Unremarkable

Fiction / Rachele Salvini

 

:: Unremarkable ::

My first remark­able moment in Lon­don involved wit­ness­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a fox right in front of my new flat. I knew Gior­gio would like the sto­ry, but I didn’t call him. I didn’t even take a pic­ture for him. 

I didn’t live in the out­skirts of the city—I rent­ed a tiny room in an alley in Strat­ford, just a few steps away from the tube sta­tion, the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre, and the West Ham Sta­di­um. Not exact­ly a place where I expect­ed to see such an inter­est­ing dis­play of wildlife. But I came from a town on the west coast of Italy, and I didn’t know shit. I was one of the many Ital­ians leav­ing good weath­er, espres­so, and lasagna behind to try to find some luck in London. 

Gior­gio was still in Italy. We hadn’t actu­al­ly decid­ed if we were break­ing up or not; it was more of an open-end­ed exper­i­ment. He didn’t want to come to Lon­don with me, and we didn’t like the idea of being long-dis­tance indef­i­nite­ly, but nei­ther of us had the guts to break up. 

We had met in col­lege, years before. We had fall­en in love though we didn’t want to. 

*

Gior­gio and I were hap­py togeth­er, him study­ing cin­e­ma, me study­ing lit­er­a­ture. We talked about art and music, and we laughed all the time. We went to Frankie’s, our favorite dive bar in town, which was open only from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. We drank gin and ton­ics and kissed in front of every­one and danced like every­one was watch­ing us because of how radi­ant­ly in love we were. Then, by day, we would go to the sea­side; by night, when we didn’t go out, we hid in his grand­par­ents’ garage, watched movies, made love, and smoked dope. We had bought a small bed from a thrift store for ten euros. We just want­ed to hide. We didn’t care about bed bugs. 

For three years, all that had been enough. Then, after grad­u­a­tion, our lives had to start. We weren’t spe­cial: peo­ple moved to oth­er places all the time and faced the deci­sion of what to do with their rela­tion­ships. Ital­ians were mov­ing all around Europe, espe­cial­ly grad­u­ates with human­i­ties degrees, some­what deeply under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed even in a coun­try that had built its fame on art. Gior­gio spent his days lying on the couch, watch­ing TV and send­ing resumes around, but no one would call. I want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. Lon­don seemed the right place to be, but he wasn’t ready to come. 

We’ll see,” Gior­gio said, and kissed me good-bye. 

*

Wit­ness­ing the cat beat­ing up the fox seemed a remark­able moment—more than when I saw Mil­len­ni­um Bridge for the first time—because it made me real­ize how much I didn’t know about Lon­don. The cat growled and bare­ly moved, its ears back. When­ev­er the fox made any move­ment, either to dab or leave, the cat would stalk for­ward and sink its claws in the scrawny fur of the fox. I stood there, just look­ing at them. They seemed uncon­cerned by my pres­ence. I didn’t know fox­es would let humans so close. I didn’t know cats could beat the shit out of foxes. 

At some point I even won­dered if I was just hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. It seemed like­ly, on the day I had start­ed my job as a barista at Caf­fè Nero, a cof­fee shop chain. After my first shift, I had gone to get gro­ceries, try­ing not to fall into the easy trap of buy­ing Ital­ian pre-cooked meals that remind­ed me of home from the pic­ture on the wrap­ping but would remind me that I actu­al­ly wasn’t home as soon as I’d try a spoonful. 

As I watched the cat and the fox in silence, I thought of a remark­able moment in Italy—Giorgio and I were walk­ing on the sea­side. I was wear­ing a blouse, but a crisp breeze came sud­den­ly from the ocean and made my hands crawl up my sleeves. Gior­gio was telling me about Lon­don, giv­ing me all his rea­sons for not com­ing with me. He was sure that Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and the smug British ass­holes would kick us all out. Lon­don, he said—as if he knew—was turn­ing into a Euro­pean copy of New York City, the geo­graph­i­cal embod­i­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. He went on and on, keep­ing his eyes on the ocean; the wind didn’t seem to both­er him at all. His hands dan­gled slight­ly at every step he took. I told him I just real­ly want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. I told him that I wasn’t sure Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and I didn’t know what it would entail either. I didn’t know how Gior­gio could be so sure about a whole country’s atti­tude toward econ­o­my pacts, immi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tions, and so on. I also didn’t know why Brits would want to kick oth­er fel­low Euro­peans out. I didn’t know why any­one would want to kick any­one out. 

But Gior­gio went on, telling me that he’d rather stay home with peo­ple he loved and save mon­ey in order to move to a bet­ter place in the future, and even­tu­al­ly have a bet­ter life. “You don’t have to hate your life to have a career,” he said. I imme­di­ate­ly knew that I would remem­ber that line as remark­able. “Maybe,” I replied, shiv­er­ing. An unre­mark­able answer. 

*

When I saw the cat and the fox, I had bare­ly slept in days, haunt­ed by the thoughts of leav­ing home, my moth­er, and, of course, Giorgio—only to find a lousy job as a barista at Caf­fé Nero in Pic­cadil­ly Circus. 

Maybe Gior­gio was right. That morn­ing I had served an end­less amount of watered-down cof­fees to British yup­pies who filled their mouths with Ital­ian words—ven­ti, grande, mac­chi­a­to, espres­so, cap­puc­ci­no—but couldn’t pro­nounce any of them. They com­plained about my cof­fee: too bit­ter. I smiled back and made their cof­fee again in less than two min­utes, under the gelid eyes of a spot­ty British assis­tant man­ag­er. I bit my inner cheeks, my gaze buried in the grates of the huge cof­fee machine, try­ing to hold on to the mem­o­ry of wak­ing up to the smell of my mother’s espres­so. She pre­pared it in ten min­utes, with a sim­ple cof­fee mak­er. No fan­cy machines: she just placed a tiny met­al per­co­la­tor on the old-ass stove. She had taught me how to switch on the gas and use a match to start the ring of blue fire. Extreme­ly dan­ger­ous, yet total­ly worth it. It was our secret; I felt like the prim­i­tive man dis­cov­er­ing fire. 

I real­ly thought about tex­ting Gior­gio to tell him about my first shift or the cat beat­ing up the fox. Even­tu­al­ly, the fox ran away. I dragged my gro­ceries upstairs, pant­i­ng and try­ing to ignore the smell of piss on the stairs and the bones of fried chick­en wings aban­doned on the steps. 

*

Gior­gio called me the morn­ing of June 23, 2016. I had been in Lon­don for a month, and Brex­it debates were all over the news. Peo­ple couldn’t stop won­der­ing if Britain was actu­al­ly going to leave the EU. The ques­tion was, in a way, per­son­al. I won­der what those British yup­pies who com­plained about my bit­ter cof­fee thought. They would glad­ly trav­el to Italy in the sum­mer and drink our espres­sos, sit in our bars in front of the sea­side, sigh with sat­is­fac­tion and say how great our weath­er was, how cheap every­thing was. Then they’d go back home and vote against or for leav­ing us behind. 

Still, for some rea­son, I didn’t feel like Brex­it was per­son­al at all. I kept mak­ing cof­fees, and mak­ing them again if they came back, “too bit­ter.” I learned Eng­lish, sent out my resume, and hoped for some­thing bet­ter to come. Gior­gio kept say­ing that he was “look­ing around.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. 

Then, that morn­ing in June, he called. I was sleep­ing, but he sound­ed excit­ed. It was the first time he called me before I was up. I usu­al­ly got up ear­ly in the morn­ing to go to work and cov­er the 6 a.m. shift at the cof­fee shop. “Hey. What’s up?” I asked, my voice raspy. 

I’m at Frankie’s with the guys,” he said, the accent from our home­town sound­ing estranged to me. I could hear the chaos in the background—the music, and the hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter of Frankie’s drunk­en crowd. They weren’t done danc­ing, even though the sun was prob­a­bly up. “Guess what,” Gior­gio went on. 

I threw my legs out from under the duvet. It was cold. Out of the win­dow, London’s sky was white, as every morn­ing. “What?”  

Brex­it fuck­ing hap­pened,” Gior­gio cried, enthralled. “I told you so!” 

I was sur­prised. I had felt so bom­bard­ed with head­lines, ques­tions and unso­licit­ed opin­ions for a whole month that I had for­got­ten when the ref­er­en­dum was actu­al­ly going to hap­pen. The days were all the same. 

Gior­gio laughed. I didn’t under­stand the fun part of it. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of Brex­it was one of the rea­sons why he had decid­ed not to come to Lon­don in the first place. 

They vot­ed Leave?” I asked. I glanced out of the win­dow again. I could see only the neon lights of the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre pierc­ing the fog in the distance. 

Yeah! Crazy, right?” he went on. “But I knew it. Remem­ber? I pre­dict­ed this shit.” I heard some­one yell in the back­ground but couldn’t work out what they said. 

We were mak­ing bets last night,” Gior­gio went on. His voice was shak­ing with enthu­si­asm, but maybe he was just drunk. “The man­ag­er at Frankie’s orga­nized a Brex­it-themed drink­ing game, and I won five shots of tequi­la. It was so fun. Hope­ful­ly you’ll be back here the night of the Amer­i­can elec­tion. If Don­ald Trump wins, I swear the world will fuck­ing col­lapse.” I heard him take a drag from his cig­a­rette. “You have to be here. We’ll have so much fun, like the old times. Oh—wait—someone just brought pizza.” 

I heard some muf­fled sounds in the phone, and I pic­tured him stag­ger­ing drunk­en­ly to go get his slice of pizza. 

I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at the time. My alarm would go off soon. 

I don’t think I’ll be there for the Amer­i­can elec­tion,” I said. 

What?” Gior­gio asked, his mouth full of pizza. 

I saw my face in the reflec­tion of the win­dow. I looked like shit even before start­ing the day, my skin blotchy, my hair a bit greasy. I tried to imag­ine my mother’s espres­so, the blue ring of fire on the stove, the smell of burnt match­es, and then the scent of cof­fee creep­ing up the stairs. 

Instead, for some rea­son, I thought that this was anoth­er remark­able moment, like the time the ocean wind made my hands crawl up my sleeves, like when I saw the cat beat­ing the shit out of the fox in front of my flat. 

Why are you so hap­py?” I asked. 

There was a silence. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked after a while. He wasn’t chew­ing his piz­za anymore. 

I looked at my feet on the cold tiled floor of my room. The wrap­ping of some pre-cooked ravi­o­li stood out from my trash can. I felt a pang of dis­gust, like I was going to be sick, but didn’t talk. I wasn’t sure I knew what I want­ed to say. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked again. 

My phone alarm went off, pierc­ing my ear. I dis­abled it. I still didn’t have an answer for Gior­gio. Why are you so hap­py, I repeat­ed in my head. 

Why am I so hap­py about Brex­it?” he asked. 

Anoth­er pang of dis­gust. “Maybe,” I said. 

An unre­mark­able answer. I hung up. I got up and walked to the kitchen to shove a cup of instant cof­fee in the microwave.

 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry as a response to my expe­ri­ence liv­ing in Lon­don dur­ing the Brex­it cam­paign. At the time I was also involved in a painful long-dis­tance rela­tion­ship, like the nar­ra­tor of this sto­ry. While this is fic­tion, many scenes are drawn from my per­son­al expe­ri­ence: I remem­ber see­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a dog in front of my dirty-ass apart­ment in Strat­ford; I also remem­bered all the times my ex called from Italy when he was hav­ing fun with his friends, while I was lone­ly and mis­er­able, work­ing hard to get some­where. Most­ly, I want­ed my sto­ry to be about young Euro­pean immi­grants head­ing to the Unit­ed King­dom; I want­ed to write about the hopes and dreams of the ones who look for luck some­where far from home and have to nego­ti­ate their depar­ture with their ties with their home. While my expe­ri­ence was not as trau­mat­ic as the one of refugees, it did affect me great­ly. The polit­i­cal back­ground of this sto­ry is obvi­ous­ly the Brex­it cam­paign, which I regard as one of the first steps toward the storm of crazi­ness that the past few years have been. 

 

Rachele Salvi­ni is an Ital­ian woman based in the U.S., where she’s doing a PhD in Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes in both Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Her work in Eng­lish has been pub­lished or is forth­com­ing in Prime Num­ber Mag­a­zine, Nec­es­sary Fic­tion, Taka­he Mag­a­zine, Sage­brush Review, BULL, and oth­ers. She’s also a trans­la­tor, and her trans­la­tion work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in sev­er­al lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Lunch Tick­et

A Secret Service

Fiction / Paul Negri

 

:: A Secret Service ::

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln is more silent than usu­al today. Now it is true that he has not spo­ken a word dur­ing the whole time of our incar­cer­a­tion here. But there are oth­er ways of being silent besides not speak­ing, and it is in this oth­er way that he is silent today. They’ve put him in a wheel­chair and rolled him in front of the TV in the day room. The sound on the TV is off, so it too is silent.  The only oth­er inmate in the room is the old man they call George (I don’t know what his real name is). George is talk­ing to him­self, but silently. 

It is in this kind of silence that I receive my instruc­tions. Chief Wood, the head of the Secret Ser­vice, is a man of few but com­pelling words. When the Chief speaks, you know what you must do. 

I glance at the door to the day room. Gre­go­ry, one of the reg­u­lar atten­dants, is stand­ing in the door­way. He is feign­ing inat­ten­tion. I wait. Wait­ing is a skill of mine. There is per­haps no one in the Ser­vice who can wait so well as I can. Wait and watch. Eter­nal vig­i­lance, it has been tru­ly said, is the price of liberty. 

Gre­go­ry final­ly deserts his post, although I know it will be only momen­tar­i­ly. I cross the room quick­ly and pull a fold­ing chair clos­er to the Pres­i­dent. I whis­per, “New direc­tive from the Chief, sir. He respect­ful­ly requests that we fore­stall any action. The time is not right. But soon. Very soon, I’m sure.” 

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln con­tin­ues to stare at the TV. His great crag­gy face, now beard­less (yes, they shaved him, the bas­tards), betrays no hint of dis­ap­point­ment or dis­cour­age­ment. Those dark, deep eyes have seen enough, I imag­ine, to endow him with the patience of the ages. 

Ben.” 

Gre­go­ry is back and with a sin­gle word demol­ish­es the gold­en silence. He stands in the door­way, arms fold­ed across his chest, eyes hard on me. But you are too late, Gre­go­ry. I have deliv­ered my message. 

Now you leave Arthur alone. Leave him be.” 

Arthur. That’s what they call Mr. Lin­coln. Just as they call me Ben. They think that by sim­ply nam­ing us, they can con­trol who we are. They are not as smart as they think. I have always lived under pseu­do­nyms, and Ben is fine with me. I know who I am and they do not. And work­ing for the Secret Ser­vice, it is crit­i­cal I keep it that way. 

I return to my chair by the win­dow, plac­ing just enough dis­tance between the Pres­i­dent and me to sat­is­fy Gre­go­ry yet per­mit me to spring into action and inter­pose myself between Mr. Lin­coln and what­ev­er might threat­en him—knife, bul­let, or those sub­tler means of assas­si­na­tion employed by our cap­tors in their relent­less attempt to destroy who we are. Rest assured, Mr. Pres­i­dent, there will be no door pushed open, no dag­ger, no shot fired, no one leap­ing onto the stage shout­ing of tyrants to a con­fused audi­ence. Not this time. Not on my watch. 

Inmates file into the room. Bin­go must be over. Bin­go is one of our keep­ers’ most insid­i­ous weapons. They use it to implant direc­tives, using a numer­i­cal code, in the minds of the inmates. A remark­ably sim­ple but effec­tive strat­e­gy. Once those numer­i­cal codes are implant­ed, the inmates are as help­less as babies wrapped tight in swad­dling clothes. Along with the inmates comes one of Gregory’s con­fed­er­ates. They have so lit­tle regard for our capa­bil­i­ties that only two guards are thought nec­es­sary to keep more than a dozen of us in check. Bingo! 

Of what wars these poor pris­on­ers are, I do not know. It is sad that they have all sur­vived the strug­gle only to end up here, ware­housed and main­tained, stored out of sight and out of mind by the true ene­my, one they nev­er even knew they were fight­ing. My mis­sion neces­si­tates that I keep a dis­creet dis­tance from these men, engag­ing them just enough to gath­er infor­ma­tion that might prove use­ful to the Ser­vice or aid me in my pro­tec­tion of the Pres­i­dent. I think most of them pose no threat, although threat can come out of a clear blue sky and calm sea. That I’ve learned. But there are a few men who bear care­ful watch­ing. And watch them I do. 

I cir­cle the room, my usu­al route, sub­tle as a shad­ow, blend­ing into my sur­round­ings, bare­ly notice­able, look­ing here, lis­ten­ing there, pass­ing by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln with every com­plet­ed cir­cuit. Noth­ing unusu­al to report, Chief Wood. The Pres­i­dent is safe, for the moment. I am doing my duty. Yes, it is some­thing to be proud of. Thank you, sir. You are too kind.

 * 

Gre­go­ry deposits me in the office of Major Wirz for my week­ly inter­ro­ga­tion. I’m not absolute­ly sure it’s Hein­rich Wirz, the mon­ster of Ander­son­ville, exter­mi­na­tor of Union pris­on­ers. He now goes under the absurd­ly innocu­ous name Dr. Jack Horner. Lit­tle Jack, indeed. He is almost as skilled at con­ceal­ing his iden­ti­ty as I am at con­ceal­ing mine. We are even­ly matched. But I have the advan­tage. I have Chief Wood. I don’t know who whis­pers in Major Wirz’s ear. 

Wirz is a very aver­age-look­ing man, not tall, nor short; nei­ther fat nor thin; bland fea­tures, a face you could for­get while look­ing at it. That, of course, is part of his pow­er. I must admit I have a grudg­ing admi­ra­tion for it. I sit quite still in the com­fort­able chair before his desk. The seat and arms are padded. Yes, I sit in a padded chair. 

Wirz—or Dr. Horner as I must call him—looks up from the file he has been writ­ing in and smiles. “You look well today, Ben.” 

Thank you, Dr. Horner. I am well.” 

Are you sleep­ing bet­ter? Those dreams that were both­er­ing you, are you still hav­ing them?” 

Why, no,” I say. “I’ve been hav­ing rather pleas­ant dreams now. I believe that med­ica­tion you’re mak­ing me take has worked like a charm.” 

Dr. Horner leans back in his chair and looks at me in silence for a long moment. He is a man of long looks. “That med­ica­tion should not actu­al­ly be affect­ing your dreams.” 

Well, an unex­pect­ed side ben­e­fit then,” I say. Damn. I must be careful. 

Can you tell me a bit about these pleas­ant dreams?” 

Can you tell me about your dreams, Major Wirz? Do the breath­ing skele­tons of starved pris­on­ers wrap their boney arms around you? 

Ben?” 

I’ve been dream­ing of the ocean,” I tell him, quick­ly impro­vis­ing. “A love­ly day at the shore.” 

The ocean? Do you remem­ber the last time you were by the ocean?” 

It was quite a while ago. It was very nice.” Care­ful now, care­ful. The dev­il is, as they say, in the details. “I love swim­ming in the ocean. I’m quite a strong swim­mer, you know.” 

Yes, I know,” says Dr. Horner. “And the last time you were at the beach. Were you alone?” 

I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to say I was with the wife they have invent­ed for me. Ben’s wife. But the name is some­thing I can’t recall. “Do you mind if I shut the win­dow, Dr. Horner?” I say, stalling for time. 

I’ll shut it for you,” he says, gets up and goes to the window. 

The name, damn it, the name, Ben’s wife. Dr. Horner sits back down. “Was any­one with you at the beach that last time?” 

Yes. My wife. Elsie.” 

Ellie?” says Dr. Horner. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” 

He nods. “Any­one else?” 

Well, there were lots of peo­ple there. It was a love­ly day.” 

Didn’t you tell me you always went ear­ly in the morn­ing? When there were few peo­ple there?” 

I think you’re right. That morn­ing there were few peo­ple there.” It’s like walk­ing a tightrope over an abyss. One slip and I’m gone. 

Did you swim that day?” 

Of course. The ocean was warm and calm. Per­fect for swimming.” 

And did Elsie swim with you?” 

Ellie,” I say. Got you, Wirz. Got him, Chief Wood. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” Dr. Horner makes a note in the file. 

I must remain calm. Rea­son­able. They need to believe that I believe them. That I think I am this man Ben. If they believe I am Ben, then they will nev­er know who I real­ly am, the man who pro­tects the Pres­i­dent, and who always will. Sic sem­per

Is there any­one else in this dream of the ocean? I mean any­one you know.” 

Why, yes,” I say. Let’s give the good doc­tor some­thing to think about. “You’re there.” 

Me?” 

Yes. But it’s odd, Dr. Horner. You’re in a uni­form. Not very appro­pri­ate for the beach.” I watch his eyes. He doesn’t blink. He is good. But I am better. 

He leans back in his chair and smiles. “A uni­form? Like a policeman?” 

No. Like—a sol­dier. An offi­cer. Why, you look like a major.” 

I believe you’re play­ing with me, Ben,” says Dr. Horner. “I’m not real­ly in your dreams, am I?” 

I say noth­ing. Per­haps I’ve gone too far. Wirz is a dan­ger­ous man— 

I was think­ing of your grand­chil­dren, Ben. The twins.” 

Oh, yes. Lit­tle angels,” I bluff. This is some­thing new. They want Ben to have grand­chil­dren. My God, I’m get­ting tired. How can I keep up with them? I need a moment, a moment to think.… 

Would you like a glass of water?” 

For God’s sake, Chief, tell me what to do. But no. There is too much noise. I’m sweat­ing. Wirz shut the win­dow to take the air away. What’s next, bright lights in my eyes? 

They were four this year. Am I right?” 

I hear a great rush­ing sound, like waves crash­ing in my head. Before I can stop myself, I’m out of my chair. I stand at attention. 

All right, Ben. Let’s leave it at that for today. Ben?” 

Lit­tle angels,” I tell Dr. Horner. The twins … 

He takes hold of my wrist and glances at his watch. “I’m going to try a change in your med­ica­tion. It may upset your stom­ach a lit­tle. But just at first. Is that all right?” 

I nod. I’m afraid to speak. I may blurt out some­thing I shouldn’t. I bite down on my tongue. 

Dr. Horner stands and goes to the door. “Gre­go­ry?”

Gre­go­ry comes in and stands behind him. “I’d like Ben to stay in his room for a bit. Per­haps a day or two. We’ll be try­ing a new med­ica­tion.” He turns to me. “I’ve fin­ished your book, Ben,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. I’m not one for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, but you have a way of bring­ing the char­ac­ters to life. The scene with Lee and Grant at Appo­mat­tox Court House—well, I felt like I was there.” 

Thank you,” I say. So the man Ben has writ­ten a book. If that’s who they want me to be, I hope at least it’s a good one. 

*

The two days con­fined to my cell were almost unbear­able. Not for any depri­va­tion to myself but for the jeop­ardy in which I placed Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. My only con­so­la­tion was that the blan­ket­ing silence of that time alone gave Chief Wood ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep me informed and chide me, more gen­tly that I deserved, for my ill-advised thrust and par­ry with Major Wirz. And yes, he is indeed Major Wirz. The Chief has con­firmed it. 

My first action this morn­ing was to slip unno­ticed into the President’s cell. Not only did I find him unharmed and rest­ing peace­ful­ly in his bed, but his beard has actu­al­ly begun to grow back. He’s look­ing more like him­self. He looked at me and said noth­ing. His admirable restraint is a qual­i­ty I would do well to emu­late. With the faintest of smiles and a nod of his head, he indi­cat­ed his appre­ci­a­tion of my ser­vice to him. I think he feels safe. And I intend to keep him that way. If I must be this man Ben to oper­ate most effec­tive­ly in that regard, then Ben I shall be. At least until I have full intel­li­gence of our cap­tors’ inten­tions. It is a hard thing to be some­one you’re not. Who doesn’t want to sim­ply be him­self? With the excep­tion, per­haps, of you, Major Wirz. 

I sit in the gar­den and wait for Ben’s so-called wife to appear. Ellie. I must remem­ber the name. She’s work­ing for them, of course. And yet her heart doesn’t seem in it. I think she’s unhap­py with her work. Her efforts to make me into Ben, so ardent­ly desired by her supe­ri­ors, have been spot­ty at best. She seems so dis­cour­aged. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if at some point some­one else shows up pre­tend­ing to be Ben’s wife and we start all over. 

The gar­den is not real­ly a gar­den; that’s sim­ply what it is called. There are some met­al bench­es and a few pot­ted plants, and a small lawn sur­round­ed by a flag­stone walk. In the mid­dle of the lawn is a stone foun­tain, two lit­tle angels rid­ing the back of a dol­phin. Water slow­ly runs from the dolphin’s mouth as if leak­ing from a drowned thing. The largest part of the so-called gar­den is a con­crete square with met­al tables and chairs. A few inmates are sit­ting at the tables with their pre­sumed fam­i­lies. I sit on the bench oppo­site the win­dow to Pres­i­dent Lincoln’s cell. I keep my eye on the window. 

Ben.” It’s the woman called Ellie. Gre­go­ry is with her. 

You have a nice vis­it now,” says Gre­go­ry, and they exchange a know­ing look. 

Ellie sits down on the bench next to me. “How are you feel­ing today, Ben?” 

Quite well, Ellie,” I say, and smile the way I think some­one named Ben might smile. 

Ellie puts her hand­bag on the bench next to her. The mini-micro­phone in her bag is acti­vat­ed by con­tact with the met­al bench. Elec­tro­mag­net­ic, the Chief explained. That’s fine. They will hear what they want to hear and what I want them to hear. They will hear Ben talk­ing to Ellie. 

Dr. Horner tells me you had a bad day,” says Ellie. “So he put you on some­thing new. Has that helped?” 

Oh, yes. I’m feel­ing much better.” 

You’re look­ing bet­ter,” she says and smiles, but only for a sec­ond. The smile droops. She looks exhaust­ed. There are rings under her red-rimmed eyes. She plain­ly doesn’t sleep well. She must have been a very pret­ty woman once. But now she is fad­ed, like an old pho­to­graph. Still, she doesn’t seem a bad sort. What would make a woman like her work for them? I can only imag­ine. But mine is not to rea­son why, is it, Chief Wood? 

Julie and Kei­th are back from Paris. I think it did them a world of good. Julie may go back to work next month.” 

Good,” I say. “We all need our work, don’t we?” 

Wouldn’t you like to go back to work? Back to your writing?” 

Care­ful now. “It’s some­thing to consider.” 

She puts her hand on my arm. “Don’t you want to be well?” 

Doesn’t every­one?” I say. 

Ellie takes her hand away. “Why are you star­ing at that win­dow? Is that your room?” 

No. My room has no win­dow.” As if she didn’t know. 

Look at me. Please.” 

I look at her. 

No one is blam­ing you. Not Julie or Kei­th. Not me.” 

I nod. The strain of keep­ing my eyes on Ellie and the effort of main­tain­ing my Ben-like smile is wear­ing me down. My head is begin­ning to ache. Ellie stares hard at me. What does she want? If only I had your wis­dom, Mr. Pres­i­dent. We sit in silence for what seems like a long time. 

All right. They do blame you. But for God’s sake, Ben, give them time. And stop blam­ing your­self. You looked away. You were care­less. For just a few min­utes. And it took them. That heart­less ocean. Or a mon­strous God.” Ellie is crying. 

What a strange script they have her recite. There are appar­ent­ly grave con­se­quences to being Ben. No won­der they want me so bad­ly to be him. They’d have me then and even­tu­al­ly the Pres­i­dent too. “I think vis­it­ing time is over,” I say. I’ve got to check on Mr. Lincoln. 

We just sat down,” she says and dries her eyes. 

They have strict rules here. And I want to coop­er­ate. The rules are for my own good.” Lis­ten­ing, Dr. Horner? 

Ellie’s dis­tressed. She’s not get­ting what they want. Per­haps she’ll be pun­ished. God knows—monstrous God, she said?—they’re capa­ble of any­thing. She takes my face in her hands. Her hands are warm. “Be hon­est with me. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?” 

You’re Ellie,” I say, try­ing to speak down toward her hand­bag, so they can hear me loud and clear. “My wife. And I’m Ben. Who else could I be?” 

There is such anguish in her face. Per­haps I am wrong. Per­haps she doesn’t work for them. Could she, too, be work­ing for the Service?

*

Word has final­ly come. My silent orders from Chief Wood. I’m to affect the President’s escape today. It can’t come soon enough for me. For the past few weeks I’ve found it more and more dif­fi­cult to keep up the cha­rade of being the man Ben. Major Wirz is very sus­pi­cious. At our last ses­sion he told me the worst thing I could do was to humor him; it would be bad for him and worse for me. With his frus­tra­tion, his own façade is crum­bling. His speech is begin­ning to have a slight Swiss accent, yes, the accent of his home­land, some­thing notice­able only to my trained ear. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if he starts sprout­ing a beard next and don­ning his Con­fed­er­ate uni­form out­right. Well, with the help of God and Chief Wood, the Pres­i­dent and I will not be here to see it. 

The plan is sim­plic­i­ty itself. It depends just on being in the right place at the right time and pay­ing close atten­tion. So much in life depends on that, Ellie. The Pres­i­dent is in his wheel­chair before the TV in the day­room, as usu­al. I am sit­ting in my chair by the win­dow, as usu­al. Gre­go­ry has led every­one except George to the game room to be inoc­u­lat­ed with Bin­go, as usu­al, leav­ing us alone with the blond atten­dant Tyrone. In a few min­utes Tyrone will dis­ap­pear to smoke a cig­a­rette, as he does every morn­ing when Gre­go­ry is out of sight. 

Keep an eye on Arthur, will you, Ben? I’ll be back in five,” says Tyrone. “And you be good now, George,” he adds and works his lips silent­ly in deri­sive imitation. 

Sure, Tyrone,” I say casu­al­ly, yawn­ing for good mea­sure to impress him with how ordi­nary a day it is. George takes no notice and con­tin­ues to silent­ly talk to him­self. And Tyrone is gone. 

I move swift­ly. I take the President’s wheel­chair and maneu­ver it to the door. I glance at George, who stops silent­ly speak­ing and waves good­bye. I know I can count on him to do noth­ing. It’s a quick roll down the hall to the unlocked doors to the garden. 

The skies are over­cast and heavy with the threat of rain. I wheel Mr. Lin­coln past the table and chairs to the lawn, along the path, past the foun­tain and around the cor­ner of the build­ing, out of sight. The Pres­i­dent turns in his chair and looks up at me. “Everything’s going accord­ing to plan,” I tell him. “Chief Wood will explain it all when we see him.” The Pres­i­dent makes no protest. He is no stranger to tak­ing risks for freedom’s sake. 

I push the Pres­i­dent up the grassy knoll to the park­ing lot and wheel him to the far side. The ques­tion is, where will they land? The Chief said I’d know it when I saw it. I scan the streets beyond the park­ing lot, and sure enough I spot it. Of course. The cir­cu­lar clear­ing in the mid­dle of the round­about, a large con­crete island with a flag­pole in the mid­dle and a big Amer­i­can flag wav­ing in the high wind. It couldn’t be plainer. 

We cross the lot and go down the ramp to the side­walk. Cars and trucks are cir­cling the round­about at vary­ing speeds. They slow down and speed up unpre­dictably. There’s no pedes­tri­an walk to the island. I stand and watch the cars go round and round until I have to look away. Now is the time to trust Chief Wood. Yes, sir. I do believe. If I don’t believe in you, what is left? I step off into the street. 

Cars stop. Some speed by. Some swerve away from us. They honk, but whether they’re for or against us I can­not tell. Some­one is shout­ing. I walk with my gaze straight ahead now, focused, see­ing and hear­ing every­thing. We get to the island just as a yel­low car com­ing around the curve comes so close I feel its speed graze my back. I fall hard against the wheel­chair and the Pres­i­dent rolls rapid­ly for­ward. I lunge with all my strength and catch the wheel­chair just enough to slow it down before I fall. The Pres­i­dent stops inch­es from the curb and the onslaught of the man­ic traf­fic. I’ve banged my knees bad­ly and scraped my hands bloody, but I strug­gle up, breath­ing hard, and rush to him. He grasps my hand. He is all right. He is safe. I have saved him. 

Over­head, out of the heavy sky choked with clouds thick as smoke, over and above the hiss of the hard rain falling and the blare of horns and wail of sirens and the roar of waves and the shouts of the police rush­ing to the island toward the Amer­i­can flag that is always fly­ing and the peo­ple on the beach run­ning in pan­ic and scream­ing and the blood boil­ing loud­ly in my ears, over the din I hear it, the sound, the sound of the heli­copter, with its great blades slic­ing the thick air, spin­ning and swoop­ing down from the sky to take us away, home, out of dan­ger, to the only safe place.… 

* 

Ellie and Dr. Horner stand at the foot of the bed and talk in whis­pers. I pre­tend to be asleep. It’s the only pre­tense I can man­age right now. I am too tired to do any­thing else. There is pain in my ban­daged knees. I go over things again and again in my mind. Why did the Chief abort the mis­sion? Was it my fault? Did I do some­thing wrong? I have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing I’ve done some­thing hor­ri­bly wrong. The Chief has not said a word to me since we were brought back. Not a sin­gle word. 

Ellie sits at the foot of the bed and watch­es me. She will fold me up into this man they call Ben and put me in Horner’s pock­et. And I will nev­er be seen again. 

I watch her through half-closed eyes. She pulls a chair to the head of the bed. “I know you’re awake,” she says. 

I say nothing. 

She sits in silence and con­tin­ues to watch me. Then she gets up and shuts the door. She pulls the chair even clos­er and leans over me. “All right. I can’t do this any­more. I know you’re not Ben.” 

I open my eyes and look at her. She seems sad beyond mea­sure. What have they done to her? 

They want you to be Ben and they want me to help make you Ben. But you are not Ben, are you?” 

I want to tell her, but I can’t. I cloak myself in silence. 

If I were you, I would not want to be Ben either. Not any­more. So I will not help them any­more. Do you under­stand? I will leave and not come back and you just be who you real­ly are, no mat­ter how much they try to make you some­one else.” 

Per­haps she is a friend after all. Perhaps. 

Can you just tell me some­thing?” She paus­es and takes a deep breath that seems to pain her. “What is your name? I promise I will nev­er tell any­one else. Can you just give me that?” 

There is some­thing in her eyes, some­thing I think I can trust. “I don’t have a name,” I tell her. I can’t help it. For­give me, Chief. “In the Secret Ser­vice, we have only code names.” 

Her eyes widen and a tear falls like a big drop of rain. “A code name?” 

I nod and take her hand. 

What is your code name, then?” 

Rip­tide. The Chief calls me Riptide.” 

The woman called Ellie drops her head on the bed and cries. “But please,” I whis­per, “tell this to no one. It’s as secret as secret can be.” After a while she lifts her head, dries her eyes, gets up, kiss­es my fore­head, and leaves. I sup­pose I will nev­er know who she real­ly is. I lie as still and as silent as I can. I close my eyes and lis­ten to the silence for a long time. When I open my eyes the lights are out, but stand­ing at the foot of my bed is Mr. Lin­coln. I can see him plain­ly in the dark. 

Mr. Pres­i­dent. You’re all right. You can walk.” 

The Pres­i­dent smiles. 

Chief Wood has said noth­ing to me since they brought us back here.” 

The Pres­i­dent nods. 

What are we going to do, Mis­ter Lincoln?” 

We are going to lis­ten,” says the Pres­i­dent, “to the bet­ter angels of our nature.” 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Not long ago, I read a sto­ry in the news about a man who acci­dent­ly dropped his baby grand­daugh­ter off the rail­ing of a cruise ship. He was hold­ing her before a pan­el, which he mis­tak­en­ly thought had glass before it. It did not. The lit­tle girl fell to her death. The child’s parents—including the man’s own daugh­ter and oth­er fam­i­ly members—were present. 

Among the peren­ni­al ques­tions about the human con­di­tion that intrigue and dis­turb me is this: how does one bear the unbear­able? How do ordi­nary peo­ple, imbued with the extra­or­di­nary sense and sen­si­bil­i­ty of our kind, the fac­ul­ty of ful­ly know­ing and appre­ci­at­ing all we do and the con­se­quences, sur­vive the guilt and unfath­omable pain of hav­ing com­mit­ted an act, even if ful­ly acci­den­tal, with such dread con­se­quences as the death of that baby girl? Does one live or die? And if one lives, how? 


Paul Negri is the edi­tor of a dozen lit­er­ary antholo­gies from Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. He was twice award­ed the gold medal for fic­tion in the William Faulkn­er – William Wis­dom Writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion. His sto­ries have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Pif Mag­a­zine, Jel­ly­fish Review, and more than 50 oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey. 

