The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Issue 10, December 2012 Editor-in-Chief Craig A. Hart Cover Design Paul Brand
Published by Sweatshoppe Publications 1
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
The Rusty Nail CONTENTS The Hole by Jim Meirose, Page 3 Repeated Dance of the Fluid Earth by Rusty Discretion by Bobby Fox, Page 4 Kjarvik, Page 78 Magic by Brendan Sullivan, Page 6 Marka’ Shoba’ by Joe Cappello, Page 79 Wildflowers by Kimberlie Orr, Page 7 Maurice by Nigel Barto, Page 9 Regret by Robert S. King, Page 9 The Ship of Theseus by Eleanor Talbot, Page 10 Psychological Autopsy by Mike Berger, Page 12 The Rusty Nail Staff artificial light by e a d sellors, Page 12 Being Chuck by Ali Zahiri, Page 13 Those Summer Nights by Justin W. Price, Page 14 Editor-in-Chief Tear Sheets by Missy Wilkinson, Page 15 Craig A. Hart Sorry by D. M. Aderibigbe, Page 19 Vesta by Gillian Walters, Page 20 Associate Editor For Love of the Game by John Henry Beck, Page 21 Dr. Kimberly Nylen Hart One Hand Feeds Another by Katie Baker, Page 21 Learn Your Lesson by Matthew Leroy, Page 22 Graphic Design Editor Worlds Apart by D.T. Robbins, Page 24 Paul Brand The Dog Star by Nina Pratt, Page 27 Contributing Editor East, to the Field by the Pond by Glenn Hatcher, Jacob Nordby Page 28 Heads Up by Yong Takahashi, Page 32 My Son, the Butcher by Jules A Riley, Page 34 www.rustynailmag.com Hot Pink Lipstick by Justin W. Price, Page 34 email@example.com Burrito by Justin W. Price, Page 34 @rustynailmag Undo the Knot by Heather Adams, Page 35 Lime Green Buddha by Justin W. Price, Page 36 The Gamble by Daniel Sutherland, Page 38 The Rusty Nail magazine is based in Pocatello, ID. Don't Sell Yourself Short by D. Reynolds, Page 41 Good News at Sunset by Nels Hanson, Page 46 Night Terrors by Katherine Okpara, Page 49 Recovery by Sharon Samantha Siegel, Page 50 Seed of Belief by William Leet, Page 53 Ants by Sparkplug O'Shea, Page 57 Einstein’s Wardrobe by Denis Bell, Page 58 Note of Triumph by David R Grigg, Page 61 The White Farmer by Kersie Khambatta, Page 63 Touring by Erin Lebacqz, Page 65 To Say What is Necessary, What is Valid by J. Monroe, Page 68 Wasn’t by John Domenichini, Page 69 Her Hands by Chelsey Clammer, Page 70 Life is a Hard Rock by Beth McHugh, Page 71 every machine gunned word (stutter) by Kate LaDew, Page 75 Dog and Master by John Sibley Williams, Page 76 2
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
thrusts down severing it. There are more. What is one root? When there are so many more? What is one person? He drives the thirty miles to the deer woods where he used to hunt. The car bumps up the rocky dirt road three miles, four miles. The dynamite shack’s still there. The fallen radio tower is still there. He parks the car by the dynamite shack. Together they go into the woods to find a clearing. He knows there are clearings, from when he was a boy. Dig just a bit more. Shoulders ache—push through the pain! Just a foot more, and it will be deep enough. Just six inches more and it will be deep enough. It is deep enough. She lies wrapped in a sheet to the side. By the pile of dirt. The hole is good. Clamber out. Hack out rude steps with the shovel. Clamber out. She’s rolled into the hole. She hits bottom with a thud. It doesn’t matter. It’s not her anymore. No need for niceties. Shovel in the dirt. But something’s in your eyes—you got something in your eye—the gnats, the sweat. It should be easier to fill than to dig but its not. Shovel in the dirt but don’t look in the hole. Something is in your eyes. You wipe them but more of the something comes from your eyes. Don’t look in the hole. Keep shoveling. At last look in the hole. She’s not there. The dirt rises. Thank God she’s not there. The hole is filled. A stone is found and placed for a marker. But only one person will know what it marks. Shovel the dry leaves over the hole. There. The hole was never there. Ditch the shovel by the dynamite shed. Cover it, too, with leaves. Get in the car and bump down the rocky dirt road toward the main road. The main road comes up, but— Shock. There’s a State Trooper car blocking the way. He’s in his grey uniform with his hand up. His hat is on his head. He comes around. What are you doing here fella? This is private property. I—I used to hunt here when I was a boy. I wanted to see the place again. The trooper talks. There’s a ditch on the side of the main road behind him. Remember—remember the doe in the ditch with the leg shot off, hanging on by a strip of skin, flapping around. The trooper talks, but no one hears. Remember the hunters standing around. She needed to be shot but you’re not allowed to shoot a doe. She suffered. The blood sprayed all around. The trooper came. He pulled his gun. He shot the doe. She suffers no more. His pistol’s ripped the air there’s a hole in the air there’s a hole—he steps back, he goes to move his car after saying Move on fella, have a good day—but stay off this road from now on, okay? ●
The Hole by Jim Meirose ush the tip of the shovel in. Thankfully, the ground is soft. The surrounding trees stonily silently watch. The hole begins. Thrust the shovel into the dirt—toss the dirt to the side. Again and again. It’s late afternoon. The work will go on into twilight. Don’t let them, she says. She’s sitting at the kitchen table her bald head catching the light, and she says Don’t let them. The cancer’s got her. It is just a matter of time. Their knives, their probes, their fluids and chemicals. Don’t let them. The open casket, the gawking people filing by. No. Don’t let them. Don’t dare let them. Swarming gnats annoy the digger. Up the nose, in the eyes. An upraised arm would bring them swarming above face level, but no, this cannot be. Must dig. The ground is sandy and soft. Thank God, this is the perfect place. She writes him the note he will use to get away with it. I’ve gone away to die now. You’ll find my car at the Greyhound Terminal. I don’t want to burden you with my dying. Don’t try and find me. Know that I love you. Know that I do. They work at the note until it is perfect. He puts it in a long envelope and seals it. He puts it in the drawer for when he will need it, after. Hit a layer of loose shale. Shatter it. Defeat it. Drive the heavy shovel down, pick up the shale, throw it on the pile. Luckily, it is just an inch or two thick. Under, the dirt is brown and moist. No stones. Dig. One foot, two feet, three feet down. She takes to the bed. It is worse, but there is at least no pain. Her brain cancer produces no pain, mercifully. She sleeps a lot. She eats little or nothing. The end is in sight. Four feet down now. The hole surrounds the digger. What if it snapped shut around the digger; what if it snapped shut and snipped the digger in half? Funny the thoughts that come in a time like this. Funny. The thoughts. He wakes. She is on her side facing away from him. It is early. He decides to let her sleep. He goes down and makes coffee. An hour later, he comes back up. She has not moved. He comes around and looks her in the face. That time has come. The pale of her face, the blood pooling down in her cheek, tells him. No breathing. No pulse. He knows. He goes downstairs and gets the note and puts it on the table. He rips it open. He reads it. His head goes on the table. He remembers. Don’t let them. Promise. Don’t let them. He takes her Toyota to the Greyhound Terminal and parks it in the back of the lot. He leaves the keys in the glove compartment, and walks home. No one sees him. A fat root appears in the hole. It goes across. From where? To where? It carries life somewhere. The shovel
• • •
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
enough confidence in her looks as not to let men down. As for him, he never pretended to be anything less than average in the looks department. He certainly wasn’t going to start pretending now. Women were going to have no choice but to take a gamble on him. The process of setting up a profile turned out to be more painstakingly time-consuming than they initially would have guessed. It was much akin to creating a resume. In many ways, that’s exactly what they were doing. The first step was coming up with a catchy screen name that was simultaneously neither too cliché, nor too eagerly desperate. After mulling over it for perhaps more time than ever should been the case, they narrowed it down to 2-3 candidates before finally making their final selection: He became “Creativemaker7” and she became “Oceanbreeze123.” The next step was checking off the wide array of personal interests and hobbies, followed by specifying what they were looking for in a partner. Most of them didn’t seem to apply to the void they were looking to fill: instant sexual gratification. There really should have been a sex-only option. Since there wasn’t, they opted for “Short-term relationship,” realizing if the sex was good enough, perhaps “long-term” would later apply. The final step was adding a personal note detailing what specifically they wanted, which they kept both brief and to the point. Every step of the way, they tried to convince themselves to get out before it was too late … but in many ways, it already was. With their profiles now activated, they immediately began trolling through the endless collection of profiles, starting with a 50-mile radius, before realizing that they were casting their net way too far (both in terms of numbers and distance). They knew if they were to pull this whole thing off, they didn’t have the luxury of time on their side. Therefore, it was crucial to find somebody in their own backyard. At first, they found themselves only looking at profiles that featured photos. But they both arrived to the conclusion that on a site such as this, discretion was vital. A lack of a photo didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t attractive. They were being cautious. After all, if somebody was willing to throw their picture out there for the world to see, then how could they be “trusted” to be discretionary? Was this somebody they wanted to do “business” with, after all? Since they didn’t have pictures themselves, most members turned down their request for contact, which was no surprise. They just had to be patient – that is, until they realized the cost of “patience.” Neither one of them initially realized a.) just how addicting the site was and b.) how limited “free” meant. True, it was free to join. But that was the only thing that was “free.” Communication with anybody on the site required a membership upgrade, which meant meant purchasing a package of “credits” that could be used in exchange for not only sending messages, but opening up messages sent to you. Otherwise, members were limited to simply browsing profiles, but nothing else. Due to the addictive nature of the site, it could quickly became a very expensive habit – much akin to gambling. It also had a disturbing ring of prostitution about it. The discretionary measures taken by the website extended to the payment process, appearing as a generic
Discretion by Bobby Fox
hey both had been thinking about it for quite awhile. In the end, they both succumbed to temptation. Frustration and desperation can do that to a person, even in the face of losing everything. Both of them had heard about the service on one of the national morning news programs. The concept was simple: a dating service/social network for people looking for an affair. Their immediate reaction to the site was mutual: what kind of people resort to something like this? Certainly, not people like them. They couldn’t imagine doing something like that in a million years. But lately, they began to see first hand how such a thing could be done. For him, it was simple and something so many men could identify with: his wife no longer desired sex with him. Not even every once in awhile. She went flat out cold turkey (or is it frozen turkey?) He tried not to take it personally. She kept insisting that it was “her,” not “him.” But it’s hard for any man to fully buy into that logic and not take it personally. The only difference between he and them was that that he finally crossed the threshold and decided to act upon it. As for her, it wasn’t a matter of losing her sex drive, despite what she kept telling her husband. In fact, it just the opposite. Her drive had never been deeper. She simply no longer had any sexual desire for him, despite convincing him that it was all her – not him. She even went as far as encouraging him to having flings with other women. If that was what it took for him to get off her back and therefore reducing the guilt she felt for not giving in to his desires, then so be it. He said he would never do that, which only made her feel more pressure. She knew it was her wifely duty, but she always had a stigma against doing anything involving sex, unless she wanted it 110%. It had to be on her terms only. No freebies. She knew it was selfish and it was what ultimately led to her giving in to her own selfish desires and creating a profile in search of an “attached” partner. Meanwhile, he considered asking his wife if he could pursue strictly sexual affairs with other women, but he knew that there was no way in hello she would grant it. The sexual buck began and ended with her. And there was nothing he could do about it. Or was there? As far as his wife was concerned, his sex drive was selfish enough as it was. Asking her permission to have sex with other women would have taken selfishness to a whole other level. In his mind, it was selfish on her part to derive him of something he desired so much. Ultimately, he decided the best solution for both parties would be to simply go behind her back, hiding behind the veil of discretion on a dating site aimed at men such as himself. The site promised discretion above all else, which is exactly why they both elected not to include a picture of themselves. They could have if they wanted to, but they both knew that the lack of a photo would probably limit their chances, but it was the risk they had to take – to avoid the greatest risk of all. Men were just going to have to take her word for it that she was attractive. She had 4
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business name on the credit card statement. Fortunately, they both had separate credit cards and bank accounts from their spouses, adding an additional layer of protection (and perhaps serving as a reminder as to why joint accounts is probably a wise idea). Furthermore, they were both impressed at the great lengths the site took to provide discretionary safeguards – features such a “panic button” that functioned like an ejection seat that immediately re-directed them to a safe site. Despite the security that they were confident that the site provided, they couldn’t get past the nagging disappointment of having to pay a minimum of $49 to use the site. Before fully committing, they both explored other, similar sites and quickly came to the conclusion that every site was free to join, but of course had an asterisk in the form of a dollar sign. They did stumble upon a handful of sites that were completely free, but were usually seedy, thinly veiled escort services (usually identified by nude photos and usually used as their profile photo). The members that weren’t glorified prostitutes weren’t exactly the cream of the crop … yet another instance of “you truly get what you pay for.” They momentarily considered traditional dating services like eHarmony or Match.com. However, these sites were aimed at single people. They needed a site (mirrored by its members) that didn’t have to pretend they were something they were not. Sure, they had to pretend in the context of their own marriage, but the site itself had nothing to hide. What they both found really surprising was the number of people on the site who actually identified themselves as single and looking to have an affair with a married person. They both found this odd, but then again, it’s not like they had any room to judge. After a great deal of hemming and hawing and seesawing back and forth between the angel and devil that sat upon their shoulders, they took the plunge and bought the cheapest package, promising themselves it was a one-time purchase only. If they didn’t find somebody once the credits expired, they would close down their profile. They both knew deep down that even if they found someone, they more than likely wouldn’t go through with it anyway. The thrill of the chase might have been all they needed after all. Another surprising discovery was the vast number of “attached” members who were looking for more than just an outlet for sex. Some were looking for a legitimate companion for dating and all the frills that come with an actual relationship. They literally wanted to start a second life, as though wanting to line-up a replacement for their “first” life. There were also several members who were content having nothing more than a cyber affair – a much safer and (relatively) less damaging way option. However, cyber sex just didn’t seem appealing to them. It seemed more like an extension of masturbation
and truth be told, lately, neither one of them were lacking in that department. As much as they tried justifying their actions by reminding themselves they wouldn’t be in this position had their partners paid more attention to them, they knew deep down that there was simply no excuse for their selfish actions. They knew it was wrong on every level, yet here they were – along with hundreds of thousands of others – doing it anyway. A cheater didn’t come in just one shape or form. They came from all sorts of backgrounds, transcending all cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds (despite the cost), religions, political affiliations, etc. Despite the human potential for greatness and despite our great intentions, temptation was both one of humanity’s deepest flaws … and one of humanity’s few consistencies – the struggle to resist temptation … even in the face of losing everything. They both knew full just how much could be lost by following through with this, which is why they convinced themselves that they would be careful to avoid jeopardizing everything they held so dear and close to them. Then again, what affair doesn’t start out with these intentions? Neither one of them ever saw themselves ever remotely in this exact situation, yet here they were, standing at the precipice of possibly throwing away everything, unable to stop even if they wanted to. After a couple of weeks of searching, neither found what they were looking for and their doubts about the validity of the service began to increase. Their experience certainly did nothing to comprise their promise to themselves not to order more credits after their first initial purchase ran out. And they certainly gave no thought to upgrading their membership to the “Affair Guaranteed Pro Package” that would cost them $200. The site certainly knew how to market itself. It’s amazing the impact hormones can have on spending money. Down to their final credit, they decided sit on it for awhile, waiting to spend it wisely. The felt like kids at Chuck-E-Cheese down to their final token and deciding what to spend it on. Two days later, they found what they were looking for. And all it took was one e-mail. They were honest and direct and before they knew it, they had a date to meet at a hotel bar. Their parallel availability couldn’t be more perfect. She always made it home 2-3 hours before her husband and it wasn’t unusual for her to be at a coffee shop beyond the time he came home, reading her boredom away. Meanwhile, he had a lighter workload these days, so could easily sneak out of work earlier than usual to avoid detection from his wife.
They both knew deep down that even if they found someone, they more than likely wouldn’t go through with it anyway. The thrill of the chase might have been all they needed after all.
While en route to their secret rendezvous, doubt rapidly began to creep in, creating an unsettling feeling in their stomachs. It felt different than the usual 5
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butterflies one experiences before a first date. Then again, it had been so long since either of them had a first date, they couldn’t be certain to even remember what that exactly felt like. Hopefully, the feeling was nothing that a drink or two couldn’t resolve. In the meantime, they struggled mightily against the growing urge to turn around and abort their scandalous mission. It certainly didn’t help knowing that doing so would be the right thing to do. Yet somehow, they kept moving forward. As he pulled into the parking lot, something caught his eye – a car that looked just like his wife’s, but he knew there was no way it could be hers, so didn’t even bother looking at the license plate, opting instead to enter and meet the mystery woman who awaited him. She sat at the bar, halfway through her first drink, when a man she thought she didn’t know at all turned out to be the man she knew more than anyone. They smiled in recognition, before laughing in shocked disbelief. A couple of hours later, after several drinks and conversation that reminded them of a time when their love was new and young and dangerously alive, they debated whether they should still get a room. They decided to save the money and head home, where they proceeded to have the greatest sex of their lives. The next day, they closed down their profiles, together, promising one another a life happily ever after. ●
Magic by Brendan Sullivan A wrought iron balcony, overgrown with jasmine frames the summer evening, pulls magic from doorways and sends it spinning into the wanton dark with a clatter of glass beads and raw red saxophone. Voodoo heat bleeds out low and blue, bubbles under door sills and over window ledges to set the city humming. The jazz blast of feet on cobblestones a parade of tourists, washed in summer and silk shake graveyard dust from their shoes and disappear into the long, languid dark among the palm readers and card tricksters crouched in the curl of a summer dream.
• • • Bobby Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a novel and 15 feature length screenplays. His works have been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, Lap Top Lit Mag, The Path, Contemporary Literary Review India, Yareah Magazine, One Title Magazine, The Knotted Beard Review, inTravel Magazine, and others. He is also the writer/director/editor of several awardwinning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton OneActs Festival in Canton, MI. Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University. Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ypsilanti, MI. His website is foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @BobbyFox7.
The warm slit of night beckons me, welcomes me with open arms and leads me to where you ponder enchantment your moon slashed eyes half closed on the world, taking in its secrets between sips of rum laced coffee and heavy cream. Your cheeks spangled like carnival glass in every hue of my desire, sweat beaded up like tiny pearls on toffee skin. Leaning in, I taste taboos from your tongue that sear my mouth with the pent up heat of your body unfolding over mine. and the night, startled by my impudent touch, runs down the sky in satin ribbons. • • • Brendan Sullivan is a lifelong beach bum who has turned from acting to poetry, as he finds it a more remarkable muse. He also enjoys surfing, sailing and diving. He considers his poetry to be paintings or photographs and wants readers to take away whatever they want or need.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
ico. His skin was dark and he had a long, hawk-like nose. I noticed that he was limping. “Hey, there,” he said. He sat on a stool and looked at me. Aunt Noemi came out from the back, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “What are you doing here?” She sounded like she was trying to be mad. “Got off work early.” “My sister’s just driven in from Washington DC,” Aunt Noemi told him. “This is her daughter, Kathy.” He touched the brim of his hat. “I’m Ramon. Hope you had a nice drive down. It’s real pretty this time of year with all the wildflowers. Did you get to see them?” I just looked at him. My mouth was full of very hot tamale, but even if it wasn’t, I had a feeling he wouldn’t have given me a chance to talk. I had to take a drink of Big Red to swallow. “I was stationed in Camp Lejeune back in the day,” he told me. “Me and my friends, we went up to DC once and had a nice time before they shipped us off to Dong Ha.” “You think she wants to hear about Dong Ha, chocante?” Aunt Noemi said to him. He shrugged and leaned forward against the counter. “Gimme a few of those tamales to go.” And he mumbled something back to her in Spanish. Sometimes I understood – I had learned a little from mom – but I couldn’t catch this. He said it way too low. My aunt snapped her towel at him and frowned, pretending to be mad again. After he said good bye to me and walked out the door, she came over and threw the towel over her shoulder. “He stops by sometimes. He just moved here from Beeville.” “Okay,” I said. And just then, mom and dad came in with Uncle Tony, my Aunt Noemi’s husband.
Wildflowers by Kimberlie Orr
didn’t want to hang out with my folks. No way. Everything they did, the way my mom ate French fries, chewing and chewing, the way my dad tucked his shirt so tight in his pants, everything about them drove me crazy. So while they were still in front of the main house saying hi to everyone, I walked over to the Tamale Hut. I loved Aunt Noemi’s Tamale Hut. It was dark and cool, with shiny red stools and a long counter. It always smelled so delicious and sharp – picante, my mom would say – the way our house did when there was ground beef sizzling in a sauce pan with lots of spices in it. I wanted to see her, too. Aunt Noemi. She seemed to understand me for some reason. I just felt okay around her, you know? Under no pressure. If I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t. She was behind the counter when I came in so I turned off my Walkman. I had heard this Tears for Fears song too many times, anyway. It was always on the radio. I hadn’t seen Aunt Noemi since last summer, but she always looked exactly the same in her baggy cotton dress and apron – not really young or old, but somewhere in between. She never ages, I had heard someone say once, during a family reunion. But when they said it, they made it sound a little mean. “Ay, mija!” she called out and it was kind of like she was crying. “You’re more and more like your daddy – tan chula!” I didn’t know if I liked that—everyone seemed to be saying that ever since I started middle school last year— but I kept quiet while she hugged me really, really tight. “Can I have a Big Red?” I asked her. They didn’t have Big Red soda up in DC – I had only ever seen it here in Texas. “Anything you want, mija,” she said, so I went over to the big refrigerated container in the corner and lifted the cover. Cold air burst up in a cloud that took my breath away, and I reached in and grabbed a Big Red by its sharp, jagged bottle top. There was an opener on the front of the container, and, for some reason, it was so satisfying to use – I loved placing the bottle top into it, hearing that dull, hissing before the pop, when the top came off. Big Red truly was red and kind of spicy, too. It went perfectly with tamales. Without me even asking, Aunt Noemi served me a plate. I sat at the counter and peeled the corn husks off, but then I had to move away because the steam I released was so hot and sticky and forceful. I had learned that it can burn you pretty bad, almost as bad as a curling iron. I couldn’t wait to eat, even though we had already stopped at the Dairy Queen earlier today. I knew mom was going to yell at me for overdoing it, but right now, I didn’t care. The door opened behind me, and I was sure it was mom, ready to start in on me, but instead it was someone I didn’t recognize. He was dressed like those guys in Urban Cowboy, but he looked like my cousins from Mex-
I was glad to be alone. You can only deal with so many relatives at once. Answering the same questions over and over again: college sophomore in the fall; Art for now, but maybe I’ll switch to English; yes, his name is Elliott and he’s in pre-law. So intent on making his dad proud. Elliott. I liked saying his name, though, so I didn’t mind that question. My folks had wanted to drive out to Robstown, but I begged off. My brilliant excuse: bad cramps. Mom understood because she had gone through the same thing when she was my age. And dad didn’t want to deal with that kind of stuff. So they let me hang around Aunt Noemi’s as they set off on their day trip. “Whatever, nevermind,” I sang along with Kurt Cobain as I wandered around Aunt Noemi’s yard, my CD player blasting in my ears. The sun baked down and seemed to release all kinds of odors – the freshness of the straw out in the field, the heavy, not really so bad smell of the thick, swirled cow paddies underneath all the glistening flies, the peppery smell of tamales from the shop. I hooked the CD player on my jeans—my pleasingly loose jeans—and pulled the cigarettes from inside my shirt. While I leaned against the fence that separated the yard from the field, I lit one slowly, purposefully, as though I were being filmed in a movie or something. “Mmmmm,” I said, enjoying that piercing burn and the prickling of tears. 7
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
She tapped me on the shoulder and I jumped. And then I swallowed wrong and coughed and coughed. A little panicky, I threw the cigarette on the ground and yanked off my headphones. “I’m so sorry, mija.” Aunt Noemi didn’t look scared. A lot of folks did when I glared at them the way I was glaring at her. “I wondered if you wanted a tamale.” I relaxed a little. I couldn’t really be mad at her. How could anyone? I shook my head. “But you’re so thin,” she said. Not thin enough, I thought, but I just shrugged. I wondered if she was going to say something about me smoking. That’s usually what people did if they weren’t giving me a hard time about not eating. Instead, she nodded at the crumpled cigarette lying at our feet. “Can I have one?” I was so surprised by this, I held out the package to her. She had smoked a lot before. I could tell by the way she shielded the cigarette when she lit it and let out a spiral of smoke after that first deep draw. “Oh, that’s good,” she said. “Real good.” She leaned back against the fence and didn’t say anything else. I was so used to adults always trying to fill up the space with questions and comments, that I was a little confused. I leaned back next to her. “Don’t you have any customers?” I asked. “Just someone coming to pick up an order.” She dropped her head back. “Later.” “Oh.” I shook out another cigarette for me. “What’s going on? Anything exciting out here in Yorktown?” “Nothing,” she said, the way I would have. We smoked for a while, and then, out of the blue, she said in a hard, low voice, “Tony and the kids. They’re just in their own world.” There was something about her, something in the way she seemed a little lost, that reminded me of me when Elliot got caught up in his internship at the law firm, when he’d forget a dinner or movie we had planned. It’ll help with the degree, he kept telling me. It’s the best thing I can be doing right now. She moved her head a little, like dogs do when they hear a sound you can’t. And then a battered pick-up drove up the dusty road and pulled up behind her house. “Mija.” She pushed herself away from the fence. “Do me a favor.” I didn’t have time to say anything before she pulled a circle of keys from her pocket, pressed them into my hand, and closed my fingers over them. They were warm and serrated against my skin. “When Sonny comes by, will you give him his tamales? They’re in a bag on the counter.” She was looking at me with such an intense expression on her face. At that moment, I would have done anything for her. “Okay.” “You can lock up if you need to go anywhere. Or go inside. All the Big Red you want.” Before I could say anything else, she flicked her cigarette to the ground and walked over to the house.
doctor, says he can barely microwave a decent Lean Cuisine. It’s so small and close in here. I used to think it was amazing; now it depresses me. Didn’t Noemi ever feel claustrophobic, sitting in the back, day after day, mixing the masa and spreading it carefully onto the corn husks? God, I would have gone crazy doing that. A hot day, even for a Texas spring. I gulp down the last of the Diet Big Red that my folks brought over from the H-E-B in Victoria. I’ll have to drink some real water soon – all these chemicals can’t be good for me. And eventually I’ll need to find something for my daughter, Katie, to eat for dinner – she’s a little picky. Luckily, that chicken strip basket I got her just now took care of lunch, but we can’t do Dairy Queen twice in one day. That would be too much, wouldn’t it? Anyway, right now she seems happy enough in the main house with mom and dad. And her iPod, of course. I sit at the counter, once again wondering what I’m going to do. Strangely enough, this funeral was an opportunity for me. I hope I don’t go to hell for saying that. I really needed time away from Elliott, though, and flying down with mom and dad seemed like a good solution. I realize that we’ll have to talk on Friday, when I return with Katie. I just don’t have any idea how it will turn out. The door opens and a tall shadow wanders in. “Uncle Tony?” I say, but the shadow stops and shakes its head. “Hey, there. I was a friend of Noemi’s.” He limps into the yellow light from the one shaded window. “I’m Ramon.” I remember him. From years ago. I guess I never appreciated how attractive he was. I can see thick, graystreaked hair even under that big hat. He’s holding flowers. “Hi,” I say. “I’m Noemi’s niece, from DC. Were you at the funeral?” He bows his head and shakes it again. “I couldn’t make it.” Something in his voice, a tremor, a swallow, makes me sadder than anything else that has happened today. I think back to the afternoon when I first met him: how he murmured to Noemi; how she kept smiling the rest of the day, even after he had gone. And then, all the rumors and stories I’ve half heard or half registered over the past few years come together at this very moment and make sense to me. “Ah,” I hear myself breathe out. I’ve come to a realization, but without any judgment attached. After all, who am I to throw stones? “I’m sorry,” I say, and I mean it. He holds out the flowers and they glow red and blue, even in this dim light. “Her favorite: Indian Paint Brush. Some Bluebonnets too. Could you put them on her grave for me?” “Of course,” I say. He nods and touches the brim of his hat, part cowboy, part Aztec prince. “She was a real good woman. Always – just real kind and sweet.” He turns quickly and walks out, leaving me with those beautiful wildflowers. I realize that I have started to cry. I’m glad that mom and dad are keeping an eye on Katie so that I can go back to the cemetery and really say good bye to Noemi. For Ramon and me both. ● • • • Kimberlie Orr lives in Alexandria, VA. She is always interested in getting feedback on her work and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
After Noemi’s funeral, I go into the Tamale Hut. Her children don’t know what they’re going to do with this building. Her daughter says she hasn’t got the slightest idea how to make tamales, and her son, Tony Jr., the 8
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
I should do me a favor I can barely tear Perhaps a rope Jump the bridge How long? At least I could say I took action. I win
Maurice by Nigel Barto I laid down to die each and every time. They were strangers, I hardly knew, naked I was in the dark, doing what they wanted me to.
What foolish talk Pardon me for feeling sorry. In a few hours will be better I know, I've rowed this boat before Hold on Let me close my eyes, steer. Saturday's up ahead • • •
I should have honored the sun instead of playing the moon. The verdict has now come, a life sentence, HIV. Thin self esteem got me here; my cross to bear. Numb distant unsure is how I feel Don't know what to think, this can't be happening.
Nigel Barto is a storyteller. He has published two novels - "Private Sessions", "Nick, Dontae, Gus & Jack", and a book of stories titled, "Feed Me". He wrote and directed a play, "Christmas Weekend", which debuted off Broadway. He produces a spoken word event called BartoSpeak to showcase new artists. He has created a short story project, "A Journey to Take", which invites everyone to add a paragraph to the ongoing story on Facebook. His life motto is Enjoy the Journey, Forget the End.
The doctors, time off from work Sick night and day It's forcing me to live inside the light. I'm fighting and denying, scratching; I'm weak.
Regret by Robert S. King
Meds started hard it's kicking I’m putting up a front, hoping no one can see how I've changed these months.
We are always dreaming our way back, looking behind us to see the road rolling up like a sleeping bag, how the trees bend over it as if they were trying to cover up where we've been. Suddenly we feel our pulse rise like a flame, the dust a red fire behind us.
I sing a song of I'm Okay Smiling headaches Inside all wrong My life my own A constant reminder how brief it is. I don't want anyone to know I lived, I sow
The past burns slowly. Its face is red. Its gown is ash. Cinders float from our backs and seem like travelers, not gray husks so slowly falling down.
I have moreThings to be-Love to give-Places to go But I'm here captive inside a bottle of blue and yellow pills. Writing an obituary is a new Friday night. Crawling across the bed stretching for my pillow, and my ten o'clock dose.
• • • Robert S. King lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. His poems have appeared in hundreds of magazines, including California Quarterly, Chariton Review, Hollins Critic, and Writers' Forum. He has published three chapbooks and two full-length collections, The Hunted River and The Gravedigger’s Roots, both from Shared Roads Press, 2009. He recently stepped down as Director of FutureCycle Press in order to devote more time to his own writing. He continues to serve the press as Poetry Co-Editor.
I'm tired Tired of feeling tired Tired of everything 9
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
by Eleanor Talbot
The Ship of Theseus lost my sister somewhere in the snow. Or I should say I didn’t actually lose her and it wasn’t literally the snow; it’s just that it felt like she went out of the door one day, into a blizzard and came back a person I didn’t know. It was her that returned in the physical sense alright, but it was as if she had left her mind under a tree somewhere and forgot to put it back. When I asked her why I hadn’t heard from her in months and told her how worried I had been, she didn’t say much. She mumbled something about not being able to talk about anything and that was that. She took pills and saw professionals and I would think, but who knows her better than me? All the years before, I had helped her with her problems and she had helped me with mine. We were friends and supported each other - that’s how people did things, didn’t they? One night, she came for dinner with her family. At one point she ran to the bathroom in tears and this is the conversation we had: “You don’t know what it’s like getting old!” “I do know what it’s like actually, seeing as I am not immortal. Anyway,” I said, “I hope to look as good as you when I am your age.” With half-hearted satisfaction at my cajoling, she changed the subject. “I don’t love Reese anymore and he might not love me. But we stay together because of the kids.” I never buy it when people say this one particular thing. It seems patronising to think that children would only notice their parents’ gloomy union when they move out of home. “Well I don’t think it’s any good for them to see you in a loveless marriage,” I said, trying not to be too stern. She cried some more and then wiped the smears of black under her eyes – she’d taken to wearing make-up, which she’d never done before. I found it somehow embarrassing; all that desperation about fading youth on display for everyone to see. I watched as she applied eye liner to her red, puffy eyes. “Do I look alright?” she asked when she’d finished. She looked like a cake that had been iced by a three year old but I told her that she looked lovely and we went back to the dinner table.
I giggled - it just came out. Of course it wasn’t funny but somehow all I could focus on was how bizarre it seemed; as if I was an anonymous spectator in a freak show. I knew that it was possible to die of an overdose of paracetamol but it seemed so unglamorous, like swallowing a bottle of bleach. Heroin had a better ring, the presumption being that you at least had some sort of high before it all went south. “Where is she?” “Parkwood General. Reese is moving her to Forest Hill when she is stable.” Forest Hill is a private mental institution. I had been there once when I was a teenager to visit a friend who was being treated for anorexia. I had a flash of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then reprimanded myself for all the inappropriate ideas I was having. “Can I see her?” “I don’t know, love. Maybe leave her a bit.” She rang off and I went to lie on my bed. I didn’t cry. I just let feelings puddle over and around me. Then I wallowed in them, an immobile heap; at last, sorry and scared. When people have cancer, the hope is in chemotherapy or cutting out the tumour. When people have tried to kill themselves, where do you put your hope then? Eventually, I went to see her when Reese said I could. As I drove up the two- minute noodle driveway of Forest Hill, it felt exactly as a mental institution should. The twists in the road curled around grounds that were calm and green with rolling beds of perfect shrubbery. The building too was exactly as one would imagine a mental asylum: a crisp, regal structure pluming with importance; all gables and shutters and sashed windows. It was geared up for serenity, but you couldn’t help but get the feeling that there was something pulsing under foot - like aliens had parked their ship in the cellar and were using the place as camouflage. Inside smelt of medicine and the lemony ammonia of hygiene. Staff hurried about and patients padded around looking less wild-eyed than I’d expected. I was pointed to Janet’s room by a receptionist bearing a cheerful grin and I made my way there spooked by all the pleasant professionalism. Janet was sitting at a table by the window drinking tea. Her hair was scratched back into a pony tail and her usual emerald green eyes had changed a murky aqua marine. I sat down opposite her, not knowing whether I should have hugged her. She didn’t look like she wanted a hug. “How are you Janey?” I said. I felt like I was at a job interview; all over-careful about what I should say. “I just tried to kill myself and failed. Not good.” “Well you look better.” “What, I look better than death? Certainly don’t feel it.” “I just meant...”
My mother phoned a few days after that. The news was shocking but not unexpected. “Your sister tried to kill herself.” Mum was crying – not in a gusty, hysterical sort of fashion, it was more like a restrained burble. “Christ, Mum!” I yelled down the phone. It probably sounded angry and I probably was. “How, where, what?” I stammered, not knowing what to call anything. “She tried to take an overdose, aspirin or Panado or something.” 10
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
“I know what you meant Francine. Don’t get all Mum on me.” I bit my tongue. She had called me Francine, which she never did unless she was angry with me and she had referred to me being like Mum, which she knew got on my nerves. Our mother is a tight, reserved sort of person, all tweed skirts and English Breakfast. “Is there anything I can do?” “You could smuggle me a box of Valium and a gin bottle,” she said. “I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to talk about it forever either.” She drained the remnants of her tea with a sound like water going down a plughole. I thought about the time before the snow and wished not so much had changed. It was making me so tired and cold and lonely. “What about your kids, don’t you think of them?” I regretted it the moment it came out of my mouth. “What about them? Aren’t you always saying that not everything should be about the kids?” I kept quiet. “Do you know why I have a phobia of buttons?” Since I could remember, Janet had had an unnatural aversion to buttons. We all have compulsive dislikes, so I never paid much attention to hers. “Because from the age of three to seven, Barry from next door had been bending me over the bonnet of his shiny blue Morris Minor and having his wicked way with me. I had long hair at the time and it would keep getting caught in the buttons of his shirt and it would hurt like hell. Can you believe that? That the thing I remember most was how my hair hurt. Afterwards it would be a total faff trying to undo all my hair from his buttons.” It was as if someone had come along and punched my stomach. It was such a physical response that I can’t remember what the corresponding thoughts were. Bile rose into my mouth and I swallowed it down. “I’ve only just remembered. I told Mum and she said it was impossible.” Janet laughed and laughed after that and I urgently waited for an opportunity to be needed, so I could hold her and tell her how terrible it was and how it was all going to be alright. But it wasn’t going to be alright. Those things don’t go away. You can’t unknow them. “I, I…” I stammered in the gap she had left. “Oh Francey, there is nothing you can say. I know you wish it had never happened. But those are the facts and it’s all a bit of a balls up, to coin an unsuitable phrase.” Janet had always been a dithering sort of person, sweet and a bit indecisive. This new brassed-up, matterof-factness was disconcerting. I thought of Plutarch’s ship of Theseus paradox: if every single plank of wood on a ship was replaced one bit at a time, so that none of the original bits remained, would it still be the same ship, Theseus, at the end? Was this what was happening to Janet? Was she stripping herself away one piece at a time and would it still be her when she was done? We sat there a while longer. I murmured things, mostly about how we loved her. She agreed with everything I said. “Of course I know you love me.” And, “naturally if I need help, you are top of the list!”
The longer we kept at it, the more it felt like it was worth stopping the whole sorry business and calling it a day. It was, what it was, what it was. Years went by and Janet’s trips to Forest Hill were erratic but frequent enough. Bipolarity, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder labels were bandied about as freely as the drugs that went with them. Reese went about things with fastidiousness; getting the right people, administering the correct things, keeping a track, watching for signs. The children grew up and went on their way with the quiet stoicism of people who have learnt early on not to make a fuss. I had a life in the in the in between bits. I’d never married nor had children, so my time was my own and I pursued my interests. I found a job I loved rather than liked and traveled frequently. Once in the middle of a family gathering Janet leaned over to me reeking of gin, her eyes bloodshot with the mixing of booze and pills. “That’s the thing that’s saved you from all this crap, Francey. You have always done exactly what you’ve wanted. My life has never been mine. I’ve had everybody else’s shit stuck inside me and it won’t get out.” Two months ago, Janet swallowed a pile of pills and finally managed to kill herself. It feels strange saying that: finally managed, but that’s what it is and I am not going to name it anything else. You see, the day before she went out into the snow, she had known laughter, sadness, a picking-up of things when they all went wrong. After the snow, there was only black. Even when the children graduated or she won a little fortune in the lottery, those were just upward bumps in the infinite plane of her black. I sleep better now, not worrying about her. It bothered me at first that I did, but I have accepted the lack of tiredness and there is space in my mind for new things. I never wished her dead, but it feels somehow more right than the way she was - though I would never say that out loud to people who knew her. I have no illusions about death and its finality. At my age, I doubt God will appear to me. But in the moments of my fathoms deep loneliness that haunt me in the small morning hours, I imagine Janet peaceful and quiet on a great powerful ship, traveling out of the snow, toward the sun. ● • • •
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
started a dozen fights. They gave him an extra year in jail. He spent three months in solitary confinement, where he nearly went berserk. Six months before his release, he got violently ill. The doctors and the hospital infirmary were baffled so they sent him to a local hospital. They ran test after test on him. The doctor looked grim when he told him that he had contracted the HIV virus and had an aggressive form of AIDS. When he was released from the hospital, the state weighed the last three months of his sentence and released him. He was depressed but mostly he was violently angry. Before his release he had hatched a plan. When he got out he went home and stole money from his mother. He went to a pawn shop and bought a handgun. He loaded the revolver with six rounds and calmly walked into the Citizen's Bank. He blamed them for all of his family's problems; they didn't listen to his mother's desperate pleas. He took out the handgun and shot the bank manager twice, then turned the gun on the tellers. He took down three of them and with the last round, he splattered his brains all over the bank. ●
Psychological Autopsy by Mike Berger
e learned early not to cry, his Orthodox Jewish father would have none of it; crying was for women and Rubens dad made sure he understood that. His father was Jewish and had a chip on his shoulder. Their little house was Spartan devoid of beauty. They lived in a tough neighborhood; his was a low-paid security guard. While other boys were out playing, Ruben was required to sit at his father's feet while he recited from the Torah. He didn't mind so much because the other boys made fun of him. Often he came home with a black eye or a bloody nose. His father told him that he must learn to fight, "an eye for an eye" was repeated over and over. Ruben's life came to a crashing halt when he was nine. His father was shot and killed by a burglar; they never caught the guy. The company gave his mother a small pension but it wasn't enough to pay the mortgage and buy food. Despite her desperate pleas to the bank they foreclosed and took their house. They rented a shabby apartment in a rough part of town. Out of necessity, Ruben learn to fight and began carrying a knife. He became surly and defiant. Ruben remained the brunt of jokes when he entered junior high. He was quickly identified as a troublemaker at school; he spent as much time in the vice principal's office as the vice principal did. The kids all knew that he carried a knife and steered a wide path around him. He had no friends and ate lunch by himself. In the eighth grade he started smoking pot when he could. He didn't have the money to pay for it. He started stealing anything that wasn't nailed down to pay for more marijuana. He hit the retail stores using his five finger discount. The stores around his area knew him well and assigned a security guard to watch him. He got sent to Juvy for trying to steal a watch. While he was there he learned the burglars trade. The only thing they didn't teach him was how not to get caught. After detention he went on a spree. He bragged that he could steal a car stereo in less than 5 min. He became disenchanted with the nickel dime stuff and wanted to do something bigger. He scoped out houses on the rich side of town. He didn't have a car so he had to ride his bike. When he broke into a mansion he couldn't take the bigger stuff, TVs, computers, or stereos. He had to be content to steal silverware, jewelry, and anything he could carry in his bag. In the house he found a coin collection; he knew they were worth a lot of money. He pawned them. The following day. He got $800 for the collection and went out looking for a car. He would use his money as a down payment; there was plenty more where that came from. The cops got a call from the pawn shop. It took less than four hours for them to know his name. A day later he was arrested and taken into custody. He had just turned 18 so he was tried as an adult. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He hated prison life, he was young and was everybody's bitch. He became more angry every day and
• • • Mike Berger is an MFA, PhD. He writes poetry and short stories full time. He has been writing poetry for less than four years. His work appear in seventy-one journals. He has published two books of short stories and eight poetry chapbooks .The winner of several poetry contests, he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is a member of The Academy of American Poets.
artificial light by e a d sellors Inbetween, like Springs first flower delicately gesturing the miming urge in half-light the darkened word falls heavy at their feet sickness had no cure without for each half was impuissant when the sleeper could not wake where the two mouths meet thieves who from the future steal portents with mingling tongues have made of this reunion an ideal in which all an amalgam become and in our Nature's furthest reach beyond the stolid noumenon a grace from which receives the welcome fetters of artifical light • • •
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
The suit is warm and sweaty. You think about the sweat from all the others who have worn it. You imagine a thin paste coating the inside. Your first time on the floor a young boy comes up to you and kicks you in the leg. You want to kick that little shit head back but you can’t. Instead you refer to your training. You put both your hands on your cheeks and shake your head from side to side to act embarrassed. You are embarrassed but the suit did offer a form of protection. Walking on the floor you check out every thirty something bombshell mom. Each wearing low cut tanks trying to salvage their youth. A young girl runs from twenty yards away and gives you a hug. The hair on your arms stand. Seconds later a boy throws a pizza crust at your face reminds you how much you hate kids. These bastard kids don’t smile, they smirk. They woke up that morning knowing they would fuck Chuck over. They make you want to punch yourself in the nuts. Note to self. Even though it might seem like a good idea, never punch yourself in the nuts. Questions about your name start coming from coworkers. So your name is Ali? Where are you from? You tell them you were born in America but your parents are from Iran. Oh that’s cool they say. That is followed with a three second moment of silence because neither of you know what to say. Your friends would try and mock you by speaking in an Indian accent. Apparently any foreign country that isn’t America is welcomed with an Indian accent. If you didn’t know this, now you do. After the third time of explaining to your friends you are not from India you consider carrying an atlas with you for visual evidence. You then donate ten dollars to your local elementary school in hopes it will be used toward creating a geography program. To avoid any such conflict in the future you will now tell everyone you meet you are French Canadian. It’s difficult to determine your ethnicity by looking at you. You have tan skin, bushy eyebrows but a clean cut face. You have been mistaken for Italian, Mexican or Greek. An elderly customer approaches you and blatantly keeps asking where you’re from. When you finally tell him he puts both his hands in the air and says, “That’s Ok, That’s Ok. Just as long as you’re happy to be here.” You wonder what that’s supposed to mean. First it was the Blacks, then Jews, then Mexicans. Now it’s you. Your second day at work isn’t any better than the first. You receive the joyful task of cleaning the restrooms. It looks like a confetti of shit and piss fell from the roof. After finishing you walk into the break room to find your coworkers eating a cake. Six Mexicans huddled over a table, only three chairs so the other three were standing. The green frosting read ‘Happy Birthday Jonny’. Some use their hands to grab at the food, the more civil used plastic forks. There weren’t any napkins because they didn’t need any, no food was going to waste. Any rogue piece of frosting or crumb would undoubtedly make its way off the table and into someone’s mouth. One by one they would take a moment to sip their drink. After a few seconds a natural sense of entrainment occurred where they all took a drink at the same time, put down their cups, then recommenced their handout. A piece of cake slips off the fork of your trainer Juan and lands on the ground. You assume he wouldn’t pick it off the floor, you assume he wouldn’t eat it, but god bless
Being Chuck by Ali Zahiri ou just turned sixteen. You’re looking for a job and don’t know any better, so you apply to Chuck E. Cheese. You walk toward the seating area near the robotic singing Rat and begin filling out an application. Name, Ali-Reza Zahiri. Sex, Male. Ethnicity, you’re not sure. Both your parents are Iranian but you were born in the States. Your blood is Iranian, but your mentality isn’t. You don’t like intricate rugs. You hate rice. You hate festive music. You hate dancing. You own a Lou Bega CD, read Men’s Health, like sushi. You feel white, but still hesitant to mark it. You cop out and check ‘other’. Three days after you fill out an application you receive a phone call asking if you’re still interested. You’re excited about the idea of your first job and accept an interview for the next day. That’s when you’ll meet your manager Greg. You don’t know this now, but Greg is a dick He is disappointed about his life and will take it out on you. You assess him as the talentless guy who wanted to be an actor but is instead managing a children’s restaurant. He asks you questions like, if you could be any cartoon character who would you be? You wonder the point of this question. Be careful though, this is the make or break it point. If you say Pepé Le Pew you’ll be seen as sexist. If you say Yosemite Sam you’ll look racist. You say Bugs Bunny and smile, but refuse to show teeth. You’re hired on the spot. Congratulations. First day on the job Greg introduces you to everyone. “This is Pablo.” “Hello, Pablo.” “This is Juan.” “Nice to meet you, Juan.” “This is Elsa.” “Hi, Elsa.” You pick up the trend. All your co-workers are very approachable, especially Juan. Every time you look at him he is smiling at you. Every time. He is heavy set with a large stomach but a flat ass. Juan is your trainer. You’re shocked you need training to work at Chuck E. Cheese. Juan asked your name before printing your nametag. “Oh Ali, like Aladdin?” he asks. Your eyes roll. Exactly fuck head, just like Aladdin. You think of telling him Aladdin is a loosely based documentary on your life. You don’t because there is a 23.4 percent chance he will believe you. Juan gives you a hat as part of your uniform. You don’t think about this now but will later wonder why it has so many white stains. Your first day you learned the protocol of washing dishes. Rinse. Put In dish washer. Take out of dish washer. There are written instructions there in case you forget. He then walks you into a closet just outside the dining area. You see a large rat head looking straight into your eyes. You silently pray he doesn’t say it, and that’s when he does. You have to dress as a rat every half hour for fifteen minutes. Juan walks you through putting the suit on correctly. Pants, T-shirt, giant head, how can you fuck that up?
