Fiction Archive

The Californian

It was only true because people believed it.

“There has to be a reason.”

“An explanation.”

“Yes—as to why.”

In normal years the region was pleasant by summer. Temperatures were mild. Storms came over the high mountains, snow-covered through summer, and watered the hills around Mr. Hubert’s small town.

It was Mr. Hubert who first met The Californian. The young man was searching through his red nylon backpack for his rain slicker. The storm was clawing at his back. Clouds had stalked the town through the morning and released themselves in an afternoon riot. In recalling the day, Mr. Hubert, who raised rabbits for meat, would be reluctant to share that it was pity that forced him to approach the dripping traveler.

Around Mr. Hubert’s table, the two men shared coffee; The Californian took steamed milk to kill the cold. Though he tried to save wood in the spring, Mr. Hubert started a fire in the stove, a large porcelain-tiled box set into the wall with one tiny cast iron door. The room filled with smoke until the chimney began to draw. Mr. Hubert brought out salt pork and cheese from which he cut slices onto the table. It was quiet, aside from The Californian’s repeated thank yous. Mr. Hubert motioned for the young man to take food. The meat was thick with chewy fat that was hard to work through, and the cheese was sharp.

Mr. Hubert was too pleased to find that The Californian was an enthusiast—indeed a student—of the natural world. He was aware of the local university of course; it was in the next town, five stops down the bus line. But it was not large, and Mr. Hubert had never imagined that there was any draw for foreigners.

“Yes, an exchange program. Just for the summer.”

“What do you study here?”

“Apex predators. Like sharks and seals: how balance is maintained in ecosystems.”

“Here we have a lake. But no sharks.”

“Yes, I’m sure. It’s just an example.”

Mr. Hubert owned a small lot of land, inherited from his father, near the lake, where he cut grass for his rabbits and split wood for the stove. He often thought he’d be happiest living as a hunter in a cave.

“Yes-yes. Snakes and hedgehogs… I am seeing. Wonderful studies.”

Mr. Hubert’s wife was surprised when he invited the young man to join them for dinner that night. The Californian was, furthermore, surprised when Mrs. Hubert insisted that the young man rest the night.

#

 

For the first weeks of The Californian’s visit, it was like summer in April. The angry black thunderheads that gathered over the big mountains would break up over the town. The townspeople gathered umbrellas only to shield a few drops—as if a wet dog had shaken itself overhead and nothing more. At first it the warming sun was pleasant but, when the apple and pear trees leafed and flowered a month early, there was concern. The fruit was a staple for the region’s brandy. Every basement was filled with glass carboys and steel kegs waiting patiently for the fermenting musts of fall. The old farmers, who noticed these patterns, had heard of early springs, and they assured the town that all was well.

Indeed, it was the lake that started the most wide-spread anxiety. The lake, which allowed no boats or fishing, was beloved by the townsfolk. Often frozen through in February, this year it was ice-free by March. It was not a large lake and, toward the end of a normal summer, the water became warm and the algae could be unpleasant. The elders began to talk.

“It will be thick this year.”

“Unswimmable.”

“Like porridge.”

The anomaly was discussed at the town’s only bar, which occupied the bottom floor of the Grange Hall. Proceeds from the evening sessions funded youth activities, church improvements, and events such as the annual father-son Olympics.

Mrs. Sabrina Melhous, who ran the Grange Hall bar, was 16-years the widow of the renowned hunter and butcher, Mr. Udo Melhous. It was said that Mr. Udo could carve a deer in 20 minutes, nose to tail, and that each cut would be the perfect portion for a 200-pound man. In truth, it was often Mrs. Melhous who did the butchering, as after a weekend waiting in the deer blind with a bottle of his brandy, Udo Melhous was of no use with a knife.

#

The Californian’s room at Mr. Hubert’s was off the main foyer, where guests left their shoes. The foldout couch occupied nearly the entire space. The items from his towering nylon pack were organized as best as he could on a small bookshelf, which Mr. Hubert had cleared for him. There were two pairs of jeans, three shirts, three pairs of wool-blend socks, hiking boots, flip-flops, a brown-leather bound journal, a utility knife, binoculars, and the dried scale of a gigantic Amazonian fish, which, as he demonstrated to Mr. Hubert, served as a nail file.

Three days a week, The Californian took the bus into the university. Two days a week he could be found around the lake with a 100-meter measuring tape, oftentimes crisscrossing the fields of 7-foot switchgrass in the boggy flats that were too wet to farm. When he could, The Californian helped Mr. Hubert at his shop. He quickly picked up the basics of the CNC machine that carved the small cogs, housings, levers, star wheels and sprockets out of assorted plastic blocks. Each of Mr. Hubert’s orders was a tiny piece of the complex machines that littered the floors of factories and produced crayons, or zippers, or toothbrushes, or chocolate bars. The Californian was genuinely interested.

“It’s the tiniest things that make systems function.”

“Yes. These, by example, are for a chicken factory in the Texas.”

“And without these? No chicken?”

“Yes. No chicken?”

The Californian was most helpful with emailing, a task that typically cost Mr. Hubert most of his afternoons. Lunches and dinners came from Mrs. Hubert, who introduced The Californian to 7-ways of pork and rabbit, beef parts in gelatin, salads of vinegar, thick grainy breads, and always cakes—Mrs. Hubert’s favorite since The Californian gladly took two pieces. Coffee, a brandy, then a walk finished the afternoon.

Mr. Hubert, chief of the volunteer fire department, past chair of the community fund, was well acquainted in town. He introduced The Californian like a show pony. The young people hung around him like gnats, laughing as he tried to repeat their slang. He was everything they’d pictured a Californian being in real life: blond, confident, and chiseled. The Californian shook everyone’s hand, said “Hello,” whenever he passed, as if it was he who’d been born in the old pine crib at Mr. Hubert’s house. It was, as well as anyone could remember, the first time that a stranger sat at the Grange Hall bar. Simple fascination lured people to the young man.

“So humble. So humorous.”

“Imagine that. Here, in our town.”

“He’s mad for nature.”

“Kills hours at the lake.”

There were catfish in the lake. Townsfolk claimed to see them in the shallow flats where the water was clear. But, as fishing was not allowed, nobody could be certain of their numbers. This ambiguity gave way to the beloved local legend that there lived in the lake a single catfish so many generations old that it could swallow a man whole. Young children were taught to stay where they could stand for fear of the giant catfish in the deep waters.

#

After her days in black Mrs. Melhous was a radiant presence in town. Her husband Udo was, she’d always felt, a drag on her potential. After his passing, she took up tennis and bought a new VW Cabriolet convertible in gun-metal gray. She worked behind the bar pouring beer and wine and brandy and compiling tips, which she spent on her love of kitchen gadgets. She watched the noontime cooking shows and late-night shopping channels and filled her cupboards with plastic potato slicers, milk frothers, automatic can openers, spatula sets, and non-stick ramekins.

That summer, as farmers fretted, Mrs. Melhous was a comfort from behind the bar. She provided sound counsel, sometimes too direct, but her concern for the goings on was legitimate.

“The rain will come.”

“It always does.”

“It must.”

But these were not people accustomed to waiting for rain. In the second month, abnormality pushed quickly to calamity. Crops failed. The apples and pears, which had flowered so early, quickly lost many of their blossoms from stress. There was no irrigation infrastructure. Some farmers went to buy aluminum pipes from dairies in the north. Others mailed in their insurance claims and sat at the bar.

By June, the lake was already losing clarity. The water temperature was two months ahead of normal. The children swam with abandon. They littered the dock, sunning themselves like seals on a wharf, sneaking sips of brandy siphoned off their fathers’ barrels. After his monitoring around the lake The Californian would emerge from the switchgrass covered in dander. He vanished under water and emerged what seemed like minutes later far out from the dock in the deep water. He taught them the California Cannonball, the novice Twister and Pencil Drop, and the Flying Squirrel, which drew the greatest cheers, as the attempts of the young boys often turned to belly flops.

Mrs. Melhous was the first to propose, albeit in half-jest, that if the weather kept up this way their little town would be renamed New California.

“Sunny all year round.”

“Lots of tourists.”

“Kids doing surf on the lake.”

#

Mr. Hubert was a thin man, neatly mustachioed, with glasses that slept on the slender ridge of his long, chiseled nose. He was reserved in larger groups—almost mute. But when the chatter lulled he would sigh and provide a poignant summary that always drew the heartiest laugh of the evening.

Take the matter of the schnauzer at No. 3 Looder Street, which had nipped at the Bischel boy causing a minor wound to the leg: after much discussion Mr. Hubert mused, working his mustache from side to side over his lip. He then remarked, “That dog is so fond of fetching, he’d follow a stick off a cliff.”

Regarding Conny Fritz’s venture into vegetarianism he sighed, pushed his brandy away, and urged calm. “After all,” he said, “eating grass isn’t just for rabbits anymore.” Ms. Fritz was allowed to bring a salad to the Grange Hall and the troubled dog never bit another soul.

For his wit and age Mr. Hubert had earned a place at the ten-seat bench table at the corner of the Grange Hall bar where the elders sat and discussed matters of politics, crops, weather, arts, and made important decisions regarding the town.

Each night, after Mrs. Hubert had retired, Mr. Hubert and The Californian worked on killing a bottle of three-year-old brandy, which Mr. Hubert had distilled from the cherry trees flanking his rabbit hutches. Mr. Hubert was quite fond of the batch and had been able to sell many bottles to Mrs. Melhous for the bar. The Californian asked many question, and Mr. Hubert was delighted to have the answers.

“The catfish in the lake, have surveys been done?”

“Certainly not.”

“In America, they’re voracious eaters, anything they can fit in their mouths. You could learn about the whole system with gut analyses: frogs, invertebrates, other fishes, even birds.”

“Not the catfish.”

“No?”

“Certainly not. They are protected.”

“Not even through the university?”

“Especially not. There is no question.”

#

As time passed the heat grew oppressive. Life’s rhythms were thrown off—laundry dried on the line faster than the afternoon newscast, a person couldn’t work outside past 11 a.m., grass grew faster than it could be cut or grazed. There were those in town—young men who had lost the attention of young women, elders put off by The Californian’s facial hair—who were not eager to embrace the stranger. Whispers started.

“Isn’t it odd?”

“So you agree?”

“How does one afford it?”

“He claims he’s a scientist.”

“A shark scientist.”

“No such thing.”

“Sharks in the lake?”

“Catfish…could he mean catfish?”

“Absurd.”

“Agreed.”

Mrs. Melhous poured more beer, wine, and brandy in the final weeks of June—when the farmers gave up—than she had in the previous nine months. With her extra tips she bought a set of ceramic kitchen knives. (Mr. Udo Melhous was rigid about German steel for butchering.) Though she had no access to deer, Mrs. Melhous did enjoy breaking down a pork shoulder or deboning a chicken almost as much. At times she would provide a meal for the elders at the Grange Hall and delight in their approval.

She worked long days in the bar. Men and women, unaccustomed to sitting idle, were left alone with old thoughts and memories that festered.

“Surely we’re being punished.”

“Nonsense.”

“The rain will come.”

“It’s too late now. I say it’s punishment.”

“Or warning?”

“Yes, this too.”

#

By the time The Californian left it was apparent that brandy of that vintage would be scant. Brandy was one thing—every house had stores dating back years—but for the beer to suffer felt akin to apocalypse. Hops leaves burnt, wheat was stunted, and the barley came up strong but then gave up before flowering.

“Prices will have to rise.”

“That’s inevitable.”

“Imagine—$5 for a pint.”

“Unless they use foreign wheat.”

“Polish barley? Panamanian hops?”

“Never.”

Two days after The Californian departed, the rains returned. It came first in a three-day spit, and then in a torrent that sent brown runoff into the now thick green lake. The sun was unseen for three weeks. Farmers couldn’t get equipment into their fields. What was left on the stem quickly rotted as mildew, smut, and fungus made it into waste. But the rain calmed nerves. Service slowed at the bar. People returned to tend their homes.

#

The following year, The Californian returned on a May day of brilliant sun. The young people greeted him as a celebrity. In his absence they’d learned his songs and slang.

“How long will you stay?”

“Will you drink a brandy with us down at the lake?”

The elders, Mrs. Melhous as chair, were polite of course, but they could not bring themselves to chat idly with him at the Grange bar.

“You could say it was humorous last year—a child’s fable—but not again.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Something.”

The Californian’s first week was stifling. The townspeople stayed indoors. The old men studied the sky from their windows and the old women did their shopping early.

“Mrs. Melhous?”

“Yes, yes. A meeting. And soon.”

#

The Californian had come prepared with shorts, sunscreen, and loose-fitting t-shirts. His towering nylon bag included plastic sampling jars, rubber boots, bird netting, bird bands, measuring wheels, measuring tapes, camera traps, live-capture traps, and all-weather writing pads. He set up six 200-meter transects radiating from points around the lake. In the morning, before starting his work at Mr. Hubert’s shop, he would walk each transect, stopping at 20-meter intervals to record any bird, insect, or mammal species seen after a 10-minute period of observation.

On occasion, when orders were low, Mr. Hubert would join The Californian on his surveys. He was quiet, as the work demanded, but in between transects there were moments when the two would pause, tear at bread and hydrate.

“Has it changed?”

“The forest? Yes. As a boy I remember more deers, more eagle. But it’s hard to trust memory—the past is changing every day.”

Mr. Hubert and his wife had made space in the front bedroom by moving some items into the attic. In their place sat a dresser, a lamp, and a book Mr. Hubert had found discarded in an old shop comprised only of pen and ink drawings of local flora.

“You’re welcome as long as you like,” Mr. Hubert insisted. “Such is the generosity of our town.”

#

After three weeks there had been two days of rain.

“This is absurd!”

“He’s trampling all around the lake.”

“I can’t get my girls away from the mirror in the morning.”

“Indeed.”

It was decided. Mrs. Melhous would speak to Mr. Hubert.

 

When she arrived at the workshop Mr. Hubert was calibrating the CNC machine to cut a set of grooved flywheels.

“Mr. Hubert, if you have a moment? I’d like us to have a chat…about the weather.”

“Splendid isn’t it?”

“There is some concern…regarding your guest. I’m not saying it’s my opinion, but it might be useful—to calm some others—if he moved on.”

“So you believe it?”

“Not necessarily…. I believe in being prudent. What is the risk in caution? We miss the company of this singular young man? While the consequences of doing nothing impacts so many.”

“Mrs. Melhous, I believe we may be reaching a touch far afield.”

“Why not extend an offer that he might enjoy travelling the wider region? Or move closer to the university? Surely there are other lakes to study.”

“He’s doing fine work. He understands systems. We can learn things.”

“We don’t need lectures on sharks.”

“It’s not sharks.”

“Well, we can’t have him poking around the lake—for sharks or anything else.”

“It’s not sharks—you can’t keep saying it’s sharks when it’s not sharks. He’s not doing any harm.”

“Says you.”

“Whether it’s sharks or unicorns he can stay in my house as long as he wants.”

“We’re decided, Mr. Hubert. He must go. We cannot shoulder another season of loss.”

#

The next week sweltered and Mr. Hubert felt the cool of his townspeople. His opinions were easily dismissed at the Grange Hall; his quips met with silence. Passing him on the street people would mumble. The pressure found his wife as well.