Do Not Be Afraid

Fiction / Reshmi Hebbar

 

:: Do Not Be Afraid ::

The snow had fall­en two days ear­li­er. If it fell again tonight, Pallavi’s moth­er might try and get every­one to stay until Christ­mas Eve. But then again, if Pallavi stuck to her deci­sion and told her par­ents, they might make her leave. She imag­ined being ban­ished from her child­hood home, a place she wasn’t keen now to arrive at any­way. She pic­tured dri­ving back to Bloom­field in the black night, the white flakes falling every­where or still packed on the ground, the voice of regret hiss­ing in her mind instead of the voice of urgency. As she head­ed east around the city, the salt­ed roads and still fresh lay­ers of white pre­sent­ed a sense of order she was reluc­tant to dis­rupt. Tell them! the whoosh­ing of the high­way seemed to entreat. Pallavi gripped the steer­ing wheel and con­sid­ered con­tra­dic­to­ry pos­si­bil­i­ties: noth­ing she could say would get her thrown out into the cold; she would be fine out there any­way. Like an unex­pect­ed charge of sero­tonin surg­ing through her brain, she remem­bered again events from the night before, Alex’s lips flut­ter­ing against her neck. 

When she pulled into the dri­ve­way, Pallavi was struck, as she always seemed to be now, by the mod­esty of the struc­ture her par­ents had tak­en care of so deter­mined­ly, repaint­ing the sid­ing with crisp white coats, adding a side door to the front-fac­ing garage, call­ing arborists to pre­vent the elm tree in the front yard from dying in the pass­ing blights. Her rel­a­tives in India might no longer be impressed by the size of the house, at least not in the same way they would have been when it was being built in the late sev­en­ties, when her moth­er used to send pho­tos to Hyder­abad and Ban­ga­lore of Pallavi and her broth­ers tod­dling around on the linoleum in the kitchen. Even if its promise now seemed dat­ed, its colo­nial style, the snow in the yard, and the sur­viv­ing tree—these spotlit a steady­ing truth, one that her par­ents would nev­er own up to: they belonged to this place now more than the old one. 

If they could only admit this, Pallavi felt, her life would be easier. 

Pal­lu, set small­er plates for Samir and Maya. Give them plas­tic cups instead of glass. Chil­dren are always spilling.” Her moth­er often con­clud­ed instruc­tions with a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for giv­ing them. Pallavi could have remind­ed her that she was not unfa­mil­iar with the habits of kids just because she didn’t have any of her own. But she was feel­ing grate­ful for her mother’s fran­tic host­ess ener­gy, which always sup­plant­ed the space for any­body else to come out and say what was tru­ly on their mind. It was per­verse and per­haps anoth­er para­dox to con­tend with: her moth­er would be so busy enter­tain­ing that any­thing Pallavi want­ed to tell her would have to wait; the quick­er Pallavi was at per­form­ing these tasks, the more time there would be left for sit­ting every­body down and hav­ing a prop­er talk. In the mean­time, these flash­backs to Alex’s hands and lips, the quick dop­ing jolts that she treat­ed her­self to around the house now were like shak­ing a present not yet meant to be opened. She did not deserve to remem­ber any­thing until she told them. 

Pallavi’s eldest brother’s fam­i­ly arrived in Mon­roeville an hour lat­er, her niece and nephew drag­ging snow in from the yard onto the engi­neered hard­wood her par­ents had installed in the foy­er. They demand­ed soda when she was pour­ing them some juice. It had dis­mayed Samir to see hock­ey on the tele­vi­sion instead of Nickelodeon. 

Pal­lu, use the rags from the laun­dry room—not the kitchen—to clean up the snow, and turn on this Dis­ney or what­ev­er for Samir in our bedroom.” 

Every­one in the Red­dy fam­i­ly, includ­ing Pallavi’s sis­ter-in-law, would have known not to take a rag from the kitchen to wipe up the floor. 

In the small mir­ror her par­ents had hung by the front door, Pallavi caught sight of her flushed face and felt relief. She wasn’t twelve years old but a grown woman over thir­ty-five who could pass for thir­ty. Alex hadn’t just been flat­ter­ing her; her skin was indeed bright and youth­ful. There hadn’t been a need for lines or games, just the imme­di­ate igni­tion when Alex had pro­nounced her name so per­fect­ly, the grat­i­tude Pallavi had felt then warm­ing her low­er back, her pelvis, her toes, until it felt nec­es­sary lat­er to deox­i­dize the heat they were gen­er­at­ing at their table in the mood-lit bistro. 

The Christ­mas tree looks great, Amma,” Pallavi’s old­er broth­er, Ravi, called now to their moth­er as he passed the liv­ing room. “When’s Arjun get­ting here?” 

Arjun had to work half day today,” their moth­er answered from the kitchen. “We’ll open the presents after din­ner. You brought all the children’s gifts from home, right?” 

Ravi halt­ed at the entry to the den and gave Pallavi a look. She want­ed to raise an eye­brow back at him—she was clean­ing up after his kids. 

Amma, you know that San­ta brings their gifts,” Ravi told the top of Pallavi’s head. “He won’t show up until they’re in bed at home tomor­row night.” 

Ravi’s wife, Kavya, emerged now from the pow­der room. 

Leave that, Pallavi,” she said, tak­ing the rag from her hands. 

Kavya, my mother’s ask­ing why we didn’t bring the kids’ presents.”

Pallavi watched Kavya bend to the floor and ignore this remark. She was curi­ous about the ten­sile qual­i­ty of her brother’s mar­riage. Per­haps Pallavi felt this way towards any tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship between adults of her gen­er­a­tion, the kind that involved pri­vate skir­mish­es about trips to the gro­cery store and in-laws. The type that would not have required her to lean up and whis­per in a hot moment into Alex’s ear, or any person’s she real­ly want­ed to date, that she didn’t feel com­fort­able in the open, so could they please take this inside? 

Tell her you’re on call, no?” Kavya mur­mured final­ly, stand­ing up with the rag curled in her fist like a rosette. 

They all turned at the foot­steps, the famil­iar beat of Pallavi’s moth­er in her rub­ber flip-flops. 

What is this, Ravi? Kavya nev­er did San­ta and what-all in India when she was a child. Is it okay with her that you are not even stay­ing here one night this week?” 

The ten­sion of this moment dis­tract­ed Pallavi from the two parts appre­hen­sion and one part resolve that had been turn­ing to acid inside her since she’d arrived. 

I’m on call, Amma. Start­ing at mid­night tonight,” Ravi tested. 

Look at you, Pallavi want­ed to say. Instead, she took the rag back from Kavya and went to hang it up in the laun­dry room before her moth­er could ask her to. The evening was still wide open; there were still many chances left. 

Her father was on the car­pet of the den try­ing to set up the stereo. 

Come, Pallavi. I’m look­ing for the Vasund­hara Devi record. You’ll sing lat­er, no?” 

The room’s wood pan­el­ing had been paint­ed over in light gray, a col­or their moth­er dis­liked but their father claimed would help with resale when­ev­er the time became necessary. 

Appa, I haven’t tak­en lessons in twen­ty years. I don’t do that stuff any­more.” Pallavi wished her response could have con­veyed more than it did, and that her father, instead of reply­ing with the words she felt cer­tain he would use in a moment, would stop root­ing around the cab­i­net for aux­il­iary cables and come out and say what had been obvi­ous for too long. For as long as her par­ents had been updat­ing the house, and plan­ning for retire­ment, and find­ing Ravi a wife, and then wor­ry­ing about Pallavi and her oth­er broth­er, Arjun, for­ward­ing on emails, week after week, with descrip­tions of peo­ple who would be the per­fect mates for them, sent from peo­ple who knew oth­er peo­ple look­ing for per­fec­tion. She wished her father would put down the wires and take a hard look at her. Then he would be able to answer: of course you don’t. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa. It is your her­itage, Pallavi.”  

Alex had asked about Car­nat­ic music on their date, and Pallavi had found that, when she was with the right kind of per­son, she could be elo­quent about things she had tak­en for granted. 

That sounds amaz­ing. I’d love to hear it some­time,” Alex had gushed, del­i­cate­ly fork­ing up a last bite of floun­der from its but­tery skin. “I wish I came from some­where else! All I had was mid­dle school glee club.” 

Pallavi had want­ed to say that she’d been in glee club too. That she and Alex weren’t as dif­fer­ent as you’d expect. But maybe it wasn’t true. For most peo­ple, the date wouldn’t have been as big of a step as it had been for her. 

When the whole fam­i­ly had final­ly assem­bled for din­ner, her moth­er asked how Pallavi’s search for a mar­riage “prospect” had been going. “Are you find­ing any­one interesting?” 

Pallavi felt embar­rassed in front of the kids. 

Yeah. Sure. There’re some.” 

Well, what are their names?” 

Pallavi’s twin broth­er, Arjun, reached across the table and asked Samir to pass him the pani puris, pre­tend­ing after­ward to fum­ble with the bowl so that the boy gasped and gig­gled. Pallavi knew what her broth­er was try­ing to do. She took a breath. 

One’s name is Alex. We actu­al­ly went out last night,” she said, glanc­ing around the table as if she were delight­ed to have been asked. She did not look at her mother. 

Alex?” her father said. “So, not an Indian?” 

No.” Tech­ni­cal­ly not a lie, Pallavi told her­self, and inhaled again. Adren­a­line began to pool inside her. 

What about the two or three boys which Rad­ha Auntie’s sis­ter sent us the con­tact info for?” 

Those nev­er worked out.” Pallavi kept chew­ing care­ful­ly, even after she had swal­lowed her puri. Arjun was look­ing at her, but the moment had passed. Now didn’t feel like the right time after all. 

What do you mean nev­er worked out? Did you call them?” 

Amma—” 

Did you guys catch Cros­by in the Pen­guins game last week? Jesus—” 

Arjun, wait … ” 

You know, Mom,” Kavya was speak­ing. Kavya almost nev­er spoke. “Even in India these days, girls are wait­ing until their thir­ties to set­tle down. My col­lege friends and all.” 

Pallavi felt grate­ful to Kavya—the girl was always nice to her, even if she seemed devoid of a real per­son­al­i­ty. But her sister-in-law’s point would count for lit­tle giv­en that Kavya was three years younger than her. It also didn’t fail to net­tle Pallavi, as it always did, that Kavya, the only younger per­son at the table who had not grown up in Amer­i­ca, could call their moth­er “Mom” while they could not. 

Pallavi is thir­ty-sev­en years old,” her moth­er rebutted. 

Hey, so am I!” Arjun widened his eyes until Samir and Maya smiled. 

That’s old!” Samir marveled. 

Not as old as your dad,” Pallavi retort­ed, fill­ing up anoth­er puri to stuff her mouth with. 

Aw, come on. I’m only forty-two, guys!” Ravi grinned around the table. 

You are not old,” her moth­er said, and of course every­one knew what she meant. These words might have pushed open again the win­dow for telling them, but Pallavi did not jump at the chance. Instead, she stole anoth­er peek at the mem­o­ry of Alex’s hand on her neck as they had wait­ed for the valet. Not old, not too old! she want­ed to shout across the table now. 

After din­ner,” her father was offer­ing into the brief silence that fol­lowed her mother’s pro­nounce­ment, “Pallavi will enter­tain us with some old fash­ioned music. You’ll like it, kids, I promise.” 

Appa—” Pallavi began. 

I want us to watch Bend It Like Beck­ham!” Samir cried. 

Okay, okay. No prob­lem. We’ll see after that.” 

Every­body rinse your plates prop­er­ly before putting them in the dish­wash­er. They don’t get clean oth­er­wise,” her moth­er said when she could com­mand atten­tion again. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang as the dish­es were being gath­ered. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he con­tin­ued as Pallavi grabbed the broom before she could be told to sweep up under the din­ing table. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he trilled as he was adjust­ing the wiring in the media cab­i­net, unplug­ging con­nec­tions to the stereo’s receiv­er and hook­ing them up instead to the video input. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa. In Tamil, which was not her par­ents’ moth­er tongue, the phrase meant “Do not be afraid.” The song was about a woman who tried to talk to com­mon birds—pigeons, doves—to coax them into trust­ing her to hold them for a moment before releas­ing them into the sky. 

Her par­ents’ taste in music had always been sur­pris­ing­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic. They’d not allowed them­selves to get caught up in debates about which South Indi­an lan­guage had the best songs, or which lan­guage Pallavi should take lessons in. They had nev­er mind­ed the cas­settes being blast­ed from Ravi’s room upstairs, or the head­phones Arjun took to wear­ing when the twins were teens, or the semi-rit­u­al­ized way Pallavi had record­ed and then con­sumed music videos on Sat­ur­days, the intense­ly monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships she’d main­tained with artists for months at a time: Belin­da Carlisle, Deb­bie Gib­son, Mari­ah Carey. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father was singing as they all filed into the den, Kavya refus­ing to sit on the sofa, and Pallavi’s moth­er rush­ing to pick up glass­es that had been left out of the dish­wash­er, the chil­dren claim­ing most of the space, Samir tak­ing imag­i­nary shots at an imag­i­nary goal. 

What is his obses­sion with this movie?” Pallavi asked as a way to qui­et her­self. The voice inside her was get­ting shrill. 

He’s obsessed with the actress who plays Jesmin­der,” Ravi joked. “He loves that scene when she takes off in her soc­cer shorts and kicks all those boys’ butts.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said nothing. 

I love the soc­cer!” Samir protested. 

I love the wed­ding!” lit­tle Maya joined in. 

It sounds like you remem­ber the movie so well that we don’t have to watch it,” Pallav­i’s father tried, his fin­ger ready on the remote. He seemed so hope­ful. What would it do to her par­ents, this thing inside her, to peo­ple with such sim­ple though par­tic­u­lar needs—a daugh­ter who would sing clas­si­cal music, and chil­dren who would find part­ners who shared their “her­itage”?  

Her moth­er said noth­ing. Pallavi felt like a bird in a com­pound, torn between the offer of ready food and the safe­ty of flight. 

I don’t know why they set this movie in Eng­land instead of Amer­i­ca,” Arjun put in from the armchair. 

That’s where Beck­ham is, genius.” Ravi’s crit­i­cisms of Arjun had got­ten milder over the years. 

I know, but they could have picked a dif­fer­ent sport, dif­fer­ent ath­letes, and done it here, right? We have kids going through those issues here.” 

Shhh!” Samir urged them. But Pallavi knew what her twin had been try­ing to do. 

This is the movie with the kid who … you know. The Sikh girl’s friend?” Her moth­er sur­prised them all with her wav­ery tone. 

Which friend, Ammam­ma?” Samir asked eager­ly. “You mean Jules? The girl who brings Jess onto the team? She has short hair and is real­ly good?” 

Pallavi real­ized then what was the rea­son behind Samir’s infat­u­a­tion with the film. She’d always been able to detect those loose ends of attrac­tion that peo­ple tried to hide. She might have said some­thing now, but she didn’t want to embar­rass her nephew. Her nerves were reflux­ing again because she felt cer­tain her moth­er wasn’t ask­ing about Keira Knightley’s character. 

Not that one, sweet­ie.” Pallavi’s moth­er looked away from her grand­chil­dren to their par­ents. “The oth­er friend. The Sikh boy whom the girl’s par­ents want her to get engaged to. Should the chil­dren be watch­ing this?” 

Pallavi felt a strange relief bub­ble up through the dread roil­ing in her. Wasn’t this the per­fect moment, then? 

You mean because that kid isn’t straight?” Ravi brushed the thought aside with a wave. “The movie is about soc­cer and Indi­an cul­ture, Amma. Come on.” 

Don’t you think it can give chil­dren ideas though?” 

What kind of ideas, Amma?” This was Arjun again, and Pallavi’s instinct was to shoot him a look that said “take it easy,” a habit devel­oped through their short­hand of qui­et, if not direct, resis­tance. Where was the voice inside her head now? Where were her words? Why was she let­ting the oth­ers do the talk­ing for her? 

Ideas like it is okay to be … you know.” 

Gay?” Arjun asked. 

Arjun, stop shout­ing,” their father said. 

Why aren’t you ask­ing whether it’s wrong for the movie to be pro­mot­ing Sikhism then?” Arjun went on. “I mean there are Sikhs every­where. Look at them. So many.” 

Arjun, will you just shut up?” Ravi snapped. 

Dad­dy, we’re not sup­posed to say that!” Maya whimpered. 

You’re right, sweet­heart. Every­one be quiet.” 

I think it’s impor­tant for kids to be exposed to as many lifestyles as pos­si­ble,” Pallavi spoke into the fresh silence. 

What lifestyle?” her moth­er demand­ed. “They are immi­grants liv­ing in Lon­don, and the par­ents are so igno­rant. So tra­di­tion­al. This is not Indi­an cul­ture, I say.” 

Her mother’s anger always man­aged to take Pallavi by sur­prise. Inside her mind, the voice and the words had flut­tered away, but she reached now to find them, prepar­ing for cer­tain failure. 

Indi­an cul­ture has changed, Amma. There are new­er immi­grants. And more gay peo­ple. All over the world.” 

Sure­ly this was all that need­ed to be said. Sure­ly she’d said it all? 

Maybe things like that hap­pen in those com­mu­ni­ties over there, but it doesn’t hap­pen in ours,” her moth­er insisted. 

How do you know that though, Amma?” Arjun asked now. For all the emo­tion flap­ping inside her, Pallavi could not decide whether she want­ed him to go on. “How do you know what it was like for all of us?” 

I’m just say­ing,” her moth­er said, her voice ris­ing as if try­ing to be heard over a crowd­ed room, “that all of this being what­ev­er you want is just a fashion.” 

Arjun’s eye­brows were lift­ed, but Pallavi looked away. She knew what she was sup­posed to say next, that she was sup­posed to ask her moth­er what she meant about being fash­ion­able, and that Arjun would like­ly join her in skew­er­ing their mother’s flim­sy points against the wall of their shared under­stand­ing of the real world. But she had reg­is­tered the tini­est hint of ter­ror in her mother’s voice. 

It’s not fash­ion, Amma,” Pallavi said slow­ly. “It’s not some­thing to be afraid of.” 

Why we had to pick this movie instead of some­thing about Christ­mas, I don’t know!” her moth­er answered and stared fierce­ly at the television. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang soft­ly, tilt­ing his head at Pallavi. 

You’re ruin­ing it!” Samir stood up shout­ing. He grabbed the remote from the floor and jacked the vol­ume up ten decibels. 

You have to turn it down, Samir, so the oth­ers can talk,” Kavya said. 

I want to go home.” The boy piv­ot­ed sud­den­ly, the remote con­trol held at his chest like a handgun. 

Pallavi’s father was the first to react. “Don’t say that, Samir. We are all togeth­er here. It’s Christmas.” 

It’s Christ­mas Eve Eve!” Maya chant­ed, and Pallavi could not tell whether she shared her brother’s frus­tra­tion. “Santa’s com­ing on Christmas!” 

San­ta can come here, too,” Pallavi’s moth­er posit­ed. The expres­sion on her face now was one of unmasked panic. 

No he can’t, because we live in Sewick­ley,” Samir replied. “We need to leave milk and cook­ies out for him.” 

We can do that here. We have milk and cook­ies from the store.” 

Today’s not Christmas!!” 

Samir’s fury seemed phys­i­o­log­i­cal, emo­tion cat­alyzed by a dif­fer­ent crea­ture, or par­a­site, forc­ing its way out of his body. Kavya jumped up from the floor. 

Tell your Ammam­ma you are sor­ry for shout­ing, Samir. Right now. Be a good boy.” 

I’m sor­ry.” 

Mom, it looks like we should go. Some­thing must have hap­pened to his stom­ach, or maybe he needs bet­ter sleep tonight. But we should go. I’m sorry.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said noth­ing, and over her father’s protests, Pallavi could hear Ravi detail­ing their sched­ules, offer­ing a fam­i­ly din­ner at his house in two days. Peo­ple need­ed to get some rest, he said. And he was on call anyway. 

Well, I’m going to go, too. I’ll catch you guys lat­er.” Arjun stood up and pulled his keys from his pocket. 

You can­not go back to Lewis­burg now, Arjun.” Their father was incred­u­lous. “You’ll get there in the mid­dle of the night.” 

Arjun laughed. “Appa, it’ll be fine. I can text you when I arrive. I was always going to leave late.” 

Nobody wants to stay here any­more. Every­body wants to leave.” 

Their mother’s words were the truest ones Pallavi had ever heard her say. They sound­ed so strange, so purged of judg­ment. Pallavi thought of the song her father want­ed her to sing, about the woman lur­ing the birds to her hands, the clar­i­on firm­ness as she sang in the for­eign lan­guage: do not be afraid. 

Maybe you can take some time and think about why that is, Amma,” Arjun sug­gest­ed loud­ly, mov­ing his bulky body into the foyer. 

What are you say­ing, Arjun? Do you real­ize what you’re saying?” 

Pallavi’s father had the old warn­ing in his voice, the rare thorni­ness from when the boys’ fights became too phys­i­cal when they were young, or when Pallavi overt­ly dis­obeyed their moth­er, the prick­ly tim­bre of final author­i­ty. She looked at his face as he rose from his chair. He appeared, so faint­ly that one could miss it, lost. 

You should have just sang like I asked, Pallavi,” her father said, his stature seem­ing so small in the room he’d proud­ly maintained. 

Leave her alone, Appa. It’s not her fault. You guys need to let her talk to you any­way. We should all leave,” Arjun fin­ished, open­ing up the front door. “I love you all, but I’m tak­ing off.”

A part of Pallavi want­ed to laugh now at her brother’s pre­sump­tion. She sensed that she had a right to be angry at him for rush­ing her, for manip­u­lat­ing the moment like this. 

What does he mean let her talk to you?” Pallavi’s moth­er asked her. The fear was still spum­ing in her face. “Do you want to leave now too?” 

There were deep­er ways to hurt her par­ents, Pallavi real­ized, than what she had failed to tell them her whole life. There were more dev­as­tat­ing things they were fright­ened of than real­iz­ing the truth about any one of their chil­dren. And all the oth­er emo­tions that blind­ed peo­ple, like out­rage and resent­ment, weren’t they also just excus­es for peo­ple who want­ed to fly off and be left alone in the first place? She of all peo­ple knew that it was hard­er to stay put and sing. 

Pallavi opened up her mouth and closed her eyes. “That’s not it. Alex is a woman. I’m gay,” she began and noticed that when she opened her eyes again they were still stand­ing there in the half-emp­ty den. “But I don’t want to leave.” 
 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Pallavi Red­dy, the hero­ine of “Do Not Be Afraid,” is one of four women fea­tured in sto­ries I’ve been work­ing on for almost a year, ever since I got the idea to take my mem­o­ry of attend­ing Hin­du tem­ple camp in Penn­syl­va­nia when I was a kid and using it as a means to con­nect dif­fer­ent adult com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tives of char­ac­ters from the same cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty who first met as teens. Though my own expe­ri­ences were dif­fer­ent from Pallavi’s chal­lenges as a queer South Asian girl grow­ing up in the 1980s, I found myself enriched by writ­ing sto­ries from her per­spec­tive of com­pound­ed iso­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when I set her life in a part of the coun­try that I did not know but had been drawn to while attend­ing camp as a child. That is, writ­ing about her allowed me to imag­ine and cre­ate a sense of belong­ing to a par­tic­u­lar Indi­an com­mu­ni­ty I did not have real access to while also test­ing the lim­its of its abil­i­ty to be social­ly accept­ing from with­in. After writ­ing and pub­lish­ing a first sto­ry about Pallavi as a teenag­er, I real­ized that I wasn’t fin­ished with her fam­i­ly. I sensed a poet­ic poten­tial in her adult repres­sion and real­ized that she deserved her own sto­ry about com­ing out to her fam­i­ly as a les­bian in her late thir­ties; it offered a unique way to explore the theme of mid­dle-age regrets and the onset of mid-life iden­ti­ty crises. Both are key con­nec­tive themes with­in my larg­er man­u­script of more sto­ries of which this piece of fic­tion is a part. 

The rhythm car­ry­ing the nar­ra­tive for­ward (my rep­e­ti­tion of a spe­cif­ic line two-thirds of the way into the sto­ry) was inspired by my watch­ing a black and white YouTube video of the South Indi­an clas­si­cal song from which “Do Not Be Afraid” ulti­mate­ly got its title, a song, as Pallavi tells us, about a woman try­ing to hold birds in her hands. Hav­ing nev­er heard the song before, I felt almost heart­bro­ken by my lack of expo­sure to it and my hav­ing tak­en for grant­ed such a rich cul­tur­al her­itage when I was younger and my par­ents were keen to make it known to me. Birds as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of women’s restrict­ed self-empow­er­ment is an old trope; I want­ed to repur­pose it as a sym­bol for par­ent­ing as well. Not only is Pallavi strug­gling like a bird to be brave and “sing” her truth, but her par­ents are also wrestling with the nec­es­sary les­son of learn­ing how to let their chil­dren go. The trans­la­tion of the title from its orig­i­nal Tamil helped me to crys­tal­ize the idea that Pallavi’s abil­i­ty to speak up and come out to her par­ents rests on her real­iz­ing that her fear is sim­i­lar to their own. Once she does, she is able to see their human­i­ty instead of just their author­i­ty, one of many lessons essen­tial to “grow­ing up” as an adult. 

 

Resh­mi Heb­bar pub­lish­es aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly about women’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al and immi­grant nar­ra­tives. She has pub­lished non­fic­tion at Slate, fic­tion at Funic­u­lar Mag­a­zine, and has fic­tion forth­com­ing at West Trade Review. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Oglethor­pe Uni­ver­si­ty, where she pro­duces an ongo­ing pod­cast fic­tion­al­iz­ing the expe­ri­ences of South Asian immi­grants and their chil­dren. She lives out­side of Atlanta with her hus­band and two daughters. 

The First Act

Fiction / Jessica Alexander

 

:: The First Act ::

The dra­mat­ic thrust had all but been enact­ed. It lacked only a third or sec­ond act. 

The Count­ess had come and promised to come back. Lau­ra sat, list­less­ly embroi­der­ing in a nook by the win­dow. It was so many years ago, Lau­ra told her­self, and it nev­er was a love affair. It lacked even a sec­ond act. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was a liar. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was dead or dying some­where. It felt unfin­ished. If there’d been even a sec­ond act, she’d know what to call it. So, one morn­ing, when the girl float­ed along the walled gar­dens, Lau­ra stood and gasped. There was a moat and a draw­bridge and a stone foun­tain. They’d sat by the foun­tain in the first act. Her knit­ting nee­dles clat­tered to the ground. A ghost! she thought. The Count­ess has come back!

The girl, for her part, stopped amidst the fra­grant lilacs. Her shoul­ders clutched as if she had been struck. There was the slab of stone where she sat so many years ago, but she could not remem­ber what for or why she had returned there. She did not love it, and the mute and stu­pid stone, it did not love her either. Still the foun­tain soft­ly gur­gled. The water was the kind of blue that makes you think of dream­ing. I have been here before, she was think­ing. It makes you want to give your mind away. To trade it in for some­thing sweet­er, some­thing kinder. Some­where a bird chirped, and she almost loved it, almost thought that’s what love is: how the air held her to itself. She stood very still beside the foun­tain. The sound was clear. The light was clean. The sun dipped behind some clouds. She stood there. A ter­ri­ble trick! She looked over the edge of her strange body as if it were a precipice, and longed to fling her­self for­ev­er over it. It was a ter­ri­ble trick to be held here. She did not want it. 

That’s how Lau­ra found her, so still beside the stone, like she might fling her­self into the moat. “Wait—” Lau­ra said, but on see­ing the girl’s face, she sprang back. Was this the Count­ess? She looked dif­fer­ent. Maybe younger. The Count­ess did not seem to know her. 

Are you a ghost?” she asked. 

The girl said she did not know. 

Come clos­er,” Lau­ra said. Though she knew it was a hor­ri­ble trick to coax a dead girl into her soli­tude, she want­ed to. She want­ed this girl for her com­pan­ion. But ghosts, she thought, are such fatal­ists. They do not like tricks, and yet— 

Had Lau­ra said that aloud? Like an indig­nant cat, the girl gath­ered her­self. It isn’t true, she thought. I haven’t any preferences. 

Lau­ra, of course, con­ced­ed. How could she know a thing about this strange being? So, she told her­self, and yet she was cer­tain it was an argu­ment they’d long been hav­ing. The grass, the branch­es, the foun­tain. Let me invent this. She’d make her remem­ber. Yes, it is all a trick but it will get inside you, she was think­ing. I will put it all inside you again. Is it hor­ri­ble for me to curate a memory—to call it loving—and like a balm or a berry I’ll press it through your rough lips. Because, admit it, you’ve been starved, are starv­ing. The sky! Just look at it. How every day the air feels like a day you’ve lived already. And what are you then? Just some­thing briefly hold­ing it, forc­ing it all to go on exist­ing. How utter­ly unre­al­is­tic it is to want any of this, and yet— 

I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How could any­one be like this, the girl was mar­veling. Was mad, so mad, so ven­omous. Her hard eyes, her con­tempt, her impas­sive mouth. I’m noth­ing like her! I’m noth­ing. How can any­one know enough to say so much? Say, I am like this? Con­fess. How can any­one say: I am like this. This hap­pened. Then this. Now I am like this. It’s remark­able, real­ly, she was think­ing, what some could say! They sit. They sigh. They say, Look at the sky. And you look at the sky. They force your eyes. Your mind. They get inside you. They say, I want an apple. And so you want an apple too. You want some sol­id thing inside you, an idea. It is not enough to touch the tree, the grass, where you sit and laugh. You must car­ry it all away with you if you want to be some­body too. Some­one must make you want something—they will put an image in your head and it can­not hold or con­sole you. And if they are some­one like this woman, Lau­ra, you are wait­ing. You are hold­ing your breath. And you are won­der­ing: what will she make me want next? It’s like trad­ing your­self in for a sto­ry, and so, you’ll nev­er be sure whether the sto­ry was any sweet­er or kinder than you were. Mean­while, the sky is on the brink of mean­ing some­thing. It’s all too hor­rif­ic. A hor­ri­ble trick! You want a fog­gy city. You want some­how to be smoth­ered in fog or a fond mem­o­ry of some­thing long ago. A city. Call it Venice. No, not Venice. Maybe Bath. Call it Bath. 

The girl remem­bered a vil­lage: the build­ings were grand and bro­ken. Some­where some­one else was wait­ing for her, and she was try­ing to get back to her. Did she ever get back there? She didn’t think so. That’s how all the sto­ries go, isn’t it? And the girl was won­der­ing, who put that sto­ry inside of her, and did she want it there? How, now, she won­dered, would she ever rid her­self of it, this ter­ri­ble bereave­ment? Was it even hers? 

Mean­while, time was passing. 

I will invent you, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way. Before you came, I felt this way. Like the clouds felt heavy and they pressed some­thing out of me. Like I might drown in sky. Like all day I sigh. Like I can’t tell if the air in my chest is too much or if I can­not get enough. 

And then, the girl told her­self: I won’t be sad because you say so. I won’t be so suggestible. 

Some­where on a tree limb a bird chirped. “Do you like the sound of that? I like the sound of birds in the morn­ing. I like the morn­ing. We have such won­der­ful birds here. I like the light. I like the way it creeps in slow­ly, glow­ing. I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How does one come to know this about them­selves? How does one come to know they like the sound of birds? To have a thing to show some­one? To say: look? And then you turn your eyes just like they want you to. Why? Because you are a fool. 

What’s wrong,” Lau­ra was ask­ing her. 

It had nev­er occurred to the girl to say any of these things. And what hap­pened when one said it, when Lau­ra said “what nice birds” was that she want­ed the earth to swal­low the birds. To swal­low her. Why should she want this, she won­dered. Because this girl made her want and she want­ed wrong! When Lau­ra said she loved this time of day, the singing birds, the sky, which was almost pur­ple, she want­ed to impale her­self on a tree limb or a fence—she want­ed to nev­er leave it, to curl up and die inside a sweet­ness she would nev­er learn to trust. The girl felt ner­vous. Tell your­self a sto­ry. Look, the sky you loved has changed already. Tell it. Tell it quick. Before it all changes again. But when she watched her­self talk, when she tried to bring her­self into being, she seemed to push her­self fur­ther and fur­ther away from what she’d aimed at, some vital glow­ing thing, some­thing else. What was it? Why was this woman hold­ing her hand and lead­ing her on and on through the tall grass, toward the house. She ought to be leav­ing now. 

For Laura’s part, she found the girl very odd. She was noth­ing like the Count­ess. She knew noth­ing. So, Lau­ra had to tell the sto­ry all over again, to start from the begin­ning. Still she liked her. How strange and pret­ty she was with such wilder­ness in her wild hair and her face all bronze from stand­ing in the sun. Her voice was rough and pleas­ing. So stern and sad and seri­ous. It was a joy to stand in the grass and look at her. She thought she was a ghost. “Are you a ghost?” she said. 

The girl said she did not know. 

You remind me of some­one,” Lau­ra was telling her. “There is a woman who vis­it­ed so many years ago. You remind me of her. You look iden­ti­cal. Only you are so dif­fer­ent. So wild and shy. I have the woman’s por­trait inside. Would you like to see it?” 

Yes,” the girl said. But she did not believe it. Not real­ly. Not yet. It was a trick. The way the sun felt. The way this woman wanted—what? To make her want. To make her say it. “Yes, I want to see it.” 

It is a trick, Lau­ra was think­ing, and you are a fatal­ist. How could she pos­si­bly know this, she won­dered. Because all the sto­ries have been told. She want­ed to tell her this, they’re all tricks, you know, and yet— 

She did not know how to make the argu­ment. It was self­ish. She want­ed a com­pan­ion. She liked this girl who spooked so easy like a bird. Like an injured bird, she thought, I will care for her. 

Then, sud­den­ly, the girl remem­bered some­thing: the fra­grant lilacs that bloomed two weeks each spring, the walled kitchen gar­dens, the shrub­beries, the park­land, the poplars and the pear trees. 

She shut her eyes and braced her­self for a hard slap. 

Because this world, she thought, who wants it? 

Every­one. What­ev­er it is. Every­one wants this so bad they’d claw their own heads off to keep them­selves from want­i­ng it. 

Would you like to see it? 

See what? 

A por­trait of your­self. Come. I want to give you this. An expe­ri­ence. To carve a shape in your mind the size of myself, and if there is such a thing as betray­al, I will betray you, because you are not me. But come out of the sun. I want to show you something. 

The girl held her­self at the edge of the foun­tain. She did not know what else to do. Hadn’t this already hap­pened? Why am I here again? She was won­der­ing. Have I left some­thing undone?

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

I kept hav­ing this dream about a woman I knew. 

Let’s call her Car­ol. The last time I saw her was in high school, which was, to be hon­est, a very long time ago. The dream is set in a wrecked city that’s full of red light and fog. And I’m look­ing for her. I ask a bar­tender, “Where’s Car­ol?” He points across a smoky room at some­one, and there is noth­ing famil­iar about her. Still, the bar­tender is not wrong, that’s Car­ol, and I’m will­ing to accept it, though, admit­ted­ly, I’m dis­ap­point­ed. Like all the urgency just swirled down the drain of this dream. I don’t know Car­ol anymore. 

I haven’t seen her since high school, and in my wak­ing life I have no desire to speak with her. And so, this long­ing, like many, total­ly baf­fles me. I can’t help that. At night I’m wan­der­ing through the ruins of my mem­o­ry, want­i­ng bad­ly to tell Car­ol something. 

A bar in win­ter was the last place I actu­al­ly saw Car­ol. She sat on a stool and I sat on a stool across the room. And she looked at me with this very styl­ized hatred. It was high school. We were too young to be there. She didn’t want to say hel­lo. It was clear. It was no big deal, or was she jok­ing? Her sense of humor was won­der­ful and bru­tal. So, I thought about say­ing hi to Car­ol, but then she’d left, and that was the last time I saw her. It wasn’t a big deal, in part, because it took a decade to decide that was the last time. And the dis­cov­ery, by then, felt like stum­bling into my present, hold­ing a rel­ic, like a VHS, which is obvi­ous­ly just so use­less now. Still, I dream about it. What could I pos­si­bly have to tell Carol? 