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
him he does both. With each bite they look at each other with smiles, a sense of comradery. A brotherhood that with each moment is exponentially increasing. You’ve always wanted to be a part of a fraternity; this could be your chance. A window opens, the dishwasher offers you a slice, “Hey primo, you want piece?” he asks you. You think about declining but don’t. What makes you so different from them? All of a sudden you’re the Chuck E. Cheese employee with standards? Fuck it, it’s chocolate. You opt for a fork and grab plate. Your fork accidentally hits a coworker’s as you both go for the same piece of cake. She looks at you and says sorry. If she only knew how sorry you would be after you finish she would rescind her apology. You remember your manager warning you about the danger of eating off someone else’s plate. You recall him telling you a story of a former employee getting hepatitis from doing so. You then recall thinking bullshit on that same story. The idea of eating other people’s left overs isn't as disgusting as you first imagined. For justification purposes you consider yourself one of the people invited but got there late. You were hesitant your first bite, but the eager eyes surrounding you offered comfort, security. From then on each bite felt like another step toward the edge of a building. You take a moment to look around after cleaning your plate and notice three not so elegant things. Everyone’s head is down. Everyone is stuffing their mouth like it’s a race; who can disappoint their parents the quickest? And finally you see your reflection in a mirror. Surprisingly you were smiling but didn’t feel it. Then slowly those thirteen muscles it takes to smile-relax and the thirtythree it takes to frown-tense. You see a smear of frosting on your shirt from wiping your hand. You see yourself side by side with people whose idea of a promotion is a dollar raise and a new hat. At that moment you realize you’re all equal. It is depressing. The next day you knew it was your last. A kid pissed in the inner tubes. Every child that slid down into the ball pit began crying. Greg walks over to you with a bottle of Windex and a cloth and tells you to clean it. You wait till he walks away then throw the Windex and cloth in the ball pit as your last fuck you to Greg. You then walk into his office and tell him you’re done. He tries to look upset but was sympathetic to your cause. He was you fifteen years ago and wishes he made the same decision. At that moment you realize what Greg really was: misunderstood, sad eyed, and a wrong that was too difficult for him to make right. You hand over your nametag that carried the biggest myth about you. Your name. ●
Those Summer Nights (with apologies to Robert Hayden)
by Justin W. Price Those summer nights, when we could still smoke in those 24 hour cafes, we’d sit with giddy laughter, and drink coffee while the butts piled. The patient waitress (who would not be cute if you did not know her) would make us order an omelet and bring five forks. We’d share it with our best mixed company jokes, our thoughts on politics, religion, the future (which was so far ahead of us). Three ashtrays and four carafes later, our eyes burned with pleasure, our stomachs twisted into nauseating knots, our muscles tight and achy, the waitress sat massaging her swollen legs while smoking our cigarettes, and we’d exit into the twilight to get short sleep before our menial labors. The damp air bit our skin, disguised our fatigues as we hugged goodbye. And then we drove away to our respective futures (which were not so far away), and wished we’d ignored the burning.
• • • • • • Justin W. Price is the managing editor at efiction horror. His first book of poetry, Digging to China, is available for Amazon Kindle. He has been published in the Hellroaring Review, The Bellwether Review and efiction Magazine. He maintains a blog at pdxjpricefirstblog.blogspot.com and is an active writer on Hub Pages at pdxkaraokeguy.hubpages.com. He is husband to Andrea, father to two dogs. writer.poet.baseball fan. tattooed. He is an amateur theologian with a rabid sweet tooth. He resides in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. 14
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
by Missy Wilkinson
ears ago, I moved into my great-uncle's old place in the 9th ward's Bywater neighborhood. The rent was cheap and the neighborhood, well, the neighborhood was interesting. The Industrial Canal and the river reigned in a pastiche of well-kept shotgun houses and those on the verge of collapse, barely stitched together with kudzu vines and termite spit. At night, when the streets rang with river barge horns and occasional gunshots, I searched the classified ads halfheartedly for a job. I thumbed through the listings, past ads for porn theaters, massage parlors, strip clubs and nude models. Why not? I'd ask myself. Shackled with a fresh liberal arts degree, I could have used the mainline injection of cash that industry promised, but ultimately, another ad quickened my pulse and compelled me to action. Maybe it was just chance that pulled me a different direction, but in retrospect, it feels inevitable and relentless as the Mississippi's undertow. ARGUS WEEKLY HAS AN OPENING FOR AN EDITORIAL INTERN. INTERNS WILL WRITE ON DEADLINE AND FOR LONG-TERM PROJECTS. My focus had been literature, not journalism, but writers are nothing if not champions of their own hopeless causes, so I edited my best scholarly papers down to clip size, typed up a resume and mailed it in. Five days later I was called to interview. I was shocked. Maybe I was still demoralized after a door-to-door job hunt through the French Quarter that was equal parts sweaty and fruitless. The managing editor peered at me over her reading glasses. A safety pin held the arm to the lenses. I should have seen this as a sign that the editorial staff was overworked: even a trip to the optometrist was a major undertaking. “You do know this is an unpaid internship. Most of our interns are college students.” “I just want the experience,” I told her. And the byline, I thought but didn't say. And the glory! "How many hours a week are you available?" "How many do you want me?" She hired me. Four months later, when she retired, I took her place. I credit this to good timing and a willingness to work myself to the bone rather than any journalistic talent. I covered home, fashion and beauty, which wasn’t in my job description, but which the rest of the all-male staff was loathe to touch. To my surprise and the surprise of my co-workers, who had expected very little from me, I flourished. I took up smoking and became fashionably thin. I subscribed to Vogue. I cultivated relationships with local boutique owners, designers, photographers and makeup artists. There weren’t many. Our fashion community was disparate to the point of invisibility. But it existed, and I saw potential. I saw myself as the galvanizing force that would unite all these elements
and bring New Orleans to national prominence as a fashion mecca, a position commensurate with its undisputed status as a music mecca. I was running on the high-octane fuel of a young woman with lots of ambition and very little love or money. A high-power editorial position seemed the ideal way to attract these good things. I had a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn. “Something like this.” Corinne Claire, a model-cumfashion-photographer, laid the latest issue of Vogue on my desk. It featured a cadaverous young model draped across a rooftop. In the background loomed the metallic, serrated edge of the skyline. The model wore yards and yards of frothy tulle. I wondered what local boutique carried a dress like that couture one, which cost as much as a small house in Chalmette. “I love it. Let’s do it.,” I told Corinne. Her real name was Sharon Carbo. I saw it when she filled out her independent contractor paperwork. But she had been a real model. A hair under six feet tall, blessed with the high cheekbones and 34-inch hips the major markets demanded, she had walked Parisian runways and observed great photographers at work. She soaked it all up. Then she had a baby and moved back home to the suburbs of New Orleans. Together we flipped through comp cards of local models that the talent agencies had sent us. “Too short. Too fat. Lips too thin. I know her. Her attitude’s bad.” Corinne sneered. “This is what we have to work with.” I gestured at the glossy stacks of short, smiling local girls. Girls who would never work in any major market; girls who were pretty but nothing special. Twelve years ago, I had been a girl with thwarted aspirations like theirs, with a similar card. “The model can make or break the shoot," Corinne said. "I know a great girl in New York who'll work for the tear sheets." “I don’t have the budget to fly anybody in.” Corinne brushed her blonde, asymmetric bangs to the side. It was a very fashionable cut. I wondered whether I ought to cut my hair, even though I had been growing it out for two years. I felt short and frumpy. “Well, use a local girl, then,“ she said. “However, please don’t publish the photographs with my name. I have a reputation to uphold.” I told Lori about the interactions over drinks at the Fairmont Hotel bar. The owners were among our advertisers and they had invited me to come by for a free cocktail. Even during my down time, I had an eye on strengthening relationships with advertisers. And saving money, of course, always. 15
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
“That’s ridiculous,” Lori said as she drained her pint of Abita. “Who does she think she is?” “Corinne is a really good photographer. Probably the best the magazine has ever worked with." “Still. Does she publish anywhere else? Has she ever shot for anybody big?” “She does portfolio development for local models, mostly. She knows how to make them look tall. She uses a wide angle lens, I think.” “What a bitch.” I loved that about Lori, how she would instantly side with me and nurture her hatred for my nemeses until it exceeded my own. She even took it upon herself to research them, passing on unsavory nuggets that came her way via her extensive, city-wide gossip net. Lori would have made an excellent PR agent, but she was a waitress at a Metairie diner. With only a high school diploma from a public school in Denham Springs, where the Ku Klux Klan still held public rallies, Lori had neither the ambition nor the preparation for much more than that. “Scott’s breaking my heart, man. I just don’t know what to do with him.” She gazed searchingly at the mason jars of lemon wedges, dried star fruit and cinnamon sticks, as though one of them might house the shriveled ruins of her heart. “You really need to move on.” “It’s like, I know he's seeing other chicks. I know he is. But I can’t help it. I love the dude.” Lori signaled to the bartender. He smiled at her. Lori smiled back. “That bartender thinks I’m easy. Look at his face.” “No, he doesn’t,” I protested weakly. But inwardly I agreed - he probably did think Lori was easy. Her body was soft, inviting, clad in inexpensive, revealing clothes. She had pretty blue Shelly Duvall eyes above a weak chin and a small mouth. She fell fast and too hard. She had called me her soul mate after two trips to the mall. And though I found her proclamation charming, I could see how, coupled with sex that came too easy and too drunk, a guy would turn tail and run. It was a shame. But it was how the world was. “Scott said I was fat.” “Oh, my god. I hate that guy!” I was yelling. I tend to get too loud when I am excited. I have a strong diaphragm and project my voice well. “Shush. Listen. He didn’t say it just like that. He said I don’t need any more of his protein shakes. He said Bree looked like she could use a few, and that was how he liked his women.” Bree was Lori’s little sister, a scrawny high school senior. Protein shakes was how Scott referred to his semen. Another of his charming habits. “You’re still blowing him?” I asked, too loud. The bartender looked back at us. Lori blushed. When she blushed, her cheeks stayed pale, but her chest and neck turned bright red. “I slept at his house the other night. It was just going to be platonic, but I don’t know… Then, afterwards, as he was falling asleep, he told me not to look in his bottom drawer.” “What, does he think he’s Bluebeard or something?” “No clue.” “Did you look?” “Of course not! He was right there." “Fuck Bluebeard.” “Fuck Corinne.”
“Fuck them both.” I slammed my glass down, like something had been resolved. In a way, it had, until the next night, when we would convene and bitch about something else and get drunk again. Corinne and I pulled the dresses for the shoot from five boutiques the next day. “Couldn’t you get any Harold Clarke?” she asked. Harold Clarke was a local designer who created fantastic gowns for celebrities and local richies to wear to bals masques. His gowns were the closest approximation to what Corinne had showed me in Vogue. When Wheel of Fortune filmed in town, Vanna White always wore Harold Clarke. “I needed to feature these particular advertisers.” Actually, I had left three messages at Harold Clarke’s atelier. He had ignored all three. Corinne sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.” I ended up letting her select most of the gowns and accessories. Every time I held up a gown I liked, she’d make a face and say something vague, like, “Oh, that’s interesting beading,” or “Black and gold sequins- I think that’s meant to be worn to a Saints game.” So I eventually stopped trying. “By the way, I found a model,” she said as we sorted through racks of plastic-swathed gowns. “She’s short, though. Five foot seven.” I was five foot seven, but I tried not to look insulted. Truthfully, that was short for a model. Corinne produced a photo. The girl had fair skin and clear green eyes and gobs of red hair. She was pretty, but with all the makeup and the flattering lighting, it was impossible to tell what she really looked like. Still, I trusted Corinne’s vision, and more than that, I didn’t want to deal with her attitude. Nor did I want to continue combing the city for a model she wouldn’t reject. I had enough deadlines to worry about already. “Oh, good,” Corinne cooed when I gave my approval. “The only thing is, she doesn’t work for tear sheets.” After some quick calculations, I said, “I can spare $100 from the budget.” “That’s a lot less than her usual day rate.” For print? I wondered. In New Orleans? Even Vogue only pays its models $200 for an editorial. Who did Corinne think she was putting on? “One hundred is all we can pay,” I repeated. “Well, I’ll pass that on to her.” The last store was a secondhand boutique where Uptown ladies brought last season’s designer garments and lavish gowns worn once before Mardi Gras courts. While Corinne consulted with the owner, I dug around for a slinky dress. Something sexy, unlike the poofy confections of silk and peacock feathers and tulle she had pulled so far. On the hanger, it didn’t look like much. Just black and sparkly and drapey. I showed it to Corinne, but before she could make a dismissive remark, I pointed out the label. “It’s a Harold Clarke." “Perfect!” she breathed. The model looked nothing like her head shot. She was five foot four if she was an inch, flat-chested, big-nosed and sullen. She stared at herself in the mirror, watching 16
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
the stylist install curlers in her long, ratty hair, while I introduced myself and thanked her for coming. “Is she really a model?” asked the makeup artist. We stood in the street as she smoked a cigarette and I fed my parking meter. “She looks about ten years old.” “I don’t know what her deal is. The photographer recommended her.” “Yeah, that photographer kept trying to tell me how to do the makeup and getting in the way. I was like, Fine. You do it.” “I’m sorry.” I resisted the urge to talk smack. That could wait until I was out of a volatile, professional situation, safe with Lori. “She’s rather domineering.” “Who does she think she is? Stanley Kubrick?” It took all my willpower to bite my tongue. “Want to see the dresses?” “Ooh. Yes!” She tossed her cigarette into the gutter and I showed off the gowns. They were beautiful, I had to admit. Corinne had chosen well.
“I love this dress,” she murmured, running her hands down her narrow hips. She was too short for it. It puddled on the floor. “How much does it cost?” “It should say on the tag.” She unzipped the dress and stepped out of it with a total lack of modesty. Her figure was not boyish as much as childish. Her breasts were small, with tiny, rosy nipples. She had shaved her pubic hair. At the time, this was uncommon, and I wondered at first if she had not physically matured, or if she perhaps had some hormonal imbalance. But looking closer, I saw faint stubble there, so I knew she had done this to herself. I realized I was staring and busied myself with a shoe. But she had noticed, and gave me a queer, recognizing look. “It doesn’t have a tag.” She dropped the dress at my feet. “Ask the boutique owner to hold it for me.” “Sure.” I smiled at her. “It’s a beautiful dress, isn’t it?” At that moment, I resolved to buy the dress if it fell within my limited means. But I suspected that neither of us could afford it. It was a Harold Clarke. Even secondhand, the dress would cost thousands.
But heartfelt words rarely saturate the barren ground they are meant to nurture. They just roll right off.
The shoot went smoothly. It did not rain. We got our rooftop shot, but Corinne framed it against old New Orleans, the small red tile roofs and the St. Louis Cathedral’s pricking spires, rather than the gleaming high-rise hotels of the Central Business District and Canal Street. I pointed out that this wasn’t very similar to the Vogue editorial she had so admired. “Well, we don’t exactly have a New York-caliber skyline,” she said, clicking photos of the model, who moved fluidly and professionally. I had seen enough novices to recognize the mark of a true model. So many girls seize up and go into rigid, pseudo-fashion posturing. But a good model is at home in her own skin. She opens herself and lets the camera see inside. That’s what this ugly, short girl was doing with Corinne. Again, I wondered how Corinne had found her. Corinne had more or less assumed the reins of art director, so all I needed to do was sit back and watch. I busied myself by ordering and fetching food, writing down the prices of the dresses, covering the bottoms of the high heels with duct tape so they wouldn’t get scuffed. Corinne and the model seemed at ease with each other. They swept out of the elevator before I did, assuming that they were foremost and I would follow. I began to resent my loss of authority, and then I began to question myself for taking it that hard. Was I really so egotistical? Did I so relish being in control and calling the shots? Apparently, I did. “What’s your job here?” the model asked as I knelt on the floor, scraping stubborn tape off the bottom of a shoe. “Are you from the store?” “No, I’m the editor,” I told her curtly. She didn’t say anything to that, only admired herself in the mirror of the hotel room we were using as a changing room. She was wearing the Harold Clarke.
That night, Lori called me, sobbing. “It’s pornography.” “What’s pornography?” “In Scott’s drawer. I looked, and it’s pornography. It’s vile. It’s horrible.” I wondered what had gotten into Lori. When had she become so conservative? Perhaps her Pentecostal upbringing was rearing its head. “Lori, you can do so much better than Scott.” I said it from my heart, and I meant it. But heartfelt words rarely saturate the barren ground they are meant to nurture. They just roll right off. Lori went on devising ways to win Scott back, though the concept of back was a dubious one, since he had never in their eight months of having sex called her his girlfriend. I listened to her schemes, but mostly I thought about the dress. If I had a dress like that in my closet, I would be a different woman. A woman with new potential. A woman who expected black tie invitations and assembled her wardrobe accordingly. Such a woman would be likelier to step into a glittering, expansive future than one who was ill-prepared, was she not? The dress was still in my car. I told Lori I would call her right back. When I tried on the dress, I realized, with a sinking feeling, that sometimes more expensive things were genuinely better. My sturdy, middle-class upbringing had worked hard to blind me to this truth, but now it stared at my from my own mirror. The dress elongated my legs, brought out the slender definition of my arms. It gave me the illusion of possessing a figure I never really had. Too short and too plain to be a model. Too this, too that, while at the same time never enough. Until now. 17
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
“Isn’t it beautiful?” the boutique owner said as she lifted the dress from its plastic wrapping. “I wore it once to a Mardi Gras ball. I sat at the king’s table.” “How much is it?” She looked up from the ledger she was balancing and fixed me with a shrewd eye. “For you?” I liked this woman very much. Corinne had dismissed her shop because it traded in secondhand clothing (“Used,” Corinne had sniffed), but I knew that the owner was a designer herself who had done stints in Paris and New York and had returned to her hometown New Orleans for the only reason anyone ever returns to a city so scarred and tragic: sheer love. “For me,” I told her. The owner gazed at the dress with misty, sentimental eyes, as though she were reminiscing over her daughter’s senior photograph. Then her eyes became shrewd once more, calculating how substantial of a dowry such a daughter would require. “I paid $3,400 for this dress. It’s listed here for $1,200.” She paused, an infinitely long pause during which time soared up into an arc and stopped there at its apex, hanging motionless for an incalculable moment. Then she spoke and time continued. “For you - because you do so much for my store, for you, $120.”
“And I’ve done a lot of local modeling in the past, and I know there isn’t really any money in print, especially for a short woman in New Orleans…” “Oh my God! You’re a genius.” “So really, it wouldn’t have been such a good idea for you to purchase a dress that was well out of your budget and not especially flattering. Some day, you’ll thank me.” “I love this,” Lori sighed. “And I bet that day will be the first of the month, when you’re actually able to pay your rent.” That night, Lori and I sneaked into Scott’s apartment. While her forte was passive aggressive speeches, I have always been more of the breaking and entering type. And the beauty is, rarely do I have to break. I have trespassed enough times to know there’s always a sheet of loose plywood, an unlatched attic window, or a spare key in a potted plant. So we let ourselves in Scott’s house with very little fuss, through an unlocked second floor window near a sturdy oak with low hanging branches that I climbed with no difficulty at all. This was to be a reconnaissance mission, the first act in a drama that would unfold in acts for Scott, each more terrifying than the last. I wished first to threaten him (a brick through the window), then to humiliate him in public. The pornography collection would somehow play into this. How, I did not yet know. “There it is.” Lori shined her flashlight at the bottom drawer, loathe even to touch its handle. I slid the drawer open. It was heavy with the weight of so many magazines. I thought for a moment back to those long afternoons spent unemployed in coffee shops, reading newspapers and nursing cups of house blend. How would things be different had responded to an adult ad rather than The Argus Weekly’s? It was a pointless thought, one that I put immediately out of my mind. I flipped through the stack of magazines; it was nothing I had not seen before. Fluffy coifs of pubic hair. Want ads posting pictures of genitalia, where you could send letters to the owner of the erect penis or size DD breasts and meet for anonymous sex. Or just masturbate to the image and the thought. Except there was more, as there always is in tales of sin. Those magazines, it turns out, were a ruse. In the middle of the stack-- not at the bottom or the top, where it would be too obvious--were Polaroid pictures of naked children. They were taken in a wood-paneled den where somebody had set up a wading pool on the linoleum floor. Rubber ducks and inflatable sea horses had been tossed aside; their siren song sung. “See?" Lori's eyes were red and brimming. “I told you it was horrible." I wanted to leave, to just leave with the drawer still open, our vandalism exposed, to walk out the front door and call the police and let them sort it out without waiting around. But then I saw a photo that made me pause. I would not have recognized her if she had not been so cavalier about her own nudity during our shoot. But now, even that made sense. She was on her knees, tilting her head at an angle very similar to the one she used in her headshot. One hand rested on a folding chair. It would have been better if she had been holding an oversized lollipop or teddy bear, something over-the-top to
That night, Lori and I met over drinks and devised revenge plans for our enemies. She composed a pitchperfect speech I could deliver to the model to inform her of my purchase. After all, I had told her I would ask the owner to hold the dress. I could not renege. I had my integrity to think of. “So I’ll say, ‘Oh, I wanted to let you know I bought that dress. I wanted to save you a trip out there.’” I honestly could not wait to make the call. The hatred I felt for the model only intensified with time, like a bad case of ringworm. Little things she had done during the shoot irked me more and more. The way she complained that the shoes hurt her feet and incessantly yawned in between sets. What reason did she have to be so tired? I was the one who had been busting ass to set the shoot up for the last few weeks. “And then she’ll say, ‘But I told you I wanted that dress!’” For not having ever met the girl, Lori’s impression was dead-on, a perfect blend of ennui and superiority. “Look, if it makes you feel any better, it didn't look good on you in the first place. It was really tailored for a taller woman. It is a beautiful dress, but why pay $1,200 for something that doesn’t flatter your body type? Anyway, after she saw it on me, the owner said the dress just seemed to be made for me--” Lori was cracking up. “Oh my God. I’m dying. You have to deliver it just like that!” “Then she cut the price because I’ve done so much to help out her business!” “Seriously, can I listen in when you tell her this?” “So you see, it’s nothing personal. I just wanted to save you the trip. Also, I thought I’d save you the gas money. I know you’re on a tight budget. I am the one who approved your paycheck, after all…” “It just keeps getting better!” Lori crowed. 18
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
suggest she was simulating childhood rather than living it. I could not tell how old she had been when the photo was taken. I knew from her paperwork that she was eighteen now. But this photo could have been taken yesterday or three years ago. It was impossible to tell. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Lori whispered. I carefully arranged all the materials the way Scott had left them. I let Lori out the front door, then locked the deadbolt behind her and climbed out the window. I fought the very strong desire to commit arson. Waiting for me on the lawn, Lori was in tears. I hugged her awkwardly as we loped across the dark, wet grass. I didn’t think I could tell her who I had seen in the photos. I hadn’t quite processed that myself. “The most horrible thing is, I still love him,” she said, wiping her tears on her sleeve. “I love him. What kind of a sicko does that make me?”
Missy Wilkinson is special sections editor at the Gambit, New Orleans' alternative newsweekly, and she has freelanced for Conde Nast's Brides magazine. Her nonfiction appears in the anthologies New Orleans: What Can't Be Lost (University of Louisiana Press) and Louisiana:In Words (Pelican), and in 2004 her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans, minted in 2005. www.missysuewilkinson.com
The editorial was well received by the publisher, the editor-in-chief and the art director. “Who is this girl? I think she’s the prettiest model we’ve ever featured,” the editor told me as we inspected a proof of the cover. “A friend of the photographer’s.” “We definitely need to use her again. This is very good work.” His eyes never wavered from her photograph.
At the vociferous graveyard, glowing with darkness. You and I seek fertility to our love,
Sorry by D. M. Aderibigbe
You sip the nutrient of my lips with your tongue, Put your fate on my weeny biceps. You sleep in my muscle for some minutes, on the rock of peace where we sit.
I never did deliver my speech to the model, though I rehearsed it many times in my mind. I practiced speeches for Scott, interrogations that might help me uncover who she was, how long ago the photos had been taken, whether Corinne had had any hand in them. But I feared that somehow, this would jeopardize my job. So I stayed silent. Lori eventually found a new guy to pine over her, one who did cheat but who at least did so with consenting adults. When I see Scott out at bars or in coffee shops, I greet him civilly. I hope he is getting help for his problem. I wonder why he even tempted Lori with knowledge of the forbidden drawer, and the only answer I can come up with is that he wanted her to find it so she would finally leave him alone. Or perhaps so that she would intervene. I have decided not to concern myself with things that aren't my business. Maybe the model was of age in the photos; maybe she wasn't - all I know for certain is that New Orleans is very, very small and very, very deep. The more I learn about it, the less I understand it: the myriad secret societies that exist within its walls of crumbling brick and bargeboard, how dense and Byzantine the blood ties are, how easy it is to slip into a dark, powerful undercurrent, emerging on some unknown shore or not at all. I still have the dress, and I am still waiting for the right occasion. Though it hasn’t yet arrived, I am optimistic. More than that, I am prepared. I am becoming, day by day, the woman I want to be, a woman who expects good things to come her way. Who prepares her wardrobe accordingly. ●
We unite the amusing afternoon with the drab night, Spread laughter into the blind quietness, You say you are leaving for home, I'm frisky, I'm angry, I say things that cosh your heart with thorny belt, Your heart weep from the sound of my whip, Yet, you do not say anything. I provoke your calmness with heart-rending rendition, Yet, you do not say anything. Minutes walk past us, Yet, you do not say anything, It comes to me, that I'm a wise fool, like you say I'm. Yes! I'm. I don't know what I can say, other than to say I'm deeply sorry. • • • D. M. Aderibigbe is a 23-year old writer from Lagos, Nigeria, an undergraduate student of History and Strategic Studies of the University of Lagos. He writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays and lyrics. His work has been published or forthcoming in the UK, Canada, Australia, Nepal and the United States by, Vox Poetica, Pressboard press, UP Literature, HUSMW Press, The New Black Magazine, Misfits' Miscellany, Thickjam, Ditch Poetry, Bluepepper and The Applicant. His debut novel Sisyphean, will be published in America, soon. He lives and schools in Lagos.
• • •
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Every night we’d fall asleep to emotionless voices on the radio: the earth’s axis has shifted, they said, the world will never be the same. Some of us wandered the shore all night long without flashlights, stumbling over a now unfamiliar landscape. We walked down the coastline until we couldn’t walk any longer, until we were spent and dreamt of old things, like white bulbs strung between high branches and dances that went on forever. When we wandered, we desired flesh that could tan, burn, and melt. We hummed pop music we told our children they couldn’t listen to and sometimes we set our throats on fire with the bottles hidden beneath our beds. Others still searched for the missing, even when the bodies stopped coming. One woman spent her retirement on funerals and gave the dead names. She set the night ablaze with sky lanterns and sent the missing back into the darkness, where she hoped someone would mistake them for stars. Eventually, the days arrived in flashes. What wasn’t sent back to the survivors we kept in a small storage unit because nothing else felt right. We went back to work and the T.V. stopped showing people with signs that said we were next. As we drove to our appointments, made our kids lunches, and waited on line for the movies, we sometimes thought of the missing. We didn’t think of how our muscles tightened when we drug the countless body bags across the sand or how their lungs must have felt like cement before they were carried away. Never would we admit to each other what shot across our minds every time we were alone. These visions, we kept to ourselves. ●
Vesta by Gillian Walters
neakers can float, the television reminded us, so be on the lookout for limbs. Word of the inevitable slipped into our radios, conversations, and our children’s ears when we thought they weren’t listening. We took off work indefinitely and combed the beaches until the morning sun disappeared into the night sky, a taut canvas that revealed no stars. Day after day we waited for the right tide, and when we got desperate, a divine intervention. It was only after we had let our guard down that we found the missing. A baby, walking hand in hand with its mother, picked up what he thought was a shell. When questioned, the mother could not remember her own screams that sent half of the town running to the shore. What we discovered were bone fragments spread out across the sand like a mosaic and skin that had turned to wax. Besides the bodies we found refrigerators, keys, pop bottles, and everything else one could have prophesied. By the end of the day, footprints covered every inch of sand. Even schools abandoned classes after the news spread. Imagine this: the tan and slender bodies of teenagers bent over the surf, questioning the will of God. It happened on another island football fields of coordinates away. Without warning, a wave rose from the earth and smothered a village in static. It was an inexplicable act of nature, scientists said. Strangers from other continents stood in front of news cameras and yelled about our last days, about how it was only a matter of time. Intricate charts and computer animations were drawn up to show us the projected path of the missing. The government came to our island and told us, as juice from our ripest fruit dribbled down their chins, that the dead would descend upon us like locusts. Some of us felt responsible. We studied newspapers religiously for the list of people never recovered and woke with copies of dental records in our hands. A translator for the families, a handful of sole survivors, thanked us for our help. An older woman screamed at the translator until he wearily said, a wedding band, size nine. News outlets from other continents wanted to interview us but we kept to ourselves. Instead we worried about what to do with all the bodies, which had started to wash up daily. A week after we found the missing; a couple, the children of university professors, were caught trying to sell a toothbrush and a child’s sock to a tabloid. There were those of us who claimed to be desensitized by differences of language and tradition. Some posed alongside exercise equipment and baby dolls. In school they taught our children about Greek mythology, about Gods who believed in an eye for an eye. They spoke of Vesta the virgin, who kept the flame of Rome burning, the source of life and all immortality, with just her purity. Dishonored goddesses, however, were buried alive.
• • • Gillian Walters teaches and writes in Baltimore City. She is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston by way of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her next city must start with a B. Future pursuits include an MFA, an internet presence, and a consistently clean kitchen. Feel free to follow her on twitter @gillianwltrs
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
showed up; she wore a floral print dress and a pink sweater, and he wore a dark scowl that clouded up when she lifted my water glass while I gently sipped from the straw. The insurance agent will eventually show up, usually with a dark suit and sweaty hands. He’ll smile and stare and offer a release form for you to sign. If you fake a seizure as he puts the pen into your hand the nurses will order him to leave and he will never come back. With the morphine seeping slowly into your veins you find that you lose yourself. You drift in an out of sleep. Your eyes open and see the world anew for the first time. There is no need to worry because eventually the case will be settled and your money will arrive. But you can’t put a price on art. There is pain in creation, of course, but you can’t let that bother you. This is work is a form of art and your body is the canvas. All great art is made through suffering.
For Love of the Game by John Henry Beck ou stop in the street and wait. Usually it only takes a few seconds and then Wham! Somebody hits you with their car. You go down in a heap. Sometimes, you get knocked forward a few feet, other times you go under the bumper. The best is when you land on the hood. That is the least painful. The pavement always eats the skin off the obvious places: your hands, elbows and ass. Once the seat of my favorite pair of blue jeans was torn to fleshy ribbons, and of course, the meaty part of my butt was torn up in an identical pattern. The deep lacerations of my skin oozed ounces of blood with every heartbeat. Your bones will break too; a leg will be pinned under the bumper and will shatter in three places. The brittle white sticks poke through the skin and your pants, maybe your shirt if a rib is broken. The sight of compound fractures always gets the attention of the street side gawkers and the people who slow down their cars to look. Sometimes it makes people sick too. I once had a leg fracture that caused ten people to vomit. One was a twenty-year veteran of the Highway Patrol. The pain causes the rush of adrenaline that focuses the mind and revs up the senses. The world never looks as beautiful as when you stare up from the middle of a busy street. The sky has the most amazing and intense colors; the blues of a summer sky are as powerful as the raging sea. One night I looked up at the stars and they seemed to looked back on me with kindly eyes. The ride to the hospital is always great, the way that the EMT will ask you about your wounds and where it might hurt. Once, a handsome young EMT with kind brown eyes choked back tears as he looked down at me. They lift you so carefully on to the gurney and then gently but firmly tighten the straps. At the hospital, you are wrapped in the warm cotton blankets and the doctors and nurses hover over you. They gently poke and prod, and if you grimace they stop. It hurts when they set broken bones or stitch up the gashes on your face. But everyone is so sweet and kind. Yea, you feel like a baby again. Once the morphine drip begins, it is like being in heaven. The pain slides away like a melting glacier. The warmth of the morphine sweeps in with the sweetness of cotton candy. The pink relief melts into your broken bones and torn flesh like that air-whipped treat. As your head swims in the comfort and security of the bed, the rhythmic pings of the heart monitor are a distant echo of your mother’s heartbeat before you were born. You drift off to sleep pain free and in love with world. Sometimes when you wake up the room is full of flowers and “Get Well” bouquets. These are usually sent by the drivers or from one of the over-eager lawyers who stalk the emergency room looking for a case. The flowers are nice, but nothing is better than the arrival of the driver that hit you. They are so apologetic. The women weep into damp tissues and say over and over again, “I am so sorry.” Once a young woman and her husband
• • •
One Hand Feeds Another by Katie Baker is old addiction turned into her new one. She came to her parents’ house every Sunday at three in the afternoon. Her mother held her breath each time she heard the faint knock on the front door, an invisible stone placed upon her chest. Her eyes grew sad, as she forced smile on her face when she welcomed her youngest daughter into the home. It was important to smile, to pretend. The father and his daughter went into the yard and settled down by the old Willow tree. Moss grew at the base, a perfect hiding place. Her sisters could never know. They will never know that I fall out of myself, she thought. They will never understand. He was always her hero. She needed his heroin. “Hold still.” Her father’s hands never trembled. Together, they inserted the needle into the skin of her arm, like father like daughter.
• • • Katie Baker received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Rosemont College. She enjoys reading, writing, and running, though not all at the same time. She currently teaches writing courses at Philadelphia University and Rosemont College.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
“The chicken!” Diane raced back into the kitchen and banged into the table, sending the glass vase spinning off. She watched as it hit the tiled floor and smashed into a thousand pieces. “No, no, no,” Diane whispered. “Not with Frank coming soon.” She looked around the kitchen for a mop. Nothing. It must be downstairs. In the basement. A loud ringing made her jump. Frank calling. Nobody else ever did. She grabbed the phone off the wall. “Yes.” “It’s me.” “Frank, when are you going to be home? I’m not ready.” “Could be a little while. I’m stuck in traffic. You’ll be there, won’t you?” “Yes, Frank.” “You won’t walk out on me like-” “I’m not your father, Frank.” “I’ll never let you go. If you try to leave I’ll-” “Goodbye, Frank.” Diane hung up the phone and ran down the hallway to the basement door. The industrial strength padlock on it was old and needed a few tries to open. She pulled the heavy steel door open, fumbled for the light switch and found it on the second try. A bright sheet of whiteness blinded her for a moment. The room was empty except for a large medicine cabinet, a broom closet and an old hospital bed. The bed had wrist and ankle restraints. Brown stains snaked from the bed to a metal drain hidden in the corner of the basement She hated being in this room when Frank wasn't here. When they were together in the basement she felt calm. The basement was always a place for hugs and forgiveness once the corrections had been made and the tears had dried. As Diane opened the broom closet and peered inside she felt something warm trickling between her toes. Looking down she noticed blood staining her white slippers. She picked out a shard of broken glass. “Hmmm,” she moaned at the sight of blood. Suddenly she felt warm all over like a delicious hot spring was swirling inside her. “Diane.” Giggling made her thoughts turn cold. “A messy room leads to pain, Diane. You broke the vase and now you feel the pain.” She ran to the basement door and slammed it shut. The heavy steel seemed to block those old motherly warnings out. It didn’t work on memories. Cold concrete chambers. Suffocating darkness. The sound of her mother’s keys. She opened the door a crack and breathed. “But Frank can’t see my foot.” She hurried to the medicine cabinet. It held every conceivable form of bandage, pharmaceutical drug and cutting tool. Frank’s stainless steel saw took up the entire bottom shelf. A rattle and bang shook her concentration away from the bandages. “Diane!” Frank was home. “Oh my God the chicken. Frank’s early and the chicken isn’t done.” She slammed the medicine cabinet shut. “Everything is messy.” “Where are you?” Frank's loud bass voice echoed down into the basement.
Learn Your Lesson by Matthew Leroy
iane knew about violence. She knew about pain. She knew when Frank got home there would have to be tears in order for today’s mistakes to be corrected. She chewed her thumbnail and walked circles around her kitchen. Every utensil was in its place, every glass was polished and the flowers on the kitchen table were arranged with equal distance between each stem. The smell of roasting chicken and fat fought with the lemon bite of disinfectant. She had lost count how many times she had pulled the bird out of the oven and plunged her knife into its breast. There would be trouble if it was overcooked when Frank came home. Trouble in this house meant being taken to the basement. It was dark down there. And soundproof. “No mistakes.” Diane grabbed the baking tray and reeled back, burning pain lancing up her from her hand. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” She raced to the basin. “Always a dishcloth, stupid woman.” The cold water made her burn go numb. “When Frank’s home there’ll be trouble.” She shook her head and opened one of the cupboards beneath the sink. Two stacks of dishcloths sat neatly folded and sorted: orange for her left hand, and blue for her right. A shadow passed by. Giggling and the sound of a door unlocking. “Not now!” She ran out of the kitchen and down the hallway. The living room was empty. The bird sticking out of the broken cuckoo clock her late sister had brought back from Bavaria grinned at her. “I don't have time for this!” Laughter from the fireplace. “You left the cupboard open, left it open, left it open.” She tried to ignore the mocking sounds. The bird winked at her. Frank and Diane had designed the house to their own special plans. The extra thick walls and rubber insulation kept every damn nosy person out. So how did the voice still come in? Sometimes it got so loud she had to stuff cotton wool in her ears. The only safe place was the basement. “Stupid outsiders. Stupid fools who should be taken downstairs and cooked, cooked until they’re done.” The laughter got louder, frying her brain. It echoed her mother. The old fruit seller who had demanded routine from sunrise to sunset. “Messy, Diane, you are so messy. When I get home and you hear my keys you better have everything cleaned up.” Diane screamed back at the voice. She screamed until her throat felt raw and then ran to the living room window and swept the heavy curtains aside. Emptiness. A spotless concrete front yard. Across the road a teenager slouched past with his clothes hanging out. He hadn’t shaved and his hair looked tangled and unwashed. Everything was dirty outside. The grass was filled with crawling insects and leaves rotted where they fell. Cars belched out poison and left dirt wherever they drove. 22
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
She opened the wrist and leg restraints attached to the stretcher bed. Pain would be coming now Frank was home. It was best to get it over quickly. Footsteps thumped across the roof above her, each one slow and heavy. She gave the stretcher bed a quick sweep with the palm of her hand and flew up the stairs. Diane stuck her head around the corner. No signs of Frank. The echoes of his heavy feet thudded towards the kitchen. She carefully took off her slippers and put them to one side. “Diane? Diane!” Frank’s voice made her heart race. She silently glided down the corridor and saw Frank standing over the broken vase on the kitchen floor. He bent down and started trying to brush the tiny pieces of glass into his cupped hand. “Frank!” Diane screamed at the top her voice. Frank went tumbling over onto his knees, his wide eyes staring up in fright. He threw his hands up in front of his face and tried to slide away. “Honey, honey. The glass ... it’s all over the floor,” Frank stammered, his voice whiny and questioning. “That’s right, Frank! That’s right!” Frank kept sliding away until his back thudded against the kitchen table. “Everything is broken, everything is wrong. The chicken isn’t cooked!” “Chicken?” Frank asked. “Look at what you’re wearing!” Diane shrieked at her husband. “Shoes on in the house!” “Honey I forgot. I was worried you had left me.” “You did it in the morning, too! That meant I had to clean the house again. That meant the chicken cooked too long. That meant mess! A messy room leads to pain, Frank!” She walked towards him, barely noticing the broken glass sticking into her feet, grabbed the collar of his perfectly ironed shirt and drew his face close to hers. “Everything is ruined and broken! Now get down to the basement!” “No, no, no, not again. You promised you would stop.” “You’ve got to learn your lesson, Frank!” ●
Ghazal by Eric Mueller “Tell your name- admiring June to an admiring bog!”Emily Dickinson
Excuse me there, but are you lost? Lately, everything just seems lost. There’s a pair of us, I don’t care who you tell. In this bog of a mind, all logic just seems lost. I followed a light down a wrong tunnel. I tried denying I was actually lost. Even a God cannot alter free will, you know. Yet any idiot can force a strong mind lost. Indirectly of course. Or is it directly? Simple falls can deem celebrated seeds lost. We should get moving, before the first frost. But while it’s unrequited, we shall remain lost. One scrape from dangling metal wire results in an oozing neck. Over analytic knowledge lost. Say, strange boy, what was your name? I may be hard to find, but you’ll never be lost. I’d tell you mine, but I think it’s lost. It’s hard to find, but you’ll never be lost.
