Categories
2018 Fiction

Sarah Van Bonn

MOJAVE

She wasn’t very good at roller-skating, but it didn’t matter. It was so hot outside you had only a few early-morning minutes to check on the garden’s thirsty carrots before running back in to the air conditioning.

Her aunt claimed to feel earthquakes, several times a day even, but she herself never felt them. Whenever she thought to check, she found the ground steady.

Entering the dim cold of the rink was like putting a jar over a candle flame until it ran out of breath and snuffed itself out. Every day without fail, the loudspeaker announced, “Grab your sweetheart, it’s time for our couples’ skate!” and she’d make her way off the floor to sit at a sticky booth until her exile was over.

There was routine to the variation. Girls-only skate, boys-only skate, couples skate, backward skate, free skate. When the whole loop had run its course, she would unlace and head outside, the heat a wall and the light a knife-blade as soon as she opened the door.

Soon, it was the Fourth of July and they sat on a blanket with another family from church, eating ice cream and watching the dog shake every time a firework worked fire. Jonathan was two years older and Janice three years younger than her, just too young to be friends with. But it was fun to smile back at Jonathan’s smiles and even laugh at some of his jokes.

When the ice-filled soda found its way through her, she headed to the bathroom on her own, feeling grown-up. She was wiping her just-washed hands on the side of her dress when she heard a soft bleat from behind her: “Can you help me?” She looked around to see a shocking mountain range of pale flesh, trembling hands attached to it somewhere, clutching an outstretched assembly of garments. “Please help me,” it said.

She saw the mess then, soaking through the fabric gathered in the mostly-naked woman’s hands. It was smooth and liquid and a light, even brown. She’d never seen anything like it in her own toilet, and there didn’t seem to be an odor, but still, no doubt what it was.

“I just lose control,” said the woman. “It’s from my medication.” A looming shadow; someone else entered the bathroom. An adult was there—did it mean she could go?

She edged out of the bathroom’s doorless doorway, just a hole filled with empty night air, but still somehow a boundary.

The air was big above her but the ground was close, and when she tried to find the way back, she couldn’t distinguish one family from the next, each on a dusty plaid blanket, identical unreadable faces turned toward the sky.

At church, she was never invited to take Communion. A small part of her wanted to, had always wanted to. Back home, she’d gone with Grandma to the Catholic church but stopped just shy of the age of First Communion. She’d always envied the pew parade. But there was a price behind those wafers. She felt it lurking.

This church wasn’t Catholic. It didn’t seem to be distinctly anything else, though it was definitely rigidly something.

“But how do you know God is real?” she’d asked her aunt from the kitchen table as her aunt cooked dinner.

“I can hear Him. You just have to believe and then you’ll feel Him in your heart. Ask Him, just ask Him to talk to you.”

Obviously, she’d tried that. She’d lie in the bedroom alternately trying to feel earthquakes or to hear God, but either way met a wall of stillness. Was there really nothing? Or was she just ill-equipped to detect it?

Jonathan wrote her a letter about how beautiful she looked in her blue dress, and how much he wanted to kiss her. She’d always wanted a boy to want to kiss her, but now that one actually did, she felt only mild nausea, like she’d managed to make a big mistake somewhere without noticing what it was.

She couldn’t look at Jonathan at church the next week, and from then on, the boys stood in clumps and whispered whenever she entered a room. At the skating rink, they began to cut in front of her, block her way, point and snicker from across the shiny wood circle.

“Jonathan says you want to do things with him,” said his sister Janice, dipping brittle chips into neon cheese, as they waited out a boys-skate. “But he doesn’t want to because you’re dirty.” It wasn’t clear whose side Janice was on.

One day, her aunt drove the minivan not to the skating rink but to the house of some neighbors with a pool, where she could swim with a group of neighborhood/church girls. It was unclear where the boundaries lay between “neighborhood people” and “church people”; everyone in one group seemed to be in the other too.

The older brother in the family has cancer and this is why his head is hairless, an adult at church had informed her, though she hadn’t asked.

Since she’d come to the desert, greater and greater streams of hair had begun to wind themselves around her fingers every time she shampooed. Maybe I have cancer too, she thought. She passed the bald brother on her way to the pool. He didn’t seem sad, the way she imagined a cancer-haver would.

Would you even be able to notice an earthquake in here? she wondered, staring at her distorted limbs through the pale water. When the spider floated belly-up next to her elbow, body big as an apple, she cried out, “Oh my God!” She remembered what her aunt had said about black widows, how they spun uneven, ugly webs, how only the females were venomous.

The bald brother’s younger sister, who was older, still, than her, whipped wet hair around and fixed her with a sour look. “Don’t say the Lord’s name in vain.”

All the girls’ eyes were on her suddenly, as many eyes as the dead spider had, and with that same stony glare. She looked away, back at the bloated body, wished to be as buoyed and indifferent as it was. One of its eight hairy legs reached out, sent a ripple toward her.

An earthquake? No. The world was still, still.

The other girls had already moved on. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. She noticed how often they said it to each other, laughing and splashing as they swam in wide arcs around her, heading to the other side.


Sarah Van Bonn is a British-American writer currently based in Berlin. Her work can be found in/on The Southampton Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, WNPR, The Rumpus, LUMINA, South Asia Journal, Prism International, and elsewhere. Read more at sarahvanbonn.com

Categories
2018 Fiction

Janet Dale

AFTER MOON

 

He’s probably already drooling on his pillow, Heather thought as she backed her car out of the compact parking space. The sky was dull, as if a jar of purple-black ink had tumbled off a celestial desk and crashed spilling its contents. The further she drove away from Michael’s apartment complex, the higher the moon peaked over the pine tops; casting an eerie glow.

“I’m just so over the moon,” Heather said to the empty passenger’s seat. Wait. Her words reminded her of a favorite actress’s first movie—the one where a young girl falls in love with a wrong boy during a sultry Southern summer. What was it called? Something moon.

“Blue moon?” No.

She had read somewhere earlier in the week this was going to be the brightest moon of the year or decade. She couldn’t remember which, and she didn’t care. They were over, and she wanted the world to match her mood; dark and sad, not shiny and bright.

And what were they exactly? Boyfriend/girlfriend? No. Friends? Once upon a time, yes. But now she cared more about his life (the one she wasn’t in) than he did about hers (the one he wasn’t in). Michael only texted when he wanted her, and lately that was often.

“Howling at the moon?” No.

Merging onto the highway, Heather thought about how long they had known each other. Four or five years? She thought about what they went through together when their relationship was easy to define; a colleague had been diagnosed with and had subsequently died from brain cancer. The shared loss gave them a comfortable silence to sit in together. Conversations only began to change after she was promoted and moved two hours away.

This was the fourth time in six months she had driven to see him. It was also the fourth time she left not satisfied, giving the 126-mile trip back to her house the opposite feeling of the trip to his apartment.

“Goodnight, moon.” No.

If one of her close friends had been in the same situation and had come to her for advice, she knew exactly what she’d say: Stop. No. He’s not worth your time. When was the last time he came to see you? When was the last time you, you know, came?

“Fuck you, moon.” Please.

The first exit sign she noticed, prompted her to glance at the gas gauge with its needle hovering near E. She would have to stop soon, no way around it. Tonight’s trip hadn’t been planned like those in the past. It had begun with an especially naughty texting session which somehow convinced her to ignore the work she needed to finish before Monday morning.

“Irresponsible, moon.”

Heather scanned the radio for distraction. A laid-back song helped until the chorus kicked in: “It’s such a fine and natural sight, everybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight.” On another station a flamboyant preacher’s voice chided, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh…” Silence would have to do.

“Dammit,” she muttered, passing another well-lit exit.

A red warning light flashed and she knew she’d have to settle for whatever was at the next exit. What time is it? She had purposely stashed her phone in the back seat so she wasn’t tempted to text him. The clock on the radio glowed 3:04, but she couldn’t remember if she had changed it the previous weekend for Daylight Saving Time.

Veering off the dark off-ramp, she didn’t see any structure, let alone a gas station. When she came to a stop, she reached back for her phone to see 2:07. She asked her phone which way to the nearest gas station and then held her breath as she turned left.

Approximately 3.7 miles later, she pulled into the sleepy gas station. When she stepped to the back of her car, she saw the pump was old-fashioned with numbers that spun on a wheel to indicate price and gallons. Never having seen one in person, the pump fascinated her. She went inside the attached convenience store to prepay, and a bored-looking teenager behind the register was shocked to see her. He put down his phone, pushed his hair out of his eyes.

Heather handed him a twenty-dollar bill, and pointed toward her car. “I was worried you might be closed.”

There was no response, but he began punching buttons on the register.

She searched for small talk to fill the silence, “Have you seen the moon tonight?”

He finally looked up at her and managed a tight smile, “I heard about that, but haven’t really paid too much attention it.”

“It’s not that special,” Heather lied.

While filling her tank, she heard a loud continuous thumping. Looking around, she saw an army of insects hurling themselves against the large front window of the store, attracted to the artificial light. The sound of their exoskeletons crushing against the glass made her shutter. As soon as the pump stopped, she hurried back into her car.

Heather reversed directions and when she reached the highway, she tried the radio again. The slow strains of a single piano crackled through the speakers, and she relented, resting both hands on the wheel. The song was sad and slow, matching the way she felt. It wasn’t until her vision became blurry she realized tears were streaming down her cheeks. When she reached up to wipe them away, she could still smell his skin on her fingertips. There was a pause and the piano sped up; Heather felt like she was flying down the highway.

Several beats after the piano finally came to a halt, a male voice began explaining: “That was Annie Fischer’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, Opus 27, No. 2…”

“Oh, Annie, perfection.”

The male voice continued: “Recorded at the end of 1958, this piece is commonly referred to as the Moonlight Sonata making it perfect for tonight.”

With a flourish, she turned off the radio for bringing up the moon again. Then she realized it had been travelling alongside her the entire trip, and she was disappointed knowing she would associate this night with this beautiful moon.

“The man in the moon!” Heather shouted, startling herself as she remembered the name of the movie.

Fifteen minutes later, she took another exit, and when she came to the familiar Stop sign, she reached back and grabbed her phone. Heather sent Michael a text to let him know she had made it safely, and without waiting for a response she blocked his number. She tossed her phone back into the back seat and turned the wheel in the direction of her house.


Although she claims Memphis as home, Janet Dale lives in southeast Georgia where she teaches first year writing at Georgia Southern University and is always reading something (including submissions for Nightjar Review). Her work has appeared in Hobart, Zone 3, Pine Hills Review, Really System, and others.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Will Hearn

MAN FOR SALE

I started talking to grass two weeks after Dad’s heart stopped. I hadn’t lost my mind or thought it would help the grass grow, but Dad had talked to the Zoysia, especially as he grew older, and the more I took the positions he’d taken in his final days, the more I became an awkward version of him.

“You’re doing alright,” I said and wiggled my toes in the grass.

For hours he’d stood there in his dirty robe, water dribbling from the hose in his hand, mumbling encouragement. That grass was an island in a sea of hardy invasives, clinging to its territory, guarding it like an underdog country in a border battle.

“Don’t give up,” I said, looking down at it.

The Zoysia hadn’t impressed anyone by spreading, but it had impressed me with one thing: it outlived Dad. And though I’d never believed it before, I thought it might need encouragement to go on living, the way everyone did now and then.

“Who are you talking to?” Gloria said. She was the teenage Jackson daughter, and the only one in the family I would end up liking.

Even though Dad’s body had been dropped in a hole at the cemetery in town, it seemed he was actually buried here, still mumbling encouragement from below the dirt and beneath the shade of the oak trees. I’d guessed that he followed us home from the funeral. As if things weren’t hard enough.

He had given direct, however obscure, instructions in his will: the estate was to be left to Gerald and I. And because Gerald was too busy and I was a pushover, it was my responsibility to sell what I was beginning to believe was actually our Dad to the strangers.

Like I said, I wasn’t losing my mind. But I wasn’t quite myself either.

“My brother and I lived out here during the summers,” I said, ignoring Gloria’s question and waving my arm like a magician at the landscape around me. Gloria’s younger brothers did not look up from their phones.

At that time, I figured the two boys’ hearts were the ones I needed to win. Since Gerald was pushing me to sell as fast as possible, and because I’d always been one to take the longer, harder route to success, I ignored Gloria.

I tried for Mrs. Jackson instead. She had been walking around with her bleach-bright smile all morning listening to her husband’s visions of demolition and ostentatious construction.

“Doesn’t the lawn look fine, Mrs. Jackson?,” I said, gesturing to the Zoysia.

She looked at it and nodded. The rest of the lawn was a disaster, just overgrown weeds, but if you just looked at the Zoysia, it truly was fine.

“Could I,” Gloria cut in, looking from me to her Mom, “have pool parties and invite friends over?”

Mrs. Jackson beamed. “Oh, of course, honey. You could have all of your friends over.”

I looked around. “But, there’s no pool here.”

“Not yet,” a voice drifted down from the garage. Mr. Jackson high stepped towards us, pinching his khakis at his hips, watching his loafers and talking excitedly. “But it’s number one on the list.”

I surprised myself when I spit in the grass, like Dad at a church barbecue. He never wanted anyone thinking he was impressed, and a good spit seemed to express all the complexities of his distaste with none of the labor of speaking.

“There’s a pond, you know,” I said. I wiped my mouth and pointed past Gloria. “We swam in it all summer.”

Gloria was horrified. “Aren’t there—things in there?”

“Of course. Fish, frogs, turtles, even—” I paused, hoping to see the eye color of the boys, “—snakes.”

The oldest boy raised an eyebrow but didn’t look up.

A soft moan escaped Gloria’s mouth, and she turned to walk uphill, putting as much space between her and the pond as possible. Mr. and Mrs. Jackson smiled painfully at me.

“We never had trouble with the snakes,” I said.

I spit in the grass again.

                                                                             *

“Maybe you could come down and help,” I said. “It’s weird without you and Dad.”

Gerald snorted into the phone. “You mean it’s weird not hearing all his hacks and spits and groans and farts? Aggh, Uggh, Huhh, Waaap.

Urrph, Grrrk, Wuumph,” I said.

Gerald laughed and said, “I miss the old man.”

“Seriously,” I said. “It’s weird.”

“I’m tied up with the car wash right now, Bill,” he said.

“I thought it ran itself? That’s why you bought—”

“Out of office work,” he interrupted. “Besides, aren’t the Jones’s about to close?”

“The Jacksons,” I said. “Maybe. I just—”

“What,” he said. “They low-balling?”

I should have said yes. Capitalization was hard-wired in Gerald like it had been in Dad, and it pleased me to think of him going red-faced berserk on the Jackson boys, scaring them from their virtual worlds. Reality, hot and heavy, in the form of Gerald.

“Their offer was disappointingly high, actually.”

“What? Would you prefer we give it away?” Gerald asked.

“No,” I said and opened the curtains in my childhood bedroom. “But do you remember how simply we lived? We were always short on money.”

“Our poor childhood doesn’t make your point, I don’t think.”

“What I mean is, I feel like we’re selling everything Dad worked for just so we’ll have some extra money. Surely he didn’t—”

“A better life,” Gerald said. “That’s why he worked.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Just sell the place, Bill,” he said. “Dad would be glad to see a couple of boys grow up there.”

I adjusted the blinds to let more sunlight in and squinted. The yard outside was a canvas of highlighted organelles and dark blurs. There were shapes whose identity I knew—the old wheelbarrow, a collection of Rhododendrons, the pond—but their details were lost in a glittering gauze. I looked harder, and my cheeks felt tight against my eyes.

“They don’t know how to grow up here,” I said, trying to blink away the blurriness. “The other day they experienced less of the outdoors than I thought humanly possible while actually standing outside. They just don’t want it.” (Haha-somehow both funny and sad)

“It’s a new generation,” Gerald said. “Just—”

“I couldn’t even get them to walk down to the pond,” I said, pacing the floor.

“That’s not—”

“They’re going to put a pool in,” I said.

“What?”

“They’ll dig up the Zoysia. They’ll—”

“Bill!”

We were quiet.

“Just sell it.”

                                                                             *

I sat at the kitchen table in my underwear when the Jackson’s white SUV peeked over the crest of the asphalt driveway, like the end of an eclipse. Behind on my work and with a new sensation of two stones rubbing between my lower vertebrae, I groaned.

Dad’s house was being methodically disassembled, as if I might find a letter saying it was okay to sell his home. I looked through the dozens of photo albums on the bookshelf and scanned sci-fi novels, hoping he’d left a note or marked a passage that would tell me something. I even listened to the old lock-box Gerald and I used to steal from. I pressed my ear to it and dropped a few coins in, but the ringing of copper was empty. At least I’d paid him back.

His bedroom smelled like him. Milk, which he drank at night, and cigar smoke—scents of his little indulgences, reminders of his routines. The way his beard scratched my neck when I hugged him, or the sparse, buzzed hair like that of a baby otter I once petted. In his last ten years he’d quit getting dressed except for the old robe that hung on his door. I suggested we bury him in it. Gerald didn’t like that.

When I was seventeen Dad had joked about my shoulders, that I must’ve gotten my build from the milkman. I began holding myself straighter. What power. A few words carried enough weight to forever change my posture, like an injury, or a promise of love.

I’d gotten no smaller, so it was surprising the robe fit. I searched the pockets for a note, but there was only a flaky, used tissue. I put it back and smoothed the pocket over. Straightening my shoulders and sighing, I went to greet the Jacksons.

Mr. Jackson stood in the driveway shading the sun with one hand.

“Sorry we’re a little early,” he said. “We had some ideas.” He did his own magician’s wave.

“Three hours early,” I said, squinting at him over my coffee cup.

“Yes, well,” he said.

I coughed and something loosened in my throat, a warm piece of phlegm that stuck against my vocal chords giving me a fit.

“Agggh!” I said. “Grrrrk.”

“Good,” Mr. Jackson raised his voice over my hacking sounds, “Sounds great.”

