White Flowers at Dusk
By Jay Merill
Manon is an ingénue in life’s high drama. Love has gone, she feels alone. As though on some empty stage. Luc had ended things on the day they were to run away together, the timing as perverse as that. She’d sped to meet him through the Paris streets, seen him standing by the roadside all awkwardness and tight anxiety. A part she had never seen him play before. And she’d thought, Oh but he seems like a stranger; had a premonition of what was to happen. Since that moment she’s felt feverish; hardly able to keep still. Already one week ago now but her restless mood goes on.
It is evening. She’s been walking for hours in a circle which began in the Place Maubert then spread outwards. Eventually she arrives at the suburbs. Sees the high-rises in dull unpainted grey, the dome of a church. Now a canal, some factory complex. A gypsy encampment by a railway cutting, the wrecks of old cars. All unreal as stage sets. Her pent-up agony is unabsorbed.
Finally, as night comes on she’s back where she started. Here are the white apartments with balconies. Eglise St-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. All the trees. Now she’s passing down a windowless alley. A street whose sole purpose is to lead to other places. Concrete office blocks with entrances elsewhere that give a shut-off feeling. She goes past tall buildings, catches glimpses of sky. And thinks of the recent past.
Luc and his troubled relationship with Clémence. How he’d said he wanted out, kept insisting he was in love with Manon. Then this abrupt reversal just as things were being set in motion. Had it all been an act?
She passes through the rue de Bievre and the rue Lagrange, seeing before her the Bouquinists-Quai de Montebello, the gleam of Notre Dame. Evening falls heralding a night in which she will not sleep.
Walking thoughts are different from sitting thoughts, they can jolt you, jog things out of you, move you on. As if a chunk of indigestible food had been stuck in your throat, movement the only way to shake it out. Sitting is being, walking is becoming. It’s walking to and walking away from. Never quite arriving, but sometimes you need to have that. You need to shift yourself. Rapid movement, the only way to stop from choking. Rapid thoughts, questioning the life you’ve been living, probing the glitch.
Manon thinks of the day she and Luc ran away together. The same day he decided to go back to his wife. Not that he’d really left her, had he. She has this embarrassed feeling she was part of some subsidiary performance the only purpose of which was to proclaim the main action: Luc and Clémence getting back together. And her feelings about that day have spilled over onto the way she thinks about Luc himself. An acolyte, a sideshow only and never the star turn. It’s depressing to see him in this new light but the images keep coming at her.
At dusk there are such sounds here. Scrunch of cracking glass, the clang of dustbins, a staccato of broken laughter as though to herald some spectacle. It’s breathtaking. And that strange cacophony of motor horns on the Place Maubert, which rises to a crescendo then fades. Theatrical, intense.
In rue Maitre Albert, she passes by Luc’s place. Sees the tall arched windows and curved iron balcony strung with white flowers. Manon hasn’t been able to resist taking a walk there one last time. She stares, desperate to see and yet dreading to see Luc. He isn’t in sight but on the balcony of the apartment Clémence suddenly appears.
She is pulling out petunias, pruning with a small secateur. The bush of flowers shakes and rustles. Clémence is tall behind the window box, then she’ll disappear into the curtains at her back and can’t be seen. But periodically her two brown hands reach up into air and throw out white flowers like crumpled paper napkins. They flutter down the four storeys to the street.
The hands in their discarding motion entertain on the window-stage, puppetlike. They move to left and right like lively dancers, meet together at the center. Bow. Now Clémence is filling up the balcony space, her body leaning forward. Manon catches the gleam of her upper arms, the bronze of her neck. Clémence sees Manon going along below and looking up. She waves, smiles expansively, the silver secateur swinging from one finger, as though to mock.
Manon doesn’t stop moving. She only goes the faster. Already she’s beginning to look at all that has happened as a fantasy she’d been indulging in rather than anything real. Well, whatever it was it’s over, her heart is quite clear about that. The urgent thing now is to get away. No more to see, no more to think about here. She heads off towards the École Nationale des Chartes, wanting to rest her eyes on that peaceful calming look of its stone.
Clémence nods once more, bows forward across the window box as though she’s the diva in some late night extravaganza. She continues with the trimming. There’s a quick flurry of the white flowers. A cascade that scatters at Manon’s feet. But she carries on regardless, hearing the quick slam a second later as the window’s shut down and bangs against the sill reiterating closure. End of the show, the end of this day. End of story.
By Korana Serdarević, Croatia
Translated by Iva Gjurkin
Birds were dying one after another. Swans were the last to switch off. They hung their necks and wilted slowly like the narcissus flowers in Grandpa’s garden. There were too many of them, and they were everywhere.
I’m old enough, but that’s still too young for me to know anything. My name is Sunny, for I was born under the summer sun on August 1st. People remember that year for the heat that caused the asphalt to crack, rivers to dry out and some animals to disappear.
Mum was sweating in the hospital bed; perhaps she even cried. With her was a midwife watching a Mexican soap opera, glancing at the TV high up on the wall under the ceiling. “Vete de mi casa!” cried Juanita, wearing heavy makeup, and the midwife grabbed my shoulders and pulled. I came out with a red face, red hair and wide-set eyes. The sun stuck firmly to the window glass. Mum wiped the slime from my head and lay me down on the dark side of the bed.
I’m hot. I’m always hot.
After that, my mum left. I don’t know where; I never asked. I did wonder why, but I didn’t understand the answer, so I decided to leave it alone. My dad and my grandpa took care of me, which was nice. Dad used to pour soup in his plate and his spoon always sounded like a motorbike. Before I fell asleep, Dad would stroke my back down to the shortest ribs and up to the nape. When I cried, he’d rock me and say: “Sh-sh-sh-sh.” He had curly grey hair that, over time, climbed to the top of his head, and his forehead stretched like pizza dough.
Dad sits on the floor of our barn, sweat dripping down his cheeks.
Grandpa and I walk the yard with the animals every day. There are a lot of them, but we like the birds the most. That’s why we feed the chicks first, bright yellow and squeezed into an old cardboard box. Grandpa gives me one, and I hold it gently in my hand so it doesn’t break. I can feel the warm heart against the middle of my palm. I remembered that from yesterday. I was sitting at the table in the kitchen, gazing through the window, when a sparrow fell out of the sky to the ground like a dry leaf. I went outside and took it in my hand, its two soft feet sticking out of my palm like arrowheads. Dead sparrow. Broken.
I don’t care how fish swim with their white bellies turned up towards the sun. I will not count the open wounds on the ground. Everyone has their own worries, and mine are birds.