• • • Matthew Leroy was born in 1982 in Sydney, Australia. He studied Mass Media and Communication Science at Vienna University and taught Cultural Studies. He currently lives with his family in Austria, where he teaches English at the Federal Parliament, and is writing his first novel.
To find it, I’d probably give any cost. Even as a cause, I am lost. In Norse, Erik means “powerful ruler.” In American, Eric means “forgotten, lost.” You have the nerve to give me direction? Get lost. • • • Eric Mueller was born in Hartford, CT and currently resides in Guilford, CT. He enjoys a passion for music, driving, football (playing, watching, and coaching), and of course reading and writing. Next fall he hopes to attend an MFA creative writing program and continue his study of the craft. 23
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
by D.T. Robbins
Worlds Apart aggie squinted, piercing through the heavy downpour of rain outside of her window which began last Thursday and had no intentions of letting up for several more days. Noticing that the movers had forgotten to close the back of the U-HAUL, leaving a few boxes of her kitchenware subject to the storm, she cursed under her breath. She thought about rushing quickly outside to close the latch before any serious damage could be done, but it was already a few minutes until six, and Dennis would walk through the door at any moment. Her hands trembled as she wrapped them around her chest to keep warm now that all electricity had been cut off, leaving no heat in the apartment. It was always colder when it rained. And it always seemed to rain. Maggie left one box of Dennis’ things near the fireplace. She finally had the will to pack it all up several months after the incident. The excitement of her marriage’s demise and its promise of imminent liberty coupled with her unforeseen sorrow from the horrifying set of circumstances that lead to their separation left her in an emotional frenzy with an inability to recall anything she had placed in the cardboard box. As she slowly revealed its contents, a flashlight spilled onto the floor. Maggie flicked the ON/OFF button to test the dead batteries. There was still some dried blood near the lens from the time Dennis had broken her nose with it. Her eyes began to well as the surprisingly vivid image of a drunken, angry Dennis smashing the heavy tool into her face repeatedly flitted across her mind. Maggie looked on the empty living room to find the corner where she curled up, crying, as he yelled at her to shut up and finish making him dinner. Wiping her eyes, she heard a key insert the lock and slowly turn. She looked at her watch again. It was six o’clock. Everything stood at a halt. Dennis had arrived. As it was on every Tuesday afternoon when he would return, Dennis took an eternity to unveil himself behind the door, peaking his head as to reveal what exactly he was walking into. Looking as though some sort of mistake had been made at the sight of the empty apartment, Dennis began to call out for Maggie. “Yea, over here,” she replied, coldly. He stepped cautiously across the eggshell-colored carpet, allowing the door to close on its own. The apartment was entirely bare as though there had been no previous tenants. Noticing the absence of the bookshelf against the east wall, he observed the perfectly in-tact area where once had been a blotch of black carpet he had accidentally burned when a candle fell over and set fire to the floor during their second anniversary dinner. “You can’t come here anymore, Dennis,” Maggie spat, interrupting his investigation.
Unintentionally, he ignored her. “You’re leaving?” Maggie swiftly glided across the living room into the kitchen. Dennis followed. “Why?!” “Are you serious? You knew this was coming. I told you I was leaving.” She stared at him furiously, unable to understand how he could not see precisely why she had to leave. Why she couldn’t continue living the way they had been living over the past two months. Why she loathed him. In her mind, she berated him for his refusal to respect this decision. Dennis stood without a word, incapable of fully accepting the situation at hand. After growing weary of his silence, she motioned to the sink, “Hand me my purse, if you can manage it.” Dennis snapped to, and obliged. Maggie pulled out her cigarettes and lit one up, nervously. “Just explain to me. Why?” he insisted. “Don’t do that, Dennis. Don’t act like I don’t have good damn reason to never want to see you again.” Dennis shook his head. “That wasn’t me. You know that.” “Yea, well, from where I’m standing you still look very much like you. And that’s all I care about. You can show up here with your save-all attitude and shit and act like you’re not the person I remember, but every time I see your face I still see the same useless prick of a human being you always were,” she took a brave step forward, “and I want to put a bullet in your fucking skull.” He wanted to be angry with her. To yell and scream at her about how great of a mistake she was making. To tear her apart. But he knew there was no point. Neither of them were the same anymore. At least, not to each other. As she shot mental daggers at him, she wore the same expression of anger and fear as she did the day he first walked into the apartment two months ago. She had stumbled over the coffee table, fell to the floor, and reached for a scream that terror had refused her vocal cords. She shot from the ground with violence and force, and attacked Dennis with all her strength. Equally in shock, he threw himself against the wall and soon peeled off his attacker. “You’re...you’re not supposed to be here!” “You have every right to leave, I know,” he said, “I just don’t want you to. I want to try and make....whatever this is...work.” Maggie shook her head, taking a deep breath. “You’re my wife!” he pleaded. She put her cigarette out in the sink and washing it down the drain. “I’m not.” “Maggie...” he began. “Stop it! I’m not doing this right now.”
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Dennis walked back into the living room and noticed the box. “What’s this?” “I guess that’s all yours.” He picked up the flashlight and noticed the specks of blood on the lens. “Is this...?” “Yea.” Waving the flashlight in front of him, “This isn’t me, Maggie. I would never...” “But you did!! And you did it more than I care to remember.” Dennis stormed across the room towards the fireplace. “January, four years ago!” Maggie jumped, with eyes quickly darting in his direction. “You had the flu,” he continued, “It was two in the morning and all you wanted was a fire, but we were snowed in and had absolutely no wood. The power had been cut off from the storm and you were freezing. So, I started breaking the kitchen table all to hell. I broke my right hand trying to punch it.” Dennis forced a laugh. “I thought I was tougher than I realized. You taped my hand, and I wrapped you in three blankets and kept my arms around you all night. You told me not to touch you because you didn’t want me to get sick.” Dennis took a few steps in Maggie’s direction. “You were right. I was sick as a dog a few days later. We took turns for weeks being sick because neither of us wanted to leave the other alone.” Maggie had tears rolling down her cheeks. “Yea, well, that’s great you get to have those memories. Mine are a lot different,” she said, bitterly, “and the only bones I remember you breaking were mine. Do you know how many times I lied to the doctors, nurses, and cops for you? You can only ‘fall down’ so many times!” “That wasn’t me,” he whispered. “And I’m not that woman, either.” After a moment of silence, Dennis opened the box and found the picture of their daughter, Katie. He slowly picked it up and examined it. Her curly blonde hair was held up by a pink ribbon that matched the stitching on her yellow dress. It must have been her kindergarten school portrait. It was the last picture taken of her. Katie was missing her front tooth. He didn’t remember her having teeth missing. The last time he recalled, they hadn’t fallen out yet. She was too afraid to pull them out or let him help her. Lifting up the picture, “How did her tooth fall out?” Maggie shot across the room and snatched the photograph from Dennis’ hands. “You don’t get to have this!!” she screamed, “You don’t even get to look at her!!” “Why not?!” “You know exactly why, you son of a bitch!” Dennis’ chest rose and fell heavily with anger. “SHE’S MY DAUGHTER!!!”
Maggie slapped him with all of her strength. “SHE’S NOT YOURS!!!” His cheek stung, and she had managed to scrape his jaw with her fingernail, allowing some blood to trickle down onto his collar. “She’s as good as,” he said sternly once he could muster up the courage to look her in the eyes. The rain was beating upon the window like a deranged person seeking shelter. Howling, whistling, breaking branches and limbs off of trees nearby, the wind robbed the U-HAUL of the packed kitchenware and shattered glass and china everywhere along the concrete. At the sound of the breaking, Maggie rushed to the window and saw the damage that had been done. “Shit!” She laid the picture on the window sill and turned back to Dennis, her frustration reaching its peak. “Fine. Then, you can take responsibility for what you did to her.” “I am not him! I didn’t kill her!!” Maggie’s head began to throb as more tears formed. “I know that, Dennis. I know it wasn’t you. But in this house, it was. And I hate you for it. Every day, I hate you. You can’t blame me for that. You....or him, whatever.....took my daughter from me. They told me the blood-alcohol level in your system was ten times a normal person’s!!” She closed her eyes and imagined her daughter. “And Katie...” she sobbed heavily, “...Katie was picked up from school that way. And all I can ever keep wondering is what she said to you when she got into your truck. I can’t help but wonder if she knew something was wrong. Or if she tried to show you a picture she drew that day. Or if she...if she told you she loved you and....” she broke off. Dennis shook with anger and sorrow. “I don’t know. I ask myself the same things.” Maggie wiped her tears away on her sleeve. “But it’s not the same. Not for me.” “We both lost Katie. And I lost you.” Cutting him off, “You never had me, Dennis. Not me.” Dennis thought strategically for a moment. He had been rehearsing this argument for the past month, knowing she would eventually bring it up. “Technically, no. And you never had me. You got a version of me that’s....I’m ashamed to even think it was possible for me to be that way. But this, this is a second chance for us.” Maggie looked at him incredulously. “This, whatever this is, is a miracle,” he said, confidently. “This is not a miracle. Not from where I’m standing. Every time you walk through that door now, it’s just another chapter to my nightmare.” Dennis’ voice dropped, defeatedly. “There has to be an explanation for all of this.” “An explanation? Fine. Yea, there’s an explanation. But an explanation is not an excuse. This is wrong.”
I can’t help but wonder if she knew something was wrong. Or if she tried to show you a picture she drew that day.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
In the kitchen, Maggie’s cell phone began to ring. She rushed to it quickly, thankful for the opportunity to bring the conversation to an end. “I have to take this,” she said, walking down the bare hallway into one of the empty bedrooms. The thunder burst louder and louder outside. Dennis walked to the window, glaring at the heap of broken glass, china, and various pieces of trash on the curb where the moving vehicle was parked. He paced the living room, stopping now and then to relive the many nights he and his wife had made love on the floor. He ran his hands across the white walls. Maggie had hated those white walls. He thought they were soothing. “They make me feel like I’m in a mental institution,” she argued. She begged Dennis to paint them a different color. They agreed on periwinkle. It took them the better part of a week to paint just one of the walls on account of the time they spent painting each other, laughing, singing along to an old record player he bought her as a birthday gift, going on wine runs, and making out. But this wall was still white, never having been painted periwinkle, never knowing the love and happiness and arousal he had. “I’ll see you in a few,” Maggie said, hanging up the phone, as she walked back down the hall. She strode into the kitchen and placed the phone in her purse, readying it for her departure. “My ride is on its way.” “Who’s coming to get you?” “Nathan.” “My brother, Nathan?” he pressed. “Yea.” With great difficulty, Dennis restrained his anger. “Is he coming up here?” Maggie stared, considering her response. “Probably not.” Unable to retain his growing resentment, Dennis finally snapped. “WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU LET HIM ANYWHERE NEAR YOU?!?! YOU KNOW WHAT HE DID!!” “Excuse me?! You’re kidding, right?” “The hell I am!” “You don’t find that at all hypocritical?!” He knew she was right. Still, he exclaimed, “HE MURDERED OUR DAUGHTER!! HE TOOK YOU AND KATIE AWAY FROM ME!!” Maggie lunged forward, leaving no room between them. “No, Dennis. You murdered our daughter!! You got drunk, as always, and you drove her!” “That wasn’t me!!” “And it wasn’t him, either, Dennis!” She slowly took a step back, steeling herself. “Not here.” Dennis fumbled through his thoughts, looking for a rebuttal. Finding none, he stood silently shaking for a moment, pressing back tears and the memory of the officers knocking at his door to tell him about the accident, driving to the scene, and seeing Nathan handcuffed in the back of a squad car. He and Maggie stood across the room from one another, separated only by the open box of Dennis’ old possessions. Maggie’s phone rang again. She quickly pulled it out of her purse. “I’m on my way down,” she snapped, and quickly hung up. “I have to go,” she said to Dennis, and
turned for the door. “Go home, Dennis. Wherever that is. You need to go.” Dennis sobbed. “Please don’t do this, Maggie. I love you! I love you so much!” “Don’t say that.” “I’m sorry! I’m sorry for whatever happened to you! But please don’t go. We can make this right!” “I don’t want to.” “No!” he demanded. “Please!!” He rushed towards her, gripping an arm. “I’m begging you. Don’t leave me.” Remorse, anger, fear, and sorrow filled her voice. “I have to.” “No, you don’t. You can’t. Maggie, I...I watched them bury you! I watched them bury you and Katie both! Please don’t let me lose you again!! I don’t want to lose you again!!” He was on his knees, crying into her sleeve. She thrust her arm away from him, wiping her own tears. “I watched them bury you and Katie, too, Dennis.” She paused. “But when they buried you, I said goodbye. It’s time you do the same.” She was gone. The door slammed closed behind her, creating an infinite chasm between them. Dennis stood up and walked to the window. He watched in the growing darkness of the storm and evening as his brother, Nathan, closed the back of the U-HAUL, leaving the broken contents along the concrete, and waited for Maggie to meet him. Nathan lifted his head up to the window, and a look of confusion and fear shot across his face. He stared up at Dennis, not sure what to make of the familiar figure standing in the emptiness of Maggie’s former residence. Maggie was downstairs now. She motioned for Nathan to start the truck quickly. Hesitantly, he did so. Maggie drove away slowly, and forever. Taking the picture of a toothless Katie, Dennis stepped out of the apartment. He stood at the door, closed his eyes, and turned the key, locking it securely. Everything came to a halt. Soon, Ms. Friedman tapped Dennis on his shoulder. Dennis remained motionless with his key still in the lock. “Dennis, are you ok?” she asked, concerned. “Yes, Ms. Friedman. I’m fine. Thank you.” He opened his eyes, meeting those of the kind woman standing next to him. “I know today is hard on you, hun. You just let me know if you need anything, ok?” “Thank you.” Ms. Friedman smiled politely and hobbled away. Dennis turned the key once more, this time unlocking it. He opened the door, and stepped into his apartment. The periwinkle walls were more vivid than ever. The whole room seemed smaller. The coffee table, sofa, love seat, bookshelf, dinner table, record player, clocks, picture frames on the walls, television, kitchen appliances, and various knick knacks condensed it more than usual. Having come from Maggie’s empty version of his apartment, he suddenly felt very claustrophobic. The answering machine in the kitchen was beeping rapidly. He pressed the play button: “Dennis, sweetie, it’s your mom. I just want you to know I love you. Call me if you need me.” “Hey bro, praying for you today. Remember they’re in a better place.” 26
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“Praying for you today, Dennis.” “Let us know if you want us to bring you dinner.” “We love you, buddy.” “Hey Dennis, it’s Nathan. I know you don’t want to talk to me. And that’s...that’s ok. But I...I’m sorry, man. I had to call you. I know I deserve to be locked up in this place. I know that. I was the one that messed up. I just....Every day I wish I had just kept my drunk ass on the couch. Because I never would have hit them. I didn’t know, man! I didn’t know Maggie was on her way home from the school with Katie! I didn’t think I would have...” He unplugged the machine, refusing to listen any more. Dennis moved to the window. The sun was leaving pink strips across the clear, purple and blue sky. Two boys were throwing a football back and forth in the last bit of sunshine that was left from the beautiful day. He eyed the area of concrete where the glass from the UHAUL had been shattered. It was spotless. Someone was knocking at the door. “It’s open,” he yelled. Dennis’ friend, Kirk, walked in. “Hey, man.” “Hey,” Dennis said, still staring out the window. “I brought some beer.” Turning to his friend, “Thanks. Just set it on the counter.” “Didn’t think you’d want to be alone today.” Dennis smiled, courteously. “Today’s a year, right?” “Yea.” “Yea. I thought so.” They stood silently across the room from one another. Kirk fiddled with his hands in his pockets, not sure what he ought to do next, though eager to be a good friend. “Hey, um, do you...do you want me to take you to Maggie and Katie’s graves or anything? I’ll drive. You know, to see them or something?” Dennis watched the bright orange sun sink below the canvas of sky. “No. I’ve seen enough.” ●
Most of the women have never met before. Two, Di and Faith, are acquainted, a rafting day trip back east. Faith signed up for this one when she heard Di did. The first night, they set up camp on a sandbank left by the releases of big water from Lake Mead. The women bathe, squealing, bushes and breasts, in the frigid green river before the sun dips below the Canyon wall. Share my groundsheet? Di asks Faith. Bright Angel, Faith thinks. They unroll sleeping bags side by side. Faith points into the sky, over-filled with stars. There’s Orion with his bow followed by Serius, his dog. No men allowed on this trip, a guide calls. We’ll call her Diana, then, Faith says. No one answers. Faith listens to Di’s sleeping breath, the throaty roar of the rapids, the jug-glug of the boats tied to scrub salt cedar. The Huntress, belt bright, strides over the lip of the Canyon, her dog yapping at her heel. What sound do Orionid meteors make, falling? The second night, a light rain. Di rolls, pulling the groundsheet over them both, giggling like girls. The third night, the women set up tents. Di gifts Faith with a significant look. In the stuffy tent, Faith presses her hand over her own mouth. Afterward, Faith murmurs into the musty dark, I was married once. To a man. What? Di says out loud. In the tents around them, women wake, stir. Di whispers, You should have told me. The fourth night, sitting around the campfire after supper, Di gestures at the moon, an incandescent bent bow. She tells a story. Bow hunting--shot girlfriend-mistake, of course—no, hardly any blood. In the tent, Faith asks, Are you angry? Di says nothing, lies still. Is she sleeping? Redwall. Faith dares not move. She can hear the whining of the dog, left behind in the Canyon by the Huntress. The fifth night Di doesn’t set up a tent. She spreads out her groundsheet on one edge of the sand bank and shares it with the woman who sits behind her in the raft. Faith unrolls hers on the far side. Hermit. For a long time she covertly watches the starry Huntress—so careless about that dog. The tenth night, the dog howls at the waxing gibbous moon and all the meteors have fallen, soundless. Faith shuts her eyes against the cold, hard light. Toroweap. She can’t bear hearing the dog’s panting after the Huntress, long gone, beyond the Canyon rim and so she murmurs, Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit, Supai, Redwall, Muav, Bright Angel, Tupeats, Vishnu. Everyone survives Lava Falls, full moon, last day on the River, parting, except the dog. ●
• • • D.T. Robbins is not a robot. Swear. His short stories can be found in Chiron Review, Full of Crow, The Neglected Ratio, and Torrid Literature. He lives in Southern California with his beautiful wife and daughter.
The Dog Star by Nina Pratt
• • • Nina Pratt lives in Rhode Island, which means she can spit into the ocean at any time, even when writing. Not that she would spit into the sea. She likes layers: rock, lies, cake and brick. Her work has been published in Snowy Egret.
Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit, Supai, Redwall, Muav, Bright Angel, Tupeats, Vishnu. The specially hired female guides teach the women to chant the Grand Canyon rock layers in time with the dip of their paddles. It helps to distract them from thinking about dangerous Lava Falls almost two weeks down river. 27
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around the turn of the century by some mysterious means the family never ascertained. Hollis sometimes wondered if his father had been disappointed in him for not carrying on this particular tradition when he returned to the farm after an Army stint during the early days of the Viet Nam war and married Amanda, the prettiest girl in the county. But there had been no more decent bottomland to buy, and after the elder Winter's death, Hollis eventually began to lease out and eventually sell some of the family farm. That was the main source of revenue these days. The livestock was gone for the most part, and Hollis had, in reality, only “played at farming,” as he put it, for the past fifteen years. He and Amanda had their vegetable garden, and Hollis still prized the pumpkin patch that travelers on the highway watched for each autumn. But there was no son to help him, and their two daughters had never showed the slightest interest in the land. The older daughter Evelyn resembled the striking Amanda so much—she went prematurely gray like her mother—they were sometimes mistaken as sisters, to Amanda’s secret delight. The serious Evelyn pleased Hollis when she went off to State College to study veterinary medicine. He felt sure she would return to the area and proudly service his and other area farms, but she was tired of country life and moved to Memphis where, according to Hollis, she “tended to damned ‘picka-neezes’ and poodles.” Evelyn married a lanky, garrulous proctologist named Harvey and had three children Hollis and Amanda rarely saw. Evelyn’s husband played in some area golf tournament most weekends of the year, and Hollis told the boys at Stroup’s Barbershop that he reckoned “Old Harve” never got tired of huntin’ for holes. Their younger daughter Jean was described as “feisty” by townsfolk when she was young and as a “hellion” in high school. Her father wished to God she would quit developing, for her budding figure literally turned heads, even those of Hollis’s sheepish friends. Hollis and Amanda were amazed when she unexpectedly settled down and married a young farmer, a goodlooking if solemn boy from the next county. She met James Foote at a football game in Calhoun City and simply never dated anyone else after that. Foote was consistently successful at farming, no mean feat in recent times, but Hollis eventually confided to Amanda that he had decided James was probably the dullest man in North America. When he and Jean came to visit there was a great deal of silence in the house. The four of them smiled and nodded a lot. The men would go outside while Hollis smoked, and even then only a minimum amount of small talk about crops, subsidies, and the like would follow. Hollis usually felt a sense of relief when the young couple left, and he hated it, for he loved his younger daughter very much. He suspected that Jean eventually had Billie just for company, and neither Hollis nor Amanda was really surprised when the couple separated, then quietly divorced. Word was, people noticed no change whatsoever in the taciturn James after the split. The shock came with the visit of Jean's new boyfriend, whom she met on a trip to New Orleans with friends, immediately post-divorce.
East, to the Field by the Pond For Anna
by Glenn H. Hatcher ollis Winter trudged down the near-quartermile driveway to the road each morning to take his newspaper from the green mailbox provided to the Herald's rural customers. Three years earlier, the paper had converted to what the new editor believed was a more cosmopolitan afternoon delivery, but Hollis—who was accustomed to his morning news—continued his tradition of retrieving the daily reports of births, marriages, deaths, early harvest, and military service promotions in the A.M. Amanda Winter still grumbled occasionally that they were getting “yesterday's news,” but she knew better than to retrieve the paper herself, and after forty years of marriage she also knew Hollis. For him, things were as they were, and would change no more than he allowed. On that bright late-October Monday morning, his world seemed in order. The pumpkin patch to the west lay orange with harvest, and past the barbed wire fence on his right, Old Cow, the fifteen-year-old Jersey that had been a decent milker into her teens, followed Hollis as she did each morning, her rusted bell and heavy tread signaling her efforts to keep pace. Hollis was a tall man with a full head of straight silver hair—he greatly resembled the old western star Joel McCrea—and he took pride in his health, his ability to cover ground with a youthful, even stride. Yet, as he slowed to light his first bowl of Dunhill Early Morning, he stopped, startled by the unnatural presence of the red structure at the end of the drive and then irritated that he had forgotten placing it there himself the previous Friday. It was a sort of covered bench--enclosed on three sides--where a child could sit, out of the weather, and wait for the bus each school day. It had been stored in the barn for over fifteen years, but now it rested in its old spot, beside the mailboxes, with a red-haired six-year-old girl sitting quietly inside. She was his daughter Jean's little girl Billie, and Hollis stared at the child, her head barely visible through the dusty window in the rear of the bus stop. He still could not believe that Jean had left her with them, or that Amanda had so readily agreed to take Billie in. People should raise their own children, Hollis maintained. They were too old to take on a child just starting to school. But mostly, the little girl took him back to a time Hollis tried every day to forget. Tried so hard, in fact, that the memory had acquired virtual boundaries, a place he refused to visit. The Winters had lived on and farmed the long tract of Mississippi land that lay between the river to the south and Highway 6 for generations, with each head of the family adding to the acreage. Hollis’s father had made the last and largest purchase in the forties by selling stock in Coca-Cola that his grandmother acquired
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
He was a huge man, a professional wrestler from Texas known as Sandar the Destroyer, who sported a long beard and a precisely-cut, high flat-top. “He looks like a goddamned goat with a box on his head,” Hollis proclaimed to his wife, and Amanda had not spoken to him for two days for blaspheming in her house. The affable Sandar was surprisingly gentle away from the ring, but his size was certainly off-putting. He even towered over Hollis, and his bulk seemed to squeeze the air out of a room when he entered. Amanda closed her eyes prayerfully whenever he sat on any of her older, keepsake furniture. Jean began to travel with Sandar, who had slowly built considerable recognition as a villain of vaguely Middle-Eastern origin. He eventually earned a lucrative, recurring spot on the leading national wrestling broadcast. In time, Jean, under the moniker Brandee, assumed the role of belligerent ringside manager at Sandar’s televised bouts. A Memphis station carried them on Saturday nights, and there would be Jean/Brandee, enflaming the crowd with bleached hair, tight leather miniskirt, and plunging top. Screaming at the referee and Sandar’s opponents, she sometimes threw the occasional folding chair or herself into the ring. Amanda sat and silently watched every time Jean was scheduled to appear. Hollis was infuriated by that, but Amanda gently reminded him that it was at least a chance to see her. “Oh, fine,” he replied. The old man was further horrified to realize that if he wandered into the room when wrestling was on the air, he had to stop and stare. The sight of his daughter involved in such a spectacle was like a train wreck to Hollis, awful beyond expression, but he could not look away. Eventually, he began to make sure that he was somehow occupied every Saturday until “that damned show” ended. To her credit, Jean did her best to care for Billie as she pursued her new career. She hired a retired woman named Bland as a live-in housekeeper and babysitter to watch Billie while she and Sandar were on the road. It worked out well for a time, for Billie seemed to like Mrs. Bland. At least, she never complained. But about the time the little girl entered first grade, Jean discovered that Mrs. Bland had begun to drink more than a bit during the day, so she reluctantly packed Billie's things and brought her to the farm. With the little girl napping on the floor in front of the TV, the adults addressed the situation at hand. “Daddy, I need ya’ll’s help in this. I wish I could take her, but, believe me, the circuit is no place for her,” Jean said. “But it is the place for you?” Hollis replied, his mouth set. Jean’s eyes blazed. “Hell, I knew you wouldn’t understand. I need to break loose and do something before I’m too old. This new thing is it, I think. When I hear the audience carrying on because of something I’m doing…it’s like nothing else, I swear. It’s just something so real.” She looked at her mother, pleadingly. Hollis raised his eyebrows sadly and glanced at Sandar, who was quietly waiting by the front door. “Something real. So you picked professional wrestlin’.”
Jean's face hardened, and she turned, staring out the dining room window. Amanda, who had been standing in the kitchen doorway, walked to Hollis and placed her hand on his arm. “Hollis, she’s a grown woman.” “Be nice if she’d act like it.” At that, the young woman whirled and snapped, “Oh, I know. Nothing’s been good enough for you for years. You don't like Harvey. You never liked James. You probably don’t give two hoots for any of your grandkids.” She snatched her jacket off the hall tree behind the door. “And truth be known, you never forgave Evelyn or me for not being Jerry, and you never forgave him for dying. You don’t have any forgiveness in you. I'm sorry, Daddy, but you know it's true.” The Winters' late son had not been discussed or even mentioned in the house for years, and the sound of his name crackled like a gunshot to Hollis, who remained motionless, glaring at his daughter. Amanda squeezed his arm for a moment, then went to Jean, who stood with her arms folded, staring at the floor. “Honey, we'll get Billie in school here, and we'll take good care of her.” She strode to the giant Sandar, gazed up at him, and implored, “Please be good to my girl.” The big man, still stunned by Jean’s outburst, nodded and looked at Hollis with a sudden, surprising softness. “Yes, ma’am,” he growled and engulfed the astonished Amanda in a bear hug of considerable duration. Then he pulled Jean to the door, and they were gone. Hollis walked slowly to the kitchen and sat at the table, closing his eyes. Memories of his late son assaulted him, and, exhausted, Hollis didn't resist. Jerry, Jean's twin brother, loved the farm as much as Evelyn and Jean wanted to leave it. From the time he could walk, he was Hollis’s shadow, dressing like his father, riding with him on the tractor. Nothing made Jerry happier than to sit beside Hollis in the cab of his old pickup and shift the gears as his father worked the clutch, bouncing into Oxford on Saturday for haircuts and supplies. Jerry was simply born to be a farmer; he wanted nothing else. By his teen years, Jerry had grown to over six feet and weighed more than 240 pounds, solid. He had the red hair that sometimes cropped up in the Winter line and a large, round, completely unassuming face. He was gentle, in that strangely incongruous way that some big men are. Hollis had never seen anyone so good with animals, particularly the young ones. Jerry became a star lineman on the high school football team with a natural talent that elicited predictions of college stardom, but when he suspected he was needed more on the farm in the evenings than his father would admit, Jerry quit the team, and no amount of cajoling by Coach Bud Davis could change his mind. “I'd just rather be at home, Daddy,” he said. Jerry's favorite place on the farm was the east pasture, a low rolling field on the far side of a ridge that hid the spot from the rest of the property, including the house. A small pond lay in its center, the surrounding slopes still dotted with tree stumps, for this last area had never been broken up for planting. Hollis knew that Jerry loved the field, and gave it to him for his eighteenth 29
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birthday saying, “It's yours, son. Do what you want with it. Even sell it, I reckon.” “I'd like to finish clearing it and build me a house down there, Daddy, if it's all right,” the boy replied. Hollis did not try to answer. Jerry tackled the project at a tireless pace, working weekends and late into each evening. The house had become a place to avoid. Jean's wedding to James was approaching, and the house hummed with giggling bridesmaids and women from the church much of the time. The afternoon of the wedding was stifling, especially for late October. It had been a brutal late summer and autumn for farmers, hot and dry. Dust rose from the driveway as the wedding party and guests arrived for the reception. After dutifully greeting them with his parents, Jerry stole out the back door, unnoticed, pulling off his tie. Relieved to escape the bustling household, Jerry disliked any occasion that required the wearing of a suit or his leaving the field. He slipped into the barn to check on the Jersey calf he had helped deliver the week before. It was suckling its mother, doing fine. Hollis wanted Jerry to name the calf, but he hadn't thought of a handle he liked. No hurry, his father said. Jerry started the new John Deere tractor and drove over the ridge to his field. There was one last hickory stump he wanted to pull. If he hurried he could probably finish and return to the reception before anyone missed him… An hour later, Hollis went outside to look for his son. Amanda had said, “Get that boy back in here, Hollis. We have guests.” Initially surprised to find the tractor gone, Hollis then laughed and thought, Hell, I'd rather be out in that hot-ass field than cooped up with those hens myself. When Hollis reached the top of the rise overlooking the east field, he froze, staring in disbelief at the scene below him. Jerry lay on the ground near the pond, motionless, the tractor on its side near him. Hollis saw the log chain running from the back of the tractor to the partially uprooted stump, and he knew, God, he knew. (“Never to the back, son. Always hitch to the front and throw it in reverse. Otherwise, a damn tractor'll flip back on you sure as hell.”) Hollis would not remember stumbling down the hill to Jerry's body, but he could never forget what he saw when he got there. The weather was hot, so damned hot, and there were still so many ants on the place...Jerry was covered with them. They were in his ears, his nose, his open eyes. As in a dream, Hollis tried to wipe them away, oblivious to their bites, knowing only that no one else could see his son that way. He stood and backed away, trying to breathe. There wasn't a mark on the body, except a thin puckered scratch on Jerry's shin. Just that one little scratch on my boy, Hollis thought, right before he began to wail a long high cry that cut across the ridge and drew the others.
Friends worried about his mental state when, during his only son's funeral, Hollis rode the spreader around and around Jerry's field, spraying insecticide until there was none left. Hollis wanted to bury the boy there, but he knew that Amanda would never allow that—Jerry was to be laid to rest in the Winter plot behind the Baptist church down the road—so he bought a granite marker that simply read: Jeremiah Leigh Winter Farmer 1977-1995 Hollis placed it himself on that lonely spot beside the pond. Amanda never went to the field after that, Hollis only occasionally to clear around the stone. The gate to the field remained closed for fifteen years as Hollis always squeezed through the walk-gap beside it. The Jersey calf eventually came to be known as Old Cow, the last tangible link to Jerry's work on the farm.
Jerry lay on the ground near the pond, motionless, the tractor on its side near him.
A week after the funeral, Hollis took down the red bus stop, fighting the urge to peer inside at the carvings and markings Evelyn, Jean, and Jerry had made through the years. He couldn’t bring himself to haul it off the farm or dismantle it, so Hollis carefully stashed it behind the feed-bins in the barn. He was grateful that Amanda soon became so involved in the church. The bake sales, revivals, building-fund drives, and choir practice gave her something to do with her time. For a time Hollis continued to go to church, but he left the choir. He just never felt like singing, he told Amanda. She didn't argue but noted that Hollis eventually spoke less as well, and they never discussed Jerry’s passing after the initial period of grieving passed. It was just that nothing seemed to make sense to Hollis anymore. A man should not outlive his son. And Jerry knew more about farming than men twice his age. To think that he died from making one mistake on that tractor. Hollis never told Amanda that Doc Wilson later said Jerry might have lived if the boy hadn't somehow moved the tractor off himself. He did not know how anyone could have hoisted that much weight, but fear and pain do strange things. “He probably panicked, and the effort of pushing that thing off drove one of Jerry's broken ribs into his heart. He died instantly, Hollis.” The little girl craned her neck around the door of the bus stop, looking up and down the road. Hollis had angered Amanda by insisting that Billie take the bus on her first morning at the new school. “She might as well get used to it now,” he'd said, but now he began to feel a bit guilty watching his tiny granddaughter grip her lunch bag and watch for her ride. Hollis spied a toy tractor and cow on the seat beside Billie. He distinctly remembered telling her not to take them to school.
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When he saw her with the toys at the breakfast table earlier that morning, Hollis had pulled Amanda to one side and hissed, “Where did she get them things? Has she been in THERE?” Amanda eased her arm free and replied firmly, “Yes, Hollis, I took her in Jerry's room. She didn't bring any toys, and I knew there was some in there.” Hollis turned away, grimacing as though he had witnessed a killing. “You had no right.” Amanda gripped his hand, pulling her husband to face her. “I had every right. You should have seen the way she took to Jerry's old farm set. I think he would have wanted her to have them, instead of just sitting in there gathering dust. Don’t you? Hollis?” He couldn't hear her for the roaring in his head. Hollis muttered something about his truck and strode through the kitchen. As he checked the oil and air filter in the new Chevy, Hollis sensed someone behind him. Billie stood there, hands outstretched, offering the toy miniatures to him. “I'm sorry, Granddad. I only wanted to play with 'em.” Hollis stared at her, trying to read her round open face. “No. You keep them.” He cleared his throat. “But I wouldn't take them to school. You never know how a new teacher might feel about play-purties. You better run on back and get yer grandmother to pack you a lunch.” He had stayed clear of the house and the little girl until now, standing near the bus top. Hollis was about to turn back quietly and wait until later to get his paper when he saw Billie wipe at her eyes. Without thinking, the tall man scurried around the structure and kneeled in front of the child. “You all right?” Billie nodded, startled. “Yes, Granddad.” Hollis stood and gathered himself. Old fool, he thought. There were gnats in the place. She had only been brushing at gnats. He pointed at one of her saddle oxfords. “Your shoe's untied. Can't go to school like that. You know how to tie them yet?” The little girl shook her head no. “Will you do it?” “Yeah, but remind me this evening to show you how,” Hollis said. “How come yer mama never taught you to tie a shoe?” Billie shrugged and watched as her grandfather stiffly kneeled and slowly worked the lace with his long fingers. As Hollis pushed against the seat in an effort to stand, he noticed a long red scratch on the child's leg. A single ant climbed along the thin puckered wound. Hollis gently brushed the insect away, staring wide-eyed at the cut. He didn’t speak for a moment, then softly he whispered, “How'd you get hurt?” “This? Mama ‘Manda's cat scratched me yesterday. It's OK, it don't hurt.” Hollis sat heavily on the bench, breathing deeply, and gazed into the round, smiling face of his granddaughter. He had often seen that same expression on another red-haired child, a long time ago. As tears welled in his eyes, he stared across the highway. “Billie, do you think you'll like it here at the farm, with me and Mama Amanda?”
The little girl nodded. “Is my mother and Mister Sandar coming back for me?” Hollis turned and studied her closely. “Someday. But I think you're going to be with us here for a good while. Is that all right?” Billie nodded again, “I like it here. I'd like to stay here.” The old man got to his feet and held out his hand to the girl. “How about if I take you to school today? I bet you could learn to shift the gears in Granddad's truck.” Billie grinned. “I'll try.” They held hands, ambled back up the drive to the barn, and got in the truck. Hollis stopped at the house and called to Amanda, who walked onto the porch, drying her hands. She crawled in the passenger side door and looked over Billie's head at her husband, puzzled. “It won't hurt for her to be late this one time. It's all right,” Hollis said. He then backed the truck, turned, and headed past the barn toward the open land beyond. Hollis brought the vehicle to a stop at the gate to Jerry's field. He got out, struggled with the latch, and finally managed to force the rotting obstruction open enough for the truck to pass. Hollis eased back inside and saw Amanda wiping at her eyes. “Where are we going, Granddad?” asked the little girl. The old man reached over Billie and placed his hand gently on Amanda’s shoulder. With a deep breath, he said, “Well, I want to tell you about somebody, honey. Those were his toys you're holding. He was your mama's brother, and he loved it here, too.” The truck rumbled through the gate, then eased across the pasture, bearing the three of them over the rise, east, to the field by the pond. ● • • • Glenn Hatcher was born in north-central Mississippi between the birthplaces of William Faulkner and Elvis Presley. (That’s All Right In August? Go Down, Pelvis?) Attending the University of Mississippi, Hatcher studied creative writing with the legendary Barry Hannah. Hatcher’s short story “All You Can Be” won Second Place in Short Fiction at The Southern Literary Festival, and he was later awarded the coveted Ella Somerville Award at Ole Miss. Hatcher’s story “Discount Center” will appear in scissors and spackle literary magazine in October, and his story “Twigs” will appear in in the journal six three whiskey also in October of this year. Glenn Hatcher, who has taught English at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina, for ten years, is married and has one daughter.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
“You better go now,” warned the dealer. “Benny doesn’t like to be kept waiting. He only gave you a few seconds out of courtesy. That won’t last long.” Lucia walked to the front of the house, stumbling several times. Her slip of a figure slid easily out the front door that Benny struggled a few moments earlier to push through. “I will see you again,” said Lucia. Jason let her sweet Italian accent marinate in his mind. “Someday,” he said.
Heads Up by Yong Takahashi June 1996 Big Poppa’s House Tournament – Biloxi, MS ason blinked the salty sweat from his eyes. He didn’t want to draw attention to his perspiration, but everyone could see the stream of water rolling down his forehead. He looked over the table at Benny, his frequent opponent. Benny was expressionless. “Well, what ya gonna do?” asked Stan, the appointed dealer. Jason looked around the small house, filled with smoke and the smell of ham hocks and greens. He was afraid to glance at Lucia, his common-law wife. She had paid for his poor card playing before. The rest of the players kept quiet. They might have been called white trash or worse, but there was an unwritten code of behavior during poker games. No one would breathe until both hands were revealed. “You gotta make your decision,” said Stan. “I don’t have any more money,” said Jason. “It’s over,” said one of the players. “Shhh… They’ll throw us out, then we won’t know what happened,” said a voice standing behind Jason. “I’ll take her,” said Benny as he pointed to Lucia. Lucia looked at the floor because she couldn’t bear to see the round, grease ball who would take her for an undetermined time. She placed her hand over mouth, hoping she wouldn’t vomit. The tattered, stained carpet made her feel worse. Her eyes pleaded with Jason but her mouth remained closed. “I’ll get you back,” said Jason. He couldn’t see her desperation anymore and looked away. A couple of the players made humping gestures behind Lucia. She nodded her head. He had won her back before. She knew he could do it again. “All in,” said Jason. “Turn your cards over boys,” said the dealer. The thirteen people in the room took in a collective breath. Benny threw his cards on the table. “Four kings.” Jason hesitated. His eyes couldn’t leave Benny’s hand. The dealer flipped over Jason’s cards. “Aces full of queens,” said the dealer. Lucia tried to stand but stumbled. Jason ran over to her and held her up. “Baby, I’ll get you back. I just had a bad streak. I heard Benny has a real nice house. It will be better than those run-down motels we have to stay in. At least you’d get a proper meal.” Benny stroked Lucia’s cheek. “I’ll let you say your good-byes. I’ll be waiting in the car.” Jason winced and let Lucia go. Lucia watched him waddle out the door, his stench lessening as he walked further away. “Thank you, baby. You always come through for me. I’ll get the money somehow. I’ll come get you.” Jason hugged Lucia.
September 2012 Mystic Casino – Las Vegas, NV No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament Jason was able to scrape up enough money for the No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament buy-in. The jackpot was a million dollars and the game would be televised. He knew this would be his big pay day. “Thirty years on the circuit all leads up to today,” he thought. He hobbled up to the table with his tray full of chips. His hip was cracked, a result of not letting it heal long enough after surgery. There was always a hot game going on that he couldn’t miss. Eight players were already seated. Some of them gave a nod to the old-timer. The others couldn’t have cared less who Jason was. He may have been a decent player years ago but he had never made it to a big tournament. His crumbled clothing and scruffy beard prohibited him from becoming a consultant or a commentator like all the other aging players. “Let’s go,” said a twenty-two year old player who won his way onto the table via an on-line tournament. “Hold up, son. We have one more joining us.” The dealer took a new deck of cards from the poker room manager. “Don’t show your ass yet,” said one of the veterans. The youngster turned beet red and sat silently. “Here she comes,” said the dealer. An elegant woman walked up to the table and sat across from Jason. A buff, young man placed her chips on the table. He kissed her well-manicured hand. “Good luck, mi amore,” he said before walking to the spectator seats. “Your boy toy?” asked the youngster. The woman laughed, throwing her head back in complete joy and confidence. “What do you think?” she asked. The youngster turned red again. Jason’s leg started twitching. His hip was already hurting and he didn’t look forward to several hours of immobility. He didn’t care who this woman was or her ridiculous infant friend. He wanted to get started. Today would be his day. Today, he would prove to the world he was somebody. The dealer pushed out the dealer button. “Small blind,” he said. A player wearing a large cowboy hat bet $1,000. “Big blind,” said the dealer. A small Asian man left of the cowboy bet $2,000. The dealer dealt the cards from left to right until each player had two cards. He took in a deep breath. 32
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“Here comes the flop,” announced the dealer, making sure the microphone picked up his voice. The youngster wiped his brow with his baseball cap. “It’s you,” said the dealer. It was the youngster’s first tournament. The most he ever won was five hundred and twenty-two dollars in the weekly game at his trailer park. He pushed in a brown chip. “Five thousand dollars,” someone yelled out. “Quiet in the stands,” said a voice over the loud speakers. Jason was next and curled up the corners of his cards to make sure they were what he thought he saw. He needed glasses, but they fogged up when he got nervous. He couldn’t give anyone an advantage like that. He nodded his head and pushed out his chips. “Call.” The next five players shook their heads and folded. The woman smiled and gracefully slid her cards away from her. “Fold-a,” she said. Jason looked at her. He tried to stop his eyes from opening so widely, but his eyelids twitched involuntarily. “The turn,” said the dealer. “Bet,” said the dealer. The cowboy pushed in another $10,000. The Asian threw his cards down. All eyes turned to Jason. He was still staring at the woman. “Bet,” said the dealer. The camera took a close shot of him with his mashed up hair, beard and pocked face. Home viewers started tweeting and started calling him “The Caveman”. Jason wanted to impress the woman and squeaked out, “Raise.” He threw in $20,000. The youngster started shaking. He swallowed hard. The network started posting Twitter comments along the bottom of the screen. “He’s done,” said @pokerface. “Send the boy home,” said @aceshigh. “Call,” said the youngster. “Here comes the river,” said the dealer. The camera zeroed in on the five cards on the table. The dealer looked at the cowboy. He pounded his fist on the table. “Check,” said the announcer. “Check,” said Jason. The youngster let out a breath he had been holding in for the past two minutes. “Check.” “Let’s see your cards, boys,” said the dealer. “Full house,” said the dealer pointing to Jason. Jason beamed, looking to the woman for appreciation. She, however, was looking at her sparkly Louis Vuitton shoes. The dealer moved the button over. “Small blind.”
