This Heady Thing Called Love
By Linda Ferguson
He calls and I say I’ll come.
I haven’t seen him in three days. Unless you count Tuesday, in the dining hall. Ah, there he was, in line with the tall ballerina with the beret tipped over her Lauren Bacall bob.
Good thing the roommate is in class right now. I wouldn’t want her watching as I stand in front of the mirror and finger the magenta streak in my hair I added the day he first kissed me. She was here last week when I was a sodden, shuddering ball on my crumpled bed, having just heard his sudden confession. She crossed her arms then and said I could do better, her voice rising to vehemence when she called him a “lousy boyfriend.” Which makes me think she might not endorse my getting all gussied up now, smoothing on China-red lipstick, pulling on black fishnets, dabbing my throat with the perfume Aunt Jeanine sent me last Christmas. No, I don’t need anyone frowning at me as I clasp a slender silver chain around my ankle or as I turn in front of the mirror again to check out the short tangerine-colored dress with the coral stitching around its hem.
I lean closer to the glass, thinking I’d like to adjust the peacock barrette in my hair a bit, but there’s no time. I don’t want him thinking I’ve changed my mind about meeting him. So it’s off I go, into the April world, where the tender green branches droop from this morning’s rain. I want to move, to keep up with the speed of my heartbeats, but I have to pick my way along the paths, slick as they are with fallen blossoms, and me, a light, fragile thing in heels with no loaded backpack to anchor me. Like a leaf, a twig, an oak seed, I could be sent skittering across the sidewalk with the next strong breeze. I shiver and clutch a lacy cardigan to my chest. Even with such cautious steps, the movement of my legs is enough to make my beaded purse swing from its little chain on my wrist and thump against my hip.
He said let’s meet at the café on 13th, but when I scan the faces there, none of them are his. Only two tables free. Which one would he like best? In front, by the fogged-up window, or back in that quiet corner? I can see pros and cons for each.
But wait a minute, wait a minute. Why am I fussing over him? I can sit where I want because he’s the one who’s coming here to apologize, the one who was with the ballerina just hours before he came to my room and slid his hand inside my sweatshirt while I was trying to study for a test. He’s the one who whispered that “a new school was in session,” the one who told me about the other girl afterwards because my eyes had “that fawn-in-the-meadow thing going.”
I square my shoulders and click my heels across a mile of green tile to the corner table. A speaker is perched on the shelf above me, and along with the buzz of conversation and clink of cups, I hear a folksinger’s earnest trill. I almost grin, picturing a curtain of bushy hair and a calico skirt skimming the tops of grubby sandals. When he comes in, we’ll laugh together because we like our music hard and fast—drum beats that slam into our ears and make us raise our hands over our heads and dance.
I open my purse and angle a pocket mirror inside so I can see if my lipstick has smudged onto my teeth. I take off my sweater and expose my pale arms. “Aphrodite,” he whispered that first night. I shiver as the light hairs on my arms stand on end, and I pull on the sweater again.
When the door swings open with a jingle, my puppet head pops up, and there he is. He’s bleached his hair since Tuesday, made it white-blond and pulled it back into a ponytail, but he’s wearing the same cracked leather jacket and idle smile. My hand flies to my hair as he salutes me (literally, touching two fingers to his forehead), but he goes straight to the counter instead of coming over to say hello. I study my fingers and the “Scarlet Dream” polish on my nails and see that I’ve gotten some on my cuticles, which makes me feel like a toddler who’s been messing with her mother’s beauty products.
He brings over a coffee for each of us. (I guess I’ve never told him I’d just as soon lap up the entire contents of a mud puddle.)
“You look gorgeous,” he says, rough and low, in his I’ve-been-out-rocking-all-night voice. His eyes glance at my legs, and I wonder if I’m gorgeous (A) today, in this outfit, or (B) all the time.
He leans back in his chair, relaxed. If we were outside he’d be smoking. Even from across the table I can smell the ghost of every cigarette he’s lit since middle school. I take off my sweater again and study a crack in the wall beside him as if it were a painting in the Louvre. Once my parents and I lived in a house with a stain on the kitchen ceiling that looked like the Sphinx. This crack reminds me of a hawk, but then again, it could be a koala. If I said that aloud, could I make him laugh?
We should be talking.
That’s what he said last night on the phone. I want to be easy, like him, but one cold hand grips the beaded purse in my lap, while the other one squeezes a white napkin. Without speaking, he reaches for the napkin hand, and my fingers soften and open under his like a flower.
Just like that.
What can I say?
I’m so happy.
A Love Story
By C.D. White
In the background The Beatles’ In My Life from someone’s stereo, the beautiful scratch of a forty-five. A lyrical treat. I’ve seen him before. I know the soft eyebrows and the thinnish mustache atop plump upper lip like a crown. He fishes deep in the cooler for a beer and I know too the shortened shoulders like butterfly wings before finally drying in the wind. He beats my heart. Every dip of his Adam’s apple, the curl of his left hand, the seeping of amber beer from the corners of his mouth; the blinking of his eyes taking in the small place full of bodies in motion, full of wanderlust and desire. Won’t your eyes come my way? When they do I am nude before them. All of my desire is there on my skin, in my tight limbs, in my eyes as looking away breathing in incense and human bodies and then again, not breathing at all. Now I can move and I do. Away. From the narrow hips in cowboy jeans and dirt patches that can’t be made clean. Soiled and well-loved sneakers on the feet. I imagine they are as delicate as his hands. I’m going away smiling. Looking like some fool from some place anyone who’s been there would know. Phyllis Wheatley did not write Romance. Vertigo, the hot ache in the stomach, the yearning for just a touch here and there, did she know?