“I was denied bread today. They claimed they were out while I could plainly see seven loaves on the rack.”

Mr. Hubert began to take his brandy alone in the kitchen.

The Californian remained bright and carefree. He spent mornings on his transects around the lake. Young people made an effort to pass by in hopes of a chat, a story of California, or a simple “What’s up?” in his strange accent.

The following week, a man of 82 collapsed with heat stroke and, thanks only to the speedy reaction of a passerby, survived with no serious repercussions. That Wednesday, Karl Biles, the 45-year old accountant whose eldest son was left by his girlfriend for being “closed-minded,” was elected to take Mr. Hubert’s seat at the Grange Hall table.

“Perhaps he should move on,” Mrs. Hubert suggested. “If only to appease….”

“Perhaps.”

“It’s not really for us to decide is it? Whether it’s true or not, at this point, doesn’t really matter.”

“I will speak to him.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Soon. I’d like to join him once more around the lake.”

#

When The Californian left there were no goodbyes. His transects were picked up, his binders of data gone—indeed there was no evidence of his research. The shelves in his room were left bare, save for one item. Mr. and Mrs. Hubert sat on the corner of The Californian’s bed in the empty room. Mr. Hubert rasped at his thumb with the Amazonian fish scale until the greasy grit under the nail was ground away.

“Sharks keep the balance,” he said. Mrs. Melhous patted his hand. She took the fish scale and started a fire in the kitchen stove. Mr. Melhous laced his boots and walked the few blocks to his shop where there were orders to fill.

It rained the next day. The elders slept late. Mrs. Melhous had an extra poached egg and toast with her coffee. She purchased a new set of hair curlers that came with a heated nightcap. That afternoon she served 10-year reserve brandy at the bar.

“A toast to health…”

“To wet soil…”

“To heaven’s intervention!”

The rain cooled the lake. The young people stayed away from the dock. The sun took shelter in the clouds. Everything felt normal.

In the center of the lake, in the deepest area where the water was dark, sat the heavy nylon traveler’s pack. Dozens of catfish fought for access to the opening. They swam in a ball, a moving pulse that darted, ripped, and pulled at the hunks of meat inside the pack—each the perfect portion for a 200-pound man.


Alex Palmerlee is a previously unpublished writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

The Park

My dad used to say that you should never half-ass anything, so when I took up smoking at fourteen, I jumped right into a pack a day. At least, that’s what my mom, an explosive little Latina, told me he used to say. He passed away from cancer when I was young. Mom says he did it out of spite as a part of some great scheme to ruin her life, so after he passed, she went around the house and burned his face out of every picture. When I imagine him now, I see a man with black hair, a straight face, and flap-flap ears that can barely be made out through a veil of smoke. I don’t look like that. I have short brown hair that’s faded on the sides and my lips look like they’re quivering sometimes, and I try to help it but I can’t.

The reason that I bring up smoking at all is because I was smoking when it happened. As anyone in a shit-paying job will tell you, cigarette addicts have it nice. That’s an extra thirty-minute break a day, easy, and when you’re cranking them out like I do, you can spend the better part of a shift out on the curb. I work at The Park. It’s a gay bar, but I’m not a bartender. I’m what they call a tray man. I walk around the club with a flashing tray of Jell-O shots and offer them to schmucks for two bucks. It’s a good gig. The uniform for tray men is booty shorts tighter than a nun and nothing else but a pair of chucks. As you can imagine. looking like that gets you quite the attention. It was after a particularly handsy customer that I figured I deserved a break and headed for the curb.

I was out there, calling my not-really boyfriend and smoking a cig. We dated for two years, and then he decided to go back to school across state and we ended things. A couple months after, I arrived on his campus with a box of chocolates, so he put me up in a hotel and we carried out a mournful, tender, reconciliatory weekend. Those happened regularly for a few months, and here we were, still not together, still not apart.

“I love you,” I said.

“Goodnight, Michael,” he said through the phone. Click. He never said he loved me since we broke up. I figured it might have been because he got a new thing up at college, but I didn’t care, he was still paying for my hotels and picking up the phone when I called him.

I leaned against the wall out front of the building and Deonte, the security guy, gave me a questioning look. “No hope for the boy, huh?”

“Where you pokin’ that big nose, Deonte?”

He chuckled silently and shook his head, tossing the metal detector from one hand to the other. I wasn’t feeling well tonight, so I was just holding the cigarette between my fingers. The door opened, and right then, the most gorgeous set of legs stepped out of that building. Long, smooth, just the right color of tan you know and great big, silver 4-inch heels to show them off. The torso that followed matched, but I was too hung up on the golden tornadoes of hair that bobbed around her shoulders. The Park is no stranger to drag queens, and I’ve certainly seen my share. Locals, celebrities, you name it. None had hair like this. She definitely wasn’t in there when I was, cause I would have noticed.

“You got a fag?” she said

“I got a couple,” I said, flicking one out of the box for her. She draped her lips around it carefully and eyed me head to toe.

“Well?”

“Well?”

“You got a light?” I fumbled around and when I put the flame to her lips, I was certain the coolness would put it out. The details of her face were fuzzy, I couldn’t make them out. My hand was shaking when I finally got it burning.

“Thanks, handsome,” she said, and might have winked. Then she took that first drag and pursed her lips real big and tight and blew a hard stream of smoke right into my face. I couldn’t see anything.

I remembered that story Mrs. Honaker made us read in high school about that guy who goes into the basement and sees that orb of light and in it is everything happening all at once. I saw a blue bird, sharp, sharper than the queen, buzz about my head a few times like I was living in a cartoon land, and spirals, like little twirled purple balls of cotton. I saw stars coming in and out of the night sky and the whisps of smoke swallowed my head.

In the fading cloud, I saw my mother mouthing claveles que propagan el fuego.

I took a step back. I felt dizzy, so I stumbled to the door. Deonte said something I couldn’t hear. I pushed the door open and I realized that I was coughing. My throat tasted hot and sweet. Melted glass running down it.. The music was pounding into my soul. If I had died there on the floor, which I very well might have, that bass kickstarted my heart right back into shape. I saw all these people undressed. Not scantily dressed, like I saw their naked bodies and right clear into their ever-dancing souls. They were all on fire, too, doing dances around the flames.

I felt like I was in a wind blender, becoming one with it all, and it didn’t feel quite right, so I tried to get to the bathroom. It was weird, because as I started for somewhere, the path to it became clear, as if that was the only place I could have ever been. There was flesh pushing me through, my eyes and lungs still burning. I heard a girl scream out from somewhere in the strobed darkness. I wondered if I was drunk. I reached the door to the bathroom andflung it open. The entire fluorescent inside was draped in a cloud. Someone was vaping in the stall. I turned on the sink and buried my head in the faucet to let the coolness wash over me. The water became hot, because I used the wrong handle. When it started burning, I pulled my head out. The water felt good running over my chest. Then I placed my palm on the icy mirror and looked into it.

And there he was. My dad. Looking right at me. I don’t mean I looked like my dad or some Harry Potter shit like that. I mean that the misty, smoky cloud parted and right between it — just for a second — there was my father. A man I had never seen. He had a large nose and a wide, masculine jaw that sloped diagonally from his eyes. His black hair tufted over itself, and he wore a hospital gown. He smiled like someone had just told him that his two-dollar scratcher had won him a $4 dollar prize. I smiled back. I started laughing, so hard that I closed my eyes. I  realized that it was the first time I had blinked in forever, and my lungs coughed up fire and everything went black.


Mark Bolinger is a young buck writer, hiker, and camper who lives in Roanoke, Virginia. He recently graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor’s in English.

Silent Squeals

It’s hard to ignore five hundred pounds of rotting meat, but I was the only one who could smell it, and at first it wasn’t the smell, it was the RUSTLE behind two plain, white double doors that appeared at the hallway’s dead end. I’d never seen them before…

So I asked my boss, “New doors? The corporate overlords hiding something in there?” But I really didn’t care, I just thought management should have told us. After all, over the loudspeaker system they’re always blaring mission statements about how we’re ‘feeding the world,’ and whether we need to get to the sub-levels due to storm activity … But back to the point, it was really BAD, BAD, BAD because my boss just looked at me and said, “What doors?” – and I said, “Never mind,” and the next day the doors were still there and I heard the rustling!

I thought the worst things: a trussed-up human—a vampire bat—a mouse with a veiny tumor escaped from the labs? I called maintenance, they sent a robot with jangling keys and a broom. We both turned toward the dead end, “I don’t understand,” the bot kept saying.

The next morning, I opened the double doors:

A shallow closet, and on the floor, a tiny, pale pink piglet scampering in frantic circles on printer paper—ugh, ugh, ugh—I slammed the door, this was some joke! Sick! The bots’ algorithms were off!

But two more people said to me, “What doors?”

So I was crying when I got my car on Sub 7 and, while the car drove, I booked some appointments, went to them—and got offers of MRIs, which I accepted, and offers of antipsychotics, which I declined—and I thought, “it’s only this one thing—a piglet in a little closet—and if you’re afraid you’re crazy, doesn’t that mean you’re not?”

I ignored the rustling for days, it went quiet, and I opened the doors and saw a gray carcass. A week later, I heard SQUEALS so I went IMMEDIATELY to the doors and saw the dead piglet there and a new live one, too, tiny and staring at me … I closed the door, left it in the dark. Sorry, little squirt. I listened to the squeals all day, thought about them all night, brought a pint of cream and a teacup to work the next day, muttering as I filled the teacup, “Hope you like it!”

Later I checked on it and saw that the new piglet had tipped over the teacup, torn up the carcass, and was licking spots in the carpet—animals are disgusting!—so I righted the teacup, poured the rest of the cream, and it became my daily chore, the cream for the piglet. Feces grossly proliferated, and I ignored that situation until, finally, I put them and the dead piglet into a black plastic bag and threw it out.

Faster than it should have, the piglet became a pig. I looked close enough to know that it was a girl pig. She would grunt appreciatively when I appeared; I gave her salad from the cafeteria, even though it was too good for a pig, the lettuce is always crisp and fresh. I wasn’t sure of the ethics of feeding it fatty, good-sized bacon bits. But she ate up everything, she was growing, growing, growing, and I couldn’t feed her enough to stop the SQUEALING. She began throwing herself against the door.

No one commented on these sounds and this chilled my insides, I just kept thinking, this will eventually run its course, like a cold.

A few more weeks and the pig grew into a hog with gray blotchy skin, so big she could barely move in the closet, so heavy her legs shook when she stood up. She moaned for food, company, freedom. I didn’t care, I just wanted it to stop. I came up with a plan:

I stopped feeding her.

After two weeks of no food, no cream, I opened the door, saw the hog sprawled dead, said, “Thank God,” closed the door.

And then the decay stench was worse than the SQUEALS, so I did a bad thing, when I heard coworkers joking, enjoying themselves, impervious to the rot. I yanked the fire alarm—maybe new people, firemen, somebody, would investigate! But what happened was a meeting with my boss and a human resources manager, someone had seen me pull the alarm, and they were more concerned than angry, they just wanted to know what was wrong. “Bad day,” I said; “Take some time off,” they said. And I considered my options while sitting in the company apartment, and things finally got back to normal except for this:

Every day I bought heavy cream, until it lined every space of my fridge, and then … I heard a rustling … it became SQUEALS…

I opened up the drawer beneath the oven where my roasting pan and cookie sheets should be, and saw:

Ten pink piglets squirming around each other.

I thought of my soup pot, could do one at a time—no! I went to the fridge, got a pint of cream, and poured it into the drawer: a stream of gloppy liquid splashing over the wiggling pink bodies; I emptied it and started the next. The piglets made happy sounds, I dumped cream until bodies were splashing in a pool of pale, sweet-smelling yellow. They lapped it up, and their noses blew bubbles. Cream leaked all over my floor, I slammed the drawer shut, and from behind the metal, I kept hearing SQUEALS, no it’s not going to stop, but I know what I need to do.


Marilee grew up in the Midwest and studied English at the University of Minnesota. She currently lives in Washington, DC. Her other short stories have most recently appeared in Cleaver, The Colored Lens, Metaphorosis and The Saturday Evening Post.

The Funeral Tape

We are all watching my father and the funeral home director fiddle with the cords on the back of a TV and VCR combo-on-wheels that the funeral home provided us. The funeral apparently isn’t only interested in deceased human bodies.

“Weren’t they our age when VCRs came out?” asks my sister, pointing at the middle-aged fiddlers. “This is their iPhone.”

I shrug and take another sip of coffee. It’s good but it’s starting to make me sweat. I remind myself that sport coats are wonderful pit stain concealers. Nothing to worry about, I think. My funereal narcissism bothers me only a little.

Mom finally intervenes from her hovering perimeter stance and asks the combo-on-wheels technicians if they have done the simple things. They ignore her. I worry that my mother will raise her voice to be heard, but she marches elsewhere.

My brother walks in, looks over at what our father and the funeral director are doing, and swiftly closes the distance to the combo-on-wheels. This makes him in charge of the whole endeavor. My father and the funeral director step solemnly back to let the next generation figure out the gadgets that their generation produced. Now out of a task, they assume positions of power and muse solutions out loud to my brother who simply ignores them.

The TV loses its blue screen. We see snow. We see a picture warble and fly up to the top of the screen to be replaced by another picture. Finally, we see my uncle’s shoulders and head, overexposed and painfully pale against the whiteness of the walls behind him. The frames of his glasses are thick, much like the lenses that they hold.

My brother grabs the remote and rewinds the tape while walking to the back of the room, and we see a short backwards preview of what’s to come.

The crowd my brother walks past is a crowd half full of really old people and half full of  people whose standing with the recently deceased is dubious. Good people, nonetheless, who have heeded the call of empathy and familial duty. A couple kids play in the background, running through the immaculately decorated room of the funeral home, emitting loud and then, by decree of the seated adults, barely hushed sounds that strain against boundaries of respectful silence only so long.

The funeral home reminds me of the room my mother would never let the family go into unless we were having a “special occasion” dinner. Guests have probably eaten dinner at that table more than my siblings and I have. The chairs are dark solid oak, the sofas carry the age of their baroque wallpaper-ish fabric gracefully. Pastoral pictures in gilded frames cover the walls, the landscape saying something kitschy about death. I wonder if my mother could successfully run a funeral home. There is potential.

My father walks up to the front of the crowd and spreads his hands out for silence. I see a small smile as the trick works. My father was never good at commanding a room.

“Thank you for your patience,” he says. He almost goes full on with the smile but switches to reverence, extending his hand toward the combo-on-wheels.

“Larry decided that he wanted to be the one to say goodbye to all of you. Unfortunately, he used a dead format to do so.”

He purses his lips. My sister calculates a breath of derision. A small tittering of laughter from rows down in the back placates my father.

“I want to thank Jeremy, my oldest, who helped us work this all out for Larry.”

The crowd looks at Jeremy and smiles or stares. One half may have realized Jeremy only helped with the combo-on-wheels, the other half profoundly realizing that the younger generation, despite their selfish mien, has stepped up in the care for a deceased family member’s funeral arrangements. Jeremy, still holding the remote, gestures his acknowledgement with it, and I reminisce on the elegance of old school brick remotes.

“My brother was a quiet man. So I will end with thanking you all for paying your respects to Larry. As we will see, Larry appreciates it too.”

