Fiction Archive

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.

“Blue Nothing”

When Coach blew the whistle, along with the rest of the kids, I returned the soccer balls to the rack in the closet, took long gulps from the armory gym’s water fountain, put on my puffy snow jacket, and walked out into the parking lot slowly filling with January snow. I looked for Dad’s lapis-blue Cherokee among the idling cars, heat on full-blast. As always, he wasn’t there. One by one, other kids piled into cars until it was just Derek and me enjoying the sharp wind on our sweaty bodies. Despite the oversized snow jackets (You’ll grow into it, Dad would say), we still wore our shorts and shin guards. Our knees clacked.

“Fuck this, Eliot,” Derek said. “When the fuck are they going to get here? I’m freezing my nuts off.”

I envied how effortlessly he cussed. I hadn’t perfected it. When I swore at the lunch table or during unsupervised gym games, my friends made fun of me—snide remarks (Woah, guys. Don’t mess with Eliot. He’s serious today.) and exaggerated imitations—because I sounded like a kid. Cussing to me was all missed shots and no bicycle-kick goals. Sometimes in bed in the middle of the night I practiced swearing in whispers: damn, shit, bastard.

“I’m sure they’ll get here soon,” I said to fill the silence.

Christmas break dwindled, but school wouldn’t start until Monday. Without classes to complain about, we stood around, uncomfortable with our silence. Derek towered a full foot over me, having already finished his growth spurt. I hadn’t even started mine, and as each month passed, I grew more impatient to close the growing height gap between my twin sister, Emily, and me. The sky purpled.

I asked, “What’d you get for Christmas?”

“A bunch of stupid shit because of Chase-Glazer.” Both our dads lost their jobs when the glass-blowing factory closed down. My dad lucked out and picked up a job delivering bread, but most still lived on diminishing severance. “You?”

“Not much,” I lied. His gaze bore down on me, yet I kept my eyes on the ground and kicked at snow.

“Bullshit. You get two Christmases now. I bet you can’t even fit all your presents in your room.”

I shrugged and sighed. Dad and Mom each spent more money on Emily and me than they had the year before. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to buy love or apologize. “Both got me a Playstation. So I’m going to return one and get an N64.”

“Damn. I wish my parents were divorced.”

Mine weren’t divorced, but I didn’t correct him because I barely understood it—something about a year of “voluntary separation” and “notarized separation agreement” to get a divorce that was “no-fault.” It didn’t matter though because they talked about it as if it were a divorce and it felt like what I imagined divorce felt like: a vague, foolish longing for last year.

Our breath steamed as we pretended to smoke; neither of us could blow rings. The winter breeze no longer felt refreshing. I pulled my hands into my jacket’s sleeves. When headlights appeared at the edge of the lot, I held my breath and hoped to see the boxy Cherokee, but it was a sedan: another night with Coach and me.

Derek said, “Want a ride?”

“Dad’s on his way,” I said, because I wanted it to be true.

Derek shrugged and marched through the snow to his mom’s sedan, leaving dark blacktop footprints in the powder.

Coach stood waiting at the foggy window stroking his thick, ink-black mustache. When I walked in, my skin ached from the warm air. My wet sneakers screeched along the hallway. Coach must have counted the minutes waiting for us stragglers to be picked up. He must have wanted to get home to do whatever widowed, childless science teachers that coach indoor soccer do at night. Yet, without saying anything, he walked to the gym, unlocked the closet, retrieved a soccer ball, and kicked it to me.

#

“Well,” Coach said, checking his watch. “Should we try your father again?”

Outside the window it looked like cooled lava: lumpy, snowy, and dark.

“Okay,” I said. I dribbled the ball over to him, small taps, under control. Using Coach’s blocky cell phone, I left another message on the answering machine. At least Dad wasn’t at home. If he picked up, then I’d know for sure he had forgotten me.

“Maybe we should try your mom.”

“He’ll be here,” I said.

“Let’s call her anyway.”

Dad, if he was here, would’ve said something like, Don’t talk to him about my business. Somehow Dad still believed that the news of the separation hadn’t spread.

“She’s out of town tonight,” I lied, not because Dad would have wanted me to, but because Mom was reconsidering the custody agreement. They’d forgone courts and let Emily and me decide who we would stay with—a gift from Mom to Dad. Emily went with her, but I chose him. Mom wore guilt like a gown and made herself a stranger overnight. I didn’t feel like I knew her anymore. It wasn’t even Mom’s coming out of the closet (I could deal with that), but she now treated me like a glass child liable to shatter at a misplaced word.

