BERKELEY FICTION R E V I E W
PUBLISHED BY UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
Cover art by Sarah Ogren Copyright 2011 by Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction Review is not an official publication of the Associated Students of the University of California or the University of California, Berkeley English department. These stories are works of fiction and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASUC or the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley Fiction Review is an ASUC-sponsored, undergraduaterun, non-profit publication. www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bfr firstname.lastname@example.org Inquiries, correspondence and submissions should be sent to: Berkeley Fiction Review, 10B Eshleman Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. The Berkeley Fiction Review is not responsible for unsolicited material. Distributed by Ubiquity, Brooklyn, New York Printed by Print Papa, Santa Clara, California
Berkeley Fiction review MANAGING EDITORS Jennifer Brown
ASSOCIATE EDITORS Carolyn Beaty Elena Czubiak
Max Gektin Yvonne Lin
Taylor Norman Ginger Wu
ASSISTANT EDITORS Ariela Alberts Pareesa Amrbar Nicole Bennett
Merany Eldridge Michael Hicks Tessa Gregory Lisa Coronado-Morse Bryan Gonzalez Eva Nierenberg Christian Bustos-Torres Renee Rivera
ADVISERS Jan Crisostomo
STAFF Nicole Block Maria Bolanos Chris Bui Andrew Buchanan Jovan Carreon Steve Chang Sunny Choi Alexandria De Vera Angela Delphenich Maya Falkenberg Samantha Giordano Allison Grey Catherine Habash Anne Hikido Sarah Kate Holmes Hella Homman Gitanjali Khandagle
Alaina Kral Sierra Lee Emma Lundberg Lianna Martin Laramie Martinez Chloe Medosch Ida Naughton Melinda Noack Ashley Nojoomi Elaine Ou Antoinette Panacek Ayden Parish Elaina Patton Jason Piemnoppakao Alexandra Posey Lily Prasuethsut Abigail Reed
Laura Robledo Julia Roma Theresa Saito Aliza Sajjad Sierra Senzaki Maryam Shamlou Gawon Sung Adriana Vasquez Paige Vehlewald Theresa Vitale Elizabeth Weckhurst Alexander Wong Christian White Jonathan Wong Veronica Wong Alexis Yavorsky Ye Yoo
Foreword Realism is a thing of the past. The year has seen a lot of changes at the University of California, Berkeley. Fee increases, impacted classes and student walkouts have found the staff of the Berkeley Fiction Review diving headlong into literature as a route of escape. After all, our reality is hard enough. Accordingly, this yearâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review features mermaids, (non-sparkling) vampires and women who eat their cookbooks. True to our pledge to publish experimental fiction, we delight in reading alternative styles and content and, in this issue, have chosen to focus on the themes of subversion of expectations and exploration. Our cover art, by Sarah Ogren, illustrates this concept. Only in art can a butterfly support the weight of a whale; similarly, only in fiction can crickets inspire friendship between two ordinary people, only in fiction can a giraffe be an acceptable birthday present for a seven year old. Only in the Berkeley Fiction Review can you find a magazine that broaches all of these surreal concepts. So, bon voyage as you begin this new adventure! We wish you luck, but provide no map.
Jennifer Brown Brighton Earley Jennifer Brown
Caitlin McGuire Caitlin McGuire
contents How to Transport a Whale Sarah Ogren
How Ladies Travel Sarah Ogren
Dreaming of Escape Sarah Ogren
Dog in a Jar Thomas May
Latchkey Anne Valente
The Places We Keep Our Dead Tyler Evans
The Downward Spiral Brian Betteridge
The Finger in the Matchbox Lucas Carpenter First Place Sudden Fiction Winner
The Mermaid and the Pornographer Jacqueline Vogtman
Tiger Thailan When
Disarticulation Brad McLelland
Cleaver Kyle Snow Second Place Sudden Fiction Winner
The Streets of Philadelphia Brian Betteridge
Couple Meg Tuite
Indian Village B.J. Hollars
Leaves Ray Radigan
Trumpet M. J. Kelley Third Place Sudden Fiction Winner
Chessmen Nate Stottrup
Any Little Morsel Bess Winter
Cricket Song Carissa Lentz
Summer Chair Ray Radigan
Funeral Games Caitlin Campbell
Ghost Thomas May
Notes on Contributors
Berkeley Fiction Review
latchkey ANNE VALENTE
Sasha’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, and though her parents gave her a present, its string and paper meant to be torn away that day, almost ten days have passed, and still she has not opened it. They wrapped it in paisley paper, tied a bright purple string around its corners and hoped she would pull all the casings away, just after she blew out the seven candles on her frosted yellow cake. But when Sasha blew hard across the sugared flowers, her cheeks puffed like globes, her mother made her close her eyes, placed the gift in her hands, and when Sasha opened them and looked down, she only said I love it, her voice a low whistle, and set it aside on the carpet fully wrapped. Don’t you want to open it? her mother asked. But Sasha only said no, and her mother looked at her father over Sasha’s small head. Then Sasha said it again, that she loved it as it was, and her father cut the cake and gave his daughter the corner piece, the one with the most frosting as she always liked. They might have thought something was wrong, that maybe she anticipated what it was and knew she wouldn’t like it, and refused to expose her disappointment, there in the kitchen, in front of her parents and the candle smoke drifting in curls toward the ceiling. But after Sasha ate her Anne Valente
cake, she bent down and picked up the present, clutched it tight against her chest as her parents led her to the car to take her to the movies. She brought it with her into the theater, an animated feature she’d wanted to see for weeks, and after the credits rolled up and they drove their daughter home, Sasha carried the present into her bedroom and pulled it under the covers with her, gripped it like a stuffed animal as she fell asleep. And now, almost two weeks later, Sasha still will not open her gift, even though she carries it everywhere like a lucky charm. Her parents have asked her, delicately at times, if maybe she wants to open it, maybe see what’s inside. But she shakes her head no each time, grips the paisley edges tighter, and the whites of her knuckles have made her parents stop, have told them there is no more need to ask.
H Sasha sits on the playground at recess, one arm holding the present, the other gripping a woodchip that she digs into the soft dirt until a pill bug rolls out. It lies curled up, playing dead, and Sasha puts down the woodchip and pokes it, prodding gently until it unfurls itself and crawls away. She watches it go, its hard back glistening in the afternoon sunlight, until a shadow passes overhead and Sasha squints up to see who is standing over her. What are you doing? Ben asks. He sits next to her in class, builds soda-bottle terrariums alongside her, condensation beading like raindrops inside the bottles’ plastic walls. As she looks up, Sasha can’t see his halo, always hidden when other people are around. I don’t know, she says. He looks at her woodchip, then at the present clutched under her arm. Why don’t you just open that? It’s fine as it is, she says, and pulls the gift tighter against her side. Ben sits down next to her, picks up a woodchip of his own. Well, what do you think it is? he asks, and when he looks at her she sees Saturn glinting in his eye, so small no one else can see it. Maybe it’s an army, Sasha sighs, and pierces the dirt with her woodchip. A tiny army of lop-eared rabbits. 10
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Ben doesn’t laugh, as maybe her parents would have, if she’d given them this response. Instead Ben’s eyebrows arch, and his mouth bends into a smile. Travis and Jane are both going today, he says. Maybe you can open it then. Sasha smiles, holds her mouth in a curve as Ben walks away. But when he’s gone she looks down and digs, and wonders if there will ever be a right time to open it, if it will ever be as perfect as it is fully wrapped.
H After school Sasha rides the bus to Ms. Carraway’s house, the woman in her neighborhood who watches her until her parents come home from work, who watches lots of other children in the neighborhood too, including Ben, Travis and Jane. Travis and Jane are a year older, and it’s only at Ms. Carraway’s that she sees them, and even then only some days, the days no parent can pick them up from school. Though Ms. Carraway sometimes watches up to ten children at once, they always seem to go home before Sasha and the other three. When just the four of them are left, Ms. Carraway puts on a movie for them and naps, slinks back into her bedroom like a cat until the doorbell rings and it’s time for them to start going home. It was during a movie that Sasha first discovered it, that she was the only one not like them. They were watching Beauty and the Beast, Sasha curled up on the floor while Ben and Travis sat on the couch, Jane in a beanbag chair nearby. Sasha leaned back for a handful of Chex Mix and noticed a halo of planets orbiting Ben’s head, spinning like children on a merry-go-round. Sasha gasped, dropped the Chex Mix on the carpet, and Ben looked at her, startled, like he didn’t recognize any problem at all. Jane and Travis also looked unfazed, kept watching the movie, and that’s when Sasha discovered they all had secrets, and she was the only one without something special, some small mystery to call her own. Today there are three other children, seven in total, and Ms. Carraway feeds them cookies and lets them play board games – Battleship for Sasha, her favorite since kindergarten, and Ms. Carraway is kind enough not to Anne Valente
ask about the present, which rests unopened in Sasha’s lap. But once the others go home, parents arriving in the doorway and escorting their children to the car, Ms. Carraway corrals the remaining four into the living room and puts on a movie. Back to the Future this time, since they say they are tired of cartoons. Ms. Carraway escapes to her bedroom, and when the door shuts, the planets appear around Ben’s head like a crown. Travis’ round belly becomes a fishbowl, full of puffers, jellyfish and a hermit crab perched on a rock. And Jane laughs and whispers into her pocket, where a small librarian tickles her with his wiggling movements, his voice so small it sounds like a squeak, but a squeak that can describe encyclopedia entries on call. Sasha sinks into the couch cushions, sloping into their safety, and clutches the present against her shirtfront, hoping the others won’t notice her. But Ben remembers, climbs across the couch toward her, and sits on the middle cushion on his knees looking at her. Sasha watches Mars spin on its tiny axis above him, small between Earth and Jupiter, the latter the size of a grapefruit. Hey, now you can open it, Ben says, eyes moving toward the package. Yeah, why not? Jane says. The librarian pokes his head out of her pocket and nods too. Sasha looks at Jane and Ben, then Travis, who isn’t watching them, eyes cast down upon a seahorse, fins whirring, small body propelling itself around his fishbowl. I don’t know, Sasha says, and looks down at the present, at its paisley print and bright purple ribbon. She hugs it tighter, holding it close like a newborn. Don’t you want to know what’s inside? Travis says, absently, eyes still on the seahorse, which has whirred its way to the front of his glass belly and looks out at them. I want to know, the librarian squeaks from Jane’s pocket, so softly Sasha can barely hear him. But as Sasha looks down at the gift, the wrapping paper stretched like thick skin across its edges, a shudder pulses through her at the thought of the paper being ripped away, as if skin itself would be torn and split. Well, I don’t, she says. It’s fine the way it is. 12
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The fabric of Jane’s pocket moves, small stabbing darts, as if the librarian is punching the material from inside. I want to know! he shouts, but the movie is loud enough to drown out his tiny screams. Ben sits back on his heels, the planets ambling across his forehead like a parade. Well, what do you think it is? Ben asks again. What do you think, really? Sasha sighs. It must be a carrier pigeon, she says, a diving bird that will take my wishes to the bottom of the sea and bury them, safe in the ocean floor. Ben drops into the couch cushions and smiles. But looking down at the package, Sasha doesn’t believe what she’s said. She doesn’t know if it is anything more than paisley paper and string, but, she thinks, she wouldn’t be unhappy if that was all it was.
H After dinner, Sasha watches television in the living room with her parents. Her mother works on a crossword puzzle at one end of the couch, and Sasha sits on her father’s lap at the other end. He reads a book over her head while she watches the screen before her, the present laying across her belly. Sasha, sweetheart, her mother sighs, it’s been two weeks. She bites her lower lip and doesn’t look up as she speaks, pen scribbling against the newspaper. Sasha turns back to the television, slumps lower on her father’s lap. Don’t you want to open it already? her mother says. Aren’t you tired of carrying that around? But Sasha just grips the package tighter, among her mother’s scrawling pen and the warble of the television. What she is tired of is people asking. The weight of the present, it feels like nothing more than the weight of butterfly wings. It is a weight she could carry indefinitely. Well, we never did throw you a birthday party, her father says. He peers over his book at Sasha, who is already looking up at him, her eyes big. Why don’t some of those friends of yours come over? The ones that are always at Ms. Carraway’s with you. Anne Valente
Sasha tenses, her muscles retreating like turtles into shells, so solidly that she thinks her father must feel her twitches through his shirtsleeves. But he just peers down at her and smiles, asks, what do you think? Sasha looks down at her present, nods so softly it could almost be a no, then slides off her father’s lap and climbs the stairs to her room, crawling into the covers with her package clutched tight, like it might disappear.
H After school the next day, Ms. Carraway puts on Flight of the Navigator and retreats to her bedroom for a nap. Sasha sits with the others on the couch and keeps her eyes on the television. The paisley gift sits like a lapdog on her knees. She pretends not to watch the others, their acrobatic magic. My parents are throwing me a birthday party, Sasha says, so casually it hurts. They want all of you to come. Jane leans forward, the librarian perched on her shoulder. Will there be cake? she asks. The librarian smiles, tells the room that some cakes include cream of tartar. I think so, Sasha says. Soda and chips too. When is the party? Travis asks. She can’t see his face, since he’s on the other end of the couch, but his glass belly protrudes almost to the edge of the cushions. Today a tiny octopus keeps squeezing itself in and out of a ring-shaped rock. Saturday afternoon at my house, Sasha says. We’ll play pin the tail on the donkey. Maybe more board games. I have Battleship too. It sounds like fun, Jane says. The librarian nods and claps, peeps in his small voice that parties are often accompanied by balloons and streamers. So is Saturday when you’re finally going to open that? Ben asks. He leans forward, points at the gift. His planets aren’t rotating today, and Saturn sits like a frisbee disc at the back of his head. I don’t know, Sasha sighs. She looks down at the gift, instinctively pulls it close, though even she is beginning to wonder if just opening it would be easier. Well, I want to know what it is, Ben says, and when he speaks Sasha realizes that she does too, almost as badly as everyone else in the room. 14
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But when she looks down at the package, at its paisley edges and purple string, she wonders if what lies beneath could possibly be better than those colors, that pattern, if what’s known is ever better than what isn’t. Ben sits back, and Sasha worries for a moment that his head might crush Saturn against the couch cushions. Well, maybe Saturday is perfect, Ben says. Your parents will be there, and so will we. Sasha isn’t entirely sure what he means, since the three of them have only met her parents a few times when they’ve picked her up. And she doesn’t know why it matters whether these three are there either. They’re not really even friends. Sasha settles back into the couch, pretends to watch the movie, but what she’s really watching is the octopus, compressing itself through the small ring. She thinks of her party, how strange and new it will be to have friends in her house. At dinner that night, Sasha pours honey onto a butter knife and dips it into her pile of peas. The peas stick, clinging to the knife’s flat sides, and Sasha bites the peas off one by one, the gift nearby on the fourth chair of their kitchen table. My friends said they’re coming, Sasha says. Her mother clasps her hands together, and her father smiles, his cheeks full of mashed potatoes. Oh, honey, how wonderful! her mother claps. I’m so glad we’re having a party for you. I can get started on the pin-the-tail board, her father says. Do you want a donkey, or something else? Maybe a brontosaurus? Sasha looks at her dad. That’d be a pretty big tail, she says. All the more fun! her father says, and because he’s so excited, Sasha nods and eats her peas. You know, sweetheart, you don’t have to, her mother says. But maybe, if you wanted to, your presentYou could open it then, her father finishes. Her parents look at each other across the table. Sasha looks down at her plate and keeps eating her peas. What do you think it is? her dad asks. A sweater, Sasha says, though it’s almost May, no snow for nearly two Anne Valente
months. Oh, surely you know we’d do better than that! her mother says. Maybe it’s a doll, Sasha says, and when she looks up, her parents seem hurt, as if she’s said something wrong. That night, as she climbs into bed, she brings the package with her. But instead of clutching it against her chest, as she’s done for the past two weeks, she sets it on the pillow beside her and watches it, wishing she could see through the paper to the inside, wishing and watching until she fades to sleep.
H On Saturday, after Sasha’s mother has baked a new cake topped with yellow frosted daisies, and after her father has built a large poster out of cardboard, a huge brontosaurus missing the length of its tail, Sasha stands looking out the front window until at last a car pulls up. Ben arrives first, hopping out of a red Honda with a small gift, and Jane and Travis follow soon after, holding presents in their soft hands. Sasha is surprised at first, not to see the orbiting planets, the rotund fishbowl, or the little librarian standing atop Jane’s shoulder. But then she remembers, her parents are here, and she has never seen their tricks outside the confines of Ms. Carraway’s secluded living room, before the eyes of adults. Pretty dress, Jane says, and touches the hem of Sasha’s purple polka-dot skirt. Sasha blushes, and before she can say thank you, Jane steps into the family room and places her gift on the table, alongside the others that Ben and Travis have brought. The paisley package is also there, stacked beneath the smaller ones, and though Sasha has kept it at a distance all morning, she eyes it as her mother greets Jane in the family room, offers her a soda, and places it in both of Jane’s hands, her small fingers encircling the plastic cup. Who wants to play pin the tail on the brontosaurus? Sasha’s father asks, once they’re all sitting on couches, jackets discarded, sodas fizzing and bubbling. Ben raises his hand, alongside Travis and Jane. Sasha looks at all three of them and raises her hand too, sure now after a morning of worry that 16
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her father’s idea will be a success. He pulls four enormous cardboard tails from behind his armchair and hands one to each of them. Ben asks Sasha if she’d like to go first, since it’s her birthday. But she shakes her head no, and shrinks to the back of the line. Ben shrugs and Sasha’s dad places a red bandana across his eyes as a blindfold. He spins Ben by the shoulders, letting the other three children help, and Ben wobbles toward the wall and pins the tail near the brontosaurus’s front foot, so low that the tail looks like a tree branch the dinosaur will step over. Jane and Travis laugh, and Ben pulls off the blindfold and grins. Sasha’s mom snaps a picture of the first attempt, and she readies her camera as the others spin Jane first, then Travis, Jane’s tail landing somewhere near the dinosaur’s elongated belly, Travis’ resting on its head like longhorns. There is so much laughter in the room that Sasha almost feels ready for her turn. But when her father places the blindfold soft against her eyes, she shuts them tight to blink back the possibility of tears, and with them, the slimmest of chances that she will find her way to the right spot. But when she moves her feet ahead, unsteady beneath the tail’s surprising weight, she walks only a few steps before her hands make contact with the wall. She feels for the cardboard, for the rough texture of the brown paint her father used to construct the dinosaur. She holds the tail above her head and presses it firmly against the board, and as soon as she does, the room erupts in claps and cheers. Sasha pulls the blindfold away from her eyes, and before her the tail is aligned in perfect symmetry with the brontosaurus’ body. Her face breaks into a smile, and her friends crowd around and hug her while her mother takes pictures, and her father admires the tail she’s placed upon his unfinished game board, a board now complete, the dinosaur intact. Sasha’s mother puts on a short cartoon for them to watch, while she and Sasha’s father prepare the cake in the other room. It is a birthday cartoon, Winnie the Pooh’s special celebration, and it is only when all four children are settled into the couch cushions, eyes rapt on the television, that Sasha feels all the tension inside her start to melt away, pooling into a puddle she can almost see. Ben looks over at her, and squeezes her on the shoulder and smiles, and it is then that Sasha sees his planets begin to Anne Valente
orbit, the crown of his head glowing as if it were the sun itself. Ben, your planets, Sasha whispers, and he looks over at her and smiles, I know. But my parents – she starts to say, until she looks at Jane and Travis, and sees Jane’s librarian peeking out from her shirt pocket, Travis’ fishbowl illuminated to reveal a chambered nautilus ambling through the water. My parents will see! Sasha whispers, a little louder this time before she catches herself and peeks over the back of the couch at her parents in the kitchen, who are oblivious cutting the daisy cake. But neither Ben, nor Jane, nor Travis respond at all. They only look at her and smile, knowing smiles that place her on the outside of what they collectively seem to know. Winnie-the-Pooh was created by A.A. Milne, after his own son’s boyhood, the librarian says, eyes poking out of Jane’s shirt pocket, voice muffled by the fabric. Sasha stares at the librarian. Where does he sleep at night? she can’t help but ask, despite his strange smallness, despite Travis’ fishbowl and the slowmoving nautilus and her parents just beyond the couch in the other room. On a coaster on my nightstand, Jane says. He curls up and sleeps, near my head. Sasha looks at her own paisley gift, sitting on the table like a silent watchman as they look past it to the television, to Christopher Robin lighting birthday candles. She doesn’t know why, but she wants to know, now, what lies inside purple ribbons, beneath paisley layers. Maybe you can open your present now, Ben says, almost as if he’s read her mind, as if the planets spinning around his head have pulled her own thoughts into their gravitational orbit. But my parents – Sasha says again before she stops herself short, as the lights in the kitchen dim, as over the couch she sees her parents approaching the living room, turning off lights as they go, the cake a glowing lantern in her mother’s hands. They begin to sing happy birthday, all of them, and Sasha watches as the fishbowl, the planets, the librarian all fail to disappear. Her parents are almost to the living room now, the cartoon muted as they all sing loudly, and Sasha finds herself tethered to the couch, unable to speak or move, 18
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terrified at what her parents will find when the few steps before them become none and they are in the room. Sasha stares at Ben’s planets, at the small, ice-dust ring that encircles his Saturn, and in that moment her father’s voice is the only one she can hear, the low baritone of it, the way it wavers slightly off-key maneuvering over the notes. Sasha’s parents step into the room and lower the cake before her, and as the candles waver and bend beneath her quickened breath, the song ends, the room erupts in another round of claps, and Sasha looks up to see that her friends’ magic has not left the room, and that even so, her parents have not flinched once. Sasha looks from her parents to her friends, all of them staring at her wide-eyed, smiling. And though she doesn’t understand the quick release that their expressions afford her, the way she feels her ribcage melt into itself and relax, she bows her head toward the candles and blows, extinguishing all seven candles in one cathartic breath. Her mother begins to cut the cake, squaring off the corner piece just for Sasha, the one with the most frosting. Sasha looks at Ben’s planets, the librarian leaning far out of Jane’s pocket toward the cake, at a snail dragging its muscled foot across the glass of Travis’ belly, and she wonders if maybe her parents just can’t see them, until her father bends his face near Travis’s fishbowl and taps his finger against the snail. Big fellow there, Sasha’s dad says. Ever get any turtles in here? Sasha stares at her dad. She stares back at Travis. Her dad looks over at her and smiles, though he says nothing, but only grabs the paisley present from the table and places it in her hands. There is a reason you stay too, Sasha, Travis says, his hands around his fishbowl like a watermelon. And it’s not because your mom and dad work late. Sasha isn’t entirely sure that she knows what he means, or even why he’s chosen this moment to say it. But her mom stops cutting the cake, and gives Sasha the same smile that her father has, and it’s then that Sasha knows she’ll never again carry the fully-wrapped package to bed, and that now is the time she must tear away the paisley paper. What is it? she can’t help asking, even though her fingers hover over the purple ribbons, even though she could tear away the paper this second Anne Valente
and find out for herself. Her parents look at one another, exchange a glance Sasha can’t quite decipher. We don’t know, her mother finally says. It’s up to you, really. Sasha looks down at the gift, and before she can let herself question this anymore, to wonder what’s inside, or even to determine what her mother even means, she rips away the ribbon and pulls back the paper, its give not like torn skin as she’d imagined, but more like the give of cotton candy wisps, pulled lightly from cardboard sticks. What lies inside, curled in a small ball beneath the box’s tissue paper, is a baby giraffe, hooves dark, mouth open in a yawn, tongue outstretched and purple. Sasha looks up at her parents, who look back at her smiling still, their faces warm, her mother reaching across the coffee table to grab the camera for more pictures. The giraffe stands on shaky legs inside the box and blinks about the room, until its long-lashed eyes settle on the smaller presents her friends have brought, and it wobbles to the table and bites through the packaging. Sasha gasps, unsure if from embarrassment or shock, until she sees that the small packages contain apples, some carrots, small portions of oats for the giraffe. We didn’t know what they’d be either, Ben says, gesturing toward the half-eaten packages, his planets nearly glowing across his forehead. They’re meant to help. You know, with whatever your gift ended up being. Sasha considers the mystery of this package, beyond its strange newness, and beyond what her parents and her friends already seem to know. She looks for a moment around the room, at what her friends’ secrets maybe say about them. Ben has always been good at solar sciences in her class, and Jane is her grade’s best reader. Sasha doesn’t know much about Travis, but thinks that he must love the ocean, all the creatures that float through its salty waters. Sasha looks at the baby giraffe jumping awkwardly around the room, licking her mother’s hair and peering into Travis’ glass belly, and though she desperately wishes to know, she has no idea what this small creature says about her. But later that night, after her friends have given her hugs and gone home, after her parents have tucked her into bed and kissed her forehead 20
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and after she’s finally thrown away the paisley paper, the purple string sticking out of their kitchen trash can like confetti, Sasha falls asleep with her arms encircling the giraffe’s neck. The baby giraffe yawns and settles into its own separate sleep, and though Sasha still doesn’t understand her new gift, its size taking up almost her entire bed alone, she thinks its purple tongue feels like a lullaby on her nose, soft and warm, and its height, the tallest secret she’s ever wanted to keep.
the Places we keeP our dead TYLER EVANS
I listen as my father reads Uncle Vanya with a thick Russian accent into an old transistor radio. The only light on in the house is from his work station across the hall. It filters a low glow like electric candlelight under the frame of my door. He won’t sleep again tonight. His voice will break on tragicomedy notes of the play until he sobs. Maggie, are you awake yet? The transistor radio breathes static and we both know we’re alone.
