Categories
2020 Fiction

Sarah Mollie Silberman

SURVEY

You have been selected to complete a survey. The purpose of the survey is to gain information about your health and wellness. Your answers are confidential; they are used only for policy research and to better understand the health challenges Americans face today. Participation is voluntary. There is no penalty if you decline to complete it. You can learn more about the survey, and the work of our federal agency, on our website.

*

“Do you have any questions, Mr. Rivers?” says the phone interviewer. She has a warm voice, the voice of someone who uses the word hon a lot.

You ask how long the survey will last.

“About 35 minutes,” she says, “depending on the size of your household.”

You tell her you are the only person in your household.

“About 35 minutes, then,” she says. “Any additional questions?”

35 minutes is not an insignificant amount of time. You could, of course, decline to participate, but the truth is you have little better to do. It is 3:27 pm, and the only things you have done today are work on the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle scattered on the kitchen table and ignore your sister Madeline’s phone calls. She knows you are ignoring her calls; her response is to call at 20 to 40-minute intervals. She also texts various emojis. So far, these have included: the orange angry face, the telephone, and, for reasons that are unclear to you, the pineapple.

You put your phone on speaker and set it on the table, amidst the scattered puzzle pieces. You run your tongue over your teeth, which can best be described as fuzzy. You have not yet brushed them today, and your mouth still tastes like the Coke you drank in lieu of the coffee you ran out of, because who has the wherewithal to go to a store and buy coffee? Truly, you would like to know. You would like to shake their hand. “No additional questions,” you say.

The interviewer starts by asking for basic demographic information.

You tell her: white, non-Hispanic. You tell her your date of birth and confirm your age, which is 27. You are unmarried, without children, and have lived at your current residence for six months or longer. You tell her your occupation (waiter) and that your employer does not currently provide health coverage.

A text message appears on your screen. It is from your sister Madeline: the snail emoji. A minute later: Maybe answer your phone.

“Do you currently have health coverage?” the interviewer asks.

“No.”

“What are the last four digits of your Social Security Number?”

Here, you pause. You wonder if the survey is an elaborate ploy to steal your identity. For one thing, a telephone survey seems odd in the age of the internet. But then, you are not overly troubled by prospect of identity theft. You question the wisdom of anyone who chooses your identity, of the billions of identities, to steal. If you were to steal someone’s identity, you would give it a lot of thought beforehand. You tap a puzzle piece against the table and decide you would steal Tony Danza’s identity. He has a shitload of money and a relatively low profile, which means not a lot of people have thought to steal it.

The interviewer clears her throat. “Sir?”

“Why do you need my Social Security Number?”

“We use it to link your answers to those of other respondents.”

You provide her with the last four digits of your Social Security Number, clicking a puzzle piece into place. To be clear, you are not a puzzle person—you are actually something of a social animal. The puzzle belongs to your mother, who found it in her closet two or three months ago, before she died of pancreatic cancer. The box was still wrapped in plastic when she pulled it from the shelf. “I have no idea why I bought this puzzle,” she said. She was sick then, but not as sick as she was going to be. She still had some meat on her bones. “I never opened it and now it is one of a million things I’ll never do.” It sounds morbid, but your mother was not a morbid person. She was having a low moment, on account of the cancer. In the meantime, you have discovered that assembling the puzzle is the right kind of mindless activity. The wrong kind of mindless activity, such as drinking a glass of water, or brushing your teeth, leaves you feeling inexplicably blank.

“The next few questions are designed to understand your health and access to health care services,” the interviewer says. She asks for your height and weight. She asks how frequently you exercise. “Do you smoke cigarettes?” she asks.

“No,” you say. It is basically true.

She asks if you could walk 100 yards, or the length of a football field, without difficulty. If you could walk 500 yards, or the length of five football fields, without difficulty. If you could walk up to three flights of stairs without difficulty. “Would you characterize your overall physical health as Excellent, Good, Average, or Poor?”

You stand, pick up your phone, and walk athletically to the refrigerator, where three cans of Coke and half a lime remain. You bought the Coke to mix with rum, but you ran out of rum before you ran out of Coke. Is that an indication of Excellent health? Probably not. You take a can from the shelf and crack it open. “I would characterize my health as Good.”

She asks if you have experienced arthritis (no), hypertension (no), asthma, (no), or diabetes (no).

Another text message appears on your screen: Maybe remember I have a key to your apartment, your sister writes.

It’s true: you are someone who loses keys on a regular basis—a trait inherited from your mother—and your sister is not. At one time, it had seemed like a good idea to give Madeline your extra set, but now you see how wrong you were.

“Have you ever postponed medical, dental, or vision care,” the interviewer asks, “because you were concerned about the expense?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen a medical professional within the last twelve months? Including a general practitioner, nurse, nurse’s assistant, urgent care or emergency room physician, specialist, or mental health professional?”

You tell her that, yes, you have.

“And was the purpose of your appointment for routine care,” the interviewer asks, “or to treat a specific problem?”

“In theory,” you say, “it was to treat a specific problem.”

Your sister was the one who scheduled your consultation with the therapist two weeks ago, a month after your mother died. Because you’re wandering around like a bored zombie, she said. She also used the word reeling at some point, though by that time you had pretty much tuned her out. Needless to say, you failed to show up for the consultation. Then Madeline scheduled another appointment, appeared at your door 45 minutes before it started, and escorted you to the office on the bus. The two of you waited in a small room with a (fake) plant, listening to the wall clock tick. You wondered what kind of therapist neglected to invest in a non-ticking wall clock.

She turned out to be younger than you expected, with the dark, unruly hair of someone with mental health issues of her own. She wore earth tones and clogs, and she seemed like someone who would brag about not having a smartphone. What brings you here today? she asked.

My sister, you said, even though you knew perfectly well what she was getting at. You glanced at the poster of Edvard Munch’s The Scream displayed on the wall, which seemed a little on the nose. Then the two of you sat across from each other, waiting for your grief to present itself in a neat little package, but all you were able to summon was contempt for the therapist and her museum gift shop art. And your sister, for dragging you there. Your sister, who had the temerity to schedule a second appointment (or third, if you include the one you skipped). That appointment is today. That is why she is calling. It is why you are avoiding her calls.

“And was the medical bill mailed to your home address?”

“Yes.”

“2201 Ontario Road,” she says, “Apartment 418?”

In the background, you hear a dog barking affably. “Is that your dog?” you ask.

There is a pause. “It is.”

“It’s nice you can work from home. Or can you bring your dog to work?”

The next pause is long enough you wonder if you’ve been disconnected. You glance at your screen; the call is still going. “I work from home sometimes,” the interviewer says. You had pictured her in a drab cubicle. In fact, you had pictured her existing in a drab cubicle, all day and all night. But of course she has a home. People live in homes, unless they are homeless. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Bernadette.”

You can picture Bernadette: a chocolate lab. Old and stubborn, with mournful eyes. She has a dog bed near a window, where she can bathe in sunlight for hours at a time. It takes a lot to compel Bernadette from her dog bed—an enticing bone, maybe, or the promise of a leisurely walk—in part because the interviewer has gone to great lengths to make it comfortable, lining it with soft blankets and vacuuming it regularly to remove fur and other debris. Probably, if you saw Bernadette’s dog bed, you would be tempted to lie in it yourself.

“How old is Bernadette?” you ask.

“Sir.” There is a hint of edge in the interviewer’s voice. “Let’s return to the survey.”

You take a sip of Coke, the carbonation fizzing in your mouth. “Fine,” you say.

“Now I am going to ask a series of questions about pain,” she says. “How often do you experience pain? Never, rarely, sometimes, a lot, or all the time?”

You tell her sometimes.

She asks if you experience pain in your head, neck, or shoulders (sometimes), or in your back, hips, or knees (sometimes), or in your hands or feet (sometimes).

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from going to your job?”

“No.”

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from seeing your friends or loved ones?”

“That’s a dark question,” you say.

She clears her throat. “The questions are designed to gain information about your health and wellness.”

“You said that already.”

“Would you describe the pain as acute, or general?”

“Both.”

“If possible, can you pick one or the other?”

“I would describe it as acutely generalized pain.”

It takes the interviewer a few extra seconds to record your answer. “And is your pain more severe than your mother’s pain?”

You squeeze the Coke can. It buckles beneath your grip. “What?” you say.

“What?” the interviewer says, alarmed.

“Could you repeat the question?”

“Certainly.” She speaks more slowly, this time. “Is your pain manageable with the use of over-the-counter or prescription medication?”

You snap another puzzle piece into place, not answering. You have assembled maybe three-quarters of the 1,000 pieces, and the image is starting to emerge. It is a view from Park Güell in Barcelona: a curving overlook, a vibrant array of buildings, a piercing blue sky. Barcelona, you think, is another thing your mother never did. But she was a fan of views. Not vistas, necessarily, though she liked those fine, but views that were interesting if not beautiful. For instance, she loved the look of an industrial skyline with a water tower and various earth-polluting smokestacks. When she saw a view she liked, she would grab you by the wrist—she had a strong grip—and she would say, Look, and you would say, I’m looking, and she would say, Look harder. And she would stand there, holding onto your arm with her white-knuckled death grip, until she decided you had looked at it hard enough. That was the kind of person she was.

It hits you suddenly. You experience it as you might a large wooden plank that is placed on top of your body and then pressed down upon, hard. “Oh my god,” you say. “My mother is dead.” The words hang there, ugly and gleaming. You feel a prickling behind your eyes, though you are not yet crying, and when you take a breath, a strangled sound escapes from your mouth. You wonder if the interviewer will mistaken it for a cough. “Sorry,” you say.

“Do you need a second?” the interviewer asks.

“Sorry,” you say, again. You are crying now.

She tells you not to apologize. She tells you to take your time.

It is hard to tell how long you take. You think, for some reason, about the week before last, when you went to the sauna at the Korean spa, and the only other person there was this old, non-Korean man, and when you sat down he looked at you with great sympathy. You look like you could use a good sweat, he said. It was hot in the sauna, obviously. Uncomfortably hot. But it was the kind of discomfort you could settle into, that you could curl up inside of. For a few minutes, at least, the heat of the sauna was the only thing you felt.

You swallow. You breathe in and out. “Okay,” you say to the interviewer. “Let’s continue.”

“Actually,” she says, “I have just one final question. What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

“That’s a strange question,” you say. You look at the picture of Park Güell, which is so bright and colorful, with mosaic tiles and trees and houses that look like something from a storybook, with spires and everything, that it is actually kind of frenzied. Overwhelming, even. You wonder how your mother’s maiden name could possibly be relevant to your health and wellness. You try to recall the listicle you read several months ago about identity theft. What precise information have you already provided to the interviewer? “What agency do you work for, again?”

“Sir?” the interviewer says.

“Your employer,” you say. “Who is it?”

The interviewer is silent.

The call ends the way most things end: without ceremony. It just ends. You do not even hear a click when the interviewer hangs up, since phones no longer click when people hang up. You watch as your phone switches to the home screen. The bright, neatly arranged apps have never looked less enticing. You place your forehead on the table, feeling several of the puzzle pieces adhere to your skin. You imagine the interviewer closing her laptop and calling to Bernadette. You imagine Bernadette rising from her dog bed, guileless, and meandering over, tail wagging.


Sarah Mollie Silberman’s stories have appeared in Booth, CutBank, Juked, Nashville Review, Potomac Review, and Witness. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and lives in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.sarahmolliesilberman.com

Categories
2020 Fiction

McKenzie Zalopany

BUENA VISTA BONDED

“Binch, we are out front open up,” Matty yells in a fake cop voice, while pounding on my front door. My dog Samson makes a motion to get up and thinks better of it. Even he doesn’t approve of her and Seraphina, who I know is close behind Matty.

Last night, Seraphina texted me to say that Matty from two units over, the one who shaves her arms, found the Fountain of Youth but I’m calling bull. For one thing, both girls lie all the time. They’re always pretending to wear designer clothes, but I know for a fact it’s glitz from the flea market. Also, we just learned about the Fountain of Youth in class and two days later they find it? Matty says that because her dad’s name is Leon, she’s a descendant. His first name is Leon. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that’s not how that works. I don’t like them much in real life, but it’s nice to hang outside of school and not act like we’re anything more than Buena Vista Apartments bonded. I’ve got my clique and they have a gaggle of dudes who smoke them out.

I’ve got to give them props too, because they were hanging with me when fat was considered fat not thick. My weight hasn’t changed, but it’s very cool now to be curvy via social media. Plus, we play Barbies together on the D.L. and since we do it together, they can’t say shit.

“You get all your chores done Cinder-belly?” Matty asks letting herself into the apartment. Out of the two, she is the boldest and will probably fulfill my mom’s premonition of, “Being in a bad way come fourteen.” Seraphina acts like she’s grown because she’s the only sixth grader on the pill, but she doesn’t say it’s because of her back-ne. They both are mean like their moms.

I follow behind them because I really am done with my chores and have an hour before my mom comes home.

Shuffling through the parking lot we pass the pool boys who are men who always sit outside with no tee-shirts and no pool. Even though the Fall wind in Florida isn’t much to shiver about they sit there half naked and glistening, while we walk heads down, hands tucked in our hoodie pockets clutching our phones, ready. They don’t say a word, but you don’t need words when eyes are touching each part of our bodies.

I’m used to the hollers, sort of. At eight, a forty-year-old man whispered, “Nice thighs,” when my mom was in the bathroom. He said it all quick and quiet on his way by our table. He scared me and when my mom came back, I didn’t say anything, and she kept asking me what was wrong. After that, it seemed like some sort of switch went off or maybe I was just aware, because I got flagged down by all sorts of dudes who wanted not just my thighs.

I don’t even have my period yet, which scares me, a ticking tongue that’s yet to unhinge. I’ve had boobs since I was eight and an ass before that. What will I look like come my monthly?

They lead me to the little forest that conceals the parking lot to the Winn-Dixie lot. It’s small and gets smaller and smaller each year but if I squint when I’m in the middle I can pretend that I am lost and on some sort of adventure. Scattered around the pine needled flooring there’s old Coors cans, napkins, a milk crate. Mom told me to never go in here ever, never, ever, but I know these woods like the back of my hand, and I can’t imagine they found a fountain here. We head away from the path to the grocery store and toward the really, really, no-no area, which is the back part of the complex that kind of dilapidated into itself and turned into makeshift homes.

As I get older it’s easier to break the invisible boundary lines my mom has set for me.

We stop in front of one those run-off sewers that are scattered around Florida backgrounds. If you squint, it looks like a creek. Matty and Seraphina have never seen a creek, never been as far as Tampa. I wait for them to cross or go around, but they look at me with ta-da faces. Their hair in identical high messy buns, eye shadow in bright green and pink shades.

“Are you guys planning on murdering me here?”

“Don’t be dumb If I was going to kill someone I would like kill them in their home wearing shoes two sizes bigger and gloved the fuck up,” Matty says annoyed, “I’d be like smarter than that guy–what’s his name from that show?”