Slowed by the hot crush of bodies and breath and laughter. I gather my force and do not turn around to meet the eyes. Hand reaching out for the fluttering magic material of my favorite shirt that summer. It belongs to a taller, better, and prettier me. The voice in my ear. Miss? The hand warm as a struck match to my skin. Turning now while talking, allowing myself to be caught unawares. The Rolling Stones labor through Beast of Burden. I look at him. Beautiful in a way I suppose Shakes could not have captured. The eyes are wide and have some mystery and innocence in them. There is softness in them too. I listen to his voice as he asks about Professor Carlyle’s class and the essay due. He had heard, someone had told him, that I did well on papers. He needed my help, needed to keep this class and his scholarship.
Who cares about compare/contrast papers between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. I have what I want and isn’t that lovely? Having the best, the thing you want most in the world? Don’t care for kissing. No romantic, that’s me. Give in for my own sake and don’t think of thin sheets of rubber between us or the Church or the man Jesus. Sinner. Move to be free. Bigger Thomas can wait and so can Teacake. I have the moment in the quiet, cold room. Shiver and lay in the warm sun streaming through one small window. I give him the moment to do with as he sees fit. I am only waiting for something, some moment codified in DNA. Above, the ceiling is puckered and stained.
The sun comes in strong and who’s to see? It’s not the nudity, his complete abdication to me that startles, it’s the moment just before the underwear slide down strong thighs and his body stands erect, separate and all of the man I know. When I see him twenty years later in the hands of another woman sure I remember the first pricks of making love and the delight of at last. More, I come to that moment when the sun was bright on skin flawed here and there: the zigzag of a childhood scar. That moment when he was himself just before nudity made me smile and fear all at once, like silly Pamela. I faint with eyes wide open. Say nothing of the sun on his body and the tight hair of his narrow chest. I remember too walking side by side. I recall the timbre of voice and the stubble spreading like a rash to the throat. The soft touch. The angry flare of misery when love hurts. The hated tears in the hot shower and holding onto pride and self while giving all you can to a man who holds the world.
There’s that moment before the shirt comes off when he is raw and exposed and I am his owner and I wonder very briefly if wife has those moments. Have they come to mean nothing to her as the years passed and enveloped love and desire. Is it as mundane as eating hamburger on Saturday night? I take him in and a crusted wick burns fresh. Under fluorescent light the years have been hard. All the heartbreak seems so silly now, so childish. The nights spent crawling back to each other over our pain and love and hate. Using each other. Of course loving too. Loving. Loving.
He was going to design houses and happy spaces. He liked Tupac. Smoked his joints like cigarettes. He often twisted his naps into tight rolls, never cornrows, always twists my mother hated. He rocked the khakis I bought until they shredded and after we used the material to stain the old deck behind his folks’ place. He tasted salty. We often spent Saturdays writing papers, reading papers and discussing papers. He was patient and just before his shirt slid from shoulder I felt the hesitation and anticipation of what was next. Romance is there in the sliding of stained shirt from shoulder to floor and the looking at and looking away.
We pass time while wife and husband shake hands and the kids are introduced. No real awkwardness, just having to get on with life. The next moment. Husband laughs. Teases about first love. Eyes dim over dinner when met with silence, with stares away, with pouty lips and closed flesh. Says, come on babe.
A bird in a cage
By Cath Barton
When we leave the pub Sharm says why don’t I come back to his. We get there and he says we’ll watch a video. It’s really late and we have work in the morning but I don’t question him. He’s always saying his Mum does enough of that. On his case all the time, he says. He likes that he can chill with me. He hasn’t actually said so but I reckon that’s what he thinks.
We’ve bought chips, hot and greasy. I go in the kitchen and make tea, sloshing it into big mugs as if I do this all the time. We eat the chips while we’re watching the film but after a bit I see that Sharm hasn’t drunk his tea. I feel annoyed after I’ve made that effort, but I don’t say. I’m not enjoying the film. The video must have been bootlegged ’cos the picture’s rubbish. Lines fizzing across it all the time. We’re sitting on the sofa, it’s warm and I’m tired. I close my eyes and lean towards Sharm but he pushes me upright.
“Wake up, Aisha,” he goes. “Wake up, you’re missing the film.”
He’s jabbing a finger in my ribs and it hurts. His fingernails are way too long. For a boy’s.
Sharm tucks his feet up under him on the sofa and puts one arm round a cushion. I look at him and I see his breasts. They’re standing up under his tight T-shirt. He sees me looking. His eyebrows are really thick. Like that woman painter, the weird Mexican one who got stabbed by a rail in a bus. I ask Sharm if he can remember her name and he says he can’t.
“Why you asking?” he says.
“Just wondering,” I say. I don’t mention the eyebrows.
I settle into my end of the sofa. I’m looking at the TV but I’m not watching. There are questions sparking in my brain. On the screen there are two monks at some shrine in the mist. They’re chanting. It’s a really boring film but Sharm is engrossed in it.
I look down at the carpet. It’s got swirls of brown and yellow in the pattern, though some of it might be stuff that Sharm has spilt on it. There’s a chip on the carpet that one of us has dropped. I bend down and pick it up and Sharm’s there straight away, snatching it like a gull at the seaside swooping on someone’s dinner. He lifts the chip between his thumb and forefinger and pops it into his mouth. I look at him and he says What? and I say Nothing.
But it’s not nothing. The way he ate the chip was all wrong. For a boy. Too dainty. When the film is over Sharm leans towards me and gives me a little kiss on the cheek. Then he asks me something. He says:
“Can I try on your dress?”
