Categories
2018 Poetry

Chrissy Martin

WINNER’S CIRCLE

When Ron drove us to the track to spend
the day watching races, my mother and I spent

cup holders full of change mesmerized by the glow
of claw games. If you weren’t in charge of the

joystick, you pressed your forehead to the side
of the glass, guiding the other like surgery. Between

wins, we huddled over fold-out tables in the stale,
gray cafeteria, trying to keep the grease of racetrack

hot dogs from dripping onto our jeans, listening
for shouts of our horse’s name or any others

that meant we could go home. We began
to wear tall, thin jackets to wrap our stuffed

animal winnings in when the hug of our arms
wasn’t enough—knotted the sleeves together and

slung them over our shoulders, proud as designer
purses. Once, after nearly clearing out the entire

machine, we heard Trixie Sue by a head! Found
ourselves in a winning circle snapshot, coatbags

under our arms, tops of plush heads poking out,
pairs of beaded eyes reflecting the camera’s flash.


Chrissy Martin is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University and a recent graduate from the Poetry MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. She also holds a BA in English from The University of Akron with minors in Creative Writing, Women’s Studies, and Popular Literature and Film. She is the Poetry Editor for Arcturus Magazine and has previously worked as an editor for Columbia Poetry Review and RHINO Poetry. Her work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, (b)OINKLUMINA and Small Po[r]tions. Find her at chrissymartinpoetry.com.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Caitlin Thomson

AFTERMATH OF GLORIOUS*

I know the life I had is soaked –
like a book puffed by water, no longer honey,
nothing that has been sung
about before. To think I used to be swollen
with pride about an appearance I had nothing to do with,
reckless with friends as if any stranger could be one. Till I was pinned
by my own loneliness in this box of glass, pressed against
a photo of myself that was no longer myself, because of time.


THE ROOT OF EVERYTHING IS BLOOD

The land of longing has a name, I keep it in my suitcase
even though I no longer live there. Still I have the raw strength of it,
a quiet breath between storms. Still there is wind
wrapping the walls of our house with noise and sway.
Still there are men somewhere examining the bathrooms

of women and declaring them sinners. I sin every morning,
according to their laws. I set an alarm for it. I swallow
it with water, and right now it is free, but soon I will have
to pay, not for the sin, but for the option to bleed less.

They don’t really have a problem with that, a friend said,
it is the killing of something that is already inside you
that is the problem, the tadpole, not the possibility of life,
unwatered. But they keep trying to take away the tools
that keep everything dry. I believe in the father, the son,
the holy ghost, and I don’t think they would believe in this.

My body keeps me up at night with a stomach
that hasn’t worked since childhood, with a tailbone
that my daughter gladly broke during her exodus.

My body doesn’t belong to me, it keeps different hours,
and now even the small territory of control I have sought
for myself, strangers can take away, strangers
that will never meet me, that cannot smile at my child
as she counts to three, who cannot scoop her up to release
the anguish she feels of a new tooth blooming.


Caitlin Thomson is the co-founder of The Poetry Marathon, an international writing event. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including: The Adroit Journal, Rust + Moth, Barrow Street Journal, and Killer Verse. You can learn more about her writing at http://www.caitlinthomson.com.

*golden shovel poem after “if you knew” by Ellen Bass

Categories
2018 Poetry

Lis Sanchez

FLOR DE MUERTOS

Since you left, a grim spirit has entered my face,
turned it to stone. Such is the way grief works

and why all summer I’ve braced for when you come up
from the cemetery in Oaxaca
by teaching my face to accept small seeds into its cracks.

Nights, I cry out to the clouds,
Let lightning strike this slab!
Let these fissures open like sluices!
Let rain and offal course over this rock face!

Already, invisible fingers are probing
the small pockets of gall behind my eyes.

Root girths swell and form tough forks,
loosen the strata of my forehead.

Soon, whole layers will fall away,
humus will fill in my faults
and from my fecund face will burst marigolds,

their centers made acrid by blood and bile
but never by tears, whose torrents
could deaden their bitter scent.

