August, 2013. Issue 41. We're Ba-ack!
What are we looking for in fiction? Find out here.
by Verless Doran
She had to pee. There weren't too many places for her to go. So she just went right there on the side of the road. He watched for cars. When she got done she wiped with her middle finger and then wiped that on her skirt. Then she said, Alright. And they started walking again.
The road they were walking on was Old Watauga Highway. It runs between Bluff City and Elizabethton. There ain't much between Bluff City and Elizabethton. A few farms. A few cows. A few signs stuck on the side of the road saying things like Honey 4 Sale and Jesus Saves and Vote for John "Big Un" Sutton for Sherriff. There's a few miles of fenceposts and ever once in a while there is an abandoned car and on this day there is Roger and Kim walking. A lot of trucks use the Old Watauga Highway on account of it's a good way to bypass the scales up on I-81. It's a long way out of the way, but if you're overloaded, or if you're hauling something you shouldn't be, it pays to take the Old Watauga Highway. Some cars take it. Especially on Sundays. It's a nice drive if you've got a car you ain't worried about breaking down on you and you've got a full tank of gas and you ain't got nothing else to do after church. Roger and Kim didn't have a car at all. And they hadn't been to church. But this road was where they needed to be. It was what they needed to do.
Roger fished a piece of a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He straightened it out. Put it in his mouth. Fished a pack of matches out of shirt pocket. Got it going. Took a drag. Handed it over to Kim.
Here. He said.
She took it. Dragged on it. Handed it back.
A car came up the road behind them. All red and shining. Couldn't see in through the windshield because of the sun. Didn't have to see in there to know what the people inside was looking at. They was looking at Roger's ass hanging out the back of his pants. Wasn't trying to be cool though. Roger just didn't have any pants that fit him. And he gave up on keeping them up a long time ago. Didn't seem to be much reason to. They was looking at the soles of his sneakers flopping. His thin, straggly hair that hadn't been washed in days. His dirty jeans torn out at the knees. They was looking at Kim's too short dress and the fatness of her ass curved up in under the hem, the flat line of it where her legs started. The pink stretch marks going out and down, the little pockets of cellulite shaking. They was looking at above the dress, at the little rolls of fat and then the tank top shirt trying to hold everything of Kim inside. Stretched out. She was all stretched out. Roger was too thin but not from being stretched out. He was too thin from being pressed down. Kim was too stretched out. Her blonde and black and red hair long and thick. Her flip flops slapping against her fat, dirty feet. Kim was looking down at the ground. So was Roger. Neither one of them had too many teeth. The car made a wide berth to miss them. Somebody in the car honked the horn, as if to tell them they were coming. And then passed. And the people in the car might have looked in their rearview mirror for one last look at Roger and Kim. And then again they might not have.
Kim said her feet was hurting her.
Roger said he knew it.
Kim said she wished they had a car.
Roger said to shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first.
Roger said, You alright? But he didn't look at her when he said it.
She didn't look at him either. Yeah, she said. She spit in the dust.
Roger said, It'll be alright, baby.
I know it. Kim said.
They didn't say nothing for a long time. Just walked. Then Kim said, Let's not ever do that again, okay?
Let's just get on home.
She coughed again. Spit. She said, We need help, baby.
I know it. Roger said.
There was a busload of kids came up behind them. The sign painted on the side of the bus said MT ZION BAPTIST CHURCH. One of the kids hollered something at them as they passed. Roger and Kim must not have heard it. They didn't say nothing if they did.
Kim was lagging behind. She was breathing hard. Roger stopped to let her catch up. When she caught up, he started walking again. She followed. After a while she said, I wish we had some money.
Roger said, I do too.
They walked for a while. Then she said, You know what I would do if I had some money?
What would you do?
I'd move down to Myrtle Beach.
Yeah. We went on vacation there when I was ten year old. Did I show you the pictures?
You showed me.
She smiled. Toothless. Fat lips stretched. Fat eyes squinted. Fat cheeks pushed up into them. She said, I think that was the happiest time in my life. Daddy was working then. Wasn't drinking. Daddy never drunk when he was working. I'll have to say that for him.
That's saying something. Roger said.
Used to sit in the sand all day long. Push my toes down into it. Scrunch them all up. It was so cool. Down there in the sand. All hot and burning on top. All cool and wet at the bottom. I'd get my brother to bury me in it. All the way up to my head. Just lay there all day long. Buried. Wasn't nothing that could happen to me.
Roger was looking down at the ground. He said, What about your head? Something could have happened to your head.
I know it. Kim said. But I was too scared to put my head under the sand.
You would have suffocated.
Roger didn't say nothing. Just kept walking. Looking at the ground. At the side of the road.
Kim said, I wish we had some money.
A cop car pulled up behind them. Lights flashing. The cop flicked the siren quick. Made it bleep. Just enough to herald his arrival. Roger and Kim stopped walking. The cop put the car in park. Rooted around inside for a minute. Let them stand there for a while. There was no breeze. There was the sun. Hot. Hard. The cop got out. Stepped out real slow. Adjusted his hat. Adjusted his belt. Adjusted his sunglasses. Let the door close. Walked real slow up to Roger and Kim. Put his feet down hard. He wasn't near as big as he thought he was. But he had the badge. He had the gun. He was bigger than Roger and Kim who didn't have nothing. He come up and stood in front of them. Looked them over good. Then he scooted his sunglasses down to the end of his nose and looked them over again. Then he said, "I've seen you two before, ain't I?"
Roger said, No sir.
The cop looked. Said, "You sure?"
Roger said, Yes sir.
"What's your name, boy?"
The cop looked. "How old are you Roger?"
"You go to school, Roger?"
"You work anywhere?"
The cop wrote in his notepad. Then he looked at Roger. "What do you do, then?"
"Did I stutter?"
"What do you do?"
Roger looked at the ground. He said, I don't do nothing.
"You being smart?"
The cop wrote. hen he looked at Kim.
"How about you?"
She said, Kim Suttles.
The cop flipped the pad over to a new page. Then he said, "How old are you, Kim?"
"Where you two kids live at?"
Roger said, Bluff City.
The cop said, "Bluff City." He wrote. Then he said, "What y'all doing walking on the side of the road?"
Roger said, Looking for cans.
The cop looked at his pad. He looked up the road. He looked at Roger. Looked at Kim. Roger had been fucked up by cops before. Kim had been fucked by cops before. Both were to keep them out of trouble. Roger was scared of cops. Roger was scared of everything.
We ain't hurting nobody. Roger said.
The cop started to say something, then a big rig come barreling down the road. Mustn't have seen the cop sitting there on the side of the road. It was just on the other side of a curve. The cop stuck his notepad in his pocket quick. Said something into the radio on his shoulder. Told Roger and Kim to get on back home. Got in his car. Drove after the truck. Lights flashing. Siren blazing.
Roger and Kim went back to walking. They didn't say much to each other. They just walked. Looking down at the ground.
After a while Roger hollered and pointed. Up there!
Kim said, What?
Roger started running. His heels flapping against the half gravel, half pavement of the shoulder. Kim came after him. He got up the road a ways and then bent over and picked something up out of the grass. Kim come up to him. Looked. It was an old muddy water bottle. It was filled up with yellow liquid.
Roger was unscrewing the lid.
Kim said, I don't think I can.
Roger said, You can do it, baby.
She said, You first.
Okay. He lifted the bottle to his lips. Swigged. Drank. Halfway down. He didn't stop. Not once. That's how you do it. He said. Don't think about it.
She took the bottle from him. Looked at it a long time. He pushed it up to her lips. She drank. Coughed. Swallowed. Took the bottle away. Breathed. Coughed. Drank again until it was gone. She tossed the bottle into the grass. They walked.
After a while, Kim asked Roger if he was high yet.
Roger said he wasn't.
Kim said she wasn't either. And then she started to cry.
Table of Contents
by Julie LaVoice
Dr. John wishes other people's bereavement bothered him. He has watched this scene play out so many times before: anguished parents, usually out of touch with the worlds their children inhabit. With habitual small wonder at his lack of feeling, he leads the Salinis to drawer 19.
Mr. and Mrs. George Salini enter the morgue at Big Charity like wraiths, thin and transparent. They float beside Dr. John's staccato footsteps, Mrs. Salini clutching her husband's arm with white-gloved hands. They both wear black, cashmere winter coats, though it is seventy degrees outside. They flew down from Detroit. Dr. John imagines November is colder there.
John lifts the heavy steel handle and rolls out the metal slab. With practiced hands he folds down the sheet. The Salinis hang back. George Salini holds his wife by her shoulders. The woman is frozen in place, one gloved hand pressed to her mouth as if holding something in: a scream, a sob, a question. John cannot tell. He clears his throat, tries to catch Mr. Salini's eyes.
"Please, I know this is difficult, but would you not rather know for sure?" The words echo in the tiled room, lined with its numbered drawers, bookshelves in a sterile library. Dr. John has said these words before. He feels incapable of coming up with something better, or at least adequate. The words are a lie because he does not know, is in fact incapable of knowing the difficulty level of identifying a daughter's body. He has observed grief second-hand enough to realize that, like sex, one cannot really know a particular joy or pain until it is experienced first-hand. So, he does not presume. He only knows these are words he should say at this moment.
The Salinis do not reply, but they shuffle forward as one animal, eyes wide, Mrs. Salini's hand still pressed to her mouth. The heavy, steel door blocks their view of the slab, pulled out to chest level, and what lies upon it. Dr. John waves them closer with one brown hand. He feels like a naked man in a trench coat beckoning innocent children, a pervert, a ghoul. The symptoms of shock are clear, and his analytical mind takes notes, makes lists, divides the Salinis' white faces and tight hands into categories of shock and denial.
The couple glides around the door to drawer 19. John imagines the moments for them that led to this one: A phone call in the middle of the night, the worst possible news of a wayward child they had neither spoken to nor had any word of in months. Hasty packing, clothes crushed into a duffel bag, coats thrown on, plane tickets purchased at an emergency discount. And then a midnight flight to a humid and somehow ancient parish, so different from the crisp air and fast-paced industry of their native city. They arrive in the morning to strange smells and sounds: the sewer stink of the French Quarter that native noses forget, the notes of street-corner saxophones. And now: the symptoms of shock are clear.
Mrs. Salini– John never learns her first name– looks down at the body of her daughter. Her hand falls from her mouth, but no sound is released. The hand flutters near her daughter's waxen face, over the spill of pale yellow hair. George Salini's voice does not break when he asks the inevitable question. He is still a ghost; the clay reality of death has not shocked him back to life.
"How?" Just the one word, but Dr. John knows what the man means. First there are formalities; the doctor's own question must be answered.
"Forgive me, but is this the body of Donna Marie Salini, your daughter?" John pushes his wire-framed glasses up his nose with one finger; it is an old, nervous gesture. He tries to set his face in the appropriate expression, a mixture of concern and compassion. It is a mask. Inside, the only true emotion he feels is boredom. The dead hold more interest than the predictable living. Mrs. Salini nods and speaks for the first time in John's presence.
"Donna Maria," she corrects in a voice small and quiet. She tears off her glove and laces her fingers in her daughter's almost white hair. "My beautiful Donna Maria." Dr. John watches as she averts her eyes from the bruise on her daughter's left cheek that purpled the flesh there in almost the exact shape of a hand.
"She had terrible taste in boyfriends," George Salini croaks suddenly, voice so loud Dr. John almost jumps. Mrs. Salini looks more closely at Donna Maria's body. Her fingers hover over the bruises on the girl's hands, so the young woman almost looks like she's wearing purple gloves. The mother looks up, a question riding her face. John explains.
