Vincent Pagé

Landscape

The farm girl's ripped her dress off again.

It soaks up puddle silt where she's playing.

Yellow boots ring loose 'round her shins,

specks of mud spatter

her blonde, her bare body.

 

Cattle low through a summer's thunder

         and Mom's out to chase her.

 

Mice eat crumbs she leaves trailing.

She lops dead ones through the fence.

Dogs check for cougars on fiddleheads,

minnows like shadow in the face of her reflection.

Gravel calluses her heels, so she piles rocks.

 

         From the big window a field shifts in the wind

               green to green to light

like the pictures she's seen of the ocean.

 

A calf's birth, berry buckets, the grasses razed.

 

A raven lays eggs

in a nest of lost ribbons.

 

 October 

The snow-bee's arrested death-whirr:

one fettered wing fixed in a web

while it reels toward life

in the shed house.

 

The old spider held to its smoke,

straw-light and brittle anyway—

stunting flight needlessly

as the air will too soon.

 

 

Sleeping on the Verge of a River

Vincent Pagé

 

                            for Al Purdy

 

A sound ran down the roof

last night—

 

maybe a pinecone

from a windless tree

or a lost cat,

a summertime kid throwing a ball

up and out of sight, surprised each time

by the arm of its return.

 

Outside in her white slip, flashlight,

me in underwear with a knife in my hand.

She went out first, so what does that say?

 

We saw nothing,

 

and in sleep I dreamt

I let you end your life on a riverbank

because you swam us to the point.

You smiled

and followed your suicide to the seaside.

 

When I woke I knew

it had been the poem of your sick mother

rolling down my roof in the dark.

 

Vincent Pagé’s work has appeared in Flash, The Smokelong Quarterly, EVENT, and FREEFALL. He lives and writes in Canada.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Shannon Quinn

Thaw

Nodding off on the slow I.V. drip

of winter’s third trimester,

we the morphined, the moon-shined,

the induced amnesiacs and the bicycle thieves,

have been schooled that to see sadness in each other

is embarrassing

to name it is rude—

a wild act of shaming

one who cannot hide their misery.

My covey and I have

legs like twisted roots,

skin pulled taut,

smiles cracked tight and hard.

Collectively dreaming of an abiding coldness,

our tapped out veins

weather the indignity of warm blood

insisting on the beginning of a season—

spring thaw.

 

 First Vertigo

One tower is a suburban theatre

of misinformation.

The second is built from a list

of inner city mortifications

(that comes with being poor and a girl).

Between them on a suspension bridge

of unevenly distributed memories

is this girl’s heart

punching through sparse expectations,

acquiring a fretwork of scars

as epitaph or footnote

in this first vertigo.

The toll taker dispenses

long distance council.

Ticker tape fortunes

to sort, rank, trade,

as she finds her footing

above loud and ambitious waters.

 

Rehab 

Redwoods thunder alongside the car,

but my matches are damp

and I no longer collapse time,

only toggle over good ideas

(losing precious moments in the pause).

All I wanted was one year of anarchy

but I came out with a banged up copper heart

as a keepsake and sediment in my voice—

not the canyons and fields of Ella—­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

I’ve got ocean garbage in my throat,

and not even church basement coffee drinkers

want anything to do with the pain I’m tending

as if I had a gospel hoarding on suffering

instead of this aching addict instinct to burn

brighter than a fire edged hymn.

 

Shannon Quinn lives in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review of CanadaExistereRuminateHalfway Down the Stairs and is forthcoming in Thin Air and Ideomancer.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Ray Nayler

Three Suburban Sonnets 

Just beyond the builders’ colored plastic flags
in fields of sunburned wild wheat waiting
for the heat of asphalt slag and iron teeth
the town yields to untamed trench of railroad track.
Creosote and bits of porno magazines,
bottles to be shattered on the rails,
suitcases, dregs of whiskey, campfire rings:
raw matter we dig up from under hedges.
A torn page of sun-faded breasts and vulva,
discarded fork, transistor radio:
amalgamated fantasies
of hobo boxcars, cans of pork and beans,
the railroad’s dirt-streaked and invoking seam—
just beyond the subdivided same.

 

One hand raised to shield his sun-baked face,
The Ohlone hauls his crooked boat
onto a rise of Scultptamold from AMACO.
His reed boat forged of toothpicks. In the “distance”
is meticulous Mission San Jose,
labored over with a wire foam cutter
most of one frustrating Saturday.
In the foreground, the viscous E-Z Water stream,
here and there shot through with model paint.
The shore’s stale dough and plastic underbrush.
Beyond the chalky sky and thumbnail birds,
small hands hold up this diorama world.
The boy on the bus, Hob-E-Tac on his sleeve,
clutching his clumsy shoebox history.

 

The sidewalk humps, pushed upward by a tree
insisting on its form from underneath.
The pavement’s chalky seam is worn apart
by fibrous wreath of plants, up from a soil
erupting dandelion and mayweed chamomile.
In windows, spiders spin their second screens
and on Formica countertops, ants bleed
trails of chemicals, caress the tangerines.
Digging in the planter-box with cast-off spoon
the boy brings up a whitened, earth-caked face
from a shallow tomb. Toy statue head, serene,
bathed under the kitchen tap and placed
on his bedroom shelf with other rescued things.
There, twitching in the night, it starts to sing.

 

Ray Nayler has poetry published in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Juked, Eclectica, Able Muse, Phantom Limb, and others. He is a diplomat with the Department of State, currently posted to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He has lived and worked in Moscow, many of the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. You can keep up with him at raynayler.net

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Marcel Gauthier

Three 

It’s when she drops to sleep in some odd spot,

the floor, a chair, curled to her beginnings,

hitchhiker’s thumb lodged in her mouth,

index finger compulsively brushing

the tips of her lashes, blue pulse

beating like a fast drip at her temple,

shaking the translucent face; it’s when

the whining and the stamping have

knocked her cold, and we find ourselves able,

like faith-healed cripples, to end a sentence,

complete a thought, stretch into the silences

that punctuate our talk: fear

at our impatience, fatigue at her will, 

panic at her fragility and need;

it’s when the leaves of marriage go small

time-backward, glowing, tender, and petals float upward

to blossom on the twigs, that we catch ourselves

struggling, like novice gardeners, to separate

the honeysuckle from the sweet  autumn

clematis, train one vine to the left, its neighbor

to the right, so each might thrive without

laying hold of the other, and bloom the summer

in parallel waves, knowing which

is who and who is which as if

both would forget if left to themselves

to reach and tangle and thicken to a cloud.

 

 

Through the Grate 

I used to listen to my mother’s nightmares

through the grate of the heating duct at the end of my bed.

Pressing my cheek to the warm iron, I’d hear her,

like an antique radio or a long distance call,

mid-conversation: talking, pausing, talking again,

her voice becoming louder, sharper. Then yelling:

Nein! Nein! Nein! Bitte!—half-sobbing,

and my father woken up: it’s ok, it’s ok . . .

At first they whispered (I pressed hard, held

my breath) but soon, if I was lucky, she’d go on.

Often about me, snatched and carried away

while others held her back; I’d see myself flailing,

kicking, biting to the bone. In her dreams, I always lost.

Long after they’d gone quiet, I’d still be listening,

to the boom . . . boom of the contracting ducts,

the ticking, the tinny resonance, as if the place

that I’d been carried to was a room in her mind,

and she and I were waiting now for the same thing:

the clicking to life of something deep and hidden

with a wuoof of fire, the shuddering walls, the rumble

and roar, the steady, burning exhalation.

 

Marcel Gauthier received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. He is also the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study the question of authenticity in contemporary formal verse. He has published individual poems or small groups of poems in a variety of journals over the years, but most recently in Poet Lore, The Louisville Review, the Spoon River Poetry Review, and Still Home, an anthology of poems generated by Hub City Press in Spartanburg, South Carolina. A lifelong educator, he is currently the Assistant Head of School at the Waterford School outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

John Grey

THE ROWER ON THE LAKE

 

I row to live, I live to row.

I pull my fate toward me with an oar,

then thrust it far behind me.

 

I've no thoughts, just instinct,

no brain but the strength in my wrists,

no movement but where the boat is headed.

 

This is all nature had in mind for me—

a prow, a stern, a liquid surface,

a shore so distant it's meaningless.

 

I row to live, I live to row,

until my boat breaks up and gives

what's left of me to the water.

 

Yes, you will mourn. Not for the dead,

but for the sight of the lake, blue and sunlit,

and no one out there rowing.

 

John Grey is an Australian born poet living in the US and working as a financial systems analyst. He has recently been published in Jones AvenueWeber Studies, and Big Pulp, and he has work forthcoming in Pinyon Review, Prism International, and Evening Street Review.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Holly Brown

The Beekeeper 

You asked me where the buzz was coming from

and even though I knew it was the refrigerator running

that you heard, I told you that I had a beehive hidden

underneath the floorboards at our feet.

 

I knew then that you didn’t believe me

because you said it sounded like a lawnmower on the roof,

even though you couldn’t smell the gasoline

through the tiles that we counted on the ceiling.

 

I watched you drink from a cherry juice-box reservoir

like your thirst was unquenchable. Your straw buzzed

with your determination. I split the skin of a cherry

tomato with my teeth because I couldn’t break you.

 

Your mouth ran like a marathon of feet

while my cherry lips flew as if they had wings. 

We spoke truths that were the cousins of lies

as we tried to sting each other like the bees that did not fly beneath us.

 

There are no bees. The refrigerator buzzes and it comforts me—

let’s me tell you about something else that fluctuates. It kept our

quiet from being silence while you suckled from your drinking gourd

and I waited for the bees I did not keep to come to me.

 

 Night Oranges 

At night I am an orange with hands

and a peeling problem.

Purgatory is lying on the floor,

because that’s where I air the peel piles.

At night, I can admit that I have juicy veins;

I can be less afraid of being bitten.

 

In the morning I am tired or not as ripe.

I have layers of pith and skin spider-webs

wedding me to shedded peels

that I am easy to be peeled apart without.

 

No matter how many times I try

to leave behind my rind,

I get back into it.

 

 

Humanity and Black Flies

My kitchen is all about black flies

and they’re only in it for the attention.

They’re almost loud, so they can be sure

that I won’t forget about them - 

                                                      as if I could - 

they’re always touching my bare

knees and shoulder blades,

like my body heat is asking for it.

They stay on top of me just long enough

to be invasive for the sake of it

for me to snap at them and miss—

slap on only skin instead.

It’s my own fault for thinking

I can keep up with their chase.

They only know

how to fly around in circles

while I know better

than to get dizzy

when I’m in it for the kill. 
 

Holly Brown is currently an undergraduate student at St. Lawrence University. Born and raised on the coast of Massachusetts, she often finds herself writing about the ocean and buoyancy, but also insects, produce, and more recently mountains and how to climb them. She hopes to attend an MFA program in poetry in the (fast approaching) future.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Ed O' Casey

Clutching the Ceiling

Ed O'Casey

 

Your lawyer suggested I find a bar,

and spend days in the fog.

I stumbled, off-

balance, from his office, imagined a tomorrow

in which I would hand over my keys

and the scent of her room.

 

I couldn’t fathom the elevator

so I echoed my way down the stairs—

I found myself unable to turn,

to continue down. I shut my eyes

and walked through a 30 painted on the wall,

through inches of concrete, insulation, wiring—

through a steel girder and a family of rats—

out into city air.

 

I briefly remembered I’d left

my wallet in our daughter’s room,

as I plummeted through smog

and 30 stories of gravity.

I caught my reflection in the passing windows,

and wondered if it was all right to fall asleep here.

 

On the ground, near the cave’s entrance,

a dead bat, spotted white with fungus,

clutched it to my chest, curling myself

as far into myself as possible—

how I felt the first time I met her.

 

She knew only to shut her eyes,

flex her slender hands, listen

for the sound of her own voice.

 

Your Evening Commute

Ed O'Casey

 

In the midst of your global warming talk

the fog rolled in, the air dampened, a sheen

on all the fixtures in our living room.

I was doing my best to ignore you, reading the headlines

that concern us most: Paris Hilton’s venereal diseases,

 

the rapists in Forney. Words on the other side of the page

bled through the photo of that undernourished face.

The page dissolved; only Paris and the reversed text

remained, floating between my hands. I turned

from the cloud of gibberish, found the remote

in the mist, and pointed it to where

 

I remembered the TV lies. Instead of the eight o’clock

forecast, a few sparks in the distance,

a television drowning in the watery air. Then the deluge.

 

 

You had shifted from carbon dioxide to vast

islands of plastic that float unchecked

through the oceans.

 

Thunder called from near the garage.

The ceiling fan wilted, its blades overtaxed,

sagged almost to the floor. We upended the couch

for shelter so we could hang our clothes to dry,

 

but it wasn’t until naked that you seemed to realize

that glaciers had sped across continents

to fall on your grandfather’s old rocker,

on our favorite couch:

 

the one with the two depressions in it,

so close that they might be making love.

I ogled your wet breasts until, giggling,

you took me by the hand, led me into the downpour,

splashed me with water from the fireplace.

 

Red-Crowned Amazon

Ed O'Casey

 

We wake into our empty, now unfamiliar home.

Where is the stomp of the child?

The feral human, her instinct?

 

The living room smaller this morning, the furniture

sprouting wooden and plastic roots into the carpet,

collecting itself against relocation,

 

the ceiling slightly lower, I notice, the light fixtures

at eye level. Once we could maneuver through

the kitchen, frying the last of your eggs,

 

now your brush against my arm is as invasive as

the grease burns on my wrists. This was a house

when we bought it, but bricks and glass

 

continue to fold off into the neighbors’ yards,

the street:

 

         yesterday, the dank TV nook—

         this weekend, the third of the living

         room where you like to read.

 

 

For the first time in years, we’ll crumple onto the bed

together in a heap because we’ll lack the room to roll

without hitting the walls, enclosed like two

 

stacked loads of laundry. In a month we’ll wake into this

telephone booth without the space to spread our arms

or parrot each other’s speech.

 

They’ve moved me into a bigger office at work.

I have a view of the park as it dissipates, becomes

more street, loses its grasp on a girl and a dog

playing with the corpses of birds.

 

Ed O’Casey received his MA from the University of North Texas. He loves all things narcissistic, and lives with his unruly wife and daughter. His poems have appeared or are upcoming in Cold Mountain Review, Tulane Review, Oak Bend Review, Euphony, Mayo Review, Poetry Quarterly, NANO Fiction, and West Trade Review. He is currently an MFA candidate at New Mexico State University.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Daniel Ruefman

Contemplating Pithole

 

Step in the shallow

briar-filled cellars

away from the mown grids,

and touch stained stone

where matchstick timbers

once stacked a city that followed

the curve of Oil Creek,

where barkers on the derricks

sounded against the shale;

 

petroleum and mud coalesced,

streets of tar devoured hoof and wagon

wheel whole;

near the bordellos, spent

draft animals bloated on the corners,

decay to rival the primal,

post-coital excursions

of the marginal, marred, and married;

 

boom brought botched buildings

and slapdash siding only

to be burned in the bust;

in this city of paltry pits,

placards rise in the dappled shade

of the new growth, to warn that in time,

the oil always runs dry.

 

The Head I Held

 

At ten,

I held a dead man’s head

 

and felt heavy, the scaffolding

of bone in my fingers

lifeless organic tissue

manipulated by muscles

sparking the illusion.

 

I lifted the earthen maxilla and sphenoid

from the slab and saw

 

his people, twisting their textiles,

bundling him with his effects

wrapping him in linen,

readying to cast him

into the peat bog.

 

I turned him in my hand,

probed his orbits

 

scraping the recesses

for my own borrowed days,

regarding for the gray matter

still holding to its words,

 

and as I gazed through him,

I was filled with a cold need

 to put him back.

 

Chimera

 

Thirty years ago, the doctors said you were

absorbed within the fleshy folds of our placenta—

 

but now I know

 

you live in the lines

traced on my belly,

where the subtleties of your cells

are drawn through my own.

