Hauling
By Z.Z. Boone

Connie tells me he got this call from somebody over in Bay Terrace where the nice houses are. He needs me to drive him over to do the estimate.

“Come on, Savage,” he says. “I’d ask Des, but Des got a late class.”

They call me Savage not because that’s my name, but because that’s how I was on the football field.    
   
I drive a VW Bug that used to be my mother’s. It makes me feel like a hermit crab in a shell too small. Still, it transports me where I want. Today is Friday around three. March dank. We get to the house and some guy is there to meet us. He leads around back, past a white Cadillac coupe parked in the circular driveway, down this flight of cement steps, into a basement. All around us, crap resides: old furniture and newspapers and clothing in cardboard boxes and a porcelain sink and piles of scrap lumber and plastic garbage cans filled with broken ceramic tile.
 
“You can take it out through the bulkhead and around the house,” the guy tells us. He’s skinny and acts like a badass. Comb-over. White dress shirt. Suspenders holding up creased slacks. “You got a truck?”

Of course we have a truck. It’s right there in the ad. “Three Dudes + Truck.” It’s the name of the business.

Connie looks around, hand on chin. He’s smooth. Gives the guy a price of $1,200. I know Connie. He’ll do it for nine-hundred.

“Okay,” the guy says without negotiating. “Make it happen.”

We agree on the next day. No school. We’ll have to pay the dump fee and throw a little extra at Des for the truck, but I figure I can make around $300 for maybe four, five hours work.   
 

The three of us have been tight since we were kids. On-and-off tight. Now, with high school getting close to being over, we figure to keep it going. Connie, by his own estimation, is too smart to waste time in college. Who am I to argue?

“Boy could sell pantyhose in a nudist colony,” my mom says.

Des, with a girlfriend-slash-fiancé, is perfectly content with life on Staten Island. He’ll tell you himself, but it’ll take him awhile. He stutters.

I’m all muscle, little brain. Three years varsity football, knees already shot to hell.  

It was Connie who talked Des—already with a Class C license—into buying the truck with the money he inherited from his grandma. “That twenty-five grand?” Connie told him, “That could provide the three of us with income for the rest of our lives.”

“Janine th…inks I should p…ut it toward our wedding.”

“Janine is a selfish, short-sighted cunt,” Connie said. “No disrespect. But Janine needs to know what a real man looks like.”

That was all Des needed to hear. He’s spent a good part of his life trying to convince his father that he isn’t gay. So a few days later we’re looking at a 2008 Ford F550 with a 12-foot flatbed and removable wooden side rails. Bumper sticker on the back that says SCREW IRAN. Very macho. We took out a few ads and stapled up some posters and worked mostly weekends and some afternoons. The money was good, mostly cash, totally off the books.

 
Des drives, all pissed off because he wants his younger brother Mikey to be on our crew. Nothing wrong with Mikey, but another worker cuts into everybody’s take.

“It’s Three Dudes plus Truck,” Connie reminds him. “Not four.”

“We can ch…ange it,” Des says.

“Three Dudes plus Truck,” Connie repeats. “Let him get a paper route or something.”

I’m sitting in the middle between them, and I can see by the way Des is gripping the steering wheel he’s not thrilled with the suggestion.

We get to the house around ten in the morning, back the truck in as close as we can get. The guy is there, dressed now in a grey suit and herringbone overcoat, all impatient. He takes us back around and down, except this time I notice a second car—a Honda—parked in front of the Cadillac. I figure it must belong to the girl that’s with him. No introductions, but she’s cute, my God is she cute. Blond hair, skin as smooth and fresh as just pressed sheets.

“Priscilla’s going to keep an eye on you,” he says once we’re standing among the junk. “Just let her know when you’re done.”

“Where will you be?” Connie asks, and I know he’s thinking, how do we get paid?

“I’ll be in a place called none-of-your-business,” the guy says. He turns toward Priscilla, and takes this leather-bound notepad from the inside pocket of his coat. “I’m going to have my phone off,” he tells her as he scribbles something, “but you can get me here.” Priscilla nods and takes the slip of paper as the guy goes into his pants pocket and comes out with a wad of money. “They get this when they’re done. Not before.”

Which is when I see it. A metal trunk about three-and-a-half feet wide and a couple of feet high shoved in among the other stuff. I notice a hasp on the front, a padlock threaded through.

“This wasn’t here yesterday,” I say, and all eyes go to the trunk.

“Maybe you just m…issed it,” Des says.

I shake my head. “It wasn’t here.”

So what’s the problem?” the guy says.

“No problem,” Connie says.

“The problem,” I say, “is it’s metal. People at the transfer station are going to want to know what’s in it.”

Now everybody looks toward the guy.

“So dump it someplace else,” he says.

“Where?” Connie asks.

The guy huffs and goes into his other pocket. He peels three hundred more off and pushes it at Connie. “You figure out where.” He turns toward Priscilla. “Watch these baboons,” he says.

Priscilla nods, bends her head toward him, allows a kiss on the top of her hair.

“Be careful, Pop,” she says. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

                                                             
About halfway through the job, room on the truck starts getting prime. With Connie, I’ve managed to load most of the heavier items, including the sink, the broken tile, and the trunk. Now, while Des and Connie pile boxes outside the bulkhead, I’m standing on the cargo bed trying to consolidate.

“Hey,” I hear her say, “I thought you might need this.” I look out toward the ground and there she is, Pricilla, wearing a black ski jacket and holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee. I jump off the back, take the coffee, thank her. She says she has some packets of sugar and powdered creamer in her pocket, but I tell her I take it black.

“You guys in high school?” she asks.

I nod, blow across the surface of the coffee.

“New Dorp,” I say. “You?”

“I’m at Wagner. Communications major.”

“Where’d you go before?” 

“Saint Joe’s,” she says.

I nod again. I’m like a marionette with one working string and no voice.

“So what do you like to do?” she says. “Anything exciting?”

“I played football. Outside linebacker.”

She nods, looks up at the sky, then back at me. “Let me give you my number,” she says. “In case you have to contact me between here and the dump.”

I rest my coffee on the ground, go into the cab of the truck, rummage around for something to write with. All I find is a yellow fluorescent marker, but that’ll do. I’m thinking. I’ll go home tonight, make a definite plan, call her in the morning. We can go out and have breakfast at Friendly’s, maybe take a ride over to the beach.

I mean, who knows.

I put her number on the back of one of our business cards. We stare at each other.

“Hey,” she finally says, “let me see if the other guys need some coffee.”

She turns and starts toward the house. I realize she never even asked my name.  

 
We drive to Fresh Kills, unload everything but the metal trunk, weigh out, and pay the transfer fee. Then we split up the remaining money, $400 dollars each with what’s left going to Des for gas and vehicle maintenance.

“I w…onder wh…at’s in it,” Des says as we drive down Amboy Road with the trunk bouncing around behind us.

“You want to take it home with you and find out?” Connie asks.

Des keeps his mouth shut.

“So what do we do?” I say.

"Take it to West Brighton,” Connie says. “Leave it on the street. Let some moon cricket pick it up.”
 
“Nice t…runk,” Des says. “Get a hundred d…ollars for it easy.”

“We got tools?” Connie asks.

Des tells him to check under the seat.  

Connie pulls out a plastic tool box, opens it, finds a good-sized Philip’s head.

Pull over,” he says. “Let me take the tags off.”

Fifteen, twenty minutes later we drive into West Brighton by the housing projects where Connie and Des hand the trunk down to me. There’s three black kids, standing behind a mailbox and watching us like little bears behind a rock. No way they can lift this thing, but they know people who can. We don’t hang around. We drive as far as Castleton Corners, find a 7-11, park. Connie says he’ll throw the tags back on while we run inside and get a six-pack. We’re underage, but Des has phony ID and I look at least five years older than I am.

“Anything else?” Des asks. “C…igarettes, ch…ewing gum, rubbers?”

“Very funny,” Connie says.

“Why would he need rubbers?” I say when we get inside.

“He’s g…oing back tonight. Meeting that g…irl.”

“Priscilla?”

Des nods.

