RETURN TO CURRENT ISSUE OF THE LEGENDARY
Spaniard stopped by the Super Bar on the way home, he drank enough cheap brandy and draft beer to knock down a mule or two. Then he walked to a bookstore looking for something to help him escape. He always went to the poetry section first, to see if they had any books by him. Some tall skinny guy was bent over showing his ass crack looking at bottom shelf books. When he stood upright and farted, Spaniard felt like burying his steel toed boot up the dude’s ass. When the dude bent over he farted again, Spaniard elbowed him in the kidneys. What was worse than his fart stench was his sweat, urine, dog shit slimed shoes, and he reeked like an old douche bag. Spaniard wished his sense of smell was worse than his sense of humor.
“Hey motherfucker, you should clean up your act.” Smelly boy looked like he’d been hit in the head with a twenty pound sledge hammer. He stopped and spoke with the clerks and they all looked at Spaniard. He just smiled and gave them all a little wave. After finding one book by Chekov, he went home.
Spaniard was trying to catch forty winks, it sounded like his lady, Lupe and their cat were wrestling or having sex at the foot end of the bed.
“Hey, I’m trying to sleep. The damn machine noise from the post office letter sorter is ricocheting inside my screaming skull.”
The cat meowed like a Husqvarna mower was chewing and gnawing him into pieces. He thought Lupe was committing murder and mayhem. “Hold still, you little son of a bitch,” she said.
“What in the hell are you doing woman?” Spaniard asked.
“I’m trying to clean the cat’s ass. He took a nasty dump in the litter box and now wants to rub his ass all over my white down comforter.”
“Just quit corn holing that cat, please. The fucking zip code madness won’t leave me alone tonight.”
“Why do you act like your hero, Bukowski?”
He screamed, “Bukowski can kiss my brown ass.” Spaniard started snoring like a constipated chainsaw sawing through an anvil.
Catfish McDaris won the Thelonius Monk Award in 2015. He loves coffee and cats. He’s been active in the small press world for 25 years. His biggest seller is Prying: with Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski. His newest monster book is: www.amazon.com/Sleeping-With-Fish-Catfish-McDaris/dp/0692671323
In the dream, he always has legs. Lean muscles climb up over his spindly lower limbs, and Annabelle names each one as she runs her fingers over them: fibulas brevis, fibulas longus, peroneus longus… repeating the words under her breath like a spell.
Jacob stands perfectly still in front of a mirror as she does this, admiring her hands as they move over his flesh like waves eager to melt into sand. Admiring how whole he feels beneath her touch.
Every time he has this dream, he wakes to the sound of Annabelle’s laugh. For a moment, it's as if she's in bed beside him again, watching old sitcom reruns on TV. I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, The Addams Family. He’s started sleeping with the light on because the brief moment after he opens his eyes when he searches the darkness for her is the worst part of his nightmares. Now, his gaze settles on the empty left side of the bed, finding nowhere more interesting to rest in his small bedroom.
Annabelle is the only person he ever knew who was capable of real magic. He can see the two of them in his head, age seven and new neighbors. Annabelle, freckle-faced and missing both front teeth, kisses the bruise on his knee and promises that’ll make it heal faster. Soon, he comes to her with all his injuries, and she fixes each one, from paper cuts to broken limbs. Her lips are coated in pixie dust, he thinks. She tells him Tinker Bell visits her at night and shares all the secrets of Neverland, and he believes her.
Later, at seventeen, he climbs up into her bedroom every night to be with her. She steals locks of his hair for fidelity spells, and he listens to her chanting under her breath when she thinks he’s asleep. One night, he sneaks a look in her nightstand drawer. It’s full of moonstone and crystal, Spanish moss and bird bones. There’s a small bottle with ‘devotion potion’ written on it in her curling scrawl with a dark, cloudy liquid inside. The drawer is scattered with pictures of him from the summer before, smiling at her through a camera lens. He’s been told he never looks at anyone quite like he looks at her, and he can see it’s true.
He has mundane memories about her, too. She is not always surrounded by magic, casting her spells. Sometimes the two of them are twenty-four, making spaghetti on a Thursday night. Painting their first apartment, or arguing about who should do the dishes, which always leads to them having sex on the kitchen floor and agreeing whoever finished first has to do them without complaint. Some of these things happened. He knows they did. But he worries he conjured some of the others out of pure desperation for more of her, any way he could have it.
His favorite memory is always the one where she is sitting in the car beside him, though. At age sixteen, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-seven — it doesn’t matter. She’s looking out the window, humming along to the radio. Safe. Eager to arrive at the city cemetery, to run up the three-hundred and thirty-four steps to where the oldest headstones are. It was always her favorite place, because they could see the entire county laid out beneath them. They were driving there, the day of the accident.
“Let’s play gods,” she said, breathless, when they reached the summit of the hill each time. “Let’s make love here, and pretend all the suffering in the world beneath us doesn’t matter.”
He always played along with her games of make-believe, as if they were still kids banished from their living rooms on a hot summer day, compelled to conquer the woods between their homes.
He can still see her eyes, an emerald storm, rolling back as she digs her fingers into his shoulders, arching her spine against the mossy ground. That really happened, didn’t it? He can still feel the damp smoothness of her skin as he pushes back a strand of black hair clinging to her forehead. He can still smell the slight saltiness of her sweat that makes him think of the sea. She moves like waves under him, steady, relentless. He feels like a sailor about to be shipwrecked in a hurricane so powerful one could only call it an act of god.
After, they lie together between the oldest headstones and the looming woods, and he thinks of the unlucky lovers buried beneath them, their brief existence long snatched from their skeletal fingers. He thinks of time, cascading endlessly down to this moment, and starts to feel a paralyzing loneliness when he thinks that this, too, will eventually have to end. Then Annabelle props her chin up on his chest and says, “Where are you?” and he comes back.
Even now, if she were still here, he knows she could cast a spell to make him whole again. With a word, she could end his suffering.
His gaze moves from the bed to his wheelchair.
He feels an old compulsion to get up, to leave his apartment and drive to the cemetery. He can’t escape the feeling that the two of them are still on that summit, playing gods as they used to so often. He sees them entwined, half-naked behind the oldest headstones, shameless, indecent.
He sees the steps from down below in his wheelchair, and can still feel the phantom burn in his thighs, can still taste the ghost of her eagerness on his lips.
He knows those steps are nothing more than a locked door with a lost key to him now. He knows Annabelle’s body is beneath that hill, not above it. Still, he wants to go. He wants to call out to those immortals, even if they won’t listen to him. Even if they aren’t real.
He wants to tell them to never come back down.
Kelsie Qua was born and raised in Upstate New York, but followed the sun to North Carolina. She still hasn't given up her affinity for wearing black.
Mrs Crisp peeled a beige square of cheese from its plastic and palmed it into little Ivan’s bread. Today, he had a spelling bee.
“You shouldn’t expect to do very well in this. Spelling’s tough at the best of times, for the best of students and you aren’t one of those I’m afraid.”
Ivan stopped with his rice bubbles, the spoon hanging in his hand. He eyed his mother and for a moment he saw right through her, or at least, that’s how it seemed to her.
“Don’t tarry with your cereal, Ivan. Eat up. Tarry,” she said after he didn’t heed her instructions, “means to delay in acting.”
Her husband sat across from the boy, a reedy wisp of a man, tall and undernourished-looking. There were cuts on his jaw from his buckled razor, which would have to last at least another week. His hand shook as he drank his coffee, careful not to slurp it. Careful not to smack his lips or breathe in a way that might be audible to his wife. His tie was grey. His suit was grey – purchased grey and now faded grey from wear. There was one hair left on his head. Presently it stood on end from the static his wife’s discontent diffused upon her kitchen and its sorry male duo.
“Not many people know that word. When you’re at school, it might be an idea to use it. Show Mrs Crawley you’re not such a…”
Mr Crisp didn’t normally interrupt. He preferred to go about his routines in quiet, if he could swing it like that, and mostly, he could. This morning, he had to ask a favour.
“Darling, I’m not sure if you’re aware but I was talking to our son and you interrupted me. I don’t think that’s the right message to send to a little boy, is it?”
“If you didn’t look so utterly close to the end of your life,” – she had her fist pressed into the top of Ivan’s sandwich – “I’d have a good go at you Bern, a good hack.”
When she started like this, fisting items of food, she became angrier, more despondent, with every heave of her chest. There had been episodes during which he’d feared for the boy’s safety. She’d have never touched him in malice - in her heart she loved him and Mr Crisp knew this. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything as awful as that. It was just that she had a careless way with sharp utensils. Knives, meat cleavers, serving forks. This morning it was all bread and cheese, the stub of a tomato, a glistening slice of ham, rainbow-flecked in the daylight weakly sloping through the window. He figured the dangerous items were well enough away. And so he gathered the few threads of strength he had left inside him and asked her, if she didn’t terribly mind, if it wasn’t terribly too much to request, for a spot of help with his insulin injection.
“Dr Speck said I haven’t been doing it right. And as you’ve done this type of thing before… given how deft you can be with your hands… and because it’s so nice when you…”
Mrs Crisp left the room. Her husband raised his head to the ceiling and closed his eyes. They burned beneath the lids. And burned. He listened to her bang about in the bathroom, each thump and thwack of the medicine cabinet door, a rebuke against him. Little Ivan’s spoon still hung frozen in his hand.
The trees on the way to school that lined Patch Street and Grand Drive, all the way to the overpass, stood crouched in haggard defeat. It was winter. The bark was wet. The leaves had long fallen to the earth. Ivan saw in their mournful stance his father and resolved that morning never to become one himself.
“I was a great speller, Ivan. Did you know? I wrote poems for the school magazine.”
He considered the noise his dad had made when she drove the needle into his buttock. She forced it in so deep it must’ve struck bone, for he’d not before heard another living thing whimper the way his dad had.
“Do you think he’ll be OK?”
“Your father’s an idiot. He’ll be fine. Now, you would like to hear one of my poems, wouldn’t you? I can still remember.”
“It’s just that he was bleeding, when we left.”
“Your father’s a weak man. I told him to sit still and he moved. That’s why it became messy. Take note, Ivan. A man must be strong.”
“But he was white all over.”
“Sallow maybe. The colour of weakness.”
Unable to look upon the trees for a second longer - they made him sick with compassion – Ivan raised his gaze and there noticed the lonely spire of his school chapel against the clouds.
“I would like you to treat him better,” said Ivan.
He had tears in his eyes. They were tears of love. Any normal mother would’ve pulled the car over and died from affect. Mrs Crisp drove on, under the overpass and down Chief Street. She drove to the gates and sat gazing through the windshield as he clambered out and up the drive to school. She sat there gazing for a long time. Water shivered down the glass and split into little limbs which split again. She sat there gazing, and then she drove away, outraged that she’d now have to go to a supermarket, somewhere, and buy more ham.
Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer form Sydney, Australia. His fiction’s appeared in Seizure, Verity La, the UTS Writers’ Anthology and is forthcoming in Bide. He has previously been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has practised law in Sydney, London, Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands.
I’ve lived next door to Austin most of my life. That means I know a lot about plants – especially, carnivorous plants.
Austin can tell you how they get their nutrients from trapping and eating bugs. And that there are more than 600 kinds of carnivorous plants, not including 300 protocarnivorous ones, and that Charles Darwin was the first guy to ever write about carnivorous plants… Okay, sometimes it gets boring. But that’s not the point. See, Austin will play race cars if the cars can race around a plant. He’ll play storm-the-castle if we make one of his knights a man-eating plant. Like my mom says, he tries.
Not that anyone at this stupid middle school cares. They call him “Plant Boy.” Mom says I should tell them Austin’s like a magic trick: he seems to be one thing when really he’s something else. But I’ve got enough problems in sixth grade without adding in Austin. So these days, we’re just hang-out-at-home friends. Mom says that’s not nice, but Austin says it’s cool, he gets it.
This afternoon I crouch behind some bushes at the front of campus and peek at him through the leaves. Austin looks around and looks around and I know he wants to walk home with me. I’ve spent most of the day alone. My mouth is aching to spit out words. But I make my legs stay put.
Finally, he shrugs and heads down the street.
I wait a minute, two minutes more. Then I stand.
I’m turning the corner, plopping one foot in front of the other, when I see something, half a dozen front yards away, that sends my heart skidding to my feet.
Austin’s surrounded by seventh and eighth graders. He points towards this yellow house, and I know he’s telling them about the Venus flytrap those weird people keep potted on their porch. How much you want to bet he’s describing it as “the Barack Obama of carnivorous plants”?
One of the guys asks a question and Austin answers because he’s so obsessed that he doesn’t notice the expressions on their faces. A girl turns away and giggles.
My legs won’t move and my mouth won’t open. “Plant Boy!” someone yells and Austin’s face droops.
“Barack O-Loser!” An eighth grader shoves him and he goes sprawling onto the lawn.
“Get a life!” a girl says. Her friends crack up. They keep laughing as they walk away.
I blink and swallow a sob as lumpy as an arachnid. Be cool, I remind myself.
I go over to him. “You okay?”
He looks past me to the street because looking straight at you is not really his thing. Then he says, “I saw you waiting back there.”
He lets me pull him to standing. A button has fallen off his shirt. I pick it out of the grass and hand it to him.
“Thanks,” he says, and nods at the lamppost, like the three of us just made a business deal. He sniffles and wipes his nose with his sleeve, then gestures to the sidewalk. “Do you want to go first, or should I?”
“You have a life,” I say.
“I was only telling them about the plant’s name, because its common name refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, while its genus name refers to Dione, who’s a Greek goddess but not of love.”
“Oh, Austin…” I say.
“So it’s kind of confusing if you don’t really understand about plant names…”
I hear a noise from behind and when I glance back, I see three boys headed our way. I squint and raise my palm against the sun. Yep – it’s Nate and Jesse and Chris. Yesterday, Jesse kicked me in the butt and knocked me into the rose bushes outside the school auditorium, while Nate and Chris looked on and laughed. The nurse had to get four thorns out of my arm with tweezers.
“…and then I said it’s really a heck of a kind of love because the plant eats the insects, though not just flies like everyone thinks but arachnids, too. Hey, you know what, Danny, so do you.”
“What?” I glance back at him. My stomach is rising into my mouth and I can’t catch my breath.
“You have a life, too,” he says, but I barely hear the end of it because I am sprinting away, down the block, around the corner, away from Austin and Nate and Jesse and Chris and rosebushes and Venus flytraps and the endless sidewalk and the school that will once again haunt my sleep.
I run home.
Once I get there I bend over double, catching my breath. I stay like that for a while, staring at the pavement and thinking. I think and think and after a moment, I know what I’m going to do.
I sit down on his porch step and wait for him.
He shows up sooner than I expect.
“Hey,” I say.
He walks past me, up the steps, fits his key in the front door lock, and mumbles a handful of words.
I leap to standing. “What did you say?”
Austin shakes his head, fumbles with the lock.
But I’m right there next to him, leaning my face in between his and the door. “What did you say?”
He turns the key and shoves his shoulder into mine. I topple sideways and he shoots past me, into the house. “See you tomorrow,” he says, then slams the door behind him.
But those weren’t the words. We both know, I heard him just fine.
He said, “Real losers hide in bushes.”
Constance Sommer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who divides her free time between writing fiction and raising three children. This is her first published short story.
“Ser inmortal es baladí”
—Borges, El Inmortal
If nothing else, at a certain threshold, losing count gains a significance beyond anything physically measurable, such that, the one counting, the one losing grip on that which is being measured, achieves a certain, if not specific, transcendence of reality. Or, maybe more applicably: a state of drunkenness that is neither beyond consciousness nor appropriately sober.
The soft, nearly malleable, ochre wood of the bar-top has become congruent with the consciousness of Mark George Taxem, providing that unmistakable at-home feeling that seems transparent everywhere else. The grain of the wood, viewed from the second stool from the right end of the bar has been flowing with a curiously obstinate consistency ever since he had decided to take refuge in the windowless tavern. The knots, and dark lines surrounding them, have been flowing with a slow but definitively exponential speed as the Occurences go on. They are the current attestants of his scrutiny. They are the only solid—perhaps liquid (or something mediary?)—basis or anchor left in the transient life of Mark G.
Today (whatever that means anymore), he notices that his favorite knot, that which he affectionately calls Bermuda—if not with a bit of emotive caress that might appear unhinged by an onlooker should they notice him nearly whispering into the bar-top—he notes that it has shifted at least two centimeters since last time, and the lines too, minutely around their central dark owl-den disk. (Although that eponymous triangle at least has three flanks limiting its conspiracy; he often dejectedly considers what the implications then might be in the case of the more mutable shape adorned in the grain. . . .)
Ever since he retired any real effort to navigate the temporal eddy he is stuck in, Mark has unabashedly surrendered any tenacity for physical motion to the stagnancy of a bar stool. Awash in the finest liquors (oh, the people may come and go / but the bottle loves me so), he’s come of the opinion that the time of day can rightfully fuck itself. For every Occurrence there is an equally ready and willing bartender (or bartendress) precisely and conspiratorially ready to serve him, as if he’d just strolled in with the fondness and familiarity of a regular—but not so regular as to be considered the local symbol of sadness, aglow like some alcoholic clown.