 

It is enough for me to cut you out

if only I didn’t feel you in my liver,

tweaking my bilirubin,

chanting— if I go down;

 

you whip me back to the madness,

back to Lycia;

back to Bellerophon tilting Pegasus;

back to the feeling of lead

congealing in my throat;

 

from within, your merged limbs writhe,

rolling my skin like the angry Atlantic,

the brown of your iris bleeds through the green

of my left eye, but on my right I also know your absence,

the void you failed to fill, that space I can call

           

pale—pure—normal. 

 

           

Daniel Ruefman is an emerging poet whose work has most recently appeared in the Flagler Review, Tonopah Review, Temenos, Fertile Source, SLAB, Burningword, and DIALOGIST.  He currently teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin—Stout.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Clyde Kessler

Done Fiddled

 

Steer your crooked fiddle in a circle

back to home, warp it with daddy

and mama hawking albums at church

like you seeing a chicken brood itself

from snow. Catch it sung to a cloud.

 

Tune it down the coal road for sleep.

All the worn out mines, they watch you

from stoves. All the singing at night

slaps you awake when a sadness

fits the bar lot like your shadow.

 

I sang like you. I tuned up the ground

so it lives. I pictured it with redbirds

and wild bears on calendars and trays

in a trinket store. I kept poverty

as happy as a new law kinked on God.

 

 Emmit Hawby

 

It is January 7th.

The river bank is slick froze.

The box elders are twenty snags.

A crow flock shrugs into some pines

and each crow growls there. Maybe

the old red-tailed hawk is caught

in their minds, maybe a sharpie shrills

into the dark limbs then dissolves.

 

Emmit’s muskrat traps are empty.

And he’s left his one beer on the car hood

and Denny Hale’s slugged it dry.

We laugh at the boat landing, how cold

the day begins, how slow we look

at nothing else except a swamped boat

nudged across some icy stumps

and Emmit staring at Denny staring at dirt.

 

Something Like a War Raven

 

A raven snored in a cage.

Fireplace smoke slipped through its wing feathers

and fit the old mind to a cliff by the Potomac

where raven cries still moved inside the stone

and there were spleen ferns that reached in close

and mocked its voice where it dreamed.

 

I could almost ask while the raven slept,

if there was land in its shadow when it flew last year,

or if there was a midday fire long ago on a johnboat

while its ancestors glided among the buzzards

circling past White’s Ford. The hungriest thing

was its mind floating loose from all my words.

I knew its hunger had followed the cage.

 

Clyde Kessler lives in Radford, Virginia with his wife Kendall and their son Alan. He has had poems published recently in Cortland Review, Silver Blade, Metazen, Rose Red, and Now and Then. He is a founding member of Blue Ridge Discovery Center, an environmental education organization with projects in southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

C. Wade Bentley

Beachcombers

With their little fat fingers
they sift the beach for gifts
of jeweled popweed, opalescent
mussels, a pirate’s haul
of gaudy sea glass in a pail.

Just beyond is the rime
of sallow foam pushed ashore,
a lacy arch of brine licking
harmlessly at their feet, trailing
a line of gleaming crumbs, saporous

as candy. Here is a land whose
darlings still believe something
can be got for nothing, where
every fish that comes ashore
has coins or miracles in its mouth.

 

Envy

The stone wall gives up before it gets to the stile, petering out into a moraine of rounded river rocks spreading to either side. A gate holds to a leaning post by one rusted iron finger. It seems to matter little, though, with nothing to say what was once held in or out. In a shallow depression near one grey stone, a killdeer mother frets and whistles like a wind-up tin bird before settling on her speckled clutch of four, her neck and head still bobbing, spy-hopping aspirationally from stone to stone.

 

Lines

 When there seemed no other choice we pulled off I-70 and along the frontage road until it dead-ended next to a field of winter wheat cut to stubble and straddled by transmission towers two hundred feet high striding through the land like something sci-fi searching for humans to enslave. But it was just the two of us, not even putting up a fight, standing beside the old Volvo and listening to the wind blow through the power lines, the crackle of the humid afternoon air ionizing, charging, and beneath it all the steady coronal hiss like the rasp of grasshoppers in the cheat grass along the road. The car ticked slowly as it cooled, and when dusk dropped down from the hills, at last you asked if I could feel the ground shiver through the soles of my shoes, feel the ambient electricity along my scalp, or the slightest goddamn arrhythmia in my heart—because if not, you said, leaving the thought unfinished, letting it be carried away with the high wires instead, all the long miles up and over the Rockies and into a million homes where other people who are not us stand in kitchen light and porch light waiting for what comes next, for the end of the line.

 

C. Wade Bentley lives, teaches, and writes in Salt Lake City.  For a good time, he enjoys wandering the Wasatch Mountains and playing with his four grandsons.  His poems have appeared or will soon be published in Cimarron Review, Best New Poets, Western Humanities Review, Subtropics, Rattle, Oberon, ARDOR, Clapboard House, Chicago Quarterly Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Raleigh Review, among others.  A chapbook of his poems, Askew, was recently published by Red Ochre Press.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Allison Thorpe

Attack of the Crone Woman 

 

A pocket full of names we had for her—

hag, witch, scarecrow, she-devil, old bat—

but crone ruled, rolled the mouth joyously.

She was someone’s grandmother

or just a woman renting an upstairs flat.

No one cared.

 

She threw wooden clothespins

from her second story window

if our street play got too loud,

was lethal with her cane

if we rode our bicycles too close.

 

She wore a bright plastic flower

above her right ear, grey hair marshaled

into a strict bun, and faded

black dresses with lace collars

circled a withered chicken neck.

We told her off from behind the garage,

imitated her bent back and rigid shuffle,

tamed her ugly ways in our dreams.

 

One morning when we haunted curbs,

sharply arguing whose turn it was at go-cart,

we saw her come out on her upstairs porch,

her hair wet and knee-length loose.

Gently, she combed in the sun

to dry a silver waterfall, shimmering

in the glittered light, strands binding us

to her alluring web,

our mouths silenced by the silk

of so much beauty.

 

BIOLOGY

 

Slick warren of rock

Water with no conclusion

                                               

The old town quarry

Lurks your chary passage

                                               

Family leisure by day

Teenage taunt at night

 

The knowing boys

Bring their blankets

                                               

And urge your hesitancy

Into the moony depths

 

You leave your worries

Tucked with your underwear

                       

Glide skin on downy skin

Loose the unexpected shudder

                                               

Your voice: one fluid echo

Such a beautiful drowning

 

Allison Thorpe is the author of one book of poetry and one chapbook.  Her work has appeared in a variety of journals including: Appalachian Heritage, Wind, Poem, The Milo Review, Connecticut River Review, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Cold Mountain Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and many others.

 

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Vinton Rafe McCabe: The Skateboarder with the Maori Tattoo

The Skateboarder with the Maori Tattoo

From the forthcoming novel, Death in Venice, California. 

Alighting from the taxi, Jameson Frame saw what must have been intended to be a Venetian canal. To his eyes, it was a culvert of sorts. Manmade.

But, like so many of the things he had encountered here, the fake was, perhaps, prettier than the real. With Japanese bridges, box hedges and red rowboats floating in clear water, tied to the hedges with a single gold cord, it all suggested a wholesomeness of sorts, so unlike the dark Italian waters.

He turned and crossed the tiny road, slipped between the bumpers of two tightly parked cars, checked the house number, and pushed open the little white gate in the picket fence.

Just inside the fence was a garden of scents:  lavender, sage, old tea roses. Rising from the center of the lawn was a small Japanese maple, under which a very rickety bench had been placed.  Beyond the tree was a small white cottage.

It was as if it had been family-sized and was then shrunken, miniaturized by a third, so that everything, the gate, the yard, the porch, and the house itself, was all rather tenderly reduced to the point of being almost too small for human habitation.

Yet, here it was, with two small chairs on the porch, one of which had an old, tattered pillow lying across the seat.

Jameson Frame stood, dressed in his fine silk suit, with one foot on the single step up to the porch, his attention lost on the wild clumps of bleeding hearts that grew from boxes and cascaded over the edge of the porch. Someone, it seemed to him, had rather lovingly watered these just as the sun faded opalescent on the horizon.

“Jameson?”

He looked up. Elsa stood in flowing batik dress. He could see the outline of her body through the sheer fabric. She was, he noted, barefoot.

She held the screen door open.

“Jameson, come in.  We were waiting for you.”

He approached her as she opened the door wide. “You have such a lovely yard,” he said, “that I got quite caught up.”

“How very nice, Jameson. Welcome,” she said to him, as she craned her neck upward and kissed him softly on his lips. Her kiss, like her touch, was like butterfly wings alighting softly, briefly. She smelled like the lavender in her garden.

“Hello, everyone,” Elsa said in a wispy voice that was lost over the sound of the ancient stereo in the back of the room.

Looking past the crowd, Jameson Frame caught sight of Vera dancing a slow cha cha with a very tall, dignified woman who would later be introduced to him only as “Frau Schmidt.” 

Vera, seeing Elsa’s hands aloft, lifted the needle off the record and quite suddenly her little singsong sounded very loud.

“My dears,” said Elsa, “this is our new friend, Mr. Jameson Frame, who has left dreary New York behind to spend some time with us here. I hope you will greet him, because I know you will soon be as fond of him as Vera and I are.”

Soon, Jameson had been welcomed over onto the long low couch, where he sat in some discomfort between Kiki, who appeared to most likely be a young, slender man dressed as a sort of chanteuse, and a very large exotic gentleman named Bobo, who had promised Vera that he would, later in the evening, entertain everyone by playing his drum. Seated on the coffee table facing him, with his knees intertwined with Frame’s was Kiki’s friend, who, in passing, seemed to have introduced himself to Jameson Frame as “Smack.” 

It was his presence that Frame found to be particularly oppressive, both because of his smell and because he so often favored Frame with a little friendly pressure from his bare knees.

Bend and twist though he might, Frame seemed quite incapable of escape until a large yellow cat chose to jump into his lap.

Startled, Frame let out a bit of a yelp, to the entertainment of those around him.  From the edge of the room, he heard Vera growl, “Oh, that damned cat!” while Elsa hurried over to apologetically lift him from Frame’s lap. 

Jameson Frame took this opportunity to try to lift himself off the couch, the dense softness of which made it difficult for Frame to pull himself up and onto his feet.

With sudden assistance from Smack, who leaped to his feet, pulled Frame to his and then replaced him next to Kiki on the couch, Frame found himself able to maneuver around the crowded little room.

The front screen door swung shut behind Elsa who, having put the cat out, apologized repeatedly. Jameson Frame smiled and waved and nodded to her, and moved on to explore the rear of the home.

He walked past the doorway to the dining room which held an old, very large picnic table with two long benches and several mismatched seats, and entered the kitchen just in time to walk directly into someone who had just entered through the back door.

Apologizing and stepping back, Frame recognized the beautiful young man whom he had seen the day before at his hotel’s outdoor café.  The skateboarder with the Maori tattoo.

Frame excused himself once more. Looking directly into the young man’s nighttime eyes.

“I am so sorry,” said Frame.  “So clumsy of me…”

“Hey, no problem, man.”

The youth both showed no signs of recognition and displayed no need to move on. He stood, rather vacantly, as if waiting for Frame to say something more. He wore overlarge shorts and a sleeveless low-cut pullover that displayed his muscled arms.

They heard Vera’s voice and each turned to see her standing in the kitchen doorway.

“Oh, you two found each other?  Good,” said Vera.  “Elsa! Chase is here.”

Elsa hurried to join Vera in the doorway of the kitchen. 

“Oh, I did so want the two of you to have the chance to get to know each other,” said Elsa, with a broad cat smile on her face. “I gave this little party hoping that you could become acquainted.”

“Chase, this is Jameson Frame.  He is a very important and influential writer from New York City and a very good new friend of ours. I hope you will tell him all about yourself. He may want to write a book about you.”

The boy snorted and gave Frame what could only have been described—were he indeed writing the book about the boy—as an enticing grin.

Suddenly, a ghostly figure emerged from the darkness and pressed itself hard against the outside of the kitchen screen door.

“Hey, where are you?”

“That’s just my brother. Mikey,” said the youth. “I came in for beer.”

Vera went to the refrigerator and pulled out two cans of cold beer. She threw them to the boy. “Dinner’s in about twenty minutes,” she said, “so don’t go far.”

The youth caught the cans as he pushed against the door, shoving his brother out into darkness.

“We’ll be right back,” he said, before pointing his chin in Jameson’s direction and adding, “Good to meet you, man.  Later?”

“Later,” answered Jameson, almost as a question. His face reddened in the kitchen’s glaring overhead light, as he thought of the boy, and pondered the internal engine that drove him to say such a thing as “later.”

 

For what seemed to Frame like hours, Oscar Peterson’s Pastel had been playing again and again thanks to the stereo’s upraised arm. 

Most of the guests were now seated around the picnic table, with paper plates mounded with sections of stuffed eggplant that had turned chocolate brown in baking and yellow aromatic rice covered in pumpkin seeds.

Jameson Frame picked at the food on his plate with the white plastic fork he had been provided, along with an ancient slightly bent steak knife and an iced-tea spoon and a paper towel for a napkin. Frame had managed to get himself a seat on the far end of the table facing by dawdling in the doorway. Thus, it was only Kiki beside him to his right and Elsa who sat across the table from him who were his dinner companions.

In the intervening time since he himself stood in the kitchen, unable to breathe in the presence of the beautiful youth, Jameson Frame had, in a spirit of bonhomie, divested himself of his suit jacket, which he slid oh, so, carefully onto the back of the couch, folding it lovingly.  He had made something of a show of this, in that he had hoped that he would be offered a hanger and a place in a closet somewhere by one of his hostesses, both of whom watched him fold his coat gently and offered him only a smile and a nod.

He sat now, wishing that he could lean back on this ridiculous bench.  And wishing as well that Chase, the beautiful youth, would come back into the party, with his brother or without.

Chase. He chewed the word along with a mouthful of fragrant rice.

In that moment, as if in wish fulfillment, Chase and his brother entered through the back door, slamming it and walked into the room, laughing. They sat at the far end of the table in two mismatched chairs by the kitchen door, the brother in a plastic folding chair and Chase, as if he himself were host, on a plush cushioned throne.

As the boys came into the room, Elsa ran into the kitchen to pile food on two more plates. She brought them in and placed them in front of the boys, offering them either more of the beer that they had had earlier or some of the wine that the rest were drinking from cups, bowls and glasses of various sorts. The brother, eating fast, said only, “Beer.”

Chase, for his part, requested wine with a gentle “please” and was given a large flagon of red glass that was chipped on the rim. He sloshed the red wine around in his glass and emptied it, belched, red wine running down the corners of his mouth, and was rewarded with another glass, this time filled to the rim. He laughed, looked at each face seated around the table with a expression of complacent beneficence and began to eat.

He stared at the boy as much as he safely could, making sure to look from time to time over at Kiki and to remark to Elsa on the quality of the food.

Once, the youth looked up just as Frame was staring at him, measuring the movements of his jaw as he worked the food.

Chase winked at the older man. As he chewed, his left hand slipped down to his stomach and slowly slipped up this sleeveless tee, exposing the perfection of his abdominal cavity and the rope of dark fur that ran down into his shorts.

He smoothed his hand over his stomach, simulating a very slow “yum yum” motion, before coyly lowering his shirt once more. Then he yawned, showing a quantity of food still in his mouth and laughed suddenly, realizing it.

“So, uh, Jimmy,” he said, and all eyes flew to him.

“Vera says you are pretty famous, huh?”

“Well,” said Jameson Frame, flustered.

“Now, Chase, darling, don’t embarrass Mr. Frame,” said Elsa tenderly. She placed a fluttering hand on Frame’s. “He is a man of letters.  Of words. A poet.”

Jameson Frame thought perhaps that he heard Chase’s brother snicker as he continued to eat. He was now eating the food that his brother had left on his plate.

Chase inclined himself toward Jameson Frame.

“Man,” he said, on perfect eyebrow rising above the other.  “A poet. Cool.”

Vera spoke to Elsa, “I think it’s high time for salad and cheese, huh?”