Vegas and lose his pay at the slot machines, because in reality, he couldn’t play poker with the big boys. “Let’s start back,” announced the dealer. The youngster finally ran out of money and left the table. The cowboy kept slamming his losing cards and bending them. After several warnings, he was asked to leave. Twitter blew up. “Go back to your ranch,” said @citypoker. After two hours of play, Jason, the Asian, and the woman remained. “The fat bastard taught me how to play,” said the woman to no one in particular. Jason paused, provoking the Asian to yell at him. “Bet! Bet!” “Emotions are high,” said the announcer. Jason pushed in $50,000 without looking at his hand. The Asian seemed concerned. “This casino is so much nicer than the places I’m used to,” the woman said to the table. “What are you going to do?” asked the dealer. “I fold,” she said. Jason needed to win. His investors were expecting a cut from his winnings. He pushed his chips to the center of the table. The dealer counted them. He looked at the Asian and said, “He’s all in.” The Asian wiped his sweaty hands on his pants and pushed his chips in. “Let’s see your cards boys,” said the dealer. When Jason flipped his cards over, the Asian pushed back from the table and stormed off. “It’s just you and me,” said the woman. “Heads up right after this break,” said the announcer. The woman got up from the table and walked over to the spectators. She flipped her hair and laughed loudly. She signed autographs and engaged her fans into conversation. She returned to the table and counted her chips. Jason stared at her, unable to decide what to say next. “He’s as young as you were when I met you,” he said. “Yes, these days I sleep with who I want. I don’t have to trade myself for a bed to sleep in, for food, for anyone.” “The final round is about to begin,” said the announcer. “Heads up!” said the dealer. The dealer gave them two cards each and waited for Jason’s decision. Jason waited for the woman to acknowledge him. She nodded. He pushed his chips in without looking at his cards. “All in.” The audience gasped and Twitter exploded. “She put a spell on him,” said @boyplayer. “The old man is going down,” said @galslovepoker. The woman smiled. She pushed her stack in. “All in.” “Oh my, it’s a game now,” said the announcer. “Here it is,” said the dealer, noticing the death lock the players had on each other.
The youngster finally ran out of money and left the table. The cowboy kept slamming his losing cards and bending them. After several warnings, he was asked to leave.
The tournament had several commercial breaks and Jason was able to stretch his legs a bit. He wanted a smoke, but that wasn’t allowed during these televised tournaments. The casinos tried to hide the negative parts of gambling – the greasy meals, smoky tables, and lack of sleep. They wanted the Average Joe to come to Las 33
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“The fat bastard married me. He left me all the money he won from you.” “I came for you. He said you two were getting married. I thought you were better off.” Jason stopped, realizing the microphones were picking up their conversation. “Let’s see your cards bo…I mean players,” said the dealer. “Ladies first,” said Jason. Without looking, the woman flipped her cards over. Jason curled the corners of his cards over, shielding them from the camera’s view. He threw them, face down in the center of the table. He got up slowly from the table, pushing his hip back into place. “Good game, Lucia,” he said. Lucia watched him leave the floor. She turned his cards over – four queens. That beat her aces over kings. ●
Hot Pink Lipstick by Justin W. Price It was the first dead body I’d seen, waxy soulless. Hot pink lipstick: I laughed at the choice. Painted cheeks, rosy a doll. Hands that had held mine stroked my hair, prepared my dinner, now stiff, folded angelic, no longer capable of love or embrace. My grandmother in a box lined with silk, optimum comfort for the dead, lips closed, unsmiling blue eyes hiding behind shaded lids. Red hair dyed the day of her death, her final living act, unknown
• • •
My Son, the Butcher by Jules A Riley “What’s wrong with butchering?” snapped his father. “Nothing. I want our son to better himself.” “You’re filling his head with your dreams. Let him decide.” “I want us to be proud of him.” “I am proud of him. My son, the butcher.” He smiled as he remembered that squabble. His father was right. People have to decide their own future. His time had come. He’d make them proud. Making a stand. What more could parents ask? He checked his backpack; everything in place. He zipped it with care, wiped the sweat from his brow and shakily lifted the pack onto his back. Fifteen minutes. He heard voices in the hotel corridor and waited until they faded before leaving the room. Descending to the main entrance, he observed the chaos of commuters, the impatience of rush hour traffic. Adjusting his backpack he shouldered into the throng. Cold sweat trickled the length of his spine. The timer was ticking. Ten minutes. ●
Burrito by Justin W. Price For extra money, dad would buy fallen trees and chop them up into firewood, to sell by the cord. I was about fourteen when he picked me up from school dressed like a lumberjack. Red flannel. Brown beanie. Ratty jeans. I got into our van And saw a wrapped up crunchy burrito sitting on the dashboard. I looked at him and I looked at the burrito. I looked at him. I was very hungry. I asked him where it was from. He told me, “who is it for?” “For you,” he said “I don’t like that restaurant,”
• • • Jules A Riley lives in Musselburgh, East Lothian, Scotland. He has previously been published in various literary magazines in the British Isles, US on-line publications & contributed articles to professional journals and newspapers.
I was very hungry. Dad ate the burrito He said it was good. I was still very hungry As we chopped wood. 34
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After I heat up pasta for Caleb, I change him into his pajamas. It only takes one bedtime story, and he is fast asleep. I usually watch TV after he’s in bed. Tonight there is a paper bag on the coffee table. I don’t mean to look in the bag, but when I move it to get the remote, it tips over and pictures fall out on the table. I quickly stack them up, worried that somehow I’ve messed up the order. I can’t help but notice that the woman in them looks like a younger Mrs. Garity, only I guess she wasn’t Mrs. Garity then, but Joanne. Her hair is blonde like it is now, but brighter and longer. Her blue dress is too tight and stops way above her knees. Her legs are very tan and she is sticking out her behind. She has one hand at her mouth, blowing a kiss, and the other at her hip. It’s a little disturbing. I mean, it’s immodest to wear dresses that short, especially with bare legs. And that pose? By Mrs. Garity of all people? It’s so wrong. I shake my head trying to erase the image. I stuff the pictures back in the bag. I sit there, breathing hard. And then I dump them back out on the table, knowing it’s wrong and doing it anyway. They look like pictures from college. Mrs. Garity is sitting there in shorts and wedge sandals that my mother would call trashy with a guy holding a football. She’s standing in a big group, everyone laughing with their arms around each other, holding plastic cups. She’s asleep on a couch, one leg hanging off the side. I can’t look any more. I quickly put the pictures back in the bag. It’s safer to wait in the kitchen. I take a Diet Coke from the refrigerator (I’m allowed) and sit at the table, wiping it over and over with the dish cloth. On the way home, I have forgotten about Ivy’s party. I can’t think of where to go, except to the coffee shop where Dylan works. He has the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a guy. One day his black hair looked almost curly, and I wondered if it was wet. But instead of asking him, I just ordered my coffee, like I always do. Tonight he is wearing a plaid shirt, un-tucked, and dark jeans with holes in them. There is a hole just below the bottom of his shirt, and I have this desperate need to put my finger in it and touch his skin. ●
Undo the Knot by Heather Adams
know what Mr. Garity would say about Ivy’s party. He would lean forward and say “Mandy, you’re old enough to make your own decisions. But think about what might be going on there. Think about the temptations.” He would nod, knowing that I would make the right decision. Mr. Garity is the youth minister at our church, and most of the time, I do what he says. I’ve been attending Maranatha since I was four weeks old – not that I remember my days in the church nursery, but it wouldn’t be like my parents to miss a Sunday, even with a newborn baby. Besides, the church is three blocks from our house, walking distance on all but the snowiest days. I joined the youth group when I was twelve, and I’ve gotten to know the Garitys pretty well in the last four years. They lead our meetings on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays after choir practice. Mrs. Garity is a sweet lady who sometimes asks me to babysit their son, Caleb. When he was little, he slept in a Moses basket. Mr. Garity said that, in the Bible, Moses trusted Caleb to explore the Promised Land for him. He’s always making connections like that. The Garitys live in an apartment not too far from the river. At least they could walk to the river on a warm day, if they wanted to, but I don’t think they go many places. Whenever they ask me to babysit Caleb, it’s because they’re going to a church event. Mrs. Garity wears these tunics all the time. They remind me of pajamas, but she has to be tired with all that she does and maybe it makes her feel better to be comfortable. Tonight they’re supposed to be back home by seven o’clock, so there’s plenty of time to go to Ivy’s party afterwards. My parents don’t really care either way, just as long as I’m home by midnight. They trust me, and I’ve never given them reason not to. When I ring the doorbell, I can hear Caleb whining. He’s two years old and usually happy, but at this time of day, he might be a little clingy until he gets his dinner. “Mandy, sweetie, come on in.” Mrs. Garity is holding Caleb when she opens the door. Her blond hair is pulled back into a pony tail and her tunic has little green turtles on it. “Yes, ma’am. Here, I can take him.” I reach out and take Caleb from her. “Caleb, let’s go read a book. What do you say?” “Book,” he says, except it sounds like “Boo.” I pick out his favorite board book, the one about farm animals. “Cow!” He points to the cover, where there is a picture of a black cow standing in a field of pink flowers. “Good job, Caleb!” Mrs. Garity laughs. “I was telling him this morning that milk comes from cows.” “What a smart boy.” “It is amazing what they absorb, isn’t it?” Mrs. Garity picks up her bag and car keys. “Mike’s already at the church because they needed help setting up for the concert. It wasn’t on the schedule, but you know how he is.” She gives me a quick hug on her way out.
• • • Heather Adams has published a number of short fiction pieces, as well as non-fiction articles. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband, Geoff, and their son, Davis.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
by Justin W. Price
Lime Green Buddha T
here’s a little Asian goods store across the street from my apartment. I walk by the shop every day on my way to work and every day I see this lime green Buddha Ash Tray happily smiling at me through the store front windows. I’m drawn by the rotund belly and jovial face of the Buddha. This afternoon after work, I go into the store. A little bell on the door announces my arrival. I’ve never been in here before yet it seems familiar to me. Wood carvings of the Yin and the Yang, posters of dragons, posters of dogs, Chinese cookbooks, Japanese cookbooks. The lime green Buddha. “Can I help you?” I turn and see a very pretty girl. She’s Asian and has long black hair, fleckless brown skin, small lips, a button nose. She’s very petite. Her name is Lilly, says her name badge. “Huh?” I stammer. “Can I help you? With something. Are you looking for something?” She smiles. She’s beautiful. There is warmth in her smile. “Huh? Uh, yeah. I wanna buy this Buddha here.” She grabs it gently from its window display, brushing my hand with her hips as she does. She takes the rotund green figure and walks him to the checkout counter. “Anything else?” She asks. “No, I don’t think so?” “No, nothing else,” She rings me up, wraps the Buddha up neatly in newsprint then picks up the pen from the counter and writes something on my receipt before she shoves it all in the bag and hands it to me. “Have a nice day. See you again!” I walk out the door, a little bell on the door announcing my departure.
Anyway, I’m calling because I assume you want me too because you gave me your number, so, uh, call me back if you want too,” and I give her my number and hang up.
It’s now six in the evening. I called Lilly about an hour ago and now I’m in the kitchen making dinner. I can’t cook in a messy kitchen. The kitchen is the only room in the apartment where nothing is out of order. I’m making wild trout stuffed with corn bread and wrapped in bacon with a side of cheesy Brussels Sprouts. I’ve just decapitated the trout, gutted it and split it open. Now I’m rolling it in dried corn bread batter and also stuffing it with the batter, with white onions, with lemon wedges, with garlic, with chives. I do this to a second trout and I lay them both in a frying pan greased with peanut oil, where I then wrap them with bacon strips on either end, sear them in a pan for a minute on each side and then place into a baking pan, greased with shortening and olive oil and then shove into the oven and bake at a low temperature. I am just starting to prepare to steam the Brussels sprouts when my phone rings. “Uh, hello,” I say. “Hi.” “Who is this?” I have the phone resting between my neck and shoulder blade. “This is Lilly. From the store. You called me.” “Oh, yes. Yeah, I called you. You wrote your number on my receipt.” “I did?” “Yeah. You did. You don’t remember?” “Not really. Sorta.” “Sorta? Do you do this sort of thing often? “No. Not really. That was my first time.” “Okay,” I shrug. “So, why did you want me to call you?” “Do you think I’m pretty?” “Do I think you’re pretty?” “Yes. Do you think I’m pretty?” “Yeah. I do. I do think you’re pretty. What are you doing?” I throw the sprouts into the steamer and walk over to my apartment window. I live in an 800 square foot studio apartment on the 3rd floor of the Drake, which has a manual elevator, oak staircase, skinny hallways and low ceilings. It was built in 1908. I often stand at the window and admire the view. I can see the whole city from here. Two of the seven bridges of Portland. The Portland Building. Mt Hood. The Columbia River. I look down and I can see white oak trees. Maples. A traffic jam. A pot dealer. Lilly. Standing outside the Asian store at the bus stop. “I’m waiting for the bus,” she says. “Do you like fish?” “Do I like fish?”
I couldn’t tell you why I bought it. I don’t smoke and I’m not drawn particularly to Buddhism or to Asian art in general, yet, here I am, walking up three flights of stairs to my apartment, holding a plastic bag which contains a lime green Buddha ash tray. I enter my apartment, kick off my black and white Chucks, toss my jacket on the tattered red patent leather love seat and take the Buddha out of the bag. I carefully unwrap it and set it on the center of my glass coffee table. The table is littered with finger print smudges and food stains. Inside the bag is a receipt for the Buddha. It cost me $20. On the back of the receipt is a phone number for Lilly. I know it’s her number because beneath the sevendigit number is the name ‘Lilly’. I’m glad to see her number and I decide to give her a call. The phone rings four times and then her voice mail comes on. “Uh, hi, Lilly, this is uh, James. You, uh, put your number on my receipt. I’m the guy that bought the little green Buddha from you. At the store you work at. 36
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“Yes. Do you like fish? I’m cooking fish for dinner. And Brussels sprouts. Would you like some fish?” “Are you asking me to have dinner with you? Fish?” “Yes. My girlfriend is out of town and I’m lonely.” “I have to go. My bus is coming.” I look out the window and see that the bus is not coming. “That doesn’t answer my question,” I say. “Fish isn’t my favorite. Why did you call me if you have a girlfriend?” “The fish is really fresh. I caught it this morning, actually,” I lie. It was actually purchased yesterday from the fish market across the street from my work. It was probably alive three days ago. “Where do you live?” “I live across the street. In the Drake. If you look up you can see me. I’m on the third floor. I’m waving,” I wave and she looks up but I don’t think she sees me. “I thought you said your bus was coming?” “Not my bus. I was wrong.” “Do you want some fish?” “I thought you said you had a girlfriend,” She pauses and I hear her sigh. “Which apartment is yours?” “I’ll buzz you in.”
“So?” I say. I know nothing about music. “So there’s not a big market for flute players.” I think she’s beautiful and before I know it, my lips are on hers and then on her neck. My hands are on her small breasts and she is moaning a little. She leans into me. I feel her hips arch into mine. I feel our hearts beating together. Her skin feels soft and healthy. We don’t even move to the bed before we are both naked and making love ferociously on the couch. We are both skilled lovers and she is letting me know that she approves of my performance. By the time we’re finished, we’re both in the shower and she tells me that this is her first time showering with a man. I don’t believe her. I let her wash me and I wash her. We collapse into bed, still a little damp and fall asleep. I wake up in my bed, alone and still naked. I sigh and get up and take a quick look around the apartment to confirm that Lilly is indeed gone. I shave and make a pot of coffee. There’s a note from Lilly on the counter: Had a lot of fun last night. Let’s do it again soon, and she again leaves her number. I want to fry some eggs. I put some unsalted butter in the pan, crack open two Cage-free eggs and cook them sunny side up. They cook quickly, spitting and popping at me from the pan. I peel and chop an onion and throw a quarter of it into the pan with the eggs and brown them. I wrap the remaining onion in red saran wrap and put it in my crisper in the fridge. I throw some rye bread (which I will add Marion berry jam too) in the toaster and pan fry some ham steak. When it’s all done, I put in on my plate and eat it slowly while sipping my coffee. I’m tired of the games we play. Of the lies we tell. I put my plate and coffee mug in the dishwasher and hand wash all the pans I cooked with and head to the shower. I look at the picture on the wall of Lilly and I last summer at Multnomah Falls and feel myself smile. That was back before we had to pretend to be strangers in order to connect with one another; in order to be intimate. Back before we had to pretend to be liars. It had been the best day of our young relationship. She’d never been to the Falls and we found a rare sunny Saturday in October. She was wearing her PSU Vikings grey and green hoodie and jeans with Nordic tennis shoes. She had on a Nike baseball cap and she’d pulled her long pony tail through the hole in the back. As we climbed to the top of the Falls, we held hands and smiled. When we reached the summit, we kissed and she giggled. We found a tourist to take our picture. “Cute couple,” I heard the man’s wife say as they walked away. She was right. We were cute together. The game was her idea and we’ve been playing it for six months now. She’d presented it to me just a few short weeks after that trip. She told me she couldn’t feel close to someone she knew. She told me she couldn’t love me unless we pretended not to care about each other. She told me she needed to keep getting to know me in order to be with me. I stand in the shower and let the hot water cascade down my body. The shower is mine. Her shampoos. Her
Lilly likes fish now. She said my trout was amazing and the Brussels sprouts were “pretty okay.” After I steamed them, I cut them in half, poured melted unsalted butter on them, sprinkled them with organic Swiss cheese, which I let melt before serving. I show her around my apartment, which doesn’t take long. She likes the art-deco style of decoration we— my girlfriend and I— have. . The posters of Audrey Hepburn, of James Dean, of skinny Elvis. My bookshelf with In Cold Blood, with Oliver Twist, with Fight Club, with The Odyssey, with poetry books by Whitman, by Plath, by Poe, by Shakespeare, with the Kama Sutra. “Not mine,” I say. “It’s my girlfriend’s.” She nods. “Have you read it?” She nods again and says, “No.” She seems very impressed that I’ve read all the books. I tell her I’m an English major and I work in a food cart on 4th and Main that sells sandwiches stuffed with French fries and your choice of meat with a ‘secret sauce’ that’s actually just Thousand Island salad dressing and she says that’s “pretty okay.” We’re sitting on my couch now and we’ve been talking for an hour. She’s a first generation American. Both her parents were born in Hanoi. She was born in Baltimore and moved here six years ago. She had two uncles killed by American G.I.’s during the War when they were just children. We talk about how we’re both pacifists and how Vietnam and the War in Iraq were both “terrible tragedies.” She’s 24 years old and she goes to Portland State, majoring in music therapy, which she tries to explain to me but is still beyond my realm of understanding. “It’s basically therapy but instead of using a couch and words, you use music,” She explains to me. “You can go to school for that?” “Yes. I’m going to open a private practice.” “Why don’t you just major in music?” “Because I’m a flute player.” 37
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conditioners. Her razors. All gone. This place is now devoid of her. There’s some black mold growing on the ceiling which I still need to call the apartment manager about. I get out of the shower and slowly dry myself with the same mildewed towel I’ve been using all week. When I’m mostly dry I drop it on the floor. I brush my teeth and when I spit I don’t clean it up. My mirror has spit stains. I leave the towel on the floor and put on my ratty boxer shorts and non-matching socks. I step out into the main room of our— my— studio and look for some clean pants, which I find underneath some t shirts that I forgot to dry and which are beginning to mildew. The apartment used to be so immaculate. I walk back to the kitchen table and grab the note from Lilly and reread several times before crumpling it up. I walk to the coffee table, uncrumple it and read it again. I recrumple it and place the piece of paper on the Buddha ash tray and I light it on fire. I watch it burn while I drink the rest of my coffee, which has turned cold. ●
and the ground was declared the winner and we all took turns throwing our coins. Before long I had met another English dog and we gambled until the early evening after which we decided upon finding board where we could drink, dine and retire. A boarding house that would accommodate two hounds without collars (or at least a kennel in the style of those we had been accustomed to in England) seemed fitting. Although my companion was from an aristocratic breed, he had been longer on the lamb than myself and his once-large trust had dwindled through nights of debauched behaviour in the bosom of the southern hemisphere. He had no means with which to sup so rather than condemn myself to solitude with no guarantee I would meet another English-speaking hound in the extremities of the empire I proposed that I would pay for the satisfaction of his thirst and hunger in exchange for some means of entertainment. My companion had proved himself to be a formidable opponent so I had no intention of continuing the game now so I suggested he tell me a tale from his travels. A tale where the misfortune of its protagonist would distract me from my own. With his words, he transported me to Macau in 1904 a few years previous , a rocky enclave off the coast of Manchuria and a rival attraction to the delightful sins of British Hong Kong. The year round rotation of Mastiffs, Dobermans and Alsatians promoted an economy of salubrious desires. A cur could find a nasty weapon, an enhancement for the claws or teeth, (perhaps a steel mouthguard or set of brass dusters) for the price of a shoddy waistcoat. Bitches of ill repute exhibited their low hanging teets and tight rear haunches with ill regard for the infrequently upheld law. The penalty for such crimes in London was a forced spaying but in Macau the threat of this was as remote as the empire’s capital to the inhabitants of this island. My companion had found himself in need of a rapid means of employment. A harsh winter had befallen the island, the pains of which required that he stay there longer than he had previously desired. He had fathered a litter of puppies with a whore who had offered him her bed for an eve and was required to re-numerate her master for services she could no longer render. The penalty for his failure to reimburse would be the same as the whore’s if she had been caught peddling her wares in a more civilised country. In a tavern frequented by Royal Marines, he made the acquaintance of a well-dressed hound by the name of Bennington. The quality of his bowler and his sharp linen jacket were a clear indicator of Saville Row tailoring. His name, embroidered on his leather collar was a testament to the calibre of the hound; it had not yet been soiled by the murk of the city-state. A collar was as important to a well-bred hound as his family’s coat of arms. It couldn’t be forgotten, neither should be removed from the body, or sullied or tarnished. To lose one’s collar was to soil hundreds of years of tradition. This is why I sold mine at Southampton docks to a Corgi from Birmingham; to forget who I formerly was known as and the irrevocable deeds committed to that collar. My companion told me that Bennington was a cautious man, sniffing my friend’s behind thoroughly before even offering to re-fill his glass. They discussed how the liberal government would not be able to quell resistance from
• • •
The Gamble by Daniel Sutherland
y the docks in Colombo, I had come to rest for some weeks on my aimless journey away from London. I remember the sun being so hot that the boundless energy which I had known as I left familiar shores had left me remorselessly. I sat by a trading post where indentured dogs struggled with trolleys piled with freshly cut Kaffir leaves, spilling from an assortment of heavy sacks that would not have looked out of place in Smithfield’s Market. I would even go as far as to say I was exhausted yet I still had a mysterious supply of vigour that propelled my exile. I had traveled for two days inexhaustibly, traveling on horse and cart with a local hound through the Keralan countryside from Kochi, through the Forests of Periyar where I billeted myself with an encampment of Yorkshire railway terriers. They were vital to the imperialism we were exporting and the railways they built would be no different than those extending from Whitby to Scarborough and beyond. Where as my exile was voluntary and a necessary penance for the crimes I had committed, these mongrels had left bitches and pups in the market towns of the North against their will and dwelt on their banishment with much regret. From Anjugramam, I sequestered myself in the hold of a Filipino steamer and re-emerged after a perilous journey upon the waves in Ceylon. To find some amusement, I trawled the seafront for some game in which the stakes would entice an Old Harrovian and enable me some manner in which to pass the time for I had nothing more to do in this wretched place than dwell on my disposition with contempt. On the docks I played a simple game where the aim was to throw brass Ceylon coins against a step. The coin closest to the juncture between the step 38
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the savannah dogs in Swaziland without a heavy hand and especially without some agreement being crafted with the Boers. But after my companion refused to agree with this judgement, a long complicated silence came over the tavern. Two Staffies playing billiards dropped their cues from their mouths and looked over at my friend. One of their comrades, who had been serving the role of cue prop, shook his sailor’s cap from his head as if to signal that he was ready for a maul. Bennington interrogated him once more about the rife prostitution in the district. Was it a benevolent service for a bitch to give up her sexual organs for the relief of fighting men or was it simply unDogly? My friend sensing the ivory tower this hound had placed himself in rose to the occasion and with the sincerity of a minister, laid his situation bare. He asked Bennington if he was familiar with the Gospel of St John. Bennington nodded. Dog had sent his only son, Jesus Caninus to redeem houndkind and John’s Gospel was the only gospel that was not synoptic. My friend elaborated that in John’s Gospel, a wealthy man is having a function to proclaim his daughter’s engagement at which Jesus is in attendance. He asks his servant to find some entertainment and his servant returns with a ball. But no-one is entertained for no-one can throw the ball. The guests are outraged that there is none among them who will throw the ball. Bennington interrupted with a question. Did my friend feel that he was righteous enough to be the ball’s thrower. No, my friend replied, he would have told the servant to bring a bone. The silence remained but all of a sudden the tavern erupted in reams of laughter. Bennington put his paw on my companion’s shoulder and re-assured him those who could concoct their own forms of amusement would always be welcome in this public house. Bennington was a sporting man. He too had attended Harrow and excelled at the game of cricket. He told my friend of a game which would help him appease the baying wolves at this door. Bennington requested his sheepskin coat from behind the bar and instructed my friend to follow him, refraining from questions until they reached their destination.
was how they treated alimentation. Dogs had not hunted live prey since the Middle Ages and to let quarry suffer in such a manner was barbaric and made foxes unpopular company to keep. My friend asked Bennington why he had taken him to this foul smelling place. Surely no solution to his problem could be found here. Bennington left my friend standing in the centre of the room and tapped thrice on the floor with the heel of his bottom right shoe. The large sliding doors which could be used to segment the room slid open revealing what appeared to be incomplete barricades made from steel bars. It was too dark to see at such a distance what this structure was intended for but my friend remembered a deafening howl and the sounds of movement en masse. He described it to me as being not too dissimilar to the noise emitted from a ruck and maul in a rugby game; the slapping of flesh, the grinding of joints. Bennington beckoned my friend closer and my friend realised what the structure was. They were empty cages. Most were empty but no more than a handful were occupied with great beasts capable of snapping a Pomeranian or a Chihuahua in half. Great hulking obese humans, fed to the point of combustion, shaved so that they resembled even more so the apes from which they came. Some had been branded with ink ;others were still bare but the one facet that my friend noticed they had in common is that all howled as if they were pups spending their first night alone. Bennington explained to my companion how the game was played and how he and an elite of respectable men made fortunes from the game. It was a straightforward race. The humans were lined up in their cages along a line and bets were made on who would win, who would place and who would fall. To bet on a winner gave the best return but lacked in excitement. It was a more exciting bet than betting on a certain human to place however those who bet on winners were seen as dull men. Those who bet on place, even duller. The gruesome joy for most of this sport’s aficionados was in the shedding of blood; who would fall and which humans would turn on each other and brawl. A hound would be feel at his most rapturous if he bet on which human would attack another. Betting on one fighter would pay tenfold but to name the victim as well, was akin to house in the game of poker. Bennington explained to my companion that how he extracted so much profit from the game was simply that he had every aspect of the fights planned. He operated a system of selective starvation; that is to say the amount of food the beasts were permitted varied depending on how aggressive or sluggish wanted them to be. A hungry beast would very easily turn on its fellow man. No-one else on the island could gain access to their own private collection of humans. They were rare and even revered in some cultures but the stormy winter was the most obvious embargo. Bennington was the only
The humans were lined up in their cages along a line and bets were made on who would win, who would place and who would fall.
Bennington took my friend to a disused chicken battery that had been vandalised by opportune foxes, seeking a dishonest exit from the great hunger that had enveloped the city since no trade could enter or exit the island. The area that surrounded the battery had long been vacated by the fishmongers and sea-merchants who had found that purveying vice was more profitable in times of hardship. My friend was struck by the fine etchings that chicken feet had left in the concrete floor; where they had ate,bred and slept now appeared as even some slaughter had occurred here and of course once the foxes had forced upon the main hatch, a slaughter had occurred. What separated foxes from the rest of dogkind 39
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hound who could offer this form of amusement. Yet the appetite for the game was so feverish that Bennington expected that many knew that the races were fixed and that they just sought some distraction from the perils of the base lives they led. Bennington had noticed that people far below him in terms of breed had began trying to curry his favour for that winning tip. My friend wondered what his role in the game would be. If Bennington had managed to gain such success from the game thus far without assistance, how could my companion improve their spoils. A beast rattled on the bars of its cage at which my friend remembers being greatly disturbed. Bennington informed him that while the harsh winter had brought a divine blessing onto the amusements monopoly that he had cultivated from nothing, it also meant that food was becoming more and more of a scarcity on the island. The humans would not race without a bait to follow and the uncooked offal that dogkind savoured did not appear appetising to even a famished human. The Royal Marines from the bar, standing high upon the cages, peered down at the negotiations that would forever be beyond their grasp. My friend pondered further. He could not understand what Bennington found so appealing in a drifting dog such as my companion. Bennington told my friend. He had found the humans delighted in chasing small fastmoving targets. He told my friend what he must do in order to avoid the spay and to meet him in the battery in 3 days.
from the sight of infanticide by human fist and foot. My friend, without looking, heard Bennington say it would be a clean death, a death free from pain. My friend who could not believe this for an instant turned to Bennington and demanded how he could know such a thing when he had not suffered the brutality of the hairless beasts. I stopped my friend. A portion of me did not want to see this man forced to relive the darkest time in his life and I offered to even the score by recounting the shame that hung from my neck. He growled and I was surprised to see that it was no longer pertinent to him to hear my rationalisation of the cruelty that had consumed me. My friend could not recall what came over him but all he could remember was the overwhelming need to wrench his pup free from the grasp of this hellion. He told Bennington that he could not do this to an innocent who had known no wrong in his short life and that he would take the punishment for his promiscuity. Bennington stared at my companion as the crowd chanted. They had come to see a race and they would not leave until they had seen blood sprayed on the concrete floor. Bennington accepted the protestations of my companion and proclaimed that if all the hounds, mutts and mongrels here had known fathers like my companion they would not thirst for savagery like they did. But the problem still remained. A race had to be run or anarchy would consume the arena. The game had become such an intrinsic part of Bennington’s personality that he feared abandoning a race at the latest moment would ruin his honour and his reputation. My friend was becoming physically upset; whimpering before me, his tail was sheltered between his legs and I felt horrible that this misery was at my feet. Once again I offered to equate with him and tell him the tale of how I had fallen from Eden. He ignored me instead staring at the glass of chai resting on the table. Bennington handed my friend his bowler and linen jacket and his sheepskin coat and without any prior warning, belted on all four legs toward the track. My friend was struck by the madness that had absorbed this hound he had come to know so well. Benn’ton, he cried. Benn’ton. Benn’ton!He took the name of our lord in vain. Jesus Caninus he wailed. He realised that Bennington intended to sacrifice himself for the game that he had become but further than that, Bennington was going to sacrifice himself for the misgivings of my friend. My friend would be the sole beneficiary of the game’s profits because Bennington had named my friend his lieutenant despite only having known his companionship for as little as a couple of days. Bennington had not made it far when the human handlers released their burdens and covered even less distance once they reached their full gallop. Nothing can restrain a human starved of food and attention. Not even a physically fit greyhound. I was struck with wordlessness after my friend finished his tale which had lived up to its promise of at very least distracting me from my own shortcomings. I signaled for the waiter to bring us another two warm brandies Even though the sun had only just risen, I felt I owed him a chance to calm his nerves after being so frank and earnest with me, as good as a stranger to him. He had appeared before as a broken hound, shaking and
My friend had a grave dilemma placed upon his back and no amount of stroking from even a harem of finely brushed bitches could alleviate the pangs of illness that knotted in his stomach like the fatal meal of an Alsatian consumed before a charge on the battlefield. He was concerned that Bennington was not as trustworthy as his social standing dictated. He took a pause from his thoughts and examined me sitting opposite him in this lounge. He told me that he wouldn’t proceed with his story until I told him mine. I felt ill. There wasn’t any circumstance in which I could confess my crimes to this man I hardly knew. I excused myself and retired. Although I had placated my companion by saying how I required rest, I lay restless in the basket on the floor. I felt compelled to hear the conclusion of his tale. The question was what it worth divulging the awful truth behind my current purgatory in India. Over a breakfast of fresh mango and sweetened chai, My friend apologised for demanding to hear of my life. I was shocked to hear that he would continue with his account with any equal compensation for he had pondered on where he would lay his muzzle if I had not provided him with a basket for the night. He took me back to the battery in Macau. He arrived with a sack of Kaffir leaves that wriggled as he held it tightly together. The battery in no way resembled the haunted and satanic mill that my friend had visited before. Crowds of dogs from all creeds, colours and breeds were falling over themselves to see the humans being restrained on the starting line of the crudely marked track on which they would race. My friend, fearing that he would descend further into the pits of depravity, gave one of his bastard children to Bennington and turned to shield his eyes 40
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whimpering like our ancestors beaten and whipped with switches and branches at the hands of our human overlords. But he looked perfectly calm now that his tale had been told. If I hadn’t come to know this man closely I would have said he was relieved. He lapped his brandy vigorously like a Bedouin dog in the desert; the saucer rattled on the ill-made wicker table. I was perturbed. I had offered to tell this hound my deepest darkest secrets and I was willing to let him know the real reason why I had abandoned my wife in Barkshire what felt like an eternity ago. Yet after he had told how a another dog’s life had been given in place of his he seemed almost amused. He looked up from his half empty saucer and his gaze fixed mine. There was something primal in his gaze and looking into his eyes transported me through the ages to a time when the only time a dog would look at another living thing like this was moments before he would transform that object into prey. He offered me a wager. I snarled with glee. I had presumed that my friend would be scarred for life by his experiences in the gambling pits of Macau. But I remembered his prowess with coins when we just met by the docks in Colombo. This was not a hound disturbed by the thought of wager. The wager went as thus; I could either trust my friend’s word that this story happened as described verbatim some years ago or I could call his bluff. I had the option of calling his word into question. Perhaps Bennington was not the messianic figure my friend’s story had portrayed and he had who I believed to be a companion fed to the ravenous humans. The terms of the wager were of no interest to me but I was more concerned with what was at stake. I implored my friend to tell me. He looked down his snout as if I disappeared into thin air. I examined his attire. It appeared to be of the same sheepskin as the coat in the tale he had just told. I looked at his paw resting on the bar. It was resting in the sleeve of a sharp linen jacket. I looked up to his face and saw that resting on his brow was a bowler hat. I had abandoned my collar sometime ago. I could not live with the shame that my name carried. But my companion had disguised his on the inside lining on his jacket on the back of his neck. I needed to know the authenticity of this tale. My friend looked at me and the camaraderie that I felt as we gambled on the dock front was nestled behind the black eyes of a greyhound. My friend told me that he had controlled every aspect of the races he had run in Macau and even the unexpected was under his control. He drank his beer and turned to me. A starved human won’t run after innocence but it will certainly pursue desperation. ●
Don't Sell Yourself Short by Dick Reynolds
hey talked about gambling and taking risks, the conversation growing louder and more contentious. They, consisting of four men and two women stockbrokers from Winslow & Warner, were winding down over drinks at Moran's in Wall Street's financial district after another hectic week of market volatility. Beryl Lewis, the most senior in the group, pontificated on the subject of poker. “Sad to say,” he remarked, “there's a big difference between men and women, how they play the game. The ladies, God bless 'em, don't really understand the finer points of betting the cards in their hands. One of the reasons we don't allow them in our monthly game. Wouldn't be fair taking advantage of them.” “That's a bunch of crap,” said Rochelle Compton. “You're probably afraid they'd win. If you let me in your game I'll clean your clock.” Everyone laughed and Beryl added, “I'll put it to my board of directors.” Russ Silverthorne, munching an olive from his Grey Goose martini added, “Beryl has a point. Anybody ever watch the Jeopardy! game? I've seen times when a woman would have won if she'd have bet more, had enough self-confidence.” “Glad it doesn't apply to double W,” said Beryl. “Take a bow, Rochelle.” She toasted the group with her Manhattan, a toothy smile and an exhortation, “Enjoy your bonuses, you worker bees and give tribute to the queen.” Russ glanced at his watch, drained his martini and turned to Rochelle. “Sorry, have to run. Big day tomorrow.” She placed her hand under the table and massaged his thigh. “Come up to my place. I'll stick something in the oven and open a bottle of wine.” She and Russ had been sleeping together for several months. They didn't advertise it but everyone in the office knew. “Can I take a rain check?” he said. “What's so important about tomorrow?” “I've got Todd for the weekend and he's sprouted a burst of intellectual curiosity. Wants to browse the Met Museum and the Guggenheim.” She squeezed his thigh so hard it made him wince. She retrieved her hand and said, “OK, you've got a rain check but it has a brief shelf life.” Russ said goodbye to everyone and collected his overcoat and briefcase from a coatroom attendant at the restaurant's entrance. He stepped out into heavily falling snow and blessed his luck when an empty taxi pulled up within sixty seconds.
• • • Daniel Sutherland is a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, UK. He was born and raised in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne, Co. Down, Ireland. He is a writer of short fiction, theatre and film and has been published previously in the Irish Times. You can follow him on Twitter @DanSuth9
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Since his divorce from Fran two years before, Russ had become an excellent cook. That night he worked in the kitchen over a steaming pot of mulligatawny. Sitting at his dining table, munching on a baguette and sipping Cote du Rhone, he enjoyed Manhattan's twinkling lights oozing through the falling snow. After cleaning up the kitchen, he took his briefcase to the spare bedroom that also doubled as an office. He planned to read several things before falling asleep but, when he opened it, he stopped cold. It was not his briefcase. He removed all the documents, stacked them on his desktop, and searched the briefcase for evidence of who might be the owner. He looked through the pile of papers and recognized financial reports, analyses of stocks and bonds, and other investment related paperwork. This guy is probably a broker, like me. He also found a thick booklet issued by Holland America Line that advertised ocean cruises to various Caribbean and South American locations. He must have landed a nice bonus last year. Russ's adrenaline shot up a notch when he saw a document with the letterhead of Hornblower Asset Management, one of his company's rivals. Red block letters marked the top and bottom of each page as PROPRIETARY and EXTREMELY SENSITIVE. He quickly scanned all ten pages, afraid to go slower lest someone haul him off to jail for violating some obscure securities law. He soon reached the end and paused to reflect on what he'd learned. This is hot stuff, he thought. I could make a pile of money using this information but it would be a huge risk. Maybe even jail time if I got caught. But is it all for real? He started reading the privileged document again from the first page when the telephone rang. The voice at the other end said, “Is this R. Silverthorne?” “Yes, it is. Who's this?” “Name's Tibor and I've got your briefcase. Must have picked it up by mistake so I'm thinking maybe you've got mine. Dark red leather with brass corners?” “That's it. How can I get it back to you?” “No, I'll bring yours to your place. Got your address right here.” “Thanks a heap, I appreciate that.” “No trouble at all. Be right there.” Russ called down to the doorman and asked him to let Tibor come up in the elevator. Ten minutes later, his doorbell rang. When he opened the door, he saw a darkhaired man about twenty-five, ten years younger than Russ, holding up a dark red briefcase. The man smiled and said, “Ta da!” “Come inside. I've got yours right here by the door.”
He stepped inside and offered his right hand. “Tibor Afonski.” “Russ Silverthorne,” he said, shaking Tibor's hand. “Care for a drink?” Tibor's hair was wet and snow drops glistened on his black trench coat. “Many thanks, but I've got a taxi waiting outside. Have a late date with someone who doesn't like to be kept waiting.” They switched briefcases, marveling at how identical they were. Tibor said, “Wouldn't be cool to have this thing floating around the city.” “I can't figure out how this happened,” said Russ. “After I left my office, the only place I stopped before coming home was Moran's.” Tibor grinned. “Yeah, that must be it. I was at Moran's tonight with some other guys. I must have got yours by mistake. Well, like they say, stuff happens.” They shook hands again and Tibor left. Russ turned out the lights and went to bed but couldn't get to sleep. His mind bounced between two topics, the contents of Tibor's briefcase and Rochelle's dinner offer. He fought it for a good half hour, gave up and padded to the kitchen. He took a new carton of rocky road ice cream to the living room and watched Jay Leno until he got drowsy enough for sleep.
He removed all the documents, stacked them on his desktop, and searched the briefcase for evidence of who might be the owner.
Russ made several unsuccessful attempts on Monday morning to talk with Rochelle about the briefcase incident. He wanted her opinion before doing anything but both had meetings with clients throughout the day. They decided to have dinner that evening at Ancora, an Italian restaurant on Stone Street. Once they were seated, Russ took a moment to admire how Rochelle's light green turtleneck complimented her long and full red hair. He raised his martini glass and offered a toast, “You look beautiful, even after a full day's work.” She clinked her glass against his. “Thanks, I guess that's a compliment.” Russ reviewed the experience with Tibor, focusing on the sensitive ten page document. “Hornblower is underwriting a Chinese company called Kaoshiung Enterprises so it can be listed on the OTC Bulletin Board. Kaoshiung's claim to fame is a line of pharmaceuticals from plants grown organically in remote parts of China.” “A line of herbs and vitamins?” said Rochelle. “Supposedly more powerful than any of your run-ofthe-mill stuff from Vitamin Cottage. Way over the top: longer life, better vision, sharper hearing, increased sexual potency, resistance to cancer. Miracle potions for all ages.” “But the FDA will be poking their collective noses into all that before any of it can be sold in the U. S. If it ever gets that far.” 42
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“It may not,” said Russ. “The financial part of the deal sounds just as 'blue sky.' The paper didn't say it, but it smacks of a a pump-and-dump scheme. They're going to issue billions of shares and the initial offering price is likely to be in the cents.” “Another penny stock.” “Yeah, but they'll hawk it like crazy and sell when the price hits their target.” “This kind of deal doesn't sound like Hornblower,” she said. “Their street rep is above that kind of nonsense.” “Right, that's just one of the things bothering me. That Tibor guy seemed a little flaky to me. Too glib.” “You think maybe he's not legit?” “Well, he works for Hornblower. I called this morning and verified that.” They ordered dinner and continued their talk over Caesar salads. Rochelle twisted her fork in the air and said, “Still, it seems odd that he got your briefcase by mistake at Moran's. How did he explain that?” “Just that he was there and must have picked it up by mistake.” “Isn't that a bit careless,” she said, “leaving it in the coatroom?” Russ looked down at the floor, his briefcase resting next to his foot. “Yeah, but I won't do that again.” “I see you have two combination locks on it. Do you use them?” “Sure, all the time. Don't want anybody tampering with it.” “And on Friday night, when you got home, did you use the combination numbers to open your briefcase— excuse me, Tibor's briefcase?” Russ stopped eating, gave her a dumbfounded look and said, “Aw crap.” She smiled. “Exactly.” “That's what was bugging me. Guess I drank too much to notice.” “Maybe Tibor wanted you to see that document. Make you do something that might help you but benefit him a lot more. I'll bet he snuck into Moran's coatroom while the woman was on a break.” Russ thought for a moment. “I could piggyback on their deal but it's risky.” She laughed. “Gambling and risk taking. We've been down that road recently.” “Damn, he must be stupid, knowing about the combination locks.” “Or maybe very clever. Giving you an excuse to commit larceny.” “How about this?” said Russ. “We leak this info to the S. E. C. and Hornblower takes a big hit.” “Why would that be good for Tibor?” “His name wasn't anywhere on that document. Maybe their big boss gets canned and Tibor moves up higher on the corporate ladder.” “A bit of a stretch,” she said. “I know, I'm grasping at straws.” The conversation drifted to lighter and more pleasant topics. While having coffee and gelato, Russ put his hand on hers. “Has that rain check expired yet?” Her wide eyes accompanied a twisted smile. “No, it's still valid. But tonight's not so good. Not the right time of the month, if you catch my drift.”
