Belmont Story Review: Appearances (Volumes 2-3)

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TABLE of CONTENTS ADVISORS, SPRING 2018

Lauren Ash, Sydney Bozeman, Dale Chapman, Macey Howell, Rachel Hutchings, Sean McGibany, Reagan Prather ADVISORS, SPRING 2017

Alivia Baker, Meg Bruce, Arah Hans-Majors, Vanessa Keiper, Emily Lewis, Erin Ogilvie, Maela Oldham, Gloria Smith, Jacob Stovall, Kassandra Tidland FOUNDING EDITORS

Sam Denlinger, Krista Walsh, Ethan Blackbird, Jennifer Cantrell, Caroline George, Katherine Puckett EDITOR

Richard Sowienski POETRY EDITOR

Gary McDowell DESIGN

Mark McManus Sydney Bozeman Cover illustration: “Clothes Make the Troll,” Barry Nichols Nameplate design: Journey Group

FICTION

Caitlin Hamilton Summie Valerie Miner Karen Rile Kate Buckley DJ Tyrer Beth Kander-Dauphin John Francis Istel Ace Boggess Emily Wortman-Wunder Les Bohem Kathleen Joss Marshall

8 42 74 106 120 124 138 150 162 194 226

Taking Root Incident on the Tracks Parents Weekend Hidden Lake The Grin Grin Grass Naked Truth Bound Colorful Aliens Appletree Acres A Bottle of Summer Wine UDine

ESSAY

Evelyn Somers Tim Bascom Steven Wingate

24 Untwist 62 God Only Knows 180 To the Logging Road Shrine

Belmont Story Review is produced through Belmont University’s Publishing Program CONTACT

Publishing Program Director 1900 Belmont Blvd. Nashville, TN 37212 E-mail: belmontstoryreview@gmail.com © 2018 Copyright Belmont University

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[ FOREWORD]

TABLE of CONTENTS POETRY

Lauren Camp

59 60 60 61

Steven D. Schroeder

101 Viral 102 The Undead 104 Educational Testing Service

Jaclyn Piudik and Janet R. Kirchheimer

137 Before Interpretation 137 The Hastening Blueprint

Joannie Stangeland

177 They Call to Remind Me 178 Hours Until 179 From the Middle Drifting

Ojo Taiye 191 192 193

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Snake System Swainson’s Hawk Memento Mori Icon

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Portrait of a Refugee’s Nightmares Autobiography of a Man Who Begs Nightly for His Mother’s Breast Somewhere in Idaho: A Mother Faints FOREWORD

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Are You What You Appear To Be?

W

elcome to the double issue of The Belmont Story Review, a collection of writings selected by two staffs of advisors in the Belmont University Publishing Program. It’s an experience unparalleled in most undergraduate programs, an experience that will serve staff members well as they move into the publishing industry, whether they become publishers, acquisitions editors, copyeditors, literary agents, publicists, marketers, booksellers, authors, or any number of related positions. Reading and discussing the merits of the several hundred submissions is in itself a priceless education as they learn to articulate and defend the manuscripts of their choice. They come to understand that we all have different literary tastes, that some forefront language, others plot, and others the “aboutness” (as described by Vivian Gornick) of a piece. Some fine stories are passed over for lack of a champion, some accepted because of adamant praise and support (even stubbornness), in spite of a story’s imperfections. But they learn that publishing a literary magazine is far more complicated than simply reading and selecting manuscripts. The details of sending out calls for submission, tracking contracts, getting author bios, finding art, maintaining social media sites, following through on correspondence

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(including rejection letters), and a myriad of other duties test their skills. It is a process not without error; it is also a process that yields a sense of pride and accomplishment. As we acquired stories and essays, the theme of “Appearances” emerged. What could be more central to that theme than an essay addressing body issues and eating disorders? Evelyn Somer’s captivating essay, “Untwist,” presents a narrator dealing with a psychiatrist who mistakes her eating disorder for shyness. Later, in college she feasts on words and literature while at the same time purging calories. It’s a journey where the “blinders” are burned away. In “God Only Knows,” author Tim Bascom recalls the time his missionary parents, on leave from Ethiopia, desperately seek God’s will. Interrogating his own simple faith, he simply yearns for a family together and happy. Rounding out the nonfiction, Steven Wingate (“To the Logging Road Shrine”) seeks connection while teaching in a South Dakota prairie town, a place he’s desperate to escape. With the theme still in mind, we move to the fantastical flash fiction “Grin Grin Grass,” by DJ Tyrer. Here, the story’s character— though miserable—must constantly smile, even till death. “Well, he died happy” a family member mistakenly observes. We are left with an image of a skull, locked in a grin throughout eternity. Also in another reality-bending story (“Colorful Aliens,” by Ace Boggess), Charlie encounters a strange, magical man on the street that transports him from a world of complacency to a world of giants, a world akin to a surreal video game. In “Parents Weekend,” a summer-camp orchestra student accuses his teacher of destroying his rare cello bow. Behind the scenes of cutthroat competition is the story of joy found in music. In “Incident on the Tracks,” by Valerie Miner, a cast of disparate characters, delayed on a commuter train because of a body found on the tracks, strike up what appears to be meaningful friendships. But is it merely circumstantial? Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s story, “Taking Root,” looks at grief experienced by Al, who “wasn’t a religious man, just a Professor of Religion.” After his wife’s miscarriage and their temporary separation, Al struggles with loss as well as the prospect of hope. Emily Wortman-Wunder’s “Appletree Acres” opens with a murder mystery. The narrator seeks to understand the death of her friend, exploring class, acceptance, and small-town secrets. In “Hidden Lake,”

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by Kate Buckley, the young Southern girl adores her beautiful, wild aunt—but makeup hides the evidence of the aunt’s abusive relationship with her boyfriend. “Holding still is hard; holding still while obsessing over your appearance, harder,” muses Rivka as she poses for an art class in the story “Naked Truth,” by Beth Kander. As Rivka holds her pose, she moves from an uneasy state of shame to an epiphanic prayer of praise. “Bound,” by John Francis Istel, brings readers a quirky story in five stages that echoes the opening scene of a coming-of-age tale of a lost Mayan boy. Les Bohem (“Bottle of Summer Wine”) weaves an uncomfortable coming-of-age story that follows Miriam, a naïve American on a European adventure, experiencing a broken world of love, lost innocence, abuse, and betrayal. The fiction section closes with a modern epistolary story (“Udine,” by Kathleen Joss Marshall), demonstrateing that even in this day of anonymous Internet transactions, a bit of humanity may creep in, even if only momentarily. Interspersed throughout, readers are treated to the poetry features of Lauren Camp, Steven D. Schroeder, Jaclyn Piudik and Janet R. Kirchheimer, Joannie Stangeland, and Ojo Taiye. I hope you enjoy this eclectic mix of prose and poetry, from fantastical flash fiction to the near-novella story of loss, from murder mysteries to quiet stories of faith and regret, from the world of summer orchestra camp with privileged child protégés to southern settings of tradition and simplicity, from real-world stories of pain to after-world stories of hope. Richard Sowienski Editor

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[ FICTION]

A

l had the porch light on against the dark. In

this old neighborhood, street lights were few

and far between, with just enough illumination to spare accidents and discourage some trouble, but

tonight he wanted more, as a comfort to himself, and as a guide. This late, the neighborhood was quiet, just the occasional breeze whispering through the solemn row of Russian olives at the bottom of his sloping lawn, down near the sidewalk. The sound eased him, seemed to shhh away his worries. He had expected more sound this evening, the lilt of

Caitlin Hamilton Summie

voices in a passing conversation or, in this neighborhood, the thud and backfire of anybody’s car. But as Sunday slipped into Monday, it did so with a whisper. Next to him, Al heard Marshall’s collar jingle S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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as he shifted weight in his sleep. Marshall was an old dog. He wasn’t even Al and Sarah’s old dog, but here he was, as always, right beside Al. Marshall was a beautiful golden retriever with a flourish of a tail and large brown, rheumy eyes, and he was besotted with Al for reasons no one fully understood. Their next door neighbor, Mark, took the betrayal with good grace. Al felt grateful. Mildly anxious, but grateful. He knew, and he knew that Marshall knew, how much he needed one solid, reliable friend. Maybe loneliness was recognizable. Maybe it had a scent. They were an odd collection, this clutch of neighbors. Mark, who shared Marshall with Al and Sarah and their one small child, only one; Howard and Norda across the street, serial hosts; and Anil, who lived next door to Howard and Norda and who seemed to have enough children for them all, enough to bust the seams of his house. It was clear the seams of Anil’s budget were straining. Wasn’t it Meira who had appeared the other day in a parka a size or two too small? Al tried, as circumstance allowed, to slip small kindnesses Anil’s way, little gestures he hoped nobody noticed. Occasionally Al and Sarah watched the children, helped with rides, shared meals. But for all the kindnesses among them—hell, he and Mark even shared a dog—there was a reserve, a thin line. In this age of confession, they kept much to themselves. The glow from the street lights caught Howard’s rusting bucket of a Chevy across the street, not to be outdone by Mark’s dented bucket of a Tempo next door, and farther down the road, Anil’s Volvo. They had a bet running, the whole block, on which would go first. Even Howard, Mark, and Anil had weighed in. Al had voted for Mark’s Tempo. He knew that Howard had recently reworked the Chevy’s engine. And Anil. Poor Anil. He would keep that Volvo running if only with prayer. He had nothing to spare for additional expenses. Sometime soon, out from the pitch black night, would come Sarah’s Volkswagon. They had been gone a week, his girls. Al couldn’t quite sit still now. Any minute, there would be that familiar throaty thrum, that flash of headlights, and then, finally, there would be his wife and young daughter. Who knew how tired? Who knew how transformed? But home nonetheless because this was home, this ancient house and the property line of Russian olives, with the old dog that was not theirs, and with Al. His heart was entirely theirs. In this neighborhood of unreliable cars and steady, hopeful hearts. In this city known for its winters, in the middle of the plains, in the

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heart of the country. In this gentle summer soon to slip into the crisp cool of fall. Here in some kind of broken down glory, they had taken root, and thrived. Mostly. Now Al rose and stood at the porch rail, tapping his fingers, and finally, with a low groan, Marshall joined him standing, and they waited together in the long, long night for the beginning, for sight of those headlights. For the welcoming home. Leaving was Sarah’s idea. Leaving, she had made clear, in no way meant that she was leaving forever, or even unhappy. She was only tired and in a rut. She wanted to get away. She would have preferred to leave Amelia with Al and go off somewhere by herself, even to someplace like a monastery. Instead, Sarah chose a quiet New Mexico town, a small, sleepy place where she and Amelia could linger on the cheap and have some adventures, shop in the cozy downtown, have some lunches out, take hikes in the low, long hills. Be left alone and tourist free. Al understood. He felt a bit panicked, but he did understand. The panic came from her clear assertion, her looking away as she said it, that she didn’t know when they would be back. “Are you thinking two weeks?” he had laughed nervously. “Or two months?” Sarah had shrugged, her blonde hair slipping behind her bony shoulders. Sarah had grown as thin as her sister, Glennie. Neither sister was tall, and they had tiny frames, but Sarah had always carried enough weight to look strong. Glennie had only ever been a string bean with flowing, gorgeous golden hair. The weight of Glennie’s hair, he was sure, rivaled her body weight. But now here was Sarah as tiny, and after all their years of worrying about Glennie, now Al worried for Sarah. He worried for his bright-eyed Amelia. He almost said, “Leave her here,” but he knew Amelia would be confused, and he knew, too, that without Amelia, Sarah would lose an anchor. Her focus. “Take what time you need,” Al had said. “I’ll have Marshall,” he added with a laugh, and at this last, Sarah had tipped her head and squinted at him, smiling slightly. “This scares me to death, Sarah,” he finally said. That was when she said it wasn’t over. It wasn’t about them. It was some restlessness in her that she needed to put to rest, a fatigue. Al let it go. Despite the dissipating tension, pressing her for information or

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details felt dangerous. They were standing in the kitchen in the buttery glow of morning, the sun warming the yellow walls just as they’d planned when, newly married, they had chosen this home. Chosen it for this room and what light they could imagine. They knew the center of their world would be their kitchen. Seven years now, and one rambunctious four-year-old later, here they stood. “Part of it is the miscarriage,” Sarah had said. Al watched her, saw her face twitch. He could not know her grief. He knew part of it, but he did not know how it felt for that beautiful hope to slide, then wrestle its way out of her. Let it go naturally, the doctor had said, and they had all agreed. Natural sounded good, preferable. But Al had been angry ever since. Had he known it was a lengthy process. Had he known what pain Sarah would feel, that she’d be keening, rocking on the bedroom floor at one point and grasping his hands, he would have suggested exploring alternatives. She had needed a gentler passing. They both had. They had choked out a farewell to the baby that late haunted night and far later, when they had had the strength, they had planted a small tree for the heart they would never know. A silver maple. Something strong and proud. Not like the Russian olives, with their gray green leaves and sad bending branches. That terrible night as he had held her and whispered careful, soft assurances, Sarah had said to him, “I bet in heaven I’ll see some tiny angel and will know its face.” Al hadn’t shared her hope in this future reunion. He wasn’t religious, though he was a religion professor. But the idea took root once she left on her road trip with Amelia, and he began to think that perhaps there was a heaven and that up there, in the back row, the tiniest voice in the choir was his child, singing and laughing and waiting. It was silly. “Absolutely silly,” he told himself each time the thought crossed his mind, but the thought stayed with him, a solace. He thought often about his child. He wondered if it had been a boy or girl. He wondered why the baby hadn’t made it. He wondered why he couldn’t quite escape the sharp grip of grief. It was always there, a thin, sliver of cold; a splinter. Something hair thin, like a small crack, something pointed that caught in him and created a widespread ache. Sometimes, Al had to stop and catch his breath. Just after Sarah and Amelia had left, waving from their windows as the

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Volkswagen turned the corner and disappeared, Al took his coffee out on the porch. It, too, was a Sunday. The morning was cool, one of those late summer days that presaged fall. Al was ready. It was football season, and down the block he watched as Anil’s oldest son, Sujay, gathered his gear and plonked it in the back of Anil’s clunker. “You have Sunday practice?” Al asked as they made their loud, slow progress down the street. Their Volvo needed a new muffler, and the engine whirred as though going 15 miles an hour was straining all systems. Anil replied, but it was impossible to hear him over the noise. Al waved them on and sat waiting for two things, a direction and the arrival of Marshall, who even now, having had a romp at the dog park with Mark, was making his way briskly up the cracked and heaving sidewalk toward Al, nose high. In the morning, first thing, Marshall had all the energy of a puppy. “I’ve never had that, ever,” thought Al. Marshall settled himself on the porch after getting a vigorous head rub and hearty greeting, the combination of which seemed key to his having a successful day and quite enough to ensure one, as long as Al then stayed nearby. Across the street, the detritus of Howard and Norda’s last late gathering lay gathered neatly by the garage. A stack of empty glass bottles in a variety of shapes and colors and a compacted, though bulging, dark green garbage sack. What Al had not expected was to see a dapper looking Howard step out of the house and come across the lawn toward him. For a long moment, he couldn’t speak, his thoughts gathering only slowly across the idea that he was not dapper. And not even fully awake. “Al,” said Howard. He looked a little gray, and Al felt secretly relieved to know Howard was human, and that he, Al, scruffy-faced with a significant paunch and a thatch of unruly hair sprouting from his head, was just one of the guys. Sort of. “Hi, Howard.” How Howard and Norda maintained any semblance of a decent life, he had no idea, not with the racket they made each night, the parties. He imagined that at some point they would crash, unable to keep up the pace. Parties and work and parties again. Crazy and reckless as they were, they had good hearts. Howard wouldn’t blink before speeding across the

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street if he thought Al and Sarah needed him. Nor would Norda. Tomorrow morning, as Al gathered his briefcase and student papers, that new textbook from Macmillan, his coat, he’d venture out to lecture looking every bit his age, and like a sad, worn out shoe: soft, weathered, maybe lovable. And there would be Norda in her sleek suit and high heels, and Howard in his brand name casuals, and off they’d go in Norda’s little roadster, coffee in hand, smiles on their faces, looking crisp. They probably even smelled good up close, of a simple, fresh soap. They were a magazine cover. An ad. If Howard and Norda were a manicured, landscaped yard, then Al and Sarah were an unmowed lawn. Slightly ruffled, wearing clothes with stains. They were also parents, something Al doubted that Howard and Norda could ever be and perhaps did not want. But what did he know? If he had learned anything recently, it was that one never knew another person’s heart, not really. He had not known Sarah yearned for another child. He had not known how broken-hearted he’d feel at their loss, or how alone, in this place where there was no one to talk to save for Sarah, who barely had any words left herself, grief having somehow stolen her vocabulary. How often had she opened her mouth, then shook her head, unable to express herself? But here was Howard, in pressed brown pants, his t-shirt unwrinkled, a pale blue like a bird’s egg. Some fancy flip-flops. “Did you need some help with something?” Al asked. “How you holding up?” Al smiled. “Been a bit lonely,” he said, opting for honesty. Howard’s smile faded. “I’m sorry, Al. You’re welcome…” he said, gesturing broadly at his house, at the carefully packaged garbage. “Thanks, Howard. Very kind. But poor Marshall here might go into a decline alone.” Howard paused. He was standing in the front walk, a respectful early morning distance from where Al was on the porch. “I feel a bit awkward.” Howard couldn’t look at Al. That’s when Al knew. The miscarriage had never been a secret. Not that he and Sarah had shared much with people, but it was hard not to let the news filter out. Sarah had sunk so low with the news of the impending loss, and they had needed some short notice help several times. The evening—that dark evening—when Sarah was hunched on the bathroom floor, weeping, Al had called Norda, who was closest, and

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she had come and stayed near Amelia’s room in case she woke. Amelia loved Norda—her hats and flowing, flowery scarves; the hodgepodge of perfume bottles in her bedroom; her make-up kit, like a coloring box. Once Norda had let her try a bright red lipstick. Amelia fell in love then. With Norda. With lipstick. With the heady power of being a woman. “It’s wonderful news,” Al said. “I’m sincerely happy for you.” And he was. He felt something catch, took a moment to get air, but at the same time he felt genuinely pleased for Norda and Howard. “I didn’t realize you wanted children. It’s the most special thing.” Howard smiled, his face lighter, a wash of joy coming over him. “We didn’t plan it,” he said. “But we’re thrilled.” “Well, let us know if we can help with anything.” The more he spoke, the more inadequate Al felt, as though he was speaking lines he had heard somewhere from a book about how to handle awkward occasions, for instance. “Actually, that’s why I’m here,” he said. “Norda isn’t feeling well, and I think I should run her in. Our car is dead. That new engine. I am not sure what I did…” Howard’s voice trailed off. “I was hoping you could run us down to urgent care.” “Of course,” Al said, standing quickly. He cinched his robe around himself. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll pull the car around.” Marshall whined, his eyes moving between the men, the air seeming suddenly electric, even to Al. Later, Al worried as he waited in the car, engine running. Had Norda slept enough? Were people smoking in the house? Was Norda drinking? But it wasn’t his business. Norda, though she needed help and looked drawn, managed to get out the door and down the steps. He couldn’t see any belly on her, but she was tall and wouldn’t show yet, he supposed. Howard gently guided her into the backseat and as she settled, Norda flashed Al a wan smile. “Thanks for this, Al.” “Of course, Norda. Absolutely.” Howard had hardly settled into the car himself before Al pulled away from the curb. The car fell quiet. Norda had closed her eyes and let her head fall against the door, and every question Al thought to ask focused on the baby and asking anything now seemed inappropriate. He remembered too well the inadvertent wrong questions from kind-hearted neighbors and colleagues after the miscarriage, and he remembered the blessed,

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even tight-lipped silence from family, who seemed to know when to speak and when not. Glennie, of course, had proven particularly helpful. After Sarah first got the news, and Al had been pulled out of class, he had dialed Glennie as he hurried to his car. Being as large as he was, he didn’t move smoothly or with ease and he had wished for a stout heart to get him the speed he needed and to give him the courage he lacked. Glennie had taken the call, a stunner. Her middle name was Unavailable. “Hey, Al,” she had said, and he couldn’t speak. Then: “Is it Sarah or Amelia?” “Sarah,” he had gasped. “They just told her the baby is dead.” There was a pause. Glennie had not known about the baby. At that point, no one had. “Where is she?” “Abbot Northwestern.” “I’ll meet you there. Al, I am so sorry.” So sorry. Perhaps the kindest words he had ever heard from Glennie, who kept emotions in a special place to which he seemed denied access. She was always cool, in control. He wondered when she broke down and with whom. She had to cry sometime. Didn’t she? Not even Sarah really knew. Of course Glennie had gotten there before Al. Glennie, rail thin and with that gush of hair, that porcelain skin. Perfect complexion and perfectly composed, stood outside Sarah’s door. Dr. Glennie MacMillan, OB GYN. “She should see you first,” Glennie said. Of course she should. Seeing Glennie might not calm her right now. But as Al opened the door, Glennie placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He looked at her, and there were tears in her eyes. He stopped. For an instant, he stopped flat. He squeezed her hand back and then plowed through the door to that newly frail girl in the room who held his entire world in her hands. At Abbott Northwestern now, again, Al parked the car by the doors and stood ready to help Howard get Norda out, but he wasn’t needed, and he felt like a large flightless bird, flapping nearby. Then he had the sense to lumber ahead and secure a wheelchair. Howard nodded, said, “Thanks so much, Al.” After he parked, Al looked for them in the waiting room, but they

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weren’t there, despite the crowd, and Al’s heart rate picked up. He approached the front desk. “The pregnant couple?” he asked. The receptionist, a plump young woman with a stylish bob, eyed him. “Family?” “Friend. I drove them here.” The woman didn’t speak right away, but she pushed back her chair from her desk and said a few words to a colleague around the corner, in the hall. “They’ve sent her to emergency,” the woman said. “Do you need directions?” “It didn’t seem urgent,” Al said. The woman’s expression dimmed. She looked away. He knew she wasn’t allowed to share more. “I know the way,” he said. He knew it all too well. How many visits had he made here for Sarah’s grandparents? An endless number. And then for Sarah. He turned out of urgent care and began the walk he now hated. If winter was Sarah’s season, fall was Al’s. He loved crunching leaves underfoot, football (any football, though he bled gold and maroon for the Gophers), and all the holidays. He decorated the house for each of them in turn, and though he was a natural fit, he never offered to play Santa. He far preferred to be a part of the crowd than its star, to see Amelia’s face light up, to be there with her. With them all. Christmas was the one time each year he felt a glimmer of faith. Neighbors would pass a cup of cheer with a hearty, “This must be your season!” Al would chuckle and raise his glass. But if the season was his, it wasn’t for the reasons they expected. He wasn’t a religious man, just a Professor of Religion. He wasn’t Santa. He was, he realized, a simple man. A happy, simple, quiet man. Losing a child hadn’t fit in to his worldview. It fit no one’s, of course, but Al had been singularly unprepared for any loss. He asked for little, and he had been unmoored by the unnatural goodbye, by his insistent grief. And angry. Al had been angry. Now he sat in a hard plastic chair, flipping through travel magazines and health brochures, waiting. Hoping. Because who would wish ill on a child? He needed, he realized, for this little baby to live. A new loss would unravel him. The thought struck him cold. He understood Sar-

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ah’s leaving now in a new way. Suddenly he wanted to escape as well. Across from him, an older man twisted his health brochure endlessly, his mouth a tight line, his knobby knuckles achingly large. An Hispanic family clumped together, heads down, praying. A middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit paced. Al sat. He slumped down into himself. He closed his eyes. He tried hard to think good thoughts. It was a while before Howard appeared. He looked drawn and tight, and Al’s heart skipped a beat. “You don’t need to stay, Al. I just wanted to let you know that they’re running some tests.” “I can stay, Howard. Can I get you anything?” Howard shook his head. Then he said, abruptly. “Isn’t your sister-inlaw an OB?” “Yes, she is. I’d be happy to call her, or to give you her number.” “Would you do both?” Al dialed hurriedly, his thick fingers fumbling over the numbers. He had to redial. He left her a message. “Glennie, a friend of mine and Sarah’s is here at the hospital. Howard and Norda. Norda is pregnant and there is a problem. Howard was wondering, I guess, if you could call him.” It was a miracle born from a painful place, a thread of memory, that allowed Al to remember and recite Howard’s cell phone number, his voice sounding wooden. Howard, who sometimes worked from home, had been the person Al phoned from work for check-ins after their loss. How is Sarah? Have you seen her? But only once or twice, after those awful few days, and only until Sarah’s mother moved from across town and took over. Howard nodded a thank you, turned quickly and left, tears coming into his eyes. Al couldn’t imagine. Yes he could. It was not long before Al saw Glennie striding across the ER waiting room, that white coat flapping like a flag. She did not look for him, but she caught his eye once, as she turned before going into the care area. She saw him then and lifted her hand. Once. As though he were a casual acquaintance, maybe a Resident. Then she was gone. Glennie had been voted one of the top ten OB doctors in Minneapolis-St. Paul. She was featured in Minnesota Monthly. Her photo made her look like a goddess. Her honors and credentials were as lengthy as she was tall. And she was single, an absent aunt, a sometimes sister, an

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elusive personality with a ready, brief smile and a calm voice. Her hands never shook. Not like Al, who was shaking now. Shaking because he knew that one did not call Dr. Glennie MacMillan for anything routine. One called Glennie because a life depended on it. Thanks to Minnesota Monthly, everyone knew that. Everyone. In the days before Amelia, Sarah and Al had said many goodbyes to loved ones. Both of her grandparents, her Auntie Em. His grandfather, a stoic Scandinavian named Anders Anderson. Not even Lars, Al used to say. It was like naming someone Andrew Andrews. But practice didn’t make Al perfect. Every loss was harder to bear, the accumulation of absences loud and unsettling, accentuated by the strain between Sarah and Glennie, which had been going on for so long now it ought to have worn itself out. But wounds like theirs strengthen, Al had learned, in the face of passivity. The most recent goodbye— theirs, the child he always remembered as sound, that thumping, persistent heartbeat—had seemed to allow the sisters to drift closer, which he registered but couldn’t absorb. Sarah remembered other sounds, she had told him—the steady almost determined breathing of the tech, the squish of more jelly across her stomach, the clickclickclick of the tech taking picture after picture. Suddenly she had realized that the tech was searching. Then she caught the tech’s glance and knew. She just knew. Sarah remembered the sound of her own loud breathing. Glennie soon left the ER, her speed walk taking her past Al without a glance. He found himself bowing his head, toward what and for what he couldn’t say, all of him suddenly feeling vacuumed out from his core. He bowed, head to hands, hands clasped on knees. He bowed down. He was interested in faith, always had been, of course. Interested in the hope and calm it provided certain family and friends. Interested in how the ritual and beliefs had shaped his parents cold marriage. Al had always thought his parents lacked passion. He doubted they even liked each other, but lately, perhaps given his own aging, he realized they had some bond he had not given any credence before. They relied on each other, trusted each other. They had committed to each other and that came in part from faith. But he never doubted the reasons he was an only child. Now he searched his mind for the words that had defined his child-

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hood, the prayer as important to the weave of his days once as lutefisk and football and books. But what he thought was far simpler. Dear Lord, please protect the babies. Plural. And then Al began to weep.

glowed steadily now, dimly but steady. Marshall followed Al outside, keeping close, pressing his frame against Al and steadying both of them. Al looked up at the stars. Dear Lord, please protect the babies, he said in a whisper. Then he repeated it, over and over.

It was late when they drove home. The neighborhood streetlights flickered. Al helped Howard bring Norda inside, settle her on the couch. He put a meal together, a green salad, bread and butter, some pasta, and left it on the table. He made Howard a drink. Then Al left, quietly closing the front door behind him. Howard had said only that they believed the baby was all right. That, and thank you. The ride home had been tense, Norda curling in to Howard, who sat in the back, eyes wide open and unblinking. Al tried not to glance back at them. It seemed impossible. On the front porch, Marshall stood and greeted Al, his tail wagging gently, his whine short and high pitched. “I don’t know, Marshall. I don’t know if it’s okay.” Inside, he put some food in Marshall’s bowl and some fresh water in a large clear Tupperware container, and then he lay down in bed, hoping to sleep forever. When Marshall curled in a ball near his feet, Al didn’t protest. As Marshall inched his way closer to Al and stretched out, Al said nothing. He didn’t care about rules and being sanitary and dog hair. Who gave a shit. He thought of Sarah and Amelia. They have only been gone one day, Al thought. One. He checked the messages. No blinking light, just the steady red glare of a button. They were on the road, they were slipping through the dark, as was he. He felt as cracked open as an egg. Al thought he might stop breathing, and when he cried out, what rose out of him was loud, and raw, almost a scream, and then it became one. Marshall, beside him, whimpered. The women had each other, God, doctors, nurses. Who did the men have? What were their words for this particular grief? Later that night, Al woke and went out onto the front porch. He was still wearing his clothes. He had not eaten. Across the street, Norda and Howard’s house was silent, without lights. The trio of beaters lined the curb, looking, if possible, more forlorn. The streetlights

Al was asleep on the porch when dawn broke. Sujay touched him lightly on the shoulder as he delivered the paper. “You okay? Mr. Nelson?” Al had nodded, tried to make himself presentable and to pretend that no, he was not asleep in his clothes on the front porch, next to a dog, even if it was Marshall. “Want me to call someone?” Sujay asked. He glanced down the street toward his own home, already dialing. It was the last thing Al needed. “I’m fine, Sujay,” Al said. “Fine, thanks. Please don’t call anyone.” Sujay hesitated. “Please, Sujay. It would be embarrassing. I had a rough day. Some friends were in trouble. It bought back some sad memories.” Sujay listened. He was 15. He understood the social implications. Absently, he reached down to pet Marshall, then he handed Al the paper. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Um. Is everything okay now?” “I don’t know,” Al said. Sujay bit his lip and nodded. Because for God’s sake men only nod. Men and near-men. “Okay, well, I hope it all works out,” Sujay said. “Thank you,” Al said. “I do, too.” Sujay hopped down the porch steps, grabbed his bike, and headed off. A bike? Al thought for the first time. How long is his route? Anil had come by one night, after the news had made its way. Anil had come by and offered his condolences and a bear hug, then slipped away quietly. The hug had shocked Al. It was born of an Anil he hadn’t known. He had watched this small, slip of a man work his way back up the block between the intermittent street lights, in his Goodwill clothes and second hand shoes. Al had not thought his heart could hurt more right then, but watching Anil make his way home was somehow shattering. Now as he watched Sujay cycle all the way down the long block and turn the corner onto 15th, Al realized that Sujay was a lot like his father.

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He understood dignity. Or maybe he understood fragility, Al wasn’t sure. Something in Sujay’s kindness and then gentle departure had given Al, for the first time aside from the holidays, a sense of calm, even faith. A small, butterfly-winged hope. Fragile, easily torn. But there. Sarah had called sometime in the night, leaving a message. She had called again later, no message. Al didn’t want to call her. His head felt full of air. He gave Marshall a head rub and some extra breakfast, showered, drank some strong coffee, and dressed for work. He crammed that new Macmillan textbook into his briefcase. The book weighed a ton. On his way out the door, he made certain to stop at Norda and Howard’s and to put the newspaper in the door with his cell phone number scribbled on an attached note. As an afterthought, he added Glennie’s number again. He had no idea what the hospital protocols were. When he arrived at his office, he must have looked off balance because the department secretary brought him the last Danish from the staff room. He thanked her and rather than launch into any unsolicited commentary or confession, simply smiled and reached for his phone, though he had no one to call. Finally, he decided he’d better call Sarah. To his relief, she didn’t pick up. He left a message, then he took a deep breath. He wanted to be alone. He needed time to re-establish the whole of himself. “It never leaves,” he thought. “The grief never leaves. You just have to learn how to carry it.” Al opened his email to a reminder about a departmental meeting at ten. He spent most of the meeting checking his cell phone, and when it rang, he jumped up and hurried out, muttering apologies about urgent personal business. Al had expected Sarah. It was Glennie. “There are HIPPA rules,” she said, without preamble. “I didn’t ask anything,” Al said. Glennie paused. “Call your friend,” she said. “Can you tell me if it’s bad news?” But Glennie had already hung up. Al left then. He drove home, to the peace of a quiet morning in a neighborhood in which the houses carried a hint of personality even without the noise that people bring. Homes painted different colors, lawns mannered but not immaculate. The occasional bike visible, the odd, vibrant, defiant weed. It was quiet enough now that one could hear the bees in the flowers. For a moment, Al paused in front of Norda and Howard’s door. “What will you say when they tell you whatever

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it is they tell you?” Al thought, and then, “Who am I now?” He knew and knocked on the door. When Sarah finally called later that night, Al grabbed the phone. “Where are you?” he asked. “Are you okay?” It was a gleeful Amelia who took the call, giggling, unable to adequately convey information. They were in Colorado, about to cross the state line into New Mexico. They were almost there. Amelia wouldn’t relinquish the phone, and Al said, “I love you, and tell Mommy I love her.” His voice sounded worn. He wondered if Amelia could tell. Al wanted to speak with Sarah about his own journey, across the street. About how he had come to understand that his grief would be there, always. That afternoon, though, he had found a small place inside himself to tuck away his pain so that he could hear Norda and Howard’s news, that this little baby was fine, that Norda needed to slow down. She couldn’t be a hostess. He wanted to tell Sarah about holding Norda’s bony, veined hand. He wanted to tell Sarah that he now understood some of his last thoughts in life would be of the child they had lost, and that at the very end he would be reaching out with some extension of his heart. And that maybe, maybe, there might be someone out there, up there, reaching back. Amelia was chattering now. About restaurants and ice cream, about steering the car on a rutted back road, about how Mommy looked in her bandana. Alive, like electricity, his beautiful, beautiful girls.

CAITLIN HAMILTON SUMMIE earned an MFA from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, Hypertext magazine, South85 Journal, and Long Story, Short. Her first book, a short story collection called To Lay to Rest our Ghosts, was published by Fomite. Most recently her poetry was published in The Literary Nest. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003.

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[ ESSAY]

But these troubles are past; and thou wilt read records of a period so dolorous as the legend of some hideous dream that can return no more. —Thomas De Quincey

C

arol Ball was athletic, a cheerleader, a girl

with focused energy and the whiff of insen-

sitivity that clings to people who are hardwired to get ahead. She had dense black hair and eyebrows,

Evelyn Somers

dark eyes, an athletic build: she was a paragon of teenage health. She wore black-rimmed glasses, her only flaw—not considered sexy in 1972. Like me, she was an honors student. We knew each other, barely, from earlier years in Girl Scouts, where she’d excelled in leadership, as she did in everything else. She possessed an unassailable self-confidence that was about as far from who I was as a mudlark from a mudpuppy. Of any line you might draw between one type of girl and another, this could be said: I’d be at a point so distant from S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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Carol that you couldn’t look at one of us and see the other, not even peripherally. I was a sophomore. Carol was a senior. After graduation, she was going to the university to do pre-med, a course of study that sounded grim and hard to me and also not like something girls did. These days, Carol is a doctor in a popular specialty. She still has the thick hair, dyed a few shades lighter, and those heavy slashes of cinder brow. She’s done incredibly well. But in high school, Carol was in a bad place. I was, quite coincidentally, infected by her, and it took years of struggle to— in the words of one of literature’s most eloquent confessors—“untwist the accursed chain which fettered me.” We’ll come to that fettering and untwisting later. If Carol was science, I was Spanish. And mythology, African studies (more exotic than the standard World History), poetry. Crushes, which I contracted chronically, can be fractional. I had one-eighth of a crush on my nerdy, skinny biology teacher, Mr. Anderson, who led the Biology Club in its progressive efforts to recycle newspapers, a cutting-edge endeavor in the ’70s. I was curious, in particular, about the animal kingdom, enough to listen attentively to Mr. Anderson but not so enthralled as to let the cells and cycles of life in the organic sense tempt me away from the verb tenses and poetry that I knew were going to be my life. Later that year I had a pass on Wednesdays to get into Biology late. I felt awkward and fat slipping in the door and taking a place at the lab table next to my partner, a cheerful, gravelly-voiced girl named Anna, a middling student from a working-class home; but that didn’t make me feel better than her; quite the reverse, because Anna could be friendly with anyone—even me. She was so normal. Wednesday was my psychotherapy session with Dr. Handsome. We spent forty-five minutes each week talking about why I was immured in a prison of silence around my peers, and he called me “Lynn,” a nickname no one had ever called me. I was too awkward to protest. The real issue—to my mind—was not shyness but my runaway weight gain. I’d begun to pack on pounds dramatically after being thin for the first time in my life the year before. On a diet of watery, salted Cream of Wheat for breakfast, a thinly sliced carrot for lunch and 350 calories for dinner, with one sticky dried date for dessert, I’d slimmed down to a little less than 100 pounds from 135. One hundred pounds is not unheard of for a teenage girl of average height, but I was big boned and

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looked like a knobby stick. I’d lost my periods and was cold even in 75 degrees and had started to grow the downy lanugo on my arms and nape that is a sign of anorexia nervosa. I’d stood looking over the edge, into the abyss of that deadly disorder. But then something—a strong desire to live, or fear, or God, or an inability to renounce the world past a certain point, had shoved me back to greater safety. I put my back to anorexia and started to eat. I ate and ate. The first day I broke, it was six hot dogs. The next day, four fluffer-nutter sandwiches. And I kept going, eating in secret every day after school. A jar of ice-cream topping. Bread with butter and sugar. It didn’t matter what; I was just filling myself with calories that my body had desperately needed. When it all became intolerable—my thickening waist, my failing self esteem—I took an overdose of aspirin so small as to be comic in a halfhearted bid for rescue and announced that I needed to see a psychiatrist. Now there were Wednesdays. At $45 a session in 1972, it was expensive wheel-spinning because Dr. Handsome never seemed to understand that my being there was over an eating disorder, not shyness. Why should he have guessed? He hadn’t seen me thin, only speechless and depressed. His office, in a yellow brick plaza down the hill from the county hospital, was laid out so you walked in through one door from the closet-sized waiting room and out another door into the outer hall— thus, his patients never saw each other. I wouldn’t have minded being seen; secretly I thought it was cool to be in therapy. But there was no one to tell because I hardly spoke to classmates, and my parents never asked me how it was going. Our sessions were the traditional psychoanalytic “talking cure,” which sounds absurd in hindsight. How could a talking cure help someone who wouldn’t speak? Lost and fumbling, I tried to explain to Dr. Handsome why I couldn’t talk to other students and why no one at school ever spoke to me. I described eating alone in the cafeteria (a half lie because after a few weeks it felt less lonely to take my lunch into the bathroom and bolt it down in one of the stalls). We sat in armchairs. Dr. Handsome had sandy brown hair and a round, boyish face. Then he grew a sandy beard, which matured him. There were agonized silences. He must have found it intolerably boring: a doctor’s daughter with everything she could want and no apparent spark of self-awareness. Inside, I was bright, with a fine sense of irony and a stewing, roiling mind, but none of this showed, only my morose,

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tedious inarticulateness. Dr. Handsome should have been crush material, but he was not, even with the flattering beard. He drove a red Corvette and had a pretty wife and young sons. He died at aged thirty-seven in a car wreck, a few years after our sessions ended. Years later, I thought about the Corvette, that status symbol like a taunt to the Angel of Death. It hadn’t occurred to me at sixteen that Dr. Handsome was young and thrilled to be making a lot of money and was acting an exciting new part by buying a sports car and driving it fast. At the time, I’d been ignorant about things adults felt, but not about the results of our Wednesdays. What they were showing me was obvious: 1) that I was immune to the attractions of good-looking professional men—give me the nerdy Mr. Andersons, poor, smart, idealistic and funny—which made it possible for me to talk to Dr. Handsome without investing or revealing much; and 2) that to get over my eating problem, I’d have to be honest and talk about it. I decided, very intentionally, not to talk about it. I lived, and Dr. Handsome died, but it could easily have gone the other way. My parents didn’t say much about the drastic upswing in my weight, just as they’d been baffled and upset but surprisingly quiet about my extreme dieting the year before. They were relieved that I’d asked for therapy. Now their daughter’s food problems would resolve. We were not a thin family, and extra pounds were no sin at our house. My mother made a few hurtful cracks about my return to chubbiness, but I know now that her comments were just expressions of fear. What was wrong with her daughter? What should she do? In the first five or six months of my sophomore year, I must have larded thirty pounds onto my formerly bone-thin frame. One day I heard something about Carol Ball: she’d been making herself throw up so she wouldn’t gain weight. I was avoiding the scale; I was up to about 145 or 150 by now—I would reach 180 pounds at my heaviest. My mind raced: One part of me was asking why Carol would do that—she was perfectly popular, average weight, not fat (but not Twiggy, either). And one part of me was thinking, Okay, how does that work? How does she do it? Soon after, when I’d overeaten particularly badly one afternoon, I tried it myself. It was disgusting and noisy and not very much came back up; it was no answer to my shameful fat. Carol was Carol. She controlled her life in ways I couldn’t control mine. I

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had four younger siblings; there were seven people in my house—it was not possible to throw up in secret. I tried it again now and then, but mostly not. Around school, Carol didn’t look too different. Bulimia is harder to see from the outside than anorexia; most bulimics look normal. Chapped lips or swollen cheeks or lymph nodes give it away if you’re looking closer. These days Carol Ball is sleeker than the Carol I knew then, leaner than the eternal picture in my memory of a peppy overachiever with a normal but unfashionably healthy build and no glimmer of self-doubt. A girl who easily talked to anyone—other teenagers, adults—when my tongue was paralyzed. At college, in St. Paul, Carol Ball’s infection doubled back on me hard; that was the bad thing. The good thing was that I had a new world to explore. The bookstore across from my dorm displayed the best-selling new edition of What Color is Your Parachute? It wasn’t a book I had any use for, but I liked the title: I saw myself with a parachute: suspended, floating, freed from my old identity as the shyest girl in the class. I started to talk and made acquaintances constant enough to call friends. Orientation the first week included literature on the nearby women’s health clinic. I wanted to have sex, so I got fitted for a diaphragm. Then, to be on the safe side, I walked up Snelling Avenue to Bridgeman’s, a sandwich shop/ice-cream parlor that in those days was a local tradition and that served wonderful ice cream sundaes pictured larger than life on color posters lining the store (I only looked at a menu, didn’t succumb). Bridgeman’s was next to or connected to—memory fails here—a drugstore, where I bought condoms for a backup, when opportunity struck. It didn’t strike, at first. To attract the guys I wanted to have sex with I needed to be slimmer, I surmised, and during the four years I was in St. Paul, I got slimmer. I started to run. It was the late ’70s, and Jim Fixx (The Complete Book of Running) or Runner’s World magazine were on everyone’s lips: the whole world was running and talking about it. I didn’t want to miss out on benefits that could bring me joy and slimness. I began in shame, running on the banked board track above the basketball court in the college gym. I was one of three late-afternoon runners—I picked that time because hardly anyone was in the gym then to see me lumbering around in the failing light from the high