I wasn’t fragile or depressed, just nostalgic. If anything, Dad acted like a friend, at times a peer, with all the rawness that entailed: driving ranges, sour sips from his wine, R-Rated action movies, shooting clay pigeons with 20 gauges, carrying me from the Cherokee to my bed when we stayed out too late, helping him from the couch to his bed when he drank too much.

Looking away from me, Coach said, “I could always give you a ride to Gina’s.”

I winced at the name of Mom’s girlfriend. Of course, he knew. Everyone did. We were water cooler topics in places without water coolers—the teacher’s lounge, run down bars, church prayer calls. I never appreciated anonymity before; I wished I could dissolve.

“Can’t you take me home?” I asked.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to anymore,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. Coach grudgingly followed the new policy from the Board of Ed that removed the simple solution. Letting Gina pick me up must have been as far as he was willing to bend the rules.

“Can we wait fifteen more minutes?”

He sighed. “I’ll give him ten, and then….” Coach trailed off struggling to come up with some sort of backup plan. “I’ll call Gina,” he said, as if it were a question.

We passed the ball back and forth on autopilot. My mind drifted: every time Mom picked me up because Dad forgot, every time I missed school because Dad didn’t come home the night before, every time Emily told Mom about Dad’s tipsy flirting with married soccer moms, every time she heard about Dad and me eating grand slams at two in the morning on a school night, Mom strengthened her threats until last week she dropped the ultimatum: one more shot—she’d be looking for an excuse. She’d take him to court (she had the money), and she’d win every time.

#

Ten minutes that felt like two hours later, as Coach returned the soccer ball to the closet, promising to call Gina just as soon as he locked the doors, and I put my coat back on, high beams flooded the parking lot. I tried unsuccessfully to hide my smile. Coach didn’t look relieved. Instead he looked the way he did on the day he reamed out my whole class after discovering our elaborate classroom-wide network for cheating on labs. With eyes narrowed and forehead furrowed in the quiet fury that only teachers know, he followed me outside. The cold made it difficult to breathe.

The passenger window lowered, and Dad’s slow, careful articulation failed to hide a gentle slurring as he said, “Crazy night. I got here as soon as I could.”

“You didn’t try that hard,” Coach said.

I wanted to tell Coach not to give my dad a hard time, but I couldn’t think of how to phrase it in a way that wasn’t combative. All I wanted was to climb into the car and get out of there, but Coach refused to let Dad and me slink away as we usually did. The snow that covered my ankles slowly dissolved into ice water, sogging my socks.

“Trust me. If only you knew.” Dad laughed and fumbled for something between the seats.

“Indulge me.” Coach’s jaw locked into place. His mustache didn’t hide a scowl.

Dad stopped trying to laugh his way free. Barely above a whisper, he said, “Eliot, get in the car.”

I stepped forward as Coach’s hand fell to my shoulder. He didn’t grab or squeeze, yet the dead weight of unfamiliar touch froze me in place. His gaze never left Dad. I imagined myself freezing time—snowflakes hanging still—climbing into Dad’s car, driving off, and unfreezing time when we were home.

“I’ve got time for a story,” Coach said. “Where were you?”

Was Coach not oblivious to Dad’s drinking? Was he stalling to gauge just how far gone he was? Neither spoke; the stillness unnerved me. I stood there letting the cold sting my legs while the heat hummed in the car. Unable to stand it, I tried to pry his fingers away, but Coach’s fingers dug into my skin. Even through the thick padding of my coat, his grip hurt. If I were more like Dad, I’d be able to break free.

“Let go,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s safe to get in a car with him,” he said to me.

Dad lowered his head. The world narrowed. I felt reckless.

“You aren’t going anywhere with this drunk.” Coach pointed a bony finger at Dad. Drunk. The word jarred me. I’d never heard anyone call him that, not even Mom. He never hit anyone, so he couldn’t be an alcoholic. Would that be how a judge saw him if Mom changed the custody agreement?

Coach continued, “I’m calling your mother or grandparents. Anyone. Even Gina.”

I suddenly pictured myself in my old bedroom overhearing Mom’s side of a phone fight with Dad, imagined daily dinners of Gina’s cooking—almost always pasta and store-bought sauce—ad nauseam, and, worst of all, Mom’s over-compensating concern for everything: the way she now always prefaced requests with “if you are up to it….”

