrambled eggs and toast with jam...) By the fourth day, she had my food waiting for me as soon as I’d settled into my booth and unzipped my jacket. She’s funny that way, stubbornly thinking that people don’t change. She’s seen enough customers to know that food is usually a constant in people’s lives, variations rare.
After two weeks, she lowered herself into the booth across from me, put her order pad and her elbows on the table, and watched as I ate my first bite of eggs. After chewing, I looked up at her with a blank stare of confusion. She giggled and swept her hands to indicate that there was only one other customer in the diner. “So. I’ve seen you every day for a while, hon. What’s your name?”
“John,” I answered quickly, and then attempted to shovel in another bite.
She smiled again and said, “That’s my son’s name. He’s about your age. Forty- eight.”
“I’m forty-five,” I told her, somewhat indignantly, and bit into my toast.
And from then on, after depositing my predictable order on the table, Lucy would sit down across from me and reminisce. “Ever since moving from California to Montana, my life’s been, well, a bit of a mistake,” Lucy said matter-of-factly after our fourth week together, sipping the water in front of her. She crossed one pudgy leg over the other. “And that was twenty years ago! I was just trying to escape, you know? After my husband died, Lewis slowly stopped calling. That’s not how a son is supposed to treat his mother!” I nod, and she is egged on. “Lewis has his own little family now. A wife and a daughter...I’ve never met her. My granddaughter.”
“That’s awful! I’m sorry,” I said sympathetically, before sheepishly asking for the check.
Aw, come on—sometimes I just wasn’t in the mood for her ramblings. Sometimes she wouldn’t even look at me, just stare out the window into the bleak parking lot and talk. You could always tell this diner was the last place she wanted to be. I could see past her cheery smiles, the supposed wisdom of her wrinkles, her resigned acceptance of the arthritis festering in her joints and limbs, to the woman who couldn’t believe her life had come to this. She was single, aged sixty-eight, living in a cheap condo complex in the middle of the vacant fields of Montana. She had a son right out of college, and decided to marry the jerk that got her pregnant. And after all that, the son who’d flung her world upside down had stopped talking to her for no reason at all. Of course she still loved him deeply anyway.
On a snowy morning years after our first meeting, Lucy told me it was her birthday. “I’m seventy-one today,” she admitted, and I stared at her, shocked. Seeing Lucy almost every single day had led me to believe she wasn’t getting older, at least not like the rest of us. She was seemingly immortal. I hadn’t been aware of her hair whitening gradually to overtake the sloppy dye job, or the growing wrinkles on her hands and face, the loose pockets of skin under her elbows and eyes, or the almost unnoticeable shake in what was once a stronger, steadier voice. “Happy birthday!” I managed, and toasted her with my half-drunk orange juice.
She blushed and sighed, lost in memories.
On this particularly miserable Tuesday, five years after our first meeting, Lucy did not have my food waiting for me when I arrived. As I looked incredulously around the small diner, taking in the cracks in the walls and the faded booths and the sticky counter and the grumbling coffee maker, I noticed that I was among a larger crowd. Almost all of the tables were filled, and my gaze caught the edge of Lucy’s apron as she disappeared into the kitchen. Before I could become increasingly offended and slightly disoriented, Delilah, the twenty-seven year old baby faced blonde, approached me. Her skin was smooth and her voice syrupy. I hesitated slightly before ordering chocolate chip pancakes. She nodded buoyantly as she wrote it down, and then sashayed away into the kitchen. Lucy never came over to say hi. I finished my stack of pancakes, licked the gooey residue off my fingertips, and then exited the diner, emerging into the morning sunshine.
I climbed into my Jeep in the parking lot and drove to work, per usual. I stepped into the sterile, white washed building, took the elevator to the eighth floor, and shuffled through the hallways. It’s been five years but Beth, the older lady who occupies the corner cubicle, still gives me this intense look of pity whenever I pass. It probably doesn’t help that I walk with my shoulders naturally stooped, but when I remember Charlotte was supposed to be the love of my life, I find it hard to straighten up. Eventually, after obliging the nosy, overbearing Beth with an attempted grin, I reached my office. I immediately sank into the swivel chair and closed my eyes, just for a moment. The rest of the day proved torturously sluggish, and when the sun began its descent, I drove towards home.
As the car clock melted from 6:58 to 6:59, my Jeep was bumping along past Janie’s Diner. It glowed a warm yellow in the dark. Impulsively, I careened into a random driveway, reversed, and headed back towards the light. Upon entering, I headed straight for Lucy, who was busily ringing up an order, glasses balanced on her nose. When she saw me, she shrieked—loudly. “John! What are you doing here?”
I shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
She smiled the smile I was used to. “I’ll be right with you. Go get your booth!”
It was weird to sit there with the windows showing nothing but night. When Lucy came over, I asked her impulsively, “What are you doing for dinner tonight, Luce?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Eating with you, silly!” And she sat down. We were both in our place now, where we knew we should be.
Caitlin Barasch is an undergraduate at Colorado College. Majoring in English. Loving life in the shadow of Pikes Peak. Enjoys books, horses, laughter, ice cream, Chipotle, running around whilst kicking soccer balls, and the taste of water.
* * *
Drunk in a Valley
By Alex Billedeaux
Grit and sand whipped against Samuel’s face as the wind picked up. His skin was dry and cracked, like the compacted red of the sandstone beneath his boots. He rested his eyes on the shoes, but instead visualized the face of his mother reprimanding him. She had wanted to make sure he wouldn’t forget the damn things.
“What am I going to need boots for, Mom? It’s a road trip. I’m not hiking across Death Valley.”
She had insisted anyway. He grimaced silently at the irony.
The short black of his hair and beard seemed to be absorbing most of the abrasive sand, to the point of tan colored streaks showing in the thick of it. His head throbbed with the force of a splitting headache, likely attributed to the nearly empty fifth of Captain Morgan in his hand. He gripped it tightly, like the heft of a weapon.
The progress across the hot land was slow. Most of the time was spent attempting to disregard the sweat dripping down his forehead and neck. He wiped his free hand over his face, but a dull wound throbbed painfully in his palm.
Blood. A significant coat of deep crimson dripping from the gash in his hand. Samuel wiped it on his jeans and kept walking.
“Beth?” He shouted. His voice was hoarse. The only response he received was the whistle of slight wind in an empty valley. His eyes flicked up and left in their sockets as he tried to parse through what he did and what he did not remember from the previous night. There was a lot of black.
“We should race.” The drunken sentence echoed in his patchy memory.
“Race? To where?” Beth’s soft featured face had seemed mischievous in the fire light.
“I don’t think it matters,” Sam had nodded the traditional dragging pace of an assumedly wise drunk. “Somewhere out there.”
Beth shook her head. “Nope. I don’t think so.”
“Oh, but wh-” The tiny blonde leapt up and began to sprint away with a commitment not seen in the soberness of day.
Sam leapt up and followed, laughing.
“Try not to have too much sex.” Sasha called sarcastically from beside the fire. She turned back toward Conner as the pair vanished into the darkness.
The memory of the night began to fade. A few moments passed as Samuel began to feel the heat irritating his face and the burning heat of the Death Valley sun grounded him once again. He realized that he had been staring at it. How long had passed?
His mouth felt dry and sticky. A font of good decisions this one, a drunk, a fool, and as his family put it, he hadn’t made a right decision in years.
And still I don’t seem to care, he thought to himself. His legs were stiff as he began to trudge along, as though the land below would be damned if it was going to let him pass. It couldn’t be too much further. Just got to keep on moving.
His hand went to his head instinctively as it began to spin. The ground met him hard. Hours passed, with Samuel flat on the dirt.
The sun made it past the peak point in the sky while he lay. A brush lizard darted over his left leg and the wind tickled his back. A short dip of its gust drove dirt particles into his nose and he woke with a start. It was late afternoon.
The ground seemed barren around him. Thankless that he had returned. Not but a few pebbles were disturbed as he pushed himself to his feet, his wounded hand complaining all the way. One of the pebbles, however, caught his eye.
It was a different texture than the others. He knelt and picked up one of the pebbles near him. The texture on its bottom was the same as his special pebble. So it had flipped over. He shook his head. So what.
He strained to rise from his crouch.
One last sidelong glance at the pebble entranced him. There was a near invisible mar in the sandstone below it, as though it had been dragged along the ground a few centimeters. Samuel looked off in the direction the line pointed. It could have been dragged by a footfall.
He decided to stumble into the pebble’s pointed direction. The sick feeling he felt in his stomach could have been fever, as sickness would explain the thick film of sweat stuck to his body. In any regard, he assumed he should have some liquids soon. The fifth was still cool in his hand.
"Bad idea," he admonished.
Twenty minutes later he was taking swigs from the quickly diminishing bottle. The result was more sickness in his stomach, but even the rum seemed to satiate his lips and tongue. It was very near heaven. A steep rise in the land lay ahead of him and he sighed. A hill sounded like a depressing exertion. He began to take another swig, but stopped when he noticed something reflected on the side of the bottle. There was glass in the dirt nearby.
He got down to crawl and his legs were happy for the respite. Glass, quite a bit of it, was scattered here and there. One of the larger shards had the dried brown of blood along its edge. A neck of another fifth lay smashed, a half dozen feet to the right.
What a stupid way to wound yourself, Sam. He rolled his eyes and started off in the direction of the bottle’s neck, but stopped abruptly. He went back toward the hill, reasoning that the nearer glass shards had his blood on them, so he had probably thrown the bottle neck into the distance while drunk. It was just a red herring.
Hold on, Samuel. Since when were you a detective? Follow the bottle you idiot. He stopped and argued with himself, breathing heavily enough that his body swayed in the arid breeze. The voice of his mother took over his conscious to hand him a bit of guidance, thinking perhaps he would listen to it for once.
“There is more of a chance that you are just being foolish and you should keep walking. There’s only disappointment over that rise, Samuel.”
He stood with a furrowed brow, staring at the remains of a fifth scattered on the dirt. He took another swig of his own.
To hell with it.
He crested the hill.
Alex Billedeaux is a college-goer based out of Michigan, who until recently, spent his days traveling the States while searching for inspiration.
* * *
By Michael Chaney
Public Internet users susceptible to the lurid covers of paperbacks swelled the checkout line. Two women were busy swiping cards, sliding books through a de-magnetizer, and passing items back to patrons with smiles so perfunctory they were almost vicious.
“Books are due in four weeks, the DVD in two,” said the larger woman. She leaned over to her partner, whose nametag read ‘Ms. Beatrice, County Library Acquisitions Specialist,’ and whispered: “It’s not like they would recognize you with your—Book items due in a month. Thanks.”
Every time Tiffany leaned over, her stool creakingly suggested that she lose a few pounds.
“Personally,” she continued, “I’d never do it. I had morality beat into me by—your DVDs.” Whispering again, “I heard of a woman who used Native American war paint, at first only to hide her face but then because of a certain, pricey clientele who got off on it.”
Beatrice adjusted her glasses. “Tiffany, let’s concentrate on check-outs, please.”
“Whatever you say, Chief.”
It was time for another patrol. Beatrice grabbed a walkie-talkie and headed for the stairwell. As she climbed to the third floor, she wondered why people were so reluctant to face the truths of their lives or to opt for the occasional salad.
Tiffany’s conversations were a cross between BT700 (early Christian history and thus the golden age of apologia) and PS700 (romance fiction). The closest she ever got to PN700 (non-fiction) came last week when she mentioned a video she made just for fun. A dance that could be her signature should she ever, God forbid, fall upon hard times and be forced to remove her clothes to escape the poorhouse.
If only there were such a place as the poorhouse, thought Beatrice. That would be genuine relief.
She entered the newspapers section. It was here where the city flotsam washed up to bask in the glow of florescence and waxed linoleum.
Spotting one, she pulled out her walkie.
“Got a code yellow on three, over.”
In a tiny room in the basement two men wedged before security monitors were mimicking the words “code yellow” through pealing laughter.
Beatrice approached the sleeping man.
“Sir, this is a public library.”
The man snored.
“You are in a library! Sir, wake up!”
Still no response. She looked around. Someone was near. Polished shoes could be seen through the slats of a low shelf. It was only a browser.
“Breaker, breaker. Situation Morpheus. Stand by, over.”
She set down the walkie, looked around, and while coughing to mask it, she kicked the chair hard.
“Yes, take care. God bless, yes.”
“You cannot sleep here.”
“No, no sleeping. She was a girl. And a beauty once upon a time.”
“Sir, you cannot sleep here.”
“Yes. I cannot do here what I was not doing, but accidentally did.”
“If you are caught sleeping again, it is within my power to have you removed from the library.”
“Yes, yes. You have the power,” he said with a thunder sound effect.
“I’ll have you forcibly removed if you can’t follow my instructions.”
“Yes, keep your arms and feet inside the library at all times, until the library comes to a complete stop.”
Exasperated, Beatrice picked up the walkie. “Stand down. Situation over, over.”
In the basement: “Over over!” roared one guard, nudging the other and making him spill his coffee.
Beatrice gasped. Where the polished shoes had been, there was now also a silver light coming from behind the shelves.
Her first impulse was to threaten. Filming her was a violation. But she was no ordinary librarian. She was an Acquisitions Specialist. This situation called for reverse psychology.
She warmed to the awakened man engrossed in an upside-down magazine: “My dear sir, are you feeling better now? Good. May I turn your magazine upright? There we are. If there’s nothing else, I’ll just be on my way.”
She simulated the sound and trajectory of a full exit. In actuality, she turned a corner and then crept silently towards her would-be camera assailant. She was craning her head around the latest issue of Pravda when a voice rang out from the other side of the shelf.
“What in the hell are you doing on the floor?”
She regained her posture and walked around the shelf to confront her adversary, a young man in a suit with spiky hair. She couldn’t tell if his pout was permanent or circumstantial.
“May I help you, sir?”
“Why you were crawling around?”
Shame made her bold. “What were you filming?”
“Filming? I was texting my boss. What were you doing on the floor over there?”
“Nothing. There’s a… contact I lost.”
“You wear contacts and glasses?”
“These are for reading,” she said fondling the glasses looped around her neck.
“So did you find them?”
“Your contacts or whatever, gosh!”
“No. I mean, yes.”
However much she repeated her mantra in her head – I’m an acquisitions specialist I am an acquisitions specialist—he regarded her as if she were crazy. When she saw that the table where the sleeping man had been could not be seen from this position, she wanted to scream.
“I was getting a sleeping patron to wake up. Sorry if I bothered you.”
“You have to kick out bums a lot, huh?”
“Yes. I do. Unfortunately.”
“What a shitty job,” he chuckled and resumed texting.
Many sepulchral seconds later she marched off, inwardly frantic: “I am an acquisitions specialist I am an acquisitions specialist…”
Had she been less rattled, she might have seen the silvery shine emanating from across the room, where a young man eager to increase the hits on his blog had been recording her all along. Several weeks later he would celebrate the virality of the video as it exceeded 500 views by purchasing a new cellphone. Newly unemployed, Beatrice recalled her disdain for Tiffany’s schemes of self-exposure with a bitterness whose release within her was long overdue.
