Fiction Archive

Riding Shotgun

Ralph knew that it wouldn’t last, but he liked how her hair hung blonde to her waist, the bones of her face, all the curves of her. They came together in spouts, at the end of the day, after long talks on the phone about prom and graduation, and all those things that were passing and they never even knew it, and the only logical thing to do was share their bodies, in sunlight, in the heat of their room, the little old fan whirling, the kick of denim at their ankles. Then came a baby, a manifestation of all that, the sex of that little boy on the screen; they were able to trace out his baby profile, trace it out with their fingers, naïve frantic fingers with cheap white gold they had bought from a pawn shop. No one could have told Ralph that it was a shotgun wedding. He loved the bones of her face.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror.

Ralph was back there again, back in that same place where he started, where he knocked his girl up, only that old bed was gone. His mother had replaced it with a futon to save space, and now, now he was taking that space once again, that space de-sexed, the hope to make it the same again hung in the air. He had argued with his wife the day before. His bones and all his flesh ached, his eyeball sockets even felt the weight of her, the legality of wife weighed the pain of it. He had kissed his infant son on his chubby brown cheek, said bye in a sputter, watched him off in the night, then cursed the one who bore him. And as Ralph got ready to go out that first night back, he took that promise, that new promise of sex and dressed up in it, shaving his jet-black stubble in the mirror, he noticed that his mother was watching him from the hallway. She smiled faintly, sweetly called him baby, she said Baby I’m so glad you’re back here with me, even if it’s just for a little while.

Henry was a good neighbor. That was one thing I had been sure of. Henry had come to us in a flicker. We must have been living in this apartment complex for months, going in and out of our little apartment. Mom walking me to school in the hot morning sunshine, in her tight jeans and tank top and her beat-up huarache sandals, and her hair sprayed liked some spider web. I asked her to let me walk to third grade alone, but she refused, said I was her teddy bear, and she would fall apart if something happened to me. She said I was still small enough to pick up and throw in a trunk, so we walked in the sunshine together. Henry came first in flickers. We would see him climbing out of his little white car, or unlocking his mailbox, or pulling sheets from his laundry room. There was always a smile, a how’s it going, how’s it going, a sort of singsong that would only last a few footsteps. Henry has a pretty wife who goes to work taking care of old people. She goes at all different times of day, in a scrub top and pants, in Easter egg and cartoon colors. I used to watch her swish to her car, watch her glide, her kind smile. The lines around her eyes held her hellos in them.

Ralph planned to meet his wife at the beat-up burger spot on Clinton and West, and when he walked in, he saw his little boy there, sitting on the tabletop, chubby brown hand tugging on his mother’s hair and another pulling on a blue straw in a strawberry soda. The little boy looked at him, and he smiled and laughed at him until his girl looked up at him with large brown empty eyes and he remembered she wasn’t his girl anymore. She asked him if he got the papers and he said, yes they had come to him only a few days before, with a knock on the door, a young white man in khaki pants and a polo shirt, that big manila envelope was still sitting on his mother’s kitchen table. He could smell the perfume on her, powdery and sweet, but then it stung when he saw the red half moon on her neck. He wanted to think that it was something else, that red half moon hickey on her neck. His son, dark eyes large, tugged hard on his jacket and then let go.

The first time Ralph gave us a ride, it was chilly out. The wind was whipping us, whipping through my mom’s hair and jacket. It burned, and I thought my mom would fly away. Henry pulled up in his little white car and asked us if we wanted a ride, and I jumped in the front seat without even asking her if it was ok, and she jumped in the back, and it felt good. The heater was on, and the car was clean, and Henry smelled clean as soap, but still smelled like cigarettes. His smell matched my mom’s smell. Clean and smoke at the same time. Except his skin wasn’t white like hers, it was brown like mine, but more like sun-beat leather. He drove us to school, and I jumped out without even saying thank you, my mom yelling bye baby, and I didn’t look back until I was far off, and then I looked back to wave at her, saw her tiny little body, black jacket and jeans, saw her wave at me and climb in the front seat of Henry’s car.

Ralph used to think that his mother was a china doll. He used to think so because of her curly black hair and the way she used to line her eyes dark and because her face was so pale. He used to put his chubby brown arm next to hers and compare the skin of them, and she would smile and laugh and kiss his cheek; she would smile and laugh and look him close in the eyes and smile and blink. And now she wanted to talk with him about the cute girl he had met at the club. She fixed him coffee and breakfast, and they sat in front of the television; the sun up and bright in the window, she laughed, the rasp of her voice, the clang of her coffee cup, all of it hung there in the walls of that little living room. Another knock on the door, another young white man with an envelope, this time asking Ralph to sign his boy away, and he felt his mother’s voice fall off those walls and shatter.

The day we went to buy a Christmas tree, Henry wasn’t home, so we couldn’t get a ride. We picked out a really small tree, and mom paid extra so that the kid at the tree lot could spray it with some frosty glitter spray to look like snow. He gave me a handful of itty-bitty candy canes, and I stuffed them in my pocket. We walked down Clinton Avenue, with the cars roaring by, my mom shook and pulled her hood over her head, walking backward down Clinton, we carried the tree, her hair flying in the wind, a china doll in her black hooded sweatshirt. She flipped off some guy who drove by and stuck his tongue out at her, and I laughed so hard I peed my pants. When we got home, I made a bath, so I could soak, and I lay there in the strawberry shampoo soap, and I traced the lines of our old bathtub, and wondered how long those lines had been there, felt the warmth on my face. I floated. I wrapped a towel around myself and had to open the door because I couldn’t take the steam of my tub, but their steam was a chemical, colorless like water. My mom yelled at me to go to my room. Their steam was heavy and sweet. Sweet chemicals. I lay naked on my bed and pulled my sheets over me. I heard Henry’s laugh tangle up with my mom’s laugh, their highs and lows, they came together, dragged across the hallway. I got up and got dressed in a white t-shirt and sweatpants, went to the living room, switched on the stereo, and started dressing the tree. It was all chemicals. It smelled clean, and it glistened like snow.

Ralph met a cute girl at the nightclub named Nikki. She told him right off that she was taking classes at the community college. She wanted to be a nurse, and he even helped her study with flash cards and helped her color pictures of muscle and bone. He liked the way she laughed. The first night they slept together, he took her to the burger spot on Clinton and West and then he took her home. Her name was Nikki. He asked her not to laugh at his futon, but she did anyway. The futon squeaked with the weight of her body, that metal skeleton, the bones of it taking her into it. Ralph crushed against that girl, her laugh; her kiss crushed against him, and as he lay tangled, done, all he could think of was that red half moon and the tug of his little boy’s hand on his jacket. As he made his way out to take Nikki home, he found his mother in the living room, laying half up, half down on the couch, Cleopatra-style. He introduced Nikki, and she looked up the girl, rolled her eyes, and then began to flip channels.

It made my stomach go when my mom and Henry went in the room. It took hours; it took infinity. I didn’t know why it was so quiet. I would even creep down the hallway as far as I would dare and then step back. I would go outside, sit on the white wall, wait for Henry’s wife to drive up in her cartoon colors, wait for my mom to come out and beg me to come back inside, out of the cold. It cut my face, my ears, my hands, the fade in my hair, the black gravel of the beat-up driveway, the patches of sky. I wanted to taste the sky.

Ralph saw his wife when he happened to be with Nikki. He saw her in another guy’s car, her arm propped up in the window, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she didn’t even see him with his new girl. He watched them drive off, and Nikki grabbed his hand, and he saw her eyes. He saw her dark hair, the dimple in her face, her eyes large and knowing. She smelled like petals, pink petals and he felt himself crush against her. Nikki smiled at him, and he pulled away and let the car glide.

My mother was a fisted flower. My mother bled; she cried down the hallway, curled on the carpet in a tiny crescent; she bled. I grabbed all the towels I could find and held them between her legs, her tiny legs thin and pale; she shivered; her curly black hair strawberry clean and tangled, clumped in her tiny brown bud mouth, my mom, she bled. One day, she told me what that was, a tiny seed, an almost was. But then, I only felt the warm red on my hands, it seeped through, smelled salty, felt warm.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror. At the hospital, they let me stay as late as I could. When my mom woke up, she held her gown in a tight fist so that her white skin would not spill out. She called me to her and held me close. I had eaten everything on her yellow hospital tray. The chocolate, the graham crackers the little juices, the little milks. I realized that I had left nothing for her to eat, and I hunched over her tiny white shoulder blade, and I began to weep.

The day before Ralph got married, Henry knocked on the door and asked him for a jump on his car. Ralph put on his slippers and made his way out, the screen door bumping behind him, found Henry over his little white car; brown skin beat against metal, quick brown hands on clamps, the engine woke up and came alive. Ralph shook Henry’s hand and got two cigarettes, one for him and another for his mother, went inside and lay with his girl on his mother’s polka-dotted couch. He laid his head on her lap, wrapping her dyed yellow strands of hair around his fingers while she flipped channels, the stereo blaring, his mother walking in and out of the apartment with boxes and garbage bags, in tiny shorts and a tank top, her tiny pale frame humming, singing, and then Ralph felt his boy kick from inside his girl, that rounded out part of her; his boy kicked him on his head. His girl laughed clear as a bell, and Ralph laughed, and the TV screen glowed, and his mother was going in and out of the tiny dark.

My mom is chemicals. She twirls around, and smokes that rock, she smokes that shit. My mom puts on the old school station, and she twirls in the mirror, and she listens to “Candy Man” by the Mary Jane Girls, and she lights the tip of her cigarette, and she still smells like smoke and soap. My mom and Henry were like twins, but only for a little while. I still watch his wife and wonder. Once in a while. Watch her swish to her car, while I sit on the wall, with the cold blowing from my mouth, sometimes she smiles and sometimes she doesn’t. Henry always says what’s up to me, though. The other day, we smoked against the wall. He laughed at me and said that my voice was changing. It’s good that my mom got that car, so now we can go anywhere we want to. She’s teaching me to drive, even though I’m only twelve and can’t get a license. Made me sit on last year’s phone book and cussed out every person on the road that gave us a dirty look. But most of the time she drives, and I watch her tiny white hands on the wheel, watch her tiny feet pump the pedal, watch her huarache, the chipped pink polish on her toes, she smiles at me when we get to the light. I smile back with the green light, and she lets the car glide.

Ralph had asked Nikki to meet up at the courthouse, and now he was trying to count out the time it took his ex-wife to get to her car, count out her tiny steps, her blonde hair pulled back severe. They had only caught eyes a few times, her lawyer a small woman too, a small brown woman in a navy blue skirt set. Ralph sat outside the courthouse, sipping the soda he bought from a truck, people walked by like tiny insects; he felt the soda buzz in his throat; he could not figure out why he bought that soda; the outside air chilled him, and his hands played with the aluminum. His fingers crushed that soda can, the same fingers that signed away his only child. His only child he signed away, in black ink, in curvy script, those same fingers he opposed, those same fingers had betrayed him, they crushed that can like a wad of wax. Soon, he thought, soon it would be so cold that you could not see.

He watched the people walking by, lawyers and county workers, vendors selling things from bicycles and cardboard boxes, and that air cut him, and he began to remember the time he stood outside his apartment shivering, waiting for his mother and Henry to drive up, so they could go to Christmas Tree Lane. That night they went, they rolled down all the windows, car after car humming down Van Ness, all those lights on big fancy houses, old houses, those houses glowed with the light, the greens the blues the reds. Ralph would not go unless he could sit up front, the three of them laughed in the cold black night, and Ralph felt he could claw out those lights and put them in his room, hang them in the ceiling sky. Ralph could feel Nikki walk up and he felt himself shiver, like when his mother said that night, let’s go, when he heard Henry’s car come up the driveway, felt its engine humming, she said Let’s go, let’s go, she said, she said, let’s go.

 


Monique Quintana holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno, where she was the president of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association. She is a Squaw Valley Writers Fellow, and was the Senior Associate Fiction Editor of The Normal School literary magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Huizache, Bordersenses, Mount Island Review, Lunch Ticket, Ragazine, Madcap Review, and Heather Press, among others. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of razorhousemagazine.com.

Face

The woman I love comes back from the war with part of her face blown off and a surgery scheduled for Tuesday. I get drunk in a hotel room down the street from where she’ll be medevaced tomorrow, then type the words face and reconstructive and IED into the Google search bar. I vomit nine mini bottles worth of whiskey after the first image loads.

The doctors are elaborately poised. They are unfazed by my wife’s injuries, almost eager in their enthusiasm to build her a custom-made face from her own spare parts. It’s a godsend, one doctor says, that she lost the parts she did and kept the hardest ones to surgically recreate like the nose, eyelids and tongue. I nod fervently, tamp down my desire to reach out and yank those dirty words right out of his throat. I learn quickly that there are degrees of awful when it comes to having shrapnel pilot its way through the softest parts of the body. She’s lucky not to need a whole new face inherited from a whole new person. The doctors nowadays are demigods with robot parts and they are saving everyone. Peel off and suture on, pleat and tuck until the mask makes for a convincing fit. If my wife were here, awake and not in desperate need of leftover parts, she’d be fascinated. We’d be fascinated together.

This is all good, one surgeon says. Yeah, good, I say and the word tastes like broken vows in the full of my mouth. The most impressive medical advancements of the decade and they are born of incinerated bone and evaporated flesh, an angry nation, and the public’s incessant fascination with the catastrophic effects of the IED. This war has turned out medical titans, true pioneers, trailblazers of reconstructive surgery and all it cost was one soldier’s face and then a hundred more. Our son is fifteen and today I decide he will not grow up to do his mother’s job.

Yesterday, in a German hospital, a chemical wash was used to scrape my wife’s face and prepare it for surgery. The likely audio of the event bats itself around my skull, presses in on the cavities behind my eyeballs and pulses with my every breath. I want to hurt someone: the U.S. Military, jihadi extremists, the punks who underappreciate my wife’s job, the political thugs who keep sending her places, the very woman I love who feels a sense of duty I was not built to understand. I’m carrying a photo of her in my pocket but no one asks to see it. There is an enthusiasm that is radiating off the doctors and it is settling around me. I shrug it off but consider it a necessary trait for successful navigation of the inside hollow of my wife’s face. I ask if they need anything from me. I mean my mouth or my eyes, my skin or rapidly beating heart, but they think I mean my consent to which they enthusiastically nod and lead me to a room with HR.

They put my wife under anesthesia for the helicopter transport, and so it’s best if she goes right into surgery. I haven’t seen her for eleven months, and yet I feel a zealous relief over skipping the part where I have to look into the black crushing hole of her face and be grateful more wasn’t taken.

During the surgery, I sit in my rental car and cry far away from the measured eyes of the commanding officer that escorted her stateside.

Afterwards, the gauze and the bandages cradle her face like a tire swing. The new parts of her are bright red and tight like a sunburn or the innermost cut of a beef steak. She’s got slabs of her thigh and calf nestled and hydrated along the planes of her face. Her fibula has been sawed, sanded and perfectly fit to the missing space where her jaw once was. She is the grown-up edition of the erector set, the almost bionic woman, yet still a vet whose face will be kept out of the spotlight and off posters.

Obviously this is a better version than the one right before. Even with the swelling, she looks like a person. She’s still under the anesthetic, but one of her surgeons tells me she did well. I tell him how much she hates to be given credit for things she didn’t do. He suggests instead we give her credit for her brave acts before and with that I can hardly disagree. The doctor walks over to her, closer than I’ve gotten, and peers at the wires holding her jaw shut. He’s already onto the part where she is one day able to speak normally and eat normally and breathe normally, and I’m still on the part where a hazy dust in a desert I’ve never been to is now full of the parts of her I like best.

I still haven’t told our kids.

When he leaves and it’s finally just the two of us, I stare. She looks different. Underneath the hinges and newly sewn on parts, there is an unfamiliarity to the structure of her features. I knew she might lose things in the war. Here we are nearly at the end of it, so I’ve read up on the modern military family and gotten familiar with the side-effects of a spouse returning alive, returning dead, with arms and without. The decade-long PSA on PTSD, the introduction of the prosthetic that allows a soldier to remain on duty, the constant news coverage that keeps even the most removed viewer informed, and not once did I think to prepare myself or my children for the return of a woman who looks remarkably different than the one we sent away.

When she wakes up, we stare at each other. The space between us is wide and deep until she hits the morphine drip and is swept away into whatever dreamland the lionhearted belong.

I am not inclined towards brave acts. I feel no obligation to save all the children instead of just mine. My version of benevolence applies mostly to those within an arm’s reach. I’m ill-suited for martyrdom, and if at the end of my life my kids and wife are the only ones to consider me brave, I’ll have won the big prize.

I fly home a day early and prepare the kids for a mother they sometimes forget. My youngest suggests we take down all the pictures so Mom doesn’t feel like some other mother was here before. Her homecoming is rich with unintentional slights, everyone’s sensitivities high and active. She makes a

cyborg joke but her speech comes out a forced, awful hiss through her wired-shut jaw. I watch my daughter’s face as she realizes things will be exactly as hard as I promised.

At home, my wife starts a regimen geared towards fixing, stabilizing and reintroducing her to a world not filled with improvised explosive devises. More surgeries are scheduled for later dates and I wonder if each one will take her further from the original prototype. I watch her watch herself. She pries with uncertain fingers, traces the foreign dips and planes that don’t match up to memory. For weeks I get phone calls from people I hardly remember. One is confused, thinks she made it out of Afghanistan fine but then got shot in the face or bombed on the interstate. I tell him we still have thousands of troops deployed. He tsks like he doesn’t believe it, and I shout all the things I’ve not been saying into the recess of the dial tone. The mantles are empty and the walls are full of rectangular 8x10s where the paint has not been sun-bleached. The home feels barren and unforgiving; my son has amassed all the removed pictures and is hoarding them underneath his bed.