The two women arose and gathered up the paper plates, which were tossed into the large open garbage bin by the sink in the kitchen. Elsa wandered back in with a large cracked wooden bowl in which a series of greens were mixed and Vera brought a large rough-hewn wooden tray, the top of which was wrapped in banana leaves and covered with various cheeses.

New paper plates were filled and glasses refilled.

Jameson Frame noticed that now it was the youth who stared at the older man. He looked at Frame and touched his hand to his mouth.

The rest of dinner consisted of things that were either sticky, sweet or both. 

Elsa, from time to time, ran into the kitchen, coming out with various things to offer. She went missing for a time, and then returned, as the smell of baking chocolate filled the room.

Jameson Frame drank entirely too much wine from his little tin cup, as the cup seemed to be magically refilled each time he drank from it, like something from a children’s story.

From time to time Kiki or Smack or the gentleman who was dressed in something African said something in his direction.  Not hearing or understanding them, Jameson Frame nodded, and, once, giggled, which seemed sufficient to satisfy the conversation.

His eyes locked once more with those of the youth at the other end of the table.  The boy raised his flagon to Frame, who raised his tin cup in return. Both drank deeply.  Frame sighed.

He felt the room shift as the music changed from the stereo to the sound of a soft drumbeat in the living room.

Elsa went into the kitchen once more and came out with a pan of warm brownies, the scent of which had underscored the party for the last half hour. There was general cheering at the sight of the platter.

“Take one to Bobo,” instructed Vera.  Elsa complied, piling two onto a bunched piece of paper towel, handing the tray to Vera, who arose to serve the others. 

Elsa walked—floated really, on the sound of the drumbeats—into the living room and fed a brownie to Bobo, a piece at a time.  His head nodded in the rhythm of his drumming. She kissed him then, lightly, sweetly, first on this forehead and then on his wide and eager lips. And she began to feed him again, slowly, in small pieces, one at a time, as if to ask with each piece, “Is this enough?” 

In the dining room, Vera came to where Frame was sitting and said, “Alice B. Toklas brownie, Jameson?” 

Happy at the mention of a familiar name, Jameson Frame helped himself, and, again finding the there was no back on the bench, leaned his weight a bit onto Kiki next to him, as he began to more powerfully feel the effects of the cheap wine.

Down at the end of the table, the boys laughed and pointed at each other as they showed their chocolate teeth.

“Barf,” said Chase, punching his brother on the arm.

 

It was then, in that moment, that a golden light entered the room, filled it and filled each guest assembled with a saturating sensation of delight. 

Time slowed, and the sound of the drumbeat with it. 

There was the rumble of conversation, comprehended and, more and more, not.  And the ongoing, softly insistent sound of the drumbeat that instructed their hearts in when to beat, teased breath in and out of their lungs.

Soon, they sighed as one. Jameson took his shoulder away from Kiki, who blew him a kiss as he put his head down on the table, having no other way to relieve his back.

 

When his head again arose, it was not unlike a periscope arising from beneath the sea, and slowly scanning in a circular motion. 

The table had been largely emptied; the party had returned to the living room.

Seeing him stir, Elsa gently reached under Frame’s left arm, helping him to his feet. Glad of her help, he pushed off from the corner of the table, got up and tottered a step or two.

Elsa walked with him and whispered, “Chase has gone out onto the front porch and he especially asked that I should tell you when you when you awoke.”

In a velvety haze, Frame slowly made for the door. He glanced back at Elsa as he walked two steps, three, and saw her, standing, retreating backward as he walked forward, her head bobbing sweetly, as if teaching a child to walk.

 

Outside, Chase took his feet off the chair with the sagging cushion so that Frame could sit.  He greeted Frame casually, as if he were expected. “Hey,” he said simply as the door had opened.

Frame sat on the ancient wicker thing and felt as if he might fall through to the porch floor at any moment. Chase stared off into the darkness, his chin pointing outward from time to time.

“Mikey’s out there on the canal in a rowboat,” he said. “Thought I better keep an eye on him.”

They sat silent for a moment. In the distance, Frame could hear quiet splashing in the water beyond.

Other sounds emerged as he listened. Music here and there, inside and out. And the sounds of televisions on multiple channels, and car radios moving toward and then past. Of electric fans and of conversations in the dark.  A smattering of louder, richer sounds from the boardwalk not far away—the boardwalk that never quite slept but always, even in the darkest night, sparkled and spoke in myriad colors and voices.

Jameson Frame, perhaps buoyed by the night and the cheap wine and the Alice B. Toklas brownies, looked directly into the boy’s face. Not a furtive glance, issued in pulsing regularity, as was his habit, but a direct, appraising look. Chase, seeing him, looked at him and then averted his glance, fading it into soft focus, inviting Frame to look at his leisure. He shifted a bit in his chair, perhaps to become more comfortable, perhaps to allow his face to be more fully and completely illuminated by a shaft of light that the reading lamp on the table by the window threw.

Never had Jameson Frame seen such perfection. Not in art or life. It was a face chiseled in desire.

It had a slight lantern shape to it, with a strong jawline covered in a wire mesh of heavy beard. And loose, disheveled hair that suggested raw youth. And his eyes, again the eyes, serene and yet demanding, suggested the possibility of both.

But if the source of his shifting personal power lay in his eyes, the source of the Nile that was his beauty was in his lips. Lips that countered everything else on his face.  Full, feminine lips that pouted and purred, that were colored a perfect, ridiculous pink and shaped in a flapper’s cupid’s bow. Placed within the context of his dark masculinity—the purest white skin set against jet black hair that disappeared, along with the inky mesh of his scruff, in the night—the pinky pink lips, a set that might have been dubbed kissable in a television commercial, were utterly, shockingly, endless enchanting when placed within the hard-jawed face of the youth.

There was, of course, more than a hint of the body under the clothes.  His body issued heat. 

The boy, Frame noticed, had shifted forward during his reverie. He sat now hunched forward in his direction, looking him in the eye, his own eyes filled with a most decorous mirth.

From the outer darkness, Mikey splashed. Chase ignored him. He leaned closer.

“You want to see my tattoos?” he asked.

Without waiting for an answer, Chase slowly pulled his shirt off and turned his back, displaying an intricate cross-etched onto the upper part of his back.

“This was my first tattoo,” he said, “I got it when I was like fourteen.” He moved as he spoke, bringing his body around to face front again. “It’s an Irish cross. I got it because I am Irish and Scottish and Welsh and Swedish or something.  Pure whitey white.”

“Then I got this one.”  He brought his leg up and placed a foot in Frame’s nervous lap, showing him up close the same leg tattoo that he had seen before.

“It’s aboriginal.”

“Maori, actually.”

“Huh?”

“It’s not of Australian design, but rather from New Zealand.  From the Maori people.”

“Yeah?  Cool.” He flexed his foot in Frame’s lap, showing the dirt on his sole, and brought his knee around a bit to look again at his own tattoo, as if he had not seen it before, digging his toes into Frame’s groin as he did so.

 “Thanks, man.  Good to know.”

 

Vinton Rafe McCabe started his career as an award-winning poet and a produced playwright before he began what would turn out to be a twenty-five year detour from his life’s path by becoming a journalist, a radio talk show host and a television producer.  During that time, he published ten works of nonfiction.  After what he describes as “a doozy of a mid-life crisis,” he returned to his first love, fiction.  Death In Venice, California was created in something akin to a fever dream, in that the author completed the work in just twenty-eight days as part of the National Novel Writing Month annual challenge.  He has just completed a second novel, Glossolalia and is now polishing a series of interconnected works of short fiction, collectively titled Get Thee Behind Me.  He also works as a literary critic for the New York Journal of Books.

 

 

 

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Sidney Thompson: The Wallows

“The Wallows” is a self-contained chapter from my historical novel Bass Reeves, about the once legendary though now obscure African-American deputy U.S. marshal who easily became the most successful lawman of the Old West (arresting over 3,000 felons and killing at least 14 in countless gun battles over a 30-year career without ever once being shot himself). This chapter is set in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, one year before he escaped slavery.

 

The Wallows

            Master Reeves spurred his Morgan from the stable in an unseemly manner, kicking up dust all over Bass and his sorrel, Strawberry, which Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, the father, most certainly would not have done.  Bass waited for the air to clear, then followed, loaded with the provisions and supplies, everything but the knives and rifles and ammunition.  The sorrel was taller than the Morgan by three hands and made longer strides, despite the added weight, so every so often Master Reeves had to jog ahead a bit to stay out of the way.

            Every so often, too, not upon every crossroads but upon some, Master Reeves would turn back in his saddle to see which direction Bass would point him in, whether this way or yonder way.  It would’ve been a whole lot easier, it seemed to Bass, if Master Reeves simply let him lead from the front.  And when Master Reeves spoke, Bass could hear him better.  Sometimes Bass said, “Yes, sir, Master,” without a clue why.

            Not long after dawn three white men appeared on horseback, creeping down a slope in their direction so slowly it was as if they were sitting on limbs of distant trees and not horses, as if the horses hauled a wagon each, but nothing of the such followed.  One of them, the smallest but with the biggest hat and wearing a vest, asked Master Reeves where he was headed, where he was from—the questions of patrollers, not slave traders, and a posse would have shown a badge.  They eyed Bass but didn’t speak to him.

            The padded sounds of breathing and feet tamping in the shadows behind the horses drew Bass’s attention—a Negro man with shaggy gray hair, stooped and bloodied in tattered clothes, swayed on legs paled with mud.  A rope bound the old man’s arms to his chest and his chest to the saddle horn in the hands of the smallest man who did the talking, fifteen or so feet away.

            It wasn’t his business to injure the old man’s pride any further, being caught, a runaway with a bounty, but Bass allowed his eyes to trail back to the old man, and he caught sight of him looking at his looking.  Bass blinked, trying to make out his face, if the old man was someone he might know.  He blinked again, and how the old man’s eyes continued to shimmer in the scant light with prolonged helplessness, as if he were just too tired to blink or simply saw no point to it, was all too familiar.  Flies lit on the old man’s shoulders and lips, lit and unlit, a constant flourish.

            Bass averted his eyes straight ahead, at the hindquarters of the Morgan, and prayed the old man’s master wouldn’t abuse him any further simply because he was old and torn and broke-looking from being dragged for miles.

            “So how can I help you, gentlemen?” Master Reeves said with a bluster, and Bass realized then he hadn’t been paying close enough attention.

            The smallest patroller, the talker, curled forward almost into a ball and squinted.  “You ain’t one of them Kansas jayhawkers, is you?”  His company laughed but the talker remained quiet and still and rounded over.  “You got papers on yourn?”

            Master Reeves snickered, and the two patrollers laughed again.  “I don’t blame you for being suspicious,” said Master Reeves.  “It’s the best of times, indeed, because you and I still wield the power of repression, don’t we?  The only lasting philosophy, regardless of what the world desires or what Dickens himself desires to behold as true, let’s face it.  But it is, yes, the worst of times, you bet, men.  So, please, allow me to dip in here,” he said, moving cautiously to unbuckle a saddle bag, “and show you a few papers about my identity.  Fuck the big nigger’s identity.  Let’s talk about mine, gentlemen.”

            Bass slipped his shoes from the stirrups in case he should need to drop down any moment and high-tail it for cover, but shoulders up he didn’t budge.  Didn’t need to to plainly see that Master Reeves had produced a roll of papers, but instead of handing it over, he clutched it like a torch.  The patrollers twitched, maybe to touch their guns, but not to raise or cock them yet.

            “I’m George Robertson Reeves, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, Grayson County, and son of William Steele Reeves, retired member of not only the Tennessee House of Representatives but also, more recently, more pertinent to you, at least should be, the Arkansas House of Representatives, Crawford County, and that man operates a little plantation down the road in Van Buren.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  It ain’t too damn far from here if you know your way around.  So go there if you wish to be the Good Samaritan.  Inquire from the actual source if Mr. William Steele Reeves himself considers his slave, Bass Reeves, to be a fugitive—you know, the one he has given on loan to his son and is actually, lo and behold, accompanied by his very son even as we speak and dispute.  Or you can press your luck right now, gentlemen, if you so choose to delay me up any further on my righteous action of taking said slave on a goddamn hunting expedition.  This is a free country still, is it not?”

            The main patroller stiffened in his saddle as if both to draw away from Master Reeves and make himself appear taller.  “Free so long as we out here doing our part,” he said.  “Just see to it you keep hitched what should be, hear?”  He tipped backward, with his feet raised, like a boy in a swing, then drove his heels down fast to spur his horse.

            The other two patrollers laughed with anticipation, twisting in their saddles to watch what their small friend was temporarily leaving behind.  The rope whipped the air in the quick motion of hummingbirds, and then Bass saw nothing else of the old man than this—just him taking flight, with his pale muddied legs and the pale soles of his feet sailing and dissolving into the dust cloud of the horse, further hidden now by the two patrollers galloping to catch up.

            Later in the morning, hunters also passed them by on the road.  They spoke to Master Reeves but did not stop.  And a stench of death trailed behind the muddied wagons piled with deer, hog, beaver, and bear like a long rope, thought Bass, that dragged the ground.

            Bass would’ve chosen to work for Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, all his life over anybody else in this world.  He’d finally allowed himself to think that all the way through.  And if freed, he would’ve chosen to live close to the plantation, to see his family but also to still see Master Reeves come and go and even shoot with him if he wanted.  But to be given away like a word to somebody, like a peach, on loan or not—what was the difference?  Eventually, every time, whether heated up mad or sad, he had to change the subject to no subject at all—to the Morgan’s shorter, softer stride.  A constant catching up, and then a falling behind again, over and over.  Just that.  Or the sun blooming off the Boston Mountains like an oxeye daisy, if God could be a daisy and why couldn’t He?  God saying to Bass in His flower speak, Don’t forget I don’t forget.

            Petals fell into the tree cover, and then they were there under it, Master Reeves and then Bass, at the brow of the White River, sparkling like ice.  Where Bass had always come to pitch camp with Master Reeves—the other Master Reeves.  The best camp site to sit high enough above spring floods, yet near enough to them, the best hunting grounds for you name it.

            It’d be easier not to believe in God, believed Bass.  Not to believe in God, he could pull Master Reeves off his saddle right here right now right quick and kick up and slap all kinds of devil dust in his face as he called him who he really was, Master George among other things, before strangling him and weighting him down in the river with easy-as-you-please stones, before blazing his way northward for Kansas, shooting dead every white man who crossed eyes at him.  Would be a whole lot easier than this.  This fear in place of nothing.  But wouldn’t his mama and auntie and grandma and grandpa Sugar be proud of him for the magic of keeping his fear buried deep and safe inside him like a tater?

            At the bank in a lacy patch of white pussy-toes, Master Reeves dismounted and stretched himself as the Morgan, blowing, almost purring at the tiny, fuzzy-headed blooms, nosed closer to the river for a drink.  Bass walked Strawberry close but not too close to Master Reeves, a little off into a tighter spot between tupelos and dismounted.

            “Boy, what you up to?” asked Master Reeves.

            Bass whipped his head in his direction, wondering what he could’ve done wrong.  “Master?”

            “Are you so fatigued by your own laziness that you think I’ll stand by and let you nominate yourself master over me?”

            “No, sir, Master Reeves, I ain’t tired,” said Bass.  “Not atall.”

            Master Reeves took off his hat and wiped a kerchief across his forehead as he trod toward Bass, his boots sinking in softness.

            “Then why are you planting yourself upriver of me?”

            “This my usual place, sir.”

            “Your usual place, is it?  My father let you go north of him?”

            “Well, yes, sir, here he did.”

            Master Reeves smiled and balled the kerchief in his fist.  “The chick that’s in him pecks the shell.”

            “Sir?”

            “Moby-Dick.  You hadn’t read it yet?”  He stared at Bass, then started to say more but paused with his jaw lowered, which made his mustache stand out darker and thicker and sharper, the ends angled down, and together with the strip of hair growing from his bottom lip past his chin, Master Reeves appeared to have a spearhead mounted on his face.  The tip of it pointing to his nose, as if to say he smelled the musk of everything, that he belonged to this forest.  And then it vanished as he spoke:  “Nigger, you know what I’m asking you.  Don’t play dumb with me.”