His wording is poignant to only our immediate family who knows that my father has not previewed the tape. He couldn’t be bothered to find a VHS player. He is trying to get away with winging it. It’s rare to see a parent go through such performance stress, and it’s guiltily wonderful to be part of the audience. My father finally nods his head at Jeremy who mechanically raises his arm and points the remote control at the combo-on-wheels. The audience stares at my brother as he does so. They, as well as I, were primed for a longer and more reverential speech.

Larry’s picture has been paused on the screen since the rewind, and the face Larry has been making is not one of serenity and calm but one of tense eyebrows and the slack jaw one gets when letting loose a really big exhale. I am thinking Larry is preparing himself for technical difficulties, which is why I suspect he recorded his farewell speech on a VCR instead of the computer with the built-in camera we bought him for Christmas three years ago. I suspect either Larry didn’t think computer video recording was reliable or didn’t know where to start. Either way, Larry opted to forgo the humiliating educational lesson from our family technology expert, Jeremy. Possibly, because when Larry was setting up his new computer, Jeremy hum-drummed computer jargon to my uncle about printing and learning notable keyboard shortcuts and archiving emails, clicking and circling the mouse around things of import, while my uncle glared at the screen and finally asked, in the hard edged tone of those who have been inconveniently delayed in asking a question, if he could make the text bigger.

Unpaused, Larry stares at the camera, blinks, stares some more, then fiddles with his pants by pulling them up. He sits up farther in his chair and holds the pose. Tension builds until he satisfyingly jerks into motion.

“Hello. This is Larry Fallcreek. It is Friday, February 27, 2009.”

Larry looks at his watch.

“It is 11:15 a.m. I am at home and am making this video in lieu of my likely death sometime in the future.”

Two years have gone by since this tape was made. I look at my father’s expression. His body seems bent toward the screen, as if it was about to pick him up like a good smell does to a cartoon character.

“In truth, this idea came about because I saw an article on the internet. It’s never too early. Sudden things can happen. All that.”

In the end, it was a heart attack. Very sudden.

“So if you find any earlier dated tapes, don’t watch them. I’ve…”

A phone is ringing. There is the creaking of chairs and the rustling of clothes as people check their purses and pockets.

“Excuse me,” Larry says and gets up and walks out of frame. The ringing stops.

“Hello? Is this a person? No. Robot.” There is a sharp plastic on plastic collision before Larry walks back into the frame and sits down. A black cat jumps up onto his lap, and Larry gently puts it down on the floor.

“This one article said that I should devote such tapes to explaining things that I might not have felt comfortable telling you while alive. I should also make amends with people I need to make amends with. Loose ends are unhealthy, even when you are no longer a part of this world.”

I catch my mother glaring at my father who has just projected out a large sigh.

A different cat, a tabby, jumps up on Larry’s lap. Larry pets it unconsciously and then sets it gently down on the floor, which takes too long and, I note in my millennial way, should have been edited out for brevity.

“I’ve never been one to hold grudges, and I certainly don’t want to take any animosity I may have with anyone to the grave. Rest assured that whatever argument we may have had, if it is still ongoing, etc., I have forgiven and forgotten it.”

Larry symbolically wipes his hands clean and shows both of them, palms out, to the camera. Larry is lying, of course, but I cannot ruin his last known idealistic delusion.

We hear a cat meow.

“I love you too,” says Larry and gives a wet, puckered kiss to a cat we can’t see. The sound of the kiss stretches the range of speakers on the combo-on-wheels and makes my hand itch to illogically clean my ear out. So far, this is the only love present in this recording and this funeral.

“Now, recently, there has been a thing with this video on the internet, and I wanted to set it all straight cause this thing has been a pain in my life, and I don’t think people have given me quite the measure of concern or empathy that I deserve.”

Larry is most certainly referring to the YouTube clip that my brother uploaded after the only Thanksgiving we ever had at my uncle’s house.

That year, Larry had just bought a new house with some investment money he had finally cashed in. Larry, a bachelor all of his life, had decided to move out of his apartment and settle down into some property. With this, came an extension from the family to christen the house with a communal family holiday, the closest one being Thanksgiving. I’m not sure Larry ever agreed to this, but it was put forth and acted upon nonetheless.

Larry rarely left his apartment and kept this going with his new home. For family occasions, when Larry’s genetics played a part in his presence, we always nominated someone to be the one to “go and pick up Larry.” It was a rite of passage in the family, and something teens with new driver’s license were eager to do.

And when Larry finally showed up, the family would adulate and hug and smile while Larry made his way to the sofa where my family would mostly ignore him. There he sat for the entire night until dinner, and then he would sit there until someone decided to pry themselves away from the hubbub to drive him home.

On that Thanksgiving, we arrived at Larry’s two hours early, because my mother wanted to make sure that Larry was cooking the turkey correctly, something my mother was horrified to learn that Larry insisted on doing himself.

Larry’s figure was in the huge window at the front of the house when we pulled up. This was some sort of sign we couldn’t figure. But he waved and walked slowly out of frame.

We had just started the long process of getting out of the car when the two-car garage door opened in that lugubrious way, and we could see Larry, slowly revealed. More waving from Larry. I’d never seen Larry wave or think he would be the type to do so. He had always been a head nodder. But my father turned the car back on, got it out of park, and pulled into the garage.

“Hello,” said Larry, before walking back into the house and leaving us to unpack.

There were two major things that confronted us inside Larry’s house. My father was the first in. He immediately turned his head around to eye my mother, making wide nostril movements. My mother swore under her breath. And when my mother and father stopped again beyond the doorway, leaving no room for my brother, sister, and me to clamber in and relieve us of all of the stuff we were carrying, we knew something was wrong.

The smell was urine oriented. And it was either rotten ammonia or the smell of things ammonia degrades and releases into the atmosphere.

“Larry,” said my father. “How do you feed them all?”

I respected the politeness of this first question.

“You just spread it out on the floor here. That’s it.”

“On the kitchen floor?”

“It’s like fertilizer.”

Larry only recently acquired a place in which he was responsible for a garden and grass seed, and I think we all doubted his familiarity with the metaphor.

I pictured Larry unleashing cat food in huge jets, flinging the pebbled food far into the living room and redirecting to fill the gaps.

My mother shook herself from her trance and started unloading all of the pots and pans and hors d’oeuvres and the other stuff we brought with us. She said nothing, but her honed and forceful movements were enough.

It took us a good 20 minutes to enter the living room and sit, making polite conversation along the way, mostly with each other, slowly edging our way into that house. Our main objective was obviously eyeing the different cats that settled in various places. Our mother took a more productive approach. She swirled around the kitchen, looking for necessary cooking or serving implements in Larry’s drawers and cupboards, not letting anyone help her.

“That’s a lot of cats,” said our father.

“This neighborhood was full of them when I moved in,” Larry said. “They must have been abandoned or lost at some point. There is a creek out back behind the yard. Just started putting out food and water on the back porch. The ones that let me pet them, I took inside.”

“You know your sister is allergic to cats.”

“I think that’s just because she hates them.”

“I don’t know, Larry.”

There was nothing to do but stay on the couches, watch TV, and occasionally watch our frantic mother in the kitchen. Our clothes, we knew, were lost to cat hair. My father asked Larry for a tour, and I suspected this was pretense for privacy. This left my mother, the unwitting receiving hostess, to answer the door. Whenever a guest arrived at the front door, my mother would run from the kitchen to the front door, greet the guests and when the guests noticed the cats, my mother asked for their coats. A subtle misdirection. We only heard a few muffled swears and appeals to a higher power as family started piling in the house, weakly rivaling the number of cats.

In two hours, we knew to walk slowly so as to not send something scurrying and yelping, disrupting a semblance of stasis. We looked before we sat down and reacted in our own ways to the cats that tried to pile onto the new seats our laps made. No one tried to brush off cat hair anymore.

“Okay,” my father said. “Dinner is ready. The kid table is in the family room and the rest of us are in the dining room. Get your plates. Time to go.”

We unhurriedly lined up for food that some of us had been waiting a year for, taking care to scoop out a polite portion, leaving the greedy portions for seconds. The adults, with their plates full, all sat down at the dining room table, and the kids, mostly younger adults that could not fit at the adult table, stood in the living room, too afraid to sit down. My father led the family in grace, a symbolic affair, and everyone started digging into the food.

Jeremy was always the first in line at a family buffet and the first one with an empty plate. His efficiency in slopping as much food on his plate irked all of our polite sensibilities. We were all modest with our first portions. He was not. But he never had seconds. Further, he was a shoveler, rarely chewing his food as it went down his esophagus and into his stomach. This posed a few medical problems when he was young, but he didn’t learn from them. So, when he finished leagues before us all, he pulled out his smartphone and started videoing.

“Consumer hell is tomorrow, which, as we know, is our cultural milestone for the beginning of the Christmas season. So what does everyone want for Christmas?” he asked in the mock voice of a parent interviewing their young kids.

“A cat,” I said.

An obvious joke, but it started it nonetheless.

“An indentured cat lady or cat nanny.”

“Seasonal cat sweaters with Catholic leanings.”

“A large scratch post entitled ‘We’re Going to Need a Bigger Scratch Post.”

“A Generator That Runs on Feline Fur.”

“A professional camera with an infinite amount of space for all the cat pictures I’m going to take.”

“Holy,” said my father from the kitchen. He had come back for seconds and was standing in a doorway. There were at least 10 cats up on the kitchen counters having their way with our Thanksgiving dinner.

“Off!” yelled my father, making flamboyant umpire moves at the cats. One or two scurried off the counter, but the rest stayed firm in their eating stances, as if the food was immediately life sustaining, not even eyeing my father for potential danger.

We heard the clank of silverware on plates and saw adults staring from the other room and then others getting halfway up in their seats to further fill the door frame with disembodied heads. My father was the only fount of movement, now flailing at the cats who scurried and then reclaimed their spaces. We stood up to do something but became stuck again, transfixed at my father and transfixed by the door frame of adult heads who were also transfixed.

Cats are opportunistic beasts. This distraction was poignant, and we were not surprised as the disembodied heads turned, letting out cries that matched our father’s.

“Piranhas,” said my sister.

The dining room table was overtaken. Cats climbed like quick zombies over our feet. By now, some cats had carried some food to the floor. We stood, looking down at a world of skittish consumption and hisses and spats and scrambling. This was where my brother realized that he has been unconsciously videoing the whole thing. He moved into action. We didn’t notice.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says Larry, the seriousness of his face on the combo-on-wheels contrasting with the low quality of the video. “Those cats were something I needed. Sometimes you don’t know what you need in this life. They are all gone now.”

Larry hardens his face and braces his eyebrows. I wonder if he is going to look around the room, as if he can see his persecutors through the camera’s lens, but his eyes remain straight into the camera.

“I am a lonely man. And it’s always been mostly by choice. Not anymore.”

The room is quieter than before, even though no one has been talking; everyone is waiting. Larry is obviously lying about this too.

“Jimmy, you bastard. You were the one who called. I know you were.”

Larry points at the camera, gets up and the screen goes blank, cutting off a slew of Larry’s profanity as he tries many times to turn off the camera.

Jimmy, my father, maintains eyesight at the now up-and-down film fuzz displaying on the combo-on-wheels. Everyone has turned in their chair to look at him. It was my mother who called animal control. There is, apparently, a pet limit for households. But I wonder more at how my father will tell them that Larry eventually went back to collecting cats, as hinted at in the video, and it was my father who, frustrated with Larry not picking up the phone, went over to Larry’s house.

I see my father standing in the kitchen, robbed of all motion, thinking only about the moment just before, when he wrestled with unfamiliar keys in the lock and opened the door and heard skittering — little forms scattering across the floor. And then the unveiling of Larry’s partially eaten body on the kitchen floor, empty bucket of cat food upended next to him. It is the reason for the closed casket funeral, and I’m wondering if anyone will ask about that.


TJ Wilson is a high school English teacher that just started publishing fiction and nonfiction. He writes essays about education and other nonfiction things on his personal website at www.thomasjosephwilson.com. He currently lives with his lovely wife and a scarily gigantic but well-meaning dog in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Dance Of The Tamborines

The sun has just risen. Nebahat sits under the largest dome, on the central marble, with her head dropped down. She’s pondering who knows what, wiggling her toes in her plastic slippers. Her eye catches one or two frail hairs on her legs. She attempts to pull them out with her fingers. There’s still time until the arrival of souls that have spent the night in filth.

The employees are just coming in. Nebahat is always the first. She opens up shop and wears her worn one-piece swimsuit. She ties her towel under her breasts. Her slippers are plastic, instead of wooden, to prevent the risk of falling. On busy days, she runs around a lot. She despises the trashy pink slippers, repelled by their cheapness and the darkened indents and ridges on their soles. In fact, she avoids looking at her feet as much as she can.

Every morning, she is surrounded by chatty women’s complaints and the buzz of their gossiping. She rarely wants to say a word. Even if she were to talk, what could she say? How her two-bedroom house was taken away from her after city planning? Or maybe how every living being in her house from her husband to the plants are now crippled? No, the tiring moss of her femininity was far from being good conversation material, speaking of that would make her jump from the nearest place and die, so that she would hear none of that. When one doesn’t have a choice but to find a solution in the midst of intercepting tram rails, complaining isn’t worth much, is it?

Nebahat slowly stands up and moves towards the hall. Those coming in to get cleaned are changing in cabins; in the meantime, she takes a sip from her tea. Then, she puts her hands on her love handles and goes on registering customers.

The exact age of the bath is unknown, but its circular shape with big and small domes contrasts with the ridged and pointy roofs at the other side of the city. Her desperation aside, Nebahat works here because of that tranquility. Every time she enters through the wide wooden door, where honks and dusty air can’t reach, she cares less about the engulfing humidity. Plus, she’s imagining women from the eighteenth century passing through the halls with their clacking wooden slippers. Golden earrings. Bridal parties with singing and dancing, how would henna red look on her hair? She sometimes lies on the smooth central marble and watches the sparkling holes of the dome. She knows about the foul birds outside, trying to catch the warmth coming out from them.

Nebahat whispers the name of a younger woman waiting at the hall. She leads her through three doors, lays down a towel next to a basin, invites her to sit. She gets out of her own towel and pours water on herself. With the gold-ornamented copper bath cup, she then heads over to pour water on the woman. Slowly but steadily, she washes every inch of her arms, legs, and back, speeding the process that will make the filth come off. The woman, in her underwear, has already surrendered to Nebahat. She enjoys that moment of submission. There’s even a tiny feeling of love involved. She takes the woman’s hand and escorts her to the central stone with confident steps, making sure she doesn’t slip. The towel now on the stone, she lays what she thinks of as her baby’s body on it. Women let her take control, and their vulnerability makes them seem like babies in her eyes. She carefully lifts the woman’s head, places a styro-foam pillow underneath and asks if she’s comfortable. All set, she puts on her loofah glove and starts rubbing the skin. Ankles, kneecaps, upper legs. When the skin turns pink and lines of dirty dead skin accumulate, her soul pours down from the drains and the soul of the very first woman to ever wash others in this bath comes in its place. A heavy, layered wisdom sits on her shoulders, strength travels to her thick wrists and floppy arms.