Grandpa would water the garden while I was still asleep, after which he’d clean the barns and sweep the yard. Later we’d feed the chicks together, then the geese and chickens, and then gaze high up into the walnut tree, where the birdhouses were. I can’t reach them; I can only watch as they sway in the breeze. My grandpa has thin hands with long fingers that put food in the birdhouses and pour water in the dishes.
I wash my face several times a day, and the water evaporates before I can even lick my lips. I watch out the window all the time, waiting to see the birds. Let them be spots disappearing in the sky; let them be sparrows that jerk their heads; let them be storks with red feet that break in half.
The fields behind the house are brown and flat. The border between the earth and sky is a hazy, broken line.
Grandpa and I had to spend summers inside, in the dark shade, on a dirty yellow couch in front of the TV and crosswords. Grandpa doesn’t like the heat, because then all he has is early morning. Later, Dad makes him go inside.
“Grandpa’s heart is not working well anymore,” Dad says. “He has to stay out of the sun.” Two years ago, the doctor told Grandpa that he can’t eat anything that grows above the ground. Last year, Dad told Grandpa that he can’t clean the barns, carry heavy weights or push the wheelbarrow. All he was allowed to do was feed the birds.
If only it would rain. The water dishes are empty, and I’m too short to reach the pipe and too weak to carry the water from the river. Birds are drying out in the heat. Their beaks are open all the time, their throats plugged with their tongues.
Dad explained today that Grandpa wasn’t allowed to work anymore, so he had nowhere to go and nothing to keep his hands busy. I buried all the chickens and the geese behind the kitchen door, in the loose soil where flowers sometimes spring. That was all I could do by myself.
Before they started to fall from the boughs, from the power lines and street poles, birds fell from the roof of our barn: a pair of storks, five doves, tens of sparrows, a grey hawk and a big motionless heron. They started to scratch the bricks early in the morning. Grandpa wasn’t in his room to ask him what to do, so I went outside to look in the barn. High above my head, Grandpa’s body hung from a thick rope, swaying like a birdhouse.
Sweat drips from our cheeks, my dad’s and my own, all day long. We sit in the house and wait for the heat to pass. We can hear cows mooing and sheep bleating from the outside, but we never hear the birds anymore.
By Jesse Mardian
When the shark ascended upon Rusty, he was sitting on his longboard and staring out into the horizon. The teeth sank into his thigh, puncturing to the bone, and sending his body and mind into hypovolemic shock. His life didn’t flash before his eyes. There was no bright light. No gates of pearl or fiery pits. Rather, as the trauma deprived his brain of oxygen and his heart rate decreased, his mind took off on a memorable curling right.
The offshore wind blew mist off the face as he stood and bottom-turned. Far down the line, he could see a barren backdrop of perpetual rolling hills. There was no thought or feeling, just the sensation of surfing. The sea pervaded the air and a deafening roar of whitewater billowed as he carved up and down, up and down, cutting back and snapping the lip.
Rescue 13 to St. Peter’s, requesting physician for med control.
Rusty floated over a cascading section, landing on a pillow of whitewater. Slowing and reforming, the wave passed over a deep shelf. He judged the line ahead, adjusting his feet. On the shoulder, an old man dropped in. Blue-striped rails, deep-nose concave, Rusty knew the board; his father’s last. He dug his rails deep and followed his old man’s composed carvings. When he was within arm’s reach, his father glanced back, revealing an eternal smile. “You’re almost there, this one’s almost over,” he said. Then he was gone, launching off the back and disappearing behind the mist.
Rescue to St. Peter’s be advised we’re on route to your location. Code three. Level three.
The wave reformed and Rusty hovered close to the whitewater. Echoes of voices past, those taken too soon, cheered for him. Gregor’s holler, the whistle of Benny, Morgo’s machinegun laughter, and even the flatulence of Coons, all resonated in the hollow tube. Standing in the pocket, Rusty hugged the wave as it hit a shallow reef and threw. In the barrel, he tucked and stared forward. At the end of the barrel was an eye-shaped opening. Everyone, everything, looked in. Rusty grabbed rail.
Be advised we have a male, thirty-five years of age, involved in a shark attack. We have a severe laceration of the femoral artery.
Deeper he was sucked into the barrel, the eye enclosing far ahead. The surge was strong behind him, and his board rattled violently. He held fast.
Blood pressure is 79 by palp, a current pulse of 43 and dropping.
Ahead, the eye closed. Through a kaleidoscope of blues and greens he could still see the landscape. He crouched lower and lower, fetal, as the wave ended. The colors disappeared, the board vanished, and Rusty twirled in a womb of whitewash. He reached for his leash, but it brushed by his fingers. For a moment he floated in dark water. And when all the fluid drained, he was taken from his world into the Great White.
By Frank Possemato
There’s a reason why people fight these things coming to town. It’s summer and the second night of the fair. My parents take me, each holding on to one of my hands—pulling me for a change—and I linger at the smell of livestock and food and see the moon on the face of a chewing cow. We swim through the humidity, through the crowds at the turnstile, and stop in the open air. A band is playing and everyone dancing is older than my mom and dad. A girl walks by with an enormous apple dripping with candy and I follow it backwards to the line for the stand.
“He’s already had McDonald’s today,” my mom tells my dad, and I don’t care. I’d rather have McDonald’s than wait in that line anyway. I look up and there are thousands of stars and only three of us. The crickets make a sound like they know everything, but I think they’re asking.
When we walk past, someone throws a ball at a stack of cups and knocks them all over except one. Hanging on the tent is a stuffed bear the size of the moon.
“Should we try it?” my mom asks.
“That game’s for marks,” my dad says.
I look up; people are moving all around and the stars aren’t. A balloon pops outside my ear so I turn around and people cheer, and the host hands over a stuffed dog way smaller than the moon. Kids take turns throwing darts. They don’t even come close. One of them hits the sign that says “3 Hits Wins A Prize.” They’re busy laughing.
My mother looks at my father and he looks at the balloons like there’s no chance he’s missing.
“Wait here a second. Don’t wander off.”
I don’t want to wait in line for the bathroom but I feel another line pulling me and jump up to see what’s in the tent. “Fortunes Told” the banner promises. I get closer and there she is. “Regina” with her crystal ball and her hair in a bandanna and a lot of makeup, her hands outstretched, her nails sharp and red.
There’s a reason people don’t want these things coming to town and I’m about to find mine. Something turns in my stomach like I’m afraid and safe all at once. I follow the line of Regina’s dress and her leg shooting out. Her foot moves with the words as she’s talking in some accent. Above her hang faces with tongues out, and masks in sickening gold and above them is the night sky still there and the stars, and down there Regina’s leg comes all the way out of the slit and I follow it up as I get closer to the jewels in the big belt she’s wearing and the reflection of the rest of the world I don’t know about.