            Bass feared maybe he was dumb.   He believed if he said what was on his mind he’d be answering a totally different question.

            “Are you declaring allegiance to the North by going upstream of me?”

            “Oh, no, sir, Master,” said Bass.  “I just don’t cotton to no spot so thick with stick.”  Bass pointed to the pussy-toes.  “Like stepping on spider webs.”

            Master Reeves grinned.  “Bass, are you scared of spiders?  A big nigger like you?”

            “No, sir, ain’t scared of no spiders.  Just don’t cotton to no stick.”

            “I reckon you don’t cotton to cotton then.”

            “No, sir, don’t much cotton to no cotton.”

            “A lot of work, cotton,” said Master Reeves.

            “Don’t mind work, Master,” said Bass.

            “Don’t mind work, huh?  Then why are you lollygagging along, boy?  Move your black ass downstream of me this very damn instant.”

            “Master Reeves,” said Bass, rapidly nodding his head the way he’d gotten in the habit of doing when the circuit preacher came out to the plantation and gave a Sunday service in the quarters.  Bass would stand in the back, along a wall, and listen with his eyes closed, nodding to the rhythm of what he heard.  But that was all in the past now.  Now, his eyes were open and aimed at those pussy-toes up under Master Reeves’ boots.

            “Don’t be begging me.  Are you having a conniption?  You want the whip?”

            “Master Reeves,” Bass repeated, not meaning to.

            Master Reeves laughed but wasn’t happy.  “I may have to give you back.  You think that’s what you want, but it ain’t what you want, boy, I promise you.  You won’t go back pretty.”

            “Master Reeves, sir,” said Bass, still nodding, praying God smelled his fear and felt it knotted up in his belly the way Bass felt it.  He watched Master Reeves tuck his kerchief back in his pocket and set his hat back on his head.  He watched him then open his coat, as if he might have a whip tucked into his pants, but he didn’t have anything of the kind, like he was showing Bass he had nothing, that there was nothing to fear, nigger, so go ahead, like Master Reeves finally smelled his fear, too, and was saying nothing to give him room to talk, as if he was waiting, praying too this would end, that they could go on back to the peaceful world of earlier.  So Bass nudged himself to go on and step up to the words, to go on and speak.  “I think, sir,” he finally heard himself saying, “I think I recall Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, your daddy, sir—”

            “Get on with it, for heaven’s sake!”

            “I think I remember him saying it flow backwards, the White River, sir.  Towards north way, like the Nile do, like they was maybe the only two.”

            “Like the Nile?”  Master Reeves turned to the clear open space of the river and strode closer to it.

            Bass began to wonder what Master Reeves could have been thinking or seeing or even smelling after standing there for so long at the edge, his back to Bass, staring off at the wide road of silver water sliding slowly up.

            It’s some world when a nigger ain’t as free as a ant or a frog or a butterfly, who can all find their way north to the tupelos to get away from the stick of pussy-toes without having to explain why or risk being whipped or dragged or sold or given away or killed.  That was what Bass wished Master Reeves was thinking or seeing or smelling.

            “Yep,” said Master Reeves, turning to face Bass with a face surprisingly at ease, more like his father’s than his own, “that’s a beautiful river.  I’ve been away for too long.  Let’s enjoy this respite, Bass.  My father is a wise man.  Let’s learn to trust each other, you and me, and have a high time on the fat of this land.  Then when we get to Texas, you need not ever say ‘I think’ this and ‘I think’ that in front of the other slaves, or I will splay you open like a clam.  Oh, you’ll be bleeding like a pig, but you’ll look like a fucking clam.  If you have thoughts, I recommend you pretend you don’t.”

            “Yes, sir, Master,” said Bass, suddenly flushed with exhaustion.  He told himself to get used to this crazy man.  He was crazy and always would be.

            “You see,” said Master Reeves, “my slaves know about Ralph Waldo Emerson.  You don’t know about Ralph Waldo Emerson, do you, Bass?”

            Bass shook his head and lowered his eyes as Master Reeves inched his way from the river.

            “A Massachusetts preacher and philosopher, Bass.  An abolitionist.  You know what an abolitionist is, don’t you, Bass?”

            Bass nodded.

            “‘So far as a man thinks, he is free.’  That’s what he says.  Let that sink in.  ‘So far as a man thinks, he is free.’  So just by thinking, Bass, you make yourself free.  Now, I can’t keep you from thinking, not completely, but I can damn sure slow it down, and if you go around bragging about it, I’ll have to take issue with you, understand?”

            “Understand, Master,” said Bass.

            “And you know what else Emerson says?”

            “No, sir.  Something about ice?”

            “Ice?  What the fuck?”

            “Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, your daddy, he buys his ice, he told me, from Master Chuchess.”

            Master Reeves looked away and bared teeth as he lifted his top lip.  “No, you’ll like this better than anything about ice because it’s about you, boy, about all slaves.  He’s an abolitionist, remember, so it’s important what Emerson says, and he says, ‘Nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are.’”  He reached out and patted Bass on the arm, but hardly a hand, hardly any strength behind it, not the strength of God that Bass had behind his own, and something like that, which made no sense, could startle him.  “Most men are slaves because they have no thoughts, are helpless, which is why we thinking men put y’all to work,” said Master Reeves.  “Well, you aren’t helpless or thoughtless, or you’d be working a field, so that makes you freer than a lot of white men who work fields.  That’s part of what he’s saying.  The other part is he wants you to stop crowing, boy.  You don’t need the North, and they’re tired of you believing you need them.  Which means they’re tired of helping, too.  You want liberty, or more liberty than what you have, then think more.”  He raised his hand up to Bass’s head and with a fingertip drummed his temple, making Bass blink.  “Use your damn head more.  This thing,” he said, repeatedly drumming.  “But by God, Bass, you better keep that shit to yourself.  You do that and I’ll let you be free.  My gift to you.”

            “Why, thank you, Master,” said Bass.  “Thank you, sir.  Thank you, thank you, sir.”  His palms drained sweat to hear himself pronouncing every syllable Sugar-sweet, precisely how his grandfather had taught him and how Bass had never wanted to sound, and, like magic, Master Reeves at last, satisfied, stopped drumming Bass’s temple and stepped away.

            Bass leaned back against Strawberry’s flank to catch his breath before unloading the supplies to make camp and watched Master Reeves tramp back through the pussy-toes.  The sorrel twitched so Bass twitched with him, and he began to think on that, how one thing can start another thing into doing the same thing and taking no thought at all, how that wasn’t freedom.  But what was it?

*          *          *

            By late morning camp was made, including a fire Bass had built from dead tree limbs and old bird nests he’d climbed up and found in the pin oaks just upstream of the tupelos.  Master Reeves sat nearby on the bank, his back against a rock, with his boots and socks off, smoking a pipe and reading a red leather-bound book no bigger wide than his hands.  Sometimes he looked up from the book as if to watch his pipe smoke vanish over the water, and sometimes he read aloud, as if intending Bass to mull over those words with him.  Those beautiful sounds strung together to form inexplicable thoughts—“Smote the mighty Mishe-Mokwa,” “Lest from out the jaws of Nahma,” “Minnehaha, Laughing Water.”

            Master Reeves, the other Master Reeves, had read passages to him from the Bible and had always kindly explained whatever he’d read, but only the Bible.  Nothing by someone once alive who walked the earth like anybody else.  It made Bass reconsider this Master Reeves’s gift of permission.  This Master Reeves might explain a thing but usually he wouldn’t.  He preferred to let thoughts bang against Bass’s head like birds blind to window glass, which could very well be the best way and worst way both to look at freedom.

            Once the flames had latched onto the wood and could be trusted to seethe into coals for a later roast, Bass led Master Reeves downstream to the wallows.  Like on the road, Master Reeves insisted on following in front with the rifles and knives and being humbly told with a grunt or hand motion to turn at the trees rubbed hog-high nearly barkless and smeared with mud, to squeeze there into that thicket and follow the hog path underneath that way.

            Before crawling out of the thicket, Master Reeves leaned in and whispered pipe breath into Bass’s face.  “How close are we?”

            “Close, Master.”  He guessed his was just plain nigger breath.

            Master Reeves pinched his eyes tight like the tight spot they were in.  “Don’t you dare shoot if I’m in front of you.”

            “Oh, no, Master.”

            “Don’t shoot scared.  Shoot smart.”

            “Yes, Master.”   He nodded and looked lower down, at the cloven hoof prints in the mud.

            “I can’t get through there with both hands full.”

            “No, sir, not good to.”

            Master Reeves cradled the rifles in the crook of an arm while he reached inside his jacket and untied the buckskin straps to one of the knife sheaths hanging at his hips.  Once Bass had knotted the belt around his own waist, Master Reeves gave him the older of the two Sharps breech-loaders, along with a handful of spare cartridges and tape primer from his jacket pocket, then pulled Bass in by the shoulder to speak directly into his ear.  “Father says you’re quite the crack shot, but till I see with my own eyes you can shoot straight, you going first.”

            Bass nodded, and when Master Reeves let go of his shoulder, Bass dropped to his knees and elbows and held still for a moment, listening.  The hogs may have been close but not close enough to be heard above the twittering and fluttering of finches scattering all about, so he stretched to put the rifle through, then crawled out of the thicket looking for sorrel-brown humps.  There were more tree trunks rubbed down with mud but no razorbacks in sight.  The path sloped to lower, wetter ground, and though the nearest wallow appeared empty, there were other wallows beyond farther thickets.  He hoped their talk hadn’t alerted the hogs to hide.

            Bass waited and helped Master Reeves to his feet before striking out with his rifle raised.  He crept to the first wallow from its grassier side, away from its slide of entry, in case a boar sat too deep to be seen and charged out.  A veil of mosquitoes hung over it, smelling of fresh shit and buzzing with flies.  But there was no hog, not here, not yet.

            He continued following the hog path around a meadow completely rooted up as if turned over by man, mule, and plow.  He pointed it out for Master Reeves to observe and figure on his own what it could possibly mean, then hearing snorting ahead Bass stopped quick and directed his attention toward the wallows coming up around the next thicket.  It was the range of sound that stopped him, from low to high, long to short.  Like the finches, an impossible number.  With the other Master Reeves, the most they’d ever found at one time was four or five.  He motioned ahead, and this Master Reeves nodded—his eyes round and intense.

            Bass moved on but slower, nearing the thicket of crabapple trees, which had stopped blooming over the years and had become thickly latticed with honeysuckle vine.  It made a good stand from which to shoot the hogs at the wallows, but was much denser and sweeter than he ever recalled.  Reminding him that he missed his mother, remembering her how his father must have, since for his return on holidays she plaited verbena in her hair or wore gardenia or rosebud necklaces.

            He tried to peek through the vine to make sure a razorback wasn’t inside but couldn’t find a break, so he skirted the edge until the wallows came into view, with a dozen or more razorbacks lounging and snorting in the mud holes or sunning beside them in fat rows.  A half-dozen more rooted in the meadow penned between two creeks, while a striped litter played.  Like a plantation of them.

            Master Reeves stepped past Bass and leveled his carbine toward the wallows.  Bass prayed Master Reeves knew better than to shoot one actually in a wallow.  He watched Master Reeves line up the sight and then shift his aim, as if he couldn’t decide which hog suited him best, until finally he appeared to settle on one and eased his hammer back until it clicked into place.

            As if in response to that click, from the thicket behind them, a growl rose so low and deep and sustained, it vibrated the ground, that first, before the air and the hair bristling up Bass’s neck.

            “Watch it,” said Bass, turning his rifle on the thicket and drawing his hammer back.

            “What is it?” said Master Reeves.  “What’s in there?”

            The ground vibrated again, but this time for distant reasons—the hogs fleeing the wallows for wooded underbrush and the meadow for the creeks and squealing and thrashing as if they’d all been gutted and were dying.  Then the dog or bear inside the thicket growled again, somehow even louder and wetter than before.

            “See if you can’t see what it is,” said Master Reeves.

            Bass didn’t want to move.  It made sense he was safer not moving.

            “Boy?”

            Bass reached for the knife at his waist and slid it from its sheath.  He’d never hunted with a weapon in each hand, but it made sense.  He leaned closer to the honeysuckle without moving his feet, but he wasn’t close enough to see through the vines and leaves and blossoms.  Reluctantly, he stepped closer.  Nothing rustled, nothing growled, so he craned his neck and touched his nose to the blossoms, but could still see nothing.  He stepped aside to try another spot, and though he couldn’t see a razorback inside the thicket, he knew now that was what it was, popping its teeth.

            “My God, Bass, is that a damn woodpecker?”

            The popping stopped.  And then in a hot breath, a razorback burst through the honeysuckle bigger than three of Bass, the size of a bull, charging and blowing and swinging its long head at Bass to catch him with its cutters.  Bass leaped back and jabbed the knife into its neck, and Master Reeves cracked a shot at it.

            Bass sat up and watched the hog over-run them, raging away and bucking with the knife still stuck in its neck and shot who knows where.  Master Reeves was on his feet and scrambling to reload his smoking rifle.  And then the hog turned in a spin of dust, popping its teeth and snorting and recharging.

            “Watch it, he coming back,” said Bass.  He wheeled his rifle around, trying to fix an aim.  The hog didn’t even have a snout on it, just teeth and jaws and slobber bubbling out where a nose should be and rocking its ugly head, rocking, ears to eyes, rocking, ears to eyes, and was almost now upon Master Reeves, struggling with his primer, when Bass fired.

            Master Reeves hollered out Bass’s name and dropped his rifle as the hog plowed into him, knocking him flat on his back.  The hog’s dead weight penned down his legs, with its motionless snoutless head settling on his stomach.

            “You all right, Master?”

            Master Reeves groaned and produced his knife and stabbed the hog in its neck and shoulders.  “Bass!  Bass!” he called, continuing to stab at it.  “Help me get this fucking thing off me, Bass!  Bass!”

            “Yes, sir, Master.  I’m coming.”

            “Bass!”

            “I think you got him now,” he said, proud after all to have permission for the thoughts he was having.  He walked over, and Master Reeves quit with the stabbing but pointlessly squirmed.

            Bass admired the bloody entry mark of his cartridge, between the hog’s ear and eye.  He leaned to pull out his knife but paused to scrutinize the hog’s gaping wound where a snout used to be, its skin blackened along the edges.  He felt around its nose cavity, then looked at his fingertips.  No blood at all.  And he could see no puncture scars from bites, not in it or in the hair close by.  As if the razorback had lost its nose to frostbite as a poor runt of a piglet so long, long ago.

            “Bass,” Master Reeves struggled to say, getting bright red in the face.

            “Yes, sir,” said Bass.  “You got him good.  A big one.  Now, let me see if I can help you haul his carcass off of you.”

 

SIdney Thompson's collection of short stories, Sideshow, won Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for the Best Short Story Collection of the Year. The stories previously appeared in such literary journals as the Southern Review and the Carolina Quarterly, while two were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and four have been reprinted in anthologies of short fiction. He received his MFA from the University of Arkansas, and is currently working on his PhD at the University of North Texas. Sidney has short fiction forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, NANO Fiction, and the inaugural issue of Connu. 

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Ryan Murphy: Beekeeping

BEEKEEPING

Sarah Jay is nineteen. She lives with her husband, the beekeeper, in a farmhouse in Pittsgrove, New Jersey. She knows more about bees than she would like — facts she has overheard more than anything. Only female bees can sting, she could tell you. A queen bee will lay one egg per minute, all day and all night.

On the breakfast table in front of her, a honeybee lands on the open rim of a marmalade jar. Sarah settles The Observer and eyes the bee — the wisps of hair on its limbs, wings like plastic. She rolls up the paper like a pirate telescope and tightens it in her hands.

“Sarah,” a voice calls from the doorway.

She looks up to see her husband dressed in overalls with a pair of yellow rubber gloves in his hands. His wrinkled face is barely visible behind the mesh covering of his beekeeper’s helmet. He pulls open the screen door and comes across the kitchen.

“It’s in my marmalade,” Sarah says. 

The beekeeper cups his hands around the jar, taking the bee gently on his fingertips.

“She’s attracted to the sugar.”

