Fiction Archive

Crown of the Valley (FICTION CONTEST 2016 HONORABLE MENTION)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*          *          *

 

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

 

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

 

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

*          *          *

 

Shooting stars of titanium hurtling toward the earth.

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

atmosphere.

*          *          *

 

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

 

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

*          *          *

            Gasping for breath,

blood and mucus filling your lungs,

a piece of aluminum shrapnel severing your space suit,

slashing across your jugular vein.

*          *          *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*          *          *

            A hissing sigh as your lungs compress,

as you fall.

A speck of flaming nothingness,

incinerated.

A single sour flake of ash lands on my tongue.

*          *          *

 

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

 

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

 

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

*          *          *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

______________________________________________

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

A Hole in the Wall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

            ***

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

 

I was his favorite.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That was years ago.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The two of us nod in unison.

 

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

 

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

 

“Sure, lay it on me,” Ricky replies.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Why smile?

 

“Yes, go ahead,” I reply.

 

He coughs.

 

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

 

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

 

“Ok. What did he want?” I ask.

 

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

 

A jolt of bile climbs my throat.

 

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

 

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

 

He wasn’t rambling after all.

 

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

 

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

 

I hate when Ricky tries to use logic.

 

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

 

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

 

“Well, uh…”

 

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

 

“Maybe he had hopes,” Ricky replies.

 

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

 

“You better read those.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Of course I…”

 

“He’d do it for us if we asked him.”

 

“Maybe if you asked him.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

***

 

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

 

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

 

I’ll call him when I’m done.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

***

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes, I was just…” I begin to say.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Would you mind giving me your name?”

 

“Gordon Brown,” I lie.

 

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

 

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

***

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I will,” I reply.

 

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

***

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Click.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His voice urges me to go.

 

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

***

 

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

 

______________________________________________

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

Loves You To Death

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

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

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

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

“Did we?”

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

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

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

“We have.”

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

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

“You know how I hate the city.”

“To a home outside the city then.”

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

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

“I’m sure we didn’t,” she said.

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

“Ready for another drink?” Turner asked.

“Not quite, sweetheart.”

“Well, at least think about it.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Shopping?” Turner suggested.

“Where would you like to go?”

“Anywhere you like.”

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

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

“Do they have mysteries?”

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

“Is it far? It’s so cold out.”

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

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

“Everything’s so beautiful,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christ!” he cried out.

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

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

“What?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Of course,” Turner sighed.

“I’m sorry. I’m ruining everything.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“—or remarries!”

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

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

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

Turner instantly regretted saying this.  

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

***

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

She asks you that?

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

“I’d like to poison that cat.”

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

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

“Let’s go,” she said.

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Is everything alright?”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, there is one thing,” he said.

“Yes?”

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

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

“I’m having an affair.”

“No!”

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

“How did you meet?”

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

“How much younger?”

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

“Turner! Do you still see her?”

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

“And Jessica has no idea?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________

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

Rickies

Ricky Q

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

 

Ricky B

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

 

Ricky Q

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

 

Ricky V

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

 

Ricky Q

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

 

Ricky B

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

 

Ricky V

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

 

Ricky Q

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

 

Ricky V

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

 

Ricardo

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

______________________________________________

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

“The Front Seat”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It feels good, eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“School has been going okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Abbey, have you gained weight?”

“I, I, I don’t think so.”

“Well, are your clothes tight?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“You look heavier to me.”

“What?”

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

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

Pig.

My teeth clenched. Tears pooled. Sweat leaked.

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

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

“Is that true Abbey?”

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

“Staying away from the cookies and candy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s newsie?” (News+New=Newsie.)

“I got an A on my history paper.”

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

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

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

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

“I want to take the bus again.”

This newsie startled her. “Mais pour quoi?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s not it,” I interrupted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spin the Bottle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________

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

“First Confession”

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

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

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

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

Who made me?

God made me.

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

Where is God?

God is everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ask your mother.”

“I know what it is.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

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

“Daddy, what’s the cold war?”

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

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

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

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

“Our beloved Sister Paul Anna has taken ill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sister Paul Anna,

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Angie Rubio

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

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

Dear Angie,

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

Yours,

Sister Paul Anna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Angie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelda laughed. “I’m just teasing.”

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

“Our mother uses bottles,” Angie said.

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

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

be true. But Nelda confirmed it.

“What about me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My mother had stitches,” Angie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know that’s not the same thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________

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

“Then, Finally, After”

The goal, someone told me, is to make each day different than the one before.

So I heeded the advice and added to my routine that summer half a joint every morning and about a hundred butterscotch candies. For maybe seven months my teeth stung when I ate anything, especially the round ice cubes I liked to chew from the large Cokes at the gas stations.

Why I was able to exist at all, to function in some kind of meaningful way then, finally, after my mother died, was because I was still delivering flowers, and the shop never saw me. All the bouquets would be on the counter in the stockroom, tagged and wrapped. My job was to put them in milk crates, stuff newspaper around them, load them into a pretty un-rusted greenish 1973 Ford Country Sedan, and come back to resupply later, when I was out. Each run, then, took about three hours.

It turns out there was more to my daily responsibilities, but name someone, really, who was going to tell me?

It was fun to spend the morning dealing with that half joint. Maybe fun isn’t the word. Closer to numbing, a kind of two-dimensional thing. The day would turn into only the double yellow and red or green stoplights and some small-town hills and smiling people on doorsteps, or nobody at all, just ring the bell, wait a minute or two and back to the car.