“O.J.?” I ask.

“Yeah, that dude.”

“I think I’d find some pigs, they eat anything,” Seraphina says without looking up from her phone.

“Well, I’ll kill you both right here, right now, if you’re messing with me. Nothing special about this water,” I tell them and give them my best withering look. The fountain of Youth sounded bougie. White marble, maybe some baby angels crafted on top of a three-tiered circular bowl situation. Not a sewer creek with a plastic bag with a little rose image over the words, Thank You Thank You Thank You.

“Binch, we aren’t messing with you. We found this place to smoke and thought it was gross as fuck, so we started throwing shit in it and well look,” Matty says, bending down and drops a dead branch that had been near her feet into the brackish water. We all stare at the branch and wait.

Nothing happens.

“It takes a second,” Seraphina reassures me. It felt earnest, so I waited.

I know I am in sixth grade, but I wish we were playing Barbies or just chilling in my room. Sometimes at night I cry, because I miss boys touching me from when I was in elementary school P.E. or crisscrossed in class. Their hands did not linger but slammed into my body and left it quick. Tag you’re it.

My phone rings making us all jump. The screen read, MOM.

“Shit, I got to go.”

“Jemma, it will be like two more seconds!” Seraphina beckons after me.

“I’m not waiting around to get grounded for this,” I yell back, fast walking away. When I turn around, they are following me back to our separate doors and the brown branch is a brown branch in the brown water.

My mom isn’t home when I get back, thankfully. Samson greets me at the door, just like my dad would do every day after school. “Tell me three good parts and one bad part of your day,” he would always prompt. My mom named our dog even though I found him. I wanted to name him Costco because we found him at the Costco parking lot, but mom thought Samson was a better name, plus he’s shaggy. I love him mostly because he reminds me a lot of my dad even though my dad died before we found Samson. But they have the same hair and Samson hates loud things and sneezes a lot. I don’t know how much longer I have with him, because like I said, I found him, and he was fully grown when I was seven.

My mom is a talented seamstress and does private bookkeeping on the side. She is obviously tired a lot so when I get home from school, I like to have everything cleaned for her, so she knows I love her. I also feel guilty because she works so hard for me and I don’t really like school, or believe in god, or hang out with girls she approves of. I don’t really want to be anything when I get older except maybe like a social media influencer, which my mom doesn’t really understand but I’ve got around five thousand followers. If I get over 100K I could take my mom around the world, to sponsored hotels and meals and drive around a nice ass car. My mom would wear nice clothes that she wouldn’t have to mend, and she could take my pictures.

If the Fountain of Youth really existed, I’d throw my mom in it. She was pretty, like model pretty, and we could be an internet duo. Samson nips at my hand that’s texting while I’m pretending to pay attention to my mom during dinner. It’s such a thing my dad would’ve done, who always poked at me when I wasn’t giving my full attention.

In the morning, there is a tree branch that is with leaves so green and lush it looked like Spring itself had knocked on the door. The trees above are all brown and dead.

“I fuckin hate this place,” mom says and kicks the branch aside, “can you believe this? We have maintenance guys and yet there’s trash everywhere. Hurry up Jemma, what you are waiting for?”

I take a picture of the branch and send it to Matty and Seraphina:

J: H a h a V funny.

M: u still don’t believe us

S: Lewk like ny trees 2 u???? That was sum green lushness

J: not fallin 4 it

M: girl bye

Seraphina just sends me the middle finger emoji four times.

Reasons my dad also reminds me of Samson: They both sleep a lot. They both aren’t helpful around the house or able to financially contribute. They love every and all types of food. Gets super hyper whenever I get excited about something. Guilts mom into walking around outside. Loves me and mom equally, more than anything.

Matty and Seraphina must not have been too mad because they are playing dolls at my place. Every day I have two hours before my mom comes home. She doesn’t care that I do kid stuff, but I hide my dolls as if I were watching porn or something. We play house with Barbies or fashion show or sometimes make them fuck. When we get bored of that we talk shit about the people in our class or just sit around and take cute pictures of each other, but never of the three of us together. Neither of them has a following but I still try and craft a cute photo. I’m glad they’re no longer trying to talk me into believing in the sewer creek but then Matty asks me if I want to go try again and see for myself.

“Come on you still have forever until your mom gets back and you’ve cleaned the house to the point of hospital grade sanitation.”

“Why are you even still trying with her we should call like Bay News 10 or something? Let everyone know it was us who discovered it.”

“You can’t tell people shit like that,” Matty says, “This is something people will like take too far, watch a movie.”

I consider this, even though I know the fountain isn’t real, Matty has a point.

“If we went what would we put in the water? I know you two want to be older so you aren’t going in yourselves.”

“I just got boobs are you kidding me,” Seraphina asks, “What about Sam.” She points to Samson who has been laying in the corner with one eye open, watching us judgingly as we made Barbie hump another Barbie. Stop being a weirdo, dad.

“Fuck you, I’m not throwing my dog in there.”

“The worst that could happen is he’d get a little dirty and you’d have to give him a bath, no biggie,” Matty says.

“Don’t you want Sam to live longer?” Seraphina asks.

“I don’t even know why we agreed to tell her about it,” Matty says and gets up, “Let’s go.”

They both head for the door and Samson gives me this face my dad gave me, not before he was going to die, or even when he was sick but before we knew about it. He gave me this look when we were at a traffic stop and a car almost hit us and I screamed, Fuck. I was six and my dad turned around not in anger or shock, but he looked like he loved me more than anything else in the world. Like twin souls who had found each other. He laughed and said my thoughts exactly. Samson could be three or could be eighteen for all I knew.

“Okay, okay,” I shout after them, “Samson, come.”

When I told my best friend from school, Alex, that I hadn’t gotten my period, she told everyone. By seventh period everyone knew. I almost slammed her into a locker I was so mad, but then she was all casual and told me that all the boys said that it was hot. My anger turned into fear. Boys thought that was hot. I felt like there was a target on my back. I started getting nudes on the daily. Girls wrote my number in the bathrooms. I was known for fucking even though I’d only been fingered once in a movie theater. And I really didn’t get anything out of the experience except for sheer panic. I kept worrying that he had masturbated earlier and had gotten semen on his finger, the one inside me, and that I would be pregnant even though I couldn’t be pregnant, but I could get my period any day so who knew when I was ovulating.

How can I stop something so inevitable and yet how can I start something that I don’t want to come so boys won’t find it hot?

I left the house so fast I didn’t change into anything less comfortable. In soffe’s, a tank top, and slides my body bounced: belly, boobs, ass, thighs.

I hear the pool boys before I see them.

“This one’s going to break hearts between her thighs.”

“You even realize that mama’?”

“Shut up, she ain’t old enough chill.”

“Why her mouth look like that then?”

My mouth was open, trembling. All my life I walked by the pool boys. It’s me, Jemma? I used to drive my pink motorized car by them. They once cheered me when I rode my bike with no trainers.

“Shut the fuck up,” Matty calls, “Is your mom still washing your shirts or something?” We left them calling us bitches and teases, but they never left their chairs. Seraphina and Matty are calling them little dicked pervs. Samson happily zig zags in front of me. My dad would do the same thing too. Like, he could never be taken anywhere, because he was a big kid who wanted to touch everything. Flea markets were annoying. Fun too. It didn’t make any sense to me when the doctors said he was sick, because he looked like dad or a movie ticket guy who is good at sports. If anyone, I thought it would be my mom who would eat it first. After the diagnosis and even a few months after my dad still zig zagged around. He looked fine, handsome and all touchy kissy with mom. I watch Samson oaf-ing around the parking lot and sometimes licking my hand like, Jemma baby where too?

When we get to the Fountain Sewer, I consider my options, my hands still trembling. The worst that could happen, like Matty had said, was that Samson would be dirty and I’d have to bathe him. What if I went in instead? Each year I’d go in it again and again hitting the reset button. I would really be a social media influencer then. I would never have to worry about my period or worry about getting it. Never in my life had I felt bad for being overweight or full figured. Never in my life have I felt so out of control or unable to grasp the power of womanhood. We all do it though, but maybe I wouldn’t have to.

“What are you weirdly staring?” Seraphina asks.

“She looks like she’s thinking about banging one of the pool boys,” Matty jokes, “Let’s move, mommy will need you home soon.”

The water is a puce brown. There are weeds entwined with Dorito bags and napkins at the edge. The only movement from the water is the little mosquitoes that skim the surface. Samson is still, my dad never liked swimming much. But I did.

I could age back and never have to deal with shit. I could be famous, The Girl Who Doesn’t Age. Does Not Die. But then my mom would have to take care of me forever.

The water gurgles, the smell of pork starch wafts upwards.

Maybe I’ll test Samson first.

I release Samson from his leash, “Sit,” I command. From my bra I take out a dog treat and wave it in front of his face. Matty and Seraphina stop texting and watch us, whispering something but I could care less. Samson is staring at my hand, his hind legs scooching slightly toward me. Dad always gave me his utmost attention. I throw the treat and Samson is in the air for half a second and smacks into the water spraying us in his plight.

“Shit!” Matty yells looking down at her dirt water flaked shirt, “I didn’t think you’d actually do it dumbass.”

Seraphina is laughing, but it is forced and cruel, “Holy fuck, I thought this would be funnier but, aw, look at poor Samson.”

Out from the water he shakes his shaggy mane, more water gets on us. Matty and Seraphina are still playing the game. They pretend to run away from us as if I’m going to chase them, run after them embarrassed and slapping their backs, calling them names but softer names than the pool boys. They can and I can hear their would be giggles in the chase, tag you’re it. In their heads, they see me shamefully presenting Samson to my mom but never explaining what had happened, because we are bonded, and we keep that shit on the D.L.

“Come on Jemma, come on girl we were just playing,” Seraphina said to me.

Samson proudly presents his treat at my feet. Matty and Seraphina bodies are somewhere in this pathetic wood that hides nothing. My phone rings, which gets me on my feet. I know they didn’t film me because we aren’t friends in the real world. They will not post my captured naivety or stupidity. I can see the Winn Dixie and my apartment door and theirs. I can hear the pool boys whooping at them as they emerge out from the trees. But the pool boys had never lost track of our bodies.

My phone rings and rings and rings.


McKenzie Zalopany is a queer writer based out of the Tampa Bay area. She is a MFA student at the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in Cut Bank, Tulane Review, Superstition Review, and has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Her work revolves around representing sexuality, disability, and the LGBT+ community.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Hadley Franklin

ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

I’ve never been fast. Not physically, that is. Someone, for who knows what reason, commissioned a videographer to film my preschool class for a full year and edit the footage into a three hour VHS of children just beyond infancy wandering through a scraggly churchyard in puffy winter coats and playing with their velcro shoes at story-time and eating crackers with deliberation, crumbs tumbling onto collars and corduroy laps. And there I am in my own puffy violet coat on an outing to a farm, the camera wobbling between the goats and the children, all bleating and sniffing one another. The group rushes ahead toward the hen house and I lag behind, rounding a red barn corner, dreamy and solemn. The teacher prompts me to run and I stumble forward a few feet, then stop. Why compete, I imagine my smaller self thinking, where I will never excel? Why suffer defeat where I won’t taste victory? I found my strength in story-time, where word by word, I read aloud, a white knit blanket tied around my shoulders as a cape. I learned quickly, I read quickly, my vocabulary sped forward. But I ran, I continue to run, slowly.

I think of this now as I begin my morning jog around the neighborhood. Because I despise every second of this exercise. Every ragged, pink-faced breath, every rhythmic pound of my sneaker against pavement. I hate running in place at stoplights while men stream by in their cars, heads twisted to watch my breasts bounce. I hate the sweat that crawls in dark stains over my belly and back.

I am slogging past the bagel shop with its yeasty odors. I am crossing the bridge that arches over the highway, where cars arrested in traffic shift and shimmer, a metallic tapestry, a single huffing, glinting beast.

I’ve begun these morning runs because of Rick. Not so much because of him, but because of his new girlfriend, whom I met while they held hands in the bar last week. Why is it still so strange to to see his hand around another woman’s? I secretly think he was drawn up and breathed into life for me, so he could offer me love, then heartbreak, then a mellow, tapering friendship that will slowly fade him from reality. He once called me a solipsist and I said, But isn’t everyone really? Deep down? and he said, No, Lexi, they’re not, and looked at me with big, pretty martyr eyes. As a kid, I used to get a shivery sensation that there was someone behind me, someone dangerous. I used to imagine it was another me that was following me, but a bad version, an ugly, twisted version with wild hair and a bludgeoned look to her eyes. It made me afraid then, but no longer. I think maybe she still lives there, trailing my shadow. Maybe we’ve become friends, and at night, we rock each other to sleep.

I am running up the hill between two avenues. No, I’m doing a lunging walk up the hill because actual running is too hard and my calves burn and I’m panting so loud people turn around to watch me struggle. I’m passing this grand, cheesy hall of 1970’s glamour, white brocade and chandeliers, gold spires on the iron gate. I want to lie on a bear skin rug in that hall, my gasping body flush with the dead one below.

The girlfriend is cute. She smiled at me like I might devour her. She is short and slim and has little doll features. She’s the kind of girl guys like to hoist over their shoulders. The kind of girl who memorized rap lyrics in college because she thought it would be funny to repeat them in her little white girl voice.

She is new in his life, and I could tell her things. He got drunk sometimes and woke up in bad places– the bathtub in a shallow of vomit, the stairway mysteriously missing his shoes, a bus station bench with a dog lapping vigorously at the crotch of his jeans. Once, he threw a quarter at our bathroom window and the whole thing shattered. Once, on a bus between Philadelphia and New York, he had food poisoning and shit himself, and since the bus bathroom was out-of-order and locked, he had to sit in his own shit for an hour.

These aren’t stories to dissuade her from dating Rick. I just want to scrub the shine off a little. Is that really so wrong? To ask her to see things honestly?

The sidewalk evens out and trees flap their leaves above me. The concrete is dappled with light and I try only to step in the shadowed bits, as if I could stamp out the sun by accident. Someone driving past shouts, “Hey lady! Wanna fuck?” then laughs and zips away. I could chase down the car. I could shimmy in through the open window, sprawl onto the driver’s lap, peel off my shorts, and when he stares with surprise, I could ask, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

The new girlfriend made me feel oversized and clumsy. She had a quick, hiccupy laugh. She made me feel slow. So I decided to run, to make my body a machine, fight pain for glory, and so on, like a sports drink commercial. The truth is, I haven’t felt well lately. The truth is, I’ve been churning through life underwater, and all I see is the deep, soundless black of the ocean. The truth is, I wouldn’t want him back, but oh, how I want a hand in a bar to fold over mine.