Back inside and at the front window, I thought of taking the garden hose and standing in the yard. With the dirty robe wrapped around me I’d talk. “Please,” I’d beg. “Just grow.”

If the Zoysia could win, I could sell. Or maybe I’d know I couldn’t sell because Dad had finally spoken, like the Burning Bush. The Zoysia, however, wasn’t winning, or burning, or speaking in any way. I didn’t have the energy to look for miracles, so I turned away from the window.

I knelt on the kitchen floor with the contents of the pantry. Cans of tomatoes from the 90’s, crackers hard as plywood, and out-of-production cereals. How had he gotten so old? How had I missed the signs that he was declining? What else had I missed?

Lessons I could never get back.

Thoughts lost with the time I didn’t spent with him.

When I drug myself back to the garage the family stood around Dad’s workbench. Peering over their shoulders I saw a plan view of the property. The boys were paying attention, and I saw their eyes. Green and Blue.

“Plans,” I said. “It looks like—” I fought my new habit of spitting, and pointed to a red square near the pond. “What’s this?”

“Our gaming space,” the youngest boy explained.

“For video game playing?”

The boy looked at his older brother.

“Virtual reality, mostly,” the older one said.

“When I was your age,” I said, “the whole world was our space. Our virtual reality was here,” I tapped my temple, “and it was unlimited.

The boys looked at me for a moment, and then turned away. “We’d have to have our own internet connection, of course, Dad. The load would be too much to share with the main house.”

“Of course,” Mr. Jackson agreed.

I felt very tired.

                                                                             *

“Remember when Dad finally got cable?” I asked.

Gerald laughed. “Yeah and we watched all of those stupid sci-fi shows.”

It was quiet except for me digging in the kitchen drawer. I loved those shows.

“Gerald, they’re going to destroy this place,” I said. “They want to turn it into an amusement park.”

I found a box of cigars and removed one, smelling it.

“Isn’t that what the place was to us? If Dad could’ve afforded it, we’d have had all sorts of stuff.”

“What if,” I said, lighting the cigar, “Dad didn’t want us to sell? What if—”

“Are you smoking?”

I squinted through the smoke and spoke around the cigar. “Wha’ i’ I sell and regre’ i’?”

“Bill,” he said, “try showing them what it is you love about the place. Show them the pond, show them the dog cages, the garden, and Dad’s record player. Maybe they’ll start to understand, and maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Is that what I’m supposed to be doing,” I asked, “just making myself feel better?”

“You can try,” he said.

Gerald always had a way of convincing me, and I felt my doubts blur.

“Okay,” I said. “But I wish you’d come help.”

And I really did.

                                                                             *

The four of us stood in a circle beneath the slow-growing water oak that marked our heights over the years. The youngest boy, Tim, touched the marks and smiled. There was one below him.

“I’m tall,” he said.

“Alright,” I said to the group, “on the count of three, we’ll go. You find something interesting and bring it back. Last person back has to go first, explaining why his thing is best. Then we vote.”

“What is this game even called?” Gloria said.

“Mine’s best,” I said.

They were silent.

“Isn’t it, like, not fair,” Gloria said, “because you’re biggest?”

“I’ll give a ten second head start then.”

This was reasonable to everyone.

“One, two—”

“Wait!”

John, the oldest boy, began to take his loafers off. “I don’t want to get them dirty.”

“Great idea,” I said. We all removed our shoes.

“One, two, three!

Being barefoot mutated them, and as they erupted in a downhill sprint, they were children again. No more devices. No more adolescent angst. Gloria’s hair danced behind her, and the boys screamed in delight, bounding through the tall grass.

They disappeared behind the pine trees, and I strolled down after them with my hands clasped. Gerald might have been right. Dad would be glad. I listened to their giggling fade, and then it was just me and the oak leaves that danced in the treetops, the faraway crows cawing at one another, and the warm sunlight. I was living an old life, one I no longer had rights to, and I felt alright.

I’d allowed myself the dangerous luxury of faith, bathing my worries in the hope of things working out. I’d begun to believe. For the first time since Dad died, I was relieved, like I could breathe and see again. Then, someone screamed.

As I arrived at the pond, tasting the cigar from the night before, heaving, I found Gloria making an awful, air-slicing wail. John, who was only marginally closer to the pond, looked towards the water like it were a volcano, simultaneously plugging one ear with his finger. Young Tim squatted at the water’s edge with one finger submerged.

“Timothy, no!” She screamed. “There are snakes!

“Gloria,” I said when she inhaled. “Stop scream—”

“AHH!She said.

Tim removed his finger and looked at me.

“There are snakes,” I said, “but they’re just as afraid of you as—”

“AHH!”

John stepped behind his sister. “This isn’t fun.”

I’d had enough. I tore my shirt over my head and threw it at Gloria who stopped her screaming long enough to catch it.

“What—” she said.

I took two steps and leapt. Tim’s curious eyes followed me, and I bellowed, “Cannonball!”

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Like swallowing a capsule I was filled with memories, and they slid through me as the warm water passed over my body. Summers spent swimming and playing, conversations of adolescent understanding, beers stolen from Dad and shared between Gerald and I, and even my first kiss over on the levee. All of it was here, and the feeling was too big and too fleeting to comprehend. It was warm, and it was brief, cut short by a new feeling—a sharp pain in the meat of my leg.

I rose from the water screaming, to find Gloria already there, a pitch above me. We were an off-key choir trying to sing over one another, and we might have gone on that way for some time if John hadn’t pointed and shouted, “Cool!”

Sticking from my calf was a piece of aluminum the size of my thumb. Gloria, somehow, screamed louder. And Tim just dipped his finger in the water again.

                                                                             *

“It wasn’t that deep,” I confided, “it just scared me.”

“What was it, though?” Gerald asked.

“Probably trash Dad threw out. Maybe part of the old jon-boat.” He’d been in the early stages of dementia and wouldn’t have remembered. Over the previous winter when his electricity shut off, I asked if he paid the electric bill. He just told me about the ice storm of ‘93.

“I was there for it, Dad,” I’d told him. “But did you pay last month’s bill?”

Gerald broke into my memory. “I guess they didn’t get in and swim with you.”

I looked down at the bandage on my leg. “Very funny, Gerald. It’s your fault, really.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t scare the buyers away.”

“Thanks for caring.”

The television was playing lowly, the bright images of exploding ships and lasers reflecting off of the dull wood floor and walls. “It seemed to somehow encourage them,” I said. “They’re just going to fill the pond in and make another parking area.”

“Jesus,” Gerald muttered.

I felt encouraged. “For the kids and their friends,” I said. “They want their own little home down there. Where we grew up fishing and playing and climbing trees, they’re going to park their stupid cars and play video games and eventually do drugs—”

“Come on,” he said. “We did plenty.”

“Yeah—”

“We weren’t there for the bass and fresh air.”

“No, but—” I stopped. A man dressed in a cheaply made costume had just burst through a portal. He shot at a two headed creature whose heads were screaming in unison. Like Gloria and I.

“I’m equally afraid of selling,” I said. “What if we sell and start to forget about Dad. What will we have left of him? How will we remember him? His home was his world.”

Little James, Gerald’s infant, cried in the background of the phone line.

“Dad’s value was never in the things he gave us, it was in the time he spent with us. And he knew that. Everyone did.”

“But how do I know that now?”

“Bill, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.” He paused, moving closer to James’s wails. “You already do know. You’ve just got to get it through your head that nothing changed just because he died.”

He hung up, leaving me with the two headed monster and the flashing special effects of some poorly designed future.

                                                                             *

On Wednesday I remembered it was Wednesday because it was the third day in a row I hadn’t done any work. The family was outside making plans, and I was inside brooding. Gloria came in, bored and looked at the mess in the living room.

I lay on the couch throwing and catching a signed baseball of Dad’s, and I was feeling rather sorry for myself.

“Are you keeping these?”

At her feet lay dozens of records.

“Depends,” I said looking at the albums around her. “You interested?”

“Maybe.”

“Those were my dad’s,” I said. “He taught me what rock and roll meant.”

She was quiet.

“Everything seemed to have a story attached to it—the time he rolled his truck into the ditch in front of his parent’s house (almost made it home!), a fox he killed and sold to a bartender, a girl he loved, a job he hated, what my grandparents thought of the devil’s music.”

Gloria laughed and picked up a pair of Zeppelin albums.

“These are cool,” she said.

“Give me five for the pair,” I said, tossing the ball too far and missing it. It thudded next to her.

She frowned at the baseball. “Eight for all four,” she said and looked down at Neil Young and The Doobie Brothers.

“Ten,” I said, rolling over and looking at her, “and I’ll throw in that Steve Miller.”

“Deal,” she said.

Unexpectedly, and for the first time that week, I felt accomplished. “How about some lunch,” I said, standing. “I think we’ve got some tomatoes in the garden.”

She stood with the stack of records in her arms.

“Got any hot sauce?”

“You bet.”

“Deal,” she said, smiling.

Her teeth were bright like her mother’s.

In the garden we brushed against the tomato plants who released their pungent fragrance and whose tiny hairs tickled our bare flesh. Gloria helped me pick the ripest tomatoes.

                                                                             *

After lunch she asked about photographs. I told her stories of Gerald and I catching fish, the springwater pool in town we visited on Saturdays, and the Memphis Zoo, where I once petted an otter. It was easy to remember these things, and I found I was eager for her to ask more questions.

I was unlatching a chest of forgotten treasures. I told stories, and together we examined their value with a magnifying glass.

“You kill any of those?” She gestured at the mounted deer heads.

“My Dad,” I said.

“How much?”

I looked at her. “You want—”

“The antlers,” she finished.

I looked at the wise deer, the dust on his black, glass eyes, and the bleached antlers reaching for the ceiling. I supposed he wouldn’t miss his rack.

“My Dad killed that one over on Mr. Greenley’s property. Biggest buck of his life,” I said. “That was the same year his brother died.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

I shrugged. “It was well before my time, but I was always sorry too. He didn’t talk about it much, but he didn’t have to. Gerald and I never forgot.”

Dad had wept bitterly the only time he told us the story of his brother getting cancer. He’d been eighteen years old. They were the first tears I ever saw on his face, running onto his beard like water on grease, not mixing as much as floating there. Afterwards, Gerald and I went to sit in the Zoysia and stare at each other. Who would die first?

“Twenty bucks,” Gloria said, picking her teeth with a toothpick. “Final offer.”

“You didn’t let me counter offer,” I said.

She hesitated, but then stamped her foot. “Final.”

It was a deal.

We continued through the house. I told stories, and Gloria named prices. Touching his things and telling his stories, I knew Dad was near. I stopped at the coin lock box and put a nickel in. Details I hadn’t thought about since my childhood were being whispered through his belongings. Everything seemed new again. Gloria made a list of her new possessions on an old, unpaid, and certainly forgotten parking ticket.

“You sure know a lot of his stories,” she said. “I don’t know any of my Dad’s.”

“His stories were gold, for the most part,” I said.

“Does that mean some were silver?”

I laughed. “I guess so. Maybe the ones I forgot. They were probably gold when he told them, though.”

She was already turned away, heading to the staircase. I took the stairs one at a time, as my left knee had begun to hurt. Dad’s left had given him trouble. “He told stories as often as we’d listen,” I went on. “I wish I’d listened more.”

Gloria walked patiently behind me, even holding onto my elbow as we made the final turn in the staircase. Back in the garage with the other Jacksons, she pumped my hand.

“Go ahead,” she chirped, “make him an offer. I just stocked my bedroom for less than a hundred bucks.”

The boys looked up. Mr. Jackson raised a finger to speak and stopped, and we all decided to be quiet. A breeze shook the oaks that shaded the driveway, and a few fallen leaves scooted into the garage with us, whispering like little ice skaters on the concrete. I leaned against the door knob to take pressure off my knee and smiled.

I felt better than I had all week.

                                                                             *

“You’re selling Dad’s stuff?”

“I didn’t think you’d mind,” I said, taking a sip of milk.

“You’re the sentimentalist,” Gerald said.

I looked at the tally of cash on the yellowing notebook paper. The numbers meant nothing, just black curves and cuts across the blue guidelines, the money only a dull whir beneath Dad’s voice telling stories that day.

“It’s all or none. The stuff doesn’t really mean anything. You were right. I feel better.”

“I said show them what you liked about the place, not sell all of Dad’s belongings.”

“I didn’t think you minded?”

“I don’t.”

I stood in my underwear, barefoot, with the phone pinched between my cheek and shoulder. I gestured through the dark room. “It’s like mailing a goodbye letter after his ship already set sail. It’ll catch up to him, eventually.”

“What is? What does that even mean?”

The milk was cold on my lips. Behind Gerald’s voice I heard James cry.

“Need to go?”

“Not yet,” he said, sighing. “Not just yet.”

I caressed the curves of the wooden bedpost and opened the curtains. The moon was bright enough to make the room a shade of blue, and the tall grass was illuminated in brushed highlights. My vision had worsened further and everything was soft and quiet.

“Do you remember—when Dad set those quail loose on the property so we could hunt them with dogs?”

Gerald chuckled. “You nearly shot one of the Pointers.”

“Aim fast,” I said.

“Shoot slow,” he finished.

I opened Dad’s bedside drawer and found a pair of wool socks. I sat on the bed and unfolded them. “How about when we tipped the boat over that one night?”

Gerald laughed again. “You screamed like a child.”

“I was six,” I said. “You were caught under the boat. I literally thought you were dying.”

“Dad made us wear life vests for six months,” he said, still laughing.

“Still trusted us out there, though.”

“He wanted us to learn how to take care of ourselves, no matter what.”

“I suppose we did.”

“I suppose.”

I shuffled my feet along the concrete into the bathroom and flipped the light switch on.

“Jesus,” I said.

“What is it?” Gerald sounded interested, like maybe I’d found the life vests.

The mirror had a jagged, black crevice that stretched the length of it. In the distorted reflection, I saw Dad’s bulbous belly, whitie-tighties, and bald head shining in the vanity light.

“Nothing, I guess.” I rubbed my stomach and set the glass of milk down. I peered at my reflection, at the bags under my eyes. “Just starting to feel a little—”

I stretched the skin around my eyes with one finger.

“Listen, Bill,” he said, “I thought maybe I’d drive down. It’s only a few hours, and it seems like you could use some help before the closing.”

I frowned. Were those liver spots?

“I’m fine.” I fingered the loose skin on my neck. “It shouldn’t take but another week.”

“At the most,” he said.

I looked at my new crows feet. “Right,” I said and smiled. My teeth were yellow, and I ran my tongue over them. I blinked, trying one last time to clear my vision.

“Well, just let me know,” he said. “The carwash doesn’t take much running. I really don’t have much going on.”

In the background I heard the familiar sound of his wife’s voice.

“That’s nice of you, brother. Now go kiss James, and tell him good night for me.”

“It’s eight thirty, Bill. Tell me you’re not going to bed.”

I limped to the bed and patted it. My body ached, and I wanted to lie down. When I pulled the covers back, a new smell came free. It was unlike the others, but certainly routine, something along the lines of firewood and baby powder. Dad’s dust rose in the moonlight, and I moved my hand through it like water.

“Goodnight, Gerald. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Not too early, old man,” he said. “Seriously, though, not before—”

I hung up and set the phone on the bedside table. There, in the blue light of the country night, lay a hunting magazine. In the bottom corner a white square had our home address, and the edges of the pages were worn. I eased into bed. The room was cool on my lungs.

I let the magazine fall open to a dog-eared page. A pencil ran in the space under the words, like a punch in the night, right in my gut and up through my throat. An underlined passage:

“… stewardship of the land starts at home, with the way we show up for our families and friends, and how we interact with whatever piece of land, no matter how small, God has given us…”

If the air could hold memories, then by breathing I recounted them. I felt close to him. His belongings were strewn across the abandoned house, some tagged for new ownership, some destined for landfills. The pond was filled with unremembered trash, and the Zoysia probably would not win. But I still knew my father and his stories.

The ceiling fan softly thumped the air, the house breathing around me. A chill snuck into my blood, and I brought the comforter to my chin.

I closed my eyes, the magazine pages fluttering beside me.


Will Hearn grew up in Mississippi and is now living in Orange Beach, Alabama. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Visitant Literature, Everyday Fiction and soon forthcoming in Louisiana Literature. He is a full-time firefighter and story writer. He’s on Instagram and Twitter @will__hearn.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Tennessee Hill

ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND

I watch the Murphy twins, ring leaders of our kid-circus, terrorize the marina. They throw lit tobacco wads like cherry bombs in fishing nets, onto nearby decks. I think about asking to cut their hair much shorter than it is. I know one of them would answer by pulling a red-threaded needle through my palm like they did to the boy in middle school Home Ec who asked why they both had the same middle name. I imagine they’d sew into my skin, we don’t go lower than this.

But I know that isn’t true.

At my twelfth birthday party, just after their parents started roaming downtown in formal attire, not panhandling, just strolling, and people dubbed them The Murphy Freakshow, I launched myself into the deep end of my swimming pool and both boys plunged in after me. At the bottom, we felt around the decorative rocks, had a lungless screaming contest. Never did we consider kissing like most newly twelve year olds do. Our kid-circus cohorts leaned over the surface, searching for two identical bodies and my gangly ghost.

That party had been the catalyst. The Murphy boys noticed Carrie would jump off anything and land on her ballet-broken-in feet. Rich had an affinity with fire complimented by a sobering stealth. My older brother Jer could bend himself ten ways to Sunday. The neighbor girl Kennedy was ungirlishly broad, waywardly strong, and I had the ability to hold my breath for acres.

Above all, none of our parents watched us.

Not when I catapulted into the water. Not when the boys followed. Not when we charred part of the family cat with a cake candle. Not when we snuck out through the gate. Not even when the constable ushered us home after we’d tried to burn our names with stolen brands into all the trunks at the Christmas tree farm.