The Occurrences weren’t noticeable at first. They’d happen in his sleep, keeping him completely unsuspecting. Until, strange coincidences began to alert him to the apparently asymptotical “plot”—although, who, or what could contrive such a calculated influence on reality was a question long abandoned and upturned as so many bottles emptied, tossed, and magically restocked like inexhaustible friends. Once It started happening in his waking hours, however, all doubt was cast, and re-cast, from the window—only to return with the smugness of an inanimate object suddenly revealing that it indeed has a face in adamant rejection of propriety for its own inanimateness.
There was a distinct phase of mental uncoupling, an inability to rationalize the discrete permutations and repeats of an episodic reality. He’d find that though he went to sleep on a Wednesday, he awoke on a Monday. The week had become discombobulated and as a result, vast mental uncertainty plagued an unhinging Mark. He’d frantically ask his wife what the date was, how it had undergone reversion by three or five days, only to find that her teeth were no longer the perfectly straight diamonds he’d grown used to for years, or that her hair was a few shades darker brunette than was normal, that her eyes were hazel, or blue, or green. Then, massive guilt when he reacted with involuntary repulsion and she, lovingly concerned, only wanting to help, trying to comfort him. All the while Mark could only think, What has happened to my wife, who is this person impersonating her. Some days overwhelmed by such panic that he had run from the house, hell-bent and screaming—just really losing it. The fallout of such episodes had a few times resulted in brief hospitalizations, where he’d even learn to accept his fate in hopes of recovery from . . . whatever the affliction actually was—then to wake, in a ward where he was forgotten, told he was not actually a patient, to go home. Part of the psychosis? Cool-down . . . just a momentary mental snap . . . until it would happen again. Eventually the acute episodes of Capgras misidentification became commonplace, Mark began to work with, assimilate to his apparent neurosis, achieving a mental nondisjunction while also blankly accepting that his wife would forget each frantic episode of confusion, revulsion, guilt. And he, only having gone Here’s Johnny homicidal once or twice during The Acclimation Period.
Now, sitting in his favored stool, he drowns the uncomfortable turbulence of mental (dimensional?) disparity in mass amounts of alcohol. As so many have done, will do—the greatest of grievances can be soothed momentarily with an amount of whiskey directly proportional to the distress: history’s favored mathematical, scientific, psychological, whatever, relation.
Looking up from his beloved Bermuda—past the line-up of liquor bottles waiting patiently for their turn to assuage his doubts—into the mirror, at himself for the first time in . . . ? His eyes too now . . . when did they change? Gaze fixed, he raises his hand with a slight tremor, resigns without demur, and tosses the poured whiskey back, sloshing a bit on his chin in the process, and closes his eyes to the evanescent betrayal of the reflection—Show me my true self.
For whatever reason, perhaps thankfully (since there is nothing else to be grateful for in his circumstance), his liver has apparently suffered no damage in the added weeks of post-collegiate-depression-levels of glorious and despicable binge drinking. In fact, it maybe suffers less and less damage each time—although the actual act of getting drunk has started to become . . . confusing, foggy. . . .
Speaking of which, It’s happening again—right in the middle of reaching that zenith of nicely fucked up—everything begins to shake, first almost imperceptibly, where nobody but maybe a few select individuals notice something is definitely off. Mark, a veteran of the event at this point, promptly orders a double, to down as fast as possible since he knows there is only about 10 minutes until lift-off and landing are achieved simultaneously. Here we go. He swings around on the stool, elbows up on the bar-top like a cowboy of the rift, coolly observing the patrons in varying degrees of seated stupor, noting the conformity of swaying among those a bit too shit-housed to feel the tremors, the sluggish coming-to of others starting to realize a nascent, secular rumbling exists outside of their minds. . . . As realizations come to a meeting point for the pub’s crowd, Mark staggers off to the restroom. Cue: stream of urine, inchoate murmurs of panic outside the bathroom, gradual increase in shaking, electrical failure, real screaming, actual crumbling, and then both the piercing and blinding yet silent shriek of a white light, necessarily devoid of particulate matter, accruing in some shift of dimensional existence, and—boom—launched from, and landed right back in front of the urinal—it is impossible to tell if there was any actual relief.
Hoorah. Back to another round of doubles, hell, triples if you can, we’ve survived another bout of turbulent, dimensional fuckery. You can put your dicks away, folks.
Mark bursts from the bathroom, in a somewhat over-congratulatory swagger, only to realize that his seat, the second from the right, is already occupied. Well fuck, who would be there to appreciate the discrete shift of dendrochronology this time round? Not a big deal, he supposes, if nothing else, he’s come to a point of elasticity that nothing could, or would faze him. Right-O then, fourth seat from the right it’ll be. . . . (It is the polite thing to do, after all, to leave at least one open seat between patrons, less for personal space and more for the wide berth of disenchantment only an alcoholic can exude—the mighty aura of a real bender.)
Stacy, the wonderfully voluptuous, mightily flirtatious (in as subtle a way as possible: perfectly timid and shaped smile, quick fettered laugh, exquisitely fitting clothing neither too-tight nor too pretentious) goddess of the bartendresses is serving drinks in this episode. He examines her for the usual permutation that apparently accompanies each event, and finds, that this time, her eyes are an icy gray, rather than their normal blue—cold enough to incite badgery, icy enough to sizzle away at any encroaching hardon with ease. In the indeterminate time he’s spent on his regular bar-stool (considering challenging mr. fucko over there for throne-rights) she has gone through all sorts of variations: blond to brunette, B to C cup, 120 to 140 pounds and back. He only knows such intimate details because he used to have sufficient time (cue card: cosmic laugh track) to seduce and bed the beautiful and only half-the-time-tamable beast of sexuality.
But, by now, he’s lost any footing on whatever pedal indirectly connects to the sex-drive. After a while, exhausting the sexual aspect of his vantage point, he began getting to know other regular patrons: Jake, the washed up, once-football star (or struggling method actor, depending); Charles, the just-out-of-college, newly alcoholic young man who works the graveyard shift at the local Circle K and has found them much more tolerable when hammered; Frank, a surgeon who’s only one more offense from losing his license to practice for his problem—who, surprisingly, throws a wicked left-hook; etc. Pursuing friendship is out of the question necessarily, though many fathom-deep conversations have been had—in bursts—the best devolving into outright brawls involving the entire bar. Interesting characters: in the end all with the same downward-staring, drink-swilling solution to life’s adamant pressures—a well-trodden avenue of despair Mark can equate to. Eventually he gave up on all sociable endeavors: for one, there simply isn’t enough time between Occurences anymore; and two, they became difficult in lieu of minor changes in each person which he had no chance of keeping track of or predicting between reset-points. Besides, he’d already dedicated a large portion of the original week he’d had simply making sport of sexual advances, successes, and overt failures. All reasons he’s retired to the bar-stool now currently occupied by . . . Phil? The charitable, scared-of-his-own-shadow, deadbeat?
“Here you go honey”
A large shot of whiskey and a frothing beer are placed in front of him, the subsequently bewildered look he gives Stacy provokes an explanation:
“Gentleman right there bought it for you,” points off to shit-lick Phil, who, noticing the triad of interaction, raises his glass ceremoniously towards Mark—cheers.
Intrigue. Mark shoots whiskey, grabs beer, and moves in on Phil. Seated, “Do I look sad enough to warrant charity?” He’s really reached a Bukowski-level of indifference in addressing other people; a surprising first impression often shocks these bar-dwellers into interesting conversation, if any.
“S’only thing I got left to pervent the same happ’ning to me”
A man after his own heart—quaint. Raises glass again, clink.
“Y’know I was gonna—that is, was workin on givin you hell for sitt’n on my stool, but, uh, the drinks, they make up for that, obviously.” He simply speaks in slurs now, despite being unsure if his liver is really metabolizing anything anymore.
“Yeah? Well shit. Arnt I just the regular mediator over here”
Well, well, got us one charming guest-star this episode.
“Terrible drunk though, who the hell drinks Pendleton? And this swill?”
A dead serious stare, pontification, “Certain point, don’t really matter anymore does it . . . ?”
“Ok, Phil, willya be Aaron Carter with me for a sec?” This is a joke he’s been trying repeatedly, with pretty damn low levels of success.
“I want . . . candid . . . ?”
We have a winner, “Thas’right! How—[belch]—how long, did it take you to learn piano? Decades? A thousand years? Ten thousand?” Maybe a bit maniacal here. . . .
“Well, my father . . . was a piano mover, so. . . . ”
Bellowing laugh and chummy slap on the back, “Phil, my MAN!” Clink again, bottom’s up (like how he once had Stacy in the bathroom—seeing her through the refraction of the beer and glass—lucky enough to catch a particularly desperate iteration; or perhaps her, him), glass down, “Hey Phil, see that bartendr—”
The shaking and lens-flashing smear of light start up to Mark’s surprise—this is the fastest the transmutation has set in motion yet. . . . A fear of systemic extinction particular to the universe strikes him at that moment. Destruction with clear intent, at such intensity that his question is knocked off the rails and the piercing nature of the transition prevents any hold strong enough to even formulate a thought, and yet still throughout the intensity—of light, sound, physical unease as the entire fabric of the earth moves in sinusoidal waves beneath—señor Phil keeps his apparent composure . . . what the hell?
And . . . fuck. The reset is completed before he has a chance to ask Phil if he doesn’t notice that the damn building is crumbling above him, uh, that is, was crumbling. Despite a constant level of probable brute drunkenness, Mark knows (a slow realization from a stirring suspicion—Congratulations on the Promotion!) the successive, repetitious windows are growing shorter, more erratic with each installment. It’s now 7pm. The start-point and end-point are approaching each other . . . what happens when they touch? Antimatter-matter explosion? The cross-talk, action at a distance, of each end of this fucked, time-lopped dimension begin to feel a lot like an impending guillotine, stopping and starting, tortuously teasing above and behind his head where he’s unable to look, but can practically hear the singing of the angled blade in its wooden grooves, unsure of what will happen when it does finally cut through him.
Stand up, shift two seats right to the previously-occupied-but-now-his-again stool. Hello Bermuda, slyly shifting vestige of my previous normalcy, how do you do? The event-horizon is closing; lines in the wood skewing to further extremes among their associated black-hole knots; the asymptotical curve reaching its zenith of downward (upward?) curve; a marble dropped in parabola and left to navigate the slightly different contours of the exponential bowl-walls of its reality, with the only possible fate being an extinction point at the bottom. . . . His brain begins making scattershot analogies, trying to cope with the immensity of time diminishing around him; his cinching guts are begging to shut off the reasoning centers of his brain via more alcohol.
Then: an idling. As if the engine of the last transposition had been left on, to rumble, just barely at a detectable level. A sort of lens flaring too . . . light reflecting erroneously at weird angles off chairs, tables, glasses, bottles, that shouldn’t quite be catching the light with such fastidiousness. How drunk is he exactly? Never had he reached such a significant level of washed-out drunk that the world itself became ethereal. Ok . . . looking around, nobody else seems to be in on the geological joke here, nothing is actually crumbling. . . . The piano erupts, somebody masterfully diving into the intro riff for Outkast’s Roses. Well just what in the mind-fucking hell?—It’s Phil again, practically convulsing with Andre 3000’s energy, just hammering away at the keys, upwards flourish, low-keys, flashing a surreptitious grin at Mark.
“Hey. . . . ” Before abandoning his stool to figure out just what might be happening here, he reaches for his glass and throws it upward, mouth-agape—ah, wait. There’s nothing in it? Confused look down to bottom of glass. Phil hammers out the last two chords preceding “Caroline!”—and whomp. Idling chugs a bit, building kind of hiccups as if it were a car taking a leisurely bounce, and suddenly no more music. In fact, Phil is gone.
And Mark’s drink?
Fuck this. “Stace—” warranted look of amused confusion from Bert, currently filling role of bartender. Regardless, knows what Mark wants, brings the bottle, begins pouring a double. Ah, my man. . . . But, what’s this? Brings glass to mouth, and again, no tonic. In fact, ice has just painfully collided with the front of his uber-sensitive teeth. “FUCK,” an ejaculation which has again garnered the required attention of Bert. Pouring yet another, no questions asked, Mark notices a strange scramble-suit-effect taking place: Bert’s eyes . . . they're swimming through a torrent of available phenotypes, green, hazel, ice-gray . . . his hair too apparently rippling through a swath of coloring, flowing like water through rivulets of food-coloring. . . . The pouring goes on for longer than necessary, temporarily abandoning the motile painting of Bert’s physical features for the real prize, Mark scopes in on the progressive . . . shifting of volume in his glass . . . despite a constant pour by Bert, the Whiskey level variably rises, lowers, empties, spills-over, erratically defying any constancy. Mark, now in a near state of panic, takes decisive action: yanks the bottle from Bert in desperation and tilts it ceiling-ward and proceeds glugging a torrential flood of liquor. The point of tolerance, long gone beyond its zero point, can now only be resolved in an ethanol-distilled ocean. Bert regards the wild-man’s resolve for a moment, inquisitive, head-cocked like a dog, and appears to decide it’s not worth interfering, walks off to continue bartending.
Mark has a bit of a conundrum now: all around the bottle’s periphery, the world is flitting on progressively faster, manifesting in zoetropic schizophrenia; rumblings of a bipolar time-engine chugging alternatively manic then depressive, manifesting in physical bumps and whiplash, like the jerk of a roller coaster. Lighting studio-like, that is, if it were a studio operated by a team of monkeys, creating a wash, pitch and yaw, Shakespearean in photon inflection. . . . The resolve at this point, is to keep the bottle upended on his lips. To continue chugging the seemingly endless flow, while he watches the level of liquid disconcertedly jump up and down against any intuitive expectation. Hardly breathing, but intent, oh so intent to flood all the confusion, as if the external world suffered some kind of anterograde amnesia, forgetting him while resetting at the apparent whim of a toddler fooling with buttons on a remote. Voraciously he continues the waterfall, unwilling to stop until some reset point leaves him with an empty bottle, maybe then he’ll attempt to reconcile his fate with the mosaic flow of reality around him . . . but . . . what will happen when the window finally closes, will he be clapped out of existence like some existential fly? As if stuck in a quotidian fugue of pages flying incomprehensibly, maddeningly faster, Mark appears doomed to be a permanent visitor to a stroboscopic landscape of reality. . . . The bottle’s contents continue jumping elatedly, Mark still suckling at it, spittle, choking and all—eyes held so wide they practically are achieving lift from their sockets; the world itself having a migraine of Mark’s existence—the interface between drunk and objectivity have been sloughed . . . for now all that can be tolerated is the approaching homogeneity of whiskey volume, and then . . . and then . . . ?
Perhaps take a final seat at the piano, and spend the absolute zero of his apparent eternity as a ghost: plinking single notes into various divergent existences, while only he, king of his own isolated bubble, and the instrument of infinite musical combination carve a reverberating personal heaven out of the scrambling polymorphic realities, none of which can ever include him.
Jack Avani was a vagrant who came upon a lot vacant and set up shop in a dwindling town. A versed farmhand he humbly plotted seven rows and left to heaven seeds of hope to see them grow. Deep into the earth he served and worked but all the he cultivated was neighborly reservation: Who is this mystical breed, rake or till we’ve never seen and of arrogant station? They secretly deliberated his downfall, jealous of his harvest, organized outside of townhall and set to march in the darkness. Through the smoke they never saw him loping across the horizon; at their hest implied by envious glares, the curious farmer left his yield to the angry folk and disappeared.
A cellist with a teal case plays in Rittenhouse Square on Saturdays, and I have chosen to love her. She’s homely and frizzled but her music satiates the moments between winter and summer, filling the air with music notes I can see. On a park bench only thirty feet away, I begin to realize it’s more than her music that makes me love her. It's her willingness to put herself out there. To play for others who haven’t paid, haven’t chosen to hear her. That youthful confidence is foreign to me. I love her for it. And today I will tell her.
The dog at my side leans away from me. Like an anchor, he’s tethered a short distance away by the leash that wraps around my wrist, tightening with every tug. I am reluctantly moored to him. I got tired of the constant squeaking of his stuffed bear, used to release the tension of less walks, less play, less everything since the day my dad left. I never wanted the dog. But now that my dad is gone, this dog is mine.
Even feeding him is frustrating because it’s something my father would do, and I hate that.
My mother likes the dog, so I am thankful to him for that. I try to talk to her with more frequency, more weight. I feel like I’m trying to cork a wormhole that sucks up everything she used to enjoy and deposits it in some other place, at some other time.
I want everything to go backwards. I’d seal myself in the past when things were like a game of hide and seek in a place where I knew every nook and cranny.