It was 1987, early August. Sometimes I’d smoke the whole thing and the dashboard clock would say 3:15 and I’d wonder if, really, I’d ever have a job like that.

My front passenger was a $65 thing of pink and yellow roses and baby’s breath and I think peonies, and keeping it steady on the floor mat between her legs was Sandersson, two years older, finished with her second year of teacher’s school, home for the summer listening to T. Rex, Aerosmith, learning calligraphy, the bass guitar, reading Kant too much.

It was raining a little. I listened to the tire spray when I wasn’t sure what to say next. I thought about my mother in those washy silences. She wasn’t dead, really, just gone; four states south, no phone number or address. So not dead, but I didn’t see a difference, then.

Sandersson’s younger brother Ryan grew what we smoked in his prep school dorm closet. We were fine all summer and I well into the fall.

How did his dorm attendant not know, or at least have some suspicions?

It doesn’t have to be something new each day, just something different than yesterday: a road you don’t usually drive, order something else for lunch, a slight change to take your mind off her and the new family I imagined she was cooking for at that moment, this moment, every and all moments.

Yeah, ok, I can do that, which meant the cup holder now held M&Ms everyday at 2:00 and my 711 Slushies came with rum and by October three joints might get me to 4:00.

Ten years later, Sandersson would grow up, take a series of principal positions, one even at the school her brother went to that summer. Vanderville? Landerman? Grandville? Something like that, regal enough, with two syllables.

She would also become a man, finally, after what involved an out-of-state hospital, consultations, injections, years of hesitation, waiting rooms, outpatient procedures, every type of therapy. Then, finally, after, she had a new first name, but the same severe jaw and brown eyes with dull gold flecks.

Way before, in college, did her dorm mother know, I wonder, or at least have some suspicions?

I think about those questions now, but at the time, that summer and fall, she was just Sandersson, two years older, and I pretty desperately wanted to sleep with her. But when? Where? We were 18, 20, and the seats were full of all these goddamn flowers.

After she went back to school the passenger was my brother, and we’d hum choruses and share those big bags of pretzel rods, and we’d talk about mom but just enough to make ourselves feel better.

Or he’d be nodding off, glassed over, drifting away from me, you, us, and whatever I’d say would be the exact wrong thing.

Once, driving too fast on snowy roads, I skidded into a snowbank, knocked the fender off and had to pay for it later out of pocket. He never offered to help, seemed unfazed by the incident. And the question I wrestled with, continue to, is: How did I not know, or at least have some suspicions?

There’s no real car accident in this story. Just a conversation. I don’t remember every sentence. We piece things together, we think about before, how we talked, what we wanted, the way we imagine our words probably sounded. But here’s the type of thing Sandersson was on that summer.

“Most things don’t matter unless we make them matter,” she said. “I mean, think about it, right?”

It was all this amateur philosophy then, but it really struck a nice full round kind of 12-string guitar chord when I was so stoned.

“Do these flowers matter?”

“The people who get them assign them meaning,” she said. “They’ve already swept a place clean in their houses, in their hearts, for them to matter.”

“Does this Ford matter?” A Doobie Brothers song started. I switched it off, like, Ok, let’s get some real quiet for a conversation this deep.

“Do you think?”

“I mean, it allows me to deliver these flowers, but that’s it.”

“There you go,” she said. I had no fucking idea what she meant, but remember, these old sedans had lifting armrests, and she was sitting so close her hair would drift in my face on left turns.

Later, after, she’d listen and offer the correct consolations, but then, before, she said, “If you choose to honor the dead, then you just have to commit to that desire, but that’s only if you want to.” She took a long pause, during which I turned the radio back on and right away we got Joe Walsh.

When he was still alive, Sandersson’s dad had “real problems” is how she framed it. He’d just died the previous winter fighting a fire in a textile warehouse the next state up.

She said, harshly, “The dead go away. They live, they die, that’s it.” In my memory, the way I decide now to see it, she’s crying, a perfect little crystalline drop down her sharp left cheek.

This song kept going, verse chorus verse bridge solo another verse.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok, relax,” I told her. “Take it easy. ”I still wanted to sleep with her but she could be so stubborn and unforgiving. And even if I was only two years younger and my mom wasn’t around, I held on to an idea that the world was soft, like a plush padded basket you could sit in and eventually it would fill up with exactly what you needed, if you just waited long enough, sitting.

Cold and persistent and always had to be right. Still though, she’d hook her arm in mine on the walk to the doorsteps, and it would make it so much harder to hold these huge flower arrangements steady, but I never said a thing.

After, almost a decade later, when I started working for Sandersson, she, now he, would listen to the new tragedy, understand, give me paid leave, organize it so different teachers brought over dishes in Tupperware with heating directions for two full weeks. She’d get the faculty to fill my desk with cards.

Each new day something different: unfiltered cigarettes, clove cigarettes, plastic-tipped cigars, driving barefoot, a blue nylon fake fur trapper hat, denim jacket, books on tape.

We never did do anything, Sandersson and I. We kissed I guess, that winter, for a minute against the washing machine at this girl’s party, but that went nowhere. It was the wrong time, the wrong room, the wrong party, the wrong season, dynamic, outfits, music, circumstances, people. She went back after the holiday break and I saw her the way you see people, occasionally.