My blossoms in their eagerness
will mimic a torch of monarch butterflies,
lighting your way up my walk.

How my petals will shiver under your fingers.
How you’ll bury your face in my bouquet.

How you’ll breathe deeply, how you’ll breathe,
my love, until you’re dizzied, sick and sated

and can’t take any more
of the stench you’ve sown by being dead.


Lis Sanchez has writing appearing or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Salamander, New Orleans Review, The Bark, Puerto Del Sol, Lunch Ticket Amuse-Bouche, and elsewhere.  She is the recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Writer’s Fellowship; Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing; Nimrod’s Editors’ Choice Award; The Greensboro Review Award for Fiction, and others.

 

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 NonFiction

Annalise Mabe

LITTLE DEATHS

My parents were ex-pats in 1993, taking my sister and me to Prague where dust came from the bodies of men, old as meshed chain, armor and silver swords. The city, the churches were filled to the brim with bones.

I was three, the air swimming around me, smelling sweet of goulash and knedliky, or pilsners from the pub. My father took a job at an English language newspaper, The Prognosis, while my mother gave guided tours to other ex-pats visiting the city. At night I curled up between my parents, my sister tucked in close on the couch around the small T.V. watching Jonny Quest, a show about a young boy following his scientist-father around on adventures. Sometimes I fell asleep while watching, the static of the T.V. lulling me, a soft sea of voices rushing in and out before my parents carried me to bed, kissing my forehead or tucking my hair behind my ear. I’d like to think this was when they were still in love. This, in Prague, was when we were still together.

                                                                                *

Before my mother was my mother, she was long and thin-limbed in thrift shop clothes, in hand-me-downs, walking across a Florida college campus. Her friends called her Ally, or Ally Cat, short for Allison. Before my father was my father, he was Logan, and more of what you’d call a mod—a 60s term for a young person of a certain subculture who wore skinny ties, rode scooters, and liked all things alt. In freshman composition he got her number.

On hot summer evenings they cracked the windows wide open before falling asleep between the sheets. They called their parents not to ask, but to tell them they were moving in together. Months later, Allison moved to study abroad in France and Logan wrote her every day. Allison tied a string to a coin, dropping it in the slot, saving money to call Logan long distance. I’m sure they said “I miss you” over a hundred times, but in French, I miss you doesn’t translate neatly. It translates to you are missing from me, or, I am not whole without you. Logan told his parents he would sell all of his records for a plane ticket to see her. They flew him over.

On New Year’s Eve, Allison and Logan sat on a Parisian rooftop, swigging down champagne from the green glass bottle before kissing, before throwing it down into the street.

                                                                                *

The first thing I loved was a stuffed animal rabbit.

My parents gave me the rabbit when I was fifteen months old and I named him B. Bunny. I slept on him every night, his fluff rolling soft between my neck and shoulder, absorbing the sheen of my baby sweat. He smelled like the only home I’d ever known.

One winter while we were living in Prague, his white ear fell off somewhere on our walk home. I didn’t know where we lost it. Months passed, the sun melting the snow, when my mother crouched down, picking up the lone ear sticking out of the snow in a parking lot. At home, she took off her coat, stitched him back together, whole and anew.

                                                                                *

I am the second-born daughter to Allison and Logan.

I was small when I was born, conceived in January of 1990, after the New Year. After falling confetti and resolutions, after turmoil and arguments. I imagine I was a last try of sorts, a resolution myself, the consequence of their attempt to pick up the pieces, to put themselves back together again.

Allison was pregnant with me in France at an Opera House, flipping through the program when she saw the name she’d give me, a ballerina’s, a credit in ink: Annalise. The name means graced with God’s bounty, but I don’t think my parents believed in such a thing.

                                                                                *

La petite mort, or the little death, is the brief loss or weakening of consciousness, and sometimes, the sensation of orgasm. It was first used in 1882 to relay a post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness that some people have after sex. When the eyes roll back, when they close and you see bursts of bright light. When you transcend your body, escaping the physical confines of skin, the shrapnel of what feels like war on the field of your sheets. This is what it means when you say I love you to death.