She looks right at me. “Let me tell you your fortune,” she says and her mouth spreads.
Everyone’s dreams die and some people’s die young. Tonight there’s a sky full of dreams out the windshield and even more when I lean my head out the window of the parked car. Kayla Minter has her knees on the steering wheel and her shoes off.
“This is where it was. Or over there.” I show her with my fingers but it’s hard because it’s all just fields now. A song she hates comes on the radio and I wait for her to say it and she does, this time accompanied by a poke to my stomach. I breathe out and put my elbow on her shoulder. I don’t even have to kiss her.
In the black night sky it’s still there and I protect myself from it by my promises to her.
By Arya F. Jenkins
He points to his favorite belt buckle with a lion design on it and says, “This way, I’m king of the jungle,” while peering at us, his coworkers, over the rim of tinted glasses with ornate, gold-lacquered frames purchased at a store in Graceland, where he once performed with other Elvis look-alikes at the height of his now defunct career. At his last gig, a wedding reception, the drunken Best Man smashed his $2,000-dollar guitar, he tells us, eyes dog-sad, straining to look deep.
He is aware, as if only he is aware of this, that his looks matter less than his voice registering strong and sweet when aimed into the microphone of his headset as he tries to reach minions in a telemarketing booth. He knows that, even disguised, his existence with his nagging, abusive wife and as a struggling operator, the fact of him, five feet two, hopelessly-infatuated-and-still-faithful, fat and middle-aged, cannot be erased. Still, the belt buckle and glasses, long, blackened sideburns, white pants and boots, flowery shirt open to the navel, shield him somehow, provide a sense of suave allure, lift him, if only temporarily.
At work, he sneaks glimpses into a pocket-sized book of Elvis sayings—his own personal bible. “I’m trying to keep a level head. You have to be careful out in the world. It’s so easy to get turned.” When a supervisor approaches, he slips the book out of sight under his thigh. It’s all right because, even without Elvis in hand, he can recall, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”
At break time, he sits in his 1974 BMW 2002 with its dented fender, ailing windshield wipers and bald tires he cannot afford to replace, and blasts Elvis’ songs that he accompanies not wholly out of tune, and sometimes with the window down.
When he was seven, playing ball while his mother lay sick in bed, his blue nylon shirt grazed an electric heater; he went up in flames. His mother put out the fire, encasing him in a sheet. Unconscious, he looked down from the ceiling at her long hair weeping over his mummy-like form on the bed. In the hospital, doctors and nurses thought him very brave, although he never felt pain. Years later he asked his mother why the giant boil on his back never hurt him; she explained she had prayed while he was unconscious that his pain would become her own because he was too small to bear it.
This moved him. He understood that he too should bear the burdens of others. So that is what he does; he assuages those he calls with his voice, one by one, taking away their pain, even as his own life threatens to disappear into a night without reprieve—a song no one will remember.
You’re the One I Love
By Miguel Gardel
My father, before he was my father, fell in love with a crossed-eyed girl who was very beautiful. My father married this girl and together they had a very beautiful daughter. But the beautiful crossed-eyed girl died while giving birth. The baby girl had normal eyes and was healthy. Before the mother died, on her deathbed, my father promised her that he would never marry another woman. That no other woman was worth marrying. That he could love no other like he loved her.
No one else saw this scene, no one else heard, or remembered in any way my father’s words. No one witnessed this promise my father made to the beautiful crossed-eyed woman. And it was definitely not an intelligent thing to say. He was a young man. And I don’t want to believe that his beautiful young dying wife would ask him to promise such a thing. But that’s the story he told me.
In those days, in that town, if men were really serious about marriage and or seriously in love, to impress the girl and, or the parents of the girl, they would serenade the girl they loved. My father couldn’t play an instrument and knew hardly nothing about music. So he hired a professional serenader to serenade his beautiful girlfriend. The girl had two sisters who were equally beautiful so the musician asked my father, Which one, exactly? I need her name. My father told him. And the musician said, Ah, the one with the eye. Because it was one eye, the left one, that rebelled and refused to look straight up front. Yes, my father said, proudly. She was very beautiful and the imperfection made her very special.
And that night the professional serenader came close to the girl’s window and under the moonlight began to pluck and strum his Spanish guitar and serenaded my father’s beautiful girlfriend while my father watched from across the street. A Ti Te Quiero, was the song my father told the serenader to play first and last in the set that was the serenade. It was a bolero my father had heard coming out of a jukebox while he was having a beer in a bar. My father never forgot and never will forget that night of the serenade. That man could sure play a guitar, my father told me.
He met my mother in the city, at a nightclub, a year later. And then they dated and that nightclub became their favorite and it was there where he proposed to her. That was a very special and happy evening for my mother. That evening was also exceptional for my father but then the rest of that night was terrible and horrific.
On his way home after walking my mother to her place, my father remembered that promise he had made to his beautiful dying wife. He had to go through a very dark corridor to get to the room he rented right outside the city. The strong guilt he felt, combined with the pitch black darkness, made him hallucinate. And he saw the beautiful young woman at the end of the corridor. She was standing, wearing the dress with the flower patterns my father loved to see her wear. He thought she was going to speak, and he waited.
My father stood there facing his former love with his heart pounding so furiously he thought it would knock him to the ground. But the beautiful woman did not speak, and my father remembered that my mother too was a crossed-eye woman. And he realized he had a thing for that particular imperfection. And then the guilt began to subside, and his original love began to fade. My father felt stupid and cowardly. And then he started to walk toward the room he rented at the end of the corridor. He walked with his head up high and very conscious of every step he took. And he hummed that old song, A Ti Te Quiero.
Disbelief has always been the theme of my life
By Kate LaDew
… because you believe in the whole world, but I just believe in a few things.
You’re still smoking, maybe even the same cigarette, maybe I haven’t missed a thing. I’m kneeling in front of the toilet, hair sticky with whatever fast food we had that night and out of the corner of my eye your clean profile is like something off a coin.
I’m trying not to remember all the stories you’ve told me about your mother, the drunk who lives in your house, the fleshy stranger I’ve only seen asleep, clutching a half-used vodka bottle like a life raft, drowning slow. I’m trying not to remember all the times you’ve said: this is it, this is the one, this is the last drunk I’ll forgive her. But you make her breakfast the next day and the next, linked by invisible chains, because she’s got you. From the moment you were born, she’s got you, forever and ever. So I’m trying not to remember you’ve seen all this before, done all this before. Held hair back, sat on a bathtub watching liquid pour out of mouths that claim to love you.
You’ve done all this before. So when I turn my head, find your eyes on me, I hold perfectly still, hold my breath, make my heart slow and try to force myself out of existence. Because anything’s better than knowing what I am and waiting for you to say it. Anything’s better than seeing that slow realization dawn on your face (eventually we all marry our parents).
