Categories
fiction

Waiting for Things to Die by Emile Estrada

Waiting for Things to Die | Emile Estrada

Don Miguel’s white Buick spat smoke down the highway westward from Caracas on a Friday afternoon. Doña Soledad sat in the passenger seat shielding herself from the sun with her hands and young Rafael sat between them picking at a scab on his knee. The boy’s father sat in the back smoking menthol cigarettes with the windows rolled halfway down.

“Thanks for the ride, Don Miguel,” said Doña Soledad. “We’ll pay you on Sunday.”

“That’d be fine,” said the driver while he adjusted the rearview mirror to look at the man sitting in the back. “How’s Don Atanasio doing?”

“We shouldn’t talk about that now,” she interrupted.

“Mother, the boy needs to know,” said the tall, thin man from the backseat.

“Know what, dad?” asked Rafael turning around.

“There’s nothing to know, Rafi,” said Doña Soledad.

“You can’t coddle him forever,” said the boy’s father.

“If you want to raise your kid, take him to live with you,” she said. The man looked away and tossed his cigarette out the window.

“Is everything okay?” asked Rafael.

“Everything is fine,” replied the old woman.

“How come we haven’t gone to see grandpa in a while?” asked Rafael.

“It costs too much to have Don Miguel drive us every weekend,” said Rafael’s father.

“We used to go all the time. It’s been months since I’ve seen him.”

“You’ll see him today,” said Doña Soledad.

“Dad, if you keep my allowance, can we see Grandpa more often?”

“Ask your grandma.”

“Can we, grandma?”

“You’ll see him today,” she said in the kind of tone that ends a conversation.

Rafael kept picking at the scab on his knee until it came off. Blood dripped down his shin and he wiped it with the inside of his shorts, then he covered his knee with his right hand. He knew if his grandmother saw the blood she would make a big deal out of it. Old women have a way of doing that. The young boy looked ahead and saw they were driving behind a large blue truck. Ten minutes went by and they were still driving behind it.

“Don Miguel,” said Rafael turning to the driver, “I’ll give you ten cents if you pass the car in front.”

“You already owe me eighty cents.” 

“I’m good for it, I swear.”

Don Miguel passed the blue truck in front and drove over the hills, and Caracas vanished behind its curtain of smog until the road gave way to a warm green country. Grandpa Atanasio lived in Santa Lucia, a small township in the Venezuelan countryside, where his shabby cabin plastered in cracked stucco had stood for decades. Two hours after passing the blue truck, the car took a right turn on a dirt road among dark cedar trees that soon opened into the yellow clearing where Grandpa Atanasio lived. He sat by the front door of his cabin on a wicker chair and a metal cane rested against his thigh. Rafael jumped over his grandmother and out the car and ran to his grandfather before Don Miguel had even stopped. The old man had his left arm in a cast and bandages wrapped around the sides of his bald head.

“Grandpa Atanasio, Grandpa Atanasio,” the boy jumped on the old man’s lap and they embraced. “What happened?”

“I’m alright, kid. It’s nothing,” said the old man.

“It sure don’t look like nothing. Does it hurt?”

“Not at all.”

“Rafael,” said the boy’s father, “Come say goodbye to Don Miguel.”

Rafael ran to shake Don Miguel’s hand who handed the boy a handkerchief to wipe the blood off his hand. With a smile, the driver reminded Rafael that he now owed ninety cents for passing cars on the road to Santa Lucia. Rafael smiled back and reassured him that he would pay later. Rafael’s father and Doña Soledad approached Grandpa Atanasio. The two men kissed each other on the cheek, and Don Miguel drove away in a cloud of yellow dirt.

“I’ll get dinner started,” said Doña Soledad and went into the cabin.

“There’s a fresh chicken in the sink,” shouted the old man through the door.

“Did you clean it?” asked Rafael’s dad.

“Just killed it moments ago but couldn’t clean it. Hand hurts too much.”

“What happened?”

“It’s nothing, I lost my balance last Monday.”

“The neighbor girl called me. She said she drove you to the hospital on Wednesday night.”

“She came over to borrow something and found me.”

“She found you two days later? Why didn’t you go to their house?”

“The car hasn’t worked in months.”

“You need a phone in the house. You shouldn’t even be living all the way out here on your own.”

“It’s fine. You worry too much,” said the old man.

Rafael approached the two men and asked, “What happened Grandpa?”

“I fell.”

“Rafael, go play,” said his father.

“But I want to know what happened!”

“Go, now!”

Rafael put his head down and ran past the wooden outhouse and then past the rusted Chevy truck at the back of the property to where Grandpa Atanasio grew plantains on a small clearing and kept a henhouse, where the palm trees were planted so closely together that they always kept the dirt cool and dark. He washed his hands in the well and then spent the rest of the day chasing chickens through the palms. Doña Soledad watched Rafael from the kitchen window as she soaked the chicken in a plastic bucket filled with cold water and plucked the feathers off the carcass. 

“He’s in no condition to be living on his own,” Rafael heard his grandmother say from the kitchen.

“I can’t take him with me,” the boy’s father replied. “I don’t have any space for him.”

When she was done plucking the bird, she sliced it open at the abdomen with a dull curved blade, pulled the innards, and threw them to the side of the sink. The old man sat outside on the wicker chair chewing tobacco and, spitting into an old tin can of coffee, he smiled whenever Rafael ran by chasing after a frightened hen.

That night, Doña Soledad removed Atanasio’s dressings off his temple and cleaned the wound and the stitches with mercurochrome. She then washed Rafael in a tin bathtub and wrapped the boy’s knee tightly in a thick white bandage, so tight that the boy’s leg itched and ached, and once he was clean, the family sat in the small living room of the cabin to eat dinner. Before they ate, Doña Soledad cut the meat on Rafael and on Grandpa Atanasio’s plates. The old woman said a quick prayer and nobody spoke again until after the meal was over. Rafael noticed how thin the skin on Grandpa Atanasio’s face was as he counted the stitches on the old man’s head. 

“Grandpa, did we eat one of your chickens tonight?” the young boy asked.

“We did,” said the old man.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to kill your own chickens.”

“You’re not,” said Doña Soledad.

“She was old and stopped laying eggs weeks ago. There was nothing left for her to do,” said Grandpa Atanasio.

“Do you have to kill the chickens when they get old?”

“When they get too old or too sick.”

“Are any of your chickens sick, grandpa?”

“One of them is.”

“Are you going to kill it too?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Do you have to?”

“It’s better this way.”

That night, Grandpa Atanasio slept on the leather couch in the living room and Rafael’s dad slept on a thick wool blanket on the floor. Doña Soledad and Rafael shared the bedroom, its walls covered in old photographs, most of them black and white. Above the bed there was a photograph of a man in white robes and a large white hat, one of a soldier in handcuffs, and another of a large group of people around Grandpa Atanasio when he still had a full head of hair and a thick black mustache. A large stack of damp newspapers sat in the corner of the bedroom and on top there were two golden medals, one of which was shaped like a camera.

Rafael looked at the group photo from the bed and asked, “Grandma, was Grandpa Atanasio famous?”

“He was well known.”

“What’s the difference?”

“He worked with lots of famous people. You see that picture of the man in the white robe? That’s Jean Paul II. He was the pope a long time ago. When he came to visit Venezuela, your grandfather was hired to take pictures for the newspapers.”

“Why is that army man being arrested?”

“He was a colonel when the army tried to overthrow the government. Your grandfather took that picture when they arrested the man.”

“Does he take pictures for all the newspapers?”

“Not anymore, he’s retired.”

“What’s retired mean?”

“He’s too old to work.”

“Do the people in the picture ever come to visit Grandpa?”

“That picture is very old.” The old woman paused for a moment before speaking again. “They’re not really around anymore.”

“Are they dead?”

“What’s with all the silly questions tonight, Rafi? Go to sleep; you have plenty of homework to finish tomorrow.”

Rafael and Doña Soledad sat at the dinner table all morning working on his homework and, early in the afternoon after he had finished and had eaten his lunch, Rafael ran out the front door to go chase the chickens again. Out on the back lot, by the farthest of the plantain trees, were two black birds, as large as the boy, and their faces were naked and red and they bickered and squawked with each other, and Rafael, down on his knees, looked at them from afar. 

The birds fought and danced around in a circle until a large white bird flew down and the two black birds made room for him, and the white bird perched itself onto the carcass of a large brown hen and picked at the body with its dull golden beak and gored the dead creature while the black birds watched on. After it had its fill of the carnage, the white bird flew away and the other two swarmed what little remained of the carcass and pulled at it with their bloodied beaks and they squawked and bickered some more. The rest of the chickens roamed around the henhouse, pecking at the ground and clucking quietly, indifferent to the frenzy around them. 

Rafael ran back into the house and cried and grabbed his father by the belt and dragged him to the kitchen. He pointed through the glassless window at the birds and his father rushed back into the living room.

“Dad, do you still have your air rifle?” said Rafael’s father.

“What’s going on?” said the old man.