                                                                                *

A few years after Prague, we moved to Florida to be close to family. I was five or six in my parents’ shared apartment when my sister and I climbed out of our bunk beds one night past our bedtime. Like little sleuths, we crept on hands and knees across the carpeted floor of the hallway, following the noise, the shouting.

Throwing words across the table, my parents broke like the glass cup I once dropped on the tile  floor, my mother telling me not to move a muscle. The door swung open while I watched my mother leave the apartment, the rush of cold night air greeting my face.

                                                                                *

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Western title for Tibet’s bardo thos grol, where the word bardo refers to an intermediate state between lives and thos grol refers to liberation, awakening, or nirvana. Some have likened the act of sex and the experience of orgasm to nirvana, which overlaps with sidpa bardo, the bardo of rebirth, said to result in hallucinations of women and men fiercely entangled, of lovers entwined.

Is this what the vow means, till death do us part? Does it mean then that divorce is a death, a rebirth, or something entirely of its own? And what, then, of those born of it, from the in-between?

Sometimes I’ve felt like the product of my parents’ limbo. Of their standing in the middle of reconciliation, or their agreement of another try. My creation, my body, has come from their willingness, their attempt to seal up the cracks. To lacquer the lines of the breaks. Sometimes I wonder what that makes me, then, knowing I wasn’t, knowing I couldn’t be the fix they were looking for.

                                                                                *

I had B. Bunny for a few more years before I lost him for good one day. I was six and sick about it, hot tears rolling down my cheeks into the pillowcase. My mother tried to tell me it was just like The Velveteen Rabbit, that B. Bunny was okay, and wandered off into the woods to be with real rabbits. That he wasn’t dead or trampled on or rained on. But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew that I had dropped him in the parking lot of the grocery store, that he was out there somewhere, collecting dirt.

Losing B. Bunny was not a worthy case for psychoanalytical prodding, but years later while reading The Shell and The Kernel, Karl Abraham’s work rang out and I thought of the stuffed rabbit in reading: “The illness of mourning does not result, as might appear, from the affliction caused by the objectal loss itself, but rather from the feeling of an irreparable crime.” I had known then, at six, that it was my fault.

                                                                                *

A small part of me died. It wasn’t when my parents sat my sister and me down in our shared bedroom to tell us they were separating and it wasn’t when my father moved into his own apartment, reeking of freshly painted walls, a white too clean, too sterile. I don’t know if it was a Tuesday, or if it was early afternoon, or late at night in my bed, when I realized that there was no going back.

There wasn’t one reason for my parents’ divorce. It seemed more like a small grocery list of moments that tumbled together into being too much. I can’t know fully why it happened because the truth is that a myriad of things happened, all too mild, too plain and dull to suffice as a good reason.

                                                                                *

I stood small, sweating in the parking lot, looking up at my mother’s new boyfriend outside her white Volkswagen we called Astrid shortly after losing B. Bunny. He handed me a new stuffed rabbit with green silky ears, a consolation for my lost beloved.

The new rabbit my mother’s boyfriend gave me was neat with his matching green bowtie and small pink nose. In bed at night, I slept with my head on him, smelling his fake fur, looking for the scent of home, only finding what smelled like a department store.

I came to terms with loss, lying in my lower bunk bed. I knew then that the things you carry at your chest, the raggedy and torn, are fleeting, short-lived, or left for dead in gravel parking lots, for the eventual rain, or the melting of the snow.

                                                                                *

I watched my father break silently. It was in the quietness of our breakfasts at the coffee table, watching T.V. It was in the car ride home from school, when he picked us up from after care, when the sun was starting to set and we still had to cook dinner. It was in my neatly folded clothes and the ponytail he helped me tie up tight by himself.

We all broke into tiny pieces and talked little about it, my sister taking to her friends, my mother to her new boyfriend. I waited for it to get better, for things to be fixed, for the glue to set and take hold.

                                                                                *

After college, I found letters from my father to my mother while looking for an old art project in a box at her house. I unfolded the pages of yellow lined paper, his wide, familiar script inked in black.