Hadley Franklin’s work has appeared in NarrativePalimpsestRunaway Parade, and Hanging Loose. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and earned an MFA in fiction from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She teaches literature and writing at a special education school in New York and lives in Brooklyn.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Katherine Fallon

LANTERNFISH

I didn’t know whether to believe Tara when she told me that her grandmother’s house was haunted. My parents were practical to a fault and never entertained the idea of anything supernatural, including God, which later led people to believe that we were wicked. But Tara’s family was more superstitious, and more faithful, and while I lived in a new home with no history, her family scraped by as truck drivers, waitresses and tailors to keep their old, southern plantation in the family. So many people lived inside the house that I couldn’t keep track of their names, occupations, and relations to one another. There were a lot of children around our age, but none Tara liked and so we avoided them, which was easy enough on that much property and in a house that large.

The house was white, weather-beaten and with a large, leaf-swept porch supported by four equally-spaced, peeling columns. Pecan trees loomed over the house, branches casting a web of shadows like lace across its facade. Periodically, we’d be sent to collect the fallen fruits and Tara’s grandmother would sit in silence in the drawing room, year-round, with her holiday nutcracker, freeing their meat.

The drawing room also housed an impressive library, and Tara and I spent rainy days poring over the pages of a set of encyclopedias there. We learned about wars and plants and cities in Mexico, about heroes and criminals and the beasts of the African plains. Once, we discovered a deep sea fish that could light its own way along the darkness of the ocean floor: a single antenna hung as a lantern before its flat eyes. Its teeth were glass-sharp and nearly as translucent, all out of alignment so that I imagined its bite would leave a chorus of puncture wounds, as though many creatures were responsible for what was caused by one ugly bottom dweller. Gradually, that fish grew larger and larger, more and more monstrous in my mind.

There were smaller buildings along the property, most destroyed by years of neglect, some used as workshops or, as each generation of children in the house grew older, clandestine meeting spots, old towels strewn across the dirt floors as makeshift beds. One building in particular was forbidden to us, and Tara’s older brother, Kevin, claimed somewhat proudly that it had been the slave’s quarters. Peering through the tiny shed’s broken windows, we were initially disappointed by its emptiness, its lack of offering. There was no reason to go inside: no treasure to claim, no cabinets to explore.

Later, when I understood that the building was off-limits primarily because it was so near to collapsing, I felt uncomfortable thinking of its one barren room. I am often tempted to say that I grew up on that sprawling, dilapidated land, too, but it is this fact which stops me: at sixteen, Tara lost her virginity in the forbidden slave quarters, to a boy with a woman’s eyebrows. He managed the closest gas station and spoke with great authority about coffee, which he claimed to sell more of than fuel. By the time Tara told me about his bony hips and the pattern of hair on his belly, we were hardly friends and Kevin had been killed in active duty in the Middle East. Did it hurt, I asked her and she pursed her lips as though disgusted. No, she said. It didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even bleed.

Inside the plantation home, the floors were varnished darkly and lamps fought hard to cast light through the high-ceilinged, wooden-walled rooms. Along the hallways, there were frosted sconces, which once held candles and were never retrofitted for electricity; on the stairs, which wound around the edge of the house and left an open well between stories, there were dusty hurricane lamps proudly displayed on each landing.

Family heirlooms produced their own undeniable hauntings throughout the house. The child who would have been Tara’s oldest uncle was stillborn, and his tiny posthumous footprints, cast in plaster, sat atop a piano no one ever played, in the dining room, where no one ever ate. The family—all of them—preferred the crowded kitchen with its windows and white walls. It always smelled of rendering fat or sugar boiled with fruit.

The kitchen drawers were lined with flowered paper. There was a collection of milk cups that generations had drunk from, and they were foisted upon us at each meal, too, though the milk always appeared too blue inside them. The spoons we ate from were the tiny, soft-rubber-coated spoons of children, and sported tooth marks from too many mouths.

I hated the sensations of eating there. My hand in the hand of someone whose name I couldn’t remember but who belonged, by blood, to my best friend. My mouth coated thickly with lard and saying a blessing I didn’t know, my tongue tripping through the words in a convincing imitation until, finally, I, too, knew the Lord’s Prayer, and my parents raised an eyebrow but kept driving and leaving me there. My teeth scraping against those enamel mugs of tepid milk. Each bite I took so small that I learned to shovel several spoonfuls into my mouth in rapid succession, without chewing, and so never tasted a thing for what it was.

But it wasn’t any of those familial artifacts that most interested Tara. It was the haunting. They named the ghost Jacob, which made him familiar and terrifying. Some of Tara’s relatives claimed to have seen him. Others told stories of sounds, or doors closing, or cold spots in corners. The most common story told was of Jacob’s distaste for Christmas, as he would repeatedly and invisibly sweep all of the carefully arranged holiday decorations from the drawing room mantel.

This sometimes happened when people were in the room, but at times, an aunt or cousin would wander into the room to find shattered ornaments and torn evergreen fronds strewn about the floor. Pinecones, crushed. There were plenty more where that came from, and I felt bad for Jacob, who could never change things despite his violence.

Tara’s grandmother, who wore the same flowered housecoat every day, called Jacob “petulant”—Tara and I looked it up later and mouthed it out to each other, faces close in the eerie green of the bookshelf’s shadow—and kept rearranging the decorations in spite of their increasingly shabby appearance. I love Christmas, her grandmother would say, drawing the I out as though creating several new vowels.I don’t care what Jacob wants. I was more afraid of Tara’s grandmother than I was of Jacob.

There were no bleeding walls. No one fell down stairs or felt pushed toward the licking flame of the stove. The stillborn’s footprints were never meddled with, though the piano was sometimes purported to play, and clumsily.

It wasn’t until Kevin claimed to have seen Jacob standing over him in his bed one night that I began to believe in his powers. According to Kevin, Jacob wore a Confederate soldier’s uniform and appeared to him as a photograph, two-dimensional and faded in color.

Tara, Kevin and I whispered over the kitchen’s plastic tablecloth while one of the aunts tended to rice on the stove. Her shoulders were small and pulled inward as though she were stretching. Her fanny was wide and flat. I watched the distinct line between her two halves waver like heat on pavement as she stirred, and asked Kevin if he knew, having seen him, how Jacob had died.

He had a huge hole in his heart, Kevin said with gravity, without fidgeting, holding my gaze. His eyes were moping and brown, like a hound dog’s, like Tara’s. It was the only feature they had in common.

Was he bleeding? Tara asked, and held my hand beneath the table. She and I could have been siblings more believably than she and Kevin. We were both so nervous and pale. Our hands were even veined similarly, though her fingers were smaller enough that I could not wear her rings, and often worried at her fragility. When we walked to the gas station in the summers, we pretended to be twins, which to us meant buying the same things, sipping out of our straws the same way.

Kevin shook his head. No blood. Just a hole. I could see straight through it to the wall behind.

Got dammit, Tara’s grandmother said as she pushed her way into the kitchen. Jacob’s gone and broken my favorite nutcracker.

Tara and I spent a lot of time in the shed her grandfather used as his car shop before he passed. There were old street signs and license plates stapled to the walls. Tools we didn’t understand and could barely lift lay abandoned on workbenches. The place smelled of cat piss.

Her grandfather had been a collector of old-fashioned oilcans, and we played robot the way that some young girls play dress-up. I stood in the chilly shade of the shed and swung my arm around and around in circles, letting a pathetic squeak issue from my lips.

Tara, whose blonde hair was always pulled back into a tight ponytail with a red ribbon, approached me with an oilcan in each hand. She cooed at me—sounds that weren’t quite words and weren’t quite sympathy—and pretended to lubricate my joints. There, there, she’d say, as I began to unwind from my tight stance and allow for fluidity.

She dipped the thin nozzles of the empty oil cans into each folded part of my skin, each crook between bones. I thrilled at it, making jerking motions to show her that she was right, and mattered. I came to life for her, and I couldn’t keep from giggling as I did.

Robots don’t laugh, she chided me. With no inflection. And I got so tight-lipped she then had to oil me there, too. The cans were dusty and sticky with age, and my lips parted just enough to take them in, place my tongue upon the sickly tang of their tips out of a desperate attempt to keep quiet, which I only knew how to do by keeping busy. Otherwise, I expelled sound like an untied balloon zipping through a silent room.

I mouthed the nozzle of the oilcan, nearly suckled. Tara drew it away quickly, wiped its tip on her white shirt, leaving a smear along its hem. All better, she said, and I worked my jaw like a true hinge, felt a popping as I opened, closed.

Tara never played the robot. On the day that I suggested it for the first and only time, it was close to Christmas, and as cold as southern winters get. Even beneath her coat and scarf, I saw her grow stiff in all the wrong ways. She suggested that we go inside the house to drink some hot chocolate instead.

But Jacob, I said, not even certain I believed in him.

We have to sleep there anyway, Tara snapped with startling authority. Don’t be scared, she said then, softening a little, and put the oilcan’s tip gently behind my newly-pierced ear, which was already throbbing with the heat of pain. I let my chin fall against the can, and swiveled my head back and forth as though dancing to our favorite song.

Tara’s second-floor bedroom was covered with the same paper as the insides of the kitchen drawers. The daybed had a trundle that required one of us to pull from a kneeling position, and once, my fingers were caught in its mechanics as we lifted it into position. My nails were black and blue and it took me weeks to make a fist. My penmanship never quite recovered.

Since then, I stood in the doorway while Tara yanked it out from beneath the lace bed skirt and Kevin hovered in the hallway, watching. He did this often along the days. I could feel him without looking; sometimes I whipped my head over my shoulder to be sure it was just Kevin, human and warm and familiar, and not Jacob.

With the bed, Tara was never careful enough, but I didn’t know how to talk about the pain, so she kept on being careless and I kept letting her. My teeth gritted and the sound mixed with that of the metal frame as it elevated, protesting, beside Tara’s mattress.

The night I asked Tara to be inhuman and she refused, I lay on the thin trundle mattress, feeling the offensive collapsing frame beneath my back, and listened to her untroubled breathing. I looked at the faint lines of the wallpaper in the dark, mere suggestions of geometry, and worried about Jacob. I thought of his open, bloodless heart. I thought of his flatness and blanched transparency. I thought of him as wallpaper and then I thought I saw him there, in the pattern.

I was silent and still, and held my breath. I said his name in my head and prayed, for the first time of my own volition. I asked God to let Jacob rest, and then, because he remained like a paper doll against the wall, I shook Tara’s bony shoulder to wake her. She did not stir. I shook her again and said her name, but nothing. Tara, I hissed at her, and pinched her thigh. Nothing.

My leg wound like a spring and struck out, landed in the small of her back with such direct aim that my heel hurt from the impact. She woke with a scream and before I knew it, the lights were on in our room. One of the aunts stood over us, mouth pursed at the inconvenience of being woken in the night.

What in the name of God? she said and placed her hands on her hips. Tara began to wail and thrash about in her white sheets. My bed rolled a bit away from hers, and I stayed quiet, pressing my lips together again. I told myself, make yourself a machine. I told myself, with no one to oil you into motion. I blinked my eyes in imitation of waking and mouthed, What? and was pleased by how hoarse the word sounded, erupting into the room of my indiscretion.

The next morning, the house was buzzing with news of Jacob’s first cruelty. The shades were drawn and the interior of the plantation was brighter than it ever had been, though it was still dark. Tara walked hunched, like an old woman, and rubbed her back periodically with her hand. Wounded. A survivor. She was fed pancakes by some aunt or another, and I felt guilty that I was, too. I kept each bite in my mouth too long, until it grew soggy and tasteless, and then swallowed dryly, reaching for the blue milk.

She could’ve really been hurt, I said to Kevin when Tara retreated for a nap. My knee throbbed, my heel felt dry.

Oh, she’s all right, he replied and placed a hand on my bare knee in consolation, his thumb moving across my skin like wiping it clean. She’s just—he paused. Dramatic.

I could have really been hurt, too, I heard myself saying before I could think it through. If she hadn’t woke up screaming—

Shhhh, Kevin, the big brother, put a thick finger to my lips, kept me quiet.

Later that day, I woke Tara from her nap with a tender hand upon the cheek. She blinked up at me and seemed relieved. Let’s go exploring, I said, and she sprang up, as though her back had never been hurt.

Where are we going? she asked.

Upstairs, I told her.

The top floor of the house was not a part of our domain. At least two of Tara’s aunts slept in rooms there, but we only knew about the rooms because we heard doors opening and closing. The railing at the top of the stairs had been broken years before and as with the slave shack, the adults were strict about keeping the children of the household safe by refusing them entry. That danger was enough to keep us moored on the lower floors for years, and the previous night’s assumed paranormal activity had driven nearly everyone outdoors for the day: there was shopping to be done; there were shifts to pick up; there were creeks to play in and less dangerous sheds to explore.

The whole point was the newness, the novelty of the third floor. Instead, when we got upstairs to the broken rail, we stood in the darkness on that open precipice, peering down at the place we’d just come from: the familiar foyer, the dull glow of lamps spilling out from hidden corners. That was the place I knew, and it was not. Up there with the bird’s eye view, I understood myself to be a tourist, looking out from the inside. It was here I caught the fear that traveled, clung to me like the stink of a campfire.

We started at the sound of a screen door slapping its wooden frame, hinges vibrating. Kevin’s shadow melted from wall to floor to wall; it was leaner than he was, and longer. He called Tara’s name, waited, called again. Just out of sight, his voice was a man’s voice, and without patience.

Tara stayed still beside me, her breath thick and heavy as someone sleeping. I felt an accordion wheeze in my knees. I wobbled toward the splintered banister, praying against a creak that, mercifully, did not come.

Peering down, I imagined each globe of fading light in the foyer as the lantern above the encyclopedic sea monster’s brow. I envisioned it lurking in every darkened doorway, listening for us, too. So ugly and quiet. So hungry. I hated that fish, but I felt sympathy for it, too: forever behind its own light, and never quite within it.


Katherine Fallon received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, Passages North, Permafrost, Colorado Review, and Foundry, among others. Her chapbook, The Toothmakers’ Daughters, is available through Finishing Line Press. She teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, and shares domestic square footage with two cats and her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses. She and her favorite bread recipe can be found at katherinefallon.com, and she is reachable on Instagram @ghostelephants.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Sarah E. Ruhlen

OPEN WATER

The day was already 85° and muggy A.F. Later in the day it would be 107° and muggy A.F. but Maxine would be down at the beach, disporting herself in the waves like a dead fish. But that would be later, after Grandma Schneider got home from her walk around the high school track with her friend Betty Mosher. Right now Maxine was already sweating in a pink jumpsuit that Grandma Schneider said made her look “like a peach.” Because Maxine was round. Grandma said it was baby fat, but Maxine was 12 and the fat was still there. The jumpsuit rode up Maxine’s behind whenever she stooped to drag the skimmer across the surface of the pool. Her chore. That plus walking the stupid lapdog, and dusting Grandma’s knickknacks, were Maxine’s chores. And also helping Grandma and Grandpa facetime with Maxine’s mom.