Michael Chaney is the author of Fugitive Vision, the editor of Graphic Subjects, and the walker of a dog named Vegas.
* * *
Natty Bumpo Rides Again
By Tom Fillion
I was trying to kill some time before going to Flint's so I stopped at a cafeteria near the University. A young woman with brown hair stood a short distance in front of me. She was dressed in a lavender skirt, creme-colored blouse, and black shoes with a small heel on them. She looked like she worked in a nearby office complex from the cut of her outfit. She surveyed the seating area behind us every few seconds as if she was looking for someone.
“How can I help you today, sir?” One of the old ladies in a white uniform, her hair netted and her hands wrapped in plastic, asked.
By the time I reached the dessert section, my tray was full, even though I wasn't that hungry. I looked down the line and she was still there getting a drink.
“Will that be all, sir?” Another lady asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
I thought if our eyes met my chance of meeting her would increase, but when I looked up, she was gone.
In the dining area, she sat alone but kept looking for someone.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
She appeared startled but relieved.
“That’s fine. I hate to eat alone. I was expecting someone, but I guess my friend isn’t going to show,” she answered.
“Maybe it was me you were looking for, and didn't know it,” I said. “Sometimes fate throws people together. I was going to eat alone, but I saw you by yourself. There’s lots of older people here eating the soft, overcooked food. You looked out of place.”
She laughed then looked around. She smiled. Her demeanor changed, and I could tell she was pleased by my interest.
“There are a lot of older people here," she said looking around. "What does that make us?”
“We’re old people in training, I guess,” I said. “By the way, my name is Billy.”
“Oh, oh, my name is Susan. Glad to meet you,” she said offering her hand.
The lighting and the dark furnishings cast her hand into prominence. I noticed the absence of a wedding ring on her other hand.
“Well, not quite. I’m not sure. I’ve been going with a guy for over a year. We were engaged, but right now we’re not seeing each other. We both wanted to cool it. It’s such a commitment. Marriage means the rest of your life together. I want to be sure he’s the one,” she stated.
Her face turned serious and reflective.
“Men and women think differently about love and marriage,” she said.
“Who said we even think about it?”
“That’s true. Men just think about sex. Love and marriage should be the foreplay before it.”
I cut a piece of over-cooked chopped steak and inserted into my mouth. I finished chewing and put my knife and fork down.
“That’s an interesting thought."
“I got it from a friend of mine who writes poetry for greeting card publishers. I was waiting for her when you showed up. She must have gotten hung up on a poem she was working on. She said she might not make it,” Susan said.
“My best friend is writing a novel. Maybe you and your friend would like to meet us somewhere,” I suggested.
Susan put her fork down. I think she was beginning to like me.
“Okay. My boyfriend and I are split up. I really think it’s over between us,” she said. “We can meet you tonight. I know a place on Route 41. It’s right before you get to the old elementary school.”
“I know where that is,” I answered. “We’ll meet you about seven o’clock.”
“It’s a date then,” Susan agreed.
We finished what we could eat of our lunches and walked together to the cashier.
“See you tonight,” I said and gathered up a mint and a toothpick.
I owed Flint for the Oxford pub incident when I got jumped by the long-haired drunk and his friends. I owed him for the time I got stoned and drunk and puked at the theatre and he drove me home. This blind date was a small repayment.
Flint looked up from his make-shift throne topped by an orange and white parachute canopy. He put down “The Deerslayer” by James Fenimore Cooper on top of his spiral notebook and peeled off his reading gloves that minimized the tremors in his hands.
“I met this hot chick at a cafeteria. She’s got a friend and they want to meet us tonight. Her friend writes poetry,” I said. “So you can make it? You’re not going out with anyone?"
“Not tonight. Ellie stopped by the other day, and I told her I was dating someone else. It was hard to turn her away, but I had to. She’s broken my heart for the last time. I know she’ll divorce Frank someday, but I won’t be there for her. It kind of destroyed me,” Flint admitted. “I’ve got to get on with my life minus Ellie Windows.”
We both heard a car door open and close outside. Flint stood and walked to the back of the small house that Ellie had found for him. It was not far from her split level trailer in Thonotosassa which made it convenient for her to visit Flint when she got pissed at Frank. The only drawback was the puppy mill next door. The beagles barked and howled. It must have been feeding time.
“Tell her I’m in the bathroom,” he said.
“Take the toilet paper with you then,” I said.
He kept a roll on the table next to his reading chair. He grabbed it and walked to the back of the house.
There was a loud knock at the side door.
“Where’s Flint?” Ellie demanded.
“He’s in the bathroom.”
“When he gets out tell him George finally stopped by,” Ellie commanded.
“George stopped by? Who is George?”
“Goddammit, Billy, tell him that George stopped by. He’ll understand,” she repeated.
She slammed the door as hard as she did her car door and backed onto the highway. When Flint knew she was gone he returned to the living room.
“Ellie said George stopped by. Who’s George?”
Flint appeared relieved.
“George is her period,” Flint answered.
“Yeah. She had her period. She was freaked out and didn’t want to tell Frank. She thought she was pregnant. That’s why she’s been angry with me. That’s why I went out with Jacqueline, the English lit groupie, and Angelica. George came by! It means she’s not pregnant,” he said.
“You’ll sleep easier tonight.”
“You can say that again. I’m unfit to be a parent. Fatherhood would be a disaster,” he said.
“You made it!” Susan said when she saw me that evening.
“Flint will be here in a little while.”
“See, I told you there would be someone for you,” Susan said and tapped her friend on the arm.
Julie was a stunning blonde. I sat down on the other side of the table across from Susan. The chair opposite Julie was vacant. This was great payback. The slate would be clean. I wouldn’t owe him for the Oxford incident or the ‘Seven Beauties’ debacle. My bill would be paid in full, if not in advance. Maybe, he'd decide not to leave Tampa for her and forsake the others: Ellie Windows, Angelica, Jenna, Jacqueline, the English groupie, the Aardvark, and the provost’s secretary. Maybe she was the Manifest Destiny he was always talking about.
“When is your friend coming?”
“He should be here soon,” I said. “We were celebrating earlier this afternoon about meeting you two tonight.”
But he wasn’t.
Flint didn’t show up during the first round of drinks. I glanced at the front door every time it swung open. Old people. Cowboys. Rednecks. Hippies. No Flint Dupree.
“Can’t you call him?” Susan asked.
“That would be a problem. He doesn’t have a telephone.”
'No telephone' translated into a thousand different gestures of body languages but meant something very specific in their eyes. Uncommunicative. Distant. Recluse. Hermit. Possible asshole.
The waitress retrieved our empty glasses and returned a few minutes later with another round of daiquiris for the women and, for me, a draft beer with a head on it like a cumulus cloud.
I looked at the front door hoping that Flint would fulfill his promise and walk through it to embrace what I hoped would be his Manifest Destiny. Could concentrating on the door make him appear any sooner?
“Do you really have a friend?” Julie asked. “Maybe he doesn’t even exist.”
“Yes, I think he has a friend,” Susan said.
“I didn’t mean it exactly like that,” Julie stated then laughed at her friend’s reply.
I sat there excluded from the conversation, humiliated and feeling smaller and smaller like a psychedelic insect that Frank Windows might portray in one of his paintings.
“Do you think he has a friend that is going to show up? That’s what I meant.”
“That I don’t know,” Susan replied.
I had had enough humiliation. I retreated to the restroom to figure out what to do and met myself next to the Trojan dispenser, face to face, in the restroom mirror. I didn’t like what I saw: gloom and despair.
The window beckoned. My car was parked right outside. I could end this psychic flaying by tipping the garbage can upside down and using it as a step ladder to escape. I had done my best to no effect.
I turned over the metal cylinder, spewing soggy paper towels across the tiled floor, and was just about to pull the screen out when I heard a familiar sound. A 750 Honda. It had to be my biker novelist friend, Flint Dupree.
I stepped down from the trash can and headed for the lobby. My mood was the same, but I quickly brightened. Flint finally pushed his way through the front door.
“Flint, over here.”
He towered above the middle‑aged couple who followed him. He walked in my direction, stumbling then teetering to one side.
“I had a visit from George.”
“George is Ellie’s friend,” I reminded him. “It’s her period for Christ ‘sake.”
“George Dickel,” he corrected me.
That presented a problem. After I left him he must have sat on his Aztec throne and gotten sourmashed.
I looked over at the two women seated at the table.
“He finally got here,” I said, pointing at Flint who was dressed in a long sleeve white shirt, blue jeans and smooth, black boots.
Before I could introduce him to his dinner companion, Julie, Flint sat directly across from my date, Susan. He grabbed a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.
“It’s a poem I wrote about Natty Bumpo,” Flint said.
Julie looked confused. “The Deerslayer” was probably not on her reading list. She glanced at Susan and then at me. Susan’s demeanor turned to a glare. I lowered my head and stared at the menu. Flint read his poem about Natty Bumpo, “The Deerslayer.”
“I don’t get it,” Julie said when he finished.
I took a slug of beer.
“What’s it about?” Susan added.
“It’s not something for a greeting card,” Julie remarked.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Flint sneered. “That’s something The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly would publish, not a lousy greeting card.”
I coughed. Beer spurted out my nose.
“Julie writes poetry for greeting cards,” Susan explained, “and is quite successful at it.”
“Greeting cards?!” Flint guffawed.
Julie jettisoned out of her seat. She headed towards the door.
I took money out of my wallet and dropped it on the table.
“I’ll be back,” I said to Susan.
“I’ll be okay. I can’t leave without Julie. She’s driving. I’ll wait here for her.”
I followed Julie. She was athletic, and I had already envisioned a second date with the four of us playing tennis, Flint’s favorite sport where the lowest score was ‘love.’
“Love means you got nothing, but you gotta have balls to play,” Flint always said.
She walked out the door to the side parking lot. I caught up when she turned down a dark road that led to a nearby subdivision carved out of an orange grove.
“Let’s take a walk,” I suggested when I saw the anger on her face.
“I’ve never met... I’m not going to say it,” she fumed.
“He’s drunk,” I said, trying to apologize.
“He needs to think about other people’s feelings. What’s wrong with writing for greeting cards? It’s challenging,” she said.
“I don’t buy many greeting cards,” I admitted.
“Women love them. It shows that you are thinking about them. And by the way, you were supposed to be with Susan, and I was supposed to be with HIM,” she said.
“I get it. You’re upset because you got stuck with me instead of Flint! If that’s what pissed you off, let’s go back, and I’ll say something.”
I was used to it. Women preferred Flint to me. Who could really blame them? I was going to college but I was blue collar and worked in a battery factory. From one to ten on the excitement factor I was a minus ten. Flint was a biker novelist waiting to inherit his mother’s estate in Virginia. In tennis parlance that was match point.
“I’m going back anyway,” she said and turned in the opposite direction.
When we got to the parking lot, we both stopped in our tracks.
“That’s disgusting,” Julie groaned.
Godammit. I agreed.
Susan’s back was pressed against the galvanized metal fence surrounding the parking lot. Her blouse was open. Their mouths were locked together.
“I’m leaving,” Julie shouted.
Her voice interrupted them, and Susan broke away from Flint.
“I’ve got to go. Julie’s my ride,” she said.
She balled up her brassiere, buttoned her blouse, then walked hastily to Julie’s car. It didn’t take long before both women got in and sped away.
“You were supposed to be with Julie, and I was supposed to be with Susan.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
"I don’t know. I guess I should have. We’ll never see them again. They were goddesses too. They hated us.”
“Susan didn't hate me," Flint said.
Goddammit, he was right. He took the poem “Natty Bumpo Rides Again” out of his shirt pocket. Her phone number was scribbled on the bottom of it.
"I owe you,” he said.
Tom Fillion is the author of many short stories published online and in print. For a complete list please visit here. He is also the author of a novel, The Dream Mechanic, available from Amazon here. Visit him on Facebook and Twitter at @dream_mechanic.
* * *
By Rizwati Freeman
Part 1, Motel Stories
One day out of the blue, Mom moved us to some little motel way out in Westchester. We took a long, hot, dry bus ride to get there, the kind of ride we’d never taken before. It was after she’d come back from the pawnshop with that look on her face like, Oh well. Mom was always hoping against hope for more money but it seemed like every Tom, Dick or Harry was out to rip her off.
My brother Ritt came over the first night – he looked like a human sheep with that short bleached wooly hair of his. Mom told me he was a punk rocker but I just thought he looked ridiculous. Right away he got all pissed off when he saw Mom had bought me a Barbie doll.
"Hey, man!" He shouted when he saw the skinny blond lying naked on the Gideon bible. "That’s like totally not fair!"
Everything was like totally not fair for Ritt. Mom said he had identity issues because he looked like our father and it didn’t help at all that I didn’t. Our father had had wooly hair too and dark beige kind of skin like chamois but I never met him. He died when I was a baby.
Ritt always looked like a sad, lost puppy dog – only he was always so moody he just had to be a boy. Animals aren’t like boys with those sour moods of theirs. You just want to slap their faces and say, Dude! Get over yourself. That’s one reason I like animals more than my brothers. Animals are predictable. If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you. With my brothers it’s a totally different story.
When we were at that motel Mom brought stuff from the grocery store – noodles and salad and million dollar bars but at all the other motels we’d go out to eat somewhere. We were cooped up in there for three whole days.
The second day Ritt left, thank God. I can understand why Mom gave my brothers grass right out of the crib. They were like wild animals. That’s the only way you could take them. Whenever Ritt was around my stomach would twist into knots, and I’d get nervous that something bad would happen. He’s the kid who’d burn down a supermarket or rob an old lady for fun. Random acts of insanity.
Mom always said it was because of the boys home he’d been in – that’s when everything had gone wrong. Some boys had chased him outside, pushed him against a tree and lit his hair on fire. Mom said they called him lots of terrible names that she couldn’t repeat. The names only ill-bred people use.
It wasn’t so bad being in that motel room – I didn’t like the games my brother Pete had wanted me to play with him in the other one. But I missed skating at the beach and walking down all those steps over Pacific Coast Highway and digging in wet sand for sand crabs.
The second night I had a nightmare and woke up sweating. It was about Pete – he was laughing and it was so real. I could smell his gross boy breath and his dirty, dusty skin. He opened his mouth full of food, and tried to spit it all over me but Mom walked in. That’s when I woke up.
Mom was already awake, watching her show Taxi.
"Oh my God," she said. "You’re wheezing."
She handed me my inhaler and looked at me like she had so many times before. I could tell what was going through her mind. She was scared I was going to die.
"It’s okay, Mom," I managed to say. "It’s okay."
I sucked for my life and lay back. God, I was glad Pete wasn’t there. When Mom had come to the other motel room he’d taken away my inhaler.
That’s when I asked her about him.
"He’s gone away, sweetheart," she said, brushing her hand against my cheek. "He won’t hurt you anymore."
She hugged me tight, and a moment later I fell back to sleep.
