Fiction

Love Is Harder Than Hate

ladybirds
 

She darts around the bed, opens the window and makes a point of breathing in deeply. “It’s such a glorious day.”

“Did you sleep last night?” I ask.

She jumps onto the bed and straddles my knees. “I have something for you.”

She’s been up since last night’s fight. She has paint on her skin and it adds to her beauty. She reaches under the bed and retrieves a canvas wrapped in brown paper. She always decorates the wrapping paper herself. This time she’s drawn a fine-line lily in black ink; its long stem weaves around itself in all directions. Its roots sprout from delicate blades of grass, which look as though they’re blowing in an indecisive wind. The petals spiral into sharp-edged tight points.

“Are you going to open it?” She pushes the present onto my lap. Her voice is starting to tremble. I won’t be able to hold her attention much longer.

“This lily looks like you.” I can tell that she likes the comparison, but I doubt she knows what I mean by it.

“That’s just the wrapping paper, silly.”

I’ve been handed many paintings over the years, each accompanied by the purity of the moment. It all comes from the same place; the joy, the sadness, the excitement and the anger are all a part of her, in equal measure. The paintings never last much longer than a week or two. She rips them from the wall where they hang above the bed. Spits on them, stamps on them, throws them out the window and screams wild accusations into the outside air.

“Open your present.”

“I love you.” I say.

“I’m sorry for everything I said last night.”

“I know, sweetheart.” I brush her face with the backs of my fingers.

“Are you going to open it now?” The bed is shaking according to her jiggling legs.

“Do you know I love you today?”

She leans in and kisses my mouth. “And always,” she says.

“Then I’ll open it.”

I turn the gift over and gently tug at the tape, taking care not to rip the lily. I’ll hide it later with the others, somewhere secret where she won’t think to look when her colours run out and the white in the next canvas becomes too bright. I drop the paper to the floor on my side of the bed, turn the canvas over and gaze at the two ladybirds with feathered wings. They are free-falling, in each other’s arms, from the petal of a deeply coloured flower.

“It’s us!” She snatches the painting from my hands and hangs it on the naked nail in the wall above our bed then leaps down and dances out of the bedroom, shouting, “I’m going to paint a whole series of them, starting now!”

I close the door, fold the brown-paper lily and hide it with the rest. She’s singing now. I can hear her brush-strokes. I like it when she paints naked. I sit on the bed and look at my gift, those strange creatures, embracing and falling. I wonder how close they are to the ground.

continue…

Slow Rot

Slow Rot

6:30 a.m.

Aldus rolled across the sagging mattress and slapped the screeching box of red numbers.

He felt a dull glug in his abdomen, wondering what food was in the refrigerator. A half eaten sandwich? A stale, half-drunk Coke?

He wondered what the point was of waking up, of trying to show a little kindness, a little love to the woman who raised him—what was left of her, her body a cloak of slow rot; the taut skin living off itself.

He was tempted to blame his mother for his own struggles with women—women he seemed to invariably meet at the Laundromat where foreplay was a dropped pair of pink panties. One had him sit in a pentagram while she, nude, uttered periphrasis around him. He’d felt somewhat honored. A week later she disappeared.

His younger brother, Ramus, had coordinated the raid on their mother. There’d been a time when they shared more than brief exchanges. How long ago, now? Fifteen years?

Ramus had opted to stand during his unannounced visit. He didn’t need to say why he was there.

Been a long time.

Yes, it has.

Why now?

Because—

Had enough, have you?

I think… she has.

You convinced?

Aldus had stared until Ramus looked up and then out the window.

Well. When?

Week from tomorrow.

Fine.

You’ll be there?

Is there a choice?

There’ll be food.

Ha! What time?

Two o’clock. Hey…

Yeah?

Thank you.

 

The week had passed.

The smell of bacon and eggs somewhere made his stomach rumble again. His palm warmed from the inky blackness in the cup. Those precious few moments in that first sip, still hot and strong, promised infinite possibilities. A grackle stood on a fencepost across the street in silhouette, and Aldus thought, ‘Your mother eats like a bird and it’s what she’s supposed to do.’

Thoughts of escape arrived. He could say there was traffic, a flat tire, a ruptured ulcer, an inner-ear infection that might be serious.

No one could predict the outcome. Aldus knew she would see it as a grievous attack, no matter how much love was in the needle bursting her bubble.

The last time they’d taken a family trip, Mother had stopped in a Mexican drugstore to get something for her ‘allergies.’ She’d stayed awake five days.

He thought of all the carbon copy husbands. The trail of friends she’d ultimately infuriated. Few stayed beyond the first insult. The others would call him two or three days after a holiday or birthday. What had they done to upset her? Was everything okay? Aldus answered creatively for a time, but as the novelty of saying she’d gone on safari or was looking for a Parisian apartment wore off, he resorted to the truth. She was locked in a mansion, eating diet pills, starving herself to death.

Strange how history repeated itself. Years before she’d been blindsided by husband number three’s shrink, Rasputin in a brand new Jaguar. The session blew everyone’s cover. Aldus stayed away from then on.

He drained the coffee and went inside. He wondered what to wear to this funeral rehearsal. Black might show interest and white wouldn’t survive Mother throwing food. The idea there would be any real food was as crazy as her. She put out clear canisters of snack foods as props.

 

The drive was too short. The plan was to announce he was there to meet Ramus for nine holes. But golf was unusual. Suspicious. His mother wasn’t stupid. Everyone else was supposed to show up as a group while Ramus messed with the treadmill, which would keep the old lady downstairs. When ready, Ramus would fix the ‘issue’ and they’d emerge to smiles in the living room.

Aldus didn’t want to see any of them. Her wellness company employed most of them. She couldn’t sell anything but herself, but she was emaciated now, again, and lately people had been talking.

He stood looking at the incredible view from her house, wondering how he’d gotten there; surviving all the ex-girlfriends, a major car wreck, war, summers, time, and many stepfathers. Had it been her? Could she have steeled him somehow? No, survival had come from surviving. Indifference allowed him to stand there.

Husband number four came up and said he was glad Aldus had shown. Aldus offered a blank stare. The stepfather had the most to lose in this variety show. Aldus saw corpses everywhere, twenty of them, maybe more, a throng of fools worried about their jobs and his mother’s opinion. She treated her own blood the same way she treated the janitor at the building she owned. She’d dumped a bucket of garbage on him once because he hadn’t emptied her wastepaper basket. He’d stayed on, though, believing a boss like her was better than no boss at all.

On the buffet near the kitchen: Roman sized salami, pizza, cakes, cheeses, deviled eggs. Aldus watched the guests eyeing the food, unsure whether to eat. He picked up an egg.

Just then the sound of footsteps came from the stairs and Aldus’s brother appeared with their mother right behind, looking like the incarnation of Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford in one.

What’s all this then? she asked.

Ramus started a speech about how everyone there truly loved and cared about her and wanted to see her get well.

Then her secretary uttered the idiotic suggestion that perhaps she’d like something to eat, to which she hissed, I couldn’t eat a thing right now, spitting it out as a threat to everyone. She knew what they feared. To Aldus, the spectacle only marked another hospitalization. It was too much for their collective conscience to see her so thin. Aldus felt like a general, watching a mass suicide. No one had bothered to listen, taking the beachhead when the guns were oiled. Nip it in the bud he’d said at one time, but not everyone was so convinced things would get worse.

A fat man with a beard stepped up, cleared his throat, and started an oration on the sin of man and how none in the room could have guessed they’d be called upon to save the life of a friend and how there was no higher calling than to be thrust into the fray of the raging waters of a friend’s erosion and not just any friend, no, a friend both giving and loving, a mother to two devoted sons. Rather dubious inaccuracies though everyone gave affirmative nods as the man paused to pound his chest, cough, and take a drink.

They actually clapped for him. Well, they’d all be looking for jobs Monday. Victims of circumstances beyond their control, they’d be in their gardens or on riding lawnmowers when it would suddenly hit them that they’d been idiots, that they’d stuck their necks out to save the guillotine master.

A slog of desperate individuals came forward, eager to be heard so their employer wouldn’t hold their presence against them. She looked directly at them. Aldus could see the machinations taking shape: she would destroy them, each according to his weakness. He was the only one in the room with immunity and he knew it. He wasn’t there to do any real good, so he figured the least he could do was eat. As he put the egg in his mouth, she caught him with a glare and stepped toward him.

What hell are you doing here?

Someone said there’d be food and I didn’t believe it…

He looked at Ramus, forlorn, despairing: all the planning, the hope things would go smoothly, all destroyed as she spun around, grabbed the tray of deviled eggs, and hurled it toward Aldus’s head. He saw it coming, but the sliding glass door shattered on impact.

She screeched something about everyone wanting to see her fat and disgusting. People moved toward her in consolation, and she went at the remaining portion of the buffet like a cartoon dog, slamming everything she could into her mouth. Food flew everywhere. She was covered in it. Teeth bared, she let out a howl and launched her ninety-pound body onto the buffet table, which was apparently enough weight to bring it crashing to the floor. The fat man tried to grab her but taking a hold on skin covered in salad oil proved something of a challenge and he went down as she gouged at his eyes with her fake fingernails. Aldus saw the suitcase at the same instant his mother did, and she grabbed it and bolted for the door to the garage. She was fast; he had to give her credit. Out the door she went. Ramus yelled for someone to get her and scowled at Aldus. Aldus went down the steps onto the circular drive. No sign of her. The rest trickled outside, everyone chattering and looking at Aldus as if the ordeal was his fault. He stood looking at the parapets of the estate, knowing he’d never inherit it. A short lady began shaking her finger and screaming obscenities at him. He looked at her, at her rapidly opening and closing mouth. Chomping at the air. He got into his car and slowly pulled out of the driveway thinking they probably wouldn’t stay upset for long. There was plenty of food left.

NEW BED

new-bed
 
It is summer and she is wearing a green moss skirt and a red shirt. To an outsider they seem like winter clothes, but since she sits in the shade, at a table outside, they fit the surroundings. She reads the classifieds and fantasizes about finding a companion.
          The next day, she decides to renovate the bedroom. She is tired of the mattress thrown on the floor. She puts on a happy dress, sandals, some bijoux, and leaves the house. She feels Brazilian. She has a tanned body, brown hair, and a big smile.
 
She decides to buy a new bed. At the store, she mentions that she likes to sleep alone and surprises herself by saying it. The seller smiles at her but doesn’t say anything. She arrives home and waits for the bed. She has a new sensation—of solitude.
           The first night in the new bed is comfortable. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants. Her thoughts are in constant search. She is learning how to live on her own, existing in her own company. At first she finds it difficult, fears that everyone is observing her. With time, she gets used to it, and even feels guilty for being able to be happy alone.
 
She is not accustomed to a life of privileges.
 
She leaves home with the sensation that she needs to pay for her happiness, as though she owed something to the world.

DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS

dia-de-los-muertos
 
It was colder than it should’ve been that time of year. So cold, actually, that the hideous scent from the meat factory had become stagnant, even neutral. The lawn was wet from morning frost. The sky overcast. Melancholy, at the very edge of town, this semblance of open land, caged in by rusting chicken wire. With the sun-dried hills in the distance, the place played host to the various stray cats and dogs that belonged to the land rather than the people. Rabbits were nestled between blades of grass, examining the family from afar.
             The middle-aged woman with a stern face was handing out tamales to her three daughters and six nephews. Her brother, younger by the look of it, was scolding one of the boys for throwing cornhusks at the girls. As he lightly tapped the back of the boy’s head, he could feel the same sensation on the back of his own. Turning around, his anger quickly morphed into humility, as he recognized the criminal hand as his own mother’s. He sighed. It’s good to see you, he thought, smiling to himself. She gave him a warning look then happily returned to unwrapping her pork tamale. But it wasn’t hers, in fact—once free of the husk, the delicacy went to her husband, sitting proudly with a worn cowboy hat firmly placed on his head. He seized the tamale without glancing at his dutiful wife and took a large bite.
            The kids were laughing about a TV show, fighting over the last bean tamale, whining to their parents. The adults were exhausted, trying to keep everyone happy and fed. The grandparents just watched, as quietly as the rabbits.
            How exciting it was to see how their children had grown, how the grandchildren were as precocious as ever. They’re gonna be ok, thought the grandmother, as she and her husband shared a look.
            All too soon, the sun began to set. Coyotes were calling in the distance. It was time for the family to go home. As the woman packed their baskets, it was evident that she had aged in the last year. Her veiny hands shook slightly and she slowly gathered her breath before calling for all the children to say goodnight to their grandparents. Making sure to leave two tamales, one for each grandparent, the family headed to their cars.
            Staying behind, as always, the grandparents smiled and waved. Their nostrils took in the aroma of the tamales, of comfort, of family. Satisfied, they started the short walk home.
            Driving out of the Elmwood Cemetery, the family did not shed one tear for they would be back next year on the same day with more tamales to share.
 
Not six months had passed and the rabbits were stirring. Something was different today. The family had returned.
             But it was too soon for their annual gathering!
             The family proceeded toward the tree to the left of the rosebush. A modest stone with an etched name, a woman’s name, was in front of the trunk. The grandparents cried. The father looked at the stone. The children ate tamales, understanding better than they let on. 

FEAR OF THE MEXICAN

fotm-3
 
 
We watched him get out of the car. Then he just stood there with one hand pressing on the door. Just a few seconds before, after he had yelled at us, at his daughter really, he had parked the car so quickly and had bolted out so furiously that I had been a little afraid. But now I could see the adrenaline had emptied out of him. He stood by his car looking at us parked right in front of him.
          He had arrived just as we were coming out of the front door of the building where she lived. He yelled at her from his car and she knew who it was without looking and had said to me, “Ignore him.”
          I had never met him before. But one day she had told me, “He hates Mexicans.”
          The first thing he had yelled was, “Where are you going with him?” And then I heard “Damn, you!” And he repeated this over and over. I felt pity and shame for him, and fear for me.
          I started my engine and we left him standing there. I wondered if maybe fear had suddenly taken over him. A sort of fear of the “Mexican.”
 
continue…

MOTEL

motel
 
 
When the woman could not find a babysitter for her son, she would take the boy with her to the motor court where she cleaned rooms.
          That happened a lot during the summer. The teenage girls on her block old enough to baby sit wanted to spend the day down at Indian Lake or at the community pool flirting with the college-age lifeguards. Sometimes she took the boy because money was too tight. She could not spare the ten dollars she paid the girls to watch the boy she called Little Joe.
          Today she brought him along.
          His full name was Amos Ray Joseph. She had fought her husband over his choice of name for their firstborn. It was one she had never liked. Amos Ray was the name of her then-husband’s father up in the Dakotas. Amos Ray senior was a big time rancher with a spread holding oil wells, wheatlands and meadows for grazing cattle.
           Old Amos Ray was meticulous to the point of preening. He kept a row of expensive soft-bristled brushes in his oak panel office to clean the Stetsons he bought from a Denver hat-maker. There was always a shine on his hand-tooled boots.
           The man hated Indians too. He called them lowdown and dirty drunks. The elder Amos Ray said they were leeches looking for a hand out. He’d even say things like that around her.
           The boy’s mother—Leanne—had been born among the Sioux on the Rosebud down south. The boy’s father may have named his first child after Amos Ray, but now she and her ex-husband were estranged because of the marriage. The old man disowned his son after he hitched up with Leanne at the justice of the peace in Williston and he shipped out to Vietnam. It was a union that had lasted only for a year or so, but neither Amos Ray nor his son ever attempted to reconcile.
           The only thing that remained of their marriage—and Amos Ray’s shadow in their life—was the boy’s name. But even before they left the maternity ward the woman gave the boy a second appellation. The boy’s father and the school system could call him Amos Ray all they wanted. She liked Little Joe. And that’s what she called him. The boy was Little Joe Joseph to her.
           Leanne opened the door from a set of keys and dropped her orange plastic bucket full of cleaning supplies inside the room. The hotel’s owner made his mother clean the rooms without switching the lights on. The boy knew it was because the owner, a rail-thin widower with greasy strands of hair streaked across his pink scalp, always complained about his cleaning staff—the boy’s mother and a heavily rouged Mexican woman called Imelda – of needlessly burning electricity.
           He scolded the women constantly about the lights, in fact. He was not made of money, he reminded them. And what was the use of spending what little profit the motel earned on electricity in an empty room when there wasn’t a paying costumer there?
           She told the boy to wait outside by the pushcart of clean sheets and folded towels while she tied back the sun-faded curtains in front of the window and picked up dirty towels from the floor. The motel faced a highway running north to south, so there was plenty of natural light with door and window open.
           After she snapped the bed sheet tight and straightened the heavy comforter, she motioned the boy to come inside. She told him to sit on the edge of the bedcover to watch TV.
           The boy was barely old enough for his feet to touch the green carpet, and the TV was too high for him to reach up to change that channel. So the mother asked him what he had been watching in the previous room. The boy told her and she flipped the plastic dial to that channel.
           Moving from room-to-room on a day like today, he’d sometimes miss an important thread to the story in the movie or TV show he had been watching in the room they had just left. Little Joe did not complain. Trying to figure out what had just happened in a movie two rooms back was better than sitting in the back of their Impala all day. Even with the car’s windows rolled down, the summer was murderous.
           When the mother passed in front of the dingy dresser where the TV rested, she turned the volume down. She told him it was better to be safe than sorry.
           You never knew when the old man was sneaking around double checking to see how clean the rooms were, she said.
           Trees and houses lined the brow of a line of pretty hills just across the highway. The hills separated the interstate road from the river below and the old town square where church bells clanged in the afternoon. The motel had a large neon sign that read Low Rates, but it was turned off during the day as well. Next to the motel there was an off-ramp and a filling station big enough to handle eighteen wheelers and RVs.
          The boy watched TV with the honking and whooshing of passing big rigs and vehicles. 
          His mother wore a faded blue duster. She kept the large ring of motel room keys in the front pocket. They rattled when she cleaned. If she was in a playful mood, she’d tweak his nose or pull on his ear when she passed by.
          Today she wasn’t. The boy could tell something was wrong. She was distracted and would sometimes go into the bathroom and shut the door. He could hear her sobbing. He didn’t bother her and watched whatever channel she left it on.
           Even the motel owner noticed something different in her when she showed up for the work. He sat at the registration desk hunched over his cigarette ash smudged racing forms. She was usually scrubbed clean and smelling of soap, but the penny-pinching widower saw how her eyes were red-rimmed and her dark hair was pulled back so poorly that wispy strays hung over her ears like the hem of something terribly frayed. He also winced at the bruises showing faintly beneath the rouge on her cheek.
          He didn’t make any smart aleck comments about the need for her to be more judicious with his cleaning supplies or the other amenities that motoring guests expected when she asked for the keys.
          The boy was taken aback when the man’s thin lips quivered as he talked softly to her. He almost sounded fatherly through the cigarette smoke. He offered her the day off—with pay.
          “Take it, seriously,” he stammered uncomfortably to her.
          The boy’s mother didn’t say anything. She just shook her head, retrieved the keys from the man’s dry hand and motioned for the boy to follow her outside to a closet where the cleaning supplies were kept. The old man frowned and pulled a gnawed ballpoint pen from behind his ear and went back to reading his racing form.
 
Things had been bad since the weekend.
          The woman had fought with her live-in boyfriend—Woodrow—on Saturday night. He was a two-time felon just released from jail, strutting around town like he was a badass on the prison yard.
          Woodrow rode with a motorcycle club up in the city. Things were strained between his mother and Woodrow because she was unhappy about him tramping around with his old gang. She wanted some stability for her and the boy and thought Woodrow should spend more time at home.
          The boy had heard enough muffled arguments and his mother’s tearful accusations from behind their bedroom door to suspect what happened at the club’s parties. The mother believed Woodrow was running around on her and she complained that he spent more money on his biker friends than on her and the boy.          
          Woodrow would always remind her that the boy was not his kid anyway. That’s what child support was for, he would say.
          Woodrow worked at a plant in town, but he disappeared for days at a time when the larder was near empty. He acted like he couldn’t help out with the bills, but he always had money to chrome plate parts on his bike and buy beer for his club friends.
          The money his mom earned from cleaning the motel rooms was barely enough to cover gas and groceries. Sometimes they had to stand in line in church basements for day-old bread and government commodity cheese and peanut butter.
          The boy never understood why his pretty mother tried to hang onto Woodrow like someone who was drowning. Not even when the boy’s father moved back into town last year to be near them.
          The boy didn’t even remember a time when his mother and father were married. But the man almost looked hurt around the woman. The boy just figured the man still loved her.
          Woodrow’s motorcycle club ran pot, pills and sometimes guns. His mom was pissed because he came home late Saturday night drunk after a ride down to Kentucky where they unloaded a parcel of homemade sawed-off shotguns to some Aryan power survivalist group. The boy’s mother was fuming mad about it.
          They had a big argument in the kitchen. It sounded like a roadhouse brawl: breaking glass and splintering wood. Furniture flying across the living room like something out of a ghost movie – and the yelling.
          The mother had shut the boy’s bedroom door, but he heard words like slut and I hate you and shut up shut up shut up for chrissake.
          Their house was up against some railroad tracks and the boy was relieved when a freight train would howl by, drowning out the yelling and house wrecking. The next day the boy awoke to a torn up kitchen and upturned living room. Part of the front bay window was broken out.
          Woodrow was gone and his mother was slumped on the kitchen floor with her back against the sink. Snotty nosed and bloodied at the mouth. Her dressing gown was ripped, but the crying had stopped at least. The boy saw finger-sized bruises on the mother’s wrists and arms.
          She had fallen asleep on the kitchen floor. He gently nudged her awake. He asked her if she wanted to go to church. There was a small one down the road they could walk to, he reminded her. He didn’t understand why she started church hopping out of nowhere this past spring, but something inside him told him it was a good idea for her to be someplace like that today.
          She shook her head and told him they would clean up the mess and make pancakes instead. The boy had seen Woodrow hit her, but never this bad. Her hand would not stop trembling when she tried to clean her face in the bathroom mirror.
          That was two days ago.
          Today on her lunch break, she gave the boy her peanut butter sandwich and bought him a Coke from the vending machine. She put him in a motel room with the TV on while she sat in the open doorway facing the highway. The boy had not seen her smoke since she started visiting churches. Now he saw her pull out a pack of Salem 100s from the duster pocket.
          She lit the cigarette with some motel matches and rested her chin on the ball of her hand while she inhaled deeply and then blew it out. The smoke dissipated quickly in the wind.
          He tried to focus on the TV screen. The movie on Channel Eleven was about a vampire in the Old West. A cowboy with two pearl handled silver pistols was hunting him down. The makeup on the vampire and the costume was so bad that the boy recognized the actor from a TV game show.
          He took a few bites from the food and then set it aside. He stared down at the half eaten sandwich glumly. The soda pop made him burp when he asked her if she wanted some of it. She shook her head, and then she reminded him to say ‘excuse me.’
          “But aren’t you hungry?”
          “No,” she said. “Maybe later.”
          “Sure? You been working hard.”
          She turned her head and smiled at him for the first time that day. Her eyes were damp again. She must have been crying while she looked out at the passing cars and trucks on the road.
          “I’m sure baby.”
          At the end of the day, she put the cleaning supplies in the closet and returned the keys to the motel owner. The widower was on the stool at the main desk. The man pulled out an envelope from the lined registry book and slid it across the reception desk to her. He smiled uneasily at the woman, the second time that day. The boy noticed a nicotine stained overbite.
          “No need to count it, but I put in a little extra. I’m sure that boy sure does eat a lot.”
          She took the money envelope and slipped it in her duster.
          “Thank you,” she said, and then gently bowed her head to the man—a subtle recognition of the gift.
          The boy and mother ate at a buffet restaurant near the highway that afternoon. She paid the bill and tipped the waitress from the envelope. Neither one of them spoke much while he ate. She barely touched the food on her plate, but she let him have two servings of ice cream from the frosty machine.
          She seemed to liven up a bit in the car, driving through the heights section of the town where newer houses were being built. She even pointed out the new models she liked, saying things like wouldn’t it be wonderful to live there.
          Some of the worry that had kept the boy knotted up eased. He relaxed and let himself sink into the backseat.
          “Do you like Christmas?” she asked him, navigating the big car down side streets to their little house near the river.
          He was leaning against the seat with his head tossed back, looking skyward through the rear window. His eyes blinked in the intensity of the tree-leaf mosaic of sun and shadow. He saw cornices, power lines, telephone wires and blackbirds brooding on green boughs.
          The birds took flight when the car passed below them. On the river a line of barges with coal headed south beneath the pale hump of a summer moon—now visible in the early evening. The he heard the wail of the whistle from the river.
          “You know I do. Christmas is great. It’s the grooviest.” 
          The mother laughed. They were near the house, but she popped open the glove-box and pulled out an eight-track tape: Christmas songs. 
          She slipped it into the after-market player wired to the console. It was the Impala’s only touch of luxury. The first song was Frosty the Snowman. They both sang along to it—sometimes laughing and making goofy faces at each other. It was like the woman was happy again out of no where. Frosty was still blaring when she pulled the Impala into the driveway.
          The woman put the car in park. The house was quiet. No lights or movement inside. Woodrow was still gone. She slipped out of the car to open the garage door, looking over her shoulder. She returned and pulled the Impala inside, leaving the engine running when she shut the rattling door behind them. His mother slid behind the wheel and lit another cigarette, cracking the window.
          “We can go in now,” the boy said. “Woodrow’s not coming back for a while.”
          “If at all,” she whispered.
          The mother smiled at him in the rearview mirror. The tape looped to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. She leaned back on the headrest, closing her eyes.
          The garage filled with a gray and acrid pall. The boy put his hand on the door-handle. He didn’t like seeing the woman this way, smoking and crying and murmuring to Jesus about stuff that scared him. The air burned his throat and eyes.
          “Please let’s go in, I need to pee.”
          She turned up the volume.
          “Enjoy the music little snow angel,” she said softly. “Close your little eyes. Let’s dream it’s Christmas with all those little snowflakes falling on the ground.”
 

FRUIT

fruit3
 
 
The pear-shaped doorman murmured a squishy good morning. Big purple face like a giant pomegranate. He reminded Frank of Buster Higgs. Buster and his mob of…
 
Frank nodded curtly and entered the marbled lobby. Rode the executive elevator up to the tenth floor. The drive to work had brought on another blinding headache. He walked to the window and closed the shades then fumbled in his desk for a bottle of aspirin…
 
Linda sauntered into the office around 11:30. Wearing that top again. She fixed him with a saucy half smile.
 
“I’ve just been on with Marla at F&A. I scheduled them for 2:00 pm. The conference room on eight.”
 
With that she moved closer. Right up to the edge of his desk and stood peering down at him.
 
Frank glanced up at Linda nervously. A serious young woman with glasses rather than contacts and thin blond hair tied tightly above her head in a bun – seemingly the very model of professional efficiency. Yet appearances could be deceptive. Recently sweet little Linda had been acting a little strangely. Getting—fresh with him. Nothing overt but the signals were unmistakable. The way she moved, spoke, an inviting lilt at the edge of a remark. Manner of dress.
 
How she stared at him with those come on eyes! How she was staring right now…
 
He couldn’t deny, it was all starting to get to him. He a married man and this woman—girl—young enough to be his… well not quite but almost. At certain moments Frank pictured Linda as a dominatrix named Helga. Helga on with Marla and F&A in the conference room on eight…
 
“Can’t it wait until tonight… er, tomorrow, darling? A little preoccupied with this other business today. On second thoughts, have them make a damn appointment. We’re not Burger King.”
 
Linda shot him a quick glance.
 
“They already did. You approved it last week.”
 
Frank was having a little trouble keeping track of things lately but of this he was sure, he hadn’t approved anything of the sort.
 
Linda hesitated a moment before going on.
 
“Do you want me to—”
 
He didn’t see her come around the desk but suddenly she was all over him, mouth in his ear.
 
“—for you?”
 
“What the… what in God’s name are you doing now, woman?”
 
Linda looked startled. “It looked like you needed some… something… ”
 
Frank glared at her for a moment then his expression softened. “Didn’t mean to snap, sweetie, but… really!”
 
She was, he supposed, trying to be nice to him, albeit in an entirely improper way. Had he overreacted? He had a tendency to do that.
 
He stood up and offered a reassuring arm. She flinched at the touch and brushed it aside, skipped over to the other side of the desk. Playing coy.
 
Frank had recently started to see people as produce. The sweet boy in the mailroom with the oval face and the mottled complexion was a plum. His housekeeper Mrs. Womack had become a Granny Smith. Here Linda stood before him in the full bloom of youthful feminine beauty as a Golden Delicious. Ripe and fresh and, well, virtually crying out to be—plucked.
 
Frank was something of a oddity in this game—an old school type who loved his wife and not much of a player. But Rose was wilting and the world changing, both inside and out, values evolving and shifting, barriers collapsing. Perhaps he would have his just desert after all. Not now but some time…
 
Linda handed over a thin sheaf of papers.
 
“The agenda for the Board meeting and your schedule of afternoon appointments. I’m out of here. Buzz me if you need anything.”
 
Bite me, is what Frank heard.
 
***
 
Linda didn’t linger there a second longer than necessary. She didn’t know what was going on with Frank but it was freaking the living daylights out of her. One minute he’s carrying on a perfectly normal conversation—or what passed for normal in Frankville these days—and the next gone AWOL. Catatonic. Just as she’s on the point of calling in the medics, he’s back on planet earth and yelling at her and the next instant all sweetness and light. She’d nearly jumped out of her skin when he touched her. You’d think she’d be getting used to it by now—this was the third episode in as many weeks.
 
Abrupt mood swings, temper tantrums, odd lapses of memory. Her mom had acted a bit this way when she went through the change but such womanly angst didn’t exactly jive with the testosterone-soaked world of corporate finance. Alzheimer’s? – way too young. A mid-life crisis, then? After five years with the firm she knew all about that and again it didn’t seem to fit.
 
Unlike most of the creeps in this place Frank actually treated Linda like a human being and she liked him… now all this. She wondered if Frank was undergoing some kind of breakdown.
 
***
 
It so happened that today was the culmination of six weeks of intense research and market analysis on Frank’s part. He now had a major, possibly career changing, decision to make. The Abernathy deal. He was scheduled to meet with their reps in just a few hours.
 
Frank’s rise to the tenth floor within three years of joining the firm had been nothing short of meteoric. On the other hand, he hadn’t made a major killing in months and the pressure from above was starting to build. In order to achieve his goal of making Partner by age forty—a feat unprecedented in the history of the firm—he was going to have to do something spectacular, and soon. Pull off some kind of major coup. This deal could be the one.
 
Not if it blew up in his face. He ran the projections on his laptop for the umpteenth time and still couldn’t decide.
 
He wished his dad were here. Strange, he hadn’t thought about his father in so long. It’s just that these days he felt so… lame… unmanly almost…
 
“FRUITY FRUITY FRUITY FR—”
 
The headache was making a comeback and his thought patterns were fermenting, following a recently established trend. He could feel himself sinking into the compost heap of his mind.
 
He thought about Linda and not in a secretarial way. Thought about Helga. Tried to force his attention back to more pressing matters and found he was unable to. What was wrong with him?
 
Last night Rosie had threatened to take his two little cherries and leave – something about the way he was acting. She’d have done it already if she knew half of the crap that was churning in his head.
 
After a while he picked up the list of appointments Linda had left. There was the conference call with Foster & Associates at 2:00 pm. The meeting with the Abernathy boys at 3:00—a grapefruit and an artichoke. Then at 5:00, the highpoint of his professional week, his report to the Board of Prunes.
 
He realized with a start that he had no idea what the report was about! Was he losing his mind? He’d been working on it for three days! He rifled through his notes in panic looking for some kind of a clue and found, astonishingly, that none of it was making sense. The words seemed to have lost their meaning.
 
***
 
Frank felt as though his head were about to explode. He must have fallen asleep. The clock had advanced by leaps and bounds and the laptop was lying on the floor beside his desk. There were some numbers on the screen. What were they?
 
A thought was nagging somewhere that he couldn’t seem to grasp hold of, concerning an item of business that needed to be conducted that afternoon. It had the feel of importance. There was something green and prickly involved and a round sour thing, possibly yellow…
 
Frank could hear a ringing sound and there was an unpleasant smell in the air, a mixture of burning rubber and manure. And it was unseasonably hot in here. You could have fried an egg on his forehead.
 
It occurred to him that perhaps there was a fire in the building. Scenes from the movie Towering Inferno came spilling into his head. His father had taken him to see it once when he was a kid… one Sunday afternoon, just before his father had up and left them. His father had played football in college, had wanted Frank to play. If he hadn’t been such a little wimp then maybe…
 
There’s no smoke without fire and smoke is what Frank smelled now. He could hear shouting in the distance, faint but becoming louder by the second…
 
Chaos and mayhem were erupting everywhere on the upper floors of the building. People acting like animals—yelling and shoving, trampling each other in a vain effort to get to safety. A bunch of rotten bananas—soft and yellow.
 