“There’s vultures out back. One of the chickens is probably dead.”

“What’s a vulture?” asked Rafael.

“The gun is in the cupboard,” said the old man.

“I’ll go deal with them,” said the boy’s father.

“Are you going to kill them?” said Rafael tugging at his father’s shirt.

“Let go, Rafael!”

“Are you going to kill them?” the boy insisted.

“It’s a BB gun. It won’t kill them. It’ll just scare them away.”

Rafael’s father grabbed the rifle from the kitchen cupboard and pumped it a few times before walking out of the cabin. Rafael climbed onto the kitchen sink and sat on the windowsill that faced the back of the property and his father came into view. Rafael had stopped crying and then Doña Soledad grabbed the boy by the shoulders, took him into the living room and sat him on the couch where she proceeded to redress the dirty bandages on the boy’s knee. Rafael heard the clicking of the gun outside and the birds cried and their wings fluttered until all sound vanished. 

That night Rafael could not fall asleep. He kept trying to scratch the scab underneath the bandages, but he knew if he tried too hard the bed would shake and his grandmother would wake up and redress his knee again. After Rafael’s grandmother had finally gone to sleep, his father dragged him out of bed, making sure to make as little sound as possible, and they sat outside under the crescent moon. The wind blew hard and the two of them heard the branches of the plantain trees sway back and forth. Rafael’s father sat on the wicker chair with a bottle of beer and the boy sat cross-legged by his father’s feet.

“How are you feeling?” Rafael’s father asked.

“My leg itches,” the boy said.

“You know what I meant.”

“I’m fine,” said Rafael.

“It’s alright to feel scared sometimes.”

“I wasn’t scared by nothing.”

“Vultures can be vicious.”

“They killed one of grandpa’s chickens,” said Rafael rubbing his eyes.

“They don’t kill anything. They wait for things to die.”

“Grandpa said one of his chickens was sick.”

“It probably died all on its own.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. The boy’s father sipped his beer slowly and stared at the crescent moon as the clouds thinned, which allowed the moonlight to brighten the yellow clearing where Don Atanasio lived, and Rafael looked up at the sky and counted the stars but lost count after a short while.

 “Is something wrong with grandpa?”

“Here,” the man said and handed Rafael the bottle. “Have a drink.”

The boy shook his head, afraid of what his grandmother might say, but his father insisted, so Rafael wet his lips with beer and handed the bottle back to his father. The man smiled and finished the beer. He put his hand on the boy’s head and Rafael turned around to look at his father.

“Your grandfather is old, Rafael. He’s going to be staying with you and your grandmother for a while.”

“Is grandpa sick?”

“Not really. He’s just old. You see, when people get old, they can’t take good care of themselves anymore, so it’s up to us to take care of them.”

“Grandpa is dying, like all of his friends in the photograph, isn’t he? I asked Grandma about it last night, but she wouldn’t say anything.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“How come?”

“Everybody dies sometime.”

“Will I die too?” Rafael said after a brief pause.

“One day you will. So will your grandpa. So will I.”

“Are you going to be the one to put grandpa down?”

“What do you mean?” asked the boy’s father.

“I heard what he said about putting the chickens down.”

“No, we don’t put people down. We take care of them for as long as we have to.”

“I get it. It’s just for chickens,” said the boy with a sad smile.

“Just for the chickens.”

“Do you know how long will we have to look after him for?”

“No.”

“I hope grandpa gets to live for a long time.”

“Me too, Rafael.”

Young Rafael stood up and sat on his father’s lap and asked, “Dad, does it hurt when you die?”

“Aren’t you full of questions tonight?”

“I just want to know.”

“I don’t know, son, I don’t think so. I guess it depends on how you die.”

Rafael’s father walked the boy back to the bedroom and tucked him in next to his grandmother who hadn’t noticed his absence. Rafael knew Don Miguel would be coming back for them soon after sunrise and the boy closed his eyes very hard but could not fall asleep. The white of the moonlight lit the bedroom through a crack in the ceiling and he sat up on the bed to take the bandages off his knee. He looked at all the old photographs in the room and the damp newspapers in the corner, his grandmother quietly snoring on her side. The chickens were quiet that sleepless night, but the wind made the swaying trees sound like the fluttering of wings and Rafael wondered how long it would take for the vultures to come for everyone he knew.

About the Author:

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Estrada immigrated to the U.S. due to the deteriorating political landscape of his native country. He studied philosophy at San Jose State University and currently resides in the state of Arizona.

Categories
fiction

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor by JJ Smith

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor | JJ Smith

“Now, I’d like you to know this isn’t something I’d normally do. Jan either, for that matter,” he said to the lawyer. He had been taught the value of self-sufficiency. Never a time to ruminate. No need to gab someone’s ear off. Definitely no need to call a lawyer. “The thing of it is, we aren’t getting what we expected from the VA, and we’re living on a fixed income. Jan and I, that is.”

He heard clacking across the phone line. “Just a second, sir. What did you say your name was?”

“Richard Broster.”

“And was it you or your wife that was exposed to Roundup?”

“It was my wife.”

“Ok.” More clacking from the lawyer’s end. “Are you currently represented by another attorney?”

“No, that’s what I was trying to mention earlier. We’re a bit out of sorts when it comes to things of this nature,” Richard said. He was quiet for a moment and looked at the light-up green buttons on the telephone. He wrapped the laminate coiled wire around his index finger. “We’ve never really been ones to ask for anything if we could help it. We just like to chew on it if we can. But we have co-pays and such,” Richard trailed off. “We’re only month to month right now.”

“I understand, Mr. Broster. Did you say you’re currently represented by another attorney?”

“No. Not currently.”

“Ok. Great.” More clacking and a sip of something. 

“Let me get some contact information from you just in case we get disconnected.”

Richard gave what he could. 

“No email, no cell phone for you? Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is. The kids broke Jan down, so she has one. They’re too much for me. The cell phones, not the kids. I humped a PRC Portable Receiver in Vietnam, and I’ve never wanted anyone to get ahold of me ever since.” Richard laughed to himself. The lawyer didn’t laugh back. No one in the house did either for that matter. He uncurled his finger from the wire. 

“Great. I understand one of you was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma?” The lawyer asked.

“Well, actually, my wife was diagnosed with what I believe is called a multiple myeloma.”

The lawyer made a sound. “Just give me a second, Mr. Broster.”

“You can call me Richard, young man.”

“Just a second, Richard.”

For a moment he just sat there on his sofa listening to the birds wake up and looking around at Jan’s paperbacks. He’d never much cared for romances, especially the ones that had real people on the covers and not artwork. He thought maybe he’d go to Target after this and get her another one. Anything to keep her out of that garden. Jan said that there was no use getting mad at the garden, especially because she wasn’t mad at him, and there wasn’t even really a person to be mad at so much as a-

“Mr. Broster?”

“Yes?”

“So, we’re not sure they’re accepting cases pertaining to MM. I can still take your information if you’d like.”

“You don’t know if your own firm is accepting cases?”

“Well, we aren’t actually handling the class action lawsuit-”

Richard grabbed the telephone base and walked into the sunroom. He tried to ignore the Menard’s smell of peat moss and limestone. Old tarps. Freshly potted basil. “What was that, young man?”

“I said we are just doing intakes for the firm, and then we send them cases if the criteria are met. We can still finish the intake if you’d like.”

“You know, I tried to make Jan a garden inside. She’s always had a real green thumb. I don’t think she’s taking to it, though.” Richard looked at his feet. A bag of Miracle Gro had spilled over the blue tarp onto the slate tile by the door. It was the pink kind, the Bloom Booster. He’d have to get the dustpan out later. He didn’t want Jan to trip, not that it was particularly easy to trip on potting soil, but Jan’s meds listed dizziness as a side effect.

“Mr. Broster, when were you, your wife, rather, exposed to Roundup?”

“It was Jan. In the garden most likely.” With the Roundup, he thought to himself. The boys had always loved Clue. Jan happily tolerated it, saying he looked like a fatter Colonel Mustard. Richard plunked down in his rocker and looked at the basil. 

“And when were you first exposed to Roundup? Excuse me-” 

“Well in July, I used to sit under the sprinklers on my father’s farm and let the Roundup cool me off. We didn’t know-”

“Pardon me, sir. When was your wife first exposed to Roundup?”

“That would have been the summer of 2004.”

“And you said she was exposed to it in her garden?”
“That’s correct.” Inside, he thought he heard Jan’s footsteps. Used to be he could hear the creak of the mattress when she got up, but she’d lost so much weight he couldn’t hear much of anything. 

“How long was the exposure?”

“Well, I suppose it was two to three days a week every summer for about eight years. Give or take a week in May.”

“Ok, great. Just a few more questions.”

Fingers playing with the chord again, Richard stood and looked around. He decided the garden was as garden-like as he could make it. Not the best, but at least the sun wouldn’t beat down on her so much. He walked back inside through the family room and into the kitchen to wait for Jan. He clutched the phone between his ear and poured Jan a bowl of bran flakes with oat milk. Bad for the soul, good for the roughage, the doctor had said. 