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gym windows. The other late-day runners were Carlos, a Hispanic student who played on one of the college’s abysmal sports teams, and a fierce-looking, thirtyish African American, a boxer, not a student, who ran there for conditioning; I never knew his name or how he got past the gym monitor. Both men encouraged me. At first I could barely run half a mile. Later, as I got thinner, there was a flirtation with Carlos, but we never dated. He was outgoing, very nice to me and physically stunning, but so not of my intellectual leaning that the idea of sex with him was impossible. Soon I’d moved out of the gym and was running in public. Down the median of Summit Avenue to the Mississippi and back was six miles. I ran in the gorgeous, brisk falls that came earlier than in Missouri, and on snow packed inches above sidewalk level in the winter, when my eyelashes turned to icicles as my eyes watered from the cold. I ran in the soggy, cold springs, leaping over the dirty remnants of winter-long snow. I learned yoga, too. My loose-jointed body was better suited for contorting myself than for running, which I eventually quit rather than shoot my knees to hell. I was trim. And healthy, when I wasn’t stuffing myself too much, but I did stuff. I’d found that with the greater solitude I had living in a single dorm room, away from home, Carol Ball’s method could work for me. I was young and the hungriest I’ve been, ever, in my life. I wanted sex most of all. But I had not gotten over my year of starvation, and my craving for food was ferocious, too. I wanted friends and to fit and to have a sense of being someone, by which I meant (though I didn’t know it) purpose and spiritual sustenance. I wanted independence— but not without a fallback option. During the time when my bulimia was putting down roots and becoming an invisible shadow companion, I was aware that there was a chemical aspect, more addictive, more irresistible even than food itself. Since then, research has repeatedly demonstrated a connection between eating disorders and abnormal brain serotonin and dopamine. The specific cause/effect relationship is complicated, however: these disorders aren’t simply chemistry: personality, family dynamics and cultural influences are involved. And there are subtypes of both anorexia and bulimia, with radical differences among individual behaviors surrounding food (something I would learn in group therapy later). After

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my initial rejection of Carol’s method in high school, I’d come to crave and depend on the habit, at the same time that I hated it. I loved the feel of unlimited food in my mouth, loved the rush of carbs and the victory of a complete purge. But I hated the grossness. And the fear it invoked that I was killing myself. And the shame of having so much food and being able to puke it all away. The immorality of the waste troubled me more than any question of whether sex was a sin. Most of all, I loved the aftermath. Nothing had ever made me feel so sated and euphoric. My constant anxiety vanished, my hunger was gone. My racing mind, always in hyperdrive, was temporarily sedated. I wasn’t exactly high, but the inner sea of my self was calmed, and I could think with clarity. I slept and dreamed bizarrely, ecstatically; my imagination ascended—not quite taking a draught of the “milk of paradise,” but it was up there; something intoxicating was happening. I woke, dreams still lingering, dying of thirst, and guzzled quarts of cold water or pink cans of Tab and did my homework, or sometimes wrote. The focus lingered. The dreams were the kind you keep replaying because they’re so extravagant. I was more than okay, then—my potential was right in front of me, tangible and uplifting. I wasn’t shy or tonguetied or emotionally fragile and ill. I could take hold of my life now with firmness, its gleaming twin horns of language and intellectual searching. This was not how I felt most of the time. Not any of the time, in fact. Except in the bulimic afterglow. The act of eating was always connected, for me, to reading. As a chubby child, I’d snacked while I read. My preferred literature then had been works of magic and fantasy: Edward Eager, E. Nesbit. Now, in the privacy of my room I ate and ate while I fell into a book, and sometimes the books spoke to me: I’d find familiar reflections of things I’d thought about, reflections that validated and explained me to myself. These were the books that stayed with me most, the ones I saw myself in. It was a young person’s way of reading. My students use the word “relatable” when they see themselves in a text, but that word (which makes me wince no matter how many times I hear it) misses the essential element of self-recognition. I read Joyce on impulse and was struck to the heart: I was Stephen Daedalus. Not the Stephen who “forged in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”—I could never be that arrogant—but the Stephen who boomeranged between

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religiosity and sexual obsession and whose great love was unrequited. I read Winesburg, Ohio and saw evidence in Anderson’s grotesques of what I believed, then, about humanity: that we were all sad, lonely, afflicted and tormented. William Faulkner. Daphne Du Maurier, Kenneth Grahame, George MacDonald, Malcolm Lowry (I saw my body being tossed into a ravine, like the alcholic Geoffrey Firmin, but no Mexican police had shot me; I was just being silly and melodramatic). I chose by instinct and found that the book of the moment was, miraculously, the best possible book for the moment—the only one I could have read right then. As I stuffed my mouth with food, I was filling my mind with language. Gluttonous? Absolutely. Orally fixated? That, too. I had never been mute on the inside—only in the presence of other people, whose motives were untrustworthy and indecipherable. I had always written, since I was very young. I had habitually turned words over and around in my head, handling them like putty or papier mâché, feeling them up, trying to foresee what they might turn into, fiddling with them, cutting, tossing out and replacing, building lines of poetry and blocks and threads of stories. And when I was full (of food), I purged. I was wasted and limp. I fell into a deep, heavy sleep—normally I was insomniac—of enchanting dreams. It was gross and, weirdly, fulfilling. My disorder wasn’t the purpose I’d wanted, but it gave me the sense of purpose I needed. It wasn’t sex, but it unwound me and was its own species of erotic. It was isolating, just the opposite of fitting in, but it gave me a welcome identity: I had a secret. I was darkly and piercingly unhappy. There was this addiction—a genuine chemical imbalance that governed me. If Carol Ball ever got in this deep (and I doubt it), surely she didn’t fall in love quite this way. What romance would there be for someone who didn’t love all the things that come into or out of the mouth—food and drink yes, we all love those, but words, above all? With my mouth full, it seemed to me that my mind, all the language in it, expanded. That freshman year of college, in a Western Civilization course in which I got the only C of my educational career, we read our way through a list of texts that at the time I didn’t sufficiently appreciate. St. Augustine’s The City of God left me flummoxed: raised outside religion, I had no context for understanding what the City even was. Yet I was too much a believer in the Christian doctrine of self-denial, though

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I didn’t know this yet, to agree with Epicurus that pleasure was simply good and that the soul dies with the body. Beowulf, at least, made some sense: Have sword, will slay. The professor’s expectations were mysterious, possibly because I spent too much class time staring hungrily at a lean, deliberate boy in faded jeans and flannel, Seth Makepeace, who looked a lot like the man I’m married to now. I had three-fourths of a crush on Seth, but all I got out of it was that C. Two texts transfixed me where the others didn’t all take hold. One was Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus. A pact with the devil? Wasn’t that what it was, to eat whatever you wanted and not show the consequence? But just as compelling and more to my satirical taste was William Langland’s fourteenth-century allegory, Piers Plowman, a curious work, part estates satire, part theological discourse, part quest story, all in alliterative verse. From the first lines of the prologue, I was hooked by his dream vision of the Field of Folk: In a summer season • when soft was the sun, Then began I to dream • a marvellous dream . . . I saw a tower on a toft • worthily built; A deep dale beneath • a dungeon therein, With deep ditches and dark • and dreadful of sight A fair field full of folk • found I in between, Of all manner of men • the rich and the poor, Working and wandering • as the world asketh. But where the poem truly came to life for me was in the famous procession of the Seven Deadly Sins. First came Pride and Envy, the latter “like a leek that had lain too long in the sun.” Then Wrath “with two white eyes” and lice-ridden Greed. Each sin made its shrift and was remonstrated by Repentance. I was riveted. Confession. I understood, because I, too, had something to confess. My greed and lust. And envy. And then, here was Gula—Gluttony—going churchward to confess, but on the way he’s distracted and lured away by the promise of ale, which he drinks by the gallon until he spews it back up. The portrait of Gula is the grossest by far. Then comes his confession: first he owns up to speaking profanity, and then that he: “surfeited me at supper • and sometimes at noon,/That I, Glutton, threw it up • ere I’d gone a mile/ And spilt what might be spared • and spent on some hungry one.” If

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the disgusting screen shot, full of belching, farting, and scatology, made me squirm, that one line brought home what I knew was my own worst moral failing: “And spilt what might be . . . spent on some hungry one.” Two years later, in a team-taught class on the history and literature of the Romantic period, I met Thomas DeQuincey. The course material was, for me, life-changing. We began with Thomas Carlyle and ended with Percy Shelley. In between we read the Lyrical Ballads and M.H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism and Frankenstein and much, much more that I almost literally gobbled. The primary history text was the New Left historian E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a massive, now canonical work of social history that has stayed with me—as much as I read, which was the better part of it. And there was De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” first published in 1822, with its subtitle, “Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar.” If I had recognized a piece of myself in Faustus for being willing to bargain away health for slimness, and another piece in Langland’s Gulas, for my greedy, wanton stuffing, I saw myself more wholly in “Confessions,” an autobiography of the author’s addiction that is more love song to opium than he can have realized—as demonstrated by the almost immediate criticism that followed its publication, accusing De Quincey of leading people to addiction. What made “Confessions” so electrifying was that no work I had yet read reflected me, and the intensity of my illness, so completely. De Quincey paints himself as a talented student of Greek and a philosopher, a painfully gentle young man, though intolerant of stupidity, who cares for people, not position. (“In my judgment, a station which raises a man too eminently above the level of his fellow creatures is not the most favourable to moral or to intellectual qualities,” he writes.) His great skill is his ability with language. He operates by intuition and falls into addiction young and by accident and finds in it extremes of delight and torment—all things I could have testified to myself. It’s an account of a certain kind of personality and a confluence of circumstances leading to a life derailed and a mind and soul altered. After succumbing to “the pleasures of opium” and falling in love with the drug, which he first took to quell pain from a stomach ailment, his use increases to massive daily titrations, until, tormented by opiate nightmares and fearful of dying, he begins to wean himself off the enormous doses—though he never frees himself entirely from addiction.

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B Any attempts I’d made so far to “untwist the accursed chain” of bulimia had been ineffectual and short-lived, and entirely self directed. Sometimes I’d gone as much as a year without stuffing or purging, but I always fell back in. I graduated with honors, but though I had loved the intellectual game of college, I couldn’t summon the will to go on to graduate school; too much was wrong inside. I went to work in a family business, got a roommate and an apartment, tried to be a grownup. It was the ’80s, and I adopted a spiky, trendy hairstyle and bought dressfor-success blazers with big shoulder pads. I made some tentative stabs at new friendships with other young women who were following similar paths. My extreme shyness was not so crippling anymore, but I still trusted my own company best; and added to that was the sense of having been scarred and re-formed by bulimia into someone tough enough to endure pain, but at the center, not whole. No, not cured. Then a friend of my younger brother’s, just discharged from the Air Force, came home. We’d met before, when he was a scrawny teenager. Paul was still skinny, but with muscles now, and a fierce, sexy physiognomy. And no money, of course. It was lust at first sight, and we did what Johnny and June Carter Cash sing about and “got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.” I spent the next five years realizing that it had not been a good move, that the young man I’d married was as troubled as he was large-hearted. Where I was intellectual, he hated anything remotely academic. He liked Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, and any male role model who was “built like a brick shithouse” and could fight. At a spindly six feet one and 135 pounds, his greatest desire was to be tough-looking enough to be feared. He spoke in clichés and believed a violent threat lurked around every corner. My bulimia had colored my self-concept as someone who would never marry because she was, simply, too messed up; this ill-advised marriage was the result. Reading can be dangerous when we take too much of our identity from what we’ve read—and if I’d found kindred voices in Lowry and Marlowe and Langland and Joyce and De Quincey, together these writers had given me models for understanding myself as pitifully mangled and defective, not worth the love of someone functional. The silver lining in all this was that my nunchucks-wielding hus-

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band was so large hearted: heroic, even. He was practial and action-oriented, and he loved me. It didn’t take long for him to realize I had a problem and to decide that he would not let it continue. So it was back into therapy, this time with a clinical psychologist, Dr. Hercules. Cognitive behavioral therapy was, and is, a standard, successful approach to eating disorders; but while Dr. Hercules was enthusiastic about it, I was less sanguine and barely met him halfway. My progress was halting, often making a precipitous U-turn as the therapy upset me. Talking, no matter how vaguely, about the fact that you overeat and vomit has the discouraging effect of making you want to do those things more. There were three great outcomes of my work with Dr. Hercules, however: 1) I got used to doing something about my disorder; 2) he connected me with an eating disorders group at the local university; and 3) he prodded me to find a vocation and move forward. Testing showed that more study of English would be a good bet, and I took the GRE and applied to a Masters program at the aforementioned university. When I later reported to Dr. Hercules that I’d submitted my gradschool application and told him the test results, his jaw almost literally dropped. “But . . . but . . . he stammered, “Those are incredible scores.” I felt a rush of righteous disappointment, as I realized Dr. Hercules didn’t understand what was inside me any more than Dr. Handsome had. For it seemed to me as if then first I stood at a distance and aloof from the uproar of life; as if the tumult, the fever, and the strife were suspended; a respite granted from the secret burthens of the heart; a Sabbath of repose; a resting from human labours. Here were the hopes which blossom in the paths of life reconciled with the peace which is in the grave; motions of the intellect as unwearied as the heavens, yet for all anxieties a halcyon calm; a tranquility that seemed no product of enertia, but as if resulting from mighty and equal antagonisms; infinite activities, infinite repose. So writes De Quincey, about the state opium might induce in him on a summer evening, surveying the landscape beneath his window. It was a state not unlike what I still experienced, when I was levelled and calmed by a purge. But I was afraid now. I was twenty-seven, not seven-

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teen. My dependency was greater than ever, and I felt the after-effects more than I had a few years earlier. I was terrified of choking to death, as Mama Cass supposedly had, or dying from electrolyte depletion, or from heart failure, as Karen Carpenter did during my time with Dr. Hercules. There was no end in sight. My “problem” had been a hideout from shyness and anxiety, a way to find a still point. But it had morphed into a dangerous hideout from shame itself. Though I had decided to part with Dr. Hercules, I continued in the eating disorders group, led by a recent PhD graduate, Bonnie Calmer. So far I’d turned for help to men—even as far back as the support I’d received from Carlos and the young black boxer. But now that I was making progress, I didn’t want men telling me what to do. Perhaps what had chafed me about Dr. Hercules wasn’t, primarily, that he underestimated me but that he was a man who underestimated me. Dr. Calmer didn’t underestimate any of us. She exuded a centered power and taught us, by example, that we could have it, too. The group, which would wax and wane over the next two years, consisted of eight of us to start. Each semester it reformed and we took off anew. But attendance fell away quickly; the dropout rate was similar to the attrition rate in substance-abuse treatment. If bulimia is often misunderstood as a set of adolescent behaviors born of privileged girls’ vanity, medical research of the past several decades has, on the contrary, repeatedly showed that bulimics, even more than anorexics, exhibit high levels of genuine dependency. And it isn’t just hard to conquer a dependency: it’s excruciating. Most of the women who started in the group couldn’t take it. I’ve occasionally wondered how and why I was able to. De Quincey writes, of his inability to reduce his opium use, “I confess it, as a besetting infirmity of mine, that I am too much of an Eudæmonist; I hanker too much after a state of happiness, both for myself and others; I cannot face misery, whether my own or not, with an eye of sufficient firmness, and am little capable of encountering present pain for the sake of any reversionary benefit.” Fortunately for my life’s sake, I had been given a personality quite able to endure “present pain” for any variety of possible delayed benefits to myself or, especially, to others. Where Dr. Handsome had embarrassed me and Dr. Hercules had annoyed me, Dr. Calmer elicited the respect you bestow on people who are excellent at what they do but immune to admiration. She had a cap

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of dark-brown curls and ice-blue eyes, and dressed out of L.L. Bean. She was prettier than her clothes, but pretty was not on her agenda, and in the group we sometimes talked about the cultural standards for women that helped fuel each of our desires to be thin. Of the other bulimics in the group, I remember two, Nora and Jenny, best because they stayed with Dr. Calmer over subsequent semesters. Nora was a lawyer in her early forties. Blunt and bitter, she was the only one of us who didn’t purge and the only one who would say how much she ate. When Dr. Calmer probed her about what she got out of overeating, she didn’t have to cast about for the answer: “Power,” she said. For Nora, in a profession still ruled thirty years ago by men, weight was weight. As it was in her difficult relationship with her husband. There were other women I don’t remember; some only came for a few sessions. And then there was Jenny, the one bulimic who would stay in groups with me until I finally stepped out of therapy. Like Nora, she became a lawyer. I liked Jenny, but I envied her, too. She was more focused, not as ill. She was a driven student. I saw in her another Carol Ball: a very bright young woman who had stumbled and gotten hurt and was systematically pursuing the remedy, where I had been, not just injured but demolished and robbed of myself. With respect to the “accurs’d chain” of addiction De Quincey writes of, Jenny had never entirely been bound in it; it had just been looped lightly around her, and she was already mostly free. At some point, toward the end of my therapy, the group added a male member, Rob, athletic and outdoorsy, a student in the School of Agriculture. I’d seldom heard men talk about their fears and anxieties before, but Rob was articulate and self-aware. He was not overweight, but still he obsessed about body image and had internalized a great deal of stress trying to please his father, for whom physical shape and prowess were the be-all and end-all of manhood. It was before Dr. Calmer left to join a psychology practice in the community that I became aware of a way in which I was different from the other group members. I had sometimes noticed how much I understood about bulimia, compared to the younger women like Jenny who hadn’t lived it for as long. But there was another, larger difference: by 1985, the year I left counseling, the condition itself was becoming known. Recent books like Kim Chernin’s The Hungry Self, published that same year, and her 1981 best-seller The Obsession: Reflections on the

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Tyranny of Slenderness, were responding to the discovery of how widespread eating disorders were in this country. The group therapy I was involved in was part of a growing number of new strategies being used to treat them. When I’d first heard about Carol Ball, in 1972, the idea of what she was doing was inconceivable; the person who’d told me had never heard of such a behavior, either. Neither had I possessed a word for what was wrong with me the whole while I was starving myself. The words “anorexia” and “bulimia” weren’t part of the common lexicon. Now, every fifteen-year-old American girl knows what they are and can point to a friend or older sister—perhaps a brother—who has struggled with one or both. Unlike me, these other young women, the ones in my groups, knew from the start what was happening to them. They understood they had a medical problem, requiring treatment; they knew treatment existed, that they weren’t freaks who were marred by sin. They had spent less time alone with their disorders, where I had spent years in isolation with mine, locked in by shyness, seeking an understanding of what was wrong in books that dealt with existential darkness and spiritual disease. My soul had fought a battle and found its strength, and my ironic and mildly selfish self had come out transformed. If we lean naturally toward our own advantage—if we’re each equipped with blinders that keep us, for our protection, from seeing the extent of others’ pain, my time in the inferno (and it was sometimes that) had mostly burned the blinders away. Dr. Calmer went on to build an impressive career, specializing in treating trauma survivors of war and disaster and traveling all over the world. She continued, too, to treat eating disorders. Of the counselors I saw for my illness, she stands out as the most gifted. But it was a rash and cocky red-haired psychology grad student, Jack Push, who finally “untwisted the chain” for me. After Dr. Calmer’s departure, Jack picked up with the group, the last one Jenny and Rob and I would be part of. Six or seven of us evaporated down to four: we three returning members (Nora had moved to Phoenix) and Terri, a college senior, dependable as granite, a smart small-town girl majoring in consumer economics. The four of us stayed faithful to the group until the end. The others didn’t have the courage to keep on with the often painful sessions and accept the relapses that sometimes went with them. Jack Push was

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either unconventional or not trained to be leading an eating disorders group. He didn’t seem to care if we were medically stable (the first rule in treating eating disorders); he didn’t ask what we ate or how much or how much we threw up. He didn’t try to hypnotize us or make us relax. He wanted us to deal with things; our sessions were confrontational and left us raw. It was a good thing the others had dropped out, I thought, because despite the severe discomfort, something was happening to us, and it was the kind of change that can only happen when a group is small and tightly knit and all for a common end. Dr. Calmer had prepared us for this; she’d loosened us inside and started the healing, and now Jack was going headlong for goal. Rarely, I’ve wondered what happened to all the words that comprised over a dozen years of off-and-on therapy. I don’t remember what I said to Dr. Handsome or what he said to me, except for the first session, when he asked if he could call me “Lynn” and I was too tonguetied to say no. With the exception of Dr. Hercules’ reaction to my test scores, I barely remember what he said—only a few of his small personal revelations. He’s dead, like Dr. Handsome, and it could be that I’m the only one carrying them now. Even the sometimes profound wisdom of Dr. Calmer is largely vanished. I can summarize much of it and recapitulate my response. It was important; it helped save us. But I didn’t hold on to the words. Except for a sentence of Jack’s. It was our last session, and he was letting us go. He was moving on to work as a corporate psychologist across the country. And he wanted to leave us each with something: a word to inspire and guide us. His advice to the others was warmer, personal, and I recognized, not for the first time or the last, how much I’d kept myself to myself, even in these intimate group confessions: how sealed-in I had learned to be. To me, he pointed out bluntly the irony of eating food that you’re only going to throw up again. “You have to admit, that’s funny,” he said. Shades of William Langland’s Gula. But it wasn’t funny, I thought angrily. It embodied so much pain. Then Jack said, “You’re going to have to learn to laugh about this, Evelyn, or you might die.” I might die. He hadn’t said this to the others because they had never been as sick. It was true, and I knew it—knew I’d already cashed in most of whatever extra lives we get. But he’d also said “laugh,” and I

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realized at that moment he’d handed me a key that would allow me to go on with the rest of my life. I could laugh about it. It sounded absurd, but it meant I wasn’t sin-sick. I could laugh, and it would reduce bulimia in proportion to its real significance in my life, which was not as large anymore: I was married, working, about to enter graduate school. I could laugh, and like a balloon when you thrust your thumb into it hard, it would burst and deflate, and the suffering that had overwhelmed me at fifteen would lie flattened and limp at the feet of the young woman it had formerly bound.

EVELYN SOMERS is associate editor of the Missouri Review, where she edits fiction and nonfiction and advocates for emerging writers. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Southwest Review, the Millions, the Collagist, Florida Review, Copper Nickel, and Bloom, among others. Her novel-instories in progress, The Band Leader of Covington, is about music, magic, and the divine in a small town of eccentrics.

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[ FICTION]

R

achel paces the blindingly hot Caltrain plat-

form, recalibrating the agenda for her hec-

tic afternoon. She’s missed the usual train and this next one is already ten minutes late, so she’ll have to drive straight to soccer practice for David and Sara. She planned to festoon the dining room

with blue and lavender crepe paper. But she can send Sara to Auntie Esther’s for the paper, then call Auntie to delay Sara while she and David decorate and put candles on the cake. It’ll be a rush, but that’s life now. Fifteen minutes late to the station today of all days. Damn. She never thought she’d give the

Valerie Miner

kids a phone, but now it’s an urban survival tool. No point calling until she’s on the train with a S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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clear ETA. Damn sun, you’d think Caltrain or Redwood City or someone could put up shelters or awnings or something. Haven’t they heard of skin cancer? “They,” so many incompetent “theys” in her life. She leans against a wall and closes her eyes. It will all sort out. Relax. Think how well work went today. In fact, it’s been better ever since Dr. Goodman took over the ER and started referring families. Hospital social work is meaningful. A good job, especially for someone with a new graduate degree. Even Dan is impressed with the pay and benefits, no small concession after all his griping about her return to school. Twenty minutes late. Really, this weather is too hot for spring. Yet nothing compared to Dan sweltering in Iraq. His own fault, of course. Joining the Navy in middle age—leaving his medical practice, two kids and a wife. Why do they need the Navy in a land war? Why the hell are we fighting the first place? God (Yahweh, Allah, Zeus—whoever’s up there) keep him safe. Let him return home before her selfish resentment locks the door. Knowing that heat always puts her on edge, she reminds herself that Dan is doing this out of patriotism, not selfishness. Gratitude, she thinks, practice gratitude for all that you have. The red and silver leviathan roars into the station. She clenches her teeth and looks down, hasn’t been able to fully watch an arrival for five months now. The doors suck open and people crowd on board. Usually she’s at the front of the line. Usually she gets her choice of the back seats on the top deck. But she didn’t get much sleep and has no energy to push ahead. This tardy, packed-to-the-gills choo choo is even less hospitable to hermits than her regular train. Shit, not one window seat facing forward. Well, she’s seen people stand all the way to San Francisco, so she gratefully drops down in an aisle seat which, at least, is facing toward San Francisco. She hates these booth-like configurations with twin seats on either side of a shelf that looks more like an ironing board than a table. Only two other seats in this quartet are occupied—at the aisle across from her, a young guy is busy with his laptop. Next to her, by the window, an older woman is reading student papers. They don’t seem to know each other. Yup, tally those small blessings. Piercing screams fill the car. Rachel grips the armrest. A ragtag stream of miniature people pours in, holding hands, shriek-

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ing and laughing as they surge through the next car. Three brave or sedated teachers—one at the front of the procession, one in the middle and one at the end—usher them through the next carriage, shushing to minimize the disturbance. Across the aisle, an old man smiles indulgently. The little boy sitting on his mother’s lap waves and laughs. A sullen guy in a Stanford t-shirt ups the volume on his iPod. Doors whoosh open and the shrill parade disappears. Rachel likes children. Her day is filled with kids at the hospital and her nights are occupied with her precious daughter and son. So she looks forward to the train as an in-between respite, to read for her book group or shut her eyes and zone out. Sometimes she practices meditation or rather practices practicing meditation. Yesterday she was disappointed to reach her stop. Now she glances at her companions. The guy is typing rapidly. She notices one of those small air ports on the side of his computer. Technology moves so fast. Wasn’t it yesterday that Mom took her to work and showed her how the white paper scrolled into her fancy IBM Selectric? Now you’re supposed to save trees with email, PDF and word attachments, jpegs, Xcel charts. Leah sent her “farewell note” on email. Imagine. No, she tells herself, don’t go there. The woman next to her is shaking her head and marking papers with a pencil. Occasionally erasing and starting over. Committed teacher, Rachel can see. She’s really distressed at the errors. Rachel admires the woman’s hair and hopes her own turns silvery straight like that one day. Meanwhile, she’s pretty happy with this chestnut color she got after Leah’s funeral. Small, silly decision, dying her hair, but it was one of a thousand things that gradually helped her turn a page. One page. “Tickets. Passes.” A pretty woman wearing cornrows projects a faintly Southern voice down the center aisle. “Please have your tickets and passes ready.” Proficiently she threads her way through the crowded train, alert to feet, briefcases and purses in her path. “Thank you.” “Got that.” “Good to see ya.” “Yup, thanks.”

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B Loy likes the conductor’s spicy perfume. Normally you only smell perfume or cologne or aftershave on the morning train. Maybe she just started her shift. Maybe for her, it’s the morning. He notices each of his tablemates has a Clipper card. He does prefer to sit with other members of the tribe. Pass-holders are skilled travelers fortified with books or computers or ear buds. Or school papers like this teacher. They don’t expect conversation and leave you alone, taking up minimal space, understanding that none of you are really here. Everyone is just riding between realities. Work and home. Remembering; looking forward. Loy has almost developed an immunity to train distraction. He has it worked out. Since most passengers like to face forward, he always sits with his back to the destination. Today, as usual, he’s cadged an empty seat next to him for a backpack and shopping bags. Even on crowded trains, he scores space. He’s very good at figuring things out. That’s why he enjoys his job; he gets paid to figure things out. At first, he dreaded the commute—forty minutes each way between Menlo Park and the City. He simply couldn’t live on the Peninsula, which held so many memories of high school and college. And rehab. In the City, he’s anonymous, free. He loves walking among strangers. When he does run into someone he knows, it’s fun, not a punch in the solar plexus the way it was at home. To his City friends and acquaintances, he is that hip programmer or the buff guy from the gym or the fantastic tenor in the Nouveau Castro Choir. He isn’t Mrs. Chang’s awkward nerdy son, who discovered his sexuality, duh, years after everyone else knew. In Sunnyvale, shame droops like Spanish moss. His San Francisco studio is two blocks from Badlands on 18th Street. Transformation. Complete transformation. The City is promise. Especially tonight. After a quick workout and sauna, he’ll wash his hair, shave and put on the slacks and shirt he ironed last night, slip into the amazing Tommy Bahama Vallarta Driving Moccasins. He’ll listen to Rubén Blades while steering his Mini Cooper to the Zuni Café to meet Jorge for dinner before the salsa flick. He downloaded some dope music today in case Jorge cares to come to his apartment for some after teatro cha cha cha. Five weeks now, he’s been scoping out Jorge. He couldn’t believe it

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Monday night when he walked into Badlands and found the very object of his fantasies perched at the bar. Sitting on a stool, winking at him. The relationship—with all their mutual interests in books and music— has some actual potential. Of course, it isn’t a relationship yet, but it feels good. How many people do you meet at cool bars who also drink mineral water and love jazz and Iris Murdoch? You can’t tell Loy their stars aren’t aligned. A spray of bitter smelling beer arches across the aisle, spattering their table. The new woman pretends to ignore it, tightens her jaw and continues reading her hardback. The teacher, shaking her head at a student paper, appears not to notice. Loy raises his perfect eyebrows, pulls out a Kleenex and wipes the table. “Oh, oh, excuse my friend here,” calls the red-haired woman from across the aisle, talking so quickly she’s almost incoherent. “Joey’s super hyped about the game tonight. Giants against the Dodgers. Want another tissue?” “Thanks, I’ve got it, Ma’am,” he answers with cool finality. “Ma’am! You get that Joey? He called me ‘ma’am.’ The name’s Tammy.” She grins at Loy. “And yours? Who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” He sighs. “Loy” requires conversation. Long ago he learned to respond, “Bill, nice to meet you,” to people it isn’t nice to meet and whom he hope will be raptured away. “Great to meet you, too, Bill.” Laughter erupts from the boyfriend and the other couple. She joins in. They’re all wearing black and orange caps. “Yeah, excuse me, bud,” the boyfriend leans over. “Bill,” Tammy explains. “Right, Bill. Have a cold brewski? Might mellow you out.” Tammy cracks up. Elena loses her concentration and glowers at the baseball fan. She didn’t intend to glower. She guesses it’s a reflex now, after thirty-five years of wrangling goof-off students in the back row.

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For the first time she notices the seat mates who joined the train at some stops after San Jose. One good thing about boarding at an early station is that you have a choice of seats. Elena prefers the window, even if she rarely looks through the filthy glass. How can the state afford to wash train windows when they can’t even buy textbooks? Elena feels safer by the window, away from the hurried, jostling people. She’s determined to finish marking these papers on the train. They’re only exercises. She doesn’t need to devote a lifetime to them, as Alicia would say. As her oldest sister will say if she brings school work on the casino bus tonight. Elena pictures them now—she and her sisters in the last two rows of the posh bus to Reno. Their spring trip. She’s looked forward to it for weeks. The four of them staying in two rooms of their favorite casino hotel. They come so often—three times a year—and they are a memorable bunch, so the manager calls their suite “Música Chavez.” Elena believes the cute Guatemalan guy has a crush on Dacia. But her younger sister shrugs it off. A beautiful woman, Dacia shrugs a lot. They plan carefully because it’s tricky for all four of them to get the same three day weekends. After Juan’s death, she rediscovered her sisters. There they were, with open arms, as if they had been waiting for her. Marta will pick her up at the train, swing by the apartment for her suitcase and the tamales, then collect Dacia and Alicia and drive to the bus. “A fine-tuned plan,” Marta chuckled last night on the phone. Elena wanted to say “finely tuned,” but has learned to censor the grammar police. “Hello, Mason?” “Yeah, it’s me, Brittany? Let me tell you about last night?” “On the train? Where are you?” “Excuse me.” “Oh, hang on. There’s a lady. I think she wants the place next to me.” Brittany stows her backpack under the seat and pulls in her legs to let the woman pass. Rachel remains standing in the aisle. Hovering. “Would you mind lowering your voice a bit?” Rachel is surprised to find herself glaring at the cherub. The kid’s loud inanity has simply propelled her down the aisle.

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Brittany snaps her gum, scowls, as if thinking this wrinkled lady could really use a good haircut and makeover, not to mention a gym membership. “I’m sitting way down at the far end of the car and I can hear your every word,” Rachel tries to sound reasonable. “Oh, right,” Brittany replies slowly, then returns to the phone. “Call you later Mason? Some dinosaur hasn’t heard of the First Amendment. Or maybe she’s allergic to cell phones.” Wordlessly, Rachel swivels and returns to her seat. Tonight she’ll review telephone etiquette with Sara and David. Seated again, she closes her eyes, exhaling the irritation. Just a kid, she tells herself, an excited, hormonal teenager. When she opens her eyes, the Asian man across the table is smiling at her. “Thanks,” Loy says. “She was driving me nuts, too.” “Yes,” Elena touches her arm. “Thank you.” Rachel releases a long breath. Maybe she’s not a crank. Maybe it’s normal to want to concentrate on your book, to nap, to burrow among the hundreds of strangers as the train barrels up the peninsula. Inadvertently, she glances down the aisle and finds Brittany staring back. For the moment, at least, she slips into Middlemarch, savoring the names Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, Humphrey Cadwaller, Camden Farebrother, Nicholas Bulstrode. Loy has returned to his iPod and computer. He’s getting close with this new project. Really close. Ingram will be pissed off and DuBrow will be way impressed. This is what they call a breakthrough. Totally original. Nothing else comes close. He’s sure to get bumped up. A promotion and a new boyfriend and the light lasting longer every day. Who was that pathetic, sullen addict looking for jobs and lovers in all the wrong places? Dr. Green warned him not to get cocky, to track his moods, make sure not to get too angry or too tired. But he’s nowhere near either of those places and only a few stops from evening in Paradise. Elena is the first to sense something. Sirens, she hears sirens. Eerily insistent whining over the loud rattle of their train. She peers out the window; the landscape is slowing down. B

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As they rock to a stop, Rachel looks up. Loy is so into Babydaddy’s guitar and his own brilliant breakthrough that it’s not until Brittany’s shriek from the end of the car that he notices anything. “Ambulance and four police cars.” Brittany is hyperventilating into her cell. “Oh my god, oh my god.” “Let’s hope it’s not another suicide,” Elena whispers, shaking her head. Rachel nods, stiffens. “What?” Loy unplugs. “Pardon?” “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your conductor speaking. Our train is being detained here between stations for a short time. We will inform you when we receive the green light. Thank you for your patience.” “Oh, wow. I,” Loy sputters before he realizes he is talking. The women wait attentively. “Well, I have plans…a lot to do when I get off the train.” “It’s my daughter’s birthday.” Rachel’s eyes widen; she’s incredulous at this new piece of bad luck. “I have to collect the kids from soccer and decorate the dining room and…” “Last time this happened,” Loy pauses, slows down and continues cautiously, “we waited two hours for the ambulance and the police and the…” His voice trails off. “And the people who clean the track,” Elena says sadly. He feels sweat pooling under his arms and down his back. Damn, he knew he should have saved his new Francomb shirt for evenings. But he hasn’t had a panic attack in, well, six months. “My colleague lost four of his sophomores this way,” Elena knows she’s talking too much. Still, at times like this you need to communicate, even with strangers. “One of those clusters, they call them.” “But we don’t know,” Rachel struggles to hang on. She cannot dissolve on Sara’s birthday. “This could be anything. An engine malfunction. A piece of wood in the tracks.” They each regard her sympathetically. Pulling back her shoulders, she sits taller and stronger. Who do they think she is—a protected housewife—not that there are many of those any more—a Martian? She blurts, “I know about suicides. This

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year, my sister took her life.” Did she really say this? To strangers? “I was only…” “I am so sorry.” Elena leans in. “Yes,” Loy stares at the table. “My condolences.” They had to practice condolences at the recovery center. To get into the hearts of loved ones left behind. Yes, he had learned about grief, the guilt and anger bequeathed by acts like his. Rachel sniffs back the tears. “It was five months ago.” She’s held it together all week. She will not break down in front of outsiders. For some reason she adds, “Leah had been battered. It had been going on for years. And I had no clue. My own sister.” Elena wants to take this woman’s hand but can tell the gesture would embarrass her. She thinks about Marta, Dacia and Alicia—each of them beautiful and whole and alive. She would know if one of them were having problems at home. Of course she would know at once. They are all so close. She hopes she would know. “How very sad.” “We were really tight,” Rachel is blathering. What the hell, she needs to talk about it. And she’ll never see these people again. “I should have seen the signs.” “That’s not always easy.” Loy sounds older, more authoritative. Both women are startled. “I survived,” he says tenderly, looking into her eyes. Rachel returns his concerned gaze. “You’ve lost someone, too?” “No.” That’s all he can manage. It’s so hot on the god damned train. Air conditioner always shuts down during a delay. Elena catches his wandering eyes and holds them. “I’m very glad you didn’t succeed.” Rachel bobs, recovering from the blow. “So am I.” Loy brightens. “But believe me,” he says urgently to Rachel, “no one in my family knew. No one could have stopped…” He hasn’t talked about it outside home and therapy. He does have to find a way to tell Jorge. This is harder than he imagined. But the woman should not feel responsible about her sister. “How, well, how are you now?” asks Elena. “Fine. Just fine. My job is awesome. I have a hot date tonight. I love living in the city. Life is great.” “Good. Very good.” Elena smiles. “I’m so happy to hear that.” She

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wishes he were talking to her sweet sophomores, wishes she could roll the whole sad semester back, wonders if Loy would actually consider visiting her class; it would be so helpful to have a young person speak from experience. But no, she stops herself, he’s still clearly recovering. “I’m so relieved to hear it, too,” agrees Rachel, feeling wrung out, tired, but also, strangely comforted. “Ladies and gentlemen. Your conductor again.” The car falls silent. “I’m sorry to report that we may be detained for another forty-five minutes.” A collective groan. “Forty-five fucking minutes, Mason!” Brittany is shouting into her phone. “We will keep you posted as soon as we hear anything.” Across the aisle four beer cans snap. “If you can’t beat ’em; join ’em,” proclaims Mr. Spray. “What’s that supposed to mean?” giggles Tammy. “Don’t know,” Joey grins. “Sounded good enough.” “Hey, Bill.” Tammy leans over. “And you ladies. Care to join us? We’ve got plenty.” They all shake their heads. “Thanks anyway.” Loy somehow feels like the spokesman. Another forty-five minutes late, she’ll never make the Reno bus, Elena thinks. She’ll have to call Marta to say go ahead without her. “God, my kids are going to be alone at the soccer field,” Rachel sighs as she pulls out her phone. “Sorry, I have to reach the coach.” Elena rings Marta. Facing the grimy window, she explains in a low voice, “No, you go without me. Maybe I can catch the casino bus tomorrow. No use ruining everyone’s weekend.” Through the window, she makes out the insipid lights of a strip mall and way behind that, the green rise of the coastal range. Loy recalculates his time. If he skips the gym and sauna, just showers at home, he can make it to the Zuni Café. He’ll be fine. A little wiped, but fine. “I got them,” Rachel sounds relieved. “Coach Malouf is taking them to our apartment. They’ll be OK. I mean, they’re eleven and twelve. They should be just fine, right? I was babysitting when I was twelve.

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They’ll be fine.” She curses herself for missing the regular train. On her daughter’s birthday. She just can’t handle everything, every bloody thing, by herself. Damn Dan. Damn Iraq. The car grows eerily quiet after the initial flurry of exclamations and complaints and phone calls. Light drains from the sky and evening fog seems to seep into the train. Rachel pulls out a sweater. Brittany is sobbing. Elena knows she should get up and comfort the girl. But she’s suddenly exhausted, having lost the adrenaline for/from her Nevada journey. The exercises lie, unfinished, on her lap. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the conductor begins. He’s like a carnival barker, Rachel thinks, gradually losing credibility. Loy tugs out his ear buds. “We have an update for you.” “What? What was that?” Joey wakes up. “It is estimated that we should be able to leave in thirty minutes.” “But it’s already been over an hour!” Rachel protests, then registers the sheer panic in her voice. She breathes deeply, reminding herself she’s talked with the kids twice. They’ve double-locked the door. They’re fine. They’ll be fine. “We regret the delay. But there has been an incident on the tracks.” Elena knew this, of course. They all did when they saw the ambulance. An incident. Oh, she cannot bear to think of Jason, Courtney, Whit and Charley. “My name is Elena,” she bows from her shoulders toward her two seatmates. “Nice to meet you,” he laughs, feeling like a kid for some reason. “I’m… Loy is my name.” “I’m Rachel.” She smiles wanly. “So what are you working on there, Loy?” Five minutes later he is still explaining the program. The women’s eyes meet in bewildered amusement. He catches himself. “Sorry. I can get lost in this stuff. I try to hang out with non-nerds, just to sharpen my social skills.”