Through all this, my mom reminds me that I am not my father. Her words are meant to comfort me, but don’t. Without question, my father lives and breathes within the walls of my ribcage. His words leak out of my mouth, his laugh from my belly. My mannerisms betray me. She sees him in me. I know because she has always said so. Back when he was who he wasn’t yet. Back when he stepped like a god on clouds that hung around my head.
I know it would never work between the cellist and myself. I am too old to assume that she is a wayward lover at arms reach.
I'm too jaded to believe in fate or even luck, assuming there’s a difference.
A young girl begins to dance in front of the cellist, twirling like a ballerina, believing she can become one. I feel a whisper in my mind of what could be. I see beauty in the sloppy twisting of her frail body below pigtails. But the whispers are snuffed out by shouts of what is.
We know better.
We know how difficult it is to become a ballerina, their years of usefulness and production hinged on youth and natural-born talent.
We know better than to let her believe she can achieve something so impossible.
A man snaps a picture of my cellist. She looks at him just as the aperture opens, burning her onto the film.
Immediately he fumbles with his wallet. He places two dollars in her case and says, "The picture came out so perfectly. You looked up just as I took it."
My cellist doesn't care. She smiles and says, "Good."
But we all see him for what he is. Just another amateur photographer taking sub-par pictures well into his golden years with nothing of value to show for his hours of practice and thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
The wind pushes a garbage bag down the sidewalk. The wind gusts again, the large bag lodges itself under a nearby bench. The deafening snap of the plastic provides a rhythmic accompaniment keeping time with the cellist.
A child runs past, looking at his feet, watching the world rip past him. The rest of us have lost that moment of running. Not running to get somewhere or to fulfill a New Year’s resolution. Rather, the symphony of running. The pitter-patter of his feet work like a kick drum for my cellist. A noise that thumps in percussive rhythm with all the possibilities of what life could be. We ran because being fast was new. What will ever be new again?
My cellist’s bow quivers at the end of her song. A hum vibrates through me like I’m the only person for which she played that note. Through the applause of strangers, she begins to pack her cello away. I stand, practicing what to say. I’ll tell her about the way my fractured bones mend themselves with every song she plays.
As I approach, I remember that she and I are too old, too practical to exist in any way other than strangers in a park. I hand her a five-dollar bill and keep walking, dragging the dog behind me. A rumble closer to my core than bone says my cellist and I could exist together, but it is hushed rapidly by realism.
We know better.
The depthless well of possibilities that lured us when we were young has been reduced to an eyelet, forcing us to thread ourselves tightly, restricting us with our own choices. All the impossibilities of youth have decayed. They reside only as secrets told while hanging upside down on monkey bars, in the whispers of first loves, and hidden in the sound of the wind created when running for the first time.
But maybe my cellist was like that little ballerina. Maybe Rittenhouse Square is her symphony hall. Maybe the old man takes pictures because it makes him happy.
And maybe that little girl will never be a ballerina, but trying will make her feel like a princess and a warrior.
We know better.
But what if we’re wrong?
David Gwyn holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Muhlenberg College. He teaches in Harlem, New York and lives nearby with his wife, Katie, and their dog, Reggie. His previous works include The Write Place at the Write Time spring-summer issue and Better Know a Beer City, Part 7 – Philadelphia, an article written for The Virginia Beer Company.
The knocks against the door came in two hurried bursts. I inched to the covered window, doing my best not to announce myself. Through the slit I saw him: the Doctor. His face wrenched, his right hand shoved into a bulging jacket pocket; there I could just make out the dark cherry wood of his pistol grip.
This was the man who had saved my life. Now standing at my door, holding a gun.
Of course, the Doctor couldn't have saved me – in fact, none of this could have happened – if it hadn't been for Steven.
Because I'll admit, I had given up.
The tumor spidering through my brain was the kind that was going to win, whether I fought it or not.
But Steven couldn't accept that. He was, by his own admission, "one stubborn asshole."
So somehow Steven found me Dr. Jenkins. The genius.
The man I wish I'd never met.
Let me back up. I loved Steven from day one. And day one was picketing a plastics factory that pumped carcinogenic waste into a local river. So, not exactly picturesque. But it didn't matter, because I was only watching Steven.
I'd been in the movement for a while by then, and I'd met some of the most earnest, determined environmental advocates. Steven was different. Earnest and determined, yes, but he wasn't a hippie. Clean-shaven, bright, self-aware. Some people even thought he was a Fed, sent by J. Edgar himself.
But not after Willingham Plastics. Not after they saw Steven dig in his heels.
When the cops began to clear us, I followed the playbook like everyone else. Make like dead weight, non-violent resistance. The cops would carry us off, load us in the wagons, point made, local news engaged, a solid day's work.
But Steven wasn't satisfied with raising awareness. He wanted those corporate fucks to stop dumping in the goddamned river. Right then. It took five cops and the best their nightsticks had to offer to get Steven down.
Still he fought them. Still he shouted like nothing I had heard. Primal. Terrifying.
We were all passionate about the environment, of course. But that day I saw the difference. For Steven, the battle to save the Earth from us humans was a holy war.
He spent the next six weeks in the hospital, and the twelve weeks after that in jail.
By the time he got out, we were engaged. The wedding was planned for July 4th, 1971. Because protestors love their country too, J. Edgar.
We were leaving to try to stop the rape of an ancient forest when I started seeing the white flashes.
Sharp bursts of light crescendoing, hotter and faster until there was a pop and I saw nothing.
I woke up on a gurney, a bruise on my cheek and nature's time bomb in my head.
Usually for this type of tumor they gave you twelve months. Which made it worse when they said I had three.
I was dimming when, two months later, Steven brought me Jenkins. The Doctor explained his clinical trial, talked me through the mumbo jumbo. If I'd had the energy, I'd have told him to save it for someone he could actually help. But one thing he said stuck.
He said the "war on cancer" was the wrong metaphor.
What we needed, he said, was diplomacy.
I saw it in Steven's eyes before I saw it in the mirror. The pace of the healing was like nothing anyone had seen. In 24 hours, I was walking; in 72, it was like I'd never had cancer in the first place.
Of course, I was in shock. Steven was ecstatic, and somehow unsurprised; he knew all along that we would fight and we would win. That this was the natural course of things.
The next few weeks were the stuff of fairy tales and romance novels. Even now I feel the tingling of Steven’s skin on mine, his lean body enveloping me. His mouth, so gentle and full and kind.
All over again I am overcome. We made each other something more than I had ever been alone.
Another processing plant nearby was using a creek to flush its poisons. I wanted to go, but Steven didn’t like the look of the plant’s guards, or the cops, who were in the plant’s pocket. When I started to object, he just smiled and shook his head.
“Next time.” he said. “You’ll have plenty of opportunities to make a fuss, you know.”
We shared a smile, acknowledging this for what it was: a miracle.
Then he said we would have dinner after.
“After I bail you out of jail?” I said, raising a wry eyebrow.
Steven smiled. “There’s actually a nice diner next to the lockup. Make sure you bring plenty of cash.”
But he never made it to the lockup. Their nightsticks saw to that.
They broke his skull and they kept going.
After Steven’s funeral, I bought a gun. I stood outside that police station feeling its heft in my pocket, imagining the bullets exploding the heads of the brutes that had killed my love.
But I wasn’t strong like Steven.
At least, not then.
Instead, I sat on our bed, put the gun in my mouth, and pulled the trigger.
For two days, my body lay there. My blood that had sprayed the walls dried and turned black.
I had ceased to exist. No pulse, no brain function.
Until, on the third day, with a gasp, I woke up.
The hole in my skull, through which blood and a fair portion of brains had blasted out, was by then no longer a hole. It was a tender pink circle of fresh skin, grown over the new circle of skull that had stitched itself together in what I imagine is still record time.
How is this possible? you may ask.
Well, I can tell you in a word:
Cancer’s great power is the ability to reproduce without limit. In other words, these cells, a part of us and yet not us, have a special gift: immortality.
That’s why Dr. Jenkins didn’t believe in a war on cancer.
He didn’t want to kill cancer. He wanted to tame it. He wanted us to become it.
Which brings us back to the start: Jenkins knocking, gun in his pocket, panic on his face.
I opened the door and he whisked inside.
“Doctor, are you all right?” I asked.
He went to the windows and secured the already closed shades.
“Someone burned down my lab,” he said. “My research is gone. Destroyed. And I’m being followed…”
“Who would do that?”
He gave me a grim look.
“There are powerful interests who wouldn’t want my cure to get out. They’ll make a lot more money treating cancer than curing it.”
I took this in for a moment, assessing the strain on his face, his dark hollowed eyes.
He pulled his right hand out of his pocket, which made me flinch.
“Here,” he said, handing me his gun.
“I’m worried that whoever is after me is also after you,” Jenkins said. “After all, you are living proof.”
I felt the weight of the gun in my hand.
“I want you to leave town,” he said.
Then I shot him.
It has been a lonely forty years.
Because of my condition, I don’t seem to age. And because of my calling, I don’t stay in one place long. It’s not the future I foresaw when Steven and I married.
But I still have purpose, the highest purpose, and I know he would understand.
I had to kill Jenkins, as I hope you know. I had to wipe out his work and make sure no one picked up where he left off. This takes diligence and resources, and an inner strength to take decisive action. I have devoted my life to it. Yes, I have killed again, and I will kill more, I know.
Because if this “cure” spreads, we will metastasize. We will squeeze the planet until it dies, and then we will find another planet, and another…
We are the cancer. We are the end of all things.
I am the first malignant cell. Unlike the cancers in our bodies, I can choose. And I have chosen to stop this before it starts.
Recently, one of my favorite things to do is hike up a small trail that leads to a lookout over the city. I do it at night, so I can look down on the lights of houses and street lamps, on the circulatory system of cars flowing through the streets, red taillights and white headlights streaming along on asphalt veins.
Sometimes I feel Steven is there, and I am at peace. Together we watch over the shimmering expanse of the city, the lights of civilization pulsing, expanding through the darkness - thrumming with energy, alive and unyielding.
Then I feel the darkness shrinking. The lights become a tidal wave. They will not stop; they will only expand, growing in power, relentlessly pushing forward.
We ready ourselves, Steven and I. We are the last bulwark.
Together, we will face the rising surge.
Michael Grant Zimmer is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles. He co-directed and produced the award-winning documentary The Entertainers, and his writing has recently appeared in Crack the Spine, Pithead Chapel, Akashic Books’ Mondays are Murder, and more.
Robert added the last few strokes to the canvas and sat down on the hard wicker chair. Still holding the brush dangling from his hand, he looked up at the ceiling, at some cracks there which captured more than he had captured in two weeks on the canvas. He put the brush in the cup and took his lighter out of his pocket. Standing, he flicked back the little metal circle on the lighter and watched the wick fail to ignite. The painting was in a traditional style: an icy field, a mansion in the distance, a woman walking across the field arm-in-arm with a uniformed gentleman, crescent moon rising above their heads. He recognised the field from Wyeth, the woman from Lorenzo Valles and the mansion from the sleeve of some Western novel he half remembered. He held the flame under the canvas for a moment and then let go with his thumb and drew it away. He looked at his watch. The second hand trying to lurch forward and falling back. He took it off his wrist and tapped it and shook it and put it back on his wrist unfixed.
He went to pick up the painting to break it over his knee or throw it at the wall, but then decided to paint sunglasses and a smile on the sun instead, to pass the time until dinner. He closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose and nodded in faux appreciation. He made the sky purple and the grass red, and made the woman into a zombie and then into a bearded woman and then into a Bigfoot and then he drew a space suit on the man and then he made the moon a sickle and drew a hammer inside of it and wrote COMMUNIST BIGFOOT ON MARS at the top of the canvas in old elaborate movieposter lettering. He looked up just in time to catch a faint grin lingering on his face in the reflection in the window.
He took a broad brush and dipped it in the can of white paint and moved the brush over the title, and then he dipped it again and covered the spaceman, and the bigfoot, and the red field, until everything was covered in a single coat.
At dinner, Robert and his son Joe avoided each other's gaze. Robert saw failure in the boy, coming home from school with battle-stories and bruises and low grades, and Joe saw the tired failure in his father's eyes as much as he tried to hide it, and the humiliation of staying at home with a paintbrush and soft rock playing on an LED radio while his wife went out to work in an office. He would rather his father was a stay at home drunk.
After lunch he gave it a second coat, ready to start painting again once that had dried. Sitting down infront of the canvas again, he painted a candle as a light source and then added a bowl of fruit and a spiders web. He saw himself in the dark window and he looked as empty and tired as the piece in front of him. He looked for inspiration in his completed works leaning against the back wall of the attic and found nothing but bowls of fruit, jagged Scottish landscapes and weak derivative allegory. He looked back up at the window and saw an orange glow crawl from the distance over his driveway, lighting up the darkened attic around him. He looked at his watch, remembered that it was broken, put on his shoes and went downstairs to answer the door.
He saw a man through each of the vertical stained glass panels in the front door; one taller than the other, both wearing peaked hats. He pulled across the chain, pushed on the door and twisted the knob, and felt the door open back by itself. The shorter man was his son. The taller man was a policeman holding an open backpack full of spraypaint cans. He shuffled back voiceless letting them both into the house.
Joe sat in the passenger seat and Robert sat in the drivers seat, glancing from the road to his son and back to the road. He tapped on the steering wheel to the music and his hands tapping made him think of a very old woman in a nursing home, tapping along to a song with her swollen veiny fingers on her thighs. Robert saw the building approach in the distance huge and grey. He centred himself and prepared a speech for his son that would be disappointed, understanding and memorable. He wanted this to be a speech that Joe would remember when he was a parent disciplining his own child.
He turned to Joe and told him a joke he had just written in his head: ‘What does Shakespeare order, when he goes to Subway?’ Joe looked up from his phone and squinted his eyes suspiciously. He looked back down at his phone. Robert looked directly at the road for a while, the second hand on Robert’s watch making a scratching sound as it fought against the broken mechanism. He tapped Joe’s leg and repeated the joke ‘What does Shakespeare ask for when he goes to Subway?’ Joe looked up amused and said he didn’t know. Robert said in a gruff monotone, ‘Ham, Let-tuce’ and cleared his throat. Joe looked up at him, grinning, and Robert stared ahead at the old seminary. He slowed the car crunching and told Joe to put his phone in his pocket.
The seminary was a big concrete cube, with delicate semicircular windows at the top of each wall, and broken condom packets and stained-glass lying on the sharp gravel path outside. Robert said he was going to leave the car’s engine running, with the headlights pointing at the building so they could see where they were going. Joe took a torch out of the kangaroo pouch on his hoodie and handed it across the handbrake to his father. Robert took it and nodded. He turned off the cars engine and the building turned back into a silhouette. ‘Where is it then?’ he sighed, clicking on the torch. Joe told him that it was inside, on a wall by the altar. Robert asked Joe to lead the way, and followed. He held the beam of light just infront of his son on the ground. Robert checked his watch and saw again that it was broken. He decided not to ask Joe for the time.
Joe pulled his father through a hole in the side of the seminary by his forearm, and they walked side by side into a huge mythical space, with brutalist pillars and flashes of red and blue and black paint covering the otherwise plain grey walls. The moon shone directly through one of the semicircular gaps at the top of the wall, and cast a beam of light onto a small spot at the back of the hall behind the altar. The hall was much cooler than the warm night outside, and seemed somehow more humid and misty to the eye. They walked up the little steps, past the lectern to the beam of light behind the communion table and stood inside it. Joe pointed at a chaotic mess of colour and almost-faces and sharp jagged lines which pointed at nothing and meant everything, covering the entire back wall. Robert put his hand on his son's shoulder and breathed in deeply and opened his mouth to talk. The torch beam moved up and illuminated the artwork on the huge back wall and he found himself unable to talk, and his watch ticked back into life.
Matt McDonald is a young Scottish writer, and graduate of Edinburgh University's prestigious English Literature programme. He won the 2013 Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize for prose fiction, and has been published in PublishED, and in other local magazines and zines. He is currently working on his first novel.
It was many years ago while I was still working at the night college when I met her. I used to frequent a small restaurant off of Coles Road and she was renting a room close by. She called herself Yahvi at the time, and her hands always smelled like burned camphor. She stopped by my table to ask for directions one evening. We spoke in three different tongues and four different colours, her matted brown hair and skin burnt squid tan, my snowy silver and antique brass .We spiraled around how charming the city was at that time of the year, with the pink and yellow flowers and the purple jacaranda carpets that were laid down beneath our feet. Finally we landed up in a muddy red field where we lost each other as I followed the sound of a sarod playing by the moonlight, and I don’t remember what it was that she said pulled her like a magnet.. a madness.
We’d meet like this often at that restaurant. I found that I ended up going there three or four times a week, after work, and early morning before it; and she would be there, carefully moving a black ink pen around a handmade notebook, one couldn’t tell if it was words or pictures. She said it was experiments, but she said lots of things.