Lionel Murphy took the hot iron to his tailbone, silent as his skin cooked, staring into Carrie’s auburn hair like it was a spinning eye trick. His twin brother Micah wrestled the brand from Lionel, stabbing himself in the struggle. I was disinfecting the hole with pool water wrung out of my hair when I felt the town constable’s flashlight on my neck. As the towering man reached for the iron, Micah pressed it to the skin of his tailbone, too.

Their gift to me had been my name stamped on a dog tag dangling from dense thread the texture of twisted together corn stalks, but the metal was gold, truly gold—I made Jer bite into it to check—and that night I hung it above my bed like a dreamcatcher. Then I started telling people the Murphys weren’t freaks, they were independently wealthy, and they weren’t strange, they just had different kinds of fun. But people didn’t listen, so I joined the freakshow and turned it into a full fledged ruckus.

It took a few weeks for us to get on as friends. Jer tried to assert himself as the leader because he was oldest but the Murphys politely dominated his efforts. When Jer suggested we climb the Magnolia trees and throw peeled oranges at cars, or that we break into the consignment shop and build a scarecrow out of old scarves, we’d get halfway there and end up at the firework stand with poppers up our sleeves. Then, we were in the middle of town flopping like witches on fire as the tiny rocks exploded inside our clothes. It was always for the better and eventually, Jer stopped trying. The plainest thing was that the twins liked me best. Even when Carrie and Kennedy grew into their bodies quicker, wore makeup and bras and miniskirts sooner, the boys walked at my side, rode their bikes to my house first. I was the only one who never got them mixed up. Our mischief was an undercurrent of the town’s turning. We didn’t tag boxcars or leave notes in houses we broke into, but everybody knew, if only because we hung out with the Murphy twins. We only got caught once.

We hadn’t known they clipped the wings of the ducks in the park, so after many valiant efforts, Rich caught one. We snuck it to the roof of the library to throw it out over the edge, just to see something take off mid-air. It dropped so heavily, so quickly, there was nothing we could do. If we’d known, we’d have been at the bottom with a bed sheet or basket. Maybe we wouldn’t have thrown it at all. The feathers didn’t billow up like in movies, just stuck with the blood and guts to the cobbles.

We didn’t bother fleeing. The seven of us stayed on the roof, tried to talk each other out of throwing up and crying. The constable was there minutes later, drove us home without the radio on so we could really think about it. And we did. I don’t think we ever stopped thinking about it.

Today was supposed to be the Murphy twins’ birthday party. Our basement was prepared with streamers, pizza rolls, and a collection of beers we’d gradually stolen from our dads. Jer drove us to the pier and we paid the sybil who reads palms. She is the mom of a guy we go to school with, Craig, and she sat knowingly, even without looking at our skins or into our eyes, at a grandiose velvet-veiled table. A mulberry colored scarf hid her lightning-white curls, bracelet-sized hoop earrings held my gaze at the nape of her neck where the silver grazed. She was the youngest of all the high school moms and the only one with white hair. Of course, Craig didn’t got around telling everybody that his mom was a swindler on the docks. That they lived in the loft apartment above the crab shack. Or that even when we teased him into lying, Craig truly believe the things his mother predicted. The way she sometimes cried at school functions, staring into the abyss of our youthfully distracted energies as we danced and bobbed for apples at festivals. Once, she grabbed Melrose Carter by the wrist at our middle school field day and begged her not to climb any trees, even if someone dared her, even if her kite was stuck. She did anyway and slipped into a coma weeks later. The only person Melrose told of the prediction was Craig, in a violated swirl of fear. He told her parents in the hospital lobby as he sobbed into Mrs. Crater’s skirt, who was too stunned to pat his back. She simply walked up to Craig’s mother lingering by the door and slapped her clean across the face. They moved to the docks after that and Craig pretty much stopped talking. To everyone.

Carrie had said since it was their seventeenth birthday, we had to do something wild. She wanted to trespass or steal like Jer’s birthday last year when we took the cross-shredded papers from the credit union and bombed the high school principal’s front yard. People came to school saying they’d seen the principal and her husband vacuuming the grass. We were on a reeling thrill for days.

When I suggested we get palm readings, Rich got hellbent on the idea, patting his jean pocket of loose change until everybody agreed.

Micah moved to sit at her velvet table as Lionel grabbed his collar, yanked him away. “I was born first.” This was the first time either of them had mentioned birth order. It was surprising. I think we all assumed they just came into existence, of any vessel but their mother, at the exact same time.

The sybil traced the ridges of Lionel’s upright palm and looked frantically between the identical faces. She reached out for Micah and compared them. Her lips pursed as she dragged her talons around their skin. “Your heart lines, your head lines are both the same, but your life lines…” She gummed an elaborately fake accent that definitely fooled tourists, landing the vowels hard. “One of you will die before your next shared year.”

“What?” Lionel yelled, tugging away.

“Your birthday,” Carrie whispered behind him.

He yelled over his shoulder, “I know.”

Micah’s hand was still limp in the sybil’s grasp. I reached out and pushed her off, held his wrist as if protecting the pulse. His breath was heavy and perfectly strident with Lionel’s. He stared into my face like there was an answer somewhere there. I looked to the sybil, a drawn-on beauty mark by her lip, fake eyelashes fanning her cold eyes. I grabbed for one of the gigantic earrings but missed. Rich flipped the table and pulled down a tapestry clipped to the wall. Micah broke away from me and ran across the dock toward the water. Lionel followed.

I looked at her with disgust and betrayal, sure it went against every sybil code of conduct to openly predict a death. Then I remembered Melrose and decided she must hate beautiful people. Melrose had golden hair, silver-blue eyes. The twins were stunning, insultingly symmetrical and reflected the sun in such a way that they always glowed, even in Maryland winters. As we left, Rich spat on her rug and called her a lying bitch.

Now we are on the dock a few feet behind. Kennedy says softly, “I knew it was a bad idea to go out before the party.”

“I’ll beat the hell out of Craig and his trashy mother.” Jer says with arms crossed, white-knuckled.

I shudder against heavy wind. “It’s not Craig’s fault his mother is trashy.” “It’s Craig’s fault his trashy mother wants the boys to feel like they’re going to die.”

She had never done to them what she did to Melrose, but the sybil always regarded both boys with sharp eyes. Even in primary school, she did not let Craig attend their birthday parties and snapped in his face like a dog if she caught him trading baseball cards with the twins in the pickup line. She chunked a crystal highball glass at a wall just above the twins’ heads at a Christmas mixer and yelled as she was being forcefully escorted out, the boys picking glass from their hair, that she did it to banish bad luck. That it swarmed them as foggy crowns. I thought she sensed trouble, which they emitted like an odor, but now I feel that it was something deeper. A severance with some almighty thread was lost on both boys. I think this offended her. Or scared her. Or both.

Now we’re watching Micah hang his head over the water on all fours. Lionel stands above and they look like a stack of shelves, perfectly mimicking just feet apart. Carrie limbos between, wondering if she should comfort Lionel or let him be. The worst part was that the sybil didn’t even have to say it would be Lionel who’d die first. We knew.

Last summer behind the consignment shop he’d started kissing Carrie. Then, he started driving her around in his Jeep like he was her boyfriend; cutting across busy lanes, running yellows, running reds, as if he had the right to put her life at risk. It never mattered if Carrie loved him because she let him think she did. She’s polite that way. Though, once she told me she’d kissed Micah thinking it was Lionel and to her immediate shame, both boys tasted the same. I tried not to wonder why Lionel picked her and when I did, I tried not to hate her for it. Even harder, I tried not to expect Micah to pick me.

After some dry heaves, Micah finally vomits. Jer yells a joke about fish food but nobody laughs. “Let’s go to the basement, there’s a bucket of beer.” Kennedy slips Jer’s car keys from his hand and flips them between her fingers.

“Let’s go to the bottom of the marina,” Micah says. “There’s a begging shrine of broken glass.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Yeah?”

There’s a breeze-blown pause and I can feel Rich wondering how deep could he dive with an open flame. Lionel is about to reach for Carrie. She would let him. Jer wants his car keys back but Kennedy still clutches them. Yeah.

I pull my sweater off, step out of my boots. Rich takes a tin of tobacco and lighter from his jean pocket. In a blink, we’re stripped to the underwire. I look around and see that ours are the only warm bodies on this dock. Lionel and Rich wad loose tobacco, wrap it in rolling papers, light quickly and throw as far as they can. Carrie, Kennedy, and Jer bob in the cold water. I am still standing, half-naked, wishing I was older than the Murphy twins so maybe I could be the one to die first. My parents would miss me but only for a little bit. The Murphy’s parents would cease to exist, would freeze like pin-stuck butterflies wherever they hovered.

“Take it off,” Kennedy whoops from the water and I do. Micah stands next to me and in an uncomfortable instant, we have both realized we are grown. In this vulnerability we are very warmly harmonic. I think of the photograph I saw in a museum of a naked man and woman standing on the roof of a car, holding each other, the division of their bodies blurred. It was not romantic. This feels like it might be romantic.

Jer bets he can swim out to the dissolving tobacco bombs, drink the water and get a buzz. Kennedy untangles Carrie’s damp curls. As if I’ve passed my reflection in a hall mirror, I realize with a shudder that if anybody on earth looks like me, it’s Carrie. Still, nobody watches me and Micah. His hand is on my exposed hipbone and I feel his face, young with stubble. Neither he or Lionel look like their father, thankfully. They inherited their freckles from nothing but the sun. “What’s your middle name?” I ask him.

“Churchman.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Saint.”

Micah and Lionel Saint Murphy, I think. “We could go back to my place.”

“Are your parents home?” He squeezes his lips together to encourage fleeting circulation.

“Of course.”

“We’d have to cut through Main Street,” he says.

We both know that their mother is circling the fountain downtown with a pet-cluster of amber pinned to her lapel. Their father stands in the square, holding an umbrella over a bronzed couple kissing even though it doesn’t rain. The Murphy Freakshow. Even when this cruel nickname became true, when our kid-circus lead by the twins started to trespass, steal, and blaze, nobody thought to regret. To think of most prophecies and how they fulfill themselves.

I feel around Micah’s ribs for the old branding hole. “The pool water didn’t help,” he says, remembering. He looks to his brother, sees the small forest fire in his hand. “Maybe Lionel killed himself years ago and it’s just taking this long for him to die.”

“I’d believe that but we’re too young to think that way.” I say.

“If we’re not too young to die, we’re not too young to think about it.” He wraps his arms around me. My hands find the brand at the base of his spine identical to the mark on Lionel. The skin is rumpled like a sheet with pockets and hard edges. As if in slow motion, Micah leans us off the dock and into the water. We surface as quickly as we land and start to kiss.

The bronzed couple from downtown are the only ones watching.

Not really. The bitch sybil is watching out her window. My parents are in the living room, watching TV and kind-of watching. Carrie decides to love Lionel before he dies. Rich is inflamed. Jer moves to kiss Kennedy to feel something. Micah inhales one of my deepest breaths, “They’re probably watching.”

“I was born here but Jer wasn’t,” I say. Micah breaks his paddling rhythm to touch my shoulder. He says, “You two are so different.”

I can’t say the same to him.

I see Lionel, holding his palm to a flame. I know he’s trying to burn away the death trajectory. I try to mean what I ask, “What if we sunk to the bottom and became relics?” His hair is so long, I want to cut it. I think about swimming down to find the sharpest bottle shard because his waves are too long and there’s just too much of him. I think the same of Lionel and then try not to do that anymore.

“Only if we sink as anything but wishing coins.”

“Why? Then Rich would swim for miles to get us.”

He smiles with all of his teeth like a true believer in something. A wolfish howl echoes from downtown and the sybil moves away from her window. Mr. Murphy still holds the couple’s umbrella but cups his mouth with one hand, calling to his sons. Just before pulling me under, Micah pulls me closer. “Because then we’d always feel like we owed somebody an answer.”

Then we are underneath. And the freak-show veil is torn.

Tobacco wads crater and sink. Kennedy’s shoulders bolster and Carrie kicks her broken feet. Rich is about to ignite the elastic of his underwear while Jer searches for his car keys, worried that they’re wet. This is our final act.

Nobody is watching.

I have been holding my breath for so long, I start to notice the oxygen absence. Micah’s eyes are opened and glossy. He has let go of my body, floats away and I have stopped thinking about reaching out to touch him because this is not romantic. Small, bursting thoughts ring in my ears as I look at Micah, and he looks back at me with Lionel’s eyes. Every time I have looked at him, I remember, and in every memory, it was never just one boy looking back.

Now, his skin is gaunt and he recognizes the expression on my face, that I am unraveling the longest string of revealing memories as he sinks further away. Moments before his body feigns empty, a familiar rock breaks the surface. Through algae film I can’t tell if it’s Lionel sinking after Micah or Micah divinely multiplied and saving himself, if they’ve ever been separate or if this is the truest trick, finalized in the foggiest water. All I can feel is the vibrant family crest they consecrated the night of my twelfth birthday, deciding in all quickness to become a fraternity of two, double-headed leader to a secret kid-circus where their twinhood was the most intriguing sideshow.

I have gone as deeply as it goes and my back is to the marina floor. Looking up, I see the romantic thing I’d been feeling; Lionel realizes with a static tug that Micah will not, will never return, so he runs pruning fingers through his own hair and locks both arms around his brother. Lionel cups a hand by his mouth and howls to their father hoping the desperate wounding will make its way downtown. The echo shocks my featherweight body.

I try to figure out what any of this has been. Have these boys ever loved anybody but the part of themselves living in the other? My chest throbs a warning pulse and I push off the ground, cutting every heart-head-life line in my hand. Before I break the surface, I look at the Murphy twins and they have become something indivisible, so whole that their identical faces look like an illusion. I snap out of a consuming bewitchment and see that this was always the mind-game. Years of being different people beyond the glaring sameness— the uniqueness of one was just repressed inside the other. Two boys living from opposite ends of a Chinese finger-trap, rooted in a shared center.

I want to say to them, “Good one. You really got me.” I want to sew their hands together and lament, you were always going lower than this. I emerge from the water newly foolish. With my first breath, I howl to their father, to the bitch sybil, to Carrie and Kennedy, Jer and Rich who are looking at me, panicked. I howl until Jer pulls me out of the water and my back is on the splintered dock while they ask me where the boys went, when they’ll come up.


Tennessee Hill is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University. She was a finalist for the 2017 Dan Veach Younger Poets Prize and has work in Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, Sandy River Review, and Kaaterskill Basin.
Categories
2018 Fiction

Jen Corrigan

BURST

When they look back, they will remember it like this.

They will remember the dusky light, the road slicing through the trees. The wife will remember the hawk perched atop the speed limit sign. The husband will remember the opossum carcass on the shoulder, its insides split out of its outsides, ripe fruit bursting in the sun.

The evening is their last ditch attempt to love one another. The wife wears lacy red panties under her skirt. The husband pays for dinner at Red Lobster.

They say oysters are an aphrodisiac, he says, raising one eyebrow. The wife laughs and touches his hand. Every motion hurts, as if their love was a muscle they no longer used.
The wife looks down at the gray flesh in her oysters, the hills and valleys of the interior. She traces the cochlea-like whorls, imagines the creatures as ears.

They try to fill the car with words. The wife pitches a remember when, and the husband returns oh yes, and, as if rebuilding their marriage was improv, which, the wife supposes, it is. Love is just making things up as you go.

When the wife unzips the husband’s trousers, he moans, and the sound turns them both off. But the wife takes the husband’s limp penis and rolls it between her fingers until the flesh hardens. His penis spits out a teardrop of precum onto her hand. She resists the urge to wipe it on his boxers.

The wife puts the husband’s penis in her mouth and bobs her head up and down. He takes one hand off the wheel and places it on her skull, pushing her head down. She hates this, and she has told him that once before. You say you want me to be in charge, but you just can’t let go of control. They fought. She stopped giving blow jobs.

When the husband gasps, the woman thinks it’s because he’s about to come, and she tightens her lips until they burn from the pressure. Then there is the keening of the tires across the pavement, the whump against the hood, the crack of the windshield spidering out.

The wife sits up. What happened? she asks. What happened?

He doesn’t reply, just drives. His face is a blank kabuki mask, his body motionless except for the delicate tilting of the wheel, the adjustment of the pedals.

It isn’t until they pull into the dingy dark of their garage that the husband tells her.

The wife remembers when she was a child, when she and her brother would climb on the roof and drop things onto the driveway: chipped coffee mugs missing handles, already broken electronics, old fruit swollen with juices. She thought of the time they dropped a watermelon, how its flesh burst out, staining the pavement pink.

We need to go back, the wife says. We need to call 911.

The husband nods, but doesn’t switch the car back on. Neither reaches for their cell phone. They sit until it’s too late to change their decision.

They spend the night in the car with the seats reclined. The wife thinks about Stephen King, how he recovered and wrote Dreamcatcher with paper and a fountain pen. She never finished reading the book. She hated the movie.

The next several days, they don’t leave the house. The husband scans the paper each morning. The wife flips through the news channels.

After two weeks, the husband goes into the garage and scrubs the dried blood off the car, makes an appointment at the body shop. Hit a damn deer, he mutters into the receiver. They’re everywhere this year.

One night as they lay next to each other in bed, the wife says, I blame myself. She tells him I prayed for something to keep us together.

The husband kisses her and gently pushes her onto her back. They make love in silence.

As weeks, months, then years pass, both are surprised at how they’ve learned to forget. Time stretches further and further without the memory surfacing, and they catch themselves laughing. They are joyful even though they don’t deserve it. The wife wonders if, when they die, they will be forgotten. The man wonders if people can live outside of memory.

The wife never gives the husband a blow job again, and he never asks for one. When they look back, they remember the way the trees flashed past, the relaxed sleepiness of full bellies and soft conversation. They rewrite the memory in their heads, imagine it as passion. Together, they construct the fantasy, the wife opening her mouth, starving, the husband winding his fingers in her hair, their bodies singing together as if their very cells are about to burst.


A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, Jen Corrigan’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Tishman Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor and book reviewer for Alternating Current Press. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Alyse Bensel

PAPERMAKING

My husband liked gradient puzzles. He appreciated the way the color blurred and changed. All that color, he said, that no one’s fucked up yet.