Close by, an elevator (perhaps the very one Frank rode up in this morning) packed full of screaming people crashed to the ground. There was a warning sign to USE STAIRS IN THE EVENT OF FIRE but the stairwell was blocked and in any case it seemed people rarely paid attention to warnings these days. Especially the people in this elevator who, as it turned out, were all either anonymous or despicable. One jerk had actually pulled a woman out of the elevator just before the doors closed and jammed himself in there, in her place! This jerk also looked like Buster Higgs.  
 
Well, he got his!, Frank thought gleefully.                                            
 
Frank was fourteen years old and sitting in the Odeon Cineplex on Church Street staring transfixed at the flickering screen and munching on popcorn. Buster and his gang of dorks called him Fruity Francis. There had been a thing with a boy in the tenth grade but they wouldn’t dare call him fruity now if they could see him with Rose and Mark and Anne. His position with the firm. The way Linda made eyes… Anyway, how could he be a fruit when he was watching a real scary grown-up movie and he wasn’t in the least bit scared? Best of all, his dad was being unusually nice to him today. He bought him popcorn and a hot dog. It was going to be all right, after all!
 
He took a first bite of the hot dog. It was delicious, hot and juicy, oozing with mustard and ketchup. He sighed contentedly. He was safe here. Home at last after a long strange journey, or perhaps a bad dream? Only something was wrong. A lot of things. They closed the Odeon down years ago and converted it into an apartment building. Rose… Mark… Anne… Linda? Who were these people? And what was “the firm”? Somewhere off the distance a bell was ringing and his head hurt—
 
Suddenly the pain escalated to the level of scalding agony and Frank’s vision exploded in a blinding flash. He tried to scream but couldn’t. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped in the chair as the blackness washed over him and he was… free.
 
***
 
Linda glanced at the clock on her desk. It was 1:59 and Frank had still not emerged from his office. He was going to be late for his conference call on the eighth floor.
 
She knocked sharply on the door and entered anyway when there was no response.
 
The poor man must have been exhausted, he was sound asleep in his chair. He looked so helpless, just like a little boy, with his mouth wide open and his head lolling to the side.
 
She hated to wake him but he was late for his call…
 
continue…

ON THE PLAZA ST-HUBERT, A FLÂNEURIAL VIGNETTE

plaza-st-hubert
 
 
The other day on the Plaza St-Hubert, I walked past a man in a wheelchair. He must have been in his late fifties or sixties. He clearly had some kind of syndrome—not very mentally debilitating, perhaps, but some malady that, probably from birth, had contorted his body and speech, thereby also further limiting his mental abilities. This man looked at once very dignified, adult, and childlike, world-weary and ingenuous, intrepid and severely disabled. He had a bald pate with brown hair on the sides, a brown goatee (that someone no doubt groomed for him), and a stately physiognomy. He actually looked somewhat like a close friend’s father, a man whose bearing and moral qualities I’d always admired—a parallel, handicapped version of my friend’s father.
 
He was near a street corner, holding a metal cup out for money. I walked past him a bit, the impression registered, I stopped, backtracked, and gave him a dollar. He tried to say thank you, but I was surprised to hear that what came out was a guttural, twisted, almost unintelligible attempt at a thank you. This man looked so earnest, compassionate, jocund— in some ways his expression was almost like that of a faithful dog, or of a young boy—but also infinitely world-weary and put-upon, with some kind of access to the nature of suffering beyond that of the countless masses. I felt the urge to hug him and keep him regular companionship.
 
Today, I was walking back to my apartment and this man passed along, rolling down the street slowly in his electric wheelchair. A few moments after I passed him, I began to cry and then weep uncontrollably but silently. I felt as if I were weeping not just for him but for the infinite sorrows of the material world. I felt as if I wanted to embrace all beings in compassion… This feeling, of course, passed after some moments.
 

THE DOLL

the-doll
 
 
When people asked her what she did, she said I am an entrepreneur. Her stock in trade was Barbies. Collectively known as such but with separate identities, hairstyles, names—Stacey, Francie, Skipper, Midge. They were old, well loved and used, crafted of hard plastic, with stiff unbendable legs or rubbery flexible ones easily broken by little brothers. Since they were unboxed, their value was cut. Their plastic bodies had been caressed by little girls and fished out of bathtubs. Their faces ruined by mommy’s makeup. Their perfect hair mussed by grubby little fingers.
            She’d fixed them up, did what she could do. But there was no getting around the fact that they were damaged goods priced accordingly. The day before each doll convention, Vivian set up the table with all the accessories in the basement. She wanted things to look right. She didn’t want to be dithering over the display as potential customers loomed.
            Ironically, the most prized doll in her collection was not a Barbie, but a G.I. Joe nurse doll named Wanda, who appeared to suffer from a serious lack of estrogen. She was no pretty Barbie. Frankly, she read a little pissed—a beefy woman, in a no-nonsense white outfit, starched and serious. She was no concession to any man’s sexy nurse fantasy. Instead of Barbie’s accessories of high heels, hairbrushes, and colorful hose, G.I. Joe Wanda stood primly in her box shod in rubbery flats next to a tiny plastic scalpel, a bedpan, bandages and a pair of crutches.  Never opened, she was perfect, poised and secure.
           The toy guide valued the mint condition Wanda at $4,000. At the time of her 1967 debut, the toy company had gambled on little girls wanting to play with a female equivalent of the popular G.I. Joe soldier doll—G.I. Jane providing succor to an injured infantryman. But the idea was a bust, and the small amount of dolls manufactured languished on the shelves. No further orders were processed from Hong Kong. Scarcity drove up the value.
            Vivian would never forget the day she’d found her, fresh antique stock from a vanished store. Location—the middle of Ohio—an ancient strip mall in a windswept town on an autumn day, next to a hardware store and a dime store. A dime store!—at least fifteen years ago now. A large sign posted out front had said everything must go. She peered through the smeared windows and saw that boxes were piled on boxes. Several customers pawed through cartons.
            When she had stepped inside, she almost walked right back out. But then the owner approached her with a desperate look.
            “What are you looking for ma’am?”
            And she’d said. “Dolls. I’m looking for dolls.”
            He smiled and said she might be in luck because he had just brought up some old stock from the basement. He was sure there were dolls in there.
            While figuring this was probably just a ploy to keep her there and interested when she could be heading elsewhere, she dutifully stood by while he sliced the side open with a box cutter, the air churning with dust particles. Then he stepped back to allow her to uncover the treasure by herself.
           There were a number of toys in the box mixed in with an assortment of glass goldfish bowls and terrariums. But at the bottom was the prize—Nurse Wanda, bought for $10.00. Not out of greed or wanting to cheat the guy. Though, it would be naïve to think she hadn’t had an inkling of its value. But she honestly had thought maybe she could get $100.00 for her tops with the added attraction of owning quite the conversation piece.
            So now Wanda stood proudly in the middle of the display table flanking the slim Barbies and the cache of psychedelic doll clothing Vivian had rescued from garage sales. The $4,000 price tag affixed with a sticky note so it would leave no adhesive residue. Nobody bit though, and Vivian was not sure she even wanted them to. Her modest business in Barbie doll outfits and refurbished original dolls was quite enough. She didn’t really want to part with her mascot. She liked to think that Wanda would not have stood for the indignities a Barbie was put through, chewed by dogs, dressed in gaudy outfits, thrown under the bed. She was so much  more than just a child’s toy.
             Vivian’s weekends spent at flea markets or doll conventions did not exhaust her since she didn’t have a regular job. There was no need. She had not been raised by a family that revered high income occupations. Instead it was police work, retail work, teaching, social work, no work. It was like they hated money. 
           What would have been the point? Her husband Eddie provided sufficiently and their needs were modest. Slick magazines perused in the grocery checkout line pushed dozens of fancy grownup toys she had no desire to own or even look at. And even the ones touting “simplicity,” required an awful lot of prep. She and Eddie had always lived well below their means. Their time on earth was not a competition but a steady walk toward a finish line, she guessed, while both of them tried as hard as they could for each other.
           When she saw people who looked impatient and rushed or overly pleased with themselves—not at all the same thing—she often thought, You know what, Mr. or Mrs. Big Shot, I am happier than you will ever be.
           This was the state of many people at the conventions. Some sighed as they perused her wares. Her setup was a bit mundane. She didn’t traffic in the modern special-edition Barbies since she was a bit of a traditionalist. The one thing that lured customers in was Wanda. However, the customers seemed more curious than eager to buy.
           Eventually Vivian knew she’d have to let Wanda go and she wondered what price would make her waver. It was easy to resist the jokers. The ones who said she should pay them to take Wanda off her hands. Or—
            “Boy, I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley.”            
            “That look on her face reminds me of my ex-wife.”
            “Can you take her out of the box so I can check something? The really rare Wandas have a super unique stamp on the ass.”
            Despite the Toy Guide’s optimistic prediction, getting $4,000 would require an eccentric or a millionaire. But that was okay. Vivian was oddly attached to Wanda. Sometimes she was even the topic of conversation at the breakfast or dinner table.
            She and Eddie would speculate on Wanda’s state of mind. Did she prefer the display case or the mantle? Did she want her freedom? Was she scaring the dogs? There were jokes.
            When Eddie was in a jovial mood, he would tease her about Wanda. He said: Hah, hah, hah, have you ever considered bringing her out for a threesome and hah, hah, hah, I’ve just about had it with that bitch and the evil way she looks at me.
            And Vivian always replied: That’s ridiculous. That would mean I’d have to take her out of the box.
           They kidded in this crazy way, longtime companions with an appetite for insults bordering on the pathological. But they understood each other. Always secure in the knowledge that one person’s putdown only stood until the other one topped it. 
            Sometimes when Eddie was sad he’d say if another woman would look at me, I’d give her a whirl. He’d say this with a sideways look. Vivian knew that all he needed was the right kind of attention to bring this thought to an end.
             She remembered how she had first met Eddie. He had come up behind her while she was walking through the dark campus in that meandering way she had—a sober-drunk winding with purpose from side to side. 
            Anyway, full disclosure, she had been talking to herself. Not answering, but voicing aloud her thoughts as she had explained many times to Eddie on that day and since. She liked to hear her thoughts aloud. They were more concrete that way. And of course, rehearsed statements meant fewer gaffes when she progressed to conversations with others. But first she wanted to ensure that she couched the words in the right context, the right way with precision and simplicity. Because someday she knew that there would be someone right there right beside her to say them to. And it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared.  So, he caught up with her, after god knows how long he had been listening, and to his credit acted like it was the most natural thing in the world. And so it had continued for the past twenty-five years. Caught in an unguarded moment, she had found someone in front of whom she would never be ashamed.
 
continue…

TONSORIAL PARLOR

tonsorial-parlor
 
 
Monday’s frittata was the highlight of Creation for Big Sal’s wife.  She’d been working for years at perfecting the near Renaissance consanguinity of peppers, ham, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and onions nestled in the golden-baked whipped eggs and milk.  Big Sal—barber and half owner of Sal & Sal Hair Salon & Tonsorial Parlor—a redundant name because, when translated, it simply meant Sal and Sal Barbershop and Barbershop—had the sly confidence of knowing that The Other Sal would finally be impressed.  Like Caravaggio with his paintings, Big Sal’s egg pie was his lead upon the scale, by which he measured the world of his sins and desires.
            They were all outside, he, The Other Sal, and Rhonda the manicurist, as it was a summer morning, and they could sit comfortably in lawn chairs on the sidewalk.  He placed the frittata on the milk crate, next to an open box of Dunkin’ Donuts and the usual three full mugs of coffee.  It was a sign, a gesture of ritornando, of returning to the fold, as neither of the Sals had spoken to the other for the past week, not one single word.  They spoke only to Rhonda, who relayed even the shortest breath of a message, even the slightest reply and grunt from one man to the next, or from one moment to the next.  They might be angry, but they were not uncivilized gangsters.
            “No salt,” said The Other Sal, having accepted a slice from Big Sal.  “Not enough pepper, and the carrots are hard.”
            “You don’t like anything my wife cooks,” said Big Sal.
            “Then why do you bring her stuff to me?”
            “Because she tells me to,” he shrugged, and brought the tips of his fingers together and upward.  These had been the first words spoken between the men in seven days.
            “You’re a grown man, Sal, an old grown man.  Why don’t you tell her to go screw?”
            “She’s my wife, Sal.”
            “Doesn’t change the fact your wife cooks like shit,” said The Other Sal.
            “Maybe.”
            “For thirty years I’ve been telling you this.”
            “Thirty years you’ve been telling me a lot of things.”
            “What’s that supposed to mean?”
            “Here we go,” Rhonda muttered as she put down her fork and took up her steno pad and pen.  She brushed her long dark hair back over her shoulders and perched sideways on her chair.
            “We should be rich by now.” Big Sal shrugged again.
            “We’re not rich?  We have a business together, Sal.  We have homes, wives, children, though mine are beautiful and yours are ugly.  We have. . .”
            “You always kick me.”
            “I never touch you, Sal.”
            “Hey.  I’m talking in a meaning.”
            “Okay, so what do you mean?”
“I’m telling you I don’t always feel good.  And you kick me.”
            “And what do I say?”
            “You say, ‘Get laid.’  ‘Have something good to eat.’  ‘Go to a movie.’  ‘Buy land.’  ‘Do this, do that.’  ‘I don’t care,’ is what you say.  Ever since you began to lose your hair, you’re like a big shot.”
            “A barber who’s losing his hair has to… he has to give extra.  He has to give an extra…”
            “…Crack. An extra crack at it,” interjected Rhonda.
            Sal and Sal both looked at her and paused.  Then Big Sal spoke.
            “You’re a good barber, Sal, with or without hair.”
            “I know that, Sal, you taught me a lot.”
            Big Sal affectionately placed his index finger on the lower lid of his left eye as a silent gesture of thanks.
            “No, I mean it,” said The Other Sal.
            “You were always a good barber,” said Big Sal.
“Yeah, but I think I was a better man… back then….”
            “Why, ‘cause you had hair?”
“You can say that.  You have a full thick head of hair to match your thick brain, and your thick face and your thick lips to match your full thick body.”
            “You’re saying I’m fat?”
            “I’m always saying you’re fat.”
            “At least I don’t sleep with the coloreds.”
            “Oh.  That’s right.”
            A pestering silence crept among their feet like an unwanted cat.  Who would be the first to knock it away with his foot?
            “When’s Bruno Smokes coming?” Big Sal asked.
“Said he’d be here by eleven.”
            “It’s almost eleven now.”
            “Alright, alright, but it’s not eleven, is it?”
            “Almost.”
            “He probably has to find parking.”
“You make excuses for him all the time.”
            “You love him as much as I do,” smiled The Other Sal.
            “Naturally.  He brings us the lobsters.”
            “And the shrimp.”
            “And the fish.”
            “And he cooks, too,” continued The Other Sal.  “His wife, I don’t know if she cooks, ‘cause he never talks about it.  But he cooks good.”
            “That’s why we love him.”
            “That’s right.”
            “What d’you think?” Big Sal asked Rhonda.
“He’s probably right,” she replied cautiously, and then looked at The Other Sal: “But you’re still missing the point of his feelings.”
            “What feelings?”
            “How you kick him,” she exhaled.  “In a symbolic way.”
            The two Sals looked at each other and then each cut another piece from the frittata. 
            “Oooh, ow,” Rhonda whispered loudly and quickly opened and closed her legs at the knees, like an accordion.
            “What? Rhonda.  You have to use the bathroom?”
            “No.”
            “What’s wrong?”
            “I can’t say.”
            “Your pussy itches?” said The Other Sal.
            “Mmm bah,” gasped Big Sal.  He held his plate extended away from him, and turned to gaze across the street.
            “You didn’t wash?” asked The Other Sal, smiling.
            “Hey, I’m clean.  You know I’m clean.  I’m like dessert, I’m so clean.  And you of all people, talking to me that way.”
            “I’m concerned.”
            “Doesn’t mean a thing when you accuse me.  How you say it disrespects me.”
            “You said you liked that.”
            “I did.  I do.  Excuse me,” she stood up.  “But Mr. DiMattia is here.”
            Mr. DiMattia, paunchy, sixtyish, and with the eager eyes of a happy dog and slicked-back curly gray hair, was tie-less in a gray suit.  Sal and Sal greeted him with a welcome reserved for the diseased.  Rhonda, ever the shop steward, took his elbow and led him inside.
            “You hurt her feelings.”
            “No, I didn’t.”
            “You said she—“
            “Basta!”
            While Sal and Sal remained outside, Mr. DiMattia sat contentedly, his hands soaking in a green soapy solution.  On the counter behind him and to the right, the small espresso machine purred in a sleepy attendance upon the next demitasse to be taken.  It exhorted hisses with self-reverence as if to say: “I am not just a coffee machine in a barbershop.  I am culture.”  Rhonda sat down before him, her steno pad tucked inside her armpit.  She clasped her knees together, wagging again like an accordion, and gasped “Oooh” and “Ow.”
            “Something wrong?” asked Mr. DiMattia.
“No, just trying to get comfortable.  I think it might be the heat.”
            “Maybe you need some cream.”
            “Don’t be a pig.  Just soak.”
            “You know, you make my hands look so young, I almost want to cry.  It reminds me of my childhood.”
            “Shhh.  I have to listen to what they’re saying.  I have to take note of everything I can.”
            “Why?”
            “Because they are writing their autobiography.”
            “Who?”
            “Sal and Sal.”
            “Sal and Sal?  Them?”
            “Yes.”
            “What’s it going to be called?”
            “Sal and Sal: An Autobiography.”
            “Ooh, that’s good.  I like that,” he said.
            She grabbed her steno pad and wrote: “For two men who have known each other since Confirmation, they never cease to argue about the obvious.”   She placed her pad down on her lap as the two barbers walked in.  The Other Sal stepped inside first and held the screen door for Big Sal, who slowed to a hover.
            “And why don’t we have coke?” asked Big Sal, picking up a stray terrycloth rag.
            Rhonda massaged her customer’s fingers and watched Sal and Sal attentively.  She noticed the near bursting stomach button from Big Sal’s white shirt and then, like a river, her eyes drifted to the proud erections of dark hair that reached out from the nape of The Other Sal’s neck.  Those hairs gave nest to his silver cornicello pendant, his “little horn” guarding that open space of his embroidered gray camp shirt.
            “Soda?” The Other Sal looked up from the barber chair in which he’d found the objects of his search: his cigarettes and lighter.  He followed Big Sal back outside to their respective lawn chairs.  The morning was beginning to feel like a headache.
            “No, coke,” repeated Big Sal.  “Coke!  Co-ca-yeen!”
            “It’s still morning, Sal.”
            “If we had some coke, we wouldn’t need coffee and donuts.”
            “Since when do you care?”
“I’m gaining too much weight,” confessed Big Sal.
            “It’s not the donuts.”
            “Hm,” grunted Big Sal.  He stared across the street to the adult movie theater, and listened as the elevated Number 7 train squeaked and rumbled into the 74th Street station.
            “But he’s got a good wife, though,” said Big Sal, still looking away.
            “Who?  Mr. DiMattia?” asked The Other Sal, helping himself to yet a third slice of the frittata that he did not like.
            “Bruno Smokes.”
            “Oh, yeah, I suppose, a good woman, yes, that’s what he tells us.”
            “You don’t believe him?”
            “I don’t think he knows himself how good a woman he has.”
            “Where’d we go wrong?” sighed Big Sal.
“With what?”
            “With our wives.”
            “We were impatient.”
            “I think we still are.”
            “Speak for yourself.”
            “I speak for both of us.”
            “Why, because I’m losing my hair? I don’t have a voice?  My nose not good enough?”
“Lost your hair.”
            “Lost my hair.”
            “Bruno Smokes thinks you’re the better barber,” quipped Big Sal.
            “Yeah, but you treat him better than I do,” said The Other Sal.  “You kiss his ass.”
            “I do what I do.  It’s respect.”
            “It’s gratitude.”
            “For the lobsters.”
            “Don’t show him any more rings this time.  Keep the jewelry in the drawer.”
            “I have to get rid of them.  They’re hot, Sal.”
            “Yeah, but not to Bruno.  And besides, . . .I know they’re hot, è vero, but who said you had to buy them?  Besides, his wife will bust his balls about it when he comes home wearing another pinky ring.”
            “So, he buys her something, too.”
            “And no more talk about your daughter’s condo.”
            “What am I supposed to do with that fucking thing?”
            “You tell your daughter to take care of it herself.  It’s hers.”
            “She has no real estate head.  No business head.”
            “Mmf.  No head at all, if you ask me.”
“Keep that to yourself.”
            “It’d be different if she kept it to herself, Sal.”
            “Bruno Smokes is here.”
            “Finally.”
            Although a generation behind them, Bruno “Smokes” Orsso was one of their oldest and most trusted friends.  Bruno got his name from stealing cartons of cigarettes as a kid and then smoking them religiously until he had no voice left.  It was Big Sal who’d one day christened him with the name Smokes, because the smell of nicotine and sulfur had hung about Smokes Orsso like a dusty velvet curtain.  The young man’s teeth-grinding odor was more pronounced than his abilities to lie, to curse, to inspire, to predict, and to cheat; and that was saying something, because Smokes was admired for all of those traits.  However, after landing a job at the Fulton Fish Market, the sound of his name didn’t fit with the culture of the fish handlers and the loaders and the cutters, not to mention the men who stood around and authoritatively smoked their cigarettes.  Smokes Orsso sounded like the name of a black jazz musician from New Orleans.  He couldn’t have that, even if he had soul.  He became Bruno Smokes, and left out the “Orsso” for the sake of the Market.
            “This street not ugly enough without you two mopes sitting outside?  Somebody call the sanitation department.  Man, this block is fucking depressing.”
            “Somebody call a priest for your filthy mouth,” Big Sal said as he hugged Bruno Smokes.  The Other Sal hugged and kissed Bruno on the cheek and said “Come stai?”
            “These are for you,” said Bruno, handing him a burlap sack.
            “Thanks, where’s Sal’s bag?” the man asked, grabbing Bruno’s crotch and smiling through the smoke of his cigarette.
“Don’t push it old man,” said Bruno Smokes.
            “Let’s go inside,” said The Other Sal, holding the door open.  “You want a hair cut?”
            “It was on my mind, yes,” said Bruno as he stepped into the shop and smiled and nodded at Rhonda.  Big Sal took the sack of seafood from The Other Sal and walked across the room to deposit it into a small refrigerator.
            “I got a coupla girls downstairs,” continued The Other Sal.  “Friends of…”
            “I know who they are.”
            “Nice.”
“Not really.”
            “Hair and nails, please,” said Bruno as he plopped onto the barber chair while The Other Sal draped a deep red seersucker cloth across his great chest.
            “Bruno!  I don’t like the fish last time,” said Big Sal from across the room.  He was preparing a demitasse of espresso for Bruno.  “The grouper.”
            “What was wrong with it?”
            “No taste.”
            “No taste because it wasn’t any good?  Or no taste because you don’t know what you’re doing?”
            “I can cook, Bruno, I can cook.”
            “You cook like an old blind woman.”
            “I told him that,” laughed The Other Sal.  “I tell him that all the time.”
            “He tells me because he can’t cook himself,” said Big Sal, sauntering up to the chair.  He handed Bruno his espresso and began to comb out his hair.
            “Stop.” The Other Sal looked at Bruno.   “How’s your wife?” he asked.
            “How do I know?”
            “Not speaking?” The Other Sal settled into the empty barber’s chair beside them.  He lit up two cigarettes and handed one to Bruno.  “Don’t you talk?” The Other Sal wore a smile that reeked of sedition, it stood for the flimsy mechanics of broken machinery and wine-soaked labor, from which he came out of Salerno.  It was that new Italian smile that had made him famous in the neighborhood, especially among the women.
            “Who’s got the time?” answered Bruno Smokes.  “I gotta work. I gotta bring lobsters to you two mooks.  I gotta get cigarettes.  I got business to take care of.  So, I see her on the weekend.  We catch up.  You know, they called me for jury duty.  What a fucking joke.”
            Big Sal stopped snipping at Bruno’s hair and opened a towel cabinet behind the chair.  He reached in under the towels and removed a felt-lined handkerchief box displaying sixteen rings, three necklaces, and two watches.  Like a waiter with the wine list, he formally presented it to Bruno Smokes.  Bruno examined the presentation with controlled delight. They were all gold, several had precious stones embedded in them, and the necklaces had single pearls. 
            “Where’d you get these?”
            “Jimmy Eyes.”
            “You know Jimmy?”
            “Hmm.  Yeah.”
            Jimmy Eyes, whose real name was Polish and very difficult to pronounce, had an eye ball condition called cranial nerve palsy; that is, each eye ball faced a different direction, which gave Jimmy a freaky look that none of his friends could bear, except Bruno Smokes, who was his chum from high school.  Jimmy could always be depended upon to make a room full of men feel uncomfortable, gassy, and self-conscious.
            The Other Sal stood up and out of his barber chair and, from another towel cabinet, extracted a bottle of Macallan scotch whiskey and three shot glasses.  He poured full splashes into the glasses and brought them around to Bruno and Big Sal.  With imperfect unison, they raised their glasses, grunted, and drank.
            “Bruno, what d’you think?” asked Big Sal.
            “What?  About the rings?”
            “No, what about the whiskey?”
            “It’s not whiskey.  It’s scotch,” said The Other Sal.  “It’s forty years old.”
            As Bruno was about to grab for the felt rack of rings, and as his fingers barely touched upon one that he wanted, Big Sal swung the tray aside and silently replaced it into the towel cabinet.  He stooped low to open another cabinet and, with pride, he brought out three more bottles of aged scotch.
            “Whoa, where’d you get those?” Bruno Smokes smiled.
“You gotta know?”
            “No, I don’t.  What do you have?  Bell’s?  Laphroaig?  How much?”
            “He wants to tell you about them first,” said The Other Sal.
            “Okay.”
            “If only people would let me talk for myself,” said the bruised Big Sal.  “I only want what’s best for me.  Make an offer.”
            “Could I get one of them?” asked Mr. DiMattia from across the room.
            Big Sal and Bruno Smokes turned to look at him.  They stared as if he’d interrupted a baptism with a belch.  Then Big Sal exhaled and resumed his concentration on Bruno’s possible offer.  The Other Sal doused his cigarette and languidly stuck his scissors into his hand, one loop slipped around his ring-finger and the comb placed smoothly between his index finger, middle finger, and thumb.  He picked up on Bruno’s hair where Big Sal left off.
            “Okay. I got ‘em from Jimmy Eyes.”
            “Jimmy Eyes again?”         
            “Bruno, don’t you worry.  I’ll take thirty for each.”
            As soon as The Other Sal stopped cutting and combing, and Big Sal had skirted around to the other side of the barber chair, Bruno Smokes knew something else would now be made available, something else would now be revealed.  He looked at The Other Sal to confirm that Big Sal had one more pitch to go.
            “I’ll give you a hundred for all three,” said Mr. DiMattia tenuously.
            “You like video games, Bruno?” Big Sal smiled, ignored Mr. DiMattia, and ran another thick comb through Bruno’s hair.
            “Do you mean do I want to have a relationship with them?”
            “No, no, no, no, you’re crazy, Bruno.  I mean I got thirty-two Goldstar Z-Boxes. I bought ‘em for fifty a piece.”
            “And?”
            “I got to move ‘em before Tuesday.”
            “Why?  What’s Tuesday?  Jimmy Eyes coming back again with more crap?”
            “The pigs are coming in,” said The Other Sal.
            “What do you mean?”
            “Pigs, Bruno, pigs.  Bacon, ham, ribs.  Baby pigs, Bruno, coming in on a ship.”
            “Where do they come from?” asked Bruno.
            “North Carolina,” said The Other Sal.
            “North Carolina is a beautiful state,” said Big Sal.
            “How do you know?  You ever been there?” asked Bruno.
            “No.”
            “Then how do you know?”
            “It’s in my head.  I must have read about it somewhere.”
            Bruno Smokes looked at The Other Sal.
            “Great, now he’s Encyclopedia Brown.”
            Big Sal smiled broadly and nodded his head, having no clue who Encyclopedia Brown was or could possibly be.
            “I’ll give you eighty bucks each for the Z-Boxes.”
            “How about a hundred?”
            “Eighty-five.”
            ‘Ninety-five.”
            “Ninety.”
            “Nope.”
            “You’re a ball buster, Sal.”
            “Hey, Sal and me, we’re entrepreneurs, Bruno.”
            “I thought you were barbers.”
            “We are, of course.  But Sal says he knows somebody and so we make the deal.”
            “Who does Sal know?” said Bruno Smokes.
            The Other Sal looked up.  Big Sal tapped his index finger to his thumb twice.
            “Okay,” agreed Bruno Smokes.  “Ninety-five.  And then I want some of the Pig.”
            “Deal.”
            “I also want the ring on the left and the bracelet on the right.”
            “How can I afford that, Bruno?”
            “How can you afford my lobsters, you cheap guinea bastard?”
            Their collective laughter abruptly halted when the screen door opened and in walked Mr. Chen from the dry cleaners next door.  He was short, balding, wore wire-rim glasses, and his mouth was always open and gave his face the look of constant worry.  He might be in the midst of telling a funny and bawdy joke, yet his jowls and raised eyebrows resembled the anxiety and timidity of a Chihuahua too close to the oven.  He walked silently up to The Other Sal and handed him a folded five-dollar bill intertwined with a piece of white scratch paper.  Sal quickly pocketed it.  Mr. Chen then turned to Big Sal, nodded, and walked out.
            Rhonda–who had been watching the men and intermittently writing in her steno pad, sprayed Mr. DiMattia’s fingernails with a cool finisher–took up the pad and wrote:  “They have pride of place.  Yet there is something between them that no one understands.”
            What she couldn’t explain was why the two Sals had not been speaking to each other for seven days.  No one besides the two Sals knew really.  The two men enjoyed a common center of mass: it was actually the space between their barber chairs.  They orbited the chairs and each other like binary stars, like a carefully choreographed dance.  Big Sal cut his customer’s hair starting from the left, The Other Sal started from the right.  They never intersected.  The space, however, did not expand; it was constant; and it has always been the ground over which the two men fought.  It was their disputed territory.  It was their Kashmir.  And like the Kashmir, once intersected, once bumped, there is the skirmish.  And seven days ago, they bumped.
            When it happened, Big Sal looked accusingly at The Other Sal–his lips tight and ugly.  Then The Other Sal returned the accusing look, holding his comb and scissors aloft.  But it was not the bump that caused the silence, it was the accusatory Look, the scowl, and the wrinkled brow.  The Look was the mortar blast.
            Rhonda put the steno pad down and gave Mr. DiMattia’s hands the once-over.
            “You’re done, Mr. D.,” she said.
            “I tell you, Bruno,” said Big Sal as he trimmed Bruno’s nose hairs.  “I don’t know how I lasted this long.”
            “You lasted this long because you have pride of place,” said The Other Sal, avoiding Rhonda’s eyes.  “You know where you are, Sal.”
            “Yeah, because I’m just like you,” replied Big Sal.  “Not like Bruno Smokes, here.  You, Bruno, you’re like a son to me.”
            “Hey, Sal, I’m too young, I’m too good looking to be your son.”
            “Oh.  How come I feel so much older?”
            “’Cause you’d rather be angry than anything else.”
            “It’s a choice, Bruno.”
            “Easy choice for you, Sal.  You do it with your hand around your prick and your mouth over a bottle of Crown Royal.  Who’re you kidding?”
            “You hurt me,” said Big Sal.
            “How can I hurt you?  I’m your friend.”
            “No, really, I think all this time that we’re friends, you’ve been lying to me.”
            “You’re an idiot.”
            “I don’t think so.”
            “I’ve been getting my hair cut by you and Sal since I was 17 years old.  I tell all my friends to come to you.  I tell my family to come to you.  I even sent my mother to you.”
            “She did come here once,” said Big Sal.
            “Beautiful woman,” said The Other Sal.
            “She’s seventy-three,” expelled Bruno Smokes.
            “Still.”
            “Still.  What else is there?” said Big Sal, staring out the front door.
            “What does that mean?” Bruno Smokes asked.  “Do you understand what the fuck he’s talking about?”
            “No, but I trust him,” said The Other Sal.  “You see, Bruno, I don’t try to change him, all these years.  He is who he is.  He looks at people, he sees their heads and–”
            “I see more than their heads,” said Big Sal.
            “Oh yeah?  What d’you see?  Their livers?”
“I see everything.  You’re too small to understand.  You’re mind is too small.”
            The grinding teeth and flaring nostrils were once again changing the tone of the shop.  Exasperation had poured out before they knew it.
            “They’re getting obstreperous with each other,” Rhonda said through gritted teeth, as she helped Mr. DiMattia to stand.  He walked over to The Other Sal’s empty chair and sat down.
            “Jesus. Jesus Christ, I cut hair next to this guy and he tells me I’m small minded,” laughed The Other Sal.
            “Bruno, shoot me with morfina. I need something.”
            “I need a drink,” said Bruno Smokes.
            “I need a lay.”
            “You know Sal,” began Mr. DiMattia.  “It is the third Friday of the month.”
            “And do you want to go downstairs?” The Other Sal asked him, as he gently combed Mr. DiMattia’s curly gray hair.
            “Well, ….” Mr. DiMattia said, his palms up in a gesture of culpability.
            “Well, if you’re going downstairs I want to see the Z-Boxes,” Bruno said.
            With the seersucker cape still wrapped around him, Bruno joined Sal and Sal, and Mr. DiMattia, as they negotiated the space between the chairs, put down their combs and scissors, and walked past Rhonda, who sat sipping her coffee, beneath the framed portrait of President Kennedy.
            “Thank God my hands are clean,” mumbled Mr. DiMattia as they passed the espresso machine, which rested beneath a framed photo of Pope John the 23rd.
            “What’s this old man talking about? Bruno Smokes turned to Big Sal, as he bumped into a moveable wash basin and then a canvas hamper for dirty towels.
            “It’s because of the past, Bruno,” The Other Sal laughed as he paused by a picture of Perry Como.  “Women are slaves at the hands of men.”
            “But my hands are clean,” mused Mr. DiMattia, lightly fingering the deep green leaves of three potted philodendron plants. 
            “My mother used to work like a slave,” pronounced Big Sal.
            “Here we go,” said The Other Sal, pausing beside their faux-Tiffany lamp, from which was suspended a fist-sized cornicello, its red chili pepper shape topped by a golden tassel.
            “È vero?!”
            “No, Sal. No one was a slave in Salerno,” said The Other Sal.
            “I felt like I was.”
            “Until you met me.”
            “Maybe.”
            “Until we moved to New York.”
            “Maybe.”
            The sound of the men’s shuffle, their feet burning with an expectancy that desire makes of a desert, made their journey to the wooden door in the corner of the shop as deep and as long as Death Valley itself.
            “Sal, this is the only place on earth for us,” The Other Sal said as he opened the door and descended the stairs.  “We can’t go nowhere else.  We are here.  We are friends since the Bishop slaps us on our face and says go in peace you soldier of God.  We are our own slaves, Sal.”
            Big Sal paused on a step, looking backward from Bruno Smokes to The Other Sal.  Bruno nudged Big Sal to keep going.
            In the basement, walls paneled, floor carpeted, with furnishings that made one feel at home–except for the presence of two prostitutes, there were two piles of stacked boxes that took up nearly a third of the room.
            “Plasma TVs?” exclaimed Bruno Smokes.  “You didn’t tell me about PLASMA TVs!”
            Mr. DiMattia walked over to the younger of the two women.  She greeted him kissing him once on both cheeks.
            “I can’t do my business with all of you here,” she smiled, standing in front of a sheet hung from a clothesline.
            “That’s where we’re going to hang the pigs,” said Big Sal, pointing to the clothesline.
            “Right,” said Bruno.  He turned with a fluidity and breeze that lifted his red seersucker cape, and began the return upstairs.  Like an emperor followed by his train, Big Sal and The Other Sal fell into line and climbed the stairs as well.
            “I didn’t think the girl would mind,” said Big Sal naively.
            “You see, that’s the way you are,” said The Other Sal.  “You never understand.  You’re like the carrots in the frittata. They didn’t belong there ‘cause sweet carrots make a conflict with the savory of the frittata.  Don’t you know that?  And you thought I was trying to kick you.  You’ll never understand.”
            “I’ll never understand.”
            Rhonda, leaning against the wall in the shadows behind one of the stacks of plasma TVs, her steno book in hand, wrote down every word.  She watched the girl lead the old man behind the sheet, and then she continued writing:
            “Sal and Sal degrade themselves daily.  They decry themselves,” she scribbled furiously, “believing themselves martyrs, and go on, each day, cutting hair….”
            She stopped.
            “How I love them both,” she whispered to the empty stairs.
 