“Was Jan ever in the military?”

“Just me.” Richard sat at the kitchen table. It seemed now that his mornings weren’t much besides sitting in one room, growing restless, relocating to sit and kill time in another. Jan got up later and later each day. 

“Has Jan been exposed to any other chemicals, radiation, or does Jan have a family history of cancer?”

“No, sir. None of that. That is, a heart attack a few years ago but nothing else.” Just a husband with a hatred of weeds and an affinity for Roundup. He bit his lip and pushed the thought away. No need in this house for a weak husband. Be Cary Grant, Richard thought.

“Has Jan ever used tobacco products?”

“Definitely not. Not even before the boys.”

“Does Jan have HIV or AIDS?”

Richard opened his eyes wide. “Excuse me?”

“It’s a question we ask everyone.” 

What kind of lawyer is this? Richard thought to himself. “We’ve been married for 52 years.”

The lawyer clacked on his keyboard, filling Richard with an irrational sense of indignance. Then the lawyer said, “I will write down no. Has a doctor ever told you that the cancer could be related to Roundup?”

Over the line, Richard could make out some hushed tones. Words covered by a hand over the receiver. “No. Doctor Lusteen has been awfully mum about the whole situation. That’s another thing I was hoping to speak to someone about. Mostly it was just tests at first, but no real answers. Then he had a different woman, an oncologist, come in and look at Jan. And then the diagnosis. Is that normal, young man? For a doctor to be cagey like that?”

“I’m not exactly sure.” The lawyer sounded distracted. “I just have a couple more questions…” But the man’s voice was drowned out by the soft pitter-patter shuffle of Jan’s footsteps as she walked into the kitchen. She smiled at him. She smiled at him with the same loose, prematurely grey hair that she’d had when she saw him home from Vietnam back to this very house, with eyes that had never been anything but forthcoming, no secrets, nothing but awakeness for him and the boys. When she smiled at him like that, well there was nothing much to do but pay her attention.

“I made you some breakfast.” 

Jan smiled and raised a finger to her lips. Then made a hang loose gesture to him. No, a telephone symbol. He smiled. 

“Mr. Broster?” The lawyer repeated. 

“Sorry about that, young man. What were you saying?” 

“I asked if you had ever personally purchased Roundup.”
“That is correct. I have.” Richard looked at Jan by the fridge. The mini quilts that the boys had made at Camp Kiffawac hung there. She smiled at him again and walked out. “Jan, the cereal-” but Jan raised a finger to her lips. 

She mouthed a word to him. “Gardening.” She shuffled into the hallway, hands on her hips, shoulders forward. 

“Do you have proof of use or purchase?” The lawyer asked in the tinny, landline buzz. 

“Nothing on paper, I don’t think.”

“So no receipts of any kind?”

“No, I mostly use cash if I can help it.” He wondered if the sunroom garden provided enough cover for Jan. Too much sun could shine through the windows, and he knew she’d have to avoid any extra radiation, solar or otherwise, if the treatments were going to take. 

“Do you still have the containers of Roundup?” Was this young man getting frustrated with him?

“No. I threw them all out when I learned what I did. I mean, well, maybe I have one? I don’t go into the garage much anymore.” He looked around at all the places they had cooked together. Where they’d hung perfect, terrible crayon drawings. The cabinets where they kept the art supplies next to the cat treats. Richard wondered if the boys were ever going to have boys of their own. 

“Mr. Broster, I just spoke to-”

“Young man, I actually have a few more details.” With a drop in his heart, it suddenly seemed very important that this young man didn’t put Richard on hold again. “It wasn’t as if Jan was just using it for the weeds in the garden. I would actually spray it on parts of what she’d grow, and she’d spend hours sitting in it. So it wasn’t really Jan’s fault.” 

“It’s not anyone’s fault, Mr. Broster.”

“I’m the one that sprayed it.” Again, Richard had the urge to explain himself. Not to ask for a handout but just to let the lawyer know that Jan hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t need consolation, no one ever gave John Wayne consolation. But John Wayne always played a bachelor. 

More muffled talking from the other line. 

“And we have no grudge against Monsanto, for that matter. We understand that mistakes happen. We don’t want anyone to go to prison or anything like that.”

“Of course not. Mr. Broster-”

“Jan’s so damn anemic that she can’t even get up to watch the TV sometimes, you know?” Richard laughed a little, a quiet, unfunny laugh. 

“I imagine it’s very difficult. I just spoke to an associate of mine, and we aren’t sure that this case fits the necessary prerequisites.”

“How’s that?”

“We likely won’t be able to refer your case. Roundup has only been linked scientifically to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s no discernible grounds at this point to pursue a case with a plaintiff diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”

“Young man, Jan sat in Roundup for years.”

“I’m not saying that there’s no connection. I’m just saying that there’s no grounds at this point. Additionally, these personal injury cases are often complicated when the injured party themself does not use the product. Does that make sense?”

Richard realized his fist was clenched. He unclenched it, reclenched  it after he felt the trembles coming back. Sure, it made sense. “You’re a lawyer, son. Isn’t there something you can do?”

“Oh, I’m not a lawyer, Mr. Broster. I’m a legal assistant.”

“You don’t think there’s anything you can do?” Richard leaned back in his chair and looked at the bowl of cereal and the boys’ little quilts.

Richard was fairly sure the man sighed, like he was about to do something he’d regret. “Mr. Broster, I can look a little more into it. If I learn anything helpful someone will reach out to you this afternoon. Is there anything else I can do for you right now?”

“Um. No, son. That’s all right. Thank you much.” Richard hung up the phone with a hollow clack. He stood and brought the cereal out to the sunroom. Maybe he could get Jan to eat a few bites before it got too soggy. 

It was hot in the sun/garden room. But no Jan. Just the smell of peat and the soil he still had to pick up. Bowl in hand, Richard walked outside to the back of the house. 

“Hey, Dick,” Jan said. She was in her overalls sitting in the garden. It was sunny out. She was smiling. 

“You think you can eat a little bit?” he asked. 

“Not quite hungry yet.” Jan pulled a weed and then another. With the tenderness of a mother who had yet to be a grandmother, soft hands with no trembles, Jan removed a marigold from its plastic home and placed it in a small divot. “I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”

“That’s fine, Jan,” Richard said. His face felt warm. He told himself it was going to be a hot one. 

“How’d it go with the lawyer?” she asked. 

“They said they were going to think about it.”

“Is everything ok?”

“Everything’s fine, Jan. I’m just thinking about the store later. I have to get you something, that’s all.”

She leaned back from the Marigold. It looked safe in the ground, like it had been born there. “Say, Dick, you think you could help me with something?”

He brightened. “Yes, of course. What do you need?”

“Do you think you could help me bring some of the supplies out here?” She smiled. Bright white teeth. Real teeth, not veneers or dentures. 

He debrightened. “Are you sure you don’t want to try a little gardening in there?” He knew this was silly, made sillier still by the bowl of soggy roughage in his hand. “The doctor said you shouldn’t be getting too much extra radiation.”

“You have any uranium buried out here?” Jan winked this part. 

Richard knew he’d concede then. There was nothing he could do against a wink and a smile like that. “Will you wear a sun hat at least?”

“Ok. As long as you go up and get it. I need all the energy I can for this here.”

Richard went back inside and left the cereal on the kitchen table. Upstairs he grabbed a sunhat without too many holes and a little purple band around the base. He didn’t grab her favorite, a flopsy number with a ring of plastic flowers. That one had too many holes. 

He was panting by the time he got back out to the garden, and the sun was hotter, but Jan just sat there, Marigolds in a perfect little row. He dropped the hat on her head. 

“Better?” She asked. 

“Better.”

“I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”

“Fine by me.”

“You’d have to water them when they come back, and I don’t want to tie you into anything you aren’t ready for.”
“You should’ve told me that 52 years ago.”

They smiled. It was all ok. 

“Do you think you could go get me the angelonias from inside? They say angelonia on the sticker.”

He did. He brought out the little plastic cartons and watched her plant them. 

“I think these’ll grow up first, so I’m putting them in the back. That way they won’t cast too much shade on their sisters.”

She finished with the angelonias and he brought her out the pimpernels and azaleas and the geraniums. He watched as she put the geraniums on either side of the main patch. She said that she was putting them there to frame the rest. To put them right in the middle would ruin the scene, but on the edges, she could look from start to finish. In front of the angelonias, she planted the rows of pimpernels and azaleas, digging the trowel down and packing the dirt over. She packed it harder than he thought necessary, but he wasn’t the one with the green thumb. 

“You want to try one?” She asked. 

He stood there sweating. Flower toting was hard work. “I think I’d rather watch the master at work.”

“Well, the master needs her verbena and her begonias.”

He saw her squinting when she said this. It made him anxious to see her on the ground like that. Had any of the Roundup he’d sprayed over the years infected the grass? And the squinting. It was too bright out. Too much sun. Her blood couldn’t take much more of this. He thought about telling her this but didn’t. He brought the verbena and begonias. He was sweating up a storm. 