Every Tuesday night was supposed to be facetime, with greater or lesser success depending on how late in the evening it was. The later it got, the more often Irene Price, née Schneider, said “hanh?” as if whatever was in her glass made her deaf. The reason Maxine had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa in Jacksonville every summer instead of with her mom in Indiana had something to do, she was told, with Irene’s job, and the school schedule, and Irene’s schedule, but Maxine’s friends all had single moms and they didn’t get shipped off to Jacksonville every summer.

Maxine shook the bugs and leaves out of the skimmer into the trashcan and then took the yardstick to the edge of the pool. Grandpa liked the water level to be exactly 6.5 inches below the pool ledge, a depth he had determined was optimal for the pool machinery. Rather than marring the tiles with a mark, he liked to have the pool measured every day, and for the measurement to be recorded in a little log book that he kept next to the skimmer, where he also recorded the ph and chlorine levels. Maxine sprawled on her belly next to the pool and held the yardstick against the side. 7.25 inches. Maxine did not immediately rise to record the insufficient water level in the log book but stirred the yard stick around in the pool.

“Your chlorine is low,” said a cigarette-and-whiskey voice.

Maxine, who had assumed she was alone and was lost in a daydream about a cute surfer, jumped and dropped the yardstick into the water. She rolled up to sit tailor-wise, a move which drove the pink wedgy even deeper. She lolled over like a pink balloon and straightened out the offending fabric, then sat with her legs straight out in front of her and peered over to the shallow end, where floated a mermaid.

“Huh?” said Maxine.

“Your chlorine. You better shock it or you’re gonna have trouble.” The mermaid took a drag off a Virginia Slim and hooked a finger under the strap of her sea-shell bra, pulling it to a more comfortable spot.

“I don’t do the chlorine,” said Maxine. The mermaid looked bored.

“Are you one of Grandma’s friends?”

“I doubt it. Who’s your grandma?”

“Debbie Schneider. Grandpa is Chuck Schneider?”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“Well you’re in their pool.”

The mermaid finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water.

“Hey I just cleaned that!”

The mermaid rolled her eyes, flipped her tail, and shot through the water like a speed boat. She hove up before Maxine, who scootched back, fast.

“Here’s your butt. And your stick.” The mermaid laid both on the edge of the pool and rested her arms in the little tray that ran around the edge, just below the water level. Her skin sagged at the edges of her mouth and there were wrinkles between her breasts. Her hair, twined about with pearls and sea foam, was more salt than pepper.

“Name’s Trixie,” she rasped. “What’s yours, grandkid of Debbie and Chuck?”

“Maxine Price.” Maxine picked up the cigarette butt and put it into the pocket that pooched out over the already poochy stomach of her jumpsuit. “How come you’re not in the ocean?”

“Hitched a ride on an alligator. How come you’re not at the beach?”

“I can’t go until Grandma gets home.”

Trixie did a little flip and floated on her back. Her tummy was very muscular but it flabbed out at the edges. “Elevator papa, elevator papa, seems like you always wanna go down…” she sang. She did a back flip and zipped up in front of Maxine again, alarmingly.

“Can’t you swim?”

“A little.”

“Scared of sharks?”

“A little.”

The lap dog came yapping out from the kitchen. Grandma must be home. The creature tore up to Maxine, sighted Trixie, backed. Growled. Trixie fixed the dog with a long stare. “What is that?”

“It’s just DiDi. Are you hungry?”

“Yes. DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee,” sang Trixie. Still staring at the dog. DiDi’s eyes lowered, sagged, closed. He fell over in a snooze.

“What’s it like?”

“What?”

“Being a mermaid.”

“Can’t complain. Hours aren’t bad. Good commissions, all the rum you can drink. Why, you wanna be one?” Trixie’s seaweed eyes snapped from the somnolent DiDi to Maxine, with the same stare.

“Not really. Seems kind of soggy.”

Trixie’s face sagged back to normal. She unclipped a turquoise and silver case from her bikini strap, pulled out a Virginia Slim. From the messy, tendrilly pile of hair on top of her head she fished out a turquoise and silver lighter. “You’re not wrong,” she said. “Your grandma wants you.” She jabbed with the cigarette in the direction of the patio. Then, holding the cigarette in the air, she swam under water back to the shallow end.

Grandma came to the patio door and hollered, “Maxine? DiDi! Chuck! Lunch time!”

DiDi snapped awake and yapped back to the house. Maxine followed.

“There’s a mermaid in the pool.” Maxine tried to say this around a half-chewed wad of baloney and white bread and mayo.

“Don’t be silly. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Maxine made an effort and swallowed. “She says the chlorine is low and you should shock it.”

“She’s probably right,” said Grandpa behind his paper. He was allowed to be silly.

“Betty and Carl Mosher want us to look in tomorrow for dinner,” said Grandma. “Their granddaughter is down for a visit. She’s about your age, Maxine.”

“About your age Maxine” meant anything from six to 24 years old, so Maxine didn’t hold out much hope for tomorrow evening.

“That’ll be nice,” said Grandpa.

“Drink your soda and go get on your swimsuit, Maxine,” said Grandma.

Early next morning Maxine was at the pool but Trixie wasn’t there. There were, however, a couple of cigarette butts floating in the water, which Maxine scooped out before Grandpa saw them. Also, the water smelled kind of fishy, but that was Grandpa’s problem. Maxine lolled by the pool and sang “Elevator papa, elevator papa….” The sun filtered through the Florida haze, already sticky. Maxine did not retreat into the air conditioning, which Grandpa kept at 70° because that was comfortable for him. She lolled on a deck chair reading Treasure Island until Grandma called her in for breakfast.

“Go change into that nice sundress I bought you the other day.” Grandma didn’t like Maxine’s favorite outfit, which was cut-offs and a T-shirt, which made Maxine feel cool and grown-up. In her room, Maxine pulled on the sundress, which was printed all over in tropical flowers and made her look like Scooby-Doo’s mystery van. Her hair was hot on the back of her neck so she pulled it up to a messy, tendrilly pile on top of her head. It didn’t look bad. She draped some plastic bead necklaces around the curls and, in lieu of a lighter, stowed a Star Wars figure—Luke Skywalker, in fact—in the center of the mass.

“My, you do look pretty.”

“Do hush, Chuck. She looks like a gypsy. Honey that’s fine to wear for play but you’ll have to take all that out of your hair when we go out. You don’t want people thinking you’re a Mexican.”

Maxine poked around at her scrambled eggs. Grandma hated it when she looked like a Mexican.

DiDi went off like a car alarm at the patio door. Once DiDi got going he wouldn’t shut up until you paid attention, so Maxine got up from the table and scooped him up. Through the sliding door she could just see something green and scaly slipping into the corner of the pool. She put DiDi into his crate, where he continued yipping until she stared into his eyes and sang, “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee.” The dog rested his face on his paw, and sighed a surprisingly deep sigh for such an insignificant creature.

Maxine returned to the table and gobbled down the rest of her eggs. Grandpa folded up his paper. “Time to shock the pool.” He took a long pull of coffee.

Maxine whisked her plate to the sink and rinsed it off. “I better skim it first.” She hurried out to the pool.

Trixie was lounging in the shallow end, filing her nails on an augur shell of unusual length. “I had a little dog,” she sang, “his name was Jack. He got his little tail caught in a crack, all from shakin’ that thing…”

“You better make yourself scarce,” said Maxine, “Grandpa’s about to come dump in a bunch of chlorine.”

“It’s all right. He’ll be a while. Dishwasher hose sprung a leak.”

“How do you know?”

Trixie jerked her chin toward the patio.

Maxine went back to the sliding door and saw Grandma and Grandpa stooping sternly over the dishwasher. Grandma noticed Maxine through the glass and pointed at DiDi’s crate, so Maxine went in and let DiDi out onto the patio. “What’s wrong with the dishwasher?” she asked Grandma.

“Hose is leaking.”

Maxine hurried back out to the pool.

“That’ll hold him an hour or two,” said Trixie. “Nice do.” She pointed with her augur shell at Maxine’s hair.

“Grandma says it makes me look Mexican.”

“Maybe….You know what you look like. You look just like a sweet little Carib I used to know, brown as butter….”

“Are you hungry?”

“It’s ok. Some idiot dropped a container of shortbread at the docks last night and we’ve been stuffing ourselves silly.” She stowed the shell in her hair and yawned.

“We?” said Maxine.

“Oh, everyone. Manatees, shad, wahoo…everyone likes it when they slip up at the docks. Those longshoremen ain’t what they used to be though. All machinery these days. Used to be you could just flash your tits at ‘em and they’d drop their own mother. These days they can’t even see you through all that equipment. Might as well be in Kansas.”

“I mean, are there other mermaids around?”

“Not in my territory there better not be.” Trixie’s eyes fired up green and Maxine backed up a pace.

“How big is your territory?”

“Can’t complain. Plenty big accounts. Working on a big lead right now.” Trixie yawned and flipped her tail. “Better go, Gramps wants you.”

Carl and Betty Mosher’s granddaughter was 13, skinny, crooked teeth. She had some kind of sinus issue that made her snort constantly. She spent most of the evening on Snapchat with some equally miserable friends, but she let Maxine flip through her copies of Seventeen magazine, for which Betty Mosher, not realizing that girls don’t look at magazines anymore, had bought a subscription. Every once in a while Claudia would look over Maxine’s shoulder and say, “Ohhh, I love that shirt,” or “that makes her look like a prosssstitute.” Claudia’s mouth lingered over any unsavory word, such as prosssstitute, gonorrheeeeeea, mensssssstrual cramps, and penissssss. But she was someone to talk to. Not unfriendly. When Claudia suggested they try to talk their grandmas in to taking them shopping, Maxine agreed.

Thus, Monday found Maxine and Claudia boarding the Five Points trolley, leaving their grandmothers in the Avalon district and promising to be back precisely at 3pm.

“Look at that tan guy,” hissed Claudia, pointing out the trolley window at a man who had apparently last peeked into a fashion magazine in 1982. “I bet he’s a molessssssster.” Maxine looked carefully to see what a molester looked like.

“Have to be careful, Jacksonville is full of molesssssssters. I thought your Grandpa was a molessssssster at first but it was just because his socks were loose. Mr. Brummer? This biology teacher at my school? He’s the worst molessssssster in the world but no one will fire him because he’s got dirt on everyone on the school board. He molessssssted this girl, Amber Barnes, but she’s such a ssssslut no one will believe her. She’s got titsssss out to here and she wears these teeny tiny shorts with her assssss hanging out but she puts on leggings underneath so she’s not breaking the dress code….”

At Five Points, disgorged from the trolley, the girls played with rainsticks in a head shop. Then they laughed at the vintage vinyl covers in a used record store. Then they ordered complicated, sugary lattes at the coffee shop. Then they wandered into a bead store.

This enchanting enterprise absorbed them for quite a while. Even Claudia forgot to talk about molesssssters as she tried to decide between a long string of sparkly seed beads and a shorter option involving green and white, her school colors. Maxine designed a strand of black and red beads to give to Trixie. While she waited for the sales lady to affix the clasp she wandered over to Claudia, who was sifting through some carved beads of inordinate beauty and expense. Maxine rummaged through the trays.

“Oh!”

“’smatter?”

“So pretty!” Maxine held up a tiny jade koi fish of breathtaking delicacy and beauty. She turned it in her fingers. The light glinted off its exquisite carved scales and fins.

“You should buy it.”

“Can’t. I already spent all my money.”

Maxine put the lovely thing down. Claudia picked it up. Maxine found she did not like to see Claudia’s clammy fingers on it.

The bell on the shop door rang behind them. Fast as a cat, Claudia shoved the koi bead into Maxine’s pocket.

“Hey!”

“Shut up dumbass. If you say anything I’ll deny it.”

“Miss?”

Maxine nearly wet her pants.

“Miss, your bracelet is ready.” The clerk held out the package. Maxine tried not to let her hands shake as she took it. “Have a nice day,” said the clerk.

“Thank—too—” Claudia hustled her toward the door. They brushed by a tallish woman, the person who had just entered, with hungry green eyes and a mass of salt and pepper hair piled on top of her head, with an augur shell of unusual length stuck in the middle. She winked at Maxine.

“C’mon retard. We’ll be late for the trolley.” Claudia shoved Maxine out the door. The bell jangled like a fire alarm.

All evening the little jade fish rolled around in Maxine’s pocket. She tried to feel guilty about it. Failed. Its mouth formed a perfect fish-kiss “O.”

In the night she got out of bed and snuck down the hall to Grandma’s sewing room. Rummaged until she found a strand of black ribbon. This she threaded through the jade koi and tied around her neck, so that the fish rested on her breastbone. Maxine noticed that her nipples appeared to be pooching out a bit. Tits. That’s all she needed.

“That Claudia sure is a poisonous little eel. Dumb, too. There was a security camera right on top of you two the whole time.” Trixie finished winding the black and red beads into her hair, dove down into the pool, and came up with an antique hand mirror of exactly the type one would expect a mermaid to have. She studied the effect of the beads. “Not bad. Kinda hotch-tcha-tcha, you know? But you,” she left off, dumping the mirror in the water and letting it sink, “you know it only takes one phone call to get you into juvvie. Do you realize the position you’re in?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“You still got the hot fish, don’t you?”

Maxine touched the lump between her nubbins.

“You know they don’t switch those tapes until Wednesday,” said Trixie.

Sometimes Trixie was just as bad as Grandma.

“What’s wrong, don’t want to go to juvvie?” Trixie flipped onto her back and did a couple laps around the pool, singing “I had a little dog, his name was Jack….”

Maxine felt that she did not want to go to juvvie.

“Yeah you’ll never survive there. You’re too much of a girl scout. Too bad someone can’t do something about that….” Trixie lit a Virginia Slim. She made the frown that smokers make when they light up.

“How did you get there?”

“Where?”

“To the bead store?”

“Oh well you know, I can always make it work when I gotta friend who’s in trouble.”

“But how did you get legs?”

“You know I’m very generous when I have a true friend. I’ve gotten people off of worse raps than shoplifting. You know I could sense that you were in a spot yesterday…” Trixie shoved off the side of the pool and did some kind of twirl in the water, holding the cigarette out of the water the whole time. Maxine found that she couldn’t remember. Had Trixie entered the store before or after Claudia stuck the bead in her pocket? Again Trixie was in front of Maxine. Her algae eyes burning. “I can sense you’re in quite a spot today,” she hissed. “One phone call. From someone who knows. They get a phone call, they review the tape, and Maxine Price is on the hook for shoplifting.”

It was 92° in Jacksonville that morning, and muggy A.F. Maxine’s arms broke out in goosebumps.

“Why…” Maxine found her voice wasn’t working properly.

“I need a favor.”

“You…you hungry?”

“Yeah. I’m hungry. I need a favor.”

“What favor?”

“Let DiDi out of the house after dark.”

“Are you kidding? He’ll get et up by an alligator!”