story #21

Taking Flight
 
TAKING FLIGHT
 
I looked down at my license—Carolyn White. That’s not me anymore. I glanced down at muddy water, slipped off my Christian Louboutin heels, threw my wallet as hard as I could, and placed my feet in the lake. The sun hung low on the horizon; darkness was near. I slowly stepped further into the vast water until the edge of my dress embraced the wet. I took a deep breath and immersed my body in the warmth of the lake. I let the water take me into it: my legs, chest, head. Before I knew it, I no longer belonged to myself. I belonged to the lake. I stood up and brushed my hair back out of my face. My dress clung to me like a glove. I walked out of the water just as the sun faded. As I took one last look back at Carolyn White, a crane swooped down and landed at the edge of the dock. Its elegant neck and its graceful demeanor were beautiful. In a moment, it flew away from me—from Carolyn. That’s when I knew I was now Vivian Crane.
              I snuck around to the back door that was facing the lake. My childhood home had changed a lot since I’d last seen it. The wild Georgia woods and kudzu had all but taken over the narrow strip of land. I was instantly haunted by the memories of summer cookouts and Fourth of July fireworks as I crept on the porch. The noise of my heels was making me anxious, so I decided to carry them the rest of the way. When I reached the door, I wiggled it a little in hopes that the property manager would have left it unlocked. No such luck. I looked around for a key under dead foliage in ornate pots but found nothing. There has to be a key around here somewhere. Think, think. Just then I saw slight shimmer of something above the doorway slightly overhanging the trim. I reached and pulled down the key, unlocked the door, and toed into the house as if someone else would be there. After a moment of standing on the tiled entryway in silence, I realized it was safe to move carelessly in the house. Almost every piece of furniture was covered with drab white sheets, except for one—my dad’s favorite chair. It was in the living room with a small end table next to it. I knelt before his old chair, ran my fingers down the wicker arms, and outlined the dull plaid design of the vinyl. I closed my eyes and saw my dad sitting there nearly fifteen years ago, smiling, laughing, and looking at my mother with the most longing, loving eyes. Instantly, a streak of pain jolted my heart, and before I knew it, tears flowed from my eyes.
              I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I last opened that yester-year file in my mind. I would give anything to have my parents back with me, but I can’t make any more pacts with the devil. That’s what got me here.
              I was afraid to turn on any lights in the house. I knew the neighbors kept a close eye on the place. That would surely get me a visit from the local P.D. God knows, I didn’t want that. Luckily, the uncovered windows let in enough moonlight to allow me to see my way around.
              After days of intense travel, I couldn’t find my childhood bed fast enough. One of my mom’s white cotton nightgowns was in her closet and I put it on, slinging my wet dress over the bathtub curtain. A pale pink comforter was in the linen closet, and it wasn’t long before I lied down and finally felt at peace again.
___
 
I awoke to a loud bang. My eyes jolted into an alert state, but the darkness kept me from being able to see. I sat in silence a few moments thinking that I’d hear it again. Nothing. Had I locked the backdoor? I remembered that Mom had always kept an oil lantern and a set of matches in every room of the house in case the electricity went off, which happened almost every time it rained here. The oil lamp was on the nightstand. I reached in the drawer and felt around for the matches. Come on. I know you’re in there. My fingers wandered aimlessly until I felt the sandpapered edges of a small box. I slid the match across the rough surface and lit the lamp. Its glass orb quickly filled, and I slowly I walked out of the room. When I reached the hall, that’s when I heard it—the very distinctive sound of heels on the tiled floor. I froze. I had no idea what to do. Where do I go?
              “Find her,” I heard her say.
               I hurried back to my room, shut the door quietly, and sat the lamp back on the stand. Just before I was able to blow it out, the door opened.
              “Well, there you are, Carolyn.” Her face lit up with a deceitful smile.
               “What are you doing here, Margaret?”
               “We’re here to see you, of course.” Her eyes left mine and looked to be evaluating the room. “She’s in here, Katrina!”
               With every heeled step I heard coming our way, my heart beat faster.
               “We need to talk,” Katrina said as she appeared from darkness. “Let’s sit down like adults and have a nice conversation, shall we?” She walked towards the living room. “Bring the lamp too, please.”
               I walked into the living room while Margaret followed behind with the oil lamp. Katrina pulled off the sheet that was covering the couch and sat on the edge of the cushion with her legs delicately crossed. Margaret sat the oil lamp on the side table next to my father’s chair and stood behind it. I felt that they meant for me to sit there, so I obeyed. A minute or two passed without anyone saying a word. Katrina stared at me and then looked around the room, while Margaret never moved. I ran my hands through my long, brown hair and acted as though I felt comfortable, confident. It felt like the calm before the storm, the moment before eruption, and the anticipation was killing me.
               “How did you find me?” I finally asked.
               Katrina snickered. “The two days it took you to get here was all it took for us to find out every place that you have ever lived. We were surprised that this lake house was still in your possession. Tino was led to believe that you had sold all of your parents’ properties after they died. Actually, we should be thanking you for making it so easy on us. This was our first stop.” She readjusted and crossed her legs in the other direction, which caused her black wrap-around dress to reveal a gartered holster on her perfect thigh.                
               The silver tip of her 9mm caught the light, and she caught that I noticed.
               “Let’s get down to business. You have something that I want. Tino has tried his best to convince everyone that you don’t have it, but it’s just too convenient that the day you go missing, so does it. I’m just here to make sure that it returns back to our family.”
               I had no idea what she was talking about. I hadn’t taken anything. I left with only the clothes I was wearing. What is Katrina even talking about “our family”? She doesn’t even belong in that family. They just took her in after her father was killed. Now they’ve got her doing their dirty work?
                “I didn’t take anything.” That’s when I noticed the giant engagement ring sitting on my finger that Tino gave me six months ago. This is what she wants. She’s always wanted him. “Here. You can have it. I meant to leave it there, anyway,” I said taking the ring off and handing it to her.
                “I don’t want your damn ring,” she screamed while grabbing it and throwing it across the room. “Where’s the money?”
                “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about any money!” I felt myself begin to panic.
                “Margaret, tie her up.”
                I knew that they were armed. There was no sense in fighting. No one knew I was here. No one could help me.
                Margaret pulled rope from the black bag she had brought. She was dressed in solid black with laced boots up to her knees. Her masculine hands wrapped the woven rope around my chest, arms, and legs, leaving me unable to move from the chair. Margaret and Katrina took the lamp and searched every room in the house, one by one. I heard a lot of things breaking, and I cringed at every lost piece of my mother’s memory.
                I could tell that they were frustrated when they both came back to the living room. Katrina stood over me looking at me in restrained anger. Margaret took up her place behind me. I saw them exchange a knife. Katrina held the knife carelessly in her hands, spinning it with her fingers until Margaret brought in a chair from the dining room and placed it right in front of me. Katrina didn’t sit in it, though. She hovered over me, running the dull side of the blade across my neck lightly. I began to speak, to tell her that I promised that I didn’t have anything. But she wouldn’t let me get one word out.
               “Shh… tell me your secret,” she said with her eyes closed and her warm breath lingering on the side of my neck.
               “I don’t have any secrets,” I answered and turned to look at her.
               I glared at her long, dark lashes as they opened and revealed her bright blue eyes. There was a darkness about her. Her lips curled at the right corner causing slight wrinkles on an otherwise porcelain face. That look—her look—sent chills down my spine as I watched her glide to the seat in front of me. I knew what she wanted.
               “You tell me a secret,” I dared. While my heart raced a thousand beats a second, I focused on keeping my body relaxed, yet firm.
               She smiled and raised her eyebrow in amusement. “You really are a beast, aren’t you?”
               “If a beast is an ordinary woman, then yes,” I answered while casually tugging at the wicker on the armrest and trying to pace my breathing.
              “Ordinary? Really? That’s the word you’re going with?” She laughed under her breath.
              “There’s nothing special about me. I’m nothing like all of you. I left because I didn’t want to be. I’m not hiding anything. I just want to go back to an ordinary life.” My heart rate began to slow as honesty fell from my lips.
              “I agree with you. You are nothing but ordinary. Why Tino ever loved you is beyond me.” Her eyes fluttered with vulnerability. “I’m glad you left. You were nothing but crippling to him. He wasn’t able to function like the family needed him to with you there. He was too scared of someone hurting you in retribution for something he’d done,” her voice trailed.
              “We need to get on with it. It’s almost daylight,” Margaret interrupted.
              “There must be something about you that made him want you like he does. What’s your secret, Carolyn?”
              “I never tried to make him want me,” I whispered. Instantly, I saw that she understood what I meant. She stood, pulled her dress together at the bust, and glared at me with forceful eyes. She took the knife and forced the blade into my left cheek just under my eye. I screamed for mercy but found none. She cut in a downward motion until the knife found the edge of my jaw. The look she had on her face, I will never forget. It was of satisfaction. I felt the warm blood drip down my neck and onto my mom’s pure cotton gown. Tears flowed reluctantly as I tried to stay strong.
              “We’ve got to get out of here,” Margaret reminded her.
              She didn’t find the money. She’s not leaving. She’s going to kill me. I panicked. I started trying to force my way out of the chair. I bounced and screamed and shook.
              Katrina backed away. She gave the crimson stained knife to Margaret, which she threw into the black duffle bag. Katrina looked at her hands. She had a small amount of my blood on her index finger. She brought it to her lips and sucked it off. I stared in amazement. You’re the beast.
              She and Margaret headed for the back door. What’s happening?
              “What about the money?” I asked trying to make some kind of sense of all of this.
              She laughed a wicked laugh. “Just remember this, if you ever come back to Tino or our family, I’ll kill you.” She meant it. Her voice was still and cold. Then she gave me one last smile to remember her by.
              I sat in amazement. I listened to her heels until they eventually faded. That’s when I found my mind again. I knocked the chair and myself over, and I was able to wiggle the rope loose enough to slide out the top. I rushed to the mirror in the bathroom. I looked away just before my eyes met my reflection. I knew that it was bad, deep. It took me a moment, but I was able to gather enough courage to look. I didn’t know who I was looking at. It looked like Carolyn, but it felt like someone else—like Vivian. The tears of blood poured down my left cheek and suddenly my fear of seeing an ugly face was gone. That mark was my courage and my strength.
              I cleaned the wound and held a warm wet cloth to my face. Suddenly, I heard a knock. I jumped in reflex. Criminals don’t knock. I breathed out a sigh of relief. I walked to the front door, opened it, and there stood an old man in PJs that looked to be in his seventies or so with a shotgun by his side.
              “Are you alright?” he asked. He took notice of the bloodstained bath cloth I was holding.
              “I’m okay now.”
              “I heard screaming when I took out our Sugarbear this morning, and I went ahead and called the cops. They should be here any minute.”
              “Thanks.”
              “What are you doing here anyway? This is private property, you know?” His caring demeanor morphed into a good-citizen aggression. He clutched his shotgun a little tighter.
              “I’m good friends of Carolyn White’s. She owns this place.” His skepticism was apparent.
___     
 
I told the cops that I did not know the assailants. I said that they were looking for money, which was a half-truth, and that they left without finding much. In the detective’s search of the house, they came across my engagement ring. I told them that I had thrown it in hopes that they wouldn’t find it and take it. They tried calling the number on record for Carolyn to confirm my story of why I was there, but they had no luck. They ended up letting me go after a few hours.
              Over the next few weeks, I had my name officially changed to Vivian Crane, and I went on living in the lake house. I still thought about Tino all the time despite my trying not to. Something had felt wrong for a long time when I was there with him. The whispers, his coming home late, the black eyes, and his nonchalant trips to the E.R. were all signs that I had chose not to read for a long time, but I couldn’t go on living a life where violence was sitting on the doorstep waiting to pounce at the first visitor. The vision of Tino lying in that hospital bed will never leave my mind. I didn’t want to be married to someone whom I would fear for every time he left my sight. I always sat waiting, half-way expecting to get a phone call any minute, hearing that he had been either arrested or was dead. What kind of life is that? It’s all over now. While I was trying to pick up the pieces and force other pieces into this new life of mine, I felt like something still wasn’t right.
___
 
On February 29th, I decided that it was time. I got up that morning, went into the bathroom, and waited while three minutes went by in what seemed like hours. I stood over the counter as I watched the pink cross slowly develop in the narrow rectangular screen of a pregnancy test. Memories of my love with Tino flooded my mind. I could see us as one normal family, but that was only a dream. That can never be. Fear started to creep into a thought, but it was voided by my reflection. I looked at my new self in the mirror and knew that Carolyn couldn’t have handled this alone. I ran my fingers down my developing scar and knew that Vivian could.
 
– Vanessa K. Eccles
continue…

story #19

on the button
 
ON THE BUTTON
 
Now of course all my regular customers are teddy bears to me, but Steven and Olivia are the lumpy, understuffed monkey and fish you sewed in Ms. LaMay’s 8th grade home ec class, and that you’ve never lost track of, even once, in all the years since. They’re the only adulterers I know. I think so anyway.
            Steven and Olivia drive up from the city in a Hershey-colored Japanese car on the third Friday night of every month. The next morning, Saturday, they glide in between 8:00 and 8:20. Steve is eggs benedict with black bean and green pepper hash, light on salt, a ramekin of maple syrup on the side, and coffee, black. Olivia is two cranberry johnnycakes, no syrup (not even on the side), and chamomile. And “real butter.” She asks for “real butter” like a little orphan who’s just hearing about it for the first time, every time. The first weekend Steven was so nervous about the adultery that when I sat them in the booth by the window he introduced himself as Rodney and tried to shake my hand. So cute. Olivia leaves a twenty and a ten on a $19.88 check. He reads the front page and then skips to the jobs section of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
            One month, Steven slouched in and then another woman, a woman with a red buzz cut followed him. Then Olivia came in behind her. This new, growling-like woman was wearing a lily-print blouse that smelled like dust. Steven looked at the wall and asked me for a table.
            I never eavesdrop on my regulars. My conviction is that this brings us closer, because I’m never distracted by how much debt they’re swimming in or how small his sack is. I can serve them for who they really are. But that day, Lily Blouse was louder than her shirt:
            “There’s still an us here,” Lily Blouse said. She knocked over her water.
            “Just because you went out and made a you-all with him doesn’t meant that the us we had before you-all just stopped. The thing you have doesn’t come up to half what us is. And if you think it does, go ahead and leave, Olivia. And slut kiss your apartment goodbye.”
            I still didn’t realize, not until after the lunch rush when they had long since slunk single file back out the door, that Lily Blouse was married to Olivia, not Steven.
            The funny thing is: The walls at The Rose B&B, where Steven and Olivia stay, they’re basically just two sheets of pink wallpaper stuck back-to-back. And Sheila Wigand, who owns The Rose, she swears they’ve never done it there. And Sheila’s been tuning in so long, if two dust mites were doing it in her place, she’d know.
            Steven and Olivia vanished after that. Months later, a tired priest with stringy hair that was fading blonde to grey came in and ordered Dutch cinnamon oatmeal, and I accidentally brought him black bean and green pepper hash. I imagined my two regulars having run away for good, lying together on a cloudy beach in a country not known for its beaches.
            Then at 8:00 on a drizzling morning, Olivia came back. Lily Blouse came right behind her, and you wouldn’t believe it, but she was wearing the exact same shirt as a year before. And it still smelled like dust.
            Lily Blouse demanded Belgian waffles with lemon whipped cream, extra raspberry compote, and a Coke. She couldn’t stop smiling as she asked me about each antiques store in town. Olivia ordered her usual, though she didn’t specify real butter. I didn’t mention it because, oh well, I assumed we all were starting over.
            But then the next month it was Steven and Olivia. They were back and like teenagers. They did jittering impressions of Lily Blouse catching diabetes from last month’s breakfast. (Even though my sister has diabetes, it was funny.) Steven couldn’t get over how smart Olivia was. This was so smart, he said. Celia (that was Lily Blouse’s name) didn’t need much at all, he said.
            I should have told them that I was on their side that morning, because we were never able to get our rhythm back. Every month they shuffled. Steven and Olivia came one month. Olivia and Lily Blouse the next month. Then no one for two months. Then Steven and Olivia again. Lily Blouse never ate the same thing twice. I didn’t feel too bad for her. She was like a kid. She didn’t know. I looked up to Olivia though, more and more. She did what needed to be done. Or most of it, anyway. Sheila Wigand said she didn’t think Olivia was doing anything with either of them.
            I was stupid. I’d been thinking all along that Steven and Olivia only truly existed here, in the beat up blue booth by the window that looked on the parking lot of the Herb Garden Cafe in Hudson. But that was just the tip. They were talking all the time. Obviously they had an agreed upon schedule, because Steven wouldn’t have come in here with a girl if he had the slightest fear he’d get caught. He was too pale a man for that.
            I say girl, but she must have been forty-five. Her chin was slowly sliding down her neck, and her hoopy plastic earrings swayed just a bit as she inhaled and exhaled through her mouth. As I walked back to take their order, I felt as if I’d been going down stairs and suddenly missed a step. Steven was eggs benedict with black bean and green pepper hash. The girl couldn’t decide.
            “Olivia, the other woman that I’m with, she really likes the wheat toast,” Steven said. “They use real butter.”
 
– Louis Wittig 
 

story #18

L and wine
 
L & THE WINE LOCKER INCIDENT
 
Today I was looking into renting wine storage in SoDo with my wife when we unexpectedly bumped into L. Turns out he owned the joint: cavernous, spacious, white table, brick walls, electronically controlled temperatures kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. He’d never met my little lady (she’s such a saint) and took a keen interest. Apparently they have a lot in common when it comes to spirits and palates. I told L I was surprised to see him—not his usual digs, you know: industrial Seattle is cold, gray, rainier than hell any day of the week. He ignored me while stroking my wife’s hand, staring intently in her eyes, rhapsodizing about Pinot noir and the method by which he inventories every bottle stored with him, photographing the labels front and back then barcoding them in boxes so they can be read and tracked and computerized and scanned and such. He even has an online app. Quite impressive but then that’s to be expected with L.
            After paying for the storage (easier than backing out at the last minute–parting with money is the least of your troubles when you deal with L), I tried to explain to my wife with whom she had rather shamelessly been flirting. She wouldn’t hear of it—at first.
            I said, “I mean, that space is a dungeon, really. A torture chamber I’d bet anything after business hours.”
            “It was minimalist chic industrial,” she said.
            “You sound just like him.”
            “He speaks so beautifully. I could listen to him for days. Weeks.”
            “You know, I’m willing to bet half those wine cases aren’t even filled with wine.”
            “With what?”
            “Souls, naturally.”
            “Souls?”
            “You do know what L stands for, right?”
            “I didn’t, no. Maybe it doesn’t. He said he was in finance before this. In New York. Not collecting the damned.”
            “Well, yeah, he stopped first in Wall Street. A lot of his client base is from there. It’s only natural. I guess he burned out on it.”
            “Too fast-paced.”
            “Too breakneck, bleak, and false. What’s money but a lot of meaningless paper? Meaningless numbers on a screen.”
            “Not meaningless, darling. Abstract.”
            “Fine. But it’s the same difference. Not something tangible. Not something you could really sink a hoof or claw into. So he decided a change of scenery was in store.”
            “You really think he was flirting with me?”
            “I never know with him. Was he looking at your tits or your soul? It’s hard to tell.”
            “I bet he takes pictures of the damned just like he takes pictures of the bottles. And inventories them the same way.”
            “Yes, yes. Gluttons in aisle two, bin four.”
            “Surprisingly nice, isn’t he?”
            “Quite charming. Too charming. Once tried to sell me stock in Apple. I passed. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I figured. So I passed on it. I fucking passed.”
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 
             

story #17

brick 1
 
A BRICK IN TIME
 
Jasper’s face hit a brick with such force both eyes knocked together as one before retreating to their respective sockets.  It was quite a shock to everyone involved, especially Jasper who, until then, was wholly unaware of any bricks suspended in air, which, to his now addled brain, could be the only possible explanation.
     “And yes.  On my way.”
     It was a terribly odd statement by a voice no one had ever heard.  Carefully slipping a red clay brick into a notched leather holster buckled around his hips, the voice’s owner walked away with swift determination.
     The crowd, as it had become, circled Jasper and his twitching eyes in empathy, though none, as far as they knew, had ever met Jasper, or, consequently, ever been struck with a brick.  Regardless, outraged reigned, as they turned towards the retreating figure.
     “Hey you,” someone yelled.  “Where are you going?”
     It might have been a curious query in any circumstance not involving a brick, but as it was, the challenge took on a decidedly unfriendly connotation.
     “Are you,” the voice no one had ever heard until just then, and the one time before, boomed savagely, “addressing me, sir?”
     The someone drew back, startled.  The entire crowd in fact reacted as if they had been, well–
     “Slapped with a brick,” Jasper muttered.
     The someone, though not unkind, was glad to see the focus that had been so fiercely fixed on him revert back to its previous mark.  The crowd breathed a sigh of relief as well, patting Jasper on the back encouragingly.
     “What’d ya’–I mean, what’d ya’ slap me with a brick for?”
     It was a good question, appropriate even, but the crowd, impressed by the stranger’s obvious self confidence, said nothing.
     “I don’t even–I was just–” Jasper went on.  “Standing, you know–and then–bam–It–It really–”
     The man with the voice no one had ever heard except twice and again right now, strode within a foot of Jasper, exclaiming forcefully, “Would you have another, sir?”
     The crowd unconsciously leaned back, waiting and wondering, looking at each other.  Meeting a man such as this was not an everyday occurence.  The stranger was awfully authoritative and certainly seemed knowledgeable.  It was also, someone commented after studying Jasper’s wounded cheek, a well crafted brick.  The holster too, so went the rumor, of the finest ilk.  And of course, he had an exquisite speaking voice.  These attributes, as well as the agility with which the well crafted brick was swung, all added up to a man of some worth to be sure.
     “Answer me sir.”  Steadfast as well, the crowd nodded, smiling.  Jasper’s reply was eagerly anticipated, in that it would most likely lead to another beautiful line from the auspicious stranger. 
     No reply came for quite a few moments.  Restlessness set in as all eyes were on Jasper, who only rubbed his cheek meekly, still muttering unintelligibly.  Though Jasper had no enemies here, save presumably the brick wielding stranger, he had no friends either. The silence was expanding into the infinite and the crowd wanted some sort of resolution, or at least an entertaining comeback to prolong the situation.  It was, they felt, disheartening to hear such eloquence on one side, while only lazy utterances of the obvious on the other.  A dislike spread quietly through the onlookers.  Jasper was failing them all.  The crowd gave their eyes and ears over to the stranger who complied quickly, though it seemed he himself was unaware of the scrutiny.  They dutifully added perfect timing to the stranger’s list of pleasurable traits.
     “If you do not answer me forthwith I fear I shall have to take action, whether it is to your liking or not, sir.”
     Jasper’s muteness had lasted so long the question was all but forgotten.  The stranger supplied it with speedy accuracy.  “Would you have another sir?”
     “Well, I don’t–no–I guess not–I don’t even know what you mean,” Jasper sputtered, adding lamely, as if it were not already abundantly clear, “You smacked me with a brick.”
     It was a grossly inferior remark.  The stammering, plaintive whine in which it was delivered, and the swollen, sallow face it sprang from, made Jasper unfit on every level.  It was now under discussion that perhaps Jasper deserved a good smack with a brick.  After all, if the stranger was anything, he was a man of justice.  Perhaps some insult had been hurled, in a cowardly, maybe weasely voice, defaming the stranger’s impeccable character.  It would have been just like Jasper.
     “Am I correct in assuming another would not be appreciated, sir?”
     The stranger was right, the crowd knew.  Jasper didn’t appreciate anything.
     “I–no–just, just don’t,” the sniveling brat was at it again.  “Just don’t hit me with a brick anymore, okay?”
     Certainly not, the crowd almost laughed.  The stranger did not deal out blows unless they were warranted.  A few cries of “Give him another” rang out, but they all knew Jasper would get another when he needed another.
     “You may trust in this, sir,” the stranger’s voice took on a contemplative tone, reaching out like the hand of God.  “I will not stray far.  My brick knows no fear.  Its aim is true, its will unmatched.  If ever in this great land of ours’ goodness is threatened by malignant forces, my brick and I will smack the malignancy until it breathes no more.”
     The crowd was hushed.  Never before had it witnessed such fortitude and strength of spirit.  Had someone told them a stranger with a holstered brick would save them from people like Jasper (the worm) they would have said, “Get out of here with that.  We don’t believe you, liar.” Maybe pushed him or something, but–Right in front of them, here it was.  Here it damn was.
     “Do you understand me, sir?”
     The crowd turned their gaze on Jasper.  What could he say?  Someone this devastatingly moronic and weak was no match for the likes of the stranger.  Some hoped he’d just leave, run away with his tattered tail between his stumpy legs.  Others wanted a brick smacking fest.  Still others wanted only what the stranger wanted.  How could they deny him, who’d done so much?
     “Sir, I–”
     “Yes, alright!”  Jasper yelled without even letting the stranger finish, snot dribbling down his puny mouth.  “I understand, but I mean–Jesus Christ, you know!  I’m standing here, that’s all, just standing, not doing anything–”
     “Figures,”  the crowd murmured.
     “Just standing like everyone else, being a human being–”
     That was open for debate.
     “And a brick comes up and smacks me in the face!  I mean, a brick!  In the face!  For, for–Why?  For no reason!  Just because!”
     Good enough when it came to villains like Jasper.
     “And now you’re yelling at me and threatening me and so’s everybody else and I don’t even know who you are!  I don’t know who any of you people are!”  He stomped his feet and wrung his hands, letting out a frustrated scream.
     There was no sound.  The crowd stared, embarrassed, overwhelmed.  Each shifted their feet, not looking at each other, not looking at Jasper. 
     The stranger seemed set apart, distant now, as if only he understood.  Taking a step he bent his head level with Jasper’s, causing the still crying man to look up, a pause in his floundering.  The stranger nodded, somehow moved.  As he leaned forward, Jasper did not stir, allowing the soft contact.  A tiny click echoed, as the stranger unclasped his holster and smacked Jasper across the face with a brick.
     The crowd smiled.
 