H On the day before Maggie died, my dad and I sat at her bedside in the terminal ward for children at St. Mark’s hospital. Maggie’s black Vietnamese eyes shone more dead with her hair gone. I could feel them devouring the light from the room when she asked us what we thought was the best way to be buried. “You aren’t going to die,” I said fighting back tears. “You always were such a pretty liar, Mary,” I winced every time she mentioned my name. My mother spent my childhood reminding me I was named after the whore, not the Virgin. 22
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Maggie weighed the pros and cons of her final resting place. Either she would be tossed in the ground and slowly deteriorate into worm shit or be fired in a kiln and turned into a pulpy ash. “If that’s the case, I want you to bake me into a cake and eat the entire thing in one sitting.” “You want us to eat you, dear?” My dad intended the comment as a joke, but his voice betrayed him, wavering back into tears before the punch line. “It has to be on my birthday and you have to buy me presents.” Maggie abandoned the option of cremation finally because she imagined herself as cake working through my digestive system to eventually be reborn as poop. That left traditional burial. We decided she would be placed in the cemetery across from our house. It was a small lot overlooking the Atlantic. Maggie wanted to hear the chime of metal as the fishermen left the docks in the morning. She wanted to smell the salt and look out on the coast as it reached its vanishing point and intersected eternity beyond New England. She became quiet at a point and looked concerned. “What if I wake up though?” My dad took her tiny, burnt hands in his. “I’ll be there when you wake up.”
H At the funeral, I ignored a balding priest who talked about God’s mercy in a world beyond ours. Me and Maggie were of a different belief system and had our own notion about the afterlife. I knew that as the father spoke, Maggie was in an all-inclusive island resort in heaven playing billiards with Hitler. Heaven was the Caribbean, we had decided. It was a week before my fourteenth birthday, but there would be no celebration that year. We definitely wouldn’t have a cake. I looked down the rows of graves lined like a Halloween tessellation and thought of my last words to Maggie. I don’t know if I can promise you that, kiddo. Tyler Evans
Just lie to me a little bit. It’ll be such a beautiful lie. After the priest said his final soulless amen and the last of the mourners left, my father and I walked across the street to our house. I realized I could see Maggie’s grave from my bedroom window and I would be reminded of all our sweet moments by just looking out. I shut my blinds that day and haven’t opened them since.
H That night my father dug up my sister’s body and planted a receiver to his transistor radio in her casket. He gave her a tender kiss and reburied her. That night he made his first transmission with the Three Sisters by Chekhov.
H A year since father died last May the fifth, on your name day, Irina. It was very cold then, and snowing. I thought I would never live and you were in a dead faint.
H Father doesn’t hear the vampires come tonight. His voice is focused too much on his rendition of Uncle Vanya even though he stumbles with Marina’s lines. The vampires float outside my window, rapping on the glass with long, pointed fingernails. The blind is drawn so I can’t see their twisted forms, eyes empty and white like broken eggshells. They whisper promises to me, asking to be invited in to my room. Mary, let us in and you’ll live forever. You’ll be a child again and everything will be wonderful and new. We’ll go to Europe, says a handsome voice with an exotic accent. We’ll sail the Mediterranean and make love. We’ll go to Disneyland like you were never able to as a child. We’ll give you wealth. 24
Berkeley Fiction Review
Beauty. Orgasms at a moment’s notice. Eternal Life.
H They leave before dawn breaks. The sun bleeds its obnoxious cheer into my room. I can hear the clank of a metal bell sounding from the wharf as crews gather awaiting departure and the half-conscious mumble of Voynitsky from my father’s workstation: A fine day to hang oneself.
H I tell my father over breakfast that the vampires have come back. “You know not to invite them in. Don’t even speak to them. They can manipulate even the strongest-willed people.” “Like Mother?” “Don’t acknowledge them, please sweetheart. I can’t lose you. The dead have started following me. They’re crossing over. With you gone, there would be nothing to stop them from taking me.” I look him over. His body is concave and starved. Even with a six foot frame, he can’t weigh more than 130 pounds by this point. His head is newly shaved, revealing a patchwork sprinkling of pink scars from where he nervously yanked out his hair. He shakes and rocks back and forth in his chair. “Mary, why aren’t you dressed for school?” he asks in a distant voice. “I haven’t gone to school in over a year.” “Oh.” “Have you been taking your pills, dad?” He leans across the table and takes my hand. “Don’t acknowledge them. The vampires.” “Why would it be so terrible?” “Mary, the only thing more horrifying in this world than death is living forever.” Tyler Evans
H There are several reasons my mother was angry the day that Maggie arrived from Vietnam. Before he lost his mind, my father worked as a radio engineer for the government inspecting the antennas of steel towers. When the war came, he left my pregnant mother and enlisted with a com unit ten miles south of Saigon. He worked a night shift, listening through static over hundreds of channels for the slightest discrepancies that would suggest enemy activity. He was lonely every night there and eventually he met a woman, La`hn, who would become Maggie’s mother. Maggie was born after my father’s unit was disbanded, the war was lost, and he was safe at home with his wife and newborn daughter. He wrote the U.S. government every week asking that they allow Maggie to flee the communist regime to come to the U.S. “I don’t give a damn about your rice paddy whore and her daughter,” my mom said many times over the decade. “If she comes here, I’m leaving.” One day, Maggie did. She showed up a dust mite of a girl. The silk dress she wore framed her slender face and dimpled chin like the point of a fat Valentine’s Day heart. To me she was a Japanese Geisha, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. My father hugged her at the door, only stopping to introduce us. I was nervous and stood further back in the room. “You’re sisters, Mary; you’re going to have to look out for one another from now on.” My mother locked herself in her bedroom with a bottle full of painkillers and a fifth of vodka. “I’ll kill myself if she stays. Say that I won’t.” My father called the bluff and Maggie moved into my room. The girl was fluent in Vietnamese, French and English. She had a vinyl copy of Revolver by the Beatles, liked French existentialists, thought Jimmy Carter was sexy and hated Ernest Hemingway because she said he was a man-child who blamed women for his depression in real life, so he killed them in his novels. I immediately liked Maggie. 26
Berkeley Fiction Review
That night, my mother left with the vampires. Maggie and I lay in bed wide awake listening to my parents scream in the next room. “You fucked a local farm worker, Mike, so did everyone else in the goddamn war. The only difference is no one else told their wives about it or expected them to take care of their illegitimate chink babies.” “Why are you so ungrateful? For all my time here in the U.S., I’ve been devoted to you.” “Ungrateful?! You slept with another woman.” My father didn’t respond for a while and the house was quiet. I could hear male crickets chirping desperately for mates on the beds of graves across the way. “Are they fighting about me?” Maggie asked timidly. “American husbands and wives do this all the time. It’s why so few of them stay together.” My father broke the silence. “Why can’t you just be happy with the life I’ve given you?” “Because it’s not the life I imagined for myself.”
H My father had left to buy cigarettes when the vampires came. Maggie and I listened at the wall as they spoke in hushed voices at my mother’s window. We would never betray you like he did, dear. You’ve given your entire life to him and you’ll never get it back. We’ll give you your youth back again. You can travel the world like you always wanted to, instead of playing caretaker to that little shit. “Okay,” my mother said. “Come in.” The window groaned open and we heard their jagged toenails scrape as they moved across her hardwood floor to her bedside. There was the sound of sheets being pulled back followed by low moans. “So this is what it feels like,” my mother’s voice was languid, laced with a dreamlike quality. Tyler Evans
Then there was nothing. The room was quiet. I pressed my head against the wall. A raspy voice laughed from the other side. Is that you, Mary? Why don’t you let us in and come join your mother. “Leave us alone,” Maggie shrieked from my side. Maggie, oh sweet Maggie. We don’t want you. You’re going to be dead in a couple years anyways. Do you want us to tell you how it happens? “They can’t see my death, can they?” Mary, we’ll come back when you’re old enough. They raked their fingernails on the drywall as they filed out of my parents’ bedroom. My mother was the last to leave. Goodbye my dear, she hissed. You were always a disappointment to me. Tell your father that our relationship was an embarrassing disaster and he never satisfied me. And just like that, my mother was gone from my life. Maggie dropped to her knees and cowered beside the wall. “They can’t see my death. How could they?”
H Anna Pavlovna: As for the wife, she stays at home with a sick child, waiting, when at last a note comes from him – asking her to send his linen and things.
H Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn have all been replaced by the sound of power tools from my father’s workstation. He works late into the night, sparks flying off of power saws to send the ghosts of shadows dancing through the hallway. He’s drawn all the blinds to the house and in the daytime, he hauls radio equipment into his room from his pickup. Some nights he leaves and comes back days later covered in hardened dirt. He nods his head before retreating back into his workshop as though that’s all the explanation a person needs in the world. “Come here, Mary.” He motions me over to the windows at our breakfast nook one morning. Across the street is a white party convection 28
Berkeley Fiction Review
van with tinted windows. Two men in black suits lean against the back of the vehicle smoking cigarettes. “You see? The dead, they know where we live now. They know about my plans, they don’t want me to find Maggie.” I rub his back between his shoulder blades. The bones of his spine jut like xylophone keys. I wonder if Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker will play if I press them in the right order. Maybe the chemicals in his brain will balance out if I play the right melody. “How do you know they’re dead?” I ask. “There’s a number of ways you can spot them. They walk around in formal dresses or the tailored suits they were buried in, always in their finest jewelry or cufflinks. Sometimes they wear medals they got in the war, or handle newspaper clippings and letters that were left at their sites. Sometimes you can spot rotting flowers tucked back behind their ears, or in suit pockets. They don’t blink.” “Dad, we can’t stay like this.” “They’re more temporary than us. They rent homes; they don’t own. They stay awake late into the night in front of a television, unblinking, watching reruns of sitcoms and televangelists solicit heaven. They know better than this. Still, they send these men donations. The dead send severed fingers and eyelids in closed envelopes. They don’t use them anyways. They’ve forgotten the names and faces of their loved ones. At grocery stores sometimes, they confuse an ice cream sandwich for a wife of fifty years. I spotted one of them crying into a lawn gnome the other day. The dead woman shed a silk black dress and sat naked embracing the statuette, running her fingertips over the point in his hat. More than anything, they’re angry, Mary. They’re angry that a person is bothering their eternity. They’re angry that none of them got it right while they were alive, and they still have no idea what they should have done. It’s not going to be too much longer before they come for me.” I bring my father a bowl of cornflakes from the kitchen. He stares at them, wincing each time the flakes pop in the milk like miniature breakfast firecrackers. “The dead aren’t going to come for you, Dad.” “Why not?” He makes no movement towards the cereal. “Because they’re dead.” Tyler Evans
Later that night, as I cross the threshold of his workstation for a glass of water I hear voices from the other side. A boy speaks in a frightened voice through the static of an old transistor. I hear children laughing in the background and the rusted joints of a carousel groaning from a distance. “It’s so dark in here. I can’t see anything,” the boy says. “Do you see Maggie in there? Call out to Maggie.” “The people here don’t talk. They just laugh. Their mouths and eyes have been stitched over with black thread. It doesn’t matter if I ask them where my mom is. I tell them I’m cold. It is so cold here.” “Call out to Maggie. Tell my daughter I’m going to be there when she wakes up.” The transistor cuts out. I hear a loud crash as it hits the opposite side of the wall and my dad begins to sob. The vampires don’t come that night. I sit in bed listening to a 45-yearold man cry over a workhorse and can’t help but wonder if their prediction hadn’t been right. Later in the month, after my mother left, Maggie was diagnosed with cancer. My father was fired from his job when he told a government shrink visiting his company that his wife had been abducted by vampires, and that if you listened low enough in the static of a broadcast you could hear whispers from God from the beginning of creation. God’s voice moved like the light of stars and if you had the right ears you could almost make out a plan for the end of the universe more lyrical than its conception. I was suspended from eighth grade when Dan Rissel tried going down my pants behind the 7-Up machine and I stabbed him in the shoulder with a clicky pen. When they pulled me off him screaming, “Give me back my mother, give her back,” they say I had dug the pen in deep enough that I had narrowly missed an artery by a quarter inch. For my time off, I was supposed to write an apology to him and his family, something to the effect that I regretted shanking their pervert son. Get Well Soon. I never went back. After her first chemo treatments, Maggie was tired. Her dark geisha hair was already thinning and I found bloated clumps of it in the shower drain in the morning. She couldn’t move out of bed so my father would read to her in the night. 30
Berkeley Fiction Review
“What do you want to hear tonight?” “Let’s read The Love Girl and the Innocent again. I can read the parts of Nemov.” “Don’t you want to read something a little more cheerful?” She never did. Maggie liked the Russian playwrights because they were censored, imprisoned and shot. “Only true creation comes from boundaries,” she said.
H The Dead: I had a dream last night. My father: You dream? The Dead: I was sitting in a field of sunflowers with an old friend, reminiscing about our time together. Between laughter and a nervous exchange of glances he would push his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. I realized I had never met him before and questioned if he was even a man, or woman, and what constitutes the difference? When I was alive, I remember there was talk of penetration and God. Sometimes things like love and fidelity were thrown into the equation as though those things summed it all up. Sometimes I trace my fingers over the silhouettes of words I’ve forgotten, realizing there’s no difference between concepts like disease and cotton candy, God and pornography. A train passed by bound west for Prague. It had rusted over in tones of sea foam green and soft browns. The man held my hand and told me we shouldn’t talk about love. It was then that I realized that I had been sitting in the field alone. My father: I’m looking for my daughter, Maggie. Have you seen her? The Dead: In spring, we dank palm wine on the Sahara, and we didn’t use heavy words like love or halibut. There was a bonfire of fast-burning brush, dry from sun exposure. Everyone in the group danced until someone mentioned that maybe we weren’t in the desert. Maybe it was just something we had read in a book. My father: I don’t care about all that. Just tell me if you’ve seen my daughter. The Dead: We’re trying to explain it to you. Listen.
H Tyler Evans
Even though Maggie wasn’t Catholic, we took her to St. Augustine’s Chapel to be baptized a week before she died. When the moment came and Maggie was called forth, she looked like an extraterrestrial in her tiny child wheelchair, meekly rolling down the aisle. A visiting Bishop from the New England Diocese was overseeing the service that day. With Maggie sitting on the stage, this flabby bear of a holy man approached her with his dripping baptismal wand. It was at that moment Maggie swore she could hear the crucified Jesuses nailed to crosses and trinkets on the walls of the building laughing. The Saints in stained glass and doves proclaiming peace joined in with the Jesus choir till their song became a mad cackle. “We have you forever, Maggie. You can’t escape.” Maggie in all her frailness kicked the holy man in his stomach and rolled herself like a terminal linebacker down the aisle. I was the only person at Mass who laughed when her screams reached us from the main lobby of the building. “You’ll never take me alive, Jesus!”
H Later in her hospital room, Maggie told me her mother never believed in God. That anytime she was a bad girl, La`hn would tell Maggie a fairytale from her village about a witch that wandered the countryside and collected all the evil, spoiled children in a giant burlap sack she carried over her shoulder. The witch carried a sewing set and she snuck into the children’s rooms late at night with a threaded needle. She sewed their mouths, eyes and ears shut with a cross pattern of black stitches and carried them away to hell in her bag. “I wish the witch would come for me now,” Maggie said. “Anything is better than this place.” “What would I do without you?” I asked her. “You can come too.” Because Maggie didn’t want to go to a Christian heaven, filled with good white boys and girls, we decided to create our own religion that day. Our following was called the Church of the Indifferent Host. Maggie was appointed the Archbishop and I was the High Templest, positions that 32
Berkeley Fiction Review
were as powerful as they were meaningless. Maggie scrawled our book of Genesis with a black eyeliner pencil into a tea paper journal her mother had given her before she left for America. She detailed Creation as only Maggie could, dictating the nature of our God: God is a great thespian in the sky that smokes clove cigarettes from an ivory holder. He wears a satin cigar jacket and watches the events of the world through a pair of opera glasses. He has only one eye from a tragic cricket accident and for His lack of depth perception, His blessings and curses fall on the earth at random, leaving luck and random chance to reign supreme. It’s more fun for Him that way. Most of all we exist to amuse God. He created mankind and free will for entertainment. Those most esteemed by Him are those that resist death in the most violent and comical ways. “So fuck your brother’s wife,” Maggie said. “Fuck your brother. Start an opium den. Kill somebody. Kill an entire race of somebodies. He’ll only love you more in the end.” “What about Heaven?” I asked. “What about it? Everyone is accepted. Broadway cherishes its flops along with its triumphs. Those who are the most repulsive, the most deprived of morality sit at God’s right hand in the all-inclusive Caribbean resort of Heaven.” “And Hitler?” “We should only be so lucky to play a game of shuffleboard with the Fuhrer.” She let out a little pixie laugh at the mention. Heaven, we decided, was anything your mind conceived. Every trip you wanted to take, sensation had, Beatles member fucked. “It seems like I’d get pretty bored before eternity ends though,” Maggie said. “I guess at that point death might be a good thing.”
H The Dead: I had the best dream of my life last night. My father: I don’t need to know these things. You might not even exist. Tyler Evans
The Dead: The best thing about the dream was that in it, I was you. I woke up to the alarm at the base of my headboard at exactly 5:45. I breakfasted on coffee and organic cornflakes that had forty percent of my recommended fiber intake. I looked over the crossword unsure of a seven letter word for ‘a mature ovum after penetration by sperm but before the formation of a zygote.’ I put the paper down. I got in my shitty car and instead of going to my job I thought about ways I could drive it off an overpass, into oncoming traffic, a brick wall, a line of mall Santas. I want to tell you how happy I was when I woke up from this dream, tires still squealing in my throat. I want to tell you so much, but I’ve forgotten the words. My father: I quit my job. You must be thinking of someone else. The Dead: Your daughter Mary was in the passenger seat. My father: How do you know my daughter’s name? The Dead: We’re getting close, Mike. We can smell the Atlantic. You didn’t think there wouldn’t be repercussions for talking to the dead, did you?
H I wake in the night as a powerful set of hands clamp down on my mouth. I know that the dead have come for me because I can smell generic funeral home cologne on the sleeves of the man’s fitted tuxedo. The scent mingles with the odor of a decaying bouquet or daisies shoved into the pocket of his coat. I can see how dead and unblinking his eyes are between thin strands of hair. He pulls me from the bed and slams me down on the wood floor of the room forcing the air from my lungs. I struggle to breathe. In the hallway, there is the sound of struggle, the crash of a workhorse and of radio equipment against a wall. My father’s screaming is muffled but hysterical. The man pulls me by my hair over the floor to the threshold of the room while whistling “Sweet Chariot.” A man and a woman are stooped over my father’s body in the hallway. The man wears a general’s uniform with tassels and metal trinkets dangling from the suit’s breast. His hair is gray and worn short, revealing segments of his scalp. He forces my father’s hands down on the floor while the woman in a black dress with a blood red Japanese floral print straddles his chest and works a strand of black thread into the eye of a needle. 34
Berkeley Fiction Review
“Please don’t,” I gasp towards them. They both look towards me. “I think I used to have a daughter that looked like that,” The woman says. The general clamps my father’s mouth shut while the she starts to sew over his mouth in a cross-stitch pattern. I think with his mouth sewn, my father so boney and worn, he looks like the candy skulls that are passed around for children on the Day of the Dead. “Really?” The general asks. “She was a light shade of green and when I ran my hand over her exterior it would prick the tips of my fingers. I only had to water her once a month.” “I don’t think that was your daughter,” the other dead man says releasing my hair. He sits across my back forcing me into the floor. He’s so heavy. The peripherals of my vision blur and I feel like I might vomit. “Then what was it?” she asks. “I think it might have been the Novel.” “No, that can’t be right. What’s a bicycle then?” The general asks. Blood collects at the edges of my father’s mouth. “I hate how they ooze liquid like that.” The woman says. “It’s gross. It seems like all their time is spent collecting and expelling waste.” The general looks around the hallway and sees a copy of Platonov at the base of my father’s room a foot away. He rips the pages from the spine and begins to dab blood from my father’s mouth with them. “Please don’t take him away from me.” I plead from the floor. The woman doesn’t look up while he is closing over my father’s left eye in a blue-green lace. She is wearing an elegant diamond necklace. She has a milky-white complexion that contrasts perfectly with her chic black bob. I wonder if in her life she was a diplomat’s wife. “Your father crossed a line, little girl. Can you imagine a world where death isn’t a mystery? What a dreadfully boring place that would be.” They finish their work and throw a brown sack over my father’s head. He mumbles pathetically through his stitches as the general, and the diplomat’s wife transport him across the threshold of the living room, each one holding a shoulder. “What do we do with the girl?” The other man asks, climbing off my Tyler Evans
back. The woman’s response comes back to me as though from a great distance. “I told you, she reminds me of my daughter. I kept her in a beige pot beside a reading lamp. I loved her very much.” There is the sound of footsteps across the foyer and the front door slams shut. And just like that, my father is gone. From a distance I can almost hear laughter and clapping followed by a man’s voice in a British accent. “ENCORE. ENCORE!” As darkness from the corners of my eyes closes in on me, I can almost hear the steady cadence of a heart rate machine during Maggie’s last minutes alive. I sit at her bedside watching as her organs fail and she gets more and more tired. Our last conversation might have been nothing more than a thirteen–year-old girl sleep talking or a lucid dream. “Mary, you have to promise me that once I live millions of years in Heaven and do everything, I won’t imagine myself as dead,” the dying girl says to me. My father tries gagging his tears by shoving his fist down his mouth from the corner of the room. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “We’re wired to fantasize our own destruction.” I explain to Maggie that boredom is the most powerful force in the universe. That’s why our God and our religion, all of creation, suicide, and cable television exist. Maggie struggles to keep her eyes open. The machine’s tempo drops to a crawl of a concert bass drum. “Just promise me that I won’t want death.” I think of my mother’s last words the night she welcomed the vampires to come in. “I don’t know if I can promise you that, kiddo.” “Just lie to me a little bit. It’ll be such a beautiful lie,” Maggie’s last sentence collapses on the word ‘lie.’ The machine slows even further. It’s as though we’re in the hull of a large submarine and a sonar machine lets out an occasional dull beep. My father is sobbing behind me in his corner. There’s a long pause and then one last beep. Then static. 36
Berkeley Fiction Review
H I nearly drop the gas can when I enter my father’s workstation later than night. The room is a wonderland of radio equipment; lined on all sides with flashing metallic panels, switchboards, antennae, and black wiring. The voices of the dead call out to me from all sides of the room as I pour the gasoline over the machines. Is anyone listening? It’s dark here. God? God can you hear me? My Grandson turns four today. I just want to wish him a happy birthday. I save the old transistor linked to Maggie’s grave for last. It rests on a table in the center of the room. When I throw a match down, the room comes alive with hysterical voices and sparks flying from the dying hulls of metal equipment. The heat forces me back in the hall. “Mary, is that you?” Maggie’s voice sounds from the old transistor. The device hasn’t caught yet sitting isolated on the table. “Maggie, where are you?” I scream from the hallway into the blaze. “I can’t get these stitches off Dad’s mouth, no matter how hard I pull at them. He just sits here.” “Dad’s there with you?” The fire jumps from the sides of the room to the table. The old transistor catches but Maggie’s voice still holds firm. “Mary, you have to come find us. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” The transistor spits out electricity. The metal glows red at its corners. “Are you in Heaven? Is Hitler there with you?” “Mary, did the witch come and take me and throw me in her bag?” “I don’t know, Maggie. I don’t know what to do.” “Please, come save us, Mary. I…” The transmission is cut short as the top of the transistor collapses in. The smoke becomes thick in the hall and forces me to crawl on the floor with flames climbing out of my dad’s workstation to the rest of the house. I make my way into my room and close the door gasping for breath against my dresser on the hardwood floor. I hear a tapping on the window pane. “Mary, open up dear,” my mother says from behind the blinds of the Tyler Evans
window. “I can help you put out that awful fire you’ve started.” Smoke filters in through the gap in the door. Other voices join my mother’s. Mary, let us in. We know how to find Maggie and your father, says my grandma. You can all go to Heaven together, the voice of a childhood friend from when I was six. I hear the hungry crackle of flames in the hallway and the splinter of wood. With the room slowly darkening in smoke, I realize I’ll suffocate if I don’t open the window. Maybe it won’t be so bad. I’ll be able to see my mom and all my friends from childhood that I miss so much. I crawl to the drawn blind of my window and I think of God laughing, watching down on me at that moment through an antique pair of opera glasses, of my father, a candy skull man now with lips laced over in black thread, and of Maggie alone in the witch’s bag. I do want to see them all so badly. “Alright,” I say. “You can all come in now.”
Berkeley Fiction Review
FIRST PLACE SUDDEN FICTION
the Finger in the MatchBox LUCAS CARPENTER
The first time he showed it to us I was about seven, my brother six. He took it from the high bureau drawer that also contained his condoms, the iconic nude Marilyn Monroe calendar, where she’s on her side on red felt, never looking blonder or whiter, and the unloaded Walther PPK Nazi officer pistol (inside a greasy argyle sock, the ammo in a box underneath) he said he took from a surrendering SS general near Manheim, bequeathed years later to my fighter pilot brother who carried it with him on every sortie he flew over the rice paddy geometry, sugar beaches, serrated mountain ridges and black green jungle of our first lost war. My father slid the matchbox open. There on a bed of dried- up bloody cotton lay the finger, remarkably well-preserved, he said he’d cut off a dead German. My brother and I recoiled in thrilling horror, not only from the gory digit itself, but from the equally gory knowledge that he – husband, father, Methodist deacon, decorated veteran – had mutilated a German corpse. Our father: mild-mannered civil service drone with a tax return business on the side, working fourteen-hour days in the seasonal rush, all to make and save as much money as he could (which turned out to be not much), for us. 40
Berkeley Fiction Review
At the first opportunity, we searched the drawer, discovering in no time the finger hole in the bottom of the matchbox that could never explain what I wanted it to.
the MerMaid and the PornograPher JACQUELINE VOGTMAN
The mermaid is dying, beached on the Malibu shoreline like a spilled bucket of seashells. The pornographer spots her while picking up trash from the all-night party celebrating the release of his S&M flick Citizen Pain, third in his failing series of classic remakes. He drags garbage bags behind him and walks over to investigate the bright lump of flesh, guessing it’s a beached dolphin or seal. He gasps, stops short. Close enough to see the shape clearly, he’s sure it has something to do with the gray light of morning or the milky light of cataracts forming in his eyes, but there she is – a real mermaid. Gorgeous. And naked. Her top half looks as human as the actresses in his movies, only the mermaid’s tits are real, her nipples so pale they’re nearly invisible. Her stomach is smooth, no belly button, her hair long, scalloped waves that flow down over her body and end in a calligraphic spiral, its color the deep indigo of spilled ink. But her bottom half is one long, scaly tail, thick and extending a good five feet from hips to flipper. It’s green, a kind of green the pornographer has never seen in life: glittering, various shades of the color, containing gold and blue and silver, sunset and sea and moonlight. And now sunrise, too. 42
Berkeley Fiction Review
The mermaid doesn’t notice him; she’s trying to drag herself back into the water, not getting far. Her arms are small and thin, tail heavy. The pornographer inches his way closer and it occurs to him that this mermaid is a huge discovery, one more important than any model or soap-star turned adult film actress. He glances around the beach: no one. No one is around to see. He wonders if he alone was meant to find her, if this is the break he’s been wishing for these past few years as his fame dwindled, movies failed, and age added new pains to his body every day. He calls out a hello! to the mermaid. She twists her body, looks at him. Her eyes are greenish gold, like the ring his fake gold watches used to leave around his wrist before he could afford real ones. She glances at his bare feet in the sand, then twists back and drags herself more desperately toward the waves. The pornographer tells her to wait, leans forward until he’s close enough to touch her, but he doesn’t. A smell emanates from her, a mixture of dank woman and fresh mackerel, and she utters tiny cries that sound like bird chirps or fake orgasms. He waves a hand in front of her face, says hello again. She stares at him, her face blanching, lips turning from coral to marble. He kneels in the sand. Do you understand English? he says to her, real slow, like how he used to talk to his maid when he first hired her, before he found out she was actually born in the U.S. and speaks better English than some of his actresses. The mermaid cocks her head. The pornographer laughs. That’s okay. You’re not the only one here that can’t speak English. He’s disappointed when she doesn’t laugh, wonders if mermaids even have the ability to laugh. She continues staring at him eerily, not blinking, like she’s accusing him of something. He stands up, takes a step away from her. What? What do you want me to do? Her slim arms buckle and her top half falls to the sand. Her eyelids flutter, then close. The pornographer stands above the mermaid, watches as the tide skims the tip of her tail. There’s no time to think, and he doesn’t. He moves automatically, as if in a dream, picks the mermaid’s limp body up off the beach, slings her over his shoulder, stuffs her into a trash bag and into his backseat, and drives faster than he ever has back to his home in the hills Jaqueline Vogtman
where he lives alone. When he takes the mermaid out of the bag, her face is blue. He dumps her into his fish tank that spans the length of a wall and after a minute or so she begins moving again, twisting and twirling around the colorful fins of his exotic fish, her body looking both alien and indigenous in that artificial seascape.