I sit on my feet, staring into the porcelain, a nothing, and nothing happens, for so long, I almost believe it until hands lift me, press me into a warm chest, and I am rescued, not deserving it even a little bit. Colored lights go off like bottle rockets behind my eyes. I breathe out, start my heart up again and hold onto you with everything I’ve got, trying to strangle out the guilty and wanted words looping in my brain: I’ve got you now forever and ever. I’ve got you now.
By Peter Fraser
I’d seen the announcement in the Mirror that Bacon Purdon, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate was attending a local poetry reading. This was so improbable I just had to be there.
I suspect I lived in a cultural backwater, a small town that found literary fame a difficult concept to understand. He was a standard, a measure. I ripped the advertisement out of the paper and put it under a fridge magnet.
When the day arrived I organise it to fit the event. I try to recapture my youth by sleeping in. About mid-morning I head off to the public baths. I take the side entrance and straight away see the baths are empty. Thursday, cleaning day. A large hole in the ground gapes back at me. I retrace my steps, right back into my apartment. Irritated at my stupidity.
The day drags, it grinds at an irritably relaxed pace. I look for one of Bacon’s novels, lie on the lounge and start flicking through it. ‘The Untamed Frontier,’ the book that made him famous. It is like peering into an old family album, which starts with black and white photography. Still, it was published forty five years ago. It seems predictable and awkward, then ends in a comic book conclusion. I reason that tastes change, Bacon would have moved on, like his audience. It’s a book just demanding to be burnt.
I search the place for another piece of his literary jigsaw, sifting through ancient piles of literature. Yes, ‘The Beast, My Beast’. His third book and a bestseller.
But this one is even worse than the first. Zombie characters that lack any connection to humanity, clichés about love and inner bravery, some nonsense about looking death in the eye, a bizarre plot, involving trains racing across the countryside, then he pretends it all happened in London.
I feel dispirited. I have just defiled a personal, cherished memory. It is a part of the midden of books I refuse to abandon. Although I have a Kindle and hedge my bets.
Yet it might be me. The words of Bacon Purdon don’t ring true anymore? No? That couldn’t be right. I have a white wine. Too early to start drinking, too late to correct my life. But I head off to the reading and manually adjust my attitude to positive.
And it is him. In a local pub he sat as conspicuous as possible, at a table in the middle of the back room. A few years ago this would have been filled with tobacco smoke, but now a gentle air conditioning shuddered through the room. Bacon Purdon sat resolute in tie and stylish casual jacket, completely in character. He hadn’t aged in all those years. The awkward skull showed limited weathering, the hair only slightly diminished, although the colour appears to have faded. It was certainly the genuine Bacon.
A young woman was excruciating over lost love, on a small stage. She held a wad of narration. Her eyes seemed wet with agony, her face soaked in meaning. The words were addressed to the large bronze statue. Purdon focused and seemed to be following the words. He was more than a dinosaur, it was so impossible that a literary, New Yorker, dressed almost like my grandfather, would be sitting in this room listening to the sad fortunes of local lost love.
As the poets changed I had to talk to him. I felt an entitlement, an urge to confront my past and present in one quick encounter.
“Mr Purdon, could I have a quick word.”
I felt like a dishonest disciple, but it was all that I could say. I hadn’t thought it through. He tried to focus on me, perhaps shocked that he was hearing these unannounced words, standing next to him, his eyes looking past my shoulder, following the young female poet.
Bacon seemed annoyed that I had interrupted his line of vision, then switched with a liquid eye, an eye that only the elderly can possess, to my presence. He was affronted with my proximity. What the hell was I doing, standing there? I should have just asked for an autograph, or got someone to take a picture of me standing next to my literary hero. He seemed annoyed that he had to respond. Yet his words were clear and polite. “No. Please leave me alone. Thank you.”
He had no interest in what I had to say, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say myself. I had been dismissed. He had just placed a rejection slip on my forehead. Bugger off.
The female poet and her agonised love were now sitting next to Bacon. He seemed to be most interested in what she had to say. Were they colluding over structure, fabricating traditional themes or just polishing some light imagery? They soon left and retreated into the front bar of this poets pub.
There were unshaven and bearded workers playing pool, there was football on a large flat Chinese screen, there were regional greyhound races on small monitors around the walls. Yet Bacon Purdon, in my grandfather’s clothes, the man who had accepted a Laureate and Pulitzer was here chatting away at ease to a young poet, who had lost in love.
He whispered in her ear. He stroked her hand then pushed some hair behind her ear. Why wouldn’t he talk to me? Could he feel I wasn’t a believer anymore? That my faith had been found wanting? He should be dead, the old bastard. They finished their drinks and walked out into the night.
He hailed a cab and Bacon Purdon, with the young poet, entered the vehicle and disappeared into the simplicity of night. He would have to be a hundred and fifty years old, but he was accustomed to collecting literary prizes.
By Ray Morrison
I’d been thinking about getting Kim a puppy or kitten for weeks, so when Ingrid, one of our paralegals, told me her own dog had puppies, it seemed that Fate, or God, or whatever force manipulates all the shit in our lives, was making the decision for me. I drove to Ingrid’s after work and picked out the puppy I thought was the cutest. It took no more than five minutes.
On the drive home the puppy scrabbled up the side of the box Ingrid had given me to carry him in. His brown and white spotted head popped up then slid back down. He began to whimper, so I rubbed his head to quiet him as I drove toward the house to surprise Kim. And while I was somewhat ready for Kim to reject the puppy, I wasn’t prepared for the vehemence of it.
“What’s this? Your attempt to snap me out of my malaise? To put the pieces of our life back together? You’re fucking pathetic.”
“It’s just a puppy,” I said. “Don’t turn it into something it’s not, Kim. I figured we’d both enjoy having a dog.”
I watched the sudden shift in her expression I’d seen often in the past eight months. The anger drained away, her eyes moistened, her lips quavered. If I could distract her, I thought, maybe we could avoid the complete collapse we were headed for.
“What should we name him?” I said.
Kim looked at me in a way that made me wince. Her eyes drifted to the box on the floor between us. The puppy had managed to get its front paws over the edge of the box and was dangling from it, whining.
“Why not call him Jacob?” Kim said. “That’s what you want him to be, right?”
She reached down and the puppy began to wag its tail wildly in anticipation of being picked up, but Kim’s hand hovered just above its head, never touching it. When she stood back up, I saw a tear streaking her left cheek as she glared at me, her mood having catapulted back to anger.
“You’re an insensitive fuck,” she said flatly. “You used to give a damn about my feelings. What’s happened to you?”