I think of her face, the one that she’s missing, even though I know I’m not supposed to. So many soldiers return without whole body parts, big chunks of them that cannot be drilled in, glued back, licked and stuck together. I chose to stay home. I chose not to suit up and gun up and protect everything I love. I sent my wife to do it instead, and everyone called us progressive even though their faces said otherwise.

Occasionally, going to and from the bathroom in the dead of night, we pass each other. The light from the hall will catch the slope of her cheek, the angle of her chin, and the difference is just enough to startle me. I’m being intruded upon by an intruder. She is unrecognizable and I think maybe they gave me someone else to take home. Maybe beneath the hints of her, the buried contortions that remind me of her is some long marred, mournful stranger.

Underneath the cool sheets of our bed, she lets me touch her, just barely. With shaky hands I discover the curve of her hip is exactly as I remember it. I interlay the image of the stranger face and the familiar hip so they are right on top of one another. If I wait and am patient, eventually they are bound to fuse.


Jacqueline Smith is a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Previously her work has appeared in The Writing Disorder and Hypertrophic Literary.

Double You

I decided to make a list of everything I knew about the Jonathans.

 

The one in the cubicle to my left had glasses and a comb-over. The one in the house across the street was a bit younger, with smaller glasses and darker hair.

 

At least, that’s what I thought at first.

 

I was at home one afternoon, a Saturday, reading the newspaper. The Jonathan from work rang my doorbell. I was surprised when I saw who it was. In all these years, it was the first time we had seen each other without our neckties.

 

“Why are you here?” I said. Or I wanted to say. I could remember no pressing engagement.

 

Still, we had to work in close proximity. I didn’t want to make him angry or uncomfortable. So I said, “Why are you here?” in a more welcoming tone than I might have otherwise.

 

“Would you like me to mow your lawn?” he asked. A lawnmower was already at the bottom of my front steps, ready to go. Under the comb-over, he was sweating. “I was in the neighborhood.”

 

I walked just over the threshold and looked down the street in either direction. I’m not sure what I was looking for. A getaway car, perhaps?

 

To imagine where I was, draw two vertical, parallel lines on a piece of paper. The line on the right, the eastern line, should be blue, because it is the river. Use colored pencils if you have them available.

 

Further west is the line on the left, the road. The road leads from the center of this tiny town, where our office is situated, and runs directly north—parallel, as I stated earlier, to the river. (You may wish to draw a star or other marker at the bottom of the road, denoting the city center.)

 

Up to the north, about an inch above the city center and perpendicular to the main road, start drawing several lines, all parallel to each other. Think of a comb, laid on its side, with the teeth heading west. These are the numbered streets.

 

You should start at the bottom with 1st Street and proceed all the way up to 15th. I myself live at 1525 11th Street North. There are similarly numbered streets below the town that make up its southern end. (If you would like to indicate my house on the 11th Street that is north of town, please do so at this time.)

 

We should get back to this work Jonathan, though, the one who was standing on my porch. He lived somewhere south of the city; I was sure of it. He had the rumpled clothes and sad demeanor of someone who belonged on the bottom of a map.

 

“You want to mow my lawn?” I asked. This was not the most bizarre exchange we’d ever had, so I was less incredulous than you might expect.

 

“I thought you might have been sick,” he said. “I mean . . .” He stepped back and gestured at the neighbors’ lawns, lingering for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time with his arm in the direction of the across-the-street Jonathan.

 

Young Jonathan of the dark hair and small glasses just happened to be kneeling outside. If you knew him, you’d know that this was not an unlikely coincidence.

 

He had a trowel and a pair of hedge-clippers nearby, but at this particular moment, he was painstakingly rearranging the formation of his decorative stones using the fingertips of his gardening gloves.

 

Unlike my lawn, which had unruly patches of crabgrass, his lawn was a healthy, luxurious green, newly shorn and shining in the sunlight. I often woke, on Saturday mornings, to the sound of his mower.

 

“If it would make you happy,” I said to the work Jonathan, and went back inside the house. This was how I responded to many of his work requests as well, so he was not unused to my calm and agreeable demeanor.

 

“Obsessed with lawns,” I wrote on my list. I had drawn two columns, the one on the left for the first Jonathan (work Jonathan) and the one on the right for the newer version, who had moved in across the street only one year earlier. I added this comment on both sides of the vertical line separating these two columns.

 

You may have drawn your map of the town on a loose sheet of paper, and that is not a problem. You may continue to work using this method.

 

However, if you decide to make your own copy of my list about the Jonathans, etc., then it may be simpler to collect all of your materials in one place. If you don’t already have one, you might want to consider investing in a good notebook for this purpose.

 

So I added the comment about the lawns to my list, and I went back to the newspaper. As you can imagine, it was difficult to concentrate with the noise of the mower in the background. I finally had to get up and go into the back room to avoid the one Jonathan sweating back and forth past my picture window and the other arranging stones as though his life depended on it.

 

At work on Monday, the cubicle Jonathan came to speak to me. He didn’t mention the weekend. Had I finished my paperwork: that is what he wanted to talk about now.

 

Up close, as he was speaking, I couldn’t help noticing that his teeth protruded a bit from his upper lip, and it was difficult for him to close his mouth all the way. Is there a name for that? I felt certain that a dentist would have a strong, scientific-sounding term for it.

 

(In your notebook, perhaps you should make a list of words. Add “maxillary prognathism” as a starting point for your research.)

It was strange, though, about his teeth. I had never noticed this before.

 

When I got home, Jonathan (neighbor Jonathan) was dragging his trash bin out to the curb. The trash would not be collected for another 12.5 hours by my calculations, but darned if that man wasn’t on top of things.

 

“Howdy!” he said. (Howdy?) “Would you like me to bring out your trash?”

 

Now, I am not as young and virile as I once was. But I am somewhere between the two Jonathans in age, and I’ve kept reasonably fit, if I do say so myself. The bin is on wheels, for goodness’ sake!

 

“I thought there might be something wrong,” he added, seeming to understand that he might have committed a faux pas. “You know, since you stopped mowing your lawn.”

 

The lawn again!

 

I itched to write something down, but I’d already written “obsessed with lawns” in my notebook. That had seemed thorough enough at the time. Now it was just begging for an asterisk or two.

 

Something about this neighbor Jonathan seemed familiar. It was the teeth again. Things balanced out better on his face, but there was a faint similarity.

 

The more I looked around, the more everything seemed out of place.

 

“Whose car is that in your driveway?” I asked suspiciously.

 

Jonathan took a long time turning around and looking. He shrugged. “I have a new roommate.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

He seemed surprised by this. “Well, nice seeing you,” he said.

 

I watched him walk back to his yard. He paused over the flower beds, tucking stray leaves and petals back in order. When he went inside, the yard looked so perfect it might have been made out of plastic.

 

~

 

29 June. 8:03 a.m.

Leaving my house when I saw W.J. leaving the neighbor’s house across the street. (Is it possible that his hair is growing in a little bit? Can balding be reversed?)

 

Work Jonathan: Well, fancy meeting you here! (Awkward laugh.)

Me: Why would I be meeting you?

Jonathan: Wait, no. I didn’t . . . I just meant that we’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other now that I moved in with Jonathan.

Me: What?

Jonathan: We met when I was mowing your lawn.

Me: My lawn?

Jonathan: Maybe we should start carpooling.

 

~

 

All the way to work I replayed this scene in my mind.

 

The Jonathan from work met the gardening Jonathan and struck up a friendship, and now we are all neighbors. This explanation struck me as odd.

 

I sat in the parking lot until I saw the work Jonathan go inside the building. We were both early, so I could afford a few minutes to let him get settled and immersed in his paperwork. When I was sure enough time had elapsed, I could duck inside.

Oblivious as ever, Jonathan seemed unaware that I was avoiding him. Just before lunch, he popped his head into my cubicle.

 

“Would you like a sandwich from the deli? My treat.” He was smiling and I could see those teeth again.

 

Had he had them first, or the other Jonathan? I could no longer remember. They seemed to be morphing into the same person.

 

One of them wanted to buy me a sandwich. One of them wanted to take out his trash far too early. When I got home, they were both standing in the driveway across the street. They stood next to each other, watching as I got out of my car.

 

Hadn’t one of them been taller before? The work one had definitely slimmed down in some way. His little pot belly was almost gone. They both had the same glasses and a faint five-o’clock shadow. It had gotten to a point where I was having trouble telling them apart.

 

I had stopped at the store on the way home, and they penned me in as I was pulling a heavy bag out of the car.

 

They were bantering back and forth, and one said lightly, “You’re the only person who’s ever said that to me.” Their voices had even changed, both deeper and with a more pronounced Minnesota accent.

 

The one that I thought was work Jonathan didn’t have his sad look anymore. I decided to make a note of that when I got inside.

 

“Do you need any help?” the neighbor asked.

 

“I like to do things myself,” I said.

 

As if he hadn’t heard, he said, “We should have you over this weekend.”

 

“That’s a great idea,” his sidekick chimed in.

 

They both looked at me owlishly, their big eyes unblinking behind their glasses.

 

One of them was wearing a necktie that matched my own. “You’re practically a Jonathan,” he said, pointing, and the other one laughed.

 

Startled, I said, “I’m not a Jonathan!”

 

The laughing one sobered up right away. “Of course not,” he amended. He tipped his head to one side, considering. “It’s so strange, though,” he said. “You’ve always reminded me of someone I know.”

 

The other Jonathan nodded. They both studied me as though I were some kind of unusual botanical specimen.

 

“Well, I should get inside,” I said.

 

I shouldered past them and unlocked the front door of my house. I could hear their chitchat behind me, growing fainter as they walked back across the street.

 

When I was safely inside, I set down my bags and locked the door. I peeked through the curtains in my living room. They were still outside, just a couple of nondescript middle-aged men with dark hair and glasses, pulling on their gardening gloves and getting to work.

 

______________________________________________

Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens. Her fourth chapbook is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Chagrin River Review, Fiction Southeast, Toad, 100 Word Story, and Gnarled Oak, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in a limited edition anthology on myth and magic from Sugared Water and Porkbelly Press. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.

Té de Canela (SPRING 2016 FICTION CONTEST WINNER)

Angela studied her tía Lupe’s brown eyes, noticing how the thin lines around them eased outwards like sun rays. The wrinkles above her forehead, which yesterday cracked and dried her withering skin, now soften and brighten her face. And even though her tía’s eyes drowned in tears when she spoke to her comadres, their light enthralled Angela.

 

She had watched her aunt hold court in the dining room most Sundays since she had moved in to live with her and had often wondered why the women gathered there. Angela had always considered the women chismosas and her tía’s house the epicenter of the East L.A’s gossip.

 

But this was the first time Angela had been allowed to sit-in on one of her tía’s sessions and she was beginning to understand the pull her tía had on the women from the neighborhood. Angela had watched them gather there for years, had glimpsed at the gathering group through the window when she played in the front yard with her prima. And then when her mother left her under her tia Lupe’s guardianship, her curiosity for them grew.

 

Angela watched as her tía took the seat at the head of the table, basking in the women’s watchful gaze. Loss suited her, Angela thought.

#

The women were at the table now, her tía’s grand cherry-wood vitrina a backdrop. Inside its wood-frame and glass doors were pieces of the family’s history on display: photographs of baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, church weddings, and a framed obituary. There were leather-bound Bibles that had been acquired over time for various reasons; there were also candles and small statues of saints and other Catholic figurines. On its own shelf was a battery-powered Virgen de Guadalupe with its blinking red, green, and white lights around the virgin’s veil. The lights blinked to the room’s placid tempo, “la calma después de la tormenta,” her tía would have said if she had been herself. The small dining room was darker than usual, perhaps dimmed for the occasion.

 

Angela was perched at the table waiting to hear the end of her tía’s story. But every time a woman arrived and joined them at table, her tía would pause to pour the woman a cup of cinnamon tea. In spite of her grief, her tía was a good host, making each of the women feel noticed, even though the evening was about her.

 

“How old was the girl?” a woman with short puffed-up hair asked.

 

“Gaby? She was 25,” said Lupe.

 

“My age,” Angela said, surprising herself. She wasn’t sure what had prompted her to speak, probably her impatience. She looked down at her cup and noticed flecks of cinnamon sticks floating in the maroon-tinged water. She didn’t know the women very well, in spite of knowing them for several years; their hair had thinned, their waists were larger, but the way they looked at her tía had never changed.

 

“She was so young. Pobresita,” said the woman with the red puffed-up hair.

 

Angela’s tía nodded and finally resumed her story. “There was a brown casket at the center of the room, except it was bright and shimmered like gold. And then I noticed that there were people in the room, some standing near the casket, crying, others talking. A woman dressed in white approached me and told me that the casket was for my son.”

 

Her tía paused.

 

The women gasped and one of them said, “Dios mío,” and crossed herself. The others crossed themselves, too, except Angela and her tía.

 

The women remained silent. The sound of boiling water from the kitchen made its way into the dining room, and because the aroma of cinnamon had permeated the small house they hadn’t noticed that the tea was ready. The sound of laughter of the women’s children playing in the backyard became distinct. Angela wondered if the women were pulled out of the moment. She wondered if their children’s laughter caused them to think about their husbands and about the dinner they had left for them on the stove, and how at the end of the night they would return home, tuck their children in bed, tidy-up their home before going to sleep. She wondered if the women would lay in bed that night and think about her tía.

 

On the window, Angela noticed the blinking of the virgin’s small lights, a reflection. Its steady rhythm kept time, and caused her to feel time inching forward.

 

“I couldn’t see her face,” Lupe said. “I asked her: ‘how do you know that?’” Her eyes and nostrils widening with anger. “She had no answer for me, but I knew with certainty that she was telling me the truth.”

 

“When did you have this dream?” the woman who had arrived last asked, as she leaned backwards to adjust the blanket wrapped around the sleeping baby in her arms; her nieto.

“Mid-September, I think,” Lupe said for the third time that evening.

 

“It was a sign, a warning,” said the woman who had arrived last, her nieto still asleep.

 

“I was afraid for my son. And I tried to tell my husband about it, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my dream. He fears those dreams,” tía Lupe said.

 

Angela wanted to roll her eyes at the women. She didn’t believe in their superstitions or care much for their conclusions about her tía’s dream. If her tía had had such a dream, it was because the family had known for some time that Gaby was sick and that death was her shadow. But Angela couldn’t tell the women this because she didn’t want to be excluded.

 

None of the women understood what Gaby had gone through or knew about the chemo trips or the dreaded doctor visits. Angela had been there, had kept Gaby’s secret. It enraged Angela to hear the women refer to her friend as pobresita. There was nothing poor or pitiful about Gaby.

 

“I think the tea’s ready,” Lupe said, beginning to rise from the chair.

 

“I’ll bring it, tía,” Angela said. Her tía thanked her with a smile and asked her to bring more sugar.

 

Angela pushed her seat away from the table, as far as it would go. She had squeezed into the corner seat, the vitrina behind her and a wall on her left. The women had scooted Angela toward the corner seat when they took their usual places at the table. Two women sat on her right, the one with the puffed-up hair and her tía Lupe’s cousin. They rose to let Angela out, their movements were slow, but their presence thunderous. Standing near them, as she passed them, Angela suddenly felt small and out of place.

 

She walked into the kitchen toward the stove. Angela opened a cupboard and noticed on the highest shelf two clear zip-lock bags filled with cinnamon sticks. The bags were crammed-in next to the dried chiles and hojas de maíz. She took a jar with raw sugar from the first shelf and placed it on the azulejo countertop. Angela realized that her tía had been preparing a lot of cinnamon tea those days.

 

A few months prior, her tía had heard Doctora Isabela on the radio discussing the health benefits of eating calf liver. Her tía tuned in religiously. Some time after that, her tía had convinced Angela to drive her to the nearest Whole Foods, which was an hour north of East L.A., so that she could buy organic calf liver. And now Angela wondered if Doctora Isabela had played a role on the sudden appearance of cinnamon in her tía’s kitchen.

 

After closing the cupboard, Angela walked over to the stove, where the brooding tea kettle sat on a dark stove-grill-top, and she turned off the stove’s only blaze. She picked up the kettle by its handle with her right hand and reached over for the jar of sugar with her left, and walked toward the room where the women sat. She caught strands of fleeting words as she approached the kitchen door. The words were familiar: corrupción, violencia, and presidente Peña Nieto, but as she pushed the door open, the women’s voices hushed. She didn’t understand why every time they talked about México it was a big secret.

 

Angela tensed and feigned a smile. She placed the tea kettle and glass jar on the mantle. In procession, the three women rose from the table to allow Angela to take her seat at the end. The woman with the puffed-up hair, who had never directed a word at Angela, placed her heavy hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. Angela read “pobresita” in her eyes and it made her angry.

 

Tía Lupe refilled every cup on the table and resumed her story. “So, I asked the woman in white: ‘how do you know that?’ And the woman in white said, ‘I just do. And if you want the deaths in your family to stop, you have to give them cinnamon tea.’ And this was back in September when my brother was sick. His high cholesterol had knocked him unconscious at work. He gave us quite the scare.”

 

“But the woman said that the casket was for your son,” a soft-spoken woman said. She sat across from Angela.

 

“I know,” said tía Lupe. “And for months, before Gaby was hospitalized, I was afraid to answer the phone, afraid that it would be a call from a hospital or the police. It wasn’t until the girl was hospitalized that I discovered the true meaning of the dream. But by then it was too late.”

 

“You can’t blame yourself,” the woman with the soft voice said, and the others agreed by nodding. Tears streamed down tía Lupe’s face. The women sat in silence for some time.

 

Angela didn’t understand why none of the women went to comfort her aunt, how they could watch her fall apart like that. She wanted to go to her tía, to hug her and cry with her, but she was in the corner. Eventually, a woman with streaks of silver in her long black hair placed her large hand over Lupe’s freckled hand, making it disappear beneath her squeeze. Their gold bracelets clinking as one hand lulled the other.