He took back his hand. “Got it. Maybe another time.” “Let's do that. And keep thinking Chinese and Tibor. There must be a way we can turn this to our advantage.” “Our advantage?” She laughed. “That's right, partner.” On the next Saturday evening, in her bedroom adorned with four flickering candles, Rochelle redeemed Russ's rain check. The exhausted lovers lay close together, their limbs entwined as they tried to catch their breaths. “That was nice,” he murmured as he caressed her back. “Awesome,” she moaned. “Hope it was worth the wait.” “Absolutely.” He took a deep breath. “You like making a lot of noise.” Rochelle giggled. “Just wanted to let you know how much I was enjoying it.” “Got the message.” She broke away and rolled onto her back. “Excuse me, I'll be right back.” She dashed into the bathroom. Russ got up, pulled on his briefs, and went to the kitchen. He found a carton of rainbow sherbet in the freezer, a trio of lime, orange and raspberry flavors, and took a full bowl and two spoons back to the bedroom. Rochelle, now back in bed, sat up. She had put on a black T-shirt with NO SILICONE printed on the front in white block letters. “Glad you found the sherbet. I'll get some ice cream next time I'm at the market.” Russ slipped into bed, handed her a spoon and said, “Dig in.” She took a spoonful and watched him take three bites. “You sleepy?” she asked. “Actually, no.” She moved her head to look him in the eye. “You are one of a kind, Russel Silverthorne. OK, let's talk about Cow Dung Enterprises.” Russ laughed. “You sure have a way with words.” “Is there any chance this company could be for real? What if any of their products actually had some value?” “To answer your questions, I don't think so. But there's always a slim chance. Been meaning to tell you, Beryl has a contact in Beijing. I asked him to find out all he could about Kaoshiung Enterprises.” “Good move. I want to be 110% certain before I take the next step.” “Which is?” “Going short. Selling as the stock gets close to the price target you mentioned.” “Dangerous move, Ro.” “I know, I know. But the payoff could be big, providing we don't get greedy.” “We again?” “To a point. I'll do a 'location' search and borrow the shares, which shouldn't be a problem. No way would I do a 'naked short' on this puppy.” “Glad to hear that,” he said. “As far as the trading mechanics, best that you don't know all the details. It's a gamble all right but I won't do it unless the odds are good.” “The timing on this will have to be exquisitely precise.” 43
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“You betcha. Blow out the candles, OK?” Rochelle took off her T-shirt and watched him turn the room into total darkness. Russ crawled into bed and melted into her warm embrace. She kissed him, said goodnight and turned away. He pressed his body against hers, cuddling like spoons in a drawer, his hand cupping her breast. “Had another thought about the briefcase,” he said. “How Tibor figured out the combinations to the locks.” “And?” “Only two people know the numbers. Me and Fran.” “Your ex? You think she's involved in this?” “It's possible. She used to work at Hornblower but quit after Todd was born. She might have some connection with Tibor.” Rochelle rolled and turned back to face him. “Why would she do that?” “Certainly not out of the goodness of her heart. If anything, payback. Trying to manipulate me into doing something illegal.” “What the hell did you do to her?” “Long story, something for later. Let's just say I wasn't a faithful husband.” “Sorry, didn't mean to pry. It's none of my business anyway.” “No problem. In a way, it's good that we understand her motivation.” She moved back into her previous position and he pulled her close. “At least I don't have a problem with my ex,” she said. “He was out of the picture years ago.” “I can't imagine him letting you get away.” “It was the other way around. He was an OK guy but he was smothering me. I couldn't be myself, couldn't have the career I wanted. So I just let him go.” Russ fondled her breast. “Truth in advertising, right?” “Go to sleep, Russ.”
She touched her glass against his. “Don't see how it could be any better.” They ate silently and the conversation soon turned to other matters. “Any thoughts on the report from China?” he said. “Kind of disappointing. He took a long time to come up with almost nothing.” “But that in itself says a lot. The guy tried to verify all those outlandish claims but kept running into walls. Glowing testimonials and glittering generalities but no scientific evidence. It all points to a scam. That's the way I see it.” “Agreed,” she said. “Your logic is solid and I'm ready for the next step. Did you know there are 3.5 billion— that's with a B—shares outstanding? I've found millions being held by hedge funds, small cap and emerging market funds and some investment banks. Next week I'll borrow five million from various places but none from Hornblower. Don't want to tip our hand.” “You have the cash collateral for five million shares? At five cents a share…let's see…that's around 250 thousand, not to mention the interest markup.” “I can handle it. My piggy bank is pretty fat right now.” “All right, but just be careful.” She smiled and sipped her wine. “Just watch me work my magic.” Over the next several weeks, KAOS trading volume rose slowly and the price gradually increased by pennies at a time. On the last day of April, the market for KAOS practically exploded. Hornblower issued a press release citing a medical breakthrough by a group of scientists based in Dandong, experiments that had been conducted over a two year period; they found an antibody which promised to destroy cancer cells. The announcement was cautiously worded, noting that more extensive tests had to be conducted before any type of derivative drug could be safely used by the medical profession. Later that same evening, Russ received an e-mail from Beryl's China contact; “Don't believe everything you read” was the brief text. Trading volume increased sharply and the stock jumped to $1.25. During the next several weeks, volume and price continued to rise. Russ became nervous, watching the market activity, but Rochelle remained calm and focused. More than once he thought, I hope she knows what she's doing. More optimistic information about KAOS emerged from China prompting several financial analysts to issue a “Buy” rating on the stock. KAOS boasted of a new variety of damiana leaves whose aphrodisiac powers were supposedly phenomenal. Volume rose to three million shares daily and the price climbed to $4.00. Unbeknownst to Russ, Rochelle began selling her borrowed shares into the rally at $3.00 per share and then again at $4.00. At the end of May, she unloaded the last of her holdings, a massive one million shares at $5.00 a pop. Each night, in the privacy of her own apartment, she would call someone on her cell phone and give brief instructions to the person at the other end about selling KAOS shares the next day.
During that weekend, Russ and Rochelle agreed to not say a word about Kaoshiung Enterprises in the W & W office or any other place where their conversation could be overheard. Nevertheless, each one watched their respective computer screens, stock market TV programs and financial newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and Investor's Business Daily for any mention of the stock. Almost two months after the briefcase exchange incident, Kaoshiung Enterprises was listed on the OTC Bulletin Board, its symbol KAOS, and began trading at a nickel per share. Daily volume was low but steady as announcements were made by Hornblower, probably Tibor's doing, and self-appointed gurus on market blogs. A short time later, Beryl's contact sent a report that was anxiously read by both, however they postponed any discussion until that evening in Russ's apartment. He made New England clam chowder accompanied by a bottle of Sancerre. After Rochelle carefully sipped her first taste of chowder she said, “This is absolutely delicious. Even better than sex. You may be a keeper, Mr. Silverthorne.” Russ laughed and raised his glass. “Then I may have to work harder on my bedroom techniques.” 44
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On June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day, the market for KAOS shares collapsed after the price had briefly touched $5.50, just a half dollar below Hornblower's target. Russ couldn't find out what caused it but suspected that the participants in Tibor's scheme panicked and wanted to take some profits. It was only a matter of days after that when KAOS was oscillating between five and ten cents per share. Rochelle, now confident that the game was over, quietly bought back all five million shares she had sold short. She returned them to the various financial institutions that had loaned them to her months before. When the last transaction was completed late one afternoon, she went over to Russ, stroked his cheek and said, “Dinner at Moran's tonight. Just us, and I'm buying.” “It's a date,” said a smiling Russ.
“Damn if that isn't Tibor. Excuse me for a minute while I go over and say hello.” “Don't be long,” she said. Russ put his arms around Tibor's shoulder. “How's it going, old buddy?” Tibor turned his head. “Who the hell are you?” He was taken aback by Tibor's slurred speech, his moist red eyes and disheveled appearance. “Russ Silverthorne. You got my briefcase by mistake and brought it to my apartment that same night.” “Oh yeah, that.” “Just wanted to say hi and thanks again. You OK?” Tibor moaned. “What a week. Everything's in the shitter and now I have to cancel a cruise with my girlfriend. She will not be a happy camper.” “Sorry to hear that. Better luck next time.” Russ patted him on the back and returned to his table. Rochelle said, “God, he looks wasted. Obviously not handling the situation with Kaoshiung Enterprises very well.” “It's only half time for this game. Remember me telling you about that ten page document I found in Tibor's briefcase? The one with big red letters?” “Sure do. That how we learned about KAOS.” “I made a copy of it before Tibor got to my place. And next week, it will be mailed to the S. E. C., with a note attached from an anonymous source.” “Oh boy, the crap will hit the fan. And we'll be in another country, living large and missing all the excitement.” Russ finished his martini. “Shall we order now?” ●
They arrived at Moran's shortly before six o'clock and were seated in a cozy booth within sight of the bar. After the waitress brought their drinks, Russ offered a toast. “Congratulations on a job well done. How does it feel?” She sighed. “It's a great relief, got pretty dicey there for a while. When the KAOS price started heading for the moon, I had to put up more collateral. The early money I got by selling went out to the people who lent me the shares.” “Any idea how much you cleared?” “I can give you a rough estimate of how much we made, partner.” “Never mind the half share. I'll be happy with a modest finder's fee.” “We'll talk about that later. Anyway, after commissions and interest, we're netting something close to nineteen million.” “Good grief,” he said with a hoarse voice. She laughed. “No, Good Gravy. And it ain't wavy, as my dad says.” She reached across and put both hands on his. “Do you have any vacation time?” “Lots. You want to go somewhere?” “I do. Let's take a month off, just you and me.” “All right, where to?” “The Cayman Islands for a couple of days. After that, surprise me. Take me to the most secluded and romantic place on the planet. No newspapers, no computers and absolutely no cell phones.” “I'm excited just visualizing it. But why the Caymans?” “Because that's where my piggy bank is. It needs to be cracked open so that you can get your share of our profits.” “So that's how you managed it.” She gave him a wide grin. “Yep, I have a brokerage account there, a generous line of credit and all the proceeds get funneled into the bank. We can review the statements and you'll see it all right there in black and white.” A loud noise from the bar interrupted their conversation. A young man had tipped over his bar stool and was clumsily trying to put it back up and seat himself. Russ recognized the fellow and said to Rochelle,
• • • Dick Reynold’s thirty-some short stories have appeared in such publications as Literary House Review, Barbaric Yawp, Foliate Oak, and Imitation Fruit Literary Journal. Two of these stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Dick's fourth novel, a romantic thriller called Filling in the Triangles, has recently been published by Valentine Press. It is available in both soft cover and Kindle versions from Amazon.com.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
out window from Turtle Lake Tug wanted me to take Joyce and the baby away from Ray because Ray was having an affair with his secretary at the mill. “That’s good, Chief. Don’t smoke that stuff anymore.” “Call me Crazy Horse,” I told Wes. Tug had driven off and I’d got excited and jumped up from my bar stool as Wes tried to grab my arm and I’d shaken him off, moving fast and squeezing the carved antler in my hand. I’d stopped short halfway to the phone and started back to the bar. I’d been about to call Joyce and ask her to go to Sleeping Child Lake while Ray sighted in his new deer rifle Saturday at the Kootenay firing range. I climbed the stone stairs and saw again the polished red rock on top of Wes’ mesa. I’d dropped my line into the fast water and the big trout struck and cut back and forth, its sides sparkling like the yellow fish I’d saved on the Blue Fin off Mussel Bay in Oregon. Webb had fired me for grabbing Roper’s hand that gripped the lifted gaff and the next morning I’d started with Tug for Montana to work at the mill and meet Joyce. When I got to my room Birdie’s door was open. She heard me walk up and she came out looking upset. “What’s wrong, Birdie?” I thought something had happened to Ralph. “This came for you, Bill. I signed for it.” She lifted a yellow telegram. I held it for a second, feeling the flimsy paper, wondered whose death was inside, my mother’s or father’s— Maybe my dad had finally died from the Jack Daniels and my mother was selling the ranch to her lover Brad Wallace who represented the Stoneridge Group out of Portland. Birdie watched me open it.
Good News at Sunset by Nels Hanson They call it regional, this relevance— the deepest place we have: in this pool forms the model of our land, a lonely one, responsive to the wind. Everything we own has brought us here: from here we speak. William Stafford—“Lake Chelan”
Thanks for the fishing,” I said to Wes as I got out of the pickup. “Remember me to your mom.” “We’ll go again, Chief. To Sleeping Child next time. We won’t come back.” “I’m scared,” I said. “It’s too deep for me.” “Naw. You’re a Redman now.” Wes Blackdeer grinned and drove off and I turned to climb the old marble stairs of the Elgin Hotel, past the early neons that flashed green and blue and I saw that the feature had changed, now the marquee’s tall red letters spelled something else. True Confessions
The latest movie had arrived, with De Niro and Robert Duvall. I’d seen the poster in the glass case of Coming Attractions. Duvall wore a ’40s fedora and brown suit and De Niro was dressed as a priest in a white collar. Soon the movie would start and the girl in the pink seashell booth would read her play for school about the crazy prince and his sad fiancée who drowns. His faithless mother married his uncle who’s killed the king and taken the crown. “What is man, this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet wondered before he murdered them all—like both of us, they would turn to white stone and never reach the grassland beyond the secret river that fed Sleeping Child Lake. The usher in the maroon coat stood by the open doors taking tickets. A horn honked and Ray Everett’s new red Ram truck rolled by, Tug’s sister Joyce at the wheel. She smiled widely, waving. I saw her just for a second, looking pretty and younger with her brown hair short and shining in the late sun. Tug had told me Denise had cut Joyce’s hair and she looked even prettier. She wore a red tank top. Maybe Joyce had driven by on purpose. Something in my chest tightened and again she sat suddenly on my lap in her kitchen the first morning in Montana. Tug and Denise went out for more beer and Joyce wanted to make love while my new boss lay drunk in the living room. If I wanted, I could invite her up— I started to wait for her to circle the block, then stepped to the hotel entrance and saw my reflection in the glass door, cap and creel and rod case. Last night at Custer’s I’d gone off the deep end for ten minutes, after I’d smoked a joint with Tug in his pickup with the shot-
Western Union DEAR BILLY: BOUGHT MOTEL, LAKE CHELAN, WASH. MANAGER JOB YOURS AFTER TWO COURSES NORTHWEST COLLEGE. ALL ARRANGED W/PROF. ADKINS. ACCOUNT CATTLEMAN’S BANK. CALL ME IMMED, 206-981-9830. BEST WISHES, UNCLE ERNIE I let out a breath. “Everything’s all right,” I said. “I got a new job.” I gave Birdie the telegram and took out my key. She read it slowly, then handed it back. “I was worried.” “Thanks for getting it for me.” “Then you’ll be leaving soon?” she asked. “Not for a few months.” “That’s good.” Birdie saw my creel. “You went fishing?” “You want some trout?” 46
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Her eyes got wide. “You have enough?” “I got plenty. Let me get some foil.” “I’ll cook ’em right now, while they’re fresh,” Birdie said. I went into the kitchen and washed the cleaned fish in cold water. On a plate with fresh foil I laid out all but one fish and went back to the door. “Look at that,” Birdie said. “I’ll give Ralph the big one. He loves rainbow trout. He used to fish with his wife before she died, at Sleeping Child Lake.” It seemed right that today she’d mention the lake but I was too excited to ask her about it as she thanked me again and hurried out. I closed the door and sat down on the love seat, re-reading the telegram spread out like a letter from heaven on the coffee table. My uncle must have phoned again about the job my dad couldn’t clearly recall. This time my dad had passed on my information. It was lucky Tug and I had stopped by the ranch in Grass Valley and right away I’d sent my dad the Elgin address. I looked out at the Clark Fork of the Columbia glowing silver and red in the dusk. My father’s brother had always called me “Billy.” I was always “Bill” to my dad, one hand among the rest. I’d worked for Uncle Ernie that season in the Redmond store and as a kid I couldn’t wait for him to visit on his way between San Francisco and Seattle. He’d given me the .22 Remington rifle and a Schwinn bike, a small Spanish saddle with long Roy Rogers bucket stirrups, and a pair of shiny Justin boots tooled with spread-winged eagles. And 1,000 dollars for my wedding. He had three daughters but no boys of his own. I reached for the Book of Changes Debbie James had given me in Seattle and picked up the pennies, began to phrase the question, and put the coins down. I looked up at the poster of Chief Joseph on the wall and tapped the elk antler in my pocket. I took the telegram, locked the door and went down to the lobby. I dropped the quarters in the pay phone and dialed the operator. I gave her the number. As I waited for it to ring I saw the red truck drive by again, slower, Joyce leaning over the empty passenger seat to look out the window with a worried face. I dipped my head, in case she could see me through the Elgin’s glass door. The number must have been my uncle’s private phone. He answered right away and eagerly accepted the charges. I hadn’t heard him in six years but I recognized his voice, upbeat without being phony. “Billy? Is that you?” “It’s me, Uncle Ernie.” “Good to hear you! I’ve been thinking about you but I kept getting sidetracked. So you’re going to take me up on the offer?” “I am,” I said. “Thank you. I just got your wire.” “That’s good, Billy boy! That’s great! How you been?” “I’ve been a little lost,” I said. “Forget about it!” he said. “You found yourself now!” “I’ll remember,” I said. “You do that! It’s one term at the college, that’s it. I’ve arranged it with Dr. Adkins.”
“I’ve been thinking about going back to school.” “Good! Now you can! I’ll see you in Washington, at the Blue Heron in three months. All right?” “I’ll be there,” I said. “You call me anytime.” It hardly seemed real, like talking to a friendly ghost. I hadn’t seen him since the Christmas before my divorce. It was like an echo coming back from words whispered down a canyon years ago—it took just a moment to murmur a prayer but all that time for the answer to return, so when it arrived you’d forgotten you’d ever asked. Months and years, mornings and midnights—while kingdoms rose and kingdoms fell, you lost your faith and found it and lost it again—the voice was traveling toward you like light from the Pleiades, the constellation Tug and I looked at from our bags at Turtle Lake before the shooter opened up. “They’re called the Seven Sisters,” Tug said. “They were changed into doves, then stars, so Orion wouldn’t get them. One you can hardly see. She’s hiding.” “How come?” “Shame. She married a mortal instead of a God. Sisyphus. Her father was Atlas, the guy that holds up the Earth.” A cool glass marble from the sky had fallen into my palm. It was the best call I’d ever had, better than when I won the Ford pickup in the fishermen’s lottery, when I lived with Debbie James and she’d shown me how to ask the I Ching. She and Uncle Ernie both lived in Seattle. I realized I was still holding the phone and hung it up. I stepped out the hotel door and the air was warm and windless and the sky that pearly gold-silver before it turns deep blue and then black. I almost floated along, taking in the lovely lit faces of the people on the sidewalk waiting to buy tickets for the movie from the girl in the seashell. I turned at the cross street toward the Stockmen’s before Joyce could drive by again. I’d been tempted by her expectant changing face leaning to look toward the Elgin. “I like you a lot and hope we can become good friends. Love, Joyce.” “Joyce is a nice person. She’s not unfaithful,” Ray’s sister Denise said when she drove me to rent the room and gave me Joyce’s note. I thought how I wasn’t working for Ray anymore but let it go— The passing cars looked shiny and new and the orange bricks in the storefronts were textured and alive, like faces, each beautiful and different from the rest. Everything seemed very clear and luminous, like the time I’d taken mescaline in Debbie’s backyard— The monarch butterflies with orange light showing through their striped wings and the hummingbirds with emerald armor and black shiny beaks arrived at the yellow Cardinal roses just on time. The bright dust on the petals was supposed to be there. Debbie smiled and pointed to the dandelions that burned with gold fire, bending on their stalks above the grass blades that darkened as a cloud passed, then shimmered sharper, blue-green and silver-edged. 47
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As we lay together on the lawn the mourning dove’s call kept falling like blue water from the prune tree by the porch. Where? Why? Now there were two doves, I said, “There’s a pair,” before I realized it was Debbie singing, answering the lovely song’s uncertain question. I was sober and high. I stepped into the Stockmen’s lunchroom, then changed my mind and strode into the dining room and sat at a table with a white linen tablecloth. I was through with Ray’s mill. I’d saved a little money. Uncle Ernie had put more in the Cattleman’s bank across from the Elgin. I could buy a used car if I wanted. Going to school, I could probably sleep late some mornings. Each moment a new, good thought came. I suddenly had a future, something better waiting for me a few months down the line. And when I got there the job wouldn’t dissolve but last as long as I wanted it to last. I could grow old at Lake Chelan. If I wanted, Washington would be my home for life. The waitress came up, a blonde college girl with brown eyes and smooth tanned skin and a pretty upturned nose. I ordered a Scotch and soda, a two-pound rib steak medium rare with a baked potato and sour cream and chives and Texas toast and a green salad with extra thousand-island dressing and a tall draft beer. “You must be hungry,” she said, writing it down. “I’m starving,” I said. I was, even after Wes’ egg sandwich and chips. I felt like I hadn’t eaten for years. “Looks like you got some sun.” “Now you’re a Redman, Chief,” Wes had joked when he came up with the cold beer he’d lowered on a rope into the icy stream. He’d held a can against my burning cheek and I’d opened my eyes and didn’t know where I was. “I fell asleep,” I said. “I’ve done that,” she said and made a face. “I had to take a bath in vinegar. I’ll get your drink.” I’d put down my rod and on the mesa dreamed again of the tropical fish in the Blue Fin’s net and then of the beautiful Indian woman by the green river that fed Sleeping Child Lake before Wes woke me up. I saw the card players through the smoky door at the end of the room. Above the lintel the words on the carved wood plaque seemed new with fresh optimism and secret insight. “The Game Never Ends.” It was a special message, just for me, the coded key to the long linked chain stretching from Oregon to Montana to Washington state— Saving the saffron-striped fish from Ed Roper’s gaff and getting fired from the Blue Fin. Taking the fish to Paul’s big aquarium where Tug was ready to take off for Kootenay and the mill and he’d called Joyce and she said Ray would put me on too. Eating the bad venison chili and asking my dad to keep my new address by the phone in case Uncle Ernie called again. Almost getting hit with rifle fire at Turtle Lake after Tug told off the clerk at the crossroads store on the Cinnamon River. She’d complained about me giving money to Indians, to the old woman who made me take in exchange the Sleeping Child carved of elk horn.
“But you have so many fine wines,” Tug said. “How can anyone resist?” “You want me to call my husband?” “I only talk to human beings.” Tug swung his hand sideways like an Indian brave in a movie. “White eye speak with forked tongue.” Then meeting sad and pretty Joyce but not sleeping with her as her husband snored drunk under the gun rack and animal heads and maybe dreamed of his mistress-secretary named Sherry. For three weeks I worked with Wes under the big saw at the mill that hit a steel spike the third day and threw shrapnel and splintered shards of pine. All to get Uncle Ernie’s job at the Blue Heron. Before we’d broken up my wife Jenny had wanted me to stay in school and then go back after I’d quit at Corvallis. Hotel school wasn’t the kind of school she’d meant but it was the something organized I’d been avoiding. Only better. I’d be my own boss, living in the mountains on the shore of a lake. Jenny’s memory left a bitter taste for a second. I thought of us living together, with her boys, up in Washington on Lake Chelan, before sunset going out in a boat to fish for rainbow trout like the ones I’d caught today with Wes, the blue wake behind us and dark pines and wood smoke along the shore. But the boys were her sons by the druggist she’d married and lived with in Bend. The pretty waitress came with the drink. “Thank you,” I said. “You’re welcome.” She smiled. “Drink it slow. You’ve had a lot of sun.” The Scotch tasted good, sharp and cold and strong. I took three spaced deep drinks, tasting the stinging liquor each time and letting it burn. I looked back at the sign above the card room. I’d read it was all a spiral road we were on, like a mountain of switchbacks, like the stone ledges at Wes’ mesa that resembled a stepped pyramid. You came back to the same place but at a different level, as a different person. From the book with the Indian prophet on the cover I remembered Black Elk’s broken hoop he was trying to fix all his life, from the Little Big Horn to the Ghost Dancers and even after Wounded Knee. And Roy Wells, the Cherokee Indian who worked on the ranch the spring the circling red-tailed hawk dropped the feather that I wore in my hair, in the leather band I cut from an old belt. Roy told me about hoop snakes in Oklahoma. “When you try to grab them, they bite their tails and roll away like a wheel.” His father had been the sheriff of a small land-rush town. One night he left 12-year-old Roy with a Winchester to guard a black man the settlers accused of rape while he rode to get the U. S. Marshal. A crowd with torches and a rope gathered outside, shouting and throwing rocks. I asked Roy what he would have done if the mob had rushed the jail, and without hesitating he said he would have let them take the innocent man and I was disappointed, suddenly I didn’t feel sorry that Roy had lost his arm in a hay bailer. 48
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What would I have done, if I were a Cherokee boy in 1912, facing a white bloodthirsty crowd? It was Tug who’d stepped in outside the Gill Net to save Dixie the topless dancer after Roper had slapped her hard and yanked her off the stage, the same day he’d tried to spear the tropical fish. You never stepped in the same river twice, I thought, remembering the Cinnamon in Idaho and the Clark Fork beyond my window in the Elgin. And Wes’ strange red-stone stream full of trout, and before that the creek by the cottonwoods on his mother’s reservation where the Indian woman washed the red shirt as her naked children waded and Mrs. Blackdeer pointed to the soapstone Sleeping Child on her shelf and told me the prayer. And after that once again the green river of frozen statues, the trespassing white men turned to stone under Sleeping Child Lake— Paul Banner in Mussel Bay had said it was 1,200 feet deep and that the Indians believed it was the door to another world where only good Indians could go after death. I’d dreamed about it just before the storekeeper’s husband opened fire at Turtle Lake and shattered Tug’s window and the kerosene lamp on the wood table exploded, then again today when I’d lain down on the red mesa. Both times I’d held the carved antler Sleeping Child as I passed the statues and saw the black-haired woman in beaded deerskin and almost made the grassy bank where she stood by the lake’s green river and I was happy, I knew I was welcome just as I suddenly turned to stone and woke before my boots could touch the land. I saw her smile again now a last time and fade like a beautiful ghost as I drank my Scotch and let sweet Joyce and Jenny and the rest of my past rise in a warm cloud toward the wide wagon-wheel chandelier with 12 lights like a circle of orange moons. “Here we go,” said the girl and set down the big steak. “Enjoy!” “I sure will,” I said. “Thanks so much.” I lifted my knife and fork, then stopped and put them down. Silently, I thanked the Sleeping Child, with the words Mrs. Blackdeer had asked me to repeat as she took my hand that held the antler from the Cinnamon River. “Sleep deeply until you wake, when both worlds become one.” Maybe the Sleeping Child sent the yellow fish that had wandered far out of its range, burning like a sudden flare in the Blue Fin’s net to signal the way to Lake Chelan. ●
Night Terrors by Katherine Okpara As I walk along the winding path, All grows silent in this forest; Cool, night air blows icily, Catching my hair and nipping at my skin. Alert ears, Pick up every rustle, snap, and hiss; Heart pounding like a melancholy gong That warns me of perils that await. Tightening my pea coat, My restless feet pick up pace; Arms shaking like lonely trees in a storm, I hope for a sign that can calm me. Moonlight bounces off trembling puddles That remain from yesterday’s rainfall, They cry out to me softly, As my heavy shoes slap them in the face. I’m running now, Freely and quickly; Unaware of what’s chasing me Yet certain it will be the end of me. My peripheral vision blurs, As desperation guides my steps; Shadows dance maniacally, Inviting me to join their twisted tango. Jumping and leaping to escape this feeling That someone mirrors my every move, Creeping beside me, drawing closer But refraining from ever making contact. I collapse to the ground, Thrown off balance by an unforeseen vine, Fighting with all my might to escape The clutches of this unrelenting night. I tried to hide from you In this forest of mirrored trees, Yet still somehow my refuge Has been tainted by your impurities.
• • •
• • • Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Katherine Okpara is 18 and from Cerritos but soon to be Berkeley, California. Poetry is a passion that she cherishes and holds dearly to her heart. Katherine has recently returned from a trip Costa Rica that fed into her love of different cultures, and the language barrier she experienced while in Costa Rica allowed her to further develop the use of creativity to express herself.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
or anything. I was just drifting, I guess. Drifting away from everyone. And then, drifting into oblivion. The guys came home for holidays but they never really reached out to me. They’d moved on I guess. I didn't reach out to them either. I barely even thought about them. Life was just work and then back to my empty apartment where I knew a bottle would be waiting for me. I drank from boredom. I drank so I wouldn't feel worthless. I drank because I did feel worthless, if I thought about it. Maybe after another round it’d change. No one and nothing else was there for me. Nothing but alcohol. Who needs college? And those guys weren’t really friends, were they? Not like Mr. Jack Daniels and Mr. Sam Adams. Those were my real friends. I take another sip of my black coffee and turn the page of the Times. I read the headline “24 year old Leah McKenzie Killed in Car Crash”. It makes me think back to Johnny and Pete that summer so long ago. After a DUI conviction, I ended up in rehab at The Phoenix House. I had to face up to the truth about me and alcohol, that maybe we weren’t exactly a match made in heaven. One day, my dad came to visit. He had this look on his face that said it was serious. He couldn't even talk for a minute. We went outside into the courtyard. We just sat there awhile. Then he told me. “So, Mark called yesterday.” I stared at him blankly, taking a few moments for it to register. Why would Mark call my dad? “He had some bad news,” my father continued, “Well… Johnny and Pete were on a road trip to California. Some sort of celebration for graduating college. They left two days ago. They were headed through Pennsylvania. It was on a back road. They had an accident. It was pretty bad.” I kept staring at him, not knowing what I should be making of this. I had been in rehab for 3 months. The outside world seemed so far away. I hadn’t seen Johnny and Pete in 4 years. “So what happened?” I asked. My dad sighed, then, “They were going about 80. They hit a deer. And…” He took a deep breath; his voice got shaky, “They both died, son.” I didn't go to the funerals. I still had to stay in rehab as part of my deal. But when I got out, I went to meet Mark. We went to Mustang Sally’s restaurant and bar. We sat in a corner table against the window. It was lightly snowing outside that day. We talked briefly about his job at Chiat-Day ad agency. We didn't talk about my drinking or rehab. Mark probably felt it was wrong to bring it up. The thing that brought us together was Johnny and Pete. We talked about some memories. But it was clear that we had nothing in common anymore. “Remember that old drunk guy that came to every single game and sat right by us in the bleachers?” Mark asked, “He’d always be trying to start chants that didn't even make sense.” I laughed awkwardly at the memory. Then I thought how it was me who became that drunk guy a few years later. That was the last time I ever saw Mark. Now it’s been years and neither of us has contacted the other once. It’s kind of what I expected though. The only thing that really
Recovery by Sharon Samantha Siegel
nother Wednesday morning in Starbucks. Ellen, the Goth girl, works the register. Her attitude only slightly brighter than her pitchblack mascara as the line continues to grow. Some newbie customer can’t figure out how to order a latte. When I get to the front I have to peel my eyes away from Ellen’s over sized nose ring. She already has my grande bold waiting for me. She grunts, “Hey, Martin, finish that book yet?” For the tattooed and pierced, Satan worshipper, that's polite. Though, I’m not sure if she’s asking a question or wondering if I’m ever going to finish writing this thing. Was it a thousand mornings ago I started? Feels like more. It’s not a book I’m writing, it's a life sentence. I go to the back and sit in one of the brown leather chairs. It's the one I always sit in. I open up the Times. I turn it straight to the sports section. I don't even know why, anymore. I used to be the biggest Yankee fan, back in the day. Me and my friends, Johnny, Pete and Mark, we’d cut school, whatever we needed to do to see them play. We used to memorize stats and test each other. The smell of cheap beer and hot dogs in summer seemed to change the world. And the field was so green. Perfect. We’d walk to our seats up in center field, looking down at Rickey Henderson; do our “Man of Steal” chants, hoping he’d rack up more stolen bases for the record books. Number 24. That was his number. One year for my birthday, the guys gave me a #24 jersey and, from then on, I wore it to every game. Baseball mattered. We’d take the subway in from Penn Station. It was second nature for us. The big city was our life. We would joke around. Mark always thought he was hilarious back then, making jokes that weren’t even funny. Things like, “Hey Johnny nice shirt, did your grandma pick it out for you?” And he’d laugh right after whatever he said, even when no one else did. Whatever became of Mark? What’s his life like now? It’s been years since the last time I saw him. I wish things had turned out different. For all of us. The summer after high school graduation was the last time I spent with the three of them. They all went off to college, and I didn't. I continued to live in my apartment with my dad in midtown Manhattan. My dad said if I applied to college, I could take over his business, someday. He had high hopes for me back then. But I didn't know what I wanted. So, I took time off and worked as a waiter at Romano’s restaurant, a checked tablecloth place run by a family that never had a good word to say about each other. I guess it was as good as any job. But at the end of the night, if we had open bottles of Chianti, or whatever, the shift manager let me take it home. Before I knew it, I was drinking about a bottle a night. It wasn't like I had a life
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
brought us together that day was a tragedy, and now we’ve moved on. I flip the pages, occasionally sipping my coffee. I look into my cup and think how it looks like a black hole of emptiness. I look up as I hear the door of the Starbucks open. A woman walks in trying to calm a crying baby in her arms. My eyes follow her as she strides to the counter. She reminds me of my wife. Her name was Sarah. She was beautiful. We were in rehab together, though we never officially met there. We weren’t allowed to speak with patients of the opposite sex during the program. Especially not with patients that were in other groups. Sarah was not in my group because she had more severe problems than I did. She was a heroin addict. All I really remember about her when we were in the program was that she was always eating chocolate bars. She would sit in the cafeteria and peel off the foil then tuck it away in her pocket. I would stare at her while she did this everyday and think that she was some sort of freak. But then again, who was I to judge? I don't know why she kept the foil but I later found out why she ate chocolate like a 5 year old in a candy store everyday. Basically all drug addicts are after serotonin, a chemical that the body produces from food sources and makes them feel happy. Addicts have a problem producing serotonin. The chocolate would temporarily kick her addiction but she would never really be cured, not even if she lived in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I never thought about her after I was released. Not until that day I saw her on the subway, anyway. I was on my way to work at the Acura dealership. I used to be a salesman there, but now I moved up to the sales manager position. I used to like it, but now I just go through the motions, especially since I don't have her anymore. She sat down next to me on the subway that morning. I didn't even look up from the Times until I heard her voice, “Hi, Martin, right?” I turned to her, taken off guard. She didn't look familiar at all. I nodded then began to scan her for clues. “I don't know if you remember me. I’m Sarah Beller.” But right as she said it, I noticed the purple scars on her left arm. In the bend of her elbow. I looked back at her. “Yes. Yes, of course” I finally said, “How are you?” “I’m great now. I’ve been out of Phoenix House and clean for over 3 years now.” I was still stunned that she was the chocolate eating, heroin addict. “That's good to hear. You look wonderful,” I said in a tone of surprise, wishing I could take it back. She just laughed though. “Yeah, well things are finally working out now. I’m actually on my way to work. I’m an assistant buyer at Macy’s.” It was pretty obvious she had traded in her Hershey’s for boots and handbags. I wonder if she ever wanted to work in fashion before she started using. “Wow, great” I respond after realizing that I’ve been looking at her accessories and clothes and pretty much anything other than her eyes. “Yeah I’m on my way to work too, been a salesman at Acura pretty much since I left Phoenix.”
“I’m so glad things have been working out for you too. You know maybe we could get together sometime for coffee or lunch or something?” It was hard to contain my excitement. Nothing this great had happened to me since I caught that fly ball hit by Ken Griffey when I was 16. “I would love that.” “Great. Well let me give you my card,” she said as she rummaged through the fuchsia purse I’d been staring at all along. “And you just give me a call and we can set something up.” She handed me the card, and stood up. “This is my stop. It was great to see you, Martin.” “Pleasure was all mine,” I told her as she walked through the double doors. And I meant it. We started dating right after I made that first call. We did everything together. We went to movies and dinners. Took vacations together. Saw shows off Broadway. We even went ice-skating in Central Park one time. I was finally happy, and it wasn't because of scotch on the rocks or vodka tonic. I look back to the counter where the woman is calming the baby. She looks just like Sarah did. She has shiny, chestnut hair and pale, freckly skin. She’s very skinny, but not too skinny. She’s tall, and even taller with the black boots she has on. They look like a pair of boots I got Sarah for her birthday one year. Too bad they were the hiding place she used for the heroin she started using again. We were married less than a year after that day on the subway. But it wasn't long until it all fell apart. I never knew Sarah started using again until it got bad. But once I did, I thought back to a conversation we had one night. “Martin have you ever drank since you were released from Phoenix House?” She asked. “Never. Why?” “I was just wondering.” She sat in silence for a few minutes after she asked. I was reading a book so I didn't really notice. I had almost forgotten what she even asked when she kept talking. “Because you know how they used to tell us it would be a life long recovery? And even though we might be done in rehab it could likely be a struggle forever?” She sounded like she was expecting an answer that I wasn't giving her. Did she want me to tell her that I drank? That didn’t make sense. I closed my book. “I remember. But I haven’t felt the need to. Things are so much better now. Don't you think?” I asked hoping that she would give me reassurance that she was okay. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s just something I think about sometimes I guess.” She flashed a weak smile after she said it. I just chose to believe that she was fine. Though she clearly wasn't herself anymore. I tried everything I could. I knew she didn't need heroin. And I still can’t figure out why she thought that she did. Once it started, it was impossible for her to stop. I stayed with her every night, trying to get her better. Through the cold sweats, the ballistic screaming, the shaking and the crying. I bought enough chocolate bars to feed a small country. But nothing worked. 51
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Then, one day, when I got home from work, I found a note. It was sitting on the kitchen counter. It was written on a piece of foil from a Hershey’s bar. All it said was “I’m sorry. I tried.” I never saw her again. We’re still married. I never tried to find her. I was embarrassed and disappointed. The pieces of my life were falling apart again. How could I face it? So, I didn't. I told people that we got divorced. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I’m not even sure if she’s alive. I think about her every single day. It never gets easier. I look up again and see that the Sarah look alike’s baby is calm now. I wonder if it would be different if we had had a baby. But I don't think that would solve anything. I guess I’ll never know… I take another sip from my black hole of a cup, and I watch her walk through the door. I wonder what she’s like, if she has any problems in her life. I look back down to the Times. Flipping the pages, not knowing what I was looking for. Then, there it is. The crossword puzzle. I sit up straight, ready to solve it. I always finish the puzzle. Sometimes I feel like I should be on some sort of game show. Maybe “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That one’s definitely the best test of random knowledge. I pick up the pencil on the table beside me. I look at #1 down. “Rugged Cliff.” I know the answer is “Crag” and it reminds me of a chapter in my book: “Chapter 12: Drive an Acura and then please drive me off a cliff”. The title pretty much sums up my mood at work after Sarah left. And now it may as well sum up my thoughts on this book. I can’t seem to finish the thing. I haven’t typed a word in over two years. The only thing left to write is the end. And how can I end a book about my life when I don't have an ending? I’m nearly finished with the crossword puzzle when I see Ellen out of the corner of my eye. She’s walking to the back with a broom and dustpan. “Do you have a son, Martin?” she asks as she makes her way toward me. I shake my head. “Well, I swear, this guy comes in here sometimes. He looks just like you.” She starts to sweep the floor, her black combat boots getting in the way. I just shrug, “I don't have any kids.” “You’re married though, right?” I shake my head again. I’m not about to explain my saga. “Hmm, that's strange. You always looked like you would have a family to me.” She walks to the opposite corner. I fixate my eyes on the freaky, Blair Witch Project tattoo on her neck. Was she asking me a question or trying to tell me something again? I finish the last sips of my coffee and fold up the newspaper. I take out my cell phone and walk through the door. I dial information. I need an ending to this book. The operator’s voice tests me. She dares me to say a city and state. “New York, New York,” I tell her. My tone is harsh. “Say a listing.” “Sarah Beller.” The operator taunts me. She goes through Sarah Beller after Sarah Beller. Refusing to give me the right one. Until, finally, I find myself writing down an address
and telephone number on the corner of the Times. My hand shakes. This is the right one. She’s right near here. I begin to walk in the direction of her apartment. I contemplate my decision the whole way there. Then, somehow, I’m in front of apartment #6667. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to blink and there’s glue between my feet and the sidewalk. I exhale. Now, I’m moving forward. I approach the steps and my heart’s beating so hard, I swear everyone around can hear it. The closer I get to the door, the more concerned I start to feel. “What the hell am I doing?” I freeze. I can’t do this today. Maybe I can’t do this ever. I need to get out of here. I turn and walk down the steps quickly. As I go to cross the street, I look back one more time at #6667. Then, I hear a loud voice from in front of me, “WATCH OUT!” Someone pushes me out of the way of a speeding cab. I lay on the ground. I don't know what just happened. I look up, blinded by the light, and I see a young man. “Are you ok?” he asks me, out of breath. He offers me a hand. “I think so; I must not have been paying attention.” I take his hand. He helps me to my feet. “Well, it's a good thing you didn't take one more step in that direction.” I study his strangely familiar face. I feel like I know him somehow. “Can I invite you inside to wind down for a moment? Maybe have a cup of coffee?” I hesitate. Then I nod. “Thank you, that's very kind.” “Great. This is my apartment right here.” I look at him, confused. The apartment he gestures toward is Sarah’s. “I’m sorry. Is this apartment #6667? I thought Sarah Beller lived here.” “Oh. Do you know Sarah? I’m her son, Martin.” I can’t believe it. There’s no way. A son. A son named Martin. “Would you like to see her?” he asks, oblivious to my shock. Then, without any more hesitation, I say the only thing I can say. “Yes. Yes, I would.” ●
• • • Sharon Samantha Siegel is from New York, Sharon received a B.A. in English from Tulane University where she excelled as a Student Athlete on the Women’s Tennis Team, and she is working on an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has been published in Burning Word, The Montreal Review, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, Mouse Tales Press, and the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette. Her website is www.sharonsamanthasiegel.com
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
wadded tissue, automatically drawing his feet away from the mess and scowling at the girl’s clothing flung about the small room, her brassiere draped across the shade of a lamp, a tinge of sordidness in the chilly gloom. He pulled on a T-shirt and boxer shorts and turned to look for a moment at the still sleeping girl before passing into the other room. Standing at the kitchen window waiting for water to boil he watched a woman outside on the street running for the station fighting to keep an umbrella steady. In a gust of wind the umbrella blew inside out, suddenly no more than a useless clump of twisted aluminum and deflated plastic. She passed out of Keiji’s sight and he turned to make coffee and toast a piece of bread. The delivery boy hadn’t bothered to put a cover around the newspaper, and pages wet with rain, Keiji made a tent of the paper standing it around the heater to dry the soggy newsprint. He pulled his torn old hanten from the closet and snuggled into the wide sleeves. A minute later, with pages crinkled and slightly yellowed from the wet, he spread the paper on the table and sat down with coffee and toast. Halfway through an article about a bomb blast at a Christmas mass in Nigeria, toast in one hand, coffee cup in the other, Keiji was surprised by the now awake girl sliding her arms around his chest from behind and slipping a finger into the elastic of his shorts. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” he grumbled, the coffee spilling from his cup and splashing onto the newspaper. “Ooooh, so sorry,” she whispered, her mouth against his ear. “It’s so cold in here. Come back to bed and warm me up.” Her naked breasts pressed against Keiji’s back. “I have to be in Shin-Okubo in forty-five minutes. Have a presentation to make, a Christmas program. You want coffee before you go?” He mopped at the newspaper with a kitchen towel keeping his eyes off the girl’s blatant nakedness and ruffled by the awkwardness of the situation thought about dropping the class where she sat two seats away staring at him.