I laugh and start to say something about not having anything else to wear, because what else am I going to say? But he’s already pulled the throw off the sofa and he’s holding it out to me. He turns away while I pull the dress over my head, wrap the throw round me like I’m on the beach and sit back down on the sofa.
Sharm’s got the dress on now and he’s tied his hair into a ponytail. He’s found some bangra music on his iPod and he’s pulling me up to dance. We circle round one another. I don’t want him to touch me. Not any longer. He lifts his arms and the wide sleeves of the dress make him look like some kind of exotic bird spreading its wings.
I dodge away. I’m small and quick, but it’s as if he’s flying down on me. As the music stops we flop down on the sofa again, me at one end, Sharm at the other. I want to ask him What? and Why? and How long? but I’m really tired so I just say that I need to go and can I have my dress back please.
“I’ll see you at work tomorrow,” I say, as I’m leaving.
He just says “Yes, see you, Aisha,” as if everything is normal, but to me his words sound like the frantic flapping of a bird’s wings, a bird trapped in a cage.
By Doug Hoekstra
There’s a girl on the platform in Bath, standing next to me wearing glasses and backpack, looking bookish and sexy. I get on the train, shove my luggage in the rack, find a seat close to the door, and start writing. She sits down across the aisle from me and starts writing, as well.
I’m writing. She’s writing.
I’m a bit jealous, because she’s really cranking, it seems as if the faster the train goes, the more she writes. Clickety clack goes the pen. I’m more ponderous, stopping, looking out the window, and then scrawling. Shades of countryside trot out their colors like something from a David Hockney painting. She ignores it all, looking in, leaning back against her window, knees up, facing me as she writes. She’s young, sandy blonde hair, scarf around the neck. Maybe if I character sketched her, it would make the writing bounce back and forth like sunlight in a mirror. She sees me looking at her and smiles a crooked smile.
I keep writing.
She keeps writing.
The conductor says the train will be delayed twenty minutes due to some track issues, but there’s another train, if we want to catch it to Southampton, we’ll get there ten minutes earlier. I’m staying put. “It’s hardly worth it,” she says to me. I nod. She smiles again.
We keep writing.
Finally, I strike up a conversation and introduce myself. I ask her what she’s writing. It’s girly stuff, she says. I prod. She says it’s got a foot in Jane Austen, her favorite author, and a foot in the modern world. I ask her if she sends out her work. “No, I just do it for fun, for friends, I don’t know if it’s good enough to get published.” “You have a gift,” I say. I haven’t read a word, of course, whether to label it “good” or not, but that’s not the point. The gift is her excitement and joy in the writing, in the process, in what she wants to say. If she has that, it doesn’t matter whether her audience is a few friends or the Oprah Book Club. Her name is
I’m writing. She’s writing
The train pulls up at Southampton, we quickly exchange e-mails and say goodbye, heading in opposite directions. She is returning home to Southhampton after a few days holiday in Bath; I’m on my way to another show. It’s one of those chance meetings you know—parallel worlds, parallel stories, fiction and non-fiction, and what are the odds? Most of the time when this happens, you never see or hear from the person again. But, when I got back to the states, I got a nice note from her. I looked up the word—felicity is described as great happiness, or something that is pleasing or well chosen. If you ever read this, Felicity, be well and remember …
I keep writing. You keep writing
Boss of the Plains
By John B. Mahaffie
Eugene stared into the wake of the steamship looking for his Stetson, Ma and Pa’s present Christmas morning 1904. A white Boss of the Plains. American beaver felt. For church or town, not for working cattle. A proper hat for one of Seward County’s finest young men.
“You’ll want your good Stetson,” Ma had said as he packed for university in England.
That same Christmas, the schoolmaster had given Eugene the first of dozens of books, Gulliver’s Travels.
“You’re different from the other boys,” Mr. Steadman said. “You’ve a chance at a college education.”
From then the books he could get thrilled him. But they darkened and then extinguished any notion of making life on a Kansas homestead. Eugene did not know his future. But it was far from the prairie.
Waterproof felting would float the Boss of the Plains until cold Atlantic seawater weighted it and it sank. No one would see his name inside and ride out to the homestead to return it.
If the homefolks asked after it, “I misjudged the winds aboard ship. Blew clear off me and into the sea. There wasn’t anything to be done about it.”
When the land eased away, without forethought Eugene peeled off the Boss of the Plains and winged it in amongst the whitecaps. He felt the last cord between him and Seward County break. He’d not grace the streets of Oxford in a cowboy’s hat.
“See you come June,” the homefolks said at the train station.
Staring into the ship’s wake he knew they would not.