I fought dizziness. If I could just escape Coach’s grasp… yet my squirms only tightened the grip like a Chinese finger trap. I bit at his fingers, meaty bites almost breaking the skin, until he let go.

“God damn it,” he said, as his grip softened enough for me to wriggle away and climb into the back door of the Jeep, locking the door behind me. As soon as Dad processed what I was doing, he locked the other doors and rolled up the window.

Coach yanked at the door handle and said, “Get out of the car. Both of you.”

What had come over me? I liked Coach and his class. How could I look him in the eye on Monday? The adrenaline simmered to regret. I fantasized about quitting indoor soccer and dropping out of school to avoid ever having to face Coach again.

Dad cradled a brown-bagged bottle between his legs. He opened his mouth to say something (another apology, maybe an insult), but instead shook his head and exhaled.

Coach pounded at the window, looked at me pleadingly, and, muffled by the glass, said with slow articulation, “Eliot, this is a mistake. It’s okay. Just unlock the door. If you don’t, I’m going to have to call the cops. And if that happens, nothing good will come of this.”

I looked at Dad, and he gave me a timid smile as if to say, Your choice.

I said to Coach, “I’m sorry.” I nodded to Dad. I knew choosing my father was nothing but risks, but as the end loomed, all I wanted was time with Dad, even short minutes as they ran out.

Dad ground the gears into drive, his body shaking, almost quaking. As we drove off, in the mirror Coach shrank as he dialed his phone.

#

Colossal snowflakes caught in wind currents shot over the windshield like stars in a screensaver. Dad wrung the steering wheel with his hands as if the tactile feeling of sticky rubber might calm him.

“I’m really sorry, Eliot. Next time I’ll be there. I won’t even leave. I’ll stay in the car and wait the whole time,” he said, making momentary eye contact. At least for right then he believed it.

How could he think about something that felt so trivial to me? I wondered if he grasped the bigger picture: the impending holding cell, DUI, license suspension, job loss, and court cases. I said, “Dad, we’re in trouble.”

He ignored me and said, “You don’t think I would leave you there on purpose, do you?”

“We’re going to get arrested.” It surprised me to hear me include myself. Could I end up in juvie?

“No one’s getting arrested.”

“Coach called the cops.”

Dad shook his head. He slowed the car down to a crawl on the dark road. He licked his lips and then made a clicking noise with his mouth. I could almost see his mind sluggishly working, considering what was next.

“Do you want me to take you to your mom’s,” he said.

It didn’t matter what I said. By the end of the night I knew I’d be there. “I think so.”

“That’s fair,” he said.

Dad turned from the main road onto a back road that cut through the woods. It wasn’t exactly a shortcut, but at least no one would be on this road this late at night. Snow stuck to the road. There weren’t even parallel black streaks of recent vehicles. A salt truck would come through eventually.

For a long time neither of us spoke. It wasn’t that living with Emily, Gina, and Mom had become any more palatable. Maybe if Dad dropped me off, we could forgo the courts until Dad was more stable.

Dad turned on the radio, flicked from station to station and turned it off. Snow pummeled the earth in moth-sized flakes. He sped up.

“Do you still love me?” he asked.

“What?” I said.

He swallowed hard. “Never mind.”

The digital clock beamed 8:53. It felt much later.

I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but we so rarely talked about it that I couldn’t bring myself to say the word. I said, “Yeah Dad, I do.”

“I don’t feel like anyone loves me anymore. And I can’t stop thinking about if anyone ever did.” His voice wavered, and his grip on the steering wheel looked like it would crush the plastic, foam, and vinyl, making it ooze out of his hands like squeezing a ball of fresh mozzarella.

Everything crept into focus—the mess of it all. Was this sober honesty or drunk neediness? Before, I thought he was emotionless, stoic even, but now he sounded more like Emily on a bad day. If he’d really felt like that, I felt bad for Mom. It must have been so hard not just being married to a man but to someone this insecure.

I said, “I know Emily does. I bet Mom still does too in a way.”

Dad snorted.

I wondered if everything that happened since the separation was secondary to his suppressed question about whether any part of the family, the marriage, was ever real to her. I pitied him and wanted more time. All we had left was fading seconds before an arrest or whatever came next, so I promised myself I’d stay until the end.

“I want to go home tonight. Our home,” I said.

Dad’s grip on the steering wheel loosened. He looked at me wet-eyed. He made an illegal u-turn, swerving, and tires slipping on the snow and ice-greased road.