“The t…wo of them hit it off while y…ou were outside.”

“She went for that?”  

“You know C…onnie,” he says. “T…en minutes and she’ll either be in his l…ap or he’ll be in hers.”

Des laughs at this as if it’s funny, and I get this weird feeling like I used to have if I rode the Ferris wheel for too long. And then suddenly I realize I have Des by the neck. He’s pinned against the cooler door and his feet aren’t even touching the floor. He’s turning pink and his eyes are wide and he looks like a just-caught salmon. I guess he’s trying to say something, but all that’s coming out is these tiny bubbles of spit.

There’s commotion. I feel something across the back of my shoulders. It hurts just enough that I lower Des, release him, turn and see the store owner holding an aluminum baseball bat like he’s standing in Yankee Stadium. A few customers have gathered. It’s a show to them. Des is doubled over, hands on his knees, trying to breathe.  

“Get out of my store!” the owner says. “Kill each other someplace else!”

“I got this!” I hear somebody say.

It’s Connie. He’s standing inside the door holding the Philip’s head in his right hand and one of the truck tags in the other. “They’re just fucking around. No big deal.” Then he looks at me and Des. “Get in the truck,” he says.
           
Connie and I have the same lunch period. Which is the next time we meet. Monday. In the cafeteria. I’ve bought myself the “Honey BBQ Rib Patty” which looks like roadkill on a wedge.

“So how goes it?” Connie says as he sits across from me.

“Good.”

“We’re good?”

“Yeah,” I say. “We’re good.”

Connie opens his brown bag, takes out a foil-wrapped sandwich.

“Talk to Des?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“My boy is highly pissed,” he says as he digs in. “Still has the marks on his neck.”

Des lifts the top slice of bread, studies his cold cuts, flips it back together.

“I need you to know something,” he says. “I got this job for Wednesday night. Some old lady wants to move a bunch of books from her garage to self-storage.”

“Okay.”

“But here’s the thing. It’s going to be me, Des, and Mikey. You get the night off.”

“Why’s that?”

Des shrugs. “Think of it like a one-game suspension.”

“You go back and see that girl?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

Grapes come with the rib patty and I eat one.

“You should have made a move, Savage. You should have told me you were interested.”

I stand, pick up my tray. “This is bullshit,” I say.

“Where are you going?”

“I got something,” I tell him.

                                                             
I get out to the house around one. I’m hoping there’ll be somebody there, but if there’s not I’ll keep coming back until there is. The Honda is gone, but the Caddy is in the driveway and I spot the guy on the side of the house. He’s wearing a sweat suit and pushing a spreader around, getting his lawn ready for spring. I’m surprised. I’d have though he’d have hired that out.

I park my VW at the curb and the guy stops working and studies me like I’m some exotic animal. I get out, unfold, walk up to him. Recognition crosses his face.

“What do you need?” he says.

“I graduate in a couple of months,” I say. “I’m going to need a job.”

“Oh yeah?” he says. “And what line of business do you think I’m in?”

“I don’t know. Real estate?”

He smiles at this.

“What exactly is it you think you can do for me?”

I look at him for a second, turn, walk back out to the VW. I stand in front of the car, facing away from it. I squat. I reach back and grab the front bumper with both hands and slowly straighten. My knees strain and I feel them—first one, then the other—pop.

The front tires clear the ground. I hold it as long as I can, then let it drop. My hands don’t bleed, but they want to. I walk as steady as I can over to where the guy stands watching.

“Come by once you’re out of school,” he says.

                                                             
I buy four bags of ice at the liquor store. When I get home, I have the place to myself. I turn on the television, then climb in the tub. Two bags of ice under each knee, the other two on top. From the living room I can hear some panel talking about what women want. “You can keep your caveman-type,” one of them says. “Give me a man who needs a wheelbarrow for a wallet.”

The audience laughs.

I won’t be able to walk tomorrow. But I should be fine by Thursday, Friday the latest.

Z.Z. Boone's collection of stories, Off Somewhere, was published in November by Whitepoint Press. His fiction has appeared in Foliate Oak, New Ohio Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. teaches writing at Western Connecticut State University.

* * *

Neon Trees
By Phillip Elliot

It was one of those parties where everyone is on something and men in tight-fitting shirts gaze hungrily at the women while the women are too busy balancing on their high heels and expelling laughter like a sickness to be looking at anyone. In other words, it was a Hollywood party.
 
I'd taken a pill for the first time and was stumbling around touching things. I saw the glances, but I didn't care. The air was pleasuring me with its tongue, delirium was stroking a finger down my spine—I was beyond these mortals.
 
Half an hour in, a few metres from a pool lit up like a dream in aqua, a tiny and inexplicable fir tree rose up off the floor and buried itself in my face.
 
'Oh shit, you okay?' The guy was on top of me before I'd even registered the fall. He helped me up and grinned, every bit as handsome as he thought he was. 'It's okay, no one saw.'
 
I folded my body in two and laughed like a maniac. 'Oooops,' I said when I managed to stand upright again. 'That plant had it coming, let's be honest.'
 
He cocked his head. 'Your accent. Irish, right?'
 
'It's that obvious?'
 
'It's that unique. I like Irish girls. Beat all these LA girls, that's for sure.' He smiled and pushed a blond lock out of his eye.

'Yeah, fuck these LA girls.' I swayed on my feet.
 
He squinted and seemed to peer deep into me and for a moment I was sure he'd heard my thoughts: I had been imagining his cock. 'Are you all right? Your eyes are rolling in your head.'
 
I must have found this funny because next thing I knew I was weeping laughter into his chest. A fabulous chill descended my shoulders while a heat that can only be described as miraculous swelled up from my belly.
 
'Chase, what the fuck?' A woman straight off the cover of Vogue had materialised. A face like something bit her.
 
He stepped back. 'This isn't . . . we just met. She's Irish.'
 
The woman stared at me with the kind of contempt only the damaged are capable of. 'Whatever, I wanna get out of here. Jordan's being an attention-seeking whore again, I'm not listening to her shit all night.' She put her hands on her dress, so red it was burning.
 
He looked at me. 'You sure you're okay?'
 
'I have never been so okay in my life.'
 
He frowned. A thump of low bass made the pool vibrate behind him. Neon lights dangled from a tree. 'Who are you with here?'
 
'A film director. He wants to cast me in a movie.'
 
'Yeah, sure he does honey . . .' the woman said.
 
'He does. He said I have the exact look he's going for,​ and he saw the commercial I did. Said I really made the part mine.'
 
The woman went to say something, shook her head. 'Let's go, Chase, I wanna go home.'
 
'Yeah, okay,' he said, glancing behind. 'This director . . . is he here?'
 
'He was . . . .' When had I last seen him? 'He said he has to go take care of something but he'll be back soon, and then we'll talk.'
 
'Chase . . .' the woman said.
 
'One second, babe. Did he give you . . . whatever it is you're on?'
 
'Yes,' I said, nodding, grinning, floating to the heavens, 'yes he did and hallelujah.'
 
He chewed on his lip.
 
'Chase, seriously.' She was tugging at his shirt now. 'I want to go and you're my boyfriend and it's your job.' She slipped a hand around his waist and kissed his neck.
 
'All right, I'm coming.' He looked into my eyes and saw me. Even before he'd looked away I missed the feeling. 'Take care of yourself.' He smiled and a light dimmed in him. Then he was gone. The woman and her red dress disappeared right after, but not before I saw the perfect contour of her ass and imagined him tearing the tights off it. They would fuck for hours and she would fall asleep on his chest.
 
I don't remember much of what happened next. I'd assumed I'd already come up, but I was wrong: it was only getting started. I know I battled my way to a bathroom and vomited a rainbow, and I know it did nothing to silence whatever glories had seized hold of my brain. I know I danced with my eyes closed for what felt like a day, and I know I discovered some breathless secret of the universe that I have since forgotten. And I know that suddenly, as if the scene had been cut short and replaced, I found myself on a long purple sofa in mid-conversation with the film director.
 
'You know what I mean?' he said, the bald spot on his head gleaming.
 