Train of Thought
By Geraldine McCarthy
Kent station in the early morning, grey-clad figures on their way to business meetings, clouds form with each out-breath and a skinning wind whips down the platform
as passengers buy The Irish Examiner, something to shorten the journey, and the queue at the ticket office goes on forever
while you stand in line on platform one, a mother with a sleeping toddler in a buggy in front of you, and you pity the poor child wrenched out of bed at this hour
6.15, the early train to Dublin, three stops only, not like the later one, pulling in at every station
here’s hoping it won’t pull in at every bloody field, due to leaves on the line, or crows on the line, or technical difficulties, as they say
the queue on the platform edges forward and the uniformed man punches tickets and you roll your overnight bag-on-wheels, the green one you bought in Merchant’s Quay, and you present your ticket to the man who pierces a little hole in it and you proceed down the platform
aiming for the middle of the train, paying attention to your step as you totter on your stilettos, cautious of the yawning gap between platform and train
the carriage is filling up and you sit opposite an old woman, headscarved, with gnarled hands and a stain of pink lipstick on her teeth, and you plug in your iPod before she has a chance to talk at you
John Spillane’s voice lulls you, as he croons favourite songs you learnt at school—Oró ’sé do bheatha ‘bhaile, Beidh aonach amárach, Báidín Fheilimí
you close your eyes and the train is a boat, and as it gathers momentum you drift out to sea on Feilimí’s boat
already the trolley is on its way and you switch off the iPod and fumble in your carnivorous handbag for your coin-laden purse and ask the girl for instant coffee, which you normally wouldn’t drink in a fit, but needs must
and the old lady who has removed her headscarf gives a tentative smile and you succumb to the demands of sociability and say, cold morning isn’t it
it is surely, she says, the start of the winter was too good and we’re paying for it now
you sip your coffee and the old lady pours two thimblefuls of milk into her bog-water tea and seems too elderly and frail to be let loose in the capital, with crazed drivers that would mow her down and pedestrians that would step over her to get to their destinations
going up for a spot of shopping, she asks, peeling the wrapper from a set of three bourbon biscuits
not exactly, you say, I’m going to do an exam, but I might look around the shops after
no harm done, you reason, sure you’ll never again see her
well, best of luck to you in the exam, she says, dunking the bourbon in her grey-brown tea
the inspector enters the carriage and you poke around again for your pierced ticket in the bowels of your handbag while the lady flashes her pass with a smile
will you go shopping yourself, you ask, the caffeine coursing through you and loosening your tongue
I won’t, she says, I won’t be bringing anything home with me, letting something after me I’ll be
and she pats her shopping bag and looks you in the eye, daring you to ask
and you want to ask whether she’s a drugs mule for her grandson, ferrying a few baggies from A to B, but you suppress a smile and say, oh, you’re dropping something off
that I am, she says, my husband, he wanted his ashes scattered on the banks of the Royal Canal, it was where he played as a child, he felt free there, he said, carefree and bold
and the lady gives a little smile and draws the strings of her shopping bag tighter
and you wonder if she’s telling the truth, whether she really has baggies stashed in there
because you sure as hell aren’t doing an exam today
and an announcement over the intercom says you’ll be in Dublin in twenty minutes, and the old lady asks if you’d mind her stuff while she goes to spend a penny and you say no problem at all
and when she’s tucked away in the little cubicle you peek into the shopping bag and there’s a paisley umbrella and a Jackie Collins novel and a packet of Marietta biscuits
and the lady returns and thanks you for watching her belongings and the train chugs into Heuston and you apply another layer of lip gloss and ready yourself for the delectable delights of the big smoke.
Bones and Shells
By Teddy Kimathi
Silence enveloped the air. The bones and shells were motionless, while the shaman stared at them as if he were watching a drama unfold.
“Your life is very complicated,” he finally broke the silence. “Wise spirits are taking time to understand your marriage problems. They say your marriage is as murky as a river trampled on by a migration of wildebeests.”
I wondered how he was able to listen to what the spirits were saying, while the only thing I could hear was his speech about spirits. I wondered whether he was a charlatan, secretly praying to God that he would give me some free advice.
Once again he put the bones and shells together in his palms, shook them, and cast them to the ground where they lay before. The only different thing I noticed was their placement. Some shells looked further away from each other, while some bones’ tips kissed each other.
“Observe silence,” he said. Once again he stared at them intensely.
I was growing impatient. This was the tenth time that he was doing what he was doing. My feet almost tapped the ground in protest, when my mind held them mid-air. If I broke the silence, I was afraid that I would interfere with the supernatural business.
Another dangerous way of breaking the silence would have been to pick up my cell phone and tell my wife that I had gone to visit a shaman, rather than visiting a marriage counselor.
If she became outraged, I would tell her that shamans see what marriage counselors can’t see. If she didn’t become outraged, we would visit this cave-turned-shrine together. We would watch together as the shells and bones rolled in the air, finally falling to the ground. We would watch the shaman listening to the voices emanating from the motionless objects, or from other dimensions.
If the spirits told the shaman that our marriage was beyond repair, we would take a final bow and painfully sign our divorce papers. If the spirits revealed a solution to our problems, we would happily return home and mend our marriage. The silence between us would finally come to an end.
The fate of our happiness was in the hands of a man who watched bones and shells rolling, colliding, bonding, and parting away from each other on the ground.
By Sam Smith
Jeff steps into the doctor’s office, opening the door just wide enough to allow his gangly frame to enter before closing it quickly.
Dr. Benson is busy wiping a pentagram from the far wall.
“Did you bring the sack of toads, Jeff?” he asks without looking over his shoulder. Jeff clears his throat nervously and reaches into his jacket pocket.
“I, er, I only managed to find a few frogs. Will it still work?”
The doctor turns and bites his lip. “Dead or alive?”
“Dead, I dried them out on the radiator this morning.”
Dr. Benson shrugs. “Can’t see the harm. Just put them on the bed there. Let me clear those goat bones away.”
Jeff pauses whilst the doctor sweeps the bones into a medical waste bin, then digs into his pocket and removes six desiccated frog corpses. He places them one by one on the bed.
“Just drop your trousers for me, Jeff. And your boxers.”
Dr. Benson pulls out a huge dusty tome from his bookshelf and flips through it. He finds the page he’s after and begins studying it. Jeff disrobes and stands there, awkwardly cupping his genitalia as the doctor begins chanting incantations in Latin and gesticulating wildly. He waits patiently for the doctor to finish speaking in tongues.
“Is all of this really necessary?” Jeff enquires.
Dr. Benson sighs and begins undressing himself. “Look, it’s your choice, Jeff. If you don’t trust the National Health Service, you can pay to see a private doctor.”
“But I only came in with a sore throat,” he moaned.