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“A sense of humor about yourself is the best skill,” Elena laughs. “Where, I mean what do you teach?” he asks. She looks a little like Mrs. Garcia from the fourth grade. He’s always intended to go back and thank Mrs. Garcia for introducing him to IT. Soon they are all laughing. About what? One of Elena’s helicopter parents, perhaps. Or the three weeks Rachel spent shopping for the perfect eleventh birthday lavender and blue bathrobe. Or the night Loy fell on his ass in salsa class. Speaking of salsa. Of course it’s now too late to catch the film. Excusing himself, he takes the phone out to the corridor. “No, go on to the premier without me,” he insists. Then pausing, telling himself he’ll be OK no matter what the answer, he asks, “Any chance you’re free for dinner on Sunday?” A long silence at the other end. Loy counts his breaths. “Sure. Zuni Café again?” His eyes fill and he reaches for a casual voice. “Sweet. Let’s say 7:30?” Elena is telling Rachel about Música Chavez. “Reno is a beautiful city. Oh, the mountains! And so much to do. It’s a real bargain, the coach and the hotel, especially if you don’t gamble.” “You don’t gamble?” asks Loy, happy to be back in conversation with these two people who an hour ago had been members of his serious, silent tribe. Rachel notices that the baseball fans are sound asleep. Many people have their eyes closed, listening to iPods or music on their computers. Brittany’s Lady Gaga is so loud Rachel can almost make out the words. But she’s shed her irritation, wants to walk back and reassure the kid. “Ladies and gentlemen…” A crackling noise on the loudspeaker like an early rumble of thunder or a heavy truck creeping up a gravel road. “Ladies and gentlemen. Yes, that’s a better connection. I am pleased to report that we can move on our way. The incident has abated. Many of you have expressed concern, so I will tell you that the worst thing

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that has transpired today is your delay. “We apologize for the inconvenience.” A loud clang; then a jolt; then the train moves slowly and gradually picks up speed. “That means the jumper was saved from the tracks,” Loy explains. “They have to speak in euphemisms.” “Naturally.” Rachel feels her shoulders relaxing. “How wonderful,” Elena declares. She’s spent, as if maintaining her optimism might have saved the jumper. “Just three more stops.” “Me, too,” Rachel says. “I guess we all get off at 22nd Street,” Loy grins. Rachel, eager as she is to get home, feels oddly sad as they begin their good-byes. “Hey, Elena, can I give you a lift?” Loy feels awkward calling someone his mother’s age by her first name. “I mean since your sister isn’t picking you up any more?” “No, no thank you. I don’t want to disrupt your evening. I can take the bus.” “What evening?” he laughs. “The train ate my evening. Jorge is already on his way to the movie. I’d be delighted to drop you off.” “Ate my evening.” Rachel shakes her head. “My poor kids must be starving. So much for Sara’s favorite chicken cacciatore. I’ll have to pull out the frozen pizza.” She hopes she gets to catch some of Dan’s birthday call from Iraq. “Do your kids like tamales?” Elena asks. “How about salsa music?” Loy offers. Rachel laughs happily. “A party. A surprise party. Wouldn’t that be fun?” “Oh, good.” Elena feels curiously elated. “YOLO!” declares Loy, raising his hand in a high five to Elena. Rachel’s heart sinks. She can’t do this, bring two strangers to her daughter’s birthday. It’s Sara’s evening. They’ve planned it for weeks. Even persuaded David to watch “The Princess Bride,” once again as a gift to his sister. Elena catches Rachel’s expression. “Maybe this isn’t the best for your children? Yes?”

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“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Rachel rushes on. “It’s very kind of you, but yes, Elena’s right. Sara has been looking forward to her dad’s call and her special film and I just think…” “Hey, it’s cool,” says Loy, hiding his disappointment. Wish Sara a happy birthday for me.” “And for me, too,” says Elena. “She’s lucky to have such a loving mother.” “Thanks, but, I’m so…oh, we’re pulling in.” Quickly, each of them gathers their things, seasoned travelers who never miss a stop. On the platform, Rachel pauses to phone the kids. First, she waves good-bye to Loy and Elena. “Farewell,” calls Loy. “See you on the train!” Rachel nods, waves again. As they walk up the steep stairs, Loy takes Elena’s briefcase for her. Rachel watches from the cool, dark platform until they vanish from sight.

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VALERIE MINER is an award-winning author of fourteen books. In 2002, The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir was a Finalist for the PEN USA Creative Non-Fiction Award. Valerie Miner’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Triquarterly, Salmagundi, New Letters, Ploughshares, The Village Voice, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, The T.L.S., The Women’s Review of Books, The Nation and other journals. Winner of a Distinguished Teaching Award, she has taught for over twentyfive years and is now a professor and artist in residence at Stanford University. She travels internationally giving readings, lectures, and workshops. She and her partner live in San Francisco and Mendocino County, California.

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[ POETRY]

LAUREN CAMP

Snake System

Lauren Camp is the author of three books. Her most recent collection, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize, and the Housatonic Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Slice, Ecotone, Boston Review, Third Coast, Beloit Poetry Journal and Poem-a-Day. A Black Earth Institute Fellow, she lives and teaches in New Mexico.

of countless hours, and spread beyond leaves. On my desk, papers lie

In the trees, a coach whip waits. I wouldn’t have known, but my husband muttered small words and those words quivered. His eyes were full of the blue

in every direction—fragments of thought too narrow. For hours I hunched into them, then notcied, ouside, the one I love holding his phone to the trees to capture the coral mosaic slipping without end through stretched branches inscribed with slim green fists of juniper. The air has turned gentle. Finally last night we said the unsaid with our bodies, stealing self with our arrangement of shoulders and crimson intentions; his heart-scar rubbed my hips. He sipped the milk of it. And now we stand in the pollen, heads back to the needles and ravens and the salt of the sky forms a bouquet around us, our whispers again bent to hums.

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Swainson’s Hawk

I said a final yes to the counselor and coiled

White throat and pointed wings, a perch in Spanish bayonet, in shinnery oak, in pasture.

my answers. Yes, I will truth the depth of his failing, then return to talking the weather. I no longer think a body is shelter. Outside, cobwebs in the roses, sheets of crows and the sun remains frantic. Turning and turning.

Small eyes tucking in to prey. I always forget the haste of dismantling the torn-off evidence: leopard lizard, whiptail, kestrel, shrike. While stars are raw, a raptor feathered to the toes will eat grasped rats and voles, collect the flapping bats. Another bone, another funeral. The supply nearly endless. I’m arriving on time to a table. The mouth holds sorrows. Teeth cling to the soundless: the leaves and route, the sunset rushes by. Somewhere, a rabbit warm in the hawk’s beak.

Memento Mori I let my father have his mad. His mouth against death. Is forgetting a crime? He censors every blurred paradigm and what holds repeats. Never a reflexive reason when you noodle in Alzheimer’s. Every thing cruel, crucial.

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Icon I pass roses beside fallen rock, their petals in crescents. The river stays quiet though versions of water continue. Context is holy: the slow beam of light pure with deer limbs. A stone walk wends behind trees and weary leaves. Four magpies at the sprinkler, black beaks filled with capture. When I walk into the Big House, the door ajar, a Welsh man with a half-smile offers a beer. We look across Pueblo land at lowered eyebrows of light. Other people close the door. “I’d like to leave it all behind. Not go back, you know?” I do not respond. On the path, gold hearts of forsythia open. The sky is only sky, not endless silenced trees. Not insistent hues and curls of soot.

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God Only Knows

[ ESSAY]

I

had almost finished third grade at the board-

ing school in Addis Ababa when my parents

decided we needed to leave Ethiopia. Well, ac-

tually, I was at home, flown to our mission station to recuperate from a debilitating fever carried by pet pigeons. Easter had passed with me in bed, tangled in sweaty sheets. My birthday had passed. Then Mom learned of her mother’s heart attack in Kansas, and we had to go. My parents packed the durable Melmac dishes in a barrel, along with all our Hardy Boys books and my big brother’s hand-me-downs—worn jeans and button-down shirts that I might even-

Tim Bascom

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family, with the understanding we would claim him upon return. Then, as soon as my older brother completed sixth grade at the boarding school, we scooped him up and took a Pan Am flight out of the country. Not until we were traveling across the state of New York in a rented Pontiac that smelled of vinyl and artificial pines, did I begin to sense that maybe this was more than a brief interruption to our “normal” life. Something seemed off about the way my parents sat up front, staring at the road, speaking in low murmurs. “I gotta go bathroom,” I announced, which usually would cause Mom to ask if I had to go Number 1 or Number 2. This day, instead, she turned and looked right through me, her eyes unfocused, staring as if she was trying to hear something in the distance. Ever since 20 or 30 AD, when the Apostle Paul was blinded by a light from heaven and heard a strange disembodied voice, missionaries have claimed to receive a personal message from God described as a “calling.” For my parents, a calling was a mysterious vocational message which could be heard in a number of ways. A couple might receive their calling through an unexpectedly repeated Bible verse—say, for example, the verse in the Book of Acts about Steven converting an Ethiopian eunuch. And if they ran into a missionary in an elevator who described a pressing need for physicians in Ethiopia, then that could serve as a confirmation. To go further, what if their kindergarten son came home from school (as my older brother apparently did) and he was upset because he had seen a newsreel about starving children in Ethiopia? What if their son asked, “But who’s going to tell them about Jesus?” For a few more miles, I squeezed my legs together to keep my bladder in check. Then I tried again: “Really, I gotta go.” No answer. Instead, I heard my father up in the front seat murmuring to my mother about how impossible it was to work with Nurse Helen anymore. “She’s challenging my diagnoses now—even changing instructions on patient charts.” “Serious,” I blurted out, lifting my voice, and at the same moment, Dad announced, “You know what? Either she quits or I quit.” To my relief, Mom sighed and reached back to pat my knee, letting me know that yes, she had heard me. We pulled off at a truck stop,

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and I was rescued. But when we all piled back into that rented station wagon to start into the mountains of Pennsylvania, the interior seemed permeated with something more thick and heavy than the pine scent coming from the cardboard air freshener dangling under the mirror. Defeat. Maybe that was what I sensed—for I already knew its dull, blood-warm weight from when I had been sick with Pigeon Fever, so sick that even the thought of standing up was overwhelming. Defeat had a sour sweaty odor. It had a taste like raw onion. I knew because I had gotten that taste in the dormitory bunkbed at boarding school when I was hallucinating that my fingers were so large, each the size of a log, that they might fall on me and crush me. I had also gotten that taste on Sundays when I could hear my classmates out the window, in the chapel behind the dorm, singing “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross.” Sheer repetition had turned lyrics like those into an unquestionable mandate in my nine-year-old mind. All of us at Bingham Academy were reminded, each chapel service, that we were “Loyal Ambassadors for Christ.” We sang about being Christian soldiers, which required wearing the full armor of Jesus—the breastplate of faith and the helmet of salvation—in preparation to fight the good fight. If we honored our duty, then God would honor us. Triumph would be ours. However, if we wavered, then we were on our own—a prospect I did not want to consider too closely, not during those weeks of incapacitating fevers and especially not during nights when we ran “riot drills,” practicing our stealthy retreat into a secret tunnel with grave-like walls just in case Ethiopian university students finally spilled over the school fence with placards and rocks, protesting that we were in league with the occupying army in Vietnam. call•ing. ['kôliNG] NOUN 1. the loud cries or shouts of an animal or person: “the calling of a cuckoo” 2. a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career; a vocation: “those who have a special calling to minister to others’ needs” synonyms: profession • occupation • vocation • call • summons —Oxford English Dictionary B

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So it was quiet in that rented Pontiac as we wound our way through the mountains, everyone staring at the curving concrete that disappeared under the hood. The vehicle was the sort of capacious American station wagon that felt closer to a house than a car, and when I couldn’t stand the weary silence, I climbed into the back compartment and started to organize suitcases into a kind of Naugahyde fort. Pent up, my little brother Nat crawled back too, and soon we were diving back and forth over the seat-back, pretending that we were climbing out of trenches to charge an imagined enemy. We slithered into our suitcase fort and tossed rolled-up socks like hand grenades. We poked our fingers out through cracks, firing on the drivers of passing semi-trucks. Some even responded with blasts from their airhorns. Accustomed to open bush roads, Nat and I had no highway protocol. In Ethiopia, if we got too rowdy, Dad would put us on the roof rack of the Land Rover, to whoop in the wind and toss gospel tracts for chasing children. Here, though, there were rules and police, so there could be no rooftop release as we traveled further west into the heart of summertime America. The best we could do was to roll down the rear windows and let the blasts of air roar in our ears and whip our hair, providing the illusion that we were rocketing down out of the mountains onto the open plains of Ohio, hurtling toward something decisive and exciting and vital to our entire future. To actually know one’s calling, as the ministers and missionaries used to imply, was to feel a special sense of purpose. Everything had new meaning and intensity, maybe not unlike what a soldier would feel if fighting for a just cause. A calling could provide the necessary conviction to lift one right out of the normal plane of life into a different, terribly worthwhile realm of action. That is what we all wanted—not just zealous missionary parents but the children who imbibed their purpose-driven outlook. We each wanted a unique, God-appointed quest or enterprise. Then life would be more fulfilling than it seemed for “ordinary” people. It would be more than just doing time like prisoners in a cell. Everything would matter. We would matter. While Nat and I played our mock battle games in the station wagon, our older brother, who was twelve, held himself aloof, reading from a worn hardback of Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. It wasn’t until dusk, when we were almost to Indiana, that Johnathan

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got tired of us tumbling over the back seat and drew an imaginary line, threatening to punch us if we crossed it again. Here was an invitation too good to refuse. Soon we were engaged in a series of faked, then real raids, reaching into his space until he had to make good on his threat, which in turn caused Dad to swing the station wagon onto the dark shoulder of the highway, barking out, “Enough!” A second stop drew spankings. Then we rode on silently in the black heat of the night, nearly catatonic in our seats as the car whined through the blanketed farms of Illinois, stopping only to pee and to adjust the Styrofoam cooler so it wouldn’t squeak—until finally, after a few hours of restless sleep in a Missouri motel, we completed the journey into Kansas and reached our long-awaited destination: the hot dry college town of Manhattan where my father had grown up. Here we would stay a few nights and shake the travel dust out of our hair before going to see Mom’s heart-weakened mother two hours to the north. So we climbed out of the station wagon, stiff and irritable, onto the lawn of our paternal grandparents’ A-frame house, where cicadas were screeching from the elms. And when my nearly forgotten grandpa greeted us on the front steps, he seemed to recognize the situation immediately. He looked at us keenly from under his thick black brows and suggested a kind of odd solution: “Tomorrow, why don’t we go fishing.” Sometimes, if you devote all your energies to a personal calling, you can become bankrupt; and if you remain in the thrall of that cause, any attempt at relaxation seems wrong. Normal pleasures are not for you. What are you doing there, with that novel? Or with that fishing rod? Don’t you have something more important to do—something in keeping with your true purpose? To make matters worse, if you actually allow yourself a bit of R-and-R and something goes wrong, couldn’t that be a sign that God is displeased and you should get back to what really matters? The next day, as I recall, I was awake before both of my brothers—a rarity because I usually had a hard time falling asleep, ruminating in a way that isn’t advisable for nine-year-olds. To wake early I would almost need water poured over my head. This time, though, I rose without prompting. The lake Grandpa had described called to mind another lake where the family went whenever Johnathan and I were given a weekend away from boarding school. Remembering that other lake,

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Lake Bishoftu, brought back everything that I most loved about life in Ethiopia. Not the hard stuff, like singing “Stand Up, Ye Soldiers of the Cross,” but the very best that the country could offer: The reeds on the shoreline fluttering with weaver birds. Egyptian geese gliding like pewter-prowed ships. Most importantly, the magical sensation of being together as a family again—all by ourselves, without any of the pressing demands of the mission hospital or the rules of the academy. Maybe this Kansas lake would have the same charmed effect, reminding my family how to be together and happy. That’s what I wanted without even thinking, because I knew instinctively that we were not happy. I could feel it in my bones despite the way I teased my brothers or the way my parents joked about another family who had been forced to live in our storage shed for several months after students at a nearby station commandeered the mission school with clubs, demanding cheaper room and board. And none of us were disappointed, at least not at first—for Lake Potawatomie was picturesque, nestled in a hollow, and we had a pleasant time standing in the shade of oak trees, flicking the bamboo poles Granddad had bought for us. We pulled in bluegills one after the other—to string on a long cord. Even Nat, who was only five, learned how to snap the line at the right moment. And Mom took a turn, laughing as she yanked a dollar-sized bass into the air. Together we must have caught twenty or thirty, and by the end of the day we had a great flock of the spiny creatures swimming on a line—enough of these panfish that even gruff Grandpa, who was full of advice about how to set the bobber and when to move the bait, seemed truly pleased. Not until we were beginning to pack our gear around 7:00 in the evening, did the outing turn sour. I was the one who noticed the stringer jerking. It had been wrapped around a stone the size of my head, but that stone began to wobble. Then it tipped, and the stringer slipped into the lake. Alarmed, I splashed after it, stumbling on underwater rocks. I waded up to my thighs, watching the stringer snake away. I could see the bluegills flapping at the surface, but something bigger was in command. Then the whole line went under, and I backed up, startled by a strip of seaweed catching at my ankle. “Snapping turtle,” Grandpa explained, which conjured an image of an armored monster the size of a washtub chomping its way down the

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string of fish with bear-trap jaws. Remember Jonah? He had a very specific call: to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance. Instead, because he didn’t think they deserved mercy, he sailed the opposite direction, and the LORD sent a great wind, violent enough to smash the ship. The sailors on board, having realized that Jonah was hiding something, demanded whether this was his fault. Had he angered his Hebrew god, bringing the storm down on them? To his credit, Jonah didn’t evade. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he said, “and it will become calm.” So they did just that, and you know the rest: the part about the huge fish God sent to swallow Jonah, and how the chastised prophet sat there in the slimy belly for three days and three nights, until he had repented of all his willfulness and the fish could vomit him out onto dry land. We had been at the lake for four or five hours, but now we didn’t have a thing to show for it. Disappointed, we dismantled our poles and packed the ice cooler. Johnathan, who was old enough to ask for special privileges, asked Dad if maybe he could turn the car around, making it easier to toss things in the back. And our father—perhaps because he could sense all the disappointment—acquiesced. He had allowed us to take turns before, sitting on his lap as he drove the Land Rover; this would just be a step further. The two of them climbed into the rented station wagon with Johnathan in the driver’s seat, his poof of curly hair poking up over the steering wheel. My brother started the engine. He squinted over his shoulder as he put the car into reverse. However, when it started to roll forward, Dad realized the car was in Drive not Reverse, so he shouted “Brake!” Instead, Johnathan slammed his foot on the gas. At that critical moment the station wagon took on a life of its own. With a sickening lurch, it leapt off the spit of gravel where it had been perched, plunged down the embankment, and hit the pebble beach at twenty miles an hour, tires spinning. Dignified Grandpa had just enough time to lunge sideways, still holding two fishing poles; then the car bounced past him. It didn’t hit the water so much as slide onto it. Instead of digging in, it skimmed right out there like a flat-bottomed fishing skiff. Johnathan was frozen on the gas pedal, so the back tires screamed, shooting out rooster tails of spray while the car glided onto the lake,

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taking its sweet time. What distressed me was the absolute wrongness of the scene: this wide, white, terrestrial vehicle drifting away from its proper place, its back window still coated by fine dust, its engine screaming so loud that I could feel the whole valley sucking in its breath. The car started to bend toward shore as if Johnathan could steer it home. I began to hope that maybe, miraculously, it would float right back to us like one of those amphibious vehicles that I had seen in a book about marine warfare. Too late, though. It had started to settle. Water rose over the fenders. The drive’s window rolled down, and I could hear Dad yelling, “Out. Out.” Then Johnathan wriggled through the gap, his eyes gaping. Several more seconds and the lake began spilling through the open window, burbling and sucking. “Dad,” I screamed, having found my voice. But the car sank with my father still inside like a captain who had refused to leave his command. The covered roof turned green. After a few more seconds all that could be seen was a bulge of bubbles on the surface, and the white Styrofoam ice chest that had escaped out the back window. Samuel is another strange Old Testament case—the only son of a woman who made a desperate deal with God: “Give me a child and I’ll give him back to you.” There he was, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old who had been raised as a servant in the court of Eli, the high priest of Israel. For a long time, God seemed to have fallen silent in relation to the people of Israel, so no wonder the boy was confused when he heard a voice deep in the night. No wonder he mistook that voice for his master down the hallway, the high priest. Only on the third utterance—“Samuel! Samuel!”—did he realize that God was calling directly to him, and he screwed up enough courage to respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, strange as it might seem, this insignificant apprentice began hearing what no one else could hear. He got his first word from God, and that word was “doom.” My brother Johnathan, who had struggled to the shallows in his tennis shoes and dripping clothes, stood there with his back to the rest of the family, thinking thoughts no junior high boy should have to think. Years later he would not let anyone talk about this moment. He would clench his fists if I brought it up to a friend, then leap on me and cover

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my mouth. I suspect he was holding his breath like me, monitoring how long one could stay under without bursting. In my own case, when I gasped for air, the surface of the lake was still empty except for the bobbing ice chest. “Dad,” I screamed again, and then, with a gust, my father’s head burst the skin of the lake. We were all so relieved that we waded out into the shallows to help him ashore. We helped him limp up the hill to the outdoor toilets, where he pulled down his pants to show us the damage. Because he had wrestled the door open against his own advice, his leg had caught, trapped by the vice-like pressure of the surging water. From thigh to shin he had an angry red scrape. It looked like he had pulled himself right out of the jaws of that devilish snapping turtle. Dad trembled involuntarily and shook his head, switching from grimaces to near laughter. We were in shock, too, so we laughed then hugged him to make sure he was really standing in front of us. The next morning he was still shaking his head when we returned to watch the scuba guy flipper his way into the lake with a cable. Dad wagged his head in disbelief as a tow truck winched the station wagon onto the shore with little streams of water emerging from every crack. Mom reached into the front seat and pulled out his Bible. She had trouble lifting it, waterlogged and heavy as a brick. That seemed significant to me even as a nine-year-old—to see my father’s Bible turned soggy and swollen, the same Bible he had used since we went to Ethiopia nearly six years ago, the Bible he would bend over at dawn when he had his morning devotions or when he gathered the mission nurses and the Ethiopian aides for morning prayers in the waiting room of the little white-washed hospital. Dad had marked this Bible copiously with color-coded pens, keeping track of whatever guidance he felt God was offering, but now all the markings had bled together, red and black and blue. Days later, Grandmother Bascom would still be ironing those blotted pages, working hard to save the book although she had never been sure about her son’s radical, Bible-based faith—a faith which stole him away to Africa and suggested that maybe being a good American Congregationalist wasn’t good enough. When she stopped ironing, she left the soggy book on her ironing

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board with a fan riffling through its pages, and while it dried, I could almost see the resolve oozing out of my parents. Their shoulders slumped. The flesh in their faces sagged. Now they had to pay off a ruined rental car, not just raise support for another term in Ethiopia. And the insurance company wanted to know why a twelve year old had been driving. As a child I saw the world through a glass darkly, but I had faith that God was out there just beyond my visual range, and I believed God had an immense map-like diagram for us all. It was a beautifully composed diagram like the one I had seen in London for the Underground Tube, only it was much more complex and miraculous. In God’s map of human history, everything was laid out perfectly in a mysterious synchronic system of connection, and I was in there somewhere, in the very middle of all the elegant squiggled lines. My role was laid out perfectly, as a very specific part of God’s will. If I just listened well enough, I would hear God calling to me, telling me exactly how I fit in. I would know what to do—today, tomorrow, until the end of time—if only . . . My parents had maintained, all along, that our premature furlough was a temporary arrangement; we would be returning to Ethiopia soon. However, by the end of that week in Kansas our family destiny seemed to have changed in some unstated way. Not only was my father’s Bible permanently warped and stained; there was a new confusion in both of my parents’ eyes. Return to Africa or stay in Kansas? That was the basic question. Underneath it, though, was a deeper conundrum. Were they still worthy, given how much they had struggled to be true to their calling, given how they had fallen out of harmony with their comrades, wavering in their faith? Did God still want them out there on the front line, where Marxist students were calling for the sort of revolutionary changes that had happened in Russia and China and Korea and Vietnam—the sort of changes that almost always led to persecution, particularly for Christians associated with western nations like the United States? Once you put your hand to the plow, you are not supposed to turn around. Even I knew that. Yet here we were, back in Kansas. And now what?

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When I woke late the next morning, stiff on my cot, I felt disoriented. For some reason, Mother had not come into the room like usual, so I got up and shuffled into the other guestroom. She and Dad were in a queen-size bed poring over Bibles, only now Dad was reading a new white leather one that my grandparents had loaned him. I sat on the love seat that rocked, pumping it with my legs. I knew better than to talk because they were searching for a signal, concentrating like shortwave radio operators trying to tune into the right frequency. I knew the voice of the Lord could be awfully hard to distinguish— like that whisper Elijah heard after the whirlwind. What next? What would this day hold? And the coming week? The next month or year? What would the rest of our lives look like? I sat and rocked and waited, hoping that eventually they would look up, relieved and happy, ready to announce just what God desired of us all.

TIM BASCOM is author of a novel, a collection of essays, and two prize-winning memoirs: Running to the Fire and Chameleon Days. His essays have won editor’s prizes at The Missouri Review and Florida Review, being selected for Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Travel Writing. Bascom, who received his MFA from the University of Iowa, is Director of Creative Writing at Waldorf University.

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Parents Weekend

[ FICTION]

Karen Rile bling grapes and local Vermont cheeses, wondering aloud if 4:00 p.m. was too early to open the wine in their faux-wicker coolers. Corey Irving, the eighth-grade girls’ counselor, was perched on a hillock overlooking the scene, nursing a daydream about the French horn teacher, when she was thrown out of her reverie by a bleating, nasal sound rising up from among the throng of picnickers.

I

t was Saturday afternoon, midsummer. The all-

“Cornelia! Oh, Cor-neeeel-ee-yah! I need to speak with you at once!”

camp orchestra was in the Performance Barn

Corey scanned the crowd but could not lo-

churning through dress rehearsal for the evening

cate the owner of the voice, which she knew be-

concert. On the lawn outside, their parents re-

longed to Susan Bloom, the very woman she was

clined on camping chairs and bright quilts, nib-

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cover of a small tree and considered her escape. Mrs. Bloom’s insistence on using Corey’s given name, which appeared only on formal documents like her diploma and in her Gmail address, was plain creepy. It meant she’d been researching Corey and wanted her to know it. Last month, during move-in, she had peppered Corey with demands—extra cubbies to house the contents of Miranda’s three giant suitcases; a bottom bunk positioned closest to the sole electric outlet and farthest from the window. She’d even tried to bribe Corey to coach Miranda for her seating audition until she found out that Corey’s music degree was from a state university. The list went on and on, as if Corey’s sole responsibility on this earth were to see to Miranda’s comfort and best interests. Now Susan Bloom was hunting Corey down to rant about everything that had not gone according to her maternal expectations over the first three weeks of camp: the conditions in the cabin (hot, buggy, and messy despite the genuine effort the girls had made to clean up before their parents’ arrival), Miranda’s orchestra seat (back row of the second violins, a result of her lackluster performance in the placement audition), the starchy food (fries at every meal including breakfast— and Miranda scarfed those up), and everything else that she, Corey, had no control over. Out on the lawn, you could hear the orchestra starting and stopping, starting and stopping. They were polishing the first movement of a Mozart symphony, No. 7, a simple, exuberant piece written when the composer was about the same age as the kids themselves. On the first day of camp, Maestro Kljujic had made a little speech about it. As he spoke, Corey had watched the students’ eyes widen, even the most cynical eighth-grader. What a thing, for a kid like them, to have created such music. Corey had felt the awe of it, too. And yet, she also knew that later this evening the parents would be depressed when they deduced this same fact after reading the composer’s dates on the photocopied program. In the classical music world, prodigious achievement at a young age was amply rewarded. The parents understood that the converse was also true: this was no field for late bloomers. Each of them harbored a fear, complicated by hope, that their child had yet to reveal her full potential. One of the fathers on the lawn now cracked a worn-out joke: When Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for ten years. The

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other parents winced or chuckled nervously in turn. “Cornelia! Hey, Coreeee! You, up there! On the hill!” Not wasting another second to pinpoint her pursuer among the mob on the lawn, Corey sprang up and fled directly down the grassy slope, eyes straight ahead, deftly bisecting a group of gossiping violin-mothers and putting what she hoped was a swift distance between herself and Mrs. Bloom. She may not have gone to Juilliard, but she was fast. Breathless, she ducked into Crescendo Hall, where it would be easy to lose herself among the warren of empty practice studios. Immediately inside, her pupils still constricted from the bright July sun, Corey stepped blindly into the path of Oliver Hsu, the ten-yearold cello prodigy, who was struggling towards the door with his naked instrument and a fistful of crumpled sheet music. “Why aren’t you at orchestra rehearsal?” she choked out, sick at the thought of the damage she could have done to Oliver’s expensive little cello if her timing had been any worse. “And why isn’t that in its case?” Oliver jutted his small chin. “I was practicing,” he shrugged, as if it were a perfectly reasonable excuse and the most obvious thing in the world. Oliver’s parents, a banker and a math professor, had driven up from New York to watch him play a movement from the Lark Quartet in the first recital of the morning. Corey thought Oliver’s ensemble had sounded pretty impressive, considering that they were a bunch of fifth-graders using pint-size instruments. But from the looks on their faces, Oliver’s parents had not been pleased with the performance. “I gotta learn the rest of Hungarian Rhapsody for my September auditions,” Oliver continued hotly, as if Corey were to blame for his predicament. His eyeglasses were smudgy, and his hair, which probably hadn’t been washed or even combed since his parents had dropped him off in June, gave off a feral smell, reminding Corey of the long-ago hamster cages of her youth. She bent to pick up a loose page of Brahms from the floor, brushing off Oliver’s dusty sneaker print. She pried the clutch of pages from his fist, straightened the pile, and handed them back. She did not even bother to ask what had become of his official music folder. He squinted at her in silence. “Don’t trip! Careful, Oliver,” she urged him. She held the door open,

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and watched after him as he staggered towards the Performance Barn in his too-long, mud-frayed chinos. There should be a special circle of hell, Corey decided, for parents like Oliver’s, who had isolated him by the garbage cans behind the kitchen after the recital and harangued him about his practicing habits. If he didn’t buckle down, how could he expect to win the soloist competition this fall? How would he get into Harvard, like his hero Yo-Yo Ma? This was Oliver’s first time at sleep-away camp, and the thing was, while he had generally been on time for his rehearsals, the boy had not once darkened a practice room door. Instead, he had been spending most of his free time knee-deep in the pond catching frogs and salamanders with Maestro Kljujic’s four-year-old daughter and her nanny. All campers spent several hours each day in orchestra and chamber music rehearsals. Individual practicing was benignly encouraged, but not required—which was why the children loved it here. They could revel in the joy of music-making without the stress of daily arpeggios and scales or the pressure of working on their solo repertoire. For these few weeks of the year, they were free to be kids. This was also why, as soon as they were old enough, the most serious child-musicians—or, rather, the ones with the most serious parents—were packed off to disciplinarian “practice” camps, like Meadowmount, where five hours of daily woodshedding was strictly enforced, no exceptions. Corey’s childhood had been so different from the lives of these children that she’d had no idea at the time what she was missing out on. She had not even realized that sleep-away music camps existed until she got to college and saw the posters hanging on the bulletin boards in the hallway of the music building. When she was growing up, her parents had paid little attention to her musical progress other than to write monthly checks to Mrs. Knopp, the neighborhood violin teacher. There were no Saturday pre-college programs and no high-stakes auditions or competitions to fret over—just twice-yearly recitals in the church basement, for which her father helped set up folding chairs and her mother baked a tray of snickerdoodles. She’d spent her summers reading Harry Potter, and selling lemonade on the corner, and looking after her little brother while her parents were at work. When her brother was old enough not to need a babysitter, she worked, answering phones at her parents’ insurance agency.

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She sometimes wondered what her life would be like if she could enter a time machine and switch places with Oliver Hsu. What if she’d been handed the best of everything—a great instrument, a famous teacher? If her parents had packed her off to music camp from the age of ten, like a rich kid. And yet, as a girl, Corey had a sense that she was special. She’d been the star of Mrs. Knopp’s violin studio and concertmaster of her high school orchestra all four years. She was known around her town, a small suburb of Albany, as a “prodigy”—that was the word the reporter had used in the local paper when she won a Rotary Club scholarship in tenth grade. The label was ridiculous, of course; even then she had recognized that it was something people said when they understood nothing about music. But she was still the best violinist in town, next to her teacher. By junior year of college, she was concertmaster of the orchestra at SUNY Fredonia, Mrs. Knopp’s alma mater. There, the other students had admired her chops. She’d graduated with honors, at the top of her class. But, turns out, she was not special. She’d been a classic big-fish-ina-small-pond. She didn’t win a professional orchestra job; she had not passed a single prelim. Jobs were scarce, the competition tough. Most of the other applicants, turns out, had masters degrees from top conservatories. In August, when the summer closed, she would move back into her old bedroom in her parents’ house for a loosely-organized year of wedding gigs and teaching violin lessons two days a week in an after-school program. She would apply to graduate schools. Worst case scenario: she would not get into grad school and would turn into a junior version of Mrs. Knopp. Imagine it, a lifetime trapped in Albany, teaching little kids to play The Happy Farmer, wrangling their moms’ trays of snickerdoodles. The thought was simultaneously horrifying and comforting. Beyond the mound of hill between Crescendo and the barn, Corey spotted a flash of orange hair, which meant Mrs. Bloom was still hot on her trail. Shit. She hurried down the corridor towards the sound of a French horn running up and down a B-flat arpeggio. It was Pete. Pete Colliverdi, the brass teacher, alone in a studio, practicing. Pete raised his eyebrows at her when she burst in without knocking, but he kept playing. She wedged herself into a corner on the far side

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of the narrow upright piano, and slid to the ground. Anyone peering through the high square window cut into the practice room door would assume that there was no one inside but him. Sitting on the filthy carpet in the stifling room, Corey had the unwelcome sensation of bugs crawling up her legs into her shorts. Probably imaginary, but still. She closed her eyes and waited for the terrible moment to pass. Pete kept practicing. Unlike string players, he could not carry on a conversation while playing, a fact that Corey now contemplated with appreciation, because any break in his sound might give her away. Her sanctuary was safe. She watched his broad shoulders straining in the one-size-too-small Peabody Conservatory t-shirt, and the way the muscles in his arms—or were they tendons?—twitched as he pressed the keys of his horn. Then he stopped. “She’s gone,” he announced. “A scary-looking red-head with big sunglasses pushed up on her forehead. Right?” “Miranda Bloom’s mother,” Corey answered in a low voice. “She wants to ream me out for all the injustices endured by her little princess.” Pete gave her a look that implied sympathy if not comprehension. He launched back into his practicing. Corey rubbed at a scabbed-over mosquito bite on her ankle. Mrs. Bloom would by now have moved on out of the hallway and gone back to complain about Corey to the other parents. This was Corey’s opportunity to slip over to her cabin, Cadenza, for a moment’s solitude while the orchestra finished its rehearsal, and before the turmoil of dinner and the evening’s concert. But she lingered a moment to savor the unexpected pleasure of observing Pete at work in these close quarters. She was eye-level with his beautiful square kneecaps, which, along with the rest of his legs, were blemish-free and covered with silky brown hair. An urge bubbled up to touch him. She was not usually so forward, but this was not a usual situation. She scooted forward and began to reach out her hand—then thought the better of it—no, her leg. She gave his bare ankle (he was wearing flip flops) the tiniest nudge with her sneakered toe. Pete kept playing, but he shot her what could have been an ironic look—or an interested look. Could it be that they were having a moment? A moment, right. What was she even thinking? Pete’s eyes were glued to his sheet music. Embarrassed, she stood up, brushed the dirt

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from the back of her legs, and without another glance in his direction, she headed to Cadenza to take a shower. Life was easier for Pete here at camp than it was for Corey. He was six years older than she was, better paid, and more respected. And yet he had less responsibility. And what responsibility he did have was uncomplicated by teen girl melodrama. Unlike most of the younger staff, who were grad students or hand-to-mouth freelancers, Pete had a real job: he was an assistant professor in the music department of a small Lutheran college in the Midwest. At camp, he was a member of the teaching faculty, not a lowly counselor. He had his own freestanding cabin with a private bathroom, so he didn’t have to worry about adolescent bunkhouse politics. And most important, he did not have to deal with the string players. Brass students never become hysterical about their orchestra seating, and the parents of brass students don’t chase down counselors to scream at them. The brass kids at the camp were mostly laid-back junior high school boys who shot lazy hoops during their free time, plus one girl, a fourteen-year-old French horn player named Jody Kline, tall and even-keeled, a budding band-geek, who dressed in oversized boy t-shirts and Chuck Taylors and played basketball with the guys. Jody was one of Corey’s charges. She slept in the seventh bed in Cadenza, the only bed that wasn’t a part of a bunk, the bed by the door. It wasn’t because she had been the last girl to show up; she’d arrived early and had deliberately chosen that bed as if she’d known she would be the outlier and wanted as much distance from the others as possible. The other girls in the cabin, Miranda Bloom being ringleader, generally behaved as if Jody did not exist. And, it was true, Jody was simply not of their world. The other girls were string players, all six of them: three violins, two cellos, a viola. They wore eyeliner and sundresses from Forever 21; they had crushes on the pot-washers—a trio of college boys who helped out in the kitchen. The cutest pot-washer, a moody sophomore bassoonist from Oberlin named Damian, had been elevated by Miranda to the status of teen idol. After lights-out Corey would listen to them through the thin wall that separated her small room from theirs. She could pick out their breathy individual voices, if not every distinct word. Damian, blah blah, Damian. Always the rise and fall of Miranda’s nasal exclamations, then

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the pause, and the laughter that followed. After a time there would be a small protesting voice from whichever of the weaker girls was being picked on at the moment—usually chubby Ashlyn Huang, the violist, an easy target, or frizzy-haired Roberta Albert, a tiny, skinny girl with a lisp and braces, a talented and hardworking violinist who was concertmaster of the orchestra, and therefore the innocent bullseye for much of Miranda Bloom’s enmity—and then there would be more laughter, thinner and less genuine, but never a sound from Jody. A few hours later, Corey would crack open her door and gaze over their moonlit, sleeping bodies. It was a cliché to think so, but in sleep the slack faces of these over-sophisticated thirteen-year-olds did look angelic, all except for Jody, whose face held the tension of pretense. Corey never let on that she knew Jody was still awake when she abandoned her watch and headed up the woodland trail for the Big House. There, the younger staff gathered each night around the enormous stone fireplace until the wee hours. Corey assumed that Maestro Kljujic, who stayed in a separate house off-campus with his family, was unaware of these soirees, so the illicit act of creeping away from Cadenza each night became a recurring thrill, even though nothing remotely scandal-worthy occurred. Lizbeth, the cook, and her pot-washers would sometimes whip up an impromptu midnight snack, but more often than not it was just a few hours of drinking, flirting, gossipping, and board games. Playing checkers with pouty Damian, whose long bangs were perpetually falling across his forehead, Corey was half-tempted to inform him of his exalted status as teen idol of Cadenza cabin. But she stopped herself; why feed his ego? Besides, information was currency, and she herself had so little. Best not to spend it all in one place. Pete attended some of the midnight gatherings, and Corey kept a discreet eye on him when he showed up, which was about half the time, she observed. It was rumored he had a fiancé named Janine back in Decatur, and that they were on-again off-again. They’d broken up for a while this spring, but were back together now. Corey had sneaked onto the office computer to stalk Janine on Facebook: there she was, slender, with glowing olive skin, long dark hair, and cats-eye hipster glasses, posing with Pete in front of a coffee shop somewhere in Iowa. According to LinkedIn, she was working on a Ph.D. in a field so baffling that Corey could not even remember what it was called—something like

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Boolean Logic or Botanical Rhetoric. One night, on her way to the Big House, Corey had spotted Pete’s moonlit silhouette at the top of Forbidden Rock, the only place on campus you could get a cell signal and only on cloudless nights. But if he had been speaking to Janine, the conversation was over. His fists were clenched at his sides and he was staring into the sky. For an instant, Corey considered calling out to him, or even heading up the trail in his direction. But she’d second-guessed herself: a man did not climb Forbidden Rock and display his moonlit profile to attract the company of a low-on-the-totem-pole, second-rate-conservatory violinist. A man climbed the Rock to be alone. Maybe that’s why she was attracted to Pete. Like her, he was solitary. He was reserved, but not ungenerous with his laughter when someone told a dumb joke. He was decent looking, but not super-sexy like Raul, the cello teacher from Brazil who maintained a perpetual five o’clock shadow on his cleft chin. He was confident, but not competitive like Benji, the under-eleven boy’s counselor, who had been a camper here for four years as a kid and reveled in his new position as a peer of his old counselors. He was never sarcastic like Eitan, the violin teaching assistant, whose humor was so biting that Corey found herself shrinking away from his line of vision, lest she somehow become included among the objects of his scorn. Whenever they were in a group, at some point, Eitan’s gaze would light on her and she would feel him sizing her up, like a hawk considering a very scrawny rabbit. Inevitably he passed her over for one of the older, more accomplished staff. The relief was also an insult: she was not worthy prey. Most evenings Corey left the gathering without excusing herself or attracting attention from any of them— not Eitan, not anyone. Not even, or especially not, Pete. In the rigidly hierarchical world of classical music, Corey Irving, ersatz hometown prodigy, was accomplished enough to be admitted to the circle here at camp, but only just. And what else did she have going for her? She was smart, but not brilliant (like Janine). She was blonde, which usually counted for something, she’d found. But she was not beautiful, not the type of girl who would ever be called “hot.” Her best asset, it turned out, was her ability to be invisible. She was someone who could slip in and out and not be noticed.

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Cadenza Cabin was empty, predictably, when Corey arrived. She could hear the orchestra in the distance—they would go on for another half hour, at least, with Kljujic pausing every few measures for a jovial lecture, grandstanding for the benefit of the handful of parents who had crept into the darkened house to observe the dress rehearsal. Next, the laborious putting-away of instruments, and the campers’ trek to the mess hall. Until then the cabin was all hers. She burst through the door, yanking off her t-shirt and bra in one fluid motion without breaking stride in her direction towards the shower. “Cornelia! At last, I’ve caught up with you!” Corey gasped at the sight of Miranda’s mother reflected in the bathroom mirror like a stalker in a horror film. Instinctively, she pulled the disgustingly mildewed plastic shower curtain around her body, toga-style. “Sorry to startle,” said Mrs. Bloom casually, as if “startle” were an intransitive verb—as if she were not perpetrator and Corey not victim. As if they were having a perfectly normal encounter in some fitness club locker room on the Upper East Side. “I assumed you heard me behind you. Anyway, continue with your shower. We’ll have time to chat when you’re done. I’ll wait in the girls’ room—I bought a new duvet and sheets for Miranda’s bed.” Corey considered her options: the only way out was through the girls’ bunk room, unless she was brave enough to climb half-naked through the tiny shower stall window into a thicket of what was probably poison ivy. She decided to take a shower. “Do I smell Herbal Essence?” trilled Mrs. Bloom above the thunder of the water. “Miranda loves the lotus fragrance, but of course I don’t let her use it. Because, you know, the sulfates. We use an organic salon product. Let me know if you want the name.” Corey closed her eyes, rinsing out her cheap store-brand hair conditioner. There was no putting off the inevitable. She screwed shut the tap and grabbed her towel from the hook to wrap herself in. After a second’s hesitation she snagged a second towel—making sure it was not Miranda’s—for her wet hair. A towel-turban would, she hoped, promote the psychological illusion of a substantial height advantage. Like Marie Antoinette’s powdered wig.