 

“If I had known sooner, I could have done something,” tía Lupe said, her chin trembling. “I could have slapped some sense into my son and finally get him to marry Gaby. She wouldn’t have died from a broken heart. He knew she was dying. Why couldn’t he just marry the girl, at least to appease her before death.”

 

Angela held back her tears. Anger continued to stir inside of her. Angela’s cousin, Victor, had been with Gaby for six years. He had left her when Gaby was diagnosed because he hadn’t been able to deal with the news. During remission, the two were back together.

 

Why Gaby had forgiven Victor, Angela couldn’t understand. One day, Gaby had told Angela that she knew that everyone was watching her and that God would want her to lead by example. Instead of being sad, she had decided to be strong. Instead of being angry, she had decided to be joyful. Instead of giving up, she had decided to fight back. And forgiving Victor was what God would have wanted her to do.

 

“No one knows what might have been going through his head,” the woman who had arrived last said, as she rocked the baby in her arms. “I’m sure he suffered too.”

 

“But this will weigh on his conciencia for the rest of his life,” tía Lupe said. The women were pensive.

 

Angela repeated the woman’s words: he suffered too. But how? Her cousin had pretended that everything was okay. The cancer had returned and yet, he continued to take Gaby to dinner on the weekends, and bring her home for the holidays. Shouldn’t Gaby have wanted to be with her own family? The two had spent so much time together those last months that Angela was beginning to feel like she didn’t know Gaby anymore.

#

The front door opened, no one had heard the fumbling of keys. Victor stepped in the room and saw them at the table. He must have forgotten it was Sunday.

 

“Buenas noches,” he said to the women. They replied, some with a nod, others feigned a smile. “I’m sorry. I thought no one was home. The house looked dark from outside.”

 

Angela wondered if Victor suspected that he was the topic of conversation. She looked at his eyes, they looked swollen, and she wondered if had been crying. He didn’t cry at the wake nor the funeral.

 

“Te sirvo té, mijo?” tía Lupe said to her son.

 

“No, thank you,” he said. “I’m going to sleep. Have a good night, señoras.”

 

“Good night, mijo” tía Lupe said.

 

Angela wanted to get up from the table, she wanted to get ready for bed, too. It was still early, but the sun had set several hours ago; it was that time of the year, when it gets dark early.

 

“You know, something similar happened to my husband’s brother,” the woman who had held tía Lupe’s hand said. “His girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, but it was too late to treat it. So my husband’s brother married her, no hesitation.”

 

Angela wondered why the woman had said that. It didn’t make her tía feel better. The women became quiet, Angela saw their jaw muscles tighten, as they pressed their lips. Only their eyes moved to each other’s.

 

“What I mean is that perhaps your son didn’t want to marry her out of pity. If it didn’t come from the heart, that’s what it would have been. Pity,” the woman said.

Some nodded. Angela agreed, but wondered why her cousin had not wanted to marry Gaby. What was he afraid of?

 

“Lupe, maybe she’s right,” said the woman who had arrived late, the baby now stirring in her arms. “You can’t ask someone to make a commitment they’re not ready to make, no matter the circumstances.”

 

Some women agreed, their nods more assured than before.

 

The baby began to cry and the woman who arrived last pulled out a bottle from her bag and fed the baby. Once her nieto had quieted, she continued, “We can’t sit here and pretend to know everything. We can’t change what happened. Whatever happened, it was God’s plan.”

 

“Gaby died with a broken heart. He knew she would die,” tía Lupe said. She raised her gaze from the empty cup in front of her to face the women, her gaze moving from face to face. Angela could see the sincerity in her tía’s eyes. She had loved Gaby.

 

The women began to fuss at the table. The room smelled like cinnamon. Tía Lupe lifted the tea kettle and offered the women refills. Some pushed their cups to be refilled and others shook their heads.

 

The laughter of children had quieted and Angela wondered where they were. She wanted to get up to check on them, but she was stuck. She looked at her cup, at the flecks of cinnamon that had settled at the bottom. Angela picked up her spoon and stirred the tea, slow at first and then faster. She removed the spoon and watched as the cinnamon flecks swirled and swirled and then settled.

 

______________________________________________

Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. She is Senior Managing Editor at The Offing magazine, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Editor at indicia. Her work has appeared in Verdad Magazine and American Mustard. She teaches at Golden West College and East Los Angeles College.

Crown of the Valley (FICTION CONTEST 2016 HONORABLE MENTION)

Every time I close my eyes, we’re back in Haruto’s living room with the other JPL scientists smelling like maple bacon and scrambled eggs, Kennedy Space Center spelled in white block lettering across the bottom of the television screen, a cartoonish yellow CNN Live logo in the upper left corner. Reporter Tad Bradshaw leans in toward the camera, beige suit jacket and a bad comb-over: “The Challenger is finally getting ready to leave KSC, its launch delayed several times due to weather and mechanical problems.” A space shuttle balances upright against a sky flickering between pale gray and a midnight blue, Haruto’s TV an old model, the sound not great. The cameras pan between the wings, the fuselage, the orbiter. The voice of the launch controller finishes the countdown and the rocket blasts up into the air, a wide, skewering curve into the clouds, a blinding orange horsetail of heat spewing from the engines. The shuttle goes into a planned roll, spiraling away into an increasingly dark purple as the sun’s light fades in the upper atmosphere, a skirt of condensation forming as the shuttle breaks the sound barrier. Tad Bradshaw comments on the weather in Cape Canaveral, the icicles that formed on the launch pad before takeoff.

 

A faint final transmission from Commander Scobee as ashy plumes obscure the body of the shuttle: “Roger, go at throttle up—”

 

And in that moment, all of human life is compressed into a breath, any nascent whiff of hope quashed by erupting flames, the shuttle incinerated, diaphanous trails of smoke branching out from the bulkhead like the horns of a devil, shooting stars of titanium hurtling toward the earth.

 

“Oh God…this is not standard, this is not something that is planned, of course.” Tad’s voice shakes against his attempted neutrality. Smoldering white vapors slash across the horizon as one of the rocket boosters careens into the ocean. Haruto turns off the television. Silence. There is no question. There is no way the crew could have survived the explosion.

 

Every time I close my eyes, and sometimes when I’m not closing my eyes at all, I can’t help thinking that could have been you. That could have been you up there.

*          *          *

 

Growing up in Rankin, a small town in West Texas with a population just under one thousand, the only time of day I liked was the night, because then I could imagine there was something more beautiful, more interesting, more exotic in the distance than the parched dirt and the jagged rocks and the scruff of the desert underbrush. It was the sort of place where there was a town dance on the Fourth of July, everybody dressed in their cowboy best as they swayed and swooned to the bluegrass plucking. It was the sort of place where Creationism was taught in school and nobody ever questioned it, where God Almighty reigned supreme and we were all born sinful, haunted by dreams of fire and brimstone. It was the sort of place where the only vegetables you ate during winter were canned, the sort of place where girls wore dresses and boys wore pants, where women became housewives and men went off to work in the nearby oil fields.

 

I’d never seen another woman like you before I came to Los Angeles, course and lanky, dark brown hair in a crew cut, small tawny eyes with a microscopic focus, chunky black-framed glasses. I’d seen other women who were masculine, sure, but in a salt-of-the-earth kind of way, not, well, sexy, boyish, this smirk on your face every time we bumped into each other in the lab.

 

Later you’d tell me you’d been out since you were fourteen. Your parents didn’t mind. You’d grown up next to the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake. Your parents’ best friends were Uncle Thomas and Uncle Peter and Uncle Leonard and Uncle Frederick, all, of course, uncles in the loosest sense, beautiful men in immaculate suits who spoke of fashion design and erotic literature over the Thanksgiving dinner table. Your stepmother was known to have long conversations on the phone with a woman named Lucy, conversations during which she would lock the door and her breathing grew heavy. We didn’t have such things in Rankin. I was my father’s daughter. I was some man’s future wife. Before I met you, I’d imagined I would be alone forever. I didn’t think that something like us could exist.

*          *          *

 

Shooting stars of titanium hurtling toward the earth.

Droplets of your blood a waxy bruised color in the furthest reaches of the upper

atmosphere.

*          *          *

 

Before I arrived at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all I knew about Los Angeles was from the movies. My favorite was Gidget, the 1959 surfer film starring Sandra Dee. I watched Gidget over and over again, initially when it played at the local theatre in Rankin, then on tape when I bought my very first VCR. I dreamed I was Gidget, the spunky tomboyish surfer girl who joins the Kahuna’s all-male surfer gang. I even liked the bronzed, broad-chested Moondoggie, almost enough to actually want to kiss him, and I wished I would someday receive a class ring as a demonstration of someone’s unwavering affection. I wanted to imagine a world where all that mattered was the sun and the waves and the surf, where everyone was attractive and happy and everything worked out in the end.

 

CalTech, though, was nothing like that. The labs seemed like something out of a futuristic science fiction film, and pale, ghostly nerds roamed about campus, conversing about civil engineering and organic chemistry. The surrounding area of Pasadena was not the Los Angeles I’d imagined, either, the neoclassical Renaissance spires spinning above City Hall, the looming craftsman mansions like something out of Poe, the immigrant communities from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Armenia, the Bloods and Crips alongside the Doo Dah Parade and football tournaments at the Rose Bowl. There was nothing wrong with this Los Angeles, not really, but I wasn’t sure it was enough. I wasn’t sure that it could save me.

*          *          *

            Gasping for breath,

blood and mucus filling your lungs,

a piece of aluminum shrapnel severing your space suit,

slashing across your jugular vein.

*          *          *

 

It was because of Haruto that we went on our first date. He was the one who had assigned us both to the Galileo orbiter, you as an astrophysics fellow, me as a fluids engineer. We worked late one evening. You suggested we go out for a drink. We snaked through rush hour on the 134, sifting down through the Hollywood Hills in your burnt orange Volvo station wagon. I had never been to West Hollywood before. I didn’t know what it was.

 

“Let’s go to The Palms,” you said. “I think you’ll like it.”

 

I stepped inside, underneath a platinum stripe of fluorescence, the shadow of a palm tree stenciled onto the sandy-colored concrete. The bar was dark, long and narrow and hazy with smoke, a string of rope lights hanging behind the bottles, Janis Joplin’s “Trouble in Mind” blaring over the speakers. There were women everywhere, young women and old women, women of all different ethnicities, dancing and caressing and holding hands. A couple waved hello to you. I ordered the most sophisticated drink I could think of—an amaretto sour.

 

You told me a story about how when you were six years old, your parents had driven you to the beach one day, right out by the Santa Monica Pier. Your older brothers dove into the foamy surf and your father and mother set up long, rickety chaise lounges, reading The Godfather and Peyton Place. And you closed your eyes and navigated the dips and dunes of the sand with your bare feet, pretending that you were traversing the surface of a strange, new planet. Your toes dribbled into the edge of the water and you waded into the ocean, your eyes still closed against the bouncing, floating sensation. If you’d had it your way, you would have never been pulled down by gravity again.

 

“Look Mom! Look Dad! I’m an astronaut!” you called out, but your voice was swallowed by the vortex of a riptide, sucking you under, a sputtering black hole, stretching you like spaghetti strings as the brackish seawater poured into you and stars splattered across your eyelids. The next thing you remembered, you were on the shore and all the sunlight was blocked out by the crowd pressing in on you, your parents, your brothers, anonymous passersby. A lifeguard had his lips against yours, forcing air into your lungs, the sinuous muscles of his chest expanding and contracting.

 

“And on that day,” you told me as you finished the story, taking a long swallow of whiskey as you put your hand on mine, grinning that puckered, toothy smile of yours, “I realized two things about myself: first off, that I would always want to be an astronaut. And second? That I never wanted to feel a man’s lips against mine again.”

*          *          *

            A hissing sigh as your lungs compress,

as you fall.

A speck of flaming nothingness,

incinerated.

A single sour flake of ash lands on my tongue.

*          *          *

 

For awhile, everything was all right. You gave me books by Michel Foucault and Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, crisp, clean copies you’d bought just for me to bend and dog-ear and mark up all over the page. I’d come over to your apartment and you’d sit me down on the couch, a big billowy mass filled up with goose feathers, and you’d play me songs by Patti Smith and the B-52’s, and we’d shake our heads together in time with the music, our arms collapsing all over one another. You told me about the true history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the real father of modern rocket science, Jack Parsons, who’d first managed to wrangle research grants from CalTech to study rocketry even when such things were only considered science fiction, Parsons who had built the first static rocket, who had belonged to the Church of Thelema, had believed that magic and quantum physics were one and the same. They, along with other Thelemites, ended up moving into a large house together in Pasadena, with free drugs, orgies, and Satanist rituals, Scientology, poltergeists, and ghostly apparitions, pagan poems and masturbatory rites. We were part of something, part of something greater than ourselves. I chopped my hair short and pierced my lower lip and bought records by Bad Religion and the Dead Kennedys, yearning to become more real, more authentic, the self that I was always meant to be. But there was still a part of me that felt ill at ease, like I was just replacing one trope with another, that together we were not individuals but some sort of lesbian stereotype.

 

The Los Angeles I had dreamed of soon transformed into a noir, a Bladerunner-esque dystopia as an epidemic ravaged West Hollywood, men with Kaposi’s sarcoma wrapped under their coats, pneumatic coughs struggling in their lungs. In 1984, Michel Foucault died of AIDS in Paris, and in 1985, under a searing red October sunset, we crouched together in a prayer vigil for Rock Hudson, candles flickering, sobs choking through the air. Death was all around us, and we couldn’t do anything about it.

 

After the Challenger disaster, I couldn’t sleep for a month. I kept dreaming that you had been one of them, that you were…I couldn’t touch you anymore. I was too afraid. I didn’t want to imagine the future. Everything seemed so grim.

*          *          *

 

Every time I close my eyes, we’re back in Haruto’s living room, and in that moment, watching those starbursts of flame sizzling across the screen, I know I have to leave. It is as if Los Angeles is a film that I can no longer stand to watch.

 

I’m back in Texas now, living in College Station and teaching at Texas A&M. I like being a professor. It’s nice. Predictable. I’ve also met someone. Linda. She’s nice too. I’m happy, I think. Happy enough, at least.

 

Sometimes, when I’m in bed at night, I turn toward Linda and see your face instead, your toothy smile, wrinkles now tugging at the edges of your cheeks. I look into your eyes, and I see the universe in them. I see the stars and the Earth and in the very far distance, almost invisible, I see myself.

 

______________________________________________

Michelle Meyers is a fiction writer and playwright originally from Los Angeles, CA. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, DOGZPLOT, jmww, Juked, decomP, and Jersey Devil Press (forthcoming), among others. In addition, she has received awards and honors from Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Wigleaf. Meyers was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama’s Creative Writing program. Her debut novel, Glass Shatters, will be published in April 2016.

A Hole in the Wall

There was a hole in the wall. Dad built the place in ’56 and refused to explain it. Even though the gap seemed structurally unsound, I didn’t push the question. Mom placed a vase of sunflowers on the short ledge leaning back into the empty recess. It was illogical. The basement was dark aside from a single window well, so the flowers inevitably wilted.

 

I used to walk downstairs to see the floral arrangement’s state of decay. The blossoms looked like old women smirking in the darkness. I thought it was unusual to see flowers in shadow—the way folded petals formed drooping eyelids and mouths.

 

They would crumple and my mother would sweep them into the hole. She muttered to herself recurrently using the word fool, as she did so. Fragmented words slipped by. I knew she was referring to my father. It wasn’t uncommon.

 

Everyone seemed to agree: his coworkers at the plant, his mother who cursed the writing classes, the neighbors who sent newspaper clippings of haunted houses around Halloween. I didn’t think so though. I didn’t see what was so terrible about being a failed writer.

            ***

I’d leave the lights on in the basement. The bulbs dangled from the ceiling, as if suspended by cobwebs. Younger me thought the dull orange glow would help the petals hold their color. Mom would scold me for wasting electricity, but Dad understood. He never raised his voice.

 

I was his favorite.

 

My brother Ricky said it started when he snuck his high school girlfriend through a bedroom window. “He gave me hell for years. Said I shouldn’t be doing things like that around my baby brother.” Ricky’s ten years older than I am.

 

I never reminded him of Christmas mornings. Those Batman action figures, wool sweaters, and copies of Dad’s favorite novels. You could count the disparity on your fingers and toes.

 

When I graduated college, Dad handed me the keys to a car, not new by any stretch, but still polished and waxed. Dad only handed Ricky fifty bucks and a gruff pat on the back.

 

That was years ago.

 

Sitting in the attorney’s office, I regret the advantages he gave me. Every time I nervously shift in my seat a taut groan escapes the leather beneath my pants. Ricky places a hand upon my shoulder. He doesn’t move around in his chair, calm and assured knowing Dad didn’t leave him much. I should feel the same. Dad didn’t have much to leave. We spent the last of his money on caregivers to stay at the house overnight, prepping his meals, making sure he didn’t stumble on his way to the bathroom. His money ran out. We had to sell the house to pay for assisted living over at Shallow Brooks. He hated those adjustable beds, the droning hum that echoed whenever he accidentally hit the Up bottom.

None of that matters now. It’s been two weeks since Ricky, all his friends from the construction firm, and I wheeled my father’s casket down the aisle at St. Paul’s. The cremation took place the next morning. I kept the gold-plated urn in an oak box on the mantel, not knowing where else to put it. I knew he didn’t want to be buried next to my mother even though they had purchased a headstone before she passed. His name was already on the polished marble, but I couldn’t let him down.

 

Not in the ground, not with her. You’ll see.

 

“And how are you two doing today? Sorry we have to meet on such an occasion.” Dad’s attorney is old, mid-eighties maybe. His suit is new, well pressed, but the ruff of skin hanging over his collar shows the years falling away.

 

“We’re good, just good,” Ricky answers.

 

“We’re doing well, that’s what you mean,” I correct him.

 

Ricky gives me the look. I know it’s not the right time.

