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Cover photo by Dickens Chong ÂŠ Copyright 2015 Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction Review is not an official publication of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) 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, undergraduate-run non-profit publication. www.berkeleyfictionreview.com General inquiries and submissions should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org Advertising inquiries should be directed to: email@example.com Book design by Miranda King Printed by Copyworld Berkeley, CA 94702 ISSN 1087-7053
Published by the University of California, Berkeley
MANAGING EDITORS Lauren Cooper Lisa Martine Jenkins Miranda King Kelsey Nolan
ASSISTANT EDITORS Evan Bauer AJ Caughey Alagia Cirolia Madison Crystal
Maris Dyer Ben Rowen Jacob Gerstel Stephanie Thornton Hannah Harrington Kseniya Yefimchyk Sophia Zepeda Georgia PeppĂŠ
FACULTY SPONSOR Georgina Kleege
STAFF Negeen Abrishamcar Rebecca Olson Brittany Foley Sarah Baig Lauren Gagnon Moira Peckham Serge Balassian David Renteria James Henrick Leon Barros Caroline Riley Cindy Ho Caeli Benson Gabriela Ruiz-Leonard Carolyn Insley Elva Bonsall Danielle Shi Katherine Ja Emily Bratt Jerry Jiang Sophia Siegler Marley Castillo Beth Stemen Madeline Johnson Austin Chen Clare Suffern Sasha Kudler Keeyune Cho Rachel Taylor Alya Lamba Yohey Cho Megan Lee Stephanie Taylor-Fulton Louis Claxton Rachel Lew Robert Tooke Sean T. Dennison Soyolmaa Lkhagvdorj Leonardo Valdez Devon Dibello Hamed Mahmoud Jessica Vicman Dapinder Dosanjh Marie Maier Bryan Wang Ching Fang Rachel Melinkoff Iris Wu Regan Farnsworth Jenna Mohl Hailey Yook Jim Fay Elizabeth Moss Madeline Zimring
FOREWORD Dear readers, We are proud to present Issue 35 of the Berkeley Fiction Review. It has been a big year for our journal, with the revamping of our website, the expansion of our distributions, and the creation of our first, official logo. However, as always, our favorite and most important task has been the selection of the stories for our annual issue. Every year, we are astonished by the impressive quality of the work we receive, and this year is no different. This year’s collection, perhaps more than any other, is a testament to the humanity of fiction, even in its shorter forms. Each story manages to convey a human portrait, ranging from deeply personal examinations of the self to larger commentaries on the world around us. Aptly, our issue starts with “Erased,” a meditation on the writer’s self, and on the way that identity shifts and changes through the process of writing. This story creates a unique foundation for the rest of the issue, in which characters pull away from their place on the page and become fleshed-out portraits from all walks of life. In these pages, you will witness a slice of the lives of those who aren’t normally given a voice. You will meet a sex offender in “Solitary Ugly Squirrel,” a rebellious nun in “Sister Alma,” and a psychiatric patient in “5150.” You will experience the trials of an immigrant family through the generational tale, “The Hanging of Miguel Delgado,” and, in the poignancy of a single moment, glimpse the complexity of an entire marriage through “The Early Departure of Cameron Bailey,” our Sudden Fiction Contest winner. All of the stories in this issue capture something relatable and indelible, and together, offer a striking diversity of narrative on the human experience. Of course, this collection owes much of its success to the individuals behind its production: our talented staff. In particular, we would like to thank our fearless editorial team, without whom Issue 35 would never have made it to print. We hope you are just as excited to read our final product as we are. Enjoy! Sincerely, Lauren Cooper Lisa Martine Jenkins Miranda King Kelsey Nolan
King of the Mountain Rebecca Heikkila 10 Erased BRITTANY FOLEY 11 Dreams Burhan Nagarwala 18 The Hanging of Miguel Delgado BARBARA YOST 19 Drowning DICKENS CHONG 43 Sudden Fiction, First Place: 44 The Early Departure of Cameron Bailey AARON SOMMERS Fake Flowers ANDREW ABBOTT 48 On Belay Tricia Dowcett-Bettencourt 49 Beggar LAUREN COOPER 63 A Solitary Ugly Squirrel WILLIAM MARK HABEEB 64 Swans on Pizza Tray ANDREW ABBOTT 81 Thug Love Story NICK KATSAFANAS 82 Steampunk Study #1 SKYE SCHIRMER 96 Sudden Fiction, Second Place: 97 Where Have All The Boys Gone? KATHLEEN LANE Teresa VI REBECCA OLSON 101
Nothing Will Move Us ANDREW ELLIS BATES 102 Greeks - 10 Foot Race ALLEN FORREST 119 Manly Jeremy Gluck 120 Introspection I LIZZY KLINGEN 125 Pastel Arbors REMY MERRITT 126 Kaleidescope NATALIE GARNETT 137 Sister Alma’s Divine Revelation AMY YOLANDA CASTILLO 138 Angela Davis ALLEN FORREST 157 Sudden Fiction, Third Place: 158 5150 Mallory Mcmahon But the Media Told Me To SKYE SCHIRMER 163 Succor SCOTT DAVID 164 I Know What it’s Like to be Dead SKYE SCHIRMER 181 Marmite and Mango Chutney AMITA MURRAY 182 Notes on Contributors 191 Sudden Fiction Contest, Honorable Mentions: Your Tragedy is Important to Us Ryan Habermeyer Vacate Georgia Peppé Ballerina Leidy Nallely Villarreal Salazar
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King of the Mountain
Erased Brittany Foley
en loved to erase.
Whenever possible, he would hastily sketch pictures so that he could enjoy the slow process of erasing them. During class, Ben made mistakes on purpose just so heâ€™d be able to make use of an eraser. By the end of the day, his desk was always covered with eraser shavings that would rain onto the classroom carpet. In fact, the janitor knew exactly where Ben sat because of the shavings that littered the floor around his desk. By the middle of the year, he had jokingly made it his own personal project to leave new erasers waiting for Ben on his desk for the next morning. Each day, Ben would go through at least three erasers, and none of his pencils kept their valuable pink nubs safe for longer than an hour. Every pocket he had was filled with extra erasers because Ben feared the prospect of ever running out. Ben despised pens. They were permanent and boring. Mistakes leave a dark scar across the paper that smears and ruins the paperâ€™s perfect surface. He thought that whoever invented the pen must have been bland and monotonous, writing letters and reports mechanically with a dreary black pen, using chunky and obvious whiteout when attempting
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to cover up any mistakes he made. Even when Ben found out that there were such things as erasable pens, he was still uninterested. Those weren’t so bad but in Ben’s opinion, they still didn’t have quite the same effect as pencils did. After noticing his passion for erasing, Ben’s mother had bought him a white board and loads of markers that he could use. After a minute of mindlessly smearing the white surface with the various colors and drearily wiping the board clean, he resorted back to his old ways. He remained loyal to his allies: the good ol’ conventional pencils and erasers. At a young age, Ben determined his preferred brand: Ticonderoga. Dixon, Pentel and the cheap cartoon themed pencils broke when they were sharpened and hardly erased at all. It was tragic. But Ticonderoga’s yellow finishing, light wood and bright pink bit of an eraser were all too good to be true. The erasing job was impeccable and left Ben feeling completely satisfied with his work. And it was work. This wasn’t a careless process and Ben never rushed. Slowly, painfully, he would erase piece by piece and bit by bit until nothing was left over but a slight indentation on the paper. Ben loved the power that surged through him after a good erasing. Once he had a taste of that power, he was unquenchable. He simply couldn’t get enough of it. Nothing gave him the same rush as erasing did. Sometimes Ben made a game out of this passion of his. He would draw stick figures on a piece of paper and pretend they were felons or
pirates. As punishment for their wrongdoings, he’d dismember them limb by limb, smirking to himself. Justice was being served and Ben was dishing it out. But more than anything else, the feature that drew Ben to the art of erasing was the corpses. Pencils left obvious remains of their victims. The tangled rubber strands proved that something had been conquered and deleted. His papers were a battlefield overflowing with the dead bodies of his prey. Simply the site of all of this chaos filled him with a sinister joy. After his hunger for erasing had been sated and his work was done, he relished pushing the shreds into a pile in the center of the paper and seeing what all the destruction had amounted to. When he was feeling particularly proud of his work, he took these remnants and kept them in baggies with the date that they were produced printed on them. All these baggies were then stored in a shoe box under his bed. Secretly, when the need arose in him, Ben would take this shoebox out of its hiding place and sift his fingers through one of the baggies, savoring the pliable rubber feel of the shavings and remembering the power he had felt when he had produced these remains. Ben needed nothing else in his life. In fact, his life was only about erasing. His parents didn’t matter. Video games didn’t matter. School didn’t matter. People didn’t matter. Only erasing did. And that’s all he focused on. One day in class, Ben was particularly eager to erase. He had walked into the classroom, pencil in hand, thumbing the new eraser that
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adorned the utensil and salivating at the thought of all the havoc he would be wreaking that day. Ms. Ramsey had declared the first twenty minutes of class to be a free write and she expected a page or two from each student when she called time. After the chatter of the other kids fell away and the sound of pencils scratching against paper filled the room, there was one constant sound that emerged from the background. The incessant squeaking of an eraser on paper. To Ben’s ears, this sound was glorious. To him, the sound signified productivity of a different kind. This was the sound of a kingdom being ravaged and conquered by a great lord. This was the sound of villages burning and a war raging. This was the sound of pure chaos. It was the sound of power. I only write so I can erase. Why else would I write? To create? Creativity is useless. People fill the world with their “creations,” with their trash. I can burn that trash. I can clean up the world. I can erase it. What else matters? My thoughts only fill space. They’re worthless. They’re a bunch of letters on paper for idiots like Ramsey to read. I don’t think the world is meant for creation. I think we should fill this world up with nothing. Empty, white space. Because nothingness is simple. But it is also complex. Nothingness is everything. So that’s why I erase. To make that nothingness. To clean up this filthy world. To feel that power. To just erase. After quickly scribbling down his thoughts, Ben began to erase them. As he happily erased away, Ms. Ramsey’s face would contort into a grimace of annoyance every so often and she kept glancing up at Ben from across the room. After five minutes of the unbearable sound,
she walked over to his desk and quietly, so as not to disturb the other students, asked Ben to stop erasing. Hearing her, the pencil in Ben’s hand stopped moving but he didn’t look up at her. If he had, she would have seen a face that would have taken her breath away with its rage. As she turned away and began to walk back to her desk, Ben started to erase again, this time louder and full of spite. Ms. Ramsey, absolutely offended by Ben’s disrespect, spun around and in her anger, snatched the pencil from Ben’s hand. This time the rage was evident to Ms. Ramsey and the rest of the class. Ben was looking at her with a look of pure hatred in his eyes. He stood up and, without breaking eye contact, slowly walked towards her, every step deliberate and menacing. With every step bringing Ben closer, Ms. Ramsey felt herself shrinking away. There was something in his eyes, and seeing her reaction, Ben began to grin. She shouldn’t be afraid. He was just a kid. He can’t do anything to her. And yet, the palm gripping the pencil was sweaty and she felt her heart pounding in her chest, trying to escape. Then he was in front of her and suddenly –– Within five minutes, Ben was being escorted out of the classroom by the principal and Ms. Ramsey was left clutching her aching wrist and catching her breath as her fear of this little boy refused to leave her thoughts. Lying in his bed that night, Ben’s anger still festered within him and he thought of all the people he hated. He added Ms. Ramsey to that list. She was an adult and adults were supposed to be smarter than that. He
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expected better from her. In fact, he even liked her. Until she stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. But she wasn’t his main target, merely an addition to his collection. She’d soon find out that there was enough hatred to go around. It was them. The losers who didn’t understand Ben’s odd ways. They’d see him hunched over a paper, erasing away at a word or figure, his tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth in complete concentration and tiny beads of sweat dripping down his temples and they’d laugh. But let them laugh, Ben thought. Let them all laugh. They laugh because they don’t know what it’s like to truly erase something. To see it there, bold as life on paper and to know that he can easily delete it, as if it had never been there in the first place. They laugh because they’d cry if they knew what they were missing out on. If they knew that Ben had this great power, they’d shudder in fear and bow down at his feet. He hated being made fun of, even by fools who don’t deserve his attention. So he got out of bed, pulled out a piece of paper and drew them. Instead of erasing them at a leisurely, relaxed pace, Ben did so maliciously. He drew all of them standing on a bridge above a pit of alligators and slowly and deliberately erased the bridge, imagining them falling toward the awaiting gators. Then, in his mind’s eye, he would become the alligators and chose which part of his prey he wanted to devour first. This wasn’t the first time he had channeled his anger through erasing and he knew how he preferred this process. Usually, he’d erase one eyeball so that they could still see themselves
being torn apart. Then he’d get rid of their fingers and a few of their toes. At this point, his rage would be out of control and he would viciously begin to erase. In fact, he’d erase with such malevolence that the paper would wrinkle and even tear. He’s not erasing for the sheer joy of erasing. He’s erasing for revenge and revenge brings its own joy. Ben was powerful. He knew exactly how powerful he was. He could do what he wanted with his creations. He could steal other people’s work and destroy it. No one could stop him. No one had his power. He was alone with this knowledge and skill in this world and no one can defeat him. He’ll erase them all if they tried to. He’ll let them know who’s boss. He’ll kill them. He’ll— The man sat back from his desk and sighed. He’d been working all night and his eyes were strained from staring at the computer screen. He knew he had a warm bed and an even warmer wife to share it with waiting for him but he had a story due the next morning. He looked at the time in the corner of the screen and realized that he had less than he thought. It was 4:23 AM. Only a few more hours left to finish if he didn’t want to show up to the meeting with the publishers empty-handed. He stared longingly at the keyboard and took a few minutes to read over what he had written. Ben. The little kid who liked to erase. Original, but just not good enough. Sighing again, he gloomily shook his head and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “No. This just won’t do,” he mumbled to himself. Then, with a yawn and a sick feeling at the work ahead of him, he selected the text and pressed delete.
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The Hanging of Miguel Delgado Barbara Yost
o be fair, Miguel Delgado was killed by that which he loved, by his dreams and by the goodness of his heart, and his family would say for years that it was the way he would have wanted it. But, of course, what Miguel would have wanted was to live longer and better. His family devised a way to comfort itself with the thought of divine providence or the will of The Man, or of cruel fate—whatever they could grab on to—to reduce the pain to a whisper. He’s gone, it whispered, and the pain has no end. Accept it. Life dares you. The desert never asked to be loved, only for respect. ••• Palm trees are not native to southern Arizona. Like immigrants, they have been transplanted to live among the scrub of this land, where their trunks grow tall and their roots grow deep. The desert is not a sea of sand but a broad landscape of aspirant vegetation that fights for life, reaching greedily for droplets of water, sipping sparingly, and hoarding moisture when the rains finally come in the season of the monsoons. Existence may be hardscrabble for tree, for scrub, for men— more for some men than for others. Some of the cruelest animals in
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the desert are those that walk on two legs. The town of Santa Bonita was founded two centuries ago by Spanish missionaries. Monks arrived to convert the natives, who pretended to believe but came only for the wine and agreed to believe whatever faith was the price of admission. It is today little more than a parched spot on the desert floor bearing homes of brick and wood and adobe, a church bleached by the sun, and 5,000 people of many colors. Some prosper; some struggle as much as the scrub, stretching for opportunity as the plants stretch for water, tongues and leaves lapping up hope. The palm trees also reside here, planted in clusters that line streets and rise from the lawns of green yards and brown ones. The trees form their own community. They give their surroundings dignity and a sense of permanence, bending in the wind but never breaking. For three generations, the family of Miguel Delgado has been caretakers of the palms. Old Javier Delgado worked in his fatherâ€™s Mexican bakery until he was fourteen, when men returned from the war and took back the jobs they had abandoned. Javierâ€™s father came home with a limp but two strong arms. He shooed his wife away from the ovens and sent his son to learn the palm trade: how to shinny up the stalk, wearing spikes on his boots, holding a blade in his teeth, head bare, coarse hands ungloved, pulling himself higher and higher until he reached the canopy of fronds, a green fright wig at the top of a twenty-five-foot pole. He was a narrow boy, sinewy, but he had long legs that wrapped around the trunk, and he had arms muscular from lifting racks of pan dulce and empanadas and pig-shaped gingerbread cookies. When he was twenty, young Javier announced he was starting his own company. He employed three men. After five years, one of the men opened his own company and he, too, employed three men. Javier
hired a replacement, and then there were just enough men to serve all the palm trees of Santa Bonita, to trim and style their coiffures and nip the grasses that grew at their feet. Javier’s company worked the east side of town; Manny Carmona’s the west. Javier married at 31. Engracia, a small, round woman with a Hollywood smile, gave birth to two girls and then a boy, named Angel because he was premature and the size of a grapefruit. But he lived. Time and again, they went to the doctor’s and waited for hours for the poor condition of Angel’s lungs to be checked, crowded into the waiting room where other children sneezed and sniffled and scratched at rashes and cried for the indignity of being ill, and their mothers cried with them. Money leaked through their fingers, but Angel’s lungs grew strong, and his lusty cries testified to their vigor. Engracia nursed Angel for a year, to give him a good start. When Angel was 14, Javier taught him to love palm trees. “See how they reach toward heaven,” Javier said, pointing his stub of a finger whose life was cut short by a saw. “If you look up from the ground, they seem to rise higher than the clouds. At the top, they spray like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Stand beneath them, and you have an umbrella that gives you shade.” “Yes, and when the fronds dry out they turn into wood, and when they fall they can kill a man like a log coming down,” Angel said, not yet in love. But that would come. Angel was more sensible than Javier. When he climbed, he wore a hat and leather gloves that gripped the trunks that looked like the rough legs of an elephant. Javier climbed in short pants; Angel in jeans tucked into his boots. Angel wore shirts with long sleeves to
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protect his skin from the insects that made their homes in the tops of the trees and burrowed deep into the bark, the small brown scorpions, the crusty cockroaches, and the borer beetles. At the top, birds ruled the fronds where red-tailed hawks the color of rust made their nests, warning intruders with their screams of cree-cree-cree, dark eyes blazing, talons wielded like swords. Come threat or challenge, they turned on other birds with beak and claw to assert their authority over the air and protect the chicks with young yellow eyes peeping from a nest. Any mother would do the same, just as Engracia had protected Angel. If she had had talons, who knows how she would have used them. Javier laughed seeing Angel suit up as he began his workday. Javier’s own skin was tanned the color of a walnut, his hands thick and calloused, legs scarred from the bite of the bark and the blade that sometimes nicked when he swung it in an arc across a stubborn leaf. He teased his son. “You aren’t going to war. You don’t need armor. If you love the tree, it will love you back.” But he knew that Angel’s birth had been a miracle, and in his heart he was glad the boy took care. Engracia insisted on it. She bought him the hat and the thickest pants she could find. She sent her men off each morning with a prayer tucked into their lunch pails. Javier invited her to come along and watch them work. She couldn’t bear to see her boy and also her husband defy gravity and join the birds at such heights. At night, she prayed that Angel would not fall in love with palm trees and would take a job on the ground, perhaps in a bakery, like his grandfather, or a shop, like his sisters.
Prayers were no use. By sixteen, Angel was love struck. He woke up one morning so eager to work that he forgot to eat breakfast until Engracia called him back, made him sit and eat scrambled eggs with pork and chilies. The tree he was in love with was an eager lover. With his father laughing from below, Angel climbed fast, his legs pumping to carry him into the crown, cutting away old dead fronds before they could interlock and form a half-ton frond ring that could slip and crush a man or asphyxiate him with dust and rat guano. Angel buried his face in the leaves, inhaling their fragrance, fingering the strings that peeled away from the fronds, plucking the loose petioles and tossing them down to his father. He pruned like a surgeon, cutting only the fronds that drooped, never those that reached upward and had robust life in them. When his work was done, and his father was nearly buried in fronds, Angel leaned back to admire his work, the emerald leaves fanned like the rays of sun that dappled through them and made shadow puppets on the lawn. He looked down to see Mrs. Whitman peering from her living room window, observing the job the Delgado family was doing on her landscape. When he caught her eye, she disappeared behind the curtains. Mrs. Whitman never paid a Delgado in person. She left two twenty-dollar bills in an envelope on a bench on the front porch, attached to the arm with a little piece of tape and Tree Trimmer written on the front. Javier Delgado had been grooming her palm trees since 1963, but she always called him the “Tree Trimmer,” never Javier or Mr. Delgado or Señor Delgado. Mrs. Whitman did not speak Spanish, it seemed. “Tree Trimmer” was easy, and that’s what he was, after all. Love struck Angel again when he met Brisa Ayala. She was eighteen, he was nineteen, and he thought she was as beautiful as a palm tree in full flower. They married at the mission that had become
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a church with cracks plastered over and whitewashed to the color of a dove. Javierâ€™s first grandson was born a year later, and Brisa allowed the grandfather to name the baby. He chose Miguel because that had been his fatherâ€™s name, and because it means one who is like God. Such a handsome boy, Engracia was given to saying. His eyes and hair were the color of strong coffee, and a light shone in them like cream. When Miguel was born, he slipped quickly from his cocoon but left a trail of blood. For three days, Angel thought he would lose Brisa, but she healed, losing only her ability to have another child. Engracia held her as they both grieved, as only women can grieve for the promise of babies lost, and she told her daughter-in-law that Miguel was such a beautiful child, what did she need with more? They both prayed that he would become a baker like his namesake and make his living on the ground instead of in the air where only the birds belonged. Even the force of two prayers was not enough to keep Miguel Delgado from following his father and his grandfather into the community of the palms. His love was there from the beginning, but it was a practical love affair and not a romantic one, a pathway to a future rooted in the earth, inspiring ambitions as high as the clouds. Trim trees now, hire tree trimmers later, own the world one day. Anything was possible, even for a young man as brown as a beetle. On Palm Sunday, it was little Miguel who gathered and prepared palm leaves to bring to the church for each parishioner. His fingers were nimble, and he wove the leaves into mats for his mother and his grandmother and into hats for children. They wore them to school and put them on their heads when they played outside at recess, shading their faces from the bite of the sun. He made hats for his teachers and purses for the secretaries, who exclaimed they were more beautiful than the purses in the department stores in the big city.