'Yes, I know exactly what you mean.' I tried to remember what I was agreeing with but it was like trying to remember my birth.
 
He nodded. 'So as I've said—' outlining my torso with his hand—'you have the look. Just what we want. So what I need to know is—' he glanced around, licked his lips—'how are you with showing off that body?'
 
For the first time in what may have been hours a pinprick of clarity pierced the fantasy stuck to my eyeballs. 'What?'
 
'This role involves nudity. Full nudity. You have to agree with that before we can go any further.'
 
I swallowed.
 
'Look,' he said, leaning in, 'what age are you? Nineteen? Twenty? This is an opportunity to make some serious cash. It beats waitressing for the next ten years, babe, trust me on that. All you need to do is go bare for a few hours. We're talking up to five hundred bucks a day here.'
 
I touched my fingers against my temple. It was hot as a fever. My head felt heavy. 'Five hundred a day?'

'Potentially, if the camera likes you.' He shifted in his seat. He seemed unable to stay still.
 
'Will I have any lines?'
 
'Yeah, yeah, sure, lines.'
 
'So, just nudity? Nothing more?' A wave of nausea swept over me. The fact of me had uprooted.
 
'Yeah, pretty much, I mean, there'll be some guys there too but we can talk about that on the day.'
 
'Some guys?'
 
'Look,' he clasped his hands together and shot me a look of absolute seriousness, 'there's a lot of girls I could give this job to but I'm sitting here offering it to you. A couple weeks of this and you'll have more money than you could have earned in a year doing whatever you're doing now.'
 
I nodded, tried to consider this, but something was happening to my skull. I closed my eyes. 'I don't know . . . I feel . . . weird . . . .'
 
'Yeah, you look like shit. You should have told me this was your first time.' He could have been in another room.
 
'I need to go home . . . .' Bitter chemicals stuck to the roof of my mouth. I could smell his irritation.
 
An age passed before he spoke. 'I'll give you a ride. It's on my way.'
 
I opened my eyes to a room underwater. Lights melted into the carpet. A hundred typewriters chewed on foil. I wanted to ask him how he knew where I lived but words were lumps in my throat. I simply nodded, and felt his hands on my back and the heat of his breath in my ear.
 
I woke in a car park as a pale sun started to rise. My jaw ached and I felt as if bleach lined my oesophagus but I was only a couple of blocks from the apartment, and that was good because I was without a purse. I didn't hear from the film director again.
 
Four months later, when my rent went up and my waitressing shifts went down, I called him and asked about that job.
 
And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to believe in you.
 

Philip Elliott is Irish, 23 years old and editor-in-chief of Into the Void Magazine. His writing can be found recently in Otoliths, Squawk Back, Flash Fiction Magazine and Revista Literariedad. He is currently working on a novella and a short story collection.
 

* * *

 


Half a Bloody Mary
By Janet Ference

It takes two hands and an ‘oof’ for Rebecca’s best friend, Kathleen, to haul open the huge, creaking trunk lid of her ’76 Impala. The clunker is only halfway reclaimed from the rust of forty Minnesota winters, and the trunk is pocked with holes, so the mysterious contents are damp and musty.
 
Rebecca shivers and wraps her arms tightly around herself. Summoned outside by Kathleen, she’d hurried to the carport without grabbing a coat. A stinging wind is blowing up her bathrobe, and rain is slicing sideways at her slippered feet.
 
She’d dearly love to slam the lid on this whole weird business and go in the house, but Kathleen is holding firm and insisting she take a look under the piles of old Army blankets in the trunk of that car.
 
Peeking between the layers of ratty green wool, Rebecca swallows hard before she speaks. “My God, I thought you had a dead body in here.”
 
“It’s everything.”
 
“What?”
 
“All of it.”
 
Rebecca is still staring at the blankets. “People do that. Roll up bodies. It happens.”
 
“Are you even listening to me, Becca?”
 
“Sure. All of what?”
 
“It’s every single bottle of booze I own, the whole liquor cabinet, plus the wine, all the wine on my rack, and the stuff from the hall closet, too. It’s all there. I need you to help me dump it down the drain.”
 
Rebecca recoils several steps back from her friend. “Hey, no. That’s not mop water you’ve got there.” Peeking again, she asks, “Even the Maker’s Mark?”
 
“You want it? Keep it.” Kathleen is sounding kind of shrill, and Rebecca thinks she might be crying. Or maybe it’s the rain. It’s hard to tell in this hellacious weather.
 
“Honey, Kath, relax.”
 
Kathleen throws up her hands and lets the trunk bang shut. “Relax?” She’s shouting loud enough to wake God. “I woke up in a lawn chair on I-don’t-know-who-the hell’s-lawn. Over on Grand. Grand, Becca. What the hell was I doing on Grand?”
 
Rebecca reaches out a hand. “Come inside. You need a drink.”
 
“Drink?” Kathleen shrieks, like she’s suddenly allergic to hair of the dog.
 
Kathleen feels crazy sick. This is not just any old hangover. Her head is spinning. Her eyes are blurry. Her neck is throbbing. Her feet are stamping the ground. Her hands are curling into fists. She punches her own leg, so that she won’t hit Rebecca. “I should go home,” she says, but she stands her ground instead.
 
Then she sees Rebecca shaking like mad, and she figures out the woman is cold. They’re out here in the freezing rain. Her bunny slippers are getting soaked. Her brain is probably frozen stiff. So Kathleen decides she’s going to forgive Rebecca for being an idiot. The woman isn’t a mean person. She’ll see her mistake in a minute.
 
Kathleen waits for Rebecca to apologize. The woman isn’t saying a word, though, and that’s strange. She’s home alone all day long while her kids are at school. She usually blabs nonstop about everything and nothing.
 
“Are you just going to stand there staring at me?” Kathleen says. She hears her tone of voice, and it’s not cool, so she tries again, more softly. “Damn, Rebecca. Don’t look at me like that.”
 
“You’re acting peculiar.”
 
Kathleen cocks her head and squints her eyes. “Me? You think it’s me?”
 
“No one does that. A carload of perfectly good liquor. Must be hundreds of dollars’ worth there, am I right? You’re not a billionaire, Kathleen.”
 
No, Kathleen is not rich. This makes her think twice. A lot of hard-earned tips went into that stockpile. Maybe Rebecca is right.
 
“You keep it. All of it. I mean it,” Kathleen says.
 
“Don’t be silly. Where would I put it?”
 
That’s a good question. Kathleen is stumped by it. She knows the woman has plenty of booze of her own.
 
Kathleen is icy cold from head to toe, too. Her coat is drenched. Her boots are leaking. She forgot to wear a hat. She always wears a hat. On a day like this, she ought to have her black leather cowboy hat. She wishes she had that hat. Suddenly, she thinks she might be crying, but she can’t be. She doesn’t cry. Only ridiculous women cry. Kathleen is not a ridiculous woman. She has scars.
 
“My head is not right,” Kathleen says, mostly to herself, but Rebecca hears it.
 
“Okay, Kathleen. Come inside now,” Rebecca says. She’s making that face she makes, like she’s talking to a kid with a firecracker he’s not supposed to have. Motherhood has made her look cranky half the time. It seems like years since Rebecca has looked really happy. Before the kids, she was a hoot. She tended bar at the jazz club where Kathleen works. They kicked around town together at night. Now all they do is hang out at Rebecca’s house in the daytime, and there’s kid stuff everywhere there. It’s like they’re living in a movie about normal women.
 
Rebecca manages to lead her friend into the house, where she discovers Kathleen is still wearing her waitress uniform from the club. It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and Kathleen’s shift ends at midnight. Rebecca tries to piece this thing together. “So, honey, have you been home?”
 
“Hell, Becca, I loaded up the car, didn’t I?”
 
Rebecca is ticking things off on her fingers as she says, “So, you got drunk, you got lost, you woke up, you got home, then you just loaded up the car with all your booze?”
 
“Hell if I know how the night went down. I must have blacked out. I don’t remember a damn thing after leaving work, not till I woke up in a broken-down lawn chair. At least it wasn’t raining then, just the god-awful sun in my eyes. I had to drag myself out to the street to see where I was. Thank God my car was parked within eyeshot.”
 