Seed of Belief by William Leet
yes opened to a sky smeared with Christmas rain. Light coming through bare windows soaked the room in cold gray, the sound of drops pattering against glass. Feeling a weight on his stomach, he turned to look at the girl, still asleep with an arm thrown out to rest on his belly. A tangle of reddish brown hair obscured her face and for a minute Keiji lay there trying to remember what she looked like. He reached over to shake her awake, but then held back, uncertain if he remembered her name correctly. Mayuko? Mariko? On Saturday night four of them had met in Kichijôji, a Christmas Eve party of yakitori and too much beer, ending with head holding and watching one throw up a splash of grilled chicken and noodles. The girl stood by, an appalled look distorting her face as some of the boy’s vomit splashed onto her shoes. A casual friend from university, a student in one of Keiji’s classes, she had overheard earlier in the week three friends talking about a night out in Kichijôji and begged to go along. Several times Keiji had sensed her looking at him during class, and her sudden plea to join the boys wasn’t much of a surprise. He felt like he almost knew what was coming and it worried him some because he had little interest in going where he guessed she was heading. Feeling the beer swirling in his own head, Keiji helped his drunk friend to sit up, looked into the boy’s face and said in a loud voice, “Suzuki? You okay? Can you make it to the station?” But Suzuki only waved a hand, eyes closed, chin sinking onto his chest. The two boys sat on the curb while the girl dabbed at her shoes with a scrap of tissue. Dropping the tissue in the street she mumbled, “Horrible! I’ll have to throw these shoes away.” “It’s not so bad.” Keiji looked around for his other friend, his eyes stopping for a moment on a passing crowd across the street, their faces colored an eerie pinkish green by the overhead neon, a girl in a Santa suit selling Christmas cakes from the front of a bakery, “Jingle Bells” blaring from a store speaker. “Where’s Takada?” “Back in the bar. Said he was going to the bathroom.” “Yeah, okay,” Keiji was concerned now with getting the still drunk Suzuki on a train headed home. “I’m going to get Suzuki up and help him to the station. If you’re going that way…” On the way to the station he foolishly let slip that he lived only two train stops away, less than ten minutes, and the girl quickly begged to stop in his apartment. “So near? Would you mind if I stopped there for a few minutes to wash my feet and shoes? It’ll only take a minute…Please?” Keiji recognized what sounded like an obvious ploy, but unable to discourage her nodded a halfhearted assent. He pushed aside the limp sheet and raised himself to the edge of the bed looking down at a scatter of damp,
On the way to Shin-Okubo Keiji’s thoughts lingered on the girl and the difficulty of getting rid of her. Mayuko, who had left name and cell number on paper imprinted with a blot of lipstick. Five minutes after edging her out the door, he too dashed out into the heavy rain. He waited on the platform a few minutes for a train, slapping at his rain-soaked legs and wringing water out of his umbrella. When it arrived the train was half-empty and he chose a seat at the end of the car, pulling from his backpack a paperback English translation of the Bible, the pages heavily marked with inked highlights and margin notes. He stared unseeing at the open pages, his thoughts slipping back six months to a girl much like the one last night and who had given him his first experience of sex. The initial quiet excitement and trembling legs as she moved her finger over his lips and with the other hand reached for his belt buckle, sliding her hand down to grip the hardness inside his jeans. It was probably countryboy naiveté that led Keiji to expect a different experience from what came afterward. The soft spoken young woman with an air of first time innocence had drawn out their courtship, had with a 53
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shyness equal to his own led him to believe that the next step in their relationship was sure to be a joining of something deeper. But in the end it was a different experience. The first tender moments of boy and girl undressing each other ended too quickly and suddenly shedding her virginal camouflage the girl became a fountain of voracious clutching and moaning, begging him to take and use her however he liked. Keiji was astounded by her words and her writhing, her fevered lust a shock. Quickly over, Keiji left her apartment feeling dirty and ashamed, manipulated and cast off as an after the fact sex toy. Looking over the young man’s shoulder at the wellused Bible, a stranger might have suspected Keiji to be a student of Christian ideas, and he would not have been mistaken. He was in fact a student of literature and at the moment studying a passage assigned by his professor. His enthusiasm for the subject was fired by associations the professor was unaware of, the same true even of Keiji’s friends and family. His deeper interest in a foreign religious faith had begun with his mother and remained a carefully guarded secret. It began a year ago at home in Yamanashi. His mother was a Christian but practiced her religion without the company of her husband and two sons. At first, they gave it little thought, viewing it as no more than a mother’s hobby. Refusing to join her in attending the church, they quickly found excuses to avoid her talk of sin and the promise of salvation. Keiji and his father were the most impatient with these religious notions and refused to stay in the room if she even mentioned the Bible. Her devotion to something so un-Japanese had more than once fractured the family harmony, his father shouting at her to take her foreign superstitions out of the house. His mother’s subsequent loss of appetite and mild nausea changed everything in the Kubota family. She began to complain of a soreness, a pain in her stomach and soon fell into long afternoon naps. After two months of urging her to see the doctor, her husband finally convinced her to visit the hospital. Tests provided no name for the symptoms she displayed. On each visit she was taken to a different department and looked over by a different doctor. The answers given were vague and unsettling, though no one at the hospital, neither doctors or staff declared the case threatening. There was no suggestion that his mother might have cancer, a distinct diagnosis never offered, but the unspoken parts of their explanations worried Keiji into a fear that his mother might be dying. By the third month of continued tests and treatment it was admitted that his mother had stomach cancer. The doctors remained optimistic, but spoke of the need to remove a portion of her stomach. That operation and its aftermath along with ongoing treatments kept her in the hospital another month, long hours that Keiji sat beside his mother’s bed listening to her read, when she was able, verses of scripture. Half the time he didn’t listen closely, didn’t understand much of it anyway. Seeing her reach for the Bible, Keiji’s father quickly declared he had something to do and made an escape, while his younger brother repeated over and over that he didn’t understand
what she was talking about. It was left to the oldest son to give his mother the small comfort of talking about her religion. Following a slow recuperation Keiji began to believe his mother’s recovery was a miracle, that all her praying and reading of the Bible must have played some part. He held these thoughts inside, along with the still indistinctly formed idea that if it was true he too wanted to learn something about this person in the Bible named Jesus. The children’s Christmas program at Shin-Okubo Chapel Center had started out with six children from the Sunday school classes, supported by three adults, including Keiji, corralled into playing a part by Mrs Hasegawa, the pastor’s secretary. It never would have occurred to him to volunteer for something involving costumes and reading Bible verses in front of a lot of people and thinking about it was enough to make him cringe with embarrassment. He tried not to imagine the costume Mrs Hasegawa had waiting for him at the church. By nine-thirty only two children had shown up and the Sunday school teacher, assisted by Mrs Hasegawa began dividing the parts of those absent among the two children present. The other two adults were there and like Keiji were jittery with apprehension. At a signal from the Sunday school teacher they began reading the assigned parts in turn, two times a nameless woman in back interrupting and asking Keiji to speak out in a bigger voice. The two children, baffled by the new lines were barely able to read their parts and stood fidgeting. A sense of misgiving swelled in Keiji’s chest. When it was time for the performance the youngest child dropped out, while the other, unable to say his lines stood staring out into the audience as the Sunday school teacher crouched behind him speaking the words like some holy ventriloquist. The situation was increasingly painful for Keiji stuck there in a silly costume before a crowd of people. Wearing a dark blue kimono, sandals, with a white cloth over his head held in place by a black elastic headband, he was supposed to look like a man from a picture in the children’s Bible, a worshipful shepherd in a tableau of figures around a newborn child. Pastor Ogawa’s sermon following the program was another rambling and uninspiring talk starting in the book of Luke but dodging in and out of six other books of the Bible, a hodgepodge that had Keiji scrambling for connections. His ears perked up at one point, hearing the pastor say, “How does this apply to our lives?” But answering his own question, the pastor made it clear that he was really asking, “What does this passage mean?” He waited Sunday after Sunday for Pastor Ogawa to offer more than a weekly rehashing of the basic Christian teaching—a savior, the son of God sacrificed as payment for man’s sin. Keiji understood this concept, but wondered why, as the pastor always stressed, all were unworthy of that sacrifice, the weekly repetition leading him to imagine a proud God looking down upon his subjects squirming in abject weakness. 54
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Months of listening to Pastor Ogawa’s sermons left Keiji with a feeling short of satisfaction, a sense of hunger that the pastor’s words were all baby food without the weight to penetrate the deeper meaning of that grand touchstone, the Bible. His own reading of the book, inspired first by his mother’s recovery from cancer, was fueled by the wisdom and beauty of so many of its pages, and there were times he felt his non-Christian professor of literature understood it all better than Pastor Ogawa. Dr Ohashi’s lectures on biblical scripture had a passion and certainty that moved Keiji in ways that Pastor Ogawa’s sermons didn’t. From those lectures and from his own study Keiji had discovered that interpretation of difficult passages was easily debatable, though experience at the church in Shin-Okubo had proven that any questioning of the Bible was unwelcome. The professor cautioned Keiji that as a non-believer he was unprepared to explain the scripture they read in class as a vehicle of personal faith, that his job was to teach the book’s influence and its validity as great literature. “For workings of the Christian faith, Kubota-san, you will have to look elsewhere,” Professor Ohashi added, but then jotted a name on paper, passing it across to Keiji. “Try talking with Hiromi Kato. She is a member of our class and I believe she is a Christian. Do you know her? Quiet girl in the seat at the end of your row.”
begin paying for half the rent on my apartment and the books I need for school… Okay?…Don’t worry. Get well.” She reached up to run her hand through her son’s long, black hair, for a moment resting her palm on his cheek. “Go on, have your bath before your father wakes up and wants to get in there.” Early the next morning Keiji wandered off toward the mountain shrine hanging over the Ojira River two miles distant. The road meandered among farmhouses and stubbled rice fields, and apart from the burble of a fast running brook along one side, the only sounds were the riffle of wind and the occasional bark of a farmyard dog. The air was cold and clear. Feeling starved by the thick and almost gritty miasma of Tokyo, Keiji breathed in deep draughts of the chilly, cleansing air. Though he enjoyed his life in the smog-laden capital, the air of home came back to him like a sudden wash of cold mountain water quenching his thirst. He quickened his step and made a lunge for the red-orange brilliance of a persimmon bobbing high on the limb of a roadside tree. “Keiji-san!” Across the road a young woman stood in the front yard of a large old house studded with heavy beams and sitting under a traditional roof of thatched reeds. Raising an arm and waving she called again, “We haven’t seen you in a while.” Keiji had known Ayumi Hirata from early childhood, the two of them a year apart in age, longtime playmates and schoolmates. She was hanging clothes on a taut rope tied between a gnarled pine tree and a column rising from a narrow veranda stretched along the front of the house. Behind her a dazzling white sheet flapped in the wind and the redness of her cheeks, the strong winter sun reflected in the coal black of her hair struck Keiji, and for an awkward moment he stood holding the overripe persimmon, staring across the yew hedge separating them. But then he caught himself and walking around the hedge followed the gravel path leading up to the house where Ayumi waited, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes. “Hey, Ayumi-san. It’s good to see you. How are things?” As he approached her, it was immediately apparent to Keiji that she was not the clumsy schoolgirl that lived in his memory. She wore a loose-fitting pair of jeans and a gray sweatshirt with red letters across the front spelling out “something is about to happy!” Quiet for a moment, the two studied each other from a distance of six feet. From the doorway an older woman called out, “Is it Keiji-san?…My, my welcome home! How long are you staying?” Turning to face Ayumi’s mother, Keiji bowed and raising his voice answered, “How are you, Hirata-san? Just for the weekend. I am returning to Tokyo on Sunday night.” “Come in for a cup of tea and visit for a while. I have something for your mother.” “Would later be okay? I’m just on my way to Komagatake Shrine.” He looked across to Ayumi hoping she would offer to walk with him. “Ayumi, finish hanging those clothes and go along with Keiji-san. She’s always asking your mother when you’re coming home to Hakushu.” Saying that Mrs Hirata disappeared inside the house.
Keiji left Tokyo early Friday evening to spend the weekend in Yamanashi with his family. He got off the train at Kobuchizawa where his father met him in the car. For twenty minutes they wound through the lower slopes of Mt Yatsugatake, white with winter snow and crowded with skiers. “How’s Mom? “Better than you might think. Careful with what she eats, but full of energy.” “Don’t let her do too much. It’s still early, don’t you think? Last time I was here she looked too skinny.” “She eats only a little, complaining she feels full.” Stopped at a traffic light an errant snowball from the school playground hit the front of the car, a group of laughing schoolboys running away, his father looking after them with a smile on his face. “Says she feels faint and dizzy.” “She still getting the vitamin B12 shots?” “Every Tuesday morning. They give her the shot, make sure everything is okay. She’s in there about an hour. I don’t know what all they do now. She says she’s feeling good.” Later that night the Kubota family around the pot bellied stove in the main room of the old farmhouse, Keiji’s father stretched out on the tatami mats, his snores a soft burr, his brother hunched over a comic book and his mother whispering over the television variety show about college expenses and the need for Keiji to find a part-time job. “Insurance has paid the bulk of it but such a long illness, even the small part we pay…well, it is not cheap. I think of the two years you have left at the university and I worry about the cost.” “Don’t worry, Mom,” he quickly answered. “I’ll start looking for a job this week. By next month for sure I can 55
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Her mother’s words caused the girl to blush and she quickly turned back to the basket of wet clothes at her feet. Keiji reached down and took one end of the sheet Ayumi struggled with, stretching it along the line for the girl to attach a clothespin. “I really would like you to come along with me to the shrine. How about it?”
and deeper in the forest surrounding the old Shinto shrine. Blowing on his gloveless hands reddened by the cold, Keiji broke the silence asking his friend, “How about some coffee, Ayumi-san. Maybe tea?” He peered into the open window of the shop looking for the old grandmother who had sold him a thousand Cokes and candy bars in the past. She appeared at the window in the next moment and flashed Keiji a big smile full of gold teeth. “Hey, Granny! You’re looking spry. Can we get one coffee and one tea?” Without a word she made their drinks and placed them on the window counter in front of Keiji. In the background Ayumi wiggled her fingers at the old woman as Keiji passed over a few coins. They wound their way up the narrow twisting path bumpy with stones and the extruded roots of giant cypress trees, on both sides small outbuildings, the unpainted wood aged and trimmed with thick moss, its green dulled by the winter cold. Passing several squat jizo statues, each standing neat with its red bib, they skirted the main shrine building continuing on to the suspension bridge hanging in a great swag across the river. On the other side they scrambled down the steep riverbank stepping finally out onto the giant boulders that lay scattered in the river’s course creating pools of clear icy water and frothy channels where the current tumbled and squeezed its way between the rocks. Keiji and Ayumi together hopscotched across the humped rocks to a flat circular rock that offered a view down into the quiet pools and frothy spill. “Like old times, huh?” Keiji said. “Mm.” Ayumi toyed with the rim of her paper cup looking from the water and back to Keiji. “What did you mean back there when you said you studied Christianity.” “Huh? Oh, I was talking about my comparative lit class at the university. We’ve been reading some of the Bible and discussing it in class. Actually, I kind of like it and have read a lot more than just what my prof assigned.” “What do you think?” Keiji let some minutes pass before answering Ayumi’s question. “I understand when Professor Ohashi tells me he is unable to answer certain questions because he is not a Christian, because his purpose is aimed at helping students appreciate the Bible as a work of literature. I get that. He can’t talk with certainty about what you and my mother believe as a result of reading the Bible. Can’t explain the leap of faith that makes you believe in miracles and stories of men swallowed by whales. I have questions and doubts about what I read there and maybe I’m not alone. Every Sunday I go to the church in ShinOkubo and listen to the pastor there tell more stories that leave me full of questions, but when I ask my questions the answer is always the same: Stop doubting and put your trust in Jesus. It’s like someone telling me that elephants can fly, to put my trust in the magician.” He stopped, out of breath with the freedom to talk about the conflict in his thoughts about the Bible, his mother and his attempts to find common ground with Christian believers. Sitting beside him, Ayumi remained silent waiting for Keiji to let his thoughts out undeterred.
Passing beyond the open fields, Keiji and Ayumi came to that part of the narrow road pressed on both sides by forest. Here where the shadows were deeper, patches of snow lay in clumps on the matted ground between leafless trees, and in one spot blackbirds pecked at the snow, a hungry search for seed or insect. Just off the road a ray of sunlight fell upon snow blanketing a large rock, melting it and sending rivulets down the rock’s face like twinkling veins of diamond. The forest and countryside beyond were silent, wrapped in the still cloak of winter. For a while the boy and girl walked silently along without concern for talk, passing through long familiar scenery studded with memories of childhood and unchanged across the years. Keiji stopped opposite a large clump of bushes at the edge of the trees and pointing with a stick, asked his friend, “When was the last time you picked wild strawberries over there? I used to come with my mother to pick them for strawberry jam.” “Mmm, delicious jam. She brought us a jar from time to time. Papa was always asking why my mother couldn’t make it.” They walked on for a ways before Ayumi continued. “I’ve been praying for your mom. I don’t think you knew it, but for a while now we’ve been going together to the church over by the junior high school. She took me there for the first time soon after you went off to university in Tokyo.” Keiji was too surprised to say anything for several beats, then turning to look at Ayumi he asked, “You pray for her?” “Yes…often. Does it surprise you? Is it that I pray for your mother, or that I pray at all?” “I…don’t know what to say.” Afraid she would misunderstand his hesitation on hearing this, on learning that like his mother she too had adopted the Christian faith, Keiji stumbled over his words unsure what the proper response would be. “Of course, I’m grateful for the prayers on behalf of my mother, but…I didn’t know…didn’t know that you had studied Christianity.” “Studied?” The look on her face showed clearly that his choice of words puzzled her. “I mean, I do too…at my university. And for maybe six months I’ve been going to a church in Tokyo.” He inwardly cursed himself for suddenly letting that slip out, afraid that his admission might arouse enthusiasm in those he was not yet ready to talk about it with. “Nobody knows that, especially not my mother.” Embarrassed by what sounded like cowardice, he couldn’t stop himself from adding, “Please don’t tell her.” Neither said anything for several minutes. They were approaching the small clapboard structure built on the slope above the river, a nameless shop selling snacks to shrine visitors. It seemed colder this close to the river 56
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“Who can read the Bible and not have questions about the stories there? Is it natural to read something and accept it one hundred percent without question? Something so often unreasonable and without logic? And what about these Christians who pray for ingrown toenails and a new car? Every Sunday I listen to people asking others to pray for their trivial needs, like God has time for parking places when the world is about to blow up.” At the end of this unexpected flood of words, of what felt like an excess of complaint, Keiji leaned back, lying flat on the rock with an arm over his eyes. Again the lingering silence while Ayumi considered his words. Hugging her knees to her chest and staring down at the water, she let the time pass before reaching out to place a hand on the one resting at her side. “I can’t answer your questions and I don’t know who can. But certainly you are not alone in these thoughts. Everyone has doubts. We might even question the humanity of one who claims to live without doubt. But what you can’t expect is to find the answer by asking the right person or with a hard night of careful thought. Hard for you to accept now but it takes the time necessary for the seed of belief to reach the heart. I think understanding will come when you allow faith to work its way around the mind.” On the walk home Keiji stopped himself three times from reaching out for Ayumi’s hand. When they were in sight of her house and heard the bark of another dog, she looked up at him and said, “Come to church with me tomorrow.” “Mm,” he said, taking her hand in his. ●
if so then they are like humans in at least one way another city of ants just a pace away do they spread their civilization to every remote area? if so then they are like humans in a second way they are in the leaves of my book they are in the tunnels of my jeans on the snow-capped mountain of my cup and the dried-up river of my saucer on the sun-setting low-lands of my back the desert cactus of my shoes a stringed symphony they came marching from Portland bearing flowers and half-empty water canteens which they also used as drums they fought wielding blades of grass against the air force of gnats and house flies they pushed mounds of dirt along the rail roads and severed their ties they kept the time on their wristwatches which had been synchronized behind dumpsters and oil drums and water tanks they traveled part-way in wheelbarrows that were filled with dried leaves and part-way on the waves of the sub-continental drifts they filled my backyard with dung and pink lacquer and broken bicycle wheels they sought shade from the sun just as I did beneath the trees of my backyard there I discovered a hidden secret of all back yards the symphony of leaves in a unison movement with the wind the leaves live in solace and undisturbed silence until the wind comes and they DANCE! all together they dance as one and yet separately they dance the ants work until night time if they don't get lost this one on my armhow will he ever find his way back home? what will he eat for dinner? perhaps he can follow the trail of last night's rain drops and the sound of melancholy church bells.
• • • William Leet recently returned to the U.S. after almost thirty years in Japan and is now living in Florida. The experiences, travel and journal notes of the years living as an expatriate in Tokyo have become fodder for a book he is currently writing. During the years of teaching in Japan three of his English textbooks were published for use in Japanese junior high schools. He has also written and translated for the UCLA Journal of Asian Studies. His essay “Shaken” will appear shortly in the September issue of American Athenaeum.
Ants by Sparkplug O'Shea The ants are everywhere on the meadow of my forehead on the prairie of my arms in the black forest of my hair on the plane of my blanket which was spread atop the hill of their volcanic world I think the larger ones may be eating the smaller ones 57
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by Denis Bell
here is a story, most probably apocryphal, that is told about Einstein. That his entire wardrobe consisted of five identical suits. When asked about this, he is alleged to have said, “So that I don’t waste any brainpower in the mornings deciding which set of clothes to wear.” I’m similar to Einstein in this respect, if in no other. I have three tee shirts of the same color, two others of a very similar shade and style, two pairs of blue jeans, thirteen – after the last wash – identical socks, and a single pair of shoes. I am, or rather I was – it seems strange to use the past tense – a professor at a small Liberal Arts college in the Midwest. Students frequently commented on my teaching evaluations, “He wears the same clothes to class every day”. This wasn’t true, of course –except as regards the shoes – it just appeared that way. Apparently the students at Wakefield College didn’t know the Einstein story. I had managed to gain a reputation for being absent minded, in a fashion more befitting a mathematics professor than the litterateur that I am. To take just one example, one day I chose to walk to school rather than drive, the weather having been exceptionally mild that morning. Later in the day I spent a good hour searching for my car in the parking lot before reporting it stolen to the Campus Police. Then they drove me home and there it was, sitting bold as brass in the driveway! Within a couple of days everybody at the college had heard about the episode. But I digress, that is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell began on a deceptively sunny, brutally cold day in January. I had just returned to my office after teaching Comparative Literature LA 425. A group of students, five in all, were clustered outside the door anxiously awaiting my arrival. This was rather unusual as office hours at Wakefield – mine in particular - were generally not well attended except for the period immediately prior to exams, and there were no quizzes or tests scheduled in any of my classes for another three weeks. I thought perhaps I had missed an appointment but it proved not to be the case. “Professor, we are wondering if your 2:30 class today is canceled.” “Why would I do that?” “You mean you haven’t heard? It’s all over campus. They . . .” At this point, all five of them started yammering and waving their arms and it was impossible to make out anything that was being said. It was like listening to a panel discussion on Fox News Sunday. “Suppose you all calm down and somebody tell me what the hell is going on!” It turned out that early that morning one of the cleaning crew had come across a little open-topped box in Physical Plant Building A, containing a mysterious
white powder. Assuming the powder to be rat poison, but suspicious nonetheless, the cleaner passed the box with the powder on to her supervisor. He alerted the Campus Police, and they rushed it posthaste to the authorities in town. Meanwhile, a small amount of the powder had found its way to the air intake that feeds a gigantic heat pump housed within the building. Physical Plant A provides heating and cooling to the east side of the campus where the administrative offices and the dormitories are located. It turned out that classes were canceled that day, and every day thereafter. Wakefield was a small Liberal Arts college nestled in the sleepy town of Cedar Hills, Indiana, a few miles from the bank of the Wabash River. The school was founded around the end of the eighteenth century by a wealthy industrialist with the grandiose mission: “To provide outstanding young men with the type of robust education to prepare them to become leaders in society and in the world”. Presumably there were no outstanding young women at that time, or if there were, then they were not expected to become either societal or world leaders. The first students at Wakefield were the sons of farmers, businessmen, artisans, teachers, and the like. The school became coed in the mid-nineteen sixties and in recent years the student body consisted largely of the children of doctors and lawyers and similar professional types. Soft pasty-faced party kids with Porsches and trust funds, sharp in dress rather than intellect, with solid SAT’s and old family connections, neither quite impressive enough to make it into the likes of Harvard or Princeton. Geographically isolated, expensive, and lacking in serious academic distinction, Wakefield was neither a hotbed of radicalism nor a bastion of conservative-ism, and it seemed strange that the school would be attacked in this fashion. I arrived home around 2:30 that afternoon and immediately switched on the TV. All the local news channels were covering the story. By this time the powder had been sent to a lab for analysis and, although it was clear that some key details of what would later come to be known as “The Wakefield Incident” were being kept under wraps, the television coverage left no doubt that something very serious had happened in Cedar Hills that morning. With FBI descending on the town like flies on a rotting carcass and experts from the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta flying in, the town was buzzing like never before. The Police Commissioner had issued a statement earlier in the day calling for “all persons in the vicinity of the college at the time of the incident” to check themselves into Cedar Hills General for a series of medical tests. I was not particularly concerned by this turn of events. I am blessed with a singularly laid back, sunny 58
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disposition and tend not to worry too much about things beyond my control. I was, in fact, happy to have the afternoon off. I went to the local supermarket and bought a case of my favorite beer. I made a call from the pay phone opposite the store then spent a couple of hours in the neighborhood bookstore reading extracts from a new novel in the medical thriller genre that I enjoy. I called Sue, a girl I’ve been dating on and off for the past couple of months, this time from my cell phone, and arranged to meet her for dinner. We ate at Chan’s. Needless to say, she had heard about the incident by that time, and was beside herself. “Were you there when it happened?” “Of course I was there. You know I teach on Tuesdays.” “Aren’t you worried? I heard Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the six o’clock news talking about the stuff they found. It’s some type of biological virus and they don’t even know what it does.” As opposed to a virus of the non-biological variety, no doubt. “Actually no, I’m not. The buildings that were affected were on the east side of campus and the wind was from the west this morning. And I’m feeling fine. Hungry too. I think I’ll order the Emperor’s Special.” “But you could be infected. Dr. Sanjay Gupta – ” “Forget about Dr. Sanjay fucking Gupta, will you? I told you, I’m fine! In fact, more than fine. Truth is, I’m feeling better tonight than I’ve felt for quite some time!” She gave me a strange look - thinking, perhaps, that “the stuff” had found its way to my brain, and leaned back from the table. “What say after the fortune cookies, we adjourn to your place and you and I do the Monster Mash?” “Are you crazy? You need to go get tested!” The things we do for love! Of course, it had to be done anyway. I checked into CHG that night. The place was overflowing with forlorn looking new inmates, the newly arrived medical experts and FBI agents, TV news crews, and local cops. They were admitting, or more accurately, confining, everybody who was anywhere near the campus that day. We were assured that we would be quite comfortable and would in all likelihood not have to stay longer than a few days. “In all likelihood” should have struck an ominous chord but nobody else seemed to notice. My first day inside the facility consisted of an interminable series of questions and questionnaires. Family history. Medical history. Buildings visited on the morning of the event. Present state of health. Chest pains? Shortness of breath? Bumps, welts, or swellings? On and on ad nauseam . . . Then the probing and the scanning started up. Quite comfortable, my ass! – No pun intended. Pricked and poked, injected with radiographic chemicals and placed inside machines, tubes stuck into orifices, bodily substances of all manner extracted . . . The doctors told us that since they didn’t
know what exactly they were testing for, they would have to test for pretty much everything. That’s a lot of testing! Painful and disgusting though it all was, the worst torment was psychological rather than physical – the thought of being shut up with a bunch of about-to-be very sick people. In any event, within a few days I was pronounced in the pink and allowed to leave. Many of my fellow inmates did not fare as well. It was later revealed that some never got out of there. But that’s life – so to speak! After the hospital Sue and I continued to see each other for a while, always at my apartment. I seldom ventured outside now. Since Wakefield remained closed, I no longer had teaching duties and that suited me just fine. I used the time wisely to finish up my article on Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment and continue the research for my book on Poe, both of which had fallen by the wayside of late. But that wasn’t all I researched. From dawn to dusk, I scoured the TV channels, radio stations, and news sites, looking for a new development in the saga. Call it morbid curiosity if you are so inclined. The weeks rolled by. Nothing had happened by the end of January. Presidents Day came and went. It was looking as though as though that was the end of the matter. Then one Friday in the middle of February, I switched on the TV and there it was! Several senior administrators at Wakefield College in Cedar Hills, Indiana were stricken today with an as yet undiagnosed respiratory illness. College President Mark Levine, Provost Kenneth Gilbert, and Assistant Dean Jose Gomez, are in critical condition and have been airlifted to Indianapolis for medical treatment. Levine’s wife told reporters that her husband was due to play golf later in the day with Gilbert but woke with a high fever and coughing up blood. He lapsed into unconsciousness while being transported to the emergency room. Authorities strongly suspect a link between these events and the biological agent found on the Wakefield campus on January 18. A senior spokesman for the . . . Within a week all three men were dead. Soon after, other cases were reported. The first wave of casualties were mainly administrators but also included several faculty, students, and support staff. They were going down in droves. Naturally, I stayed within the confines of my sealed apartment, studiously avoiding all contact with the outside world. Superman in his fortress of solitude. The Wakefield virus proved to be both deadly and, after the incubation period, highly contagious. The CDC identified the virus as a virulent new strain of Anthrax and declared that if it were allowed to escape into the general population, the United States could suffer the worst pandemic since the appearance of Legionnaires’ disease. Thereafter, the town of Cedar Hills was placed under a strict quarantine. Military checkpoints were set
The Wakefield virus proved to be both deadly and, after the incubation period, highly contagious.
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up restricting travel in and out of town to those deemed essential personnel – conveyors of vital goods and services, doctors and paramedics, the deliciously euphemistically named “disposal teams”, etc. According to the latest news reports, most of the downtown stores and businesses are now closed and boarded up. The busses stopped running over a month ago and there are almost no cars on the roads. The few restaurants and bars that remain open are empty and silent. The streets are given over to the stricken and the demented. A sense of doom has descended on Cedar Hills. The town, like the people, is dying. I’ve remained untouched by all the turmoil and devastation, ensconced here with my supplies and my work, and, of course, the TV and Internet. There’s been a huge amount of media coverage in the last couple of months and I’ve kept track of every last bit of it. Earlier this week, I was awakened shortly after noon by the ringing of my house phone. I’d been up most of the night working on the book and woke dazed and disoriented, and it took me a little while to get to the phone. “I thought you weren’t going to answer. Are you alright? This is Linda.” “Linda?” I was very groggy. “Linda Bloom.” “Oh, hi. I was taking a nap. Had a late night yesterday. What’s up?” Apart from me. “Sorry to wake you. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, Bill’s wife passed away last night.” She was talking about Bill Sutcliffe, the Chair of Language Arts. I’d heard via emails from a couple of colleagues that his wife had recently come down with the virus, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. “God, no! That’s awful!” “I’m taking up a collection on behalf of the department. There’s a memorial service set for tomorrow at First Baptist on Seventh Street at 2:00 pm. Will you be able to make it?” When hell freezes over. “Of course I’ll come. And put me down for twenty bucks.” What really jolted me was what she said just before she hung up. “Have you seen today’s Sentinel? Looks like we’re all going to be on the job market soon!” I’d stopped taking the local newspaper a while back in keeping with my policy of splendid isolation but as it turned out there was an article on the Yahoo News front page.
demolished entirely. The College Board of Regents issued a statement earlier today indicating that there are no plans to reclaim the campus. It seems that, after almost two hundred years, Wakefield College, one of the nation’s most distinguished seats of learning, will cease to exist as an academic institution . . . There isn’t much more to tell. Cedar Hills, Indiana, hitherto little more than a jumped-up college town in the middle of nowhere, a stop-over for motorists on Highway 33, has now made it onto the world stage. In death lies immortality. Both town and college are destined for a place in history alongside the Titanic, the Hindenburg, the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and the World Trade Centers. All because of 3.5 ounces of white powder! As soon as the quarantine is lifted, I’ll be moving on. I’m in the process of packing up my belongings – books and papers, folders of news clippings, lab equipment, collections of war memorabilia, weapons and posters . . . As it happens, I had made my plans to leave Cedar Hills a while back. The sad fact is, in the Fall Semester, I was denied tenure at Wakefield! Thrown out onto the academic scrapheap after eight years like a rusty Oldsmobile! By a bunch of washed up old stiffs – stiffs in spirit and now in body too, many of them – unfit to lace my intellectual boots. As they say, what goes around comes around! The Feds are conducting an intensive investigation into the origin of the Wakefield Incident but it seems they have thus far failed to come up with any useful leads. Anyhow, I’m not worried. Why would I be? No one will believe that a man with Einstein’s wardrobe, somebody who loses his car in his own driveway, is capable of anything. ●
• • • Denis Bell is a Mathematics professor at the University of North Florida. He was born in London, England some time ago. In addition to writing fiction, he enjoys hanging out with his family, watching football (soccer), and surfing (the web, that is!).
Demise of a college May 15, 11:15 am (ET) CEDAR HILLS, In. (AP) - The Wakefield campus has been officially declared a Disaster Area. The now completed inspection of the campus shows that the virus has worked its way into the ducts in many of the buildings and it is expected that it will prove impossible to eradicate. Several of the buildings will require gutting and refurbishing and others will need to be 60
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Robert was already playing the next hymn, and looked across in puzzlement when Mary failed to join in. She indicated her empty hands, with tears in her eyes. The children who had spoken to her before had now vanished into the crowd. The band leader was sympathetic. Tall, his hair nearly all white now, his face was grave as she explained what had happened during the next interval. “Don’t worry, Mary. I’m sure we can find you another cornet from our store. Or we can requisition you another from headquarters.” “But that’s not the point,” she said sorrowfully. “It was my father’s instrument, don’t you remember? He taught me how to play when I was quite young, and gave me his cornet when he was too ill to play himself.” “Ah, yes.” He looked thoughtfully around. “Perhaps, then, you might spend some time looking in the pawn shops around here. Surely that’s where the young miscreant will take it in the hope of a sixpence or two.” She nodded and tried to smile, but without much real hope. On the way back to her rented room that night she did pass by several of the pawn shops that littered the main street of the town. But although some of them did have musical instruments – three battered old accordions, several mouth-organs, and even one trombone with a twisted slide – none of them had her stolen cornet among their goods. Perhaps it was too soon to expect that? The thief might just be waiting for an opportunity to visit the pawnbrokers. Mary sat alone in her room that night, shivering a little. Winter was coming on and she would have to pay her landlady for some coal soon. She looked sadly at the place on the dresser where she had always kept the cornet. She never practiced here, of course, she would have been evicted for creating a disturbance. But still, she missed it, and allowed herself another few tears. How silly, how sinful, to grieve for a mere piece of metal, she thought, and managed to bring her tears under control. Her prayers that night were not for herself, but for the young thief, that he might be guided away from the paths of sin. Some weeks passed. Mary visited the pawn shops again, but to no avail. She was given a battered old cornet from the local Army store and a requisition was made for a replacement. But this, she knew, could take months. There was always a backlog of orders at the factory. The national economy went from bad to worse. More and more men were out of work. Families were being evicted, and many more were having trouble feeding their children. The Salvation Army began operating mobile soup kitchens, small vans moved from place to place by horses. Mary agreed to help out with these. Her life was otherwise empty. It was on one of these missions that she saw the red-headed boy again, waiting in the queue for soup with other children. He reached the head of the line and lifted up his broken-handled cup. Mary reached out, grasped his wrist firmly and said in a voice like that of an avenging angel: “You are a thief!“
Note of Triumph by David R Grigg n threadbare clothing with many patches, some barefoot, some short, some tall, all of them skinny; girls with plaited hair and shy smiles, boys with grubby faces and wide grins. Here they all came. The children always came running when the Salvation Army band arrived in the street. Mary Bennett smiled to see the children, but it was their parents who they were really trying to reach. Here some of them came: mothers wiping their hands on their aprons, or carrying babies, or holding hands with toddlers who were towing them along toward the band. And some of the men, too, glowering from the doorways of the terraced houses, or lounging outside, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, their faces shaded by the flat wide-brimmed caps that they wore. She knew that those men were only there because now they had no jobs to go to. The band drew up in the middle of the long cobbled street and prepared to play. All the old favourite hymns, of course. That’s what people wanted to hear. Well, the adults did. The children just loved the spectacle of the band: the Salvation Army uniforms, the brass instruments, the cymbals. There wasn’t much entertainment in their lives outside of this. They were too poor even to pay for tickets to the Christmas pantomimes in the town hall at a halfpenny a head. Mary smiled at the face of one little red-haired boy staring up at her, eyes wide with anticipation. Mary lifted her beloved cornet and joined in as the music began. A little flame of joy began in her, and she wondered, just for an instant, if it wasn’t sinful to enjoy playing so much. She was still quite young, in her late twenties. There had to be some joy in life, didn’t there? And it was all for the glory of God. Surely it was no more wrong than admiring the beauty of a stained glass window? In the intervals between the music, their leader Robert gave a short homily and the band handed out leaflets and extracts from the Bible. It was after one such interval that Mary realised with a terrible shock that her cornet was gone. She had put it down on the cobbles, standing on its flared mouth, just between her feet. But when she reached down for it, it had vanished. She looked wildly around. Down a little alley, she glimpsed the back of a running child. A child with red hair. “It was little Billy Keenan, I saw him!”, piped up a little girl. “He nicked your trumpet, miss.” “No it weren’t,” called out a grubby little boy. “It were that Jackie from down the canal.” “Yer both wrong,” said a tall boy with crooked teeth. “Freddy Rowland done it, him what lives near the mill.” Mary looked despairingly at the children who had spoken, at their grins and their sly looks at each other and knew that they were all three of them lying to her. Her heart sank, not only for her own loss, but also for the recognition of how quickly sin descended onto these poor children.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
She hadn’t meant to be so loud, so harsh, it had happened on an impulse. She was normally so kind and quiet, now she had shocked herself. The boy squirmed in her grip, trying to pull away. “No miss, no! I didn’t nick your trumpet!” “Then how do you know that was what was stolen?” she asked, her face still grim. He squirmed again, and the little van rocked a little with his struggle to get away. Robert, who had been doling out soup on the other side of the van, came over and stared at the confrontation. “Young man,” he said, “we passed a policeman just around the last corner. Shall I go and fetch him?” The boy looked around wildly, his eyes rolling. “No, no!”. “Then tell this lady what you did with her cornet. Did you sell it? Where?” The boy stopped pulling back and almost sank to his knees. Mary now found that she was holding him up. “No,” he whispered. “I din’ sell it. I still got it. Please…” Robert looked at Mary. “I can manage here by myself for a while. Why don’t you go with this boy so he can return it to you? Mind now,” he said sternly to the boy, “if you give this lady back what you stole then we will say no more about it. But if you give her any trouble, then I shall fetch the policeman. Do you understand?” The red-haired boy nodded glumly, and stood up straight again. Mary released his arm and climbed down from the back of the van. She half-expected him to have run off again, but he stood waiting for her. “This way,” he mumbled, and started off down the street. “What’s your name?” Mary asked, as kindly as she could. “Tommy. Tommy Sanders,” he said. “It’s just down here. My Mam… she won’t half belt me when she finds out.” “Have you stolen other things, Tommy?” He shook his head vigorously. “No, nothin’. Your trumpet was the first thing I ever stole, honest to God.” “You mustn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Tommy. And what you stole isn’t really a trumpet. It’s called a cornet. Why did you take it?” He looked up at her in wonder. “It… it was so beautiful. And you played it real nice, Miss.” Mary managed a smile at that, even though it wasn’t much of an answer. In front of one of the houses in the terrace, a wearylooking woman, her hair tied back in a blue scarf, was on her knees, whitening the front step of her house with a block of white stone. A silly custom, Mary thought, but one which she knew no proud housewife in this area of the country would even consider omitting. The woman looked up. “Tommy Sanders, are you in trouble again? Am I going to fetch the strap?” “No Mam, no!” “It’s all right, Mrs Sanders,” Mary said. For some reason she didn’t want to see young Tommy punished. “Tommy found something that I lost, that’s all, and he is going to give it back to me.” Tommy’s mother looked at him sharply, her eyes narrowed. “Tommy…” she began warningly. “Can I get in, Mam? I’ll jump over the step, honest.”
She nodded, and he leapt over the step and ran into the house. Mary wondered what she could say to his mother; she wasn’t good at small talk with strangers. But Mrs Sanders turned back to scrubbing the step, and Tommy returned in a few minutes, carrying a bundle wrapped up in an old towel. He leapt over the step again, and looked up at Mary. By an unspoken mutual agreement, then walked a little way down the street, out of the sight and hearshot of Tommy’s Mam. Tommy unwrapped the bundle and rather reluctantly handed the cornet to Mary. She gave a little gasp. The old instrument had never looked so good. Its steel shone like silver. Every inch of it had been polished. Even some of the little dents she remembered so well seemed to have been carefully straightened out. She looked at Tommy. “You’ve taken great care of it,” she said. “Tell me, Tommy, have you tried playing it?” Tommy looked down and shuffled his feet. “Sometimes, when me Mam and Dad are out.” “And what happened? Show me.” She found herself handing back the gleaming cornet. He looked up at her with a little frown. “I can’t play a tune on it, like,” he said. “But I practiced as much as I could, and now I can make a good sound.” He lifted it to his lips and blew a perfect note. That was half the battle, with a brass instrument. Mary stood looking at him, considering. “Would you like to learn to play?” she said at last. There was a sudden flash of eagerness in his young face, but it swiftly vanished into gloom. “Me Mam can’t pay for lessons. And now I don’t have the trumpet any more.” “I told you, it’s called a cornet. What if I taught you, Tommy?” The eagerness was back, but he was almost speechless. “I… I…” “I’ll tell you what, Tommy,” she said, barely believing what she was saying. “If you learn to play, learn to play really well, and come along to play with the band, I’ll let you keep the cornet.” He looked down in wonderment at the cornet, then lifted it to his lips and sounded one long, loud, clear note of triumph. ●
• • • David R Grigg is a software developer who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He worked in the field of interactive multimedia for over two decades, and has also worked in public relations and as a journalist and subeditor. During the 1970s and 1980s, David was deeply involved in the science fiction fan community, publishing fanzines and helping organize SF conventions, eventually becoming Chairman of the 43rd World SF Convention held in Melbourne in 1985. He is the author of a number of professionally published short stories and two short fantasy novels for teens, “Halfway House” and “Shadows”. He has become passionate about devices like the Kindle and the iPad as platforms for reading e-books. 62
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“How about the United Nations? The Security Council?” “We’d be lions’ meat by the time they even passed a resolution.” “But we got to do something…we got to.” The meeting ended in raised voices, high tempers, wild suggestions, but no direction. Some were packed up, ready to leave. Others were holding out, but not confident.