By A. Rooney
The sign was eight by eight and had been torn from the bottom of a cardboard box.
In thick black ink it said, Tumors Detected, $1.
He had tied it to the post at the dog park with a piece of string.
People avoided him, even looked away, as though he were a cancerous mass.
What about this lump here, a couple stopped to ask, more as a joke.
The detective searched near the dog’s belly with his hand, then touched the lump gently.
Lipoma, he said tersely. Nothing to worry about.
His hands had become sensitive after the protracted loss of his own animal.
Without being asked he stopped a young woman and reached for her dog.
She picked the tiny terrier up to defend it, hold it close.
I’m sensing heat, he said, may I hold her for a moment.
When she handed him the dog the heat dissipated, but he passed his hands over it to be sure.
He opened another campstool next to him and invited her to sit down.
I don’t have a dollar, she said.
I do, he said. How do you feel?
She began to cry, at first softly and then convulsively.
It’s still early, he said. Chances are good.
The woman sat next to him for a time without speaking and he patted her shoulder.
Finally, when she had gathered herself, she put the little change she had in his cup and went away.
By Lynne M. Hinkey
All things considered, Elizabeth Campbell smelled pretty good. The piquant amine odor of bodily waste and the earliest stages of decomposition clung to the body, only noticeable if he wafted the layer of air hovering around her cold skin upward to his nostrils. Mostly, that familiar bouquet lay hidden beneath the earthy scent of Mrs. Campbell’s rose garden, where she’d been working when she met her untimely demise.
Thinking about that tragic end, Mr. Tucker gnawed his lip, barely suppressing a grin. Morticians see plenty of strange modes of death, but this particular one could win him his long coveted prize.
Mr. Tucker wrung out a wet cloth and wiped a dark smirch from the prone woman’s nose. The bee sting probably wouldn’t have killed her: She’d had enough time and the presence of mind to mix soil and water in a flowerpot. She would have been better off using those valuable minutes to go indoors, pop a few Benadryl, and get to the hospital for a shot of epinephrine.
Alas, poor Mrs. Campbell was one of those back-to-the-land, off-the-grid, patchouli-wearing types. In true pseudo-pioneer style, she’d slathered a good helping of mud over her swollen nose: an old-wives’-tale remedy to “draw out” the stinger.
Home alone, and with no signs of a struggle, the coroner concluded that Elizabeth Campbell’s blood pressure had taken a rapid dive, a common side effect of bee stings, causing her to faint and fall face-first into her bowl of freshly made muck, where she suffocated.
Sniff-by-sniff, he rolled the aroma of her decomposition around his nostrils like an oenologist sampling a favorite wine. Slightly musty with just the very beginnings of decay. “Ah, cadaverine.” He savored the flavor of the chemical’s name on his tongue. Another whiff and he caught the putrescine undertones beginning to emerge, unnoticeable to any but the most discerning nose.
“You’re quite a delight, Mrs. Campbell. With you, I’m sure to be this year’s winner.”
No way would Marty Driscoll beat him with another grisly story of mayhem and sadomasochism by some sleazy politician or lobbyist in the state’s capital. Not again. Not at this year’s conference.
He made a small incision near Elizabeth Campbell’s right collarbone and inserted the arterial and the drain tubes, then flipped a switch. The embalming machine hummed to life. “Now, lie back and relax. This won’t take any time at all.”
With steady repetitive motions, he massaged the body to help the distribution and drainage of fluids. His thoughts drifted to the upcoming annual meeting of the Undertakers Society of America, and his impending victory.
“This year’s nominees for the Aurea Mortem … ” The golden death, the most prestigious—and most secret—of undertaking accolades. The emcee’s tenor voice would fill the audience with anticipation, pull them to the edge of their seats where they’d wait with bated breath. Would this be the year that someone deposed Marty Driscoll, eight-time winner of the award? Would Samuel Tucker, perpetual runner-up, finally take home the trophy? “And the casket goes to … ”
With myriad ways to die, one would think finding entries for the contest would be a breeze. They’d be sorely mistaken. Morticians had standards and propriety to consider, after all. No drunk driving deaths. Aside from being so common as to be almost cliché, the membership agreed they’d not reward that sort of bad behavior. Children’s deaths and suicides were also banned. With few exceptions, that left only accidental deaths. The winning entry almost always involved an animal, sex, or both.
The layman might also be surprised at how some modes of death ran in clusters. For a few years after a popular movie star’s well-publicized demise from autoerotic asphyxiation, the activity had become quite de rigueur in more urban and urbane circles. Of course, Marty Driscoll had been the first to tend to one outside of Hollywood, earning him the award that year.
Driscoll’s other hard-to-beat entries included a DDF (Driving During Fellatio, more common than you’d think), death-by-cactus (a bored hunter shot at a Saguaro, bringing one giant limb crashing down on his head), and a lethal tumble off a ladder when a loyal Great Dane climbed to his master’s side.
Samuel Tucker snorted. Extremes and flukes, that’s all. Suffocating in mud after passing out from a bee sting? Priceless. Well, actually, the price included the trophy, bragging rights for a year, and one’s bar tab for the duration of the conference. Not bad for a day’s work.
An alarm indicated completion of the embalming process and brought Mr. Tucker from his reverie. Once Mrs. Campbell had been completely relieved of bodily fluids, buttoned, washed, and combed, he applied moisturizer—dehydration could be such a problem—then he covered the body. He’d dress and casket Mrs. Campbell the morning before the viewing.
In his apartment above the funeral home’s public spaces, Samuel Tucker rearranged items on the mantel to make room for the golden casket. He adjusted one light to better illuminate the trophy’s place of honor.