When you’re young it’s like that. You have this rich inner life, and maybe a friend equal­ly invest­ed in per­form­ing it. Two years pass, and, maybe, you imag­ine all that has noth­ing to do with the peo­ple you’re becom­ing. I liked Car­ol. In high school, I liked the Bron­tës, too, and all through col­lege I’d look back on that fact and feel baf­fled by it. I loved Char­lotte Bron­të in par­tic­u­lar. I loved espe­cial­ly Vil­lette, which tells of Lucy Snow, who, after an unspec­i­fied fam­i­ly dis­as­ter, leaves Eng­land for the fic­tion­al French-speak­ing city of Vil­lette, where she teach­es at a girl’s school. And so, in the nov­el there is a world which reflects the severe finan­cial, social, and pro­fes­sion­al lim­i­ta­tions imposed on sin­gle women liv­ing in the Vic­to­ri­an era, and then this wild exces­sive coun­ter­part and counter-tem­po­ral­i­ty to that world, where Lucy Snow has this super­sen­su­al inner life, rich with desires whose objects all dis­solve inside these very elab­o­rate metaphors. And it’s odd because nar­ra­tive usu­al­ly needs such erot­ic props. A home, in the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el, is usu­al­ly one such ves­sel. And Lucy Snowe hasn’t got one. She says, “To be home­sick, one must have a home, which I have not.” It wasn’t, to me, a sim­ple dis­avow­al but a tes­ta­ment to the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of her loss and her long­ing evinced by the false author­i­ty of def­i­n­i­tion. I mean, she’s wrong, right? One must pos­sess a home to long for it? But she’s exclud­ed and home­sick for anoth­er world. And so this nar­ra­tive sleight of hand, this self-defense, which dis­avows emo­tion by negat­ing its objects, seems also to expand the hori­zon of her long­ing. So, there’s nev­er an object, and yet the nov­el is so erot­i­cal­ly charged! I know peo­ple dis­agree. I’ve read essays about it. There is an object, they say—its name is Paul. Well, I, for one, could nev­er state with clar­i­ty what in this world exact­ly Lucy wanted—and still the nov­el erupt­ed, at every turn, with rabid and wound­ed wanting. 

And so, I was think­ing about spec­tral desire, and I want­ed to write a nov­el, a spec­u­la­tive, par­o­d­ic, and goth­ic melo­dra­ma. Of course, there’d need to be a ghost, and the ghost is real­ly dis­cur­sive, pre­oc­cu­pied with negat­ing the world and her desire for it, which is to say, she’s real­ly angry. And I want­ed it to end when a woman seduces the ghost back to liv­ing or at least she attempts to do so for what can only be very self­ish rea­sons and I’m almost fin­ished and this is how my melo­dra­ma ends.

 

Jes­si­ca Alexan­der’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, Dear Ene­my, was the win­ning man­u­script in the 2016 Subito Prose Con­test, as judged by Selah Sater­strom. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in jour­nals such as Fence, Black War­rior Review, PANK, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, The Col­lag­ist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Matera

Fiction / Carlo Massimo

 

:: Matera ::

Francesco Mas­trange­lo names his clothes and they’re all women’s names: he’s mar­ried to them, I’ve final­ly decid­ed. When he first engaged me I could iron and fix but­tons and raise wine stains but he gave me an edu­ca­tion: hop­sack in sum­mer, cash­mere in win­ter, prince of Wales, tab col­lars and cut­aways, pochettes and gilets. I could cook him what I like; noth­ing hap­pened to dirty the house, although I scrubbed the floors like I hat­ed them. No one in Mat­era dress­es like Francesco Mas­trange­lo. No man in Mat­era is as beau­ti­ful as him.  

My moth­er (who knew his moth­er) says he came back from Milano, or from Lon­don, after a divorce, which may or may not be true because I haven’t asked him about it. He was born here. He is 41 and I don’t know quite what he does, except that it weighs heav­i­ly on him; he is con­stant­ly on the phone, speak­ing Eng­lish, shout­ing at peo­ple and rub­bing his fore­head. He is slim and dark like the prince in one of the Eng­lish movies from the ’80s, with curly hair and a rec­tan­gu­lar face and sev­en or eight pairs of glass­es. He’s famous around Mat­era. He looks about 30. Tech­ni­cal­ly, I sup­pose, he’s single. 

My sis­ter asked if he was a fro­cio but he’s not: first because of that whole sto­ry with the divorce; also because I know he appre­ci­ates beau­ti­ful women. I would see him at night some­times watch­ing TV, and Michelle Hun­zik­er or some­one would appear and he’d roll his eyes and shake his head. Some­times he’d ask my opinion. 

Very pret­ty, I’d say, very pret­ty, and he believed me because you can trust an ugly woman’s opin­ion on these mat­ters. Some­times I could bare­ly answer, I felt so strangled. 

Belén Rodríguez is his favorite. If he were a woman he’d be her, dark, tall. 

Any­way I know why my sis­ter asked what she asked, because apart from work his whole life is those suits, those jack­ets, the trips to the tai­lor, shout­ing through blue­tooth at the dry clean­er, the rows and rows of neck­ties, hun­dreds stacks of shoes. I pol­ished the shoes. It’s dis­gust­ing to admit this but I enjoyed han­dling them. Occa­sion­al­ly he’d let me slip them off his feet when he got home; I couldn’t offer this too often, as I remind­ed myself. 

In the morn­ing, in his bathrobe, he’d say, Lay out Angel­i­ca for me, and the navy cash­mere tie, the Drake’s. And I’d go find Angel­i­ca, col­or of rust, and brush it off and find a blue shirt to pair with it. 

Or, Chiara, is Michelle back from the clean­ers? Michelle is dou­ble-breast­ed, raw white, unusu­al for winter. 

Once, after I’d cleaned up his sup­per and gone home to my own—it was a lit­tle before midnight—my moth­er said she’d seen my employ­er on the street. He has a look about him, she said. 

A look? 

He looks like a mar­ried man. Occu­pied but not pre­oc­cu­pied. Do you know what I mean? Like your father used to look. You very rarely see young sin­gle boys like that with that mar­ried sort of look.  

My sis­ter said, Let Chiara say what she wants, I still think he’s a frocio. 

Shut up, I said, you wouldn’t know. I couldn’t admit that I knew what she meant: the sleek­ness, the soft step, the dis­creet cologne, the care­ful­ly paired glass­es. More than that the air of total con­tent­ment, the uncon­cern with oth­ers, the haugh­ti­ness, the beau­ty. He wasn’t quite a man. He was more like a male cat, purring in his unlined suits, slink­ing along the rooftops with his tail up and his balls between his legs. Women like him and are afraid of him because he is more woman than they are; men pre­tend to admire him because he is rich and a native son. Watch their eyes as he pass­es, though: they hate him. He is less than them and more than them, more ele­gant, more impe­ri­ous, more pow­er­ful, impregnable. 

There is one excep­tion: when he undress­es. What a trans­for­ma­tion: the first time I saw him undressed after work, watch­ing TV on the couch. He’d left Denise on the foot of the bed, crum­pled and gray; when I came down to clean up his dirty plates I saw him for this first time in his under­shirt and AC Milan shorts and slip­pers. He looked up at me, tired and bash­ful. He smiled with half of his mouth, like what can I say? He was fat­ter than he looked, with strong arms. 

The spaghet­ti was excel­lent, he said. How rarely he acknowl­edged my cooking. 

Thank you, I said. And I swear his voice was deep­er when he was undressed than it was dressed. He got up and scratched his back, indis­creet­ly, and dig­ging in the refrig­er­a­tor for a bot­tle of beer he shuf­fled off to bed. The sight of him undressed like that was too much for me, and I wait­ed on the sofa to hear him shut the door before I unbut­toned and buried myself in the cush­ion still warm from his back. 

Get­ting up I saw myself in the mir­ror, my shirt up, skin­ny with a squashy stom­ach like I’d giv­en birth, and my big nose. He would be dis­gust­ed by my stom­ach. He would be dis­gust­ed by my rolls and my flat chest and my bag­gy eyes and my big nose like a sheep’s. My dull eyes and my dialect and my dull­ness. I had long been sit­ting like a hen on an egg on the unlike­ly hope that he’d see me: a nice girl if not very pret­ty, not sophis­ti­cat­ed but here for him every day, not young but still younger than him. 

When I let myself in the next morn­ing at six I felt myself charged with ener­gy. I felt like I was dri­ving fast, dri­ving his curvy blue Porsche that he’d had shipped spe­cial to Mat­era. He came out in his bathrobe as the cof­fee came up, his hair already immac­u­late and his face tired and annoyed and mag­nif­i­cent. There was no more beau­ti­ful man in the world. I felt like the air was leak­ing out of my lungs.  

Madon­na, but I slept like shit, he said. 

I hand­ed him cof­fee, sweet­ened to his taste. This will fix you, I said, and he smiled. 

Thank you. Thank God there’s you, eh? 

And who’s to say that I didn’t cause him to final­ly see me in that moment? He had nev­er said any­thing sim­i­lar to me before. It wasn’t impos­si­ble that the charge I felt had passed into him like elec­tric­i­ty. I felt dif­fer­ent. In my imag­i­na­tion I saw myself catch­ing a cat in a box, the cat scream­ing and shak­ing its head, twist­ing against my hands, claws scrap­ing the pavement. 

The new suit from D’Amato is ready upstairs, he said, would you take it out for me and find me a tie while I shave? 

I walked behind him, watch­ing his shoul­ders sway under his robe. He went into the bath­room and shut the door. I unzipped the gar­ment bag and extract­ed a suit in char­coal mohair, with a fine blue line. In the mir­ror I held it up against my face: it was a beau­ti­ful col­or, ele­gant, under­stat­ed. At first glance it was sol­id; you couldn’t see the ener­gy in this pat­tern unless you real­ly looked. The col­or made my hair look pret­ti­er than it was, and my com­plex­ion.  

Hand me the trousers, would you? 

His soft brown hand, with long fin­gers, emerged from the cracked bath­room door. I hand­ed him the trousers and a pair of braces, and he emerged in a white shirt with a French plack­et, fresh and hand­some in a cloud of scent.   

The fit is per­fect, he said, —for once. 

This suit doesn’t have a name yet, I asked, does it? 

No, you’re right. I sup­pose it doesn’t.  

Might I sug­gest one? I don’t mean to overstep— 

He laughed. Which name did you have in mind, then? 

What about Chiara? 

He said noth­ing. It was like my words were still hang­ing in the air, like the smoke from a snuffed can­dle, and we were look­ing at them disappear. 

No, he final­ly said, I don’t think it’s quite the case. And look­ing at the tie I’d brought out for him he dropped it gen­tly on the bed and went into the clos­et to pick out a new one. 

At the front door, with the keys to his lit­tle Porsche in his hand and sun­glass­es on his face like an actor, he said, I won’t be back for din­ner this morn­ing. If tonight you could pre­pare some veal—I’ve had a desire for it all week. 

That was all. I nod­ded and he turned soft­ly and glid­ed down the stairs. He looked relieved to be dressed and gone. 

The ener­gy I felt that morn­ing was still with me, buzzing relent­less­ly. No cat for me, I thought, and laughed like an idiot. The shock of my fail­ure had left me feel­ing sil­ly and emp­ty, the way you feel after a car acci­dent. I laughed while I scrubbed the kitchen floor in my bare feet and dust­ed the vene­tians. I mopped and sat down cross-legged to pol­ish his shoes, scrub­bing hard to scrub the idi­ot­ic desire to laugh from my sys­tem. I fin­ished just before noon; hav­ing no din­ner to pre­pare, I looked for some­thing to do until 2.   

In the bath­room, among the glass bot­tles like church spires and a thou­sand movie screens, I saw his razor. It was fold­ed into its wood­en han­dle, like my father used to use; three more sat against the back wall of the cab­i­net, like a hunter’s gun lock­er. How strange it looked in the stained light of all his scents, his sum­mer and win­ter per­fumes, his after­shaves, a maze of gold and sil­ver: Armani, 4711, Acqua di Par­ma, Acqua di Gen­o­va, Guer­lain, Dun­hill, Tom Ford. The razor looked like a farmer’s tool, like a prun­ing hook, nicked and dull with water spots in the wood. It was ancient. Up close I could see where a thumb had worn the wood down, right at the top. 

I slipped the razor into my jeans pock­et and sprayed the mir­ror down to clean it. 

Two days lat­er he asked me where the razor was. I said I didn’t know; I’d tak­en it home and laid it in my night­stand, the same night­stand I’d hid­den my diaries in as a lit­tle girl. It looked as alien in the pink and lilac draw­er as it had in his cab­i­net, hard and dead­ly beside a card from my first com­mu­nion and some old lira coins. Francesco Mas­trange­lo said some­thing to him­self, annoyed, but nev­er men­tioned it again. Months lat­er, when he was dis­miss­ing me, he nev­er once men­tioned the razor. He didn’t give any rea­son at all. But sure­ly I’d done some­thing to deserve it; who knows if it wasn’t that. 


 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This work is a few dif­fer­ent strands of thought woven togeth­er. I want­ed to write about peo­ple I know in Italy, espe­cial­ly my neigh­bors, who have lives beyond the stereo­types of rur­al and small-town South­ern­ers. (I am not from Mat­era and I have no rela­tions there.) Ele­na Fer­rante leads the way in this enter­prise, so in a way this is an homage to her. 

More impor­tant­ly “Mat­era” is a med­i­ta­tion on gen­der. Gen­der in the Mediter­ranean is its own com­plex … thing, and in Anglo-Sax­on coun­tries nei­ther the gen­der rad­i­cals nor the con­ser­v­a­tives have any kind of lan­guage to describe it. Archa­ic lives inhab­it mod­ern bod­ies, mine no less than my neigh­bors or my char­ac­ters: the kouros of Kroisos, the bronzes of Riace, the lady of Knos­sos, the Venus of Wil­len­dorf. I want to reach them through my work. 

In these mat­ters I look to Freud, Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and of course Camille Paglia. And Stend­hal, Isak Dine­sen, St. Augus­tine, the movies of Lina Wert­muller, the comics of Milo Man­ara and Hugo Pratt, and, if it’s not too obnox­ious to say, Dante’s Vita Nova 

Oth­er artis­tic mod­els include Con­rad, Cavafy, Hem­ing­way, Qua­si­mo­do, Rilke, Lor­ca, Lispec­tor, Naipaul, and Heaney. Obvi­ous­ly not at the same time. Obvi­ous­ly with­out much resem­blance to the originals. 


Car­lo Mas­si­mo is a poet and jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. His essays have appeared in Newsweek, the Times of Lon­don, the Wil­son Quar­ter­ly, L’Italo-Americano, and else­where. His fic­tion and poet­ry have run in Barza­kh, Bit­ter Ole­an­der, Off the Coast, and Pic­ci­o­let­ta Bar­ca

Hypnosis

Fiction / Rebecca Gonshak

 

:: Hypnosis ::

First we eat the can­dies, then I ask Mark to hyp­no­tize me. Mak­ing it up on the spot, he tells me to sit fac­ing him and focus on his fin­ger, which he waves slow­ly back and forth. I’m imme­di­ate­ly aroused and want to show him how well I can focus, how obe­di­ent I can be. He tells me to close my eyes and imag­ine the time I was most afraid. 

So I go to the mem­o­ry I always go to. I’m eight, maybe nine, crouched on the floor of my par­ents’ base­ment. Did I real­ly crouch? The car­pet was hor­ri­ble: red and black astro­turf-like fibers. We threw dirty laun­dry down there but hard­ly ever washed it; it made soft, musty piles I jumped into from the stairs. 

I’m crouch­ing, try­ing to become a pile of laun­dry, while upstairs my par­ents and sis­ter stomp and scream. My sis­ter, I imag­ine, is run­ning at my par­ents like a bull, or a stam­pede. She is non­ver­bal and in pain; we’ll nev­er know if the pain was from headaches or despair. She died too young. 

That night she might have bit­ten my par­ents or pinched or choked them. I was afraid she might kill them, then come down­stairs and kill me, but she was just a girl, thir­teen or four­teen. In the mem­o­ry I am pros­trate, the child’s pose in yoga, my fists clutch­ing the plas­tic car­pet. Was I pray­ing? I was prob­a­bly praying. 

Mark asks, “How scary is it, on a scale of one to ten?” 

I say seven. 

Now remem­ber a time when you felt com­plete­ly safe. Go to that place.” 

My safe place is a couch, my ex-boyfriend Jack’s. We’re cud­dling and binge-watch­ing the first sea­son of Stranger Things, which might seem too mun­dane for per­fect con­tent­ment, but that’s the kind of ani­mal we are. Humans, I mean. My friend real­ized he was in love with his girl­friend while they were on a couch watch­ing It’s Always Sun­ny in Philadel­phia. TV plus touch is a nar­cot­ic, like you could do this for­ev­er, keep watch­ing episodes until you die in each other’s arms. It’s the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been except high. Jack was old­er and ex-mil­i­tary and would take charge with­out real­iz­ing it. I felt safe with him. Safe to push back against his pushi­ness. Push­ing back made me feel like a real person. 

Mean­while Mark is still hyp­no­tiz­ing me. “Go back to the scary place, but take the feel­ing of the safe place with you. Take who­ev­er is with you in the safe place down to the scary place.” Jack and I go down to the base­ment and crouch with the lit­tle girl. We com­fort her like we’re the par­ents. There’s still vio­lence hap­pen­ing above us, peo­ple in pain, but we can hard­ly hear it. “Blan­ket your­self in love” is what the online yoga teacher I fol­low always says. Jack and the child and I are under the love blan­ket. It feels abstract and tingly. 

How scary is the scary place now?” Mark asks. 

Five.”  

He tells me to go back to the safe place and imag­ine it’s now a hot spring. 

Feel the hot water embrace you. You see thou­sands of stars in the black sky.” 

I imag­ine the heat and the stars, adding a few fire­flies and a ring of trees. My mouth spreads in an expres­sion of delight, and I hope Mark is impressed by how good I am at imag­in­ing things. Or that he’ll think his words real­ly have that pow­er, to drop me into a hot spring under thou­sands of stars. 

My face has always been embar­rass­ing­ly expres­sive, like a car­toon. Some­times the expres­sions are affect­ed, some­times they’re gen­uine. Some­times a lit­tle of both. This time it’s both. I want him to look at my closed eyes and con­tent­ed grin and think I’m as pli­able as hot met­al, as open as a riv­er. I’m not actu­al­ly hyp­no­ti­z­able, prob­a­bly. There was a hyp­no­tist at my senior class grad­u­a­tion par­ty who picked me as a vol­un­teer, and I went along with what he said but didn’t real­ly lose control. 

He tells me to go back to the scary place, except now the scary place has a hot spring and stars. Jack is still there, and we’re all warm and com­fort­able and safe. The lit­tle girl is still hud­dled on her knees in prayer. She hasn’t acknowl­edged me or Jack. She just keeps hud­dling, hid­ing. Now she’s sink­ing into the red car­pet, start­ing to dis­solve. Jack and I try to hold her up, each tak­ing an arm, but she melts in our hands, becom­ing part of the hot water. Jack and I start to fuck in the hot spring. I strad­dle him, and the steam wraps around us. The pipes rat­tle like some­one above us is flush­ing a toi­let. I hear my sis­ter grap­pling with one of my par­ents. She’s say­ing over and over her one word: joo-beesh. A social work­er was try­ing to teach her “Please,” and she used it in every con­text, includ­ing violence. 

Joo-beesh! Joo-beesh!  

Please! Please!  

How scary is the scary place now?” 

Four,” I say. Is the fear real­ly reduc­ing, or am I just reduc­ing the num­ber because I’m so obe­di­ent? Because I’m thrilled that someone’s telling me what to do? 

Now go back to the safe place. Rest in the safe place. You are safe. You are loved. When I snap my fin­gers, you will wake up.” 

Mark snaps his fin­gers. I open my eyes and kiss him. I’m still just begin­ning to know him. 

 

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This piece began as an assign­ment for a sur­re­al­ist poet­ry class, to write a poem in a state of hyp­no­sis. Since I was pur­su­ing an MFA in cre­ative non­fic­tion, I most­ly wrote lyric essays in the class and tried (unsuc­cess­ful­ly) to pass them off as prose poetry. 

For the assign­ment, I bought pot can­dy and shared it with a guy I was dat­ing. I asked him to hyp­no­tize me, and lat­er, while I was high, did some auto­mat­ic writ­ing, which was real­ly just sil­ly images and phras­es. Lat­er, not high, I incor­po­rat­ed these phras­es into an essay describ­ing the expe­ri­ence of being “hyp­no­tized.” I includ­ed that ver­sion in my the­sis as a lyric essay, but I knew it wasn’t yet finished. 

A year lat­er, I went back to the piece, cut out the auto­mat­ic writ­ing por­tions, which were quite obnox­ious, and real­ized it worked bet­ter as a short short sto­ry than a lyric essay. The dis­tance allowed me to describe the mem­o­ries more direct­ly and hon­est­ly. Trans­form­ing it into fic­tion allowed me to dis­tort real­i­ty at the end when the “safe place” and the “scary place” blend togeth­er in my narrator’s mind. 

Some writ­ers who got me inter­est­ed in lyric essays and hybrid prose/poetry are Mag­gie Nel­son and Anne Car­son, espe­cial­ly “The Glass Essay.” Car­men Maria Machado’s short chap­ters in In the Dream House, with their sur­re­al imagery and the fuzzi­ness between mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion, gave me a mod­el for imag­in­ing a new form for this piece. 

 

Rebec­ca Gon­shak is cur­rent­ly a laid-off book­seller liv­ing in Spokane, WA. She has an MFA in cre­ative non­fic­tion from East­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has been pub­lished in Alien Mag­a­zine and The Swamp.

 

Devotions

Fiction / Calvin Gimpelevich

:: Devotions ::

Made­line had two lovers. Judith fixed com­put­ers for work and played soc­cer. She was big-hipped and ath­let­ic and slim, with long hair that peo­ple remem­bered as being cut short or tied in a cap, despite its being worn down. Antho­ny had tight curls shorn close to the scalp and worked as an ambu­lance dri­ver, lift­ing peo­ple in and out of the cab. His shifts changed week­ly, some­times giv­ing night hours, some­times start­ing mid­day. On meet­ing, the two did not like each oth­er. She called them Tony and Jude. 

In the ear­ly days, they fought and sab­o­taged one anoth­er, Jude insist­ing that only a woman could pro­vide the inti­ma­cy she required, while Tony argued that Made­line need­ed com­ple­ment, bal­ance: a man. Both viewed her as hav­ing the soft­ness of anoth­er era, yield­ing and gen­tle, in need of their pro­tec­tion. In con­flict she did not fight but stub­born­ly went her own way, wear­ing her lovers as water carves its own banks. She saw her­self as a per­son formed by con­straint, like a bal­le­ri­na or a plant forced to unnat­ur­al shape. She had a good fam­i­ly, who had bent her to good­ness as well. From unruly girl­hood they extract­ed every­thing but man­ners and blush­ing kind­ness. As an adult, she taught chil­dren and was beloved by them. Her part­ners stored the defi­ance and anger that she did not allow her­self to have. 

Even­tu­al­ly, they grew used to each oth­er. Jude refur­bished Tony’s com­put­er; Tony moved couch­es as Jude refin­ished her place. Made­line and Tony drank beers and cheered at Jude’s soc­cer games. Made­line refused to live with either of them and kept an apart­ment alone. Both part­ners secret­ly imag­ined the tri­ad (or them­selves with Made­line singly) even­tu­al­ly form­ing a home. They joked that, with sci­ence, Made­line could take Tony’s sperm and Jude’s ova to car­ry a baby from each of them, but Made­line did not want chil­dren. Every year she had class­rooms full of them.

Made­line had one oth­er suit­or, this one attached to her work. Bri­an worked in the office and, when she was hired, made his inten­tions abun­dant­ly clear. Some­how, at some point, he learned of the tri­ad, after which he ref­er­enced her home life con­stant­ly, sur­rep­ti­tious­ly. He thought that if she slept with two oth­ers, she should sleep with him too. Being dou­bly part­nered had turned and made her sin­gle again—he was insult­ed that she did not like him. At the office, her files were lost; if she need­ed assign­ments copied, the print­ing would not appear. Inevitably, at meet­ings, he blocked her path with his chair. These inci­dents came with­out obvi­ous mal­ice, seem­ing, at worst, from the out­side, like care­less­ness, like some­thing formed in her head. She did not know how to address the deni­able series, let alone dis­ci­pline him. The only proofs were emo­tion, her own, and the hos­til­i­ty chim­ing off him. 

The school year went by in a fog of chalk dust and gram­mar, of chil­dren remind­ed to push in small chairs. Leaves turned and fell, and their build­ing trans­formed to a cor­nu­copia of sug­ar as the hol­i­days approached. Paper snowflakes cov­ered the win­dows; par­ents brought cook­ies, cup­cakes, gift cards for the teach­ers to vis­it cafés. Made­line grad­ed papers, look­ing to the long break. 

After the last day, she went home and show­ered and changed. The staff par­ty was held at the man­sion owned by their prin­ci­pal, who was wealthy and worked with­out pay. A few hours in, some of her col­leagues were so drunk they were doing impres­sions of dif­fi­cult par­ents and kids. Most had brought part­ners and spous­es, but Made­line hadn’t intro­duced either of hers to any of them. The punch was too strong; she had not felt well before com­ing, and now she was dizzy and sick. Win­ter brought children’s snif­fles. She feared com­ing down with some­thing. She wan­dered, look­ing for some­where to sit and be qui­et, but the man­sion seemed to grow before her, going in cir­cles, lead­ing to the main par­ty again. The walls had dark wood­en pan­els, match­ing the ceil­ing, enclos­ing the space. A huge win­dow reflect­ed and dou­bled the par­ty with­in. Guests jug­gled cheeses and fat­ty salmon with drinks. Beyond their faces were lights set into the ground by the pool. Bri­an fol­lowed her, talk­ing, refill­ing her glass. 

The cup tast­ed like straight gin, but she was too drunk and ill-feel­ing to care. She excused her­self and stum­bled upstairs, found a bed, and real­ized he’d fol­lowed her in. He put his arm around her, and she pushed him away. Or intend­ed to push him away. The inten­tion and result were so clear she did not under­stand how she had got under him, how she had start­ed cry­ing, or how to escape. Every­where there were limbs, as if she were pinned by a mam­moth spi­der instead of a man. Quick­ly, both were half naked and he pushed him­self in. She couldn’t tell if she would black out or not, if she would remem­ber that it even happened—and, in fact, did not remem­ber any­thing but the begin­ning, how or when he had left. She woke, ashamed, some time after the par­ty, dressed, puked, and made an escape. 

At home, she swore to tell no one but con­fessed when Judith came over and real­ized that some­thing was wrong. Jude called Tony, who showed up with­in the hour, and the three sat in Madeline’s kitchen as the whole his­to­ry of Brian’s behav­ior became a cohe­sive sto­ry with the pre­vi­ous night as its goal, insults lead­ing to hor­ror, her lovers won­der­ing why they had not destroyed him before. 

That night, for the first time, they slept all togeth­er: Jude and Tony lay­ing as body­guards on either side of the bed. For the first time, they might have made love with each oth­er, to com­fort Made­line and secure their bond against the ter­ri­ble other—but it seemed impos­si­ble to touch the exhaust­ed woman, to do any­thing. Instead, in the morn­ing, the two got break­fast togeth­er, intend­ing to let her sleep in. It seemed clear that action was demand­ed and that the bur­den of it was on them. Made­line could not return to a work­place with Bri­an when the hol­i­days end­ed and school came again. Any jeal­ousy they had felt toward each oth­er flared and point­ed to the new man. Clos­er in hate than shared affec­tion, Jude and Tony brought food to the park, lay­ing out their options, their access, their friends. This was how the plot formed, on a bright winter’s day, hold­ing bagels, amidst birds and chil­dren shriek­ing in mit­tens, to bring the fire out of their hearts and into his home, while Made­line woke with her own thoughts, ten­der, won­der­ing why they had left her alone.





From the writer

:: Account ::

I was on my way to the Zen tem­ple when a seed plant­ed, and I spent the hour more focused on a blos­som­ing sto­ry than the in-out of my breath. I wrote a few notes against my bicy­cle before rid­ing home, woke think­ing of it, and took the morn­ing off to draft the full thing. My work is usu­al­ly slow and research-heavy. “Devo­tions” is one of the only things I’ve writ­ten with­out an out­line or plan.  

I could talk about queer com­mu­ni­ty, with its many rela­tion­ship struc­tures; about the seem­ing­ly infi­nite harass­ments that my inti­mates (and self) have expe­ri­enced at work; about gen­der, attrac­tion, pro­jec­tion, etc., or how I was read­ing Isaac Babel—but it seems mis­lead­ing. I don’t know why I wrote this, and at first I was embar­rassed to show anyone. 

 

Calvin Gim­pele­vich is the recip­i­ent of awards from Artist Trust, Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter, and 4Culture, in addi­tion to res­i­den­cies through CODEX/Writer’s Block and the Kim­mel Hard­ing Nel­son Cen­ter for the Arts. A found­ing mem­ber of the Lion’s Main Art Col­lec­tive for Queer and Trans Artists, Calvin has orga­nized shows at venues and insti­tu­tions through­out Seat­tle. His short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Inva­sions (Instar Books, 2018), was a final­ist for the Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Awards. 

Miss

Fiction / B. Domino

:: Miss ::

It’s Sat­ur­day. I have an appoint­ment with a new client tonight, and I haven’t washed any of my work gear. My boots and out­fits and tools smell like sweat. It’s all made of fake leather, so when you leave sweat too long, it starts to get that funky cheese smell. Not good cheese. Feta. My gear smells like feta. 

I nudge anoth­er mov­ing box out of my way. I haven’t begun unpack­ing, which tells me that I prob­a­bly don’t need most of the stuff in the box­es; they’re full of mem­o­ries, and open­ing them won’t do me any favors right now. Lit­tle paths between them lead from room to room through­out the apart­ment, my own lit­tle obsta­cle course. I set my gear on the kitchen sink, next to the pile of dishes—another thing I have yet to do. Even though it’s six in the evening, I’m still in my paja­mas. If my clients could see me now, I’d nev­er get booked. 

Lucille Ball runs back and forth on the TV screen in the cor­ner of the room. As always, Lucy’s pan­icked about some­thing fic­tion­al but real­is­tic. The episodes work in a cycli­cal for­mu­la. She does some­thing autonomous and freaks out because she knows Ricky will be mad. My ex, Dan­i­ca, played this show at our old place all the time; it used to bug the shit out of me. I Love Lucy was the back­ground of our lives. I used to be afraid of being a Lucy—relying on some­one else, unable to make my own deci­sions, unable to func­tion with­out approval from some­one else. 

My phone chimes. 

Mis­tress. I have been eager­ly await­ing our appoint­ment for sev­en days. I shall see you tonight at 9:30pm.  

For some rea­son, they all think they need to be in the Anne Rice fan club when they talk to me. Indeed, Mis­tress. I shall, Mis­tress. It’s annoy­ing. I’m about to text him back and say, Just call me Leah, when the TV catch­es my eye. My gray-scale, red-head­ed girl stands in front of her love, beg­ging. I envy her. She has some­one. I curse myself for tak­ing this book­ing, but I need the money. 

I type, Be ready, and press send.  

I scoot the dish­es aside so I have room to wash my work attire. I have a few more hours before I have to be some­one else. 

*

This client’s name is Rudolph. Of course it is. It’s almost so vanil­la that I expect­ed to find a real name when I ran his back­ground check. Aiden or Steve. But no. Some­one real­ly named this guy Rudolph, and Rudolph’s inter­net sweep passed with fly­ing col­ors. He’s a banker. He lives alone in a town­house in the Heights, which means he’s got mon­ey. He doesn’t have a crim­i­nal record, and from what I can tell, he’s nev­er booked any­thing like this in his life. Most of my clients are Rudolphs. Bankers, CEOs, lawyers—a lot of pow­er and no per­son­al lives. I assume it feels good to let the pow­er go sometimes. 

Last week I set up a con­sul­ta­tion to screen the book­ing and hash out his wants and needs. He chose a cof­fee shop in the cen­ter of town called Slash Cof­fee. How fit­ting. Maybe he did that on pur­pose. He was easy to spot. The shop sim­mered with peo­ple in con­ver­sa­tion, lean­ing into lap­tops, or hunched over phones. Rudolph sat in a suit with both hands wrapped around his mug. He’s a skin­ny man because of genet­ics but round and soft in the mid­dle with age. Though he is only forty-three, his bald spot sports a gray­ish tinge, sug­gest­ing years of bad sun­screen habits. He sank into his chair and scanned the café as I took the seat across from him. 

Relax,” I said. “I’m discreet.” 

He had one of the soft­est voic­es I had ever heard, and his lit­tle eyes grew with every question. 

What about safe words?” he asked. 

We can use what­ev­er you’re com­fort­able with,” I said. 

He blushed. “Yel­low for the lim­it. Red for stop.” 

I marked it down. Rudolph was not a guy who want­ed to stray off the path. As we set our sched­ules and said our good­byes, he stum­bled through one last ques­tion. I had to lean in and half-read his lips. 

Can you tell me about you?” 

I thought of my tiny, new apart­ment. My world of card­board box­es and microwave meals. 

No.” What else could I say—this job has ruined my life? Thanks for book­ing me? 

*

After scrub­bing down all my gear, I hang it to dry over the show­er rod and head to my favorite bak­ery over by my old apart­ment. It’s the one I hit up before every book­ing to calm my nerves. Dan­i­ca start­ed tak­ing me there as a tra­di­tion. We would run around the cor­ner, and she’d grab me the same éclair and say stuff like, “We can be healthy when you don’t have to do this anymore.” 

When I walk into the bak­ery, the mix of flour and eggs and sug­ar takes me back. It’s wel­com­ing for a moment. I order a cup of black cof­fee and a few danishes—not éclairs. The first time I came to the bak­ery solo, the bak­er asked if Dan­i­ca was com­ing. I start­ed to explain our breakup, which dis­solved into me telling him that he’ll be see­ing more of me because I got the bak­ery in the split. Breakup log­ic. He doesn’t ask me ques­tions any­more. Today, he just smiles as he opens the reg­is­ter for my change. 

Leah?” For a moment I think I’m hear­ing things. Or maybe I just hope I am. I will the bak­er to move slow­er so I don’t have to turn around, but he hands me my change like it’s a bomb that’s about to go off, and that’s how I know. It’s Dan­i­ca. My name used to sound like hon­ey when it came out of her mouth. 

I turn around, and there she is. She sits in our cor­ner. Our booth. Her hair falls in an ele­gant mess along the sides of her face, sweep­ing down her shoul­ders. It was one of the first things I noticed about her back in the day. It’s black and curly like mine but grace­ful. I trace the lines of it along her cheek­bones to avoid star­ing at the girl who sits across from her. 

Hey,” I say. 

Hi.” Dan­i­ca leans back. This chick looks between us. She’s blonde. Young. Which, in some cir­cles, means hot, I guess. She is the poster girl of rebounds. If she were the star of a movie, it’d be called Danica’s Revenge.  

How’s it going?” I ask. I should walk away, but for some rea­son I don’t.  

Great. Great. Leah, this is Avery.” 

They exchange a look and as their heads turn, I see that they both have bed­head. Avery extends her hand. Part of me wants to rip it off. But I don’t.  

Nice to meet you,” Avery says. 

Dan­i­ca looks down at the pas­try bag under my arm. “Work­ing tonight?” 

There’s no escap­ing the truth. I nod. 

Thought you said you were going to be done with all that,” Dan­i­ca says. 

Yeah. Well. Had to pay for mov­ing expens­es, didn’t I?” 

Avery perks up a little. 

Oh! You’re the one that does the—” She makes a lit­tle wrist move­ment. It’s a whip­ping ges­ture. Again, I want to rip off that hand. She knows about me. It occurs to me that this girl might not be a rebound. 

You know, babe, why don’t you head out. I’ll be there in a sec­ond,” Dan­i­ca says. Her voice has an edge on it. Avery grabs both their cof­fees and pas­try bags and almost kiss­es Dan­i­ca on the cheek. She stops her­self. The air in my lungs thick­ens as I watch her walk out the door and around the cor­ner. Pre­sum­ably to my old apartment. 

Wow. She’s got my old key already, huh? And you always made me feel like the slut­ty one.” 

You’re thir­ty-two years old, Leah. Are you even look­ing for a real job?” 

I ignore the ques­tion and look around the pas­try shop. “You’re even tak­ing her to my spots. That’s cold. Babe.”  

Dan­i­ca shakes her head and scoffs—a sound I had become used to hear­ing at the end. Every­thing I said became tired and obvious. 

What?” I ask. 

You’re going to get your­self killed some­day,” she says. 

Bull­shit, Dan­i­ca. I’m smart about this and you know it.” 

Yeah. Go ahead and feed me that line about how empow­er­ing your job is.” 

Well, it’s cer­tain­ly not as empow­er­ing as that min­i­mum-wage fifty-hour-week paper-push­er job you got. But we can’t all be so lucky.” 

Her eyes red­den and shine. This is anoth­er one of her spe­cial tal­ents. She reserves these spe­cial, wound­ed pup­py eyes for ass­holes and ex-girl­friends. It makes me hate her. And it makes me hate me. 

Well. I hope it’s worth it,” she says. She books it out the door and around the cor­ner to our old place. To her place. 

*

I down two more pas­tries in Rudolph’s dri­ve­way before walk­ing to the door. I’m about to knock, but he opens it like he was ready for me. His fore­head shines and his shoul­ders creep up toward his ears. 

Hey,” I say. I’m out of char­ac­ter. Nor­mal­ly we begin the agreed-upon sce­nario imme­di­ate­ly, but his slack mouth looks like he’s about to say some­thing. Or scream, maybe. He breathes through his mouth as he shuts the door behind me. The tools inside my duf­fle bag clink against my leg. I keep my jack­et on. My keys and a few self-defense items sit ready in both pockets. 