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Mrs. Bloom was standing beside Miranda’s bunk, sweating lightly from the effort of stripping and re-making her daughter’s bed. She admired her handiwork. The new sheets and matching bedspread were decorated with what looked like a gigantic piano score. “It’s the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ Adorable, right? Think she’ll like it?” she asked, as if she were truly interested in Corey’s opinion. “Sheet music. Clever,” Corey said diplomatically, certain that Miranda would be mortified and would turn the sheets inside out the moment her mother went home to Manhattan. “I suppose you know what I’m here to talk about,” said Mrs. Bloom, suddenly all business. She began stuffing Miranda’s old bedding into a large plastic shopping bag. “Not really, no. But if it’s about your daughter’s orchestra seating, I don’t have anything to do with those decisions—” Mrs. Bloom looked up at her with an expression so sharp that Corey felt herself cut off mid-sentence. After a dramatic pause, she said, “It’s the sneaking out. At night.” This was not the conversation Corey had been expecting. She clutched her bath towel tighter around her body and sat down abruptly on Jody’s bed, which was harder than she’d anticipated because, unlike the others, Jody had not brought along a thick memory foam mattress cover. The Marie-Antoinette-head-towel came unfastened and tumbled down her shoulders. “I was going to bring the matter directly to Maestro. But Miranda has pleaded with me not to,” said Mrs. Bloom. Like many of the parents, she referred to Kljujic by his title only to avoid stumbling over his difficult name. The effect, to Corey’s ear, was weirdly infantilizing. “Maestro Klew-chich,” Corey said automatically, with precise enunciation. Fourteen years studying classical violin repertoire had taught her a thing or two about Eastern European surnames. Mrs. Bloom did not weather the correction gracefully. “I can tell by the expression on your face,” she said angrily, “that you know exactly what I mean.” “It’s nothing,” began Corey. Her mouth dry and her mind racing. “I mean, it’s a tradition. Everyone does it.” Mrs. Bloom pursed her lips. “These are children. They are minors. I could have this camp shut down.”

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A flood of shame overcame Corey, even though a small voice inside her head insisted, but I was only a few hundred yards away. There was no getting around it. She’d been wrong to abandon her duty, even if the rest of the staff had done the same. She imagined her own mother’s voice: If everyone jumps off a cliff, does that make it a good idea? Mrs. Bloom had a point: the sleeping (or apparently not) girls could have been eaten by coyotes or raped. That is, if they even had coyotes or rapists in Vermont. “I know,” muttered Corey. “My daughter’s safety is my number one priority,” said Mrs. Bloom. “As it should be yours while she is in your care.” “Of course. Yes. It won’t happen again.” “Which is why I need you to report this to Maestro,” said Mrs. Bloom. “The complaint cannot be traced back to Miranda. She’s terrified of backlash. Which is understandable—you know how cruel girls can be at this age. And Miranda is so sensitive.” “Okay,” said Corey slowly, wondering what Mrs. Bloom was talking about and what she was agreeing to. Also: Miranda Bloom, the sensitive victim of teen girl-cruelty? What universe was this? She decided to answer Mrs. Bloom as vaguely as possible to cover her bases: “Well, I will certainly keep a closer eye on the situation!” “This camp should be a—a sanctuary. For music. Miranda’s violin teacher at home, Mr. White—do you know him? He’s very big in The City. His students go on to Juilliard.” “Oh, I wouldn’t know him,” Corey answered coldly. “I’m from Albany.” “Of course you are, Cornelia,” said Mrs. Bloom, as if Corey had just reminded her that she was a bug. “All you need to know is that Mr. White is highly respected. He’s the one who recommended this summer program for Miranda in the first place. It was his idea. He attended as a boy and he is on the advisory board. This is not what any of us expected.” “Listen, Mrs. Bloom? I apologize, but I think maybe you and I aren’t both on the same page,” said Corey. “To be honest, I’m not even sure what exactly you’re referring to?” Corey instantly wished back the question mark at the end of her sentence. Mrs. Bloom was clearly used to pushing people around, and now that Corey was cornered, the only

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course of action was to push back. “I have zero idea what you’re talking about,” she concluded firmly. Mrs. Bloom drew herself up to her full height, which included several inches of persimmon-colored hair. “Oh, you’re not so innocent,” she hissed, leaning in. Her breath smelled like peppermint. “Don’t give me that. And don’t think you can protect them. For whatever misguided reason you might have.” Corey shrank away, clutching her towel around her body. Not for the first time in her life she felt that she had been dropped into the middle of a game without a rulebook or nearly as much information as the other players. It seemed suddenly urgent for her to protect whomever she was being shamed for protecting. Just then there was surge of voices on the path outside. The screen door banged open and six girls filed in to the cabin: Roberta, Chloé, Ginger, Ashlyn, Dani, and Miranda, who was at the rear of the pack hollering something Corey couldn’t make out, to which the others were shrieking with laughter. On seeing Mrs. Bloom and Corey, Roberta stopped short, causing the rest to bump into each other like cops in a slapstick movie. Corey had forgotten that, because this was the parent-concert night, the girls would return to the cabin to change into their concert whites. “Mom, what are you doing here?” cried Miranda. The others looked on, wide-eyed. Then Miranda turned to Corey. “Kljujic was looking for you after rehearsal,” she said importantly. “Really? What did he want?” said Corey, shocked. Miranda shrugged. Did Kljujic even know Corey’s name? He had hardly given her so much as a nod since she’d introduced herself to him at the staff orientation picnic weeks ago. Ginger, one of the cellists, walked around to the other side of Jody’s bed and picked up the damp Marie Antoinette turban from where it had fallen to the floor. “Why’s my towel on the floor? And it’s wet,” she said unhappily. In the Vermont humidity, it would take a good 24 hours for that towel to dry. “I’m so sorry, Ginger. I thought it was mine,” Corey said, standing up. Everyone stared at the damp spot where she’d been sitting on

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Jody’s bed. Everyone, that is, except Jody, who was missing. “Where’s Jody?” Corey asked. The girls were silent; then Miranda shrugged again. “Where is she ever?” Miranda and her mother exchanged a look, then Mrs. Bloom turned around and marched out of the cabin. “Whoa,” said Roberta. “Lookit these sheets!” (But with her lisp it came out “theeth theeths.”) Everyone’s attention turned to the “Moonlight Sonata” spread across Miranda’s bed. “Theeth Theeths,” mocked Miranda, skillfully redirecting the unwanted spotlight away from the ridiculous sheets and onto the weaker girl. “Theeth theeth!” The pack of girls guffawed, even Roberta, who held her hand over her mouth, to hide her braces, while she laughed. Corey left the room and dressed quickly in her own concert whites: a long cotton skirt and a slightly frayed satin-trimmed t-shirt from her college orchestra days. One of the more annoying traditions at the camp was that everyone wore white and went barefoot during concerts—faculty and staff included. It seemed a little ridiculous, counter-productive, even, when the rest of the staff, who served as ushers and kid-wranglers, appeared almost indistinguishable from the students in the dark. At twenty-two, without make-up and heels, Corey could pass for a high school girl in broad daylight, anyway. She looked about the same age as her campers, who (with the help of liquid eyeliner and mascara) also passed for high school girls. She spent the next ten minutes cajoling the girls to get ready in time for the dinner bell, which meant assisting Ginger and Chloé with their eyeliner and French-braiding Ashlyn’s slippery hair. “Do you want to borrow one of my white tops?” Miranda asked solicitously. She was still a few inches shorter than Corey, although they were about the same shirt size. “No, thank you,” said Corey. “No, really. I have a lot. My mom went to Free People and practically bought the whole store.” Corey ignored her. Already, Ginger, Ashlyn, and Roberta had been costumed straight from Miranda’s trunk, like a lineup of puppets. What would have been a saucy mini-skirt on Miranda’s curvy hips hung straight to Roberta’s knees. Poor chubby Ashlyn had barely been able

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to fasten her button-down-the-back lacey vest. “Ashlyn, this braid isn’t working—I’m all thumbs today,” said Corey. “How about we just do a half-bun and leave it long in the back?” Which would cover up the bursting buttons. Ashlyn nodded gratefully. As long as she didn’t inhale deeply, or move around much on stage, she would probably be fine. In line for dinner, Corey found herself suddenly just in front of Maestro Kljujic, who generally took weekend meals with his family at one of the restaurants in town. But on concert nights he ate at the staff table, a strategy to avoid being accosted by parents, who were not allowed into the mess hall. Corey considered whether she should say something. If she kept quiet he would probably mistake her for one of the kids. But curiosity got the better of her,. “Maestro Kljujic,” she spoke up, bravely. “I was told you were looking for me.” Kljujic fixed his gaze on her. She could feel herself coming into focus before his eyes, which were an unnaturally brilliant shade of blue. He was still in his forties, younger than Corey’s parents, but he was overweight, and his Brahms-like shaggy white hair and yellowish beard (he was a smoker) lent him an air of gravitas. “Cornelia Irving?” she added nervously after a second or two. “I’m one of the counselors?” The line ahead of them had moved on, and Lizbeth, who was standing behind the sneeze guard in her cook’s hat and apron wielding a spatula, cleared her throat loudly. Corey moved up to the counter and helped herself to a wan-looking veggie burger and some salad—or at least she struggled with the ineffectual salad tongs for an awkward moment, then gave up, scooping up few spinach leaves and some chickpeas, which rolled around like marbles on her plate. Beside her, Kljujic was reaching for a hamburger, then another, then fries. “Yes,” he said softly. “We need to talk about Oliver Hsu. But not here.” Corey lowered her voice to match Kljujic’s. Like him, she kept her eyes trained on her tray. As if they were characters in some kind of unlikely spy thriller involving ten-year-old cellists.

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“I’m actually not Oliver’s counselor,” she whispered. “That would be Benji Loftus.” She tilted her head in the direction of the staff table, where they were headed anyway. “We’ll speak by the back door to the kitchen. In fifteen minutes,” said Kljujic. “You and I.” Then Kljujic sat down heavily beside Corey at the staff table, where his celebrity presence seemed to incite everyone to behave like demented caricatures of themselves. Benji reminisced self-importantly about Parents’ Weekend concerts during his own bygone years as a camper, name-dropping his old bunkmates who’d gone on to achieve fame or infamy. (One had since triumphed at the Menuhin Competition; another was a now backup fiddler for Taylor Swift.) Raul stroked the sexy cleft in his sexy chin and stared up sexily at the ceiling fan. Eitan bantered sarcastically about the intonation foibles of the New York Phil string section. Lizbeth, who had joined them at the table, sans hat but still wearing her chef ’s apron, held forth tediously on the virtues of garlic scapes. The chatter rose in volume, everyone talking over everyone else. Only Corey and Kljujic were silent. She could feel him looking at her profile. Finally, she stood quietly to clear her place. As usual, the rest of them kept up their talking while she backed away from the table, unnoticed, then slid her tray onto the conveyor belt. It was still hours until dark, but already the tree frogs were singing. Corey could hear the distant hum of parental conversation—those who had not driven to town for restaurant dinners were still picnicking on the lawn on the south side of the Performance Barn—as she made her way around the side of the mess hall to the kitchen back door. Kljujic was waiting for her. He must have made a shortcut through the kitchen. It occurred to her, taking the whole of him in at once, that he was also wearing concert white. The two of them made a matched set. He wore white tennis shorts from which his thin legs protruded, slightly bowed, all the way to his hairy Birkenstocked toes. His ample belly was covered by his long white Nehru-collared shirt. “Cornelia,” he said, fixing her in his blue-eyed stare, “the Hsus are upset, of course, but we are doing our best to placate them. And you will be relieved to know that the bow is fully insured.”

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Corey waited for more, but Kljujic didn’t continue. “What bow?” she said. “You mean Oliver’s?” “Naturally, there is a deductible, a few hundred dollars, and the camp will cover that. We stand behind our staff. But it will be difficult for the Hsus to find a replacement. A half-size cello bow of that quality is very rare, you know. They purchased that one in Paris.” Then, uncharacteristically, Kljujic rolled his eyes. “For the little prodigy.” Corey stood quietly. Something had happened to Oliver’s cello bow—what? And, evidently, the party line was that whatever had happened to it was Corey’s fault. Her heart began to pound. She cast her mind back to her near-collision with Oliver earlier that afternoon. Had he even been holding his bow? He must have had it with him; it wouldn’t have made sense for him not to—right? But she could not remember seeing it. She opened her mouth to protest, but something held her back. “There is a lot of pressure on these children,” said Kljujic. “I know,” said Corey cautiously. “Oliver seems to be spending most of his free time with my youngest daughter Natalja, in the frog pond.” Kljujic fingered his beard. “Right, I know,” said Corey. “But I didn’t—I don’t remember. I mean, nothing happened—” “Good thing. He could have broken a finger. Or something worse.” Something worse. Corey’s mind flashed to a vision of Oliver staggering to the Performance Barn with his cello. Of course. He’d broken the bow himself, and probably on purpose, out of frustration or the simple childish desire to get out of practicing. It must have happened moments before she ran into him in the hallway. And Kljujic seemed to be asking Corey to take the fall for him. He was all but telling her that it would cost her nothing to help protect Oliver from his own parents. “Oliver will need to sit out tonight’s concert until we can wrassle up a loaner. Maybe one can be FedExed up from New York next week. It will mean a few days off for him.” “That would be good,” said Corey. “Thank you,” she added, a little uncertainly. And for what was she thanking him, for framing her as the klutz who broke a little kid’s priceless bow? Kljujic reached up and patted her on the shoulder. Her first instinct was to pull away, but she held steady. This was some kind of test, she

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decided. And, damn it, she was going to pass. His palm on her bare skin was moist and warm, and the sensation of it lingered as he picked his way down the grassy bank towards the Performance Barn, where other counselors would be readying the hall, setting up extra rows of chairs for the parents. Tonight Corey’s pre-concert assignment was to traffic-cop the kids safely through Portamento Hall, the large shed where all instruments were stored, and into the Barn in time for their 6:40 call. The job was more stressful than it sounded because, despite their precociously overdeveloped fine-motor skills, these kids were frankly clumsy. It was a dangerous mix: pre-concert adrenaline and burgeoning hormones. Corey and whoever else was on duty (tonight, unfortunately, it was Eitan) were constantly righting about-to-topple cellos, redirecting flailing bows, and admonishing kids to slow down, to look where they were going, and for god’s sake watch out for each other’s instruments. Corey found Oliver in the cello room, in the midst of all the hubbub, standing still in front of his cubby. He was gazing at his unopened cello case. “Come on, buddy,” she said gently. “From what I’m told you won’t be needing that tonight.” She placed her hand gently on his shoulder, just as Kljujic had done to her, to urge him towards the door. “You can go sit in the audience section with your parents.” “I’m not ‘buddy,’” said Oliver, shaking away her hand. “That’s a dog’s name.” “Sorry, Oliver,” said Corey. “I have a little brother and I call him that sometimes. My dog’s name is Martin. I kind of always thought of ‘Oliver’ as a cat’s name,” she added, touching his shoulder again lightly. “You know, like the Disney movie.” Oliver did not react to her attempt at levity. “Do you want to tell me what really happened to your bow?” Corey bent down, eye-level with the boy, but he would not look at her. “Was it on purpose, or was it an accident? Why did you do it?” “It’s all your fault,” said Oliver. “If you hadn’t bumped into me and broke it, I would still be playing tonight. Now my camp is ruined. And I’ll probably fail my auditions in September. It was a really good bow. My dad paid $20,000 for it.”

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“Well, that sounds very expensive,” said Corey, boiling a little inside. She was more than twice Oliver’s age, a conservatory graduate, and her violin was worth a good deal less than this child’s bow. “But Maestro Kljujic told me the bow was insured. He says he can get you a loaner until your parents replace your bow.” “Not if it was the only one in the world. It was, like, 200 years old. My dad says it’s ‘one of a kind’. I’ll bet you don’t even have a bow that good.” “You’re right, Oliver. I have a pretty ordinary bow.” “My dad said you won’t even get into trouble. And you probably ruined my career.” “Your career? Oh, Oliver, that’s so dramatic. You’re ten years old.” “Yo-Yo Ma made his debut when he was eight!” said Oliver. “You know that when he was my age he was practically famous! You know that.” Now he was shouting. “Oliver,” Corey touched him lightly on the shoulder again and said his name softly into his ear, a trick she had figured out for dealing with her little brother when he had a tantrum. “Oliver, it’s okay. It’s going to be all right. You have plenty of time. Most of the kids here are a lot older than you—” “—But they suck at music. Everyone sucks here. This whole camp sucks. My dad says it’s not even second-rate. It’s like third- or fourthrate. It’s for morons. As soon as I’m old enough, I’m going to Meadowmount. Like Yo-Yo Ma.” “Maybe you will,” said Corey as evenly as she could manage. “But meanwhile you’re here, right now. And you can still enjoy yourself. You had fun in the pond today with Natalja. Didn’t you catch some salamanders?” Oliver jutted his chin. “They aren’t salamanders. They’re newts. Red-spotted newts.” “You had fun, though, right?” “Did you even know that they’re poisonous? Not the adult ones in the pond, the juveniles. They’re called efts, and they’re bright red, and they secrete toxic chemicals so their predators won’t destroy them. When they grow up, they darken up all except a few red spots, and they go back into the water for the rest of their lives. The red spots are a warning for fish not to eat them. Because they’re poison.”

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“That sounds dangerous,” said Corey, humoring him. “But you were brave. You caught them anyway.” Oliver squinted at her. “We didn’t eat them, stupid.” “Number one,” said Corey, “don’t call me ‘stupid’. And number two, don’t make up any more lies about me. I’m going to let this one go. I got your back this once, but don’t you ever do that again. To me or anyone else. It’s a stupid way to solve your problems.” “You just said, don’t call people ‘stupid,’” grumbled Oliver. “Stupid.” He shoved his cello case back into the cubby and stomped towards the door. Portamento Hall had emptied out. Somehow, Eitan had managed to shepherd all the kids to the Performance Barn on his own—without even a snide comment about Corey’s slacking. Probably because he’d seen that she was having a serious talk with Oliver. Or had overheard the boy yelling his head off about Yo-Yo Ma. Gossip traveled like lightning through the small camp community. Now that everyone believed Corey had wrecked Oliver’s $20,000 bow, the girl who could slip in and out without being noticed was suddenly notorious. Corey walked barefoot along the sun-warmed flagstone path, following the sounds of the crowd to the Performance Barn. Inside, she scanned the auditorium for an empty seat. Seeing none that she could access without squeezing past the knees of dozens of camcorder-wielding parents, she climbed up the rickety steps to the hayloft, where a few of the pot-washers and other younger staff perched high above the crowd, their bare legs dangling between the balusters. The view was excellent from the narrow loft. Corey took an empty spot on the splintery floor between Benji and Eitan. She hitched up her long skirt, modestly tucking the loose fabric between her knees so no one on the floor would have a view of her underwear. “Good thing you’re not wearing a miniskirt,” Eitan whispered in her ear. She could feel his cracked lips grazing the edges of her hair. Corey leaned away but thanked him for taking care of the kid-wrangling. “So you owe me one,” he said. The concert was about to start. By now, everyone was seated noisily onstage except Roberta Albert, the concertmaster whose chair remained ceremoniously empty. A handful of the more serious-minded

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children were diligently scrubbing away at their orchestra parts. The rest chattered or showed off flashy virtuosic passages from half-learned concertos. From the very last row of the violins, Miranda was poking Dani in the butt with her bow. Dani whipped around to give Miranda the finger, causing Miranda’s violin, which was dangling by its scroll from her stand, to swing precariously. The two convulsed with laughter at the hilarity of the near-disaster while their stand partners, a couple of younger boys from Benji’s bunk, observed their behavior with a mix of shock and admiration. Corey could see Oliver staring up at her from where he sat in the front row between his parents, who were dressed in smart dark blue linen outfits and pointy shoes. Both had excellent New York haircuts. The other parents—well-to-do, and from posh suburbs—looked like frumps by comparison. When Corey waved to him, Oliver turned his head away, fixing his gaze on the orchestra cello section. Until this afternoon he’d been principal cellist, a notable distinction, considering that he was the youngest boy in the camp. Oliver’s exalted chair, of course, was not empty: Kljujic had simply moved everyone behind him up. Now Ginger sat in Oliver’s place, clearly thrilled to find herself in a position of glory with her proud parents videotaping from the audience. On YouTube, for all the world, forever, the principal cello seat of the all-camp orchestra would be hers. It was as if Oliver had never been in the orchestra at all. The gap had healed over instantly, leaving no scar. With nine other cellos in the section, the orchestra would sound about the same, plus or minus one boy and his half-size instrument. Well, that was the crux of it: there was always someone breathing down your neck. Someone ready to overtake you, or to take your place. It would make no difference whether you were eaten alive, or fell off the edge of the planet, or survived. This was true in orchestra, and life. All of the children understood, but some felt it more deeply than others. It occurred to Corey that there was an inverse correlation between how luxuriously your talent had been cultivated and how precarious your situation felt. At her own conservatory, freshman year—yes, just a state school, but one of the better state schools—the top violinist, a Russian boy, had thrown himself under a moving train during winter break. The incident was horrible for everyone; no one could fathom why he’d done it, everything to live for and all that. When they returned

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to school in January, everyone moved up a seat and there was a new concertmaster. The orchestra sounded the same as it always did. Corey watched Oliver lean into his mother’s shoulder. His mother covered his small hand with her own, a tender gesture. No doubt Oliver’s parents loved him, even if they had a funny way of showing it. (The Russian boy’s devastated parents had started a scholarship fund in his name.) When Corey was a child, no one had ever tried to convince her that she was in competition with the specter of the enfant Mozart or the legacy of the pre-teen Joshua Bell. No one had even suggested that she was concertmaster material. In this way she was like Miranda, lucky enough just to be included. Lucky, with so much less at stake, to have enjoyed a childhood oblivious to existential dread. Really, she just liked to make music. Beyond that, she would go wherever the river of life took her. The cacophony paused when the concertmaster, Roberta Albert— lisping, self-deprecating, hardworking-little-grunt Roberta—appeared from the back, wending her way through the low brass, the basses, and winds, towards the front of the stage. Roberta’s head was high, and her back straight. Her long crinkly hair, pulled off her face and held in place with a scrunchie, gave her a the look of Pre-Raphaelite fairy. She was, unexpectedly, radiant. She held her instrument in front of her, like the crown jewel. (In reality, it was nothing special, a German factory-made 7/8-size violin that Miranda, who owned a Vuillaume, had mocked.) The children, whose hands were occupied with their instruments, drummed their bare feet on the wooden stage as their parents began to applaud. Even Mrs. Bloom, whose persimmon-colored hair made her easy for Corey to spot in the crowd, joined in the clapping. Now appeared Kljujic, and the thundering resumed. He had changed out of his tennis shorts into white linen slacks. He had also doffed his Birkenstocks. Barefoot, his long white hair and enormous yellow beard electric beneath the spotlight, he raised his baton and the orchestra launched head-over-heels into the first piece on the program, “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music—a camp tradition. Corey’s heart swelled: what youth orchestra didn’t play “Alla Hornpipe,” this cheerful, familiar music, and often, and often badly? But the ‘badly’ didn’t matter: the music was something to inhabit unselfconsciously, a way of adding your voice to the chorus of the universe. This music, it was the soundtrack of their lives.

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The piece began in unison, the entire orchestra trilling together in the ascending melody. Then Jody and Pete played the horns solo together. Jody was good. She and Pete were so shockingly in tune with each other that Corey gasped—she was used to bracing herself for the entrance of the off-key French horns when a youth orchestra performed this piece. She was with Pete in a way that Corey would never be with him. The two of them kept their eyes locked on Kljujic, and Kljujic, with his arms above his head, his white Nehru shirt already transparent with sweat, smiled down on them like an ecstatic whitehaired god. Later that night—after the Mozart, after the Shostakovich, after the speeches, after the parents had found their way to the moonwashed parking lot with the help of their glowing cellphones, after curfew, after lights-out, after all the giggling and the murmuring Damian blah blah Damian had finally ceased—Corey would pause, as she always did, to study their sleeping/not-sleeping faces, before slipping away in the direction of the Big House, with its glowing plate glass window and promise of camaraderie. But this time she would turn away from the Big House. Instead she’d linger, silent and still in the twice-dark shadows, watching the girls creep out of the cabin, one by one. Miranda, Chloé, Ginger, Ashlyn, Dani, and Roberta. And also Jody. Not only was Jody with them, she was leading them. Single-file, the seven girls headed up the moonlit woodland trail with Corey following them at a stealthy distance. Jody said something that made the other girls laugh; Miranda punched her lightly on the arm, and they kept walking. They were on their way to the basketball court where the eighth grade boys and the youngest pot-washers (yes, Damian, too) were waiting. Was it alcohol, Corey worried. Should she alert someone? Was it sex, was it pot? But the children were singing. They were in a circle, now, holding hands. They were singing a round: By the waters, the waters of Babylon We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee Zion… Corey’s voice ached to join them, but she held back from her invisible place in the shadows. She thought of little Oliver, by now fast

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asleep in his bunk, his arms around a one-eyed teddy bear and his thumb tucked into his mouth. This time next year he’d be at Meadowmount, where he would practice six hours a day, on a bigger cello with an even-better bow. Miranda, who one would think might quit the violin, would become unaccountably serious, throwing herself into the study of music with a passion that would cause her voracious mother to ditch Mr. White for a step-up teacher. Roberta would at last reach puberty, discover boys and field hockey, and coast along for a few years. (She would eventually get into Juilliard, but so would Miranda.) Pete would break up with Janine for good and marry someone else and stay in Iowa. Eitan would graduate from Juilliard and move to Berlin and then San Francisco. For years he would message Corey every few months for no good reason, until, when they were thirty-five and both divorced, and smarter, and better-dressed, and less ridiculous in every way, they would meet by chance at a party in Bay Ridge and pick up where they’d left off tonight, as if they were still young. Because (as they would know by then) thirty-five is still young. As for the others, some would die; some would get into drugs; some would turn out to be ordinary. Most of them would simply continue. Corey halted her reverie there; it was too painful to go on. One of the girls had lit a candle (now, that was serious contraband), which glowed like a stronger version of the fireflies that twinkled, like their sweet young voices, beneath the pinprick stars.

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KAREN RILE is the author of author of a novel, Winter Music (Little, Brown) and numerous works of short fiction and nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, American Writing, Painted Bride Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction, Philadelphia Stories, The Tishman Review, and many others. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver magazine. She has a MFA from Bennington College.

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[ POETRY]

STEVEN D. SCHROEDER Steven D. Schroeder’s second book, The Royal Nonesuch (Spark Wheel Press), won the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. His poetry is available or forthcoming from Crazyhorse, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Diagram. He works as a creative content manager for a financial marketing agency in St. Louis.

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Viral The Seven Years of Bad Cats app attacked the central nervous system. Apocalypse, a study said, spread if we didn’t vaccinate or maybe doubled if we did, spread if we delayed sanitizing multidrug-resistant superbug clean off the official hands, spread if we pressed smartphones too close against our heads to absorb information on microwaves. The link got like a zillion likes just like Monsanto engineered. Apocalypse learned to escape detection with a name assumed from an irrational number’s digits, learned to backdoor a quarantine using a key the same shape and size as impossible, learned to slip across borders inside a laptop case or far more unspeakable places. Great Aunt Gladys sent this video and what happened next was shocking. Apocalypse, we read, tracked keystrokes of our dirty dirty searches but swore never to reveal the results, told us to turn straight through what resembled a mass grave but swore it was our own beds, swore to care for but not take care of our families once we were gone. That monkey had the cutest little hat and jumped the gap to people! Apocalypse wanted understanding

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of taste and juice and crispness when it bit an apple, wanted a fix for the problem of a broken songbird whose wings its fingers held too hard, longed after someone it wouldn’t need to seek out first who could see if it was okay.

The Undead For eight straight years, the President used the Z-word euphemism over our term, which was not quite polite. Legislators debated whether to fight the war on Z-words via enforcement of current laws or not at all. Despite any evidence, deniers blamed the Z-word epidemic on a non-manmade cause and for bringing it on themselves. A poll told us ninety-seven percent of likely voters would not believe a Z-word until it equaled zero. One such nothing longed fingerbones into our dreams about being too late or never. A numb hundred of them stumbled after forgiveness from us, arriving halfway to nowhere. A thousand whose faces echoed cousins come back from combat a little different each time came back a little more different from the point of no coming back.

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A countless million bodies counted as nobody on the lists we kept quiet inside. We investigated the unrest, mysterious reappearance of missing citizens from a cemetery cover-up, concluding no comment on an ongoing investigation. An official apology, almost inaudible and mostly insincere, offered the undone their innate right to feel offended by us. On the advice of counsel, we read from a statement that admitted, in the twilight dividing those of us who didn’t die from the none of us who did, the unsaid might in fact exist.

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Educational Testing Service The directions said to skip a question meant our answer didn’t love the test. Question #1 began a list of things to do with do you want to instead of the true I want you to. At least two questions showed late without an excuse, as usual. If private emails reveal your answer has been cheating with the key, what gives you the right? We must fabricate our answer a letter per person, never allowed to speak it. Nobody could see our entire answer and hope to stay sane, but a friend who copied verbatim somehow scored higher. Our answer was not for human minds to comprehend. If you interrogate suspects you know don’t know your answer from a bluff, how do you sleep at night? At a top-secret site and date, the test shined lights in our eyes until we confessed guessing. The test divided us into teams assigned a single pencil and a pair of pliers to decide the writer. The best strategy to beat the test was wait it out, but time expired now. If your answer comes from errors in megacorporate accounting, who do you think you are? We tried to give just our names

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but couldn’t remember. A direction after the last question read only answer the next question when this direction equals five. The test didn’t even seem interested in our answer, which we meant to say was none of the above.

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[ FICTION]

W

hen I was a kid, country music meant something. It was tears and sweat, leavin’

and lovin’, and the wrong people at the wrong

time. And always luck. Good luck, bad luck, and people down on their luck. You could hear the coal veins winding and weaving their way through the melodies. You could hear the cigarette tar in each rasp and turn, and we all knew the devil lived down in Georgia. I don’t recognize the stuff that passes for Country now. Everything sounds like a pop song, a cheap come-on. But sometimes they play the good stuff like “Smoky Mountain Rain” and

Kate Buckley

“Wine Colored Roses,” and those are the songs that make me think of Lou. S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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Lou was my mother’s very beautiful younger sister. They’d always been close, though they’d taken strikingly divergent paths. Mom got a scholarship to the University of Kentucky where she studied business and met my father, got married (“married up,” I once heard my father’s older sister remark), then embarked upon a life of country clubs, cocktail parties, and trips to Europe. Lou dropped out of Somerset Community College after one semester, said she just didn’t have the head for it. She worked for a while as a secretary, but mostly had a series of fast food jobs. For a while she lived in Lexington and would stay with my sister and me when school was out for the summer. Mornings, after our parents went to work, Lou would be barefoot in our kitchen, frying bacon and singing “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” right along with Reba. The wildflowers were rife that last summer, periwinkle and goldenrod dotting the limestone faces of the cliffs—hills hewn clean through so the highway could connect Eastern Kentucky to the rest of the state. The interstate runs like a long, gray river, splitting the green of hills— spilling under wide, white clouds. Running till I don’t know where. My sister and I sat in the backseat of our parents’ Volvo station wagon, playing the alphabet game with the aging billboards along I-75. It was the high middle of summer and our hair was already a shade of caramel I’d kill for now, faded by weeks at camp, and at our paternal grandparents’ lake house. We had another month until school began and our parents had planned a trip to Switzerland. As our father’s parents were traveling themselves that summer, it had been decided that Sophie and I would stay with our maternal grandparents in Laurel County. We were not given a choice. I don’t know that we would have objected, except that a month is a long time to be away from home when you are thirteen years old, perhaps even longer if you’re my sister’s age, which was ten at the time. We were fond of our mother’s parents—and I’d heard my parents discussing how it would be good for us to get to know this side of our gene pool—but they occasionally terrified us, or at least they did me. (My sister was largely silent as to her opinions on family members, a diplomat even then.) This was due to the fact that our maternal grandparents yelled at each other. A lot. And cursed at nothing in particular. And held forth at great length on all that’s wrong with the world.

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Watching the evening news with them was not for the faint of heart. Though their vitriol was never directed at us, in a house as small as theirs (two small bedrooms, one tiny bathroom, a front room and an eat-in kitchen), even an argument in the most modulated tones could achieve epic proportions. As our parents only yelled when cheering on the UK Wildcats, I found Mam and Pappaw’s behavior unsettling. Even my sister would admit to this, late at night in the double bed we shared while visiting our grandparents: “Bussy, why are Mam and Pappaw so mean to each other?” “I don’t know, Soph, I don’t think they’re very happy.” “But why can’t they be nice when we’re here?” “Dad says it’s a failing on their part, but that we should be patient with them.” “He told you that?” asked Sophie. “Not really, but I heard him on the phone yesterday before we left.” “Who was he talking to?” “Aunt Lou.” “Oh,” Sophie said, quiet for a time, perhaps wondering why our father would be speaking to our mother’s younger sister about these things. “Will she be here too?” “Aunt Lou?” I asked. “I don’t know. Mom said she’s still down in Georgia—remember, she went down there to work at some restaurant her friend manages? I think that’s why Dad was talking to her, to see if she’s planning on coming up to Mam and Pap’s to see us while we’re here.” “I hope she can,” Sophie said. “I miss her. Everything’s more fun with her around.” “I think so too.” “Maybe Mam will let us call her on the telephone tomorrow.” “Pap always says long distance costs too much,” I reminded Sophie. She was quiet for a moment. “Bussy?” “Hmmm?” “Are they really poor, Mam and Pap? Is that why?” “I think so,” I told my sister. I first learned how poor my maternal grandparents were when I opened their refrigerator to look for a snack and saw an enormous block of orange-colored cheese with an unfamiliar label. Mam said it was gov-

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ernment cheese. I had never heard of such a thing and said so. Mam told me there was a lot I didn’t know, and that when people don’t have money to buy food, sometimes the government gives them things and it’s for us to be grateful. Sophie and I helped Pap in the garden almost every afternoon. Mam and Pap had a few acres inherited from Mam’s parents and grew most of their own food. Pap went fishing down at Hidden Lake every Tuesday with his cousin Hiram, and we ate what they caught till Thursday. I know my parents gave Mam and Pap money. My father was a banker and did quite well, but I don’t know that any amount of money would have been enough. For Mam and Pap, poverty was a way of life— the only life they’d known. Perhaps they’d not have known what to do given other options. It seemed every time they got a little money, they spent it on things they didn’t need. Every shelf, every space in their little house was filled with knickknacks Mam found at rummage sales or the church bazaar, or inventions Pap ordered from late night television. The cement block garage did not hold cars, or even bikes, only boxes and boxes—the flotsam and jetsam of their faded lives. I asked my father once why they didn’t clean it out, why they needed all that stuff. Couldn’t they sell it, I asked. Couldn’t they make some space, then buy what they really needed? Dad said that sometimes when you don’t have anything at all, and don’t feel good about yourself or your life, looking at all that you’ve accumulated makes you feel you have somehow managed to do something with your life. That you matter, because there’s enough stuff to testify to your story. Mam was the only one who called me Elizabeth. Probably because I was named for her mother, Bess. Everyone else, even my parents and Aunt Lou, had called me Bussy since just about forever. You try telling people your four-syllable name upon first acquiring the habit of speech and see what comes out. Most mornings, Mam woke me well before Sophie started the tossing and turning that always preceded her rising. “Elizabeth,” she’d whisper in my ear. “Hmmm?” “Come with me.”

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I’d look over at Sophie, still fast asleep, then at the old digital clock on the small bureau beside the bed: 6:00 in thick white numbers. “Mam,” I’d say, “it’s summer vacation!” “The chickens don’t know that.” Even though I grumbled about getting up so early, I secretly loved this time with Mam. I thrilled at being the only ones awake, stepping out into the silent dark of a young summer morning, the air still cool enough to warrant a light sweater over my sundress. I loved the fluffy, black-and-white flocked chickens, “Speckled Sussex,” Mam informed me. “They’re the best behaved. Lay good eggs too.” And they were nice, gentle—clucking and cooing as I reached beneath their downy warmth, feeling for the eggs that would soon be scrambled in Mam’s cast iron skillet, slick with bacon grease, served alongside steaming grits flecked with pepper, and biscuits with the apple butter Pap canned every fall. “Your Aunt Lou’ll be getting in later today,” Mam informed me one morning, about a week into our stay. “I thought she was down in Georgia for the summer?” “Well, she had about enough of Georgia, so she’s coming back. She wanted to go stay with your mother, but since they’re clear over to Europe, she decided to come home,” Mam said. “She always ends up back here.” Lou arrived later that day, in a black Firebird Trans-Am with the gold outline of the iconic bird painted on the hood. She drove into the gravel driveway like the devil himself was after her, slamming to a dusty stop before climbing out, sporting a bruised cheekbone, a cut lip, and a mood foul enough to sour milk. She was happy to see Sophie and me though, and hugged me longer than anyone had ever hugged me before. And when Lou let go and stepped back, there were tears on her freckled cheeks. She went out to look for work the next day, her bruises camouflaged in layers and layers of Max Factor Pan-Cake makeup. I heard Mam tell Pap that Sam, Lou’s boyfriend down in Georgia, got into a big argument with Lou when she wanted to leave, and when his words didn’t change Lou’s mind, he used his fists. “Like to beat her half to death, the sonofabitch.” While Lou was filling out applications at Piggy Wiggly and Hard-

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ee’s, Sophie and I were eating Mam’s grilled cheese sandwiches and helping her with the afternoon chores, folding towels while she ironed Pap’s work shirts. As always, the TV was on in the back-ground. Mam favored “Days of Our Lives” and “People’s Court,” and loved to protest the decisions of the characters on both programs—she did not draw much distinction between fictional and real. I think she loved to be shocked. Why else would she watch programs which so enraged her? The affairs, the lying, the suicides, the murders, even the petty thievery of “People’s Court.” And she was doubly shocked at the use of the insanity plea. “Now, that’s just not right,” she’d say, shaking her head left and right. “Lord have mercy!” Mam didn’t believe in madness (a la King Lear), nor insanity (a la Freud). “Those people are just plumb selfish,” she’d say. “They done chose a world to live in, as if the one God gave the rest of us ain’t good enough for them.” Aunt Lou found a job as a cashier at Hardee’s and worked every day save Saturday. Sophie and I claimed her Saturday evenings as our own. We’d walk through the woods and up and down the hills to Hidden Lake, carrying a basket of Mam’s tomato sandwiches, Frito-Lay potato chips, and chocolate cake. Milk for us, beer for Lou. We’d sing Reba McEntire songs and talk about life and love, swatting away the mosquitoes and telling stories, mostly lies. Once, Lou told us about the time a boy—a really handsome boy, a really nice boy—had liked her, but Mam forbade her to see him, even though he and his polite, wealthy family seemed like something out of the movies, even though Lou had done nothing wrong. It seemed incredible to Sophie and me. Our mother was already encouraging me to be polite to the nice boys at our private school, or the club. “Did that really happen?” Sophie asked Aunt Lou. “Does it really matter?” Lou said. So many years later, and it’s the bugs I remember most about those summer nights in the country with Aunt Lou. Sophie and I would pluck fireflies from the skies—Lampyridae, I later learned, an ugly term for such lovely creatures—we’d smear their phosphorescence onto our brown skin, and dance around like the small savages we were, while

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Aunt Lou laughed. It was like the 4th of July every time the sun went down and the grass came alive with lightning bugs, lace bugs and crickets. When we grew tired, we’d lie on our backs in the long grass and use our fingertips to connect the stars. And then there were the summer storms—lightning storms in Kentucky are bang-up, tremendous. They come on all of a sudden, the weather unsettling—mutable as a woman in love—and wash the sky with black, split the clouds with a crack so loud you think the very house might break in two. And then the rain—sheeting and silvery, leaving the grass as wet and wobbly as a newborn foal. One Saturday, Lou told us she couldn’t join our picnic outing, on account of she had a date. Sophie and I watched her get ready, fluffing out her red-gold hair—strawberry blonde, our mother called it—applying the Pan-Cake makeup and blue eye shadow with deft hands. She wore Jordache jeans and an old shirt of Pap’s that she left mostly unbuttoned, tying it in a knot around her slender waist. She didn’t wear jewelry, didn’t even carry a pocketbook. I thought of Dad’s explanation of why people collect so much stuff and I thought to myself, Lou already knows she matters. She doesn’t need stuff to say who she is—everything she does or says, even the way she walks tells her story. “Where are you going?” Sophie asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” Lou said. “Some guy’s having a party—we’ll probably grab a bite, then head over there.” “Who’s your date?” I asked. “Bobby Joe Humphrey. You don’t know him. I work with his sister— she fixed us up.” “Oh,” I said, feeling strangely abandoned and suddenly missing my mother in a way I hadn’t yet that summer. I didn’t sleep well that night, tossing and turning, waking up Sophie and making us both generally miserable. “What’s wrong, Bussy?” Sophie asked. “Sorry, Soph. I just can’t sleep. Weird dreams. I’ll get up and read for a while, you go back to sleep.” I picked up my latest paperback and slipped out of bed, padding barefoot down the brief hallway to the bathroom—the only place for privacy in the little house. Mam and Pap were in their room and Aunt Lou had been sleeping on the couch.

