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Fiction

Inspection Checklist by Koree Schueler

The 2021 Prize Winner in Fiction selected by Kate Gale

Inspection Checklist | Koree Schueler

Name: Kami Shultz Kami- Kameron Mason. Which name do you want? 

Property Number: 618

Please fill out this form based on the condition of rental at the time of move in and return it to our office. 

Living Room

Carpet: 

New condition. It smells like the deer hide rugs that my dad keeps rolled up in the closet under his stairs, but it is too new and too clean for this apartment. It clearly does not belong here. There isn’t even a drop of dust on it yet. I set the baby down on the white carpet and she crawls along the floor yanking up at it as if it were white grass. I watch my baby pull and tug at the carpet and hope – for a moment – that she will take a chunk of the freshly laid carpet up. Just a small piece. The carpet looks too perfect in this apartment with its scratched paint and haunted air. Yes, the air is haunted. You can tell by one breath with the doors shut that there is something lingering here. If you can get past the stale smell of Marijuana from the neighbors, you can feel the spirits, breathe them in and let them play around in your lungs before you expel them from your nostrils in a sharp sigh. It is haunted. But the carpet is not and for that reason I cannot trust it. It does not belong here. It can be ripped up and thrown in the garbage at the first sign of damage. It can be replaced. I do not trust the carpet. 

Walls and ceiling: 

Wood paneling? It’s bad enough that the ceiling is popcorn and my entry way is a staircase that leads down into a dark hobbit hole of an apartment, but now I have to spend the next two years in a prison of wood panels. Two walls in the living room are painted white but from the empty cans hidden in the crawl space, I assume you ran out of paint and decided to call that well enough. I set up my couch to face the unpainted wall so that it did not feel forgotten. If I turn my back to it for too long, I can hear it ask, “Do you not have time for me either? What did I do?” So now I face that ugly brown wall as I eat my meals and type at the computer. We keep each other company in the stillness of time. 

Doors: 

The doors function like doors. Open and close. The doors can open but they can also close. This space was never meant to be an apartment, so the doors are too close together. If you try to open two doors at one time, they will fight each other for the space. Each thinking that it is their right to exist in that spot but both receiving damage in the impact. Chips in the wood are evidence of these domestic disputes. The bright side of this? These doors do not slam like my old ones used to. Here there is only me, the baby, and the cat. The baby is just learning how doors works, she will have a few years before the slamming begins. As for the cat, she prefers running into walls and pulling at the carpet with her claws. She doesn’t trust the carpet either. 

Carbon Monoxide Alarm/ fire alarm: 

They are all there. Blinking that red eye of light to remind me that they are working and checking the quality of my air every day. They do not check for ghosts though. I do not need an alarm for that. Even when I feel my throat growing tight, at least I know that it is not due to smoke or carbon monoxide poisoning. I am just “processing my failed marriage”. As I am told is healthy to do by my counselor. That’s reassuring, Thanks. The red-eye lights watch me unpack boxes; they are there to keep me safe, but they feel more like watchdogs. 

I have decided to remove the alarms from my house, is this a risk? Absolutely, but at least the next time my chest swells and my breathing is short, I can consider the possibility that there is smoke somewhere in the house or invisible gasses wrapping themselves up in my lungs. 

Windows and screens: 

The eyes watch me from the windows. No, I have not seen these eyes, but I know they are there and I know what you are thinking. She is crazy, and yes you are also probably right, but as I sit alone on my couch, waiting to be served with divorce papers, I can feel the eyes on me. They are there, watching me care for the baby. Watching me sift through the cat’s litter like a child digging up sand. They do not trust me to function as I did before. To shield myself from them, I have taped blank paper to the glass windows creating a membrane between me and the eyes. They can still see my silhouette but not the defined details of me. 

Kitchen

It is less of a kitchen and more of a living room extension that has been supplied with some kitchen appliances that most likely outdate the dinosaurs. 

Countertops: 

They are marked with cuts, reminders that this is a temporary engagement. I will be nothing more than a few cuts on a countertop to the next tenant. 

Cabinets: 

The baby pulls on the drawers and slams them shut as I prepare sustenance for myself. She is starting to slam things earlier than I expected. The finalizing sound send her into hysterics. Laughing as she pulls the next cabinet open and prepares to close it as hard as her little body can manage. 

“Dada” she screams as the door smacks into place. Her giggles cause my lungs to seize and I check to make sure the carbon monoxide alarm is still absent from its place on the wall. My cat watches from the stairs, cleaning its claws. 

The baby continues to open and shut the drawers and her giggles transform into an imitated anger and she slams the next drawer. 

“Sut up bith” The baby tests out these new syllables and then falls on her butt, face red and smiling as the cat watches from the stairs, ready to pounce. I place the baby back in her bed with a cookie to keep her from saying more, thankful that the eyes can’t see exactly what I handed the baby. The cat returns to cleaning between her toes. 

Stove/ Oven:

The stove is a monster. Old and yellow, the oven’s large mouth pours smoke out if you try to cook anything in it. Before I disposed of the smoke alarms they would wail every time I preheated the old beast. Now I stick to things that can be cooked in the microwave or, better yet, pulled straight from the fridge.

Sink: 

The sink is invisible under the dirty dishes that have accumulated there. I let them sit, not because I don’t like washing my dishes, but because I don’t want to see my face reflected back at me.

Fridge:

Someone has gutted the inside of the fridge. The shelves and edges are missing, except for one shelf that is sporting a suspicious crack in the middle. I fear that it will not be able to support more than a half-gallon of milk; that will be fine, since there are only two of us now and I don’t drink milk. But I still worry about that shelf as it sags more every time that I open the door. The plastic looks to be made of rubber as it dips lower, but never breaks. I assume that it is unbreakable. I stack things on it to test this. I bought a whole ham, not because I like ham, but so that I can see if it will finally break the one shelf that is left standing. I want to watch it break in half. I will prove that even the most flexible of objects can snap. I drop the whole ham on the shelf, and it lets out a surprised squeak and bends ominously, bouncing a little as it adjusts to the weight of the new resident on its back. The satisfying sound of the shelf breaking never comes. Still, I sit in front of the open refrigerator. The only light comes from the bulb in the fridge. I sit there letting the cold hit my face as I observe the sagging shelf, taking mental notes. I sit there. Like that. The cat sits next to me. Watching. When I moved here my therapist pushed me to adopt a cat. “A clean slate”. But the cat seems to have her own baggage. We sit together on the floor, watching the shelf bounce. The only light is still the one in the refrigerator. 

Laundry Room 

There is not a laundry room in this complex. You really should have a couple versions of this generic form so that those without laundry rooms are not reminded that there is something that they lack. 

Bathroom 

Windows:

Seriously? There are no windows in this bathroom. Did you even look at this apartment before renting it out? 

Lights: 

The light is fluorescent, and it flickers. A nice change from the sunlight that filters through the paper on my windows in other rooms. There are no other lights in the bathroom. I breathe in the flickering of this one that reminds me of the horror movies that we used to watch, all tangled up together on the couch. In a house that belonged to us. Not this home that I have retreated to now. I smile as the light flashes. The mirror reflects my smile between flickers of light. The baby shrieks from the bathtub. 

Bathtub: 

The bathtub is blue. Not in a retro-blue kind of way. But in a stained, science experiment gone terribly wrong kind of way. My fingers are red from the scrubbing. I guess magic erasers do not work on everything. I throw out the mangled sponge and start to run a bath. Bubbles cover up the blue splotches that have infected the surface of my tub. The best I can hope for is for the color to fade over time. The blue reminds me of the time I spilled sprinkles on my dad’s deer hide rug. They looked like a rash. That night, after I went to bed, my dad threw the sprinkle rash rug in the trash. He knew I would be upset. He always said I looked like Bambi when I cried. I still can’t help to think that deer died to be discarded. 

 The baby is sleeping at her dad’s house, so I sip from my wine glass as the water rushes into the tub like a manmade waterfall. The eyes would not want me drinking with the baby at home. My phone appears in my hand and I appreciate the stable light that is radiating from it. I lay in the tub as my fingers flick through pictures of men. Swipe left. The cat jumps onto the side of the tub and sticks her paw into the water. Shocked by the sudden wetness, she runs to the closet and lays on top of the towels. Swipe left. No. Ew. Swipe. That’s just a picture of a rock. Swipe right. 

I shut the flow of water off with my toes as I mindlessly shuffle through the “hot singles in my area” trying to distract myself from the fact that my skin is touching the blue stained bathtub. Faces blur as I swipe past eyes and shining teeth, none of the pictures seem to take full shape and I stopped reading the words after the second picture. 

The cat hisses at me from the other side of the room. None of the pictures have screamed soulmate to me and the water has turned cold. I suck down the last of my glass and pour another as I wrap a yellow towel around me. Water seeps into the dry towel, creating an outline of me. I go to my own profile on the app and change my bio to: Wanna see my blue bathtub?

Sink: 

The sink is shaped like a shell. A seashell, like the ones you find on the beach. This seems out of place in this apartment, but it is old and worn and I can tell it is haunted too. The pipes are exposed and run down into the ground like blood vessels carrying fluids through the house. Creating circulation. 

Mirror: 

The corner of the mirror is shattered, not to the point of unuseability, but the previous resident is definitely going to have a rough seven years. As a kid, my mother told me my eyes were too big for my face, so now I peer into the mirror and highlight my “too big eyes” with eyeliner and brush yellow eyeshadow over the lids to bring all attention to this feature. Shattered in the broken part of the mirror I have fifteen eyes instead of the two that I actually possess giving me the appearance of a deer that spent her whole life drinking from a toxic water supply. 

Bedroom 1

Floors: 

My bare skin pressed against the new carpet. I can feel it becoming more haunted with time, but I still hate it as the small fibers scratch at my skin. I roll to my side to look at the guy lying next to me on the floor, I study his face, but even now the features do not stick in my brain. They slide off of my memory like raindrops. 

“You’re unforgettable” he says as he turns to look at me with his eyes. These eyes inside my house that do not belong to the cat. Or the baby. They are open windows. It feels nice to have another soul in the house; for a few moments though I wonder what the eyes in the window think of this new silhouette in the house. They would frown on my playdate. 

“My house is haunted,” I say towards the ceiling. The man laughs as I watch the cat’s bright yellow eyes peer out from under my bed. I wish I could fit under there with her.

“It’s ok, I’ve dated a Goth before,” I hate the way his lips curl into a smile at this. We met two hours ago. He knows nothing.

“The ghosts are coming,” I stand up and shove his boxers towards him, the fox print looking up at me. He barely has time to get them on as I push him out into the hallway and turn the deadbolt, a barrier between me and his open-window eyes. 

 I curl up in the nest of my bed. The cat cautiously crawls out from under the bed, sinking her claws into the carpet where the man had lain. As I watch her, I can still feel the places on my back where the floor rubbed against me. 

Windows:

Yep. There are windows in this room too. You keep asking for this form back, but how can I fill it out quickly if you expect so much information? 

Closet:

There is a hole in my closet. I can feel the anger that caused it even though I was not here to witness the action. At night I sit in the dark. The ghosts stay away from the closets. They don’t want to be labeled as stereotypes. And I secretly think they are afraid of the hole. I cannot see anything behind it and I am convinced that it leads to a different dimension. A dimension where ghosts don’t exist. Where I am still married. And all of the bathtubs are stained white. I take my wedding ring off of my finger and drop it in the hole. Maybe one day someone in the other dimension will have a use for it. 

Miscellaneous:

There is a loose cable hanging from the ceiling. The baby screams every time she sees it. It is kind of unsettling as it swings back and forth by itself. I don’t know who thought it would be smart to run a cable through the ceiling, but I don’t watch TV, so I just lay in bed and watch it swing. Sometimes I wonder what the cord would feel like on my skin. Cold I imagine. 

Bedroom 2 

Windows

The features of this room are all the same, as if it were copy and pasted. You would know this if you actually spent time in this apartment. Do I really have to keep filling out this form? 

Ok, there’s a window in here too, the eyes like this window the best. 

I have put plants on the windowsill. All of them have turned brown from the lack of sunlight. The baby and the cat sit on the floor and take turns batting at the shriveled leaves. The baby is corrupting the cat with her mischief. I move the baby away from the window and place her in her crib. I shake a yellow toy shaped like a fish in front of her face. I hope the eyes notice that I can play with the baby too. Thankfully they can’t see the tears rolling down the baby’s face. The cat nudges my elbow and I scratch her between the ears, allowing the baby to self soothe. 

Carpet 

The baby likes to roll on this carpet. I think it reminds her of grass. She ignores me when I tell her that it is haunted. Maybe when she is older, she will start to feel how scratchy the carpet really is. At least the cat understands- she is reluctant to come in this room. 

Closet

The closet in here does not have a hole. 

Doors 

It’s a door. Like every door it has hinges that hold it in place even when gravity wants to push it down. 

Ceiling

I lay on the floor. Waiting for the baby to fall asleep. She wants me near her, but I can’t stand her sweaty skin against mine, so I lay on the floor next to her crib and look at the ceiling. This ceiling is popcorn too, but it has bits of glitter in it so that when cars on the street drive by you can see a quick glimpse of false stars. I image this draws the ghosts in, they get to momentarily forget that they are dead and will not be able to see the stars again, so they anticipate the moment when the ceiling reflects light before the room falls dark again. I feel sandwiched between the sparkling ceiling and the not haunted carpet. The cat is standing right outside the door, waiting for me. Her eyes make me feel like I am looking into the fridge at that yellow lightbulb hovering over the shelf that won’t break. 

About the Author:

Koree was born and raised in Kearney, Ne. She is currently pursuing her MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She is also working as a graduate assistant at UNK.  Her previous work has been featured in her university‘s literary magazine The Carillon. She draws inspiration from the overlooked aspects of everyday life, such as a rental inspection form.

Categories
Fiction

Everything in the Middle by Alexa Koch

Everything in the Middle | Alexa Koch

The rings around the bathtub won’t come out. Hard water stains, the broker had told me when I blanched at the sight of them. Should come out with some scrubbing and bleach. Hard water stains, the landlord told me when I called to tell him the tub was impossible to clean. I’ve scrubbed, bleached, and soaked. I’ve called a professional cleaning service. I’ve broken down and begged Dillon to move. He tells me that the time and money I’ve spent is unhealthy, but I can’t get over the discolored lines that don’t quite make a geometrically accurate rectangle. When I watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I imagine the greyish rings going with it. But they never do. 

I climb into the empty tub. It’s breathing around me, the whole porcelain thing inhaling and exhaling, the rings expanding and shrinking. Something that is supposed to be me is reflected in the silver-toned faucet. Neon suds swell at the drain in foamy swirls of pink and purple and yellow. Now blue, green, orange. I’m hyperventilating. I’m okay. It would all be better if I… Maybe I could… Don’t look at it. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue….  

The hour is late and I can’t sleep and the fan drones on. I sit down at my desk because it faces a window, am annoyed by the clutter: a pile of books, a coffee mug full of pens, miscellaneous receipts, a ceramic pumpkin that I put out last September, a half-empty prescription bottle. 