Sarah takes a bite of dry toast as her husband walks towards the door.

“Get dressed,” he says. “We’re going to Walter’s.”

*

She was sixteen when she met the beekeeper. Flat-chested and awkward, she worked the register at her father’s market. The beekeeper came in twice a month, bought soap and root beer, bags of oatmeal. Sarah had noticed him immediately — his shock of silver hair, his thick, creased fingers. She smelled honey on him when he stood close.

 The beekeeper smiled at her, looked her in the eyes when they spoke. He was an entomologist, he told her, somewhat of an adventurer. He’d studied Africanized honeybees in São Paulo and nearly died from a hornet’s sting in Corpus Christi. The university was sending him to Central America next year for a month in the rain forest. He could bring a companion.

 “He’s an old man,” her father had said. “You’re my child.”

They left together in his white truck. She took a battered red suitcase, wore a sundress, never once looked in the rearview.

*

Today, the truck is the same, but only now does she think of her father eating dinners alone on the living room couch — his ruddy round face, a bit of corn in his beard. He must be endlessly haunted, she thinks, forever aware of the emptiness of his home. How the hurt and worry must have burned through his stomach.

She rolls the window down, looking to feel the wet cold of Jersey autumn against her cheeks.

“Close that,” the beekeeper says. “I’ve got the heat on.”

Walter’s house is deep into farmland, a shuttered red monster surrounded by miles of crab grass and yellowing oaks. The old truck putters down the strip of gravel that leads to his yard. Walter’s there, crouching between two large wooden hives, dressed in a white jumpsuit and a beekeeper’s helmet.

“Wait here,” the beekeeper says and slams the door tight behind him.

Sarah watches her husband walk through a cloud of bees over to Walter. He pats him on the shoulder and they shake hands. The beekeeper points over to Sarah in the front seat and Walter offers a wave. Sarah lifts her hand, smiles slightly. The two men then walk together, disappearing into the house.

She opens the door and steps outside the truck, feeling the tall weeds against her ankles for what feels like the first time. The beekeeper always made sure she stayed inside, only letting her out to hang the laundry or tend to the hives. She had once gone to town to see a movie without telling him. He put his hands on her when she got home, told her he’d chain her to the radiator if she did it again.

The sound of thousands of wings rubbing together begins to swell in her ears like some horrible symphony. She grimaces. Looking down the gravel driveway towards the road, she thinks about running. She could find her way to the railroad and go back to her father and the market. But would he have her now, she wonders. Would he ever forgive her? No contact had been made with him. Her father might’ve retired years ago. The old man could be in Vancouver watching gulls and buffleheads like he’d always dreamed.

A bee flies past Sarah’s cheek and circles around her head. It settles on her forearm and walks slowly towards the crook of her elbow. She pauses for a moment to look at it. A worker bee, apis mellifera, searching for nectar to provide for the colony. It reminds her of a dream she once had. She was naked in the yard, smashing her husband’s hives and watching the bees fly free. Yet, even in her dream she knew the bees did not want this freedom. They depended on the hive, survived because of it.

Sarah is startled by her husband’s voice. He’s standing in Walter’s doorway, calling her name.

“We’re ready,” he says.

The bee gently works its way against the hairs of her arm. She eyes it, stabs it with her finger and prepares herself for what comes next.

 

Ryan Murphy is a writer living in New York City. His fiction has appeared in Hobart and Pindeldyboz and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His nonfiction has appeared everywhere from FHM to WWE Kids Magazine.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Robert P. Kaye: Krill

Krill

Sometimes in the afternoon, Donna listened for the groan of busses struggling up the arterial to disgorge their passengers like great bulimic beasts. On the average day, the 6:05 conveyed Greg to his stop, but today the front door slammed and keys jingled before 5:30. Aside from the unusual timing, she had no reason to anticipate any sudden metamorphosis in their way of life.

“Welcome home, darling,” she sang out, re-focusing her attention on dinner preparations. 

No answer. Maybe he couldn’t hear her over the stove fan. His briefcase thumped against the back of the hall closet.

She’d planned this special dinner hoping it would cheer him up. At times he seemed crushed by the pressures of twenty-one years rising in the ranks at a regional bank, avoiding industry consolidation, the small fry consumed by bigger fish, behemoths devouring all. Mere employees were the equivalent of krill, that great mass of tiny crustaceans providing a foundation for the food chain.

“Dinner in half an hour,” she called, plumping two pistachio-encrusted pork chops and pondering the sweet/sour balance of the balsamic reduction with dried cherries. She contemplated proper skillet time. In the old days, pig products required overcooking for fear of trichinosis, a larval parasite that ate the host from the inside out. Not a problem in the modern age—probably. She wished she remembered more from her degree in Biology, which she’d never had to rely on for employment, blessed with the ability to stay home and raise children. She looked forward to working again when the kids departed for college.

Greg removed his tie as he entered the kitchen, shirt tails un-tucked. He never wore his shirt tails un-tucked.

“I quit today,” he said.

His deadpan delivery often left her unable to key out the facetious declarations from their serious counterparts, a trait she found both attractive and aggravating. “Ha-ha, very funny,” she said, calibrating broiler time for the wilted romaine and gorgonzola salad. Son Jason would dine on pizza with friends after football practice while daughter Morgan segued from cheerleading to sushi before math study group. Donna looked forward to this opportunity to show off the skills acquired in cooking classes, followed by a rented movie and maybe more if she could keep him from finishing the wine and falling asleep on the couch by 9:30.

“Officially, I’m on vacation until June,” Greg said.  

She startled, unaware he’d remained in the kitchen, standing just behind her. The joke had gone too far, disrupting her cooking rhythm. Salad and entrée would hit the table together, pork pink in the middle to retain its juices, risk of parasitic infection be damned. “Sure, okay. Dinner in twenty minutes. Maybe you should go look at the classifieds.”

“Plenty of time for that.” Greg placed his hands over her apron straps and nuzzled the sensitive spot behind her left ear, sandwiching her against the counter. Stimulating, but ill-timed. The aroma of imported extra virgin olive oil rose off the pan, the fog of garlic and rosemary sucking into the exhaust vent like wasted foreplay.

* * *

“Since you’re at home, you could fix the side door again,” Donna said, knowing how much Greg disliked carpentry in general and that door in particular.

Greg looked up from the crossword puzzle on the kitchen table. In the three weeks since losing his job, he arose early to pour over the classifieds, drawing circles and making notes with a red pen. First the red pen went missing, replaced by a chewed pencil stub; then the classifieds evolved into the crossword puzzle.

“I’ll get right on it,” he said. He inspected the aluminum screen door casement, loose for the third time since they’d moved into the house.

No amount of carpentry eradicated the dry rot, which was—what? A bug, like termites? No. A fungus. She knew this once.

 Greg hauled his lightly-used tools up from the basement, fumbling with the buckle of the tool belt.

“You know,” she said. “Jason’s off to college in the fall. Maybe after you fix the door you could call an executive search firm?”

“No need to traffic with head hunters,” Greg aimed his power screwdriver skyward, squinting at the tip as if puzzling over whether college and job searches required a Philips bit. “I’ll take care of it.”

He left the house a couple of hours later without changing out of his t-shirt and the jeans with holes in the knees. Headed, she assumed, for the hardware store.

* * *

Donna piloted her cart into the checkout lane, watching Greg pack a pair of canvas totes for an old woman—canned goods on the bottom, lighter stuff on top, fragile tomatoes and eggs nestled in pillows of produce. Greg had worked as a bagger at the grocery store for a month, since the day after he’d tried to fix the door.

“Would you like some help out to your car with that ma’m?” Greg said to the old woman. “You sure?”

He sounded so fucking agreeable.

Greg possessed a gift for spatial reasoning, an expert at packing suitcases, stuffing the car with camping gear, arranging luggage and snow tires in the attic. He knew how things fit. He looked happier than he had in years.

A wave of doubt almost compelled Donna to pull out of line and abandon the shopping cart. He’d stopped looking for other work that might provide health insurance or a living wage. She’d offered to look for a job, but Greg would not discuss the situation. Something had to be done.

Her hand trembled while transferring items from cart to conveyor belt, spaced for visual effect. The obscene price of an ounce of saffron—a small tangle of red stamens suspended in a glass vial like culinary plutonium—materialized on the screen.

“Will that be paper or plastic?” Greg said.

Donna blinked at his big dumb smile. “You know we always do paper.” She couldn’t help thinking he looked ten—no, fifteen—years younger. A manboy in an orange apron over the white shirt and suit pants he used to wear to the bank.  

“Paper it is, ma’m.”

The checkout clerk, a heavyset woman with Velcroed wrist braces, flicked items through a red spider web of laser light. Truffle oil. Beep. An excellent bottle of cabernet. Beep. French cheese covered in ash and cave-aged for two years. Beep. A selection of exotic fruits and vegetables rocking on the belt like gems on a jeweler’s baize. Beep, beep, beep.   

“Looks like you’re having one hell of a party,” the checker said.

“Yes,” Donna said. “Quite the party.” 

Greg parsed the objects into two hollow pillars of brown paper, the dancing total crowding the width of the display. Donna braced for some expression of outrage until she realized that the low sing-song was Greg humming along to the soft rock rendition of “A Day in the Life” on the PA.

The total made her stomach hurt as she swiped the debit card. Something else in the mysterious depths of economics misfired and the transaction failed to bounce.

“Would you like help out with that?” Greg said.

With that simple stupid grin that said—what? Trust?  

“No thanks.” She felt horrible—an ungrateful betrayer. “I’ll handle it myself.”

She returned all of the items after Greg’s shift. Except the wine.

* * *

The children rose to the occasion. Jason worked construction all summer and applied for emergency financial aid, deciding on community college when that failed to materialize. Morgan found a job at the mall and quit the cheer squad, a choice made without consulting her mother. Through a cooking class contact, Donna found an assistant manager position at a restaurant downtown despite her lack of culinary or management experience.

Their combined income covered the groceries, mortgage and utilities as long as nobody fell sick or turned up the thermostat, but they didn’t see much of each other. Donna ate standing up at the restaurant most nights, discovering the flexibility to roll with problems such as the Health Department inspection that discovered mold in the walk in. Donna inherited the manager position when the previous tenant left to become a long haul trucker.

Their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary fell on Donna’s day off, the gifts and dinners of the past now out of the question. She prepared a simple but elegant meal: goat cheese and roasted hazelnut salad; prawns sautéed in butter and garlic with capers; a light fettuccini; an underrated Semillon. She enjoyed cooking the meal, but the best part was sitting down to eat.

“You know,” Donna said after a few bites, “I considered leaving you. I spent an afternoon looking at family law listings in the phone book, that same day I went through your line with a cart full of luxury items. You pretended it didn’t bother you, like you trusted me to do the right thing.”

“When was this?” Greg said.

“You know. Two bags of groceries for $374.62? I returned them later.” Maybe it had been a mistake to bring this up, but in a weird way she felt changed for the better. Triumphant, but still in need of a reason. “Anyway, that was crazy. Happy anniversary. Cheers.”

Greg gulped his wine. “$374.62? What the hell did you buy?”

“Never mind,” she said. It was as if he’d been transformed into a giant insect operating on instinct, humor and emotions a luxury he could not afford. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“Look,” Greg shrugged. “About the job. I quit today. I can’t take the pressure.”

“Pressure?” Donna poured herself more wine and glanced at the phone book, six feet away on the shelf and tried to remember whether the listings appeared under “lawyers” or “attorneys.” He was broken, but it wasn’t his fault.

She thought about the plankton and wrasses and pelagic fish and sharks, all devouring each other. She heard the low frequency cries of enormous creatures approaching to feed on the vast quantities of tiny shrimp, massed together but defenseless.

Krill. 

 

Robert P. Kaye's stories have appeared or in The Los Angeles Review,MonkeybicyclePer Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, Jersey Devil and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. Links appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with the Litwrack Blog, about the spectacular slo-mo collision of literature and technology.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Peter Myers: A Long Way to Nowhere

A LONG WAY TO NOWHERE

 

     Jim Forester guns the accelerator.  In front of him, the road winds upward through barren rocky hills streaked with red, yellow, and white strata, the hillcrests dotted with juniper and pinyon, a land laid open to chance and geology, behind him the country falling away beneath a stark New Mexico sun with the road receding eastward, and beyond that, Texas and the conversation of the night before.

     “I bought a gun.”

     The bar fell silent.

     His friends gazed at him through thick clouds of cigarette smoke.

     “A Beretta nine millimeter.”

     His friend Dennis took a long drag from his cigarette and squinted at him through the dim light of the bar.  “Yup,” he said, the smoke coiling from his mouth, “that’ll do the trick.”

     “That’s good, Jim” said his friend Greg.  “Being out on the road as much as you are, you need some protection.”

     “Oh, you mean besides the kind they sell in the men’s room?” said Jim.

     The three men laughed.

     “No-no-no,” said Dennis, “I think what he’s trying to say is that besides condoms, a gun’s good too.”

     “Ah,” said Jim.  “That’s reassuring.”

     “Damn right it is,” said Greg.  “It’s reassuring to have a gun.  It’ll give you a sense of control.  You can rest better at night.”

     Ah, rest, thought Jim.  God knows he could use it, yet in spite of having owned the gun for three weeks now, he’d detected little improvement in sleep, the irony of which was not lost on Jim whose very bread and butter hinged on a commodity any daytime doctor’s show will tell you we need more of--a pleasant night’s rest.  A top salesman for Supreme Mattress, Jim sells “rest” all over West Texas and New Mexico, but after fifteen years of service, was recently--and unjustly, thought Jim--passed over for a better paying management position in Austin, a decision over which he’d had little control.  It kept him up at night. 

     Then, of course, there was that other thing.

     “So, how’s Jean?” asked Dennis.

     Jim sighed and downed the rest of his Scotch and water.  Hell, it assured a better night’s rest than any foam or latex mattress Supreme made.  And lately, the last thing he wanted was to lose sleep over Jean.

     “She’s okay, I guess,” said Jim.  “In Dallas, I reckon.”

     “Dallas?” 

     “Yeah, shacked up with that ad man.”

     All those hours on the road, thought Jim.  All that dedication to the company, all that time away from home, a home he hardly knew.  And what had it gotten him?

     “The divorce was final three weeks ago,” added Jim. 

     The bartender set a new drink in front of Jim as he considered his last year with Jean, the funny change in her voice, a distance between them that persisted even when he was home, the lack of sex, and then, finally, Jean’s unexpected confession of the affair with an advertising director from Dallas.  Christ, they’d even done it in his own bed while Jim was away in Albuquerque.  This man he never even knew had plundered his home, stolen his wife, taken fifteen years of his marriage.  For once, he was glad there were no children.  When the divorce was final, Jim got the house.  The first thing he did was burn the old mattress.  Then he slept on the couch. 

     The next day, he bought the gun.

     He liked how it felt in his hand, the metallic click of the action, the clink of spent shells at his feet, the holes it put in the heart of the target. 

     “So, where are you headed tomorrow?” asked Greg.

     Jim sipped at his drink and frowned.  “Farmington, New Mexico” he said.

     “Hum, long drive,” said Dennis.

     “Yeah, long way to nowhere,” said Greg.

     “Hell,” said Jim.  “I already live in nowhere.”

     “Nowhere” is what early Spanish explorers called the Llano Estacado, the flat plains of northwest Texas, so flat you’d think you could see all the way to eternity, except what lies along the horizon is really New Mexico and out there somewhere, more Supreme stores clamoring for mattresses.    

     As his car climbs higher into the hills, Jim figures he can make Farmington by evening, but not early enough to visit his first customer.  Anyway, Julie’s Bar will still be open for a nightcap before bedtime.  He can rest assured of that.  In the meantime, he could use a rest stop.  His legs are tired and he hasn’t stopped since Santa Rosa.  Fortunately, just ahead is mile post 64, which has a nice rest stop with toilets and, if you’re a geologist, a nice view of the colorful rock strata that stretch across the land.  He’ll just stop for a moment, use the facilities, stretch his legs, and then be on his way.

     Jim pulls off the road and into the rest stop.  This is lonely country with almost no traffic, and since it’s a hot summer day, he leaves the car running so the air conditioner can keep the interior cool while he’s in the restroom. 