– Kate LaDew
 
continue…

story #16

simon harridan 
 
THE STORY OF SIMON HARRIDAN
 
In February of 2010, I flew from Boston to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras and got in a fight with a man whose name I never heard and never learned. He was enormous with skin the color and consistency of fatback and he pounded me mercilessly in the street. I can’t remember entirely why—I doubt I gave him any sort of good reason. I was checking my reflection in the tinted window of a Chevy Chevelle one moment, straightening my hair (I had excellent, slightly wavy hair that curled at my ears), and the next moment a hand the size of a skillet was mashing my cheek into the fender, and boots that must have had steel toes were slamming into my stomach. I would have screamed, I think, if I’d been able to breathe. But I couldn’t breathe. Two of my ribs were broken. My jaw and cheekbones were fractured. I was barely conscious. I tried to curl away from the man between kicks, and finally they stopped and I heard him unzip his pants. As he urinated on my face and head, all I could think, absurdly, was how lucky I was to be a toilet instead of a roach squished lifelessly, eternally into the asphalt. Why had I gone to New Orleans? Everyone there was crazy. Better to stay up north. To stay safe.
            I was twenty-one-years old at the time, tall and muscled thickly from years of playing squash at Harvard. By no means (in my estimation) was I a weakling, by no means frail, and I made a quick recovery after a ten-hour surgery and a return flight to blessed Boston (two weeks delayed). Rather sadly, my hair had the worst go of it—turning gray. But it still curled, and there were upsides: Bouncers and bartenders stopped carding me and I did rather better with women than I had before. I adopted the look and air of a silver fox, of a man wise beyond his years, and in 2012 when I moved to New York City, I was as proud as ever.
            A strange thing happened then: I had just started working at a well regarded restaurant in Carroll Gardens when I noticed the giant from New Orleans walking toward me on the street. I have met plenty of people coincidentally in my life but this was the most unexpected and unwelcomed such encounter. I nearly panicked. I nearly turned heel on Degraw Street and made haste back to the F train. Instead, I walked boldly toward the giant, locking eyes with him. As we neared each other, we slowed. Carefully, I slid my right hand inside the knife satchel slung over my back and felt for my eight-inch utility knife, an expensive, extremely thin instrument. I felt that if I could jab it quickly into the giant’s abdomen and slice laterally, I might have time to spring away before he comprehended what had happened—before he even felt pain. He was unlikely to recognize me, after all. With my hair so different, I looked nothing like I had. I was pulling the knife from the satchel when he smiled apologetically and, taking a transit map out of his pocket, asked if I couldn’t help direct him to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Howard Gilman Opera House. They were doing a Louis Armstrong tribute and he just had to catch it.
            With some bewilderment and as if overhearing a conversation in which I had no physical part, I listened to myself tell the giant to simply head over on Smith Street to Atlantic, jog right to 3rd Avenue, then just keep on past the intersection with Flatbush Ave. I even drew a line on his map with my finger. What was wrong with me? Here was the man who had nearly ended my life, a stranger, a monster, and I was making sure he wouldn’t miss his precious jazz? As he walked away, I ran my hands through my hair and with a slight tug decided to call in sick, to follow this creature, to see where exactly he would lead me afterwards. Didn’t I have to confront him?
            I started walking fast to catch up and nearly tripped over a raised slab of concrete in the sidewalk. My shoes scuffed loudly as I caught myself and the man turned and stared at me.
            “I wanted to tell you to make sure you head over on Smith,” I said. I sounded like a ninny of a child. “Or Hoyt. If you try to get all the way to 3rd on Degraw you’ll get stuck at the canal.”
            “Your directions were perfectly clear.” His words were muffled and honeyed and he sneered slightly as he appraised me. I could feel that he was judging me by my hair—trivializing me because I was so gray so young. He added, “I’m not a faggot.”
            What was I to make of that? Perhaps I should have stabbed him without another moment’s hesitation. Perhaps I should have turned and gone to work and done my best to forget him. Instead, I stuck with the plan—I tailed him (more carefully this time) to the opera house and then, after the show, to the subway and finally to a cheap hotel on Ludlow Street off of Rivington in the Lower East Side. I had never followed anyone before and was nervous and swore at myself when I noticed that absently I was futzing with my hair and now it was all perfectly straight, hanging like a worn mop atop my head, getting in my eyes. No matter. It would spring back in the morning after a good shower—and it did, though not with the same zest of curl I had anticipated and grown accustomed to.
            Over the next days, I followed the giant as he hit up Katz’s Deli, The Frick, MoMA, Staten Island, and Coney Island. He shopped with all of the other silly tourists on Broadway in SoHo, oddly spending an hour in Uniqlo of all places (a man his size!) and doing such other mundane things as taking in a show on Broadway (Porgy and Bess) and waiting in a frighteningly long line to go to the top of the Empire State Building (something I myself had never done). A week passed. Then two. I stopped calling into work. I stopped bathing. Now and then as I waited for him to leave a restaurant or bar, I would be sitting against the side of a building with a cap over my hair (which had become an embarrassment) and passersby would toss coins to me. I had no cup or sign, and I felt that these offerings were disdainful, that I had become a receptacle for unwanted nickels and loathsome pennies. I never expressed my disgust, however. Instead, calmly and unabashedly, I picked the little metal discs off the ground and thrust them into my pockets. Later, I told myself, I would surely give them to a real charity or a church. Maybe St. Patrick’s. I was thinking about the spires that decorate that cathedral when I fell asleep.
            An hour or so passed, and I was awoken gruffly by a police officer who told me to beat it. I protested that I was merely tired, that I had an apartment, that I wasn’t some bum. But I realized, as I counted my day’s change, that I had lost my studio in Sunset Park and that I hadn’t enough money for anything but street food—and only just enough for that.
            I lost track of the giant that night and was quite upset with myself as I sat on a park bench with a copy of the Post wrapped over my body for warmth. I knew I could put myself back together. I knew I had only to make the effort. What was stopping me? The giant, of course. It was always the giant and my lack of resolve in confronting him. If I confronted him, surely then, I told myself. Yes, then. Then I would get on with things. Then I would find another job. Then I would have the money to put a first and last toward rent. All wasn’t lost. I’d pawned away most of my knives but still had a paring knife in my pocket. Well, I would put it to use.
            The next morning, I awoke with the sun and trudged from Prospect Park over the Brooklyn Bridge, praying that the giant hadn’t yet left the city. A midnight blue Chevelle was parked outside the hotel where he stayed, and I found that rather fitting. I leaned my back against it casually as I waited. I took off my cap and slicked my hair. It was surprisingly thin and greasy and I knew I wasn’t doing it any favors touching it all the time. Had I been pulling it out without noticing? I dug my hands deep in my pockets, clenching the handle of the knife. Then he appeared, gargantuan and pale and appalling, taking up the doorway. I wanted to spring forward but the sight of the youngster at his side stopped me. Did he have a son? A nephew? I had no idea how the boy was connected with the giant, but his presence was, for me, an impossibility. Why hadn’t I seen this boy before? Why had he come here to ruin my life? I screamed and they looked at me with dumfounded wonderment.
            I smashed my hands against my temples. I shouted, “I forgive you! I forgive you! You did this to me”—I pointed at my limp, ashen hair—“and I still forgive you.” With both hands, I grabbed hold of what little hair I had left and yanked it hard from my scalp. The pain seared down my spine and again I screamed. As I walked away, I heard the boy say to the giant in a thick Louisiana drawl, “There are just too many crazies in this town. That’s the thing about New York. Too many crazies.”
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 

story #15

the next life 1 copy
 
THE NEXT LIFE
 
The sunrise is foggy these mornings, like my head much of the time. Black coffee from your wife in the dark hour of 6AM has managed to sharpen my senses enough to bring me home safely from the airport. You should be boarding soon and I am already back in my warm bed, but not to sleep. Instead I am watching neighborhood cats through my window and trying to remember how I got here.
 
This bed has been with me since just before my move to Florida; at least that much can be traced back to my former home. I see a jacket and my guitar across the room, and a sleeping bag intended for weather never to be seen in this region. These things, too, are relics of the past life. Atop the armoire sit a few archaisms as old as even my childhood, and one final vestige of time gone by can be seen through the cracked door of the closet: an old pair of sneakers that I still wear.
 
All else that fills this place is new, at least to me. These scant objects comprising nearly my entire amassment have all been ushered into view within the last 4 years, washing away any need to recall what came before. Even the relationships that fill my interpersonal life are all unseasoned, save a few that I’ve somehow maintained from across the wall separating this time and space from that one. Some piece of my former self remains within those people, and I intend to retrieve it.
 
Sometimes it seems as though a piece of her lives in you, as well. I think better of it, though, and realize that you are really just a mirror to the past who has intercepted the unreflective travels of my so-called growth. In youth I always hoped that age would not sentence me to forget myself as it seemed to have done to my father. It turned out not to be age that would trap my identity within a labyrinth of regret and confusion, but heartache. The pain has since subsided and yet my seity did not return. I’ve caught a glimpse of it in your eyes and in your words and I find myself wanting even to accuse you of utter theft.
 
Rationally I am grateful for you, for you seem somehow to see the old bits of me that I’ve retained and hidden beneath a bland exterior. To know that you are a wholly temporary installment in my life is a fascinating testament to the way in which we all seem to come and go just as is needed by those around us. I wonder what more I may learn from you in the little time that is left, and what you may learn from me. I hope I am able to reabsorb all the scraps of me that you carry before you cross the seas for the next life.
 
– Dominique R. Scalia
 

story #14

pardise
 
BURNING THE PARADISE VALLEY
 
Elliott Reins sturdied himself against a string of barbedwire that sagged between crisscrossed fence posts. The wire was hot from the sun, and holding it was calming. It eased the pain in his legs, which felt fragile to him. He didn’t trust them. He trusted his back, his chest, his arms. And his hands were a marvel, as wide and hard as paddleheads. They would get the business done. He wiped his brow. It was three o’clock and would get hotter for another hour but would cool by nightfall. Up the Yellowstone River, a patchwork of wildfires was burning through enough pine to lay a thick haze over the Paradise Valley. But August was ending, and soon the snows would come and snuff out the flames. And if they didn’t? Then the fires would keep burning. Elliott pushed back from the fence and glanced at his roan and at Rebecca who stood next him. She smelled like tobacco and lavender oil in a way that reminded him of waiting outside of church as a boy with the parishioners, the women all in perfume and the men in cologne, and everyone smoking.
               “I was never a big fan of perfume,” he said. “It’s overpriced. I’ve never seen people pay so much for ninety-nine percent water.”
               “I’m sorry I wore any,” Rebecca said.
               “Now yeast is a smell. You knead a dough of bread and get that alive smell down under your nails. It stays with you all day.”
               “I’m not much for baking, Mr. Reins.”
               “No? You look like you could put your back into a good Christmas bread.”
               “Really, I’m more a wine and caviar kind of girl. You know, fois gras and all.”
               “Only the best for a lady.” Elliott chuckled and looked squarely at his horse standing across the fence. Some people resembled dogs, but he thought he shared a lot more with the horse. The crud in the eyes, the thinning, brittle hair, the cracked skin along the edges of the nostrils and lips. “You know, this horse used to be beautiful,” he said. “A bit broken down now. I wrecked his spine riding him, and he threw me in a ditch. But we tolerate each other.”
               “I used to ride,” Rebecca said.
               “Rodeo?”
               “No, I raced quarter horses. I was a young woman and small. Then I filled out.”
               “Goodness, yes. And I’m thankful for it.” He straightened himself with a grunt. The pain in his knees never stopped and never lessened either. It was not like a smell he could grow to ignore. “I wanted to ride bulls when I was a boy. Now that’s a frightening animal. I stood outside a pen from one, about me to you, and never got closer. You have to be sort of crazy.”
              “Or bored,” Rebecca said. She put a finger on the brim of Elliott’s cowboy hat. “You know what else is crazy? There’s a man in Ennis who sells these things for two or three times what you pay for new. The more the hat’s beat up, the more he gets.”
              “Sells them to tourists?”
              “A lot of Californians.”
              Elliott absently turned his wedding band, which was one of a flat gold pair that he’d paid five hundred dollars for in 1980. The jeweler who sold it had told him not to twist it much or he’d lose it, but he’d fidgeted his whole life and was not about to stop, not after he’d just quit smoking at Johanna’s insistence. She wouldn’t allow for yellow walls or open windows on account of his habit. Rolling cigarettes, holding cigarettes, and smoking cigarettes had kept his fingers busy for half his life, starting in elementary school. He kept a pack Marlboroughs and strike anywhere matches in his pockets then, and once when he was waiting in line for the bathroom in the fourth grade, he rubbed against a brick wall and caught his pants on fire.
              The ring was one of three pieces of metal on his body, excepting fillings. Another, beneath his shirt, was a boning knife that hung from his neck in a leather sheath on a string. It rubbed and wore against his breastbone like a watch against a wrist, and had stained his skin a faint russet color. He used to tell his wife that it was the birthmark he always wished he’d had, because a birthmark is lucky and what better place than over the heart? “Oh, I don’t know,” she’d told him. “The knees, nipples, cock, ass, and perineum all seem pretty good.” He liked that list.
               And the last piece of metal was a silver and turquoise money clip he’d bought from a Sioux kid in Eastern Montana, who said the silver was for wealth and the turquoise for happiness. The plains were barren there, and the dry, loose topsoil would create another dust bowl if the drought continued a few years longer. It was a place that did not bode well for charms of wealth and happiness, but he’d given the kid a twenty for it because he liked the weight it lent to dollar bills. A little weight reminded him that the money meant something. He took the clip out of his shirt pocket.
              “Do you know how to polish silver?” he asked.
              “Pretty tarnished, isn’t it?”
              He squinted at Rebecca. Her body was nothing like his wife’s. Her calves were tanned and strong, and the tops of her thighs wrinkled with cellulite. She wore cut denim shorts and a tanktop that spelled LUCKY in sequins across her breasts. Her stomach was rounded from drinking beer, pushing just over her waistline, but he liked a girl who didn’t look like she’d snap if he touched her. He put her at about thirty-four years old, though she’d told him twenty-seven.
              “I like the way you dress,” he said, counting off four twenties. “Take this now.”
              From across the fence, the roan nipped at Rebecca’s fingers. He liked apples, carrots, grains, and hay, and did not like wheat, and Rebecca offered nothing. When he nipped again, she pushed her hands up on his nose, between his eyes. He shook his head, but she did not move. When he calmed, she drew her fingers down the white roman bridge of his nose, the tan of her own face reflecting on the light hairs.
              “What’s his name?” she asked.
              “I call him Horse. I tried calling him Joseph, but he wasn’t responsive.”
              “Maybe Joseph isn’t guttural enough, the way Horse is.”
              “I think he’s just ornery.”
              His hands sweated as he held up the bills for her and she reached for them. Her palm was tiny in his own. He snorted. When she dropped her head to count, and her sandy hair fell in front of her face and she looked handsomer.
              “I need more,” she said. “It was farther to get here than I thought.”
              “We had a price.”
              “Life and gas got expensive, Mr. Reins.”
              Elliot wondered if he’d made a mistake calling her, and the idea embarrassed him. After fifty-six years, he thought a man should get things right. But maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly that day. The smoke in the air burned his lungs and made him a bit light-headed. He touched the knife through his shirt. He said, “Maybe you want to go back.”
             “I’m not going back. I’m here for a job, for you. You can afford it—you’re doing fine. Your wheat’s gone to seed but you’re living. Now I’ve come out and I need the money. I’m more than worth it.”
             “I’ll judge it if you are.”
             “I’d worry more about keeping things up on your side.”
             “Another sixty if you’re good.”
             “I appreciate it.”
             “I’m sure,” Elliott said. “Walk with me.”
             He started along the fence to the north, and after a moment Rebecca followed, and the horse followed too, swaying his head and his pendulum belly as she swung her hips. When they entered the fields, Rebecca slowed. Grasses had polluted the wheat crops, and the dry sharp blades irritated her legs.
             “Why don’t you harvest?” she asked.
             Elliott’s shirt was soaked and the backs of his knees stuck to his jeans. He glanced at her, smiling when he noticed the scratches that covered her thighs.
             “Money is a beautiful incentive, isn’t it?”
             “What do you mean?”
             “I mean, you put up with a lot, but you price it.”
             “Yes,” Rebecca said. “It makes the world work in a logical manner. You start having emotional relationships and they go straight to hell.”
             “That’s not always true.”
             “Well you’re the one with a wedding ring, and here I am.”
             “And looking lovely,” Elliott said. He turned on his heels and continued on toward a gate at the corner of the pasture. The horse trotted past Rebecca to meet him there.
              The gate, built with heat-treated timbers, had been singed in a control burn ten years earlier but was still strong. Elliott anchored his heel against the base of one post and pulled the other toward it, then slipped off the wire bales at the top and bottom of each post and let the gate drop. The horse stepped through, and together they started into the expanse of the fields. Elliott had never neglected them before. They were light in color. The wheat snapped when he stepped on it.
              He was a good thirty feet in front of Rebecca, but heard her when she asked if he had any water. It was a funny question, he thought, because he wasn’t carrying a bottle and he doubted she’d seen the stable beyond the slope of the hill. But he said, “Yes, we’re close now.”
              “I don’t mean to ask a silly question, but why couldn’t we stay at your house?”
              “It isn’t any cooler there.”
              “The hell it isn’t. Air conditioning is a wonderful thing.”
              “I don’t believe in air conditioning.”
              “It’s not like religion.”
              “It’s unnatural.”
              “So is heat, but I bet you don’t freeze to death in the winter.”
              In fact, Elliott used a wood burning oven in the winter instead of a furnace, and cooked with natural gas, but he didn’t want to argue the merits or motives of his lifestyle, and fire was the last thing he wanted to think about right then.
              The grasshoppers were out, sawing their legs together and looking like locusts as they flew—and the fishermen down on the Yellowstone would all be casting hopper imitations against the banks, trying to entice big trout. Elliott preferred to fish the salmonfly hatch in June, and sometimes he still used worms because he liked to give the browns and rainbows a meal in return for being caught. But today fishing didn’t interest him.
              The stable was at the far edge of the field, at the foothills of the Absarokas, which were covered in sage and thistles. Elliott was a hundred yards from it now, and the corrugated aluminum roof, ten feet high at the open front and slanting to the ground at the back, caught the light like a razor gleaming against the land. A tin bucket hung from a lag bolt on the far support beam and collected runoff from the gutter. When he reached it, he saw a residue of water pooled in the bottom inch. He tasted it with his finger, feeling the metallic sting in his teeth. Then he lifted it off the bolt, tipped it, and drank.
              The horse brushed against him, and he offered the bucket. But after pushing its nose down, the horse only snorted and walked back toward Rebecca, who was taking a long tack through the field to avoid the thistles.
              “You’d think you were a goddamn camel,” Elliott said, talking to the horse.
              He moved inside the stable, into the shade. Pine slats boarded the triangular sides. Loose straw and horse blankets covered the ground. He liked the manure smell. Against the eastern wall stood bags of feed, rakes, shovels, pitchforks and scythes. Wire cutters, pliers, hammers, nails and staples rusted on shelves above them. He took the knife from his neck, dropped it on the ground, and eased himself onto a stained quilt, resting his back on the saddle behind it to wait for Rebecca. He hadn’t ridden his horse in two years.                   The horse had thrown him, and his knees had buckled to the side. Soon after, he wore through the articular cartilage between his femur and patella. He didn’t want to think about the bones rubbing. It wasn’t the time to pity himself. He looked out, watching Rebecca pick her way toward him through the field, the horse at her side.
 
 
Two months earlier Elliott walked into The Pines, a dive bar and strip joint on highway 89 where truckers and Hollywood cowboys mingled and got loaded at night, obliterating class distinction with alcohol. It was endearing, he thought. He’d only recently returned to Montana from the Florida Keys by himself. He wouldn’t know the dancers anymore, but he wanted to get out of his ranch house, where he felt alone.
             It was eleven a.m. The Pines consisted of a single large room with a stage at the back, looking like a church with a nave before the chancel. It was empty. Velour curtains hung from the walls and from the stage platform. White Christmas lights lit the aisles.
             A woman in a black robe walked on stage barefoot from a door in the back, bent down, spat on the wood, and wiped it with her shirtsleeve. Elliott seated himself at a round table with an ashtray and a drink list. If they had Plymouth, he wanted sloe gin. The woman studied him, then returned to her cleaning. Her breasts and belly rocked as she scrubbed. She had all the glamour of a pissing dog, he thought, but there was something erotic to that.
             He’d taken his wife to The Pines once, for her thirty-fifth birthday. The trip had been his idea, which he acknowledged was selfish, but it excited Johanna who’d never seen strippers working, had never deposited bills in cleavage that smelled of beer and sweat. He bought her three lap dances that night, and after a redhead stuffed Johanna’s face in her breasts she forgot to be embarrassed anymore. She signaled the next girl with her finger, and spread her legs like a man. Elliott had never spent money so well, he thought.
             Coughing, the woman left the stage and went to the bar. Dirt showed on the backs of her heels and her feet splayed as she walked. Maybe she’d studied ballet, he thought, and saw stripping as just another form of dance. But not many people were that naïve.
             Glasses clinked, and he turned toward the bar. The woman had untied her robe, her white stomach and lace underwear showing between the black. She came to his table, set down two shots of clear liquid, and pulled up a chair.
             “Take a vodka,” she said. Her voice was quiet but deliberate. “I bet you could use one.”
             “It’s early.”
             “To the morning, then.”
             “All right.”
             “Call me Rebecca,” she said, after finishing her shot. “Or Becka. I don’t give too much of a damn which, but I don’t like Becky.” Her face had seen too much sun. It had looked childish on the stage, but he realized she was much older.
             “My name is Elliott Reins,” he said. “I’m looking for company.”
             “Try making friends.”
             “It’s important to me. Maybe you know a girl.”
             “I’m the only one here, Mr. Reins.”
             “I mean for another day, at my property.”
             “You a farmer?”
             “I used to grow mustard and wheat. Mostly to stay busy.”
             “Retired?” She pushed back her chair, took a pack of Camels out of her robe, rapped it hard against the table, then put one in her mouth. “So you got all day to drink with me.” She laughed, lay the pack on the center of the table and then took out a book of matches that had the club’s name and address printed on the front in green.
             “I used to come here when it was still The Black Stallion,” Elliott said. “I guess that name was a little offensive.”
             “Who’s it offending? All the white people in this state? I grew up in Miami Dade, and I’ve never seen a place so white in my life.” She got up from the table, and when she returned she had a bottle of Denaka. She refilled the glasses and said, “You’re paying for these, by the way.”
             Elliott nodded. “I just came back from the Keys last year. The clubs packed a few more people there, in the day I mean.”
             “I never got farther south than Miami, and I don’t remember much of Miami. All you can drink for a fifteen dollar cover? I was lucky to leave South Beach alive. Please, I was so fucked up from Florida I had to start working here to keep off withdrawal.”
             “What brought you here?”
             “A lot of shit I don’t want to talk about. But you know what I tell people? I tell people I came because of the snow. Everyone said Montana’s full of snow. So much snow you get sick of it. And then I say, ‘I didn’t know they were being literal.’ People like to hear ditz stories.” She drank her vodka, then placed the glass topside down on the table. “Excuse me now,” she said, flipping the match book to Elliott. “It’s going to be a long day and I need a pick-me-up.”
             He watched her bustle through the empty seats. She either meant cocaine or coffee, but he decided it didn’t matter which. Inside the booklet was a phone number written in ink. He laid fifteen dollars on the table, and as he left he picked the day’s Chronicle off the bar to check the headlines. Another drought year. It was June 15th, and fires had already burned seven thousand acres in the valley.
 
 
He tried to picture Johanna now. She’d slept with him there in the stable once—it was raining, and for a long time they lay next to each other and listened to the drops ping against the roof, and when the rain didn’t stop at nightfall they ran back through the cropped wheat. He was forty; she was a year older. He couldn’t envision her face clearly anymore without looking at photographs, but he remembered pushing her shirt up with his nose, kissing her stomach, lifting it to his mouth with his hands.
             Rebecca tipped the pail. A line of water and rust trickled from it to the ground and splashed on her bare feet.
             “Took the good stuff for yourself, Mr. Reins.”
             “It’s hard to think in this heat.”
             They were both still naked, and the evening light caught the sides of Rebecca’s body and the unnatural curve of her breasts. On the western horizon the sun was enormous and blood red through the smoke above the Gallatin Range, and the color cast the strip of blond hair on her crotch in a brilliant orange. She walked back in the stable carrying the pail, and the crescent of her belly hung as she knelt to take her cigarettes out of her shorts.
             “You be sure to smoke over that bucket,” Elliott said. “We don’t need the whole place on fire.”
             “What are you, a ranger? Don’t you see I got it?”
             She sat cross-legged and leaned over to smoke. She’d been a good lay, he thought, though he didn’t have many women to compare.
             “I want to ask you a question,” he said. “It embarrasses me. It’s a question of vanity.”
            “You were pretty frisky for an old dude, if that’s what you mean.”
            “You know, I never used a condom before.”
            “How’d you like it?”
            “Not so bad, I guess. Not so great either. I don’t like things that aren’t, what’s the word these days, organic.”
“Well honey, get yourself some lamb skins for next time, or find a girl cracked up enough not to care. Those days are past for me.” She tapped her cigarette ash into the pail. “If you’re still married, you could go back to your wife.”
            “I do wish I could,” Elliott said. “But Johanna, she got caught in an accident a long time back. She’d be fifty-seven in October.”
            “I’m sorry to hear it.”
            “I get by.”
            “It doesn’t look that way,” Rebecca said. “You ought to get yourself another girl.”
            “Girl like you?”
            “No, I think someone closer to your age.”
            “I was just teasing.” He looked out hoping to see his horse. Maybe it had gone back into the pasture again. “The truth is, I’m not too interested in finding another girl. Doesn’t seem right to me.”
             As Rebecca dressed to leave, she found the boning knife under her clothes. She picked it up by its string and removed the sheath. A single piece of steel ran from the butt to the blade, which curved at the tip.
            “Why do you have this?” she asked.
            Elliott propped himself on his elbows and pointed at the indentation on his chest. “I always carry it here—seems I use it every day.”
            She tossed it to him. “Are going to put your clothes on and walk me out, or do I have to escort myself?”
            “No, I’m staying here if you don’t mind. My legs need the rest.” He paid her the other sixty then, and folded his shirt behind his head as a pillow. “Don’t worry about closing that gate. It can stay open.”
            She folded the money into her shorts, replaced the bucket on the lag bolt, and left through the field, making a straight line to the fence. She didn’t try to walk around the thistles this time, and he knew that her legs would be itching that night before she slept, wherever that was. It’s a hard thing to fall asleep when you itch. He remembered getting hives from the wet heat in Florida, and from eating too many strawberries, and staying up for hours before finally taking antihistamines. He hated the taste of medicine.
            As her silhouette disappeared at the edge of the fence, he wondered if he was the last man she’d see that night—probably he wasn’t.  Then he reclined on the horse blanket to sleep.
 
 
Elliott awoke at dawn having to pee, which was funny because he was thirsty. How could you be dehydrated and still give up fluids? He had some idea why from a biological standpoint, but from the perspective of common sense it was harder to grasp. He fought his legs and stood—he wouldn’t make himself walk—and he pissed on the straw and stared at the obscure figure in front him. It was the horse.
            “You’re a son of a bitch,” he said. “Keeping me waiting, like you don’t even care.”
            When he finished, he lay back on the ground and rubbed his thumb over the butt of the knife. He thought Johanna would understand.
            They’d met when he was twenty-one and working for her father in the Keys, commercial fishing for spiny lobster and stone crab out of Islamorada. In 1974 they married, then moved to Montana. With their savings and a bank loan, they bought six hundred acres that stretched from the Yellowstone River to the base of the Absarokas. They cropped mustard and alfalfa, and a little bit of wheat near the house because Johanna liked the color. A spring creek ran through three miles of the property, and Elliott taught himself to flyfish. At Johanna’s suggestion, he opened it for public use, at a price. The land didn’t farm well but it was full of trout and by 1985 they were clearing close to five hundred dollars a day from summer sport fishermen. By the 1990s, it was over a thousand, but Elliott kept farming to stay fit.
           Then in August of 1996, they were lighting a backfire at the western edge of their property when the wind changed. The flames kicked up and spread through the fields, catching Johanna at the fence and engulfing her body. Elliott watched, less than two hundred feet from her, upwind. That was ten years back.
           After her death, he hired a man to look after his property, then took her remains to the Keys. The water turned pale green where he scattered her ashes in the ocean.
           For a while he stayed in Florida. Johanna’s father was still alive and glad for the company. Elliott learned to sightfish in the saltwater flats. He couldn’t cast worth shit, but somehow managed to put the fly over the occasional bonefish, and once he caught a permit. It fought like hell. When the old man passed, Elliott returned to Montana. The man he’d hired offered to stay on, but Elliot let him go. He felt about it, and hadn’t been able to explain himself well. He’d insisted he could handle the work alone, though it was obvious that he couldn’t.
            Now he ran the knife over the back of his forearm, shaving the hairs. No one could say he’d been careless about the blade. In front of the stable, the horse swished his tail through the grasses, and mosquitoes rose like seedheads in the wind. Elliott flexed his hand, then with a clean motion slit his throat.
 
-Thomas McCaffertycontinue…

story #13

sick as secrets 1
 
SICK AS SECRETS
 
This treatment center houses cockroaches and rats.
 
In the waiting room, I sit next to a girl who is withdrawing: shaking/panicked/pissed off. Her family-size bag of M&M’s tells me she wants heroin but is settling for methadone: the underwritten alternative/the controlled burn/velvet handcuffs. 
 
Her face is a gravel road. She has the broken-back posture of a prostitute. The electronic monitoring device on her ankle grounds her right foot with its weight.
 
A man with a Billy D. Williams smile greets me from behind bulletproof glass. He asks me if I’m a probation officer. This is the first time anyone has mistaken me for a cop. He hands me a blank Post-it note. I write down the name of the woman I’m here to see with a blue ink pen. He glances at my breasts and tells me to wait.
 
A blond woman in denim, dripping in turquoise jewelry, leads me into a conference room with tall, textured windows and ten ancient coffee urns sitting on a long white table. I remove the sunglasses perched on my head in reaction to her disapproving gaze. I show her my ID.
 
She tells me that my client has disappeared with an unidentified male/That I should notify child protection immediately/That my client’s clothes and personal effects will be housed in plastic bags in the center’s storage area for seven days/Her child will be transported to emergency foster care after school/All parental rights will be terminated/Thank you.
 
I walk out the front door, into the late afternoon sun, and light a cigarette.
 
My parking meter is paid for another forty minutes. I need a cup of coffee.  
 