At 10, Miguel begged to climb trees and hold a knife, but Engracia and Brisa stood firm. Not until he was 16, they insisted, and their wishes were respected. Miguel stomped his foot and crossed his arms in a pout but stayed on the ground stacking the fronds that fell from Javier’s and Angel’s blades. He played with pole saws and scabbards until Brisa took them away. He craned his little neck to see the trees that reached heavenward and soared above the clouds—that much higher because he was that much smaller. ••• It was on a Friday night that Javier went out for a six-pack of Dos Equis and did not come back. Javier and his son liked to sit on Javier’s porch in the evening, Miguel sleeping inside, as they drank beer with their wives and listened to the desert, the grunt of the javelinas, and the scream of the bobcats. When it rained, they smelled creosote and mesquite. When it was dry, they watched tumbling yellow clouds of dust storms that swept across the land eight-thousand feet high and fifteen miles wide. The storms flushed jackrabbits and quail and roadrunners from their hiding places as red-tailed hawks caught thermals and took advantage of the banquet laid out below to pick off the small and the weak and exercise their authority. By 9 o’clock, Engracia was near panic. “He’s dead,” she told Angel. “He’s had an accident. A coyote has attacked him. He’s had a heart attack and lies on the desert. Drug runners have killed him and burned his body. The sheriff has him.” Yes, the sheriff, whose arm span was wide and grasped for the poor and the weak and kept them in their place. “He probably met Manny or Jose,” Angel assured Engracia,
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swallowing his own fear, but it stuck in his throat and made his voice sound uncertain. “He stopped at the church for Bingo. The truck ran out of gas and he walked to the station. He’ll be home soon. He’s strong. He can take care of himself. He’ll call if there’s trouble.” The call from Javier came at 10. So it was true. A sheriff’s officer had spotted him buying beer at the Circle K. He asked if Javier had papers proving he was an American citizen. “What papers?” Javier replied, raising a coarse hand in anger and pointing a gnarled finger bent at the tip as if it were a pistol. “My family has lived in Arizona since 1847. We don’t need papers. Where are your papers?” The officer didn’t like his attitude and said he had grounds to arrest him. Yes, he would, he declared. He swept Javier into the squad car, leaving Javier’s truck parked at the Circle K with no time to lock up. Javier was detained for two hours before he was allowed to call Engracia. He had no lawyer. Angel took the phone. “Keep your cool,” he told his father. “I’m coming down to the jail. Don’t say anything that will get you into more trouble.” Sheriff Bob’s jail was a spartan one. The walls were gray and smelled damp. Mostly, it was full, full of men that officers rounded up for sport. Once in a while they got lucky. A man spoke no English, had no papers, smelled like chilies, betrayed fear. Sheriff Bob had a van that knew its own way to the border and back because it had made so many trips to deport the unwelcome, flying past bottles of water left for those desperate enough to cross the desert under cover of darkness, desperate enough to risk baking in the summer sun, going crazy from thirst and heat, all for want of a job and a means to support their families. Good Samaritans risked arrest themselves to leave water jugs
along the path. Sheriff Bob’s officers kicked them over and poured the water into the dirt. No need to make it easy for illegal aliens. Aliens. As if they hailed from Mars. Javier Delgado, who had no papers, was just another bounty, a Martian come to Earth. “Find my driver’s license,” he told Angel. Angel, Manny, and Jose marched up the steps of the jail feeling outrage and defiance. But the door to the jail was a magic portal that stripped them of their courage and self-esteem as they passed through. On the other side, they fell weak in front of the brown uniforms and sneers of the officers. Manny and Jose urged Angel forward. “You’re holding my father,” he said and managed to push fear down his throat like a bitter pill. “He’s legal. He just forgot his driver’s license.” He held out the plastic license that showed a smiling Javier Delgado against a red, white, and blue American flag and a red, blue, and yellow Arizona flag. His hair was slicked and combed. His mustache neatly trimmed. The man in the photograph had no reason to be afraid. His family had come to the Arizona territory in 1847, when a name like Delgado was as common as cactus. The officer took the license and scrutinized it long enough to memorize the information there. His prisoner’s height, weight, hair and eye color, organ donor, sex, date of birth—11/07/1937—his home on the west side of Santa Bonita. Officer Jim left a dirty thumbprint in one corner before he handed it back to Angel. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Angel Delgado. He’s my father,” Angel said.
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“So, Ahn-hell,” Officer Jim repeated, expelling the Spanish pronunciation of the name as if it were an evil spirit. “We can hold your father for 48 hours before we notify Border Patrol to check him out. But I’m going to let him go this time with only a warning to carry his driver’s license or a passport at all times. If he has papers, life is that much easier for all of us.” Javier Delgado had never been out of the United States. What did he need with a passport in his own country? Why should he carry documents like a dog wears a tag before it is picked up by the dogcatcher? “Yes, sir,” Angel said, and the bitterness of the pill in his throat sent up a lick of fire. “Thank you, sir. It won’t happen again.” “And next time you come by, bring some tamales from the mamacita.” Angel grinned and nodded. “I’ll be sure to do that, officer.” His throat burned. Officer Jim went into the back and returned with Javier, whose hands were bound with a plastic restraint. Officer Jim unlocked the cord and threw it onto his desk. “Next time, bring your license, señor.” As they passed through the door of the jail, Angel, Manny, and Jose, who had been so small inside, grew tall again, and their anger made them thick with injury. They sputtered and talked of retribution, but Javier held out his arm. “It is what it is,” he said. “I’m unharmed. I lost nothing except the beer they confiscated, which they are probably drinking at this
moment. No one can take your self-respect unless you give it away.” Angel believed Javier had grown taller in jail. Engracia wept as she hugged Javier and apologized over and over for what she had said to him earlier, some small quarrel, though they had both forgotten what it was. The men and their wives sat on the porch and drank the Dos Equis they had purchased when they picked up Javier’s truck. From his grandfather’s room, little Miguel heard the conversation and wished he were sitting at the top of a palm tree where everything was cool and safe. The incident was forgotten, though it was never forgotten; three knives and a good, strong, brokenin harness had been stolen from Javier’s truck. ••• On the day Miguel turned 16, he wanted no party, no cake, no piñata for the children to smack until it exploded with candy. “That’s for babies,” he said. He didn’t say that what he wanted was to play kissing games with girls. That would be a sweeter treat. But he agreed to open his presents at breakfast, and there it was, wrapped in red paper—the shiny new scabbard his grandfather had given him. He grasped it like a scepter and he felt like a prince. The Prince of Palms. Brisa made him finish eating before she let them take him away and show him how to shinny up the trunk of a tree, spikes on his boots, knife in his teeth. Brisa insisted he wear gloves and a helmet and wrap himself in the new leather harness that fit around his legs and held him against the palm tree. It did not fit as snugly as the one Javier had lost to thievery, and it was smoother and slicker. But Javier tugged
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it tight as the boy began inching up the trunk of the palm tree. “Slowly now,” Javier called. Javier and Angel watched as Miguel climbed higher and higher effortlessly, spikes giving him traction, arms already strong enough to lift his weight. And then all they could see were his boots, as Miguel Delgado reached the top of a forty-five-foot palm tree for the first time and wondered if he had flown there. The morning was clear and bright, with only a few wispy clouds. His house was not so far that he couldn’t pick out his own roof. The dome atop the mission rose above its neighbors, a white facade streaked with soot. Cars on the ground looked like toys. Miguel had never been in an airplane, but he couldn’t imagine it would be any more magnificent than this. He felt at home, as if he were part of the tree. Shouts from below shook his reverie. “Just clip a few of the fronds, then come down,” he father was calling. “You need to get used to being so high. Don’t get dizzy.” Dizzy? Miguel felt he could reach up and shake the hand of God. He took the blade from his teeth and whisked it across a petiole. Javier had warned him not to watch the leaves fall, but he couldn’t resist twisting round and following it with his eyes as it floated to the ground. Javier shook his fist. “Don’t look down,” he shouted. “Sit up straight.” Miguel laughed. He swiped the new blade across a frond, once, twice, again, and it was released. This time he obeyed and heard it land
on Mrs. Whitman’s lawn. He cut two more and heard them rustle as his father stacked them in a pile. “That’s enough for now,” Angel called. “Come down slowly.” But Miguel had not yet had enough of the heady experience of living at the top of the world. He felt lighter than air. A red-tailed hawk flew up and he reached out to grab its wing. Stretching too far, he fell back a little as the hawk cawed a warning. He heard gasps from below. Laughing, Miguel threw a cocky salute and regained his hold on the tree. The palm tree would always protect him, like a father protects his son. The crown of the tree felt like a cradle, never to rock, never to fall. “Now!” Angel called again and meant business. “We’ll meet again,” Miguel called to the hawk, and he heard a screech in return as the five-foot wingspan blocked the sun. Inch by inch, Miguel descended until his boots landed on Mrs. Whitman’s lawn. He saw her watching from her front window, shaking her head. “This is not a game,” Javier shouted in his face, grabbing the front of his shirt. “You don’t look down, you don’t lean, you don’t catch birds. Do you hear me, Miguel? Or you’ll never climb another palm tree again.” Exhilaration immunized Miguel from shame. “Yes, sir,” he said, but he felt no remorse. He had flown with the hawks. •••
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Within two years, Miguel had bested his father and his grandfather. He could climb faster, trim faster, prune the crown of the tallest tree so that only the healthiest fronds were left and formed laces that made perfectly symmetrical shadow patterns on every yard that bore palm trees on the west side of Santa Bonita. Unlike them, he made it his business to meet the homeowners, and they liked this Miguel Delgado, this personable young man with a Hollywood smile. Only Mrs. Whitman stayed inside and paid him with a check tucked into an envelope marked Tree Trimmer. When he noticed her watching, he waved, whether it was from the top of a palm tree or the bottom, and laughed to see her quickly pull the curtains closed. Sometimes, Angel would see a sheriff’s patrol car cruise slowly by, eying Miguel as he dropped fronds into his father’s arms. Angel nodded, and the officer quickly turned his head and cruised on down the street. Once it was Officer Jim, and Angel did not wave. When Sheriff Bob cruised by, Angel spat on the ground into the pile of fronds. ••• Old Javier Delgado decided to retire from tree trimming. Miguel had passed him in skill, so he told Angel to take over and hire two more men to work the southern portion of the west side. At 18, Miguel was the best and taught the new men all he had learned and how to do it fast in order to serve more trees. Miguel was fast at climbing, but then, once he reached the canopy, he took his time trimming the old dried fronds. The view from a height where the redtailed hawks flew, eying him from the side of their heads and diving in for a closer look, was intoxicating. From his perch, sitting secure inside his harness, he could see the whole of Santa Bonita, its red tile roofs and roofs of slate and shingles, and the green yards and the brown ones covered in cactus and succulents that looked like spiders. He
saw sheriffâ€™s helicopters chasing those running from the border and radioing their locations if they ducked down an alley or jumped a fence into a backyard. On a clear day, if he looked and imagined hard enough, he could almost see the tower of the university in the city. If he squinted and held his breath, he could almost see his dream coming true. As much as Miguel loved flying like a bird, he loved the idea of going to college more. He would graduate from high school in a few months. He gauged his chances of earning tuition and studying for four years so that he had choices beyond tree trimming. Odds were slim. Whether he stood on the ground or sat at the top of a palm, the view was far. Why does the universe bestow its favors on some and not others? Many people have heard of Alejandra Romo, that girl from Santa Bonita who appeared on a television program some years ago and then became a famous singer. She lives in California now and drives a very nice car. Her house is enormous and has a driveway lined with palm trees trimmed by workers like Miguel and his father. In school before the universe decided Alejandra would become a star, she was no more than Miguel, a somewhat pretty girl with a somewhat pleasant voice and all the constellations in heaven on her side. Alejandraâ€™s father repaired shoes, her mother was a domestic in the home of wealthy people, but the wealthy family did nothing to help Alejandra when her dreams grew big. They wanted her to become a housecleaner, to wash their Saltillo floors with a mop soaked in vinegar. Fate took away her mop and granted her wish, while others like her were stopped on the road to happiness. Stopped by small people no bigger than a cactus wren, stopped by people with sharp talons and wingspans that blocked the sun. Consider another boy from Santa Bonita. Raulâ€”just Raul.
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This is a name that means wise wolf. But Raul fell in with the wrong pack. Boys who had dropped out of his school persuaded him to join them in robbing a Circle K. One had a gun and wounded, but did not kill, the owner, and when they all ran, Raul fell over a crate of oranges and was left behind, left next to the gun the pack leader had carried. Miguel spoke up for him in the sentencing phase of the trial, because he knew Raul to be a good young man who had made a mistake in the company he kept. Perhaps authorities were always looking twice at Miguel after that. In any case, his defense of character fell on deaf ears. Raul lives in the state prison now and receives one orange a day with meatloaf and beans. A small window in his cell blocks the sun most mornings. Who can say which hand fate will grasp and lead out of the desert? Miguel wanted to become neither famous nor notorious, to live not in splendor nor infamy, no mansion nor cell, but rather to be a lawyer or an engineer and live a life full of sunshine. He wanted fate to choose him for such a path. Fate exacts a price, charges a commission, and offers no discounts. Money greases the palm of fate. Angel and Brisa shared Miguel’s dream, but honesty spoke for them. “We don’t have the money,” Angel told Miguel as he sat at the kitchen table doing his homework. “I didn’t go to college, and I ache for that. If we had any means…” One of Angel’s sisters, Mary, was a secretary and had no children. His other sister, Olivia, had two children she also hoped to send to college. Between the lot of them, there was not enough for one child’s tuition, let alone three, and Miguel knew his cousins wanted an education as much as he did and had worked hard in their mother’s shop, yet all fell short of the thousands needed for tuition, which might have been millions and been no less attainable than a hundred.
“Something will happen, Miguel,” Brisa told him. “If not now, then we’ll keep trying. You children will all go to college. I didn’t almost bleed to death for you just to see you trim palm trees the rest of your life.” Angel looked hard at her, and she blushed. “It’s given us a good living,” he reminded her. “I know,” she said, and the touch of her hand soothed him. “I just want more for Miguel. Olivia wants more for her twins. Next year, Miguel. Next year the university will welcome a Delgado.” ••• “You need a scholarship,” Miguel’s chemistry teacher told him when he shared his dream. “You’re bright,” she said, “and you work hard. You volunteer at the church and at the retirement home visiting with the old folks. I’m sure you would qualify. You write well and could ace the essay portion. But the deadline to apply for next school year has passed. Keep up your work over the summer, and come see me in July. I’ll help you get in.” “Thank you, Mrs. Carrillo,” he said. “I forgot to bring you an apple today.” “Bring me a diploma from the university,” she said. “That’s my prize.” Old Javier had not graduated from high school, but he sat in the front row when Miguel and his two cousins crossed the stage in caps and gowns at Santa Bonita High School, the same stage where he had watched his son graduate twenty-two years earlier. He was old now and cried easily, so the tears fell as he hugged Miguel, and then the
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twins, and then Miguel again, and then the girls again. “No one is prouder,” he insisted, though Engracia, Angel, and Brisa begged to differ. “We’re all proud of all of you,” he conceded. ••• The Monday after graduation, Miguel went back to the treetops. The summer passed as hot as he could remember in his 18 years with little rain to relieve the heat that scorched his skin. Angel and Brisa put a yellow cigar box in the cupboard in the kitchen and said this was for Miguel’s college fund. Brisa sold tamales and put money in the box. Angel reached out beyond Santa Bonita for customers and put money in the box. Miguel put every dollar he made in the box and washed the floors of the church to make it grow larger. The priest came and blessed the yellow box. In a short time, it held a thousand dollars. “A drop in the bucket,” Angel joked. Autumn at the university came and then disappeared like dust. On the first day of November, Miguel climbed Mrs. Whitman’s palm tree and looked to see the tower of the university, but the sky was hazy. Clouds obscured all but a few fingers of sun. Because one of his employees was sick, Angel was working in another part of town and left Miguel to work alone at Mrs. Whitman’s, with a warning not to play tricks and not to reach for birds. “Wear your helmet, your harness, your gloves,” he ordered. Miguel promised. Many dead fronds hung at the crown of the tree in an impenetrable ring. Miguel first took out the petioles and then drew his blade across the first brown frond. Mrs. Whitman had waited too
long before calling, and the cap of the tree was thick and dusty. Miguel bore down on the hard wood of the fronds, leaning his body against his blade, hacking away at the ring. A breeze blew and stirred the leaves so that he wasn’t sure of the soft sound he heard, the quiver he felt. Removing his gloves and putting them into his front pocket, he parted the leaves and looked down to find a bird’s nest chirping with two baby red-tailed hawks, young eyes yellow and blinking. Two beaks opened and waited for Miguel to vomit mouse and rabbit meat into their gullets. “I’m not your mama or your papa,” he told the disappointed chicks. “I’m sure your mama is coming.” Miguel gently folded the fronds back over the chicks’ hiding place where no squirrel or strange raptor would find them. He reached for his gloves and thought he could probably trim around the nest without disturbing the babies. Madrecita had other plans for Miguel Delgado. With an ear-splitting screech and with talons splayed and reaching forward, a hawk came at Miguel, fire in her eyes, blood on her beak. She dove for his face. Miguel threw his arm over his eyes to protect them from being gouged. Next time, he would wear goggles, he told himself. He pushed the hawk away with his hand, fearful he would injure her with his blade or wrest a chick from its nest, needing time until he could climb down and leave her to her brood. She circled and dove again with more speed, sinking her talons into Miguel’s shoulder. He screamed in pain and swatted at her, no longer fearing he would hurt her and only fearing she would claw him. With his scabbard, he swung at her in a wide arc, hoping to take just the tip of her wing and send her off while he scrambled down. She flew behind him and he leaned to reach her. As he leaned, he felt the harness that was smoother and slicker slipping down the trunk. Miguel
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began to slide out of the harness. The hawk dove again, and he dodged her attack, losing his helmet. As he slipped farther out of the harness, Miguel lost his grip on the tree and swung backwards. His head, heavy with dreams, slammed against the woody trunk. Blood trickled from his ears. The hawk sat on her nest and had no regard for Miguel. Her chicks peeped and she fed them on mouse flesh. Mrs. Whitman was watching. She watched as Miguel’s body twitched and then hung still, one foot caught in the harness by its spike, his blood dripping down the side of her palm tree. His arms hung free. His hand released his blade into the pile of fronds below. With small pale fingers, Mrs. Whitman opened her front door and stepped onto the porch, a small telephone in her right hand. Dressed in a pink robe and rubber sandals, she squinted into the sun and shuffled to the palm where her tree trimmer hung dying. In her other hand was a pair of sewing scissors, which she wielded against the thin bits of harness that still held his body aloft. Squeezing with both fists, she severed the cord that bound him to the tree, and his body fell heavy between her feet and the trunk of the palm. A grunt came with the last breath of life. She knelt and put an ear to his silence. “A dios,” she whispered. To God. Miguel Delgado’s path was chosen. ••• Angel ran from his truck screaming and looked up to see Mother Hawk at the top of the tree cawing and then flying away to find more mouse flesh, her wingspan great and broad and forming the shadow of a cross below. A sheriff’s officer came, and then Javier came, and together they pulled the harness from Miguel’s body, a body
lighter now because his dreams had evaporated. They lay him on the lawn where the men wept against each other. Mrs. Whitman looked out and then closed her curtains as the tree trimmers took the boy away. At night, Angel returned to the tree. He ran his hands along the rough elephant skin of the palm and then took a brightly colored doll out of his pocket, a figure with a skull for a head, empty sockets for eyes, and bony fingers clutching a bouquet of flowers. A crown of roses circled her head. Angel placed it at the bottom of the palm tree and covered it with a frond left behind. The catrina was the woman Miguel would never marry, the child he would never have. This was the Day of the Dead. ••• Engracia and Brisa took to the stove at Brisa’s house, which was soon filled with many mourners. No one came empty handed, and the table in the kitchen was heavy with dishes and platters, bowls of rice, mangos, enchiladas, and tamales made and frozen before the tragedy. Manny and Jose held up old Javier by his arms and brought him into the kitchen. His legs bent and twisted as they dragged him, too sad to walk. Engracia pulled out a chair, and they folded him into the seat, prepared a plate, and put it before him, but old Javier refused to eat. He tried again to cry, but his eyes were as dry as a catrina’s. The principal of Miguel’s school came to Brisa and put his arms on her small shoulders. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Miguel was an excellent student, a leader, loved by all the children. This is a tragedy. He will never be forgotten.” Brisa stared, her eyes as empty as a catrina’s. Miguel’s chemistry teacher found Angel and told him about
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the dreams Miguel had and how she had tried to help him, believed in him, urged him to keep his faith in education and stay on the path that would lead to the university. The boy was special, the teacher said. But maybe the twins – maybe the girls will find a way. Angel nodded and his eyes were as hope-less as a catrina’s. Engracia’s home thrummed with the talk of the mourners, now and then a burst of laughter caught short and regretted. Young girls in the hall murmured and touched their eyes their fingertips to their eyes to wipe away tears before mascara ran, their long legs under short skirts shifting and wobbling in their high heeled-shoes. “He liked you,” Rosa whispered to Maria. Maria nodded, eyes bright and moist. The sun was disappearing when the last mourner closed the door behind him, and the Delgado family was left alone with only a ghost in the room. Grief had tired them. They pulled chairs to the kitchen table and held on as if it were Peter’s rock. Old Javier held a small blade Miguel had used on the palms, and as his gnarled brown fingers turned it over and over his hands were scraped clean and nearly bleeding. Engracia took it away. “Miguel will take this with him,” she said, “to trim the palms of heaven.” The twins sat in one chair hands clasped together, faces as white as a dove. Their mother Olivia sat beside them with her rosary. No one spoke. What more was there to be said? It might be said that Miguel was near, but the room seemed empty. Dogs barking outside drew their heads to the picture window
in the front room. “What now?” Angel scolded the window. Old Javier watched from his chair as the girls ran to pull back the curtains. Angel and Brisa followed them. Two stray mongrels were chasing something on the ground, something rust colored with a five-foot wingspan. A red-tailed hawk was down, one wing bent, flapping and trying to escape the dogs. It flew enough to rise above their snapping jaws but lost altitude again, and they nipped at its tail feathers, not at all hungry but chasing for sport. The bird’s eyes flashed brown, then black, then yellow, as it rose again with wings pushing at the air, rising with each burst of energy and finally flying just above the dogs’ heads out of reach. The curs had lost their prey. But the injured wing faltered, the hawk banked, and with a great swoop of its still broad wingspan turned awkwardly and headed for the picture window. The twins cried out and Angel pulled Brisa back as the bird’s beak, and then its head, and then its body screamed against the glass, shattering it in place like the legs of a spider. They saw its yellow eyes wide with terror for a moment before the eyes closed and the body fell still on the ground. Angel banged on the wall and shouted to chase the dogs away. They would have no reward. Angel took a plastic bag and went outside to scoop up the fallen hawk. Its funeral would be held in the black can alongside the shed in the alley. The twins sat back in their chair and wrapped themselves tighter until they became one girl shaking with fright. Engracia took her husband’s hand as he stroked her forehead.
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“We need tea,” Brisa said, though her hands were unsteady as she went to the cupboard for cups and tea bags. “Brisa?” Angel called as he watched her stand paralyzed at the open door. She turned holding the yellow cigar box. The lid would not close, so stuffed was it with dollar bills in all denominations and even a hundred-dollar bill, crumpled and poked inside. She placed it on the table. “Our friends –” she began, but her throat closed and stopped her speech. Olivia began pulling bills from the box: tens, twenties, fifties, the hundred, and then she turned it over and dumped all the money on the table, bills bursting out, lush and green as if they had grown like grass inside the box. And then, a ping! Olivia held the shiny thing between her fingers. A diamond ring, diamond ring larger than anyone had ever seen. She banged it on the table to hear that it was real. Brisa raised it to the light and its brilliance filled the room like sunshine. Angel looked inside the band to see if words were written there. The gold was smooth and bare. He allowed himself to smile. “Yes, a friend,” he said. He gave the ring to his mother. “This,” Engracia said, “is our path. A dios.”