Of course, she already knows what’s happened to me. To us. A random chromosomal flaw, or whatever the doctors call it. But I’ve concluded that simple bad luck is all it really is. Shit happens. To lots of couples. The doctor said we only needed to wait a couple periods and we could try again. But after four months, Kim still wouldn’t consider having sex. She’d threaten me if I touched her in bed. I managed to convince her to go to a psychologist for help, but three months in I hadn’t see any change.
So two weeks after bringing the puppy home there I was, standing under an umbrella in the backyard, shivering as I waited for it to pee. He’d doubled in size since I got him. Kim still wouldn’t have anything to do with Buddy, keeping him locked in his crate while I was at work and if I couldn’t get home at lunch to let him out, he’d be covered in piss and shit by the time I arrived in the evening.
The puppy seemed oblivious to the chilly rain as he meandered around the yard, sniffing the grass, occasionally picking up something and chewing it. After ten minutes I gave up and carried him into the house. He shook the water off his fur and trotted into the living room where Kim was sitting on the couch with a paper plate holding a half-eaten microwave burrito tilted on her lap. The puppy squatted near her feet and urinated.
“No!” I screamed, and raced to stop him. The pup, frightened by my outburst, ran under a chair.
“Aren’t you glad you got me a puppy?” Kim said. “Maybe little Jacob needs a diaper?”
“His name’s Buddy, not Jacob. Stop calling him that.”
“Okay. I will,” she said. There was an icy edge in her voice that unnerved me.
I went into the kitchen to get a rag and disinfectant to clean the spot where the puppy had soiled. As I knelt on the carpet scrubbing the spot, I glanced up at Kim who was smiling as she watched me. A speck of burrito sauce had dripped onto her chin and a larger spot that stained her wrinkled blouse resembled drying blood.
“You know you’ll never get him housebroken, don’t you?”
“I could if you’d help me,” I said. “I got the damn puppy for you, after all.”
“I never asked for a puppy. I never asked for any of this.”
She took a bite of the burrito and spit it back onto the paper plate. Then she stood and tossed the plate onto the floor next to me and marched up the stairs. A glob of partially-chewed burrito landed on the back of my hand. The puppy ran over and began eating the remains of Kim’s dinner. I started to take it away, but decided to let him have it.
I unhook Buddy’s leash and watch him race across the patchy grass field of the dog park toward an overweight Basset Hound I recognize as one of the park’s regulars. Buddy has just turned eight and is nearly seventy pounds now. Only rarely when I look at him does he remind me of my time with Kim. I don’t know where she is now, or if she’s found someone new, but I hope she’s well, I really do.
Buddy runs back and sits in front of me, his tail sweeping the ground. I pull a treat from my pocket and his eyes lock on my hand. I toss him the treat and he races away to play. Watching him makes me smile. I’m lucky, I know, to have him.
By Beth Konkoski
In the weeks following her daughter’s abduction and return, Connie carried the child at the hip, slept with her curled in tight to her belly, pressing until it hurt, as if she could restore her to some untouched space in the womb. As any toddler would, Ashley struggled to get to the floor, to run and play in the backyard with her brother, but Connie could not release her hold, arms like cuffs locked around the body she had almost lost; the skin of her neck where the ear attached became an event to be studied like she had once memorized paintings by Rembrandt, Turner, Whistler in a classroom with cold, slanting desks and the smell of her instructor’s Juicy Fruit.
Connie’s own mother was the kidnapper, and she had not yet been able to ask why. The word was rendered almost meaningless in the smell of her daughter’s snores, the dance of her fingers when she stroked her face, but it haunted her, the need to someday get to such questions. The Italian police and the FBI had captured her mother in Rome and taken her into custody, with Ashley in her arms, within two weeks. The few hours Connie slept during those days, she sometimes dreamed of toy trains chasing her through the aisles of a grocery store where she flung diapers and cans of soup to form a barricade, trying to knock them off their tracks; other times it was real trains pressing their hot engine breath down her neck as she tried to out run them. Upon waking, she spent hours wondering why she didn’t just jump out of the way, how she could know they were coming, but not step off the track to let them rush past.
The jail cell was several hours away, and Connie could picture her mother sitting alone, a gray set of prison wear, her hand not wearing its wedding ring or the sapphire that had been in their family for over a hundred years. She did not let herself imagine her face. One morning she sat down to write a letter, try for an answer to her questions. Dear … But she got no further, realizing how broken language had become.
While Ashley learned words for the world and laughed when she was tickled, Connie and her husband agreed without speaking that there would be no word for grandmother.
Trials of Father Johanon
By Mitchell Grabois
I wade into the peasantry like Moses into the Red Sea, but these peasants lack the dignity of reedy water that quivers with the spirit of God. These peasants film each other beating each other up, sometimes in ancestral native dress, sometimes in ghetto threads. Turn on YouTube and see them.
I’m drinking Pepto Bismol and Stoli as a prophylactic. I watch the Polizia carry their machine guns. They are old fashioned machine guns, recycled from Chicago gangsters. In my courtyard I make cardboard cut-outs of these weapons, paint them realistically, and stockpile them for the use of my cardboard army.
I strip, lift my right leg over the lip of the tank. My balls hang low, brush the concrete. My servant averts her eyes. What will she do for money, she still wonders. How far will she go?
She has wondered this for years, as long as Love in the Time of Cholera, and she still wonders and still does nothing outside her proper role of servant.
As Habakkuk 3:18 attests: Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen, though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I exult in the firm young bodies entrusted to my care.
We direct our worship outward, but do we ever feel worshiped ourselves? I worship them. I give them the experience of being adored. I give them a small portion of Godhood. They will remember me forever.
Strawberry is the flavor of innocence, of holiness. I dream of casting off these robes, inflicted on me by my parents, the papacy, and God, and putting on a blue-collar shirt, Craftsman jeans and going to work in an ice cream factory, crushing strawberries.
Deep River, Iowa
By N.J. Campbell
“You got another?”
I handed him a cigarette.
“Thanks,” he said and took the lighter from my hand.
The wind pulled at the flame and washed over the ends of what little hair he had left.
“You from here?”
I pointed down the road past the lot, the abandoned grainery and the remains of the town I had grown up in. The town my mother and father had been born in. The town my grandparents had farmed outside of. The town my great-grandparents had settled in.
The man looked off down the road following my finger.
“They got jobs here?”
“In the fields,” I said, remembering the time when I was seventeen when my friend’s mother was drunk and pulled me into the field behind their home and said that I would remember this as she took off my pants, that I would remember this for the rest of my life.
“Corn?” he asked as I heard a train whistle in the distance beyond the fields to the south of town where turkey vultures circled all day.
