Fiction Archive

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.

Incorporated

All adults lie. They tell us kids to always tell the truth, but they can’t tell the true themselves.

Don’t believe me? Check this out.

Last July Fourth, I was at a cookout with some people Sancha knew from her old job at Dietz & Watson. It was getting late and almost all the food was gone. Folks still hung around because there was still plenty of booze left. And while they was getting lit, talk turned from Sancha’s old boss there and the way he just up and died to a topic that seemed impossible to me, like they all was trying to figure out a riddle or some myth. Talk went something like this: there were times when a black man looked so much like a white man that white people mistook him for one of them. They all agreed that a black man can’t never catch a break in this world, and how the kind of black man in the riddle was a lucky son of a bitch. Like that black man hit the lottery or something. Well, somewhere along the line, Miss Frida, one of Sancha’s oldest friends, piped in about how my daddy was supposed to be that kind of a black man.

I’d never met my daddy, so this was big news to me. Because it was night time and because Sancha told me never to get messed up in adult conversation, no one noticed that I was standing close by, listening. But right after the cookout, on the way home in Reggie’s car, I told Sancha about what I’d heard and how I’d kill to be that kind of man. I thought that if white people considered him one of them, then my daddy must be some kind of superhero.

Sancha reached back from the front seat and slapped me.

“Don’t you ever let me catch you saying shit like that again. Your daddy weren’t no superhero.” Sancha was my momma, a name I never called her. “I told you, boy. Not everything adults say is true. And if you think something’s true, you better verify it.”

Not ever knowing my daddy or where he was or how to find him made anything about him hard to verify. And if anybody knew who he was, it had to be Sancha. But she never talked about him and any questions I had about him always went unanswered.

Sancha, me, her baby’s live-in boyfriend Reggie and my newborn, half-sister Kay headed out to some cemetery in the suburbs for a funeral. We went out to pay our respects to Sancha’s old boss and his family. She said that they’d been real close. But when she got fired from Dietz & Watson, Sancha and me ended up living in Section 8 housing because we’d didn’t have any money. Later on, she met Reggie, a SEPTA transit bus driver and a guy who made some good money. For a guy in his late twenties, a couple of years younger than Sancha, Sancha said it was hard to believe that Reggie didn’t already have any kids of his own. Well, just before Kay was born, Sancha made all of us move to Germantown, a section of Philly Reggie called the land of neo-hippies, middleclass intellectuals and socialists. Sancha claimed that only smart people lived there, and being around smart people would be good for me. So, anyway, the four of us pulled up to the suburban cemetery in Reggie’s shiny chrome-hubcapped hoopdie looking like the city Negros we truly were.

“You actually showed up,” a white woman said to Sancha as we headed up the brick walkway. A tree with short gray hair, the woman towered over all of us. Dressed all in black, she looked like Death, only missing the hood. She pointed a bony finger at me. “And this one must be Leon.”

“Hello, Vivian,” Sancha said.

Sancha had put on her good voice that day. And when she put on her good voice and good manners, I knew that she was scared of something. She stood up straight as a stop sign and cleaned up her street English.

“This is my boyfriend Reggie. He’s carrying our daughter Kay. And this is Deon. His name is Deon.” Sancha said to me, “Deon, this is Vivian. Her husband was my boss.”

The woman reached out a walking stick for an arm. “I’m Mrs. Anderson. You can call me Mrs. Anderson.”

From Mrs. Anderson’s tone, I knew she wasn’t fooling.

Neither Sancha, Reggie, me or Kay ever went to church. Sancha didn’t go for that, and even though Reggie grew up down south and went to church there, he let it go once he moved up north. So we rarely dressed up all that much. Sancha had Kay in a polka dotted dress and she wore a black skirt with a dark blue sweater shirt. Reggie wore what he called his black, dead people’s funeral family wedding suit. I had on my good black pants and a white shirt and a clip-on red bowtie. Reggie gave me the once over and asked if I was going parking cars.

“Listen to me, Deon,” he said before we left for the cemetery. “We gotta get you a black suit. A black suit and a white shirt will take you far. Good for all occasions. A black suit and a white shirt go with any color tie. And always wear a jacket and tie, little man. People’ll think you somebody important.”

I always trusted Reggie and his advice.

“Well, you’re too late. Casket’s already closed and in the ground,” Mrs. Anderson said. Then she snorted. “Funny. Those were the first words I heard Nathan ever say about you. ‘Sancha’s late.’”

“I’m here. Right?” Sancha said. “I’m right here and I’m not going nowhere until all this is over.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Anderson said. Her tone suddenly turned from sarcastic to sad. “Yes you are. Well, let’s go inside. The lawyer’s almost ready.”

The brick walkway led right up to a stone house. It looked just like one of the houses in Germantown. I learned in school that Germantown not only was the site of a big Revolutionary War battle, but that it was also its own town before the City of Philly grew north and incorporated it. Miss Williams, my history teacher, told us that. She used the word “incorporated” for how Philly swallowed up lots of small towns like Germantown and nearby Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.

“You know, Deon. Being incorporated is the same as hooking up with a new family,” Reggie told me after I told him about the battle and stuff. “You and your momma, me and Kay, now we’re all incorporated.”

The opposite of Sancha, Reggie grew up in a big family down south, but moved up north because he said he was getting nowhere living where he was. So he got a job driving transit buses. One day he was substituting for some other driver, “grinding out some overtime” is how he called it, and that’s when he met Sancha. He saw her and fell for her right away. She said she didn’t fall over so easy because she told me that she didn’t trust men. The men she’d met never stayed around long. So Reggie seemed no different, at first. But even with the longer Reggie stuck around, I don’t think Sancha ever got used to him being around. Since it was always just her and me, getting incorporated was complicated.

“You know, Deon, if you ever get hitched or shack up with some chick like my people do down south,” Reggie said, “you commit yourself to something bigger. Like when your momma’s boss married Mrs. Anderson and became a part of her family. Like the way me and Kay is now with you and Sancha.”

At home, me and Reggie would stand out by his car when he wanted to catch a smoke or two. Out there, we talked about everything from girls to music to the 76ers, with the agreement that everything we said stayed between us.

“I know having me and Kay around has changed things for your momma. Like us moving into a bigger place in Germantown and all,” Reggie said. “And you know why she did that, little man?”

The problem with staying out of adult conversations was that I never understood what adults were talking about. So I often used another piece of advice that Reggie had given to me: tell adults whatever they want to hear. Like I’d never tell Reggie or Sancha how much I missed living in Section 8 housing. There were lots more kids like me there.

I shook my head in answer to Reggie’s question.

“Your momma wants better for you. Seeing how there’s more money now for you and her cause she hooked up with me, she wants you to live someplace better. And whatever chance she gets to make sure you get something better, she gonna take it.”

Inside the house a bunch of people sat around and talked quietly, like when a substitute teacher kept an eye on my class. Everybody was on folding chairs, keeping their eyes on a man in a dark blue pin-striped suit sitting behind a big desk. I guessed he was the lawyer Mrs. Anderson talked about. He looked at some papers and, every once in a while, took notes. He had on a nicer suit than Reggie’s, which made him look real important. Sancha found us some seats in the back of the room. And while Sancha stared off toward nothing in particular, Reggie sat Kay on his lap and played with her. For a guy who’d never had any kids, Reggie seemed like he’d always been a daddy.

A woman in front of us turned around.

“Are you a friend of Nathan’s or Vivian’s?” she asked Sancha.

Sancha continued to use her good voice. “I worked with Nathan at Dietz & Watson. The meat packing plant. We worked first shift together. He was my boss.”

As soon as we sat down, I spent all my time watching Mrs. Anderson. She couldn’t seem to stay in one place for long. She bounced from seat to seat like she was a pinball hitting off the bumpers. She talked to this person and that person, but not for too long. She walked up just as the woman in front of us turned around to talk to Sancha.

“Yes, Brenda,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Sancha and Nathan became very close. He even told me that she moved around a lot when she worked beneath him, and she tried a number of new positions while under his supervision.”

Reggie put a free hand on Sancha’s shoulder, holding tight, like he was stopping her from throwing down. Back in Section 8, I watched Sancha beat up a woman once.

“But as soon as Sancha’s shift got changed and Nathan no longer managed her, the other manager let her go because of poor performance.” After saying this, Mrs. Anderson moved on.

“If your son’s hungry, there’s some refreshments in the hallway.” The woman sitting in front of us acted nice. “Are you hungry, young man?”

I waited for Sancha’s permission. I saw the food table earlier and really wanted to take something off of it, but with Sancha hyped up and all, I left everything alone.

“You want something, Deon?” Sancha asked. I nodded. “Okay.”

“Reggie,” I said. He was still playing with Kay. “You want something?”

Whenever he went out for cigarettes, Reggie’d either take me along or buy me a pack of Tastykakes. When he got back, we’d hang out by his car and he’d catch a few smokes while I wolfed down the snack before Sancha caught me.

“I’m good, little man,” he said. “But, hey. Don’t forget to ask your momma.”

I looked at Sancha.

“I’m good,” she said with some huff. She eased up a little. “Thank you, Deon.”

Out at the food table, Mrs. Anderson stood around talking to a shorter guy in a black suit. He also had on a black tie. He made me feel underdressed. And since Mrs. Anderson hadn’t been so nice to Sancha, I thought she’d treat me the same way. So I stared at my shoes as I walked towards the food, thinking that if I didn’t look at Mrs. Anderson, she wouldn’t look at me. Instead, I bumped right into her. The short man had already walked away.

“Where do you go to school, Dean?” Mrs. Anderson asked me.

Because she scared me, I didn’t correct her about my name.

“I’m in eighth grade at Jenks School, ma’am.”

“Jenks? That’s a good public school. Do you like school?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I smiled at her.

Besides telling adults what they want to hear, Reggie also told me to smile when I talked to people. He learned down south that people never really know what’s on your mind when you smiled at them.

“Really? You like school?” Mrs. Anderson asked me. “When my nieces and nephews were your age, they always complained about how much they disliked school.”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean, school’s okay.” I had trouble getting out my words. “I like math and science. But English is hard. I really don’t like to write.”

I found the courage to look at up Mrs. Anderson. She was actually smiling back at me.

“That’s funny. Mr. Anderson used to say the same thing. We were in college together. He majored in Chemistry. I preferred the Humanities,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Nathan always talked about wanting to be the next George Washington Carver and took a job in food engineering. That’s how he met your mother.

“I found it strange that Nathan would admire a Negro so much. Yet I never asked him why. It was just one of those things about him, as I am sure there were some things about me he didn’t try to understand.” She seemed to look at me like she knew me. “It wasn’t until later that I found out why.”

This was the first conversation I could remember where an adult wasn’t so focused on telling me, Deon do this. Deon, don’t do that.

“Nathan worked hard and gave me a good life,” she said. “My family cherished him. We miss him very much. My own mother said that he was her favorite son-in-law.”

“Do your kids like school, Mrs. Anderson?”

It was like she came out of a trance. “Oh, no. Nathan and I didn’t have any children. Thankfully.”

All the adults I knew, which was pretty much Sancha’s friends, all had kids. Mrs. Anderson became the first woman I ever met who didn’t have any. I started to feel sorry for her.

Back inside the room, I ate two donuts while the lawyer read out a list of things that Mr. Anderson wanted to give away now that he was dead. The lawyer would say the word “to” and then the name of someone and then what Mr. Anderson gave them. Like, “To Samuel Rogers, I leave the 1972 Lincoln Continental, a car that I know he always loved.”

But when it came to the last thing to be given away, my conversation with Mrs. Anderson taught me a huge lesson: that she could smile in my face, but that she was just like other adults: a liar. The last thing the lawyer read was this: “To my son, I leave $150,000 towards his education. Whatever monies are not spent after he finishes college or university shall be his to do with as he pleases.” How could Mr. and Mrs. Anderson have a son when she told me that they didn’t have kids? Even some other people whispered that they also didn’t know that Mr. Anderson had a son. Even stranger, Sancha acted all relaxed after the lawyer read what was being given to the son. Her mood changed and she became the happiest I’d seen her all day.

After it was all over, Sancha, Reggie, Kay and me went out to the spot where Mr. Anderson’s casket was. Sancha stared down into the hole.

“Deon,” Reggie said. “Come on, little man. Let’s give your momma a few minutes to herself.”

We walked towards his car.

“Beautiful day, ain’t it?” he said. “Makes you feel good about being dressed up all nice. Your momma said we should go out to eat after this. Where’d you think you want to go?”

Going out to eat was a big deal. It seemed like money was always tight, so we didn’t even get McDonald’s, takeout or pizza. Whenever we did go out, now that we were incorporated, to me we felt like a family, not like it was when it was just me and Sancha.

“Hey, Reggie. I just wanna say thanks for all the advice.” Reggie looked surprised. “I bet you if I knew my daddy, his advice probably wouldn’t be as good as yours.”

“You think so, little man?” He tripped, but caught himself and Kay. “Thanks, Deon. Nobody’s ever said that to me before. That means a lot, comparing me to your daddy and all.”

“You ever met my daddy?” I’d always wondered.

“Not face to face,” Reggie said, almost like he was swimming in a sappy Coca-Cola commercial moment. “Came close to seeing him once, though. So did you.”

I stopped. Not Reggie too. “You’re lying.”

He reached out and took hold of my shoulder, just like he did when he held Sancha down. “Deon, in all the time you known me, have I ever lied to you?”

 

 


C.H. Coleman currently lives in southwestern Vermont and serves as an admission officer for a small private school. C.H.’s poetry, short stories and articles have appeared online in PiF, Ducts, Poetry Flyer and in print in Takoma Voice, Uno Mas, Washington, DC’s City Paper and The Lynn (MA) Evening Item and currently appear in The Drabble: Shortness of Breadth, formercactus (Issue 12, October 2018), Flash Fiction Magazine (December 2) and, most recently, in the Adelaide Literary Review.

Melanie Blue

Melanie met Harriet at a health food store in the cosmetics section. They were both looking at a facial cleanse made from watercress that promised to protect against free radicals and improve skin tone. They began sharing their experiences with organic shampoos and paraffin-free mascara and Harriet mentioned, that while using an exfoliator, she had rubbed her skin raw.