But then, she develops a thirst. For every necessity that comes with being a woman. A halo of steam swirls over her head. She finds herself in a state of shock, as if she never touched a naked woman before. In the heat coming off the stone, pinkish flesh, various moles, birthmarks, peach fuzz, and all sorts of body parts appear. She sees the women of ancient times, swarming the place. In the meantime, she carries on rubbing the back under the loofah. The heat lights a torch in her eyes, she shivers deep within. She starts to sing a song that she remembers in a way that only the woman can hear.

Nebahat, with the tune between her lips, stares at the women dancing around and jiggling their hips. As she’s sending filth clumps away with hot water, she’s searching for a look indicating familiarity in their eyes. But, alas, in vain. So she seeks refuge in the pristine scent coming off the bubbling soap. The skin, now turned almost sheer white, keeps loosening under her hands, and Nebahat is picturing a blade with a golden handle.

If she’s the one washing off all that sin, she should be the purest of all, the most innocent.

At one corner, some girls are having fun, throwing cups of water at each other. Nebahat thinks of the gravity and dignity of women in the olden days and admires them. Large breasts, wet chests, and silver pitches provide rhythm to her tune. She starts massaging the relaxed body and, all of a sudden, she hears the sound of a tambourine. An odalisque with purple bags under her eyes and gray hair ornamented with gold sprinkles of years’ worth of experience taps her shoulder. “You’ve been down for way too much time now, don’t you think?”

Her panicked gaze checks the surroundings to see if anyone else heard the odalisque speaking. The woman is almost dozing off, and others are minding their own business. The tambourine rings again, and strings of lute tremble slowly. The women, all with the same well-behaved expression and weak smiles, are looking at Nebahat. Fans everywhere, green, blue, red, pink. Made of voile, with engraved handles. Gold bracelets jingle on arms. Nebahat continues grooming. She washes the hair of the baby and combs with a mother’s affection. Taste of spicy candy still in her mouth.

It’s as if she isn’t the one to hurry to the ferry making rounds to the other side of the city then get on the bus using the scraps of the day’s tip. As if she’s not going to empty the bedpan first thing when she gets to her house, which, frustratingly, couldn’t be heated in winter or cooled in summer. Nebahat surely isn’t one of those with a husband whose face provokes the same feelings as her pink slippers, she surely won’t count the broken tiles of a kitchen as she cooks amidst pink onion smells. Tonight, Nebahat will pack her tips, which is a heavy sack of gold coins. She will have someone else open the door of a chariot with velvet covered seats. Her skirts will be of silk from Bursa, and her shoes will have pearls attached to them. She’ll get home and eat finger-thin stuffed vine leaves with olive oil and raisins.

She helps the woman get up, wraps a dry towel around her chest, and covers her shoulders with another. “Have fun getting dirty,” she says to her as the woman walks away with baby steps.

Nebahat walks up to the odalisque, snaps the tambourine from her hands. She gets on the central stone and starts swaying her arms.

Bir dalda iki kiraz, biri al biri beyaz.”

The birds on the dome outside lose balance and fall.


Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabıyıkoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been actively writing for magazines since 2009.

Logically It Was Easy

A few months before they’d split up, her ex-wife, Cal, had told her about a TV show she’d seen where one character grabbed another by the upper arms, looked into their eyes and whispered, “The Lakota have a superstition that you don’t die properly until the last person who can remember you dies. Don’t ever forget this.”

The next day Kate had talked about this idea with Maury, her lover.

Maury had nodded slowly. “I like that.”

But Kate snapped, “So Robert Maxwell could technically still be alive under this ruling?”

Maury had laughed. Kate regretted that now.

 

Logically it was easy. Kate had been telling herself this all the way in the car, grinding up the Westway ramp, through the red-roofed sprawl of north-west London, past where the road cut through the chalk hills of the Chilterns and buzzards glided above the black tree skeletons until she pulled up in the car park of the nursing home. She yanked the handbrake on too hard. She’d have done it harder if she could. Only a few yellow leaves hung from the branches of the rowan tree. The birds must have eaten all the red berries she’d seen ripening on other visits. Kate checked her phone. When she saw there were no messages, she pushed it down to the bottom of her bag.

Virginia didn’t visit here often. Kate knew this from the nursing home staff. Of course not. Why would she? This was only the man she’d spent the last forty-two years of her life with. But that meant Kate hadn’t needed to ask her to stay away.

The last time she’d seen her mother, she seemed full of an edgy, frenetic energy, though she looked well — her tawny eyes clear and unbloodshot, her fingernails expensively manicured and painted with clear polish. In the garden centre café that they’d appointed as a neutral meeting place, she’d harassed the slow, old waitress. Once she finished crumbling a scone, foot tapping all the while, she hesitated then clearly decided against giving Kate a goodbye hug and high-tailed away between the trays of blue and red polyanthuses.

The nursing home buzzer gave a low juddering ring as she leant on it hard. When Kate had been buzzed inside and signed her name, she went quickly through the hall, ignoring the brew of floral disinfectant and overcooked peas, which was usually the first stage towards her feeling upset and angry. Heading briskly to his room she had a moment where she was both walking down the corridor and watching herself walk from above. The awfulness of the mauve carpet was what mainly struck her.

“Dad?” She knocked and waited a few moments out of exaggerated, useless respect.

There he was in a chair in the corner, curled into himself. She paused to make herself breathe and imagined him, a curled leaf, swept away down a dark river. Why couldn’t it be like this?

Someone with little sense of her father’s style must have been in this morning to dress him and sit him up in that chair – he wore black slacks and a blue cardigan that she didn’t ever remember seeing him in before. His hair had grown back, but the haircut he had was too short and she could see white scalp between the grey-blonde stubble. The vacancy of his face was truly horrible.

“Dad, it’s me.” She felt the hot prickle of tears. His eyes opened and seemed to fix on her for a few seconds before his gaze wandered off.  Where are you? Where do you go? She hoped he was wrapped in memories as tight as a cocoon: her and her sisters riding on his back, ruining his suit trousers on the scrubby grass of her childhood garden; a much younger Virginia smiling at him as he came towards her, his thick, blonde hair like wheat flattened by rain, tennis racket lifted high in jubilation; rowing on Ullswater, the splash of the oars muffled by the morning mist, a boy again. All this he held. All this would be lost.

“Honestly, if I ever get so that I’m gaga, don’t know where I am, the full works, just finish me off with a brick, will you, girls?”

Kate couldn’t remember exactly when her father had said this, but she remembered being at the polished dinner table in her parents’ conservatory, air full of the smell of roast potatoes and hot fat, despite the trundle of the extractor fan from the kitchen.

“Dad!” Jacqs had squeaked.

“Paving slab more like with that skull.”

“Thanks, Hetty. Semper fi and all that.”

“Do you really mean that, Dad?” she’d asked coolly.

“Never been more serious in my life.” Tony forked up a potato. Kate had no memory of her mother in that conversation. Her father’s wishes didn’t seem like much of a practical guide now.

Lying alone in bed last night she’d tried it on herself, fingers clamped down hard across her mouth. If anything, it felt reassuring to hold her own face this tightly, but that was because she could take her hand away at any time. She could also still breathe out of her nose, she realised stupidly.

She sat on the fleecy blanket on his bed at a right angle to him. She felt she should say some important words to him, to tell him how much she loved him, how she hoped she was doing what he would have wanted, how it would be over quickly, but she also knew this was impossible because to open her mouth would be to let herself start crying and if she started she wouldn’t be able to stop. “Dad,” was all she could manage. She took his hand.

She cast around the room, to fasten her gaze onto something, to steady herself. The ugly pink and gold vase filled with gladioli on the windowsill was so far from anything her parents would ever have chosen for their house that it loomed as a symbol of how lost her father was. She stared until, when she closed her eyes briefly, she could still see its wide mouth and stout outline.

It was hard to pick the moment because time was an endless series of now, now, now, and any one of those could be the moment. But as they drifted past her, she recognized that none of them were, yet.

But really? She swept her gaze around the large, north-facing room with its impersonal furniture and en suite bathroom. Would it be so bad to give him more of this? She could come again, more decisive, better rested, she’d hardly slept at all last night. Another chance for everyone.

What would Virginia feel when she heard? Kate didn’t care. But her sisters? Hetty? She thought she’d feel bad for Jacqs. Her ex-wife, Cal? Relationships complex as a tangle of scummy hair pulled up from a plughole.

It was December but with this strange surge of feeling came the memory of a thunderstorm last summer. She was naked in bed in their flat, the safety and imprisonment of Cal and Maury’s hands on her at the same time. At first the burst of lightning just at the moment she’d shouted to a sharp climax seemed too comically ironic.

“Wow, look!” Maury had twisted round to where white lightning cracked the brown-tinged London sky. Thunder rumbled like heavy furniture being moved in the flat upstairs.

Naked, she moved past her two lovers, left them kneeling on the bed, as she was drawn to the balcony doors. She couldn’t remember Cal or Maury following her. The city spread out seventeen storeys below was a dense hive of lit, anonymous buildings, nowhere she had ever been before or cared about. The dry flashes of lightning illuminating the city were like negatives dropping into the night before her eyes. And she remembered the power of the storm, breaking over London and how, as she stepped out onto the balcony, the damp air had been like a cold, heavy curtain brushing against her skin. But then she passed through it and was exhilarated.

“Dad.” She squeezed his hand, sure that he would know what was about to happen and would summon all his strength to meet her eyes and give her a small nod or otherwise absolve her, but he stayed huddled in his chair, head drooping down, as if fearing a blow, just as he had been when she first arrived.

“Dad.”

She couldn’t say, “I love you,” but she reached forwards and covered his mouth and nose. As his body started to jerk beneath her hands, she hoped that, on some distant level, he would understand that this meant the same.


L.E. Yates was born in Manchester in 1981 but now lives in London. She’s interested in the imaginative loophole fiction creates out of the contract of everyday life. She had been awarded Arts Council, England funding and her short stories have appeared in anthologies from Parenthesis to Dead Languages.

Her twitter account is @l_e_yates

Her website is http://leyates.co.uk

A Child Of No Means

This was in Long Beach, 1996. On the first night of the very first heatwave of the year, Tinoy was in his room with his girlfriend Chana, sharing a joint while listening to the neighbors make love from the apartment above. Outside, the rumble of the Metro Blue Line can be heard as it snaked its way down Long Beach Boulevard, sparks from its line briefly lighting up Tinoy’s dark room.

“Tacos,” Chana passed the joint, “I want some muthafuckin’ tacos.”

“Right now? I’m too high to do anything right now, babe.”

“Tee-Tee, you know I love you, right? You know that, right, boo? We been together now, what? Like a year and a half. Remember? Remember, Tinoy? That’s why I love you, boo. You loyal as fuck.”

“Baby…” Tinoy said and paused for a bit and finished in his head, I love you, too.

“Hey, so what’s up with your tatay nowadays? How’s he dealin’ with all that shit they be pumpin’ into his body?”

“Same, really.”

“You scared? Scared at all?”

“I don’t know.”

“I only ask because I got some good news, boo. We’re gonna need another…room.”

Tinoy closed his eyes. Chana’s voice drifted off into a mumble, punctuated by popping sounds from her chewing gum. He thought about what his dad had told him about having children, Make sure you have everything settled before you start planting seeds, anak; otherwise, a child of no means in America is a child of no meaning. When he opened his eyes again, he stared at the joint between his fingers and watched the smoke slither away from the burning tip.

“I don’t think we should have it,” Tinoy said.

“This is a miracle, Tinoy, you think it’s easy having babies?”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, it is easy having babies. Every girl on this block with a ready pussy got at least one knock on her body, whether or not they saw it through.”

“All you do is smoke,” she continued, “fucking smoke, chill, and then smoke again, and then what? Then what the fuck you gonna do?”

“It ain’t the weed, Chana. You act like I don’t have school, work, my dad, you.”

“Oh and then me. Yeah, what about me?”

“I’m tryin’, Chana, I’m tryin’. You act like I ain’t about our futures. All I think about is…”

“What kind of Filipinos are we, Tinoy, if we don’t have any fucking kids. You know my mama want grandchildren, right? Right?”

Tinoy turned on the light and walked over to the mirror to check on the condition of his eyes. His eyelids hung low, and his eyeballs were red and unbearably itchy. As he rubbed them, he imagined that the apartment complex caught on fire, and all the exits were blocked by flames, and the security bars over all the windows stayed locked, and there was nowhere to go but die. To straight-up disappear, he thought, what that must feel like.

“Bitch, is you crying? Are you for real crying? You know, me and your baby getting’ real fuckin’ hungry.” Chana got up and waddled over to the dresser. Tinoy noticed that she had held her tummy with both hands.

“How many months do you think you…”

“Don’t worry about it, okay? Don’t even let that shit cross your damned mind, like you care. And here,” Chana handed him a bag filled with bite sized brownies, “I baked these as celebration brownies. Your ass was supposed to be ecstatic at hearing we finally about to be a real family.”

Chana stared into Tinoy’s eyes. “God, I fucking hate you, you fobby piece of shit.”

Tinoy wiped his eyes with his shirt, ate two bites of brownie, and left to get his car in the parking lot. He owned a hand-me-down blue Honda Civic – his dad’s first car in America. Tinoy had modified the muffler to one that emitted a meaner growl, so whenever he mashed down on the gas pedal, his car vroomed like a Maserati – yet still drove like the 17-year-old car that it really was.

Chana’s favorite taco spot was in Northside Long Beach, which meant he had to drive on the freeway to get there fast. But when he got on the 710, he was faced with traffic, cars were stopped dead and a decoration of red from all the taillights bloomed into the night. Tinoy reveled in the coloration of it all, and he began to dream with his eyes fixated at the sharpness of the scene before him. He imagined the traffic was his mother’s doing from the other side, holding it up to give Tinoy a chance to fully reflect, to take responsibility for what was his. But a honk from the car behind him snapped Tinoy out of his trance. It doesn’t matter where she is now, he thought, all that matters is that she had left us for good.

As his car inched forward with the slow flow of the traffic, the doses of cannabis from Chana’s brownies were prematurely piquing. Tinoy’s racing mind raced even faster, his eyes darted from side to side, and he grew terrified of all the possible ways he could die at that moment. Every second a different worry emerged.

He took deep breaths to calm his mind, which at that point was riven by episodes of his life, both real and imagined, as if he were watching the local news in fast forward. Talking heads, fire and murder, sirens, cute animals, talking heads, grandmas in muumuus, sports. Repeat. Then he thought about Chana, who was the sole supporter of his cause. He was an immigrant after all and what they would call an “illegal” one at that. What his dad had said about it was simply overstayed visa and Tinoy still didn’t know what that even meant. What he did know was that when the Mexican kids ditched school to protest Prop. 187, Tinoy was more than willing to jump into the mix; he walked five miles to city hall and even made it on the front page of the Press-Telegram, arm in arm with his Chicano classmates. But even after all of that, nothing had come of it, he was still an illegal alien, and Chana had promised to marry him so he wouldn’t have to fear deportation.

Once the traffic started to roll along, he maneuvered toward the slow lanes and exited the freeway. He rolled up his windows, turned on the A/C, and drove to a taco spot in the Westside. He lined up in the drive-thru lane with his high intensifying. The steering wheel no longer felt attached to the car, and he felt like he was floating above his seat. The tingle from the cold air blowing from the vents made Tinoy sit up straight, and his eyes began to water from rubbing it so much. Tears rolled down his cognac brown cheeks and into the white fibers of his shirt.

