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).

A Brief History of Tears

Fiction / Dawn Tefft

:: A Brief History of Tears ::

In 1964, I began crying.

I can give you the set­ting of the day it hap­pened, but I can’t tell you why. It was the day of my quinceañera. I remem­ber I was wear­ing a pale pink dress made of satin, slow­ly unfold­ing my nap­kin, feel­ing aware that I was sit­ting at a fold­ing table in front of all the guests. And then, as I wrote lat­er in my jour­nal, “Long, deep heaves. Every breath burn­ing the nose and the throat. Rever­ber­a­tions in the abdomen.” I tried to hide it with my half-unfold­ed napkin.

Local­ized Crying
(from an inter­view with Peter Scatori)

I didn’t know what was going on at first; I would just start cry­ing as soon as I sat down at the com­put­er. If I even looked at the mon­i­tor, it would go zig-zag on me. My boss and all my co-work­ers made me see a ther­a­pist until the company’s insur­ance wouldn’t cov­er it any­more. I start­ed hav­ing to do all my work on paper, fig­ur­ing out sums by hand. Luck­i­ly, I’m good with num­bers, so I could do the small­ish num­bers in my head. Even­tu­al­ly, the white­ness of paper would blind me when I looked at it, and I’d have to turn away. So I start­ed writ­ing on brown paper nap­kins, the kind with the fibers you can actu­al­ly see. I used those until they made my eyes red and weepy. My eyes felt like sores in my face. Final­ly, I went to the doc­tor, and he test­ed me for all kinds of aller­gies. I wasn’t aller­gic to any­thing, not even goats. I got real­ly scared at that point because I thought if I couldn’t use paper, I’d have to rely on my head for every­thing. So I decid­ed to go to a psy­chi­a­trist. It was then I was diag­nosed with Local­ized Cry­ing, the kind brought on by stress. It real­ly helped me a lot to know I wasn’t crazy, that there were actu­al­ly oth­er peo­ple out there expe­ri­enc­ing the same trig­gers and symp­toms as me. Since then, I’ve lost my job, but at least I know it’s not like it’s because I’m a bad person.

Even­tu­al­ly the nap­kin dis­in­te­grat­ed, leav­ing only my hands. Maybe paper desires to absorb some­thing. Maybe it needs to make a map of a sto­ry, the kind with­out words. Like when I was sev­en and my par­ents gave away our Col­lie. Because they didn’t even seem upset, I cried over a piece a paper and cir­cled where each tear landed.

The Jesuits were fond of tears. Every three years, they chose one per­son who was espe­cial­ly bur­dened and under­took to cry for him for one full year. In 1663, in the vil­lage of Mon­parte, an anony­mous monk left a note for Pelier Pele, say­ing that he would be cry­ing for Pele dur­ing the com­ing year in order to help alle­vi­ate the recent widower’s suf­fer­ing. Pele was a farmer, and after his wife’s death by con­sump­tion, word got around that he was hav­ing trou­ble tak­ing care of his sev­en chil­dren. Court doc­u­ments show that Pele remar­ried by the end of 1663. Accord­ing to vil­lage leg­end, the new mar­riage was facil­i­tat­ed by the slow dis­ap­pear­ance of a very large mole on the end of Pele’s nose. Vil­lagers believed it to have been the result of the monk’s aston­ish­ing pow­ers of con­cen­trat­ed sym­pa­thy. Mon­parte still holds its annu­al Fes­ti­val of Tears, dur­ing which peo­ple are blind­fold­ed by offi­cials, paired up, and sent into dark rooms made of peat. The pairs sit cross-legged on the ground, inhal­ing deeply. With each inhala­tion, the pair take in each other’s scent along with the moist, earthy scent of the walls sur­round­ing them, and by night­fall they begin cry­ing. The tears fall into bowls placed in the lap. Lat­er, the tears are bot­tled and aged. When one of the pair feels life is going espe­cial­ly well, he brews a tea from the tears which allows him to feel the sor­rows of the other.

My moth­er came over to my chair and put both her hands on my face, just hold­ing it and talk­ing to me in this real­ly low voice. I don’t remem­ber any­thing she said, except for even­tu­al­ly she called my best friend over to sit with me because she thought Susana might get what was hap­pen­ing. That maybe it was a teenage thing.

I couldn’t stop. Susana didn’t know what to do with me.

Accord­ing to Cry­ing: The Nat­ur­al & Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of Tears, “tears usu­al­ly sig­nal a desire, a wish, or a plea.” Clin­i­cal­ly depressed peo­ple have “lost the impe­tus to cry, because with­out desire, there are no tears”; infants who are neglect­ed long enough nev­er cry again: “It is the infant who believes it will be picked up that wails, ener­gized by its fear that it will be left alone.” Though many read­ers might find Samuel Beckett’s writ­ing bereft of hope, in psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic terms, his writ­ing is point­ing at the loss of the abil­i­ty for tears. It is, like a depres­sive work­ing with a ther­a­pist, seek­ing to explore the sources and effects of the tear­less con­di­tion. And all explo­rations are under­tak­en with hope. If, as Beck­ett once stat­ed, “Every word is like an unnec­es­sary stain on silence and noth­ing­ness,” per­haps, then, Beckett’s words are his tears. Though in “Endgame” some of his char­ac­ters live in trash cans, it is not as if to say, “Yes, let us all, now and for­ev­er, live in trash cans.”

I remem­ber sit­ting there try­ing to fig­ure out what was hap­pen­ing to me. Run­ning through the day’s events, hop­ing to find what­ev­er it was that was both­er­ing me. I remem­bered going to the bath­room and tak­ing a bath after my moth­er woke me up. Care­ful­ly doing my make­up and hair for two whole hours. Spray­ing myself with some rose water, putting on the gold cross neck­lace and lit­tle gold post ear­rings, pulling on panty­hose. Catch­ing my panty­hose on a fin­ger­nail, hav­ing to take them off, putting on anoth­er pair. Slow­ly. My moth­er zip­ping up my shiny, full-skirt­ed dress. Look­ing at myself in the mir­ror from dif­fer­ent angles, and then stand­ing and star­ing, try­ing to decide what I looked like: good, bad, okay, sexy, inno­cent, inno­cent­ly sexy, young, old. Eat­ing oat­meal for break­fast. Rid­ing with my par­ents in the sedan to church. Lis­ten­ing to them talk about Father Her­nan­dez, the price of fruit, whether or not Tía There­sa would move out of the neigh­bor­hood. Arriv­ing at the church and walk­ing in. Lis­ten­ing to the Father. Sit­ting at the met­al fold­ing table for every­one to see. Crying.

Nox­ious          
a short sto­ry by Felipe Fitzcarraldo

In the town of Caran­cas, high in Peru’s Andes, May­or Nestor Quispe is per­plexed by a mete­or. The mete­or fell in the night. The next morn­ing a farmer came into town, report­ing a huge, stink­ing rock in one of his out­ly­ing fields. He asked the may­or to put togeth­er a par­ty of men to remove the rock, which he claimed poi­soned all of his ani­mals. When the may­or arrived, he saw so many dead sheep on the ground, it looked like the clouds had come down to rest. He knew the sheep were dead because he kicked a few. 

The farmer was right. The fields stank. They smelled like rot­ten eggs, tons of them. The may­or decid­ed it would be best to dyna­mite the thing. He made plans with the farmer to come back with the explo­sives the next morn­ing. That was before the outbreak. 

Slow­ly, over the course of the day, all the towns­peo­ple had fall­en ill with cry­ing. When the may­or returned home, his wife, Maria, was sit­ting on the porch, knit­ting and cry­ing. When he asked her why she was cry­ing, she just shook her head. She didn’t even look up, just kept work­ing the nee­dles, loop­ing and loop­ing. He nev­er under­stood how those loops held. 

He shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get some water. He opened the cup­board and reached for a glass. When his hand returned emp­ty, he won­dered what had hap­pened. He tried to look for the glass, but every­thing was blur­ry. Then the first tear fell, thick like mucus. When the next one fell a cou­ple min­utes lat­er, he rubbed one hand into an eye, but it didn’t help; his eyes were already cloud­ing up again. He kept rub­bing and try­ing to clear a path for his vision, but it was like look­ing through a wind­shield in a heavy rain. He could only see clear­ly for a few sec­onds, and only every cou­ple of min­utes at that.

When Maria walked inside, she asked why he was just stand­ing in front of the cupboard. 

I can’t see. I keep cry­ing these thick tears.”

Well, sit down, then,” Maria said, pulling a chair over to him.

I’d rather sit by the phone.”

So Maria walked him into the next room and set­tled him in the chair next to the phone table. When she walked out, he was rub­bing fists in his eyes and star­ing at the dial.

The may­or called the town’s doc­tor, Jorge. 

I can’t stop cry­ing, Jorge. What’s wrong with me?”

Jorge told him peo­ple had been com­ing into his home all day, com­plain­ing of eye afflic­tions. One old woman who came in with her whole fam­i­ly thought they all had dev­ils in their eyes. Jorge recount­ed the old woman’s mem­o­ry of a sim­i­lar inci­dent when she was a child. She said that a man with mon­ey had come to the town and offered to pay for a bride. None of the fam­i­lies would give their daugh­ters to him, no mat­ter how much he offered. Before the man left, he stopped in the street in front of one par­tic­u­lar­ly pret­ty girl and stared at her until she start­ed cry­ing. The girl cried for a week straight. At the end of the week she died, her skin like a corn husk, drained of all her girl­ish fluids. 

Jorge told the may­or about oth­er peo­ple, too. Peo­ple who came in say­ing they were being vis­it­ed by saints, labor­ers who thought they’d got­ten par­ti­cles of wood, dirt, or rock caught in their eyes, and lots and lots of chil­dren. The chil­dren cried hard­er than the adults. Jorge thought it was because they were so worked up about their inces­sant cry­ing, they were cry­ing in addi­tion to crying.

When the may­or hung up the receiv­er, he couldn’t think. He sat and cried with­out hav­ing any thoughts at all. After a while, his thoughts returned, bear­ing his moth­er. He remem­bered when he was twelve, his moth­er giv­ing him a pack­age wrapped in brown paper. He remem­bered unty­ing the string, care­ful­ly, let­ting the rough strands of it scrape against his fin­gers. Run­ning his hands over the scratchy sur­face of the paper. Final­ly, unfold­ing the paper like lit­tle girls prac­tic­ing at unwrap­ping babies.

Some peo­ple have told me it’s because I’m a woman, or that I’m just weak. But that’s not it. It makes me strong in ways most peo­ple aren’t. For exam­ple, I can stay all day at a funer­al, whether I know the per­son or not. As a pro­fes­sion­al mourn­er, I earn a lot of mon­ey to share people’s sad­ness while fol­low­ing funer­al eti­quette. The thing is, I don’t have to fake it. I just have to remem­ber not to men­tion I didn’t know the deceased. I study the deceased’s life, share some of it in con­ver­sa­tions, hand around my own per­son­al sup­ply of heavy-duty tis­sue. Peo­ple like to talk to me; they feel com­fort­able collaborating.


 
          Allow me to cry.
          I am not          the neglected infant.
          Fear me if I am silly 
          or silent,
          if I refuse to take         lessons,
          though I am a novice.
          It is also bad 
          when I make         no argument.
          The Generalissimo will have won
          and flies will soon swarm
          the village.
 

The Dic­tio­nary of Tears tells us that both men and women cry. His­tor­i­cal­ly, men have cried at hero­ic deeds or because they lost some­one close to them. In the for­mer case, men cried to express their emo­tion­al reac­tion to a stir­ring event. In the lat­ter case, men cried not to express, but because there was no oth­er reac­tion available.

Dur­ing the reign of the Vikings, tears were thought to be becom­ing to war­riors. If a war­rior went into bat­tle with­out wet­ting his beard, he wasn’t ful­ly aware of the con­se­quence of bat­tle. War­riors trav­eled with a bard, who wailed bat­tle epics while the war­riors slept. It was thought that if he wailed in just the right key, and if he paid each moment in bat­tle its due hon­or, the songs would infil­trate the plans war­riors make while sleep­ing. When bury­ing the dead, the bard would cry for the entire com­mu­ni­ty, chan­nel­ing the force of the emo­tions of all in atten­dance. The Kju­la Rune­stone states that when a ship was sent to sea emp­ty, with­out a body for a miss­ing war­rior, cries were so loud that ene­my camps thought the dead were try­ing to enter the bod­ies of animals. 

The Mon­gols were, per­haps, the most fear­some criers. When they charged into bat­tle atop their steeds, it was with tears scour­ing their cheeks. Russ­ian leg­end has it that one Mon­gol war­rior cried ter­ri­bly while gut­ting a young girl and then rubbed her vis­cera on his wet face. To the Rus­sians attempt­ing to keep the Mon­gols at bay, it looked like the war­rior was actu­al­ly cry­ing pieces of the girl. Even­tu­al­ly, Mon­gols turned to cry­ing silent­ly, the sight of which was said to be hard to dis­cern, but hard­er to forget.

Of all the ways of going through the world, cry­ing isn’t the most unten­able. Can you imag­ine going through life act­ing hap­py no mat­ter what’s hap­pen­ing around you? Like even when the win­dow work­er at the Burg­er King hands you sog­gy fries with that look that says her bills are pil­ing up but she real­ly doesn’t want to have to move back in with her abu­sive ex-boyfriend. And then you real­ize she for­got to include pack­ets of ketchup. Now that would be weird.

The Dic­tio­nary of Tears says that tears were per­fect­ed by Madame Curie in 1773, the year she infused them with laven­der. Hav­ing dis­tilled laven­der buds, rob­bing them of their essences, she added this frag­ile water to the stur­dier salt water she milked from the ducts of vol­un­teers. Madame’s Salts became so pop­u­lar that she even­tu­al­ly pro­duced a series of ready-to-wear tears, some of the more pop­u­lar of which were Rose, Chamomile, and Jas­mine. Today, a vin­tage Rose is reput­ed to cost in the mil­lions, not only for its age, but for the chance to par­take of a quaint French villager’s tristesse, cir­ca late 1700s.

The ready-to-wear line was often used to add a seduc­tive sad­ness to one’s hair or cloth­ing, but the orig­i­nal laven­der tears remained by far the favorite of Curie’s inven­tions. Imbibed and left to fall from the eyes as they may, court goers were espe­cial­ly fond of them and con­sid­ered them an essen­tial acces­so­ry for attend­ing plays, con­certs, dances, and oth­er artis­tic and social events. The poten­tial­ly unex­pect­ed oncom­ing of tears was one of the attrac­tions, but usu­al­ly the tears made their appear­ance at par­tic­u­lar­ly dra­mat­ic emo­tion­al moments. Known for its calm­ing prop­er­ties, laven­der was pre­scribed to soothe the nerves of many an over­wrought funer­al goer.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was said to incite so many tears from the audi­ence that the con­cert hall would become humid. More than one audi­ence mem­ber was report­ed to have become deliri­ous, imag­in­ing them­selves in the high­lands of France, chas­ing a younger sib­ling through the fields. In 1779, Maria Tina Binoche, a patron of the arts and an asth­mat­ic, choked on the laven­der-heavy air in a Paris con­cert hall and died in the mid­dle of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Fol­low­ing a string of sim­i­lar deaths, Madame’s Salts were out­lawed in 1822. Near­ly two hun­dred years lat­er, Jonas Salk would read about Madame Curie and attempt to inoc­u­late exces­sive­ly emo­tion­al patients with tears, only to find that the vac­cine didn’t work. Dev­as­tat­ed by the fail­ure of his idea, he became deeply depressed and died of alco­hol poisoning.

I start­ed cry­ing once, and I just haven’t stopped since.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Pop psy­chol­o­gy often con­veys that any one issue has a sin­gle or at least pri­ma­ry cause, but we’re all the prod­ucts of his­to­ry, unique bio­chem­istry, mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, and all the stim­uli we’ve ever encoun­tered over the course of our lives. The frame for the sto­ry is a short first-per­son nar­ra­tive intend­ed to explain some­thing inex­plic­a­ble: the sud­den onset of cry­ing that nev­er stops. The sto­ry con­tains no dia­logue, and the first-per­son nar­ra­tive is inter­spersed with fic­tion­al ency­clo­pe­dia-like entries about his­tor­i­cal events, cul­tures, or phe­nom­e­na relat­ed to cry­ing. The entries tend to fur­ther com­pli­cate the nar­ra­tive rather than pro­vide clar­i­ty. But I like to think that fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing some­thing tru­ly com­plex is a form of clarity.

I enjoy less tra­di­tion­al forms of sto­ry­telling, and I thought it would be inter­est­ing to explore some­thing as uni­ver­sal as cry­ing from both a per­son­al and a (com­plete­ly fic­tion­al) his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to cry­ing because some cul­tures label it as weak­ness even though it serves many nec­es­sary func­tions, like­ly makes us stronger in the sense that it helps us keep going in the face of hard­ship, and is a per­ma­nent fea­ture of our lives.

 

Poems of Dawn Tefft are pub­lished in Fence, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Wit­ness, and Sen­tence, among oth­er jour­nals. Her chap­books include Fist (Danc­ing Girl Press, 2016), The Walk­ing Dead: A Lyric (Fin­ish­ing Line Press, 2016), and Field Trip to My Moth­er and Oth­er Exot­ic Loca­tions (Mud­lark, 2005). Her first fic­tion piece was pub­lished recent­ly in Pio­neer­town. Her non­fic­tion has been pub­lished in cream city review, Pop­Mat­ters, Truthout, Jacobin, and Wood­land Pat­tern’s blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee and works as a high­er-ed labor orga­niz­er and representative.