She told me that she had travelled here first with her father when she was a child and that while on their way back from a short holiday in the hills he had died in a terrible road accident from which she suffered no injuries because of the smallness of her body and the softness of her bones. She found herself sprawled on the curve of hairpin bend number nineteen and was quickly rescued from the night, who’s darkness spoke in riddles, by the kindness of a passing stranger. Let’s change the subject, she would say and we would talk about other things like how Tuesday night dreams were always hopeful and Wednesday’s were always wet.
She had started to visit me at the college and would sometimes sit in on classes pretending to be one of the students. I found myself clenching my teeth at these times because her arrival was inevitably followed by the ribald moans of post pubescent men who responded to the presence of a foreign woman with the same abhorrent slurs that accompanied the ingestion of their mother’s chicken curry. She didn't seem to notice it, or she didn’t pay it any attention, and she would raise her hand from time to time to clarify the meaning of alpha particles and anti matter. We would sit in the canteen outside, after class, it was under some rain trees and there was great filter coffee. Here she would spin into a frenzy, she said that the air in the college changed her, she said that it made thoughts whizz through her like a swarm of impassioned bees. She would ask me strange things; what I lived for and why I lived. I would answer in all earnestness that, I did not know what it was that I lived for, but it was a desolate topic yet somehow grand. One might tell you that they live because they have to, or they may scorn the question and tell you to pull your head out of whatever orifice it was lost in; but it’s like talking to yourself in the mirror, this sort of introspection is difficult. These were the things my matted hair maverick would make me think about under the rain tree. Sometimes we would move these evenings to the room she was staying in. It was walking distance from the college. A small room hugged all the way around by a small terrace. It was rented out by an old couple who lived downstairs. One might have said it was quaint, with many windows looking onto those pink and yellow flowers. She had done up the terrace like a wonderland with flowering plants and a small fish pond. A friend had gifted her a pair of swordtails and she was insistent that they had no electricity between them since they never succeeded in procreating. She said electricity with the help of her hands, trying to indicate a magical surge of something that these fish lacked. She said that she didn’t blame them, sometimes it’s there, this surge, and it can kill you and sometimes it just isn’t, and sometimes it comes and goes like the seasons.
Sometimes we made love. I remember one afternoon you could hear the rain falling outside and the light came through her thin cotton curtains like dampened sweetness. Her body was tough around mine. We had both wanted it to be something. But it doesn’t always work out like that. Her back was torn to pieces in scars, they ripped across her like the works of some wild animal. I would sometimes move my finger along the raised skin and she would start to talk about what it might have been like if we were eternal. She said the scars were from climbing trees and forgetting about the thorns.
Sometimes she would cry, softly, turning her face from me and gathering her body into a cocoon. It wasn’t unhappiness, she said, it wasn’t anything from any thing she could remember very well or explain very well, it was a grand scheme of things kind of sadness, but it wasn’t unhappiness.
Ours was a fated thing, maybe it wasn’t the zenith of our lives, we were on our way to separate places but we travelled together for sometime. After her father had died she had gone to live with her grandmother for many years, but throughout her childhood she was miserable, she said. She would start to weep in the middle of geometry classes and was regularly sent home, initially with letters of concern, and then with ones reproaching her bad conduct. After two years her grandmother had not been able to discern whether it was the child still longing for her dead father or something else that was causing her to be so far from any sign of happiness, and she undertook the responsibility of driving her to a mental institution every Friday evening to uncover the reasons for her condition. After three sessions the doctor was certain that it was a broken heart causing her to feel this way, she has fallen in love, the portly man with the pocket glasses had told her grandmother with a grave look on his face. But what was wrong with that, everyone falls in love, it is washed away after sometime, her grandmother had objected, but the doctor insisted that this was a far more serious case than any he had seen before. This wasn’t a love that bore madness, suicide or murder this was something outside of life itself. The doctor, who was terribly intrigued by the case because of its rarity especially in someone her age, insisted that Yahvi continued to be brought back every Friday for an indefinite period of time that ended up being nearly five years. The then team of very interested young interns would run tests on her to see what chemical reactions this kind of thing produced in her brain, they wanted to note the precise amount of dopamine that surged through her blood as compared to everyone else who was in a more moderate kind of love. Until the very end of her almost five year long clinical imprisonment no one knew the object of Yahvi’s love, it was always assumed that it was someone at the school, and the teachers had often hinted at various culprits, as middle aged elementary school teachers are known to do. It was on the Saturday following her weekly visit that Yahvi’s grandmother got the call from the facility. Yahvi had remembered the very moment the phone rang because her heart stopped and her blood turned cold. When her grandmother hung up the receiver she was pale and for the rest of their time together neither one of them said another word to the other. Yahvi returned to India that summer, with nothing but an old black and white photograph of her father and a bag of dried nuts. She set out to find the love of her life for what else is there to do. She had ached for so many years for the stranger of the night who had rescued her from hairpin bend number nineteen, and had taught her to love the smallness of her body and softness of her bones.
She had mentioned him at times. She said that I reminded her of him in the way that I watched her when she spoke out loud all the thoughts that whizzed through her head under the rain tree. She joked that the both of us must have been trying to think of ways to tune out the raving lunatic who burdened us with her hopes and fears. I asked her about the scars on her body, if they were from him, she tossed her head back and looked me hard in the eye, he’s an animal, she smiled, a crooked smile, half hurt, half hope.
As the yellow flowers began to disappear from even the ground that they had fallen to, we started seeing less of each other, and when we did see each other on the street or in the cafe, it was only a brief, hello, how are you? Something had changed in her, and I think in me too. How I had judged her scars, thought them savage, how she had wept quietly, knowing this.
When she left that December she left me the handmade ink stained notebook, that she wrote all her whizzing thoughts in when no one was around to watch her give herself up to madness. From inside of it fell hundreds of pressed flowers from Bangalore’s April. I would open it to the first page, and examine her scribble of a windy road for hours. I wanted to remember her in a wholesome kind of way, in my mind I had turned her into my suitably untainted maverick who only erred within the perimeters of propriety. But we were really just two degenerates feeding off of each other’s warmth.
It was last week, when I realized that I had been consciously planning each of my footsteps for over a month, when I decided to read the journal in its entirety. And there it was, the thin line bordering debasement that I had taken a secret pleasure in carefully tiptoeing along for most of my adult life, it was gone, and all of myself was completely thrust into a world I knew little about.
She wrote about their first time together, she hadn’t yet known her body in that way. She wrote about remembering the slime on the inside of her underwear and how she had wondered what was wrong with her. Poor girl, I thought, how young she had been and how little she had known about the way the world works, about the way things are meant to be. Her thoughts moved from nostalgia to rage to something I can’t explain very well. She blamed him at first. Then she showered him with golden words of adoration, saying that he was unlike anything this world could conjure up again. Saying soon after that he was unlike anything she would want to be conjured up again, it was all a mistake, and then she would chastise herself for cursing him, writing a thousand times, he is the love of my life, he is the love of my life. No one would have known from her writings who she was talking about, or what she was talking about for she wrote about him as if he was human, as if their carnal desire for one another was human, as if it was normal. I knew, because I had seen the scars on her body and I had dropped her off at the bus stop in December when she set out to find him ten years after she had left him, wondering whether he was still alive, somewhere in the darkness, waiting for the scent of her. I knew because she told me that she dreamt of him, hopeful dreams and wet dreams, feeling nothing in the world but the weight of his massive body on top of hers and the clawing of her skin.
Zui Kumar-Reddy is a 22 year old student from Bangalore, India. She currently studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her works have been published in The Legendary, Out of Print and DNA. In 2015 she won the DNA - Out Of Print Short Fiction Competition, and she was also long listed for the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing. Her 2015 music video ‘GOEF JOSEF’ on the subject of female desire in India was selected to be a part of Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut’s Project Gender Bender 2015 and it was recently screened as a part of the Femme’s Video Art’s Festival at Gallery Tally in Los Angeles.
(First published in Million Stories, October 2010)
I'd been working at Shady Grove almost a year the morning Clarence moved in. It wasn’t a day I would have remembered otherwise, since it started fairly typically with Mama red-eyed on the sofa and Hector passed out on the kitchen floor. Nothing new on the home front. It was wall-to-wall traffic all the way up I-10, as usual. My AC was on the fritz, so the commute was literally hell on wheels, and the only thing my radio was picking up was ET trying to make first contact.
Beam me up, I thought.
No such luck.
After I’d changed into my uniform, Mrs. Jackson took me over to meet the new inmate.
“Mr. Savage,” said Mrs. Jackson. “This is Stella. She’ll be cleaning your room.” Mr. Savage bobbed his head at me. They were all polite when they first arrived. Once he’d gotten used to the place he’d be pinching my butt and hissing dirty jokes in my ear along with the rest of them.
“I’m so glad you’ve decided to join us, Mr. Savage,” I recited. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call. We pride ourselves on prompt and courteous service.”
Mrs. Jackson beamed at me. It had taken her hours of hard work to get The Speech crammed down my throat. The fact that the janitorial staff was never needed for “prompt and courteous service” meant nothing to her. Neither did the Emancipation Proclamation or the Bill of Rights.
“You can call me Clarence,” he said. I expected that. While Mrs. Jackson always insisted that we address everyone by their family names so as to “preserve an atmosphere of propriety,” nobody else followed her example, especially not towards the staff. I was always plain old Stella right from the get go.
That morning I went about my normal routine. Cleaning up the public rooms came first, since most of the old folks slept in. I guess there isn’t much point to getting up early when all you’re doing is dying. I always started with the chapel. I enjoyed the quiet. There wasn’t much of that at home. Best of all it was cool. Hector was too cheap to put in central air, so my room was an oven in the summer even with the window unit, which hardly worked anyway. I liked to sit in the front pew for a few moments before I got on with my rounds, just to gather my thoughts. After the chapel was clean, I moved on to the public bathrooms, the dining room, the rec room, and the TV room. By then most of the old folks were tottering about, so I could start on their bedrooms.
When I got to Mr. Savage’s room I banged on his door and waited. On my very first day of work at Shady Grove, Mrs. Jackson told me to always knock real hard and call out their names. She said we needed to respect the "members' personal space.” I was much more concerned with my own. Some of the men had an uncanny way of popping up stark naked when you came in to clean. I hoped Mr. Savage wasn’t going to be one of those.
“Mr. Savage!” I hollered. I began counting to thirty before I turned the key. That would give him plenty of time to come to the door if he was still in there. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be, since Mrs. Jackson liked to take her new “members” for a tour of Shady Grove the day after they arrived. She liked to tell them all about the “estate” and how it had been in her family for generations and all that la-de-dah. So it just about knocked my socks off when the door opened smack in my face. I hadn't even made it to five.
“I can hear just fine,” he said. He was wearing a pair of khakis and a green plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “Some of the members . . . ”
“I understand,” he said. “You can come in.”
I peeked into his room. It was neat as a pin.
“I’ll only be a minute,” I said. Maybe less. His room was already so clean I probably wouldn’t have to do much more than mop. I waited a moment for Clarence to go away, but he just stood there holding the door open. As I angled past him I noticed that he didn’t smell like a shut-in. Old people, when they’ve been housebound for a while, start to smell musty. Clarence smelled like a man who worked with his hands. Clean and sharp. He watched me as I mopped the linoleum, which made me nervous.
“Y’all are gonna love it here. Everybody’s real friendly, and nice. And when the weather cools off all y'all can take a walk in the old pecan grove.” I tend to rattle on when I get nervous. “Y'all can even send some pecans home to your loved ones next Christmas. Everybody does.” I took a breath. Clarence was looking at me funny. I noticed his eyes were a clear gray.
“All y’all?” he said. His face was round and pleasant when he smiled, but my feathers had been ruffled.
“You aren’t from around here, are you?” I said, real careful.
His face got serious again. “No,” he said. “I’m from Maine.”
I'd already taken him for a Yankee. His skin was too smooth for a Texan, even a transplanted one. Old Texans don’t have wrinkles, they have ruts. Still, my jaw dropped. Maine was on the other side of the world. I couldn’t imagine a farther place.
“How on earth did you get down here?” The question just fell out of my mouth. Then I realized I’d forgotten my manners, so I had to apologize again.
“No, no,” he said. “That’s a good question. We Yankees find Texas fascinating. It’s the lure of the Old West.”
Having lived in Texas my whole life, I didn’t see anything luring about the West, old or new. But I had a Texan’s pride in my state, which is to say, knee-jerk. The only real requirement for graduation in Texas is to remember the Alamo, which we did every spring, regardless of the fact that most of my classmates would likely have been fighting on the other side.
“See y’all tomorrow,” I said. His smell stayed with me all day. Like Christmas.
By the time I got home, Mama and Hector had made up and were watching TV on one of the pink velveteen couches. Mama has three of them. With Mama, everything is either too many or too much. Hector had one beefy, tattooed arm draped around her and the other wrapped around a six-pack. The two of them were drunk as two skunks courting in Kentucky.
“Yo, mamacita,” said Hector.
I hate it when he calls me that. In spite of appearances, and a lot of effort on his part, Hector doesn’t have a drop of Spanish blood in him. Mama, on the other hand, is a direct descendant of Don Quixote.
Hector tried to grab my butt when I walked by, but I was ready for him. My purse has a five-pound mini barbell in it. Mama never shifted her fake eyelashes from the screen.
“That’s disgusting!” she said. Some idiot was chowing down on a plate of worms. She took a swig of beer.
“There’s spaghetti,” she said.
Somehow, I managed to get back to my room without having to hit Hector again. The house was a classic "shotgun" with one long central hall going from front to back. It was a simple design, but whoever built it hadn't been sober long enough to read a blueprint. There wasn't a ninety-degree angle in the place, and all the doors swung the wrong way; out instead of in. If you weren't careful, you could brain someone, not that anybody around here had any.
I switched on the window unit, but all it did was bitch and moan. Just like an eighth grade boyfriend: all jaw and no action. I appreciated the racket. It blocked out the noises Hector and Mama would be making later on.
That night I dreamed about the Titanic again. I especially like the part where it goes down.
I liked Clarence. He never asked questions like didn’t I have a boyfriend, and how many boyfriends had I had, and he never, ever treated me like a servant. At first I couldn’t resist boasting. I’d heard Texas described a lot of ways, but never, to my knowledge, had anybody ever called it “fascinating.” As far as I was concerned, Texas was nothing more than a giant griddle, flat as a pancake and hotter than Hades. Of course, I never let on. The fact that he thought it was interesting made me feel good, like I was special too, somehow. And Clarence was a good listener. When he sat down and cocked an ear at me, it made me stand up tall. In fact, I got so high and mighty it took a couple of weeks for me to realize I didn’t know a thing about him, which was not the normal run of events. Usually, after two or three days I could recite an inmate’s life story by heart.
“What’s Maine like?” I asked.
“The interior is mostly woods,” he said. “But I grew up on the coast. In my younger days, I was a lobsterman,” he added. "Later on, I built boats."
I should have guessed. That clean, sharp smell was sawdust. I could see him in a workshop, sawing something. Although, I have to say, I couldn’t imagine Clarence pulling those big ugly red things out of the water. With those evil-looking claws grabbing at you, how in creation did you get the hook out? You probably had to bash ‘em upside the head with a hammer, which I couldn’t see neat-and-tidy Clarence doing. Anyway, Clarence didn’t smell like the fishing type. Fishermen drank.
“I’ve never seen the ocean,” I said.
This time it was his turn to look surprised.
“Well,” he said. “It’s big.”
I knew what he was talking about. Texas is big.
“I know all about big,” I told him. “I could drive all day and never even make it out of this county.”
Clarence pulled on his chin and thought about that for a while. I could tell I’d impressed him.
“Ayuh,” he said. “I had a car like that once.”
Well, I just about popped my panties laughing.
“That’s a very old joke,” he said, shaking his head. “You must have heard it before.”
I hadn't, but I didn’t want to be shown up by quiet Clarence. Besides, I really had seen big bodies of water. My entire 10th grade class had taken a field trip to the capital, and on the way back we’d stopped for a picnic on Lake Travis. I told him about it.
“The ocean is a lot bigger,” he said.
“Well, that may be,” I admitted. “But I’ll bet you dimes to dollars you couldn’t swim across Lake Travis.”
Now it was his turn to laugh, though I didn’t know why.
“You won that bet,” he said. “I couldn’t swim across a bathtub.”
I gave him a skeptical look. I was beginning to get the suspicion that he had been pulling my leg all along. “You said you caught lobsters.”
“I did,” he said. “Lobstermen can’t swim. The water off the coast of Maine is so cold, if you fell overboard you’d be dead in ten minutes.”
He swirled his tea, making the ice cubes clink against the sides of the glass. “It’s like ice,” he said.
“That sounds real good,” I told him. “I’d like that.”
It was May, and the heat was just revving up. You couldn’t fry an egg on the sidewalk yet, but you could probably poach one. Every morning I would arrive at work just itching to get Clarence into a conversation about that big old ice bath. I swear it made me feel cooler just to hear him talk about it. I’d lean up against the wall for a few minutes after I’d mopped (there never was anything else to do in Clarence’s room), and I swear I could feel that cool sea breeze blowing right over me. He had a way of telling stories that would make me fall down laughing, though I could never remember how he did it afterwards. He would just sit in his chair, pulling his chin. Maybe it was because he’d made me laugh so much that I forgot my manners one day.