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1st Place Sudden Fiction The Early Departure of Cameron Bailey Aaron Sommers
t’s Sunday afternoon. Father reads The New York Times, paying little attention to the review of a new William H. Taft biography and even less to the box score of his beloved, beleaguered Red Sox. He drops his paper as the wheeze across from him becomes a heinous mew. Father tries to yell but nothing emerges. Mother is in the shower, halfway through shaving her left leg. Father shouts at the top of his lungs. The boy’s face is crimson, bright-eyed and wet. Father trembles over the little one and tells him he is okay. But the eighteen-month old knows better. One slender hand grasps his neck, the other reaches out instinctively for his Daddy. Mother leaps down the stairs, her hair is sodden, breasts spilling over the top of a blue towel. Hand to her mouth: God oh my God. Mother pushes father aside, invokes God’s name again. What’ve you done? I gave him lunch, says father. Yes, I see that, narrowing her black eyes in hate, turning back to her son, surveying his mouth. I just gave him lunch, he manages. The child’s face is now light blue. Shit, it’s a bone—mother determines—and I can’t reach it. What in the hell were you thinking? I—I gave him the chicken, father says. You know. Just a little piece of our chicken. That’s our chicken, she
bellows. I thought—no—she corrects him—no, you didn’t think. Two days earlier. Mother stops by the farmers’ market at Dewey Square and picks up a pound of pasture-raised chicken. The difference, she learns, from bona fide free-range birds and the hormone-soaked, antibiotic-laced Perdue broilers, is long and varied, depending on whom you ask and where they get their information. But she knows the bones of these birds are genuine. The kind a dog might chew on. Conversely, the so-called poultry in most grocery stores contains rubbery filaments in lieu of skeletal structures, thanks to the birds’ lack of exercise, selective breeding for large breasts, inordinate exposure to recycled air, and other nefarious McFarming methods. She’s no activist, though. She just wants to make sure whatever she and her husband eat is healthy, so her baby learns ethics and nutrition by example. At the age of six months, Cameron Bailey opts for meat instead of cereal. He eats his first bite of tilapia at seven months and by his first birthday devours chicken. Mother makes sure it’s only tender, quarterinch, skinless breast strips. She doesn’t want him accustomed to the taste of flesh. Exactly two years prior. After eight months of exquisitely timed, excruciating mechanical sex, father steps into the Newton office of Rod Weinberg, M.D. of Reproductive Solutions, LLC. Two weeks prior. Father stands in the examination room. No one examines him, but he does leer through various magazines full of women with pink lips and open legs and buttocks like carved soap. The PA system drops The Eagles’, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” into the air. Dr. Weinberg is fat, bald and sanitary. He greets his patient with a nod and handshake, opens a brown file and sits down. So, he sighs. So, father responds. Well, the doctor says, tapping his Mont Blanc pen on the desk, well it looks like your boys aren’t very good swimmers. Father shrugs. These doctors, these experts, are supposed to
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have some kind of esoteric knowledge—knowledge of the strange magic and alchemy of baby making. Father throws up his hands. So now what? Well, says the doctor, we’ve got options. There are many possibilities here. Father concludes Weinberg has discovered Kierkegaard. We help them get there, the doctor testifies, all it takes is one. Father nods. He needs to escape from this sterile chamber of broken dreams. Father’s seminal fluid contains twenty million sperm per milliliter, but they’re Grade B, “slow progressive” per the World Health Organization’s Laboratory Manual criteria. They swim in a curved line, explains Dr. Weinberg. There’s no scenic route in biology. Success is the mother of good direction. Mother listens to his pitch. Their best option is Intrauterine Insemination. Dr. Weinberg says we must bypass the cervix. It’s an outpatient procedure. Mother furrows her brows. At ten percent per menstrual cycle, the success rate isn’t as high as other methods. But, father pleads strategically, at our ages it’s the best option. Mother is tired. She is tired of this, tired of explaining to stroller-pushing friends what’s going on—or more accurately, what isn’t. Tired of her mother reminding her in that ungentle way she does of all things regarding A Women’s Body: early menopause runs in the family. On the following fertile period, a few million sperm are placed in her. So it really does look like a fucking Turkey Baster, she laughs to herself, after all this progressive technology…. A few hundred spin near her viable egg. Only twenty lash their tails and propel themselves closer to her fallopian tube. But only Cameron Bailey hits the Zona Pellucida, striking it with a volatile force as great as he had ever mustered before or since, penetrating that clear
girdle and releasing himself into the smoldering, spongy core. Mother tries finger sweeping. Cameron descends into unconsciousness and recalls the first time he ate chocolate ice cream, with his father in Maine, and now it tastes as rich as ever. Mother is naked, the towel bundled at her knees. She cradles Cameron’s head, her voice a high whine. Father turns away in horror. Mother’s breasts sway back and forth as she cries out his name, her son’s. Cameron’s oxtail-brown eyes remain closed. Mother’s howling his name, but he doesn’t hear her, or see anything, or anyone. Within his own tepid body a tether is gently released, sending him upwards at a rate of a million miles a second, past the amber sky, through the aether and into the cosmic tapestry as the piece of illustrious fabric he is and will be for millennia.
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On Belay Tricia Dowcett-Bettencourt
asha shields her eyes from the sun, trying to gauge Eric’s position. He stands frozen against the lumpy rock. According to the guidebook, they should be finishing up the second pitch, but Eric has been working—or not working—on his next move for over ten minutes, checking and re-checking the buckle on his harness, fiddling with his figure-eight knot. His trepidation is contained, but Sasha senses the message in the tautness of the rope: silent words conveyed through Eric’s unwillingness to allow any slack. She checks her watch. This was supposed to have been a warm-up route, and the handholds are jewels: large, close together, and obvious. But Eric’s reach is tentative, his fingers unsteady. She keeps the rope tight, giving it a slight but sharp tug of firm encouragement. He is a steady climber, a willing if not quite confident partner, but somehow even the “easy” climbs seem more perilous here, under the wide-open sky of the Canadian Rockies. “It’s real straightforward, babe,” she calls down to him with forced nonchalance. He’s about forty feet below, between the ground and the landing where she is anchored. “Just a quick scramble.” Though he is only a hundred and fifty pounds, Eric is beginning to feel heavy in her hands. Sasha shakes her arm, just slightly, to release
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some of the tightness in her biceps. Back at camp an hour earlier, mapping out a route, she felt light; she was able to ignore the tension that had been building since they left Seattle two days earlier. She looked up at the cliff, at the cloudless sky, at a woman they met the night before elegantly ascending the crag, her arms taut and brown, her moves both fluid and certain. I am her, Sasha thought. Soul to the wind, hands on the earth. She closed her eyes, silently attempting to will away the set of Eric’s jaw as they organized their carabiners and pitons. From where Sasha sat then, the climber’s turquoise rope looked anchor-less, as if tethered only to the sky. Five minutes later, Eric hasn’t moved. The wind blows his dark hair into his eyes, but he doesn’t lift a hand to push it away. How long can he keep his foot lodged in that puny crack? Sasha’s fingers tingle; she won’t be able to hold the rope much longer. Her climbing shoes seem to have shrunk two sizes in the last ten minutes, and her knee is tight, achy, the way it used to feel after a long Sunday mass. She watches Eric pull one hand away tentatively, and then put it back. Grab it. Just grab it. Now that the afternoon clouds are rolling in, there is the slightest bite in the air. She coughs loudly. Handhold, reach for a handhold. Eric looks down, his growing panic evident in his body language. Sasha sees him watching the cars speed along the cracked pavement below, some of them slowing to catch a glimpse of the climbers above. Someone in a red pick-up whistles at them. For a moment, Sasha considers what would happen if she were to unclasp her fingers. As if reading her thoughts, Eric lets go of the rope and leans back into the sky, spreading his arms slowly, like a timid fledgling, before quickly pulling them back in to his sides. She knows he is having a heated discussion with himself, and she bites back her own feelings of frustration. They’ve made harder climbs than this one,
at least by guidebook standards, but that was back in New England, where the road home ended at their apartment. Here, it stretches out along the Alaska Highway for miles and days. Sasha looks skeptically at the next pitch, which has smaller handholds. Sunset is still hours away, but most of the climbers are making their descents, heading back into camp for an early dinner. She jerks the rope. What’s happening, Eric? In response, he pulls lightly. I’m working on it. She’s working on it, too, has been working on it. The farther they get from home, the more she begins to question her decision to allow her solo journey to become a joint venture. She even attempted, the night before their departure, to tell Eric she was changing the plan. She stood outside of her truck, which they were in the process of filling with everything they would need for this next phase of their lives. Something about the sight of their belongings, all mixed together, quickened her heartbeat, but she didn’t know if the feeling was excitement or fear. And then Eric came out of the apartment, smiling, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and handed her a mug of tea. The words caught in her throat as Eric touched his cup to hers in a toast to this trip, to the summer, to the highway that would bring them, ultimately, to Alaska. The moon was rising, and as Eric looked up at it, sliding his arm around her waist, she felt a familiar comfort in the smell of his peppermint soap. “Bet this looks even better in Alaska,” he said. “Alaska.” She repeated the name, letting the last syllable linger in the air. The word tasted exciting and frightening all at once. Upon reflection, Sasha can see that her excitement at Eric’s
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decision to defer his grad school admission and follow her to Alaska has prevented her from giving voice to a quiet, gnawing hesitation. She knows he has felt it, too. “Grad school will always be there,” he insisted, but it took him months to decline the fellowships he was offered. She’s not even sure he’s declined all of them. He has been passive in the planning process. When she shows him apartments she found online, he responds, “Looks pretty good.” They have argued about this. “I’m just not that picky,” he said, adding, with some tenderness, “I’m just happy to be going with you.” Sasha tried to grasp those words, to feel them, but they seemed tinged with uncertainty. What she really wants is one of the rustic cabins in Fairbanks she has read about. Two rooms, minimal electricity, no running water. This is the Alaska of her favorite book, Coming into the Country, the same one that had inspired her dad’s failed trip to Talkeetna five years ago. She thinks of her dad now, wonders if he is somehow on this trip with her. She keeps the unused plane tickets in her journal, marking her entry on the day he died. She bites her lip. On two or three occasions, Sasha has caught Eric secondguessing, chewing his nail and retreating inward. “I love you, Eric,” she told him, “but I don’t want you to make this move if you’re not ready.” He would invoke his favorite poets: “Whitman says you should either define the moment, or the moment will define you. I’m defining my moment.” Alaska, for Eric, has always been a literary place, his images formed by Jack London and John Muir. She worries that he is letting others define his moment, that he is seeing only the poetic and not paying heed to the raw, physical reality. Their imaginations, she fears, hold two different Alaskas.
It was actually Whitman who brought them together the previous year, in Environmental Ethics. Leaves of Grass had fallen out of Sasha’s backpack as she was gathering up her books at the end of class. She had never actually read Whitman; she was only returning the book to the library for her roommate, though she didn’t confess this to Eric. Not at first. But she loved Robin Williams as the quirky English teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, and so she was able to make a few shaky references to “the Captain.” Eric invited her to study, that evening, at the Starry Night Café downtown. There they worked through an essay by Peter Singer, who Sasha found somewhat dry. “Environmental writing is always dry,” Eric responded. “So, why are you in the class?” As an Environmental Studies major, Sasha needed the class to graduate, but Eric was getting his degree in English. “I needed another Humanities credit. And I like trees.” He winked. His smile was goofy, but cute. Sasha had noticed him even before the Whitman episode, had admired his tanned, muscular calves, had chuckled at the crumpled wool socks he wore with his shorts (he never wore pants, even in winter). His shoulder-length brown hair was usually uncombed, and his backpack was duct-taped in a couple of places. Sasha noticed as they studied that he color-coded his notes, and this struck her as a funny contrast: in spite of what his wrinkled shorts and coffee stains suggested, he was organized. And cautious: whenever he locked up his bike, he would remove the seat and stuff it into the front mesh pocket of his backpack; a seat post with no seat, he said, was a deterrent to potential bike thieves. A month after their first date, they were backpacking in the White Mountains. Under Orion’s sword, their tired legs cocooned in zipped-together sleeping bags, Sasha told him about Alaska, and about
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her father, who had dreamed of “the last frontier” but settled for New Hampshire. She talked to him about their shared fascination with John McPhee’s account of modern-day pioneers, living off the grid, scaling peaks that hadn’t even been named yet. Ansel Adams’ famous black and white portrait of Denali hung on her bedroom wall, next to an oversized topographic map scattered with yellow sticky notes, with arrows pointing to climbing routes and the villages that housed the homesteaders McPhee had interviewed. “Alaska, huh?” He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her in. “Why go so far when you can stay here and climb me?” She laughed, but she heard what she thought was amusement in his voice, and part of her blanched. The few men she’d dated in the last few years had responded in the same way, with crooked smiles or dismissive half-laughs. Her last boyfriend, Kurt, had told her, in the end, that he was looking for someone who was “a little less of a tomboy,” and these words still poked at her. But Eric didn’t dismiss her. “If this works out,” he said, “I mean, if we work out, would you consider letting me tag along?” She didn’t know how to answer, in the moment, but she was glad he asked. He didn’t question her sanity, or lecture her on the irresponsibility of taking off without a job lined up. Didn’t insist she couldn’t go by herself. “Did your dad ever make it to Alaska?” She shook her head, felt the familiar sting in her eyes. “He had a ticket. He was planning to go—we were—for his sixtieth birthday, but he died of a heart attack two weeks before we were scheduled to leave.”
The usual awkward silence followed, and then Eric squeezed her hand. Instead of the words she was used to hearing—“So sorry for your loss,” or “That must have been so hard on you”—he frowned. “Well, that really fucking sucks!” Sasha laughed, taken aback at the absurd accuracy of the declaration. Eric laughed, too. “It does,” she said. “It really fucking sucks.” She comes back to this moment often, especially when doubt creeps in. It’s a memory that defines Eric: tender and funny and real. That Christmas, Eric bought her a first edition copy of McPhee’s book, and tracked down the author himself, who inscribed the cover page, not only to her but to her dad. She remembers the pride in his smile when she unwrapped the gift, and her own tears, the surprise at the intensity of her affection. ••• Eric’s advisor and idol at the university, a pompous professor named Jacobson who didn’t like anything Sasha wrote for the required Survey of Literature course she took sophomore year, actually called Eric at home when he heard that Eric was going to postpone grad school. Sasha overheard Eric’s nervous responses to what she guessed were Jacobson’s pleas for him to reconsider. “It’s only for a year or so,” he replied. She figured Eric was trying to make the transition easier, not only for Jacobson but also for himself. “‘The earth is all before me,’” he added with an awkward chuckle, quoting, she was sure, another of his poets. The line sounded misplaced, unconvincing. She felt sorry for Eric, and she realized, for the first time, what a tortured decision this must have been for him.
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Biking back to her apartment that evening, her legs more tired than usual, she sensed, for the first time, the barely audible whisper of doubt, both hers and Eric’s. Even his packing seemed to suggest his disconnection from her reality: while she considered weight and checked the status of their climbing gear, Eric tried to see how many books he could fit into Sasha’s truck. She didn’t remind him that they had talked about traveling light. One backpack each. No extra baggage. The journey begins, Eric wrote in their travel journal the day they set out, and Sasha thought, “Whose journey?” ••• Eric’s hands have found their way to the rock again, and he is ascending slowly, his body tucked and tight like a turtle retreating into its shell. “What’s up?” Sasha calls, her voice sounding more gruff than she intends. Eric grabs the rock, more doggedly this time, and squeezes tightly, then pulls himself up with his legs, which are shaking. A hand here, a knee there, a final hoist, and he is in front of her.
“Nice push, babe,” she says, giving him a quick kiss.
“Sorry about that, Sash,” he says, panting, his hair streaked with chalk. He sits on the ledge from which Sasha has been belaying. The ground is littered with dirty tissues and spent packets of energy gel. Eric’s eyes are red. Looking away from the road, he swears, then blames the crosswind and hot sun for his lack of “balls.” The echo of laughter bounces off the rock wall; two climbers cast dismissive glances their way as they descend. Sasha watches them with detached interest: couples or friends, climbers with a singular purpose. She looks absently at the cracks and fissures as the climbers consider their next move.
Sasha sits down next to Eric, puts her hand on his thigh, which is as tight as a bowstring. “One more pitch,” she says, with forced lightness. Her voice rises slightly at the end, the hint of a question. Choose. She squeezes Eric’s hand gently. She knows Eric can make this climb, both pitches, without question. But here, his grip is unsteady. Sasha looks at the rope, which hangs solemnly. Part of her wants to embrace Eric, to tell him unquestioningly that this is his trip, too. If he wants to call it quits, if he’s not ready, well then…. But she remains still. She thinks again of Eric’s discussion with Jacobson, of the quaver in his voice. Right now, his anger is directed at himself, but she senses how easily it might be directed at her. She knows it is she who is defining the moment now, and she has a vague, distressing image of Eric retreating further inward as his outward self is eclipsed. “I’m sorry,” Eric repeats softly, his voice trailing off into the wide Canadian sky. Sasha senses it’s not merely the foiled climb he’s sorry for. “I can’t do another pitch.” At his words, Sasha feels both relief and nausea. Panic and release. What now? She bites her lip until she can taste salt. She can feel Eric looking at her, but she won’t meet his eyes. She clips her carabiner in and out. Finally she speaks, and the pitch of her voice takes them both by surprise. “I guess the only place to go from here is back to the ground.” She looks to Eric for a response. He returns her look with a tilt of his head: question, or assent? She can’t tell. Her hands are shaking as she grabs the rock, but she grips it firmly, preparing for the descent. Her fingers, brown and cracked from the sun and the sandstone and the granite, look like extensions
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of the crag, and as she spreads her arms to distribute her weight, her wingspan feels as wide as an owl’s. She thinks of Eric’s tight shoulders a few minutes earlier, so closed and introverted, and she wonders again, “Whose journey?” though the answer seems obvious. A few swift reaches, and they’re on flat ground again. Sasha lands roughly, and after they have unclipped and un-harnessed, Eric coils the rope methodically as Sasha collects the screws and carabiners. The wind has picked up, and the sand stings her eyes as she drops the gear into the bag. Overhead, two vultures dive-bomb an unseen prey. Whatever it is must have managed to escape their grasp, because they emerge again quickly and part ways, flying in separate directions, as though their encounter has been one of chance. ••• Everything in British Columbia is vast: the trees, the sky, the rock faces, the deep, mineral-rich bodies of water. A whole universe of peaks and forests and boundless lakes. Beautiful, but indifferent. I am small here, Sasha thinks as they drive through another endless canyon; at the same moment, Eric utters the word “magical.” “It seems almost comical,” he says, looking out at the landscape, “to think of Thoreau ‘getting lost’ in Concord, a stone’s throw from the main road.” Yesterday, hiking to a trailhead, they met a climber who had built himself a tree house. It looked like something out of a children’s book: hand-fashioned rope ladder leading to a slope-roofed, fourwalled plywood structure. It was even insulated! The climber spoke only French, but he invited them in for tea, and as Sasha sipped hers from the bedroll that served as the sofa, Eric took pictures of his place, as intrigued by this wooden castle as by anything else they have seen here. He does get it, Sasha thought, amused by Eric’s awe.
And yet, whenever they pass a bus station—yes, even in this remote country—she sees Eric glance at it, making a mental note; she imagines him thinking about the distance that separates them from where they began. ••• That night, under an enormous sky, Orion is with them again, and his familiar presence draws them close to each other, even as they sit in silence.
“Adrienne Rich,” Eric says quietly, “loved Orion too. She wrote
a poem about him. Called him her ‘half-brother.’”
“A yin-yang kind of thing?” Sasha asks.
“Sort of. She saw him as the more warrior-like part of herself.” She nods. Eric looks at her. “I’ve always sort of seen you in the same way. Kind of like my Orion.”
“Am I yin or yang?”
He smiles wanly. “I don’t know which is what. But you always push me outside of my comfort zone. Physically, I mean.” She takes both of his hands and squeezes them, to show that she understands, or thinks she does. Just last year, in another campsite, under a sky that stretched out for a thousand miles, Sasha had sensed this yin-yang, this perfect balance. They had only known each other a few months, but they had fallen asleep together easily, peacefully, their bags stretched out along the bank. Then, as now, she heard the river sssshhhhhiinggg serenely. This time, it whispers something she can’t discern.
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••• Sasha wakes in darkness to the sound of wailing somewhere off in the distance, and she wonders who else could be camping here, in this little clearing just off the trans-Canada highway. She sits up, looking around for the direction of the sound, and finds its source to be a bird, a monstrous crow. Its caw reaches down beneath her skin. It can’t be later than four-thirty in the morning, but she can see Eric stirring. She moves to her right side, and then back to her left, unable to find the right position. She finds her fleece, pulls it over her head, and walks over to the river. The water is colder than she expected, but she loves the way it feels on her face. She cups her hands and takes a drink; it is gritty, and some of the sand crystals get caught on her tongue. She coughs. Back at their campsite, Eric has risen and is looking for the stove under a slowly wakening sky. Sasha sits on a boulder and puts her tangled hair in braids, trying distractedly to sort out the knots and tangles. She opens up the Milepost, left outside the night before, which is full of colorful photos of grizzlies and giant moose and mountains as jagged as the edge of a serrated knife. A shot of the moon rising over Anchorage is so striking it nearly causes her to gasp, and she is about to share it with Eric, but changes her mind. She remembers the first time she saw the Grand Canyon, at age fourteen, and how emotion had overtaken her at the sight of the raw and ineffable beauty of the landscape. She can almost see Alaska, the holy frontier, so vast and virginal that many of its peaks are unnamed. Eric has turned on the radio in the car, and she can hear Bob Dylan singing, something about fingertips and moving hips.
“Everything about you is beautiful,” Eric said to her once.
“Your eyes, your shoulders, your hips. Even your earlobes.” He nibbled one for effect. She wonders at the chances of finding another love like this. Yin and yang. Her friends have always teased her about her “scientific mind,” which has kept her emotion rooted in the real. She’s had a number of boyfriends, but Eric was different. Is different. And yet, she can’t help but think about the compromises he will have to make on this trip, in their shared life. She thinks again of the cabins in Fairbanks. The real backcountry. She closes her eyes, feeling tired despite a long sleep. In Alaska, people vanish all the time. Some people go there for that very purpose. Others fall prey to the whims of Mother Nature, who is more unforgiving in this still-evolving country than perhaps anywhere else. It’s this wildness that has always captivated Sasha: wilderness in all of its moods, primal. She is startled by a figure that springs from the brush. She jumps up, dropping her magazine, and lets out a little scream, expecting to see a bear. Eric is beside her in a second, wrapping his arms around her protectively. Without thinking, she hides her face in his shirt, only pulling away when she feels his chest begin to shudder with laughter. She can hardly believe it, but the animal that made so much noise is only a ruffed grouse. The bird makes a half-hearted attempt to assert its dominance before retreating. Sasha is surprised to find that she is shaking, and when she feels Eric’s hand on her arm, she grabs it. She’s hesitant to unclench her fingers, even when he suggests, gently, that they should start packing up. •••
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The Milepost describes the Al-Can Highway as “nature’s greatest theme park.” The road itself feels like a carnival ride, with its ridges, frost heaves, wildlife, and loose rock. “A highway for pioneers,” the guidebook says. Sasha stares at the mountain range beyond the campsite. She knows she should be helping Eric roll up their sleeping bags, fold up their tent, but she is motionless. The momentary panic she felt at the appearance of the grouse has left behind a hovering apprehension, and she watches Eric’s methodic motions with a sadness that is laced with a subtle sense of fear. When the truck is packed, he approaches her slowly, places a tentative hand on her back. “You ready?” he asks quietly. It’s time, Sasha thinks. She sucks in her breath and tries to formulate the words. Dawn creeps toward them, slowly, and with it come surreal shades of fuchsia and indigo. Sasha watches, amazed, and then turns to face Eric.
“Don’t,” he says, his voice catching. “Don’t speak.”
They lean against the truck. Beyond them, the road, unusually straight in this section, seems to stretch northward toward a mystical mirage. In the elliptical silence, they are suspended, rapt for a few seconds in the violet horizon. Sasha buries her face in Eric’s shoulder, breathing in his sweat and pine needles and mint-scented soap, letting his springy aroma imprint itself in her memory. She looks past Eric, toward the sunrise, and watches the last of the magnificent show, those glorious, fleeting moments between darkness and daybreak.