From the Foothills of Oblivion

Fiction / Christopher Higgs

:: From the Foothills of Oblivion ::

I want to say I love you in the most unpre­dictable way, a way no one has ever said it before. When I do “tri­an­gle orange redux,” you know how and why. It’s our secret. I shouldn’t have brought it up in mixed com­pa­ny. Couldn’t help it. Could not help it. Sor­ry. Any­way, lis­ten, my son loves say­ing “recy­cling bin.” For a while he said, “psy­cho bean,” which sounds like recy­cling bin as spo­ken by a two year old if you say it out loud very care­ful­ly. Any­way, lis­ten, I wish we made our world of water­mel­on sug­ar. I real­ly do. I real­ly wish it. But we’ve nev­er had tigers here who spoke our lan­guage. No iDeath. No For­got­ten Works.

I want to say I love you but I am alone and no deeds have been done here as they were done in water­mel­on sug­ar. Let me let go of this, can I? Can we do that for me, please? For us. Okay? Okay. Thanks. I need to clear my throat and get some air and regroup and remem­ber that time I bust­ed that ring of sovi­et cock­tail hus­tler video game adja­cent bel­liger­ent fid­get­ing sur­ren­der of every per­son to the equal oppor­tu­ni­ty cen­ter near­est the cul­prit who turned out to be none oth­er than the mys­te­ri­ous injunc­tion against the infe­ri­or pos­te­ri­or amphib­ian barom­e­ter in the alpine recre­ation loca­tions of every sin­gle archi­tect on this side of the Rock­ies? Jesus Christ Carter get a fuck­ing clue, get a fuck­ing god­damn clue you blue faced quar­ter shaped apple with a rot­ten core. Cen­ter break neck speed toward the alpha­bet we least want spo­ken in these parts; trust me, you do not want to switch alpha­bets at this moment because the part of this sto­ry where present­ly we reside affords lit­tle but a not good place to switch; the ban­dits around here are more like­ly some­one try­ing to kill us or rob us or tell us a lie and catch us with our pants down than any­thing else; we could wind up back in prison if the lights snap on at the wrong injunc­tion if you know what I mean. Of course you know what I mean, you wrote the book on dubi­ous injunctions.

I want to say I love you but we work at the uni­ver­si­ty which trans­lates to: we could get shot at any moment. Let’s not think about it. If we think about it, we may get para­noid. No need to get para­noid. Para­noia results from the effect of too much of some­thing in your brain. To coun­ter­act it you need to bal­ance it with some­thing akin to its oppo­site, or you need to wait it out because what­ev­er trans­gres­sion you have made can resolve itself in time. Time equal­izes. I’m prob­a­bly the first per­son to ever say that phrase, so let me go ahead and make sure to copy­right it. Time equal­izes©. Now I own it, right? So if any­body wants to use that phrase they have to pay me. God I love this coun­try. Amer­i­ca! Fuck yeah!

I want to say I love you before the sun sets over the Pacif­ic. Before the sun and moon and stars snapped into exis­tence, pre­sum­ing they snapped into exis­tence at some point, at some point when life began we began, but we began before as star par­ti­cles but before the star par­ti­cles what? Our ances­try will nev­er get dis­cov­ered. Like­ly we will nev­er know from whence we came. Even now with our robot bod­ies and our immor­tal­i­ty, how­ev­er could we hope to dis­cov­er the ori­gin of the ori­gin of the uni­verse? But even if we could, then what? Say we some­how accom­plished it. What then? Do we go search­ing for the ori­gin of the ori­gin of the ori­gin of the uni­verse? And then on to the next iter­a­tion to infin­i­ty? Per­haps a cer­tain line of work involves crevices or whole holes into par­al­lel uni­vers­es where aer­o­bic, or should I say acer­bic, or should I say fel­low patrons of this sen­tence let me set the record straight, or dis­co, or blight, or fog­gy up the win­dows I’m prepar­ing to, we’re prepar­ing to, we want to for­go or for­age or for­feit or for­get. Miette said, “Go to The For­got­ten Works.” I know he said it, we know he said it. They all know who said the flames last touched by the least par­ti­san woman in the his­to­ry of police states and quan­tum mechan­ics deserves the medal most giv­en for hon­or, but hon­est­ly why ask ques­tions? Why ever ask ques­tions about anything?

I want to say I love you despite the pri­vate investigator’s find­ings. The least accept­able mode of trans­porta­tion these days seems bet­ter than nev­er leav­ing your couch. We get endorse­ments, you’d nev­er know it. You play the fid­dle in a brass band and won­der why no one wants to hang out with you. Play by the rules, fine. Play your gut-string harp or par­ent a pigeon or jerk off a jack o’ lantern or find a Fris­bee or give up more room while all gal­li­vant­i­ng around. Make excus­es. Make a loud sound. Buy beer. Drink beer. Buy more beer. Drink all the beer. Pass out. Wake up in jail cov­ered in vom­it. Chunks of vom­it in your beard. We can see it. We didn’t want to tell you about the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary. Didn’t want to spoil it. Wait and see for your­self. Love makes moun­tains out of how­ev­er many nails com­bined equals a quar­ter. Imag­ine a four­teen-hun­dred-year-old ghost slather­ing her­self on my sis­ter. Our sis­ter. We have a sis­ter. We see our sis­ter in pic­tures. We left gate yawn trig­ger fig­ure, sev­en, fig­ure eight, fig­ure a dif­fer­ent, or should I say alter­na­tive route. Take the side streets. Van Nuys suf­fers a bad rep­u­ta­tion but in this new world all the gang­sters line up on the side of the road to show off their hotrods. One tricked out wheel­ie all pumped full of hydraulics. Flash­back to Boyz n the Hood. We watched Boyz n the Hood con­stant­ly, enough to mem­o­rize the whole thing. Same as Goonies. Mem­o­rized it. Star Wars Ewok Adven­ture? Mem­o­rized it. Sav­age Steve Holland’s ’80s clas­sic One Crazy Sum­mer? Mem­o­rized it. Nev­er you mind how many movies I mem­o­rized as a kid because I watched them over and over. Also music. We’ve mem­o­rized a good deal of music. Late ’80s to late ’90s jams com­pose a good deal of our knowl­edge, my knowl­edge, we have shared knowl­edge, you know. Love means nev­er hav­ing to nev­er ever again. Did you know Erich Segal, the guy who wrote the book turned into the movie Love Sto­ry, “was denied tenure at Yale and Love Sto­ry was igno­min­ious­ly bounced from the nom­i­na­tion slate of the Nation­al Book Awards after the fic­tion jury threat­ened to resign. ‘It is a banal book which sim­ply doesn’t qual­i­fy as lit­er­a­ture,’ said Pulitzer Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist and fic­tion jurist William Sty­ron. The Nation­al Book Award for fic­tion that year went to Saul Bel­low for Mr. Sammler’s Plan­et,” accord­ing to the LA Times? Why care about any­thing any­more? Why lis­ten to any­one? Why allow any­thing inside? Why not build up a wall, learn how to write code and become a her­mit work­ing from home writ­ing code for some mega code com­pa­ny over­seas? Almost every­thing we have rests on the coast of Switzer­land. What coast? you might ask. Per­haps. Per­haps you’d ask. And we would say, “The coast of nev­er end­ing sui­cide.” We want to dis­pel the rumors of ecsta­sy or beyond. When you take your last gasp, you nev­er breathe again. Nev­er. You can’t imag­ine it so don’t even try. To under­stand death one must expe­ri­ence death. We don’t believe any­one can imag­ine death. The undead believe in death. We believe in ceas­ing. Los­ing cohe­sion. Becom­ing some­thing else. Dis­solv­ing. Dis­in­te­grat­ing. Becom­ing gaseous. Feed­ing bugs. Feed­ing plants. Feed­ing every lev­el from the sub­atom­ic on up through the humans eat­ing car­rots from the Hol­ly­wood Farm­ers’ Mar­ket. We see celebri­ties and fawn. We get auto­graphs in a lit­tle pow­der blue note­book car­ried around always. We always car­ry around the auto­graph book. Who knows what might could hap­pen? Who knows when we’ll ever get that close to them again? Don’t tell about the time at the 1998 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val when we approached indie princess Park­er Posey but instead of intro­duc­ing our­selves like nor­mal humans we approached her from the side, toward her back, and when we neared her enough to take in a whiff of her hair we took it. We stood a foot away and leaned in and smelled her hair deeply, deeply smelled her scent, inhaled her scent deeply, her hair. We told this anec­dote once in front of a crowd of peo­ple and record­ed it on a cas­sette tape, the lead­ing method at the time, and then after tran­scrib­ing the tape and lis­ten­ing to the tape, what it pro­duced star­tled me, star­tled us, star­tled every­body pre­sum­ably. Most glar­ing­ly we repeat­ed the issues fac­ing moth­er nature lat­er today after the masseuse and Paul and Gerbin and Joyste found pri­vate lives to assume and the Con­rad atten­tion bol­stered all sorts of aggres­sion, then and only then could we even con­sid­er elab­o­rat­ing on the ancient alpha­bet for Oren or Thatch or Chri­men. None of those fuck­ers get the gift if any one of them fails to trans­port delec­table treats afford­ably. Para­chute and foil. Draw a farewell scepter or grant a fugi­tive a par­ent for a day and ask the lord for for­give­ness. We can­not excuse the hand­ful of wrong­do­ings post­ed before the ele­vat­ed con­fer­ence of paper tow­els and dolls made of paper tow­els. All along we tell secrets. Do you catch secrets? How could you? Grand­ma needs to talk about a pony. Poet­ry? No, a pony. Ask anoth­er day.

I want to say I love you, don’t you remem­ber? Can’t you recall? Must I con­tin­ue to say it over and over? What pow­er do we har­ness from repetition?

I want to say I love you but I’ve already said it twice today. Who am I now, Gertrude Stein? Are we Gertrude Stein? How many times can one say the phrase “I love you” and still hope to con­jure the same lev­el of significance?

I love the love of lov­ing you while in love with you I love you more than lov­ing you can be said to love. After every­thing every­one extolled. After all the pur­ple. After all the inch­worms. The poi­son­ing inci­dent. The flock of angry geese. Killer bees. The ser­i­al killer slash hit­man. We can­not tell a lie. We can­not tell a truth. We can­not tell any­thing with­out exhibit­ing both liar face and truth teller face. Go fig­ure. And ask your­self, what else is love but a knife with­out a tor­so to slip into? We for­get. I for­get. We hide. I hide.

We fre­quent and dri­ve and para­chute with­out for­give­ness. And I do, too. And like Frank Stan­ford said, “I am watch­ing you from the foothills of oblivion.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Reread­ing Richard Brauti­gan, think­ing about love. Think­ing about think­ing. Think­ing about language’s inabil­i­ty to sig­ni­fy. Think­ing on the page. Show­ing my work. Want­i­ng des­per­ate­ly to say what can­not be said. Caught in the well, the void. Caught in space, a vac­u­um. Want­i­ng what can nev­er mate­ri­al­ize. Want­i­ng for the sake of want­i­ng. Find­ing con­nec­tions between cog­ni­tion and imag­i­na­tion, iden­ti­ty and per­for­mance, sto­ry and report, pri­vate lan­guage and pub­lic dis­course. Inhab­it­ing the present. Inhab­it­ing my body. Inhab­it­ing the stress of wak­ing and mov­ing and beg­ging with­out beg­ging. This doc­u­ment presents my own asso­cia­tive think­ing habits, a com­po­si­tion of my brain’s chem­i­cal neu­ro­log­i­cal synap­tic func­tion, unen­cum­bered by the dic­tates of the dom­i­nant dis­course sur­round­ing “good fic­tion” or “well-writ­ten fic­tion.” I’m inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing what only I can cre­ate, only I can com­pose, only I can assem­ble, in the rad­i­cal­ly per­son­al way I cre­ate, com­pose, assem­ble. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion doesn’t inter­est me in art. Instead I pre­fer provo­ca­tion. This stands as an example.

 

Christo­pher Hig­gs lives in Los Ange­les where he teach­es nar­ra­tive the­o­ry and tech­nique at Cal State North­ridge. His newest book, a con­straint-based mem­oir enti­tled As I Stand Liv­ing, came out this past Feb­ru­ary from the #RECURRENT imprint at Civ­il Cop­ing Mech­a­nisms. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he wrote The Com­plete Works of Mar­vin K. Mooney: a nov­el (Sator Press, 2010), and assem­bled the S.P.D. #1 Best­selling nov­el ONE, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Blake But­ler and Vanes­sa Place (Roof Books, 2012). In addi­tion, he’s pub­lished two chap­books and numer­ous short­er works for venues such as AGNI, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Glob­al Queer Cin­e­ma, and The Paris Review Dai­ly.

The Spider Mom

Fiction / Sionnain Buckley

:: The Spider Mom ::

a fairy­tale

Com­ma and Mil­li­cent had been try­ing for a baby for the past four­teen months. Every month they would take turns—odd months were Com­ma and even were Mill. And every month for four­teen months, they would both start bleed­ing on the first Mon­day, the moon and the close prox­im­i­ty keep­ing them synced. Octo­ber had come again, and anoth­er Mon­day, and Com­ma and Mill sat in the kitchen feel­ing the bloods exit from between their legs in slow first-day fash­ion. They stared at their emp­ty lunch plates, the crumbs of their chick­en sal­ad sand­wich­es, their crum­pled napkins.

Just out­side the win­dow above the sink, a maple branch dan­gled, drops of water shin­ing at the points of the leaves from the morn­ing rain show­er. They were feel­ing sur­prised and not sur­prised at the same time, and frus­trat­ed at both of these reac­tions. It was no mat­ter how bad­ly they want­ed a child, no mat­ter how many jars of semen they car­ried back to their bed­room, no mat­ter how many hours they spent tipped upside down against the couch while the oth­er read aloud from their favorite child­hood books. They hadn’t done it, yet again.

So Com­ma and Mill sat there in the kitchen and bled togeth­er. And when they got tired of that, they stood up and rinsed their lunch plates in the sink. Mill want­ed to close the cur­tains and take a nap, but Com­ma sug­gest­ed they get out of the house. So they stop­pered them­selves up and went out into the wet world to ask for some help.

Their first stop was to their best friend, a nurse, because they knew that before giv­ing any of her med­ical­ly sound advice, she would hug them each gen­tly and pull out the tray of teabags for their perusal. “Are you tak­ing all those sup­ple­ments I gave you?” she asked them. They were.

After they said good­bye to their best friend and thanked her for the tea, they walked down the block to their doc­tor, who looked at them straight-faced and said the same thing he always said: “Just come in, and I can do it for you. It’ll make your lives so much eas­i­er. I don’t see what the resis­tance is.” They thanked him and gave thin smiles to the recep­tion­ist on their way out.

Next they went to the mid­wife, who tucked her knees under her and leaned for­ward in her flo­ral arm­chair as they relayed the news. “Maybe it’s time to try a dif­fer­ent approach?” she said care­ful­ly. She offered up her suite of rooms and her own exper­tise, sug­gest­ed the donor’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, or even more than one. Mill coughed qui­et­ly into her hand. Com­ma shook her head and said they’d touch base with her soon. “She may as well’ve just called it an orgy,” Com­ma whis­pered when they were out­side again.

Anoth­er vis­it to anoth­er nurse friend war­rant­ed a repeat­ed refrain: “You haven’t for­got­ten those sup­ple­ments I gave you…?” Anoth­er cup of tea and it seemed their blad­ders were too full for this.

They went into the chapel on a whim—Comma’s idea—and slid into a pew beside the pas­tor, who lift­ed his head from his bowed prayer at their arrival. “God gives us all, in time,” he said, smil­ing at their frowns. “Have you prayed on your readi­ness?” Mill nod­ded sage­ly. “Try going to see Dr. Hay­lor,” the pas­tor sug­gest­ed. “He does those pro­ce­dures all the time.”

After stop­ping at the bak­ery for donuts (and the baker’s advice that they need­ed to plump up a bit, give it more to latch on to, here have a few more pas­tries, on the house), they went to talk to the innkeep­er, who was a fount of every­one else’s secrets. As she bus­tled around the inn’s kitchen, she rat­tled off the names of every­one in the coun­ty who had arti­fi­cial­ly insem­i­nat­ed in the past fif­teen years. Not that many, it turned out. “And who actu­al­ly got a baby?” Com­ma asked. The innkeep­er paused next to the sink with a fry­ing pan in each hand. “Lola Peters, and the Trench­es, but only after they went to Dr. Hay­lor. There was Jil­lian, too, you remem­ber her, but I can’t real­ly count that.” Com­ma and Mill were too tired at this point to ask the innkeep­er why she didn’t count Jil­lian, and they didn’t both­er to men­tion that nei­ther of them knew a Jil­lian anyway.

Before return­ing home, they stopped at their neighbor’s house to see Artie, the sev­en-year-old they watched some­times on week­ends when his father was away. When he asked why they looked sad, Com­ma explained, and when he asked why it hadn’t worked, Com­ma explained that they didn’t know. “You know who’s real­ly good at hav­ing babies?” Artie said. “Spi­der moms. Some­times five hun­dred at once.” Artie had been on an ani­mal king­dom kick late­ly, spout­ing off ran­dom wildlife facts at his fan­cy. “You should just ask a spi­der mom what to do!” He went back to sep­a­rat­ing his Legos into col­or-cod­ed piles, and Com­ma and Mill crossed the street and went home.

Back in their small kitchen, Mill opened the cab­i­nets and took down the bot­tles of vit­a­mins and min­er­als and herbal tinc­tures that their nurse friends had giv­en them. She lined them up on the counter in size order—the biggest jar with the bright yel­low horse pills on one end, and the tiny brown stop­per bot­tle of sub­tle ener­gy for­mu­la on the oth­er. She stared at the line of sup­ple­ments, count­ed them duti­ful­ly, con­sid­ered reorder­ing them based on the like­li­ness of them help­ing in the slight­est, then placed them all back in their spots in the cabinets.