The White Farmer by Kersie Khambatta
he crisp night air carried the sound clearly. Low voices whispering in Sindebele. A shiver ran down Hendrik’s spine. “Adeline!” he whispered, “keep the dogs quiet. I’ll get the guns.” They were two big, shaggy, bush dogs, as fierce as wolves, but trained well. They growled, but did not bark. Adeline pressed her hands on their mouths. Their backs were arched with anger and their lips curled back, showing sharp, white fangs. Hendrik snatched the fully-loaded semi-automatic guns from their rests, gave one to Adeline, and crept to the window with the other at the ready. “Are the children asleep?” “Yes.” “Press the bell,” said Hendrik. It was to alert the servants in the outhouse. Adeline did that, and spoke to them rapidly in Shona over the intercom. “They know,” she said. “They heard.” Hendrik peered into the dark, crouched at the window, but there was no moon and it was pitch black. A tense wait. Minutes passed. Nothing. The dogs seemed to relax a bit. “Gone! Ask the servants what they feel.” Adeline spoke to them, and they said the same thing. “You go up and sleep in the children’s room. Keep the gun with you. I’ll bed down here for the rest of the night. The dogs will guard.” The next morning, when they let the dogs out, they rushed to the back of the house and barked furiously at something there. A dry, human skull perched on a stout two-foot high pole! “Witchcraft,” cried Hendrik. “That’s a warning!”
Two days later, a fast-moving cloud of dust whirled towards Hendrik’s house. The battered jeep skid to a halt, and a lean, dark, scowling man in khaki army uniform stepped out arrogantly, followed by others. “Well, well. Still here, eh?” he exclaimed roughly. “We told you to leave, didn’t we?” “We are not leaving,” said Hendrik firmly. “This is our land. We’ve been here for three generations.” “It’s not now. The law says it belongs to the people. And so it will.” “What law? The law is what…” Hendrik bit his lip, and stopped mid-sentence just in time, for the scowl on the officer’s face deepened, and his hand inched down to the revolver at his hip. “Three days is what you get! Then you leave. Clear?” He turned abruptly, and was gone. Adeline was sobbing softly. “They’ll kill us! They’ll behead us! We got to go!” “Go where?” sighed Hendrik. “Anywhere! Anywhere! We got to leave! They’ll come back.” They spent the whole night talking. Hendrik wanted his wife and children to leave, himself opting to stay and fight for the farm. But she refused to go without him. “I know it will break your heart to leave the land of your forefathers, but there is no choice,” cried Adeline. “We must go…we must leave at midnight. We’ll take Mbango with us. He’ll guide us across the border. He’s the best. The others will go back to their villages.” “But can’t we just tell the authorities we’re leaving, and ask for compensation?” “No…no…you can’t trust the mob…they are out of control. Rabble! The army actually helps them loot and kill!” That very night there emerged on the horizon, about twenty kilometers away, a bright red glow which lit the dark sky, and struck terror into them. “Fire! It’s a blazing fire! They’ve torched a farmhouse! They want blood! Hurry! Hurry!” Wildebeest, giraffes, deer, and elephants thundered past, trying to escape. The children were bundled up in warm clothes. “Mum, dad, where are we going? I’m scared!” “Sh…sh… Quiet. It’s all right. It’s okay. We are just going for a long walk, that’s all. To see the lion cubs.” “Okay. That’s fun!” The dogs loped alongside, their ears up, tails between their legs; they sniffed the air nervously. Suddenly, a piercing, trumpeting, sound startled them! “Elephant!” announced Mbango softly. “Quiet!” There were huge, dark shapes milling around.
Ludwig, their nearest neighbour ten kilometers away in the direction of Harare, arranged an emergency meeting of the farmers. The farmers were angry, afraid. “They came in the night. There were quite a few of them.” “Yes, they came here too.” “They mean trouble. Big trouble. They want our farms. They want us to go!” “But we’ve been here for generations. This is our home. We have nowhere to go.” “The big chief says ‘go.’” “No, we fight. We stay.” “We can’t fight all of them. There are too many. They will kill us.” “Ask the British and others to help us.” “They’ll say they can’t interfere in the internal affairs of a country.” “But they can send a secret task force, can’t they?” “Maybe… but that would protect us for some time only…” 63
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They took a wide detour. Now the narrow track wound through dense bush, and they had to stumble along, single file. The children, being only eight and five, were exhausted and could walk no more. Hendrik carried one on his back, while Mbango hoisted the other onto his. About two hours later, they took a brief rest. Adeline staggered towards a rock, to rest. But the rock burst into a long , rope-like shape, which hissed furiously and reared up, lunging at her. The dogs threw themselves at it, saving her by inches! It twisted around viciously and bit one dog on his snout. But they killed it after a fast, furious fight. Mbango tried to suck the poison out of the dog’s wound, but the dog died a slow, painful death. They had to leave the body for the hyenas and the jackals, and go on. They couldn’t wait to bury it. They now had to climb over the steep mountainrange, with the lazy, meandering, river on the other side. The river was the natural border. From time to time Mbango halted in his tracks as they struggled higher and higher. He looked long and hard back at the way they had come. His rugged face was a picture of anxiety. “They know. They follow us!” he said simply. “We go fast. No rest.” Hendrik had to nearly drag his wife with one hand, while he panted on. She was exhausted, out of breath, disoriented. “Leave me!” she pleaded. “I’m slowing you down. Go…go…save the children!” “Never!” hissed Hendrik. “You come even if I have to carry you too.” The children were hysterical, crying “Mummy…mummy.” They sensed something was very wrong. The weak light of dawn revealed what they had dreaded. The pursuit! The cold-blooded hunters far away, bounding nearer. The descent was more difficult than the climb, because they slipped constantly on the wet grass. Mbango realized that they would never reach the river in time, to cross it before the hunters got to them. He had grown up with the family; he wasn’t going to see them killed. He helped them along, then stopped abruptly. “You go that way, fast!” he commanded, raising a muscular arm and pointing. “There be a boat I keep near water. Row hard. They no follow to other side. I trick them.” There was no time to think, no time to argue. Hendrik realized that Mbango, the ever-faithful Mbango, was going to decoy the hunters away from them. They
They hurried on as best they could, stumbling, falling, crawling. They heard shouts, angry shouts to the right of them, and knew that Mbango had led the hunters in the other direction. They found the boat and fell into it with the dog. Hendrik hurriedly pushed it away from the shore and rowed desperately, while huge, dark, slimy shapes with bulging eyes slithered into the water after them. Hippos! They had to get to the other side before the massive beasts overturned the boat and attacked them. “Keep your hands in! Keep the dog down!” shouted Hendrik. But the boat was not in a good condition and soon sprung a leak, slowing them down considerably. Water lapped at their ankles. It was cold. They were metres away from the shore, when suddenly the mob emerged from the trees, screaming and waving their spears menacingly. They hurled their spears into the air. Adeline saw Mbango in their clutches and shuddered in terror. “They’ve got him. They’ll kill him!” Hendrik stopped rowing, and turned around. Just then a sharp arrow pierced his shoulder and he went pale with pain. “Grab the oar!” he cried. “Row with me…row…faster…faster…” Slowly the other shore crept closer. Blood from the wound dropped steadily onto the wooden seat. The pursuers were frustrated by lack of a boat, and the presence of the hippos, swimming with their glassy eyes peering above the muddy water. Now shouts came from the side they were heading to. But there was no threat, no menace. The boat was pulled in by friendly, helping hands. They were safe at last. But they looked back sadly across the water, at the land they would never see again, and the black treasure lost for ever! ● • • • Kersie Khambatta is a semi-retired lawyer practicing in New Zealand. He is a part-time writer. He started writing articles and short-stories decades ago. He has had several short-stories and articles published. He loves to write in a simple style, with short sentences and words that do not require referring to a dictionary. He has a diploma of Associateship of the British Tutorial Institute, London, in English, Modern Journalism, and Journalism in India, and a Certificate in Comprehensive writing awarded in October 2005 by the Writing School (Australia and New Zealand).
hugged him, tears in their eyes, knowing that he would willingly sacrifice himself to save them. The frenzied mob would torture and kill him mercilessly, when they closed in and found him alone. He slipped away silently, one hand raised in farewell. That was the picture of him which would be imprinted on their minds forever. 64
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watching streaming episodes of NOVA, so I could keep up on major discoveries in science as well. She’d thought it was a good approach from the start. Meeting my family for the first time last night, she’d probably also recognized the practical truth to the maxim: necessity is the mother of invention. I’d been doing the tours for a couple of years already. I didn’t actually travel anywhere for them, but “tours” wasn’t a misnomer either: the journeys simply took place in my mind. And, if you believe what they say about art, in my soul as well. In a roundabout way, it was the tours that led me to Noemí in the first place. Their original goal, long before meeting her, was to lead me the hell away from my family’s ways and fill the consequent cavity of wind in my mind where intellectual and analytic thought should have been planted. My brother, though, looked down on mental pursuits in general. I’ve told him that if anyone, he should be familiar with the search for freedom in all ways unphysical. It isn’t hard to guess that this waste of space I call a sibling – his name is Raymond, which I’m pretty sure my mom subconsciously came up with as the closest thing to Rain Man she felt she could get away with – has spent his fair share of time locked up. He hasn’t even been alive that long, and yet proportionally speaking, has probably spent nearly as much time in jail or prison as out of it. And, like so many young, lost Good-for-Nothings, as they were called before the word Dumbfuck was invented, he has a child. That little girl is as close to a bastard as you can get while still technically knowing who your father is, and she is by some twist of fate a wonderful child. Her mom Dahlia is apparently not as stupid as I figured she was when I heard she’d gotten knocked-up by Ray; she must’ve just had a momentary lapse of reason – or increase in blood-alcohol content – that night at Danny’ party six years ago. She’s got little Lacey in preschool and on a soccer team, and she keeps her away from bad movies and TV too. About a year ago, when Ray was doing a longer stretch than usual, I took to hanging around with Lacey, taking her places and showing her things, so she could at least have a functional uncle, if not a dad.
Touring by Erin Lebacqz
You on another genius tour?” that idiot asked me, nodding towards the book on my shelf, which was propped open to one of Kandinsky’s earlier works. “No,” I answered, irritated-like. “Maybe.” I was trying to lace up my work boots and I didn’t have time for this shit. “I never should have told you about that.” “A lesson I thought you learned long ago,” he answered casually, flipping the page over and losing my place with the nonchalance of a nonreader. “What does Naomi think of your genius tours?” “It’s Noemí, and I’m not sure she thinks of me at all anymore, thanks to you.” “If you can’t take the heat, get outta the fire,” he said. Maybe I was just irritated by the need to double a knot in my laces and get to the bus stop within the next five minutes, but I thought this misguided attempt at idiom usage made him sound especially retarded. “I’m not sure that really applies here, you ingrate,” I responded. “And please stop saying ‘genius tours.’” “Hey, if I’m an ingrate, so are you,” he said, and moved on to rifle through the business cards of other contractors, which I kept in a jar on my desk. He nodded towards my pocket. “What’s on the headphones?” “I said ‘grate,’ not ‘breed,’ but thanks for proving my point,” I told him. “And it’s Jelly Roll Morton, not that you’d know the difference.” My brother paused, his ignorance apparently overwhelming his ability to speak for one precious moment. “Adding to your musical repertoire?” he finally came up with, moving his hands in some kind of loop I presume was intended as a flourish. “Yeah, how you like me now?” he added flamboyantly, when I raised an eyebrow in response to his vocabulary. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be listening to Beethoven or some shit?” I was almost out the door, so in the interest of brevity, kept it simple: “I’ve already gone through the Classical Period, thank you. But I’m glad to know I have a music historian around if I need one.” I had even less patience than usual with my brother that day, considering he’d all but run Noemí off the night before. Sadly, of all the good parental advice he’d ignored over the years, the one piece he’d taken to heart was “just be yourself.” He wasn’t even supposed to have been around. Boots on, I grabbed my lunch from the fridge and left my apartment, leaving that troglodyte to kick back all day on the couch he makes a home whenever he gets bored of hanging out at Mom’s. I spent the ride to work guesstimating the right amount of time to wait before calling Noemí to apologize yet again. I had told her about the genius tours, actually, and, unlike that dipshit I’d grown up sharing a room with, she had thought they were a cool idea. I’d told her how I was currently beginning The Jazz Age in music and Expressionism in art, and that as soon as I “fixed our internet connection,” by which I actually meant figuring out a way to pirate off someone else, I was going to start
“First time in a museum?” a young woman carrying too many brochures and pencils asked me, forward like that. “What’s giving it away?” I shot back. “The fact that I asked for a map, or the fact that my pants cost under fifty bucks and my niece isn’t wearing Osh-Kosh?” I felt bad right away after getting defensive like that. It was a total Ray move. “Oh, I see,” she said, calmly and politely, but with a new tightness. Maybe it wasn’t the first time she’d been insulted by a visitor to the Getty. “It was the map, sir. And the fact that you didn’t seem sure how to get a ticket. You can purchase them over at that counter there, by the way,” she added, pointing briefly. Her overly-gracious tone had a lovely ‘fuck you’ ring to it. “Have a good visit,” she added. And I watched her dark, shiny curls swing on her back as she turned and walked away. “Nice one, Uncle Jack,” said Lacey, for she was an astute little sucker. 65
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I’ve never denied inheriting a bit of the asshole gene myself, but I couldn’t tell Lacey that. I don’t think it’s recessive, after all. “I know,” I said, and kind of stood there useless for a little bit. “Mom says when you do something rude you’re supposed to apologize,” Lacey explained to me carefully. That little girl knows a lot more than her father, I thought to myself. I bought the tickets, and then we started in on the pathways you were supposed to take to see the exhibits. I kept an eye out for the young lady in the purple skirt, ruffley white shirt, and dark curls. We found her looking a little out-of-sorts over by some Klimt studies a few minutes later. “First time putting on a nametag?” I asked, walking up to her as she fumbled with the pin. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. “Very funny,” she said. “No, it’s probably the fivehundred-and-fiftieth or so, but I still can’t get it straight. I’ve never been one for lines.” I must have looked confused because she added, “I paint. I use a lot of curves, but I don’t do anything geometric. Just a little joke.” “The kind of thing that’s funny in the artist community, I guess,” I said. “Yeah, you wouldn’t know about that because of your cheap pants,” she teased. Then she added, “Came over here to give me more of a hard time, I see?” “No, I…” Lacey punched me in the thigh. “My niece here says I need to apologize for before.” Lacey waved. “Say hello to the pretty lady,” I said, which I knew was kind of risky. “Duh, Uncle Jack, of course I’m going to say hi,” said the little smarty pants, and she put her tiny hand out for a shake, as I can only assume her mother taught her. “My name is Lacey Rivera; it’s nice to meet you.” This was all done very professional-like. “I’m Noemí,” said the lady I’ve been referring to as Noemí. She looked at me, then. “Your niece, huh? I think you mentioned that a couple of times?” “That’s right,” I said with a smile. “My niece. I’m Jonathan.” I bet there aren’t a lot of single men from the eastside who show up to the LA museums with a little kid, or at all, for that matter, and I don’t know if it was the novelty of the whole thing, or maybe something she actually found inherently attractive about me, but things went well after that. We ran into Noemí quite a bit during our three-hour stay at the Getty, and by the end of it, Lacey was exhausted and, as luck would have it, Noemí’s shift was about to end. “Is there anywhere to get a decent meal around here, or is it all four-shrimp shrimp cocktails and watercress and twenty-dollar tapas that leave you to awaken starving at 3am?” I asked Noemí when we were all getting ready to leave. She said she knew a place, and while Lacey went through one fried taco after another and proceeded to fall asleep in the booth, Noemí told me about her painting and I told her about my genius tours. Of course, she already knew all about whatever artists I brought up, and she explained more things about them besides. The hours passed without my noticing; Lacey slept horizontal in the booth. I asked Noemí to meet me at one of the
beaches for a walk the next day, and from there on out, we saw each other whenever we could. Things went well. We had fun. We conversed in ways I couldn’t do with those of my own bloodline. Because of this, I refrained from being dumb enough to see her in my old neighborhood, at my mom’s house, around my family, especially because I’d heard that Ray had gotten out. These months were like a vacation from the drudgery of dysfunction brought about by ignorance. They ended when I got dumb enough to hear my mom’s appeals to bring my new lady friend over. I could calculate the number of meals I’d eaten at my mom’s house over the years, considering seventeen years of living there and another fourteen of visiting, but it wouldn’t matter. That night, it would all look new, weird, and borderline creepy, as the only eyes I seemed able to use were those of a newcomer: someone who, given the evidence, would have a hard time coming to any conclusion other than that this was a household of hasbeens, of never-weres, of people who would not be able to pass for ten minutes in the world Noemí seemed able to navigate 24/7. Emotional presence can persist even in physical absence. Walking into the house, I found myself unable to simply avoid thoughts of Ray. I worried he might show up. I wondered how reflections of him around the house made my mother and I look. He was with us in ways I hadn’t thought to anticipate. He grinned from walls documenting Halloweens of yesteryear , dressed up as a relentless chicken butcher or a machinist on the losing end of a saw fight or a factory worker tweaking his way through the night shift, or glared from them in more recent shots which captured him at monster truck rallies or in front of billboards reflecting defaced politicians or news anchors. His single trophy appeared to wink devilishly at me from the mantel where it was still displayed in a probable attempt at self-esteem building: Runner-up, Junior Cage Fighting. I seriously considered telling Noemí he was mentally challenged as both preemptive move and umbrella excuse. I could provide the details to back it up too, just in case the photos didn’t speak for themselves. My uncle kept an old paint gun in the garage, and we probably had some leftover yellow paint from back when Dahlia and I painted Lacey’s room years ago; putting the two together, the family minivan could certainly masquerade as a short bus. My mom’s printer could also be put to work falsifying a certificate from the state deeming Ray ‘incompetent’ or ‘moronic,’ listing a number like 57 or 82 under a space I’d create for filling in the intelligence quotient. Anything so she wouldn’t think a person who made Ray’s choices out of a full stack of cards was related to me. But I would have no opportunity to transform Raymond into Rain Man, for just as we’d gotten past those awkward first hellos in the area Ray would laugh if I called a foyer, my keen and well-tested senses detected a rise in the house’s retard level and a corresponding depression in its inhabitants’ average stage of evolution towards bipedalism. The pungent scent of on-deck discord reached my nostrils and I looked over my shoulder with the feel of a slow-mo scene in a drama 66
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film. Indeed, the front door had opened behind us and the man with whom I’m still unwilling to believe I share a genetic code had manifested incarnate. All I had time to do was shoot Noemi a look intended to say, ‘I’m sorry for everything that happens tonight from this point forward.’
“Yes, I am,” Noemí confirmed in that saccharine, service industry tone. “I am artsy-fartsy, as a matter of fact.” Ray appeared to consider the fact that he’d elicited exactly zero reaction thus far, and visibly came to a decision in his mind to up the ante. “I see,” he replied carefully. “What kind of stuff are you into? The fat naked flying babies, or all those views of hills and rivers ‘n’ shit – you know, people in their gardens ‘n’ shit –, or those fatty nude chicks, or the kind of thing where somebody spews all colors of the rainbow all over the wall and makes a million bucks off it?” He paralleled this latter example with illustrative gestures. I nudged Noemí with my elbow. “You starting to see why the genius tours are so crucial for me?” I said quietly. Because this was a relatively direct insult and much less cunningly discreet than those delivered by my date, it pissed Ray off. He turned to Noemi and leaned forward. “Let me tell you something, little sister,” he said. “Your artsy education, your haircut, the fact that you work in a cultural establishment: this is all just frosting for my brother. It’s just gravy. He thinks this somehow makes people like you better than people like us and that’s what he wants: to make sure it’s obvious how much better he is than the rest of his clan.” He had turned to face me full-frontal for this last part. “Alright, Ray,” I said, standing up, “thank you for that psychological profile. Come on, Noemí, let’s go get some hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen.” We headed back into the bright room where my mom was preparing a plate of cheese and crackers, leaving my brother to occupy the sitting room alone, giving him plenty of time to figure a way to have the last word. “That French?” he finally called after us. “Ooo, la-la!”
We were sitting on the very couch Ray had used as a landing for flips he did off my mom’s small workout trampoline when we were in junior high. The springs had attempted to hold their own over the years, but I could see Noemí trying not to lean too far to her left as she sunk towards the heavier weight I provided. Ray straddled a kitchen chair backwards, across the coffee table from us. My mom was in the kitchen getting some snacks together. “Don’t get your hopes up, Chica,” Ray told Noemi as we overheard the clang of plates and utensils. “About all’s you’re gonna get around here is the kinda cheese that comes out of a can, hope you know.” He looked her up and down, then added, “You probably know.” “Nice to meet you,” Noemi said. “That sounds fine.” “Uh-huh,” Ray answered. “Sure it does.” Then he turned to me. “What you been up to, brother? Hittin’ it with the ladies, I see?” “No, Ray, I’ve pretty much just been working.” So were his attempts to embarrass me. “Boringly predictable, this one,” he said to Noemi. He took a deep breath and leaned back a bit in his metal chair, appraising the situation and slowly identifying the role he’d like to take within it. Eventually, he leaned forward once again, folded his arms over the back of the chair as if he were setting in for a long conversation, and looked my date square in the face. The inquisition began with, “First time on this side of town?” Ray nodded towards Noemí’s pretty hair and attire as he posed this question. “You slumming today? You a tourist?” I noticed the museum docent’s tone return swiftly, as if by default, to Noemí’s voice: “No, actually my grandparents live a few blocks from here. I spent a lot of time at MacArthur Park as a kid.” This answer kind of threw Ray, who generally expected events and conversations to evolve in parallel to the way he’d pictured them in their cartoon form beforehand. “Oh,” he said, and drew a long gulp on his beer. “So how’d you get into art? Mom says you and my sidekick here met at a museum?” “I guess I just was always drawing as a child,” Noemí explained calmly, “and so when I got to high school and college, I signed up for a lot of art classes, and got into museum studies from there.” I knew from earlier conversations that this was a version of the story that had been stripped of the emotion my date truly felt for her area of study. Noemí was good at reading people. “Ah, yes,” Ray answered, cocking his head wistfully and exhaling slowly, as if with the pleasure of sweet nostalgia, “Museum Studies.” He paused for a bit – sentence-formulation is a project, after all. Finally, he asked, “So you’re artsy-fartsy, then?” and judging by his posture and my intimate knowledge of the man’s habits, I thought for one dire moment that he planned to manifest the concept.
Noemí stayed behind in the kitchen under the guise of politely helping my mother with the dinner preparations, and I returned solo to the sitting room. Ray was ready for me. Remember he’d had that twentyminute warm-up period while I was in the other room. “You know it’s not going to make a difference, right?” he asked me. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere – a phrase that basically summed up his life – physically or otherwise, so I figured I’d try rolling with it. I sat back down in my spot from before. “What’s not going to make any difference?” “Seeing her. Or, more than that, the genius tours. It doesn’t change the fact that you wear a tool belt to work each morning.” “That’s true, Ray, it doesn’t. Nor is it related to what I wear for work, or what I do for work even. These studies are just something I’m doing on the inside. They have nothing to do with anything else. Anyone can learn this stuff, you know; it doesn’t matter if you put on sewagetrudging rubber boots or stilettos or power suit loafers, for that matter.” “Maybe. But what are you doing it for? What are you going to do with all of it when you’re done?” Ray asked. “I’m not going to do anything with it,” I told him. “I’m just going to have it, I guess. I’m going to think about it, use it as a lens or whatever. Get perspective on things. You know.” “No, not really,” he said softly. 67
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A delicious pause befell us. “Hey,” I said, after some moments, “I’ll go grab us a couple beers.” “Nah, that’s alright, brother,” he said, standing up. “I’m gonna take off. Probably better that way.” “Don’t be ridiculous, Ray,” I told him, thinking back to my short bus plans with some bittersweet regret. “We’re family, after all. Anyhow, where you gonna go?” He looked at me almost sheepishly. “Well, your place, I guess.” “Yeah,” I said. “That’s probably about right. I’ll see you there later tonight.” I put out my hand and we shook. He was out the door before my mom and Noemí were back from the kitchen.
when I arrived, blaring the TV and instigating arguments and making it difficult for me to concentrate on anything but him and me. Certain things in life were inescapable. Looking out the window, I realized that this bus ride wasn’t one of them. I hopped off behind some business people about twenty minutes from home, figuring I’d walk from there. The city looked different seeing it from within, instead of whizzing by horizontally out some window. In a few minutes, I’d call Noemi and talk about last night. For now, I’d just enjoy walking among the crowds who went about their visible routines as they had to, a seeming herd comprising individuals whose inner pursuits simply went unseen by the rest of us. ●
The ride home from work that day felt anything but linear. My movements did not progress from one point to the next, but rather took me from the place where my limited education had led me to spend my weekdays towards the person who served as a constant reminder of that very background. I knew Ray would still be home
• • • Erin Lebacqz grew up in California and now lives and teaches in New Mexico. She has published in local newspapers and has work forthcoming in Little Fiction.
To Say What is Necessary, What is Valid by Jenn Monroe I had not intended to fall asleep; I only wanted to find a more viable alphabet — What is the use of 26 symbols arranged just and so if they cannot speak in any way? No liberty to cast them a tumble, just rules, boundaries, preconceived ideas of what sounds they produce. Do they have ears? Do they know someone filled them with obnoxious limitations? Rhetoric is blah blah. All we say is “yeah” as the nice man in the burnt orange sweater tells us that buying life insurance for our toddler isn’t morbid. I watch the city 12 stories below and am moved by his question, Are you a pilot, suddenly, to fly! — make it all new, start from the bottom up. No traditional “alpha,” momentous glyphs, doom sounding “omega.” I want something lithe, curved by breath, lips, tongues—some solo, some duet, others a chorus uncountable. A real freedom of expression. • • • Jenn Monroe is founder, editor, and executive producer of Extract(s): Daily Dose of Lit and author of the chapbook Something More Like Love. She is a full-time faculty member at the New Hampshire Institute of Art where she teaches an array of creative and public writing courses.
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that conference, everyone acknowledged that. I wasn’t even forty years old, I was Hispanic, I was a woman, and that audience of respected physicians stood up and applauded me. So, really, what kind of competition could Lisa Velasquez even hope to pose against me? I didn’t know what she did for a living, but please. In my peripheral vision, I could see that at least two of the men watching me, divorced men probably, had stepped closer. I was a woman alone, easy prey. I took a few steps forward, closer to Lisa. She was arm in arm with a gorgeous man, looked like he fell off the cover of GQ magazine, Hispanic GQ magazine, anyway. Funny, I thought he’d be white. Lisa and her man stood near a large round table. Several people were standing around them. They all talked and laughed. Lisa and he were clearly the center of attention. The two of them were so happy, so naturally and effortlessly happy. They had a familiarity between them that was nothing but positive. Others around them had to try a little bit for their happiness, had to work for it. But not Lisa. She and her man made a striking couple. They didn’t affect an attitude. They didn’t put on airs. They weren’t pretending. They weren’t escaping reality or even ignoring it temporarily. They were just being. It was impossible, absolutely impossible, but there it was right in front of me, an irrefutable truth, like cold, hard math. Somehow, someway she remained everything I hoped to be. Twenty years later, Lisa Velasquez was still everything that I wasn’t. ●
Wasn’t by John Domenichini s I headed to my 20-year high school reunion, I didn’t think about the good things, I thought about the bad things. I thought about Lisa Velasquez. In high school, Lisa was everything that I wasn’t. We were both Mexican-American girls in a predominantly white high school, but she was popular, she was funny, she was pretty, she was American. I was unknown, I was boring, I was ugly, I was Mexican. For 20 years, I toiled to break that image. I struggled. I didn’t go back to the 5 or 10 year reunions. I didn’t want to be reminded of what I was, or more importantly, of what I wasn’t. But now, now, things would be different. I entered the hall of the hotel. I saw people, but I didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t recognize them. I realized that I couldn’t remember anyone except Lisa Velasquez. I couldn’t remember guys from back then, although I knew that some of those guys were important to me in high school. Then, I saw her across the room. Damned if she didn’t look the same. Whatever. It didn’t matter. I could hold my own against her. At that very moment, men were looking at me, my classmates, presumably. Of course they were looking. Men always did, for the last ten years anyway. I could feel their eyes on me right then and there. I didn’t know who they were and they most certainly didn’t remember me. Even if they did, they didn’t recognize this woman standing in front of them as that girl from high school. What they saw was a statuesque woman carved from stone, perfect posture, with poise and confidence. They saw me, they wanted me. After high school, I didn’t focus on my looks. I focused on prestige. I wanted some. I wanted a lot. I studied medicine. A female Hispanic doctor: I envisioned it and loved the image. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I strove for. It was painful. I wasn’t drawn to medicine for the sake of medicine, but I was driven. After years and years of study, finally, I was drawn to cardiology. I don’t know why, but I was drawn to it. I didn’t have to push anymore. I was pulled toward it. It was liberating. I wasn’t working off of will power alone anymore. I was inspired. I was energized. That’s when I lost weight; when I stood up straight; when I looked people in the eye; when I said I’m as good as you are, in fact I’m better; when men asked me out in droves. I dated a lot, any race, but only successful men, only the most successful. There, at the reunion, I stood with tremendous confidence. I didn’t know my classmates, but it was likely that I was the most successful person from our graduating class. Just a week before, I spoke at a conference in Miami where I received a standing ovation for a speech on postoperative protocol related to heart surgery. Usually, not even physicians like such topics. I took a boring topic and made it exciting. I spearheaded an early study that resulted in lives saved. No question, no doubt. My team saved lives and improved lives. At
• • • John Domenichini's writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Mysterical-E, and Daily Love.
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And now there is an ambulance. She does not remember making the call. But now there are muddy footprints in the hall. The rain led them there. And now there is his heartbeat, skillfully put back in its place. She pauses. Then, she chases down the pursuit of the hospital. Rain screaming, she has nowhere else to go. In the waiting room, her eyesight hovers over the hands that could not heal. She does not know if she wanted them to do so, if her hesitating indecision wanted to revive his own irresolution. In his bed, he fell from life. In this hospital he remains motionless, levitating over his own conclusion, like how his hand hovered over the bottle, deciding on that one last sip. That one last sip that made life slip. And the florescent light pierces into her eyes. By now it is past the early morning, has crawled further toward the rain that began at eight. She continues to avoid the other people's stares, their own pressing problems. Her breath raises with a fierce need to descend. This day she has been predicting for over a decade. The scene is now not so ludicrous. The crux of her decision, the final sway to try to turn his deathly decisions unwantingly crawled up her elbows as she pumped down on his chest. She did not know if that's what she wanted to do, if she wanted to create him to be again, to re-detonate the dereliction. The ribs cracked. And where is she to go now? The nurse leads her to a smaller waiting room. A nun joins her, preparing for the news. This is it: the husband has finally vanished. But perhaps he escaped long before his last breath. This, she knows. Her hands re-gain their position woven into her lap. She sits, noticing her calm, her unregretfully expectant exhalations of yes, this yes, this relief. ●
Her Hands by Chelsey Clammer he room grows increasingly gray. The curtains shut their lids to the crawling day. My mother looks down on my father's body and sees the same distorted mess she has been seeing for over a decade. Only this time he is dead. His body is twisted around itself, the gray covering his flesh. My mother cracks his ribs trying to pump life back into him. The screams from the night before echo in his flattened chest. She awoke at 6 a.m. to the sounds of him in the next room. He was doing something, hopefully not killing himself. Though that could have been the case, was indeed the accurate occurrence as he reached for the remnants in that last bottle of vodka with his outstretched lips. His soon to be cold lips. Something in him must have felt distorted, must have felt fuzzy in that mass of skin he knew not what to do with, his blood that swirled with liquor. He did the only thing he knew to do. He drank. And it is a few hours later. And she wakes up to a house draped in silence. There is no movement from the other side of the wall, no sound of a man sighing with life. She urges the silence to continue. Or, she becomes curious about the silence and seeks to find its meaning. The source of something that feels so far gone. Where there cannot be a heart to hear. The present tense of wondering rises. The rain begins to impatiently tap the windows with its fingers. She slides through the stagnant smelling space, through the air that did not hold him back from throwing back another drink. She opens his bedroom door, the wood swelling with gasps. She enters into the scene she had in some way been waiting for. He lies contorted against the side of his bed. His dog, nestled behind his pretzeled legs. Each body knot tugged into his chest, the chin not breaking free. My mother tries to upthrust his breath. Whisperfree moment. With each pump her fingers further inscribe his disappearance. She turns her head to write the longest version of her sorrow yet. His ghost hovers above her arms. What if earlier she had heard the sound of eyelashes falling? There is a distance now between herself and the sheaves of his skin. The tale now past its climax. A denouement into this unexpected yes, this finally. In the room, the morning light decides if it should crack through. Outside the window, the rain says no. Inside the room, his heart agrees, concedes. There is nowhere else she can place her hands. The internal text of her indecision, her thoughts that infinitely wavered between if she wanted him alive or dead, now translate onto his body as gone. She did not know if she wanted him to live. There is nothing else she can do here. Last night, he considered the meaning of her love, now lost. Last night, he threatened to fill his pockets with stones. The boulder of cracked dreams tumbled forward. She turned her back to him then, eased herself into sleep. There is nothing else to see here.
• • • Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women's Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in THIS, Stone Highway, Spittoon, and Make/shift among many others. Her essay BodyHome received the Editor's Pick 2012 Award from Revolution House. She is currently finishing up a collection of essays about finding the concept of home in the body, is working on a second collection of essays tilted There Is Nothing Else to See Here, as well as a memoir about being committed to psychiatric wards. She is also the creative nonfiction editor of the online literary journal www.re-ject.org. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.wordpress.com.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
by Beth McHugh
Life is a Hard Rock I
’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up here, with a ten-year-old girl to take care of, an unfinished degree, and an effeminate Russian man. Stella is Anton’s niece, but they only recently met, when Anton arrived from Russia and discovered that his brother and sister-in-law had killed themselves and left him their only bit of wealth: a scrawny, desolate daughter. I was a friend of the Alexanders, the dead Alexanders, and would sometimes take care of Stella when I wasn’t busy working on my master’s thesis, which is quite often since I periodically change my mind about my topic. Before Stella happened I was thinking something about Silkworms, and how they might be some kind of poverty solution to Chinese farmers. Lately though, I’ve become fascinated about the complexities of parental love around the world. I’m sure Stella’s weren’t the only parents who just felt they couldn’t deal with it anymore and flung their offspring out into the universe thinking that the world was one big cushion. I am twenty-eight years old, and my first lesson to Stella will be this: “Life is not a pillow. It is a very hard rock.” There must be a blind symmetry to life though, because just about the time I was having to return a box of kitty litter so I would have enough money in my bank account to cover rent, I met Mr. and Mrs. Alexander. They were new hires at the university, hired together because one of them, Mrs. Alexander, was an expert in European History, and the other, Mr. Alexander, knew enough Russian to teach an introductory language course. He’d never taught anything before, but he liked the feeling of standing before large groups of people so teaching made sense. He hired me on as assistant since I’d studied Russian in undergraduate school, and three times a week I found myself stuffed beside him in his little attic office at the Alexander residence, grading the scratchy hand of two dozen nineteen-year olds. The Alexanders lived in a narrow house four blocks from campus; it was not a mansion, but had three floors above the basement and an attic, and its winding, narrow outer appearance gave an impression of something tottering, as if the whole thing would lose grip on the ground at one corner and come falling like a tree truck. Inside, the house was solid and warm. Mrs. Alexander had an affinity for red; red couches, red oriental rugs, red lampshades—all filled each room with a wealthy and long-established air. In his attic, Mr. Alexander was allowed decorative freedom, and we sat grading or arranging lessons on painted wooden chairs between three walls of books. Mr. Alexander also liked candles; he burned them constantly, so the room was often overwhelmed with the scents of hot cinnamon or lavender. If I hadn’t had his company or the task at hand to keep me somewhat alert, I could have fallen into some fantastic naps in that tiny, high-up hovel.
In the attic a dormer window looked down into the back yard, where a crumbling wooden swing-set stood beside a hole in the grass that was mounded with gravel—a makeshift sand box. Stella spent her afternoons there when the weather was mild, and in between bouts of study I would watch her from the attic. She was rarely a happy child. She played in the yard with a set frown on her pointed face; her movements as she went from swing to sand box almost regimented, as if she were following orders from some invisible dictator. She had one toy; a bald-headed Barbie doll named EllenFaye, for whom she constructed clothes out of leaves and mud. She played until five-thirty, when Mrs. Alexander would call her in to practice the piano, and when Mr. Alexander would sigh, run his veined hands through his hair, and declare the afternoon a lost cause. As we descended through each red room we could hear Stella at the piano—a monstrous, engraved upright that stood in the hallway outside the kitchen. She played very well for a ten-year old, Chopin and Beethoven and Bach, all the choices lively and pounded out feverishly on the keys. Her favorite piece to play was by Schumann, ‘Kinderszenen’; a sweet, strangely absolute tune that signified the end of each practice session. Mrs. Alexander would call that her dinner was ready—Mr. and Mrs. Alexander ate at eleven over brandy—and I would be shown to the door. I became Stella’s nanny quite easily. One afternoon in the attic, the air stuffed to the brim with the scent of lupine, Mr. Alexander stopped in his work to find me looking out the window at Stella. “She’s a pretty girl, isn’t she,” he said. “Yes.” I turned from the window and saw that he was studying me, the light from the candle etching his features to his face in deep rivets. He pushed himself back from the table and joined me at the window. The room was cramped, and we had to lean together to view the backyard. I could smell the skin over his collarbone; he gave off a scent of well-hidden sweat. “Does she have any friends?” I asked. “No,” Mr. Alexander said. When I didn’t respond he looked at me. “Is that strange?” he asked. “Oh,” I said, uncomfortable under his gaze, “maybe not.” “That is strange,” Mr. Alexander decided. “She should have a friend. Did you have friends Leah? When you were a girl?” “A few.” “I didn’t have many friends when I was younger. I suppose I’ve forgotten what that was like.” I nodded, unsure of what to say, and sat back at the table, pulling a stack of papers toward me. There was silence for a few moments; Mr. Alexander remained by the window, hands on his hips, his face drawn in deep 71
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concern. We could hear the muffled, far-off sounds of Stella playing in the backyard--the thud of her feet when she jumped from the swing; the high-pitch of her cry as she made Ellen-Faye fly through the air into the gravel pit. “I think we’ve worked enough for today,” Mr. Alexander said. I looked at the table, strewn with paper and open books. “It’s only three-thirty,” I said. “You must have other things you’d like to do.” “Yes,” I said. “Alright then.” He nodded and left the room without another word. I gathered my things and went slowly down through the house, listening. On the ground floor, in the living room, I heard their voices. “Ellen-Faye has a cold, Papa,” Stella said. “Ellen-Faye has influenza.” “Poor Ellen-Faye!” “Bury her in the gravel to be warm.” “How will she breathe?” “She has gills.”
interject. “She mentioned the other day that she liked you and I’m not surprised, you’re good company for her. She was always alone before. I would be with her myself, or her mother, but we’re so busy. It seems we’re always so busy. But she’s a good little girl, isn’t she? She is a good little girl.” His voice shook as he finished. Looking at him, it occurred to me that Mr. Alexander was not a young man, that one day in his late forties he had discovered that he was a father and that still, after nearly ten years, he had yet to understand what this meant to him. I enjoyed his unease; it gave me a feeling of power. I nodded and smiled in response and followed him into the classroom, the sensation of what he had admitted drowning in the din of students savoring their final moments of freedom. Stella didn’t exactly love me, but she didn’t hate me either. She began to let me sit beside her when she practiced the piano, or to hold the towel for Ellen-Faye after her daily bath in the kitchen sink. We moved inside when December came; the backyard was hard and frozen, and the sky hung heavy with waiting snow. I was spending almost every day at the Alexanders, meeting Stella at the bus stop after school and fixing her afternoon snack. “My uncle is coming to visit next week,” she said one afternoon as we were applying lotion to Ellen-Faye’s waxy legs. “This is good for her,” Stella said, smiling as a mother might do. “She has been struggling with some psoriasis lately. Don’t rub so hard, Leah.” “Sorry,” I said. “Do you like your uncle?” “I’ve never met him. He’s my father’s brother. He’s Russian.” She began spreading lotion over Ellen-Faye’s shoulders with the tip of her thumb. “My parents are Russian you know. They weren’t born there, of course, but my Grandma Faye grew up there.” “Is that how you named Ellen-Faye?” Stella blushed. “Maybe,” she said. “Not the Ellen part though. That I came up with on my own.” “I like it.” We were quiet for a few minutes; the wind had picked up outside and now and then somewhere in the house a window rattled against its frame. “Have you ever been to Russia?” “No! Don’t say that kind of thing. I’ll never go.” “Why not?” “They’re all Commies, duh.” “Not anymore, Stella. That was a long time ago.” “You don’t know anything,” she said, yanking EllenFaye away from my reach. She coddled her, whispered in her ear. “Is that what your parents told you, Stella?” “Please,” she scoffed, “they love Russia. They want to have sex with Russia.” I laughed and Stella blushed, lowering her eyes from my face. “Ellen-Faye is tired,” she said. It was a tactic she had, switching to a younger voice, babying her talk after she had revealed something callous and shrewd about herself. “Stella,” I said, “your parents love you very much.” I braced myself for her anger, but at the same time felt something new in our rapport, a sense of power on my part, as if Stella had exposed a weakness unintentionally and was unsure of how to cure her mistake. She looked
The next afternoon, when I arrived at the Alexander house, Mrs. Alexander answered the door and told me that her husband had decided to work on campus today, but would I mind very much watching Stella while she went to teach her four o’clock lecture? I agreed and went out to the backyard, secretly relieved to spend an afternoon outside instead of up in the stuffy, perfumed attic. The day was cold; it was early November, and Stella was wrapped in a knee-length down jacket, her feet in rubber boots, her head bare. When she saw me she put her hands to her hips; Ellen-Faye’s bald, smiling head poked out of one coat pocket. “What are you doing out here?” she asked. “That’s a lovely sand-box you’ve got,” I said. She seemed thrown by the change of subject. Turning, she slowly inspected the mound of cold gravel. “It’s crap. You can’t go in or you’ll cut yourself.” “Ellen-Faye goes in,” I said. “Don’t you worry about Ellen-Faye,” she said warily, moving off towards the swing set. I put my bag by the back door and sat beside her on a swing. “I suppose you can stay,” she said. “My father will come play with me later though.” “Ok,” I said, pushing myself into motion with the tips of my toes. I squinted in the slow rush of air that cut against my face. From then on, whenever I arrived at the Alexander house, I was greeted by Mrs. Alexander, given Mr. Alexander’s apologies, and directed around to the backyard. I had been feeling ambivalent for weeks; I was not interested in my thesis, not interested in Russian, not interested in anything except that which could divert me from what had to be done, so I welcomed Stella’s distraction. I still saw Mr. Alexander on campus when he taught and he seemed embarrassed around me, forever trying to stop short our conversations, as if he were waiting for me to call him out on his sly maneuvering of my assistant duties. One day he came close to admitting what he’d done. We were walking towards the classroom at noon. “Stella enjoys your company, Leah,” he said. He spoke without pause so I wouldn’t have a chance to 72
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up at me, the blue of her eyes almost fading into the white. “Yes,” she said, her voice dull. “I know.” She wiped a blot of lotion from Ellen-Faye’s frozen face. “She should go to bed now.” I nodded. We finished slathering the doll, wrapped her carefully in a strip of cheesecloth and put her to bed on a striped red and blue cushion beneath Stella’s nightstand. “When my uncle comes,” Stella whispered as we tiptoed through the room, “will you come to dinner to meet him?” The unease from the kitchen had faded, and with the curtains drawn in the bedroom, Stella’s eyes had turned a hardy grey. “If your parents say it’s alright.” “They will if I ask them.” We walked together down the hallway, our footsteps muffled in the plush maroon carpet, and as we turned to go down to the living room to watch Whose Afraid of the Dark?, Stella slipped a cool hand into mine. I felt my heart shift a fraction within my chest, a movement so subtle and deeply buried I couldn’t be sure it had happened at all.