“When I decide to do something, my commitment is total,” she said.

Harriet also shared that she needed to see a dentist – holistic of course – as it had been over five years and her puffy gums were marring her headshots, an essential commodity for an actress. Melanie said she was a writer. Realizing they were both artists, Harriet knew immediately it was no accident they had met. The universe was sending them a message.

“What’s the message?” asked Melanie.

“Together, we are meant to fight any obstacles that stand in the way of meeting our true potential.”

Although fully committed to her art, Harriet was unable to support herself as an actress and worked as a go go dancer, to make ends meet. She danced on a pedestal in skimpy outfits carefully sewn with sequins and macramé-like stitching by her personal seamstress. The men in the clubs begged to touch her but she reminded them that she had been hired for her talent, which included dancing at a ferocious speed for twenty minutes without interruption. In her acting class, she was known for her over-the-top emotionality and bursts of performing genius. What she prided herself most on, however, were her one-handed cartwheels.

At home, Harriet liked to position a table lamp so it shone in her direction as she marched to the center of her living room and belted out a show tune – sotto voce. She had neighbors.

Yes, I’m versatile, she would think.

Melanie lacked the confidence to write a novel so she wrote short stories. Her work was predicated on the idea that the only way for a woman to be a great writer was by giving voice to her anger, “an emotion long denied the female artist.”

“Whatever the emotional blocks to our creativity, we must fight through them – scream, beat our fists in the air, curl up into a fetal ball.” Harriet agreed.

Melanie had as yet been unable to submit a single story for publication. Instead of rewriting to improve her work, she preferred to start something new. She couldn’t risk failure, although she fended off feelings of inadequacy by reminding herself of a writing award she had won in grade school.

Melanie’s parents paid her rent. She covered her other living expenses by cashing in U.S. treasury bonds bought by family and friends when she was a newborn. She had been an attractive baby.

Every day, after they first met, Melanie and Harriet went to “their” coffee shop and talked for hours about their careers and the greatness for which they were destined.

“The universe is definitely on our side,” Harriet said.

While they spoke, young people like themselves walked past the windows: first year associates at law firms, marketing managers, event planners, junior copy writers, medical students, dental students, public relations coordinators, social workers, computer programmers, personal trainers and editorial assistants. As the day progressed, young people, laughing, talking, alone and in groups, continued to pass by on their way to dinner parties, engagement parties, baby showers, charity events, blind dates, marathons, museums, the airport, rock concerts, exercise classes, dance classes, the beach. Melanie and Harriet never noticed.

“The usual?” asked the waitress.

“My acting teacher told me he was tired of my hysterics in the classroom and that I needed to focus more on the work. When I started to cry, he became really frustrated,” said Harriet while eating home fries off Melanie’s plate. “I sniffled through the rest of the class. I never got to perform my monologue. ‘Nobody knows the tragedy of being a girl.’ That’s the way it begins.”

“That sounds really great,” said Melanie, “and I like the way you clutch your hair, like you’re going to pull it out, while you’re doing it.”

Melanie often complained to Harriet about her roommate, Lucy. She felt she was overconfident about her dance ability.

“She’s pudgy,” said Melanie.

“Deluded,” said Harriet.

When asked about her dance studies, Lucy would remind Melanie that she studied Cecchetti, a ballet method that had spawned Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova and George Balanchine.

“She never lets you forget it,” said Melanie.

Lucy diligently attended class every morning and followed the Cecchetti method’s strict routine of exercises. Her dance teacher, Peter, a perfectionist, encouraged her, appreciating the seriousness with which she approached her work. He was asexual, which was a disappointment to Lucy.

“He has a guru,” Lucy had told Melanie.

Soon Peter’s guru became Lucy’s guru. He gave her a picture of a bearded man wearing mala beads, which she held in place on her desk with a paperweight. She touched it daily.

To further hone her skills, Lucy installed a ballet barre in her bedroom where she practiced, while Melanie spent her time on the phone with Harriet, her laptop unopened on the kitchen table.

“Do you ever finish anything?” Lucy would ask Melanie. “There’s a hundred pieces of paper in your room with one paragraph on each of them.”

“She has no artistic sensibility at all,” Melanie told Harriet angrily. “I mean, when she walks, she stomps. When she speaks, she yells. When she laughs, she hee-haws just like a donkey. She’s a complete ass.”

Harriet had brought a thermos of bone broth to the coffee shop and poured Melanie a cup.

“It a great detox,” she said.

“I wrote this,” Melanie said to Harriet, holding a piece of paper in her lap. “It’s kind of autobiographical.”

Melanie read aloud, “She thought back to her recent date with Chuck Dickens, a shoe salesman who vomited on her chest after a night of drinking. He apologized, as though that made up for everything. Well, it didn’t.”

“Love it! The imagery is really raw and naked,” said Harriet.

“The story’s not done yet,” said Melanie. “Lucy said I never finish anything.”

“You mean the Lucy that has a real bedroom while you sleep in a converted breakfast nook without a door?”

“I was thinking of putting up a beaded curtain. I saw one online. The beads looked like blue sparkly diamonds.”

“Forget Lucy. But I like the beaded curtain. You could make some really dramatic entries into the kitchen. I’m great at dramatic entries, but I need more people to see my work.”

“You were an extra in that Indie film.”

“True. And the director is pretty famous.”

“Who was the director?”

“I forget,” said Harriet.

“I’ve got a really great idea for a new story.”

“I’ve got great ideas, too and I’ve been using them to write my own monologues. It makes my acting so much more authentic. Here, I’ll do one for you.”

Harriet closed her eyes, put her hands in her lap and started to breathe deeply.

“What are you doing?” asked Melanie

“Preparing my instrument,” she said.

Melanie felt stupid. Of course, she thought.

After a few minutes, Harriet opened her eyes and began.

“When I would come home from school, my mother was always there, even though she never had time to make me a snack and I was really hungry. She was too busy putting on make-up, which took hours because it had to be perfect. My mother was an actress and was known for her awesome performances at the local high school. She felt she always needed to look her best because at any moment a casting director could show up – which, by the way, I can completely relate to.

Anyway, when I was around 16, she started to act strange. She told everyone she wasn’t just a housewife. ‘Au contraire,’ she would say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest actress,’ and insisted her name was Sarah Bernhardt. She finally got so crazy that during a performance at the high school, she ran up onto the stage and put the female lead into a headlock, yelling, ‘Viva la France.’ They took her away in handcuffs, which was pretty embarrassing. No one wanted her to act in any of their productions after that. She just sat in a chair, her hair a wreck, with white socks pulled over the top of her pants. She never wore make-up again. The woman who had been my mother was gone. “

By the end of her monologue, Harriet was sobbing with her head in her hands.

“You were so real. I had tears in my eyes, too,” said Melanie. “And everybody in the coffee shop is looking at you. You won’t need to use a microphone on stage.”

“You know, Mel,” said Harriet, “between the two of us we have so much talent. I mean, we could start our own theatre company. We could write the plays together and then I could direct and act in them. I could also do the costumes and set design, lighting, props, public relations, fund raising and make-up, which, of course, I learned from my mother. We’d get worldwide attention. We’d be famous!”

“You’re brilliant,” said Melanie, excitedly. But, would we need other actors?”

“Well, we could ask Amanda Novak from my acting class. But she has a lisp.”

“She is so deluded,” said Melanie.

“Marilyn Jacobs? said Harriet, thinking aloud. “She works a lot, but her acting is completely inauthentic. Besides, when I went over to her apartment to rehearse a scene, Billy Smith, another classmate of mine, was there in his underpants. He was hiding in her bedroom but I saw him.“

“She sounds like trouble.”

“There’s Mimi. I don’t know. She’s really short and is always saying, ‘Good things come in small packages.’ She stands on a box when she does her monologue.”

“Tom Cruise stood on a box when he worked with Nicole Kidman.”

“She’s not Tom Cruise.”

“True.”

“Bud Myers? His father is Falcon Myers who’s been a working actor forever. Bud’s always trying to prove that he’s as good as his father, which he’s not. It’s really annoying and I hate his beard. I can’t believe he thinks that thing is attractive. He shoved his tongue down my throat when we did a love scene together. Disgusting.”

“Disgusting,” echoed Melanie.

“Skip Peterson’s in my class. He’s a children’s television star and really talented. The only thing with him is that he doesn’t have much experience acting without wearing a ground hog costume. Esther Feldman’s too lazy. She always comes to class in her pajamas. There’s Justine Blackman, but she never likes to go outside during the daytime.”

“That would make it really hard to rehearse.”

“Besides, she says she wants to have a baby.”

“Don’t you have to take a baby outside during the daytime?”

“Who cares? Forget them. They’re all losers. I’m going to make it a one-woman show. I’ve always wanted to perform Euripides.”

“Yes, Euripides, that would be great. I could definitely see you dressed in a toga.”

“I could do Shakespeare. I love his intensity.”

“Shakespeare would be fantastic. You could wear a dress with one breast exposed. That’s what they wore back then. I saw a picture somewhere.”

“For my art, I would definitely do that.”

A month after Melanie and Harriet had first become friends, Melanie’s parents refused to continue paying her rent. After she sent them a story that she had recently written, they told her to get a job. She went to an employment agency that placed her with Mr. Fuller, a retired businessman. She typed, filed, took dictation – although she didn’t really know how – and made tea. It turned out Mr. Fuller was also a writer.

“I’ve been involved with business my whole life,” he said. “I’m like an aging dancer, who has to keep on dancing because their whole identity is wrapped up in that one activity. But I’ve wanted to write a novel. I know I have one inside of me, but so far I’ve been unable to find the time,” he said and grabbed for her hand.

“Don’t ever start wearing make-up,” he said. “You’re lovely just the way you are.”

“I was thinking of highlighting my hair. Harriet says it will make my eyes pop.”

He let go of her hand.

“I have, however, taken to writing haiku,” he said. “I was attracted to the form because of its brevity after a profound experience I had last year. I almost died from a reaction to antibiotics. My lips began to swell and I went to the emergency room where I was injected with Benadryl. When a nurse finally returned to check on my condition I was speechless, with my tongue swollen and hanging from my mouth and me unable to breathe. The Benadryl hadn’t worked. I spent ten days in the ICU after an emergency tracheotomy.”

“That’s so real,” said Melanie, frightened by his story.

The good news is that while I was in the emergency room I was given a full physical. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it. When you get old, nobody wants to touch you.”

Melanie wondered if Mr. Fuller was coming on to her.

“Let me read you one of my haikus,” he said and pulled it out from under his desk blotter.

I really like fruit.

It is tasty when it’s ripe.

I like it best stewed.

“What do you think?” asked Mr. Fuller.

“You get a lot done with just a few words,” said Melanie.

Mr. Fuller was pleased. “What do you write about?” he asked.

“People, I guess, and relationships,” said Melanie.

“I’d like to hear one of your stories,” said Mr. Fuller.

“It’s not finished,” she said, finding a crushed copy of a recent story in her backpack.

“Cassandra Bellicose Walker dated a bass player. She heard him play. She thought his music was lousy but pretended it wasn’t. He pretended he loved her but he didn’t. They had sex. He decided to get back together with his old girlfriend who was a violinist. He said it was a string thing. When he broke up with Cassandra, he told her it was her fault. She believed him. She was very upset so she started cutting herself. That made her feel much better.”

“It’s kind of autobiographical,” said Melanie.

“Ah,” he said, “you write about love. Remember, a young man will crawl on his belly like a snake to get sex. I know,” he continued, “because I used to be that young man.”

Melanie wondered if Mr. Fuller found her attractive.

“Why do you only wear the color blue?” he asked. “Are you a member of a religious sect?”

“Harriet thinks it’s my best color.”

Mr. Fuller was quiet.

“She’s older than me,” she rushed to add. “She has more life experience. She understands the currents of the universe. It’s so wonderful to be with her and be swept away by her vision.”

“My dear,” he said, “Be careful you don’t drown.”

Melanie was frazzled after rushing to the coffee shop. She hated being late, although Harriet never seemed to notice. “A creative mind,” she would say, “is always busy.”

After she sat down, Harriet gave her charcoal capsules.

“They help you rid your body of unwanted toxins which just gunk up the whole system. Besides, they’re good for gas.”

“Mr. Fuller gave me a pashmina shawl that’s pink and gold,” said Melanie, smiling. “Lucy said it comes from India.”

He’s coming on to you,” said Harriet. “Remember our credo: Let no man distract me from my art.”

“What about Hal?”

“He has the worst back acne. I’m not attracted to him at all. I only date him because he appreciates my breasts. Remember when I showed them to you, that day when no one else was in the coffee shop? They’re perfect.”

“They are perfect,” agreed Melanie still thinking about Mr. Fuller.

“Besides, he’s the only guy that’s ever stuck around.”

Melanie decided to wait until after she ate to take the capsules. Otherwise, she would become nauseous, then have to pretend that she wasn’t.

“I’ve quit go go dancing and gone back to waitressing,” Harriet said. “Once I get famous, I don’t want some tabloid journalist to misrepresent my past and make it seem sleazy or pornographic. It could derail my career.”

“That’s really smart.”

“I did a one-handed cartwheel at the restaurant where I’m working from the table to the kitchen, with the order in my mouth.”

“Unbelievable.”

“I know, but my boss said to knock it off. He wasn’t insured for cartwheels.”

“Philistine,” said Melanie.

“You are such a great writer. You know all the best words.”

Melanie wasn’t quite sure what Philistine meant.

“Hey, didn’t you tell me Mr. Fuller was rich? He takes you out to expensive restaurants for lunch, right?”

“I always order the cheapest thing from the menu.”

“He likes you. Maybe he’ll put you in his will.”

“That’s too avaricious,” said Melanie, knowing what avaricious meant.

“Another great word, but Mel, you’re an artist and you have to seize every opportunity you can to advance your art. I thought you understood that.”

 

When Melanie had last seen Mr. Fuller his face had been bruised. He had told her he had lost his grip while holding onto the back of a chair and fallen over. They often confided in each other.

“You think growing old will never happen to you,” Mr. Fuller had said.

“A gentleman never grows old,” she had responded.

He had touched her cheek.