H The pornographer was four years old when he first saw a nudie magazine jutting out from under his father’s mattress like a rock from the hazyblue mountains that surrounded their small Kentucky town. His first vivid memory is a dark-haired woman with huge breasts, a full bush, and a snake wrapped around her torso. When his father found out, he spanked him then sat him down on the torn and faded flowers of their couch and said gently, That stuff ain’t real. None of them women is real. Remember that. Years after his father’s death, after moving out of their poor town to Vegas and then to Hollywood, the pornographer finds his father’s words true, partly. The actresses in his movies have fake tits. Fake noses. Fake lips. And yet they’re very real, women you can drink and joke with. Lately, the pornographer has begun to think of other ways the word real can be interpreted. The actresses he films fuck men and women for money, some even enjoy it and have real orgasms. But always when the shoot ends, they wipe the makeup from their faces and look at him with glazed eyes as they say goodbye, then drive off to their own houses, lovers, children, and friends, their own foreign lives in the Valley, far below the hills where he lives – and that distance is what makes the women he spends his days with seem less than real. Makes his own life seem less than real. When he saw the mermaid on the beach, the question of if she was real or not didn’t enter his mind. She was so visible, tangible, palpable. And she was dying. Certainly, impending death proves the existence of a person or thing, and this is what the pornographer reminds himself as he watches the mermaid twirl around in his tank that first night. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on these thoughts. Instead, he thinks about finding a bigger space for the mermaid to swim. The pornographer 44
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calls his pool guy, has him come over the next morning to drain the whole thing, replacing chlorinated water with salt water mimicking the Pacific Ocean. Once the pool boy leaves, the pornographer transfers the mermaid to the pool. She struggles when he grabs her from the tank, almost slipping out of his arms, whipping her tail against his legs, beating his back with her frail fists. Poolside, he throws her into the water with a splash. He worries he has thrown her too hard because she doesn’t move, just sinks. But then he sees her slowly scale the bottom of the pool, face down, smelling it. She swims faster and faster until she’s gliding swiftly through the water, flipper wagging like a happy dog’s tail, and the pornographer is happy, too. He sleeps that night in a rusty beach chair beside the pool. In the middle of the night he wakes to the sound of howling in the distance, and he’s chilly, a crick in his neck. He glances over at the pool to make sure the mermaid is still there, and fear jolts him when he doesn’t see ripples on the water’s surface. But when he gets up and peers into the pool, there she is, lying on her back on the bottom, staring up at him with unblinking eyes, her hair flowing back so the protruding gills behind her ears are exposed, undulating like little murmuring mouths on the sides of her head. He sighs, waves at her. She doesn’t wave back, but tendrils of her hair seem to wave to him in their flowing, and so he sits back down in the chair and settles again into sleep. How comforting it is to have someone else with him during the night, even if she isn’t quite human.
H The next day, the pornographer’s business partner stops by to go over figures for the sale of their most recent DVDs. This man has been by his side since the pornographer’s beginning in Vegas when he shot his amateur movies in the back of a van, when women had full bushes and real breasts and no one used condoms. But the pornographer can’t bring himself to tell his partner about the mermaid; she’s a secret he wants to keep safe. They sit on the pornographer’s old leather sofa, cans of beer sweating in their palms, and talk about Citizen Pain. The DVD just isn’t selling, his partner says, just like Tits a Wonderful Life and Rear Widow both bombed. Jaqueline Vogtman
There’s just no market for these movies, he says. He’d do better just to give up on this venture and move on. The pornographer laughs. So I guess that’s a no-go for The Passion of Joan’s Arse. If you want to get your career back, his partner responds, just find a new project. The pornographer sighs, touches the thinning hair on top of his head. I’m out of ideas, he says. I’m out of ideas and hair. His partner laughs, slaps him too hard on the back, and brings his empty beer can into the kitchen. The pornographer leans back, lets the ceiling fan blow through the buttons of his satin shirt. Growing up, he never lived in a place with ceiling fans; on hot summer days his mother would simply blow air through her lips onto the back of his neck, a comforting cool, not like air conditioning, which gives his hands a bluish tint. The pornographer hears his partner toss the can into the recycling bin, the suction of the fridge, the snap of him opening another beer. Then the clatter of the can hitting the linoleum and beer foaming out, and his partner exclaiming, What the hell is that? The pornographer runs into the kitchen, too late. His partner has spotted the mermaid through the window, and he’s already gone outside to get a better look. The pornographer follows him. As they approach, the mermaid leaves her spot poolside and dives back underwater. The pornographer and his partner are silent for long time, watching the mermaid swim back and forth. I found her on the beach in Malibu a few days ago, the pornographer says. His partner looks up at him. Is it…real? Yeah, she’s real. Can’t you tell? I don’t know. His partner pauses. It could be an actress with a snorkel. Does it look like she’s using a snorkel? They’re doing crazy things with plastic surgery these days. You know that. She’s real, the pornographer repeats. You’re old enough to know the story about the Fiji Mermaid, right? 46
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Probably, the pornographer says, but I don’t remember it. Well, some circus owner sewed a monkey head and torso onto the tail of a big fish, and advertised it as a real mermaid. Monkey lived for a couple days like that, then died. Come closer, the pornographer says, pulling his partner to the edge of the pool. No stitches, see? This isn’t some kind of circus-sideshow shit. This isn’t something I made up. I just happened to find her. The pornographer and his partner are silent again, watching the mermaid’s body snake through the water, watching as she pulls herself up to rest on one of the steps and slowly combs her hair with her fingers, untangling it so that it rests in perfect waves over her breasts. This is it, his partner says. This is what? This is what’s going to bring our careers back from the dead. He laughs, punches the pornographer’s arm. I don’t know if she’s real or not, but she’s our new star. This is the project you’ve been waiting for. The pornographer looks at the mermaid, hesitates before responding. I’m not sure about that. Logistically. I don’t even know how mermaids fuck, if they can fuck. Besides– His partner cuts him off. We’ll worry about all that later. There are ways around it. Oral. Titty-fucking. You know. Before his partner leaves, the pornographer agrees to meet again the next day to further discuss the new project. He can’t say no; he’s got no real reason to. But when he sees the mermaid still combing her hair, he feels like he’s wronged her in some way he can’t explain. He feels like a child looking at dirty magazines, guilty in his actions, innocent in his ignorance. He wishes the mermaid would go back underwater, stop combing her hair. He wants this secret hidden again, at least for the rest of the day.
H When the pornographer rummages through his fridge that night for dinner, he realizes he hasn’t fed the mermaid at all since the day he found her. He looks through the kitchen window at the pool glowing in the sunset, rippling with the movement of the mermaid under its surface. He Jaqueline Vogtman
imagines she must be starving. But what do mermaids eat? He pushes aside leftover pizza, wheatgrass juice he’s started drinking to stay healthy, cartons of Chinese food, then finds a wilting salad his maid put together for him. He picks out the limp greens, lays them on the counter. Then he forages through his freezer, drags out some old fish sticks, thaws them in the microwave. He takes the lettuce and the fish sticks out to the pool. The mermaid has pulled herself out of the water and sits on the edge of the pool, her face lifted to the sky, which sheds red light over the hills and tints her eyelids violet. The pornographer isn’t sure it’s the right word, but she looks sexy. The mermaid opens her eyes, stares at him as he walks towards her, and he feels naked under her gaze. When he gets close, she dives back into the water. He sits on the edge of the pool, dangles his feet in. The mermaid’s fear of him feels like rejection, something he isn’t used to feeling, something he remembers feeling in high school until he dropped out, eloped with his girlfriend, and moved to Las Vegas where they made their first porno together. Eventually his wife rejected him too, leaving him for some young actor, but at that time he was at the peak of his career, and he had no shortage of women. However, both his career and his love life went downhill from there. Besides his maid – and the mermaid – he hasn’t had a woman at the house in years. He feels something tickle his feet and looks down to see the mermaid touching his toes, pulling them apart, sniffing them, biting his pinkie toe gently as if to see if it’s edible. He pulls his feet away involuntarily, giggling. He’s not sure he’s ever giggled in his adult life. Looking at his feet, he regrets that he hasn’t recently cut his toenails. The mermaid floats around him, not touching him anymore, but as she sways in the water a tendril of her long hair brushes one of his feet, a tendril more silky and soft than anything he’s felt in his life. Moonlight made tangible. The impression makes him shudder, and the mermaid swims away. Wait! he calls, waving the fish sticks and lettuce above the water. The mermaid swims back toward him and grabs the fish sticks with her mouth and the lettuce with both her little fists. He notices the mermaid doesn’t have fingernails – her fingers end with smooth white flaps of skin. He’s fascinated. Fascinated. The last time he felt this way he was a child, watching 48
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his father gut a black bear. The bear’s jaws were magnificent, open, and in its splayed stomach, his father showed him things the bear had eaten from their own garbage can: corn-on-the-cob, apple cores, even gooey pieces of the newspaper they sometimes used as placemats at the dinner table. He was amazed at the secret treasures that could be found in an animal’s stomach, and for a time afterward he’d squint at the bellies of all animals and all people he met, trying to imagine what they had hiding inside their stomachs. Of course, he stopped doing that when he became a teenager and the surfaces of things – particularly women – were much more interesting. But now, again, he stares at the mermaid, nibbling fish sticks underwater, and he wonders what’s inside her. The pornographer sleeps in his bedroom and checks on the mermaid periodically throughout the night while smoking cigarettes on the balcony. Most of the time she’s floating slowly, face-down or face-up, on the bottom of the pool. But one time, as the clouds part to reveal the fullness of the moon, the mermaid lifts herself up to the edge of the pool, and, hair dripping behind her, she throws her head back and angles her body to the moon, the way human girls angle their bodies to the sun, except her body – tail included – is sexier than any human girl he’s ever seen. Stubbing out his cigarette, he has the nagging feeling again that sexy is the wrong word, and he’s not sure she belongs in a porno. He watches her comb her hair with her fingers. She seems more real than the human actresses he works with every day, and maybe that’s why he’s uneasy about putting her in one of his movies. Clouds begin to veil the moon again, and the mermaid slips back into the water soundlessly, without a splash. The pornographer goes back to bed, thinking about his father, wondering what his father would think of the mermaid, if his father would try to convince him that, like the first naked woman he saw in a magazine, the mermaid isn’t real either.
H When the pornographer’s partner comes back the next day, he brings with him a screenwriter friend whose reaction to the mermaid is a skepticism that transforms rapidly into awe and then is quickly replaced by business. Jaqueline Vogtman
The pornographer mentions to his partner that he’s still not one-hundred percent sure they should use the mermaid, but his partner dismisses his worries, says he’s getting too conservative in his old age. They sit down at a table poolside and storyboard the porno while the mermaid swims in circles, eating stray crumbs of fish sticks. They decide to make a very loose take on The Little Mermaid, and despite his qualms, the pornographer begins to get excited about filming it, because it’s something new, something he’s never done before. Over the next few weeks, the pornographer meets frequently with his partner and the screenwriter to work on the details of the movie, so absorbed in his work that he sometimes forgets the mermaid is still there. One day, he returns home from a meeting to find his maid standing by the pool, screaming a scream more real than anything in the movies, broken beer mug by her feet, so shocked upon seeing the mermaid that she must’ve dropped it. The pornographer can only guess how long his maid has been standing there staring at the mermaid, who’s holding onto the side of the pool, head above water, staring directly back at the maid, her land-locked mirror image. The pornographer has forgotten his maid was supposed to come today. He forgot to tell her to take this week off too, like the last few. As he approaches her, his maid jerks her head up, stops screaming. She points at the mermaid, says nothing. The pornographer gently grabs his maid’s arm, pulls it down, and then turns her body away from the pool. He’s surprised at how soft and warm the skin of her arm feels, and what it arouses in him. It’s been so long since he’s touched a woman, so long of only watching them, filming them. For a moment he’s painfully attracted to her, and even more painfully aware that this woman, in her seven years of working for him, has known him more intimately than his ex-wife, known him with the mundane kind of intimacy that comes from washing someone’s underwear. As he leads her into the dim house, he tries to think of ways to explain the presence of the mermaid. But before he can say anything, the maid speaks. Is she real? The maid’s voice is small, timid, as his own voice must have been when 50
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he was four years old and found his dad’s porno and asked him what it was. The pornographer swallows hard, considers how to answer. If I said yes, would you believe me? The maid’s eyes are wide, greenish-brown, sea-colored. He still has his hand on her arm. She nods. I think I would. Then, yes, the pornographer responds. She’s real. There’s silence save for the sound of the refrigerator humming. Finally the maid says: Why do you have her here? Shouldn’t she be in the ocean or something? The pornographer lets go of her arm. Her eyes are on him, accusatory. I found her. On the beach. In Malibu. So why don’t you put her back in the ocean? I can’t, now. I need her. He searches for the right words, finds there are none. His maid backs away from him. You need her for what? she spits out. The pornographer follows her as she walks backward into the foyer. Nothing bad, he says, gently grabbing the maid’s wrist again as she nears the front door. I think I have to go home early today, she says, pulling her arm away and grabbing her tattered purse from the coat rack. The pornographer follows her out to the driveway, asks her if she’s coming back tomorrow. She shakes her head, gets into her car. He runs up to the open passenger’s side window, begs her not to leave, not to quit. I need you here, he says. She sighs. I’ll increase your salary, he tells her. I’ll let you stay here with me. The maid shakes her head again but smiles this time, kindness squinting the corners of her eyes. I can’t stay here with you. I’ve got a husband and baby at home. The pornographer backs away. It occurs to him that after all the years of her cleaning his house, he knows nothing about this woman’s life, nothing about her. He wonders why the loss of this particular maid is hitting him so hard, why he feels the urge to hold onto her tighter than he held Jaqueline Vogtman
onto his own wife. I’m sorry, he says. I’m sorry, too. She starts her car, and it sputters away. Before she exits the drive, she calls something out the open car window, but the pornographer can’t understand what she has said. He hopes it was something like, Good luck, or, I’ll miss you. Or maybe, You are forgiven.
H The pornographer feels the loss of his maid like the loss of an invisible companion. He sits poolside as the mermaid swims back and forth, and though he knows she can’t hear him under all that water, he complains to her about the mess the house is in, how quiet it is without the sound of the vacuum running at all hours of the day. He calls the agency, and they send him a new maid. But this one feels different, and it’s only a matter of time before this new maid catches a glimpse of the mermaid, too. Already, her second day on the job, he catches her running away from the kitchen window, feather duster fluttering behind her like wings. He worries about what she might have seen, who she might tell. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it; it’s already time to shoot the film. The day they begin shooting, the pornographer gets up before dawn, ready to transfer the mermaid from the pool to a small tank in order to take her to a deserted stretch of beach owned by one of his former leading porn stars. But when the pornographer gets to the pool, the mermaid is gone. He squints into the cloudy water. Gone. He searches the small wooded area behind the pool. No sign of her. When he gets to his garage he sees that the tank is also gone. He speeds down the hills to the coastline. As he drives to set, he’s not sure what he wants to find, whether he wants the mermaid to be there or not. So when he gets to the beach and sees the mermaid in the tank, head held above water by two assistants while a makeup artist dusts powder over her face, he’s simultaneously relieved and angry and sad. He slumps in his director’s chair. His partner hands him a coffee, explains they had to take the mermaid earlier than expected to do hair and makeup. 52
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Someone could’ve mentioned that to me sooner, the pornographer says. He looks over at the mermaid getting her hair done. When the hairdresser begins to snip the ends of the mermaid’s hair, the mermaid begins to squeak, as if in pain, and she thrashes around in the water, but there’s nowhere for her to escape to. The pornographer stalks over to the tank, asks the hairdresser what he thinks he’s doing. The hairdresser barely addresses him, keeps cutting the writhing mermaid’s hair, muttering, Only a trim, baby, only some layers. The pornographer grabs the hairdresser’s wrist, takes the scissors from his hand, says: Her hair was fine the way it was. The pornographer doesn’t realize how loudly he’s spoken until he looks around and sees his partner, the cameramen, his lead actor, even the fluffer all stop what they’re doing and stare at him. He apologizes to the hairdresser, but the hairdresser walks off the beach anyway, in a huff, calling back: This movie’ll be a flop anyway, like the rest! The crew is silent. The pornographer says, Let’s get started. But no one moves from where they’re standing. The pornographer wonders why no one listens to him anymore. Is it the gray hair? The new gut? The blue veins in his legs? We’re starting now! he screams, and finally the cameramen get behind their cameras, the lead actor stops getting his dick prepped and takes his place, the assistants get out of the shot. The pornographer takes the mermaid out of the tank; she’s slippery in his arms. He carries her this time, for the first time, like a baby rather than a captive. He wonders how it would feel to hold a real baby in his arms, how it would have felt to live that real life: a wife, children, a dog, a house cradled in the mountains, far away from the polluted coast, the plastic people, the congested highways. He looks down at the firm breasts of the mermaid and thinks of his own wrinkled chest covered with white hair. His chance to live that other life has probably passed. He puts the mermaid gently down on the sand, a few feet from the water. She looks drained, pained, keeps grabbing at the ends of her hair as if to stop some kind of bleeding. An assistant kneels just out of the shot Jaqueline Vogtman
with a spray bottle to keep the mermaid wet during the shoot. The pornographer gets behind his camera, hesitates a moment before he says Action. The mermaid flounders around on the sand as she did when he first found her. Her movements are more desperate than sexy. But still, as she moves, her breasts bounce like real breasts do. He waits for her to stop struggling. She doesn’t. As he continues shooting, moving the camera up and down the mermaid’s body, the pornographer thinks only about the curve of her breast, her scaly hip, her rouged nipples pointing to the sky. The camera gives him distance, makes the mermaid in front of it seem less real, so that he doesn’t see the light fading in her eyes even as the light of dawn grows brighter. Dressed like a sailor, the lead actor staggers down the beach, acts surprised as he spots the mermaid, and his look of awe becomes real as he gets closer to her, the best acting the pornographer’s ever seen in one of his own movies. The actor kisses the mermaid, pushes her down on the sand, and pins her slim arms above her head. She struggles against him, but he just pushes harder, rubs against her. She wriggles her body under his, her skin grainy with sand. Then the actor grabs the mermaid’s breast, begins sucking it. The mermaid squeals loudly, chirps, tries to push the actor away but fails. The pornographer doesn’t stop filming, accustomed to sounds of mingled pleasure and pain and fear. His partner walks up behind him, whispers: You’ve got to find some way to shut her up. This isn’t working. The pornographer feels shaken awake. He yells Cut and the actor promptly gets off the mermaid. The mermaid stops struggling, lies still and silent on the beach, pale, the water from the spray bottle not enough to sustain her. The actor backs away from her, saying, I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything wrong. The set grows silent and the crew gathers around the mermaid, whose arms are limp above her head in a ballerina’s pose. Suddenly, the mermaid sits up, looks at the clouds on the horizon, opens her mouth, and sings. The sound is like nothing the pornographer has ever heard, and from the looks of the stunned crew around him, none of them have ever heard anything like it, either. The mermaid’s voice is fluid, mellifluous, the flowing of her hair made audible. But it also penetrates too deeply, makes the 54
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pornographer feel like his internal organs have been pierced and their fluids are filling up his body, drowning him from the inside. The mermaid sings for the duration of a long breath, lips turning blue around the edges, and then she falls back into the sand. The pornographer pushes through the crowd, kneels beside the mermaid. Her veins are tracing hard purple rivers in her pale face, and her eyes are still opened but unfocused. The tide rolls up against the pornographer’s bare feet and over the mermaid’s tail, which glitters as it touches the water. The pornographer puts his arm under the mermaid’s head and turns around. We’re done here, he shouts. Everyone go home. He expects arguments, questions, at least from his partner. But everyone remains silent, stunned speechless by the mermaid as if her dying has made her real to them for the first time. But the mermaid is not dead. As the crew packs up and leaves, the pornographer leans his head down over the mermaid’s chest. What he hears is similar to a heartbeat, but less thumping and more flowing, less like a human heart and more like the sound of an invisible waterfall heard through a rock wall. He glances over at the tank, considers putting her back in and bringing her back to his pool. But how can he be sure she won’t die there? And having a dead mermaid in his pool seems even worse than having a dead human being. A dead mermaid is more like a dead child, the responsibility too much for him. The pornographer picks up the mermaid. Her body is heavier than ever, as if the man lying on top of her somehow added his weight to hers. The pornographer wades into the waves, up to his knees, then his belly, then his chest, holding the mermaid the whole time like she’s his baby, her tail no longer stiff but draped limp over his arm, a wilted stem. He walks farther, but he’s on a sand bar, and despite how long he walks the water stays at heart-level. His arms begin to ache, then his legs, all his muscles tired. He’s tired. Tired of walking, tired of being a man, a pornographer, a human. Tired of two legs. How he wants to grow fins, sprout a flipper, live in a less solid world. The pornographer walks on, carrying the mermaid in his arms, a fantastical pieta. He strays farther and farther from shore, until he glances back and the houses in the hazy distance resemble the mountains of his Jaqueline Vogtman
childhood. He takes another step, another breath â&#x20AC;&#x201C; and then the ocean floor drops out below him and he dips beneath the surface, the weight of the mermaid bearing down on him, so he sinks and is eventually carried away by the arms of the mermaid, or maybe merely the tide.
Berkeley Fiction Review
disarticulation BRAD MCLELLAND
These child welfare people, they know how to interrogate. They escort me and Chelley up to the fourth floor, split us apart outside the elevator, take Chelley up the long white corridor to the hospital’s Family Support Center. Me they stash in some pediatrician’s office that stinks like glazing putty – I’m guessing where they put the fathers. They leave me alone with a piece of paper that sketches out State of Tennessee physical abuse definitions. I read it slowly and think about Icky. Her little hand uncovered on the ER table. How I kissed that hand, then her forehead, then both her cheeks before I went to work this morning. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-102: Misdemeanor. Abuse exists when a person under age 18 is suffering from, has sustained, or may be in immediate danger of sustaining a wound, injury, disability, or physical or mental condition... I skim the paper to the definition of a felony – the intentional use of force likely to cause great bodily harm to a child – and the officials move in and shut the door. I look at their nametags. Chuck, a nursing administrator here at Le Bonheur; Ray, a social worker from the DCS; Debra, a forensic interviewer from the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. But it’s hard to see them with names, even faces. A big round button hangs off the lapel of 58
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CAC’s blouse: a teddy bear with two crossed Band-Aids on its forehead, the words “STOP CHILD ABUSE NOW!” semi-circling the bottom in red. “Okay, let’s get started, shall we?” says DCS. “Yes, please. My little girl’s downstairs,” I say. Nursing Admin offers a nod, a polite smile to let me know that someone wearing a tie in a hospital can still attempt the occasional empathy. The other two look down at the pediatrician’s oaktop desk. A muffled voice – DCS, I think – finally says, “Occupation, Mr. Galvin? Name of your current employer?” “Lineman, Memphis Light,” I say, annoyed for some reason by the inclusion of the word current, and all three scribble on their yellow pads, in thick, serious-looking notebooks that have the Tennessee flag emblazoned on the blue covers. I sip on the caffeine-free Diet Coke someone slipped into my hand downstairs. I put the can down before the hand starts shaking. “Salary?” “About forty-two K. A little more after bonuses.” DCS ponders something in his notebook. Scribbles. Then CAC takes over – the child welfare version of Good Cop, Bad Cop, I guess. “Length of marriage?” “About five years,” I tell her. Chelley would probably throw in January makes six if she were sitting here beside me. She’s always adding on to what I say. “We’re headed to the Smokies–” I’ll tell a friend. “To do some hiking,” Chelley will finish. “Thank you, Mr. Galvin. All right, hmm, let’s see...” CAC plays with her pen, taps it on the desktop, and I can tell she’s pretending to look for the next question, the next approach, to set me further on edge. Like Peter Falk fumbling for the half-smoked stogy in his raincoat to throw off the suspect. “Let’s talk about the accident now,” she says after a moment, with perfect Good Cop timing. “What happened to Isabel, Mr. Galvin? What happened to Icky exactly?” I look around the doctor’s walls, up to a poster of a baby girl in a diaper backdropped in blue sky and sitting on a cloud. The cloud’s got tints of pink and orange in it. And the baby’s laughing, hands flipped up in delight. “Take your time,” mutters Nursing Admin. “We know this is difficult.” So I breathe and take my time and lead them back through Icky’s Brad McLelland
worst moment. Chelley reaching in the fridge for the coconut cream pie. Icky standing behind the open door, right hand slid in just above the bottom hinge. The door snapping her wrist when Chelley slammed it home. Icky screaming like a victim of the Hiroshima bomb. Chelley dropping the cream pie on the floor. I didn’t hear that scream, thank God; I was at work when all this happened. Chelley waited thirty minutes to call me, said she wanted to see if the swelling would go down with a bag of ice. The doctor in the ER said the X-ray showed a “grim scenario.” Severe misalignment. Compartment syndrome. Disarticulation. A catalog of problems duplicated in dismal red ink on the DCS rap sheet. “She wasn’t supposed to be in the kitchen,” I say. “She was supposed to be napping on the living room floor. That could happen to anybody, couldn’t it? She just didn’t see her.” CAC gives a look I can’t begin to read. Then the pens click off and the officials rise. “Please keep in mind this is all protocol,” DCS says. “We have to have this paperwork on file, you see, in case of further investigations.” “I understand,” I say, and CAC flicks a business card at me. “We’ll be in touch,” she says, and then the officials, along with the office’s wood putty stink, spill out into the corridor. A passing nurse in purple and white scrubs stops to peek at the action, scoots back up the hall when she spots Nursing Admin. Then the officials move up the corridor and into the Family Support Center, to interrogate my dazed, medicated wife.