 

“As you know, your father left his will in my care several years ago when this all started,” the attorney says. “We’ve had to make a few alterations as of late, with the selling of his personal property.”

 

The two of us nod in unison.

 

For the last week I pictured one of those scenes from the movies, Dad’s face hovering behind the attorney’s head on a flat screen; if you’re seeing this then it means I’m dead…and all that. There’s nothing cinematic about the situation. The document is laid flat across his desk. He didn’t unfurl it with a snap of the wrist; it didn’t roll across the table into my lap. The document is short and to the point.

 

“Richard, may I start with you?” the man asks.

 

“Sure, lay it on me,” Ricky replies.

 

I was hoping he’d call on me to start. The chair continues to mumble beneath my movement. Ricky’s hand is no longer on my shoulder. I fidget with the button on the cuff of my shirt.

 

“Here is the watch your mother gave him when they were first engaged,” the man hands over the tarnished mechanism, gears and hands ticking in time with my heartbeat. “…and the last pair of books left in his possession.”

 

I recognize the creased bindings. Dad’s only pride was his library. He didn’t care if he drove around in some Toyota that was twenty years out of date; as long as his bookshelves sagged he was a happy man. The two were Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque by Edgar Allen Poe and a leather-bound volume of Dracula.

 

 

Dad only wrote Gothic stories. He mastered the language in college but never penned an original idea, always falling into Lovecraft’s footprints or some dark pit Poe once dredged.

 

“He intended to place his bank account in your care, but that has long since been relinquished, I’m sorry to say.” It almost seems like the attorney’s gloating, like there’s a punch line waiting around the corner. At least Dad had the intention to leave Ricky something. More than I expected anyway.

 

“Now, Kenneth, are you ready to hear what he has left in your care?” The sides of his mouth turn up.

 

Why smile?

 

“Yes, go ahead,” I reply.

 

He coughs.

 

“Originally, the house was left in your name, along with the remnants of his estate. That being liquidated, the only thing left on the list is his final request.”

 

I never heard of any last wishes. The burial thing maybe, but that’s it. I figured he was just rambling. I was only humoring his ghost by postponing the burial.

 

“Ok. What did he want?” I ask.

 

“He has requested for you to entomb the urn containing his ashes in a specific hollow located in the basement of his lifetime home.”

 

A jolt of bile climbs my throat.

 

“But we don’t own the house anymore,” I stammer, more than I can help.

 

“This is true and an unfortunate circumstance that comes with life. He penned the request seven years ago; I can’t help that. I am not required to see that it is carried out, just that the heir is notified of the desire and is clear upon its meaning.”

 

He wasn’t rambling after all.

 

I snatch the document from the attorney and quickly read over the scratched-out red lines. His final request sits at the bottom. It’s all there. Where he wants to be buried, the exact number of bricks needed to fill the hole. There’s no arguing with him. The attorney smirks. I grasp the paper and leave with Ricky following in my wake, wrist watch strapped in place, books tucked under his arm.

 

“We’ll figure this out,” he says when we get to the parking lot. “I’m sure we can just ask the people living there. Explain how it’s his last request, you know?”

 

I hate when Ricky tries to use logic.

 

“You honestly think they’re going to let us entomb Dad in their basement?”

 

No. They seemed like an honest blue collar family. Dad was an electrician, mom did something with selling carpets. They had two kids. Not the kind of people who are going to let us bury our father in their basement.

 

“Well, uh…”

 

“No, I’ll figure this out. Why’d he give you the books anyway? You don’t even read,” I say.

 

“Maybe he had hopes,” Ricky replies.

 

I shouldn’t be getting angry at him. I’ve got copies of those two anyway.

 

“You better read those.”

 

“Just bury him with mom. It’s not like he’ll find out.”

 

“You’d do that to Dad? Do you ever think about those years he worked three jobs to pay for us to go to college?”

 

“Of course I…”

 

“He’d do it for us if we asked him.”

 

“Maybe if you asked him.”

 

“Really?” I say, swinging open the door to my Corolla.

 

“Hey, I didn’t mean…Let’s talk about this.”

 

I shut the door. Lock it for good measure. He peers in as if I will crumble under his wide-eyed gaze. I point to his car, make a steering motion with my hands, and nod. He gets the point. We turn in separate directions heading home.

***

 

A week’s gone by and I haven’t spoken to Ricky. I have gone to the library and requested every book they have on brick laying. I’ve reviewed YouTube videos on how to mix mortar. There’s even a section in one of my girlfriend’s Better Homes and Gardens dedicated to masonry. The lumber yard down the road had all the supplies: the trowels, the mixing bucket, the dry powder. When I asked the guy at the gate for twenty-seven bricks, he looked at me as if I was an idiot. “We usually sell them in pallets,” he said. I didn’t offer a reply. It felt like hours passing before the man loped away to retrieve my purchase.

 

Ricky has left several messages on my answering machine. At first they’re apologetic, but he gave up on that. You got to listen to me. It’s breaking and entering. You can’t have something like that on your record. You’re a grown man. His reasons roll on and on, well-meant concerns eventually morphing into pleas, whiny and shrill.

 

I’ll call him when I’m done.

 

I empty the contents of an old duffle-bag Dad bought on one of our family vacations to Nevada. Christmas bulbs and lights roll across my kitchen floor, skittering beneath my table with the light rapping of hollow ornaments skipping over tile. I tidy up for a moment, not wanting to concern my girlfriend who’s been sleeping upstairs since eleven.

 

“Pack quickly,” I tell myself, arranging the assorted bricks in a neat formation within the bag. I forgot what dried clay feels like beneath my fingers; I haven’t touched it since I was a little kid. It’s like sandpaper worn away from constant use. I’ve been in a panic all night; the familiar sensation slows my breathing and gives me time to think. I test the weight of the bag before I put Dad’s urn inside. It’s manageable; bulky, but manageable.

 

I decide to make a detour before I get to our old house.

 

***

I drive to the cemetery where my mother is buried. Her heart shaped headstone comes into view as my headlights pass over a hill; they glint off the polished stone, distracting my already distracted eyes. I’m not used to staying up this late.

 

I’m alone with the ghosts of our town. No one visits the dead at four in the morning.

 

I park and get out. Dad’s cool container rests under my arm. If there is an afterlife, I don’t want Mom looking down and thinking I never do anything for her. Dad’s name is etched next to her own. His birth date is there, but the year of his death is absent.

 

On my knees, I take the trowel and dig a shallow trench a little to the right of where I believe Mom’s casket lies. I spoon a singular clump of my father into the hole with the tip of the trowel; it’s all that will fit inside the mouth of the urn. “Our father who art in heaven…” I recite while I replace the disturbed dirt. I try to mold the disheveled grass back into its original state, but it looks like the hole a raccoon would dig in search of grubs.

 

With my ritual finished, I get into the car, release the e-brake, and back down the narrow path lined with squat stones and reaching spires.

***

I can’t park in front of the house. Not even on the same street. It will look too suspicious at this time in the morning. The sun only slips a few fingers over the tree tops. Five roads down I leave my Corolla resting against the curb. The duffle bag is heavier than I remember and the angular edges of the bricks sway into my legs with each step. I can feel a bruise begin to rise as I turn onto my old street.

 

There is a single light on in the house. It’s in the kitchen. I’m not as focused as I should be nearing my goal. I nearly turn down the driveway when I see a figure bent over picking up the yellow plastic wrappings of the Morning Herald. I freeze.

 

“Uh, hi. Can I help you with something?” the man asks, dark blue bathrobe cinched tight about his waist.

 

“Yes, I was just…” I begin to say.

 

“Isn’t it a little early to be selling home goods,” he cuts me off, looking at my duffle-bag.

 

I look down and notice the emblazoned word Hoover stitched into the fabric. He thinks I’m selling vacuums.

 

“I always start early. You wouldn’t happen to be interested in seeing our new model by any chance?”

 

“No, I don’t think so. My wife just got a new vacuum last year. The thing still works fine, a bit noisy, but what can you do?”

 

“Buy a new one,” I say gesturing to my bag. I’m getting too into my role. He’s convinced. I can stop if I want, leave it at that, and walk away.

 

“Well, what’s the price range looking like?”

 

I make up some ridiculous figure, far too high for any reasonable person to pay for a vacuum. He ponders it, scratching the scruff lining his jaw. He tries to barter. I haggle the price of my nonexistent wares. We come to an impasse. I won’t go any lower, he won’t go any higher.

 

“Do you have a business card I can take back to my wife? We’ll talk it over and see what we can do,” the man says.

 

I fumble my hands in and out of my pockets, an imitation search.

 

“Must have left them back at headquarters,” I say.

 

“Would you mind giving me your name?”

 

“Gordon Brown,” I lie.

 

“Could you come back sometime next week, Gordon? Preferably a little later?”

 

“I’ll add you to the list,” I say, adjusting the strap over my shoulders. We part with a wave and I trudge down the next side road, slowly looping back to where my car is parked. I’ve been careless. You can’t rush things like this, I know that now.

***

 

I’m still ignoring Ricky’s calls. My girlfriend always asks what the messages are about as she sits at the kitchen table, flipping through her magazines. I make up lies, little excuses about a fight we never had. She believes me. She hasn’t commented about the bags under my eyes or the large pad of paper I now spend my nights with. I’ve drawn out the street map, labeled every shady corner.

 

I don’t want to say I’ve been spying on them, but I have. I know the family’s schedule: when they go to work, when they pick their kids up from elementary school. They’re awfully cute; not the kids, no, I’m referring to the parents. They still go on dates every Thursday evening, leaving their two daughters with a babysitter, a high school freshman by the name of Marcy. Don’t ask how I know this; I’m not always proud of my methods. This is the night I will make my deposit. The teenager is clueless. I’ve tossed acorns and rocks at the windows. She doesn’t even stir.

 

“I’m going out to visit Caleb,” I tell my girlfriend.

 

“You should ask him for that plate back. The one we left last time we had dinner over there,” she says without looking up from Better Homes and Gardens.

 

“I will,” I reply.

 

I gently shut the door behind myself, making sure not to knock my bag of bricks into anything resonant or hollow. Thank God it gets dark around five. Seven o’clock seems too early to sneak about, but the night is cloudy and the moon is unnoticeable in the overcast sky.

***

 

Their television flickers in the shutterless windows. I can see the two children, one sitting upon the babysitter’s lap, the other curled up with a pillow pulled to her chest. I can’t make out what they’re watching. I’ve dodged from shadow to shadow all the way to the bulkhead. The lock’s old; the family hasn’t replaced it since we left. I think of when dad used to fumble with his ring of keys to spring the latch. He’d go in through the basement to avoid tracking mud across our carpets. He knew it was my responsibility to sweep.

 

I’ve still got the spare key. I open the doors slowly, remembering their tendency to whine in resistance whenever separated. The stairs are narrow, but I make it down with ease.

 

The light bulbs dangling from the ceiling are bigger than I remember. I resist the urge to pull the chords, washing the room in a bath of light. Like my father’s stories, the room is blanketed in shadow. I’m comfortable, familiar with the setting. I place my bag down before I climb the stairs to the first floor, towel clutched in my hand. I hear footsteps pass the door. They pause for a moment, then scamper back to the TV room. I bend over and force the towel into the crease below the door, making sure it’s snug so no light will escape when the room is illuminated.

 

Click.

 

I can see everything. The lights are new. The old orange gloom once cast is now replaced with a steady brilliant radiance. A tumble of leaves finds its way down the open bulkhead, dancing across the floor like moths blowing in the autumn breeze. I rush to shut it, not wanting a neighbor to notice the disturbance.

 

A few knotted boards lean against the wall where the hole should be. A dark X is spray-painted across the temporary obstruction. I pull the boards apart. No screws hold the planks in place. I lay them gently across the floor, making sure not to make a sound.

 

The wash sink still stands in the corner. I fill my mortar bucket slowly, mixing the fine dust with tap water until the mixture looks the way Better Homes and Gardens said it should.

 

Light seeps into every corner of the room, even those that lie beyond the opening. I’m anxious to see what hides within.

 

I place the bucket next to my pile of bricks. The ledge is too narrow to balance the urn upon.

 

The ceramic material is cool against my arm as I extend my upper body through the opening. I expect emptiness, but staring back at me are the dry, wrinkled faces of a thousand old maids rendered in shadow; their petaled jowls turn up in seedy smiles. I almost scream and drop Dad across the floor, but I hold it down. The faces don’t move; they’re petrified from years of drying in the darkness. Some look more like flowers, others like aunts long past. I almost call their names to see if they’ll acknowledge my presence with a welcoming nod. No, I can’t. I lean my upper body down through the gap in the bricks and nestle Dad amongst the figures, making sure to avoid severing any stems.

 

I reach back and turn off the one light shining directly into the opening. I can’t have them all looking at me as I place the bricks. I feel guilty, like their last chance of sunlight is being snuffed out one rectangular block at a time.

 

I slather the mortar across the bricks, smooth it and secure each piece. I keep thinking they are whispering to me. I can almost recognize voices; deep sonorous pleas mixed with nasally intonations criticizing my handiwork, begging for me to stop. I shrug them off; sleep-deprivation I tell myself. The whole process takes no more than ten minutes; it’s not a very large opening. The noise continues to reverberate from inside the now-closed-off room. Is it getting louder? No, I ignore it. The echoes are inside my head. I replace the boards, shut off the lights, remove the towel, and make it to the stairs leading out of the basement. I turn for one last look and notice I’ve left the duffle bag behind.

 

Jaunting back to where the bag lies, I pick it up and something tumbles to the ground. I nudge it with my foot, then bend to retrieve it. It’s an elderly sunflower, brown and taut, dried to a husk-like exoskeleton. I go to sniff it, to see if any last whiff of sweet scent lingers on its petals. It smells like my mother’s perfume—a smell that hasn’t circulated my memory in years. It jostles recollections. That’s how she smelled at her wake. I can see Dad daubing it around her neck and across her chest before the mourners arrived. He always planned things to be perfect. To recreate in death what was present in life.

 

A horror creeps into my skull, milling about amongst the murmuring cries of the discarded flowers. It comes to me. I remember the last story my father struggled to put down. I brought him tea, decaffeinated green, just as an excuse to read over his shoulder. I can see the words, picture the murderer’s hand as he clasps a woman’s throat from an alley’s shadow, envision the florist’s smile as he sprinkles their ashes over roses and lilies that line his storefront window. My father sprinkled the ashes of his burnt manuscript amongst the hydrangeas on our front lawn the day he gave up writing.

 

His voice urges me to go.

 

I run, letting the bulkhead slam. It doesn’t matter anymore. The scream that has been pressing against the caverns of my throat erupts in time with the metallic clatter. They become one note and goad me forth. Faces of the old women follow me as I sprint to my car, duffle bag flapping awkwardly against my hip. They’re there as I buckle my seatbelt, as I turn down roads, zig in and out of traffic trying to shake them. I park in our driveway, nearly plowing through the garage door. They’re in my house. They nestle down with me as I drag the covers off my girlfriend’s sleeping form. She doesn’t wake. How can she slumber with all those faces peering down at her? I close my eyes and tell myself they will be gone when I wake.

***

 

Calming sleep finds me slowly. When I doze, so do they, petals and eyes never roaming my dreams. Only my father’s face greets me, wordlessly smiling as if he’s looking on something beautiful he’s created, the only original story his hand left behind.

 

______________________________________________

Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He works as a stove technician and writes during the evening. His work has been published in Gravel, The Avalon Literary Review, Literary Orphans Journal, and Sleet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or Facebook.

Loves You To Death

Turner joked to some that his mother was one of those people incapable of dying, and so (not as a joke) for her eightieth birthday he had it in mind to put her into a retirement home—a place where there was nothing to do, ultimately, other than die. Not that he would relocate her immediately. He would wait a few weeks to devise a plan for packaging the move as good intentions, as a gift to someone other than himself.

Since he had no siblings, Turner’s mother’s welfare was his responsibility, but as far as he was concerned time makes strangers of everyone, and in the category of gifts received—and Turner viewed it as a gift—he already had power of attorney. He was also executor of the estate, which was considerable but by no means inexhaustible.

“We’ve discussed this,” he said. “Remember when you turned seventy-nine? We talked about when you hit the big eight-o, that it might be time to quit driving. Why not move, too?”

Turner got up and walked behind his mother to the kitchen. “Let’s find a place where you can stay independent. Like we talked about.”

“Did we?”

“Remember, once, when you visited for Christmas?”

“That was a while ago, and I’m sure we didn’t talk about it.” Her speech was frail and even sweet until she had to cough up a syllable that had gotten caught in her throat.

Turner poured two bourbons, and when he presented his mother with hers, he genuflected like a suppliant or one about to propose marriage.

“We have.”

“That’s strong,” she said. “How’s Jessica?”

“She’s fine,” he said. “Sends her love. She’d have come down, but she has work. If you moved, you’d be closer to both of us. There’s another reason to live in the city.”

“You know how I hate the city.”

“To a home outside the city then.”

“A home?” She said quizzically, as one might pronounce an unknown word. “This is my home.”

“I know how much you adore Jess and how much she loves you. You’d be closer. Have you thought about that? It’s one of the things we talked about.”

“I’m sure we didn’t,” she said.

At moments like this, his mother retreated to their mutual affection for Jessica. She seemed content to say, as she often would, “Marrying Jessica was the smartest thing you ever did.”

“Ready for another drink?” Turner asked.

“Not quite, sweetheart.”

“Well, at least think about it.”

“Maybe when I’m done with this one,” she said, reaching for the remote.

“I mean about moving.” But Turner’s mother had already redirected her attention to the Weather Channel. “Think about it,” he said again. “About moving closer to Jess and me.”

“I will,” she said distantly, scanning the room for her cat, Mr. Chips.

It was far from the surrender Turner had hoped for, but would have to do until he could visit again. She’d better come around soon, he thought on the drive back to Atlanta, remembering with a renewed sense of loss that the deposit he had made to Sherman’s Manor Retirement Community was only fifty percent refundable.