Sandersson and my mother were both gone and I wanted them back. It was like young love, in a way. One sided. Total longing, unrequited. Or requited but just not in the same way. Or stuck in every gear at once, flying down the road, stoned, seeing everything so fucking clearly. Or bucking, coughing to slow at a yellow light, sputtering out in the suburbs, walking from the gas station with a red canister, chewing on ice cubes, smoking a cigarette like, Fine, let the ash travel into the can, let the whole thing go up.

______________________________________________

Matt Liebowitz earned degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and Skidmore College, and has studied with Steven Millhauser, Ha Jin, and Martha Cooley. He’s published stories in 236, Crack the Spine, Clare, and Fiction Southeast. Matt teaches middle school English in Encinitas, California.

“First Draft”

To whom it may concern:

I write to recommend Mr. Anthony Mills, an enterprising young man who served our company last summer as an intern in the Accounting Department. As the vice president in charge of said department, I supervised Mr. Mills in his duties and can therefore confirm that his work was above average.

Mr. Mills showed great ambition from his very first day here at Kleckner-Lawson. At first, he was given simple tasks, such as filing forms and restocking supplies. He expressed a desire to experience the full nature of our work, however, so I tasked him with collecting and tallying daily financial reports from our international locations. I found his calculations to be free of errors, a commendable accomplishment for any employee, let alone a college intern.

In addition to his accounting skills, Mr. Mills proved himself to be a gracious and friendly colleague willing to help and support others. He would frequently bring coffee for the entire office, and most nights he worked overtime to ensure that all of the day’s goals were fulfilled. I would typically stay late as well and assign him other jobs as necessary. He never hesitated to accept these assignments and was not afraid to ask questions; these all-too-rare traits were perhaps the main reasons why he was so successful in his internship, and why he was able to provide me with consistent, complete, and satisfying orgasms.

Many interns come and gone in our department, but few leave a lasting impression. Mr. Mills is an exception.

With no other interns have I had such thought-provoking discussions as those Mr. Mills and I shared when we were alone late at night, lying together on my office couch. Topics included his aspirations to become a successful musician, my own experiences at college as a music student, the subsequent years in which I settled into a corporate management position, and the possibility of my quitting and returning to former passions. Mr. Mills was always attentive, consoling me and offering kind words. He served as a stark contrast to my husband, who did not even call to find out what was keeping me so late.

Mr. Mills was extremely astute; he understood my subtle suggestions that we continue our relationship outside of the workplace and acted upon them with tact and precision. We would spend long weekends at his apartment in the West End, eating takeout and watching reality television while smoking marijuana cigarettes. I played my old songs on his guitar. Tony listened with his eyes closed, gently nodding. We discussed venturing outside to see movies, concerts, and other events, but I was fearful of discovery, so we stayed inside lounging together in bed. During these times away from the office, I found Tony to be at his absolute best, going far above and beyond what I had previously experienced from a colleague.

At the end of his internship, Tony returned to college, where he had decided to study accounting. I did not agree with this action. On the morning of our final day, I called him into my office and inquired as to whether his time at Kleckner-Lawson had impacted him as it had me. He said that it had, but in a different manner. He had realized that he did not wish to waste his years pursuing a dream he was unlikely to attain; that while he could have fun in college, it would soon be over and he would have to contend with “the real world”; and that he was ready to grow up and move on. I informed him that he had arrived at the incorrect sum—that, in fact, there was nothing worthwhile in “the real world” and that it was better to remain hopeful. He disagreed in no uncertain terms. When I asked him to lower his voice, he said it was too late for secrets, because the entire office already knew, because he had gone and told them and passed around our notes and showed off certain belongings I had stupidly left in his apartment because I didn’t think he would parade them around like some high school jock. I did not react in a calm manner and he eventually departed.

It was his only lapse as an employee. After leaving, he showed a willingness to correct his errors by not returning, and by not answering when I called and showed up at his apartment at one in the morning. He had a friend receive all enquiries, relaying the message that it was better for us to not meet or speak ever again. Though I did not concur at the time, the following months have allowed me to see the value in his decision, which has enabled us to continue our lives as they had been previous. For what it is worth, my time with Mr. Mills has left me rejuvenated, and, when I am able to ignore the whispers and glances from my colleagues, I am much more productive. There have even been moments when I do not recall Mr. Mills and his brand of cologne, his soft and full lips, the youthful strength of his arms, the sweet naïveté in his face. I was not even thinking of him when he sent me a formal email requesting this letter of recommendation, the ultimate reason for which I did not and will not ask.

I will not.

In summation, Mr. Mills is more than capable of any position for which you may be evaluating him. Should you have any questions, please contact me at the number below at any hour. I frequently work late.

Sincerely,
Emily Stallsman
Vice President
Accounting Department
Kleckner-Lawson

______________________________________________

Justin Muschong is a writer based in Astoria, Queens. He has contributed to Resource Magazine and Alternating Current’s The Spark, and his short stories have appeared in Newtown Literary and Atticus Review. As a screenwriter, his films have earned distinction at several international festivals.

“Hands and Fists”

It’s fists that make us men. Human fingers curl in on themselves, the thumb folding over the outside. We attack, not with open hands, but with the force of the knuckles. We are advanced. I stood in an apartment over looking downtown Chicago with a woman, Charley, who told me how she used to be a man. She was 6’ tall and wore a tight black dress. I was wearing dark wash jeans and a button down shirt. I’d been asking her about her transition when she turned to me and asked, “Are you— do you want to be a man?” I looked down at my work boots and cracked my knuckles. “I’m happy,” I said. She touched my shoulder and we walked to the balcony. Earlier in the night she asked if I thought anyone could love a woman who had the anatomy of a man. “You’re beautiful,” I told her and I meant it. But it felt like I was telling her, “You’re more of a woman than I will ever be.”