Today, however, Mr. Fuller was monosyllabic.

“I have to let you go,” he finally said. “My wife is jealous of our relationship.”

“Harriet said you were flirting with me.”

“I wasn’t flirting with you. I was flirting with my youth. Besides, where could our relationship go?”

“But you said I brighten up your life,” Melanie said.

“You do,” said Mr. Fuller. “But my wife is my life.”

Harriet, and Lucy who didn’t count, and the waitress who didn’t count either, and Mr. Fuller were the only people Melanie really knew.

“Don’t look so sad,” he said. “We’ll always be good friends.”

He told her to let herself out.

Later that afternoon, Melanie sat in front of her opened laptop on the kitchen table prepared to write. She waited for the ideas to come.

“My wife and I have a thousand shared experiences,” Mr. Fuller had said to her. “Who will you have to share experiences with?”

“Harriet,” she had answered.

The pigeons on the window ledge cooed. She had tried Vaseline, a rubber snake, even a small replica of The Nutcracker to get rid of them. Nothing had worked.

I can’t write with all that racket, she thought. Those birds are holding me back.

She tried again, but because she didn’t want to think about Mr. Fuller, she couldn’t think about anything at all.

It was the first time she was glad to see Lucy as she stomped into the kitchen.

“My flow is kaput,” she said to her.

“Melanie, you are so strange,” Lucy replied.

Melanie was starting to feel beaten down but she rallied, noting to herself that Lucy was a clod.

“Anyway, I’m pregnant,” said Lucy smiling.

“Pregnant!” said Melanie. “I didn’t even know you were dating.”

Slowly, she started to make sense out of the red chiffon scarf she had seen over a lampshade in Lucy’s bedroom.

“For goodness sake,” said Lucy. “Lift up your head, Melanie, and look around.”

“You have to take a baby outside during the daytime,” Melanie replied.

“And your point is?”

Melanie was silent.

“Look, I’m getting married and leaving town.”

“But what about your dancing?”

“Let’s face it. I’m pudgy.”

“But what about Peter?”

“He’s leaving town, too, and moving to an Ashram.”

“But you’re giving up.”

Lucy was annoyed.

“Sometimes, Melanie, in life you have to face facts. Like the fact that you should get rid of that navy jumpsuit you’re wearing. I know its vintage, but shoulder pads are really out.”

Harriet had said the jumpsuit made her look hot.

“And one more thing. A flat chest is great for a ballet dancer, but for an ordinary person like you, it’s something you might not want to draw attention to. So do yourself a favor. Find some clothes that are more flattering, and while you’re at it, try a different color.”

What does she mean by ordinary? thought Melanie.

With Lucy leaving, Melanie would have the apartment to herself. She wasn’t sure that was such a good thing. She thought about the slanted floorboards, the stove that didn’t work, and the neighbor that was held up at gunpoint. The trashcans in the front of the building always spilled over with garbage, although she had found her bedroom dresser there. The word illuminate had been scratched into the top. Harriet had been impressed when she told her about that. Your desk is sending you a message,” she had said.

Nothing seemed illuminated at the moment. In fact things seemed pretty dark. She had writers block, just been fired from her job and with Lucy leaving, the only person left to hate was herself.

Melanie was glad to go to the coffee shop the next day. At least she could count on Harriet, although she knew she could never tell her about the backpack Mr. Fuller had given her with its laptop sleeve.

Harriet walked into the coffee shop on her tiptoes. People moved out of the way.

“What am I doing?” Harriet asked, then answered her own question. “I’m walking on air.”

“Did something happen?” asked Melanie.

“I was in my acting class and playing Juliet from you know, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, after she takes the poison and was rolling around on the floor, really suffering. It was intense. I think it was some of my greatest work. Anyway, after class my acting teacher came up to me and asked me to leave. He said he couldn’t teach me anymore. Do you get it?” she asked excitedly. “He was saying there was nothing left for me to learn. Melanie, I have become one of the world’s greatest actresses. In fact, I’m the greatest actress of all time. I’m the big kahuna.”

“That’s fabulous,” said Melanie weakly.

“But you know me, Mel; my creativity is like a spring that constantly renews itself. So I’ve decided not to rest on my laurels. In fact, I’ve already come up with a new direction to take my talent. Are you ready? I’m opening up my own acting school. I know in my heart of hearts, I can be a great teacher and help other actors free themselves of their inhibitions so they can be filled with uncompromised feelings and in touch with their authentic selves just like me. Besides acting, I’m going to offer training in cartwheels, and I’ve decided to add splits. I’m also planning on having a small café at the acting studio where tofu hotdogs will be served. Of course, I’ll take the students away for weekend retreats where I’ll offer a variety of cleanses.”

“That sounds really great,” said Melanie.

“I’m doing it with Denise.”

“Who’s Denise?”

“She’s amazing. You would really like her. I met her at a juice bar. We started talking and she knew all about the benefits of cold-pressed juices and inflammation. She knew about raw vitamins and minerals, but what blew my mind was she knew about enzymes. Enzymes! Melanie, we didn’t meet by chance. Denise and I are meant to be together. Our acting studio will be world-renowned. Let’s face it, I’m the next Stanislavsky or Uta Hagen.”

“I thought we were meant to be together,” said Melanie confused.

“Oh, Melanie. I love you so much, but it’s become clear to me that we’re cycling through the universe at different rates of speed. If you were able to feel the cosmic energy like I do, you would know what I meant. Besides, working with Mr. Fuller made you lose focus. Denise, on the other hand, is fully committed to her art.”

Melanie started to cry.

“Don’t despair. One day, you’ll find your unique specialness and where your talents lie. Even ordinary people have some talent,” said Harriet. “I have a friend who’s an energy wrangler. He doesn’t have any state certification, but he’s fantastic. I’ll give you his phone number. I’m sure he can help you.”

 

Melanie sat in the coffee shop alone. It was hard being there without Harriet, but she hadn’t been able to think of any other place to go. She wasn’t hungry but she’d ordered a glass of chocolate milk. She knew it was a good protein source for muscle repair, not that she’d been exercising. In fact, she hadn’t been doing much of anything at all.

A mother and daughter entered the coffee shop. The daughter was wearing shorts over pink tights that reached to her ankles and a black leotard. Her hair was in a bun and she pulled a backpack on wheels behind her.

“My teacher said if I worked hard I could be a principal dancer someday,” said the girl. Her mother clutched her hands, thrilled, and smiled.

Melanie noticed the girl was flat chested.

She took a piece of paper from her backpack and began to read.

“He came to her apartment already drunk. Unable to find a corkscrew for the bottle of wine in his hand, he broke the neck on the edge of the sink. “Want a drink?” he asked. “I don’t swallow glass,” she said. “How about a sword?” he responded.

Harriet would have said it was full of emotional power and showed phenomenal talent.

It’s crap, she said to herself.

With both hands, she crumpled the paper with its single paragraph.

 

 


Laurel Sharon is a psychologist by day and writer by night. She has a background in the arts, first as a classical pianist and later as a modern dancer. She has been published in Carte Blanche and Cosmonauts Avenue. A longtime native of New York City, she looks forward to writing more short stories.

The Sharks

This is desert now, desert country, red country.

Some say you can taste the air, the change, a sort of bitterness, an indescribable flavour. I for one cannot. I see only the slowness of it all, the inevitability.

Look.

We stand against the wall in twos and threes, or own little government, parliamentary observers of time and place.

‘A heavenly breeze above us. Let us worship it.’

The pastor speaks.

We gather in the square under the heat and look for hymns in the dust trails moving through town. Any slight simple sign is taken as a missive.

‘Why not whoreship it?’ Hermil says, leaning against a broken barrel.

He rolls words and licks letters.

He was a sailor once, of minor voyages, and likes to imagine he is still at sea, but all he has now is a raised arm, a curled fist of burnt skin straining into white.

This is the desert and we are desert people. Before that we were just people, peasants with peasant ambitions, puritans depleted of will, in those days before the sharks came.

*

They called it The Great Migration, when the sharks in their millions began to push themselves onto the land, onto the beach heads and the mud banks, the jetties and the piers.

They lay there for days, some cut open on the ragged rocks, their round bodies flexing, their gills opening and closing like the shutters of a Hanoi hotel.

And their eyes, oh yes, black and determined as always.

We just stood and watched, all of us, humanity. Groups took buses down for the day. Some picnicked on the beach amongst the decaying bodies.

They struggled in their new world before they began to die, and we thought that was the end of it, that we had witnessed some strange natural phenomenon that we could not understand, for we were only simple creatures, history had shown us that.

*

My wife had always told me she would die young. There was nothing romantic in it, she used to say, nothing that would make her stand apart from anyone else. When she did get sick she just accepted it, as so many millions had to at that time. When I went to visit her for the last time she said the same thing.

When I told her she was fifty one she turned from me and wept for a while.

“It is not the time to say such things,” she said.

The age of women was coming to an end. No one doubted any more that God was but a spiteful man.

*

Once a month a representative of the government arrives and marks our names on a ledger, to determine how much supplies we need. He tells us to be hopeful but that there is no news, nothing he has heard of, but then he is not told anything. He is as desperate as us but seems to know some secret to keep it under the surface, and on the occasions that he drinks with us we see it is a faith of some sort, some deeply set guiding movement that he has within him. He never drinks enough that we can know for sure.

*

It took a season before the sharks tried again, lifting themselves out of the water and winding and rolling their thick muscle across the land. Some managed twenty feet before they succumbed to the elements, others lasted a week nearer to the shore. Being close to home seemed to give them something to live for, some inner strength. Many swore they saw longing in their eyes, but what do humans know of such things.

*

My brother rang me after his wife passed and told me he wanted to enlist. He was fifty five at the time and too old and infirm but he said it didn’t matter, he knew what had to be done. I asked him which side he was going to join and he said it didn’t matter, any would do, he just wanted to kill someone, hurt someone. It didn’t matter, he said, because everyone had it coming. We were all guilty.

Even the children? I said

Even the children, he said.

This was during that strange time after the war and before the invasion, when all the women began to die. Some like to think that they are both connected, that our use of weapons caused it all. We were beyond nuclear, beyond simple chemicals, we were the post-nano age, we thought we could fix everything, that we could cure grief at the supramolecular level.

*

Clemence plays his harp and laments about old Victoria, a lover he had never quite touched. The pastor comes once a month, the doctor every new season. A mystic passed through one July and was greeted warmly before being shunned for his arrogance and his thirst. These are our stories, this is all we have.

*

They live with us now, the sharks. They live in our towns and our cities, pushing past us as we go about our day, half drawn to the netherworld of lonely male evenings, the dry stink of the predisposed, the wilting lungs, the wasting muscles.

We are shunned like the catfish, mounds of walking waste, yet they smell of nothing to us.

Are we putrefied to them yet? Their sense of smell is admirable. What must we taste like on the wind?

*

The first mass burial was a tedious event. Eighty two bodies and eighty two speeches. Mostly young men acting defiant, promising that they would overcome and asking others to join them. The war was coming to an end and they needed something to unite them. Many packed their belongings and moved towards the city in the hope that they could do something there that could make a difference. I’ve heard nothing back from those I once knew.

*

I sit outside near the fountain and drink warm beer and watch as a man approaches from the west. He is ragged, dirt hued, entirely alone. I guess he must be twenty if a year.

Go out and be wild and fail amongst the reeds and the dust bunnies, he says.

I don’t know what good that would do, I say.

Well, if you can feel young maybe you can will yourself to youth, he says.

I say nothing.

I wear a peaked hat because it is the time of my life to wear one, he says, before shuffling off into the east.

*

There is a pile of rust resting near the fountain, an old car rotting away, shaving skin off those who pass. It is Rusty’s car and he does not offer apologies. They call him Rusty because he served in the army but no longer believes in metal. It was metal that caused the collapse of the world, so he lives a life of dry wood and sand and rot.

*

They never speak to us, if they even can, and rarely acknowledge our existence beyond an empty stare. Yes, sometimes they look at us, a long ghostly look through the light which must hinder them. There is something quite wondrous about sitting in a café as a large shark lifts its body upon a table and points its nose at you. We make enquiries of each other and try to watch their movements, their habits, but we are no closer to understanding them. On the chalkboard of the bar someone has begun a list:

Entertainment, needing none

Currency, human bones

*

I buried my wife in the desert outside the town. I placed some rocks there, a cairn is it called, a pile of rocks. The day I buried her some men argued about what this pile of rocks was called. Cairn, pile, stack, mound, they went on for hours as if it all had meaning, but it is nothing special, it doesn’t deserve more than one. Just rocks, someone says, quietly, but he is ignored.

*

We believe they have elected a Mayor. He is a Hammerhead that we call Burns. His face is scared and he is long and wide and seems to act in the way that one would as Mayor. He struts about in the awkward way of his people, and all others move for him, except the Great White that lives in the shadow of the old hemp shop. Some whisper that he is a gangster.

*

They are growing women in laboratories under the great mountains of the world. That is todays rumour. I expect they will be very expensive and reserved for the rich and the powerful, if there is any truth to it at all.

*

Nurse sharks lay around seemingly intoxicated. They roll in fabrics they have taken from the empty homes and some say they are trying to dress themselves as we once did. They pull themselves up against the wall of the bar and make soft noises to the others who pass by.

*

Reef sharks stole my friend’s house. This is the story. Angelo goes for a walk in the wild. Angelo finds some solace in the hills. Angelo returns to find that a new family has taken root. The house looks better now than it did before, in that it is a home again.

*

Norman believes in true love, in witchcraft, magick, and potions. He has walked on water, he says, in his own way, a way of spirits outside of the bottle. He is determined to communicate with our neighbours. He believes starvation is the key to this. He will go blind soon if he does not eat.

*

We are starving now and they are growing plumper by the day. A juvenile blue has been murdered and consumed by some men on the edge of town. Our guests do nothing and do not seem to be bothered by it at all. I wonder if they have yet to fully shake off their primitive side.

*

The war has begun again, and then it ends, and we see nothing of it.

*

A disease has come down off the mountains and turned friend against friend. Those of us who remain do not have any interest in burying what is left. The sharks can have them.