     When he emerges from the rest facility, Jim gazes at the country around him.  To the east, the mountains stretch north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe where clouds build and shadow the mountains in blue haze, but here, the sky is clear, the sun brilliant.  The country suits his mood, the clear air and the strident colors that cut across the land, the turquoise tint of the sky over the hills.

     A red Cadillac pulls into the rest stop and parks behind Jim’s car.  A big man wearing a straw cowboy hat, a white western shirt, and jeans gets out of the car and enters the rest facility.  His passenger, a blond woman, sits in the car, waiting.

     Jim pulls up on the door handle of his car.  The door doesn’t open.  He pulls again, then again.  For crying out loud, he’s locked the keys in the car.

     Seeing Jim’s predicament, the blond woman opens her door and approaches.  She wears a dark pair of Ray-Bans and a white summer dress covered in red and yellow floral patterns.  Her hair is long and straight and falls across tanned, freckled shoulders. 

     “Got nowhere to go now, do you?” she says, standing next to Jim.

     “Ah, I guess not,” says Jim.  “But then I’ve been going nowhere a long time.”

     “Ooh, do I detect a little negativity there?”

     Jim looks back at his car.  “Yeah, I can’t believe I locked the keys in my car in the middle of nowhere.”

     The woman looks eastward across the barren valley as a flicker of lightning cuts the blue haze over the distant mountains.  “Yeah, well I’ve been in worse places.”  She puts a hand on his shoulder and smiles.  “My hunch is you have, too.  Don’t worry.  I know we’ve got an extra coat hanger in the car.  We’ll see what we can do.”

     As she turns and walks back to the car, Jim watches the sway of her hips, her tentative steps as she tries to avoid turning a heel on the uneven asphalt of the rest stop pavement.  He watches her open the trunk of the car and re-emerge with a coat hanger she’s already bending into shape for the job ahead.

     “Now,” she says, standing beside Jim’s car door, “let’s see what we can do.”  She pushes the hooked end of the hanger through the rubber sealing between the window and door frame.

     “Looks like you’ve done this a few times,” says Jim.

     Glancing at Jim, she smiles.  “More than a few, my friend.”

       

     As she maneuvers the wire hanger behind the glass, Jim watches the concentration in her face, the way the sunglasses ride lower along the bridge of her nose, revealing olive green eyes, the skin wrinkling in an inverted V between her brows.  We’re coconspirators, he thinks, though he’s not sure why his mind seizes upon the concept of conspiracy.  Something to do with claiming what’s rightfully yours, he tells himself.

     “If I can just get it right,” she says, the pink tip of her tongue sliding along her lips.

     Jim gazes back at the red Cadillac parked behind his white Nissan.  “Looks like you’ve got it right to me,” he says.

     She notices his glance toward the Cadillac.  “Well, appearances aren’t everything,” she says.

     “Ooh, do I detect a little negativity there?”

     She smiles again and maneuvers the wire hook to make a grab at the inside door handle.  “If I can grab the handle just right, it’ll open this up.”

     “Sounds like a metaphor for life,” says Jim.

     Jim can see the reflection of her smile from the car window.   “You’re the brooding philosophical type, aren’t you?” she says, twisting the hanger.  “What opens life for you?”

     “Hum, beds, I guess.”

     The woman glances back at him, then goes back to maneuvering the hanger.  “I beg your pardon.”

     “Oh, I’m a mattress salesman.  Actually, an accounts representative for Supreme Mattress.”

     She bites her lower lip as she maneuvers the hanger into position to catch the door latch.  “The company with the sheep ads?”

     “No,” says Jim.  “That’s a competitor.”

     “Good,” she says.  “I hate sheep.”

     “Why’s that?”

     “My husband raises sheep.”

     “Oh yeah?” says Jim, looking back at the rest facilities.

     She makes a grab at the door handle with the hooked end of the hanger, but the hanger slips off.  “Almost had it that time,” she says.

     “So, what do you do?” asks Jim.  “If you don’t mind me asking.”

     “Drink vodka, mostly,” she says, glancing at Jim before refocusing on the task at hand.  “And seven,” she says, repositioning the hanger.

     “That’s quite a hobby.”

     “Well it didn’t used to be,” she says.  “I used to paint.”

     “Paint?”

     “Yeah, you know, oil paintings.  Sometimes watercolors, but mostly oils.”

     “Is that right?”

      “Yeah, I sold several.  Gained a little fame.”  She nods toward the east.  “Mostly with those artsy-fartsy types up in Santa Fe.  Then what I painted later didn’t sell so well.”

     “Why’s that?”

     She maneuvers the hook of the hanger into position again, this time just catching the end of the door latch before the hook slips off.

     “What’d you used to paint?” asks Jim.

     “Oh, pastoral Peter Hurd stuff.  You know, distant mountains and golden grassland, lonely farm houses and windmills, maybe a thunderstorm in the distance.”

     “And then?”

     This time, she’s really concentrating, her upper teeth bearing down on her lower lip.  She seems not to hear him, and as the hook slips once more, she answers:  “I got married.”

     “Ah, that’ll do it,” says Jim, looking back toward the rest facility.

     “Second time,” she adds.  “Three years ago.” 

     Jim gazes back to the east where the tops of the storm clouds have blown into an anvil above the mountains.  “So what do you paint now?”

     “Oh, people with stories in their faces,” she says, arching her brows and gazing at Jim.  “You know, people that maybe life hasn’t been too kind to.”

     “So,” says Jim, “nobody buys suffering, huh?”

     She fixes Jim in her gaze, then focuses again on the handle.  “Would you?” she says, making one more grab at the handle like it’s the last chance. 

     The lock clicks.

     “Ah!” she yells, throwing her arms around Jim.  “I got it!” 

     She reminds Jim of his ex-wife when she was his girlfriend back in high school and he’d just won a big stuffed animal at the local county fair.  Awkwardly, he responds by embracing this unfamiliar woman with whom he feels a strange connection, but just as he does, she’s ripped from his arms, falling backwards, her face whirling back away toward the direction of the blue mountains, in front of which now stands the big man in the western shirt and the cowboy hat who, grabbing both arms, wrestles her toward the car, yelling something about what she’s doing, about why she isn’t in the car, about why

she’s . . . .

     Jim stares, dumbfounded.

     The big man opens the passenger car door, but when she says something to him, he slaps her, backhanded, then shoves her into the car.  He walks around the front of the Cadillac, fixing his gaze on Jim.

     “You got somethin’ to say?” he asks.

     “What the hell, man?  She was just helping me—“

     “Yeah!” yells the big man.  “I saw what she was doing.”

     “But wait, you don’t understand.  She was helping me—”

     The big man points at him.  “Buddy, you better get on down the road or I’m gonna give you an understanding you’ll never forget.”

     Jim hesitates, then gets back in his car.  From the side mirror, he sees the big man still standing there, watching. 

      Jim remembers the gun.  Opening the glove box, he retrieves the Beretta and gets back out of the car just as the big man opens the driver’s door of the Cadillac.

     Jim approaches the Cadillac.  As they’d taught him at the firing range, he braces his right hand with his left to steady his aim, which is directly at the big man’s chest.

     The big man stares at Jim, then gazes at the gun.

     “So,” says the big man.  “You’re goin’ full bad-ass on me now, huh?”

     “There’s no reason to treat her like that,” says Jim. 

     The big man stands there, his hands on his hips.  “So, what are you gonna do now?  Kill me?”

     Jim can feel his wrists beginning to tremble. 

     The big man stares at him.  “Christ,” he says, “I read guys like you all the time.”  He squints hard at Jim in the brilliant sunlight, then shakes his head.  With his right hand, he makes a sudden grab for the gun, his left hand grabbing Jim’s right wrist.  The big man wrestles the gun from Jim’s grasp.  Holding the gun, he towers over Jim, squints back at him, and smiles.  “Nice bluff, bud,” he says, turning to get back in his car.  “But hell, next time you might take the safety off before you threaten someone.”  He ejects a bullet from the chamber, then unloads the magazine from the gun and hurls it into the thick olive-green sage beside the rest stop. 

     Jim stands there, watching.  The big man laughs.  “Here’s your gun back, Mr. Eastwood.  You made my day.”  He hands the unloaded gun back to Jim, closes the car door, then tips his hat politely at Jim before gunning the engine and leaving skid marks across the rough asphalt of the rest stop.

     After searching through the sage for maybe ten minutes, Jim finds the gun’s magazine.  By now, it’s too late to do anything, he figures.  Hell, he didn’t think to get the Cadillac’s license number, and as he tries his cell phone, there’s no signal.   

     Inserting the magazine back into the pistol, Jim gets back into his car.  Putting the pistol back in the glove box, Jim pulls back onto the road, his heart pounding as he floors the accelerator and feels the Nissan wind through its sequence of gears as he climbs upward across the crest of high hills and then over, where the road descends steeply to the north, stretching straight out for miles ahead through rocky high desert that now, for the first time in fifteen years, strikes him as the most desolate place he’s ever been.  

     Without glimpsing a red Cadillac for fifty miles, Jim turns west at Bloomfield and heads toward Farmington where orange barrels line the road and warn of danger, of road construction, uneven lanes, sudden stops.  Reaching Farmington, he checks into the local motel Supreme always sends him to, then grabs a quick dinner at a local restaurant.  By 10:30, he’s seated at the bar in Julie’s. 

     Hours later, and after several Scotch and waters, Jim notices how the white band of skin around his wedding finger has faded.  He thinks about Jean, of the day she’d confessed the affair, of her olive eyes clouded with tears, how she kept brushing the long blond hair from her brow, hair that fell so lovely across her freckled chest and shoulders.

     He thinks of all those years on the road, all that dedication to the company, about the “good friend” who’d gotten the managerial job in Austin.

     He thinks about the day’s events.

     He remembers the Beretta in the glove box of the car but, for some reason he can’t articulate, feels in no way reassured. 

     The bartender switches on the overhead florescent lights, signaling “last call.”  In the brilliant glare, Jim sees the older man he’s become staring back at him from the mirror behind the bar, the graying of his temples, the first white whiskers in the neatly trimmed beard around his chin, and squinting back at him, eyes filled less with wisdom than . . . . 

     “Last call, my friend,” says the bartender.  “Anything else?”

     Jim tips his glass toward the bartender and nods.  “One more Scotch and water, please.  Better make this one a double.”

 

Peter Myers has a Master of Arts degree from Texas Tech University where he teachesin the freshman English program. He has had short stories published in Cottonwood, Thin Air, Talking River Review, and Willow Review.
Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Jeff Lacy: Robbie Brewer

ROBBIE BREWER

Robbie Brewer was destined to stand in the road holding a sign with STOP on one side and SLOW on the other.  That’s what his brothers said: Lewis who maintained Port-a-Potties, and Stewart, who worked at the county Water and Sewer treatment plant.  His Uncle Nathan, an executioner at the prison down at Jackson said that the only road work that he was cut out for was picking up trash along the side of the road on a Department of Corrections detail.  He’d given up the guitar his mother bought for him on the Home Shopping Network to play it at her funeral.  He couldn’t follow the video lessons.  When the cancer killed her, his brothers cussed and beat him black and blue.  “You stupid idiot.  Cain’t even pluck out a few thangs on that geet’tar for yoar momma?”

He sneaked onto old man’s Quarrel’s private pond property instead of going to the funeral and caught a line of sixteen crappy and brim, and, for the first time, felt sorry for his catch.  After a moment, he pulled the fish from the muddy edge, unthreaded each from the stringer, and watched them flit into the cover of the water.

He believed and meditated over everything they said about him.  Beat a mule repeatedly over time, neither for good or bad, just for the hell of it, and that mule won’t be good for anything.  “He’ll just sat,” some old-timer told him.

Robbie untied the laces of his black wing tips that jammed his toes and had made a blister on his heels, peeled off the brown socks, unbuttoned the white dress shirt and slung it to the ground, piled his undershirt on top, pulled down his gray pants and boxers and stomped them free. 

He would grow gills and fins, and be stronger than the biggest catfish, quicker than the smartest bass, and fisherman would not catch him.  He would speak and understand each fish, and their voices would not vibrate in his head like dull serrated knives that made him anxious and withdraw from people.

He walked into the numbing murky water up to his chest, then glided smoothly under.  His family never made an effort to find him.

 

Jeff Lacy was born and raised in Georgia. For many years he worked as a public defender and a prosecutor in the Atlanta area and on the Georgia coast. He received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Nebraska. His stories have been collected in Good Intentions, available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Frank Scozzari: Two Men and a Gun

Two Men and a Gun

It’s hard to say exactly how I ended up in this dreadful situation, although I could easily put all the blame on the Thomas-Cook train schedule. If they had made their timetables were a little easier to read, and their columns more evenly aligned, I may have never ended up on a midnight train to Athens. Yet here I was, sandwiched in among all the dissolute of Southern Europe in a third-class train compartment, trying to figure out how I was going to get some sleep.

It was bench seating only, benches that faced one another, with such little space between them that one had to sit straddling the knees of the person opposite you. There were smells of human body odor and of middle-eastern cooking, zeera and black cumin, the mixture of which was not a pleasant thing. I couldn’t imagine someone could be cooking in such confined quarters. I looked around but couldn’t make out where the smell was coming from.

Across from me was a sinister-looking character; a man in his mid-thirties with narrow-eyes and high cheekbones. I assumed he was from North Africa, although one could never really be sure about this kind of thing when traveling along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. He had dark skin and an angular face, and he was carrying a canvas satchel with Nubian markings. He was a man of mixed races, and a man who could not be trusted, I knew. Call it experience, or traveler’s intuition, after logging many miles through third-world countries one acquires an instinct for this kind of thing. I had encountered this type before; trouble, not in size, but in opportunist nature. And I saw the furtiveness and cleverness in his eyes. He was filthy and unshaven. His clothes were soiled. Among the many odors in the train compartment, one was particularly strong and I assumed it came from him.

And in the instant I was thinking this I caught his dark eyes studying my carry-bag. The satchel, which I kept on my lap, had a shoulder strap securely wrapped around my neck. In it were my most valued items; my passport and credit cards, what few euros I had left, and some souvenirs I picked up along the way. His eyes went from the bag itself, to the attachment latch, and followed up the strap to where it disappeared around my shoulder. When he realized I was watching him he quickly turned away. He had a satchel too, and when he saw me looking at it, he pulled it closely to his side.

I brought my hand thoughtfully up to my chin. It was only then that I realized I was likewise filthy and unshaven. Perhaps it was I who smelled of body odor? I thought. I discreetly took a sniff of my underarm but could not tell if the odor was coming from me or not.

It had been nearly three days since I had taken a bath. Having crossed by ferry from Brindisi the night before, arriving in Corfu in the early morning hours, there was no time to shower or shave. By the time I reached Patras, sleepless and exhausted, I was desperate to find a sink or washbasin. But the train station had only the old, European-style bathrooms with a launching platform, no running water, and a bucket for a flush.

            It was an uncomfortable arrangement no matter how you look at it. And despite the lack of accommodations and the desperate guy across from me, sleep, I knew, was what I needed most. I looked around the car. It was completely full. A group of young Europass students had already commandeered the one small piece of floor space and were sleeping there, piled on top of one another.

I pulled my carry-bag close to me, keeping an eye on the man across from me, and I tried to get comfortable. In shifting my body weight I accidentally bumped his leg.

“Excuse me,” I said.

He did not reply.

He was sleepy too, I could tell, and as tired as I. His eyes were bloodshot and his lids looked heavy and like they wanted to drop. He also shifted uncomfortably and likewise pulled his satchel in close to his side. Then he curled his hand around it and held on to it like it was filled with gold. It made me wonder what he had in it. Maybe he’s a gem trader? I thought. Or the thief of a gem trader?

            If only he would fall asleep. If he would sleep, then I could do the same. And almost exactly when I thought of it, I saw his lids beginning to drop. Go down, I thought. Yes. Let them go down. Let them drop. But then the thought crossed my mine: What if he’s faking? Lulling me into a false security, so that I would sleep, only to wake up hours later and find my carry bag gone, cut from my shoulder with a knife.