H “At home, you’ll be giving Isabel mild doses of Gabapentin,” a doctor explains, as they prep Icky for the surgery. It’s part of the hospital’s plan to ease parents into the idea of amputation: give the clinical terms first, soften the blow with bits of science. “That’s a drug we use to help alleviate pain after an operation, but it should also help with any phantom limb pain she might experience in a few days.” Chelley’s face looks yellow under the fluorescent lights. “What happens if this Gaba, Gaba-whatever doesn’t work?” she asks. “How bad will the pain get?” “The drug will help,” the doctor assures. 60
Berkeley Fiction Review
She nods and swipes at a few tears, and I can tell she’s been chewing on her nails. Probably gnawed at them during the interrogation. I can see her now, working up and down the tips, spitting out the unpolished fragments. The officials probably scribbled neurotic all over their notebooks. “Given time,” the doctor adds, “you can have Isabel fitted for a small, temporary prosthesis, and larger ones as she grows. But you’ll need to help each other maintain the dressing. Your entire family, not just Isabel, will be adjusting to this new handicap. This is a team effort now, folks. Do you both understand?” “We understand,” I say. A nurse leads us back into the waiting room – and that’s when Chelley throws her arms out and practically clotheslines me to get to the exit. “I need some air,” she moans when I ask her where she’s going. She doesn’t make it three feet past the pneumatic doors before she stops and props an elbow against one of the rain and nicotine-stained columns. A moment later the entire waiting room is staring at me. Moms, dads, aunts – they all glare like I’m shirking some kind of spousal responsibility. I find a seat, pick up a magazine, and turn away from their damning eyes. I know I should be out there, standing beside her and patting her back, droning It’s OK, hon, none of this is your fault, everything’s going to be A-OK, but I can’t do that. The worst I’ve ever done is drop Icky on the bed after a diaper change when she was five months. And that was a ride at Disney compared to the fridge door.
H Icky’s recovery room on the seventh floor has been painted a cheery, sunshine yellow and a light, daydream blue – colors that alternate in pancakes of vibrancy and youth – but the opposite effect seems to take hold as soon as we get there. Chelley sits on the striped sofa by the window and stares out at downtown Memphis, her feet tucked up on the cushions beneath her butt. Her face is ash-white and her hair is pasted to the sides of her head by sweat and dashes of water. I’ve taken the chair at the end of Icky’s bed, my hand curled around the foot rail, my head and shoulders too tired to keep upright. I feel slack, like a puppet with a cut string. As Brad McLelland
the evening passes I find myself trying to doze, but every so often Icky rolls and twitches under the hospital’s blanket, and I wonder if the bandage at the end of her right arm is irritating the fresh stub. I look down at my index finger, at the white scar above the knuckle. My small reminder of childhood pain – nothing compared to what Icky must be going through. I was nine, and nearly had the finger lopped off in the spokes of my bike, a Schwinn Predator my father had brought home from Montgomery Ward. This happened in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on a cul-de-sac street rowdy with boys my age, boys who rode huge, rugged BMX bikes and did wheelies and ramped over cars and appeared to eat danger for breakfast. I remember my mother’s face when my dad rolled the Predator into the kitchen – my gift was just as much a surprise to her, apparently. My mother was a health nut who collected First Aid for the Family encyclopedias, and when she saw the bike parked on our black and white linoleum, she saw death and dismemberment in thousands of different forms. She insisted we find some instructional video for me to watch before taking the bike out – an idea my father thought was ridiculous. A dozen boys younger than him ride their bikes every day on this street, and do you see them losing arms and heads, Barb? That was the argument, and it satisfied my mother for most of the afternoon – until I came back clutching my hand and shrieking horrified lungfuls, blood gushing out of a canyon-deep gash I’d given my finger on the spokes. I don’t remember how the accident happened (something to do with showing my buddies how fast you could spin a wheel), but I do recall my mother’s reaction, and the look she cast at my poor father as we drove to the ER for stitches. Only much later, as that look replayed itself in my mind, would I come to realize what it meant: I’m not going to see you the same way again. The look meant, You’ve inflicted pain on me, and that’s something I will never forget.
H The hospital gives Icky a week for recovery and then signs her out upon strict promise that we bring Isabel back for examinations and checkups on her antibiotics. On the drive back to Germantown, I watch our daughter in the rearview mirror. Her face looks rundown, watery from too much 62
Berkeley Fiction Review
hospital room. But in the confines of her Eddie Bauer car seat, she still looks like any other eighteen-month-old, gazing from window to window and tree to tree and making the occasional bee-bop sound. At this stage, we’d normally be reviewing her feeding and sleeping schedules, watching her weight and height, getting her immunized, and gearing up for potty-training, all the things regular parents would be doing to prime their kid for the second year of life. Chelley and me – we’ll be changing amputation bandages along with Icky’s diaper. On Halback Street Chelley says, “I’ve been doing some thinking. I think we ought to look into suing.” “Suing who?” I say. “The refrigerator company.” “What the hell for?” She’d been surfing the hospital’s Wi-Fi and stumbled across this website on pinch point injuries and realized our fridge doesn’t have the proper safety labels. “I think someone ought to be held accountable,” she says. “Can we at least find a lawyer?” “A fridge door,” I point out, “should be the first place you’d expect a pinch point. Do you really need a label for that?” “Well, there certainly wasn’t any warning, Gabe.” “Out of the question,” I say. “Why?” One thing about Chelley: she has this habit of wanting to hang on to bad memories. Five years ago, I found it fascinating, that she would squirrel away trophies of disasters, let the pressure of time bear down, and crush them one by one. But as our marriage unfolded, the habit started losing its appeal, trophy by trophy. Going through old boxes, for example, I’d find copies of city traffic warnings, or pictures of old flings who’d cheated on her with best friends. Once I stumbled across a threeby-five photo – complete with frame – of a seventeen-year-old Chelley at one hundred and ninety-five pounds, sitting alone at the Treadwell High School prom. Her mother Patricia took the picture. Her mother who, by the way, keeps a pair of polished, bronzed baby shoes on the fireplace mantel because she thinks Chelley might forget her perfect childhood. For reasons I don’t and probably never will understand, my wife believes Brad McLelland
that the past holds the key to unlocking her survival. She has bought and swallowed that old saying that you have to know the past to understand the present. “Because we need to move on,” I answer. “And because I don’t want our life sitting on some cheap lawyer’s desk. End of story, OK?” She says nothing else the rest of the way home, but the subject is far from closed. Once Chelley’s found something, she keeps returning to it, circling it. Like her mother, she can’t put a thing down and walk away. She’ll keep the pain tucked away until it pulls her in and suffocates her.
H We decide to buy Icky a round of new toys – a Stanley Snail Rocker, a Corn Popper Push Along, a Rock ‘N Bounce Pony – to ease her transition back to normality. The first five or six days the playing goes horribly, an experience in pain and futility. With her dominant hand gone, Icky tries to favor the left and drives herself crazy, drops to the floor and pitches periodic fits that rival anything a typical problem child could muster. Most of the time, she keeps the stub tucked high and close against her chest, like it’s a rag doll she’s refusing to let go, and every so often – I never know if it’s on purpose or not – she’ll steer the Push Along right out of control, bang it against the wall, and unleash a brand new conniption. Changing the bandage is also a nightmare – just like the doctor had warned. And Chelley doesn’t help the process at all, finds some way to be absent when the dirty work starts. “Take care of it today,” she tells me. “If I don’t get the laundry in the dryer the clothes will go sour.” But I insist we do the job together, or else Icky will never let her touch the damn thing. And I’m right; the first couple of times after I put a new dressing on, Icky won’t let her anywhere near the stump, screams “No!” and “Daddy!” until I have to bump Chelley aside and tell her, “See? Thanks a lot.” After each bandaging session, Icky tries to peel off the dressing, starting with the tape. She sits on the floor, oblivious of her new toys, and picks at the edges of the tape like she’s working on a difficult LeapFrog bingo game. Chelley says, “No, baby, you can’t do that,” and I say, “Stop it, Icky, or you’re gonna get a spanking!” Chelley glares at me for it, but I tell her 64
Berkeley Fiction Review
if we’re not stern right out of the gate we’ll wake up one morning and find Icky’s stump completely torn open. “Tough love,” I tell Chelley, to which she replies, “There’s no such thing, Gabe.” One morning I bundle Icky in her coat and stick galoshes on her feet. I don’t wake Chelley up to tell her where we’re going. I pack the stroller and put Icky in the car seat and start driving toward Riverdale Road. Along the way we listen to Kidz Bop. Icky’s half-asleep, her stub cradled beneath her chin, her left hand curled around her sippy cup, but when the CD plays “Let’s Get it Started” she bobs her head and grins and starts making her bee-bop noises. We get to the leash-free dog area off East Churchill Downs and I parallel-park under a small elm. The day is sunny and the dogs and their masters are out exploring Forgey Park. I put Icky in the stroller and we amble across the park and watch the dogs romp across the dead grass. This park’s my favorite place in Germantown – the place I go to relax, to forget about things. I stop the stroller at the water fountains and lean to get a sip when my phone buzzes. “Uh oh,” I tell Icky, “we’re caught,” but it’s not Chelley’s number. It’s Debra, the CAC interviewer who Good-Copped me and Chelley on the day of the accident. Checking up on Isabel’s progress and wanting me to know they are “still reviewing the situation.” “Your office is open on Saturday?” I say. “We’re always open, Mr. Galvin. Children don’t stop being abused on the weekends.” “No one’s being abused. We had an accident and now we’re moving on.” “I’m not denying that,” the woman says. She adds that someone from Child Protective Services would be calling soon to do another follow-up, and then, hopefully, “we can file all this away and forget it ever happened.” “Yes,” I say. “Hopefully.”
H A week later Memphis Light starts calling the house, eager for me to get back to work. I pick up the seven-to-four shift and try to recover the Brad McLelland
swing of things, scaling telephone poles and cussing around with the crew. But I can’t stop thinking about Icky and Chelley. On a wire patch I’ll grab the wrong pliers, have to search around the bucket for a tool I forgot. It occurs to me during a random shuffle of thoughts that Chelley can’t handle problems straight on – she has to deal with them in the abstract, at various angles. Like a pair of eyes too stubborn to pull the image out of a 3-D stereogram. One day while I’m working in Midtown, Chelley calls and says her mother has decided to drive over from West Memphis, that she’s going to be staying awhile to help take care of Icky. “I can’t do this by myself,” she says. “I can’t even get her in the car without her battling me. I’m going crazy, Gabe.” I tell her she doesn’t know crazy until that woman’s in the house running our lives. Besides, where was Patricia when Icky was in the hospital? “Be nice. Please. She’s had a lot on her plate.” “Well, so have we,” I say. I get home at five and Patricia’s Escalade is parked in the drive. Inside Icky’s yelling up a thunderstorm, and at first I want to dash in, see if the stump has broken open and Chelley and good old Mom are letting her bleed all over the floor, but then I realize she’s only laughing her head off, probably at her favorite VeggieTales. I step inside and see, first, that I was right about the VeggieTales, and second, that something about the kitchen has changed. They’ve replaced the fridge with a new side-by-side, stainless steel Amana Deluxe. The old one – the one that snapped Icky’s wrist – is off in the laundry room, sideways between the washer and the dryer. “Chelley,” I call. “Why is the fridge in the laundry room?” She steps out of our bedroom, followed by Patricia. The older woman’s got forty or so pounds on Chelley, and one of those pear-shaped figures my work buddies call the Weeble-Wobble. But their round faces and stubby noses are almost identical, and I can see how Chelley will look just like her when she replaces her usual low-cal diet with Nutty Bars. They’ve been bawling over pictures spread across the bed, I see, and they’ve left sandwich fixings – mayo, mustard, empty packages of ham and turkey – all over the kitchen counter. “Trish, good to see you,” I say. “Chelley, what happened to our fridge?” 66
Berkeley Fiction Review
“We thought it’d be a good idea– ” she looks at her mother and sniffles “–to get that awful thing out of our kitchen. Don’t worry, though, it’s not staying inside. We’ll take it out to the shed as soon as we get the serial number. And a few pictures.” “Of what?” “We agreed you ought to sue the manufacturer,” says Patricia. “You’ll need pictures to give your lawyer as soon as you can find one. They help establish negligence. Do you know any lawyers around here, Gabriel?” “Sue the manufacturer.” I feel my face redden. “Glad you decided this without me.” “I wanted to call you earlier,” Chelley says. “We’re not suing the goddamn manufacturer.” “Gabriel!” Patricia snaps. “Isabel is in the living room!” That night they team up in the kitchen like a Paula Deen special. Spicy wings and homemade spinach artichoke dip – and they spare no expense. They clang pots and pans and chuckle like clown chefs. I sit in the living room and watch Icky fiddle with the Push Along, try to keep my eyes less on the kitchen and more on the bandage, one of Chelley’s first attempts. The TV’s blaring Nickelodeon, and every once in a while Icky stops behind the Push Along to grab a good part of SpongeBob. “Meow!” she bellows, every time the screen flashes to Gary the Snail. Her color still hasn’t returned, but she doesn’t seem to care as much about the bandage, and when she picks around the stub, it’s only to rub at a phantom baby knuckle, or scratch at a phantom tickle where the top of the hand used to be. I can’t help wondering how schoolmates will see her when she gets older. Will she be the kid with the cute nickname? The kid whose mommy made her a leftie? Or will she be the kid who laughs, the kid who finds the beauty and ignores the regret?
H A quick note about regret. All husbands have a big one they never share, one they dare not talk about at the dinner table. Mine is that I told Chelley I loved her a month after we started dating. One month. It was outside the Malco Theatre in the Wolfchase Galleria, October of 2003, and Brad McLelland
it was our fourth date. I wouldn’t learn where she was born, or what her middle name was, or the fact that she had lost more than sixty pounds in college, until the fifth or sixth. She was crying about the ending to Mystic River, the movie we’d just watched. “I understand why Sean Penn did it,” she said, as we walked back to my truck, “but I just can’t take those unfair endings. I feel so empty afterwards, you know?” To make her feel better I sang the lyrics to that old Glen Campbell song, “Wichita Lineman,” one of my dad’s favorite tunes and a popular ditty among the Memphis Light guys. Every lineman I know has borrowed it from time to time to improve his odds. And nine times out of ten old Glen Campbell never lets him down. “I hear you singing in the wire,” I sang, “I can hear you through the whine. And the Wichita Lineman, is still on the line.” I put my arm around her shoulders. “How’s that?” I said. “Still empty? Still–” She didn’t give me time to finish. She stopped me and we smooched in the parking lot. Some teenage girl nearby crooned, “Aww, so sweeet,” and when Chelley pulled back and smiled I knew things were going way too quickly, and that I was encroaching on territory I did not want to enter just yet. But the words rushed out – “I love you” – like the burst of air after you’ve held your breath too long, and once they were out I couldn’t stop saying them, and neither could she. Inside the truck – “I love you” – and back at my apartment – “I love you” – and soon we were lost in the noise, the rushing wind, of the mantra that I had started. And that was all she wrote. My one big regret.
H The next evening, soaked down to my socks from the rain, I get home and find Chelley and her mother flipping through copies of Child magazine at the kitchen counter. Patricia’s holding a book called Living with Your Child’s Handicap, and Icky’s down on the living room floor, napping on her monogrammed blanket and sucking a right thumb that’s not there. Cartoon Network is on mute, and Icky’s face is covered in some kind of thick chocolate goo. “What’s going on?” I say. “Why is Icky still in pajamas?” 68
Berkeley Fiction Review
“We decided to be lazy,” Patricia says. “With all that rain, we thought it’d be a good day to make brownies.” I look at Chelley. She gives me a noncommittal smile. “Well, could you at least clean the brownie off?” I say, and point to the goo all over Icky’s face. After a shower I put my feet up in the living room and watch Icky suck her imaginary thumb. Watch the lips pucker and the tongue probe around the ghost of that tiny digit, and my skin grows as cold as the Tennessee rain. The doctor had said things like this would be possible, that Icky might do strange things in her sleep, like think subconsciously that her limb is still intact and that she’s satisfying the old oral impulse. So would we still need to break her from the habit? My mother’s remedy was a few drops of Louisiana hot sauce around the nail. I got a taste of the stuff in the middle of the night, and she never had to worry about that problem again. Chelley, she’s given Icky the hard way out. No Louisiana hot sauce for her. Later, as I’m falling asleep in my recliner, I hear Patricia mutter something about a special needs daycare and I snap awake. “Not now, Mom,” Chelley says. But her mother flips to a page in the book and starts reading a section about schools that specialize in handicapped toddlers. “You want her to be happy, don’t you? And normal?” Patricia says. “Here,” Chelley says, “eat the last brownie, Mom.” “I’m just saying she’s not going to be able to cope. These schools have therapists and psychologists. And playrooms where they can watch her. Don’t you want Isabel to be around kids with the same problem?” I stand and walk into the kitchen. Chelley’s eyes drop to her magazine as though I’m coming over to smack her. “Gabriel?” says Patricia. “What do you think about a special needs school for Isabel? Don’t you think that’s an idea worth considering?” I move around them, silently, to the new fridge. I open the freezer door, find the Klondike bar I’ve been saving, and let the door slam behind me to answer her question.
H The first of December I get a call from Child Protective Services. The woman on the line explains that, after a close review of the circumstances Brad McLelland
and a detailed analysis of the interviews, the professionals at the CPS office have closed the case as an Unintentional Injury. No further action would be taken or reported, and they are very happy that things could be resolved. “Godspeed Isabel’s recovery,” the woman tells me. “Have a pleasant day, Mr. Galvin.” I thank her, disconnect my lineman’s phone, and feel relief slide over my body. Finally. A good kind of closure. Then I get home and find a silver Lexus hardtop sitting in the drive behind Patricia’s Escalade. Through the glass of the door, I see a man standing in the living room and staring at the pictures of Icky on top of the TV. He looks about my age, a little younger maybe, and he’s wearing dark blue trousers and a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled neatly to the elbows. He picks up one of the pictures and studies it for a moment until I open the door and walk in. “Oh, hi,” the man says, and sets the picture down quickly. He glides across the room and around the sofa to shake my hand. “You must be Gabriel,” he says. “Or is it just Gabe?” “Gabriel,” I say, and accept the hand slackly. His palm is soft and moist, like he’s been holding a baby wipe – and I make damn certain I’m the first to pull away. And then it occurs to me: I’ve seen the man’s face in the yellow pages and once on Fox 13. A “late-night lawyer” I call them when their ads come on after midnight. accompanied usually by a horrible five-note jingle and a lightning bolt that spells out the address or phone number at the bottom of the screen. “Chelley,” I yell. “Get out here!” Chelley and her mother come running out of the bedroom, Icky propped on Patricia’s left hip like some kind of fashion bag. They’ve just finished changing her diaper – I can see the old one rolled into a ball on the bedspread. “You’re home early,” Chelley says. “Gabriel,” says Patricia, “this is Ronald Baxter – as in, Dillon and Baxter. He’s an attorney. And he’s going to help us out with the lawsuit.” “Please, just Ron,” the man says, and tries to offer that moist palm again. It falls and slips into a trouser pocket when I turn away to face Chelley. 70
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“We’re not suing anybody,” I say. “Period. End of story.” The lawyer looks like a squirrel caught in the crosshairs. “Mr. Gavin, I assure you, your family has an airtight case here. If you would just look at some papers I’ve compiled–” “It’s Galvin, and I’d like you to leave,” I tell the man. Patricia makes a small gasping noise like a busted air hose. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”Chelley says. “With me?” “You’re being rude,” Chelley says. “Yes, I agree,” Patricia puts in. “Your mother talked you into this crap,” I tell Chelley, not caring if Patricia or Ron the Late-Night Lawyer are standing there or not. Somewhere in the floodwater of my rage I feel a cutting shame at what I’m saying and about to say, but I can’t stop the words, can’t rise back to the surface for a breath. I think of my mother yelling at my father on the way to the Murfreesboro hospital, as I held my gushing finger in the backseat. But I still can’t do it. Can’t stop where this is going. “You knew I didn’t want this,” I say, “but you just had to have your way, didn’t you. Always your fucking way, right Chelley?” “Gabriel, not in front of Isabel!” Patricia scolds. She slides Icky off her hip and down to the floor. Icky scampers around her legs and giggles. Two nights ago she stopped the imaginary thumb-sucking. And her color has come back in full. Pinks and reds flush her busy face like touches of paint. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself – really!” “This from a woman whose plate was too full to visit her own granddaughter,” I say. “Mr. Gavin,” the lawyer murmurs, “if you would just look at a few documents–” “You’re being ridiculous,” Chelley tells me. “We need to do something about this. It’s important, Gabe. Don’t you understand?” “It’s only important because you maimed our daughter for life,” I say. Icky runs off into the bedroom. Not because we’re yelling, but because she’s spotted the Playmobil Circus and wants to toss around the elephants. Soon she’s laughing at them, and rolling on the carpet with the animal trainer, the ringmaster, the little band fellows that play circus tunes when Brad McLelland
you set them on the platform. She pushes a plastic doggie with her stump. I yell at Chelley until my throat hurts, and Chelley and her mother yell back. But all I can hear is Ickyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s laughter, rising above the circus music, rising above everything. Laughter like nothing in the world will ever silence her.
Berkeley Fiction Review
SECOND PLACE SUDDEN FICTION
cleaver KYLE SNOW
Seared ahi tuna is her favorite meal and tonight is our anniversary. I tell this to the man at the fish market because this is my first time here. He heaves fish around without a word. When the man holds one up, limp in his left hand, I nod and smile. It is not unlike the reassuring smile I gave my wife last night before bed. She fears our family will not grow; I missed my appointment today. I think to tell someone, to tell this man, but his wrinkled frown carries the warning of judgment. I wonder how often he smiles. He lops off the head, and the slam of his cleaver brings me back to our kitchen, with her at the counter. She split an onion in two with one clean movement of her knife, and said she didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t understand. I put on my coat to grab the mail, and then waited for her to look up. She peeled back the layers and threw them into a stew while her eyes wept tears from the onion, or maybe because of the fear growing inside her. He cleaves the body and lays the fillets on the chopping block, skinside down. His fingers peel away some of the insides and he flings them into a tub. He tilts his head back and tosses something into his throat, and then swallows. He brings his hand up again, offering me the rest of the eggs cupped between his fingers. When I refuse and say no, he pushes Kyle Snow
his hand forward. I shake my hands and head, and smile politely so I don’t offend him. He swallows those, too. He looks at me. He doesn’t say a word, just stares. And I don’t know what he wants from me. I look around, and ask him, yes? When he doesn’t respond, I understand that perhaps we don’t speak the same language, and I shrug my shoulders and smile. He points his cleaver at the fillets. They are clean and neat and bear little resemblance to the fish they once belonged to, and then I realize he probably didn’t understand I wanted ahi tuna. I leave the fish market empty-handed. We will eat leftover stew. Then, I will take my wife to our bed. I will strip off her clothes, her underwear, and finally let her peel off my own so skin can meet skin. I will hold my wife’s flat belly and kiss it. Because, sometimes, our bodies speak for us when we can’t find the words for what we are feeling. And it makes sense to me why fish wave their bodies on land like the struggle many of us know so well; they raise clouds of earth into the air, making each body movement count.