* * *
The next morning the cops showed up at our door. One was tall with a buzz cut and looked like Nick Nolte on Rich Man, Poor Man, and the other one reminded me of Tatoo, only he was a little taller. They’d found Pete, they said, and had some questions for us. We went down to the station with them – they took Mom into one room, and me into another. They asked me about Pete – what he was doing the last time I saw him. I said he’d taken away my inhaler, that we’d fought over what to watch on TV. I’d wanted to watch Taxi but he insisted on watching Love, American Style.
In the end he’d taken my inhaler and smothered me with a pillow. The cop with the buzz cut said he’d have to check me out.
"Please lean forward like you’re at the doctor’s office and pull up your shirt," he ordered.
He began to touch my back with his long, bony fingers and I thought of Pete. None of this would’ve happened if he hadn’t been such a weirdo.
"Does that hurt?" He asked, jabbing me. "Does this?"
I shook my head. His hands were cold.
His partner came in and whispered to him, and a moment later a woman with long, frizzy gray hair and big, baby blue eyes walked in. She wore a turquoise muumuu and smelled of patchouli incense and menthol cigarettes. She smiled softly and said she wanted to take me to see Mom.
When Mom hugged me I didn’t want her to let me go because I knew when she did they’d take me away. I knew Pete had done something terrible, this was all his fault.
"I’ll come get you just as soon as I can, kiddo. This nice lady’s going to take you to a nice family. Just wait for me, okay? I won’t be long."
I hugged her once more and walked away with the social worker.
Mom likes to say God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. Which is why it’s taken me so long to remember what happened that night. The night that Pete died. She says she loved him but had to protect me and that not a day has gone by for the past 10 years that she doesn’t ask God to help her. Because she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
I had to protect you, she says. You’re my baby – my baby girl.
I read the court report for the first time six months ago and I burned it. It was full of lies about Mom, accused her of killing Pete. I knew it was wrong, all wrong. The nightmares started up again after I read it – seems like certain things just won’t die. Not if they live inside you. They’ll squirm and struggle and tear your guts out if necessary. That’s how I feel lately. Like I’m slowly going insane – or like I’m slipping slowly but surely away from what I thought to be true. I thought Pete had an accident. Or maybe got into trouble. All I knew was that Mom told me to go to the main room, while she talked to him in her room. She’d just walked in on us. Walked in on him trying to play his game. Walked in to see Love American, Style on the TV.
She told me yesterday why she did it.
"I saw him trying to hurt you. And it’s like I went back to when my mother and my father hurt me. It was like the flip of the switch. I was that little girl again."
She said she walked over to him, slapped him across the face and placed the pillow over his face. Just the same way he’d done with me earlier.
They’re finally letting her out. They were able to get her off with temporary insanity. Turns out her nephew’s a hotshot lawyer with lots of connections. She says it’s God’s way of giving her another chance. She says the only way you can live right in the world is to befriend your demons.
Talk to them. Don’t close the door on them. I think she’s right but I’m not sure I’m ready to look at mine yet. What if they swallow me whole?
Otherwise you never know when they’ll come out and bite you in the ass. Otherwise you don’t know who’s steering the ship.
* * *
He Didn’t Need to Be Found
By Rizwati Freeman
He descended upon their lives on a hot February day looking like a black Grizzly Adams who’d stepped off the set of The Shining. His name was Isaiah. He was wearing a long, black trench coat and dirty black pants, and he looked like a crow who hadn’t eaten in awhile. My sister Margaret noticed his eyes first. She didn’t recognize the father who’d left them – the one who’d play peek a boo with her under the covers, give her piggy back rides around the backyard and sing songs like The Mockingbird Song, My Favorite Things and Do Re Mi. This man was a stranger. A scary stranger, like one of those crazies on the news.
He’d been gone six years – six whole years – and she’d only heard that he’d been in the hospital and that he was sick but that was all. Mom had never talked about him. She should’ve been glad he’d come back but she wasn’t. She was terrified. Something in her gut gurgled and tightened like never before except maybe when she’d watched The Exorcist. She had the sensation that her world was closing in on her.
It was our oldest sister who’d made it happen – Isabel. Isabel who’d stood in front of Mom and demanded, I want my father! because she was tired of being mocked, scorned and ridiculed at school. She with her African features and loud mouth. Our mother had told all the kids they were special – my sisters and two brothers – told them they were somehow better than everyone else because all they had to do was look around and see, was anyone as beautiful? And everyone knew that the children of a white woman and a black man were more beautiful than anyone else in the whole wide world, and beauty itself was like a kind of magic that only a few people possessed. Mom herself was beautiful, and she walked, talked and behaved like a queen – having inherited a refined, elegant bearing from her mother who was supposedly from an aristocratic family, a family that had even founded Barcelona long, long ago. Or maybe it was Quebec.
Minutes after this hairy black crow had flown into their lives, Mom gave him his first assignment. She handed him a rolled up newspaper and told the kids to line up in the living room.
"Your father’s going to teach you a lesson,"she said, dropping into her military sergeant voice. "Spank them."
And he did. One by one they stood in front of him, and when it came to my brother Riley, a blue-eyed tow head, Isaiah asked, "Who’s this?"
"He’s our son," Mom replied.
"Oh, you gave up the ship?"
It’s a miracle she didn’t laugh – she’d never been modest when it came to sex, and anyway they’d had an arrangement – they only came together when they wanted to conceive. He hated the act, and Mom loved it – so she sated her appetites in other pastures.
Later, as Mom was cooking spaghetti and Isaiah sat nearby watching her blankly, she asked what he’d been up to in Frisco where the private investigator had found him. She didn’t talk about the sad things – the fact that he had been committed to Camarillo thanks to his mother, she didn’t ask why he’d been caught stealing things or what it had been like to get those shock treatments. Had they changed him? No, she fluttered around the kitchen like Snow White after the gorgeous prince has kissed her.
"Longshoreman," he said. "Picking grapes."
She lit a joint, closed her eyes and inhaled. She opened her eyes, and smiled. "My soul mate’s come home! I can’t believe you’re here!"
He seemed to be somewhere else – not with her. Far, far away. But at some point he began talking about his friends up north, and Isabel was sitting on the carpet right around the corner, pretending to play with her Cher doll. He said he’d only gone once to the temple of his beloved guru – and there he’d met some guys who’d taken him under their wing.
"They’d have these potlucks in the park where they’d read their poetry. That’s what turned me on about them. They had daughters too – they’d always bring them, but never their wives. It was pretty far out. I finally got to read my poems."
He was a beat poet, carried a little chapbook in his pocket at all times, but it seemed like the only one who’d wanted to hear his poetry was Mom.
The next morning was Isaiah’s second assignment. That’s where I came in. Mom said they did it quickly and that right afterward he kicked her out of the bed. Then the earth shook. Literally. 6.6 on the Richter scale. It wasn’t romantic but at least it was literary – mystical. It was the last time they lay together as man and wife.
Isaiah had other things on his mind. Like the friends he was calling up north, and his plan to make all the kids into yogis. In the attic room he showed them various asanas for an hour the next day and told them to go practice on their own. Margaret would stay, he said. She needed extra help. Isabel and the boys left the attic room, but Isabel peeked through the door to see what he was up to. Margaret, a skinny little eight-year old, sat in front of him wearing a flesh-colored leotard and tights. She hadn’t wanted to wear those but that’s all she had and she’d wanted to be a good girl. Isabel had said she should do what she wanted to, and not worry about the freaky black crow. But Margaret was the quiet one, the obedient one. Compliant. She’d never step outside the lines, or bring attention to herself. She’d never rock the boat. As Isabel looked through the door she saw Isaiah leading her little sister onto his lap. Margaret looked disturbed, frightened even, her little wiry body was clearly tense.
He touched her arms, then her waist and she began to squirm. He continued – and then he looked up. Had he seen Isabel? He let Margaret go. She ran so quickly that she didn’t notice Isabel in the hall. There was nowhere to run to, so she ran out back, behind the garage and cried like she’d never cried before. It would be the last time she’d cry for several years. It would be almost a lifetime.
The day passed in a blur for Margaret. There was nowhere to run to, nowhere at all. No place was safe. No place would ever be safe. Mom was stoned and buzzed on red wine as usual and over the moon that her ‘soul mate’ had returned, the other kids were scared out of their wits of the creature who’d suddenly appeared in their lives. When he’d come to the door he’d bang on it and shout at the top of his lungs, "It's Isaiah!"
He was so loud that the neighbor’s dogs would go crazy barking.
That night as Margaret lay in her bed, she prayed extra hard that Isaiah wouldn’t come get her. Isabel and the boys had all slept over their friends’ houses and Mom was at a Subud meeting so she was all alone in the house. She prayed her ass off but it was tricky - she always had a 50-50 chance with God.
It didn’t work.
He came in smelling of Dove soap - he’d just showered and his bee’s nest hair glistened with drops of water. It was her hair too, hair she’d learn to hate more and more, hair she could never control. Hair that would always remind her of him. He was naked to his waist, covered by a flimsy white towel. He said nothing at all and advanced toward her. And only then did she remember that word Isabel had overheard him say about his friends. Concubines. The daughters had been his friends’ concubines.
He collapsed into bed with her as if he belonged there, as if she belonged to him. As if she was not her own. He slowly groped at her through her nightgown, and she could feel his thing, his dirty lead pipe rub against her. Inside she screamed at the top of her lungs – but outside she was paralyzed. Her body, her voice. All had shut down. Frozen. In fear. Still, she prayed. Please God, let me disappear, please God, please let me disappear – please God, let me just die right here. GOD! Please God.
She didn’t realize it but she was shaking. And squirming. It seemed like his hands had poked at her and squeezed her for hours. She didn’t know how long he’d been there for, or how long he stayed. But suddenly he just stopped. She could hear a car pulling up to the curb. Oh God please let it be Mom. And a moment later he was gone.
Isaiah hadn’t counted on Isabel returning early, and he hadn’t seen her hide behind the door, or skulk like a cat into the master bedroom. Didn’t see her crouching in the shadows near the bed he shared with Mom.
When Mom found him later he looked like a troubled rag doll lying on the beige carpet. His expression was one of shock. Surprise. It took a few minutes for everything to register – and it was all too familiar. She had the feeling that she’d gone back in time to her father’s den in 1945. His body surrounded by splattered red, a mass of flesh stuck to the wall. And a 12-gauge shotgun lying beside him. That was Daddy, this was her soul mate. Both had…
Her eye fell on the picture of the hummingbird on the nightstand and a voice inside of her screamed, "NO!"
Nine months later I was born. Mom was staying with the nuns in a kind of rest home and the other kids had all gone up north to stay on some commune in Carmel. Mom wouldn’t talk for a long, long time – it was like she was frozen for a while. Paralyzed.
She couldn’t see the girls again – they reminded her too much of him. They were, she said, his spitting image. So she took back the boys and Isabel and Margaret went into foster homes. Once when I visited Margaret at her foster home she told me the whole thing was Isabel’s fault.
"Isaiah didn’t need to be found," she said."I’m glad you were born but he didn’t need to be found."
But afterward I started thinking and it came to me that that wasn’t right. I mean, if he hadn’t been found – where would that leave me? The nuns always say that everything happens for a reason but I don’t know about that. What I do know is I wish I’d known Mom before – and that she’d come back to me. To us. Seems like her favorite thing to do all day is to look at that picture of the hummingbird. Like it’s the answer to some question she keeps asking herself.
I pray about Mom a lot – every night in fact. And if the nuns have taught me one thing – it’s that you have to have faith. Without faith you’re dead.
These days faith’s all I got.
Rizwati Freeman is a native of Los Angeles, has studied journalism and psychology, and lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, for several years before returning to the Southland. She now lives in the City of Angels with her two cats, and volunteers in animal rescue.
* * *
By Phillip Goldberg
Luke wrapped his hands, large and strong for a 13-year-old, around the lawn mower’s handle. It was Saturday morning, and he was standing in Mrs. King’s front yard. A Canadian chill rode the stiff breeze, severing orange and brown leaves from their branches. He rubbed his reddened hands and blew warm air on them. A flick of the mower’s switch and it growled to life. His fingers stung from the motor’s vibrations as he pushed up and down the yard. On an upward swing he saw Mrs. King waving at him as she stood in a window framed by yellow curtains. The sun struck the glass and bathed her in a golden aura. He waved back.
Since Mrs. King had moved north from Mississippi three years ago, he had been mowing her lawn. About her, he knew little. She served hot chocolate to him on frosty mornings and icy lemonade on hot summer days. She fed stray cats. Other small facts he had learned about her: She talked slowly and her voice resonated with the distinct twang of someone raised in the South. She never cursed (at least he had never heard her). Dresses, she never wore them. She had told him that she had moved around quite a bit before settling here. Two marriages and one divorce. Four children scattered about. Nine grandchildren. She hummed, mostly hymns. And sometimes she grimaced for seemingly no reason.
“I was a substitute teacher in Chattanooga for a few years,” she had said once as the two drank hot cocoa while sitting in her sun room.
“Why’d you quit?”
She sipped her chocolate then ran the tip of her tongue across her lips. The lips curled into a content smile. “How’s your cocoa?” He allowed their talk to move elsewhere.
He thought about her as he guided the mower over the lawn, the cut blades of grass mixing with the multi-colored leaves beneath his stained sneakers. Behind him, his shadow lengthened across the trimmed lawn. A few starlings could be heard in the trees as he turned the mower for the final stretch of turf.
When he finally flicked off the mower’s switch, he paused to survey his work. The look of the fresh-cut lawn filled him with a small pride. Then, he pushed the mower off the grass and rolled it along the path running to the side of the house to where the tool shed stood. He put it between a snow shovel and a rake. As he reached for the leaf blower, a squeal of tires assaulted his ears. He left the blower on its hook and raced from the shed.
Two black sedans were parked at the curb with their doors wide open. Men wearing navy blue coats with FBI written in white letters on their backs were standing in a group at Mrs. King’s front door.
Luke was confused and a little frightened. He jumped when a scarlet leaf broke off a branch, spun through the air and landed on his shoulder. With the back of his hand, he brushed the leaf off and watched it touch down on the lawn among the others.
Without ceremony, the men led Mrs. King away, her tan overcoat draped over her shoulders and covering her hands. As she passed him, she smiled. An agent helped her into the back seat of one of the cars and closed the door. Then both cars sped off down the tree-lined street and disappeared.
Luke stood at the edge of the lawn while the onlookers that had gathered returned to their homes. Then he sat down on the stiff grass and shut his eyes. His head was swimming with conflicted thoughts. At the sound of leaves crunching behind him, his eyes shot open and he turned his head to see his mother standing a few feet away.
She sat down and draped an arm around him. Looking into his uncertain eyes, she said: “Sometimes people aren’t who you think they are.”
“But she was nice,” he protested.
When they returned home an hour later, the television in the kitchen was on and Luke watched with morbid curiosity. “Cynthia Shifter, also known as Helene Jeanne King had been living in this area for nearly three years.”