What’s up, Rudolph. You good?” 

Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” 

Yeah? You don’t look fine.” 

I don’t?” 

Nope. You look a lit­tle nervous.” 

I’m not.”  

Then why are you stand­ing in front of the door?” I fin­ger the han­dle of my switch­blade in my jack­et pock­et. He looks at me and then the door, then scur­ries to the oth­er side of the room. 

Sor­ry. I guess I am a lit­tle anxious.” 

It’s cool. Just got to make sure you’re not going to turn me into a skin suit or some­thing. Not a psy­cho, right, Rudolph?” He chuck­les a lit­tle. His shoul­ders drop away from his ears a tiny bit. 

That’s bet­ter,” I say. “Shall we begin?” 

Rudolph tells me he would pre­fer we start in the bedroom—not an uncom­mon request. I fol­low him through his house. His dec­o­ra­tions look placed very strate­gi­cal­ly around the house as though to give a pre­sen­ta­tion of iden­ti­ty. Dark knick-knacks sit between nor­mal house­wares. A white sofa. A sleek stoneware plate set. An Addams Fam­i­ly movie poster. Skull para­pher­na­lia scat­tered among the Ikea fur­ni­ture. It almost looks like Rudolph’s one of those peo­ple reen­ter­ing their ado­les­cent angst phas­es as an attempt to recap­ture their youth. Or maybe he nev­er ful­ly inte­grat­ed into his life as a banker and became some­thing in between the two worlds. There’s a sprin­kling of very adult things—a check­book. A pile of bills. 

We reach his bed­room, which match­es the rest of the house, except the lights are low. White walls. A tie rack. Black bed­sheets with fresh pack­ag­ing wrin­kles in them. And some­thing shiny on top. I can’t quite make it out in the dim light. As I step into the room, some­thing beneath my feet crunch­es. Plas­tic. Long sheets of it. He’s cov­ered the bed, the floor, every sur­face. Every­thing comes togeth­er in my mind right as he clos­es the door behind us. A heat and a ring­ing fill my head. It’s like a night­mare where my feet don’t work but I man­age to turn and face him. 

His hands flop against the but­tons on his shirt like they’ve lost all their bones. He smacks his tongue against his lips like he has cottonmouth. 

Oh fuck no.” I reach into my jack­et pock­et and pull out the blade. “I’ll kill you. I swear, I will.” 

Wait, what?” he asks. His hands go straight up into the air. 

You picked the wrong girl, ass­hole.” Blood burns through my body. He stands between me and the door. I trace the path­way through the house in my mind. I can drop my bag. I’ll be faster if I drop my bag. “This is how this is going to go. You listening?” 

Yes, Mis­tress.”  

You’re going to back the hell up against that wall. Got it?” 

He moves slow­ly. “Is this. Part of the scenario?” 

I said back the fuck up!” 

He gets to the wall. I inch toward the door. 

You’re going to let me go. Got it? I’m faster than you. I got more weapons than you. I have no prob­lem cut­ting your ass if you come at me.” 

Wait, you’re leaving?” 

I dive for the door and I yank the nob, but I hear some­thing before I run. It’s painful. Light. Weak. It doesn’t fit into my night­mare, so I look back. 

Rudolph’s lit­tle eyes have widened, just like they did at the cof­fee shop. It’s like they’re mak­ing way for some­thing to come out of them—like he’s boil­ing over. He sinks against the wall. Sec­onds stretch in front of me before I get what’s going on. Tears. He’s crying. 

I wrecked it. Didn’t I?” 

I real­ize I haven’t tak­en a full breath in a moment. My knees feel wob­bly and my face tin­gles. Rudolph’s sobs roll out of him. His head sinks between his knees. I don’t move. Not to him. Not to the door either. 

What the fuck.” 

He chokes on his own breath and spit. “I’m sor­ry. I’m so, so sorry.” 

Rudolph. Why the fuck is there plas­tic everywhere?” 

He pulls his head up and looks around. A fresh wave of tears comes spilling out of him with a string of incom­pre­hen­si­ble words. Final­ly I make out a soft, inter­rupt­ed whisper. 

I just didn’t want a mess.” 

I’m no stranger to see­ing a client crum­ble to the floor of their own bed­room, but I have nev­er seen any­thing quite like this. Rudolph’s not the pow­er­ful CEO or the tight­ly wound guy who needs to chill for a few hours. He’s that guy you read about online—the one no one gets. He’s not dan­ger­ous. He’s just, I don’t know, strange. 

It takes me almost half an hour to get him to breathe nor­mal­ly again. The wet trails on his cheeks make him look rounder and younger in the dark. I can’t under­stand him when I ask if he likes piz­za, so I order it any­way. When it comes, I bring it back into his bed­room and set the box on the plas­tic. He hasn’t moved much, but after a few slices, he can speak in full sentences. 

I didn’t mean to fright­en you,” he says. 

Hey, back at you.” 

He chuck­les a lit­tle, which turns into a hic­cup. The smile on his face looks unpracticed. 

My ther­a­pist thought this might be good for me.” 

Hir­ing a dominatrix?” 

Not exact­ly. She want­ed me to do some­thing social.” Rudolph shrugs. “Can’t get reject­ed if you pay, right?” 

I have no idea what to say. The chime on my phone goes off, sig­nal­ing the end of the book­ing. I silence it. 

Can I ask you a ques­tion?” he says. 

How could I deny him now? I nod and brace myself. 

Does your fam­i­ly know what you do?” 

I think of Dan­i­ca. “Yeah.” 

Do they hate it?” 

Oh yeah.”  

Do you?”  

Rudolph’s lit­tle eyes still shine from his red­dened, swollen face. His lips tight­en with wor­ry as he waits for me to answer. He’s no one’s Lucy either. And maybe that’s okay. The plas­tic crin­kles under me. The tools that I’ve spent years col­lect­ing sit in my duf­fle at my side. 

No.”  

He nods. 

It takes a while, but when he’s ready to stand, he insists on walk­ing me to the door. A first. 

Maybe we can try again some­day,” he says. 

You think you’d like that?” I ask. 

No idea.”  

I reach out and slap the back of his hand. “Let me know if you feel like you’ve been bad.” 

I’m the worst.” He lifts his chin a lit­tle and he smiles. It doesn’t quite fit his face yet. But it looks real. 

*

When I get back to my apart­ment, it’s almost mid­night. I have nev­er stayed after an appoint­ment. Dan­i­ca would have lost her shit, so I always hus­tled home. But my phone has no mes­sages on it and my apart­ment is emp­ty. I set down my duf­fle bag full of clean gear right inside my door. I’m wired and my entire body aches. My TV glows in the cor­ner; I had queued up the end of a par­tic­u­lar­ly affec­tion­ate episode before I left. Lucy stands, smil­ing, embrac­ing her Ricky. It looks false now—glossy some­how. Unhap­py. She embraces him for the cam­era. For the audience. 

I hit the pow­er but­ton, throw­ing the apart­ment into com­plete dark­ness. Then I flick on a light and rip the tape off the near­est box. 

 





From the writer

:: Account ::

Through­out his­to­ry and through this very moment, sex work­ers of all fash­ions, gen­ders, and forms have been pushed to the mar­gins of soci­ety. We die on streets and in cars and clubs while the enter­tain­ment and art indus­tries prof­it off of our aes­thet­ics and our game. They tell our sto­ries to paint dark­ness in their strait­laced pro­tag­o­nists or a grit­ty stain on an oth­er­wise clean nar­ra­tive palate. It’s those appro­pri­a­tions that lead us fur­ther into dan­ger in the dark. Sex work­ers deserve dig­ni­ty and respect.   

We are con­stant and his­toric. We will remain, despite the best efforts to reduce us to laymen’s per­ver­sions. We are stu­dents and fam­i­ly mem­bers. We are peo­ple who make a liv­ing. We are not the sum­ma­tions of worth, cal­cu­lat­ed by our access to oppor­tu­ni­ty. We may be details in an ocean, but we are beau­ty. We are art. And we can tell our own sto­ries and shift our own narratives. 


B. Domi­no just grad­u­at­ed with an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orleans but lives in the desert, paint­ing, writ­ing, read­ing books with family.

All My Girls

Fiction / Emily Yin

 

:: All My Girls ::

Claire tells you not to wor­ry, she’d just been mak­ing tea. Sarah’s hair falls limply, just past her shoul­ders, like a sheet of cloth. Liv recites Mayakovsky in a chapel, scat­ter­ing the night with each unsteady line. Claire sends pic­tures of her burned palms. Liv smirks at your wide-eyed rev­er­ence, says your favorite line com­pares the stars in the sky to flecks of spit. Sarah sits with arms unspooled, gaze pinned firm­ly on some dis­tant place. She doesn’t squirm or look away when the teacher lobs a ques­tion at her, only shrugs, and that’s that. Sarah—oh, Sarah. You’re nobody but she’s untouched, untouch­able. You start to con­struct a mythol­o­gy around her: all the kids falling away from her like the sea at low tide, her eyes flick­er­ing, how the flame nev­er dies.

You weren’t meant to be frail, you and Claire; as high school­ers you’d net­ted one grim vic­to­ry after anoth­er, unstop­pable, an A here and an acco­lade there. Dis­played such promise, had so lit­tle time to feel. Or maybe you’d got­ten it all wrong, reversed the direc­tion of causal­i­ty. Maybe numb­ness came first and ambi­tion sim­ply fol­lowed; ambi­tion, your only ram­part in a shape­less world. The thought plagues you like a phan­tom pain. Claire, guard­ed but not unkind. Liv, brash but aching­ly earnest. Sarah, pli­ant and unafraid. Hadn’t you sensed it all those years ago? It’s always the brit­tle that break.

*

You orbit Sarah war­i­ly at recess, too proud for over­tures. The heat is unremit­ting. A record high, the anchor­men say. All the oth­er kids take turns on the wood­en slide, its rollers clack­ing like your mother’s aba­cus. You kick peb­bles around, wait­ing for the heat to break. But Sarah, she’s some­thing else. Sits cross-legged in the shade, lac­ing and unlac­ing the web of yarn between her hands. Some­times she glances up, quick­ly, and begins anew. She’s per­form­ing for some­one, you real­ize. She’s per­form­ing for you. One day you gath­er your courage and walk up to the ledge on which she’s perched. What is that?

Her gaze flicks to the yarn and then your face. Cat’s cra­dle, she final­ly replies, words clipped and clear. Want to play? And so it goes: pass­ing the loop of string back and forth day after day, your small, bony fin­gers col­lid­ing with hers. At first you bare­ly talk. You’re afraid of say­ing the wrong thing, offend­ing her as yet unknown sen­si­bil­i­ties, and so you smile, shy­ly, when­ev­er your eyes meet. Her first real words to you are an accu­sa­tion. Why are you here?

Why? Dumb­struck, you find your­self echo­ing her words.

I can see you look­ing over at them dur­ing recess. After class, too. Her words are mat­ter-of-fact and devoid of con­tempt. You want to join in when they make their jokes; you open your mouth but nev­er speak.

It’s… You grope for the right words. I don’t know. They go too fast—you cut your­self off, look at her implor­ing­ly. She stares, refus­ing to fill in your blanks. I don’t know, you par­rot, painful­ly aware of the ver­bal tic clut­ter­ing your speech. It’s just that, by the time I think of some­thing clever, they’ve already start­ed on anoth­er top­ic. So I’m always too late.

She shoots you an inde­ci­pher­able look. In that ago­niz­ing moment, it dawns on you that Sarah does not, will not, can­not under­stand, Sarah with her self-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and infi­nite tran­quil­i­ty. How do you do it? You want to ask. How do you stop car­ing so much all the time? But then she’s say­ing it’s okay, it’s okay, and you’re exhal­ing shak­i­ly, feel­ing inex­plic­a­bly lighter.

*

Sarah is not the humor­less girl you thought she was. Your admis­sion strips her of that arti­fi­cial grav­i­ty and you’re girls again, imp­ish and fun. You start tak­ing the bus to her house after school, spend hours in her base­ment play­ing make-believe. Yes­ter­day you were sophis­ti­cat­ed French girls in a Parisian cafe, sip­ping wine and nib­bling mac­arons. Tomor­row you’ll be wealthy heiress­es, the day after pen­sive pau­pers. Some­times, for no rea­son at all, you look at her and feel a strange con­stric­tion in your chest. Years lat­er, when you start to notice boys, you will call this longing.

You play duets, too, she on the sax­o­phone and you on the flute, mid­dling at best alone, down­right ter­ri­ble togeth­er. When you tire of the cacoph­o­ny, you clam­ber up the stairs and col­lab­o­rate on a fan­ta­sy nov­el which becomes more elab­o­rate with each pass­ing week. Your par­ents, dis­mis­sive at first, start to peer over your shoul­ders. When they read the first draft, a sheaf of papers one-hun­dred-odd pages long, they exchange glances. Not bad, they say. Not bad at all. Sud­den­ly the par­ents, both yours and hers, are invest­ed in your part­ner­ship. They talk over the pos­si­bil­i­ties at the din­ner table and on the phone. Sarah’s aunt works in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness; her moth­er said it might be worth a shot to send it over, see what they make of it. Or: the girls could be excel­lent bridge partners—I’ve nev­er seen two peo­ple so in sync. Per­haps, per­haps, per­haps. It is the sum­mer of 2009. Every­one speaks in hypo­thet­i­cals, but it all seems so inevitable. And then she’s gone.

*

The tests results have come back nor­mal; the gas­troen­terol­o­gist found no cause for your abdom­i­nal pain. In oth­er words, you have a clean bill of health. Claire lis­tens, impas­sive, as you relay this to her. Are you okay? She asks at last. For a moment you won­der if she heard any­thing you said, but then you under­stand. Yeah, thanks for ask­ing. Your eyes burn a lit­tle. The truth is that you’re still afraid. You’ve amassed so much fear in the past few months—where can you set it down? And how can you be fine if the pain’s still there? But Claire doesn’t ask again.

The two of you sit in the parked car. You’re not quite sure why you’ve con­fid­ed in her. You were part­ners in chem lab, then friends as a mat­ter of course, but con­ver­sa­tions had always revolved around exams and after-school clubs, care­ful­ly skirt­ing the red zone of your inte­ri­or­i­ties. You think back to that thaw­ing between you and Sarah, how it had been pre­cip­i­tat­ed by one dis­clo­sure, and feel a spark of hope. But your pre­mo­ni­tion is wrong. You con­tin­ue to pass each oth­er in the halls, wave, and move onto the next class; con­tin­ue to quiz each oth­er on lim­its and synec­doches; con­tin­ue to labor tire­less­ly over home­work and grades. And so the days pass.

*

Livia calls your name in a girl­ish voice, names her bike for you. You have her in your con­tacts as col­or­blind and con­sci­en­tious, a jab at her rigid black-and-white sense of moral­i­ty. She stoops to pick up lit­ter mid-curse, mocks your ter­ri­ble sense of direc­tion but defends you vicious­ly. Those who’ve han­dled you like shards of bro­ken glass all your life gape in amaze­ment. Some­times she pelts her words with too much force, but you nev­er par­ry. Before, you think, you were untouch­able. It was a lone­ly thing to be. You know Livia’s a real one when you ask her for a pic­ture and she drops to the pave­ment in the flam­ing Bei­jing heat. Won’t let you for­get it either. Remem­ber, I’d burn my knees for you, she says, and you know it’s true.

*

You haven’t talked to Sarah in years. She becomes a sym­bol of your child­hood hap­pi­ness, a stan­dard against which all oth­ers are mea­sured and found want­i­ng. When you’re sad, you trace the long course of your friend­ship to its very end: cat’s cra­dle, the nov­el, fight­ing to the point of laugh­ter, laugh­ing to the point of tears, all those sum­mers play­ing tag, long legs scis­sor­ing in flight and hands out­stretched, shame­less excuse to touch and be touched, that quick­en­ing of pos­si­bil­i­ty, the U‑Haul on her dri­ve­way, the solemn good­bye, first love, the hard­est break.

*

Claire attends col­lege one thou­sand miles away. In spite of the phys­i­cal dis­tance, or per­haps because of it, the dis­tance between you has col­lapsed. You send songs to each oth­er when words fail; over the months, the con­cate­nat­ed lyrics write a kind of shared his­to­ry. You tell her about whit­tling down the hours in a local book­store, slip­ping through unlocked cam­pus build­ings at night, how the burn­ing in your gut had eased and then van­ished alto­geth­er. She talks often about being sad; you make all the right nois­es but sel­dom wor­ry. The girl is inde­struc­tible. Livia, on the oth­er hand, always seems to be on the cusp of splin­ter­ing. She ago­nizes over hypo­thet­i­cals, spams your phone five, ten, twen­ty times at once.

I don’t know” becomes your trade­mark refrain. Of course you have your ideas, but you think of omis­sion as a form of mer­cy. Easy to for­feit your opin­ion instead of sub­ject­ing it to Livia’s anx­ious dis­sec­tion. Hard to stand by mute­ly as she cuts her­self, over and over, on the ser­rat­ed edge of hope. And yet the alter­na­tive is unthink­able. I don’t know, you say when she asks if he’d ever cared. I don’t know. You’ve seen the type, earnest but oh so care­less, the type for whom ten­der­ness does not equate to love. If you were a bet­ter friend you’d warn her, per­haps. But you don’t know for sure. And, more self­ish­ly: you can’t risk her shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger, can’t lose your best and dear­est friend. It scares you how much you need her. Cir­cling each oth­er on the dance floor, how she push­es the hair from her eyes, her face irra­di­at­ed by strobe lights stream­ing down like rain. And then you reach for each other’s hands, two school chil­dren play­ing Ring Around the Rosie, spin­ning, pock­et full of posies, light and sound and time sink­ing into the ecsta­t­ic dark, dis­man­tling you in the best way, ash­es, ash­es, a con­tin­u­ous descent, but you nev­er fall.

*

It’s over. Heart­bro­ken, Livia wants to put her head in your lap. Some­times you recoil vio­lent­ly, won­der what it is you’re so afraid of. Oth­er times you acqui­esce, pull her in almost vio­lent­ly, whis­per the words to a poem you’d once read: I wish I could cut off your pain like hair (but all I real­ly want to do is comb it). You know this is a pro­sa­ic pain, one she will emerge from large­ly unscathed, but you ache with a pecu­liar ten­der­ness. A few days from now, Claire will scald her hands and call it an acci­dent. You’ll phone Livia, try to beat back the shock waves with ques­tions for which she has no answer. Why do I feel so strange­ly detached? Shouldn’t I feel more? Shouldn’t I feel less? How can words be so dev­as­tat­ing­ly impotent?

She’ll receive you, stut­ter­ing out your help­less­ness, as a priest at con­fes­sion. In the span between your words, the truth you might nev­er say: I need­ed you, Sarah. Was so, so alone before I met you, Claire. Thought myself unknow­able till you knew me, Liv. How I care for you, and you, and you. You close your eyes, hear Livia’s shal­low breath­ing over the line. You know I’d burn my knees for you, she says. You envy her this cer­tain­ty. Imag­ine a cam­era flash, a white-faced Claire, a tub, the Bei­jing heat. Liv, you say. Liv. The words crack open the sound­less night, more promise than revelation.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This piece is a ret­ro­spec­tive on my girl­hood. I’ve been think­ing a lot late­ly about the emo­tion­al toll of intimacy—not just the pet­ty spats and well-worn rit­u­als of ado­les­cence (nav­i­gat­ing first love and rift, envy, aca­d­e­m­ic stress, the social tur­bu­lence of high school, etc.) but also the cost of car­ing, of tak­ing on bur­dens that—once assumed—can nev­er again be put down or for­got­ten; fear of code­pen­den­cy; that pecu­liar blur­ring between love and vio­lence; and how, despite all this, there can be no oth­er way of living.

 

Emi­ly Yin is a junior study­ing com­put­er sci­ence at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her writ­ing has been rec­og­nized by the UK Poet­ry Soci­ety and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writ­ers. She cur­rent­ly serves as a poet­ry edi­tor at Nas­sau Lit­er­ary Review. Her work is pub­lished in Indi­ana Review Online, Glass: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, Pit­head Chapel, decomP mag­a­zinE, and Con­no­ta­tion Press, among others.

Venice, 1595

Fiction / Anne McGouran

 

:: Venice, 1595 ::

In spite of all my efforts, the Doge’s trot­ters are fit to appear along­side the dwarves and amputees he brings out at court enter­tain­ments. There’s a gouty pouch on his left foot that resem­bles a sixth toe. No mat­ter how I pumice and cau­ter­ize, his bunions resem­ble over­ripe figs.

Pieri­no,” he sighs, “when I’m dead they’ll all gloat: ‘We sure squeezed the last drop out of Doge Grimani.’”

Do not dis­tress your­self, Most Serene Prince. I’ll pre­pare a chamomile poul­tice with­out delay.”  (I might have to rethink those draw­string thongs—maybe invent some kind of toggle.)

When­ev­er I come up with a new treat­ment, the Doge pats my head and calls me his “clever young wor­thy,” which puts me on a rung just below his Per­sian wolfhounds. Most days he’s eas­i­ly pleased—a tot of mosca­to, some rice and peas, relief from those cracked heels and jaun­diced toe­nails, pro­tec­tion from his grasp­ing wife.

Nowa­days Her Lady­ship has to be fer­ried around in a sedan chair by four por­taseggette till she can walk unaid­ed in her 27-inch cork-platforms—the lat­est fash­ion from Moor­ish Spain. Last week, two ladies-in-wait­ing came to me with over­stretched ankles. “The Dog­a­res­sa sends us on bogus errands then fines us for tar­di­ness,” Fausti­na whis­pered. “She’s got stumpy legs and a grimy yel­low neck under that fan­cy ruff.” While I made up spe­cial heel padding, the ladies took turns swivel­ing on the fan­cy new stool with a move­able seat I won at dice.

At least the cam­paign to erect a stat­ue of the Doge is going well. Guess all his well-placed elec­tion gifts didn’t hurt. A goc­cia a goc­cia s’in­ca­va la pietra. (Drop by drop one wears away the stone.) He was pleased with the long-toed cor­rec­tive shoes I fash­ioned for his audi­ence with the Per­sian Ambas­sador. I sewed a goatskin upper onto a leather sole, turned it inside out to con­ceal the seam. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the old boy tripped while descend­ing the Giants’ Stair­case, the Dog­a­res­sa glar­ing at him from out of those pink slits.

When I learned the Dogaressa’s coro­na­tion will set the old boy back 144,000 ducats, I sent a mes­sage to Fausti­na. “Wouldn’t Her Seren­i­ty like a pair of winged plat­form san­dals to com­ple­ment her tow­er­ing head­dress?” I scraped bronze gild­ing off an old mir­ror and blend­ed it with mar­ble dust and sand to resem­ble wings. The soft padding con­forms to the shape of the Dogaressa’s foot, but the genius part is the under­lay­er. Trace amounts of ground viper, dung, and mer­cury will slow­ly leach into her sen­si­tive soles. She won’t be alle­mand­ing with her courtiers any time soon. Like we corn-cut­ters always say, “Pain comes on horse­back but goes away on foot.”

I’d best nip over to Manin’s Print Shop before he gets to work on my call­ing card. My first choice was “Piero Cafisi: Expert in the Erad­i­ca­tion of Painful Corns, Stone Bruis­ing, and Cuta­neous Excres­cences,” but I’ve set­tled on “Renowned Spe­cial­ist in Indel­i­cate Foot Conditions.”

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Three years ago I became fas­ci­nat­ed with the Dog­a­res­sa, the Venet­ian Doge’s offi­cial spouse. Out of the thir­ty-five Dog­a­res­sas, I decid­ed to research Dog­a­res­sa Morosi­na Morisi­ni-Gri­mani, whose extrav­a­gant coro­na­tion was the last on record in Renais­sance Venice. I won­dered if she had any polit­i­cal influence.

Mean­while, my hus­band and I booked a two-week get­away in New York City. Our guest house (accord­ing to their web­site) con­tained part of an Ital­ian Renais­sance library that once belonged to the Duke of Urbino. I got it in my head that the Duke of Urbino was Morosi­na Morosini’s hus­band. At the local ref­er­ence library I pho­to­copied floor plans of a 14th cen­tu­ry ducal palace, includ­ing its elab­o­rate ceil­ing medal­lion. When we final­ly checked into the House of the Redeemer, I rushed down­stairs to the sto­ried library clutch­ing my pho­to­copies. I gazed up at the vault­ed ceil­ing only to dis­cov­er that the medal­lions didn’t match. A his­to­ri­an lat­er clar­i­fied that the library actu­al­ly belonged to Fed­eri­co da Mon­te­fel­tro. My bad.

I aban­doned my Dog­a­res­sa sto­ry and began to think about the lives of min­ions at the Venet­ian court. I reread Eliz­a­beth Janeway’s Pow­ers of the Weak: “a wise mis­trust of the pow­er­ful and a will­ing­ness to exer­cise dis­sent” is nec­es­sary if the weak are to rule their own lives. I thought about gos­sip as a weapon of the weak. The fic­tion­al char­ac­ter of Piero Cafisi emerged after I read an orthotics brochure which said that “corn-cut­ters” pre­dat­ed podiatrists.

 

Anne McGouran’s sto­ries and essays appear or are forth­com­ing in Cleaver, Cut­bank, The Smart Set, Mslex­ia, Queen’s Quar­ter­ly, Orca, Switch­grass Review, and Gar­goyle Mag­a­zine. She lives in Colling­wood, Ontario where she has devel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with ice huts and orchard ladders.

Severin

Fiction / Rachel Levy

 

:: Severin ::

I.

Sev­erin is a char­ac­ter in a nov­el. He is a Gali­cian gen­tle­man and landown­er. He is thir­ty years old, a smok­er. He is sex­u­al­ly inex­pe­ri­enced. He craves eggs, soft-boiled, and likes to press his face against stat­ues. He likes stat­ues. He loves fur. He dab­bles in poet­ry and sci­ence. He col­lects ani­mal skele­tons, stuffed birds, and plas­tic cats. He does not want to be hanged by a woman, so he trains women. He rests his chin in his hands. His hands are del­i­cate­ly veined. Accord­ing to his neigh­bors, Sev­erin is dan­ger­ous and odd. He has zero friends, unless you count the nar­ra­tor of the book. Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor are best friends. They smoke cig­a­rettes at Severin’s estate. They talk about lit­er­a­ture, domes­tic vio­lence, and the fig­ure of the cru­el woman. The cru­el woman ambles roughshod over the grass­es in the art­works of wealthy het­ero­sex­u­als of Euro­pean descent. Sev­erin con­fess­es to the nar­ra­tor. Once he used sci­ence to bring the cru­el woman to life. Like the wife in the block­buster film Bride of Franken­stein (1935), the cru­el woman was ill-suit­ed for love.

For exam­ple: The cru­el woman chains Sev­erin to a thick wood­en rod. Then she orders a man of Greek descent to engage Severin’s body in a whip­ping with­out Severin’s con­sent. In addi­tion, she breaks up with Sev­erin while his body is still attached to the thick wood­en rod. She refus­es to have pen­e­tra­tive sex with Sev­erin. No, they nev­er have pen­e­tra­tive sex. The absence of pen­e­tra­tive sex is demor­al­iz­ing to Sev­erin, and yet it helps him to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which posi­tions him favor­ably on the job mar­ket. I will elaborate.

What doesn’t kill you births a more vir­u­lent strain of your kind,” writes Friedrich Wil­helm Niet­zsche. Niet­zsche is a Ger­man bach­e­lor who rejects the com­pan­ion­ship of peo­ple, pre­fer­ring an assort­ment of hand-held fire­works and domes­tic tools, such as sparklers and a ham­mer. He is famous for his vir­ginal mus­tache. You aren’t allowed to touch it! Oh, Niet­zsche. While Sev­erin is attached to the thick wood­en rod, he is over­whelmed and close to death on account of the man of Greek descent who is whip­ping his body. Fast for­ward a few days, and Sev­erin is on hol­i­day in Rome tap­ping the virtues of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus to process the trau­mat­ic roman­tic expe­ri­ence. In short, Sev­erin endures. He per­se­veres like Queen Mab and push­es the hazel­nut car­riage of day labor­ers through the har­row­ing tun­nel of the absence of maid­en­hood, dip­ping into the fam­i­ly cof­fers to buy him­self a ration of the most exquis­ite cocaine. Lat­er, in the heat of an Ital­ian night­club, Sev­erin snatch­es a neon glow­stick from a les­bian! Then he is danc­ing. Sev­erin dances to express his sense of humil­i­a­tion and loss. It isn’t long before Severin’s danc­ing draws the atten­tion of a well-con­nect­ed group. In a qui­et vel­vet cor­ner, nes­tled in the rear of the night­club, the group plies Sev­erin with liquor and a flight of hens stuffed with sur­pris­ing fla­vor com­bos like cheese and nuts. Sev­erin swears the group to secre­cy. Then he shows them the blue­prints for orga­niz­ing soci­ety along strict hier­ar­chi­cal lines. They decide to get brunch after. The morn­ing is dewy and bright, veined with sil­ver tor­rents. It’s beau­ti­ful! My god. It’s beau­ti­ful. Sev­erin is cry­ing now. He is slob­ber­ing. He’s chok­ing a lit­tle. It’s just so. So. Beau­ti­ful. He com­mits right then and there to join the fight for men’s rights. In due time, he inher­its his father’s estate. That’s how Sev­erin evolves into the polit­i­cal per­sona we know and love today.

Sev­erin owns clas­si­cal paint­ings. Sev­erin owns impor­tant books. Sev­erin owns top-qual­i­ty cig­a­rettes. There’s also a silk-clad thingy, plump in a bodice, walk­ing on stilt­ed doe’s legs through­out the cor­ri­dors of Severin’s estate. The silk-clad thingy car­ries a plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats. As not­ed above, Sev­erin is an active par­tic­i­pant in the men’s rights move­ment. The author uses plain lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate Severin’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the fig­ure of the tyrant on both a per­son­al and polit­i­cal lev­el. For these rea­sons and oth­ers, the naïve read­er might be tempt­ed to con­clude: “Well, there you have it! Severin’s a tyrant. This is a tyran­ni­cal book!” But the com­plex­i­ty of the text threat­ens oth­er­wise. For exam­ple, when the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin reacts in an unex­pect­ed man­ner. He is over­come by anguish because the eggs are not cooked to his lik­ing. The eggs are hard-boiled, but Sev­erin prefers soft-boiled eggs. His pref­er­ence for the soft-boiled egg sub­verts the log­ic of tyranny.

I will elaborate.

Through­out the his­to­ry of the West, tyrants have pre­ferred to asso­ciate them­selves with hard objects. Since there is no rea­son to assume this pref­er­ence does not extend to eggs, the read­er spec­u­lates that it is the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of the tyrant to choose the hard-boiled egg over the soft-boiled egg. If Sev­erin were actu­al­ly a tyrant, then he would have wel­comed the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head. Sev­erin does not wel­come the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head.

The author of the book out­fits Severin’s sen­si­tive inner-mouth space with the trap­pings of a bachelor’s boudoir. The boudoir is lined from floor to ceil­ing in the rich­est pink vel­vet. Ever since read­ing the book, I have caught myself sali­vat­ing at the thought of spend­ing the after­noon in Severin’s mouth. One day in the future, after I’ve put in my time and ascend­ed some of the rungs, I hope to take an entire week­end. I’ll bring along a nov­el, plus sev­er­al of my col­leagues and friends! We’ll dis­course on lit­er­a­ture, ethics, and the nec­es­sary exclu­sion of some groups from the pub­lic sphere. Unable to pre­vent our hands from caress­ing the walls, we’ll wipe our fin­gers on the thick pink sur­face. Then the room will begin to vibrate, and a deep-throat­ed purring will fill up our ears.

In addi­tion, and it goes with­out say­ing, the tyrant’s pref­er­ence for the hard­ness of hard-boiled eggs, and for hard objects in gen­er­al, evokes the turgid­i­ty of the phal­lus when it is erect. This thrilling detail con­nects to a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion held by tyrants the world over: the dis­avow­al of cas­tra­tion. The tyrant does not under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed. But what about Sev­erin? Does Sev­erin under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed? Sev­erin absolute­ly under­stands that he is cas­trat­ed! For exam­ple, before Sev­erin real­izes he must devel­op a method for train­ing women in order to pre­vent women from hang­ing him, he takes orders from a woman. For this rea­son and many oth­ers, Sev­erin is not your typ­i­cal tyrant. Sev­erin is a good person.

Grant­ed, this book is a com­pli­cat­ed book due to the fas­cist over­tones. Sev­erin open­ly lays claim to tyran­ny. Sev­erin sup­ports his claim to tyran­ny via action. In one scene, for exam­ple, Sev­erin threat­ens the silk-clad thingy with domes­tic vio­lence because the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, but every­body knows that in the old­en days Europe was unseem­ly. The Sov­er­eign put peo­ple to death. He didn’t under­stand that he was cas­trat­ed. Before cast­ing judge­ment, I ask that you con­sid­er the fol­low­ing: Has Sev­erin ever tried to con­ceal his unsa­vory polit­i­cal com­mit­ments from the read­er? No, Sev­erin has not. In fact, Sev­erin has always been incred­i­bly open and hon­est about the most trou­bling facets of his per­son­al­i­ty. His forth­right­ness is com­mend­able in and of itself. In return, we owe Sev­erin a sim­i­lar debt to honesty.

Let us strive to be hon­est. It feels good to be honest.

II.

Hon­est­ly, my mem­o­ries of Sev­erin are grim. I didn’t like him. We met as grad­u­ate stu­dents in a mid­dling cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram out west. The school no longer exists. It was cheap­ly affixed to the side of a moun­tain. Weak­ened by drought and fire, it even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbed to grav­i­ty and was qui­et­ly shed like a scab. Nobody noticed it was gone.

Sev­erin was a ter­ri­ble writer and an emo­tion­al­ly manip­u­la­tive per­son­al­i­ty. High on phi­los­o­phy and art, he could reor­ga­nize the world just by glanc­ing at it. I still remem­ber how much it hurt to get caught up in his line of sight. I had to go and lie down. If I acci­den­tal­ly sat across from him in a sem­i­nar or work­shop, then I’d be knocked out for days. “Influen­za,” I said. I was always say­ing that. I couldn’t stand him, and yet we were friends. That’s how friend­ship worked in school. Then it was over. Sev­erin and I fell out of touch. The school fell off the moun­tain. Yeah, I’ve thought about reach­ing out. Because I wish I could tell him that the whole time we were friends, I was busy despis­ing, him. Sev­erin, I despised you and every­thing you stood for. I’m sor­ry about that. The truth is, and I know this now, I despised myself. I despised the sight of me, and you wouldn’t allow me to turn away, you nev­er allowed me to turn away, and so I was in tremen­dous pain pret­ty much all of the time. I was a per­son caught in the throes of pain. I’m not like that any­more, Sev­erin. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to empathize with your point of view. I’ve even incor­po­rat­ed your pub­li­ca­tions into my teach­ing and schol­ar­ship. I’ve tapped your book like a keg, Sev­erin, and fun­neled its life force straight into my career. Thank you, Sev­erin, for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you, Sev­erin! Thank you!

Okay. To be hon­est. To be total­ly and com­plete­ly. Hon­est. For a minute I thought we could be friends, real friends. Sev­erin and I, we had a lot in com­mon. What hap­pened was he caught me in the act. Past mid­night. Star­ry sky. Dark, dry air. Cold. Out west. High up on the side of a moun­tain. In the cen­ter of cam­pus, on the lawn of the admis­sions build­ing, there’s a stat­ue of a beau­ti­ful woman ringed by ever­greens. She’s one of the wives of the founder of the state reli­gion, the first wife or the main wife, and I’d wrapped her, beau­ti­ful stat­ue, head to toe, in toi­let paper that I stole from the stu­dent union.

You have to under­stand. I’ve always been drawn to the wife in Bride of Franken­stein. But before she’s opened. When her body and her head and her face are wrapped up in gauze. Gift for a mon­ster. I want her or I want to be her or I’m already who she is but I don’t like being me so I’ll wait it out. I’ll just wait and see. What’s underneath.

Yeah, so. I’d wrapped the stat­ue of the founder of the state religion’s wife in toi­let paper, and I was, you know. Wor­ship­ping her. I was wait­ing. Wait­ing to see. Show me. Show me. I pressed my face against the paper cov­er­ing her skirt. Show me. That’s when Sev­erin intrud­ed, his arms full of furs.

You like stat­ues,” he said.

Why lie. At a time like this. “I do.”

You wrap them in toi­let paper.”

Yes.”

That’s queer.”

Yes.”

You’re queer.”

Yes.”

I like stat­ues, too,” he said. “I drape them in furs.”

I see. You’re also queer?” 

I am.”

Good. That’s good.”

We must stick togeth­er,” he said.

Okay.”

He took me back to his place.