"Those are defensive wounds, Ma'am. She tried to protect herself." John watches the mother's reaction carefully. Her eyes gleam under her upswept hair. Her chin quivers, then firms.
"Good," she says, before she turns away. Mr. Salini starts after her, but then he looks back and stoops over his daughter's body. John can see the vein in the older man's forehead standing out as he leans down and gives his daughter a kiss on her cold cheek. John tries to imagine what the man is feeling, what this kiss is like for him. After an agonizing second, John stops trying. He will never have children. He had tried dating back in medical school, but women were confused by his chosen specialty. They could not understand his fascination, his delight in the stories the dead could tell, how his mind worked in flash-frozen calculations of minutiae: novels in a fiber, poems in a hair found under a fingernail. They were repulsed and let down by his lack of response to those who could breathe and sweat and feel.
Mr. Salini straightens up quickly and follows his wife out of the morgue. They leave Dr. John to roll Donna Maria Salini back into the unit, to close the door to drawer 19, before following the bereaved up to his office where they will sign the necessary release forms and arrange to have their daughter sent home.
John knows she will take the same plane as her parents, riding below them in the cargo hold while they sit upright above, belted into their sears and maybe each taking a valium to calm their nerves for the trip. John knows they will leave this country of heat, swamp, music, and color with all its painful associations. They will forever link John's home, his hospital, and his face with the most painful experience of their lives. Somewhere in their minds, Mr. and Mrs. George Salini will blame Dr. John for the loss of their daughter. (The twenty-year-old hood who beat her to death behind the tracks at the river front will never be found.) When they think of this day in years to come, they will recall the smooth, dark planes of the doctor's face, the appalling white of his lab coat, the fact that he could not once bring himself to give them the simplest of human gestures: a smile.
Later, after the Salinis have gone, John eats a sandwich at his desk. He washes down the bread, mustard, and turkey with his one evening beer, thinks of having another, but knows that for him –like the knowledge of grief for a child– this is impossible. He is a creature of habit, tightly controlled, and too fastidious to give in to messy emotions or petty desires. To give in, whether to a second beer or the luxury of sentiment, would ruin him for cutting open young girls, dissecting and weighing their internal organs, and keeping the clarity of thought necessary for pure diagnosis. Sentimentality, he knows, cannot serve a man of his vocation because in the morning Drawer 19 will be empty and waiting to be filled with another story.
Amman Briggs rushed over the cobbles beside Canal Street late for work, again. Lent killed the tourism of Mardi Gras and money was tight for the wait staff that worked the French Quarter's restaurants. Amman glanced at his watch and quickened his step, shiny black shoes moving over the cobble stones in quick, short strides. The moist wool blanket of humidity wrapped around him, soaking his dark hair until it hung in limp curls around his face. By the time he reached the restaurant, his dry-cleaned and starched white shirt was drenched with sweat.
The manager at The Court of the Two Sisters was a big man with heavy jowls and cheeks that flushed blood red when he was angry, like now. His booming voice rang off the kitchen tiles as he leaned over Amman using his football-player body to intimidate Amman's own smaller, slender frame.
"We have standards here at this establishment," the manager said. "You will not serve our guests looking like that." He jabbed his index finger at Amman's sweat soaked shirt. "I needed you here at noon. I you can't be here on time, why bother coming in at all?"
"I thought I'd give it the ol' college try, boss," Amman replied, not without sarcasm. The big man took half a step closer to Amman, fists clenched at his sides, but then he stopped and shoved his hands in his pockets. His words ground out between clenched teeth.
"This is the fifth time this month, Amman. Fifth time is the last time." Amman left the restaurant one paying job lighter.
Nursing his fourth White Russian in Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, Amman pulled the battered notebook from his jacket pocket where it lived, unclipped his pen, and began to write. He preferred the candlelight of Lafitte's to the electric glare of the computer screen. He fancied himself another Poe, writing out manuscripts longhand in the dark. His pen maintained a steady scritch-scritch on the paper while the milky liquid shrank in the glass at his elbow.
"I hear great words from bearded men in red-wine rooms," Amman mumbled the words aloud as he wrote. A woman on the next stool threw the tattered end of a black and gold feather boa over her shoulder, sniffed loudly, and moved further down the bar. Amman kept scribbling, despite the fact that he wrote about absolutely nothing. The phrase ol' college try swam in futile circles through his mind.
Several drinks later, Amman admitted the story was no good. He'd created an interesting setting, but the character was merely a two-dimensional version of Amman himself. The man did nothing. He revealed nothing. Amman pushed the notebook away, disgusted. He longed to give readers a mythology wherein they could see themselves. He wanted to show valor, true self-sacrificing, glorious courage. But he wondered: did valor even exist anymore? He traced one finger down the deep grooves of graffiti carved into the bar. The wood felt pliable, worn smooth as silk by three hundred years of fingers and elbows such as his. Lafitte's was the oldest bar in the United States; it had peddled ale and spirits since the 1730's. Every succeeding generation had marked the place for its own deep in the wood. The walls as well were covered with names and dates, and underneath these older messages writhed like ghosts in the grain. This place of pirates must have seen valor, or at least its red-light equivalent.
Amman snapped the notebook shut and stuffed it in his pocket. The slick touch of the moleskin cover felt reptilian and he snatched his hand away, momentarily afraid the book would turn and bite him. He stood and the room pirouetted. How many White Russians was it? Seven? Eight? A whole ballet troop? The room righted itself, and Amman walked to the street shoulders slumped with the knowledge that in the morning he'd have to explain to Alex why he'd lost another job.
He missed Rue Royal and waded blearily down the main strip of bars that made Bourbon Street famous. Those who partied and drank here, stumbling from bar to bar in loose formations, were like out of season migrating birds. They'd been fooled by the warm climate. They didn't understand that Mardi Gras was over. Amman came to the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann just as a small car arrived at the stop sign. As Amman turned the corner, his eyes swam and he touched the brick of the corner bar to steady himself. The car didn't move on through the intersection.
Strange, Amman thought. He wiped his eyes and looked around. There were no other cars at the intersection and still this one just sat there, idling in the dark like a beast in a fairy tale. The passenger door opened and out leapt a six and a half foot tall drag queen wearing a white fringed bikini that hid very little and spiked high heels that were at least size thirteen. Her arms were thin but muscular, a fact Amman observed closely when one of them drove against his neck and shoved his head against the brick wall. The queen put her face close to his, Adam's apple bobbing with every word.
"Give me your wallet," she hissed. Her eyes flashed like a cat's in the streetlight. Amman balled his right hand into a fist and swung. He heard a sick smack and pain shot through his hand. Cradling it in the crook of his arm, he tried to run on weaving legs and tripping feet. The queen recovered too fast and slashed at Amman's face with an open palm. Amman saw metal gleam in the streetlight just before something ripped above his left eye. He pushed at her, but she was shrieking now in high and wordless rage. Her rigid palm slapped his cheek, and pain flowered there. Liquid filled Amman's eye so that her face swam in the ruddy dark. He screamed and struck out, half blind. His hands found flesh and he pushed as hard as he could. He heard something heavy hit the ground, so he took the chance and ran.
When Alex asked him how he made it to the ER, he couldn't tell her. He barely remembered making the call to her house, mumbling some half coherent explanation into the receiver before the impatient nurse led him to the suture room. Forty-seven stitches later, Amman found Alex standing over him, her face pale in the fluorescent lights, ready to take him home. She helped him into his jacket. His hand flew to the inside breast pocket. He felt the notebook nestled there. Relief flooded him and he gave the notebook a hard squeeze before he let Alex, his weight supported by her smaller frame, lead him out of the hospital to her waiting jeep. She helped him climb in. She even bucked his seatbelt. Amman's chest grew tight at the thought of disappointing her again. He had been viciously attacked. Maybe she'd be too full of sympathy to be angry about his lost job.
Alex didn't speak as she pulled out of the hospital parking lot and onto the road. She didn't question him or shriek at him as his mother might have done. She just drove and waited for him to speak. Amman moaned and touched his cheek, looking at her sideways.
"Does it hurt badly?" she asked.
"The doctor said they were razor blades. He had them between his fingers." It was suddenly important to refer to the queen with the masculine pronoun, to emphasize to Alex that it was a man who had cut his face to ribbons. "Another quarter inch, and he would have struck my eye." He felt Alex's warm fingers press against his hand.
"My God," she said. "Do you want to come home with me?" He almost said yes, but the last remaining vestiges of his conscience nagged at him.
"There's more. I lost my job today, and I ran up a sixty dollar tab at Lafitte's." He heard her inhale a deep breath and let it out, slowly. Dear God, he thought, is she counting to ten? Her warm fingers disappeared and she drove the last few blocks to Amman's building. She leaned over the gear shift and gently kissed his cheek, careful to avoid the cotton bandage that covered his stitches.
"I'll watch 'til you get upstairs," she said. Amman looked through the red curtain of her hair to his building beyond. This late at night the place looked dark, cheerless.
"What happened to staying at your place?" He tried to keep his voice light, to smile, but smiling hurt his cheek.
"The doctor said to keep the stitches dry, so when you shower, try to clean around them. He gave me some extra bandages for you." She pulled a plastic bag colored hospital blue from her purse and handed it to him. Her eyes shone in the light from the streetlamp. He tried to think of the right words, anything to make her stop, make her stay, but his throat closed up on him. "We'll talk tomorrow, Amman. Go get some rest." She drove away.
The bag Alex had given him crackled as he fumbled with the door lock. There was the unmistakable rattle of pills in a plastic bottle. Good Nurse Alex must have filled his prescriptions at the hospital pharmacy. Inside, Amman flicked the light switch, but nothing happened. He must have forgotten to pay the bill, again. Cursing and stumbling his way to the bedroom, he dared a piece of furniture to bark his shins. It would be a fitting end to the day.
He made it to the bedroom unscathed and managed to take off his jacket. He got both bottles of pills open, but spilled his spare bandages on the floor. The cotton wads taped to his face itched, so he pulled them off. He couldn't read the labels in the dark, but figured one bottle was an antibiotic, the other a painkiller. He dry-swallowed one of each and, as his bedroom ceiling spun in lazy circles above, he realized he was still drunk.
Amman awoke to late afternoon sunlight pouring through the bedroom window. His tongue felt like a furry caterpillar stuck to the roof of his mouth. His head and face ached. Dimly, he wondered if he'd gotten into a fight at the bar. He went to the bathroom and had some trouble wrestling with the zipper of his rumpled dress pants. He'd passed out in his clothes, again. When he finished, he slapped the toilet's handle twice, unsuccessfully. The old motor skills were not yet fully functional. He turned toward the sink, saw his face in the mirror, and choked on a scream.
The left side of his face was a purple blotch from temple to jaw line. Fuzzy, black stitches held the red and swollen parts of his cheek together. His right eye was crowned with a glorious bruise under even more black stitches. The stitches above his eye stained to hold together the swollen flesh. It hung on his brow, a bloated red ridge. "Fucking Frankenstein," he muttered. His white dress shirt, so carefully cleaned and pressed the day before, sported brown spots of dried blood and an all over yellow stain. The queen from the car, twisted face snarling into his, flash of metal between her fingers, blood in his eye. He remembered punching her in the side of the head. For a moment the image brought some warmth to his belly, but it was short-lived. His breath came in gasps, his face ached, and his head buzzed. He was going to cry. Thirty-years-old and he was going to blubber in his bathroom like a twelve-year-old kid who just survived his first after school beating. A part of him was glad Alex had left him alone.