On the screen was a photo of a young woman with striking auburn hair piled on top in a beehive. Luke stared at the younger, prettier Mrs. King.
“Shifter had been on the run for nearly thirty-five years, having never stood trial as the main accomplice in the murder of civil rights activist, Rodney Bean.”
It was incomprehensible. He shook his head as if it would make this more believable or understandable.
“Authorities had been tracking Shifter through many states until a recent tip heated up what had been a long, cold trail.”
He shut his eyes and balled his hands into fists. But he could still hear the newscaster. Opening his eyes, he grabbed the remote and switched off the set. Then, he walked to his room and sat on the bed. His mother appeared in the doorway.
“Feeling any better, babe?”
She leaned over to run a hand through his hair. But after a few moments, she left him alone again.
He stayed in the room for a few hours. Walking to the window and pulling the curtain away, he looked past his front yard. In the late afternoon light, shadows knifed across the freshly cut grass of Mrs. King’s lawn. The news trucks were still parked outside, although the reporters were nowhere to be seen. A few people gawked at the house from the sidewalk.
Luke left the room and went outside. He walked slowly toward the little yellow house. He stopped beside a lanky man with a scraggly beard. “Did you know her?” the man asked.
“Hope she gets what she deserves,” said a woman with pock-marked skin standing nearby.
Luke glared at her and barked: “She was a good person. Then he turned and stalked off down the street. A hard wind kicked up, and he thrust his hands into his coat pockets. Winter was coming, faster than expected.
He walked down familiar neighborhood streets. The scenery blurred. Night fell. The air grew colder, sharper, more biting. He pulled up his collar, protecting his exposed neck. His anger rose under the glowing street lights. Leaves swirled around him. His shoes kicked them up as he walked. He inhaled the frigid air. White steam flowed like car exhaust from his mouth. His teeth chattered. But the cold was calming to him, and soon he slowed and turned to head back home.
Later that night, much later, the buzz of the lawnmower broke the sleepy silence of the suburban street. Luke was pushing it across Mrs. King’s lawn. Behind him, her house stood unlit except for a single security lamp attached to the porch. Howls and barks soon added to the cacophony as the neighborhood dogs reacted to the buzz of the machine. Lights came on in the other houses on the block.
Neighbors began to gather on the sidewalk. “What the hell are you doing?” shouted one of them. But Luke stared straight ahead and continued to push the mower over the already cut grass. Patches of dirt appeared where he was wearing ruts into the sod with the wheels of the mower.
Luke’s mother pushed her way through the crowd of people. At the edge of what was once grass, she stopped for a moment, watching her son. Finally she stepped onto the lawn and walked to him. When he saw her, he shut off the mower. The silence was uncomfortable and soon people were turning to go back to their homes.
When the final neighbor had left, Luke stepped into his mother’s waiting arms and let them close in on him. She held tight. The glow of the street lamps made his blue eyes sparkle as he stared over her shoulder at Mrs. King’s lawn.
Philip Goldberg's short stories have appeared in over 20 literary and small press magazines including Foliate Oak, Best of 2007-2008 Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Straylight, The Griffin, Northwoods Journal and Byline. Philip lives with wife and two cats in Brooklyn, New York.
* * *
The Allure of Younger Men
By C.E. Hyun
Corey Siddig first saw Matthew on the San Francisco Muni, on that Wednesday morning she called in sick to work. He looked to be about twenty or twenty-one and was unpretentiously hipster, with his wide brown eyes, tight jeans, and dark green jacket. Over his shoulder was a bulging canvas bag adorned with badges. He stood leaning against a pole, clutching a giant sketchbook, looking so pretty and oblivious that Corey found it hard not to stare.
“You’re going through all that quarter-life angst,” Hayden had told her several weeks back when she said that she felt stuck, that she wanted to move forward with her life but didn’t know what it was that she should work towards.
Corey was twenty-four, next week turning twenty-five. Hayden was Vice President of Sales and Marketing where she worked and the boss of her boss.
“How do you get over it?” she had asked.
“Get married. Have kids. Take on another set of problems so that the old ones seem irrelevant.”
“That was reassuring. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to.”
Corey worked in the Marketing department of a Fortune 500 subsidiary that specialized in trendy electronics. Career-wise, it was her first real job, great on the resume and with many useful learning opportunities. She didn’t usually skip work for no reason but had decided she needed the break. She was good at what she did, but also increasingly aware that the reality of her job was to convince consumers who should be doing something constructive with their money to go spend it on some hot new thing that would be obsolete in less than a year. It was within this context that she first saw Matthew.
They got off at the same stop, at Market and Montgomery. Corey watched Matthew stride off down New Montgomery in the direction where a bunch of art museums were located. She wondered what he drew, if he did it for fun or planned to pursue it professionally. Then she wondered if he had a girlfriend, a pretty nymph sporting thrift store clothes and a flawless complexion, the latter the courtesy of a diet of organic, locally grown foods and all that exercise riding her fixed-gear bicycle.
As for Corey, she trudged toward Fisherman’s Wharf with the intention of playing tourist. She had no plan and if she had been hoping that inspiration would hit and what to do would magically reveal itself, she was mistaken. She ended up aimlessly wandering, depressed by the realization that she was wasting her day, counting down the hours as she would have done if she’d just gone on in to work.
She was still thinking about Matthew the next day at work. At twelve Corey grabbed her purse and keys. On the way out she met Hayden. He was just entering the building and took off his sunglasses as he saw her.
“Hey Corey. Lunchtime?”
“Yeah, meeting a friend.”
“No. A girl friend. You’ve met her before. My friend, Sam? Tall, dark hair, works at _____.”
“Your Berkeley friend. Where you two off to today?”
“That little Japanese place next to Panera.”
Hayden grinned. “Have a good time.”
“I will, thanks,” she said as she passed him. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Hayden had glanced back to watch her; she wore a pencil skirt well. Biting back a smile, she headed toward her car.
If Corey was completely honest, she had noticed Hayden her first day on the job, him amongst the many men she was introduced to that day. In that thirty-second introduction, she thought she glimpsed the fifty-year-old version of the man she had always searched for but never found in college. In school, she was surrounded by undergraduate boys who were as insecure about the real world as she was, and Corey wanted someone who was confident in his ability to navigate the corporate world. Then she met Hayden with his self-deprecating smile, his tendency to flirt with the ladies.
She never told anyone about her little crush. He was married and had two kids, the oldest of whom was in her second year of college. Even if he had been willing, there was a stickiness there that she knew, rationally, she wouldn’t be willing to deal with. But she was drawn to him; he made her curious. He was fun to talk to, refreshingly candid beneath his banter. He was someone she could admit her insecurities to.
“I’m telling you like it is. I work, get paid, go home, and play ATM,” Hayden told her when Corey said that his account of adult life gave her little to look forward to.
Corey’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your wife is just sitting around at home, doing her nails and shopping, while your kids take care of themselves.”
“No, my wife is an amazing woman, especially with our kids—they’re little hellions. They’re a blast,” he added at Corey’s look. “But they’re autonomous beings, have needs, make demands, do everything you don’t want them to do. They’re expensive. Worth the price but they drive you nuts.” He grinned. “What are you like with your parents? I bet you’re a completely different person than you are at work.”
“My sister Caitlin had the attitude. I was an angel.”
“Sure you were. My point is that whatever the rewards, family life comes with its own set of costs.”
“You’re not supposed to tell me these things.”
“You’re supposed to tell me how you made all the right decisions at my age and now you’re reaping the benefits. Or give me the inside scoop so I don’t make the same mistakes.”
“This is the inside scoop. Mess around and be selfish now. Don’t go into debt. You have a good job, make decent money. No reason you can’t start putting money toward a retirement account. Don’t get caught up in the materialistic frenzy that we promote around here. A house is an investment. These fancy gadgets we make aren’t.”
“Did you know what you wanted to do when you were my age?”
“Oh god no. I majored in Political Science, had vague notions of going to law school like every other liberal arts grad. My first job was in sales. I worked my way up, got my MBA. I fell into what I did. Most people do.”
It wasn’t a particularly inspiring revelation, but still. “I guess I can understand that.”
Hayden grinned at the look on her face. “I was in your position once, myself. You look at all of us old people and we depress you, and you look down on us, don’t you?”
“I-, what, no.”
“I have two teenage girls. Not entirely senile like you guys think. I see things.”
Corey smirked at that. “I have to get ready for a meeting.”
Corey met Matthew on her birthday. It was Tuesday and she was at a café-bar, waiting for her roommate to get out of class at UCSF. The café was packed and people were sharing tables. Corey got her drink and saw Matthew sitting alone, reading a book. He seemed distracted. He kept glancing up and staring around. She approached him and pointed to the chair opposite him.
“Anyone sitting here?”
He shook his head and she sat down. In another of his glances around the room, he caught her gaze. He smiled.
“What are you reading?” she asked.
He held up his book so she could see the cover.
“I was somehow able to avoid him all through high school and college. And I majored in English.” She pretended to consider his face. “I’ve seen you on the Muni. You hit me once with your giant sketchbook.”
“Yeah? Sorry about that.”
“I’m kidding. What do you draw?”
“I’m taking an anatomy class.”
“Are you an art student?”
“No, film. The art class is for fun.”
“That’s really neat.” She smiled. “I’m Corey.”
“What year are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Third year at SF State.”
“I took a night class there about a year back.”
“Oh yeah, what class?”
“Photoshop and InDesign, for work.”
“Where do you work?”
She told him and he asked her what she did and how she liked it. Listening to herself speak, Corey realized she portrayed herself as a person who looked down on her job but was nonetheless a workaholic.
“So what do you do for fun?” Matthew asked.
Until then, he had spoken as one does with a casual stranger, no reason to be disinterested but no reason to care too much about what she had to say. He looked at her now as though her answer would determine the opinion he was forming about her. It took her back, and a feeling of deficiency came over her as she considered her answer. What did she do for fun? Watch TV, drink with friends, go shopping?
“I don’t know. I should start focusing more on that aspect of my life, shouldn’t I?”
Earlier that day, Hayden had caught up to Corey as she was leaving work. “I hear today’s your birthday,” he said. “Any special plans?”
“Not tonight. My sister and my friend Sam are coming up into the city this weekend, so we’re going out then.”
“Pick up some guys, have them buy your drinks?”
“Not a huge fan of strangers buying me drinks.”
Corey shrugged. “It just feels weird, receiving something when I know I’m not going to give anything in return.”
“For the pleasure of your five-minute company.”
“You’re not going to shatter the guy’s heart into a thousand pieces. He offered to buy. He didn’t have to.” When Corey didn’t say anything, Hayden said, “you need to open your mind. You’re a good-looking girl. You live in the city. You’re telling me you can’t find any guy that interests you? What are you waiting for?”
“True love. Instant chemistry. The other half to my power couple.”
“Well until you find him, have some fun. You can plan and detail as much as you want, but real life is trial and error and luck.”
“Maybe you should try someone older, if guys your own age don’t interest you.”
Corey looked at Hayden and wondered if he had ever cheated on his wife. She’d met plenty of flirts. But what did she really know about those who took it further? “Or someone younger,” she said.
“No, you don’t want to date younger guys.”
“Come on, I was at that age once, and all my friends. We were just-. I know what I was thinking then, things you wouldn’t want to know about.”
“Right, because as you get older, you just naturally become more honorable.”
“No, we grow up. Stop taking things for granted. Start realizing who it is that has the control.”
“That’s a nice move, conceding your power like that.”
“Hey, it worked on my wife. Besides we have to humble up as we get more competition. The women start looking twice at the nerds.”
Corey smiled. “I think dating a younger guy would be fun.”
She saw Matthew again that weekend at a dance club in the Mission. He wore a light blue dress shirt, holding a drink in his hand. She saw him dance with several girls so perhaps they were his friends and not a girlfriend. The girls looked younger than her.
He saw her later when she was coming back from the bar; he must have come from the restroom. “Hey… Corey, right?”
“Good memory. I keep seeing you everywhere.”
“Yeah, do you come here often?”
“No, not for over a year.”
“What’s the special occasion?”
“I’m celebrating my birthday.”
Matthew looked her over. “Late twenties. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight.”
“Ouch. Try twenty-five.”
He smiled. “It’s because you come across as more the put-together type.”
“Thanks… I think.”
She moved aside for a trail of new arrivals, putting her in closer proximity to Matthew. She glanced past him, noticing the pool table lit up in red and the dance floor vaguely blue behind it, the figures shadowed and blurred. Close to him, she didn’t move away. She met his eyes, trying to gauge his interest.
He noticed and said, “I have a girlfriend.”
“Sorry.” Corey glanced out toward the dance floor, wondering if his girlfriend was out among the bunch of girls she had seen him with.
Watching them, she felt herself overcome by a strange panic. She was used to being noticed at work, what with good-looking twenty-somethings being something of a novelty in the corporate world. Here at the club though, it didn’t matter. She would never register on Matthew’s radar because she was already too old.
She watched those young, imperfect girls, who had fun and were simultaneously arrogant and insecure about their ability to attract boys, their clothes that might be trendy but not yet their own style. They were more beautiful and desirable in their awkwardness than Corey could ever dream of being, no matter how fetching her clothes, how perfect her figure, how far she advanced in her career. They possessed something she had lost—exactly when had she lost it?—that lack of awareness, that damning self-consciousness, when you know you are not invincible, but that you must perfect the art of appearing invincible.
She felt Matthew watching her. “Is she here?”
“Yeah, she’s here.”
“Where’d you two meet?”
“I met her at school.”
“How long have you been with your girlfriend?” she asked.
“A little over a year.”
Corey nodded. She knew then that if she wanted Hayden, she would be the one who would have to make the first move. It was a strange power, knowing that she could have him if she wanted him, the power she had in not having yet lived her life, the chance to do things differently.
She met Matthew’s gaze. “You’re an attractive guy. I thought that, the first time I saw you. I don’t know why I didn’t see it when I was your age.” Back then, she wouldn’t have looked twice. It wouldn’t have occurred to her that his type was one she could be drawn to. “I better go and find my friends. Thanks for indulging an older woman in conversation. Yeah,” Corey smiled, cutting Matthew off when he opened his mouth to speak. “You thought I was twenty-eight. That’s okay. Just wish me a happy birthday.”
C.E. Hyun’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mirror Dance, The Northville Review, Swamp Biscuits and Tea, The Red Penny Papers, and the British Fantasy Society’s BFS Journal. She currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
* * *
By Jason Hibbits
Late fall. A dearth of stars hover in wide gaps over someone else’s plastic wading pool. Water not even deep enough to cover anything proper. You haven’t yet understood the naturist impulses of your parents, their need to trespass. So you make a water-angel while your mother and father examine a bed of violets. Your father, always brave enough to pick a few, offers to dress your mother in flowers. He begins with the crevices of her body: a petal behind each of her ears, one on the inside of her elbows, and two more between her breasts. He measures his work for a moment, finds it wanting. But then he threads a few stems through the hairs of your mother’s pubis, crossing the blooms wherever he can. His work now complete.