“Hey, welcome to Albertacos, you ready to order?” said the speaker box.

The voice surprised him, and Tinoy couldn’t answer.

He surveyed the darkness beyond the restaurant’s parking lot and swore he saw some big things moving about and sensed an ambush. Embarrassed and afraid, he busted out of the drive-thru lane and got back on the street from where he came.

At a red light, he heard the sounds of rap music playing from the work van next to him. The work van was white and old, and Tinoy took joy in admiring its details, like the rusted metal side mirrors, about ready to fall; and the outline of a graphic signage formerly displayed at the center of the chassis, where there weren’t any windows; and the Mexican man sitting in the passenger seat, farmer dark with his hair buzzed down to a stubble.

The DJ on the song was scratching to the beat when the rapper dropped the following verse:

 

It ain’t what you do, it’s what you don’t,

Maneuver sideways, the police in hideaways,

Fuck around too much, you bound to get smoked,

Forget yo’ feelings, you might be hearin’ things,

POP, POP, POP,

That’s what we gotta to do to fuckin’ cope,

So we sell them crack rocks, black blunts, and some toktoks,

Billie clubs and you dead, cuh,

Surrounded by chalk chalks

 

Cuz we all about money green backs,

Fuck them police and back,

Long Beach is on attack,

Blap, blap, blaap.

 

Before the next bar dropped, the man in the work van turned to find Tinoy staring, and Tinoy lagged at looking away. The man then whistled, and Tinoy began rolling his window down. Once it squeaked its way completely into its slot, Tinoy began questioning why he acquiesced so easily.

“What the fuck you lookin’ at, ese?”

“Nothing, man.”

“Ay, where you from, homes?” said the driver, who had tattoos inked in place of his eyebrows. On one brow, it read Eastside, and on the other, it read Templos.

“Nowhere,” Tinoy shook his head.

“Then what the fuck are you looking at, ese?”

“Nothing, like I said, bitch. Now what the fuck are you looking at?”

The two men smiled, while the turntables in the song juggled beats in ecstasy, and behind them the sliding door to their work van opened. Inside were three other Eastside Templos, one no more, or less, as gangster as the other. The closest one to the door took a step toward Tinoy’s car right when the red light turned green. Tinoy didn’t waste a second and raced down the street.

He looked at his side mirror and didn’t see the van. He thought that he might’ve caught them by surprise and left them at the light. Then he looked at his rearview mirror and realized that the van was right behind his tail, with its headlights turned off.

Anak, the one thing you have to look out for, anak, is getting in trouble with the police. They will get immigration to pick you up, anak. They will fly you back, one-way ticket to Sampaloc. What am I going to then, anak?

Tinoy prayed to Lord Jesus as he ran the next red light and the red light after that. The van was faster than what he had expected, and he noticed, from the passenger’s opened window, a handgun was pointed at his direction. Tinoy hoped that homeboy wouldn’t waste the bullets on some idiot like himself, but then he thought that if he had, he would’ve hoped for him to be a better shot than he can ever be. Just straight to the dome, he thought, it’ll be less painful that way.

On Willow Street, some drivers who were caught up in the chase drove to the outer lanes. But Tinoy had to maneuver through the other drivers who weren’t that aware. He rode each gear to redline; moved in and out of the gaps; and at several points, found himself facing opposing traffic, all to shake the same gang of cholos who had been beefing with the Cambodians all week. And since Tinoy mixed in well in both appearance and gesture, having been mistaken to look either Samoan, Cambodian, or Mexican during the majority of his life in Long Beach, he was accustomed to being a target for all sides. When all the lanes fully cleared and the van lagged a few hundred feet behind, Tinoy made a late right into Elm Avenue, toward the very first apartment his dad had rented when they first moved to the States many years back, a street he knew all too well.

He turned into the alley directly behind the apartment complex where they had once lived, on the corner of 25th and Elm. He parked his car by the alley wall, shut off the lights, and rolled up his windows. His eyes bugged out toward the rearview mirror, waiting for the van to appear. When it hadn’t driven by after a couple of minutes, he shot a glance up at the apartment complex. He looked to see if the third-floor unit, the one that faced Signal Hill, had its lights on, and if so, who could this person be, yung anak ko, sleeping in the very room he once called his bedroom for so many years. What mischief could he be unraveling?

Before he could spot his old window, he heard a heavy knocking against the driver’s side rear quarter panel. It was one of the Templos smiling, showing Tinoy the gun in his hand. Tinoy was already in first gear and escaped with ease – down the same alleyway he so adored as a child, where he had played handball on most days, learned how to ollie, and where his dad taught him how to drive, inside the very Civic he was throttling.

The Templos caught up with him on Long Beach Boulevard. The streets were empty then, lit up by the amber tint shining from the city street lights. In the distance was the 405. Tinoy knew the on-ramp from the street would swerve around the bend and up into the freeway, and he knew that it would also lead directly back to the off-ramp, back to the street, had one decided to skip the merge.

He drove up to that sweeping turn where he felt like Michael Andretti racing around Shoreline Drive at the Long Beach Grand Prix. He looked at his rearview mirror and noticed that the van couldn’t keep up. As soon as he reached the top, he stayed in the lane leading directly back to the exit, which he did, and he slowed just a bit to watch if the van would merge with the rest of the freeway, and it did.

The mind needs to be busy, anak. Don’t run away from it if it starts scaring you. There are too many people out there running away from their own minds, blocking it with pills, separating the self, splitting it up to two strangers, made to stare at each other like two animals in a zoo, and no one knows who is who, who is caged and who has the key.

Back on street level, Tinoy pulled into the first street he noticed, his high had long gone by then, or at least no longer played the part. He turned off the motor and noticed the marine layer had already crept over Long Beach.

He thought about his mom again and asked the usual questions he often asks whenever she first pops into his mind for the day. Why did she up and bounce like that? What kind of mom would do that to their only child, her infant son? What did she look like? Do I have any resemblance to her at all?

His dad had given him all the advice in how to survive America, how to be a man, and how to stay praying to the Lord. But he still refused to talk about his own wife even after all these years, and it wouldn’t be long until he can no longer even think about her at all. The only living reminder of Tinoy’s mom was in a black and white photo. In it, she sat on a small boat by herself, by the banks of some tiny river somewhere in Ilocos Norte, and it was beautiful to look at as it was, with the scenery of provincial Philippines in the distance, of carabaos and fishermen, of family outings under huts and children playing in the water, and the mystery of the subject, a young woman in a floral tie strap dress, out of place, alone in the dinghy, yet determined to keep her pose, to portray a persona that Tinoy can only wish to have known, all of that visible, except for what was important were blurred and darkened from the high angled and misfired shot. The sunhat blocked his mother’s face, and her arm was in motion as the shutter closed.

Tinoy thought about that photo as he stared through his windshield and into the darkness of the block ahead, listening to the crescendo of night when nothing moved and nothing seemed alive.

He then imagined that his mother left the family because she was a danger to her only son – a maniac, perhaps, who didn’t have it in her, the way a mother should have. So she left, and he pictured her depressed and alone, and surmised in this imagination that she had drowned herself in Manila Bay, no suicide letter found. And Tinoy imagined her dark face, the one he had crafted in his mind, inspired by many years of deconstructing his own in the mirror and by staring at that one photo every day since, and saw it floating just underneath the surface of the water, while a plane bound for America flew by, reflected in her eyes.

It took him a while to notice that the darkness was no more, and the silence was replaced by the chopping sounds of a helicopter, hovering over his car. Its spotlight illuminated everything around him.

“Get out of your vehicle with your hands over your head,” the speaker from the helicopter said, “This is the police. Slowly exit your vehicle.”

Tinoy closed his eyes. He imagined he was with his mom inside that boat, and she was smiling and her voice was soothing, and all of a sudden, she grabbed a hold of her hat as if the wind might, right off, blow it away.


Roel F. Concepcion is a Philippines-born American writer of prose and poetry. Roel writes from L.A., where he lives with his wife and two young children. His previous work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize back in 2019. He blogs at www.wordsling.com and tweets @wordsling.

 

Mother and the GPS

I’d would gladly follow my girlfriend into the garbage, despite its interminable odors.

I love to kiss her, with those inviting lips and skin and smells of freshly washed socks with fabric softener.

I could do this unendingly though my timing is not always on time. I did, for example, ask if she came after four minutes, and this causes us both to recharge our wires and be cautious, whereas before this mild interruption of insecurities, I’d jubilantly make love like a raccoon feasting on the delicacies in a Hefty bag.

*

My mother hovers above me whenever I am in a relationship.

She is 100% certain that that I shouldn’t be in this liaison.

*

My mother has been dead for eleven years but would prefer that the GPS in my car keeps me going in the wrong direction for three hours than I meet my lover and get in the hotel sauna.

I keep circling around the same intersection and cursing, or cussing, as they say in the South, though it is a matter of making a U-turn, but for those of us who began driving when we were 47, it is not a random fucking turn. There are turns and turns and then there is my mother’s spirit jiving with the GPS that keeps me recurrently moving for hours in the same direction without getting to the lovemaking suite, the one my lover rented for us, in the middle of suburbia, which is behind a barbeque place, and even if my mother weren’t collaborating with the GPS, it would have taken me an hour more than most people to find it.

*
There was another time I drove four hours to my girlfriend’s house and joyfully met her but then suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, I was unable to find my car keys. While she scooped, or at least attempted to scoop me up in her arms, I was left armless, diving into my car to locate the keys my mother likely upended by throwing them on the floor in the cavernous Subaru.

*

My mother, even when she was dying, fought with me.

“Do you like my voice?”

“What?”

“Do you think my voice is too loud, Mommy?”
“Why are you howling like a coyote?” Yes, in hospice, when Gemzar, an Eli Lilly drug that kept her alive for 18 months with pancreatic cancer, stopped working, Mother declared how “deafening” I was.

“Why can’t you be more like Candace Schwartzman?” she asked. Candace Schwartzman was a best friend, one of several, from my days in college, who had children and an amazing sense of humor and never regressed to psychiatrists or their medicine.
Candace’s children were my mom’s pseudo-grandchildren and Candace sent pictures my mother posted on her bedroom mirror, which led brother Oscar to say, after Mom passed, “who are these people?”

*

I’m not sure if my mother liked me but she was apparently obsessed with me, as I was obsessed with her because we spoke at least six times a day, and whether she or I called, the point where the conversation began and ended was unclear.

*

Mother loved my brother Harold more than me, which is why he was the executor of her will, whereas I’d have been executed, before even a consideration was made to include me in any legal proceedings.

*

Mommy, which we affectionately called her, had a graceless and unyielding face and when you were at the Passover seder and asked, “Mom, do you like your Cadbury bar?”, she’d correct you and say, “Cadbury egg,” though she was dying next week and shouldn’t eat trayf (the non-Kosher stuff), but when you’re terminally ill, these rules become less important.

*
Mommy’s last conversation was recalling her recipe for apple pie.

“I remember when you made the dough from scratch,” she said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “it was more impressive than when I won the debate trophy in high school.”

“It was,” she agreed. She then stopped talking, and the hospice nurse covered her with a sheet.

*

Mom has not left Earth. She lives in my Subaru whose name is “Esther,” which is what my ex-girlfriend called the car, because no one in my family christened our automobiles. My brothers and me and my mother, and likely my father, no, we didn’t anoint our cars. It was Chevrolet, Pontiac, Toyota, and my brother Harold, the favorite, purchased a Volkswagen—only after Mother expired—the insipid German car, which was verboten because we had several family members who walked on a death March in Austria during World War II.

*

Mom despised all things German, though she sent me to Germany when I was 16, so I wouldn’t abhor Germany as much as she did because she heard the cries of Jewish babies being rifled by Nazi soldiers on the radio.

*
Mother would have preferred I marry a Jewish man, not because it was an entirely conventional thing, but all her friends—even the borderline personalities she knew—their kids were showing up in shul with offspring.

*

Mom believed it was important to wear pantyhose, which, if I were to attend synagogue, I had to put on.

Though I mostly wore men’s clothes and shoes, a section in my bureau contained pantyhose for dresses when I went to Mother’s house during the Jewish holidays. If I decided to unwear dresses and subsequently pantyhose, there’d be screeching and dish crashing and it was easier to keep that drawer filled.

*

Mom was not flexible about my using her silk pantyhose and kept an inventory or made me buy another pair if I wore hers because my large toes would cause irreparable damage to them. I didn’t manicure my toenails like Mom, though my dad, back in the day, said cutting your toenails was paramount to good grooming.

*

Mom, in the middle of suburban Pennsylvania, manipulates the GPS so I keep going around and around. Finally, after getting twenty feet from the “hotel,” I approach a man in a truck, who tells me the hotel is not an extension of the neighboring Barbeque Bar, and “please follow me, it’s difficult to find.”

*

I get there three hours late, but my lover, who has paid for the room with her credit card, including the fake fireplace and the bubble bath from CVS, is not angry.

She grimaces, sees stress in my eyes, and I announce, before entering our hotel room, “my mom made me late.”

Isabel—my girlfriend’s name—opens the door and asks, “your mother?”

“She lives in the Subaru.”
“In Esther?”
“Yeah, and I don’t think we’ve discussed this yet, but she doesn’t want you to be my girlfriend…”
“Huh?” The innocence in her eyes is like the dead baby lamb in August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck’s 1878 “Anguish” painting, where the sweet but deceased lamb lies by its mother. In it, crows—like Mets fans waiting for their team’s demise—stare at the mother and baby.

Isabel, if she had been in that painting, would be the babe at its mother’s hooves.

“My mom does not want you to be my girlfriend,” I repeat.

Isabel says nothing.

“My mother made me late,” I tell her.

“What? Amanda?” Amanda is my mother’s name.

“Yes,” I reply.

*
Isabel also has a mother who does not approve of me, though she doesn’t know I exist, because Isabel knows that telling her mother about us would make her livid.

“No point in having two unhappy mothers-in-law,” I agree.

*

When I make love to Isabel, I use an alarm clock.

“Why can’t you make love to me without an alarm clock?” she asks, puzzled.
“I don’t know,” I whisper.

I use an alarm clock during intercourse, and if I don’t make her come in four minutes, and the alarm clock plays The Police song “Can’t Stand Losing You,” it means I have failed and my mother is triumphant.

*
“Whatever, Mom!” I’d yell when I was 16 and she told me to dust.

“Are you talking back to me?”
“Whatever!”

“I’m going,” I said.

“Going where?” Mom wondered, “you don’t have any friends.”

*

“Why would anyone bother to love me?” I ask Isabel, who is crying.

“You are so beautiful,” she says, hovering above my mouth.
“But Mother said, ‘you don’t have any friends,’ which was true, and now that I do have friends, I can’t have a girlfriend.”

“Come here, sweetie,” Isabel mutters. I hear her every word. It’s like rain painting the hemisphere: a spark of green and purple and birds flying in my face.

“Huh?”
“I want to kiss you, honey,” she says, moving closer.

Isabel is nearby, whereas I’m moving further away, sleeping in my old home where my family lived, which was sold to Orthodox Jews. Our house is now a synagogue, though the color is the same purple Mother had it painted.

*

“You’re not mad at me for being hours late?”

“It’s okay,” Isabel strokes my cheek.

I take her hand and move closer. We lay on the bed and I feel her supple body. It is smooth and I am delirious.