 

When my brother first moved into the group home with six other men, I learned the power of hands. It was a man named Adam, whose arms were held in casts that went from his wrists to past his elbows. He’d broken his arms when he repeatedly smashed his fists into the walls of his new room. He didn’t stop when the bones broke. He kept hitting until two men were able to subdue him. At least that’s what my mother told me. Adam’s hands were swollen and stained with bruises, I remember that much. And as we unpacked my brother’s things, I couldn’t help but think about how Adam’s fists had withstood the beating in a way his arms could not.

 

There are 27 bones in the human hand. The first time I ever got punched, I was eight and Keith Durbach was ten. Maybe eleven. There was a rumor that he got held back, but I was never sure if my sister just said that to make me feel better. We called him Keith Dirtbag because he rode a BMX bike and popped wheelies going down hill without a helmet. He wore shirts with the sleeves cut off. He punched me in the stomach because we told him boys weren’t allowed to hit girls.

 

Growing up my sister, Rosie, and I were scared of our brother. He was mentally retarded and flew into rages over cold french fries or the sound of a baby crying. We learned to shed silent tears, and how to block kicks and punches. We took self-defense classes and were able to use our fists to break boards. On the first day of karate my sister was sparring with our instructor, he was sixteen and she was ten, he dared her to hit him as hard as she could. She pulled her right arm back and hit him in the stomach. He fell down and told her she was a natural.

 

 

A closed fist hits with three times the power of an open hand slap. I learned that when my sister punched Keith Durbach in the mouth. She and I had been taking self-defense classes and while I sat on the ground with the air knocked out of me she made contact with Keith’s jaw. He started crying before his teeth slammed together. She and I promised not to tell our parents and Keith didn’t want to tell his, either. He said he couldn’t believe he had gotten punched by a girl.

 

 

 

When I learned about Darwin and evolution, Man was always at the top. My teachers always said it was because humans knew how to use tools, were cunning creatures. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if that meant we killed better than any other animal. I was taught that chimpanzees were the most aggressive species of ape. They physically beat one another, scratch and pull with their hands and feet. David Carrier, a biology professor at the University of Utah believes that humans are more aggressive than chimps. He says that the fist, a hand position that apes cannot make, is an integral part of human aggression. Fists and closed hands punching are more likely to result in injury to bones, teeth, eyes, and jaw.

 

The eight carpal bones rest in that area we call the wrist. Tendons and muscle fibers connect them to the ulna and the radius. It’s there that a nerve pinches and makes my little finger go numb. My whole palm gets numb too sometimes. When I went to the doctor the first time and told him, he hit my hand with a reflex hammer and asked me what I felt. I told him needles. Thousands of needles. In seventh grade our science class did an experiment on nerve sensitivity. In pairs we each took dulled needles and ran them over our partners’ palm and then up their fingers while they looked away. The exercise was supposed to be in how quickly we felt the sensation. Then with two or three needles we’d place them on the back of the hand, then the palm, and then the finger tips to see if our partner could tell how many needles were touching their skin. The fingertips are always the most sensitive. The palm will tickle. The back will never know what is needling it.

 

There are 1,500 nerve receptors per centimeter on the fingertip. But I’ve also seen it cited at 2,500 per centimeter. The first time I touched another girl in the way I was told I’d touch a boy, my face flushed and my hands shook uncontrollably. The girl I was with told me I knew just how to touch her, and I didn’t want to tell her that I couldn’t have stopped my hands even if I’d wanted to. She told me that girls are better than boys at touching. She said that girls feel things better than boys as I traced small circles on her skin and I didn’t want to tell her that my hand was numb.

 

The thumb is positioned lower on the human hand than on apes. This positioning is what makes the thumb opposable, the only digit of the hand that can touch the others. After living with my girlfriend, Emily, she bought me a punching bag. We named the punching bag Barry and filled its base with 200 pounds of sand. I learned how to wrap my hands with cotton straps so that my knuckles were padded and wrists stabilized. For the first few days I hit Barry so hard that his base would lift off the ground and rock back hard against the wood floor. I got used to the rhythm, the way the plastic dug into the floor, the way the cotton wraps pulled tight over my knuckles with each hit. It took a while for the blood to soak through the wraps, and leave little red marks on the bag. But I didn’t really take note of it until I unwrapped my hands and the air hit my split knuckles.

 

 

When my sister hit Keith Durbach, I was scared of her. She learned early, from our brother, how anger and strength work together. When my sister moved out for college, I went into her room and saw small indents in her wall from where her knuckles hit. She always hit close to corners where the sheetrock was layered over studs. I’m not sure why she did it, or what she got out of it. When my mother asked me to help paint the room a lighter shade, I woke up early to fill in the dents but first I put my own fists in the impressions.

 

In the winter, my knuckles split open. It is as if my skin ages years as the cold dry air does its damage. I never use lotion, or at least not with the frequency that would do me any good. They are rough hands, giving off the impression of being important. Hands that feel busy, hardened over time with work. They’re not. The callouses settle around my middle and index finger from holding a pen, a bit of toughened scar tissue at the tip of my left pointer finger from a knife accident in the kitchen. A skidding rip in the skin covers my knuckles from where I let them bounce off the brick walls of apartment complexes. I am always walking with my hands dragging against the facades of buildings.