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A Solitary Ugly Squirrel William Mark Habeeb
Entry 1: The echo from the steel door slamming shut gradually faded, leaving silence, glorious silence, silence I craved after two weeks in a windowless courtroom listening to prosecutors impersonating television lawyers, my court-appointed attorney bumbling through my defense, the judge sustaining this and overruling that, and witnesses: Kellie pointing at me, sobbing; detectives presenting DNA evidence that no member of the jury could conceivably have understood (a jury of my peers only in the sense that they were homo sapiens); a psychiatrist— who had met with me for all of 15 minutes—elaborating on my drives and impulses as if I were not in the room (which I might as well not have been, given that I did not testify in my defense— “Not a good idea in cases like this,” advised my public defender, a buxom 28 yearold who smelled of freshly-minted law degree and had never before defended a “case like this”). At last: Silence. Solitude. Solitary. I was put in solitary for my own protection. Murderers, rapists, armed robbers, drug dealers, wife-beaters, car thieves: They don’t much like people who had sex with a minor. Even they have some principles.
William Mark Habeeb
I will be here for five years. I will be thirty-eight upon release. Until then I’ll be a guest of the state, receiving three meals a day through a slit in the door, free medical care, a bed, a sink with a mirror (but I rarely look in mirrors), a toilet, a small window positioned eight feet high (allowing light but no view) and round-the-clock security. I could be spending my thirties in far worse ways: I could be homeless, sleeping on heating grates and soliciting loose change from passersby. Or mired in a dismal marriage, unable to leave because of kids and debt. Or living as I had been: alone in my half of a duplex, spending my days adjusting insurance claims and my nights drinking tequila, watching videos and surfing internet porn. Yes, my life has improved. Prisons are dry, so I will stop drinking without enduring AA meetings. And I get an hour in the yard every day to exercise. I will leave a better man—rested, sober and fit. And because I have no cellmate, I can jack-off whenever I want, and can even fantasize about Kellie: I can repeat offend in my mind every day, and no one will know. They can imprison my body, but not my fantasies, and fantasy sex always has been more gratifying to me than the real thing. I’m looking forward to the vacation. From time to time, I will jot down my thoughts—a kind of vacation diary. Entry 2: I hadn’t counted on time: the movement of existence. It moved slowly at first, the way it might move in a small southern town on a sultry Sunday afternoon. But it’s been two weeks now, and time has stopped altogether. Existence has stopped moving. But my mind is still moving, and when your mind keeps moving but time doesn’t, things get very weird. Entry 3: Lying on the foam mattress on my bed, staring at the
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ceiling tiles, trying to be perfectly still so that the springs won’t creak, I perceive the essential truth in a flash of insight: The entire universe extends from me. All things in the universe are interconnected, so say the mystics. Except for me: I am an isolated being adjacent to but not part of the universe. All existence dangles from me, like a huge goiter. Entry 4: Today I drew a friend with the little pencil they allowed me, one of those pencils you get at putt-putt golf courses. It doesn’t have an eraser, so it took every sheet of paper I had to create a drawing that looked like a face. I talked with him over my dinner of baloney and apple sauce (I believe it was a him, it’s hard to tell, I’m not a good drawer; if I were, I would have drawn an erotic female friend). Entry 5: The guards confiscated my friend during a cell-search. Solitary truly means solitary. Entry 6: I want to find out how many times I can jack-off in one day (a day in my timeless world is defined as the period between dinners). I achieved five orgasms today, although the last one was slow in coming (cumming?). I have now set a goal of eight—it’s important to have goals in life, and they should be challenging ones. Entry 7: Mom writes to me once a week. The envelopes arrive already opened; the prison guards read her letters to make sure she is not transmitting instructions on how to escape. I never write back. Mom visited me last week and we talked on the telephones on opposite sides of the thick glass, and Mom said, “I know you didn’t do it” and I said “Oh, I did it” and Mom said “Well, I know you didn’t.” She told me that Dad didn’t know what to say to me, which is why he didn’t accompany her, and I said “fine” and she said, “I know that breaks your heart” and I said “No, it doesn’t,” and she said “I’ll work on him” and I said “Please don’t.”
William Mark Habeeb
Entry 8: A letter from Rebecca, my sister, arrived today, six months after my incarceration. She was all chatty about her life and stuff as if we talk every day, which we never have, even when we lived under the same roof. Monica, my other sister, sent me little pamphlets about Jesus and forgiveness and being reborn, and the drawings of Jesus in the pamphlets looked like a Nordic god. I read them and corrected the typos and poor grammar with my putt-putt pencil, and drew little hats on Nordic Jesus, then flushed them down the toilet. Entry 9: I don’t need my watch. Its rotating hands are meaningless, as there is no time in my cell. I offered it to one of the guards. “Maybe your kid could use it,” I said. “Why would I give my kid a gift from a pervert?” he said. “Good point,” I said. Later I pried the watch open to examine its little springs and gears. I got written up for leaving the shattered pieces on my dinner tray. Entry 10: Only four orgasms between dinners. I’m discouraged. I need to exercise more. Or maybe set more realistic goals. I’ll aim for six—it would still be a new record, but more reachable than eight. Goals should be reachable. Entry 11: Sometimes, my dinners seem very close together. Other times, they seem ages apart. You’d think my mouth would start watering minutes before food comes, but it never does. I’m always surprised. Pavlov’s dog was smarter than me. Entry 12: Today is the one year anniversary of my deed. Why did I do it? Some people see the forbidden—young boys, young girls, or whatever their perversion is—and then fantasize about them. Some fantasize about their perversions and then seek out subjects to make their fantasies a reality. The latter are predators; the former are frustrated and lonely. I was the former. Until:
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I would watch Kellie from my kitchen window, sunning in our shared backyard, slipping periodically into the inflatable pool to cool off. She and her mother had moved into the other half of the duplex eight years before. She was seven then, tomboyish and rowdy, a “handful” her mother would say by way of apology after Kellie would charge past me on our shared front steps, or yell “Hi Pel!” and wave enthusiastically from her back porch, which was five feet from my back porch. Kellie was preternaturally friendly and mystifyingly happy, defying every stereotype of only children from shattered marriages with stressed-out, depressed, obese mothers. She would bound up the steps, pound on my door, and drag me outside to sit with her on the top step while she showed me her collection of autumn leaves, or bottle caps, or rocks, or whatever else she had scavenged. I could hear her voice through the thin walls of the duplex, and her laughter, and every now and then her crying. Otherwise, my life was dull and predictable. Kellie was the only life force in that duplex. The fantasies had only started in the past year, as her figure narrowed and her breasts firmed. She was 15. In Afghanistan, we could have gotten married, and the village would celebrate. In some of the American colonies, the age of consent was ten. That’s all been legislated away. But libido cannot be legislated away. Fantasy cannot be legislated away. Longing cannot be legislated away. The knock on the door awoke me from an unintentional nap, a hot and sticky summer afternoon nap, the kind you awake from with a sweaty neck and damp shirt and the acrid taste of onions in your mouth from the cheese steak sandwich you ate two hours earlier and a dull headache from the tequila you washed it down with. “Hiya, Pel—I locked myself and my phone out of the house. Can I use your phone to call Mom?” She made the call and brushed past me on the way to the
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door. Now, had I touched her nose, or her ear, or her arm, or her knee, or her hair, or her shoulder, or her chin, or her forehead, or her back, I would not be sitting in my cinderblock capsule outside the realm of time. But I touched other parts of her. And anatomy matters in these situations. I held her close—she didn’t resist—and reached under her tee-shirt and in her pants and pressed my face against her crotch. I came on her jeans. She mumbled “Bye, Pel,” and quickly left. Was it a fantasy, a dream? I had been asleep, after all. Maybe I had just jacked off to a vision. Maybe it wasn’t real? I answered the door an hour later and saw two policemen. It was real. I adjusted insurance claims for a living. I evaluated other peoples’ mistakes, their accidents, their act-of-God misfortunes. I would simply adjust this mistake, too. Shit, maybe it wasn’t even a mistake. Maybe it was an act-of-God, like a tree falling on your house in a storm. A girl knocked on my door as I lay half-awake, defenseless against my drives. An act of God, for sure. Any jury could see that. Entry 13: I had horrible nightmares when I was a child and when I awoke I would thank God that they were just dreams. Last night I had a nightmare and when I awoke I cursed God, because in my dreams—even the nightmares—there are other people and I am not alone. Someone chasing you with a cleaver is at least relating to you, acknowledging your existence. There are other inmates in solitary—I can hear them yelling at the guards, talking to themselves, crying like babies, laughing at the jokes in their heads, singing. But they don’t relate to me—unless yelling “Fuckin’ pedo” or “Cut off his balls” or “Was she tight, perv?” as I walk by their cells on the way to the yard is considered relating. Only the people in my dreams relate. They are my only true friends.
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Entry 14: If I position the desk lamp correctly, I can create a shadow of myself on the wall, someone to talk to, someone who gestures back at me, someone who anticipates my every move. We had a long and fascinating conversation today about entropy, but then I got tired and turned off the light and he went away and I fell asleep and dreamed about Lydia, a Swedish exchange student I knew in high school. She was giving me a blowjob in the dream. I woke up and punched the cinder-block wall. My knuckles hurt. Entry 15: There have been many dinner-to-dinner units since my last entry. I’m tired of entries. I want exits. Exits from my timeless existence, from my 360 degree cinder-block vista. Entry 16: I looked over the last twenty or so entries and they weren’t coherent, so I tore them up. They started giving me a pill with breakfast and dinner, a pill ordered by the prison shrink, and these pills make me sleep a lot—like, most of the time between dinner and dinner—but they also make my entries more coherent again. The thing is, I have nothing to say, which is why I don’t make many entries. I have no thoughts. Entry 16 1/2: The thing is, we don’t have thoughts the way we have a car or a wool suit or two kids and a house in the suburbs. We are thoughts. So if I have no thoughts, that means I have no being: I don’t think, therefore I am not (to paraphrase someone I read about in college). So I now am a non-being in a timeless world. Entry 17: I never learned to read the music of life, so I’ve never been able to play the music of life, at least not very well, only the few pieces of life I have memorized or figured out by happenstance. I so envy those with an ear for life’s music. Lydia and Kellie are maestros at life’s music.
William Mark Habeeb
Entry 18: Dinner-to-dinner, pill-to-pill, jack-off-to-jack-off ...there’s a rhythm to my existence outside of time. I met with my lawyer today but I don’t remember exactly what she said, only that she seemed happy and smiled a lot through the thick glass. “Do you understand what this means, Pelham?” she said at the authorized end of our meeting, and I said, “What what means?” and continued to stare at the silver cross she wore around her neck, a symbol of the wooden cross that Nordic Jesus had been nailed to, and she sighed and said, “Concentrate, this is important: Kellie and her mother said they would not oppose an early release, so you could get out two years early” and I said, “Okay, that sounds good,” and they led me back to my cell, touched by Kellie’s love. Entry 19: I have wanted an exit for so long, for so many dinnerto-dinner units. But now I feel sad: I will miss my cinderblock vista and my shadow friend and my baloney dinners. And I’m scared: How does one re-enter time? What if I can’t? I look into the mirror for the first time since my incarceration. As always, the image I see does not match the image in my mind of what I look like, and the image in the mirror, the mirror that does not lie, shocks and repels me. I’m ready to exit. ••• Ugly “It is not a crime in being ugly,” Lydia said to me, in her sexy Swedish accent and slightly-off syntax. Lydia was beautiful and I was in love with her, and the way she spoke was one of her allures. It caused a tingling in my groins, even as she was rather bluntly rejecting my request for a date. Lydia was an exchange student, a slender blonde girl—a woman, really, even though she was just fifteen—who walked gracefully and erect and wore jeans so tight that they must have been
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sewn with some kind of super-strong fiber developed by NASA, because regular thread would have been unable to contain Lydia’s delectable Swedish buns. I believed at the time that Lydia was trying to be nice, trying to tell me that although my ugliness prevented her from going out with me, it did not prevent us from being friends (she was friends with all the boys in school, all of whom were cravenly in love with her). She chose to go out with Tim McCoy, a strapping fellow who must have looked like every Swedish girl’s image of a corn-fed American boy: Handsome and well-built, Tim wore cowboy boots with his Levis, and drove a 1969 Mustang convertible that he had bought for a song and retooled to perfection. I didn’t have a chance with Lydia, although we remained friends even after her declaration of my ugly innocence. I couldn’t bear to not be in her presence. I didn’t allow myself to feel humiliation until several years later when, walking home from a college frat party in a drunken fury, I tossed a brick through the windshield of a Volvo station wagon, the only Swedish thing at hand, and screamed, “Fuck you, Lydia!” Mind you, Lydia was right. I may have been an attractive fetus, but I’ve been ugly pretty much from birth. My baby pictures could stop a train. By first grade I had acquired the nickname “Rocky,” which sounds flattering if you think of Rocky Balboa, but the allusion was to Rocky the Squirrel. Whenever the teacher called on me, the other boys would make squirrel noises—“chicka-chicka-chicka.” And their observation was accurate: My face is profoundly pointy, with a small little nose, tiny ears, a nonexistent chin and an overbite. I always got a buzz cut, so my hair looked like fur. Neither of my parents appeared to be descended from squirrels: My father had a weak chin, but otherwise looked average, as if a moderately-talented artist had been asked to “draw a man.” He and I
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were never close and seldom talked. My father not only looked average, he was average: His life’s rhythm was work (as a bank branch manager), dinner, recliner chair, sleep, repeat. He obviously could see that I was ugly, but his mental well simply was not dug deep enough for him to contemplate what it meant to go through childhood aestheticallychallenged. He wasn’t emotionally insensitive; he was emotionally inert. My mother was good-looking and worked hard at keeping it that way. She was only eighteen years older than me and could have passed for an older sister. Despite years of taunting and “chika-chikachika,” the only time I ever punched a kid was when Wesley Higgins said, “I bet you love to bang your hot old lady with that tiny squirrel dick of yours.” To this day, I don’t know whether I hit him because he had insulted my mother or had demeaned my dick. My mother tried to conceal her displeasure at my appearance. She did all the regular mother things, like reading me stories when I was little and kissing me good night until I made her stop when I was thirteen, and she made me birthday cakes and gave me Christmas presents and stuff. But I knew that she wasn’t happy about my appearance. She scowled when I sneezed or coughed (which must have momentarily deformed my features even more than the norm) and she took far more photos of my younger sisters than of me. They had small noses and ears, but everything else was in alignment, and anyway small noses on girls are cute. I never complained to my parents about my classmates. And by third grade I discovered that I could gain respect by making the “chicka-chicka-chicka” noises myself, especially when the teacher’s back was turned. I became a popular class cut-up. But what I would have given to have been a beautiful child.
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I never asked a girl out until Lydia. I fell head-over-heels for my fifth grade teacher, Miss Marzonni, and more age-appropriate crushes followed, but I dared not ask any of them out. Like all boys, I had no interest in ugly girls, although I may have stood a better chance of getting a date with them. Evolution impels us to improve the species, so it makes sense that an ugly boy would be infatuated with the most beautiful girls, for that was the only chance I had to improve my gene pool. If I procreated with a girl as ugly as me, our children would be... well, itâ€™s too horrific to contemplate. At the end of the year Alissa Collins threw a farewell party for Lydia. I smoked a joint and watched Lydia kiss Tim McCoy and imagined that it was my tongue in her mouth and I got a hard-on and went to the bathroom and jacked-off. Later that night at home I stared at my image in the mirror and wondered if it could be improved. A beard? Perhaps, but I couldnâ€™t even get a serious mustache going yet. Long, shoulder-length hair? Maybe worth a tryâ€”it would give me that hippie, love-child look, and would cover the ears. So I let my hair grow out, only to find that it became more thick than long, so that I looked like a squirrel wearing a furry helmet. I cut school on picture day my senior year so there is no photo of me in the yearbook. My parents never remarked on its absence. Social life at college is built around beautiful girls and goodlooking guys, with the rest of the student body left to be admiring spectators, painfully envious wannabes, or obsessively studious nerds. Or the fringe: the pot-smoking, cynical, anti-social, back-ofthe-classroom-sitting nihilists. This was my group: We took pride in dressing raggedly, not using deodorant, rarely doing our laundry, keeping our dorm rooms slovenly and skipping classes that started before noon. My ugliness was diluted by the general ugliness around
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me. On weekends, while the pretty boys and girls drank and danced and fucked, we smoked pot and listened to psychedelic rock and occasionally crashed a frat party just to make them uncomfortable. There was, of course, the urgent issue of sex, that primal human drive. Embarrassed to still be a virgin at age twenty, I went into town one cold night and fucked a prostitute. I paid her with the money my mother had given me for Christmas. I don’t think she even noticed my ugliness because she never actually looked at me; it was a business transaction. It was highly unsatisfactory, but it was sex, so I no longer was a virgin. I could now return to jacking off to fantasies of the pretty girls who I lusted after from a distance, the girls that I never would date, who never would think of dooming their offspring by comingling their genes with mine. And those were the fun years. Work meant suits and ties and shaving, sitting in a cubicle by day, on my couch at night and on weekends. I had a social life of sorts for several years: bar hopping with the other ex-nihilists, who also had now joined the straight-laced capitalist economic system. But they oneby-one began to pair off with women in a game of musical mating until I was the last one left, as I had known I would be ever since Lydia. Sex was limited to prostitutes when I had an overnight business trip— anonymous sex in anonymous rooms in anonymous towns. Kellie adored me, for reasons that eluded me. Kids don’t care what the adults around them look like. Think about it: Santa Claus is obese and wrinkled and has a fat red nose and most likely fetid old man breath, and Ronald McDonald is the most ridiculous-looking person alive. But that doesn’t stop kids from adoring them. Kids hate ugly kids, but are blind to ugly adults. Maybe we look better from three feet
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below. But at fifteen, Kellie was becoming a woman, a beautiful woman, who soon would find me repulsive. Just as she was becoming sexually aware, and considering with whom to comingle her genes, her childish veil would lift and my ugliness would reveal itself. By the time she turned eighteen, when I could legally have sex with her, she would be in full-throttle revulsion of me. I would give anything to be loved by a beautiful woman. ••• Squirrel After being released from prison, Pelham Ingram moved into a small rental house with the help of a social service agency that helped ex-cons reintegrate into society. The house was on the far side of town from the duplex where he had lived before his conviction, and five hundred yards from a school or playground, as required by the terms of his release. Pelham now was a member of the state’s sex offenders list, an online searchable database. If one were to search his name on Google, it was the only link to be found; nothing else he had done in life had risen to the level of a Google link. His new neighbors were alerted to his arrival and were not at all happy. Previously, there was only a flickering sense of community spirit in the neighborhood, but it quickly became a roaring fire: Neighbors held house meetings, petitioned the city to evict Pelham, and posted warning signs on trees and utility poles, with messages such as: “Pervert Alert! Keep an eye on your children!” Pelham regularly found trash in his yard, and sitting in the front room of his house would periodically hear passersby yell obscenities.
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Pelham remained in solitary. The same social service agency that found Pelham his new home also found him a job at a liquor store about two miles from his house. The store’s owner, Bert Dubose, was fiftyish, unmarried, short and fat, with hairy ape-like arms, a bald head bulbous nose, multiple chins and puffy lips. He chewed on un-lit cigars as he manned the cash register. He wore the same shirt three days in a row. His father had owned the store before him but collapsed dead of a heart attack ten years earlier, at which point Bert took over. Bert had no qualms about hiring Pelham, despite his criminal record. “At least you went after little girl pussy, not little boy dick . . . those are the real sickos,” Bert said. “Shit, I seen some hot young pussy I’d go after—it’s tempting stuff.” The image of Bert having sex with anyone—especially Kellie— was revolting to Pelham. Bert hated homosexuals. “Sometimes those fuckin’ queers come in here and man, I just can’t wait ‘til they buy their hooch and get out. If any of them ever makes a pass at me, they’ll be tasting my fist,” Bert said swaggeringly, as if any gay man with the slightest aesthetic or hygienic standards would find him an object of desire. Pelham loathed Bert. Pelham’s job was to unload the delivery trucks, keep the shelves stocked and neat, sweep the floors, help customers find what they were looking for, and keep an eye out for shoplifters. When the store was empty of customers, which was much of the time, Pelham listened to Bert’s ramblings on various topics, most prominently his love of “pussy” and his hatred of “fags.” Bert also hated Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the “hoity-toity” rich. But there was an upside to working at the liquor store: Bert gave Pelham a twenty-five percent employee discount on tequila, a tantalizing bonus for an alcoholic who
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had been involuntarily dry for the past three years. Pelham had sold his car to pay his legal fines, so he walked to and from work, even though this required emerging from his solitary cocoon to confront hostile neighbors. He avoided making eye contact and ignored it when they spit at his feet or mumbled “pervert” as he passed. Once out of his neighborhood, the walk was more pleasant, and gave him time to reflect on how a thirty-six-year-old ex-con and a member-for-life of the sex offender list could find happiness and fulfillment. So far, he had come up with no answers. The balance of his life loomed ominously. Pelham arose well before dawn, a result of his late-into-thenight drinking, which eventually produced sleep but caused him to awaken anxiously several hours later. If the weather was good, he would sit on the small back porch of his rented house and wait for sunrise. On one such morning, a small grey squirrel boldly leapt onto the porch from a crepe myrtle tree and stood about three feet from Pelham. The squirrel cocked his head—first to the left, then to the right—and sat on its haunches. Pelham sat motionless and watched as the squirrel, nervous but not fearful, rubbed its tiny paws against its face and swished its tail. After a few minutes, the squirrel turned and calmly walked down the porch stairs, then bolted across the yard and climbed a tree. The next day, the squirrel returned. It stood on the porch, scratched its ear vigorously with its back foot, and made “chickachicka-chicka” sounds. It caught sight of another grey squirrel in the yard, leapt off the porch and angrily chased the much bigger competitor away. On the third morning, Pelham sat on the porch with a can of roasted peanuts and waited for the squirrel to show up. As the sky brightened, he spotted the squirrel walking slowly across the yard
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toward the porch. “C’mon,” Pelham said gently, “have some breakfast.” The squirrel sat on its haunches and watched as Pelham tossed a few peanuts into the yard. Curious, the squirrel edged forward, sniffed a tasty morsel, and used his little claws to stuff it in his mouth. He watched Pelham intently as he vigorously chewed first one peanut, then another, then another. Pelham began feeding the squirrel every morning, first by tossing peanuts into the yard, but eventually placing them on the porch, closer and closer to his chair. After about ten days, the squirrel was confidently charging onto the porch and eating peanuts at Pelham’s feet. After two weeks he was eating out of Pelham’s hand. After a month, he was sitting on Pelham’s knee and eating peanuts out of his lap. Pelham named the squirrel Earl—“Earl the Squirrel”—and would gently touch Earl’s furry head as he munched on peanuts. Pelham looked forward to his mornings with Earl. He admired the fact that although Earl looked like a squirrel—obviously—he nevertheless was self-confident, brave, and knew what he wanted out of life (peanuts). Pelham would talk to Earl in squirrel language—“chikka-chikkachikka”—just like his classmates used to talk to him. Sometimes Earl would respond, just as Pelham had learned to respond to his classmates. Pelham walked home from the liquor store one autumn evening when the air was crisp and the dusk sky was dark blue with wispy high clouds that the setting sun painted yellow and red. He carried a bag containing a bottle of tequila and a can of roasted peanuts, and another bag containing his fast-food fried chicken dinner. He felt good. Bert had been abnormally and thankfully quiet throughout the day— possibly because his elderly mother had suffered a massive stroke the weekend before and was now vegetating in the hospital—and the flow of customers had been light. Pelham had spent much of the day in the
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storeroom reading a book he had checked out of the public library, A Guide to North American Squirrels. He wanted to learn more about Earl and his people. Pelham walked down his block toward his rented house. “Get inside right now!” a woman yelled out the window to her young son, who was in the front yard kicking a football repeatedly and poorly. She apparently feared that Pelham, who was walking past her house at that moment, was on the verge of leaping upon her child with penetrative intent. Pelham had become accustomed to such expressions of parental concern among his neighbors. He wanted to yell back, “No worries, ma’am. I do not find your child to be the least bit sexually alluring,” but he censored himself and walked on. As he neared his house, Pelham saw three crows in the middle of the street pecking at an object in their midst. When Pelham approached, the crows looked up, cocked their heads, and then in unison flew away. Pelham walked into the street to investigate what the crows had been up to. He saw a mushy mass of grey fur and blood, but the head was still intact. Pelham leaned over and looked closely, then went to his house, took the snow shovel from under the front porch where it was awaiting winter, and walked back into the street to shovel up what was left of Earl. He deposited his friend into his garbage can, and went inside. He poured a large glass of tequila, sat on the couch and ate fried chicken out of the bag. As he ate, he watched the local news, and was pleased to learn that the next several days would be bright and sunny, with no chance of rain until early the following week.