Kind of a shit­ty place. There were room­mates. Every­where. But what­ev­er. They were already asleep. Some cats, too. I don’t like cats. It’s okay. We’d worked out a plan. First, we’d both take off our clothes. Next, I’d drape myself in furs and Sev­erin would wrap him­self in toi­let paper. Then we’d just. I don’t know. See what hap­pened. We had a six-pack. A six-pack. He had some cig­a­rettes. I like cig­a­rettes. So. Let’s see. We’ll just wait and see. Where the night takes us.

Sev­erin hand­ed me an ermine stole and a sheep­skin muff. He pushed me into the bath­room. Closed the door. I was alone. Bath­room was a lit­tle shit­ty. No. Yes. Shit streak­ing the seat of the toi­let. Shit rim­ming the tub. Shit on the mir­ror. Shit stain­ing the grout of the tile. Hairs col­lect­ing along a streak of shit. Pok­ing right up to God like aspara­gus. Okay. Here I am. What is a stole and what is a muff? I know what I look like. I’ve looked plen­ty of times. It’s fine. Some­one should look like this. Some­one should’ve looked like this. What the fuck. Do you want to know? Do you want to know what a per­son looks like? When they are wear­ing a stole and a muff? I already told you. I despised the sight. I got low. Then I got low. I was sit­ting on the floor. Like Bar­bie. Legs straight out. What did they want? My atten­tion. No, I don’t want to hold them. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He was explain­ing how to care for his cats.

What?

His cats. He told me to watch his cats. Over Christ­mas break. Hel­lo. Keep up.

Pay atten­tion.

Give them food and water,” he said. “More impor­tant­ly, get to know them. Spend time with them. That’s cru­cial. For­get to feed them, and they’ll sur­vive. For­get to touch them? They’ll fuck­ing die.”

That can’t be right.

Okay. This is Severin’s bed­room. The win­dow was frosty. Frost is beau­ti­ful. Frost is beau­ti­ful. I need to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. Christ­mas gifts, every­where. Sev­erin had been shop­ping. Now he was tak­ing his time. Pack­ing a bag. He was gonna miss his flight. Then there was that cat at my feet. Roost­ing on an open mag­a­zine. Pink. It was pink. I didn’t know you could get them that way.

Which one is sick? Deleuze?”

I didn’t say that. Please. I didn’t. Is that what he calls his cat? I shouldn’t have come here. I should nev­er have come. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to. I had a knife. Okay, I had a knife. I had a knife. I hat­ed when think­ing hap­pened like this and I could see myself on the out­side. I hat­ed that. She was hold­ing the knife, and then, I see, she cut a gash in her throat. She stood over the cat, the pink cat, just to bleed on it for a minute. She just bled on it? Yeah. Soon she was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. Don’t let her drop on the cat. It was pink. The cat. But why was it pink? I don’t know! Stag­gered. She stag­gered. She dart­ed for the book­case. She was look­ing for the book he liked the best. Which one did he like the best? The one where they slan­der the trees. They hat­ed trees, Deleuze and Guat­tari. Ass­holes. She tore a page from the book, crum­pled it up and fed the blos­som to the gash in her neck. She didn’t throw up. I nev­er threw up. It’s like I didn’t get how to do it. Do you understand?

Talk­ing. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He said the cats aren’t called Deleuze and Guat­tari, not any­more. He renamed them. He renamed his cats. Yeah, he was always doing that. Giv­ing them new names. 

Why?”

Sev­erin shrugged. He sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed one leg over the oth­er. What was he wear­ing? Indoor soc­cer shoes? I want a pair. I want­ed a pair.

Just tell me which one gets medicine.”

The pink one.”

The pink one. The pink one. No.

No, no, no.

What do you mean, no?” he said.

I mean, who has a pink cat?

I mean, no.

No, no, no, no.

Look,” said Sev­erin. Then he was up again, orbit­ing the bed­room. He was col­lect­ing the Christ­mas gifts in a gigan­tic paper bag. “It’s been a long day. I shopped. I wrapped. I packed. I’m about to fly across the coun­try.” He stopped at the foot of the bed, hoist­ed a duf­fel over his shoul­der. “And now I need to explain the con­cept of a joke to you?”

She couldn’t get a read on his face. I couldn’t see it either. The sky was a snake. It sloughed off the skin of the sun. Dark. It was dark.

III.

Now for a review of the lit­er­a­ture. Some peo­ple argue that this book is a trans­gres­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the rul­ing class and an aspir­ing poet with an impos­si­ble desire for sub­mis­sion. Oth­er peo­ple argue that this book is a sub­ver­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite and an aspir­ing poet with a para­dox­i­cal dream to end cap­i­tal­ism. Plus, there are sev­er­al per­sua­sive argu­ments that call for label­ing this book a queer book due to the super­abun­dance of fur gar­ments, which are gay. My take on the sit­u­a­tion is rad­i­cal. I believe it is wrong to argue about books. Even though I spend Christ­mases with con­ser­v­a­tive col­leagues and keep in touch with an elder­ly men­tor who still sub­scribes to the impos­si­ble dream of a white eth­nos­tate, I believe that each and every mem­ber of the depart­ment is free to choose a lit­er­ary her­itage; I choose to join in the strug­gle to pre­serve the rights of the most impor­tant books of Euro­pean civilization.

Ever since the dawn of the birth of the French per­son Roland Barthes, we have under­stood the col­lege class­room to be an amphithe­ater for bear­ing wit­ness to plea­sure. Barthes worked hard in the pub­lic sphere to devise a reper­toire of ges­tures for tes­ti­fy­ing to plea­sure with­out expli­cat­ing the text. He man­aged to con­duct his life’s work in silence. Total silence. It was impor­tant that Barthes stay qui­et. He didn’t want to spook the jouis­sance. The jouis­sance is skit­tish. It darts like a doe into berry bush­es. Some­times, at school, we coax the doe to the cen­ter of our circle.

Thanks to Barthes’ hard work, we’ve devel­oped a cer­e­mo­ny for gath­er­ing ’round, open­ing our books, and point­ing at plea­sures that can nei­ther be described nor ver­i­fied. What does this mean? I will tell you what it means. It means the unspeak­able qual­i­ty of our ped­a­gogy is the con­di­tion for a rad­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al faith. Stud­ies have shown that TAs of faith lead health­i­er, hap­pi­er, more inte­grat­ed lives. They’re able to make do on their stipends, with a lit­tle some­thing left­over for the week­end. They out­per­form their peers on the job mar­ket. When they com­pose the for­ma­tion of the sacred cir­cle with their bod­ies at school, the plea­sure touch­es friends touch­ing books list­ed on the syl­labus, rein­forc­ing the mis­sion of the university.

High up. The sky is a snake: it sloughs off the skin of the sun. Dark. It’s dark. In the once-vibrant city of Cher­nobyl, the snow is falling. We must be care­ful, vig­i­lant, and ten­der. Because there are schol­ars who set traps in the snow and the berry bushes.

They aren’t real­ly scholars.

They aren’t even readers.

They are bull­ish fur traders whose thick thighs rub snag­gles into off-brand stock­ings! Ambling roughshod over mass graves of frost-bit­ten grass­es! Spook­ing the plea­sure, which leaps like a doe, to impale its soft, soft self on the crys­talline edges of the berry branches—dead! She’s dead! Dead. Dead. Dead.

Sev­erin lights a cigarette.

The nar­ra­tor lights a cig­a­rette. The nar­ra­tor perus­es Severin’s col­lec­tion of ani­mal skele­tons, mil­i­tary hard­ware, and plas­tic cats. Oh, Severin!

Accord­ing to the details of his biog­ra­phy, Sev­erin belongs to the rul­ing class. But what about the nar­ra­tor? Who is the nar­ra­tor of the book? Well, the narrator’s sta­tus is ambigu­ous. He employs a valet to grab hold of his arm whilst he is sleep­ing. The valet whis­pers the word “Hegel” into the narrator’s ears. The inti­ma­cy of the ges­ture sug­gests that these two men are cut from sim­i­lar cloths. If they are not, then we are def­i­nite­ly deal­ing with a class-trai­tor sit­u­a­tion, which is incred­i­bly thrilling and admirable. The nar­ra­tor and his valet are not bio­log­i­cal broth­ers, and yet they man­age to coex­ist in a quiv­er­ing jel­ly dome called “broth­er­hood.” There­fore, struc­tural­ly, the nar­ra­tor and his valet are broth­ers. They are brothers.

Let us pan out.

Sev­erin, the nar­ra­tor, the valet, and the read­er each occu­py dif­fer­ent posi­tions along the socioe­co­nom­ic spec­trum. Despite these unfor­tu­nate mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, they have all uploaded them­selves into the exact same tra­di­tion of arts and let­ters. Theirs is the sort of mixed cama­raderie that gar­ners harsh jeers from the mem­bers of the old­er gen­er­a­tions. But is it not true that the most impor­tant books dis­rupt the laws of bour­geois decorum?

Sev­erin laughs. He lights the cigarette.

The nar­ra­tor laughs. He lights the cigarette.

When the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin dis­cov­ers that the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, and he sub­jects the silk-clad thingy to the threat of domes­tic vio­lence. The silk-clad thingy flees like a freaked robot on bent doe’s legs. That’s the cue for Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor to con­tin­ue their conversation.

Okay. No more pretense.

We are friends, yes?

Then allow me to touch you where you need to be touched.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

I’ll say it again.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

There was once some­thing sharp and damnable resid­ing in the folds of your per­son­hood, but it’s been lov­ing­ly rewrit­ten or redact­ed at school. Wish it well. Let it go.

Today is the day you sub­mit your dissertation.

You’re doing what’s right, seek­ing gain­ful employ­ment. It goes with­out say­ing that you’ve suf­fered and per­se­vered. The strug­gle was real, but it helped you to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which will grant you a favor­able posi­tion on the job market.

I will elaborate.

You haven’t hurt anyone.

You haven’t hurt anyone.

You have want­ed, and your want­i­ng makes you pre­cious, but you have not tak­en what you want by force. You haven’t hurt anyone.

You are a peach.

You’re a lamb mosey­ing home on pointy lit­tle feet!

Munch­ing clovers.

Mov­ing slowly.

You can afford to move so slowly.

Because it feels good to be you.

You’re home­ly and hospitable.

You’re inhab­it­able.

You feel good.

You feel so good.

This feels good.

Come. Now is the time to act. Let us not look back on this day and won­der why our eyes were con­tent to be sep­a­rat­ed, stuck in their own jel­lied heads. Lonely.

This feels so good.

Forg­ing thick­er bonds.

Build­ing bet­ter bod­ies for whis­per­ing the word “Hegel.”

For shar­ing the word “Hegel.”

Whilst sleep­ing.

Don’t wor­ry, you haven’t for­got­ten how to sleep.

You’re sleep­ing now.

The sky is a snake. It sloughs off the skin of the sun.

Dark.

The way is dark.

Dry air.

High up.

Ringed by evergreens.

Qui­et. Be quiet.

Come to us on your hands.

Use your fin­gers to find it.

The pin­hole, the puncture.

Grac­ing the skin of the birth­day balloon.

That rides on the night of the sky tucked deep deep inside, deep inside the fold of your lit­tle lone­ly lit­tle lone­ly life.

Let it go.

The scream­ing.

It is the sound of the starter.

On its cue, on its cue.

Let us.

Let us let us let us shed our flesh and shed our flesh and and and pool our resources.

Fig. 1. Bride of Franken­stein. Direct­ed by James Whale. 1935. Screen­shot by the author.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is a satire of lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship. A fic­tion­al essay about Venus in Furs. I draft­ed it while I was in grad school because I want­ed to fig­ure out why they were ask­ing me to inter­pret overt­ly reac­tionary works of lit­er­a­ture through the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works that claim (when tak­en at face val­ue) to sub­vert, decon­struct, or queer struc­tures of pow­er. Much of the schol­ar­ship on Venus in Furs exem­pli­fies that con­tra­dic­tion. Exudes a pathet­ic ener­gy that’s bor­der­line hagio­graph­ic. Casts Sev­erin as the patron saint of sub­ver­sion. Claims he har­bors a rad­i­cal desire to under­mine every­thing from het­eropa­tri­archy to cap­i­tal­ism itself. Part of my dis­com­fort had to do with the hypocrisy of affirm­ing the anti-cap­i­tal­ist pose of a pro­fes­sion that was active­ly con­tribut­ing to my exploita­tion and immis­er­a­tion. It’s dis­hon­est. Dumb. I don’t like to be dumb. I don’t like to hurt myself. Hate it more when my will­ing­ness to do so is praised. Also, the schol­ars’ ver­sion of Sev­erin is just wrong. It’s noth­ing like Masoch’s ver­sion. You should read Venus in Furs. I read Venus in Furs, obses­sive­ly, for the same rea­son I read Eich­mann in Jerusalem. It’s obvi­ous. Why does it have to be so obvi­ous? That’s why it feels humil­i­at­ing. To adopt the schol­ar­ly pose. It’s too obvi­ous. Masoch’s Sev­erin is a proud mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite. He’s an avowed sup­port­er of men’s rights, a con­nois­seur of Euro­pean cul­ture, a dis­grun­tled incel. Throw in the fact that most of Venus in Furs con­sists of Sev­er­in’s man­i­festo, which fix­ates on the degrad­ed sta­tus of the straight white guy, and there you have it: Severin’s a TERRORIST. And I’m a satirist. I’m a satirist, hard­core. Some­times I wor­ry that I haven’t spo­ken gen­uine­ly about any­thing, myself includ­ed, in years. But then I ban­ish the thought. Writ­ing this account has been dif­fi­cult. This is my sev­en­teenth attempt. I’m try­ing. I am. So. I draft­ed this stu­pid sto­ry, a grotesque par­o­dy of fas­cist schol­ar­ship. Then I didn’t know what to do. With myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I was dis­il­lu­sioned with it, my fic­tion. It was dead, lack­ing in stakes. I need­ed to revise. I sat down to revise. I had YouTube stream­ing in the back­ground (aca­d­e­m­ic pre­sen­ta­tions on masochism) because I was hop­ing I’d hear some­thing I’d want to lam­poon. I heard this one thing. I end­ed up tak­ing it seri­ous­ly. How does the philoso­pher put his body where his pen is? I decid­ed to give it a try, to put my body in the way of the sto­ry while I was writ­ing it. It meant tak­ing masochism seri­ous­ly. Which felt like a big deal. Because I’m a sadist. But I took it seri­ous­ly. Used my pain to craft a nar­ra­tive. To fab­ri­cate an aes­thet­ic. I gave my stu­pid sto­ry a wound. That’s part II of my sto­ry, the wound. The mate­r­i­al. I want­ed to make it vis­i­ble. You don’t have to like it. Hon­est­ly. You don’t.

 

Rachel Levy is a found­ing edi­tor of Dregi­nald mag­a­zine and the author of A Book So Red (Cake­train, 2015). Short fic­tions appear in Atti­cus Review, Black War­rior Review, DIAGRAM, Fence, Tar­pau­lin Sky, West­ern Human­i­ties Review, and oth­ers. The recip­i­ent of an NEA Fel­low­ship in Prose, Levy is cur­rent­ly an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Fred­er­icks­burg, Virginia.

A Once-Safe Place

Fiction / Christine C. Heuner

:: A Once-Safe Place ::

The first time I came to his house, it was 1981, late spring. I was sell­ing Girl Scout cook­ies. Back then, it was accept­able to sell door-to-door, par­ent­less. I and my friend Sarah, who loved to read even more than I did, had cov­ered three blocks of small ranch-style homes before arriv­ing at his house, coral col­ored with white shut­ters. The lawn had just been mowed; the gray­ish, fuzzy chaff of expelled grass streaked the weak green beneath it. Long sprays of grass shot out from the bases of lawn chairs and walk­way lights. Weeds lit­tered the planter, the plants over­grown, brown­ing at the edges.

It was Sarah’s turn to ask about the cook­ies (I’d solicit­ed the pre­vi­ous block), but as soon as the man opened the door, she said, “We’re sell­ing cook­ies, the mint is the most pop­u­lar, and can I use your bathroom?”

The man fixed upon her the light­est green eyes I’d ever seen and raised an eye­brow either in hes­i­ta­tion or sur­prise. “Sure. If you real­ly need to. It’s down the hall.”

I stood at the door, sweat­ing so bad­ly my shirt was stuck to my back. I could feel the chilled air behind him.

It’s a hot one today,” he said. “Do you want to come in for some water?”

I shook my head. “No, thank you.”

Maybe juice?”

I denied him again. I might have won­dered if, some­where inside the house, he had a wife, chil­dren. It seemed so quiet.

I should have asked him to buy cook­ies, but I felt inept with­out Sarah beside me. Plus, I’m an awful sales­per­son when I have to pawn off a prod­uct I don’t believe in. The cook­ies were noth­ing spe­cial. They were too expen­sive, some peo­ple said. I also took every­thing per­son­al­ly, so when some­one said no to the cook­ies, I thought it was because I was ugly.

I felt him look­ing at me as if wait­ing for me to speak. He had light skin, the kind that burns eas­i­ly, and his lips were a deep pink, almost as if he were wear­ing lip­stick. He had a mus­tache so slight it looked like a shadow.

So, are you going to sell me cook­ies?” he asked.

Why? Do you want to buy some?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

I turned to my clip­board, picked up the pen, and start­ed to read the fla­vors. He stopped me after Do-si-dos. “Just pick out three box­es for me; dif­fer­ent fla­vors,” he said, not impatiently.

Don’t you have a favorite?” I asked.

I’m not much for cook­ies,” he said. “I usu­al­ly like cake.”

Me too,” I said. “If we had to sell pound cake, I’d win an award.”

*

I went back a week or so lat­er, alone, to deliv­er the cook­ies. I was in charge of two of the blocks where we’d sold them. I had sold so many box­es I made two trips, clat­ter­ing my brother’s old wag­on down the side­walks, sweat­ing in that Flori­da heat so sti­fling it shim­mered and craft­ed mirages on the black­top. It must have been a hun­dred degrees that day because when I arrived at his house and he asked me if I want­ed water, I said yes.

We sat at his round table in the gold­en­rod kitchen. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. He had a pear-shaped crys­tal sus­pend­ed from a piece of twine over the sink. The sun shot through it, splash­ing cir­cu­lar rain­bows on the floor.

The air con­di­tion­er was heav­en­ly at first, but then I felt too cold.

I drank down the glass of water, packed with ice cubes, quick­ly; he refilled it.

You want some­thing to eat?” he asked.

Like what?” I asked. I wasn’t hun­gry but was curi­ous about what he’d offer me. He had scrawny arms and legs with a small paunch. His light yel­low Izod shirt was tucked into pants with an elas­tic waistband.

He list­ed for me all kinds of snacks. He added, “I guess we could have cook­ies, but you don’t like them.”

His recall­ing this detail from our first meet­ing sur­prised me. He also remem­bered that I liked pound cake and he told me he had some. “I have this lemon sauce I put on it. I make it myself. It won’t take long.”

I told him I had to go. My Taga­longs were prob­a­bly melt­ing out­side in the heat.

What do you like to do?” he asked even though I was stand­ing and mak­ing my way to the door. “I mean, besides Girl Scouts.”

He stood up, too. His shoes were the kind old peo­ple wear with the thick soles and chunky laces. I must’ve won­dered how old he was, but I had no sense of people’s ages. Any­one over twen­ty fit into that amor­phous realm of an adult.

I hate Girl Scouts. My mom makes me go.”

He smiled at that, rais­ing the left cor­ner of his mouth. I noticed his mus­tache again, so slight a nap­kin might erase it.

What do you like, then?”

I liked to play with my dolls, build hous­es for them with blocks, read and write sto­ries, watch TV, dance alone in my room. I sought any­thing that took me out of myself. At age eleven, I knew it would be baby­ish to admit that I played with toys, so I told him I liked to read.

He smiled, both cor­ners of his mouth raised. He had a slight dim­ple on one cheek. His teeth were all uneven and one was dark­er than the others.

I love to read,” he said. “I have hun­dreds of books. You want to see?”

I did, but I told him I real­ly had to go. My cook­ies were melt­ing, and my par­ents would be wor­ried about me.

He said okay; before I left, he said, “We haven’t been prop­er­ly intro­duced. I’m James, but my friends call me Jim. Call me Jim.”

I’m Jen­ny.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. He had a tight grip, a quick clutch that held me and quick­ly let go.

*

Not long after that, just before school let out for the sum­mer, I end­ed up at his house again. I hadn’t intend­ed to go there, but my aunt for­got to pick me up at my bus stop. I stood at the cor­ner for almost an hour, fear­ful she’d show up and I wouldn’t be there. I was going to walk the six blocks back to my house when a car pulled up, big and brown, long as a boat.

The pas­sen­ger win­dow rolled down and Jim leaned over. “Hey,” he said. “Jen­ny. What are you doing here?”

I told him what had hap­pened. He told me he’d take me home; I said I could walk, but he insist­ed. I got inside the car, its wel­com­ing cool­ness, and put on my seatbelt.

It’s smart you wear your seat­belt,” he said. “Though I assure you I’m a safe driver.”

My mom works with lawyers,” I said. “They have court cas­es with peo­ple in car crash­es. She tells me sto­ries that scare me.”

Well, that’s not very nice.”

I’d nev­er thought of my moth­er as being any­thing but nice. I was a lit­tle annoyed at him then.

I’ve just been to the library,” he said, ges­tur­ing toward the back­seat where three thick books were stacked on one seat like a pas­sen­ger. “You sure you don’t want to come and see my books? Maybe have a snack?”

For some rea­son I don’t under­stand even today, I said yes.

He had an entire room filled with books, stuffed in those wall-to-wall book­shelves with very lit­tle space for more. A love seat in the mid­dle of the room made me feel small, sit­ting in the cen­ter of all that majesty: the palette of col­ors, font shapes and sizes on the thick or thin, new or worn spines. The plas­tic blinds on the tall, nar­row win­dow emit­ted a weak light. He turned the wand on the blinds and dust-flecked light entered the room. The car­pet was pea-green with gray balls of dust gath­ered at the edges of the book­shelves. It smelled like an old library and I loved that.

Take what­ev­er you want,” he said. He turned to one shelf. “Let’s see. You might like this one.”

He hand­ed me a book with a group­ing of girls gath­ered around a piano on the cov­er. The black spine read: Lit­tle Women.

Take it with you,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”

With­in a few pages, I rec­og­nized that I was in the pres­ence of genius. Sweet Val­ley High and Judy Blume books, my usu­al fare, were a snack com­pared to the meal Alcott spread before me. I read the book over Memo­r­i­al Day week­end. My moth­er made me come out of my room, and I resent­ed her for it. “Come up for air,” she said. “You’re like a hermit.”

She asked what I was read­ing, and I showed it to her.

For school?” she asked.

I told her yes. Even though I didn’t feel odd about going to Jim’s house, I knew she wouldn’t approve of it.

I went there again after I fin­ished the book, knocked brazen­ly on the door one day after school.

Do you have any­thing else for me to read?” I asked. “I loved this one.”

We sat at his kitchen table eat­ing pound cake with lemon sauce, the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of tang and sweet. He’d just giv­en me anoth­er book, To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. I want­ed to go home and read it but didn’t want to be rude, so I sat with him, squirm­ing a lit­tle in my chair as I fin­ished my cake.

You prob­a­bly do well in school,” he said.

Math’s a killer. I’m good in English.”

I’m good in math,” he said. “I could help you.”

I con­sid­ered this. We had a math final the fol­low­ing week. I had a C in the class. I was hop­ing for hon­or roll, but it wasn’t look­ing good.

I’m also flu­ent in Span­ish,” he said. “I bet you didn’t expect that. I used to trans­late for the FBI.”

I didn’t know what the FBI was but pre­tend­ed to be impressed.

You want me to say some­thing in Span­ish?” he asked as if I’d nev­er heard Span­ish before. We lived in South Flori­da not Wyoming.

Sure.”

Tu eres muy boni­ta y inteligente y simpática.”

The fix­i­ty of his gaze con­firmed that he was speak­ing about me. I told him I had to go home; he told me to come by Tues­day after three if I want­ed help with tutor­ing. My par­ents told me I could get the Nikes with the rain­bow swoosh if I made hon­or roll, so I went back. He helped me with long divi­sion. We ate Ring Dings and shared an orange to make our snack healthy.

At five o’clock, he told me I should prob­a­bly get home, that my par­ents would be wor­ried about me. I told him that they came home late. My old­er broth­er was in high school and stayed after school every day for sports, so I was only respon­si­ble for myself. No one arrived home until after six, usually.

You must get lone­some,” he said, try­ing to catch my eye. I wouldn’t look at him. “I know I get lone­some.”

I like to read,” I said. “That pass­es the time.”

He didn’t ask me if I had friends, and I was grate­ful not to have to report that I only had two: Sarah and Michelle.

Do you want to see some­thing?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure and told him so.

It’s okay,” he said, reach­ing for my hand. “Come with me.”

It didn’t occur to me not to take his hand. One action seemed to fol­low the oth­er in a nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion. I was not scared.

I fol­lowed him to the part of the house I’d nev­er been in, a hall­way off the liv­ing room. In one of the rooms in that hall­way, two couch­es of dark fab­ric clut­tered the space, ensconced with side tables cov­ered with doilies and match­ing flow­ered lamps. It smelled vague­ly of oranges in the ear­ly stage of rot.

He dis­ap­peared into a clos­et and returned with a dress, white lace with a shiny belt adorned with a clus­ter of three tiny roses.

Do you like it?” he asked.

I did. It looked like my size.

You can have it if you want. Try it on first.”

I had no idea how I’d explain such a gift to my par­ents. Last week, he’d giv­en me a rhine­stone bracelet my moth­er asked about. I lied and told her Sarah gave it to me.

For no rea­son?” she asked.

I said not really.

Well, that’s a fan­cy gift for no reason.”

In the dark room, I held the dress up to my tor­so and asked, “You bought this for me?”

Not exact­ly. It was my daughter’s.”

You have a daughter?”

He nod­ded, a quick shake. “She’s gone now. That’s all I want to say about her, okay?”

I agreed by nodding.

Why don’t you try it on?” he asked.

I couldn’t deny him. The bath­room was pink every­thing except for the toi­let, which was white. I imag­ined that he’d once lived in this house with his daugh­ter and maybe a wife, too.

The dress wasn’t as white as it had seemed in the room’s dull light. A slight yel­low patch stained the dress just below the belt, and it smelled musty. It fit, though, and when I came out of the bath­room his eyes widened. 

You look so pret­ty,” he said. “You should take it home, wear it to one of your school dances.”

I didn’t tell him that the dress was more of a First Com­mu­nion vari­ety and that we didn’t have school dances.

He came toward me and touched me on the shoulder.

I stood there, my under­arms start­ing to itch—the dress wasn’t as good a fit as I thought—and to sweat. The room was warmer than the rest of the house.

Are you okay?” he asked, remov­ing his hand from my shoul­der and star­ing at me.

I told him I need­ed to get home and thanked him for the dress. I wore it home, the sweat mak­ing it more and more itchy. I hid it in my clos­et toward the back so my moth­er wouldn’t find it.

*

I some­how got a B in math and made the hon­or roll. I wore my new Nikes to Jim’s house. I vis­it­ed him once a week or so once school let out. I went to sum­mer camp for a few weeks, which I hat­ed except the days we went to the movies. I tried to con­vince my moth­er that I was too old to attend camp, but she told me I need­ed struc­ture to my day and to “get out and enjoy the weath­er,” but the weath­er was so hot we near­ly wilt­ed on the play­ground and couldn’t take much more than an hour outdoors.

At Jim’s house, I would prac­tice my math for at least a half hour. He con­vinced me that it would help me make hon­or roll next year, sev­enth grade, and that meant gifts.

Jim bought me gifts, too, those that I could eas­i­ly hide or pass off as bequeathed from a friend. I even made up a friend, Leslie, inspired by Bridge to Ter­abithia, who liked giv­ing me things. I told my moth­er that she gave me the tiny hoop ear­rings with the dan­g­ly hearts and the Guess t‑shirt with the inter­wo­ven hearts. I asked Jim how he knew Guess was “in.” He squint­ed his eyes—his expres­sion of confusion—and said that he hadn’t looked at the brand at all. He just thought I’d like the hearts.

And all the books he loaned me? I got them from the library of course. My par­ents didn’t notice that the call num­bers weren’t taped onto their spines and they weren’t cov­ered in plastic.

I didn’t tell any­one about Jim since there was no rea­son to, and I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go over there if I did. He was my secret friend, some­one who I didn’t have to talk to very much. Some days, I’d just sit in his library room and read. I’d take a break for cake or Cream­si­cles. We ate a lot of straw­ber­ries, too, to be healthy. He said I need­ed my vitamins.

*

And then in July, Adam Walsh, six years old, went miss­ing from a Sears not ten miles from my house. My moth­er didn’t like that mall, so we didn’t go there often, but my Gram­mie took me there some­times; she liked the Woolworth’s, which she called the “five-and-dime.”

They found Adam’s body in a canal. Headless.

My par­ents bare­ly watched the news but did so on this occa­sion, care­less that I took in the grue­some­ness of this real­i­ty. A reporter claimed that most chil­dren are abduct­ed not by strangers but by some­one they know.

Great,” my moth­er said, near tears. “Now we can’t trust our neighbors.”

*

The next time I went to Jim’s, he pre­sent­ed me with anoth­er gift: a bathing suit, elec­tric blue with one neon pink stripe from shoulder-to-hip.

Try it on,” he said. “See if it fits. This looks like your size.”

It was a per­fect fit. I want­ed to change back into my clothes, but knew he’d want to see me in the suit.

I put on my shorts over the suit and came out of the bathroom.

It fits,” I said.

Take off the shorts,” he said. “I want to see how it looks on you.”

I felt dizzy. “I need to go home,” I said.

He came toward me and put his hand on my head. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why are you crying?”

Are you going to hurt me?” I asked, snot drip­ping from my nose. “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”

I imag­ined myself in a canal: bloat­ed like a dead frog; headless.

He looked at me, squint­ing as if to see me bet­ter, to under­stand this new girl I’d become. “No, Jen­ny, I’m not going to hurt you. Why would you say that?”

I don’t know,” I said, my voice thick. “I just need to go.” I pushed past him and ran out of his house. I ran the three blocks home, my san­dals smack­ing against the concrete.

*

That was the last time I saw Jim. I threw out the bathing suit and the dress, pushed them to the bot­tom of the garbage bin. I still wore the Guess t‑shirt and jew­el­ry he gave me, though. After all, they came from Leslie, my invis­i­ble friend.

Today, fif­teen years lat­er, all of the gifts Jim gave me are gone save the rhine­stone bracelet whose stones have fall­en out. I keep the bracelet and loose stones in a bag­gie in my jew­el­ry armoire. The med­ley of col­ored gems reminds me of the sus­pend­ed crys­tal in his kitchen, how it caught the after­noon light, the dots of rain­bow splayed across the floor like con­fet­ti. He turned the crys­tal for me, spin­ning it, so I could see the span­gles dance.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I came to this sto­ry through a reflec­tion upon the vio­lence against chil­dren and young adults that occurred at dif­fer­ent points in my life. I am a Flori­da native and grew up in the after­math of Adam Walsh’s mur­der, which occurred less than ten miles from my home. I also attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da a year after ser­i­al killer Dan­ny Rolling claimed five stu­dents’ lives. In writ­ing this sto­ry, I want­ed to con­sid­er how the media’s pub­lic­i­ty of vio­lence affects the psy­che of a child, exac­er­bat­ing her fear of attack and death at the hands of some­one she once con­sid­ered an ally.

 

Chris­tine C. Heuner has been teach­ing high school Eng­lish for over 19 years. She lives with her hus­band, in-laws, and two chil­dren in New Jer­sey. Her work has appeared in Philadel­phia Sto­ries, The Write Launch, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. In 2011, she self-pub­lished Con­fes­sions, a book of short stories.

Toronto Life

Fiction / John Tavares

:: Toronto Life ::

Clay’s sec­ond cousin hiked the trail from the band office, where he had to deal with some kind of bureau­crat­ic red tape and bull over his white girl­friend liv­ing on the reserve with­out band per­mis­sion, even if she lived in town week­days, when she wasn’t fly­ing to reser­va­tions north of Sioux Look­out, where she worked as a social work­er with the First Nations social ser­vices agency. After he cursed Clay and blamed him for let­ting his leg hold traps sit to rust in the shed when he asked him to oil them, and showed him his bro­ken leg was heal­ing slow­ly from the snow­mo­bile acci­dent he had while ice fish­ing on Lac Seul, he said Clay inher­it­ed a con­do in Toron­to from his nephew. In dis­be­lief and dis­trac­tion, Clay returned to read­ing the Reader’s Digest large-print con­densed book, Gone with the Wind, beside the dim light from the lantern.

Then, at the reser­va­tion gas sta­tion and con­ve­nience store, Clay thought he was start­ing to go com­plete­ly deaf, but, over the din and noise of the announc­er shout­ing excit­ed­ly dur­ing the live tele­cast of the play­off hock­ey game from the tele­vi­sion on the refrig­er­a­tor beside the microwave oven, the lawyer con­firmed the bequest in a long-dis­tance tele­phone call. Clay still didn’t believe his nephew had left him a con­do­mini­um; the nature of the accom­mo­da­tion was ultra­mod­ern, exot­ic, to him; the loca­tion was for­eign, far­away. Lat­er, the chief explained to him at the reser­va­tion band office a con­do or con­do­mini­um was a fan­cy city name for an apart­ment. His nephew, a lawyer, spe­cial­iz­ing in law for indige­nous peo­ple, was killed in a fiery car crash on High­way 401 after he drove from the Six Nations reserve to help nego­ti­ate set­tle­ments for res­i­den­tial school and Six­ties Scoop claims.

His nephew’s lawyer part­ner said Nodin had no oth­er liv­ing rel­a­tives he held in high esteem, aside from his uncle Clay, who he remem­bered fond­ly. Nodin remem­bered the times Clay insist­ed on tak­ing him on his snow­mo­bile, all-ter­rain vehi­cle, and dog sled along the trails through the bush around Lac Seul and patient­ly taught him hunt­ing, fish­ing, and trap­ping skills on the bush and lake around Tobac­co Lodge reserve and the sur­round­ing water­ways, which, after the con­struc­tion of the hydro­elec­tric dam at Ears Falls, one could argue, turned into a reser­voir. His nephew espe­cial­ly loved the skills he learned snow­shoe­ing through the bush, along the lakeshore, and across the lakes, and fur trap­ping, ice fish­ing for wall­eye and lake trout, com­mer­cial fish­ing white­fish, set­ting snares and leg hold traps on the trap line in the snowy bush for snow­shoe hare, fox, lynx muskrat, beaver, mink, marten, fish­er, and wolves.

Nodin also respect­ed the fact Clay nev­er smoked or drank, or took advan­tage of women, or friends, or, for that mat­ter, judged him. The lawyer called him sev­er­al more times long dis­tance. Again, he had to snow­mo­bile or snow­shoe to the reser­va­tion con­ve­nience store to use the pay­phone or hike to the reser­va­tion band office to bor­row their land­line to lis­ten to the lawyer explain he should sim­ply sell the con­do­mini­um. The apart­ment was prob­a­bly worth a mil­lion dol­lars. The lawyer, his nephew’s part­ner, reas­sured him he would help him invest the funds, pur­chase an annu­ity, set up an invest­ment port­fo­lio of income earn­ing stocks and bonds, or set up a trust fund, which would pro­vide him with a pen­sion or month­ly income.

The chief agreed with the Toron­to lawyer he should sell the con­do. The chief claimed he had got­ten too used to, too accli­ma­tized, to life on the reser­va­tion, and the cul­ture shock of Toron­to might kill him. She said he’d hate life in the city, espe­cial­ly a big city like Toron­to, since he bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed the tra­di­tion­al way of life on the reserve and the sur­round­ing nature.

Clay nev­er liked the chief much and was mys­ti­fied by her claim to speak for him. Who said he hat­ed life in the city? he demand­ed. He nev­er said he didn’t like life in the city, or pre­ferred liv­ing in Sioux Look­out or Tobac­co Lodge to the city of Toron­to. He was sev­en­ty years old, and, in his mind, he felt fit and well, but he was afflict­ed with old age con­di­tions like arthri­tis. He was suf­fer­ing from gout and anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, and, short of breath, he wor­ried about the effects of heart dis­ease. He didn’t feel like he was in any phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion to hunt and fish, and he was actu­al­ly tired of liv­ing on the reserve. At his age, sev­en­ty, he felt like he could no longer tol­er­ate the cold to snow­shoe the trap line, or even fish or guide tourists for wall­eye, musky, or north­ern pike on Lac Seul, or hunt for moose, white­tail deer, or ruffed grouse. The chief was incred­u­lous and so was his nephew’s lawyer, both of whom con­tin­ued to try to per­suade him to sell the con­do. Exas­per­at­ed and frus­trat­ed, they raised their voic­es and ges­tic­u­lat­ed as they tried to per­suade him to sell the con­do­mini­um, but he couldn’t pos­si­bly think of what he could do with a mil­lion dollars.