 

I suspect I am not a terribly good woman. Or man. Too weak probably to fit into either category. I’m always too concerned with how other people read me to have any idea of who I am. I bite my cuticles and nails until I bleed. I wonder still what makes a man a man, a woman a woman, and where I fit. There are days when old men call me sir, when women call me beautiful and correct to say handsome. I smile and nod at all of them. I worry a day will come when someone will hate me for what I am on the outside, if maybe I will look like something they fear or hate.

 

There is a provocative nature to hands—fingers—finger. The act, the placement. On a Tuesday afternoon in college my roommate asked me how lesbians have sex, asked if it was anything like the smashing movement of her two ‘V’ shaped fingers crashing into one another. I told her no and said it worked better if you kept your fingers together or used your tongue. She blushed and I gave her the finger that begs of people to leave one alone.

 

In middle school, my group of friends would compare the lengths of our index and ring fingers because there was an article that said those fingers could predict penis size. A longer ring finger implied a more endowed male, and being a group of girls with nothing better to do, we took to doing evaluations of our hypothetical penis lengths. I have a long ring finger. A team of Dutch and Spanish scientists studying the difference of those two fingers noted that men typically have longer ring fingers, while women have longer index. They write of masculine and feminine traits and the presence of estrogen and testosterone in the womb. I think my fingers may have known something about me before I’d ever let them wander. But then it’s all undermined, all my deep symbolism. They say a layperson cannot accurately know the lengths of their fingers without x-rays.

 

When Charley asked me if I wanted to be a man, I touched my knuckles. My right hand has a faded scar between the first and second knuckle. I’ve never punched someone outside some self-defense training, but even then there was a thick foam pad between us. When I said I was happy, she told me that was an admirable thing to be. We were standing on her balcony looking at the lake. She told me that every payday she goes to a jewelry store in Evanston and picks up a new ring. She said that wearing big rings makes her hands look smaller, and that it’s always the hands that give her away. Then she laughed and said that sometimes she worries about people coming after her because of who she is and that it would probably hurt getting hit by a fist full of rings.

 

My father has the hands of a doctor, soft and cold. His skin is that of an old man, that near translucency that happens as the fat wastes away form the top of the hands. He tells me how easy it is to track the way hands age by pinching at the skin on the top of the hand and seeing how quickly it snaps back. I pinch at the top of my hand, pull at the skin until it hurts and release. It lays down fast, perfect. When he pinches his, it freezes. A ridge, a peak of skin remains. He makes a fist and the skin goes taut.

 

When I was a dishwasher for a summer job in high school, my hands were red and raw from the cleaning solution. I realized that my hands were weak, that the combination of hot water and soap made them crack and split open. Today my hands are worn. Dried and cracked, but always wet underneath. Once a woman at a fair read my palm. She had a sign that said see into your future and when will you find true love?. She said that there was water in my lifeline and I asked her what that meant. She said I should wipe my hands on my pants more, so I do.

 

I’ve always wanted to be old, to wake up one morning and have lived a full life and be able to tell stories about my marriage and kids and broken down cars and getting through hard times and good times. Hands age fast, scar easily, wrinkle. When I look at my hands, they are the only part of my body I have no complaint about. When I stood on Charley’s balcony, I gripped the railing and felt a cold sting. I asked her what it meant to be a women and she said she wanted to be seen as beautiful, sexy, to be desired. I forgot in that moment that there are many ways to be a woman, and felt very small.

 

Fingers curve. The metacarpals are flat on the top, but curve on the bottom, helping us form a fist. Our fingers are never perfectly straight. They hug inward towards the middle. I have small fat fingers with light brown hairs on my knuckles. My middle fingers curve outward, leaning over my ring fingers. I see my hands, understand them perhaps, only when I stare at them. But I am not sure if you were to show me a picture of my hands that I would recognize them as a man’s or a woman’s. I am not sure I would know them as my own.

______________________________________________

Michelle Cabral is a writer living in Chicago, IL. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program. Her work can be found in Gertrude Press, Paradigm Journal and various other small outlets.

“Survivor Summer”

The boy in the green sweatshirt has written “keep your daughters home tonight” on the note he gives Eva to pass to Doug French. She does pass it, while Mr. Houpt writes on the whiteboard: “Teens and Violence” in blue letters. No daughters need protection from Doug French, Eva would like to write in a note to someone, but she only knows Mia Huff, whose hair spikes like broken glass. Summer school is a very particular kind of hell.

“Teen violence is on the rise in America.” Mr. Houpt sputters and whistles like a gigantic teapot.

He hands out an article about bullying and writes an essay topic on the board. Eva draws a cartoon of Mr. Houpt as a teapot.

“Have any of you had experience with teen violence?” Mr. Houpt puts his hands on his hips, so his shirt tightens across his shoulders. “Who’s been bullied? Who’s bullied someone?”

Eva draws flames under Mr. Houpt the teapot. Mia’s voice rings like sunshine.

“I’ll be honest,” Mia says. “I’ve beaten up two girls in this room.” She points to Kenda Wells, recently emigrated from Ghana. “I kicked her ass.” Mia points again. “And, that one. She knows better than to mess with me now.”