Com­ma watched all of this from the kitchen table, and when Mill turned around, Com­ma pulled out the oth­er chair and poked it invit­ing­ly with her foot. “Maybe we’re just on the wrong months,” Com­ma said as Mill sat down across from her. “Maybe we need to switch evens and odds.” Mill frowned in response. “Or each do a few months in a row,” Com­ma tried. “Or get a cou­ple dif­fer­ent donors.” Com­ma kept spout­ing off all the alter­na­tives she could come up with, paus­ing between them to watch Mill’s face earnestly.

Maybe we just need to ask a spi­der,” Mill whis­pered, star­ing down at her hands in her lap. Nei­ther of them laughed, they just looked up at each oth­er with the grav­i­ty that comes with helplessness.

Okay,” Com­ma said. She stood up and pulled her chair to the cen­ter of the kitchen floor, then dragged the legs of Mill’s chair until it was direct­ly fac­ing hers. Com­ma sat back down, her knees just brush­ing Mill’s. “If we sit here long enough, one is bound to come along.”

Mill insist­ed on get­ting them each a glass of water, but after that they sat down and didn’t move again. By the time the sun had start­ed set­ting they seemed to have agreed that they would stay that way. They watched the light fall across each other’s faces, across the tiled floor. The first hour they most­ly stared at each oth­er right in the eyes, but after that they took turns. They very well could’ve talked, but Mill seemed to need the silence, and Com­ma wasn’t going to push it. They only broke posi­tion to take sips from their water or to cross and uncross their legs. It made the most sense to keep them uncrossed, to more even­ly bleed, but after a point they were soaked regardless.

It was the dead mid­dle of the night, the win­dows black, the track lights above the stove cast­ing the room half-lit, when Mill final­ly broke the silence. “Are you sleep­ing?” she whis­pered to Com­ma, who had closed her eyes for a bit to rest. She hadn’t slumped or jerked at all, so Mill wasn’t so sure. Com­ma nod­ded with­out open­ing her eyes, so Mill let her sleep.

When the sun rose the next morn­ing, Com­ma woke up to Mill’s face star­ing straight at her. She knew with­out look­ing down that her pants were soaked com­plete­ly through, sat­u­rat­ed and dry­ing a dark maroon down to the mid­dle of her thighs. Mill was beat­ing her—the blood had near­ly reached her knees. Com­ma won­dered if Mill would make a move to get some break­fast, but she just stayed put, stared at Com­ma for a few min­utes, and then turned to the win­dow to watch a bird hic­cup across the sill.

It was past noon on that first day when Com­ma sug­gest­ed that maybe they need­ed to at least take some iron pills. “It’s like fast­ing,” Mill said, clos­ing her eyes and let­ting her head roll on her neck in a slow semi-cir­cle from ear to ear. Com­ma could hear Mill’s stom­ach grum­bling from here. Under her, and under Mill as well, soft clumps of con­gealed blood were slip­ping out and gath­er­ing in warm piles between their legs.

Com­ma and Mill wrapped their ankles around the legs of the kitchen chairs, knees open and bloody. They talked about names, an old sub­ject of which they nev­er seemed to tire. They wished some­times that they could have three hun­dred babies, if only to use all the names they had come up with over the years. Eleanor. Selene. Kai. Tes­la. Mar­got. Natalia. Cecil. Sylvia. Julian. Oliv­er. Lucy. Ronan. They recit­ed the names back and forth to each oth­er, like the instruc­tions to a much-used recipe, or the words of a prayer. The sun set through the win­dow, a mag­nif­i­cent red that they may have said remind­ed them of blood, under dif­fer­ent circumstances.

Some days passed, enough for them to lose count, to lose feel­ing in their legs, to lose—it seemed—every pint of blood in their bod­ies. It had reached the hems of their pants and con­tin­ued, drip­ping between their bare toes and run­ning into the grooved edges between the tiles of the floor. Around them, from the emp­ty rooms, came the creaks of the radi­a­tors cycling through their own fluids.

I want you,” Mill whis­pered one evening. The kitchen was gray around them, los­ing light fast. Com­ma looked up at Mill. She had wrapped her calves tighter around the chair legs, and Com­ma could see streaks of red stain­ing the wood. Her knees were angled open. Again she whis­pered, “I want you,” and tilt­ed her hips just bare­ly clos­er. Com­ma imag­ined stand­ing, imag­ined low­er­ing her­self between Mill’s spread legs, blood on dried blood. Instead, she shift­ed until her knees brushed Mill’s, until she pressed against them. Mill shiv­ered against the hard wood­en back of the chair, and Comma’s heart dipped against her ribs. The light fell from the kitchen completely.

When the spi­der final­ly arrived, they had near­ly for­got­ten they were wait­ing for her. Near­ly. She made a sub­tle entrance, crawl­ing halt­ing­ly over Comma’s thigh and stop­ping with her spindly legs poised, wait­ing. She faced Mill, or so Mill assumed, based on her lim­it­ed knowl­edge of spi­der anato­my. Truth­ful­ly, Mill appre­ci­at­ed spi­ders from a fig­u­ra­tive or sym­bol­ic stand­point but didn’t much care for their phys­i­cal bod­ies near hers. “Com­ma,” she said, point­ing. And Com­ma saw.

They sat there with the spi­der for a long time. A long enough time that Com­ma won­dered if maybe they need­ed to get Artie in here as a medi­a­tor. The spi­der hadn’t moved an inch since stop­ping on Comma’s thigh and hadn’t turned away from star­ing at Mill. All the blood had dried by now on both of them, except for what stayed warm between their legs.

Okay,” Mill final­ly whis­pered. “So what do we do?” She direct­ed the ques­tion at the spi­der, but after a few min­utes of silence, Com­ma couldn’t help but inter­ject. “I can’t decide if this means she’s choos­ing me or you,” Com­ma said. “She came to me, right? But she hasn’t tak­en her eyes off you since she got here.” Mill ignored this and con­tin­ued to stare at the spi­der instead, who, for what it’s worth, seemed to ignore this as well.

Okay,” Mill said again, many hours lat­er. Com­ma wasn’t sure what she was respond­ing to, but it did sound like a response, like Mill had received a trans­mis­sion that Com­ma wasn’t privy to. She fought the sud­den urge to reach down and smash the spi­der with the palm of her hand. She some­times had those urges, incred­i­ble ones, that she couldn’t bear to act on, but craved regardless—driving across the medi­an, jump­ing from a high over­look, mov­ing the blade of the kitchen knife just a lit­tle far­ther. The spi­der shim­mied in place a lit­tle, per­haps nod­ded, then pro­ceed­ed to turn back the way she came, down over the edge of the chair and across the bloody kitchen tiles.

Mill was the first to try to stand, although she near­ly top­pled her chair, and Comma’s as well, with Com­ma in it. “Bread,” she said, and Comma’s stom­ach imme­di­ate­ly respond­ed, groan­ing obscene­ly in the direc­tion of Mill’s back. The two of them hob­bled around the kitchen, gath­er­ing what­ev­er they could find that hadn’t spoiled. A jar of peanut but­ter, a pack­age of dried apples, the last three slices of multi­grain bread. Com­ma fig­ured they would talk about the spi­der once they had food in their bod­ies. Mill fig­ured Com­ma could hear every­thing the spi­der had said and was qui­et­ly mulling it over. Nei­ther of them said a word of this. They ate the bread and the apples in less than three min­utes, then fed the peanut but­ter to each oth­er from their fin­gers until the jar was wiped clean.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The image of two women sit­ting across from each oth­er, legs wrapped around the legs of their chairs, bleed­ing them­selves dry, orig­i­nal­ly showed up for me in a poem. I don’t write poet­ry often, but when I do it tends to be bloody. Men­stru­al-bloody in par­tic­u­lar. Go fig­ure. I want­ed to do more with this image, so I lift­ed it and placed it some­where that strange images are accept­ed with­out ques­tion and treat­ed with sin­cer­i­ty: the fairy­tale. Inside this form, I knew that I wouldn’t have to change the image, or even explain it much. And maybe the sto­ry doesn’t end up being much of a fairy­tale, tra­di­tion­al­ly speak­ing, aside from the bloody mess (and the wise spi­der of course), but cen­ter­ing the excess of the blood was impor­tant to me for the pur­pos­es of the sto­ry. As a queer woman, I have had a wide­ly vary­ing rela­tion­ship with my men­stru­a­tion. As my opin­ion of and desire for moth­er­hood has changed over time, my blood has felt alter­nat­ing­ly wel­come and point­less and com­pli­cat­ed and super­flu­ous. For two queer and men­stru­at­ing women who want noth­ing oth­er than to have a child togeth­er but are con­sis­tent­ly fail­ing, the sim­ple excess of blood in itself is a taunt from the body, an insult to every earnest effort. I want­ed to hon­or the feel­ing of that excess and allow it a phys­i­cal pres­ence in the story.

 

Sion­nain Buck­ley is a writer and visu­al artist orig­i­nal­ly from Long Island. She has worked as a mural­ist, a farm­hand, a per­son­al chef, and a facil­i­ta­tor for a queer book club for LGBTQ+ teenagers. When she isn’t writ­ing strange sto­ries, she is con­sum­ing queer media and pop­corn in equal mea­sure. Her fic­tion has appeared in New South and Crab Fat Mag­a­zine.

The Butterfly Cage

Fiction / Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

:: The Butterfly Cage ::

Samp­son arrives ear­ly. He scur­ries through the door and crash­es into me for a hug, his unzipped coat trail­ing like a cape behind him. Samp­son is fast. This fact is even spelled out in his IEP:

Emotional/Behavioral Chal­lenge 8: When Samp­son esca­lates, he may injure staff/peers and destroy prop­er­ty. He is also known to run away from super­vi­sion. He is fast.

At first, I am annoyed that Samp­son has cut into my prepa­ra­tion time, but he seems to be hav­ing a good morn­ing. I ask him to help me trans­fer the chrysalis­es from their jar to the but­ter­fly cage. The cage is made of mesh and shaped like a bell, sus­pend­ed from a wire frame. The chrysalis­es cling to our fin­gers and shud­der when we lift them. Samp­son and I touch them gen­tly to the branch­es inside the cage until they stick and go still. Samp­son holds one up at eye lev­el and laughs as it jig­gles. He looks up at me with an expec­tant expres­sion, his dark eyes wide and his mouth thrown open. He’s invit­ing me to laugh with him, wait­ing for it, demanding.

Samp­son has always loved the but­ter­flies. When the cater­pil­lars first arrived in their tiny plas­tic jar, I taped it at eye lev­el on a shelf in the explo­ration cen­ter, and he nev­er want­ed to play any­where else. He’d stand in front of the shelf, his back to the oth­er chil­dren, and get lost there for hours. From behind, he was just the del­i­cate shape of his skull under his buzz cut, his uni­form shirt half-tucked, and his hands wrig­gling through the air, mim­ic­k­ing the caterpillars.

I’d asked the chil­dren to each bring some­thing for the but­ter­flies’ habi­tat. Most brought twigs and pine nee­dles and leaves in lit­tle plas­tic bag­gies. Cami­la brought a bag of blue peb­bles from the dol­lar store, the kind that usu­al­ly go inside a gold­fish bowl. Sampson’s grand­moth­er for­got to send him a bag­gie, and Samp­son lost it as soon as he found out. He spent the rest of the morn­ing in the safe room. When he was final­ly allowed to reen­ter after recess, he marched straight to the library and found a but­ter­fly “lit­tle read­er.” He held it up to me with both hands, like an orphan hold­ing up an emp­ty soup bowl. I was touched by the for­mal­i­ty of his offering.

They need to learn about them­selves,” he’d said. “So they can under­stand themselves.”

Okay,” I’d said, and placed the book next to where the cage lay in wait for the chrysalis­es to form.

When the oth­er chil­dren arrive, I call cir­cle time and place the but­ter­fly cage in the mid­dle of the car­pet. I’ve told the chil­dren to glue their butts to their spots, but every­one wants a clos­er look. Two lit­tle boys use adap­tive seat­ing that helps anchor them to the ground. The rest of the chil­dren lean as far for­ward as they can with­out their butts com­ing unglued. They remind me of a group of pen­guins hes­i­tat­ing at the edge of a cliff over­look­ing icy water. I know that one of them will take the plunge, and then the rest will follow.

Of course, it is Samp­son who does it. He reach­es into the mid­dle of the cir­cle and push­es at the cage. It starts to swing on its frame, and the chrysalis­es tremble.

Stop it,” I say. He was being so gen­tle an hour ago.

Samp­son gets back in the S.M.A.R.T. posi­tion. Straight back. Mouth qui­et. Atten­tive eyes. Rest­ful hands. Think­ing brain.

I take the cage around to each child and point to the chrysalis­es tucked behind the leaves.

What do you think those are?” I ask them. We read a book on but­ter­flies the day before.

They stare at me.

Poop!” says one lit­tle boy. That’s his favorite word. He likes the reac­tion it gets.

Ben­ji?” I ask another.

You can see the gig­gles bub­bling up inside Ben­ji. He wig­gles around to hold them in, look­ing at me with side­ways eyes.

Poop,” he final­ly says in a tiny, squeaky voice.

I look around the cir­cle for some­one to save me. Aside from Samp­son, Cami­la is my most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly advanced stu­dent, a girl with long-lashed eyes and heavy cheeks. She always sits serene­ly amongst her squirm­ing peers like a lit­tle monk.

She looks at me, her mouth hang­ing open. “Bug?” she says.

Nah!” Samp­son is sit­ting beside her. He’s so angry that he ris­es to his feet. “It’s called a pupa. You a bunch of god­damn fools.”

The oth­er four-year-olds stare at him. “Yes,” they seem to be think­ing, “Poop-ah.”

Fuck­ers!” Samp­son adds, for effect.

Samp­son, do you need a time out?” I say automatically.

Some­times I think Samp­son hates the robot­ic way I respond to his behav­iors more than the actu­al orders. “Come on,” he seems to say, like a lit­tle dev­il that buzzes around my ears. “Admit that you feel some­thing. Admit that you hate me.”

He drops his butt back down onto his spot and shoots me his evil eyes. When the oth­er chil­dren do that, I want to laugh at their child­ish hos­til­i­ty, but with him, for a sec­ond, I think I see a flash of true malice.

I con­tin­ue with the les­son. I teach the chil­dren a poem about the but­ter­fly life cycle. I teach them to do the “but­ter­fly hand­shake,” where two peo­ple link thumbs and wig­gle their fin­gers side by side. I tell them what a “but­ter­fly kiss” is, how one per­son bats their eye­lash­es against anoth­er person’s cheeks like a butterfly’s del­i­cate­ly beat­ing wings.

When you go home today,” I say, “you can give them to your mom­mies and dad­dies and the peo­ple you love.” Many of the chil­dren don’t live with their birth par­ents, so I’m usu­al­ly care­ful to add that.

Teacher, Samp­son is both­er­ing her,” says one lit­tle girl, and I look over to see Cami­la with tears run­ning down her cheeks, hug­ging her chub­by arms over her lit­tle pot­bel­ly. One arm has tiny stab marks from a ball­point pen all over it. I’m amazed at how she’s not cry­ing out loud. Samp­son has a pen in his lap. He must have tak­en it from my clip­board. He looks away. Not to play inno­cent, but to dis­miss me.

Get up,” I say. I get up myself. I am tow­er­ing over him. This is some­thing I’m not sup­posed to do. I should be stay­ing at his eye lev­el and speak­ing calm­ly, deesca­lat­ing the situation.

Give it,” I say. I twist the pen out of his hands.

Samp­son kicks me in the shins, and then I’m not sure what I feel, pain or anger, because I’m not allowed to feel any­thing any­way. There’s a pro­ce­dure for what has to hap­pen next. I’m sup­posed to become the adult in one of the line draw­ings in the Cri­sis Inter­ven­tion Man­u­al: “How to Restrain a Child Under Sev­en.” The draw­ing shows you how to sink to the floor and hug the child from behind, how to keep the child’s arms crossed over his chest. The child’s left hand in your right hand; his right hand in your left. I do this to Samp­son. I am sup­posed to wait for back­up, some­one to clear away the oth­er chil­dren and any dan­ger­ous objects. We are alone. My assis­tant has been pulled into anoth­er room, as usu­al. Instead, the chil­dren act of their own accord, herd­ing them­selves silent­ly to their table spots by instinct. At any oth­er time, I would have found their obe­di­ence touching.

I’m sup­posed to count in my head to calm myself. I count to 100. With each num­ber, the wait­ing seems to become more impos­si­ble. Samp­son kicks and thrash­es beneath me. The mus­cles in my arms start to tire. His hands are so small and unformed that they feel like Play-Doh in my own.

*

When Sampson’s grand­ma comes to pick him up at 3:00, I am sit­ting at the art table with two lit­tle girls who string Froot Loops onto yarn in an after­noon daze.

Get your coat,” Sampson’s grand­ma says by way of greet­ing. Samp­son is splayed like a sea star in the library, count­ing the lights bulbs on the ceil­ing. His morn­ing episode has tired him out. He gets up and grabs his coat and back­pack from his cub­by. Then he paus­es and comes back to give me a hug. He is the kind of preschool­er who seems to hug you with his whole being. The sur­pris­ing strength of his squeeze almost stops my breath.

I told you to hur­ry up,” says his grand­ma. She is a tall, black woman, young for a grand­ma. I’ve nev­er seen her speak any­thing but orders to Samp­son, but unlike some of the oth­er guardians, she takes time off from work to come to every IEP meet­ing. When I lost my voice in Novem­ber, she slipped me gin­ger pow­der in a gold pouch. “Just mix this with hot water,” she’d said.

Jen­nifer, my car­pool, stops by my class­room at 7:00. We load our milk crates back into her trunk in the illu­mi­nat­ed park­ing lot. The dri­ve home is dark, just like the morn­ing one, only now there is traf­fic and the occa­sion­al jay­walk­er. Bun­dled fig­ures stand at the bus stops hold­ing plas­tic gro­cery bags. It’s been snow­ing for a few hours now. Jennifer’s coupe skids down the street.