I hear Dillon’s voice in my head, see him shake the orange canister at me. Are you even taking these? When I first started on the little white pills I had sudden urges, what I’d eventually learn is an uncommon side effect on the grocery list of possibilities that the pharmacist stapled to my prescription bag and that I threw in the trash without reading. 

I still have the urges sometimes. Deep in one particularly unexplainable mindset, I once found myself, on the bus ride home, wanting to curl up under the bank of seats across from me and let the filthy floor streak my jeans with dirt. I wanted people to stare. I craved the feeling of cold metal against my skin and the whispers of the other commuters. I wanted to ruin my clothes. I wanted someone else to feel even a fraction of my discomfort. 

A more common urge was the need to break things, an impulse to smash a vase of dried flowers, to drop a glass lamp, or to hurl dinner plates at the wall. I never acted on it, but the desire was strong and lingered. If…

I stand up and sweep everything but the pumpkin off my desk onto the floor in a motion so sudden it shocks me. Lots of noises at once. The rustle of papers, plastic and ceramic bouncing off the wood floor, pens rolling in different directions, the thud of paperbacks and hardcovers, some landing open, spines facing up. 

I stand above the mess I’ve created, hands shaking, eyes scanning. Nothing is broken. I didn’t so much as chip the mug. 

I’ll have to clean this up before Dillon gets back from Canada. 

I walk over to the couch to lie down, hoping the change from the bed will help, but I can’t sleep. It’s late. Or early, depending on how you want to look at it. The fan drones on. I clamp my hands over my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, and imagine a shiny white bathtub, the satisfaction of scrubbing it to a gleam myself. 

Fish don’t live in this kind of water on first look, but the nutrient-rich cold depths keep them swimming back. Flounder, pollock, herring, and shad are year-round residents; tuna, mackerel, bass, and bluefish serve as summer tourists. The water is dark and uninviting. I walk to the end of the dock where a father and son are fishing. The kid is yelling excitedly— “Dad, dad!”— that he hooked something. Dad leans his own pole against the wooden railing and runs over as the boy reels and reels. Eventually, his catch breaches the surface. A clump of seaweed dangles from the hook, the red and white bobber swinging.

The kid is speechless, shocked, his mouth hanging open. The father laughs.

“Hmm, should we broil or fry this one? I’m thinking lightly breaded with lots of lemon.”

“Ewww! Can I try again, Dad?”

Dad grabs for the line, but it slips through his fingers, the seaweed swinging and wetting both of them with the cold bay water. The boy squeals with delight (“It’s cold!”), and Dad tries again, this time catching the thin, nearly invisible nylon line. I turn away as he unhooks the seaweed and tosses it back into the water. 

I used to fish with my dad. The jack we’d catch were most active in the evenings, so that’s when we’d go sit on the concrete sea wall at the end of the street, my legs dangling above the water, jelly sandals safe on the grass behind us. The thought of piercing a wriggling beige worm and watching the hook come through the other side was always too much, and I wished desperately that the tackle kit’s rubber invertebrates, with their brightly colored feathers and bobs, would entice the fish— all I needed was a nibble to hook one— but they never did. So I’d inhale the salt of the brackish lake water that I couldn’t really see below me and wait for my father to hand me the pole with its skewered worm.

My phone vibrates in my pocket and I ignore it. Instead, I take a sip of my Vietnamese coffee— delicious… I’m glad I finally decided to try one of these— and walk back in the direction of Lincoln Park. I consider a potato doughnut from the place on Exchange because an old-fashioned doughnut sounds great and I’m feeling nostalgic.

I pass one of many pottery shops, one of many breweries, one of many seafood restaurants touting lobster rolls. I pass a man shooting up in an alleyway and a man selling used books alongside a “name your price” sign. I scan his selection, the only one I recognize a tattered copy of a Stephen King novel I’ve never read. I hand over the few bills I have for a volume titled Red Rising. I like the simplicity of the cover, a red wing set against black. 

Settling in on a sun-warmed park bench, I open to the first chapter to find a handwritten list on the blank page across from Pierce Brown’s first page of prose.  

I skim the bulleted points, what appear to be events paired with dates. Some of the events are momentous, milestones even, others insignificant to anyone but the writer. First real job, 5/20/09. First apartment, 9/1/09. First promotion, first date with John, first pet, the list goes on. I’m surprised to find that it’s pretty long and has a right-pointing arrow suggesting more. I turn the page but there is nothing written there. I flip to the end of the book, where the entire last page and back cover are filled by some stranger’s life. The last bullet is dated 2016.

I grimace at the thought of taking a pen to a novel— chaotic evil— and flip back to the front.

He’d given me just two options that morning, Shirt A and Shirt B. Shirt A was a purple and white checkered one and Shirt B was the same, but blue and green. I should have picked Shirt B. I really hate that shirt! I shook my head, facepalmed my forehead. We should shop for you this weekend! 

I smiled at him, expectant.

Huh? What…? No. No. God, Bree, how did this— Dillon gestured to the blue Honda, my knuckles rapping its hood over and over— happen? Why did you do this?

I didn’t mean to, I countered, the syllables coming out as one long, strange word. Ididntmeanto. He’d nearly caught me in the act. It was petty, he’d said after. What the fuck? he’d demanded at once. I had laughed too loudly and asked why it mattered. How quickly my words came, how inappropriate my responses, how rash my actions— none of it within my control. 

How does this just happen? 

I shrugged exaggeratedly. 

Does it matter? The spot is mine, right?

The cavernous garage was silent, the only noise the hissing of two freshly slashed tires, one on each side of the car that I would regularly find in the assigned parking spot that costs me $75 every month. Management had done nothing after countless complaints. I balanced on the balls of my feet, waiting for whatever it was Dillon was going to do. 

I left more than one note on the windshield, I reminded him. Have you ever done this? Like a forsaken lover in a shitty country song. We’re just missing a banging screen door. And a six-pack. I guess it’s not like a shitty country song?

He gave me a strange look, a combination of bewilderment and concern, before his features set in a more familiar way. Let’s not stand here and wait for someone to walk by. And give me that. He took the knife from my hand and tucked it carefully into his bag before asking, with staged nonchalance, if I was still taking the meds.

If you don’t stop asking me about the fucking meds….

He put up his hands in surrender. We’ll pretend this never happened then, he said. And we did. I purged our apartment two days later to the sound of The Doors, throwing things out, heaping clothing into piles for donation, sorting things to list for sale online. He came home to a downsized wardrobe (goodbye, purple-and-white), no coffee maker, and stuff everywhere, while I bartered with a pawn store clerk over the value of a necklace that I found at the back of my jewelry box. 

I knew that he was leaving for Quebec that afternoon and we wouldn’t cross paths before he had to go to the airport. I let my phone die and didn’t charge it for three days, so I don’t know if he called. The rest of that week takes up space in my mind as excess of everything but sleep: too much spending, too much cleaning, too much idealizing. All of it ultimately out of my hands, too slippery to hold, a fish on dry ground, without me realizing. Both of us left gasping for breath. 

I think, now, that the silence between Dillon and me is too thick. I can taste it. Lemons, fractionally sweet, not enough to save us from all the sour, not enough sugar to ease the pucker. I like lemons.

“Hi. Can I pay for these?”

I hear the voice but continue typing rapidly on the keyboard.

The customer shifts, probably uncomfortable, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I make a note on a sticky pad with a flourish before clicking the pen a half-dozen times. 

“Sure thing.” 

The woman pushes a small pile of books across the counter towards me. 

“This is a good one,” I say approvingly, scanning the one on top. “This one, though…”— I hold up a small blue paperback— “is so bad. So boring. I met the author once. He was boring, too.” 

She gives me an uneasy smile and taps her debit card on the counter, the thin plastic making an irritating click-clack sound. 

“Can you not do that?” I look pointedly at her pink-painted fingernails. 

She stops tapping and replaces the card in her wallet as I finish ringing up her selections. She doesn’t make eye contact when I hand her the bag, mumbling a “you, too” when I wish her a good day.

I return to the computer, to the spreadsheet created to help organize the new inventory. I can barely focus, the familiar abbreviations for genres and publishers meaningless to me. I feel, overwhelmingly, that I’ve lost something. It’s not working, reads the sticky note, the black ink of my loopy handwriting the barest contrast against fluorescent blue. I trace the words with the pen, bolding the letters. It’s not working. 

I tap my fingers against the steering wheel as I wait in the arrivals area at PWM. I’m idling at the front end of the pick-up line, away from most of the other cars, wondering how much time I have before one of the officers yells at me to move. Dillon’s flight only just now landed, but I check my rearview mirror every few seconds, expecting to see his lime green hard-topped suitcase that I hate and he loves roll through the sliding automatic doors. Eventually, he appears on the sidewalk. Then behind the car. Then next to the car. Then in the car. 

He drops a small, paper-wrapped object into my lap. 

I pick it up, glancing at my sideview mirror. The lone officer is concerned with a minivan stalling traffic as a traveler stuffs their baggage into the backseat. I unwrap the gift, the paper crinkling. It’s a snow globe, the nicer kind with a glass sphere and a ceramic base. A miniature skyline and the letters Q-U-E-B-E-C in blue block letters forever under water. I flip the globe upside down and set it on the dashboard as the tiny flecks of white flutter around the cityscape. 

“See any moose?”

He doesn’t hear or he simply ignores me, focused instead on finding something in his backpack. I rejoin the flow of cars, eager to get away from the airport. Dillon holds up a second paper-wrapped object, this one a small rectangle, and says something about the next red light. 

We’re just a couple of miles from the freeway, so another 25 minutes will pass before I can open it. 

“How was the trip?”

“You know.”

I don’t. 

A pause.

“Is this how it’s going to be?”

I wait. He doesn’t answer. 

“Is it? Just weird silence?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

He puts the wrapped item in the center console, where it goes untouched red light after red light.

The first day of August I sit down at my window-facing desk and make a list. It begins as a gratitude list, a “grounding technique” I read about in a magazine in the optometry office last week, but it twists and turns as I go, shifting to pet peeves, to people I used to know, to subjects I didn’t like in school, to favorite foods. I stop only when I run out of space on the notebook page, every line and margin filled. I’ve authored a page of words that tell no story.

I consider the impressive list in Red Rising, the list-maker’s choice to collect her firsts in one place, a place she might forget that she’d put them. A place that no longer belongs to her. Why firsts? What good does such a chronology do?

I flip to a blank page, thinking I’ll fill the lines with my own firsts. 

First day of life, 5/24/87.

I scratch the words out. I don’t think that one counts. Too broad. Too contingent. My mind races through the years, scanning for some significant inaugural moment or event, and comes up with nothing. It feels like I can never pull things from my subconscious when I want them. 

The wrapped gift from Canada sits on the corner of the desk next to the snow globe. The snowflakes are still, a few suspended at the top where the water doesn’t quite meet the glass. I notice now the silver sparkles mixed with the white flecks. 

I pick up the gift, about half an inch thick, contemplate its weight. I don’t care enough to open it. Why did he buy it at all? He often travels for work and rarely brings home any sort of souvenir or trinket. Aside from a Chicago postcard on the fridge and an airline credit card in his wallet, there is no tangible evidence of his frequent travels. 

I once asked him why he never brings anything “fun” home from the places he visits, and he made a face that told me all I needed to know. Why would I?  “Inappreciable kitsch,” I imagined him following up with. 

I rip the paper off of the mystery gift, hoping it will give me a hint, a clue that will help me begin the list. 

A deck of cards, shrink-wrapped in thin plastic, a second layer of protection for something most would not consider fragile. The seal is easily broken with a fingernail. I cut the deck. Each card has a different image on the back, the suit side the same as any other deck. I attempt one of the fancy shuffling techniques I insisted on teaching myself as a kid, but the cards are too stiff in their newness and fly out of my hands, pictures of forest and city and moose and beavers raining onto the floor. 

I bend down and corral the cards the best I can, shifting them so they all point the right direction, not bothering to flip them to face up. The card on top is a long, greenish fish with a snout-like mouth. A pike. Its shiny black eyes look out from the card’s one-dimensional world, and I look back.

I go to the museum on my day off because it’s one of the only places I can wander for long in the sheeting late summer rain. My favorite piece of art in the entire building is a lamp. One of those Tiffany-style ones with a mushroom-like stained-glass dome of red, yellow, and green. It is always lit in its case, a warm glow I can’t feel, an unseen cord connecting it to its power source. I dreamt once that I’d broken the lamp, the glass case gone, the gallery unlocked and vacant. I had picked it up and dropped it, my dream form materializing somewhere else I don’t remember before it hit the concrete floor. 

There is one other person in this wing, and I watch her watch a painting from my bench by the lamp. The expression on her face is bizarre, something like wonder and grief, were these two emotions to exist together. The painting is something I’ve seen many times, but something that I could not describe to someone else. The truth is that I don’t know what is there on the canvas. 

I’ve seen it many times but haven’t looked at it. Now, I do look. It’s a jay, bright blue, alone. It’s a photograph, not a painting. The background of the photo is a black and green blur, a forest or bush or tree. The woman lifts her hand as though she is going to touch the frame but thinks better of it and replaces it by her side. She stands for a moment more before turning away, in search of something. Her eyes alight on the only seating in the room, my bench that is big enough for three or four. I look down before she realizes I’ve been staring.

Peripherally, I see her sit at the opposite end and cross her legs in an unusual way, crossed at the knee, right foot hooked behind left ankle. 

“That’s a great book,” she says, pointing to my bag. The unusual expression on her face has gone away. I’ve taken to carrying Red Rising around, though I imagine I will never read past the first chapter. “Have you read the series?”

I shake my head but say nothing, probably an impolite response. For a second, I consider showing her the list, telling her about how I feel compelled to bring its unseen writer, the author who penciled herself in with dates, with me, to offer her new firsts. That I like the idea that we might experience some things together, for the first time, however irrational and impossible, despite not knowing if she still exists somewhere. That I wonder if she made a list of lasts, too. If she reached an end, or if her end, like mine, is yet to come. 

Beyond first birthdays and anniversaries, it seems like most people care more about the stuff in the middle, all the in between, so I maintain the silence. I think about asking the woman about the jay in the photograph, to seem nicer, but I don’t. She’s looking at the lamp, her glasses reflecting its light. 

I wonder if she would agree that maybe the firsts are what mean something because they allow for the existence of seconds. In the bigger scheme of things, maybe seconds matter more.

We sit there, connected by nothing.

With all the windows closed, I exhale towards the ceiling. The smoke hangs in a cloud near the window, and I wonder what it would look like if it could make patterns on the glass. 

I click the pen and open the notebook to a middle page. I’m trying again to write a list. This time, I’m starting with lasts. 

Cards. 

Snow globe.

Both a goodbye. Not an immediate one, but an eventual, inevitable one. I can’t find it in me to care. 

Pull, exhale. 

Grandma’s service. 

College graduation. 

Thirtieth birthday.