Berkeley Fiction Review
couPle MEG TUITE
WF, 5’4, brown hair, brown eyes, fortyish, available parking day or night in front of building. Elva dropped her personal ad off on the way to work. She hadn’t been in a relationship in over three years. This was an attempt to plague fate with the probability of companionship – that was all. “Somebody,” she thought to herself. “Another overfed body wrestling his magic death queen, his Sears five-speed black and gold stingray, the answer to flat pancakes, bad cop shows, and gas.” The idea of fantasizing was an unnecessary pastime to Elva. Let the men bask in their fallacious pin-up dates. She saw it like it was. WPM, 5’11, 170 lbs., forty-six, loves to cook, bicycle, spend quiet evenings at home. “Atque annuit ille, qui per eos, clamat, linquas iam, Lazare, lectum.” (God prospers their practise, and he, by them, calls Lazarus out of his tombe, mee out of my bed.) John Donne, 21st meditation. Anderson was closer to 200 lbs., 5’8, unemployed for over twenty years, (his mother was supporting him), and had never owned a bicycle in his adult years. The remaining statements were accurate. 76
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He made a full pot of ginger tea, set out a platter of biscuits, and sat at the dining room table in his black satin kimono and clogs. He had a pile of newspapers in front of him and a pen already secured in hand. He opened up the first paper, found the correct section and began to make his way slowly down the first column of personal advertisements. By the time he reached the bottom of the page, his fingers trembled, his face blustered into a pressurized red and his teeth clenched. “Hideous plasticized perverts,” he shrieked. He threw the paper down on the table. “Parading the illiteracy of humanity in crude blocks of twenty-five words or less. They’re actually proud of this constipated prose: hip, stylish, cuddly, busty, hard-bodied, love machine? Really!” Anderson had to talk himself through it, taking slow, deep breaths. He carefully refilled his teacup and resupplied his saucer with dunking biscuits. Anderson circled three that stood out from the mass-heap – one male, two females. No reason to limit himself to any one sex when neither, up until this point, had made any definite mark. He found Elva’s ad appealing in its downtrodden simplicity and immediate concern for the comfort of strangers, but his first date was with Chester. JM, 5’10, 150 lbs., black hair, brown eyes. “There is worship in plowing, and equity in the weeding hoe, a field marshal can be literate, might we see it again in our day!” Ezra Pound. Anderson quivered with excitement when he read this. He got up and began to pace. “Perhaps the forest is not solely a landscape dense with redundancy. Not all are bred to idiocy and confusion. Some are plowing. Yes, some.” He tapped a finger over his lips. Chester and Anderson met for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Halfway through the breadbasket, Chester had still said nothing beyond his name and a brief greeting, while Anderson could not contain his enthusiasm. “Are there no more esurient minds? Oh Chester, we brethren must unite and find strength in our numbers.” He pounded his fist on the table. “We must plow!” He put down his fork and gave Chester a knowing look. “I am ready Chester. I am ready to mount that tractor with you.” Chester filled his empty wine glass, looking pained, but said nothing. Meg Tuite
The food arrived. Anderson maintained his digestive dictum of fifteen chews per forkful when eating out, which seemed a sufficient safety net to cover the probability of overcooking. Chester ordered another bottle of wine. “What is it, Chester, that we see around us? Are not the antennas of these insipid televisions really the two horns of the beast? Save us from the hell of ignorance we swill around in!” Chester silently polished off the remainder of the second wine bottle. He dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin and politely excused himself. Anderson waited another half hour before he cleared Chester’s plate, paid the bill, and sullenly departed without him.
H WF, 5’5. red hair, blue eyes, 30’s, teacher, looking for someone creative, artistic, with a love of poetry. Must be adventurous. Anderson had deemed himself something of a part-time poet, dabbling in the crowded recesses of this abyss for many years, and had come up with a few cherrystones of his own. He pulled out some of his old chapbooks and invited Mercedes over for dinner. He had certainly never found himself a stranger in the kitchen. The meal commenced with a delicate bed of Boston lettuce cradling a gateau of salmon and a bottle of chilled Pinot grigio, followed by a trio of pork chops blanketed in a duvet of virgin olive oil, sage, garlic, and pine nuts; the tranquil symmetry of asparagus resting under hollandaise sauce and a sharp, stimulating bottle of Merlot, followed no less breathlessly by the meditative lullaby of red ripe strawberries shaded beneath a swirled parasol of fresh white cream. Anderson watched as his guest plowed through the salmon, pork chops, and asparagus, loading them in a carpool onto her fork for the same road trip up. Anderson’s stomach rumbled for her strained intestinal tract. He overemphasized gentle, patient chewing. When it came to food Anderson believed in the power of example over word. When he’d masticated his final forkful with care and cleared the table of crumbs, he put on a pot of water for tea. They moved slowly into the living room. 78
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“I like to keep myself busy when I’m not working,” said Mercedes. “I belong to some exclusive organizations and we’re always looking for new members.” Anderson looked at Mercedes. “I’m not what you’d call an organization man, but I would certainly not be adverse to opening up my avenues.” Mercedes smiled. “I can help open up a few of those cavernous avenues. I think you might be just the man we’re looking for. Someone who’s not afraid to try new things.” Anderson anxiously eyed his chapbooks that sat in a neat pile to the side of the tray. He poured out two fragile cups of tea, arranged two biscuits on either side of each saucer and handed her one. He settled back on the couch with his cup and saucer, cleared his throat. “So, poetry?” Anderson took a deep breath. “Where does one begin?” “Oh, yes. Please, Anderson. Read something. The raunchier the better, I always say.” Mercedes clapped her hands and leaned back on the couch. Anderson laughed. “Yes, well, it is raw, that’s for sure. Let’s see now, I’ve flushed out a few antiquated specimens, so please be gentle. They might still be weighted by their muted dust.” “Gentle’s not my style, Anderson, but I promise I’ll give you something special when you’re done.” Mercedes’ raspy voice dropped an octave lower. Anderson picked up one of the notebooks, cleared his throat. “‘Artist’ is the title of this one.” He cleared his throat again and took a sip of tea. “Disdain, immediate, lingering, for the pedestrian compost that rolls itself in the public outhouse of this sophistry, the title is a swastika, it bears its repercussive echo in the cavernous malignancies of the galleries And the masters? speak not of them they are nameless.” Anderson smiled. “The mire of youth.” Mercedes clapped her hands. “Raw and searing, I loved it! I’m going to read you something, but first I Meg Tuite
need to use your bathroom.” “Why, yes, of course,” said Anderson, “it’s right down the hallway to the right.” Mercedes picked up her bag and sashayed in that direction. Anderson was pleased tonight. Finally, he had found someone that appreciated the grit of his soul – someone who could take that plunge into deeper waters. He smiled to himself. This was going to be a memorable night. He pulled a comb out of his pocket and quickly pacified his hair. “But, I mustn’t forget to ask her about herself. Find out what brings her pleasure. I’ll ask her about that organization!” Anderson became more excited by the fantasies rolling around in his head. He saw the future gushing toward him in an expanse of love, poetry and exploration. He hugged his chapbooks to his chest, realizing that he had finally come face to face with rapture. He became disoriented and dizzy from provocative images hurling at him through space, until, at some point, he realized he was no longer alone. He looked up to find Mercedes standing in the doorway. He stared. His mouth slackened and then seemed to detach itself from his face. Mercedes snapped her whip in Anderson’s direction. “Now you’re going to feel poetry like you’ve never felt it before,” she growled, as she slithered toward him. Anderson took in the masked, black vinyl, fishnet ensemble as it approached him. Mercedes grabbed Anderson’s mulberry linen shirt his mother had given him for his last birthday, ripped it wide open and began biting his nipples. She then dragged him off the couch, spun him around, and slapped handcuffs around his wrists. She threw him back on the couch and wrenched his nicely pleated slacks from his body. It was he and his boxers and then it was naked – he and Mercedes. The boxers were cut up with a knife she had strapped to her leg. She took a section of the boxers, balled them up, shoved them into his mouth and plastered duct tape that appeared from somewhere on her person across his quivering lips. Mercedes took a few steps back and snapped her whip. This was not the organization he had expected or the sex he had ever dared to envision. He felt pain and pleasure in parts of his body that had remained dormant for decades. He found himself disturbed and excited by the abilities of this woman, but was also 80
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terrorized and incapacitated. The next two days he was unable to get up off the couch. When he was finally able to limp around his apartment a few days later, he decided to call Elva. The first personal ad that had caught his attention was hers. Anderson knew that no matter how much he prepared psychologically for another encounter with Mercedes, his body would never say yes. It really hurt. A week later Anderson found himself pacing in front of Elva’s building. She would be his last attempt. He had never driven a car, but took the time to note that available parking spaces were surprisingly abundant on Elva’s block, especially for a city that prided itself on its carefully zoned inconveniences. Anderson stuck his bus pass back in his wallet. Elva opened the door to a short, globular man with pink, hairless skin and brown wavy hair that erupted over the periphery of his skull in a swaggering congregation of self-absorbed curls, clutching a bottle of wine. He bowed from the waist and a muted, lyrical voice emitted a breathless, “Anderson Plume, a pleasure.” He clicked past her into the living room. The clogs resonated their way through at least two of the senses immediately. Anderson sat carefully on the couch in the living room, while Elva rummaged through the kitchen. His raw nipples and posterior still weren’t able to recognize themselves after his encounter with Mercedes’ whip and other poetic paraphernalia she had brought in her compact satchel. Elva reappeared with two plates of rice and vegetables that she set down in front of them, startling Anderson. He needed to slow down the evening, and warm up this exchange after the distressing incident with Chester, for it seemed that here was another date that wanted to rush him through dinner. He cleared his throat. “Soooo... have you lived long in the confines of the city?” Elva looked up from her plate. “I never sat well in waiting rooms, yet I am not unaware it is where I remain.” Anderson lifted his eyebrows. He started to rock. “Wine. We must have wine.” Where were his chapbooks when he needed them? He produced a bottle opener from out of his pocket and opened it. Elva brought in two Meg Tuite
glasses, and he filled them. “So,” Anderson began, rocking a little, “I detect the rumblings of a philosopher.” “A philosopher is a yapping mutt peeing at you from the other side of a fence,” Elva stated flatly. Anderson started to tremble. He got up and studied the bookcases that lined the walls of this tiny room. He unconsciously volleyed back an unstinted curl that bounced over his eye in an ongoing, impressive tennis rally. “What an arresting collection,” he whispered. Anderson’s face battled to retain its long-standing placid indifference, though he was unable to restrain a feverish twitch or two that rippled violently over the edges of his nostrils. He sat back down on the couch. For sometime he stared at Elva in silence while she continued to eat. He felt his fork slide from his fingers and hunger slip strangely from him, like a towel that now exposed the naked man, as he slowly forced himself up off the couch and stood shaking in front of her. “I tremble, Elva. I tremble at the unswept corners of the cities that diffuse us. Why must we float on our separate rafts, reading ourselves over and over again, while the rising waves of cynicism toward humanity push us further from the shore, from each other? We plumb the bookshelves that others find dusty, aware that it is the same century that cloaks itself in unfamiliar garb and speech, and yet we know it is the same heart and mind that roars from out of a multitude of separate tongues.” He sat feebly down on the couch again, facing two empty chairs that stared back at him from across the room. Anderson had rarely painted himself a lonely man. Elva looked up from her plate. She was a thin, small, colorless woman with shoulder-length brown hair and soft, liquid eyes that had been passed over and not seen for so long by the Technicolor vision of humanity – like a blind spot in a rearview mirror – that consequently the world disappeared for her as well, and she let in ignorance or depth with the same distribution of light from behind wire rimmed glasses. She set down her fork. Her voice became low, hypnotic. “Life is a horror film in slow motion. We pump ourselves with food, cigarettes, liquor, or whatever we can get our hands on, clutching our various flasks as we stumble in the dark, attempting to locate our seats. We sit 82
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in uncomfortable chairs, and yet we are no more situated than discarded newspaper littering the streets, hoping for the winds to distract us. Some of us sit together, some alone. Some push forward spotting a trophy in the forceful exertion of every step. Some move backward, but most sit like tired statues in the same battered chairs that mold themselves like cushioned toilet seats to each particular form. It is a long film that unreels before us, and we laugh, cry, fall in love and hate. We shake our fists or stare numbly and continue to eat, drink and smoke. We either beat on someone or someone beats on us. We pretend to ignore afflictions, while looking suspiciously out of the corners of our eyes to see if anyone has made that connection that leads continually back to each one of us and our own surfacing inadequacies.” Elva picked up her fork and resumed eating. Anderson sat limply for some time watching her. He had fallen in love. “Might we both watch this horror film...together?” Anderson smiled weakly and slapped back the pristine curl, which allowed itself to be flattened behind an ear for a brief moment. Elva threw herself at the fat man and kissed him. She quit her job at a secondhand bookstore owned by a chain-smoking Maoist and moved into Anderson’s apartment the following month.
H The first few weeks were a gentle, graceful period in which Anderson and Elva’s mottled palms coexisted in coupled entwinement. When they walked the avenues together, rather than upset the delicate rhythm of their newly developed hand-to-hand tempo, Anderson would suffer the impending flow of a sprinkler that splattered his new linen trousers, or wade his suede clogs through puddles that sometimes saturated their path. Their discussions were lively and varied, but nothing that most of humanity would ever attempt to decipher. Anderson’s culinary sprinklings were more daring and poetic than ever before, and when they retired each night with the flicker of one candle slouched into its haunches, and the low baritones of a Beethoven sonata wafting up at them, they railed in each other’s arms like one strand of spaghetti rolling under and over a massive meatball. The missionary position Meg Tuite
must have been what it felt like to have the wind knocked out of you. Elva stopped rolling and kept herself afloat. Anderson prematurely ejaculated and Elva grunted fake ecstasy. She hadn’t had sex in over three years and Anderson’s recent manhandling by Mercedes had been a serious event, but the only action besides his single-handed exercises stimulated by a pile of smeared literary magazines under his bed that had satisfied him for an unknown stretch of time. Anderson and Elva would light up cigarettes after sex and lay together in the dark, silently transfixed by a swarthy circle of light that rocked above them on the ceiling from the diminished candle beneath, and then a bit of verse might be whispered or bellowed until they were both howling together like schoolchildren. What had once been jagged, construction-sooted streets, hammering incessantly with detours leading directly into nowhere, transformed into fascinating sidetracks where Anderson might discover the moss-filled underarm of an ancient oak, or scent the fleeting memory of a distant lavender, or spot an unusual dog with three legs. What had been a neighborhood plagued with strategically scattered humans crouched behind every shrub, waiting like locusts to strike up their banal chorus, now became agreeable singing landmarks that rhythmically led to the apartment. Anderson was in love, and, as such, the morose world settled back into its pew of illusion, and everything appeared or disappeared in humble sympathy. Elva’s emotion was just as potent, though her burgeoning worldview seemed to be rising from an opposite shore. Living with Anderson had opened the map, so to speak, and she now discovered herself a part of a world. People poured out of a landscape that had once been stacked with books, and she found them suddenly congregating everywhere – at bus stops, on porches, in backyards. The neighborhood became a ripened platform for the teacher. Elva walked with Anderson each morning the two miles to the neighborhood library to read, yes, but with the public this time, although after spending a little over a week there, she found it empty, excluding an old woman who slept in periodicals and teenagers that shuttled in and out to use the bathroom. Even though these books did not fare the breadth and range of her own collection or the bookstore’s, she was a part of something that Anderson had just started to open up. In the early afternoon, about one o’clock, she would travel the same 84
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path back home alone, for Anderson had already returned to the apartment to prepare one of his excessive meals, and before retreating back up to their dining room, she would join a group of three or four elderly women who spent their afternoons in the backyard on recliners drinking margaritas roused or passed out to the stuttering replay of Ravel’s Bolero that drummed over and over, and though Elva still hadn’t mastered the subtlety of small-talk, it never seemed to bother her neighbors, who were all a bit hard of hearing and thought her a homely, but pleasant enough girl. Elva stood before them with her notebook open. “A vacuum: that voided space of nothing or death is an absolute impossibility. There is only that howling machine, of the same name, that terrorizes small domestics while motoring over the straying residue of our foul habits, and though most of us prefer to deny the existence of our own filth, there always comes a time when we must change the bag. Nothing dies; merely transfers.” Mrs. Sniptrim looked up at the shadow of Elva and shaded her eyes. “Well, it’s a shame then, my dear. We’ve already been to Walgreens this week, haven’t we Meryl, and no one told us vacuum bags were on sale, did they?” Meryl nodded and they patted each other, clicking discouragement through loosened dental plates. “Hydrogen peroxide and cat food, that right Meryl? Well, we’ll just have to get back there this week.” Elva rustled through her notebook, turned a few pages and then looked up again. “Fear of the eternal responsibility. Is it not when we allow someone to save us that we let go of our chance to save ourselves?” The women said nothing. “You are all women of the matrimonial ring, having somehow mastered the dilemma. Am I correct?” Mrs. Sniptrim looked up blankly for a few moments, and then over at Meryl, and then she rolled her eyes growling, leaned in toward Elva and swiped her hand. “Ohhhh, I got where you’re going now, baby! You trying to get that fat boy tied up in a bow?” She turned to Meryl. “She wants to marry the boy!” Mrs. Sniptrim looked up at Elva. “Well then I have one very important question for you, my dear. What’s the fat boy drink?” Meg Tuite
Elva looked puzzled, and Meryl shushed Mrs. Sniptrim. “Ohhh, please! The boy’s big as a condo! Might have to start saving money to get an engagement outta him.” Elva stared vaguely at the still, bare legs of Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Burlington, who had nodded off to the music and tequila. Their legs were white with blue veins sprawled over green-white checkerboard lawn chairs. Mrs. Sniptrim continued. “Well, my Branford, God rest his soul, proposed on three straight-up Manhattans, but now he’s more your bone and paunch type; all sits in one place like a pillow. Your boy! He’s more like a bedroom set, huh Meryl?” Mrs. Sniptrim clutched Meryl now, and they both snickered and slapped each other, while the music descended back down that endless familiar corridor of its repercussive march. “Listen to me honey. If you want to make some real progress, ply him with lots of alcohol. That’s how it’s been done for ages. What do you say, Meryl? Sangria? Out with the fruit balls and in with the alcohols?” And then they both chuckled and clicked, while Mrs. Pratt began to stir, the two disembodied legs returning to their housedress, pointing their toes and stretching. The screech of a window sounded from above, and fountainous curls billowed out. “Lunch is ready, my sweet. Hello, beautiful ladies. Hope you’re enjoying this bountiful afternoon.” Elva waved up at him and slowly gathered her books together before Mrs. Sniptrim grabbed her arm. “Remember now honey, that one up there is a big, big man! You’ve got no choice but to douse him in alcohols...ehh Meryl?” Elva left them giggling and slapping each other while the drums trilled out their unending ghostly reply.
H During this period Anderson’s poems crowded his notebooks like cockroaches in the swelling silence of dawn’s kitchens. Everything that crawled out of him was a declaration of love. Simply, a thunderstorm 86
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lights up the sky, what does it care. if I say not, the sky continues to shatter from behind drapes. Outside dawn shuts her eyes to the hangover of the city before the beasts of sirens and traffic swarming bodies that trample vision pushing and stumbling to buses, taxis, and trains as if... softly behind your coffee you sit as silent and blank as a nap no watching, no waiting, for the clock to slap another face on you staring down from the wall with its hands in its lap as humbly as any Buddha. Have the trees moved in closer? Voices press their green elbows up to the glass lean in whispering and swaying like idle neighbors And how is it that you have risen up out of silence Meg Tuite
like a country road? And now suddenly, here you sit in front of me silent treasure of a forgotten page discovered, breathing the infinite world within its uncut pages forever.
H Elva was reading over her notes sitting on the couch with her feet up. The dining room chairs braced the table familiarly. She looked up at Anderson who sat by the window, the end of a pen rolling over his bottom lip, a notebook also in his lap. “What do you think of this one?” Elva began to read out loud. “A woman limped out of a liquor store with the submissive stoop of the genuflected, and the promise of a liturgy to come in a bottle. A radiant, old face with the slight tremor of the merciful, holding the brown bag reverently out in front of her with both hands, as a priest holds his chalice. And what would be the difference? She has been living, breathing and drinking the blood of Christ in a lifetime of unparalleled singularity that the clergy can only read about and shamelessly attempt to enact, mouthing their long-winded, incredulous interpretations of the Bible, done up like showgirls in their mawkish vestments.” Anderson chuckled and crossed out what he was writing. “How do you manage to choke the truth out of everything?” Anderson allowed himself a humble dive now and again into the recitation of a poem or two, but for the most part he was becoming quieter and more in love by the day. He chuckled at Elva’s commentary on the church, but added nothing of his own. He had padded his history with impressive oral rebuttals and exhortations up until this time, but was silently shamed into propelling his pontificating elsewhere. He was beginning to believe that Elva was smarter than him. He took up the pen instead with a force that now moved itself in one direction only, from left to right, over 88
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the uniform blue shag of lined paper. His thoughts were safe within these white halls, and so he marched forward letting anything and everything flow, including fears that were now building up inside him. He had never come up against this kind of shame. When he sat across from Elva each night at the dining room table, their eyes would meet briefly and then Elva would stray off deep into another realm. He could feel her pulling away from him and suddenly feel this brutal pain in the chest that swelled and expanded with every breath he took, until he was sure he would most certainly combust from within. He wanted so badly to travel with her to those faraway islands that she kept to herself. She used to share everything with him, but lately he was not able to find a way in. Elva stared at the shuddering face of Anderson that jellied across from her at the table while it arrayed itself into various tics and saggings. She was finding that she hated him sometimes, and she felt pure terror at the thought of it. How could she despise his love that had cradled her and carried her through her solitude into a richer, safer place? She felt a deep pain in her chest as well, that orbited her heart. She had never witnessed real love – only a hell between her parents. Elva awoke each morning of her childhood to find the same father and mother – dictator and dictatee – both strong enough to defy the mathematical universe with all of its scholars who stated that the one should most certainly cancel out the other. Her father was continually lecturing her mother while her mother remained mute. One person beating on the other. Her childhood followed the natural course in the horror film of life. Elva looked into Anderson’s eyes and wondered if she was following in her father’s footsteps. Had she become the beater?
H Time slid forward and the couple realized they had now been shacked up together for over seven months. Anderson’s mother had made some surprise visits before, but was coming over for a sit down dinner tonight. She had been footing the entire bill of their existence. She was an important guest, not to mention the only guest that they had ever had over as Meg Tuite
a couple. Anderson wanted to make something special for the occasion, but when he got to the grocery store he was unable to reel in the necessary ingredients for any one specific recipe, while his scattered mind tried desperately to keep up with the cart. He would dash down aisle three after a vision of the succulent obesity of a perfect pork roast soaking in its own juices. He would plunge down the aisle in pursuit of parsley sprigs instead of the meat, finding that his thoughts were rolling too quickly ahead of himself. He would secure the perfumed bouquet of herbs tightly in his hand and linger over the vision, watching himself lay the final artistic sprays of green at the head and feet of the coiffed carcass, while Elva and his mother looked on with admiration. But then, out of nowhere, fear would reach up to throttle him and his godly vision would decompose into some pantheon of grotesqueness, and he would watch himself take the knife, smile over at Elva, and make that first delicate slice into the exquisite meat only to find the middle as bloody as the day it was born, or watch it crumble like a high-rise into charcoaled bedlam. Anderson was enslaved by a future that wanted only perfection, but now even failed miserably with the scratched-in rudiments of a grocery list. He had let go of his ability to make decisions with the paralytic fear of haplessly making the wrong one. He stranded the cart in aisle six after an hour or so of wandering, leaving behind some sprigs of parsley, a few cloves of garlic and an orphaned onion. When his mother arrived that night for their extravagant dinner Anderson had ordered a pizza instead. The wine certainly helped. His mother ignored the food and drank her meal instead. “So, you’re another smart one like Anderson? What kind of IQ does it take to get a job?” Anderson’s mother asked. “Anderson has never been able to answer that one. Maybe you can finally enlighten me?” Elva looked up from her plate at Mrs. Plume. “An occupation for monetary reward exclusively is the most heinous and denigrating form of enslavement. The mudslingers see us as slothful degenerates milking the cash cow, when the real work needs our constant attention. We are required to live outside the system in order to correctly interpret how those cogs continue to rotate.” Elva picked up her piece of pizza and continued eating. Mrs. Plume stared at her in horror. “I see,” she said, pouring herself 90
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another glass of wine. “So I’m the cow with the cash, is that it?” Anderson looked at his mother and beamed. Mrs. Plume now had two social retards on her hands. “Isn’t it about time I got something for my money? What about a grandchild? At least I can tell my obnoxious neighbors that my son isn’t completely useless.” Mrs. Plume finished the bottle of wine and then stood up. “You do have sex, don’t you? Or is that too deep into the rotation of the cogs to consider?” Elva and Anderson stared at her, but said nothing. They weren’t having much sex at this point. Anderson helped his mother with her coat. She looked at both of them and sighed. She didn’t make any more drop-in visits without checking first to make sure Elva was out. The girl was a never-ending monologue.
H Anderson stood regretfully in front of Elva, while she shook a piece of cloth in front of his face. It was an item that had taken it upon itself to regress in the dryer, molding itself into the shape of a sickly adolescent of perhaps ten years old. Somehow this preferred sweater of Elva’s had clipped a ride with Anderson’s soiled mound and tumbled back toward the womb, and so Anderson stood now, submissively, hands buckled in his pockets, and winced every time the passing wool shriveled impotently in front of him. “We have two machines,” Elva began. Anderson stared down at his shoe. She was starting in on him again. Lately these hellish moments happened more often than not. When they first moved in together they didn’t get upset about domestic mishaps. It was just the daily purgatory of life. He listened to Elva and hoped she would give up soon. She would begin to feel remorse and then they would prepare dinner. “that await our command. And so, if we set the dial to NINETY minutes on high, then what can we EXPECT?” Elva waved the blasphemous wool. “How many times...” Anderson stared at his pile of clothes wrinkling together in a heap on top of the machine. “I will have to iron every one of those when she is finished,” he thought to himself. Elva despised herself, but was unable to stop badgering the man she loved. What did she care about a shrunken sweater? She’d never given a Meg Tuite
damn about her appearance. She was killing this relationship with pettiness. Elva looked into Anderson’s flinching face, which suddenly brought her back to her childhood. Whenever Elva’s father would come home from work and the family were all seated at the dining room table, Elva’s mother’s face would suddenly become a rapid interruption of itself, firing emotions over her features like a slot machine, so she might appear happy, sad, fearful, helpful, indifferent, attentive, excited or lost all within a matter of minutes. Elva now saw the same flickering film riddled across Anderson’s face. What the hell was going on? Throughout their relationship Elva had instructed all fear to be on a twenty-four hour lookout for the inevitable coup attempt to overthrow her identity, murder it, and replace it with her mother’s passive resignation, but what had silently developed instead was the opposite – Elva had become her heavy-handed father, while Anderson had stepped into the embittered serf slippers of her mother. She unclenched her bloodless ancestral fists and dropped the withered sweater.