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The light was already on in the bathroom, the door ajar. I knocked quietly (it was the only bathroom in the house and I had a dread fear of surprising either grandparent), and slowly pushed open the door. Lou was passed out on the floor, stinking of whiskey and snoring like a drunk trucker. I didn’t want Sophie or Mam to find her like this. Hell, I didn’t like seeing her like this—I’d never seen her like this before. I shook her awake, pulled her to her feet and led her back to the foldout couch. She was mumbling all the while, didn’t meet my eyes. She called in sick to work the next day, told Mam she must have caught the flu, and stayed on the couch till noon. Later in the day, she felt well enough to walk with me down to the Sun Mart to buy some chips and a Coke. We walked along the highway that ran right in front of Mam and Pap’s house, hugging the shoulder of US 25, stepping over discarded beer bottles and Red Man wrappers. “You feeling better?” I asked Aunt Lou. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to see me like that, Bussy. I’m not sure what happened. I guess I just wasn’t feeling well.” “I guess I know you don’t have the flu,” I told her. “How did your date go?” “Bobby Joe likes Jack Daniels better than he likes me.” “Who?” “Sorry, Bus. Sometimes I forget you’re only thirteen. Jack Daniels is a kind of whiskey.” “Well, I’m sorry it didn’t go well,” I said. “Don’t be. I never seem to be able to find a man that will treat me good anyways. At least this time I found out right away. I wasted a year on that last piece of crap, Sam.” “But you’re with us now.” “Yes,” she said, “I sure am. I’m sorry, Bussy, I don’t mean to talk at you like this, but I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes I feel like I’m just losing it.” “But you’re so pretty,” I said. “And funny and nice. You’ll meet someone. Someone great—like my dad.” “Your mom is lucky,” Aunt Lou said. “She used up all the luck before I came along.” “Don’t say that,” I said. “You’re plenty lucky—look how this summer turned out, you were going to be stuck in Georgia with that mean man, and now you get to hang out with me and Sophie.

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“That’s true.” Lou smiled. “I sure do love my girls.” I took off my silver necklace with the tiny horseshoe charm that Mam had given me for my thirteenth birthday (she was genius at finding treasures at flea markets, garage sales and church bazaars), and folded it into Lou’s hand. “There,” I said. “Now you have my luck too.” Time passed and days, as they do, resumed their familiar rhythms. When Sophie and I didn’t have our noses in books, we helped Mam with chores, went fishing with Pappaw and rode with him on the tractor through the yellowing August fields, and had our Saturday picnics and summer nights with Aunt Lou. One day though, a phone call came for Lou, and everything changed. Sophie and I were out playing when the call came through, but we heard all about it at dinner when Aunt Lou and Mam got in an awful screaming match. Turns out, Sam, the old boyfriend from Georgia, wanted Lou back. Wanted her so badly he was moving up to Kentucky to be with her, had already gotten a job at a warehouse in London and rented a place down the road from Mam and Pap. Said he’d changed and would do anything to get Lou back. Mam and Pap were furious. Aunt Lou moved in with him anyway. We didn’t see her much in the days after that. By then, we only had a week left until our parents were due back, and I was mad that Aunt Lou was wasting what little time we had left with “that last piece of crap.” She was still working at Hardee’s and sometimes she would stop by to say hi to Sophie and me on her way home from a shift. She always looked tired and sometimes she had on more makeup than usual. I wondered if she was hiding another bruise. The morning I found her, I woke with night still outside the windows, earlier even than Mam and Pap. I could hear Pap snoring in their bedroom as I walked silently into the little living room, smaller still without Lou lolling on the foldout couch. I slid on my tennis shoes and headed to the lake, thought I’d sit on the dock for a while and just be. I was missing my parents, angry with Lou, and feeling more than a little sorry for myself. I made my way up the old farm road, cement crenelated and cracked, with wild-flowers in its teeth, through the woods and then up

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and down hills to the lake, a fine fog rising off its face. And then I saw her bare flesh submerged beneath the green skin of the lake, a silver flash skimming the surface. She lay like an arrangement of flowers whose fragrance has faded, blooms bowing under the weight of water— arms and legs splayed like a starfish, her long red-gold hair streaming into the green-gray of the water. It would have been beautiful, had it been a painting, had it been a scene from a book or a play, not my own poor Ophelia. Mam and Pap called the county sheriff. “I knew he’d be the death of her,” Pap said. Mam set her mouth in a thin line, the cracks above and below her lips even sharper than usual. Sam claimed he’d done nothing—said they’d been up late drinking, got into an argument and Aunt Lou had just gone “plumb crazy,” left the house in the middle of the night and didn’t come back. “He’s saying she killed herself,” Mam said. “I didn’t raise any child of mine to commit suicide. That’s a crime against the Lord. Ain’t natural.” “She wouldn’t do it, Mam!” I yelled. “It was an accident or he killed her! You know that as well as I do. Aunt Lou would never leave me and Sophie!” Mam just shook her head and pursed her lips into an even tighter line. And the sheriff, citing lack of evidence against Sam—as well as Aunt Lou’s blood alcohol level—said there was nothing he could do. Sam was gone a week later. Back to Georgia or to hell, I neither knew nor cared. The coroner gave Mam an envelope with the scant things Lou had on her when she died: a flimsy polyester dress, a pair of cotton panties, and my silver necklace with the horseshoe charm. Mam looked at me questioningly. “Yes,” I said, “I gave it to her.” Mam shook her head and handed it back to me. I dug a hole in the backyard behind the chicken coop and buried it. My parents were due home the next day and drove straight from Bluegrass Field to pick us up. My mother held us, her tears mingling with our own. My father looked grim and didn’t say much, held my mother’s hand as if he were afraid she might disappear. The funeral was that weekend—a long, moribund affair with hymns Lou would have hated, and an inexplicably open casket, into which I refused to look, fixing my eyes instead on the Glamour shot of Lou,

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blown up and framed on an easel beside the preacher’s bald head. She looked out on us all, garish makeup in stark contrast to her powdered skin, eyes wide and unfocused as if, try as she might, she couldn’t take us all in. After the funeral, everyone gathered in Mam and Pap’s little kitchen, hovering around the kitchen table groaning with ham and fried chicken, sweet summer corn and green beans with ham hocks, seven-layer salad and coleslaw, deviled eggs and Pappaw’s bread & butter pickles, hot white rolls and cornbread, and every manner of pie and cake. I heard my mother tell my father, “Country people feed each other when they don’t know what else to do.” I could only manage a bite of Mam’s jam cake, usually my favorite, and then excused myself. I couldn’t stand to listen to any more hushed conversations about Aunt Lou, couldn’t breathe any more of the hot, stale air, all the oxygen already sucked out of the room. I walked through the backyard, but couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere near the path to Hidden Lake. Instead, I got a spade from Pap’s garden shed and headed toward the chicken coop. I was digging back up my own damn luck. I’d lost enough to the ground for one day. We drove back to Lexington in silence, Sophie and I side-by-side on the long lap of the back seat, our parents belted in front. No one spoke, so Sophie and I did the game we played when we couldn’t get to sleep: shapes. On each others’ backs, we’d trace letters, signs, hieroglyphics of our own making the other had to name. Sophie’s hands, always three years smaller, soft at the joints, rounded; pressed against my spine, tracing snow angels, starfish, the faint stirring of wings. Thirty summers later, I found myself back again. I’d moved to California after college, and though I’d flown to Kentucky at least once a year to visit my parents, my trips to Laurel County had been infrequent. Mam and Pap died when I was in college, and I’d not been back to Hidden Lake since the day I found Lou. My daughters and I had flown to Lexington for my father’s seventieth birthday. Sophie flew in from Washington, D.C., and it was the first time we’d all been together in a long time. We piled into my parents’ house, still the same one we’d grown up in, and told stories and sang songs I hadn’t sung in a long time. The morning after Dad’s party, I was overcome by an urge to visit

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Aunt Lou’s grave. And so my father, my daughters and I made the drive through the hills to Eastern Kentucky. We’d wanted Sophie and my mother to go with us, but my mother pled a headache, and she and Sophie stayed home. I knew Sophie didn’t have the memories of Lou that I did, but I felt that my mother’s headache was only an excuse. Mother hadn’t spoken of her beautiful, younger sister since the funeral, and my father told me she wouldn’t set foot anywhere near Hidden Lake. We drove down the newly paved road, past Hidden Lake, then pulled to a stop where the blacktop meets the wild encroachment of the fields. The girls wanted to wait in the car, absorbed in their games and music, and so my father and I set out: sidling past a garage spilling out its mechanical entrails, fighting the mosquitoes and chiggers through a man’s back pasture until we came upon the markers for my grandparents’ family plot. It was August, and the grass had faded but there were roses growing around Lou’s grave—the big blowzy kind, bursting with fragrance and all manner of insects. And I was flooded with memory: the sounds of frogs and crickets, a fan whirring away in the spare room, the feel of sliding my hand beneath the sweet Speckled Sussex. Once again riding a tractor through yellowing August fields with Pap, watching the sun dim then bloom over hills hemmed by a nimbus of fog; strolling through the gloaming, through the woods down the twilight path to Hidden Lake, fireflies flashing to either side, cicadas calling down the sun. And the sharp, green scent of an evening after hard rain, the thick mud of a lake lying stagnant in sun, the sweet sweat of ponies in from the fields. I sank into the tall grass by the roses and fingered the silver charm around my neck. I thought of my daughters—the same ages as Sophie and me when Lou passed away, the luck that brought them to me, that holds us mostly safe in our little lives, despite all the chaos banging around in the world. And I thought of Aunt Lou watching Sophie and me dance around with our firefly-flecked skin on those summer nights, throwing back her red gold hair and laughing till she fell down. And I wondered again what happened to her that last day. But in the end, I always hear Lou’s voice asking: Does it really matter?

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KATE BUCKLEY’s work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Bellingham Review, The Cafe Review, Chaparrel, The Heartland Review, North American Review, Poetry Foundation, Pop Art: An Anthology of Southern California Poetry, Rattle, Shenandoah, Silk Road Review, Slipstream, and many others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and is the author of A Wild Region (Moon Tide Press), named a Midwest Book Review Selection, and Follow Me Down (Tebot Bach). A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kate’s awards include a Gabehart Prize and the North American Review magazine’s James Hearst Poetry Prize. Her short story, “The Gods of Flight,” was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Kate is currently serving as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Laguna Beach.

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[ FICTION]

R

obert should’ve been careful where he

stepped. Ever since he’d been a little child,

he’d been warned, but one moment’s carelessness

was all it took. Robert had stepped on a patch of Grin Grin Grass and he hadn’t stopped smiling since. Smiling. Such an innocent word. To be honest, Robert had never quite taken the threat of Grin Grin Grass seriously: step on it and grin away. What’s so bad about that? If you step on a landmine, it’s standard procedure to scatter your body parts about over a wide area and, then, die. But, smile?

DJ Tyrer

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can’t eat and drinking is near-impossible. That’s no fun after a few days. Robert was wasting away. By now, he looked like a skeleton wrapped loosely in skin. A skeleton with a rictus grin. “You’ll be dead soon,” said his mother, sadly, shaking her head. “Why couldn’t you watch were you were going?” Robert didn’t try to reply: It’s difficult to speak when your lips are locked into a manic grin. His mother was right; he died soon after, still smiling. “Well, he died happy,” observed his brother as they nailed the coffin lid down on his still-grinning corpse. In fact, that assessment was far from accurate, for Robert had felt quite miserable in his final days, but people seldom bother to look below the surface, and he was smiling. Even in his grave, once all his remaining flesh had decayed away, leaving only bone, Robert continued to smile, grinning his way into eternity.

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DJ TYRER Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing, was short-listed for the 2015 Carillon ‘Let’s Be Absurd’ Fiction Competition, and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Strangely Funny II, III and IV (all Mystery & Horror LLC), Destroy All Robots (Dynatox Ministries), Mrs Claus (Worldweaver Press), More Bizarro Than Bizarro (Bizarro Pulp Press), and Irrational Fears (FTB Press), as well as on Cease Cows, The Flash Fiction Press and The WiFiles, and in issues of Tigershark ezine, and also has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).

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Naked

Truth

[ FICTION]

T

he first time I stood naked in a room full of strangers, I was thirty-three years old.

Before the dramatic moment of dropping my

robe and exposing my flesh arrived, I anticipated fear. Shame. An awkwardness that wound its way around and through every inch of my being. But when the time came, the only thing that made me feel self-conscious about the situation was that I hadn’t shaved my armpits that morning. I couldn’t believe I had neglected this ritual. I always shave. Every day, even in the winter, when no one will see my smooth and hairless skin. I also regularly visit the local Vietnamese beauty shop on

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hair that confesses my Semitic heritage is a borderline obsession of mine. But on that day, of all days, I didn’t shave. So there I stood, arm held aloft, bound to hold the pose for ten minutes until the instructor told me to shift into a new position for the next quick sketch. I hated the indicting shadow of stubble in that hollow of my body, was distressed by the notion of the students in the room using the side of their charcoal to shade in that area. My legs would look smooth from this distance, in this light; but my armpits’ five-o-clock shadow was on broad display, thanks to my idiotic choice to raise my arm. Which was also swiftly going numb. Holding still is hard; holding still while obsessing over your appearance, harder. I was thankful that only half the class, maybe even less, could see me from that angle. The students’ easels were arranged in a circle, with some of them sketching me from the front, others from one side, the other side, and behind. Tim was behind, hidden from my view while outlining my ass. Tim was my latest lover. He was a talented but not particularly successful artist, which meant he was also an art teacher. Tim was lanky, with overly-cultivated facial hair and intense blue eyes. His teeth could be whiter and he always smelled faintly of patchouli, but he had a nice laugh and strong sinewy arms and just enough ennui to be interesting without being depressing. He was not my usual type—although he was exactly the sort of man my ex-husband would fall for, I think. Tim had invited me to pose for his class. The offer had been made in bed. “You’re so beautiful,” Tim had said easily, sliding his hand across my stomach. “I’m not,” I replied, rolling over and grasping for sheets, already self-conscious. “You are,” he said, tugging my shoulders and returning my body to its former position, facing him, exposed. “You should pose, for my class.” I laughed. “Very funny.” “I’m serious,” he said, staring at me with those piercing blues. “My class needs nude models. The school keeps sending me these stick figures, size zeroes with no meat on the bones. The beauty of the human form is not in the skeleton, it’s in the skin. The curves. Bodies like

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yours are what my students should be drawing.” Complimented and embarrassed, my first reaction was naturally to claim offense, stated in the form of a question. “So, you’re saying I’m fat?” “Don’t be a stereotype,” he chided. “I’m saying you’re beautiful, and feminine, and sexy. And you know it. And that’s why I can’t keep my hands off you.” And then he was on me, with his hands and mouth and all of himself so eager to consume all of me, zaftig as I was, and somehow after we finished our lovemaking I had agreed to come in and model for his class that Tuesday. The next morning, the first thing I did when I woke up (Tim was already gone; he never stayed over, which worked best for both of us) was to call Hannah. She’s the only one who can understand the particular and deep neuroses that shape me. She has helped me maintain my sanity. I wish I could say I was as helpful to her as she was to me, but I never have been. Maybe I will be someday; I’m still evolving. That’s one of the many things Hannah constantly reminds me. You’re still evolving, Rivka. Hannah has been investing in me for years, and I think we both hope eventually this will yield a good return. We met at SereniTea, our favorite spot. Home to all sorts of bohemian types, SereniTea was the setting for many a meeting of various arts and community activist groups. Since opening its doors, it has brewed and steeped not only all-organic teas but also ideas and dissent. When you walk through the door, past the concert posters and Drummer Wanted fliers, you feel you can say anything. Far more scandalous things have already been spoken out loud here, for years. And so: “I told Tim I’d pose for his painting class,” I blurted immediately upon arrival. “That’s nice,” Hannah said calmly, slipping her stylish purse from her shoulder and hanging it from the back of her chair. She began stirring her tea. “Nude,” I added in a whisper, and then added, unnecessarily: “Naked.” “Oh,” she said. “Well, that’s a different kettle of fish, now, isn’t it?” Hannah’s colloquialisms are often antiquated and off-key, because, like me, she was raised outside of the mainstream and sometimes still has trouble appropriately navigating these unfamiliar waters. She’s a

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better swimmer than I am, though. She jumped in earlier, and with more confidence. I just happen to be a little better with words, generally speaking, since language has long been a fascination of mine. “Yes,” I said. “Should I tell him I’ve changed my mind?” “Have you?” “Can you ever answer a question with an answer, instead of another question?” “Can you?” We laughed, and I felt a little more human. I was able to sip my tea. This is why I meet up with Hannah. She’s grounding. She knows who I was, reminds me of who I am, makes everything seem to right itself once more no matter how swiftly the world had been tilting before our rendezvous. Hannah and I go way back. She’s my only friend from my first life. We grew up together, in adjacent little single story, nondescript houses in our ultra-Orthodox enclave in suburban Detroit. Oak Park, where all of our small but sturdy homes were overstuffed with siblings and kosher flatware and old world Judaica, within walking distance of our shul. Together, we survived brutal Michigan winters, a philandering father (mine), a mother’s death (hers), and things that were, in some ways, far more difficult and bitter than occasionally subzero temperatures or losing parents we never really knew. Even then, Hannah was stronger than I. For many of the years that I took our respective and shared situations for granted, she already had other ideas. It was Hannah who somehow managed to find pockets of time where her absence would go unnoticed, and in those pockets of time she would sneak to an old brick building, decrepit and often nearly empty, where other lost souls would gather to get their fix: The Oak Park Public Library. She got a library card, her own personal pass to all the contraband she craved. Despite having the card, she never actually left the building with any books. After checking them out, she hid them in a steadily ignored periodicals bins. Books about politics, art, science, sex. She inhaled the information like a drug, getting as many hits as she could each time she visited her sacred space. And then she’d tell me about what she was reading, in whispered fits and starts, while we washed dishes or watched our little brothers and sisters. Just hearing it secondhand made me tingle with scandal. I wanted her not to tell me these

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things, almost as much as I desperately needed her to tell me these things. “Being this religious is crazy, Rivka,” she told me. “To the secular world? Even to other Jews, we seem insane. I’ve been reading about it. Fundamentalist, they call communities like ours. Ultra-religious. Archaic.” “Shhh,” I’d say, although I knew it was true that even within the Oak Park Orthodox community, our own small, strict shul and was seen as a severe, separatist sect. None of us went to public school; the boys went to a yeshiva adjacent to the shul, the girls were taught at home by our mothers. Hannah and I were lucky in that both of our mothers could read, and taught us to read—Yiddish and English. Not all our peers were so blessed. “No, listen,” Hahhan would insist. “Do you know how much freedom there is for girls—for women—outside our community? Women can be doctors. Lawyers. We could date men before one becomes our husband. Some women are even something called lesbians!” “What?” She started to explain. I stopped her half a sentence in, flushed with shame. She just smiled, clearly pleased that sharing this information had gotten such a reaction from me. She needed someone to share in her hope. In her hunger. We sat together, on the women’s side, Hannah and I, when we attended worship services. My mother sat in the row in front of us, when she attended—though more often than not, she stayed home, obsessively tidying the house and making sure that food would be on the table when everyone came home. Like most of the women in the community, there was no need or expectation of her attending services. There was a women’s section for those who did decide to go, mostly widows and little girls following their fathers to shul and then shooed off to be with the other females. Women of a mothering-age had other religious duties, staying home to clean and cook, keep candles in supply and children on the way. My mother embodied this more than any other, always polishing something, kneading something, or going into labor. I loved my mother and believe to this day that she’s a good person, albeit one who lives with her head in the sand. Hannah’s mother died when we were fourteen. A sudden heart attack. She left behind her eldest, Hannah, and five younger children; Hannah’s father swiftly remarried, and kept his new, much younger wife almost constantly pregnant.

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Hannah had four more half-siblings before she ran away. But in our youthful years, when we went to shul as little girls, Hannah and I would sit side by side. When I was five, six, seven, I prayed the simple prayers of a child. But as I learned to pay attention to language and grew more aware of what the words murmured and chanted around us really meant, something shifted. As the words of praise said daily by the men began to seep in, my own prayers ceased, slowly reducing from heartfelt words, to words without meaning or intention, to silence. No one but Hannah noticed this. We shared in this cessation of worship, and there was one prayer in particular we both blamed. A morning prayer, said daily by men as part of a litany of gratitude. It used to go unnoticed by us, a strand that threaded silently through the everyday tapestry of our lives. Until one morning, Hannah passed her father and brothers as they said it in the living room, and for some reason tuned in and listened to the words. Really listened to them, and became upset. She discussed it with me, and it became a mystery to us, how this prayer did not anger others as it angered us. Surely, we were not the first women to hear these words. Our mothers must have known them, our grandmothers must have known them, and yet they led us here. They allowed us to be born into a world where the men in our lives recited with religious fervor, every goddam morning: Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile. Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a slave. Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the universe, for not having made me a woman. Every piece of it makes my skin crawl, makes me want to leap out of it. The very structure of it, all negatives rather than positives: why “for not making me a slave” instead of “for making me free”? Framed in this way, my linguistic mind found it brutally clear that this was a prayer expressing not gratitude, but relief. I could understand expressing relief at not being born enslaved, and even—within the mindset of the community, at least—relief at being chosen, and not goy. But thanking God, every day, not for one’s maleness but for one’s blessed non-femaleness? Blessed are you, Hashem, for not having made me a woman.

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I couldn’t help picturing every man I knew saying those words. The rebbe. My father—which, if I were being honest—made sense; he was traditional and patriarchal and certainly saw being male as preferable. But my little brothers? Aaron, the diminutive only child of our nextdoor neighbors, the same age as Hannah and me, gentle and shy? Blessed are you, Hashem, for not having made me a woman. “Damn them, and their stupid made-in-their-own-image God,” Hannah declared one Friday afternoon as we pounded soft dough with the softer flesh of our hands. We were teenagers, rebelling against something much larger than our parents. “If there is a God, they’ve got Him wrong. Don’t listen to them, Rivka. We are more than the ‘curse’ of having been made a woman. We are more than future mothers and wives. We can be lawyers, if we want to be.” Hannah did, in fact, want to be a lawyer. And, as it turns out, a lesbian. So when her stepmother started rumbling about wanting her out of the house, and her father started talking with her about marriage, fulfilling her destiny of becoming a wife and a mother, Hannah knew what she had to do. She was only eighteen, but she was capable and ready. Her plan was well-formed, for she knew what she wanted—or at the very least, what she didn’t, which was an excellent starting point. And so she disappeared. It caused a scandal when she left; for the first two days, her family feared foul play. Abduction. An act of anti-Semitism. There was panic in the community, tightly locked doors and even rumors of firearms procured from strange bedfellows—how often have you seen redneck Michigan militiamen or slouching black gangsters consorting with bearded and side-locked yeshiva boys? In order to halt just such a panic as quickly as possible, and prevent a formal or ongoing police investigation, Hannah had sent two postcards. They arrived two days after she departed. She was legally an adult, and so upon receipt of these postcards, there was nothing that could be done by the authorities. She was not a minor. She was not in any danger. The two postcards made it clear that no action was necessary, at least not in terms of police or FBI or a self-armed Jewish militia. One postcard was to her parents, informing them that she was well and safe and never coming home again. There was no apology, no explanation, just information. The second postcard was for me, mailed to the Oak Park Public Library, pressed into my hand by one of Hannah’s

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librarian friends when I snuck over there to get a card of my own and cling to some remnant of Hannah. I’m in Chicago, it said, though of course the postmark was from Oak Park. Don’t tell anyone where I am. But come find me when you’re ready. I tore the postcard into a dozen pieces, and tucked the pieces into various places—my journal, a book, the bottom of my underwear drawer. And on my most difficult days, I would pull out each piece and re-construct the message. It was my little light in the darkness. My reminder that I, too, could be free. If I wanted to be. But I was not as bold as Hannah. I stayed. Within a year, I married Aaron, the timid neighbor. We were both nineteen and skinny and scared. He had a wispy red beard, delicate fingers, and seemed at all times apologetic: When he lifted the veil from my face on our wedding day. When he slipped into our bed. When he could not please me in that bed. When he stopped trying. When, after three years of marriage, we still had no children of our own and the neighbors began to wonder. When he eyed the yeshiva boys—not the young ones, but the eighteen year olds, the ones at the age when he had last felt some sense of self— never touching them, but always wanting to, and always apologizing as much for the things not done as those done. Always, always, apologetic. When I left him, I did not apologize. I remain convinced that just as with that cursed morning blessing, while Aaron might not have been grateful for my departure he most certainly felt relieved. Why apologize for easing someone’s burden? And so, more than four years after Hannah left, I followed her to Chicago, hoping against hope that she would still be there. That she would still be using her given name, and would be listed in a phone book. That, despite years of silence, she would welcome me and still be my friend. All of these hopes proved true, thanks be to whatever God might exist and not hate women. A decade passed. Our old life felt farther and farther away, but never quite out of reach. We had both evolved: Hannah was a junior partner at a large law firm, and in her off-hours she was a community activist in a relatively stable relationship with a tall, beautiful dreadlocked woman named Kenya. Me, manicuring my body hair, immediately getting my GED and then taking my time completing a bachelor’s degree while working as a receptionist, taking lover after lover (all men—unlike Hannah, I wasn’t terribly interested in being a lawyer, or a lesbian), and

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trying to figure out which lines, if any, I dared not cross. “You’ve been naked in front of people before,” Hannah pointed out. “The mikveh.” We giggled girlishly at the idea of comparing the ritual bath to posing naked for a room of art students. I shook my head. “I don’t think I can do it.” “Why not?” “I just…I don’t know. It seems disrespectful.” “Disrespectful of whom?” “Myself.” “How so?” I sipped my tea and shrugged. Public nakedness just seemed wrong—for a woman, especially. But I couldn’t say that to Hannah. She was long past hang-ups like that. She was so much more comfortable in her own skin than I. Close as we were, I didn’t feel like I could admit more than I already had about my own lingering modesty. The guilt that still clung to me, thick and binding. The fact that out in this world, eating whatever I wanted and without my mother’s knitted brows when I put on a pound, I had rounded out into a woman of ample bosom and thick thigh. “I’m just going to tell him no.” “Well, for what it’s worth, I think you should do it,” Hannah said, with an eyebrow raised. This was unusual: Hannah rarely gave direct advice. She listened, she asked, she sometimes led the witness, good attorney that she was—but she rarely weighed in herself. Why was she telling me to pose naked? “You do?” “Absolutely, Riv,” she grinned, that same wicked grin she had worn as a teenager in the Oak Park Public Library. “For one thing, I’ve never posed naked for strangers, and it’s about time you did something first.” It was the most illogical argument she had ever offered. I was instantly convinced. Still, I was a nervous wreck as that Tuesday approached. Tim had offered to stay over the night before, which would have been a first, but I told him no. The newness of that would have added another level of stress; I would just meet him at the studio. So I did. I arrived wearing only a robe, as instructed. I came earlier than he had asked me to, which was still after class had started. I walked in timidly, not wanting

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to interrupt. Tim saw me, out of the corner of his eye, and waved me in. He did not introduce me to the class, merely pointed to a stack of large wooden blocks positioned in the center of the room. He met me there, at the blocks, and smiled encouragingly. “I’ll give them an overview of today’s assignment,” he said. “You can slip out of your robe now, while they’re prepping their easels, so you’re ready before they are.” I nodded. He winked and turned toward his students. And then, when I slipped out of my robe and sat down on the blocks, Tim turned back to me, assessing my position, clearly seeing me not as his lover but as something more than that. Something artistic, and worth preserving. He said: “For the first pose, will you bring your arms up over your head, whatever feels natural to you, it’s your choice, but maybe something like—yes, just like that!” As I raised my hands somewhat gracefully above my head, I immediately realized that I had forgotten to slide the razor across my underarms that morning.

BETH KANDER-DUAPHIN is a Chicago-based writer with Southern and Midwestern roots. An award-winning playwright, she has scripts represented by Stage Rights (Los Angeles) and Chicago Dramaworks. In addition to plays, Kander writes novels, screenplays, and children’s literature. This summer, she is defending her thesis to complete her MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women with a dual concentration in fiction and playwriting; she also has a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Arts from Brandeis University. Beth lives with her husband, daughter, and two ridiculous old rescue dogs.

There I stood, focusing on my hated hair and forgetting my overarching guilt. I forgot my mother, my father, my ex-husband, the fact that my exposed breasts and naked sexuality was blatantly on display in front of a room full of strangers. I thought only of the stubble, my little bit of banished self stubbornly breaking through and refusing to go away. I could feel its tease and tickle, as if those follicles knew I could not punish them until later. Then the strangest thing happened. For only an instant—remembering immediately after the small slip that I was supposed to be immobile, unchanging, an object to be captured by eyes and hands—I smiled. And in that moment, as my lips turned up and amusement warmed my cheeks, something sprang up within me. Something even wilder, starker, and more unexpected than the smile. It was a prayer, simple and sincere, stubbornly revealing itself years after I had given up on praying. Standing nude in the circle of artists, I stood still and strong, draping myself in the words of supplication, summoning a new psalm, my very own song of myself. Blessed are you, Hashem, for having made me a woman.

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[ POETRY]

JACLYN PIUDIK and JANET R. KIRCHHEIMER JACLYN PIUDIK authored two chapbooks, Of Gazelles Unheard (Beautiful Outlaw, 2013) and The Tao of Loathliness (fooliar press, 2005/8). Her poems have been published in numerous anthologies and journals, including New American Writing (forthcoming), Contemporary Verse 2 and Columbia Poetry Review. She received a New York Times Creative Writing Fellowship and the Academy of American Poets’ Sellers Award. Jaclyn holds an M.A. in Poetry and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature and teaches writing at the University of Toronto. JANET R. KIRCHHEIMER is the author of How to Spot One of Us, (Clal, 2007). A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared in several journals including Atlanta Review, Young Ravens Literary Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Kalliope, Common Ground Review and several anthologies and online journals. Currently, she is producing a poetry documentary, After, exploring poetry about the Holocaust.

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Before Interpretation A vulture hovers over its young. Obscurity is a hiding place where sky touches earth, a promising involution, a birth to be plundered. Breath of mouth devastated, impatient at the surface. A longing for the space of distance, alluvial wingspan, an extension of concealment in the havoc. Placed there in luxuriance, a parsing of foundations, possibilities of azure, gradations of consequence that crumble latent with anticipation of their becoming: a stammer of flight.

The Hastening Blueprint In an architecture of camouflage to interpret raw matter covert draft of resoluteness an ability to conceive to surface and separate ceremony from artistry science from solace beauty from form wisdom stretches out over nothing but water garments embellished with compassion a reservoir chafing the inroad to arousal by ink and aspiration. To be from a matrix in its own image palaces are built coins are struck from a single die dust becomes the order of time an enigma an aerie walled in silent interludes of beckoning and dismay.

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[ FICTION]

BOUND John Francis Istel

M

onday evening Ralph slumps over his cof-

fee, his shoulders rounded as if bearing

the weight of an enormous tortoise shell. He’s gained twenty-five pounds since returning from

Jakarta over the Christmas break, his Bollywood good looks soured by despair. He tells me about his writing project, shaking his head slowly from side to side, a pack mule shaking its bit. It’s part memoir, part fiction, apparently, but no one dies. “I’ve structured the last section like a record album. But I can’t get Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Songs’ out of my head. It’s this continuo driving me crazy.” “Isn’t it singular,” I ask. Ralph stares at me. “I thought it went, ‘Help me sing this redemption

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song.’ Not ‘songs.’ Right?” Ralph leans his chin on his right palm and with the fingertips of his hand flicks at his unshaven cheek. There’s a long pause. “The Mayans have a coming-of-age story,” he says, finally. “There are five parts to it. The last section is about a boy ripped from his mother’s arms. The boy has no warning of this moment. One minute he’s making mini-whirlwinds in front of his adobe house by kicking at the dust with his homemade sandals. The next, four strange men have abducted him, one carrying the boy under a beefy arm, into the mountains. The trail seems to go on forever. All the boy can think about are the last words he heard them tell his mother: ‘We will return him in seven days.’ They continue into the woods until he has no idea how far they’ve traveled or where they have come. They tie him to a tree and then leave.” Ralph eyes me across the rim of his khaki-colored coffee mug before dramatically throwing his head back to drain the last drops. He puts the cup down in front of him and then freezes, head cocked, listening. In the background, somewhere, we hear John Fogarty singing, nasal and pleading, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Ralph waits for me to speak. “What happens next? To the boy?” I ask. “The fifth stage. He has to find his way home.” Ralph laughs till tears sparkle in his eyes. “Ok. But what does this have to do with the writing process?” Ralph wets his index finger and starts erasing the dried coffee spots that stain his cup. “That’s just it. That’s the problem. That’s why I’m stuck. Most people, even writers like you, don’t get it.” He sees I’m befuddled. “I’m in the fifth stage.” Late Tuesday afternoon our front doorbell rings—or chimes, I should say. The bell isn’t a real bell; it’s one of those white adhesive plastic units that sticks on the outside doorjamb and wirelessly signals a box you plug into an electrical outlet in your house. It can be set to any number of tunes. Ours plays the chimes from the Westminster Abbey. I open the door for Judith, my daughter’s violin teacher. She is out of breath and anxious because she is twenty-five minutes late, which for her, is entirely normal. Judith flusters even more when she sees it’s me, the parent, instead of her pupil. She blinks too fast as if trying to focus, her cheeks flush a pale rose, she pulls out an inhaler and sucks a couple

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of squeezes before stepping out of the mild January gray into our vestibule. Her long brown hair, pulled back severely into a high pony tail and gathered in a moss green scrunchy, reaches down to the small of her back. I close the front door and follow her into the living room. Judith is bone thin, her wrists not much bigger than the size of her violin’s neck. I saw her perform for a school concert once, and her fingers are her most remarkable physical feature—they’re long and powerful, spidery, like legs on the aliens you see in so many invasion movies these days. “I’m sorry. So sorry. Got caught up. Every lesson now is my last,” she says, lowering her violin case onto the couch as if it were a sleeping child. “Last?” “Hasn’t your daughter told you?” It’s my turn to stammer. “I didn’t…you mean....” Geez, I just bragged to Ralph about my relationship with my daughter, how we liked to read song lyrics to each other and swap kooky haikus. “She told you she was quitting?” “No. Not her. Not her last. My last.” She clicks open her violin case latches like snapping on lights. “I was accepted into the U.S. Army orchestra?” I am so relieved. “I completely forgot. My memory these days. Of course. My daughter absolutely did say. I’m sorry. Congratulations.” “I head off for basic training next week. Only I’ve never done anything like that. My only exercise is playing this fiddle. But my fiancé—he’s a gym trainer. Yesterday, he made me see how many pushups I could manage. I did two.” “That’s not too many. “No. You’re supposed to be able to do 50 on the first day.” “Why does a violinist have to do basic training? You’re not actually going to see battle, are you?” “No. But we’re expected to travel and play for foreign dignitaries at the White House.” “But basic training? Who do you have to shoot?” “Well,” she rolls her eyes up at an angle, which she does whenever she has to think up an answer to something. “I guess whatever everyone else is doing I’ll be doing.” She explains she’d prefer a normal position in a professional orches-

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tra, but those seats are hard to come by. She’d auditioned eleven times, she tells me, in the last three years. “What about the commitment? The Army doesn’t let you change your mind. You’re not worried about being tied down so long?” I ask. “I don’t see it as a restriction. I see it as a chance to escape with my violin. I won’t be carrying a weapon. I’ll be playing my instrument. Playing for peace,” she says. She opens the case and lovingly wipes the body with a chamois cloth. Like a corpse in a coffin. As Judith uses the cloth to pry her violin from its burgundy velour bed and tucks cloth and chinrest into her neck, I stroll over to the bottom of the stairs to holler up toward my daughter’s room. I hear Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” floating from her door. Jesus. She’s only twelve; her ice cream castles are rapidly melting. I walk back into the living room where Judith has set up a music stand by the piano. “She’ll be right here,” I say. Judith nods by wiggling her thick eyebrows twice before she returns her violin under her chin and turns her back to me as if she needs privacy, like a woman who needs to start breastfeeding. When she lifts her bow to the strings the mewls from her tuning make it clear I should go, which I do, just as my daughter bounds down the stairs, bounds past me into the room. Mitch Bagwell still looks like he did in college, where I met him in a medieval literature class at Columbia. He was precocious then, sure that he had all the answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. Fifteen years out, I recognize his Dionysian curls, now flecked with gray and surrounding a stubbly slack face when we meet riding the F train on Wednesday morning. Mitch sits in the middle of a row with a vacant seat on either side. I didn’t notice him until we both pulled back a little to fully scope out the coincidence. Last I heard he was playing in a band whose claim to fame was that one of their songs was on a Peewee Herman movie soundtrack. The news was in the alumni magazine. Mitch explains how he’s stopped writing music since he’s been in this four-year relationship with a woman named Josie, who is married but separated. She has two boys, nine and eleven. “It’s embarrassing to say, but she has anger issues,” he says. “She beats me. When she gets

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upset, she’ll pick up anything around and start whacking me with it—a roll of toilet paper, a cigarette carton, a golf club. Now, I keep my clubs and wiffle ball bats down in the boiler room of my building because I know we’ll never argue there.” He peeks up and down the subway car to confirm no one is listening. “In the car, while I’m driving, she’ll open the glove compartment and use the manual because I’d already thought to hide the tire air gauge and the phone recharger. I’ve been hit with toothbrushes, riding boot horns, loaves of Wonder Bread.” He eyes his New Yorker like he really would prefer reading it. “Sometimes we’ll go to a yard sale on weekends and as we’re looking around all the junk, I’ll think, ‘I’ve been hit with that. Yup. And that.’ It’s crazy.” I can’t help but ask a stupid, obvious question. “What’s going on?” “What?” “With her. Something’s going on. What’s going on?” “Now you sound like a mash up of Marvin Gaye and my mother. Nothing’s going on. It’s not like I’ve been seriously injured. No bruises. I just love her too much and it’s distracting.” Mitch sighs and looks up to what would be the heavens but in this subway car are only Dr. Zizmor dermatology ads. “She’s moving to Miami in June.” His voice catches and he clears his throat to cover and gives me a little shoulder bump. “She wants me to join her. She’s a love glutton,” he shrugs. He stays with her because, as nuts as it sounds, it’s better than living at home, with his mother, his only other viable option within his budget. “Knots up my insides. Mom puts a damper on a thrity-eightyear-old man’s emotional life,” he says. “Some days I feel like Josie is the Green Knight, I tell you,” Mitch laughs. “You remember? Greatest story ever. ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ right? I’m always getting my head chopped off for the least little comment.” The whole thing has driven him to getting stoned daily and snorting coke on weekends, which we agree is practically medieval in the twenty-first century. He lost his day job as an environmental engineer about ten years ago and is now teaching math in Harlem. That gig is in jeopardy after he told a mouthy ninth grader to get the fuck out of his classroom. Today, he’s on his way to the “rubber room” until the case is resolved. “Hey, it’s not all a Shakespeare tragedy.” He twists toward me to

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explain. A few days ago on MLK Day he won two thousand dollars playing Spanish 21 in Atlantic City. He went to sleep about three in the morning in his suite at the Borgata, all expenses complimentary, thanks to his frequent forays to the casino. He woke up at 6:30 without setting the alarm and watched as the sun came up over the ocean from his bed. “I heard a ding in my head, as if there was a slot machine in the room. I got up and went for a swim and just lay there next to the indoor pool. “For the first time in, I don’t know, years, I feel no compulsion to gamble, light up a doobie, nothing. My soul was at peace.” I nod, feeling the newspaper getting clammy in my hand, just one stop from my destination. “Wow,” I say, which makes me feel stupid, which then always makes me want to try to say something smart or sophisticated. “True inner peace? Like at the end of Everyman?” “Yeah. Only I hope I’ve got a while longer to force feed my friend, Good Deeds,” he chuckles, as I rise to get off at Forty-Second Street. “Used to think I had all the power, like I was the Fantastic Four.” I bend down to give him a light hug, which surprises me but feels right. “Take care,” I say as I move away. “I’m going to meetings,” Mitch assures me as the doors whoosh open. “But still, definitely have to nail Good Deeds down. Fatten him up.” Thursdays are karaoke night at the bar where I meet Steve for a beer. It’s one of those pseudo-seedy bars that Brooklyn has sprouted like weeds, a bar with those bowling alley machines where you slide hockey-sized silver discs under a rack of plastic pins. This bar even has an indoor bocce court in the back, behind the mini-stage and microphone. Steve has been working for a South African bank and makes a ton of money. So much money he doesn’t even know how much he actually has. “Until I went over my holdings with Mel, my accountant, I thought I might have to work another 12 years,” he says and sips at his Belgian white. “Until I was fifty,” he says in disgust. Steve is handsome in a Madison Avenue way. He dresses down for our irregular mid-week meetings of the “dads” by wearing some “relaxed” Ralph Lauren shirt and jeans that look like they come right from the factory, which means he looks whacked out of place in a Brooklyn Boho bar. Steve and his wife Cynthia met at Harvard. He grew up in Boston on Beacon Hill and his parents were crushed when Cynthia convinced

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him to forsake Cambridge and Harvard Law to live in New York and go to NYU with her. In her second year, in the middle of her tort class, she walks out and quits. Gives up law school and opens a life-coaching consultancy for corporate clients. Steve’s mother, according to him, is still apoplectic. He talks to me about the debt he owes to turtles. He’d taken the family on a vacation to the Galapagos and walked among the huge sea tortoises. “They are incredibly rare,” he says, as if letting me in on a secret IPO about to go public. Watching them struggle through the sand to lay their eggs gave him an epiphany. “That night when we get back to our accommodations, I realize I don’t want to carry civilization around. I’m tired of being the beast of burden. So I pound down the cachaça pretty hard and I tell Cynthia I’ve decided I’ll give notice when we get back.” A woman with an auburn wig and a Diana Ross dress is shouting some Motown song off-key, which is making it harder to talk. Steve leans in. “Cynthia tells me, ‘You repeat what you just said in the morning when you’re sober and I’ll believe you.’ So I wake up, give her shoulder a little push. She removes her sleep mask with that ‘if it’s hanky panky you want, you have another thing coming’ glare. I say, ‘I’m taking a leave when I get back.’” Cynthia starts to coo, according to Steve, and is so impressed that she goes down on him. She figures that, as her company starts franchising its Lifeline Consulting offices throughout the Sun Belt, Steve’s retirement will be great for her business and their marriage. She’s already printed out the weekday schedule of all the afterschool activities from which he’s to pick up their five kids. “When do you cut out?” I ask. Steve points to his ear indicating he didn’t get the question. A Latina woman in her twenties, wearing denim overalls over a bright purple unitard, interprets Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” punk style, growling the tune in a Dominican accent. I lean in and ask, “Have you given notice? When’s your last day?” Steve chuckles. I wait to see what the joke is about. He starts laughing until he has to purse his eyes and take a few deep breaths. “It’s kind of like when you start talking about marriage after the second year of a long-term relationship. It gets harder to pick an exact date.” Steve reaches into his blazer draped over the barstool’s back. He

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pulls out a brochure from the inside pocket and slaps it on the bar like a gavel. The bar goes quiet. The D.J. turns off the karaoke projector and slips outside to smoke. I forget Steve is still talking. “Chimera has five cabins, is just over thirty-four meters, has forty-inch LCD screens in every stateroom. I haven’t told Cynthia I put a deposit down. I figure I don’t want to have to depend on charters for my ecstatic communions with nature. Now we can search out enlightenment on our own time.” I read the specs, which are a blur of numbers and prices in British sterling pounds. They don’t mean anything to me, like when I read tide charts or astrological maps. “The boat is really called Chimera?” I ask. Steve huffs on his gold wire-rimmed glasses and wipes them with a bar napkin. “Turns out I’m not ready to roll over, head home, play house. Not just yet. Have you noticed how ecstasy comes in many forms, but it gets more expensive as you get older?” He sips his beer and wipes his upper lip. “The payments on this lovely lady are going to dead bolt me to my desk for at least three, hell, maybe four more bonus seasons.” Mom is sleeping. She doesn’t usually sleep during my Sunday visits. She’s had Alzheimer’s for almost ten years. Still, she’s only seventy. She recognizes me as someone she once may have loved, even if she’s not clear whether I’m one of her sons, her three husbands, or her four brothers. She wears a man’s Oxford style shirt with broad red vertical stripes like you’d find on a barbershop pole tucked into gray sweat pants tapering to chestnut brown penny loafers, like she made me wear as a kid. The tongues were empty when I bought them for her at Payless, so I slipped a wheat stalk penny in each shoe about a year ago. She’s sitting in one of the common areas, which they’ve tried to make like a living room. She’s dozing in an armchair, eyes closed, one leg elegantly crossed, her hands neatly interlaced on her knee, a foot dangling and bobbing her loafer rhythmically, just as she did in our childhood living room while listening to Lenny Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic. Various home aides amble by. I like to sing to her. I sing softly because I can’t stay on key. I sing the songs she taught me. Songs like, “This Land Is Your Land” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Dorothy pushes toward us, using the forefinger of one hand to

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balance on the front bar of her walker a saucer piled with canned fruit salad. My mother’s mouth is open and askew, her tongue crammed up against her lower lip. She has no teeth. I wonder if I should sing one more song before I slip away. She adored the Lovin’ Spoonful. I start to sing “Do You Believe in Magic?” but I trail off into awkward humming. I know there’s something about a “young girl’s heart” but the connective tissue of the other lyrics has gone missing. Every such loss stirs thoughts about genetic predispositions to Alzheimer’s. I remember that I remember, “Hot town, summer in the city.” Somehow it seems inappropriate in the dead of winter. I look around and watch Dorothy place her trembling saucer of fruit salad on a coffee table. She smiles and does a little wave to me. Then she lets herself slowly topple backward into the plump sofa. Down at the end of the hall, I see more residents sprout from the large gathering room. It’s where they might hear visiting klezmer musicians, stroke therapy dogs, or watch Disney movies. Mostly women, they ooze from the rec room in wheelchairs, or pushing walkers, or stabbing the ground with double canes like impatient Olympians at the starting gate of a slalom run. Mom stirs. She’s singing something with her eyes closed. I lean to catch the melody. I realize I don’t know where the song is coming from—my mother, my imagination, or a radio in the distance at the end of the hall. After a few seconds I recognize it. It’s Madonna. I swear I’m hearing, “Border line, border line….” My mother considers herself—well, she once considered herself—a good Catholic girl. I realize she’s lost the capacity to “consider herself,” to recognize who she is in the full-length mirror next to the elevators. In any case, she never trusted Madonna, the singer. She’d rather be caught dead than singing one of her songs. Mom opens her eyes and they take a few moments to focus. She turns and spots the approach of the shuffling horde. She clucks and tsks and puffs, and with a hand on each armrest, leans forward until gravity grabs her. Her thin gray ponytail slithers down along her neck. She’s in a straight-back that would make any yoga instructor proud when finally she can use the momentum to rise. I get up and take herarm. She loves to be taken by the arm. It’s the Blanche DuBois in her peeking out. All women must have a little Blanche in them, I decide.