The cards sit on the coffee table, the glassy black eyes of the pike somewhere in the stack. Nothing to see within it. I shuffle the deck and deal myself two hands. It’s impossible for me to lose.

About the Author:

Alexa Koch is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she runs The Watermark Journal. Her thesis project will culminate in a short novel of literary fiction that challenges the conventions of narrative and the thoughts that create the human psyche. She lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

https://alexakoch.com/

Categories
Fiction

What the Cherub Saw by Derek Harmening

What the Cherub Saw | Derek Harmening

i. 

We spent five days in July repaving the Arrowhead Baptist Church parking lot. That summer found us approaching saintliness, all bronze and sinew, terracotta forms baked into the husks of our lime-green safety shirts. 

The pavement on which our town’s lavender-scented Buick Lucernes and Lincoln Town Cars settled each week was older than my parents. Decades of fickle weather, of ruthless freeze-thaw cycles, had left the once-sturdy ground riddled with alligator cracks. Potholes emerged like lanced boils. We were sent to tear it up, stabilize it, resurrect it. Each morning, the air cool on our necks, the clipped lawns still glinting with dew, we arrived, young and able-bodied, to desecrate that holy ground.

Bored mothers eyed us wantonly from the safety of the sidewalk. Filing into the church vestibule, they sighed as we pulverized asphalt, murmured as we spread tack oil. They brushed dry palms over poplin skirts, racking up a few blissful seconds of covetousness for which they’d soon be absolved.

ii. 

There were three of us: Hilliard, McTeague, and me. Fischer, the project manager, didn’t count. He was twenty years our senior, partially deaf, and spun dark theories about ancient symbols he claimed were hidden in the creases of sweat-damp dollar bills.

“Population control,” he’d shout from the throne of his asphalt roller, jabbing a calloused index finger at webs of contrails floating in the sky. “A toxic cocktail meant to snuff us out. Better believe it.” 

Hilliard was bookish. The ungodly hours he spent poring over Dostoevsky and Woolf, his wiry frame slouched against a heap of featherdown pillows, vision deteriorating in the oily half-light of a bedroom lamp, manifested by day in the bags beneath his eyes.

“Poetry’s for women,” McTeague spat, whenever Hilliard began to ruminate on some passage he’d been chewing over. 

“You what?” yelled Fischer, cupping hand to ear.

“Speaking of which,” McTeague said. “Ought to get yourself a girl, Hill. Then you can read to her every night. Stop yapping at us for a change.” 

McTeague’s rap sheet, a scarlet letter of assault and petty theft, clung to him like an unsightly mole. His own employment resulted from a lost bet. His father played euchre with Fischer and, at one such gathering, called in a favor.

“Forget it,” Fischer said, fanning his cards. “I work with heavy machinery.” 

“Let’s play for it,” said McTeague’s father.

A case of Schlitz and three tricks later, the old men shook hands, and McTeague had a job.

We never spoke of McTeague’s troubles. The gist was clear: he’d drift for a few months, burning through odd jobs, before invariably landing himself, bleary-eyed and shivering, in the Lynn County jail. Other stories we pieced together ourselves, a wet pulp of rumor and hearsay. Supposedly, McTeague’s cleft lip was a souvenir from a knife fight with a man whose wife he’d bedded. Once, when he thought he’d been hustled in a game of one-pocket, he broke a pool stick over his rival’s head.

We thrived on these details, consumed them like air.

iii.

“Hilliard, for Christ’s sake,” said Fischer, kneeling to survey the fresh parking stripes. “Did you sleep last night? Looks like someone with delirium tremens painted these.”

The sun glared down on Arrowhead Baptist Church. Hymns emanated from within. A small fiberglass cherub ornamented the front lawn. Around its polished neck hung a plasterboard sign reading: HOPE WILL ARISE.

Hilliard leaned over the Rust-Oleum line striper, shaking his head. “Tom Sawyer,” he said, “would have tricked you into doing this yourself.”

iv.

Lunch was our sacred time. We devoured bacon-topped pizzas, hard-boiled eggs, Italian beef sandwiches, loaded submarines. We broke cookies that tasted of vanilla cardboard, read each other’s fortunes over the greasy remains of our General Tso’s chicken.

“The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

Hilliard was snoring beneath an elm tree. When we prodded him awake, he said he’d been up ’til 3 a.m. with Jane Eyre.

McTeague ran a tongue over chapped lips. “She cute?”

The air boiled with the rank odor of bitumen. We’d begun resurfacing the final quadrant, a narrow, rutted plain shaded by leaves.

“A kid I knew died here,” said McTeague. “This exact spot.” His arms, covered wrist to shoulder in inked tapestries of rose blossoms and half-clad women, rippled as he worked a steel tamper over the hot-asphalt mix.

“Sure he did,” I said.

“Right hand to God. Freak accident. Same year that beauty pageant girl was strangled.” 

“Speak up,” barked Fischer.

It happened, said McTeague, to a first grader named Andrew. A blizzard dumped twenty inches on Lynn County. Buried sedans, collapsed roofs, nowhere left to pile it all. Snowplows filled whole parking lots, including Arrowhead’s, with icy mounds ten feet high. Andrew, bedecked in navy pants, red mittens, and a striped Peruvian hat, had arrived at the church and begun digging tunnels. He was burrowing away, hidden from view, when a snowplow rolled into the lot, delivered a fresh heap of snow, and trapped Andrew inside. He suffocated.

“How’d they find him?” Hilliard asked, wiping the rheum from his eyes.

“Warm spell,” McTeague said. “The choir ladies saw him first. His arm was poking out like a branch. His mittens were still on.”

The cherub watched from its spot on the lawn. A sprinkler coughed to life, draping it in mist. I imagined a child’s mitten reflected in its resin eye.

v.

We finished the next day. Loaded up, cleared out. From within the jungle-tropic sanctuaries of our home bathrooms, we convalesced. Applied frothy handfuls of Dove soap to burned, tar-blackened flesh. We winced with relief, pressed our faces into the hot spray as whorls of filth swirled down and away.

The three of us stayed on through fall, until the elms shed their robes and the gutters choked.

In October, McTeague was arrested for stealing hood ornaments.
That parking lot will outlive us all.

About the Author:

Derek Harmening’s work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Newfound Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, and Vita Brevis among others. His flash fiction story “Stitches” was the recipient of the 101 Words Editors’ Choice Award in February 2017. A Nebraska native, Derek now lives and writes in Chicago.

Categories
Fiction

Rex by Mike Bonnet

Rex | By Mike Bonnet

It wasn’t the temperature so much that caused her funk – there were plenty of cooler days in Melbourne too, when the breeze whipped in off Port Phillip Bay; it was the light, all grey-hued and sallow, like the whole country was under a cataract. You noticed it the thick marshmallow ceiling that sat where a blue expanse of sky ought to be, but also in the faces of the people. Everyone seemed oppressed by the dullness, even when they were smiling, even when they purported to be happy. How ya goin? enquired the Australian in her, expectantly. Not too bad replied the English, as if some amount of badness was unavoidable but the fact that today’s quotient was relatively low constituted a good result. She knew she was being unfair, but that’s what this perpetual gloom had done to her.     

And yet if you judged Mia’s life solely by her CV, things couldn’t be going better. The job that had brought her here ticked all the right boxes. It was prestigious, well paid, and signified unmistakable progress in her career. When friends and family asked her what work could be so important to drag her ten-thousand miles away, the confidence in her answers appeared unshakeable. London is the financial centre of the world she’d say. The opportunities are on a different scale. I’ll get more experience in a year over there than I would in ten here. Now being so cocksure seemed a mistake, because she knew that any deviation from this plan would look to some like an admission of defeat. In truth, work was fine, good even, on occasion. It was just everything else that seemed, not bad exactly, but underwhelmingly, not too bad.   

When the weight of the funk became too much, Mia headed to the park. With no beach to walk to and no mountains to escape to, this, she was repeatedly informed, was where people went to alleviate the claustrophobia. At first, she thought it was a joke. An example of the much talked about but seldom seen ‘English sense of humour’.  Paint-chipped benches overlooked pollarded trees. Street drinkers watched schoolkids play football. Runners circumnavigated the perimeter like hamsters in a wheel. Not for the first time she wondered if the expression ‘rat race’ wasn’t intended as a metaphor, but as an accurate description of life in this city.   

Back home Mia had always been something of a running agnostic: she knew people that swore by it, she just didn’t happen to do so herself. Here though, with no friends to share her emerging worries with, she reluctantly turned to the tarmac.  For one it got her out of her studio apartment. Having experienced one too many flat shares and had to mediate after one too many passive aggressive treatises to perhaps try washing up after yourself, Mia had opted to live alone. She soon realised that she could leave work at the end of the day and often not speak to anyone again until the following morning. She sometimes chose to break this pattern by attending the never-ending litany of after work drinks, all of which were for some reason described as ‘cheeky’ (Cheeky pint at The Grapes? Cheeky vino at the Cellar Bar?) and one of which ended-up with a cheeky groping by one of the traders, whose hand she had to brush off her knee, not once, not twice, but three times. Increasingly running became the most appealing of her available options.   

She settled on a morning routine. Out with the birds and the bin lorries, slackening hamstrings whilst the world slept. She made her own loop out of the jigsaw-piece shaped park. One that paid homage to the lake, the trees and the open field, but pledged allegiance to none. Her feet slapped the ground hardest on the first lap, as yesterday’s deferred worries returned to her mind. The 9am conference call with a disgruntled investor, two and a half hours of another interminable business development meeting, half a dozen barely scanned high importance emails still fermenting in her inbox. She nurtured these irritants. Allowed herself to feel legitimately disgruntled; and then, as the sense of injustice grew, luxuriated as the adrenaline went to work. Her arms and legs pumped furiously, both propelling her round the park and sanding the edges of her grievances.    

The second lap was always slower and harder work. Sometimes, as she puffed her way up the gentle incline by the boathouse, she’d find her thoughts flitting to home, where the working day was on the cusp of finishing. Grace and Marie would already have their routine planned and ready to roll out as soon as the clock struck 5. A loosener at The Napier, a cycle down to Brunswick, probably luck-out with a free table at one of the Lebanese spots. She tended to get their WhatsApps around 11ish. If she wasn’t too busy, she’d watch the updates appear in real time and scrutinise each first line, though the full messages would remain marked unread until she deemed an appropriate amount of time had passed. Yo bitch, remember that time at Donny’s house when….PSA we’re eating and drinking margaritasYou better not be off with your new pommie friends…  

By the third lap she was more aware of her surroundings. Nearby other early risers went through their own routines: runners and dogwalkers crisscrossed the grass, rollerbladers scraped the asphalt. Occasionally their trajectories would intersect, to be over or undertaken, but mostly they pressed on alone, each a distinct entity from the other. Mia liked to imagine a silent bond connected her to these strangers and, over time, she came to recognise a few faces each morning. There were the leather-skinned tai chi devotees, who claimed the top of the small hill by the tennis courts at sunrise; the pot-bellied man she fancied to be a banker, whose midriff appeared impervious to the positive effects of exercise; and a buzz-cut waif she suspected was perpetually hungover, but nevertheless completed her circuits in unassailable time.   

Completion of the fourth and final lap left Mia exhausted but invigorated. Though she’d always self-identified as ‘not a morning person’, Mia now found herself bounding into work with purpose. Sometimes this enthusiasm lasted until lunch. Sometimes, if the day was especially kind, she found it left the office with her too. But whereas her colleagues seemed to find their mojo as they stepped out through the air-conditioned revolving door on Friday and into the city streets, Mia lost hers. The lure of jägerbombs, Neighbours impressions and painfully drawn-out enquiries about her relationship status from below average height men called Myles, was, inexplicably, weak. England was a strange place. As far as she could tell this was a country in which people were obsessed with the weather, despite not actually having any. A country that believed itself to be civilised and yet thought it acceptable to put washing machines in the kitchen.   

The next morning, or late that night if she couldn’t sleep, she opened her phone to demands from back home for updates and photographic evidence that she was ripping the back out of it. The dearth of activity on her Instagram had not gone unnoticed. It’s cos you’ve found a new ride isn’t it? At weekends Mia found herself gravitating back to the park, not to run this time, but to sit, and with the cover of a book or headphones, to study all forms of life that crammed in. Unlike on her early morning sojourns, the park fizzed. Slacklines had sprung up between trees. Disposable barbecues burned both sausages and the grass beneath them. Speakers competed for attention. Frisbees flew at unsuspecting passers-by. She still saw a human-petri dish, but she now conceded, it was not one without charm.   

She noticed the man one ashen Tuesday morning, midway through her first lap. She was breathing hard, trying to blow out the frustration of yesterday’s strategy meeting in which her opposition to “a pivot to retail”, was smilingly dismissed as “PMT” by a chinless junior associate. She rounded the bend at an unsustainable speed and began closing the gap towards him. Only she didn’t. As hard as she pushed, as fast as she pumped, he stayed a good ten metres ahead. What made it worse was that he didn’t seem to be trying hard in order to do so. He didn’t strain or struggle, just kept on putting one foot directly in front of the other, treading the line of an imaginary balance beam. The more she puffed, the more his hair provoked her with its carefree bounce. In the end she passed him out of principle, determined to undo whatever witchcraft had befallen her.   

She saw him again on the Thursday and again on the Tuesday after that. Initially he joined the roll call of extras who graced her early morning exercise. She nicknamed him Rex, because the bounce of his dark brown hair reminded her of the glossy coat of her childhood Labrador. But increasingly she found herself distracted when it seemed he wasn’t there. On these occasions it was most pleasing, when, after many furtive glances, she spotted him by the lake, where the easy glide of his stride complemented the serenity of the swans. It wasn’t until she found herself thinking how she must appear from his perspective that she accepted she’d developed a crush. Did her elbows tuck in tight as she ran, or jut out unappealingly? Was the sway of her hips suggestive, or just suggestive of orthopaedic issues? Working with what she had, which was really just his elegant gait, she decided he must be a refined type. Someone who, if they took you out to the cinema, would pick a film with subtitles. She imagined him well-read, but a good listener. Not shy necessarily, but an introvert. She couldn’t picture him in finance, too much bluff and bluster. He’d be more at home in something, not slower exactly, but more dignified. Perhaps he curated a museum or reviewed new restaurants. Whatever it was, he’d be unlikely to talk about it too much unless you asked.  

Mia’s favourite person at work by far was Gloria, the Brazilian receptionist. Gloria who booked their taxis and ordered their lunches and arranged their diaries and scolded delivery drivers for slouching against the walls, or sitting on the chairs, or breathing too loudly. Gloria who spent mornings with her head on the desk, pores oozing rum and ginger, groaning intermittently. When Mia brought her coffee from the cafe downstairs, Gloria joked “kill me now querida, because I am dying for sure”. Gloria didn’t take any shit from anyone. Seeing Mia cram last into the lift pressed up against an analyst with a blemished reputation for respecting women’s personal space, it was Gloria who yelled at the man to “keep your hands where we can see them”, then stared down his defensive laughter into stony silence.   