*

I stay in my bed for many hours, incapacitated, unable to move, holding my dog Henry.

I’m so immobilized after the breakup I can’t see my friends who are visiting from Boston.

I am streaming on the empty hemisphere.
The dog’s fur is touching my face.

Every time I move he scoots next to me.

I prevail at failure, and my mother has me post-mortem on this bed, waiting for God to fall from the sky, for the birds to depart, and Isabel to leave.

*
In my Subaru, whose name is Esther, if you look under the plastic mat, you can see Isabel’s hair clasp.

“Why do you keep it there?” Mother asks, “you broke up with that shiksah.”

“No Mom,” I say, driving the automobile out of the Target parking lot, “you broke up with her.”

*

I am a raccoon hunting for fresh turkey salad, after the family has thrown out the garbage.

*

Sometimes I hear from Isabel, little wisps of friendship that blow through Facebook. It gives me comfort, however, when she e-mails a heart.

*

My mother is still dead, though she now leaves the car and comes with me to therapy.

*

Every time a bell rings or an alarm goes off or Sting plays on Apple Music, I think it’s Isabel.

*
“It’s your mom,” my therapist says.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“She loves you but doesn’t like you,” he confides.

Mother is speaking through him and no therapist could compete with her command of Freudian dialectics.

“Ahhhhh,” I say, wiping a tear, “that’s it.”

“Yup,” he replies.

*

I miss Isabel, like when she touches my leg after we make love.

*

I listen to Joyce Carol Oates in the car CD player on the way home from therapy and wonder if her prose is as unhappy as mine, if her mother interfered with her relationships.

*

I sit peacefully outside a coffee shop, after fighting with the barista, who made me a regular coffee though I ordered decaf.

*

I consider blocking Isabel, who wants to be “friends” on Facebook.

I frequently delete the app, particularly if I have a desire to say, “let’s go to a museum,” or “can I visit you this weekend?”

I send her photos of Edward Hopper’s river paintings that appear at the Whitney, or videos of my dog Henry barking.

*
Henry and I sit peacefully outside the café. We hear people play music and sounds from inside. Cars go by and the quiet seeps in. My mother is somewhere, maybe in the trees, where she waits.

 

 


Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, The Toronto Quarterly, Faultline Journal of Arts and Letters, Litro, The Denver Quarterly, Wigleaf, Barely South Review, The Breakwater Review, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, Juked, Spoon River Poetry Review, Santa Ana River Review, HCE Review, The Dos Passos Review, Switchback, Cleaver Magazine, and BlazeVOX2018 Fall; forthcoming work in Thrice Publishing’s 2019 Surrealist/Outsider Anthology.

Eleanor’s poetry collection, ‘Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria,’ was published by Unsolicited Press (Portland, OR) in 2016. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University (Roanoke, VA) in 2007. Her short story collection, ‘Kissing a Tree Surgeon,’ was just accepted for publication.

For the Love of a Dog

I meet Marcus at a minor league game: Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp versus Kissimmee Cobras. The brightly-lit stadium a stone’s throw from the St. Johns River has been renovated to the old-timey feel of a Northern ballpark, but its faux brick and imitation gas lanterns make it more theme park than Fenway. The craft beer is nice and Marcus is excited about the tapas. He drones on about meats-on-sticks while I watch his arm and salivate. Nearly a dozen Tinder dates in half as many months and they have all ended deliciously. I expect Marcus will be more of the same.

“Seriously, the flavors really pop.” Marcus brandishes a Thai curry chicken skewer. “Try a bite.”

He waves the meat in my face and I want to attack him right there.

“I’m a vegetarian,” I reply.

“Oh,” he says. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’ll go back. I think they have tofu.”

I tell him I’m not actually hungry, though I’m ravenous. Marcus buys us beer and we sit down to watch the game. My stomach growls and I feel lightheaded. I’ve spent the last week sneaking into an abandoned school on my way home from work. Bats have roosted in the rafters and I’ve been picking them off one by one, but all the bats in the world would never equal the satiation of a single human being.

On the field, number five has more meat than the others. He’d be a meal you’d have on a Saturday with not much to do and nowhere to be.

The first base coach is in his fifties. Plenty of meat. How would that work? I haven’t dated a guy beyond thirty since the turn last year. How would my appetite change in the coming decades? Would I get older? Would I even live to transition to older men?

“Grace? You okay?” Marcus finishes his beer and stands up.

“I’m good. I’m sorry.” I smile and try to pay attention. “I’m not much company tonight. It’s been a long week. Here, let me get this round.” I take his empty cup and head toward the concession.

After the game, a bubblegum country duo butchers a rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” complete with red, white, and blue pyrotechnics. Then Marcus suggests we walk along the river. I’m a few inches taller than him so I’m glad I didn’t wear heels. He’s not a bad-looking guy. Sandy brown hair, glasses, slumps a little when he stands. A nor’easter has moved in so we take the ferry to the Southbank to stay out of the wind.

“You’re near the river, right?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s a cluster of townhouses right by the old church.”

“The church with the chimney swifts that come back each year?” he asks.

I nod in reply. In just a few weeks, the small birds will make their annual return there.

“I love that area. Great tapas at that Middle Eastern place on the square.”

“What’s with you and the appetizers?” I ask, and he looks wounded so I change the subject. “Where do you live?”

“At the beach.”

Of course he does. Now he’ll start talking about how much he loves to paddleboard.

“So what do you do when you aren’t building websites?” I ask.

“I’m a glassblower. And I have a German shepherd named T-Bone. I taught him to pick up trash off the beach.”

“How old is T-Bone?”

“Seven. Do you have pets?”

I tell him I’ve been thinking about getting a dog. “I just worry that maybe I work too much.” I am an editorial assistant at a regional publishing house. The pay is crap, the hours are long, and we’re always on deadline. But something about the translucent, eager eyes of the receptionist reminds me of a half-brother from a life that’s long dead. That and there’s always a plate of fresh scones. They were my absolute favorite before the turn and while they do nothing for my appetite now, I still love the taste.

“Couldn’t you bring the pup to work?”

“Our art director brings her dogs. I guess she has to since we work like 12-hour days.”

“Take the leap.” He grabs my hand. “I couldn’t imagine life without T-Bone.”

An hour later, Marcus is on top of me. We’re in his dingy beach flat above a garage. It smells like patchouli and wet dog. A knock-off Navajo rug hangs on the wall. Fleet Foxes play in the background and T-Bone stares at us through the screen door.

Marcus runs his hands down my back. It would feel nice if I weren’t so famished. I’m tired enough to have sex without the whole murder thing. But I’m hungry. It’s why I suffered through nine innings, a walk along the river, and a 45-minute drive out to the beach. Marcus kisses my neck. I’m ready to gnaw off his ear. He takes off his clothes. He has a long torso like a flank steak and crazy large calves. He hadn’t seemed this solid in his khakis and button-down. Now’s my chance, but T-Bone is whimpering from the porch.

“You too.” Marcus laughs.

“What?” I say.

“Strip,” he says.

I pull off my sundress.

Marcus is close enough to taste. Salty skin. Citrus shampoo. A faint smell of smoke.
The dog scratches at the screen.

“No, T-Bone. Stay.” Marcus’s eyes meet mine. “T-Bone’s jealous. Let’s go to the bedroom.”

I grab my wadded-up dress. My knife is concealed in a pocket in the folds of loose fabric.

In the bedroom, Marcus turns on a lava lamp. We both get in bed. He takes a glass pipe from the nightstand drawer, loads a bowl, lights it, and takes a pull.

“You want a little?” he asks, as he breathes out the smoke.

“I’m good.”

He inches toward me. “Makes the sex better. And we can take a shower after. It lasts forever when you’re stoned.”

My stomach lets out a volcanic rumble and I pull the sheet tight around me.

“Trust me, the last thing I need is the munchies,” I say.

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those girls who doesn’t eat. I like a woman with an appetite.”

I can feel the weight of the knife in the dress bunched up on the floor.

He sets the bowl back on the dresser. “You shouldn’t be self-conscious. You have nothing to worry about. I knew you were out of my league the minute you showed up at the ballpark.”

“I’m good with my body,” I say, a little irritated, though I feel like I’m all knees and elbows as I fold into myself. “I just don’t feel like getting stoned.”

“You hear that?” he asks.

All I can hear is my stomach. “Hear what?”

T-Bone comes into the room.

“How’d you get in, bud?” Marcus asks.

Marcus gets out of bed and walks into the living room.

“Damn dog just chewed a giant hole through the screen door. Landlord’s gonna kill me,” he calls from the other room.

The bedroom, which is covered in an inch of dust and littered with a week’s work of laundry, leads me to believe Marcus won’t do much about the door.

“I’m ordering a pizza,” he says. “Just veggie, right? And maybe some chocolate chip cookies. You’re not vegan, are you?”

“Not vegan,” I say. T-Bone plops down on my lap and heaves a sigh. I pet him.

Marcus comes back. “I’m sorry I got distracted.” He crawls back in bed. “T-Bone, get down.”

T-Bone growls low and settles in against my legs. The dog is a warm pile of fur and his heart races against my thigh. He nuzzles then nips my hand.

“T-Bone, what’s gotten into you?” Marcus asks. “He’s never this clingy.”

“He’s fine.” I’m becoming resigned to an evening that probably won’t end in a feeding other than pizza.

“Well, we were in the middle of something?” Marcus moves a little closer.

“Do you mind?” I ask. “I feel like maybe the moment’s gone.” Things feel complicated. I can’t kill Marcus. Not tonight. Not in front of his dog.

Marcus looks disappointed as he flips on the television and smokes another bowl. I take a hit. My mind is fuzzy and I need food. Two weeks ago, I ravaged a telemarketer and left him in the shallows near Reena’s Redneck Yacht Club, a desolate dive bar on a nameless Northside inlet. Reena’s mean as a snake but for some reason has taken a liking to me. Maybe it’s because I tip well. Either way, the place is far enough out in the sticks so no one notices when the crabs finish off whatever’s left of my dates.

We go to bed after the pizza. Marcus falls asleep in less than five minutes. He’s on his back snoring and I think about how easy things would be if it weren’t for T-Bone. I’ll eat Marcus in the morning, when the damn dog is outside. I snuggle close to the German shepherd between us and drift off.

The next morning, I awake in a haze. The dog, still asleep beside me, kicks and I wonder at his dreams. Is his appetite for squirrels the same as my appetite for men? I have a type: single, no family in the near vicinity, in tech or telecom. Marcus is my third web developer. Will I move on to older men or to women, even, if the world runs out of Marcuses? I could never eat a child. Or a dog. I hug T-Bone and he jolts awake.

“Don’t worry.” I scratch behind his ears. “I didn’t eat your owner.”

I pick up my dress, fold it neatly, and then decide not to worry about it and put it back on. I pull my knife out my pocket. It’s a bowie knife with a polished silver handle. A gift from my grandmother. I brush my teeth with Marcus’s toothbrush and head downstairs. T-Bone follows me.

Marcus is in the garage below, its door open like a cavity. He wears gloves and safety glasses in front of a furnace. T-Bone wags his tail when he sees his owner.

I wave a little and Marcus glances up from his work.

“You want to try?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“What do you make?” I ask.

“Mostly pipes for head shops and stuff. I’m making these globes for my mom. She’ll hang them all around her yard.”

I wince at the mention of a mom who will surely miss her son.

He holds one end of a steel pipe. There is a ball of molten glass on the pipe’s other end. He moves the pipe into what looks like a furnace.

“The furnace is actually called a crucible,” he says. “It keeps it soft so I can shape it.” He pulls out the pipe and dips the glass into a steel bowl full of crushed colored glass and returns it to the crucible. Next he rolls it on a graphite surface, which he says is a marver that distributes the heat evenly. “It’s all about symmetry,” he says without looking up.

After that he places the pipe on a stand, and rolls and blows into the pipe’s end simultaneously. Once the glass takes the shape of a small globe, he cuts off the end with what looks like a long pair of tweezers and ribbons the glass’s edge at the tip. He taps the end of the blowing pipe to remove the excess glass and then sets the globe in an industrial oven. He works with such confidence, a part of me wants to shatter every piece he’s ever made.

“It’ll cool down over the next couple hours,” he says. “Come on. Let’s take T-Bone for a walk.”

“I can’t,” I say. “I have some weekend work I need to get ahead of.”

“But you can watch T-Bone do his trick and then we’ll get breakfast. There’s a great vegetarian spot up the road. Seriously, the best quinoa you’ve had in your life.”

I’ve never tasted quinoa and have no plans to start now.

“A quick walk,” I say. “But I have to skip out on breakfast.”

We walk along the beach; my red dress fluid in the breeze. We talk while T-Bone fetches empty water bottles, a discarded bag of Cheetos, and a broken Frisbee, depositing each find into a nearby trashcan. Every time, Marcus gives him a treat. We make tentative plans to watch the chimney swifts the following weekend.

That night I head to Reena’s alone. The place began as a double-wide. Reena’s second husband welded shipping containers onto each end so now it’s three awkward rooms, the left room nearly consumed by a pool table, the right filled with tattered vinyl barstools. A place that’s been operating without a liquor license since the 1960s. The Jell-O shots are a dollar and you can drink domestics all night and still leave with a twenty dollar bar tab. Reena’s washing glasses at the bar in the center when I belly up. She used to be pretty but life has worn her down like a used penny. Now, she has acne-scarred skin, brittle gray hair, and yellowed lines along her mouth.

“Whiskey,” I say.

She pours a double without asking.

“Thanks.”

“How’s Brandon?” she asks.

“Who’s Brandon?”

“Your boyfriend? The telemarketer who told me I need to put all my stock in bitcoin? Like I got any money around here?”

“Moved back to Indiana. Homesick, I guess,” I say.

“That’s a shame. You two seemed to have a spark,” she replies.

“How’s business?”

“Slow. Jerrold and Bunny had a fight and she pulled a gun. Scared off the regulars for a few days. I swear this place would be fine if people just left their damn weapons at home.”

“You should put up a sign.”

“I don’t need a sign. I got a pistol behind the bar. Next person that pulls any shit gets it from me.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” I say.

Reena smiles but it fades as Jerrold and Clive, Reena’s boyfriend, walk in. Jerrold with his tail between his legs and Clive somber as a peacemaker. The three begin chatting after Jerrold apologizes, swearing on Bunny’s life that the couple won’t fight in the bar again.

I don’t have to worry about messy relationship drama. Not after that night, hammered at Crocodiles in Nassau, when I made out with a firefighter and woke up the next morning all pukey and achy, with a large gash on my thigh. I figured it was just me being clumsy. For a while, I worried I might be pregnant. I never got his number and lost track of him the minute I boarded the ship the next morning. But then when I got home, I couldn’t shake feeling bad. It felt like the flu. All fever and ache. The wound on my thigh was slow to heal. I worried it was infected so I got a tetanus shot. Then I had what felt like mono. The doctors couldn’t diagnose me. I scoured the internet, convinced myself it was lupus. Something autoimmune.

When I started eating raw meat and then picking off small mammals and birds, I knew it probably wasn’t lupus. After I felt the irrevocable craving for human flesh, I thought back to the firefighter. A memory buried so deep. We had been kissing on the bathroom floor of some hotel room. The dirty shower curtain. The white towel hanging on the back of the door. My blood spilled across the yellow tile. I went down a rabbit hole on the internet one night and discovered I was a part of a growing class. Apparently, zombies were using dating apps to pick off people in countries like Turkey and Brazil. Big cities, usually. Ankara. São Paulo. I was so hungry I downloaded Tinder that night. Now, I’m closing in on my eleventh kill.