“And you are going to get us in trouble,” your mother answers. Already, her outfit is wilting and falling from her. She can’t even wear this, you think.
No matter. You have brownbagged stars for a mild distraction, all of their light stuffing into morning. Constellations seem more like a convention of every connect-the-dots puzzle you never finished. Both dippers are without their handles. And Orion seems to share your family’s exposure with the absence of his belt. Don’t let the small laughter bubbles escape to the surface at this realization. And don’t forget to forgive yourself years later when you break your parents only rule of absolute silence by screaming for help after some water you swallow finds the wrong pipe. It is only a mouthful or two.
An itemized list of things you should not have to remember:
1) Sudden eye pollution of porchlight.
2) The ear sting of a siren in the front yard.
3) A game of tug-of-war between your mother and the uniformed officer with you as the rope.
4) Petals from your mother’s flower garden ears snowing on your face.
5) The cinched Salvation Army tie at your throat as you ride to your first foster home—Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Exclude yourself from these things tonight. Drive to a town you haven’t been through at three am. Find a public pool. Strip. Seek only the ripples of water and flesh. Breaststroke and devil-may-care backstroke. Let your genitals be free to observe the cacophony of a life free of zippered exclusion. Wish for the last of this summer humidity to brave others into your discovery. After all, swimming is a lesser, more lyric form of flight. In small measures, crack your mouth into a smile and swallow. Only enough to keep your mouth from drying this time. Try to remember the percentage of human tissue comprised of water, though it will not seem adequate one you do. If you can, flex your muscles until they split into tiny waves and swim away into molecules more hydrogen than air.
Jason Hibbitts grew up in Southwest Virginia. His work is forthcoming or appears in the following journals: San Pedro River Review, Sugar House Review, Prime Mincer, Poydras Review, and The Sierra Nevada Review, among others.
* * *
Leap of Faith
By Susan Kirchoff
September 7, 2006 12:08 AM Charlotte, North Carolina
I look around and she surrounds me. She permeates every detail of this house. She is in the details of this self-imposed prison of nineteen years and I find myself adrift on a sea of memories.
The little kitten looks up unblinking from the pillow she is embroidered on. The closet in the guest bedroom overflows with half-finished sewing projects that will never be completed. My mother immersed herself in an unending supply of complicated projects to pass the time – the years – to stave off insanity – her mind embittered by the ugliness of betrayal in her marriage. I am the guest in this room.
I have returned to my mother’s side to be with her at the end of her life. She lies in her temporary medical bed dropped off by the hospice people in her living room struggling to remain here – to make up for lost time and laugh and smile with me and tell me everything before it is truly time to go. We have nearly 20 years of life to condense into the short time she has left.
She struggles to stay.
I cannot say exactly what happened that kept us apart for 19 years. There was no one defining moment. I feel as though I am as much to blame as she is. She was so broken by my father’s infidelities and I was unable to help her process. I was graduating from college and she didn’t want my father there and I didn’t want to take a stand against anybody. I was so happy to be graduating – I just wanted it to be about me.
She didn’t attend and there was tension. After that I can only say there was a phone call between us and then there was a lost mother, a lost daughter and then the silence began.
I spent the years waiting for an opening yet it never came until now – when I know she is too weak to hang up the phone or slam a door in my face (would she have slammed the door in my face if I had shown up on her doorstep?)
It is so tragic that I have come just for the end. My heart is heavy.
Just the three people that she brought into this world surround my mother.
I see signs of Christmas everywhere – yet I know she spent her Christmas’ alone. She didn’t quite get the decorations put away this year - she must have been sick for a long time and didn’t bother to try to get well. It is so odd to see the decorations now, all the nutcrackers and angels so lonely and out of sync with the world. Certainly it could be a metaphor for my mother’s own life. Sometimes it is a leap of faith to keep believing in the good that the world has to offer.
She removed me from her will. I don’t know when – but she did it. She wanted no part of me and wanted to make sure I would get no part of her.
Now that I am here, she is insistent about making sure I will take things. She is worried that nobody wants anything, as though she didn’t matter. She wants to be validated.
She bought a ring with my birthstones in it a few years back and asked me to bring it from her jewelry box. She told me today the story of my birth. I had never heard it before. A mother doesn’t forget even if she chooses to be alienated. I accepted the ring this afternoon because she told me she was thinking of me when she bought it.
I will think of her when I wear it.
I feel time pressing in on me, on us. Our mid-morning chats will end soon and I will be truly alone after that. I will know that there isn’t any chance for us to be reunited like what I waited for during the past nineteen years. It will just be the end.
I told her I loved her and she said it back.
I can’t breathe.
My tears threaten to drown me.
September 7, 2006 11:07 AM EST
There will be no conversations with my mother this morning. The pill for nausea has the side effect of sleep. She sleeps. I look for the quiet rise and fall of the blanket covering her so I know she hasn’t left yet.
I had looked forward to our conversation this morning; she has released information never told before. Her sickness has opened doors. I am not sure if it is the approach of death or maybe just the morphine but I have been afforded the chance to know this private, dignified woman – my mother. I wanted to tell her today that her life mattered. That she gave a lot to us kids – good and bad, but I can forgive the bad. I wanted to offer her forgiveness.
Wake up so I can tell you.
I reflect on all that she has told me, a lifetime of impressions and memories giving me insight into her and the way my brother and sister and I were raised. Suddenly things make sense. The quiet of the morning allows me space for my emotions. I am glad I didn’t bother to put on make-up today – it would have been washed away already.
But I have more questions.
Please don’t go yet.
September 7, 2006 12:45 PM
The clock chimes the passing of time. I am grateful for its persistent marking of the hour; otherwise I think I would be lost in the swirl. My memories float around me as I walk noiselessly through the rooms. . I find my first oil painting, a stained glass owl (from the 70’s), linen handkerchiefs and the fateful college graduation announcement.
The house is a time capsule of my life too.
September 9, 2006 12:07 AM
Yesterday was a bad day. I guess it was the turning point. She was lucid for less than an hour. No time to talk, just maintenance - hospice care at home.
Resolve has come and now there is anticipation of the finish of all the suffering.
Her passing is a difficult one.
I haven’t slept for days. Her ragged breathing fills the house with its sound - night and day. The air inside the house is dense with confusion and sadness. My brother, sister and I are empty.
We are exhausted.
My sister’s dog stayed close all day. She and my brother were out for most of the day again and he sat on my lap while I sat at the dining table writing and reading. He knows, and perhaps he sees. He was growling at the doorway to her room today. She was lying in her bed with the sun filtering through the trees and window and lighting the room with a soft golden glow. She appeared to be in negotiations – her mouth silently moving and her face expressing a plethora of emotions.
She is talking to her ancestors as they coax her over to the other side.
September 10, 2006 2:10 PM
I am perplexed by my mother’s record keeping. She kept a yearly calendar and filled each page with events and happenings. I want to read between the lines. I feel as though she was marking time. Ordering. Organizing records to survive after her life here. She didn’t want to forget – she didn’t want to get lost.
I have been looking through the house and re-visiting her treasures. There are things that I have seen my whole life so far. Some of the mysteries have been solved through our conversations, yet some will remain mysteries. I try to float on the memories to avoid the ugliness of the reality. There will be a dismantling of her home. Decisions will throw chaos into the silent order of my mother’s home – her life disrupted by the surprise (the surprise?) of cancer and her approaching death.
She had plans to continue her garden. I want to finish it for her but I know I won’t.
Nothing is permanent. Nothing can be counted on except death.
We await hers.
September 11, 2006
My mother died at 12:05 PM today.
All is lost.
September 25, 2006 10:50PM Los Angeles, CA
I wait until the house is quiet, the kids sleeping peacefully, my husband away and I open the door to my sadness. It washes over me and makes my breath come out in staccato gasps. My face is wet from the tears that flow from the deep well of sorrow.
I often wondered through the years what I would feel when my mother would die and be truly gone forever. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.It is said that when your relationship is strained the pain or sorrow is greater.
I try to make sense of what has happened but fail to come up with answers. I think of my mother trying to do the same. I am part of her. I want to recede into a fog. I want to isolate myself with only things I love. I want to escape the reality of the daily drudgery of life and float away.
I feel lost.
I am aware of my breath. I flash on the image of her chest rising and falling underneath the blanket. The printed butterflies on her hospital gown stained with purple from the liquid Morphine.
I watched the last breath leave her.
A final push off the wall as she took flight.
I sat in her garden that afternoon and looked for her in the trees. The wind ruffled the leaves but she wasn’t there. She was gone.
She lived in a brick house with black and white trim; austere and unimaginative but the house was surrounded by her incredible, magical Japanese garden.
My sister told me she buried her dog underneath the exquisite Japanese maple tree. I imagine her digging a hole and laying the body in it. Did she cry, I wonder.
Did the dog die from lung cancer too?
I think of the lists that she wrote, they were her company; her voice resonating throughout the NFL football statistics year after year. I think it was her anchor – a way to stay here; a way to remain. Nineteen years of solitude. Nobody visited her. No one ever came by her home.
I thought she hated me, but I am a mother too and I am sure it is impossible to hate your children. I know that now.
It was herself that she hated.
I wonder if her incessant smoking was her way of committing suicide? My mind wanders through the facts and I try to order it.
I try to find a way to be at peace but I stumble upon my anguish.
I am lost.
I am treading water in the well of sorrow with my eyes closed.
I was angry she wasn’t there when I gave birth to my first son. She never called, no note. Nothing. Silence.
When I gave birth to my second son I wasn’t angry because I knew she wasn’t going to come or call or send a note. There would ust be more silence.
But I saw their birthdays marked down in the calendars. It is strangely comforting. I will take it. I will take any crumb.
She would have loved my boys.
September 27, 2006 11:56 PM
The boxes containing my mother’s belongings arrived today; I requested few things.
I wanted only items that inspired happy memories – selective memories. I think I have so many confused feelings that I edited my choices carefully.
Unwrapping the delicate porcelain teacups and setting them down in my house felt odd. I imagine she would be glad the teacups their way to my home and were not given to a local charity. She really wanted to know that her things would be looked after and wanted. It must be so strange to know you are about to die. But I think maybe for her it was a release from her suffering and she desired it.
The finality of her death again is brought forward because I can’t ask her. I have so many questions.
There is such a void.
November 1, 2006 9:14 AM
It is coming on two months since my mother died. It has become a memory instead of an incident. The pain and sorrow have been replaced by numbness.
My sister says she misses calling her for a chat. I don’t miss her because I had already lost her nineteen years prior when she decided to quit communicating with my brother and I.
I don’t miss her.
But my heart hurts when I remember the lonely life she lived. I don’t want to be like her.
I struggle to keep my head above the cold waters of solitude.
I won’t be like that.
November 6, 2006 10:12 PM
I have become the guardian of a collection of my mother’s Bonsai plants, or are they called Bonsai trees? Or perhaps just Bonsai’s. They are perfect specimens – little masterpieces.
My mother was always an avid gardener when I was young. She always said she wanted a Japanese garden someday. When I arrived at her home in North Carolina I was stunned by the perfect and beautiful Japanese garden that encompassed her entire yard. It was her canvas.
One of the few things I did take from my mother’s home was her notebook on the care of these rare and delicate plants. It is a testament to her obsession with these trees.
It is all hand-written with a sharp pencil. There are small descriptive paragraphs and photos cut from magazines and pasted on the pages as well as price tags and labels that come from the source. There are years of notes detailing when to pinch the leaves, when to fertilize, when to water. There are charts on which tree gets full sun or partial shade, the time of year best for re-potting and when each of her little trees had its maintenance done.
My mother studied and figured out the formulas for optimum growth.
Now I look at these perfect specimens and I worry about them. Their futures are uncertain in my hands.
December 22, 2006 3:23 PM
I have a line from a song stuck in my head today. All day I am hearing the repetition of this line, ‘haunted , haunted by the past…” but that is it – no beginning and no end, just the fragment.
Now that song haunts me –I am doomed to be haunted. Haunted, haunted by the past.
How does one deal with sorrow – with death? Is being “haunted’ really about having feelings that haven’t been resolved?
Uncategorized feelings. We want to put everything into compartments so we can have order.
Order from the inevitable chaos of death.
Chaos describes my feelings. My mother died and everything is so unresolved. I want to burst into tears (I often do), I want to breathe a sigh of relief (I do that too). I want to scream in anger and fight someone with my fists. I am so mad with her.
Nobody knows how I feel. In the end, nobody cares.
We are all living separate lives and we have separate identities. We look for moments when they overlap and find similarities. We grasp these fleeting moments of shared realities and build dreams and lives upon them but they are sandcastles.
I drive too fast down the coast highway alone in the dark. The only light is the reflected light from my headlights and the soft glow from the lights on my dashboard. My hands are gripping the steering wheel - my knuckles are white. My face is wet with tears.
What does it all mean while we are here?
Susan Kirchoff lives and writes in Los Angeles, CA.
* * *
The Pool Boy Gets A Day Off
By Michael Kroesche
It was the late afternoon and the lawn furniture and pool chairs cast long shadows on the patio. The yard was suburban. There was a pinwheel shaped like a sunflower in the garden with water spots on it. A baseball bat was lying near the edge of the swimming pool, looking plain next to the brightly colored pool toys floating in the water. Earl stood about three feet back from the edge, a red cooler filled with ice and a six-pack of Keystone Lights next to him. As the sun began to dip down, he looped his thumb under his belt and took a sip of beer.
At the sound of the sliding glass door opening and closing, followed by the thud of cowboy boots, Earl scratched the back of his head and said "That you, Ted?"
"Yeah. Marlene let me in. Those cookies she was baking smelled great."
"Yup. She makes some damn good cookies. You want a beer Ted?"
"Sure thing." he replied, walking up next to Earl, the cooler between them.
"So Earl, what is it you wanted me to see so bad you got me to drag my butt over here on a Tuesday afternoon?"
"There's a shark in my pool."
Ted looked down into the water and, just as Earl had said, there was indeed a shark in the swimming pool. It was swimming in circles underneath the shadow cast by the diving board. The scales as it passed in the fading sunlight glinted like aluminum pop tops, the smooth body curving in the water. It was seven feet long, pointed at the tip like sewing needle, and dark oblong spots lined the upper half of its body. The coiled muscles rolled with every turn as its tail moved back and forth. Ted stood there for a moment perplexed, his brow creased while Earl just continued to sip on the cold beer in his hand. For a moment, the only sound was the glass wind chime hanging from the eave of the house, and water gently lapping the pool in small waves as the shark moved in circles near the white cement edge of the pool.
Finally, Ted spoke up and said, "Is it real?"
“It's real. Real enough that Jeremy threw a steak in the pool, one of the good ones Marlene bought today mind you, to see if it'd eat it or not. The neighbor’s dog got so excited that it jumped in after the meat. It was a mess."
"Oh. That explains why I didn't hear Bull barking his head off when I came up the driveway."