He wrote pages to her about the times when he loved her most: Was it when you walked into the room at the cocktail party and everyone stopped to look, to hold a second of you? Was it when you slipped out of bed in the night, your silhouette in the doorframe, to nurse our first daughter?

I couldn’t help but cry, holding the aged paper in my hands. I couldn’t help but look around my childhood bedroom and feel like I had been transported, had been somewhere else.

Roland Barthes spoke of petite mort when regarding reading. He said it was a feeling one should get when they experience an exceptional piece of writing. That if the piece is good, you are there with the character, living the words, and when it’s finished, you, in a sense, are finished.

                                                                                *

As I grew up, I liked to pretend that everything was fine, that the divorce was really no big deal. I don’t care, I said.

I believed I didn’t care, but I searched for love, for wholeness, in every boyfriend. I believed that Bryan or David or Paul was “the one,” as if there was a “one.” I believed in promise rings and yearly anniversaries, cards, and lockets and ticket stubs. Boxes of letters, of folded, lined paper scrawled with ink, stuffed animals I took with me on trips, tuckered under my chin before sleep. I counted on these things, these tangible pieces of proof that said I was loved.

                                                                                *

I find myself wanting to believe. I take to yoga as a coping mechanism, an exercise and practice that yields a physical release of energy that leaves me lighter upon leaving the old wooden house, grateful for the warmth of the day settling on my skin.

At the beginning and end of class we share an Om, a resounding vibration that fills the room. I take comfort in the symbol itself that sees death, that sees dying or loss as not so bad, not so scary, but a return to something bigger, where the individual unites with a divine collective. Where the individual is no longer alone.

A part of the Om symbol illustrates the illusion that we are separate, and another part, the diamond sitting at the top, represents nirvana, or a break from the limbos, from feeling like someone, something, is missing.

In class on a Thursday night, the instructor tells us that yoga is preparation for death. I lay on my back in corpse pose with eyes closed, palms face up, open to the sky for what I may receive. My breathing slows, chest unmoving, and for a moment I am cleansed by the wash of cars rushing past outside, rolling in and out like heavy waves. I am wiped free of the day’s dirt, the thoughts that crowd the front of my head, free of my body, weightless like water, like swimming far out. The salt, the sea on my upper lip.

For a moment I unravel. I am simply undone, letting my eyes wet at the edges in a room full of people. We are alone and together all at once, preparing. For a moment, it overcomes me, the release of held energy. The world in the wooden room at a standstill, waking together at the ring of a singing bowl.


Annalise Mabe is a writer from Tampa, Florida. Her nonfiction, poetry, and comics have appeared in Brevity, The Boiler, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, The Offing, The Rumpus, BOOTH, Word Riot, Hobart, and more. She was a finalist for the december Curt Johnson Prose Award judged by Eula Biss, and currently serves as a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. @AnnaliseMabe annalisemabe.com

Categories
2018 Poetry

Alysse Kathleen McCanna

HEAT

That summer, I stood naked in front of the window air conditioner,
all shame of my awkward body slicked away like so many drops of sweat.
The blue carpet of our first apartment was rough but I loved the lines it left
on my husband’s thighs, and I loved drinking beer and holding the glass
against my cheek, then his. I cradled young visions of joy in the offing,
before he went off to war and stayed, before armies took their stand
inside me.

After the divorce, I stood before hotel room windows and surveyed
each new city’s distorted lights, the air conditioner’s steady stream
against my knees. The man I’d chosen instead sometimes combed
and braided my hair, sometimes pressed me against the glass.
His temper was tropical but I loved the lines it left
on my back, and I loved taking the grief of his ravaged life
and holding it against my cheek. I harbored hope thin and strong
as spiderweb, before he went off to another’s bed and stayed,
before my armies laid down their weapons,
weeping.

This summer,
August seems just so much feverish tenderness,
a suspicious hallucination full of eyelashes and fingertips,
this large night impersonating oven as I lie on sweat-soaked sheets
and feel alive on an ocean, surprised that I’m awake and the man
beside me brings ice and wildflowers, so much true and undeserved
sweetness, and I take it—drink like a starving convict, as fast
as I can bear, in case it runs dry.