She put the verbena outside the azaleas and put the begonias on the outside rows. “If these things grow like they should, we’ll have bumblebees and Monarchs here all summer. It’ll be alive. More alive than it already is. Which is plenty.”

“You trying to get us bee stung?” He asked more crossly than he should’ve, a fake laugh in his voice. 

“Bees bring life with them. They make a garden wake up in the morning.”  

That was just like Jan, to not let things bother her. How many terrible movies had they watched that Jan could stomach because of a performance or because the director did charity work. “I don’t know,” she said as Richard complained, “I liked it. The sets were really nice.” Jan was always capable of controlling what she gave her energy to.

Inside, he heard the telephone ring and forgot about the flowers he was supposed to grab. He went inside past the decluttered green room and answered the phone. “Broster residence, Richard speaking.”

“Mr. Broster?” It was the young man from the law firm. 

“You have any updates for me?” Richard didn’t want to hope. John Wayne never hoped, he took action. 

“I do actually. So, I called Davis and Brock, the firm we refer these types of cases to, and I actually have some good news.”

“Yes, young man?”

“So they’ve just started accepting cases for MM related to potential Roundup exposures.” The boy sounded excited. He was proud of himself. 

“Is that right?”

“It is. Obviously it’s no guarantee of acceptance or payout or anything like that, but it’s better news than before. Would you like me to refer your information to them?”

“That would be great, young man. Thank you much.”

The legal assistant took a little more information from Richard, and quickly as he could, Richard left the house for the garden. 

He saw Jan there, a carton of pale blue flowers at her feet. 

“Jan,” he said, “you’re not going to believe this.”

A look of concern crossed her face. “Is everything ok?”

“It is. It’s great. The firm Davis and Brock are accepting cases of MM pertaining to Roundup exposures. This could take care of so much for us. The bills mostly, but other stuff too. Hell, if they settle we could even take a vacation.” Somewhere shady. Without too much sun. The northwest maybe. 

She smiled, but it didn’t have any feeling in it. “Did you grab the flowers, Richard?”

Richard breathed away his excitement. “Aren’t you excited?”

“I am. I’m excited for all you’ve done for me today.” She pushed back the sun hat with dirt-spotted hands. She squinted as she did so. 

Richard wiped away more sweat. He didn’t know what else to do. The sun seemed so damn bright. 

“You know, Jan, you really could use a pair of sunglasses. Let me go grab some for you.” He turned to go inside.

“Richard, stop.” There was finality in her voice. 

“Jan, you need to start taking care of yourself. You see how bright it is out here? All sorts of radiation comes from the sun. And you didn’t even eat your breakfast today. You won’t be-”

“Richard.” She inhaled through her nose. Deeply. “Stop.”

“Why? I can’t just stand here and wait, Jan.” Anger rose in his voice. 

“Then don’t wait. Do two things for me. Ok, Richard?”

He swallowed and nodded his head. 

She paused for a second and stared at him, like she was reading something on the back of his skull. “Will you quit your goddamn fussing and come plant some flowers with me?”

What could he say to that but yes? The grass was warm and dry and he felt the sun beat on his head. 

“Here,” she said, handing him the trowel. “Dig down about six inches.”

He scooped out the earth and set it to the side. The ground was yielding and moist, rejuvenated after winter.

“Take this.” She passed him one of the pale blue flowers. “Put it in the hole. Make sure you press the rest of the dirt on top of it. That’s right. Make sure you tamp it down nicely.” 

He looked at his little flower, perked up out of the ground. 

“You’re good to me, Richard. But I am 82 years old, and you just don’t know when to pipe down.”

He looked at her. She was smiling again. “What are these ones called?” he asked.

“These are scorpion grass. They’re the forget-me-nots.”

He looked down at the flowers, the clusters of periwinkle blue. They rounded at the edge, like little saucers. As he looked closer, Richard realized that a ring of yellow filled each and every center, yellow that bled to white and then blue, almost indiscernible to a casual watcher. Flecks of dirt covered some of the clusters, and Richard felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch one of the petals, to remove the earth that covered up the soft, natural blue. He worried that if he touched the petals he might mar them in some way, bend or twist their concave form. He lowered his head and tried to blow the dirt off. They bent underneath his sputtering breath, the stems so limber, the crowns of flowers so unapologetically alive. 

Winter Star by Andrew Jordan

About the Author:

JJ Smith is a graduate assistant who is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As a lad, he was primarily concerned with video games and raising havoc in the house. In time, that shifted towards becoming a professional writer and his game obsession has transformed into a chess obsession. Smith considers Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, and Carmen Maria Machado to be masters of the form.

Categories
fiction

6-fiction

Issue #6 ~ Winter 2022
Fiction

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor

“Now, I’d like you to know this isn’t something I’d normally do. Jan either, for that matter,” he said to the lawyer. He had been taught the value of self-sufficiency. Never a time to ruminate. No need to gab someone’s ear off. Definitely no need to call a lawyer. “The thing of it is, we aren’t getting what we expected from the VA, and we’re living on a fixed income. Jan and I, that is.”

He heard clacking across the phone line. “Just a second, sir. What did you say your name was?”

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Categories
fiction

Winter Generation by John Rudoy

Winter Generation | John Rudoy

On a Friday in January, Grandpa slipped on the ice outside the Morse Red Line stop. He had told us himself how dangerous that sidewalk was. The snow piled on the elevated track, and the drainpipe was clogged, so when it melted and refroze with the alternating glare of the winter sun and the chill of the lake winds, great icicles bulged and stretched nearly halfway to the ground and a pane of mirror-smooth ice spread itself over the pavement below. Grandpa took my sister Deb and me to see it, and we regarded it like a museum exhibit. We missed a train just standing there tracing the shape and the shine.  Grandpa showed us this not with anger or frustration or any sense that he wanted the situation addressed. It was merely a phenomenon of interest. He pointed it out as one points out a cardinal perched outside your window.

But now he had slipped on that ice: misjudged it or forgotten it was there. He had hit his head, and now he was in the hospital.

They pulled us out of class and we waited in the office until Mom came in and got us. Dad was in the driver’s seat, sweating in his blue parka. Its hood was crushed up against the head rest and the fake fur lining creeped back over his head like a poorly made toupee. His skin was jaundice yellow in the slanted rays of the afternoon and his black mustache crumpled and twitched. We crawled into the back seat.

“What was he even doing, taking the el? He can’t afford a cab?” dad said, as he pulled away. “I had to cancel the whole afternoon of patients. The whole afternoon,” he continued, inching down Clark Street in a rage. 

“It really put Peggy out to have to find a sub for me in the middle of the day,” mom said, quietly, testing how much of her own annoyance, dad would accept. He was in an accepting mood. “Pain in the ass,” he nodded at her. “Pain in the ass.”

Dad parked in a physician space in the hospital garage, looking at his wife sideways from hooded eyes as he got out of the car, reconnaissance to see if she would say anything about this slight contortion of the rules; the physician space was for not visitors, not even if they happened to be physicians. She might have said something, usually. At the time, I was surprised she didn’t, but now, remembering it, dad’s shoulders were already dropping. The taut fighting stance was giving way to the despair of losing his last parent, and mom must have seen it, and she let him get away with his trespass.

Grandpa never opened his eyes. When we got to his floor, the doctor pulled dad to the corner by the nurses’ station and they stayed there a while, heads bowed, angled toward the wall, dad nodding every once in a while. He nodded too enthusiastically, to let the doctor know he understood, remind him that he was an MD too, that he was a professional even in this windy spray of January pain. 

I had spent the car ride downtown happy to be out of school, watching Clark Street shed the low, gray, stained-awning shops, brown-brick bungalows, and parking lots for the neon bars and theaters, the red-brick townhouses, and finally the towers that, from the car, you couldn’t even see the tops of. I had imagined making fun of grandpa the way he made fun of me, punching him in the shoulder for slipping on that ice, him punching me back. I had imagined him singing the Shabbat prayer in the hospital room, in his voice that sounded like the rustling of branches, the creaking of bending trunks, the rush of leaves in some wild forest.

But Grandpa never opened his eyes. I stood next to his bed that Friday, watching his mustache, too still under his failing breath, staring at the scar along his jawline, wanting to touch it, like he sometimes let me touch it, but not sure I should. So, I stood next to his bed with my arms lifted slightly, like I was getting ready to flap my arms and fly away.

Mom only took a couple days off when grandpa died. Dad followed the traditions at first; he covered the mirrors, he sheared the bottom off one of his old ties at the service, and he sat shiva for a couple of days with grandpa’s friends from shul. But then he stopped, said he had to go to work. He had grown up with the rules, the rules guided him like currents in the air, but he knew enough to weave through them, make the right excuses so that the old men nodded, argued a bit, but then left, and left him alone.