Later, his body cleaned and medicated, Amman sat at a sidewalk café with a hot cup of coffee in his hand. The notebook lay open on the table with white, blank pages like teeth. He didn't feel like crying anymore; he felt angry. Alex had called just as he was stepping out of the shower. He'd run naked and dripping to the phone. Her voice sounded distant through the receiver. He knew the speech before she began it, having heard it in various forms from a line of precious women. People at the café drank their coffee and ate their beignets, oblivious to the angry young man in their midst.
A woman at the next table took quick, bird-like bites from a croissant. In the chair beside her, a little girl with pigtails hummed to herself and played with a doll that also had pigtails, these made of yellow yarn. At another table a man was breaking up with his girlfriend who hid her tears in her napkin. Oh God, Amman thought, I'm a cliché. He tried to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.
It must have started junior year at Tulane, when he'd met Emily, the photography major with blonde hair so pale it was almost white. She liked to photograph Amman nude, and he was fairly certain that his bare, twenty-one-year-old ass was hanging in the art gallery at Tulane to this day. She'd left him after graduation to go to New York with James the painter. They were probably fucking in a loft somewhere in the Village right now, living some starving artist wet-dream, painting each other with non-toxic colors and other lubricants.
For three years after Emily, he'd done nothing but wait tables and bartend on Bourbon, making plenty of money and having no one to spend it on, except the occasional empty liason. He hadn't completed a story in years, and his previous work sat idle in a milk crate in his apartment covered with rejection slips from two dozen magazines. He needed a muse. That October, he met Alexandra at a friend's wedding. She taught English at St. Anne's High School and loved Jane Austen. She'd written a formal outline for the next five years of her life, with Roman numerals and everything. Amman drained his fourth cup of coffee, dropped four of his last twenty bucks onto the table and left the café.
He walked aimlessly knowing he should hunt for a job, fill out applications, iron his one suit jacket for interviews. Instead he stalked the Quarter, head down, hands in his pockets, flinching whenever another pedestrian got too close. The stitches above his eye itched and burned. Everything but the assault last night was his fault: losing his job, losing Alex, drinking away the last of his cash. He'd failed to become a real writer, failed to be the man Alex waned to start a real life with. His cheek itched incessantly and, without thinking, he reached up to scratch it. Pain ripped through his face, and he almost cried out right there in the street amid shoppers hurrying to spend money, workers hurrying home. Blood spotted his fingers and something black curled under his fingernail like a dead insect: he'd pulled out a stitch. Carefully, he probed his cheek. A young woman passing by glanced at his face, but looked quickly away, eyes wide and disturbed. Amman imagined how he must look: wild, bleeding, Middle Eastern. Some of these people probably thought he had a bomb strapped to his chest. None of them would imagine that he was born right here, a southern boy from Louisiana.
Something inside him gave way then, and his mind and body burned with a single purpose. He had to find the bastard who'd scarred his face and wrecked his confidence. He'd find him and make him pay, somehow, for the damage he'd done. He stalked past the bars and balcony restaurants toward the strip and drag clubs, the joints advertising live sex acts and naked midgets. He settled into an unused doorway in the heart of Bourbon to watch.
An hour later it was raining, a warm drizzle hat licked the cobblestones until they shone in the light from the gas jets lit by invisible hands. Neon signs bled red and yellow onto the pavement. Amman pulled his hands out of his pockets and wiped his moist palms on his jeans. His resolve grew the longer he waited. If he could do this, right this one wrong, maybe everything else in his life would fall into place.
By eight o'clock the Friday night scene had revved up its engines. Queens stepped from the shadows of the clubs into the bleeding neon. They beckoned Lenten tourists with a promise of fun underlined with whispers of the sexually exotic. Amman stood up straight. His attacker's face blazed in his mind's eye, and he scrutinized every too-tall beauty that flounced past his doorway. He watched the young college boys from Tulane walking in tight packs. Heard one of them say, "Man, she is so hot!" The boy's friend whispered in his ear and instantly his face turned bright red. His friend pointed to the drag queen that had caught his friend's attention and staggered with laughter. Amman almost laughed too, but then his eyes zeroed in on his target. She was there, the queen, his attacker, standing in the middle of Bourbon Street shaking her ass at the passing knots of college boys and girls. She called out to them in a slurred voice that bordered on husky.
"How ya'all doin'? Hey! I'm talkin' to ya. How ya'all…doin'?" She swayed on her heels and her eyes were lidded under the glitter make-up. Amman's queen was high, flying over the wet street.
He pushed himself away from his hiding place and walked, sure and strong, into the middle of the street. If she was high, he'd just have to make sure she felt the pain through the buzz, just as her razor blades had cut through his suit of alcohol the night before. He didn't let himself think about the irony inherent in the comparison; he had his mind on valor. People brushed past him on all sides, some stumbling. Girls skipped past, their chests glittering with beads. Even during the Lenten fast, the ghost of Mardi Gras danced in the street.
Amman's muscles tensed. His skin hummed. It didn't matter that he'd had nothing but caffeine and painkillers. Anger fueled him. Alex's face flashed in his mind, full of pity. Behind her came all the others in a parade of ex-girlfriends. They scattered his many rejection slips in the air like confetti. They walked on the body of his work, ground it beneath their heels. Amman blinked and his attacker was right in front of him, smiling a too-wide smile.
"Hey baby. You lonely?" The words dripped from heavy red lips. Amman focused on her face, all sweetness and full of promises tonight. Last night that same face had twisted with venom, the muscles trembled with violence. The contrast made Amman's head spin and his stomach flipped over. He bent double, dry heaving. The queen leaned over him, laid a hand on his shoulder.
"You okay, honey? You don' look so good." Amman's hand shot out and grabbed the arm that touched him, pinching and squeezing the flesh as hard as he could. The queen shrieked. Heads turned. Amman brought his face very close to hers. Her eyes were wide and frightened.
"I don't look so good? You see this?" He ran a finger over the stitches above his eye, turned his left cheek toward her and caressed the stitches there. "And this? You did this last night. You animal, you did this!" Amman screamed in her face. She squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head violently back and forth. "Look at me!" Amman roared. People in the street had formed a loose ring around the two of them. Someone shouted a feeble, "Let him go, man," but most just watched like they'd watched the living statues in Jackson Square or the guys who roamed the Quarter dressed as vampires. Scream at the queen was just one more side-show.
She tried to make a break, but Amman held on. She pulled him a few steps, and he got a good look at the bend of her arm. It was a railway of track marks, some fresh and some that looked very old. Amman gave her arm a tremendous jerk. The queen stumbled on her heels and fell against him. Amman's other hand grabbed the back of her neck under the wig, forcing her to face him.
"Is this why you cut me? Needed money for a fix?" He held her arm out straight so she could see the marks, so the world could see them. She whispered something garbled and thick.
"What? What are you trying to say?" In that strange grip, holding her by the arm and the neck, Amman shook her hard. Somebody in the crown yelled, "Police!"
"What?" Amman yelled in her face, spittle flying from his lips. The rage was taking him over. A part of him, a very small part, hoped the police would get there soon and stop him before he beat her. The animal at the back of his neck near his spine quietly hoped they would be late in coming. The queen raised her filmy eyes to his. She spoke slowly, clearly.
"You don't know what it's like to want something every minute of every day that you know you can't have." Her voice was a tired song. She trembled in her arms, a coil ready to spring. The confetti of rejection slips filled Amman's head. He held her gently and looked his attacker in the eyes.
"Oh yes. Yes I do." She relaxed against his chest and he held her tenderly as a riot of hot neon illuminated her face.
Table of Contents
Those Are For Your Daddy's Work
by Graham Tugwell
"Come away," her mother repeated, sharper now, all humour gone.
Min Corbett was the youngest.
She wore a woollen jumper, a thing passed down from brothers and far too big for her, ribbed and honeycombed in Aran white.
She slept in it. It had to be peeled from her back to be washed and she fought the hands that tried to unclothe.
It came down over her knees and would have covered her hands if not folded and folded again over her elbows.
Min was a little thing; tiny hands clad in toddler fat, knuckles when relaxed no more than dimples. Her hair was thick and unruled, the colour of clay, tumbling down over half her face. Her nose was a freckled button; her eyebrows were strokes of coal, lending themselves easily to scowl.
Her teeth came down crooked; one canine sharp sat on the bottom lip when bit—thinking, watching, when uncertain.
She was drawn to secrets.
She was drawn to hidden things.
Min Corbett, kneeling in her parent's room, closed the drawer, an eye on the things she'd found. Metal and plastic bumped softly as wood slid over wood.
A finger crooked told her to come along and be quick about. She passed her mother in the doorway. One swift last look she gave the bedside locker and left her parent's room.
She lay in bed that night and thought.
Things of plastic and metal.
Handles and mouths and pink rubber teeth.
Things, she'd been told, for her daddy's work.
But what did he do?
What was the work?
She knew that once every two weeks he left the house very late at night and coming home, slept long into the next day. Once she'd been woken by movement and walking to her door met her father in the hallway, dressed in dark clothing and holding a long brown bag. It clinked, heavily, when passed from hand to hand.
Stung with light she'd rubbed her eyes and whispered "Da?"
"Go back to bed love," he'd replied, smiling. His hand cupped the back of her head and brought it forward for a kiss. His lips met her forehead, his chin a roughness.
He smelled of aftershave and freshly-brushed teeth.
She'd nodded softly and gone back to bed.
Her eyes had closed.
Footsteps along the side of the house.
And now a night like that has come again.
She's gone to bed but has not changed out of her clothes.
She's made up her mind.
She'll find out what her father does.
She'll find out what the things are for.
Her eyelids are heavy and a chore to keep open.
Rest. Just for a moment. Rest.
Time passes in a blink and a gap of sleep.
A lurch awake in bed—
Is she too late?
In the next room the scrape of metal and plastic on wood— a drawer being emptied. The click of a light switch. A body moving down the corridor.
And suddenly so very hard to breathe.
It is time.
Down the corridor creeping, her back against the wall, the knuckle of the dado rail working her spine. Peeking into the kitchen, she saw him kiss her mother on the cheek.
Dark clothing again and over one shoulder the long brown bag. Saying goodbye he made to go but she called him back "You forgot this."
She held it up; a reflective band of yellow and silver.
He rolled his eyes, grinning, and held out his arm. "Would you mind?" Up the bright material the length of his sleeve and patted in place in the crook of his arm.
"What would I do without you?" and another kiss.
Complete, he left and she gave him a wave as he turned the corner. Min heard his footsteps, muffled and echoing. At the backdoor and lamp-lit, her mother stood and sighed. She pulled the belt of her dressing gown tight.
Go back to bed, thought Min, willing her, Go back to bed.
When it seemed like an hour had wasted away, her mother closed the back door. Min watched from the dark sitting room as she went down the hall, as she opened the door to Min's room, making the tiniest motion of a cross over the pillows and sheets that were bundled into Min-shape in the bed.
At last, she went into her own room.
Her door closed without a sound.
Fast and silent Min was at the backdoor, unlocking it, trying not to make the metal scrape, and out she went into the night. Slow, excruciating slow her steps along the gable lest she be heard and then, in the driveway, a burst of speed took her onto the road.
Which way? Both ends delved in darkness undiminished, unleavened by star or moon, broken only by the thunderous smudge of orange where town sprawled in unquiet sleep.
The weight of dark air collapsing down upon her, she turned one way and then the other, unmoored.
The reflective band, the tiniest point of light all the way down in the distance. Her father, already gone so far.