*

I move into one of the great houses of the town, perched on a hill which overlooks it all, and accept all twenty five rooms as my own. I defend my castle from all intruders.

*

My daughter grows colder every day. Her mother is gone. She leaves college and returns as the war arrives on her doorstep. I bring her to her room and she lies upon the bed and begins to cough. I place a blanket over her. She pulls the blanket back. I repeat the action until she accepts it. It is better this way. She did not see her mother suffer.

*

I can see there are so few of us left. I have not spoken in weeks. There is something in the air still, some by-product of this red country. Our neighbours are thriving and for them life seems to be good. Sometimes at night I believe I can hear them laugh. Perhaps that is just me. There appears to be a tear in space. I can see it from the balcony, a long lightless lesion above us. They do not seem to notice, or they do not seem to care.

If I can I will learn their ways.

 

 


Roy Endean lives in the south of Ireland. His work has appeared in Brand Magazine, The Steel Toe Review, Corium, Sonder Magazine, and Juked.

Kuya

Kuya Edwin and I used to tear shit apart. We did it all the time because he’s my Kuya; my bigger, broad-shouldered, older brother who showed me how to survive while being brown in New Jersey. Edwin taught little me how to use my mind to bring things up in the air like he could. He’d let objects float, break them piece by piece, and put them back together like a puzzle, all with the flick of his wrist. We started with Hot Wheels. We disassembled a dozen toy cars into a hundred different pieces into the air and then reassembled them in seconds like brand new. We were damn good.

Edwin sometimes made a point to break them down to reveal that they were plastic. Fake. Disposable.

“Look how fragile it is Leon,” Edwin said. “Just one thing on the inside breaks, and the entire thing–” he snapped his fingers, and the pieces fell on our apartment’s whiskey stained Berber carpet–“falls apart.”

When I was eight, I could do this myself. I started with Pop’s old trinkets from Manila before moving onto bigger objects like abandoned office furniture and dead computers. The day my brother managed to levitate the duvet from our shared queen bed, we hightailed it towards Atlantic City while our parents were working their second jobs at night. We meandered around the boardwalk until we found a Porsche and brought it to the beach when no one was looking. We dissembled and reassembled the car as a team until we got bored and chucked it into the ocean.

Afterwards, Edwin and I laid on the sand; we stared at the water until the sun came up.

“You control your life Leon,” Edwin said, “No matter what mama yells at you about or others say. It doesn’t matter if the other kids at school look at you funny cause of your Asian eyes or that our parent’s English is terrible. You’re an American. You make your own life in this country.”

He tapped my arm.

“Got it?” He said.

“Got it,” I said.

The next day, a guy on the news said his Porsche washed up miles away from his home and ended up in Seaside Heights. We kept that our secret.

#

Edwin taught me strength, but mama showed me how to be afraid. She began her days preaching to us and ended them by being angry at a world she couldn’t control.

“Today’s your tenth birthday Leon,” she said to me during breakfast. “When your Kuya was ten, he was on the honor roll. Now he’s in high school with excellent marks. But you? Why don’t you work as hard as him?”

I stared into my bowl of SHOPSMART brand frosted flakes. The sugar dissolved as soon as it touched milk, leaving a spongy grain texture behind.

“I’m trying mama,” I said.

She took down my last report card from the refrigerator, a thin blue sheet with classes I took in one column and letters of D and F written in red on the other. Red circles highlighted the grades around them, in case failure wasn’t recognizable.

“Americans only care about your worth,” she scolded, “and right now, you’re worthless.”

I cried as she continued her tirade about my shortfalls, comparing me to my Kuya Edwin at every turn. He sat on my right, slurping up his bowl of SHOPSMART brand chocolate flakes for the leftover milk. Once he put his bowl back on the table, mama slapped the base of my forehead. I stopped crying, and she lifted up my chin until I was eye level with her.

“My sisters would’ve killed to be like you.” She said, breathing down the rage from her own life. “And what do you do? You waste your opportunity like these white kids, gallivanting around while they get good grades and you can’t even compete.”

As I apologized, she snatched my bowl and dumped the contents into the trash. The liquid dripped down the side of the container. Traces of mushy flakes drooped off the garbage bag, sliding like slugs.

“You have to be smarter than all of them Leon,” she said as she started to wash bowls and dishes in the sink. “Be like your Kuya Edwin or get out of my house-”

But as she finished scrubbing my bowl, the drying rack full of dishes and cups next to her sprang from the counter to the floor. White ceramic broke apart at her feet, and she shrieked. I immediately turned to Edwin. He giggled and waved his fingers in the air like a conductor. The kitchen cabinets opened one after the other as dishes and silverware flew out and danced around her or fell to the floor. Each shatter made her jump while I stifled laughter, fearing what she’d do to me afterward. After a minute of this, mama slumped onto her knees and grasped a red rosary from her pocket; she gripped a bead between her fingers and recited a Hail Mary in a soft murmur. Edwin stopped, and everything dropped to the countertops or the floor.

When the last of the dishes fell, I stood up from the table while Edwin worked on putting it all back together. He winced, taking longer than usual. Plates or dishes were easier than cars, but seeing her cry must’ve gotten to him.

“Mama?” I said as I approached her.

She looked up after she finished her second prayer, her eyes wet, and teeth yellow. Behind her, cabinets opened and closed as kitchenware went back to their prospective drawers.

“You’ll grow up like Americans,” she sneered, “and never do anything right.”

#

I was never like my brother, not like mama wanted me too. By the time I learned sex ed in class, he had stopped caring about me anyway. It wasn’t a terrible thing. He stopped talking to me altogether his junior year of high school because mama drove into a speeding Class Nine transport truck on Route One and was crushed on impact.

Besides our blood, mama’s cremation, and our ability to move objects, there wasn’t much that we had in common. It was easier when we were kids, but now Edwin didn’t want to be seen with me. He looked at me like I was a stain. The summer after his junior year, he called me out in front of his friends when I called him Kuya.

“We’re Americans Leon. Get that shit out of your tongue.”

His friends looked at me and snickered.

Although he treated me this way, I wanted to do what mama said, be like him or nothing. My abilities developed, and by seventh grade, I could convert our duvet into a surfboard. I’d fly to Atlantic City or Trenton by myself. I’d go anywhere I could be alone and practice my talents because no one seemed to notice or care about some quiet brown kid lifting benches off the ground. I didn’t find anyone who could do what we did, and I was careful enough not to do it in front of anyone. Once I was confident enough with my powers, I got really ballsy and flew to Asbury Park where I’d strip apart yachts in the middle of the night. I wanted to see what my life could’ve been like if I was born lucky. I broke the boats down, piece by piece of luxury and privilege. Sometimes I’d catch a family album, everyone well-off and smiling in golf visors and polo shirts, lounging by the ocean. Occasionally, I’d find a family that looked just like mine, but in brighter clothes from mall brand names. Not the knockoffs I wore to school.

I tried to show Edwin my new tricks, but he was never around. He was always out. He lost a lot of weight, gained muscle, and hung out with shady looking people who smelled awful. He’d come home late and wouldn’t speak to me. Sometimes he’d bring a girl over while Pops was at work. They’d pinch my cheeks and say how cute I was, but Edwin would take one look at me and close the door with the twirl of his finger.

#

I knew something was wrong with Edwin but what could I do? I was about to finish middle school while Edwin was wallowing around. He no longer cared that I could juggle cars in the air or fly all the way to Orlando from Jersey on a makeshift car-window surfboard. I didn’t tell him because he stopped using his powers altogether. He never said why but he didn’t need to. Edwin wanted to support himself without using his abilities as a crutch; it’s what mama would’ve wanted. Although we were talented, we were born here, and we had to earn our living on their rules; with our hands and our blood.

When President Bush approved a surge of troops to Iraq, my brother landed an Army ROTC scholarship at Penn State. The recruiter promised him a full ride to college, and as a family, we were proud. Edwin did it. I hadn’t seen Kuya that excited about something since we tore up the Porsche. It looked like I had him again: the big brother who earned his way and made our name proud. Pops celebrated with us by pouring out our first beers of San Miguel. Edwin demanded Budweiser instead, so Pops went out and got it just for him. We drank as a family until Pops passed out on the carpet and it was just us, so we drank more beer and flew to Atlantic City on a comforter. We flew bottles into a brick wall so that we could see how many we could destroy and put back together. I threw up, and he laughed at me, then he threw up, and I made sure he wasn’t going to die.

When I woke up early to say goodbye the next morning, he was gone.

#

I followed my brother’s path. I survived high school and got into Rutgers on my own Army ROTC scholarship, just as my brother was getting kicked out of the Army. The year before, he graduated college and commissioned into the Army, but now he was leaving it. Force shaped, he said in an email. He was disqualified because of ineptitude. He was a failure.

The Army told Pops and me something different. Edwin went absent without leave, AWOL. He ran away like a coward. I wanted to prove the Army wrong, Edwin didn’t scam the Army out of a college scholarship. I called his cell, sent him emails, and I even tried Facebook. I kept trying to reach him until he disconnected his phone and deleted his online accounts. By then, he wasn’t Kuya anymore; he was a deserter.

I thought I was going to try and be like him, but now all I had to do was distance myself from his shadow. I restricted my gifts, reminding myself that using them meant that we were brothers. Our skills were tainted now, useless like mama said we were. Luckily none of my instructors knew about my AWOL brother or what I could do. Like brothers, I was just as good as lying.

#

The only person that brought his memory back to my life was Cadet Joelle Foster. She and I were in the same cohort, and we were paired up for land navigation exercises at Fort Dix. As a team we traversed the New Jersey woods, running to each assigned point with an old compass and a map of Fort Dix from the 90s. Joelle never brought him up until we were almost done, struggling to find the last point. I hobbled quietly, my feet blistered halfway through the course, while she paced with me until we stopped at the bottom of a hill.

“Our brothers were classmates at artillery school,” Joelle said with a bit of southern twang. Originally from Atlanta, her family moved up north to start up one of the first black-owned tech companies in Princeton.

“Is that so?” I said. “Well, I haven’t talked to him, so, yeah.”

She drank from her canteen. “My brother said he was a good guy. Have you heard from him?”

I took out my lensatic compass to orient us. I was struggling with her questions and figuring out how to unscrew myself. We were lost.

“Hey, are we okay?” she said as she took out her own.

“We’re all right.”’

I put the compass against my chest. The magnetic arrow spun in circles; I didn’t know if I was causing it or if her question made me lose my control. I took a deep breath and remembered to control my powers. Don’t be like him.

“Are you sure–”

“Just give me a minute.”

“Stop,” Joelle said. “Let me see the map.”

Apprehensive at first, I caved and pulled it out of my cargo pocket. She said we had been heading in the wrong direction, but we eventually found it about five hundred meters in the other direction.

“Good job lieutenant,” she smirked as she used checkmark clacker on our answer sheet. My head swam with thoughts of Edwin, embarrassing myself as a soldier, and finally the image of my mother, dying on a highway. Branches in the trees started to shake around me until Joelle tapped my arm.

“I’m kidding man,” she said. “Let’s get back.”

On the walk back to the operations center, I moved ahead in an attempt to avoid her. Yet, she persisted.

“Your brother always looked like he had a chip on his shoulder,” she said. “At least that’s what I heard. He failed the course the first time, and they tried to make him retake it, but he-”

I stopped and looked at her. “He’s a deserter.”

“Yeah…look it’s just weird to me. I didn’t know people still do that or if you knew where he was. Is he safe?”

“Why? You gonna snitch on him?”

She pushed me. “Excuse you? I’m not going to snitch on him. It’s just…he’s your brother. Him running away like that isn’t easy for you.”

“Whatever.” I shrugged her off and walked back to base.

After we turned our scorecard in and waited until everyone made it back, I walked up to her as she ate a protein bar away from the other cadets.

“I was out of line Joelle,” I scratched my neck and looked the other way. “I’m sorry.”

She looked up at me. “Sit down, weirdo.”

I did.

“You’re mad. I get it.”

“Do me a favor and don’t bring him up to others.”

She nodded. “By the way, I was joking earlier. You’re not a bad cadet. You’re always on time, and you don’t party like those other fools.” She nudged over to two cadets, one brawny and the other small, wrestling in the dirt while a group of other cadets hollered at them. “You’re decent.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “You’re okay too.”

She patted my shoulder. “Thanks, pal.” She took off her patrol cap and parted her curly black hair to the side, an earring as dark blue as the ocean hung from her earlobe.

I watched the match as the brawny cadet brought his arm around the small one’s neck, tightening his grip around his opponent’s neck until he turned purple. Others yelled to do the smaller cadet to yield. I stuck my finger out, and the brawny cadet released his grip and stayed on his back. The little one flipped over to his stomach, brought his shoulder down on the other guy’s neck. He tapped out; the crowd cheered.

Joelle looked over at me inquisitively, as I smirked and raised my hands.

“I break stuff up,” I said. “It’s what I do.”

#

Every so often throughout college, Joelle volunteered to help me find Edwin. In between our own busy lives, we’d track down Veteran Affairs hospitals where he’d supposedly been. We called homeless shelters, emergency clinics, and his old classmates. No one knew, and every lead turned us back around.

Years past, and we commissioned as quartermaster officers in the Army. To celebrate, Joelle and I went to Paris where I got down on one knee and put half of my savings account around her ring finger. Crying and giggling, she nodded several times until she jumped into my arms. She was light and warm; her curls smelled of pomegranate and her breath like hope; however, possessing mama’s strength, I could not hold her up for long, and we fell onto the Parisian streets, laughing. People gawked, but it didn’t matter. All the world was simplified, and I had a new family to think of now. Kuya Edwin could’ve gone to hell; I wouldn’t have cared.

#

Edwin called me from a Florida number. Married only a month ago, Joelle picked up my cell at one in the morning from our Fort Leonard Wood apartment. She listened to him, unsure if the voice on the other end was real. She was gentle with him, kinder than I would’ve been. I could hear him slurring his words like he was holding back years of bottled up words. After a minute she started to hand the phone to me but stopped mid-transfer.

“Will you be okay?” Joelle asked.

I kissed her cheek and took the phone. Before she left, she glanced back. “Remember, we have formation in four hours.” I nodded and placed the phone to my ear. I could hear waves of water in the background.