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Dorothy waves from the sofa across the room. “Mom? There’s Dorothy. She’s saying hello.” “I’m glad you finally made it. We need to go.” “Where are we going?” “Be a gentleman, dammit. We need to go.” She looks forward toward the front desk area and office, where two attendants are immersed in their smart phones, laughing with each other. Mom looks back toward the rumble and squeak of the approaching residents who have almost reached this lounge area. The new executive director renamed it “The Living Room.” There is a “Living Room” on each floor. Soon the residents will fill every seat. Some may end up on each other’s laps as they don’t always see each other or aim well on their backward parachute falls into the furniture pillows. Mom tugs on my arm but her feet don’t move. We’ve become so bound to each other these days that I intuit what she’s asking. More and more frequently, I tap the back of her knees to get her legs moving. “Some days,” Mom whispers to me. She takes a hesitant step, sliding one loafer forward, then the other. “What is it?” I ask, trying to steady her, my arm snaked tightly around hers, our fingers entwined. “Some days I feel like I’m tied to a tree.”

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JOHN FRANCIS ISTEL lives in Brooklyn where he curates The Word Cabaret, a reading series, and teaches English on the Lower East Side at New Design High School. He’s worked as an actor, bartender, car valet, adjunct professor at NYU and CUNY, and arts editor. He’s written about theater for Atlantic, Elle, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. His poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including New Letters, Weave, WordRiot, Helen, Linden Avenue, The Rappahannock Review, Peacock Journal, Soundings Review, Claudius Speaks, and Up the Staircase (Pushcart Prize nominee, 2015). Two of his stories are available as podcasts, thanks to The Golden Walkman and the London-based Liars League.

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[ FICTION]

Colorful H

e kept his head down, never made eye con-

tact, walked with a purpose as though he

were following a trail of breadcrumbs through the city. His feet moved in rhythm like ping-pong paddles, as if Charlie were a clarinetist marching in some holiday parade. Each brown shoe entered and then left his vision. It helped him ignore gray of the sky and gray of the streets, not to mention gray of other pedestrians on their way to work, coffee shops, or a life of petty crime. Charlie didn’t look up when the blue blur

Aliens

barred his way, but tried to sidestep around it. His glossy Florsheims slid right; then, still impeded, went left again. If only the two brown boulders that looked like work boots hadn’t stepped along with

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them, Charlie might not have heard that deep, god-like voice demand, “Let me see your wallet.” Charlie stopped, dazed by the interruption and already trembling as the adrenaline hit. When Charlie raised his eyes, he saw a man so tall that his head would’ve struck the awning in front of most of the downtown restaurants. The guy was dark-eyed and dark-skinned, wearing a midnight blue toboggan and matching full-length coat trimmed in wool the color of beach sand. His arm was bent at the elbow, gloved hand the size of a satellite dish stretched toward Charlie. “Are you robbing me?” said Charlie, a crackle of panic in his voice. “Wouldn’t do that,” bellowed the giant. “Raised better. Now let me see your wallet.” Charlie wasn’t convinced. Not that it mattered. Whether from fear he was being mugged or relief that he wasn’t, Charlie reached into his back pocket, pulling out that worn, leather lump. “You’re sure you’re not robbing me?” he asked. “I told you, my mama raised me better.” “Then why am I giving you my wallet?” “Trust me, when you see this, you’ll want to give me money—gladly, and with an enchanted heart.” He snatched the wallet from Charlie’s hands before the words could register. Flipping it open, he stayed away from the cash and credit cards, pausing long to glance at Charlie’s driver’s license. “Charles Knoll,” he said. “Wasn’t there a guy…?” That irritated Charlie more than being robbed. “Yes,” he said. “Yes there was.” “I mean the guy who…” “Yes, yes.” “Were you…?” “Good lord.” Charlie shook his head. “My dad was a big fan. Can we get on with it?” “Sorry,” the giant moaned. It wasn’t a word that sounded right coming from one so large he could get away with offending almost anybody. He bowed his head, frozen breath creeping around his cheeks like a beard. His thumb, the size of a pistol, shot through the plastic sleeves, a few of which carried photographs. He stopped when he found a picture he liked. “This your wife?” Charlie tilted in to look. The picture was of a young brunette, wideeyed and still skinny, a smile breaking in mixed directions on her lips.

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She wore lipstick the color of bubblegum, and Charlie almost thought he could smell the apple scent of her perfume, although when his subconscious tricked him into trying, his nostrils froze from the sterile winter air. “That’s her,” he said. “Old picture, but it’s her.” “Perfect, Chuck,” said the giant. “It’s Charlie. Don’t call me Chuck.” “Oh, I see. Well, Charlie, if you’d be so kind, pull that photo out. My hands are a little...well, clumsy. I’d end up tearing the plastic.” “Why would I…?” “Trust me, Charlie. The Great Mondo never does anything without a reason.” He paused. “Besides, you can have your wallet back.” Charlie still felt the urge to turn and run. He glanced up, trying to judge intent in the big man’s eyes, but vertigo hit him as if he were watching a meteor shower while standing. Shaking it off, he muttered, “Sure, sure, whatever,” and did as he was told. Then, happy to have his wallet back, he squeezed it like a stress ball or a pair of adjustable pliers. Mondo laughed like a barking seal. “I promise you, Charlie, this is magic like you’ve never seen.” He rubbed the photo between his hands. It vanished, its corners reappearing here and there like the wings of crows flying through a choppy mist. Charlie thought that might be the whole trick. Maybe Mondo wasn’t a street magician at all, but just some lunatic. “Okay,” he said. “And?” “You watching?” “Sure,” said Charlie. “Watching close?” “Yeah, whatever.” The Great Mondo bowed his head and blew on his hands. He said something that sounded like, “Shabbadabba.” Then he straightened up and continued rubbing the photo. Now, corners were visible at the same time on both the thumb and pinky sides of his hands, with a third point sticking out near the middle fingers. Mondo kept rubbing, and the photo appeared to stretch. “You see?” he said. “Magic.” Charlie admitted it was a neat illusion, but not too complicated. He figured Mondo carried a larger photo up his sleeve. Those sleeves, after all, could make footballs disappear. Charlie said as much. Mondo seal-laughed again. “Don’t be so closed-minded, my friend. Here, see for yourself.” He stopped rubbing and handed over the picture.

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Charlie took it and stared. It was the same picture, but several times its normal size. This is no illusion, he thought. It was his picture, all right. It showed his wife back when he still loved her and she still cared how she looked. But the snapshot was so much larger now. Charlie wondered if what the big man had up his sleeve was a scanner with a photo printer attached. “My God,” he said. “How…?” “Worth your time?” said Mondo. Charlie didn’t reply. As he stared at the picture, it still seemed to be growing. “Worth a few bucks, maybe? I can tell you’re amused, amazed, a man in need of a little myth and wonder.” Without answering, Charlie opened his billfold and fished out two fives, handing them over. “Thank you, my friend whose father was a big fan of a big man. I appreciate the contribution.” Charlie looked up. “I’ll give you another ten if you can make it small again. I can’t fit it back in my wallet like this.” Charlie reached for the front door to the building where he worked and noticed his reflection in the glass. That’s not me, he thought. He looked older than he remembered, heavier and sagging in the cheeks. His hair showed early streaks of gray at the temples. His head slouched forward on his neck. The only life was in his eyes, stretched wide in awe, two black holes in the center sucking all the light into them. Disoriented, he tugged at the door’s metal handle. It seemed different, too: larger, crooked, a bit too warm. Everything around him was out of proportion with what he remembered. He glanced up, and the twenty stories bulged and leaned as if they might topple and crush him. Charlie shook his head and went inside where the yellow-tinted lobby stretched for miles like in a dream. The people there were all giants to him. Towering in their grays and blacks, they leered down, huffing at him as if he were a child scattering his toys across the floor. Shielding his eyes, Charlie raced for the elevator. “What level?” someone asked. “Seventeen,” Charlie muttered. Around him, the wide, barren world from steel wall to steel wall spun like a carnival ride. “Hello, Charlie.”

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“Morning, Mr. Knoll.” “How’s it going, Charlie?” He mumbled his hellos and hurried through to his office, closing the door behind him. How he despised these people, he thought. They had become a part of his life like warts that never quite burned off. He considered them friends once. Now, they haunted him with their fake smiles and feigned care for his well-being. They had become a part of his routine like reading the morning memos, phone messages, and emails. He ignored them as much as possible during the day and forgot them altogether when he made it home. Home. It was where he spent those hours of erasure, flipping back and forth between news channels and the endless cop and reality shows that filled all the networks every night. Charlie liked to see what was going on in the world…so he could complain about it, or fear it. He dreaded the next terror attack, the next school shooting, home invasion, or electrical fire that killed a family of five while everyone slept. He resented the politicians—the current President most of all, except perhaps the previous one. Each night there was another celebrity scandal, a corporate scandal, a sports cheating scandal. He hated all of it and found what little joy he knew in hating. And those TV shows? Best not to think of them, because all they were good for was helping him not to think. How did he get this way? he wondered. How did so much sediment settle in his bones? He was an average lawyer at an average firm. He put in an average day’s work, then went home to an average wife that rarely noticed him. She came home from her shift at the hospital and either took a long nap or locked herself in her room and scrolled through Facebook on the computer. Sometimes, he hoped she was in there having cybersex with a stranger. At least that would make her life more interesting. His, too, if she ever came clean. It hadn’t always been like that. Charlie often thought about when they met. He was in law school, and she worked in the emergency room where he ended up after a minor wreck. She had tight, pale skin that smelled of green apples and sterile soap. Her brown hair was tied off in back. She wore a maroon uniform that hid her shape, with a nametag over her breast that read, Bacall. Having a famous name himself, he asked the obvious question, and she replied, “No, it’s Wendy.” Then she touched the back of her hand to his forehead as if checking for a fever.

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From that first touch, he loved her. The walls of his office pulsed like a cow’s heart, their fleshy panels stretching in and pulling out. He felt their movement in his temples as if sharing the rhythm. He squeezed his forehead with his hands and said, “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” The walls, as if compromising, settled into a steadier pattern like his wife’s chest while she slept. How he loved to watch her then—hair tangled, face red from the press of a pillow. He listened for her breath and those slight groans she made as though she had a lover with her on the other side. He liked to whisper her name, too. “Wendy,” he’d say, knowing her dream self would mutter something incomprehensible in reply. “Mr. Knoll?” Charlie jerked, startled. He hadn’t heard Kylie Kurtz, one of the interns, enter the room. He stared dumbly at the blond halo around her wind-burned face. “I didn’t mean to bother you.” “It’s okay. Just a headache. A migraine, I think.” He expected her to ask, “Are you all right?” or, “Is there something I can get you?” Instead, she told him, “Mr. Eberton said to bring this to you.” She waved a file folder that must have held a thousand pages. It kept growing, and Charlie didn’t understand how she managed to hold onto it. “It’s the settlement offer on Boniver. They’ve put it in writing. Mr. Eberton wants you to take a look at it and let him know what you think.” The Boniver case was a simple nursing home suit. The defendants had offered a quarter of a million with a nondisclosure clause to settle. The document shouldn’t have been more than a handful of pages, but the file was as fat as a shoebox now, fleshy and thrashing about like an infant. Kylie’s fingers were stretched almost to a straight line. “For God’s sake,” Charlie snapped, “set it on my desk before you hurt yourself!” She flinched as if she had seen her dead mother’s face through a window. Stepping farther into the room, she tossed the file. It landed with a booming whump like a spray can exploding. Charlie grabbed his forehead again. He paid no attention as Kylie Kurtz fled the room. B

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He came to on the floor, his face pressed against the thin, gray carpet. His arms felt numb and limp beneath him. Someone cried out—maybe Kylie, though he couldn’t be sure. Someone else said, “Call nine-one-one.” That voice, he recognized as belonging to Janice Jarvis, the office manager. “No,” he grunted, rolling over onto his side. Everything looked fuzzy at first as if covered with dust, but his eyes adjusted. “I’m fine. Really.” Four people were in the room with him. He could make them out now: Kylie and Janice, but also Ron Chandler and Lisa West, two of the associates. Charlie saw them staring down at him, their eyelids compressed into a lawyerly show of concern. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m fine. No ambulance. Give me a sec to get my bearings.” “What’s going on? Let me through.” It was a bass voice, rumbling like a flat tire. Mr. Finback, the senior partner, bulled his way into the room. He wore a charcoal suit, menacing and austere. “Knoll,” he said, going to one knee and placing a meaty pink hand on Charlie’s shoulder, “what happened here? You drunk? On drugs? What’s the matter?” “No, sir. Just had a…” “What?” “Dizzy spell, I guess.” “Are you sick?” the old man asked. Charlie could smell the heavy track of English Leather on his skin. “I don’t think so. I mean, no. Maybe my sugar’s off.” He started to say that maybe everything was off, but he realized just before the words came out that the room wasn’t pulsing or spinning anymore. The walls weren’t fifty feet high, and the people looked like people again. He blinked, squinted, and stared up at Mr. Finback’s silver-trimmed rosy face. No part of the old man was any different than Charlie remembered. “What is it, Knoll? Why are you staring at me like that?” “Sorry, sir,” said Charlie. “Really, I’m fine. If I could just…” He pushed against the floor with his tingling hands. “Sure, sure,” said the old lawyer. He slid an arm under Charlie’s and, with a tug, helped him to his feet. “Maybe you should take the rest of the day off, Knoll. Go home. Get some sleep.” “Thank you, but I’m fine,” said Charlie. And he was. All the cubist renderings of the world around him had switched to a more realist tone. “I think I just need to put some food in my belly. That should do the

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trick. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go to lunch.” Mr. Finback scowled and checked his watch. “Go on, then. Just call us and let us know if you have another episode.” He sat at a red table by the window in back. Everywhere he looked, men and women lumbered like zombies, holding their trays at arms’ length like convicts. Voices were raised. Crumbs from biscuits fell to the floor. A teenager in a camouflage coat slid his tray through the swinging cat door above the wastebasket, knocking over a half-full soda that spilled in a flood. Charlie tried to ignore the chaos and focus on his Egg McMuffin. He had taken two bites. The rest lay in front of him like a balled-up sock someone had tossed aside. He wondered why his perspective couldn’t be off now. His meal might look gigantic, juicy and appealing. Not that he was hungry. Not at ten o’clock in the morning. Before, Charlie felt disoriented and strange. It was as though someone picked him up and placed him inside a video game—one of the old Atari versions where everything was squared off, larger than life, and full of colorful aliens. At the moment though, all had returned to normal, and he understood how lousy normal was, how much he despised it. Normal was greasy breakfast sandwiches and affectless lawyers jabbering about their interrogatories and motions to dismiss. It was gray buildings and grayer streets, while he loped along the gray sidewalks afraid to look around or meet the gray eyes of any stranger. Then it was going home to an overpriced apartment he lived in with a wife who rarely knew he was there. Both had grown round, both prematurely gray in streaks. They didn’t argue, but they also didn’t discuss politics, the Academy Awards, the War in Iraq—when there was one—or the jokes on late-night TV that were funny even when they didn’t make a lot of sense. Charlie felt as though he and Wendy were just roommates, sharing space and not caring all that much when the other was around. Again, he wondered how it happened. They had been so passionate at first: sneaking into public restrooms together, making out in the hospital’s outdoor smoking area despite that neither of them smoked, talking on the phone all night so that both went to work most days with black bands around their eyes from lack of sleep. When did that change? Charlie wasn’t sure. The scene that stuck in his mind happened a couple years after they married. He sat with Wendy on the couch,

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the two of them kissing, neither rushed, both ready. She gave him a nod he knew meant Let’s go into the bedroom. She stood, and he followed, loosening his tie. Then, just before Wendy reached the bedroom door, she turned to him and said, “Take your socks off this time.” She hadn’t said that to him before. It was a small thing, but the fact Wendy felt comfortable and unhurried enough to make such a request meant their relationship was different. Looking back, Charlie saw it as the start of the decline. He pulled the egg square off his muffin and nibbled at a corner. It was cold and unappealing, a Eucharist he took in as though a miracle might happen. None ever did. Charlie turned his head, staring out the window at cars in a slowspeed race along the avenue nearby. Conflicting crowds marched east and west, blocking his view. Sometimes the waves broke, and he saw a splash of blue like a bird’s egg hidden among the branches of a dead tree. That looks familiar, he thought. It was a blue, wool-lined, fulllength coat big enough to bury a couple of bodies in. “You,” said Charlie. He stood, leaving his tray and half-eaten muffin on the table, and headed for the door. He had seen the big man out back, so he had to walk around the building. His heart raced as if he were infatuated, or as if he were about to be shot. Coldness filled his gut. A nerve twitched and fluttered in his left shoulder. Charlie gasped for air as if drowning rather than just out of shape. Maneuvering through the pedestrians as if they were cars, he took care not to hit or be hit by them. The Great Mondo sat on a steel bench, facing the avenue. A McDonalds bag lay beside him, its top rolled down as far as it would go. Mondo didn’t wear his toboggan now, and mist rose from his bald head like breath in the winter air. It looked like a magician’s trick, and Charlie thought for a moment that Mondo might disappear. Moving closer, he heard the big man humming. Charlie sat down on the edge of the bench. He didn’t say anything at first, but stared ahead at slow-moving cars. His ears tingled from the cold, as did the tip of his nose. It went on like that for a minute or two—Charlie staring, Mondo humming—before the lawyer grew anxious and spoke. “You’re not a magician at all, are you?” Mondo’s hums turned into seal-like laughter. “I mean, there was a trick all right, but it wasn’t magic.”

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“How’s that?” “Not an illusion.” “You think so?” “No sleight of hand, hocus pocus, abracadabra.” Mondo brought back his cough of a laugh. “I know you,” he said. “Twenty bucks, right?” “That’s me,” said Charlie. “Named after the coach, but don’t call me Chuck.” “You got it,” said Charlie. “But I saw you and came to tell you I figured it out.” “So you say. What’s to figure out?” “You hypnotized me,” Charlie told him, not criticizing but stating as if a well-known fact. “I thought it was a neat magic trick, but then you fixed it and the effects didn’t wear off. My head was screwed up for an hour.” Mondo glanced at Charlie and then turned away. When he spoke, the deep bellow of his voice vanished. He sounded like any average guy Charlie might run into on the street. “I’m sorry, man. Didn’t mean to leave you hazy. Just trying to make a few bucks, you know?” The lawyer shook his head, his breath streaking the air. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I wanted to be sure. Mondo’s not your real name, is it?” “Raymond,” said Mondo. He held out his massive right hand. Charlie shook it as best he could, his cold, pale fingers almost disappearing. “Nice to meet you, Raymond.” “Likewise, man.” “So, you hypnotized me.” “Sure,” said the Great Mondo. “That takes some skill. You’re pretty good.” “Good enough, I guess.” “What I want to know is, can you do it again?” “You want me to…?” “And do it, uh, on a little bigger scale. There’s fifty bucks in it for you.” “I’m listening.” “The thing is…. Well…” “What?” said Mondo. “I want you to make me love my wife again.”

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Mondo was silent at first, but soon he slipped into his best Mondo voice, using it not for speech but for that heavy laughter. He roared wordlessly like a busted loudspeaker. White breaths hopped through the air like cartoon rabbits. He tried to get a few words out, but what needed said? The man wanted what he wanted, even if he didn’t know he wanted it until now.

ACE BOGGESS is author of the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and two books of poetry, most recently, The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014). Forthcoming is a third poetry collection: Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, and New Plains Review. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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Appletree Acres

[ FICTION]

M

y mother blamed the selling of the Beckett farm for Missy’s murder, and while I

couldn’t quite connect all the dots when I repeated

this argument to the kids at school, I knew it was true. When the school bus rounded the corner of Beckett Hill and there was the earth scraped bare from here to the highway, all I could think was what my mother called it: an abomination. Some days you could smell the strange new mud from the little wood behind our barn, which was my favorite place in the world the year I turned twelve. Abominable, I would whisper, lying on my back among the mayapples, and if I was feeling partic-

Emily Wortman-Wunder

ularly self-pitying about it, a few tears would roll down the sides of my eyes. Abominable. S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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This was before anything happened to Missy, so the abominations were all against me, or my family. There must have been a few other people in the valley who were appalled when the Beckett family decided to get out of the farm business, but they kept their objections to themselves. My parents, self-proclaimed loudmouth professors from the city, claimed to be the only dissenting voices at the community meetings about Appletree Acres. No one listened to them anyway. “They’ll be so sorry,” my mother said, shaking her head, when they came home. Appletree Acres was going to be a planned community on the newest model, housing 3,000 families, a clinic, three schools and six shopping districts, all in a planned array with bike paths, a nature preserve, and a golf course. “These people, they think it’s all about shopping and property prices. What they don’t understand is how it’s going to ruin everything. Traffic, crime, urban transition pathologies…” She sat down on the edge of a chair, still in her coat, and shook her head. Dad briskly shook the snow from his coat. “Not to mention the environmental mess,” he said. “They’re dreaming if they think that nature preserve is going to mean anything when it’s surrounded by houses.” “The herons…” wailed my mother softly. Dad nodded, mouth grim. Six months later I could hardly find a spot on our land that wasn’t infiltrated by the grind of engines or drifting exhaust. The wood thrush and song sparrows still sang their lazy, late summer songs, but they seemed jumpier than usual and kept whipping around. Then in October my parents found a man bathing himself in our pond and I wasn’t allowed to wander the woods alone anymore. It was getting cold by that point, so I didn’t mind, plus seventh grade had so much homework that I was rarely free before dark. Then there was my new fascination with Missy-from-the-bus-stop. I had known Missy for forever. As long as I could remember she and her brothers lived across the road in the shoddy chaotic duplexes carved out of the Beckett farm a generation earlier. My parents were rather patrician about them—“…such vigor,” my mother would murmur when we drove by and one of Missy’s older brothers was careening off an improvised ramp into the road. “Such scrappiness.” And then the boy would yodel something profane at us, half grinning with a red Kool-Aid stain above his lip, and we would both shudder. At the bus stop the boys were more of a trial and for a time I insisted on being driven to school. I’d always lumped Missy in with the boys. She was two years older

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than me and always gravitated up, so that she was the one laughing hyuk hyuk hyuk at their stupid needling comments or trying to follow along on her too-small bright pink bike. Her family tended to distinguish itself for its brawling skills rather than its academic ones, but she in particular, perhaps because of her relative closeness in age to me, I always found easy to dismiss as a class A dummy. But that fall I’d started to notice her. She was still all pointed chin and awkward, sidling laugh, but she didn’t have brothers on the bus anymore and had to stand alone. One of the things that changed was that she started to talk to me. Sometimes she even sat beside me on the bus—I had my biology textbook open for some last-minute studying, but she’d lean over it as if it wasn’t there. “That’s where Darren Higgs drove his sister and him into that lake and drowned,” she’d say, casually, as we passed our pond at the corner of Stillwell-Beckett Road. Or: “That used to be a house, but it burned down, mom and baby inside,” as we passed a telltale lone chimney. Sometimes she would talk about herself. “Got a hickey last night,” she’d say proudly, pulling down the collar of her shirt to show me the welts. Or: “Danny’s friend says he’s gonna let me drive his car.” Her conversation was always like this, bragging and smug, infuriating, unbelievable and impossible not to listen to. “My da says if you do it under a full moon your baby’ll be a werewolf,” was a typical pronouncement. I was still a little vague on the nuances of “doing it,” but the biologist in me rebelled at the werewolf part, which she pronounced werewuff. “That’s totally ridiculous,” I’d say, and she would insist that no, it was true. She herself knew someone who’d had a werewuff baby. We’d argue about it all the way into town. But the thing which cemented her in my fascination was when she started to talk about my house. First it was our land: “You still have that rope swing out by the old crick?” she asked. “The one in the half dead tree?” She had a way of watching me, sly and assessing. When she saw how much it bothered me—the swing was in the middle of my favorite wood—she smiled and added, “I made that.” “What?” “I did. You know how the rope has like a little blue thread in it? I found that. It was in my uncle’s barn. My brothers strung it up.” The next day she was complaining about her morning shower, which had run cold, and which was so loud that it woke everyone up and pretty

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soon they were all tramping into the bathroom and peeing all over the seat. “They come in while you’re in there?” My family members were strictly guarded in their privacy and this shocked me. But Missy half shrugged, half winced, and looked out over the fields. “Small house,” was all she said. Then: “Not like that bathroom of yours. I useta love that room, all white, with its big window and the tub with the bird feet. I used to think that was the best bathroom in the world.” This demanded an explanation, but Missy ignored my question. “My favorite place though was the closet under the stairs, the one that starts with a door for shorties, and then you crawl in under the bottom shelf, and there’s that little private room back there that nobody can get to and nobody can find you, ever.” I looked into this as soon as I got home. Sure enough, in the closet upstairs, behind the shelves, there was a space. If I moved all of the towels I could just wriggle in and curl up there, awkward but contained. My head had to rest on the back of the stair so the nails poked into my scalp, but this discomfort was nothing to the thought that Missy knew the inside of my house better than I did. I wondered if her brothers knew, too. I decided not, but this conviction wavered in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep and stared at the plaster fleur-de-lis along the ceiling. These had always felt maternal and protective, but now seemed like hired men, their loyalty lasting only as long as we paid up. I pulled the covers up over my head and whispered that I hated Missy Mettinger, like, so much. On Monday she showed up at the bus stop with a keen-eyed grin and another thing to brag about: “Look, Paul Raeburn totally gave me a friendship bracelet! You know what that means!” She shimmied and half lost her balance. “When did you come inside my house?”I asked in response. She rocked back on her heels with a little smile, kind of like why’d it take you so long. “I used to live there,” she said. “Back when Gramma was getting ready to croak. And we always used to visit before. Since she was born in that house and all. Dad always thought he was gonna get it. Boy was he pissed when he didn’t. Drank for two weeks straight, crying the whole time. Still does, when he’s had a few.” She giggled merrily at the thought, or at my face, which had suddenly stopped working. “What, you thought you were the first to live in that house? Since

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when was you a hundred years old? My great great grampa built that place.” Of course I knew, in theory, that I had not lived in the house my whole life. We drove past our old bungalow every time we went into the city to the symphony or the museum. But the thought of Missy Mettinger—and worse, her passel of Kool-Aide-stained brothers—living in my house upended how I had always thought of the world. Missy Mettinger came from a farm family? For in my head I had developed a certain hierarchy. At the top were the pioneers who’d been here from the beginning. Their names were in the rural roadside cemeteries and on plaques in front of cabins. Just below them were the longtime farm families who had their names on roads and towns, like the Becketts. These were the ones who knew this place, who felt it in their bones: where the morels sprouted after rain and the nut-dropping shagbark hickories grew, where the bobcats denned and which houses had been stops on the Underground Railroad. Then there were the people like me and my parents, people who were not privileged to have been born here, but who brought a certain sensibility, a well-developed appreciation for the value of the place. Then there was the rabble, the people neither attached nor appreciative, who’d moved in because it was cheap or because they had run out of gas. Trash, I thought, snobbishly. Hillbillies. Like Missy and her brothers. I could tell that Missy was pleased as anything at my discomfort, but she had the cunning not to say a word. When we got on the bus she changed the subject. “Sure got a lot of guys out on Appletree these days,” she said as we passed the construction site. “Some of ’em are pretty fine, too. Lookit that one.” I had no desire to “lookit” any of the workers or anything else on the stripped hillside. “I wonder where they all come from, anyway?” she asked, musingly. “Urban transition pathologies,” I muttered darkly. She lunged over my lap and yanked down the bus window. “Oo-ee, sailor, you so fine!” she hollered out, pressing her bosoms against the glass and waving a white hand out in the frigid air. The men, what I could see of them from where I cringed in my seat, waved back with bemused expressions. The bus driver told her to sit down. “There will be no whores on this bus, young lady!” “Who you calling whore,” Missy said in response, but under her

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breath. “You the whore. Old hag.” The new population did, in fact, add a level of inconvenience to everyday routine. The man washing up in our pond was just the beginning. Now we had to wait at the town stoplight when a shift was getting off, and there were long rowdy lines at the gas station. Strange trucks would shortcut through our private tractor lanes and once, walking through my wood in sight of the house, I found a few cigarette butts and a soda can, which so horrified me I could barely pick them up. Finally my parents posted bright No Trespassing signs every one hundred feet. “I hate this,” my mother said, tearily. “I feel like the Man.” “It’s just for a few months,” my dad assured her. He did not sound sure. Missy, on the other hand, seemed to have waked up. “I saw that cute one at the feed store,” she would say, nodding as we went by. “He knew who I was, too, I could totally tell. He was checking me out, like looking me up and down, like this.” She mimed it. The workers were straggling into the worksite from their trucks. They watched the bus go past and I shrank down, staring at my hands. This used to be one of my favorite views, the fields tilting to the creek, embraced by forest, with the rocky limestone bluff rising beyond. Now it was ruined. Missy was still talking, in that voice where she bragged by pretending to complain. “—so my da was all like, Sure! You can sleep here! and I was like, seriously? I have to make dinner for two more guys now?” “Your Dad is letting the workmen into your house?” She smirked. “He hooked up with some guys that was driving in from Dayton. ‘It’s so faaar,’ he said. Really he just wants some more cowboys to ride dirt bikes with. He sure likes having buddies around.” She got that vague aching look she sometimes got. “I tole Paul he better be jealous.” “So did your dad really used to farm?” I said, not wanting more stories about Paul. She brightened. “Oh, sure! Born and bred. Used to drive his tractor to school.” She mimed driving a tractor, flinging out her elbows and making loud farting sounds with her lips. “But you guys don’t even garden or anything.” She snorted. “Gardens! That’s the last thing a farm is. Garden. That’s a good one. Nope, we lost it to a buncha richie riches. Cut it in half and sold it. The other half went to the Becketts, which look where it got them.”

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It took me a while to realize that we were the richie riches. It didn’t make sense—we weren’t rich. We weren’t even well off. I was about to explain this to Missy when we pulled into the school parking lot and she bolted out of her seat. “Later, alligator,” she said as she went. Just before Christmas break Mom was driving me home from choir practice. Construction had ramped up since Thanksgiving and now there were huge lights out on the site and more trucks than ever on the roads. At the latest community meeting some residents had begun to agree publicly with my parents. An elderly local woman was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk man in a pickup, and it had come out that the man was employed by Appletree. “They should at least have widened the roads,” Mom exclaimed as we pulled practically into the ditch to avoid a dump trunk. “I mean, how hard would it have been to predict this?” “Mom, are we rich?” I asked. She laughed out loud. “What do you think?” she asked. “Missy said we’re richie rich.” Mom quieted right down. “It’s all a matter of perspective,” she said. Then, after a brooding pause: “Do you associate much with Missy?” Her eyes searched out mine in the rear view mirror. “Not really,” I said. I didn’t add that as soon as we got off the bus Missy pretended not to know me. “That Missy…she’s a ball of fire,” Mom added, almost to herself. I wondered if she knew that Missy used to live in our house, and if this was news I even wanted her to know. I suspected, too, that we were richie rich on some level. After Christmas the break stretched long and lazy and I hardly thought of Missy or school or even the construction. A blizzard shut work down for a week and deep in the warm house with the darkness glittering outside things seemed as they had always been. I watched the fields gleam beneath the half moon and imagined we were pioneers, alone in the valley with the snow. It would have been cold but beautiful, I thought. And pure. The first day back to school the bus stop was empty. Just me, no Missy. I surprised myself by being disappointed; I wanted to ask her what the workmen in her house did at Christmas and be appalled at her answer. Instead I had to get out my biology book and study. The next day she was still absent. There was a hush and a tension to

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the whole school and I saw short plump Mrs. Blevins rushing down the hallway in tears. During lunch I heard Sheri Price cry Stabbed? two tables over. I looked around to see if Missy was in yet; sometimes she came in late. She’s gonna be bummed, I remember thinking; something big is going down and she was missing it. Also, I was missing it, thanks to her being my only reliable source of information. I felt a pang of irritation. Why, of all days, did she have to miss this one? When I got off the bus, Mom was waiting with the car. This was highly unusual, even with the temperatures as low as they’d been. She looked distracted, but smiled when she saw me like I was five years old again. I declined to ask her what was going on; she never knew what was happening in town, and even when she did know, she didn’t believe in spreading gossip. Instead of heading straight home, Mom asked if I wanted to go for ice cream. “It’s sixteen degrees out,” I said suspiciously. “Don’t you teach on Thursdays?” “Class doesn’t start until next week,” she said. “And hey, I thought it might be nice if I hired someone to be here when you got home?” I didn’t say anything. I’d had an after school babysitter when I was younger and I didn’t want another bland, weird smelling woman staring at me while I did homework. Even though I hadn’t said I wanted ice cream she headed toward town. I looked longingly the other way, toward the house, and had a shock. “Why is there a police car in front of the Mettinger house?” I asked. My mom mumbled something. “I think one of them hit a dog,” she said vaguely. I decided I’d look Missy up in the phone book when we got home. It was a eureka moment for me: I finally had a plan to get around all of this adult obfuscation. Even at Bob’s Shakes, Dogs and Cones people were acting weird. Two waitresses hovered in a corner, whispering, and when one came over she exchanged a meaningful look with mom and said, “Isn’t it a shame?” Mom practically fell out of her chair giving her the ixnay on the ixurderay sign, which was totally stupid, since I was the only one around who knew any Latin, pig or otherwise. The waitress added, “They say it was one of guys at Appletree. They’ve got everyone out and they’re going

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through pickups one at a time. The manager is pissed.” Mom shook her head. “They ought to be placing the blame at the top,” she said. “Whose grand idea was it to bring 200 single men out to the middle of nowhere and give them all these half shifts and open-ended breaks? This kind of thing was going to happen eventually.” “I never liked how some of them stared at me,” the waitress agreed. “Gave me the creeps. But I never thought they’d do this.” I waited until she was back in the kitchen before asking Mom who got murdered. She was silent for a minute. “They don’t know for sure it was a murder.” “Mom!” She squinched up her face in some sort of grimace conveying delicacy and regret, and put her hand over mine. “Honey. It was Missy. From across the street. They found her body this morning.” The room got very small and the table very big and when my hot fudge sundae came out a few minutes later I couldn’t eat it. I poked around the side, moving the cooling fudge along the melty ice cream. Mom watched me silently, her face frozen into an expression that was perhaps supposed to display pity, or else sympathy. I couldn’t look at her. “I didn’t know that,” I said. She nodded quickly with a huge up-anddown movement. “I wish I had known that,” I said. And I could see her hair moving as she nodded again. It seemed as impossible to eat the ice cream as it would be to eat the booth. I felt, rather than heard, the waitress come inquire, and Mom stage whisper that I had Just Found Out. The waitress started to sniff a lot and the ice cream was taken away. We went home. The police car was gone and Missy’s duplex looked both abandoned and blown open, even though nothing about it had changed, except that all the snow in her front yard was trampled down. “I bet they didn’t even hit a dog,” I said to Mom accusingly, and she nodded. “Why do you always lie to me?” I asked, and didn’t wait to hear an answer. I went upstairs to the closet under the stairs and crawled all the way back behind the towels, where I sat with my knees drawn up while Mom stood in the hallway and called that she was sorry, that she apologized, that these things made her uncomfortable. I looked at the back of the towel shelf. Whoever had painted the shelves hadn’t always gotten the paintbrush all the way over the back edge and there was a wavering line of bare wood. Someone had traced the edge of the paint with

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a pencil and there was a line of heart stickers stuck along the back of the second shelf. Missy, I thought immediately. The air in the closet suddenly became very thick and I had to get out. Over the next few weeks I pieced together what had happened. Missy had been found on a dirt road near the highway. She was naked and barefoot and had died of “exposure.” This only made me more confused: how were people calling that murder? The grownups were impossible. Mom sighed and looked disappointed anytime I’d ask. Dad would get down to my level as if he were going to tell me the truth, but would only give me vague curling replies. I couldn’t bring myself to ask a teacher. When I was getting my hair cut the lady started talking to another stylist about it—“those tire tracks followed her footprints for four miles. You could see where he’d pin her against up the fence and then let her go. Barbed wire prints in her back”—but when I straightened and said, “Are you talking about Missy Mettinger?” she shut right up and I saw their eyes meet in the mirror. The look on her face was something more than an adult protecting a child, something more than disapproval at my inappropriate curiosity. It was a closing off. Like they were protecting Missy from me. There in the chair I felt myself turning hot. Buncha Richie riches. That was how everyone thought of us. The entire town. If this had been a movie or one of the after school TV shows I had taken to watching before my parents got home, I would have leapt up out of the chair, my hair still wet and half cut, and run out onto the street. The screen would have faded to the glare of sunlight bouncing off cars. Instead I looked down at my lap, where little bits of hair clumped and scattered over the smock, and I felt like I was made of wood. I cringed when my mother came in to pick me up, greeting the ladies by name as if she knew them. You will never know them, I thought. They will never let you. The death of Missy came down in my life like an axe. I had been coasting along in the oblivion of childhood when I looked up and understood that the place I had known my whole life, the only community I really knew, did not now and would not ever consider me one of them. I felt bereft. I was as much as outsider as Appletree, and much less welcome. That night I sat in my room with the lights out, watching the snow stretch away over the fields. It was still deep cold but it hadn’t snowed

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in over a week and the snow was starting to thin. Missy’s out there, I thought. Missy’s ghost. I put on my coat. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I needed to get out. I need to put her to rest, I told myself. I barely knew what this meant; really I was just unbearably restless. This is how she used to feel, I thought, feeling very profound and grownup. I rounded up a few supplies: a note Missy had given me, a barrette that she’d dropped the last day of school, my Swiss army knife, a lighter. I ducked into the closet and pulled one of the stickers off the back of the shelves. I had the idea I would go down into the grove and light a little bonfire. I would burn an offering to help speed her on her way. My parents were engrossed in Masterpiece Theater; it was easy to slip out the kitchen door into the night. I went down to the wood I loved so much. The night was still, not much above zero, and the maples and beech felt thick in the dim light. For the first time the wood seemed small and confining. I wanted to be up at the top of our property, where I could see all the way to town and beyond, where the wind brought with it a taste of the river. I passed the tree with the rope swing that Missy said her brothers had hung. I sawed off a few threads and put them in my pocket with the note and the sticker and the barrette. I went up the track between our fields, stepping in the tire tracks dad had made last week when he drove up to check on the neighbor’s cows. Before Missy, I thought. Tire tracks followed her bare feet…I looked over my shoulder. Dark fields and our house, still and quiet. He chased her and pinned her up against the fence. I pictured the headlights bearing down, the engine roaring, and Missy hyuk hyuk hyuk-ing as if this was just another of her brothers’ pranks. The wind blew right through my coat. As I approached the top of the hill from which I could see the Appletree site with its floodlights, I remembered that the man with the car was still out there. Just then an unmufflered truck turned onto the road that went past the house, and I gasped and dropped to my knees, crouching until its roar faded into the night. The car had pushed her against a fence; the barbed wire left a mark on her back. It was the same back that had lunged across my open textbook to open the window, her glittery shirt hiked up and showing the blond hair growing over the dip at the base of her spine. The same spine

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marked with barbed wire pin pricks. The same spine that they buried last week. I stepped off the road in my boots and warm socks and leaned against the barbed wire so that it caught my weight. It poked into my skin through the thick fabric of my coat and I had a moment of wild panic. This is what she felt, I thought, this is what it was like. The fields, which had always felt friendly and familiar, now seemed menacing. Or worse, indifferent. It doesn’t care, I realized. The land doesn’t care about any of us. I pivoted slowly, turning my back on the blazing light of Appletree Acres. There was the Miller farmhouse, a remnant of the Miller farm, which broke apart after the last remaining Miller went into a nursing home. There was the burning yard light of the family whose teenage daughter had been killed by a falling tree back when I was in kindergarten. There was the stream rumored to be radioactive due to runoff from the nuclear plant twenty miles upstream and the flat gleaming stretches of cornfields, glinting oddly in the moonlight, a strange pale brown in daylight. My dad called them nitrogen deathscapes and said his way of intensive, small-scale farming was better. I had a weary inkling that the truth was more complicated. I suddenly felt exhausted. I took Missy’s things out of my pocket and made a little pile on the icy tire track. I flicked the lighter and held it to the note, which caught the flame slowly and only burned part way. It melted part of the sticker and the barrette but nothing was burned completely. I kicked snow over the mess, feeling young and useless, and then began the long walk back, stumbling as I went. I came across the remains of that mess last year. I had walked to the top of the hill to stretch my legs after another difficult talk with Mom and was getting ready to head back to my place across the valley. Striding along the old farm road, weedy and rutted in the years since Dad’s stroke, my eye caught a dull flash in the dirt. When I knelt down I saw that it was a cheap barrette, half buried in the road. It surprised me: it was so childish, so small. I had forgotten how young Missy was when she died— barely fourteen. Younger than my kids are now. I pried it up and brushed it clean with my thumb. The barrette was made of pink metal with a cartoonish rose at one end. I thought about how it turned out that Appletree Acres didn’t kill her, after all; it was a friend of her father’s, a man from a family as

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deep-rooted and bitter as her own. When asked why he’d been so cruel, the newspapers reported, he just shrugged. Even by then I’d stopped thinking of old farm families as being something special. Land was land, and we’d all contributed to its wreck and degradation. I put the barrette in my pocket and kept going, down along the road until the gate, which I unlatched with the authority of a local: it was intended to block the swarms of kids and pot-shotters from the warrens of new white houses, not me. I blazed right past the Keep Out sign on the other side of the gate; Libby Trenton waved from behind her flapping laundry. We’re an old family now, in the valley; Appletree Acres began it but the changes since have ensured our place. The Mettingers sold their strip two decades ago and our road is bright with car dealerships and big box stores. I’ve been talking with Mom about selling, and just in the past few months she’s begun to not say no. I tried to talk to the Heritage Farms Foundation, but they say our farm is too small, too surrounded, to fit their conservation strategy. There’s a buyer down from Columbus who’s interested, and with that money we could afford to put Dad in the nice home. I have spent many nights awake, weighing the pain. I don’t harbor any animosity to the Mettingers, or the Beckett family, or Appletree Acres. Progress, say the locals, but I disagree there, too. My dad would have said density, concentration, open space corridors: that’s the way to accommodate growth. Maybe. Or maybe accommodation is a foolish dream. This is how to become part of a place: survive and remember. When I stop in the new Kroger to pick up toasted sesame oil and a decent Malbec, I know what I am walking over. I feel the changes in my bones. I remember how two men installing sewer line were killed here when the ditch they were digging collapsed. I think how, years before that, an awkward teenage girl with a few hours left to live stumbled through this field on bloody feet. I remember her laugh. And I reflect how we are all complicit, a little, in her death.