As far as Mia could tell Gloria was out most nights. Sometimes she’d see her transformation from office chic to femme fatale first-hand, as she traded trouser suits for playsuits at the end of the working day. On occasion, the morning after, she’d see the reversal, when Gloria arrived from God knows where and used the work bathroom to take off the remnants of her just try me makeup and pull on the old clothes she’d left in the cloakroom the evening before. More than anyone else, Mia wanted to be Gloria, but with no obvious route to achieving this goal, she’d have settled for being her friend. But despite all the nudges and hints and ever-increasing directness, Gloria politely kept her at arm’s length. If Grace or Marie were here, they’d have folded into Gloria’s entourage within a week. But alone, in a country as far from home as it’s possible to be, Mia found she’d lost that part of herself.  

Try as she might, Mia could not instigate the opportunity to wake up too late to run, jaded from a night that had gotten out of hand. And every time she ran, she saw the man with the springy hair. She began taking the same route as him, but in the opposite direction. She looked forward to the long straights where they’d run towards each other and she, hidden by the tint of her sunglasses, would have time to study his face. Objectively, he wasn’t beautiful, though closer to that than the opposite. He ran with his brow furrowed, a sign Mia decided, that he remained deep in thought. She wondered what he listened to through his headphones and began muting her own as their paths crossed to try and catch a snatch of the music, but to no avail. She decided she wouldn’t recognise it if she did. It would be something obscure (pretentious if you asked Marie or Grace). Not classical, he wasn’t a serial killer, but she guessed something music journalists would use the word ‘ambient’ about. While she was sure her friends would love Gloria, she felt pretty confident they’d make a face about this man. It was the way his back stayed pencil straight and he held his head a little too high. They’d interpret this as a sign he had an overinflated opinion of himself and likely a path through life that hadn’t provided enough friction. Mia would agree outwardly but remain sceptical in private.   

She began synchronising her arrival to the park with his, and driven by her growing infatuation, stretching on the bench adjacent to him as he warmed down. But brazen as she might, no chance to speak presented itself. Each day at 7:30 they left the park and headed in different directions. Throughout the day Mia mulled and fretted over the fortunes of various funds, argued and then doubted herself over the potential yields of prospective assets, but mostly contemplated all the possible days that her crush could be having. Did he snaffle a sandwich at his desk and watch crumbs disappear in the chasms between letters on a keyboard, as she did? No. Almost certainly his lunches involved tablecloths and schmoozing. Would he tackle his ‘to do’ list in a disorganized frenzy of phone-calls and curt emails, or did he – as she wished she could –focus with clam precision on each item in turn, until all were slain?  

Her parents pressed for updates “from Europe”. How is it mooching round a different capital each weekend, having half the world’s cultures on your doorstep? Can’t be bad, eh? She began predicting their questions and preparing her answers in advance. Yeah, moaning is the national pastime. No, they haven’t all been to private school. I spend a lot of time walking the city she told them. The free museums are great, but too busy. No one seems to mind that the pubs all close by 11. But she wasn’t able to give them enough detail to satisfy their curiosities. She couldn’t say whether they really suspected a secret love interest, or just began joking about one because the fiction was more palatable than the apparent fact that their daughter was lonely and homesick. Either way, they began asking her regularly about the “mystery man”. Is he tall? her mum would ask out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation about the exploits of the family’s black sheep. Is who tall mum? she’d reply. Okay, okay, she’d chuckle, you can’t hide him from us forever though.   

These expectations only fuelled her fantasy further. Daydreaming during conference calls, Mia would play out different scenarios for her first drink with Rex. Clearly, a repeat of her last date – two-for-one sugary cocktails at a deafening Caribbean chain restaurant – was not going to convey the required level of sophistication. But she couldn’t decide if the atmosphere of a cosy pub or minimalist coffee shop would be most conducive to their inevitable clicking. This rumination was new. Mia had always seen herself as someone decisive. She did the things she wanted to do, whether that was ending a mediocre relationship so that she could go on holiday with her friends or moving to the other side of the world for a job. At least that’s what she told herself, except when was the last time she’d actually seized a day? Of late she’d spent much of her time making-up anecdotes about her new life to text home, failing to make friends with the receptionist at work, and engaging in early morning stalking of a man in the local park. It was a strange type of isolation, she reflected, to be constantly surrounded by people and yet unable to form a meaningful connection with any of them.   

Autumn came and the daytime, such as it was, shortened to preposterous levels. Overnight the cataract must have hardened further and brought the lead-coloured sky a good fifty feet closer. In the endless hours between sunlight, Mia studied her phone. Impossibly happy people grinned back from impossibly beautiful locations. Her friends chilling bottles of wine in the rock pools at Mornington peninsula. Her friends crammed into a camper van and hurtling down the Great Ocean Road towards the horizon. Mia imagined herself with them – screeching along to the power ballads on the radio, passionately making the case for salad cream as the best condiment in the face of their heckles. It didn’t make her any happier.  

Running now provided Mia’s most intimate glimpse into the lives of others. Though her attentions were primarily taken with the man, she still had time for the epic arguments between a mum and her teenage son, as they trained for some charity race. Or the urgent phone calls, fired off breathlessly by the balding man in between bouts of capoeira. Mia couldn’t understand what he said, but she sensed the tragedy of the situation, as he attempted to maintain some connection with a life being lived elsewhere, in a different time zone, on a different orbit.  

Rex began wearing a neon orange hat in the colder weather. The positive of this was his whereabouts in the park became much easier to track, the negative was that Mia was no longer able to admire his hair bounce. With the trees denuded, his orange halo was visible at almost all times and Mia stalked it diligently from a distance. Each day the park felt more like a wasteland, with the substitution of greens for browns creating an abandoned, unloved, atmosphere. This, Mia decided, was apt. Gloria had left work the week before, jacking it all in to go and study anthropology in Mexico. Apt again, she thought. Mia had finally been invited out with her for leaving drinks. She made a point of staying until the death, shotting mezcal and pretending she smoked to remain part of the warm huddle beneath the picnic bench umbrellas. It felt bittersweet: validation that her instinct and personality remained intact, and yet sad that this was discovered in a farewell rather than a greeting.   

It had been an unseasonably cold run. Chilblains swelled Mia’s hands and the air stung her ears. For the most part she’d ran in the twilight, crunching frost beneath her feet, trailing the undulations of a disembodied orange hat. The sun only deigned to make an appearance on the last lap and was still in the process of clambering up into the sky as she stretched at her bench. Mia sat to admire the spectacle. Tracts of light extended out across the ground and over the buildings, animating whatever they touched. Transfixed, it took her a few seconds to realise that a man had joined her on the bench. He too sat watching, catching his breath. Mia’s heart exerted itself more than it ever had on any run. She sensed the inevitability of what was about to happen and decided to let him speak first. She wondered what he’d sound like. What words he’d choose to break their silent courtship. With one hand he pulled off his orange hat, and with the other gestured to the scene in front of them. The sun rising, the park beginning to fill with early morning commuters and keen-eyed school children. 

“There’s so many fat people about these days isn’t there?” 

“Excuse me?” she replied, annoyed at herself for mishearing at this of all moments. 

“Fatties” said the man. “There’s loads of ‘em isn’t there, just look. Wobbling their way along. The kids are the worst. Ginormous some of ‘em. Real monsters. It’s the parents I blame, letting them sit in front of the TV all night, stuffing their faces with chips.” 

He swivelled his head and looked her square in the eyes for the first and only time.  

“Depressing isn’t it?” he said.   

About the Author:

Mike Bonnet is a social worker and short-story writer, previously published by the likes of Structo, Riptide and The Honest Ulsterman magazines. He can be reached at m.bonnet85@gmail.com

Categories
Fiction

Passport by Nicholas Cormier III

Passport | By Nicholas Cormier III

I’m levitating. Chest pressed in pavement. Eyes widening. Cuffs grab my wrist flinging an arm upward. Air enters my lungs. I can breathe. I gasp for air then say “thank you” to the cop that saved my life. He cuffs my other wrist. I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching two officers speak to the men that jumped me. Heads nodding. I can’t read their lips. The hum of slow-moving cars mixes with the muffled static of waves crashing a couple blocks down on Ocean Avenue. The streetlights of downtown Santa Monica shimmer off of the gold eagle on the cover of my prized little blue book. The great seal illuminating the words: United States. Each page stamped with multi-colored tattoos that harken to my life before these nightly searches for dirty cigarette butts and food. “I need that,” I say to the officer as he picks it off the ground. Examines it, then shoots a puzzled look in my direction. I can’t be sure, but somehow, I know he knows. The narrative doesn’t fit. How does a homeless man have a valid U.S. passport? I managed to save that passport throughout each endless day on the streets. It went everywhere I went, along with my Texas Driver’s License and electronic benefit card. I kept them tethered to my clothing or strapped on my back in a black Oakley rucksack, a European girlfriend gave me. I’m in the car now. The cuffs claw into me. I scoot to the edge of the seat and lean back, sliding my wrists to the base of the backrest, creating a pocket of relief. A trick I learned along the way. Piercing pain. “My ribs.”  They broke them. I tell the officers. The cuffs tighten with every move like silver teeth biting to break skin. I say it again: “My ribs.”  I’m lying across the back seat. I’m screaming now. The X-rays are inconclusive. The Latino lab tech consults with the officers as they break toward me. The form they’re holding reads ready to book. The rest of the ride is a blur. Each holding cell, a longer and longer wait to the next. Morning eventually comes. The van is cramped, but there are windows. No way to foresee how precious the familiar fleeting scenery will become. The muted green mountains of the Antelope Valley shine with that bright white sand easily mistaken for snowcaps at night. It’s November. All Saints Day. My heart leaps, shame covers me as we pass my former place of employment. I look for some symbol in moving from the corporate jail of aerospace manufacturing to Wayside Correctional Facility, only a mile or two up the road. I never knew it existed, and now it’s to become my home. They file us in. They tell us to strip down. I hesitate. I look around. The others seem less resistant. Tan uniforms surround me. My hands slowly move to my underwear. I slip them down. It feels as if a million eyes watch me do it. They tell us to bend over. I can’t. My eyes lock on the officer barking the order. I call him a “faggot” and fight with every backward fear I have to save my masculinity. It works, if only for a moment. They wrestle me down. Then throw me in a solitary cell. I keep screaming as loud as I can. Then run headfirst at the officer standing behind the steel door. I slam my head against the small square glass. It doesn’t break. I sleep.

Vertigo. The room spins. I hear football in the distance. I grow more and more nauseous with each rotation of the room. I sit up. The revolutions of the room slow. I see bars. A television in the distance suspended on a concrete wall. Game in progress. I can’t make out the teams. I lay back down. The room spins faster. I sit up again. My feet scrape the ground. I touch the bone protruding from my rib cage. Skin’s not broken. I hear guards talking from below. A labyrinth of cells surrounds me. Three levels, of which I am at the top. Guard slides a meal underneath the bars. The first meal I’ve seen in months, and it’s jail food sectioned off on a brown plastic tray. I can’t make out the main entrée. I take a few steps toward it. The room rocks like a ferry on choppy waters. I can’t eat. Tray seems to sway on my lap. I’m no longer levitating. The freedom I felt wandering the streets in open rebellion of a life spent checking the boxes is gone. The military service. The weddings. Birth of my daughter. Degrees. Divorces. Gone. My daughter moving 2,300 miles away. The hate that ensued. Prayers and platitudes to a God that abandoned me. Prescriptions. Hospitals. Fed Ex package holding my termination letter from the corporate job. Eviction notice pinned to my luxury apartment door. My sanity. Gone. Thoughts continue to flood my already racing mind. My eyes find a narrow rectangular window. A sliver of light breaks through illuminating the niche below it. Top right corner of the tray contains bleached shreds of cabbage that look like crinkled confetti. I wonder aloud how it all came to this. I stand up, tray in hand and sprinkle the cabbage on the niche spreading it out evenly until the entire area is covered. My head aches. Room seems to shake. I take my seat. They won’t break me, I think as I stare out the window. A bird drops into view, appearing to see the cabbage on my side of the glass as a potential nesting place. Wings flutter as it hovers for a moment. Chest is orange. Seems to see me. Overwhelming rush of emotion. I fight back tears. 

It’s been a week, or maybe not. I’m alone in a large room sitting on a cold concrete floor. Each outburst has netted me exactly what I’ve wanted. To be alone, apart from all of the activity around me. Protected from inmates shuffling from each checkpoint of in-processing to the next. I’ve judged them. I’m shivering. I pull my elbows through the sleeves of the jail-issued blouse I’m wearing unwittingly bumping my left side. Pain shoots through my body. Hours pass, until a small bespectacled man enters the room. I imagine him to be Jewish. He has dark curly hair, and a professorial look like a friend of mine from college who happened to be the same. We called him Bubbles. The man is speaking, but all I hear is: “I’m a psychic.” He actually said “psychiatrist.”  I respond with: “Do you want me to speak to you psychically?” I meant telepathically. I use the two interchangeably. He says: “You can just talk.” I say a few more things. His eyes are kind. I bellow from some strange uncharted space in my soul: “I’M IN PAIN.” “I DON’T BELONG HERE.” He listens and says: “Let’s get you to a better place.” Before I know it, I’m in a van and we’re heading away from the jail. I lean my head against the window, as close to the metal wall as I can to avoid touching the man cuffed to me. I hear the walla of conversations all around. I don’t take part. I don’t remember music. About a half hour later we’re in downtown Los Angeles pulling up on two large towers that look like elevated sections of the Pentagon. I read the signage on the concrete: Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Our black and brown bodies form a daisy chain as we are brought inside.

I learn on this stop of what seems like a series of layovers on an endless travel day that I’ve just left what’s affectionally known as Gladiator School. I also learn that the yellow shirt I’m given has a mental health stigma and sets me apart from the general population, which wears blue. My cellmate gives me my first airport book: Mary Higgins Clark’s Still Watch, which will become my new mode of travel. I take it to general population a day later. There’s a sense of pride in now wearing the blue shirt. With it comes additional privileges and a dangerous set of gang and racial politics. The cell has four metal slabs, but only three are occupied. The owner of the cell, the one who’s been there the longest, teaches us how to use the toilet. He’s hung a sheet that acts as a makeshift curtain. He says: “Make sure you flush before it hits the water—keeps the smell away.” A necessary jail courtesy. There are others. He sits on the bed silently. His large round black body hunkered over, heaving. He appears to cry, but I brush that aside. He whispers calmly: “My mom just passed away, and I wasn’t able to go to the funeral—cause I’m in here.”  “If you see me crying, that’s why.” Crying is frowned upon in jail. One might receive a beat down for doing so. I don’t learn this till later. I try to sleep; my dislodged rib cage stabs the metal slab. I complain of pain. I’m hungry. The flat screen television mounted directly outside the cell appears out of place. I haven’t watched TV in months, except for the World Series, which was a respite from the streets. I’d stand outside of bars with a joint and a ginger ale spiked with Aromatic bitters and root for my team. Dodgers lost. Bounce, a hip black channel plays a hip black movie. I try to listen. My new celly keeps a bag laden with snacks underneath his bed. Brings out four packs of ramen noodles, drops them into a clear bag with water. Minutes go by, then adds a concoction of Fritos’ and other chips and seasons it with packets from the noodles and cut up pickles. I try not to stare. Breaks out several bags of bread and packs the “spread” into them making sandwiches. I’m handed one and a packet of Tapatio. Heaven. This is the first kindness I’ve received in recent memory. I look the other way and try not to cry. During the call for medicine my cellmates school me on how to get treatment in jail. An appeal to the nurses handing out pills is the quickest way. I do so and receive ibuprofen, another yellow shirt and am relocated to a medical dormitory. 