Night-time a threat all round her— down she ran the treacherous road, potholes pits unseen in black and wind a blind pawing thing, feeling its way with blunted fingers. Bushes lurched, spurred by freezing gusts. Trees in scandalised rustlings closed over her.
Sudden gaps of endless black revealed the stars, admonishing points that knew she was out of bed and doing something she shouldn't be doing. Rushing through curtains of navy and deepest greys and greens, down a tunnel deep into the bowels of the earth.
Emerging from the night at random around her: the piers of a driveway, the yawning hollow of a branching road, the grille and gate of a cattle-field and far in the distance the unblinking gold of her father.
Catch up with him.
I am in the wild of world.
Catch up with him.
She broke through clouds of her own breath and forced herself on— almost with him, darting now from black to black in case he sees.
She could hear his soft whistling.
The steady tramping of his boots.
And then, suddenly, he was gone.
She stopped. Where was her father? Had something come out of the night and swallowed him? And how far had she come? Would she ever, ever find her way back?
But a soft crunch sounded— her father, following a gravel driveway towards a house.
No lights inside.
Her father come to visit.
He got in through a window at the rear of the house.
Min followed along the shadow of the hedge and silently up through flower beds and came at last to the opened window.
She looked through.
It was a pink room.
Her father was kneeling on a bed.
Metal brought to her light made lazy through lampshades.
And in the bedsheets.
He was opening.
She watched her father for many long minutes
The frame and brightness of it.
Making it a picture.
This was elsewhere. This was distant.
Tool after tool slowly extracted from the body of the bag.
Used, and laid down red upon a roll of plastic.
In the sheets the girl moaned and moved limbs.
Min drifted forward and in to get a closer look. The soft ceramic clink of a flowerpot kicked—
Her father spun, face immobile in its plastic sheen, the blade of a knife in neon, poised and ready, by his head.
Min made a squeak and froze.
And the opened girl.
Slowly her father's face unfroze, as bit by bit he recognised her, subliming into a smile. "You followed me," he said, "You little pup," and the blade came down, replaced with a wagging finger. "Does your mother know you're out?"
Min shook her head.
His grin was huge, a lunar slice.
"The old pillows in the bed trick, hah?"
"Girl after my own heart."
Chuckling, he unfolded himself from the bed, eliciting a gasp from the girl as his pressure was lifted. He came to Min and, brushing hair over her ear, whispered: "Listen, love, you can stay and watch if you want, but you'll need to be very quiet, okay?"
He lifted her chin so she looked at him.
She nodded, shadowing more than half her face with hair, and curled to watch on the windowsill. He returned to where the other girl lay on her front in the hollow of the bed and went back to work.
The opened shoulders of the girl. Her face lost in pillows, her blonde hair spread out in sunflower wheel. It covers, almost, the black strap of the gag.
Her feet poke out the bottom of sheets, soles turned towards the ceiling, softly wrinkling where they bend.
Pink vulnerable things, the backs of toes like perfect plastic buds.
The soft, soft sound of flesh under blade, the whisper moist of lips coming apart. A breath out of the girl, a twitch of bifurcated back. And harsher sounds now, and father's hands getting deeper into her.
A wet crack.
Low rattling gasp from flattened lungs, air pressed out by knee and shin.
Min watched. The cold of night at her back, the sweet warmth of the room in front of her. Clashing airs holding her in place.
Father has stripped down to his vest. Hot work—sweat on his flexing back bright in lamplight. Something with sharp teeth has come out of the bag and he works it down, back and forth, down, down, inexorably down.
Down, down, and in.
A curl of wind makes lampshade tassels giggle. Covers walls in swaying seaweed shadows. (We are in the depths and sinking.)
Her father rose up upon one knee, one foot braced on bloodied back. Arm and shoulders displayed their muscles—lined up obedient for the twist and the pull. He gnashed teeth together.
Whatever it was it would not come out.
He gripped the plastic handles and pulled again.
"Come on," he strained, "Good girl. Come out—"
And something out sudden in body lurch.
Bang the fronts of her feet off sheets.
Her scream a hiss of escaping steam around the rim of the gag, fading down, down into unconsciousness.
A fist against her father's forehead took away the sweat. "Can you hand me that, love." He pointed with a blooded finger at a plastic bag at the foot of the bed.
She let herself fall from the window and in a trot picked it up and delivered it to him. "Ta, pet. You're a star. Hold it open for me."
From the ragged wound the metal forceps emerged, something circular red between their metal gums. A bloody disk, slowly let slip between plastic lips.
And a father's wink:
He took the plastic bag and put it away with the tools "Now," he said, "I just have to close up here and then we're done."
Staples. Glue. Needle and thread.
Slow careful work, pinching layers and tissues closed.
"Do you see anything you like?" he said, conversational, as he threaded.
"How about those?" He nodded at a pair of roller-skates in the corner. "She won't have any need for those now."
So Min got down again and retrieved the skates and sat with them on the sill until her father finished. She looked at the skates. Pink with yellow laces, and painted with a cartoon character she didn't recognise.
"Done," said father at last. He slapped the stitches between shoulder blades and beamed. "Not a bad job, if I say so myself!"
Min returned his smile.
Out the window they went, leaving the girl in her pink room, in her red sheets. Father and daughter headed home. She walked on the inside, he on the outside, so any cars would catch his reflector and see them.
They walked in silence for a while.
Then: "What did you think?"
"It was..." Min bit her lip and thought. "I liked the way you knew what to do and I... I liked watching you. And the girl. She couldn't have done anything, could she? She couldn't have stopped you, even if she tried?"
He smiled in the dark. "Not a chance, Min."
"I liked that," she said softly.
Another stretch of silent walking until the little girl dusted it with words: "Will you teach me? Will you show me how to do what you do?"
He inclined his head and pursed his lips, assuming a pose of let-me-think, "Welllll... We were going to wait a couple of years."
Her face fell.
A daddy's indulgence shaped his face "Buuuuuut I suppose there's no harm in showing you the basics."
She grinned, "Aw thanks, Dad!" and he hugged her to his side. "My Min. My little Min."
Homewards they walked together and night-time held no horror for her.
Take away all light and warmth.
Clothe all things unknowable black
She would have her father still.
A rock and constant.
A star to steer her course by.
When an hour later they returned home her mother was waiting. Her relief at seeing Min was quick to turn to fury. "Pillows in your bed," she hissed, "And you thought that would fool me."
Half of Min behind father, and her fingers in his belt gripped for protection and mother a half-a-stalk around confronting: "Well you've got another thing coming, missus. Oh, let me tell you."
To him she said, and softer, "Where did you find her? She put the heart across me she did; I came this close to calling the police," and her finger and thumb no more than an inch apart.
He smiled and with a hand brought their daughter round to be clearly seen. "Sure Min came to work with me today, didn't you Min?"
A nod and a stare from behind her curtain of hair and mother...
Mother pale and salmon-mouthing. Finally, words without inflection: "She went to work with you."
Father proud "She did."
"She did," said father, "And she helped me."
"She... helped... you..." The woman shook her head, trying to rid herself of the news, "Simon, we've talked. She's too young. She's not ready. She won't under—"
"It's fine," said her father, decisive, a consoling hand on her shoulder, "It's going to be fine." He looked down at Min. "And we had fun, didn't we?"
She nodded and chanced a little smile—the head of one tooth white on a bed of red.
"Show your mother what we got."
She took it out of her trouser pocket and held it up, dark red and grey in its plastic bag. "Spine," she said.
Mother relaxed into a smile and all was right with the world, all fear and panic fading into the past. "It's very nice. That's a lovely one to start with. Well done pet."
A kiss for Min, a kiss for Daddy, and a quick cup of tea for both the hard workers and then Min was scooted out the door and sent to bed.
"I'll hold onto that, honey" and her father took the plastic bag from her.
She was going to sleep with it under her pillow.
Next one, she thought, next one.
And long she slept into the next day.
They kneeled together in his room. He opened the drawer and pulled out the devices one by one.
"This one," he said, "Is called the Spreader." He worked it, made it flex before her face. "See? It grips the sides of the cavity here and here and opens it, so you can get a hand in. So you can see what you're doing."
He put it down on plastic and moved on to the next, a thing like a pair of scissors.
"Carbon steel forceps. You can use these to hold the bone, to hold tissue, to keep arteries closed. Very important. Keep them clean and by your side."
Next he pulled out a handful of dull silver objects.
"Knives, scalpels, lancets. Various sizes. For adults and children. There can be a big difference. Saws are the same."
He held up two to compare.
"See? You couldn't fit that into a small boy's back. You'd only ruin what you want to take."
She nodded, noting the difference.
He took out something that wasn't metal.
"This is to stop them screaming. Do you want to try it out?"
"Yes," said Min.
Carefully he strapped it around her mouth, the yellow ball going between her lips. "Feels funny, doesn't it?"
She laughed a spluttery obstructed laugh and fingered the dribble from her chin.
"And this," her father continued, "Is a patching grip."
She tried to ask what it was for but the gag got in the way, letting only a spurt of juice between her lips.
He laughed, shaking it off his hand. "I think we'll take that off you now, before I start having to wear a raincoat." He reached up and undid the strap. It pinched tighter before it loosened.
She couldn't stop the soft moan that came.
He took her down to the bottom of the garden, where the shed stood between lupin beds, under the tree with its rotten swing. He opened the first, second and third padlocks and pushed open the creaking door. She went in first and he followed.
The air was thick and warm with age and unuse. It smelled of paint and varnish, of dust and slanting sunlight. The smell of blissful solitude and slow, careful, loving work.
And there were things, hundreds of them, dangling on silver thread from the sloping ceiling, turning softly in the sun. Brittle discs of bone, all colours of cream and white and dun, making soft dry noises when they bumped— the whisper of desiccated sticks, a wind-chime tinkle.
She turned a circle under them, holding up her hands enraptured, and she saw the labels hanging from them, names and dates and the places where they had been taken.
"Can you read them?" her father asked.
Min shook her head, so he lifted her up, laughing amidst the discs she made a grab for the nearest piece of silver-threaded bone.
"What does it say?" he asked.
She read the dusty label. "BRIGID BENNETT. AUGUST. QUARTER MOON. FIELDGARDENS. She's in my class," whispered Min. "I always wondered what happened to her..."
"That was me," he said, a hint of pride in his voice. "I happened to her," and he set Min down upon the dusty floor. "What do you think?" he asked.
"It's like Christmas decorations," said Min and she smiled. "It's like Santa's grotto, up in Clonee that year, remember?"
"I remember, Min," and he pointed. "That's your grandfather's collection over there." From lengths of stiff gold wire high in the cleft of the roof hung a brace of discs, yellow and brown, some almost black, all polished and varnished. Her grandfather's writing was neat, precise.
They were things of beauty.
But she liked her father's bones the best.
"It's magic," she whispered, "That's what it is. That's the word for it. It's magic."
Her hand in his and a squeeze and the moment made perfect.
"Tell you what, Min. In two week's time, when I go out again. Would you like to come with me?"
"Oh yes, oh please, Dad, I'd love that. I'd love that."
And the widest, rarest smile on the face of the girl.
"I'll let you carry the bag and, if you're very good, I'll even let you do lookout. How does that sound?
Oh she beamed.
Two weeks took a thousand years to pass and she was a sullen cloud with the boiling impatience and even her older brothers kept out of her way.
But time has a habit of passing.
The night came.
They prepared to leave, standing in the glow at the back door as her mother fussed, insisting she wrapped up well. A woollen hat was wrestled over her head and a scarf knotted tightly about her neck.