“How come you don’t have any pictures on your dresser?” I asked him. Everybody else at Shady Grove had scads of family photos propped up on just about every surface. That’s why it never took me any time to clean up Clarence’s room. There was nothing to dust.
Clarence didn’t answer me. So I just stood there like a moron until it dawned on me that I was way out of line. Stupid me. I’d forgotten Rule Number One: Staff is Not Permitted to Make Personal Inquiries of Members.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Clarence still didn’t say anything. He looked out the window to where the crape myrtles were blooming. Crape myrtles are perfect for this climate. They bloom all summer long and don’t mind the heat. I imagine that’s why Mrs. Jackson’s illustrious ancestors had planted them everywhere. On second thought, it was the gardeners who had planted them. My illustrious ancestors.
I was almost through the door when Clarence finally said something.
“My wife died a year ago last March,” he said. “We didn’t have any children.”
Now, I felt terrible. “Oh, I am sorry,” I said again. This time I meant it. Clarence looked so forlorn. All of a sudden I wanted to go over and hug him. Instead, I stood in the doorway like a fool, holding a mop and a bucket in my hands. Clarence shook his head and sighed.
“She was from Texas,” he said.
I stood there for a bit, trying to think of something to say that would cheer him up. “Did she say all ya’ll?” I asked. “Like me?”
Clarence looked me straight in the eye. “Just like you.”
Hector and Mama were going at it full blast when I got home. She was calling him an hijo de puta, which is the only thing she can say in Spanish, and he was yelling about somebody named Frank. I heard some thumps and crying. But it was 101 degrees and after spending an hour on the interstate, getting passed by suits yakking on their cell phones inside Audis that had frickin' frost on the windows, I was in no mood to call the police. So I went to my room and turned on the AC as loud as it would go. I also turned on the radio for good measure. Then I stretched out on the bed, praying for world peace, for a sea of ice, for anything but this. I lay there for a while with my ears cocked, just in case things got really nasty. Then, in spite of the heat, Willie Nelson, and the sound of dishes flying around the kitchen, I fell asleep.
What woke me up was the quiet. The whole world was dead. I looked over at my clock and saw nothing. Outage. In the summer, with all of Texas trying to reinvent Alaska, the power frequently goes out. I got up and went to the window. There were lights on in some of the houses. Maybe it was just a blown fuse. I threw on a robe, since I wasn’t wearing much, and tried to remember where the fuse box was. Or did we have switches?
My door wouldn’t open.
I shoved and pushed and kicked, but it wouldn’t budge. Something heavy was blocking it. Finally I started yelling, but nobody heard me; Mama and Hector were probably out cold. Eventually, my brains woke up. I went back to the window and pushed out the AC unit. Even though it didn’t work, the thing still weighed a ton - kind of like Hector. Then I climbed out the window and hopped onto the lawn.
When I came around to the front of the house, I saw the door hanging open. Hector’s car was gone, so he must have stormed off after tonight’s fight, leaving the front door wide open.
Total idiot, I thought. Don’t y’all come back now.
The house was pitch black, but I knew it well enough to find what I needed. Neither Mama nor Hector had gotten around to opening any of the drawers in the kitchen, except, of course, for the one that had the bottle opener in it, so the flashlight was still where I’d put it when we moved in last year.
The kitchen was a wreck. But, that was to be expected. I hadn’t gone in there for a while, so there’d been plenty of time for TV dinner trays and dirty dishes to pile up. The cans were having a pow-wow on the floor with some broken plates and there was a bunch of empty bottles on the table. It looked like Hector and Mama had graduated to the hard stuff last night. Or maybe it had been that way all week. I hadn’t been keeping track.
I walked out of the kitchen and headed down the hallway to the back of the house. There was something heaped in front of my door.
“Mama,” I said. I shook her as hard as I could. When I tried to lift her, Mama’s head snapped back like a broken doll.
I called 911.
When the ambulance arrived, I still hadn’t been able to wake her. I hadn’t even thought about the fuses, so I had to lead the medics through the house with my flashlight. I was glad they couldn’t see most of it. But what they couldn’t see they could smell. They took Mama straight to the detox unit of the hospital.
The doctor who finally came out to see me looked harried. It was 4 AM.
“She’ll need to stay here for a couple of weeks,” he said, glancing at her chart. “Are you a relative?”
I said yes.
“Good," he said. "You’ll have to sign some forms."
“Will she be all right?” I asked.
The doctor finally took a good look at me. “You aren’t a minor, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I turned eighteen last August.” And if we'd been in China, that would have been God's honest truth.
“Good,” said the doctor. “Go to the main desk. They’ll have the papers ready.”
He hadn’t answered my question. After I'd signed everything, the nurse told me that I should probably take a couple weeks off work. It might help Mama to have someone there for support. I asked her if Mama was going to be all right.
“That depends,” she said.
There wasn’t much I could say to that.
I called in sick and told Mrs. Jackson I needed some time off. She grumped about unreliable help, but didn’t say I was fired. Thank god for small favors. Then I went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I needed to talk to somebody. I got into the car and drove to work, hoping that Mrs. Jackson wouldn’t catch me on the premises. I’d have a hard time explaining my miraculous recovery from the plague.
Clarence looked so happy to see me, I felt like bawling.
“I thought you were sick,” he said.
“No, my mother’s not well.” I said. “I’m going to have to take care of her for a couple of weeks.”
Clarence waved me into his room and shut the door. He pulled up a chair for me, and then sat on the edge of his bed.
“Is there anything I can do?” he said softly.
I just looked at him, sitting there in his green plaid shirt. Even first thing in the morning his eyes were clear and bright. He didn’t look like the sort of person who had ever gotten falling down drunk, or tried to pinch his step-daughter’s butt, or carted his mother off to detox. He looked like . . . Maine.
“No,” I said. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Clarence sighed and nodded. He knew I was in over my head. And what made me love him is that he didn’t call me out on it. He respected my decision to keep my problems to myself. And I knew that whenever I wanted to talk, he’d be there. In the end that was all I really needed. Just knowing Clarence was there was enough.
We sat for a moment. Then Clarence got up and took something out of the top drawer of his dresser. He handed me a little box.
“Open it,” he said. "I was going to save it for Christmas, but now seems to be a good time."
Inside the box was a rusty-looking thing with five points, like a star. The top of it was covered with tiny pimples. I didn't want to know what was on the bottom. It looked like something one of those weirdos on TV might eat if you offered him enough money.
“It’s a starfish,” he said.
It didn’t look even remotely like a fish. But, then again, lobsters don’t look like anything you’d want to put in your mouth either.
“Did you used to catch these things, too?” I asked.
"There's a note," he said. "Underneath."
I lifted up one corner of the starfish with tip of my fingernail and saw a small square of paper. A star for Stella, it said.
“Umm,” I mumbled. I wasn’t good at getting gifts.
"Make a wish,” he said. “It’s a star.”
“I don’t have anything to wish for,” I lied.
Clarence looked down at me. “Follow your dreams, Stella,” he said. “While you still have them.” He held out his hand for me to shake, and I realized he’d never touched me before. I said goodbye to him then.
“Y’all come back now,” he said.
“Ayuh,” I replied. “I’ll send you a post card.”
When I came back to work, I was excited about seeing Clarence again. Hector had disappeared and Mama seemed to be doing much better without him. She had lost that gray haggard look, and she'd even whipped up a batch of chicken fried steak on her first night home. But with Mama it was hard to get hopeful. Within a month or two she’d probably be slugging it out with her next Hector, or maybe the same one. Anyhow, I was glad for the peace and quiet, even if it was temporary. I’d bought Clarence a big Stetson, just for laughs. I knew he wouldn't be caught dead in it.
It was early, so I put on my uniform and started on my rounds. The chapel was quiet, as always, but this morning it was filled with flowers. There was a casket on the dais.
Oh, no, I thought. Mrs. Perkins has finally died. Delia Perkins was in her nineties and as fragile as a china teacup. We all expected her to go any minute.
I walked over to the casket and peered inside. Lying within the pale satin interior was a man in a suit and tie. He looked familiar.
“Is that really you?” I said. Some idiot had put glasses on his face.
“Oh, Clarence," I whispered. “I bet you never wore glasses a day in your life.”
At all once, I had to sit down. I must have sat in the front pew for an hour. That’s about how long it takes me to make a decision. On my way out I gave Mrs. Jackson my notice. She didn’t look at all surprised. “You can’t count on young people nowadays,” she said.
When the chapel was opened for the service, the glasses Mrs. Jackson had placed on Clarence were missing. On his head he wore a big, black Stetson hat. A note was tucked into the hatband: Gone fishin'.
On Christmas Eve, a post card arrived at Shady Grove Estate addressed to a Mr. Clarence Savage. A box was kept in the main office for letters and cards such as these. In her spare time Mrs. Jackson would sit at her desk and inspect them for return addresses. She liked to write the letters of condolence herself. It gave Shady Grove that genteel touch for which it was so famous. She held the card a moment in her hand, automatically looking at the picture. Inappropriately, given the time of year, it was a photograph of waves crashing violently against dark, jagged rocks.
“Not very Holiday-like,” she murmured. Mrs. Jackson turned the card over. It was postmarked Southwest Harbor, Maine. There was no return address.
“Dear Clarence,” she read. “You were right. It’s bigger than Lake Travis. Wish y’all were here.
Erica Verrillo is the author of the Phoenix Rising trilogy (Random House). Her short work has appeared in over a dozen publications. She is also the author of the definitive medical reference for treating myalgic encephalomyelitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide, now in its second edition (first edition, St. Martin’s). Erica holds a BA in history from Tufts University and an MA in linguistics from Syracuse University. Her professional life includes working as a classical musician, Spanish language editor, linguistics teacher, director of a non-profit NGO for Mayan refugees, and Mayan linguist. She is currently employed as an editor for ProHealth.
One year ago I was awarded a research grant from the Anthropology Department at my university so that I was finally able to visit the fascinating society of the Cynocephaloi. The grant’s privacy stipulations forbid me to reveal their exact location, but I did travel by private plane to their home on a remote group of islands in the Indian Ocean.
The Cynocephaloi, as the Greek word denotes, are the legendary Dogheads, the race that wandered in packs, gypsy-like, over Europe and Asia for thousands of years. Their existence was reported or hinted at by sources as diverse as the Greek Megasthenes, Hui-Shang of China, Paul the Deacon of Charlemagne’s court, and the explorer Marco Polo. There is a tale of King Arthur’s army doing battle with the Dogheads and inflicting a serious defeat on them. It is also suggested that St. Christopher (the Christ bearer) may have been one of them, and that his head was changed into a human form after he was baptized.
After being hounded from one place to the next, the Dogheads finally gained passage to a remote chain of islands on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, where they have lived for centuries in near isolation.
I felt privileged for the chance to study this society whose continued existence was a testament to their dogged determination to survive. I arrived at their main city of Yiproff – which may be translated from their language as “The Boneyard.” It gave the appearance of a typical though somewhat primitive village of southern India or Malaysia. The dwellings are characterized by arched entrances, the family name written above, and the inhabitants are often seen sitting in the entranceway looking out at the street.
After settling into my room, my first stop was to meet and interview the “Head Man” of the village. His name in English is “Faithful”. His Rottweiler’s head rested atop a lean but well-muscled torso.
“Since arriving here,” he told me, “we have mostly been able to thrive. At times we have felt confined by the limited space on the islands, because after all, we do tend to be rovers.”
“I know from my research that you were often misunderstood,” I said. “Sometimes you were mistaken for werewolves. And in any case, your canine heads were generally seen as a defect or even a curse.”
“Yes, those were difficult episodes in our history,” he allowed. “People, in their ignorance, both fear and hate anyone they don’t understand.”
“Even though it’s many centuries overdue,” I pointed out, “I’m certain you feel a sense of relief and vindication that you have been officially declared as ‘human beings’, even tentatively.” (One of the reasons I received this grant was the fact that a subcommittee of the UN has approved the Dogheads’ application as a legitimate race of human beings, subject to further research.)
“Yes that is good news,” said Faithful, raising a brown eyebrow. “In many ways, this is a more rational and humane age.”
For several minutes we discussed the food crisis among the Cynocephaloi. They had been living on these islands for 400 years now, and their sense of being penned in was not their only problem.
“We are natural hunters, you see,” said the Head Man, licking his teeth. “Carnivores… but after hunting these lands for these hundreds of years the prey… er… game is nearly exhausted. Not only that. Given our preference for, shall we say, minimally prepared foods, we’ve run into some severe digestive problems. They have become so widespread that they’ve become a health issue for our whole society.”
“What you’re trying to tell me, if I understand you,” I began, “is that because you have dog heads you want to eat raw meat, but your human digestive tracts can’t handle it?”
“That’s the bare bones of it,” agreed Faithful.
We reviewed the most recent facts and figures. I told him my latest intelligence on this crisis from the World Health Organization and from the Nestle Purina PetCare Company, who had been one of the main funding sources of my research grant.
“So you see,” I reassured him, “there’s a growing awareness of your plight. These organizations are committed to finding a solution.”
I dined at a local restaurant where I ordered a steak – “extremely well done”. The wait staff all seemed very eager to please me, sometimes standing expectantly at my table until I offered a kind word. I even patted one of them on the head. My server was a beautifully groomed girl with a golden retriever’s head. When I asked if she could fetch me some more tea she literally sprinted to the beverage station for my refill.
Indeed everyone here seemed extremely anxious to please me. During my after dinner walk there was friendliness on the streets and inside the shops. It was a beautiful night. As I strolled through this tidy and well-ordered village it was a wonder to me that it had been no more than one hundred years since these folks had dressed only in loincloths and were still defecating on each other’s lawns.
The next day I kept an appointment with a lady named “Missy” and her housemate “Chopsticks”. Missy was a Pomeranian head, while Chopsticks bore the head of a Shar Pei.
“We had talked about moving to the mainland on, you know, a trial basis,” said Missy. “From time to time we cynocephaloi have made attempts to live among the regular humans and integrate into their world.”
“It may sound a little strange to you,” said Chopsticks, “but in spite of our rather… unfortunate history with humans, we still have this odd feeling that we’re somehow missing out. Almost as if we should be, shall I say, best friends.”
“We began making plans and arrangements,” said Missy, with a very cute expression on her face and a toss of her fur. “I located an efficiency apartment in Singapore, near the ocean. Chopsticks decided she needed to get a facelift in order to blend in a little better.” She looked at her friend. “I think she’s already beautiful…”
“Oh I agree! Completely,” I was quick to interject.
“I appreciate you both saying that,” said Chopsticks. “I’m really not at all ashamed of the way I look, but… integrating with humans is a challenge at best. I wanted to give myself an even chance.”
“So then, what happened?” I ventured.
“The costs of a facelift were prohibitive,” she said.
“So I went on alone,” said Missy. “I thought I could try it on my own for a while and if all went well, I could send for Chopsticks later.”
The room went silent as I waited for her to continue. She let out a soft, high-pitched whimper.
“And how was it…?”
“Rough,” she said. “It did not go well at all.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I had to get some kind of job of course. I’ve always done well in the service industry, and also running errands, courier, that sort of thing. My first day out was unproductive. Some of the people I talked to seemed embarrassed, insisting that there were no openings in spite of what they had advertised. The next day was a complete stone wall.”
“I can’t believe they would do this,” said Chopsticks fervently.
“Everywhere I went had a sign on the door: ‘No Animals Allowed’. In spite of what the United Nations has said, I knew it was meant for me.”
“That is shameful,” I said, shaking my head.
“It gets worse,” said Missy. “It seems that there are certain men among the humans who have some kind of fetish for Doghead women.”
“I had heard stories of this but I didn’t want to believe them,” said Chopsticks.
“They wouldn’t leave me alone. They were like wolves. Day or night one of them might show up. They had no respect for my personal space, even though I had clearly – ahem – marked my territory.”
“Doesn’t mean a thing to them,” snarled Chopsticks. “And don’t even think of turning your back on them.”
“Then, being frustrated that they couldn’t have their way with me, they decided to try to humiliate me,” said Missy, a whimper returning to her voice. “In public, in broad daylight they would taunt me, barking commands, ordering me to do certain peculiar things like ‘Sit’ and ‘Roll over’. I never understood why, except I knew it was meant to cause me shame.”
A low growl came from the throat of Chopsticks as she remembered. I decided it was time to redirect the conversation. We began talking about more pleasant topics until I decided I needed to go.
“I deeply appreciate you ladies sharing your story, though I know it’s difficult,” I said. “Speaking as a member of the regular human race I hope you realize that most of us are not like those you encountered in Singapore. Indeed a large part of my research mission is to build pathways of awareness and understanding for the cynocephaloi, to bury intolerance, and to dig our way out of ignorance, all in hopes of building a brighter future.”