The border crossing was a little over a mile away, up a steep crest in this wide dirt road through the forest, and then down a gentle slope until the guard post, where there might be a bored teenager, or a sleeping old man, or a handsome lieutenant, banished to the frontier to smoke and brush his mustache with his fingers. The old man, they could roll by. The handsome lieutenant would frown at their papers and shake his head and pull at his cigarette and accept a bribe. The bored teenager, he might start shooting. 

Jacob’s father motioned to the cart driver, who nodded and stopped. The driver jumped down first and lifted his hand to help Jacob’s father and mother step off the cart, then he lifted Jacob by his armpits and set him down, placing his raw-rubbed hands briefly, gently on the boy’s cheeks. His thick index finger tapped the scar along Jacob’s jaw line. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed in Ukrainian. “It’s okay,” Jacob responded, in Yiddish. The man shrugged, smiled, mounted the cart and was gone. 

They walked a quarter mile down through the forest to the north bank of the Prut River. They stood for a moment, listening: thin pine trunks creaked in the wind, branches shuffled and rustled, but no human sounds intruded. They turned and walked down the river, until the night began to fall. In the darkness, Jacob’s father led them back up out of the river valley until they could see the lights of Chernovitsi ahead and to their right. They had overshot it a bit, but they were across: out of Ukraine and into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city lights felt sharp against Jacob’s eyes, like thorns. He felt his scar, running his pinky along the raised skin down his jawline. “Almost there,” his father said. And they walked on into the city.

Dad sat outside the light, arms crossed at the kitchen table, occasionally unfolding himself to rub his jawline, mirroring grandpa’s old tic, or to turn the page of his newspaper, though I do not know how he could read anything in the dark. 

Mom had lit the candles and sung the prayers, tore off the pieces of challah and let us have the few drops of wine. We stopped doing this for a while after grandpa died, but Deb and I kept asking and finally dad said okay and stopped on the way home to buy the challah and dug in the pantry, swearing, to find the box of candles. But when darkness fell and three stars bloomed above the skyline, he shook his head, “you can do it,” he said, and opened his newspaper.

I thought I had remembered what it was like: the mass of gold light against the dark, the songs filled with dust and amber, the special heat of the wine. But this time I saw not the light but the dark pushing against it, the shadows of the kitchen chairs over mom’s shoulder. With every pause, I heard the creaking of the streetlights in the late winter wind. The wilderness whipped around us, and our little candles, our meek voices could not keep it from cutting into our backs.

The coast up here, out east, was sheared off by a fleeing glacier not so long ago in geological time. It is sharp and crisp and new, not yet worn by the generational crash of the sea.

 I’m walking the kids around the tide pools and dad is standing up on the dry rock, watching us and rubbing his chin, running a finger along his jawline. I’m watching him do that when Jake slips and lands elbow-first on the rocks. He doesn’t cry, but Evie does, still not quite able to separate her older brother’s pain from her own. 

“You okay?” I say, surveying his face, which is red with sun and salt and embarrassment. 

“Yeah,” Jake says, tightly, holding his elbow and trying to pretend he is not holding his elbow. He seems fine. He will be fine. His mother may or may not be angry with me, depending on whether there is any broken skin.

I sit down on the kelp-slicked rocks next to him, and Evie sits on my lap. The ocean stretches out east for what could be forever, if I didn’t know better. There is a sea anemone in the tide pool nearest to us, sucking what it can from its temporarily circumscribed universe, waiting for the return of the ocean and its abundance.  

I say to Evie, who is still crying, that it is okay, but she is unconvinced, staring at Jacob’s face, which is, through a screen of inexpert stoicism, still broadcasting distress. So, I distract them with the story of the lion’s mane jellyfish, a massive creature of the northern waters that can grow up to six feet wide, with tentacles trailing dozens of feet behind. Their sting is deadly, even, sometimes, to creatures as big as humans. Evie has stopped crying, Jake’s hand is looser around his elbow, and the everyday pain of a slip and fall is fading in the glare of lurking sea monsters. 

But, and this is the part I find most interesting, but where I know I will lose them, the lion’s mane can only survive in the relative warmth and calm of the summer. As the arctic currents clog with ice, the jellyfish release their spawn and die. The larvae drift to the sea floor, anchor themselves, and expand, just barely, to little half inch stubs, huddled against the winter sea. They never get bigger. These children of the great crimson lion’s mane are immobile and unremarkable. The winter generation lives merely to survive and, as summer approaches they release buds that float up, up, and in just a few short weeks spin themselves into those fearsome floating poisoned-tipped behemoths while the winter spawn wither, having seen nothing but the same dark sphere of ocean for their whole existence.

Jake has lost interest, as I knew he would, and is up, walking back to dad, and Evie is staring at some terns diving into the shallows just offshore. “Okay, let’s go back and see grandpa,” I say to her, standing up, slipping on the seaweed and plunging my knee into the tidepool. Evie starts to cry again, and we decide to crawl back to dry land on all fours.

Dad is smiling at me, so broad I can see his teeth. “Evie is scared, dad!” I yell from all fours. “I’m not scared!” Evie yells at me, and now my father is openly laughing, the big comic book “ha ha ha’s” that are too evenly spaced to be completely spontaneous but too slathered in mirth to be completely forced. “Ha ha,” I deadpan back, pulling myself up onto the dry rocks where dad is standing. I bend back down to lift Evie up as well.

Evie runs away as soon as I put her down and stands, back to us, a few feet behind dad, sulking.

“So, this is around where the pilgrims landed?” Dad says to me, and it takes me a few seconds to realize he’s serious. He has started doing this now, affecting basic ignorance of common American folklore, though he was born here, grew up here, went through the same public schools as all the kids who learned this stuff like a lost book of the Bible. He does the same thing, though, when Jake sees someone with a yarmulke, or tzitzit, or spies a mezuzah on a doorframe and asks him what it means. He shrugs. Changes the subject, refuses to tie himself to any history broader than his own lifespan.

I stare at him for a bit before I reply, “Yeah dad, somewhere around here.”

“This is not what it’s supposed to say.” Jacob pushed the ketubah, the marriage contract, back across the table. “It’s pretty, but this is not what it’s supposed to say.”

His son pulled toward his chest, rubbing his jawline, which the boy always did when he was annoyed with his father. Jacob found himself rubbing his own jawline, feeling the old scar, somehow more prominent now that when it was fresh decades ago. He dropped his hand. “Also, it’s supposed to be in Aramaic, not Hebrew.”

“She is not going to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic, dad, and I don’t want her to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic.”

“Well good,” Jacob said, and he was rubbing his scar again, “Because she isn’t supposed to sign it at all. Just the man. Just you are supposed to sign it.”

“It’s the 20th century dad, and we live in America. I’m not going to force her to accept something written by fanatics in a desert thousands of years ago that makes her my property.”

“That’s not what it does,” and Jacob was out of his chair now. But he had to pause; the spill of words in his throat were Yiddish, not English, and he had to translate them, one by one, “And who cares what it says!” He was shouting.

His son was out of his chair too, hands in the air, “Everyone! Why wouldn’t someone care what it says!”

Jacob sat back down, tired. “It’s just who we are,” he said. “It’s just to say, ‘we are still here.’ That’s all it really means.”

“If that’s all it means,” his son said, “It’s not worth having at all.”

Jacob ran his pinky along his scar, let it drop to his neck, where he felt his pulse, still there.

****

Now that dad was retired, we got him to come out to the coast for a long vacation, to stay with us at the cottage we rent each summer. Deb came out too. So now we are all in one place, for the first time since mom’s funeral.

Back at the cottage, dad has spread piles of envelopes and papers and brochures bristling with post it notes over the white kitchen table and I’m leaning over them while Deb stands behind me, trying not to fall asleep while he explains what each document means, who we have to call, what we have to do, to make sure we get the money that’s coming to us when he dies.  I don’t know how much dad has. He’s stashed it all in a honeycomb of accounts for tax purposes, ostensibly, but really as a hobby, now that mom is gone.

 “Just write it down,” I told him once, a few years ago, but I learned not to say that again. This is how he bonds with us, planning the financial implications of his death. I know now not to try to take that away.

I can’t end the conversation, so I interrupt, change the subtopic, though I stick with the overarching theme of death. “You’ve never said what you want done with—you know—what kind of ceremony you want.”

He looks at me the way I looked at him when he asked about the pilgrims’ landing site. “Just set me on fire and be done with it,” he says, and turns back to a chain of post-its chronicling the evolving constituents of some retirement fund or another.

“Is that allowed?” I ask, but dad just rolls his eyes. “I’m not sure there is anything in this one anymore,” he says, tapping the last post-it.

Mom wasn’t cremated. A rabbi spoke at her service, but dad didn’t cover any of the mirrors, didn’t sit shiva, only wore a yarmulke when someone handed him one. Dad did tear his coat, standing there at the graveside; he pulled a button loose and rent a seam, but he said it was an accident, that he’d just forgotten to unbutton the coat when he tried to open it to get some breeze on that unseasonably warm November day.

Dad pushes the post-its aside and begins searching through the pile for the next trove of scrawled account numbers, passwords, phone numbers.