“Possibly.” Trixie’s eyes half lidded. She rubbed her fingers across her lips. “He might possibly get et. He might get gobbled down like a sweet little suckling pig.”

Maxine backed away.

“Used to be a lot easier, you know. Every whaling ship and merchant clipper had a goat or some chickens but these days it’s all prepackaged, frozen patties and canned soup. You ever tried to eat canned soup when you’re swimming in open water? It’s a hungry life out there, krill krill and more krill, lucky if someone drops a saltine overboard…” Trixie was talking to herself by this point because Maxine had backed to the patio and was still backing. Just before Maxine backed around the corner to the sliding door, Trixie refocused her green gaze. “One phone call!” she growled. “You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. I’m hungry A.F.”

That night was Tuesday. Irene Price seemed more than usually hard of hearing. “Don’sha like it in Florda?” she kept saying. “Mebby like to shtay wishyer Gramma n Granpa?”

“You got a new boyfriend, Mom?”

“Hanh?”

“Why can’t I stay with Dad?”

“Maxine!” rebuked Grandma. In Grandma’s opinion, the only thing worse than looking Mexican was asking to stay with Maxine’s dad, whose ancestors had lived in Texas before the advent of the conquistadores. Maxine didn’t know him that well but he seemed nice enough. Better than old people with a mermaid in their pool.

“Mom what’s juvvie?”

“Hanh?”

“Who’s been talking to you about juvvie, child?” said Grandma.

“Um, Claudia.”

“Claudia would,” snorted Grandma “I don’t think that child is very nice.”

“Juffie?” said Irene. “It’s like jail for kids. You goin to juffie? Whadya do, try to sell some oregano?”

“Irene!”

“Hanh?”

In the night Maxine snuck out of bed to the crate where DiDi slept. DiDi woke and snuffled at her, but Maxine sang “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee” and he shut up. He was a revolting little creature, smelly, loud, with a brain too little to do anything but vibrate. He trusted her.

Maxine made herself stop thinking about DiDi trusting her. She eased the crate open and went to the patio door. The moon shone on the sparkles in the concrete. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something that might be a splash at the corner of the pool. Maxine unbolted the patio door. Lifted up as she slid open the glass, to keep it from squeaking. DiDi stood at the screen door, silent. Not yapping at all. She opened the screen. Closed her eyes.


Sarah E. Ruhlen’s poetry has appeared in Slipstream, RHINO, I-70 Review, Coal City Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and the Kansas City Star, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Hobart and Essay Daily’s June 21, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Claire Robbins

TWO STARS, BURNING SUN

Shay and I drove North to Muskegeon for Sweatfest. Shay’s burned CD, titled Motivational Mamas in sharpie, played over twice during the drive. We were going to see If He Dies He Dies, Lorelei, and The Nain Rouge. For Shay, it was about the music and also a bassist she had a crush on, a beefy man who played in If He Dies He Dies. For me, it was about drinking rum and coke on the drive up and slam dancing buzzed. It was also about Shay, who let me kiss her when we were drinking and paraded me around like a poorly trained puppy.

Shay sipped her rum and coke slowly. She was the driver and had to keep a little sober for the ride home, but I could drink my brains out all night. We had gone through the McDonalds drive-through for a large coke, half of which Shay dumped out in the parking lot. We left the empty half pint of Captain Morgan’s on the pavement. This was our routine. We might ask the beefy man to buy us more liquor once we got to Sweatfest, or Shay might befriend boys with beer.

I had recently pierced my eyebrow on the night of my eighteenth birthday. Shay had gone along, she had turned eighteen almost a full year before, and had pierced her belly button a few months earlier. Don’t get too many facial piercings, Shay had warned. She didn’t want me to end up like Tackle-Box, someone we knew from going to shows.

You look hardcore, Shay said, taking her eyes from the road for just a beat too long, jerking the steering wheel straight when she finally put her eyes back on the road. I was wearing the usual, a thrift store D.A.R.E. tee-shirt, black jeans cut off at the knee, and a pair of work boots. I glared at Shay.

What do you mean?

Your hair, asshole, it looks sexy. Shay reached over and grabbed a handful of my hair, which sent shivers down my spine. I had thought about cutting my hair, to look less like a girl, but I loved it when people touched my hair.

You look sexy too, babe. Shay was wearing ripped fishnets, and a lacy dress that was sold as lingerie.

Oh these? She said, running the fingers of one hand over her cleavage. These are for Alex.

Alex was the beefy man. Shay was always doing this to me, teasing because she knew I would do anything for her, but if I ever wanted to go farther than kissing, she would tell me that we were just friends, and that I was too good of a friend to lose.

Sweatfest was held in the conference room of a seedy motel. It was a three-day festival, but we were only up for the night because Shay had to work the following day at noon restocking shelves at the grocery store. I was working for a house cleaning company, but didn’t have to go in until Monday. Shay and I had moved into a two-bedroom apartment together as soon as we graduated from high school, while I was still seventeen. My mom didn’t mind, the move just meant I was one less person for her to keep track of.

Shay pulled her Dodge Avenger into the parking lot of the motel. We’re here, we’re here. She took a long pull of the rum and coke; it was just about gone. I felt warm. Love radiated from my body, or maybe it was sex. I couldn’t tell the difference. We opened the car doors and I pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, which Shay had convinced me to start buying and I had given in, even though they were more expensive than the Marlboro reds I used to smoke. I lit Shay’s cigarette, and then my own. The Lucky Strikes did taste good, so good after the rum and coke. I leaned my body against the car, and Shay put her arm around my shoulder. I figured I would hold off kissing her until she got a little more drunk, but I wanted to right then, in the parking lot.

Ready to go in? Shay asked, dropping her cigarette butt onto the asphalt. She picked up her purse from the driver’s seat and watched me take two more drags.

Can I hold your hand? I wasn’t slurring my words yet, I didn’t think, but I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the day, with the anticipation of dancing and drinking the rest of the day. It was strange feeling buzzed in the sunshine, I thought; it was still only mid-afternoon. Shay looked at me.

Don’t get too worked up, Cam, we’ve got the whole night together. But she took my hand, and we walked past boys in mohawks, clustered around the front doors, smoking cigarettes and joints. The boys looked at Shay’s cleavage, they looked at the steel toes on my boots, and I looked at the knives tucked into their pockets and hanging on their beltloops. I wondered if they’d hit me as hard as I wanted once I started dancing.

We walked into the conference room. There were cigarette butts ground into the carpet and empty red cups and beer cans from the night before. A band was setting up on stage, tangled cords crisscrossed, and a thin boy carrying a snare drum almost tripped. Other kids were standing in groups and the excitement was a heavy skin hanging over everyone. Alex stood at one end of the room, with a can of beer and the guys from The Nain Rouge. Shay pointed in their direction just as I spotted them. I wished the music would start.

Alex looks so good in those jeans.

I looked down at my own pants. I look good in my jeans. I tried to thrust my right hip to the side. Shay rolled her eyes at me and walked over to Alex, wrapped her arms around him. When they pulled apart, Alex looked her up and down. Alex was twenty-eight and had a fiancé. Maybe she was there, I hoped. I stood rooted to the carpet until someone put a Ramones CD on, and then I let my hair fall over my face as I shook my head slowly to the music.

Cam’s being an asshole, I told myself in Shay’s voice over and over in my head, until Shay walked back over and pulled me by my hand to where Alex and the guys stood. They all looked at the tangle of un brushed hair partially covering my face, they looked at my boots.

Hey man, The Nain Rouge’s drummer reached out to slap my shoulder.

Cammie, right? Alex asked even though I had spent at least a dozen drunken nights trying to maneuver my body between his and Shay’s bodies. He should have known my name.

Cam, actually, I glared at Alex.

Right, he said too slowly, smiling and shaking his head at Shay. Maybe their plan was to get me so drunk I passed out in a corner. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, they felt like planets orbiting around my torso. I shoved them into my pockets, then pulled out a lighter and my pack of cigarettes.

Can we smoke in here? I asked Shay.

I’m going to, Shay answered, pulling a Lucky Strike out of my pack. I held up the lighter to light the smoke in her mouth, but she moved her head to the side and took the lighter out of my hands, lighting her own cigarette before passing the lighter back to me. I lit my cigarette and let it dangle out of the corner of my mouth for a few puffs, lifting my face up to the fluorescent lights. I shook my hair back so it wouldn’t catch fire.

I met Shay at bible camp, which was the cheapest sleepaway camp my mother could find but Shay’s family really believed. The camp was called HEARTTS, which stood for Heavenly Ever After Retreat To The Savior, an acronym that didn’t make sense even to fifth graders. Nothing about camp made sense to me except for Shay, who at eleven already painted her fingernails black and had breasts. I had not eaten much all summer because I didn’t want to start my period and I didn’t want to grow breasts, a strategy that only worked for so long.

It was an all-girls camp, which I later told myself was the reason Shay had befriended me—I was the closest person to a boy she could find, and she was desperate for a boyfriend. She let me hold her hand underwater during swimming hole time, and share a table with her at mealtimes. I would put a small amount of food on my plate and watch Shay eat her fill. We had chapel before dinner, a two-hour session during which I would pray that god not give me a period. At the end of chapel, the speaker would invite us forward to the front of the room to receive the holy spirit.

Slowly one or two campers would walk up and kneel in the front of the chapel, arms reaching up as if to catch whatever god dumped on them, well, I didn’t want anything god had for me.

The Nain Rouge’s drummer tossed me a can of beer. I caught it, considered it in my hands for a second before cracking the tab and passing the can to Shay. She smiled at me and took a long drink. I looked to the drummer, who tossed another can my way. I opened my beer and poured the sweet liquid into my mouth. The band that had been setting up began their set. I didn’t recognize them, and they weren’t great, but I shook my head slowly to their music.

I felt Shay’s heat radiating next to me. I wanted to grab her hand, lean in towards her body. I wanted to dance slowly with her, but she was looking at Alex, whose fiancé had stayed home from Sweatfest. She had been in a bad mood Alex said, winking at Shay.

The unrecognizable band played out their set and my joints loosened up from another beer. The person I was inside seemed to peer out from under my hair. I felt better drunk, like who I actually was joined up with the sensations of my body. If He Dies He Dies moved their drums onto the stage. The unrecognizable band unplugged their amps.

If He Dies He Dies opened with Feels Like the First Time. The bass shook my spine. The other kids in the room moved closer to the stage and I could see from their energy that it was only a moment before they began pushing. I turned to Shay, thinking that maybe I could kiss her before I moved up closer to the stage. She stood looking up at Alex, his hand moving along the neck of his bass. It was just energy coursing through my body, or alcohol.

I wasn’t angry as I pushed my body closer to the stage and began wheeling my arms. I could become a part of the crowd, which began to circle. The Nain Rouge’s drummer had followed me up and was slamming his shoulders into other dancers, who pushed back with their arms. The only rule in the pit was to lift people back up to their feet if they fell, because falling would be a type of death under the weight of the crowd.

On the last night of camp, I had accepted the pastor’s call to come up to the altar. About half of the campers were already kneeling in front of the room, arms out-stretched, mouthing prayers or repeating the same words over and over in a kind of ecstasy. Halleluiah—halle—halleluiah, they stuttered before the spirit entered them and strange sounds pulled out of their throats.

Shay was on her back, speaking in tongues. I knelt down next to her and tried praying inside my head. Lord, show me the way. Next to me a counselor knelt down, placing her hand on my back, Lord Jesus, heavenly father, pour your blessings on Cammie, fill her body with your spirit. I pushed my fingers into the carpet, creating ten impressions in its surface. The words, her body, ran through my head over and over, and then my face was in the carpet and words were coming out of my mouth. I was scared but I knew, even as the words left my mouth, that I was faking. I knew that god hadn’t entered me, wouldn’t ever enter someone as mixed up and hungry as me. The counselor seemed to know I was faking too, she gave me a stern look before moving on to another camper.

The thing about slam dancing is that once you get into the circle, it’s hard to pull away from the motion. I was so close to the other bodies, their movements propelling me around and around. I kept moving my legs long past the point of exhaustion. And then the set ended and the dancing slowed and I was able to pull back.

I sat against the wall, smoking. Shay slumped down next to me, took the cigarette that I held out to her, even let me light it for her. She exhaled and leaned her head onto my shoulder.

Where’s lover boy? I asked.

He went into the band room.

Are they doing lines?

Yeah, I think. He wouldn’t let me go in with him. Fuck his ass. Shay reached up and moved the tangle of sweaty hair out of my face. Lover boy, she said, giggling. A power coursed through my body, and I grabbed Shay’s hand.

Do you remember camp? I asked.

Yeah, I remember you got the holy spirit.

So did you, Shay.

No, I didn’t, Cam. I just wanted attention. I was faking.

I leaned over and kissed Shay soft on the lips. She pressed into the kiss and pressed into me, whispering, but I couldn’t hear what she said because a wall of music pushed over the room.


Claire Robbins serves as the guest creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Mehdi M. Kashani

SISTERS AND LISTS

When I was dating Ariana, I never asked if she had any siblings, so it was quite natural to mistake her for her twin sister long after we’d broken up. As a way of correcting me, she introduced herself: Becky. I told Becky how seeing her brought back memories of her sister and, in return, she patted my shoulder. That gesture of sudden intimacy propelled me to invite her for a coffee, which led to a dinner, then another meal, and before I knew it I woke up with her in my arms. Ariana had left me a roster of all the things she didn’t like about me, which she thought was the takeaway from our relationship, though she didn’t give me a chance to address her concerns. With Becky, I tried to be Ariana’s ideal boyfriend. I bought Becky flowers, opened the doors for her and was gentle in bed. None of this left an impression on Becky as she dumped me, magnanimously leaving me with a list of what I wasn’t. A few months passed, where I mulled over her comments until I met Celine and found the sisters were triplets. I’m not who you think I am, she said when she saw my confusion. With Celine it took some time to break the ice, but when it happened it was hard to define boundaries. Unlike her sisters, she wanted me involved (her word) in every aspect of her life and she in mine. It was hard to keep up. After a few failures at involving her in my micro decisions—barhopping with friends without her, for example—she made a macro decision without my input and called it off. As part of the healing process, I went on vacation and was surprised to see Celine—or Becky, or Ariana—in the flight attendant outfit hovering over me. She asked whether I liked chicken or pasta and my eyes bulged open. Whoever you think I am, she said, I’m her sister. Then, she repeated her chicken-pasta question, and, in response, I asked for her name. Diane was fun and charming and didn’t take life as seriously as her sisters did which meant she didn’t mind sleeping with guys on her cross-continental trips. I played it cool for a while until I couldn’t. By that point, I was convinced that Ariana must have other sisters, that if Diane ever left me—which she did because I didn’t respect her freedom—I wouldn’t end up alone. So, running into Erica was nothing unexpected, neither was meeting Franny and Gina and Helen and Irene and Jane and Karen and Leila and Monica and Natalie and Olin and Penny and Quinn and Renee and Sonya and Tanya and Ursula and Veronica and Willa and Xena and Yuko and Zoey. They breezed in and out, leaving traces in my heart and a scrap of paper in my pocket brimming with their likes and dislikes.