– Ivy Louise

story #12

he who wrestles with god
 
HE WHO WRESTLES WITH GOD
 
Martha’s best friend, Taylor, was a party girl. She was the kind of girl who changed her clothes at minimum five times before she could go to the nearest WalMart. She was small, with the build of a preteen and a child’s face. She maybe reached five-foot-four in heels. To compensate, she smudged thick rings of smoky eye shadow and exotic liner around her large, brown eyes. Each eyelash was precisely mascaraed and stuck out like a spider’s leg against her powder-tanned skin.
             Taylor had invited Martha over to her new apartment—a two-bedroom deal in a four-story building. It was close to CSU and full of students tasting their first few licks of total freedom. Martha was used to the dorms at her private university several hours away. In comparison, Taylor’s apartment was a Mecca of glamorous debauchery. Jello shots of a bright, Christmas red were made in one batch in an old saucepan stored in a mostly empty refrigerator. The only furniture was a large screen TV and a gaming chair, which were both hooked up for the use of Taylor’s overbearing male roommate. He hid in his room whenever Martha passed. She felt unfit for her surroundings, but that wasn’t anything new.
             Martha was carefully disguised for her role as wing-woman. Black jeggings, a knee-length, lace-trimmed fashion tank top, and bootie heels were her camouflage. They couldn’t cover the discomfort and worry displayed on her face, though. Martha practiced looking pleasant in the mirror, where she could also monitor Taylor as she finished primping for her party. Martha knew Taylor was planning to drink plenty tonight, even though she was, by nature of her size, a lightweight.
             The party had something to do with a boy that Taylor had hooked up with in the first couple weeks of school. Martha knew nothing about him, save the fact that he hadn’t bothered to speak to Taylor after they had done the deed, even though he and she shared a nine-a.m. together every Monday and Wednesday. Taylor had decided to throw this party in an attempt to get back at him. She told Martha that she was going to make sure that he knew that she, in all her one-hundred-pound glory, was too much woman for him.
              Recipe for disaster. The guests piled in to the small apartment promptly at nine o’clock. It was too early in the semester for them to play coy, while still not being late enough for them all to play desperate. Martha watched as Taylor milled in between them, touting around her saucepan of alcohol-saturated Jello, begging everyone to share her laborious, sticky offering.
              Martha, for her part, clung nervously to the half-wall counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. Her gray eyes traced Taylor’s movements as a prioress does a novice’s—worried, with a touch of forced confidence that belied the future mother slumbering within her. She had always loved Taylor in the way that women always seemed to love the weakest in a crowd, desperate to hold in place any brokenness, like a splintered bone, until it healed.
               As Taylor spilled through the burgeoning adults huddled in her apartment, it was apparent that she was barely holding up. Martha stood vigilant at her post, half-heartedly paying lip service to those who attempted to distract her from her duty. She was a weird one, they said as they moved to more receptive pastures. Martha didn’t mind. She knew what people thought of her. But she wasn’t here to please them. She was here to watch over Taylor, and that was what she was going to do.
               Taylor was asking for a cigarette—no. A cigarillo. One of those thin, peach-flavored woman cigars that came in cellophane wrapped boxes that always seemed so exotic to Martha no matter what gas station they were bought at. Martha begged one off of Taylor’s roommate, and then went over to join her friend. She and five others piled outside, breathing deeply the fresh air and the smoke of summer. The burn of a season they couldn’t imagine ever burning out. Martha stood beside Taylor, taking small, cautious drags as they watched parades of returning students laughing their way up the four floors of the building, barreling across the concrete with their arms full of Jameson and tubs of margarita mixes.
               “Hey! Room two-oh-five!”
               Martha was the first to respond, her head snapping up immediately at the stranger’s call. He was leaning over the railing of the balcony above, his torso hinged over it almost naturally. He smiled and then he waved. Martha looked at Taylor and pointed him out.
               “Someone’s calling you,” Martha said.
               Taylor took a drag of her Swisher Sweet and looked up at the boy. Though she made no sign that she recognized him, Martha knew that Taylor would never admit that she didn’t know him. It would look bad, whereas acknowledging him could make Taylor look popular in front of that boy who had crossed her.
               “Of course he is,” Taylor replied, crushing the cigarillo beneath her heel as she turned to the stairwell and began wobbling her way up to the third floor. Martha hovered close, and their smoking partners followed. Room 205 marched up to Room 300. It was a corner room with a faded welcome mat and a wide open door.
               “The name is Israel,” he said as he ushered them inside, “Though you can call me Ray.”
                Martha saw that he was a tall boy, around six-foot-four, with a build stockier than most his height. Around his thick neck hung a large silver Star of David. It was suspended right in the center U of his collarbone, exposed by his mint-green button-down. His hair was medium-long, light brown, and feathered. His eyes were green, flecked with caramel and butterscotch. His lips were smooth and stretched thin. His bones were near impeccably structured.
                 His kitchen was well lived-in. Half-open letters and advertisements littered the circle table that dominated the room. Craft-project frames hung from every wall and sported pictures of bleached blonde beauties flanked by their volleyball teammates. Ray said that his roommates weren’t due home for another week. All of the Fat Tire and Shock Top in his fridge were going to waste! Taylor lost no time in taking two of the former, skipping past the entrance, and disappearing into Ray’s bedroom. Martha followed suit, nervously fidgeting with her one unopened beer.
                Ray’s room was bigger than his kitchen, though not by much. A queen-sized bed with royal blue sheets took up most of it. On one side: the desk with the Mac and rolly chair that Ray sat down at. On the other: a cheap bookshelf filled to the point that it was a wonder that Ray could extract a single volume to read without the whole thing toppling over.
                 As Taylor flopped down on the bed, laughing too loud for comfort, Martha felt herself called to the books. Mesmerized, she scanned their spines. Each shelf contained tomes of theology from a different religion. From Islam to Taoism, from Faerie religions to Christianity. As she gazed upon the titles, she felt a fire stirring up in her that she thought had long ago been extinguished—her years of religious fascination, repressed when her classmates had thought her odd. Debates that had been eventually delegated to the classroom, and nowhere else. Reaching into her shirt, she pulled out a small wooden cross, hanging on a thin piece of black yarn, and gripped it in her palm.
                 “I’m a biology major,” Ray said, breaking from his earlier discussion with the rest of the group to focus on Martha. “But my real passion is religion. Reclaiming traditions, you know?”
                 Martha ran her hands along the shelves where the books of faith were categorized meticulously into sects. No dust settled there.
                 “Me too,” she whispered, more to the books than to him.
                 “We can talk about the Messiah, if you’d like to,” he said.
                 Martha nodded, almost tearing her necklace in her enthusiasm. It had been a confirmation gift from her mentor. She thanked God for the little blessing she had been granted.
                 They spoke of eschatology, of their fears of ending. They spoke of the crucifix, of the beauty of a bleeding body, and of its terror. They spoke of Exodus, of Genesis, and of righteousness. They mocked the prophets, chanted the Psalms drunkenly, and praised the chutzpah of Job. Their voices rose with excitement, and little by little the rest of the party left the bedroom for the sanctuary of the kitchen. Martha noticed Taylor slipping away with them, but she didn’t much care. She just continued her thanksgiving, clutching to Ray’s words as if they were meditations all their own.
                 Surely, this was a moment within which God lived! A space revealed just for her into the divine wonder of paradise. A Jewish theologian who matched her devotion for devotion across the aisles of salvation so fiercely that Martha felt their faiths melding into a cosmic whole. Such clarity of grace!
                 Ray laid a textbook out on his desk, words tumbling out of his mouth seemingly without needing breaks for breathing. His eyes shone with a fearsome intensity, the entire world forgotten save for himself and Martha. Martha listened intently as he reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a packet of pure white powder. Martha started to lose her train of thought as he dumped the powder onto the book, arranging it neatly into a single stroke.  He paused for barely a moment, laid his face on the cover and snorted the line of cocaine in the span of a single heartbeat. He consumed it as easily as a man drinking water, without a second thought. As if refreshed, he smiled and put the textbook away, and continued as if without pause:
                 “That’s why I find it hard to believe, as a Jew, that the Messiah would have to sacrifice Himself for our sins, you know? Why not just go right down to Sheol and start the liberation there? My Messiah’s not going to be the type to submit to public execution, that’s for sure.”
                 Martha nodded. She paid no heed to the words he said, but rather stared at the place where the textbook had lain. The ritual, secular act had happened so quickly. She’d barely had enough time to acknowledge it, much less act. Her mind buzzed with all of the things she could remember being told about people like Ray—how to stop them, how to ask them all the right questions to make them stop, how to refuse them. But how could she refuse what hadn’t been offered? How could she stop what had passed in the fluttering of a heartbeat? His voice sounded like grace poured out onto desert sand.
                 If only he’d left the textbook out a little longer. She could have put her hand on it. She could have held it. She could have looked into his eyes and told him with conviction that she loved him, that he was worth more—couldn’t she? If she could feel the powder there beneath her fingertips, would it give her the courage to confess to the divinity that she had thought she had seen, glimmering there in his wild eyes? She could have had the courage, she was sure. If only he’d left the textbook out.
But now there was only Ray’s voice. Why couldn’t she hear Taylor or the others messing around in the kitchen? She fidgeted with her tank top. Suddenly her head ached. Her ribs ached. The room was too small. In one sniff, Ray had sucked out too much air.
                 “I need air,” she said, standing abruptly. Ray smiled: a faint, half-dim smile that slowed down his face, even as the rest of him sped up and outward.
                 “It’s cold out there. Take my coat,” he said. She did, reluctantly, and padded out into the empty kitchen. Ray was never too far behind, reaching around her to open up the door for her when she found that she herself was shaking too much to do it.
Martha stood barefoot on the bristled mat, gulping down her citrus beer to give her mouth something to do. It had gotten warm, having been held tightly in her grip. How long had she listened to him? Looking out across the concrete hallways that linked apartments together, she saw only three lights shining in the floors below them. The night was quiet, with only scattered bursts of drunken laughter and shuffling feet to interrupt it. Martha could almost hear her own heart breaking. Ray watched her and said no more of God.
Taylor had most likely already gone to sleep. Her guests had all but returned to their own homes, leaving Martha and Ray as the sole guardians of the complex. Three A.M. had come and gone. Martha stood still on the doormat of Room 300.
Ray spoke, and Martha couldn’t tell when he had begun to speak like a scratched record. He was in the doorframe behind her, his arms hanging lose at his sides. Martha tried not to look back at him too often, but found him hard to completely ignore. He was calmer than she had imagined a cocaine addict would be. Apart from the way he couldn’t keep the words from coming out of his mouth, and the way his long fingers twitched as his spoke, he seemed like any other boy leaned up against a doorway on a late night.
                Martha tried to focus on his fingers, on those occasions when she couldn’t resist turning his way. They were beautiful, insofar as one’s fingers could be beautiful. All of him had been beautiful to her, only a couple of hours before. His fingers, his hair, his collarbone, his words. Was she allowed to find him beautiful now? She gripped her necklace tight, nearly ripping it from her neck. She knew what people said about people like Ray, about sinners. Was she allowed to thank God for him now?  She couldn’t stand on his doorstep any longer.
                “I have work in the morning,” he said as she tried to hand him back his coat, “You keep it. I’ll come and get it before I leave.”
                His voice was full of hope. Overflowing with it. It grated on Martha’s ears and she smiled politely. She left Room 300 and let herself in to Taylor’s apartment. The only place left for her to sleep was the floor. She curled underneath Ray’s large jacket guiltily, like a dog. She fell asleep immediately and dreamt of angels.
                 In the morning, she left at sunrise. Taylor seemed glad to see her go. The coat she left on Israel’s doorway, taking care not to make enough noise to wake him. The note she had written him remained crumpled in her left hand.
                 She was not ready to face God again just yet. 
 
– Elizabeth Rose
 
 

story #11

angels
 
ANGELS
 
There are four angels that work at New York Presbyterian Hospital, not guardian angels, but union workers who step in to offer technical support every now and then. Mostly, they end up helping the guardian angels find their way around. There are over a thousand beds and you wouldn’t believe how lost they get. Just last the week they found one of them wandering around in the sub-basement. She was crying and everything, damn near hyperventilating, in fact. Finding ones like that takes up a lot of angel time. Other than that, the hospital angels spend the majority of their time playing cards in the cafeteria on the second floor. Once in a while they flutter around the atrium doing loop-the-loops. Their wings aren’t anything to write home about, but they still get the job done.  Angels wings are like our hearts or lungs. They are always beating even when the angels aren’t paying attention. Most angels can fly a little, but a lot of them can’t fly very well because they don’t practice all that often and it’s like anything else. Sometimes, when the Angel Louis gets tired of the others, he flies up through the ceiling and out over the Hudson River. He’s better than average with flight. If he were visible, he’d look almost like a bird from a distance. The trees and water shimmer.
 
The others worry about him, even though they don’t say so. They also think he is a little crazy and don’t know what he’s on about half the time. Why, just the other day he started up about how he wants to go to medical school, never mind his invisibility. He says he’ll just sit in back and soak it all in. And he’s been spending time in the OR! He hovers over the operating table, sometimes even brushing a wing against a doctor’s hand. The others know because they follow him. One day, between games of bridge, they confront him about it. What gives? The Angel Louis is reluctant to answer. Finally, he says that he wants to learn about medicine because he wants to see if maybe he could be reassigned. They are doing all kinds of amazing things now with hormones, and he’s always felt like a Hindu man trapped in the body of a Judeo-Christian angel. The others aren’t sure what to make of this. Two of them are pretty sure he’s full of shit. The third thinks he’s confused, but is touched by his desire to go to medical school even though she’s pretty sure he won’t actually go through with it.
 
But who knows? she thinks. Maybe he really could get reassigned. Maybe when their rotation ends. But God only knows when that will be.
 
– Benjamin Resnick
 

novel #1.5

cadillac 51
 
BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC
 
Chapter 5 (To read this novel from the beginning, click here)
 
To his credit, JJ tried to pay for the damage to my Miata after craning his neck to see my smashed up front bumper. That’s before he understood who I was, when he still thought a few dollars could get him out of the embarrassment of being caught cock-fisted and bleeding on his upholstery. I insisted we go by the book and take down each other’s insurance and snap photographs. He opened his glove compartment, retrieved a checkbook and a pen, and started writing. “Ten thousand,” he said, waving the check at me between his fore and middle fingers as if it were a cigarette. I took it. It was a personal check, which showed at least some good judgment. He had scribbled it out in a shaky hand with the words Pay to cash. I would have preferred it if he’d left it blank, allowing me to insert any word in the world. If I were to put down say the name of a known drug dealer or child pornographer, I could make life rather sticky for mister Jud Junior. No matter. I folded it, put it in my wallet in my purse, and said, “Aren’t you kind? And here I thought I was in the wrong. Let me park and I’ll buy you a drink.”
            “I don’t drink,” he told me.
            “A soda, then? Or a tonic water? Or a juice? I’ll buy you whatever it is you do drink.”
            He looked awkwardly at me and then at his shirt and pants, the stains of blood dark against the off-white fabrics.
            “We can go to my place,” I said. “Or yours. We don’t have to do the club.”
            In my mind, given enough options, JJ would have to say yes. He had been disturbed, if somewhat violently, in the midst of pleasuring himself, and I felt that by leaning forward and displaying what modest cleavage I could, surely the prehistoric parts of his brain would get the better of him. I admit that I was tempted to forgo this line of flirtation, to tell him bluntly what an ass he was, to ask him if he’d ever heard of Pap. Pap, I knew, would get a kick out of all of this. But what would I gain by showing my hand? Wouldn’t I gain more with the promise of showing my breasts, my buttocks, with the promise of touching his ears with my lips? Wouldn’t it be interesting in at least an anthropological way to see the path this man would pursue? To get a sense of his desires and fetishes and animal perversities? Was he a magnum or a pencil pusher? A lover or a sadist? You will understand that I have, for the last ten years, been supremely self-confident when acting within the role of my profession. I am an arsonist. A con artist. A criminal. A woman. I am five-feet-nine and one-quarter inches tall in my bare feet, heels firmly on the floor. I weigh an average of 136 pounds when I awake, according to a digital, biometric scale. My percent body fat rounds up to five. During the course of the day, I gain an average of three pounds in water weight that shows in my paunch like a burgeoning beer belly. I cannot be scared or sloppy or start second-guessing myself when I am handling a client or servant. I have to play whatever part I choose with my whole heart, mind, and body down to the tremble of my lower lip, the thrust of my hips, and the whisper of my breath. By turns I am a predator, a floozy, an intellectual, a virgin, a bitch, a lesbian. I carry out these roles as required to whatever extent necessary. I use protection usually. I carry mace always. I have once employed the high-prong setting of an emerald cut ruby ring to slice a man’s thigh nearly to the femoral artery. He proceeded to strangle me until I lost consciousness, and I am still not sure entirely why didn’t kill me. Certainly from the standpoint of pain and terror, that incident ranks as the closest I have come to my own death. But all of this is only to say that I have gauged the risks of my profession through personal experience. I am not a simpleton. I am not a naïf. I am not overconfident. And I am not to be pitied.
            My right headlight was out and I didn’t feel like risking getting pulled over on the highways so I parked in a garage on Evernia Street then joined JJ in the Cadillac. He was dabbing at his shirt with a wet napkin. Without looking at me, he said, “Where do you live?”
            “South,” I told him. “A guy’s there. Maybe. Maybe not be the best place to go.”
            “I’m out in the country,” he said, his words coming out in defeat. Who was this man? A virgin? An ineffectual depressive? I realized how very little I understood him. I let him sit with only his own answer for a minute while I buckled and put my hands on the hem of my skirt. Finally, bashfully, he lifted his eyes. “Isn’t too far. Hour drive is all.”
            A wonderful lie! It was an hour-and-twenty minutes doing eighty on the highways in the light of day. At night? A good hour-forty. Unless he had a different place in mind.
            “Good thing for you I’m a country girl,” I said. “Take me the hell out of this city, mister. West Palm ain’t good for nothing but dinging up my car.”
 
(To read BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC from the beginning, click here
 
– Candice Cousins

story #10

pillow talk
 
PILLOW TALK
 
He had seen them come and he’d seen them go. Young ladies, full of promise but never having the gumption to see it through to the end.
            Then along came Cindy.
            Before he met her she would walk through suburban neighborhoods carrying her Little Mermaid pillow and looking for a fight.
            Maybe it’s more accurate to say they found each other. Whatever the case, potential without training and a firm guiding hand becomes just another cliché played out to an uncaring audience. That’s what he told her anyway.
            He liked to think of himself as more of an Aristotle than a Don King: perhaps that’s why he gave her the moniker Cindy the Great. He taught her the game and she did what she was told and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich came together… with chips.
            It wasn’t until he was able to get her invited to some slumber parties in the inner city that she realized just how rough and tumble the world she was about to enter could be. Let’s just say that these little girls never needed someone to wrap a string around their baby teeth and give a yank to dislodge them. Some nights the tooth fairy left with her bag full up.
            Cindy never gave less than 100%. She did the pushups and the sit-ups and she chased the chickens as instructed. She drank the raw eggs because she saw that in a movie once. 
            He tried to convince her to switch to a cotton pillowcase, but she was loyal to her old nylon one. She said it felt comfortable in her hand.
            She had a swing that came along once in a lifetime. Sometimes they would have to pry the other girl out of the drywall. Once he was done polishing her technique, working on her center of gravity, getting her to pivot from the hips and follow-through correctly, she was unstoppable.
            Cindy the Great had arrived.
            She barnstormed through the circuit and soon her dance card was filled every Friday and Saturday night. Sleeping bag in one hand and cold compresses in the other, she set out each weekend to defend her title.
            And then just as quickly, it was over.
            She was about to turn thirteen. Teens weren’t invited to any of the high profile get-togethers. Pillow fighting was a young girl’s game.
            He sat at her bedside on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. His last night as her mentor.
            “You remember the end of Million Dollar Baby?” he asked her as he stroked her hair.
            “The one with Hilary Swank?” she asked innocently.
            “Yep. That’s the one.”
            She looked up at him. “Doesn’t he kill her at the end?”
            “Yes. Yes he does.” He gazed leisurely up at the ceiling.
            “Are you thinking about killing me?” the girl asked half-jokingly.
             After a deep sigh he slowly looked back down at her and  returned to stroking her hair.
             “Nope. Just funny that he used a pillow.”
             She relaxed a little and said, “Yeah, I guess that is funny.”
 
 – Lance Manion
continue…

novel #1.4

bigger than a cadillac 4
 
BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC
 
Chapter 4 (To read this novel from the beginning, click here)
 
Together, Jud and Jud Hanson Jr. (JJ) operate the largest cattle operation in Palm Beach County, which in itself doesn’t mean much. They rear cattle, sell cattle, and show cattle—and the selling and showing means moving livestock across state and sometimes international lines. This is the aspect of their business that concerns Pap and therefore me. Because Pap’s been looking for a way to move merchandise ever since SunKoro, the outboard motor and dirt bike company we formerly employed, went up in literal flames two months ago. En fuego. A giant industrial complex spouting soot and gorgeous orange flickers and flashes and fireballs in the dead of night. Hard to put the thing out. Damn near impossible, really. And such a waste. The good people at SunKoro just couldn’t understand how replaceable they were—they wanted to increase their per transaction fee, which is not a negotiation you try with Pap. Pap negotiates you.
                I won’t say how that fire started. But I’ll say this: no one was on the property when the first delicate flames lapped the air. I’ve always done my best to keep clear of murder charges. That’s what Pap’s got Bruce for—too bad for the SunKoro people. Anyway, the bitch of it is that those pasty patsies (of the palest American skin, for what it’s worth—trailer trash frat boys using a fake Japanese company name, Lord knows why, maybe to sound like more legitimate competitors with Yamaha)—have actually proved pretty tough to replace.continue…

short story #9

Winnebago
 
FATHERS
 
The twelve-foot underpass on this two-lane backroad momentarily stopped us. Mr. Hester was borrowing the ten-foot Winnebago from his father-in-law and never made the connection that he had a three-foot air conditioner on top.
            He was driving our Methodist church youth group to a summer music festival at Camp Sumatanga, a thankless endeavor given our crew of teenaged hormones.
            Greeeeeaaaaaaaak.
            “Goddamyoumotherfuckinsunuvafabitch.”
            The last five syllables, barely comprehensible, hit decibel levels beyond the nearby hills.
            “Benny!  Get out and check it!”
            And so Benny, his son, did, stepping in fresh dog shit on the roadside, and muttering to himself as he returned to the rolling cabin on his way to the shower stall. 
 
My father laughed when I told him this tale the next day.
            “What a schmuck,” he said.
            He never went on such trips, never volunteered to go. He never owned a Winnebago either, or wanted to. He was wiser than Mr. Hester. 
            And Jewish.
 
– Terry Barr
 
 
 
continue…

novel #1.3

Cadillac 3
 
BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC
 
Chapter 3 (To read this novel from the beginning, click here)
 
As Pap snaps back Bruce’s pinkie, it occurs to me that if the man is gonna be so scaredy about security then he should also inspect our phones for bugs and our persons for wires. He has never done this, however, probably because his paranoia is married with his penchant for self-important superiority. He doesn’t believe we’re intelligent or resourceful enough to sneak anything by him in any sophisticated manner, and in his mind he knows we’re too frightened to go the police or any other agency that might help us with the difficult work. He is smart enough not to let me bring a purse inside. I argued this briefly, saying I had certain necessities in that purse (lighters, mace, toiletries, etc.). Once a month, I made a point of telling him I needed to use the restroom and “borrow” a tampon from Chelsea. I did this mostly to irritate Pap. He finally got pissy about it and, on what he said was Chelsea’s advice, bought me a Diva Cup. Now I hold my tongue.
             Bruce scrunches his face and flexes the muscles around his eyes and in his neck as he works against the pain. He makes a muted, animalistic sound nonetheless that’s reminiscent of a raccoon yowling. Pap lets go, and Bruce’s pinkie is angled obtusely, grotesquely away from his other fingers. Then it falls obliquely back in line, the color bright against his tan. Any sane person would wrap his hand in ice quick as can be, but Pap won’t allow it. The swelling is part of the punishment, an instance in which Pap’s behavior veers away from the judicious and lands on sadism. I think that’s where his heart is, really. I think that if he didn’t love his girls and Champagne and money and golf carts and club memberships so much, he’d wallow very happily in a world of hands-on pugilism, rape, and thieving. As it is, he dabbles in these areas mostly at arm’s length, allowing himself only an occasional moment of gratification, as he has here, grinning broadly, staring down at the finger that has already doubled in circumference.
              For half a minute we are all quiet, studying Bruce’s broken digit. The silence is awkward because Bruce, if he ever decided he’d had enough abuse, or more realistically if he ever became so frightened and angry that he lashed out, could be a quite formidable threat to Pap. The two men are similar in height and build with Bruce being an inch taller and some ten pounds heavier. Unquestionably, he is less intelligent than Pap. Probably, he is not as quick in the fast twitch muscle department. Perhaps he does not know as much about fighting in close quarters. Nevertheless, if I were Pap, the prospect of backlash would give me pause. Does Pap gain confidence from my presence? Does he think that I would assist him because he employs me? Honestly, I’m not sure if I would or wouldn’t. I sympathize with Bruce and usually fancy that I am in this line of work more because I’m good at it and enjoy it and not because I need the money. The money, however, is quite a perk and if the moment ever comes, the thought of future paychecks might just sway me.
             Finally, Pap shakes his head, looks sourly at Bruce and says, “Pendejo. Use that enormous head of yours. You’re no good to me without your hands.”
              Bruce nods back and forth in a rhythmic manner of agreement that translates down through his whole body. It is a motion employed more to handle the sensations in his finger than to affirm his understanding.
              Pap goes to the refrigerator and comes back with a Negra Modelo. He does not offer one to me or to Bruce and we do not expect him to. I have often considered that if I wanted to kill Pap, one of the best methods would be to spike his cervezas with some poison or other. How I would pop the caps to access the liquid, I’m not exactly sure. I suspect that Pap is careful enough that if the fizz and hiss are not perfectly consistent upon removing the cap then he would drain out the contents. I am not sure of this. It is conceivable that carefully prying off the cap, dropping in a tear of cyanide, and replacing the cap just so would do the trick.
             After taking a swig, Pap says, “Tell me what you know about Prince Rupert.”
             He doesn’t mean the city in Canada. He means the bull over in the western half of Palm Beach County. It’s a great big Chianina bull. It is rumored to weigh two tons, and on Monday that rumor will be put to the test by the good people at Hanson Dairy and the Guiness Book of World Records.
              “He’s a damn big animal,” I say.
              “He’s as white as my hand is red,” says Bruce. This is the kind of nonsensical thing that occasionally spouts from his lips when he’s trying to show how thoughtful he is—in this case to show how much of a team player he can be even as he suffers. I sympathize but can’t help rolling my eyes.
              “He is extremely white,” says Pap.
              “He’s going to break that record.” I feel I can say this with a deal of confidence. I have seen the bull. I have seen his size. He’s bigger than a damn Cadillac. Must be heavier, too. A truly stupendous animal.
              Pap spreads his hands, palms up. “Yes, if he is weighed, he will get the record. But you see, I cannot have him get the record.”
              “We could kill him,” Bruce says.
              “They would still weigh him. They would still honor him—or it’s very likely they would. And Hanson must have twenty pounds of that bull’s semen already in a bank. So it will not help me to have the bull dead. Let me add that it would be a nightmare to steal him. Where would we put him? How would we get him? Would we pasture or slaughter him? It’s difficult logistically. No, I want him to be weighed. I want him to be tested, and I want him to be disgraced.”
 
(To read BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC from the beginning, click here
 
– Candice Cousins

short story #8

sunset cliffs
 
THAT TIME AT SUNSET CLIFFS
 
The girl sat with her legs crossed, sand covering her legs and dirtying her dress and underwear. She didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit. She scooped the sand with a cracked plastic cup, building turrets and scraping out a moat. It wasn’t the prettiest castle, he thought. But it was good to a see kid playing in the sand. Sandcastles were wholesome. Sandcastles were the antithesis of television.
        The girl’s mother was holding a cigarette toward the sky, making sure the smoke didn’t blow in her daughter’s face. Maybe it was an older nanny and not the mother. Or an aunt or other relation. He watched the girl with envy, realizing he hadn’t built a sandcastle for years. Hadn’t even covered his feet with sand since he was a boy. He was eighteen now. He wriggled his toes then started scooping up the fine, dry, gray-gold sand into a mound on top of them.
        The wind picked up and blew over the beach from the ocean and whipped the pages of the book he had open and he lost his place. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He was still in the early chapters and hadn’t been paying much attention. Too much backstory, too much philosophy, too much politicking, and not enough love.
        To his right and a few feet behind him, two women were sunbathing. One was lying on her stomach and had the top of her bikini untied so she wouldn’t get tan lines. The other was sitting erect with her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. She wore enormous sunglasses. She looked like she was meditating but for all he knew she was staring at him with lust or loathing. Or maybe even crying. It didn’t matter. He loved California.
        There weren’t many other people on the beach, but then it was the middle of the week. Two teenaged males ran up the shoreline with their shirts off where the sand was damp and compact. The soles of their feet slapped as they hit, and he laughed at this ugly display, thinking happily that he could beat them in a race. There were people who ran around to look cool and exercise, and you could tell them by their lousy form, and people who knew how to run flat out, and he fancied himself a man who knew how to run. He was eighteen. He’d been a cross-country star. He’d been a track star. And now he was bumming around solo for what was really the first time in his life, visiting colleges.
        The air was hazy from the smog of San Diego. Not as bad as it had been in LA, but the beaches in LA had been richer with women. He’d lucked out with these two. Up in Montana, in March, girls were still bundled in sweaters and jeans. The next day he’d tour the campus at San Diego State then cross the border to Tijuana and see what kind of trouble he could get into. He was a man. He had condoms in his car. He carried a lighter around even though he didn’t smoke. These were the things men did when they were single.
        With increasing horror, he watched the joggers veer away from the ocean and come up and stop beside the sunbathing girls and begin flirting candidly, unashemedly. He felt he could only continue to sit by and listen, taking in every mortifying word. Why had he lacked the nerve to say anything to the girls himself? His feet were half-covered in sand, and he felt stupidly young. He felt as if he were a seven-year-old, seeing the world but not really living in it—dabbling in the sand, his thoughts constricted to his own head, no one minding him in the least, and no one wanting to listen if he spoke or caring what he had to say, irregardless of his wisdom.
        He grabbed his book, leapt up, and strode through the little girl’s masterpiece, smashing it with his bare feet. Mother and daughter shrieked discordantly, the sunbathers gasped, and he began to run—to really run, to sprint. The shouts of the young men reached his ears. They were chasing him but what for? They would never catch him. He was so much faster even with Lady Chatterley weighing him down. He shot up the beach, going far past the parking lot, heading toward a distant pier. Would he stop at the pier? Would he head to Ocean Beach? Would he cross the outlet of the San Diego River and keep on clear to La Jolla? But by then, once again, no one would care what he did.
        He stopped on his heels and let the boys catch up. They were younger than him, darker in complexion. Their chests were thick. They smelled of sweat and of ocean water and their fists were small and hard and their arms were strong. He he fought them off the best he was able, knowing he had to fight well because he was quite alone.
 
– Lionel Harrington

novel #1.2

cadillac 1-2
 
BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC 
 
Chapter 2 (read Chapter 1 here)
 
Walking beside Bruce is like walking beside a cranky horse: he’ll more or less go along but if I get careless, he’ll kick me square in the chest and run whinnying off into the night—or worse, stick around to stomp on me. So I’m staying attuned to his huffs, pauses, and changes of step.
            Call me Retha for what it’s worth. Like a mix between the singers Aretha Franklin and Reba McEntire. My parents liked to think they were being soulful and a little bit country when they named me. That’s what I tell people, leastways. Though it’s not the worst name for a mutt like me: black, white, Creole, maybe a little Mexican, a hundred percent Americana chica anyhow. I like to say I’m from here, Lake Worth, because no one is. Sets me apart. In truth, I was raised outside Tucson. I remember spending a lot of hours in a mesh pen with a desert-dirt floor, tending to a flock of Andalusian hens. In retrospect, I think they were tending me while Moms and Pops got work done. She was a sex caller. Had one of those breathy voices born of 10,000 cigarettes. He had a truck with our phone number on the side and the words I DO ANYTHING spelled out in big block letters. When I was thirteen, someone spray painted FOR WEED after ANYTHING. I’m not sure who did it or if they knew much about Dad’s habits, but the message was pretty much spot on and he never bothered changing it.
           
We turn off Lucerne Street and head down South Lake Drive before reaching the Intracoastal. Pap’s got a bungalow on South 5th that opens onto the water, a three-story affair decked out in stucco and terracotta roof tiles. Beats the shit out of the shack I sleep at on North 4th and L Street. This whole hellish town is numbered and lettered like a damn chessboard. Not real creative thinkers, the founders of Lake Worth.
            According to my phone, it’s three-seventeen in the morning when we amble up the walk and let ourselves into Pap’s. Pap always makes us turn off our phones when we come in. He’s paranoid about being recorded. He checks at random. If you got a phone still on, he breaks a finger. It’s a simple equation and because he enforces it universally and consistently, excepting only himself and the women he screws, we have come to accept and even expect it. Similar to how you’d expect to be mauled if you pulled out the whisker of a catamount. Once you get one finger broken, you tend not to foul up again. For me it was a left pinkie that now, when I start to close my fist, flops down like a dead worm. It is otherwise functional, however, and cosmetically no different than before.
            The only lights on in the house are the recessed bulbs in the kitchen, which is an expansive, tiled space with bright orange granite counters and pink-painted walls. Pap is at the island in the center of the room, cutting up salumi, perspiring freely, and bringing the weight of his upper body down through the knife with each slice. He weighs a solid two-twenty, stands just over six feet, and all of it’s muscle. His real name is Amado Crespo. For the life of me, I can’t tell if his origins are Italian or Spanish. His hair is curly and cut uniformly short. With a razor, it has been shaved in a hard, manicured line at his temples, above his ears, and at the back of his neck, giving the appearance of a trim black beanie. I suspect that he spends so much time and money on his hair because the rest of his face is on the broad, uglyish side and would never be considered beautiful without radical cosmetic surgery. I have seen brochures for collagen injections, Rhinoplasty, and Botox strewn around his house. But I have also seen brochures for breast implants, and I don’t suspect Pap of wanting a gender change. No, his girl du jour Chelsea is the one who is, I believe, interested in self-improvement. Or at least in spending Pap’s money and having something to chitchat about with her girlfriends. The social culture surrounding plastic surgery terrifies me.
            “Stale,” says Pap. “Chelsea let it get stale and now it’s particle-board meat. Just try eating it. You’ll lose a tooth. I’m breaking it up small. Then I’m going to sauté it in butter for an hour and add in tomatoes and make a Bolognese.”
            “I’ll chop it if you want,” says Bruce.
            “And slip and cut your hand and bleed all over my kitchen? I don’t think so. No. No, thank you.” Pap puts down the knife, rinses his hands in the sink, towels off, and walks over to us. He says, “Phones.”
            We lay our phones on the counter. Mine is blank and stays that way. Bruce’s lights up with the picture of a mostly nude stripper. Bruce looks apologetically at Pap then glances at me as if to say, Why didn’t you remind me? As if I hadn’t done enough turning my phone off in front of him at the door. Poor Bruce is a little hard-up on the learning front. To date, Pap has broken his left pinkie and left ring finger. Now Bruce holds out his right hand. He’s a righty and I’m sure will hate losing any dexterity with one of the digits responsible for gun-holding, check-signing, and cock-spanking, but I guess his left is too banged up to take another loss. Pap looks thoughtfully at the photo of the girl. Her face is obscured by a shock of blonde hair. She’s got her ass up in the air. Her buttocks are a pale blur, and she has one finger under her G-string band, lifting it an inch.
            Bruce’s eyes are as wide as a frightened Boston terrier’s.      
            Pap squeezes a fist around Bruce’s right pinkie and says, “Nice looking chickadee. Nice cheeks. You’ll have to introduce me.”
 
– Candice Cousins
 
Read Chapter 1 here
 

short story #7

paternal question
 
THE PATERNAL QUESTION
 
I will always remember the day my father said, “Your mother and I are gay, son.” He was a big man, six-three, two-fifty. Used to be a fullback at Kent State. His voice was a sort of rumbling bass that reminded me of an engine idling. “I mean to say,” he added, “that I self-identify as a lesbian. And your mother is a queen.” He flashed an ironical smile meant to tickle and embarrass me. A week later he was dead of heart failure, which is a problem that runs through my family like a trigger-happy madman with a shotgun, taking aim at any man over forty.
 
Twenty years on and I can’t remember my father’s face but his jokes stay fresh in my brain. I have my own boy now. I wonder how he’ll miss me if I die young. I’m not as funny as Dad was. If he were here, he’d get all serious and ask why I think too much.
 
– Ricky Henry Harris

novel #1.1

cadillac 1
 
BIGGER THAN A CADILLAC
 
Chapter 1
 
“You look beat,” says Bruce. He’s fifteen years older than me and tends to seesaw between condescending passes and out-right grab-assing. When he says I look beat, what he means is I shouldn’t have walked here. He’d prefer that I call and, like a schoolgirl or imprisoned maiden, ask for a ride so he can be all gallant and pick me up in his Isuzu Trooper. How many of those are even around anymore? That way, giving me a ride, I’d owe him a favor. He’d try to get his dick licked in the bargain. I shit you not. As it stands, I’m here in the dead of night on business and don’t give a half a damn if my eyes are puffy and my makeup’s off and my hair could use doing.
            “Pap wants to see you,” I tell him.
            “Pappy could have called.”
            “Asked me to fetch you,” I tell him.
            Bruce is naked and sweating freely in his sheets. He thinks he’s an eco-crusader for not running AC in South Florida. I think he’s a nitwit. The lights are on full and his joint is hanging out lackadaisically like a dead lizard. One of those invasive geckos in a brown phase. The man is tan. I mean from toes to crack to earlobes. He swipes a big paw, trying to rake me into bed with him, but I’m a step too quick even if I’m still groggy.
            “Why you gotta doddle?” I ask.
            “What’s Pappy want?”
            You gotta be pretty stupid to ask Pap why he wants anything. Serves you better just to shut up and do. Bruce knows this and I don’t feel like indulging him with explanations. Truth is, I don’t know what Pap’s got his mind on. Doesn’t much matter at the moment. From my purse, I take out a matchbook that says Teasers on the front in script and strike a match and flick it on the sheets. Some people call me a pyromaniac but I’ve always felt pretty calm when I get going and shit starts burning. Bruce cusses me pretty good but I keep throwing the little yellow flames his way. After the sixth, he finally gets his ass off the mattress and pulls only slightly stained tighty whiteys over his quite-low hanging fruits. He says we’ll drive over in his Isuzu. I tell him we sure as hell won’t. It’s six blocks to Pap’s and I got no desire to give Bruce the chance to make a ten-mile detour so he can stick a hand in my undies. Last time he tried that, I broke his left index finger. He still managed to get a palm on my tit. And give it a hell of a squeeze. He’s good at ignoring pain. He’s tougher than I’d like to admit.
 