It’s a mil­lion dol­lars before tax­es, but after tax­es and fees,” the lawyer said, start­ing to sound offi­cious, like an accoun­tant, “the bequest will be far less.”

Even after tax­es, the chief said, how could he pos­si­bly spend a mil­lion dol­lars when he lived on a reser­va­tion like Tobac­co Lodge, if he didn’t smoke, or drink, or chase women. If he lived in the city of Toron­to, though, Clay argued, he would be close to med­ical spe­cial­ists like rheuma­tol­o­gists and car­di­ol­o­gists who would be able to help him with the aches and inflam­ma­tion of his rheuma­toid arthri­tis and anky­los­ing spondyli­tis and the short­ness of breath and chest pains asso­ci­at­ed with angi­na pec­toris. He didn’t real­ly have any close friends or rel­a­tives on the reserve, or even in the town of Sioux Look­out, near­by, any­way. He always enjoyed his vis­its to the city of Toron­to and stay­ing with his nephew. He liked vis­it­ing the gay bars and strip clubs, and he espe­cial­ly loved the cof­fee in the exot­ic vari­ety of cafes, full-bod­ied, strong flavoured, not water-downed or dilut­ed like in the local café, in Sioux Look­out. At the Round­house Café in Sioux Look­out, if you lin­gered a lit­tle too long, or said the wrong thing, or talked a lit­tle too loud, or didn’t smell like eau de cologne, the own­er, who hov­ered above cus­tomers like a stage mom, might kick you out and ban you.

Once again, the lawyer and the chief tried to per­suade him not to live in the con­do in Toron­to, warn­ing him about the high cost of liv­ing in Toron­to and the high cost of prop­er­ty tax­es. When he com­pared the prop­er­ty tax­es for the house he owned in Sioux Look­out with those in the city of Toron­to, though, he noticed the prop­er­ty tax­es weren’t that much high­er, even though the Sioux Look­out house was worth much less. You could buy sev­er­al hous­es in Toron­to for the price of that con­do­mini­um, and then you would have a real prop­er­ty tax prob­lem on your hands. So, he reas­sured them he had squir­reled away suf­fi­cient sav­ings, from the mon­ey he earned on the trapline, from his full-time job on the green chain and the plan­er and as a fil­er for the huge saw blades in the North­west­ern Ontario For­est Prod­ucts sawmill in Hud­son, and from the sum­mers he worked as a fish­ing guide on Lac Seul and the autumns he moon­light­ed as a hunt­ing guide for Amer­i­cans anx­ious to shoot a moose or black bear.

Like­wise, he could sell the small house he owned in Sioux Look­out, where he lived for a decade while he worked as a night watch­man at the Depart­ment of Indi­an Affairs Zone hos­pi­tal for indige­nous patients from the north­ern reserves. Besides, he didn’t even own the cab­in he lived in on the reserve in Tobac­co Lodge. He didn’t even feel like shov­el­ing the snow on the walkway—he didn’t want vis­i­tors and, if any­one was intent on vis­it­ing him, they could trudge through the snow—or fix­ing up and doing main­te­nance work on the cabin.

Begin­ning to think a con­do might suit him after all, the lawyer reas­sured him fees would cov­er main­te­nance and upkeep for the con­do­mini­um. The lawyer explained he was a close friend of his nephew and would do what he could to help him when he flew to Toronto.

Fly to Toron­to? I’m not fly­ing to Toron­to. I don’t need to be has­sled by met­al detec­tors and secu­ri­ty guards.”

Clay pre­ferred to take the pas­sen­ger train, which was slow by mod­ern stan­dards, tak­ing over a day in trav­el across the Cana­di­an Shield of North­ern Ontario before the train even start­ed trav­el­ling south to Toron­to. The Via Rail pas­sen­ger train was often late, falling behind the right of way of freight trains, but the trav­el was has­sle free and the dome car and large win­dow seats allowed him to sight see the Cana­di­an Shield land­scape, the lakes, the forests, the rivers, creeks, muskeg, swamps, rock out­crops, and small towns and camps and out­posts along the north­ern route.

Before he left, the chief called him to the band office and his office for one last meet­ing. He said he just want­ed to make cer­tain that there was no hard feel­ings. He tried to reas­sure him he wasn’t try­ing to tell him or order him what to do, espe­cial­ly with his own per­son­al life, but he was only think­ing about his best inter­ests and what he thought might make him hap­pi­est. He still didn’t think he would be hap­py over the long term liv­ing in Toron­to, espe­cial­ly com­pared to life on the reserve of Tobac­co Lodge. That judge­ment, she said, was based on her own per­son­al expe­ri­ence with fel­low band mem­bers, par­tic­u­lar­ly younger peo­ple, who moved to the city and became addict­ed to opi­oids, intra­venous drugs, and pills, or resort­ed to the sex trade or found them­selves vic­tims of human traf­fick­ing or trapped in a crim­i­nal lifestyle, drug traf­fick­ing, smug­gling, rob­bery, because of pover­ty or addic­tion, or got caught up in the wrong crowd in urban cen­tres like Win­nipeg, Thun­der Bay, or Toron­to. Still, she under­stood he had a life and mind of his own, and he was free to learn through expe­ri­ence how hard life could be in the city, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Toron­to, and he would always be a mem­ber of the band. He didn’t tell her he wouldn’t allow her to decide what was good for him, but he thanked her, even though he thought she was overe­d­u­cat­ed and a bit too con­de­scend­ing and overbearing.

When he arrived in Toron­to, the lawyer friend of his nephew met him at Union Sta­tion, hired a lim­ou­sine to dri­ve him the short dis­tance down­town home, and helped him set up house in Aura, the con­do high-rise at Ger­ard and Yonge Street. He told him the Aura Build­ing, where his nephew owned a con­do­mini­um, which he now owned, was stacked sev­en­ty-nine sto­ries high, with more floors than any build­ing in Cana­da, and was taller than any res­i­den­tial build­ing in Canada.

Then the lawyer friend of his nephew said he was gay. The rea­son Nodin’s father or none of his broth­ers or sis­ters inher­it­ed the con­do­mini­um: Nodin was gay. No one in Nodin’s fam­i­ly accept­ed his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or lifestyle. Born-again Chris­tians, Nodin’s fam­i­ly had dif­fi­cul­ty accept­ing their sibling’s and son’s homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and dis­owned him.

His nephew said Clay nev­er had an issue with his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. Live and let live, Clay said, and he didn’t know what to add because he still thought the fact his nephew was gay wasn’t his busi­ness, and he couldn’t pass judge­ment. He was fam­i­ly and anoth­er per­son, no more, no less, except he was smart and tal­ent­ed and had spe­cial skills as a lawyer, all of which he admired. Then Josh told him that Nodin actu­al­ly died from AIDS.

AIDS? I thought you told me twice over the tele­phone he died from a car crash on the freeway.”

After he was diag­nosed with an HIV infec­tion, Nodin start­ed drink­ing, and he stopped tak­ing his med­ica­tions, which were also mak­ing him sick. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­tract­ed pneu­mo­nia caused by the HIV virus, and he died a painful death. But I couldn’t say he died from pneu­mo­nia relat­ed to AIDS to the peo­ple on the reser­va­tion. Then the gos­sip and rumour mill would go crazy, and his broth­er might dri­ve all the way down to Toron­to to shoot me.”

I don’t think they care.”

Pos­si­bly because they already know.”

They know he’s gay, but Nodin doesn’t exist for them any­more. Nodin was already dead to his clos­est fam­i­ly before he actu­al­ly died. He’s been dead to them since they dis­cov­ered he was gay, when he was caught by an OPP offi­cer with a teacher from Queen Eliz­a­beth High School, in a car parked overnight in Ojib­way Park. The teacher was fired, but Nodin was expelled from high school and went to Pel­i­can Falls Res­i­den­tial School when it reopened.”

But, Clay said, he knew he couldn’t men­tion Nodin’s name around his fam­i­ly because imme­di­ate­ly his moth­er flew into a fury or his father threat­ened to dri­ve a thou­sand miles to Toron­to to shoot him. Or his broth­ers joked about tak­ing him to down­town Sioux Look­out to the Fifth Avenue Club or Fathead’s sports bar and tying him to a tree or util­i­ty pole and allow­ing a loose woman from the rez or trail­er park or liv­ing on the streets have her way with him. They even joked about dri­ving to Dry­den and the strip club and lock­ing him up in a motel room with a strip­per who would give him more than a lap dance.

You should have an easy time liv­ing in Toron­to,” the friend said.

Clay said he hoped he would. The first sev­er­al months he bus­ied him­self with adapt­ing to the city envi­ron­ment and set­ting up house. He kept the tele­vi­sion and the com­put­er his nephew had in the con­do, but he bare­ly used them, except to watch a few movies and videos online and fish­ing and hunt­ing shows on the out­door tele­vi­sion chan­nels. In fact, he found the liv­ing quar­ters so emp­ty and bereft he spent as much time as he pos­si­bly could away from the high-rise apart­ment, with its spec­tac­u­lar view of the city, espe­cial­ly at night, and its ameni­ties and lux­u­ries, includ­ing the weight room, the swim­ming pool, and the gym­na­si­um. He bus­ied him­self with med­ical appoint­ments with the car­di­ol­o­gists and rheuma­tol­o­gists, and diag­nos­tic tests at the hos­pi­tal, but once he was placed on suit­able med­ica­tion at the prop­er dos­es, he was sta­ble and required lit­tle med­ical atten­tion. As he set­tled into city life, he bus­ied him­self with vis­it­ing the library to read the news­pa­pers from around the world or large-print best­seller books. Then, in the evenings, he vis­it­ed the restau­rants and cof­fee shops and the odd time  adult video shops and strip clubs sprawled across the city, but what he found pecu­liar and more inter­est­ing were the bus­es, sub­ways, and street­car rides across the city to vis­it dif­fer­ent estab­lish­ments, includ­ing a few art gal­leries and muse­ums. He felt, in fact, he had become what sub­way rid­ers called a straphang­er.

He enjoyed tak­ing the bus­es, sub­way rides, on expe­di­tions across the city. He enjoyed peo­ple watch­ing, amazed at the wide vari­ety of peo­ple who com­mut­ed and trav­elled across the vast city of Toron­to. What amazed him even more, though, was the way the tran­sit com­mis­sion police fol­lowed him across the city.

The tran­sit enforce­ment offi­cers seemed for­ev­er inter­est­ed in where Clay was trav­el­ling, what he was read­ing, usu­al­ly the Toron­to Sun, the Toron­to Star, or the Toron­to edi­tion of the Globe and Mail news­pa­per, left over by anoth­er com­muter, and they were usu­al­ly inter­est­ed in what or who he was look­ing at. When they stopped him and asked him where he was going, he was a bit embar­rassed to say he want­ed to go to a flea mar­ket sale and see if he could find video­tapes and DVDs of Mar­lon Bran­don movies on sale cheap at his favorite video store before it went out of busi­ness. He decid­ed to tell them he was vis­it­ing The House of Lan­cast­er on the Queensway and observed with bemuse­ment how they reacted.

The offi­cers tried to per­suade him not to take the bus from the Keele sub­way sta­tion plat­form to the Queensway. They told him he was too old for a tit­ty bar. Anoth­er time they called him a dirty old man and tried to order him to go home. Once they fol­lowed him because they thought he was a fare jumper and didn’t believe that he could afford a tran­sit pass. They even dou­ble and triple checked his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and month­ly tran­sit pass because they said he looked too young to be a senior and wor­ried he might be an ille­gal immi­grant. Anoth­er pair of tran­sit enforce­ment offi­cers told him they thought he was suf­fer­ing from demen­tia and prone to wan­der­ing aim­less­ly and dan­ger­ous­ly. The tran­sit offi­cer, whose tur­ban he admired, said, if Clay was from an Indi­an reser­va­tion, maybe he should return to the north and live there again.

An offi­cer said there had been com­plaints about him, and that he might be hap­pi­er on the reserve. “Tra­di­tion­al and ances­tral lands is where it’s at, eh?”

He asked him to tell him about the com­plaints, but the offi­cer shrugged, shook his head, rolled his eyes, and crossed his beefy arms. “You don’t under­stand women in the city,” he said. “Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?”

Lat­er, Clay even decid­ed to buy a smart­phone, from the elec­tron­ic retail­er in the Eaton’s Cen­tre, and, even though he didn’t learn how to com­plete­ly use the phone, he liked to read books, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines on the screen because he could enlarge the text to a size large enough to suit his blurred and fail­ing vision. Once, when he put down his smart­phone and for­got to pick up the device when he rose for his stop at Col­lege Sta­tion, a tran­sit super­vi­sor seized the cell­phone, and, when he tried to take it back from him, he said it was lost or stolen. He said he was turn­ing the smart­phone to the fare col­lec­tor, who would turn it in to the lost and found if no one claimed it by the end of his shift. Since Clay didn’t use the phone that often, any­way, and even then the calls to the reser­va­tion were cost­ly and depress­ing, he decid­ed why both­er com­plain­ing and attempt to have the smart­phone returned when his nephew had left him e‑book read­ers, full of books, which only need­ed to be recharged every sec­ond or third week, instead of every­day like the smartphone.

Then, one evening, when he returned from a vis­it to a Star­bucks in the sub­urbs, and he entered through the auto­mat­ic gate, the burly pair of secu­ri­ty guards insist­ed on see­ing his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and his tran­sit pass, insis­tent that he was fare jump­ing. When he showed them his tran­sit pass, they insist­ed it was stolen. When they asked to see his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, to con­firm the name on his tran­sit pass matched my ID, he real­ized he for­got his wal­let with his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the strip club. No wor­ries, though, the door­man and secu­ri­ty guards in the men’s club knew him and would hold his wal­let for him until his next vis­it. The big burly bald secu­ri­ty guard insist­ed on see­ing his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, imme­di­ate­ly, and put him in a head­lock, which turned into a choke­hold grip, when he tried to pull and twist away. He decid­ed to test the strength of his new den­tures on the man’s hands, bit­ing the flab­by fold of flesh between his thumb and fin­gers. He didn’t see what choice he had since the man was chok­ing him, suf­fo­cat­ing him. He knew the man was a secu­ri­ty guard and not a police offi­cer, so he didn’t see how the man was jus­ti­fied in using such force, but, after he bit him, the point was moot since the sec­ond secu­ri­ty guard, ini­tial­ly anx­ious his bud­dy was using exces­sive force, pound­ed his head with a baton.

So it came to pass Clay was hos­pi­tal­ized with a head injury in the inten­sive care unit of Toron­to Hos­pi­tal, and then he, in a coma, was trans­ferred to the neu­rol­o­gy and the neu­ro­surgery ward. The neu­ro­sur­geon oper­at­ed, drilling holes in his skull and remov­ing a sawn seg­ment of the cra­ni­um to relieve the intracra­nial pres­sure and stem the bleed­ing in his brain. After mul­ti­ple surg­eries, the doc­tors didn’t expect him to recov­er: he was tak­en off the res­pi­ra­tors and feed­ing tubes.

He was returned to Sioux Look­out in a hard­wood cas­ket in the car­go hold and lug­gage com­part­ment of the pas­sen­ger train, which, delayed and forced into rail rid­ings by an ear­ly win­ter bliz­zard, arrived six­teen hours late. Their breath turn­ing to clouds of smoke, the con­duc­tor and engi­neer cursed in the cold as they unloaded him from the bag­gage and lug­gage car, behind the loco­mo­tive, at the site of the aban­doned train sta­tion in Hud­son. Clay lay in the cof­fin along­side a piece of lost and mis­placed lug­gage on the bro­ken cement plat­form near the rail­road cross­ing in Hud­son, at the inter­sec­tion with the road to the sawmill, until the chief sent his cousins to pick him up in the blow­ing snow and freez­ing cold. The chief reas­sured his cousins they needn’t wor­ry, his estate and the sale of the con­do would pro­vide more than enough mon­ey to com­pen­sate them and to pro­vide funds to bury him in the reserve ceme­tery in Tobac­co Lodge, if no one want­ed him buried in the Ever­green Ceme­tery in Hud­son, or the ceme­tery in Sioux Lookout.

An emp­ty brown beer bot­tle and a few stubbed cig­a­rette butts on the fresh­ly packed soil marked the plot on the snowy land­scape in the chilly ceme­tery where he was buried. With a few days, the late leaf­less autumn turned harsh, win­ter grew dark and frigid and froze the lakes and the Cana­di­an Shield rocks, and the earth turned hard and the snow heaped high.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Toron­to Life” is, in a sense, a nar­ra­tive real­iza­tion and actu­al­iza­tion of my own skewed obser­va­tions of indi­vid­u­als’ per­son­al expe­ri­ences of life in pub­lic spaces in the city of Toron­to, includ­ing my own as a mature stu­dent. Toron­to is a won­der­ful, vibrant, cos­mopoli­tan city, but at the same time there is a cer­tain pres­sure to con­form to what I’ll call Metro norms, ideals, and stan­dards. If a per­son, par­tic­u­lar­ly an out­sider, finds they don’t adhere to these social codes and con­ven­tions, they may be pro­filed and tar­get­ed, or become ostra­cized and out­cast, not nec­es­sar­i­ly overt­ly or bla­tant­ly, since often­times the bias is sub­tle. (A few media pun­dits, includ­ing beloved Cana­di­an broad­cast­er Peter Gzows­ki, have not­ed that racism tends to be polite in Cana­da.) Out­liers in a sense, or those con­sid­ered The Oth­er, these same per­sons may also find them­selves intim­i­dat­ed and bul­lied by author­i­ties, the gate­keep­ers of the city. Of course, some more inde­pen­dent mind­ed, self-reliant, and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic per­sons who reject these con­ven­tion­al ideals or sub­scribe to dif­fer­ent beliefs may be con­tent or hap­py to occu­py posi­tions at the fringe. How­ev­er, what I find fas­ci­nat­ing about life in a big city like Toron­to is that some­times those who have led the most suc­cess­ful and at the same time the most trans­gres­sive of careers and exis­tences, harm­ing peo­ple in the process, are those who tend to blend in best with the crowd, say, behav­ing in pre­cise­ly the most social­ly accept­able man­ner, wear­ing what is fash­ion­able at the time, out­ward­ly adher­ing to social con­ven­tion. Three for­mer Toron­to­ni­ans come to mind in this con­text: David Rus­sell Williams, Paul Bernar­do, Bruce McArthur. In any event, “Toron­to Life” is an attempt at con­trast and juxtaposition—dramatizing a cul­tur­al gap and divide between north and south, sky­scrap­ers and forests, rur­al and urban, indige­nous and expa­tri­ate or non-native, and how these con­trasts may clash with less than ide­al out­comes. A city like Toron­to may be most fas­ci­nat­ing and appre­ci­at­ed by an indi­vid­ual who arrives from a place which is in many aspects, its exact oppo­site. The title, and indeed the sto­ry, is also a bit of an iron­ic play on the title of the lead­ing mag­a­zine in Toron­to, whose read­ers might be for­giv­en for think­ing all Toron­to­ni­ans are extreme­ly wealthy, well-dressed, well-edu­cat­ed, and mem­bers of high soci­ety, a very dif­fer­ent vision of every­day life than that pro­vid­ed dur­ing, say, a walk through a town or a reser­va­tion in the mid­dle of win­ter in North­west­ern Ontario.

 

John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Look­out, in north­west­ern Ontario, but his par­ents immi­grat­ed from Sao Miguel, Azores. He grad­u­at­ed from Hum­ber Col­lege (Gen­er­al Arts and Sci­ence), Cen­ten­ni­al Col­lege (jour­nal­ism), and York Uni­ver­si­ty (Spe­cial­ized Hon­ors BA). His jour­nal­ism was print­ed in var­i­ous local news out­lets in Toron­to, main­ly trade and com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­pers. His short fic­tion has been pub­lished in a wide vari­ety of mag­a­zines and lit­er­ary jour­nals, online and in print, in Cana­da and the Unit­ed States.

The Last Rhubarb

Fiction / Christine Seifert

:: The Last Rhubarb ::

Heather arrives just before sev­en. She peeks into the tent where I am adjust­ing the anten­na on the old TV from Gary’s room. If he were home, instead of at his new dish­wash­ing job, he’d nev­er let me bor­row it.

Neat,” Heather says. She uses the toe of her right foot, clad in a dirty white sneak­er, a Keds knock-off that her moth­er bought her at the begin­ning of sum­mer, to poke at the boxy TV. “Where’s it plugged in?”

Garage,” I say. “It took two exten­sion cords.”

Where’s Gary?” Heather asks. She uses both hands to fluff out her hair. “Should we invite him out here?”

Gross,” I say. The flick­er of dis­ap­point­ment on Heather’s face comes and goes so fast that I almost miss it. But I don’t. I try to imag­ine Gary as a per­son oth­er than my broth­er. Would I too have a crush on him?

We eat Cool Ranch Dori­tos while we watch Bev­er­ly Hills, 90210. “I’m such a Kel­ly,” I say dur­ing a commercial.

You total­ly are,” Heather says. “I’m more of a Brenda.”

Nei­ther of us are either of them. We are us. Knob­by-kneed with mild acne. Dry hair with chlo­rine dam­age. Long feet, pointy shoul­der blades, con­cave stom­achs, tan lines. We are girls of sum­mer. We are too young for jobs, but we are old enough to sleep in a tent in my back­yard. To watch TV out­doors with a bag of Dori­tos and two cold Cokes.

After the show, we bring the cord­less phone out to the tent, and it’s just close enough to the house to work. We call Todd first. Heather dials *67 to block caller ID. “Who do you like-like?” Heather asks in a low voice. She has a fad­ed yel­low pil­low­case placed over the phone receiv­er, a sure method, she claims, to dis­guise her voice. “This is a friend,” she insists to Todd. “I just want to know who you like.”

Damn,” she says to me. “He hung up.”

Call again,” I urge her.

She shakes her head. “Let’s call Brad Stock­ton and ask him if he real­ly did it with Tracey Lau­ren.” I flip open the worn phone book. “He’s unlist­ed,” I tell her and throw the slim book on Heather’s lap.

Hot damn,” Heather says.

She’s tak­en to say­ing that this sum­mer. Hot damn. It works for everything.

We open the phone book and dial what­ev­er num­ber we see first. We leave Dori­to stains on the flim­sy pages. We ask strangers if a Mr. Dong is avail­able. Every­one hangs up on us except an old woman who tells us to quit play­ing with the phone or she’ll call the police and have us tak­en to the jail in a pad­dy wag­on. I laugh so hard I almost pee my pants. Instead, Heather and I go behind the garage and pee on the rhubarb. “This stuff is poi­son,” I tell Heather about the plants. “If you eat the leaves, you’ll die.”

Why would you eat the leaves?” she asks.

If I were going to kill some­one,” I tell her, “I’d sit on them and force rhubarb leaves down their throat.”

Not me. I’d get the per­son to walk across the street with me and go on the path by the riv­er. Then I’d tell them there was some­thing on the riv­er bank, some­thing they had to see. Then I’d push them in.”

What if they could swim?” I asked. “Every­one over the age of five can swim. They would just climb out.”

They couldn’t swim if they were, like, high on rhubarb leaves.” It was a good point. “Also,” Heather adds, “I can’t swim.”

Well, I hope nobody push­es you in the river.”

Why would any­body push me in the riv­er?” she asks and strikes a pose. “I’m too cute to die young.”

In the tent, we call strangers. Most­ly they hang up. One guy talks a lot. Heather keeps ask­ing him ques­tions. They talk about cas­settes and how lame New Kids on the Block are and how peo­ple in high school are so bogus. Heather whis­pers to him with her back to me, and I can’t hear what she’s say­ing for a long time. I strain and make out words: Come. Over. Soon. I grab the phone from her and hang up. “He can’t come over. My par­ents will freak. And you don’t know if this guy is old.”

He sounds young,” she says.

He sounds thirty.”

Heather grabs for the phone, but I quick­ly dial my own num­ber so she can’t hit re-dial. I hang up when I hear the busy signal.

Fine,” she shrugs. “Let’s do some­thing else.” And so we go inside and get my year­book and draw mus­tach­es on all the girls we don’t like and poke pin-holes in the eyes of the boys we like but don’t want to like .

At eleven my dad comes out­side and tells us to be qui­et for god’s sake. And my mom comes out behind him and tells us to come inside if it rains or if we get scared. She says they will lock the door, but use the key if we need to get inside. The key is on a green stretchy bracelet around my wrist.

My par­ents nev­er lock their doors,” Heather tells my mom.

Well, we do.”

My mom is para­noid,” I tell Heather after my par­ents go back inside the house. “She always thinks some­one is going to mur­der us in our sleep.”

Is it bet­ter to be mur­dered while you are awake?”

It’s a good ques­tion. I make a point to ask my moth­er, in the same tone Heather used, next time she yells at one of us for for­get­ting to close our win­dows at night.

Heather does my hair in a French braid. I plug in rollers using the exten­sion cord from the TV. “You could be in a pageant,” I tell Heather when I’m done. She is pret­ti­er than I am, but she has only recent­ly fig­ured it out. She doesn’t hold it against me, nor I her. It’s just a fact.

At quar­ter to one, Heather sug­gests we get dressed and walk to Vil­lage Inn to say hi to Gary. “We can get pie.”

Then we get into an argu­ment because I don’t want to go. I don’t want to walk the five blocks. I don’t want to get in trou­ble if I get caught. I don’t want to see Gary. I don’t want to be mur­dered. Most­ly, I don’t want my best friend in the whole world to have a crush on my brother.

I am too young to explain what it is I feel for Heather. It’s not roman­tic, but it’s a cousin to romance. It’s a feel­ing endem­ic to being thir­teen and being a girl and hav­ing a best friend. I don’t want to kiss her or touch her, but what I do want is to feel so close to her that I will nev­er feel alone again. What hap­pens to me will hap­pen to her. We’ll be con­nect­ed to each oth­er always, like twins in a womb. We will be so sim­i­lar that when we die, they will have to iden­ti­fy us by our moles, our scars.

Heather gets mad and refus­es to talk to me. But she won’t go with­out me. I know that. I lis­ten to a George Michael cas­sette on my Walk­man and cry soft­ly. Final­ly, Heather soft­ens. She scoots her sleep­ing bag clos­er and snug­gles next to me. “Did you know that rhubarb is anoth­er word for a fight?” Heather whis­pers to me.

I don’t answer.

We had a rhubarb, you and me,” she says.

I feign sleep.

I’m sor­ry,” she whispers.

I don’t for­give her, but then I do. We sleep butt-to-butt, and I pre­tend it will always be like this.

It’s light out­side when I wake up again. My dad is out­side the tent. “Steffy, open up,” my dad is say­ing. I rub my eyes and unzip the flap. “Heather’s dad is here to pick her up.” My dad’s face is red and puffy. He’s wear­ing an under­shirt and grey sweat­pants. My mom will not come out­side with­out her make­up, with­out hav­ing first rolled her hair around hot rollers. “Didn’t you hear us calling?”

I roll over and throw an arm on the sleep­ing bag next to me. It’s emp­ty. “Where is Heather?” I ask.

~

I spend hours in the police sta­tion. They let me rest. They give me hot choco­late even though it is blaz­ing hot out­side. They buy Fun­yuns from the vend­ing machine for my snack. They let my mom in the inter­view room with me. Then they send her out, and she protests, but she gives up because the detec­tives are very reas­sur­ing. I am not being blamed, they say. I am not being accused of any­thing, they say. They just have questions.

They ask me if Heather had a boyfriend. I tell them no, but I know she kissed Matt Vanyo at the top of the cov­ered slide at Lyn­don Street Ele­men­tary just last week. He put his tongue in her mouth and she described it as a big fat hairy caterpillar.

They ask me what hap­pened to Heather that night. And I start to cry. They pat me on the back and call me sweet­heart. “I can’t remem­ber,” I say. And I can’t. It all runs togeth­er, a mas­sive blob of col­ors, words, and move­ments that can­not be sep­a­rat­ed into dis­crete pieces. The blob is unblob­bable.

They final­ly send me home to sleep, and I come back ear­ly the next morn­ing. I still haven’t show­ered since before that night. My hair is mat­ted and my eyes feel crusty. The detec­tives tell me to relax and to think care­ful­ly. Did I miss any­thing? Did I for­get anything?

I start from the begin­ning of the night when I brought the TV out­side. I tell them what hap­pened on Bev­er­ly Hills, 90210, about Bran­don at the beach club and Kel­ly and Dylan get­ting togeth­er behind Brenda’s back while she is in Paris with Don­na. I tell them about the prank phone calls and about the chips, the French braids, the rhubarb we had over Gary. My par­ents sit on either side of me. My mom cries and snif­fles loudly.

Were you very angry?” one of the detec­tives asks me. He is tall and thin with bushy dark hair and a skin­ny mustache.

I was very sad,” I tell him.

The detec­tive with the mus­tache pats my fore­arm. “Don’t wor­ry. You’ll remem­ber more lat­er. I promise. It’ll come back to you. It always does.”

When I sleep, I dream about the rhubarb patch.

~

School starts in Sep­tem­ber. I am not allowed to walk by myself, so my dad drops me off at the door, even though the school is only three blocks from home. “Gary will pick you up,” he tells me. “Don’t walk home.”

There’s a kid­nap­per on the loose, but the posters with Heather’s face are already start­ing to fade and fray. I think they should be refreshed, reprint­ed on clean white paper. I am some­what famous because I was the last one to see her. Reporters call our house. My pic­ture is shown on the news and my mom is hor­ri­fied. “What if he comes back for Steffy?” she hiss­es at my dad when she thinks I’m out of earshot.

I think that being Heather’s best friend will make the first day of eighth grade eas­i­er. It does not. Nobody talks to me. Nobody even comes near me. It’s as if I’m taint­ed. I car­ry all their fear and mine inside my Esprit shoul­der bag, my GUESS jeans, my Ben­neton crew-neck t‑shirt. It’s also inside me, min­gling with my guts and my bones. Nobody wants to breathe it in when I exhale.

I am falling asleep in Geog­ra­phy, halfway between con­scious and not, and it hap­pens: I am no longer in a stale class­room sur­round­ed by peo­ple who do not know me. I am back in the tent. It’s that night. I am there. Heather is there. A rush of love, warm and pleas­ant, sweeps over me. It’s like a breeze on the first sun­ny day of the year, when you hold your face up to sun and exhale. You won’t remem­ber win­ter for much longer.

When I open my eyes, I am on the dusty floor. Mr. Grif­fin is stand­ing over me. “Mar­tin,” he calls, “you get the nurse. Shel­by, you go get Mrs. Adamson.”

Ew,” some­one whis­pers, “I think she peed her pants.”

~

I stay home from school for weeks. I do none of the work Mrs. Adam­son arranges to have sent to me each week. Some­times Gary brings it to me. Some­times Mrs. Adam­son her­self comes to the door, and when she does, I pre­tend to be sleep­ing. Dur­ing the day, I watch TV for hours. I’m watch­ing a re-run of Alice when it hap­pens again. One minute Mel is ver­bal­ly abus­ing Vera, who is so will­ful­ly stu­pid that it’s hard to side with her, then the next minute I’m back in the tent. My mos­qui­to bites itch. Sweat drips from my hair­line. Dori­to dust coats my fin­ger­tips. I can smell Cool Ranch.

Are you here?” I ask Heather.

Of course. Where else would I be?”

Are you going to see Gary?”

Gary?” Heather scoffs. “Why would I want to see Gary?” She pulls out a deck of cards. “I have tarot cards,” she says.

Will we stay here all night?” I ask her. “Can we stay in this tent?”

Of course,” she says. “Don’t be a ding-bat.”

~

I go back to school after Christ­mas break, and I join the jazz band. I am third-chair flute, along with eleven oth­er third-string flutists who do not know how to play well. We blow hard and chirp like a flock of chaot­ic birds. Mr. Dou­glas is patient and tells us to reg­u­late our air.

In the coa­t­room after class, I am putting my flute case back in my cub­by hole, safe for tomor­row, when it hap­pens. Nobody is near me, so I let myself sink down on the floor on a pile of soft downy coats.

In the tent, I am awake and Heather is asleep. I watch her. She breathes in and out in syn­co­pat­ed jazz rhythms. She purs­es her lips on the exhale. I find myself mir­ror­ing her move­ments. She opens her eyes. “Why are you being a total spaz?” she asks.

I need to know what’s going to hap­pen tonight,” I say.

Heather sits up and scratch­es her head. Her braid is half-undone and strands of hair stick up like a crown of thorns. “Did you hear that?” she asks.

I strain, but I hear noth­ing. “It’s a boy,” she says. “There’s a boy out there.” She points to the flap of the tent. We sit still for so long I wor­ry we will freeze like that and nev­er move again.

And then he is in the tent. “How did he get in—” I start, but Heather cuts me off. She gets on her knees. The tent is too short for her to stand. The boy is kneel­ing, too.

Have you come for us?” Heather asks.

If you would like to go with me,” the boy says. His cheeks are pink. His hair is thick and combed into a style from ages ago. Slicked back on the sides. Floofy in the front. Kind of like Brandon’s on 90210. He is our age, I think. Maybe old­er. Maybe much older.

Heather says, “He wants us to go with him.”

Where?” I ask. I am scram­bling for my shoes because I already assume she will assent, and I can’t let her out of my sight.

Just me,” she says. “You have to stay here.”

I won’t let you go alone.”

You don’t have a choice.”

~

They cor­rect me when I call it a hos­pi­tal, but that is what it is. I’m here for a rest, my mom tells me. I sleep and wake, wake and sleep, for what feels like for­ev­er but is real­ly only a week or two. Then I’m back at home. Our priest, Father Han­son, comes to vis­it me. He asks me to say a rosary with him, so I do, but I’d rather watch TV. Father Han­son tells me God has a plan. It will all work out accord­ing to the plan. “Why would God want Heather to be kid­napped?” I ask. Father Han­son doesn’t answer; instead, he tells me to pray. He gives me the words to say, and I know that there are oth­er words I can nev­er say. I remem­ber that I’ve only ever seen him with­out his col­lar once. He’s wear­ing it now. With­out it, he looks like some­one who looks like some­one I know.

I go back to school, but I’m too far behind in band to play. Instead, I sit out­side the door with my knees tucked up under my chin and lis­ten for the third chairs. The din ris­es above the real notes and it’s kind of beau­ti­ful, the way they are all doing some­thing dif­fer­ent together.

After school, I go to coun­sel­ing. Gary dri­ves me and waits out­side. He smokes in the car, and I wor­ry that the ther­a­pist will think it’s me. She nev­er asks about it. Maybe she assumes that any­one who comes to coun­sel­ing is also a smoker.

Her name is Judy and she wears large paint­ed neck­laces made out of wood and broom­stick skirts. Her hair is very short, and she runs her fin­gers through the front three times per every five min­utes. “You don’t have to talk about Heather,” she tells me on my third vis­it. “That seems hard for you. Let’s talk about your par­ents instead.”

I tell her my mom makes deli­cious pota­to sal­ad and likes to play ten­nis on week­ends. She falls asleep when she watch­es TV, and she stays up late to read news mag­a­zines and drink Mr. Pibb. I tell Judy my dad is loud and loves to argue. He puts togeth­er mod­el planes for fun. He is an engi­neer and reads books about bridges. He met my moth­er on a dou­ble-date, but she was not his date. The oth­er girl, my father’s date, was the maid of hon­or in their wed­ding. She died of can­cer when she was only twen­ty-six, and my mom lights a can­dle on the anniver­sary of her death every year. My par­ents believe in God and the Catholic Church. By exten­sion, so do I.

Judy nods and writes notes on a small notepad in green ink. “I see,” she says. She paus­es occa­sion­al­ly to look through half-track glass­es that she keeps on a red string around her neck. I wor­ry that her large wood­en ear­rings will tear through her lobes and leave a bloody mess like the bot­tom of a pack­age of raw hamburger.

Breathe in,” Judy tells me. I do.

Breathe out,” she orders. I do.

On the way home, in Gary’s car, the win­dow rolled down, I inhale his smoke until my lungs are full. Then I let it out the win­dow and pre­tend that I am smok­ing too. Gary plays a Metal­li­ca tape and my ears throb. It doesn’t take long for me to disappear.

In the tent, Heather is talk­ing to the boy. The man. “I feel like I know you,” she says.

I have that effect on peo­ple,” he responds.

Who are you? Where did you come from?” I say.

The boy sits down and cross­es his legs like the stat­ue of Bud­dha I saw in my World His­to­ry text­book. He breathes slow­ly. Inhale. Exhale. “It doesn’t mat­ter who I am. I’m here for Heather.”

I don’t want her to go,” I say.

Steffy, don’t be a baby,” Heather says. “It’s not like I’m pick­ing him over you. This is, like, a sep­a­rate thing. Sep­a­rate from us, you know?”

I didn’t know. “Do you even know him?”

I don’t have to know him,” Heather says. “The point is that he’s come for me.”