After he finished a puzzle, he collected scraps of paper, bills, and junkmail. He brought back discarded paper from the office. The papermaking process was reserved for the basement, alongside an abandoned brewing barrel and burlap sacks of grain. He painstakingly ensured the paper was smooth and the mottles from different colors were barely perceptible.

When he moved back to the island where his family lived, the summer after we graduated high school, he sent me prototypes for the stationary. He scrawled little drawings and designs around the edges, with few words written in contrast to my letters crammed with words. On one of the envelopes he sketched a cicada emerging from its nymph shell, maybe in response to my question about his mother’s health. In words, he returned my questions with more questions. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. Questions that asked nothing at all.

Before we married my husband had half a dozen penpals, all of whom loved paper and ink not for their utility, but for their beauty. The ephemera club, I teased.

Everything is ephemera, he reminded me.

When I began framing all of his past letters in large glass frames, to prevent more tearing and so I could turn them around to read the back, he hated the idea that anyone could read what he had written. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. But you didn’t write anything personal, I responded. He returned to ripping up paper before carrying his filled basket down to the basement, where he soaked the pieces and screened the fiber with a small mesh frame.

When the sheets had dried, the paper appeared on his work desk in our shared upstairs office. Several ink bottles had been lined up at the top edge of his desk. Later that afternoon, he decorated pages with calligraphic loops and swirls around the edges—not words, exactly, but evoking words, on the edge of a hieroglyphic language. I tried to decipher them when he was asleep. Holding the sheets to the overhead light, I squinted at the markings as I slowly rotated the paper. The cryptic incomplete loops, the wilting m’s.

Before sunrise, he burned the letters above our gas stove. I heard the pilot light staccato on a few minutes before the alarm.

The next day he used the remainder of the paper to draw elaborate mazes. He began from the center and worked his way out, barely lifting the pen to mark dead ends or offer the right path. One year every maze was a heart. Another year the mazes became labyrinths. Only one way in. Only one way out.

The year all the mazes were hearts, and cicada song had shuddered into evening, I stayed awake beside my husband until he eased out of bed and padded to the office.

I slipped out after him, then paused when I heard talking. He was murmuring something. When he emerged from the office holding the letters, I was still standing in the hallway. He looked up.

There are words here, he said. They are trapped between the pages. He brushed past me to go down the stairs.

I didn’t follow. I knew the answers behind what he had been asking me for years. But I had never made much effort to translate what I assumed were easy questions. How no one else understood the unsent letters were memorials he burned to ashes. The questions he had been asking for years changed: How long has she been gone? Where is my mother? I miss her.


Alyse Bensel is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly ReviewPleiades, South Dakota ReviewWest Branch, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference. 

Categories
2018 Fiction

Chris Vanjonack

TELL IT LIKE A MURDER MYSTERY

So the whole thing kicks off with this dude lying dead on the floor of a gas station bathroom.

His name was Jordan Baker and he struggled with obesity. For a while he rode around town on a scooter like he was an old person. It was slow moving, but then so was he, and so it scooted along about as fast as it would have taken him to walk, anyway. For three years he got around on the thing but it was not until the final weeks of his life that he renounced it. “I’m 34,” he told a friend shortly before his death. “I don’t want to be getting around on that scooter like I’m 84.”

The friend, a woman named Heather who waited tables at the local Perkins, smiled at this. They had been friends since grade school, and so when Jordan announced that he was giving up his scooter, Heather could not have been more relieved.1 Maybe, she thought, he wouldn’t die in his forties, wouldn’t fall dead of a heart attack or a blood clot. Maybe he would live as long as the 84-year-olds who those scooters were made for in the first place.

He didn’t make it to 84, of course.

Kylie, the chick who found him, was a grungy looking girl who fell in with the Goth scene her junior year of high school. She had a lip ring and a nose ring and a ring piercing her clitoris. Her hair was dyed black and she still dressed like she was trying to piss off her parents. Kylie was not in high school anymore; she was 22. Kylie worked and Jordan died at the Lucky’s Gas Station on the outskirts of Black Haven, Colorado.2

The police arrived within the hour in the form of Captain Benson and his deputy, who, for the purposes of this story, will be referred to primarily as Deputy Skeptical.3

“I don’t know about this,” Deputy Skeptical said as they walked into Lucky’s Gas Station. “Sounds like he just died of a heart attack.”

Captain Benson shrugged as he opened the door. “It’s a slow day,” he said, a little bell going off as they stepped inside.

From behind the counter, Kylie looked up and asked, “Are you here about the body?” and immediately, Captain Benson was stricken. This girl—this gas station cashier—was beautiful, unlike anything he had ever seen before, any creature of heaven or of Earth. Everything about her—her metallic earrings, her dark bangs, her pissed-off expression—was heavenly. The sight of her took the breath from his lungs and when she spoke he heard only the trumpets of angels. “Yes ma’am,” he said, holding his hat mournfully to his chest. “We’re here about the body.”

Kylie led them to the men’s room. “He’s in there,” she said.

The men’s room door was half-opened and there was a hole bashed in just above the doorknob. “What happened here?” Captain Benson asked, touching a splinter with his index finger. “Some kind of scuffle?”

Kylie explained that she bashed the hole in with a hammer after Jordan Baker had been locked away in the bathroom and unresponsive for over an hour.

Captain Benson nodded as he wrote the description into his 3 x 5 college-ruled notepad. He always had a notepad on him. He bought them in bulk from the internet and in them he claimed to write every detail of every case he ever worked.4 “Good thinking,” he said, fondly.

Deputy Skeptical shrugged. “It was all right,” he conceded. “It was all right thinking.”

They pushed the men’s room door open. Jordan Baker was face down on the floor, pants and underwear wrapped around his ankles and his mutilated ass aimed at the ceiling. Blood was everywhere. Even the toilet was smashed, a soaking copy of Men’s Health discarded on the floor, blood and toilet water seeping through the binding. A trail of slime led to the back wall, where a hole the size of a small animal had been smashed through the brick.

So yeah, Jordan Baker was dead all right.

Captain Benson looked to Kylie. “We’re going to need a statement out of you,” he said.

Kylie did her best to explain what happened and Captain Benson marked every word in his notepad. She said that he came in around 5:00pm and parked in a handicapped spot. At the time of the investigation, the best theory Captain Benson could discern as to the nature of Jordan Baker’s disability was his morbid obesity.5 Jordan had come in and asked for the bathroom key, to which Kylie replied that the bathroom was for paying customers only. At this, Jordan picked up a copy of Men’s Health from the magazine rack and placed it on the counter. Kylie nearly laughed, assuming that he must have been purchasing it in an ironic act of cheeky self-deprecation.6 Jordan paid for the magazine and waddled to the bathroom.

“Didn’t you hear any grunts or anything?” asked Deputy Skeptical.

“I mean, yeah,” said Kylie. “I just figured he was getting himself off. Glory holes are sort of an urban legend around here. Truck drivers come in all the time, waving their dicks around and asking for the glory hole. I tell them there aren’t any, and to get out of here, them and their dicks. But then, sometimes, they’ll buy a couple dollars’ worth of something and ask for the bathroom key. Sometimes they try to dig their own glory holes—I’ve caught guys drilling into the wall I don’t know how many times—but mostly they just masturbate.”

“And what do you do with them?” Benson asked, writing as he spoke. “With the glory holes.”

Kylie shrugged. “We fill them.”

“Who does?” Benson asked, concerned. “You don’t, do you?”

“Hell no,” said Kylie. “Management hires kids off the street.” She did not catch Captain Benson’s palpable sigh of relief, or for that matter, the interested, inquisitive face made by Deputy Skeptical, who was running low on cash and thinking about moonlighting somewhere.

After they finished the interview, Benson gathered the remaining evidence by scraping up the slime and sealing it into the ziplock baggie that had housed his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As he did this, Deputy Skeptical took a series of graphic photographs of Jordan Baker’s corpse on his digital camera. They shook their heads one last time at the crime scene and wrapped the men’s room in police tape.

On his way out, Benson turned to get one last look at Kylie. She caught his smile but pretended not to, blushing as she looked back down at the lipstick magazine she had been ironically flipping through. Captain Benson and Deputy Skeptical stepped into the parking lot, where two paramedics unloaded a body bag from an ambulance.

“Well,” said Deputy Skeptical, thinking that Jordan Baker’s death was just a fairly run of the mill—creatively executed—suicide, and not, as his superior was no doubt already imagining, a disturbing and unexplainable mystery that implied something great and fantastic about the world around them.

“Well,” said Captain Benson, thinking only of Kylie.



Two weeks later, on a Friday night, Kylie showed up at a house party thrown by this guy she used to date.7 He had already graduated—so had Kylie, with a degree in history—but his house still looked like it belonged to a college sophomore, with movie posters everywhere, empty PBRs on every inch of counter space and Christmas lights wrapped around columns and windows. He greeted Kylie enthusiastically when she came in and towards the back of the living room, a guy named Perry Pullman who she had never met before but who seemed to know everybody gave her a once over. The house was packed with 20-somethings, only a few of whom Kylie had met previously. Among those she recognized: a bickering couple on their way to a bitter, loveless marriage, a cocky bassist from a local punk-rock band called Vaguely Familiar, and this guy they called Gonna-Die-Greg.8

Gonna-Die-Greg spent most of the night on the fringes, never quite joining a circle of conversation but never quite shutting himself off either.9 Girls kept coming up and offering pity sex but he kept turning them off by pointing out that the intrinsic pain and brevity of existence sort of rendered the whole hook-up thing into something of a moot point. At first, Kylie’s ex—the guy whose place it was—worried that Gonna-Die-Greg might put a damper on everything, but he ended up adding a weird, anxious, end-of-the-world energy to the proceedings. Everybody who entered his line of orbit suddenly become painfully cognizant of their own mortality and how fucked up it was that they could just die one day in some stupid car crash and they all got into this really weird mood where they were making out with strangers and dancing in the living room and having quiet, unspoken epiphanies that they were still in love with old girlfriends.

Drinking out of a plastic cup in the back of the room, that guy Perry Pullman snickered at Gonna-Die-Greg and his increasingly large congregation of existentially bummed out disciples. The whole anxiety about mortality thing wasn’t his style—Perry Pullman lived in the moment. He pushed pixie dust and preached about the power of positive thinking and he kept calling everyone a maniac and a bastard like he was born into the Beat Generation instead of just awkwardly appropriating their style by talking in long, rambling, run-on sentences and going on and on about Naked Lunch and getting drunk before midday and taking serious, mind-altering, fuck-you-up narcotics that kept his mind spinning and fingers twitching 36 hours even after ingestion. Perry Pullman swaggered from one person the next, making faux-shy talk with girls whose boyfriends were in the bathroom puking up blood or in the backyard swaying back and forth pissing diluted gin onto half-dead patches of grass when finally his eyes fell onto Kylie.

He approached her, said, “Hey,” and nodded towards Gonna-Die-Greg, tapping his feet nervously in the kitchen as he explained to some undergrad girl that everything was meaningless. All smooth-like, Perry Pullman asked, “You ever think about death?”

“All the time,” said Kylie. “Some guy dropped dead at work just the other day.”

“No shit?”

“Found him in the bathroom, asshole torn to shit like it was put through a meat grinder.” She smiled. “And here’s the strangest thing: there was green slime all over the floor and a hole the size of my fist through the brick wall—the sun shining in like a spotlight.”

Perry Pullman laughed. “Jesus,” he said. “How the hell did that happen?”

“Nobody knows,” said Kylie. She looked around the room, gave a playful grin, leaned forward and said, “It’s a mystery,” in such a weird, oddball tone that Perry Pullman almost fell in love right then and there for reasons he could not have articulated.

“That’s wild,” Perry Pullman said, at a loss for anything intelligent to say. “So what the hell happened next?” he asked, and then she spoke at length about the whole ordeal with the police and the paramedics and the pissed-off, improbable way with which her boss treated the whole thing like it was somehow her fault, threatening to dock the bathroom-repair fees from her next paycheck.10 Specifically, she talked in circles about Captain Benson, who she described as being middle-aged, somewhat overweight and balding, but still sort of handsome if you concentrated really hard on his face. “He was kind,” said Kylie, and she went on to say that when he looked at her, it was like he was looking past her skin and face and legs and breasts and at the person really truly inside her, because there was something about the way his eyes widened and his mouth curved into the shape of a smile as he said, “Yes, ma’am, we’re here about the body,” that made her really, truly feel for the first time in her life that there was someone who loved her for the tiny little pocket inside her chest that housed her soul.

Perry Pullman laughed. “Sounds like he’s got a crush on you,” he said.

They continued to converse through two rounds of shots, six song changes and three enthusiastic strangers wandering in with 12 packs of beer and acting like they knew everybody. Their conversation veered wildly back and forth between small talk and big talk, making no real distinction between a debate over the ascending quality of The Hold Steady’s discography and larger than life, faux-philosophical topics such as the practical nature of romantic love. An eventual lull in conversation led Perry Pullman to say: “Did you know that the inventor of the Segway died when he drove his Segway off a cliff?11 Speaking of segues—what do you say we make our way to a bedroom?” He grinned, thinking she’d be so blindsided by the crackerjack nature of his wit that she’d get weak in the knees, wet underneath the panties, and say something like, “Kill me, love me, stuff me in a closet and cut my jugular, do whatever you want to me,” but instead she smacked him, turned 180 degrees and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her.12

Disappointed and deep in the throes of sexual frustration, Perry Pullman rubbed the spot on his face where her palm hit his skin. “Prude,” he said, to no one in particular.13

This guy hosting the party looked up at him from a bean-bag chair pressed against the wall. “That girl’s a hurricane,” he said, taking a puff of his joint. He coughed.

“Tropical storm, maybe,” said Perry Pullman. He followed Kylie outside and found her smoking underneath the full-moonlight at the end of the driveway. “What crawled up your ass?”

She was fucked-up and lonely and had reached the point in the night where she couldn’t walk in a straight line to save her life and she grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled him close and he immediately slipped the tongue when she kissed him.

Their relationship began this way and it would not end until four months later, in October, atop Perry Pullman’s tiny mattress in his tiny bedroom in his tiny apartment when he ejaculated onto Kylie’s chest. As she wiped off cum with a used tissue, she caught him checking his text messages and said, “I’m sad when I’m with you.” They had just returned to his apartment after a brief sojourn to the Black Haven Halloween Festival.14 They did not coordinate a couple’s costume and he barely said a word in the corn maze.

Perry Pullman put down his phone and ran his hand through his hair. He really had tried with Kylie. Six days earlier she had said, “I really think I could see myself with you for a while. Like, a long while,” and he had said, “Cool,” and she had said, “What about you?” and he’d said, “I don’t know, ok?” and she said, “How could you not know?” and he said, “I really don’t, just give me some time.” She gave him a week and had been thinking about it ever since. Really stressing over it. Up all night. Talking it over with the guys. Chain smoking behind the bowling alley.

He handed Kylie the loose t-shirt that she had taken off moments earlier. “Here,” he said. “Put this on.” She pulled the shirt over her naked shoulders and Perry Pullman’s mouth hung open like an idiot as he realized what he was doing. It was one of those moments where he could see two roads all laid out before him—one, a life lived with Kylie and another without her—each running in his mind’s eye like Super-8 style home movies of potential Christmas future.15

Nervously, after a couple false starts, Perry Pullman said: “I don’t think we should do this anymore. I’m sorry.”

In the 180 days between Kylie and Perry Pullman’s first kiss and last sad hand job, Perry Pullman had good moments and bad. In his best, he pulled away from the touch of Kylie’s lips, brushed the hair from her eyes, smiled and said, “You know I’m stupid for you, right?”, and in his worst, he snuck off to the bathroom to pop drowsy, nighttime cold medication when she spent the night because he always had trouble sleeping with his arms wrapped around her. Off-brand cold medication in his stomach, all night long he would have weird, violent, psychosexual fever dreams and occasionally he would wake up and Kylie would be awake also and they would start fucking without saying anything and the next morning he would be unsure if they really had been fucking or if it had just been another weird, violent, psychosexual fever dream.

In his best moments, though, Perry Pullman was present.16

In his best moments, Perry Pullman took stabs at self-improvement.17

In his best moments, Perry Pullman stayed up with Kylie and listened to her late-night theories about Captain Benson and the look he had given her on his way out of Lucky’s Gas Station. She woke him up some nights just to tell him about it. “Hey,” Kylie would say. “Hey, are you up?” and then she would go on and on about Captain Benson, working herself into tears that she could never explain no matter how many times he asked her to. Benson had been on her mind ever since she found the body. “I just keep thinking about it,” she would say, half whispering. “I think he really loved me.”

“I really love you,” Perry Pullman would say, running his hand over her cheek, already unsure of whether or not it was really happening.

A few months later, moments after being dumped and just before Halloween, Kylie started shouting at Perry Pullman. She didn’t think he was the love of her life or anything, or that she’d marry him, have kids with him or buy twin funeral plots, but she really did think he loved her. And so she was mad as hell, shouting so loudly that the elderly couple living the adjacent apartment called the police.

A bang on Perry Pullman’s door interrupted Kylie in the middle of a rant about how much of a coward he was for leaving her. Perry Pullman pulled a pair of jeans over his hips and opened the door. “Yeah?” he asked, zipping his pants.

“We got a call about a domestic disturbance,” said Captain Benson, standing triumphant in the dim light of the hallway.18 He scanned the room and caught glimpse of the girl sitting on the futon in the back, wearing only a ratty band shirt and a pair of unwashed underwear.

“Kylie Heselden,” he said. “So good to see you.” He smiled and Deputy Skeptical could not help but to smirk at the coincidental nature of their reunion.

After calming things down, Captain Benson offered Kylie a ride back to her apartment. His voice was so sincere that even Deputy Skeptical could not have shot down the suggestion.