SUCCESS THAT IS PARTLY THE RESULT OF CHANCE; OR,
AN UNCERTAIN COURSE OF EVENTS

Lying in the hotel bed, I form faces out of the ceiling’s imperfections.
His face I know by heart, nose wide and flat, small chip
in the front tooth, parallel scars on the left cheekbone.

We order room service: steak, fruit, wine. We are good
at pretending. He tests my poker face, blows smoke.
I have been practicing in front of the mirror.

At the table, I watch the cowboy. I forget the dream
of the farm, the children lined up by height for a photo
I’ll never take. I arrange my chips by color, laugh loud

with my head back, teeth bared. Knock-off Christmas music
begins its slow death march over the casino speakers.
We drift through smoke, share a bed as easily as a cigarette.

Out the window, I watch the traffic. I forget the dream
of growing old, the wrap-around porch. Tomorrow,
he will travel to a new lover’s bed, and I will drive

across the country to my empty house, a road I know
by heart. He doesn’t know I stole his penny, horseshoe, clover—
the good luck right from his pocket. He doesn’t know

I’ll fold first, my heart too raw to hold another
failed home, another fallen husband.
I’ll never show my cards.


Alysse Kathleen McCanna is currently pursuing her PhD in English at Oklahoma State University. She is Associate Editor of Pilgrimage Magazine and received her MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College in 2015. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from poets.org, Lunch Ticket, Barrow Street, The Boiler, Boulevard, Midwestern Gothic, and other journals. She lives in Stillwater, OK, where she and her husband bask in the heat of the prairie and tend to their growing menagerie

Categories
2018 Poetry

Leona Sevick

HOMECOMING

Each time I return to this house that doesn’t
feel like my house, I enter like a thief or maybe
its victim. Pushing on the door with gingerly
dread, I listen for alien sounds that whisper
turn and run back to wherever you’ve come
from, wherever you’ve been. Its tidy, hushed
dignity does not dissuade me from opening
every closet on the second floor or dropping
down to my hands and knees to survey
the space below each bed. I test the glass
knob on the attic door, look for the folded
paper I’ve stuffed into its crack–assurance
that the door has not opened, that this house
has not betrayed me. The potted plants eye
me with limp need as I practice these rituals.
Patient as an empty chair, this house shows
no signs that it’s had enough. Gently sighing
from time to time, it reckons that the years
will pass and one day I’ll come home to it
and forget to test all the window locks.


Leona Sevick is the 2017 Press 53 Poetry Award Winner for her first full-length book of poems, Lion Brothers, and the 2012 first place winner of the Split This Rock Poetry contest, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. She was a finalist for the 2016 Ciardi Prize and a semi-finalist for the 2015 Philip Levine Poetry Prize, and her chapbook, Damaged Little Creatures, was published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. She is provost at Bridgewater College in Virginia, and can be reached at leonasevick.com.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Melissa Ginsburg

DROUGHT

For drowning, drought.

For distance, silt

In streams after rain

Travels. Measurement

Is a winglength

By which to calm

Your drowning down,

A wall to hang

Desire on. For thirst

A loose nectar

Vial. Eat your fill,

Dial your drowning

In. As wind blows

Silt in drought. As

A dowser stills. A well

Unfills and shines

The bodies out.


PRAYER

This time next year
What will I
Be reading what will I

Think will I
Speak
Finally as a bruise

From the black garden
As the eye in the center
Of tenderness


Melissa Ginsburg is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost, published in 2013 by Four Way Books, and two poetry chapbooks: Arbor (New Michigan Press) and Double Blind (Dancing Girl Press). Her noir novel, Sunset City, was released in 2016 from Ecco Books. Her poems have appeared in Fence, Denver Quarterly, Field, Pleiades, The Iowa Review, Blackbird, and other magazines. She has received support from the Mississippi Arts Council and the Ucross Foundation. Originally from Houston, Texas, Ginsburg attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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.