***

They’d tried the city once, five years ago, the Christmas after Turner’s father had died. Turner thought that if they took the train up it might wean his mother from the idea that driving a car was so necessary, but in the space of three hours, the locomotive encountered two switching delays, freight traffic, and then hit a vehicle, finally arriving downtown after dark. By the time they got to the hotel, they had lost their reservation and had to settle for a smaller room. They also missed the appointment Turner had made with an agent who was to have shown his mother a condo in the Presidential Towers building.

Turner had decided then, while her grief was fresh, to distract his mother with the delights of city life: food, stores, sights, and all of the things he and Jess loved.

“Shopping?” Turner suggested.

“Where would you like to go?”

“Anywhere you like.”

“Is there a place that sells mysteries?” she asked.

“There’s a bookstore in the 700 block.”

“Do they have mysteries?”

“Of course,” he said, putting his coat back on.

“Is it far? It’s so cold out.”

“Not too far, and it’s no colder than when we came in.”

The avenue was like a neon garden with lights in full bloom and a dry, chalk-white snow drifting brightly down from the blackness above.  

“Everything’s so beautiful,” she said.

“What’s that?” Turner wanted her to repeat it—the part about how beautiful everything was.

“Beautiful . . . all the lights, and decorations, and buildings, but is it always this cold? My circulation’s not good.”

Turner’s mother, who was tall, moved in overly deliberate half-strides. If she had enjoyed any part of trudging through five city blocks of holiday crowds, it was not apparent from her expression, which was the marriage of physical pain to the dread that each step was the antecedent to a fall.  

Inside the Hanover Building, things went from bad to worse.

“I think I’ll go to J. Crew,” Turner said, pausing in the atrium as currents of shoppers flowed past. When a Williams Sonoma caught his mother’s eye, she indicated that she would be “over here,” and blindly swung the back of her hand into another woman’s nose.

“Mom! There are a half-million people in this city. You’ve got to watch what you’re doing!”

The woman who had been struck hurried on, clutching her face.

“Well, she should watch where she’s going,” his mother said.

When they got to the bookstore, his mother realized that she had forgotten her glasses at the hotel—or worse had left them on the train—so Turner spent forty-five minutes reading plot summaries aloud. Then, on the way down the escalator, she took a misstep and tumbled forward, shrieking as she cut her leg above the ankle.

“Christ!” he cried out.

“Are you alright?” asked the gentleman behind them.

“We’re fine, thank you,” Turner said. “This is a nightmare.”

“What?” she said.

“Nothing. We’ll stop at Walgreen’s to get bandages on the way back.” Blood ran even with the seam of torn leggings and into her therapeutic shoe.

“I’m sorry,” she said, hobbling on. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”

At the Ambassador Room, Turner brooded through dinner, less willing than able to eat.

Unprompted, his mother would never say a word in complaint, which made the situation all the more frustrating. Her silence was a reminder that, after all that had gone wrong, Turner couldn’t possibly broach the subject of her moving to the city.

“Will Jessica be joining us?” she asked finally.

“What’s that?” Turner’s attention wandered. “Oh, no. Tomorrow night.”

The old have a way of dragging the rest of the world down with them, he thought. If there was a silver lining to the day, it was this: she had proved that she was an accident looking for a place to happen. What if these things were to occur at home, when her housecleaner, Leticia, wasn’t around, and there was no one else to help? The only thing less in dispute was how thoroughly circumstances had undermined his efforts to make urban life seem desirable.

Turner’s mother seemed to sense what was wrong, and she insisted that, rather than take a cab, she was fine to walk the three blocks back to the hotel. The snow had stopped, but the streets remained slick and black.

“Can we rest here, honey, for a minute?” His mother trundled over to an iron bench next to a stone fountain, which had been drained for the season and stood caked in snow like a shrine to winter.

“Are you alright?”

“It’s my leg,” she said, wincing. She sat, reaching to feel her injury with such a show of effort that Turner wondered if somehow she wanted him to do it for her.

Her fingers, tacky with fresh blood, came up into the yellow light. “Damn it,” she said.

“I’ve bled through my bandages. Do you think we could get a cab after all?”

“Of course,” Turner sighed.

“I’m sorry. I’m ruining everything.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, ready to fault himself for not having seen this coming.

“I’m sure any cab driver will be happy to drive us one block back to the hotel.”

***

Turner kept no secrets from his wife, except for the particular ones he did not want her to know: a part-time girlfriend and some hidden debt. He made no pretense, however, when it came to frustrations over his mother, and since Jess was a check on Turner’s intolerance, in this way she was an ally.

“She won’t have it,” he said when he returned to Atlanta from his latest visit. “She won’t even move to be closer to you, and that’s the best card I had to play.”

“So what’s the big deal?” Jess said, drying the last of the plates. “That you have to keep calling her once a week and visiting now and then?”

“No, the big deal is when she runs over someone with that Deville and gets us sued, or exhausts the trust on home shopping, or gets scammed—”

“—or remarries!”

“That’s sort of what I mean by scammed,” Turner said.

“She lives for QVC, that’s for sure, and that cat.”

“I don’t know what she lives for. At least she’s given up on grandchildren.”

Turner instantly regretted saying this.  

“What I mean is—” But he could see from Jess’s face that the damage was done.

“Right,” she shot back, launching a towel at him, “If she were waiting for that, I guess you’d be stuck with her forever.”

***

After the fiasco in the city, Turner’s mother had been in no hurry to return, and his and Jessica’s annual summer trip to spend a week with her became all the more important—the fifty one weeks in between representing a chasm of space that would be, it seemed to Turner, impossible for his mother to fill.

From what he and Jess gathered from phone calls, his mother’s life consisted of a weekly cycle of sameness, anchored by Leticia coming to clean on Monday, a visit to the beauty parlor on Wednesday, and grocery shopping on Friday. She had long ago quit her altar guild duties and the church entirely in favor of televangelism and Face the Nation. He guessed that she liked the host, Bob Schieffer, because he was old, and imagined that the elderly must trust their own kind most.

On their most recent visit, Jess found a series of lists in a notebook on a table next to his mother’s recliner. “What do you make of this?” she asked Turner.  

In the small worn spiral, they read through catalogs of tasks meticulously spelled out and crossed through:

cereal
pills
dishes
wash whites
check mail
dry whites
wash colors
feed Mr. Chips
dry colors
post office
call Eleanor
call bank

 

“Do you think she forgets things?” Jess asked.

“No,” Turner said, feeling that he knew his mother well enough to be certain of this. “I think she looks forward to them.”

***

“When we’re at dinner, watch your drinking,” Jess said later. Though Jessica didn’t drink at all, she rarely tried to curb her husband. “It’s not a contest. No need to keep up.”

“What’s it to you?” Turner said, already on his second bourbon. “Besides, we leave tomorrow.”

“You say things you shouldn’t when you’ve been drinking. You’ve been doing it all week.”

“How do you know?”

“I know. She tells me, and I’m tired of her asking me if I think you love her.”

She asks you that?

“Neither of us likes doing this, Turner, but she’s your mother, and seeing you is the only thing she has to get excited about. It’s her one joy. Can you please try not to poison it?”

“I’d like to poison that cat.”

“It’s as if you want to take away whatever pleasure she has left. Face it. Whether you like it or not, she loves you to death.”

“Really?” Turner was astonished to hear this. “You keep me grounded,” he said, kissing  Jess on the cheek. “Do you know that?”

“Let’s go,” she said.

But Turner had already collapsed face-first onto the bed.  

“What’s the rush?” he spoke into the pillow. “She won’t be ready for another twenty minutes. You know she’d make this last forever if she could.”

***

When they returned from dinner, Jessica went to bed. Turner and his mother were both drunk, and Jess, who seemed to be in no mood for any of it, excused herself on the grounds that she would be driving first thing in the morning. In the meantime, Turner poured nightcaps while his mother changed into a robe and looked for Mr. Chips.

“I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon.”

“Me too,” he said, putting a drink into her hand.

“Is everything alright?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she eased into her recliner, “it’s just you’ve seemed upset all week, and you’ve been rather short. Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Turner said, and knocked back half the glass.

“You know,” she said, “it’s a bitch getting old.” Turner knew that she meant to be audacious, and yet all he could think was how comic dotage is when it tests profanity.

“Yep,” Turner said, finishing the drink as he stood to get another.

“So, you’re sure you’re alright? There’s nothing you want to talk about?”  

“Well, there is one thing,” he said.

“Yes?”

“It’s not something Jess knows about. I don’t want her to know.”

“You know I won’t say anything,” she vowed.

“I’m having an affair.”

“No!”

“For about a year,” Turner said. “She just moved, and I’m having a hard time.”

“How did you meet?”

“That’s not important. She’s younger than me,” he added, as if that was.

“How much younger?”

“She’s twenty-two. She was attending community college, but transferred to a school in Savannah.” Turner waited for his mother’s expression to change—for the glower of condemnation that did not come. “I’m in love with her.”

“Turner! Do you still see her?”

“She calls.” He downed the glass. “We see each other when she’s in Atlanta.”

“And Jessica has no idea?”

“No.”

Only then did resentment strain his mother’s face. Only then did it register, the anger and the hurt that Turner had been coaxing. “I wish that girl would leave you alone! Doesn’t she know you’re married?”

“No . . . God, no. I’d never tell her that.” Turner sighed. “Anyway,” he said, “there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve made my bed, as they say. Speaking of bed, I should turn in. It’s getting late.”

Turner kissed his mother on the forehead, as one would venerate a sacred object, and he went away feeling satisfied that she had gotten what she deserved even if she was too stunned by the immediacy of the news to know it. He had spat on her trust in him and all she held dear, including Jess. It would be impossible for her to love him now, impossible for her to believe him of love, and—as if that was not enough—he had saddled her with the burden of his most damning secret.

It did not immediately occur to Turner that his mother, who didn’t sleep much anyway, might have stayed up, stroking Mr. Chips and coming to terms with these realities, that she might be lightened by the revelation of her son’s daring: a depth of worldly success and masculine sophistication of which, perhaps, she would not have thought him capable, and that for the first time in years she could feel young herself, like she was some kind of lover.

On future phone calls, Turner’s mother rarely missed an opportunity to ask about the matter he least wanted to discuss—his secret girlfriend—who had entered her son’s life to complicate it in new and exciting ways. Her mind even seemed to sharpen as she became a steward of great responsibility not to let a word slip in front of Jess, but most of all, Turner imagined that she treasured the trust he had placed in her. How much she must think I love her, he thought over and over until, before long, he guessed that it had become enough, and more than enough, to live for.

______________________________________________

Lyle Roebuck is a native of Saint Simons Island, GA. His fiction has appeared in the Arkansas Review, the Roanoke Review, Straylight Magazine, Redivider, A Torn Page: 2012 Summer Short Fiction Anthology, and Split Lip Magazine. “They’re All Gentlemen in the Dark,” a book-length collection of stories, was shortlisted for the 2014 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award.

Rickies

Ricky Q

During the earliest years of elementary school, Ricky Q was my second-best friend. Ricky was his nickname; teachers called him Frederick. Joey G lived nearer, right around the corner, so he was my best friend first. Ricky Q lived half a block away in the middle of his grandfather’s junkyard. The venue more than the distance inhibited a child like me who strove for the impeccable and immaculate, goals nagged into me by a compulsive obsessive mother who although quite friendly with Ricky Q’s Nana warned me against the dangers surrounding her house. But the treasures of the junkyard overwhelmed my own fastidiousness and fear of my mother’s wrath, and so, by fourth grade, Ricky Q and I played almost every day after school at the big family house amidst the old refrigerators, a sidelined spiral staircase, piles of bricks, and, especially, the old sports and playground equipment. As winter approached, we hid for warmth underneath a knit blanket Ricky borrowed from Nana, in an unwheeled DeSoto abandoned on its haunches in the corner of the yard. I can’t remember who first thought to open his fly beneath the blanket. It may well have been me. I had always been interested in the private parts of other men and boys. I thought I was discreet. But when my elder brother took me to the huge saltwater pool at Palisades Amusement Park, and he told me we would be getting into our swimsuits in a changing room almost as large as the pool itself, he said I’d be in my glory. I pretended not to understand, but I knew he was right. So maybe it was me in the DeSoto. Or maybe it was Ricky Q who knew me at least as well as my brother. Or maybe, best friends that we were by then, we arrived at the same idea at the same time. There wasn’t much to see or feel between each other’s legs. But it was fun enough to keep us busy most days that winter.

 

Ricky B

Sometime in the spring of our fourth grade, a Cub Scout pack was organized at our school. Ricky Q wasn’t interested in scouting, and neither was I, but my parents were eager for me to make new friends, some manly boy friends, different from Ricky Q, the mention of whose name always prompted my father to wave his right hand and mutter faggot. At the first Friday afternoon den meeting, though, the only new friend I made was a weeping third-grader who somehow lost the slide for his neckerchief. I gave him mine, hoping that, without it, I would no longer be allowed to scout. But my selfish gesture comforted the boy, whose mother embraced me and invited me to their house on Saturday. Ricky B was his nickname, but his official given name Eric was embroidered on his Cub Scout uniform. This too made him cry. Nonetheless, despite the regular outpourings of tears and the difference in our ages, we had a lot in common (TV and movies, especially comedies) and in uncommon (no sports. thank you). Ricky B had a huge collection of puppets and, in his basement, a Punch-and-Judy stage where we mounted improvised shows. Even without puppets on our hands, we put our heads through the curtain to imitate our favorite comics: Sid Caesar and Howie Morris, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, Groucho and Harpo, and, most of all, The Three Stooges. Ricky B bought at the local novelty shop a shiny bald-head wig to wear as Curly; I used my winter wool hat to replicate Moe’s bangs; Larry we didn’t really need. Ricky B was as smart and creative and silly as I, and we became best friends. We never even thought to look at each other’s dick, not even when the Bs took us to their beach club on Long Island. We changed in and out of our trunks in separate bathrooms.

 

Ricky Q

Ricky Q and I were still pals even though, without cold weather to explain our retiring to the back seat of a junked automobile, we saw each other less frequently after school during the warm weather. But when the winds whipped up our fifth and sixth grade walks home from school, we were again blown together, when I didn’t have a date with Ricky Q, in the dead Plymouth that replaced the DeSoto behind his house. I mentioned once, when we were completely naked under Nana’s wool blanket, that his grandfather must love Groucho Marx since he only bought old Plymouths and DeSotos, but Ricky Q didn’t get the joke. He didn’t watch You Bet Your Life; he didn’t know who sponsored the show. By February of sixth grade, Ricky Q had a wad of curly hair surrounding his dick and, although our game was by then to get and keep each other as hard as possible for as long as possible, Ricky Q’s erection was much bolder than my bald one. One time, Ricky Q said he bet he was hard enough to stick his dick right into my asshole. I thought that was a weird thing to suggest, and so I stayed away from the junkyard for a while.

 

Ricky V

In the summer between third and fourth grades, my parents booked a two-week vacation for us in the Spaghetti Belt, a Little Italy on the other side of the Catskill Mountains from the far more glamorous Borscht Belt hotels like Grossinger’s, Brown’s and The Concord where big-name comics Myron Cohen, Morey Amsterdam, Milton Berle, George Gobel, and even Sid Caesar and Martin and Lewis headlined. The Villa Venezia, where I found myself that summer, had a Bingo Night, a Movie Night, a Pizza Night, and a Barbeque Night, but no stars performing in the community room. There wasn’t even a pool; instead, a sign on the premises invited guests to swim – at their own risk – back and forth to a wooden raft anchored in the middle of a pond. We were met, after my father had parked our Chevy into a makeshift lot beside the pond, by Mr. V, the owner-chef of Villa Venezia. He yelled for his son to help carry our luggage to our room in the Big House. The boy who arrived, shirtless and skinny, with straight black hair flopped across his left eye, was introduced to us by his father as Ricky who, we were told, would start fourth grade in the fall and was first in his class. Ricky was his nickname; his mother called him Richard. My mother remarked that Ricky V and I had a lot in common. Her perception turned out to be very right, but for the first week of our stay these commonalties were irrelevant. Ricky V, when he wasn’t fulfilling his father’s frequent demands, was inseparable from Jerry L, a fourth-grader from New Jersey whose family had been coming to Villa Venezia since its first season three years earlier. From my favored spot on a wooden recliner beneath a huge oak tree, where I read one of the several novels I had packed for the trip, I often looked up during the day to see Ricky V and Jerry L, their arms draped around each other’s naked shoulders, marching to or from the pond. At night, though, because we were all pretty much the same age, the three of us regularly sat cross-legged in a corner of the community room where we intertwined ourselves with mozzarella stretched to record lengths from our pizzas or wiped the little red markers off each other’s Bingo cards or imitated the love scenes from the week’s movie. After Jerry L and his family returned to Jersey on the Saturday in the middle of my stay at Villa Venezia, Ricky V and I continued the games as a couple, including our notorious recreation of the surf-strewn Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. During most of each day, my arm was wrapped around Ricky V as we invented other games and wandered well beyond Villa Venezia on country roads and mountain paths. When my family’s time at the resort ended, and I was packed into the Chevy for the ride home, I hid my head in a book and cried silently all the way to the city line.