He then opened the wine he’d been saving for a special occasion. Swirling the glass under his nose, he savored the crisp, fresh notes of peach and vanilla. With a sigh of contentment, he pointed the remote at the television and flipped to the local news.
“Tragedy in the state capital today. State Senator Hugo Olderoyd, who had told staffers he was camping at a national park—one whose funding he recently voted to cut—was reportedly killed by a charging rhino while on safari in Africa with his mistress. His wife has asked the press and public to please respect their privacy at this difficult time.”
On the television, a casket, lowered from a plane’s belly, glinted gold in the setting sun. It disappeared into the waiting maw of a black Cadillac XTS, “Driscoll Family Funeral Home” in stylish gold script across the back door.
The recessed spotlight cast odd shadows around the mantel, exaggerating the empty space in the center.
By Paul Beckman
They were sitting around a fire pit talking and chewing pepperoni sticks and eating bruschetta when I walked into my cousin’s back yard in Lucca, the great walled city in Tuscany. We had been out walking the wall—people watching and catching up with family stories and horrors. I knew nothing of most of them but he was familiar with my New York branch of the family.
I saw the dead family members whose funerals I hadn’t been to over the years. My cousin gave me names and family connections. They were chatting away and there were women in maid’s uniforms taking orders and bringing out appetizers and drinks. The big deal was the pigs in a blanket (the pigs being kosher of course) and shrimp—they couldn’t bring out the 12 to15 shrimp size fast enough and there was a raw bar with clams and oysters.
A bell tolled and all the dead materialized over at picnic tables for the main course and dessert. They only spoke to the servers and not to each other anymore. There was a pasta station and a porchetta cutting station, a mac and cheese station and a dessert station with cannolis, panna cotta, sfogliatelle and gelato. I noticed people putting food in their napkins, like in the old days, for a late night snack or breakfast.
I sat on the back steps watching and smoking unfiltered Camels one after another and stopped one of the servers and asked for a drink and was told sorry, you’re not on the guest list so I went inside my cousin’s house where I was staying and poured myself four fingers of nasty grappa and went and sat down again, but decided to leave when the accordion players and the harmonica group showed up.
By Pamela Scott
Melody was coming out of the shopping centre when she noticed the girl.
She was standing all by herself beneath the exit sign. She didn’t look much older than seven or eight. She looked very small and frail. It was the hottest day of the summer so far and she was dressed in denim shorts, trainers and a Frozen t-shirt. She kept looking around her as if trying to spot someone.
Melody felt something move inside her body. A ghost foot pressed against her womb. Annabell would have been about the same age as the girl; if she’d ever been born. They might have known each other. They could have gone to the same Primary School and been the best of friends. She looked like the kind of girl Annabell would have been friends with. Melody shoved her purse into her bag and made a beeline for her.
‘Hi there,’ Melody said.
The girl smiled up at her. There was the cutest little gap in her teeth. ‘Hi.’
‘I’m Melody. What’s your name, honey?’
‘Your mummy sent me to get you.’
The girl stared into her face. ‘She did?’
Melody nodded. ‘She told me her little girl was called Ashley and she’d be waiting outside the shopping centre. She said you were the prettiest girl in the world and she was right.’
‘What happened to her? I’ve been waiting for ages.’
‘She got held up. She asked me to pick you up and take you home. She’ll be waiting for you there.’
‘How do you know mummy?’
Melody panicked as she frantically thought of something to say. ‘We work together. I’m sort of her assistant.’
Ashley grinned. ‘Mummy’s told me about you. She said you help her a lot.’
‘That’s good to hear. Do you want to go now?’
Ashley nodded. She offered Melody her tiny hand. Melody took a quick look around as they walked away. Nobody appeared to have even noticed them. Her heart raced as she led Ashley away from the shopping centre. Her tiny hand felt like it belonged in her own. She called her boyfriend, James.
‘Pick me up at the HSBC Building Society on the corner. I’ve got a little gift for you,’ Melody said.
‘I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.’
Melody squeezed Ashley’s hand tighter as they hurried along the street towards the building society. She kept looking around to make sure no one was scrutinising them and there were no police closing in. James’s car pulled up as they reached the corner and he got out. His face turned white when he saw the girl.
‘What’s going on, Melody?’ James said.
‘This is Ashley and she’s going to live with us now.’
‘Have you gone completely mad?’
‘This time I’ve found the right one. I swear to you. She can replace Annabell. It’s right. I can feel it.’
‘You better get her in the car before someone sees.’
Melody started to pull Ashley towards the car.
‘Where’s my mummy?’ Ashley said.
‘Mummy doesn’t love you anymore. She doesn’t want you.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Mummy said she can’t take care of you and you need to come and live with us now.’
Ashley started sobbing and screaming mummy at the top of her lungs. She struggled to break free of Melody’s grip. Heads started to turn towards them. James opened the back door, shielded Ashley with his body and shoved her towards the car. Melody bundled her into the back seat, slammed the door and locked it. In the car, Ashley continued to have hysterics and scream for her mummy but only Melody and James could hear her.
Melody got into the front passenger seat. Ashley’s hysterics were really loud. James got into the driver’s seat and they sped off. Ashley was curled into a ball in the back seat, sobbing her heart out and screaming I want my mummy over and over.
James looked at Melody. ‘Why did you tell her all that stuff before we got her into the car? You should have known she’d go into hysterics. They always do.’
Melody grinned at him. ‘She’s the right one, James. I can feel it. She’s going to take Annabell’s place.’
Ashley continued her thrashing and sobbing. Melody reached over into the back of the car and slapped her. She hit her in the face so hard she knocked her all the way across to the other side of the car. Ashley stopped crying and stared at her wide-eyed with terror.
