Categories
Fiction January 2012

Patty Somlo

SLOW SWALLOWING

The water tasted chalky and warm. Eying the second hand of her watch, Mary Beth swallowed and waited.
She’d been practicing slow swallowing, convinced that it would make her lose more weight. She wasn’t hungry, she reminded herself, trying to ignore the gurgling sounds her stomach was making.

Mary Beth had gotten down to a hundred and five pounds. She was five foot three and three-quarter inches tall, with long legs but a short waist for her height.

Two months shy of her fortieth birthday, Mary Beth was beginning to think this latest guy, Miguel, might be the last straw.

Miguel had asked Mary Beth to dance at a crowded salsa club, on a warm June night. The band was playing a meringue. Their one-two steps fell into sync as Miguel twirled her under his right arm, smiling each time he turned back around. Miguel wore his hair stylishly long, combed back from a high, stately brow. Smooth and straight from the front, with strands receding on top, the hair fell into soft curls that clustered against Miguel’s neck and caressed his collar. Miguel was from Spain, born and raised in Valencia, a name he pronounced with ample use of his tongue. In the silver BMW he drove, modern gypsy music cried out, while green and yellow lights lit up the console. Friday nights, Miguel took Mary Beth to a crowded club tucked in an alley near the wharf, where expatriate Spaniards ate tapas, drank bitter red wine poured from plain glass carafes and listened to Flamenco. Mary Beth learned to clap with her palms held stiff and flat, a one-two beat, keeping time with the guitar.

Absent the exotic foreign veneer and the substantial house in the hills surrounded by mature oak and eucalyptus trees, with a bay view on fog-free mornings from a deck upstairs, Miguel was a somewhat dull engineer, good at algebra, which he’d used to his advantage. Mary Beth, though, had an overactive imagination. She took the occasional writing workshop and made the fatal mistake of giving Miguel a love poem she’d written about him. The following week, Miguel neglected to call.

Mary Beth lost her appetite. By Sunday, she was having trouble concentrating.

“Hi, Miguel. It’s Mary Beth,” she said, in the first message she left on Sunday night. She tried keeping her voice pleasant and light.

“Just called to say hi and that I was thinking about you. Call me.”

Her phone didn’t ring once that night.

The following evening she called after walking in the door, without taking off her coat. Hearing his recorded voice with the musical accent, made her want him more.

“Miguel. It’s Mary Beth. Are you avoiding me? I hope not. Please call.”

That night, she felt too anxious to eat at all. At nine o’clock, her stomach started to gurgle. Her eyes bored into the phone. She pulled a box of crackers from the shelf and lifted the waxed paper bag out that was inside.

She pinched each side of the bag and pulled. The seal refused to loosen at the top. The second time she slid her hands closer to the top and yanked in opposite directions, waiting for the quiet sigh signaling the adhesive had freed itself.

When the bag wouldn’t cooperate, she hurled it across the room. It ricocheted off the wall and landed on the floor. Instead of picking it up, she raised her right foot over the bag, let her shoe drop and smashed the bag several times. She could hear the crackers crunch.

She bent over and picked the bag up from the floor. The bite-sized, round brown crackers had been beaten into a fine pale dust.

After tossing the bag in the garbage, she walked to the bedroom and stared at the phone. For years, she’d been under the illusion that wishes could be granted by visualizing positive outcomes. She closed her eyes and imagined Miguel in his living room, lamps glowing on the end tables. He was dressed in a navy blue running suit, with white stripes reaching from the waist down to his ankles. Yes, he’d just jogged in the door from his every-other-night run up and down the hilly wooded streets of his exclusive neighborhood. He considered whether to take a shower or dial Mary Beth’s number on the phone.

Of course, he couldn’t wait to talk to the woman who he realized now that he loved. The thought caused him to drop down on the couch, even though he was sweaty and his breath and heart rate hadn’t calmed. It was true, he had to admit, as he admired the city lights through the tall windows framing the living room’s west wall. He was a lucky guy. He wanted to call Mary Beth now and let her know.

Mary Beth imagined Miguel lifting the sleek black phone and placing it on his lap. She watched him punch in the numbers and prepared to hear the phone ring.

Two weeks passed. Mary Beth had lost eight and a quarter pounds. Each morning, she stepped on the scale. Half-asleep, she studied the red numbers as they drifted in and out of focus.

On the second Friday night Mary Beth was spending alone, she dialed Miguel’s number. The clock on the nightstand said it was nearly eight o’clock. She listened to the phone go through its obligatory four rings before the automatic voice of Miguel picked up.