 

Ricky Q

For seventh grade, Ricky Q and I moved to the new Junior High School about a mile from our block, but since I had been admitted to the Honors Program (through which I would complete grades seven to nine in only two years), Ricky Q, whose academic record was not stellar, and I rarely saw each other except on our walks to and from school. On the way home, I usually peeled off near the Little League Baseball Field to play with Ricky B at his house, but at least once each week Ricky Q suggested that, instead, the two of us should play in my bedroom.  During a cold snap earlier in September, Ricky Q had beaten off until he came in the Plymouth. We had often traded stories of our wet dreams by then, but when Ricky Q demonstrated how those spoutings – and those feelings — could be reproduced at any time, even when awake, I was amazed. He urged me to try it – he said he’d help — but even the Plymouth seemed too public for this level of play. My mother was working by then, and I was a latchkey kid who had the house to myself until my brother got back from basketball practice or my parents came home from work. And so later that week, naked in my bed, Ricky Q guided my hand up and down the shaft of his dick until he let loose a torrent of spume that hit both our faces. Ricky Q fell back on the bed with a roar; I laughed hysterically. Then, Ricky Q said, it was my turn to become a real man. He licked his thumb and massaged the head of my cock as he slowly stroked me up and down. The tickle within was almost unbearable and I told Ricky Q I couldn’t stand it. He responded by taking my dick in his mouth and sucking it until I bucked like a bronco, and Ricky Q had to let go. When I calmed down, I searched for the suds I was used to from my wet dreams. Hadn’t I come? Where was the stuff? I asked Ricky Q. He said he swallowed it, and that it was good. A little salty, he said, but good. It was good for me too, I said, and we laughed.

 

Ricky B

“Officer” Joe Bolton, the host of the Three Stooges program on TV, announced that the comedians would be appearing on the Cerebral Palsy Telethon in early October. They would even take pledges over the phones, Bolton said. Ricky B and I decided to stay up all night at his house from the Saturday 10 PM get-go of the Telethon until we had a chance to talk to one or more of the trio. As it turned out, the Stooges didn’t make their appearance until Sunday morning when more kids would be watching. As soon as host Dennis James announced that the boys would be heading over to the phones for a while, we started dialing, me on the living room phone and Ricky B on his mother’s private line in her bedroom. Most of our calls were answered by non-celebrity volunteers who we hung up on before quickly redialing. I also hung up on Betty White, Kate Smith, and, twice, on Mike Wallace. When I heard Ricky B scream Larry! I ran into his mother’s bedroom and Ricky B and I got our faces as close together as possible on the handset. Larry Fine was asking how much we wanted to pledge. Ricky B answered, ten dollars, and I told Larry, we love you guys. Oh, you’re fans, said Larry. We’re crazy for you, I said. Ricky B told Larry that our favorite game was to pretend to be the Three Stooges. Who do you play, Larry asked. Curly, said Ricky B. Moe, said I. So who’s Larry? asked Larry. Another friend, I lied, but he’s not here now. Right, Larry said, and he asked where they should send the pledge invoice. Ricky B gave his address and his mother’s phone number, and we three stooges said our good-byes. As soon as we hung up, we grabbed a notebook and wrote out a complete transcript of our conversation with Larry Fine.  

 

Ricky V

On the last Saturday in June, we arrived in my father’s Buick for our two-week stay at Villa Venezia. Ricky V was there, officially to help to carry our bags to our cabin overlooking the new kidney-shaped swimming pool. But before he could grab a suitcase, I grabbed him and we hugged like long-lost brothers. Girlfriends, my brother snickered. My brother was working at Villa Venezia that summer and took time out from his kitchen chores to greet my parents. I followed Ricky V around the rest of the day, helping him carry the bags of other arriving families. We ate lunch together with the rest of the hotel staff in the kitchen about an hour before Ricky V had to ring the big bell on the porch of the main house calling all guests to their huge mid-day meal. The staff made do with leftovers from the previous day’s menu. So, Ricky V turned to me and said, I hear one of your friends from the City is coming next Saturday. What? Mrs. V, who made all the bookings for the resort, had told him that a Mrs. B had called, identified herself as the mother of my best friend, and asked if there was a cabin available for her family for the week of the Fourth of July. Mrs. V had to juggle to arrange for a cabin adjacent to ours. I must have blanched or blushed or whatever I did when aghast in those days, prompting Ricky V to ask, Didn’t you know? NO! I ran to our cabin and demanded to know if my mother realized the Bs were coming to Villa Vanezia. My mother, who had been weepy a lot lately, even taking days off from work because, my father said, she couldn’t get it together, teared up and said, Yes, we wanted to keep it a surprise. I screamed that I wanted no surprises from her ever again. I ran to the front office and asked Mrs. V for some stationery. Hiding in a corner of the new multi-purpose casino hall, I wrote, feigning ignorance of his family’s vacation plans, Dear Ricky, Now that I’m going into ninth grade, I’ve been thinking what it means to grow up. I didn’t want to say this before because I didn’t want to hurt you, but I need to be honest and tell you I don’t find those childish games we still play fun any more. I’m maturing, you know? I’m in high school almost, but you are still a little kid. So maybe you should find some good friends your own age from now on. Late in the afternoon, after all the new guests had arrived, Ricky walked me to the Rexall Drug Store in Jeffersonville where I asked the postal agent the fastest way to get this letter to the City. Special Delivery, but it’s expensive. I emptied my pocket of most of the tips I had earned from helping Ricky V carry luggage, and sent Dear Ricky B on its way. Tuesday, Ricky V told me his mother had received a call from Mrs. B cancelling the reservation. My mother wondered if something she had said or done had offended Mrs. B. Maybe, I said, you should never have gotten involved in my business in the first place. My mother, who was half-dressed for dinner in a pleated yellow gown I loved, left our cabin, walked to the pool, and sat down crying in the shallow end of the kidney until my father led her back to our room. My father thought we should head back to the City the very next day, but I begged him to let us stay.

 

Ricky Q

By the time we did return home, late the following Saturday, my mother was a mess. A nurse had been called to watch over her. A nervous breakdown, my father said. Your mother is going to have to go away for a while. And you’ll be staying at your grandfather’s house for the rest of the summer. But that’s miles from here. What am I going to do there? You’re going to be good, my father said. I could hear my mother whimpering from her room. I asked my father if I could stay at Ricky Q’s. His parents were always fond of me, and they were especially willing to go out of their way under the circumstances my father described to them over the phone. After dinner, we watched Saturday Night Wrestling before turning in for the night. It was a warm July night, and the Qs did not have air conditioning or even a fan in Ricky Q’s room, so we undressed and lay quietly until I saw Ricky Q’s dick grow tall and hard. He bent over and studied the new shoots of hair sprouting around my cock before he took me in his mouth. When I was stiff, he raised his head and suggested we suck each other. I copied on Ricky Qs erection the movements of tongue and lips I felt on my own. When I closed my eyes, I imagined I was making love to Ricky V, and that’s why, when my mouth filled with semen, I swallowed it and uttered a passionate, Ricky, as I came too.

 

Ricky V

Even after her recovery, my mother was too embarrassed, she said, ever to return to Villa Venezia. Although we wrote fairly regularly to each other, Ricky V and I didn’t see each other during the whole of our high school years. Because I had skipped Grade 8, I turned sixteen only in the middle of my twelfth grade year, but that meant I could get working papers and a job at Villa Venezia in the summer before college. But since city boys had to be eighteen to get a driver’s license while country boys were allowed to drive at sixteen, I took a Greyhound Bus to Monticello, where Ricky V picked me up in his yellow VW beetle. We hugged, and I felt his taut back beneath my right hand and the light stubble of whiskers on my still-pristine cheek. His brown eyes glistened as he announced that we were going to have a blast. And we did. Villa Venezia had tripled in size, providing us with plenty of silly guests and preposterous events for us to ridicule and imitate. When the laughs didn’t come naturally, we raided the hotel’s wine cellar or crashed the nightly pot parties of the older waiters in their back rooms. Ricky V left me alone some nights when he had a date with his high school sweetheart, but he never failed to report the next morning on how far they had gone in the back seat of the beetle. He was still a virgin, he explained (I said I was too), but they had made it to third base. Amy let him fondle her tits and make her come by fingering her clitoris as she sucked his dick. She’s got a friend who’ll do the same for you. So how about double-dating after we finish in the kitchen this Saturday night? Ricky V asked me as we manned the grill for Barbeque Night. Yeah, I said, sounds great. We met the girls outside the Jeffersonville Theatre and went in for the midnight showing of The Birds. Amy and Ricky V wanted to sit in the back row where they could make out, but I wanted to watch the movie and asked Marsha if she wouldn’t mind sitting closer to the screen. I bought plenty of popcorn and bon-bons and Coke, and Marsha and I got to know each other pretty well from the way we gasped or laughed or screamed and shook at various scenes. It was a terrific film, and we detailed every turn of its plot to Amy and Ricky V as he drove the car to a quiet edge of the Franciscan monastery in Callicoon. Ricky V passed around a joint he had wangled from the older boys and a bottle of Chianti from his father’s cellar. It wasn’t easy to undress in a beetle, let alone to arrange our bodies to come to climax without cramping, but soon from the back passenger seat, I could see Ricky V’s hands stretched beneath Amy as she moved her lips down and up Ricky V’s cock with a familiarity and certainty that reminded me of Ricky Q’s expert knowledge of how to extend my pleasure. I had never seen Ricky V naked before. His olive body was muscular, not from calisthenics, I knew, but just from working at the Villa; unlike Ricky Q or me, Ricky V was uncut, and Amy seemed to get a kick out of slipping her tongue beneath the foreskin. I was already hard when Marsha went down on me. It took me a while to find her clitoris, but her moan let me know when I had succeeded. I knew as well as Ricky V, of course, how to move inside a mouth, and it was some minutes before Ricky V warned Amy that he was about to come. Amy sat up and held her hands atop Ricky V’s whose fingers worked inside her vagina as he shot a load that hit the roof of the beetle; I came simultaneously, but had forgotten to warn Marsha who said, Shit, and spit semen out onto my belly. God, I’m sorry, I said, and played more rhythmically with her clitoris until she screamed, Jesus, and held me so tight I found bruises on my arms when I showered the next morning. When Ricky V had likewise satisfied Amy, he popped the lock of the front trunk and asked me to grab two big bath towels he had borrowed from the hotel. The girls dried and dressed themselves in the car, while Ricky V lead me to a statue of St. Francis overseeing a fountain where we bathed and laughed and readied ourselves to drive Amy and Marcia home. By the time Ricky V and I returned to Villa Venezia, it was time for us to serve breakfast to the guests.

 

Ricardo

I never saw Ricky B again although I know from Google that he and his wife founded and still direct a puppet theatre in Los Angeles. Ricky Q and I had a few more trysts until he transferred from Queensboro Community to a junior college in Orlando where his grandparents had bought a farm from the money a developer paid him for the junkyard. When I first heard about Disney World a few years later, I guessed that his grandfather had likely sold the Florida property to Walt for millions. Google doesn’t return anything about Ricky Q; maybe he pays for his privacy. Ricky V and I kept in touch irregularly by postcards and aerograms during our university years. He did pre-law at Cornell. When he started Fordham Law, he gave me a call, and I invited him to dinner at our place, Ricardo’s and mine, in Astoria. Ricardo – no one calls him Ricky – taught Spanish at the Catholic High School in Long Island City where, after we started dating, he persuaded me to apply for a Counseling position. We rented the apartment overlooking the East River with a view of Manhattan soon thereafter. When Ricky V arrived, I passed his offerings of a California bubbly and an Italian cheesecake over to Ricardo so that I could embrace my old friend. I gave him a kiss on each cheek. Oh, God, how I have always wanted to do that, I said. He laughed and turned and said, You must be Ricardo; I’m Richard. They shook hands. You’re Richard now? I asked. And you’re gay now? he responded. I’ve always been gay, I said. And I, Ricky V said, have always been Richard.

______________________________________________

James Penha, a native New Yorker,  has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in Fiction and in Poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award. Penha edits TheNewVerse.News , an online journal of current-events poetry. 

“The Front Seat”

My school bus was Lord of the Flies on wheels, and I was Piggy. Nighttime tears shed the residue of that day’s humiliations. My parents’ variegated forms of “Children are cruel” landed as corroboration rather than sympathy. Their concern quickly sewed into ennui hemmed with frustration. An inveterate eavesdropper, I monitored their conversations from the other side of the door, which was the auditory equivalent of reading someone’s diary. Often, what I overheard was hurtful.

“Well, she’s turned into quite a heifer, so she’s ripe for the poking—no pun intended,” my father once said to my mother. I remember that specifically because I had to look up “pun” in the dictionary. He added that, were the situation all that dire, it would’ve motivated me to lose weight. And, if anything, I had gained weight, which according to him positioned me as an accomplice to the so-called crime. He told my mother they needed to “help me help myself.” Their offensive began by not signing the bus contract for sixth grade. Instead, a cash-hungry French teacher who had arranged a carpool would drive me to school. There I would be safe from pint-size cruelty’s maul and lash.

“This is going to be a better year. I can just feel it,” my mother exclaimed on my first day of sixth grade. Though self-conscious, insecure, and yes, fat, I glommed onto her optimism. Maybe this year would bridge easier terrain, which given those first few anticlimactic weeks seemed warranted.

The French teacher’s Country Squire station wagon resembled a hearse. To this day, I shiver when I see one of those behemoths hulking curbside, dodging extinction. The olive-green hood and fenders on Monsieur Lenoir’s were cavitied with rusty abscesses. Wood flanks hollowed from abuse. Inside, taped-over gashes on worn leather magnified copious bald spots, evincing a hag who had lived too long and seen too much. It was less ominous, however, than the modern, sleek bus where youths preened their callousness.

Had my mother, who was squalor averse, glimpsed the ochre, crusty, holed upholstery in Monsieur Lenoir’s car, I would have been back on that bus faster than my tormentors could say, “You’re not sitting here, fatty.” Her southern upbringing and twang instilled a devotion to etiquette and a reverence for musical accents. Hence, she glamorized all things French. In that language she drawled words too uncouth to say in English. It was de rigeur to yell “Merde” as opposed to “Shit” in profane circumstances. Given her Francophilia, she would have been dismayed to learn that Monsieur Lenoir was, in fact, a French-speaking Haitian, not a native of France.

My contentment proved short lived. The teacher, despite the name of his car, was no squire. Adept at navigating temper minefields, I made sure I was always waiting for him and not vice versa. Monsieur Lenoir often ran late. And when he did his joviality disintegrated into anger. The man’s blue eyes would lose their endearing sparkle that compensated for a pockmarked, jaundiced pallor masking his true ugliness. Still, nothing about this gnomish little monsieur read predator.

At first, this new transportation warded me from evil like an amulet. As the last child picked up, I sat directly behind Monsieur Lenoir, next to a shy fourth grader. She wouldn’t dare tease me even if it crossed her mind. An unspoken hierarchy existed: elders were feared if not exactly respected. My former bus mates, who had feasted on my weaknesses, no longer hungered for me, save an occasional bite. The two new girls I had befriended vouchsafed a certain protection and mercy—at school. Upon arrival, we bedraggled lot of carpooling misfits scattered to our separate classrooms like cockroaches when a light comes on.

Just as things seemed to be gelling, on the third Friday morning Monsieur Lenoir said that he was rearranging us to accommodate a new addition. I was to sit in the front with him, trading places with a skinny geek. A fifth grader’s younger brother was coming up front, too, but given his size I figured he’d sit the middle, leaving my head to rest against another dirty window. I was loath to change seats. In my young mind, this newfound peacefulness—tentative and raw— depended on the status quo.

“But why can’t we stay in the seats we started in?” I asked.

Mon Dieu! Listen, Abbey, don’t you give me no trouble you hear?” His voice cadenced in a chilling whisper through gritted teeth.

The following Monday morning, our driver pulled up to my building ahead of schedule. I was waiting. He stepped into the melee of oncoming traffic to open the front passenger door. As I wedged between the bumper and fender of two parked cars, horns honked impatiently. He waved them off with invectives.

“Jimmy, come out. Abbey, go in the middle,” he ordered.

“He’s smaller, shouldn’t he move to the middle seat?”

“Ugh,” he screamed, “there is no seat belt in the middle, it’s too dangerous for him. What did I tell you about not giving me no trouble? Maybe you want to take the bus again, eh?”

Embarrassment circulated through me like venom. I jerked over to the middle.

Bookended between the teacher and this morsel of a boy, I was acutely aware of my girth; thighs oozed past the seat margins like blood seeps from a dressing. Unnerved, I shook my leg to release tension. In response, Monsieur Lenoir patted then rested his hand on my knee. When the movement ceased he did not retract it. His crab-like hand with clawed fingers encased in nubby dry shells had attached itself. I recoiled, sliding as far toward Jimmy as I could. The crustacean tightened its grip. Then, it began to scuttle up and down my thigh.

“It feels good, eh?”

My heart started to race; my throat constricted. “Not really,” I squeaked rather than affirmed.

Leaning closer to me he cooed, “Don’t you give me no trouble, you hear.”

His warm cigarette-y morning breath assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed and coughed. Droplets of sputum landed like granules of sand. As though it were acid, Monsieur Lenoir’s claw fled to the wheel.

“Eh, what’s the matter with you? You want to cause an accident?” He asked loudly enough to garner the other passengers’ attention. I imagined all heads behind me raised, their eyes boring into the back of mine in tacit condemnation.

Monsieur Lenoir delivered the question as an admonishment. I had been duly chastised. By exorcizing anxiety through my limb and with my coughing fit, I could have caused him to crash. The quavering had beseeched his attention and distracted him and endangered us. If he called my parents I would get in huge trouble. Or worse. It was either Monsieur’s carpool or the bus. I shouted an apology.

Tres bien.” I understood that meant “very good,” though I suspected it wasn’t good enough.

I had intended to preemptively mention the incident to my mother, but I did not. She had begun to greet me at the door with a smile, enjoying the reprieve from snarls and tears that had greeted her most afternoons in previous years. It was a Friday, and at home with the weekend ahead of me, Monsieur Lenoir’s image unthreaded and faded like an old tapestry.

I suppose I enjoyed my mother’s positive feedback, though I couldn’t have qualified it as such back then.

“Well, it’s such a pleasure to see you in a good mood.”

“School has been going okay.”

“I’m so glad to hear it, ma chérie. Come in the kitchen, I made you a healthy snack.”

Healthy was code for low calorie, which deflated me instantly. On the plate were four sticks of celery with a dollop of mustard on the side, lean materials that would build a thinner me. I had squirreled a bag of Peanut M &M’s in my book bag to insulate me from hunger. I could not tell my mother that having scarfed a chocolate donut before leaving school, I wasn’t hungry for crudité.

“Um, thanks, but I have a lot of homework, so…” As I walked out of the kitchen, her voice trailed after me. “Abbey, you’re not eating a thing, yet you don’t appear to be losing weight. It’s a riddle for your father and me.”

Food, my cure and my affliction: instant temporary gratification that kept me fat. My parents pleaded, cajoled, and bribed me to lose weight. They sent me to a diet doctor, where my weight inched up in half pounds. Though lean and fit, my parents nevertheless dieted with me. My father signed himself and me up for ice skating lessons—exercise and togetherness. My mother aligned shopping sprees with weight loss goals. They filled the cookie jar and pantry with junk food to model discipline, resisting it along with me. But in the middle of the night I would tiptoe to the kitchen and dip into every bag and canister, taking a small amount from each to avoid getting caught.

My room was my refuge. The wall-long window looked out to a courtyard between our building and the abutting townhouses. Alternating between lush and bare with the seasons, it was an apt metaphor for my ever-shifting perspective. I daydreamed about the lives lived in the apartment across from ours, where shadows moved behind opaque curtains. Lithe and graceful, I imbued them with a narrative I wished were my own: that of a gentle, loving family. Torment began to dog me at home. The children who’d lost my scent at school had metamorphosed into my hounding father.

His impatience and hand tremors calibrated in proportion to my weight. It was as though he were Narcissus and my heft a river. I reflected as his failure. He said things such as, “Abbey, it’s not just the fat, it’s what the fat broadcasts: ‘I have no discipline’”; “If you weren’t so pretty I wouldn’t bother—svelte won’t help ugly”; or “I am trying to help you because boys do not have to settle for just a pretty face when there are plenty of pretty, thin girls out there.” Some were compliments, others he intended to be constructive. They all torpedoed my confidence.

On a Monday morning at breakfast, a few weeks after school had started, his right hand began quivering uncontrollably. He dropped his mug. The coffee-splattered wallpaper cried tears of brown liquid. Embarrassed, he left to change his clothes. As my mother sponged around me and my pick-up time and Monsieur Lenoir neared, I announced that my stomach hurt. “You just devoured a scrambled egg and two pieces of toast.” She felt my forehead. No fever. She called my father back to the table for verification. The back of his left hand, its ring finger bulbous with matrimonial gold, landed like a punch. “Ouch!” “Nope, cool as a cucumber. Try eating more slowly, or,” he paused, “less.”

Monsieur Lenoir reached past Jimmy and pushed open passenger door. “Get in the middle.” Situated, I focused on constraining myself within the charred leather demarcations. The teacher’s left hand was on the steering wheel. The right, now a clandestine tarantula, sat poised for action. Furry tentacular fingers grazed the top of his pants. They scampered to his groin. Monsieur Lenoir elbowed me as he fondled himself. The low, guttural noises that accompanied his masturbation seemed audible only to me. I looked over at Jimmy who, leaning against the window, head cradled in his right arm, appeared oblivious. Perhaps the thick oversized Fair Isle sweater I wore to hide my protruding belly blocked his view. The noise stopped. I glanced at Monsieur Lenoir. Both hands were on the steering wheel. Clearing his throat, he instructed us to gather our things; we were almost at school.

I went directly to the nurse’s office. A lie had scaled into the truth. The dissonant groans echoing in my ears had tailed into a vertiginous nausea. When it finally subsided boredom descended. Old yearbooks were stocked on the bookshelves of her makeshift clinic.

I flipped through them, idling on photographs of pretty girls. Blithe, toothy grins stenciled vibrant, pearly crescents onto their thin faces atop thinner bodies. With them, handsome jocks had no physical obstacles to hurdle. My father would have been proud to call any one of those girls his daughter.

The crotchety, past-her-prime nurse telephoned my mother hourly. She never answered. I took the late bus home to avoid Monsieur Lenoir, arriving just before our dinnertime: 6:45 p.m., sharp.

No sooner were we seated than the interrogation began. Meals had devolved to Darwinian experiments, for which I was unfit. Survival resided in short answers and averted eye contact. Most nights I changed into a light blue sweatshirt hoping to fade into our dining room walls, which were painted the same color. And each time I did, I was reminded of the exercise’s futility. We formed a triangle at the table, my father at the head and my mother and I on either side. My chair was tall, high-armed, bow legged and stiff, a wooden marshal with a fugitive in custody. In this autarchic justice system there were no fair trials. My father cross-examined me until I perjured myself.

“Abbey, have you gained weight?”

“I, I, I don’t think so.”

“Well, are your clothes tight?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if your clothes are tight?”

“I haven’t noticed. I mean, I guess not.”

“You look heavier to me.”

“What?”

“You say ‘excuse me,’ not ‘what.’ We can’t have people thinking you are being

raised in a barn, though you’re starting to resemble a…never mind.”

Pig.

My teeth clenched. Tears pooled. Sweat leaked.

“Jane, what exactly have you been feeding her in the afternoons?”

Through her tightened jaw, slit eyes, blushing skin, my mother’s expression amalgamated fear, indignation, and restraint. “What we discussed, exactly. And she hasn’t been eating it,” she said, quietly.

“Is that true Abbey?”

“Yes, I mean no, I mean I really haven’t been eating a lot so I don’t know how I could’ve gained weight.”

“Staying away from the cookies and candy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure?”

He didn’t badger a witness unless he had evidence. I should have interpreted it as a signal to yield, but instead I said, “No.” And, just like an unwitting swine, it was as though I marched into the pen; the barn door locked behind me.

“That’s curious to me. Yesterday there were four stacks of twenty cookies, and today there are four stacks of nineteen.”

The night before, after they went to bed, I took one from each stack—to make sure they remained even.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” My voice cracked.

“You know the punishment for lying. I don’t want to hear another word.” Then he tagged on, “And I’m going to weigh you, too.”

I watched him wrest meat from his chicken leg and gnaw on cartilage. Lying was the crime, no time discount for entrapment. Doomed, I berated myself for every sugary sin.

I had gained two pounds. This excited the mathematician in him. My father multiplied by twelve months, then those twenty-four pounds by a varying number of years, to estimate my impending obesity. And to formulate how many lashes, he divided the number on the scale by twelve. He told me to take down my pants and lean over his bed. My bare ass goosebumped with anticipation. I put my head down on their rose-colored, satiny bedspread and wept while he whipped. Afterward, with his belt rebuckled, he migrated to the den to pour himself a scotch. I could hear ice cubes jingling from his shaking hand as I wobbled to my room.

I never thought about it before, but I wonder if he steadied his thrashing hand by gripping the wrist above it with his free one. That would have added momentum and strength.

Later, numbed by the alcohol into his version of remorse, he would apologize. He couldn’t stand that I was being humiliated. He was at his wits’ end having tried everything he could think of to get me to lose weight. He didn’t know how else to get through to me.

I think he lacked the introspection to see that he was simply repeating what his father had done to him.

My mother would come in shortly thereafter to ask if I needed anything: a glass of water, a cold compress, a hug.

I can still taste the sour hatred that curdled on my tongue.

Yes: protection, an ally, a mother. Handcuffed by fear, shackled in subservience, he had withered her. Whenever she ventured an opinion, he retaliated with, “You move your mouth and I’ll talk.” I crimsoned with shame for her. Those power plays were an admission of sorts. Though diminutively thin and short in stature, my mother possessed a shimmering intellect that my father was smart enough to reckon dangerous.

At ten-years-old, I understood on a visceral level that I was tougher and more resilient than my mother. She, too, had been an only child, whose idyllic, sheltered upbringing had ill-prepared her for combat. I was weaned on her husband’s frustration and wrath.

By the next morning my welts had fainted to a scribble of red lines like a crossed out mistake. They would remain tender for days. Fresh from the hot seat in my dining room, I edged into the decrepit station wagon’s middle seat. Monsieur Lenoir whistled as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel the other on his thigh closest to me. I yelped when it leapt to mine. He pinched me quiet. I held my breath as his fingers began crawling toward my vagina. I willed myself mummified. Monsieur Lenoir jimmied my legs apart. He rubbed and chafed. The seam of my corduroys dug into my labia. Both rigid, we were two sticks. I wanted to ignite, smolder to ashes, burrow in the crevices, meld with the rest of the grime and trash. Was Jimmy watching? Would he tell people? In my peripheral vision I noted that his ears were covered with one elbow jutting toward me. If it could speak it would have said, “You have cooties.”

Monsieur Lenoir jerked his hand away, flapping it as though I had scorched him.

Did he think I wanted him to do this? I couldn’t be sure if the other passengers were aware of what was happening to me. They tendered neither subtle allusions nor overt acknowledgements.

Certain Monsieur Lenoir would call my parents, distort the situation, and pin the blame on me, I resolved to tell my mother. She met me at the door clothed in a tea length, bell-sleeved floral print dress, her hair pulled back in a chignon, joviality plastered on her face. At first I balked, worried that the conversation would sully her mood and outfit.

“What’s newsie?” (News+New=Newsie.)

“I got an A on my history paper.”

“That’s the best newsie! See, you do much better without me.”

(My mother had helped me with a biography of Julius Caesar. I got a C+. Apparently, she was unfamiliar with new writing and new math, having been taught the old way.)

She brought me a plate with Granny Smith apple slices, a teaspoon of honey, and my courage. “Mom, I have to talk to you about something very important.”

A big exhalation was followed by, “Should I sit down for this?”

“I want to take the bus again.”

This newsie startled her. “Mais pour quoi?”

Her French catalyzed my reticence into ire. “Because I hate Monsieur Lenoir, that’s why.”

“Is he not a good driver? Do you feel unsafe?”

Her questions were banal and appropriate. I faltered. “He’s gross. His car is gross. I just don’t want to go with him anymore.”

My mother’s equanimity wavered. “I’m sorry Abigail, but this makes no sense to me. Out of the blue you want to go back on the bus? Are you being picked on in that car—because I can talk to…”

“That’s not it,” I interrupted her.

“Excuse me!” my lack of politesse affronted her. I apologized. There were a few beats of silence. I figured she was scrolling through possibilities, weighing whether they would require French translations or threaten her emotional balance. I might have chickened out had she not said, “Why don’t you just tell me the problem, and then we can decide if there’s a solution.” Passivity, her reflex, emboldened me.

It gushed like verbal vomit. “It’s Monsieur Lenoir. The first time he just touched his, you know, private part, but then, I mean now, well twice, he rubbed my, you know, vagina.” I whispered vagina and croaked the rest of the story. Her narrowed moss green eyes converged word by word into a swamp of tears. She plopped down next to me on the banquette. With her arms around me, fingers combing my thick brown hair, she kept repeating that she was sorry. It was the first time I remember feeling that her love for me had density and vitality. Perhaps she feared that my father would mistake affection for coddling, an indication of weakness under his regime.

Thinking back, I don’t ever remember seeing them hold hands.

Rocking in my armchair after confessing, I wondered if secrets weighed anything. Free of mine I felt lighter. There was no movement behind the curtained windows of the apartment across the way, nothing to embellish with narrative. Chilly weather had unleaved the courtyard’s trees. An audience of naked branches with long, sinewy arms were adjoined at the tips as though they were clapping, for me. I heard my father bellow, “Hello.” He expected my mother and me, his sheep, to flock. Having beaten me to the door, she motioned me back to my room. Hearing their bedroom door shut I assumed my regular post, ear affixed to the crack in the frame.

“That is exactly what she told me, and yes, I believe her.” My mother had recited my story almost verbatim.

“Jane, take a good look at your daughter. Why would this guy choose her?”

“That’s exactly why he would choose her, Jerry. He’d think she was an easy mark.”

“Listen, we shouldn’t take things like this lightly, but we can’t accuse the man; it’s her word against his—he could sue us for defamation of character or something.”

“Not if he’s guilty. Child molesting is a crime. Our daughter could be seriously scarred by this; it’s the sort of thing that renders adults incapable of having intimate relationships.”

“Whoa—she’s about thirty pounds and a lot of years away from an ‘intimate relationship.’ In terms of Abbey’s sex life, if that’s what you mean, right now I doubt she’s even a candidate for, what’s the game where they spin the bottle and have to kiss the kid it lands on?”

“Spin the Bottle.”

“You get my point. You remember last Valentine’s Day when the kids on the bus threw black paper hearts at her.”

“You are, can be, as cruel and heartless as those kids.”

“If I recall correctly, you put her in this situation. Had you even met this guy? What did you know about Mr. Lenoir when you entrusted our daughter to him? Nothing, that’s what! I’m heartless and cruel but you’re the one who handed her over to some pedophile who molested her.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I feel terrible? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself!”

“And I’ll tell you something else,” he yelled, “Men like this are not one-time offenders!”

My mouth fell agape. He was almost defending me. But at my mother’s expense. It was always someone else’s fault. He had done his time, scapegoated for his mother’s death, endured my grandfather’s wet-towel whippings as penance.

“I would never intentionally endanger our daughter. I was trying to spare her,” my mother pleaded.

“Well, Jane, you know what they say about the road to hell. You got her into this. You believe her, you handle it.”

The next morning brown sugar and butter accompanied my oatmeal, testaments to parental guilt. No one uttered a word until I broke the silence.

“Um, how am I getting to school today?”

My father said, “Today you go with Mr. Lenoir. But you will not be in the front seat.”

My jaw dropped. Then bravery rocketed through me and out my mouth. “You can’t be serious—you’re making go back in that car?” My nose tingled, a precursor to weeping.

He and my mother locked eyes. My father’s hand went up, his fingers fanned, like a stop sign. “Abigail, we need more than twelve hours to sort this out. I promise you, he will not hurt you anymore.”

It was obvious that a discussion had ensued with Monsieur Lenoir, one that I did not overhear.

I shuffled toward my assailant, a giant marshmallow in my bulky white down jacket. He thumbed in the direction of the backseat. My spongy legs froze in place. Monsieur Lenoir angrily tapped the door. I could not look at him as I tumbled gracelessly into my former seat. The fourth grade girl who wouldn’t dare tease me had replaced me in the front. Staring at the back of her French-braided head I wondered if she would be his next victim. “C’est pas ma problem,” I decided. Morning light glinting through the besmirched window splintered into rainbow prisms that haloed her with dust.

I never forgot what my father said about men like Monsieur Lenoir: they don’t do it just once. I wish I could forget many of the other things he said. I wish his tremors had been guilt instead of Parkinson’s. I wish he had lived long enough to see my thin self. Whether I have a pretty face is subjective, but thinness is a fact with gradations of thinner. While many women gain fifteen pounds during their freshman year of college, I came home one month into mine to bury my father. Weight loss followed.

______________________________________________

V.E. Gottlieb
In 2014, at forty-eight-years-old, I earned my MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program. Prior to that I raised my two children and co-created Pam&Vix, a weekly blog that focused on parenting-related issues. I am currently working on my first novel, The Holders.

“First Confession”

“You are at the age of reason,” Sister said, “ready to understand the mystery of transubstantiation.”  She cued them with her ruler.

“Tran-sub-stan-ti-a-tion,” the children repeated. Angie spoke it softly, enjoying the roominess of the word, its multiple, mysterious syllables that would teach her how to be good.

They were in second grade, preparing for their First Communion. They were seven years old.

It was catechism hour, and Sister Patrick Marie swept up and down the aisles of the classroom, impossibly quiet in her heavy black shoes and voluminous black drapes. She called out questions, and Angie mouthed the words inside the murmurings of the other children.

Who made me?

God made me.

Then Father Mulligan, who had the habit of dropping in without warning, stood at the door and the children scrambled to attention beside their desks and greeted him. But they were not in unison. Their voices were low, their syllables staggered, and everything sounded like scuffling feet. Sister Patrick gave a closed-mouth smile to Father with one side of her face and scowled at the children with the other side. They had failed her in front of Father. Sister signaled for them to atone by reciting more of their catechism, which they delivered in the perfect singsong of their playground chants.

Where is God?

God is everywhere.

Father asked them to pray for John F. Kennedy, who was running for President of the United States. They all obeyed fervently, lifting their brown faces heavenward, since everyone knew that if Nixon became president, he would make them go to school on Saturdays, and that was un-American.

Before Father left, he told them to make room on their chair for their guardian angel, who was always at their side. They all scooted to the edge of their narrow wooden seats as they resumed their lesson. Angie’s thigh and shoulder soon ached from scrunching herself up. She didn’t dare move, though. With Sister Patrick patrolling the aisles and Father Mulligan making surprise visits, her guardian angel taking up part of her desk space, and God everywhere, Angie was surrounded and under watch.

It was the same at home, which was not really their home. They were staying with her grandparents. It was the home their mother, Delia, grew up in along with her sister, Nelda. The two of them had shared a bedroom and fought and told each other secrets. Now the three Rubio sisters shared a room with Nelda, who said and did surprising things. Sometimes, after taking off her bra and before slipping on her nightgown, she would hold one of her breasts in her hand and say, “Want some teta?” And she would laugh a wicked, cackling laugh.

Her son was Little Eddie, even though there seemed to be no Big Eddie from whom to distinguish him. Little Eddie slept in the dining room on a cot now that the Rubios had moved in. Angie’s grandparents snored in their twin beds in the bedroom just off the living room. Angie’s parents slept in the living room on the fold-out couch, which creaked when they tossed and turned. Baby Anthony slept between them. They had left his crib behind in Hawaii.

They had left other things behind in Hawaii. Some toys, most of their comic books, their skates, their plastic pool, a box of clothing, and their hula hoops. And Angie felt like she had left something of herself behind. They had crossed the ocean this time not in the three-day seasick journey by ship, but by plane. The close-up view of clouds and the long drop to earth made Angie think of how much space there would be between their life in Hawaii and their life back here in California.