As Captain Benson drove, he kept both hands on the wheel and made gentle small talk about the weather and The Rockies and kept asking polite questions like, “Where do you live?” and “How old are you, exactly?” and “What are your favorite things to eat?” Turning to examine the backseat, Deputy Skeptical realized that Kylie was smiling.

Captain Benson parked in front of Kylie’s apartment. “Walk you to your door?” he asked, and she blushed. She said, “Thank you,” and shoved her hands in the pocket of her hoodie as they walked the long stretch of concrete to her door. “You look terrible,” she said, and she meant it. He looked sleep deprived.

Captain Benson laughed, sort of. “It’s been a long week,” he said. “Are you all right?”

Kylie almost laughed. “Everything is so fucked, all the time,” she said.

Being 20 years older, infinitely wiser and often kind, Benson gave a weak smile and crouched to sit on her doorstep. As Kylie sat to join him, he said, “Everything is fucked until it isn’t,” a statement Kylie interpreted to mean that she would continue to be heartbroken by the wrong guys until she finally found the right one. Benson smiled the way he did when they first met, like he loved her not for her body but for the untouchable, unphysical, intangible nature of her soul, and Kylie, being deep down underneath all the dark clothing and dark makeup and vaginal piercings something of a soft-bellied romantic, kissed Captain Benson on the cheek.

Benson took a moment, smiled nervously, and leaned in to kiss her again. He put one hand on her waist and groped her right breast with the other, slipping the tongue as their lips mashed together. Kylie pressed one hand against his chest, pulled away and said, “Benson,” in this throaty, desperate whisper like she was in the last act of a romantic comedy.19 She rubbed her fingers against his hand and pretended not to notice the band on his ring finger. “You should come inside,” she said.

Captain Benson managed to articulate an “OK,” and nodded enthusiastically. All summer, most of fall, ever since they met he had been imagining what she looked like naked. He’d fantasized about it, dreamt about it, and sketched doodle after doodle of her naked body in the margins of his notepad—tits perky, vagina hairless and her name written invariably just past the margins, a little heart dotting the “i”.

Kylie took Captain Benson’s hand in her own and opened the front door to her apartment. “Come on,” she said, leading him inside. “You can do whatever you want to me.”

A little over four months earlier, back in June, as paramedics loaded Jordan Baker’s corpse into a body bag, Captain Benson and Deputy Skeptical retired to the local Perkins. While waiting for their order, Captain Benson picked up the digital camera and flipped through the pictures that Deputy Skeptical had taken of the bathroom. “What did you think of the girl?” he asked.

“Who—the waitress?” asked Deputy Skeptical.

“No, the one from the gas station,” said Captain Benson. “Kylie.”

“Oh. She seemed all right. A little shaken.” Deputy Skeptical cleared his throat. “So what do you think happened? Suicide, right?”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Captain Benson. “What about the hole in the wall? What about his asshole?”

Deputy Skeptical shrugged. “Maybe a squirrel did it.”20

“A squirrel?”

“Sure,” said Deputy Skeptical. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” said Captain Benson. “I’m not sure yet.” He looked back to the camera and paused when he came to a photo that spanned the entire canvass of the crime scene—Jordan’s dead body, the busted toilet, etc.

“You know, it’s like my mom always used to tell me,” said Deputy Skeptical, deadpan.

“Life is like a box of chocolates.” He took a slow, measured sip from his mug. “Doesn’t last long for fat people.”

Captain Benson couldn’t help but snicker. “Jesus,” he said, setting the camera back on the table. “Jordan Baker.”

At that moment, their waitress, Heather, returned to their table with Captain Benson’s pancakes and Deputy Skeptical’s French toast. She smiled upon hearing her friend’s name. “How do you know Jordan?” she asked, placing their food in front of them.

Both men froze. Captain Benson removed his cap. “Ma’am,” he said.

Heather’s eyes fell to the table, where an image of Jordan Baker’s bloodied, half-naked body was still displayed on the screen of the digital camera. She made a horrible whimpering noise, bent over and was sick. She cried very hard and they tipped very well.

In July, Captain Benson and Deputy Skeptical sat across from each other in their usual booth at Perkins, neither saying much about their personal lives or inner-most thoughts. Deputy Skeptical almost never made small talk, would speak up so rarely that his voice would sometimes surprise even Captain Benson. Deputy Skeptical was very professional in that regard but also sometimes unintentionally hurtful. Finally Captain Benson offered up the words, “I can’t stop thinking about it,” as he pushed the final bite of a pancake back and forth across his plate with the blades of his fork.

“The investigation or Kylie?” Deputy Skeptical asked.

“Both.”

The investigation into Jordan Baker’s death had stalled. They had no leads, no motive, no suspect, no anything. Captain Benson brought Kylie up in conversation whenever possible though, going so far as to call her into the station for an additional round of unnecessary questioning. The interrogation offered very little in the way of answers. All Captain Benson got out of the exchange was some stolen moments with his beloved and a few parenthetical asides about how things had been at Lucky’s Gas Station in the wake of Jordan Baker’s death.21

“What are you thinking?” asked Deputy Skeptical.

“I think that there has to be more to this case than meets the eye,” said Captain Benson. “I think that there has to be an angle that we haven’t tried yet, or some detail we’re overlooking. I don’t think Jordan Baker killed himself. I think this case is bigger than both of us.” He hooked the last piece of pancake with his fork and brought it to his mouth. “And I think I should call Kylie,” he said, chewing.

One booth over, Heather poured coffee into a patron’s mug, arm shaking as she listened.

In August, the investigation into the death of Jordan Baker was officially closed by the Black Haven Police Department. The campaign to close the case was spearheaded by Deputy Skeptical, who claimed to have run the slime through a lab examination. “It’s just mucus,” he told everybody, “nothing to see here,” and the Chief of Police closed the case.22

“You can’t be serious,” Captain Benson said, stopping the Chief of Police in the hallway. “Something happened to Jordan Baker in that bathroom. We can’t just let this one go. There could be something really big happening here.”

The Chief of Police shrugged. “Either way,” he said, turning his attention to an email, drafting a response. “You read the deputy’s report.”

Captain Benson cursed. As he paced back to his cubicle, muttering profanity, he passed by Deputy Skeptical, drinking from a Dixie cup and standing near the water cooler. Captain Benson stopped and asked, “Just what the hell is wrong with you, anyways?”23

When they got breakfast at Perkins the next morning, neither said anything about the closing of the investigation. They had new, small-scale cases to deal with—some punk had stuck up a liquor store and escaped on bike, a woman had maxed out her unpaid parking tickets and they had received an anonymous, likely false tip that a pint-sized prostitution ring was being run out of the local pinball joint.

“I guess we better start pulling over bikers,” said Deputy Skeptical, quietly.

“Yeah,” said Captain Benson.

“We should probably check the security footage.”

“Yeah.”

Both men sat, eating in silence. Suddenly Captain Benson slammed his fork and put both hands onto the table. “It’s bullshit that we never talk,” he said. “That girl, Kylie—I’m in love with her.”

Deputy Skeptical gave a weak, pitying smile. “No such thing,” he said. “You’re crazy—what about Josephine? What about the kids?” When Captain Benson didn’t reply, Deputy Skeptical just shook his head. “She probably doesn’t even know your name,” he said.



One morning in September, Heather approached Captain Benson at his usual booth.

“Can I sit?” she asked. Deputy Skeptical had just excused himself to use the bathroom.

Captain Benson nodded. “The investigation is closed.” he said. “It was a suicide.”

Heather hadn’t been sleeping much. The best part of her day was in the morning before she remembered that Jordan was dead and the worst part was when she fucked guys behind the pinball place and let out an involuntary, broken moan upon imagining his face onto that of her patron. She refused to believe that Jordan had killed himself. It just wasn’t like him. He had been trying. He had been eating well. He was being better to his mother. He was taking a stab at actually writing the mystery novel he’d always talked about writing instead of just consuming cheap paperbacks on the daily. And so Heather had to believe instead that Jordan had been murdered, or that something otherwise fantastic or strange or worthy of him had taken him out of this life. That he hadn’t killed himself or shit himself to death.24

“You don’t really think it was suicide, do you?” she asked.

“No,” said Captain Benson. “I really don’t.” He bit his lip and then promised—off the record—that he would find out what really happened to Jordan Baker. As he finished his sentence, Deputy Skeptical returned, locked eyes with Benson and neither had to say anything.



Captain Benson and Deputy Skeptical crossed paths just before Halloween at the Black Haven Halloween Festival, both on duty but neither in attendance on police business. Deputy Skeptical had picked up a security shift and Captain Benson was there to meet Heather. They had arranged to meet earlier that day; he was going to tell her what happened to Jordan.

“Um,” said Deputy Skeptical, stopping as he passed Captain Benson, perched on a park bench, tapping his fingers nervously and ignoring the half-drunk residents of Black Haven stumbling past him dressed as movie monsters.

Captain Benson stood. “All right, Deputy,” he said. “Cards on the table.” His eyes were bloodshot. His hair was disheveled. He hadn’t been sleeping much. “I’m here to meet Heather—the waitress. I’ve been doing some under-the-table investigative work into what happened to Jordan. I found something; I really need you to listen. I’m going to need your help with this.”

Just as Captain Benson began to explain, some girl dressed as a clown started vomiting into the bushes behind him. The grim obligation of part-time security weighing heavy on his heart, Deputy Skeptical knelt down to help her, holding the girl’s hair back and telling her it was OK, all while trying his hardest to listen in on Captain Benson’s rambling, rapid-fire explanation of his off-duty, off-the-record, off-kilter investigation into the death of Jordan Baker.25

Deputy Skeptical pointed the woman in the direction of the bathroom and called in the custodial team on his walkie-talkie. He turned to Captain Benson, incredulous. “So what the hell are you saying?”

Captain Benson took a moment to compose himself and said, with just a hint of self-awareness, “Deputy, I believe it was monsters.”

Tired, beaten-up, tossed around, forced into submission by the wide breadth of the universe and covered in the stains of wretched excess from a woman who might have alcohol poisoning, Deputy Skeptical just sneered. “No such thing as monsters,” he said.



Later that night—after a lengthy debate with Captain Benson, an emotionally taxing meeting with Heather, a call from dispatch regarding a domestic disturbance on the far side of town, a coincidental reunion with Kylie, and a somewhat uncomfortable car ride—Deputy Skeptical will watch from the squad car as Captain Benson kisses Kylie on the porch of her apartment, the whole scene playing out like a silent movie.

He will smile, say, “Well, my God,” move over to the driver’s seat and turn the key. As Kylie takes Captain Benson’s hand and leads him through her front door, Deputy Skeptical will buckle his seatbelt and drive off, overwhelmed suddenly with tremendous hope, not only for his friend but also for everything.

He will think, nervously at first, that if Captain Benson could get Kylie to love him then maybe he can believe in things again. Maybe God is real. Maybe love is real. Maybe something extraordinary really did happen to an obese man in a gas station bathroom. Maybe everyone would start calling him Deputy Believer.

He will dial the Chief of Police. “It’s Andrew,” he will say to the answering machine. “I’m reopening the Jordan Baker case. Call me.” He will toss the phone behind him and accelerate past a stop sign, past Perkins, past Lucky’s Gas Station, past the run-down dive bar where he drinks alone most nights. He will howl. Laugh. Smack the roof in fits of adrenaline. Look wild-eyed out the window like everything is new and sweet and otherworldly—unbridled love bursting from the soul of every nameless pedestrian and untapped, innumerable mysteries lurking underneath each familiar storefront.

 


END NOTES

  1. He loved her and she liked him. She liked him quite a bit actually, but not enough to consider him as a sexual partner. This isn’t to say that she was not sexually active. She fucked guys behind the pinball place four nights a week, sometimes loudly and sometimes violently.

  2. Black Haven was founded in 1880 by a miner named Gunther Black who struck it rich during the Gold Rush. He intended for Black Haven to be the pride of Colorado. He thought there’d be gold underneath every household; he thought they’d all be plutocrats.

  3. During Deputy Skeptical’s second week at the Black Haven P.D., the station went on a team building retreat to the barren roads of Wyoming to drink beer and look up at the sky and make UFOs out of airplanes. While everyone else was pointing and laughing, Deputy Skeptical said something to the effect of, “No such thing as aliens,” which eventually led into, “No such thing as selflessness,” and, following that train of thought to its logical conclusion, “No such thing as love”. His co-workers began calling him Deputy Skeptical and made hurtful comparison to Dana Scully from the 1993 FOX television program, The X-Files. Deputy Skeptical resented the comparisons. It was Fox Mulder that he most identified with, most felt a kinship to. Deputy Skeptical loved Mulder, cried for him, wanted to believe.

  4. Captain Benson was on his 216th particular notepad. Back home, he had devoted an entire cabinet shelf to them, all arranged in chronological order starting from the day he and his family first moved to the town. He called it, “The Archive of Black Haven.”

  5. “Or maybe he was just an asshole,” Deputy Skeptical theorized.

  6. The purchase had been made sincerely. Towards the end of his life, Jordan Baker was making an active effort to turn things around. During those final mornings, he woke up before dawn and ran through the suburban sprawl that couched his mother’s home. As he ran, he waved at his neighbors, he smiled at the milkman and he ignored the mocking cat calls shouted to him from the backseats of passing school buses. He ran for his health, for his mother, and—tired, exhausted, sweat soaking through his XXL t-shirt and filled to the absolute brim with a quiet, hopeful optimism—he ran for Heather.

  7. They didn’t date very long, or at not least long enough for it to be some serious thing that they never got over. After three weeks of coffee dates and nervous shy talk, she invited him up to her bedroom. They stripped clothing and pressed their weird lips together and Kylie said, “Come on, stick it in,” and he said, “Shh, let me just come on your tits,” and without another word from Kylie he arched his back and beat off onto her breasts, an inaugural sexual act so powerful and degrading that Kylie broke things off with him later that night as he ran his fingers lightly up and down her naked backside.

  8. Everybody called him Gonna-Die-Greg because in May his girlfriend, Jenny McCreary, hung herself in the basement of her childhood home while a repeat of The Twilight Zone played on the television set in front of her and ever since then, all Gonna-Die-Greg ever talked about was death. He would be hanging out with friends and then out of nowhere just tilt his head back and say, “I can’t believe we’re gonna be dead one day.”

  9. It was only June, and so guys kept coming up to him and saying, “Shit man, I’m so sorry about Jenny,” to which Gonna-Die-Greg would reply, “Shit man, I’m so sorry about all of us.”

  10. “Oh yeah,” said Perry Pullman when Kylie gave a description of Deputy Skeptical. “I know him.” A while back, Deputy Skeptical had arrested Perry Pullman after finding him loitering late at night within close proximity to a home invasion. He had not been involved with the crime, but despite his repeated claims of “I didn’t do it, you gotta believe me,” Deputy Skeptical took him in and threatened to press charges until he was finally exonerated by an anonymous tip. “That guy’s an asshole,” he told Kylie.

  11. Technically, the man Perry Pullman referenced here, one Jimi Heselden, was not the inventor of the Segway but rather the owner of Segway Inc., producer of the Segway personal transportation system.

  12. Perry Pullman had first heard this statement—“Kill me, love me, stuff me in a closet and cut my jugular, do whatever you want to me,”—In a anecdote his buddy Henry told him about Jenny McCreary, Gonna-Die-Greg’s recently deceased girlfriend.

  13. Perry Pullman was way off base—Jimi Heselden, owner of Segway Inc., had been her uncle.

  14. The ominous-sounding nature of the name, “Black Haven” had become a kind of inside joke for the residents of the town. This was especially true during the weeks surrounding Halloween, when they went all out on haunted houses and pumpkin patches and half-off horror pictures at the theater on Friday nights.

  15. Among the images that played out in Perry Pullman’s head as he imagined a life with her: moving out of his shitty apartment, moving in with Kylie, getting clean, going straight, quitting his job at the hookah lounge, getting a job in hospitality, maybe, or retail, purchasing a loosely fitting button-down from the thrift store for his first day of work, fucking on something other than a twin sized mattress in celebration of his first day of work, impregnating Kylie, smiling nervously as he puts his hand over her pregnant stomach, saying, “Hot damn, hot damn, I can feel it kicking,” holding his newborn child, wet with placenta and fragile with potential, exchanging vows at City Hall, coming home every night worn out and strung out and exhausted for weeks and months and years on end until finally he can barely recognize the mature complexion of his face in the bathroom mirror, getting pissed at Kylie over nothing, getting pissed at Kylie over everything, shouting back and forth until both of their voices are hoarse, sharing the same bed each night anyway, holding Kylie as she sleeps, arms wrapped around her soft tummy, throwing the ball around with his child, indulging his classist father-in-law, getting into fights with teachers on back-to-school nights, going all out on birthdays, going all out on Christmas, loving his life, loving his child, and being achingly, desperately, hopelessly in love with Kylie for each of his remaining moments.

  16. An example: once, in July, while walking hand in hand from the downtown movie theater, Kylie and Perry Pullman heard disturbing, otherworldly moans coming from behind the pinball place. Being very much at his best and very much on the cusp of falling in love, he said, jokingly, “Probably just ghosts,” and Kylie smiled and tightened her grip. It was the little things.

  17. Another example: after getting blackout drunk at a party one night, he and Kylie really got into it and Perry Pullman—drunk, not himself, the devil inside him—screamed at her, just loud and shitty and forceful enough to scare them both. After an emotional, painful, hung-over next morning, Perry Pullman set aside not only booze but also marijuana, ecstasy and salvia, explaining to confused friends at house parties that he wasn’t drinking because, “I want to see what I look like sober,” a vague but just charismatic enough explanation to satisfy even his most persistent enablers.

  18. Both Captain Benson and Deputy Skeptical had been in attendance at the Black Haven Halloween Festival when they got the call about the domestic disturbance, although neither was technically there on official police business.