 

Marcus texts me midway through the week.

Coming to your neck of the woods Saturday. See the chimney swifts with me.

Sounds good. Pack a bag. Maybe you can crash at my place. I doubt myself for a minute and press send.

Sounds great. J. Can I bring T-Bone?

My landlord isn’t crazy about dogs. I text this even though Sarah has four boxers and occasionally tags me on Facebook when she sees a rescue.

Please? He’s been acting strange all week and I don’t want to leave him alone. Besides, I think he misses you.

Crap. Maybe just this once. See you Saturday. 😉

It’s a damn date. I don’t want a date. I want dinner.

 

Every year, hundreds of chimney swifts return to a particular church a half a block from my house. They fly in at dusk and this year we watch while the black-bellied birds make their descent. The church was built in the 1880s. Who knows how long the birds have migrated here? What primal instinct brings them home again and again? I shudder at my own instincts. I smell Marcus’s new shampoo. Tea tree oil. I smell T-Bone’s damp fur. He dances in circles as the birds fly high above. Later, he wanders off into my neighbor’s overgrown side yard as we walk back to my place. He returns calmer now that the birds are gone as I unlock the door. Marcus and I climb the stairs to my bedroom. T-Bone follows.

“Not this time.” Marcus leads T-Bone into my black and white tiled kitchen and blocks a way out with dining room chairs. T-Bone pants and paces. Marcus returns to the stairwell and we ascend.

In the bedroom, he pulls a box from his pocket. “I have something for you.”

It’s a pendant necklace.

“You made this?” I ask.

“The pendant is Pyrex. You can shower with it. Beat it up and it shouldn’t break.”

He fastens the clasp and the small cylindrical burst of yellows, blues, and reds glitter like a geode cold against my skin. We get undressed. I draw the blinds, click off the nightstand light, and pull back the chartreuse green quilt. We get into bed.

Ten minutes later, Marcus is telling me I’m the most beautiful woman he’s even been with. The entire time, T-Bone has been barking in the kitchen. I hear the dog trying to knock over the chairs. Soon he’ll be clicking his nails up the hardwood stairs.

“Get behind me,” I say. I have to move fast.

We change positions. When Marcus begins to climax, I grip the cold silver handle of my blade under the mattress, but as I’m about to make my move, T-Bone bursts through the door. Light from the hallway spills into the room. In less than a second, I’m face to face with the dog’s baring teeth as he lunges toward me. I nick the dog’s leg enough that he backs away.

“What the hell?” Marcus’s voice is pocked with anger.

I realize Marcus hasn’t seen the knife so I slip it back under the mattress.

“Seriously, get out.” Marcus jumps up and flips on the light. He grabs the dog’s collar and puts him outside then closes the door. Back in bed, he reaches for me. “Did he hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “He’s just protective.”

“What’s he protecting me from?”

I’m so hungry I can’t think straight.

“Next date’s my choice,” I say. “I know a little bar near the marsh. You can’t bring T-Bone, though. No dogs.”

Later, when Marcus is asleep, I get dressed and walk downstairs. I open the front door and T-Bone follows. On the porch, we sit together in the chilly October midnight. T-Bone cowers a little when I reach out to pet him. After a while, I manage to rest my hand on a tuft of fur along his spine. A few minutes later, he rustles into the bushes, returns with a dead chimney swift, and drops it at my feet. I pick up the bird. It’s beautiful and delicate with a small head shaped like an owl’s. I tear into the bird’s face and its rawness runs through me like a tendril of electricity.

 

It’s karaoke night at Reena’s Redneck Yacht Club and Clive is the evening’s DJ. He plays a revolving door of Skynyrd and CCR with the occasional Zeppelin or Cream peppered in. Clive hates country. I finish my second beer as Jerrold finishes “Gimme Three Steps” when a frazzled-looking Marcus walks through the door.

“I need to take that dog to a shrink,” he says as he takes a seat next to me.

“They have Prozac for dogs,” I say. “You didn’t bring him, did you?”

“Of course not. He’s just been tearing up my furniture all week. Who knows what I’ll come home to tonight?”

If you go home tonight.” I smile. “Can somebody check in on him if you stay at my place?”

“Yeah, I’ll figure something out. You’re wearing the pendant.” He reaches out and touches the glass around my neck. “It looks good on you.”

I lean over and kiss him. “Let’s get you a drink.”

Reena comes in from taking out the trash. She lights a cigarette. “Who’s the fresh meat, Grace?”

I shoot Reena a look and smile so my voice brightens. “Reena, meet Marcus.”

“Good to meet you?” Marcus says. He’s out of place here.

In my old life, I would have been out of place, too. Somehow, though, everyone here senses my brokenness and considers me one of their own.

Several beers and a couple of shots later, Marcus is telling me a story about one Fourth of July at his grandparents’ house.

“Gramps was in Korea. He had this homemade firecracker he called the widow-maker and he let me light the fuse,” Marcus says. “Something went wrong and it burned off my eyebrows and some of my hair.”

“That’s insane,” I say. “We were never allowed to play with fireworks growing up.”

“How many brothers and sisters did you have?” he asks.

I take a drink and ignore his question. “So the fireworks. Did you go to the hospital?”

“Nah, but it was hard spending the summer as the bald kid with no eyebrows. Like being thirteen isn’t hard enough. But it got me into glassblowing. And the hair eventually grew back.”

“So nearly burning your face off made you want to play with fire more?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” he says. “It became an element I needed to harness.” Marcus stands up and cracks his knuckles. “Let’s do this.” He reaches for my hand.

“Do what?” I ask.

“Motherfucking karaoke.”

“I’m too drunk for karaoke,” I say. I’m too drunk for anything. My knife is in my pocket. My plan had been to wait until last call and then take Marcus behind Clive’s van while he and Reena screwed in her RV up near the road but it’s too much to think about at this point. I follow Marcus to the microphone and then he trips over Clive’s steel-toed boot.

“Watch it, you little fucker.” Clive, who is six four, covered in tattoos, and works as a bouncer at the roughest strip club in town, is never in the mood for drunks. “Grace, I never have seen you with a guy who can hold his liquor.” He stares down Marcus as I stay quiet.

“I was second chair cello in high school.” Marcus tries to look Clive in the eyes and the effort seems to make him sway. “I’ve got this, man.”

“You don’t,” Clive replies.

“C’mon, buddy.” Marcus sounds like he’s begging.

“I’m not your fuckin’ buddy.” Clive crosses his arms. “You gonna get this guy off my back, Grace?”

“Just one song,” I say as I hand Clive a five-dollar bill.

“What song, asshole?”

“The Gambler.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re liable to get your ass kicked with a song like that.”

“Trust me, stage presence, I promise.” Marcus winks at Clive.

But Marcus is off pitch and off beat. People are paying attention, and not in a good way.

“You sound like a cat caught in a fan belt.” Clive reaches to cut the song.

“It’s time to go,” I say, as I pull at Marcus’s arm. My knife open in my other hand.

“Gracie,” Marcus brushes my hand away. “I’m just having a little fun.”

My knife breaks his skin. A gash begins to gush.

“Oh shit. She’s got a knife!” Clive yells toward the bar.

“Not here, Grace. Get out and don’t come back,” Reena’s voice is steady and low. I know her next move will be to reach for the pistol. Clive pushes us out of the bar before that happens.

Outside, I look down and see the blade in my hand. What did I do? Marcus’s arm trails blood in the pale blue light.

Marcus holds his arm in shock. “What the fuck, Grace? I need stitches. Why would you…” Even though he’s livid, he avoids looking at me before he turns to walk back to his truck.

I smell the copper. My mind clears with the same peace that happens after a car accident when you’re mired in chaos but you know you’re alive. I follow him and stab him in the side. He turns back and stares at me stone-faced before falling to the ground. I devour him at the edge of the salt marsh. Something inside me shifts. It’s subtle at first then raging like a current. A rush seeps in and takes over as my senses heighten. I feel the rhythm of the marsh: skittering invertebrate, the occasional flick of a redfish tail, the slow reedy lull of the thick cord grass that surrounds me. The sounds pulsate like a heartbeat. I lick Marcus’s bones almost clean. It takes until sunrise when the crabs will clean up most of what’s left. The salt and tide will take care of the rest. A bright red sunrise burns across the horizon.

When I’m finished, I leave a twenty-dollar bill on Clive’s windshield and walk back to my car. As I reach for the handle, a quiet click stops me in my tracks. It’s the sound of a fingernail on glass. I shudder and think for a moment I’ve been caught. But the click is too familiar and not quite human. I follow the sound to Marcus’s truck. T-Bone paws against the passenger side window. Guilt shivers down my spine at the sight of the dog. I take Marcus’s keys and open the door. T-Bone won’t make eye contact. He just jumps out of the cab and follows me to my car. We get in and drive northwest toward another coast. Maybe Homer, Alaska where the sand is black and the nights are long.

The City On a Hill

Placetime coordinate: somewhere, sometime. Neither here and now nor there and then, but rather there and here and then and now. The lively ruins of a city on a hill. A forest grows round it. Waters cut through it. Monsters burrow in and out of it. The shape of the city is a termite’s tower. Or a pinecone. Or a radio mast. Its image is always changing. It matters if you view the city from the corner of Hope and Angell, or through a telescope on a satellite orbiting in outer space, or while standing on the deck of a ship. Sometimes, in some places, the termite’s tower looks as if it is about to crumble; other times, from other vantage points, the tower gleams with a fresh coat of chrome.

When the angel lands in the city, they land like lightning striking a tree. There is a lot of noise and a little bit of smoke. That they land in this place at this time was never guaranteed. Their descent from heaven was an infinity of zigzagging possibilities. The physics of what led them to the city on a hill are unknown. Some might call it attraction. Some might call it providence. But amidst all this uncertainty, a moment in spacetime erupts in plasma, and the angel lands in the top branches of an old American chestnut, though by the time they have gathered their wits about them, the times have changed, and the tree has a different name, wompimish in the Narragansett language, but then they are falling, toward the ground and into the future, or far into the past, for the tree is no longer there to hold them up. The tree is dead, felled by the blight, or perhaps it is yet to germinate.

Placetime coordinate: a college on a hill, October 2018. The angel gets up, dusts themselves off, and begins to walk to class.

They are naked, for they forgot to pack clothes before leaving heaven, and this is cause for both great mirth and alarm on campus. The naked body of an angel is really something else to see. A couple people faint as the angel passes, others quake in spontaneous ecstasy, some giggle, and still others call the police. Every few meters an atheist bursts into flames. As they pass another immolated student, all the angel can think is thank goodness they at least remembered to pack a body.

Only a few people are unfazed by the sight of the naked angel. They are older female professors, mostly. One of them is named Sandra, and she teaches in the anthropology department. There is just something about Sandra. The angel notices her right away. She is wearing a long ugly dress with a paisley print on it. Her gray hair has a single dyed streak of mauve. She walks through the city like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Looking at her, the angel worries they might suddenly burst into flames too.

They follow Sandra into a building hung in ivy. Inside, they take a seat at the back of a vast lecture hall while Sandra makes her way to the front. The angel moans as they watch her throw off her coat. The noise disrupts reality itself. Things that were once discrete are shattered into transparency by the vulgar mewls of an angel. Suddenly, the whole lecture hall is without clothes. Everyone can see everything, right down to the bone. Where one body begins and another ends, no one can say, for there is neither fabric nor skin nor space to separate them anymore, though the angel is certain they can discern the transparent and beautiful form of Sandra from all the rest. Sandra starts to lecture. She refuses to indulge her students’ panicking at the sudden collapse of a preconceived ontology. She only has 55 minutes to get through the day’s material. There is no time to waste. She tells the void of voices and bodies to quiet down so they can get to work.

The angel speaks into the senseless void. “What class is this again?” they ask. The void whispers back, “Sex, Gender, and Science.” Perfect.

“Today we’ll be discussing the social construction of sex and the ways in which modern biology has reinforced a heteronormative view of sex difference,” sings the voice of Sandra, or rather the voices, for she is no longer just one thing, but many. “But before we get into that, I’d like to start with a discussion of the various strategies of reproduction across all organisms. Sexual reproduction is, in fact, relatively rare.”

The angel is rapt. They aren’t really listening, for neither sex nor gender nor science mean much of anything to a primordial being such as themselves, but Sandra is rife with possibilities, and the angel cannot help but entertain them all. They imagine Sandra as a queen. They imagine Sandra as an assassin. They imagine Sandra as an ethereal being as ancient as the universe itself. They imagine Sandra holding their hand.

After class, reality starts stitching back together, and the discrete shape of things returns. The angel, still naked, wanders to the front of the class where Sandra is packing up.

“Can I help you?” Sandra asks, not even looking up. The disinterest sends a shiver down the angel’s spine.

“I was wondering if you had a moment to chat,” the angel says. “I have a question about the lecture today.”

Sandra finally looks up at the angel. “You mean you want to have sex with me,” she says matter-of-fact. The angel hadn’t realized this is what they wanted, but now that Sandra has said it, they know it’s true. But then Sandra looks down, and her eyebrows furrow. “Does your species even have sex?”

“I’m an ancient celestial monster,” the angel replies. “I don’t belong to any species that participates in reproduction or inheritance of traits of any kind.”

“Hmm. That’s kind of hot.”

The angel blushes. Sandra pulls out her wallet. “Here’s a hundred bucks,” she says. “Go buy yourself a nice dress for tonight and then meet me in the lobby of the Hippo Grand Hotel downtown at six-thirty. We can continue this conversation there.”

The angel accepts the money and watches Sandra strut out of the lecture hall. After a couple minutes, they follow, back out into the city. They don’t know where to go to buy a dress, so they just pull a slightly charred one off one of the immolated students. They leave the hundred bucks next to the body. With the dress on, the angel can reimagine themselves as Sandra, or a part of Sandra, or a noble attempt at Sandra. They sigh, and the city ripples all around them.

Placetime coordinate: October 1718. A city on a hill built by slaves. Stone by stone, body by body. A slaving ship returns home after two years away. The angel stands on the deck. The wood of the ship is stained in blood and gold. This ship has made a man rich. Maybe one day they’ll name a university after him. No one knows the names of the people whose blood stains the ship, but the angel does. They were with them when they died. They shepherded them on to heaven. They wish they could have done more. But angels won’t save this city.

After docking, the angel disembarks the ship and wanders the embankment. It is a Sunday. The bells of a church are tolling. Church bells are the angel’s one mortal weakness. They cannot refuse the call of a church bell. They wander into the sanctuary of the church. It’s a Baptist affair, which isn’t the angel’s usual cup of tea, but what can they do? They take a seat in the pews and listen to a sermon on the role of Christian charity. It crackles with hypocrisy. The angel has half a mind to unleash their wings, rise up from the pews, and smite the pastor with a bolt of lightning, but instead they do nothing. Angels don’t even have wings anyway. They just sit and listen and watch in silence.