Jen­nifer and I com­plet­ed teacher train­ing togeth­er the past sum­mer. We both went to the boot camp where they gave us match­ing water bot­tles and lunch­box­es. We stood in an assem­bly line to fill them with sand­wich­es and Kool-Aid before swarm­ing out over the city. We were a small army of young teach­ers ready to fight edu­ca­tion­al inequal­i­ty. But now Jen­nifer is the only oth­er teacher I still speak to. She dri­ves to soc­cer prac­tice every day after drop­ping me off at my apart­ment. I admire how she has some­thing else in her life that still matters.

Once I’m safe­ly inside and I’ve checked all the win­dows and locks, I sit on the couch with my milk crate beside me. I have les­son plan­ning to do. First, though, I open up the crime map on my cell phone. Lit­tle icons pop up all around me. A man with a mon­ey­bag, a man in a mask, a lit­tle fist, a lit­tle gun. When I press the refresh but­ton, some­times a new one appears, and some­times one doesn’t, but it hap­pens often enough that I can’t let myself stop.

I do this for more than an hour until a new icon appears just down the street from me, a shad­ow of a man in a door­way. I go to the win­dow to look for the flash­ing lights of a police car. I don’t see them.

Instead, I see a black man walk­ing through the still-falling snow. He has a shov­el thrown over one shoul­der. I watch him draw clos­er. It’s like watch­ing a silent movie. At last, I start to hear the sound of his foot­steps trudg­ing up to my door. I imag­ine myself in one of two sce­nar­ios: in the first, he uses the shov­el to smash through my front win­dow and climbs inside and holds a gun to my head. In the sec­ond, he knocks on the front door. I’m stu­pid. I open it for him. He asks if he can shov­el my dri­ve­way for a few dol­lars. Then he hits me over the head with the shovel.

The real man before me bangs on the door. Of course, I don’t answer. I stand frozen behind it, and he tries one more time, and at last I hear his foot­steps retreat. I’m uncer­tain if I’ve just come close to death or if it was only an ordi­nary moment.

*

My third month of teach­ing, I was mugged in front of the Laun­dro­mat. Jen­nifer came to sit with me in the emer­gency room. Late at night, the place was like a police pro­ce­dur­al, each bed a dif­fer­ent episode blocked off by mint-green cur­tains. The scenes flashed by me: a gray-faced woman beg­ging for painkillers, two boys hug­ging their moth­er in silence, a man lying face down on sheets stained with blood.

It’s a pret­ty thin case,” one of the police offi­cers had said to me. There were two of them. They looked pro­fes­sion­al, effi­cient, bored. The nurs­es didn’t seem to think I need­ed to be there, either. The men on the street had pis­tol-whipped me, but I had come away with only some scratch­es and bruis­es and a black eye. The offi­cers sug­gest­ed I move to the suburbs.

Are you sure you can’t give us a bet­ter descrip­tion?” the sec­ond offi­cer asked me. I repeat­ed myself: three black men about my age, ear­ly twen­ties, win­ter coats. One had glared at me at the bus stop, fol­low­ing me with his eyes. A block lat­er, he’d jumped back out in front of me. “Give me your mon­ey,” he’d said.

The oth­er two men came up from behind me. They pulled my jack­et over my eyes at first, so I couldn’t see any­thing. “I’m a teacher,” I’d told them, as if that would help.

We’ll try,” the first offi­cer said. “But, hon­est­ly, it’s not much to go on. Lots of guys fit that description.”

*

When April comes and the snow final­ly melts, it feels unnat­ur­al. The birds start chirp­ing, and the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren come out to buy thick slices of man­go from the man with the cart. Old men in t‑shirts sit on the porch­es, their hands pushed into their pockets.

Hey there, blondie,” they say. “Flash me that smile.” I know each of these men by name: Pete, Momo, Raheem, Jeremiah.

Lookin’ good,” they say. “Lookin’ good.”

I wor­ry that these things might lull me into com­pla­cen­cy. The longer days invite peo­ple to stay out lat­er, but when dark­ness hits, it’s like win­ter again, and we all bur­row back.

One morn­ing, when I get to my class­room, I find the net­ting of the but­ter­fly cage streaked with red. The but­ter­flies have emerged. They rest in the mid­dle of the cage, slow­ly open­ing and clos­ing their wings as if in shock.

What hap­pened?” Samp­son asks me when he gets to school, and I tell him it’s just the juice from their wings, which is true. He paus­es a while to eval­u­ate that, as if I might be telling a lie. It occurs to me that some of the chil­dren might be fright­ened. I should have explained this to them in advance.

Why aren’t they flying?”

Their wings still need to dry,” I say. “That’s why they’re flap­ping them like that.”

Oh,” Samp­son says. He seems sat­is­fied. He is on his best behav­ior all morn­ing but goes to peek inside the cage dur­ing each transition.

They didn’t get shot,” he explains to the oth­er chil­dren. “That’s just juice.” I’m thank­ful that he’s doing it for me. The oth­er chil­dren believe him.

I’m giv­en fif­teen min­utes for lunch, and it takes about five to walk from the gym to the teacher’s work­room and back, so real­ly only ten to myself. On my way to pick up the chil­dren, the cacoph­o­ny of shout­ing starts from far down the hall­way and crescen­dos by the time I reach the gym’s dou­ble doors. The chil­dren can’t play out­side because of stray bul­lets. They crash into the padded walls of the gym and scream at the tops of their voic­es. When I have to stop them at this play, they seem con­fused. “Did you hit some­one?” I’ll ask them, and their eyes will dart around. They’ll have no idea.

The recess mon­i­tor, Mrs. John­son, blows the whis­tle, and the chil­dren stam­pede toward the line. One lit­tle girl crash­es into me and leaves a sweaty spot on the front of my shirt. The children’s fore­heads are so drenched in sweat after recess that it beads up and glis­tens from their hair.

I notice Samp­son at the far end of the gym, peer­ing into the cage for the balls.

I call to him. His name has become my refrain. I say it so many times each day that it’s become almost mean­ing­less. Samp­son, Samp­son, Samp­son. When­ev­er I say it, I feel like I’m a child myself, with my eyes closed and my arms out­stretched, play­ing Mar­co Polo. Samp­son will respond for an instant and then drift off some­where else, and I’ll have to call out again.

Mrs. John­son walks over to him. “You heard your teacher. Go line up,” she says. I envy for a moment the rap­port that she has with him, the rap­port all the oth­er staff can have because they don’t have to be the ones to dis­ci­pline him.

Mrs. John­son whis­pers some­thing to him gen­tly. She takes his hand and walks him to the back of the line. Many of the chil­dren strug­gle with tran­si­tions. Some of them have been shuf­fled between par­ents and grand­par­ents and aunts and uncles and dis­tant cousins and fos­ter homes. This has left them unable to walk from one room in the school build­ing and into anoth­er. They fall to pieces when asked to put away the blocks and pick up the crayons instead.

We march back to the class­room and put out the mats for nap­time. All the chil­dren, except Samp­son, sleep as fierce­ly as they just played. Samp­son asks if he can nap by the but­ter­fly cage, and I say okay. He spends the next hour nudg­ing the cage just slight­ly when I’m not look­ing. I know it must be him, but when­ev­er I turn, he’s lying back on the mat, peace­ful­ly star­ing up at the cage swing­ing above his head. The but­ter­flies are fly­ing now. They crash into each oth­er and into the mesh walls like heat­ed gas.

After nap­time is bath­room time, then cir­cle. When bath­room time comes, I put the girls and boys in sep­a­rate lines, and one group waits along the wall while the oth­er group takes their turn. Some of the chil­dren fall asleep while they’re wait­ing, and I have to jig­gle them back awake. Some start cry­ing, and oth­ers start pok­ing their neigh­bors. The ones in the bath­room ask me to zip up their flies and buck­le up their belts. The whole process takes almost half an hour. Once we get back for cir­cle, I’m fif­teen min­utes behind on the les­son and wor­ry about what will hap­pen if an admin­is­tra­tor walks in the door. I decide to just do a shared writ­ing exer­cise. Togeth­er on the board, we’ll write some­thing like this:

Today, the but­ter­flies came out. They are red and black and orange. They were slow, but they can fly now! We love butterflies.

I go to get the but­ter­fly cage. The but­ter­flies aren’t there. Just dead leaves and pine nee­dles and Camila’s blue stones from the dol­lar store.

I know that only Samp­son would be smart enough to open the cage and close it back up again. The top has a draw­string that needs to be knot­ted, and he’s the only one who can tie his shoes.

Samp­son,” I say.

He walks over.

Stop here,” I say, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I reach into his pock­ets and turn them inside out. Lit­tle peb­bles and some Skit­tles fall out, but noth­ing else. “Did you open the but­ter­fly cage?” I say. I pat him down again.

No,” says Samp­son. He seems strange­ly calm. There’s no exag­ger­at­ed rage at my allegation.

I need you to tell me the truth,” I say.

He looks up at me plain­ly. Then, as if to spite me, he sim­ply says, “Huh?”

I make Samp­son sit with his head down at the table while the rest of us fin­ish cir­cle. We prac­tice break­ing words into sounds and putting them back togeth­er. Bag. B‑a-g. Bag. Top. T‑o-p. Top. We clap our hands as we do this.

I notice Cami­la has start­ed cry­ing again. She cries at least once a day. But this time, extra big, heavy tears run down her dirty cheeks, form­ing gul­lies. She stares down at her hands. They’re stained red with but­ter­fly mush.

The oth­er chil­dren look on in shock.

I pick Cami­la up and car­ry her to the sink. She is heavy, but I don’t let myself drop her. I set her down on the plas­tic stool and adjust the faucets until they run warm. I wash her hands with soap and water, scrub­bing each chub­by fin­ger inside my own. It feels almost as if there are no bones inside her fin­gers, as if they’re made of rub­ber. I make sure the but­ter­fly parts have gone down the drain, and I dry her hands with brown paper tow­els. I wet a paper tow­el and rub it all over her face to wipe away the tears. She squeezes her eyes shut to let me do it. The oth­er chil­dren wait in silence, watching.

When I’m done, I let every­one have choice time. I give Samp­son per­mis­sion to leave the table. He goes straight to the but­ter­fly cage and peers inside it. He gets down on his knees and looks under the shelves and behind them. I won­der myself where the oth­er but­ter­flies went, whether I’ll find them squished at the bot­tom of Camila’s back­pack or whether I’ll find them scat­tered about the room: one dropped dead in a bin of Tin­ker­toys, one pressed between the pages of a book.

After a while, Samp­son stops search­ing and slinks over to the block area. I watch him snatch a block from Cami­la. Her hands stay there emp­ty, as if in offer­ing, with the same open palms that held the crushed but­ter­fly. Samp­son holds the block up as high as he can. He is almost on tip­toe. He whacks it down hard over her head.

*

That evening, as Jen­nifer and I wait at a red light on Jef­fer­son, a black man walks through the traf­fic, wind­ing his way between the stalled cars. He strolls from wind­shield to wind­shield and taps on each one, prob­a­bly ask­ing for mon­ey. I brace myself. My hands feel auto­mat­i­cal­ly for the lock, although I’ve checked it sev­er­al times already.

He’s going to get run over,” I say.

He’ll be okay.” Jen­nifer seems unin­ter­est­ed. She isn’t even watch­ing him. She just stares ahead at the light.

I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I say. I’m talk­ing about all the jay­walk­ers that cross here on Jef­fer­son. Then I say some­thing I know I shouldn’t. “Don’t black men know we can’t see them in the dark?”

Jen­nifer lurch­es out of her daze.

What?” she says.

I envy how uncom­pli­cat­ed her anger is. It’s vis­i­ble all over.

You can get out and walk,” she says. She leans over me to unlock the door.

I’m sud­den­ly ter­ri­fied, for so many rea­sons. “I’m sor­ry,” I say.

You should be.”

But I’m not sor­ry. I’m furi­ous. I hate myself, and I hate Jen­nifer, any­one who would judge me with­out know­ing my fear. The light turns green, and the man steps onto the embank­ment. The cars start to move.

For a moment, I’m not sure whether Jen­nifer still wants me to get out or not. We’re in the far left of three lanes of traf­fic. She switch­es on the turn sig­nal and looks over her shoulder.

You don’t under­stand,” I now tell Jen­nifer by way of apol­o­gy. “I’m scared.”

I know,” she says, “But you’re still being racist.”

It’s not that simple.”

Yes, it is.”

Jen­nifer pulls to the side of the road. As soon as she’s done this, I real­ize that I didn’t think she would actu­al­ly stop.

I get out, and Jennifer’s car merges back into the traf­fic. I am stand­ing on a bridge. Beneath me is a high­way that splits across the city like a wound.

I don’t want to move. I know that as soon as I do the ter­ror will strike. I will become like a woman in a hor­ror movie, trip­ping over my own feet. I see myself mov­ing in stop motion, in the blue lights that flash from the sur­veil­lance video poles.

No, I tell myself. It’s okay. The man has walked off the oth­er way. The shad­ows danc­ing around me are my own, made by the head­lights as they rush by.

I’m real­ly only a few blocks from my apart­ment. I run home. I make it there and lock the door.

After a few min­utes, my heart starts to qui­et. I sit on the couch. Jen­nifer has my milk crate in her trunk, and I need it to pre­pare the next day’s lessons. I pull out my cell phone, hop­ing to find a mes­sage from her. Nothing.

I flip to the crime map. The lit­tle icons pop up across the city.

I some­times wish crime maps could look into the future, that I could have seen an icon before it hap­pened to me.

Why did you take the but­ter­flies?” I’d asked Cami­la that after­noon, after I’d filled out the Inci­dent Report Form and the Injury Doc­u­men­ta­tion and the Behav­ior Refer­ral. Samp­son had been tak­en away to the safe room, and Cami­la was sit­ting in my lap with a fish-shaped ice pack pressed up against the pur­pling welt on her fore­head, melt­ing ice drib­bling down her cheeks instead of tears.

You’re not sup­posed to ask that ques­tion as a teacher. “Why did you… ?” But some­times you just can’t help yourself.

They were pret­ty,” she’d said.

It was that sim­ple for her.

The crime map on my phone goes dark, and I just sit there. I think of Sampson’s unsur­prised face as I’d turned out his pockets.

I real­ize that I don’t know how to tell a preschool­er I’m sorry.

*

The next morn­ing, when Samp­son esca­lates, I count to 100.

26… 27… 28… 29…

What do you do when you can’t start over again?

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Although I am myself mul­tira­cial (half Japan­ese and half white), I have cho­sen to tell a sto­ry about racism in edu­ca­tion from the per­spec­tive of a white teacher in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly black school. I real­ize that there are aspects of both this sit­u­a­tion and the very act of writ­ing about this sit­u­a­tion that call for us to be wary. Still, I ulti­mate­ly believe this is an impor­tant issue for non-black Amer­i­cans to con­front, so I have tried to write about the top­ic in the best way I know.

My motive in telling this sto­ry is to urge us to think crit­i­cal­ly about race in our pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, I would like white Amer­i­cans (or, as in my case, part­ly white Amer­i­cans) to reflect upon what white­ness means in these set­tings. Research shows that what would tru­ly ben­e­fit stu­dents of all iden­ti­ties would be a greater num­ber of black teach­ers and black lead­ers in schools across the coun­try. Yet, most of the exist­ing sto­ries of white teach­ers in pre­dom­i­nant­ly black schools are hero nar­ra­tives. The real­i­ty is, I think, far more com­plex than these hero nar­ra­tives acknowledge—and often far more troubling.

While this sto­ry is pure­ly fic­tion­al, I have taught in a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion set­tings very sim­i­lar to the one I imag­ine here. I have also expe­ri­enced a mug­ging sim­i­lar to the one depict­ed and had to con­front my own bias­es in the after­math. Most­ly, though, I still strug­gle to make sense of some of the things I wit­nessed in schools in Mil­wau­kee, Chica­go, and Brook­lyn. And while I entered urban edu­ca­tion with good inten­tions, I now find myself forced to ques­tion the role I played in an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that per­pet­u­ates discrimination.

When it comes to the sto­ry itself, one par­tic­u­lar fear of mine is that the nar­ra­tor, while clear­ly unre­li­able, seems to call for too much sym­pa­thy. I do not want read­ers to apol­o­gize for her. But I do want white Amer­i­cans to rec­og­nize that racism can have its own “banal­i­ty of evil.” Racism is all too vis­cer­al­ly present in police shoot­ings, but racial vio­lence takes many forms, and I believe non-black Amer­i­cans must be care­ful not to let these hor­rif­ic acts dis­place racism else­where. The sit­u­a­tion I depict here is, in con­trast, quite ordi­nary. It’s that very ordi­nar­i­ness that should trou­ble us.

I sup­port the #Black­Lives­Mat­ter move­ment and hope that Amer­i­cans will lis­ten to and ele­vate black voic­es. I believe this is the only way to begin dis­man­tling the dis­crim­i­na­tion entrenched in our edu­ca­tion sys­tem and oth­er insti­tu­tions. For me, the story’s con­clud­ing sen­tence is not only a ques­tion that the nar­ra­tor must ask her­self, but a ques­tion that lies at the heart of Amer­i­can history.

 

Eri­ca Kane­sa­ka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. She holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a Ph.D. in Lit­er­ary Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. You can find her online at ericakanesaka.com and @ericakanesaka.

Transient

Fiction / Cecca Austin Ochoa

:: Transient ::

Celeste Cien­fue­gos and her so-called per­ma­nent social work­er Mau­reen drove toward the tem­po­rary fos­ter home, Fog Orchard, where Celeste would spend the sum­mer. They sped across the San Rafael bridge, the last stretch slop­ing down­wards as though head­ing into the water, as though the slight­est rise in sea lev­el would send the bay pour­ing across the lanes. 