("We'll leave that behind," her father would say, unravelling her when out of sight, "If we need to make a quick escape, you won't want anything that can be grabbed. Your mother, I think, would rather you cold than strangled!" They left it draped forlorn on a hedge to be collected on the way back.)
"Be safe," said her mother, holding Min by the shoulders.
Min rolled her eyes.
"She will be," said her father with a grin, "Sure amn't I with her." An arm around her hugged her up against his belly. "Sure won't we look after each other?"
"And do everything your father tells you."
"I will," said Min.
"She will," her father repeated, "Now will you leave the poor girl alone?"
Squeeze against the belly warm.
Mock-serious mother crossing arms and stepping back into the house, "Go on," and a smile and dismissing wave, "Before I change my mind."
So down the road the two of them, singing soft when passing fields—
Then silent save for clinking tools when passing houses, passing estates.
"Who's it tonight?" asked Min.
"Bunny Lyons," said father, "Do you know the name?"
She frowned. "He's in my class. I don't like him."
"Good," he said, "We won't get into too much trouble so."
"Come on, honey. Come sit on the bed with me." He beckoned to her and carefully she came down through the skylight and into the room. Lamplight washed parabolas on wall and floor: Telescope. Shelves of books. A model ship half-painted. A poster of a football team.
She got on the bed and knelt by her father.
He had already begun.
He gathered her hands in one of his and brought them down to the wound. His breath made her hair move gentle. "That's it. Good girl."
Hands down into open heat.
"Oh good girl."
And the smile on her.
Warm wondrous joy.
She was going in.
She was going in.
And he was whispering: "It's an art, love. You have to feel... and you'll know, when you feel it, what you want to take... and then it's only a matter of the quickest cut. A cool precision."
He sliced a scalpel down between her hands.
She watched something open with the softest sigh.
It even smelt of heat.
"And you have the choice," he continued, tracing the outline of her fingers with the blade. "You can let them feel the whole of it and, I won't lie to you Min, sometimes there's a thrill in that. Feeling them buck and scream under you and nothing, nothing they can do about it."
"Or... you can take the pain away and work on them in peace and silence."
He cut away something he didn't need and left it on the bedclothes.
"Leave them the horror of the mystery. There can be a slow distant joy in that. But it's up to you. When you have the tools. You have the power."
He passed the blade to her.
Cold and smooth in her little hand.
"Go on Min."
"Make the cut."
He pressed down on something the colour of wine.
"Here. Where my finger ends."
She bit her lip.
"I don't... I don't think..."
His eyes were soft and sure.
"Love, you're ready. It's time."
"Just feel with the blade. You'll know how deep to go."
She pressed down.
Only a whisper of resistance.
Skin folding away like curling paper.
It was right and it was good and Min laughed through her smile.
Bunny Lyons bucked and screamed against his gag.
And Min thought This way,
I like them this way.
She pushed the blade down and in.
And it happened.
The strap broke. Lyons spat the gag out. He filled every inch of space with screams.
"What did I do?" cried Min, startled, "Did I do something wrong?"
Footfalls— people running from other rooms.
"Min," her father's voice clipped and urgent, "Go. Not the window. You won't make it. Under the bed."
She sat on the screaming boy and stared at her father.
She threw herself under the bed, stings of fire on palms and knees, a thump of foetid dusted air between her teeth.
And in the darkness only sounds.
The boy shrieks.
The bed creaks and groans.
The boy stops screaming.
The door, slow agony opening...
And a burst of everything at once—voices, and metal jingling on the floor, and meat again meat and the lightning crack of breaking wood and the struggling gasp of desperate death at work—
Hands over her ears.
Make it stop. Make it stop.
"It's me," cried a face, reaching under the bed. She screamed and hit as hard as she could. The face gasped, struck with her foot— "It's me, Min," and a hand grabbed her ankle, pulled her from under the bed, kicking, screaming. Only when a hand clamped over her mouth did she realise it was her father.
"Love," he said, "I need you to be quiet and listen."
Wide-eyed she mumbled something. Beyond him a body lay in the corridor. Something was leaking into the carpet. She stared.
His voice called her back.
"It's gone a bit wrong, love. Just a little bit wrong. It's happened before and it'll happen again. But we need to be smart and careful and we'll both get home." She looked at the deep cut across the bridge of his nose. It seemed to open as she watched, spit for her a dribble of blood.
It's just a cut, she thought, He'll be okay.
Cuts are just.
And there, the body in the hallway still.
"Honey," and his voice sharpened, "Will you do as Daddy tells you? I need you to answer me, love."
"Yes," she said, her voice the cold lustre finish of chrome, "I will."
Bunny Lyons had kicked the blankets up; they bound his legs in birthing pose. Hands had become blue-white fists. His pyjamas ridden up to rumple tightly round his chest. His hairless belly a bubble of white rising from red.
Min stared at the deep opened hole of his belly button.
Her father brushed her hair away and showed the world her hidden eye and the eyelid that tried to crowd it out.
He held her face so lightly.
"I had to, you understand? Both of them saw me."
"I forgive you," she said in the smallest voice.
Erratic blue came in through glass, licking the length of the hallway, hungry to find them.
"Come on. Out the window," he said, and pushed her through and into night. Hand in hand they crunched across gravel making for the gap between cars and someone, some shadowed collection of body parts pointing, fixed them in space with a finger.
A guiding arm around her, making her body move suddenly off to the left, down the splash and the scum of a ditch.
The stink they kicked their way through.
"Hold onto my hand. Hold onto my hand," and such calm sureness in his voice despite the sway of lights trying to find them, despite the cold sludge up around his waist.
"We left your bag behind. We left everything—"
"Forget it," he said, "Not important."
And there, the barbed wire fence—it cut across the ditch and no end to it on either side.
Pull yourself up through knives. Fight the greedy suck of effluent.
Min Corbett was the smallest—she found places to put hands and feet. Wire by wire she ascended.
She looked down.
Her father was only halfway out of the mire. Leg and arm were caught—knives had gone through cloth and sunk deep.
"Daddy," she cried, "Come on. Come on. Please."
He tried to move and cried as he was sliced. Back down the barbed wire she clambered. "No Min," he said as she grabbed his arm, as she tried to free him. "You have to go." And before she could say "I'm not leaving you," he lifted her, his one free hand bunching in dirty white wool and threw her, up over the barbed wire. She landed on furrowed muck.
"Don't look back," he cried. "Look for the light of our house. Let nothing stop you. Tell them I love them. Tell them to leave. They have to come away now."
And lights found him.
Running feet and voices— noises that meat in confusion make.
They got him.
But not before he got two of them.
Lights showed her a limp body dragged from the ditch and kicked and kicked in the road.
She broke and fled.
The breath of Min; the sound of it, the feel of it as she broke through. She ran, looking for the light of home but the field was a bowl of darkness and she was shooting lost across the face of it.
Muck took hold of her feet and would not release, wanting to bring her down to lie with it.
They were coming to take the beautiful things. Things her father had worked so hard to collect and preserve. Outrage spurred her on and outrage admonished when she fell, calling her weak when each rising became a greater struggle. She ran in endless nothing with her at the centre, the world a wheel of darkness and gloating stars, knowing where she should go but not telling her.
"Mam," she screamed. "Mam! They're coming!"
But the world so big and Min Corbett so small.
The cold and darkness took her down at last.
She lay alone in the gap of nowhere.
Never be warmth or light or love again.
Just strength enough to whisper "They're coming."
Table of Contents
by Dieneria Brown
For once I didn't mind that everyone was looking at me, even though I could feel the sweat dripping down my face and my mousey brown hair frizzing into a poof. Just having my uniform on made my sloppy appearance something to be proud of. It showed my dedication. As I was walking through campus people were high fiving me, patting me on my back and congratulating me on our win yesterday. Entering the building I smiled with my head held high as I passed all the men in button downs and women in sundresses.
For once my mom was late. Her hotel room for the weekend was only fifteen minutes away and she prided herself on being punctual, yet here I was parentless at the parent's weekend brunch. I started to wonder if she was going to show at all. Just when I was about to send her a snarky text I saw her coming through the oak double doors. Her blonde hair perfectly straight, as if it had a force field protecting it from the Texas humidity, her silky blue blouse framing her collarbones and tucked into her double zero slacks that were still slipping off her hipbones. She had her beauty queen smile slapped across her face. I knew that look; it meant something was bothering her, but she didn't think it was appropriate to let everyone know. I was sure I would get an earful when she reached our table. We were supposed to be sitting with my roommate, Katy, and her mother, but Katy had gotten sick so her mother was taking care of her in our room, which meant it was just my mom and me at our table.
"You couldn't at least change before you came here not to mention taken a shower?" my mother hissed through her perfectly whitened teeth as she kissed my cheek. Of course, it was my outfit that had offended her when she walked in.
"I'm a college athlete, Mom. Sorry I didn't have time to get all dolled up in the ten minutes I had between practice and this. If I known you'd be late I would have stopped at my dorm," I said not masking my irritation.
"You would have needed more than the five minutes I was late to look presentable, darling. Nevertheless, I do apologize for being late, but you didn't tell me what a long walk it was from visitor parking to here. I saw some lovely girls in sundresses that meet their parents in the parking lot and walked them here, but you weren't one of them."
How did she manage to make everything my fault? I refused to let this turn into one of our passive aggressive family dinners, especially without my dad here to moderate.
"Sorry, Mom. I should have made it clearer that I was coming straight from practice. Let's go get some tea and pastries" I tried to plaster on one of her signature smiles but it just made my jaw hurt.
My mom opted for green tea, which apparently boosts metabolism. I just got regular old lemon tea and poured three packets of sugar in it before my mother gave me a death glare. Attempting to appease her I put down the sugar and moved on to the pastry display. While I was deciding whether I wanted a cookie or doughnut to go with my croissant, I saw Elle from my freshman seminar.
"You were amazing in the game yesterday. You made like a million goals!" Elle said.
"More like five" I said trying to sound humble.
"You must be so proud to have such an athletic daughter," Elle's mom said to my mom.
My mom smiled politely and said, "Yes, of course. But I would be much prouder if she put some time into her appearance like your beautiful daughter."
Before the awkward silence and shifty eyes could get any worse, I excused us and led my mother back to our table. I knew by now that there was no point in telling her that comments like that were inappropriate. In her mind she was simply stating the obvious: every mother wants a beautiful daughter. I was suddenly thankful that Katy and her mom weren't there so I wouldn't have to worry about censoring my mother at our table. For a few moments I thought even I would be spared her ridiculous comments as I ate my doughnut.
"Lily, if you are not going to put effort into your appearance in the mornings you should at least try to monitor what you put into your body," so much for me being spared.
"I just had practice. I need to be eating starch to keep my energy up"
"I workout everyday and still manage to watch what I put into my body. Honestly, Lily, you are too old to not take responsibility for your body. Americans are becoming increasingly overweight and a lot of it just has to do with pure laziness."
At a size six I was far from overweight, but I knew I would never win that argument.
"It must be easy for you to watch what you eat when you never eat anything," I said as I stared at my mother's untouched croissant. My father always defended my mother saying as long as he'd known her she "ate like a mouse" and that she had "a dainty appetite to match her dainty frame." He didn't understand, or pretended not to, that she was only "dainty" because she starved herself. My mother's defense of her eating habits was always to turn the conversation back on me.
"Lily, you are getting too old to still be jealous of me. I understand it must be frustrating not to have any of my good genetics. If I hadn't given birth to you myself I wouldn't even believe you are my child. But you cannot let your slow metabolism and boxy shape be an excuse. If you just ate less and counted your calories you could be so much smaller."