“Little brother,” he slurred. “Can’t believe your number still works! How’s Jersey treating you?”

“I’m in Mississippi. Where are you, Edwin?”

“Were you asleep little brother?”

I sighed, “I was.”

“I’m sorry Leon,” he said. “I’m always screwing up. Glad you kept your old phone number; otherwise, I don’t know.”

“Where are you, Edwin. I’ll come get you.”

“I don’t know about that, little brother. I fucked up little brother. You shouldn’t depend on me.”

“I don’t.”

He dropped the phone and picked it up again, cursing the entire time. “Hey, remember when we were kids, and we used to bend your toy cars out of shape with our talent. I’d show you the inside. They were just dumb little cars. What were they called?”

“Edwin-”

“Hot Wheels! Mama used to hate those things. She hated everything. Hate, hate, hate. What a bitch, am I right? Good thing she’s dead-”

“Goddamnit, Edwin.” Our nightstand lamp tore out of its socket and crashed across the room. Joelle came in, but I asked her to go. She ignored me and sat down beside me.

“But I’m your big brother,” Edwin said. “You listen to me, you hear. Respect for your elders.”

I put the lamp back together, piece by piece. “Joelle and I have work in the morning, Edwin. Tell me what you need. I’ll send it to you-”

“Who’s that? She your girl?”

“My wife.”

“Oh. When was that?”

“A month ago.”

He and I only heard each other’s breaths for a moment. “Congratulations.”

“Edwin, Pops is worried about you. I’m-”

Edwin laughed, a strange guttural laugh like a hyena. “Forget him. I just hope you forgive me, little brother—“

“Forgive you? Edwin, you ran away from the Army. No, fuck it, you ran from us. You didn’t tell Pops. Joelle and I were searching for you all these years. Where have you been? Where were you when I was in college?”

“Leon—“

“You know what, don’t call us until you man up and make something of yourself.”

When I hung up the phone, Joelle wrapped her arms around my back, pressing her curls against my shoulders and her hands above my heart.

I looked at the lamp, half-repaired on the nightstand. “I’ll fix that in the morning. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay weirdo.” She kissed my back. “So, what are we going to do?”

“What can we do? He’s a grown man, Joelle. He needs to do it on his own.”

“Leon.”

“You know I’m right.”

“You could ask him to come here. Live with us.”

I shook my head. “You two…no…we wouldn’t get along. Besides, he’s a wanted man. They’d arrest him on post if they found him.”

She rubbed my chest. “Leon, you’re being stubborn, he’s your family. He’ll come home eventually, lost people always do. When he does come back, accept him.” She kissed my shoulder. “Do this for me. For us.

#

I didn’t hear from Edwin again for years. I forgot I even had a brother. Time presented itself to us and left as soon as it entered. I was promoted, moved all over America, and then deployed to Iraq followed by Afghanistan. Joelle deployed with me once and was home with our baby son Darius and my retired father while I was on my third tour to Iraq. On deployment, I maintained a position as close to the Forward Operating Base, away from the insurgency and the frontline. Cowardice, maybe, but I knew what my abilities could do, and I didn’t want to use them against people.

I received letters while I was overseas; most of them were from Joelle, friends, and family of friends who’ve seen my military address on Facebook. I also got the occasional USO care package and box of Playboys, which I gave to my soldiers to either keep or throw them in the trash. One letter came through in a dirty white envelope, addressed from a Bob Doe in Orlando. But I remembered my brother’s chicken scratch handwriting since I was in middle school.

 

Leon,

I’m sorry for calling you when you were trying to sleep those years back. All I do is inconvenience people. By the time you receive this letter, I don’t know where I’ll be

I want to tell you a secret about myself. I can’t control what we do, and I think it affects those around me. I cause burden We harm people and destroy things around us. Too much of our gifts can cause stress, cripple others, and change minds. Like when we used to hang out at Asbury and break apart those cars, only to fix them again.

When I was on the field, commanding my peers in battle simulators. I froze. I couldn’t speak, sweat poured down the back of my shoulder, my heart paced uncontollably uncontrollably, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see beyond what was in front of me, and I couldn’t come up with a single decision. The only thing I can move was everything else around me with my mind. I would lift tanks off the ground or uplift trees from their roots. I took radios out of Humvees and threw them out the window. The others never knew it was me–they blamed the ghosts of Benning, the old Soldiers who never made it out of the Army and didn’t want to be there in the first place. But that didn’t matter; I couldn’t do my job. I suck.

We’re serious fuckups. Useless like mama said. I can’t help but think, did I force her to get in the car that morning and drive straight into oncoming traffic? Did I kill her? Make her believe that we were demon babies when all we wanted was a mother? Maybe she’s right. We’re good for nothing bas–

We’re I dissapoint

I’m glad you did it Leon. You won the American Dream. All-American job. Wife. A future. Mama’s proud.

I’m in Orlando now. I stare at the ocean every day–when I wake up and when I go to sleep. People give me sandwiches, sometimes they threaten me and pour beer on my head. Most days no one talks to me.

I want to go into the ocean Leon, I want the pain to end. I want to see the water.

I’m sorry little brother

 

The letter stopped there, the rest of it smudged by dirt and crinkly from water damage. Instead of requesting four-day R&R in Denver, I had it changed to Orlando and pushed the date up to tomorrow.

#

What became of you, Kuya Edwin?

On the plane to Florida, I tried to imagine a world where none of this had happened. What if we were just normal? No dead mama, no yellow brothers, no abilities to lift heavy crap just to put it back down. But I’m not the kind to speculate. This was the world I was born in, and I had to live in. Not for me, but for my family.

Joelle hired a private investigator while I racked up mileage on my Avis rental, going up and down Orlando. I searched bars, shelters, and other places where he may have gone. I spent a day all over the city until the investigator called told me to go to the Orlando police headquarters.

Uncertain and unaware of what I could expect, I thought of the worst. Maybe Edwin had committed a terrible crime, or he was in the morgue. When I arrived, a thick detective with fat pink cheeks sat me down. He gave me a cup of stale coffee and showed me driver license photos with my brother’s face on them. There were about six of them in states such as Colorado, Mississippi, and Florida, each with a different name.

“We found these yesterday–” the detective with the fat cheeks started “–they were inside a washed up Corolla. Coasties found the thing off the coast of Daytona Beach. It looked like it was pancaked by a car crusher.

He showed me the car photos and, as he said, it was smashed flat like a pancake. When I looked up, he shook his head before I could ask.

“No, there wasn’t a body inside. Just blood and pieces of skin. We had forensics go through it, and your brother was the last person recently to drive it. We’ll keep looking for him, but I wouldn’t rule out his—“

“Death,” I said.

He took a sip and stood up to leave me with the photos, patting me on the shoulder with his meaty palm.

I examined Edwin’s face; his appearances ebbed over the years. He went from buff, to baggy-eyed and scrawny, and finally to enormous and bald. His face moved as an audio graph, inconsistently up and down. I did not cry when I confirmed his identity. I soaked up Orlando sun while I called Joelle and listened to our son cry in the background, leaning against the car rental. But when I reached the hotel, when I sat in my room and stared at the wall, I tore shit up.

I uplifted the cedar wood desk and smashed the flat screen against the wall with a flick of my finger. I ripped the comforter apart, watching the cotton sprinkle form the air and scatter across the carpet. I smashed the bathroom mirror over and over again until the shards tore my flesh. I screamed, I cursed his name, but I never thought of him as Kuya. In the morning I fixed everything as best I could, assembling the pieces together in a grand puzzle resulting in nothing accomplished but wasted time. Missing, dead, I didn’t have the time to know.

Joelle came with our baby for Edwin’s empty funeral, after I was granted additional leave from the battalion commander. Pops didn’t come. Joelle said he didn’t react to the news besides rubbing the spot where his wedding ring used to be. We put a vacant casket on a conveyor belt that led to an oven, a gesture for my brother’s missing corpse that felt hollow but Joelle said was necessary for his soul.

“I forget sometimes that you’re religious,” I said to her.

She gripped my hand as we watched the oven close, dousing the casket in fire.

“What?” I said.

“There’s too much going on in a person’s head, you’re never going to know everything about them.”

I kissed her cheek and told her I loved her as I did that morning, the day before, and will do for the rest of our lives. She slept after putting Darius to bed, and when I knew she was in a deep sleep, I took the extra comforter and flew to the part of Daytona Beach where Edwin’s car washed up. On the way, I stopped at a statue near the Daytona raceway. There was a display of a full-size Hot Wheels Nascar vehicle, working and all; an assortment of lights blazed around it with a cardboard cutout of a superstar driver standing beside it with his thumbs up and a great big smile. I yanked the car from its spot and glided it with me to the shore.

I took off my shoes at the point where sand met pavement and levitated the vehicle towards the edge of the water. Sitting with my ankles pressed against my ass, I dismantled and fixed the car in the air. Aluminum, wiring, batteries, and spark plugs smacked against one another, over, and over again, until I got tired. Then it flopped as one into the water as I screamed into the sand. When the car parts drifted too far apart from one another, I put it back together in minutes. Once fixed, I plopped it back into the ocean. I unfolded the comforter onto the beach. I laid down to rise from the sands and towards the sky where I could rest in the clouds, far from the shore.

 

 


Mark Galarrita is a Filipino American writer and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. His work can be found in Mcsweeneys, Electric Literature, Split Lip, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and elsewhere. Currently, he is the editor of the Black Warrior Review.

Mara, Mermaid

In the early morning before fully waking, Mara imagined Miguel, who was one of her mother’s housemates, forcing her to sit on the kitchen stool in her skirt but without any underwear. She held out her small pointy breasts to him, as he reached his calloused hand under her skirt. Her wet thighs trembled. With a balled up sheet stuffed between her legs, she came in hard, nearly painful waves.

Her phone alarm chimed at 5:30 AM. She crawled to the opposite side of her bed and peered out the window at the pale orange sky over the rooftops of a few other houses to the slit of washed out blue ocean. Wearily she pulled on a t-shirt that read I Support Fish, frayed denim short-shorts, and a white hoodie and wiggled her feet into a pair of flip flops studded with tiny hearts.

She was 15. She and her mom, Robin, lived with four housemates in a beach house with light blue siding, dark blue shutters, flowers in the window box and a miniature picket fence two blocks from the ocean. Her given name was Maratea though no one ever called her that.

In the kitchen she scribbled a note for her mom. The back door leading out to the deck was already open.

Miguel was folded over his guitar, picking out notes. He and Robin had regular folk singing gigs in bars and coffee houses all over Southern California. (They’d met at the Seventy7 Lounge in Culver City where they’d both been performing.) A clove cigarette burned in the painted ceramic ashtray, the smoke curling up into the palmetto trees.

“What are you doing up so early?” Mara said, trying to make her voice sound light.

Miguel looked up through his black Jesus hair. “I could not sleep. And you?”

Mara turned towards her bike which was leaning on the deck’s wooden fence. She’d known him all her life, yet somehow, he’d returned from a four month guitar tour, entirely new to her. Despite the same oversized Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and scuffed sneakers he looked thinner, more hardened, sexier. Her mother often reminded Mara she used to climb on his lap and brush his hair when she was a toddler but she’d had no memory of it. Before the tour he’d been like an uncle or an older brother. But now he was messed up in her mind.

She thought of how he’d once told her when she was just a little kid, to never forget that she was a very special girl and though she hadn’t understood why, it stuck in her head. She didn’t feel any different than her friends, not when she was with them and she didn’t think it was because her family was unordinary, which it was. But she knew she had a certain untested power and was lucky to be that girl.

“What do you think Mom would say about this?” she said. She turned her back to him, lifted her shirt and hoodie to show off the tattoo – a minimalistic drawing of a mermaid just above her bra line.

“You look like all the other teenagers,” said Miguel.

“No one can even see it.”

“So I don’t understand the purpose. No, mi amour. Your mami will not like it.”

“Do you?”

Miguel rubbed his bristly beard with the palm of his hand. “It should not matter what I think,” he said, staring at her as if she were a kid that had done something wrong. Then his face softened. “You are your mother’s whole heart.”

Mara zipped her hoodie. “You know how she used to call me mermaid. It’s ironic.”

“Moronic?”

“Hahaha,” she said. She flipped up her kickstand, led her bike through the gate and down the wooden steps to the street.

The bike path was already cluttered with riders. The morning mist was clearing. Slowly the coastline came into view, the sky deepening to reveal its true blue color. Of course the fantasy of him and her was nothing she’d actually want to happen but it had made her so awkward around him, that her mind could conjure such an exciting and upsetting wish. But for the moment, buoyed by the wind, barely needing to pedal, both the fantasy and the fear of her imagination made her laugh.

At El Porto beach, Mara locked her bike to the stand, checked for her cell in one pocket and wrinkled bills from babysitting in the other and walked to the coffee truck in the parking lot. Ashley and Vera texted. Vera wanted hot chocolate, Ashley, a black coffee. With three hot drinks in her hands, she trekked down the sandy path. The girls were sitting on big rocks where the beach began. Vera jumped up to kiss Mara, took the two drinks and handed one to Ash. Half-Mexican and half-Irish, Vera was short and plump but sturdy with big square teeth and a perpetual smile. Vera and Mara had grown up together and when Ash came along in middle school, she’d mesmerized them with her intelligence and sassiness.

Ash stood slowly, as if in pain. Ash was Mara’s best friend, pale and blue-eyed with cheekbones of steel. She wore an oversized loosely-knit yellow sweater which covered her entire body; visible only were her long twiggy legs. Unlike Mara who was tall and curvy with wide hips, a flat belly and thick bisque colored thighs, Ash struggled with anorexia.

In the water a half dozen boys were catching waves, their dark shapes glinting in the sun.

“Who’s that boy down at the water?” asked Mara.

Ash explained that he was her brother’s new friend –Joey O’Malley. His mother had married a football player half her age and they’d moved down from Sacramento.

“Just like your mom and her boy toy,” said Vera

Mara gave Vera the finger and Vera blew her a kiss. They were always testing their friendship to make sure it was indestructible.