“Theese is Miguel.” The voice sounded deep, quiet and breathless. “I am on the other line or not at home. Please leave your message and I will call you right back.”

“No you won’t,” Mary Beth hissed.

“I know you’re avoiding me,” she spit toward the receiver, after hearing the beep that sounded like a desperate moan. Her mood shifted from anger to despair and then to dread. “Please, Miguel,” she pleaded to the plastic receiver. “Call me back. I just want to know what’s happening.”

Waiting for Miguel to call, Mary Beth flipped through the September issue of Vogue. The tragically thin girls on the sleek pages had lives Mary Beth could only imagine and envy. Think about being so thin that no matter what you slip on, you look like an advertisement, she scolded herself.

By the end of the third week, Mary Beth had shed twelve pounds. She was so weak, she had to walk slowly to and from the bus. Breakfast consisted of black coffee and one hard-boiled egg, with pepper sprinkled over it but no salt. Salt would make her retain water and cause the numbers on the scale to inch up. Every morning, she packed her lunch: three-quarters of a cup of nonfat cottage cheese with an apple sliced up. At night she sat at the kitchen table, her book propped against a 24-ounce bottle of water, sipping one teaspoon-full of chicken consommé after another.

After four weeks when she reached her twenty-pound goal, she decided there was no reason to celebrate or stop. Weak and hungry and dizzy every time she stood up, the bones in her face and across her collarbone were only just beginning to jut out. In front of the mirror, she’d strike a Vogue model pose, her right foot in front, hands on her hips, and yes, she could feel the smooth hard surface of her hip bone. But it wasn’t enough.

On Monday morning at the start of the sixth week, she sat at her desk, staring out the window. As the account executive with the least seniority, Mary Beth had been shuffled to a back office overlooking a six-story parking garage, with a paved roof-top lot.

This morning, she couldn’t take her eyes off the man. He was hanging from straps, while washing the tall windows of the office building next to the garage. Mary Beth, who was deathly afraid of heights, couldn’t imagine the courage it would take to strap up and hang yourself from a building. The wind was blowing and rain pelted down, but the man didn’t stop.

Mary Beth thought to herself, It’s a sign. You keep going on, no matter how terrible the weather, no matter how much you struggle.

The phone rang. Mary Beth picked the receiver up.

“This is Mary Beth,” she said, using her first name without the last. In PR, Mary Beth thought it helped to sound friendly and casual.

Buenos dias, Mary Beth.”

The man had extended his legs out in front. He appeared to be sitting on an imaginary couch. A moment later, the man pressed his feet against the building, in an attempt to keep steady in the blustery wind.

Mary Beth recognized the voice on the other end but was too surprised to know how to respond. The man was swaying less, now that he’d planted his feet against the building. She watched as he pulled a squeegee down the window, in one long firm and flawless stroke.

“How are you, Mary Beth?”

The man, she could see, wore a belt around his waist, onto which he had hooked a rope that kept him from hurtling to the ground. He slipped the squeegee into a notch and pulled another tool with a long thin pole out, that he held straight up and guided down, leaving the surface shiny.

“I have been thinking about you. I miss you.”

The man was using his feet to move himself across the building. At his far left, a glass elevator was gliding up. The panels were a pale milky green, reminding Mary Beth of the color the ocean gets when waves slowly break in the sun. The man’s movements, as he pressed the squeegee against the glass and drew it down, reminded her of a dancer, the squeegee having become a lovely long extension of his arm.

“Beautiful,” Mary Beth sighed, having momentarily forgotten Miguel on the other line.

“What?” Miguel said.

His voice brought her back to the slim black phone and the computer screen that had gone dark. Her head felt fuzzy, as if she’d sipped one too many glasses of wine. The computer screen swayed to the right. The phone receiver dropped and dangled toward the floor.

The man finished the last window moments after Mary Beth passed out. She would have been excited to watch him climb back up, his hands holding the rope and his feet pressed against the building to steady himself. She might have been tempted to wave and smile.

He gazed in her direction, while enjoying a well-deserved smoke. Mary Beth was slumped over, her chin bruised from hitting the keyboard.

Miguel hung up, assuming Mary Beth didn’t want anything to do with him. He’d only called, he assured himself, because he was horny.

The man crushed his cigarette butt under the good-grip sole of his work boot and turned his back toward the window where Mary Beth no longer looked out. He noted the time on his watch and then stepped into the elevator that was on its way down.

At home, his wife asked him what had happened that day and the man replied, “Nothing.”

When Mary Beth came to and recalled what seemed like a dream, she thought, I watched a man risk his life today to make the world a little bit brighter.