"I'd rather have muscle mass than be small, but thanks for the advice," I said trying to change the subject before my mom tricked me into going to a fitness camp or on a month long cleanse.
"I just don't see why you couldn't do one of those nice girly sports like ballet or cheerleading where they value graceful feminine bodies. You are going to end up like those Olympic athletes who never find a husband because they are so butch no man is ever attracted to them."
"Thank you for your concern but finding a husband is not my main concern right now, I'm only eighteen."
"Obviously your education is most important right now, but you should start looking for a man. You know how hard it is for you to find anyone."
"What are you talking about? I had a boyfriend for the two out of the four years of high school!"
"Oh yes, that Dan boy. Didn't he cheat on you with that petite little gymnast?"
"You've made your point, mother."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was still a sensitive topic."
After that I made sure our conversations stayed on safer topics that had no chance of leading back to me. I walked my mom back to visiting parking after we finished brunch. She refused to hug me because I was sweaty; instead she kissed me on the cheek and insisted on giving me some money so I could do something with that frizz ball.
As I was getting ready that night I couldn't help but feel bad for Katy who was sprawled across her bed looking minutes away from death.
"You sure you don't need me to look after you?" I asked while attempting not to poke my eye out with my eyeliner.
"I'm fine. Go, have fun."
I felt bad leaving her behind, we always went out together. It was probably better that she didn't go to this party though since it was a mixer for the women's soccer and men's basketball team. Apparently the athletic teams did these mixers throughout the year to get to know each other.
Since I didn't have time to go to the salon I had to try and tame my hair with my straightener all by myself. With my hair semi-presentable and my makeup done all I had left to do was get dressed. This was my chance to prove that even though I always wore athletic gear I was actually capable of putting an outfit together and looking presentable. After putting on a mini-fashion show for Katy I decided on a skintight emerald dress with black lace tights and my black pumps.
I meet the rest of the team behind one of the other dorms. We had decided to carpool to the mixer, so we were all piling into the upperclassmen's cars. It was only a ten-minute drive, but I regretted it from the moment the door closed. There were five of us sitting in the backseat, and we were cramped. We had to pile on top of each other to fit, and I got stuck sitting on the bottom. All I could feel the entire ride were bony butts and elbows poking me from every angle. You don't realize how bony someone is until they are crammed on your lap for ten minutes. As we stumbled out of the car I was already ready to go back to my dorm. I hadn't ever been out with all the soccer girls, and I didn't have Katy there to be by my side. I suddenly felt like the odd one out. It was the first time being on the team didn't feel like being a part of a family. Even after we entered the dingy basement with a beer bong table, keg and giant speakers I didn't feel any better. Everyone in the room was an athlete, good ones, too; you had to be at a D1 school. There was nothing that made me special in here.
While I was waiting to fill my first cup at the keg I saw them: four tiny girls with blonde highlights and perfectly manicured nails. They weren't on the soccer team and definitely weren't on the men's basketball team.
"Who are those girls?" I hissed at the center for our team, Jess.
"I think they are on the dance team," Jess whispered.
"What are they doing here?"
"One of the guys must have invited them. They dance during halftime at the basketball games," Jess said while rolling her eyes.
Jess ended up being my Katy for the night. We bonded over our annoyance at the dance team girls, laughed at the lightweights on our team who were drunk thirty minutes in, and complained that all the basketball players were gangly and creepy. In the midst of listening to some basketball player ramble on and on about his stats I saw him: the one and only attractive basketball player there. He was tall, at least 6'3", but had muscles to match his height. I told Jess and the rambling basketball player I was going to get us some more drinks and would be right back. I ignored the frantic look on Jess's face begging me not to leave her alone with this guy and headed straight for the keg which happened to be right next to tall and handsome.
As I was filling my cup I made sure to finally put my curves to good use just hoping to get his attention. For once I had good luck and my flirting worked. He hovered over me while leaning against the keg with a crooked smirk on his face.
"Why don't you let me get you some of the good stuff?" he said while clearly staring down my dress. If Katy were here she would have called him out on it, but she wasn't here and I did want something other than this water-downed beer. If he was going to undress me with his eyes the least he could do was get me a decent drink.
"Sure," I said with a megawatt smile.
The "good stuff" he came back with was some cheap whipped cream flavored vodka. He filled my cup up halfway and said, "If you finish that without puking I'll give you more."
I, being the competitive person I am, grabbed the bottle and filled my cup to the brim.
"Challenge accepted," I said as I handed him back the bottle.
"Aren't you going to give me some of that?" said one of the little dance team members as she rubbed her skeletal fingers up and down his arm. Just looking at her thin frame reminded me of the painful car ride over. I quickly headed for Jess, annoyed with the dancer's presence and satisfied with my new drink. Jess had managed to get rid of the creep and accepted half of my cup of vodka as an apology for ditching her. By the time we finished those cups we were ready to leave. The music was getting crappy and some of our teammates were way too drunk to be in public any more. Jess said she would try and convince one of the upperclassmen on our team to drive us back to campus because neither of us wanted to walk there in our heels. While I was waiting for Jess to come back I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"There you are. It looks like I found you just in time, too," he said, pointing at my empty cup. Before I could respond he emptied the remnants of the vodka bottle into my cup and pulled me to the center of the room. I was so focused on not breaking an ankle I didn't even register what was happening. We were dancing, well, he was dancing, and I was trying not to fall. I could feel the death glare from the dancer from earlier, but I didn't care. He wasn't her boyfriend and she'd had a fair shot. The heat from the room of sweaty athletes only intensified with his body pressed up against mine. The vodka that I was unintentionally spilling on myself was doing nothing to cool me down. I needed air, fresh air, and I needed it immediately. I pried myself from his arms and lunged toward the door. Once outside I sighed with relief and let my body melt against the cold exterior of the building. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in trying to slow the spinning sensation.
"I think you should have declined that challenge."
When I opened my eyes he was looking down at me with that same crooked smirk from before.
"I'm fine," I said, as I forced myself to stand.
"I don't think you'll make it back to campus. My apartment is just down the block. You can crash there for the night. I'll even carry you there"
"I'm not one of those pre-pubescent dancers. You can't carry me anywhere."
He laughed and flipped me over his shoulder, which might have been cute if it didn't make me feel like I was going to vomit down his back.
I woke up to the sound of a dump truck. My head was pounding and the light from the window was burning my corneas.
"Katy, close the blinds!" I half-screamed, half-mumbled into the pillow.
"What? Who is Katy?" said a hoarse deep voice from across the room.
It was him, that basketball player I never did find out his name, in a towel standing in the doorway to what must have been his room.
"Uh… my roommate. I forgot where I was for a second."
"That's a first. Women usually say I'm unforgettable." That misshapen smile did not look nearly as attractive in a well-lit setting.
"I should get going. I have a class today," I mumbled as I hastily tried to find and put on my clothes from the previous night.
"Yeah and you should probably call whoever's been blowing your phone up all morning." It was Jess. She had sent me close to twenty texts since last night and called me multiple times this morning. I quickly sent her a text apologizing for ditching her, again, and assuring her that I was fine.
I didn't look in the mirror before I left, but I knew how ridiculous I must have looked. My lace tights had mysterious rips and tears up the thighs, my dress still reeked of vodka, and I didn't even want to think of the state of my hair at this point. Somehow it was ten times harder to walk in my heels hung-over than it was when I was drunk. As I was fumbling through the quad I saw the dance team. Apparently they were practicing out on the grass today. I could see them staring at me as I passed by. It reminded me of when everyone would stare at me as I walked through campus after we won a game. I waved like a pageant queen with a smile to match.
When I walked into my room Katy was up and looking slightly less like a corpse.
"Where have you been? I was about to send out an amber alert for you."
"Sorry, I slept over some basketball player's house," I said as nonchalantly as possible.
"Your first walk of shame, your mother would be so proud!" said Katy sarcastically.
"You have no idea…"
It was true, this is exactly what my mom always wanted for me. A life full of barely remembered drunken hook ups and shameless walks of shame. She would rather I did it wearing a dress four sizes smaller and hair three shades lighter just like she did in high school, but we can't all live up to our parents' expectations.
Table of Contents
by Carly Berg
White: You meet him ice-skating on Valentine's Day. He's with your tamest group of friendswho you like but make fun of with your cool friend on parole. The nice ones banter light as whipped clouds. Clean coldness slows pulses, no undue circulation awakens the sex parts. Micro-organisms, organs, orgasms, bleached pure. Cherubs wade through Lysol air.
Pink: White asks you to dinner. You are surprised. He brings a pink carnation, takes you to The Cheesecake Factory without irony. You like mid-priced chain restaurants but mock them like you're used to finer places when you're not. You don't mock them to him. You talk about the cold weather and what you watch on TV, and if you like apples. He does, because they're crunchy. You don't, because who wants a stupid apple, but you say you do, too. He opens doors for you and pulls out your chair. In your mind he opens the door to your first house together, pulls up a baby's high chair. He might enjoy taking out the recycling bin on Tuesdays. He blushes and his pinkness makes you crazy. You want to wrap him in your afghan and spoon feed him dessert, but bite his face to see what's underneath. You want to take care of him fiercely but yank his pants down then point and laugh.
Red: In your apartment with wine, Pink turns Red as Merlot. Up against the fridge, arms pinned above your head, then onto the tabletop. He pushes your legs back all the way over your head, stands on top of the kitchen table and fucks you till you scream. You bask, astonished, 'til he bends you over the sofa arm, does it again. Red confetti sears your mind one inside the next inside the next, Russian stacking dolls in flames. Much later you take a warm bubble bath, you can't sleep. He splashes right into the bath, retriever hunting a duck, fucks you in the tub. You sleep on your stomach, he sleeps on top of you. You are always afraid but his weight smashes your night fears and you rest light and free.
Black: He says he'll call but he doesn't. You wait all day, the next day, over the weekend. The snow melts. Red cools to Black, curls to ashes and blows away.
Table of Contents
Deep Six Sabotage
by Caroline Fraley
Rachel stared at the photograph still taped to the refrigerator. She slid her hand across her belly and into her dress pocket to finger the white business card.
"Can you hurry?" came a voice from the living room. "Please."
"Don't rush me." She opened the cabinet and filled the tray on the counter with the empty glasses.
"Oh, thanks, lady." Rabbit took them and turned the pint glasses upside down on the pool table, inverting the bar logos—Sharkey's Pub, Ray's Taproom, Firelight Café—advertisements for which establishment, in turn, had been ripped off when they made their way into the house. The wine glasses Rabbit put on the bar behind Rachel.
Six, seven, eight. They ran out of pints. Arranging them in a triangle with the wooden rack, he pointed to the sticks.
"What about this one?" Rachel asked.
"Uh," he mumbled, rolled it on the table, nodded without looking up. "This will teach the motherfucker to screw around on a girl like you." He smiled at her.
She didn't look up; instead, she smoothed the wrinkles in her crocheted vintage dress. It was stained with beer, dingy, but still hovered stylishly over her bare feet. The black smudges at the corners of her eyes gave away her two day old makeup, but her movements were graceful as she reached into Rabbit's filthy camo jacket for a Pall Mall.
"Do you have a lighter?"
His eyes were already lit. "Here."
She seemed unsure how to hold the cigarette—an awkwardness accentuated by the way Rabbit tapped the pack and easily slipped one between his chapped lips. His face was weathered behind uneven grey and white scruff, and the bright green headphones around his neck blasted "Ain't Life Grand" from Widespread Panic's Live at the Woodlands. After taking a long drag and blowing the smoke into the house, Rachel smothered a cough.