  19. She did not know his first name.

  20. Captain Benson was reminded then, of an old trick that his middle school English teacher had taught him to remember prepositions. “Prepositions,” Mr. Ackerman had said, “are things that a squirrel does to a tree.” The squirrel goes up the tree. The squirrel goes down the tree. The squirrel goes into Jordan Baker’s asshole.

  21. According to Kylie, the gas station had shut down for two days, they still hadn’t fixed the men’s room, and a week earlier, a fidgety guy wearing a bow-tie came in to buy a box of cosmic brownies, asked her for her name and said, “You, Kylie Heseldon, have the most important job in the universe.” Before she could ask him what the hell he was talking about, two men dressed in black who identified themselves as federal agents walked through the automatic door and arrested him on charges of child pornography. As they dragged him out of the gas station, he started screaming, “Keep the holes closed! Jesus Christ, Kylie, you gotta fill the holes!” Kylie told Captain Benson that she didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. “We haven’t had any glory holes in weeks,” she said.

  22. Deputy Skeptical never actually submitted the slime for examination. Rather, the Chief of Police had offered him an incentive to sweep it under the rug. “We don’t need any unnecessary attention. You’re still pretty new here, but if you scratch my back, I scratch yours, you dig?” the Chief of Police had said. And so of course Deputy Skeptical flushed it. The next morning he found an envelope stuffed with cash in his mailbox. He had to do it. He needed the money. He had even started moonlighting as a security guard.

  23. Captain Benson didn’t wait for a reply, but if he had, he might have received the following as a detailed explanation of just what the hell was wrong with Deputy Skeptical: when he was five years old his older sister punched him for believing in magic; when he was six his father revealed—drunkenly—that there was no such thing as Santa Claus; when he was eleven his mother told him that he would never be an astronaut; when he was fourteen Sally Simpson asked him out to the homecoming dance as a practical joke; when he was seventeen his favorite English teacher was dismissed for having sexual intercourse with an underage girl; when he was twenty-two his father died of lung cancer after several months of exhaustive chemotherapy; when he was twenty-eight the Lost finale disappointed him; when he was twenty-nine his wife had a miscarriage; when he was thirty she left him, saying only: “I just don’t love you anymore,”; when he was thirty-one he moved into a Motel 6 because he couldn’t afford a place of his own; when he was thirty-two he moved to a new town and his co-workers gave him the nickname “Deputy Skeptical”, even though he had been trying particularly hard to be social and forthcoming and—holy shit—optimistic with a new group of people.

  24. She arrived at this epiphany following a conversation with her acquaintance, this guy that everybody called Gonna-Die-Greg, but who she insisted on calling Gregory. They had met a few months earlier at a support group. “We’re going to keep each other going,” Heather kept telling him, but he never wanted to talk about anything but the inevitability of death. Finally, towards the end of August, he interrupted her as she listed off three things for which she was thankful, a daily ritual she hoped might improve her often-negative mindset. “Your friend, Jordan,” Gonna-Die-Greg had said. “I know that it’s different, sometimes, but it’s weird—that’s not how Jenny acted at all towards the end. ”

  25. Benson’s investigation looked like this: immediately following his last conversation with Heather, he started calling shops surrounding Lucky’s Gas Station and asking if anything unusual had happened lately. Most of the shop owners had nothing to report, but the manager of the video rental store had a strange story about something breaking through the plumbing in the basement, knocking over the anime rack and smashing through a window. Intrigued, Benson began making house calls and ringing the doorbell of every home within a three mile radius. He eventually came across the small, dilapidated home of Iraq War veteran Samuel McKenna. When asked if he’d come across anything strange lately, McKenna replied, “Oh yeah, I got a doozy in the basement.” He led Benson downstairs where he had a small creature the size of a rodent locked in a dog crate. Wings like a bat and all covered in slime. “Jesus Christ,” Benson said, taking a step back as it jumped at the bars and growled like a garbage disposal. “Where the hell did you find that thing?” McKenna just laughed and said, “I got a hole in the backyard that you should probably see.” He leaned forward. “There’s something underneath Black Haven.”

Chris Vanjonack is a language arts teacher living in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he enjoys co-hosting a monthly poetry slam and feeding his cat. His fiction has appeared previously in New Haven Review, The Rumpus and After the Pause.

Categories
2018 Fiction

William Cass

LIFEBOAT

Michelle finally gave up on sleep altogether shortly after four o’clock and quietly got out of bed. She gathered her clothes in the darkness, looked once at the slumbering shape of her husband, Paul, and went into the bedroom that had been their son’s to change. She took her fleece jacket from the coat rack next to the front door, left the house, and drove through their silent Coronado neighborhood towards the beach. In her rear-view mirror, she could see the bridge to San Diego lit like a tossed blue ribbon against the night sky.

There were no other cars along the curb where she parked at North Beach. The crash of the waves was her only companion walking down to the shore and along it. A full moon bathed the sand and froth with dim white light. She went in her usual southward direction, her balled fists deep in the pockets of her jacket against the early February chill, her mind filled with the same haunting thoughts that had been chasing sleep for months. She’d often taken such solitary pre-dawn treks, but never so early.

It was low tide, and she walked in the wide swath of wet sand with her head down, so she didn’t see the beached rubber lifeboat until she almost stumbled up against it. It sat still at an angle where the last whispering crawl of the waves almost reached it. An outboard motor tilted up at its stern. The only things inside were a nearly empty jug of water, a gas can, and an enlarged Google image of shoreline in a plastic sleeve. In the moonlight, Michelle could clearly see words written in Spanish on the image’s edge; the shoreline in it was the one that reached from North Beach down past the Tijuana border to Puerto Nuevo. A collection of footsteps leading from the boat dented the wet sand towards the dry; she followed them with her eyes until they became indistinguishable with others heading in the direction of the boulders that bordered the street.

Michelle looked up and down the empty beach. She stood roughly halfway between the entrance to North Beach and the main lifeguard tower perhaps two hundred yards away to the south. The tower loomed tall, dark, and silent while she considered things. The lifeboat didn’t necessarily mean migrants from Mexico. It could have drifted loose without being noticed while being towed behind a cabin cruiser. It might have involved drug smuggling, although it seemed likely that it would then have been used to return the way it had come. It could even have been stolen by some teenagers on a lark from one of the harbors nearby and then dumped and left to be found. But, there were the Spanish words, the shoreline’s image, the water jug, and the retreating footsteps that made the first seem most likely. Michelle looked at the boat and frowned. She felt for her cell phone, but hadn’t brought it, so retraced her steps back up the beach to her car and drove away.

At home, she closed the door to the study to keep from awakening Paul and called the police. A woman at the station took her report. She didn’t ask Michelle what she was doing on the beach at that hour. When the call ended, Michelle looked out the window. A gray cusp of dawn muffled the sky over their back hedge. She thought about the day ahead, the things that she needed to prioritize at work, those that awaited her when she returned home, and her heart made its familiar drop. She blew out a breath and went down the hall to get ready.

She’d showered, changed into work clothes, and was pouring coffee into a travel mug when Paul came into the kitchen and put his arms around her from behind. She set the pot down on the warmer and put one hand on his. He was a big, heavy man, and she felt his girth against her and his chin on her shoulder; she could smell the sourness on his breath.

He mumbled, “Morning.”

“Hey,” she managed.

“You go for your walk?”

She nodded. He began to sway a little behind her. She moved grimly with him for a moment, then said, “I have to go. I’ll be late.”

She separated his hands at her waist, picked up the travel mug, and slid by him to the back door.

“When will you be home?” he asked.     

“Regular time.”

“Anything special you want for dinner?”

She shrugged and regarded him in his rumpled T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms. His downturned, goofy eyes that she’d found so endearing a decade earlier in college when they’d first started dating were still full of sleep, and his short brown hair was matted. He kissed his fingertips and extended them towards her. She did the same and left.

After she’d started her car in the driveway, she sat in it and looked at the rusted birdfeeder outside the kitchen window that they’d mounted together when they’d first rented the house. She saw a light go on in the bathroom, and saw his bulk pass its frosted window.

“I admire you and respect you,” she said softly looking at the window. “But, I don’t love you anymore.”

She said the words slowly. They were ones she’d practiced many times before. She thought of the lifeboat and wondered if whoever had been in it had gotten away.

Michelle had a meeting to attend as soon as she got to the non-profit where she worked, so she waited until she was alone in her office afterwards to bring up the private email account on her computer she’d set up after meeting Stan. That had been at a NPO conference in Los Angeles, but he worked and lived in San Jose. She’d been struck by his eyes when she first saw him across the room during a break, and a few minutes later, he appeared at her side and introduced himself. The attraction was instantaneous. They exchanged cell phone numbers and agreed to have dinner together that evening in the hotel restaurant where they were both staying.

At dinner, they drank and talked freely. He was divorced with no children. She told him about her husband and their son who had passed away – his severe disabilities and lengthy hospitalizations. They went upstairs to his room afterwards for a nightcap and lay propped up on the bed because there was only one chair. She admitted how unhappy she was in her marriage; he told her about his ex-wife leaving him after having an affair. The night got late, and they ended up falling asleep next to each other with the bedside light still on. At one point, she awoke and felt his hand on her hip. At another, she heard him turn the lamp off, the room went dark, and he replaced his hand where her skirt met her untucked blouse. She didn’t return to her own room until she heard birds tittering outside.

She hurried and checked out almost immediately. If he’d gotten up by then, she had no way of knowing. But halfway down the freeway to San Diego, she glanced at her cell phone when it pinged on the seat next to her. It was a text from Stan that said he missed her already. She pulled to the side of the freeway, hesitated, then responded, “Me, too.”

They saw each other a dozen or so times over the next year. Each visit involved him flying to San Diego, getting a hotel room, and then her finding a way to take time off work to meet him there. Their intimacy deepened quickly, but she was careful to put physical limitations on things. The most they did was kiss, hold each other, and talk about possibilities together. Each time scared and excited her more.

When she opened her email that morning after the meeting, the usual smile creased her face when she saw his message waiting. In it, he said that the job he’d told her about at his NPO was definitely hers if she wanted it, but he could only keep it open for her for a few weeks. He said he loved her. She sat back in her chair and re-read the message, then the entire string of exchanges under the subject line: “Move Here”. She felt the beat of her heart in her temples. Finally, she typed, “Oh, let me think!  Let me see. XO.”   

For dinner that night, Paul had prepared corn chowder, salad, and crusty bread. The dining room table was set and wine poured when she arrived home. While she changed into sweatpants and a flannel shirt, he dished out the food and brought it to the table. The overhead light was on; he left the candles unlit.

As always, they ate mostly in silence. Paul told her a little about his day teaching at the elementary school in town; the school had received good news about a fine arts grant they’d applied for, but he’d also had to deal with a parent after dismissal who was upset about a report card grade. She forced herself to find something to say. She told him about a fundraising event she’d put final touches on. She told him the soup was good. She watched him turn his attention to it, slurping regularly as he did. She knew that if he had any inkling that she was unhappy, he would attribute it to the lasting effects of their son, Ben’s, death two years earlier. Whenever she rebuffed Paul’s attempts at lovemaking after Ben’s birth, he said he understood; she knew that he excused any moodiness or change of behavior in her and attributed it to Ben. But, she didn’t really think he suspected anything about her deep discontent; he was just too oblivious, too eternally hopeful. Those were things she’d once found ingratiating in him, too. The truth was she’d been unhappy even before becoming pregnant and hadn’t found a way to tell him. She understood that the impression she gave him at the time was that she was just as enthusiastic about trying to have a child as he was. She avoided thinking about that, but felt both angry and a blush of guilt when she did.

He burped, chuckled, and apologized. She watched him rip apart a piece of bread and thought of how little they’d grown to share over time. It was true that Ben’s troubles had consumed them for the six years he’d been alive, but that diminishing had begun early in their marriage. It hadn’t taken long for Paul’s innate generosity of spirt and selflessness to begin irritating her. He always insisted on staying overnight at the hospital with Ben during his admittances so she could get some rest; he took Ben to most of his doctors’ appointments. She grew weary when people stopped her in the grocery store to tell her what a good teacher he was, and she bristled at the devotion he showed to the old lady next door, taking out her trash each week and mowing her lawn. Even when Michelle made passive-aggressive attempts to rouse him – setting her unwashed dishes in the sink, leaving the shower so it dripped, discarding her dirty clothes at the foot of the bed – he cleaned up after her with good-natured silence.

After dinner, they sat in front of the television. She flipped through the channels from one side of the couch while he graded papers on the other, glancing up now and then at the screen. She waited her customary hour or so, then handed him the remote, and headed to bed, saying she wanted to read. She closed the door to their bedroom, changed into her cotton nightgown, got under the covers, and checked her cell phone for texts. The last one she’d sent Stan before leaving work for home read: “I’ve settled. I have.” The bubble with his response was there; it said: “Don’t settle. Live.”  She touched the narrow box to reply and heard Paul come into the kitchen. She listened to him pour the rest of the wine into his glass, drop the bottle into the recycling bin under the sink, and return to the living room. She tapped the screen on her phone and wrote: “Sleep well, my sweet.”

 

The weekend arrived. They spent it like most others. By the time Michelle had returned from her morning walk on Saturday, Paul had gone off with his watercolor kit and easel to paint somewhere. She spent time in the study on things she’d brought home from work, checking her texts and emails often for messages from Stan as she did. When Paul returned in the early afternoon, he mowed their lawn and the neighbor’s and finished other yardwork while she cleaned the house, paid bills, and did laundry. Later, he got things ready for the bar-b-que, and she went to the library to check out a movie on DVD; they’d settled on comedies. After dinner, they watched it from their separate perches on the couch, then he turned out lights and locked up while she got into bed ahead of him and feigned sleep.

On Sunday morning, he played pick-up basketball with the same set of guys he had since they’d moved there. She substituted her morning walk with a weekly yoga class at a studio nearby and had coffee afterwards with some women she’d gotten to know from the class; when they shared stories of disappointment or dismay about their husbands, which was often, she said nothing. After lunch, he went to school to lesson plan for the week ahead while she repeated her Saturday morning routine of work from the office, emails and texts, or fiddled with some sort of project. That Sunday afternoon, she reluctantly returned to cleaning out their son’s bedroom closet and came upon the paper bag of rectal valium syringes that had been put there shortly after his death. Those had been used when Ben had a seizure that lasted more than five minutes. They needed to be disposed of at the police station, which she’d intended to do long before, but had forgotten. So, she got her jacket, brought the bag out to her car, and drove to the station.

Its entry area was empty except for a big, brown-haired female officer who sat behind the counter typing on a computer. She paused and looked up with a combination of weariness and expectancy. Michelle explained to her why she was there and then extended the bag. The officer took it from her and said, “We can take care of that for you.”

Michelle felt her brow knit. “I recognize your voice,” she said. “You took my call a few mornings ago about the lifeboat on the beach.”

The officer nodded. “That’s right.”

“Was anyone apprehended?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “The matter was turned over to the border patrol.”

Michelle stood nodding. Something spread over her. She said, “How often do they catch migrants who try something like that?”

The officer shrugged. “I wouldn’t know that either.”

Michelle nodded again. “That was pretty brazen, don’t you think?”

“I guess so,” the officer said. “Yes.”

Michelle nodded once more and said, “Well, thanks.”

She left and returned to her car along the curb in front of the station. She didn’t start the engine right away. She stared out the windshield at the white brightness of the afternoon and thought about whoever had been in that lifeboat. What had led them to make that attempt, and how had they found the courage to risk everything and try?

Michelle sat breathing deeply for several moments. Finally, she rubbed her forehead, reached for her cell phone, and checked her texts. There was one from Stan that said, “Please come.”  She looked out the windshield again towards the bridge and then replied, “I might.”

 

She didn’t decide for sure until the following Sunday when she was rummaging in the desk of the study looking for a postage stamp. There weren’t any in the general drawer they kept for things like that, and none in hers, so she pulled out Paul’s drawer and found a Valentine’s Day card on top. Her name was on the envelope, and there was a brochure inside the card from a bed-and-breakfast up the coast. On it, he’d drawn a heart and written: “February 20th and 21st…for my lover and wife.”

Michelle closed the drawer quickly, a numbness spreading over her, followed by a chill. “I can’t,” she whispered. She shook her head. “I just can’t.”

A whimper, like a small cough, escaped her, and she thought of the boat on the beach. She shook her head harder. Her hands trembled as she lifted her cell phone, scrolled to the last text with Stan, and tapped the words: “I’m coming.”

When she sent it, her heart immediately began to race. She felt untethered, disoriented, filled with disbelief. She felt as if she was standing on that beach with miles of empty sand on both sides of her.

 

The preparations were surprisingly few and easy. She began by getting a new checking account and credit card at a bank other than the one she shared with Paul that had branches throughout the state. That was something she could always undo if she changed her mind. She waited a day to see if she would, but felt no different, so told her boss at work that she’d found a new job she couldn’t pass up and would be leaving. Her boss congratulated her, said she’d be missed, but that the timing was good because they’d just completed a big project together, so Michelle wouldn’t even need to give two weeks’ notice.

That same afternoon, she left work early, bought a new cell phone, and texted Stan the number. His reply was almost instantaneous: “When?”  She was jittery with anticipation, anxiousness, and excitement, so was afraid to delay; she replied: “Tomorrow.”

She stopped at their bank, transferred some of their joint account into her new one, and got her birth certificate and Social Security card out of their safety deposit box. Paul was still teaching when she got home, so she gathered some personal documents, her laptop, and a few clothes and toiletries, packed them in a duffel bag, and put that in the trunk of her car. She took no photos.

There was still an hour or so before Paul would arrive home, so she busied herself in the kitchen making fresh marinara sauce and pasta for dinner. She moved frantically and almost cut herself chopping onions.

When Paul came through the back door and into the kitchen, she was stirring a pot at the stove. He stared at her wide-eyed, grinned, and said, “Well, this is a nice surprise.”

She made her best attempt to return his smile, then turned back to her stirring. He came behind her and kissed the top of her head. “Get off early?”

She nodded.

“Well, that’s good. A treat.”  He moved off into the bedroom where he called, “I’m going to change and take out the trash. Then I’ll open wine.”