I have to shower. There are many ways to get bloody in County Jail, but the easiest is to not be clean. I only have one pair of blue pants, the yellow blouse, a T-shirt and lime green boxers, along with a far-too-tiny towel. I’m told where my bunk is and it’s a top bunk. The top bunk is customary when new to a cell or pod, unless you’re a Triple OG or willing to pay top dollar. Despite my years, I still only qualify as an OG and read even younger which becomes a problem later. There are no pillows in jail. I acquire another book. Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. The dormitory is segregated and consists of two floors lined with bunk beds. I’m on the bottom with Black; Latinos are on top and, by numbers, control the pod. I take my shower with no thought of not having clean clothes to change into. I forget where I am for a moment. The water is near scalding. I mosey back to my bunk with the far-too-tiny towel wrapped around me. My bunkmate’s gaze is far from comforting. He seductively says: “I can’t protect you if you keep doing that.” I remember where I am. I see myself. Beaded drops of water glistening on my chocolate brown body. Towel creating a jail house slit. Triggered. Paranoia places me on high alert. I quickly dress. I don’t think I slept that night but traveled at light speed with Andrew “Ender” Wiggin to the planet of Trondheim. My agitation continues into morning. It’s an education pod and, as the GED studies begin, a young caramel-colored gang member with tattooed teardrops wearing a do-rag picks a fight with me. I’m ready. I’m also voted out of the section for the hostility. This is accomplished by the kid rolling up my mattress and tossing it outside. I await my fate chained to a metal bench in the main floor foyer. I protest. The guards speak to the Latinos in charge—it’s official. I’m evicted. Branded with a maximum-security level. I save my books just before the elevator ride to a higher floor.

Blood upon entry. Two black men fire away furiously at each other’s faces. The guards let them fight it out. Blood sprays from the smaller more muscular man’s nose. Defeated. He hides away in a cell. The Crips run this pod. I’m told to go upstairs and pick an empty bunk. M is my bunkmate’s name. I learn he’s on vacation from North Kern State Prison fighting an appeal. Penitentiary rules apply. Bunkie’s prison neurosis places me in silent deference as I listen to his litany. He’s a dark-skinned meaty man about five-foot-seven with a pristine shiny complexion and wears Warby Parker glasses. “Don’t touch any of my shit” “Dry the water out of the sink after each use” “Make sure you piss sitting down at night.” “If you’ve got to fart get up and go to the toilet and flush while you do.” I imagine how to fight him as he speaks. I decide to use his size against him. He’s likely to charge like a rhino and I’ll follow his force into a corner then go for his throat. This makes listening easier. The room is large. Clothing lines made of tightly wound T-shirt strips stretch from the top bunk to the sink. Pencil graffiti tags the walls. A mural of a black Jesus rests above my bed. The desk next to the beds is covered with M’s books, none of which I’ll get to read, he made sure to tell me that too. I can’t find a place to climb to the top bunk. I contemplate attacking him, he reads the energy and makes a space for me. I take in the picture of Jesus, which is not as well-drawn close up and bears an uncanny resemblance to the homeless inmate I’ve become. Down to a matching soul patch extending from the goat beard.

“Prayer Call! Prayer Call!” an inmate bellows from the base of the stairs. I wander outside and watch a few bodies walk into a cell. No desire to heed the call. Propelled by my childhood upbringing, I guess, I’m pulled downstairs and loiter outside the cage the men walk into. I’ve got nothing to lose. Sigh heavily, then sheepishly go inside. The walls sweat, and the smell matches. A group of men stand in a circle. The leader, a tall hulk of a man with a black Texas twang bears a striking resemblance to Michael Strahan, gapped front teeth and all. He stands with an open bible in his hands reading from Hebrews. Brother Wayne, the lone “Piru” looks a lot like a child with a graying five-o’clock shadow permanently puffing air through his cheeks. Wayne likes me immediately. This coupled with his incessant fidgeting makes me uncomfortable. He bounces his boxer build up and down like he’s jumping rope continuously saying “Amen.” I break out in a series of hand gestures meant to protect me from Brother Wayne’s countless demons. A tick I’d picked up early on into my madness. The circle is completed by a short Irish kid with too many gambling debts along with T, a long-winded pod preacher with a freakishly lazy eye that I’d seen at the corner table with some inmates teaching from Blackstone’s Statutes on Criminal Law Book. We all join hands.

“What are my charges?” I say, sitting across from two investigators sent from the city to interview me. They’re questioning me about what happened the night of my arrest. Their faces are a blur, the man on the left reads the charges: Count 1, violation of penal code 422(a) Felony criminal threat, carries 16-2-3, the 16 refers to months, two and three to years in state prison. Count 2, PC 245(a)(4) Assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, also a felony carrying two, three, or four years in state prison. Count 3, PC.664/203, Attempted Mayhem, another felony. Charge ranges two, four, or eight years. Count 6 penal code section 242, misdemeanor battery, only six months. I don’t understand. There are three allegations in addition to these charges, one a serious felony and two are a violent felony to borrow their terms, which guarantees the prison custody time will be in a California State Prison. Not sure about the years. I tell them I was jumped by five or six men. How the attack squad approached tactically and assaulted me. How I screamed for help. How I couldn’t breathe. I show them my ribs. It sinks in. The men wearing what looked like cargo pants and blue T-shirts were firemen. The man I fought in the alley prior to the attack is the Battalion Fire Chief of Santa Monica. I kicked his Mercedes. The men are conducting an internal investigation. I’d never spent more than a night in jail. It’s been a week—at least. My mind still races. Delusional. I think the men are here to help me. Satisfaction washes over as I rest my case. I return to my cell expecting to be released.

The guards walk through every fifteen minutes. “Get down!” an inmate yells while I stand frozen staring at the correctional officers entering in a single file line. They break in different directions throughout the pod. Reluctantly, I crouch just enough to not attract their ire. For what will become a ritual of dropping to one knee or getting low whenever they enter. The male guards wear loud cologne. This pisses me off and I view it as an attempt to further emasculate us. Everyone must remain in their respective houses for most of the day. This is largely dependent on the guard’s moods, except when the jail is on lockdown. We are let out for brief intervals. I learn to tell time by tracking meal delivery. An annoying hygiene video plays for most of the morning. Hepatitis A is abundant. My fellow inmates escape their cells by burying plastic inside the small rectangular box where the door latch strikes. Canteen cards act as keys. Sliding one between the door pushes the lock back and presto we are free to roam. Dickhead guards know the trick and pull the door so hard during checks that it pops open then dig out the plastic. This usually happens after breakfast. M spends most of his time playing chess on one of the many metal tables downstairs. The bottom floor is lined with cells and a few rows of bunk beds. The cages vary in size. The leader of the pod is a Crip and a trustee. He leaves for work at five a.m. and returns home after dinner a little after six p.m. like a father returning home to his family bearing gifts for the pod, primarily food. The Crips ensure everyone is well-fed. It’s easy to go hungry in jail. I like their operation, but mainly that they keep the peace and leave me alone. I watch as they make delicious jailhouse pies out of meal remnants. The ingredients for these are daily hustle for many. Avatar, the head Crip, a bald older yellow-skinned black man with a reddish hue, collects most of these and his pies are the most decadent of all. Whites are a minority and allowed to exist within the environment with little to no hassle. Very few Latinos are with us. I spend my days on the top bunk reading. This becomes a problem for M. We argue and come to a compromise. I agree to leave the cell twice a day and stay downstairs. I imagine this is so he can jack off. I also imagine him to be prison gay. The time away from the cell leads me to my first friend. Will resembles a mulatto Abe Lincoln with few teeth. An impressive conversationalist and generous to all. Will is jailhouse rich, due to a deal he’s struck with an attractive black woman with a tiger on her tit that he gives a stipend to for cashing his social security checks and placing the money on his books. He’s also a former Hollywood writer and voracious reader. Will negotiates all of our book deals netting me more reading material than I can handle. We bond over our love of writing. The fact that I’m delusional adds to our long talks. He indulges every flight of fancy I have, from my relationship with Scarlett Johannsson to my street friendship with Bill Murray. 

The night of December 11th, a guard calls my name and hands me a sheet of paper with a court date and time on it. I’m summoned to Burbank the next morning to deal with a case I’d caught a few months before becoming homeless. I’d made each court date while living on the streets. This was a source of pride for me. I’d seen the long buses with blacked out windows and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department plastered on the sides pulling up to the courthouse like steel slave ships on wheels during my morning walks from whatever stone bench or bus stop I’d slept on. Now I’m riding in one. Rap music blares. I’m shackled to three other inmates. We awkwardly position our bodies to sit in the first two rows of the bus. The wrong person enters first and a dance ensues akin to musical chairs in chains as we fight for comfort. I try not to touch the others. This is impossible. Far too cold air blows. It feels good to be out of jail. I remember the night of this arrest. At the time I lived in the media center of Burbank in a luxury apartment next to Warner Brothers studios. The main structure was bright orange with matching curved euro-styled furniture inside, a two-story gym that I only visited on the day I signed the lease. An occasional TV star would be standing outside one of the uniquely styled buildings on Sunday mornings, which was the only day I got to see neighbors unless checking the mail. Each building in the complex had its own pool and electronic garage and grill. I rarely got to use these amenities due to my work schedule but smiled on the drive back from Santa Clarita each early a.m. because it had them. Right before being evicted I’d taken to grilling all of my meals outside and swimming in the pool nightly due to the electricity being turned off. I felt I’d outsmarted them all. There was even an outlet near the grill to charge my phone. I was finally getting my money’s worth. This allowed me to dismiss my neighbors glaring from their windows and patios, which admittedly may have been due to the loud rants coming out of my apartment at night, or even the fact that I’d moved my full refrigerator outside.  Overworked and delirious, one night I drove by Disney Studios and saw beautiful big stage lights blasting through the night sky. My body pulsating with manic energy. I steered my car toward the beaming beacons and parked outside the security gate. Jumped out of my Camry and hopped over the checkpoint gate arm and ran onto a big stage. I danced to Remember the Time, as if I were Michael Jackson for what seemed like a full set. I morphed into a mouseketeer and imitated Mickey’s voice for an impromptu speech, then attempted to get back to my car. When the police found me, I was wandering up the road filled with electricity. This earned me a second 5150, and a trespassing ticket. I was determined to fight despite the new charges and confinement. My public defender had soft features alabaster skin and brownish red hair. She looked too young with too big a butt for her pin striped pantsuit. Jail eyes are markedly worse than civilian eyes. The kind that make every woman fifty times better looking due to lack of exposure. This woman was a knockout with my new eyes. I fell in love instantly. She counseled me to plead guilty. “You’ll get time served, and then be able to focus on fighting the felony charges.” This is the first time I realize I’m charged with felonies. I’d made it through four decades without a felony despite being black in America. The 1% of the 1% of black men with a master’s degree in Business to go along with a bachelor’s and an Associates. Graduated with a near 4.0 with minimal effort. Exemplary military service record to boot. The racism I’d previously encountered was brushed aside as a bad night or day. White women a validation of having one up on “the man” and a byproduct of growing up a military brat. I suffered from the inanity of upwardly mobile black privilege and this, along with homelessness, is my wake-up call. When the time came to speak up in court, I couldn’t utter a word. I stared at the white beauty jealous of others staring at her too. It felt like the modern version of that scene in Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal where the whites stare lustily at the bloodied blind-folded black men boxing and the invisible man can’t avert his eyes from the nubile naked blond. Only we were Black and Brown similarly turned against each other lusting over a milky white do-gooder. Before being escorted out of the court room she walks over and places her hand on my cuffed black hand. “Good luck,” she says. My lips quiver. Tears brim. I say nothing.

The bus makes several stops before reaching the Twin Towers. We arrive after 8 p.m., which is late for a return from court. We’ve missed dinner. A trustee hands out burritos that look like the microwavable pizza pockets my mother fed us after school. Food is a commodity. I receive many offers for my bean and cheese-filled meal. I’m greeted by Will as I enter the pod. He’s enthusiastically asking how things went. Jail is short on empathy with few exceptions. Court being the main one. The pod freezes and studies me as I stop to talk with Will. I tell him I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and share the story about my liberating dance at Disney Studios. We laugh loudly as I show him the restraining order barring me from repeating my rendition for three years. A pod trustee screams “PILL CALL! PILL CALL!” interrupting our laughter. The yellow-shirted inmates file upstairs making an orderly line and await their nightly doses. Some scamper off immediately to crush and snort bartered medicine. I sneak up the stairs. I lock eyes with M as I enter the cell, even he displays an inexplicable tenderness in his eyes as I climb atop my bunk. I notice the picture of Jesus has Mona Lisa eyes that follow you from every angle. Nightly prayer call comes and goes. I lay in bed thinking of my love for Kami, the lawyer. Her touch. My plea. The defeat. The charges. I pick up a book. I cry for the first and only time in jail muffling my whimpers in a linen packed T-shirt that doubles for a pillow. I pray that M doesn’t hear. 

END

About the Author:

Nicholas Cormier III is a veteran of the United States Air Force. Spent several years as an Air Traffic Controller. Graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington. Studied Art with a concentration in Film and a minor in Theatre. Holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Texas State University. Actor. Writer. Director. Nicholas owns Runner Films, a film and video production company. Volunteers for Veteran-centric service organizations. Regularly advocates for mentally ill veterans, including those with substance abuse issues—living on the streets of Los Angeles. Nicholas is the Homelessness Liaison on the Community Veterans Engagement Board and serves on the Veterans Patient Advocacy Council for the GLA VA in Brentwood, CA.  USC Warrior Bard and longtime member of the renowned UCLA Wordcommandos Creative Writing Workshop for Veterans. Nicholas’ flash fiction and short stories were accepted for publication by MAYDAY Magazine, Lolwe Magazine and The Good Life Review.

Categories
Fiction

The Belt by Jim Peterson

The Belt | By Jim Peterson

It stretched down the length of the closet door like an unrolled scroll.  The boy laid it across his palms, the gold buckle clinking slightly.  It had belonged to his father before he went off to the war from which he didn’t return.  Two of those who did had visited the house and told the boy that his father died bravely in battle.  They described some of the fighting for him, the hand to hand, how brutal it was.

His father used to wear the belt when he wasn’t working as a carpenter building the new houses in their rural county, or repairing the old ones.  He’d worn it when they went to town to buy supplies, when they hiked down to the river to fish, when they attended church on Sundays, though he never repeated the words of the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, nor did he sing the hymns from the worn hymnals, though the boy’s mother made up for it by singing loud enough for all three of them.  