As we regained speed (five, ten, fifteen over the thirty), I said, “Slow down.” I braced myself for a new patch of black ice, but the Cherokee kept traction.

Full crying, he said, “You know, you mean everything to me, right? I know what people say about me—”

“Slow down, Dad.”

Black and white, darkness and snow slid past us. Black nameless trees crowded the road, as Dad sped away from aloneness, large and small, escaping even if just for the night. Black and white, shadows burst from the tree line, a pack of white-tail deer.

#

My ears rang before I felt any pain. Neck hurt, but my fingers worked. Not broken. Did my blisters pop? Something bloody. Nose? Lip? The seatbelt cut into my shoulder. Car horn jammed on. As I wiped them away, I marveled at the windshield spider-webbed across all four corners: how did it crush but not shatter?

“Dad,” I said as I massaged my neck.

His head hung in an impossible angle as if it could roll off. I thought I saw the forehead bone, leaking blood covered it. He hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt.

I clamored out of the car. Through the passenger-side door, I struggled to drag Dad’s weight to the tree line. Each inch took all I could muster, until finally I had him in the grass. I sat against an oak, but he slid over onto his side.

I thought I would cry but puked instead.

“It’s alright, Dad,” I said. “Everything’s okay.”

Dad lay there, snow falling on his unblinking eyes. Things like this never actually happened. I’d awaken any minute.

The front of the Cherokee was a mess of bent metal and broken glass. Crumbled at the foot of the bumper, the deer was a furry mass of colors in the headlights. The snow dyed green with leaking coolant met with deer blood and turned an awful dark khaki brown.

The deer let out a sickening, throaty yelp. It tried to stand on broken legs and collapsed, bones piercing brown fur. A buck: barely antlered. All that blood from a toddler.

I looked around frantically. “What am I supposed to do?”

Dad said, You’ll have to put it down, Eliot.

It was never the kind of thing Dad would ask of me, still a kid. But it needed to be done. I remembered back when I was a kid, we had a mouse in the walls. I checked the trap in the morning, and I found the mouse alive, back broken. When I told Dad, he said he’d stop the suffering. On the back porch, he crushed the mouse with a brick. Emily watched, but I closed my eyes before he brought down the brick. Afterwards, I locked the door so no one would see me cry.

“How?”

I’m not sure. Look in the car.

Even though I was pretty sure that the car wouldn’t explode (there wasn’t even smoke), I approached cautiously, steering clear of the deer. I ruffled through the back seat. “Did you have a pocket knife or something?” I asked. In the glove compartment I only found pens and the bottle. “There’s nothing here.”

Check the back, Dad said.

I climbed into the backseat. “I don’t see anything.”

The tire iron. The one I broke the window with.

In the darkness I found the cloth loop to lift up the seat cushions. Underneath I found it. The iron felt heavy and rough.

I took it over to Dad and held it out to him. Blood so dark that it looked black haloed his head. I can’t do it for you.

“I can’t either.” I’d never killed anything before. Just thinking about hurting the deer made me want to cry, but I fought it, hard.

It’s in pain.

The rough metal in my hand felt as dense as a black hole. I took small deliberate steps towards the deer—practically a fawn. Up close, I noticed the gruesome details that the night hid: a heap of sinew, fur, muscle, bone, and blood, pools of blood. Wishing it were true, I said to the deer, “It’s okay. It’s going to be fine.”

It blinked big, dark eyes at me. Every breath looked like agony. It tried to rise again on legs snapped like Popsicle sticks but immediately collapsed. It lay on its side looking at me.

As I raised the iron above my head, I felt weak and dizzy. It was as if I were floating somewhere outside all of this, watching myself from a bird’s eye view.

I said, “You’re going to be all right.”

Using every bit of strength I could find, I brought the tire iron down on the fawn’s head with a dull thud. That head looked so delicate, like you could crush it with a hug, but the bar bounced off with sickening reverberations, like hitting a tree with an aluminum bat. The deer thrashed and yelped like a child. I swung again. Again. And again. Every blow took everything I had each time. Slowly cracking the skull, popping an eye out of its socket with a whoosh. It stopped thrashing but still swayed in spasms, until finally the head caved in with the sound of squashing rotten fruit.

I dropped the iron—wet with blood and yellow with something goopy—on the road beside the fawn.

I sat beside Dad. I brushed a layer of snow from his face.