 

That night, she didn’t even try to sleep. She’d cracked the window next to her for the fresh air it provided and lay on her back staring at the ceiling in the darkness. Paul snored quietly, his large figure turned away from her under the covers. She heard the final ferry of the night belch its horn at the pier several blocks away. Not long afterwards, the night’s last southbound train rumbled faintly into the downtown station across the bay. She found herself blinking rapidly and drying the palms of her hands against the sheets. Towards dawn, she listened to a siren from the fire station whine its way across town. She put a hand over the thud of her heart and whispered, “Stop.”

When the first light crept under the curtains, Michelle got up and drove to the beach for her walk. She stopped where the boat had been. It was low tide again; there was no sign it had ever been there, no footprints, no mark where it had sat angled in the wet sand. Just the quiet whoosh of the small waves and the long, curving stretch of shoreline to the south. In the blush of dawn, she could just make out the tip of Mexico in the distance. Her fingertips tingled; she felt short of breath.

She stayed long enough to be sure Paul had already gone to school when she returned home. She went into the study, took out a piece of paper, started with his name, and then wrote the long-practiced words she couldn’t bring herself to say to him in person. She added only: “I’m going away.”  She signed the note, set it on their bed, and left the house again quickly. She stopped at the trash cans in the alley where Paul had moved them. They hadn’t been picked up yet, so she took her old cell phone that she’d sealed in an envelope and buried it in one of them.

Driving away, a daze engulfed her. Cresting the bridge, and then watching it disappear in her rearview mirror, it seemed as if she was watching herself from afar. She turned on the radio, fiddled through stations, then turned it off again. It was a gray morning. She wouldn’t have minded if it began to rain; the thought of it brought something like relief. She tried to hum, but felt a lump crawl into her throat as she did, so stopped. She glanced at the clock; if she kept a good pace and traffic cooperated, she could be in San Jose by late afternoon. Stan would be waiting; he’d written that he would be taking the day off work. They would meet at the door of his townhouse. She’d ring the bell, or perhaps he’d be watching for her and would come out to the car. They’d embrace, and then things would start anew. Suddenly, the image of Paul in his classroom writing on the whiteboard invaded her thoughts, followed by one of a newly swaddled Ben being handed to her in the delivery room. She shook her head to make them go away; she bit her lip.

Once she passed Del Mar, there were few cars on the freeway. The wide ocean stretched out to her left, and foothills on the other side were lush green after winter rains. A long train going north pulled abreast of her between the freeway and the coast, then gradually moved on ahead and disappeared. She passed the fields of flowers east of Carlsbad, a vast checkerboard of colors. She thought about going there each year to visit them, first with Paul, then with Ben and Paul, and for the past two years, not at all. Her grip tightened on the steering wheel. She was leaving that, leaving all of it, behind.


William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, J Journal, and Gravel.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Alexandra Kessler

BAD BONES

“I don’t think you should do that,” Ava says. Jane laughs.

“Why? It’s not like it could get more dead.” Jane pokes the rabbit’s guts with the end of a stick. The rabbit is small and its fur is an oaky brown, about a hundred shades darker than Jane’s platinum hair. She’s blonde, but she wasn’t born that way.

“Diseases,” Ava says, pushing her sister’s arm away from the animal. Jane swerves and holds the stick over Ava’s head. Jane is sixteen, and Ava is fourteen. Ava knows there’s no stopping her.

“Rabies,” Ava says.

Rabies,” Jane says, eyes squinted. Ava imagines those eyeballs ejected from her sister’s head and sliding slick into the sea, rolling outta this town like Springsteen. Fragile and gooey, coated in sand and dirt, bobbing with the current.

The rabbit’s belly has swollen, bloodless slits down it’s middle. The soft parts, clean pink sacks leaking white, spill onto the lawn. The hind legs are mangled and strung off of the body, hanging by glistening tendon threads.

The rabbit lays stinking at the foot of their back deck. It’s the third dead one they’ve found this week. The rabbit’s head and front legs are perfectly intact, the fuzzy face peaceful, like the porcelain figurines that their mother keeps in a glass cabinet.

When Ava and Jane found the first dead rabbit, they buried it and didn’t feel too bad. They have a public school understanding of food-chain mechanics, they know that nature is a dangerous place for small animals.

When they found the second carcass, identically slaughtered, Ava cried while Jane buried it. Do you think it’s life was so great, anyway, being that small? Jane said. What a waste to be born a rabbit when you coulda been a big-boned Grizzly or a humongously-dicked stallion.

The appearance of the third rabbit has increased Jane’s curiosity and Ava’s fear that a predator is lurking. Their mother would say that twice is a coincidence and three times is fate. But they know she only uses this line to justify asking a small yellowing man, who had thrice been behind her on line at the liquor store, on a date. Their mother and that man, Ken, are now a couple.

Jane doesn’t want to bury this rabbit. She wants to keep it, to examine it closely. But there is no time now, their mother will be home soon. Jane says there’s a shoebox full of junk in the back of her closet that they can keep the rabbit in. Jane points to the rabbit and says, this is what’s important now.

The girls’ bedroom has only one closet, which is Jane’s. When their mother moved them out of their father’s house and into this one, the first thing she did was drive to the Home Depot and buy Ava a free-standing collapsable wardrobe. Their mother shoplifts from the high-end boutiques in town. Ava’s collapsable wardrobe is filled with heavily patterned Lily Pulitzer dresses that have holes in the hems where the plastic security tag was MacGyvered out.

The second thing their mother did in the new house was make Jane flush her pet goldfish, Shark, down the toilet. It had been a gift from their father, a fisherman, before the divorce.

“He’s just a goldfish,” Jane pleaded, Shark flipping in her cupped palms.

“They’re all just goldfish,” Their mother said. “I’ll get you a dog—a good animal with strong bones.” Shark was flushed and there has never been another mention of a dog.

 

Ava holds her breath while she kneels, reaching for the shoebox. Her sister’s closet smells like a barn. The shoebox of junk is in the very back. Inside the box is a splint from a years-ago broken finger, four baby teeth, and a handful of used, tied-off condoms. Ava brings the box outside to her sister.

Jane has gotten a snow shovel from the garage and scooped the rabbit carcass onto it. When she sees Ava come out of the house, she calls for her to hurry; wrists ready to snap. Ava holds the shoebox under the snow shovel, and Jane lets the rabbit slide off into the box. The rabbit is heavier than Ava expected, and wetter. It’s toothpick ribcage reaches towards heaven. The bottom of the box sags like a frown, a greasy stain spreads, the cardboard start to pill. Jane takes the box from her sister and slides it under the deck, where there’s two feet of dark space between the wood and the ground.

“We’ll keep it there till we think of something to do with it,” Jane says.

The girls’ mother is throwing a barbeque to celebrate her two-month anniversary with Ken. She likes any excuse for a good time. When she gets home from work, she begins to decorate the small yard. She pulls pink tissue-paper streamers from a K- mart bag and throws them over tree branches.

In the kitchen, their mother makes herself a drink. She pours vodka and lemonade into a plastic cup. When Jane takes it from the counter and drinks it down, their mother says nothing, just makes herself another and asks the girls to help decorate the lawn. Ava feels an understanding pass between her mother and her sister, an almost imperceptible filament made of something she can’t stand.

Jane rips foot-long sheets of red streamer into tiny pieces, scattering them around the yard like confetti. Ava wraps purple around the ever-damp wooden railings of the deck.

When they’re done, the yard is a rainbow stew. Their mother smiles, proud. She sweeps
the deck and polishes the small black charcoal grill. She tops off her drink, then Jane’s. She sets out silverware and plates on the deck table, using the space between the first joint and the knuckle on her pointer finger to measure the inches between each setting. If there had been more time before the guests were to arrive, Ava thinks, their mother would get on her hands and knees and polish every blade of grass on the lawn.

 

The girls get dressed for the party. They both wear denim skirts but Jane rolls hers up at the waist so it’s shorter, and their mother watches. Their mother tells Jane that nobody has fun shooting at an east target.

Guests start to trickle through the open back fence, walking lightly across the grass and placing small offerings on the table—bottles of screw-top pinot grigio and yankee candles. The girls greet people on the deck, friends of their mother’s with lipstick-ameared boozy mouths who ask them the same things over and over.

Jane pinches her sister and whispers, “look at Grace.”

Grace is their neighbor. She is over four hundred pounds. She almost always has to be sitting. She says she has osteoporosis of the knees. Their mother says it’s really because all that weight can snap your bones. Grace’s plate is piled high with the appetizers their mother had set out: watery potato salad and bacon wrapped clams and toaster oven jalapeño poppers. Grace sits down at the table and begins to eat, the first and only guest to do so. Ava wishes she could spend the whole night watching Grace eat.

“I’d rather be dead than fat enough to snap my own bones,” Jane says.

 

Amongst the other guests are Laura from the Walgreens bakery and her husband, who has brought a Margarita machine. The Margarita machine is a big deal for everyone. They stand around the small blender and sip at cups of green froth. The women watch each other. Nobody wants to finish first.

Beth, their mother’s best friend, arrives with her husband, Frank. Everyone is quietly surprised. Frank never comes to these types of things, because he’s always busy, and everybody understands—he’s the most in-demand roofing contractor on the East End. Beth and Frank’s son, Drake, is a senior at the high school that Jane and Ava go to. Drake is well-loved in town: once he jerked off into a bowl at a house party and spoonfed his semen to a drunk girl like soup. He won their school’s community service award for teaching a kid with down syndrome how to skateboard.

There is talk that Frank sleeps in his truck. Jane claims she saw him once, parked in a hidden crevice between the old motel and where the beach’s rock ledge begins. He was sleeping, Jane had said, wrapped up in quilts in the bed of his Ford.

“Remember when you saw Frank?” Ava asks her sister, “Remember, in his truck?”

Jane sips her vodka lemonade and doesn’t acknowledge the question.

Ava doesn’t like Frank. His hair is too solidly black and gel-spiked for a man his age. His wife takes his hand and he pulls away. His white T-shirt is tight across his chest and his hard little nipples make Ava gag, like they’ve detached from his body and lodged between her tonsils. Snug around his wrist is a thin gold chain bracelet—something Ava has never seen a man wear. She wonders if maybe he’s secretly gay, if right now she’s uncovering something big. There’s something feminine about him that almost demands pity. But Frank catches Ava’s eye from across the yard and smiles at her, gives a small wave. She immediately feels guilty that he makes her uncomfortable. He probably doesn’t know his shirt is too tight; maybe his wife doesn’t get him new clothes. Then Ava is heavy with remorse. She wants to cut Frank a thick piece of cake. Ava is worried about this impulse in her, the nagging need to feed what disgusts her.

“What are you doing?” Jane asks Ava. “You’re staring at Frank.”

“No I’m not.”

“Would you fuck him?”

Ava slaps her sister on the meat of her upper arm. Jane shoves Ava into the sliding door.

The crown of her head knocks against the glass and her neck snaps back. Ava thinks about how babies are born with a soft spot in their skulls, and wonders what kind of retardation would ensue if that spot never hardened. Ava touches the back of her head; she can already feel a lump forming.

“You started it,” Jane says.

The girls’ mother opens the sliding glass door from inside the house. Ken is standing next to her. Nobody saw him come in. Ava figures her mother must have told him to come around the front of the house instead of the back gate, so they could make an entrance together. She feels a hot anger move through her, imagining her mother planning these details.

Quiet falls over the yard, and everyone looks at the girls’ mother and Ken. Their mother’s lips are the color of a ripe nectarine and her hair is piled on top of her head. Ken, who is a few inches shorter than their mother, wears khaki slacks with loafers, scuff-y. The girls’ mother holds one of his hands, his other is deep in his pocket.

“Thank you all so much for coming,” their mother addresses the guests. “Anniversaries are important.”

When the sky gets darker, the girls’ mother begins to barbeque. She grills chicken breasts and rib racks and fish wrapped in foil. Guests gather around as she grills, chatting with her and offering to help, but she waves them away. The girls sit in chairs off to the side of the deck and watch Ken. He is standing alone by the big tree on the edge of the yard, smoking a cigarette and staring into the woods.

“He’s so fucking weird,” Jane says, dipping two fingers into her cup. She puts the fingers in her mouth and sucks. She says the alcohol helps heal her bloody cuticles. Ava agrees about Ken. He hasn’t spoken to anybody since his entrance with the girls’ mother. In the past two months he’s been dating their mother, the girls’ haven’t heard his voice at all. He doesn’t enter the house to pick their mother up for dates, just sits in his car in the driveway and waits for her. He has never spent the night, though the girls’ mother has been stealing more expensive underwear lately—nets with little bows.

When their mother is finished grilling, guests fill their plates and sit down around the metal table. They toast again, and begin to eat. Ken sits between the girls’ mother and Ava. He is silent, and Ava watches as he cuts his chicken breast into small, identical cubes. He eats by spearing one cube onto his fork at a time, and dipping it into a small pile of mustard in the middle of his plate. While he chews, he puts his fork and knife down and places his hands in his lap. Then he swallows, and starts the process again. Ava can smell his smell, like rubber and mint. Ava wants to go to his house, slip into his bathroom, and then lock the door. She wants to uncap his aftershave and sniff the nozzle, to hold his bar of soap in her hands and feel where it’s been rubbed smooth. She wants to look in the mirror of his medicine cabinet and try to see what he sees. Ava tries to catch his eye, but he doesn’t look at her. The girls’ mother places her hand on top of his, and he leaves it for a moment, before shaking it off to spear another cube of chicken.

Jane sits next to Frank. On Frank’s other side is his wife, Beth. Jane and Frank are both
eating ribs, tearing at the meat like wild cats competing. There is a cherry tomato seed on Beth’s upper lip.

“Drake’s prom is coming up,” Beth says, putting down her fork. “He’s graduating with perfect grades. We’re so proud, aren’t we, Frank?” Frank strips a long string of meat off of the rib he’s holding and chews.

“There’s so much coming up for him, right Frank?” Beth tries again. This time, he nods.

“How exciting,” the girls’ mother says, and sits up in her seat. She says she can’t wait until her daughter’s proms. Prom dresses, she says, what an important decision.

A guest asks who Drake’s prom date will be, and a smile begins in the corner of Beth’s mouth. She waits for quiet before she answers.

“He’s taking Lila Gorsik.”

The girls’ mother slaps a hand over her heart and looks at Beth like she wants to climb inside her. The other guests coo and smile with softly cocked heads. Jane rolls her eyes.

Lila Gorsik used to be the best swimmer in the county. She made the varsity swim team
as a freshman and was captain as a sophomore, which won her a profile in the newspaper. Her butterfly stroke was a miracle, everyone said. A fish born in a girl body.

During her junior year Lila was promised a full scholarship to Stanford, and everybody knew about it. Lila’s parents, neither of whom had gone to college, threw a block party to celebrate. Last summer, Lila and some friends took her father’s fishing boat out for a party on the water. After drinking six beers and snorting a Xanax, Lila uncharacteristically crashed the boat into the pier at full speed and was thrown from the vessel, hitting her head and snapping her neck in the process. Everyone talks about the way her head jutted sideways, like it couldn’t fit, like her body was rejecting it. Though she wasn’t there, Ava imagines Lila looked like Shark the goldfish before he hit the toilet water, twisted and desperate to be back where he could take a new breath. Lila survived her ordeal, but now she has a motorized wheelchair that she controls with a straw that goes into her mouth. The wheelchair moves depending on her patterns of inhales or exhales. Lila has a nurse on hand at all times to weave thick tubes through her. Ava knows that Lila’s nurse will have to accompany her and Drake the prom. Ava can’t imagine how awkward that will be, to bring your nurse on a date.

“What an amazing son you have,” the girls’ mother tells Beth. She calls him a saint. She shakes her head, amazed.

“It was Drake’s idea,” Beth says. “And of course, he had other options.” Beth looks up at the guests through thinning ginger eyelashes.

“Of course he did,” the girls’ mother says, gaining momentum, “he’s such a handsome boy. He could have his pick of the litter. But you raised him so well. You really did.”

“We’re a very close family.” Beth touches Frank’s bicep. Frank drops a now-clean rib onto his plate.

By the time the guests start to finish up their dinner, the sun has set. The only light comes from the candles scattered around the deck, and the stars. It is the time of night when the mosquitos hunt.

The guests sit around and talk and drink more until one of them says they have to get going, and then they all do. They bring their plates into the kitchen, and help the girls’ mother wrap leftovers in foil and scrape serving platters clean into the garbage. They drink more while they’re cleaning.

Jane disappears, but Ava stays outside, where it’s quiet. The lawn is dark, and Ava slides her sandals off to feel the grass under her feet. It’s downy and damp and she glides across it like an ice skater. She almost glides through a small, dark, heap at the edge of the yard and she stops herself short, falling onto her hands and knees in front of the thing. She sees it—the dark wet tubes, the phantom tissue of a long ear, the glint of pearl bone. Ava is almost face to face with it. She gets up, fast, and goes to find Jane.

Her sister is not in the kitchen with the rest of the guests. Beth—who is finishing the last inch of red wine from a bottle and knotting garbage bags—stops Ava and takes her hand.

“You are such a pretty girl,” she says. Ava thanks her.

Jane is not in her bedroom or in the bathroom. Ava even checks the outdoor shower. She walks around to the front of the house, to the driveway where the guest’s cars are parked in a neat line, waiting. Ava catches a small movement near the cluster of trees and tall bushes on the side of the front yard, and moves closer towards it.

Jane and Frank are almost naked in a small patch of flattened beach grass. He has Jane pinned up against a tree. She is wearing her bra, and Frank is wearing his socks and shirt, and the rest of their clothes are twisted around their feet. Ava stands at a distance, silent, holding the bushes open like a curtain. Frank’s hand is wrapped around Jane’s throat and he’s squeezing hard. Light glints off the gold bracelet straining around his thick wrist. Jane gurgles softly and keeps telling him harder, harder. Ava can’t believe how close they are to the house, to all the people inside. She can’t believe that the proximity isn’t enough to keep things safe.