EMILY WORTMAN-WUNDER writes from south suburban Denver, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Vela, Nimrod, Nautilus, and elsewhere.

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[ POETRY]

JOANNIE STANGELAND JOANNIE STANGELAND’s most recent collection is “The Scene You See,” from Ravenna Press. She is also the author of In Both Hands and Into the Rumored Spring, as well as three chapbooks. Joannie’s poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, The Southern Review, and other journals.

They Call to Remind Me Because the daughter and the husband come home for food, the kitchen requires portraits of steam in its night windows, bowls and plates and butter knives. Because I don’t want to conjure another dinner, my hands falter like two weary doves ready to roost, like two eggs in the nest. I am missing my wings. I am missing the recipe for this year. Maybe a little cumin, a basil chiffonade, the fennel and onion sliced as thin as tissue paper, as sheer as a dream. Because January slides in like a jaded starlet, all ennui, I must turn on the gas. In this house of clock, the oven ticks, the refrigerator hums its own time. Aromas blend and color the rooms, palette for the palate, the lonely mouth. When they open the door, leave the dark, the daughter and the husband will sigh.

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Hours Until

From the Middle Drifting

Because we will leave for snow the daughter rises through the dark, the house closing behind her and quietly she brings her shopping back. I barely hear the door mumble.

A small boat painted plain yellow, blue, green atilt on its stand, launching

Because she softens a stick of butter in the oven it is the day before my birthday. Almond flour, almond paste, the dusted pan waits. Because she needs rosemary I tell her the map of the yard. Because frost ices the roofs outside, it is one kind of winter and the cake is another. When the sun is full up she is missing one kind of sugar, walks back to the store. Because she separates egg after egg she is making ice cream. I ask too many questions and must drink my first cup of coffee in the next room, rummage the drawer for gloves that match. Because the cake needs to cool, it must be hidden from the cat as dinner is hours until, dark is hours until after the pass, the snow heaped all around, our mouths filling with what we wait for.

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into the front lawn, bobbing waves the wind pushed through tossing firs. Past the dusty window, this morning stretches like the Sound, worried with cat’s paws before the water wanders, runs its memory of stream, slough, storm-pummel, the splash, the salt. No charts for shoal or giant squid, no X on the map, far to go is less than yesterday, my body the boat, dear old vessel— I am the one oar, and the one missing.

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[ ESSAY]

T

he trailhead a quarter-mile away from my rented house north of Worcester, Massa-

chusetts, offered me many walking options, all of them beautiful and remote despite their prox-

To the

Logging Road Shrine Steven Wingate

imity to a metropolitan area of a quarter million. Yet I gravitated toward a single path because of where it took me: a spot fifty minutes up a former logging road where two elm trees had fallen side by side and blocked my way forward. Their sharp, dried-out branches did not invite me to work my way over them, and both sides of the path grew thick with something waist-high and thorny.Your walk, those trees told me, is now over. If I timed my departure reasonably well, starting at five in the afternoon in September and S P R I N G 2 0 1 8 / B E L M O N T S T O RY R E V I E W

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and progressively earlier as winter approached, I could catch the sun drenching this blockade in a diffuse, basking light, which combined with the moist, refracting air to make the scene look like a painting from the days before photography. Visible shafts of soft, thick light, the kind I’d always scoffed at in eighteenth-century religious paintings, melted over the dying wood. When I saw that light with my own eyes, I didn’t scoff. I told myself God is here and knelt down to whisper an Our Father and a Hail Mary, then retreated into an inner silence I couldn’t find in any of the civilized places I moved through. After my fourth visit to those felled trees, I decided to do what I felt any reasonable human in my situation would do: Build a cross out of sticks and lash it to a tree with an old shoelace so I’d have something to look at the next time I walked down the logging road to pray. People have been building shrines for as long as anything we could recognize as people have existed. We often build them where natural beauty strikes us, because there we allow ourselves the luxury of feeling unity with creation—which, if we choose, we can feel at all times and in all places. Our shrines arise at the tops of hills, where hot water springs from the earth, at forking paths used by animals long before we could give our own species a name. We find them near piles of rock we have stacked, in cave grottoes we have carefully polished, in ancient trees we have anointed as sacred because they proved themselves rooted in enduring creation, as we ourselves wish to be rooted in enduring creation. We bury our dead in such spots, perform our most sacred rituals there. We imbue them with meaning, making them continuously more sacred when we pour out our faith before them. My own do-it-yourself shrine-building project felt like such a typically human endeavor that I approached it almost casually, as if it were something contemporary first-world people did all the time. “What’s that for?” my wife asked me as I pulled a broken shoelace from a mud boot before my afternoon walk. “Just making a little shrine, up on the logging road.” “Oh.” She didn’t question it, knowing how much better I was at husbanding and fathering when I fed my need for religious ritual. I went to the trailhead thinking that there was nothing out of the ordinary about my plan. Early Christians would have done things like this as a matter of course, as would Buddhists, Jews, and Druids. But as I walked up the

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trail, words and their uncertainties snuck in. This ritual was my own invention, and thus carried no real weight. It wouldn’t assuage my unease at being alive, my lack of rootedness in enduring creation. It wouldn’t make me any less lost from God or from myself. I kept my eyes to the ground, scanning for sticks that might become crosses and testing some in my palm. By the time I got halfway to my God-lit fallen trees, I’d chosen and discarded enough sticks for a dozen crosses. Finally I found two on the moist forest floor that I kept for the rest of the walk, clasping them perpendicular in my palm so they’d know I needed them to become more than the sum of their parts. Not merely two sticks, but a cross. A symbol that people had died and killed for. It was a lot to ask of those unsuspecting sticks. I reached the felled trees and walked too purposefully into the light, more practical in that moment than awed. In a hidden nook two feet from the path, I found a birch tree thin enough to let me lash my sticks to it. I wrapped the boot lace around the center of the cross with a simple X, then got to work tying it to the tree. My nonchalance slipped away, replaced by the fear that I could easily screw up a crucial ritual. I dropped the cross once and swore a little—certainly not the spirit I needed—but eventually tied it fast and looked around to check if anyone had seen me. Which I didn’t want. What if some atheist lurked nearby, ready to scoff at me and destroy my cross as soon as I left? Or a Satanist, ready to pervert my shrine for dark ends? Or some doubting doppelgänger who’d walk up behind me and ask Do you really believe in all that shit? But it was just me and the sticks and the birch tree. And the Holy Spirit, I hoped, smiling in approval of my love token. Then I stepped back to the trail and looked for the cross. It was completely invisible unless you knew what to look for. Perfect. I returned to the nook and knelt and tried to pray in Latin, but fumbled the words and switched to English. When I finished I stood up to inspect my makeshift cross, which didn’t look anything like I’d hoped. Not grave or beautiful enough, just lame and artless. The thing looked like it would fall off in the next wind. It was getting dark, so I blew a kiss to my open-air shrine and headed home. The ritual felt botched by my own frustration and hurry. The best I could expect from it was that some more deserving person—a half-believer, ideally, who kept thinking about Jesus but never had the guts to admit it—would smile when they saw it and say At least somebody

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still believes. That night I took off my little silver crucifix necklace and held it in my palm as I prayed, wishing that I’d picked out my sticks less casually and at least taken them home for a night to truly break them in. To give them more time and more prayer so they’d realize what I needed them to become. I have never considered myself a suicidal person, but it must have been on my mind that fall. In my fiction, I’d been writing two characters who flirted with it openly, though abstractly, and one more whose brother had actually done the deed. I couldn’t picture myself ending my own life, but I could picture the world without me. It would be terrible for my wife and children, but they’d survive. I’d lived without a father, after all—one who seemed to have died from a combination of pills and booze, though we’ll never know if it was intentional. I also dreamed of people who started killing themselves but couldn’t finish the job. One man, having tied cinderblocks around his own waist and jumped into an enormous fish tank, clawed his ropes free and swam upward. Another man drove his car into a lake—exactly like one of my characters had done—and then sprang back out of it, rising to the surface with a long, affirming shout of “I want to liiiiiiiive!” All that suicidal ideation going on beneath the surface of my mind bothered me, so I regularly trekked up to the logging road shrine looking for a little grace. Sometimes I jogged and sometimes I ambled. By Halloween my cross still hadn’t fallen from its tree despite some hellacious winds that had knocked several more trees onto the path. A big wind was coming into my life too: my upcoming career decisions would affect my whole family, which led me to the fears and doubts that inserted suicide into my dreams and fictions. Those Where do I turn? questions. Those Is it all worth it? and Does it matter if I’m alive? questions. As I knelt and prayed at my homemade shrine I sought the same release that the people in my stories and dreams looked for in suicide, but without its finality. I wanted release while still here on earth, still breathing and pumping blood. Release from this life of serving my petty, ridiculous, evanescent wants into a new life where I didn’t have to. Those wants were bankrupt and false. They had failed me and I had failed them. Even when I tried to harness my wants to God, all I could ever ask was What does God want me to be? But that’s the wrong question, because it pretends that I’m merely an actor who can give God nothing more than a performance. I wanted

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to give God myself, not a performance of myself. The question I should have been asking was Who does God want me to be? Because as a Who, I’m not an actor but a whole entity who must choose whether to give itself sincerely to God. Half measures and performances will not cut it. As I knelt before my homemade shrine I felt the immense distance between this What and this Who, and I stayed on my knees clinging to it, praying to be catapulted from merely performing for God to actually being for God. I knelt so long that I had to hustle home because I was in black bear country at dusk. In the dying light my step perked up, part from fear of bears and part from a surprising lightness inside me, and everything I saw became more alive. The shedding trees and browning ferns looked four-dimensional—I felt privileged, as I walked through this world, to see their lives unfolding in space and in time. An emotional decision got made in my cells that I’m still not privy to, and it had to do with my posture, the bounce in my step, my weight in the world. I could only walk it, not talk it, because it had nothing to do with the tangle of wants and words that I lived in. As I reached an earthen bridge over a stream, just five minutes from home, I wanted to run and tell my wife that something new had happened, something that changed me from the inside. But words failed me even in my imagination, until I crossed over the stream and sang— “’Cause there’s too much to do before I die!” It was a line from Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” and I sang and hummed that song the rest of the way home. My head, which had lately hung so heavily that it pulled down my chest and shoulders, lifted up. I stood taller, filling the space that was intended for me instead of collapsing away from its borders with a defeated slouch. Lift up your hearts, said a priest’s voice in my mind. “We lift them up to the Lord,” I said back, and I finally knew what that line in the Catholic Mass meant. We must literally lift our hearts up inside our chests—to physically reverse any downhearted feelings inside us—to properly receive God. We must fill the three-dimensional space we’re allotted with a flesh that is grateful for life. In that moment of realization and lightness, I caught a glimpse of how it might feel to lift my heart up all the time. To stop measuring myself against an imaginary performance of What God wants and sink myself instead into the day-to-day sincerity of Who God wants. Then the trail ended, and my moment of complete understanding faded. I had a life in the world, unruly children to shepherd toward bed.

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Shortly after that visit, I injured my achilles tendon at the gym, which made two hour walks impossible. I swore I’d get back to that shrine soon. Walking into the woods as slowly as I had to, moving my body’s matter through the matter of the world with more patience than I’d ever allowed myself, because my matter and the world’s matter were one. It never happened. I got another job in another state and now, seven years later, the shoelaces that lashed my makeshift cross to the birch tree north of Worcester have no doubt begun their slow transformation into soil. I live in a new place where I don’t have forest trails to explore—where the wildest space near me is actually built on an old garbage dump—and I desperately need a new equivalent to my logging road shrine. But where to put it? Where in this small midwestern town that I do not love can I put a shrine to something that I do love, so that I can grow my capacity for love? Every day, for want of this semi-wild place of prayer, I feel myself suffering. I am less and less able to fulfill the fundamental commitment I’m asked to make as one who follows Jesus: to do God’s work wherever I am placed, without complaint. If I don’t come to some terms with where I am, I’ll sacrifice my chance to serve God and thrust myself ever deeper into the labyrinth of my own pointless wants. Home, or what passes for home, is now Brookings, South Dakota, a Small Town USA of about twenty thousand people surrounded by what used to be prairie but is now fields of genetically modified corn and soy. In these seven years, I’ve never bonded with the place, and every day I fantasize about escaping it. There’s nothing wrong with Brookings as a place to live—it’s pretty and clean; its schools are good, and the university where I teach offers a varied intellectual life. We’ve found good friends here; there’s been little violence so far, and people don’t get in our faces much. Yet my feelings about it range from boredom to an inexplicable hatred. Outside of the university community, Brookings is more conformist and more concerned with appearances than any place I’ve ever lived. I am no flaming liberal—and in truly liberal locales am in fact mistaken for a conservative—but outside my academic bubble I might as well be a card-carrying socialist. The range of acceptable behavior in this region is so constrained, especially for men, that it feels like a straitjacket. Trucks, guns, and the glorification of the nine-to-five job

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over sissy academic pursuits. Though decals showing a cowboy-hatted urchin pissing on the words CITY BOYS are not abundant, they’re definitely here. The city of Brookings and the state of South Dakota are both perfectly happy without me, and I’ve done nothing whatsoever to make them claim me as an adopted son. I simply don’t fit here, and there’s nothing about this place or in this place that I love. It’s flat, has no woods, isn’t near water. Therefore, it’s not my home and never can be. What’s worse is that I can’t think of a single tree here that I want to lash an impromptu crucifix to, and it’s a spiritual disaster. The deadness I feel for this place that I ought to call home is spreading deadness throughout the rest of me. I care less about institutions and people because I’m in a temporary place where I don’t want to put down roots, and this leaves me at risk of becoming a man without a place at all. A spiritually homeless drifter. A rootless cosmopolitan— yes, I know how Josef Stalin used that phrase—in almost-rural middle America, looking for a place to make a shrine. The answer to my conundrum is simple: I need to find a tree I can love in Brookings, because God doesn’t want me miserable any more than he wants you miserable. If I want to avoid misery I’ve got to start taking chances in this place, and that means loving things unreasonably. Two sticks, a tree, some shoelaces. If I can’t love that, what can I love? I expected to discover my new shrine on a lone walk in springtime, not in December as I walked the family dog. I’d been thinking about Jesus the way I usually do—wondering why I don’t seek him out more, knowing that it’s because I don’t feel worthy, asking forgiveness for the unworthiness I never seem to shake. I needed to get out from under the suffocating blanket of human needs and into God’s world. It was a warm day, thirty-five and sunny with no snow on the ground yet, so I leashed up the dog and drove to the set of ponds and trails built over an old dump that we know and love as Dakota Nature Park. I intended to go on a superficial reconnaissance mission, vaguely scoping out places I would explore later. But at the bend of one trail, near where the park abuts private land, I saw two promising clumps of trees where I might build a shrine in privacy and kneel

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at it without anyone looking over my shoulder. Without any colleagues or doppelgängers seeing me from a distance and saying How ridiculous. I broke from the trail and ran with the dog and found a barbed wire fence behind a patch of pines, beyond which sat a private pond. There were a few deciduous trees of just the right thickness for me to lash a cross on them with a shoelace. It would do in a pinch. Forty yards away stood another clump of pines with suitably small trees behind it, as well as some shelter beneath the boughs of the largest pine. I could see myself kneeling there, looking up at a cross on a tree, and I want to say that I felt exhilarated at the prospect of a home. Instead I felt No more excuses. I want to say that I felt South Dakota calling to me at last, felt myself ready to grow without complaint where God had planted me. Instead I felt It’s now or never and vowed to come out with shoelaces the next time a break in the weather came. The next time a break in my crusted-over heart came. On the first Friday of Lent, in the aftermath of yet another school shooting that left me terrified of stepping into my classroom and wanting to leave America for any country with sane gun laws, I bought leather shoelaces at a sporting goods store and went back to Dakota Nature Park alone. National sadness and national helplessness had broken my heart enough to allow an act of unreasonable love. Twenty-five degrees, lots of sun, negligible wind—a beautiful day by my new standards. I walked toward the first clump of pines near the fence, but I didn’t want to hang my cross where I had to see barbed wire behind it. I broke some branches off a dead, fallen tree and fashioned a cross, clutching it in my palm while I walked to the second clump. The snow near those trees had too many footprints, so my shrine wouldn’t have much privacy. I followed a path that went past it toward the west, expecting to see a fence but instead finding more trail and fewer footprints. Next came a car door, a bicycle frame, a tractor wheel. The trail snaked past a pond and that Joe Cocker line came back to me—’Cause there’s too much to do before I die—and I didn’t know why. I hadn’t been writing about suicides, hadn’t dreamed of near-death and rebirth. But the line wouldn’t leave me alone as the path led me into a clearing and then to the edge of the park. There was one more clump of trees between me and tamed agricultural land, and I went for it. A thick oak stood there, surrounded by

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what might have been its own skinny offspring. At its base was a perfectly flat spot for me to sit and pray, though kneeling proved more difficult in clunky snow boots. I found dead branches on the ground and snapped them down to size and lashed them together, the wind biting my bare fingers, until I had a cross about a foot long and eight inches wide. I thought about Roman soldiers as I tightened the leather around the wood, wondering if one of them had tightened leather around Jesus’ hands or ankles, and when the Joe Cocker song came back to me again it made sense. I wasn’t singing it for the before I die part, but for the too much to do part. I had too much praying to do—too much work stripping off my endless botched attempts to find out What God wants so I could simply be Who God wants—and I had to start on it immediately with every cell of my body. So much to do before I die that I can’t possibly do it all. So much humbling myself, so much falling and getting back up and stumbling and falling again. I made a square knot in the leather, tucked in the stray ends of shoelace, and held up my cross. It felt good in my hand, even after I put my gloves back on to warm my stiff fingers. I knelt down to find out which of the saplings my eyes gravitated toward when I glanced up, then stood and lashed the cross to it. There. Done. I had a shrine, and with luck it would hold up in the wind. I knelt again and said an Our Father and a Hail Mary and a Glory Be and walked back to my car, too cold to linger and promising myself to return soon. Sunday? Monday? Whenever the busy world lets me. Whenever I demanded that the busy world lets me. I have a shrine in South Dakota. A shrine in the place God put me, so I can grow at last in this soil.

STEVEN WINGATE is a multi-genre author whose work ranges from poetry to gaming. His books include the short story collection Wifeshopping (2008) and the novel Of Fathers and Fire, forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. His digital works include the memoir daddylabyrinth and the interactive novel game Love at Elevation, forthcoming from Choice of Games. He has taught at the University of Colorado, the College of the Holy Cross, and South Dakota State University, where he is currently associate professor of English.

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[ POETRY]

OJO TAIYE OJO TAIYE was born and grew up in Kaduna. He currently lives in Agbor, Delta State. He is a poet, essayist and teaches Tourism in Calvary Group of Schools, Agbor. His poems and works have appeared in journals like Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Glass Journal, Tuck magazine, Lunaris Review, Elsewhere, Eunoia Review, Lit Mag, Juke, Praxis Magazine, and elsewhere.

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Portrait of a Refugee’s Nightmares years later i am still scraping the scent of your incense— America, out from under my fingernails what terrifies isn’t the storm, but the looming light afterwards i admit i think too much about the past & it makes me sick my uncle says forgiveness in our family, means freedom the truth is, this emptiness can’t be removed it succumbs to the single tongue’s whip of memory the earth pining for a boy quieted in the dark i think of my father on the boat, mapping its route through the stars as thirty others slept, unsure of what the morning would bring every night my mother scrubs hospital floors with not a word of English on her tongue, in a shore with no name, dreaming of the coffee plantation where she grew up - a place she may never see again to know the taste of salt as to drowning is to think of my grandmother, lying still in the casket, taking with her all the stories i was too young to ever ask for or understand we talk in my sleep, & she is everywhere

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Autobiography of a Man Who Begs Nightly for His Mother’s Breast like all mothers, mine no longer speaks the night begins somewhere along the bladeedge of a body in 7th grade my little sister asks if i’ve ever seen a black bird what’s closer to God: confession or thirst some days, every hurt feel like the first listen: inside my mother’s body is an ant-hill on fire what part of you walks away & prays to be a photograph eaten at 2.a.m the substance of the world is water, clear even when it’s dying in our house, there have been no flowers for weeks, yet a red petal floats in my mouth like a fist of sugar i suck until my teeth riot with rot survival: between my mother & i, a river where we open our wounds & make a garden out of it. all our limbs named oars everything edible begins as a blood-soft loam & it’s best to consider silence as a sea revising its shorelines once i renamed my father by tenderizing my tongue & rubbing in salt today, my mother tears off her clothing like scabs & walks naked in public

Somewhere in Idaho: A Mother Faints the years form a mythology & i can explain how an excess of shaking changes everything my brother & i -- & rooms – sit

siblings separated by many years (we belong together)

how does your body speak without its breath? i am tired of listening everything here has meaning: your luggage our undone shoelaces

my cigarettes the water & the mist

that rises from it carry your voice to those who have survived the wreckage you left i throw a handful of dirt into the wind it blows back into my eyes & then i feel you kiss my forehead we are not gone

when we leave until we are gone

we don’t leave

i track your prints of a suicide note

across the beach & find a draft to the mother once much loved

& the last cigarettes she bought for you a perpetual earthquake (constant tsunami-- about a body speaking

in denial

out of its own imagining)

what am i going to do when someone taps you & unfolds you into the mysteries of space?

at the ankles

your hand is twisting an insane music scattering words to the ground like salt (bursting of a swollen summer bud) i keep waking up at the bottom of swimming pools the water reflecting whatever i miss most: whiskey-bottles & the stars dancing cracked open like a jar of coins

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between your eyes on the floor

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A Bottle of

Summer Wine

[ FICTION]

I.

M

iriam took a cab from the airport. She asked the cab driver if he knew of a good,

cheap pension. “You should never ask a cab driver that,” he

told her. “We all get paid. You end up in some rat place in the wrong part of town. You Americans are so trusting.” He smiled, showing dirty teeth. “The girls are anyway,” he added. “I will take you to a good place in the Plaka. They pay me, too, but they are clean and you will be close to everything.” Miriam thanked him and smiled. She looked

Les Bohem

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“You will be close by the Acropolis,” the driver said. “You can walk up to it from the pension.” She mumbled something polite and interested and tried to remember what the Acropolis was. She had a jumble of Greek names in her head from school—Plato, Zeus, Aristotle—but she couldn’t remember who had done what to whom, where. The pension was in an old building on a narrow street. There was a little shade here from the sun. The driver had to ring a bell for her. A buzzer sounded and he pushed the door open. He held it for her and she walked into a cool, dark hallway. For a moment, she was unsure. Maybe she shouldn’t have trusted this driver to take her to a decent place. “It’s up the elevator,” he said, pushing past her with her luggage. His voice was matter-of-fact, and that reassured her. She followed him to the elevator and they rode it to the second floor. The pension itself was bright and clean. She felt stupid for worrying in the hallway, and she was glad she hadn’t said anything. They walked to a reception desk where a smiling, middle-aged woman waited behind a narrow desk cluttered with a locked telephone, a cardboard placard advertising bus tours of Athens and day trips to Daphni, Eleusis, and Cape Sounion, and a rack of slightly bent postcards of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike, Hadrian’s Arch, and a skyline of modern Athens. The woman looked up from behind this clutter and smiled, recognizing the driver. She spoke to him first in Greek, and he answered. Then she turned to Miriam. “So you will stay how many days?” she asked. Her voice was gentle and friendly. “For a week, I think,” Miriam answered. “I’m going to meet some friends and then we’re going to travel.” “Ah, that’s nice,” the woman said. She was still smiling, although she’d started writing in her book as soon as Miriam had said that she would be staying a week. “It is thirty-five euro a night, for a single,” she said. “May I see the room first, before I decide?” Miriam asked. The woman looked mortally offended. “You may pay whenever you leave,” she said, and handed Miriam her key. Miriam paid the cab driver. It was the first time she’d used her euros. His smile was condescending and she wondered if she’d given him too much or too little.

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Her room was small and it faced a courtyard. The shower and the bathroom were at the end of the hall. She unpacked a few of her things and then sat down and tried to begin a letter to her parents. She couldn’t think of what to write. She had only slept a little on the plane, and now her jet lag hit in a great wave and she literally crawled the few feet from the table to the bed. It was dark when she woke up. She had no idea what time it was. She felt lost, as if the nap had somehow thrown her behind the day. She was terribly hungry. She got dressed automatically and left the room. The woman was no longer at the reception desk. Instead, there was a dark young man with greasy hair. He held a newspaper in his hands. His coat and shirt were too short and she could see his wrists. “Can you tell me what time it is?” she asked. “Sorry,” he said, looking up from his paper. “No English.” She pointed at her wrist and he looked at his own and for a moment she was afraid that he would think that she was making a comment about how short his sleeves were. Then he seemed to understand. He smiled and pointed to a clock sitting facing him on the desk. It was seven-thirty. She went out into the warm night. She still felt strange, out of step. It was as if she were not really there, like a ghost who doesn’t yet know she’s dead, trying vainly to talk to the living, hurried world to which she no longer belonged. She walked for several blocks, looking into the windows of closed shops. The colors of everything in the windows were odd to her, somehow flat. A shop selling something ordinary like jeans or leather bags would never have looked like that at home. Everything was different. Everything was foreign. The streets were crowded, warm, and there was a lot of pushing. She was jostled a few times, and she had to keep up with the flow of the crowd. At last she saw something that looked like a restaurant. She was really very hungry. She went inside. It was a big room, brightly lit. She walked in past a cashier, and toward a counter filled with foods. Behind her the cashier yelled something. Miriam approached the counter. There were stews with meats and vegetables. There were olives and peppers in trays. A woman was waiting behind the counter. Miriam looked up at her. “I’d like some of this,” she said, pointing at one of the stews.

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“Ti?” the woman said in a sharp voice. Miriam pointed at the stew. The woman yelled something and pointed toward the door. Miriam thought that maybe the restaurant had already closed, although there were people eating, and it was still early. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t speak Greek.” She turned and started for the door. She was just opening it when she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was the woman from behind the counter. “No,” she said, pulling Miriam firmly back. She motioned for the girl to watch her. Then she approached the cashier who sat on a stool that was like a throne by the door. She said something to the cashier, then reached into her apron pocket, pretending to take out money. She turned to make sure that Miriam was watching. Miriam understood, but she still didn’t know the name of the stew she wanted. The restaurant was fairly crowded, and by now everyone there was watching. It made the space between her and the counter seem like a mined no-man’s land. She looked helplessly at the woman, then pointed to the stew and shrugged her shoulders. The woman looked aggravated, but then she muttered some word that sounded like it ended in “-ska” and went back behind the counter. Miriam walked to the cashier. She held up a finger for “one” and pointed toward the counter. The cashier rang something into the register. “Krasí?” he said. Miriam looked at him blankly and he threw his head back with his fist to his mouth as if he were drinking from a glass. “Wine,” Miriam said, pointing to a bottle that hung from the wall and then putting her finger and thumb together, hoping that he would understand that she wanted a small glass and not a liter. He rung something more into the register and handed her the receipts. She paid and he pointed her toward the counter. She took the receipts over to the counter and handed them to the woman. The woman dished her out a bowl of the stew and poured her a glass of red wine. She put these on a tray with silverware, and Miriam took the tray to a table and sat down. As she ate, she began to feel better, less separate from the day. She felt that she was getting along well. She imagined describing her first meal in Greece to her mother. “And the woman led me back to the cashier and mimed the whole thing for me.” She had a second glass of wine. She looked at the counter. The woman was smiling at her.

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“Kalá?” she asked, pointing at the stew and then patted her stomach so that Miriam would know she was asking her if she had enjoyed it. Miriam nodded and smiled. She had better get a phrase book, she decided. She would be here for a week and when Susanne and Alison got here, it would be fun to show off, ordering in the restaurants and asking how much something cost in a shop. Maybe she would get a guidebook, too. It was stupid to be here and not even know what half the things, like the Acropolis, were. When the three of them had decided to go to Europe, the adventure had seemed vague and perfect. She had never pictured herself as a tourist. No camera, no guided tours; she was always a traveler, romantic and mysterious. She had seen herself on blue-white Greek beaches, in Paris cafes, in the Irish countryside in a small, warm farmhouse. She had seen herself sad, with the warm, sweet sadness of a slow song. The kind of summer night sadness that a girl can take with her from her childhood and carry for a long while. A sadness that can be in a person who still believes that the end of all stories isn’t sad. Once they had decided to go, it seemed like the idea had always been there, a thing she would do. Even her parents, when she’d told them that she wanted to take a year off school, were not terribly upset or surprised and soon had turned their mild reservations into active support. She would learn as much traveling as she would in school. It would give her a sense of perspective; maybe she’d get a better idea of what she wanted to do with her life. She had broken a heart that last spring. Roger, who had chased after her all year. As long as she was there in college and he was there, it had been simple to sleep with him. He was nice and gentle and calm. He had deep‑set, serious eyes. But he tapped nothing in her of that summer sadness. He wanted to go with her to Europe, but her pictures of herself on the trains or in the cafes or by the warm, Irish fire were never with him. She had told him no, she wanted to go alone. “But Susanne and Alison,” he’d argued. His voice was already defeated and she could hear that he’d known all along that there was going to be this day. “Maybe I’ll go alone,” she’d said then, “and meet them later.” She’d said it to make it easier for him, but then she liked the idea of it. It was the first she’d really thought of being alone. It seemed to be the picture that she had always had of herself, on a bridge looking down at city lights reflecting off a river or on a cliff staring at the sea. She decided to

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leave a week before her friends were to go. She arranged to meet them at the American Express in Athens. It was odd now, sitting at a table that was really a table, really in Athens, and really thousands of miles away from where all of her life had been, to still have so much of herself back home. It was as if you traveled in pieces; as if planes were too fast, and you needed time for all the rest of you to catch up with your racing, dizzy body. It all seemed so far away, and yet she still had the feeling that the dormitory was just around the block, that she could walk out of the restaurant and catch the Number Four bus to Roger’s apartment. Her dreams that night at the hotel were just that. She turned a corner in the Plaka and was at a Greek beach on one of the islands she and her friends were planning to visit. Their vacation had already started, although she knew, sleeping, that it hadn’t yet begun. They stayed out too late and had to hurry back from the beach to her parents’ house. Roger was there, by the swings. He didn’t say anything to them. He began to do cartwheels in the sand (Roger was on the gymnastics team at school), clowning desperately for their attention. Only when they were closing the door of her parents’ house (which had now become the pension) that he came after them, “Hey, wait up a minute, hey wait,” They could hear his voice faintly through the door as they waited in the hallway for the elevator. II. Three days later, Miriam was in a horrible mood. She’d slept enough to be over the worst of her jet lag. She learned to order a few things in a restaurant, and to say “excuse me” and “thank you” in Greek. She’d taken two long walks and a bus tour. She’d bought a guidebook. But nothing was happening. Being alone offered no sudden revelations, no changes. She didn’t think more. She just got bored and restless. Her ears echoed with an empty silence. The streets that had seemed picturesque were annoying. The struggle to get a cup of tea or a glass of wine was no longer a challenge, it was just a struggle. “Maybe I’m just tired,” she thought. “Maybe this is jet lag, too.” But then someone pushed by her on the street where she was walking and, when she caught his eye angrily, looked at her with a grim, flirtatious smile. She went back to her room and thought about writing to her parents, but she was afraid her letter would be depressing, and she didn’t

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want to upset them. The idea that she was on vacation and not enjoying herself pulled at her. It made her feel worse. She thumbed through her guidebook, looking for some place she hadn’t seen. She thought about shopping for gifts or souvenirs, but she wasn’t in the mood for anything that simple. From the room above her, music played. It was loud, and the speakers were distorting. It was something in English, but she didn’t recognize the song. It would be the three Americans she’d seen coming out of the pension one night as she was coming back from dinner. She’d seen them several times around the city. Always together, the three of them, young men but acting younger, like teenage boys, always loud and laughing. She didn’t think they’d noticed her at all. It was late afternoon. She couldn’t write her letter. She didn’t want to go out, and she didn’t want to sleep. She picked up her key and walked out of her room and upstairs toward the music. She knocked on the door. There was no answer. She knocked again. “I know. I know. It’s too loud,” a voice said from inside. The door opened a crack and one of the boys stuck his face out. He had a round, dark face like an Indian, and he had a stylish crew cut. The crew cut was bleached white. “Yes?” he said. He sounded impatient. “You dyed your hair,” she said, so surprised she forgot to say anything else. “Is the music too loud?” “No, I just have the room downstairs…” “Uh, huh.” He still seemed to think she was going to complain about the music. “I was just bored. I’ve seen you guys around. I thought you might be doing something. I don’t know.” She was embarrassed. She was sorry she’d come to the door. “C’mon in,” he said, smiling now as if he’d always been smiling. “We’re always doing something.” He held the door open for her and she stepped in. The room was thick with the pungent smoke of hashish. The two other boys were there. The tall, thin one in his boxer shorts and a T-shirt was squatting on the floor in front of little cups full of colored dyes. The front of his T-shirt was splotched with bits of color. The third one, also thin, had his back to her. He was putting a new CD in the machine. The one squatting by the dyes looked up at her. He had a sharp face with a trimmed, sharp beard and eyes that seemed dialed

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down, always focused. He smiled at her. “We’re dyeing Peter’s hair,” he said. “I’m Peter,” the one with the crew cut said. “Who’re you?” “Miriam,” she said. She stood awkwardly for a moment, feeling naked in the middle of the room. “I’m sorry I was so bitchy,” Peter said. “I was just sure you were going to give us shit about the music.” He paused and then went on. “That’s Michael,” he said, pointing to the one by the dyes. “And over by the music is Tim. This is Miriam. She lives downstairs and she’s bored.” “We could dye your hair, too,” Michael suggested, looking up from the floor. Tim snapped a CD into the machine and music started again. It was loud and ugly. “Ooo,” Peter said. He began to dance. Tim turned around and looked at Miriam. It was Tim she had remembered when she pictured the three. He had straight, blond hair that fell around his head in a gentle pageboy. Thick lips and sunken eyes. A face that was a scramble of mismatched parts and fit together in a wonderful whole. She realized now that he had never seemed quite the same as the other two; that it was the other two making all the noise and laughing. She had a picture of him hanging back, only part of the trio by being with them and caught somehow in the blur that they made. He smiled at her, and said, “Hi.” Then he searched shyly through the CDs. She watched him for another moment, his hair fallen over his face and hiding his eyes. Peter had danced over to Michael. Now he lay his head in the other’s lap. “Dye me,” he said. Michael picked up the first cup of dye and shot a streak of blue across Peter’s white head. He followed that with orange and green and red until the head was a bright rainbow. Tim watched from the table. He looked from the other two to Miriam. She thought that he was more amused with her than with his friends, and it made her a little uncomfortable. But she was enjoying Peter and Michael. It was really very funny to watch. When they were finished, Peter raised his brightly colored head to her. His face, as dyed as his hair now, was a horribly distorted mess. “How do you like it?” he asked her, showing teeth stained green and blue. “It’s fine,” she said, “and I guess you’ll be staying in the room for the rest of your trip.”