I filled my mouth with snow. “Holy fuck.” I said the words without thinking.

You did the right thing, Dad said.

I didn’t say anything.

Trust me. Right now, that deer is happy alone in the baby blue nothing.

Sitting in the red snow, a haze of headlights built indistinctly on the horizon, darkness fading to light blue above the tree line—any moment some car or other would find me and carnage. The blood spread.


Brendan Stephens is currently in the Creative Writing and Literature PhD program at the University of Houston. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southeast Review, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He is a reader and volunteer for Gulf Coast.

“The Dutch Girl”

The Muslims on our street sang prayers for me.

Everyone on Facebook encouraged me to date her: we were both quirky, and though on different continents, we played Scrabble with slang words—me in English and her—also in English.

The only person, of course, who had doubts, was my therapist, Dr. Samson, who was certain she was a fabrication—she was Muhammad of Tunisia rather than Vivian of Amsterdam.

To begin with, Vivian said she lived in Switzerland, though her office was in England, and that she was from Amsterdam. This seemed an odd transposition of places to accumulate for a paycheck.

“And my lover just died of cancer, so I’m looking for a new one.”

“I’m sorry about your loss.”

“LOL and thanks.”

Between “LOL” and “thanks” I surmised this person might not be who she said she was.

I had already endured, perhaps a decade earlier, a woman of Aryan-Hispanic origins who wrote me from Africa (she was originally from Illinois), where she was staying with her sick mother. Our relationship had tidy moments of S&M via Skype, but got insidious when she mentioned her mother’s terminal illness; this maternal calamity caused irreparable financial damages, and could I please send $2,500?

*

Loneliness in the Bronx can make a dyke swerve to fake lesbians on OkCupid.

“What do you do for a living?” the Dutch girl asked.

“I’m a meteorologist,” I replied, because, like me, weather is organized by chaos, and within its chaos there is its own organization.

This sounded better than my real occupation—word processing in the pharmaceutical department at a Bronx hospital.

“Wow,” she emailed, “that’s cool.”

“Yeah, most of my friends hate me if there’s a blizzard. I’m like—it’s God’s mood swing—not mine.”
“LOL!” she wrote. When you get an “LOL” while dating, it means things are neutrally fine, there is a possibility you will kiss them, and that in your flannel nightgown, lying on flannel sheets, in weather you incorrectly predicted, you are still in the running for the position of “girlfriend.”

When the Dutch girl mentioned she was now living in Madison, Wisconsin, selling laboratory equipment, I was confused.

“Do you think she exists?” I asked my psychiatrist.

“I think you should stick with women who resemble your ex but need plastic surgery.”
Yes, in addition to the Dutch girl, there was, on OkCupid, another girl interested in me. This one resembled a former lover, but her face was asymmetrical. “Plastic surgery girl” lived in Manhattan; had an oil burning stove in Upstate New York; liked art and Afghan food.

“You need someone on the continent,” he advised.

“Vivian lives in Wisconsin.”

“As I said,” he continued, “it wouldn’t hurt to date someone within an hour’s distance.”

The girl with an oil burning stove was Jewish, which was a factor that my dead mother and psychiatrist loved. I, however, was more into the Dutch chick, who was originally from Switzerland, witnessed her girlfriend die of lymphoma in The Netherlands, but was now in Wisconsin.

“You are geographically challenging,” I wrote the Netherlander.

“Coordinates well with you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m worldly and you’re weatherly. LOL.”

I didn’t get her humor, but it might have been a translation issue.

Vivian was a single girl with a simple understanding of life who wore a hat to appear androgynous and other times let her curls fall out so she could yell, “godverdomme!”, which was “Godamnit” in Dutch.

Her friends called her “gek,” which, in The Netherlands, means “crazy.”

She liked older women, though it was not clear why.

I found her sweet, charming and inscrutably kind, and the geographical confusion issue, which I had discussed with my shrink, sunk into the background during our flirtatious moments.

“What are you doing now?” Vivian asked.

“Thinking about you.”

“And what are you wearing?” she prodded, as if it were a nuclear secret that the Russians and Americans were already sharing.

“My blanket!” I texted.

She howled back, “that’s sexy!,” with a smiley face.

After viewing porn, I’d circle my brain and kindle the fires with her photo. The one with the hat. It was euphoric.

*

Some people, like my friend Eddie, do “live site, not onsite,” and call their choice “old school,” even if it means, as it did for me, meeting drunk poontang in Jersey City women’s bars. Though sloppy and wobbly, you know what you are taking home. Or at least you think you do.