When I see Ariana, I recognize her immediately. She’s aged, no doubt. She moves slower and dark lines sit around her mouth, crow’s feet under her eyes. She’s also shrunk in size as if she’s shed away part of herself with the years. I have no difficulty deciding that she’s Ariana, thanks to her sisters who’ve helped me to stumble through the trapeze of time. Myself, I’ve changed too. I introduce myself and keep talking for a while until her eyes shine with recognition. I remember you, she says. You never told me you have sisters, I say. Because I don’t is her answer. I smile as I crunch a jumble of papers in my pocket, twenty-six lists of nice-to-bes and not-so-nice-to-bes. Got time for a walk, I ask. She nods, bringing out the smile I’ve grown so familiar with. I throw my arm around the small of her back, tossing the crumpled papers away with my other hand.


Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in Passages North, The Rumpus, Catapult, The Malahat Review, Wigleaf, Four Way Review, The Walrus, Bellevue Literary Review, among others. He has work forthcoming in Emrys Journal (for which he won 2019 Sue Lile Inman Fiction Award), The Fiddlehead and The Minnesota Review. To learn more about him, visit his website.

Categories
Fiction

Jackie Chhieng

SABRINA NGUYEN AT THE 7-ELEVEN ON LOMBARD

Sabrina stands in front of the fridge a little too long. Her grandmother’s curling ear follicles twitch beneath the weight of its hum.

“Bibi, you wasting electricity. Close door.”

She does so slowly, savoring the exhaling wisp of frigid air as it shuts.

Sabrina’s grandmother is watching television in the living room, molded into a cracked burgundy chair. She bends down to grab a vase by her ankle and brings it close to her mouth, dribbling brown sludge from her lips down into its opening. The dip hits the bottom with a wet slap. She puts it down and slides another pinch of tobacco between her lip and gums.

On the screen Bob Barker guides a young woman to a multicolored wheel, beckoning her to spin. The pleasant beeps of the wheel gradually puts Sabrina’s grandmother to sleep.

She moves without hesitation, kneeling behind the backside of her grandmother’s chair, she reaches beneath and fishes out a blue Royal Dansk cookie tin. Popping the lid open, Sabrina snatches a five dollar bill and immediately slides the tin back to its hiding spot.

Slinking away, Sabrina shoves her flip flops on before she leaves the house.

Her mother’s car isn’t in the driveway. Fluid stains on concrete leave spectral traces of presence.

Fires in the Gorge belched great heaps of smoke onto the city. A red sun hovers in the mid-evening haze, imbuing everything with a dull pink glow. Everything has a sharp and pinching taste to it now. Nobody in the city has had a clean breath in weeks.

Sabrina’s flip-flops smack up and down the street. She’s nearly out the block when someone hails her from a nearby stoop. It’s her grandmother’s friend, an old man with an eyepatch. The one that leers at Sabrina’s legs whenever he thinks she isn’t looking.

“Bibi. Where’s grandma,” he asks in Vietnamese.

“Sleeping,” Sabrina says in English.

“Okay okay. Where’s mama?”

She shrugs.

“Okay okay. Where you going?”

“To the store.”

“What store, Bibi?”

“7-Eleven.”

“Okay okay. Come here, Bibi, come here.”

Reluctantly, Sabrina approaches the old man. A thick, herbal scent seeps from his body, a sort of fermentation that could have been alcohol or just the ointment he rubbed for his aching bones. Up close, Sabrina sees how calloused and dark his skin is. It reminds her of her grandmother’s chair.

The old man with the eyepatch buries his root-like fingers into his shirt, producing a crinkled up wad of dirty bills. He pushes them into the pocket of her denim shorts. She feels his fingers loiter on her thigh for just a second too long before he draws them out.

“Bring Uncle beer. Like this.” He holds up an empty bottle of Heineken beside him.

She opens her mouth to say something but catches herself mid breath. The old pervert either forgot Sabrina’s age or didn’t care. She smiles all the same.

“Yes Uncle,” she says in Vietnamese this time. “Uncle, can I have a cigarette?”

A glazed look emits from the old pervert’s unsheathed eye. It dawns on him a second later what Sabrina is asking. He reaches for the mint-green pack of Newports besides him and hands her a cigarette. Sabrina tucks it behind her ear. 

“Don’t tell grandma,” he says, and smiles with a broken grin.

Sabrina thinks she can feel his empty socket winking from behind the patch.

With a newfound unease she retreats to the bottom of the stairs and makes her way out of the neighborhood, past lawns thick with dead grass and strewn with toys, past harried hounds desperate to keep her at bay, past glittering brown glass shards sprinkled across concrete until she finally reaches Lombard Street.

~

Sabrina Nguyen is eighteen years old. She dropped out of high school at sixteen and agreed to started taking care of her grandmother to avoid being kicked out of the house. Her mother works graveyard shifts at a meat processing plant in Hillsboro. Sabrina never sees her but she always leaves phantom remnants of her presence—a freezer stocked with frozen pizzas, clean laundry for Sabrina and her younger brother, an ashtray in the living room brimming with cigarette butts.

All the fingernails on Sabrina’s left hand are permanently black, a side effect of subungual hematoma from when her father smashed her fingers with a hammer after she was caught stealing his wallet. The day after, Sabrina’s father moved out. Her uncle Tuan stayed with them for a few months after that. He kept a gun on his drawer and always talked about killing Sabrina’s dad if he ever saw him. Uncle Tuan was imprisoned on a felony charge a few years ago after he brutalized a TriMet cop that asked him for his ticket. Sabrina wore a splint on each of her busted fingers for about two months. She specifically remembers the bone of her middle finger pushing out of the skin, as a moth from a cocoon.

A few months ago Sabrina overheard a conversation her grandmother was having on the phone with a distant aunt in Thủ Dầu Một. Apparently her father had moved to Texas with a woman he’d been having an affair with. They had two kids together and ran a coffee shop in Dublin. Now and again, Sabrina still drops things from her left hand that she has trouble gripping.

Sabrina doesn’t have friends. She spent most days sitting on the couch watching TV with her grandmother. Together they’d watch game shows from morning till night: The Price is Right, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal, and Jeopardy. In the milky luminescence of the TV’s cathode rays, Sabrina and her grandmother would talk about how they’d have been better contestants and what they’d do with their winnings.

Most evenings Sabrina prepared a frozen pizza for her and her brother. She’d knock on his door to let him know dinner would be ready soon. In the corner of her eye she’d glance at the door at the end of the hallway—the one that belonged to her mother. It was never open. The barest gap peeks from the bottom, like an eyelid just cracked. Sabrina watched the door every night, then afterwards sat in the darkness of her room listening until her mother woke up and left for work.

~

Sabrina is smoking outside the 7-Eleven on Lombard.

She reaches into her pockets and pulls out the cash the old pervert gave her. Vietnamese banknotes. About six-thousand đồng, a little over a twenty-five cents. She pushes them back into her shorts and flicks the cigarette butt into the parking lot.

She walks into the 7-Eleven. The lights inside are dim. The air is cold and artificial, breathing in and out of ceiling ducts and recycling itself deep within the store’s organs. In here, everything is given an opportunity to push their life-span beyond its natural limits, from the chicken tenders dreaming beneath the warming lights to the Polish dogs splitting themselves apart on the rollers.

With the five-dollars she stole from her grandmother Sabrina combs the shelves for cheap snacks, counting the total up as she goes. Two beef sticks, a bag of sour gummies, a can of sweet tea, some chapstick, and finally, a slice of pepperoni pizza adhered to wax paper by thick globules of burnt, melted cheese.

“The pizza’s free,” the cashier says as she pries it off with her tongs. “It’s uh, been here awhile.”

She sorts Sabrina’s things into a paper bag and sets it aside. Propping herself on her elbows, she leans in close to speak.

“You come here a lot, huh?”

She’s about Sabrina’s age. Eighteen, maybe nineteen. A black hijab pleasantly frames her round face, the muted color of the fabric contrasts with the pink flush of her cheeks.

“Sometimes.”

“Yeah. I recognize you. You’re always buying junk food. Do you really think you should be eating all this stuff?”

Sabrina borrows a breath, holding it tightly beneath her chest. She debates taking the bag and simply walking away.

“I don’t know how to cook,” she says finally.

“Hum,” the girl says. “That’s fair. Me neither. My father cooks all the meals in our house. What’s the deal with your hand?” She reaches for Sabrina’s fingers and snatches them up, dangling each finger in her hands like it was a large crab.

“They’re all black on the end, and crooked too. Is that paint? No, it’s underneath the nails as well. Someone run it over?”

“Something like that.”

Sabrina likes the way her hand is being held. It imbibes a feeling of vulnerability without the weight of anxiety that normally accompanies it. She watches as the girl pushes her fingers apart and closes them with curiosity. The cashier gently puts her hand to rest back onto the countertop.

“Say, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“When you walked in here, did you feel something change deep inside you? Do you feel different? Were you the same person coming into this store as the one outside it?”

“Um—”

“Sometimes I think this store is a gateway to another universe. The front doors are the portal. You know how each planet has a different gravitational pull, so how much you weigh fluctuates from planet to planet? That’s how I feel about this store. I feel like there’s some cosmic change that’s completely distinct from the world outside. But, the change is deeper, it’s less tangible then say, one’s weight. Something inside me has changed shapes in here.”

She balls up her fist and holds it to her navel.

“Anyway, that’s just how I feel. Maybe you don’t, maybe the hundreds of people coming in buying cigarettes or booze don’t feel that way. Does the 7-11 on Lombard street exist on a universe all its own? I don’t know. It’s just how I feel,” she says again.

~

When Sabrina was younger she dreamed of playing an instrument.

Her father played the guitar. His was tall and black, gilded across the sides. After a night of drinking, Sabrina often heard him on the porch strumming as one of his friends sang old provincial folk songs. He loved Phạm Duy, and played his music late into the evening, much to the chagrin of their neighbors.

Uncle Tuan could play the piano. There used to be a Hailun in the living room. He only played for two people, his girlfriend and Sabrina’s grandmother. When Tuan went to prison, he told Sabrina’s mom to sell it to help pay for rent. Her brother was in his school orchestra. Sabrina remembers seeing him so quiet and demure in his chair, flute resting atop his knees. The old pervert had a viola. Her grandmother said that now and again he’d take the train down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and busk for beer money.

None of the women in her family played music.

She held an instrument once, a guitar that belonged to her grandfather, Baba’s husband. No sooner did she she bring it up to her chest did she feel a violent needling on her beaten hand. Sabrina dropped the guitar to the floor, its sonal moan emptied into the pit of the room. She abandoned the notion, and elected never to revisit the issue again.

Sabrina wonders what her father is doing now. She has never been to Texas. In her head, she pictures an unending plain flattened by dust. Her father sits in the only building for miles, playing his guitar in between sips of coffee. His wife and children sit on the stoop, listening to him play.

The old pervert wasn’t on the stoop when Sabrina walked back. His pack of Newports sits on the top step. Sabrina rushes up to grab them, leaving the trash from her snacks on his porch.

A dim and colorless night is coming soon. Her mother’s car is still gone.

Her grandmother is sleeping in her chair. An infomercial for a dog stroller hums in the background. She slips her sandals off by the door.

Sabrina retrieves the đồng from her pocket. Unfurling the dirty bills, she gently bends down to grab the tin beneath her grandmother’s chair. She places the money inside and pushes it back.

“Bibi,” her grandmother murmurs.

“Yes, Baba,” she answers, frozen behind her.

“You make dinner?”

“Not yet. I’m going to.”

“Good, good. Put Wheel on for Baba.”

Slowly, Sabrina gets to her feet. She picks up the remote and flips the channel. Vanna White is on the screen, illuminating squares with the touch of her hand. Sabrina’s grandmother shuffles in her chair, a smile creeps across her tobacco-stained lips as she closes her eyes again.

“Bibi, grab box from Baba chair. Take ten dollars.”

“What for?”

“For you. You good girl. Baba want to give.”

Again, Sabrina finds herself perched beneath her grandmother’s chair. She removes the money from the tin. For a moment she holds the ten dollars in her hands, then places it back.

“Thank you, Baba.”

No answer save for a few hoarse wheezes rising from the belly of the chair. She’d fallen asleep again. A stillness reaches over the room.

Things were different when Sabrina’s father lived here. Their house exerted the tempers of an uneasy treaty, held aloft by the looming threat of her father’s rage.

Sabrina holds up her hand to examine, folding the fingers in and out of her palm. With her unblackened hand she traces a line from the top of each tendril down to her wrist.

He’d grabbed her by that same wrist, his own thickly calloused fingers rooted so tightly that no amount of kicking or punching could force their release. Sabrina’s father dragged her into the kitchen. In the web of snot and tears that amassed upon her face she pleaded for him to stop.

She watched him as he reached for a cutting board and slammed it on the counter, then as he yanked drawer after drawer open looking for his cleaver. He never found it, and settled on the hammer instead.

Sabrina walks into the kitchen. Nothing really changed here. Her mother threw out the hammer and the cutting board, both of which were stained with Sabrina’s blood when the bone had punctured skin.

She removes a pizza from the freezer and puts it on the counter, then sets the oven to ding when it finishes preheating.

She knocks on her brother’s door to tell him dinner will be ready soon. He doesn’t answer. Palming the door open, she sees him poring over his desk, a pair of headphones over his head obscures her presence. He’d cried when his father left. Sabrina never resented him for it, but she often wondered why he felt that way. Sabrina closes the door, now again in an empty hallway.

At the end of the it is her mother’s room. A pink glow peaks beneath the gap. Sabrina slowly pushes herself closer and closer to the door. Something within her begins to feel light and weightless. She leans her body against the frame. It feels like nothing, her body now devoid of substance, a phantom anatomy.

The more force she puts through her fingers, the emptier she feels. Sabrina feels her body lose its tangibility. She feels herself merging with the door. No, she’s phasing through the door, shifting past the its physical form and into her mother’s room. The glow seethes from the other side, permeating Sabrina’s skin.

Her eyes are closed. She feels the bathing pink wash over her. Sabrina kneels. Something instinctual has burrowed inside her. It tells her the time to open her eyes hasn’t come yet, but to wait patiently, and that it should be here soon. She wonders if this is what it means to change shapes.

Perhaps this was her mother’s room, perhaps this was another world. She would never know until she opened her eyes. The thought keeps them clamped shut. In her head, she imagines the abstract of what this room would look like, mining the far veins of her memory for what she remembers.

Sabrina has been in this room only once before, after her father broke her hand.

She pictures it as it was then: a queen-sized bed with an array of comforters and blankets her mother purchased from the flea market, a dresser with a vanity, the surface of which was littered with jewelry she never wore, there was a Buddha in the corner, sitting sentinel over a congregation of incense stumps. The scent of jasmine and menthols mixed into a potion here.