The boy smiles. He reminds me of the glow­ing fig­ures in the stained-glass win­dows, the cherub faces that are not human but aren’t inhu­man either. “How old are you?” I ask.

The boy laughs. He has grooves in his fore­head, crin­kles at his eyes. He is not glow­ing so much as he is radi­at­ing some­thing, some­thing that feels hot and insis­tent and permanent.

~

After sup­per one night, when I’m already in my paja­mas with my teeth brushed and flossed, my mom and dad come to my room and sit on the edge of my bed. Gary hov­ers in the door­way. It is almost a year since Heather vanished.

I yell for my par­ents. “I know what hap­pened to Heather!” I shout. The sto­ry appeared to me. Not in a dream. Not like a film. But like a thing that I always knew, like the col­or of my mother’s eyes and the smell of my sheets.

What? What have you remem­bered?” my dad asks. He shush­es my mom who has gasped, who has begun to cry.

You’ve remem­bered?” my mom says. She grabs the cord­less phone from my bed­side table. “I’m call­ing the police.”

My dad takes off his glass­es and rubs his eyes. He motions for my mom to sit. She sets the phone back in its cra­dle. “Why don’t you tell us, sweet­heart, before we involve the police,” he says, and I already know he doesn’t believe.

I tell them every­thing, includ­ing the bits that don’t mat­ter. I piece it all togeth­er, patch­works of mem­o­ries that have come back when I let them. I tell them about all the times I’ve gone away and come back with a new old memory.

Who is this boy?” my mom inter­rupts. “We have to find him. We have to call the police.”

Sharon,” my dad says, “let her fin­ish.” He pats my leg, “Go ahead, Steffy. Fin­ish the sto­ry. We’re listening.”

He came to us. He was inside the tent with us. He was sent for Heather. He said just her. Not me. She was the one who was meant to go.”

My mom is cry­ing so hard that Gary must step into the room and prop her up. She is a scare­crow. He is a post.

Then they exit­ed the tent together?”

No, they didn’t exit. They disappeared.”

What does that even mean?” my dad asks.

Now I am annoyed because I know this sto­ry and now they are ruin­ing it with their ques­tions. “It means, one sec­ond they are there, the next they are not. I am alone in the tent.”

Poof,” my dad says.

Exact­ly. Poof. Gone. Now you are get­ting it.”

That’s not possible.”

I shrug. “The boy, the man, said it is all pos­si­ble. Every­thing is.”

But I don’t under­stand,” my moth­er says. “Why didn’t you come get us? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you tell the police? And who is this man? What did he look like?”

What does God look like?” I ask her. “You can’t say. It’s the same thing. I can’t say.”

My moth­er falls to her knees and wails. My dad tells her to stop. He tells Gary to take her to the kitchen, to leave us be for a minute or two. When they are gone, he picks up one of my hands. His palm is clam­my, but mine is soft and dry. “Steffy, how do you feel? You can be hon­est with me. I can help you. We can all help you.”

I don’t know. It was her time. It was meant to be. It was part of the plan. God will nev­er give you more than you can han­dle.” My cadence sounds famil­iar. I sound like Father Han­son mid-ser­mon. I think about the times Father Han­son picked me to help him in the rec­to­ry. He picked me more than any oth­er girl. I paid atten­tion. I thought about my hands in soapy water in the rec­to­ry sink, wash­ing dessert plates, and lis­ten­ing to Father Han­son tell me all the things God wants for me. I nev­er told him that when I was five, I thought he was God and I was hap­py that God lived in my church, not any­one else’s.

My mom returns with a cup of water in her hand, and I’m not sure if it’s meant for her or me. “He had pale skin, yel­low hair, red cheeks. He glowed, like a light­ning bug. He was human but not.”

Oh, my poor baby,” my moth­er whispers.

What do you mean?” my father asks.

He came to take Heather. And then they dis­ap­peared.” I snap my fin­gers to demon­strate how fast it was.

Steffy,” my father says, “peo­ple don’t just dis­ap­pear like that. They don’t get tak­en from tents by men who are like God but not God. That’s just not reality.

I shrug. “He works in mys­te­ri­ous ways.”

The man or God?” Gary asks, and now I’m start­ing to feel confused.

But this man,” my father per­sists. “Who is the man?”

I told you. He takes the form of a human, but he is from the spir­it world—or what­ev­er. I sup­pose you might call him an angel, but he didn’t real­ly say. It was Heather’s time to go, and he took her to be in a bet­ter place. She is where she’s meant to be, so we should all be hap­py for her. She’s been called home.” I feel relieved now. It’s all so clear, like the sur­face of glass table­top, that I mar­vel there was ever a time when I could not say these words, the words the man him­self told me. And only now does it all make sense. It all fits togeth­er per­fect­ly. I lay back and smile, for per­haps the first time since Heather left this world.

Oh, my baby,” my moth­er says again. She is shak­ing and sob­bing and Gary is back try­ing to pull her off of me. “None of this makes sense,” my father says, “it’s sim­ply not logical.”

Heather float­ed up, up, up. Out of the tent, up in the air. She dis­si­pat­ed. Like smoke. I could see it all through the can­vas. We can tell the police to stop look­ing,” I say. “If she comes back, it will be because the man brings her back from the sky. When it is time.” I smile at the three of them: Mom and Dad and Gary. See? I’m try­ing to say. It all works out.

She’s crazy,” Gary says, as if I can­not hear him. “She’s pure batshit.”

That can’t hap­pen,” my dad says again. “It just can’t.”

Why?” I ask, mar­veling at all he doesn’t know yet.

Because the uni­verse has rules!” my father shouts at me. For one brief moment, he looks at me as if I am some­one else. Then he is hold­ing both of my hands. “I’m sor­ry, Steffy. I’m sor­ry I yelled.” I gig­gle because his cheeks are too red, his hair messed up, his glass­es crooked.

My father stands up. “I’ll call the doc­tor,” he tells my mother.

I find myself drift­ing into sleep, deep and rest­ful. God gives. God takes away.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

His­to­ry

I am orig­i­nal­ly from Far­go, North Dako­ta, which is prob­a­bly why I grav­i­tate toward dark and cold sto­ries set in the upper mid­west. I love char­ac­ters who are torn by what they want and what they *ought* to want. I’m intrigued by char­ac­ters who sur­prise me, who con­fuse or repel me, and who under­es­ti­mate the rip­ple effect of any one deci­sion (or inde­ci­sion). I like sto­ries that hint at the out­landish and the oth­er-world­ly, but also demon­strate the ter­ror of real­i­ty. I want read­ers to decide what’s worse: the realm of the super­nat­ur­al or the Tues­day we’re liv­ing right now.

Sketch

In this sto­ry, the main char­ac­ter, Steffy, is trau­ma­tized after her best friend dis­ap­pears while camp­ing in their back­yard. As the com­mu­ni­ty search­es for the miss­ing girl, Steffy expe­ri­ences flash­backs to that night. Does she know what real­ly hap­pened? Or is her mem­o­ry of Heather’s dis­ap­pear­ance col­ored by a pre­vi­ous trau­ma, one that is buried below a glossy surface?

Mark­er

All of my work grav­i­tates around one idea per­sis­tent ques­tion: Are we ever in con­trol of our own lives? What if it’s all a sham, I won­der. Maybe that’s the point of literature—or any kind of art: We all want to pre­tend we’re in con­trol of some­thing. Steffy thinks she’s in con­trol of her own mem­o­ries. And yet nobody believes that she has a grasp on real­i­ty. After all, she seems to think Heather has been kid­napped by God.

Repos­i­to­ry of Influences

Like many writ­ers, and prob­a­bly like you, I’m a vora­cious read­er. I’m cyn­i­cal and irrev­er­ent and curi­ous and con­fused and doubt­ful. The sto­ries I love most are the ones that strike those chords and rat­tle my brain. I will nev­er for­get the line of sweat, the hair dye, run­ning down Arnold Friend’s face in Joyce Car­ol Oates’ sto­ry “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” as Con­nie real­izes what she’s just done, the way she’s sealed her own fate. Steffy is an homage to Con­nie, but her Arnold Friend is hid­den in the depths of her own mind.

 

Chris­tine Seifert is the author of one nov­el pub­lished in three lan­guages: The Pre­dict­eds (2011); two non­fic­tion books for young read­ers: Whop­pers: History’s Most Out­ra­geous Lies and Liars (2015) and The Fac­to­ry Girls: A Kalei­do­scop­ic Account of the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry (2017); and one aca­d­e­m­ic book: Vir­gin­i­ty in Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture after Twi­light (2015.) She’s also writ­ten for The Atavist, Bitch Mag­a­zine, and Inside High­er Ed, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Born and raised in Far­go, North Dako­ta, Chris­tine is now a Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at West­min­ster Col­lege in Salt Lake City, Utah, where win­ter lasts a rea­son­able peri­od of time.

Not Capable of Giving Her Leprosy

Fiction / Vi Khi Nao

:: Not Capable of Giving Her Leprosy ::

The streets seem young to her.
Vegas was built overnight with poor plumbing .
She is wan­der­ing the streets again.

Over orange chick­en at Pan­da Express, he tells her that the white pro­fes­sor needs to return to the Unit­ed States. He needs to exer­cise a med­ical absence. He is white and he is hav­ing sex with his Kore­an stu­dents. He has been in Korea for about 1/5th of his life. His white dick hasn’t touched the vagi­nal sewage sys­tem of North Amer­i­ca for about a decade now. And, although mod­ern West­ern plump­ing doesn’t miss him, apple pies donate a large part of their de-tart­ed, but not re-tart­ed, pas­try life to crav­ing him. His grandmother’s nick­name is PP (for Peach Pie), and his aunt’s name is Rhubarb. He works for Bul­go­gi Uni­ver­si­ty, one of the best uni­ver­si­ties in Korea. It’s where a female-dom­i­nat­ed, Eng­lish-cur­ricu­lum-based edu­ca­tion teach­es female stu­dents how to learn Eng­lish from sick, per­vert­ed, white fac­ul­ty. It’s not an expen­sive edu­ca­tion. But there is no psy­chother­a­py there.

Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry asks his young Kore­an stu­dent if she would have sex with him. She says,  “No.” As if “no” were a stage 4 can­cer that doesn’t know what lymph nodes or metasta­t­ic mean. The bold young Kore­an stu­dent doesn’t like straw­ber­ries in big batch­es. She prefers per­sim­mons in box­es as gifts.

Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry doesn’t want to leave Bul­go­gi. At Bul­go­gi he has voca­tion­al and sex­u­al pow­er and prowess. Here, he has a grip on the upper ech­e­lon of South Korea’s Eng­lish lit­er­a­cy world. He is impor­tant. He is known. He has pow­er. Cer­tain female Kore­an stu­dents would want to have sex with him. If he returns to the Unit­ed States, he will need to devel­op a new hob­by for inter­net porn, the pedophil­i­ac kind—not relat­ed to lilacs—and may have to attend the same school, per­haps down­grad­ed, as Har­vey Wein­stein and Kevin Spacey.

He leans over to tell her that although he has pow­er, it’s sort of fake. Like Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry is tech­ni­cal­ly pow­er­ful, but his pow­er is bor­rowed or lent  to him because he has blue eyes and white skin. True pow­er is race­less or face­less, she dis­cov­ers. Or col­or-deaf. In her mind, she doesn’t think any of this is true. True pow­er requires one to be dick-deaf. Is she dick-deaf? she asks her­self while she tries to stuff broc­coli and beef into her mouth. She isn’t hun­gry, but she is eat­ing because it is eas­i­er to lis­ten when one’s mouth is full.

Mean­while, about 6,000 miles away, in Las Vegas, eight Kore­an women in their late fifties all hud­dle in a Star­bucks fran­chise to dis­cuss the impor­tance of eat­ing meat while read­ing Han Kang’s The Veg­e­tar­i­an. One woman turns to anoth­er woman, ask­ing if it would be okay if she brought japchae to their next book club meeting.

Rib­eye fil­let goes so well with glass noodle!”
“Of course!”
“Yes, of course!”

Lit­er­a­ture is pre­dom­i­nate­ly a female voca­tion in Korea. Writ­ing would make men effem­i­nate and Kore­an cul­ture, like all oth­er cul­tures, thrives on mas­culin­i­ty or bibimbap.

They walk to Ben and Jerry’s. After work­ing at a law office accom­plish­ing noth­ing, or so he tells her, he wants to treat him­self to some­thing sweet. She doesn’t want ice cream but she gives in. The last time, she watched him lick his ice cream and it was like watch­ing a white man giv­ing a blowjob to anoth­er white man and although blow­ing isn’t her thing, cli­mate change, espe­cial­ly on the tongue, is her thing. She has a thing for lick­ing things over. She recon­sid­ers his offer to buy her ice cream. Maybe through the ice cream thing, he is offer­ing her a free blowjob. Any­one would take it up, right? Think­ing things over is her thing.

Her father’s girl­friend is bisexual.

Her bisex­u­al­i­ty con­sists of two grape­fruits and one rain­bow trout. Fry­ing fish is her thing. She likes her rela­tion­ship with oil to be around 350 to 375 degrees.

She walks into Trad­er Joe’s. It’s a Sat­ur­day. It’s crowd­ed. Walk­ing there led her to 7,342 steps. Every­one looks like they are wear­ing dia­pers and hold­ing each other’s hands and say­ing hel­lo and kiss­ing good­bye while wav­ing their gluten-free pota­to chips at each oth­er. When­ev­er they fart, the cush­ions on their dia­pers absorb the sound and smell and thus every­one at Trader’s Joe is hap­py with each oth­er. Dia­pers make every­one social­ly safe. When she exit­ed Smith’s just an hour ago, no adults were wear­ing dia­pers and they didn’t even know who they were shop­ping with, let alone wav­ing expen­sive organ­ic cocoa at anoth­er. When­ev­er a shop­per farts at Smith’s, every­one knows who it is and if their last meal was at McDonald’s or Jack in the Box. But at Trad­er Joe’s, all pol­lu­tion or inad­ver­tent acts of social trans­gres­sion are fam­i­ly-accept­ed and family-owned.

Before falling asleep, she tells her­self: although she can’t com­mit sui­cide now, her biggest revenge on God is the abil­i­ty to do it lat­er, when she can. When she is per­mit­ted to.

When the barks of tall palm trees fall on the streets of Vegas by the heavy zephyr or breaths of tum­ble­weeds, they look like the backs of armadil­los. When she saw the barks for the very first time, walk­ing to Wal­mart late one night, they star­tled her. She thought the wind was so strong that even the hard shells of the nine-band­ed noc­tur­nal omniv­o­rous mam­mals were not imper­vi­ous to the bru­tal dessert wind. But, upon clos­er inspec­tion, she dis­cov­ered that the bony plates of these ever­greens were not capa­ble of giv­ing her lep­rosy. Walk­ing to Wal­mart has a greater chance of giv­ing her nerve damage.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As shown in my prose, I wrote this dur­ing a very des­o­late time in my life. I had begun a friend­ship with a kind fic­tion writer in Vegas who want­ed to remove the iso­la­tion which has imbued my soul like the bony gar­ment of an armadil­lo. Dur­ing that friend­ship, I knew more about Korea than I ever did from all the books I was read­ing. It was inter­est­ing to me to hear what non-expa­tri­ate white men in the States thought of white men liv­ing abroad in Asia and Kore­an women resid­ing in their native home­land, Korea. Some of the con­ver­sa­tions between us were cap­tured near ver­ba­tim. My per­cep­tion of Korea altered after my hik­ing vis­its with him. I wrote this dur­ing the time in which Har­vey Wein­stein & the men who com­mit­ted sex­u­al crimes against women were oust­ed . We like fic­tion to not cap­ture real­i­ty so much, but some­times due to its  height­ened depth of form and its shame­less real­ism, we are, as a cul­ture, doomed to state the obvi­ous. We think we can dress real­i­ty in decep­tion or false­hood, but it’s real­ly impos­si­ble to.

 

Vi Khi Nao is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions, Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbil­i­cal Hos­pi­tal (Press 1913, 2017), and The Old Philoso­pher (win­ner of the Night­boat Books Prize for Poet­ry in 2014), and of the short sto­ries col­lec­tion, A Brief Alpha­bet of Tor­ture (win­ner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Inno­v­a­tive Fic­tion Prize), and the nov­el, Fish in Exile (Cof­fee House Press, 2016). Her work includes poet­ry, fic­tion, film and cross-genre col­lab­o­ra­tion. Her sto­ries, poems, and draw­ings have appeared in NOONPloughsharesBlack War­rior Review, and BOMB, among oth­ers. Vi holds an MFA in fic­tion from Brown University.

 

Cumbia

Fiction / Myriam Gurba

:: Cumbia ::

They met at a grim threesome.

She, a niece, as well as a writer, sat sidesad­dle on the deathbed.

A heather gray tunic draped her. Cut from t‑shirt mate­r­i­al, it dan­gled from spaghet­ti straps. Beneath it, a scoop-necked, cobalt top mold­ed itself to her. Her ex-boyfriend, a dra­ma teacher from whom she’d escaped sev­er­al months pri­or, had enjoyed shit talk­ing the Oxfords that com­plet­ed her outfit.

They look like under­tak­er shoes,” he’d complain.

He’d been wrong. They were les­bian shoes, and he hadn’t under­stood this because he wasn’t a les­bian, he was a man, one which her clever les­bian friends found dis­taste­ful in his ordinariness.

She stared at her uncle’s face. The insti­tu­tion­al light fix­ture mount­ed above his head­board cast a glow about his shaved head. This didn’t look angel­ic. Flu­o­res­cence can’t.

Her uncle’s nos­trils twitched and pain yanked his head up and off his pil­low. His neck tensed, tendons/tendons/tendons, and agony twist­ed his fea­tures and kept twist­ing them, con­tort­ing his cheeks, nose, brow, and mouth in ways the writer had nev­er seen done to human skin. She’d only seen dishrags twist­ed like this when her moth­er had wrung them out on hope­less school nights. She’d felt sor­ry for the dishrags.

Her uncle’s tongue scraped his remain­ing teeth, nubs resem­bling pil­on­cil­lo, and the tongue froze like a flag in midair. What else does that? Is out and wet and pink and crisp? A dog’s penis. The writer thought of one, a pit bull’s she’d watched unsheathe itself as he squat­ted at a woman’s feet.

She’d been brunch­ing on an omelet.

Eye­balls bugged. Nos­trils flared. Eyes squeezed shut as her uncle shook his head, gri­maced, and exhaled hard enough to hurt himself.

He looked Holocausty.

And so the niece had arranged for help.

Breathe,” she whispered.

shut­up…” he moaned. Anoth­er parox­ysm was on its way.

Obey­ing, she wait­ed. She wanted.

She want­ed her uncle to have what her grand­moth­er hadn’t, a dig­ni­fied death, the best death his veteran’s ben­e­fits could afford, and she knew that a final cur­tain like that would require opiates.

HE WILL FUCKING HAVE MORPHINE TONIGHT, the writer texted her lit­tle sis­ter, a Jew, and nurse, work­ing in New York City, OR ONE OF THESE FUCKS IS GONNA PAY.

The sis­ter replied, THEY STILL HAVEN’T GIVEN HIM MORPHINE??????

Three knife emo­jis fol­lowed the question.

NO

In return, the sis­ter texted triple the knife emojis.

EXACTLY, the writer replied. She sighed. She was ready to ruin someone’s evening or life for her uncle’s com­fort. She was ready to make some­one scared, to make some­one suf­fer. She want­ed to inflict what­ev­er pain necessary—physical, emo­tion­al, or psychic—and then she would scream at the admin­is­tra­tor or staff mem­ber or who­ev­er else need­ed to be screamed at.

She would demand, “How do you like it? Oh, you don’t like it? You want relief?

 WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY.”

Her uncle’s chest heaved.

She stared.

She under­stood what she was watching.

Each fam­i­ly has a dying style: she knew what her family’s looked, smelled, and sound­ed like, and her uncle’s breath­ing was increas­ing­ly approx­i­mat­ing her abuelita’s the night before she woke up dead. Mem­o­ries of her abuelita’s death rat­tle evoked goth­ic images in the writer’s mind. One of them: a Mex­i­can hag with a black lace veil plopped over her sil­ver hair. Catholic lingerie …

In a Taga­log accent, some­one, prob­a­bly a nurs­ing assis­tant, chirped, “Hel­lo, doctor!”

I’m not a doc­tor!” a man barked back.

Foot­steps approached the pri­va­cy cur­tain. It swished. The writer turned to look.

At the foot of the bed stood a svelte bear of a man in a white coat. The blue of his eyes was remark­able. They were the blue of pop music and études. This made the writer angry. Why had some­one with libid­i­nal appeal been sent to the deathbed? It was vulgar.

The writer thought about fir­ing the beard­ed man.

Her bisex­u­al gaze locked with his.

Hel­lo,” he told her. “I am the hos­pice nurse.”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I rarely write about love.

When I do, I’m often writ­ing about my uncle Hen­ry. If not writ­ing direct­ly about him, then I’m writ­ing indi­rect­ly about him.

I wrote this piece as what I thought was a deathbed account. My uncle was dying, though he didn’t die, and this sto­ry is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sickbed por­trai­ture that I was mak­ing of him. I con­stant­ly doc­u­ment my uncle and am inspired to cre­ate arti­facts relat­ed to his many ill­ness­es. The first instance that I saw of such work was Han­nah Wilke’s Intra-Venus series. She cre­at­ed the pho­to­graph­ic series with her hus­band, Don­ald God­dard, while she was dying of cancer.

The pho­tographs are equal parts beau­ty and grotesque, repel­lent and mag­net­ic, vul­ner­a­ble and rock hard. This tends to be a com­mon qual­i­ty in sickbed and deathbed portraiture.

Anoth­er work that I had in mind was a paint­ing that I saw as a child. The paint­ing rep­re­sent­ed hell and fea­tured a soul burn­ing there. The soul, sur­round­ed by flames, appeared on a tall, met­al alms box in a Mex­i­can chapel. The image didn’t inspire me to give alms, but it inspired me to want to meet peo­ple in hell.

 

Myr­i­am Gur­ba is a high school teacher, writer, pod­cast­er and artist who lives in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia. Her most recent book, the true crime mem­oir Mean, was a New York Times edi­tors’ choice. Pub­lish­ers Week­ly describes her as a “lit­er­ary voice like none oth­er.” Gur­ba co-hosts the AskBi­Gr­lz advice pod­cast with car­toon­ist, and fel­low bira­cial­ist, Mari­Nao­mi. Her col­lage and dig­i­tal art­work has been shown in muse­ums, gal­leries, and com­mu­ni­ty centers.

If Only the Bombs

Fiction / Ilana Masad

:: If Only the Bombs ::

I.

Take a sweater with you, Glen! Glen? You hear me?” But he was gone. Patri­cia watched his car fum­ble out of the garage, back onto the lawn with one wheel, and begin to plod down the street. Boun­cy, it was, had thump-thumped beneath them the night they met, Glen just back from the war, Patri­cia a col­lege girl who didn’t mind the boys get­ting fresh. He had a rep­u­ta­tion as a sol­dier. She had a rep­u­ta­tion. Match made in heaven.

Of course he didn’t take the sweater. Wouldn’t want to wrin­kle his per­fect­ly ironed shirt. As if his own labor had brought about its state. And if he got sick because of the fans and the A/C units they had at his office? Well. There was only one per­son who would take care of him, and she wished to all the gods she didn’t believe in that it wouldn’t be her this time. That he’d found some twig­gy mis­tress. Some oth­er rep­utable girl. Else­where. Sweet dreams that nev­er matched real­i­ty, Patri­cia knew, and went to check on the kid.

The kid lay in the dark room, dark as far as the kid was con­cerned. Deaf and dumb and blind to boot, the kid had escaped polio only because there was no pool in the state that would allow the kid to swim in it and no sand­box where the kid wouldn’t get shoved and made fun of by oth­ers. The spe­cial doc­tor came twice a week and worked with the kid while Patri­cia smoked in the kitchen until he called her in to help. The spe­cial doc­tor told her not to take so many pills. But her doc­tor, the reg­u­lar one, gave her pills to get up and pills to keep going and pills to put her to sleep and they worked just fine.

It was feed time. Clos­est to life on a farm she’d ever get, this. When Glen had said he had land in New Jer­sey all those years ago, she’d pic­tured a sin­gle goat, a barn­yard, some clean pink pigs, fresh cream. No, his par­ents, like him, had no skill for such things. Like her, they were city trans­plants play­ing at the sub­urbs. Patri­cia took Glen’s left­overs out of the fridge. Since the man didn’t have an appetite, she’d begun split­ting the meals between him and the kid. The kid wasn’t par­tic­u­lar, and throw­ing away food was a waste. She’d read arti­cles about those poor Jews after the war, how they’d squir­reled away food, scrimped and saved it. They had the right idea. Not every­one was rich like Glen’s par­ents. She’d gone to col­lege on a schol­ar­ship and her par­ents were dirt-poor fac­to­ry work­ers and dead by now. Prob­a­bly hear­ing about the kid in her let­ter all those years ago had killed them. She didn’t know. Her sis­ter had tele­phoned to say they were dead and already buried. No use ask­ing why she wasn’t invit­ed to the wake. After she’d got­ten preg­nant and mar­ried Glen with­out approval, they had all but dis­owned her, their eldest daugh­ter, their pride and joy col­lege girl. They were proud peo­ple that had no use for a col­lege dropout with a bun in the oven, and her mar­ry­ing a Protes­tant to boot. It all amount­ed to the same thing. They’d been dead to her when they were alive, and now they were just dead and she was alive. If this was living.

The kid’s room had the cur­tains drawn and the smell of its piss and shit swept through the air as she opened the door. The kid made signs and nois­es at her, its mouth smack­ing open, emp­ty eyes star­ing in her direc­tion. Sat up on the bed and reached for her. Some­how, the spe­cial doc­tor explained it but she didn’t under­stand it, the kid knew she was Moth­er. The kid knew her and hugged her and put its face against her bel­ly and sighed. In any oth­er kid, Patri­cia would take it as hap­pi­ness. But not here. Here she knew what came next, and sure enough it did. Face turned up and mouth opened again and hand reached to her breasts, to catch and suck­le from. She slapped its hands away. She didn’t let it do that any­more, not since its fifth birth­day, when she had to reck­on with the fact that it would nev­er be a reg­u­lar child. From the begin­ning the neigh­bor-women said it was dan­ger­ous, let­ting the kid drink her milk, and now they blamed her for what the kid had become. Patri­cia didn’t know what to believe. The spe­cial doc­tor said noth­ing was her fault. And then he would kiss her in the bath­room and lock the door and bend her legs up so her feet were near her head like a gym­nast. Since Glen didn’t want to pay the spe­cial doc­tor, Patri­cia found anoth­er way to reim­burse him for his time. And she need­ed him, the spe­cial doc­tor. He was the only one who made the kid calmer, less frightful.

She put some cold eggs on a fork and pushed it into the kid’s maw. The kid coughed and almost choked and some of the goo fell onto its shirt but the jaw chewed and throat swal­lowed and the mouth opened to take more, yel­low crumbs left on the small sticky tongue. Patri­cia gagged. After she fin­ished feed­ing the kid Glen’s uneat­en bits of break­fast, she pushed and pulled it onto the chang­ing table that was too small for a kid that age. Almost nine now. So many years of doing just this. She ripped the dia­per off and wiped, breath­ing through her mouth and keep­ing her eyes almost shut. She put a new dia­per on, took the emp­ty plate and fork, and shut the door to the room.

The moans the kid made when it played with the toys in the cor­ner of its room scratched at her back. But she stood there, lis­ten­ing to her scion, to what she’d made, what she’d done. After stand­ing in front of the closed door for a quar­ter of an hour, she took a cig­a­rette out of the pack in her apron pock­et and went to stand by the kitchen win­dow where she could blow the smoke out into the garden.

II.

Glen came home with a whis­tle to him. “Dar­ling,” he said when she took his hat and his coat. “You know what day it is today?”

Patri­cia didn’t much care. It could be their anniver­sary, and she still wouldn’t let him do what he want­ed. It could be the last day on earth before the Reds bombed them all straight to hell, and she still wouldn’t. It could be his dying day, and it wouldn’t matter.

It wasn’t their anniver­sary, and the bombs weren’t falling yet, and he wasn’t dying as far as she knew, but she expect­ed him home every night with some excuse or oth­er to make her let him in again. But she wouldn’t. She thought him cursed. Since they found out the kid would nev­er be nor­mal, she stopped let­ting him get any­where near her when she was less than halfway dressed. And she didn’t let the spe­cial doc­tor fin­ish inside her, not ever. She might be the cursed one, after all. Wouldn’t sur­prise her, really.

What day, Glen,” she asked.

And he said, “Today’s the day the new plane is released!”

That’s very exciting.”

It sure is. That means more peo­ple fly­ing, more peo­ple mov­ing across the globe, in this big uni­verse of ours. And I was there, I helped. It’s the begin­ning of the future, Patty.”

His hands rest­ed on her hips, and he tried to pull her toward him from the coat-rack, but Patri­cia elbowed him in the chest and said, “At present, there’s sup­per ready in front of the TV for you.”

The Dash 80 was fin­ished, with its Pratt & Whit­ney JT3C tur­bo­jet engine. A civil­ian air­plane by Boe­ing. Patri­cia read the papers, includ­ing her husband’s papers in his brief­case when she couldn’t sleep at night. She read any­thing if it would put her to sleep even­tu­al­ly, and if it didn’t, she got some of that edu­ca­tion she threw away when she left col­lege and mar­ried Glen.

That the project was launch­ing final­ly could mean one of two things. Either Glen would start com­ing home ear­li­er or he wouldn’t. She hoped it was the lat­ter. The kid was enough. She couldn’t imag­ine hav­ing Glen around again as ear­ly as five or six. She would end up tak­ing her­self to the Hud­son and putting rocks in her pock­ets like the famous Eng­lish author did. She could see it hap­pen­ing. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Then again, maybe a cat­a­lyst for that was just what she needed.

III.

The first Tues­day of every month was ladies’ night. Patri­cia and her girl­friends from high school, Don­na and Mil­ly, met at a din­er on 42nd Street and talked, their insides spilling out of them in unmea­sured tones. It was the only night of the month Patri­cia looked for­ward to. Don­na usu­al­ly brought some of her husband’s whiskey in a flask, and they would pour it into their milk­shakes and get gig­gly. When­ev­er she was there with them, she remem­bered she was still two years shy of thir­ty. She wasn’t an old lady yet. Not quite.

Don­na and Mil­ly both lived in Man­hat­tan, not in the New Jer­sey sub­urbs like Patri­cia and Glen, and she was glad for the excuse to come to the city. It meant she got to dri­ve, and Patri­cia loved dri­ving, even more so since Glen had bought her the car. It was all her own, even if his mon­ey had brought it about. The kid had nev­er been in it, and Glen had only been inside that one time, dri­ving it home from the deal­er­ship with a grin ear to ear and his pants just about falling off him in antic­i­pa­tion. Patri­cia had agreed to touch him a lit­tle and let him touch her after that, but only for a few weeks before she got tired and dis­gust­ed by him again.

When she walked into the din­er, Mil­ly was already in a booth, smok­ing, flip­ping through an old mag­a­zine. She was preg­nant again, just start­ing to show now. She’d been flat as a bal­le­ri­na last time Patri­cia had seen her. “Hel­lo,” she said, slid­ing in across from her.

Hel­lo, Pat. How’s tricks?”

All right,” she said, though it was only all right now, now that she was there with Mil­ly, watch­ing Don­na walk through the door with her hips sway­ing wide­ly in their pen­cil skirt. An office gal, she was still sin­gle, and she claimed to like it that way just fine.

Sor­ry, girls, my boss’s ankle-biter was in today, and he’s a lit­tle demon. Tear­ing up the place, try­ing to look up my skirt.” Don­na pressed her­self into Patri­cia, and bumped her side­ways to make room in the booth. “You’re look­ing bonier than usu­al, Pat.”

It’s the kid. It’s stressful.”

Doc­tor not help­ing?” Mil­ly asked.

He’s help­ing all right, but not in the ways I wish he would.” The girls laughed and Patri­cia smiled at the wait­ress approach­ing them. She thought they must look just like all the oth­er reg­u­lar city girls, out on the town for a good time. If it weren’t for her ring or Milly’s tum­my, they could even be bach­e­lorettes sit­ting and laugh­ing there. But when she caught her reflec­tion in the dark win­dow beside her, dig­ging in her pock­et­book for her cig­a­rettes while Don­na ordered them the usual—one vanil­la, one choco­late, one straw­ber­ry, which they would share and pass between them—she real­ized that no one could mis­take her for a young woman any­more. The care­worn wrin­kles on her fore­head and the lines around her mouth were too deep by far.

Mil­ly caught the wait­ress by the arm before she left and asked for a slice of pie, what­ev­er was fresh­est. The wait­ress rolled her eyes and nod­ded. “Preg­nant women,” they heard her mut­ter as she walked away, and that got them start­ed again. Mil­ly did have a ten­den­cy to get handsy with every­one when she was hun­gry, and she was hun­gry espe­cial­ly when she was pregnant.

Look at that one,” Don­na said a while lat­er, the rum she’d brought swim­ming through her veins, mak­ing her bold. “Sit­ting at the bar. The one read­ing the paper.”

Mil­ly squint­ed. She nev­er wore her glass­es. Said she thought they made her look too smart. She didn’t need peo­ple know­ing she was until she was good and ready to make sure they knew it. “Too skin­ny,” she said, shak­ing her head. “Hon­est­ly, Don­na, I’ll nev­er under­stand your taste.”

I see it,” Patri­cia said. “The cheek­bones, right?”

And I do like them clean-shaven, not all scruffy. All that hair makes them look dirty,” Don­na said, swig­ging straight from the flask. “I’m going to go talk to him.” Patri­cia and Mil­ly protest­ed, but it was no use. When Don­na want­ed to be tak­en out for a drink, noth­ing would stop her. They watched her lean on the counter next to the man, pre­tend­ing to look at the desserts in the glass cas­es. Pre­tend­ing to look at the menu. Pre­tend­ing not to look at the man. But when he didn’t look back, she pulled out a cig­a­rette and asked for a light. He turned, said some­thing, and Don­na balked, her hand try­ing to clutch at her skirt fab­ric which was too tight to take hold of. She hur­ried back to the booth, found the match­es and lit one, but it sput­tered out before she could bring it to the tip of the cigarette.

Hey, hey, what’s wrong? What did he say?” Patri­cia took the match­es and lit anoth­er for Don­na, whose hands were shak­ing. Mil­ly reached out, her breasts lying on the table as her pro­tu­ber­ant eyes bugged, concerned.

He’s not a he,” Don­na spat, and took a long drag. “She’s a woman, can you believe it? And she asked me whether I was try­ing to pick her up! Said some­thing real­ly nasty about my…” She ges­tured to her amply filled blouse.

Inde­cent,” Mil­ly said, touch­ing her stom­ach and tak­ing Donna’s hand. “Don’t wor­ry about it, hon.”

Dis­gust­ing,” Patri­cia added, star­ing. The man—the woman—was watch­ing their booth now. She raised the glass of Coca-Cola she was drink­ing and salut­ed them with it, and tipped her hat, which she wore inside, at them. At her. At Patri­cia. The woman winked, and grinned, and she had big teeth that were only a lit­tle yel­low, and thin lips, and her cheek­bones were still high and beau­ti­ful, and if only she weren’t wear­ing the suit and the hat, she could be pret­ty, maybe.

Stop look­ing,” Don­na hissed. “You’ll only encour­age her.”

So what? She’s the freak,” Patri­cia said. How could a per­son do that? Wear a suit out in pub­lic, right in a busy din­er, with no shame. “You know what? I’m going to go give her a piece of my mind.”

It wasn’t until she was at the counter that she real­ized she’d tak­en her pock­et­book with her. As if she were leav­ing. And when the woman leaned towards her and said that her friend had been mean, called her a hussy and then left, Patri­cia nod­ded, say­ing, “She can be like that. Con­trary.” The woman looked at her for a long moment before ask­ing if she want­ed to go get a drink next door, and Patri­cia nod­ded. The rum, the dar­ing of it. The escape. Noth­ing could be more unpleas­ant than Glen or the kid, and if some­one want­ed to be nice to her this way, with a hand at the small of her back as they walked out of the din­er and a com­ment on how beau­ti­ful she looked, noth­ing vul­gar like what Don­na had implied, some­one who looked like a hand­some and well-dressed man—well. It was more than Patri­cia had bar­gained for and just enough that she knew what to do with it.

IV.

The papers and the radio kept telling every­one the same thing all through the first week of June. At ten in the morn­ing, peo­ple in New York City and over fifty oth­er cities around the coun­try were to be ready to go to shel­ter. It was a test to see if the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca was ready for the bomb. Any bomb, real­ly. Just in case the Ruskis end­ed up drop­ping one some­time soon. Patri­cia had thought there was more of a chance that the kid would start speak­ing than any of that hap­pen­ing, but she rea­soned that she was prob­a­bly all wrong and why not be prepared.