‘That’s quite enough from you, young lady. I don’t tolerate hysterics in my house. You can quit screaming for your mummy as well. I’m your mummy now and this is your new daddy James.’
Ashley shrunk against the back of the seat. Her face was white. Her eyes were red and bloodshot and her cheeks were damp with tears. She pressed her faces against her knees and rocked back and forth.
A Foot in the Cradle
By Regina Cash-Clark
I told him it wouldn’t work. There’s no way a man that young was gonna stay put with a woman more than twice his age. Well, close to twice. But Eric’s Eric. He’s my youngest. Come telling me he’s gettin’ married to some old hen one day and cryin’ poor-mouthed the next (well, six months later) when it’s done. I saw the signs long before he’d admit anything was wrong. So did his sister Irene, though she wouldn’t say. She was there with me when the two of ’em dropped the bad news. I remember telling ’em that day, after they announced their marriage-to-be:
“Hear me now. Y’all listen to me good, ‘cause I’ma only say it one time … Takes a mighty fast hen to catch a sleepin’ rooster.” And that was it.
The three of ’em kinda looked at each other for a second, then at me. I knew I had ’em that time. Old Adrienne, the blushing bride-to-be, blinked hard with her red (dyed) head, then blinked again. Eric just did what he always does: raised his eyebrows, then scrunched ’em up. And Irene, she just nodded four or five times fast as usual. Most agreeable child there is. Tell you the truth, I never know what’s gonna come out of my mouth at any given time, and I don’t particular care. I’m old. I can say what I want. But, in this case, the point was clear: I didn’t approve. And they knew it. This marriage was never gonna have my blessing. But then anyone coulda told ’em that.
Eric had met Adie, I mean Adrienne, uptown over at Miller’s Jewelers off Main Street. That old Timex of his was actin’ up as usual—don’t know why he didn’t just listen to me and get rid of it—so he made up his mind to have the batteries checked again. Ain’t that much batteries in the world to fix that old relic. But who am I? I’m just an old woman who don’t know nothin’ nohow, right? I just left it alone.
So, Adie was working at Miller’s at the time—the jewelry shop over on Marshall, off Main Street—and, bein’ the only person in the store, she says she’ll take a look at it for him.
“It should only take me a few minutes to switch out the batteries,” she says. “Would you like to wait?” And he says yes of course. “It’s a fine piece,” she adds.
“Why don’t you look around at our selection while I work. Maybe you’ll find that you’d like to buy a new watch, for you or the Mrs.” Yeah, uh-huh, that’s exactly what was on his mind.
“Thank you, I will. And there’s no Mrs.” He gave her a sly smile. He was checkin’ out the selection from the jump, and she was it.
Whatever the case, Eric stopped in on her a few more times and, next thing I know, he has a brand new Sega, Seika, Sinko—somethin’ like that—and a date. I think, as stubborn as he was about the Timex, the date surprised me more than the watch. Not that Adie’s a d-o-g dog or anything. Most men would agree she’s beautiful. Or well preserved, as I see it. It’s just that she didn’t seem like his type a’tall. Tall, rail-thin and dyed-red hair done in a ’20s-style finger wave. The color suited her, still does, ’cause a her sand-and-sable complexion. But not my Eric’s type. He still looks like a teenager, all of 120 pounds soaking wet, can’t even grow a mustache or a beard. Looks like he’s got one foot in the cradle and she’s got one in the grave, if you ask me, though you ain’t.
So, anyway, the two of ’em started to date, and the town, small as it is, started abuzzin’. Maybe it was the age thing—15 years ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at—but I suspect there was more to it. They’ve never been a bad-lookin’ couple, really. Eric’s mature for twenty-five, and she’s the picture of youth. Well, at least the picture of health, I’d say. As I understand it, there was some talk of Adie bein’ mixed up with Mr. Miller on the sly. Nobody said it to me to my face ’cause they know they woulda got told off. But I hear things. Word gets around fast in a two-dog town.
Miller’s the owner of that store where Adie works, and folks thought he musta been sweet on her, lettin’ her open and close the store like that, not mindin’ her watchin’ over the money when he’s not there. Say he musta had a sweet tooth she could fill. You know people get kinda funny when you start playin’ with that color line. Ain’t nothin’ to it but talk. ’Sides, Miller got himself a girlfriend, a sometimes-ex wife and three kids to boot, so what would she see in him? Or better, what would he need from her that he ain’t gettin’ already double? Anyway, that’s how I see it.
Adie wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout no Finneas Miller, and he ain’t had the time to think much on her, though he mighta tried. I look at it this way: people gonna talk no matter what you do, so you might as well enjoy life. I do. And that’s just what Eric and Adie were doin’ for a time. Too bad it wasn’t enough. Now he’s got the nerve to come cryin’ to me about how bad things are—ain’t shed no tears, mind you. What could I say? I done told him how I felt a long time ago. I know how to lay in the bed I made, and all I could suggest was that he do the same: “Sleep on it, son.” I’m tired a lookin’ after these menfolk. He’s ‘bout to be as bad as his uncle. Fact is, Adie’s gone now, and he’s better off for it.
By Adam Kluger
“That was some serious stage craft.”
“Anika is a serious person.”
“I dig her.”
“Everybody does. Anika knows everybody Downtown.”
“What an operator.”
“You like her, huh?”
“In love … totally … and that’s a big bag of trouble in a bright-colored wrapper.”
“ … and you’re married.”
“Yep, and much older besides.”
“Anika doesn’t care. She has three other old guys hanging around like flies.”
“Of course she does.”