– Candice Cousins

essay #7

Experimental fiction
 
ON EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
 
The below columns are meant to be read individually as separate pieces then together as one whole piece, ignoring the column break:
 
An American Nude2
 
          In 2004 when I was living in Lake Worth, Fla., and reading Moby Dick in a sweltering apartment and listening to Belle and Sebastian and Jack Johnson a lot, I had this notion that literature could be as layered as music—in a more overt way than it already was. I wanted to set two stories side-by-side with only a slender column break between them. Each would be whole and complete in itself and, when reread as one, ignoring the break, a third story would emerge that would be both its own story and a commentary on the first two. Perhaps these are the kinds of visions you have when you are twenty-one and losing body weight by the pounds/hour in the form of sweat and replacing that perspiration with cheap beer. A sort of romantic delirium.
          Nonetheless, I set out to execute my vision: for the idea to be anything more than a gimmick, I felt it should be at least 150,000 words. An epic. And eventually, at the end, the two columns would split to three, then four. And of course the subject matter would have to justify the inherent fractured nature of the aesthetic and the disjointedness of the telling.
          I never came close to that goal. What you see above is more of a cursory attempt to see how difficult it would be to try to do the thing at all. I think it could be done. Just not by me. Maybe someone else will take it up. Though I’m not sure it’d be worth the effort.
          For my part, I got back to basics with short stories and working on a good old fashioned novel. Trying to tell a straight story without technical gymnastics is hard enough, I think. Moreover, the best stories are layered. Fiction is already in a fine shape.
 
– Thomas McCafferty

short story #6

fire island
A DAY AT FIRE ISLAND
 
At last, David thought, things feel easy and simple. David and Marina lay next to each other on beach towels, watching the waves from behind dark sunglasses. The tongue of the Atlantic Ocean lapped the shore softly, and then withdrew, and then beat in again, and out again…A parasol was wedged stylishly into the sand behind them, giving shelter from the sun. “My idea,” David privately congratulated himself. At last it was quiet, and the teeming crowds of the morning seemed far away.
 
They had met at Penn Station around eight that morning, along with the rest of New York City apparently, and packed themselves like chattel into the train to Long Island. As the train bumped along, Marina’s breasts pressed heavily against his arm (intentionally or was it the push of the crowd?). In the heat, he could feel her cotton summer dress cling stickily to her skin. 
 
From the train’s terminus on Long Island, the clamorous crowds streamed en masse to the waiting ferries. Now the atmosphere was party-like. Beach balls floated dreamily above the sea of heads. Packs of gay boys in tank-tops and jean-shorts laughed and horsed around. Now the pungent smell of suntan lotion, like coconut and sunshine, conjuring all of the summers of childhood.
 
On the ferry to Fire Island, there was a little more space to breathe and they chatted easily, shifting between Russian and English. Marina talked of her old life in Moscow—the life of a young kindergarten teacher in a tough city. He saw a wave of cynicism flash across her face and vanish quickly into a smile.
 
David was touched that she would be so open with him on their second date. Russian women are like this, he mused. With men they want to be fraternal, honest, a tovarischt, even at the same time as being sexual or romantic. David talked about his work. His hours were very long, but he respected his colleagues. And his work was intellectually stimulating—he enjoyed that.
 
He found it a bit amazing, however, that Marina had been a kindergarten teacher before she came over. There were a few things that happened on their first date that lingered in his mind. During dinner she had quizzed him about his previous girlfriends, what they looked like, how often they had sex; it was forward, odd. After dinner, he walked her to her subway platform and, while they waited for the train, Marina asked him to hold her wrist. Without warning she fell backwards towards the void of the train tracks, only David’s grip keeping her from plummeting onto the rails. Afterwards, she couldn’t stop laughing. He kept replaying the scene in his mind when he was home later, like a puzzle he couldn’t solve. She was clearly a little crazy, he noted to himself, but he was drawn to her. She was attractive. Sex crackled just beneath the surface of her smile.
 
They stepped onto the old wooden dock at Fire Island and the ocean wind blew their hair wildly. Restaurants advertising fresh seafood and beer. The sun beaming above from a cloudless blue sky. 
 
“The weather’s so breezy…Why can’t life always be this easy?” David rapped. No recognition from Marina.
 
“You know Kanye West, right?”
 
“Rap, right?”
 
“Yeah, rap. Hip-hop.”
 
“No,” Marina demurred, “I don’t like that black music.”
 
“Great, now it’s black people,” David thought. He filed this comment in his mind with the comment she had made on their first date about the there being “too many Mexicans” in New York. It had been a big turn-off and later when he was alone he chided himself for not saying anything. 
 
“Well, little does she know she’s dating a dirty Jew…” What if she knew that? He had mentioned to her on their first date that his parents had immigrated in the early 80s—a lot of Jews had. And then his last name. Would she piece it all together?
 
Whatever. Strolling through the quaint lanes and hedges of Fire Island, you didn’t worry. People were smiling in the street. The ocean breeze was briny and life-giving. In the middle of a lane, David stopped, closed his eyes, and absorbed the brilliant sunshine on his face, undoing months of confinement in his windowless cubicle at work.
 
And now they were just chilling on the beach. They chatted amiably under the parasol, Marina peppering him with all sorts of questions about life in New York. She was still learning the ropes and was living with her sister in Harlem for now, but wanted to live in Brooklyn someday. The wine was everything David had hoped, equally dry and citrusy.
 
David had been sure to bring his “wine picnic” satchel, a prized possession he had found in a boutique in Park Slope. In the elegantly designed bag there were compartments for a bottle of wine, ice packs, a cork screw, glasses, and two beach towels. David diligently observed the beach ban on glass containers and had packed paper cups in lieu of wine glasses. 
 
The wine itself was a young Sauvignon Blanc he had carefully picked out. But it was now gone. Marina had kept refilling their cups. Was she trying to get them drunk or what? 
 
Marina gazed worriedly at the empty bottle lolling in the sand and then suddenly smiled: “Tell me again about your girlfriends…”
 
“I already told you—”
 
David didn’t want to sound like a wimp so he gamely described a few of the women he had been on dates with lately.
 
“Online dating has its pitfalls—present company excepted, of course—but it’s still really the only—”
 
“And what do you like?”
 
“What—what do I like? What do you mean?”
 
“I mean, sexually. Tell me about your fantasies.”
 
“Fantasies? I don’t—I don’t know—I guess—I don’t think I have any specific—”
 
“Oh, you’re so sweet. I’ve embarrassed you!”
 
David felt shamed. The tone in her voice was the tone one uses with an orphan kitten.
 
“I have many fantasies,” Marina offered matter-of-factly. “I like…doing it rough sometimes…I like…pretending to be other people…”
 
“Role-playing.”
 
“Yes. Role-playing. And I really like doing it in public…where people can see… In St. Petersburg I liked to stand naked in my window until someone could see me, and then hide. Now, at my sister’s place, we are on a very high story, so it’s not possible.”
 
Marina reclined back on her elbows and cast a lubricious smile in his direction. David looked at her lying prone before him and decided that she was not beautiful. Her facial features were a bit blocky—her nose, her chin, and her forehead were all slightly too big. These blunt features—and her penchant for racism—made her seem dense, provincial. Her body was bangin, though—that was undeniable. Her legs were long and miraculous. They shouted sex (lying down, she let her dress fall to her upper thigh). Her breasts were obviously ample. Yes, she was sexy and unbeautiful.
 
“I would like some vodka,” Marina loudly exclaimed. 
 
“Vodka. Okay…You want me to—to go get some?”
 
“Yes. Aren’t there stores?”
 
“I guess. Okay. I’ll go get some vodka. Why not?”
 
David stumbled up the beach, delirious with wine, sun, and Marina’s legs. Vodka! 
 
When he returned with the vodka and some orange juice to mix it with, Marina was in the water splashing around. He lay on the sand and admired the handsome label—“Tito’s Handmade Vodka…Crafted in an Old Fashioned Pot Still.”  Further down the beach a solitary man dashed into the waves. A deep sense of harmony. On Monday morning, he would be sure to make casual mention of his day at Fire Island to his colleagues—sans vodka, of course!
 
Marina emerged from the water, and walked back dripping wet to their towels. David tried to but could not avoid gawking at her in her bikini. Her body really was tremendously sexy.
 
The first stirring of arousal, like a single note plucked on a guitar, resonating deep and long.
 
Marina flung herself cheerfully onto her towel.
 
“Ah vodka!”
 
“Yes, help yourself. Orange juice too. I think I’m gonna take a swim.”
 
“No, first we drink, then we swim.”
 
“Yeah that’s a great idea. You would be the world’s worst lifeguard.”
 
Marina snatched the bottle and poured shots. One shot down. Then a second. Now he was looking at her lips. There was something discordant, misshapen about them, but lusty, and they were soon making out underneath the umbrella. Reckless, drunken kisses. He dared his hand to caress her thighs. In response, she grabbed his cock through his shorts, jolting him.
 
Her grin seemed hideous to him just then, her face flushed and ruined with booze. A sudden impulse to flee—he pictured himself running to the ferry, abandoning her on the beach.
 
But now she was taking his hand and leading him into the water. “Let’s swim.” 
 
They stumbled down to the water and collapsed into the waves. The ocean was invigorating and woke them up from their boozy slumber. 
 
“Jesus, I’m wasted,” David noticed.
 
The cool water was marvelous on their bodies. David wildly resolved to himself that he would do this every weekend.
 
Collapsing onto the towels again. Marina hovered over the cups like some malignant wizard, carefully pouring yet another round.
 
“Jesus, how about some orange juice with that…”
 
“Juice?” she scoffed.
 
“OK…OK, I get it…” Unmanned once again. A soft American. She was old-world… He drank the vodka, and then another.
 
The afternoon was suddenly late and the morning’s royal blue sky now washed-out, fading to white. The sun hung low above the island. 
 
David closed his eyes.
 
After a minute—or ten minutes, or thirty, he wasn’t sure—he felt a finger poking his ribs.
 
“David. David.”
 
“Wha—hey. I’m awake.” David lurched up. “Hey, what’s happening?”
 
“Nothing’s happening.” She paused. “Show me your dick.”
 
“No,” he said, a little more squeamishly than he meant to. He looked around the beach. “There are people around.”
 
Marina reached over and firmly pulled down his shorts. David froze, stunned. There was his dick greeting the rest of the beach, like some guest arriving late to a party.
 
Marina appraised it objectively. “It is a nice dick. It is big, I think.”
 
“Thank you.”
 
He hurriedly pulled his shorts up (despite an impulse to not pull them up, to climb just a bit further along the ledge).
 
“You’re like a doctor. You checked me out.” He tried to joke.
 
“Yes. And you are very good.”
 
His mind reeled and he did not know what to say, so he pitched towards her and they tumbled together onto the sand, working violently with their tongues.
 
And then the sun fell beneath the houses on the beach and the night rose up around them. David sat up and checked his watch. How was it so late? Time was playing tricks…No, it was Marina…time was weird when he was with Marina…The beach was dark under a moonless night sky. A voice from deep in his consciousness commanded him that he must go home. He was wasted and had to get home. 
 
“Shit. We have to catch the ferry.”
 
“Ok.”
 
David jammed the towels and umbrella into his picnic satchel. Marina poured out half of the bottle of orange juice onto the sand, poured the remaining vodka into the orange juice bottle and hurled the empty vodka bottle into the darkness.
 
“We take this with us… To sip on the train…”
 
“You didn’t—we shouldn’t just leave the bottle…”
 
Marina rolled her eyes. “So go find it…”
 
Careening now through the crowded streets of the island, Marina clutching his side, trying to sink her teeth into his neck. Groups of shirtless boys with supermodel abs milled around…A distinguished older man and his wife walking down the street sucking lollipops…David looked into a bar and thought he saw a transvestite spanking a small blonde girl…No… Against a brick wall a couple was making out, practically fucking. No—it was them, they were against the brick wall…He grabbed Marina’s arm and lurched into the street again…Someone said she was looking for coke, did he know…Was it Marina who said that…? Now rising white and large at the end of a lane, the ferry, a specter, unreal… 
 
The train back to the city. The world slowly comes back into focus. The familiar submarine light of the train. No idea how he got there.
 
He began to notice the other riders around him. They seemed absurdly quiet, like they were in church. He tried to observe himself: were his legs splayed drunkenly into the aisle? Was his face twisted violently with vodka? Or did he look normal? Maybe…
 
Marina, he noticed, was cuddled against him, her face buried in his chest. She then dropped her hand into his swimming trunks and began giving him a hand job. He yielded to the sensation for a long second and then pulled her hand out firmly.
 
“Jesus, people can see. We need…privacy…”
 
“No…” She put her hand in his shorts again. He grabbed the luxury wine-satchel and put it on his lap, a desperate, futile effort to cover up.
 
“Listen,” he pleaded with her, “Why don’t we get off the train. Go to a bathroom. We can get off at my stop…Let’s go to my place…”
 
“No,” she moaned. “I have to go back to my sister’s. I have the only key…”
 
“Let’s just get off the train…Right here…”
 
“No…I want to suck your dick…I want your dick in my mouth…”
 
“We should get off the train…People—”
 
“People…people…” she giggled mockingly. She began working his cock vigorously. He hated her. He pulled her hand out and, with surprising strength she pushed his hand out of the way and began again.
 
David tried to look disinterested, not show any expression to the people all around him. How could they not see what was happening? But they didn’t seem to see. But how could they not see…. Anyone could be on this train. His boss, his friends, old people, children. Insane. Insane. They were in Manhattan now and more and more people piled on to the train and huddled around them. He was sweating copiously. Sweat pooled on his face and trickled onto his shirt. He had to stop her but he couldn’t, it was too far. He was rock hard now and her fist was flying up and down his shaft. He was desperate to finish. He wanted to explode in her hand. But he couldn’t, not there, not with so many people…His body was now perfectly equidistant between torment and ecstasy. 
 
The train pulled into Penn Station and she moaned in his ear “I need…I get off here…my sister…” They tumbled out of the train and into the bustling crowd.
 
“I’ll take you to your train…” he muttered vaguely. She clung to him crazily as they walked. She scratched his face and body with her nails, and tried to choke him, and kiss him. 
 
At the top of a set of stairs, he pulled away from her. “Your train’s that way.” Leave her here. He had to get back to his apartment. He had to snap out of this dream. 
 
She stood wobbling in front of him, plastered, her face glowing with a beatific, idiotic expression.
 
“David…I want you to slap me…Hard…On the face.”
 
“No…Seriously?”
 
“Yes…Slap me…Hard…Please…”
 
“No…”
 
David tried to think—but he couldn’t. 
 
“David…” she pleaded.
 
From within, a sudden desire, a wave welling up and beating home to shore. He raised his hand high above his head and brought it down viciously upon her face. 
 
She staggered back a step and rubbed her jaw. She flashed a psychotic grin. “Oww…That was good…That hurt…That was good.”
 
She straightened herself, looked him firmly in the eyes, grabbed his crotch hard, and turned away to walk to her train.
 
A group of police officers standing nearby had watched what David had done and were already racing towards him. Just as he turned around to face them, one of the police officers barreled into him and slammed him onto the ground. This officer used his ape-like forearms to grind David’s face into the pavement, while another unseen police officer kicked and stomped on the rest of his body. They couldn’t get enough.
 
– the end
 
– Anonymous
 
 

short story 5.3

guns company 3
 
GUNS & COMPANY (PART III, THE LAST PART)  (READ Part I, Part II)
 
Alice was a communicative lover in the sense that she made known what she wanted in a detailed if discreet manner, whispering to Gerald in her room, directing his body with her hands, scolding when he focused on his own desire instead of her fulfillment. They were quiet for the benefit of Christy, whose room was on the other side of the wall. The parents, she told him, were vacationing in Tucson. “They’re birders,” she explained. “When they go birding, I get laid.”
           He began realizing that Alice was a bit more experienced skin-to-skin than himself. His own exploits were more or less limited to his grandmother’s funeral a year and a half earlier when he’d been riding from Bozeman to the family property on Flathead Lake in a Suburban with the other grandchildren. He’d been sitting on the backbench with a relative newcomer, Charlene, the stepdaughter of his father’s sister. She put his fingers down her panties. It had been a singularly transformative experience, and after helping scatter his grandmother’s ashes off the dock, he stole a bottle of peach schnapps, grandma’s nightcap of choice, and rowed Charlene out in a johnboat. They finished each other off on the lake for better or worse with the sun on their backs and waterskiers racing by a quarter mile off the bow. It was all a rather sad and boozy affair. He’d never found a way to explain the incident to any one, even Will, and was grateful that his aunt lived in Topeka and that in all likelihood he would never have to see Charlene again as they were both due to hit college or what adults called the real world and occasionally the marketplace, which in Gerald’s estimation was either a euphemism or simply a terrible label for a shitty capitalist stopover en route to the grave.
 
A gunshot woke him to the dawn of the New Year, a crack that came from an uncomfortably close distance and that seemed to throb within his head as his eyes adjusted to the light. For a moment he thought it was a lightning strike but that would be fabulously rare on a winter morning. He’d heard of thundersnows but doubted very much he was in one. He was naked in Alice’s bed and quite alone.
            When he got himself dressed and got outside, Alice was standing over the dead calf with a synthetic-stocked Ruger in her hands. The snow, which had yet to subside, was building on the animal’s flanks.
            “Sylvester’s gone,” she said.
            Gerald found it odd that the calf had a name. He puzzled over it silently before saying, “You shot him?”
            “Jesus, Gerald.” She knelt in the snow. “Sylvester’s my horse. This is just a five-hundred dollar calf.” She stood and began pacing up the hill toward the mountains before stopping and kneeling again thirty yards out. He thought she was rather beautiful bundled up in layers and obscured in a veil of falling snow. Here was a Western woman. Here was a Western bride-to-be. Maybe not for him but somebody.
            She waved to Gerald to come up. He was empty and cold but didn’t realize it. Death and adrenaline were keeping him strong.
            She was pointing to another spot of blood in an enormous hoof print. Then she started explaining how she’d seen a mountain lion attacking Sylvester, her roan, and had shot it but the bullet went through and must have deflected because the calf was now quite dead. “The calf was not in the line of fire,” she said. “I saw to that. My dad’s gonna skin me. But I hit the sonofabitch, didn’t I? Look there. I smacked that cat. Didn’t think I did for a minute because he never gave up killing my horse. Strangling my poor horse.”
            Why a mountain lion would attack a horse when it had a perfectly tasty calf on the menu was baffling to Gerald, but then animals seemed to get unpredictable whenever you started thinking you understood them. Gerald had once found a bull moose that, best he could tell, had fallen to feline teeth and claws in a cottonwood bottom in the Gallatin River of all places, so certainly the size of the horse was not exactly a deterrent. Maybe this cat had an appetite. Maybe it liked horsemeat. He harrumphed and said he figured that if the cat was nicked then the blood trail would peter out and if it was hit well it’d eventually fall off or die holding on and either way they should probably get moving to recover the horse unless Alice wanted to wait an hour for the cat to bleed out.
            “Really, we should call Fish & Game,” he added.
            “We should be find my horse,” she said. She was starting to have a hard time talking with tears coming and pumping up the redness of a face already bright red from the cold. “It’s my damned horse.”
            “Then we should get on with it.”
            “I gotta tell Christy. Someone should know what we’re up to and where we’re at.”
            She ran off and made a fuss over having Gerald wait for her. His stomach was growling and he asked her to bring him something to eat because he knew he’d need it hiking through the drifts. The request sounded a bit crass but he felt it was reasonable and she didn’t argue with him. He was glad he was wearing his good winter boots. When she returned, she had a water bottle and a big end slice of banana bread smeared with cream cheese. They took turns eating and drinking and he wanted badly to kiss her and make her happy again but nothing about the situation was real inviting.
           
The horse prints looked like post holes and were easy enough to follow. Alice said she had another horse but it was too old to carry them and besides they’d stay warmer on foot. The blood spoor was brighter as the storm ebbed and the going was steady until they hit the treeline. They were scrambling up a field of scree when Gerald had a sick feeling as he looked at the tracks and realized how little blood was in the snow for a horse dragging a wounded mountain lion.
            “Sylvester should be bleeding, too,” he said.
            “I’m hoping for a miracle,” she said.
            “Maybe I should carry the rifle a stretch.”
            She frowned but handed over the gun. “You miss that cat, I’ll kill for you it.”
            This did little to reassure him and as they climbed into thick timber, he thought, I have gotten myself into a different world. And I’m lost in it. It occurred to him that in some ways this was exactly the sensation he’d been hoping for when he decided to leave Bozeman the day before only out here he was a bit colder than he would have been in say Reno.
            In a little hollow protected from the wind, they spotted the horse. It was remarkably healthy looking though streaks of red were on its belly and legs. Gerald searched for any sign of the cat and was increasingly less surprised when the only tracks he saw were human. Smallish boot prints. Probably a woman’s. He turned from the ground to the horse. The blood on its hide was not its own.
            “Alice?” he said. He kept closely abreast of the horse. He didn’t want to expose himself anymore in the hollow.
            “I really didn’t mean to kill the calf,” she said. “I was unloading the rifle. Guess I wasn’t real careful. You can put it down. It’s empty.”
            He checked the chamber and magazine but stopped short of tossing the gun. She might have the bullets in her pockets. The day had quickly become a nightmare and thoughts of New Year’s and of her body were becoming paradoxically clearer and more distant. In the trees, a figure moved black against the snow toward them. The figure broke-up in subtler and subtler shades as it neared. He knew it must be Christy. He knew that the gun slung over her shoulder was surely loaded. He figured she was sixty yards off and he had a choice between trying to ride the horse the hell out of there or doing the best he could on foot.
            “You don’t want to die a horse thief,” Alice said.
            “I don’t want to die,” he said. “I don’t know what I ever did to you.”
            “You and Jack pushed my brother off a bridge.”
            “That didn’t have a damn thing to do with me. I didn’t touch him.”
            “Maybe you didn’t hear he died month later. Brain aneurism. I been thinking for a long time on that. Only time he ever hit his head was in that fall. No way to prove it in court.”
            “I didn’t know and I didn’t push him and I’m sure as hell sorry to hear it so maybe you can tell your sister to put that rifle down.”
            “Jack knew. Jack sent us flowers.”
            “He never told me.” Gerald was hedging around toward the front of the horse to keep out of line with Christy. He was thinking about getting to the scree field. A running horse might struggle in the scree. Then, thinking finally in a semi-coherent manner, he swung the stock of the empty Ruger hard into the front leg of the horse. It reared and barked and he dropped the rifle and ran, trying to move in a zigzag through the pines. The blasts of Christy’s rifle echoed through the hollow and deafened him and he continued to run, to clamber up the hill. He was nearly out of sight of the girls when a bullet ripped through the side of his gut and sent him stumbling along the ridge. He regained his balance but now he knew that the run was becoming futile, that he was wounded, and that the girls could play with him at their leisure. He tripped as he hobbled through the scree and another bullet smashed into the rock at his side and shards ripped into his thigh. He crawled down through the scree and began to hobble out through the last pines and into the field. There was an odd sort of symmetry when he thought of the girls following his bloody steps just as he had followed the horse’s track out. He realized in horror that the blood had been Jack’s blood. He wondered how long Jack had been dead. Perhaps not long. Perhaps the girls had invited him to a New Year’s party, killed him, and had been celebrating their success at Sweet Street when he himself stumbled into them. And what did that make him? A sacrifice plopped in their laps? Christy must have been taking Jack out on the horse to bury him or leave him for the eagles and crows and coyotes to tear apart.
            At the edge of the field were the ranch house and cars, some three hundred yards distant. He had to make a choice between trying to get to a vehicle or cresting the near ridge and crossing the barbed wire and getting onto another property. Christy still had his keys. He didn’t know what to think. His world had become too dazzlingly bright and cold and he tried not to look at his side or his feet. The pain was starting to arc through his body as the shock of the gunshots wore off. He kept on toward the house. Maybe Christy had run out of bullets. Maybe he would find his keys or the keys to the truck and get down to the Madison Valley, to the highway. He could race into Ennis and die in the ambulance to Bozeman or die trying to get there. He wouldn’t mind dying, he decided, as much as dying at the hands of the sisters.
            How strange that they should be so full of hatred toward him. He remembered Jack calling them sluts when his car had broken down and he’d hopped a ride with them. Hadn’t he told Jack to be less conservative? What in hell did they want him dead for?
            Something was strange about the incident. Even with the brother, the silly tragic brother, and he couldn’t weight the brother. He’d only seen the kid once. No, the brother was an abstraction, to him and maybe to them, too. The brother was an excuse. Perhaps not even a real one. Had the girls killed their brother? Were the parents even in Tucson, as Alice had said, or was the entire ranch a cemetery? Here we slaughter the animals. And there the men.
            As he reached for the backdoor, he envisioned a bullet traveling 2,200 feet per second, smacking him in the spine, a soft whump followed by the echo of the shot. He would fall to his knees and would see the world blank before him. And he would die painting it with his blood.
 
– the end
 
– Lionel Harrington
 
– to read part II, click here
– to read part I, click here
 

short story 5.2

guns company 2
 
GUNS & COMPANY (PART II)  (to read Part I, click here)
 
Meghan met them at the door of the cabin. “Well, goodness me,” she said. “The Thompson cousins.”  Her hair was a dyed golden blonde and she was dressed in heels and a miniskirt, both black, her V-neck shirt dropping well into her cleavage and accentuated by a gold chain with a cross. No doubt the best advertisement for Christianity, Gerald mused. The gaudy image both attracted and repulsed him. She said, “And Gerald, looking so ridiculous and dashing.”
            “Yes, like one of Rembrandt’s fantasy portraits, he said. “Duchess”—he thought the title suited her—“you look like a cheap silkscreen.”
            “None of us care, Gerald.” She frowned at Will with raised eyebrows that seemed to say Why did you bring this idiot to my party? then dropped her face behind the door, straightened herself, and opened it. “You’re always welcome, Will, you know that. I would be bored without you.”
            The cabin was something of a log mansion—Meghan’s folks’ summer home, actually, and since she was going to school in Bozeman she used it all year for hosting parties. Will and Gerald had permanent places: Will because Meghan loved or hated him, both probably, and Gerald because she found him interesting; also he’d introduced them, if reluctantly—Meghan had been in a painting class with him and her paintings were terrible, but then so were his own. She and Will had been having grand and hopeless affairs ever since.
            And so nother party at Meghan’s Wonderland, as Gerald deemed it, is upon me.
            The parties weren’t so novel anymore and Gerald usually made it a point not to attend unless he knew he’d be able to talk with Will or even Miss Meghan back when he first knew her and was attracted to her himself. This would be the last one. The guests were already milling about, munching hors d’oeuvres. Like slugs in a garden. Two crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, highlighting the lead crystal glasses, the Champagne, the gleaming caviar; lighting the moisture on Meghan’s lips as she asked Will for a massage. “Tell her you’d rather vomit in her shirt,” Gerald suggested, but his cousin’s nerve had already wilted and he promptly excused himself to pursue some “nice anti-social observation.” His favorite game, when it came to this, was to plop himself, shrimp and caviar in hand, amongst several groups and take in the multiple conversations at once, or at least piece them together in a single continuum. Gerald knew it was hollow but went to work. The trick was to switch attention from one to the other on transition words, and so he began: Yeah, I can’t believe she gave you a C, Rachel, I mean it’s like dollar is just shit to the bitch is, like, completely just back from London—it’s like twice as much there to get your grade changed—Yeah, my parents said that beer is so fucking good and my parents are but, dude, they are hot. They walk around in nothing, man besides totally A quality paper. Gerald knew everyone and they knew him. He wondered if his presence unnerved them. He stared when they glanced. Still, the whole situation disgusted him, and he felt lousy for playing his game.
             Will and Meghan had left, to the boudoir, Gerald imagined. He didn’t want to imagine them in the boudoir, however, and he needed to scoot. He called them on Meghan’s cell phone from her own house phone until she picked-up. He said to her he was leaving and to be a good hostess and come and wish him farewell, and to bring his cousin when she did. And so they came.
            “Goodbye,” Meghan said.
Gerald tipped his hat. “Goodbye, darling,” he said. He turned to Will, “It’s ok if I leave now?”
            “It’s not even midnight,” Will said
            “I’d rather not be here when it is,” Gerald said. “No one to kiss. You know, you should come with me. Leave this rot and leave the Duchess. I’ll drive you to Bozeman and you can pack.” Gerald looked into Will’s eyes and Will stared back and for a moment Gerald hoped, and he said, “and we’ll go.” But dropping his eyes and bowing his head, Will broke, and broke between them. Gerald tossed his arms around his cousin and pounded his back. “Good luck, then,” he said. “Goodbye.” He hurried out into the night and the snow.
 