I’d bring girls home, read them excerpts from Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Sox, endear them to my inferior social skills, and get laid. Seuss and Heineken made a great night of fun, and though it was not cyberspace, the reality was that it was over in 12 hours. At least with cyberspace you can endure a fictitious affair for a week.

“I’m not able to sleep at night,” Vivian via Wisconsin via Amsterdam texted me.

“Oh boy,” I replied, feeling the pangs and intimacies of love through the iPhone, “I wish there was something I could do.”

“There is….”

“What dear? How may I give you greater comfort in the evening?”
I had already checked out the Priceline.com tickets for Madison, Wisconsin, which were slightly cheaper than Amsterdam.

There was a brief pause and then she wrote back.

“Financial.”

I stopped breathing momentarily. I thought this only happened once every ten years via the internet. But it had been ten years.

The Muslim prayers were failing me.

All the support I received on Facebook had been for naught.

“I’m sorry,” I wrote her back quickly, recalling the Illinois Aryan/Hispanic hottie who had solicited money for her dying mother in Africa, “I cannot help.”

I then deleted her profile and text number from all associated sites and devices.

I proceeded to the girl who resembles my ex but needs plastic surgery; who, though also on the internet, was a subway ride away. The problem was, unlike the Dutch girl, the girl who needed plastic surgery waited a week each time she responded.

“I’m not having an affair with a turtle,” I told my psychiatrist.

“No, reptilian love is not what it’s cracked up to be,” he laughed. This must be psychiatric humor.

I said nothing.

“Didn’t you suspect that someone who kept switching continents might not exist?” he asked.
I nodded.

“Good night.” I went for the door.

“Why are you leaving?” he said. “You have ten more minutes.”

“Do you think that ten minutes will transform me?”

I grinned and signed my check.

“Here ya go,” I gave it to him, “I’ll text if anything comes up.”

“Are you sure?” he prodded me. “What about that woman Cindy who wrote you?”

“She puts makeup on cadavers.”

“And?”

“She prefers the dead.”

“Oh,” he murmured from his seat, the place where he deliberated my life, which frequently came from the internet.


Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, Litro, The Toronto Quarterly, Literateur, The Denver Quarterly, SRPR, Wigleaf, The Breakwater Review, Bull (Men’s Fiction), The Forward, and decomP; forthcoming work in Switchback, Artemis, and Willard & Maple. Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was published by Unsolicited Press.

Something Like a Life Force

A couple of Fang’s fingertips are all bloody and he’s waving them around saying, “Put your mouth where your money is, put it here, right here!” and we’re telling him he’s not making sense, but none of us really care about his logic because he’s chasing us around the room with those two fingers pointed at us like fat daggers. There are maroon streaks all over the walls and all I can think is Mom’s gonna kill herself if she sees it. Krista is screaming like a trapped rabbit, but no amount of screaming can save her from getting her face painted tonight. Before long Fang’s on her, and she tumbles down, putting her hands up to shield her face. Fang’s laughing, laughing, gasping for air he’s laughing so hard because Krista’s got red lines all over her cheeks and orange blotches in her blonde hair.

“Open up for a taste?” Fang says, but before he can force Krista’s mouth open, Waddle’s on him, tackling him to the yellow carpet.

Waddle shoves something into Fang’s face and says, “Here, here, your meds,” and then I see the little stick of chalk pass like a joint from Waddle’s hand to Fang’s.

Fang says, “You know me,” and then looks at me with a grin as wide as a banana and says, “He went to Jared!” before he backs away, cradling the chalk as carefully as he might an egg.

“You did it,” I say to Waddle and the left side of his face pinches into a satisfied wink.

Krista climbs to her knees and says, “Not soon enough,” and Waddle and I laugh.

I blink away my high, red sparklers creeping into the periphery of my vision, and see out the front window to the three vehicles in the driveway: My rusty Cavalier, Fang’s Corolla, and Waddle’s S-10, where he and Krista slept last night, burrowing into one another in the truck bed. I imagine driving down the dirt road toward the water, accelerating through the Dead End sign, and crashing into the lake. I sink to the bottom and Krista regrets what could have been between us.

Fang’s in the corner of the living room chomping on the chalk and sucking blood off his fingers.