When the preacher called for sinners to repent and walk down the aisle to salvation, the boy’s mother slid her elbow into his father’s side, but he remained so still and erect in the pew that the boy thought his father had left his body and flown to some ancient mission out in the forest that they sometimes explored together.  At these moments, the boy would study his father’s lean face, the creases around the mouth and closed eyes, the scoops and knolls of the bone structure under the skin, and the boy thought then what an amazing and strange landscape a human face is.  At night he sometimes had dreams that were journeys over the continent of his father’s face.  On the inside of the belt, his father had burned a message in his own code.  His father had been like that, mysterious, seeming to keep some private knowledge to himself.  He carried himself as a man who knows things.  Not like how to roof a house—though he knew that and many other such skills—but something he carried within him that words couldn’t touch.

The boy tried the belt on, but it was way too large for him, the long tongue of its excess hanging down.  Still, it felt right on his body.  He packed his backpack and crept out of the house and away from his mother and stepfather watching television in the den, believing the belt would lead him somehow to an adventure beyond his dull summer vacation.  He soon found the woods his father had loved half a mile from the house and followed a doe and two young bucks into the dark edge.  He tucked his father’s belt inside his pants so it wouldn’t catch on thorns.  After picking his way through for a mile or so, he found a trail, and decided to go wherever it led him.  When he took off his shoes and socks, waded across a knee-deep creek, and mounted the opposite bank, he felt that he’d passed into a different world where constant readiness was required.  He carefully put his socks and shoes back on, tying the laces into double knots, looking around alertly as if the very air might consume him.  He had enough food in his pack for three days, a pocketknife his stepfather had reluctantly given him for his birthday, a spoon he’d stolen from a kitchen drawer, and a small flashlight with a pack of spare batteries.  

Much later, when he re-discovered the belt in an old chest-of-drawers as a middle-aged man, it was too small, the tip of the tongue barely slipping through the buckle at his waist, the last hole far short of the prong.  He’d not realized he’d become physically a bigger man than his father.  He laid the belt out on his dresser, disappointed, wondering what to do with it.  For one thing, it was still beautiful, the leather for most of its length so dark it reminded him of the darkest chocolate.  Sewn into the front of the belt, surrounding the buckle, was leather of a lighter shade in the shape of narrow, serrated leaves, penetrating the darker scroll.  And then, burned into the rough inside hide of the belt, were thirty-seven symbols, indecipherable as letters or numbers.  The man marveled at his father’s imagination that could create so many unique forms.  He hung the belt behind all of his others out of sight so his wife wouldn’t see it and ask questions.  But one day, when she was devoting herself to many details of cleaning in the house, she did find it, and so he sat her down that night and told her the story of the belt.  He would have given the belt to his own son, but he had died of complications at birth, and his wife could have no more children.

On the first day in the woods, the boy came upon a bear in a great patch of berries.  A large male, he rocked back on his haunches and looked at the boy for a moment without fear or ill intention, then ambled off, a huge black cloud disintegrating into the forest.  The boy gorged himself on blueberries, listening to the bear’s slow progress through the underbrush.  One day he saw a female red wolf digging in pinestraw.  She stared at him with the steady fire of her eyes, then trotted off, head slung low, tongue flopping from the side of her mouth.  The boy went to the spot and found a footprint there, much larger than his own, a man’s, the tread of a boot sole recorded like a fossil in the hard clay.  Could it be his father’s?  No, the weather would have washed it away a long time ago.  Another day through a gap in the canopy the boy saw an eagle soaring high in the sky.  The eagle landed in the top of a nearby sycamore, male or female the boy couldn’t tell.  The boy felt that the bird was watching him as he passed beneath.  He kept looking back to catch sight of the eagle among the highest leaves, the fierce clench of its head, the cool witnessing of its black eye.  The forest was full of watching and listening.  The boy spent one whole day carving each of the thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt into a different tree.  At last they meant something to him in the woods, though he couldn’t say exactly what it was, as if the unknowable nature of his father would linger there forever.  Or at least as long as those trees remained.

At night he ate his peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal cookies, drank creek water from his canteen, and let the darkness come to him.  The forest canopy held back the light of stars and moon, and the darkness was almost complete.  He turned his flashlight on, and the trunks of trees stood around him like giant horses sleeping on their feet.  Would they ever wake up?  Would they stretch their legs and walk?  Were they protecting him, or oblivious to him?  He turned out the flashlight and listened to the creaking of limbs in the breeze sounding like the voices of whales he’d heard in a documentary on TV.  He listened to the calls of owls hunting, sometimes heard the whup-whup-whup of their wings among the limbs over his head.  

One night there was a storm, and though it was summer and the weather mild, the boy shivered in the heavy rain.  When lightning struck a nearby tree, the flash of light and explosion of thunder were so strong they transported him into a silent, deep place inside himself, where he sat so still in the pew next to his father he thought he would never move again, hyper-sensitive though to the congregation around him, the slightest adjustments of their bodies, a cough, a subtle amen, the words coming from the pulpit like wind chimes, or the knocking of a tree on the window.  Then, he suddenly felt the current pouring through his body, an intensity that stretched the boundaries of every cell, and yet he was aware of no pain.  He withdrew into the dark place inside like repelling down into a well.  He became less and less of himself going down until he curled up at the bottom like smoke, and then not even that.  If time passed, it was none of his concern.  If there was light at the top of the well, it didn’t enter his eyes.  If somewhere his mother and stepfather were worried about him, he didn’t care.  They would just have to get over it.  The darkness and silence and emptiness descended on him with a weight unlike anything he’d ever known.  But this weight felt good, felt like a warm, heavy blanket covering everything.  The boy rested.  He would have been happy if it lasted forever.  The thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt slowly appeared like glowing embers in the wall of the well around him.  He had no mind left with which to interpret their meanings.  They just existed, the alphabet maybe of a language that had never formed.  He had plenty of time, so he studied each one as if it held the secret of the universe.  Without words, how does meaning arise, and yet he felt it and knew it.  And when he knew that he knew it, each symbol crawled slowly up the wall of the well until it disappeared somewhere up there in the night sky.  And then, slowly, the boy felt himself become a cold body curled up on the dusty floor of a dried up well.  A crow’s call drew him up the tunnel of the well and deposited him in a bright, clear morning.  He lay on the pinestraw floor of the woods.  His eyes were dry and covered with the crust of the deepest sleep he’d ever known.  He was still drenched from the rain but no longer cold, and his body hummed with a relic of the current.

One day the boy stumbled out of the trees into the sunlight of a dirt road.  A farmer in a pickup truck gave the boy a ride home, only a few miles away after all. His mother despaired of his thinness, hugged him and cried and didn’t let go of him once for a whole week.  The first chance he got, his stepfather whipped the boy with his father’s belt and made him vow never to hurt his mother like that again.  The boy bears the marks on his scrawny old legs to this day, the remnants of his father’s code catching fire on his skin and swelling into his whole body when lightning comes close.

The boy who became a man and now an old man sometimes thought he could hear those symbols crawling out of the woods and toward the house in the dry leaves of fall. Over the years, he whittled each of the symbols into freestanding forms, which he would have given to his son, but which now lay randomly about the house, saying and not saying whatever it was his father knew and that he knew but could not speak.  He could feel it when he sat on the porch with his wife in the evening after work.  When he lay down in bed those first moments before falling asleep, he felt it.  There were days when he felt it constantly, that presence for which he had no name, because he knew it wasn’t his father, but rather the understanding of his father, that lived in the still continent of his face.

About the Author:

Jim Peterson has published a novel and seven poetry collections, most recently The Horse Who Bears Me Away from Red Hen Press.  His collection of short stories, The Sadness of Whirlwinds, will be published by Red Hen late in 2021.  The two stories of his in The Good Life Review will be included in that collection.  He retired as Coordinator of Creative Writing at Randolph College in 2013 and remains on the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA Program in Creative Writing.   He lives with his charismatic Corgi, Mama Kilya, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Categories
Fiction

Go Get the Gun by Jim Peterson

Go Get the Gun | By Jim Peterson

“Go get the gun,” Martha said.  

I put down the book I was reading.  “What?” I said.  

“The gun! Go get it.  Hurry!”  

I looked around the living room.  Everything was quiet.  I looked at my wife sitting in her favorite recliner with her favorite lamp bestowing light to the pages of a book by her favorite author.  She was looking at me with big eyes over the top of the book.  

“Well,” she said, “what are you waiting for?”  

“But I don’t hear anything,” I said.  

“Are you going to let the fact that you are deaf keep you from protecting me?” she said.  

“I’m not deaf, Martha.  I’m hearing you just fine, for example.”  

“Well, something must be wrong with you,” she said.  

“I’m not going to grab the gun every time you imagine a bad guy is trying to break in.”  

“I’m not imagining.  I heard something.”  

“It’s those books you read,” I said, “with all those deranged killers.  That stuff gets into your head, Martha, and makes you paranoid.”  

She just glared at me.  After a moment or two, she lifted her book again.  At last, peace was restored.  Sometimes I just had to reason with Martha.  After thirty years of marriage, I had learned that reason usually won the day.  

I looked out the window just beyond where Martha was sitting.  It was pitch black out there.  I could hear the wind blowing in the nearby trees.  That must have been what Martha heard.  That must also explain why the street lights were out, though I admit that absence of light was a bit strange.  I sighed and went back to reading my own book.  

I was getting into a good part when Martha said, “I want a divorce.”  

I looked at her and she was glaring at me again.  This time her eyes were narrow and hard.  “Martha,” I said, “We’ve been together for thirty years.  You do not want a divorce.”  

“Yes, I do,” she said, “you don’t take care of me any more.  You don’t believe anything I say.  You always have to be right.  You don’t even protect me anymore.  A rapist could come through that door, and you would just let him have me!” 

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” I said, “and you know it isn’t true.  I would gladly die for you if that’s what is called for.”  

“Prove it,” she said.  

“What?” I said, “you want me to die?”  

“No, I want you to go get that gun and make sure no one is trying to break in.  I’m really frightened.  Can’t you tell?”  

I took off my reading glasses and put on my far-sighted glasses.  She came into better focus.  Yes, I could now see that she was trembling.  Her eyes were glassy with fear.  “But Martha,” I said, “it’s dangerous to run around with a loaded gun unless you really need it,” I said.  

“If you don’t get the gun, then I want that divorce.  I’m tired of being so scared all the time.”  

“When are you afraid?” I asked.  

“All the time!” she shouted. “I tell you and you ignore me.  I’m tired of it.”  

“I can’t believe you would leave me because I don’t carry a gun around all the time,” I said.  

“There are other reasons,” she said. “Do you want me to list them for you?”  

I thought about that—my balding head, my thickening middle, my two glasses of whiskey every night, my cousin James who was always stopping by and staying for a week.  Then I thought about Martha’s blueberry pie, her beef stew, the long walks we took together, her warm body in the bed, her IRA that had grown substantially over the years.  

I decided to get up and go get the gun.  Just then, I heard a crashing sound.  Martha screamed but remained in her chair, holding her book against her chest as if it would protect her.  I proceeded back to the bedroom where I had hidden the gun and a box of bullets buried under some of my shirts in a drawer.  Martha had followed me so closely I thought we had become one four-legged creature.  I could feel her breath on my neck, her voice in my ear.  I carefully loaded the 38’s into chambers of the revolver and snapped it shut.  

Shaking, Martha gripped my arm like she might try to tear it off.  As one, we slowly trundled up the hallway.  We checked and secured the front door, the back door, and the side door.  There was one more door, in the basement.  We heard another crash, and it was definitely coming from down there.  We slowly made our four-legged way down the stairs.  I flipped the light switch, but the basement light had apparently burned out.  Martha pulled out her cell phone and turned on its light.  Everything appeared in order: the pool table, the futon, the table and chairs.  

We made our way over to the door that opened onto a patio.  Martha pressed her phone to a window pane in the door, and outside we saw something on the patio thrashing.  I stared and stared, trying to bring it into focus.  And then I saw it.  A badly wounded deer trying to stand up in a slippery pool of its own blood.  It had been trying to get into our house.  But why?  I turned the lock and opened the door.  

“Be careful,” Martha said in my ear.  

I carefully pushed open the screen door.  Martha remembered the patio light, switched it on, and light flooded the scene.  It was a doe, and her eyes were big, black circles.  She thrashed, but she couldn’t get up.  One of her front legs was twisted and obviously broken.  She was bleeding from a hole in her shoulder.  The anguished guttural of fear broke from her throat.  I didn’t hesitate.  I walked up close to her, raised my gun, and shot her once in the head.  The blast carried its message across the neighborhood.  She dropped to the patio bricks immediately, spasm’d a time or two, and died.  

A thin trail of white smoke flowed out of her body and drifted into the trees.  I had been present at other deaths, but I’d never seen anything like that before.  Somewhere in the nearby woods, a hunter was probably looking for her.  The wind was worse than I had realized, throwing the heads of trees around like crazed toys.  

“I’m so glad you had the gun,” Martha said behind me.  “It was suffering terribly,” she said.  

I turned to her.  She was crying.  

“I don’t want to divorce you,” she said.  

I didn’t want to divorce her either, and said so.  I realized I was crying too, trembling with a fear I couldn’t name.  We held on to each other for a while.  Then we went back inside, leaving the deer in darkness.  

I unloaded the gun and left it on the table.  It could take care of itself for the rest of the night.  Martha and I took care of each other. 

About the Author:

Jim Peterson has published a novel and seven poetry collections, most recently The Horse Who Bears Me Away from Red Hen Press.  His collection of short stories, The Sadness of Whirlwinds, will be published by Red Hen late in 2021.  The two stories of his in The Good Life Review will be included in that collection.  He retired as Coordinator of Creative Writing at Randolph College in 2013 and remains on the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA Program in Creative Writing.   He lives with his charismatic Corgi, Mama Kilya, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Categories
Fiction

Apotropaic by Kendall Klym

Apotropaic | By Kendall Klym

I sit shirtless before a long row of cottonwoods at the park. On my headphones, I listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht—if you don’t know it, it’s really passionate. A minute or two into the string sextet, I spot a slender man in a pair of white shorts taking off his shirt. He spreads his blanket just far enough away to make conversation a strain. He glances at me, and when I look back, he turns away. After smoothing the edges of his buffalo plaid coverlet, he retrieves a bottle of water and a book from his bag. I silently admire his sculpted shoulders and well-developed quads. Then I notice his book: The Sorrows of Young Werther, English translation. As he reads, he mouths some of the words, and every now and then, he goes back a page. I close my eyes and imagine him a professor of literature at the small private college outside of town. Wearing a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, he faces a classroom full of deadpan expressions, heads turned downward and thumbs beating out text messages, as he explains why young men reacted to Goethe’s masterpiece by killing themselves. When I open my eyes, the man in the white shorts and his buffalo plaid coverlet are gone. 