It was not an unusual night. Stella and I made pancakes, painted Ellen-Faye’s toe-tips in pink polish, and watched half of It’s a Wonderful Life on TV before Stella fell asleep on the couch, still wrapped as a turnip, her green sprouts askew. I woke her, guided her upstairs to her bedroom, and helped her out of the costume and into her pajamas. She was asleep by the time I left the room, Ellen Faye beside her. I took the costume to the attic. In one corner was a tall stack of cardboard boxes, pushed away to make room for Mr. Alexander’s desk and filing cabinets. Mrs. Alexander had labeled each box, and each one pertained to Stella’s youth in some way: Stella’s Creations, read the top box. Stella’s Baby Clothes, Stella’s Pictures, Stella’s Toys. There were ten Stella boxes in total, a surprising number since Stella’s every day existence seemed to fit itself so subtly into the Alexanders’ lives. Here, in one dark corner of the attic, Mrs. Alexander had organized and labeled her daughter’s history, adding mothballs so it wouldn’t fall victim to time, but otherwise letting it rest quietly. I put the costume in the box labeled Stella’s Holidays, alongside a pair of plastic reindeer antlers, a bag filled with carved wooden soldiers, and a broken music box. I stayed for a while in the attic, enjoying its close warmth and the way it held on to the residue of Mr. Alexander’s candles. There were several waxy stubs around the room. There are moments now and then, when I see a well-dressed woman, or an empty swing set, or when I hear the sound of sudden laughter, and I am taken back swiftly to the winter night before Christmas when I took care of Stella. I have given up trying to find the connection between this night and the one that followed. If I stayed long enough in memory perhaps I could find an answer, but I like to imagine there isn’t one. I like to think of the way the old candles smelled, and the yellow glow that came through the attic window from the backyard, something having set off the motion light above the garage. If I go much further, if I leave the moment and possible conclusions arise, I find myself caught in an eddy of despair. It should not be the case that life can be taken with such ease, and I imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Alexander found it easy to remove themselves from the world, from Stella’s world. I have boundless hate for them. I went to the window when I heard the garage door open. They had returned from the party. I watched them come through the backyard. Mrs. Alexander was ahead, stumbling in her high heels. She was laughing—a high, frantic laughter. Her cape blew open around her, and her thin white neck was splayed out to the cold air. Mr. Alexander came behind her; he made to grab her by the waist, and for a moment I thought they were playing, that he was trying to embrace her, kiss her hair, feel the
There are moments now and then, when I see a well-dressed woman, or an empty swing set, or when I hear the sound of sudden laughter, and I am taken back swiftly to the winter night before Christmas when I took care of Stella.
Mrs. Alexander called one evening the week before Christmas and asked if I could come watch Stella; she and Mr. Alexander had been invited to a departmental holiday party. I left my studio apartment littered with wrapping paper and Christmas lights and walked the four blocks to the Alexander house. Stella answered the door in her Halloween costume. “Mother says I have to put it in the attic,” she explained. “I wanted to wear it one more time, it was such a good costume, don’t you think?” I nodded. She was dressed as a turnip, her sprouts a tiny green cap on the back of her head. She had thrown a Halloween party that year, inviting everyone in her class at school. Only six people showed up, including Mr. Alexander and me. Mrs. Alexander had been out of town. “We get to have pancakes for dinner tonight, Mother says.” Mrs. Alexander came out of the kitchen then, her lithe body swathed in a black evening gown. A thick strand of pearls caught against her neck and fell the length of her back. “We’ll be home by eleven,” she said. She bent and gave Stella a kiss on the forehead. “Remember the moth balls when you pack that up,” she said, tweaking the edge of the turnip costume. We followed her to the front hall where she was joined by Mr. Alexander in full formal dress, a thick wool coat making his shoulders appear broader than they were. He held out Mrs. Alexander’s red cape, and together they went into the night, sending back kisses and a waft of frigid air. “You’re my little darling!” Mrs. Alexander called at the front gate. Stella stood in the light of the doorway, curtsying goodbye. 73
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shape of her body from behind. When he touched her though, she wrenched herself awkwardly away from him and fell to the frozen grass. The impact turned her laughter to a low wail and Mr. Alexander stood over her, not offering his help. He said something, one word, and held his hands to his face. I turned away then, filled with a sudden fear, as if someone had jumped out and startled me. I did not wait to greet them. I ran through the house, took my coat from the hall closet and left, the sound of Mrs. Alexander’s cry following me down the street.
“Shut up,” I snapped. I covered my mouth and nose with the collar of my jacket. He looked at me with startled blue eyes and continued his low moan. “My God. My God.” I went to the Buick, the smell of the carbon monoxide releasing itself in slow waves out through the open door of the garage, and reached a hand through Mr. Alexander’s window. His face was calm and waxen, but up through the flush of his skin crept a gray light, and from this vantage I could see that his smile was fading to an expression hollow and unfamiliar, one with no relation to any expression of life. I pulled the key from the ignition and jerked back, wiping my palms on my pants. Down through my layers of winter clothing my skin was humming with heat, and I felt beads of sweat breaking out on my temple. I left Anton in the garage rocking his small body back and forth as if rocking a child to sleep, his leather case pressed to his chest with both arms. Outside, the gathering snow illuminated the night and everything was deafened in an orange glow. In the backyard, Stella’s mound of gravel was a white hill. She was perched on the very top, her black down jacket spread around her, her head bare. I stood at her feet. “Stella,” I said. She looked beyond me. “Ellen-Faye has died, too,” she said. She extended the naked doll to me. “She’s died from the cold.” ●
It was the next evening, almost five and already dark, when Mr. Alexander telephoned and asked if I could pick his brother up at the airport. There was no reason this time, there was only the request, delivered with the slightest note of command, and I agreed. I had been thinking of Stella all day. Anton was Mr. Alexander’s brother, and when I met him at the airport he embraced me and kissed my right cheek. His mouth was cold, even though he’d just come off the plane, and he had to set his case down and reach his head up in order to catch the side of my face. I showed him to the car. “Nice car,” he said. “My brother does well for himself.” He had a short, simple way of speaking that was pleasing, though I felt that behind his words were infinite amounts of observation and even a little judgment. I thought about what Stella had said, about them all being Communists, and on the drive home I tried to see traces of this in Anton. He maintained a half smile through every stoplight, every one red and glowing out through the still December night. Snow began to fall when we reached the strip mall, and the fat flakes gathered with ambivalence on the street. “There was snow there I bet,” I said. “When you left.” It was a caustic remark; tossed off with the notion that I knew anything about the life he had left behind. “Yes,” he said. “There is snow.” He continued to gaze out the passenger window, his face placid. We pulled into the driveway. The center of every window in the Alexander house was lit by a single red Christmas light; plastic bulbs shaped to imitate real candles, and Anton admired these while I searched for the garage remote. The doors opened slowly, a huge yawning mouth, and I pulled in next to the Alexanders’ other car, an ancient, cushioned Buick. Because we stayed a few minutes in the closed car, gathering our belongings, and because we had brought the fresh air in with us, we did not at first notice the heat of the space, or the liquid way the air hung, laced with a foreign substance. Barely visible in the dim interior of the garage, I made out two round shapes resting together in the center of the front seat of the Buick. They were heads. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander’s, and they appeared to be sleeping, using the other for support so they wouldn’t fall lengthwise across the leather seat. On either face was a pleasant, dreaming expression. For one ridiculous moment I believed they were actually sleeping, and imagined that they looked the way they might if I were to have come upon them in their bedroom, spread gracefully on the thick red quilt of their king-sized bed. Behind me, Anton began speaking. “My God,” he said in a quavering, matronly tone. He said it over and over. “My God. My God.” I turned on him.
• • • Beth McHugh is a native Montanan with a long Montana history and a strong connection to her state. She graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Montana in 2009. Living in Missoula, she currently teaches writing at both the Missoula College and The Bitterroot College Program. She writes the blog Small Soul, where she challenges herself to show her writing to the world. http://smallthingssoulthings.blogspot.com/
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
every machine gunned word (stutter) by Kate LaDew every machine gunned word from my mouth is evidence of their failure, tongue spattering against clenched teeth, syllables splayed in two, blood dripping down my chin, watching them watch me, forced twin smiles ripped in half, clenched teeth, clenched fists, clenched teeth, clenched fists, weary heads nodding along to the clips and starts, eyes blurring, hoping to reveal a prettier picture-my mother took me to classes after school waiting with other dumbstruck kids, the room filled with distractions anything to keep the hands occupied, limit speech my life has been stutters and stumbles to compensate, afraid to say what I want when nothing comes easy I’ve managed to become nothing, and been so slow doing it-but what have I done to them? this beautiful little girl they once had, reduced to close lipped mutterings this beautiful little girl grown up, unable to look anyone in the eye, afraid to see the pity, the nervous laughter. I will never give an acceptance speech, never wave at my mother, my father from a stage all my words have bled out, there’s nothing to reward, and all I am is afraid curled up inside myself, waiting for the gunfire to die down-hands grasp mine, old hands, tired hands, veins coursing with matching blood, we three are dying together, felled at the knees and I’m sorry. if only I could tell you, if only my lips could form the notes-the rat a tat tat of consonants and vowels hits your chest, leaves blood like a star over those old hearts, those tired hearts-I didn’t want to fail, I wanted to give you something, anything at all, if my breath would only fill my lungs completely for just a moment, I could tell you what I’ve been saving up all my life-I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry • • • Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art.
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
running buses. I was to turn east on Broadway, past the perennial picketers of modern conveniences and their hand-written signs and their clear eyes, like mine, filled with destinations. Things were darkening earlier. I could barely make out my office at the far end of the tunnel. At this time of day I was the same color as everyone else. As I mechanically spun my heels and rounded the corner, something must have cut across my path, for I was suddenly all forward falling without the time to panic. My knees and palms struck cement. Once the blinding red flashes of unexpected pain subsided, I looked up from my collapse to find my face inches from a wall of unruly fur, whose scent was palpable and lingered on my tongue. What shocked me most was not the blood lightly rimming my slashed knee, not the sting of distraction to which I wasn’t at all accustomed, not my sudden proximity to slumbering street life and potential danger, but how transfixed I could become, without notice or desire, of something so familiar yet foreign, perhaps familiar because of its distance. The rest of the morning and well into afternoon I suffered the meetings and paperwork, the brief and fierce telephone exchanges, the sound of my signature repeatedly scratched in black ink across the bottom of contracts, all while absorbed in the mat of fur that was of so many muted, imprecise colors it could well be called colorless. I would stand by my window exactly as before, though without wearing the pose of one expecting the judgment of eyes upon him, and as I skimmed across the surface of the city the pebble I considered myself began to dip into the deep recesses cut from buildings. I was looking for something too small from this height to be distinguished. I didn’t consider other animals more or deliberate on the larger concepts of poverty and wealth, but the next morning I turned that same corner and stopped beside the dog that had already stolen much of my attention and my sleep. I crouched beside it and simply witnessed. This is the best word I can find to describe the unspoken conversation that ensued. Each morning I remained a few moments longer, to the point that after decades of punctuality I began entering my office later and later in the day. I didn’t need to look to the clock or heed my superior’s remarks to feel my grasp on time’s throat slipping from my hands. It breathed without me, and I followed its breath. I began leaving home earlier, while my wife was still asleep, while the sun was still a memory and a hope, and I changed my return course to ensure we crossed paths a second time. I told no one about these encounters but for my wife, and only in those black hours when the pillow and her dreams barred my voice from her ears. In other words, in those hours when she too was someone else. As I pressed my face into the dog’s, inhaling its sickly breath that grew sweeter over the weeks, I tasted, in fact could swallow, what I would never understand on a temporal level. We were simply bound, without gradual transition or rational reason. I toyed with those philosophies nearly forgotten after college. I cracked the dead spines of tired thoughts under the guise that I still was a learned man. I skimmed the Germans and the French, the Austrians and Brits—all dead men. But I discovered little to explain
Dog and Master by John Sibley Williams
could not immediately say what drew me to the dog and not his master, or either at all for that matter. There was a time when each morning I would leave my apartment in all its floor-to-ceiling glass, its scrutiny of the entire city at such a distance that only the supple rays of afternoon and stark cuts of night were permitted me, and then walk with that sure-footed character of an empty mind toward my office, which stood equally tall and gazed back at my home, above the roof gardens and pigeons. For hours, I would pose against their transparent walls, hands deep in my pockets, and let myself slip across the surface of the rest of the world. A stone mid-flight, I struck against the generators and balustrades, echoed off the cold concrete and colder clouds, scratched across the solid human wave, their umbrellas, their lives. Upon withdrawing from the apartment building’s infinite green canopy, not a moment to either side of six-thirty each day, I would look up and down the promenade of manicured poplars united by a single lane of leaf-wrapped cars, and part ways with the woman I’d married so long ago we’d forgotten ourselves in each other. Her name I discovered a few years after the nuptials, once the pet pseudonyms and endearing aliases of all first things began to symbolize something of the unrecoverable past. She would wink in that trained, grandiose gesture of one already somewhere else and then strike north along the avenue. I would pretend I didn’t notice her as she vanished faceless into the dewy vegetation of people. I would fix my coat’s gray lapels, then my tie, always in that order, sigh myself weightless again, and then turn south toward my other existence. Routine struck hard at first, before I grasped it by the throat and began to speak in its voice. But eventually I mastered habit to the very precipice of its freedom. Time obeyed the limits I set for it, which were rigid and many and glass-like in my hands. And the half-mile space between my worlds did not exist, belonged to that unpainted canvass outside my understanding of things. But it’s the dog I want to speak of here, not who or what I was before climbing into it and taking that first breath. Though it may have always been there, mere feet from the tunnel I envisioned spreading before me while I strode to the office, a tunnel that ended in a specific destination, it was on one fine, crisp autumn morning just before exhalations become visible that I discovered this bizarre creature at one of the many intersections of my daily walk. I smelled the last throws of green upon the air, could sense their metamorphosis to orange in my lungs. I felt the various shapes of leaves strike my face and shoulders and crackle beneath my feet. The rainy season had come and gone and left only a trace of itself deep in the hardened earth and above in the gray invisible of sky. Again I had successfully dodged the long steel bike rack from which wheels jutted well into the sidewalk. I had negotiated the throngs of café patrons perfumed in rich coffee and cigarettes and the queues of those rubbing hands together in anticipation of late76
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this material predicament, this connection of something like souls that could change one being—with all its independence and memories, all its synapses and legacy, its blood, its wiring, its fears, its dreams—steadily into another being. I found nothing eccentric about my new routine or how it affected my world, for the moment I chanced upon the dog I knew we were united in our stark opposition to each other, in our shared purpose of defining the ends of a spectrum. His was a destination-less life, one without tunnels and certainty. Until now, I could not imagine a life not defined by them. Without us, nobody else could discern where on the thread of existence he had been, presently was, or hoped to be. What use would we have of dreams and attempts, improvements and failures, without the security of a compass from which to judge progress? I’d read of magnets, of course, and how the earth spins upon them, but now I understood the interrelation of poles, how they speak to and for each other, how it is by antitheses we know ourselves. Perhaps strangers, whether meandering through life or bound to their tunnels, paused to watch this peculiar site—a grown man dressed in the mode of high finance genuflected to one knee and lost in dialog with a stray dog—but I was too far absorbed to notice. Each visit I discerned something different, another chapter of a story, in the dog’s almond-shaped eyes, almost like unfallen raindrops hanging loosely from an eave. Marks from previous battles extended from its right eye down around its firm, motionless jaw, then looped in double helixes back up again to cut swatches of fur from its cheek and forehead. I would touch my own face and trace the injuries, which tingled beneath the pressure of my fingers. In having no scars, not even from those commonest of surgeries, I obsessed over the origins of these new wounds. How could they transfer from one face to another yet remain invisible except when alone and searching for them in a mirror? Had I in fact lived previously as a brawler, a drunk, a dog, and was just now remembering? Questions of the marks’ origins brought me back to the dog’s master, who never seemed to exist in a waking state. His sleeping grunts and unconscious movements proved him alive, but otherwise I could find no sign that a human heart still pumped blood through this fleshy shell. His chest-length beard, so matted with leftover foodstuffs and dotted with remnants of dew and saliva, quivered in the light autumn breeze and made him appear to talk in his sleep. But he was not speaking with us, the dog and I. He seemed to me the picture of neglect. And to this picture I added a violent temperament, an occasional kick into the faces of those who followed him. And yet the dog remained by his side. Some afternoons, as I tore into my lunch with a gathering ferocity and desperation, I tried to climb into this man, to experience his world and emulate the mindset I had given him. I ruminated over what inside him would cause such a need to externalize his pain by inflicting and thereby sharing it with those who were entrusted to him. Perhaps it was as simple as having something to share. Perhaps that was his half of a conversation. But somehow he was outside me still, like the café patrons and commuters, the picketers and dog walkers, the construction workers with
their pre-made sandwiches and yellow helmets, and my own employees and wife. Over them all I skipped my stone. There were moments I considered killing the dog. They increased in frequency and ferocity the more time we spent together, the deeper our conversation drilled. Something about my existence demanded both the necessity of his and the need to destroy it. A few mornings I went as far as stealing a small kitchen knife from its wooden block and sheathing it in my coat sleeve. I would kneel before the dog as if at the feet of an icon, begging understanding if not forgiveness, but never once could I pull out the blade. If I had, all options would narrow into one. There would be no turning back. Beyond that, there would no longer be a way to define myself. As I realized the futility of this murderous plot and accepted my impotence, my total vulnerability to elements outside me, something changed in the daily conversation I’d come to fear and cherish. The dog no longer represented the extreme other, the ballast to my pristine and safe world. That sense of world-weariness devoid of actually being weary of the world that I had immediately admired in its eyes now seemed a direct plea for solidarity, an invitation to leave myself, right there on the street, and sink into its eyes, its loose skin, its blood. I felt, finally, that it was seeing me on shared terms, which frightened me more than I can describe. No one in all those years had looked into me and seen a companion, an equal, but more than that had seen itself and asked me to collapse the division, to become it. That night I could not sleep. I could not even close my eyes. The stars of city lights crept from behind their glass and leapt about like candle sparks, burning my face. I could no longer feel that waxy mask I’d grown so accustomed to wearing. My fingers absently stroked my scars. My wife kicked out from her dreams, legs a brief flurry of anger and escape, and I recognized in them a long-held drive toward freedom. Suddenly I was in the bathroom with a razor to my throat. I was shaving my already smooth flesh without knowing why. The eyes that met mine were more me than I had ever seen them. They looked through me, past me, from within. I did not ask them if it all was a dream. And then I was in the closet, lost among dangling suits and their soft gray arms, their wide ties, their sickly perfume and lack of creases. I was moving through each room and opening a door. I did not close it. I was descending level after level beneath gentle security lights. I was panting. I could taste my breath. I was outside below the naked trees, within a whirlwind of leaves. I turned with them, corner after corner. I was on my knees and speaking through my eyes to the dog, which remained awake all night, waiting. Our scars did not hurt us any longer. I was straddling the master’s chest and yanking at his grizzled beard that fell across my lap like a napkin. I was for a moment that unsheathed kitchen knife bathed in its own light, and then I was cutting into raw meat. He never awoke. I grew hungry. I cut more and more away from him. I was myself, not my steel-jawed father or a dismissive husband, an employee or a citizen, a pebble soaring or sinking. I no longer regretted any of those red-swirled sunsets I’d missed in trying to act some other part. I stared out, comfortable, 77
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from my deep-set almond eyes and licked my paws clean of the blood and dew beneath them. I experienced the cold air in my fur. But mainly I sat there, motionless, keeping our vigil, silently sharing my side of things with a man who had just become my new master. ●
“A beautiful body, Gone cold with death, Yet still contained in glad purpose Towards another weary world decay Feeding sacred bushes that smoke & thin in the desert winter Blinded on sandy beaches, hidden beneath a glade & cliff As profaned skeletal thunderbirds fly with mouths shut Before a lunar god dreams a song inside another human.”
• • • John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks, winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart and Rumi Poetry Prizes. He has served as Acquisitions Manager of Ooligan Press and Publicist for Three Muses Press and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. Some of his over 200 previous or upcoming publications include: Inkwell, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, and Poetry Quarterly.
All so caught up and timed Each finger presses against her hair Her snoring wink uncovers spring madness Bringing together all things in the mystery of continuity An unmentioned formless struggle Brings the swift to their knees and the outspoken to tears. Now, she is only a tongue that shakes out of control. And finally clasped in between her near-shattered teeth She sinks into bone with a clenched jaw.
Repeated Dance of the Fluid Earth
“We, Each a single entity, Strive to perfect community Through the hell of isolation, wealth and speed.”
by Rusty Kjarvik
“Does a semblance of knowledge appear?” “What, out of the god of necessity? In the myriad forms of this swollen, fluid earth?”
Like the repetitious dance of an existential demise Rounding the curve of Her glow, that slew all feeling Into the warm sunset embrace.
438pm. Feb 22. 2010 San Francisco Airport. Listening to Keith Jarrett’s Vienna concert, 2 old ladies discuss Roman fiction.
“Our loudspeaker mind mumbles with numbing introspection Blowing bothersome & brooding guises of relief for the too many Patching up their sickly prize of sleep at each departure.”
• • • Rusty Kjarvik is a writer, musician and artist. Poetry publications include Poydras Review (August 2012), Danse Macabre, (July 2012). With short fiction in PressBoardPress (August 2012), and visual art for the cover of Eskimo Pie (July, August, September 2012), Kjarvik also blogs (www.rkjarvik.blogspot.com) and performs world music.
The growling elderly sit fixated & high Longing for the intimate stay of their grown children, Now equal slaves. The history of the Spanish mission-state: Gone... Through... Over... The brink of delicate awe Crashes, sinking in low time Rising with an inward smile. Courageous & sweet, She leaned in to the elegant find that was spotted Felt softer than fur worn by ancient prophets
The Rusty Nail, December 2012
Ralph stood up from the bench pulling up the white baseball pants he wore that stopped a few inches below his knees revealing a pair of spindly legs. He began tossing his baseball in the air and catching it in his glove. “Cut the shit,” he said. “Why, you wanna’ lick the knife?” Chi-Chi laughed at his own joke, but the others focused on Ralph. “Let’s play some fuckin’ ball.” Ralph’s words were a call to action. He was a big nosed, skinny kid with a mop of brown hair parted on the top of his head. But when he played ball, he was transformed into the kind of player you only found on baseball cards. When Ralph talked ball, the Tremont gang listened. “Walph is Wight,” said Victor Beansey. A childhood abnormality had made it impossible for him to breathe through his nose, resulting in the unfortunate Elmer Fudd dialect. “Let’s pway.” Doc sat on the bench’s concrete foot methodically peeling a blade of grass into almost invisible pieces. “Well, there are seven of us. We could play three on a side and a steady pitcher, but this is a pretty big field. We don’t have enough people to cover it.” Doc was always diagnosing things, that’s how he got his name. “We could spend the day chasing the damn ball all over the park,” he continued still peeling the blade of grass, “and into the damn street.” Everyone looked at Doc. He hadn’t stopped peeling that one blade of grass. Chi-Chi scratched the tire around his belly. “No, man, we gotta’ wait. The Irish boys should be here any minute.” “Faw..fuuufaww fawk them,” said Victor trying to sound tough in between wheezes. “Yeh, that’s right Vic. Who the hell needs those Micks,” added Mario lifting his left leg like a dog about to pee as his hand landed for a quick squeeze. Ralph tossed a baseball with splotches of green from infield zingers through the grass and caught it in his glove.” Well, all I know is,” he threw the ball much higher, so that he had to shuffle a couple of steps to his left to catch it, ”…all I know is I ain’t for sittin’ around bull shittin.” The ball hit his glove making a sharp “Splat” sound. “What’s your hurry, punk?” said JayBird. He bobbed his way in front of the bench. “I got a great story anyway. It’s about friggin’ George.” All eyes turned to George. Shit, George thought. Aw, shit. They know. How the frig did they find out? His mind began racing back to the last three Thursday mornings, searching for one point, one moment in time that gave him away. “I saw you, Georgie, you scum bag.” The bird was light as a feather as he walked mockingly around George. George could feel his face turn red. Damn it, he thought, don’t show them. Don’t let on. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?” “Oooh, he’s pissed,” Chi-Chi said. “What’s makin’ you all hot in the ass?” “I know,” the Bird said, returning to the bench ready to tell his story to an eager nest of hungry birds. “It was last Thursday.” Damn it. George closed his eyes. He knew he was done. Once his friends knew he was taking guitar lessons, they would never let up. They would mock him
Marka’ Shoba’ by Joe Cappello
hi-Chi and Mario Briosch were having a spitting contest. They stood next to each other chewing their tongues and sucking the phlegm from every pink passageway in their noses and throats. Chi-Chi was first to collect the goopy stuff in the center of his mouth. Suddenly his eyes widened as he snapped his head forward and hurled a tentacled gob through the air. Mario followed a moment later with a mucussy jelly fish that passed Chi-Chi’s like a shot and landed a good six inches in front of it on the concrete pavement. Mario raised his arms in triumph, then cupped his hand around his mouth to form a sort of megaphone. “The 1961 Gob Championship goes to Mario Briosch after defeating local loser and all around douche bag, Ch-Chi.” The Tremont gang met at Halstead Street Park every morning in the summer. The park was a long, narrow island of land between Halstead and Telford Streets once occupied by Army barracks that were torn down after the war. The widest part, adjacent to the Joker Lounge in the rear, was best suited for a baseball diamond and the area where the day’s activities usually began. JayBird bobbed his head and danced around on his toes, true to the name his friends had given him back in the first grade. There was Ralph and his brother, George, Doc and Victor Beansey. They all hung like ornaments from a green bench laughing at Mario as he circled them spitting in different directions, his version of a victory lap. Except for George, who stood behind the bench a safe distance from the action. “I wanna’ fuckin’ rematch,” demanded Chi-Chi. His white T shirt hung loose around his blue dungarees covering up a spare tire of baby fat that was visible around his waist. He was christened “Martin,” but his father owned a chicken market so everyone called him "Chicken.” That is, until a local ninth grade hood named Bobbie Hurlie made the mistake of using Martin’s nickname in front of some girls from his eighth grade class. The Chicken gave Bobby such a drubbing that everyone called him Chi-Chi out of respect. Since all the girls thought this was a cool name, it met with the young plucker’s approval. Mario in contrast was lean and muscular and stood a good four inches over Chi-Chi. He wore a blue Yankees cap and olive green pants; his white T shirt was stretched tight over his well developed biceps and broad chest. He was a good athlete and could have been the sharpest kid at The Valley of Sorrows Catholic School, except for one noticeable idiosyncrasy: every time Mario spoke, he grabbed his crotch. It didn’t matter if he were speaking to the guys or Sister Sorrowful Superior or even a group of girls. Every sentence was punctuated by a pull on his St. Peter, as if this was integral in Mario’s messagetransmitting process. “No way, punk,” said Mario giving his trousers an extra tug. “I beat you fair and square.” 79
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right into high school, even if he didn’t go to the same high school. Why did he agree to attend those lessons his little brother got as a birthday present, but refused to take? No matter now. Despite his best efforts to hide his guitar (he once put it behind a park car when he thought he saw someone he knew) and take every side street between his house on Tremont and the Melody House on South Orange Avenue, the damn bird caught him. Now he was about to shit all over him. “I was walking home.”The bird’s voice was a vicious chirp, a warble that rose from his throat and held every one spell bound. “I turned the corner from Sanford to Tremont. That’s when I saw it. Georgie was walkin’ with Rita DiBelasco.” He took three long struts toward George then gave him a “header,” a three-fingered slap on the forehead. The bench shook with laughter. “Fuck no,” Mario jumped up and down and squeezed himself so hard he started to cough. Chi-Chi ran straight up to George, “Man, like, what were you thinking? Rita DiBelasco is one ugly broad.” Doc looked up from his blade of grass. “She walks with a limp. I think one leg’s shorter than the other.” He went back to his peeling. “She is so you-geh-lie,” the bird said. George could see his brother Ralph frown and shake his head. That was about as verbal as he got when it came to his brother. “She ain’t so bad,” George said in a relieved tone. “I happened to run into her. We were just talkin’. What’s wrong with that?” “She’s a skank, that’s all. You shouldn’t be walkin’ and talkin’ with no skanks,” said Chi-Chi. “I wouldn’t be cawt dead with Wita DiBewasco,” nasaled Victor Beansey. “I’m sure she feels the same about you,” said George. But George was relieved his secret was safe, at least for now. He had three more lessons to take at the Melody House, then he’d see what to do next. Maybe he’d sign up for a few more. Maybe he’d ask Bernie Schneider to give him private lessons. Bernie lived close to George’s house, reducing the risk of being seen by his friends. “Hey, your mother wears combat boots,” Chi-Chi called out to Mario. “Your father’s greasy,” Mario replied with a light rub of his chinos. “Least I got one,” Chi-Chi said. “What’s your father doin'…time?” “Hiking” on each other’s parents was another one of the gang’s rituals, but JayBird quickly cut it short. “So are we gonna’ play or what?” “Or what, jackass, of course we’re gonna play.” ChiChi picked up Ralph’s Louisville slugger and swung it a few times. “I told yous. We’re waitin’ for some of the Irish dudes from Blessed Sacrament.” “Those guy’s ain’t comin’,” Ralph said. “Let’s just choose up sides and play. We got six of us.” “I told you already. Seven. We got seven.” Doc stopped mutilating the grass for a moment. “If you count your brother," he added, turning away and looking on the ground for another ripe, juicy blade. Ralph gave George a blank look then reached down to tie the lace on his right sneaker.
“Alright, then let’s do the steady pitcher, two guys in the infield and one in the outfield.” Ralph finished with his sneaker and looked at everyone for his reaction. “Let’s just fweakin’ play,” Beansey said. “Looks like today’s yawr day. Yaw’re in,” he said with a sudden look at George. The gang was practically all in agreement when ChiChi pointed to a group of guys crossing Tremont Avenue and heading directly for the park. They were still a long way off, but Mario remarked that he thought he saw bats and gloves and someone tossing a ball. After a few seconds, the Blessed Sacrament boys came into full view. George started furiously counting the number of players as they got closer. “Two, four, eight…shit!" He thought. Eight plus our seven…15, an uneven number. He ran his fingers through his hair and desperately looked around the park. There had to be another person around, to make the sides even. That way, he would have to play. They couldn’t make him a steady catcher or pitcher, like they had done so many times before. He’d have to be on a team and have a position (usually right field) and get his ups at bat. Every trip to the park or the playground for a game was a knot in George’s stomach. Even if he played, he had to bear the brunt of his team’s wrath if he missed a fly ball or let a ground ball go between his legs. “You’re shit!” they would tell him. “My little sister plays better than you.” Still, he could bear the taunts, which everyone quickly forgot after the game. He couldn’t bear the humiliation of not being picked. That’s why the head count was so critical…it had to be even. Jimmy Savage led the Blessed Sacrament pack and began swinging his bat wildly as he got closer. “Hey, what are you wops doin’?” These were the Irish kids and there was naturally a little tension between the two groups. George felt himself instinctively take about a half-step back. Jimmy’s curly blond hair fell over his freckled forehead as he waved the bat back and forth as though warding off an enemy. “Shut up, Mick!” one of George’s friends shouted. “Who you callin’ a Mick?” The response came from someone inside the Blessed Sacrament pack. Jimmy took his bat and used it like a cane. He put his hand on his hip and struck a pose. “Well, listen to that. I say we settle this on the ball field.” Everyone relaxed, the rival neighborhood posturing now over. “Our eight guys against your eight,” Jimmy challenged. “Let’s go.” “Hold on, Savage, we only got seven.” Ralph gestured to the guys standing around him. Jimmy frowned and started counting heads with his eyes. He came to George who promptly looked away. He was about to say something when JayBird started jumping up and down pointing down toward the Joker Lounge. A drunk was coming out of the door to the bar at the time. “Look at the rummy,” Jimmy said. “No,” said the Bird. “Behind him. Look who’s comin’.” Everyone followed the Bird’s extended arm to the barrel-chested figure walking adjacent to the Joker Lounge. He wore a madras shirt, which he let hang outside of his tan shorts. He wore white sneakers, no socks and his thin blond hair was parted to one side. He 80
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was wearing a baseball mitt and pounding it every so often with the fist of his other hand. Chi-Chi lifted his shirt and ran his hand along his exposed gut. “Hey, that’s Mark Shober.” “Well, whattaya’ know, the Marka’,” George heard his brother say. “I called him this morning and left a message with his mother. I didn’t think he’d make it.” “He’s the man,” Jimmy said admiringly. “The Marka’ Shoba’ man.” Marka’ was an idol. He wasn't like the rest of the guys. He came from the other side of the Avenue. It was rumored that he wasn’t even Catholic, but it didn’t matter. Marka’ was cool, and even when he dressed for baseball, he looked like he could make any girl in town. Everyone stood transfixed watching Marka’ Shoba’ make his way to the park. George couldn’t believe his luck. Not only would Marka’ make the sides even; he would make it a pleasant game for George. George had been on the Marka’s side in lots of games. He would encourage him and help him with his mistakes. Marka’ even went as far as to cheer him with an “Alright!” or ”Way to go!” when he made a good play. None of his friends ever did that. Marka’ actually made these games fun for George. Marka’ was passing the Joker Lounge when the drunk accidentally stumbled into him. Marka’ pushed him away and one of his hands brushed up against the drunk’s hair. He started wiping his shirt with it and looking at the guys eagerly waiting his arrival at the park. “Greasy!” he shouted. The guys roared. George felt himself instinctively laugh. The Marka’ was also the neighborhood’s premiere “hike” artist. All braced for what was to come. Marka’ marched right up to Jimmy without losing a step. “I woulda’ been here sooner but your father’s greasy head got in my way.” He then turned to Beansey who was laughing as though he were sucking air. "What are you laughin’ at? He’s on his way to see your mother.” The Marka’ turned to Ralph. “Hey, Ralph, why don’t your shoes have a party and invite your pants down?” Ralph started laughing and JayBird rubbed his big nose with both hands in an odd gesture of applause. “You’re a riot, Marka’ man,” Chi-Chi shouted. “And you’re a pregnant man,” Marka’ replied slapping his stomach with his right hand and pointing to Chi-Chi's gut with his other. “Are you gonna’ breast feed that thing when it comes out?” There was a combined laugh from the guys that sounded like a clap of thunder as it echoed off the wall of the Joker Lounge. When it subsided, Marka’ took control. “Alright, you punks, let’s play.” “I figured our eight against your eight,” Jimmy piped up. Marka’ started counting heads. When he came to George, he nodded his head slightly, which George took as an encouraging sign. He was sure he’d get to play, especially now that the sides were even. It looked like a done deal, when the chatter of the guys was suddenly drowned out by a piercing scream. “Heyyyyyy!! You guys!!!! Wait!!!! Wait up!!!” The words cracked like a whip over the heads of the players. “I wanna' play!!!” Everyone followed the sounds that were coming from the alley across the street. The source
of the commotion soon became visible in the form of Little Joey, a cousin to George and Ralph. He was a short kid, about two years younger than the boys he now approached. Hyperactive long before the condition was ever diagnosed, he buzzed around like a fly that couldn’t make up its mind where to land. He kept circling the guys and screaming at the top of his lungs. “Please, please, I wanna' play!!! Let me play!!” “Who’s the short shit?” Jimmy asked. “That’s my cousin, Joey,” Ralph said. “He can’t pway with us; he’s too young,” Beansey said. George found himself nodding in agreement. Letting Joey into the game would mean there would be 17, an uneven number. “This kid is good,” Ralph said. “Did you see him in that game against the public school kids at Vailsburg Park?” Beads of sweat started forming on George’s forehead. He remembered that game a couple of weeks earlier. He was late getting to the park because he had to run an errand for his mother. Joey played in his place. By the time George got to the park, there was no way his brother’s team would give up Joey for him. He caught every fly ball that came to him in right field. And, even though he was a small kid, he could hit singles out of the infield every time he got up at bat. When George asked his brother if he could go in for Joey, Ralph didn’t even let him finish the question. “No, way. He’s way better than you.” George now stood there frozen, the tension forming in his throat like when one of the nun’s at school was about to ask him a question or discover a homework assignment he didn’t complete. “Yeah, right,” Marka’ said. “I was at that game. The little faggot played great. You’re in, Joey. Stop runnin’ around and shut up.” Marka’ grabbed him by his tee shirt and flung him around in a circle a couple of times causing him to fall flat on his butt. Everybody laughed, but then things got quiet as Marka’ began to speak. “We got 17. Let’s choose up sides and see what happens.” “Marka’, you and Jimmy are team captains,” Ralph said. “You two guys duke it out.” Jimmy and Marka’ instinctively moved toward one another and the process of determining who would get first pick began. The atmosphere was all business as Marka’ announced, “I got evens.” He and Jimmy faced one another. “Ready?” Marka’ nodded and they both called out, “One, twice three, shoot!” On the last word, each thrust one or two fingers of their right hand in the space between them. Two or four fingers meant “evens” and that round would go to Marka’. One or three fingers meant “odds,” which went to Jimmy. Best of three shoots would be the winner. After a few furious calls, Marka’ emerged the winner. The choosing of the sides was about to begin. No one spoke. All that could be heard was the sound of Jimmy’s or Marka’s voice as it called out a name. “Ralph,” Marka’ said, choosing George’s brother as his first pick. “Danny,” countered Jimmy, selecting one of his Blessed Sacrament boys. Sometimes the picks went quickly; other times, the captains took their time, running their eyes over the crop of players, weighing their talents before finally making a choice. George’s hopes would rise when it was Marka’s turn in anticipation of getting 81
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picked. But it didn’t happen. George put his hands on his hips and tried to walk around nonchalantly. At one point he stood up on his toes, but stopped when he felt his ankles trembling. Finally, Jimmy made his eighth pick. Marka’ had seven and it was down to George and Joey. George was sure he would get picked. He should get picked; he was older than Joey. His younger cousin could always go down to the school playground and play with the kids his own age. Besides, Marka’ liked George, he was sure of that. He was bound to get picked. “Joey,” Marka’ said as he picked up the short shit sitting at his feet where he had left him. George took a few quick steps and before he knew it was calling out Marka’s name. Marka’ turned toward him. “Marka’, can I play?” The words broke up as they struggled to free themselves from George’s throat. He was unable to disguise the pleading in his voice. Marka' frowned and shook his head in one long left to right motion. George was stunned by Marka’s emphatic “no” and the indifference on his face as he turned away from him. In an instant everyone was running and shouting toward the field, leaving George surrounded by a void that felt cold and boundless. He was in outer space, a body floating alone in slow motion looking down on the ants as they scurried toward the make-shift pitcher’s mound and home plate framed by the Joker Lounge. His mind seemed to spin out of control as he fumbled for a thought, a word anything that would let him walk away as though he didn’t care. He did it before, if he could only do it now. But it was no use. He was crumbling inside, an emotional quake of immense magnitude that he was powerless to stop. He turned and ran as fast as he could to the end of the park. He gulped the air then exhaled, swallowed, exhaled, over and over, faster and faster. As he neared the intersection at Tremont he could not see clearly enough to cross, and a green ’57 Chevy nearly struck him. The green blur was accompanied by a blaring horn whose sound trailed off as the car passed him. Dazed, he turned around in a complete circle his eyes trying to focus on the church spire to his left on Tremont, but he couldn’t quite make it out. A woman came down the same side of the street carrying a bag of groceries from Treglio’s Market. It was her concerned look that first made him realize he was crying. Embarrassed, he dashed across the street and started running for home. He held his glove under his arm covering it as though ashamed someone might see him with it and ask, “What do you think you’re gonna’ do with that?” Frankie, the pizza man, stared at George from the window of his shop as he swatted a lump of dough from one hand to the other. George squinted several times in an effort to stop the flow of tears, but it didn’t work. He quickly wiped his eyes with his right hand and kept on running. Mario, the shoemaker, was driving a nail into the sole of a shoe and only managed a side-glance at George as he passed by his shop. In a few more seconds he was passing Russoniello’s bakery and a woman wearing a white hair net and matching smock was smiling as she handed a 25-cent loaf of Italian bread to a customer, catching sight of him briefly out of the corner of her eye.
By the time George passed Grillo’s candy store he had the sobs under control. He was walking normally now. The tears had subsided and his face bore a dirt mark where he had wiped his eyes only moments earlier. He passed the Italian American club where the old men played bocce ball on Saturday nights. He turned right onto Bedford Street and sat on the curb under the shadow of a tall maple tree. A breeze dried the tears on his face as he stared blankly at the old man across the street arranging produce on his stand and playing the pricing game with the shoppers who surrounded him. George rested his head against the tree and in a few moments the cars passing him on Tremont were superimposed with other images and sounds, which were first disjointed then became clearer as he closed his eyes. A bright light appeared and George was back at the park. This time he was standing on the pitcher’s mound, facing the large letters of the Joker Lounge sign. The Tremont gang was around him, looking at him admiringly and quietly waiting for him to speak. The Marka’ was in the center surrounded by Ralph and Beansey, Mario, Chi-Chi, JayBird and Doc. Jimmy Savage and the Irish boys also looked eager to hear what George would say. Suddenly the Marka’ spoke up. “Hey, Georgea’, how’s it hangin’, my man?” Jimmy chimed in, ”You’re the man, the Georgea’ man.” “Let’s play, little brother,” said Ralph as George stood in amazement at the kindness of his brother’s words. “C’mon, punk,” Chi-Chi said playfully.” Choose sides. C’mon, Georgea’, you pick em.” George tried to speak but couldn’t say a word. His face was expressionless, his eyes, cold and lifeless. With one single motion he took his glove off his left hand, held it high in the air and threw it down in front of him. The impact on the park’s parched dirt made a cloud of dust that rose in front of George and above the heads of the gang. They all watched as it drifted high in the air and disappeared like the sound of guitar notes into the dark letters of the Joker Lounge sign. • • • Joe Cappello has worked in a manufacturing/office environment most of his career and has written short stories, plays and poetry about his experiences. Recent publications include, “Beautifully Tragic Richard,” in “Black & White,” Spring 2012, published by Red Ochre Press; “Free Spaces,” appearing on the “Subtle Fiction” literary magazine site: (http://subtlefiction.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/joecappello/) January 30, 2012; “Crossing the River Acheron,” appearing in the September 2011 online issue of Blue Lake Review; “The Game,” appearing in the September 2011, online issue of River Poets Journal (Reading Room). He invites you to read more of his work at: www.wordsearchers.org.