I was invited to attend their monthly choral concert as their honored guest. It is an amazing event in which everyone in the community participates. What I mean is, everyone is part of the concert, so that I was the only member of the audience. Their music, though strange to my ears, was gloriously beautiful. I didn’t understand the language, but I felt a sense of what was being expressed and was greatly moved by it. Most of all it impressed me that this race of Dogheads can come together as an ensemble once a month, setting aside whatever may be their differences or rivalries, and make a concert – in the fullest sense of that word.
These islands have a great natural beauty, and the Dogheads have done nothing to degrade it, other than the unfortunate food shortage. I envision their continuing to live in harmony with this land as well as with the community of nations in the world. I smiled as I watched a petrel winging its way across the face of the full moon and heard the Doghead chorus lift its voice in soaring melody.
Davis Horner studied elves at Furman University, and has been a staff features writer for various tabloids and newspapers. He became a writer as a young man, quit in disgust to become a musician, and now is writing again. He has had stories placed recently at Apeiron, Scrutiny, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Change Seven, Infective Ink, Drunk Monkeys, Dali’s Lovechild, and Furious Gazelle. He lives in Greenville SC with his wife and two cats. His wife and one of the cats are internationally famous. He is not.
(First published in The Quickening by Tom Sheehan)
Jimmy Mac, on the second floor porch of his Smith Road house and the early sun barely creasing the edge of Baker Hill, looked over the top of the box scores, the Sox winning their fifth in a row, and saw, for the first time in he’d later guess to be about eight years, Mushawie just coming to the bottom of the Cinder Path. Coming off Baker Hill. He couldn’t remember Mushawie being off the hill. My God! Jimmy, said to himself. Nobody saw Mushawie unless he wanted them to see him, him socked away back in on the Delmere property the way he’d been since VJ Day in ’45. Now and then, and always after dark and often after Tate had closed his little Variety Store on Western Ave, Mushawie would come to the back door, and with meager pennies and odd coin get tobacco, a couple of cans of soup, some real day-old bread old man Tate’d hold for him like it was barely suited for the birds, once in a great while a bar of soap. Mushawie never bought a razor, matches, tools, or containers of any sort. Tate was sure of that. Now and then a hill denizen would mention his long-handled spade had disappeared from the back yard, or his hoe or his rake “had just got up and walked off the damn hill.” People counted off such losses as contributions.
“Jeezus, Martha,” Jimmy Mac said, urging his wife out of the hallway and onto the porch. He hurled his 135-pound body up out of the wicker rocker as if he’d come off a launching pad. “That’s him,” he said loudly, surprise rampant in his voice. “That’s Mushawie. That’s him. Jeezus, Martha, he must be sick or something. I can’t remember the last time I saw him. I can’t remember him ever being off the hill. I never saw him off the hill! I wonder if he got burned out, if he got the bum’s rush finally from the Delmere clan. The old man would have a friggin’ bird.” Jimmy’s arms were thin, his face was thin and coppery, and energy appeared to leak out of him as if he had enough for the next guy.
Martha McLaughlin had never seen Mushawie. Twenty years married to the widower Jimmy Mac, and she had never seen this empty-looking man, clothes obviously dirty though his khaki shirt was buttoned at the collar, his pants tucked into dark socks. She could remember Jimmy saying that the man she had never seen, who lived in a shack on the hill, used to blouse his pant legs all the time. “That reaffirms military to me,” Jimmy had added. She knew she’d remember that word, the pictures coming with it. Jimmy was loyal to anything to do with the army, the navy, the marine corps, the coast guard, World War II, Korea, veterans organizations, old vets he could pick out at the shopping mall, the way the light folded down and back in their eyes, the way they held their heads in a crowd of any sort, perimeter checking, ears cocked like a .45.
They watched the man Mushawie come off Cinder Path the way some people come off a roller coaster, trying to gain his legs back, looking around, detecting places, things, almost as if he were looking for the enemy, or for friends. Jimmy had told her years ago about the strange man who came up the hill one day, walked to the back of the Delmere property, found the old chicken house way in the back end of a mess of apple trees, and took up his lodgings. It was VJ-Day, 1945, the silence at last coming across the vast oceans of the world, coming to rest on quaint streets, hushed dales, secret cul de sacs, and the quietly agonized farms across America. Plenty of veterans were soon loose in the world, some of them guaranteed never to go home again, keeping company with the dead, with their lost comrades, with the unreported.
Mushawie walked down the edge of Smith Road cautiously. Martha said, “Tell me what happened up there when Mr. Delmere found him.”
Jimmy had his eye on Mushawie, looking for signs, looking for a single sign, and could find none. “The old man, he was with the 69th in France in the First World War, got a dose of gas for his troubles, goes up there one day and there’s a Purple Heart on a ribbon hanging on the door of the chicken coop, which had really undergone a few quick changes, two windows had been added, a tin flue was coming out the side wall, some ground turned over like there’s going to be a garden if there’s time for it.”
“What did he do?”
“Old man Delmere?”
“Yes, the owner.”
“He just pointed to the Purple Heart hanging on the ribbon on a nail on the door of his old chicken coop and said, ‘Is this yours?’ Said Mushawie just nodded. The old man asked his name, he said, ‘Mushawie.’ Not another word. Went back to his family, did Delmere, sat them all down at his dining room table, every last one of them, grand kids and all, said, ‘If I go out from this life and anyone of you so much as says a bad word to that man, I’ll goddamn come back in the middle of the night and haunt you. That old shack is his house for as long as he wants, for his lifetime if need be. You all swear by that this very minute, on my blood, on my screwed up lungs, on my soul, so help you god.’ Never was another word said. The old man was gone in two-three years, and none of them, ‘til this latest ramble about houses coming up there, saying or doing anything, yet some of the young ones starting a sneak attack from what I hear.”
“Look,” Martha said, leaning against the screen of the porch, “he’s sitting down on the curbstone. I bet you’re right, Jimmy. He’s probably sick. You better go down there.”
Jimmy was going down the front walk and Harry Matthers came out of his house two doors away. “See what I see, Jimmy?”
“I got a sinking feeling he’s sick, Harry. Let’s check him out.”
“You okay, Mushawie?” Jimmy said, as he and Harry Matthers stood a few feet away from Mushawie. Jimmy first noticed how time itself really had folded itself down in the backside of Mushawie’s eyes, the palest green he could remember, and distance knocking itself further away. A ring of bites circled one ear looking nearly savage in their redness, and more bites were on Mushawie’s hands, as if the black flies had hung resolutely back on the sides of Baker Hill from spring’s onslaught, or the green horseflies had come up from Rumney’s Marsh. A few prominent black spots behind Mushawie’s lips announced serious dental lapses had occurred. His nose was thick and wide at its bottom, his forehead wide, his hair was full and still as black as night itself. The brows above the distance-seeking eyes were hemp-thick, the cheekbones like new shellac in a drying stage. The hands clasped on his knees were huge hands. If he walked out of a teepee he could have been home, if he swung a quiver and bow across his shoulder, Jimmy McLaughlin would not have been surprised. The man from the backside of Baker Hill looked to be about seventy-five years old, and he looked tired, a sense of loss or displacement evident about him. If it were steaming out of him it could not be more noticeable.
“Are you okay, Mushawie?” Jimmy shivered and put a hand out to touch the shoulder of the strange man who had pinned the Purple Heart on a chicken coop door so many years before.
Mushawie, his head still up as if he were standing in the ranks, said, “My name is Clinton Baker Thurstbody, my serial number is 11270952.” His voice was droning and his eyes began to float. He repeated the name and serial number half a dozen times, the voice thick, phlegmy, and dull in its monotone. Perhaps a day or two earlier he had shaved, showing depressions below the lacquer-like cheeks.
Mushawie’s words hit Jimmy McLaughlin right in the middle of his gut, like a sledgehammer had come home from way out in space, like Lucifer’s hammer. Whack! Bam! Whack! The Been-there Done-that buzz came on him. Years before, the slight German corporal had leered at him every time he’d asked a question, his eyes yellow, his teeth full of food not yet fully chewed, morsels at the corners of his lips, sort of bragging how good he had it, living like a king, good food all the time, America on its way down to her goddamn knees just like the Poles and the Slavs and the Danes and the Norwegians and soon the stubborn Brits holding on for nothing at all. All of it came back in one resounding rush that slammed him in the gut again. Jimmy Mac put his hand out for Harry Matthers.
“Jeezus, Jimmy, not you too!” He spun and yelled to Martha on the second floor porch. “Martha, quick, call the goddamn ambulance. Call the medics. Call the fire department.” He heard a door slam in the neighborhood, then a second door. He sat Jimmy Mac down on the curbing. Mushawie said it again, “My name is Clinton Baker Thurstbody, my serial number is 11270952.” This time he added, “United States Marine Corps.”
Martha rode to the hospital with Harry Matthers. Jimmy Mac rode with Mushawie, both on their backs. Jimmy came home with Martha and Harry a few hours later, flabbergasted at what had hit him. One doctor said it was too much recall all at once. That night, just after midnight, the man known for years as Mushawie died peacefully in his sleep. And Harry Matthers and Jimmy McLaughlin set about to recover the life of Clinton Baker Thurstbody, USMC.
It did not take too long. Through the long arms of the Legion and the VFW magazines the story unfolded. Clinton Baker Thurstbody had come out of the University of Iowa when the war started, joined the Marine Corps, ended up in Naval Flight School, chose to be a Marine fighter pilot, and shot down five Japanese planes on his very first day in combat in the South Pacific. Twenty-two Japanese planes fell from his shooting accuracy, until the day he did not come back from his flight out over a small group of islands whose occupancy was still being contested. His wingman said small arms ground fire had claimed him and he had bailed out. Five months later, with the aid of a Japanese soldier who knew the end was coming, he had slipped away from a prisoner of war compound and was picked up at sea by a Navy submarine that had surfaced at dusk. Captain Thurstbody had been awarded a host of medals, shipped home in June 19, 1945, the same day that Marine ground forces were forcing Japanese troops back toward the cliff lines of Okinawa where many leaped to their deaths rather than be captured. Not long thereafter the big bombs went off.
Official reports, eventually surfacing in Saugus, said that Captain Clinton Thurstbody was last seen when he flew (commandeered was the word whispered at an aside) a Navy fighter from Pensacola and took it due south, out over the Gulf of Mexico, not to be seen again. He was written off as missing while on routine flight assignment, a last fateful and justifiable task the base commander could do in accounting for “one helluva pilot.”
Now, even after a small fire had started at the old chicken coop and had been beaten back by neighbors, even as the coop has begun its journey into eventful dust, even with the threat of that whole side of Baker Hill being smothered in new houses or condominiums and the apple orchard being leveled by Cal Delmere’s grandchildren, each August 10th for a whole lot of years, a group of veterans have gathered there and remembered a man who ran away from it all, from what he had trouble remembering in the first place, and where he had found solace, they had hoped, in a rude hillside home, back of the apple trees on Baker Hill.
Tom Sheehan has published 23 books and has had multiple work in most of the following publications: Ocean Magazine, Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, KYSO Flash, La Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, KYSO Journal, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, The Cenacle, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015. Swan River Daisy, a chapbook, was just released by KY Stories and The Cowboys, a collection of western short stories, is in production at Pocol Press, and Back Home in Saugus, 200 pages, 90,000 words, and a chapbook, Small Victories for the Soul, are out on proposal.
This all happened in San Francisco in the 1960s, but in the early sixties San Francisco wasn’t quite as we picture it now. There didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of freedom or rebellion in the air. Allen Ginsberg was a store clerk.
Back in Chicago, I had been captivated for many years by a girl named Mary Banz, beginning when she was 14 and I was 27.
A few years later, she was studying art in a summer program at a Colorado college. I had just moved to San Francisco, not to wear flowers in my hair but because of a job promotion. How “square” is that? Ugh.
I invited Mary for a visit when her art school was over.
“Are you out of your mind? I know what you’re up to and do you think I’m going to do something stupid like come visit you? I’m not even drinking age in most states.”
“We don’t have to go to bars. We could drink at home.”
I heard a faint giggle in the background, followed by silence.
“No,” Mary said sharply, “I don’t think so.”
Did she say this to me? Or did she say it to someone else?
There was a muffled conversation with hand held over the speaker. I thought of how far away she was and what a blunder I could be making, even though I’d gotten a job promotion. There was another stifled giggle, more silence.
After awhile Mary said, “How about if I send you someone?”
“Her name’s Patty. She’s a sculptor. My age. She’s from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Says she wants to go to San Francisco, wear some flowers in her hair. Says she wants to walk around the Haight-Ashbury and smoke dope and fuck some really nice people.”
There was more inaudible conversation.
“A week from next Thursday,” Mary said. “You can meet her at the airport. She’ll be in a crate with holes punched in it. You can meet her at Baggage Claim, ha ha.”
Patti was smart and articulate in a foul-mouthed sort of way, but what she said was always cheerful. She was funny and her beauty was unusual, with soft, red hair fluffing outwards as if a halo of static electricity circled her head. She liked to sit naked on the bed, practicing Handel’s Recorder Sonata in F major. Over and over…da-da-da-da-da-dah-da ...da da-da-da-dah-da.
She practiced her recorder on the bed, in the car going up to Mt. Tamalpais, on the Mad River Beach at Arcata, on the Skunk Railroad from Ft. Bragg to Willits, in Golden Gate Park, in the Ukiah redwood forest, in a canoe on the Russian River, at a picnic table at the Souverain winery. A typical tourist.
She spoke as if she had a habit of authority.
“They haven’t made any decent music since the fucking century,” she declared, slapping the recorder against her palm. “Stravinsky, the Beach Boys, it’s all the same stuff.” She was especially disrespectful of the Beatles:
“You say you want a revolution?
I don’t wanna change the world.
What kind of insipid middle-class crap is that?”
On the other hand, she said there was no good sculpture until the twentieth century. I couldn’t argue with her, even when I spoke of the ancient Greeks and all their Apollos and Aphrodites.
“Come over here,” she said.
I moved closer to the bed and she reached out. “You see? A nice sculptural assemblage...ornamentally baroque and complex. You’d rather look at fig leaves?” She sighed, “One of these days I’m going to have to go back to school, back to sophomore year. But who knows when? This apartment’s a real tourist trap.”
“Just stay,” I said. “You have plenty of unused miles.”
Dick Bentley’s books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available from Amazon. He has published fiction and poetry in the United States and abroad. He served on the Board of the Modern Poetry Association (now the Poetry Foundation) and won the Paris Review/Paris Writers Workshop International Fiction Award. His story, “Promised Land,” was selected for “Best Fiction & Nonfiction of 2012” in the Lukather-Garson anthology. His third book, All Rise, came out in early 2014.
It was a dark autumn day. For most of it there had been a steady rainfall. It had now stopped, and the foot-filled sidewalks had a damp sheen to them.
Rick Miller had an eye for detail, could spot the miniscule in a vast crowd. Because of this – and the striking beauty of Helen, so rarely unnoticed – he easily caught sight of his sister at a café table in the busy courtyard. She hadn’t noticed Rick; she sat sipping from a glass and smoked a cigarette. She was pretty no doubt, scruffy too——her thick blonde hair fell down in a cascade.
Rick paused some ten paces behind her and scratched his head. This might be awkward. Helen turned abruptly, and smiled her sweet smile.
Five days earlier…
Rick’s life was a lonely one. He married young and divorced young because of it. You could in fact say his life was a failure. Casual sex and the bar-hunting grounds, a steady stimulating job, all kept him functional; on quiet nights, films and food and masturbation. For the latter, Rick used an online video chat website. Chat, but the emphasis was more on mutual wanking——at the very least teasing. The better the show the better the tips, virtual tips. This was the future, a civilised one, thought Rick, where the female performers held all the power. Unruly customers could be chucked out, everything safe; hell… everything friendly. A bond would seemingly be forged between the girls – sometimes thousands of miles away – and all kinds of blokes. That also drew in the truly desperate and alone, but it would be unfair to include Rick in their wanks——sorry, ranks.
So Thursday night and Rick’s hornily browsing the chatrooms. He’s already hard from some Asian chick that prematurely terminated the session. Some are nude, some are clothed, some are somewhere in between; most are white, some are black; most are ugly; browsing up and down; some girls just talk and tease, others go all out and fill each of their holes; some spank themselves and others act like aristocrats.... Some look like younger sisters.
Suddenly Rick was reminded of his eye for detail. He gagged when his recognition became more than sub-conscious and he fully understood. It was a leg at first and he recognised a mark on it. Then it was a head and he recognised the face on it.
After closing the laptop, and while lamenting his flaccidness, Rick wondered what to do – or what to say – or what to think. At least she had pants on. But what the fuck! He knew his sister fairly well, enough to warrant a shock at this discovery. But what else did he not know? How long? Was this normal? I should probably say something; how would I say something?
Helen hugged him, ‘Rick! How are you?’