Swans on a Pizza Tray
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Thug Love Story Nicholas Katsafanas
TANDING FOUR FOOT SEVEN, brown skinned and bubble-butted with a right butt cheek that equaled the exact circumference of pi, holding a tan knock-off designer handbag that equaled, i donâ€™t know, maybe about 35% of her body density, k applepple asked herself: did nee nee pappadapolis, sitting half-asleep in a beige reclining chair with his fine ass and succulent phallus, with her five year old son ayden jacksunson sitting so insouciantly on his lap as she imagined him, get it? did he? what an asshole, k applepple thought to herself, he didnâ€™t get it at all. he didnâ€™t understand that getting everything you wanted was one of the number one causes of suicide, of mass suicide even, that, in fact, the entire social order, over the course of human history (time immemorial), was, in fact, propped up by this one peculiarity of persons on average (the median individual): that they actually preferred to have the proverbial carrot dangled in front of their faces as they
carried the masters’ water jugs on each shoulder, as they ascended up the marble staircase to oblivion where they would one day meet complete obliviousness. yes, that’s right, that they actually preferred the feeling that they were indeed progressing, then regressing, then progressing, then regressing, and so on— that feeling that the carrot was getting closer, just as it was being drawn away, than to actually achieve a sense of fulfillment. because the main problem with fulfillment is time and preparation, isn’t it? time, ostensibly, keeps moving forward in the linear construct we either set up for ourselves, or was set up subconsciously, or actually exists; it moves forward and now, lo and behold, we’re fulfilled and completely satisfied, and completely unprepared for what could possibly be next. this “what now?” is actually probably the most portentous question of humanity—not the “what do we mean?” not the “who am i really?” not the “how did we get here?”—in fact, these very types of questions are posed and voluntarily dug into the ground of our being for the very reason that they deflect fulfillment, they wear unanswerable pants and hurl us on a journey toward the opposite direction of satiation, they generate an infinite amount of carrots to be dangled, and in this to and fro, in this signature despair, the median person preserves him or herself—by asking why, by searching for meaning, by attempting to structure a single self where there are only multiples,
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by chasing impossibilities they avoid the very real possibility that they could be satiated completely. but then they would find themselves asking, “what now?” and it’s a very real fact that anyone who has ever asked that question has immediately hurled themselves into an irreversible cycle of self-destruction. what now? applepple asked herself as she imagined pappadapolis laying on the recliner innocently enough. he had no idea what he was doing, sitting there with his fine ass, his succulent phallus, her son ayden jacksunson, she thought confidently but also forebodingly as she placed her purse on the counter and grabbed a sunny delight from the fridge. applepple popped open the yellow 6 oz bottle and gazed at ayden lying so beautifully asleep on his narcissist stomach as she tip-toed across the rooms. k was only 4 foot 7 inches herself, so she was, more or less, eye level with the young boy even as he lay on the man lying on the recliner as espn played quietly on the 48.5 inch tv screen in front of them because pro athletes commit misdemeanors, too. as someone who had endured domestic abuse in the past, k knew very well that beating a woman only really counts if it’s caught on camera, and that words can never do the despicability of some of our actions justice or something. ayden rolled his little body a little with his 5-year old
matted down/disheveled black hair and almost opened the eyes that connected up to the brain that performed arithmetic at a fourth grade level. k took this as her cue to make her way back into the kitchen, she didn’t want to wake her son— she moseyed back to where she left a few textbooks, the large knock-off designer purse that was maybe even 38% of her body density, and three loose, white life-saver breath-mints on the counter that formed an isosceles triangle around her smartphone. she pressed the home button on the phone to see the time, and a screen saver of a seductive selfie with the caption i love my life appeared overlapping 6:33pm. k was working on her ged, which was hard because she was simultaneously working as a part-time penis pump adjuster during the week, and exotic dancer on the weekends— and she would be the first to admit that she wasn’t as up to date on some of ayden’s studies as she’d like to be, in fact, she was really more of his peer than his tutor on a lot of subjects. how about history? nee nee had informed k that it was currently estimated that 40% of the content contained in a median history book was outright lies, while an additional 40% was significant distortions. k found this fucking interesting. in her younger years— she was 28, almost 29 now but could still pass for early twenties by most accounts, or 12 years old if people only glanced at her height— in her younger years, she never took much an affinity
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toward formal education because, truthfully, she was always more drawn to aesthetic beauty (her own and others), but she never really cared enough about her disinterest to vigorously question the tenets of formal education either. however, there was definitely this kind of religiousness of secular schooling that both she and her son were currently enduring when it came to history. it was unsettling. after all, what’s the skill in remembering what a bunch of powerful people decided to agree on as truth, and then call objective history? it’s like they’re asking you to remember their interpretation and their interpretation only of a series of events that seem to be endlessly interpretable and then, believe it or not, they’re asking you a couple of follow-ups as well: well, what could’ve gone differently? why’d this happen (in your opinion)? how disingenuous! a) well, a lot of stuff could’ve gone differently i suppose because i) it’s you, your very serious conglomerate of postulating history “objectively”, that has decided this happened in this way after centuries of metaphorical telephone with regard to these events, and b) i don’t know why this happened, you clearly made up 40% of it and significantly distorted an additional 40% of it, so why don’t you tell me? nee nee was only three and half months older than k, but she really did look up to him as almost a man much older than she when it came to educational
matters— ever since he told her that he used to read the dictionary daily as a young adult during one of the first times she spit on his penis and gave it a massage she knew that this was a man who knew a thing or two about knowledge. and truthfully, this troubling subjectivity of history troubled k applepple. what kind of world would her son grow up in, where our very history itself is politicized and reimagined for the benefit of the most acute anglers of each generation? and furthermore, what would become of her present as it passed her, of their present as it passed them, of her son’s present as he grew into it?— would it be lost like the majority of historical history, into a vacuum that was so endlessly interpretable it wasn’t really interpretable at all— only politically moldable for the shrewd and amoral? k applepple was overwhelmed. sometimes she felt like it was possible her past decisions, short-sighted and selfish as so many decisions, of both the young and old, are, had rendered her helpless in guiding the development of her own son in any significant way. this weighed heavily on her, but so did the opposite possibility— so did a lot of things, so did her spouse placing his key in the doorknob and twisting the doorknob and pushing the doorknob forward to open the door open. ?!HOLA COMO ESTA MI AMIGA?! nee nee pappadapolis shouted across the room at k applepple
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as she ignored him and continued to walk slowly toward wherever it was she was going with her nipple rings visibly dangling against her flannel button-up like chandeliers, or maybe testicles at room temperature. as nee nee stood next to bruh solomon within the state-run penis pump dispensary where k was employed as a part-time penis pump adjuster he had heard the rumors— that k was an ex-mistress of mort saucen, and, realistically, it’s never advisable to become romantically involved with an exotic dancer, regardless of whether or not she works part-time as a penis pump adjuster on the side— but nee nee pappadapolis was just one of those people that, quite frankly, didn’t give a fuck. honestly, what do i give a fuck, he noted to solomon, who was eating a king sized snickers bar with the wrapper not completely removed, but rolled down to where he was biting the bar, a vagina is an actual, physical body part meant to be used multiple times, it’s not a tissue or a paper towel or a napkin, you know? now, k ignoring nee nee was nothing new. when they first locked eyes, when their paths incidentally crossed for the first and second times, and k stared up and into nee nee’s eyes like his pupils displayed professional advice to obtain a larger tax return, when they first met k gave nee nee her sister’s phone number not her’s, but neglected to inform him of this information. k didn’t really tell nee nee that he was technically calling her sister
a cambodian queen, and not calling k a cambodian queen a few times a week until her sister’s son’s father, so fed up with nee nee’s incessant, embarrassingly romantic-ish text messages, threw k’s sister’s phone into the toilet and threw such a violent fit that he caught a domestic charge— enraged and incorrectly convinced that nee nee was, in fact, attempting to seduce k’s sister, whom nee nee had never met, not k. when he found out, pappadapolis felt a little more than slightly bad for k’s sister, and slightly bewildered, if not agitated at k, but, net-net, was undeterred by the whole situation— speed bumps! he’d say. which is the same phrase he’d utter in varying intonations whenever anyone forebodingly mentioned k’s ultra-violet, cancer-causing magnet eyes— or her general lack of sustainable career prospects in a dual income economy— or her 5 year old son whom most estimated nee nee would be a sub-par role model for— or her first, teenage love who was currently serving a life sentence for murdering a man he thought may have been interested in k sexually, and who was scheduled to be eligible for parole as early as 2019. speed bumps! i mean, what am i gonna marry this girl or something, it’ll figure itself out, you know? he’d say as he half-knowingly sank further into a complicated interpersonal relationship that was growing increasingly difficult to disentangle himself from, but that was ok. ?!hola como esta mi amiga?! k explicitly informed pappadapolis that the only male
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she ever agreed to meet outside of the state-run penis pump dispensary was her son’s father. she didn’t just go on dates. this also didn’t deter nee nee, as a high bar always appealed to him when he had an erection. in the end, nee nee was some combination of ambitious, charming, or relentless enough that he eventually became the second man k agreed to converse with outside of the dispensary, which was nice for him but didn’t really satiate him as much as he thought it might. bruh had just taken the last bite of his snickers and rubbed a little chocolate from his index finger onto his dress pants and asked nee nee, so, you fuck this chick yet, or what? nah, nee nee replied, only in her ass. how’s that going? dude, i can barely fit the tip in, it’s fucking awesome. yeah, you have to respect a girl who saves the vagina for last. oh absolutely. i love a girl who saves vagina. yeah you know what else i like about her...? ... her soul, man. she does seem like she has a really good soul. oh, it’s beautiful, a beautiful soul. k walked slowly with glistening brown skin and porcelain facial features and dark brown vagina lips that formed a kind of butterfly formation around her clitoris and size 5 feet and a beautiful soul up to nee
nee and said hi, how are you? sup shorty? nee nee replied intentionally and unconvincingly nonchalantly. k looked deeply into nee nee’s unrelenting eyes and remembered why she didn’t really care that much for men. after she gave birth to her son she only got wet maybe twice a month, but, to be fair, her general distaste for men was more acquired than inherited. born to two nice enough people who didn’t really speak english much at all, and in a legitimate ghetto with an above average amount of gangs and guns, k’s first love interest was maybe an adolescent escape from her foreign family that maybe, at the time, she wanted to disassociate herself from. unfortunately, this boy had some personal issues and acquired a habit of beating her severely on a, more or less, daily basis and even legitimately stabbed her more than once. she had scars to prove it. eventually, when she attempted to break off the relationship for good, not long after she started to attempt to break things off for good, another man and woman, they visited her together, and they visited her apartment for a benign reason on a mundane afternoon. when k’s boyfriend/ex-boyfriend, who had recently moved directly across the street from k, saw this happening, he kind of assumed this man, who was with another woman at the time, was going to replace him in k’s life, and proceeded to take a .38 snub nose pistol across
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the street, walked up to the man, well, young man to be more accurate, and shot this young man square in the chest, killing him almost instantly. after he shot the young man to death, he then turned the gun toward k, but, fortunately for k, the pistol jammed and this is was when k began to develop a slight disdain for the male gender. the man k bore a child with and married was only a marginal improvement. a caucasian drug dealer from a middle-class background, he was eventually shot multiple times by a ukrainian-caucasian, upper-middle class drug dealer, who made fairly legitimate threats on k’s life as well as her son’s over the white middle-class drug distribution dispute. unfortunately, as k’s son’s father recovered from his drug distribution wounds (which were, admittedly, very painful), he became addicted to the drugs he had acquired the habit of generously distributing into his community, and was eventually arrested and indicted on multiple counts of drug trafficking— charges that were also levied against k, as the drugs were stored in the home they shared. k only got moist legitimately maybe once or twice a month, but nee nee and bruh did seem like pretty good guys, but then again one may want to exercise caution with regard to k’s intuitions about men. although the bylaws of the state-run penis pump dispensary generally frowned upon penis pump adjusters mingling with people that weren’t in dire need of a penis pump adjustment that very second,
k made a slight exception to briefly speak with nee nee and bruh this afternoon, as neither of them were outwardly interested in purchasing a penis pump. at least she didn’t think so. don’t get me wrong, nee nee said, you’ve had some bad breaks without a doubt, but you’re not 100% innocent either, and that, that right there, that’s just life. that’s just how it fuckin is. nee nee winced slightly as he finished the sentence. he’d cut his left index fingernail a little too short that morning, and it had been continuously stinging all day. nee nee was a stray bullet looking for a skull when he first passionately kissed k— a late spring sunset had the center of the galaxy dipping its grundel into a cluster of clouds and the light bounced off land like an allen iverson crossover— drunkenly crossing over acutely back and forth between fifty shades of feelings, and maybe people on a whole or on average liked to view their lives and relationships as these grand narratives— when they were really just dreams they only remembered portions of. the fictitiousness of recollection is probably discounted to an absurd degree just because it’s more or less impossible to measure, and two people can become one mutant, hybrid, horribly in love person, masturbating to their own mutant image in the mirror for months on end, for a given period of time. but then they can break from each other so easily and become un-conjoined
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amnesiacs, fucking all these other people in all these different positions and just finding it comically absurd they were ever in love with any thing but fucking in all these different positions. time heals everything, said the person who remembered the day they were born like it never happened because when their essence changed essentially how could they know? nee nee gave kâ€™s left buttcheek a back-handed slap with his left hand as he reached diagonally across her tiny body and said, i like how that feels, as he cracked open an arizona iced tea pink lemonade flavored tall can. k smiled into nee neeâ€™s eyes half-sincerely and said thank you. K APPLEPPLE WAS A MOTHER, not some boojee chick, and like a lot of us, began to run away from herself at an early age, thinking she might win a 100 yard dash or maybe a boston marathon after a while because hope breeds stamina, but when you reach where the land ends and the water begins you dip your toes into the cold water and realize this is no olympic sized swimming pool, and you start swim-ming and realize that water is just like land but with the molecules further apart and stuffâ€” but the waters are of course shark-infested and you get eaten by a shark, a great white one or maybe a tiger, but luckily it happens in just one swift bite and you subsist off of trout and salmon in her stomach for the next several years, but,
unable to exercise, you lose a lot of the stamina you built up, but realize large intestines are kind of like water beds but with trout and salmon all the time. and when the shark dies of old age and you rip through her stomach with fish bone and fish bone alone, you swim to the surface, swim to the shore and realize this story is absurd— no one will believe you, and what was i running from again, and then the real, by necessity, becomes a component of the imaginary— affairs of the heart never keep it real, they’ve been lying to you this whole time you didn’t know that?
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Steampunk Study #1
2nd Place Sudden Fiction
Where Have All the Boys Gone? Kathleen Lane
ayne Mansfield, that’s who she looks like. Didn’t the man at the wig shop say it himself? Could be her twin sister, he said, but of course Rose’s daughter wouldn’t have anything nice to say about it because her daughter has a bug up her bum as usual. Rose does not like when her daughter comes to visit because her daughter is no fun at all. She doesn’t drink and she’s always going on about sales at the Bi-Mart as if Rose is going to run right out and buy herself a new toaster oven or a year’s supply of canned corn. Now the son is a different story, Rose does like when her daughter’s son comes to visit. Not that he’s any more fun than his mother, with or without drink in him, but Rose likes those friends of his, the tall one especially. Such a handsome boy that tall one. Rose serves the boys ginger snaps and gin and tonics. They are barely sixteen but Rose has it in her head that they are closer to eighteen, which is when she believes the law says you’re to drink, and anyway, when Rose was young there weren’t all these rules about everything. The good looking one calls Rose Daisy, sometimes Tulip, and when Rose turns on the music he is the only one who will dance, but thank god because that short one’s all puff and puss.
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“How was your day, Mother?” Irene says across the empty middle cushion of Rose’s thinning gold couch. “I don’t know why you brung me a present.” “Well, Mother, I just felt like it. No reason at all.” Irene is not to call the present a birthday present on account of the fact that Rose stopped celebrating her birthday in 1997. The gift is merely a gift that Irene happened to buy for Rose, by coincidence, on April the 15th, and the cake on the coffee table is not a birthday cake but an ordinary, no reason at all, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Rose is not happy about that yellow gift-wrap, and that ridiculous purple bow. For godssake, you’d think it was her birthday. “Tell that son of yours he needs to come visit his grammy.” “His name is Jason, Mother.” “I know what my own grandson’s name is!” This is why Irene tries to leave before Rose pours her third gin and tonic. “You shoulduv brung him. You shoulduv brung those friends of his too, since we seem to be having some kind of party here.” Irene is not to mention the accident, or to suggest in any manner that Rose might have had something to do with it. The one time Irene did mention it, Rose came up with some cockamamie story about a cat. Said two little gin and tonics don’t make a person swerve all over the road for godssake. The other driver must have done something dumb, cut in front of the boy, or could’vebeen some animal, since everybody seems to own a cat these days.
“Why don’t you open your present now, Mother?” Irene, who would like to begin this party so they can end this party, has removed the bow and turned the present upside down. All Rose has to do is pull at the paper, right there where it’s loose. “Look, I got it started for you.” Just pull. Pull, you old bag, you bony old bitch, pull before I pull that yellow Easter grass off your hard-boiled head. “Tell him to bring that handsome boy with him. The tall one.” The boys drove off the road, Irene’s told Rose that much, and Rose knows her grandson was in a leg cast and that’s why he couldn’t bring his friends around, but Irene has not told her about the tall boy. Blaming the accident on her mother is one thing, but accusing her of killing a boy…though she’s come close, oh, she’s come very close. “Seems to have no trouble hobbling himself to school, can’t see why he can’t get himself over to see his grammy.” Rose did see the newspaper article, thanks to her neighbor Jane’s nose being up where it don’t belong, but those newspapers are always getting things wrong. Called for a storm today and look at it out there, you see one drop falling out of that sky? “There.” Irene has ripped the wrapping away and opened the box. “I got it at the Bi-Mart.” “And tell him to bring that tall one. The one who calls me Daisy.” The dropping of the birthday gift onto Rose’s lap has, at least, stopped all her Daisy Daisy Daisying, and hallelujah for that because wasn’t Irene just about to explode with the want to scream You killed the boy! You killed him you old drunk! Oh yes, Irene knew about her serving the boys alcohol. Jason told her right off. Said the boys didn’t even ask
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for it, didn’t even want it. Rose, of course, has nothing nice to say about the gift. “Well I don’t know why you brung me a present,” she says, lifting it off her lap and setting it on the coffee table next to the cake. “I brung you a present, Mother, because today is your birthday. You are 87 years old, that is your birthday cake, and that tall boy— “The one who calls me—“ “Called you—” “Daisy.” That ridiculous, ridiculous wig. Pushed halfway down her forehead like some kind of helmet, and that godawful red lipstick, when the woman’s barely got any lips left, and God knows why Irene says it, God knows it isn’t to see the lipstick on Rose’s teeth. “Yes, Mother. Yes. He called you Daisy.”
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Nothing Will Move Us Andrew Ellis Bates
hen Dan and Stacey Hamilton appear on the news, live from their home in upstate New York, I can’t help but see my wife and me. They hold hands. They force dry swallows. They point their wide eyes with lids the color of raw chicken deep into the camera of their local affiliate, and they wait. Even in a moment of desperation so helpless it borders on hallucination, they try not to move, and I can feel them wonder if they’re doing this right, if there’s some trick to being on television, if they’re acting naturally. They breathe as though their ribs are broken. They speak from their throats, and as the camera closes in on their faces, and they say their daughter’s name as often as they can manage to hold the syllables together, their shoulders start to settle, their eyes begin to soften, and our hotline number crawls across the bottom of the screen where their hearts should be. They called late last night, but spoke only to Dolly. Now, we pack to meet them, and we will drive north and place fliers at every rest stop. Our office will call every police station and newspaper in every direction for a hundred miles or more, and we’ll do this because their daughter should be home by now. When it was our own child, the police suggested we didn’t know her as well as we thought. Maybe she had secrets, they said, a
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boyfriend. “She’s a fifteen-year-old girl,” I told them. “Of course she has secrets.” By the time they found a flap of her black windbreaker snagged on a tree branch a few hundred feet from her favorite running trail, I knew Hattie was dead, though I never admitted that to anyone. Instead, I did what the Hamiltons now subject themselves to. I went to churches with Dolly and pleaded, “If you saw anything that night. If you think of anything…” We too went on morning shows and held up pictures of our daughter in her cross-country uniform and said, “Please. Please. Please.” I did those things because you can’t not do them. Who quits? Go silent, and people think you have something to hide. They think you’re the monster we pride ourselves on sniffing out, even though we know it’s impossible. A few years ago, we helped a woman in Virginia search for weeks. She did everything right. She cried so long and hard her body just squeezed the air out of itself once it ran out of tears. Then, finally, one night she asked us to drive her out into the country, to this field you could pick out of anywhere in America. She led us along a deer path and stopped after we’d passed a cluster of spring wildflowers, almost colorless in the dark, but whose fragrances produced visions of violet and yellow. “I don’t know why,” she said, tapping a large, thin piece of shale with the toe of her black nurse’s shoe, “but I buried him right under here. I put him in the ground, and I’m sorry I wasted your time.” “Why?” I asked Dolly that night, after we’d called the police and they’d dug up the boy. “Why do we insist on putting ourselves through other people’s miseries?” We sat in our rental car, a forest green Ford Taurus, letting it
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run in the parking lot of an I-95 rest stop, the white and yellow lights of idling eighteen-wheelers close around us. It had been a warm May day, but by then the night had swept away the heat and left a fresh chill in the air—the kind that promises to be the last of the truly cold nights for a few months. We didn’t look at each other, but I know the face Dolly gives me whenever I pose a question like that. Her eyes squint just a little, like she’s looking back into her brain to find an answer that would make me stop asking. She smiles with one side of her face and lets it fall with a breath. In moments like that, she can keep still longer than any person I’ve ever known, and that’s what she did that night. She let my question hang in the stale car heat until I said what every man or woman in my situation has thought at least a thousand times, something they know to be true but can’t bring themselves to fathom. “None of this will bring her back,” I said. She squeezed my hand and set it on the gear shift. She told me, “That’s only what people say to keep themselves from doing anything.” She headed to the bathroom, leaving her purse on the seat, and when I grabbed it to double check our plane tickets, I noticed a piece of legal paper, folded like a teenager’s note, the edges soft as cotton. The top read “Hattie” in my wife’s cursive, and at first it was almost like a missing person’s report to have handy in case anybody might need one at a moment’s notice. Under her name, she listed our daughter’s height (5’8’’) and weight (124), followed by descriptions like: Shoulder-length rusty blonde hair, usually tied in a bun; blue eyes; birthmark the shape of a small arrow just under her right ear; freckles across the nose. Reading it made my skin hurt. It wasn’t the list I would have written. Yes, she had blue eyes, but they were so blue they bordered on translucent. If you’re going to carry a list like that, I wanted to tell Dolly, then it should say everything you hope never to forget in the
Andrew ELLIS Bates
face of every other missing child we meet. But I didn’t say that. I folded up the note, tucked it back in her purse, and we drove on to face the next tragedy. We launched Keep Looking shortly after the small prize that was Hattie’s funeral, and at first it was just the two of us, driving a fifth wheel around the country, unsure in our methods and motives, piggybacking searches and giving our shoulders to whomever needed them. After a year of that, we met our backer—a Texas man rich on real estate who’d lost his only son and would give anything to keep it from happening to anyone else. Now, we have private investigators, lawyers and social workers on the payroll. We deploy our own search teams, lead prevention workshops and lobby congressmen. This, Dolly said that night in not so many words, is what God expects from the wounded. ••• Hattie. The slam of a backpack on the floor; the stomp of a bad day; the huff of a waiting chore; the tip-toe past a napping Daddy; the glow of fireworks and Christmas tree lights on her face; the deep red of her first lipstick… ——— The Hamiltons call after their spot on television to ask for hotline updates. Their daughter has been spotted in Buffalo, Plattsburgh and Binghamton. She’s as far away as Sacramento and Nashville. She’s in every city in the nation. “It’s hurry up and wait time, Stacey,” my wife says. Then she tells the woman to buy a wiffle ball and a bat, if she doesn’t have one already, and to go into the yard with her husband and take batting practice. I’d never heard her say that to anyone before, and as she implores, I find it a cruel therapy to play with a child’s toy at a
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time like this, but Dolly’s warm insistence makes it seem like the only possible thing in the world to do. Don’t swing hard, Dolly says, not at first at least. Just make contact. Just hit the ball, chase it down, pitch it and swing again. Dolly says, “Don’t stop until it gets dark.” …the smile that hides her canines and the smile that doesn’t; the smell of cinnamon Trident; the water rolling off her shoulders after a swim; the blur of her legs at a meet; the smooth barbed wire scar on her calf… When we arrive at the Hamiltons, we see the wiffle bat, wrapped in duct tape so only the handle shows its original yellow, leaning against the wall in the foyer. The ball, cracked down the seam and covered in grass stains, sits on a bench below four cubbies housing coats and hats—the small pinks and teals subtle reminders of our purpose here. “My shoulders have never been so sore,” Stacey says when she sees me eyeing the bat. “That’s great,” Dolly says. The sun through the window promises a warmer day than it can deliver in October, and Stacey’s dressed like a kindergarten teacher—a paper white cotton turtleneck beneath an olive corduroy dress that brushes her ankles, her feet in brown leather clogs. She seems uncomfortably warm but sure that if she were to change, she’d be chilled and regret it. She takes our coats and sets them on the bench, and we make a show of reaching for our shoes before she dismisses the need to remove them. From inside the house, I hear the movement of her husband, and as she leads us in, the sounds of coffee mugs ring against bare countertops.