Mau­reen, Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices, Fam­i­ly Resources Divi­sion, smiled opti­misti­cal­ly. “I know it’s far,” she said, “but you’ll be around peo­ple who get you. You might even enjoy your­self. What do ya think?” Mau­reen wore a pen­dant, a small pearl trapped in a sil­ver tear that twirled between her big breasts.

Celeste shrugged and fid­dled with the fram­ing nail in her left ear beneath a cloud of curly brown hair. The nail had been a part­ing gift from Lizzie. “Stay tough,” she’d said, as she pushed it through Celeste’s burn­ing lobe. Lizzie was the tough one, with her shaved head and her tat­tooed hands, tear ducts in a more per­ma­nent drought than California.

Mau­reen con­tin­ued, “Whether or not you move back in with your Grand­ma after this, I want you to fin­ish high school next year. What do you want?”

Celeste stared out the win­dow with a dewy look. “World peace?”

Shit!” Mau­reen slammed on the brakes as a car swerved into their lane. Celeste pressed her cheek to the win­dow. What did she want? To be a shim­mer­ing mirage dis­ap­pear­ing as soon as any­one got too close. If that girl hadn’t got so close, Celeste would still be at home. But, her not-yet-in-bloom, sapling fig­ure caught the sparks of that girl—known to Celeste as a homo­sex­u­al, les­bian, dyke, car­pet munch­er, etc. She and the girl snuck off in the late after­noon light and laid down behind the hous­ing com­plex, Hope Gar­dens, and rubbed their bod­ies togeth­er like two snakes in the wet grass. A month lat­er, when she felt her­self in the fiery whirl she’d lat­er call love, her Grand­ma found them twist­ed around each oth­er like the knot of a noose. Per­verts, she said, and smacked Celeste so hard, the flame snuffed out.

Celeste’s Grand­ma, who’d kept a long list of her granddaughter’s short­com­ings, nev­er expect­ed much, but she had not expect­ed a queer. She shuf­fled around the house in her day gown—like a night gown, but kha­ki, and with pock­ets full of men­thol lozenges, keys, and kleenex—muttering, Bad Blood. She’d always known it, Bad Blood, that Celeste: seedling of her per­fect­ly white daugh­ter and a spic who aban­doned their bas­tard child to an old lady, Too old, she told Celeste—her chin for­ward and her back hunched like a mound of pulp—but, not afraid to die alone.

 

Fog Orchard sat an acre back from the road, shield­ed by spi­dery red­wood trees. Mau­reen pulled up beside a trac­tor and hand­ed Celeste a smoke detec­tor and a battery.

Pro­to­col,” she said.

Celeste slumped down in the seat, her heart sud­den­ly pound­ing. She thought she’d, maybe, vomit.

Don’t be shy,” Mau­reen wagged a fin­ger, “I have to get back before traf­fic.” She swung the car door open, and Celeste stepped out onto the cracked dirt. A man with a point­ed head and a wide waist waved from the porch. His name was Wal­lace Crow, semi-retired from the restau­rant busi­ness, a bari­tone, cheeks pink with acne scars.

Mau­reen left after a quick tour of the house. The place smelled musty like the inside of a dried-up spice jar, with oth­er fun­ny smells lurk­ing around the cur­tains and rugs. The room that Celeste would sleep in was up a wide stair­case. It had a bed and a chest of draw­ers. In the top draw­er she found three smoke detec­tors; sit­ting on the pil­ly bed cov­er, she plugged the bat­tery into hers. A green light blinked on.

Celeste’s Grand­ma changed the locks on the doors. At least I’m free, Celeste thought as she braced against a bench for four windy nights in the park down the street from her high school. The first two nights she slept alone, but on the third she felt eyes on her, and after that she didn’t sleep at all. Since she was across the street, since she had nowhere else to go, she went to her class­es until a teacher told her, You smell like A‑S-S. She left and nev­er went back; the police picked her up for loi­ter­ing, then came social services. 

The first social work­er dropped her at St. Bethany’s Home For Girls, a four sto­ry stuc­co com­pound that smelled like baby shit and cucum­ber hand lotion. “But I’m not real­ly that kin­da girl,” Celeste said, with­out rais­ing her eyes. The social work­er asked her if she’d pre­fer cor­rec­tion­al. Celeste shook her head and crawled into the bunk, tem­porar­i­ly hers. The plas­tic mat­tress cov­er rum­pled beneath her; the babies squealed all day, all night; and anoth­er new girl, Lizzie, crawled up beside her after the lights were out and whis­pered, Hey, chap­ar­ri­ta, into her neck. She didn’t know what it meant, but it felt like a warm purr. At least, she thought, star­ing at the glow of the smoke detec­tor, she might get some sleep at Fog Orchard. Even if it were only temporary.

 

Crow knocked on the door a few hours lat­er. The yel­low hall­way light reflect­ed on his thick-framed glass­es, and she couldn’t see his eyes. The oth­er res­i­dent, Luca, stood behind him.

We’re going to check out the gar­dens. Feel like get­ting your hands dirty?”

Is it required?” Celeste asked.

Might as well,” Crow said. “It’s nice outside.”

Celeste stepped into the hall­way and pulled the door closed behind her. It must have been five p.m., but the sky was as baby blue as morn­ing. Luca had fawn brown hair that hung over his shoul­ders; he twist­ed it back and forth between his fingers.

When’s your birth­day?” he asked, slow and qui­et like he was afraid of his own voice.

Decem­ber 1st.”

Oh. I’m a fire sign, too.”

Celeste scanned her­self for some sign of fire, but felt only the haze of smoke. Crow took them through the rows of gar­den beds behind the house. Most of the crops had just been plant­ed; they stood neat­ly in their soil mound: speck­led corn, heir­loom toma­toes, squash, deck­le-edged mus­tard greens.

What’s that?” Celeste asked, point­ing to a row of green vines and hap­py leaves tied up to a stake.

Legumes,” Crow said. “The roots put nitro­gen into the soil. Which helps the oth­er plants to grow.” He told her about how they man­aged with the drought, the grey water irri­ga­tion. “We’re lucky for the fog here. Some of these plants suck the water right out of the air.”

She nod­ded her head and looked up to see the tow­er­ing red­wood trees bounce their long arms in the breeze.

 

Luca had been liv­ing with Crow for three years; he’d just turned eigh­teen. “A lot of kids come and go,” he said. “Not me.” He wore all black and stitched the holes in his clothes with den­tal floss. He left home after his father broke his arm and threat­ened to kill him if he ever came back. One year he lived on the street, knew Anar­chists, ate out of dump­sters. “Most of that trash is per­fect­ly good,” he said. But he got an infec­tion, wound up at SF Gen­er­al, and that’s when social ser­vices got involved.

Celeste fol­lowed Luca around most days, shov­el­ing manure onto the beds, pulling weeds, watch­ing the spindly toma­toes thick­en and unfurl toward the sun. She stuck her fin­gers deep into the dirt and plant­ed hex­es: one for the teacher, one for the court judge, one for the eyes in the night. She pet the com­frey leaves, lambs’ ears, like the back of Grandma’s hand, sick­en­ing­ly soft. Fog Orchard was not the out­doors she knew; not the strips of grass where the unem­ployed and the old folks sat wait­ing for noth­ing on park bench­es all day; not the aban­doned lot, over­grown with weeds and piled with bro­ken liv­ing room fur­ni­ture. A wilder nature. Luca col­lect­ed leaves and hung them on his wall: oak, red­wood nee­dles, mag­no­lia, aspen, pop­py, the long tails of gar­lic. They changed from sup­ple into a hard­ened shell, then brit­tle, then crumble.

Dur­ing the day while Crow and Luca were out in the gar­dens, Celeste would some­times wan­der indoors and through the rooms of the house. There was a thrill to being alone in so much space, like she owned it. All of it. She’d touch the leaves on Luca’s wall, rub them between her fin­gers until they turned to dust. She’d rest her chin on the dress­er where Crow kept pho­tos of his deceased hus­band, lick her lips at him. She opened Crow’s draw­ers. Beneath a pile of socks, she found a dis­turb­ing image. At first, she thought the man in the pic­ture was dead. He had a black plas­tic bag duct-taped over his head, and his arms were chained to wood­en beams, almost like Jesus. It wasn’t until she saw the man’s erec­tion that she real­ized what she was look­ing at. She felt empa­thy flut­ter in her chest. Per­vert, she thought, and hur­ried out of the room.

 

Lizzie had been a child pros­ti­tute, so-called street-involved, and the clos­est thing Celeste had to a friend. They’d spent many an after­noon at St. Bethany’s locked in the dou­ble stall bath­room, huff­ing the clean­ing prod­ucts stored under the sink. Time would slow and wob­ble like jel­lo, a chem­i­cal undu­la­tion. The flu­o­res­cent light above them frac­tured into beams of pri­ma­ry col­or, and they’d look at each oth­er and laugh like they were slap hap­py at a slum­ber party.

Celeste rang Lizzie every week from Fog Orchard, or “Fos­ter Farm,” as Lizzie called it. “I wish you’d come back to earth,” Lizzy said. Celeste heard babies shriek­ing in the back­ground. “This girl keeps try­ing to fight me, say­ing she’s on a mis­sion from God to kill fag­gots. I told her, ‘you wish God had giv­en you big­ger arms, then.’ I could snap her with my fingers.”

From where the phone was in the hall between the kitchen and the liv­ing room, Celeste could see out the win­dow to the red­wood for­est. The sun and shad­ows twist­ed around the giant trunks. “I kin­da like it here.”

I wish they’d teach us some­thing use­ful, though. Like what, you’re gun­na grow up to be a farm boy?”

Rich­mond was a world away. Some­times Celeste couldn’t tell which world was the real one. Just like she couldn’t under­stand a thing about her­self, like why she found her eyes lin­ger­ing on Luca’s back as he worked under the cold sun in a tight tank top, his strange spine exag­ger­at­ed like chain links, even though the rest of him was soft. His arm mus­cles were round as pup­py bod­ies. And if she found him look­ing at her, well, her stom­ach leapt like she’d been thrown in the air.

 

Crow had a meet­ing in San Francisco—his friend was open­ing a restaurant—so he invit­ed Luca and Celeste along for the ride. Luca called Jesse; he braid­ed his hair, tucked a sprig of laven­der behind his ear.

Pret­ty,” Celeste said, and climbed into the buck­et seat. Jesse was a trans kid who had stayed at the farm for a year, until his sis­ter in Berke­ley adopt­ed him. “A whole year? How’d he man­age that?” Celeste want­ed to know. When Luca and Crow said he, the pro­noun became a rock in a stream; they paused before glid­ing over it. What was he up to these days? Oh, he stud­ies herbal med­i­cine. Will he come up to the farm? Yes, he will.

Crow parked the truck on the cor­ner of Cas­tro and 16th. Celeste crawled into the driver’s seat and rolled down the win­dow. The street was loud, and every­body walked like they were some­body. Across the street bare chest­ed men smoked cig­a­rettes on a bar patio, all mus­cle and scruff. One of the guys pulled anoth­er in for a ten­der kiss.

Are you seri­ous?” Celeste checked the rear-view mir­ror for the per­son who’d scream, Per­verts! No one seemed to be watch­ing but her. “Where do all these Ken dolls come from?”

Luca sat qui­et­ly, eyes in his lap.

Do you think they’re hot?” Celeste asked. “Tell me who’s hot.”

There’s Jesse.” Luca nod­ded and got out of the truck. Jesse had elfish cheeks, a round bel­ly, and a gold­en fro. He wore big met­al rings on his thin fin­gers and a long gauzy shift. He walked like he was some­body, too. Maybe he was.

Luca grabbed him with both arms. “You look real­ly great,” he said. Celeste leaned against the build­ing Crow had gone into. Jesse and Luca sat on the cement steps in front of the restau­rant door, both with their legs spread open, elbows on knees.

Jesse smiled, his voice tin­ny, like he was hold­ing his nose. “Like my beard?”

Celeste stroked her chin and imag­ined feel­ing coarse hair beneath her fingers.

Off my steps.” The door opened and a small bald man stepped between Jesse and Luca.

They’re with me,” Crow said, fol­low­ing behind him and rolling his eyes. He pat­ted Jesse on the shoul­der paternally.

Oh!” The man’s voice turned sud­den­ly cheer­ful. “I for­got you run that orphan­age.” He swooped an arm at the facade, detail­ing his plans, “Tou­jours Gai, scrawl­ing cursive.”

All gays are not cre­at­ed equal,” Jesse said.

Why don’t you dar­lings wait in the truck,” Crow said with a wink. They jumped into the truck bed, waved their arms to music that climbed out of an open apart­ment win­dow. Crow, Jesse told Celeste, was from the bour­geois-zee, bless him. His hus­band died in the epi­dem­ic, and ever since he’d fos­tered queer youth. “He’s prac­ti­cal­ly a saint, but he gets sick of us. He only keeps Luca around because he’s so damn good-look­ing.” Jesse and Luca gig­gled, and Celeste stared out at the street. She watched the men stroll by in their rolled up shorts and plaid shirts, their leather hand­bags and impen­e­tra­ble sun­glass­es. Who were they?

 

The next morn­ing at Fog Orchard, Jesse sat at the kitchen table with a book, The Secret Life of Plants, and stared med­i­ta­tive­ly into the pages. “Do you know what a ‘per­fect flower’ is?” he asked Celeste, who was fix­ing her­self break­fast. “It’s a flower with both male and female parts. If you were a flower, I think you’d be a thistle.” 

Luca strolled into the kitchen and laughed, a warm sound, an octave too high. “I like this­tle.” He ran his fin­gers through his mane of hair, pulling at the long strands, let­ting them tum­ble across his chest. Celeste exam­ined the two bod­ies before her. She had­n’t sus­pect­ed that Luca liked Jesse in that sort of way, but she could see now the over-wide smile on Jesse’s face and Luca’s erect nip­ples like bur­gundy but­ton snaps.

Is testos­terone safe?” Celeste interrupted.

Is liv­ing in a body that isn’t you safe?” Jesse replied.

Celeste looked down at her bag­gy jeans, mud splat­tered com­bat boots; she walked out­side, let the screen door slam behind her. She won­dered what she would look like as a boy; just the thought of testos­terone made her walk a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, as though the hor­mone were already flex­ing in her blood. In the weeks that she’d been there, the gar­den had trans­formed into bloom. The plump bras­si­cas and toma­toes, the smell of green and tang and warm dirt. She walked through the rows, nod­ded to each of the plants. Do you hear me? Celeste asked, and the wind rushed by and the plants whis­pered. Celeste crawled between the corn with their rip­pling stalks stand­ing tall as war­riors. She lay in the dirt and looked up, the leaves arched above her like a vault­ed ceil­ing. She felt the boy more clear­ly than she’d felt him before, soft­ly rat­tling along her bones. “Fag­got,” she whis­pered aloud; the word sent a trick­le of plea­sure down her throat.

Jesse left the next day. Celeste watched, slip­pery with jeal­ous curios­i­ty, as he and Luca came back from the for­est, sticks on their clothes, red­wood nee­dles in their hair. Fuck you, Luca, she thought, but she wasn’t real­ly mad. At sun­set she climbed up a hill and watched the sky change. She imag­ined love as a gate­way of fiery light that she’d walk through and arrive on the oth­er side trans­formed: loved, a lover. So far, she’d passed through, but nev­er arrived.

 

Mau­reen came in late July. Celeste had been look­ing for­ward to her vis­it, some­one com­ing to see her and her alone, some­one who knew she was some­body. “You look relaxed,” Mau­reen said. “Must be all the veg­eta­bles.” She sat on a tow­el on the couch on the porch. She pulled out her note­book and read a court notice aloud. Some­thing about “dis­solv­ing guardian­ship,” or what­ev­er. Celeste felt her gut clench and dread swarm her chest. “Crow is going to take you to court next week. I’ll be there too. It’s like­ly that you’ll be placed back at St. Bethany’s until you turn eigh­teen. It’s only a year.” She waved her hand as though a year were noth­ing at all. “Then you’ll phase out of the fos­ter system.”

Celeste saw the gold­en spi­der threads that bound her to her Grand­ma dis­ap­pear in a puff, saw the yel­lowed hall­way of the court build­ing, a busi­ness card tucked into a door jamb, Have You Been the Vic­tim of A Crime? Celeste real­ized she was hold­ing her breath. The image of the man in Crow’s pho­to­graph came to mind. Did he like suf­fo­ca­tion? She took a deep breath, but did­n’t feel relief. Out in the yard the grass waved, the plants swayed, lift­ed by the air. The con­crete yard behind St. Bethany’s was sur­round­ed by a tall fence and video cameras—installed after one of the girl’s boyfriends, high on PCP, broke in and tried to steal “his” baby. It had a lemon tree.

That’s some­thing to look for­ward to,” Celeste said.

Lat­er she called Lizzie to tell her the news. A girl answered, “Lizzie? She’s gone.”

Where?” Celeste asked. It had only been a week since they’d last spoken.

Cor­rec­tion­al,” the girl said, then hung up the phone.

 

On the night before court, rain clouds appeared in the sky. “It’s a mir­a­cle!” Crow shout­ed as sliv­ers of rain began to fall. Celeste helped Crow roll out all the blue plas­tic col­lec­tion bar­rels. The plants hun­kered in the mud, their ghost­ly roots draw­ing a long drink so that tomor­row the leaves might stretch a lit­tle wider, grow the flow­ers into fruit. She wouldn’t be there to see if the rain made the plants hap­py, but it didn’t mat­ter because she loved the plants. A plant lover. When all the bar­rels were out, they sloshed through the mud­dy yard into the house; Crow plod­ded behind her.

Think the drought’s over?” Celeste asked, pulling off her sog­gy sneakers.

I doubt it,” Crow said, stand­ing in an expand­ing puddle.

I want­ed to ask if I could stay a lit­tle longer.” Celeste stared at the clumps of mud along Crow’s shoes, a tiny moun­tain range, a lake, a val­ley. “But I know you’d say I can’t.”