Rebecca pats her friend’s shoulder. “These things happen.” It’s never happened to Rebecca, but she knows how it is.
 
“The worst thing is, it looks like I had sex at some point with somebody.”
 
The sex part is not exactly shocking, knowing her friend, but Rebecca understands that it’s disturbing to black out and not remember who it was. Nobody likes to do that. “Honey, it will come to you,” she says. She tries to give her friend a hug, but Kathleen bristles and steps away from her. So Rebecca walks off toward her bedroom to get some dry clothes. Over her shoulder, she says, “Come on.”
 
It isn’t easy, but she convinces Kathleen to change into a warm sweat suit while she does. It’s like working with a petulant child who doesn’t like how she thinks she’s going to look to the other kids at school. The sweat suit swallows Kathleen whole. It annoys Rebecca to be reminded that she’s gained a lot of weight herself. Kathleen has the figure of a fashion model, but Rebecca has always tried to overlook that flaw in her otherwise great friend.
 
The next thing she knows, Kathleen is sitting smack dab in front of a Bloody Mary. She’s at the kitchen table, across from Rebecca, having drinks, just like always. This is the last place she needs to be right now, but she can’t get her butt out of the chair.
 
Kathleen stares at the drink, but she doesn’t touch it. The glass is sitting on a bright green holly leaf placemat, and it’s sweating sparkling drops of water onto the plastic. Rebecca has used the Absolut, not the Smirnoff. Kathleen traces a holly berry with her finger. She pouts, “They said. It’s not my idea. They said.”
 
“Who said?” Rebecca looks confused. “Kath, your hands are shaking, honey.”
 
Kathleen watches Rebecca toying with her own glass. It would be easier to watch if the woman would just go ahead and drink it.
 
“When I called the number. You know.”
 
“What number?”
 
“AA. Okay? I called AA this morning.”
 
Rebecca whips her head around like somebody just slapped her. Kathleen isn’t very surprised. After all, AA is for those other people, not tough women like them. Rebecca pulls her hands away from the table. “You are not a drunk, Kathleen,” she says.
 
“I got fired.” Kathleen’s mouth is stone dry, and her voice is hoarse. “I’ve been working at that club for 15 years. I started when I was a baby girl, all of 19.” She has no idea what she’ll do now. “I do remember getting fired. That part is clear. It was early, maybe nine o’clock. We were dead slow. You know Tuesdays. I was just passing the time, Becca. Nothing special. Had a few, sure. Got myself canned for talking back to a groper. I know better. You know I do. The guy got all high and mighty. Claimed he didn’t do anything. Boss said I was drunk.”
 
“Everybody drinks at that club,” Rebecca says, like that’s all she got out of the story.
 
Kathleen puts her hand around her glass and squeezes it. A flash of heat like fever rushes to her cheeks. “Sloppy drunk. He said I was sloppy drunk, Becca.”
 
It’s a jolt to see Rebecca take a gulp of her drink. Kathleen stares at the woman.
 
Rebecca holds her glass up in the air and says, “You like to drink. Sometimes you get drunk. That doesn’t make you a capital D drunk.”
 
Kathleen lifts her glass and shifts it to her other hand. She passes it back and forth from one hand to the other, gazing at its blood red swirl. Rebecca has topped it with a sprig of dill. Kathleen places the glass back down on the table and plucks the dill from the drink. She holds it to her closed lips. Her tongue is dancing in her mouth. She wants really badly to lick the red booze from that bitter sprig of green.
 
Rebecca watches her friend play with her drink. It’s disturbing to see Kathleen so unsure of herself. She is Rebecca’s rock. Kathleen stood by her through a miserable marriage and ugly divorce. It was Kathleen who helped her get the restraining order when she’d finally had enough of being pummeled in front of the kids.
 
“Just drink it, for God’s sake,” Rebecca says. “It will clear your head.”
 
Instead Kathleen rips the dill to bits in her fingers. With glazed eyes, she says, “You are such a bitch.”
 
That’s all it takes to get Rebecca up from her seat. No one is going to call her a bitch in her own kitchen, not even Kathleen. “It’s time for you to go,” she says.
 
Rebecca waits, but Kathleen doesn’t move. She seems to be mesmerized by the drink.
 
After an uneasy moment, Rebecca sits back down and faces Kathleen across the table. “Honey, it’s just that you really need to calm down. The drink would help. You know it would help.”
 
Kathleen has had it. She stands and smacks the table. The drink sloshes over the side of the glass and spills blood red booze across the holly berries. She says, “I can’t believe you’re acting like this. What kind of a friend are you?”
 
She doesn’t get an answer. Instead, Rebecca slowly takes a napkin to the spill. She’s wiping it around in circles, not wiping it up, and it’s making Kathleen dizzy.
 
Without looking up, Rebecca finally asks, “What do you want from me?”
 
Kathleen belts out, “Help.” Then she whispers, “Just help.” It feels like the floor is swaying under her feet.
 
“Sit down. Come on, sit,” Rebecca barks. The woman is pulling out her mean bartender voice, the one that stops fights.
 
“I can’t,” Kathleen says, trying hard to keep her balance.
 
“Oh, for God’s sake, a half a Bloody Mary can’t hurt.”
 
Kathleen is sure something is cracking to pieces. It’s like an earthquake. There’s roaring in her head. “I can’t be here,” she says to herself. She runs to the door, but Rebecca jumps up to stop her.
 
“Where are you going?” Rebecca shouts. She’s trying to grab Kathleen’s arm.
 
There’s no time for this. Kathleen slaps Rebecca. It’s a loud, hard hit.
 
Rebecca backs away into a corner. She raises her arms in front of her face, like she’s afraid of Kathleen. “Get out of my house,” she hisses. This isn’t Rebecca the bartender. This is Rebecca the battered wife, and she’s treating Kathleen like the bad guy here.
 
Kathleen grabs the doorknob to steady herself. The room is upside down now. “I would never hurt you,” Kathleen says, cringing because she knows that she just did. “Don’t be crazy, Becca.”
 
Rebecca doesn’t even recognize Kathleen like this. Her friend is crying noisily, and she never breaks down like that. It’s as though Kathleen has been hit, not Rebecca. There’s no telling what this Kathleen might do next. Rebecca straightens up and looks directly at her. “I need you to leave my house, Kathleen.”
 
“Is that all you can say?”
 
“You need to go.”
 
Kathleen drops her head, like a bad dog.
 
Rebecca watches her best friend go out the door into the freezing rain without a coat or shoes. She holds her breath, afraid Kathleen will come back, until she hears that god-awful car start. Then she realizes she’s quaking in the corner like a child. Kathleen has reduced her to this.
 
As the dinosaur outside rumbles away, Rebecca settles her shaking bones back into a chair at the table. She pours one drink into the other, so as not to waste it, and she steadies her nerves by chugging it.
 
While she mixes another one, she tries to think when it was that Kathleen became a drunk.

 

Janet Ference has published a collection of microfiction, Between Blinks, artfully short stories. She is now at work on a novel. She lives in King City, Oregon, where life is greener than green.


 

* * *

TOAST
By Michael Grigsby

I can do this.   
 
The crowd, dressed in wedding attire, stares back at me.  The cake towers in the corner.   
 
Dare I look at her?  She's probably whispering to Sam.  I know I’m standing, but it feels like I’m slipping.
 
Look at you up there, my God!  You slouch over the lectern and slurp iced tea.  This is your daughter's wedding, for God's sake!  You know you can't do this, you'll bawl like a baby.  You broke down before.  No wonder she doesn't ask for your help anymore.  You stammer and stutter, jeez, what a joke.
 
 
Greg stared at her in the crib.  She was slimy, red, wrinkled and the most wonderful thing he had ever seen.  He had half a mind to do a paternity test right then and there.  How could anything from his genes be so beautiful?
 
"Pick her up," his wife said.
 