H It was now almost one year to date since Elva and Anderson had lived together. His mother had stopped hassling them about having a baby and the checks started coming in guilt-free. Elva and Anderson decided to dine out on a gloomy night in the middle of a gloomy week at a Greek restaurant in the neighborhood. It was a night so dull that it grimaced at its own yawning salute. The couple sat across from each other separated by condiments, a plastic daisy, and two pink menus that delayed their dim thoughts from discouraging one another. They stared into their menus as one might feed on the immediacy of television, stomaching the idiocy of reruns rather than stifle the dead-end of two opposing silences. Elva looked briefly into Anderson’s face with its softened spread of complacent chins that rose up timidly out of a starched pink collar, and she smiled. She really did love him. She then stared past him at an empty table with two stiff-backed chairs that sat dumbly waiting for no one. Anderson watched Elva watch him and slowly shrunk into stooped shoulders and a muted look of penance. He, too, had a lot on his mind tonight. 92
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Patiently, but somewhat oppressively, they waited for the butter and rolls to arrive. Elva dimly mind-called Acquinas, “What is Man himself and his whole terrestrial Life, but an emblem,” after a neon sample of the clothed populace passed by their table picking absently at his crotch of imprisoned spandex, smiling up from under the shimmering spectacle of a purple bicycle helmet. This was one of those generous restaurants where plates were steeped high to make up for any lost moments waiting, and so forward came steaming platters of spanikopita for Elva, and gyros for Anderson, though not before his lamentable side order of flaming cheese had dragged the waiters up from their cigarette breaks to surround the table clapping and yelling, “oompah,” causing considerable damage to both suffocating egos who sat miserably turning various colors with their hands clenched in their laps, while a few vile onlookers looked on. Not a word, petty or otherwise, floated up beyond the dismal centerpiece. The couple spoke only when ordering sideways and up at the waiter, and then there was the audible “ohhhh,” exhaled from the expanse of Anderson when he followed his tumbling fork nervously down beyond the folds of the plastic tablecloth. Each tried to appear steeped in their own thoughts. It was while coffee sat before them and the table had been cleared of its debris that Anderson became agitated, clearing his throat and foraging recklessly through his suit coat pockets. He managed at some point to pull out a cigarette pack and some matches, and finally got a cigarette lodged between dried lips. Elva, meanwhile, suffered the silence by wondering how many times she had seen these repressed couples and wondered why the hell they even bothered to go out? She saw life ahead of her in one of those concentrated flashes that saw beyond Anderson’s recycling features, and she knew that she would wear the distance of aloneness no matter if a body sat across from her or not, and that what was to become of Anderson was no longer the singular plight of Anderson, but the final resting place of her coupled thoughts. Who else would possibly put up with her? She smiled weakly at the fumbling Anderson as he continued rummaging through the tired seams of his pockets again, and she tried to think of something to say. He rooted out a few of his crumpled dollars and some change and laid them Meg Tuite
hesitantly on the table in front of them. Then he pulled something else out of his pocket. A small, blushing, velvet box appeared from under the pale folds of his descending knuckle â&#x20AC;&#x201C; a box that seemed ridiculously overdressed, though it bore an acute firmness of purpose that it would be impossible for either of them to refute. Neither one could deny its formal persuasion, and Anderson, without looking directly at Elva, placed it silently in front of her on the table, careful to spare his trembling suit coat sleeve from an embarrassing dip in the coffee. They both stared at it now in dueling silence, weighted by its indestructible existence, its reverberating pronouncement, while the waiter sat on the other side of the restaurant totaling the bill, and Time, as it were, stood still.
Berkeley Fiction Review
indian village B.J. HOLLARS
It was the summer of 1975 and we were supposed to be feeling good. Gerald Ford had just put an end to the war in Vietnam, and even more exciting, through the hail and the sideways rain, our hero, Bobby Unser, had somehow managed to be the first to limp his way past the checkered flag in Indy. Far less impressive was my own limping completion of the seventh grade, an accomplishment that’s only reward was leaving me stranded somewhere in the foggy terrain of my crushing adolescence, another casualty in a long line of those already infected. Through no fault of their own, boys who had once been stars on their little league teams suddenly found themselves stretched and refashioned, stricken with nicknames like “string bean” and “crater face” with no signs of letting up. One morning they woke to find themselves dispossessed of coordination. Suddenly their feet were replaced with clowns’ feet, their legs the legs of giraffes. Our symptoms, we would later discover, were no different than those faced by others our age. This, of course, led us to believe that our shared suffering was most likely the result of some top-secret government conspiracy (someone had poisoned the water supply, no doubt), leaving us more susceptible to growing older. At the end of the school year, several of us had passed around a dogB.J. Hollars
eared copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, which we devoured partially for its pornography but mostly for its self-help. We took refuge in Carrie’s predicament, basked in her unbridled displays of strength. Even we boys who knew nothing of the mysteries of menstruation reveled in the possibility that we, too – while enduring the curse of our fading youth – might uncover our secret powers. We lived in a place called Indian Village, a small neighborhood constructed on the fringes of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Small, ranch style houses butted up alongside one another in an array of lime green and tangerine orange. They were modest homes – screen doors and back porches – with bird-covered mailboxes punctuating the property lines. The only characteristic that distinguished our neighborhood from the next (aside from the street names identified by Indian tribe), was the canvas teepee displayed in the grassy center of the neighborhood. We never really spent time there (much preferring our summer days dedicated to the icy waters of the Pocahontas Pool or on the baseball field at Indian Village Elementary), but our neighborhood’s theme took on an entirely new meaning when the rental truck screeched to a halt on the corner of Kickapoo Drive. I never knew anything about real, live Indians except what the movies told us – all that business about feathers and bows and arrows. And thanks, in part, to a movie we should never have seen, we’d also learned a thing or two about scalping; how their bone-handled blades had sliced over the still-warm bodies of white men, sawed across the hairline with one hand while pulling the flesh tight with the other. It was that image that stuck with us when the tall, quiet man with the jet black hair stepped from the rental truck. He threw open the doors, gave two sharp whistles, and released his tribe into our otherwise near-perfect lives.
H It was hard to determine how many there actually were. Five or six, most likely. Mother and father and five or six Indian braves. A dog, too, who throughout the summer would go to great lengths to fertilize my mother’s gardenias. Who knows how old those boys were, though the youngest hardly measured to my waist. The older ones (and most of them seemed 96
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older) were broad-chested and gaunt-faced, intimidating in their silence. Several of us gathered at the end of the block, gripped our baseball gloves and watched them unload boxes. “Looks like they’re sticking around,” Ronald Carpenter observed, spitting into the grass. “Maybe they’ll play outfield,” added Jim Kelp, who was regularly stuck playing the outfield alone. We kept staring at them, yet despite our gawking, those Indians never bothered glancing up. They’d formed a slap-dash assembly line – the father handing the box to his oldest son who handed it to the next and then the next, until eventually the box was handed to the smallest Indian who huffed it into the house. “Think they speak English?” one of the guys asked, propelling us into a heated debate over whether or not Indians could. Midway through Ronald’s refutation (“Of course not! They didn’t even come from England!”), the one girl powerful enough to momentarily stifle our idiocy pedaled back into our lives. Georgia Ambler, who each afternoon could be found sunbathing in her blue and white striped bikini at the Pocahontas Pool, had single-handedly doubled the pool’s male membership. Ever since school let out, we’d fallen into a routine of baseball in the mornings and pool in the afternoons, a schedule that allowed us ample opportunity to show off the scraped knees we’d earned for our heroics on the field. For several sweltering afternoons, we took turns parading back and forth past Georgia Ambler’s peripheral vision (our farmer’s tans in full bloom), waiting patiently for her to acknowledge our existence. She didn’t. In school we never dared call out her name, but in the neighborhood, one of us would sometimes feel brave enough to bleat out a greeting. But not the night the Indians moved in. Ronald, Jim and the rest of us huddled quietly beneath the oak tree at the end of my drive, haphazardly tilting the remains of our grape soda cans, our tongues reaching for the final sip as our eyes remained focused on Georgia peddling past on her bright blue Schwinn. Her brakes squeaked, but it was a squeak we’d grown accustomed to B.J. Hollars
from summers past, our pants instinctually tightening at the sound of her presence. But the Indians glanced up at the girl on the bike as if hearing something entirely different. The oldest son (we called him Pony due to his ponytail) traced her path with his eyes as she rode down Cherokee Lane. Like the others, I should have treated myself to the gift of Georgia Ambler’s backside, but I couldn’t – not with that Indian staring.
H Much to Jim Kelp’s disappointment, we soon discovered that the Ross family’s invasion into our neighborhood did not translate into an increased number of outfielders. “What do you mean they don’t play baseball?” Ronald asked, pounding his fist into his opened glove. “You mean they don’t speak English?” “They speak English,” I said, settling the matter. “They just don’t play the game.” Since I lived closest, I’d been nominated to represent us in our plight for a few more outfielders. “So assuming they did speak English, what’d they tell you?” Ronald continued. “Just that they don’t play,” I repeated, “and that was pretty much it.” In the days leading up to my first encounter with the natives, I’d carefully made note of their patterns. For the first few days the braves had spent quite a bit of time in their front yard, rearranging their dozen or so lawn ornaments until their mother seemed satisfied. My own father called the lawn ornaments “gaudy as hell” – a cornucopia of shoddily-made foxes and turtles and miniature deer – but since the neighborhood association hadn’t explicitly ruled against them, there was nothing we could do but ignore the plastic rabbits and squirrels whose marble eyes seemed to follow us everywhere. After their yard was in order, I began seeing less of less of the braves. The only time they seemed to venture outside was when one of the younger ones grabbed the morning paper around 7:30 or so. One day after breakfast I hid myself just inside our opened garage until I saw their door swing 98
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wide and one of the Indians bypassed the miniature deer and reached for the paper. Nothing fancy on my part, just a casual jaunt in the boy’s general direction. He was one of the middle-aged boys, probably a year or two older than me, so I introduced myself and asked if he or any of his brothers wanted to meet us over on the field. I pointed it out to him, and when the boy remained quiet, the smile slipped from my face and I tried thinking up other things to say. “Right over that hill,” I repeated. “That hill right over there. That’s where the field is so…anyway.” Sweat streamed into my eyes, and I was suddenly desperate for an exit strategy. In a voice like water, he whispered, “We don’t play.” “Oh. All right then,” I said, relieved for an answer. “Well, if you ever do…or if you change your mind…over that hill there…like I said.” Ronald didn’t buy the story – “Who the hell doesn’t play baseball?” – but he didn’t much care either way. He just shrugged his shoulders, took his place on the mound, and said, “Sorry, Jim. How ‘bout taking center?”
H One night, after an afternoon spent leering at Georgia Ambler sprawled on her lawn chair, fingering a Vogue magazine while a bottle of sunscreen rested against her thigh, Jim, Ronald and I retrieved our still sweat-drenched gloves and played a few rounds of Pickle, taking turns getting stuck in the middle and finding our way back to base. We were playing in the grassy area between Comanche and Mohican when the ball got loose – a wild throw by Ronald – and as I ran to retrieve it, I realized just how dark it had become, how the streetlights seemed only to cast longer shadows this far from the yard. Still, I glimpsed what appeared to be a baseball skipping across the grass, eventually rolling to a halt against the neighborhood teepee. I hustled after it, slowing down only upon hearing the voices drifting from within the enclosure. I stopped, trying to make out their words, but it was all B.J. Hollars
whispers and half-laughs. “Hey, Jer, what’s the hold up?” Ronald cried out. “You tugging one out or what?” I froze as one of the Ross brothers ripped open the teepee’s canvassed door, a plume of marijuana smoke bursting for the exit, burying me in a cloud. It looked as if the entire tribe was wedged inside there, but once the smoke cleared and I came into view – my baseball glove tucked around my left hand like a lobster claw, eyes frantic – I saw there weren’t nearly as many as I’d thought. Still, the ones who were there burst into laughter, high-pitched yipping sounds crystallizing in the air as their tongues clicked against the roofs of their mouths. “Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!” they bellowed, leaping from the teepee, smoke hanging in the air. “Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!”
H They broke our treaty that night. It had never been explicit, but after our failed negotiation to get them to play baseball, my friends and I invoked a strict Indian policy of leaving them to their own goddamned devices. We thought the Ross brothers abided by a similar policy, and our arrangement seemed manageable until we woke the morning following the “Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!” incident to find toilet paper streaming from the trees outside my home. Dad had woken me with his bellows, demanding that I steady “the goddamned ladder” for him while he climbed up to rip it all away. Our house wasn’t the only one to get hit – the houses on either side of us were equally papered – and while I kept insisting to Ronald, Jim and the others that we couldn’t necessarily assume the Ross’s were to blame, I couldn’t think of any other culprits. “You don’t have to be Sherlock freakin’ Holmes, Jerry,” Ronald grunted, bobbing in the shallows of the Pocahontas Pool. “Think about it. Last night we catch them smoking dope in a teepee, and this morning we wake up and find, lo and behold, that you’ve been ‘teepeed.’ Teepee and teepeed, get it? Caught the bastards red handed if you ask me, but trust me, old Chief Tiny Dick’s gonna pay.” 100
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(Chief Tiny Dick was Ronald’s less-than-affectionate name for the one the rest of us just called Pony.) “Well, I wouldn’t call that catching them red handed, exactly,” I began, but he cut me off. “What more proof do you need? What if you wake up one morning and find my scalp sitting right on their doorstep. Huh? Would that convince you? Would this scalp, right here,” he said, tugging on his wet hair, “on their doorstep, right there,” he continued, pointing, “make this a little easier on you?” Ronald’s speech seemed to rally the others, and he assured them that if we did not respond then those “Indian assholes” would think they had free run of the place. “They do act pretty entitled around here,” Jim agreed. “Like just because it’s called Indian Village they think they’re the freaking chiefs.” Ronald nodded vigorously, offering up various body parts that they could kiss or suck, until finally, a retaliatory plan was agreed upon right there in the shallows of the pool. “There’s not so many of them,” someone pointed out. “Not even a full tribe.” “You think I care how many there are?” Ronald hissed as several of us bobbed all around him. “Even if there were a million…” Ronald paused mid-speech as Jim gasped, pointing toward the fence. It was Pony, his mountainous pectorals and biceps rattling against the chain link as we huddled close together like a herd of rabbits. “Oh, Chief Tiny Dick’s just trying to intimidate us,” Ronald shrugged. “Don’t pay any attention.” But we did, we paid a lot of attention. He kept staring and we kept staring, until eventually, the only way I knew to break the standoff was to submerge myself, let the water drown the world away.
H Our plan was simple: a coordinated assault on the outer perimeter of the Ross residence. B.J. Hollars
“It’s psychological,” Ronald explained, filling a brown bag with dog shit. “They call this guerilla warfare.” Several of us had gathered near the oak tree in preparation for the assault. Jim thought it would be a good idea to dress up like Indians ourselves (“You know, like how they did for the Boston Tea Party!”) but in the end, he was the only one among us who actually donned the war paint and the feathers. Ronald distributed our explosives – black cats and cherry bombs mostly – and then ordered us to fan out on all side of the Ross’ residence and wait for the signal (a piss-poor owl hoot, courtesy of Ronald). Clutching our matches, we did just that, spidering across the street in perfect silence; our heads down and running heal to toe, which Jim (the closest thing to an Indian we had) had heard was how the real Indians used to do it during horse raids. We all reached our drop zones, but after a few minutes of silence, we began wondering if maybe we’d missed the signal. After all, Ronald was supposed to light the bag of shit, chuck it against the door and then let sound the owl screech. But there had been no screech – nothing even close to a screech – so Jim plucked one of his feathers and pointed to the other side of the house, indicating that I should check on Ronald. I began army crawling along the edge of the house, and in one instance, accidently peeking inside the living room window to find the family deeply engaged in a game show. Some of the younger brothers sat on the floor while their parents and the older ones littered themselves on the couches. I glanced the front steps (not a flaming bag of shit in sight) and continued crawling until eventually spotting Ronald on the other side. He was in reconnaissance mode, his face pressed tightly to the narrow basement window. The window was nothing more than a horizontal rectangle – a thin pane of glass that hardly seemed adequate for peeping – yet Ronald did not blink. “Psst,” I hissed, “hey, Ron. You gonna give the signal or what?” It was as if he didn’t hear me. “Psst.” This time, his head swiveled just enough to reveal the sunburned 102
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bridge of his nose. “What is it?” I asked. He motioned for me to look through the basement window, and when I did, I witnessed something remarkable – Pony pressed hard against the orange flowered couch and a topless Georgia Ambler grinding against him. On the floor beside them were the remains of her now bunched blue and white striped bikini, but all we could see was her body thundering against his like some great rebellion, sweat beading from the tops of her breasts and sliding through the canyon that separated them. As I watched, I remember thinking the strangest thing: Some day she will be an old woman. Ronald tapped my shoulder, breaking the spell, and whispered, “This was never part of our plan.”
H The rest of the summer felt a bit like a funeral procession. Ronald and I kept what we’d seen to ourselves in an attempt to maintain Georgia Ambler’s purity for others, but this decision forced us to carry the burden alone, lugging it behind us with every pitch and swing in the on-deck circle. Yet, despite what we’d witnessed, we continued in our routines. Baseball in the morning, pool in the afternoon. And while the others continued peacocking past Georgia Ambler’s lawn chair, Ronald and I just stopped bothering. Everything we’d ever hoped to see we’d already seen secondhand. June crept into July, July into August, and soon, much to our horror, school supplies began lining the window displays where once a sunscreen pyramid had towered six feet high. Eighth grade was nearly upon us, and yet we didn’t feel any older. In fact, most of us just felt a whole lot more tired. Those Indians had taken a lot out of us, and while the remainder of our interactions with them had proved innocuous, this was only the result of our redrawing the boundary lines – never stepping foot near the teepee, while they steered clear of the baseball field. Some afternoons we overlapped at the pool, but they stayed in the deep end and we in the shallows while Georgia Ambler, quite diplomatically, ignored all of us equally from her B.J. Hollars
lawn chair in the middle. For a few nights that summer, Ronald and I wandered back to that basement window, crawling up to the soft glow in the hopes that we might realize that none of it had been real. Just some dream we’d dreamed up. Some wild trick of the light. We never saw Pony and Georgia alone together again, and most of the nights, when we peered down, all we’d ever see was old Pony (Chief Little Dick) lying on the cool, cement near a box fan, staring blankly at the TV. In the rare instance when Pony and Georgia passed each other at the pool, they never looked at one another directly, adding further credence to our “trick of the light” theory. Still, every once in awhile I’d catch Pony glancing up at her from behind the crinkled pages of a Sports Illustrated. Though I’d never known love myself, in my fourteen-year-old estimation, she seemed to have left her mark on him. After what we could only assume was the abrupt end to their romance, Pony began resembling a young warrior who’d just lost his favorite horse. Some evenings, after everyone had gone home for dinner, I’d walk past the pool to find him swimming laps all alone. By that point in the evening, the lifeguards were already skimming with their nets, but he somehow dodged them, his sinewy, brown arms pulling hard against the jostling waves.
H If, as in Carrie, we possessed secret powers, we never really found them that summer. While we endured one final interaction with the Ross boys, our powers remained consistently dormant. That final Thursday evening in August, a platoon of weathermen bombarded our TV screens, pointing out areas on the map that looked suspiciously like where we lived. Those men used words like “doppler,” “humidity” and “perfect storm,” drawing even the most inattentive eyes toward the screen. Meanwhile, the Emergency Broadcast System bleated from our radios, the harsh beeps warning us of tornado watches until midnight, reminding us that this was not a test. Ronald was over (we’d been comparing class schedules), when my father walked into my room and told him he might as well stay over, that there was no sense braving 104
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a “whopper like this one.” Arrangements were made, sleeping bags unfurled on the living room carpet, while he and I watched the storm from just inside the screen door. We watched as the slow wind began tearing at the leaves, and how the oak tree was now at the mercy of that wind, its upper branches swirling. One moment there was nothing and then, everything. The thunder came first, followed by the flash. Then the rain began flying in sideways, like Unser’s rain, and as the howling picked up and the stars receded, we started pulling the door closed when we witnessed Pony and the rest of the tribe running outside to collect what remained of the lawn ornaments. Their mother shouted inaudible directions to them from the porch, her finger pointing in a hundred different directions as her children scattered. They were drenched, Pony’s long hair sticking to the left side of his face like a shadow, and through all the shouting, somehow their dog slipped from between their mother’s thick legs and burst across the street to our yard. This only caused Mrs. Ross’ shouting to raise a pitch higher, and I was reminded of all the shouts and yips I endured throughout the summer whenever I passed the teepee late at night. I pulled the screen door wide and called out to him – “Come here, pal,” – and sure enough, after releasing a nice, steaming dump on my mother’s gardenias, he trotted over as if expecting some kind of reward. I grabbed him by the collar and hunched over as the world fell apart all around us. Thick branches cracked and collapsed to the grass as the sewer grates overflowed with dark water. The Kickapoo Drive sign rattled under the wind’s strain, and even though I could hardly see anything other than the blur of the Ross’s porch light, I ran that dog across the street, handing him over to the first hand that came into contact with mine. I always figured that hand probably belonged to Pony, but to this day I don’t really know for sure. It was just some Indian hand, and he laced his fingers beneath that dog’s collar replacing my own. There was no thank you, no anything. A change in grip, the charge safely passed from one to the other. Soon I was trotting back across the street to my front yard where Ronald was shouting to me from the porch. I could hardly hear him over the battered wind chimes. “Jer! What the shit man! What the shit?” B.J. Hollars
I didn’t say anything. We peered out into the night just in time to watch that teepee teeter and crash to the ground, its long poles clattering like a pile of pickup sticks, the canvas deflating. It was closest thing to a premonition I ever saw, and less than a week later, long after the storm had subsided, those Indians were gone. Their father had gotten transferred to Indianapolis, and while the rest of us were out trying on school clothes and stocking up on boxes of Kleenex, their tribe was working in reverse, repacking the boxes, stacking them high in the truck. I watched them from the safety of the garage, their brown arms tightening under the weight of those boxes, eyes sullen and twice as tired as ours. Occasionally, Pony would turn around as if expecting someone, but she never came. Not a single squeak of the brakes. Then, a sharp whistle, and the father locked the house door while the rest of the tribe crammed back into the truck. An engine started. A gearshift was thrown into reverse. I stepped into clear view as they puttered passed my house, a hand raised above my head, my fingers tight. It wasn’t goodbye – not exactly. It wasn’t an apology either.
Berkeley Fiction Review
THIRD PLACE SUDDEN FICTION
truMPet M. J. KELLEY
My Dad calls. What’s wrong? he asks. I don’t know, I say, I don’t think it’s working. You want to come home? he asks. I don’t know, I say, I don’t know anyone here, nothing’s working. Wait, hold on, son. Can I call you back? I have a customer here. I’m the only one working today, he says. We hang up, and I stare out the window: there is a fence separating the two side yards, and then there’s just the wall of the house next door. No light, no plants – empty. The phone rings. I’m sorry, son, he says, It will get better for you. I guess, I say. Remember when I used to hum to you when you were a baby? No, Dad. I used to hum to you and hold you in my arms until you fell asleep. Now you live up in the city, he says, I can’t believe it. OK, Dad, I say. I have another customer. I’ll call you back. I look out the window again: there is a snail inching its way up the fence, its dark brown shell slightly, slowly swaying, its antennas poised, a transparent trail marking its passage. After a few minutes the phone rings. OK, son, he says, This is a song called “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley. Ready? What are you doing, Dad? It’s OK, no one’s in the store. I hear the thud of him putting the phone down. My Dad hums and for a moment I’m afraid he’ll sing. Then comes the smooth ring of his trumpet, a deep brassy bellow echoing out of the phone. I’m struck with 108
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memories of him playing when I was a little boy, the feel of the brass when running my hands over its cold surface. The instrument was warm after heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d been playing. Now, he accelerates the song, pitching high, and then slowing, falling low. I see him sitting there, in the mattress store he manages, alone, sitting on one of the display beds near the phone, playing his trumpet, eyes closed, his shirt and tie loosened, the music reverberating off the high ceiling and glass doors. His cheeks puff out and lungs retract, fingers tapping those three valves. I see him tapping his right dress shoe on the floor: one, two, three. At the end, he holds one last note, reaching for harmony, his breath almost gone, but the sound slowly fades away alone. I find myself on the floor of my room, hand locked on the phone, not wanting to let go. That was from â&#x20AC;&#x153;Blue Hawaii,â&#x20AC;? he says.