Crow sighed, “The fos­ter sys­tem, it’s like musi­cal chairs. And now, I’m going to start sell­ing pro­duce to this restau­rant, so I’ll be busy.” He smiled. “It was only meant to be temporary.”

With her mind, she pulled his smile off his face and drowned it in the mud. “This place is for per­verts any­way,” she said, and she walked up the stairs to her room. A spark of rage shot up her spine.

I’ll make us break­fast in the morn­ing before we go,” he called after her. “Pervert’s special.”

Celeste couldn’t sleep. The rain pat­tered on the roof, slid down the win­dows, and it felt like every drop plunked against her head; the bed made her itch—was it damp? —and the green glow of the smoke detec­tor seemed to fill every dark crevice in the whole room. Celeste slipped down the hall toward Luca, knocked light­ly on his door; the floor creaked and the han­dle whined open. He stood with his chest out, hair tied back in a pony tail, his face whiskery but fey.

Hey, this­tle,” he said.

Can I sleep in here tonight?”

He paused and looked down the hall, as though some­one might be watch­ing. “Okay,” he said and opened the door. He flipped off the light and the room sank into total dark­ness. They talked for a while about lit­tle things. The squash flow­ers, the greens that were already bolt­ing too ear­ly in the sea­son. Then Luca rolled away from her and whis­pered goodnight.

She told her­self, Don’t get too close. She lay on her right side at the edge of the mat­tress so that her left hand hung over. She took in the pep­pery smell of his sheets, wait­ed for his breath to slow. When it did, she scoot­ed towards him, just half an inch at a time, until her back was against his. She felt the hard­ness of his spine, the curve of his but­tocks against her own. A heat drift­ed across her, a dan­ger­ous heat; kerosene dripped down her legs; she couldn’t help her hands from reach­ing for her own body; the fric­tion ignit­ed flame and the whole bed caught fire. For hours she lay par­a­lyzed by the burn. But, when she woke up the bed was cold and empty.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

My sweet­ie just cel­e­brat­ed ten years since he tran­si­tioned. On that anniver­sary, we talked about how eight of those ten years were under Oba­ma. We can look back on those eight years and see the incred­i­ble growth of trans and queer vis­i­bil­i­ty blos­som­ing on the sur­face of main­stream cul­ture. There’s a whole gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who grew up with gay par­ents, or have friends who did, non-het­ero, non-cis kids who are out and open about their gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty in grade school. Of course, we’re all wor­ried about how the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion will try to sab­o­tage the gains that we have made on this and a num­ber of oth­er social fronts. I was think­ing about this fore­bod­ing a lot as I worked through the final drafts of “Tran­sient.” To be young and queer is pre­car­i­ous: it was ten years ago, it is now, it looks like it will be for years to come. I fear that the pre­cious few resources that exist now to sup­port queer and trans youth may suf­fer a blow we can’t afford. 40% of home­less youth are LGBT, despite only 7% of youth iden­ti­fy­ing as such. The top two killers of teenagers, after unin­ten­tion­al injury, are sui­cide fol­lowed by homi­cide. Queer youth are four times more like­ly to attempt sui­cide than straight youth. These sta­tis­tics hold a mir­ror up to how lit­tle has actu­al­ly changed, despite how much has.

The first draft of “Tran­sient,” I wrote in grad school as a reac­tion to Flan­nery O’Connor’s “A Tem­ple of the Holy Ghost.” In that sto­ry, two boy-crazy high school girls go to the cir­cus in a rur­al town and see some­thing so dis­turb­ing they are moral­ly afflicted—and, these are two girls who find morals “sil­ly.” From what’s revealed, the read­er can assume an inter­sexed per­son is work­ing one of the cir­cus tents. I won’t both­er to gan­der here at what O’Connor’s inten­tions were, some­thing about the “mys­ter­ies of the eucharist.” But, what I picked up loud and clear from that sto­ry is the fear and moral revul­sion the char­ac­ters feel when they encounter a gen­der non-con­form­ing body. There are many more rel­e­vant exam­ples, but this one’s on my mind: I recent­ly re-watched Mrs. Doubt­fire, for no good rea­son. When the lit­tle girl catch­es Mrs. Doubt­fire pee­ing stand­ing up (read­ing her beloved nan­ny as trans­gen­der, not her dad in drag), she says, “I’m gonna call the cops!” These sto­ries are told almost forty years apart, but the het­ero­nor­ma­tive gaze crim­i­nal­izes, pathol­o­gizes, and mocks gen­der non-con­form­ing bod­ies just the same.

In that first draft, I want­ed to write the inverse of that gaze. I start­ed build­ing what would become Fog Orchard, a place for queer youth in a rur­al set­ting, youth who have to burn through the haze of homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, and bear wit­ness to the per­ver­sion of the het­ero­nor­ma­tive gaze. By the time I picked this sto­ry up again, I had no inter­est in writ­ing a reac­tion to O’Connor. The most inter­est­ing part of my first draft, to me, was that a farm where queer and trans youth lived implic­it­ly meant that these kids had bro­ken from their ori­gin fam­i­lies. And thus I arrive back at the idea of queer youth home­less­ness and the poten­tial for sanc­tu­ary. The late queer the­o­rist, José Este­ban Muñoz, wrote exten­sive­ly about the ephemer­al nature of queer utopia in Cruis­ing Utopia. Since queers are out­siders to the con­struc­tions of the het­ero world, the places we occu­py are them­selves tran­sient. And, con­sid­er the way white suprema­cy, cap­i­tal­ism, and patri­archy inter­sect with queer; where one fag finds utopia, anoth­er finds oppres­sion. I want­ed to show Celeste’s momen­tary glimpses of utopia: high in the bath­room with Lizzie, lying on her back beneath the corn at Fog Orchard, shar­ing a bed with Luca. She is a resilient char­ac­ter, and these small moments of sanc­tu­ary will feed her. But the seed of this sto­ry is the seed of many real-life queer sto­ries: rejec­tion, dis­own­ment, dis­gust. That’s the lin­ger­ing smoke in the air. I hope we can move through that, replant, and con­tin­ue toward a more per­ma­nent sanctuary.

 

Cec­ca Austin Ochoa is a fic­tion writer and essay­ist. She serves as Man­ag­ing Edi­tor for Apogee Jour­nal. Her writ­ing has appeared in Nat. Brut, Kweli Jour­nal, and else­where; and she is anthol­o­gized in Pari­ahs (SFA Press, 2016) and IMANIMAN: Poets Writ­ing in the Anzaldúan Bor­der­lands (Aunt Lute Press, 2016). She is a 2014 Alum­nus of Voic­es of Our Nation’s Artists and a recip­i­ent of the Astraea Foundation’s Les­bian Writer’s Award for Fiction.

Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa

Fiction / Jennifer Morales

:: Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa ::

On the train plat­form, Dena hand­ed Mat a small package.

What is it?”

Open it and find out.” Dena’s eyes glint­ed behind the net of her vin­tage hat. She dressed every day as if it was 1945, and she had gone all out to see Mat off, in a tan trav­el­ing suit with a broad green belt and match­ing gloves. Mat sus­pect­ed she had a hand­ker­chief tucked in a pock­et some­where to wave at the depart­ing train.

Work­ing the tape loose from one end of the heavy paper, Mat slid out a thin paper­back with yel­lowed pages.

Flame on the Mesa? What is this?”

Dena turned Mat’s hand so she could admire the cov­er: two wasp-waist­ed, bul­let-breast­ed women, a dark-haired one and a blonde. The brunette cast a las­civ­i­ous gaze at the oth­er woman, but the blonde’s atten­tion was divided—one eye on her admir­er, the oth­er on the buck­ing sil­hou­ette of a horse-mount­ed cow­boy twirling a lasso.

It’s les­bian pulp fic­tion. Isn’t it great? I found it at Down­town Books a cou­ple weeks ago and I’ve been dying to give it to you. It seemed like the per­fect gift, you know, with you hav­ing to go to Iowa to get divorced. It’s about a woman who goes to Neva­da to get divorced and has to live there six weeks to estab­lish res­i­den­cy before the court will let her file the papers. Sound familiar?”

Yeah,” Mat said, flip­ping the book over. “If you think ‘six weeks in Reno’ and ‘twelve months in Iowa’ sound any­thing like the same thing.”

Years ago, Mat and Klau­dia had mar­ried in Iowa, at a time when that was one of the few places gays could legal­ly do such a stu­pid thing. In their rever­ie, nei­ther of them had read the fine print: mar­riage was easy. Divorce would require one of them to live in the state for a year first. When the rela­tion­ship fell apart, Mat lost the bat­tle over which of them would uproot her Mil­wau­kee life and go.

Stop feel­ing so sor­ry for your­self, Mat.” Dena swat­ted her with a glove. “You have a cushy job and a place to live wait­ing for you. You’re get­ting off with a light sen­tence, all things considered.”

Mat growled. She didn’t want to talk again about the final straw that had bro­ken the back of her mar­riage. Wasn’t she suf­fer­ing enough for the night she spent with Adri­enne in Chicago?

Easy, tiger.” Dena thread­ed her arm through the crook of Mat’s elbow. “Get on the train. Read the book. It’ll take your mind off things.”

God, did you see this?” Mat read the back cov­er aloud:

Janet had only one desire: to go to Reno to free her­self from the grips of Hank, the hus­band back East who had hurt her so bad­ly. But when she meets Lena, anoth­er desire is awak­ened, an unnat­ur­al one that would set her burn­ing like a flame on the mesa and leave her amidst ash­es of despair. This unex­pur­gat­ed look at the shock­ing and trag­ic lives of les­bians will open the reader’s eyes to a world hereto­fore unseen.

What kind of bull­shit is that?”

Dena hit Mat with both gloves this time. “It’s pulp, you idiot. You know, like Bee­bo Brinker? These are sem­i­nal works of les­bian literature.”

Might be les­bian, but I don’t think it qual­i­fies as lit­er­a­ture.” Mat thumbed through the book. On a page picked at ran­dom, she found two unan­nounced shifts in point of view. “Yeesh. First we’re in the tick­et guy’s head, then the lug­gage boy’s.”

Light­en up, will you, Pro­fes­sor Rodriguez?”

All aboard!” the con­duc­tor cried.

Mat added the book to her bag. “I guess I need to go.”

She reached to draw Dena into a hug, but Dena stopped her.

Wait. I need to put on my gloves.” She tugged them on, then opened her clutch to pull out a hand­ker­chief, ivory with fad­ed turquoise lace around the edges.

I knew it.” Mat shook her head. “Is that thing for real?”

Of course it is. OK, I’m ready.” Dena held out both arms and Mat walked into them.

I’m going to miss you so much.” Mat squeezed her, tight enough to feel bone, and she was over­come by the feel­ing of her real life slip­ping out of her grip as Dena stepped aside.

All aboard!” the con­duc­tor shout­ed again, pass­ing close enough to make them jump.

See you soon.”

Not soon enough.” Mat gave the sleeve of Dena’s jack­et a final tug.

At the foot of the train’s nar­row stair the con­duc­tor had placed a step stool. Paint­ed a cheer­ful, sun­ny yel­low and squat­ting on stur­dy legs, it remind­ed Mat of those tiny stands they force the ele­phants to bal­ance on in the circus.

She was in some kind of cir­cus, Mat thought. A clown show in which all the jokes were on her.

Mat watched the con­duc­tor steady a hunch­backed, white-haired woman as she board­ed the train. He ges­tured briskly to Mat next and reached out to help her up, too, but she drew her arm close and grabbed the strap of her bag. Even so, he got his hand under her elbow as she hoist­ed her­self onto the met­al stairs.

Up you go.”

Thanks.” She hat­ed the gra­tu­itous assis­tance of men.

She stood at the open door to take a last look at Milwaukee—what she could see of it from the sta­tion plat­form, any­way. The con­duc­tor scooped up the step stool, whistling as he head­ed for the front of the train. Across the tracks, a pigeon picked its way along the far wall of the train shed, hunt­ing through a smat­ter­ing of grass that grew where the sharp July sun­light cut in. When the atten­dant came to shut the door, Mat resigned her­self to tak­ing a seat.

The train was full of vaca­tion­ers, excit­ed chil­dren and their exas­per­at­ed par­ents try­ing to get them to set­tle in. Mat made her way down the aisle, her over­stuffed bag snag­ging on seat-tops as she went. There was a pair of emp­ty seats on her left, in the mid­dle of the car, and she reached them just as a moth­er arrived, a boy maybe eight years old in tow.

Is the oth­er seat tak­en?” she asked. Her hair was still damp from a show­er or a swim and it dripped onto her wrin­kled polo shirt.

No,” Mat said.

You, sit still.” She point­ed to the boy’s chest and he sat down. “I’m just three rows back with your sis­ters. If you need any­thing, call me from your seat. I don’t want you run­ning around.” To Mat she added, “If he’s a both­er, just let me know.”

Sure.”

The mom took a video game play­er from her purse and hand­ed it to him. From her pock­et she pulled a set of ear­buds, unwind­ing the cord and plug­ging one into each of the boy’s ears and the wire into the sock­et on the machine. She tucked a bot­tle of orange juice and a bag of gum­my worms between his hip and the arm­rest. As she leaned in, Mat could smell the chlo­rine in her hair. They stayed at a down­town hotel, Mat guessed, and Mom got in a swim before they had to check out.

There,” she said. “He shouldn’t be any trouble.”

Moth­ers amazed Mat. Here she had bare­ly found a place to stow her own bag and this mom had chore­o­graphed this kid’s entire life for the next few hours. Mat sized the boy up. His sandy hair was in a bowl cut that he would resent his par­ents for lat­er, and his round cheeks were pep­pered with pale freck­les. Around his pudgy wrist he wore an orange snap-on band that said “Fish­er­man’s Cove,” the indoor water­park at the Hilton down­town, and a light blue sil­i­cone bracelet stamped “Ben­jamin” in black ink.

Benjamin’s t‑shirt read, “It wasn’t me,” in neon green let­ters. That pret­ty much summed it up at age eight: you were either being blamed for some­thing or try­ing to pin the blame on some­one else. Maybe at age forty as well, Mat thought. She con­sid­ered the friends she had lost in the split with Klau­dia, friends she was sure blamed Mat for the breakup.

The train jerked to a start and she leaned toward the win­dow. She was on the wrong side of the car to see Dena wav­ing, but Mat knew she was there.

The cof­fee she had for break­fast sloshed around in her stom­ach as the train picked up speed, adding a wave of nau­sea to her mount­ing feel­ing of dread. She had lost so much in the past year, it seemed insane to give up the few things she could rely on. Her job teach­ing in the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at UW-Mil­wau­kee. Play­ing in the park with her niece and nephew. Lake Michi­gan shim­mer­ing under the ris­ing sun. The worn mar­ble of the stairs up to the sec­ond floor of Cen­tral Library. The book­store clerk at Boswell who knew her by name and set aside new titles he thought she would like. Trad­ing Span­ish barbs with the pro­duce guys at El Rey. But here she was, leav­ing every­thing behind to spend a year at Grin­nell Col­lege teach­ing a poet­ry sem­i­nar. She knew she should feel grate­ful that she had wran­gled such a plum gig, but she just didn’t. She was mad. And wor­ried. And lone­ly, already.

For the first time in years, Mat found her­self bit­ing her nails. She pulled out Flame on the Mesa, hop­ing to dis­tract her­self. Taped inside was a pink paper heart, a note from Dena. Her hand­writ­ing was girly yet for­mal, broad loops and extrav­a­gant tails rid­ing atop lines so strict it seemed like she wrote along the edge of a ruler.

Dear Mat,

This is a stu­pid book in some ways, I know, but maybe you can enjoy it in that mind­less sum­mer beach read­ing sort of way. Les­bian pulp fic­tion devel­oped at a time when it was pret­ty much ille­gal to write about our lives—unless the les­bian char­ac­ter died, or went to jail, or went insane and drove her­self off a cliff. 

Still, when I read it I thought you’re like Janet, hav­ing to trav­el to a new place in order to get divorced and start your life over. It ends badly—the book, I mean, not your life (!!!?!)—but I guess that’s what they had to do back then to keep the nation from falling into irre­versible moral turpitude. 

I’ll miss you terribly.

Yours,

Dena

P.S. Check out page 93!

Mat start­ed to turn to page 93 but thought the bet­ter of it. Know­ing Dena, it was prob­a­bly some sweaty sex scene, some­thing it would be best Mat didn’t read while sit­ting next to a cor­rupt­ible minor at risk of falling into irre­versible moral turpitude.

It was Melody who told Janet how this was done. Melody was anoth­er sales­girl at Woolworth’s and one of the few peo­ple Janet had been allowed to talk to after her wed­ding. Melody got it all arranged because Hank would notice the long dis­tance charges and the let­ters. It was too risky. She called every beau­ty shop and five-and-dime, talk­ing up Janet’s skills, until she found a taker.

Melody came into Woolworth’s one Tues­day morn­ing in March bustling with ener­gy. She tied on her apron and sidled up to Janet behind the glass cos­met­ics counter, where Janet was restock­ing the lipsticks.

Guess what?” Melody fair­ly sang. “The man­ag­er at the River­side Hotel says he might need a sham­poo girl at their beau­ty par­lor.” She got a rag from under the counter and began dust­ing the glass, even though it was already clean. 

The River­side? Sure,” Janet said. “I mean, what­ev­er kind of job he has, I’ll do it. You’re the best friend a girl could ever have, Melody. If it wasn’t for you, well, I don’t know what I would do.”

He wants you to send him your pic­ture,” Melody said, pol­ish­ing the chrome trim on the cab­i­net to a vicious shine. 

What does how I look have to do with anything?”

Melody smiled at a woman pass­ing by and said, “Good morn­ing.” When the woman had gone, Melody said, “Well, I don’t know.”