“What’s that?” Deb asks, pointing to a large envelope, dark matte blue with glossy white trim.

“What’s what?” Dad replies, not looking up. But dad knows what she is pointing at, and Deb knows what it is, and I know what it is. “That,” says Deb, jabbing her fingers at the envelope. 

“I’m not sure why it’s even here,” he says, trying to slide it back under the other papers, but Deb takes it, opens the envelope and pulls out the thick parchment. Mom and dad used to keep this in the closet in a wooden box with diplomas and old letters, our birth certificates and a gold letter open shaped like a rapier with a ruby-colored globe on the hilt that they bought on their honeymoon. I would sneak in once a month or so and open the wooden box, pull the paper from its blue envelope and look at the Hebrew script, which whispered woody sounds without meanings. I would trace the vines and leaves and clusters of grapes illuminating the borders, and I would look at mom’s signature, and dad’s signature, marveling, the way children do, that these were written by my parents, but versions so much younger, versions before me. Only after I was off to college did I find out Deb used to do the same thing.

Dad is standing up, trying to pull this paper out of Deb’s hands, but she is up on a chair holding it out of his reach. “You’re going to rip! Dad, you’re going to rip it!” He has his hand curled around the back of her knee and for a vertiginous second I think he is going to pull her down on top of him and kill them both, but he lets go. “Who cares if I rip it!” and that tea-soaked accent of grandpa’s is in there, laced in the rage somehow.

Deb climbs down from the chair. “I care if you rip it,” she says, but she hands it back to him, and he sits back down, tucks it into its envelope in silence. 

“I fought with grandpa over this,” he says, holding the envelope up, staring at it like he is reviewing one of his investment documents. The accent is still there, hiding among the words. “He wanted it more traditional. The customary words, in Aramaic, no space for your mother to sign.”

“And you won?” Deb asks.

“Yes, I won,” dad says, lifting the envelope and letting it drop back down onto the table. “Or mom wouldn’t have agreed to marry me, and you wouldn’t exist.” I smile, expecting him to smile, but he does not. He looks at us now, “So much wouldn’t exist, if we did things the way dad—the way grandpa wanted.” He puts the ketubah under the pile of papers, rearranged the stacks of paper, and says, his voice again Midwest clean, clothesline fresh. “Now let’s keeping going through what I’ve saved for you.”

Jacob stood on the deck every day and watched, rubbing his bayonet scar, even when, as was the case most days, there was nothing to see. Once the shadowed coasts of Northern Europe rolled below the horizon, it was simple gray sea until America rose, weeks later, blue and gold and green. Seeing it there, still distant, he remembered only a feeling like walking from an overcrowded house into the still and frosted air of autumn, a lightness pulling at his skin. Gone from one continent, not yet in another.

About the Author:

John Rudoy is a scientist and writer interested in migration, tradition, and assimilation and what these broad concepts really mean for the individuals who go through them. His writing has appeared in publications as varied as Science Magazine and the Maine Underground Writer’s Anthology.  He lives with his family in Portland, Maine.

Categories
fiction

The Shapiros by Michael Wesner

The Shapiros | Michael Wesner

I was halfway through a Maury rerun when the kids started yelling about dolphins. It was almost noon on the Fourth of July, and I was drinking coffee from my Garfield mug in front of the new sixty-inch Smart TV that I’d bought with ex-husband, Carlo’s, child support. The piece of shit. Even though our children were well into their twenties, some legal mistake with the paperwork kept the son of a bitch sending me money each year. He called my cell every once in a while to ask me to do something about it, but I stopped answering after I bought the TV. My ass hadn’t felt this comfortable in years, and I had just settled into the loveseat in a position that didn’t hurt my hemorrhoids when I heard the kids hollering out back. 

“Mom, come quick!” Jessica yelled. 

“Hold on a minute!” My eyes were glued to Maury. “I gotta find out who gave this baby cocaine!” 

“It’s dolphins!” Craig said. “Right near the house!” 

“Ho-lee shit!” I launched myself up from the loveseat, spilling coffee onto the shag rug and burning my thigh, but I didn’t care. It was the best holiday of the year. For the first time in too long, my kids were back home. 

I burst through the screen door and scurried through the backyard to meet them on the seawall. The lawn was mostly sand and dirt these days, with small patches of grass and weeds struggling to grow like the tufts of beard that checkered Craig’s face. I had to take my time stepping over a few planks of wood, leftovers that had been rotting out back ever since I’d removed Carlo’s dock. He’d bought it way back when we were still married, and it quickly became a splintery eyesore on the water, almost as faulty as our marriage. The view of the bay was the only thing that made this shithole worth it now that the new housing development across the water blocked my sunset. I joined my kids on the cracked concrete seawall and peered out into the calm blue waves. “Are you sure you saw dolphins?” 

“Sure as I saw my eyelids this morning,” Craig said. 

“What the hell did you just say to me?” 

“It’s a saying.” 

“It’s a shit saying,” I said. 

“People say it.” 

“Look!” Jessica pointed at the water. Sure enough, shiny grey blobs appeared no farther than a stone’s throw from the seawall, swimming closer and closer. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. “Look at those sons of bitches go!” 

“They’re coming right towards us!” Jessica said. 

Water sprayed from their blowholes, making a pfft sound like a person pretending to be an elephant. Craig laughed to himself. “Sounds like you, Mom, when Dad calls your cell.” “Do not mention your father right now, Craig Shapiro. This moment is magical.” And it was. Despite the fact that my kids were grown and living on their own, they came back on the Fourth to spend time with their old, lonely mother. I might not have had all the money in the world, but I knew that this was truly important. 

The dolphins went under again and we waited a minute. I pulled out my Winstons and lit my second to last cigarette. Craig asked to bum the other but I rejected him. I told him too much smoke and the dolphins wouldn’t come up again. Maury still blared on the television inside —something about a pharmaceutical scientist and psychosis in children. The studio audience ooed and awed while we stared at the rolling waves. 

“There they are again!” Jessica yelled. 

The little rubbery blobs floated even closer this time. There must’ve been a hell of a school of fish in front of the yard. That, or Craig poured bacon grease over the seawall again. “The dolphins are almost close enough to touch,” he said, and with that came an idea. “Craig, go get the ladder out the garage,” I said. 

“What for?” he asked. 

I smoked my cigarette and watched the dolphins. “Remember that time you guys wanted to go to Discovery Cove?” 

Jess looked over at Craig with that fussy look she always gets, but Craig was staring back at me. “When we were, like, twelve?” he said. 

I nodded and sucked my Winston. Carlo and I had been at each other’s throats ever since we’d said I do in that Chinese buffet they’d converted into a church. Our fighting peaked when the kids were in middle school, and I finally asked for a divorce while he sipped Budweiser on his dock. The commotion took a toll on the kids. I wanted to cheer them up with Discovery Cove tickets but couldn’t foot the bill after paying the lawyer. Now that they were grown and home, this could be my time to finally shine as a mother. 

“Mom, what are you thinking?” Jessica asked. 

I blew a cloud of smoke and the wind caught it. The dolphins pffted again. “You kids are gonna swim with the dolphins like you always wanted,” I said. 

Craig cheered, then leapt over a plank and ran around the house like a good boy. Jessica pouted at me. Her bright orange hair glimmered in the sunlight, flowing with the wind just like my cig smoke. I’m still not sure where her red headedness came from, but it sure as hell wasn’t me. Her Daddy was bald when I met him, and I don’t believe I slept with any other man around that time, though I won’t put my hand on the good book and swear about anything from that marriage. Most of those memories have escaped me. Anyway, Jessica looked beautiful next to the water. 

“You want us to swim with these dolphins?” she said. 

“Yeah, I do.” 

“Right now?” 

“Well, you couldn’t when we tried ten years ago, could you? Shit, you might as well now.” 

“Mom, I don’t think this is a very good idea.” 

“Quiet now,” I sucked the cigarette in. “Here comes your brother.” 

Craig came bounding around the house like a wild boar, swinging the extension ladder back and forth. He very nearly tripped over a mound of dirt that would’ve sent him straight over the seawall. But no, he’d gotten more coordinated since that incident at the Vincetti’s wedding years ago. Oh, sweet Craig. We had to scrub champagne out of the rent-a-tux for two weeks straight before the place would take it back. 

He handed me the ladder and Jess gave me that fussy look again, the kind she gave me as a baby before she’d shit herself. I stuck the cigarette back in my mouth and dropped the foot of the ladder into the water. It was just so good to have the kids home. 

The ladder touched the bottom without having to extend it. The dolphins circled the bay about a dozen feet from the yard. Craig went in first, and I figured that if that lanky mess of limbs had no problem then I could just dive in too. I descended the ladder so quickly I damn near choked on my Winston. Jessica warned me to be careful, that I didn’t know what was at the bottom, but I told her I did too, that her father’s Ford Fiesta had been down there ever since I drove it through the yard and over the seawall after the divorce. I was joking, of course — I had pushed it off the dock at John’s Pass in ‘99 — but the kids didn’t find that funny. They had their father’s sense of humor. I laughed all the way down the ladder and into the water, then swam five feet out into the bay where sweet Craig was now trying to pet the dolphins. I shouted back at Jessica that there was nothing out there that could get me, that this wasn’t my first rodeo, and floated out into the bay, laughing until I choked on my own cigarette and something sharper than a rusted Ford sliced open the bottom of my foot. 