Eva feels them looking, but she keeps drawing flames, then clouds of steam, then zigzag lines to indicate heat.

“Well,” Mr. Houpt splutters. Eva imagines his thoughts bubbling like boiling water. He passes the whiteboard marker from one hand to another. “Maybe we should hear from the other side. What was it like for you?”

Kenda gives a short, courteous reply, but Eva doesn’t look up, doesn’t even mumble. She will read the article, will write an essay, but she will never admit to anything.

***

Ira leaves for Fort Benning at the end of the summer. Each paycheck from the Getty Station adds another item to the pile of socks, Q-Tips, and undershirts at the foot of his bed. Their mother sews tags with the word “Falkenrath” into the backs of his underwear. Eva sits with her on the patio and watches her mother’s fingers manipulate the needle, watches the jar of sun tea darken on the railing.

“I don’t know why I want to put this name on everything,” Eva’s mother says. “Especially since it’s not even our name.”

What she means is that it is their father’s name. He lives in Virginia and has not sent a check since Ira’s fifth birthday. Her father had a beard and a gun, and Eva was not allowed to touch either.

“If someone I knew as a child tried to contact me,” her mother says, “they would never be able to find me under this name. It’s as though I no longer exist.”

What she means is that when Ira cuts his hair and crawls in the mud, if something happens and he becomes unrecognizable, the name will tell which home he belongs to.

“You don’t want to talk to anyone from your hometown anyway,” Eva says. What she means is that maybe Ira will change his mind.

Aside from the mound of basic training supplies in his room, nothing about Ira has changed since the envelope with the official seal arrived. His hair spills like honey over his shoulders, and Eva, whose hair frazzles into a million split ends, sometimes says snide things she doesn’t mean. Ira hasn’t lifted weights or gone jogging, hasn’t done any of the strength-building exercises in the green packet. Afternoons, Ira and Chesney go to the lake, where they throw the Nerf football and drink beer under the pine trees.

“You should be worried,” she tells him one night when he’s grilling hamburgers. “You’ve seen the boot camp movies.”

“Didn’t I just sit through your high school graduation?” He flips the meat. “I thought they taught you not to take television seriously.”

“They gave me a rolled up piece of cardstock at graduation. I thought you’d know that ceremonies don’t mean anything.”

They’ve never been a television family. Even last year’s Y2K scare couldn’t convince them to watch the news. They are not a family that has “shows”; no one ever leaves the TV yammering to the empty living room, and so, Eva is surprised when her mother brings up Survivor.

“It’s a new trend in television.” Her mother bites a thread. “They put people on an island and record them trying to survive. The last person left gets a million dollars.”

“What kind of people?” Eva asks.

Her mother shrugs, and the strap of her sundress falls from her shoulder. “People like us.” What she means is that there are only a few months left.

 

***

Mr. Houpt puts the three of them together: Kenda, Eva, Mia, and also Doug French because the groups are supposed to have four people. The worksheet tells them to explore and draw conclusions about the influence of television on teen violence. Doug French will talk about boxing and wrestling. Kenda will talk about the news. Mia will ignore Mr. Houpt’s suggestion to examine television coverage of the upcoming Bush/Gore election and focus instead on talk shows.

“Have you heard about that new Survivor show?” Mr. Houpt asks. “Which of you will talk about that?”

Mia swivels in her chair to whisper to Eva. “Did you know I’m dating Chesney’s brother? So you and I, we’re practically family now.” She has small teeth, like kernels of corn.

Eva copies the notes from the board and makes a to-do list in the margin. She will watch Survivor, will prepare a presentation, will write an essay, will clean the bathroom. She will make chocolate caramel muffins for Ira.

She will never smile at Mia Huff. In front of her, Mia’s silver hoop earrings dangle and bob above her shoulders. It would be easy to reach forward, to grab the metal and pull.

***

Each contestant brings a personal item onto the island. Most bring journals, bibles, photographs. The oldest woman brings a banjo. The first night, after they’ve laid down the rudiments of shelters, and the camera has panned to show the sunset and the ocean, the woman sings, the notes like small glass ornaments being shattered.

“Wow.” Their mother tucks her feet beneath her on the sofa. “That’s horrible.”

“I’d take a box of waterproof matches,” Eva says. “What’s the point of a journal?”

“I’d take a book about survival strategies,” their mother says.

“I’m sure they don’t let you take that stuff,” Ira says. “They probably don’t even tell you where you’re going.”

Neither team can start a fire. One team passes around a man’s eyeglasses, trying to magnify the sun onto a pile of palm fronds. Both teams compete in a challenge for flint. The camera alternates between shots of the winners around a glimmering fire, and the losers shivering on a dark beach.

“If I knew I were going on this show, I’d practice building a fire with no matches,” Ira says. “I’d pretend I needed glasses, and I’d make sure I knew exactly how to make a fire with them.”

Eva is curious to see how they decide who leaves the island. She keeps waiting for some hidden tally, a ranking of each contestant’s survival skills, and is disappointed when it comes down to a vote. Dramatic music plays as the host extinguishes the loser’s torch. The woman carries her banjo into the dark.

“I guess it’s realistic,” their mother says. “Aren’t the old ones usually first to go?”

“They should’ve kicked out that man with glasses,” Ira says. “He should know how to start a fire.”

“It’s probably harder than it seems,” their mother says.

Ira though, is adamant. “There’s no excuse for going into a situation without preparing for it.”