But on the morn­ing of the test, she was noth­ing like ready. She woke up in the bed she’d fall­en asleep in, where things she had nev­er thought could hap­pen hap­pened. The mus­cle aches were proof that it wasn’t an alco­hol fueled dream. The booze still ran through her, though, her head pound­ing. She could have stayed in bed, feel­ing sheets on her naked skin for the first time ever, rev­el­ing in the silky smooth touch for hours. But she had to pee, and she’d have to get up even­tu­al­ly, even if it meant fac­ing the night in person.

But her own mass was the only human thing in the bed. On the pil­low where the hair she’d played with after mid­night had splayed, there was a note, a tidy lit­tle dis­patch fold­ed into quar­ters with the word Dear­est writ­ten out in neat cur­sive. Patri­cia made her­self leave it be. She didn’t want to know what was in it, her body flush­ing already with the shame of it as the depths of what she’d done sank in, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of it all. As the stream of urine trick­led and then sprang forth between her legs, and her head dan­gled down­wards, she saw the way she yel­lowed the water in the toi­let and won­dered what else she was taint­ing. Only her­self, or Glen and the kid too? Or the note-leaver?

She cleaned her­self up and found her pock­et­book on the floor near the hotel room door. She clawed inside it, try­ing to find her pill­box, but of course it wasn’t there. She’d left the damned thing at home. She hadn’t bar­gained on being away this morn­ing. Glen must be wor­ried sick. He wouldn’t know what to do with the kid. And there was a sat­is­fac­tion in that, a cold heat bloom­ing in her chest from it. Patri­cia felt a thread of pas­sion jump from her groin to her bel­ly and up, and a strain­ing want surged over her. Not for Glen. Not for the kid. For the shame­ful night.

Gath­er­ing the bits and pieces of her cloth­ing and putting them on, she glanced at the fold­ed paper on the pil­low again and again, until, dressed, she approached it. The clothes felt like armor, guard­ing her against its con­tents. But her mind wasn’t so iron-clad, and as she read the words she sank to the bed, her head spin­ning and pang­ing with the hangover.

June 14, 1954

Thank you for trust­ing me when you knew you shouldn’t. I had to leave ear­ly to get to work, but I watched you sleep and you seemed so sad that I want­ed to wake you up and make you cry with hap­pi­ness again. But I let you sleep. I sense, from what you told me last night (yes, I remem­ber, despite your accu­sa­tions that I wouldn’t!), that you don’t sleep enough.

Please, let me hold you again. I’ll take you out and show you the grand­est time. Meet me dur­ing the safe­ty test today, and we’ll make a date. I’ll be out­side my office build­ing on the cor­ner Broad­way and 54th Street. Every­one else will be run­ning to shel­ter. We will be alone to talk for a few min­utes. Please?

Patri­cia traced the words, which had been writ­ten into the page with such force that they left dips on the front and dents on the oth­er side. She couldn’t fath­om how some­one with such soft hands, with such a but­ter­fly wing touch, could be so ruth­less with a pen. It only proved that the first line was true: she shouldn’t trust this person.

But the test. She’d for­got­ten all about it. Had no rea­son to remem­ber, since she was sup­posed to be home twelve hours before it start­ed and it wouldn’t affect the sleepy sub­urb. Stuff­ing the note in the pock­et of her skirt, she grabbed her pock­et­book from the floor and hur­ried out of the room. The hall was emp­ty, but she kept her head down and rushed to the stairs. The lob­by of the hotel was qui­et, too—it was late, she real­ized, glanc­ing at the big clock in the foy­er, past the break­fast hour and more. Peo­ple would be at work now, or at home, doing what peo­ple do. Prepar­ing to run to shel­ter. What women do. She couldn’t recall, in that moment, what she did at this hour every day.

Her car was parked two streets over. She remem­bered the walk from it last night, hushed with sup­pressed and drunk­en laugh­ter, and won­dered how her com­pan­ion had got­ten to work. The sub­way, she sup­posed, though she would nev­er have guessed that some­one like that would fre­quent the dirty tran­sit sys­tem. Stu­pid, she berat­ed her­self. Stu­pid. The kid was prob­a­bly yaw­ping and howl­ing and out of con­trol, and she only hoped that Glen had remem­bered to lock its door or there would be hav­oc wreaked all over the house. The room itself was like­ly filled with shit and piss and vom­it already. She would be on her knees clean­ing all day. For once, the thought struck her as good and true. Elbow grease had been the way her moth­er had made her atone for her sins every Sun­day. A prop­er punishment.

Cof­fee or food was out of the ques­tion. She had to get back to New Jer­sey as quick­ly as pos­si­ble or she’d be stuck in the city for the test. She might be any­way, and she had no idea where to go. She pulled the car out of the space and into the road, greet­ed by honk­ing behind her—she’d for­got­ten to check her mir­ror, but her head pound­ed too bad­ly to care much about the man ges­tic­u­lat­ing behind her—and began to drive.

Not toward New Jer­sey. She found her way to Broad­way and began climb­ing the city street by street.

When the alarms began to wail, she knew the pro­to­col. She was sup­posed to pull to the side and leave the road clear for emer­gency vehi­cles and find shel­ter. But the howl­ing bells were like the cries of the kid before she knew it wasn’t nor­mal. They were like her screams last night. Like the woman’s moans. Patri­cia braked hard, the car behind her honk­ing, and the one behind that, and the next one. She was in the mid­dle lane and traf­fic was get­ting tan­gled up around her. Peo­ple were run­ning out­side. She jumped out and fol­lowed the run­ners, check­ing the street cor­ner when she reached it. 50th. She peeled away from the crowd going to wher­ev­er it knew it was sup­posed to go and head­ed up, one block and anoth­er and anoth­er. Peo­ple were yelling behind, around, their noise as deaf­en­ing as the alarms. Could she real­ly leave her car there in the mid­dle of the road, her beloved car? Could she dis­ap­pear for­ev­er? She kept run­ning. The wail­ing didn’t stop. She could pic­ture the land around her explod­ing to pieces every time her heels hit the sidewalk.

At 54th, she saw her. She ran to her. She was under a fire escape, look­ing entire­ly dif­fer­ent than the night before. Blouse and skirt, a lit­tle like Donna’s. Lip­stick. Her hair swept up ele­gant­ly. Cheek­bones high, eyes sparkling with wor­ry until she saw Patri­cia and she smiled with relief, unex­pect­ed after the swag­ger she’d had last night. She was all con­fi­dence then. But this—this too was beau­ti­ful, Patri­cia thought. She won­dered if she was still drunk. “Come here,” the woman said.

If only the bombs came now, Patri­cia knew, every­thing would end perfectly.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When I first sent this sto­ry to a read­er, they told me it remind­ed them of Car­ol, the film based off of Patri­cia Highsmith’s nov­el The Price of Salt. I hadn’t read the book nor seen the movie at the time, though the movie was in the zeit­geist and so may have seeped into my consciousness—must have, real­ly, since the protagonist’s name is Patri­cia. I swear, I didn’t put that togeth­er until writ­ing this account.

The idea for this sto­ry actu­al­ly came from an odd fac­toid I dis­cov­ered while I was look­ing at one of those sites that list impor­tant events in his­to­ry that hap­pened on a par­tic­u­lar day. There, I read about this nuclear alarm test that hap­pened in some fifty cities around the U.S. in 1954. I found an arti­cle that described one woman in New York City who ran when the alarm sound­ed, leav­ing her car and a ter­ri­ble traf­fic jam behind her. I wondered—what is her sto­ry? I wrote this piece to find out.

The thing that scared me most about this sto­ry, and that I didn’t fore­see going into it, was the kid. I think the kid’s existence—and the kid’s lack of gen­der, lack of human­i­ty in the eyes of the protagonist—came part­ly from my need to por­tray mon­sters as human. The mon­ster is not the kid, of course. The mon­ster is Patri­cia. Good­ness, moral­i­ty, these things are so relative—they depend on con­text, on the infor­ma­tion shared, on the social con­sen­sus at the time. In the 1950s, there was an even deep­er stig­ma regard­ing dis­abil­i­ty than there is today. Helen Keller was still alive then, but she was the anom­aly, the mod­el of per­fect dis­abil­i­ty that func­tioned in a social­ly accept­able (and very Amer­i­can) way. Patri­cia wouldn’t have known about her, I imagine—or, if she knew, she would have been dis­ap­point­ed that her child was not sim­i­lar­ly “mirac­u­lous.”

I hate how Patri­cia treats the kid. I hate how she refus­es to see the kid as human, call­ing the kid “it” rather than what­ev­er gen­der the kid was like­ly assigned at birth. But I also think that for Patri­cia, the kid is some­how the sum of her life’s disappointments—she sees the kid as a sym­bol of every­thing she’s failed at, her own dis­ap­point­ment and self-hatred. She can’t under­stand the kid, and that the kid loves her hurts her even more because she’s not capa­ble of lov­ing the kid back. Is it fair? No. Is it right? No. Is Patri­cia a good per­son? Not real­ly, no. But she’s human, just like the kid is human, and capa­ble of love, of hap­pi­ness, of plea­sure. Mon­strous human­i­ty fas­ci­nates me, espe­cial­ly when it inter­sects with com­plex iden­ti­ties and trauma—I’m not talk­ing about how “love­ly” the Nazi next door is, à la New York Times features—what I mean is specif­i­cal­ly when peo­ple who have been oppressed, whose bod­ies have been tak­en from them, whose minds have been shut­tered by a sys­tem that doesn’t see them as impor­tant, react by pass­ing on that hurt.

 

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-Amer­i­can book crit­ic and fic­tion writer. She is the founder and host of The Oth­er Sto­ries, a pod­cast fea­tur­ing new, strug­gling, and estab­lished fic­tion writ­ers. Her work has appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, the L.A. Times, Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, Joy­land Mag­a­zine, and more. She is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Spell

Fiction / Vishwas R. Gaitonde

:: The Spell ::

Ricky chuck­led when the lawnmower’s drone smoth­ered his sister’s yells. She stood on the porch of their house shout­ing and thrash­ing her arms at him, but the mow­er eas­i­ly sti­fled her raised voice. Ricky rubbed his hands on his shorts and con­tin­ued to mow, his bare tor­so shin­ing in the late after­noon sun, flick­ing his head now and then to toss back the damp clumps of hair that fell over his eyes. A grim smile lin­gered on his face. Let Kay­la shout with all her might, as though being a cou­ple of years old­er gave her that right. Now if he only could ratch­et up the noise on the mower.…

He abrupt­ly turned off the machine and turned to stare hard at his sis­ter. Two mag­ic words had fil­tered through the racket.

What did you say?” He cupped his hand behind his right ear, brush­ing his hair aside. His eardrums still vibrat­ed with the ghost­ly remains of the mower’s sounds.

Har­ry Pot­ter!” She yelled the mag­ic words again. “Want the lat­est Har­ry Pot­ter nov­el, don’t cha? I have it.”

You do not.”

Ricky, rud­dy and sweaty after his brisk exer­tion on this sul­try day, red­dened one more shade. Kay­la had no regard, no respect what­so­ev­er, treat­ing a revered name as though it was some cheap moniker like the names of the may­or of the town or their senator.

She had got hold of the lat­est Har­ry Pot­ter nov­el? His sis­ter Kay­la, who could effort­less­ly out-mug­gle the stodgi­est of mug­gles? Gross! The injus­tice made his heart burn, smol­der, burn, smol­der with each alter­nate heart­beat. He was the sole Pot­ter devo­tee in the house, the zeal­ous Pot­ter­ma­ni­ac who want­ed every new nov­el the day it was released (or ear­li­er if any mag­ic spell could help). He read each one at least six times and then lost count of fur­ther read­ings. Even since the new nov­el had been released last week, he’d been half out of his mind and in dan­ger of los­ing it com­plete­ly unless the book was in his hands with­in the next few hours. His par­ents had promised him as much if he did his chores.

His par­ents were going into town that evening, and he hoped they would stop at a book­store. He mowed the backyard—a chore he had been putting off—before his par­ents start­ed out, mak­ing sure they saw him hard at work. But some of the grass had grown so high a cat could get lost in it. The mow­er got choked, so Ricky slunk into the kitchen to “bor­row” his mother’s scis­sors and snip off the blades of grass.

The extra work soon made him hot and clam­my, and he peeled off his shirt before start­ing on the front yard. Sum­mer had crawled toward its end, but the days were still not per­cep­ti­bly short­ened, nei­ther had the heat abat­ed. The dark clouds bar­rel­ing over the hori­zon her­ald­ed the approach of one of those swift sum­mer thun­der­show­ers, forked light­ning and all. Ricky raced up and down, anx­ious to shave the front yard before the clouds moved over­head and dis­gorged their water. How like Kay­la to choose this exact time to taunt him.

Liar!” Ricky yelled back. “Dad and Mom have gone to town to get the book.”

They have not.” Kay­la shook with amuse­ment. “They’ve gone to have a good time. Dri­ve on the water­front, a can­dle­light din­ner with­out you and me, most­ly with­out you. Dad asked me to hold on to the book. You’re not to get it till you do your chores.”

Well, I’ve fin­ished.” Ricky glanced at the small patch of lawn left. “I will be, in ten sec­onds, anyway.”

Well, we’ll talk when you’ve real­ly fin­ished.” Kay­la swung around and dis­ap­peared into the house, ignor­ing Ricky’s “That sucks.” Ricky tore his way through the rest of the lawn. He dashed into the house, fever­ish. Kay­la lay curled on the couch in the liv­ing room, her face chis­eled with anticipation.

Where’s the book? Gimme the book!”

She uncrossed her legs and lazi­ly hauled her­self up.

In a hur­ry, are we?” She wore a crooked smile. “Not so fast. Let’s check how you’ve done.”

She inspect­ed the back­yard with the sour face of a crit­ic and then scanned the front yard.

Hmmm.… Not a bad job. But that patch looks tacky.” She point­ed to the area Ricky had rushed through. “Trim that spot a lit­tle more.”

Yeah, right. You’re not Dad or Mom, Kayla.”

No, I’m not. You can wait for them to return, and if they think it’s okay, I’m sure Dad will give you the book.”

She walked back into the house, smil­ing at her brother’s sullen shout: “All right, all right, I’ll do it.”

He slouched in slow­ly after a few min­utes, more sub­dued, but before he got a word in, Kay­la said, “Go to your room, Ricky. You’re in for a treat. This is the day you’ll nev­er for­get. Ever. Your life’s gonna change.”

She ignored Ricky’s look and point­ed him to the stairs, and then gave him a lit­tle shove to pro­pel him onwards and upwards. She fol­lowed him up to his room.

Lie down on the bed.”

He turned and gave her a furi­ous look. “What—”

On the bed, Ricky. On your back. Do as you’re told. I’ll let you on to some­thing, but you’re not to tell a soul. I’m a wiz­ard. Shocked, huh? Sur­prised? Those who think they know it all are the ones who know so lit­tle. I have to cast a spell on you before I give you the book.”

You’re wacko. You—”

She gave him anoth­er shove, and he fell onto his bed, gri­mac­ing. “Now what?” he was about to ask, but she bound­ed out of the room. A few min­utes passed, long min­utes, when he felt as limp and help­less as a beached whale. He would not play along any­more, book. The book was like­ly on the desk in his father’s study. He would go right in and take it.

As he was about to rise from his bed, the door flew open and banged against the wall. Kay­la was back, flushed and breath­less. And brim­ming with an eerie inner fury, too, thought Ricky, the way she slammed the door shut. The shut­ters of the win­dow were drawn and the slats at an angle so the sun­light that streamed into the room made odd yel­low pat­terns on the floor but was oth­er­wise dif­fuse. Kay­la had cloaked her­self with a large black sheet and wore a loose black hood. She held a brown card­board box, a box that was noisy, alive, and agi­tat­ed from within.

See and believe,” cried Kay­la, her voice high-pitched, screechy. “You are about to be trans­formed for­ev­er, for­ev­er, for­ev­er. The jour­ney begins!”

She over­turned the box above his body and some­thing strong and hard and wrig­gly plopped atop him. He raised him­self on his elbows. A large grey rat nes­tled on his crotch. Ricky sucked in his breath, lying per­fect­ly still, feel­ing his flesh cur­dle into goose bumps, even feel­ing a wave pass­ing over his body stiff­en­ing each indi­vid­ual fil­a­ment of hair.

He eyed the rat. The rat eyed him. They saw the shock in each oth­ers’ eyes. Nei­ther of them moved a mus­cle. The smell of rain seeped into the room, and from the way the light bright­ened and dimmed, Ricky knew the clouds were strug­gling to blot out the set­ting sun while it fought back. In the patchy half-light, the fur of the rat was half grey, half gold.

Then Kay­la, stand­ing at the foot of the cot, sway­ing in her black robe, start­ed an incan­ta­tion in a singsong voice, fluc­tu­at­ing between harsh and musi­cal, between for­tis­si­mo and sot­to voce:

Rat­tus rat­tus, res nullius,
Unus mul­to­rum, ultra vires
Abso­lu­tum dominium.

Ricky was aghast. Where had his sis­ter learnt these ancient spells? His heart bound­ed and his spir­its sank. She may not have been kid­ding when she taunt­ed him. How had he over­looked the signs point­ing to her true nature? She grew her fin­ger­nails until they were as long as a witch’s. She used weird words. She nev­er caught a cold. She was always mean. A sin­gle look at her face, and babies burst into tears. There must have been oth­er red flags he’d over­looked. His sis­ter, so plain and so com­mon­place, and now.… But then, didn’t Har­ry Pot­ter grow up in an ordi­nary way among ordi­nary peo­ple? For a good many years, nobody (includ­ing all the peo­ple in his neigh­bor­hood) had sus­pect­ed Har­ry of being any­thing but a poor lit­tle orphan brought up by his uncle and aunt.

His sis­ter was no Har­ry Pot­ter. She clear­ly belonged to the Dark Arts. The shad­ows in her eyes infil­trat­ed the room even as her mal­ice mar­i­nat­ed every syl­la­ble that she flamed out, slow­ly, pas­sion­ate­ly, deliberately:

Servus ser­vo­rum Diabolus
Vaticini­um ex eventu
Venisti remanebis donec den­uo com­ple­tus sis!

What was she say­ing? What­ev­er the words meant, the rat respond­ed by mov­ing for­ward onto his bel­ly and crouch­ing there, its claws dig­ging into his skin. He felt the coarse trail of its tail leav­ing the mark of Satan on his body. He thought of rolling over in one swift motion and dis­lodg­ing the rodent, but what if the motion made the rat dig in deep­er? Weren’t rat claws poi­so­nous? He tried not to move. The effort left him trembling.

Scab­bers! Ricky sud­den­ly remem­bered Ron Weasley’s pet rat, who was real­ly the evil wiz­ard Peter Pet­ti­grew dis­guised as a rodent. Pet­ti­grew, who had betrayed Har­ry Pot­ter and his par­ents to the evil Lord Volde­mort! Was some evil accom­plice of Kayla’s hid­ing in the form of this rat? It cer­tain­ly seemed so, for the rat had fluffed up its fur and appeared to dou­ble in size, each thread of gold and grey prick­ling like the quills of a por­cu­pine. Or had it actu­al­ly grown? Were his eyes play­ing tricks? New sweat broke out on Ricky’s brow, and he was sure Kay­la glimpsed his naked fear, just as he saw the mock­ing glit­ter in hers, a glit­ter now per­fect­ly mir­rored in the gold­en eyes of the rat.

Tu fui ego eris!
Vic­to­ria aut mors!
Acta est fab­u­la plaudite!

Kayla’s into­na­tions rose like ban­shee wails, shrieks that rent them­selves from with­in, and they nudged the rat for­ward, inch by inch. The beast stepped over Ricky’s bel­ly but­ton and its snout reached out for his chest. Ricky went limp as he spied the rat’s wet lips drawn back, its two front teeth gleam­ing like minia­ture machetes, its eyes bor­ing into his, its whiskers omi­nous­ly stiff. He low­ered his gaze immediately.

Kay­la hoist­ed her­self up on her toes as her voice notched up the deci­bels, mount­ing high­er than Ricky thought the human voice ever could:

Rat­tus rat­tus! Rat­tus rat­tus! Rat­tus rattus!

Then she crashed back to earth on her heels, out of breath and elat­ed, eager to appraise what she had wrought. But Ricky no longer saw her clear­ly, and the rat’s face also swam before him, dis­tort­ed, dis­pro­por­tion­ate and dan­ger­ous. The sweat from his brow had streamed into his eyes, and he dared not raise a hand to wipe it. He blinked rapid­ly, but this only brought more trick­les of sweat. He screwed his eyes shut.

Tap-a-tap-a-tap­pit­ty-tap. The steady pat­ter of rain inten­si­fied and the wind rat­tled the shut­ters, but far from pro­duc­ing a cool­ing effect, the air became more humid, oppres­sive. Ricky felt some­thing like a slen­der tape, abra­sive as sand­pa­per, repeat­ed­ly scrap­ing his chest. His chest mus­cles stiff­ened like card­board, his nip­ples turned rigid. The spell was work­ing. The rat had inject­ed some­thing into him, some­thing nox­ious, some­thing creepy. He cau­tious­ly opened an eye, hop­ing he could see through the film of sweat, and then real­ized what was happening.

The rat was thirsty. It was lap­ping up the sweat pooled in the slight hol­low in the cen­ter of his chest. As he relaxed a lit­tle, the rat gave a bound and land­ed on his face, its soft bel­ly squash­ing his nose, smoth­er­ing him. At the same time the rat’s slim, pre­hen­sile tail stroked his lips, its sharp tip pok­ing around, try­ing to get into his mouth.

Loud gur­gles and chokes broke out—Kayla’s laugh­ter. For the first time, rage over­came Ricky’s fear. Under­cur­rents of dread still lurked, fear that the rat would gouge his eyes with its two front teeth. Then he remem­bered his hero, Har­ry Pot­ter, who was always brave; he seized the rat and yanked it off his face. The rat slipped from his grasp and leaped over his head. He heard it thwack on the floor and scur­ry away.

In a flash Ricky was on his feet, but his knees were wob­bly and it took him a few sec­onds to steady him­self, enough for Kay­la to drop her cloak, zip out of the room and down the stairs. Ricky caught up with her as she flat­tened her­self on the door of their father’s study. He was pant­i­ng, and he yelled out at his sis­ter: “Gimme that book! Where’ve you hid­den it?”

Kay­la gave him a sweet smile. “Oh, the book? So sor­ry, no book for you. Dad’s not gonna go to the book­store either, so don’t hold your breath. He ordered your book online and it’ll come in the mail, so keep an eye open for the post­man every day.”

Ricky gulped. He didn’t know what to say. But his sis­ter did not grope for words.

Go take a show­er, Ricky.” She wrin­kled her nose, and her nos­trils curled up as she looked him up and down with scorn. “Take a show­er. You stink.”

Ricky low­ered his head, but instead of slink­ing away he charged and head-butted his sister in the midriff. Kay­la gasped in aston­ish­ment and pain and stag­gered aside, and Ricky sailed through the door into the study. As he had sus­pect­ed, there was a fat book on his father’s desk. The room was dark but he didn’t need light to know that it was the book. He reached out, then paused. His palms were sweaty. He wiped them on his shorts and then picked up the book with reverence.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry looks at two types of pow­er described by the Con­flict Research Con­sor­tium at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado: “Pow­er Over” and “Pow­er To.”

Pow­er Over” is the abil­i­ty to dom­i­nate anoth­er per­son or group: “I can make him (or her or them) do what I want him to do.” “Pow­er Over” usu­al­ly involves force and threat. If the sub­or­di­nate fails to do what he or she is asked, force of some kind can be exert­ed to make the per­son com­ply. “Pow­er To” is the abil­i­ty to do some­thing on one’s own, using intel­lect, sta­mi­na, and oth­er resources. These resources give some peo­ple the boost to accom­plish things.

While con­sid­er­ing “Pow­er Over,” one must take into account the sub­mis­sion of those who are sub­ject­ed to the pow­er. A rich tycoon is pow­er­ful because his wealth gives him pow­er; he can use it to seri­ous­ly hurt or dam­age those who do not do what he wants them to do. But his only son despis­es him. The son doesn’t mind liv­ing like a hip­pie or a her­mit and doesn’t care about his inher­i­tance. The father’s cof­fers are pow­er­less to help him in this case because not only is his son not sub­mis­sive but the son is also exert­ing his “Pow­er To” live his life as he pleas­es and not accord­ing to his father’s dictates.

Kay­la uses Ricky’s over­whelm­ing love for Har­ry Pot­ter and his fanat­i­cal desire for the new nov­el to exert “Pow­er Over” him. So sub­sumed is he with­in J. K. Rowling’s world that he is even ready to believe his sis­ter might have secret­ly been a wiz­ard all along, and one that prac­ticed the Dark Arts at that. It is only when he is goad­ed beyond endurance that Ricky exerts his “Pow­er To” and breaks free of his sister’s control.

 

Vish­was R. Gaitonde’s writ­ings have appeared in pub­li­ca­tions such as Mid-Amer­i­can Review, Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review, San­ta Mon­i­ca Review, The Iowa Review, and The Mil­lions. One of his short sto­ries was cit­ed as a “Dis­tin­guished Sto­ry” in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2016. His awards include res­i­den­cy fel­low­ships in fic­tion at The Ander­son Cen­ter, MN, and Hawthorn­den, Scot­land, schol­ar­ships to the Sewa­nee and Tin House writ­ers’ con­fer­ences, and a fel­low­ship to the Sum­mer Lit­er­ary Sem­i­nar (Mon­tre­al, Canada).

The Man and the Old Woman

Fiction / Ntombi K

:: The Man and the Old Woman ::

Once upon a time, an old woman stopped a man. The old woman asked the man to remove a green sticky thing from her eye. The man snubbed her, and from that day onwards, every time the man went to the bush to relieve him­self, his fae­ces fol­lowed him relent­less­ly. That was the end of the sto­ry of an old woman and a man, but the begin­ning of tale of that man, as Tshomo and his shit:

*

Tshomo and His Faeces

There once lived Tshomo, his wife, and his moth­er. Tshomo was a glut­ton. His wife served and served him, and when he was full, he went to the toi­let and released the looooooooonnnngest shit. When he made to flush the toi­let, it didn’t go away. Then, he left and went to a Stokv­el. His shit fol­lowed him and said:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo 

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo 

(Tshomo oh Tshomo
Why do you leave me, Tshomo?
When you go to a drink­ing hole, Tshomo
I’ll fol­low you, Tshomo)

Tshomo stopped and squashed and squashed it. When he was done, he con­tin­ued to walk to the Stokv­el. His shit, spread­ing out, trailed behind him.

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo 

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Ha o ya lebeng, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo ran, ran, ran, and then fell. When he was flat on the ground, his shit laughed aloud. Then he wait­ed for it, tucked it inside his pock­et, and car­ried it down to the Stokv­el. When he got there, he bought him­self beer and drank it. His shit peered and said, “Tshomo, Tshomo, feed me. If you don’t, I’ll embar­rass you in front of every­one.” Tshomo fed it. Then he bought him­self Coke and drank it. His shit peered out again, “Tshomo, Tshomo, feed me. If you don’t, I’ll embar­rass you in front of people.”

Tshomo fed it, and when he had fed it, the mem­bers of the Stokv­el said, “Mmm­mmh, we smell shit here.” Tshomo took his shit from his pock­et and hid it under a bowl. Tshomo’s shit pushed at the bowl and ran away. The Stokv­el mem­bers chased Tshomo out of the Stokvel.

Then, on their way home, Tshomo and his shit met an old man who held a bag con­tain­ing a lot of mon­ey. Tshomo instruct­ed his shit to jump inside the old man’s bag and steal some mon­ey. His shit did as instruct­ed and that was the end of this sto­ry, but the begin­ning of anoth­er Tshomo tale:

*

Tshomo and His Shit 

There once lived, and sure­ly still does, a hog­gish man called Tshomo. One day, after hav­ing din­ner with friends, he excused him­self and went to the restroom. He sat on the toi­let seat for a very long time, such that the per­son who had been queu­ing after him went to a restroom in anoth­er build­ing and came back to find him still there, moan­ing out a thick, long, long shit.

He wiped his cleft, flushed, and the shit would not go away. He wait­ed for the water to fill up the cistern—to flush again—and it still would not go away. Then he decid­ed to leave it lay­ing there like that, but when he reached for the door han­dle, it sang:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo 

(Tshomo oh Tshomo
Why do you leave me, Tshomo?
Wher­ev­er you go, Tshomo
I’ll fol­low you, Tshomo)

Tshomo kicked and squashed it, and then pro­ceed­ed to walk—a lot faster this time. But it tripped him, and when he fell, land­ing on his back, it sang again:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Tshomo plead­ed with it, promis­ing to wear it proud­ly the next time. And, nose turned, it con­tin­ued to sing until he decid­ed to tuck it in his side pock­et. He washed his hands and applied huge gobs of cologne before going back in.

A few min­utes lat­er, a beau­ti­ful young woman walked across to where Tshomo and his friends were seat­ed. Tshomo made to approach her, but when he stood up, his shit made a slight move­ment. Hold­ing on to his side pock­et, he went to the restroom again. “I thought we agreed that you will stay inside my pock­et until we get home,” said Tshomo. His shit asked how it would have felt if it had been Tshomo in the side pock­et. “Ok, fine. I won’t be long,” said Tshomo, spread­ing a few drops of cologne to silence his shit.

He fid­dled with his wrist­watch before telling his friends that he need­ed to go some­where urgent­ly. His friends begged him to stay for one more beer, but when he had fin­ished it, and had for­got­ten about what lay hid­den inside his pock­et, he asked for a refill. His shit start­ed to jump up and down, down and up, inside his pock­et and Tshomo’s friend asked, “What’s that smell?”

I thought I was the only one pick­ing it up,” said anoth­er, and Tshomo, direct­ing their atten­tion to some­thing else, spoke about the beau­ti­ful young girl who had walked past them. Even as they asked the wait­er to shift them to anoth­er table, the smell lin­gered. It hung about as they looked at each oth­er and under their shoes, resolv­ing that it couldn’t have been from one of them.

They left the place at last. Most pro­ceed­ed to anoth­er drink­ing place while Tshomo went far away, to where he was going to desert his long, long shit for good. He man­aged to, but only for a short while. For when he went home, he found it coiled out­side the door, singing:

Tshomo we Tshomo
Ong se elang, Tshomo?
Mo o yang, Tshomo
Keya le wena Tshomo

Things had changed. Tshomo’s shit was no longer trail­ing behind, but lead­ing him. What else could he do to get rid of it? The dis­grun­tled Tshomo held his head, out of options. Then, the fol­low­ing day, the same girl who had passed their table—on the night of the din­ner with his friends—walked past him and could not smell his shit, but instead a balm of roses.

At first, the girl refused his lift and to give him her number.

Weeks lat­er, when they saw each oth­er again, she turned him down all the same, but at least this time took his number.

Three weeks lat­er, they had already gone out on many dates.

A month lat­er: inseparable!

Tshomo’s shit was silent then. For, months lat­er, the girl’s rosy balm clung to Tshomo’s col­lar and Tshomo’s shit to the girl’s diadem.

A year lat­er, the girl washed up sev­er­al times, with scent­ed baths oils and salts, to enshroud that noi­some­ness, which waft­ed grim­ly the moment she got to it.

A year and some months lat­er, the man start­ed going out late at night with oth­er rosy-balmed girls, leav­ing the girl behind.

A year and some more months lat­er, the girl stopped going home. Stopped see­ing anyone.

Two years lat­er, Tshomo told the girl how no man in the entire uni­verse could put up with a stinky for a girlfriend.

Two years and some months lat­er, the girl left Tshomo and went back home.

Two years and some more months lat­er, Tshomo moved in with anoth­er girl, with a dou­bly rosy smell.

Three years lat­er, when the girl had heard that Tshomo was with anoth­er girl, it broke her to know that she had lost the essence of her scent to a man who had a lot to take and noth­ing to give in return.

Three years lat­er, Tshomo was still liv­ing with the dou­bly rosy girl but on the side, see­ing a triply rosy-smelling girl.

Three years and some months lat­er, the first rosy-smelling girl to take Tshomo’s shit met an old woman, a fairy, who upon see­ing her in a busy mar­ket said, “That shit wear­ing you down will soon return to its own­er! Learn bet­ter, next time, what you are after, and what or who is after what from you, and also for what rea­sons.” Press­ing a small bot­tle into the palm of her hand, the fairy dis­ap­peared among the wind­ing mar­ket avenues. Doing as instruct­ed by the bot­tle, what Tshomo had left her with soon became noth­ing but a frowsy mem­o­ry. Even as it infil­trat­ed her mind, it could no longer be hers.

That night it rained, and when the bolt of light­ning struck, it hit Tshomo’s stom­ach and he rose, in the mid­dle of the night, and ran to the toi­let, to let out his longest shit yet, and it sang Tshomo we Tshomo, Tshomo we Tshomo until it stopped rain­ing. But even as the rain stopped, when­ev­er Tshomo would leave it behind, it con­tin­ued to sing.

Three years and some months lat­er, the balm of the dou­bly rosy girl would become sin­gle and that of the triply rosy girl, double.

Three years and some more months lat­er, when Tshomo could be seen spend­ing more time with the dou­bly rosy girl and less time with the singly rosy girl, the singly rosy girl would meet anoth­er Tshomo and leave him.

Four years lat­er, the dou­bly rosy girl was only left with half of what was once a resilient balm.

Four years and some months lat­er, when she awoke in the mid­dle of the night, she fol­lowed the trail of shit, in every draw­er, under every shoe, behind doors, in the wardrobe, inside a side pock­et of a hanged coat, to where Tshomo had hid­den his shit. When the girl con­front­ed him about it, he denied it.

Four years and some more months lat­er, she con­front­ed Tshomo about it and he denied it.

Five years lat­er, she left because noth­ing changed.

Five years and some months lat­er, Tshomo was back to his same old shit, still unwill­ing to deal with it him­self, still look­ing for some­one to pass it on to or a place to ditch it, forever.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Lud­mil­la Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (2009) and the fairy tale col­lec­tion, My Moth­er She Killed me, My Father He Ate Me (2010), which fea­tures Lily Hoang and Car­ol Oats, tru­ly left an impres­sion on me. In Petrushevskaya’s col­lec­tion, I par­tic­u­lar­ly liked her requiems, fairy tales, and a lit­tle bit of her alle­go­ry trea­sure trove, although it is only her fairy tale col­lec­tion I drew a lot from. In the same way, I delight­ed great­ly in Hoang’s “The Sto­ry of the Mos­qui­to” and Oats’s “Blue-Beard­ed Lover.” Expo­sure to lit­er­a­tures by the these female writ­ers and the priv­i­lege of hav­ing being taught prose writ­ing by Prof. Lily Hoang inspired me to revis­it the fairy tales I grew up hear­ing. In the process of remem­ber­ing these fairy tales and con­tact­ing my cousins (young and old) and friends to remind me about the parts I had for­got­ten, I found myself fill­ing in a lot of miss­ing gaps in the parts they too had forgotten.

The gap-fill­ing process became also a process of reimagining/reinventing new fairy tales. From mem­o­ry, I used the Tshomo fairy tale as a tem­plate to cre­ate a new fairy tale that speaks to a con­tem­po­rary set­ting. I also used this fairy tale as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to query its sup­posed “orig­i­nal struc­ture” and its sub­ject mat­ter with the hope of cre­at­ing or recre­at­ing a past, present, and future Tshomo.

This is how the sto­ry of “The Man and the Old Woman” was gen­er­at­ed. The ver­sion of the Tshomo fairy tale I grew up hear­ing emerged dur­ing a time when many homes in the old town­ship of Evaton/Small Farms (where most of my child­hood years were spent) had no flush­ing toi­lets. Peo­ple either went to the bush or used pit latrines to help them­selves. In many ways, this influ­enced the man­ner in which this fairy tale was specif­i­cal­ly told. It reflect­ed the liv­ing con­di­tions, cul­ture, and lan­guage of the Evaton/Small Farms com­mu­ni­ty at that time. I took these fac­tors into account dur­ing the process of remem­ber­ing and rein­vent­ing the fairy tale. I exper­i­ment­ed with the lan­guage shifts from the old ver­sion which was plain­ly, “The Man and the Old Woman” to “Tshomo & His Fae­ces” and “Tshomo & His Shit” in order to sug­gest the pass­ing of time. I have also delight­ed in dis­cov­er­ing who Tshomo is in the present day.

Note, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, that the Tshomo tale was (and still is) most­ly nar­rat­ed by girl children.

 

Ntombi K is a 2017 Andrew Mel­lon Fel­low. She holds an MA in Cre­ative Writ­ing (Rhodes Uni­ver­si­ty) where she authored her first short sto­ry col­lec­tion titled, I Won’t be Long. She also makes The­atre and TV/Film in the Vaal area of Eva­ton (South Africa).