‘Oh, I’m well thanks. You look lovely Helen.’
Rick ordered a drink and lit a cigarette whilst thinking of topics. Luckily Helen did most of the talking; they hadn’t seen each other for a while and there had evidently been some developments. A beer came and he gulped half down. They engaged in small-talk for a while at first. One thing Helen and Rick had always shared was a love for the local football team; their recent exploits were the talk of the town. Then Rick steered the conversation to something more personal.
‘You know, I just remembered yesterday that it’s only one month til dad’s third anniversary… Jesus Christ it goes quick.’
‘Aw crap, I’d totally forgotten. I suppose mum must be feeling miserable——have you spoken to mum recently Rick? You should call her I think.’
‘Yeah, I will, this week. So how’s David? He being good to you? I heard his dad died too recently.’
‘So-so, we’re fine and everything. He works a lot of nights and I work a lot of days——but we find time to ourselves. So how’s your love life?’
Helen had on a low-cut top, and a necklace which Rick had noticed five days earlier. He felt uncomfortable.
‘Good, good. Okay for money? I suppose there’s never enough,’ Rick said, finishing his beer. ‘My love life, hmm, not much to report I’m afraid.’ A cute waitress came by. ‘Hey, can I get another one?’
‘What happened to Rosie?’
‘Ah you know, didn’t quite work out. You know she had a boy? I don’t like kids so much,’ replied Rick, lighting a cigarette.
‘You need a woman, Rick.’
A gust was blowing, the trees in the courtyard rustled. The table umbrellas flapped and the ashtray’s ash was lifted up.
‘Listen Helen, you sure you’re okay and everything. Money problems? You happy?’
Helen laughed sweetly. ‘What’s with all the questions detective? Someone would think you knew something I don’t.’ Her phone buzzed; she picked it up and typed away.
Well that’s that, mumbled Rick to himself——then he forced a laugh, ‘No, nothing like that. Just looking out for you sis, hardly see you these days.’
‘That’s your fault,’ retorted Helen with a grin, looking up from her phone.
Another ten minutes or so went by; Helen absent-mindedly whinged about work and Rick chewed a finger nail. It was fairly chilly now, most of the customers had retreated inside, then——‘Rick, I should head off, that was David. He’s working real late tonight, I’d like to catch him before he goes.’ She shrugged with a sorry.
‘That’s fine,’ said Rick smiling. ‘It was nice to catch up Helen, you seem well.’
They stayed seated for another couple of minutes or so, then stood up simultaneously and Rick helped Helen with her coat. They walked onto the main street and Helen turned round, ‘Bye Rick, look after yourself,’ she hugged him then walked off.
‘You too,’ he called after her. Even Rick’s hawkish eyes couldn’t follow her far, she disappeared rapidly. Then Rick too joined the crowds. He stood waiting for a bus. It wasn’t such a big deal, hell, at least she had pants on.
Fred Melnyczuk is a 22 year-old Liberal Arts graduate from the University of Glasgow. He is from London originally, but moved up to the Outer Hebrides when he was 12. A lot of his poems (published in a few small publications here and there, and gaining some contest success) are about Scotland, its countryside, and then the many urban environments he has been accustomed to. Most of all, Fred is interested in people and human experience. He's a keen traveller and hopes to spend next year teaching English, before returning to university to study postgrad creative writing.
I race into Triple A Travel shouting, “How soon can you get me to the South of France?” I don’t want to make a scene, far from it, but I’m a little unused to thievery, as I’ve never stolen anything before, not even back in junior high when my best friend was always swiping things like gum, or lipstick, and once in a while a 45 from Lyle’s Record City. But not me, and here I am, a little out of breath and disheveled too. The left sleeve of my black silk suit is ripped at the shoulder due to the immorality of the deed I’ve just what? Pulled off! I’m thrilled and mortified all at once and did I say panicked? “Can you help me?” I say, kind of pathetic, to the young woman who takes charge of me, sits me down in the chair in front of her desk.
Yes, she can. Be at LAX by five this evening, she says, after I’ve whipped out my MasterCard, wondering just what the bejesus came over me. Tonight I fly to Barcelona, board a cruise ship and mon dieu, sail to the South of France. From Barcelona. Moi!
“Robert Carroll Masterson, 70, passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer. Born and raised in Verano, California, Robert was a vibrant, selfless individual who retired recently after a stellar career as one of the country’s leading defense attorneys. He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Patricia, and his son, Robert Carroll Masterson, Jr. Services will be held on Thursday, May 10th at 10:00 a.m. at St. Hilda’s Chapel. Following the service, his ashes will be interred in a private ceremony at the Vista Verano Cemetery.”
At the front of the chapel the urn sat on a pedestal that was covered with a black cloth. I kept wondering how such a tall man—I mean, I’m sure they take out all the bones, but still—how someone six-four could fit into a container about the size of a large jar of Pace Picante sauce. Only pricier, of course. Bronze, it looked like from where I was sitting. In the last row, naturally. Discreet is my middle name.
While the pastor, wearing one of those black, gloomy robes, prayed for Robert’s soul, and p.s. no one called him Robert, he was Bobbie from the get go, I thought about our past, our ten years of marriage, and who was it who taught P.E. and coached swimming and even slung hash summers in the cafeteria while he went to his fancy law school? Then I thought about the last time we spoke, a little over thirty-seven years ago. He’d said, “I’m sorry Madeleine. You have to believe me.” And I’d said, “I don’t have to do anything.” But sometime between singing “Faith of Our Fathers” and “Rock of Ages,” I decided to do something. And like crossing the Rubicon, there’d be no turning back.
I thought I’d made a clean getaway. But at my car I was blindsided by my nerves, and lost precious time fumbling with my keys. Finally I got the door open. I sat down and tossed the urn on the passenger seat. I was nearly home free, reaching for the door, when I was accosted! The witch of a widow appeared like the ghost of weddings past, and grabbed at my arm. Fortunately all she got was sleeve. When it ripped, she lost her balance and fell backwards, landing on her sizable butt, and stayed down long enough for me to shut the door and screech off.
Just twenty-one hours after the heist, I’m in my stateroom unpacking. Bobbie had flown in my checked baggage, rolled up in my nightgown, right alongside my 16 ounce jar of Grey Poupon. Why bring along my own mustard? Because I love, love, my Grey Poupon, and who knows what brand they trot out on a ship that’s registered in Panama?
I’d also love to take a nap, but here on the Mediterranean, fresh out of Barcelona, it’s already 6:00 pm., which means it’s time for me to go to dinner. I’m still wearing my travel suit, whose jacket has two zippered pockets, one of them extra, extra large, and I’m thinking it’s big enough that I can take Bobbie to dinner with me. The stateroom attendant comes in while you eat and leaves chocolate on your pillow, and what if he wondered what an old lady was doing with an urn? I didn’t want to cause an international incident after kind of causing a domestic one. I get him settled in my pocket, and I’m about to leave when I remember my Grey Poupon. I zip it into the other pocket and we’re off.
“Just what the fuck sort of ding bat plan do you fucking have for the fucking ashes? I mean, ashes?”
I’m alone at a table for two, way in the back, “aft” as they say in ship speak. A little more “aft” and I’d be swimming in the deep blue sea. I’ve been listening to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” feeling peaceful, having just taken my first bite of a hot sourdough roll, upon which I’ve slathered some of my heavenly Dijon. Who’s that speaking? Why, it’s none other than the witch of a widow, and she’s looming over my table in a too tight red velvet dress, clutching a martini. “Still tossing back the martinis I see.”
She sets the glass down hard. “Thirty-seven fucking years, Maddie. You’re pitiful.”
“How did you find me?” I say, chewing. I couldn’t be sorrier that she’s here, but I have to admire whatever it is that led her to me. ESP?
“Private dick. I’m rich, remember? I got the gravy train, you got the puppy chow?”
“Patsy Patsy Patsy,” I say.
“Whatever. Welcome aboard.”
“He was mine first.”
“Life is suffering, Maddie. And you make it worse. When you pull shenanigans. What the fuck? What you wrote in the guest book? See ya later, alligator!” She puts her hands on her hips and leans in close. “You know what Bobbie said? That you were a whack job. And I said, ‘Tell me about it. She was a nut case clear back in kindergarten.’”
“You broke into my house!”
“Yard is not house. I climbed your fence.”
“You had a swimming pool. I wanted to swim.”
“You thought you were a mermaid. That’s nutty.” She goes on babbling about her version of our past as best friends, only the pissed off version of it, how we never really were that close, since I was such a loony toon.
“Possession is nine tenths,” I say, smiling.
“Where is he, you bitch?”
“Next to my heart,” I say. Smugly. I pat the bulge in my jacket that’s actually closer to my liver than my heart.
“What the hell,” she says, “You’re wearing him?” She plops down in the chair across from me. “Jesus, Maddie, you look like a suicide bomber.”
“I’d like to finish my dinner in peace,” I say.
She takes a gulp of her drink and helps herself to a roll in my bread basket. “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” she says, eyeing my mustard. “Pass it over,” she says.
When my salad arrives I take back the mustard, and mix blobs of it into my arugula. It’s all dolled up with tiny tomatoes, green and yellow ones too, some interesting looking seeds, and a smattering of gorgonzola.
Patsy drains her glass and fishes out the olive. “Look,” she says, gnawing on it. “Not that you’ll give a shit, but the show must go on. All I want to do is finish the fucking show, which you clearly screwed up. There’s a niche at the cemetery with his name on it.” She reaches for another roll and the jar of mustard. “Mostly I want to do it for my son. He’s a little upset, even though he had a lousy relationship with his father, who was fucking gone most of the time defending big shot thugs.”
Yes! I’m thinking. About Karma and what goes around and all that. “Does ‘fucking gone most of the time’ mean he cheated on you too?”
“Fuck you. I’m trying to be decent here,” she says, signaling the waiter for another drink. “Where are you taking him, anyway?”
I almost say none of your business, but then I think truthfully, it is her business, and what difference does it make? “We honeymooned at the Cote D’Azur. We swam in the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean and had a fantastic time. Fantastic! We were crazy for each other, and spent our mornings drinking café au lait before there was all this infatuation with Starbucks and latte this and latte that. Why don’t you know this? You were my maid of honor.”
“You’re nuts, Maddie,” she says, yawning.
“We were happy, young and naïve and happy. I think, honestly? He’d like to end there. Out there, once we dock tomorrow in Villefranche. I’ll get a ride to the Cote and take my
formerly beloved out for one last dip in the deep blue sea. For him I mean. I have plenty of dips left in me.”
“We went there too,” she says. “I could never see the draw. The beach is so pebbly. Who wants to sit on rocks?”
“You went to the Cote?”
“I just told you. We went to the fucking Cote. We went to Santorini too. A ton of times.”
I put down my fork and mull over this bit of disappointing news. “How boring,” I say, finally.
“This is the deal,” she says. “Give me back the urn and I’ll give you half the ashes. Also, I won’t start screaming thief right here in this fancy dining room.”
Patsy, screaming. The girl could scream. Like when Elvis died in “Love Me Tender.” Like when I made cheerleader and she didn’t. I unzip and hand him over. “I don’t get it. Why give me half?” I say.
“You did get his ass through law school.” She scoots back her chair and grabs the drink from the waiter before he has a chance to set it down. “I’ll meet you on deck 10 in two hours. Bring your own container.”
On deck 10 we make our way to the front of the ship, a.ka. “fore,” where there’s no one around to wonder what the bejesus we’re up to. We pull a couple of chairs up to a table, Patsy sets down the urn and I get out my now empty jar of Grey Poupon. I hated giving up all that delicious mustard, but where would I find another jar big enough to hold half my ex? I’d taken it to the ladies room, and while I dumped out the mustard, the absurdity of it all washed over me, and I could barely stifle a giggle when a glob of it went flying, landing among a couple of dozen rose heads, bobbing in a bowl full of water next to the sink. Rose heads. Kind of appalling, when you think about it, but vivacious too, like the colorful caps that synchronized swimmers wear.
Patsy screws off the top of the urn, pulls out Bobbie and sets him on the table. There he is, looking like a misshapen Buddha, filling up what appears to be a regular baggie with a twist top. “Is that something new, putting the remains in a baggie?” I say.
“For fuck’s sake, how should I know?” she says, heating up. “Ask yourself, Maddie. Did I plan to open the urn? Did I think I’d be sitting here on a crappy three star ship dividing up my husband with his ex-wife? In my fucking wildest imagining, Maddie. Did I?”
“No.” I was starting to feel funny about the whole thing. In a sad way.
“Let’s just get the fuck on with it.”
“We could use a spoon,” I say.
“Got one.” She fishes out a plastic number from her purse.
It’s cloudy out, cold and still. The sun’s slipped into the water, but it’s far from dark. Patsy untwists the twister and takes that pathetic plastic spoon and dips it into my former husband. She comes up with a heaping teaspoonful, but as she’s about to drop it into my mustard jar, the wind picks up, and mon dieu! In zips a table-size version of a tornado. The urn and the mustard jar go flying, and in the time it takes Patsy to yell, “Fuck!” Bobbie’s sucked into the whirling dervish and blown out to sea without so much as an au revoir.
We sit there for a moment, staring at the empty table.
“You won,” Patsy says, clutching the spoon. “Every bit of him is out there now, on his way to the fucking Cote.”
About then I hear a clinking sound and glance under the table. It’s the urn, tipped over on its side, bumping up against my Grey Poupon. Just as it hits me that I’m the one who’s going to have to get down on all fours and go after it, since Patsy’s way too plump for the job, Providence takes over. The ship lurches, nothing serious, but enough to send the urn tumbling down the deck toward “aft.” As I watch it flee, the hot dog years with Bobbie come rolling back. Bobbie was strictly a ketchup man
“Nope,” I say. Bobbie won. You guys ate hot dogs, didn’t you?”
“What kind of a fucking ding bat question is that? Of course we ate hot dogs. We’re Americans.”
“Bobbie didn’t want any part of my jar. He hated mustard. Especially Grey Poupon.”
“You and your hocus-pocus bullshit.”
“Except you know I’m right.”
“I’m going after it,” she says, marching off.
“Patricia?” I holler, as the wind kicks up again. It’s not the super-dooper, blow a baggie full of ashes to Kingdom Come sort, but it’s too breezy for me. I put my cold hands into my empty pockets and hurry toward the elevators.
Linda Lowe received her M.F.A. in poetry from the University of California, Irvine. A chapbook of her poems, Karmic Negotiations was published by Sarasota Theatre Press, and several of her short plays have been informally staged in Hollywood. Online, her stories have appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Gone Lawn, and others.
(Originally published by the Australian print journal, Blue Crow, in Oct. 2015)
Assembly woman, Brenda Bustamante stepped from the taxi onto Market Street in the Castro District. The rainbow flag rippled and waved like a proud declaration atop a pole above the gay metropolis. San Fransisco was a long way from Brenda’s hometown of Bakersfield, and the Castro further still, when it came to politics and lifestyles.
The cool spring breeze lifted the lapels of her blazer and swept her auburn hair off her face. She gazed across the street to her destination, a place she didn’t want even the cabdriver to know.
Since that night, at her best friend’s son’s graduation party when she ate from the wrong—or in her case, the right—batch of brownies and wrapped several in a napkin for later, she drove home, staggered into bed and for the first time in years fell into a fathomless sleep for almost eight hours. Best of all, she woke up without a hangover, unlike the pills her doctor had prescribed. With her intense workload and ambitions for higher office, sleep was crucial. After talking with Tony, she decided that edible marijuana was the answer, and with a medical license, it was legal. She drove all the way from Bakersfield to the central coast to get her permit. If her constituents back home knew, even the more liberal ones, they might vote her out of office.
She had never smoked, cautioned her three daughters about cigarettes and drugs. She did have one addiction, sweets, especially cookies and cake.
Brenda found a cure for her insomnia. And gosh darn it—she had every right to buy it.
She waited at the crosswalk. Her research, the knowledge of all aspects of cannabis, made her aware of the medicinal benefits. When she went online to Weedmap, she found more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks in the city. Further information revealed the best places to buy edibles were in the Castro.
Brenda had one day to purchase her medicine and drive to her apartment in Sacramento.
She passed young men and women in the crosswalk wearing T-shirts, jeans and Giants’ baseball caps. Before going into politics, they reminded her of her students at Cal State, Bakersfield. No different, except that the men held hands with each other, and so did the women. There were heterosexual partners with children, and, at the bus stop, an older Asian couple quarreled as the breeze carried a notion of how close she was to the sea.
She recalled that ugly time during Prop 8 when yellow signs blotted homes and church lawns. It sickened Brenda how people’s ignorance incited fear.
So, when marriage equality became the law in California, she rode in a float as grand marshal in the Pride Parade. Her three girls cheered and waved rainbow and American flags as she passed by sitting on a bale of hay in a restored 1930 yellow Ford pick-up truck waving to the spectators. She never imagined being in a parade could be so much fun.
Brenda headed toward the neon green cross on the facade of the building and a black awning with gold lettering, Leaves of Grass: An Apothecary.