But the story of this night was how Anika created a serious buzz at the Chelsea gallery, overseeing a velvet rope to turn a rundown space with paintings of naked women and unicorns into the hottest art opening on a Thursday.
“Just tell them you’re a friend of Anika’s and Sherbretto will escort you in past the crowd.” These are the first words Anika ever said to me.
Once inside the tiny gallery, it was clear the 500-plus people who clamored to get inside that inauspicious space did so not for the art, not for the artist or for the free wine (I didn’t see any). They did it for Anika. They all wanted to be part of Anika’s inner circle. She was creating heat.
“I saw what you were doing out there, Anika,” I said, liking very much the way it sounded to call Anika, Anika. Her name was melodic. Fluid. Dramatic. I liked saying it out loud in her presence. Her name.
“Ants will always follow a honey-drip, darling.” Anika smiled, sensing I was onto her magic tricks.
I didn’t know what else to say so I blurted out,” The unicorn paintings were cool.”
“Really? I think they’re soooo last year.”
And there you had it. The reason Anika was the first name on every NYC club owner’s lips was that she had a strong opinion on everything and wasn’t afraid to share it. She was a taste-maker, rain-maker, a straw that stirred the drink.
Anika spat ideas out with a Midwestern slang that felt real and alive. Talking fast and breaking your heart, winning your trust and losing it again all in the same sentence.
I was about to ask her a clever question to make up for my super-lame observation about the unicorn art when she jumped out of the chair next to me and squeezed in next to some board members on a divan.
“Hello Darlings, which handsome feller here wants to buy the small-town girl a drink?” The two older men immediately started swiveling their necks, with a finger in the air, searching desperately around the after-party club for a waitress.
Summer of Love
By Richard Baldasty
Janny’s favorite poem was Rilke’s sonnet on a broken chunk of sculpture, his legendary evocation of an archaic torso of Apollo. “You must change your life,” its valediction, tattooed in the original as a circlet for her left ankle.
Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
Day after day at the beach, walking behind her, Janny barefoot and her formless cotton dress pulled up, tied into a knot to one side, I read and read and repeated the words soundlessly but with open mouth and lips moving as in a contest of karaoke. It was the summer of ’67, the one called the Summer of Love, dreamy zenith of sweet dreaming.
Du mußt. You must.
I didn’t know if it meant threat or promise or hope or all-hope-abandon-you-who-enter-here. I could only follow on the sand.
We were beachcombing. Janny had rules. As you go, choose something precious to your eye: shell, bit of surf-smoothed glass, driftwood snake, kelp curled and dried like a witch’s face. Carry it with you until you see what’s next. Make a trade—place the relinquished piece at the very place from which you lift its successor. When you’ve walked far as you can go, when tide begins to push too far in, or a sand-spitting wind of flaring noon sends you upland over the dunes, caress your final selection and throw it into the sea as sacrifice and offering.
Once I found a pebble black as many nights. Worn the size and shape of a hummingbird egg. I broke the rule. I insisted upon keeping it—a small thing surely, my right. How could Janny honestly object?
She did. Quietly, very quietly, in abiding anger.
You must change your life.
I still have the stone.
Author’s Note: Summer 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. My story takes place on Ocean Beach, a short streetcar ride from the Haight out to the Pacific shore but at an emotional distance from the exuberant crowds (an estimated influx of 100,000) of “Flower Power” celebrants in the city.
By Catulle Mendès, 1884
(Translated by Patricia Worth ©2017)
Valentine was speaking softly to her, almost on his knees in the carriage, and Juliette, snuggled up in her furs, shivering, or nervous, was drawing away into the corner, uneasy about hands chasing hands, or more cunningly under the unfastened coat, hands pretending not to be seeking, and then—the hypocritical innocence of chance—finding one of the round bodice buttons, of carnelian or silk, which slipped and, barely touched, came through the buttonhole so quickly, even unexpectedly! Through her thick half-veil and the steamed-up window, Juliette fixed her eyes furiously on the long line of fortifications rising up, green with new growth, as if the plain was arching its back, while Valentine was asking everything of this girl who, alas, was giving him nothing! Yet, little by little she relented, the bad girl, and she quite easily agreed to let him give her a kiss on one of her eyes. But only one kiss on one eye! And, what’s more, with a firmness that could not be challenged, she stipulated that he would give her this kiss through the half-veil. He accepted the cruel condition, hoping perhaps for the pleasures extolled in one of François Coppée’s most charming verses. So, resigned, she closed her eyes. What did she have to fear? The thickness of lace over the closed eyelid would intercept the warmth of too keen lips; the snowy modesty of her skin would not know the mouth that devours, that burns. It was the left eye he chose! He kissed it tenderly and long, believing all the rays of a little star would come to his lips and enter his heart. But Juliette was surprised to find herself troubled. How could it be that she felt, so close, so directly, the warm pressure? She was quite sure the half-veil had not been lifted, since she could feel its trembling caress on her cheek. She was more and more troubled, filled with tenderness, overcome with languor. The desire came to her for this kiss to be long, longer, still longer. Her arms slowly rose, with the possibility of falling to an embrace … Suddenly alarmed, she pushed Valentine away and put her hand on the place of the kiss. She uttered a cry of anger and shame! For she could feel, under her finger, her unveiled eyelid, still a little damp from the slow caress! Valentine, true to his word, had not lifted the half-veil, but before the kiss, with just one bite, he had torn, inhaled and swallowed the piece of lace that protected and hid the dear little star.
Translator’s Note: Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), a French writer of Portuguese descent, was allied with Parnassian poets who advocated restraint and technical perfection in writing, using fantastic tales to criticize bourgeois values. Mendès wrote prolifically, producing among other works a number of original and reworked fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership.