Fiction Archive

Strays

 

Tonight, I fly down the middle lane of the 5, no Albertson’s trucks or SUVs forcing me to apply the brake. I turn the sharp corner past Dodger Stadium, where the freeway divides, and drive past Commerce Citadel Outlets, an Assyrian-inspired mecca mall. It makes me anxious, the building’s art deco pillars projecting so far above the car dealerships flanking the freeway.

It’s 10 PM, and Beth has just gotten off her shift at the ER. I arrive at her apartment complex and park in a small carport that’s always near empty. I have to be careful of the cats. They slide their skinny bodies into every spare space. When I leave Beth’s later in the night, I’ll have to idle a bit before reversing, give them time to flee from under the engine, the tops of my tires. They’ll let loose desperate pleas when I walk by, but if I get close, give them an encouraging call, they disappear into the night.

Over in Pico Rivera by the riverbed, it’s all dogs. They run up and down the river’s length, keeping a fair distance from residents. Beth and I are sometimes the only joggers they encounter along a particularly forsaken stretch of the San Gabriel. She still works out despite the late night shifts, and on the days I come over and there’s a shred of sun, we’re jogging – always three miles out and three miles back. We’ve run together for years, since we were roommates in college. We pass the dogs, and I worry that my running might incite a predatory instinct within them, but they just stare at us.

I grew up among coyotes and learned to watch for them slinking across my neighborhood streets around sundown. It’s the strays I find so much more unsettling – how they move with purpose, independent and only recently savage.

I like having friends who aren’t in the entertainment industry. Although most aren’t in the industry, but clinging just outside its periphery. I let myself fade into the background at some of these parties. I’m small, like Beth, and I don’t have her presence. At even the most intimate gatherings, I can’t recognize half the people there. Strangers ask what I do, and I say, “I’m a writer,” and the response is always, “What do you write?” I say “fiction,” and it usually ends there.

Last weekend was a barbeque in the shared backyard of a Hollywood bungalow, all concrete and yellowed grass. I met an actress who asked me what I write and quickly followed with a tale of her two suicide attempts. Pills, both times.

Beth told me pills never worked. When she went on runs as an EMT, a pill popper was a low-enough call in urgency for an ambulance to avoid sirens, maybe even stop for a quick snack at the nearest Taco Bell if they were coming off a long shift. She told me you would have to take the pills slowly, not all at once, and even then, the body fights against it the whole time.

I unlatch Beth’s screen door. She stands in the kitchen, clutching a can of Raid and a broom. She hasn’t changed out of her scrubs, and the dull blue swallows her frame.

“There’s a nest of black widows downstairs in the laundry room,” she informs me.

I wasn’t planning on doing my laundry there, so I shrug.

“We have to kill them,” she says. “There are little kids in the complex who play down there. Who knows how long it will be for the landlord to take care of it?”

“We could put up a warning sign,” I suggest.

I don’t like spiders. Apart from when they pose a definitive threat, hanging over my bed, scampering across my flesh, I try to pretend they aren’t there. But I realize their presence in her laundry room must seem like just another challenge to Beth, like a patient with his skull cracked open or a leg twisted the wrong way, dangling in place by only skin. She’s ready to plunge in.

“It won’t take long,” she says. “You don’t have to come with me.”

Beth is always reminding people that she doesn’t need their help. She’s the type who’d rather scale a grocery aisle row than ask someone taller to pull a can of soup off a shelf for her.

I begin to relent under her resolve. It’s true I don’t want a little child to die. A black widow’s bite could likely put down a three-year-old. Or at least one of the stray cats.

I take a can of Raid, promising to spray every arachnid I spot until they meet a watery, burning death. We head outside, past three spotted cats, and down the stairs into the darkness of her laundry cellar.

They cluster in a damp corner near one of the washers, plump black mounds woven into a cocoon of silken menace. They can see us, I am sure. They lie in wait, suspended in time, and I prepare myself for the frantic race that I know is in store.

Beth swings the broom back like a batter stepping up to the plate and turns to me. “You ready?”

I’m not, but I nod.

She kills with a clinical precision, the same concentration she no doubt uses when saving human lives. I flatten against the opposite wall and can only watch.

I think about that actress, lying on cool tile in a tiny bathroom somewhere in Hollywood, regretting what she’s done already, waiting for the ambulance to find her. A drop of taco juice spilling off an EMT’s hand onto her wrist as he listens for her weakening pulse.


Laura Picklesimer is an MFA graduate from Cal State Long Beach. Her work has been featured in Riprap, the Pomona Valley Review, Watermark Journal and the California Current Writers Series. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches English and creative writing.

Human Traffic

When Rupah arrives in London, she is overtaken with gloom. Foreign land again, strange faces, tall people she should appease, an unfamiliar tempo, cold air penetrating her clothes, raindrops running down her thin jacket, a depressing gray light, and the English language that sounds so alien. Only yesterday she was standing in her garden in Sri Lanka, her husband watching her from the entrance to the house, her children hugging her and laughing at the heavy warm rain, her sari soaking it up, dimming its colors and turning it into a thin transparent piece of cloth. But now she takes the tube from Heathrow Airport into London, collapsing into a vacant seat. The exhaustion of a long flight does not obscure her aversion to the cold light, the distressing screeching the train is making, and the stuffy air in the crowded car.

As she knocks on the door at Pembridge Place and hears Mr. Allen’s steps slowly approaching the door, a lump grows in her throat. She puts the suitcase down, unfastens a button of her jacket, removes her gloves, adjusts her scarf, actions done one after the other out of habit, intended to ease distress. Another visit in Sri Lanka is over, another journey home and back again to a foreign land, and now a new count must begin, of days, nights, hours, and minutes until the next trip home. When Mr. Allen opens the door, Rupah wipes her tears and smiles at him. “I was expecting you,” he says kindly, and she follows him into the entrance hall.

She pulls the suitcase up the stairs and into her room. Everything has been left unchanged: the colorful bed cover she bought on her last visit to Sri Lanka, the Indian cushions she found in a shop in London, a table made of heavy dark wood facing the window, a huge closet, two large plants on the windowsill, and on a small chest is her altar to home: a colorful embroidered cloth, at its heart stands a statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, his hands placed on his knees, and his smile illuminated.  Colorful candles surround him, and two vases, now empty, stand behind him. Rupah opens her suitcase and begins to arrange her clothes in the closet, only the long skirt and purple sweater she was wearing for the flight are tossed into the laundry basket. When she is done, she lies on the bed and closes her eyes. The vibrant colors of Sri Lanka gradually fade. The smell of grass after the rain, the tall trees surrounding the village shedding heavy water drops that fall and crash on the water-soaked soil, the yellow-gray sky, the soft clouds, the boisterous laughter of her children, her husband looking at her from the entrance to the house, they all dissolve and lose their vitality and disintegrate in the gloomy room with its heavy furniture and oppressive silence. As she looks at Buddha’s face she thinks his smile is sad, and before she falls asleep she whispers to herself: May everyone be happy, may everyone be free from misery.

In the morning she gets up late, unlike her usual self, from a deep and dreamless sleep. When she wakes up she isn’t sure where she is, but the darkness outside reminds her that she is in Europe. She gets out of bed, washes and gets dressed, combs her long black hair and then gathers it up. It’s too late, she gives up morning meditation and goes down to make breakfast. To her surprise, Mr. Allen is already in the kitchen. “Well, dear, how was your visit home?” he asks. She looks at him and says nothing. He looks a bit unkempt, she thinks. Rupah assists Mr. Allen to take a bath. Every other day she goes to the bathroom with him, he takes off his clothes and sits on a chair in the bathtub. It’s hard for a man his age to stand for so long. She helps him soap and wash his body. The physical intimacy imposed on them causes them to speak in a somewhat alienated manner, in a very practical tone. Every morning he tells her what products she should buy, the medication she should get from the pharmacy, books that should be returned to the library. Rupah listens carefully, sometimes writing it down so as not to forget, giving in to the simple mundane spirit which turns them into partners, two people keeping a regular schedule, which brings tranquility to both of them.

Twelve years ago Rupah left Sri Lanka. Premala was five years old, Sahil five months old. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and now England, she travels by herself, from house to house, from one old person to another. New languages, different streets, both repulsive and tasty food, but old age is one: a withering body, bursting anger, forgetfulness, stench. The first time she travelled was the easiest; she thought she would be back in a couple of months. Kumar came home furious. He had been fired again. He was angry at his boss, fuming how arrogant and vain he was, blaming him for his failure, while Rupah thought that perhaps if he hadn’t been two hours late for work, he wouldn’t have been sacked. Whenever he started a new job, she dreaded the moment he would come back home, bitter and resentful, arguing that he had been wronged, suggesting there were hidden motives, never admitting that the fault was his. When she tried to soothe him and served him food, he tossed it on the floor. There is no other way, she thought, she must find a job abroad. He would never manage to provide for them, and Premala would soon be six years old. Only those who go to private school have a chance for a better life.

At the airport, she held Sahil on her lap. The baby clung to her, sticking his tiny fingernails into her body, leaning his curly head on her neck. When the time came to say goodbye, he wouldn’t let go.  Rupah pulled him away from her body, seeing his tiny mouth wide open and hearing his sobs but saying nothing, she handed him over to her mother, turned around and left without saying goodbye. A couple of months, that’s all, she said to herself on the walkway to the airplane, wiping her tears, straightening her skirt, checking that her handbag was closed, gathering her hair into a ponytail.

The toothless Cypriot woman Rupah cared for had a low, husky voice, she giggled for no reason, and called Rupah “honey.” She had old worn out dresses and a colorful head scarf. In her broken English she inquired why she left her family, and when Rupah told her that her husband was fired she chuckled in a voice resembling a crow’s caw and said, “Ah, good-for-nothing! Shame, a beautiful woman like you, couldn’t you find someone better?” Rupah liked her direct talk, with no pretense. She referred to her late husband as “the useless bum,” and to her only son as “the womanizer.” Time and again she warned Rupah that her husband was trying to get rid of her, maybe he wants to find another woman, probably younger, and begged her to return home.

Every weekend she went to the phone booth next to the post office and called home. Familiar voices emerged from the receiver: her mother came to cook for the children, Premala started private school and said grandma bought her a new backpack, Sahil said “mama, mama.” After five months abroad she asked to talk to Kumar and inquired if he had found a job. The gush of complaints that came from the phone lifted her at once to the small village at the foot of the round hills. “I was sacked, the boss is a liar,” he complained, and Rupah stood there and listened, and for a moment she was glad she was away from the village.

A month later, half a year after she had left, she called early in the morning. Kumar answered the phone, surprised to hear her. Silence fell when she said she was planning to return home. Two girls holding hands passed by the phone booth; a car was blowing its horn in the crowded morning street; pigeons landed on the bench nearby. “They all go,” Kumar’s voice was heard. “What? Who is going where?” she wondered, and he said “All the women.” Perhaps Rupah’s silence made him more talkative: all the women of the village – mothers of small children – left to go abroad, to work outside Sri Lanka. Chand’s wife, Harish’s wife, Mohan’s daughter, they all went away. Only elderly ladies and young girls were left here, he said, and she thought she heard a chuckle. Her spirit traveled from one house to another, from family to family, and she had to admit there was much truth in his claim: the mothers left, leaving the children behind, flying off to remote countries to provide for their families.

Rupah returned to the old woman’s house, ignoring her husky voice that came from the kitchen, and walked straight to her room. She took off the pink blouse and put on a white shirt and sat on the carpet facing the low cabinet, the altar she made for herself with the statue of Buddha. She could feel the pulse in her temples, a headache spreading gradually, becoming an obscure pain in an unfamiliar part of her body. The die is cast, she thought desperately; there is no way back. She had been sentenced to wandering; she would have to live away from her children for years. Premela, Sahil, there is no knowing when she would ever see them again. Her long black hair spread out on her shaking back. She lowered her head and cried bitterly, torn by yearning for her children. Buddha watched her, smiling as always, a breeze made the candle’s flames flicker, a pleasant scent of the purple flowers behind him wafted over the room, and she murmured in tears, “may I be guard for those who need protection; a guide to those on the path.”

In Greece, she cared for an elderly man, tall and heavy, with huge hands, who had a large family. A strange character, a mixture of vulgarity and outstanding generosity. His daughters, who lived nearby, came to see that she was looking after their father properly, each one giving different instructions. One said he should take the medication in the morning, the other said at noon. One prepared food for him, the other throwing it away and making her own dish. At first, Rupah tried to make peace between them, but after a while she let them have their way. Every time one would complain she pointed a finger at her sister. Nikos, now almost ninety years old, used to try and touch her breasts, and when he succeeded, he giggled, as if the attempts of this pretty woman to avoid him were funny. But every couple of weeks, he would draw a pile of fifty dollar bills from under his bed and hand them to her, out of sight of his vigilant daughters.

Asking her about her family and listening to her explanations, how she provides for the family, giving her children a better future, her husband is at home but doesn’t care for the children properly, he inquired: “Do you have friends here?” She was taken by surprise. Yes, of course she knew a couple of foreign workers, women from Sri Lanka and India who worked in the neighborhood. They used to exchange information: where is the best Indian food store, how can you find a doctor, what is the best time to go to the post office. Rupah never saw them as friends but as sort of sisters, sharing a similar destiny. When she remained silent, he said, “You live here, and that’s it. You make sure you have a good life.”

She was overwhelmed. She felt her life was devoted to a single purpose, aimed at nothing but providing for the family. She never thought about whether she was happy, only if what she did benefited her children. The life of wandering was justified only because they went hand in hand with devotion and sacrifice; this prevented further suffering. But suddenly Nikos’s words seem so reasonable, consistent with an irrefutable wisdom. In an instant, unconsciously, passionate fervor was awakened, an urge for happiness and pleasure she thought had been lost forever.

On Sunday, her day off, she got up in the morning and sat facing the mirror. She combed her shiny black her, put on burgundy lipstick, and circled her eyes with eyeliner she had brought from Sri Lanka. She then put on a white dress, becoming to her round figure, drew out of the closet the embroidered purse her mother had bought her, and left the room. When Nikos saw her, she thought she saw a touch of admiration in his eyes. He smiled at her, waved his hand and returned to his room.

She walked in the narrow streets of northern Athens, between dilapidated houses and people sleeping on the sidewalk, looking for an address a friend from Sri Lanka had given her. After about half an hour she found the building, covered with graffiti. Already as she climbed the filthy stairs, careful not to step on broken glass, avoiding a broken step, she heard the chanting. But as the door opened bright light enveloped her, a glimmer of glittering candles, and in front of her was Buddha, illuminated and affectionate. The room was crowded, men and women sat barefoot on the floor, chanting prayers. She took off her shoes, sat with the worshippers and joined the singing. Smiling faces around her, the familiar smell of incense, the long table abundant with food, the colorful fabric covering the walls, Rupah gave in to the joy that filled the room, the smiles and laughter, the pleasant odors, asking people where they came from and telling them about her village. And so, inadvertently, a spirit of home materialized in this room with its small shrine, a captivating warm coziness, breaking another miniature blood vessel that attached Rupah to her family and accelerating her path to liberation. And only as the dancing was finishing and food was gone did she go down the shaky stairs – she suddenly thought of Premala and Sahil. She halted. Panic took over her. She gripped the banister and closed her eyes, shattered by her own contentment, which seemed so treacherous.  She thought she would never see her children again. Leaning her head against the stairs, she whispered may all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illness.

Signora Bosco lived in a town in northern Italy, in a house with a porch facing a view of the valley. Always wearing black, she walked slowly, leaning on a walking stick, smiling at Rupah as she spoke to her in Italian. After every couple of words her face grew grave, she said Gésu Cristo and crossed herself. Every now and then she would use the very few English words she knew, “food,” “bathroom,” “drink,” and then she would go back to Italian. Rupah’s room faced the view, through the window she could see a wide valley and beyond it the surrounding hills. The abundance of greenery, the bright paths, the grazing cows meandering through the meadows, Rupah felt she had been here before. Only the thin sharp light, so different from the yellow-gray sky in Sri Lanka, reminded her she was in a foreign land. There is something transparent about the sky here, she thought. Strange, in Sri Lanka it is heavier.

Every Sunday Rupah went with Signora Bosco to church. Early in the morning Rupah helped her dress up, gently combed her gray hair back and tied it with a black clip, and they walked together to church. The road was slightly uneven, once in a while Rupah had to hold her to stop her from falling, bypassing puddles or stones on the narrow path. Though the church was rather close, they had to walk for more than half an hour. At first, upon entering the church, she was alarmed. The dusty air, light coming from a narrow window in the ceiling, creating a ray piercing the darkness, the intimidating pictures on the walls, the priest walking around with such a grave expression, the statue of Jesus tormented on the Cross, she nearly ran out, leaving the Signora by herself. Also, her silence on the way back was oppressive. She normally chatted constantly, talking to Rupah and ignoring the fact that she did not speak Italian. But on the way back from church she was always mute and introspective. She seemed immersed in contemplation, and now and then her countenance would change. Anger, sigh, sadness, a dismissive hand gesture, Rupah found it strange that the visit to the church made her sad, silenced her chatter and generated an unpleasant inner conversation. It’s a shame she can’t come with me to the temple in Milan, she thought. The simple natural chanting, sitting on the floor with the crowd, knee touching knee, the vibrant colors all around, red, orange, yellow, the flickering candles around Buddha, and the pleasant smell of incense – they would have made the Signora’s prayer pleasant and uninterrupted, without the misery Rupah couldn’t comprehend.

Rupah bought a laptop computer. A friend she met at the temple in Milan managed to buy one for her at a special price. At first all, those keys confused her, but in two weeks she could manage it well. She had heard people talking about Skype, and she wished to call her family in Sri Lanka. She sat facing the laptop, dressed neatly, her hair coiffured and her face made up, waiting impatiently to see her children. An ascending and descending tone, blue color spreading on the screen, stripes moving in circles, and suddenly she could see Premala shouting joyfully, “Come, come quickly, mommy’s here!” Immediately Sahil appeared, and as he saw his mom he started kissing the screen without hesitation and yelling “Mommy, come home, come home, when are you coming?” Her mother stood facing the camera, smiling and waving, as if she saw her daughter sailing away on a ship. Though they only laughed, blew kisses in the air and said almost nothing, when the conversation was over she remained seated almost an hour, facing the laptop. Her children smiling but missing her, her home, the familiar light coming through the window, her mother so thrilled to see her. They were all revived in her spirit, one after the other, bringing her distant home closer, but undermining the comfortable daily routine of the last years. In an instant, broken blood vessels were healed; torn when she left her family, they bled and almost died after years of living by herself.

The Skype conversation became part of her daily routine. Rupah sat facing the laptop, now wearing loungewear, her hair disheveled. At one o’clock, as the Signora took her siesta, Rupah spoke with Premala, Sahil, and her mother. At first, small mundane details filled her with joy: Premala’s school mates, her success at school, she showed Rupah her notebooks. The teacher said she was the best student in her class, and grandma bought her a new dress. She turned around facing the camera, and Rupah laughed and complimented her: a pretty girl with a beautiful dress. Sahil practiced bouncing a ball in front of the computer: ten kicks without missing once. He then tried to impress his mom and jump when the ball was in the air, but fell on the floor, and his mother’s pleasant laughter came from the computer: “Be careful, Sahil, so you don’t get hurt.”

There were also quarrels. Premala wished to tell mom a secret, Sahil wouldn’t leave the room. He pushed Premala, “I want to talk to mommy now,” she pushed him back, and he burst into tears. Her mother came from the kitchen, trying to separate the two. Rupah tried to make peace, but they couldn’t hear her. Finally, she turned off the computer. By tomorrow her mother will make peace between the children, and soon the Signora will wake up, and she needs to help her get out of bed.

The Signora’s son was courting Rupah. A slightly shabby widower, when his children left home he came to live with his aging mother. A man about sixty years old, his hair dyed black and saturated with hair oil. A heavy smoker, his shirt was slightly stained, and he spoke broken English. His small dark eyes moved anxiously from side to side, examining everyone in haste. From the very moment Rupah arrived at the Signora’s home, he smiled at her, offered help time and again, and also inquired: “Doesn’t your husband care you are here alone? Aren’t you lonely? Would you like to have dinner with me? How do you spend your day off?” Rupah smiled bashfully. This attention could have been pleasurable if she hadn’t felt men cannot be trusted. Her mother made her marry Kumar. She was in love with a boy in high school, but her devoted mother thought she had to find someone who would provide for her daughter. For months she paid visits to almost every family in the village, examining young men, wondering who would best suit her daughter. Even though Rupah cried when the date for the wedding had been set, her mother was determined, smiling to herself with confidence that the craze of youth would surely be replaced by a peaceful, comfortable life.

But at the airport, before Rupah left for Cyprus, the mother stood pale and upset, as if she had been found guilty of a crime but someone else was about to be punished for it. Her hand touched her daughter’s arm, perhaps caressing it perhaps grabbing it. And when Rupah forcibly detached Sahil from her body her mother held him tightly, and tears covered her face. From that day, she had almost never spoken to Kumar. Without asking for permission she moved in with them, cooking and cleaning, caring for the children. During the day Kumar sat in the back yard, in the evening he watched TV. His life amounted to hours of staring at the sky, the ceiling, the TV. Her mother got used to the lifestyle of her son-in-law. Only sometimes, late at night, when his friends came to play cards, putting money on the table, she sat on her bed, leaning her head against the wall and closing her eyes, pondering time and again why she had insisted her daughter marry this lazy man. All are nothing but flower in a flowing universe, she said to herself, but still, this bitter drop, biting and excruciating, wouldn’t evaporate.

Six times Rupah visited Sri Lanka. Every two years she traveled to visit home. Her preparation lasted months, she bought presents for her children, her mother, her cousins and their children, and also collected packages for relatives of friends. Yet she always returned in despair. From the moment she was picked up at the airport, in spite of the joy and excitement, the future separation from her children materialized in her mind. Every moment held a seed of departure.

She spent six weeks in the village. First she went home, hugging Premala and Sahil and crying. She then embraced her mother, and finally kissed Kumar on the cheek. She didn’t pretend there was any intimacy between them, and everyone accepted it naturally, without question.  Kumar had changed over the years. The somewhat elegant clothing he used to wear, slacks made of a shiny brown fabric and tight checked shirts, were replaced by visible shabbiness, as if he wished to display the fact that no one is taking care of him. His eyes, once merry, were now empty, and his hair turned gray.  When Rupah stood next to him, she could see his hands were shaking. Even when everyone was at home, he sat in the back yard and smoked, sometimes closing his eyes, sometimes gazing at the tall trees.

Rupah accompanied the children to school, prepared food, played with Sahil, shared Premala’s secrets. A dispossessed mother, for a couple of weeks pretending she was raising her children. Premala showed her where the spices are now, Sahil explained how they rearranged the storeroom, and she smiled at them, embarrassed at being a stranger in her own home. The children ate the food she made, but it was clear they were used to their grandmother’s dishes. When she picked up Sahil from school the teacher asked that the “grandma should call her,” he needs some help with math. Even her mother asked Premala to help her with cooking. Surrounded by joy, warmth, love, yet her foreignness was clear. A woman who, while visiting home, experienced a life that could have been hers. And as she was about to bid farewell, she was horror-struck since she couldn’t escape the notion that in spite of the enormous pain of leaving her family, there was also a slight relief. A stranger both abroad and at home, she closed her eyes facing Buddha and said nothing.

Mr. Allen walks slowly from his bed to the kitchen. His back slightly bent, he leans on his walking stick. Still, there is much dignity about him. The white hair looks like an aura encircling his head, the big brown eyes spritely in spite of the heavy eyelids, the body moving with effort to preserve vitality in spite of old age. Rupah prepares breakfast. She serves porridge and a cup of tea, and sits next to him to have breakfast. “Well, Rupah, you still haven’t told me how the visit to Sri Lanka was,” he says, a small smile spreading over his face, but the eyes are serious. He looks at her intently, awaiting a response. Rupah looks down at her plate, puts more jam on her bread and adds two teaspoons of sugar to her tea.  The sour steam of boiling Sri Lankan tea fills the kitchen. Mr. Allen is waiting, and Rupah sees she needs to reply. “I hope this will be my last visit there,” she says, and immediately sips the scalding tea.

Mr. Allen says nothing. Rupah is also silent, sipping tea and eating bread and jam. Finally, he clears his throat and says, “Do you want to return to Sri Lanka?” “No,” she replies, “I want to bring my children over here and never return there.” Mr. Allen seems shocked, but his furrowed brow indicates that he is not entirely taken by surprise. He makes a small ahem, a sort of short snort, as if he had revealed an unknown truth, but it makes so much sense that it’s no wonder. He eats some porridge, wipes his mouth with a napkin, and asks, “It won’t be easy, you know. Why now?” Rupah nibbles on her bread. She gets up, picks up the plates and places them in the sink, and as she turns toward him, she says, ‘’It’s a distorted life, wrong both for me and for my children. It leads to no joy, tranquility or liberty. A mother should be with her children. I give them money, but not a better future.”

Mr. Allen puts down his cup and looks at her. What a shame that she’s wearing cheap jeans and a shabby sweater, his thinks. When she had the long skirt and the Indian fabric blouse she was so beautiful, the vibrant colors flatter her dark skin and shiny black hair. “It won’t be easy to bring them here, you know,” he says, knowing that Rupah is already thinking how to proceed. “Wouldn’t it be hard for them to fit in here?”

When Rupah turns, he sees her face is full of tears. “Leave everything on the table. I will be back in a minute,” she says. As she climbs up to her room the stairs look blurred and the room obscure. She walks towards the altar, lights the candles and bows three times to the statue of Buddha. Rain is pelting down outside, the sky is dark and somber, but she sees nothing but the glare enveloping Buddha’s face. Light is kindled within her, legions of stars are illuminated, ancient moons move in a predetermined path, she closes her eyes and chants, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful; may my teacher be well, happy and peaceful; may my parents be well, happy and peaceful; may my relatives be well, happy and peaceful; may my friends be well, happy and peaceful; may the indifferent persons be well, happy and peaceful; may all meditators be well, happy and peaceful; may all beings be well, happy and peaceful.”


Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an academic in the Humanities, an author and blogger. After publishing three academic books on cultural interpretation of Nazism (Mephisto in the Third Reich, De Gruyter 2014; Nazi Devil, Magnes Press 2010; The Devil, the Saints and the Church, Peter Lang 2004) she turned to writing fiction. Five Selves, a collection of five novellas, was published by Holland House Books in the UK.

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. 

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