By the open door, stood a security guard with a tattoo circling up his neck.
“Rip offs!” a man yelled.
The guard stepped in front of the door.
“You can buy this shit for twenty bucks at the corner of Hayes and Pierce. Rip-offs! Suckers!” The man staggered away.
Noise from trolley buses and cars clanked over metal plates that covered wide tracts in the street. Passersby chatted on phones. A homeless girl foraged through a trash bin. One man picked up after his dog. The brisk air currents rushed through the city washing it clean, except for the mad and the hungry. As a politician, Brenda felt responsible. Driven by obligation, she saw herself as a statesman, and forced herself to be ruthless toward her goals.
“I need to see your permit,” the guard said.
Brenda reached inside her purse. Her fingers fumbled for the paper. Excited by the unfamiliar, she pulled it out and steadied her hand to keep the paper from shaking.
“Go on in.”
The smell of dried cannabis overwhelmed her. She knew what marijuana smelled like, but this was more pungent, like a crop that had just been harvested.
“Is this your first time here?” asked a young man standing behind a narrow counter in the foyer.
“Yes.” She glanced around the dispensary. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and cable cars circled the windowless, but well lit store. Glass counter showcases lined both walls with shelves holding hundreds of jars of cannabis. Vintage medical cabinets interspersed between the counters combined the old with the modern. Stairs led up to a loft. The place appeared organized, clean, no bongs or paraphernalia that she’d heard about in the funky head shops of the 1960s. The employees were young and clear eyed.
“I need to see your certificate and license.”
Brenda pulled the documents from her purse.
“You’ll need to fill out some paper work,” he said handing her a form.
It instructed her to keep all cannabis out of the reach of children and away from pets. Never drive when using. Upon purchase, store in the trunk of the car.
She signed her name.
“You can go in now.”
Brenda hesitated, unsure of where to go.
A young woman approached her. She wore a close-cropped Afro and held an iPad. “My name is Venus. Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Brenda said. “Thank you.” She relaxed.
“What’s your medical condition?”
“I have insomnia. But I don’t want to smoke.”
“Our solutions and edibles are upstairs. Follow me.”
They went up the steps to a room where the words—Do anything, but let it produce joy. Walt Whitman—was painted on the back wall in a flowing script. A glass-enclosed counter with shelves of assorted foods, an antique cabinet, and a refrigerator in the corner took up most of the space.
“Carrot cake? Is that what that is?” Brenda asked peering into a shelf.
“Yes,” Venus said resting a hand on Brenda’s shoulder. “But only eat a sliver, or it will send you on a vacation you hadn’t planned.” Venus went behind the counter.
Brenda smiled. “No, I wouldn’t want that. Is it fresh?”
“All our pastries are.”
“I’ll have several pieces of the carrot cake.”
“I’ll cut them into slivers. You can store what you don’t eat in the freezer.”
“And the muffins?” Brenda asked.
“Banana or pumpkin.”
“Both. I’ll need enough to last me several weeks.”
“Okay, but cut them into quarters. I’ll give you a printout of all the directions.” Venus typed on her iPad then went behind the counter.
Brenda gazed down at the first floor.
In walked a man who looked like her distant cousin, State Senator Ray Bakar, right down to the Stetson, cowboy boots, vest and beer gut hanging over his turquoise belt buckle.
“What about lemonade and tea. We have cocoa, too?” Venus asked.
“Plenty of each,” Brenda said. She looked down at the man in the cowboy hat. He was a match for her cousin on the Basque side of the family. But it would be inconceivable for Bakar, a gay bashing family value's hardliner, to be in a cannabis dispensary and preposterous for her adversary to be in the Castro. But then, no one would believe she’d be there either.
“Since you’ll be medicating at night, how about decaffeinated tea?” Venus asked.
“That would be perfect.”
Brenda stared below. The man took off his hat, and mopped his bald head with a bandana. “Oh, my God,” Brenda whispered. It was Ray!
With her eyes on her cousin, she reached inside her purse for the phone. Turning away from Venus, she held the camera at her waist and snapped several pictures.
“I parked along a side street, is there a back exit?”
“Only for emergencies.”
Perhaps she could slip past Bakar without him seeing her. “Do I pay here?”
“No. Downstairs.” Venus went to the cabinet. “You bought a lot so we’ll give you a Leaves of Grass carrier bag.” She opened the cabinet door and took out a black bag with gold lettering and a sketch of Walt Whitman.
Brenda had her hand on the railing when a man walked in, went up to Bakar and kissed him on the lips. She gasped. Astonished. She covered her mouth and braced herself against the railing.
Brenda glanced around the store, for cameras, for anyone who might catch her. Like a gunslinger, she reached for her phone and filmed the two men as they nuzzled and held hands.
The conservative back-slapper, the ranter—“Save our children from the perverts!”—liked men and was a pot user himself.
His hypocrisy appalled her.
Brenda tucked the phone in her purse. Her discovery cast tremendous possibilities. She could expose him. Ruin his career. Or, use him.
She watched, floored, by the tender way he caressed and kissed his boyfriend’s hand. His manner was so unlike the brash cousin she knew.
What she witnessed was a man recklessly being himself. The pathos brought back memories of when Ray’s older brother died of AIDS. The community shunned his family. Ray and his younger brother endured beatings and bullying. Then, in his junior year, Ray shot up to six foot three. The intimidation stopped. He joined the debate team and discovered a talent for wrangling.
Now she knew why Ray never married. “Too busy!” he announced. “Spend all my time working for my constituents.” He became a respected figure in Kern County and a persuasive speaker, even if what he said was drivel. Although the insight brought compassion, Brenda found him a coward.
“It’s ready,” Venus said holding the Walt Whitman bag.
They went down the stairs. Brenda thought about her own deceit, traveling four hours and spending the night at a hotel to buy marijuana.
With her eyes on her cousin, she stepped onto the landing. He leaned against the counter, next to his boyfriend with his arm around his waist. So natural. How long had they been together?
She walked over to the register, paid for her medicine, and thanked Venus for helping her.
In seven years as a politician Brenda learned to shovel manure and throw it on opportunity. A vote for her bill, equal pay for women, came up at the end of the week. Now, she had something to fight with. As her youngest daughter would say, sweet!
She strolled up to Bakar holding the handles of her bag. “Hello Ray,” she said as if she had run into him at the county fair.
His arm snapped to his side. He gaped at her. His round face a fluctuation of red, crimson then scarlet.
He never called her that. He was as phony as Frank Underwood.
“I’d never take you for a pothead.”
“I’m not,” she said. “The THC helps me sleep. Is that why you're here, Ray?” she asked. “Because you can’t sleep at night? I can understand why.”
She held out her hand to Ray’s boyfriend who looked like a much younger version of Ray minus the cowboy getup. “I’m Brenda Bustamante, a cousin of Ray’s.”
He glanced at Bakar. “Yeah, Ray’s mentioned you. I’m Martin.”
They shook hands.
“I’ll meet you outside, Ray,” Brenda said.
She left the dispensary.
Gusts of wind rustled her paper bag. Leaves drifted from the street lined trees. She remembered a closed sign in a photo shop with a recessed doorway and an awning. Brenda went up the street and waited.
Bakar walked toward her, his swagger replaced with hunched shoulders. His face sagged like a sack of guilt. He was a real grizzly, wide as a side of beef. When they’d meet in the halls of the state capitol, his deep voice bellowed out arguments to stress his opinions. She tried to have an exchange, but Ray never took a breath. He had the lungs of a whale.
Now it was her turn to talk.
He stood next to her in the doorway facing the street. “No one will believe you. It’s your word against mine.”
“I filmed you with Martin. I took pictures, too.”
He sucked his teeth. She felt his anger roll off of him like a tumbleweed. He took a step forward, snatched his hat in his hand and whipped it across his thigh.
Brenda didn’t flinch but her heart did. She remained poised in the hollow of the entrance, watching as he lumbered down the street, stop and pace. She wondered how he could hurt so many people to protect his lie.
Ray adjusted his hat, gave a yank to his vest, looped his thumbs in his pant pockets and came toward her.
“What’s it gonna cost me?”
“You’re going to vote for my bill. And persuade two other senators to vote for it.”
“I vote for your bill, they’d all know something is up.”
“Oh please, Ray. You can come up with a reason.”
“I’m dead if I vote for that bill.”
“You’re more dead if they find out your gay.” She had him. But he was still family. “I remember the hell you went through when Mike died. The way you and Larry were picked on.”
“Oh, Jesus, Brenda,” he said turning away. “Do you have to bring that up?”
“Isn’t that the crux of it? The hiding?”
He confronted her. “You aren’t? You came all the way from home to buy pot in the Castro. You could have at least ditched the pumps and the pressed slacks for jeans and tennis shoes.”
That was true. She was prone to overdress, but what a jerk. “You’re a phony, Ray.”
“So are you.”
“I should come out and tell my story,” Brenda said. “It could help others. But don’t think you can spin what I saw. I’ll send the film and the pictures of you and Martin to the press. I’ll post it on Facebook. You vote for it, Friday. And get me two more votes. That's all I need. Cousin or not, I’ll expose you.”
He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “I could come out before Friday. Then you’d never get the vote.”
“Do that. I’ll still send the pictures to the press. Everyone will know why you came out.”
They both remained silent in the alcove of the doorway. The wind hissed. Buses and cars sputtered down Market. A woman’s laughter floated on the air like notes from a musical instrument. The sun half above the hills the other half descended toward the sea. The moment Brenda shared with her cousin, a moment so charged became a noise all its own.
At last, he looked at her. She expected anger, instead she saw sorrow. “Your family was always kind to us, not like the others.” His voice just above a whisper. He stared across the street at the shopping center. “I had cancer. I’m okay, now. Forty years old. I’ve lost all my hair, high blood pressure, yup.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ray. I want my girls,” Brenda said, “all women, to have the same rights, the same pay for doing what men do.”
Ray listened. He shifted his weight. Hitched his shoulders. Crossed his arms.
“If you choose to come out, you’d have the support of my family. I promise. If you don’t choose to come out, and you get my bill passed, I’ll never ask for another favor. You have my word.”
“The vote’s only five days away. What happens if I vote for it but can’t get the two other votes?”
“People owe you, you have power, charm them. You can get two votes.”
“But if I can’t.”
“Then the deal’s off.”
Ray snickered, then exhaled through his mouth.
“You know, Ray, during that horrible time,” Brenda said, “I remembered your mom, how she went to the PTA and told them to help stop the bullying. What she must have gone through, losing her eldest boy and then treated like an outcast.” She took a step closer to her cousin. “When they cut your father’s hours, your mom took a job. Bet she didn’t even make minimum wage.”
“She was the heart of my life,” Ray said.
Brenda lowered her gaze. She now knew how hard it was for him to be honest.
Martin came toward them holding a white paper bag. His shaved head along with his beard started to grow a five o’clock stubble. His expression vacillated between concern and hope.“Can I join you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.
“Of course you can,” Brenda said.
Martin looked at Ray. “You were always worried you’d be outed. You’re lucky it was your cousin.” He glanced at Brenda’s bag. “You must’ve bought a lot to get a Walt Whitman bag.”
Brenda smiled. “I don’t like to smoke and I have a weakness for sweets.”
“Did you get the carrot cake?”
“I got a chocolate chip cookie,” Martin said. “I’m getting fat. But they have a genius baker.”
“I’m hungry,” Brenda said.
“Me too. Cafe La Folie is just down the street.” Martin gestured in the direction where the rainbow flag brandished its colors at the foothills of San Francisco. “They have the best crème brûlée.”
“I like it with a really thick crust,” Brenda said. “You know, where it’s hard to crack.”
“Let’s have dinner. I’ll save us a table on the patio.” Martin took off.
“He’s a nice young man.”
“Yup, he’s a keeper.”
“Let’s go break some crème brûlée.”
“Ah, I need to lose weight.”
“We all do. What else is new? C’mon Ray,” Brenda said taking his arm.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Five 2 One and many more. DC’s stories are also in print anthologies: Crab Fat Lit, Blue Crow and Scarborough Fair. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s Literary Contest for 2016 for the short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for the short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps.
The idea was that any man could be changed.
The perversions of the mind — corrected!
The darkness of the heart — purified!
The turpitude of the soul — remedied!
The answer had arrived; my sickness, once thought to be incurable, could now be treated. No longer would I pass the sprawling grove that prefaced my father’shome and know that I am unwelcome; no longer would I spend restless nights in the arms of another, the feeling of blood on my hands.
I could change.
I could return to the grove with a proper lover, and I would know how to love her. My father would look upon my face once more and perhaps he would smile. The years I had spent swinging from acacia, plucking the honey suckle, bathing in country waters — they would return to me.
On the day of the appointment, I gave the grove one final passing.Iallowed myself a moment to stare down the jade and hickory hills, to scan the winding path that led to father’s door. I caught the diurnal suite of cicadas and dawn chorus; I reveled in the electric feeling of transformation.
I am here to help you change.
The doctor had placed me within the arms of a marvelous machine, a crown of steel atop my head, hooks and chains about my body.
What do you see within this image?
There, I could see the muscled chest; there, a chin that dipped into an Adam’sapple; there, the arms of a mountain, and there, the shoulders of Hermes, the river bend abdomen, the cirrocumulus freckles, the sand dune flesh.
We will work until we find the opposite.
The electricity seeped into my body, my vision erupting into a scattered, achromatic frenzy, my head trembling within its crown. The washing of the blood, the lifting of the weight;Iknew that the agonizing pain was the sensation of change. I knew that to endure was to evolve.
Have you found the woman?
The electric whirs had become a nocturnal suite of locusts and crickets; the vibrations felt of a swarming flood, the weight of country waters dragging me to its riverbed.
I turned to face the doctor.
Do you see the woman, my boy?
My father held up a photo of the grove, the landscape blackened and grim, his hand turning up the knob higher and higher.
The knob spun onward, the waters closed in. A man emerged from the shadowed grove and raised a broken, metal crown.
I ca —
JT Lachausse serves as the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Matador Review, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and is a poetry and fiction reader for The Adirondack Review. He was selected as the poetry prize winner in The Coraddi, and his work has been featured in Linden Avenue, Foliate Oak, Quail Bell Magazine, Praxis, apt, and Polaris. He has work forthcoming in Enizagam, Prairie Margins, and Hair Trigger. Originally from Aurora Sparks, Texas, he now lives in Chicago, where he attends Columbia College for Fiction Writing.
I said I loved him, but that was a lie.
I barely liked him much these days, let alone cared for him like I had years before when youthful abandon left little room for questioning.
Or a hopeless realization that maybe there wasn’t a “one” and if there was, this man certainly fell short of said ideal.
I remember, me at 7, making this “one” up in my head, drawing him with a dulling pencil which always seemed to break at all the worst times.
Times when I almost got his face perfect.
He would be different from Poppa. No stench of cigarettes or vodka that yelled words of fire at me when I didn’t get the remote to him fast enough.
Not like Poppa.
Momma had died the year I turned 10. She left me with no words of wisdom. She left me with nothing really, except for cynicism. “Never expect anything from anyone, darling” she said a look of despair aging her once beautiful face “Especially from no man. You’ll always be let down, doll face”.
That summer she hung herself from the oak tree in our backyard. She left me a note with no words, just a simple imprint of her lips stained with red stick. Till this day I can’t stomach as much as tinted lip gloss.
The only other thing that I still remembered about Momma’s death was that she had packed her suitcase neatly that morning, lining it with her favorite dresses and her journal chronicling mundane coming and goings and ended with the ominous sentence “Today is the day I leave”.
I never told Michael about how she had passed. These were my stories; pieces of me that I did not want to give away to anyone.
Poppa and I never spoke of Momma again, he died last year and I cried at his funeral for everyone to see like I imagined someone who loved their father would.
“Are you even listening to me?” Michael’s voice from the other end of the kitchen table brought me back to the present.
“Sorry babe, I was just thinking. What’s up?” I tried to sound interested, but I’m sure I sounded as despondent as ever.
“Today is the day I’m leaving. I won’t be back. I just can’t do this anymore. We don’t even love each other anymore, if we ever even did” He looked up at me defeated.
“I said I love you, isn’t that enough for you to stay?” My words sounded wrong.
“I just can’t try anymore. I just won’t”.
My eyes had betrayed me.
“Please don’t leave, Michael.”
He got up calmly and headed outside.
My pleas where cut off by the buzzing of his car engine.
Holding the screen door as I stared at his moving car, I had one thought “Never expect anything from anyone, darling especially from no man. You’ll always be let down, doll face.”
I let the screen door close loudly.
Francesca Aspromonte is a creative writer, currently residing in Medellin, Colombia. Born in New York, she attended Binghamton University (SUNY) for English Literature and received her MA from Baruch College (CUNY) in Corporate Communication. After working several years in non-profit development, she now looks for inspiration in the dream-like Colombian landscape and drinks an enormous amount of coffee to fuel her passion for writing.
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