            We both exchanged guarded, hard looks, and bouts of drowsiness. His eyes would close, and his head would bob, and then he’d snap himself back awake. And I, in one instant, lost all consciousness, although just for a few seconds, awaking to see him glancing at me with a little smirk on his face.

            Not so easy, I thought.

I caught him pinching himself, and then shaking his head, trying to shake out the drowsiness.

You’re going down, I thought. I can outlast you. But each time I saw him struggling, I found myself struggling too; fighting off the inevitable sleep that I knew would eventually win over my body.

The night wore on. The vintage train rattled over the tracks. The noise and motion helped kept us both awake. Still, as the hours passed, it became nearly impossible. The accumulation of three bad nights had caught up with me. The weight of my eyelids were feeling like lead shutters, ready to close for a long winter. I did everything I could to fight it. I tilted my head back, and then sideways. I scratched my side, though I didn’t have an itch. The good news was that he was not doing much better. I watched his head bobbing. I watched him fighting it, and clinging to his pouch more protectively.

And finally I saw him unclasp the middle button of his shirt and reach down deep into it; down along his side. His eyes gleamed at me. He gave me a little grin, and a head-nod, letting me know that he had something there, a knife or a gun perhaps. It didn’t matter what, I realized. He had a weapon of some sort down there in his shirt, and whatever it was, it brought him fresh confidence, and comfort enough to sleep.

And now his eyes began to close and his expression was sure. I watched him with one eye still open, watching me.

And he’s probably a light sleeper, I thought, with a hair-trigger finger that’s equally light and fast. 

It is unfair, I thought, as my eyes, too tired and too heavy to fight it any longer, began to close. There was no justice in it. This scoundrel would have a peaceful night while I would suffer from frequent awakenings and sleep apnea.

Then it dawned on me that I had an option too. The idea seemed too obvious, yet likely to work. I unbuttoned an opening in my shirt and reach down with my hand, down along the side of my chest to where I kept nothing. I left my hand there, warm against my side, and I watched him, his one eye still open, watching me, but fluttering closed.

Okay, I thought, détente. And I smiled at him, a little smile; a warning smile, and I closed my eyes and slept.

 

Frank Scozzari's fiction has previously appeared in various literary magazines including The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Folio, The Nassau Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, The Berkeley Fiction Review, and The MacGuffin. Writing awards include Winner of the National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three Pushcart Prize nominations.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Elizabeth Silverman: Nuclear

Nuclear 

Twangy music played from the neon jukebox in the corner, some old singer cooing about lost loves and homesick hearts. It was a forgotten song that might have topped the charts years ago, but was now just a remnant of a glossier, sweeter past. The music would skip occasionally, reminding him that these were mere echoes of a dead time. A sick smoke draped over the room concealing dampness and spilled liquor.

            “I hate this goddamned song,” Mason said, looking at the bartender. He had lifted up his head for this proclamation, the only time he had looked up the entire night from the glasses of liquor he had nursed. There were only a few people in the bar. Some men were crowded around tables after work, guffawing. Some even tried to sing along to the song, contributing to even more laughter.

            The night grew more liquid, more brown and misty after each drink. With the haze and the smoke settling over the room, it seemed to him like a dream, and he began to think about the past.  He missed his love, he missed the smell of her age, the secrets she had whispered, her voice singing him to sleep.  

            “What time is it?” he grunted.

The bartender’s skin was tan like worn old leather. His face was rough and loose, and his milky brown eyes were draped by a thick layer of skin. Glistening rows of cheap gin, whiskey and scotch were propped on dark wooden shelves behind him. Despite the bartender’s prayers, most of the expensive liquors on the top shelf had never been moved, and dirt settled around them. He grimaced at the man who had spoken.

            “It’s 10 o’ clock,” he said, wiping off the bar with a rag soaked in drinks from clumsy customers, making it dirtier than it already was.  

The brown haze that had developed around the room disappeared, and Mason was abruptly brought back from his daydreams. The record began to skip, the ancient muse repeated “Love him ‘til I die” over and over again, and he stood up, holding onto the bar, coughing on his last gulp of whiskey.

            “You know you owe me some money, son,” the bartender said, ignoring the emerging horror that had suddenly gripped the man, and handing him his bill.  

            “Something’s really wrong,” Mason murmured, pulling out a scratched-up phone from his pocket and dialing a number from memory.  

After a few rings, his tears began, a sadness coupled with anger. He quickly redialed the number and held the phone reverently at his ear, waiting for her to answer.

            “You owe me thirty-five dollars, son,” the bartender said, a little louder this time.

Mason glared at him, darting pupils surrounded by angry blue rings.

The bar was quiet.  “Son, thirty-five dollars. I don’t give a damn about your problems, but I do give a damn about my money.”

Rage was welling up inside of him that didn‘t have anything to do with his seven shots of whiskey. Tiny bursts of anger went off inside of his stomach as his excitement grew, and with a punch that cracked the bartender’s rough face, he screamed:

            “My name is Mason and I am NOT your son!

______

                                                 

He didn’t know his wife. Her face was strained, and the tubes wrapped around her body like a clear plastic cocoon. Her eyes were closed, and it was only the heaving of her chest that reminded him of the life inside.

The room smelled like chemicals. Chemicals to clean the bed Abigail lay on, chemicals to make the white floor gleam, chemicals to make the air smell like lemons. He hated chemicals.        A few hours ago, the staff had been restless. They had asked him questions he didn’t know how to answer. They crowded around his wife like feasting dogs circling a carcass. They stuffed tubes down her nose, hurriedly stabbed needles into her veins, moved her body around with jerking, quick motions. He tried to explain to some of the doctors that he had kept her in a nice environment, away from the city and the smoke, but they didn’t seem to care. He had read about pollutants in the air once in a magazine at his dentist’s office, and he thought they would like to know that she wasn’t polluted. Her body was safe, away from all of the toxins. They had tried to explain what had stolen her – he thought they said “stroke” and “brain-dead” a few times, but their lips moved too quickly, and the words on the charts they pushed in front of him blended together until each page became a giant blot, blurred and foreign.  

He wasn’t sure what he should be doing amidst the chaos. He shook and eagerly looked to Abigail’s body, begging for direction. They had married young, they had their son when she was only eighteen, and their daughter when she was twenty. He supposed Abigail imagined she was made for better things and resented him. He never really knew because he never asked her. He was afraid of what she might do, if she might hate him even more for asking, for reminding her that she could have been more.

He did not know what to do now that she was silent.

______

           

Her hair frizzed, forming a strange reddish halo of strands above, jutting out awkwardly, making her face seem even more petite and mousey than it already was. Her clothes were too big, and her eyes were large, perpetually astonished. Her shirt was bright red, her nametag misspelled and sideways over her right breast: “Virjinia.”

She stood in the doorway, her mouth agape, staring at her mother. She stood still against the flurry of movement from the hospital hall.

“Hey, Virginia,” Burt said, attempting comfort. “Why don’t you come in?”

He smiled awkwardly at his only daughter, but when he realized she was still fixated on the body of Abigail, his smile disappeared, replaced by a furrowed brow, his eyes concerned.

            Virginia continued to stare, tears creeping down her cheeks. She walked over to the bed of her mother, the haunted shell of a body taunting, promising that indeed there was life inside, but Virginia couldn’t be a part of it.

            She brushed away her mother’s stray wisps of hair from her face and then cupped her cheek.

            Her father moved forward to place a comforting hand on Virginia’s shoulder. Though he saw his daughter almost every day, he felt this was an opportunity to show her that he and she were feeling the same thing. His eyes grew watery when he looked again to Abigail, and finally made contact with Virginia’s sweater, the sad and broken circle of this family he had made burned in the pit of his stomach.

            Virginia whirled around, the glow of empathy gone entirely.

            “Damn it, Burt, what the hell did you do to her?”

He recoiled but chose to remain silent, sitting once more, giving her a slight shrug, that, to her, showed his lack of caring.

            “I knew I shouldn’t have left her with you, the doctors said this could happen.”

            She turned to her mother once more, straightening Abigail’s hospital gown and tucking her under layers of thin white blankets.

            “Where’s Mason, did you call him?” she asked in an irritated tone. Her father shrugged once more before grabbing a magazine.

            “Jesus Christ, Burt, I know we have no idea where he is, but he has a cell phone – you could have called his cell phone.”

Her father silently condemned himself, “But the cell phones,” - he began.

            “They do not microwave your brain. Don’t be stupid.”

            “It’s a slow process,” he whispered, barely audible in his defense. He put the magazine closer to his face, pretending to strain his eyes.

            An animal cry from outside of the room made both Burt and Virginia suddenly aware of the chaos of the hospital. Mason stumbled into the room, crashed down on his knees and wept. He reached for her while on the floor, his face ruined with red and rage. Two orderlies came into the room in response to the howl. Mason formed his hands into fists at the sound of their footsteps and rose from the floor. He turned and swung at the men, more primal screams erupted from his throat. Virginia rushed to her mother’s body, guarding it from her brother, and Burt sat still, his face buried in the magazine, reading the article headline over and over until it became nothing.

                                                                        ______

 

Posters of half-naked women lined the walls, teasing and winking. A thick layer of dust had formed on every surface in the small room surrounded by wooden paneling. Mason lay on his bed, though his feet hung over the footboard. He knew he should be comforted by the reminders of his youth; twenty years had passed since he had returned to it. But without his mother there, his old furniture and posters just made him sick, and he thought about the record skipping in the bar last night, the singer desperately repeating her vow.                                                  She had always loved him the most, hadn’t she told him that in private? He had always been her jewel, her treasure. He had broken her heart when he had left home at the age of eighteen, but she always called at 9:00 pm, and he would always answer. No matter how many times he was arrested, no matter how often he would answer the phone drunk, he knew he was her precious son, her sweet, her reason for life. She told him that. He wondered if a broken heart could make someone’s brain broken, could make someone that old end up in a hospital bed, crumbling. They had to turn her over so that she didn’t get bed sores, like chicken that had to be flipped in the frying pan so it didn’t get overcooked.

He heard the creak of his bedroom door, and Virginia marched in, hands stuffed with paper. “Mason, I’m sorry no one called you,” she announced.

 Virginia stood, waiting for reassurance. She was nothing like their mother. Mason shook his head in response, sat up in bed and tried to keep his food down; though he couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten anything. Virginia left the room without any further apologetic attempt, and Mason put his hand over his mouth and closed his eyes, trying to recall details from last night. He remembered screaming when he saw his mother, his love, lost under bed sheets and illness, and Virginia hunched over her, trying to be her great protector. He knew she wanted their mother all to herself, something she had never been allowed before. He snorted in disgust.

Fine, she could have her. She could have the empty carcass.

                                                                        ______

That next morning Burt made breakfast, runny eggs with salt and butter, and pieces of stale toast. Virginia and Abigail had always done the shopping and cooking. His children sat at the table. Mason poked at the food with a fork, hair and clothing tousled from sleep. Virginia had pushed her plate aside, placing a stack of paper on the dark wooden table. The papers varied in shape, size, and color, and like a bird’s plumage speckled with ink, she splayed them out.

Virginia beamed, humming, pen in hand as she worked through the stack. She glanced up nonchalantly.

“The doctor said that we’ll have to pull the plug. You both probably figured this out. I think we should all stand around her today, say our goodbyes, and then we can take her off life support.” She paused, waiting for Mason to start yelling or for her father to walk away, but both sat at the table, listening intently. She had rehearsed this many times last night, but had never figured out how to transition into this next part.

“So, what time should we … when do you want to?”

She left the sentence hanging, limp and dead in the air. She didn’t want to ask “When would be the most comfortable time to kill our mother?”

“I’ll get some clothes on,” said Mason gruffly, putting his plate in the sink, grabbing his silent father’s half-finished plate of food.

Burt thought he should tell his son he hadn’t finished his breakfast before the rest of the food went down the garbage disposal. The remnants whirred down the drain as water rushed through, washing them down. The sink roared and Mason turned off the disposal and began to get ready.

______

 

Virginia, Mason and Burt held hands around Abigail. They were not religious, but Virginia had insisted. She had seen it once in a Lifetime movie, and the image of the family clasping hands around the dying body had stuck with her.

There were a few awkward moments of silence, and Mason had to walk away. He clenched his fists, better prepared to physically fight his sorrow than swallow it.

Burt kept his daughter’s hand grasped, relishing her touch. He tried to stare at something besides his wife. His eyes darted from his daughter to his son to the blank television, but always ended stuck on her body in the bed. This would be the last time he could watch her live. He was caught between his daughter’s show of affection and his own desperate urge to collapse where he stood.

Virginia had a speech prepared. She had her store’s shirt on, her name still wrong.

            “Dear Mom,” Virginia began, looking at her mother in the bed, her body seemed smaller since last time she visited. She tried to grin at Mason and Burt. Neither one of them made eye contact. She used her free hand to grasp her mother’s limp, cold one.  

            “You were a wonderful mo” –

            “Shut up!” Mason growled, shaking both Virginia and Burt’s hands from his own in disgust.

            “I don’t under” –

            “She’s a piece of meat, Virginia. She can’t love you right now, no more than she did when she was living.”

            Virginia began to unravel. He had ruined her speech. She wasn’t moving or even thinking, but mother was listening and judging.

            “Well, where the hell were you?” asked Virginia defensively. “It was me, it was me that took care of her, I took her to the doctor, and I was the one who helped her in the garden, who made food, who did the shopping. I have been with her for years and I could have gone just like you did, Mason. I could have left her alone, but I didn’t, and I never got a ‘thank you’ or a special phone call every night because I was there, I was always there!”

            “Nobody asked you to do that, Virginia” said Mason, grabbing his jacket. Nine o’ clock was approaching, and he suddenly understood that his mother’s gift had become a nightly curse.

            “I know, but I did it. And I deserve to make a speech.”

            “You can make the speech to Dad. She isn’t listening.”

Virginia stared at her brother as he left the hospital room with no further goodbyes.

Suddenly the speech wasn’t right. It made her feel sick and fake and they needed her at the store.

            “I’ll see you at home, Burt,” she said before grabbing her purse – a brown old bag, holey and worn - and leaving the room.

______

           

Everyone had left and he was alone with his wife.

They had unplugged all of the machines that had whirred and buzzed and the lights had stopped blinking. His son was circling; his daughter was staying in one place, weighty and apparent.

He looked at Abigail’s face, dark circles growing around her eyes. Death was settling in. He felt envious.                                                                                                                                     

She would never be forced to inhale cigarette smoke or exhaust fumes or eat animals that were fed medication. She would never worry about the ingredients in household cleaners or the radiation that came from cell phones, bouncing around, splitting everything that made her human into the tiniest pieces. 

 

Elizabeth Silverman is a pre-med student at Oakland University studying biology and psychology. Her passions are biochemistry and creative writing.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .

Cassandra Dunn: New York Fall

New York Fall

The flight had been a noisy, arid cross-country red-eye. I brushed my teeth and hair in the dim bathroom while Marcus waited in line for the rental car. Then we joined the slog out of the city. The first leg heading upstate was a tedious crawl. Marcus closed his eyes each time he braked, drowsing for a brief moment whenever the car wasn’t moving. This made me nervous, and I was already anxious, just a few hours from meeting his children for the first time.

“Want me to drive?” I offered.

He looked over, smiled, and squeezed my knee. “I’m exhausted.”

“I can tell.”

He pulled into the next rest area and we switched seats. Within moments of reentering the interstate, his head was thrown back, his mouth open, his breathing a steady slow rhythm.

“You can’t really sleep, because I have no idea where I’m going,” I said.

He gestured before us with a double flick of two fingers. Onward. And with that, he was out.

I stayed on the same route, hoping I wasn’t lost. The industrial structures of the city receded, replaced by trees thick with changing leaves, the beauty of New York fall, a season we didn’t have in California.

Marcus woke, briefly, just in time to tell me to take the next junction, as if his body had memorized the topography of the route upstate, every bend in the highway, and knew just when I’d need him. For all the times he’d made this very trek, perhaps it had.