Eva exchanges a look with her mother.

“What?” Ira says. “What?”

***

Mia Huff is also in summer school for physics. When Eva goes home at noon, Mia has to go to the physics lab, has to conduct experiments with ramps and Slinkys.

“Mr. Barnett is the worst teacher ever,” Mia tells Eva. “It will be his fault if I fail again.”

“Just do the homework,” Eva says. And what she means is that Mr. Barnett gave her an A every semester she had him.

“What do you think?” Kenda Wells asks, meaning her essay.

“I don’t understand why you’re in summer school,” Eva says.

Kenda’s essay discusses violent conflicts in several African nations. Teen violence, she’s written, is by no means desirable. However, on a scale of violent acts, its impact is fairly minimal.

***

Wednesday, Ira brings free weights into the living room.

“Those are ancient.” Their mother frowns. “They belonged to your grandfather.”

Eva picks one up, feels the heft of it. When she hands it back, rust flecks her hands. Ira sits cross-legged on the floor and opens the green packet.

“Biceps, triceps, deltoids,” he reads, and Survivor begins.

Contestants compete for a snorkel and a harpoon, and Eva is surprised that no one is sunburned. Perhaps they are slathered in sunscreen off-camera. A man heads into the ocean with a spear. The caption tells viewers he is a lawyer, and Eva would have guessed from his doughy chest that he worked at a desk. She imagines fish seeing the dark silhouette of his body against the sun. He would look dead, and the fish would swim to him, would nibble his skin. He emerges, and the fish’s white bodies struggle, tails slapping the water.

Other contestants have caught and roasted some rats. A young college student with hair like grass chews on a bone.

Ira looks up from his crunches. “How hard can it be to make a fishing rod?” he asks the student on the television. Then he lies back down. “This sucks,” he says.

Eva wonders if the fish or the rats are endangered, and if the person with the camera would stop them from accidentally eating something poisonous.

That night they vote off an older man with unruly white hair. “We’re a family,” a woman with a mole on her shoulder tells the host. She brushes at a tear. “This is the saddest thing.”

“That’s not realistic,” Ira says. “That guy would’ve outlasted that girl for sure.”

“Definitely,” Eva agrees. What she means is maybe survival isn’t what they think it is at all.

***

The story, if Eva ever told it, would include a tire swing swaying, rider-less. It would include a slide the color of processed cheese and leaves piled on the ground, dry leaves that crackled underfoot like tiny bones.

She would explain how scratches don’t hurt at first, but hours later they smolder, burn ferociously for days.

She could explain how she’d planned to punch and snarl, but then her cheek scraped concrete. An oozing stickiness coated her lips, and she’d shuddered instead, felt her fierceness disappearing into a pain that seemed to belong to someone else’s stomach, another person’s body. The fierceness had gone, and she’d waited, waited two years now, hoping it would come back.

She would also describe the dull, ringing sound that she tried for months to identify. Would describe the night she sat up, bolted awake with the sudden recognition of the thud a flagpole makes when a person is shoved into it. That afternoon, after a long time among the leaves, she looked up to see Ira, felt him touch her arm where the scratches were, felt more thankful than she’d ever felt, and more angry.

“Did you fight back?” he’d asked, and she’d wished him away.

Eva is sure that Mr. Houpt would not understand, would write “relevant?” next to it with his green pen, but she would explain how the cable clanged against the metal flagpole. The wind blew and the cable clanged, and this happened before and during and after. She guesses it is happening now.

***

Chesney comes over on Wednesday nights. He hauls a straight-backed chair from the kitchen and tips it against the wall.

“Eva,” he says, his voice loud, like artillery fire, “Mia says you guys are friends again.”

Eva watches a commercial for carpet deodorizer on the television and says nothing. Chesney snaps his fingers and claps his hands together. This is supposed to make him look relaxed, but he fools no one.

“Is this Mia-” Ira says. He looks at their mother and changes his mind.

Ira has stopped consulting the green packet, which Eva last saw crumpled in the corner of his bedroom. He still goes through the repetitions, the muscles in his shoulders sharper and more defined. Some mornings Eva sees him running in the neighborhood. The first few times, she watched him pass with a kind of hazy familiarity, unable to reconcile this new athlete with the brother who plays video games and smokes pot in the shed. He’s absorbed the strangeness she feels when watching contestants on Survivor.

Oh good, she’s caught herself thinking, he’s still on the island. She wishes goodwill to her brother as though he were an image on a sheet of glass. Then Ira belches or goes to the kitchen and Eva draws her breath in, as if a man on the television were looking back, as if he had spoken to her.

Now, only a few contestants remain on the island. The lawyer has teamed up with the woman with mole and a female truck driver to form a secret alliance to pick off the others. They’ve derailed a wilderness instructor, a river rafting guide, and an Ironman tri-athlete.

“Is there an alliance?” the host asks them at the campfire.

“No,” the lawyer deadpans, a good liar.

“This show is so unrealistic,” Ira says, looking up from his crunches. “The river guide they sent home had more survival skills than all of the alliance members put together.”

“Please don’t throw the weights, honey.” Their mother is intent on her knitting.

“That’s one thing they’ll teach you in the army,” Chesney says, settling back. “How to fight when the odds are against you.”

No one speaks for a moment.

“How’s the job search going, Chesney?” their mother asks, and what she means is that Chesney should know better.