Ava goes back to the deck, where she sits until she hears her mother wish everybody a safe drive home, until she hears the cars pull out, one by one.

Jane comes through the gate, and sits next to Ava.

“I found another dead rabbit,” Ava tells her.

“Guess what,” Jane says, “I know something important. It was all lies. Frank told me that Drake wanted to take someone else to prom. Beth made him ask Lila.”

Jane nudges Ava, waiting, but Ava says nothing. Jane stretches her arms out in front of her and cracks her knuckles. The little gold bracelet is on her wrist now. It slides down her arm, almost to the elbow.

“Beth told Drake that if he took brokeback Lila to prom, she’d buy him a new truck.” Jane yawns and says she’s tired and going to bed. She stands up, wobbling.

Ava is relieved that nobody wants to touch her, but she also wants to be told important things.

A moment later, the girls’ mother comes out onto the deck, Ken behind her.

Her mother touches her fingers to her temples and says she’s had too much wine. She asks Ava and Ken if they can clean up the yard. She hands Ken an electric lantern and kisses his flaky cheek.

“Go around and pick up trash,” she says, and then goes inside. Ken looks at Ava for real for the first time. He shrugs.

The two of them work silently, picking up damp streamers and old napkins. Ava is thankful that Ken doesn’t talk, doesn’t ask her questions. The moon is milky in the sky tonight, like vomit on velvet.

After a while, Ava hears a low growl, and sees a quick, shadow-movement, punctuated by squeals that scrape her eardrums. She hears a throaty call. Ava drops her garbage into the grass.

When she looks up, Ken is standing over her, the lantern up by his face. Ava points to the movement and the noise, and Ken sees it too.

“Stay back,” he says, and walks up to the shadow, the lantern out in front of him. He gets close enough, and then they both see it.

It’s a feral cat, skinny and grey with white paws. Its eyes burn wildly yellow in the lantern light. The cat’s teeth are deep in a rabbit’s neck, but the small animal is still alive, paws flailing, joints popping and straining.

“Stop it,” Ken yells at the cat, swinging the lantern at it. The cat starts shaking the rabbit back and forth, faster and faster.

Ken lifts the lantern up and pulls it down through the air, hard. It connects with the cat’s head, and there’s a crack like the earth breaking apart, like volcanoes and cliffs, like a dropped plate. The cat collapses on the lawn. The rabbit, barely alive, drags itself away with its front legs, back into the woods.

Ava sits down in the grass and starts to cry. She cries for the cat’s bones, for how easily they broke.

Ken goes to her and crouches down. He presses his fingers lightly against her spine.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “Come on, Don’t cry.”

Ava looks at him.

“It’s sad,” Ken says. “I know it’s sad. But what else could I do?”


Alexandra Kessler received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. She received her BA from The Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. She was awarded two summer fellowships from the Kratz Center for Creative Writing in 2013 and 2015, the 2014 Lizette Woodworth Reese Award in Fiction, the 2016 Ross Feld Award, and the 2017 Lainoff Prize for Fiction. Her work has been published by Fiddleblack Press, Spartan Lit, Burrow Press, Joyland Magazine, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Sarah Terez Roseblum

IMAGINE HOW GOD FEELS

If your name is Jane, chances are you woke up lonely. The name is to blame. It’s gotta be. The problem can’t be where you live, because at this point, you’ve lived so many places that before heading home you think, not just, did you take the F train or the Q, but wait, are you leaving behind a car? Did you park before eight and snag the early-in discount? Exchange nods with the attendant at the Figueroa Street entrance? Beneath the Picado banner, he warms his palms above a black and white television set as if by a fire.

And which car did he wave you through to park, way up on the garage-top lot overlooking silver/blue buildings, cardboard box homesteads, and once, a jaunty coyote, slipping between jammed up cars? The Volvo? The Kia? Neither are vehicles you’ve owned, but both you’ve driven. The Kia belonged to the Actor. The Volvo to the Secretary. Despite rheumatoid arthritis, and a lifetime in Columbia, Missouri, she remained optimistic, till her son was killed in some peripheral war.

At home, you try several keys before the right one fits your lock. You never asked for one, not one key. You never ask for anything but cash upfront, still people hand over their belongings. Just like they tell you their stories, just like they let you into their souls. Getting in, you are disappointed to find, is easy; it’s getting out that’s hard.

On your counter, scrubbed clean this morning, you set the cold, metal mess of them, then detach the Newspaper Editor’s from the group. Personalized, doused in Mariners colors: silver, green and navy blue. She handed it over after your second meeting, whereas the men tend to bide their time. When they offer theirs over, they pretend it’s an afterthought. “Might as well use this.” Same way they’d address a secretary or personal assistant, an underling stopping by to water the plants.

The Editor’s condo overlooked the space needle.

“I like to imagine I live in a treehouse,” she told you. A pair of chihuahuas danced around her feet.

The showers you insist on are for your own benefit, but you’ve found the transaction soothes both the germaphobes and those whose self-concept demands they imagine you at ease in their homes. In the Editor’s bathroom, you rinsed off quickly, but she wanted you to luxuriate. She’d turned on the heated tiles and provided a glass of water, slice of cucumber floating on top. To appease her, you left the shower running and went through her medicine cabinet. You’ve still never met anyone else who stores her toothpaste tube in its cardboard packaging. Hers stood on end next to a dropper of contact solution and a bottle of Klonopin, which, no, you didn’t touch, because that’s not your style.

When you emerged, she’d set takeout on a weathered table in front of the wood-burning fireplace.

“Afterward,” she said, “I can rub your feet.”

She pulled back the flaps of three brown paper cartons, revealing warm biscuits, date jam and goat cheese, roast chicken resting on delicate greens.

Later, she sighed beneath you. You’d have predicted she’d force your face into the pillow, but her submission made a deeper sort of sense. Her chandelier made none whatsoever. Liquid and pink. Afterward, you stared at it as she stroked your hair.

“I hate it.” She followed your eye. “It belonged to my ex wife. It’s one of two things she didn’t keep.”

When you told her you loved it, she shook her head. “You would.” Her voice was affectionate. Familiar. She’d only known you three days. You didn’t ask about the second thing, though your curiosity thrummed low like arousal. Tolerance, you’d learned was preferable to the sting of an unfulfilled request. Besides, she wouldn’t have brought it up if she weren’t poised to tell.

“I could make you french toast in the morning,” she offered as you stood to leave. “Won’t you be cold?” She and the dogs trailed you to the door.

You told her forty degrees and weeping rain was nothing compared to a Chicago winter.

“Is that where you’re from?” She didn’t wait for your answer, rather placed the key lightly in your palm. She’d have given you anything, probably. In your short time together, she gave you: three flats of blueberries, an ipod shuffle, a package of creamy card-stock which read: “I don’t mean to sound slutty, but please use me however you want. Sincerely, Grammar.” Also grappling hooks, either because she loved metaphor or mountain climbing, hard to tell.

“This was hers too,” she said, of the key.
In your own apartment, you’ve strung yellow/white Christmas bulbs around the front window. In the last one, you hung glowing jalapenos, the apartment before that, purple lanterns like envelopes of light. You like it dim. No weepy reason, like you can’t abide your own face in the mirror. Your eyes have just always been sensitive. Growing up in Pasadena, your mom told you sunglasses were for movie stars and you’d probably break them, so you scrawled blue magic marker across a sheet of saran wrap and stretched it across your eyes.

“You’re sweating like a pro-wrestler,” your mother’s doctor/boyfriend told you. “They wrap themselves in plastic to make weight.”

“Go take it off.” Your mother’s hair fell in waves down her back and the doctor sat behind her on the couch, brushing it, like they were best friends at a sleepover rather than two consenting adults.

Beneath the twinkling lights, you don’t eat over the sink, but you don’t set a neat place at the red table either. Here’s just another way you’re someone in between. This apartment has a fat window ledge, not quite a seat, but wide enough for your bony ass, so you spread a paper towel on it, then tuck your knees to your chin. You eat tortilla chips or apple sauce or cocktail mushrooms. Lately you’ve been on a radish kick, but only if you’re in for the night. When you were just getting started, before you had rules about showers and a cancellation policy, you went with a client to Poquito Más. He’d taken hours to come and you were starving, so while you waited for your burrito, you collected piles of radishes from the salsa bar and chewed them hard and fast. He’d been the sort who paid for a whole evening, wanting his dick in your mouth but also your hand in his. Across the table, he recoiled when you burped quietly; a month later, he still handed over his key.

So did the Actor, a curly-haired giant who looked like an immigrant, maybe because of his fish-hook nose. This was in graduate school when you thought you were a playwright. Loose with information back then, you drank just enough to confide in one or two classmates, so the Actor knew how you brought in extra cash. At a friend’s party, you made the mistake of finding him charming. Not just the parts he meant you to, but what those parts hid. Outside he lit your cigarette then noticed your hands, pink with cold.

“Here.” Pulling black gloves from his coat pocket, he shook them out, held the opening of one to his lips. “Let me just blow some ennui into this glove,” he said.

One of your mother’s boyfriends was a mathematician. Each time he took the two of you to dinner he refused to calculate the bill.

“You do it.” He’d slide the check and his credit card toward your mother. “I’m off the clock,” he’d say.

You’re like that with sex. In your personal life, you don’t have much, even in school, when you really just dabbled, one or two a month, to supplement your stipend. Before that your client numbers skewed higher, because what else was there to do in Pasadena, really? The Rose Bowl only came once a year. When you do have sex, the off-the-clock variety, it’s after you’ve known someone for months not weeks. You made an exception for the Actor. Because of the thing with your gum.

You were at his place, watching a Sondheim play that had aired on PBS in the ‘90s. One classmate still had a VHS tape and brought her player and another kept shrilling, “Johanna Gleason, dolls, she’s the real deal.”

A surprisingly solicitous host for a guy without curtains, the Actor distributed red wine and cold beer. You didn’t realize he’d watched you scan the room for a garbage can until he held out his hand for your gum. You waited. He beckoned, so you placed the gum lightly in his open palm.

You stopped him when he first leaned to kiss you, and asked how he felt about your job.

“I’m not put off,” the Actor said. “I’m only in awe.”

After that neither of you mentioned it outside of sex, when he’d come up with questions. Once: “So you like going down on women?” Another time, “What’s the most you’ve ever been paid?” You talked about his sexual past too, okay? His first time with some lesser member of the homecoming court. Afterward she’d opened the closet in their hotel room and released three laughing football players into the hall. His last girlfriend, the teaching major. She’d called him a naughty little boy.

“I couldn’t even look at her after that,” he said. “Condescension and dirty talk are not the same thing.”

You got a job at Kinkos, which meant more hours for less money, and frankly more abuse, less respect. But it was worth it because of the dry skin on the actor’s elbows, the way he perspired in his sleep and the span of his thick-knuckled hands. Another great thing about him, about all actors, really: their ability to transform their countenance without seeming to try. When the Actor casually quoted a professor, you saw her flare momentarily beneath his skin. It was like having your own personal water park, or a Slavic trained seal.

On the morning you awoke early and took a shower before heading to class, the Actor’s single towel was in the wash and you found only hand soap, so you made do. You were drying off with your sleep shirt when he skidded naked into the bathroom, eyes slitted against the light, hair standing seven feet above his head.

“My god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t leave you a towel.” He offered to run to the laundry room, accessible only via icy outside stairs. “You’re just so resourceful,” he said when you told him not to bother. You were already clean and poised to leave.

At night you’d wake to find him propped up, watching you. Open on his lap, the computer tinted his ruddy cheeks blue. “It’s a good thing alcoholism doesn’t run in my family,” he said once, “because sometimes all I can think of is my next beer.”

Wasn’t his mother an alcoholic? Careful not to lecture, you murmured the question into his heavy arm.

“She can go months and months without drinking,” he said. “It’s only a few, maybe ten times a year some restaurant owner calls me to come pick her up.”

After a performance once, you drove with him to one currency exchange after another. None would cash the thousand dollar check he’d earned for a commercial, not without calling the business that issued it, which they couldn’t after five p.m. His features seemed to turn darker, more exotic with each refusal, until finally he looked like a murderous Soviet spy. You knew not to suggest he simply deposit the check at his bank and wait for it to clear. His account had been overdrawn for weeks—he made no secret about this—and the payment would only get sucked up by fees. Instead, you touched his cheek then turned on the radio. Sang along to something lightly top forty until he rewarded you by smiling and squeezing your hand.

When he started following you around with the dustpan you thought maybe he was joking. By then, you’d begun to think of his dingy garden apartment as your own.

“Can you not leave crumbs on the sofa?” He’d ask. “If you have to drink coffee while you put on makeup, can you at least not drip in the sink?”

What’s a sink for if not dripping, you wondered. He still held you to his chest when he slept, but sleeping seemed like all he did. Depression, you figured. You knew he was prone. A few times he roused himself to head out for an audition, order in Mexican or spray down his keyboard with cleanser after you’d borrowed his laptop to type up a paper while he drowsed.

Finally, you confronted him. You said he felt unreachable, critical. Was he upset about money? You’d been to the cash exchange place countless times by then.

“I wasn’t quite ready to call it,” he said, “but one thing I owe you is honesty. I guess I’ve stopped feeling excited about you.”

You stared at the Beethoven bust set on its faux marble pedestal, a prop from some production his freshman year.

“And I’m sort of concerned about your hygiene,” he added. “A person needs more than hand soap to get really clean.”

The next day, you called, wanting the expensive moisturizer you’d left on a shelf in his medicine cabinet and the soft grey sweater you kept in your own special drawer.

“I’ve got an audition,” he said, “but I can leave my extra key under the mat. Just make sure you put it back when you’re through.”

In a fourth grade essay, you described yourself as a “sleepless insomniac” and your teacher wrote “redundant” in red. So then you thought redundant was a synonym for sleepless, until once when you were showing off for your mother’s boyfriend, the dentist or the linguist, he disabused you of that too. Disabused, not abused. Christ. Your insomnia wasn’t your mother’s fault. Not the fault of the long line of boyfriends making use of her bedroom just a thin wall away. She liked intelligent men who couldn’t quite believe someone so blond had chosen them, not when they’d slunk dateless into their own senior proms. In adulthood, the mens’ anger had gone subterranean; now wealthy or at least salt-and-pepper-distinguished, they thrilled at their newfound power to humiliate and refuse.

You’d lie in bed listening to sex sounds or clinking glassware or sometimes your mother weeping quietly into the phone. Staring at the glowing constellations stuck to your ceiling, you imagined tying one end of a rope to yourself, then getting in a car and driving straight across the US. A special kind of rope, invulnerable, no matter how many holsteins it snared. No matter how many semis strained against it or river barges it caught on, it would remain too strong to snap.

One night you overheard your mother talking about the computer programmer who did stand-up on weekends, how he liked to take her straight out to dinner after sex, liked people seeing her hair a blond nest of messy, cheekbones blackened with mascara, liked people knowing how deep he’d plunged his cock down her throat.

“Which is fine,” your mother said into the phone, “which is no big deal, really, there are so many worse things a man could do.”

That night you stared at the constellations till they blurred and imagined the rope around your waist and you making it all the way to Rhode Island, the other end still looped around the mailbox at the base of your drive.

Rice crackers tonight, and when you’ve finished, you shed your tight skirt and suit jacket. You’ve draped your white eyelet dress over the chair you bought at a swap meet in Missouri. Upholstered in slippery white brocade, the feet curved wooden claws. From outside, you hear horns and laughter and brooms on cement, but all you see through the window is a billboard.

Being taken for granted?” it asks. “Imagine how God feels.

This apartment isn’t like the Editor’s, overlooking budding tree limbs and distant sky.
You throw on a jean jacket and lock your door, choosing the right key on the first try. What you miss about the Figuroa parking attendant is his daily recognition, but New Yorkers don’t need cars, and cabs come quickly when you wear your white eyelet dress.

At the corner, you drop the envelope containing the Editor’s key into a rare mailbox. Most have gone the way of phone booths. It might be the last remaining one for miles.

You only drove the Secretary’s car once, the day her optimism caved like a tent with a broken pole. She took pills, too many, though maybe she just lost count. She was always in pain from arthritis she’d first noticed, she told you, in college when the boy she liked pointed out the twist in her left ring finger, how her knuckles swelled like his grandmother’s. Before that, she’d always thought she was normal, but now she knew better, thanks to the boy.

After she took her pills, she managed to drive herself to the hospital, but once her stomach had been pumped, they called you.

“Greg was still listed as my emergency contact,” she said when you arrived by bus, your hair—long then—swept into a kerchief, your grey shirt ringed with sweat. She sat slumped in a chair, the skin on her face pleated, her usually pink cheeks grey. “I told them he was dead. When they asked who to call, yours was the only number I could remember. I was always too paranoid to program it into my phone.”

“My sister, my best friend, my neighbor, I couldn’t think how to reach any of them.”

As she talked, you led her through the automatic doors that slid open like a mouth exhaling summer’s hot breath.

“But that’s the world we live in, isn’t it? The people you know best become names on a screen. The things they used to tell you over coffee reduced to black and white bursts.”

In the passenger seat she rested her forehead against the window.

“Not to mention those fucking emoji. My sister’s a lunatic for those.”

You adjusted her mirrors, and pulled onto the frontage road. “I’m glad I was here.”
You almost weren’t, but you didn’t tell her. And by that evening you were once again on your way out of town.


Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s debut novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist. She writes for publications and sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, XOJane, afterellen.com, Curve Magazine and Pop Matters. Her fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as kill author and Underground Voices, and she was a 2011 recipient of Carve Magazine’s Esoteric Fiction Award and the 2015 1st runner up for Midwestern Gothic’s Lake Prize as well as a finalist for Washington Square Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction Award. In addition, she was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. In 2014, she founded the Truth or Lie Live Lit Series. Sarah teaches Creative Writing at Story Studio, and The University of Chicago Graham school.