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We sit in the living room to wait for Dan, and I’ll admit the skeptic in me studies Stacey’s face, trying to detect a recent rest that was too sound, to find her eyes too sharp. When Dan walks in, we rise and shake his hand, and I spy a drop of dried shaving cream under his chin and several recent cuts starting to scab on his upper lip. Like Stacey with her kiss of lipstick and a touch of ocean-smelling body spray, these simple rituals hold you together, they remind you that you’re alive and need tending. The magazines are fanned on the glass coffee table, and not a speck of dust coats the mantle or chair rails or television set. Our house was the same after Hattie, every inch cleaned to pass a minute. Stacey’s dressed like a school teacher because that’s what she is—how little we know before barging in—and when she starts telling us about school, Dolly says, “I always wanted to be a teacher.” I’m sure the woman’s been complimented so many times on her choice of profession, by friends and acquaintances with voices raised in that good–for-you way, that the only possible response is the short smile she gives my wife. I ask Dan what he does for a living, and Stacey answers, “He was a gym teacher at the high school, but there’ve been … cutbacks.” Dan nods and looks at the side of his wife’s face. I wouldn’t have pegged him as a gym teacher. “What about you?” he asks. “What do you do?” Now it’s our turn to look at each other—Dolly and me—and it’s a gaze that has, over the years and with practice, grown to convey nothing but assurance. There’s no want between us in this look, no message to send, though Dolly might say that in moments like this she’s trying to pull something from me, some light touch I used to be more capable of giving. “This,” I say to Dan, still looking at my wife. “I do this.”
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…the way she says “Daddy” when she can’t find me and “Got you” when she can; the tuck of her legs on movie night; her matted hair on Saturday mornings; her sing-song, “Thompson residence, Hattie speaking, one moment please”… Despite Dan and Stacey’s assurance that they couldn’t eat a thing, Dolly insisted on a late breakfast at a diner we passed on our way up, and as I scoop eggs onto toast so soggy with butter they simply flop back to the plate, they ask the standards: How long? How far? How come? My wife answers, patient and even, and when they’re finished, she asks the husband and wife, in a voice barely above a whisper, to tell us everything, anything—the tiniest bit will help. Tess Hamilton—short for Teresa—was, is, eight years old. She loves everything about the third grade, especially learning cursive, which she considers a rite of passage into a more adult world. She doesn’t go to the same school where her mother teaches, and since Dan was looking for work that day, a Tuesday, Tess was forced to take the school bus home and let herself into the house, something she’d never done before. The bus driver and all of her friends say she got on the bus and exited in front of her driveway. They remember her walking up the gravel, and one student says he saw her stoop to inspect something—a broken shoelace, perhaps, a heart-shaped rock, a lateseason butterfly—before she opened the door and went inside and the bus pulled away. When Stacey arrived home, the house was unlocked. No lights on. No signs of anything awry. Since Dan’s car wasn’t in the driveway, she assumed he and Tess had gone out, so she looked on the kitchen counter for a note, then checked her phone, then called Tess’ name.
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She called Dan with a panic in her throat she dismisses, even now, as silly. She phoned the neighbors, the school, the parents of every child she could think who would even have cause to glance at her daughter. She flipped up bedskirts, searching for a hidden child intent on playing an elaborate prank. In this moment, though she doesn’t say it, she curses her husband for not being there. No one remembers anything out of the ordinary, until an hour later when her neighbor calls back and says she did in fact see a car in the driveway at some point during the day, a blue car, an SUV, but she can’t remember when, and she thought it most certainly was a friend or at least a harmless cable salesman. It could have been before Tess got off the bus, the neighbor says, or after, but by then Stacey is convinced it was after. This is the SUV that has her baby. She runs through more people in her mind. Who has a blue SUV? Or even a black or green or brown SUV? Who would want anything of Tess other than a smile? Why would she open the door to a stranger? Was she taken? Did she go willingly? Could they have used a bribe as simple as candy or ice cream? Or did they say Mommy and Daddy were hurt and that she needed to come with them? Whatever the case, she’s gone. And every second brings a hiccup of a memory. Maybe she’s with this person, but you call, and she isn’t. Maybe she had some practice or recital, and you just plain forgot, but you check the schedule on the fridge and there’s nothing for that day but the lunch specials. So, you sit on the couch and think, maybe that’s her footfall on the stairs, maybe that’s her cough. Maybe she’s right under my nose. …favorite smell: Strawberry Shortcake hair; song: “Shy Boy” by Bananarama; story: “The Monster at the End of this Book”; food:
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chicken nuggets and honey; first crush: Billy Trammell; first love: Tommy Webber; last words: I’ll be fine… We shouldn’t have taken the man’s money. But he was adamant that we could do this, that we had the power to spare people the pain of losing a child—not just outliving one, mind you, but having one taken from you. There’s no justice in describing it, no point in committing it to words. You either know that pain, or you have to think about what it would be like. It’s easy for me to look back and say I never wanted this responsibility. But the truth is I couldn’t sit around the house all day, and Keep Looking was mainly my idea. Most of all, I couldn’t stand in front of twenty college students anymore, half of them made up of young women Hattie would never grow up to become. I found myself staring at them, entranced as they’d cross their legs and bob their feet. I wondered how Hattie would have fit in, what friends she would have made. Would she have been popular for the sake of it or simply well-liked for being who she was? For brief moments of every class period, I’d try to match Hattie’s nose or smile to those of my students, and I’m sure that most girls considered me a lecherous old fool who could be manipulated into an easy A. I only became a teacher as a stop-gap anyway, I told myself. After I’d finished my dissertation, a spot in the department opened up suddenly. Then the chair asked me to fill in until they could conduct a proper search, and I didn’t leave for 16 years. I met Dolly shortly after I started. She was a friend of my hairdresser, who set us up, and when I first met her, I remembered thinking that she smelled of better shampoo than whatever her friend used on me. We went to dinner at a dimly lit place and each remarked how we loved Italian food but hated Italian restaurants. “Why should I pay fourteen bucks for chicken parm when
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I can make it better myself?” she said, so we put down our menus, walked to the store and drove to her place, where she cooked for me. She could make the dish without a recipe, which I found impressive, and as she tenderized the cutlets, and dipped them in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs, I couldn’t keep my eyes from this one tiny mole dotting the top of her left cheekbone. Her lips moved as if she was mumbling to herself, and whenever she’d start a new stage of the meal, she’d sigh and smile. Occasionally, she’d lift her wrist to her cheek and shoo an itch. While we waited for the chicken and the spaghetti, we opened a bottle of cheap burgundy, and after we ate and washed the dishes together, I pulled a chair to the kitchen sink, sat down with my neck at the lip and said, “Indulge me.” She walked out, leaving me to wonder whether I’d offended her, whether it was like asking a seamstress to hem your pants on a first date. But she came back with bottles of shampoo and conditioner and a towel folded over her arm. “Just a wash?” she asked. I nodded, closed my eyes and leaned back, letting her firm fingers worm their way into my scalp. She worked them slowly, yet with force, and as she leaned over me, the tips of her breasts, soft and rounded beneath the silk of her blouse and the padding of her bra, brushed my nose. The more she massaged, the more I grew, and whenever I felt one of her hands leave my head I prayed it would move to my belt. Before she could even finish rinsing my hair, I wrapped my arms around her waist, pulled her down and buried my soapy head in her chest, then between her legs, and as she guided me inside, she pulled my face to hers and licked herself from my lips and chin. I still consider it the most wonderful night I’ve ever spent, and
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every year since, on August 17, she washes my hair for me. Some years, that’s all it is, coupled with a perfunctory roll in the hay, but the year Hattie went missing, almost in the middle of our search for her, we made love like we wanted to punish every inch of each other. We sank our fingers into the softest spots on the other’s body and twisted. We pulled and slapped and dared each other, and right before I was about to come, I pulled out, pinned her arms beneath my knees and finished it, by myself. She pressed her lips so tight together they lost their color. She squirmed and choked and spit what she could, and when I fell back off her arms and rolled from her, I knew I’d never forgive myself for it. She used my pillow to wipe her face and walked off without a sound, and I knew she’d never forgive me, either. …Hattie the cartwheel faker; peachy shins; big tooth/little tooth; long-legs McGee; butterfly kisses; Ollie the Skater Kid comes to dinner; Ollie the Skater Kid says, go fish; Ollie the Skater Kid wants to get married and have ten babies… By nightfall, we’ve met with police, spoken to the Hamiltons’ neighbors, assembled every bit of information we think could be useful and faxed it to our home office. We have an investigator we’ve used before in Burlington, and he’ll be here in the morning. We take Dan and Stacey out to eat at a mostly empty wood fired pizza place, and with each bite, they seem surprised by how much they’re able to put down, and guilty for enjoying it. We don’t speak much, relying on the meal to fill the space, punctuated by remarks on the flavors, the service. I order a second beer, and Dolly looks at me, but when Dan says he’ll take one as well, she smiles. When the beers arrive, I excuse myself for a smoke, and Dan
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joins me. He gives Stacey’s hand a quick squeeze, like an apology, and kisses her cheek to affirm it. Outside, he asks for one and says, “I quit when Tess was born.” “Me, too,” I say, “with Hattie.” He lights and inhales deeply, exhales with relief. “She started eating butts out of the ashtray,” I say. The patio furniture and umbrellas have been removed for the season, so we lean against the railing and regard our vices. Late October in upstate New York has a way of at once reminding you of the beauty of a fall day and preparing you for the bareness of what lies ahead. The air feels cleaner, but that’s only because it’s colder than you remember. “She wanted to be a vampire for Halloween,” Dan says. “She’s going to be,” I say. “Blood, fangs, the whole ticket.” “Stacey thinks it’s morbid,” he laughs. “She thinks little girls should be cats or princesses.” “There’s time for that, too,” I say. We sip and drag, watch the ashes flutter to our feet. I can see Dolly and Stacey through the window, each nodding, each now following our lead with a glass of white wine. To anyone, they could be old friends. “Your daughter?” Dan says, his voice a small crack in the air, a twig underfoot. “She was fifteen,” I say. “She’d be 26 now, maybe married. She went for a run. All-conference cross-country.” “That’s great,” he says. “That’s really—just great.” Dan shakes his head, and the beer in his hand sends a chill and a quake up through his shoulders. “They found her October tenth.” “Last week?” he says, surprised for a moment, then guilty for
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bringing it up. “You can ask me what happened,” I say. “I can tell you the hard things, if you want.” Dan nods, but he doesn’t look at me. “She wore high shorts and no socks that day,” I begin. “I think she did that to make her legs look longer. I drove everywhere. I mean I looked, Dan. You know? I looked.” “What happened to her?” “You know the way you feel right now?” I ask. “Well, I won’t tell you to stop. But if it feels like pretend, then sometimes that’s exactly what it is.” He nods again and stamps out his butt. He hands me his beer and reaches into his pocket for his keys. “Would you mind telling Stacey I went for a drive?” he asks. “Tell her I won’t be long.” …the ballad of Earl the glowworm and the sneaky peanut butter cup thief; spaghetti head; cool whip lips; dancer’s hips; Little Miss Scootchie-Bootchie; Little Miss Grabby; Little Miss Grouchy Pants; Little Miss Harriet’s-the-Name, See?… They called us on a Wednesday night and said a farmer in central Pennsylvania had found something in his corn field. That something was my daughter. She’d been cocooned in 4-mil plastic and twine—her skin freezer burnt, her body, including her eyebrows, shaved clean. I hadn’t seen her so bald since she was born, and though I touched her forehead once we finally got a look at her, I felt nothing doing it. She didn’t look human to me. She was my daughter, yes, those were her teeth in her mouth, her bony shoulders, but everything I’d hoped to gain was lost by actually finding her.
Andrew ELLIS Bates
“Do you see the point in a funeral, Dad?” Dolly asked that night. “I mean, beyond us and family and the pastor?” Back then, we still called each other Mom and Dad, a habit from Hattie’s childhood. We were in our bedroom, though it was only eight-thirty and neither of us felt the urge to sleep. We hadn’t made love since our anniversary, and before that, since Hattie had disappeared. Dolly had settled into a flannel nightgown and fleece robe, and she sat in front of her makeup mirror, straightening eyeliner pencils, mascara tubes and pallets of blush for the next day’s use. “I thought you’d want to give people a chance to pay their respects,” I said. “I don’t want any reporters.” I walked over to her, put my hands on her shoulders and tried to look at her in the mirror. But I found I could only look at myself, at my narrow face, at the long, wiry gray hairs that had started to invade my brows. “They’re going to call, anyway,” I said. “They’ll want to put a bow on her.” …that grip, so strong for so many tiny fingers; those perfect little fists; that reach; the angles of her pinkies; those squeaky giggles; bubble bath beards; the open-and-shut of a surprise yawn; the deep folds of her skin; those big baby toes she just wants to eat… “What did you say to him? What did he say exactly?” Stacey says. It’s well past ten, and Dan hasn’t returned. “He just needs time to take his mind elsewhere,” Dolly says. I would tell them that he’s probably at a bar, or parked somewhere with a bottle, but they know that already, so I stand by the window and part the curtains whenever I see headlights approaching.
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Stacey sits on the couch, her hand in my wife’s, her eyes roaming the room until, finally, they settle back on me. “Did you do this?” she asks. “Do what?” “Disappear like this?” I look at Dolly—whose face still holds hints of youth, shades of that woman with the sharp nose who made me chicken parmesan— and answer truthfully, to a point. “For a time,” I say. Hattie had been gone for more than a month. Every moment with Dolly had turned into some perceived slight on the part of the other and every opinion some act of inconsideration, some attempt at blame—for not taking better care, not trying hard enough, never listening. I spent a week in a hotel watching porn and then came home, ashamed and tearful, and I’ve never thought about leaving again. “Why don’t we play a game of cards or something?” Dolly suggests. “Why did you leave?” Stacey presses, her eyes reddening. I walk to the recliner and sit down with my hands on my knees. I lean forward. “Stacey,” I say. “If I knew that—I mean, if I really knew—I never would have come back.” “Oh, that’s wonderful,” Dolly says. “That’s so comforting.” “I’m sorry,” Stacey says, “I didn’t mean to…” “If you’re through, just say so,” Dolly says. “You don’t have to bring everyone else into it.” “Oh, and we’ve so valued people’s privacy before now.” “I’ll go look for him,” Stacey says. “No,” I say, “he’s coming back. That’s the whole damn point I’m trying to make.”
Andrew ELLIS Bates
“Yes, Stacey, he’ll come back,” Dolly says, “when he’s good and ready. He’ll come back, but only after he’s made you grieve for him, too.” The three of us eye each other, sizing up who’ll dare to speak next, and eventually settle back into our seats without a sound. Dolly and I know that anything more we say can’t be taken back, which is where all of our arguments end, and Stacey seems hesitant to utter another word. Finally, I say, “Maybe we should go back to the hotel, Dolly,” and she nods and begins to pull herself away from the couch, but Stacey tugs at her arm. “No,” Stacey says. “Don’t. Please stay. We can play cards—like you wanted, Dolly—we’ll play, and everything will be fine.” …bright peek-a-boo eyes; chipmunk cheeks; a little bowlful of belly; the scrunch of her nose; the warmth and weight of her, wedged between us after a bad dream; her cry, like a rip in her throat; her laugh, as an infant, a toddler, a child, an adult—each it’s own little song. In the dark, the voice coming through the wall sounds so much like my daughter, but the feeling only lasts a moment before I remember it’s Stacey’s, and I’ve fallen asleep in the Hamiltons’ guest room. Dan’s home, but when he manages to speak, he’s all mumbles, like he’s talking into a pillow. Stacey’s, however, can cut through sheetrock. “So they hear me,” she says. I sit up and look over the dark waves of blankets covering Dolly. “You think I don’t know you were with her the whole time? Everybody else knows—the whole damn town—so why shouldn’t
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these nice people who drove all the way up here to help us?” She bangs on the wall now—a full, hollow sound—shouting, “Hey! Sorry to wake you nice people, but my husband’s sleeping with Susan Jenkins. It’s okay, though, because apparently they had the decency to ‘just talk’ tonight.” Now Dolly can’t pretend to sleep anymore, and after Dan mumbles a few words, Stacey says, “Yeah, I’m the bitch,” followed by, “No, I won’t be quiet.” But then she is. It’s a silence that feels dangerous, and after what feels like minutes pass, it begins to worry me, so I shake my wife. “Do you think she’s alright? Do you think he’s hit her? Should I go over there?” I ask, but Dolly doesn’t move. Even in the dark I can see the whites of her eyes, almost as if I’d struck her myself, so I pull her close and we hold our breath to listen, but nothing more seems to be coming. Maybe it’s not what we think. Maybe they’re just too exhausted and they’ve agreed to table it for the sake of a few hours rest. Or perhaps, in the midst of her shouting and his pleas, they noticed a picture of Tess on their dresser or nightstand, and they simply stopped, if only so they could hold what it’s like to drown in the ocean-green of her eyes, or bask in those blonde curls that sweep her shoulders. After a few breaths, our bodies begin to sink back into the mattress, and when Dolly leans her head against my chest, I can feel my heart, fast and even, beat into her. I breathe in the sweet smell of my wife’s shampoo. I kiss the frizzy part in the middle of her hair. And I know that, even if we fall back asleep, we’ll stay pressed together, just like this. We’ll be safe. We’ll be here. And nothing will move us.
Greeks - 10 Foot Race
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Manly Jeremy Gluck
he view from the sixtieth floor observation deck is breathtaking. The Empire State Building is in the foreground, the harbor beyond. Lady Liberty mouths “Go ahead, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” This is how I imagine it: I jump and catch the top of the glass barrier on the first try. Heave myself up, hours in the gym finally paying off. Straddling the top, it’s just a matter of tilting toward the unknown. I’m over. Shouts, gasps of horror. Undivided attention. The people on the Avenue below are wandering pixels. I plunge past Accounting, where my boss glimpses at me from his corner office. He shrugs, mutters something and then returns to his computer screen. Yesterday, I asked about my prospects. “Narrow,” he said. “You have a narrow skill set, but you’re good at what you do. It could be worse.” “How?”
“You’ll avoid the Icarus problem. In today’s economy, a flat career trajectory isn’t so bad.” I wanted to smash his skull with the stapler on his desk. Instead, I thanked him for his candor. I slide by Veronique in Marketing. Fifteen minutes ago, in a moment of fusion, I found myself alone with her in Elevator G. My heart pinballed off my ribs as the doors squeezed shut. “What are you doing for lunch?” She looked at me, then at the elevator door. “Eating,” she told the door. “Like some company?” “No, I can handle it.” She turned to me again. “You’re in accounting, right? Better to stick with your own kind. You’ll avoid getting hurt.” I tried to let her know she had it wrong, but the doors popped open and she was gone. I slumped against the steel hip-rail. As the elevator squeezed me through its narrow shaft to the observation deck, I conceived the inconceivable. At the altitude of the Mailroom, Sixth Avenue rises to greet me, the blotter for my Rorschach of infinite possibilities. But I’m not man enough to do it. What if I couldn’t haul myself over the barrier, flopping instead like a fish on a line? What if no one noticed? Or everyone concluded, “No great loss. Hell of a mess, though.”
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I’m freezing. The sweat is caustic in my eyes, sodden on my back. A wave of nausea breaks toward me. I force myself to look at the tiled observation deck floor, retracing my steps to the elevator bank. The door is open, awaiting me. The car deposits me back in accounting. I bolt out of the elevator and round the corner to the men’s room. I slam open one of the stall doors and empty my insides. After I clean myself up, I catch the washed-out face in the mirror. I can see through it to the stalls behind me. Back in my cubicle, I stare at the screen saver. The geometric patterns gracefully loop and morph to no end. I click on the screen, enter my password and e-mail pops up. Would a resignation letter be lost in the mix? Caught in an urgent malaise, I come to no decision. Instead, I buy time by clicking on ‘Spam.’ The first ad reads, ‘Increase Your Manhood Two to Four Inches.’ How can this be Spam? I click on the ad, then the link within. The web site offers a range of options. The extender brace looks promising. Two rings with a sliding sleeve between them. No electronics, chemicals or guarantees. It’s old-fashioned, like something from the 1890s or the 1930s, times when jobs were scarce and men needed a boost. Then there are the pills, “As Advertised…” in various men’s publications. Good enough for me. I choose three hundred of the ‘XXL’ size. It’s too late for half measures.