M. J. Kelley
Berkeley Fiction Review
any little Morsel BESS WINTER
When she had no food left in the house and no more will to eat, Helen cannibalized her manuscripts. She started with the recipes: Aunt Florence’s Blue Ribbon Bundt Cake, Golda Meir’s Chicken Soup, Bacon Bite Cornbread. These she had published, some time ago, in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Now they were carbon copies slid out of old manila hanging files that had stoicized in her filing cabinet since 1969. Her first attempts were primitive. She cut the recipes apart with kitchen scissors, separated each ingredient into its own neat strip, and masticated them until they were pulpy and warm. Then she swallowed, each sharp directive and thick noun meeting inside her until she’d pulped the recipe into a gluey gruel and cooked it in her pickled old stomach as in a cauldron. She survived like this, for a time. And when she didn’t eat words, she read them: every page of the New York Times, from the headlines to the classifieds to the crosswords, which she filled out in ink. Her daughter phoned long distance out of a sense of duty or guilt. She asked, flat-voiced, what are you eating? Checkerboard Square Clam Crunch, said Helen, voice heavy with phlegm. She double-folded the newspaper in her lap, filled in another space in the crossword. Tomato Stuffed with Perfection Salad, HamburgerBess Winter
Olive Loaf and, just today, Truffle Trout Aspic. And her daughter wondered at her mother’s ability to cook, considering Helen’s talent for wreckage. Wondered, but didn’t much care. What Helen’s recipes provided in nourishment they lacked in flavor. They had the piquancy of Campbell’s soup labels and the texture of wallpaper. Helen hungered for stronger words. She began on the lifestyle articles. Anecdotes about raising three children in the 1950s, about dinner parties, and leading Girl Guide meetings, and Daniel’s boxcar built to look like a pirate ship, all snipped to bits. She ingested her children, one by one. Their antics – that had looked so delightful on the pages of the Omaha World Herald – all slipped down her gullet: first Robin, then Ann. Daniel, always the favorite, she saved for last. She scissored the yellowed newsprint into pasta and wound it around an unwashed fork. She folded her carbons into tea sandwiches and sucked on their corners until they were soft enough to tear off small bites. She layered them into patties and doused them in Worcestershire sauce. When her children were gone, she eased herself into her rocker and folded her brittle hands over her gut, satisfied. The consumption of each name seemed to give her back something of herself. Her flesh clung to her bones a little tighter. She felt her old youth snaking through her once more: a warmth that began in her heart and spread out to each dangling limb like the warmth of a gulp of wine or a long draw off a cigarette. Most intoxicating was the flood of ambition: a feeling she had enjoyed many decades ago, before much of what made her Helen had happened. It was heady and rich and made her drunk with herself. It was something she had to have. She ate her high school diploma, granted to her when she was only fourteen. She ate the angry letters she wrote her father, the ones he’d refused to open, the ones that begged him to send her to college: the ones she’d saved for no reason she could fathom; perhaps she had known she’d digest them one day. She ate her certificate from secretarial school and her membership certificate from Job’s Daughters and her marriage certificate and all else she could find. She ate it all, and it was gone. She steamed all of her correspondence in a giant double boiler and soaked it with vinegar and slathered it with mustard before scarfing it down. Rejection letters were glassy cabbage leaves. Letters from family 112
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were bland and perfunctory potatoes. Her husband Robert’s letters, sometimes fat and witty, sometimes biting, sometimes cruel and drunk and gone bad, were the meat around which the whole meal was based. When those were gone, Helen was herself again. She unmothballed her old hats and gloves and dresses. She began to go on short outings to the mall and drives down Saddle Creek and through Benson, twisting through the old neighborhoods in her ancient Karmann Ghia. It was around this time that Helen received a letter from her granddaughter. Too young to compose something original, she’d copied letters Helen had written her mother in months prior. Please send pictures. She drew a picture of herself. And Helen, who had not been the subject of a photo in at least ten years, drove to Target in a floppy brimmed hat and costume jewelry and elbow-length gloves, her face geishaed with powder and dots of rouge and coral lips. She sat in a photo booth and pressed her gloved hand to her face and kissed for the camera five times, each pose almost identical to the pose in the preceding photo. She mailed the photo strip to her granddaughter in her last envelope and then ate the letter her young granddaughter had sent her. After eating all of her other compositions, Helen was left with one small, locked drawer of manuscripts, right under the lip of her roll top desk. For days, she contemplated the key to the drawer. It had sat in the bottom of her jewelry box for decades, getting dark and green. Now its ring dangled from her gloved finger as she floated around the apartment looking for things to do, ways to distract herself. But there was nothing. Helen remembered what was in the drawer. Dwelled on it. Fantasized about it. What was in the drawer was pure and rare and aged now like a fine wine kept for years in a cellar: poems. All had been written in the small, now distant window between leaving home and meeting Robert. All unpublished but still full of their youth and promise. All, undoubtedly, delicious. But Helen didn’t want to devour them in one meal. She wanted to rediscover them, savor them over time like an epicurean would with delectables, read and reread them, ingest them word-by-word. She feared she might not have the willpower. She hadn’t had the willpower to achieve many feats. She hadn’t had the power to achieve anything before. But her skin was again growing loose and hung close to her bones. Bess Winter
The only nourishment in the apartment called to her until she finally gave in, turned the key in the lock, held the brittle yellowed manuscripts in her hands like giant water crackers, collapsed in her chair with them and pored over them. They were plucky bits of flapper verse, all set in the Gold Coast. They were about driving to and from parties, drunken rooftop sunrises, ill-fated pairings among Omaha’s debauched youth. They reeked of optimism. They were bad; Helen knew. But they were hers. Their smell was mildew and wood with top notes of ribbon ink and old fruitiness. She wanted to melt them between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. She wanted to absorb them back into herself and feel the old youth again. She began by scissoring them carefully into their delicate words, most small as grains of rice. Then she poured them into a dusty Fiestaware bowl, minding their presentation. She balanced the bowl on her lap and her bird-thin hand hovered above it, fingers twitching. She plucked a word from the bowl and hurried it into her mouth. It tasted even better than she’d imagined. Like fine hors d’oeuvres, or candies she remembered from childhood, or something even more essential to her survival that she couldn’t quite place. She let it linger in her mouth for a moment. Then it slipped down her throat and warmed every part of her as nothing else had ever done. She was twenty-one again. She could do a dance if she wanted to. She could smash all the bottles in the apartment and crush her cigarettes under her slippered feet. She slipped another word into her mouth. By the time evening fell, she was scraping the bottom of the bowl for a’s and the’s: any little morsel. She had consumed all the poems in one ecstatic rush, and now the dim light came moments after sunset blued the unlit apartment. Helen stood alone in her living room. The charge of youth began to drain from her old body and was gone as quick as it had come. Once again, she hadn’t had the willpower to save what was good, to tend it and make it last. She’d thought she’d be more disappointed. But now, after taking back all of her old self, she had no regrets. She would stop eating altogether. This would be dignified. Her daughter phoned and asked, what are you eating? Leftovers, said Helen. And her daughter didn’t ask any questions. 114
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Helen’s dignity lasted four days. Then she began to cringe from hunger. She craved more words. She couldn’t fight the cravings; they doubled her over in pain. Defeated, she dragged her old Olivetti out of a closet and set it up on a card table in the kitchen. She’d begin to compose again. She fed the Olivetti and her bird hands hovered over the keys, but no ideas came to her. She sat in front of the blank page for an hour. At last, she typed her own name at the top corner of the sheet, tore it off and slipped it into her mouth. The bitter new paper hardly satisfied her. Every day she would return to the typewriter. But the words never came. Helen grew hungrier. Her old anger returned. She was a pathetic animal, waiting to feed. She nibbled at the newspaper, but it provided no sustenance. Finally, to stave off the deepest emptiness, she ate crosswords: for a quick fix, the puzzles at the back of the Omaha World Herald. She could complete them in ten minutes and snip them apart and eat her penciled-in words in five. For longer words she ate from the New York Times crossword. She could complete it in twenty-five minutes, even on a Saturday: a feat that had always amazed Robert and her father when she was a girl. But the crossword words were still just single words, thin and meatless like potato chips. An old woman couldn’t survive on them for long, Helen knew. After a while, Helen had only the strength to fetch the paper from her doorstep and sit in her living room chair to fill out the crosswords. And soon enough she didn’t have the strength for that. She sat in her chair, immobile, with an eaten crossword on her lap. She stared at it and it stared back at her, wordless.
cricket song CARISSA LENTZ
Heather found her first specimen when she was cleaning her bathroom on a Tuesday, and after squeaking yellow gloves on, she took her cleaning bottle to the floor like it was a flame-thrower. She bent on her knees to scrub the crevice between the toilet and linoleum. Behind the toilet, drawing its spindly legs up toward the ceiling, she found it. Heather backed out of the bathroom on her hands and knees so quickly that she had to lean against the wall outside the bathroom to catch her breath. She wondered how long it had been there, dead. It still had a crunchy body that would eventually turn into dust that she might eventually breathe. Thinking about it made her chest constrict. She stood up and peered her head around the door. The bug hadn’t moved. She took a step inside with wadded-up toilet paper and threw it at the bug. It still didn’t move, but there could be more, waiting to ambush. Heather lifted up the rug, ready to run. Nothing. She checked the shower curtain, bathtub, medicine cabinet. Nothing. She thought she might pass out, and since she was turning thirty in a few months, took the incident as impending doom of life after twenty-nine. You are strong, she thought. Independent and in control. She remembered words she’d heard before: thorax, exoskeleton, chrysa 116
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lis, mandibles. The words didn’t mean anything to her. All she saw was a toxic-looking bug, with prickles on its legs and stripes on its back-end. She wanted to know its name. Heather bumped it with the toe of her house shoe, and then reeled backwards. It was repulsive. She took an old jam jar and the toilet paper wad and slid the insect across the floor and over the lip of the glass. Its antennae broke off and she winced and screwed the lid on tight. You are strong, she thought, but she wished that she could call someone, anyone, to remove the insect from the bathroom. What she didn’t know about the bug forced fear to surface and stick. She remembered that Natural History Museum, only a few blocks up the hill from her house, had signs about a bug exhibit. She decided to stop in before work. Heather held the jar by its lid two feet in front of her when she brought the insect to the car. She drove up the hill, rising above the city, and the jar slid across the floor in the passenger side. “What are you?” Heather asked the bug. “Who are you?” The bug was silent. Heather passed tall stalks of corn as she drove toward the museum and the rows made long corridors in the field that flashed dark and fast as she drove. The museum was quiet as a stopped clock and Heather barely noticed a man in his thirties at the desk. He sat straight in his chair, his brown hair thin around his face, and his eyes focused on a book in front of him. There was a bowl of soda tabs right next to his business cards which read Benny Siddler, Exhibit Coordinator. The only sound was the quiet fizz of the open soda sitting in his reach. She set the jar on the counter in front of him. “Do you know anything about bugs?” she asked. He looked up at her and then to the jar with cocked eyebrows. “A little,” he spoke cautiously. She liked his teeth. “Is it poisonous?” She was jittery, thinking about what she would do if the bug suddenly twitched its single antennae. Scream probably. “It looks poisonous. It looks like it would really do some harm.” While she talked, he turned the glass slowly to see a view of the entire bug. “I found it in my bathroom. Could there be more? Do they swarm?” Benny pointed to the bug. “See these ridges, here, like a bee’s stripes? It’s only a Jerusalem cricket.” Carissa Lentz
“Do they sting?” “Well, theoretically, they could bite.” Benny rose from his chair, still examining the creature, and walked around his desk to hand the jar back. Heather stepped back and shooed the jar with her hands. “It’s not going to hurt you,” he said. “But it can bite.” “It’s not poisonous, and besides, it’s already dead.” He opened his mouth with his short white teeth and laughed so that it echoed around the room with all the fossils and lighted signs and glass cases. “It isn’t funny.” “Nope, it’s a Jerusalem Cricket. The Navajo’s name for it means boneneck beetle. But it’s not funny.” He smiled. Heather grabbed the jar from him and pointed at the trash can; it was full of bent red aluminum. “All that Coke will pickle your heart, you know.” Then she left. At work, she stood scanning grocery items in the third Kroger register, one after another after another. Lines of bananas and soup and airy bags of potato chips passed her hands until the red beeps from the register started sounding like crickets. When she got home, she set the jar on the kitchen counter. The bug and Heather. Heather and the bug. Like they were having a dinner conversation, only the bug was making some obscure joke that Heather couldn’t really place. She decided she couldn’t look at it while eating, so she went outside without her appetite. She was surprised it was still summer. The bachelor buttons that had been planted last year had come back this spring; it was up to her knees and the bunches of quarter-sized blooms stood out like the fourth of July sky against her black work pants. Crouched in the dirt, she pulled up a weed—its tendril roots held pockets of dirt. She placed it on the concrete step. Joey had planted the majority of the flowers in the backyard. She remembered him bending over the hoe, softening the earth for his red astilbe and petunias, bleeding hearts and cockscomb. She liked how he would play with the petals of the snap dragon. Gruffing up his voice while moving the mouth-like petals open and closed, he’d talk about fighting 118
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knights and breathing fire. Those flowers were gone now though, along with the petunias and cockscomb; along with Joey. His calls had slowed until they stopped completely. He never promised his commitment, but the long evenings drinking beer on the porch, or lying in bed the next morning hung-over had warmed a secret space next to her heart. She had started to make a home, plant a garden. She took pleasure in washing the socks he left in a rumpled pile beside her bed. But then he just disappeared, like the annual plants. The bleeding hearts ran their tear-like flowers in lines near the edge of the fence. Next to them was a spread of dirt where plants had been last year and hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t returned. Scurrying around the dirt were lots of ants. Heather didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t like how they scurried in and out of the hole with dead flies or seeds. They spanned the dirt and then formed single-file lines to descend into their nest. She watched them for a while as the sun moved towards the west, spreading a thin pink strip at the top of the fence and spilling lines of gold light through the vertical cracks between the wooden slats. She watched the stream of ants slow with the sunlight, and imagined them crawling up her arms, little pinpricks that turned into numbness. She thought about burying the Jerusalem cricket in the empty dirt, to be rid of it, but she thought the ants might uncover it and take it down their nest for food. Instead she stashed it under the kitchen sink, behind the cleaning supplies and garbage can, so she wouldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t have to see it. The dust gathered slowly there and it was quiet. The only sound was the rush of water through the pipes, and Heather imagined it might sound like the lulling of the ocean or the voices of loved ones talking quietly in the next room.
H A week later, Heather had forgotten about the bug in its tomb beneath her sink. At work the customers were steady through her line, the rotating belt spilling barcodes as it hummed. Heather had wet hands from the hand sanitizer she had used, and was trying to hold the items coming across her line carefully, as to not smudge dull silver lines across any plastic packaging. Bulk oatmeal. Oreos. Cans of pineapple rounds. The machine outputted three hollow beeps. Carissa Lentz
“Find everything okay?” Mayonnaise, 12 pack of Coke. Beep. Beep. “I get headaches.” Heather looked up from scanning. “What?” “Headaches.” It was Benny. He pointed at the soda. “The caffeine helps. That’s why I drink soda a lot.” It took a moment for Heather to register Benny. His eye contact made her uncomfortable after their last encounter. She scanned his toilet paper and bread, a little ashamed about how rude she had been. “Why do you like bugs so much?” she asked. “I like to eat them.” He shrugged and handed her a twenty dollar bill. “Oh,” she said, averting her eyes. She took his bill and opened the till. She tried to unstick his change, but the dollars were sticking fast. “Hey, it’s a joke. There’s an exhibit down at the museum with bugs. I have to know about it in case someone asks.” She handed him back his change, pressing the pennies and dime in the line of his palm. She didn’t know how to take his informality. It was slightly abrasive and almost nice. “You should come check the exhibit out. You might learn to like bugs after all.” Heather looked at his face, trying to decide if his invitation was also a joke. His lips were tensing at the corners in a smile. The pink in his cheeks was about the same color as his lips. The way Benny stood with more weight on his left leg reminded her of Joey. Benny’s face was more round, and his eyes kinder, but the stance he took was a bit distracting. She thought he was sincere, but she wasn’t sure. “I might,” she said. He took his receipt.
H Heather wasn’t sure that she would ever learn to like bugs because she knew how much she hated them. Besides the possibility of being poisonous, she hated the way bugs moved and how they often had legs sticking everywhere. But, there was only one of her, and so many millions of bugs. 120
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She probably missed dozens of them around her everyday. She could have stepped on ants or crushed spiders when closing doors. They could die so easily. She knew she might never like them, but if she learned about them, she might not duck every time she heard the soft buzz of an insect past her ear. She started researching. After work she would sit in the public library parking lot, reading books about creepy crawlies. She learned about their habitats, their digestion, even their mating rituals. Heather took notes: The Malaysian stick insect lays the largest egg. Point zero five inches. Tarantulas can live up to twenty-eight years. Maggots are used in hospitals to eat dead tissue. The facts made her disgruntled, but she was forced to realize she wasn’t alone, because there were other creatures around her all the time. She was bigger than them, though, like a demi-god. Heather followed bug links online to a video of Botfly larvae being removed from human flesh. The fat white worm was pulled from a man’s back, wiggling in the tweezers. Heather watched with her hand over her mouth, caught between wanting to vomit and wanting to poke the larvae with a very long stick to see if it was hard or spongy like a marshmallow. She watched the video two more times, and then googled marshmallows. Heather sometimes thought about Joey when she hadn’t for a long time. She wanted to share her insect research with someone who wouldn’t think it was just a masochistic response to entomophobia. She bought an illuminated ant-farm and wanted someone to watch them with her. They built their tunnels slowly, but diligently. First she set them by her bed-side table. Their glass case functioned as a green-glowing night-light. She liked their company until she realized that their presence made her loneliness more apparent. She moved the farm to the coffee table in the living room, but when she watched TV and saw them scurrying in their glass case, sitting next to an empty milk carton, the remote, and a stale bowl empty but for butter smears and a few popcorn kernels, she had to move it again. The ants ended up in the bathroom, on the back of the toilet. It was okay to feel alone in the bathroom. She’d hold the farm in her hands as she sat, watching them scurry in their Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-holes. They always had something to do. She would flush and set them back on the porcelain. One Wednesday after work Heather went into the bathroom for Carissa Lentz
some aspirin. She shook the bottle before putting it back behind the mirror and spoke aloud to the ants about her headache. It was after this that Heather realized the bugs had become an obsession. On a Saturday morning in mid-September, Heather decided to go the Natural History Museum. She thought about it a long time when lying in her bed. Rain was hitting her window in quiet tones and the gray light from the clouds was merging with the white of her bedroom walls when she got up and put on boots and a sweatshirt. She wanted to see if the bug exhibit had any information on tarantulas. She wanted to see how they moved their hairy legs when they walked. Heather wanted to see the tarantula in action. She wondered if their eyes were as shiny and reflective as they seemed to be in photographs. She respected the tarantula as a solitary creature that could take care of itself and instill fear into its enemies. After Heather parked her 4Runner, she made her way to the museum’s door. The air was still hot from the moisture even though the rain had drizzled off to a light sprinkle. She held out her hand, palm-up. Two fat drops landed on it by the time she got to the entrance. Heather took a deep, humid breath and pulled the door open. Before her eyes adjusted to the darker interior, she looked for a shape at the front desk. Benny sat there, typing. Heather pressed her hands from the crown of her head down her hair, trying to decrease the static that buzzed around her head like a halo. She cleared her throat. “You haven’t been to the store in a while,” she said. Benny stopped typing. “So you finally decided to show up!” Heather shrugged. They stood in an aura of awkward silence. “Well I don’t really like bugs.” Benny nodded. “I remember.” He watched her for a second then walked around his desk and motioned for her to follow as he backed into a hallway. “The exhibit is this way. I won’t even charge you today.” He grinned at her before turning. Heather followed Benny past a Lewis and Clark exhibit with a mannequin of Sacagawea. They walked past a niche in the wall that held skeletons of rodents behind glass and past a full-sized Oregon Trail wagon. Next to the wagon were old appliances and chests. They were rusted out and the 122
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sign said: The pioneers often abandoned heavy objects off the side of the trail in order to gain better speed. While Benny walked, Heather noticed he kept pulling his shirt down, like it was itchy near his armpits or as if he was afraid his shirt might somehow lift a bit to expose some belly skin. It made her nervous about her own clothes, as if she was showing too much flesh, even though she was still wearing her sweatshirt. He stopped in front of a glass case and peered down into it, his elbows resting close to his sides on top of the glass. “Here you go.” Heather stood beside him. She gazed openly at the rows of pinned butterflies and moths. There was a photograph of a field that was covered with a swarm of grasshoppers where the crop was bent and eaten. Benny pointed to the scorpion specimens. “These are my favorite.” He pressed a red button that was on the side of the case and a purple-shining light hit the scorpion bodies. “They glow in black light,” he said. “It’s not a very well-known fact.” “I’m not sure I like it.” Heather crossed her arms and took a half-step back. The scorpions glowed. “They look like the product of a bad nuclear experiment.” “So you’re saying we could make a really bad B-rated horror flick.” Heather shook her head. She didn’t like horror films. “I’ve hated insects since I was seven.” Benny leaned his back against the case. “When I was seven a wasp hid in the lip of my soda at a picnic.” She remembered that it had been Betsy Lincoln’s birthday picnic. Betsy Lincoln’s mother had bought whole cans of soda for all the girls and a pin the tail on a donkey game, too. “Are you allergic?” “No, at least I don’t think so. My lip puffed up though. While the other girls played games and opened party favors, I had ice held to my face by one of the mothers who stayed to help chaperone.” “I guess that means no birthday cake then.” “It’s silly, I know.” It made Heather’s lip itch thinking about it. She saw that Benny was looking at her without pity, but he wasn’t thinking she was silly either. His eyes were soft and he seemed to be searching her face to know the right words to say. She broke the silence. “Do you have Carissa Lentz
any tarantulas?” Benny moved his eyes back to the exhibit. He stared at the wasp species held down by the silver needles. “No.” Heather picked at a sticker of a smiley face that someone had stuck to the glass. “I know they sell them at pet stores though. Live ones, I mean.” Heather drew the musty air of the museum in slowly. She scratched her neck and forced herself to look at Benny. “Do you want to come see one with me?” “Yeah,” he said. He licked his lips, “But, I’m working right now.” “Oh, right.” Heather shook her head. “Nevermind then.” Benny touched her arm, “I’m glad you stopped by.”
H Heather decided to go to PetSmart anyway. She was interested in tarantulas, and that was okay. She didn’t need an escort to try and find one in a pet store. Heather wandered the glass cases. There were lizards lying in piles staring boringly, and they didn’t move when Heather tapped the glass. She passed snakes and guinea pigs and turtles. She got to the row of fish, the wall of blue hit her eyes like the blur of television screens in peripheral vision. She turned around in the aisle, not sure which way to go. “Can I help you?” Heather hadn’t noticed the girl in the PetSmart apron who was feeding the individual beta fish in round containers at the end of the aisle. “I want to see your tarantulas in action,” Heather said. “Action?” Heather stared at the row of tropical fish; the clownfish blew bubbles at her. “Like, do you want to see them eat?” Heather followed the girl around the corner and watched the girl’s braid swing right and left. Heather didn’t know if she wanted to see the spider eat. “We mostly feed them crickets.” The girl stopped at a glass case and grabbed a red plastic cup from behind it. She lowered it into the feeder124
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cricket cage and flicked a few black bugs into the cup. Heather was surprised the other crickets in the cage didn’t jump around. They just slightly flicked their long antennae and stayed still on their faux branches. “We only have one tarantula right now.” The girl held her hand over the lip of the cup and led Heather to the tarantula case. The tarantula sat with its hairy forelegs long, its small eyes looked like tiny drops of oil. “Chilean Rose,” Heather said. “They are pretty common,” the girl said. She took the lid off. “Be careful.” Heather stood taut, watched the girl point the cup downward, waiting for the crickets to slide down the plastic and into the cage. She shook the cup lightly; one cricket fell out. The tarantula turned its face quickly to the landing of the cricket, rearing its front legs. The girl shook the cup harder, but the second cricket held fast. “Wait!” Heather said, louder than she expected. She let out the air she had been holding. The girl stopped, the cup dangling from her bent wrist over the cage. “I’ll buy that cricket.” The girl shrugged. Heather watched the tarantula jump at the unlucky cricket and turn all its legs inward with the fatal bite. She let herself watch until her eyes became blurry and she saw her own reflection in the glass, her eyes sorry and alive. “The employees call the tarantula the Blood-Wench,” the girl said. “I’ll take all the feeding crickets I can,” Heather said.
H When Heather pulled into her driveway, she sat and stared at the bag of bugs, blown fat and round with air, in her passenger seat. She didn’t have a place for a cricket farm in her bathroom. The ants were already strange enough. She poked the bag. During the drive, they had stopped jumping like maniacs and settled at the bottom of the bag like good little pets. The bag rolled on its side and they starting jumping again. Seventeen crickets popped around inside it like burnt kettle corn. “Stupid insects,” she said. She grabbed her purse and her bugs and went inside the house. She Carissa Lentz
threw her keys on the coffee table; they skidded and fell off, landing on the carpet. She left them there and put the crickets on the dining room table. They settled at the bottom as their bag rolled to the side. Heather went outside. The afternoon air was still warm, but much cooler than the past summer heat. The breeze brought rows of goosebumps like gravestones along Heather’s arms. She brought her arms together and held them tight across her chest. Her plants were at their end-cycles for the season. The last blossoms had started shrinking on the plants, turning brown and curling at the edges. Heather watched an ant struggle with a drying petal – it was getting caught on a stick the ant was trying to cross. The ant would pull itself up the twig and then back down again when the petal wouldn’t budge. Heather felt the ant’s sad persistence as it worked. It must have felt the cooling of the air at the end of the summer and yet it still harvested, not trusting the weather as it should. “Go around, you stupid bug.” She picked up the stick and the ant started crawling toward her hand. Heather screamed and dropped the stick and the ant. She shook her hands down at her sides like she was fanning fire and leaned her weight from one tip-toe to the next. She looked like she was doing the chicken dance, her elbows flapping. Then she bent over, one hand over her heart, to make sure the ant was okay. It had already gone back to the petal, no blockade in its way anymore. It was the only ant she could see; the rest of the nest was quiet, its entrance still. She went back inside and dialed the number to the Natural History Museum. “Do ants hibernate?” Heather paced her kitchen floor when there was an answer – she was tracking dirt from outside in a line in front of the refrigerator. “I’m sorry?” “Do ants survive the winter?” “Well…” “And what about crickets?” “…Is this the girl with the Jerusalem cricket? Heather?” Heather stopped pacing. She looked at the cabinet under the kitchen sink where she knew the Jerusalem cricket still sat in its jar, dead as dirt. 126
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“Hello?” She hung up. A cricket offered up a hollow chirp. Heather noticed the clumps of dirt all over her floor. She got the broom from the closet and swept up the dirt. She saw a corner of a crust of bread under the table and got that too. Then she moved all the chairs and swept the whole kitchen. The contents of the dustpan went in the garbage. Heather opened the cabinet under the sink for the bottle of multipurpose cleaner she used for mopping. The jar of Jerusalem cricket remains was what she ended up pulling out. She stared at it and became angry. She was angry at the Jerusalem cricket for her current obsession with bugs. Bugs couldn’t talk back. They didn’t care if you cooked them a gourmet meal or if you sang them a lullaby before going to sleep. They didn’t care if you were afraid of the upcoming winter and the deep-set cemented soul that the cold and clouds permitted. They didn’t care if you saved them from being eaten alive. They didn’t care. She sat the jar down, hard, and it shattered like a chorus of bells. The Jerusalem cricket’s abdomen was still segmented with stripes, its legs and thorax had dulled into a hardened yellow. It lay amidst the glass shards, very dull and dusty. She picked it up and looked at it in her palm. Tearing up, the water in her eyes made the bug seem like the color of a dusty gold coin. She set it next to the live jumping crickets in their plastic bubble on the kitchen table. It was bigger than the other bugs, special. It wasn’t sold for feeding other creatures, but it still lived and died alone. Heather swept up the glass and pressed the redial on her phone. “Can I bring some crickets?” she asked.