Grabbing the black Columbia zip-up from the hanger, she took a moment to pick off the lent before folding and laying it on the bar. "Here, we can use Briggs's jacket for an ashtray."
Rabbit stared at the table, took another drag.
"I'd let you do the honors, but…" His wrinkled face glowed in the recycled bar light, the glow now muted by the smoke cloud.
"No, this one was your idea." She swept her arm alongside the table in her best Vanna. He smiled and put on the headphones, muffling the music in the room. She watched him chalk the stick and roll the cue back and forth for the best angle, just right of the midline. He stabbed out the cigarette into the jacket and lined up his shot. His face burned brighter. Shwack, the ball bowled down the table and collided with the glasses; shards rained into the carpet and buried themselves in the green felt.
They both shrieked. "Did you fucking see that?"
Rachel lept up, smoke-in-hand, swung her weight on the bar light, and kicked the cue into the corner pocket.
"Did you just see that?" His eyes were wild.
"Give me a wine glass!"
"What?" He pushed one speaker behind his ear.
He handed it over. "Yes, ma'am."
She turned the glass around in her hand.
"Here goes," she said, and gave it a good hard chuck against the wall, spreading the shards into the next room. They shrieked again. She put out her cigarette and threw the rest, one-by-one, throughout the room. Against the television, into the mirror, over the mantelpiece, shoved one into Briggs's cigar drawer and kicked it shut. Rabbit laughed and danced through the house. They both had wild smiles and bloody nicks all over their arms and legs.
"Shouldn't you put on shoes?" Rabbit said.
Rachel looked down at her wet, red feet, and shook her head. "But I like the way it feels."
"Okay, whatever, crazy lady," he said. "What do you think he has in the fridge?"
She shrugged. "I don't think Briggs has bought real groceries in his life." She pulled open the door, finding only beer, rotting vegetables and two Styrofoam boxes of leftovers. "Do you want a Dogfishhead?"
"A what?" He raised his eyebrows and grabbed her by the waist.
"It's their sixty minute I.P.A."
"Oh, you mean beer? Yeah sure."
He kissed her hard, and she gave in for a little while before pushing away.
"There's a bottle opener in the drawer over there."
In one sweep, Rabbit ran his hand across the counter, busting a plate and sending the espresso machine and grinder flying. He placed his beer on the now empty counter. "No need." He popped the lid with his red lighter. "Need me to open one for you?"
She absently slid her hand across her belly and hesitated.
"Groovy, dude." He opened a beer and handed it over. "You know, you're a lot like me. Only, you know better how to fit into the world."
"I don't want to fit in," she answered, fingering the card in her pocket once more. "I want to fit in less."
Rabbit laughed. "Like me, you mean?"
"Why would you want to be like me?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Rachel moved her scratched body closer against him.
Rabbit moaned and knocked the half-cocked headphones all the way down on his neck, further unmuffling String Cheese's Who Am I? He put his hand on her waist. "I love you—you don't have to say it back. Can we just lie down together, please? For a minute?"
She brushed her lips against his. They smiled at one another. "Briggs gets home in a half hour. Can you pull your van around to the sidestreet?"
"I might need you to take me to the clinic tomorrow."
Rabbit chugged his beer and slammed it down on the counter. "Whatever you want, baby." Kissing her hand, he ran out the back door.
Rachel plucked the photograph of herself off the refrigerator and ripped it to pieces, smiling while she did.
Table of Contents
by Cara Long
We're told to make paintings that represent our grief. I use lots of green in mine. My grief is a rolling ball of green fury. It grows outward, gathering mass. I'm here, in this place, of my own will and volition. I'm here "to get better". What I am not, however, here to do is paint because I am not a painter. Tim is. His grief is a small bird with only one leg.
"Showoff" I mutter under my breath, and I'm dead serious.
Tim is the person on whom I concentrate all of my bad feelings. He is one of those everyday nice guys; one of those affable, non-harmful, jeans and long sleeved button up shirt kind of guys. I hate Tim. I hate Tim for being here, for being in the same space, the same damnable space, as me.
Tim is here because he tried to hang himself shortly after his wife left him. A wife who left him just to leave him, by the way. I laughed a little after he said that "just to leave me" bit. I laughed partially because it was funny and partially because it was such a fucking lie, but mostly I laughed because I wanted him to know that I didn't care, didn't believe him, didn't feel sad on his behalf.
Tim, quite obviously, did not succeed at hanging himself. He says now that it's because he didn't want to succeed, also laughable. A little bon mot he dropped during group. "Yeah right" I said, and then repeated. "Yeah right."
"Now that's interesting" the group therapist said, trying to turn it on me. What came after isn't so interesting, but Tim's face, the reaction on Tim's face when I said "Yeah right", that was interesting. He did not look stunned at all; rather, he looked relieved. We slept together that night and had passionless sex.
I knocked on Tim's door a little after midnight. "Diane" he said, unsurprised. I was happy that he wasn't surprised to see me. I walked past him and sat on his bed.
"So," I said. He looked at me intently, but remained silent. "OK," I said and began removing my clothing in a perfunctory manner. "OK," he said, and sat down beside me. I felt his mouth on my neck and I kept my eyes open to watch him. I had a sense that he was obliging me. Then a brief vision, a glimpse of a building-lined alley flooded with sunlight, popped into my head, and I went numb to Tim's kisses.
I do not tell anyone about these visions, my visions. I do not tell them about the things that I see: water, bricks, sunlight, men… because none of it is theirs.
Tim clumsily brought me back to myself when he bit me trying to be sexy. I shoved him, hard, away from me. "Oww," I said. "Sorry," he said. I flipped the light off and tried to remember what I had just seen in my head – what was it?
In class, I refuse to acknowledge Tim, or his painting. I'm never, I decide, going to leave the residence. Why would I? In here, the quiet is yours. I dip my brush back into the green paint and continue swirling it onto the canvas. I keep going until my canvas tears and pills from the wet heaviness of the paint. Then I press my hand so hard against the canvas that my palm sticks to it. I am, I notice, breathing very hard.
My hand is still stuck to the canvas and I feel so tired that I think I may be dozing off where I stand. It's been approximately two days since I last slept for longer than an hour or three. You can't take time seriously anyhow.
Tim comes over to me and peels my palm from the canvas. The teacher standing at the front of the room looks at me - Is she a teacher? What can she really do? – and then she comes over. Then it's the teacher and Tim and me and now we are all standing together, but not saying anything. 'This is my moment', I think, so why should I have to say anything? I scrutinize my painting and notice that it is very bad and that I hate it. I screw up my face and look at Tim then the teacher (Jill?). "I hate it," I say to them, but they are confused. "You can't do anything about hate, can you?" I ask, trying my best not to laugh.
When I was in middle school, I was friends with a girl who cut herself. She didn't hide that she did it; in fact, she seemed proud of it. Her parents were very nice people, she was pretty, average in other respects, but pretty is what counts for girls in adolescence. I didn't understand what could be wrong with her, but never thought to ask. We would meet and go for pizza on Saturdays and we would flirt with the older boys who made the deliveries. The delivery boys drove old Honda's and Toyota's and listened to the Grateful Dead or Rage Against the Machine. When you're young, you have no sense of time, of forever. No sense that some of these boys will grow up and go to law school, join bowling leagues or die of cancer. You don't know that you will forget some people entirely.
"Did you have a rough day?" The therapist, Dr. Lombardi, asks me.
"What?" I say, looking directly at him. I never make it easy on the poor bastard.
"A rough day?" he repeats.
"I'm being treated for depression," I say.
Lombardi says "you came to me on your own."
"Of my own volition," I say. "I did, yes."
He looks at me and I fidget with my hands.
"What about your painting … in class today," he asks.
I look at him and don't answer. He shifts in his chair.
"You have to give something, Diane," he says.
We both wait. I'm as still as I can be. I'm a statue.
"I'm not good at giving," I finally say. Lombardi sighs. "Well," he says, and I uncross and then re-cross my legs.
During dinner, I overhear a patient discussing her case history as she waits for food in the cafeteria. She tells her companion that her mother was bipolar and that it really messed her up. I turn around to look at her.
"It made her seem like a liar," she says to the friend, a dumpy looking woman with frizzy blonde hair and a phony smile.
"My mother was great," the phony woman says, still smiling. "She used to knit."
The other woman says "That's nice," and then they're out of earshot.
I look down at my tray: salad, cranberry juice, chicken. Fork, napkin, butter knife. I shove the tray away from me, causing it to knock into the tray of my table mate. "Hey," he says and shoves my tray back without looking at me. I stand and begin to walk away, leaving my tray behind. "Hey," he says again, but I don't turn.
"Therapy doesn't work if you lie," Lombardi once said to me during a particularly dreary session. I could tell that he really wanted something from me again, some piece of me that didn't exist, so I changed the story about my friend, the cutter, and I made her me.
"Listen," he said, "I know this is hard, but we need to work together, trust one another. Therapy doesn't work if you lie." It was such a good line. I frequently repeat it to myself, but change it around to suit my mood: relationships don't work if you lie; ceiling fans don't work if you lie; life doesn't work if you lie.
So now I must tell you the truth: This is not my story. I am not this person, or her experiences. I am not now, and have never been, a patient in a residential mental health facility. Never done art therapy and probably never will.
But Dr. Lombardi is real. I see him twice a month because what I am, and what I have been now for a long time, is a liar. An underachiever with average intelligence and sooty, gray eyes; a woman who likes dogs and potatoes, but not The Beatles; a woman who's convinced that she's going to die from cancer or heart disease no matter what she does; an emotional escape artist. Lombardi thinks that it has to do with my parents, who died twenty-three years ago in a car accident. I don't remember them, what they were like, but I am angry with them nonetheless. Maybe Lombardi is onto something after all.
A car blows its horn out on the street and it occurs to me that I don't remember what today is, or rather, what day of the week it is. I don't work because I don't have to and that suits me just fine. I bought my condo with inheritance money, which had been held in trust until I was twenty-one, and I paid for it in full. At the time, my aunt said it was a stupid thing to do, but now here I am all these years later. My expenses are few and I can work odds and ends to cover those. It's the closest thing to freedom that I've ever known.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the hall mirror and I see my mother's lifeless eyes stare back into my own. We share the same eyes. I find that I often want to trade places with her because in death, life no longer matters. As a child, I would study her face in the few photographs that remained of her. I would imagine her voice, her smell, but I could never really feel her or know her. I look over at my dog and notice that she is giving me a reproachful look from her cozy spot on the sofa. I get up and grab her leash, but she doesn't budge.
"C'mon," I say, and jangle the leash a bit. She then slides off the cushion with a protracted groan. "Right back at ya," I say.
Out on our walk, I notice for the first time that it's a clear day. There aren't many people out and about because it's cold, but the cold also suits me just fine. I slip a bit on some ice, but don't lose my balance. "Ha!" I declare triumphantly and am then embarrassed by my outburst, though no one on the street seems to have taken any notice whatsoever. It's why I love living in a city: anonymity is a lifestyle. I squint into the sun and turn the corner, heading back to my house.
I arrive to find my aunt waiting for me in the hallway. She sees me and says, "Oh, there you are. I was hoping we could have a chat." In my mind, this could mean any number of things.