Janet looked up at Melody’s face. Her friend was ten years old­er and a whole lot wis­er than she was, Janet knew. There was con­cern in Melody’s blue eyes but she said only, “Maybe he wants to make sure you’re not a negro.”

But negroes work in hotels all over the place,” Janet protested.

Not in Neva­da, they don’t.” 

Janet went home that after­noon and, before Hank got home, took the cig­ar box with her pic­tures in it down from the shelf in the bed­room wardrobe. She didn’t have that many pic­tures to spare. Nobody in her fam­i­ly ever had enough mon­ey to own a cam­era. She had a wed­ding por­trait of her par­ents, her moth­er in a long white dress rent­ed from the pho­tog­ra­ph­er for all the half hour it took to take the pic­ture. Her mother’s real wed­ding dress was a sim­ple cot­ton one she wore for the cer­e­mo­ny in the yard of her par­ents’ farmhouse. 

And there was one of the fam­i­ly. Moth­er, father, and the three girls—Janet and her two younger sisters—taken just after her broth­er died in the acci­dent with that oth­er boy. That pic­ture always made Janet feel like her par­ents were try­ing to set­tle their minds on this new fam­i­ly arrange­ment, with­out Emil. The stern look on her father’s face espe­cial­ly, said, “There. This is our fam­i­ly now.” There wasn’t a funer­al and nobody had been allowed to cry. It was like they were just sup­posed to rearrange them­selves in front of the cam­era and go along like noth­ing had been lost.

Janet was eleven years old in that pic­ture. Look­ing at her­self at that age made her feel strange inside. Her moth­er had her hand on her shoul­der. Janet could see that the two of them had their jaws set just the same way, deter­mined not to speak of any­thing they shouldn’t be speak­ing about.

There were a few oth­er pic­tures in the box: some snap­shots of her and Hank when they were court­ing, Hank in his Army uni­form, one of her and Melody in their heavy coats in front of Woolworth’s. Janet decid­ed to send that one. The pic­ture was tak­en in bright after­noon sun­light and she and Melody were both squint­ing. It was hard to see Janet’s face, but at least the man­ag­er would be able to tell she wasn’t a negro. 

She went to the tele­phone table in the hall to get a pen­cil and wrote her name on the back of the pho­to. She thought a sec­ond and then added “(on the left)” after it so the man­ag­er would know which one was Janet. 

Hank came through the door just then. It was 5 o’clock already. She must have lost track of time while look­ing at the photographs. 

She put the pho­to in her pock­et quick­ly and began to dust the table and its lit­tle nook. Janet had learned to keep a dust rag handy at all times when she was at home, so she could look busy when­ev­er Hank got in.

Don’t you have some­thing bet­ter to do than dust the tele­phone?” Hank asked with a growl, as he passed by her in the nar­row hall­way to go hang up his coat. He stopped halfway to the coa­track and came back toward her. He looked deep into Janet’s eyes. She forced her­self to keep fac­ing him. “Are you wait­ing for a call from some­body?” he asked. 

Clear­ly he could tell she was ner­vous. Janet looked down at the floor, a big mistake. 

Hank squint­ed one eye. “What’s going on with you?”

Noth­ing,” Janet stam­mered. “I’m just doing a lit­tle cleaning.”

He stud­ied her up and down. “What’s in your pocket?”

Noth­ing,” she said. He couldn’t see that thin piece of paper, could he?

Hank drew up close to her, close enough that she could smell the ham sand­wich with mus­tard and onions she had sent with him for lunch on his breath, and put his hand in the pock­et of her apron rough­ly. She could feel some of the threads hold­ing the patch pock­et to the skirt give way to his big knuck­les as he pulled the pic­ture out. He strode out of the hall­way and into the din­ing room near the win­dow to see bet­ter. Janet fol­lowed him.

The pic­ture was now crum­pled a bit. He turned it over. “Is this what you were writ­ing when I came in?”

Had he come in soon­er than she thought? Lost in day­dreams about her pic­tures, did she not notice him right away? Janet was unsure.

Who needs to know which one is you? Who were you going to send this to?”

Janet’s head was spin­ning. Hank was always a few steps ahead of her. How did he know she was going to send it to somebody?

He looked at the pic­ture again and then back at her with a sneer. “You could have just told him you were the ugly one,” he said, rip­ping the pic­ture to shreds and throw­ing them on the floor. He stormed out of the room. “Clean that up,” he shout­ed as he banged through the kitchen door.

Janet stood for a sec­ond, hold­ing onto the din­ner table to steady her­self. Every piece of her felt hot with shame. Her knees were shak­ing and she want­ed to crawl to the kitchen and throw her­self on Hank’s mer­cy. In her mind’s eye she could see her­self doing it, cry­ing, beg­ging for for­give­ness. The beat­ing he would give her would put things to right. They could go back to nor­mal and she could for­get about this whole crazy plan. 

The clock on the man­tel over the unused fire­place was click­ing nois­i­ly. She knew Hank was wait­ing in the kitchen for her, to apol­o­gize, to come get his din­ner ready. It’s what they both had come to expect. But some lit­tle voice in her head was whis­per­ing one word, over and over, and it was get­ting loud­er. The sound of it, of what it meant, made her so sick to her stom­ach she gagged. 

The voice was say­ing, “Now.”

To her own sur­prise, Janet grabbed her hand­bag off the chair and her coat and hat from the hook in the hall­way. With one look back toward the kitchen door, she ran out the front door, down the steps, and toward the trol­ley stop. A trol­ley pulled up just then and she got on.

Okay, Mat thought. It’s not that bad. The writ­ing was melo­dra­mat­ic, but maybe Dena had giv­en Mat a gift after all—some trashy read­ing to help her knock off a few hours of her life in exile.

Mat shut the book. Ben­jamin was star­ing at her, his mouth ajar.

Are you a boy or a girl?” On the screen of his video game, a green bub­ble with feet and goo­gly eyes was bounc­ing in place wait­ing for the next command.

Mat won­dered how long Ben­jamin had been star­ing at her. He had a right to be con­fused. Mat was wear­ing her favorite sum­mer shirt, a but­ton-up in light cot­ton, and its loose­ness hid what lit­tle curves Mat had. The rest of her out­fit con­sist­ed of well-worn jeans, the boots that she was wear­ing only because their chunky soles took up too much space in her suit­case, and the brown leather strap she kept dou­bled on her left wrist at all times. Mat had the square hands and trimmed nails of a boy, too. Add in the short black hair and a kid could be excused for not knowing.

What do you think?” Mat turned and leaned back toward the win­dow to give him a clear view.

He screwed up his face in con­cen­tra­tion. “I don’t know. A girl?”

Why do you think a girl?”

I don’t know,” he said, turn­ing back to his game. “You move like a girl, I guess. And you have girl eyes.” He put his ear­buds back in and pressed a but­ton with his thumb. The green bub­ble grew small­er and start­ed leap­ing up onto a series of mov­ing plat­forms. The game’s jan­g­ly car­ni­val music leaked out of his ears.

Is he both­er­ing you?” Benjamin’s moth­er had come up with­out Mat noticing.

Mat smiled. “Oh, no. He’s fine. He was just ask­ing me about my, about my shirt.”

Oh, good. I’m glad he’s not both­er­ing you.” She peered down at Mat’s lap, her eyes trav­el­ing from the book cov­er to Benjamin’s face, and wrin­kled her nose.

Mat lift­ed the book up and shook her head. “A gag gift, from a friend. Great, huh?” Mat smiled but the mom was scan­ning the car for anoth­er emp­ty seat. There weren’t any. Mat stuffed the book back into her bag and took out her lap­top instead. Benjamin’s moth­er tapped him on the shoul­der and pulled the ear­bud out on his left side.

Come on,” she said.

He got up, pin­ning the bag of can­dy and his bot­tle of juice between his waist and his knuck­les, and made his way down the aisle after his moth­er. His sis­ters squealed in protest as Mom ordered Ben­jamin to share a seat with the small­est one.

Mat opened her book file, hop­ing to get some work done on some poems, then closed it. Her edi­tor was expecting—no, demanding—a man­u­script from her some­time this autumn, and her slack sched­ule in Grin­nell was sup­posed to help her meet that dead­line. But she wasn’t in Grin­nell yet. She could read Flame on the Mesa for now. Any­way, maybe Dena was right. She wasn’t read­ing it for the qual­i­ty of the writ­ing. Just the les­bian pres­ence, the exis­tence of queer sto­ries, was offen­sive to some peo­ple. It was impor­tant to read this book in public.

Janet had got­ten on the trol­ley line in the wrong direc­tion, head­ed north. She took the trol­ley much far­ther than she would nor­mal­ly go, just so she could get off some­where where Hank would nev­er look for her, then get back on the line the oth­er way, head­ed toward Woolworth’s.  

The trol­ley stop where she chose to wait was right on the edge of the negro part of town, across from a soda foun­tain. The peo­ple com­ing in and out of the foun­tain looked at her in a way she wasn’t used to. They wouldn’t do that down­town or in her neigh­bor­hood. She pulled her coat tighter around her neck and stared at her shoes. The trol­ley couldn’t come soon enough.

She didn’t know where else to go besides back to Woolworth’s. She knew that if Hank went look­ing for her—and he would—he would try Melody’s place first. She was her only friend, after all. The store was going to be open late since it was Thurs­day, but even so, it was get­ting close to 6:30 already, with all the back­track­ing she had to do. 

Mr. Mor­ris, the store man­ag­er, saw Janet come in and knew right away some­thing was up. Janet nev­er came in on her time off.

Janet, what brings you in? You’re not about to quit on me, are you?” Janet was a good work­er, a lit­tle qui­et with the cus­tomers and she could stand up straighter and show that pret­ty face of hers some­times. Might sell more lip­stick. But he’d hate to lose her. She fair­ly jumped when he asked her to do any­thing. A girl like that was valu­able.  

Oh, no, Mr. Mor­ris. I left some­thing this after­noon.” Her eyes flew around the room, like she was look­ing to make an escape. “My hat.”

Mr. Mor­ris looked at the hat on Janet’s head.

Janet touched her head and said, “My oth­er hat.” She bolt­ed for the stock­room before he could ask any more questions.

She closed the door of the stock­room behind her and wiped her moist brow. It occurred to her that going to Reno meant she was going to quit on Mr. Mor­ris. She hadn’t real­ly thought about it that way. Maybe he’d hire her back once she got into town again and he heard the sto­ry. She thought he liked her enough to do that.

She heard a noise in the shad­ows of the rows of car­tons and crates. Janet turned to see Fern, the clean­ing woman, hang­ing up her coat in the cor­ner. Fern’s day start­ed when the shop­girls’ day end­ed, but her slouch­ing shoul­ders made her already look tired.  

How you doing, Mrs. Hein­richs?” Fern asked.

Oh, I’m alright, Fern,” Janet said. 

Fern came clos­er and asked, “Are you sure?” This was the clos­est the two of them had ever been, although they trad­ed pleas­antries on the nights when Janet worked until clos­ing. Fern’s dark eyes seemed to hold real con­cern for Janet. “You’re shak­ing like a leaf. Did you catch a chill?”

No, I’m just—” Janet started. 

Fern said, “Just what? Just scared out of your wits now that I look at you a lit­tle clos­er. You come sit down, Mrs. Hein­richs. Catch your breath before the dev­il gets it away from you.”

She led Janet to the cor­ner where Fern kept the mops and rags. Just below where Fern hung her coat every night she had set up a pal­let on bricks and a met­al milk crate next to it. A lit­tle place to eat her sup­per. Janet had nev­er noticed it before. 

The minute Fern let go of her arm, Janet slumped onto the milk crate. 

Mrs. Hein­richs, if you don’t mind me say­ing, you look like something’s chas­ing you. You’re wel­come to sit in my seat until you fig­ure out which way you’re going to run, but I have to eat my sand­wich and be out on the floor with a broom in my hand in nine minutes.”

Janet looked up at Fern’s kind face. “You go ahead and eat.” The truth was, she had run away from Hank before din­ner and she was hun­gry. She had maybe five dol­lars in her pock­et­book, and she would need every pen­ny of that small trea­sure just to get through the next few days or so until she could fig­ure out a way to get onto the train. 

When Fern saw Janet’s sad eyes fol­low­ing the sand­wich on its trip from wax­pa­per wrap­per to mouth, Fern pulled out a fold­ing knife from the pock­et of her coat and cut the sand­wich in two. “Here,” she said with a sigh, hand­ing the full half to Janet. “Looks like you could use this.”

Thanks,” Janet said. The sand­wich was two pieces of bread with but­ter and apples between. They sat in silence while Janet worked up the ener­gy to eat it. She felt weighed down by all the ques­tions. Where would she go now? Who would help her? How would she get out of town with­out Hank find­ing her first?

What’s on your mind, Mrs. Hein­richs?” Fern final­ly asked.

Janet stopped chew­ing to look at Fern as clear­ly as she could in the stilt­ed light of the stock­room. Could she trust a col­ored clean­ing lady to keep a secret? She wasn’t sure she had any choice.

She set the sand­wich down on the pal­let and stood up. “Fern,” she said. “I’m going away. Please don’t tell Mr. Mor­ris. I’m going to—” Janet couldn’t bring her­self to say the place. “I’m going away, for six weeks. My hus­band can’t know and I—” Janet stopped her­self. She pulled on her bangs. “Oh, what am I doing?”

Mrs. Hein­richs.” Fern’s voice was steady, with a note of stern­ness in it. “In about two min­utes, Mr. Mor­ris is going to come through this door look­ing for me, and he bet­ter not find you and me hav­ing this lit­tle din­ner par­ty back here. So, if you don’t mind me say­ing so, if there’s some­thing you need from me, you bet­ter get to the point right quick.”

This was Janet’s chance and again she heard that one word, Now.  

I’m going to Reno, Fern. Hank hasn’t been a very good hus­band. I was going to go in a cou­ple of weeks. That was the plan, any­way, but today I ran out of the house after Hank tore up a pho­to of me I was going to send to the man­ag­er of the hotel where they’ve got a job for me, and I don’t have any­where to go until I fig­ure out how I’m get­ting on the train. And I lied to Mr. Mor­ris. I said I was com­ing back here to get my hat.”

Fern looked up at Janet’s head then, with its pale blue hat, a cloche style pop­u­lar five years before. 

I know,” Janet said. “I told him it was my oth­er hat.”

Fern went to the nail next to her coat and brought down her hat. It was a red felt num­ber with bake­lite cher­ries in clus­ter on the band. “Take this.” Fern said.

Oh, I couldn’t,” Janet said.

Look, Mrs. Hein­richs, you don’t want to hole up in here too long. Mr. Mor­ris will be think­ing you’re try­ing to steal some­thing. Even more so if you come out of here with­out anoth­er hat.”

Janet nod­ded and took the hat. 

And you take the 10 trol­ley to the YWCA on Ger­man­town Avenue. They can keep you for a cou­ple of nights until you get on the train. My cousin Cora works there in the kitchen. If you can get word to her, she might be able to help you with what­ev­er you need.”

Janet’s blue eyes were brim­ming with tears. “I don’t know how to thank you, Fern.” For a sec­ond she was tempt­ed to grab the woman and hug her but thought the bet­ter of it. 

You best can thank me by putting the rest of that sand­wich in your pock­et and get­ting out of here, if you don’t mind me say­ing so. Make sure you wave that hat around a cou­ple times so Mr. Mor­ris gets a good look at it on your way out.” 

Janet could hard­ly breathe but she got out one last “Thank you” before doing exact­ly as Fern advised. 

As pre­dict­ed, Mr. Mor­ris was on the oth­er side of the door.

Fern,” he said angri­ly as Janet burst through. 

Found it!” Janet said, point­ing to the hat. “Good­bye, Mr. Morris.”

Although it was dark out­side and she was alone and run­ning from Hank, she only felt a lit­tle afraid. In fact, she felt lighter, like a weight had been lift­ed off her chest and in its place was a cool sen­sa­tion, a tick­le of free­dom she had nev­er felt before. She had a plan, a place to stay, and some­one who might look after her until she could get away. She would be alright if she would just stay focused on each minute as it came, on now.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This is an excerpt from Junc­tion, my as-yet unpub­lished nov­el about Mat Rodriguez’s twelve-month “exile” in Iowa, where she must go to estab­lish res­i­den­cy so she can file for divorce from her wife, Klau­dia. Junc­tion is set in 2013, before the Oberge­fell v. Hodges Supreme Court rul­ing mak­ing mar­riage equality—and, there­fore, access to queer divorce—the law of the land.

With­in Junc­tion is Flame on the Mesa, a 1950s les­bian pulp nov­el. I give homage to my fore­moth­ers here: Desert Hearts, Don­na Deitch’s 1985 Reno-cen­tered les­bian romance film (based on Jane Rule’s 1964 nov­el Desert of the Heart), as well as Clare Booth Luce’s depic­tion of the Reno divorce indus­try in The Women, her 1936 play.

When I was try­ing to dis­solve my queer Cana­di­an mar­riage (I couldn’t file for divorce in my home state of Wis­con­sin because the state didn’t con­sid­er my mar­riage legal), I couldn’t help but con­sid­er the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Deitch and Rule’s sto­ries of women mak­ing the jour­ney to Reno and the many ways LGBTQ cou­ples were caught in the cracks of state divorce laws.

To write Flame, I stud­ied Amer­i­can and Euro­pean les­bian pulp fic­tion. Con­sis­tent across my read­ing was an unre­lent­ing white­ness: the main char­ac­ters were all white, with the excep­tion of one “exot­ic” black woman and one light-skinned black woman pass­ing as some­one from India. As a polit­i­cal-mind­ed Lati­na queer writer raised in a multiracial/multilingual fam­i­ly, it’s impos­si­ble for me not to write about race and eth­nic­i­ty. But in writ­ing Flame, I faced a conun­drum: do I go for an accu­rate mim­ic­ry of the pulp genre and make my cast of char­ac­ters all white? Or do I reflect the real­i­ty that Amer­i­can queer life has always been a multiracial/multiethnic affair?