H The sun was getting low when Heather pulled up to the museum. Benny was outside, sitting along the side of the square two-story building. She stopped quickly, letting her car skid a little in the empty gravel parking lot. After opening the door she sat and let the car beep, the keys still in the ignition. A cricket responded to the sound. Heather got out. Carissa Lentz
She walked towards Benny holding the globe of crickets with both hands. She thought she must look ridiculous, holding an air-filled bag of crickets like a fortune-teller’s glass ball. Benny patted the side of a rock where he was sitting. “Hey, you brought dinner!” Heather stood, unsure; the orange of the sun reflected off the bag she was holding. The crickets jumped like a nuclear reaction. “I saved them from being dinner.” “I know,” he said. They sat on the rock, both of them staring at the bag. “I don’t know what to do with them.” Heather looked out across the scattered rocky hillside. The rain had cleaned the air. She saw the city stretched before her in the valley below, rows of fields separating the museum from the main jostle of town. The fields had been harvested already; some had been planted with winter wheat. “It’s a nice view, isn’t it,” Benny said. Heather gently shook the bag, the crickets jumped. “Soon it will be winter,” Heather said, studying the insects. “So let them enjoy their final romp of the season,” Benny said. “I don’t want them to die.” “Everything dies,” he said. Heather picked at the lichen on the rock, the bag of crickets leaning against her left arm. They were quiet, almost inanimate. Heather picked at the twist-tie that kept the bag closed. The bag lost some pressure, became a sagging oval. A cricket chirped and Heather jumped. Benny laughed. “It’s not funny,” she said. She undid the twist tie and held it sharp in her closed palm. The crickets were still. She held the bag so its hole was toward the ground – the plastic opening shook gently in the wind. The crickets bounced. A few sprung across to the grass, some hid under rocks, one jumped and landed on Heather’s shirt. Heather gasped and stood. She quietly held her shirt away from her stomach, keeping her index finger and thumb that held the fabric as far away from the rest of her hands as she could. The bag dropped to the ground and fluttered a few feet before catching on a rock. Benny lunged at 128
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it with his back leaning, stretched from his feet. He caught the empty bag with his foot. The cricket clung to Heather’s shirt until she tried flicking it with her finger, and then it sprung off, landing on a rock a few feet away. When Benny got off the ground, Heather was wiping her shirt where the cricket had been. He had a glimmer in his eyes, a twitch at the corner of his mouth. “It’s not funny. I hate bugs.” She sat down and looked at him. The bag flapped in his hand. The wind caught it and tore it away. Benny lunged at it again. He tripped on a patch of brush and landed on his stomach. The bag spun down the hill, twisting in the wind. Dust sat in thick patches on his thighs and stomach and chest. Heather giggled and slapped her hand over her mouth. He looked at her and grinned a two-mile smile. Heather felt her stomach muscles contract, and she laughed out loud, bending over herself, holding her stomach. She couldn’t control the spasms in her belly. They ached and rolled. She laughed and laughed and he joined her, sitting with his butt in the dust, hands on his knees. When the crickets started chirping they were both just starting to breathe again.
Berkeley Fiction Review
Funeral gaMes CAITLIN CAMPBELL
My mom made me wash my face twice before we left for the funeral, which was crazy because I was only wearing eyeliner, if a lot of it. I didn’t argue. I don’t have a sister, but if I did and she died, I’d break the teeth of anyone who looked at me wrong. And if my mom wanted to be a perfectionist rather than a tooth-breaker, that was fine, too. “Remember, Colleen,” Mom said as I swung into the backseat of the rental, “it was a car crash. Ok?” I sighed loudly. Dad shot me a glare in the rearview mirror. “Grandma and Mark’s mom and I talked,” Mom went on, “and we decided.” “You mean Grands decided, right?” Mom acted like she hadn’t heard me. “It isn’t time to tell the boys.” “When will it be time?” “Maybe never, pumpkin. But if the right time comes, Grandma will know, and she’ll tell them.” “Mom, they need to know what happened.” “Colleen, Marie was my sister and Grandma’s baby. You’re only fifteen. Just this once, you have to trust that we know what’s best.” I didn’t say anything. “Colleen, promise me you won’t tell.” Caitlin Campbell
“I promise,” I said.
H There were photo albums at the wake and, even though it was depressing, I liked seeing what Mom and Aunt Marie looked like when they were young. My mom was a porker. She glared through these thick glasses like it was the camera’s fault that she was chubby and nearsighted. Aunt Marie was always grinning with her chin tilted back and her arms wide, like she was hugging everybody at once. You could tell she figured out early that she was the pretty one. There was another album like that for Uncle Mark and one with Marie and Mark’s wedding pictures, but I decided not to look at those. It turned out there wasn’t much to do at a wake. You could eat, feel sad, and talk, and that was pretty much it. I don’t know my Illinois side of the family very well, so it gets awkward if I talk to them very long. Plus, they always want to know how my classes are going and if I have a boyfriend, which are not exactly my favorite subjects. I spotted Aunt Marie’s youngest, Danny, attached to Grands’ legs. “Here Grands, I’ll take him for a while,” I said. She handed him over carefully, watching to make sure I wasn’t going to pour my coke over her head or drop a spider down the back of her dress. I was being totally selfish, though. The wake was getting boring, and I’ve always gotten a kick out of Danny. I took him down to the basement, where there were some couches for when you need to take a break from full-time sadness There were a couple of adults around, but it was mostly empty. “Think of the biggest thing in the world,” Danny said. He was four then. “Is it… an elephant?” “No it’s not an elephant.” “Is it all the water in the world?” “No!” he said, although I thought it actually might be. “Is it love?” I asked, feeling like a sellout for even saying it. It was the dumbest answer possible, but kids grow up on crap Disney movies with 132
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their crap lies about the world, so it’s the sort of thing Danny might have believed. But he shouted “No!” cackling with laughter, and it was so nice to hear that I tackled him to the ground with tickles. Chris wandered down and gave me a look. He must have had some idea of funeral manners, which probably didn’t involve tickling his little brother to death. “Hey, come here, cuz,” I said, and let up on Danny. As his giggles sputtered out, I rooted around in my purse and pulled out a deck of cards. “You know how to play Spit?” “My Grandpa Louise carries cards around with him, too,” Chris told me, but I ignored him and asked Danny to cut the deck. I shuffled the halves back together in my best Vegas-dealer style. As I dealt, I tried to guess who had told him his parents were dead, and how. My parents had woken me up to tell me. It was a Saturday and I’d only been asleep for a few hours. I thought they were going to yell at me for getting home at 4 AM, way past curfew, and worried that my breath might still smell like beer. My mom leaned against the doorframe and my dad sat down on the edge of the bed. I scooted as far from him as I could get and tried to think of an excuse. I was so primed to get yelled at that my dad had to repeat the news before I got it. When I looked closely at my mom, I could see her eyes were bloodshot. She kept undoing her cardigan and rewrapping it around herself more and more tightly. I wanted so much to fall back to sleep, so that I could wake up again and none of it would be true, but I couldn’t. Maybe nine was too young for Spit, especially since this nine-yearold’s brain was all grief-addled. At first, he went too slow when speed is the whole point, but he picked up the pace a little as he understood the rules and forgot to be sad. He was actually pretty good. He had lots of pent up energy and quick, neat little hands – sloppiness is deadly in this game. I let him win the first few rounds, but by the fifth, he beat me for real, yelling “Spit!” so loud a lady jumped and spilled her drink. I like Spit but the game wasn’t short-circuiting my bad thoughts like it should have. It was probably because it was the most time I’d spent all day with Chris, without any adults around. We were yelling and laughing, sometimes slapping each others’ fingers by accident. I felt hypnotized by the rhythm of the game, and like the truth might just slip out. Redking Caitlin Campbell
your parents black queen didn’t die redjack in a car blackten accident. Rednine strangled her blackeight with his bare redseven hands (my blacksix mom doesn’t redfive know I know). Blackfour drove a ways redthree just after blacktwo to blow his redace brains out spit! By the end of the sixth round, most of the kids at the wake had come down to the basement to watch us play. They wore their best clothes, which were every color except black, and I liked that. There were twelve of them, from Marie’s side and Mark’s side both. I was glad Mark’s family wasn’t totally shunned, although there was a clear divide between victim’s family and crazy murderer’s family. Only Chris and Danny belonged to both. All the kids wanted a turn at Spit, but it’s a two person game, and it would have taken too long to teach them all. I taught them BS instead – I told them it stood for Bull Stink. We sat in a circle with all the older kids playing and Danny plopped down on my lap. He wanted to hold my cards, but kept tipping them down and everyone could see, so I gave him the jokers to play with. I felt like adults going by were glaring at me, but I’m used to that at family things. No one wants me to influence their kids, and I can’t really blame them. I get in some trouble for my attitude, my grades and whatever else. One time, I got caught drinking vodka from the water bottle I bring to school. One time, I asked my chemistry teacher why she was such a bitch. When I got kicked off the swim team for cutting class too much, my mom, who outsources when she doesn’t know what to do with me, told my grandma. Grands and I had to have this long talk about it, and I was like, “I see you at Christmas, Easter and a couple of other times and now you’re going to make me a good kid? Way too late for that, lady.” One of Mark’s sisters pulled me out of the game and went on about how sad it all was, and how nice it was of me to look after the kids. I’m not anybody’s babysitter, I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. A big older lady I didn’t recognize came by in the second round and told us we should all be ashamed for playing games at a time like this. Screw off, you old cow, I thought, and then I saw Chris’ face, so I said it out loud. Clearly that woman hadn’t read enough. We had to read the Iliad for ninth grade English, and I didn’t really, but then we did the last chapter 134
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in class, when they have a funeral for Achilles’ boyfriend/cousin (ew). And after they’re done with the rending and the gnashing, they’re all like, “Good grieving, guys, now let’s run a 5K!” And you know what? I get that. I’m on the track team, and I’m pretty good, and no one can understand how that works. It’s like they want to divide all the girls into two groups: the ones who study hard and do good at sports and have cute boyfriends but are smart enough to use condoms and the ones with nails scribbled black, who smoke up and cut themselves and show up to graduation with a bun in the oven, if they graduate at all. And here I am, with my body like the lean achiever girls, and my brain with the burnouts. The thing is, I love racing, and I love winning, and I love running. When I run, the first couple of minutes are pure energy and then I start to check in and see what hurts, like, “hey ankles, how we holding up? Hey knees, doing OK? Still got that twinge, lefty?” For a while it hurts, but I think about everything that’s fucked up in my life and it powers me along, and I go faster for longer than anybody. And sometimes after that, I throw up, and that’s how I know I’ve done what I need to and it’s OK to stop. I ran the morning I found out about Mark and Marie and, oh man, was that the best run ever. When I run, I like to imagine that there’s a ball of light in my stomach that shoots in a beam straight out the top of my head. Everything, even the bad thoughts and feelings, becomes part of that brightness; hard brightness of feet smacking track, sweaty brightness of swinging arms, gory brightness of muscles pumping, ghoulish brightness of organs jiggling. I feel at the edge of myself, somehow, like this is the most I could ever be, and it’s OK, it’s enough. I like other games too, though, not just racing. There’s this one I really like where you have to say movie names alphabetically, and if you can’t think of one for your letter, you’re out. I like to play this game on car trips when I’ve been looking out the window, catching reflections of myself, and have gotten so sick of my stupid face and so tired of my stupid brain I could die. Problem is, some people, no matter how smart, suck at this game and don’t want to play. It’s only a fun game if you’re good. Uncle Mark used to play games with me. Uncle Mark was the nicest man in the world, which makes it so weird what happened. He wasn’t like Caitlin Campbell
my dad. My dad isn’t so awful, I guess, but he’s a mean drunk. He’ll have a couple of beers and a few C.C. Manhattans and call my mom a bitch, or crack the dishes together while he washes them. I always get scared he’s going to slam into my room and start shouting about what a bad seed I am, why am I such a fuck up, why am I so stupid? But most of the time he just gets this look in his eyes, mean and empty at once. He looks at me like I’m nothing to him, or worse than nothing because I’m making his life shittier. And everyone thinks he’s just a huge, squishy teddy bear of a guy. You think you know men, and then they call your mom a cunt or strangle your aunt. You can’t know anyone at all, I guess, but it’s harder for a woman to flip out and kill you like men can. Uncle Mark was just so gentle. He worked at night so he could stay home with the boys during the day, when Marie was at work (but when did he sleep? Maybe that was part of the problem). One time when we visited, Mom asked him to talk to me about Seth, this guy I was dating. Mom and Dad must have been on one of their splits then. Seth used to hit me some, but it wasn’t like it sounds. First of all, it was more roughhousing, like boys do. Secondly, I’d hit him right back. I’m a tough girl, and strong, so I made it hurt. Anyway, it wasn’t when we were mad, or just when we were mad. It was shorthand for a lot of things: I’ve missed you, you look nice today. Hugs and kisses didn’t feel right to us. “Your mom’s worried about you,” Uncle Mark said. It was a nice fall day, and he had invited me on a walk. He was tall and thin, which I like in men – big enough to be comforting, but not so big you couldn’t do some damage if they tried to hurt you. He was like a moth, with brown hair and brown clothes, glasses and cardigans. If he’d been my age and gone to my school, I’d never have known he existed. “Yeah?” I said. If Mark wanted to butt in like this, I was going to make him do the work. But he didn’t; we walked along for a while without saying anything. We were going pretty slow because Mark had brought Danny with. Danny was three then, and he had this backpack shaped like a golden retriever puppy, complete with a leash. Danny could hold the leash when he was playing, but Mark had it then so Danny wouldn’t wander off. Every couple of steps, Danny had to stop, bend down, and place his palm flat against the pavement for a few seconds. He’d always 136
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been the weirdest kid. Finally Mark said, “You’re too smart to let anyone treat you like that,” and that was it. Of all the things in the world, from him. But I believed him because I’m a dolt and because Mark was so quiet, when he finally did say something, it seemed truer than what other people said. I didn’t break up with Seth right away – I’m not the kind of girl who does things just because someone tells me to – but soon after I started thinking that maybe it really was weird to go around half expecting your boyfriend to smack you all the time, which led to me picking a fight, which led to us breaking up.
H When the kids got bored with BS, someone suggested hide and seek. “Alright,” I said, “but we have to stay downstairs.” There was some space: a pretty large sitting area, a few doors that probably lead to closets, a coat rack, and the bathrooms. It wouldn’t be a great game, I thought, but then I’m a game snob. One of Mark’s nephews started counting and I said to Danny, “Hey mister, want me to help you hide?” He nodded and took my hand, then headed right up the stairs. He took them one at a time, climbing up with the left foot then the right to meet it. I figured that we were leaving the game and was fine with that. Danny and I wandered through the crowd hand in hand. I watched people watching him with obnoxious, naked pity. I felt it, too, but the last thing he needed was to feel like a zoo animal. Poor kid, he couldn’t understand that everything had changed. I let him lead me through a set of doors and realized we had entered the viewing room. It was completely empty, maybe because there wasn’t much to see with the caskets being closed. Mom and Grands had debated whether Uncle Mark’s head could be repaired, and whether it should be, whether anyone would want to see him anyway. Aunt Marie’s bruises were easier – stick her in a turtleneck and presto! But if you could see her, wouldn’t that make it weirder that you couldn’t see Uncle Mark, and shouldn’t they be a set? Whatever the reason, I was glad the caskets were closed. Stitches through your lips and cotton balls up your ass and the whole thing just pumped to the brim with formaldehyde. It’s fucking Caitlin Campbell
grotesque. There were portraits of each of them in black and white leaning against the caskets, and a ton of flowers, more on Marie’s coffin than Mark’s. “Mommy’s in there?” Danny asked. “Yep, Danny boy, she is.” “I can’t see her. Is she hiding? That’s a good place to hide – can we hide with her?” If there was such a thing as the right crowd for that question, I was it. When I die, people will toss horseshoes around my feet, or use my hands for cat’s cradle. But I could see a lot of things going wrong if we hid with Marie, particularly that we’d scare the crap out of anyone who peaked inside the coffin. “No, buddy, there’s only space for one, but do you want to see her?” The kids hadn’t seen her that morning. The police found Mark in his car a few blocks away, read the note, called up Mark’s sister, had her let them into the house, and did their crime scene stuff all before the kids woke up. It would have been awful for them to have seen her like that, but I thought it might help Danny to see her at the wake. Maybe he needed closure or something. I realized that I wanted to see her, too. The last dead body I’d seen was my dad’s dad, but it had been ten years before and I didn’t really remember. Aunt Marie and I were never super close, but she was Mom’s baby sister, who brought me Polly Pockets every Christmas, took me apple picking one fall before we moved away, and took care of me when my dad was in the hospital for a ruptured appendix so I didn’t have to wait there with my mom the whole time. We went to the cathedral and she helped me light a candle and ask God for my dad to get better. Here lay the younger, thinner version of Mom, with Mom’s bushy eyebrows, which I also have, and Mom’s carrot-orange hair, which I would have if I didn’t bleach mine. I lifted an armful of white lilies off the lid and set them on the floor, maybe not as gently as I should. By the time I put my hands on the polished wood, I was crying, but not too much. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what it must have been like for Aunt Marie; the person she trusted most coming towards her with huge, alien rage, closing his hands around her throat, not letting go. Did he charge at her, or close in slowly? 138
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Did he say sorry, or maybe why he had to do it? The lid of the coffin was cold, like everything in that place. I pulled a little, then a lot, and then I braced myself and really pushed with my legs and back, which was when I felt something shift, but it was the whole coffin, not just the lid. It was then that I got scared and felt like I was maybe doing something horribly stupid. What if Aunt Marie had buggedout eyes, or had leaked in the coffin? What if I tipped the whole thing over and sent her rolling on the floor? I decided that I needed to get out of there. I scooped up Danny and said, “Sorry, buddy, I don’t think she wants to see anybody just now.” Without replacing the lilies or wiping my fingerprints off the wood, I headed for the door and bumped it open with my hip. I almost ran over a funeral home spook who was going into the viewing room. “Sorry!” I yelped. “My condolences,” he muttered. I got across the room and outside fast, in case he realized what I’d done and chased after me. It was spring, but still cold out. I set Danny down so I could clean up my face, but I didn’t have any tissues so I had to wipe the snot and tears away with my fingers. I tried to take the little handkerchief from Danny’s vest pocket, but it turned out it was sewn in place.
H I was curious about what the funeral would be like, since I didn’t remember the last one I had gone to, and I’d never been to a double funeral ever. The pastor didn’t say exactly what had happened, he called it a “senseless loss,” and talked a lot about how we can’t understand why God lets things like this happen but we have to have faith anyway. The closest he got to admitting what Mark had done was to go on for a while about forgiveness, and how forgiving makes us closer to God and to the people who have wronged us, even if they’re gone. It went on for a while, but I put everything I had into not fidgeting or slumping during the dull parts. I didn’t even let myself think mean thoughts about the awful soprano who sang eight verses of some song that was supposed to be hopeful but was really just depressing. It’s not like I believe in God or anything but I wanted, that one time, to be perfect. Caitlin Campbell
Then no one would have to be ashamed of me or yell at me for ruining anything. They could use their whole brain just remembering Mark and Marie instead. I stood with my mom and dad in the first pew. My mom was crying, and my dad, also on his best behavior, had his arm around her shoulders. Chris and Danny were down the pew from us, with Grands, who would now have to be their mother, too. I couldn’t hear Danny at all. Chris was crying to end the world. He sobbed until it didn’t even sound like sobbing anymore, but some combination of retching and whimpering. His sobs were horrible and lonely at first, but he sounded so pathetic, he made other people sob, too. I knew how they felt. I would have given anything to make him stop. I’d have hacked off my legs and planted them in the ground, and grown him fresh new parents. I would have gouged out my running brightness, if only it would shut him up. But there was nothing that was or could ever be enough.
H I followed Chris downstairs when they took the caskets out to the hearse and waited until he came back from the bathroom. His eyes were puffy, and his nose red and scratched from tissues. He should find out in a different way, I thought. Not in the basement while his parents’ bodies were loaded into a long black car, not from an older cousin who he didn’t know that well and who had no practice breaking awful news in a nice way. But, I figured, it matters more what you know than how you know it, right? Just before you say something like this, it feels impossible and like you’ll never find the words, and you think you’ll back down. But then you think, why? Because you know the words, they’ve been chorusing in your head all day, all week even, since it happened. Sometimes I do things for shitty reasons: I feel screwed-over by the world and want to screw somebody back, or I want to get a rise out of somebody, or I want to control them in sneaky ways. But this felt pure: Chris needed to know so maybe he could take extra care and not turn into Mark. It felt so, so important at that moment that this sweet kid know he 140
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had to be wary of himself, so that no one else would get hurt. I took his hand. He didn’t know to steel himself, he couldn’t have known. He didn’t know to expect something worse than the worst thing he could imagine. “It wasn’t a car accident, Chris. Your dad snapped. He killed your mom, and then he killed himself.” We stood quietly for a moment, and I tried to read his messy face. Without letting go of my hand, Chris stamped down on my left foot. “Liar,” he screamed, actually screamed, “you’re a liar!” Once he had run upstairs, I made myself look close at my toes. I’d been wearing dressy sandals, and he had split the nail of my big toe straight down the middle, from the tip nearly to the base. It was bleeding from where the tip had gone into my skin, and was already turning dark. I couldn’t touch it – the idea was horrible, like seeing someone touch someone else’s eye. I limped back upstairs. The first person I saw was my mom. She was looking at her own mom, and at Chris. He was asking Grands something. She looked tiny and older than I remembered. She nodded once to him. I headed to the door, but Grands caught me before I made it out. “Colleen.” She was crying. She didn’t seem to know what she wanted to say. Then she put it together and asked, “Colleen, how could you? Why?” In that moment, I realized that I’d made a mistake, that there was a difference between what I had wanted and what Chris needed. The weight of what I’d done slammed down on me. I wanted to hug Grands, to cry, to explain that I didn’t mean any harm. I just hadn’t thought it all the way through. But Grands’ heartbreak was terrifying – it was so much bigger than me – and I couldn’t find the words. “Just a bad kid, I guess,” I said, and looked away.
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contriButors BRYAN BETTERIDGE is a photographer located in the Philadelphia area who enjoys gifts from appreciative readers. To see more of his work, please visit www.ridiculos-ity.com. CAITLIN CAMPBELL graduated from Columbia University, and lives and works in New York. Her stories have appeared in Not One of Us, The Jersey Devil Press and Podium. LUCAS CARPENTER is the author of John Gould Fletcher, Southern Modernism, A Year for the Spider and Perils of the Affect. His poems, stories, articles and reviews have appeared in thirty-seven periodicals, including Prairie Schooner, The Minnesota Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kansas Quarterly, San Francisco Review of Books, Callaloo, Chronicle of Higher Education, and New York Newsday. He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to lecture and write in Belgium during the 1999-2000 academic year. He is Charles Howard Candler Professor of English at Oxford College, Emory University. TYLER EVANS lives and writes in Spokane, WA. He is a first year graduate student in creative writing at Eastern Washington University. His Notes on Contributors 143
work has appeared in the Rio Grande Review. B.J. HOLLARS is an instructor at the University of Alabama where he also received his MFA in 2010. He is the author of the forthcoming Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011), and his work can be found in North American Review, American Short Fiction, Ninth Letter, The Southeast Review, among others. M. J. KELLEY, sold into circus labor as a young child, grew up as a magicianâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s apprentice performing in tents internationally. After giving up magic, he has become a dedicated writer, photographer and filmmaker of both the serious and seriously comedic variety. Previously his work has appeared in NANO Fiction and the Porter Gulch Review. And he currently lives with his loving wife and daughter in Oakland, California. He received his MFA degree from Mills College in 2010. His website can be found at www.mjkelley.com. CARISSA LENTZ is a recently graduated English major from Boise State University. Besides a local poetry contest, this is her first publication. She lives in Boise with her sister. THOM MAY is a painter and zinester currently living in Portland Oregon. You can check out more of his work at bridgewindsoup.com. BRAD MCLELLAND is a former crime and politics journalist from South Arkansas, and currently a third-year MFA student at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His short stories have appeared in Monkey Puzzle, Staccato Fiction, The Harrow, Fear and Trembling, and Anotherealm magazines. One of his stories took runner-up in the 2010 Indiana Review Fiction Prize Contest, and his first book, Bruisers, was published earlier this year by Monkey Puzzle Press. He can be reached at brad-mc@ hotmail.com. SARAH OGREN is a mixed media artist residing in the Chicago-land 144
Berkeley Fiction Review
area. Ogren’s work can be found in galleries and private collections throughout the world. Ogren received her Master’s degree in Digital Imaging from Governor’s State University and she also holds a Master’s degree in Professional Counseling from Webster University. Born and raised in the New York City suburbs, RAY RADIGAN took an interest in art at an early age. His first works included Blue Crayon on Kitchen Floor and Red Crayon on Fireplace. After high school, he attended the State University of New York at New Paltz where he majored in Art Education and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where he received an MFA in illustration. He is currently an art educator and illustrator living in New York. KYLE SNOW lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first story published in a nationally distributed magazine. He’d like to thank his friends, family, and everyone at the Berkeley Fiction Review NATE STOTTRUP was born and raised on a pig farm in rural Minnesota and studied sculpture and printmaking in Moorhead, MN. He now lives in Seattle and works with pen and ink, scratchboard and various printmaking techniques. Please visit www.natestottrup.com for more of his work. MEG TUITE’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 magazines, journals and presses including 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Her novel Domestic Apparition is was published by San Francisco Bay Press. She has a monthly column “Exquisite Quartet” at Used Furniture Review. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com. ANNE VALENTE’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Unsaid, Hobart, Annalemma, and Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010, among others. She lives and teaches in Ohio. JACQUELINE VOGTMAN’s work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, Twelve Notes on Contributors 145
Stories, Prick of the Spindle, Emrpise Review, and Necessary Fiction. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University, where she served as an assistant editor of Mid-American Review. She lives in New Jersey. THAILAN WHEN is a Vietnamese and Chinese artist born in Bangkok and raised in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She lives and works in Oakland. More of her work can be viewed at www.thailan.net BESS WINTER grew up in Toronto. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, PANK, Wigleaf, JMWW, Pindeldyboz, Adbusters, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University, and Special Projects Editor of the Mid-American Review.
Sudden Fiction Contest $200 Prize for First Place Winner First, Second, and Third Place will be published in Issue 32
• $6 entry fee + $4 each additional entry • Make check or money oder payable to BFR Sudden Fic • 1000 words or less • Typed, double-spaced • Include a brief cover letter & SASE for list of winners • Submissions will not be returned
Send submissions to: Sudden Fiction Contest Berkeley Fiction Review 10B Eshleman Hall University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-4500 Deadline is March 1, 2012 Winners will be notified by the end of April 2012