“God help me!” I yelled. “I’m dying!” 

It felt like a paper cut, if paper was thicker than a 2×4. The saltwater burned my wound something fierce. I screamed and kicked, but it felt like the water was going to tear my skin and muscle straight from the bone like wrapping paper from a Christmas present. I treaded water with one leg until my hemorrhoids started burning and I got a Charlie horse in my non-cut foot. My body started sinking. I spit out the cigarette and saw dumb Craig floating away without me, then turned to look up at my beautiful daughter standing on the seawall. How pretty she looked with her red hair flowing in the wind… she should be my final image, not that curly haired fool chasing after dolphins. 

“My time has come!” I shouted. 

“What the hell did you do?” Jessica said. 

“The Lord has come to take me!” 

“I told you this would happen.” 

“Don’t give any of my shit to your father!” I flapped my frail bat wings in the water as hard as I could, but I was still going down. Jess crossed her arms and made that shitting face again. “At least make it look like you tried to help me!” I said. 

The cut throbbed. I tried to lift my legs up to float on my back, but my toes barely touched the surface. My front half went under for a moment, and I couldn’t see nothing save for my life flashing before me like in one of those Hallmark movies. There was Leroy, my dead betta fish, flowing down the toilet after he jumped out the bowl in third grade. I saw Carlo and that ugly blonde goatee he wore when he asked me out at the Veteran’s Day dance at Gutter Guards Bowling. Then pregnancy number one, pregnancy number two, and finally the divorce lawyer’s beige suit, blazer collars popped above his fancy gold chain, a jungle of hair on his knuckles. I saw a cloud of pelicans flying up and away from the water as a red Ford Fiesta sank deeper and deeper into Boca Ciega Bay, until Carlo’s Buccaneers license plate was completely submerged by murky blues and greens and fish in between. Now I sank deeper and deeper like the Fiesta before me, finally on my way to where the pipes lead, to see my beloved Leroy again. 

But then I thought: Fuck that fish, I had shit to do on this Earth. My Independence Day party was tonight. The kids were gonna meet the guys from the bar, and I was gonna use Carlo’s child support to buy a turkey. An Independence turkey. I had to live to taste my Independence turkey! 

“Jesus H. God, Jessica,” I shouted. “Help your poor dying mother for God’s sake!”

“Would you just stand up?” she said. 

Delusional girl! I was going in circles now, struggling to keep my head above water. Neighbors across the bay were coming out from their waterfront mansions to stare. I wasn’t even sure where Craig had gone. He could’ve been abducted by the dolphins for all I knew. “Mom, just put your feet down and stand!” Jess said. 

“Don’t test me, Jessica.” I swallowed rust-flavored water. “So help me God, if you don’t get in here right now to help the woman who gave you life — ” 

“It’s, like, five feet deep!” she said. 

I put my non-aching foot down slowly, where it met soft clay. It took my weight, and I stood still for a moment with my head above the waves to catch my breath. I wiped water from my mouth and blew my nose into the bay. My girl was brilliant. 

“Jessica, throw me a damn cigarette,” I said. 

“No,” she said. 

“Whatever cut my foot is still out here. I need my smokes to defend myself.” “I think I touched a dolphin!” Craig shouted in the distance. 

“Shut up, boy!” I said. “Where were you when your mother was out here dying!” The Boormans were watching. Across from our little one-story home was their three-story sunset-blocking behemoth — a monument to everything wrong with waterfront real estate. The couple stood out on their dock next to their sailboat, a large thing labelled Lemon Squeezy. They wore matching short shorts and sipped on lemonades. 

“Can I help you?” I shouted. “Having fun over there?” 

The wife shook her head and the husband wrapped his arm around her. He was wearing a button-down sweater. It was 90 degrees. 

We hadn’t gotten along since someone called the sheriff’s office with a false tip about terrorist activity happening in their mansion. I was at the Vincetti’s wedding that night but they still blamed me. You push a Ford Fiesta into the ocean one time and suddenly you’re a bomb threat faker. 

“Show’s over, there’s no more!” I said. 

They both looked away from me, heads turned in opposite directions like the eyes of a nervous chameleon. I started up the ladder on one leg and plopped onto the seawall with my bleeding foot up in the air. Jessica went into the house to grab the first aid kit. The seawall looked like one of those teen slasher movies I took Craig to see when he was little. Where was Craig? I turned and saw my lanky son floating down the deep end of the bay as if nothing had happened. Where had he learned to swim so good? 

The Boormans resumed watching from their dock as Jessica uncapped a bottle of disinfectant. I lit my last Winston, which helped a little. Then I slipped the Boormans the bird, which helped a lot. Jess tore a strip of gauze and dabbed a rag with alcohol. I sucked my cigarette and listened to the end of the Maury episode from inside: “You left our two-year-old son in a 7/11 bathroom overnight?” The Boormans averted their eyes as Jess applied the cold, stinging gel to my foot. I turned my face to God and screamed like a banshee. Blood splattered onto the seawall. The television crowd cheered. 

*** 

By the time the afternoon rolled around, my foot still looked like something out of a Vietnam movie. Jessica insisted that I cancel on the Independence turkey and settle for drinks with her and Craig instead. I was bummed, but I was willing to compromise as long as the kids stayed. The fellas I invited from the bar understood. Most of them were veterans with war injuries themselves, so they empathized when I called and told the story. I flat out refused to see the doctor Jess recommended. There wasn’t the money for it after I bought the TV, and I figured that after two full decades of mending Craig’s skateboarding injuries, the least I could do was heal a gashed foot. Besides, I still had some painkillers left over from the car accident in ‘04. They weren’t prescribed to me then and they weren’t prescribed to me now, but why the hell not? A girl’s gotta party on the Fourth of July. 

Crevon came over while the kids were out getting groceries. He was my pot dealer, occasionally my mechanic, and sold fireworks during the summer months. I asked him to come drop off some M-80s but he stayed to help me with a letter I was writing to the Social Security Administration. I had applied for disability on account of my hemorrhoids, but Uncle Sam had had the nerve to reject me without explanation. Crevon had worked for the IRS in the ‘90s, and he said it made him an expert on the SSA by association. 

“If you’ve worked for one government office, you’ve worked for all of ‘em,” he said. “Shit, I’m just about as good as an FBI agent.” 

I offered him a Miller if he could convince them that rectal inflammation had stopped me from gainful employment. He set the M-80s down on a dirt mound in the backyard and got to writing. A couple hours passed before my kids showed up for the festivities. Jessica came first with a bottle of wine and a quiche. Craig came in a little later with a six-pack of Shiner and, coincidentally, a quiche. I asked ‘em what the hell they thought they were doing bringing French food to a party celebrating America. 

“Quiche is French?” Craig said. “I bought it at Walmart.” 

Crevon cracked open a beer and told us that quiches weren’t French, they were an English pastry with a French name. I asked him where the hell he learned that, and he said he read about it in some book. Crevon was like that sometimes, always reading and then bragging about reading. 

“English, French, what’s the difference?” I said. “I just want something American for a day celebrating America. Like hot wings. Or pizza.” 

“Pizza isn’t American either,” Jess said. “It’s Italian.” 

“Actually, the delivery pizza we eat here is American,” Crevon said. 

“Well, not originally.” 

“Yes, originally.” Apparently, he’d read in some book that delivery pizza was different from the way it was cooked in Italy. “There’s Domino’s in Rome that serve American pizza, which is different from the pizza that a real Italian joint would serve.” 

“Have you ever been to a Domino’s in Rome?” Jessica asked. 

“No, I read about it.” 

“Is that all you do all day? Get high and read books, and then talk about the books you’ve read?” 

“No,” Crevon said. “I also sell fireworks during the summer months.” 

Jessica and Crevon hadn’t gotten along since he’d started selling me pot after the divorce. He was the one who got me those painkillers. Now that he was writing me a letter to the SSA, I invited him to stay for the family festivities even if we weren’t cooking turkey. He accepted and spent most of the evening arguing about books and pot with Jess. 

I lit a few glass candles and lined them up on the seawall after sunset, a nice touch to distract from the bloodstains. We filled a cooler with Shiner and set it down on the mound of dirt in the middle of the yard, right next to the M-80s. Then I hauled some chairs out from the garage and unfolded them on the edge of the seawall. It was a struggle and a half doing all that with my busted foot, but I did what I could. The yard might’ve been full of old planks and dying grass, but shit did it all look pretty once the candles were lit. The fireworks were beginning on the other end of town, and we could see ‘em great over the water even if the Boorman’s skyscraper was in view. I sank into one of the yard chairs, determined not to let them get to me. I opened a beer, propped up my crippled foot on the seawall, and leaned back. “Well, ain’t this the life?” I said. 