"Yeah it's a damn shame,” Earl said, allowing himself a small grin. “You should’ve seen the look on Mrs. Cooper’s face as the dog leapt over the chain link fence."
The two men stood there for a few more minutes in silence as the shark swam in circles in the deep end as if hunting the inner tube floating anxiously on the surface. Ted grabbed two more cans out of the cooler and, tossing one of them to Earl, and said, "I think it's a tiger shark."
"You'd be right. Saw a special about them on the Animal Planet. Apparently they can be right mean. Bite you if they have half a mind to."
"I thought sharks and the like couldn't live in chlorine."
"'Fraid this one can."
Ted reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. He took two of the cigarettes out of the box and handed one to Earl. As they lit up, there was a quiet splash followed by a hissing sound.
"Well, that son of a bitch just got his jaws on my inner tube."
"Yes, he does Earl. Look at those teeth! Hate to get chomped by those suckers like your inner tube there."
"You better believe it. And look, he's got little rows of 'em all lined up like the edges of a hacksaw."
Ted dropped his cigarette and crushed it under the toe of his cowboy boot and watched as the plastic remains of the inner tube began to sink to the bottom of the pool. The shark just kept swimming.
"So, you gonna keep it or what? Make some soup out of it?"
"Naw. You know Marlene isn't into that Asian cooking stuff. Hell, she won't even eat out at the Red Dragon on 3rd. I gave Dale a call down at the pest control. After he stopped pissin' himself from laughing so hard he said he'd make some calls and someone would be by tomorrow to take care of it."
The two men stood there for a moment longer watching the shark move through the water like quicksilver, the scales giving off a final glare as the sun dropped below the horizon. Earl spat unconsciously on to the lawn behind him.
"I gotta call the pool boy before it gets too late. Tell him he has the day off tomorrow. I'd invite you to dinner Ted but the extra steak got used up feeding that shark."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Marlene grills a mean steak, Earl."
"That she does.”
* * *
Julie Dumps Jared
By Michael Kroesche
The kettle whistles and clucks with a tinny ping on the stovetop, the blue flames licking around the blackened chrome ring of its base. Jared walks over and turns the black knob down, grabs a rag, and the kettle slips from a shrill yell to silence. He pours the boiling water into a putty-colored mug and steam rises from its mouth. He stirs four spoons of sugar into tea and blows over the rim of the mug, the steam escaping and dissipating away from his face. Through the open window of the kitchen the birds were enervated, chirping away madly and enjoying the spring warmth that had finally blossomed.
He stands in the kitchen with the mug cupped in both hands. He is wearing blue slippers, and his white ankles are exposed and covered in coarse black hairs. He is still in his checkered bathrobe even though it is 3:00 in the afternoon, and it hangs loosely around his thin waist, the robe’s tie cinched loosely in a square knot. His face is unshaven, the five o’clock shadow carpeting his prominent chin line and around the light pink of his lips. He has a wild cowlick on the back left side of his thin brown hair, spidering up and out in a crest away from his skull. Taking his first sip of the tea, he walks back to the living room and carefully sits down on the couch, sinking into the crevice of the cushions.
There is the sound of a key clacking in the entrance to the apartment and the deadbolt slides into the door. Julie walks in and sets her purse on the table near the door and, pausing to hook a finger in the back strap of her stilettos, slides the black shoes off. She has a large white shopping bag clutched in the hand she is using to brace herself against the wall. She is thin and pretty, despite her large feet. Her red hair is straightened and hangs in a shiny curtain around her well-proportioned face. She wears little makeup, and light freckles spot her nose and elegant cheekbones.
“Hey Jules, you’re home early,” says Jared, sitting up and setting down the half-emptied mug of tea.
Julie says nothing and she isn’t smiling. She looks at Jared and then moves towards the bedroom, the shopping bag swaying back and forth with every barefoot step across the living room. She disappears into the bedroom and, opening the folding doors to their closet, pulls out a large, clunky suitcase. Jared gets up from the sofa with a worried look.
“What’s with the suitcase, Jules? Are you going to visit your family or something?”
Julie presses to steel buttons and the toothy latches flip open with a loud clack. She sighs and leans on the suitcase, her red hair cascading down and hiding her face.
“No, Jared, I’m not going to visit my family. I’m leaving you.”
Julie begins emptying the drawers of her dresser, stuffing clothes haphazardly into the suitcase, bra cups crumpling and pressed into a corner. Jared stands stock still, cow-eyed, his mouth hanging open in shock. He is still too stunned to speak or move as Julie violently shuts the suitcase and fastens the clasps as quickly as her thin fingers can. Jared finally snaps back into consciousness and begins to stammer.
“Jules… please… you’re joking right? We’ve been living together for three years! I love you, you can’t be leaving!”
“I’ve met someone Jared. His name is Robert. He’s coming to pick me up soon.”
Jared is reduced to silence again as a knock comes from the door.
“That’s him now.”
Julie walks to the door and opens it and standing in the threshold is a clown. A large blue wig balloons out in wiry curls from his head. His face is covered in white makeup, a black tear painted just below his right eye. His jumpsuit is yellow with black and blue checkers patterned all over it, ending in frilly cuffs around the neck, ankles, and wrists like cupcake wrappers. His shoes are large and red, like squashed bell peppers, the yellow laces neatly tied. Jared just looks at him.
“You ready to go, babe? We’ve got a show in a couple hours.”
“I just need to get ready, can you wait a bit? I’m still finishing things with Jared here.”
Julie returns to the bedroom and strips down to her underwear. She reaches into the shopping bag and pulls out a large baggy jumpsuit patterned in blue and red polka dots, ending in frilled cuffs like Robert’s. After putting it on and zipping up the large zipper on the front, she ties her mass of red hair back into a tight bun that presses to her head. She takes a makeup case out from the shopping bag and, white-tipped sponge in hand, begins dabbing makeup under her eyes. She paints her cheekbones in small touches, covering the freckles.
“Jared, this just hasn’t been working. You’re still in your bathrobe for Christ’s sake. We’ve grown apart. I need something new.”
Jared steps back and flops onto the couch, his expression numb and blank. He begins to cry, and Robert begins examining the doorframe in embarrassment.
“But… but Jules… this is so sudden. I mean, three years. What am I supposed to do?” he says between sobs, his robe falling open revealing his undefined upper body and striped boxers.
Julie finishes applying the white makeup, her face blank and stark against the red of her hair. She takes a small paintbrush and paints a bright yellow star onto her right cheek. Her fingers move delicately up and down, her wrist perfectly still.
“See, that’s another thing. You haven’t listened to me. I’ve told you a hundred times that I hate being called 'Jules'. My name is Julie.”
She finishes painting the yellow star, and puts the paintbrush and makeup case back into the shopping bag. She takes a poofy canary yellow wig out from the bag and carefully places it on her head, covering her red hair.
“You need to do something with your life Jared. Everything has just been so stagnant. High heels, black pantsuits, spaghetti every Thursday for dinner, and you always in that damn checkered bathrobe. I don’t care if you work out of home, but you could have at least tried shaving and dressing up for me once in awhile.”
She takes a novelty bowtie out from the bag the size of a placemat and fastens it around her neck. She then sits on the bed and ties a pair of enormous red shoes identical to Robert’s around her feet, carefully lacing them as if working a sewing needle. Julie stands and as she takes a few steps towards the door the shoes making an awful honking noise.
“I mean, look at you, Jared. How could I ever take you seriously?”
Robert picks up Julie’s suitcase and says, “If you’re ready, we can leave.”
Julie looks at Jared as he remains sitting on the sofa, eyes red with sobbing and says, “Goodbye, Jared. It was fun.”
The honking sounds of Julie and Robert’s shoes grow distant as they move down the hallway into the parking lot. Jared stands up and moves to the doorway, not bothering to try and close his bathrobe, and stares at Julie as she climbs into the passenger side of a garishly painted van. “Robert-O!” is painted in glaring apple red, surrounded by polka dots of every color above a phone number. He cries quietly and wipes his face as the van drives off, Julie’s yellow wig shaking in the wind blowing through the open window of the van.
Michael Kroesche was born in Salt Lake City, UT. He received his BA from the Univ. of Southern California in 2008 and his MFA in Poetry from the Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2011. His works include a chap book, Summer Hymnals, published by Elik Press in 2004, and his poems have appeared in Interim, The Chiron Review, The Breakwater Review, among others, and have also been incorporated into orchestral pieces. He is recently returned to Salt Lake City after teaching for a year in Guangzhou, China.
* * *
A Bow for Love
By Robert Lamon
Canada Geese honked overhead, and I stopped to watch them as they flew by in perfect formation. I always stopped to look as they flew, or grazed in a field, or strolled with their goslings. Their existence seemed so orderly, so sensible—and most important of all, they each took a single mate for life.
My own life had come apart more than once, which likely explains my fascination with the geese. Twice I married the wrong girl. I blame myself for this, of course. The mismatch in each case should have been obvious, but the beauty of both women, each a distillation of the purest physical femininity, blinded me. I dare say, this often happens to those unsung creatures—American men. But I’m rich through inheritance and should have realized I might easily be married for my money. I knew I lacked charm, though, if I may say so, I wasn’t all that bad looking.
My first wife, Ruth Ann, was a writer of sorts. I made her comfortable and provided what she needed for her writing, and she no longer had to fish for grants. She had a pleasant study overlooking the woods and the very best IBM Selectric typewriter. When a computer became an essential tool, I bought her a state-of–the art model. She was svelte, willowy and desirable, and when she wasn’t writing, or sleeping beside me, she was making wine lists for her friends, or trading recipes, or advising couples about weddings.
I truly loved her and admired her versatility. But one day, shortly after our seventh wedding anniversary, she announced she was leaving me. One of her old flames had shown up at a wine shop where she happened to be browsing. He was a writer himself and, as they say, hungering for experience. And so, off they went together. After the divorce, our two children visited me each week, and I agreed to pay for their college education.
A year later, not having learned my lesson, I married again. I met my second wife, Melissa—blond, beautiful, and poised—at my dining club where she was a regular. Without realizing it, I had done the chic thing—I had joined a club and hardly ever gone there. Thus, when I did show up in my blazer and bow tie, usually with a business partner, the other members were surprised, and I got attention. Here I should mention that I wasn’t content to live on the returns from my inheritance. I had invested in two local automobile dealerships, a beer distributorship, and a luxury apartment complex. I was well known in the local business world.
Anyway, Melissa and I got married—much too soon—and settled in my same old homestead. She was skilled in the art of lovemaking, and having her beside me provided some passionate moments. But properly dressed in the daytime, we hardly ever spoke of anything of importance, beyond what I should buy next. After five years and one child, Melissa declared us incompatible, took our child, and went to live in our second home in the mountains—she later got it in the divorce settlement. I agreed to pay for our child’s college education. I was doing my part in populating the educated elite.
After my second divorce, I decided I was simply out of step with the wedded world. I had always thought of myself as a pretty good guy. I was fair in my business dealings, contributed money and time to the local mission, and donated to the usual charities. Despite my two divorces, I had thoughts of running for mayor. But as for women—I was now determined to avoid them. Oh—I must admit, I did consider sneaking out of town to some high-class whorehouse, or making a discreet call to one of those escort services. They were the simplest and cheapest ways to satisfy the needs of a still-vigorous male. Yet they were seedy, however discreet I might be. After all, I would know what I was doing—even if the world didn’t.
In any event, there I was, in my forties, in good health, with my waistline still firm and narrow. My businesses were all doing well. I drove a BMW for workaday missions and a vintage Corvette for fun. My only concerns about women were the two monthly checks I sent to Ruth Ann and Melissa. Then I got that letter from the Sheriff summoning me to Jury Duty. As always, I was willing to serve.
I was sitting in the Jury Room, when the Clerk of the Jurors announced that a trial was about to begin. All the prospective jurors filed out of the room, and down the hall, and into the Superior Court room. I was seated as Juror Six—Juror Seven was an attractive, but not beautiful nurse. She was talkative in a very pleasant Southern way, and we seemed to hit it off, though at first, I wasn’t paying her much attention.
Anyway, the defendant in the court case was an immigrant hero, who had a wife, a mistress, and a part-time girlfriend, and decided to enjoy sexual freedom at the expense of his nine-year-old daughter. As the trial dragged on, we heard all the awful evidence establishing the nature of the crime and the identity of the criminal. And needing a pleasant interlude, the nurse, Effie Jamison, and I began having lunch together. After our jury’s verdict was read and the defendant put in handcuffs, Effie and I agreed to get together sometime, and we dated and eventually married. And as amazing as it seems, our marriage lasted, and lasted.
Now here is a curious thing about our union. I have always preferred bow ties, a taste I inherited from my father—neither he nor I ever wore the phony clip-on kind. But I often had trouble getting them neatly tied, and when I did, my patience would desert me. On the other hand, Effie could tie a bow tie to perfection. She always got the tie straight and the ends exactly even. And so, before I went to my office, and whenever we went to a banquet, or to a friend’s wedding, or later to a friend’s funeral, Effie would always tie my tie just right. Then she would gaze at me with her gentle eyes and kiss me on the cheek, and we would embrace. And each time she tied my tie, our love was somehow renewed. I think our long romance was sustained by those lovely moments—and my bow tie.
Robert Lamon is college educated and a former chemist. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, he has published short stories in print and online magazines, including Aphelion, Toasted Cheese, Epiphany, One Million Stories, The Storyteller, Xavier Review, and The MacGuffin. He’s also contributed four book reviews to Liberty.
* * *
By Joe Marchia
I did not know how to play guitar. It was one of those things, like falling in love, that some people just seemed to know and others didn’t. And if you’re one of those people who don’t, you tell your friends you’re really going to learn it this time and they say, hey good for you. But the whim is never enough and you call it quits when you hear yourself plucking like an idiot.
It is, despite this, one of those things you tell people you play at parties or social gatherings. “Dude, I forgot you play!” You don’t play. I do not know how to play guitar when they hand it to me. I can position it on my knee- this is the easy part. Before one strums everyone could be Hendrix. “Play Hey Jude!” Someone will always want to hear Hey Jude. Someone will also want to hear a song they think you do not know. They almost ask you- but they put their cups into their open mouths.
“I don’t know Hey Jude,” I say, and it’s the honest truth.
“Play something we’ll all know,” your friend will say. They’re hoping you play their favorite song.
I take a sip of my drink. Everyone thinks I’m loosening up for the performance.
“No I don’t think I feel like playing,” I say. Everyone goes nuts. “Just play,” someone annoyed says. You have options now. You can cop out to not knowing and everyone will glare. You can play something you’ve made up on the spot and pray your company is comprised of exceptionally good-looking yet hard of hearing senior citizens. These are all the choices that are socially viable. Anything else and they will know you are a liar.
I start out playing slowly, a note here and there. Then I position my fingers in total mocking position of a guitarist and strum down. It’s good enough to be a chord. I do this in rotation- on the spot- several of them sound good enough. I pray on that. That mediocrity saves me. I stop.