“Sicko,” Krista says, but she’s smiling too and my God I want her so bad. There’s just something about the blood all over her, the disheveled look of her hair all splayed out this way and that, the half-insane smile — lips pursed so tightly they appear bloodless and eyes round as coins — that she shares publicly once in a while, and all I wanna be is the tongue that scrapes her teeth out.

I turn from the window, cross my left leg beneath me on the couch, and stare at her. I want her to know but don’t want to tell her. I just drill my eyes into her eyes and when she looks at me I think, Let me fall into you, half hoping she’ll read my mind.

Waddle helps her to her feet and she brushes off her thighs as if she’s just climbed out of a ditch. Waddle says, “You’re okay,” and she smiles up at him in a not-so-half-insane way this time, like the way you’d look at your new house if someone just built one for no reason except to make you happy.

Fang’s in the corner in all his glory, and I’m on the other side of the room pretending I like being alone. I say, “You gave him too much,” hoping to throw a wrench in Waddle’s game because I really don’t want Waddle and Krista to kiss. I’m not sure I can handle it tonight, not anymore, not since a few nights ago when Waddle asked me if he should tell Krista he loves her and something like a life force ejected out of me and twisted up into the clouds forever. I’d told him to do whatever he wanted and he just sat there with his arms wrapped around his knees nodding his head and looking up at the stars as though he’d seen that chunk of me fly away.

“Too much chalk?” says Waddle.

“Too much powder.”

“Powder,” he says and glances at Fang and shrugs. “No more than yesterday.” He looks back at me and cocks an eyebrow. “You were there. You saw. You helped.”

But Waddle is clearly mistaken because that’s what this weird powder does to you. I mean it fucks with your head and gives you these memories that aren’t even real and floods you with so much confusion you feel like you might drown in it.

I’m off somewhere that feels like a warm spring afternoon and buds are splitting open at the tips of all these branches, until Krista’s voice breaks off the atmosphere and floats down to me. “Hey, listen to me, hey, hey. What’s happening to him? Hey, Fang?”

I say, “What is it?” but I really wanna tell her Fuck Fang, I can’t live without you.

Waddle’s eyes go wide and he points. “His fingers! Jesus, his fingers, what!”

Fang must’ve finished the chalk because it’s gone but there’s a pool of blood the size of his head with two fingers sitting atop it like a couple hot dogs in ketchup. Fang’s unconscious and his mouth is open in a way that says he’s sleeping soundly.

A jolt of fear makes me levitate for a second and I say, “Did he bite them off? How much did we give him?”

“No more than I took. Or you.”

“What about me?” Krista says.

Waddle starts investigating and before long he says, “It doesn’t look like he chewed them off. Probably just fell off.”

“Somehow,” I say.

Krista sinks down to a seated position and leans against the far wall as if she’s trying to push her way through a portal. Looking at her makes me remember going to that Tampa beach with her last year. We were so happy and together we didn’t even know we were in love.

But the memory drips away like wet paint, and I say, “Wait, do you remember the ocean?” and Krista points her blue eyes at me and frowns in a way that makes me feel I’ve spent my whole life being wrong.

Waddle says, “This blood for sure won’t come out.”

“Mom’s gonna hate it.”

Waddle wrinkles his forehead and says, “Why do you still live with your mom?”

“Free rent? Food? Booze?”

“And powder,” Waddle whispers.

Krista says, “Wait, what ocean?” but I can’t answer because before my eyes Fang’s ear slides off his head and lands on the carpet gruesome side up.

“Get away from him!” I say and Waddle snaps his head over to see what I’m talking about and then backs away so quickly he tumbles over his own feet, and as he lands I hear a wet crack, and then Waddle yells out and reaches his right hand around to clutch his left elbow. Red rivulets stream off his arm, painting designs in the carpet that remind me of Jackson Pollock.

“I broke it,” he says and I can tell by the sound of his voice that his teeth are clenched. “Oh God, it’s bad.”

“It’s the powder,” I say. “It’s changing us.”

Krista says, “The bottle’s in the fridge. I hid it in the fridge.” She pulls her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around them. Tears sparkle in her eyes as she stares at Waddle.