Craig and Crevon agreed, but Jess was miserable. She couldn’t find an opener for her wine in the kitchen and had to settle for a bottle of Shiner. Even in the dark, I could tell she was making that shitty face. I wasn’t about to let her ruin my night after she cancelled my Independence turkey, so I did what any smart mother would do and blew smoke up her ass to the party’s guest. 

“Y’know, Crevon,” I said. “Jess just started a fancy job down in Sarasota.” “Well, no shit,” he said. 

“Yes shit. She’s playing guitar for the profoundly handicapped.” 

“It’s called musical therapy, Mom,” she said. “And they’re not profoundly anything. They’re autistic.” 

“Potato, potato.” 

“It’s poe-tah—” she paused. “Never mind.” 

“I used to play a little acoustic back in my day,” Crevon said. 

“Is that so?” I asked. 

“I had chops like you ain’t never seen. I could do Allman Brothers, Creedence, Zeppelin. Do the profoundly handicapped like Zeppelin?” 

There was a big pause while Crevon sipped his beer. I figured Jessica must’ve been thinking ‘bout climbing down the rusted ladder and floating away into the bay. I tried my best to grow my kids up with thick skins, but Jessica could be a little sensitive. Still, I was proud of her for the job. (And for drinking Shiner, even if she gagged on every sip.) I knew that it was tough on her and her brother to grow up in this wreck, with divorced parents who sank cars and fought. After they graduated high school and left the nest, I thought they might never fly back. But here we were: candles reflecting on the water, stars twinkling above, celebrating the greatest holiday God ever invented. As a family. Jessica forced down some beer and cleared her throat. “My students do like Led Zeppelin.” 

“Good,” Crevon said. “What’re you doing these days, Craig boy?” 

“Craig’s still at the Wendy’s in Seminole,” I said. 

“I can speak for myself,” Craig said. “I’m still at the Wendy’s in Seminole.” It was good to see Craig speak up for himself. That was the second time tonight. Earlier, Crevon lit a joint and passed it back and forth with me a little bit, and Craig had asked for a hit. I said no, of course, since I had to keep my motherly attitude, but it was good to see Craig putting his foot down and asking. After some time, he even steered the conversation in his own direction, and began to tell the story about the dolphins. I could’ve easily jumped in and made it about me, but something about watching Craig control an audience stopped me. He stood up and showed Crevon the ladder, then walked down the seawall to point out where the dolphins were. Right after he told the part about me slicing my foot, Craig tripped on a crack in the seawall. He stumbled a minute before regaining his balance, but punted one of the candles across the yard on accident. It zoomed past Crevon’s head, nearly taking a chunk of his ear with it, then bounced off the lid of the cooler and landed in the dirt. Craig apologized and we all had a good laugh about it. I even caught Jessica giggling into her beer before the candle rolled over and lit the M-80s. 

“Good God!” I shouted. Six quarter sticks of dynamite exploded all at once. The yard lit up with white light and dark smoke. The noise scared me out of my chair and into a fire anthill. Craig screamed and leapt over the seawall, straight into the bay. Crevon and Jessica both ducked into their chairs and shouted at me to do something, but I couldn’t on account of the fire ants. One bit me right on the ass cheek, and I stood up so fast that for a second I thought my foot gash re-opened. 

The bangs and pops died down as quick as they had started, but the smoke was getting worse. Crevon rolled out of his chair and onto the lawn, then went prone like a sniper in the trenches of my yard. I stepped over him and limped to the cooler to fan the dark smoke away with my arms. Luckily, the M-80s had been far enough away that nobody was hurt, but my poor yard was decimated. A few planks of wood had caught fire and some sand around the cooler had just about turned to glass. It looked like napalm had rained down on the yard. Felt like it too. 

Jessica coughed up a storm as the smoke loomed over the bay. She knocked her chair over, then sprinted across the yard and into the house, shouting about a fire extinguisher in between hacking sounds. I opened my mouth to remind her I didn’t have one, but then figured I’d let her catch her breath while she found out herself. I grabbed another Shiner from the cooler — thank God the M-80s hadn’t claimed the beer — and then hobbled my way back to my chair. A very crossfaded Crevon picked himself up off the dirt and stepped onto the seawall, then unzipped the fly of his cargo shorts. He put his right hand on his heart and began singing the national anthem as he unleashed a steady stream into the bay. 

I cracked my beer open with my tooth. About fifteen feet out from the ladder, Craig was floating log-like where the dolphins had been swimming this afternoon. 

“You good, son?” I yelled. Craig gave me a thumbs up as he floated south. “You comin’ back soon?” He shook his head no and continued drifting, either avoiding the smoke or still looking for dolphins. He was a big boy now. I trusted him. 

“And the home for the brave,” Crevon sang. He pumped his fist in the air in celebration, then zipped his fly and used a burning plank of wood to light a second joint. Jessica sprinted through the smoke with a miniature extinguisher and sprayed the lawn. Apparently, she kept one in her car. Crevon and I got shitty off his joint while she finished extinguishing the yard. I must’ve gotten higher than God because suddenly an hour had passed and the doorbell was ringing. When I answered it, I was greeted by Craig at the front step, sopping wet with the Pinellas County sheriff behind him. This was the same guy that had handled my sinking of Carlo’s Ford, and the incident when the Boormans were investigated for domestic terrorism. His name was Ted. We went way back. 

“Two things, Sherry,” he said at the door. “One, I want to be the first to tell you that your boy’s got a lean body, good enough for the force. Strong swimmer, he is. Really ought to think about applying.” 

Craig waddled into the living room, dripping water on the shag rug. 

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s high praise coming from you.” 

“Second, I’m here to give you a citation for possession and use of illegal fireworks.” “You have no proof.” 

Ted pulled out his cell phone and played a video. It showed the whole incident: the candle flying, Craig jumping, Jessica extinguishing, Crevon singing. The video had been filmed from the other side of the bay. Those damned Boormans… 

Ted handed me a slip of paper with a fine for a grand on it. Even if I got the disability checks for my hemorrhoids, I’d have a hard time paying this one. 

“You wanna stop in for a beer?” I said. “Maybe work this thing out the old-fashioned way?” 

“I’m on duty,” he said. 

“Come on, Ted. It’s the Fourth. This is for your country.” 

“Tonight, I’m handing out citations for my country.” 

“I didn’t want to have to do this.” I held the slip of paper out in front of him and tore it to pieces. I wasn’t gonna let a fine ruin my favorite day of the year — the first day in a long time I could sit back and celebrate freedom with my kids. Freedom from terror and freedom from Carlo. Freedom to set off fireworks in peace. The tiny shreds of citation fell like dead leaves onto my doormat. Ted looked down at the ground and sighed. 

“We’ll mail you another one on Monday,” he said. With that, he closed my own front door on me from outside. In the backyard, Crevon was asleep in the lawn chair and Jessica had gathered her things to leave. I almost tripped on another candle as I stepped onto the seawall. I shook my fist into the night and screamed across the bay. 

“Damn you, Boormans!” I said. “How dare you!” 

It was dark as hell out, and the couple were just faint black outlines but I could see ‘em. They got up from their chairs and moved inside, but that wouldn’t stop me. Crevon’s snoring was louder than the M-80s, but I still heard Craig’s wet shoes squishing with each step as he came outside to join us. Jess hugged him goodbye, and soon enough I heard her car door slam out front. I screamed at the Boormans some more for driving away my daughter, though I doubted very much that the black outlines inside the McMansion could hear me. Who cared? I was high as hell, a teensy bit drunk, with a throbbing foot and horrible hemorrhoids. I screamed at their house about the citation, about the fake bomb threat, and about the dolphins. I threatened them to call the Sheriff’s Office again and complain about my noise. But mostly I just screamed so that they’d know that, even if they had ruined my night, they would never ruin my family. I’d had fun with my kids regardless of them, and I would continue to have fun with my kids until either Carlo’s child support dried up or the Good Lord sent me six feet under. 

Why? Because I had faith that Jess would come back. I had faith that Craig, for every time he floated off, would swim back to me. And I had faith that despite all obstacles, I would make us the family that we couldn’t have been before. We would swim with every dolphin, light every firework, and eat every quiche that the divorce wouldn’t let us. Nothing could shake my faith in that. Not Ted, not Carlo, and certainly not those damned Boormans. So, I screamed plenty loud so that each and every one of them could hear. God himself and the Founding Fathers heard my promise that Independence Day. 

Then some fireworks popped off near Treasure Island and Crevon woke. We smoked another joint and I stopped screaming. I even let Craig have one whole hit.

About the Author:

Michael Wesner holds a BA from Eckerd College, where he studied Creative Writing with a particular emphasis on the use of humor in literature. His previous work has been featured in The Eckerd Review and Gower Street Press. Originally from the outskirts of Philadelphia, he currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, FL.

Categories
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

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.