___________________________________________-

Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest. She is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories, published by Paraguas Books. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, the Jackson Hole Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains and Fringe Magazine, among others, and in several anthologies.

Categories
Fiction January 2012

William J Fedigan

THUMB JELLO

Crazies on Ward B hear Captain screaming, screaming all day, night. Crazies not surprised. Crazies know Captain. Captain’s frequent flyer on Ward B, visits 10-12 times/yr, like his home away from.

Crazies used to Captain screaming, screaming at his thumb, screaming: Fat Mike you motherfucker motherfucker motherfucker.

Fat Mike is what Captain calls his thumb, right thumb, split nail, dirty, nasty fucking thumb.

Crazies know Captain. Crazies know: Stay the fuck away from Captain. He got sharp teeth.

What happens when Captain stops screaming, he bites his thumb, bites deep, bites til it bleeds. Next thing, Captain screaming again, waving thumb, calling it Fat Mike, blood flying round. Orderlies, big as coup deville, grab Captain, tie him down & into rubber room. Nurse puts bandage on thumb, doc gives shot in ass, Captain’s out, sleeping like he’s in coffin. Crazies smile.

Next a.m. Captain’s unleashed, doing thorazine shuffle, walking like he drank too much wine, needs to sit down, take it easy before he falls down. Captain sits next to Jimmy. Jimmy thinking: Shit.

Captain raises thumb in air like sword. Jimmy thinking: Shit. Captain hisses at thumb like rattlesnake. Jimmy thinking: Shit. Captain says real low: fat mike, you motherfucker motherfucker motherfucker. Jimmy thinking: Man talkin to thumb hissin like rattlesnake should be in rubber room, permanent guest.

Captain’s tired now, chin drops to chest, nods off. Thumb falls thru the air like rock into Jimmy’s lap. Jimmy jumps, Captain jumps, thumb twitches. Captain says: fat mike fat mike fat mike. Captains says it real low, nobody hears cept Jimmy. Jimmy’s gotta ask: What the fuck you sayin?

-FAT MIKE! Captain screams. Crazies run, doors slam, orderlies looking over.
-Take it easy for chrissakes, You wanna say somethin, say it low, Jimmy says, sorry he asked in first place.
-Fat Mike. You remember Fat Mike? Captain saying it low.
-Yeah. I remember Fat Mike. He’s dead. Heart attack, stroke, some shit. He’s dead.
-NO! WAS MY THUMB! THIS FUCKIN THUMB! Captain screams, raising thumb in air like sword. Jimmy thinking: Shit!

Orderlies moving fast like coup deville, saying : Fuck Shit Son Bitch!
Jimmy says to orderlies: Everything’s ok. Don’t worry bout it.
Orderlies stay awhile, then leave, but watching close.

-Take it easy for chrissakes. What the fuck you talkin bout? Jimmy asking Captain. Jimmy gotta know.

Captain whispering now: I stuck my thumb thru Fat Mike’s eye alla way to his brains. Captain saying it like it’s nothing at all, sticking his thumb thru the man’s eye alla way to his brains.
-You’re sayin you killed Fat Mike? Jimmy says.
-Fat Mike, he called me a crazy retard motherfucker. Fat Mike got mean eyes when he says it so I pick one eye and stick my thumb thru alla way to his brains.
-What? Jimmy says, looking at Captain’s thumb, right thumb, split nail, dirty, nasty fucking thumb.
-His brains felt funny. Like jello, but harder. When I pulled my thumb out, looked like cherry jello. Do you like cherry jello, Jimmy?
-What the fuck you talkin bout? Fat Mike died of a heart attack, stroke, some shit…
-Maybe we’ll get cherry jello for dessert tonite. I like cherry jello. How bout you, Jimmy? Captain says, not hearing Jimmy, thinking about cherry jello, how nice it looks, how good it tastes…
-Listen to me. You didn’t kill Fat Mike. He died from a heart attack, stroke…

Captain jumps up, screaming at Jimmy: CHERRY JELLO! Captain rips bandage off thumb, bites thumb, thumb bleeds. LIKE THIS! RED LIKE CHERRY JELLO! CHERRY JELLO! CHERRY JELLO…

Orderlies coming fast. Captain raises thumb in air like sword, stabs at orderlies, at Jimmy, stick em in the eye if he can. Jimmy tries to jump out the way, but too late, gets thumb in eye. Jimmy saying: Fuck Shit Son Bitch! Orderlies grab Captain, rubber room again, shot in ass again, sleeps like corpse six feet down.

Crazies watch, look at Jimmy, eye turning purple but brains ok. War over. Quiet time. Crazies smile.