I go to her, lean down to hug her, but she leans away from me. I remind her that we grew up together and that it’s okay, but she says, “I grew up in Indiana.” I almost tell her I did too, but then remember that we’re at my mom’s house on the shore of Lake Superior, and that yesterday we found an unlabeled brown beer bottle, its neck cracked near the corked mouth, floating in the swampy part that has cattails, and when we uncorked it there was a note inside and all this green powder that came spilling out like salt. The paper had browned edges and the ink was a little blotchy. The blotches were the bluest thing I’d ever seen, so blue that when Waddle read the note out loud I didn’t pay much attention. Now I remember broken English and something about “they found us,” “this is all the green we have left,” and “spread the news.” Waddle said the note was signed by someone named Vitali and that it was dated April, 1985, which was over seventeen years ago. Waddle also said the guy was stationed on the Slate Islands and I remember thinking No one lives out there.

I’m in a warm springy place again where the dirt is all tilled up around me and vegetable seeds are popping audibly. Then I feel Krista nudge me and she says, “You’re losing the time, you keep snapping off,” and her face is all tear-streaked and gorgeous and it takes all my resolve to keep from putting my hands on her.

She points and says, “Look,” and I do, and I’m filled with a warm, wet revulsion because the yellow carpet is spangled with enormous brown bloodstains, and Fang is just a heap of body parts now—a hand here, a toe there, his nose. There’s an eye and it’s as big as a golf ball and the copper iris is turned up towards the ceiling, and the optic nerve is trailing out like a bright red nightcrawler. There are ribs and flesh and nails and little pelts of hair and shiny bones and all this goo, goo so dark it reminds me of motor oil, and it takes a flash of comprehension to acknowledge that it’s blood, all of it, every last drop drained from Fang’s body. Off to the side, as if out of nowhere, it’s a tooth, a singular pointy tooth, off-white and still moist, with tiny pink flecks of grue on it.

Krista lets out a sound like a miserable hum and she clutches me suddenly. Waddle is unconscious, his mouth open in a perfect circle, and there are pieces of him sliding away, his fingernails all red and cracked and loose at the edges. The broken bone protrudes from his skin, slipping out of an area above his elbow. He is missing fingers, his ears are on the floor beside him, and there is an overripe rotten-fruit smell in the air. Something is burning my eyes and my mouth feels so dry, but Krista is holding me, she’s so warm, so soft, her head against my shoulder, shuddering, and I think, I wanted this so bad.

I’m on the beach out back and I’m dipping my toes in the lake and the air is like freshly baked bread and the water feels cold enough to change the world, and….

Krista is shaking me and saying something about being sorry for not taking any powder and lying about it, and am I listening, wake up, wake up, wake up! I sit forward and my head feels loose, I can feel my bones turning to oatmeal. The end is near but I’m still conscious. Thank you Krista thank you thank you thank you….

My shoes are on and I feel a little bean shaking around in my left one. I rip my shoe off and there’s blood all over my sock. I pull the sock off slowly, like pulling off dead skin, and Krista lets out a little cry that fills me with a despair so crippling I want to set fire to something. My pinky toe comes tumbling out of the sock. It rolls a few inches across the carpet like a marble.

I reach out to Krista, but she backs away, crawling backwards across the floor. I move towards her because I need her. Please don’t leave me alone please don’t. She bangs into the wall and turns her head and closes her eyes and lets out this shriek that might shatter a vase. Then I’m on her, grasping, trying to force my fingers to grip her shirt tighter, but they keep wobbling around like loose teeth. She manages to escape me and the fingers on my right hand scatter across the floor like flower petals. She loves me, she loves me not.

She stands over me sobbing. I want so badly to get to my feet, but I am on my back and wobbly as rubber. Bright sunshine creeps in at the corners of my vision. She is there and she is keeping me here.

She says, “Say something, Shithead, please talk,” and so I work my jaw muscles and even though it feels like my face is melting away like wax and my teeth are jiggling and making odd clicking sounds, I manage to say, “I can’t live without you. I can’t live without you.”

Krista kneels beside me. A tear slips away from her cheek, splashes onto my cheek, and I can feel the impact drilling a hole in my face. I feel very warm and happy. She is on her beach towel and the sun is sparkling off her skin and she’s smiling, smiling, and I can picture her eyes behind those sunglasses, she has such happy eyes, and then I hear her say, “Oh shit. Your mom’s home.”


Paul Anderson earned his MFA in 2015 from University of Arkansas-Monticello. His short story collection, Model Citizens, is available from Wordpool Press. His work has also appeared in Cardinal Sins, Temenos, Gravel, and Reader’s Digest, among others. He has the good fortune to teach at Central Michigan University where he hopes to instill a universal appreciation for the Oxford comma. Paul also entertains dreams of the word “chuckle” being eradicated from the English language.

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