“Corn,” I said, remembering the corn alcohol Mickey, Hank, John and I would make in big batches to drink before we’d climb the water tower for the hell of it, the hell of it being the last time, the time John lost his footing, the time John fell back sixty-three feet and broke his neck and died in the hospital three summers ago.
“It always this hot?” he said as he exhaled smoke into the mid-afternoon sun.
“Always,” I said, remembering the wet, heavy heat on the day twelve years ago my mother, who never smoked, bought a pack of cigarettes and told me to get out of this town just before she got out of this town to somewhere she never told my father and me about.
“They got a VFW bar?”
“On the west end of Main,” I said, remembering the nights my father would spend there after my mother had left, before he told me that I reminded him too much of her, before he told me I’d need to be tougher, before he told me he had liver cancer, before he fell to the foundry floor among the showers of white sparks saying he was just a little dizzy, just a little dizzy and that’s all, before he died on that grease stained factory floor north of town last spring.
“They got a Deep River?” he asked, waving his hand at the sign across from the bus stop.
“Depends on the season,” I said, remembering when my grandfather had taken me to the river as a boy during the rains one spring and told me that the river, like any hardship, like any suffering, was only as deep as you make it, as deep as the way you look at it, and I told him that that was a lie because you could see the rain falling, because you could see the water rising.
“Well, you comin’ or goin’?”
This Has Got to Stop
By Paul Beckman
Manny’s right hand was out of control. It swung wildly, punching him in his left shoulder, forearm and then bloodying his nose with two more ferocious roundhouses. Meanwhile Manny’s left hand played with the change in his pocket.
Righty finally tired himself out, and Lefty, no longer tossing the loose change, was now playing pocket pool. Righty reached around to get the handkerchief and held it up to Manny’s nose to help stem the flow of blood.
Lefty, having just gotten off, took his hand out of his pocket and took charge of the handkerchief. He wiped his hand and Manny’s nose simultaneously while Righty shook, trying to get the soreness out.
Manny sat down on the curb trying to figure out what he’d done to Righty this time. Righty, for his part, hoped that Manny learned his lesson but just in case he hadn’t, Righty lifted Manny’s right leg and with his size twelve Doc Martins stomped on Lefty’s ankle, knocking Manny back screaming. He was lying on the sidewalk wailing like a baby when a cop car drove up and two gorilla-sized cops got out ran over and asked Manny what happened.
One helped lift Manny to a sitting position while the other called an ambulance. Putting away his cell phone he asked, “Who did this to you?” and Manny looked around and saw his wife’s brother pull into their driveway and pointed his sore right finger at him. Both cops took off after him, tackling him before he got to the front door and knocking his ultra-suede skullcap off.
By D.S. Levy
Flying along US Highway 31, we’re listening to “Appalachian Spring” blare through the speakers. Marla’s my slumped passenger, seat belt unbuckled.
“I’m just saying it’d be better,” she says, staring out the window. “Kiss the family’s butt. And I wouldn’t have to worry about someone dying ‘cause they’re already dead.”
We’re going to Interlochen. Marla’s crazy about Aaron Copeland. Some youth orchestra’s playing “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Marla scored us two free tickets.
“Then do it,” I say, nudging up the AC.
I keep my eyes trained on the tree line. Deer thick as gnats in these parts. Never hit one yet. But there’s always a yet lurking somewhere. I feel it like the hairs on the back of my neck, keep my hands 10 and 2.
Marla’s in one of her moods. “Hey, you mind if I smoke?”
I do, but I’m crazy about Marla. “Be my guest.”
She rolls down the window. “And regular hours. No night shift. No more 16-hour days.”
“Go for it.”
You know how many shades of green in a Michigan forest? Almost as many as in Marla’s deep-set, thick-lashed eyes. That girl’s also got poetry in her veins.
In another life—a previous life—Marla was a flapper. Bobbed hair. Jazz lover. Maybe Isadora Duncan. Swears she sometimes wakes up with the feeling of silk around her neck.
Once, I woke up to the scent of roses. I smelled them the rest of the day no matter where I went. Marla said a spirit came to visit me. The next day I got a sinus infection. I never told Marla: Best to let her think what she wants.
Wind whips her bottle-blonde hair like octopus legs. On her, messy hair looks better than good. She blows clouds of gray out the window. Marla is one person who actually looks good smoking. Like she was made for it.
“And here’s the best part,” she says between drags. “There’s a funeral home two blocks from the house. I’ll never be late. And black. I look good in black. At least I think so.”
“Of course you do.”
Two days ago Marla had a patient “die on her” – that’s how she refers to death, like the patient had a say in the outcome and chose to involve Marla. The guy was only twenty-two, a college graduate, blue-green eyes Nurse Marla couldn’t help but notice. His end was expected, but Marla wasn’t expecting it to come on her shift. These things, these awful, sad things she has to handle.
“Well, I can’t go back to that fucking hospital.” She tosses the butt out the window.
We talk about going back – or not. I’m not going back to teach at the college except when I have to, which is in another week. The reason: due bills, past-due bills.
Interlochen is a town in northern Michigan. It’s also the name of a fine arts school where Marla thinks she should have gone back in the day. Really, Marla is a dancer trapped in a nurse’s body. She’s got lithe limbs and a strong torso and cuts a nice line when she graces the floor. But she’s got to have something in her veins to get her bare feet moving. Last night, at the bar, her feet had too many and she ended up falling off the table. Well, bar-types will never appreciate a good jitterbug.
“Pull off here,” she says, pointing at a rest stop. I thread the car down the ramp, pull beside a jack pine. Two rigs are parked in the semi lot. It’s useless to try to get Marla to ignore them. “I’ll be right back,” she says, and marches off. I cut the engine, get out and walk to the vending machines. Two of the three – out of order. I drop quarters, wait for my cup of coffee. The cup drops crookedly. I reach in to straighten it, hot coffee drips on my hand, and before I can stifle myself I cry, “Ouch, fucking dammit!”
A woman dressed in overalls and a tube top comes around the corner. I’d recognize a lot lizard anywhere. This one has more than a forked-tongue, but she’s nice and runs into the restroom and comes back with a couple of wet paper towels for my hand.
“Thanks,” I tell her as politely as possible.
She drops quarters in the slot, points at some words on the machine. “‘Warning: Coffee is hot. Not liable for damages incurred from this machine.’” She grins, pulls a cup of hot cocoa from the holding bay. “I’m just pullin’ your rope. It don’t actually say that. Ya gonna be okay?”
I tell her I’m fine and watch her walk out to the shiny red-fleck cab, see her hoist herself up. Just then Marla comes out of the restroom, lips painted fresh burgundy, hair pulled back in a scrunchie, beaming.