Greg tried to figure out how to do just that.  She was buried in blankets and tiny, like a doll.  He bent down and gathered her in his arms and she looked up at him and gently moved her hand toward his face.  The doll was alive, the doll was his.  He and his daughter connected.  Greg and his wife had had difficulty getting pregnant, but this was worth the struggle.   
 
His daughter, Holly, blinked her blue eyes and smiled.  It was probably gas, but Greg believed she smiled at him.
 
"I need to take her down to neo-natal," the nurse said. 
 
"You can come along if you like."
 
Greg nodded.  He wanted to see what they did to his daughter.  He followed the nurse.  He walked tall and proud, as if he were the first one ever to have a little girl.
 
The nurse wheeled Holly in a little cart to a big room with other newborns.  He almost told her to slow down, his daughter was in there.
 
Holly lay in a glass-sided bassinet and then her heel was stuck with a needle.  Greg almost decked the nurse, then and there.  How dare she poke his daughter!  But Holly did not even really cry.  After all she had been through that morning a needle poke was probably not much of a complaint.
 
Holly squirmed in her bassinet and Greg looked around.  Another baby lay next to her.  A baby boy, Adam, lay on his side and faced Holly. 
 
Was Adam looking at his naked daughter?  Greg did what any father would do.  He went and stood between them.  While his daughter got medical attention, Greg hid her from the prying eyes of the boy next to her.  He was a male, and Greg knew what Adam was thinking, what all boys were thinking.  The little pervert.  So Greg blocked the kid's view, protected her.  That was his job and he was happy to do it.
 
"Thank you for coming today," I say.  The chatter continues, no one really listens, even though I am the father of the bride.
 
"That's the bride, over there.  Doesn't Holly look pretty?" 
 
They smile and clap.  Holly beams.  She looks up and smiles right at me, then and there, that smile that always gets me.
 
"There's something between a father and daughter, always has been.  I sent her off on her first day of school knowing her whole future was ahead of her.  I wanted to be an example and she came to me back then for guidance."
 
Are you still up there, wasting everybody's time?  They want to eat, they want to dance, they want to drink.  None of them wants to listen to you.   
And, by the way, why should she come to you for advice or anything else?  Your nest might be empty but you are so full of yourself.  You’ll break down any minute and blubber like a sissy, like you did at her graduation.  Sam would never blubber.
 
Greg was late for work.  He wanted to help see Holly off on her first day of school, the start of her big adventure. 
 
Holly was excited, today was special.  She got to go to school!  Meet friends.  Meet boys.    She walked out in her Day One school dress. 
 
"Wow, you look great," he said.
 
"Can't wait to show my new dress!" she gushed.
 
"Ready for breakfast?"
 
"Not really hungry."
 
"Breakfast fuels your brain to learn."
 
"Oh.  Okay."
 
"What would you like?  Cereal--"
 
"Toast."  She gently moved her hand toward his face.  “Your job is to make the toast.”
 
Greg gave her the bread and watched her gulp it down.  She finished breakfast and gave mommy a hug.  Greg couldn't say goodbye to her.  He pretended he had a phone call, gave her a quick pat on the head and waved.  He grabbed a tissue and headed to work.
 
I look over the crowd.  Of course, my family is not here, which is fine with me.  Both my parents are alcoholics and that made growing up difficult so we are not close.  I never connected nor depended on them. 
 
When I was nine, my mother left after a binge.  I watched her stumble down the street just before lunchtime.  Who would take care of me?
 
I cried and went to the cabinet.  I found a lot of beer and cigarettes but also a jar of peanut butter and bread.  I made my own lunch.  I could do that. 
 
My memories of childhood are painful.  That's part of the reason today hits me so hard.  I ensured Holly had a better childhood than I had.  She could trust me and depend on me.  Now I'm a little empty.
 
"Hasn't this been a great day?  I was not part of the wedding plans myself.  Holly and her mom did that.  They even used Sam's centerpiece instead of mine.  They only needed me to pay for this." 
 
A few chuckles from the crowd. 
 
"And not much else.  So my job is to make the toast."
      
You think you're so funny.  No one really laughs at your jokes.  You're an embarrassment to her and her friends.  Get on with it.
 
"Years ago, I somehow lost Holly in a grocery store while she held my hand.  I soon found her, one aisle over, crying.  Today I lost her down another aisle, while she held my arm, and I'm the one about to cry.  But I gave her away, so it's not really a loss.  She has grown from depending on me to depending on another, all the while being an independent woman."
 
I remember when she fell out of the tree and broke her arm.  She wouldn't let anyone else pick her up but me.  Now, while she calls her mom every night, I rarely hear from her. 
 
"More than twenty-five years ago I married Holly's mother.  My heart skipped when I saw her at the back of the aisle in her gown.  Her mom leaned over and whispered something to her.  Later I found out she said, 'Be happy' and then my bride walked down the aisle to me."
 
The crowd listens now.  I don't know why.
 
"And that is my wish for you, Sam and Holly.  If you could have at least half the fun, laughter and happiness your mom and I have had, you will have a magical and wondrous life.  So, I'd like to ask all of you to join me and wish Sam and Holly to be happy."
 
I raise my tea and the crowd stands.  "Be happy," we all toast.
 
I stagger, trembling from the wobbly lectern, not needing to brush away a tear, and gather on the dance floor.  I wait for Holly and the father-daughter dance.  She smiles and stands. 
 
Her shoe slips off.   
 
I roll my eyes.  Those borrowed shoes, which Sam got her for the wedding!  I fixed them earlier, the clasp was misshapen. 
 
Holly looks around, a little embarrassed.  I walk toward them, the crowd quiet.  Sam fumbles with it.  She looks at me.  "Daddy, can you fix this again?"
 
I gulp, bend down and damn well fix that clasp.  Sam smiles at me and nods.  Holly gives me a big hug, grabs my hand and pulls me to the dance floor.
 
Okay, you got through it without tears, let’s move on.
 
The music starts, a waltz, and I dance with my daughter.  She looks up at me and gently moves her hand toward my face.  I swallow hard and smile.

 

He stopped and thought. “Yeah, who am I?” 
Michael Grigsby. Hmmm. Husband, father, grandfather (gulp). 
Is that it? 
“Well, I pay taxes, I take long walks. I hate Extra even more than Entertainment Tonight. And I don’t keep up with the Kardashians. At all. Ever.” 
He writes fiction sometimes, just to get the world his way. 

* * *

Good for the Goose
By Bryan Jones

Womack went inside his house and put his suit jacket down on the sofa before heading for the wet bar in his living room.  On his way toward the alcohol, he bumped his shin against the coffee table.  It hurt and he swore at the memory of his ex-wife because she had bought the table even though he had made the decision to place it in that spot in the living room.  
 
At the wet bar, Womack reached down to rub the pain away from his leg.  Then he poured himself a drink and gulped it down.  After giving the alcohol a moment to produce its desired effect, he put the glass away.  He walked over to the far wall and stared up at the trophy snow goose he had shot last year.  He had forgotten what the taxidermist had charged him for it.  The goose had only been on that wall for a few months.  The taxidermist had truly attempted a resurrection of sorts by positioning the wings and head in such a way as to make it easy to imagine the bird leading a huge flock south for the winter.  But Linda had hated the glass eyes and the way its pink tongue stuck out from the bill.  The trophy had caused their last fight in the house.  A waste of money, she had said.  Cruelty stuffed with sawdust, she had called it.  No matter what, he had shouted at her, the bird stays.  The memory of those angry words almost echoed in the house.
 
Womack reached up and took his trophy off the wall.  He carried it over to the sliding glass door and then balanced the trophy in one hand while he used the other to open the door.  He stepped outside onto the large wooden deck that overlooked his sloping backyard.  Womack paused next to the two metal chairs that he kept out on the deck.  He looked out at the large oak trees with their thick leaves and the gray clumps of Spanish moss hanging from the limbs.  The moss thrived in the humid Houston summer. He listened to the whirring of the invisible cicadas that hid up in the leaves and branches hanging over his property line.  He remembered his second wedding, the gown and the flowers, the cost for a nine-inch plate of either salmon or chicken.  He thought about how his five-year anniversary of his second marriage would have been next month. Now, he owed some huge legal bills.  But he was divorced again. 
 