Finally there’s the vacuum pump. Of course! Men are trained to fill any vacuum. Wouldn’t our most manly parts rise to the occasion? I click on the Premium Package, enter my credit card number and I’m done. Two hundred bucks is a small price to pay for manhood. ••• On Friday, the doorman hands me a small box when I get home from work. He winks at me, or maybe it’s just New York City soot in his eye. Alone in my apartment, I tear the box open, toss the bubble wrap aside and inspect my purchase. It’s all there. I practice with my new equipment over the weekend. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of the brace. The pump takes even longer, a couple of times through the instructions. I learn a painful lesson about catching parts in the pump. I take a double dose of the pills on Saturday and again on Sunday to stack the odds in my favor. ••• On Monday morning, I’m back in my cubicle. It barely contains me. There’s an e-mail in the in-box titled, “Warning: inappropriate use of the Internet.” Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered everything from work, but it hardly matters at this point. I compose my letter: ‘I resign because I hate you and everything I do here.’ I address it to my boss and hit ‘send.’ The security guard shows up at my desk a few minutes later
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and escorts me to the elevator. I take nothing from my desk. The elevator stops at marketing. The doors open, revealing Veronique with a bag over her shoulder. She takes a step toward the elevator, sees the guard and, finally, me. She hesitates. “Hop on,” I say. “I won’t bite.” She steps in and the doors close. She turns toward me. Can she see the enhancement? “Look, I’m sorry I said what I said last week. It was a crappy day.” “That’s OK,” I answer with an understanding smile.
shouldn’t have ambushed you like that.” I nod toward the guard. “I just quit. I’m being escorted out the building.” “Oh?” she asks, eyebrows edging higher. She looks at the door, then turns again to face me. “Today’s better. I need coffee— you free?”
“Like never before.” The guard rolls his eyes. But then again, he’s tiny.
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Pastel Arbors Remy Merritt
n the role of obedient child, Henry’s talent was paramount. By his goodness, he earned his mother the envy of tired parents who dealt daily with the cereal-aisle rebellions of childhood. Teachers gave him assignments and he completed them. When Mother told him to nap, he closed his eyes; even when he couldn’t sleep, he’d imagine the most vivid dreams to recount to her when the requisite hour of sleep had passed. When friends shared their candy, he ate even the orange and yellow Starbursts out of a vague sense of responsibility. The school bus driver, one Ms. Hemond — suspected by the Roland Park Elementary School Parent-Guardian Association to be unmarried due to a general aversion to anything male — yelled at him to sit. It had become somewhat of a morning routine between driver and passenger. Henry had an unfortunate habit of sitting on his knees, which gave him the appearance of a tall but legless torso in his seat. At her bark, he adjusted appropriately. When Max, the eighth-grade bully, demanded Henry hand over his two Nutter Butters each Friday at recess, the little boy did so with a smile. ••• Henry sat at the round kitchen table, legs crossed under him. Grammar homework had been put on hold, his place in the workbook bookmarked by a Number 2 pencil sharpened to precision. He would
never have dog-eared the page. His attention was now on the scientific calculator that lay in front of him. He remarked how much he disliked math, but he liked the calculator his father had lent to him for the basic additions and subtractions of second-grade arithmetic. It had large gray buttons and a wide screen that could have held entire sentences, had Henry the desire to pass notes in class. Along the sidewalk outside, a woman in a thin pink sweater was being walked by a massive German Shepherd. Henry watched her pass, distracted. She resembled his homeroom teacher. Henry was led by the two women’s likeness to congratulate himself a second time for his “outstanding” work, according to Mrs. Vierra, on a Cherokee research project for social studies. The chubby grin of a cherub stretched across his St. Ivesscrubbed face. The calculator a distant memory, his wandering eyes led him to track the vines of jasmine that wound their way across the house, a creamy blend of white and pastel pink like Ella in her birthday dress. She had turned thirteen that day, and as an official teenager she had been in the backyard since walking Henry home from school three hours ago, homework and chores be damned. Remembering homework, Henry looked back down at the calculator, then to his grammar workbook. His adverb exercises were nearing completion, and he flipped open the book to fill “quickly” in the blank following: “The rabbit ran.” He had begun to consider whether rabbits could run when Ella burst through the screen door and grabbed a pan. Henry, startled, jerked up his head to watch her. Her movements were poorly timed, and lids clattered to the floor from their iron hooks above the island counter. Ella yelled out an expletive, jumping backward to protect the bare toes that were stained green from the lawn. She noticed Henry seated in the same spot she left him three hours ago. “What’s with the grin? Did you fart or something?”
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She laughed. Henry’s mouth, still upturned from the memory of Mrs. Vierra’s praises, fell as quickly as rabbits supposedly ran. “No, I didn’t. Your feet are dirty, Mom’s going to be mad. Those are new tiles.” Ella shrugged. “Whatever, I wanted a grilled cheese. You want one?” Henry’s grin returned. He uncrossed his legs, unfolding them from under him and furnishing with legs the torso that had sat at the dining table. He walked to the fridge, pulling out bread and brie and gouda and tomatoes and— “Gross, who puts tomatoes on grilled cheese? That’s such a Mom thing to do. Ooh, grab the shredded cheddar.” Henry glowered at her as she sprayed the pan with Pam with a Z-shaped throw of her arm. He had seen bottle after bottle of and oil removed from the kitchen over the recent course of a week, whether an olive or a coconut or a sesame seed danced on its label. They had all been banned when his mother had started her latest diet earlier that month, only buying oil that could be sprayed through a nozzle. She had also purchased squirtable butter, and while their father entertained her aerosol oil, he would have no such propellant on his breakfast toast. Henry stared at the bottle of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He wasn’t sure why anyone would get so excited about a bottle of margarine, but there was the exclamation point right at the end of it. Seized by a sudden fit of harmless mischief, Henry grabbed the butter spray and launched three squirts at his sister’s exposed right ear. Expletives ensued, and Ella threatened to make him grill his own damn sandwich. “Whaaaat?” he whined. “It’s not like you weren’t just out in the
dirt anyway.” Ella smiled. “Yeah, I know. I don’t really care. Grab me a paper towel at least?” ••• The two of them sat at the table in the main room. Its oak surface was always polished to perfection in the anticipation of company. Their mother had discovered the thrill of dinner parties – particularly women-only parties – and as the centerpiece of tonight’s birthday soiree, it had been polished to reflectivity. Ella was never quite as polished – more what their mother described as “rustic.” Occasionally, “disheveled.” They were a dichotomy of offspring: the one perfectly obedient and the other perfectly defiant. Henry gazed at his sister, both their mouths full of bread and cheese. She looked out to the small but not unimpressive forest that extended behind their house, the jungle from which the two family pointers often dragged back oddly shaped branches and the carcasses of large rodents. It had only been a few days since she last disappeared with the dogs into the trees, sauntering back after a few hours and covered in leaves that were promptly spanked off in an attempt to discipline her. But when the stings faded, she was off again. She turned her eyes from the woods to her little brother with a look Henry couldn’t quite decipher. “Hey, do you remember Roscoe?” Henry remembered his first dog. He remembered everything about the day he found Roscoe in the bushes behind Roland Park Elementary, tiny puppy nose wet on his six-year-old fingers. He remembered walking Roscoe, throwing sticks for him in the backyard every afternoon up until the day Roscoe darted away to chase a rabbit
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into the street. That rabbit ran, and it ran fast enough to cross the street before the car came barreling down the road at Henry’s dog. Roscoe didn’t run fast enough. He didn’t want to remember that. “Yeah. Coco and Madge are good dogs.” Ella looked back out to the woods. “Sorry, he just came to mind all of a sudden. You’re right, they are good dogs.” She paused. “You know, there was this one time I was out there, a couple times actually, and they kept barking at something. I swear I saw a guy just standing and watching me. It was creepy. I thought I was imagining it the first time it happened but . . . I don’t know. I saw him again.” Henry felt a shiver erupt from the base of his spine to the nape of his neck. “Did you tell Mom?” “No, if I told her that then I really wouldn’t be allowed out there anymore. And don’t you go telling her either. I just bring Coco and Madge every time I go now. I’m sure the guy’s harmless, he was probably just freaked out by the dogs.” Henry believed that his parents truly knew best. Their attempts to rein in his sister were only to keep her safe until it was no longer up to them, until their efforts could only match the efforts of a full-grown woman. But she wasn’t a woman yet. There would only be thirteen candles on her birthday cake. He had only pinched her thirteen times in celebration that morning when she woke up. As untamed as she was, she was still no match for the wilder world. •••
By ten o’clock that night they had sung Happy Birthday, they had eaten cake, they had opened presents, and Henry and Ella had been sent to bed so the adults’ party could continue uninhibited. The music and chatter escalated as the evening went on, keeping Henry and Ella awake past midnight. Something crashed downstairs and laughter erupted. Henry threw himself from his right side onto his left side, turning his back to the door and sighing heavily. He stared fixedly at a crack in the wall, hoping the meditative focus would put him to sleep, when his bedroom door swung open and Ella pulled him onto his feet. “I don’t want to be here anymore. They’re too loud and I can’t sleep. It’s my birthday so I shouldn’t even be sleeping anyway. It’ll be an adventure, we can pretend we’re . . . ” Ella paused, eyes narrowing the way they did when she thought hard. “We can pretend we’re Sam and Frodo. Only we’re not going through Middle Earth to destroy the Ring, we’re going to go find it. Or something cooler.” She walked to little Henry’s closet, grabbed the green and brown hiking boots that were still a size too big, and walked back to where Henry still stood in a daze. She kneeled down to lace them up. She was already dressed to go. “How are we supposed to get outside? Mom and Dad are downstairs.” Ella looked up and smiled, tying the last lace on Henry’s boots and squeezing his skinny calves. “I have a secret escape.” They sneaked down the hall to her room, pretending they were convicts escaping jail with their backs sliding along the plaster walls of a penitentiary. They tiptoed through Ella’s door, imagining Mom or Dad was listening just around the corner. Ella walked to her window, pushing aside a thick vine of jasmine to reveal the arched garden arbor beneath it.
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“See? Makeshift ladder. They didn’t even know when they got it!” Her mouth opened into a wide smile, polished Chiclets of teeth held within two sugary Red Vine lips. “I’ll climb down first, and you come down after me. It’s easy, but I’ll be at the bottom if you need me.” Henry didn’t think he was much of an adventurer. He opened his mouth to suggest they just watch late night cartoons on the TV in their parents’ room, but closed it again when he realized it would get him nowhere. Ella was already climbing down the arbor. Henry looked at her from the window, and she looked back, beaming and holding a “be quiet” finger over her open mouth. He put one leg over the frame onto the arch and began his descent. As he turned around to look down at her, Henry noticed a car driving onto the service road that wound its way into the woods in the distance. He thought nothing of it. The little boy jumped down a few rungs too early, and in his oversized hiking boots he lost his balance and fell face first into the dirt of the herb garden his mother had planted around the arbor. Ella covered her mouth to mute her laughter. “I’m sorry, I know I’m awful, I can’t help laughing when people fall. Are you okay though?” Henry brushed himself off, and thanked the night sky for hiding his reddened cheeks. “Yeah, I’m fine.” “Okay, good. Let’s go.” Ella bounded off toward the trees. ••• Henry stood at the edge of the woods. He took two steps into the brush.
“This isn’t right Ella, we’re not supposed to be here.” Ella turned around to face her brother. Her eyes reflected the moonlight behind them, but their deep moss green looked black in the darkness. “Follow me. It’s worth it.” Left foot followed the right out of sheer obedience to its mate. Experience had taught him that the way to walk was one foot after another, but if it had its way that left foot would have bolted itself to the grass. He stood at the border of the woods cluttered with trees and thought it was all too unclear, too disorganized. “Ella, stop. I’m cold and everything smells like wet dirt. And we don’t have Coco or Madge. We should go home.” Ella stopped at the mention of the dogs. He heard her mutter “shit” under her breath. She turned around and threw her jacket back at him in response. “We’ll be fine. It’s the middle of the night; no one will be out here. Put this on if you’re cold. Just follow me. I promise you’ll be okay. I’ve been out here a million times. You’re my baby brother, and I don’t lie to babies.” He followed her, slowly at first, then faster as she snaked around trees and began to slip from his view. “But it’s dark. You’ve only ever been out during the day. Ella stoooop, I can’t see anything!” Henry had a gut feeling she was improvising her trail. There was no way she knew where she was going. They weren’t like the
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Cherokee. He took a few more quick steps to catch up. Then he started running, realizing he would rather be by Ella’s side than have to work his way back to the house alone. It was her birthday, and it was his obligation as her little brother to go with her on the day she turned thirteen. He couldn’t please everyone at once, and what his parents didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. “Hey, Ella . . . we won’t be gone for more than like half an hour right?” “You bet.” ••• Henry had finally relaxed. They had been teasing each other, Ella running ahead of him and hiding behind trees and then sneaking up behind him, scaring him the first time before he caught on and started playing the same game. He remembered hearing a twig snap here and there behind him. Ella called to him from within the woods. “Henry, I know where you are. I can see you! Do you think you can beat me at my own game?” Ella’s taunts were followed by more twig snaps, then a stifled cry. Henry had giggled to himself, imagining she must have tripped. He could never help laughing at people when they fell. Then there had been heavy footsteps, heavier than a just-turned thirteen-year-old could possibly make. Then silence. The sound of a car door slammed somewhere, but Henry couldn’t be sure where. He knew the road looped around behind the woods, but he had no idea where he was and where that road could be. Then he realized — the service road. The car he had seen from the arbor. The man. Henry screamed Ella’s name. He didn’t want to understand, but something in the dead silence
told him he knew exactly what had happened. He couldn’t find her. A dual realization set in; Henry was alone, and Henry was lost. The little boy began to run. By the time Henry got back in view of the house, all the guests had either retreated to vacant guest rooms or stumbled their way down the block to their homes. It was dark. Henry was sweating and crying. The kitchen light was on inside, and outside the moon was setting. He couldn’t remember how many times he had fallen on the way back, tripping over his shoelaces and branches, knees damp with what was probably blood, but he couldn’t see well enough to know for sure. He had given her away without a fight, but it didn’t feel quite the same as handing over the peanut butter crackers to Max each Friday at recess. The little boy, feeling entirely like a little boy, stumbled up the last step and paused, frozen in the doorway. Henry burst through the screen door with terrified eyes, and his mother’s head jerked up to meet her son’s gaze. Her hands wrung the neck of a dishtowel that fell to the ground when she saw his expression. She made the same movement toward him that he had seen her make that one day when Roscoe had run out in front of the car, arms outstretched in the hope of saving with a motherly embrace what had already been destroyed. ••• Neighbors and family first told him he had done everything he could. Then they confused him and said there was nothing he could have done. There were always people over — women Henry had seen at his mother’s soirees, distant aunts, and neighbors from up and down their street. Mrs. Vierra seemed to pay more attention to him than usual, sitting him down one afternoon when all her other students had
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left for recess. She held him, telling him there were good people in the world and there were bad people in the world and it would always be that way. Headlines read Ella’s name for weeks as though she were a celebrity. Henry had watched The Truman Show with her every time they were sick, and for a while he tried to cast himself as Truman; everything was a set and everyone was an actor. Ella’s real name was Bridget or Heather and she was sitting on a warm couch somewhere in the real world watching him from her TV. But this could only last so long. Eventually, the headlines stopped reading their family name. The low murmurs at midnight, frenzied and hopeful, turned into exasperated crying that turned into helpless sobbing that finally turned into silence. It was only then did they stop saying anything at all. Henry’s mother, his father, Mrs. Lawrence from the dandelion house across the street, even Mrs. Vierra fell silent. With the case closed, it only took his mother and father three weeks to find a new home, separated by two states from the old house on the edge of the woods. In a few years Henry discovered why the Emmett Ralston recreational field had been permanently abandoned, recalling to memory an afternoon when the mothers of the Parent-Guardian Association sat in his kitchen remarking among themselves how lucky it was that the poor girl hadn’t been found during one of Henry’s soccer team practices. It would be a few more years before the boy would meet with Dr. Babcock for the panic attacks. Before all that, though, Henry’s father shut the trunk of the hatchback on a warm summer day in July while his mother sat in the passenger seat, eyes downcast. Their little boy climbed into the back seat and closed the door, looking for the last time at the white and pastel pink jasmine hugging the wooden rungs of the arbor.
Berkeley Fiction Review
Sister Alma’s Divine Revelation Amy Yolanda Castillo
he convent of the Order of School Sisters of Saint Dymphna, Northeastern Province, was a sprawling, three-story Victorian house in a depressed upstate neighborhood where most of the adults collected government benefits and sat on lawn chairs at night, smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of beer and not troubling themselves overmuch about the whereabouts of their children. The convent had seen better days. Its blue paint was peeling, and the lawn had been seared yellow by the sun because the younger Sisters, who raised money for the Sierra Club and wore drab, ill-fitting hemp jumpers, refused to turn on the sprinklers. There wasn’t even a sign in the front yard—although in truth everyone already knew who lived there, and a sign would have made no difference to the neighborhood kids who howled “lezzzzz-bos” as they whizzed past on their skateboards, or the vandals who spray-painted pentagrams all over the porch, or even the man (it had to have been a man, they’d decided) who burgled the detached garage and made off with Sister Luann’s secondhand ten-speed bike. It was unseasonably warm on the evening of Sister Alma’s reckoning. It was fall but the sun still hung high in the sky, and some of the Sisters were still outside just before suppertime: gardening, pushing the old-fashioned (but eco-conscious) reel mower, and swinging on the
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glider on the front porch. Before long though, they began to trickle inside, because dinner was always at six o’clock, sharp. The women prepared the evening meals in teams of two, according to a chart that the prioress, Sister Claire, affixed to the refrigerator door with a magnet advertising the hotline for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Sister Alma thought the magnet was distasteful. She didn’t care to be reminded of deviants and fornicators every time she opened the refrigerator for a snack. At the end of a day spent teaching, all the Sisters—young and old alike—were exhausted. After a day of lecturing, punishing, cajoling, spying, scolding, and nagging children, it was a lot of work to make a meal for fourteen people. Especially these fourteen people. Sister Alma could remember a time when making a meal was a matter of shucking corn and baking a ham. White rolls, milk, and black coffee were served, and there was always a small, simple dessert—ambrosia salad or the like. Meals were hearty and satisfying, and no one complained or made special requests. (Except for old Sister Florence, who’d been a type-one diabetic before the Lord took her.) With young people today, though, everything was harder, and Sister Alma felt like a relic from some long-ago era. Sister Tabitha (“call me Sister Tabby,” she told her pupils) incited a mutiny when she arrived three years ago. The younger Sisters, once earnest and eager to please, no longer understood their proper place. They demanded sustainable foods—organic vegetables and ethically slaughtered meats. They refused to drink Sanka or tap water—they insisted on fair trade coffee and filtered water. Some of them wouldn’t eat gluten, while others eschewed sugar and carbs. None of them ate the enriched dinner rolls that had been a suppertime staple for as long as the older Sisters could remember. Suppers gradually devolved into an unappetizing smorgasbord
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of culinary idiosyncrasies. The younger women talked about social justice while they picked at meager salads of romaine lettuce, sesame seeds, and cherry tomatoes that came from the convent’s garden. The older women sipped their Sanka and smeared oleo margarine on slices of white bread. The main course was generally an uneasy compromise between the two factions, but Sister Alma always refused to eat any of the vegetables from the garden. The neighborhood was too dirty. ••• Sister Alma and Sister Reggie (whose true and holy baptismal name was Regina—pronounced with a long “i,” and who after overhearing her students calling her “Sister Vagina,” had opted for a shorter, genital-free sobriquet) were assigned to prepare Thursday suppers together. But Sister Alma had to do all the work herself because of Sister Reggie’s condition. In the dead of winter six months ago, Sister Reggie and Sister Tabby had walked two miles to Whole Foods (the IGA on the bus line, with its preservative-rich foods and produce dripping in pesticides, was inadequate to their sensibilities). They made it all the way to Whole Foods, stopped at the corner, checked both ways, and skipped across the street like schoolgirls. Sister Reggie lost her balance and stumbled on a patch of ice; Sister Tabby didn’t see this. Her out-ofseason Birkenstock sandals proved more sturdy, and she continued through the crosswalk. As Sister Reggie stood up and laughed at her clumsiness, a Subaru Outlander skidded into the same patch of ice and plowed directly into the unsuspecting Reggie. The impact sent her flying into the Kart Korral, where she banged her head against the children’s seat on a shopping cart, leaving a pulpy maroon stain on the broccoli-shaped, recycled green plastic.