Back in the car, she waits until we’re on the highway, rolls down her window, lights the joint. “Did I ever tell you about Paris in the 20’s? How I met Hemingway and Fitzgerald?”
She taps my shoulder, holds out the joint.
What the hell? I think. I don’t want to cough my ass off while I’m driving so I take a small drag. The smoke burns in a good way.
Not another car on this two-lane road as far as the eye can see. Pine, birch, pine, birch, pine-pine-pine—we’re flying past these fabulous evergreens—ever – green—and they’re doing nothing but being noticed. Trees, I so envy them. Covered with snow, they’ll at least be beautiful come winter.
By William Masters
At sixteen, my older brother Mike was tried as an adult and sentenced to a year in the lock-me-tight for running out of the Scottish fast food joint without paying for his order. After a month’s incarceration, he had gained 14 pounds. For the first time in two years, he no longer went to bed hungry each night.
At eleven, as soon as the cast came off my younger brother Sam’s left arm, he hopped a freight train to St. Louis. After a month, most of his cuts and bruises healed and faded enough so that he could wear a short-sleeved shirt without having to answer questions or attract unwanted attention.
At fourteen, panicked at being left the sole target for my parent’s attentions, I drained the brake fluid from their car on Thursday night. Desperate, and hoping to survive until Friday morning, I locked the door and barricaded myself in the empty pantry.
The next morning, I heard my parents shout obscenities, blaming each other for the empty coffee canister. I heard one of them throw the canister against the pantry door…followed by an uncanny silence, during which my body shook as I watched the pantry doorknob move from right to left.
“Oh Steve… come out, come out so I can punch you good-bye,” my father said.
“Oh Sweetie… come out, come out and give mother a kiss good-bye before the house burns down.”
I climbed up on the canning table that stood beneath a port sized window. I waited… and I waited until I saw my parents finally leave the house and climb into the car.
As soon as I saw the car drive away, I released myself from the pantry and rushed through the great room, which reeked of the beer my parents had substituted for the missing coffee, walked out the front door, sat down on the porch swing, and watched the car drive past the first turn.
With sober anticipation, I imagined my father’s surprise as he tried to apply the brakes to the first hair-pin turn as he drove down the steep mountain road. As soon as I heard the explosion, I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few minutes later, too far away to see any flames, I watched a plume of smoke straighten out and rise vertically into the sky. The smoke congealed into a single, dark grey mass, and then split in half into a pair of lighter colored grey clouds floating together along the line of the horizon until the November breeze snuffed them both out.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon when two cars arrived, one from the sheriff’s office and one from Child Services. Still hungry, after eating a can of tomato soup and a small packet of saltine crackers, the only food left in the house, I asked the sheriff if he had a candy bar. His deputy pulled a tootsie roll out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to me. I thanked him.
Child Services looked at both the policemen, then scanned a file folder, and then looked at me. “You don’t want to spoil your dinner with that candy bar, do you… Steven?” Then it blandly informed me that both my parents had been killed in a car crash that morning.
My body twitched as I concealed my joy in the confirmation.
Then Child Services gave me an empty box with a lid. “You have fifteen minutes to pack one suitcase and fill the box with your belongings before I transport you to a temporary holding area pending your assignment to another location.”
Ten minutes later, I stood silently, holding all my clothes and possessions in my mother’s suitcase. I made a dead stop in the main room and kitchen area. I felt trapped between the empty frying pan on my right, and the sight of Child Services I saw through the window on my left.
As I touched the back pocket of my Levis to make sure I had my tiny address book, I gripped the suitcase and moved to the front door which Child Services had opened for me and headed to the police car. In an act of telepathy, the deputy opened the car’s trunk for my suitcase.
Child Services vigorously protested and waved a paper at the two policemen, demanding that they move my suitcase into its trunk and escort me to the backseat of its car.
Silently I stood my ground. I looked the sheriff in the eye, belligerent and pathetic. The sheriff opened the back door of his car for me and told Child Services, “I’m just following protocol.”
Apparently, though still a minor, I needed to make a formal statement at the station and had the right to make calls to anyone I chose for assistance before Child Services could claim me.
As I sat in the backseat, my muscles relaxed and my respiration returned to normal. Ignoring further protestations from Child Services, the policemen got back into their car. As the deputy started the engine and shifted the car into gear, the Sheriff offered me a bottled water.
“Here kid, you look like you could use a drink.”
The Constellation Andromeda
By Chelsea Ruxer
“There’s a spaceship.” He breaks some easy, talk-with-your-mouth-full kind of conversation this way. “On the table.”
I set down my Chipotle. The spaceship is black and grey plastic and, as promised, in the middle of the dining room table. I lift it off the runner. The table, without a spaceship, is probably what gave us a second date. It made me think he might cook. I remember opening the drawer on the side and finding cloth napkins his mom must have left there.
“It’s a Constellation Andromeda.” He’s looking at his burrito.
“I don’t understand.”
He explains why he’s telling me this now—he needs to set an alarm to buy an Aegis Javelin Destroyer when they’re released at three in the morning. The real Aegis Javelin Destroyers in the persistent universe. He was concerned I might wake up and misread the situation.
There are only 200, he says—real ones, online, that may or may not come with plastic models, depending on the package you choose. It’s urgent, and doesn’t interfere with our dinner plans. And he was going to tell me about it sooner. It just didn’t come up.
“You’re playing a spaceship game.” Of all the things he could be doing at his computer late at night, this never occurred to me. I remember how late it was when I saw his Facebook post about the politics of Star Wars, how tired I was, unable to sleep after finishing the sixth Harry Potter book and scrolling hopelessly through my news feed trying to find some tidbit that wasn’t about Dumbledore’s murder or a bunch of orphaned dogs after the wildfires.
“The game itself isn’t out yet.”
I thought he only played soccer and never watched him in high school. I didn’t know until eleven years later, when I saw the picture of him playing at a park two blocks down from my apartment, that we were living in the same city.
I reiterate that I don’t understand, and he explains the particular spaceship on the table is a model of an ‘RSI’, like my car’s a ‘Ford’, and ‘Constellation’ is like ‘Escape’, and ‘Andromeda’ is its role, like ‘Limited’.
“The Phoenix is more luxurious,” he tells me, that this could be worse. “And I have an Anvil Aerospace Carrick Explorer with warp capabilities and sensors to find wormholes, like your blind spot monitor.” He meets my eyes now, appears to believe this explanation satisfactory. “The Javelin’s a good buy. Everything over $1,000 comes with lifetime insurance.”
“It’s a really nice spaceship.”