“That was not bad,” says some girl. She knows nothing of guitar but she has just unintentionally saved me. She takes a sip of her drink and she must be drunk. Others grumble agreements. I take off the guitar and someone else picks it up. If you have ever been saved like this- by blind chance- you will believe in fate, if only temporarily.
Someone else picks up the guitar and starts to play. I walk to the kitchen with relief in my luck. I start to make a congratulatory drink.
“You’ve never played guitar before have you,” someone asks. I immediately turn expecting the world to be behind me, I’m ready to surrender to the cat and mouse game of the universe.
“I didn’t mean it like that, shit,” he says, “sorry.”
“I suck at it I know,” I say.
“You just don’t play,” he says. “You have no idea what you could do.”
“Neither do you,” I say, smirking.
“You’re right I don’t,” he says, smirking.
Joe Marchia is a journalist, creative writer and critic, published in Intellectualyst, Instigatorzine Magazine, Elmore Magazine, The Beatnik and Milk and Sugar Literature.
* * *
By Micheal Pacheco
Paul knew the corporate world could swallow careless people whole. He’d read about the pressures of success and the long trail of ruined lives left in its wake. But oh, what he’d give for just a taste of it.
He was tired of slaving away at minimum wage. He’d seen his parents do that for years and even now they paid more interest than principal on their mortgage.
Paul’s career seemed destined to follow the same path. He and his two friends, Kellen and Billy, had started their careers at Morgan Getty in the same month. But going into their third year, none of them was getting rich and they weren’t getting any younger. Something had to change.
Kellen was considering marrying his girlfriend and moving on. Billy was content to collect a paycheck for another year and hope the economy would improve.
Of the three, Paul was the scrappy kid with promise. Long ago, he’d traded membership in the blue collar crowd for a career in stocks and financial trading. He was twenty six and Ivy-educated, a Harvard and Wharton graduate. He was his mother’s hope for the future, the son, the entrepreneur only his mother had backed.
“Hey, Paul,” called Billy, sticking his bushy red head into Paul’s office.
Paul lifted his gaze from the computer screen.
Billy grinned. “The boss says you’re a faggot!”
Paul forced a smile out of kindness. “She didn’t say that.” He turned back toward the monitor.
Marie VanAllen was his supervisor and a senior partner of the firm. The recently divorced beauty, who was five years older than Paul, had invited him twice to dinner. Out of sheer nervousness, he declined both times. He never should’ve told his friends because since then, he’d become the butt of their jokes, challenging his manhood.
Just to mess with Billy’s mind, Paul shot back, “You keep that up, I’ll make you my girlfriend.”
The smile left Billy’s face. “You’re gross.”
Kellen’s head popped up over Billy’s shoulder. “Dude, Marie wants to see you.”
Paul grinned. “See, I told you. She wants my body.” At work, he’d imagined her in his arms, satisfying her lusty desires. At night, he’d seen her come to him, wanting him. But those were only fleeting, make-believe images.
Kellen looked at Billy. “What’s he talking about?”
“You know Pauli. He’s being delusional again.”
Paul rose, checked his reflection in the glass-framed Monet on the wall, then straightened his tie. “I smell a pay raise coming,” he said, brushing past his buddies and marching toward Marie’s office.
“I wish I could sleep my way to the top,” teased Kellen.
“You know that’s not my style. It’s what’s in here that’s gonna get me to the top,” said Paul, tapping his temple.
“A little tussle between the sheets couldn’t hurt,” said Billy. As Paul turned the corner to Marie’s office, he called out “Don’t worry, I heard she doesn’t bite . . . at least not too hard.”
Paul stood at the threshold and waited. Marie studied a spreadsheet on her computer screen. Paul couldn’t help but admire her high cheek bones and perky nose. The thin dress she wore left no doubt as to the womanly figure underneath. Someday he’d ask her why her husband left her. She seemed like the perfect wife, physically attractive and mentally sharp. What was not to like?
Maybe his friends were right. She could catapult him into a higher pay grade, perhaps even into a management position. He closed his eyes. The warmth of the universe swelled inside his nostrils. He took what the air gave him, a mixed fragrance of passion fruit, vanilla, peach and sandalwood.
She clicked to save the document, yanking him out of his reverie. Then, without turning, she said, “Have a seat, Paul. You don’t think I bite, do you?”
He was glad she wasn’t facing him or she’d see his strawberry-toned face. “Yes, thank you.”
She spun around. “What?”
“Oh, no. No. What I meant was yes, thank you for the chair.”
She smiled and licked her lips like a cougar ready to bite. He thought he heard a low growl emanate from her side of the desk. She pointed at the door with her chin. “Can you shut the door, please?”
“Sure,” said Paul. He shut the door quietly and smiled at her. “Am I in trouble or something?”
“Don’t be silly. Actually, that’s why I called you in here.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” said Paul.
“Let’s just say you always care about doing the right thing. Call it a sense of ethics or morals, not everyone has those traits.”
“The reason it matters is that I want to offer you an after-hours assignment.”
Little furrows formed in Paul’s forehead. “You mean I’d be on-the-clock after hours?”
“Sort of. I mean you’d get paid, for sure.” She paused and studied him from head to toe. When he remained silent, she continued. “I’d like you to be my designated driver for a night. I’m planning on attending a leadership conference downtown and I know I won’t be able to drive myself home when it’s time to leave. Once I start drinking, boy, look out.”
Paul tilted his head. “Why me? Couldn’t you just hire a limo or a chauffeur or maybe a taxi?”
“Yep. Thought of that already, but you know what?” She glanced at the door and Paul knew she was about to say something of a private nature.
“When I drink too much, I turn into a slutty fool! I do things with men I regret the next morning. I know you aren’t interested in me romantically. You’ve turned me down twice to go out on a date. I can respect that. So, as I see it, who better to lug me home than someone I already know and trust?”
Paul was caught off guard, almost speechless. He blurted out the first words that came to mind. “Do I have to wear a suit?”
Michael M. Pacheco's debut novel, The Guadalupe Saints, was published by Paraguas Books in April 2011, and recently won Second Place in the International Latino Book-to-Movie Awards (suspense/mystery category). His novella titled, Seeking Tierra Santa, was released in May 2011. He also has had or will soon have short stories published in Southwestern American Literature, The Gold Man Review, Label Me Latina, The Acentos Review, Boxfire Press, Red Ochre Press, VAO Publishing - Along the River II, St. Somewhere Journal and AirplaneReading (twice). His poetry can be found at "200 New Mexico Poems."
* * *
The Revolt of the Test Cases
By Ken Poyner
I’ve put up plywood on the inside of the windows and braced the main door. They will break out the glass, but the new wood will hold. I will listen to them scratching against it, then I might fall asleep in the middle of the floor wrapped in the rug we took in as a last minute wedding gift.
I have to remember: these are actual examples, the representative samples, the collected set of typical outcomes. These are what I became an accountant to manage. Oh, they may be howling and circling the house now. They may be shaking out the pants legs of their mediocrity at the moment; but, come morning, I will have them in columns and rows, in tabular sums. The pumpkin-hollow faces of everyone’s 1.7 children will be squeezed again into a ledger, made to ride without complaint a normalized curve.
It does not matter where any graph line is going. It only matters that the majority of the points fall on that line. Drive the standard deviation down to zero is what I say. Explain errant points as testing bias. Have a good enough conclusion, and the data will conform.
I’ve gotten to where I can recognize by sound and fury alone some of the typical subjects, can occasionally identify some random sample individually. Most fade into white noise, but a few would have to stand out to make this collection representative.
As predicted, my wife cannot take it. She places a hand over each ear, bends forward as though to roll up into a pliant protective ball. She emits something too weak to be a scream: perhaps air leaking from her scrunched lungs unannounced, or a blockage in the larynx where the work of belief is simply too much to get uniformly past. All these jostled data points surrounding the house, prying at any crack in our domestic armor, drives her into a pointless stammer of raw existentialism. She has been hiding upstairs in the master closet for most of the night, filling the statistically predicted position of the subject who cannot cope. She will return to the closet, instinctively believing small spaces are safer, unaware that small spaces and samples gives you no insight into how the whole of anything will, by cookie-cutter, turn out.
She cannot stay indefinitely in the closet. In the excitement of this temporary chaos of statistical input, she has forgotten that tonight is the eighth consecutive night since she and I last accomplished sex, given my one mathematically established failed pseudorandom attempt during our physical relations drought. Today is my day to be successful, with a 103 second performance that at least I will find satisfying.
I will coax her out by explaining that all averages are ineffectual, and that in the morning we will find our data subjects waiting in their accustomed lines and rows, equally spaced, happy to be back in their predicted places. What else would they do? They are data points, samples: a random, manageable collection drawn from the great anonymous mass that none of us wants to deal with. Yes, every so often they get muddled, set themselves against the hobgoblin machinery that gives them definition. They rise against those of us who, by collecting the trivial information of their cluttered lives, and ordering their insignificance into trends, give them a locatable place in our world. But such revolt as this against our predictions cannot last long. Their lives are nothing but trends, elements of normalization, choices of no choice: merely the stuttering latch-key that unlocks the next batch of data points.
I will have spreadsheets for them all. I will welcome them into my analysis programs. They have always been comfortable there. These stray, disorderly blips on the graph occur only rarely, and in the morning not even they will remember their disquiet. By the creaking hinge of dawn they will all be whipped into a statistical mean that nearly hums of the ordinary, chuckles of the expected.
My wife will be talked out of the closet inch by inch, her face as taut as mooring lines in a flood. She will come out to me, wincing at the scratching and thumping coming from outside, the ineffectual noise of the assault by this horde of data points raging against our properly rated and tested reinforcements. She will realize that this is the night where, statistically, in any marriage, I toss her across the bed and ensure she is simply the object of my carnal ferocity. I have taught her the averages of this: she understands the numbers; she understands her part in the repeating equation.
If my back holds out, she will sleep late into morning. The morning will be a bit of crisp, empty air, with a smattering of dampness: and the data points will be quiet again, stretched out across the multi-use land like rolls of hay, or sheared corn stalks waiting the wonder of an economically viable cellulosic ethanol trade. Breakfast, with everything back to form, will be scrambled eggs and a roll left over from Thursday’s dinner. She will not speak until I have had too much butter. I will see the idle love in her eyes that is common to our age, and we will small talk our glorious way into the daily typical. I am a lucky man in these things: a very, very lucky man. Just like every other man. Just like the collection of many experiences colors me to be. Just like anyone who can see the odds coming.
Ken Poyner lives with his power lifter wife in southeastern Virginia. His last book was "Sciences, Social", though he should be doing another shortly. For now, he watches five rescue cats and two fierce fish.
* * *
A Hollow Forest, Singing
By Catori Sarmiento
She was a renaissance doll hidden among a million pastel faces. Every line was formed as if created, each miniscule imperfection smoothed. Every centimeter of her was manufactured, even her fingernails that she had redone each week, to keep them novel, decorated with charms and glitter to add an extra array of jewels to her body. In a larger scheme, they added attention to another part of her body, another area for one of her clients to notice.
Hibiki approached the initial entrance of the Meiji Shrine, the torii gate hidden under the boughs of primeval trees; blood red columns seemed to fall from the branches. A light touch on her forearm made her gasp but when she looked to the sensation she saw the tired, soft face of Toshi. They said nothing to each other. His eyes told her to follow as he walked to the open gate, paused, and bowed before walking through. She watched this simple display with confusion. In all the years she’d known Toshi, she never heard him mention any kinship with religion. On the contrary, she believed him to disregard any form of tradition. To see him suddenly revere an inanimate object, a wooden gate, baffled her. They continued in, their feet crunching on the gravel beneath them, surrounded by the overreaching arms of the forest. She felt that they would entrap her. Toshi remained silent, fixated on traveling forward until they reached an area cleared of green. Ancient trumpets echoed throughout the shrine, never ceasing to usher the dead to heaven. A plain of grey stones were laid before the wooden shrine. She absorbed the scene. The lines of patrons standing behind wooden stalls, waiting to buy religious charms and prayer woodblocks. Every beam was hung with paper arrows and golden thread. The devoted wrote down their prayers on wooden blocks to be hung on the hexagonal rack where a thousand worn blocks already hung with the wishful desires of many. By pairs, they offered their prayers to the main shrine. Coins that were tossed into the offering box clanked against the worn wood. Innumerable claps echoed off of the walls, sealing the prayers of the faithful. She stood against the pillar, watching Toshi take part in the singular ritual. She wondered what he was praying for, that he found the need to go to such a powerful shrine. Watching the back of his profile, she saw his hunched shoulders and bowed head. When he turned around, he took a deep breath and joined Hibiki. She nodded to him and took his hand in hers.
“We took our wedding pictures here,” he said, “She was wearing the shiromuku. She looked so beautiful that day when. . . .”
He took a deep breath and uttered, “My wife is pregnant.”
“Oh,” she said, comprehending immediately.
“It was a surprise.”
“All the best and worst things are, aren‘t they?”
Eyes desperate, he looked to his doll and she gave him a familiar, false smile.
Catori Sarmiento is an author who has contributed fiction to Nothing, No One, Nowhere, by Virgogrey Press, to Down the Rabbit Hole, an anthology by Wicked East Press, and will be a featured author in the winter 2012 edition of Crossed Out Magazine where a collection of her works will be published.
* * *
Flinging Up Sand
By Mikaela Shea
The waves lapped loudly and the pages of Tia’s book darkened and fluttered. In the distance, thunder rumbled so faintly it could have been an off-beat marching band or the crashing of pins in a bowling alley.
Goosebumps prickled Tia’s skin sending a shiver down her back.
“Zachary, get away from the water,” she said, tired of having to look up every minute to check on him. She watched him plop a bucket of wet sand onto his sand castle, a giant pile of slop, and shook her head.
I can’t wait to take him back to his parents and get my fifty bucks, she thought, as she went back to reading. Zachary’s parents never told her where they were going, but Mrs. Holdt always came home with handfuls of shopping bags and Tia saw Mr. Holdt’s car at Pole Kittens on multiple occasions—a yellow Corvette with “8MYDUST” for a license plate.
Maybe because Tia was just a junior in high school, or because she didn’t have a motherly bone in her body, but she felt no connection to Zachary. She’d watched him the entire summer, after meeting a desperate Mrs. Holdt at the mall in May, frantically looking for a sitter so she could attend the much-awaited Louis Vuitton store opening. All the hot, uneventful days at the pool, the park, and the beach only added to Tia’s lack of connection.
Grey clouds swirled above them like dust bunnies and a couple of raindrops smeared the words on Tia’s book.
“Zachary, time to—“ Tia looked up, saw that Zachary was no longer pressing his small hands into the mound of sand, but frantically coming toward her on tippy toes, flinging up sand. His crimson face matched his hair and his sandy hands clutched at his throat.
Tia knew. Right away.
Even as she pictured him blue-faced and unmoving on the sand, she stood and ran toward him. What do I do? Mrs. Clark had demonstrated the Heimlich freshman year, but Tia had been too busy passing dirty notes back and forth with Bradley Zimmerman, a junior who’d failed health class twice before.