In the end, I felt com­pelled to a direct and imme­di­ate address of race, as in much of my work. First, there’s Melody’s con­cern that the River­side man­ag­er won’t hire Janet, who is white, unless she can prove she’s not black. In the scene with Fern, I tried to show through body lan­guage, terms of address, and their boss’s behav­ior the vary­ing expec­ta­tions for work­ers of dif­fer­ent races. Although depict­ing Fern as a flat, agen­da-less “helper” to Janet would more accu­rate­ly mim­ic pulp’s treat­ment of char­ac­ters of col­or, I couldn’t let Fern be just a paper cutout. Instead, Fern is clear what her assis­tance to Janet could cost her and posi­tions her needs against Janet’s. Through­out Flame, Janet makes alliances with peo­ple of col­or who are well-round­ed char­ac­ters. Ulti­mate­ly, she falls in love with Lena, a Latina.

In Junc­tion, Mat is a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can gen­derqueer sud­den­ly relo­cat­ed to the near­ly all-white con­text of rur­al Iowa. She encoun­ters more sub­tle bar­ri­ers based on eth­nic­i­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, and gen­der than those con­fronting Janet and her friends, but togeth­er their sto­ries illus­trate the intersectionality—and durability—of the oppres­sions queer women and women of col­or face.

 

Jen­nifer Morales is a Wis­con­sin poet, fic­tion writer, and per­for­mance artist. Recent pub­li­ca­tions include MAYDAY, Glass Poet­ry, and Stoneboat. Anoth­er Junc­tion excerpt is forth­com­ing in Hap­py Hours: Our Lives in the Gay Bars (Flash­point Pro­duc­tions), edit­ed by S. Renée Bess and Lee Lynch. Jennifer’s first book, Meet Me Halfway (UW Press, 2015), a col­lec­tion of inter­con­nect­ed short sto­ries about life in hyper-seg­re­gat­ed Mil­wau­kee, was the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for the Book’s 2016 “Book of the Year.”

The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat

Fiction / Lily Hoang

:: The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat ::

Indeed, there he goes, the hap­py cat. He walks along the streets, along the canals and beside flats and busi­ness­es prac­ti­cal­ly suf­fer­ing with pri­ma­ry col­ors. The cat is very hap­py. He is a hap­py cat. Today, leaves dan­gle on the sub­terfuge of falling, and this is the sea­son the hap­py cat likes best: when his orange coat makes him invis­i­ble, and he catch­es col­or­ful birds and the ugli­est rats, and he brings them home to his pal. When he does, his pal gives him a good hard pet, and they put their fore­heads together—like a head-butt, like bonding.

What tasty snack shall I bring home today?” The hap­py cat spits. It makes a splash in the water and fish jump out in pret­ty pat­terns like fireworks.

*

Once upon a time, there was a lit­tle rag­doll girl and she had no eyes. Where her eyes used to be are two pale cir­cles. But­tons used to pro­tect her from dirt and wind and sand, but alas, one day one of the but­tons fell off and anoth­er day the next one did. This is a sto­ry about a lit­tle rag­doll girl with­out eyes.

*

Every­body knows that the hap­py cat has a home, and every­one knows to whom he pledges his alle­giance, and yet—when the hap­py cat paws at their cher­ry doors, some­one always opens with a hand­ful of treats. The hap­py cat does some pal­try par­lor trick, and so the nice peo­ple of Copen­hagen open up cans of tuna and sar­dines and oth­er alu­minum-sealed fish for the hap­py cat to eat. He is a cat with a cer­tain joie de vivre, one he will share with those who are so gen­er­ous to him, and every­one clos­es the door with smiles. After all, who could say no to such a hap­py cat?

In this small way, every sin­gle Dan­ish cit­i­zen in Copen­hagen is owned by the hap­py cat, but the hap­py cat remains loy­al only to his pal.

*

With eyes or no, the lit­tle rag­doll girl loves to dance. Oh, she wig­gles her bot­tom and she wig­gles her top and she thrusts her rag­doll head in beat to the 808. She loves elec­tron­ic music—because she just loves to dance all night long.

*

Every day now, the hap­py cat has a mis­sion: to find a new pal for his pal. It isn’t that the hap­py cat isn’t enough, but recent­ly, his pal lacks humor and he’s always so somber, dolor, just plain sad. The hap­py cat does not like this, so he brings home new friends for his pal, but not just any old thing deserves the priv­i­lege of being pals to his pal: oh, no way, the hap­py cat must inter­view these can­di­dates first. Most often, they are not stur­dy enough, but the hap­py cat deliv­ers every day, even when these new pals are already dead.

*

The rag­doll girl was once a beau­ti­ful young lady. She met a nice woman—that’s me—who promised her friend­ship and end­less devo­tion, and my potions are strong. When I hob­ble off, she waits, small and help­less, her rags like daf­fodils in the wind.

She is so beau­ti­ful and young and in love, and I wish she could stay so forever.

*

There is a crum­pled ball caught in a spi­der-webbed cor­ner of the study belong­ing to the man who is the hap­py cat’s pal. If the paper were straight­ened out, it would say this: “Once [upon a time] (scratched out), there [was a] (scratched out) is a horse and the horse.” This is all the paper says. It says noth­ing more. Now it is a mere crum­pled ball and the spi­der in whose web it cur­rent­ly resides is very poi­so­nous. Watch out: here it comes.

*

Quite frankly, the hap­py cat wouldn’t touch an opos­sum with a fish­ing pole, but maybe an opos­sum is exact­ly what his pal needs—but then! Down the canal floats a lit­tle rag­doll girl, and she is soaked to the seams, and the hap­py cat knows it instant­ly: this is the per­fect pal for his pal. He lets go of the opos­sum, who is quite scared. It runs off and quickly.

The hap­py cat also takes off run­ning, down­stream, as fast as the water is flow­ing and then a lit­tle faster because he must out­run the down­stream momen­tum that holds the rag­doll girl hostage, and now the hap­py cat slows down some to jump down the stairs, and he slows until stop, and he stead­ies his hind legs and wraps his claws around the cement edge, and he low­ers his tor­so down­wards, toward the river—and boy could this be a colos­sal mistake!—toward the riv­er some more, toward the rag­doll girl—and at just the right moment, he snatch­es her clean up. He is such a good cat!

*

When the rag­doll girl dances, she drops so much mol­ly that dia­monds sprin­kle the edges of her eyes.

But even this can­not last for­ev­er, and at the stroke of mid­night, the rag­doll girl must retreat into her rag­doll girl body, and no one would like a rag­doll girl at a par­ty like this—it’s just such a fan­cy one—no, the rag­doll girl would sim­ply not belong.

*

But that was long ago. Long, long ago.

Back then, the rag­doll girl had eyes, and what did they see?

*

Once, the rag­doll girl saw Prince Charm­ing, but he didn’t see her—just a rag­doll girl lay­ing along just anoth­er mar­ble stair­case; he was sick of mar­ble stair­cas­es. He rushed off to do some­thing very important.

*

He drags the rag­doll girl by the neck with his teeth, and she leaves a train of dirty water every­where they go. The hap­py cat is not hap­py with this sit­u­a­tion that sprin­kles water all over his coat. This makes him a dis­tinct­ly unhap­py cat. An unhap­py cat is a ter­ri­bly bad kitty.

He slack­ens his hold on the rag­doll girl, and her head flops free against each and every hard cob­ble­stone, all the way home.

*

The hap­py cat’s pal lacks spir­it, and with lack of spir­it comes lack of inspi­ra­tion: noth­ing inspires him, noth­ing moves him; he feels—but with­out emotion.

*

When I asked her what she want­ed to trade, she said, “My eyes,” and I just shrugged. I don’t com­plain, and it’s out of my pay grade to explain what a bad wager she’s about to make.

*

But good­ness did she love to dance.

*

The hap­py cat drops the rag­doll girl right at his pal’s feet. Sure­ly, this will earn him a wealth of treats, maybe of a few dif­fer­ent vari­eties; the hap­py cat looks first at the rag­doll girl he has brought just for him, and then he looks at his pal with his vio­let eyes that plead for love and accep­tance. He yowls just once, to acknowl­edge some­thing, god­damn it, but no one responds.

Sud­den­ly, his pal shoots his hand out and gives the hap­py cat’s head a good hard pet­ting. “What’s this, fellow?”

The hap­py cat snakes around his pal’s legs to express joy.

*

The hap­py cat’s pal goes down­town, and he moves with inten­tion with­out being rushed. The pal stops at the baker’s, just to say hel­lo. “Hel­lo,” the pal says.

Good morn­ing to you, good chap. Tell me, are you mak­ing any kro­na these days?”

The pal’s head falls. He doesn’t both­er answer­ing. “You’re look­ing splen­did as always.”

The bak­er hands the pal a loaf of crusty bread and a tub of cloud­ber­ry jam.

Oh, thank you, but—”

I insist, I insist,” and then he grabs anoth­er bag from behind the counter, “and this is for your hap­py cat.”

Thank you,” the pal says, because he is hon­est­ly hungry.

The pal snacks on the bread and jam, and the city is busy with fall fra­grance and pro­duce. Hap­py Dan­ish peo­ple bicy­cle along the canals and oth­er hap­py Dan­ish peo­ple sit at cafés along the canals; every­one is hav­ing a splen­did day. The trees are every per­fect autumn col­or, crispy with song.

The pal stops at many stalls and shops, and every own­er asks about the hap­py cat and kro­nas, and soon enough the pal has an arm­ful of goods. “Take it,” they insist, all of them, and so what can he do? He can­not be rude! By the time the pal reach­es the but­ton shop, he is push­ing a shop­ping cart, and even that is over­flow­ing. Like Odysseus final­ly reach­ing Itha­ka, here is the pal, at the but­ton shop, the whole rea­son for this expe­di­tion: just two lit­tle buttons.

*

Once there is a beau­ti­ful girl, and she has a beau­ti­ful voice, and she’s some­thing of a princess, except that she isn’t roy­al­ty. As such, Prince Charm­ing can’t be both­ered to look at her. She comes to me, and I say, “You are despair­ing. I can tell.” Now this is the first time we met, but for many years I have watched this beau­ti­ful girl.

Your hair is so neat­ly combed and such a son­ic sil­ver, sure­ly, you must be here to help me. Please, old crone lady, help me.”

I promised her that the prince would see her, final­ly, but I did not men­tion the mar­ble stair­case and her new rag­doll girl body. I did not men­tion how invis­i­ble she would always remain.

*

There are many but­tons at the but­ton store. The pal has nev­er seen so many but­tons cap­tured in just one place. He says to the girl behind the counter, “I must sew two eyes, but how do I choose?”

The girl takes him by the hand, and it feels like a storm in her sim­ple touch, and she guides him to the thou­sands of but­tons in the store. “Feel it,” she says, clos­ing the pal’s fin­gers around a fan­cy gild­ed but­ton, “and the right one will just be right.”

*

The pal takes a sin­gle bright pur­ple thread and care­ful­ly sews two eyes into place. She is per­fect now, flawless.

*

The rag­doll girl jumps up and takes his hand in hers, and now they are in a small barn. They stand beside this very fal­low can­dle, and it woes. It woes, “Oh, that I should only have one sin­gle pur­pose in my life!” The fal­low can­dle, it would seem, has no pur­pose, being fal­low and all that.

The melt­ing pot calls out, “Shut up, you lit­tle brat.”

Mama,” the fal­low can­dle says, “I’m sorry.”

The pal looks at the rag­doll girl because he doesn’t under­stand how a fal­low can­dle can be relat­ed to a melt­ing pot. “Just watch,” the rag­doll girl says.

Now a large sheep slams his way into the barn. He splin­ters the wood­en door.

The fal­low can­dle jumps twice, but no flames rise to his wick. “Papa!”

The sheep looks at his fal­low can­dle son and asks, “Why are you still here? We have no use for you.”

The barn is fair­ly sparse. Some hay and wood­en stalls, but there’s enough feed in the melt­ing pot to keep the sheep happy.

We should just melt you, be done with you,” the sheep says, and the melt­ing pot does not disagree.

The fal­low can­dle feels dis­tressed. He is in cri­sis. He packs his bag and begins a jour­ney, and the jour­ney will nev­er be com­plete until he finds a pur­pose in life.

Along the way, he meets a tin­der­box. “Tin­der­box,” the fal­low can­dle says, “what are you doing in this for­est? This place is not safe for a pret­ty tin­der­box like you.”

The tin­der­box says, “What are,” and she stares the fal­low can­dle right in the eye, “you doing here?”

I have no pur­pose in life. I am with­out des­tiny. I am useless.”

Crawl inside me,” the tin­der­box says and opens her lid. The fal­low can­dle bends and dis­torts, but how can he jump in? The tin­der­box unlatch­es some­thing and a door opens and the fal­low runs inside.

And so the tin­der­box glows with pur­pose, like this is what she was always meant to do, like she was wait­ing for a fal­low can­dle to grant her life.

Do you under­stand?” the rag­doll girl says, and her but­ton eyes fall off. They roll around the ground until they fall flat.

*

Don’t go call­ing me a bul­ly. I grant only what is asked of me. Peo­ple should not speak in metaphors when what they desire is literal.

*

They fall flat and sink into the ground. The pal palms the earth, and it is com­plete­ly flat.

*

Mean­while, the hap­py cat goes along his day, free of the bur­den of the hunt. He bakes his fur in the sun until it sets. Then, he returns to his pal because it is get­ting cold and damp outside.

*

Six, but now he has only four but­tons left.

*

The pal picks two dif­fer­ent but­tons: a sil­ver star and an olive square. The first time he had put on two match­ing but­tons. Now he attempts a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy. He secures the but­tons, first with thread and then with super­glue. The rag­doll girl pops into life and puts her lit­tle cloth hand in his human hand, and sud­den­ly, they are in a field, and pas­tel flow­ers grow wild and untend­ed. There is a very hand­some but­ter­fly who catch­es everyone’s eye, and he flut­ters onto a dan­de­lion. The truth is that he, too, is a des­per­ate one. He must find a mate but none of these pal­try flow­ers will do. He turns his nose up and flies off to anoth­er flower. And then anoth­er. And then anoth­er. The sea­sons change and he dies, alone. His fall is not grace­ful. It’s just a fall. And he is just anoth­er flat­tened bug wait­ing for the soil to incor­po­rate his body.

Do you under­stand?” Her eyes fall to the ground, and he is too slow to retrieve them from the past retreat­ing into the present.

*

He puts his hand around the rag­doll girl’s cot­ton hand and looks at her eye­less face. “But I don’t under­stand yet,” he says, and in walks the hap­py cat, and his pal for­gets the whole ordeal.

*

For many days his pal has been quite hap­py. His mood became a spir­it­ed jig, as opposed to a requiem, which was how it was for far too long.

Nobody likes a down­er, not even a hap­py cat.

For many days, his pal was not a down­er at all. His pal was as hap­py as the hap­py cat him­self. Flow­ers thrust into bloom when he walked by their box­es, and all of Copen­hagen, it seemed, rushed past Win­ter and flew into the apex of Spring. Col­ors just ached from inhab­it­ing such beau­ty, such substance.

And then the hap­py cat found the rag­doll girl in his box of toys.

*

Did she ever even have eyes?

Sure­ly, this is all the pal’s imag­i­na­tion. What else could it be?

*

It is the only eth­i­cal thing to do: the hap­py cat does not let go until the water nips at his teeth. She floats off with­out any eyes on her face, blind.

*

Today the hap­py cat is not too hap­py. He catch­es a pur­ple-winged dove right at its neck, and its fight only pro­longs the suf­fer­ing. The hap­py cat plays.

The thing is limp and prob­a­bly dead when the hap­py cat reach­es home. His pal is wait­ing for him at the door. “What’s this?” His pal’s fin­gers are all black. His pal has been work­ing, and when he is work­ing, he is a hap­py pal.

The hap­py cat drops the dead bird at his pal’s shoes. They are worn down. They used to be a glossy mus­tard. Now they are brown.

His pal picks him up, which the hap­py cat does not like one bit, and says, “Look at those dirty paws!” They go inside, and the unhap­py cat is still being held, and his pal takes a cold cloth to his paws and scrubs.

Very, very unhap­py now, the cat goes to bed. There, nuz­zled under the blan­ket, is a wet rag­doll girl, and she doesn’t have any eyes.

*

The rag­doll girl has a curse on her—and a promise. Don’t go point­ing fin­gers: this is not my fault.

The hap­py cat snug­gles with her and falls asleep.

There is a knock on the door. The hap­py cat’s ears shoot up.

Ah, it is only Prince Charm­ing, but the rag­doll girl can’t see him.

His pal bows before roy­al­ty, and the prince takes off his rid­ing cape and unbuck­les his sword because there are no beasts in here to kill.

Their affair is brief but solar.

*

The rag­doll girl dances and twirls and twists her body all around. It’s a real par­ty in there, and joy falls on the entire house, mod­est though it may be.

*

Now the hap­py cat and the rag­doll girl stroll along the canals.

Now the hap­py cat spots a fish-girl, and she flaps her tail and dries her hair in the sun. The hap­py cat and the rag­doll girl drag her back to the house. The whole way, she com­plains and tells the most obvi­ous sto­ries, and every­one wish­es she would just shut up already.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In the midst of writ­ing a ser­i­al killer nov­el that was more or less dev­as­tat­ing my brain and my emo­tions, a friend told me to write some­thing hap­py for a change. To take a break. He told me I should write a sto­ry about a hap­py cat. And this is exact­ly what I did.

 

Lily Hoang is the author of five books, includ­ing A Bes­tiary (CSU Press, 2016), win­ner of the Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty Poet­ry Center’s Non­fic­tion Con­test, and Chang­ing (Fairy Tale Review Press, 2008), recip­i­ent of a PEN Open Books Award.