“How over?” Like his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Kelly, that prompted his move here, or like the apartment over my budget I got on his side of town because of a big picture window that was full South for the succulent garden left behind by a grad school roommate.
“It doesn’t cost as much as a car,” he says. He looks back at his burrito. “It doesn’t cost as much as your car.” I needed all wheel drive to get over the mountains in January, an SUV to fit a crate in the back for my cat. Burlin in his Christmas sweater was the first picture he liked of mine of Facebook, which was probably why I saw that first Star Wars post to begin with.
He tries again to look at me as he says how responsible he is with his space money, which starts as real money. He tells me the company sent him a collector’s book, that crowd funding is making Star Citizen a better game, that there are so many other perfectly healthy, well-adjusted people like him on this world to have contributed over 74 million to it.
He stands and presents the book to me. He thinks I’ll be persuaded by the graphics, if not so impressed by his graduation to Space Marshall last week. These things were not on Facebook. They never came up, any of the ways they might have when we almost didn’t end up here.
But we are here, and this is when I decide whether I retreat to tell all my old high school friends what became of our relationship when I started sleeping over on week nights.
“I want the model,” I say before I’ve considered even the foreseeable consequences. “Of the Javelin.” In his world, I see this is a diamond tennis bracelet.
Then he’s smiling, fetching me a tub of sorbet, leaving me here with this book of intergalactic war to wonder at the probability we could find ourselves together here, of everywhere in all the cosmos, with a Constellation Andromeda on the dining room table.
By Chris Milam
She stood bow-legged on the dirt-covered parking lot, tongue pushed against a cheek like a wad of tobacco, her right hand cocked. “Bang, bang. You’re dead.”
“Dead like our marriage?”
“No, dead like your …” Yes, she usually wins any verbal war.
There were eight couples with us, all draped in western garb. Bolo ties, leather boots, chaps, a dangling toothpick. We were gunslingers with bored hearts. The brochure advised letting go, be playful, embrace your inner-outlaw. Wrangle some romance. This revival was being held in an old shopping center in the non-hipster part of town. Nothing says reignited passion more than a Big Hank’s Discount Emporium ripped apart and transformed into the Boneyard Saloon/hotel/brothel. Cupid was probably lurking around the corner with his reduced price, rock bottom, deal of a lifetime bow and arrow.
This wasn’t our first stop on the rekindle the flame tour. At a refurbished gymnasium in northern Fairfield, we acted out scenes from that heart-busting movie The Notebook. What do you want? A husband who looks like Ryan Gosling. What do you want? Chardonnay flavored wheat crackers, yogurt, arugula, turtle blood. WHAT DO YOU WANT? You? I guess? It went like that for two days. It was a blast. But we stayed a single, frayed unit and we both somewhat agreed that that was probably a good thing. At dinner, we ate chicken fingers and mocked the thespian aspirations and abilities of the other participants. This was our version of love.
Last summer, we attended a festival where unhappy yet resilient folks took turns mud wrestling in a homemade pit inside a red barn. The place reeked of broiling estrangement instead of the chickens, pigs, horses, and polar bears usually associated with farm buildings. GET FILTHY FOR LOVE. SUPLEX YOUR DESIRES read the sign hanging from the rafters. She kneed me in my money-maker (beer gut) and I told her to use the mud as a kind of spa-like mask to remove her blackheads. She laughed at the immature jab with her left knee. Again. It was a fun experience, if barbed insults and physical assaults are fun to you. They are to us I suppose. Still going strong after 20 years!
Later, in the faux saloon, she poured a whiskey. “Aren’t you parched?” She wasn’t asking my mouth.
“Thirsty as dead grass. You?”
“I wouldn’t mind a drink or fourteen.” We knocked back shots and flirted a bit, a drunken attempt at burning away the breathing dullness of too many selfish years and too many silent nights. It didn’t hurt that she looked nice sitting across from me, all liquored up and animated with strands of greying hair matted to her forehead. I couldn’t tell her that, though. The first to toss a compliment was the weak one in our teeter-totter relationship.
On the last day, us rotten scoundrels were tossed in a plastic jail by the women with silver stars on their chests. “Don’t give us any trouble,” they said, “or we’ll be forced to mess with your fantasy football lineup.” We saw zero humor in that blasphemous threat. They sentenced us to three hours of hard time and supplied us with paper and pens. We were to scrawl multiple reasons why our wives were ridiculously awesome. “Use good adjectives, please.” Most smart hands moved with a genuine ferocity, a couple of stupid ones remained clenched in defiance.
We hit the road the next morning. Claudia was already plotting our next adventure into distraction-ville. Her eyes soaked up a website on her phone. “There’s a decent one next month, we can play therapist and patient. They even let us use a real office with a desk, leather couch, artificial plants, and a pot of free, weak coffee. A receptionist named Joan. What do you think?”
“Well, we can work that out in our fake session.”
Indeed. “You look pretty today. Just thought you should know that I noticed.”
“Hold on, let me Google that word.” Her smile was a lighthouse.
Our flimsy second act was on the move (at 75 MPH) beneath a sky the color of a fresh bruise. Next stop: the house with no sounds.
When the Ashley left for college, we left each other. At home we each have our own parcel of space. We eat dinner together but nothing is said beyond could you pass the salt, please. She likes plants; I like hockey. She volunteers in the community; I sulk on the couch. Sometimes she sleeps in our daughter’s bed to roll around in her lost scent. I tell her don’t do that, she isn’t dead. She says she might as well be.
The road trips are an escape from memories, from complacency. What can’t be resurrected in this two-story crematorium, can be remedied in Trenton, Fairfield, Mason, or Columbus. Any place that isn’t here, where we hang on the walls behind glass, young and untarnished, still intoxicated by touch, hope, and the unknown.
Fill the tank, babe, she’ll say a week from now. And we’ll be gone, a blur on the horizon, a desperate duo with a map, suitcase, and miles of road in front of us.
Something After Frank Stanford
By William Doreski
Inhaling bus exhaust on Boylston incites something about “white barns of the afternoon,” as Frank Stanford put it, a place of excellent overlap. The white barns used to be green. When the deeply Republican proprietor repainted them virgin bride I left New Hampshire weeping.
A dog off leash dares traffic. Everything stops, especially time. I lean into my coffee cup and snort mixed fumes. The dog returns whole and grinning to the curb. I curse its owner with a vision of white barns rumpling like cheap paper. Women in clog heels clomp past. They’re eager for their offices, where responsible events take responsibility for other events. Everyone benefits.
Meanwhile the “little flowers of the cemetery” bloom without regard for their species, motif, or styles, and creatures cuddle up to other creatures, enjoying the raw light moments before they eat each other. In my cup of coffee I divine great things, each thing different from every other thing yet subject to undiscovered laws.