He walked down the wooden steps of his deck with the trophy in his arms and stepped into the lush grass of his backyard.  He desperately wanted to sort out the wreckage of another destroyed marriage, accounting for what originally had been something that seemed so full of promise.  But communication often had been impossible with Linda.  Womack hadn’t asked the right questions.  Too often, he had felt like an intruder when he had asked her how he could change.  For much of the marriage, he’d meandered around like a baffled tourist feigning knowledge of a foreign language and culture.
 
Outside, on the property that the lawyers had fought wars over so that Womack could call this place his own, he realized he’d never know the answers.  The analysis was pointless.
 
Womack carried the goose toward the back of his lawn where a trail had been cut through the weeds and brush. He followed the trail down to the bayou.  He had grown up in this part of Texas.  He liked living on the bayou, even if the watercourse was polluted and on hot days smelled slightly of sewage.  Womack went to the water’s edge and stood on the sandy bank.  Today, the water was the color of coffee with cream.  Some days, because the bayou ran through suburban areas of the city, chemical runoff from the neighboring lawns caused the algae to bloom at freakish levels turning the water an emerald green.  But today, it was coffee-colored.  Womack watched the small branches and leaves that had fallen into the water floating by in the slow current.
 
Upstream, Womack could see part of the Michaelses’ gardens.  Dr. Michaels was a plastic surgeon.  Womack had met the doctor’s wife, Susan, on a few occasions.  She maintained the large gardens lining their lot.  She was young with a passion for keeping their estate immaculate.  She had two swans that stayed down on this part of the bayou.  She fed them from the small wooden dock they had built on their property.  Womack had often thought how the doctor and his wife didn’t seem to need the dock because they didn’t own a paddleboat like some of the other neighbors living on the bayou.  In fact, just the thought of Dr. Michaels and Susan in a plastic paddleboat seemed ridiculous: the eminent surgeon and his pretty wife pumping their legs in tandem to turn the tricycle-like pedals that propelled the craft through the smelly water.  Womack preferred his memory of Susan as he had seen her once or twice on summer evenings, out on the dock in her nightgown, feeding the swans. 
 
This afternoon, the two swans were over near the dock.  When they saw Womack standing on the opposite bank, they started to swim over to him because his ex-wife also had fed them.  Womack watched the swans coming over to him.  How did that Christmas carol go?  Seven swans a swimming?  Womack wasn’t sure he had the number right.  The thought of being alone for the holidays wasn’t something he wanted to think about at the moment. 
 
When the swans reached the dock, they looked up at him with their inquisitive eyes, turning their necks into the shape of question marks.  Womack stared down at them.  Then he raised the trophy goose over his head and threw it down hard into the bayou.  The swans quickly retreated from the violent splash.  They swam back in the direction of the dock.  Womack watched his trophy floating out there in the current until it became waterlogged.  He stood under the shade of the mossy trees, trying to concentrate on the sounds of the bayou long after all the white feathers from that preserved moment of pride had gone under the surface and been carried away in the slowly moving current.

Short fiction by Bryan Jones has appeared recently in Chicago Literati, Cease, Cows, Axolotl Magazine, and Spelk. He lives and works in Texas.

 

* * *

 

Time, Out Of Mind
By Maryann Lawrence

She was out of her mind. Or, rather, she was not of sound mind, unless you call the repetitive utterance of the most profound grief to be sound. For the sound she made no sympathetic heart could bear without breaking. “My baby, my baby,” were the only intelligible words. 
On hearing it, every ear wished that it was struck immediately deaf, and wanted the promise that such a refrain would never be heard again. Torrential tears plagued the mourners and all the maladies, the small injustices committed against them, the minutiae of daily life fell away. They were as soldiers in a foxhole, hoping for death and hoping for life. Their pity for the mother and for their own loss, and for the losses that they had suffered previously and would surely suffer again, and then, eventually, the loss of their own life, wrung their hearts and spun their heads – thoughts and feelings tumbled like clothes in a dryer -- until they became exhausted and dizzy with the thinking and feeling. And still the mother wailed, “my baby, my baby,” and lost her mind again. 

*** 

 She had the presence of mind to know of their presence – these mourners –– and presently she turned to one of them and spoke. Sorrow only appears to be unfathomable, but it is never so deep that exhaustion cannot reach it. God bless our bodies. Misery stops for a runny nose or full bladder. Terror subsides when light reaches the eye. Anger ceases when the stomach churns. And so the mother ate and slept and the trivial concerns of living came and went. Sorrow remained a lump in the throat, but the beds were made again, and the dinners were served and she could –sometimes – look at the lawn and not think of a child running over it but that, rather, it simply needed to be mowed.

*** 

Her baby was a flaxen-haired girl of fourteen. Pretty, sweet. The course of her life was not destined to be great, however. She was not exceptional of mind. She had no great potential. She would likely have graduated high school with no particular honors, labored in no particularly great career and made no great contribution in areas of medicine or technology, for instance. Still, her disposition was such that her heart chimed in concert with the universal love that is the undercurrent of all. So while her life may have been ordinary, the loss of it was extraordinary, and it was many days and weeks and months before the mother could regain her mind.  

There was a father, and a stepfather, and siblings who cried, too. Among them was a boy of 16 who sharply resembled the baby who died. He was seated in a wheelchair beside the casket, saying very little and feeling very much. In time, too, he would regain his mind, but then for just a brief time. 

*** 

Two great winter storms blew through the mourner’s lives in the months that followed, blanketing their memories and keeping them occupied with its power outages and frozen pipes and heavy shovels. April’s torrential rain beat out the snow and washed away the deafening echoes of the funereal wails. They found solace in the predictability of the seasons and the rhythm of daily life. May followed April and June followed May, and the summer solstice broke through sadness and the sun shone down on its charges, steeping them in warmth and infusing them with light. 

 *** 

 The smell of green grass filled the lungs of two siblings and a mother whose sorrow was still fresh but, momentarily, put aside. The boy who thought much and said little was on two feet -- no, not feet, but wheels. They all had wheels under them and they glided effortlessly along the trail, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes one far in front of the others. They laughed in champagne bubbles that rose and fell with the hills. The park was filled with other families, other kids, other mothers of small children and grandparents and couples of long-standing acquaintance and those only newly formed. Dogs on short leashes yapped at the heels of joggers, stopped to sniff others of their kind and resumed trotting beside their owners, leaving off memories of what had just occurred.  

The hill was steep and not the first that day. The mother reached the apex and pushed forward. Her hair tried to run from its roots, waving softly behind her head. In her ears, the voice of two boys, but she could not make out the words – if they were talking at all and not (as they often were that day) simply whooping and hollering. Wind was racing at her, agitating her clothes, her hair, her senses, shaking behind her ears and in her forehead like the rumblings of a headache about to begin. Horrible wind, wonderful wind. Whistling in your ears and racing through the wheels of your shoes.  Probably, probably she did not know that her scream was warranted. Probably. Probably, she thought (and others around her thought) that it was just an unguarded moment, like when you see a snake, or when you’re watching the shower scene in “Psycho.” No one thought much of it. 

People on roller blades fall all the time. A steep hill, a wobble, a shriek, a tumble and, sometimes, a bloody knee or elbow. Occasionally, there is a quiet moment. A concussion, a crack.

*** 

Some people, later, thought that she had simply fulfilled a wish to see her baby again. Others said it was irony. Still others, an injustice. The boy went quiet again, even as the ducks on the pond quacked obscenities at each other and the robins pulled the heads of worms from their hollows. 

Tragedy strikes us dumb, but to laugh in the same breath that death takes you seems more sweet than bitter to me.

Maryann Lawrence is a solo artist and author of Get Your Manifesto Here. She is a founding member of Her Inner Circle and has been published in Mothering, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Natural Awakenings. She is a graduate of the University of Detroit, Merci.

 

* * *

 

What Bugs Me
By Drew Pisarra

Sometimes it seems as if your whole life could pass by in one day, as if a single day could encapsulate your whole life. It isn’t a novel thought. The Ancient Greeks knew it. It was the basis of classical tragedy. Everything had to take place within a twenty-four hour period. Everything you’re about to read is true. Well, almost everything. 