Do I put my arms around him? Lay him down? Oh, God, his face! Why didn’t I pay attention in class?
She wanted to yell for help, but there was nobody to yell for. Everyone had cleared the beach the moment the clouds darkened.
As Zachary’s face went from dark red to dark blue, Tia whipped his body around and pumped her fists into his lower stomach, just above his swim trunks.
It didn’t work. His face grew purple, as if covered by a painful bruise. Tears squirmed from his bulging blue eyes. I hurt him, Tia panicked.
Clasping her shaking hands together, she drove her fists a little higher into Zachary’s stomach.
Still not breathing, his eyes rolled back in his head. His body went limp in Tia’s arms.
He’s going to die. It’s going to be my fault. Tia imagined standing next to his tiny coffin at the funeral, holding his cold hand, telling him she was so, so sorry. His face would be a normal color again thanks to the caked on make up.
I’ll never be the same if he dies.
Tia held up Zachary’s limp body in her arms and thrust once more just below his sternum. Something flew out of his mouth and buried itself in a mound of sand.
Zachary gasped for air and let out a sob as the unnatural colors drained slowly from his face. Any other time, his cries reminded Tia of the blaring and wailing of a tornado siren early on Saturday mornings. But her legs gave out and she pulled Zachary onto her lap and cried as he wrapped her arms around her neck. She held him tight to her body, feeling the droplets of water from his stomach on her own.
Visions of his coffin slowly vanished and she kissed his cheek repeatedly.
When the sprinkles turned into a downpour, their crying finally ceased. Their teeth chattered, but Tia could’ve sat there longer if it meant keeping him safe.
“What—what was in your mouth?” Tia asked. She’d been so relieved to hear Zachary sucking in air, she’d forgotten to look at what flew out.
“A piece of money. I was pretendin’ my mouth was a piggy bank.”
Tia didn’t know whether to laugh at his imagination or slap him for doing something he knew he shouldn’t be. What if I’d failed? He could’ve died. It would’ve been my fault.
“Let’s get you home, Zachary.”
Tia didn’t even care about the fifty bucks anymore.
Mikaela Shea is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. To pay her overpriced rent, she is a blogger and a nanny. She has published a short story in Foliate Oak Literary Journal as well as a children’s book. Mikaela is currently writing a novel and sending out various short stories for publication.
* * *
By Yvette Schnoeker-Shorb
India has its sacred cows, but the USA has its sacred dogs.
—Anonymous post on a blog in response to a letter in a local newspaper
It was not that Adriana disliked dogs. She hated them. The barking was almost deafening. Adriana, a petite, mousy, middle-aged woman, remembered a time not long ago when public dialogue about dogs had been allowed on newspaper blogs—the days when the department of sanitation prohibited all but “service” animals in shopping carts, when dog owners used to have to sneak them into restaurants, when the first visual impression people had of city parks and courthouse grounds, upon arriving, was not of hundreds of unleashed dogs urinating and defecating on lawns and curbs. But in 2020 the public dialogue in open media, such as newspapers, was made illegal and these sources were held liable for any “inappropriate” public criticism of dogs, which was now against the law.
Not coincidentally, there were few options to view wild canines in urban or even rural areas, as most of the coyotes and wolves throughout the country had been eliminated. All the wolf reintroduction programs failed because agencies simply could not prevent the incessant shooting by the public. Thus the wolves were having a quick journey to extinction.
But for the coyotes, the journey to the end of the species was literally torturous. Because of the newly adopted prohibition on killing any domestic dog under any circumstances, humane societies (now combined with rescue centers) were now legally obliged to find homes for the multitudes of dogs that continued to come their way. To handle the particularly vicious ones, newly formed, for-profit organizations found a lucrative societal niche by offering the service of “wildlife control.” Dogs were trained to tear apart the unfortunate coyotes who had been aggressively trapped and placed in small pens, where packs of dogs were instructed to attack the targets, one at a time. The coyotes, deprived of their pack instinct, and individually placed in the pens, were easy bait for the teams of dogs whose instincts were encouraged to play out.
Within the following years, and because the general population had been manipulated by the media to accept the cruel turn of events as normal, reality shows with this gruesome theme, and primarily sponsored by the pet industries, became quite popular. In fact, there was a curious but direct correspondence between the diminishing of coyotes and the proliferation of doggie carriages, doggie hats, doggie jackets, and other accessories, including a special, designer line of
Doggie-Doo-N-Go toilet paper and bags. It was a shame, Adriana had thought when it all first started, being that coyotes retained their evolved intelligence. Way back in 2014, Adriana had bonded with a coyote who had been shot in his left leg. She remembered how the coyote would actually come up into the back yard to drink from the water pan she had placed under the brush at the edge of the yard. For the first few days, before drinking, he would timidly check with quick swipes of the paw of his good leg the lower branches near the pan for trip wires that could trigger a trap. What Adriana could not know at that time, she now realized, was the extent to which this whole mania would make its mark on the lives of those who remained oblivious to the socially manufactured benefits of dogs that provided the comfort and a sense of infantile control to the psyches within a psychologically frustrated and failing society. Now, behind bars, she attempted unsuccessfully to block out the echoing of yapping, yelping, howling, growling, and barking. She replayed in her mind the incident that had landed her in “The Pen,” as the facility, one of many, was known.
It had started as a small incident, really and relatively speaking, involving what looked to be a four-year-old child. Adriana had been waiting in line at the grocery store. Directly in front of her was a stout woman pushing a rather smelly cart with two dogs riding as passengers in the main part, a German shepherd and a well-groomed, white toy poodle. The woman was eating from an open bag of chips placed in the upper basket of the cart while she concentrated on the cigarette case. In front of the dog-filled cart, a mother holding the hand of a little boy pushed her cart filled with groceries forward. Adriana just happened to look as the a boy and the German shepherd riding in the cart behind that of the child’s mother both started to make a grab—snout with teeth bared paralleling the grasping little hand—for the same candy bar, one of many placed temptingly and predictably in the racks bordering the checkout line. Perhaps it was indignation at the foul odor that triggered her action. Maybe the fact that the shepherd’s owner, like many, took advantage and did not immediately use the required (and taxpayer provided) Doggie-Doo-N-Go bags to clean up after the shepherd had left a pile in the cart. Or, more likely, it was out of compassion for the child, not wanting to witness those little fingers undergo ripped skin and the resulting rain of blood.
Before she could stop herself—and quite uncharacteristic of her somewhat introverted nature, Adriana suddenly pulled the cart containing the two dogs out of line and sent it wheeling down a nearby aisle, where it crashed immediately into a row of nicely stacked, plastic accessories. The startled shepherd jumped out and took advantage of the first exit to outdoor freedom. The equally frightened poodle also attempted to jump over the side of the cart, but the little dog’s collar did not follow, effectively breaking the small dog’s neck. The dog’s owner, an obese woman with dyed blond hair and sunglasses, immediately used her cell phone to call the police. Both women then waited, the heavier woman clasping and unclasping her hands and alternating between sobbing and crying out, “My babies! What will Mama do? What will Mama do?... Oh, oh ...”
The obviously distressed, wailing woman began receiving sympathy and consolation from other shoppers, mostly those who also had various breeds of dogs in either the basket or the main portion of their carts. Adriana remained calm and appeared emotionless to those who wanted to see her as such; however, she was aware of more than a few shoppers who seemed to find the disruptive incident amusing, although they kept their heads down to hide satisfied smirks as they left the store. Adriana had planned, when the officers arrived, to use the opportunity to say that she simply did not want to see yet another child added to the five million (a figure she had just read in her insurance company’s newsletter) children bitten that year in this country alone .
But she had gravely underestimated the social climate. The child’s mother had quickly and fearfully ushered the child out so as to not be involved in the incident. The rotund blond, when pointing out Adriana, had accused her of harassment and interference but, primarily, of murder. Adriana was arrested for involuntary dog-slaughter. Because dogs were involved, the standardized penalty for this class of crime, regardless of the two minor semantic distinctions, was the same.
2022 came around quickly. Adriana had been on death row for almost a year, but she knew that she would not be seeing the welcoming in of 2023. Of course, fireworks had been banned throughout the country in 2017 because the majority of people felt that the noise was too painful for the sensitive ears of dogs. Reality shows now dominated networks, computers, and smart phones, so most people didn’t feel too deprived. And the shows were now particularly spectacular on New Year's Eve. Parades were passé. The media had found better accommodations to appeal to the cravings they had created within the culture. Adriana’s life, like dogs, would become an organic commodity—but only temporarily.
In the hard economic times of 2014, the prisons could simply not be expanded, although there initially had been plans to do so. With the dilemma of so many crimes being committed by humans and so much leftover space from the old days of confining “condemned” dogs, the solution became as obvious as the few remaining coyotes became elusive. By economically expanding the hold-for-adoption areas with galvanized steel, some clever administrators discovered that it was also sufficiently less expensive to include more holding cells for certain types of criminals—and specifically for those who could serve an unusually useful function.
Thus, a special wing within the confines of some of the designated humane society/ rescue centers housed certain criminal types like Adriana. They were kept in large cages that occupied the same spaces that once were reserved for the animals to be euthanized. This had the benefits of saving taxpayer dollars, and it was efficient. But most of all, it avoided waste and provided moral guidance. Once the putting down of dogs was banished, there was an enormous amount of sodium thiopental, paralytic substance, and potassium solution to be utilized. Televised and social-media displays of lethal injections proved particularly profitable for a number of corporations.
So it came to be that on the evening before the death of each old year, on New Year’s Eve, a selected group of human prisoners from various facilities were marched out from “The Pens” to adjacent, brightly lit areas containing rows of medical tables, complete with constraints. The rooms, originally small but now extended such that they resembled miniature warehouses, had once been used for euthanizing shelter animals. Now they were used for the same purpose, but the animals had been replaced with unwanted humans. Additionally, cameras and spectator walks had been installed to enhance the drama and to further appease the appetites of panting audiences.
This “event” was held only once a year due to the country’s fear of intervention by international objectors to the spectacle. In most countries, both the literal and social climates were such that, in order to adapt to the growing worldwide famine, nations had begun to meet their protein needs by eating the abundance of dogs. Some countries had also incorporated dogs into the work force as beasts of burden. Nonetheless, the rest of the world still tolerated this peculiar annual agenda of what was perceived as an impoverished and, more importantly, idiosyncratic and volatile country. Other nations seemed to sadly understand that Adriana’s country, along with all its other coping mechanisms and quirks, evolved to adjust to its diminished global economic power, clung even more so to its mass psychological projections. Unfortunately for Adriana, it was indeed a country that fiercely and obsessively preserved its sacred dogs.
Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb’s work has appeared in Epiphany Magazine, Dark Matter: A Journal of Speculative Writing, Pedestal Magazine, Slant, Midwest Quarterly, Jelly Bucket, Concho River Review, and others. She is co-founder of Native West Press (which most recently published What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Staying Wildly Sane in a Mad World).
* * *
Last Day in the Mayan Calendar
By Matthew Wilson
Tonight the world would end.
And Lazel refused to see it end in misery. She had been alive too long and her body had wearied of the constant wars. On the news an old woman had been butchered in her home for less money then it took to take a taxi two streets over. Seventeen people - half children - had killed themselves in the belief the Mayan prophecy was real.
December 21st 2012.
Lazel wondered if the world would be a better place devoid of life. It would retain it's beauty with no coming nuclear strikes to taint it or boil away it's seas. It felt good to come out of hiding she supposed as she headed to the hospital, her nostrils reeked of bleach but at least she could breath.
Her true form contained in this sweaty flesh had been ripping at it's restraints for some time now. She told the guards they could not see her and like sweet children they sat down and drank their coffee as she crept into the ward and told the cameras to sleep.
Mother would not mind she supposed as she held the children and told their cancers to die. If tonight was going to be the last then she could take on the chin the shouts and screams they would lay on her.
Do you know what keeping under cover means? A low profile. Do you know what they would do to you if they found out what you really are?
But there was no tomorrow, for two hundred years she had wanted to spread her wings. She stretched the muscles in her back and her shoulder blades ached dully as they extended into Swans wings. The wall was in her way and the children woke up as it turned to water. Outside people were screaming and she made the bells toll in the churches to cover it.
The streets were dirty, she was used to better so thought of gold and watched the chewing gum stained tarmac turn yellow in the moonlight. People drew away from her in fright and in her head she held one thought. Have fun.
The weight of death was upon them. Before even she was born, the Mayans had seen their deaths and if she was to go, why not be at peace. She walked on as the people started dancing, Dogs snarled at her distrustfully and she turned trees into Tyrannosaurus Rex sized bones. The police helicopters spot light in the sky was hurting her eyes, she did not put her hand down from her face till it fired only sweets toward the street which children leaped upon like Lions on wounded Antelope.
In the distance the clock which she commanded have a smiling face read five minutes to midnight.
Nearly time to die.
She told every body dance, to have fun.
The men with guns dropped into a combat stance and she told them to go to the nearest bar for a drink. The manager was giving them away free. A fact even he didn't know till she told him.
The streets had stopped their screaming. It was filled with lights as clowns juggled balloons, children skipped and the air smelled of fresh pop corn. Money would not help men in the next life, Lazel told the hot dog sellers to empty their trays. The bun tasted good. A final meal to go out on.
Suddenly she heard counting.
"Ten, nine, eight-"
A football chant like a winning team cussing the losers. Lazel turned to the clock.
Those in love kiss each other she said, think of good things.
Everyone seemed happy. There was no fear of coming death. No belief of monsters waiting to leap out and grab them in the night. Laze took a final bite of her hot dog.
It had been a good life.
The bell tolled, the hour came.
Lazel did not know she was holding her breath till her lungs ached and the last of it whooshed out of her in a loud desperate gasp. In her long history the world had been predicted to end many times. But the Mayans were an ancient and strong race. They were better then Nostradamus. They couldn't be wrong. Could they?
People seemed to register her confusion, snap awake from the party atmosphere she had installed in them to enjoy their final moments. The effects dried up and the party died. In the bar the manager screamed, mopping up the last drops of beer from the beer, anything he could drain back into the barrels to save money.
Every one seemed to be watching her as Lazel watched the clock.
Was it broke?
"Why isn't everyone dead?" she asked, looking now to the sky. Where was the comet come to knock them into the sun. The nuclear war. The fish that was set to take over the planet?
"I think I might have been a bit premature-" she started, flinched as something exploded in the sky like a lightning bolt and she felt a strange mix of fear and elation. The comet at last. At least the Mayans had been right, a little off with their predictions but-
It was no comet. It was a man and a woman with wings.
They did not look pleased as they landed, leaving tiny craters in the tarmac.
Colour rushing to her face, Lazel raised a limp hand in greeting. "Hi, Mom. I'm in trouble aren't I."
Matthew Wilson, 29, is a UK resident who has been writing since small. Recently these stories have appeared in Beyond Centauri, Starline Poets Association and Carillon Magazine. He is currently editing his first novel.