Wk later, Jimmy’s out, discharged. Captain leaves AMA. Back in 24, his home away from.

Jimmy and Flower walking in park, nice day, sun hurts Jimmy’s eye.
-I hear Captain’s back on Ward B, Flower says to Jimmy.
-His home away from, Jimmy says. Eye hurts, black-blue swollen fucking eye.
-Wanna know what he did this time? Flower says.
-What he do, thumb-fuck somebody? Jimmy says.
-Captain thumb-fucked himself.
-What you talking bout?
-Crazy retard motherfucker stuck his own thumb thru his own eye. All the time he’s screamin something bout how Fat Mike did it, not him, it was Fat Mike did it. Crazy retard motherfucker.

Jimmy’s gotta ask: Do you remember Fat Mike?
-Yeah. Died last year. I went to his wake. Whadda fuckin wake. Never forget it.
-Why?
-Never saw a one-eye corpse before. They putta patch over one a Fat Mike’s eyes even though both eyes’re closed. One-eye corpse for chissakes. I took one look and got the fuck outta there.
-Shit, Jimmy says, blinking his eye, making sure it’s still there, still in his head.

Flower and Jimmy smoking now. Smoke hurts Jimmy’s eye. Jimmy thinking: Shit.

Jimmy blinks eye two times to make sure. He blinks two more thinking: Shit.

_______________________________________

William J Fedigan writes about who he is, what he knows, where he’s been.

Categories
December 2011 Fiction

Justine Haus

MOTHER’S MILK

My mother poisoned me on the day of my first period. We spent the morning hiking through the woods behind our house to a field near our church where there was, each spring, a fragrant and abundant rash of daffodils. We collected dozens of them in a lacquered straw basket that was usually kept on top of the bureau in the guest room. On occasion, when I was very nervous or home alone sick from school, I would go quietly and take the basket down and lick the handle for a few minutes. It tasted sweet and pickled. I held the basket while my mother snipped the flowers off at the bottoms of their stalks and dropped them in. First, she would turn the blooms of the daffodils up toward the sun and say “What sweet faces they have. Don’t let their heads get crushed.” We had about thirty flowers by the time my blood started showing. My mother noticed it before I did. I was walking ahead of her and the sun glared with so much heat and whiteness I couldn’t see. She snatched the basket from my hands and instructed me to be still. She moved her fingers tersely, like a doctor, over the back of my thigh. “We have to go back to the house now.” She said. Mother carried the basket of daffodils tight against her chest as we walked through the woods, and blood pooled in the heel of my sandal.

She filled a plastic tub with bleach and water and dropped my shorts in. They looked like an organ suspended in milk, vague and dark red. I sat on the floor with my back against the bath, the bumps of my spine kept knocking against the porcelain and getting sore but I didn’t want to stand up and encourage my bleeding. Mother stood by the window chewing on her nails in an animal way.

“Do you understand what’s happening to you?”
“I already know about it all.” I told her
“What, all?”
“You know,” I lowered my voice “sex things.”

Mother’s eyes were small, dark pebbles set far back in her head. “This is not a sex thing.” She hissed, and she scowled at me with her cold imperial mouth drawn into a thin line.

Later on that night Mother brought a glass of milk and two blue pills up to my room. I took them while she sat in a chair next to the bed watching me. Once all of the milk was gone she rinsed the glass and filled it with water and daffodils and placed it on my nightstand. “Your period can make you feel very sick,” she said “Sometimes you can’t even get out of bed.”

“I know.”

She began speaking in an aloof, wounded voice. “I didn’t realize you were an expert on the subject.”
“I’m not. I just know things.”
“I didn’t get mine until I was seventeen.” She said “I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was dying. Unlike you, I didn’t have a mother kind enough to teach me about these things.”

Then, quite suddenly, I began to vomit. There was no warning, no wavering of my stomach or saliva flooding my mouth. It came in a sudden and vile rush. It splashed, still cold and milky, across my floral bedspread and onto the carpet. My mother lifted me up with a gentle firmness that I had seen only once before when she walked our dog into the vet to be put down. She carried me back to the bathroom and I heaved violently into the toilet. Mother smoothed my hair and rubbed my back, sometimes gouging me with her nails, as she said, “See, I told you it might be like this.” She pinched my cheeks a little and lifted my face up to look at her. My eyes, I’m sure, were red and swollen from the vomiting. My face must have been slick and bulging, my hair stuck around my mouth. Mother said, “What a sweet little face you have.”

_______________________________

Justine Haus’s work has appeared in PIF Magazine and The Reader. She lives in New York City