They were bigger now—Eva was nine, Angie seven, and Letty five—and there was the extra fact of Anthony. It was so crowded in her grandparents’ house. They absorbed each other’s sweat during the day and heard each other breathe at night. The bathroom offered no escape, nor did the porch or backyard. There was always someone else there or waiting their turn. Nelda and their mother sat on the front porch until it was dark and the moths flattened themselves around the porch light. Anthony would sit and babble in his playpen in the living room, soothed by their grandfather’s growls as he argued with the TV and their grandmother crocheted. They watched the Spanish language station, which Delia and Nelda understood, but Angie’s father, Henry, didn’t. He would walk around the block over and over until Delia called out to him to come inside.

Angie and her sisters and Little Eddie did their homework on the dining room table, then played cards—Crazy Eights or Old Maid—and then ran their own bath. The sisters were required to take a bath together to save water. Then Eva ran one for Little Eddie, who was four and still sucked his thumb and ate his snots. The Rubio sisters stayed in the bathroom with him, sometimes lathering and scrubbing him as if he were the family dog.

One evening, instead of taking a walk around the block, Henry got in the car and came back with a small portable TV, which he hooked up in the dining room. Now after dinner each evening, he would watch the news and then Perry Mason or Gunsmoke while the TV in the living room jabbered in Spanish and Delia and Nelda shared movie magazines on the porch. The children crowded at the small kitchen table to do their homework, a move they accepted without protest, as it placed them within arm’s reach of their grandfather’s stash of Vanilla Wafers. Sometimes Angie peeked into the dining room from her perch at the kitchen table to watch her father watching TV. One night she went to sit with him while the news was on.

“Daddy,” she asked, her cheek harboring part of a Vanilla Wafer. “Do you know what transubstantiation is?”

“Ask your mother.”

“I know what it is.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

Angie decided to ask her father a question that he could answer.

“Daddy, what’s the cold war?”

“It’s when people aren’t fighting each other, even though they really want to.”

Gunsmoke had come on and her father raised the volume to drown out the

Spanish-dubbed I Spy on her grandparents’ TV in the adjoining room.

Sister Patrick stood at the front of the classroom, grimmer than usual and with the disconcerting appearance of a tear in one eye, its glisten magnified by her glasses.

“Our beloved Sister Paul Anna has taken ill.”

Some of the girls started crying. Angie felt a pang inside her ribcage, as if a rock had lodged there, and felt her face go hot at the thoughts she had had recently about Sister Paul Anna. Since she had seen Nelda’s breasts, Angie had wondered about her mother’s, even her grandmother’s. At school, she had wondered about the nuns. Did they have them?  But really, it was Sister Paul she had been curious about. Sister Paul with her young, movie-star face that Angie’s mother said was the image of Elizabeth Taylor.

“We must all pray for her,” Sister Patrick said.

As preparation for their First Communion, they practiced daily the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition. They kneeled beside their desks and recited these now. Then Sister Patrick ordered them to close their eyes and say a silent prayer from their hearts.

Angie closed her eyes and imagined Sister Paul in her bed beneath the blanket pulled to her chin, her head and body encased in the big black robes of her habit, her face pale and sweaty. Angie concentrated so hard on the image, she could summon no words of prayer. Sister Patrick ended the silence with a loud amen, and Angie held herself rigid, certain that Sister could read her thoughts or know her lack of prayer.

When they were back in their seats, Sister told them to take out a sheet of paper. “You will each write Sister Paul Anna a heartfelt get-well letter.”

Sister Patrick lay her hand over her heart to demonstrate the expected source of their words. Angie was aware of the children around her putting their own hands to their hearts because they knew that was what Sister expected of them and they were afraid to do otherwise. Angie placed her hand at the top of her ribcage, her fingers hanging off the left side of her collarbone. She felt her heart beat into the corner of her palm.

Angie listened to other people’s conversations a lot, and because she lived in a house with so many people and two TVs, she had a lot of conversations to listen to and, therefore, lots of words and sentences hovering in the spaces of her brain. She was a careful writer, both in forming her letters and her thoughts, even if not all of them were exactly her own.

Dear Sister Paul Anna,

During this time of cold war in the world, you have always been a breath of fresh air. You are the favorite of girls and boys and for those who think young. My faith that you will get well soon keeps me going strong.

Angie reread her words. She didn’t think nuns watched TV so was pretty sure that Sister Paul wouldn’t recognize the slogans from the Pepsi, Slinky, and Sugar Crisp commercials. It was a pretty good letter, she thought, but not special. Sister Patrick was telling them to finish up their letters soon, so Angie wrote quickly.

When you come back, you will have a big surprise.

Sincerely,

Angie Rubio

Angie didn’t know what made her write such a thing. As Sister Patrick collected their letters, Angie wondered what exactly she had meant by that. What surprise could she, Angie, possibly invent?  She watched Sister stack the letters on the corner of her desk and told herself that her letter was just one of many. It was nothing special. She forced a sigh of relief.

The next day when she came in from recess, there was a familiar sheet of paper on her desk. It was her own letter to Sister Paul Anna. For some reason she panicked at the sight of her words that were exposed for all to see. She looked up to see Sister Patrick, who was making a gesture at her, turning her open palm to face down, and finally Angie understood she was meant to flip over the letter. On the back was a letter from Sister Paul.

Dear Angie,

Thank you for such a lovely letter. It cheered me up greatly. I look forward to the day when I can return to the classroom.

Yours,

Sister Paul Anna

No one else had received a letter from Sister Paul. But then probably no one else had promised her a big surprise.

She knew Sister Patrick had read her letter and she knew Sister Patrick had read the response from Sister Paul. It was a terrible thing to know.

It was Delia who had insisted they go to the Catholic school, though Henry argued they couldn’t afford it. “I’m on a seaman’s salary.”

“What’s the alternative?” Delia demanded. “The public school all rowdy with bullies and low-income kids?”

“You think there are no bullies in Catholic school?”

“Bullies are everywhere,” Angie said, amending a line from her catechism.

Delia would not budge. The money they might have spent on renting a house went instead to paying Catholic school tuition for three kids. Anyway, Delia reasoned, Catholic school made more sense now that Angie was to make her First Communion.

But when Angie came home with homework to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, the names of the Apostles, plus learn all her prayers, there was no one to help her. Henry liked to watch the news and Perry Mason, and Delia was always busy rocking Anthony to ease the fussiness to which he had lately become prone. Although happy to be back in California, Delia was nevertheless worried that the transoceanic trip and their new living arrangements had unsettled Anthony.

Angie followed her mother into the bedroom, where she lay Anthony on the bed to change his diaper. Angie thought her mother might have some ideas about what kind of a big surprise a nun might want. She handed her mother a wet cloth, the baby powder, and a fresh diaper. Her mother cooed to Anthony as she wiped and changed him, and Angie did the same. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” they said hopefully.

There were just the plastic pants to slip on, but Nelda was calling Delia to come listen to Doris Day on the radio. “Cantamos con la Doris.”

“I’ll be right back,” her mother told her. “Watch Anthony. Make sure he doesn’t fall off the bed.”

Angie watched her little brother squirm, his arms and legs like fat thrashing worms.

“You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” Angie said again, though this time it didn’t come out as a coo, as sweet encouragement. It sounded mocking, and Anthony started to cry, as if he understood her taunt.

“I’ll be right there, mijo,” her mother called, interrupting for a moment her sing- along to “Que Será, Será.”

Angie decided to deliver Anthony to her mother to save her the trouble of coming back to the bedroom. “Okay, mijo,” she told him as he observed her with wide eyes and a spit bubble at his mouth.

She lifted Anthony off the bed, her arms wrapped around his bottom. She expected his torso to follow the momentum of his butt against her body, but Anthony lurched backward and Angie did a dance with him as she tried to get her balance underneath his arching body. He was trying to launch himself out of her grasp and she knew the only hope she had was to make sure the bed was beneath him when he forced himself out of her arms and became airborne. But she was too late. The thud of his head on the floor stunned him into silence for a long moment during which Angie wondered if she might’ve killed her brother. But then he opened his mouth in a tragic scream. Angie gathered him quickly and practically threw him on the bed, which seemed to mollify him, as his screams petered out to hiccups just as her mother rushed to the bedside. She picked Anthony up and patted his head, his back, his diapered butt, and sent soothing whispers into his neck. She looked at Angie. “Did you let him fall?”

She hesitated. The answer was technically no. She had not let him fall.

“Don’t you lie to me,” her mother warned. “Did you let him fall?”

“No,” Angie said.

Her mother appeared to fume. “I sincerely hope not,” she said, whisking Anthony out of the room.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” They were the words Angie had been practicing in catechism class, words she would say to the priest the first time she stepped inside the confessional. They were to be followed by a recitation of her sins. So far, Angie’s list was short, which worried her. She was sure that much was expected of them in terms of sin. Should she lie about her sins? No, that would be a sin. But then at least she would have something to confess. She was undecided about whether dropping Anthony was a sin.

“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you? Aunt Nelda said as Angie kneeled at the bedside practicing her lines. “Because it’s dark in the confessional, you know.”

In fact, Angie was afraid of the dark, though she seldom had to worry about being alone in it at her grandparents’ house. There were so many of them living there under one roof. Anyway, there were lights constantly turned on as one or another of them made their way to the bathroom for a pee or the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night.

Letty was in Nelda’s bed and Eva was next to Angie. Nelda, as usual, was in her underwear as she sat at her dresser, wiping make-up from her face with cotton balls dipped in baby oil from the same bottle used for Anthony’s butt. When she was finished, she shrugged the straps of her bra off her shoulders and reached around the back to undo the clasp, and said what she always said. “Want some teta?”

They had always shaken their heads, not really knowing what they were being offered. Tonight, though, Letty asked, “What’s teta?”

Nelda laughed. “I’m just teasing.”

Then she explained she used to feed Little Eddie with milk from her breasts.

“Our mother uses bottles,” Angie said.

“Not with me,” Eva said. “I was breastfed.”

“You were not,” Angie said, though she had no way of knowing; she just felt it shouldn’t

be true. But Nelda confirmed it.

“What about me?”

Nelda wagged her finger at her as if she had committed a wrong. “It’s just too much to ask of a woman to do it with more than one child. It makes a saggy bust,” she said, cupping her breasts in her hands, lifting them up and then letting them go. “They wouldn’t look this good if I’d had another baby to feed.”

Angie didn’t like having Nelda wag her finger at her. She didn’t like Nelda reminding her that the confessional was dark. She didn’t like when Nelda would tease and ask them to do the hula just because they’d lived in Hawaii.

Before Hawaii, Angie had not thought to question the absence of a father for Little Eddie, a husband for Aunt Nelda. But now, after Hawaii, now that she was seven, these things occurred to her and she formed her own conclusions. That you didn’t have to be married to have children. That somehow just being a grown-up caused you to have a child. Of course, this conclusion was soundly refuted by Eva. It doesn’t just happen automatically, she snorted. There has to be a kiss. And there’s a seed in the kiss. And the woman swallows it and it grows into a baby in her belly.

Who kissed Aunt Nelda, Angie wanted to know. She said it out loud: “Who kissed you and gave you a baby, Aunt Nelda?

Nelda looked stunned, and her lashes batted wildly. It made them all go silent.

“I’m telling Mama,” Letty said, and she slid from the bed and backed out of the room the way policemen do on TV.

Within seconds, their mother stalked into the room with Letty trailing behind. “What’s going on here?”

“Angie wanted to know who kissed Aunt Nelda and gave her a baby,” Eva said.

Their mother pursed her lips and folded her arms. “Nelda had a husband, but he died. Now no more discussion.”  She looked sternly at Angie, as if she might have been responsible for killing him. But Angie knew her mother was lying.

They needed cheering up. Henry was tired of being a sailor and tired of living in someone else’s house. Delia said to him that at least he wasn’t the mother day-in and day-out to all these kids—at least he got to leave the house to go to work. Nelda was still looking tragic after Angie asked who kissed her. And Angie was still worried about the big surprise she had promised Sister Paul Anna. The grown-ups decided a drive to Marine Land to see the dolphins dance and the seals play polo would make them smile. But they would have to get an early start and miss church.

“But I’m not supposed to miss church when I’m studying for my First Communion,” Angie reminded them.

“Do you want to go to Marine Land or not?” her mother asked.

“On Mondays Sister Patrick makes us stand up and say why we didn’t go to church.”

“Ay, chica, just don’t stand up,” Nelda said.

Angie didn’t want to stand up. But she knew she wouldn’t have a choice. At least she could add not going to church to her list of sins to confess, along with asking Nelda who’d kissed her.

All of them squeezed together in the car, the one that had come back with them from Hawaii. The three grown-ups nudged up against each other in the front with baby Anthony on Delia’s lap, and the sisters jostled for space in the back with Little Eddie, from whose neck Nelda had tied a barf bag. There was no room for a guardian angel anywhere. No one complained about the lack of space, because it was better to be crammed in a car with a destination that wasn’t home than it was to be home, which wasn’t really their home.

They were scarcely out of their own neighborhood when a fiercely loud but mostly minor collision sent them home after all. Angie’s father had pulled to a stop behind another car at the traffic light. When the light turned green, and the car ahead failed to move, Angie’s father honked the horn. “We don’t have all day,” he muttered. The car ahead of them had stalled but its engine was doing its best to grind back to life as Angie and her family fumed impatiently in their cramped seats. The engine finally revived with a roar, but before the family could celebrate, their heads were flung against the dashboard, seatbacks, or each other. Angie ended up on the floor, knees at her chin. Little Eddie was splayed over her, his barf bag trapped beneath him. As Nelda screamed for her son, Angie held her hands up to catch the puke from Little Eddie’s mouth. Angie closed her eyes and waited for rescue, listening to her mother’s low wailing of something vague and garbled, which she slowly recognized as prayer.

The car ahead of them had, after revving its newly recharged engine, thundered into reverse and taken out the front grill of the Rubio car. Once they were all extricated from the dented vehicle, and Angie’s hands hosed off at the corner gas station, they sat on the curb as a police officer asked questions, wrote in his notepad, and talked into his two-way radio, after which they were allowed, bruised and scraped, to climb back into their beaten car with its cracked windshield, buckled hood, and empty headlight sockets, and limp home.

On Monday morning, Sister Patrick stood at the front of the room and asked which of them had failed to attend church on Sunday. Those who stood had to explain what had been more important than God. Angie stood bravely to face the humiliation. She stood partly out of her sense that Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, and God already knew of her absence from church. But partly because she felt a little heroic, and she was disappointed that the bruise on her forehead that had seemed so robustly purple the previous day was already fading.

“We were in a car accident,” Angie said, and she couldn’t help raising her hand to her forehead where the bump was − or used to be.

Sister Patrick frowned. Though it might have been concern, suspicion was also a possibility.

“My mother had stitches,” Angie said.

“Well,” Sister said, “thank God you are all safe.” It was a command.

Angie bowed her head, wanting to thank God instead for saving her from the wrath of Sister Patrick.

During silent reading time, when thirty sets of lips were moving soundlessly—including Angie’s, even as her mind wandered to the problem of inventing a big surprise for Sister Paul Anna—Sister Patrick called Angie to her desk.

Angie, shaky with guilt about her inattention to her reading, made her way slowly to Sister Patrick sitting large as a monument at the front of the room.

“Yes, Sister Patrick?” she whispered, aware that many of the lips in the room had ceased moving.

“Angie,” Sister Patrick said in a low, deep voice, “what is this big surprise you have in store for Sister Paul?”

Angie could not swallow, could not force words from her throat. She shrugged, not quite meeting Sister Patrick’s small gray eyes behind the rimless glasses.

“Do you mean to say that what you wrote is not quite true?”

Angie coughed to test her vocal chords. “I wanted it to be true. I meant for it to be true.”

“You know that’s not the same thing.”

There was a long pause, during which Angie considered running from the room. Some of the other students had stopped pretending to read and were watching the scene before them.

“What made you write such a thing?” Sister Patrick asked.

Angie heard Sister’s voice trying to be kind, but saw that her eyes were not. Angie’s impulse to flee left her. She stood rooted and faced Sister’s unfriendly gaze. “I wanted to make her happy. Because I love her. We love her.”

Angie knew it was wrong to speak for the class and she expected Sister to say so. But all she said was, “That will do. Please sit down now.”

Sister Patrick stood up. “And now for phonics.”

After their phonics lesson—at which the children did poorly, since no one understood what phonics meant – Sister Patrick instructed them all to put their heads face down on their desks, her chalky jowls quivering with displeasure. They did this whenever they played Heads Up 7-Up on rainy days, but today it wasn’t raining.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister Patrick said.

Angie watched little orange blobs float behind her closed eyelids. She could hear the restlessness of the children around her—the chafing of thighs, the skimming of saddle shoes against linoleum, the friction of sweater sleeves against grainy desktops. Angie was about to lift her eyes for a tiny peek when she felt a hand covering her head, guiding it back to its down position, holding it there. Finally, letting go. And the severe whisper of black moving past.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister repeated.  Her voice came from the front of the room again, and it hovered over their bowed heads as she gave her next instruction. “If you hate me, raise your hand.”

There was a moment when the restlessness ceased, like the moment after a door slams and smothers everything to a hush when no one breathes. Then the fidgeting began again – the chafing thighs, shuffling shoes, rasping woolly sweaters – but Angie held herself still, her legs, her arms, especially her arms. It was hot with her face pressed upon her desk. It was hard to breathe. Her head pounded with voices. It’s a sin to hate. It’s a sin to lie. Raise your hand if you hate me. It was a single voice and then it was a chorus and though her eyes were closed and her head down and she could see nothing except tiny orange blots, couldn’t they all see her? Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, God. Angie needed air. She lifted her face, took a deep breath, and raised both hands high in surrender.

______________________________________________

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript has been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, and Brighthorse prizes in short fiction. “First Confession” is part of her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio.

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