Once inside, she asks me to make some coffee and I oblige her. I both like and love my aunt. Ever since I was a little girl, she has been the most put together woman I have ever known. She, Aunt Margaret, has perfect hair and manicured nails, a permanent sun-kissed glow and meticulously well groomed eyebrows. She was married for twenty-eight years, but her husband, my Uncle Todd, died last year of a heart attack. I was sad for a while, but Aunt Margaret seemed to blaze right through it. That's her talent in life, I suppose: she can step around what most of us fall into.
Aunt Margaret and Uncle Todd raised me from the time I was three, but never had children of their own. Aunt Margaret says they didn't want any children. Like I said, I love her, but she is not like a mother to me. I bring two cups of coffee out for us, and she thanks me. She looks around my house and then back at me.
"What is this?" she says to me, gesturing around with her hands.
I give a long pause, trying to hold her eyes, but then I give up and shrug.
"I don't know," I say, without pretense.
She arches a well groomed eyebrow and leans in toward me. She is a master. I match her lean in, but have dreadfully straight eyebrows that don't allow for a counter arch.
She doesn't laugh or even smile, as I half expected her to. Instead, she leans back in her chair and studies me. I don't know if she's worried or curious or just feeling bored.
"I have not," she finally says, taking a sip of her coffee, "asked you before because I didn't think that it mattered. I thought the course would correct itself. But now," she says, looking around the room somewhat desperately, "now I don't know where you are anymore, Diane."
I think back to the time when I was twelve and I asked Aunt Margaret about my parents, about what they were like. I asked because when you are an adolescent all differences are glaring, and my dead parents were a big point of difference.
"Your mother was fun," she said, "but also very serious. Your father was the same way. I could never tell what was a joke and what wasn't."
"Did they love one another?" I asked cautiously, understanding even then that Aunt Margaret didn't indulge in sentimentality or nostalgia.
"I suppose," she said breezily. We were seated at the kitchen table, and it was a hot, humid August day. I noticed a hummingbird at the feeder and remembered learning somewhere that their eggs are only the size of a pea.
"Did they want to have me?" I asked her, still watching the hummingbird.
"Of course," she said, "of course. Why would you ask me that?"
I wanted to say 'because they're dead, you fucking imbecile, and I never got to hear the story of me from them.' But instead I said simply, "I dunno."
She looked at me curiously and I cracked my knuckles under the strain of her gaze
"How's school?" she asked me, switching gears. Her dismissal of my questions caused a brief flash of anger, but I knew enough to not let it show. I didn't want her to cut off our conversation.
"School's ok," I said, "it's ok."
The I stood up and walked to the window to watch the hummingbird up close, but it had flown away already.
"Your dad was tall, like you," she said to me, and I could feel her eyes on my back. "You favor him in looks, except for your eyes. Your eyes are your mother's eyes."
"They look like yours too," I said back to her, not turning.
"I suppose," she said wearily.
I pressed the palms of my hands into the counter, lifting myself off the ground. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted to ten. From the time I was very small right up through the present, I have used counting as a way to calm myself. I sometimes, though not often, have to count into the hundreds before I can get my thoughts back in control.
I let myself drop the few inches down to the ground, and prepared to ask Aunt Margaret another question, but when I turned around to face her, she had already left the room.
I look at my Aunt Margaret now, sipping her coffee, her face strong and firm. I decide that I admire her resilience more than I resent it.
"I don't know where I am either," I say, and it's true so it feels good to say it.
"Listen," she says, "people leave. People leave your life and that's that. It's just what happens."
Aunt Margaret has always wanted me to live a clean, tidy life. I know that I bewilder her, and I feel bad for that.
"Yes," I say steadily, "they do leave."
She sets her coffee down and pushes a lock of hair from her face. Looking straight at me she says, "Is that not what all this is about, Diane? The fact that you can't just glue people to the earth? That you can't blink your eyes and have everything be perfect?"
I can feel the heat rise between us, and I no longer want to hold back any of my anger.
"I don't know what perfect is," I respond firmly. "This is my life and it has nothing to do with perfect."
Aunt Margaret gives me a wry smile. "Tell me then," she says, "does your life have to do with anything?"
I stand up and go to the door. I open it.
"Get out," I say.
Aunt Margaret stands, shaking her head. She removes a stack of photos from her purse and tosses them down on the chair.
"For you," she says and breezes past me, each of us holding the others eyes for a few moments.
My dog startles from her nap when I close the door.
"It's ok," I say to her, but she is already back sleeping.
I pick the photos up from the chair, but don't look at them. I know them - I can feel them in my stomach. I take them to the sink and set them inside it. The photo on top shows me as a baby being cradled by my mother. My father stands close by, grinning broadly. I strike a match.
'Fire doesn't work if you lie,' I think to myself.
"I'm not lying this time," I respond aloud to my own thought.
The picture beneath the one of my mother shows my father, standing near an old car. His face is handsome, something I had never noticed. I drop the match onto the photos, and resist the urge to pat out the flames when they catch. I watch the flames contort the faces and the bodies, curling the paper at the edges before eating it entirely.
In my head, I can see my mother driving, my father in the passenger seat trying to find a good radio station. They're heading to the babysitter's to collect me after an evening out. They had a nice night together, and they're talking about my mother's job. A squirrel darts out and my mother hits the brakes. My father chides her that one day she will get into an accident trying to avoid a chipmunk. She laughs. She's doing the speed limit. She glances in the rearview mirror while heading straight through a green light. Then nothing. The impact of a truck slamming into them at sixty kills them both instantly. They have no last words or thoughts. They are simply gone.
I run water over the photos, extinguishing the flames. A heap of glossy ash remains. I stand at the sink, unblinking. I feel a wave of grief wash over me, dragging me down in its undertow. I catch a glimpse of myself in my mind: I am seated on a stone pathway in a garden. In my hands I clutch a simple wooden box. Inside the box is everything that I have ever lost.
Table of Contents
Steak and Potato Delight
by G.K. Adams
Five ingredients in Mama’s famous Steak and Potato Delight: steak, potatoes, parsley, onions, and . . . . What is the fifth? I can’t quite remember. I know you put the parsley in last. Of course Mama didn’t use real steak, not steak steak. She used ground meat. What was that fifth thing? It’ll come to me. Salt and pepper don’t count; you always add salt and pepper.
She made the Delight at least once a week. Daddy was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. She usually fixed it on Wednesday night because the next day was his day off. He worked shift work, machining parts for the oil field. The whole house smelled of sautéd onions and beef. We’d pile around the table. It would be set with a yellow and white plaid tablecloth. Mama said yellow was cheery. The news with Tom Brokaw would be turned low in the living room. Mama served the Delight steaming and piled high on a platter with pink roses around the edge. Daddy sat at the head of the table. Mama sat to his left, in the chair closest to the kitchen. Bobby – the oldest, the one that’s an accountant in Houston – me and him fought to get the place next to Daddy. He usually won. My baby sister Lorraine always sat next to Mama. Daddy said grace on the nights he was there – which was always on Wednesdays.
I didn’t care much for the Delight myself and never cooked it, but, wouldn’t you know, I married a meat-and-potatoes guy too. I’m not saying he won’t eat vegetables. He will – especially ketchup or red beans and rice.
Today is a special day. That’s what set me to thinking about Mama’s recipe. I want a special supper tonight.
I wish I could remember that fifth ingredient. It wasn’t stewed tomatoes.
I can’t ask Mama, God rest her. She died almost three years ago – breast cancer. Daddy couldn’t afford health insurance. He was a different man after Mama passed. He’s still working, has four more years to retire. Lorraine stays home with him since me and Greg got married. But Lorraine seems pretty serious about her newest boyfriend.
It wasn’t mushroom soup.
I keep praying Daddy will meet a nice lady, somebody to make him happy again. Oh, I have mixed feelings about somebody taking Mama’s place, but it’s not like we’re little kids any more, and it’s just a matter of time before Lorraine leaves. I’d love to see Daddy smiling. I worry that even his first grandchild won’t make him smile. I just found out for sure today. Pink for positive! Greg will be on cloud ten. I can’t wait to tell him. He’s been hoping for a boy. Me? I’m praying for a baby without the C gene . . . and for Greg to find a job with insurance.
It wasn’t butter, that’s like salt and pepper. Maybe I could just use a can of cheese soup.
Table of Contents
Image credits as yet unknown.
What are we looking for in fiction?
This is a consistent question that we've never actually answered at The Legendary, so I thought I'd put head to screen and make some effort to express a few clear desires and concerns that will facilitate your understanding of what fiction we want/don't want, will/won't publish etc…
CAVEAT: All things below are subject to change, modification, redaction, hyperbole, removal etc. and belong only to Jon Thrower (the guy who will probably read your fiction) and are not necessarily the opinion of other editors at The Legendary.
*Thing you should really do before anything else: Read.
*Read our site.
*Read contemporary writing. If you can't name a living author who doesn't write best sellers, you aren't reading enough.
Suggestion/thought #1 – Proofread your shit. Really. I always write my thoughts and send them on to others so your dumb typos and mistakes will garner cringing laughter. You can find these little screams of horror on our site. I will share them with my wife. I will take funny photos of myself posed next them. I will hire skywriters and fly them over the cities of America. See *.
Suggestion/thought #2 – Remember that I am a person with a job and a life and my own desires that exist well outside of editing fiction subs for The Legendary. As such, I (like you) don't have all the time in the world. It's probably not a great idea to send a 25 page submission. Not only does it violate my personal time by a great degree, but it does an equal disservice to our format. We (like most online entities) simply don't work with large chunks of text, nor do our readers expect such. And while this may violate some kind of revered modernist sympathies you have for the novel, so what. It's just not feasible. This does not mean that an excellent chapter from a novel (given the length exception above) is beyond our scope. See *.
Suggestion/thought #2.5 – \Short things are appealing. If that bothers you, welcome to the internet (we've been here awhile). See *.
Suggestion/thought #3 – Genre fiction (especially western/horror/sci-fi) must be brilliant to get accepted. If you're wondering if your work is brilliant, it's probably not. If you can write using these genres in a way that is compelling and not hijacked by sad fancy and cliché, it might be brilliant.
Suggestion/thought #3.5 – Off the top of my head brilliant applicable examples of genre writing that are pretty fucking great and transcendent: Sci-fi: Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. & Castro, Adam Troy. "Her Husband's Hands".; Horror: Marcus, Ben. The Flame Alphabet. & Gay, William. "The Paperhanger".; Western: McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. & DeWitt, Patrick. The Sisters Brothers.
Suggestion/thought #3.6 – Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, Ninjas, Chuck Norris (all of which can be used simultaneously/interchangeably) probably need not apply without really, really, really, really good reason. If you want to submit something like this, second guess yourself four times. It might be possible that I will accept a zombie short story wherein the writer realizes the trite nature of writing a zombie story and tries to come to terms with the idea that she might actually be a mindless consumer pig-idiot and therefore a zombie who can only feed on the daft production of zombie meme paraphernalia and thereby ends up eating only other zombie-related miscellany and dies of starvation. But it's already been done so just stop it.
Suggestion/thought #4 – I don't mind realism, but it must be good. Probably most of what we accept fits arguably under this heading. So know that your competition is tough. Also know that I read a lot and am picky. Therefore you should read a lot and make careful decisions. See *.
Suggestion/thought #5 – I like experimentation. I think it's healthy and good. There isn't enough of it. See *.
Suggestion/thought #6 – See *.
What I really want from fiction is a deeper life. I think a lot of readers want this too. I want to feel. I want to think. I don't mind a bit of confusion. I don't mind wondering or wonderment. I want, as I think most of us do, to be affected.
I am anxious to see your brave work.
**Send your submissions to Jon Thrower at email@example.com.