I nudged him after another stretch of sluggish traffic, when the signs he’d warned me to look for started appearing: Fishkill, Plattekill, Spackenkill, Fallkill.

“What’s with the ‘kill’ places, anyway?”

“It’s Dutch. Means stream,” he said without opening his eyes. “We’re getting close.”

My stomach tightened. I was stiff from flying and driving, ready to be out of the car, to properly clean up and rest in our hotel room, but I wasn’t ready to be in the same town as his ex-wife and two kids. I thought I was ready, after seven months together, to know everything about him, but the intensity of our early romance seemed casual in comparison to the leap coming. The term “step-mother” loomed before me and I swept it aside. We were a good match, our twelve-year age difference never an issue, our views on the world in perfect sync. But he had a past, and this was the first time I’d had to address it. Accept it, if I wanted to continue seeing him.

At our hotel, Marcus negotiated for the first shower. He’d clean up, go get his kids, and by the time he’d made it back with them, I’d be done getting ready.

“In other words, your ex won’t like seeing me with you?” I’d heard his half of phone calls with her, knew she was a bundle of rage, still railing against him three years after the divorce.

He smiled and shrugged, unapologetic. “Pick-ups are dramatic enough without adding fuel to the fire.”

As he gathered his coat and keys, a new thought dawned on me.

“You told your kids though, right? They know I’m here?”

He smiled, all boyish charm, his left dimple on display, his blue eyes twinkling. “I told them I was bringing a friend, yes.”

“Friend?” I gestured around the hotel room, with its one bed, which they would be seeing in a half hour.

“They’re practically teenagers. They know what that means.” He kissed me and left. My agitation and I took a scalding shower, racing to get ready before they returned. A half hour later, there was no sign of him. He’d warned me that sometimes she refused to honor his visitations. Sometimes he had to show up with his lawyer, once even with the police, to insist that she allow the kids out of the house. I settled on the bed with my book, trying not to worry about it.

I awoke to the sound of the door opening, unable to place my surroundings. A beige hotel suite, a tacky blue bedspread beneath me, a novel on my lap, and Marcus’ smiling face peeking in the door.

“Decent?” he asked. Behind him I could see two tall blond children. I held up my book as if to throw it at him, and he laughed. “All clear,” he announced over his shoulder.

The children were not children. I’d been having visions of park outings, singalongs, story time at night. I knew their ages, 11 and 13, but I’d expected younger, for no particular reason. They stood before me, both as tall as me, and looked around the room, unimpressed.

“Where’s the remote?” his son asked.

“I think you mean, ‘hello, it’s nice to meet you,’” Marcus said. I held up my hand to stop him. My parents had divorced when I was 8, the same age this boy had been when Marcus packed up and left their childhood home. After that, I’d made every new girlfriend or boyfriend of my parents earn my trust. It seemed fair that I’d receive the same treatment.

The boy, gangly awkwardness with messy hair, turned to me with exaggerated attention. “Hello. Nice to meet you. Where’s the remote?”

I shrugged and pointed toward the armoire hiding the TV. “Maybe with the TV?”

“Duh,” his sister said. He turned and feigned hitting her, and she ducked dramatically. “Dad!” she yelled, although she had not been touched.

Marcus sighed, rolled his eyes, and put his arm around my shoulders. “Welcome to my life.” It weighed more than usual, his arm, pressing me down into the unwieldy moment.

“I’m Deanna,” I said to no one in particular.

“This is Kurt, and this is Rachel,” Marcus said.

Rachel slid her eyes toward me, the same sapphire as her father’s, but set off by rosebud lips, flushed cheeks, a heart-shaped face. She was breathtaking. She gave a half-wave and I tried not to stare. As I looked from her to Marcus and failed to see a strong resemblance, I had to wonder, was Marcus’ ex that beautiful?

Kurt battled the remote, unable to get off the hotel menu to the TV channels, smacking the device repeatedly on his knee in frustration. I held out my hand and he slapped the remote into it. I switched to a random TV channel, which happened to be showing Pirates of the Caribbean.

“Cool,” he said, settling down to watch some swashbuckling.

Marcus laughed. “Just like that, you’re in.” But I knew from experience that it wouldn’t be so easy.

Following one hour of allotted TV time, the kids spent two hours doing homework in the room, as their mother had instructed. Marcus bristled at the fact that they hadn’t done it the night before, whispering to me that his ex frequently sabotaged his time with the kids that way.

Marcus was a methodical, in-control programmer. I wasn’t used to seeing him at odds with his situation. I was charmed by his fallibility, relieved to see he wasn’t as perfect as he often appeared.

I read my book, Marcus worked on his laptop, and the quiet hours slid by to the sounds of rustling papers and dramatic sighs of kids forced to do homework on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

After that, we took a driving tour of the area. The kids wanted to show me their schools: their classrooms, where they ate lunch, where they had PE. Marcus asked questions about their studies and sports, and got back detailed answers about their friends and enemies. They were quintessential teenagers. I was awash in nostalgia for my own simpler days, before juggling student loans and grad school applications with my mother’s new heart condition and the demands of a glorified secretarial job that I’d grown to resent.

We settled on an early dinner at Denny’s. Or rather the kids did, and Marcus agreed without asking what I thought. The kids ate chocolate chip pancakes with strawberry milkshakes and I had to hide a smile at the memories it brought back, at how my brother and I had manipulated our own post-divorce father into feeding us nothing but sugar.

We debated possible movies. Marcus lobbied for a sci-fi picture despite Rachel announcing that robots gave Kurt nightmares. Kurt wanted the latest Pixar film. Rachel wanted a teen romance. The group looked to me for the tie-breaker. I finished my text message to my brother about the sugar rush down memory lane, then took an unnecessarily long sip of my diet Coke.

“I’m no help. I’d prefer the new vampire movie.”

“Me too!” Rachel yelled, sliding toward me on the booth bench. Marcus nixed it, as too bloody for Kurt. Rachel sighed with annoyance, then asked to see my play lists on my phone.

“Do you have a lot of games?” Kurt asked.

“No, but she has awesome music!” Rachel said. She looked me over with appreciation. Maybe she didn’t realize that I was only a decade older than her.

By the end of dinner Rachel and I had discovered a similar taste in movies, music, and books. When I told her I’d seen American Idiot back in Berkeley, on its pre-Broadway run, she slammed her fist dramatically against the table.

“Dad! That’s the Green Day show I wanted to see!”

Marcus looked at me, opened his mouth to say something, and I shook my head. Too much drugs, sex, and darkness, I thought, for such a sweet girl. Marcus nodded, looking out the window.

“Okay, so the sci fi movie then?” he announced.

His kids moaned in unison. One thing about Marcus, he always got his way. The movie was a special-effects bonanza with no plot and cardboard characters. Kurt spent the entire picture hiding behind his hands. There were robots everywhere.

Back in the room, Marcus folded out the couch into a bed for the kids.

“No way,” Rachel said. “I’m too old to share a bed with my baby brother.”

“Rachel, don’t be so dramatic,” Marcus snapped, throwing two pillows onto the bed. I pulled him aside.

“I wouldn’t have shared with my brother at thirteen. She might share with me, though. And you with Kurt.”

“No,” he said flatly. “She’s getting to be a sassy spoiled brat. Her mother’s doing. I won’t have it.”

“She’s thirteen. For thirteen she’s an angel.”

Marcus eyed me, unused to my challenging him, then gave a one-shouldered shrug. He called the front desk for a cot for Kurt. We settled down for the night, three beds crammed into a space that barely fit one. I resigned myself to not be getting up in the night for the bathroom, as the only path there involved crawling over Kurt.

As soon as I slid between the chilly starched sheets, my body started slipping toward sleep. I’d been up for thirty-four hours, not counting a brief nap on the plane. Marcus threw his leg over me and kissed my neck. I pushed him away.

“Don’t worry. They’re asleep,” he whispered. His hands found their way under my shirt.

“Goodnight,” I whispered back. I pushed his hands away. He tugged me closer.

“Goodnight,” Kurt said.

“Goodnight!” Rachel sang.

I elbowed Marcus and rolled away from him. I was jarred awake by a shriek in the dark. I sat up, with no idea where I was. It was quiet, cold, dark, and I had to pee. I scooted to the end of the bed, only remembering Kurt when I ended up on his legs.

“Oh, Kurt! Sorry.”

“I’m awake,” he whined. “That stupid movie.”

So, he was the one who shrieked, having a nightmare about the robots, as promised by Rachel. I scowled at Marcus’ snoring figure.

“Can I get you something? Water?”

“I’m kinda hungry,” he said. Growing boys were bottomless pits. My brother could eat a full dinner then chase it with two sandwiches back when he was Kurt’s age. I pulled a bag of trail mix from my carry-on bag and watched Kurt shovel handfuls into his mouth in the dimness. He finished, handed it back. “Now water?” I gave him a cup and he slammed it. “Okay. Goodnight,” he said, laying back down.

Within moments he was back asleep. I sat on the edge of the bed, watching him. It wasn’t easy, this new role as a father’s girlfriend, but it came more naturally than I’d expected. Who wouldn’t want to befriend these kids, who reminded me so much of my brother and I at the same age?

The next day we went to Roosevelt’s mansion, which Marcus thought was an important history lesson. It was a beautiful collection of grand antiques, so the kids were antsy with boredom, racing to get through it so that we could move on to something else. We finished the tour and stood on the lawn out back, on the bank of the gray Hudson River, braced against a chilly wind.

“The Vanderbilt mansion’s not too far from here,” Marcus said. His kids grumbled.

“What would you like to do?” I asked them. They looked at me with surprise, as if unused to the question. Being Marcus’ kids, it was possible they weren’t. He was a leader, not a follower.

“Swim at the hotel pool,” Kurt said. Rachel was quick to agree.

“No way. We didn’t bring suits, and your mom didn’t pack yours,” Marcus said.

Rachel sulked. Kurt kicked the ground until he’d knocked a few clods of grass free.

“Actually, I did bring mine,” I confessed. “Hotel frequently means hot tub, and I hate to travel unprepared.”

“You can buy one at the gift shop. And we’ll just stop by home to get ours!” Rachel cheered. Marcus gave me a flat look, unreadable. Usually he was an open book.

We stopped outside the house, an unremarkable brown ranch in a row of similar homes, not the spacious Victorian I’d expected from Marcus’ complaints about the beautiful home he’d lost in the divorce. Marcus sent Rachel in to fetch the suits. A moment later she emerged, her mother in tow, the woman’s tiny frame dwarfed by a huge hooded coat.

“He’s not a good swimmer, you know!” she yelled at Marcus through the windshield. Marcus waved his hands as if to say: I know, I know. His ex ducked and hurried back into the house. I didn’t get a good look at her, and the moment passed peacefully enough, but I was rattled, left with a sense of having been accosted.

“She wanted to check you out,” Marcus whispered to me before putting the car in gear.

Marcus and Rachel swam laps in the muggy indoor pool, racing each other. She shared his athleticism and competitive streak. Kurt was happy to simmer in the hot tub with me. When I got overheated I slid out, my legs dangling in the water. I noticed Kurt staring at my legs, mouth open. Later I mentioned it to Marcus, asked if he’d ever had the talk with Kurt. He waved me off.

“He’s too young. Legs are just legs to him.”

Later, as we took turns ducking into the bathroom to get ready for dinner, I sat next to Kurt.

“So, do you like any girls?” I asked.

He laughed, a nervous whinny, and looked at Rachel. “Shut up.”

Rachel stuck her tongue at him. “Claire Hudgins.”

“Shut up!” He threw a pillow at her and she laughed as she caught it.

“How about you?” I asked her, to keep it fair. “Any boys you like?”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Boys are stupid.”

I nodded. “Yes, especially at thirteen. But they get smarter as they get older. Hang in there.”

After my shower, I stepped out of the steamy bathroom and into a fight. Kurt wanted pizza for dinner, but Rachel had some sort of aversion to cheese, and Marcus wanted a steak house. Again, they looked to me to make the call.

“Anything but Denny’s,” I said. “But I’m not sure I can eat at a steak house.”

“Why?” Rachel asked.

“I’m a vegetarian.”

“Really? That’s so cool! You’re such a Californian, huh? I’d love to be a vegetarian.”

Marcus narrowed his eyes and picked up his keys. I could just imagine how thrilled the hostile ex would be if her daughter came home wanting to be a vegetarian just like her father’s new young girlfriend. After all, that’s how I’d become one, and my mother was still pissed about it.

“So, I guess it’s pizza,” Marcus said. I looked at Rachel, watched her mouth drop open in slow motion.

“But she doesn’t eat cheese,” I said.

“Thank you,” Rachel snapped.

“Well what the hell do you expect me to do? Drive to four different places for everyone?”

“That’d be awesome!” Kurt said.

“What about Italian?” I suggested. “You can get meat, Rachel and I can get pasta, Kurt can get pizza.”

As we settled at Olive Garden, the kids were hyper and chatty, wanting to know all about growing up in California, but Marcus was unusually quiet. He ordered a beer, finished it, ordered another one. The kids tracked his every sip. Kurt wadded up some bits of napkin and tossed them in the general direction of the beer, eventually making a few shots into the frosted mug.

“Dammit Kurt!” Marcus snapped. He snatched the beer off the table and headed off. I watched him go, sinking into the tension of the moment.

“Are you guys upset that I’m here?” I asked.

“No,” Rachel said. She and Kurt eyed each other sullenly. “Why do grown-ups drink?”

The question caught me off-guard. I reviewed my time with Marcus, but couldn’t think of a single incident of him being out of control drinking, or even drunk.

“My dad used to drink too much,” I said. “Does your dad sometimes do that, too?” I waited them out patiently. Thirteen wasn’t that long ago for me.

“Our mom,” Kurt said, and I heard the dull thud of his sister kicking him under the table.

“It’s okay,” I said. “All secrets are safe with me.”

Rachel shredded her napkin, making little balls, ammo for the next attack.

“She’s better now, but…” she whispered. She stirred her soup, selected a bread stick, shredded it into a heap of crumbs on the soup.

Marcus didn’t return, so I excused myself to the rest room and set off in search of him. I found him at the bar, sitting before something stronger than beer.

“They’re upset about the drinking,” I said. “You should talk to them about it, rather than storming off.”

“I know what they’re upset about. They’re my kids.” He stared at the mirrored row of bottles before him and sipped his drink.

I returned to the table and did my best to entertain the kids with tales of a California childhood. Just as we finished picking at our dinners, Marcus returned to pay the bill. I insisted on driving, and he held out the keys to me without making eye contact. Rachel directed me to her house, and in the driveway she climbed out without ceremony. The kids disappeared into the night with barely a goodbye.

Marcus set up the GPS, and I let the authoritarian British lady’s voice direct me back to the airport while he gazed out the window.

“Is it hard leaving them each time?” I asked.

“It is what it is,” he said. I watched the red and gold trees disappear from the stroke of our headlights, before the well-lit brick tenements took over the landscape.

“It’s never long enough to really reconnect before they go back to her,” he said.

“It’ll get better as they get older.”

“You think?”

“It did with my dad.”

He rested his hand on my knee, gave it a little squeeze.

We settled into our seats, ready for another long red-eye flight home. Marcus dozed as we climbed in altitude, leaving behind New York, his kids, his past. I watched him rest, head back, mouth open, typical Marcus. Except that he wasn’t just my Marcus anymore. He was a father to two kids who needed him more than forty-eight hours a month.

“Maybe we should move here,” I said. “I could just as easily go to grad school in New York.”

His eyes popped open. “Seriously? I don’t think you could survive it. They have winter here. You know what winter is?”

“Yes, I know what winter is. They need their father.”

“No,” he laughed. “You know what a ski trip is. Living in snow is a different matter. It’s not for you.” He patted my knee, squeezed it gently. “My little California girl.”

He tipped his head back, slid off to sleep. I pushed his hand off my knee.

 

Cassandra Dunn was a Glimmer Train Short Story Award finalist, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semifinalist, and Clapboard House’s Best of the House finalist. She’s published 11 short stories. She is represented by Harvey Klinger. Her debut novel, The Art of Adapting, is forthcoming July 2014 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. Her website is cassandradunn.com.

Posted on July 7, 2014 .