The boy-toy, aka Al, had been Mara’s mother’s partner for five years. Mara was weary of their whole set-up, though compared to her dad she could see why her mom chose Al. Her father was a coder in Silicon Valley, awkward and alone. Despite his wealth (and the alimony that supported them), Mara felt a little sorry for him.

The day opened up to be warm and bright, the ocean’s surface, sequined like a dress. The girls twirled on the sand and batted around a volleyball. After about a dozen sets and half-assed digs, Ash dropped the ball and strutted over to Mara. Vera followed.

“Have you showed your mom the mermaid?”

“Nope. Miguel saw it this morning.”

“What is it with you and Miguel?” said Ash.

“Nothing,” said Mara defensively. “He’s like 30 years old. Gross.”

“Yea, I suppose,” said Ash thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t mind being with an older guy. But 30 is old-old.”

“Whoa, I’d give anything to ride a wave like that,” said Vera, eyes wide behind her thick framed glasses.

“His form sucks,” said Ash, patting Vera on the back. Ash could be so patronizing, thought Mara.

Twice, she’d dreamt of Miguel. Both times he’d appeared in one of those underwater dreams and she’d awakened creamy between her legs. Did love come with sex? she wondered. Was it gradual or did it come at you like a thunderous wave that would knock you over if you didn’t dive under in time?

By 7:30 the volleyball courts were full. Joey ambled up in their direction.

“Hey Joey, come meet my friends,” yelled Ash. Loose jeans hung on his hips. He was shirtless, hairless, with flared shoulders, a long chin and wispy hair bleached yellowy white. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and, as he introduced himself, each time he nodded, his hair fell across his eyes.

They watched the ball popping up and down. “You play?” Joey asked Mara.

“Everyone around here does.” Mara felt her face getting pink. “Do you surf?” she asked him.

“Just moved from Sacramento but I’ll learn soon enough. I’m waiting for Kel and his boys. We’re going to my crib to jam.” Ash’s older brother Kel, aka Kelvin was a senior.

“Is that how they talk in Sacramento? Yo bruh, let’s jam in my crib,” Vera said with the accompanying body language.

“I guess,” Joey said casually.

“Can we come?” asked Ash, batting her eyes.

“Sure, we could use some groupies.” He turned to Mara. “Is groupies a cool word?”

She gave him a thumbs up, a lame-o move, if ever there was one.

Mara watched Joey watching the guys walk up from the beach with surfboards on their heads. He noticed her looking and smiled sheepishly. Trailing behind Kel, were two sandy-haired boys named Max and Garrett. After they peeled off their wetsuits and strapped their surfboards on top of Kel’s Expedition, they all squeezed in. She’d pick up her bike later. She took out her phone to call her mom and realized she’d forgotten to charge it.

As soon as they opened the door to Joey’s house, dogs started barking and thumping across the room. Unpacked boxes were piled high in corners.

In the middle of the paneled den there was a drum set, a keyboard, mics and a couple of guitars still in their cases.

“Hey, this is tope!” said Garrett. He was just another boy with tight curls on his head. He could have been anyone.

Joey explained that his father was a musician and when his parents split, his mother kept all his equipment. “She sounds like a vengeful be-atch,” said Ash.

“I was just a little kid,” said Joey with a sad shrug. Mara pictured a custody battle, his mother throwing shit out the front door, fights in front of his elementary school at dismissal.

There was symmetry in their circumstances, she thought. Her mom and his dad were both musicians. Both their mom’s had boy-toys.

The boys took turns banging on the drums. Joey plugged one of his guitars into an enormous speaker. Kel took the mike. The girls plopped down on the big striped couch. Mara slipped off her flip-flops, saw that her feet were grey from the sooty sand at Porto. Joey told Max to grab some Coors from the mini-fridge.

The music, if you could call it that, was awful. Mara had been raised on Joni Mitchell and Hall and Oates and Miguel’s blues guitar. Thinking about him, she felt a spark of heat between her legs. She pictured him looming over her, her eyes caught in his stare, hands on her ribcage tracing the curve of her body, his long hair grazing her breasts. Her knees began knocking, trying to ward off the feeling.

“Your phone’s all charged,” said Vera, handing it back to Mara.

“Where are you?” her mother asked.

“At Joey’s.”

“What’s a Joey?”

Mara explained that he was Ashley’s brother’s friend from school. “They’re forming a band and we’re listening. Joey’s a senior. Any other questions?”

“Yes, where does your new friend Joey live?”

“Newport. Stop it, mom.” She heard how snotty that sounded but it was out of her control.

“Come to the Kettle. I finish at 5. Al can pick you up.”

“I’ll get a ride from my friends,” said Mara and hung up.

Ash typed something on her phone. Joey reminds me of a blonde Adam Levine.

Hell prolly ask one of you gys out, typed Vera.

M’s into older guys, typed Ash with a winky face. Mara swatted Ash.

At 4:30, she waited for whatever it was they were playing to end, stood and announced she had to go.

Joey unplugged his guitar. “I can give you a ride on my Kawasaki.”

She knew then that he liked her. Joey was guarded, quiet but cute. She needed a boyfriend. It was time. It made sense.

He gave her a helmet that looked like something from WW1. She pulled the band from her ponytail and let her hair loose.

The sun had warmed the black seat.

“Put your feet on those pegs and grab onto my waist.”

He wasn’t a show-offy rider but it still felt deliciously dangerous. When he turned and the bike tipped she gripped his waist tighter and pressed the side of her head against his lean muscular back. Flying through wind, weaving around cars was intoxicating. She was the girl in that TV commercial. She even loved the way he scraped his feet on the pavement whenever they came to a red light. When she got off the bike, she felt as light as foam on the wave.

 

Mara’s mother was at the counter refilling ketchup bottles so Mara took a seat on a stool and swiveled around to face her. Her thighs spread. “Sorry for not calling. Sorry for being a be-atch.”

“Apology accepted,” said her mother curtly. “How’d you get here?”

Mara giggled. “Joey gave me a ride on his motorcycle.”

“That is not cool, you hear me?” Her mother was from Oklahoma, hardened by the old fashioned ways of her family. Mara understood her flaws. Her mom thought she knew what freedom meant but the truth was she was still repressed and fighting against her own idea of letting Mara be free.

Pedro walked in from the back, and as he passed her, she spun the stool around and made a show of crossing her legs.

“Hey Pedro, que pasa?” she said

“Muy bien. How’s your Spanish coming along, Mami?”

“I’m not learning real Spanish. It’s just tenses and junk. I’ll never be any good,” she pouted. “Unless of course you want to help me?”

Pedro glanced at her mom as if asking permission.

“She’s 15. I have to clock out. Go wait outside for me.”

Mara hopped up from the stool and blew a kiss at Pedro.

They crossed the boulevard. Shops and restaurants were clogged with tourists, men in shirts and ties and trust fund kids with boogie boards. Another five blocks and they’d be home.

“Do you have to flirt with every man you see?” said Robin

“That was Pedro.”

“Yes, I know who that was. Pedro, the dishwasher.”

“God, Mom you’re such a racist.”

“I’m worried about you. You’re at a vulnerable age. You have to be more careful about acting sexy and coming on to every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

A lot of her mother’s life was a secret. She knew her mom ran away from home, married young and divorced when Mara was just a baby. She had shared a room and bed with her mom and would hear her moan or flinch in her sleep and nervously rub her back. When Mara turned 11 one of the housemates moved out and she got the small corner room that looked out onto the ocean. The older Mara got, the more elusive her mother became.

“Can I go out with my friends tonight?”

“Where?”

“We’re just hanging at Ash’s or I don’t know, the pier maybe. Look, we’re not doing drugs. I think that’s gross.”

“I don’t want you on that bike, especially in the dark.”

They were at the top of their street which sloped down to the water. Mara inhaled the briny air. “Lighten up mom. Life is good,” she said. Then she kissed her mother on the cheek and trotted up the porch steps into the house.

After her shower, on the way back to her room, her body and hair both wrapped in a towel, she heard Miguel and Ray, a jazz musician and the newest housemate, playing guitar and keyboard. She grabbed her headphones to block out the music, unwrapped the towel, flopped face down on her bed and slid a sheet over her naked body. It wasn’t Miguel or Joey. A man without a face was cupping her breasts, trying to spread her legs apart. When he finally succeeded, a wave of pleasure swept over her. After the throbbing faded away and her breath evened out, she took off her headphones and lay there peacefully. But then the electrifying tickle started up and there was Miguel forcing her to sit naked on the stool again. Afterwards, she jumped out of bed and peered in the mirror over her shoulder, twisting to see the tattoo. She hadn’t meant it to be vindictive, only rebellious. She wished she could scrub it off. Mara dressed quickly. Outside her window the setting sun was a solid orange ball, spraying hot pink and orange streaks across the sky. She clunked down the steps in 3 inch caged disco shoes, a pale cotton miniskirt, spaghetti strap top and paper-thin black sweater to hide the mermaid tattoo.

They were all in the kitchen. Her mom was at the sink, hands buried in sudsy water, Miguel next to her drying the dishes. Sybil, the raven-haired owner of the house who was supposed to be “a second mother,” the boy-toy and Ray were seated on tall wooden stools around the island, drinking jug wine.

“Miguel and I have a gig tonight so I won’t be home until late. There’s soup and homemade bread in the fridge,” said her mother, still at the sink.”

“Kel and Ash are picking me up at 7.”

“Joey too?” said her mother sarcastically.

“His name is Joseph O’Malley.”

Mara microwaved the soup and ate it standing up.

Sybil looked up from her wine. “Those shoes are outrageous.”

Her mother turned to Al and said, “Look at those shoes. Al, I’m talking to you.”

“Huh?” said Al, looking up from his laptop. He and his team of geeks had developed an app similar to Snapchat. “You look nice,” he said absent-mindedly and went back to what he was doing.

“I’m sorry, sweetie pie, but you cannot wear that outfit,” said her mom. “You’re asking for trouble and I’m surprised you don’t realize it.”

“You’re forty and you dress like some old hippie.”

“Forty-four,” said her mother stiffly.

“It’s only shoes, Mom. Nothing’s going to happen to me that wouldn’t also happen in a pair of sneakers.”

“Miguel, what do you think?” said Mara.

Miguel looked at Mara and then back at her shoes, then back at Mara. “Querida, you are a teenager and not yet a woman.”

Kel’s SUV horn honked and Mara dashed out the door, ignoring her mother’s protests.

 

Joey suggested they should go climb the big rocks at El Porto in the dark.

“That’s a great idea,” said Mara, wanting to forget home and disappear in the darkness.

Vera wanted to hang back. She said she would be fine on a bench catching up on Instagram.

“I’ll wait with you,” said Garrett.

“Excellent,” said Ash and kissed Vera good bye. Mara kissed her too.

They walked down the sandy path from the parking lot using their phones as flashlights. Mara stopped for a moment to take off her sandals, leaving them where they fell, while Joey lingered beside her.

She’d never been to Porto at night. The rocks were jagged and slippery. The waves crashing on the beach were louder. The wind blew in from the ocean. As they navigated up the cliff Ash peppered Joey with questions. His mother was a former beauty queen; his stepfather had been drafted to the Chargers. He’d been accepted into UC Davis and U. of Arizona.

Joey asked Mara, “Don’t you have any questions?”

“Right now I’m trying not to slide off a rock and drown in the ocean.”

“Let’s sit,” said Ash.

“We’re going to keep climbing,” said Kel. He and Max were ten yards ahead.

Mara, Ash and Joey sat. “Someone should have brought a blanket,” said Ash.

Being there was both magnificent and terrifying. The pounding of the surf, blackness everywhere except for a few blurry stars, Joey on one side, Ash on the other. Mara’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. She saw her friend hunched up and hugging herself. She leaned over and pulled Ash’s cashmere sweater up around her neck.

“So what do you girls want to be when you grow up?” Joey asked.

“Do you think this is grade school?” said Ash.

“Psychologist,” said Mara. “I like knowing what makes people tick”.

“You’d be great at it. You’re insightful,” said Ash.

“Haha. I can’t see a fucking thing.”

“That’s because it’s really dark out here, sweetheart,” said Joey. He slung his arm around her shoulder. HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, the boys called up ahead. Mara was conscious of the weight of Joey’s arm, the way it lay in a heap across her shoulder but didn’t make her feel any warmer. The girls had watched every love and sex movie ever made (Vera’s mother was a movie critic for a local radio station and had dozens of pre-released movies) so Mara thought she knew what it would be like: the licking, stroking, probing, groping. But offering yourself up to a boy was something altogether different and she wasn’t going to be careless about it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to even touch another person.

“Let’s go,” said Ash, unfolding herself to a stand.

“What’s the rush?” said Joey.

“I’m fucking freezing,” said Ash helping Mara stand. Reluctantly, Joey stood too and slipped his fingers through Mara’s.

It was a relief to be on solid ground. Mara felt strangely giddy. At the edge of the parking lot Vera and Garrett were huddled together on a bench watching YouTube. She was happy for Vera, who was spunky but certainly not pretty. Neither she nor Vera had ever had real boyfriends, except when she was in 7th grade and ‘went steady’ with some dork and all they did was make out.

They decided to go back to her house to warm up because it was the closest. She thought about texting her mom but knew it would be kinder just to let her sing and not be reminded she had a daughter.

Mara was a little embarrassed. The house had an unfinished look. In the living room a ratty couch was covered by an afghan Sybil had crocheted. Ash grabbed it and wrapped it around herself like a shawl. A framed Bob Marley poster hung above the couch, lava lamp on the side table, melted candles on the coffee table. Only her mom had made an effort with stick-on stencils on the kitchen and bathroom tiles.

The boys were hungry. She went into the kitchen and took out some cheese and a box of Wheat Thins. Joey looked over her shoulder into the fridge.

“Is it ok if I have one of these?” He pulled a Michelob Ultra-Light beer free from one of the two 6-packs on Miguel’s shelf. Miguel had said the beer was crap, white trash beer, but that he’d gotten addicted.

She’d never seen Miguel angry. “Go for it,” said Mara.

They sat around watching “Jane the Virgin.” Mara felt kind of jittery trying to decide if she were ready, trying to decide how much she wanted Joey,

“Hey, Joey, wanna see my room?” she asked.