Her mother sat her down upon the bed to examine the warped remains of her hand. She held it up, crushed and shrunken like the corpse of a freshly stomped spider. Leaning close, she whispered something in Sabrina’s ear.

Sabrina doesn’t remember what her mother said.

The oven dings. She opens her eyes. The pink has swept the room away. There is nothing in here. The vanity, her mother’s jewelry, the Buddha in the corner, all of it is gone, as if her mother and any trace of her had vanished into nothingness. In place of the things her mother had there was now just a flat futon mattress on the ground, a pile of clothes in the corner, and the ashtray which used to be on the vanity.

Sabrina licks her lips and nods her head.

“Yeah. Yeah,” she says to the unadorned walls.

Sabrina stands up and returns to the kitchen. She places the pizza into the oven and sets another timer for when it has finished cooking. Producing the pack of cigarettes from the old pervert, she steps outside onto the porch. The concrete has cooled somewhat now. All that’s left now is the hazy glow of smoke and starlight. She holds a cigarette in her left hand, and lights it with her right.

She thinks about the girl at the 7-Eleven, now at home waiting for her father to finish dinner. She has her elbows propped up on the table, telling him about her day and about meeting Sabrina. A dimness aches in the night. Far and away, she can hear the sounds of Vietnamese folk songs chasing dust across the plains of Texas.


Jackie Chhieng lives and writes in the Treasure Valley. They’re lactose intolerant and share a room with a red-tailed boa named Sylvia. Some of their writing can be found in Foglifter Journal, Thin Air Magazine, and Ouroboro.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Alex Ebel

CLOSE TO HIM

Brady modeled in his underwear. Flexing alone in his bedroom mirror, he contorted himself into the eighteen signature poses required of competitive bodybuilders. He’d release a deep breath at the end of each pose, naming the next out loud to himself before sucking in another gust of air. Bodybuilders give wild, toothy grins when they hit their marks on stage. Brady had yet to master this, his face swelling instead into a constipated purple grimace. Digging his toes into the carpet, feet turned slightly outward, he sucked his navel into his spine and bent forward. He made fists and curled them up to his sternum. Crab pose, BAM.

He propped his phone against a stack of magazines on his desk and flicked the camera awake. Brady led himself backwards after tapping the record button, standing between the camera and the door on which his mirror hung, his back reflected behind him.

“This is for you, Tiffany,” he said as he began to run his palms over his shaved chest and down his stomach, sloppily working his underwear down to his ankles. He whispered to the camera, to Tiffany, telling her how hot she was making him, though in truth, Brady was more aroused by his own dwarfed image in the camera. He practiced a few of the more sensual poses he knew. Poses he’d seen men make the week before in the conference room of a Howard Johnson, where he and Jason, his boss at Vitamin Village, had attended the Birmingham Area Bodybuilding and Yoga Symposium for Health Instruction and Training, or as it was quietly known around town, BABYSHIT.

He liked to imagine himself in the future, his body trained to a level suitable for competition, posing before a line of judges below him, writing notes in their legal pads and nodding approvingly to one another. The kid’s got amazing glutes, he imagined someone saying as he strutted across the stage.

Brady’s knees began to shake, he winced. Oh fuck yeah, Tiffany, he whispered. The rapping of this mother’s knuckles came quickly at the door before she turned the knob and tried to push her way into his bedroom.

“Brady, your chicken is boiled!” she called cheerfully as the door swung open. The hanging mirror approached Brady quickly from behind before bouncing off his back.

“Get out!” He shouted, snatching up his underwear.

Jan didn’t need to guess what she had interrupted. She had seen the magazines sprawled open, scattered across his floor. Tan, shirtless men in skin tight underwear on every page, flexing, gazing into the camera with an alarming intensity. Men possessing the kinds of stares she imagined seeing behind plexiglass partitions in prisons. My poor son, she thought, my poor, secretive, repressed, gay son. Embarrassed on his behalf, she pressed a loving hand against his closed door, murmuring gently, “your chicken is boiled.”

Brady didn’t go downstairs until he heard his mother’s bedroom door shut. He sat alone in the kitchen, reading articles about macronutrient ratios and ketosis while he spooned dry brown rice into his mouth. His daily carbohydrate allowance, 30 percent of his total caloric intake. He bit into the pilled white chicken breast and swallowed without breathing so he wouldn’t have to taste it. Clenching his fists as he chewed, he watched the tendons in his forearms undulate like legs moving under a blanket. He didn’t like how deeply his veins were buried beneath his skin. I could be more vascular, he thought, standing up from the table. He emptied the container of rice into the trash, he felt bloated.

*

A hard-boiled egg sagged in Brady’s shirt pocket the next morning as he drove to Vitamin Village. A plastic tray of cold cuts, his school lunch, rested in the seat beside him. Jason would already be at work, he arrived hours before the shop opened to lift weights in the back room. He liked to get a good pump, as he called it, first thing in the morning, so the fabric of his Village polo would hug his chest and biceps a little more snugly. He told Brady it motivated customers, or at the very least, it intimidated them into believing they needed every powder and pill Jason recommended. Brady could hear music playing from the sidewalk outside, the Sorry, We’re Closed sign still hung from its hook, vibrating against the glass door with the rhythm of Jason’s soundtrack.

The bell above the door rang as Brady let himself in. Jason emerged from the back room, shirtless and panting, pumped, a white towel draped over his shoulders like a derby winner’s garland.

“What are you doing here so early?” Jason asked.

“I needed some more pre-workout,” Brady said, taking the egg out of his pocket and cracking it on the counter next to the cash register. “And maybe a different protein powder,” he added, “the stuff I’m using has too much sugar I think. I’m looking for something non-dairy, I’m bloated.” He pulled a stamp-sized salt packet from his pocket and sprinkled it over the peeled egg.

“It could be the protein powder,” Jason said. “But that salt isn’t helping either.” He took the egg from Brady’s hand and wiped it off with his towel before taking a bite.

“Come on, man,” Brady said as he took half his egg back. “I’m already having trouble getting enough protein as it is.”

“Maybe your problem isn’t ingestion,” Jason said, a look of sage wisdom in his eyes. “Maybe it’s absorption.”

“What?”

“I’ve been doing some research online,” he said. “According to certain forums, your body only absorbs about 20 percent of the protein you ingest when you swallow it, but some people suggest there’s a way of of bumping that number up to more than 80 percent.”

“Some kind of new supplement or something?”

“No, they say it’s not so much what you’re supplementing with, but how you’re getting it in your body. These guys have been taking all of their stuff as suppositories.”

“What does that mean?” Brady asked.

“It means they’re sticking supplements up their asses.”

*

Jan sat at her kitchen table and wandered through Youtube in search of new “It Gets Better” videos. Over the last few months, she’d slowly been working on a playlist, one she would inevitably send Brady a link to after he came out to her. She had been working on a game plan, imagining the whole teary-eyed scene for hours on end. Brady’s tears, not hers, she would be strong for her son. She would show him that he had nothing to be ashamed of. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she would say as she reached across the table for her weeping son’s hand, “I accept you,” or possibly “to me, you are perfect.” She had yet to decide on the final phrasing, but the pressure was on, she knew how important a parent’s reaction to their gay child’s big reveal really was. Say the wrong thing, and you’re cut out of their lives forever.

Often, in the midst of one of her imaginary speeches, she would mouth the words as she recited them in her head. The phrases rising out of her in loops repeatedly, endlessly, like a catchy theme song or a radio jingle, her mouth and tongue silently practicing the shapes they would make.

A kettle howled on the stove and Jan stood to retrieve it. She poured boiling water over a mound of instant coffee flakes that swirled and dissolved at the bottom of her mug. She sat back down at her laptop and added another video to her playlist, this one from the cast of Glee. Despite her attempts at steering him towards the show, her son had never watched it, or even shown an interest in it for that matter. Such a shame, she often thought, so many valuable lessons. It wasn’t uncommon for thoughts to cross her mind involving her son and the children she saw on television. She imagined his days in school to be as vibrant and lively as they were onscreen, and for that matter, just as socially volatile. Less singing was involved, obviously the show couldn’t be entirely accurate.

“It’s going to happen soon,” Jan said into her bluetooth later that afternoon as she drove to Jamba Juice. “I can tell, he’s going to do it soon.”

“How are you so sure?” Her sister asked. “I still don’t understand how you can be so positive he’s gay, let alone how you can tell he’s going to talk to you about it.”

“Maternal instinct,” Jan said. She pictured her son’s empty bedroom, just as she had explored it earlier that morning. The coppery, nearly naked men in those magazines, the smell of sweat, the unexplainable appearance of a multitude of hand towels. She felt there was something under the surface, some emotional trauma bubbling up inside of him every night when he closed himself up in his room away from her. He was growing distant, spending more time out of the house, going down to his job at the supplement shop hours before he needed to be at work, and staying late for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint. Why else would he monitor his diet so diligently? What seventeen year old boy buys self-tanning lotion? Gay. He had to be gay. And if he wasn’t ready to admit it, she was going to be sure he knew that when he was, she would be the picture of acceptance. “A mother just knows,” she said.

Jan was waiting for Brady at the kitchen table when he arrived home from school. Two styrofoam cups sweat on paper napkins beside her open laptop. Surprised, Jan snapped her computer shut when she saw her son.

“Hi Angel,” she said. “I got you a smoothie. Do you want to sit down with me and catch up? It’s been a little while since we’ve had a nice talk.”

“I can’t right now mom,” Brady said. “I have to get to the gym before it gets too crowded and all the squat racks are taken.”

“What about just a quick chat? At least drink your smoothie with me?” She lifted the cup from the table and tried to hand it to him. He waved it away.

“I can’t mom, that has too much sugar.”

“But it’s your favorite, come on,” she pleaded, his self-loathing must have been more severe than she thought. “Razzmatazz!”

Brady carried his backpack upstairs to his bedroom, where he gathered his clothes for the gym, his shoes, his headphones, and finally his supplements. He went into the bathroom.

That morning Jason offered to special order the same products the men online used as suppositories, but also suggested that filling empty capsules with powdered supplements would have a similar effect. Brady ordered a case of 500 empty gel caps online, and would make do with improvisation until they arrived.

He stripped in the bathroom and looked up an article he’d found in third period. It was about celebrities on cleanses taking coffee enemas each morning as a way to jump-start their detoxification rituals.Brady shook a bottle of neon green liquid taken from work that morning. Even with his discount, it had been overpriced. Primal Rage the label read. The stylized image of a preposterously muscular caveman clutching a spear sprinted across the bottle. Exxxtreme Lime Flavor! Power-packed with paleo friendly, dairy-free protein. Enhanced with exclusive energizing pre-workout enzyme formula!

Brady unscrewed the cap as his mother crept up the carpeted stairs and waited at the end of the hall, listening for signs of distress. Brady didn’t yet have the supplies the article suggested he use, but the neck of the bottle itself was slender. Cautiously, he squatted down, exhaling deeply as he carefully tried to insert it into himself, to no avail.

He stood and covered the lip of the bottle with hand lotion, then lay on his side, his mother’s plush bath mat below him. He did a little more research on his phone, guilt on his face as he searched different combinations of words. It might seem like the wrong thing to do, one forum advised, but if you push out, if you bear down on the object, it’ll slide in easier. Brady tried to picture himself growing larger; outgrowing his clothes, outgrowing Birmingham, outgrowing his life. He would find one of the hyper-tan, ripple-bodied women he’d seen photographed beside some of the men in his magazines. He saw himself storming down a beach beside a faceless model, the two of them pounding craters in the sand with their sinewy legs, flexing and grunting for each other in the exotic grapefruit haze of the Carribean sunset.

Green liquid spilled onto the bath mat as the bottle made its second approach. Brady pushed, and as the bottleneck slipped inside him, he let out a moan of discomfort.

Oh, my god, Jan thought as she stood outside the bathroom door. He’s hurting himself.

Brady took deep breaths as he climbed to his feet, steadying his weight against the sink, holding the bottle in place. He bent forward, touching his toes in an attempt to make gravity aid the liquid’s drainage into his lower intestine. He waited to feel the energetic rush of the drink’s primal power. He reddened as his face and neck filled with blood. He waited, bent at the waist.

“Brady?” Jan called cautiously from outside the bathroom door. Her hand jiggled the knob. “Brady, are you okay in there?” Her son snapped up, his vision blurred. White specks drifted and multiplied across his line of vision, the room grew dark, his heartbeat pounded in his temples. He lurched forward to block the door, and in doing so his bare foot slid across the tile, still slick with extreme lime flavor.

Jan heard the heavy thud of her little boy, a fully grown man, hitting the ground. She heard the sound of glass shattering.

“God doesn’t make mistakes!” she screamed, slamming her body into the bathroom door, harder and harder, until it hurled open. She found her son unconscious, naked on his side, covered in liquid the color of antifreeze. She saw no blood, only shards of a broken bottle glittering across the tile floor between the two of them. Brady stirred, and began to slowly collect himself on the floor. It was then that Jan noticed the neck of the bottle, spiked shards of glass, emerging from her son like a light bulb broken in its socket. Brady felt it still inside him, panicked, and began to sob like a child startled by a popping balloon.

Jan rushed frantically through the glass and collapsed on the floor, pulling her crying son into her lap. She felt then as though she could leave herself, a bodiless spectre, floating above the mess, viewing it from some place beyond the room.

Soothing him, combing through his damp tangles of hair with the fingers of her free hand, she reached down to retrieve the ring of glass from inside Brady’s limp body. It came out in one piece, followed by a quiet sputtering of murky green liquid. She continued rocking him gently, tears of relief in her eyes. It felt good to be close to him again. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I know. It’s okay.”


Alex Ebel is a queer writer currently living in Boston, where he received his MFA at Emerson College. His work is featured or forthcoming in The Southampton Review, The Maine Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, American Chordata, and Hello Mr., among other publications.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Raina K. Puels

GREEN ETERNITY

I never thought I’d work with dead bodies. When I went through beauty school, I pictured working in a salon with big windows and lots of gossip. I thought I’d sweep floors until I could afford to rent my own chair. Then the fancy cemetery opened. Fancy isn’t the right word. Different, yes. Expensive, definitely. People from all over the country pay to have their corpses shipped to our town, Penn Hills, Pennsylvania to be buried at Green Eternity. Before that Penn Hills was only known for coal. Then we got famous for having the first ever natural burial ground: no caskets, no pesticides, no chemicals, no headstones. Only acres of wildflower fields.

Green Eternity pays good money to the half of the town who work as gardeners, pest management, gravediggers, publicists, gift shop workers, morticians, ministers, and refrigeration experts. Then there’s me. The cemetery recruited me from beauty school to cut their clients’ hair, trim their nails, shave their faces. Hair grows even after you’re dead. Well, not exactly. When you die, your body gets all dehydrated, so it shrivels and more hair becomes visible.