On June 21st of my thirteenth year, I woke up with the sun. I went into the kitchen where my mother was having a breakfast of margarine toast and black coffee, and my mother pushed this tattered brown envelope across the table and said, Look honey, this is you before you were you. Inside was this old sonogram, the shadow of the sound of the seed that would one day turn out to be me. 

There was nothing special about it as far as I could see. I looked somewhere in between a lima bean and a ghost baby. But my mother insisted I was unique. I was a breach baby. I was born feet first. 

I probably wouldn’t have thought anything more about it but later that day, I was lying in the backyard of the Rutherford’s house. Michael, Tony and I formed an equilateral triangle around this caterpillar. It was a one-of-a-kind find and who exactly found it…

Well, why open an old can of worms? But it was different, so different it was almost scary. The three of us had come to the mutual decision that whomever it crawled to first would get to keep it. Now, we had a time limit because we hadn’t told Martha this. Martha was inside calling the Smithsonian Museum’s Insect Zoo to see what we were supposed to feed it. We were growing increasingly impatient. We decided that each of us could take a poke at it with a stick. And whenever we poked it, it would just roll up into this little ball, not unlike the little ball that I appeared to be in the picture my mother had shown me that very morning. I thought, why does it do that. It doesn’t make it any safer. In fact, rolled up in a little ball like that it was easier to squish with your foot. But I guess in the back recesses of its tiny brain it associates that position with a time of comfort, and food, and warmth. 

Well, on the final poke – mine I think – it inched forward a centimeter at most towards Michael. Then it stopped. We waited. We waited until Martha came running out of the house screaming, we’re famous, we’re famous. Tony stood up – careful – What when where how why. The Smithsonian said this is a rare caterpillar. She said a long impressive Latin word or two. It was then I had my first visions of fame. I saw my name engraved in brass near a childproof glass aquarium. This brass plaque would say: This very, very rare caterpillar, this Latin word, this thick, fluorescent green, red-horned wonder was bequeathed to the Smithsonian Museum Insect Zoo by Mr. Andrew Xavier Pisarra, the first… and his friends. My reveries were interrupted by Michael who snatched up the caterpillar and said, it’s mine. Martha said, the Smithsonian is coming to pick it up this afternoon. Michael said, it’s mine, it crawled to me, and then he ran with it. We ran after him. Thank God, they had a fence. We ran around and around the yard in circles. Michael was faster than us but not fast enough to give him time to get that gate open. Then somebody had the bright idea of running in the opposite direction the moment Michael saw that he ran straight into the middle of the yard and said, it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine. And then he stomped.

I said, Oh my God. Michael said, Shut up. I said, Oh my God. Michael said, Shut up. I said, Michael. Michael said, I said shut up. And then he pushed me. And then I pushed him right back. And then he punched me. And then I punched him right back. This was a serious fight. We went right for the face with our fists. And then all of those kids who had left and thought that caterpillar was nothing came back en masse. This was the fight of the summer. I tasted blood. Albeit my own. And then I connected a good one right to Michael’s jaw and this tooth came flying out. We all knew he had a loose tooth. He’d been complaining about it for weeks but it still got quite a reaction from the crowd, and from that point on, Michael fought with a vengeance. I began to lose. I began to feel humiliated. Michael was two grades lower than me who cares that we was a year older. And then I had an idea, or rather I remembered. 

On the last day of school, Roy Wilson had said to me that if you ever get in a fight and you start to lose the way to win is you clasp both hands together behind the opponent’s head, pull the head down, and slam your knee up into the person’s face. If you do it right you can break his nose, and if you’re lucky, you can kill the person by pushing the cartilage and bone up into the brain. I clasped my hands together behind Michael’s head. I pulled his head down. But I couldn’t do it so I pushed him aside into a brick wall as it were and ran into my front yard. 

I couldn’t kill Michael for a caterpillar, no matter how rare. I couldn’t do it. And if I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t see why I should keep fighting. 

The crowd followed. They lined at the edge of the curb and chanted: Chicken. Faggot. Chicken. Faggot. And then the crowd parted. Michael emerged, blood streaming down the side of his face, and began to punch while I stood there. Stunned. A human punching bag. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this impressive black car driving up the road. On the side scrawled in silver was the word Smithsonian. It stopped right in front of my house. A man stepped out of the car and said, Can someone please direct me to the caterpillar. There was a hush. Even Michael turned. 

And during that pause I ran up my front steps, tore open the screen door, and there was my mother, my father, my older brother, and my younger brother, this wall of sound saying get back out there and fight get back out there and fight like a man. I tried pushing my way through this crowd that was my family but they pushed me right back. Get back out there and fight. Chicken. Faggot. Chicken. Faggot. Get back out there and fight like a man. I was trying to get back to a position of comfort. But I couldn’t. 

I ran down the steps, down the path, past Michael through the crowd to that black car with the silver word Smithsonian on the side just in time to see it pull away. It stopped at the stop sign. I ran after it. It turned. It went five blocks until it reached the stoplight where our neighborhood hit the highway. I ran down the street and watched WALK change to blinking DON’T WALK change to solid DON’T WALK and the red light turn to green. The car turned and drove off on the highway and out of my life. But I kept running and turned in the opposite direction up the steep black driveway of Saint Francis of Assisi church, parochial school, and gym. The blacktop was abandoned.

There was no one playing hopscotch or jumping jacks and when I got to the other side of the gym, there was no one playing tennis on the courts. I crawled under the honeysuckle bushes that filled the narrow space between the tennis court fence and the school. I shimmied up a drainpipe to the roof but it wasn’t far enough. I could hear the kids returning to their games. So I walked to the end of the roof where the school met the gym. The gym was a good story and a half higher than the school but nobody ever climbed to the top of the gym because the only way up were these grates behind which were these whirring fans that promised to cut off your fingers. I didn’t care. I braved getting stubs and carefully pried my fingers in the grates and pulled myself to the top.

​I sat there on that white-pebbled roof under a blazing sun and smelled the scent of honeysuckle so thick it made me sick, all the while listening to the sounds of the kids returning to their games of tennis and baseball, and skipping rope, and hopscotch. 
Around dusk, some kid hit a tennis ball up on the roof. I instinctively threw it back down. Thanks, I heard. I looked around me. The roof was covered with tennis balls. A few baseballs even. And I began throwing them down one after another. And all those kids who were playing tennis stopped and started laughing. Cheering. They created a commotion because the kids who were skipping rope in the parking lot came around to see what was going on and then the kids in the baseball field wanted to know why everyone was leaving the blacktop and going to the other side of the gym. Until there was this huge mass of kids laughing, shouting. 

And I threw those balls down. There must have been a hundred. I threw balls for an hour. And they were laughing, and screaming, Who’s up there. Who’s up there. And I waited until I had two left and I went to the edge of the roof and let them drop. And they looked up at me and said in one voice, HEY, HOW’D YOU GET SO HIGH. 
​​

Drew Pisarra worked in the digital sphere on behalf of “Mad Men,” "The Walking Dead" and “Breaking Bad” but now writes plays, short stories, and poetry. His work has been produced off-Broadway and appeared in Poydras Review, Thin Air, and St. Petersburg Review among other publications. Publick Spanking, a collection of his fiction, was published by Future Tense.
 

 

* * *

 

The Long Summer
By George Zamalea

The town of Joaquin Valley of California is under the fog of the night before and the tiny crystal drops are all over the leaves. It is a nice morning. Not later than four o’clock when the 103-year-old Maribelle Furlough is already awoken as she is waiting for the rays of the sun to come out. Holding by the bony long fingers, she has her mug filled with black coffee. It is hot and without sugar as she likes it. Little by little as there is nothing in this world can rush her, she will drink from the mug. It will be three mugs before she decides it will be enough.