“It’s a great room,” said Vera.

Mara blanched. “I don’t need any help.

“Sure,” said Joey, letting her get away with it.

Upstairs she switched on the lamp light on her night table. “You can see the ocean out this window. Not now of course. But in the morning there’s white gold..”

He flopped down on the bed and patted the blanket next to him. “Come lie down.” She lay down next to him self-consciously. They just lay there for a minute staring at the star stickers on her ceiling. “Mind if I…” said Joey rolling against her. She lay there, waiting to see what would happen next. Then he rolled all the way on top of her. Mara’s limbs were leaden. Something shifted in her brain. Joey was an intrusion, a hard lumpy boy.

He rubbed his thigh between her legs. She started to feel that familiar secret heat. Joey rolled off of her and pulled off his football jersey and his long sleeved undershirt. The lamp light gave his chest a glossy sheen. “Take off your shirt,” he said gently. Mara took her tank top off. He kissed her on the neck. “Is this okay?” He reached around her back and popped the hooks on her bra with one hand. He licked one nipple, then the other. “Are you a virgin?”

Mara nodded.

“Are you sure you’re ready? I’ll be gentle.”

It was now or never. “Okay,” she whispered under her breath.

Joey unzipped his jeans and there was his dick, stiff and veiny, much uglier than what she’d ever imagined.

He kissed her, snaking his tongue around inside her mouth. The kiss was disappointing.

“Suck on me a little bit. That way my cock will be good and hard.” She felt a spurt of terror at the word cock but tamped it down. She leaned over and put her mouth on him, trying to pretend she was licking an ice cream cone, something she’d read in Glamour. But it didn’t taste like ice cream. Joey slid his hand under her skirt and under her panties, flicking his fingers up and down against her vagina. She whimpered and jerked her mouth away.

“I don’t think you’re ready for this. You don’t seem into it at all,” said Joey.

Maybe he was right. Maybe this is crazy, she thought. She pulled her top back on. “We should get back downstairs.”

“Here, have some of my beer. Finish it. It looks like you could use it,” he said. “Do you mind if I jerk off?”

“Whatever.” She turned her head away, not daring to look, rethinking the day, the motorcycle ride, the rocks, Miguel’s put down.

In the living room, Kel was mindlessly strumming one of Robin’s guitars, clearly bored. Vera had fallen asleep with her head on Ash’s lap. Max and Garrett were on the porch just standing there, staring into the darkness.

“Have fun?” said Ash.

“Kinda,” said Mara cooly.

After everyone stumbled out, Mara walked through the empty house in a daze, tossing beer cans in the recycling bin, putting the plate of dried out cheese and Saltines in the fridge with no thought to what she was doing. She passed her mother’s note on the kitchen island.

“I’m at Monica’s tonight. Be good, honey.”

 

The bouncer didn’t want to let her in.

“That’s my mother singing. I can hear her,” said Mara gazing up the flight of steps.

“Sorry miss. No ID. No can let you in.”

“Can I sit on the steps and listen?”

“The steps only. I’m going to be checking on you.”

Robin was singing You Belong to My Heart, the Spanish version, her high voice both soothing and sensuous. In the Uber, Mara had been trembly the whole way to Monica’s, flashing back to the feel of Joey’s dick in her mouth, his fingers fumbling to find the opening of her vagina, suddenly angry and humiliated, fighting to hold back tears. How she’d hated him in the Uber. Now with her mother’s voice drifting down, she began to unravel, letting the tears roll down her cheeks, watching them drop into her lap.

Sweat beaded on her back. She took off her sweater, stuffed it in her shoulder bag and wiped away her tears.

A nice-looking, athletic college guy wearing a UCLA t-shirt came bouncing down the steps. Mara immediately got to her feet though there was plenty of room.

“Hey mermaid. What’s up? You okay?” he asked.

She could go wherever he was going, have an adventure if she wanted. She knew it. She was no longer crying but her eyes shone.

“I’m fine,” said Mara. “Just waiting for someone.”

 

 


Lyn Stevens won the 2014 Saturday’s Child Press short story contest. Her stories have also appeared in Prism Review, Greensboro Review, Eclectica Magazine, Wordrunner eChapbooks, Main Street Rag and the American Literary Review. In 1999 she had a prize-winning story in the American Literary Review Fiction Contest judged by Antonya Nelson. Lyn lives in the Bronx.

Italian Sonnet As Directions To A Belly

I saw Ronald Reagan curing bad knees in El Salvador. There was this one man my family knew, Berto, who was from a family of bricklayers. Berto’s knees were so bad that one day he went to church and went down to pray and then found out he couldn’t get back up; well, a lot of us thought it was some kind of sign. But Reagan came and patched Berto right up. Berto stood up and never went to church again. Believe that; I saw it.

Ronald went around rubbing chests with aloe and honey, tightening hinges on squeaking doors, repainting the town halls and repaving the streets; he mixed the cement himself for the statues that line the park in the sqaure; he hauled fat sacks of lime and clay up and down the ferry, and after it was done mixing and had settled, he let Antonio Gomez-Viola, an unknown at that time but with wicked natural talent, take a hand at the sculpting and all. Yes, Ronald was very nice. He let Gomez-Viola build statues of a crowd of peasants holding up the world: ​Men and Women Working The Atlas Shift​ was its title.

After the long days of work, we would all gather by the town square for his show. The trucks always came on time, right before sunset. The back of the trucks slid up and open and there was lamb, beef, pork — all wrapped in red and white paper and resting, bound with rubberbands to large blocks of steaming ice. The drivers stayed in the trucks, smoking their cigarettes, while Ronald handed out the cuts of meat, which travelled down hands and hands of the people until someone found what they want and held it close to their chest. It was all fine, however, as later on many of the people would set up shop around the square, yesterday’s dough in their hands and their hands above the flames that licked the bottom of pans black. They sold pupusas, or tamales, or sometimes just braising the cuts of meat with the broken sauces of family recipes passed down like heirlooms, which meant they could not be found anywhere else — Nina Lachica’s chile-char comes to mind, that one was a weapon, was a knife, could cut a tongue.

There was a little fountain in the middle of the square, and we had tied strings from the roofs of the houses and ran them all the way to the stem of the fountain, and these strings we tied little dolls and shapes of design to, so that if you were drunk or just dizzy from laughing, and you looked up, you would see a sky filled with little angels and devils and stars and flags of all the nations we could remember.

We ate and drank, laughed about things that used to make us angry, cried about things that couldn’t make us laugh anymore, watching the sun set and the moon rise. At the height of the evening Ronald would finally come out, a guitar slung on his back, and surrounded by some of the choirboys who helped him sing; we all helped him sing. His fingers went up and down the guitar like spiderlegs. At the end of one song, the choirboys stopped singing and Ronald closed his eyes as he scaled up and down an octave in a sweet way. “His fingers are going up and down like spiderlegs,” I said, a little out loud, to no one in particular, and Ronald opened his eyes.

I was walking around him later that night, through the crowd that always surrounded him after a show. Sex didn’t matter; old men wanted to shake his hand, young girls wanted to yank on his shirt’s collar, and men his age just kind of stared at him wondering what it was all about, what kind of hair wax they needed to use to figure it out.

I didn’t want to do what everyone else did, though. I wanted to say sorry. I had interrupted something, clearly, when I spoke, and I wanted to let him know that I meant spiderlegs as a compliment.

“He smells,” a young bald man said in a young woman’s ear.

“He smells good,” she said.

“I’m the one that smells good; I’m the one standing next to you.”

I pushed my way to the front through elbows. Ronald slid a tiny can of Aquanet out from his bluejeans pocket and shot a spray at his head, new drops glittering his head and hair. He flicked the can out into the crowd and the crowd heaved to catch it. Ronald saw them all scrambling for the can down at their feet — all of them except for me. He saw me. He saw me and didn’t smile but he twiddled his hand at me like come here.

His white shirt sagged with sweat and he scratched the inside of his thigh, raising his bluejean’s cuff nover his white socks and sneakers. He said, “What’s your name?” and I said, “Dolores.”

Ronald looked over his shoulder and snapped his fingers without making a sound and men in black shirts got up from the wooden chairs nearby and began speaking broken Spanish, telling the crowd ​a la jaula​ — to the cage / to your cage / to the cages / to your cages — but in Spanish it is much nicer-sounding; it is what we say.

Ronald had me by the hand and we were walking towards the shore. He asked if I was the girl in the crowd that said his guitar-playing sounded like a spider playing. I laughed and corrected myself: his fingers moved like spiderlegs, sharp and slow.

“Sharp and slow,” he said, “sharp and slow.” He was amused.

Some of the women stared at me; whether it was bad or good I couldn’t tell. Mrs Lia smiled at us like we were candlesmoke, pleasant but passing. Mr Villareal looked disgusted.

Ronald didn’t notice. “Dolores,” he said. “Good name. Means pain, yeah?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I knew a girl back home named Dolores too.” His hands were in his pockets and he was smiling at the sky.

“Salvadorean?” I asked.

“No no,” he said, “she was from Florida; or maybe, you know, I think her mother was from Mexico, actually.”

“Mexicans hate us,” I said, not knowing where that was going.

“And her mother was in labor for nineteen hours — nineteen hours, you know. Jeezlouise. So her mother named her Dolores because of that. Pain, you know.”

“Yeah.” We were walking down the wrecked road, getting closer to the new paved ones that led to the factories by the docks. The ocean was calm and you couldn’t tell where sky started.

“Have you ever read ​Othello,​ Dolores? The one about the Moor?”

Before I could answer he began reciting:

“‘Sharks wrangle the fish / fishermen wrangle the sharks / and wrangle I the fishermen.’”

“Wow,” I said. “That was so amazing, it was like ​Hellcats​. I’ve never read it though.”

“I didn’t like that one, ​Hellcats​, terrible film,” he said. “And no, I’m rewriting ​Othello​, so you don’t have to know the original anyways. Watch out here, the pavement is new.” The new roads were so wide. They were for cars and trucks instead of people.

“Look,” Ronald said and bent down. “Road’s wet still.” He dug a knuckle into the pavement and yanked it out; there was a little imprint. “Write something, Dolores.”

I got closer and pressed my shoe into the road and it gave a little. “I don’t know what.”

“You know sometimes some celebrities in Hollywood — sometimes they put their feet, or their shoes, I mean, in the cement.”

“What for?”

“Beats me, Dolores. Why don’t you try it to figure it out.”

I hadn’t noticed how far we were from the town square; I could barely hear voices and meat sizzling and guitars getting plucked shitty, trying to sound like Ronald. I looked a little past him, and saw the men in black shirts were just a few paces away: one of them was crouching, fiddling around with the petals of a flower, and the other one was standing with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched like he was cold.

“Your friend is cold, I think,” I whispered to Ronald. He turned and saw and laughed.

He stopped laughing. “He’s anemic,” he said. “It’s why I brought him down here. Warm air.”

I smiled and nodded. “Good choice,” I said. I crouched down and stuck my fingers in the cement.

You hear about things in El Salvador from back in the 80s. Blood things. Bullet things. Heavy boots plunging in mud, heavy muddy boots stomping in door, stomping in ribcages things. Guerillas in pickups talking about how their cousin is a Sandinista and that, their cousin, they stole Somoza’s locket right from his neck and inside there was a picture of a man. Things. None of them are true. But this is true.

I got sick after the night I spent with Ronny. His place was warm but it was raining outside and the roof leaked. He said his place back home didn’t have mistakes in the roofs. His place back home was Gothic. The beauty of a Gothic house, he said, is all in the roof. He made a steeple with his hand. Directions to heaven, guiding a spirit. He laughed and said he must sound crazy. I said he did, he was and is. It was warm inside and it rained outside. The roof leaked. There were mistakes; worlds of mistakes that spun slow and hot, full of pink density. The drops landed on me: on my forehead and breasts and stomach. Hot inside and wet outside. The roof leaked.

Ronny kind of disappeared after a week or so. There was a note left on my door saying he’d be back and he would bring his friends so I could meet them, and that was all.

“I don’t know what you expected,” said my mother.

“She expects what they all expect,” my step-father said.

“What do they all expect?” my little sister said.

“Maybe one day you’ll know; maybe you won’t.” My step-father left his bread in his coffee for too long and it fell apart. He scraped the cup away.

I covered my mouth and coughed.

“You should see someone about that,” my mother said. She finally sat down at the table and picked at the soggy bread in my step-father’s cup. “It sounds wet.”

I left to go to work at the clinic. People gathered at the town square were looking around, lost and confused: Ronny was supposed to come that day to help them repave the walkways around town. A man scratched at the scruff on his neck and talked without talking to the others.

“What happened?” I asked but no one answered.

The only roads that were repaved were the ones that led from factory to factory.

I walked by. There were women — wives — at the windows of the second-floors, the living quarters above storefronts: they parted drapes and looked at the men, at the sky, and then anywhere else but the men again.

I was working at the clinic from 10 to 5, until we closed. It was busier than usual; mostly, it was people who had gotten red and plump rashes on their chests. Ms Muria scratched at her bosom while I wrote her name and form of payment all down. Mr Helega didn’t even wear a shirt; he said the cotton was too thick and irritated it even more. I told him he had to come back wearing a shirt.

“Just leaving everyone to die, huh,” he said.

“I just said to go get a shirt — you can come back,” I said.

He left without a sound.

After everyone with the rash left with ointment and a lard-orange rub, Dr Irmo came out, peeling off his gloves and scrunching his nose to push his glasses a little higher up.

“It’s some kind of bug or parasite,” he said. He threw the gloves away and washed his hands at the little sink.

“In the chest?” I said.

“Your boyfriend’s problem. He slapped them all with honey to cure the cough that was going around. And I don’t know what happened but some bug must’ve sniffed it out.”

I was quiet.

Dr Irmo kept talking. “I lanced one of them and there were little eggs inside.”

My skin creeped.

“Nasty nasty,” he said. He dried his hands. It was already 4:47. Near enough to closing so I could ask.

“Hey, Mr Irmo, I have a cough and I was wondering…” I started but he was already waving me into his office, squeezing a smile that looked like he didn’t mind. What else was he there for.