It used to make me feel weird that I groomed people who couldn’t tell me how they wanted to look. But I got used to it. I had to if I wanted to keep my salary. With a dad who got crushed in a collapsed shaft the summer before I left for college, and a mom who died of a heart attack from diabetes, I was the only person who could take care of me.

Before I worked at Green Eternity, I could barely pay my bills, on account of having spent all of my dad’s life insurance on two years at Penn State—his dream for me. But one night of partying at the wrong fraternity house and I couldn’t stay there. When I saw the brothers in my classes and in the dining halls, all I could do was shiver. So I moved back to Penn Hills and enrolled in beauty school. It was a practical way to make money. Except that I had to pay my tuition and buy scissors, rollers, makeup brushes, blow dryers, combs, cleaning solution—the works. And then, flipping through catalogues for classes, I would see things I needed. Like a fast-heating straightener to tame the unruly waves coming out of my head, a heat-resistant mat to lay it on so I wouldn’t burn my trailer down, and miracle repair cream for the damage it would do to my hair. The only way I could afford it all was with credit cards, so that’s what I did. Taking a job with a good salary would help keep the creditors off my back. So that’s how I ended up working with dead people in a windowless basement.

At least I had Deb, my only friend at Green Eternity. She was the only female gravedigger and could make a grave in half an hour, twice as fast as the guys. She got into construction young; she had to make money after her parents disowned her after she burned all of her church dresses on the front lawn and chopped off her waist-length hair. She still wears it short. We met at my beauty school when she came in to get a cheap cut. After we bonded over being orphans, we became friends who watched three or four movies in a row and ate bags of chips and frozen pizzas and pints of ice cream and candy bars and finished those off with Kahlua milkshakes and brandy. Then she started dieting, so we stopping seeing each other outside of her monthly hair appointments. It also could have something to do with the fact that she would always put her arm around me and I’d fold into her, but as soon as she tried to do more, I’d freeze and make excuses to leave. But ever since we started working together, we were friendly again.

She almost died from laughing when I told her about a body I prepared last week. The guy was 40, one of those big shot financial guys in New York City who had a soft spot for the country. After he made more money than god, he planned to retire young and move somewhere without any asphalt, or so his sister said during his service. But then he had Chinese takeout one too many times and his arteries couldn’t handle it. That’s how he ended up on my table. He was pretty okay-looking: blue eyes, high cheekbones, pretty pink lips. Except that he had an awful, scraggly beard. I needed to get rid of it. I took my straight razor and zip, nip, clip—it was gone. He went from a five to a seven, just like that.

Then I noticed Charly, the assistant director, watching me from the stairs—she never came all the way down. She was a dumpy woman who never wore makeup or brushed her hair, all because she was too busy taking care of her geriatric mother and reporting to Green Eternity’s real director, who lived in New York City. When she saw my shave job, she gasped and put her hand on her chest like I had been the one that killed him:

“Temperance, did you consult his sheet?”

“I looked at it, but I didn’t read it. Didn’t need to. I knew how he’d look the best.”

“His sister specifically requested that we leave his face alone. It’s all in the notes. He’s had that beard for twenty years. It was a slice of the countryside he had with him every day in the city. He’s having an open-casket funeral in two days. If he doesn’t have a beard by then, you won’t have a job,” she said and mounted the stairs back to her fifth-floor office that gets more natural light in one day than I see in a week.

By “open-casket” she meant that the lid wouldn’t have been put on his cardboard box. At Green Eternity, our clients pay top dollar for a “casket” that biodegrades into a million pieces as fast as possible. They’re not afraid of maggots devouring their flesh or earthworms crawling through their eye sockets. The thought of that kills me—it’s my rationale for being cremated. Then I can bypass the whole decomposition thing and have my ashes thrown into the ocean. I can only imagine how vast and blue it its. The only body of water I’ve spent time around is the Allegheny River that winds through Penn Hills. Only a fool would swim in its murky, strange-smelling waters. Not even fish will touch it. It’s nothing like an ocean full of majestic creatures. I’ve seen TV shows about whales as big as three school busses and dolphins that sing. I’d rather have bits of me explode out of their blowholes than be chomped on by creepy crawlies with too many legs—or no legs at all.

Before the financial guy could meet this fate, I had to figure out a way to bring his beard back to life. That got me thinking about using some of his other hair to replace what I’d chopped. I took the cover off of his lower half and shuttered. Then I did what I had to do: I shaved him bald and found some super glue.

I spent the next couple hours dabbing bits of glue as small as pores onto this guy’s face and sticking his pubes to it. When I was done, all of the shiny bits of glue were hidden and the guy looked like he had a real beard. In fact, my beard was more aesthetically pleasing than his original one: it didn’t climb toward his eyes or scraggle down his neck. I ranked him a six.

I used to date a six—a quiet guy named Barry with a lot more going on in his noggin than you would ever think judging by his droopy eyes and the way he shuffled his feet. When we started going out, he was sick all the time; his lungs were so damaged from the mines that black came out each time he coughed. It was miserable to watch. Then, his mama found out she was dying because her tits were rotting off—his words, not mine. He had the option of leaving the mines to take care of her. None of his older brothers wanted to hold her hand while she watched Jeopardy, go to church with her, or to upkeep her garden. So I pushed him to do it. Hard. I thought that seeing the sunshine and breathing fresh air might heal him. And it did. After caring for his mama for a month, his cough went away.

Every summer morning, Barry went out to tend her garden. She said she made her own tropical oasis, because she never made it down to Florida. Her garden was the only splotch of color in the whole “mobile home community.” All the trailers were splotched with brown, their white paint having been too hard to keep up with. The whole park was covered in gravel, so at any time a family could plop down a new unit without having to worry about it sinking into the grass.

Barry’s mama pilfered dirt and flowers from the side of the highway and plopped them down outside of her bedroom window. Each year, the black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and orange lilies came back. She taught Barry how to deadhead the lilies. At first he felt bad. Why would you cut the heads off of flowers? But then he saw that the lilies liked it. The more he chopped, the fatter and more orange the blossoms were. He practically skipped out to the garden every morning and sometimes even found himself telling the purple coneflowers to stop being so selfish and to leave room for the lilies.

But after a few more months of spending time with his mother all day, his eyes got dull and he barely spoke. Our relationship fizzled. He stopped asking me how I was doing and chose to cuddle with the remote rather than with me. When I told him things weren’t working between us, he nodded and left, without ever meeting my eyes. It made me mad that he didn’t try to fight for me. I would’ve tried real hard to keep me in my life if I were him—especially because I’m an eight point five.

The summer his mama was on her last legs was my first month of work at Green Eternity, not long after Barry and I broke up. He walked down to my basement and looked at his scuffed, brown boots. His wavy hair fell into his eyes and stuck up toward the heavens—it looked like he hadn’t touched it since we split. I already knew what he was going to ask, but I decided to pull it out of him anyway, on account of the fact I was still bitter that he picked Duck Dynasty over touching me.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Well, my mama’s dying and I, uh, she wants…but…but, we can’t afford it,” Barry said, looking down.

“What do you want?” I asked again, tapping my foot.

“Wild flowers and, uh…” Barry bit his cuticles. “We can’t afford a normal burial, so, uh…”

I took a long, deep breath. When I expelled the last dregs of air in my lungs, he still hadn’t spoken. I couldn’t wait for him any longer: “If you want me to risk my job and help you bury your mother at Green Eternity then there better be something in it for me.”

“Tempy, I’m sorry. My mama’s got a mean streak…I couldn’t cook her cornbread right, read her the bible right, or even drive right. And she let me know it. Every day. After a while, I started to believe it. So, uh, I didn’t think I could do you right either. Now that she’s so sick that she can’t talk, I’m starting to feel a whole lot better.”

My shoulders slumped. Oh shit.

“I’m sorry. I had no idea she was so nasty. No one from this town can afford to be buried here anyway, so we might as well make a heist out of it.”

Barry looked up at me. He almost smiled. “Two fifty for you and two fifty for Deb?”

I nodded. Barry wrapped his arms around me: gasoline, clean linens, and wet earth. His smell didn’t make me giddy the way it used to, but it still felt good. Then, Barry pulled away.

“There’s something else I wanted to ask… After my mama goes, the last place I’d like to be is underground—even though all my brothers are there—and I, uh… Are there any open gardener positions?”

“I’ll talk to Charly. But she doesn’t like me.”

“Really? I thought women always did,” Barry said and looked up at me. Then he turned and climbed back up the stairs three at a time.

Later that day, during lunch, I walked toward the flower fields, sneezing from all the pollen. They were bursting with daisies, purple asters, and firewheels. From afar, I loved looking at Green Eternity’s grounds. But up close was another story. I couldn’t stand the feeling of bumblebees bumping my legs, the needy sound of crickets, or the way my ergonomic clogs flicked up mud that caked to the backs of my legs. Unfortunately, I had to brave it to find Deb.

She was on her lunch break on the opposite side of the field from the other guys. She sat in her dirty, yellow backhoe and picked at a salad. I hoisted myself into the machine and sat on the cracked leather. I looked at her round face and admired how clean it was. She never had to worry about scrubbing off eyeliner, or getting mascara stuck in her contacts like I did. Ever since I moved back to Penn Hills, I haven’t left the house without black lines around my eyes and red on my lips.

“That doesn’t look like much fun,” I said, motioning toward her lunch.

“I’ve been trying this diet: no carbs, no sugar, no alcohol. If I can stick with it for a few more weeks, it’s supposed to make all my cravings go away,” she said, and put a piece of lettuce into her mouth.

“Then I guess I shouldn’t have brought this for you,” I said, taking peanut butter cups out of my pocket—her favorite.

She eyed the candy and reached her hand out. I flinched it away.

“First, I have a proposition for you,” I said.

“Is it sex?” She looked at me and batted her stubby lashes.

“No, but you’d make two fifty for digging a grave after hours.”

“Whose grave?”

“Barry’s mama’s.”

“You want me to risk my job to bury your ex-boyfriend’s mom?” Deb picked up her fork, looked at the candy in my hand, then put her fork down. “I guess I could use the extra cash. The queer youth shelter in Pittsburgh always needs help… Now gimme those cups.”

I handed them over. She ripped the packaging with her teeth, peeled back the wrapper, and popped the whole cup into her mouth. She closed her eyes and moaned. It didn’t matter if she was in a gas station, sitting on a bench on the side of the street, or on the bus—if she liked what was in her mouth, she moaned. When she opened her eyes and saw that I was staring at her, she smiled.

“I missed watching that,” I said and climbed out of the backhoe.

The next morning, on my way into Green Eternity, I saw Charly leaving. The bags under her eyes looked like they could explode with ink at any moment.

“My mom fell again last night. I need to get home and change her bandages. Make sure to read all of the notes I left with the bodies. Please. Your last few haircuts have been sloppy, so you better fix that, too,” she said and disappeared outside.

“A-plus for encouragement,” I said and went into my basement.

The first person on my table was an old woman with firetruck-red hair and tattoos peeking out from the white sheet over her body, which definitely was not the 600-thread count she was used to. I recognized her immediately from the tabloids. She was a fashion designer-activist who spoke out against fur and leather. Her shtick were garments made from sustainable bamboo colored with dyes made from lichens. I bet she didn’t want to pollute the earth in a traditional cemetery. I also bet that she had no idea about the many years of toxins from the mines that had leached into the soil all over Penn Hills.

When I pulled her sheet down, I saw an ornate phoenix curve from under one breast, down her side, and around to her back. On her thigh, a topless mermaid posed underwater, hair flowing behind her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be free to swim wherever I pleased and be uninhibited by everything happening above the surface. I stripped off my sweaty gloves. Before I could type tropical vacation into Google, my phone rang. It was Barry. His mama hadn’t woken up to see her flowers.

That night, the peepers went crazy with their songs like they knew something exciting was about to happen. When I got to Barry’s, he smelled like whiskey. His mama was still in her bed right where she died. Her lips and fingertips were blue. There was a puddle of vomit on the floor from when Barry must’ve realized she was gone. I wrapped her up in a sheet. He only came into the room when I called for him. I picked up her feet. He flinched before taking her head. She was much lighter than I expected. She made a smack when she hit the bed of his rusty truck.

When he couldn’t get the key into the ignition, I traded seats with him.

It was dark, but the big moon shed its silver light over us. Even though I wore long pants and bug spray, I kept slapping mosquitoes as we walked through the fields. When we got to the plot, we laid the body down on the long edge of the grave. The grass and flowers were so tall that Barry’s mama disappeared. Deb got out of the backhoe and stood with us in front of the hole. It was twelve feet deep, two times deep as regulation so she could put a client on top in the morning and no one would know there was someone underneath.

Barry swayed to the left, then overcorrected and swayed to the right. “I know you guys wanna kiss each other. Why won’t ya just do it?”

Barry turned and looked at us. I was great at buying things on Amazon I didn’t need like a shower curtain with a tropical underwater scene and neon fish, but I’d always been too afraid of following that impulse. I felt Deb’s warmth next to mine and wanted to grab her hand, but we both stayed silent and forward-facing.

Then Barry shrugged and said, “It’s time for a prayer.”

“Religious mumbo jumbo’s not for me,” Deb said. “I’ma go sit in the backhoe. Wave to me when it’s time.”

I stayed with Barry and watched Deb walk away. Her jeans fit real nice.

“God bless this earth where my mother lies. Let it forgive her bad breath and her ill temper and the way she used to beat us. I’m supposed to be sad, but, uh, really, I’m glad. Hey that rhymed,” Barry said and started to laugh.

He laughed until his body shook and he was speaking in tongues; the sounds coming out of him were half animal and half god. His face was all twisted and red and his cheeks were wet and his arms flailed. He gave a mighty roar from the back of his throat and bent his knee and shot out his foot and sent his mama flying into the hole like a soccer ball. Her body made a soft plop when it landed at the bottom. Then he waved like a maniac at Deb. The backhoe grumbled before its long appendage scooped up dirt from the large pile next to the grave and released it over the hole. Barry stood dangerously close to the edge as he watched his mama disappear. My hand made circles on his back, but he didn’t feel them.

On the way back to the parking lot, Deb and I linked our arms with Barry’s to keep him upright. He was catatonic when we loaded him into the back of Deb’s jalopy. Then we walked around to the front. Piles of wrappers littered the passenger seat. It smelled like chocolate. Even though it was dark, I knew Deb turned red before she pushed the candy carcasses to the floor. Her face looked soft in the moonlight. She was normally a seven, but right now she looked like a nine. I put my hand on her thigh:

“Will you teach me how to swim?”


​​Raina K. Puels is the Nonfiction Editor for Redivider. She leaves a trail of glitter, cat hair, and small purple objects everywhere she goes. You can read her in The Rumpus, PANK, The American Literary Review, and many other places. See her full list of pubs: rainakpuels.com Tweet her: @rainakpuels.