Eva looks to where Hal, her favorite contestant, has just lost his immunity necklace. She likes Hal because he refuses to take the show seriously. Last week he constructed a telephone out of coconuts and only addressed other contestants if they used it to speak to him. He teaches at a survival school and once confided to viewers that he’d spent a month on his own in the wilderness. Last week, the other contestants laughed at the coconut phone, but Eva had noticed how he opened the coconut without a knife, without spilling a drop of the liquid inside.

“Do you know Mia’s sister used to weigh three-hundred pounds?” Chesney says. “Then they did this operation where they made her stomach smaller.”

Ira pauses mid-crunch. “I bet she has to eat all the time. The whole point of a stomach is to store food when there’s none around.”

“Who cares if she’s always eating?” Chesney says. “She’s hot. Mia says she’s thinking of getting her breasts done, too.”

“We could all benefit from some plastic surgery,” their mother says.

“Pretty soon we’ll live forever with the help of technology,” Ira says. “We won’t even need to send soldiers to get blown up anymore. We’ll just have robotic drones.”

Even Chesney stares at the television, where Hal has just been voted off. Eva waits for someone to come and explain that there’s been a mistake, but Hal crosses the bridge into darkness.

“What if we were on Survivor?” Chesney says. “Who would get voted off the island?”

“Well, in the interest of family, Chesney,” their mother says, and Eva loves her.

“Right, right,” Chesney says, unfazed, “but after me, who then?”

Ira looks up from his bicep curls. “I guess since I’m leaving anyway.” He shrugs.

Chesney leans forward. The front legs of his chair hit the carpet with a thud.

“I think I’ll go into the army, too,” he says. “We can be stationed together and then go to college.”

“Sure Ches,” Ira says. “That’d be great.”

And what he means is that Chesney will get married and take over the family exterminating business. Eva would like to ask Ira what would happen if they had a family business. If he wishes there were one. On television, the secret alliance outnumbers everyone now.

***

Eva’s classroom looks dingy and cramped from the front of the room.

Survivor does portray mental and verbal violence,” she tells her classmates, who are writing letters to their friends or staring out the window. “But our group thought it was important for people to see the ways people treat one another in the real world. Maybe, in the future, this kind of violence won’t seem surprising. It’ll just be how things are, and we’ll be prepared for it.”

Mr. Houpt nods. “I put the three of you in a group together on purpose,” he says, as if they hadn’t guessed it. “What was the experience of working together like for you?”

Eva would like to sit down on the yellow linoleum and close her eyes.

“It wasn’t a big deal for me,” Mia says. “The bible says you’re supposed to love your enemies.”

“It encourages a person to think about previous actions and move past them,” Kenda says.

“What about you Eva?” Mr. Houpt asks. “What do you think?”

Eva runs her fingers along the bottom edge of the whiteboard. She feels a dried piece of gum someone’s stuck there. “It’s all in the past,” she says.

“It’s almost over now anyway.” Her classmates look back with their dark circles and bloodshot eyes.

***

The bus will pick Ira up at the shopping mall at five a.m., but he takes a break from packing to watch the final episode of Survivor. Chesney settles himself against the wall. His red T-shirt makes his skin look orange, like cantaloupe. Ira settles into his crunches.

“You are a bunch of lying backstabbers.” The truck driver spits as the host extinguishes her torch. “Not one of you deserves a million dollars.”

The camera cuts to the lawyer who confides to the audience, “It’s just a game.”

“That guy’s going to win this,” Chesney says, “and if you dropped him on an island, he wouldn’t last a day.”

“You are backstabbing, lying jerks,” the truck driver says. “If you were lost and thirsty in the middle of the desert, I wouldn’t give you a glass of water, wouldn’t even stop my truck to give you a ride.”

Eva envies her, the way she seems to say what she means.

Ira’s weights move back and forth across the television screen as the remaining two demolish their campsite and set it on fire. Eva wonders how they will extinguish the fire, and if there are interns waiting behind the scenes to help.

“I might go for a walk,” she says. What she means is she’s had enough.

Ira puts down his weights. “I should finish packing.”

“Hey,” says Chesney, “you can’t leave without watching the grand finale.”

Eva shrugs. “You can tell me about it when I get back.” She takes a moment tying her sneakers, waiting to see if Ira will get up from the floor. On screen, people are voting, and she sees his face reflected in the television. His eyes are bright, as if he’s staring back at her, but it isn’t her he’s looking at.

Out on the sidewalk, Eva hears the Survivor theme music slipping through the open windows of the other houses. The whole neighborhood is watching. The voice of the host slips past the swaying curtains, echoes in the empty street, and for a moment it feels like they’re all in the show, the whole town of them.

Through the window, Eva watches Ira finish his bicep curls and Chesney emerge from the bathroom with an electric razor. He drapes a blanket around Ira’s shoulders, and her mother turns up the volume. Eva sees the television reflected in the window glass, sees the flickering firelight, the small figures of the contestants moving on the screen. Somewhere in that rectangle her brother sits, his beautiful hair falling around his feet. Eva touches her own hair, and tries to imagine what will happen to them in the world of cameras, as the flagpole cable clangs and clangs, exactly as it’s clanging now.

______________________________________________

Julialicia Case’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crazyhorse,Willow SpringsWitnessWater-Stone ReviewThe Pinch and other journals. She graduated from the master’s program in creative writing at the University of California, Davis, and currently teaches at Millikin University in Illinois.

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