Gerald headed south on State Highway 93, trying to get out of Montana to Idaho. His hope was to reach Boise by morning and maybe keep on clear to Texas then hook east into the Deep South. He’d never been to the South and it seemed an excellent place to escape the suburbs, to find something real and vital still beating, something sad and beautiful still lingering. He was taken with a romantic vision of a heat that roiled his mind and blood, and of women in sheer dresses and children in overalls. And all of the colors—the Black, Hispanics, Asians, and every other ethnicity he’d never seen, cultures he’d never glimpsed. Montana was so limited. How could you understand life here? How could you understand art?
             The snow stopped him. It came in great white gusts that tore into his vision and obliterated his fantasies along with the night, the road, and the markers along it. Even with his headlights dimmed, he couldn’t see. In the hollow of the Madison Valley, the wind twisted and pounded his ’88 Honda. You’re being so stupid. His eyes ran in fear along the tops of the white crosses cropping up beside the road. He envisioned the car catching an edge of ice and shooting and rolling off the shoulder and into barbed wire. An old farmer would drive past in the first light of the New Year and see the overturned sedan, the windows shattered, and Gerald crushed inside with the braided metal strands gashing his flesh. His fish shirt, his favorite shirt, would be torn and bloodied so that he could not wear it in the casket, and finally, at the funeral, Will would only think he was a goddamned fool. He would be missed briefly and forgotten—he had accomplished nothing of importance in life, had not even really lived, so he wouldn’t much matter.
            He pulled over when he saw the neon lights for a bar called Sweet Street that glowed as if in a dream, as if suspended in the night and snow.
             The name did not fit—Sweet Street served no pastries, chocolates, or desserts of any kind. It served alcohol, so far as he could see, and Gerald thought it irresponsible, watching the drunks leave—because this was a bar only accessible by car. That’s what Montana was, though, and self-consciously he considered that maybe he sought just this—but no, boozing and driving was as much a middle class, suburbanite problem as a country standard. The bartendress—he liked the sound of the word and smiled to himself—was a middle-aged woman who wore no makeup and looked strangely beautiful but for the wrinkles in her wind-burned face. He wondered how old—maybe only thirty-five, he thought. When he met her eyes, he felt compelled to order or look away, his courage weak from the storm and from staring at her destroyed skin. He asked for coffee and she pointed him to a vending machine by the entrance of the bar, crowded in by a coat rack, a pool-cue rack, and a picture of a man in a blaze-orange hat holding up the head of a buck mule deer and grinning. Three nice racks, and not one belonging to a woman. Regardless, the vending machine coffee did not look appealing. He asked how long the bar would stay open.
             “Till there’s no business,” she said. “All night if there is.”
             Gerald felt good about his chances—he’d drink and wait out the storm and drive back to Ennis and pass out in the local library pretending to read a book and then drive on again in the day. The idea was just cheap enough. And it’s New Year’s, he told himself, and I’m too sober. He ordered a Maker’s Mark straight up with a glass of water on the side. Going to the South, he figured it time to start an appreciation for bourbon. The was didn’t ask for ID—Gerald was disappointed—he’d never been carded since he turned twenty-one over a year earlier and he felt the odds going down every day. He liked the whiskey and sipped it and let his eyes wander about the bar and noticed it was too bright, with a sort of diner quality to the lighting. Yes, people could see each other too clearly—every wrinkle and mole and scar, every point in every eyebrow where a hair had not been plucked, where zits erupted, and even the faint fuzz on upper lips. Everything that a bar was supposed to hide, that alcohol was supposed to hide, they failed to hide here. On the other hand, showing off flaws was more honest and he figured somewhat admirable.
             The intermittent opening door and accompanying touches of cold kept off the whiskey and kept him awake and conscious. The cold had an immediacy to it like hunger and pain, which would let up only in anticipation of death—it kissed the back of his neck, his fingers.
             His eyes came to rest on two women at a table across the way. The nearest to him was facing away, showing only the back of an auburn head of hair on slight shoulders. She wore a bright red shirt. Red had recently become his favorite color. He preferred green in the past but now it seemed too naturally ubiquitous—nothing was dangerous about green. The other girl, whose face he could see, was attractive and not so intriguing—her features were unremarkable, her shirt cold and white, and straight blond strands framed her rouged cheeks and bright red lips. The two were talking with animation, and he found them pleasing to watch through the smoke of the room.
             “It’s not that hard.”
             Gerald turned. He felt a strain in his neck, a knot wrenching at his shoulders just under the blades, twisting and running deep between his buttocks and neck, pulling taught his sinews, pulling with a pain that strained his eyes.
              “Talk to ‘em,” said the barkeep.
              Gerald wanted to say something but didn’t know what—and he felt at that moment he could see her weathered skin so clearly, with a purity of consciousness, and he could the gray bar and even himself, as if he were looking down upon them both after death.
               “I know them,” he said.
               “Then talk to them.”
               He rose and said to no one particularly, or even himself, as if going over a fact in his head, “I will talk to them, then,” and he adjusted his shirt and felt the smoke and lights burn his eyes and crossed the room with a deal of self-conscious stepping, finding his way nonetheless to the side of their table. He smiled at the face of the girl in red—he still thought of people his own age as boys and girls; it seemed to him there were really very few people mature enough to be labeled men or women, and sometimes he thought of maturity as a haven for death, and so he preferred boys and girls, or guys and gals if he was in a colloquial mood. He said, “Hello Alice. Hello Christy.”
               “Gerald Thompson,” Alice said. She was drinking vending-machine coffee—they both were and Gerald felt himself flush for having scorned it earlier.
               “I couldn’t help noticing your shirt, you know—I had to see the girl in the bright red shirt.”
               “Really?” Alice said. “But what are you doing here? It’s New Years.”
               “I was leaving,” he said. “Going south, trying to get to Boise. I’m moving to Louisiana. Or Florida. I haven’t decided.”
               “Leaving us poor souls to ourselves in Montana?” Christy asked.
               “I just needed to leave Bozeman, you know. I have to get out. Then I’m trying to drive in my little Honda, same car that blew the fan belt, and screw it in this storm, so here I am.”
               “Sit down,” Alice said.
               “Yes,” said Christy, “and you look as if you need a drink.” She called, “Mandy, this darling boy needs a drink—tea, I should think—you look dazed—please, Mandy, a cup of jasmine tea.”
               “Pretty word, jasmine,” Gerald said.
               “Yes, but that doesn’t matter, does it?” said Alice. “It’s about how it tastes and smells.”
               “Yes,” Christy said, “and it smells wonderful.” She called, “Mandy, bring three cups!”
                “I’m so glad,” Alice said. “Now we can have a tea party and celebrate the New Year properly.”
                “Oh we can,” Christy said.
                The tea came on a silver tray with three clear glasses and a tarnished silver pot of boiling water. In the sheen of the metal, Gerald could see Mandy’s gray eyes, hollow and magical, looking at his own. He wondered at the strange course the night had taken—the world had become unreal and he didn’t understand.
In each glass was a bulb wound with string at the ends—Mandy poured the water and the water took on a green tint as each bulb opened with hundreds of little petals, the string unwinding and the little flowers unfolding like glorious bursting suns drawn in calligraphic line, as if designed by Alfons Mucha. Mucha’s work is only design, Gerald thought, beautiful and contrived. He watched Alice bend over her cup and touch the water with a little pewter spoon: the green saturated the water and she smelled the perfume of the tea and sat back in her chair and blinked slowly.
                “Isn’t it wonderful?” she asked.
                “It is,” Gerald said. “I’ve never seen a tea like this.”
                “It tastes delicious, too,” Christy said. “It’s like a drug. Alice and I don’t let ourselves get it too often. Only on occasions. And this is an occasion.”
                “We grew up here,” Alice said. “We’ve known Mandy Hutter a long time.”
                “I saw her talking to you at the bar, only I didn’t recognize you,” Christy said. “She must like you.”
                “Really?”
                “Don’t play with Alice’s head, now, Gerald. We all know you came to see her.” Christy’s words were teasing and cross. “It’s just that Mandy must think you’re okay.”
                “She’d of told you we were both taken if she didn’t,” Alice said. She touched Gerald’s fingers with her own. She was not classically beautiful but he found her striking—her eyes were so soft, he thought, her face hard yet full and healthy, her round cheeks dimpled in smile. She said, “You silly boy—you’re forgetting all about your tea.”
                 “Yes, yes,” Christy said. “Drink up while it’s hot.”
                 Gerald did and they did not stay on long when the tea had finished. He was happy with the tea and with Sweet Street and Mandy Hutter, too, and with Christy and with Alice, particularly. The girls seemed to understand each other without speaking. But then they were sisters. Will was as close to a sibling as he’d ever had. He hated leaving, but the girls stood in unison and he followed. He thought he saw Ms. Hutter watching from behind the bar counter with the glass mugs and cups and taps and silver trays. He thought she looked at him pitiably, but he couldn’t say for sure.
 
Outside, Christy said, “Gerald, walking about in this weather with no coat and no hat and only a fish shirt—”
                “Is fairly stupid,” Alice said.
                “Isn’t it?”
                Gerald looked at his little Honda. “I hope this isn’t the point where I have to say goodnight,” he said. He realized he had not been invited any further. They had only asked if he would not also be leaving.
                “Of course not,” Christy said. “We wouldn’t let you go along all by yourself—follow us to the ranch—I don’t even think we can let him drive, can we, Alice?”
                “We certainly can’t.”
                “Gerald, you shouldn’t have been drinking, but oh do let me drive your car,” Christy said. “You can ride up in the truck with Alice. I love little cars.”
                Gerald fairly had no idea what to say to anything and walked along following Alice to the truck in compliance. He remembered hopping into the cab before and he tried again but slipped on the ice and only caught himself on the handle inside the door and pulled himself in and Alice laughed at him and pulled his face to hers and kissed him greedily. Then they drove out through the snow, following the red little taillights of Gerald’s Honda like eager children led on by two candy red cinnamon hots, going north along the highway then east into the foothills and ranchland of the Madison Range on a gravel road caked with snow. The faintest glints of light silhouetted the slopes of the mountains—this must be the reflected light from the moon, though Gerald couldn’t see the moon.
                “They’re amazing, aren’t they?” Alice asked.
                “Yes,” Gerald said, “Jack and I used to hike up Gold Creek after work.”
                “I shot an elk in Gold Creek this winter—in a big timber flat on the far side of the Sphinx. It was beautiful and so lonesome and quiet—no one goes there. Gerald, this is country. And you can’t find country lacking. I don’t know how you can grow up here and not know that but none of you Bozeman kids do and you even worked here.” Her voice was sad and accusatory and far away from him. “Bozeman is such a lot of hell.”
                “That’s why I’m leaving it.”
                 “You’re leaving this,” she said. “You don’t even know it—and you live in your goddamn head and you ignore it and you ignore me.”
                 “I’m not ignoring you.”
                 “Why didn’t I see you again after that day? Why did you disappear?”
                 “I don’t know. That was three years ago—you were sixteen.”
                 “So now I’m older and you follow me like a stupid lamb and I’m supposed to love you because you dress like an idiot and you’re an artist and kissed me once and you know I like you. But maybe you’re just pathetic. Maybe you listen to Jack, that ignorant shit who calls me a slut. Says I blew his brother. Fuck him and fuck you.” Alice slowed the truck, and in the glare cast by the snow and headlights, Gerald could see her crying. “I’m going to kill him, Gerald. I should kill Jack. I’m sorry, I know you don’t understand it—but I get hell for it. From everyone—we know each other here—we all know everything and every rumor and every hell.”
                 “I didn’t know,” he said. He didn’t know what to say that was right. He liked Jack.
                 “Yes,” Alice tried to laugh. “Well, you’re lucky I’m a tough girl, really—and all this shit is almost over.”
                 She laughed nervously and drove on, and Gerald looked at her with some bewilderment and felt his stomach begin to turn.
 
– end Part II
– to read Part I, click here
 
– Lionel Harrington

short story #5.1

Guns and Company 1
 
GUNS & COMPANY (PART I)
 
The calf had died in the snow that covered the spot, its blood visible only faintly, a spatter of light pink that glowed through the fresher flakes—Gerald almost didn’t notice. He had to squint to see anything in that light. But he’d heard the screams of the calf distinctly, and he thought he understood something now. Yesterday, he’d known only that he would leave, saying to himself as he strolled in downtown Bozeman, “Gerald Thompson, this is a marvelous day.” He hadn’t thought of the coming storm; he hadn’t thought he’d see Alice again, though she’d tripped through his mind and he’d smiled thinking about her, sitting in the fields with her, kissing her. Now she stood behind him, watching.
            The wind bustled down from the mountains at his back and burned along his ears and through his fish-checked shirt. Gerald shifted his weight. The tiptops of dead wheat stalks poked above the snow like a blonde five o’clock shadow on a pale face. He rubbed the snot out of his eyes with his knuckles and looked down and kicked the snow and kicked up the frozen blood and the fine, white hairs. It happened, he thought. It was real and not in his head. This was life, come and gone.
 
*
 
Gerald Thompson, this is a marvelous day—cold, opaque and you are the glistening ray of sunshine lighting the streets, the snow, each little crystal blinding each little passerby. Gerald, my boy, you are a fine, no, a superb specimen of a human being. He stopped in front of the glass of the Leaf & Bean and admired his reflection through the lenses of aviator sunglasses. He was dressed in corduroys and a suede trench coat that he thought of as a nice piece of cow. The outfit was topped with a felt fedora, the front brim of which he’d folded down in Humphrey Bogart fashion. All had come second hand, given him by his father, excepting the sunglasses, the material find of his life that had been waiting just for him, he fancied, half buried in early August under the trash and napweed that lined the side of State Highway 93. Napweed was a green gaunt and wiry noxious plant that sent roots down as far its two-foot stocks and grew lavender buds that overnight would bloom and turn to seed and spread in the wind. He remembered working along that highway, digging in the gravel with pry bars and picking up cigarette butts and bottles and pounding the blue steel rod through the earth over and again with all his back and arms to get the plants out by the root. And he had looked beneath one of the fallen purple flowers and seen the gold-rimmed sunglasses through the dust. It was the same spot he’d blown a fan belt and hitched a ride to town with two high school girls in low-cut tube-tops. “They’re sluts, man,” Jack had said. Jack was three years younger than himself. “You want nothin’ to do with ‘em.” Gerald had grinned and told Jack he was too conservative and with a hop had pulled himself into the front cab of the truck.
            The sunglasses took up most of Gerald’s face. He adjusted his hat a turn and walked into the Leaf & Bean, the coffee shop that still, three years out of high school, he found himself coming back to. He ordered hot-spiced cider, which just tasted like sugar. No one went there for the quality of the drinks. They went to talk and escape the cold of winter during the day, before the bars opened. And high school kids went year-round because they couldn’t go anywhere else. He felt suddenly old looking at all of the young faces, only a handful of whom he knew. He used to know them all. It alienated him until he sat down with his cousin Will at a fake marble-top table and began to focus on conversation. 
            “You mean it?” Will was asking. “If you really mean it, you’re leaving.”
            “I’m on the skedaddle. As surely as the day is short.” Gerald sipped his cider, realizing he should have brought some Scotch to spike it. Will was nursing a cappuccino. Gerald felt along the corrugations of his corduroy pants, so soft; he wondered if they looked as soft. “Bozeman’s just a big suburb—it’s thirty thousand white people watching sitcoms. I gotta get.”
            “Yes, but you know it’s arbitrary to care that it’s suburban. I like it here. Even you like it here.”
            Gerald sank into his plush armchair and dropped his eyes and watched the steam from Will’s coffee dance and fade into the air. Beautiful, he thought. “It’s nauseating to me now,” he said. “It’s such a censored kind of bantering monotone—all the same and nobody with anything to say. To really say. We talk back and forth because it’s no good saying nothing so we all just talk about nothing instead. It’s like there’s nothing risked, so what’s here to gain?”
            Will’s face was deep in the shadow cast from the hair that struggled up like a blazing black flame from his scalp. He rapped his fingertips on the saucer, absent-mindedly wiping up little coffee stains, blinking his brown and gold eyes—they almost glow in the shadow of his face, Gerald thought.
            “I wish I didn’t have to go,” Gerald said. “But I’m making jackshit that’s any good here. My paintings are boringer than the city.”
            “You’re coming to Meghan’s New Year’s tonight?”
            “I didn’t plan to.”
            Will looked down at his cappuccino—it was empty and Gerald knew this, and he watched Will sitting so stark against his wooden chair that didn’t seem to hold him quite right. A picturesque image insofar as they looked perfectly out of place together—odd how picturesque changed over the years from what did look right to finding beauty in what did not, Gerald thought; he didn’t like to see Will look down, but, he thought, there was beauty.
“I should paint you like that,” Gerald said, “you’re perfectly misplaced.”
            “Sure,” Will said. “But come to the party.”  
            “If you’re going, I wouldn’t miss it.”
 
Another December thirty-one and no girl, no resolutions, no decision, no direction. La di da to that. Gerald stood facing his dorm’s head-to-toe warped dressing mirror that made him look stocky. Tough. His dorm room was small and bland and naked now and somehow prettier without all his old paintings hanging from tacks and tape. He spent little physical time in the room, purely to sleep. The paintings had been embarrassments, anyhow, proof that his old standards of art fell low of the mark. Maybe Florida would hold the answer. He’d packed: his paintings rolled in and around shipping tubes, his father’s canvas duffle bags jammed with clothes, two boxes filled with books, and all in his car. He hated the room and hated the linoleum-tiled floor, soft in the mornings beneath his feet with the fuzz of dust and cold. He frowned at the mirror—navy dress pants and a deeper, near black fish shirt patterned with salmon, crappy, bass, trout, and sunfish, over-worn and beginning to fade, only a hint of whimsy remaining from what had once been outlandish. This was goodbye. He placed the fedora lightly on his hair, pulled on his suede coat, and thrust his fists deep into the pockets, fingers finding old tissues balled and disintegrating. He pulled these out and tossed them on the floor and turned, catching himself in profile. “An Adonis of a bumpkin,” he said, and he left.
            Snow drifted through the light thrown off by the metal halide bulbs over the parking lot, the streetlamp poles hanging bright and gray, splitting and curving in opposite directions at the tops, like the frozen necks of great dead swans, he thought. He hated them, hated the parking lot: All so ugly. Not even so ugly. Just so damned boring. Too nice, too well kept. No razor wire, no stench of piss, no needles. Disgustingly safe. Only his imagination could produce a moment of apprehension, but he had come to view even imagination cynically. In elementary school, they teach you to use your imagination so that you can get through the goddamned boring and bland hell they raise you in without complaint, without going out of your mind because of how disturbingly mundane it all is, and lifeless—everyone running scared, living in the drama in their heads because they have no real dramas in their lives. Gerald was young enough that he found such notions terribly poignant but astute enough that he understood his own tendencies. “Hard for me too to keep the goddamned drama out of my own head,” he said. “Screw it.” He pulled the suede coat off and folded it up inside out and tucked it under his arm and walked out in the snow to his car. The steering wheel was frigid to the touch and he cursed himself for packing his gloves in his duffle bag. 
 
Will stood outside his own dormitory, waiting, as Gerald drove up.
            “You don’t look well,” Gerald said. Will was annoyed. Terribly dressed, too, Gerald observed. It was like he had never seen colors outside of black and khaki. Stubborn in a naïve kind of way. “You ever gonna spiff up for any goddamned thing? It’s fucking New Year’s.”        
            Will considered. “I don’t know,” he said. “I see you packed.”
            “Yeah.”
            “How do I get back?”
            “I’ll drive you,” Gerald said, “if you don’t end up staying, you know.” The qualification seemed unnecessary.
            “I’m not getting back with Meghan,” Will said.
            “No,” Gerald laughed, “never.”
            “Fuck you.”
            “Nothing like revisiting old horrors.” He regretted saying that. He loved Will.
            “Jesus Christ. Don’t turn your goddamned patronizing act on me—your intellectual superiority insecurity complex, like I’m one of them that you can observe and fucking know.”        
            “Ah, fuck it, man. I know you’re not one of them,” Gerald said. “No one really is.” He wanted to say, “Let’s drop it,” but didn’t let himself. He knew people who said that and it annoyed him; he liked to argue things out until both parties were equally alienated or somewhat reconciled. He’d always hated when people would just shut up and say nothing. That’s what’s patronizing, he thought, the idea that they know better than you and are too good to tell you, or that you’re too stupid to understand. Of course, it’s true enough that most arguments don’t end well, but fuck—fuck it; he was bored with it.
            Will looked out the windshield, watching the snow and lit-up billboards pass as they left town, left Bozeman and headed into the Madison Valley that stretched out great and black before them in the dusk. “We’re all conceited,” he said.
            Gerald looked at him a moment and grinned. “No,” he said, “you and I aren’t rich enough to really be conceited. I think the best we can do is pretentious.”
           
Gerald had driven up the canyon so many times—not to Meghan’s so much, like Will, though enough times to know how to get there, but really he used to come up—they all did—to hike, to fish, to drink, to work. He remembered driving with Jack once with a bottle of red wine they’d found dusty but unopened in the work shed. They’d gotten ripped out near Pioneer Campground, laying on the grass beside the river in the sun—it was beautiful, then, so hot, and he could smell the grasses and pines, and Jack had brought a pack of cloves, and they had smoked and drank and Jack had said, “It’s a hell of a life.” Sure it is. “All we need is a couple girls.” We’d fuck it up. “Whatever happened with those chicks in the car?” Like I’d tell you, man, you’re too young. “Ah fuck that. I bet you didn’t do nothin’ with ‘em—best for you, anyhow.” I wasn’t that lucky. How are they, anyway? “I don’t really know—they’re older’n me—guess they’re still workin’ out the ranch their uncle owns, but I don’t know.” They were nice girls, and Alice was damned cute. “Both ‘er pretty hot. Sluts, though. My older brother—” Fuck it man, you still hung up on that shit? “Ah, I don’t know.” They’d walked the couple miles back to the truck to sober up, and there were some kids bridge jumping or waiting to start bridge jumping or perhaps just finishing up and anyhow sitting on the rails. Jack had known the biggest of them.
            “William,” Gerald said, “did I ever tell you about when Jack punched that Wilkins kid?”
            “No.”
            “So we’re walking back the road at this bridge, the one just after Pioneer Campground, and Jack sees this big kid, blond guy with a crew cut, wearing one of those long striped swimsuits all the high school guys wear, and his chest is sunburned and he’s with this other guy who was just there, I think, and a girl he’s trying to show off to or something and he’s chewing a big wad. Name was Jonathon Wilkins. I didn’t know who he was then, though, and he spits a wad in front of Jack and says to him, ‘Say hi to your brother for me,’ and he laughs—Jack’s brother’s in prison for making meth, stupid kid, but Jack’s touchy about it—and Jack, three years younger than this guy, stops, and he looks at me, and he says to me, ‘You know Alice and Christy?’ Yep. And he walks up to this guy, just sitting on the railing, and says, ‘My brother says your sisters give good head,’ and punches him in the face and the Wilkins kid falls back off the bridge, and Jack and I walk over and look over the railing and his face is bleeding—he’s ok, and Jack spits at him, and we drive off and he’s all climbing back up the bank cussing and saying he’s gonna get Jack and shit like that.”
            “Crazy.”
            “You remember those girls I told you I got a ride with?”
            “Yeah.”
            “Yeah, they were too young, then. Cute girls, though.” 
            “Like that stopped you.”
            Gerald laughed. “Well, I kissed Alice, anyway.”
            “I don’t see you’ve gotta go, really—go back working summers on the ranch.”
            “I don’t know,” Gerald said. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen Jack for a while now. Winston would hire me back, but—I’ve been here too long. I gotta leave Bozeman. I mean, it’s not like you just coming to school here—I’ve lived here, what twenty-two years. I’m done, man. Fuck this place. The art department sucks anyway.”
            “Graphic design’s good.”
            “And fuck graphic design, man. That’s advertising. That’s selling yourself.”
            They drove on in mutual ease and silence. The snow no longer fell so much as it came swooshing up and from the sides with the gusts of the wind, mesmerizing sworls in the headlights. Beyond the snow lay the road and beyond the road the pines that all broke up in shades of black. Gerald blinked with a conscious effort to see the snow and the road and the trees and understand them—to legitimize them to himself as a reality, concrete and tangible, and he strained all of his attentions and touches and memories—he knew them, almost, but still they passed, images flitting effortlessly, two-dimensionally by—and he could not get there—it was all a film. It was something Alice had said to him. They were sitting just off the road at dusk—his car had been towed and Alice had offered to drive him home—and he was smoking a joint with her and twisting stems of wheat in his fingers and running his fingers up the shafts, pulling all the seeds of wheat into a bunch at his thumb and forefinger and blowing them away to the ground, and Alice had said, “No one knows it—no one knows this.” She picked at the dirt and wheat and leaned against Gerald’s chest. “Everyone sees it and goes on and no one tries to see it and feel it.” And she’d kissed the tip of his nose. But he could not get at that memory—it slipped away quickly—he wanted to stop and walk out to the trees and touch the bark; he blinked and drove on and he had the feeling that he had lost touch with anything truly alive, that he had entered into a sort of limbo and was moving toward hell.
 
– end Part I
 
– Lionel Harrington
 
 

short story #4

pastiche revised
 
THE PASTICHE REVISED
 
Friday night, a woman who lives in my building, I quite forget her name, invited me to a party. We walked ten blocks to the wine store because she would not go to her friend’s apartment without a gift. We talked as we strolled, me chitchatting and trying to show I cared or at least that I was listening. She was preoccupied with the dress she was going to wear to an upcoming soiree of some import with a minister of state.
            After buying a good bottle of aged tequila, we went back up the street for the party. She was still talking about dresses and about the minister.
            Her friend’s apartment was nice: spacious for Paris with a large living room where twenty-somethings and thirty-year-olds mingled. I poured myself a glass of I don’t know what and entered into conversation with a woman I met at a conference. She was with her boyfriend who was a member of a metal band that was truly awful. They were encouraging me to join the mailing list on their website so I wouldn’t miss his next concert. Or the one after that. Perfect.
            I was relieved when the couple went looking for drinks and I found Thierry. He was a guy I had known through mutual acquaintances, but we had never spoken. He had slept with my good friend the previous year or, more precisely had tried to, but he’d been feeble. Soft. I thought about this while we were discussing contemporary bohemian culture with his jazz friends. Had I had too much to drink? I didn’t fully understand them. I had come in in the middle, and the subject kept eluding me. They were bullshitting about everything from electroclash music to Japanese graphic arts, speaking vaguely and always with a hint of rebellion and postmodern irony. I would have rather talked about sales. About work.
           After half an hour, it occurred to me that Thierry was hitting on me. He had his arms hugged around my waist, and he was asking me to leave with him. Despite the incomprehensible conversation, he reminded me of a quote I had read in a novel: “Charm is a quality that can sometimes replace beauty—at least in men.”
           At his bachelor pad, he told me, “You have a great ass.”
           Then we cuddled. I remembered what he had said last year to my friend on the subject of his impotence—that it was due to too much masturbation. He tried with me, I think, but not for long. This night, he blamed alcohol. I left.
 
Today, I lunched with my friend Helen in the Marais. She is a lesbian, but after frustrating relationships with women, she fell in love with a man who is too neurotic to have sex. Bad fucking luck. I told her about my evening with Thierry. I admitted that in my utter solitude, I found Thierry nice.
           She advised me: “Do not have an affair with a man who has problems of the penis. Do not do it.”
           I think she may be right.
 
– Adriana Nguyen, translated from the French by J. A. Chen

short story #3

Symmetry
 
SYMMETRY
 
Croft is watching the train pass by as he sits in the passenger seat of his grandmother’s sedan. He is thinking about the people who die beneath the crushing heft of the cars, which grind their bodies into the tracks. These tracks being near his grandmother’s house, where Croft lives, he marks them down on a mental list of nearby places to die.
 
Croft is depressed. Last week Croft decided to kill himself soon. Having once been told by his father that things worth doing should be done right, he waits patiently to arrive at the best plan. Every day when he gets home from school he rescues the daily news from the recycle bin in his grandmother’s garage and slips it in his backpack before he enters the house. After his chores, and after he and grandmother eat supper, he retires to his room for homework. This week, though, Croft has done no homework. Instead, he has spent all his free hours reading the newspaper and recording the ways that people have died.
 
In his journal, Croft keeps a page for each death. Headed with the name of the departed and footed by their particular means of exit, the rest of the page details any information Croft can glean about their life, along with an analysis of how they ought best to have died and what they seem to have mishandled in the events leading to their demise. The more he reads and the more he writes, the less connection Croft feels to the subjects of his study. His analyses become more calculated as he feels himself coming closer to the formula for a perfect death.
 
As the gates rise up to allow cars to cross the train tracks, Croft is thinking about the sermon he and his grandmother just heard at church. The preacher had described a life of sin as a runaway train. Once on board, he had said, it seems that all is still and the sinner is blind to the world rushing past them. Salvation, said the preacher, is as easy as turning to the side and realizing that you can simply step off the train and land firmly in the arms of Jesus. Croft wonders if Jesus, waiting by the tracks, will try to stop him from placing his 12-year-old body beneath the train. Such interference could complicate the attempt and ruin the chance for an uneventful death. Croft thinks hard about this for the rest of the ride home so that he will remember to write it down when he is left alone in his room.
 
Grandmother pulls the car into the gravel driveway and Croft is simultaneously unbuckling his seatbelt for a speedy escape. The radio has kept grandmother quiet all the way home as she has listened intently to callers from all over the country describe miraculous religious experiences. But at this moment Croft is snapped quickly out of his mortal preoccupation by grandmother’s first break in silence. “You clean out that shed today, Croft. Before you can go out and play.”
 
Croft feigns disappointment with a sigh and an “okay.”
 
As soon as the car stops Croft rushes into the house and up the stairs, slipping the newspaper from the countertop as he passes by and tucking it under his shirt. He had noted distinctly that grandmother said nothing of doing chores before he could go to his room, and he has no intentions of going out to play today, or any other day. There is too much work to be done.
 
In the Sunday paper Croft reads about a baby who is left in a closed car while its mother goes into the utility company building to pay a bill. While waiting in line, the woman has a heart attack and nobody finds the baby in the car until several hours later, after the woman has died in the hospital. By the time the baby is taken from its car seat, no life is left. Croft skips a page in his journal so that he may place the mother and baby next to each other and illustrate their connection more visually. Upon finishing the two pages, he presses his lips together and sits back hard against the wall, crossing his arms in discontent.
 
All of the deaths that Croft has documented have lacked a certain poetic quality that has kept them from meeting his settled upon ideals of the perfect death. Many of the deaths have come close, including this most recently discussed infant. But even the baby’s death seems to reach too far into the realm of unprecedented tragedy which Croft fears will scar his grandmother too greatly in his own death, she being the only person he imagines will care. If only his death could embody some sort of beautiful aesthetic quality or romanticism then perhaps her pain would be softened by an increased ability to view her loss as some unfortunate but unavoidable act of God.
 
Hoping to squeeze as much research into the day as possible, Croft picks the paper up off the floor and sets it on his thighs, pulling his knees up to bring it closer to his face. Pouring over the obituaries, which appear to be abundant in the Sunday edition with many people waiting for this holy day to honor loved ones, Croft comes across the first mention of a suicide that he has found all week. Having already noticed that many of the blurbs gave no cause of death, this makes him wonder how many of the dead folks’ families chose not to mention that the person had killed themselves. The obituary he has just found does not mention the means of the suicide and this does not surprise Croft. He has already accepted that the obituaries never give the level of detail found in the grisly articles that accompany news headlines.
 
Closing his eyes momentarily, Croft imagines how this death could have gone and then opens his eyes again to record the musing in the suicide’s journal entry. In his mind Croft can see the man, 43 years old according to the birth and death dates, standing in front of his bathroom sink and looking at himself in the mirror. The man has a large kitchen knife in his hands and without breaking his eye contact he raises it up and cuts across his throat from left to right. As he drops the knife it grazes his leg and then clanks to its resting place on the tile floor. Slowly the man’s eyes close and eventually he collapses to the side, hitting his head on the nearby toilet and losing consciousness. He dies soon thereafter.
 
Just then Croft hears his grandmother calling for him from the backyard. He stands up and turns around to open the window behind him, sticking his head out. He calls back to her. “I’m here!”
 
“Have you been up there all day? You haven’t even cleaned the shed yet!” She gestures to the open doors of the shed, which Croft has forgotten all about. He says nothing to her and after a moment she walks into the house. “It’s time for supper,” she shouts up at him after she closes the back door. He sets down his pencil and heads downstairs.
 
Reaching the bottom step Croft looks up and sees his grandmother setting out one plate of food on the table. “I’m going to the bingo potluck tonight, Croft,” she says. “Now eat your supper, and I expect you to clean that shed before it gets dark out. And be sure to get to bed at a reasonable time, now. I won’t be home until late.”
 
Croft says goodbye to his grandmother as she walks out the door with a green-bean casserole. Relishing the opportunity to eat alone, he runs up the stairs to retrieve his journal. With periodic breaks to shovel in mouthfuls of leftover chicken and rice, Croft writes about suicide. Given the way in which such deaths go so largely undescribed in the paper, he imagines that this is possibly one of the most difficult kinds of death for a family to accept. He knows that if grandmother thought he had taken his own life, she would somehow blame herself. It is essential, he determines, that his death appear to be a complete accident.
 
Some time has gone by when Croft finally looks up from his journal. His eyes finding the window over the kitchen sink, he realizes that it is already dark outside. He stands up from his chair, walks his plate to the counter, and heads out the back door. The shed is still open from when grandmother discovered earlier that it had not been cleaned. Past the doorframe Croft can see silhouettes of tall piles of boxes amongst various yard equipment and power tools. To the right he sees a very large crate that seems to block the path to the one light bulb in the shed.
 
Croft bends over and grabs the sides of the crate, which he can barely get his arms around. Pulling as hard as he can, he cannot get the crate to move. He sees a space just barely large enough for his body and smushes himself between the side of the crate and wall of the shed. If he cannot pull it, he reasons, then perhaps he can push the crate aside to free it from whatever blocks its path. He puts his hands up against the side of the crate and begins to push. It seems at first that the crate will remain an insurmountable challenge, but giving one final heave with all his might Croft pushes the crate over onto its side. Not prepared for such a move, Croft stumbles and falls on top of the crate as a new pair of garden shears are ripped hard off the wall and plant themselves firmly in the wood, just near his face. He stares at them without moving for several seconds. Finally he stands and returns to the house without finishing his work.
 