His office was furnished with wood and linoleum and tile and plastic. It needed to be washed easy but Dr Irmo was also a man who had taste, an image to uphold; his family was a lineage of healthworkers in the broadest sense: witches and surgeons, curses and stitches.

“Okay. A cough,” he said.

I nodded. “It started two weeks ago.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Okay. Was your boyfriend sick?” He smiled, still looking at his clipboard.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Is there phlegm?” he asked, finally looking back up at me. “A little.”

“What color?”

“More yellow than white, I think.”

“Any blood?”

“No.”

“Does it hurt when you cough?”

“Not really.”

He yanked a wooden thing out of his shirt pocket. “​Ahh.​” He pressed it on my tongue and looked down my throat.

“Hm,” was all he said. “Did you use protection?”

“Of what? with what?”

Dr Irmo looked at me, blinked slowly and licked his lips and drank from a can of soda-water he had on the shelf.

“He pulled out,” I said. “Before he finished.”

Dr Irmo nodded. “Use protection next time.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Bronchitis,” he said, his voice back to normal. “Is what I’m thinking at least. We were supposed to get the x-rays last week, but,” he quieted down and shrugged. “For now, I’ll get you some medicine and I want you to cover your face when you sleep — tight tight with a blanket, okay?”

“With a blanket?”

“Yes. Cold air bruises the throat. With the blanket you’re just breathing your own warm air — the homeless for example: those fucking guerillas and the little monks with the church. They know. They cover their faces out in the street not because they’re ashamed, you know, but because they need to breathe that warm air.”

I nodded. He opened a cupboard and rolled a pillbottle in his palm, reading the label. “Take these,” he said, “but think serious about sleeping with a blanket over your face. And the protection thing, okay? But we can focus on that stuff after the cough is gone. Protect the lungs for now.”

You hear about things in El Salvador from back in the 80s. Blood things. Bullet things. Needle things. Heavy boots plunging in mud, heavy muddy boots stomping in door, stomping in ribcages things. Guerillas in pickups talking about how their cousin is a Sandinista and that, their cousin, they stole Somoza’s locket right from his neck and inside there was a picture of a man. Things. All false. None true. This is true.

I went back to the gate of the docks, to the pavement where me and Ronald were. Two little holes in the concrete. The sun shone like a person, like someone interested in what you had to say. The ocean is so blue sometimes. The factory whistled and churned. There were clouds just over where the sky and sea met. More rain. I’m still not sure what happens to fresh cement when it rains; if it crumbles or shrinks or something. Because when I crouched down to see the holes closer, to stick my fingers into them, I found that they could not fit.

 


Stanley Delgado currently lives in Southern California and works as a translator for medical journals. His writing has appeared in smaller prints such as Coriander’s, str8 & narrow, and elsewhere.

Smooth Animals

There was a rumor that not all the exhibits in the Spokane Memorial Zoo were, well… That somewhere there was an attic, or a supply closet, or an elevator shaft, and in it was somebody’s special project, and if you knew that person, and if you were very quiet and very secret, you could go there, and there you would see the most delightful little, well… Or at least, you might be able to buy a photograph. Because of what was in that place, you could see things—and do things—to drive the sharpest and most forbidden pleasures through the heart. Those blue crush metallic hate-pleasures. The smoothest of all amberlight firemist pleasures from the smoothest of all, well…

Hector Mills was that person, it was his special project, and he had started that rumor, and it was true. But secret. He rubbed at a stain on the left sleeve of his uniform. These little moments of reflection during the day were such a comfort. Kirk smiled at him from behind the glass with his beautiful, hairless white mouth and said, “Four.”

Inside the cage with Kirk was a single branch, bleached white by the reptile lights, resting on sand and artfully arranged rocks. Kirk liked to drape his thick loops from it, so that he shone iridium silver under the chicken wire ceiling. Concrete shaped to look like natural limestone formations framed Kirk’s exhibit, the third habitat on the left in the Reptile House.

‘Concrete shaped to look like X’ could be described as the zoo’s dominant aesthetic. Was it designed to hide all the monkey rape, or to artfully embroider and enhance it? As an illustrator—someone with a personal investment in visual aesthetics—this was a question Hector would have loved to put to Quinesco J. Alfredi, the zoo’s long-dead principle architect.

Thirty seconds was up. He turned to face the small group.

“The Black Mamba,” he said, “can strike at a distance of over twenty feet, faster than the eye can see. They sometimes grow fourteen feet long, but Kirk here is only four-and-a-half.”

He would put a marmot in the next book.

“They’re super deadly, right?” said a disheveled teen, looking up from his phone.

“If Kirk were to bite you, young man, it would probably just make your arm feel numb. You might get a headache or a metallic taste in your mouth. You might slur your words and drool.”

The breeze moved green plant fingers. Sneakers shifted on interlocking bricks. Every bird yelled the worst word it could think of. Every bird yelled its own name, which was the worst word it could think of. The worst word Hector Mills could think of was ‘four’.

“And then seven hours later you would die.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from one or two of the mothers in the group. Gunmetal pearl purses lifted.

“I’m joking; just trying to frighten you. Kirk had his venom milked twenty minutes ago. He’s as dry as astronaut ice cream.” He hadn’t, and wasn’t. The mothers relaxed. “We’re all perfectly safe.”

He led them out of the Reptile House and to the food pavilion courtyard, near the stark wrought-iron bars of the outer wall. Concrete was shaped to look like marble pillars, wooden fence posts, palm trees and thatched roofs. Four. Tasty drinks were available to the children in all the colors: lime pastel, blue crush metallic, detonator yellow, et cetera.

We’re all perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly safe.

#

Four. Out of thirty-four, on the scale. Nothing turns it backwards, nothing subtracts points. Ever.

One of the gasping women approached him after the tour where he stood by the fence, dragging a child behind her.

Obvious neuromuscular symptoms begin at nine.

“Mister Mills!” She was holding a book. “Mister Mills, my son just loves your books. Don’t you, Liam?”

Liam was two years too old, by the look of him, to think Bouncy Buddies was any good.

“Would you?” she held out the hardcover and a pen.

Bone marrow transplant, never successful in adults, necessary at fourteen.

He signed the book. Children were too easy to please. He hated them. All you do is take an animal and smooth out the shape, like it was sculpted in wax and melted. Draw that; not a real, hairy, dirty rabbit; draw a hateful melted-wax child-rabbit. A smooth child-rabbit. Hatred is the truest form of love.

Always be open to new adventures. H. E. Mills. June 10th, 2018.

Hatred respects absolutely the unique being of the other, the unassailable reality of the other’s significance, by assailing it.

“Thank you,” she said. “But why did you say that, about that snake’s venom?”

There’s no need to crucify something you don’t secretly adore.

Hector blushed, a useful trick. “I may have phrased that sentiment somewhat infelicitously, I admit. Perhaps I overcompensate due to my second job. But these animals,” gesturing to the reptiles, “are not the bouncy bumblies of a child’s bedtime story.”

The black shadow of the fence’s bars fell across the child’s smooth face as the sun came out from behind a cloud.

The medicine every day, every day, every day. Even one day, even one more tick upwards. Even one missed day could mean five on the scale.

“They are to be respected, above all.”

#

To do:

Clean monkey fudge.

Give Kirk his afternoon guinea pig.

Special project.

Visit Luderman.

Tiger anus maintenance.

Trim flamingo feathers.

Home.

Draw pictures for next book, Cutie Cuddlies. Include marmot.

#

Hose. Silvery jewel spray. Wet concrete in sunlight. Scratches, chips and splinters on the concrete trees, up close. Hanks of fur. Obsidian eyes. One cage corner absolutely dripping with semen.

“Monkey rape, monkey rape,” they yelled at him from their alternate cell.

He would shave them all if he could.

“Finger tape, monkey rape, monkey semen, monkey rape, chocolate scrape, monkey semen, devil cake, monkey rape.”

The hose on their window only made a noise.

Half a monkey turd stuck to his shoe. Hose again.

Well.

Live or dead? Nobody ever comes into Hector’s reptile workshop.

Razor, restraints, tiny restraints. Soap and lather.

Snakes don’t really need that much hair in their diet. The marmot in the next book, he decided, would be green. Lime pastel.

White hair and brown hair and more round, beady eyes. Terrified squeaking, absolutely correct. The smell of the snakes.

Two out of ten have a heart attack anyway, with all that snake musk around. They know.

Towel. Pink, hairless. Struggling.

Finger pressure on the belly. Four quick cuts. A streak of blood on the towel. Guinea pig balls.

Utility closet switches. Cage door, quickly, squeals, predatory rustle, lazy reptilian motion. Meat.

It’s totally normal in Peru and Ecuador. Not raw, of course.

A toast.

“Yes, a toast.”

“To smooth animals.”

“Yes, smooth animals.”

Well.

Very quiet and very secret; the special project. Special wiring, special locks, unused circuits. The row of switches on the console, never to be touched. Flip the switches, flip just the right ones. The old elevator shaft.

Gunpowder-flash pleasure. Stars over the motionless ocean.

Food. Water. Camera. Click, click, click. Polaroid. Four.

Much nicer than a guinea pig. Very smooth.

Back up out of the old elevator shaft, deep slow breaths against excitement, into aerodynamic sky day.

Well.

Highway. Car colors, white, gray, green. Blue crush metallic. Gunmetal pearl. Storm titanium. Lime pastel. Good, clean, aerodynamic lines. Amberlite Firemist. Iridium silver. Detonator yellow. Fall asleep to the sound of the marketing words telling you optical death, pulling your intestines out through your ears, brain firemist dick storm eye guns.

Luderman. Luderman’s ridiculous hair. Pictures, money, suggestions, threats.

I’m joking. Just trying to frighten you.

And, but, and, and the medicine.

It’s just oil, just oil you’re not allowed to have. You can’t blame Luderman, either. It’s complicated, but you can’t really blame Luderman. He’s just a pedophile chemist blackmailer.

Highway. The weight of the little glass bottle. Two days’ dose, today’s already swallowed. Patches of light and shade from gunmetal pearl clouds.

#

Of course. Of course some kid had been banging on the glass. Probably Liam. There ought to be a double pane of glass and some kind of soundproofing.

But now the tiger’s all riled up. Can’t use sedatives on it, it’s got cardiac issues.

“James,” Hector said, “you always have a choice. All of us always have a choice, every day.” Weight of the glass bottle. “And you can turn off the cameras and go find something else to do for half an hour and I’ll do it, even though it’s not my job, James, or you can leave the cameras on and do it yourself.”

Oh, four. Four. But no, the reassuring weight was there.

Pet health care tips: expressing your cat’s anal glands at home. Your vet can teach you how to perform this simple procedure, necessary sometimes after prolonged failure to properly secrete, or, worse, impaction. Like the hard kernel of a pimple, except pungent fossilized feline anal scent product.

Which is why Karl the Tiger would drag his bottom on the floor, lick obsessively and stink with such a stink as to repel guests as far away as the aviary, unless somebody got in there weekly and squeezed out his big nasty glands. Friend Jimmy hated doing this, and was not good at it, and was afraid of the tiger. Hector, on the other hand, hated the tiger. Not love-hate, either, not hate-pleasure, just regular hate.

And he needed a shave down there, too. Karl was not the best self-groomer. Nasty beast.

‘Tiger dingleberries’ sounds funny but they are not.

James left and Hector went and got the stun gun. He had originally hoped that Karl, like most animals, would have the sense to learn to fear the stun gun’s sound. It was pink, like all things made for women. But no, Karl was stupid and had to relearn every week.

Weight of the bottle. Not in the pants pocket, with the stun gun. Shirt front pocket.What you do is, you flip switch one in the utility closet, flip switch three, hurry in there with the tiger because the lock’s on a five minute timer, get the thing done, unflip the switches, go visit with Kirk again before flamingo scissors time. There’s a system. It’s balletic.

#

“Hello, scaly penis,” said Kirk. Perverted smile.

“Not scaly.”

“Snake penis, scaly penis.”

“No.”

“Hissing, sliding, predatory, bending, active, reptilian penis.”

“No. See.”

“Gunmetal pearl.”

Clink.

The world turns storm titanium. Every smooth line freezes. Grecian urn.

The bottle has fallen. The bottle is on the wood chips floor of the black mamba cage. Kirk’s tongue flicks at it. Tomorrow’s dose.

Long stare.

“Four.”

Relief. The snake turns and slides away, going up his tree. Probably to rest for the evening.

Time went back to normal. Hector made a plan. If you flip switch seventeen then switch fourteen then switch one, Kirk would be trapped in the back half of his cage and you could go real quick into the front part and grab the bottle, put everything back the way it was and nobody would find out.

Okay, will that work? Good. Go.

Hector rushed to the utility closet, flipped the switches and rushed back to the reptile house. After the five minute timer, he heard the locks click and went into the cage. It must have rolled into one of the dark, reptile-cooling cubbies. He examined them one by one, quickly but thoroughly.

There was a low growl. The kind that a housecat cannot produce.

Detonator yellow world. Time slows but it does not stop. Time keeps coming. The stun gun is in his locker, far away. There are heavy cat pads on brushed concrete. There exists inevitability.

Did he flip switch seventeen, or, in his hurry, had it been switch seven? Same column, different row, easy to mistake. Never flip switch seven. Never.

Amberlite firemist world. Time keeps coming.

Because if you flipped switch seven, then you didn’t flip switch seventeen, and the reptile center partition was still open.

The dark cubby into which you are currently reaching for your medicine bottle may actually hide the smiling gunmetal gray black mamba. Black mambas do actually bite. The tiger steps pause. That means Karl is crouching.

Each new thing keeps coming.

And if you flipped switch seven, well…. That was an unused circuit. Not ever to be touched. It would activate the tiger cage too, but primarily it interfaced with the old elevator.

If the tiger was free, then the old elevator had opened. The one containing a, well…

Containing the special project. Out in the open, out among the zoo’s guests. And the rumor. Very quiet and very secret. Not all the exhibits in the Spokane Memorial Zoo. And Luderman’s photographs.

#

I’m joking. Just trying to frighten you.

Monkey rape.

 

 


Matthew Talamini is a writer, web developer, long-distance runner and musician. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and has an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Visit him at matthewtalamini.com.

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