She turns her head and tilts up a little to right and then left. She will smell the roses and the trees and the soil from Mt. Vermont’s garden backyard and these smells of the local basking breads from Hanna’s shop.  After that she will enjoy the solemnity of the streets: its quietness and its soundness. Soon, she is sure by now the milkman will come down from Canyon Crest and she will hear him saying about the weather and the day after that and the gossips from the savvy local foodies across Blossom Bay folks and the newborn of Mr. Jackson’s son, Lou. She will be expecting him any minute now and there will be a talk on several topics as well. She is ready for him.

Instead, there is a different man; a man is framed with such cloud shadow that comes down from the sky. He wears a long navy color jacket and loosened trousers in blue. His head is uncovered with a forest of gray hairs like foil cascading over his scorched face and shoulders. He is tall. He is a genuine fellow. He has long arms and legs. His eyes are all of these kinds: small, bright, impressive, sadness.  They are surrounded with white foam of eyebrows as his lips seem melting away. His teeth are long gone. His expression is spontaneous in transformation of his age and manner. He is younger than Maribelle Furlough. He is closer to 100 years old of age where all seem adjusted to that distinctness or obscurity from those individuals who have reached a level of maximum contemplation for which there is no alteration between life and death because it appears retrieve themselves in this delightful portrayal of nothingness.

His name is Carl Ergo.

Through the trail that goes to the next town, Carl Ergo is coming. He walks funny.  He makes one step after step. He balances himself in that scramble rhythm of fear to fall. He examines carefully the way he goes as he's afraid not to put too much pressure to his right leg because of that inflammation of the bones. Anything else it is just a survival tool under the most slowness without having any rush in getting there; but somehow, believe it not, he will reach his destiny soon enough.

He has a big smile across his cooked face. It is a beautiful smile actually. It is a friendly smile if Maribelle Furlough can see it. When he smiles he revives such malnourished muscles of age courageously and delightfully in which his hollowed cheekbones are still ruggedly set, almost wolfishly expression as a handsome fellow. All now there is a leathery complexion seems not too bad down to this gregarious man. She will agree that smile and gaunt feature are indeed full with someone she remembers.

 “Rockin’ you’re quite up earlier, good woman,” says he.

 “Good morning!” She pauses. “Your voice is new around here.”

“I lived long time ago by the fluky, but it’d been a long time past. It’s nothing left except my remembrance and time, I might say.”

Carl brings Maribelle to that curiosity of time behind his words allowing her to think. She is enhanced this moment by moving her head reflecting such exploration; threatening at every movement to break even, rather to look at him carefully.

“You describe your past as a whirl,” Maribelle Furlough observes.  “Along the blade of a doorman as my mother used to say.”

“It is.”

“Where are you headin’?”

“Just close enough to Green Road.”

“Ya go straight into it.”

Then he comes at the usual spot where Maribelle Furlough’s vision can be taken for grant. He looks at her so lovely. One can say whatever it is for him what he has inside his head there is for sure a day to go by. If he has reason at all to be here he appears to visualize a relationship that had been rotten long time ago in years. Writing it on a leaf from a rosy garden he thought as if he was kind of a bee to her. Say that a friend’s request to the love or merely to look upon it once again from a summer slope. She would remember, wouldn’t she? She could send this message back and forth with a grain of rice. Could she able to do that? As he can predict it, he knows there is an answer before him. All seem suspended by his own shameless beneath the soil of his tired eyes it may be the central cheer of this long journal, in part because of his cultivated heart and in part as the last field to explore.

“I smell coffee,” he tilts his head up and around. “Homemade from old hands, actually.”

“It’s almost done,” Maribelle Furlough says with such pleasure inside her eyes. “Do you have time to join me for a sip?”

“Rockin’ I sure do, ma’am,” says he as he is watching the hills. “Not later to see the sun comes out.”

“That’s my favorite beginning of the morning when the sun is coming up from the hills.”

She gets up of the rocky chair and then moves slowly to the street-leveled house door. Her movements are remarkable slow; her gestures are slow as well. All these motions of her appear to build such slowness of her persona and a junction pace to get there. So she gets there all right and there she will get the mug of coffee for the strange man by the name of Carl Ergo.

The mug fills with coffee is here.

He looks at her and thanks her. He raises his arm. He halts. His right hand is shaking a little. He pauses. He brings up his left hand to support the right one.  He smiles at her. Finally, he takes the mug from Maribelle Furlough’s hand.

Slowly, he sits beside her.

“It’s hot. Don’t burn yourself.”

He tastes the coffee as Maribelle Furlough does. Sip by sip. As he seems to bring up with that unique manner a personal pleasure of understanding and opportunity to be there next to her.

They are both silence for some time.        

After a while Maribelle Furlough asks:

"How is the coffee?”

“Just a little stronger,” he replies.

“I remember as papa always said as a coffee can be.”

“I won’t mind if you say something else.” He nods and then looks at her.

“There isn’t anything else,” Maribelle Furlough says. Then she smiles. She raises her hand with such skillful slowness and she tips his right shoulder. “You sound familiar. A friend, a long time ago, perhaps—goes to war and he never came back.”

Carl Ergo closes his eyes.

“Rockin’ I don’t want you to be sad.”

“Oh no. It’s just a memory,” Maribelle Furlough replies, sipping her coffee. “What is your business in this earlier morning’?”

Carl Ergo glances at her. A thin tear escapes from one of his tired eyes. He would say I come here to see you, Belle and to see the sun as you have described in your letters.

Instead he says:

“Nothing in particular, good woman,” he says. “Sometimes I can’t sleep and I like to walk. It seems to relax me walkin’.”

“Me! It’s about the sun.” Maribelle Furlough rolls her eyes toward the hills. “It’s a way of timing.”

 “For me it’s a time of remembering…It’s a time of silliness as the sun walking behind me.”

“I prefer to see the sun coming in front of me. It’s that pleasure makes me living.”

He smiles tenderly.

“I recalled one who has that preference.”

“I rockin’ as you say she’s dead by now.”

“I reckon she’s alive and well, but it has been a long time past.”

He drinks more coffee.

A painted expression fades away.

“I should ask you for more?”

“More coffee, I presume?” Maribelle Furlough asks.

“I sure do!”

Maribelle smiles to such twist expression of her homely face. She stands up and goes inside.This time she is moving a little faster; but in a way to please the stranger.

When she comes back, the man is gone.

Next to the coffee mug is a dried rose with a name and a date. It is very difficult for her to see that. Maribelle doesn’t say a word. She tips the rocky chair and sits.

 “Good morni’, Maribelle,” one of the cutters says as he goes by.

“It’s a good morning I must say, Mr. John Hoaler.” Maribelle Furlough replies. She puts down the empty mug beside her and starts to drink from the new one. It is still hot and good.

“Buenos días, Maribelle.”

 “Buen día, Señor Rodriguez.”

Maribelle raises her head to the sky. Her emptied eyes are like two white black balls moving back and forth. Soon, the sun would come. Her eyes are still. They look like rotten beans sometimes, unlocked from the inside out of her dried beautiful face.

The brothers Pickers will come out of the trailer and they will start pulling onto the middle of the street the old truck. At that moment the entire street of Salina valley in San Joaquin is filled with sounds and voices.

A day has begun.

 “Mornin’!”

 “Mornin’!”

“Morning to you, Mr. Pickers! “

“Morning to you as well, Mr. Kapplan!”

“Soon it will be here, Miss Furlough.”

“Yes! I know! The sun will be here!”

Then there is a silence again. But it is not for so long.

Behind the hills, like a brown muffin that is still drowned by the white clouds the sun is coming up slowly. The string of its light like cords of violin is weak and then starts growing by minutes.

Maribelle smiles and then closes her eyes. For a half of the morning she will be like this. All her pleasure and all her harmony will be part of hers.

​Not much difference from the dried rose that is next to the empty coffee mug or the framed smile that a man like a shadow under the oak reflecting on the terrain can be taken as an expression of the past or nothing else that a tip, a tip that will be left inside like a desolated road ahead, hold up on such cheerleader’s land of beauty.

 

George Zamalea lives in California with his family and two monstrous tigers. His works has appeared in Taft College Press Magazine, Literary Journal, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine among others. 

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