The next four days are cold and rainy, so instead of going to the park, I romanticize my man in the white shorts, button-down shirt, and khaki pants. Not only a professor of literature but also an aspiring poet, he’s waiting for me to make the first move. And when I do, he will speak to me in iambic pentameter, make love with the intensity of a spondee. That’s if I ever see him again. Still entranced, I go to the library and check out a copy of Young Werther and mouth some of the words. When I get to the part about suicide, I close the book and return it to the library. I remember why I changed my major from English to Museum Studies.

On Saturday, the temps warm up, and the sun comes out, so I go to the park. Despite the nice weather, the place is mostly deserted, not like 20 years ago, when sex aps didn’t exist. The few men I see on a regular basis are either too old or too young. The young ones wear baggy sweats or shorts beyond the knee and like to jog or walk with mean-looking dogs. It’s as if they’re trying to prove how macho they are in the midst of looking for other men. The old ones I try not to judge. After all, I’m headed in that direction. I find my place before the cottonwoods—leaves looking rough around the edges now that summer is nearly over. I strip down to a white Speedo. While smearing sunscreen on my face, I see an out-of-shape man approaching from the left. At least a decade older than I, the man drops his blanket next to mine. I scowl and look away. When he strips down to a pink thong, I put on my shorts, get up, and start walking. That’s when I see my poet-teacher, this time in a pair of black shorts, sitting on his blanket. Refusing to waste time, I set my blanket a few feet from his and sit down. 

I’ve memorized a variety of first lines, all of which I forget instantly when he turns and smiles. Both of us speak at the same time. I start to say something about the weather, and he tells me cops are cracking down on lewd behavior in the park. He says his name is Art. He asks if I’m hungry. I say yes, and he invites me to dinner at his house. I look into his eyes, which seem to say he’s sane and sincere, not a closeted homophobe waiting to get me in a room and bash the bones in my face while quoting Christian scripture. I accept the invitation. While I follow in my car, I notice he’s a careful, safe driver. 

Art lives alone in an impressive brick structure next to a big Catholic church in a nice part of town. While he opens a box of spaghetti, he asks me to go into the third cabinet on the left and select the sauce of my choice. He has four-cheese, marinara, and mushroom—all arranged in a perfect line, equidistant from each other and in alphabetical order. I’m impressed but slightly afraid that his tidiness is an indication of a hidden disorder, something that could turn Walt Whitman into Jeffrey Dahmer. After dinner, we cuddle on the living room floor. Art tells me he’s a nudist and asks if I mind if he takes off his clothes. I say that’s fine and do the same. In the midst of kissing Art, I notice a long black robe and some other garments hanging on a rack in a corner of the room. He notices me noticing and tells me he’s a Catholic priest. When I get home, I vomit spaghetti and sauce into the toilet. After brushing my teeth four times, I look online at the brand of sauce I had chosen and see it has anchovies, which I’m allergic to. I decide not to see Art again.

* * *

The weather turns cold, and I start going to First Fridays Art Walk a few blocks from where I work at the historical society. I meet someone I like. His voice has a homespun lilt, he’s a freelance artist, and his name is Sam—a real hottie in a white tee and jeans, that is, until he opens his mouth and flashes a set of yellow, brown, and black teeth. I try to overlook the negative, and we start to date, the slow way. We meet regularly at an art gallery or coffee house and chat for an hour or so. Then he says he has to go. Sometimes we take a walk. Hidden in parkas, we finally kiss on a frigid afternoon outside an old factory turned into lofts. No one seems to notice.

One night, I invite Sam to dinner. In the middle of the meal, he excuses himself and disappears into the bathroom. Over dessert, he tells me he has IBS, which causes discolorations in his teeth. I try to be supportive, offering to cook something that won’t irritate his bowels, but he says that food just does that to him. I tell him I’m determined to help and will use organic, non-GMO meats, grains, and vegetables to prepare a meal that will nourish and please. He says okay. The next time we get together, I make sauerbraten with quinoa salad, and he has the same reaction.

After that, we agree to downgrade to a platonic friendship. Within a month, I manage to perfect a concoction that fails to give Sam diarrhea: cream of rice with stewed prunes and 2-percent milk. I have no idea how I came up with the combo, but I’m glad I can help. 

In exchange for meals, Sam agrees to paint a mural of my ideal man, a boyfriend who will be all I could ever want. It takes a month for Sam to complete the project on a bare white wall in my partially furnished attic. To my specifications, the man in the mural is olive-skinned, has long black hair, and wears a golden loincloth. His body is slender and muscular. On the day that the mural is finished, I cook dinner, eat with Sam, and present him with a gift certificate to the art museum bookstore. When he leaves, I head up to the attic to spend time with my new boyfriend. I name him AVB, short for Acrylic Virtual Boyfriend. AVB looks a little out of place in my Queen Anne Victorian, circa 1902, but I don’t care. When the sun shines through the windows of the turret, his skin looks real, especially in the triangular area between the trapezius and clavicle. 

* * *

I start jotting down and acting out little scenarios I think of while AVB and I stand face-to-face. In one, which I call Scenario 3, I talk about stress-related issues at work and link them to aches and pains in various parts of my body. As the scene unfolds, I strip. I start out wearing multiple layers, so the encounter can last longer. During the striptease, AVB—I play his part, too—says exactly what he’s going to do to relieve my tension. Some of the conversation is super hot, and other parts are tender and sweet. On one occasion, I interrupt AVB in the middle of his description of how he plans to manipulate my calves and thighs and ask him what he needs from me to relieve his stress. When he tells me he wants to become three-dimensional, I get scared. Then I apologize for trying to make AVB human. 

* * *

After a rather intense conversation, in which I tell AVB about my inability to trust, I turn on the radio and learn of the mass shooting at a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida. My mind jumps back to October 1998, when I learned that a college student named Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered by gay bashers in rural Wyoming. They had met at a bar. My stomach sinks. Sweat breaks out around my temples. My throat becomes so dry I rush downstairs to get a drink of water. When I return to the attic, I tell AVB I haven’t been to a club or bar in almost 20 years. Who decides who gets killed and who doesn’t? I ask. I’ve never stayed out past 1:30, which means I would have left before the shootings. AVB says I might have stayed late if I had met someone like him. I shake my head and try to imagine what it feels like to be dead. AVB’s loincloth suddenly looks dirty.

* * *

Sam invites me to a vigil for the 49 killed at the club, and I decline. When he asks why, I tell him I’m not up for it. Sam says no one’s really up for it, and I say there’s nothing I can offer the dead or their families or friends by attending a party or service or whatever. When Sam continues to probe, I mention the word schadenfreude—an expression that sums up my view of why some humans turn into barbarians: they get a rise out of other people’s pain. Sam says: This is not the time to get philosophical. Just go with me. I tell him no. I take a breath and make a prediction that someone will eventually come up with a theory that the Orlando shootings had nothing to do with homophobia, knowing full well that they did. Sam hangs up—for good, I think.

During the vigil, I clean out the closet facing the mural of AVB. First I take out all the junk from the people who sold me the house—boxes of broken Christmas ornaments, an old toaster with a frayed cord, and the rotting carcasses of three dead mice. When I rip out the faded pea-green shag rug, I accidentally pull up a couple floorboards. Putting on a pair of gloves to avoid splinters, I come across what I first think is a large dead rat. Upon closer inspection, I see that it’s a black elastic-sided ankle boot, quite scuffed, the elastic turning to powder when I finger it. Immediately I turn to AVB and ask if he knows its owner. For once the mural has nothing to say, its expression lifeless. 

When I search a library database, I learn that concealed objects, particularly shoes and other footwear, are a remnant of British and Roman superstition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Shoes, boots, and slippers symbolize an attempt to be apotropaic, to possess the power to avert evil. People hid footwear in walls and between floors of their homes in order to ensure a good life. These items, an anthropologist says, are the one type of clothing that molds to an individual’s body; they express how a person moves, the way a person acts, who the person is. Shoes and boots symbolize the soul of a human being.

I try the boot and it fits. Then I close my eyes and take a few steps. I imagine a tall artist with dark wavy hair: a dropout from an obscure Catholic seminary—gay and alone, someone who spends hours looking at the backs of leaves, how they turn silvery when a summer thunderstorm is about to approach. Then he paints landscapes, mainly of trees with men in the background. My eyes still closed, I feel a sharp pain in my lower back, not unlike a kick. A moment later, I notice I’m standing a foot away from AVB, facing the opposite direction. I decide to break up with my virtual boyfriend. 

* * *

While trying to nap, I remember an old TV movie about a straight man who discovered a batch of love letters—addressed but never mailed—in a secret drawer of a nineteenth-century desk he bought at an antique shop. He mails the letters and begins receiving responses. He and his pen pal meet. It turns out that the man has fallen in love with a Victorian ghost. The ending, which I don’t remember other than the fact that there was a fire, was rather bleak. I decide to take a break from the attic. I call a colleague, who tells me about Nathaniel, a guy who specializes in something called spirit removal. At work the next day, my colleague gives me Nathaniel’s card, saying she has never met the man, but her neighbor, a woman with a poltergeist that used to remove the toilet paper from her upstairs bathroom, says he’s legit. Knowing that my house has no departed spirits other than my own, I call Nathaniel. When he answers the phone, I find myself tongue-tied. I’m not sure why, but if I could conjure up a ghost to fill the boot from the attic, my specter’s voice would sound exactly like that of Nathaniel—soft and sinuous, masculine but sensitive, the sort of voice you’d want to tell you goodnight on a winter evening, when you’re sick in bed with the flu. 

I need for someone to investigate my attic, I finally spit out. 

Nathaniel asks what sort of incidents I’ve experienced, and I tell him I’m not sure. 

Then I’m not sure I can help you, he says, still managing to keep the sensitivity in his voice. 

I tell him about the boot, but not the painting. 

Nathaniel clears his throat. I charge $50 an hour, one-hour minimum.

* * *

While waiting for Nathaniel to arrive on a dreary November afternoon, I reread a series of newspaper articles about the Orlando shootings. The papers are yellowed. In one, there’s a photo of a man in a loose tank top hugging another man. The hugger holds his left hand over his face, while the receiver of the hug buries his head in the hugger’s shoulder. A later article questions the economic impact of the shootings on the Orlando metro, especially its theme parks. A third article talks about how the shooter frequented gay clubs and social media sites, yet claimed allegiance to groups known for violence toward gays and lesbians and transgender people. 

The doorbell rings. Wearing a gray V-neck tee and tight vermillion jeans, Nathaniel introduces himself. All I can do is keep my jaw from dropping. After an uncomfortably long pause, in which the two of us stare, I offer to carry equipment up to the attic. Nathaniel lifts his eyebrows, and the creases in his forehead make him look sexier. 

No equipment, he says. I’m not that kind of ghost hunter. They charge a lot more than 50 an hour. I ask him how he does his job, and he tells me he’s a good listener. What I do is listen carefully with all my senses. Once I’ve identified the problem, we look at various options.

When we reach the attic, Nathaniel starts asking questions about the mural of AVB. I tell him about the kick and the events leading up to it. He says my entry into the closet after learning of the Orlando shootings is both melodramatic and trite. I agree. When I show Nathaniel the shoe, he says he wishes I had found the other. Polish them up, he says, and they’d look great with my Victorian coattails. When I ask him about the presence of a ghost, he tells me to paint over the mural and learn to get out more. Then he tells me there will be no charge for his services, if I let him rummage beneath my closet for the other shoe.

About the Author:

In addition to winning the Tartt First Fiction Award for Step Lightly, (Livingston Press, 2019), Dr. Kendall Klym has won numerous awards for his short stories, which have been published in literary journals including Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, and Fiction International. Klym is a three-time honorable mention winner of the Great American Fiction Contest and has won writing fellowships at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and Monson Arts. Two of his stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A former professional ballet dancer, Klym holds a Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in Fiction Writing, from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For six years, he taught English composition, American literature, and creative writing full time at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta; however, he considers the Midwest his home, particularly Kansas and Missouri.

Categories
Fiction

Alice and Juno in Hell by Mary Duquette

Alice and Juno in Hell | By Mary Duquette

The first call came on Thursday over the landline. It rang ten minutes after Alice got home from her new job as Kitchen Assistant at Jacque’s. She sat in her apartment in front of the television set with her coat on and her feet stretched out over the ottoman and picked up the phone on the second ring.

“Hi, Alicia.” The voice was low and seductive – a kind of sepia tone, if it could have been a color, she thought. “What are you wearing?”

“My coat,” Alice said, fingering her collar.

“What else, Alicia?”

“Why…why do you keep calling me Alicia?”

“That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s Alice.”

“Alice?” The voice sounded puzzled.

“Yes. Like, in Wonderland.”

“Oh. I…”

“You must have the wrong number,” Alice said.

“Is this 328-5446?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I don’t know how I got the name wrong. I was so sure it said Alicia.” The voice sounded forlorn and flattened.

“How did you get this number?”

“The white pages.”

“You just called a random number from the white pages? To any old Alicia?”

“Yes. I know that sounds…”

“Desperate?”

“Well. Yes.”

“It’s okay,” Alice said after a moment. “Listen, maybe you want to know what else I’m wearing, or something.”

“Sure.” The voice brightened.

“Okay.” Alice looked down at her clothes. “I’m wearing my tan jumper with a white t-shirt under, and black stockings with green sneakers, the lace-up kind. Oh, and under that, a pair of pink cotton underwear, and a white bra that fastens in the front.” She leaned further back in the chair. “I added the last part especially. I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Yes. That’s good.”

“I’m about to make dinner,” Alice said. “I was thinking a meatball Stromboli. I might put on an apron for that. It’s a red apron, with ruffles at the bottom.”

“Can you take off all your clothes and just wear the apron?”

Alice paused. She looked down at her tan jumper, which had absorbed into the chair, the chair’s tan blandness blending into the beige carpet almost seamlessly, as if chair and carpet were one flat mass – an illusion she hadn’t noticed before. “It might get splattery,” she said slowly. “But, okay.” She stood up and took off her coat and slipped off her shoes and stockings and underwear. She put the phone on speaker.

***

A week later, he called a second time. She stood at the stove with the phone on speaker, naked except for a neat pinafore-type apron with the words, “Kiss the Cook,” scrawled on the front. The pinafore made her feel somewhat like a sexy French maid, sans feather duster – but it had a back, which really didn’t seem French-maid-ish at all.

“The mushrooms,” she said. “I’m going to slice them until they’re indecent. Strip them down.”

“How indecent? Really indecent?”

“Yes. So they’ve surrendered. So they’re laid out, ready but not ready, submitting. So they’re helpless. Do you like that?” She was becoming irrepressibly aroused. It was not what she had expected or intended but there she was. It occurred to her that she was losing her mind, being seduced by fungus. It was a kind of desperation that she’d rather do without. She pulled her shoulders back, shaking off the spell that had taken her over, a mushroom-spell causing her to forget the steps for the Bourguignon. She melted a pat of butter in a sauté pan and added the chopped mushrooms, stirring them vigorously. She placed the phone in front of her.