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“What do you mean?” he asked. He could make his voice sound totally innocent. “I mean, where are you going to go in Athens looking like that?” “Out,” Peter said. “All four of us are going out.” It was much later when they finally left the pension. They had all smoked a lot of the hashish. Peter had disappeared into the bathroom and came back out with his face clean. He had not been able to get the dye off his teeth. Michael had found that very funny and had kissed Peter on the lips. The two fell over onto the floor laughing and kissing. Miriam, stoned and embarrassed, looked away. Peter saw her. “God,” he said to Tim who was sitting by the CD player mixing tobacco with hashish in a joint, “she didn’t know we were queers.” He turned to Miriam. “It must come as a terrible disappointment to you,” he said to her. “Maybe we can find you someone later. Maybe Tim will stray from the fold.” Tim had turned away, concentrating on the hash and the tobacco. In one of those stoned moments that seems too long and clear, Miriam saw him shoot a vicious glare toward Peter. She understood everything about that glare. Everything that was happening in the room. It was very silent, and her ears rang and buzzed and for just one moment. She thought that the room would keep getting brighter and the buzz louder until it would all explode and disappear. They went to a club in a part of Athens where Miriam hadn’t been. It was a door halfway up an alley, painted black. Peter rang the bell and waited, and soon they were buzzed in. The door opened on a stairway that led down to a large cellar. The cellar was the club. Loud, bad electronica blared and a lot of men in tight pants and open-collared shirts watched each other and smoked. “Oh, God,” said Michael. “We might as well dance,” Peter answered, and he nudged the other three toward the dance floor, not giving them time to think. They moved onto the floor and started to dance. There were quite a few other men there, but they stepped back, almost physically pushed by Peter’s screaming presence. His enthusiasm was contagious. He wouldn’t let his party collapse. He spun Miriam about the floor until soon she was dancing on her own, no longer conscious of being the only girl in the room. The roomful of men seemed there to watch them dance. It

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was as if this awful club had become a perfect place, just because Peter’s cheerfulness willed it. The only one who wasn’t part of it was Tim. He danced carelessly, his hands in his pockets, moved by the others without caring. His face was set in a meaningless smile. They stayed at the club for several hours. They only stopped dancing long enough to buy drinks. Peter was incredible. He never tired; he never let the others lag. He refused to acknowledge Tim’s mood as he had refused to acknowledge the club. He had come to dance and now he was dancing. They got back to the pension about four in the morning. They made an incredible amount of noise as they approached the entrance, and Peter made a show of quieting them before they entered the lobby. “Be very quiet,” he said, “or Mrs. Xanothanoflappingthighs will throw us all out into the cold. We can’t have old Panointheasselus throwing young Miriam here out into the cold. She’s our responsibility.” A door opened and an angry voice yelled something at them. Peter clicked his heels and bowed, then fell to the floor in front of the opened doorway. It slammed angrily, and he stood up. “I try,” he said. “I really do. But these people are just too much for me.” He pounded on the door. “What have you got to be so goddamn snotty about?” he yelled. “What have you people been doing for the last three thousand years?” He turned back to his friends. “Fucking cradle of civilization,” he said, “and Plato here don’t want to party.” By the time Miriam was safely back in her room, Peter had managed to wake up nearly everyone in the pension. Doors had opened, voices screamed in several languages, lights went on and off. Peter had carried on through it all, impossibly likeable. His face again streaked with colors where the sweat of dancing had made the dye run. Back in her room, Miriam felt happy again. She had made something of the evening. She had made friends, and she had put her trip back on the track. She liked the three boys and the pension and the city. She could travel, she thought, forever, dropping in on people’s lives, always at her best. Dimly, she realized how quickly her mood had changed, and how extreme the change had been. She decided that that, too, must be a part of traveling. Her room was quiet now after the evening. It seemed hollowed out

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to her. She saw herself sitting inside an Easter egg. Thinking about it, she wondered where the view into the egg would be from. She put on her nightgown and picked up her soap and toothbrush for the trip down the hall to the bathroom. There was a knock at the door. It was Tim. He stared at her for a moment. His sunken eyes were confused. It looked as if he could not remember who she was or why he was there. “Would it be all right if I spent the night?” he asked finally, shaking himself as if he were trying to brush away a spider web he had just walked through, or something he had just, uncomfortably, remembered. III. “He’s an incredible bastard. You just have to love him, and when you hate him and he still makes you smile, that’s really awful.” “He seems so happy.” “He is. Completely. You have to be awfully stupid, you know, to be happy, or else terribly self‑centered.” “I guess he’s not stupid.” “No. But he’s like a baby. I mean spoiled. It’s egoistic, not egocentric, for those of you who went to college. He just sees everything as an extension of himself. It’s the pleasure principle. The entire world there to provide Peter Bronson gratification.” “How long have you two been together?” “Oh, God. I mean, we slept together for years, but it was never that serious. Then Peter got this idea of opening a music store in the City, and so we went to London to buy music. You know, all the most obscure gay elite post new electronic this and that. That was two years ago, and we’ve been traveling ever since.” “That’s a long time.” “Well, I never thought we were that much of a couple. As a matter of fact, I’m surprised that I’m so upset about Michael.” “Jealousy’s funny.” “It’s stupid. It has nothing to do with the other person. It’s all just being insecure, thinking the third person is better in bed or tells good jokes. I mean envy; envy is a real emotion. And Michael being here has brought all mine bubbling up. Because I’m not like Peter. I mean we have a lot of the same attitudes, but the way we react to them is com-

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pletely different. Peter makes sense. If it all sucks anyway, then why not turn the whole goddamn thing into one long party? But for me, a party is always the kind where you come too early and there’s hardly anyone there, and you don’t know any of the few who are there, and you head for the punchbowl.” “Maybe you’re not as cynical as Peter.” “Maybe I had more romantic notions once. I guess I don’t hate life as much as I hate my life. I see lots of hope for others. I really think some people can be relatively happy. That just makes it worse, of course.” “That’s awful.” “I don’t really care that much about the two of them in bed. I just wish I could be like that. Pick up some buck in Dubrovnik and drag him along with us, no considerations but my own party-loving cock.” “I think what Peter did is pretty terrible.” “How old are you?” “Nineteen.” “Little Miriam. Your first time in Europe?” “First week. I’ve been here three days.” “Does anyone call you Mimi?” “No. My mother when she wants to be funny.” “Why are you here all alone?” “I’m meeting my girlfriends next week. I just wanted to see what it would be like.” “An adventure? A modern day Joni Mitchell?” “Collette, please.” “And it’s not so special, right?” “I don’t really know yet. Today I was ready to go home. I was really miserable. Then tonight with all of you, I was as happy as I’d ever been.” “Maybe you’re not a traveler.” “What do you mean?” “You’ll find out. I bet you had a happy childhood.” “Yes. I mean sure, it was fine.” “And you’re fond of your parents?” “Yes.” “They’re almost like friends. When you were in high school, your friends would come over and call your parents by their first names and your mother would fix them all coffee and talk to them like human be-

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ings and actually be interested in the very serious things they had to say. Your father played chess with your boyfriends, and your mother made sure you got birth control pills.” “That’s pretty close.” “Go home, little Miriam. You’ll never be a traveler.” “That’s ridiculous. Why should a happy childhood mean anything like that?” “Because traveling rips your home away. It’s all right for people with nothing. It can’t hurt them.” “What will happen to me if I stay?” “You’re going to get homesick. And it will be a big empty hole inside you. It’ll take you over. There’s nothing worse than a happy childhood, because for you people, everywhere is a foreign country and the place you’re homesick for is already gone. It isn’t anywhere. It’s like the great big hole is all you’ve got left. And you ought to see that more clearly, traveling, but you’ll never believe it and you’ll always want to be sleeping in that warm, perfect bed.” IV. Miriam had been to bed with three other boys. With Alex, who spent the nights her first year in high school when she was still a virgin. With Carey, the next year when she had decided to stop being a virgin. And with Roger. She was sure that she hadn’t loved any of them. She had always known that they would be replaced, each by the next. She had liked the warmth of sleeping with them as much as any of the rest of it. With Tim next to her, she didn’t know what to do. Since there was only one bed in the room, there was no question about sharing it, but they were strangers, and she didn’t know where to put her hands. She didn’t know if it would be all right to put her arm around him. Maybe he would think that she wanted to make love. Maybe he didn’t like girls at all, or didn’t like them to touch him. He had gone right to sleep when they’d finished talking, undressing naturally to his underwear and T-shirt and then rolling into bed and closing his eyes. She had gone down the hall to the bathroom and gotten ready for bed. She had looked in the mirror and realized that she’d worn the same blue flannel nightgown to bed with all three boys, and now with the fourth. It was faded and soft and she liked it very much. She realized that she was getting ready for Tim, and she felt things

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moving in her. But when she came back into the room, she slipped carefully under the covers, not touching him at all. She lay on her back and she couldn’t fall asleep. Tim had turned slightly toward her now and she looked at him asleep. She liked his face a lot. It made her feel something; just a vague thought that she couldn’t quite hold, only that she didn’t know him but that his face was full of oddly familiar things and yet that in him were other things that were impossibly far away from anything she knew. And she wondered if that wonderful face could be a wall between them. Watching him and feeling him warm beside her, she was excited. She laughed quietly to herself, imagining waking him up, although for a moment it almost seemed that she could. “Perfect. My European affair,” she thought. “With a confirmed queer.” Her thoughts began to wander. She thought about what Tim had said to her about being homesick. It made some sort of awful sense. She remembered the last night she had slept in her bed in her parents’ house, before she left for school. There was the awful familiarity of everything in the room and the banging feeling inside her of knowing she would never be a child in this room again, and that its walls would never again protect her. Next to her in the bed, Tim rolled toward her. He put one of his arms around her. But even if he had meant it, somehow in his sleep, as a gesture of comfort, it came too late. Miriam was sitting up now, staring at the jumping blackness in front of her, crying hard, long and unstoppable tears. V. Tim woke her up early in the morning. He brushed a finger along her hairline, and she opened her eyes. “Wake up, little Miriam,” he said softly. She looked at him, focusing. “Do you want to go away?” he asked her. She was still waking up. She didn’t answer. “I just don’t want to be here with Peter,” he said. “If I see him, I might change my mind. I just want to go away, fast.” “Where would we go?” she asked. “I don’t know, just take a bus and go somewhere. The ocean, one of the islands. I don’t know.”

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“My friends are coming.” “Just for a few days.” She didn’t answer. “C’mon, little Miriam. I’ll take care of you.” On the boat to Poros, she slept for a while, her head resting against his shoulder. Then she woke up and looked out at the sea. “How old are you, Tim?” she asked. “Twenty-eight,” he said. “Old enough to be your boyfriend.” She leaned her head back against his shoulder. He stroked her hair. She had an uncomfortable feeling. It was as if she’d stayed out too late and had forgotten to call home. She knew that the feeling had been there since she’d said yes, she would go. But it was distant, and she didn’t let it surface. She stayed leaning against him and looking out the window. Later when she thought about the days they spent on Poros, they were days that seemed to her to be their happiest. She remembered a bright, too big sun, and everything bleached and clean and Tim laughing and his smile bright and also bleached and clean. They took a room in a house just outside of Porostown. It was owned by an old couple. Tim told the woman that they were just married, and she and her husband took turns coming in to look at them every morning at breakfast, smiling and shaking their heads. The feeling stayed with her that she should be doing something, but she could never find what it was. “I feel like it’s Sunday night, and I haven’t done my homework,” she said to Tim once, trying to explain. “I never did my homework,” he answered. She didn’t find out much about Tim in those days. He offered glimpses of himself like “I never did my homework,” but that was all. Somehow she was afraid to ask him for more. She studied him, making up people behind the face. There was a fear that began in her then, of something changing, or even more, of discovering that it had already changed. After three days, it was time to go back to Athens. Susanne and Alison would be there the next day. “I’m not going back,” Tim said, watching her pack. “And I wish you would stay.”

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“I can’t, Tim. I promised my friends.” “We could start having sex if that would help.” She was surprised. She didn’t answer. “You’re falling in love with me,” he said. “I’m already in love with you. Your friends have each other, but you and me, we might as well stay together.” Was it really that simple? As simple as asking a cab driver to recommend a pension or going upstairs from her room because the music was loud and she was bored? It seemed to her later that she had given in, as if it were actually a struggle, but at the time she was only surprised with how badly she’d wanted him to talk her into staying. “Let me call the American Express,” she said, “and leave a message. Otherwise, they’ll wait for me.” Tim smiled then, and it put something in his face that she hadn’t seen there before. Something that she found faintly disturbing. For a moment, she wanted to say no, that she had to go back, but when she thought about leaving him, it already seemed somehow impossible. “Go ahead then and call,” he said, still smiling. For the next four days they were very happy, and then they made love. Later, she couldn’t pinpoint the change. It would seem clouded to her, an evolution, but at the time, there seemed to be a sharp cut. She had called the American Express and left a message for Susanne and Alison to go on without her. It was not hard to do. She hadn’t seen them, and so it wasn’t like giving up anything real. Just a message at the other end of a phone with a man with a thick accent who repeated her words back to her meaninglessly. Two days later she called her parents. “Where in God’s name are you?” her mother asked. “Susanne called last night. They’re worried sick.” Her mother’s voice sounded small and far away. “I’m all right,” Miriam said. “I’m with a friend. I left a message at the American Express. It’s not a big thing.” Somehow she managed to reassure her parents. Tim was in the room with her, and she watched him as she talked. Her conversation seemed to amuse him. She could hear that her parents wanted to be persuaded, that she could tell them anything that would reassure them, and they would clutch at it, in spite of the fact that they were both sensible people. It

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made her feel far away from them, unprotected and responsible. She had thought when she heard her mother’s voice that the feeling she’d felt since she went away with Tim had been just what it seemed, something born of the fact that she hadn’t yet called home. But now when she hung up the phone, the feeling, which should have gone away, was there, stronger even than it had been before. She had learned something that a child should never learn. She and Tim spent most of their days on the beach. Then they would go back to the house, drink a little too much wine and fall asleep early. Tim made her laugh a lot at the beach. The days there were good and only sad because they were expectant, because they had to lead to somewhere else. Tim was happy. He was always laughing, always pushing them on to do things. In a way, she thought, he was more like Peter than he knew. They talked in endless spurts. She told Tim about everything in her life, her family and her friends, and the three boys she’d slept with. It was as if she’d stopped on a long walk to catch her breath and, finding herself on something of a hill, had sat down for a moment to look at where she’d been. She began, slowly, to put together bits of Tim. He had some sort of family income; he had been at boarding schools and then had begun traveling. He never spoke directly about any of this. It would just pass by in the conversation. He seemed to have been everywhere, to know about everything. “There’s a cafe on a little alley in Marseille...” a story would begin. “The way they do it in Nepal...” He seemed to be aware of the effect of all this without bragging, as if he knew that while these names might impress her, they had long ago ceased to impress him. When Tim talked, he was speaking about things, not about himself. He seemed at once to be thinking aloud, his thoughts drifting wherever they might, and to be reciting from a carefully prepared, long memorized text. He seemed able to capture virtually anything in a sentence, a phrase, or a gesture. On the fourth night, back in their room, a little drunk and sun tired, Miriam lay on the bed with her eyes closed, watching the colors swimming past her eyelids. There was always an awkward moment when they were finally alone in the room. A hesitation. Neither one of them had mentioned anything about love since she had said that she would stay. Now she felt his hands moving softly over her and felt him leaning

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down. She kissed him without opening her eyes. She let him undress her and still kept her eyes closed as he kissed his way around her body. She reached down to touch him, to hold him to her. She knew that this would be different than her other times in bed. In a way, it seemed to already be over, and yet it remained, urgent and important. She felt each kiss as if his saliva burned. After a while, he got up and crossed the room to turn out the light. She thought that they had been running away from the room and the bed, and now that they were going to make love, she wondered if they would still go to the beach. She heard him undressing in the dark. A cool breeze came through the window. He came into her arms and held her very tightly for a few moments. “I’ll tell you what makes life sad,” Tim said much later. “Shall I tell you what makes life sad?” “Mmmhmm,” she mumbled, half asleep. “It’s change,” he said. “It’s the awful finality of change. People learn the long truths, like the world is round and the sun sets in the west, and the short truths, like our own age or what’s on TV Sunday nights at eight, or who’s on what baseball team or who we love. And every time one of the short truths changes, they feel cheated. They’re betrayed. Because no one ever told them the difference. It went ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ to ‘there are four Beatles: John, Paul, George, and Ringo,’ all in one breath. If I ever have children, I’m going to take things away from them all the time. Right from the start. Break their toys. Kill their pets. I’m going to make them immune to all of it, so that when they grow up, they can live without constantly feeling like something’s gone completely wrong.” VI. They stayed in Poros for three more days. They still went to the beach, but they spent more and more time in the room. The old couple who ran the pension had become very fond of them. They would sit with them now at dinner, smiling like doting grandparents. Tim spoke just enough Greek to have a simple conversation, and now the woman spoke to him all the time, smiling and laughing, and he somehow managed to know when to nod his head, when to look concerned, and when to laugh, even though sometimes he had no idea what she was saying. It bothered Miriam a little, thinking that he would forget those people he

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was so able to befriend. One morning, the man took Tim out with him fishing. Miriam wanted to go, but there was something so nice in how much the old man wanted to take Tim that she didn’t say anything. When he knocked on their door early in the morning, she pretended to be asleep. Tim came back from the fishing trip early in the evening. She had spent part of the day on the beach and part of the day with the woman, learning how to make soutsoukakia. “How was it?” she asked him. “It was nice,” he answered. “Incredibly nice. Just the old man and three of his friends. They all get a little drunk. They tell each other stories they’ve all heard so many times they know them by heart. It could have been any time at all. Any year. They are in life like animals. They live as if the world made sense. Maybe we should settle down here, raise a little Greek family. How was your day?” “Greek cooking school. I can now fix meatballs.” “The men out fishing. The women in the kitchen. Ah, Greece.” He sank into the bed, tired. But he was too restless to sleep. “We’ve been here too long,” he said finally. “We’ll go up to Italy and then anywhere at all that you want to go.” He looked at her for a minute and it seemed to her that he was deciding something, “Do you love me?” he asked her. She hadn’t really known until he asked her. She didn’t know now. It felt all the time as if he were somewhere away from her. As if there were dark wells of him that she could never see. Each time they made love, he moved further away, and each time she would want him in spite of that, or maybe because of it. It was she who kept bringing them back from the beach. She wanted to lock the door and keep him there in the room, fucking him until what was happening to her made sense. Softly and carefully, she nodded her head, “Yes.” “I’ll go downstairs and tell them we’re leaving in the morning,” Tim said. The couple fixed them a special dinner that night. There were the soutzoukakia that Miriam and the woman had made. There were the few small fish that Tim and the man had caught. There were several bottles of new summer wine that the man had bottled himself. He brought them up from his cellar one at a time. He was very proud of them. The

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wine was pale and sour and very strong. It was good and easy to drink. After several glasses, the woman was looking at them with wet eyes. Her husband looked at her and then said something to Tim. “He says it’s sad that we’re friends now, and we’ll never see each other again.” The man poured them each another glass of his wine, and they toasted silently. Then the woman spoke to Tim, motioning for him to translate to Miriam. “She says that we’re like her children,” Tim said, “and that having us here is like watching their youth. Like watching them fall in love all over again.” The woman smiled at Miriam, nodding her head to show that she meant what Tim had said. Miriam smiled back, but she was watching Tim. He was turned toward her, so that the woman could not see his face. When he had been speaking, he had said the words as if they caused him actual pain, and now his face was set in a hurt expression that was as sad as anything Miriam had ever seen. He was rough with her that night. He left the light on and pulled at her clothes hungrily. He brought his pants down over his already hard penis. He turned her over on the bed and moved quickly on top of her. Then, wet with her, he forced his way into her anus. It hurt more than anything she had ever imagined. It felt as if she were being ripped apart. She thought about the man and woman, and she buried her face in the pillow so that she wouldn’t scream. She began to cry instead, and her tears came in quiet, continuous sobs. When Tim was finished, he pulled himself back out of her and rolled over to the far side of the bed, and, curled into a secret ball, he went quickly to sleep. VII. They moved back to the mainland after that, traveling, stopping wherever Tim thought it might be good. At first, they followed the coast up into Croatia. There were white-bleached beaches changing subtly now in a way she couldn’t name. They would stay a night, at the most, in each place. Tim was restless. He couldn’t lie still on the beaches. He couldn’t sleep at night.

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“It’s all the same,” he said. “It’s like we’re standing still, and they’re sliding the beaches past us one by one.” After that they moved inland, taking the train to Zagreb. They arrived in the morning and found a hotel a little bit away from the train station. As soon as they were settled in their room, Tim stretched himself out on the bed. He hadn’t slept at all on the train, and he hadn’t slept much in the past few nights either. Now he stared at the ceiling, and then he closed his eyes. Miriam left him in their room and went out to walk in the city. They had been by the ocean for so long. The light was different here. Climbing up through the narrow streets of the old town, she turned to look at a view of rooftops instead of water. She liked this city. She liked being among people again, and she liked the faces of these people. It would be nice to stay here a while. Maybe rent a car and drive into the country, coming back to the city and the crowds in the evenings. She felt a safety she hadn’t felt in the open, glaring beaches. When she came back to the room, Tim was wide-awake on the bed. He hadn’t unpacked. “I can’t stand it here,” he said. “We’ve got to go somewhere where there’s something to do.” That afternoon they took the train to Milan. They stayed in Italy for several weeks, moving from city to city as they had in Greece and in Croatia. They spent long afternoons in cafes. It was not that different from their afternoons at the beach. She didn’t know what Tim wanted. He was looking for something, but she had no idea what it was. He became more and more restless. They would go back to their hotel room and she would wait in the silence on their bed. Then he would turn to her and savagely pull at her clothes. She didn’t think about what was happening to her. Her feelings were there, not specific. A sense of loss, a yellow square of fear, a lump of love. Tim knew people wherever they went. In Florence, there was a middle-aged American couple who lived in the hills above the city. They went to their home for dinner. The couple watched her with curiosity all through the meal. They spoke almost entirely to Tim, with only the most condescending asides to Miriam. It was as if she were Tim’s retarded daughter or as if they thought that she didn’t speak

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English at all. Tim thought the evening was incredibly amusing. He found the couple “quaint,” and he thought they treated Miriam “just like my wife.” In Venice, Tim knew a woman who met them for a drink. She came into the cafe where they waited; she was late. She was very well dressed and carried about her a sense of wealth. She was overly made-up, although the makeup had been applied very carefully. She looked about forty. She drank an aperitif, looked at Miriam once, spoke briefly to Tim in Italian and left the cafe. “I probably shouldn’t have called her,” Tim said after she left. Miriam felt that Tim had taken something from her, was taking it still, but she didn’t know what it was. To sit in a Venetian bar and drink Pernod, having only been on the canals taking a bus from the train station to the hotel, to stay in Florence and never see the statue of David, she certainly wasn’t doing what tourists did. But she hadn’t wanted to be a tourist. She had never really wanted to do any of these things. Maybe she’d thought that Europe would come to her whole, that it would be like dreaming. Now it seemed like trying to read a difficult book. But she didn’t blame Tim for that. Whatever he had taken from her, it was something different from a gondola ride or a chance to see a famous sculpture. She never thought about leaving him. The idea of being alone no longer appealed to her. She was in love with him now, and it was nothing like she’d thought love would be. It was always a desperate clutching, always the feeling that something was incredibly, definitely wrong and had to be made right. She kept him in bed as much as she could, although more and more he hurt her, and the pain never moved away from her at all. From Italy they moved north, to cities with nightclubs as well as cafes. Tim knew all the clubs. In Munich, in Hamburg, in Berlin. They went to retro discos and to leather bars, transvestite shows and a club in Berlin where a young boy was dragged through the audience onto the stage and “raped” in front of a cheering crowd. It didn’t seem to matter to Tim. He seemed only to want to splatter himself across the heart of the European night. He had almost entirely stopped talking to her. He was not at all

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angry or nasty. He was just silent. He would say, “Oh, I know a good place we can go tonight. It’s a little stupid, but we can get drunk.” And then they’d pick a place to have dinner first. But he’d stopped speaking about anything that mattered to him. It was as if he were monumentally tired and the effort of slowing his still racing thoughts into a steady progression of words for her was too much of an effort. In bed now, he turned her over immediately and that was the only way they made love. At first she had tried to change that, but she couldn’t, and then after a while she didn’t try. She hadn’t called her parents since the night in Greece. She could hear their voices, hands cupped desperately to their phones, small and brittle as her mother’s had been that last time, calling through the impossible distance for their daughter’s voice; a voice that would come back so right and familiar though the daughter had changed so much that the girl they listened for was gone, and they were talking to a stranger. She could not force herself to call them. Finally, they came to Paris. They had talked about going to London, but it was too expensive there. Drinks cost a lot in European clubs, and they had spent nearly all their money. In the next two weeks, Tim would receive his next trust payment. Then, maybe, they would go to London. In the meantime, they took a room in a horrible hotel off the Rue Dauphine in St. Germain where Tim knew the concierge, and waited for the money. You entered the hotel through a low door that was more like a hole in the alleyway. There was a tiny hallway and a room through beaded curtains. Inside the room, incredibly decrepit hipsters lay on overstuffed Indian pillows, smoking. There were several strange-looking older men with them who Miriam thought were either Algerians or Turks. They had entered this room and Tim had said something in French. One of the Algerians got up slowly from his pillows and went into a further room. In a few moments, an incredibly fat woman in a purple robe came in. She was smoking the stub of a cigarette. Her face was blotched with makeup and her teeth were dirty and stained. She greeted Tim without really smiling, and he said something in French. She nodded and went to get him a key. Tim explained that the woman would let them stay there until his money came. That she trusted him to pay her. He said that the woman and her husband had been part of a theater company in the eighties

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and that the hotel had been a stopping point then for actors and writers. “A lot of famous people stayed here,” he said. “It had quite a reputation. But then Natashia’s husband died, and the theater group broke up, and then it was the nineties and no one wanted to live like an artist.” It was the worst room Miriam had ever been in. It was up five flights of dark stairs. You had to push a button at every landing for ten seconds of light. The bathroom and shower were four floors down from the room, cold and even darker than the halls. The room itself had peeling wallpaper and a small bed that sagged to the floor. When they turned the lights out, they could hear a scurrying inside the walls. They slept with the lights on. If they had still been talking more, it might have been all right there. It could have been something that they laughed off together. But now, in the growing silences, it became them, a physical expression of the place that they had somehow reached. They had been in Paris for only two days when Tim got sick. She had noticed something on the second night, a softening of the skin around his mouth, a wetness in his eyes. She had thought that it was just the light, or seeing him from a different angle. They hadn’t slept much since they’d reached the nightclub cities, and she thought that maybe he was just very tired. But in the morning, his face was horribly swollen. Under his eyelids, on either side of his nose, something was pushing, like large clusters or a backup of liquid. His eyes were forced into misshapen slits. His nose was red and running. “It’s some kind of allergy,” he said. “It happens to me once in a while. I have a prescription for the swelling, but it’s very expensive medicine. It will go away.” Tim stayed in bed all that day. Miriam went downstairs and brought him up some dirty tea. She had had to go into the lobby where the Algerians looked up at her from the pillows in bored lust. It seemed to her that no one in the room had moved in two days. The fat woman, Natashia, came out of the back room and stood sullenly, refusing to understand her requests for tea. One of the hipsters said something from the floor without looking up. Natashia turned and waddled off into the other room.

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“She’ll get your tea,” the hipster said. “I told her what you wanted.” The swelling was as bad if not worse the next day, and Tim seemed to be having trouble breathing. Miriam went out into the city and brought back what she could find for him to eat. She brought him extra blankets. She spoon-fed him when his swollen mouth was too tired to chew. She held a glass to his lips so that he could drink small sips of brandy. Several days went by and Tim was no better. He wouldn’t let her call a doctor. He didn’t seem, after the first day, to get any weaker. He seemed to have reached a level from which he could neither rise nor fall. As he became more and more dependent upon Miriam, he began to talk again, and she was grateful for that, even if sometimes what he said was sad. “Do you want to have children?” he asked her one night. “Yes. I mean I always thought I would.” “I hate children,” he said. “Or anyway, I hate to be around them. When I’m somewhere where there are parents and children, I can always smile nicely. I know which things that they do are supposed to be cute and lovable. But I look at them and every wonderful bit seems so hopeless. I have a friend in Amsterdam who has a beautiful fouryear-old boy. They named him Timothy, after me. And I remember him coming into my bedroom one morning with his toys. He set up the toys carefully on my bed and started to play a game. And every little thing, every tiny wrinkle of the bedspread meant so goddamn much to him. He saw me looking at him, and he put his arms out and hugged me, and I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see me crying.” Finally she felt close to Tim, comfortable with him. She found herself grateful for his illness. Her days took on a pattern. She would go downstairs in the morning and bring them both back his tea. Then she would sit with him for a while and they would talk. Then she’d go out for a while, walking over to St. Michel or up to Montmartre, and buying what little they could afford, just rolls and cheeses mostly, to eat. She would come back in the afternoons and get into bed with Tim. She had stopped minding his swollen face after the first day. She would lie with her back to him, and he would still hurt her. Then she would go downstairs for tea again. She found everything about their life now erotic. The filthiness of

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the room and the awful people and the awful room downstairs. The scurrying in the walls. The swollen helplessness of Tim. There was a dampness to everything that was almost tropical, a humidity like a fever. When she went out, it was like sleepwalking. She went in whatever direction she had decided to go, thinking only of getting back into the soiled sheets of their horrible bed. As she walked, she could feel Tim’s hands pushing against her back, feel the bedsprings against her hips, and that was where she wanted to be. Tim had been in bed for a week when he asked her to start checking the American Express for him. He was expecting a letter. He never said what it was, but she assumed that it was his money. She changed her mornings then, crossing the river at the Pont Neuf, and going up by the Opera to the American Express building, passing through the rich American and English tourists, and finally reaching the building with its funny buzz of Americans. They were amazing to her, strange relics who talked in accents that she could hardly remember. “We all going up to Sacred Cur, honey. Debbie says the view there’s better than the one from the tower.” She would tell Tim about them in the afternoons, and they would laugh as if they were somehow better than these awful, happy people. One day, coming out of the American Express, she walked right into Susanne and Alison. “God, Miriam,” Susanne said. They were not at all the way she remembered them. They looked younger, and clean and distant, more like the daughters she saw every day inside the American Express, waiting for their fathers to cash Traveler’s checks. She could see that they both wanted to ask her questions, to find out where she’d been and with whom, but that they were determined to be angry. “Your parents are dying,” Susanne said. “They think you’re dead or something.” “Well, I’m not.” “We waited for you in Athens. We were sure you’d be back.” Their voices sounded far away, as if this were a memory of a time when she had talked to these girls and not a conversation at all. “How long have you been in Paris?” Alison said. “About a week and a half.” “We’ll give you our number,” Susanne said. “We have euro burners.” Miriam waited while Susanne wrote down the number. She thought

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how simple it would be to leave Tim, to go back with Susanne and Alison to their hotel. She could see herself on their bed, crying, calling her parents, her travels with Tim already fading, becoming as unreal as the girls were now. It amazed her how easy it would be to walk from world to world. But it wasn’t easy at all. It was impossible. She felt the pull of the dark stairs and the damp bed. Susanne and Alison weren’t real anymore, and it was impossible to walk from world to world. The next day, there was a letter for Tim. It had Italian stamps on it, and it was hand-addressed. She had thought that his money came from Switzerland, not from Italy. She held the letter in her coat pocket as she walked back to St. Germain. As she crossed the river, the letter felt hot in her pocket, as if it were burning through her jacket. She wanted to throw it in the river. But when she brought the letter to Tim, he put it aside without reading it. He sat up weakly in bed. He looked at her and his swollen eyes were trying to find something. “Are you sorry you didn’t go back with your friends?” he asked her. She had told him about seeing Susanne and Alison. “No. I couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t want to, but it wouldn’t have been the same.” “The same as if you’d never met me?” She nodded. “The same as I was before.” “No,” he said. “It couldn’t have been the same.” He reached up to her face. He ran a finger gently around her hairline, her nose, and her lips. “Little Miriam,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ve ruined your life.” But she didn’t really hear him. She was already slipping out of her clothes, turning her head up at the same time to bite his searching finger. When she woke up the next morning, Tim was dressed. He looked much worse in his clothes. He hadn’t shaved in days and his beard, which didn’t grow very quickly, was coming out in blond blotches on his puffy cheeks. His red eyes looked gloomily out from under his swollen lids. “Will you help me downstairs?” he asked. “I want to make a phone call.” “Are we going to get a doctor?” she asked, although she knew the answer. “I’ll be all right, Miriam. I just want to call about my money.” “You look terrible.”

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“I know what the doctor will do. We go through this every day.” “You’re not getting any better.” “Let’s go downstairs. You need money to get better.” He had a hard time walking down the stairs, and it took them a while. He had to stop and rest several times. In the reception room, the hipsters looked up from the pillows at them and then went back to looking at nothing. One of the Algerians called for Natashia, and she came out. She looked at Tim and didn’t say anything. He asked her something in French, and she nodded. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Miriam and he followed Natashia into the other room. Miriam waited, standing in the middle of the room. The Algerians watched her and the hipsters didn’t. No one said anything and the only sounds came from the street outside. Once she heard Tim laugh. It was a deep, almost healthy sound, and she thought how long it had been since she’d heard him laugh like that. Then she waited a while longer, and then he came back out. There was an odd glow in his sick face. It might have been excitement. It made him look worse; it colored him somehow green. It took them longer to get upstairs than it had taken them to get down. Tim didn’t say anything on the way up. He was concentrating on something, or maybe it took all of his strength just to climb the stairs. When they got to the room, he lay back down on the bed. His breathing came in gasps. After a while, he began to breathe normally, with just the slightest wheeze that had been part of him since he’d gotten sick. “The money is being sent,” he said. “It should be at the American Express.” He sat up in bed then. Then he stood and began to walk around the room. He didn’t talk at all, and he seemed caught in some difficult thought, like a person trying to add a series of large numbers in his head. Miriam gave up trying to talk to him and went out. She felt nervous. She thought that maybe she had just caught Tim’s restlessness and that the feeling would go away if she walked. There was nothing yet at the American Express. She walked back across the river and bought some croissants filled with ham and cheese at a bakery. These were favorites of Tim’s. When she came back to the room, she found Tim where she had left him, sitting on the edge of the bed. He was staring at his fingers. It seemed to her that the swelling had gone down around his eyes.

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She was surprised at how disappointed she was to see that. “I guess I’m getting better,” he said without much enthusiasm. The next day was pretty much the same. He seemed nervous and distracted. “I’ve just been cooped up too long,” he said. The money still hadn’t arrived. Miriam walked around for most of the afternoon, not wanting to go back to the room where Tim was getting better. It was early evening when she finally did come back. She had two of the ham and cheese croissants for Tim, and she’d bought him a small bouquet of flowers. She heard music coming from above her as she climbed the stairs. It was some sort of brutal electronica. She was sure that the music was coming from their room. Miriam felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. She knocked on their door instead of opening it as she ordinarily would have done. The door opened a bit and a familiar face looked out of it. “Well, just like old times,” Peter said, opening the door wide now for her and smiling viciously. She stepped into the room automatically. She wished that she weren’t holding the flowers and the croissants. She looked for Tim. He was at the table, standing by Peter’s CD player. The swelling had completely left his face. He smiled at her. It was a sick, weak smile, and it frightened her. “Flowers for me,” Peter said, taking the flowers and dancing around the room. “You shouldn’t have.” His hair, she noticed now, was bright green. She didn’t know what to do. She waited. She looked at the wall so she wouldn’t have to look at Tim’s smile. She knew that any moment now she would start to feel something and even as she thought that, she could feel it forming in her. “I’ve come to take Timmy away from all this,” Peter said, waving the flowers around the room. “He needs sunshine, warm Mediterranean sunshine. God, I hate Paris. It’s like living in a magazine.” Now the feeling came. It was a hot, physical panic. Not because her time with Tim was ending and not because she would be alone. It was a panic for having been so seriously, furiously wrong. She said that she would come back for her things in the morning.

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Tim didn’t say anything, and she didn’t turn around. She knew that if she turned around, he would still be smiling. Peter opened the door for her with a flourish, and she left the room. She left the hotel and walked down to the river and out onto the Pont Neuf. She stood looking at the water and the lights coming on in the city. She realized that she wasn’t going to cry, and that surprised her. It was a warm summer night, and she was standing, sad and alone, on a bridge in Paris, looking at the Seine. A slight breeze blew into her face. The city and the river were incredibly beautiful. And all she felt was the ache of her panic. There was no romantic glow inside her. No schoolgirl poetry in her sadness. All that beauty was still there, but she knew that she would never feel any of that again.

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LES BOHEM was a small part of the great Los Angeles music scare of the 1980s, both with his own band, Gleaming Spires, and as a member of the band Sparks. Somehow that evolved into a career writing for movies and television, and before he knew how it had happened, he’d written some movies and TV shows including Twenty Bucks, Daylight, Dante’s Peak, The Alamo, and the mini-series, Taken, which he wrote and executive produced with Steven Spielberg, for which he won an Emmy award. He’s had songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Freddy Fender, Steve Gillette, Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde), and Alvin (of the Chipmunks). His short novel, Flight 505, was published last year by UpperRubberBoot. His new album, Moved to Duarte, was released in January on Jack Rabbit Day Records to much critical acclaim and no sales whatsoever.

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UDine

[ FICTION]

Hi there! Thanks for checking out UDine. It’s great to get your email! We’re having one of “those days” right now. I’m sure you get it—we’ve all been there. No need to stress though, cos we’ll get back to you in a hurry. Go on and enjoy your day. We’ve got it covered, All your friends at UDine This is an automated message please do not reply Dear Charles Thank you for your interest in UDine. We are committed to making your Dining Experience gastronomically excellent. We note your helpful comments and suggestions. Thank you for getting in touch. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support

Kathleen Joss Marshall

Dear Charles Thank you for your interest in UDine. The UDine Experience is uniquely designed to provide nutritious and balanced cuisine while maximizing convenience. The whole range of UDine products has been developed specifically with the satisfaction of the UDiner in mind. Thank you once again for your enquiry, Have a great nutritious day UDine Support

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Dear Charles The UDine Dining Experience has been developed in partnership with nutritionists, a range of top chefs (many of whom have their own television shows), and NASA expertise. I hope this assists you, Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles I can assure you I am not a robot. I am a living, breathing employee of UDine. Unfortunately I have no way of proving this to you, and I am afraid that it is entirely against company policy for employees to contact UDiners by telephone, even when directly invited to do so. Let me reassure you that in order to protect your privacy I have now destroyed all record of the telephone numbers that you so kindly shared with me. I am sorry your experience of UDine did not meet your expectations. UDine would like to offer you a gift voucher. We hope this now settles the matter to your satisfaction. Your gift voucher can be redeemed at the transaction point. Please quote your UDine ID number: QVT0009198439ZT674CCT Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles Thank you for such a quick response. The gift voucher is gratis and is standard UDine customer support policy. And in answer to your final question: William. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles You are quite correct. UDine does indeed carry an extensive Gourmet selection, including a range of quickly digestible wines for celebratory occasions. What defines a “celebratory occasion” is entirely for the UDiner to determine, but as you say, a wedding anniversary could be one such example. I hope this assists you. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support

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Dear Charles Thank you for your detailed reply. It certainly does aid me in comprehending your situation. And on a wholly personal note—I empathize with your predicament. You may, however, wish to consider that had you taken your wife to an actual restaurant for your anniversary, she may well have equally disliked that experience too. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles Far be it for me to presume to give you marital counsel. I am merely pointing out that UDine cannot be responsible for the emotional caprices of its UDiners. It is a marketing wool-pulling exercise perpetrated by a well-known fast food chain to suggest a dining experience can instantly change one’s emotional state to the default position of “happy.” UDine, as a company with the very highest regard for customer care, does not make such claims. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles The UDine Gourmet selection—including a range of efficiently digestible wines for celebratory occasions—is an exceptionally popular product. I do not have actual sales figures in hand but I can obtain these if you would find them at all useful. Please let me know. In answer to your next question (contained at para. 22)—to my knowledge, UDine has not conducted any investigation into this issue. There has, however, for product placement purposes, been extensive research carried out to determine the UDine demographic. The UDine Experience is particularly popular with the nomadic business classes, shift workers such as the police force, and members of the medical profession (excluding lower paid employees such as orderlies). I hope this assists you. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support

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Dear Charles I am unmarried so it is impossible for me to answer your question about average weekly marital relations in the over 70s age group with any authority. Apologies I cannot be more helpful at this time. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles Difficulty in swallowing tablets is a common complaint among our older demographic. This is precisely why all UDine products come in lozenge as well as pellet form, in addition to a variety of handy sizes ranging from “pop” to “jumbo”—reflecting portion size and calorie count. This permits UDiners to see at a glance exactly how much they are consuming, and to moderate accordingly. Many UDiners have commended this approach as a useful aid to weight loss. UDine also offers a variety of tablet-meals in travel size—especially designed for the UDiner on the move. Having said that, I empathise with your lady wife’s situation. I once had the misfortune of experiencing an unpleasant incident with a fish bone, which caused me great discomfort and required medical intervention. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support Dear Charles Thank you for your kind words. I have always enjoyed helping people, and it is good to know that I can be of some comfort to you at this difficult time. Not knowing your good lady personally makes it difficult for me to offer comment. However, as you say, fifty years is a very long time and I am sure she will soon realize that your presence of mind and knowledge of first aid assisted her in her hour of need and that the Heimlich maneuver in no way constitutes domestic battery. Yours William UDine Support

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Dear Charles In all honesty, no. Much as I believe UDine offers a first class product, I am strictly a meat and potatoes man myself. I am sure that popping a pill saves all sorts of time and trouble buying the groceries and working out how to cook them and so on. In fact, lots of folks write in and say how convenient it is when you are on the move all day. Still, it seems to me we’ve become altogether obsessed by convenience. I remember when we used to have the convenience store on the corner, and that was more than enough for us. Now we spend all our lives running round in circles convinced that this or that is going to save us some more time. I don’t know about you, Charles, but all this time that we’re meant to be saving—where’s it all going to? The days seem shorter than ever if you ask me. So no, in answer to your question, I like to sit down at the end of the day to a good home cooked dinner—maybe a slice of my sister’s apple pie—and listen to my nephews talking about what they’ve learned in school. That always puts a smile on my face, and as far as I know, that’s not something you can buy down the internet at any price. Yours in friendship William UDine Support Dear Charles Good to hear from you again. That really is tremendous news. I had a feeling you would be able to work things out given time. My sister and her husband had some troubles a few years back and marriage counselling really helped them through. I’m sure you are doing the right thing. And by all means, please feel free to share my emails, if that would be at all helpful to your situation. I can also send you a copy of an email from a very angry man in Tallahassee, who says UDine is wholly to blame for his decision to rip out his entire kitchen and have the space converted into a pool room, which has resulted in domestic discord, pending alimony settlement and divorce. He also raised several interesting points with me about the UDine SnacPak (variety: “Bullet Blue”) having an untoward effect on his child’s mental health. Our lawyers are still looking into that one, but if you ask me when you put anything inside you that has more E-numbers than a hand of Scrabble, you’re just asking for trouble.

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As for your idea, I don’t know the restaurant myself, but most ladies I know of enjoy a romantic meal where they can eat by candlelight, so that sounds like a fine thing to do. I wish you the best of luck and I’ll have you in my prayers. Yours in friendship William Dear Charles Well, I just don’t know what to say. The Good Lord must have some plan for you up his sleeve that he doesn’t want to share with us just yet. Keep the faith, brother, and I am sure your lady wife will soon realize she has made a grievous mistake. All the same, if I were in your shoes, Charles, I would be hiring myself a good lawyer. I have been asking myself lately what I can do to help you out. And I think my prayers have been answered: I would have no problem at all writing your wife (or her attorney) a letter of apology on behalf of UDine, stating that the whole situation is entirely our fault. Our advertising is very persuasive, in fact, some have said it’s positively misleading (that guy on jet skis must be at least eighty). In all fairness, I just don’t think your wife can reasonably hold you responsible for the fact she chose to get herself married to a regular guy who only wants the finer things in life for her, and was told, in good faith, that our Black Sac Poppers (Jumbo size) would be a great way to commence an anniversary meal. Yours in friendship William

KATHLEEN JOSS MARSHALL is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the former child star of a well-known BBC television show (the presenter of which is now in jail), and the former speechwriter to the former First Minister of Scotland (who is now working for RT—the Russian state-owned broadcaster), and is currently not getting therapy for either of these experiences, but writing a novel instead.

Dear Charles Thank you for your interest in UDine. We are committed to making the Dining Experience gastronomically excellent. UDine has offered you a gift voucher. We hope this now settles the matter to your satisfaction. Your gift voucher can be redeemed at the transaction point. Please quote your UDine ID number: QVT0009198439ZT674CCT We now consider this matter to be closed. Have a great nutritious day UDine Support

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