Though the other churchgoers can’t tell, the gaze of an angel is upon them. A court of a million heavenly eyes watches the city on a hill, and it sees everything, and it judges everything, and it knows everything, and even the toll of a church bell cannot blind it. An angel will not save this city. And no matter how much they might like to, an angel will not destroy it. But there are angels living in this city, everywhere, and though they might not have wings, they have eyes and mouths and tentacles and hearts. They know how to make and remake cities. They can remake this one.

Placetime coordinate: October 2018. The city on a hill cannot be mapped. At least not by men. The angel realizes this after asking for directions. They are lost. They have a date with Sandra, and they are running late. The man they ask about the location of the hotel seems very certain of himself, but his instructions make no sense. The angel stops in a HippoMart to cross-reference the man with an atlas. What they find is no more reliable. There is no way the city on a hill is shaped like that. Cartographers have tried to map the city and they have failed. All their fancy technologies are useless. They use drones, GPS satellites, surveying equipment, and their own eyes, but nothing works. Every time a man on the street attempts to map the city, it comes out looking like a tree. Lesser road sprout off greater ones, and that is that. There’s no turning back, no later intersection. One wrong turn in the city on a hill and you are hurtling forward to infinity, history left behind. According to these maps, there are only one-way streets in the city.

It takes the vision of an angel on high to lay the city on a hill down flat upon a plane. An angel can see everything, not just from above, or from this corner or that one, but also from below and within and beyond. They have far better vision than the God’s-eye view of the cartographer. They have an earthworm’s vision. The angel doesn’t just view the earth from heaven, they tunnel through it, and the earth tunnels through them. The results of this kind of mapping are much more accurate. The angel realizes that if they want to get to their date on time, they will have to do some mapping themselves.

They aren’t too happy about it, because they know they will probably get their dress dirty. Mapping can be a messy business. The angel gets down in the mud and starts to find their way.

From the point-of-view of an angel, the city on a hill tangles into all its possibilities. The angel begins their map with a sketch of the city’s outline. What they find is not arboreal but chthonic. Next comes the topography. They are surprised by what they discover. There is the hill, of course, but also plains and valleys and mountain ranges and canyons and rivers and lakes and marshes and deserts and volcanoes and islands and tundra and ocean. There are cities within cities on top of cities beneath cities. Here, an old-growth forest. There, a cattle ranch. The angel maps a lot of wheat and soybeans and corn. They also map all the carbon emissions, the algae blooms, the desecrated mountaintops, the landfills, the nuclear waste, the restored mansions of cotton plantations, the denuded timber forests, the Superfund sites, the rusting steel mills, the bleached coral reefs, the coal plants, the flood zones, the chaparral on fire. When they are finished, the image of the city is vast and overwhelming. But the angel now knows where they are going.

They arrive in the lobby bar of the hotel fifteen minutes late. The bodice of their dress is ripped open and their hair is caked with soil. Sandra doesn’t seem to mind. She has already ordered the angel a drink. They walk up to where Sandra is sitting at the bar and drown the cocktail in one gulp.

“Sorry I’m late,” the angel says. “Traffic was pretty bad.”

“Let’s talk about sex complementarity,” Sandra says, and the angel’s knees buckle. They can’t resist this woman. Sandra reaches down to help heave the angel off the floor and whispers close to their face. “Sexual dimorphism is just a fiction used to reinforce the patriarchy,” she says. Her breath smells like cinnamon mints and brandy.

Sandra leads the angel from the bar out onto the street. A few meters from the door, an older couple is arguing over a map. As they pass, the woman stops them. “Excuse me!” she says. “Can you tell us how to get to Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience?”

“I’m sorry,” Sandra says, frowning. “I don’t think I know where that is.”

But the angel knows where Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience is. They mapped it just a few minutes earlier. They reach into their body to extract the map they made. They keep it inside like an earthworm keeps earth inside. The map comes spilling out of several holes, splattering onto the pavement in a slurry of information. It glistens on the concrete like a puddle of water and oil. A shining map of a city on a hill.

The woman shrieks. Her male companion swears. Sandra steps back a bit so the map doesn’t splatter on her heels. “Here it is,” the angel says, pointing the restaurant’s location out, but the couple isn’t paying attention. The woman pulls on the man’s arm, and they turn and run away. They must be in a hurry. Sandra and the angel watch them go. “C’mon,” Sandra says. “I made reservations for seven.”

They arrive at Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience and are seated at a candlelit table in the corner. The couple that asked for directions doesn’t seem to have found the place. Sandra orders them a bottle of wine. The angel downs it in one gulp too when it arrives, so Sandra orders them another. Her wedding ring glimmers in the candlelight, and the angel starts to feel a little woozy.

Next Sandra orders a charcuterie plate for them to share. The angel has never experienced charcuterie, or meat or cheese or food of any kind, really, and so sharing their first meal with Sandra is a revelation. Every bite leaves them hungrier. They want Sandra to know just how much this is affecting them. “You look so fucking hot eating that prosciutto,” the angel tries out. The tables at Giovanni’s Fine Dining Establishment are packed pretty close together, so several of the diners nearby hear the angel’s outburst and start giggling, or choking on their cacio e pepe, or blushing. Sandra doesn’t blush. She takes another slice of the meat, chewing it slowly with her mouth open for the angel to see. She knows she looks good.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sandra says, and she pulls the angel out of the restaurant by the hand. Her left hand. The angel can feel her wedding ring against their skin. Sandra leads them across the city on a hill to her house. They stumble into the bedroom. Sandra’s husband, Marty, is already asleep on his side of the bed. Sandra holds a single slender finger to her lips, telling the angel to keep quiet. The angel wants to bite that slender finger off and chew on it like Sandra chewed the prosciutto. But then Sandra whispers, “Let me freshen up real quick,” and disappears into the bathroom.

The angel watches Marty snore for a couple minutes before they feel a pair of arms wrapping around their middle. They feel Sandra pressing soft kisses on their neck. They smell Sandra’s perfume. They also smell charcuterie. Then Sandra’s hands start wandering, and soon the angel’s muddy dress is on the floor, and so is Sandra’s blouse. They crawl into bed together next to Marty. It’s a tight fit, but it’s cozy. They lay facing each other, nose to nose. “Tell me about heaven,” Sandra whispers.

The question surprises the angel. They haven’t thought much of heaven since coming to the city on a hill, and they hadn’t guessed Sandra was someone who’d be interested in that. They realize there is still so much they don’t know about her. They realize they think they are in love.

“I feel very far away from heaven in this city,” the angel says. Sandra frowns a little. “Even with me?” she asks. The angel thinks for a moment. “Even with you,” they say eventually. “But that’s not a bad thing. There are no Sandras in heaven.”

The thing about heaven, the angel thinks but doesn’t say, since now Sandra is kissing their mouth, is that it’s not a place any human could ever understand. Heaven is a hole in spacetime itself. Not a black hole or a wormhole but a God-hole. A hole without time or space or history. Humans yearn so desperately for heaven because they want to flee history, but the angel knows that the God-hole is neither freedom nor justice nor peace. The God-hole is nothing. In heaven, all the angel knew was loneliness. The city on a hill has an ugly history, but it is also beautiful. Sandra is beautiful. Sandra has holes. The angel likes them better than the God-hole of heaven.

Placetime coordinate: Narragansett territory, October 1618. The city on a hill is a wilderness. Or so it seems. The chestnut trees are still standing, and the gray wolf has yet to be extirpated, and there is not a single piece of synthetic plastic in the whole universe yet, and certainly not in this place. But the angel still has their map, and they know from studying it that even in this spacetime, the city on a hill is not pristine. They retch their map onto the ground so they can orient themselves in this new, unfamiliar time. They try to find Sandra on the map, but she isn’t there. Sandra is history now. All they can see on the map are a pattern of movements, human and animal and mineral and plant. Hunting and cultivating and burning and crafting and trading and family-making and worshipping and warring and death. They find a lot of death on their map, for smallpox has come to this place. It will be used to try and make a wilderness out of this ancient civilization on a hill.

Placetime coordinate: October 2118. The city on a hill is haunted. The angel sees ghosts peering out of windows as they walk down the street. They see ghosts lurking behind lampposts. They trip over a ghost in the pavement, its gut cracked wide open and spilling an ectoplasmic sludge of moss and clover and detritus onto the concrete. In these overgrown cracks, the phantom of a paved-over history. The angel is spooked.

They flee into the safety of an old library. It is a library dedicated to preserving the local literature of the city. A lot of twenty-second century hipsters come here to work. The angel picks something off a bookshelf at random and sinks into a dusty armchair. Their ten thousand hearts beat rapidly with the aftershocks of seeing a phantom. The book they picked up is not a book but a magazine. It is called Weird Tales. It smells like a ghost. They open it up anyway and read.

In another corner of the library, a young man is reading an old horror novel. His name is Raphael. He is not afraid of ghosts, but maybe he should be. He glances up from his book and notices the angel. In this time and in this place and from his perspective, the angel looks like a labyrinth. Raphael loves a good challenge. He works as an engineer for the Hippo Corporation. He understands how the universe works, and he’s good at making it work for his employers. But the labyrinth is a problem he hasn’t solved yet. He doesn’t even know if he could solve them, and he’s suddenly excited by the prospect of failure.

Meanwhile, the labyrinth is reading a short story in Weird Tales. It is about a sad and lonely (but very clever) man living in the city on a hill. One day he is visited by a maleficent alien from outer space whose vastness is so unthinkably terrible that the lonely-but-clever man’s brain dissolves into goop. The labyrinth doesn’t really get it. They know from experience that the author’s understanding of immensely ancient celestial beings is wrong, and so too, they can only assume, is his understanding of human neurobiology.

While the labyrinth puzzles over the strangeness of the short story, Raphael approaches them from across the library. He approaches them like lightning approaches itself. Opposites attract, cloud to ground, ground to cloud. Stepped leaders meet upward streamers, and the electricity of their union buds lightning flowers. Or lichens flower. Lively patterns etched into the skin. Raphael and the labyrinth will never be the same.

“I love that story,” Raphael says as he peers over the labyrinth’s shoulder. “I’m a big cosmic horror fan myself.”

“I’ve read worse,” the labyrinth says, even though this is the first story they’ve ever read.

“Do you want me to show you my computer?” Raphael asks. He doesn’t usually do this, but there is just something about the labyrinth.

“Of course,” the labyrinth replies. “Is it big?”

Raphael leads the labyrinth to Tower 8 of the Hippo Corporation New England Campus at the top of the hill. The building flickers in and out of reality. It is clad entirely in transparent glass, right on the spot of a former university lecture hall on a former Narragansett hunting ground on a future ocean built by slaves. The place continues to reverberate with the moans of an angel. Raphael swipes an ID card and leads the labyrinth inside.

His computer is big. It takes up half his office. The labyrinth can’t help feel a little anxious wondering how it would fit through the door. Raphael starts pushing some buttons, trying to explain how the machine works, but the labyrinth isn’t listening. They are too caught up in their own memories. They think of the last placetime they were in this space. They think of Sandra. But they can’t remember Sandra. Whenever they try to picture her face, the image eludes them. All they can see is Raphael. They suppose he’ll have to do.

They walk up behind him and wrap their arms around his body, just like Sandra did to them so long ago. Raphael stills, stops talking, and then slowly turns around so that they are face-to-face, noses touching. “You’re an alien, aren’t you?” he whispers. The labyrinth licks their lips. “I knew it,” he says. “You’re so beautiful. Like straight out of smutty Lovecraft fanfic.” He moves in closer, pressing his mouth against the labyrinth’s ear. “I want you to fuck me until I go insane. I want you to fuck me until my brain turns to goop.”

The labyrinth acquiesces, even though they don’t really think it’s going to work. They push Raphael up against the window, but reality flickers again, and they end up falling through the glass onto the garden below. They start fucking amidst the hedges. Raphael runs the path of the labyrinth. They start slow, for the hedges are high and overgrown near the entrance and Raphael really has to hack his way through them, but as he goes along the hedges become more pruned and the path widens and the pace speeds up until Raphael is at a jog, panting and shouting and whole-body-spasming at every turn. It goes on for a while. Raphael misjudged the labyrinth, for the labyrinth is a labyrinth with no center, no endpoint, no moment of self-actualization. The labyrinth is a prison, not an escape. Not even an engineer like Raphael can crack it open. So he keeps jogging down the path. At each turn he runs up right to the brink, thinking this turn will be his last, this turn will be his release, this turn will turn his brain into goop, but it never happens. Each turn in the path leads to more path. The path is neverending. Raphael keeps running until his legs give way and he can’t run anymore.

When they finish they collapse together on the grass, and Raphael immediately falls asleep. A group of his colleagues have descended from their offices in Tower 8 and formed a crowd around them. They are taking pictures and videos with their phones, and the labyrinth starts to feel a little claustrophobic about the whole thing. Their body itches. They scratch at it, but it just makes them feel more restless. They need to take their body off.

Placetime coordinate: somewhere, sometime, in an era without humans. The city on a hill is underwater. The labyrinth is an angel again. Raphael has been left behind. The angel floats along with the current. Here, in the water, they feel safe enough to uncoil into their celestial form. The ocean is just another kind of outer space, after all, so they stretch out and become an entangled bank of tentacles and mouths and brains and stomachs. For a moment it feels as if they are back in heaven, but then the sea carries them onward, and they reach the ruins on a hill. The forest of chestnut, maple, and elm has been replaced by a forest of kelp and plastic. The kelp grows tall and dense, but it is tangled up in plastic bags and wrapping and other ancient refuse. It shall be so tangled for millennia. The angel cannot stop their trajectory. They float into the forest, but they are a forest themselves. They tangle with the kelp and the plastic. There is no unravelling from the history of this place. There is no escaping the labyrinth.

Tangled up in this place, the angel feels like a monster out of Weird Tales. But weirdness is just an adaptation to loneliness. Loneliness is a state of unfulfilled desire. Desire is a process of reimagination. Here, lonely in this forest of plastic, the angel reimagines the city on a hill. They reimagine it as a colony of weird creepy-crawlies, a great swarming hive of tunnels and passageways and hidden chambers. Like a labyrinth. There is no center. The angel loses themselves in the reimagination. In this city on a hill, Raphael’s leg is still entwined with theirs, and Sandra is still kissing their neck. In this city on a hill, the angel still feels weird, but they are less alone.

Not all beasts that are lonely are weird. Creepy-crawlies crawl-creep weirdly because they are made of plastic. Their plasticity is what allows them to adapt. Like the dandelion that orients itself differently depending on whether it grows in sunlight or shade, or the wolf that has coevolved into so many strange breeds of dog, weird creepy-crawlies know how to work with their environments. They know how to make and remake their phenotypes when nature calls for it. In this, weirdness is synthetic like plastic. Weirdness pollutes. There is no weirdness in nature, but nature is full of weirds. Like any good biologist will tell you, as soon as life enters a lonely space of nature, weirdness will subsequently evolve. It is a vital adaptation. And as time passes in this outer space of ocean, the angel only becomes weirder.

One day, a hurricane comes to the city on a hill and lightning strikes the water. For a moment, the city shines like a ghost, but then the lightning is pulling the angel out of the water and into the God-hole of the hurricane. Into the clouds. On the journey up the angel can hear church bells and anthropology lectures and computers humming and slaves revolting against their captors and men and women conversing in the Narragansett language and then, just as they reach the lofty height where earth and heaven meet—

—Nothing.

Page 1 of 5