“A slap of butter is sizzling in a pan. A firm slap.”

“Tell me about the butter.”

“It’s creamy. Creamy and yellow and drenching the mushrooms. They’re sopping wet with it. Next, I’m going to take the Clafoutis out of the oven and spread cherries on top.”

“You’re going to spread them?”

“I’m going to spread them, lay them so the juice drips down the sides. So they’re lush and peaking, debased. Like nectar, like honeycomb. Bees buzzing around.”

“Dripping nectar…”

“It’s going to drip all over the sides and probably on the floor. It’s going to be a complete disaster. A five-star, ten alarm.”

Alice dipped her finger in the bowl of cherries and sucked it, the juice running down a corner of her mouth. The thought of him entered her head, his voice soft over the phone like his edges were smoothed over, and she lingered on the headiness of the smells, on the sweet liquor of cherry juice, and her breath caught as she held onto the edge of the kitchen island. She melted into the hard thickness of the laminate countertop, pressing her hips into it, opening her legs. She was as earthy as the mushrooms in the pan at that moment, rubbing herself into the cabinet handle, spread against it, the light from the hallway chandelier luminescent and the scent of dirt and sweetness and salt filled her as the motion of her hips quickened and dissolved.

“Alice?”

She waited until her breathing became regulated. “Yes. Same time next week?”

“Sure. What will it be?”

“I think soufflé,” she said, and wiped her hands on her apron.

***

The calls came weekly, sometimes twice a week. Alice found herself falling into a routine with him like he’d always been her lover, had always been the voice on the other end, but she still had no idea why he called her in the first place – why he had tried to call a girl named ‘Alicia.’ After three separate instances where she cooked a cassoulet, a gratin, and a pot-au-feu in the nude with aprons of various colors and styles, she finally brought it up.

“So, why Alicia?” she asked.

“Alicia is a trigger name for me.”

“What’s a trigger name?”

“A name that gets me horny.”

“Oh.” Alice felt oddly hurt. “Don’t you like Alice?”

“I do now.”

“What’s your name?”

 He was silent for a moment. “I’d rather not,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“But I should call you something. What should I call you?”

He paused. “Call me Juno.”

“Juno. Okay. You can call me Alicia.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“That’s generous of you. But you know, I’d rather call you Alice.”

“Oh…” She didn’t know what to say, so she pulled off her shirt, and unhooked her bra. “I’m topless,” she said. “I have no top on.”

He breathed out. “What are you cooking?”

“I’m not cooking,” she said, and fell on the bed.

***

Alice often ate alone. Since Billy left, she’d eat in the kitchen, standing at the counter. Eating was irrelevant – necessary but trivial, a waste of a moment, when she could instead be watching “America’s Most Hilarious Bloopers,” or sleeping, or playing “Crossword Madness” on her phone. Eating brought a kind of relentless annoyance, like a whiny toddler pulling at her pant leg. It was petulant. She would have liked to kick it away.

Since Juno, though, she had a flicker, a sudden luminosity – in ways she’d never guessed. She cooked in nothing but aprons and sometimes her tall black boots, if she felt peppy. She braised, poached, roasted, sautéed, flambéed. She chopped, julienned, blended, pureed, whipped – appetizers, entrees, cocktails, desserts, the off-the-cuff amuse bouche. Juno’s soothing voice blossomed over the speaker on her phone, and she picked up a knife and slid it into celery stalks and sweet potatoes and plump, ripe olives stuffed with juicy garlic cloves. She inserted large forkfuls of crispy, tender Apple-Cinnamon Bostock into her mouth. She told him what kind of apron she had on, if it tied in back, if it had ruffles, if it covered her breasts in front, if it tied at the waist, or if it fell below her nipples – which was hazardous, particularly if she was cooking bacon. He liked it when her nipples were uncovered, so she managed it as much as possible, but sometimes she said they were showing even when they weren’t, so he’d be happy.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked one day while she simmered a Coq au vin. “Why are you talking to me?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, don’t you have a life? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“I had a husband.”

“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “Divorced?”

“Separated. But, yes. Divorce is imminent.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, you know. Things.”

“No, I don’t. What things?”

Alice tied and untied her apron. “It’s of no consequence,” she said. “It doesn’t concern you.”

“I think it does.”

She picked up a wooden spoon from the counter and set it in a bowl. “And that,” she said, “is why trysts like this come to an end.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Too many questions,” she said. “I’m not happy with that. I don’t do questions like that.”

“I’m just trying to connect with you,” he said. “I want to know you.”

“Aha,” she said. “But, you see, I just want to have an orgasm.”

***

He called her Missy Chicken Legs. It was true she had skinny legs – but even so, the words hurt. He’d flick ice chips at her face. “Don’t blink,” he said. “I dare you not to blink. If you blink,” he said, “we do it my way.” She tried not to blink. She forced her eyes open. She imagined it was her superpower, the amazing non-blinking woman. But she had about as much control over that as she did over anything, as it turned out. She ended up being human, with reflexes and self-protective devices such as eyelids that opened and closed.

Billy’s “way” was to take out a belt and hit her with it. She hated belt nights. After, he cried and held her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Yes, you do,” she said, and he wept harder against her rigid shoulder, her raw bones, which felt brittle and unsubstantial. He fingered her hair and wove it between his knuckles, and she was numb, a gigantic nobody, his body on hers heavy like a child. He fell asleep, and she maneuvered him off her, ducked out from under his arms and curled up on the edge of the bed so he couldn’t touch her. He laughed in his sleep, and reached for her, and she skirted further away but he found her and pulled her to him again.

“Baby,” he said. “Baby. You’re a baby. You’re just a girl.” And he rolled his arms around her so tightly she couldn’t think about moving away and she felt his erection and prayed for an escape, even though she wasn’t sure if there was a god listening, or if there was even a god at all, and anyway, it didn’t matter because she couldn’t escape and he did it to her again, this time without the belt but with name-calling (the usual unimaginative diatribe he liked, bitch, slut) and tugging of hair and grabbing and pushing around – and after, further tears and assertions of remorse and she closed her mouth firmly against her teeth and her bones hardened against him once more.

“I want to see you,” Juno said. “Send me a picture.”

She brushed back her hair. “You wouldn’t like it.”

“Try me.”

“I’m too skinny.”

“I doubt it.”

“It’s too soon.”

“We’ve been doing this for almost two months. Don’t you want to see me?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t.”

“I think I love you,” he said. “I’ve never felt this way.”

The butter in the pan turned dark brown, a nutty fragrance navigating the room. “The butter is burning,” she said. She didn’t turn down the heat.

***

He texted her a picture – a sort of far-away shot of him sitting at a table, his arms crossed, smiling but not looking directly at the camera. He looked as if he had just seen someone enter the room and was pleasantly surprised. It was a dreamy expression, but also unsettled, like he was unprepared for something.

“I want you to have this,” he texted. “This is me at Humphrey’s Diner. I thought you’d like it, since I’m eating a cassoulet.” 

She looked at the picture. He was smiling, straight, white teeth. Mouth turned up at the corners. His hair was wavy and tucked behind his ears. He looked to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. He did not look as if he needed to have phone sex. He looked as if he could have had real sex.

She texted back, “Thanks.”

He called an hour later. “‘Thanks?’” he said. “That’s all you can say, is ‘thanks?’”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know – love the picture, I like your smile, great hair, nice cassoulet….”

“The cassoulet was nice.”

He laughed in a non-humorous, sarcastic way. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

“All right.”

“Question. How many women did you call before me? Two? Three? Fourteen?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because it does. How many? Do you still call them? Or am I the only one?”

He was silent, which she took as an implication.

“Why do you do it, Juno?”

“Do what?”

“Why do you call women you don’t know and ask what they’re wearing? Why do you do that?”

“I don’t know.” His voice altered in tone, as if somehow released. “I’ve never been really close to anyone. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. No one has ever really seen me. Not really. Is that what you wanted to hear? My sad story?”

“So, you call women you don’t know because no one’s ever really seen you?”

“Yes. No. You’re making it sound so…” He breathed out, an intimate sound she imagined on her skin. “Look, the fact is, most women don’t want to talk to me.” He sniffed. “You’re the only one who took a chance. You know? It means something.”

“The only thing it means,” she said, “is that I might be a supreme idiot. With a cataclysmic assortment of aprons. And too much time on my hands.”

“I like your aprons.”

“You’ve never even seen my aprons!” she yelled. “I could be wearing sweatpants, for all you know. I could be wearing a ski parka, or an evening gown with a feather boa and combat boots. I could be wearing a woolen nightie and a ratty beige cardigan, cooking franks and beans. I could be eighty years old, for Christ’s sake!”

“I don’t think you’re eighty years old.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I don’t care if you’re eighty years old. I love you.”

“I’m not eighty years old!”

“I knew it.”

She put her head in her hands. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t go.”

She hung up. He didn’t call back.

***

A month went by, and he didn’t call. She sat by the window and looked out, imagining he was near, maybe peeking in her windows, maybe stalking her. Maybe trying to figure out a way to break in. She found herself wanting him to stalk her. She watched for signs of him up and down the street, but the only thing she saw was Mr. Jansson’s cat, Hercules, trot across the front yard and up the stairs, and a delivery man park near the corner and lift three packages from his truck, carrying them to the Wallace’s door, number 38. She felt like the guy in that Hitchcock movie, scrutinizing the comings and goings of everyone on the block – except he had witnessed a murder, whereas she was just surveying the festival of daily life that she did not partake in, a parade of errant felines and men in delivery uniforms with brown rectangular boxes and trucks that thundered like awakening monsters when the keys were turned.

She went to sleep, and he didn’t call, and she woke up and went to work and came home for lunch, and he didn’t call, and she watched “America’s Funniest Dating Moments,” and he didn’t call, and she went to see a movie – “Grand Flats,” about a Vegas tycoon in the 40s who lived and died alone – and sat by herself in the second to last row and ate popcorn with neon yellow butter, and he didn’t call, and two days went by and she walked through the grocery store searching for Thai red chili paste, and he didn’t call, and she cooked a whole chicken and some mashed potatoes, naked except for a purple apron that she had purchased online, with big fuchsia pockets and appliqued daisies, and he didn’t call. She ate a piece of chicken and one helping of potatoes, and gave the rest to her upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Harriman, who was a shut-in and visited by her daughter once a month, and he didn’t call.

She picked up the phone to call him zillions of times, and zillions of times she hung up.

She didn’t know his real name.

She dreamed about touching him.

She walked to Jacque’s one mid-afternoon, down Wentworth Avenue, and crossed at the park. The man ahead of her strolled between the muted lampposts on either side of the walkway, through the birches and sycamore – long black coat and black boots, wavy hair – and she hurried ahead, almost to his side. He turned, glancing back at her in profile, white beard and glasses, and she slowed and stopped. She found it difficult to breathe, and sat on a bench, her hands curled under on her lap. She wasn’t sure she would know him, anyway, if she saw him. The picture he sent could have been of anyone. He could have a white beard. He could have straight hair and a pinched, closed face. He could have one long braid trailing down his back.

The next day, she texted him a photo of herself. It was the best shot she could find – a sunshiny picture on her cousin’s boat last summer. She had a hat and sunglasses on, and she was smiling. Her legs were covered with a white caftan. She had on a rainbow scarf. She looked happy – that was why she chose it. She closed her eyes briefly and hit Send.

The phone rang five minutes later. She let it ring twice before answering.

“Can I see you?” was the first thing he said.

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Why not? Why?”

She cursed herself. She didn’t know why she had sent him the picture. It was a misrepresentation. She should have just dropped the whole thing. “You’ll be disappointed.”

“I’m telling you right now that I won’t.”

“You probably will.”

“I know your address. You’re listed in the white pages.”

She felt a lurch in her chest at the realization.

“I could come over right now. Do you think I won’t?”

She pressed her fingers together in her lap. “I have a new apron,” she said. Her voice sounded tinny and off-pitch.

“I want to see it in person.”

“It’s purple, with pockets. Wait, I’ll put it on.”

“I’ll come over and see it.”

“If you hold on a minute, I’ll bring the phone in the kitchen and make an etouffee. I’m going to sauté the onions until they’re…”

“Shh. I’m coming over.”

“I’ll be gone.” She hung up and sobbed briefly and ran to the window and looked out. It was raining, and the drops shingled down the glass in tiers.

***

The buzzer to the lobby rang. She had put on the purple apron and wore her blue and white slipper-socks. It rang again, and she stared at the “talk” button on the panel in the kitchen before pressing it.

“I’m here. Please let me in.”

She leaned on the wall. “Go home.”

“It’s just me. You know me.”

“No, I don’t,” she said. “That’s the point. And anyway, if you knew me, you’d know that I’m hard. I’m not happy. I’m not sunshiny. I’m a fossil. I said I was eighty. I meant it.”

“You’re pretty uninhibited on the phone. On the phone, you’re not a fossil.”

“The phone is safe. It’s detached. It’s Switzerland.”

“Have you heard of Orpheus and Eurydice?”

“I don’t know. Do they sell sectionals on TV?”

“No. So, the story goes, Orpheus comes to release his love, Eurydice, from Hades. The stipulation is, she has to walk behind him, and he can’t turn around to look at her or he’ll lose her forever.”

She was silent, her fingers grazing the buzzer.

“Alice?”

“Does he?”

“Does he what?”

“Does he look back at her?”

“Yes.”

“Does she turn to stone? Does she die?”

“She goes back to hell.”

“And what does he do?”

“He has to leave her behind.”

“Ah.” She smiled, but it wasn’t really a smile. “You see? Meeting in person is a bad idea. Very bad. Terrible things will happen. Rotten, terrible things.”

“I haven’t looked at you yet.”

“But you want to.” She gazed down at her slipper-socked toes. “I’m too skinny,” she said softly. “I’m sort of like a chicken.”

“I don’t mind,” he said. “I like chicken.”

She laughed and pressed her cheek against the wall. “Why did you tell me that story? About Orpheus? Why did you mention it, if whatshername ends up in hell? If he leaves her? What’s the point?”

“Because sometimes you have to take a chance. You might end up in hell, or you might escape hell, but you don’t really know, do you? And if you do go back to hell, at least you lived, at one point. At least you did something. You had your feet in the dirt. You felt a feeling. The sun shone hot on the top of your head. You did something.”

She counted the seconds, measured and fleeting. “What if it hurts?”

“What if it doesn’t?”

Her finger hovered over the buzzer. “You can’t look at me. If you do, I’ll shrink to nothing. I’ll disappear.”

“I’ll close my eyes.”

“Until I say.”

“Okay.”

“Promise.”

“I promise.”

“I made vichyssoise.” she said.

“My name is Julian,” he said.

She pressed the buzzer.

About the Author:

Mary Duquette holds an MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. Her short story, “Masterpieces,” was published in the anthology, Murder Ink 3, and poems, “My Affair with the Early Morning” and “Untitled” were published in Ginosko Literary Magazine. She has recently completed two novels, a short story collection, and a poetry collection. Mary is currently at work on another novel.