– Dominique R. Scalia

short story #2

The Loche
 
THE LOCH
 
This time of year, Montana turns cold. Precipitation falls from a cloudless sky. It is neither snow nor rain, but its crystals glint and stretch the space above land and river so that the foothills and Spanish Peaks on the southern horizon appear fragile and dimensionless, bands of muted color marking October.
            I am alone and hungry. Eric Crane, perched on the stone river bottom. My twenty-eight years have brought me just here, watching a fly line as the wind clips my ears and my nose. Downstream a mile, the pineboard gable of a chapel scrapes above a peninsula of wheat like the point of a razor. The current hooks around the granite escarpment at the peninsula’s tip and slaps and erodes the opposite bank, revealing the sinuous roots of a cottonwood tree. At the near bank lies a flat of dead water and the fish that I am after hold in the riffles beyond it. This run is called the Loch, perhaps to honor the brown trout introduced from Scotland’s Loch Leven over a hundred years ago. It has been aptly named. It is in this run that my father hooked what he called the “loveliest brown” he’d ever fought. He said, “You should have felt him, Eric. I thought I’d snagged a pylon at first, but he started moving and ran out like a bull. Like to God he’s big.” Now, if I work quickly and step between every cast, I will reach the Loch before the light fades.
            Beyond the peninsula, the east fork of the Gallatin meets her western sister, and they run wide and fast together. Here, however, the river appears stopped. Perhaps it has stopped. A static if remarkably corporeal shape, like the outstretched arm of a man. Light flickers over the shallow undulations of the skin. The current, however, chills my fingers. Maybe the fish will be as credulous as I am. Small ones, mostly, but a couple get fat in pockets and under the overhanging dogwood limbs. Prosopium williamsoni, the mountain whitefish, of course, abounds. My father used to say that every whitefish with its pinheaded catfish face and oval sucking mouth counts as one less worthy trout. He saw them as parasitic, which I didn’t agree with as a child. I preferred the slight tug of a whitefish to no fish, if I had to choose. It wasn’t until I started fishing in the cold autumns, which froze my hands with every dip in the water to pick the fly from the mouth, that I began to resent them.
            I had some pity, then, for my father, for the last fish he caught. Night had struck, and I had hiked back upstream from the cottonwood groves that I will not reach tonight. He had stayed at the Loch. I found him kneeling at the water’s edge, bent forward with the reverence of prayer. His headlamp illuminated his chapped hands and the pallid belly that they held. He slipped the barbless stonefly from the fish’s lips, and whispered, “You sweet louse.” When he released it, it hung in the water before faded like a pale shadow back into the river.
            The Loch lures my return now, though not with the promise of my father’s fabled brown trout. That would be too much to ask. I have come for my father, though I don’t know exactly how. Pausing in the stretch of river above the Loch, I tie a wan fox fur streamer with pink eyes to my leader, mimicking a baby whitefish or maybe of a bloodless finger. Mine own fingers are brutally cold, ten numb appendages that sprout from fingerless wool gloves. My father would have asked me if I had confidence in this fly. I would have told him, “It’s too cold to tie a new fly to a new knot.”
            Indian Summer still held a week ago. I waded wet out through the cowpie flats that now have frozen solid, that then had only crusted at the top, so that with every step I broke through and sank to my thighs in the sediment and dung. When I reached the river, I washed. I had not fished the Loch for two years, had seldom found the time to make the trip, and when I had, I’d brought my father to that spot which had once been his to give to me. I caught nothing that day but enjoyed the rhythms of the casts and the ache in my arms. Then, over the wheat field, I glimpsed a figure walking into the pineboard house that I have always called the chapel because of the white paint that once covered its walls. I have often felt a presence in these fields, as if I were being studied. Still, I never saw anyone there. I have fished here nearly twenty years, since I was nine, since my father graduated me from flipping spoons and dipping worms in the Three Forks Ponds to casting flies.
            He was a strong man, then, at forty-nine, and his stiff limp would carry him eighteen more years. I could not keep with his pace as he strode through the cattle pasture, and in the haze of summer the silhouette of his figure appeared like a mannequin puppeted away by the thin rod attached at his shoulders. He had fashioned that rod with blond cane, a six-foot, three-weight that made healthy trout feel as large as paddlefish. It is my rod today, a sort of deliberate instrument. The action is smooth and the touch is intimate. Playing a fish is like courting a reluctant lover.
            No fish bite now, as I stand to my knees in this river, cold even beneath the insulation of neoprenes. The stone bank is far behind me, the cowpie flats and pasture farther still. Fifty yards downstream a large shape like the severed trunk of a cottonwood lies in the water. I can’t make it out clearly, but it will be my marker. If I have no luck before I reach it, I’ll change flies.
            Here, the river washes against steep banks of frozen mud and the rusted iron debris that litters them. Old scoops and car doors and pipes and oven grates that look like saleable antiques next to the other trash, the tire stacks and plastic bottles. “Ugly, but nothing compared to mining waste,” my father told me. “They killed the Clark Fork with their mines. There is no reason to go to Missoula now. There are no fish.”
            Sometimes I catch myself voicing his opinions, wondering how different we ever were. He died of liver failure, a month ago. A gelding had thrown him nearly fifty years earlier, stomping his right leg at the malleolus, shattering his tibia and ankle. His addiction to pain medications lasted some twenty years after that, up to my birth. At the end, his breath smelled of garlic when he spoke. He said to me, “I missed every war because of that horse, but it still killed me.”
            The East Gallatin is narrow and suited for the cane rod. I put each cast to the deep slow slot of water against the far bank, mend line to keep the streamer in the slot, pulse it as it crosses the current, search for stable footing a yard down, and cast again. The line floats like the green whisker of a dragon on the water. I still tense when the fly bumps the bottom or hangs up a moment on a rock, that sensate pause that anticipates the weight and pull of an invisible fish.
           The shape in the water is not a cottonwood log. It stinks of fermenting hay, and magpies fly from it as I wade near. It’s the carcass of a Hereford, an animal that I feared as a child. Walking through the cattle pastures that led to the river, the mid-bellies and nostrils of the beasts came level with my face. Cattle held a mythic status in my mind, then, bred from watching rodeo bulls—I cared little for their riders—the torrents of thousands of pounds of flesh that bucked and contorted, muscles graceful and horrific, the flock of the damned. Outside of the rodeo, people see cattle as fixtures on the landscape, unmoving shapes of variant bleak gradation. Walking among them, smelling them, they were very real to me. My father told me to lick my palm and stamp it with my fist whenever I saw a pure white cow. It would bring luck. But it never has and I can’t see that it’s right to wish for luck upon the dead. Water washes the beast’s face. Its hair is matted in rigid whorls, and I don’t care to smell it in any longer. Still, I must change flies and hope that fortune changes too. Something dark, more visible. A number two streamer, black marabou, with strands of flash, my father’s standby, which I have corrupted by adding golden eyes.
            Thirty feet below me, a logjam creates an eddy near shore. I wet the knot of the new streamer in my mouth then drop it. There isn’t much day left, but I am at the wheat peninsula and the Loch isn’t far. In the summer I was fifteen, I came here alone for the first time. I envisioned owning the fields and the chapel and walking from its door to the river when I pleased, living so simply. At the edge of the bank, slack braids of barbed wire fenced off the land. I stepped over them then crossed the field that dazzled with fresh seed grains and stalks dropping in the wind, here and there exposing the pink flowers of bull thistle and Indian paintbrush. From the back of the field, the pentagonal face of the chapel neared. Its outer boards had faded and splintered. I ran my hand over them, up their vertical seams and over the frame of the door, emblazoned by the initials RJ. It opened when I pressed the handle. I slipped into the chapel, coughing. Everything of use had been emptied or was caked in the dust that moved through the air like minute insects. Sunlight lit the edge of a table and across it was a branding iron. RJ again. When I touched it, heat entered my fingertips. I ran out of the chapel even as I told myself the iron had only been heated by the sun. I can’t remember if I closed the door. I headed for the river, keeping my eyes at my feet, trying to keep my balance.
            I have never again believed I would own the chapel or the land. And now a light glows from beneath the eave of the roof. And a human shape is at the far edge of the wheat. I have half-a-heart to cross that field and introduce myself and relate my years’ old indiscretion.
            The line goes taught in my fingers, only a moment. A weak tap at the fly, then another, then nothing. I make the same cast, twitching line inch by inch, casting again, repeating the process, and each time with less hope. It’s hard to tell whether I tease the trout or it teases me.
             As twilight approaches, I hurry downstream past the logjam then walk the shoreline to reach the Loch. From the top of the granite escarpment, the groves of cottonwoods form as a single block above the fields, slightly darker than the deepening madder of the sky behind them. The stranger breaks that block, alone in the center of the field, closer now, legs shifting.
            I amble from the stone into the river flat. The water goes to my navel. I force myself to cast with patience. The line loops out to the head of the current then arcs into the slow water as I twitch it back. There is a tap on the fly and a tap again, the fish jostling it with his nose. Then the rod bends to the cork. As I strike and set the hook, a brown trout breaks the water, rolling its thick brass body on the surface then rushing out through the chop, through the swirling depths as I follow clumsily behind. The fish is my otherworldly guide. The reel labors against my palm, line spooling to coarser, thinner threads of backing. I am thankful when the trout turns and stops though even as I bring him into the dead water, as he nears me and slips beneath the surface on his side, messing it with his pectoral fin, he may still burst again into the current. Until he rests in my hands, I can only imagine the markings on his body, the umber stripe over his head and hump, the dark rings and dots on his yellow flanks and the black demarcation on the hook of his jaw. The trout pirouettes about the line, displaying his girth, some eighteen inches, perhaps, which I cannot touch though he is close. Finally, the line slackens, the hook is out, and the fish leaves me with my rod and string and steel and the knowledge that I tricked him, hooked him, fought him, and still he bettered me.
            It doesn’t matter. I felt him in the rod and tonight, we’ll both be tired.
            The unremitting noise of thoughts vanishes with the fish. The Gallatin slaps against the cottonwood roots. The world has changed again: so much less of it is knowable at night, yet darkness brings intimacy, an enclosed space. I leave the Loch and regain the bank. On the other side of the barbed wire, wheat stalks crack sounds as a figure approaches. A woman’s voice says, “Too bad you lost him.”
            She sounds young—odd that I consider my own age still young—the sound means little, and I step nearer to her. She is not short, though her face looks up to mine, from across the fence. Her cheeks are gaunt and she must be older than I am, maybe only a few years but touched by Montana’s winters. I tell her, “He fought hard.”
            “I’ve seen you before, a while back.”
            “I came here a lot when I was younger. I never seen a light in that house.”
            “Guess you didn’t look on the right nights.”
            “I trespassed there once.”
            “Maybe next time you’ll knock. Bring a whitefish. They’re not bad smoked.”
            I tell her that I will, and she walks into her field and I turn back upstream and flip on my father’s old headlamp. The ground moves in stark, monochromatic spaces between the yellow stalks and their shadows. I march home in that light.
 
– Lionel Harrington

short story #1

Mr. Fish

 
MR. FISH
 
April 5, 2000
Father, his white hair sunlit, sits before the window in the seat of a wooden chair that I once called my throne. But I’m thirteen now and I try to describe things by the right names because an older girl should. So you see, I’m no longer Little Anna May Adams. Just Anna’s fine.
            I lay down in the shadows, across from Father, wedged in the airy pillows of the couch. My cloud couch! There I go exaggerating what things are again. The couch is plain stuffed velour. Father says that I’m dramatic that way. I prefer to think of myself as imaginative. I get my imaginative strength the same as Sampson did: through my hair. It’s a fine golden hue and it pours off my head in curls like Mother’s used to. Father’s hair is light as the the room’s walls, and smells like our fish tank used to:
            Mr. Fish! We thought, then, a year ago, the cat got him:
            But the room began to smell. I looked through the glass fishbowl, hairs growing up the walls, the water alive and fuzzy and stinking. We had a little plastic red ship, sunken, torn in half, that rested in the bottom with fake seaweed as a kind of shelter and decoration. I pulled it up and green rocks tumbled from its sides. Then I pulled free Mr. Fish all slipperish in my fingers. Where I touched his body, gray scales peeled off like wet dust. I flushed him. Poor Mr. Fish—trapped in the ship meant to brighten up his home. I scrubbed down the bowl—it’s been fishless ever since—and then I said to Pop, the cat, “Darling, you didn’t eat Mr. Fish. I’m sorry for scolding.”
            The fishbowl still sits on the windowsill where Mother put it before she died, behind my chair, behind Father. It’s like a glass halo behind his head. A smell’s still strong in the air, but it’s the untidy smell of soiled clothes and trash and not of a molding, rotting fish. The laundry consists of piled socks and skid-marked underwear that belong to my father. His white hair, razzled like the light of an eclipse, is far lighter and cleaner than the underwear. He’s thrifty in the worst way, which is always.
I try not to lie to my father when I speak to him—I try to be blunt, but sometimes my imagination or my dramatic tendency or whatever you want to call it gets the best of me. Outside, through the window, the pines are blowing in the wind.
            Neither of us ever sleep much these days. Maybe that’s why I’m always lounging on the couch, but I don’t think it is. It’s fun to squirm in the big poofing pillows. The upholstery—you’ll love this—does not uphold me and I sink way down.
            “Daddy,” I say because I’m bored, “I’m tired.”
            “You can sleep.”
            “No. Oh no. Daddy, if I sleep do you think the house will clean spontaneously?” Spontaneously I just learned in English class. “Do you think it will put itself back together neat and tidy, like oil does when the water burns away?”
            “Like oil?”
            “Yes like oil.”
            He looks at me, eyebrows arched and forehead wrinkled, with that beaten, supercillious face that means he wants me to shut up. His fingers work along the serrated edges of the morning newspaper, but he rolls his head along the chairback, his face searching the ceiling, the squares of shadow and pale light that look so much, to me, like Rothko panels. My mother always liked Rothko as far as painters. She made stained glass windows, herseslf.
            I sink into the couch cushions, big, white, and puffy like the backs of swans. Now I am tired.
 
The very cold 20th of February, 1994
It’s my seventh birthday and what I don’t like about birthdays is that I have to wear a dress all the time and stockings. And pink plastic jellies. The stockings are white and stitched with red roses and the roses bulge. My dress is white and has a little blue ribbon at the waist. The bench I’m on is green velvet. Like Scarlet’s curtains in Gone with the Wind. That’s Mother’s favorite movie. In the pew in front of me is a red leather Holy Bible.
            I say as fast I can, “Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather,” but I can’t say it real fast. I’m saying “yellow yeather” on accident. Mother tells me to shush.
            The other people on the bench are old or very young. One man’s head is bald and spotted. I don’t like ugly things. I don’t like the room. It smells like a lemon basement.
            In my basement, one yellow light glows when I snap the light switch at the top of the steps—steps’ top: the snap is high and echoes. I
                                                                             snap back
                                                            and snap forth.
In the daytime, turning on the light doesn’t make the basement much lighter, but I still click the light switch to listen to the snap. In the basement are boxes of wrinkled magazines and books. Sometimes earwigs cross the carpet and I squish them with pens. The ink and old pages and dust  make me sneeze. Church smells a lot like my basement, except for the lemon smell. Lemons are supposed to smell fresh my mother says. And real ones do. It’s the fake lemon smell that’s so awful.
            The stained glass windows in church show pictures of men with long robes, straggly beards, crowns. They show pictures of men with halos and bare white feet. Mother says, “They weren’t white like us, but they’re always shown white. They are pictures of Christ and his disciples.”
            Her own stained windows hang from threaded silver wires. They look like see-through spiders in our house. One is a circle with a sun in it. Mother titled it The Sun. It sits on an iron stand on the coffee table in the middle of the living room. I like to pick it up and take it to the windowsills. The Sun is clear and pale yellow and white and sometimes I’m not sure it’s a sun, just shapes. I look through The Sun and the window glass and watch the people outside. They get all warbly like fingers. When I put The Sun up to the real sun and look at it Mother says not to. She says don’t ever at the real sun because it will boil my eyes. I know it isn’t true.
            She sits next to me in a dark blue dress that is so dark it’s soft and I smile looking at her, but she is not so pretty now. I can see her nose bones. I tell her I can, and she says they’re cartilage, not bones, and it’s not polite to talk about peoples’ noses. Her mink coat is piled up between us because Father is parking the car and he needs to sit somewhere. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit on the mink? It smells soapy. Everyone is talking.
            Mother ducks her face right to mine and I can see her wrinkles behind her blush. She whispers, “Do you like church?”
            I shake my head no. “It’s very ugly.”
            “I don’t like it either.” She pulls her black shiny purse to her lap and takes out a wrapped butterscotch. “Did you know your Sun Sign is Pisces, Anna? That’s your sign.” She smiles and tells me it means I will live in dreams. “Now don’t tell your Father—he doesn’t like me talking about that.” When she wraps the mink around my face the fur is soft. “You’re very pretty,” she says. “You look like royalty.”
            “I don’t like tea.”
            “Isn’t she adorable?” says the woman next to me, all folded and wrinkled. I can’t see her eyes because light is shining on her glasses, but I can see msyelf all stretchy.
            Father sits down in time to hear us. He has a beard that’s brown and gray. His skin, under his beard, is dented. Pocked, Mother calls it.
            “Anna is adorable,” he says. “But someday she’ll grow up and then we’ll just have to see.”
            Mother whispers, “You won’t ever grow up anymore will you? I like you like this.” She touches my cheek. Her hand is cold. “Promise me now that you will never get older.” Her fingers are pressing on my cheeks.
            I don’t want to promise. I push my hands under my dress, under my legs, lifting and wriggling in the mink. “Daddy,” I say, “do I get to open my present after church?”
            “Only if you don’t get any older—if you get even a day older you will be too old and then you’ll have to wait another year.”
            “But church is only an hour.” 
            “How old are you?” the crumpled woman asks.
            I peek at her from beneath the mink. “I’m seven. You look very old. How old are you?”
            Mother tells me I’m being impolite. She says sorry for me.
            The crumpled woman adjusts herself. “Well, what did you ask for, Anna, for your birthday?”
            I want a cat and tell her so. Then the minister talks. His voice is wet and he wears green robes and stands in front of a tub that sometimes he puts people into. I don’t think I want him to put me in. Sometimes he comes to our house with his wife and eats with us. I would like for him to eat his wife. She is very boring, and boring and ugly are pretty close. She talks about people I don’t know. If the minister ate her, maybe he’d have enough food and would stop coming to dinner.
            Everyone stands and starts singing. Not me. I’m hiding in the mink, looking out through the long hairs that are like needles on a Christmas wreath, and the light is soft and I feel soft. The people stand in rows like dumb soldiers. They sing long and dull songs, songs with Hallelujah, songs with Him. The H is a capital and I know it. They end them all with Amen. The voices tick tock the Amens. I want my present. Tick tock tick tock. Amens, Bibles open, Bibles close. The minister tells us to pray. He says Mrs. Alabaster. He says Mr. Harrington’s brother. He says Mrs. Adams and I look at Mother, and he says other names but I don’t pay attention. He always says Mrs. Adams and Mother always smiles with her lips closed. She never closes her eyes and I don’t, but Father closes his. She blinks and takes my hand and squeezes it. 
 
The present is wrapped and round. I frown at Father. He smiles sort of in his beard. Sometimes he tells me he didn’t always have a beard. But I tell him that Mother says he always did. He says he didn’t have one before he met her. At night he takes me outside and tries to put my hand in his and points at stars with his other hand. Constellations he calls them. I can see the Big Dipper but the rest just look like stars. He tells me that he does something called astronomy and it’s the closest thing to studying heaven. I ask is it closer than the Bible, and he tells me I’m a very sly girl. He ruffles my hair with his hand.
            Mother is with him now and she says, “Open it.” She touches his shoulder, puts her arm through his.
            I put my fingers between the gold and white striped wrapping tissue, in the seam. Something hard is beneath them. I pull at the strips of scotch tape. The wrapping rips and I rip all the tissues and it’s a glass bowl. It’s a fishbowl, and a single goldfish flips his fins in the water. Tears are in my eyes and I’m saying, “But I wanted a cat.” I turn to Father and tell him, but he walks away.
            “Anna May Adams,” Mother says. She kneels beside me and pulls me close to her with her arm around my waist. “Anna, you know we can’t have a kitty.” I am looking at Father, at his dropped eyes and at the beard hiding his mouth. I feel Mother’s arms brush across my dress and she sits back on her heels, holding my wrists in her hands. I see her veins bulky in her arms and the skin spotty and freckly. My skin is clean. She shakes me in her hands, and I’m crying. “Anna! You know we can’t have a kitty.” She stops and closes her eyes very tight like I do when I wish for things like crowns. “And goldfish are prettier. And the bowl—see how pretty the glass is? Kitties don’t get glass bowls. They drink from dirty ones on the floor. Isn’t this prettier? It can go in the window so the sun can shine through it.” She picks up the bowl and the fish and puts them on the windowsill. Light is in the water and on the fish, making lines. 
            “It’s pretty like your windows,” I tell her. I walk to the bowl and look closely at the fish and press my face up against the glass and wonder what the fish thinks. He must think, Anna May Adams, your eyes are puffy and ugly and red. And he’s right. I can see them in the fishbowl, and it makes my nose look wide too. My nose is not wide but it bumps up at the end a little. The fish darts in the water, to the other side, then swims back and darts again. It’s a stupid fish. I step back and put my hands around the base of the bowl and tilt it.
            “Anna!” Mother says.
            I shake it back and forth and watch the water spill up over the sides and watch the light swell with the bubbles.
            “Anna!” Mother runs to me. She presses the fishbowl down from the top and I can’t shake it anymore. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she says. Father has left the room. She says, “Don’t you ever, ever shake your fish like that.”
            “Thank you Daddy, thank you for the goldfish.” I say it loud, at the room, and smile. I like being a sly girl. “I’m going to name him Mr. Fish,” I tell my mother. 
 
Mr. Fish and I swim through the days watching the house bend with the glass where it’s thick. Mother’s skin is loose and it wags from her arms and falls from her face. She’s filthy. Sometimes she goes to the hospital for the day. Mostly she stays at home and works on her windows in the garage, in her studio. She works on one red window a long time. Copper wires and lead and glass pieces are everywhere in the garage. There’s a light table, too. Sometimes I sit on it with the light turned on and it warms my bottom and I feel like I’m all lit up. But it hurts my eyes when I look down between my legs.
            The minister comes to dinner, still, and it’s always when I don’t want him to. When he does I sit in my throne at the window and talk with Mr. Fish. “Mr. Fish, you are very smooth. You have no hairs.” Mr. Fish is handsome that way. The minister is not. He’s hairy and I dislike like him because when he thinks I can’t hear he talks about cancer. But of course I can hear because they all get quiet. People must think I’m dumb. Maybe I’m dumb. But one night Mother says to the minister she doesn’t want pity and tells him to leave. He doesn’t come back, and she stops going to church. Father still goes though with me. He says that maybe I’d like to be baptised. That’s getting put in the water. When the gold trays with little clear cups of red dark liquid pass he lets me drink one. It tastes like grape juice. I don’t know why grape juice is a big deal.
            Mostly we stay home. And I go to school, too, but I don’t like it. When my best friend Sarah comes to the house, we walk around looking at each other through the stained glass windows, and one time she looks like a penis and I tell her, so she cries. She says it’s a bad word, but that’s how she looks. I know it because boys have showed me pictures. I told Mother boys had showed a dick but she said it’s a penis and not to touch it.
            When it’s Christmas, Father and I buy her a black velvet bathrobe. She takes it in her hands and rubs it over her cheeks. She wears it all around the house with her hair up in a bun at the back of her head. She looks like a queen. I say, “Mommy, come sit in the throne with me and Mr. Fish.”
            “Of course.” Her eyes are wide and dark. “We can make Daddy run around the house and fetch us things. We’ll make him bring us chocolates.”
 
I hear the word cancer still, through my bedroom door at night. Mother and Father think I can’t hear them say it, but they’re stupid. Not me. I hear them and it makes me hate them. “It’s the lux,” she says. That’s the stuff in the windows that sticks the copper together. She showed me once. 
            Father doesn’t talk much anymore. He passes and pats my head. He squeezes my shoulders. Sometimes he looks at me a long time like he’s trying to remember something that’s hard. Maybe he’s trying to remember how to spell Saskatchewan.
 
It’s January of the new year, and Mother has finally finished the red window. I call it Red. It’s a circle of red shapes that get darker and darker at the center, all stuck to each other with thick black copper. She hangs it over her bed. I prefer the whites of The Sun, and really Red looks very like The Sun but it is so dark red and the lines are so much thicker and blacker. Father asks her to take it down but she won’t. Mr. Fish is jealous of it, I think. She used to look at him with me but now she stays in her room.
When I visit her room she’s cloaked in bed covers. We both look at Red hanging over us.
            “It’s pretty Mommy. But The Sun is my favorite.”
            “I’m glad you like that one best.”
            “Don’t you too?”
            She looks at her dressers and the lines of photographs on top and her jewelry. Her mink coat ruffles out of the closet. “Would you like to wear it?” she asks. “Go put it on.”
            The sleeves hang over my hands. Mother pulls at the collar and rubs it in her fingers. “I want you to have it. Promise me you’ll keep it.” She says, “Anna, you know I love you.” She pushes up the sleeves and holds my hands in hers. I feel her velvet robe on my skin. Sometimes I imagine she’s just the robe, so soft, loose. I run my hands along it and over her wrists. I feel her veins through her skin.
            In the morning the snow’s piled up in heaps. It looks like the yard is covered in giant marshmallows. Mother is in the shower and Father tells me to shovel the walk. Usually he shovels, but today he’s lazy and I tell him so. He helps me dress into snow pants, pulling them up around me and pressing my tummy. They’re bright pink. I wear a white coat and a white hat with mittens, and I feel all puffed like a marshmallow too, except for the pink.
            The outside smells clean. Cold things almost always smell clean. I wander in the snow with the shovel, pushing it in zig zags for us to walk through because it’s more fun that way. I look at the sky, and the sky is gray but the snow that falls out of it is white, and isn’t that strange? It’s still snowing when an ambulance comes, moving fast. Wouldn’t it be awful if it crashed because of the snow? Ambulances are always moving fast and always going somewhere, but I never see where, except that I know they go to hospitals. But this ambulance stops in front of me, in the street. Men run out and slip and run up the sidewalk and mess up my zig zag. I follow them back into the house and try to follow them to the bathroom, but Father stops me. He tells me to stay in my room. I am very hot inside in my winter things and the snow is melting on me. I listen to the voices and the sounds the men make walking and moving, and when I don’t hear anything I pry back the door and go down the hall that glows yellow even though the walls are painted white. Some yellows are pretty, but this is more gray and brown like a squash. My mother likes things beautiful, so I don’t know why she doesn’t change the hall. And I’m looking real close at the painted wood of the bathroom door when I open it. 
            Father pulls me away, but I can still see the room in my head, the bathtub full of red water, and I’m crying. He says we have to go to the hospital and then we can see Mommy again and she’s okay. But he’s so stupid, just like Mr. Fish.
           
Mother does not get better, and I’m not allowed to see her. The doctor tells me she moved on, but I hear what they say when I leave the room. They think I’m so dumb that I can’t hear. Maybe they can’t hear. They say she took aspirin and cut her wrists.
            When we get home I walk into Mother and Father’s room. I swing Red against the wall and smash it and the glass falls on my hands and arms. A few pieces get in my skin, but I don’t bleed much. Father runs and takes me away, and he pulls out the glass with tweezers and pours peroxide on my hands. I like the way peroxide stings.
           
Everyone’s nice to me afterwards. Very damn nice, Father says. He says he wasn’t planning on it but gives me a kitten when I turn eight. Mother was allergic but he isn’t. The kitten smells a little the way socks smell. He jokes that I should name her Virgo, but won’t tell me why it’s funny. I should name her Pisces if I’m going to name her after a stupid constellation because I’m a Pisces, but he says I’m a girl and a person and signs are made up. He’s an astronomer, he says, not an astrologist, and there’s a difference. But I don’t understand. And I don’t understand when he tells me to pray for Mother.
            I name my kitten Pop, and when Sarah comes to see him we hold Pop up to the fishbowl and watch Pop watch Mr. Fish. Sarah calls it playing but I think it’s boring. I say we should throw Mr. Fish back and forth and keep away from Pop, but she won’t. She has clean arms. They’re too clean. I try hard to keep mine dirty. I scrape them along desks, along fences. I write math on them and play tic tac toe, hangman, and practice my cursive. I cover them in mud and let it dry. When I scrub them off they turn red.
 
April 5, 2000
“Daddy, I want a new fish,” I say. “I miss having a goldfish.”
            He crinkles the newspaper in his fingers.
            I’m scrunched up like an N in the pillows, and he sits at my feet and sighs, regarding the ceiling again with a deadish gaze. He rests his right hand on my knee, rapping my jeans, pressing firmly with each rap. When I place my palm on his hand to stop him, he slips his fingers along the curve under my thumb. He says, “But aren’t you tired?”
            “I don’t want to sleep. I want a new fish.”
            “You’re very damn spoiled, aren’t you?”
            “Am I?”
            “Yes.”
            My hair cuts and curls in front of my eyes, flaxen blurs that fade to soft browns at the bottoms where they grow long. The sun bleaches my hair lighter the higher up you go in the summer. In the winter, it’s really much duller. More uniformly wheatberry, I suppose, but in the summer people are always telling me how pretty it is. Angelic is a word I hear a lot, and it’s not one that I like. I watch Father’s fingers trace the lines of my kneecap. I pull my hand from his and drop it in the pillows. “I just want to get a fish,” I tell him. “It’s not like I’m asking for a horse or a fucking car.” I slouch deeper in the cushions. “Just a fish.”
            Pop strolls around the couch purring and hops up because he wants attention. I plop him in my lap—such a darling kitty, such thin long fur, even softer than my mink—he looks at me cross-eyed, then pushes his head against my nose. If I pet him too much he’ll paw me, and if I don’t stop he’ll scratch. Silly Pop.
            “Come on.” I slip onto the floor with Pop in my hands, arms outstretched. His legs splay in the air. Super kitty. “Come on,” I sing to Father, “let’s get a new goldfish.” I turn to Pop. “Let’s all go. Pop will come too. He can paw at which one he wants.”
            “We’re not taking the cat,” Father says. “And please don’t speak like a child.”
            “Ob, but you like me like a child,” I say, using my sophisticated voice. It’s my little way of giving him what he wants.
            “Don’t speak to me ever like that.” He grabs my hands, and I drop Pop to the floor. He arches his back and rubs against me. I dig my nails into Father’s skin. His eyes are placid and so flat. “Don’t ever,” he says.
            “We’re all going, Daddy. We’re getting a new fish.” I watch him for a long time, until Pop gets bored and starts to bite at my toes. I say quietly, “Let go.”
 
It doesn’t matter so much about the goldfish I want—that it’s spotted and ugly—I know it can’t be Mr. Fish. I actually ended up loving Mr. Fish, but I don’t think I realized it until he was dead—poor Mr. Fish! To die trapped in that ship! So maybe I can’t love this fish but I don’t plan to. That’s why Father won’t buy just the one, though. He buys two—because I have to let one go. Because if I let the only fish go and we bring home no fish then I’ll want another fish, and still another, and he’ll have to keep driving  me. Sometimes the man, old as he is, understands a situation remarkably. Even a slippery one.
Pop romps around in the car searching for a place just dark enough to pretend everything’s okay. He hates driving, and I’m sorry I insisted he should come. He wasn’t any help picking out fish, anyway.
            “You know it’s silly to let that fish go,” Father says. “It won’t survive.”
            I smile and lean forward with the seatbelt pressed between my breasts, which exaggerates them, which is fine. I run my fingers along the steering wheel and drag them to his hand, to the river. His hair is very white and his beard gone. There is only the dented skin now and the faint stubble. He squints across the dash as I curl my fingers into his. I feel the old scars, the hairs, the place where his fingernails run into the skins. I feel the heat of his fingers in mine and the cool of the fish in my lap, swimming round and round in a plastic bag. The world passes to the country, to wheat fields and cottonwoods all green and brown like decaying broccoli. I’m a bit hungry and wouldn’t mind broccoli, steamed.
            We stop in the wheat fields that span the valley of the Paradise River. Close to the river are the trees and the pricks of fence posts that probably used to hold up barbed wire. There’s cow shit in the weeds by the car, and I smell it strongly. Along the fence runs an overgrown dirt road, leading to an old bridge of iron and rotted wood.
            Outside the car I hold the fish in my right hand and say in my kindest voice, “Daddy, you know I hate you.”
            “You love me,” he says.
            The bag sparkles with flashes of yellows and orange. I hold it at my chest and laugh and begin singing some nonsense about chapels, and then I realize it’s that old song by the Dixie Cups and my version isn’t half as good, but I don’t care too much. I’m walking and twirling down the road. Father follows, Pop in his arms. We all go in procession toward the trees and the bridge.
            The shadows of the cottonwoods spread like blood vessels across the dirt and the mud and the slow, heavy water that pulses and pulses. I tuck the fish beneath my shirt and call out my song and the notes are perfect now. I like the world outside, the clean smell of the grass and the moving river. My two fish are close to my breasts, the bag cold and squishy, and I’m running and I can hear Father behind me but I reach the bridge first. I take off my clothes.              
            “What are you doing?” he calls. Maybe he thinks it’s okay, still.
            “I don’t want dirty clothes,” I say. I shuffle my jeans off and step in the water in my underwear and squinch the mud in my feet. Each little toe. And I look for glass. Beer bottles are broken in the dirt, but I don’t like brown glass, so I walk through the mud until I find a clear triangular scrap. I pick it up with my right hand, careful not to drop the fish with my left, and run it under my nose and smell the earth. Maybe it belonged to a rum bottle once, or a vodka bottle. I slit the top of the fish bag just an inch, and twist it so that one fish is trapped beneath the other, and I wade to my waist in the river. The water pushes me a little bit up with each step as I lift my feet, as if I’m walking on a liquid moon. “Is that what moon river means?”
            Father doesn’t answer. He’s running up the bank, his reflection flickering at the edge of the shore.
            I pour the top goldfish from the bag and tell it goodbye.
            Father is still holding Pop, petting his head but he’s scratching at Father’s arms and at the air.
            “Won’t you come out now?” Father asks.
            I don’t know exactly. I like the water buoying me about, so cold. The current rises and falls at my waist and I feel the cold climb my legs from my knees, and pull at my crotch, and fall away and run thick and flat into the big swirl holes. The bridge’s pine boards above me are marred with burned sap and tar. They are bound and strapped and stitched with rusted iron beams and iron bolts, but they’ve warped apart and the light of the sun needles through. I wade through the shadows in zig zags and toss the other little fish to Father when I’m close. The sack lands on the ground and untwists and the little fish flops and flops in the mud. I bet Pop would love to wriggle free of his arms and eat up the little fish, but Father holds him tight. Unshakeable man. “Oh Pop,” I call. “You are just hysterical.”
            When I step out of the shade the sun warms my skin. I sit down in the river. I drag the glass through my left palm and between my thumb and forefinger and over the top of my hand. I only bleed a little and it sort of stings, and the edge of the glass is red. I hold the glass to the sun so that the line of red is full of light, and it’s beautiful. Father runs into the water and begins to pull me, his fingers digging in the skin under my arms. He’s finally dropped the damned cat. I thrust my head into the water, before he drags me out, and for a moment my eyes are so wide beneath the waves, and I’m there with the fish, seeing the rocks and the sand so clearly and the shapes of light at the top of the river,  just like them. 
 
– Evelyn B. Hirschworth