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The ambulance took Sister Reggie to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, where she developed a clot in her brain and suffered an ischemic stroke. The stroke spared her any mental impairment, but afflicted her with an agonizing series of tics, palsies, and seizures. She was in the hospital and then rehab for three months before coming back to Saint Dymphna’s. And when she returned, the prioress, Sister Claire, assigned her to share a room with Sister Alma. “The buddy system,” Sister Claire called it. “Why me?” Sister Alma had asked. “Wouldn’t she be happier with Tabby? They’re such close friends. Or perhaps another of the younger sisters?” “I think you can help each other,” Sister Claire said in what Sister Alma felt was a disgustingly beatific way. “The Lord has given each of you something that the other needs.” “What’s that? Honestly, Sister, there’s no need to be cryptic.” “I’m hardly being cryptic. God’s will is revealed in his time, not ours,” Sister Claire said impatiently and walked away. She was unaccustomed to having her decisions questioned. Sister Alma wanted to call after her and make a vigorous case for why she should be permitted to keep the single room where she’d lived alone for the last eight years. But she didn’t. She kept quiet. Which was how she’d lasted all these years—by keeping her own counsel. Even when the younger Sisters drove her absolutely mad, she’d disciplined herself to silently abide it. She knew she was a dinosaur in their eyes, that she was old and wrinkled and set in her ways and out of it and didn’t understand young people. She didn’t fit into their social norms, and she was well aware that the day might come when she would have to speak her mind and unleash the tongue which had been so troublesome to her as a youngster but which, with Christ’s help, she’d managed to hold in abeyance since entering her vocation. Until and
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unless the time came that her hand should be forced (God forbid), she would not reveal the darkness that was as much a part of her as the Lord’s light. She would continue to be circumspect. Besides, God’s will could be revealed through anyone, even the detestable Claire. This kind of incongruity was actually one of the things Sister Alma found most annoying about the Lord. So Sister Reggie moved into Sister Alma’s bedroom. Reggie had to sleep on a hospital bed, because she was prone to seizures in the middle of the night and the railings kept her from spilling onto the floor. Sister Alma resented the hospital bed because it took up over half the room and it wasn’t equal. There wasn’t enough space for her bookshelf anymore, so she had to put it in the day room downstairs. Now, everyone was helping themselves to the books that were technically community property, but had been hers for a very long time. She dreaded Sister Reggie’s trembling hands and unsteady legs. Her new roommate needed help with buttoning shirts and zipping pants, tugging on diapers, and wiping private areas. Sister Reggie was unfailingly apologetic, and that was as it should be. But day after unending day of it? God help her, Sister Alma was no caretaker. ••• Sister Reggie wasn’t much use during meal prep, but she insisted on sitting in the kitchen, propping herself in a chair against the butcher block table and doing whatever small tasks she could manage. Nothing with a knife, obviously. Nothing that required manual dexterity. Just little things, like ripping up lettuce or counting out the silverware. Mostly she chattered. “I wonder why Father is here tonight,” she said. “It’s just a weeknight. He wasn’t due until next week.” Ordinarily Father Casimir
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only came to eat with them on the third Saturday of the month. Sister Claire kept a separate assignment chart for meals with the Father. She assigned four Sisters because they were expected to put on a spread and it was a great deal of work: hors d’oeuvres and brandy, lamb chops and real au gratin potatoes, petit fours and Irish coffee. Everyone was supposed to attend, though of late Sister Alma had found herself claiming to be the victim of convenient migraine headache attacks. These lies she could not justify—they were only white lies, but the Lord made no such distinction when He gave the law to His people— and yet she felt that if she had to attend every social engagement with Father Casimir, she might go mad. He, too, was a progressive. “I don’t know. But if he just shows up, he gets what he gets. We can’t be expected to prepare a fancy meal without proper notice,” Sister Alma said. “Oh, I don’t think he’s expecting anything elaborate. Tabby said he called and asked if it would be any trouble if he came by.” “Asked, did he?” Sister Alma scoffed. “When it comes to a priest, asking’s the same as telling. Pfft.” She thought a minute. Was she so old that she was losing her hearing? “I never heard the phone ring. Did you?” “No. He must have called when you were helping with my bath.” It had been a sitz bath, with Sister Reggie blabbering away, unashamed of her freckled, pendulous breasts and oblivious to Sister Alma’s discomfort. Sister Alma shuddered at the memory. “You know, I feel like we’re becoming good friends,” Sister Reggie said. “I couldn’t possibly thank you enough for all you’ve done for me.” “You’ve thanked me enough,” Sister Alma said, half-listening as she counted out bay leaves and dropped them in a big pot of spaghetti
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sauce. “Do you feel that way too?” “How’s that?” “Like we’re becoming good friends?” “Oh. Sure,” Sister Alma agreed, hoping not to prolong the conversation. “I feel like there’s so much I can learn from you.” Sister Alma stirred the sauce with a wooden spoon until it gurgled. There was nothing left to do but wait. She sat down next to Sister Reggie and sighed. “Such as?” “You have such a close relationship with Christ. You don’t question things. But sometimes I have doubts.” “Pfft,” said Sister Alma. “I took the same vows you did, that’s all. I obey God’s will whether I agree with it or not.” “How can you be obedient to something you don’t understand?” “Because it’s not a question of my understanding or my will. It’s a question of His.” “Do you know why I still believe in God, Sister Alma? The only reason?” Sister Alma shook her head. She didn’t want to encourage Sister Reggie’s philosophizing. “Your calling should suffice.” “No, no. You see, there’s that Hubble Telescope, and you can see other galaxies in it. Other worlds. There’s a picture they took, and it looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Like it’s a canvas that’s been splattered with paint, only it’s not paint, it’s galaxies. Over ten thousand galaxies in just the one picture. And it’s not a picture of how they are now, but how they were. It’s an image of what ten thousand galaxies looked like thirteen billion years ago. How many solar systems in just one of those galaxies, Sister? How many planets? We don’t know. We don’t know the first thing about our own solar system, let alone our own
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galaxy! We haven’t even made it to the bottom of our oceans! Can you imagine, Sister? The magnitude of it. It’s incomprehensible.” “No, I certainly can’t imagine,” Sister Alma replied. “Now see here. That’s the touch of God you’re feeling. It’s awe. It’s what gives you faith. That’s good. But you ought to have the same kind of feeling when you look at that.” She pointed to the crucifix nailed above the door frame. “I don’t though. I thought I did, once, but now I wonder if I was only fooling myself. I just wish I had your faith. You’re so certain,” Sister Reggie said. “I know it isn’t right for me to be angry, and who am I to question, but . . .” A small seizure tore through her synapses, and she dropped the salad forks she’d been sorting, then picked them up again. “Well, maybe He took away my body because he’s going to give me something else. Something better. That’s what Sister Claire says. Only, I just don’t understand—with all those other galaxies to worry about, why did God have to pick on me?” Sister Alma almost went with her stock answer. We can’t understand God’s will. Our minds are too tiny to perceive His infinite wisdom. That we cannot understand it is our failing, not His. Instead she said harrumphed and said, “Oh, pfft, you’re young yet,” as though time might cure the wound. But she knew very well that Sister Reggie was right. It was unfair. She also knew that time heals nothing. ••• When the pasta was done, Sister Alma covered it with a lid and helped Sister Reggie into the dining room. The other women had already assembled, and they were sitting at the table, drinking glasses
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of water and listening to Father Casimir talking about his missionary work in Africa. He sat at the head of the table, Sister Claire to his right. “AIDS is killing them by the millions,” Father Casimir said. “They stack up the bodies like cordwood. It’s just plain luck when a priest gets there in time to offer a blessing.” “But what can be done?” Sister Claire wanted to know. “We bring food, water, clothing, medicine. We bring them the Body of Christ, and nothing changes. It seems there’s little we can do to help, if they won’t accept Our Savior.” Sister Alma sucked in a deep, calming breath. She’d been privately exasperated by Claire’s inane oversimplifications for the forty-plus years they’d lived and worked together. Father Casimir said, without any apparent remorse, “The Body of Christ won’t cure AIDS, Sister. Only modern medicine can do that.” When Father Casimir insulted the healing power of the Holy Eucharist, Sister Alma closed her eyes. This too shall pass. She excused herself and returned to the kitchen to toss the salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. She divided it into two separate bowls and brought it to the dining room, placing one bowl at either end of the table. Then she sat down next to Sister Reggie. Father Casimir said grace. When the bowl made its way around to them, she spooned some onto her plate, then some onto Sister Reggie’s. She cut up the biggest lettuce leaves and the cucumber slices for Sister Reggie. It had become a routine, this slicing up of Reggie’s food before her own. Like caring for a baby. “If you’ll forgive me for saying so,” Sister Tabby said, though she didn’t seem at all contrite, “I think we could help the Africans if only we’d teach them basic sexual hygiene.” Father Casimir pounded the table with his fist, and his snifter of brandy jiggled. “By God, Tabby, that’s it exactly. Exactly! Give them
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access to simple medical supplies we have here in the West. I’m talking about condoms, of course. Now, listen, we can’t be squeamish on this. Sex is perfectly natural. And God-given, I might add. But positive husbands infect negative wives. Positive mothers give birth to positive babies. Promiscuous people spread this disease, but we could stop it right in its tracks, if only we gave them condoms, and taught them how to use them. And darned if I’ll say otherwise.” Silence. This was an obvious blasphemy, so the Sisters pretended they hadn’t heard it. They poked at their salads. Then Sister Claire, who was, after all, in charge, cleared her throat and asked, “Shouldn’t we look for a more, well, spiritual solution, Father?” “They’ve been praying in Africa since the dawn of man, Sister. They’ve prayed to shamans and witch doctors and heathen gods. Of course, we’ve brought them the real God. But all the prayer in the universe isn’t going to rid the world of AIDS. We can pray for His guidance, but we’ll only win this thing by the sweat of our brows.” Sister Alma shook her head. Oh, how enlightened they were, these liberals. Too smart for doctrine, too good by half for simple faith. Something had to be done. She said, “But Father, surely you aren’t comparing our Risen Savior to a witch doctor. Christ our Lord said it himself, ‘For I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.’” It was unwise to dispute a priest’s interpretation of Scripture, but in this case, the heresy was so bald that she’d had no choice. Claire should have stepped in, she thought, so I didn’t have to. But Sister Claire had always been a political animal. A pall fell over the room. Sister Alma began to clear away the salad plates. Sister Reggie looked worried. She used her one reliable arm—the left—to gather up the plates and salad forks within reach. She pushed them to Sister Alma with a weak smile.
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“I’ll just be a moment getting the pasta,” Sister Alma announced. Sister Reggie tried to follow in her wheelchair, but Sister Alma stopped her. “No, dear, you just stay here and enjoy the company.” It’s right up your alley, she thought. She disappeared into the kitchen and tried to understand why she was so angry. On the one hand, she knew the Father was right. Logic and reason were the Lord’s first and most valuable gifts to humanity. Prayer was infinitely powerful, but God had already rendered his judgment about Earth’s most troubling medical maladies by peopling the world with brilliant, capable scientists. On the other hand, the way Father Casimir had dismissed the miraculous interventions of Christ—his careless comparisons, his superiority, his cavalier disdain—it reeked of secular humanism. The fabric of her faith was being ripped to shreds by a man of the cloth. She heard the chatter starting up again. She loitered over the sauce, stirring it indolently until she felt sure the African discussion had ended. There were certainly better things to talk about than Africa. It was one thing when they had that famine in the ‘80s and the little black babies grew bloated with starvation and rescue workers had to swat flies away from their slack mouths. Why, all those singers even made up a song to raise money. Now that was sad. That was a cause everyone could get behind. ••• The meatballs had browned up nicely, and Sister Alma shook them from a foil-covered pan into the oversized tub of meat and marinara sauce. She ladled this mixture into two bowls, on top of a bed of noodles. Buttery garlic bread had been warming in a pan in the oven, and she removed it and placed it in wicker baskets, which she
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covered with thin cotton towels that Sister Florence had embroidered many years ago—so long ago that Sister Alma believed she was the only one who remembered who had done the stitching. Sister Alma carried everything to the dining room. When the food made its way around the table to her, she spread some onto Sister Reggie’s plate and cut the noodles into extra-small pieces. Sister Reggie had trouble with noodles. They slipped through the tines of her fork, and she sometimes sat with bits of pasta plastered to the corners of her mouth and the front of her shirt, blissfully ignorant of the mess. It was disgusting. Sister Alma thought, more than once, that it was high time for Sister Reggie to wear a bib. But an adult bib, and dignified. Everyone praised the meal. Sister Tabby said that Sister Alma was “a dream in the kitchen,” which was irritating. Father Casimir said it was the best spaghetti dinner he’d had since he finished his studies in Rome. “Sister,” he said, “Really, you shouldn’t have.” She nodded back at him and said, rather artificially, “I hope you’ve saved room for dessert.” “Mercy,” he laughed, “I’ll need a minute to recover. I’m afraid I’ve stuffed myself like a pig. But perhaps it’s just as well. Sister Claire and I have joyous news, and as a matter of fact, it concerns you, Sister Alma. You too, Sister Regina. Sister Claire, would you like to make the announcement?” Sister Alma struggled to conceal a rising wave of panic. No one had told her there was going to be an announcement. She looked around the table suspiciously. How many of them already knew? Did Reggie know? No, she decided. Sister Reggie was looking around the table too, doe-eyed and curious, with a sizeable smear of tomato sauce on her hemp peasant blouse. “I’d be delighted, Father,” Sister Claire said. “The news is joyous indeed. My dear Sister Alma, we’ve worked side-by-side in this
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community for decades, bringing the word of Christ to our pupils and to whomever else was in need. And I am humbled to announce that the Order has decided you’ve earned your just reward. Next Monday, you’re to be transferred to Penn Home”—this was the retirement community and hospital facility for elderly and infirm nuns in the extreme western end of the state—”there to continue your work, but also to enjoy the fruits of your labor, and to rest.” She pressed her hands together as though in prayer, and smiled sweetly. “And of course your dear companion, Sister Regina, will accompany you. Penn Home has tremendous therapeutic opportunities.” She turned to Sister Reggie. “You’ll be able to finish healing there, and learn to be of greater service within the limits God has imposed on you. We simply aren’t able to meet your needs here, but at Penn Home we believe the Lord will reveal your new and holy purpose.” There was a long pause. Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t be polite to call it a pregnant pause. But that’s what it was. And in that time, Sister Alma realized that she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave. So instead of saying “thank you very much,” she said, “Martha’s older than I am. Why am I going before her?” “After much prayer and reflection, this is the decision that was made,” Father Casimir answered, firmly. His response sounded rehearsed, as though he’d used it before, to freeze dissent. “Sister Martha’s future hasn’t been revealed to us just yet.” “Oh,” Sister Alma said. “I see. It was a matter of God’s will, then.” “Yes,” said Sister Claire. “Then perhaps you can explain to me why you think it is that the will of God has no place in saving the lives of millions of Africans, yet it’s conveniently invoked to send me packing?” “Please, Sister,” Father Casimir soothed. “An outburst isn’t
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going to help you or your friend. Isn’t that right, Sister Regina?” Sister Reggie nodded at him eagerly, foolishly. Her eyes were big and dewy with tears. Sister Alma saw this and felt a surge of anger. “Her name is Sister Reggie. She doesn’t call you Father Cashmere. Perhaps you could do her the courtesy of getting her name right?” She was surprising herself with this spirited defense of Reggie’s nickname, which she personally found insipid. “But very well. You’re putting me out to pasture. I suppose it was inevitable. I’ve known for some time that I’m the odd one out. I don’t take to the new ways—all the moral relativism and wasting money on fancy food and what have you. So the Lord led you to your decision. Frankly, I’m relieved to hear the Lord entered into the equation at all. Though I must ask, why are you sending Sister Reggie away?” “As I already explained, we simply don’t have the necessary resources here to meet Sister Reggie’s needs.” Sister Claire’s mouth was drawn into a hard, thin line. She hated to repeat herself. “This is a religious order. Fourteen strong, able-bodied women with God-given talents and gifts live in this house. Surely fourteen women of God are enough to meet Sister Reggie’s needs. I might add, I’ve been able to do it single-handedly for months—and I’m so utterly old and decrepit that you’re sending me away.” “It’s unfair to confine her here,” Father Casimir explained. “There’s no equipment or programming. Penn Home has occupational and physical therapy, all the modern medical conveniences she needs.” Sister Alma looked at Sister Reggie, who managed a weak smile. “She’s your constant companion,” Sister Claire added. “It’s unfair to separate you now, at this critical juncture in her healing process.” Sister Alma’s stomach flopped over. What if Reggie believes this? What if she thinks she’ll get better because they’re talking about “healing processes”
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and “therapy” and “medical conveniences”? It was imperative for Sister Reggie to accept the truth about her losses, her limits. “No. The doctors have told her again and again, this is it. She has limitations, she’s got to live with them if she wants a better quality of life. She’s not going to get ‘better.’ She has a brain injury. Why would you want to give her false hope?” “We believe that Sister Reggie will continue to thrive with your devoted friendship,” Father Casimir explained. Sister Alma shook her head. “You make it sound like she’s a dog that follows people around and licks up their scraps. She’s not a mongrel. She’s my . . . friend.” Sister Alma wasn’t sure about that, but it made for a better argument. “Sister Alma,” Father Casimir said, leaning forward in his chair, “you must stop this. It’s very unfair.” A blaze of righteous indignation rose up in Sister Alma. In her mind’s eye, there was a flash, a fragment of an old memory. Her oldest sister, Tilda. Tilda, thirteen years old, forearms badly scarred by burns from a grease fire in the kitchen. Tilda, ashamed, always ashamed. Tilda, always in long sleeves, but in a bathing suit that day at the pond because it was cool and overcast and the two of them didn’t think anyone else would come to swim. Tilda, surrounded by older boys, big boys, laughing and saying bad things. Your arms look like bacon, no a juicy rare steak, hey I’ll take my toast black, ha ha ha. Little Alma, sister but not Sister, lobbing a Coke bottle at them, the glass shattering around the boys, a fragment jumping up and biting the meanest boy in the eye so he bled and cried. Alma, laughing and laughing and never feeling sorry about it, not when her father found out and switched her, not even a little bit sorry, not even to this day, not even when the boy lost part of his vision, because he got what he deserved. “No. I’ll tell you what’s very unfair,” Sister Alma said to Father
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Casimir. “This women is thirty-two years old, and you want to send her to live in a convalescence home for the elderly. Yet she has more to contribute to this community than you do.” “I realize this news might be upsetting, so perhaps you should excuse yourself,” Sister Claire said, “until you’ve regained your composure.” “I prefer to stay.” “Fine. Then I’ll ask everyone else to go. Please, Sisters, leave us.” Sister Reggie tried to push herself away, but Sister Alma stopped her and shook her head silently. They waited while the other women stood, pushed in their chairs, and departed, pulling the accordion door shut behind them. When everyone was gone, there was a brief silence. Sister Alma stared at Sister Claire, and felt the familiar surge of anger. She knew she was going to lob the Coke bottle again. A small part of her, the part that was now God’s servant, regretted it because lobbing the bottle was dirty and vicious. But she only regretted it a little bit because Claire had it coming, and also because Reggie’s tears were more important than Claire’s pride. “Sister Claire,” she began, “there’s the internet now. The more dirty, the more salacious the story, the quicker it spreads. It’s like wildfire. People love their gossip.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m familiar with the internet, Sister,” Claire said. “Are you? I’m not. I know what it is, though not how to use it, regrettably. It can’t be that hard, to judge from some of my students.” “If you’ve a point,” Father Casimir said, “perhaps we ought to hear it.” “This is my point. If there was a news story about a disabled young Sister, a devoted woman of God, who was banished from her home by the prioress and sent to a nursing home, it could have the
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appearance of impropriety.” “All easily explained,” Father Casimir scoffed. “There’s nothing scandalous in that. A calculated decision supported by Christ’s will, that’s all. No impropriety whatsoever.” “True, as far as it goes. But it’s only the beginning of the story. What about the unnatural desires of the prioress?” “What are you talking about?” Sister Claire demanded. “Let’s say the prioress was expelling the young Sister to cover up sexual advances she’d made toward her—a defenseless, vulnerable adult, unable to resist the lechery of the prioress. Now let’s say someone else found out about it, and the prioress expelled her too. That would be bad enough, don’t you think? But if the one who found out was also the longtime lover of the prioress, well, I think that would make quite a story. This elderly lover might reflect on how the prioress made similar advances when she was young and naïve and frightened, and she couldn’t get away. She might tell her story far and wide, to protect others from such a gross abuse of power. Perhaps there would be a lawsuit. Certainly there would be investigations. I think it would be a very timely story.” Sister Claire crossed her arms. “You wouldn’t dare.” “Wouldn’t I, though?” “You’d implicate yourself in this lie?” “If I’m made to say these things, I won’t consider them a lie.” “Now hear this, Sister Alma, my conduct is above reproach. I have certainly never made,” she sputtered, “advances toward you or anyone else. And that is a fact well known to you.” “So you say. I say otherwise. I say you’ve been consumed by lust and you’re burning up with unnatural desire.” “I will have you called to account for this,” Sister Claire threatened.
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“Very well. I know an excellent lawyer,” Sister Alma whispered. “And my nephew works at the newspaper.” Both statements were untrue, but in for a penny, in for a pound. “Enough,” Father Casimir said. “The point is taken.” Then he said that Sister Reggie could stay, only everyone had to stop this right now. ••• Later, when they were alone in the kitchen, washing the dishes, Sister Reggie said, “You lied.” “I did what I had to do,” Sister Alma said. “Maybe I should go to Penn Home. Maybe it really was God’s will, if they prayed on it.” “It wasn’t God’s will. If it was, I wouldn’t have been able to tamper with it so easily. You’re supposed to be right here, doing good works.” She shrugged. “I just made sure you could stay.” “You don’t believe the end justifies the means. I know you don’t.” “If there’s a sin, it’s mine,” Sister Alma said. “I don’t want you sinning on my account. I would have gone along with you to Penn Home. I would have adjusted.” “I know you would have. That was the problem. Anyway, God will forgive me my sins.” “You have to be repentant for God to forgive you. I don’t believe for one minute you’re sorry about what you said.” “True enough. I’m not sorry right now. I’m actually quite pleased with myself. But I’m sure I’ll be sorry someday.” “It’s only a temporary reprieve,” Sister Reggie said. “They don’t want me here. They’ll try to send me away again. I know it.” “Pfft. Don’t give it a second thought. Whether they like you or they don’t or they want you to go or stay, it doesn’t matter. You’re not
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here for them. You know why you’re here now, don’t you?” She saw sauce caked onto Sister Reggie’s neck, and she dampened a cloth and wiped it off. “To be of service. To live the Word.” “That’s right.” “I only wish you didn’t have to go,” Sister Reggie said. Sister Alma wrung out the rag and tossed it on the counter. For several long moments, she stared out the kitchen window, up at the stars and the moon in the velvety black sky. She couldn’t see where it all began or ended, and there was no telling how it had come to be. It was comforting. Then she told Reggie, “I’m tired. I think I’m ready.” All the same, she turned on the hot water and picked up a sponge. There was a sink full of dirty dishes yet to be done.
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3rd Place Sudden Fiction
5150 Mallory McMahon
t started when
You’re looking at a cadaver I went to the store to buy groceries. I hadn’t eaten in days, could feel the bones in my wrists grating against the inside of my skin. Pull them out like splinters. The oranges had little bumps under the rinds. Not all of the oranges, not all of the rinds. But enough. I could see them, pressing through the flesh. Transmitters. Radios. GPS. Pull them out like splinters. I used my nails. I wanted
Analyze, analyze, analyze. to make sure it would be safe to bring them home. I used my nails to tear back the peels and search between the flesh and the pith for where I knew the receivers were hidden. I slashed through one two three four fivesixseven until the manager in the white apron came over and started yelling. I suddenly feel completely spent. I tried to explain that they were watching, listening, tracing me. These seemingly innocuous Florida fruits. The problem is slowly losing relevance. His voice was angry. He called me crazy. The problem is I am slowly losing relevance. Then the police were called. Sirens. I’m in no need of a conclusion either way. I turned to watch. Seconds passed. Moments. Are you sure? How long? No, not sure. The nice man tipped his blue hat and asked what I was doing. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t give him my name. He said it would be okay if I agreed to pay for the oranges. I couldn’t. I only pay for things in cash, and I didn’t have any cash. Tomorrow will be a better day.
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••• My crime? You know too much. I say too much. The world can’t handle my scrutiny. Lie in bed. Evaluate. They come with the Thorazine every morning. They say it works quickly. I take it. It isn’t working quickly. What happens when you react in a manner that is totally unexpected? It isn’t working. They are trying to make you disappear. It isn’t working. ••• Today is complicated. “Done thinking?” he asked me. I shook my head to get the water out of my ears. He looks like somebody from television, but I don’t know the actor and I don’t know the show. “I’ll come back tomorrow.” This time, I do not have a roommate. ••• Doc and I have a good talk. That’s what he says, anyway. Mostly he talks. He tells me the worst has passed.
Even the very concept of past has changed. If I am good, they tell me, they will call Anton to come. ••• There is a tiny little plant that they leave on the table beside my bed. Its emerald leaves reach for the light that streams through the single window that is too far above my head to see out from. The nurse comes every day to water the plant. She croons to it and strokes its leaves. The plant is made of wax. It bends its neck toward the sun. ••• The TV Show Doctor’s face appears in the cracks between the floor tiles and he smiles and tells me that the worst is almost passed I wonder what will happen when it is. I swallow the pills instead of holding them under my tongue. I swing my legs over the side of my bed and shuffle down the hall in my paper slippers. Everybody in the day room is watching the TV Show Doctor on his TV Show but when I ask if they recognize him nobody looks up. •••
Anton comes. His hand is cold against my forehead. “How bad was I this time?” I ask.
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“You need to keep taking your pills.” ••• I count the hours on the clock on the wall, the one whose hands move backward. 72 hours and they let me out. Anton holds my hand as we walk through streets that are more colorful than I remembered. When we get home, he orders a pizza. ••• They are not allowed to hold me against my will Sometimes they try. so they have to let Anton take me home when I am lucid enough to ask them to find him for me. Maybe next time he will not come. Next time, they will keep me longer.
The pills rattle in the bottle as I toss it into the trash. •••
You are looking at a cadaver.
But the Media Told Me To
Berkeley Fiction Review
Succor Scott David
wo knocks, two soldiers, two taillights of my neighbor’s Ford Fiesta going off through the fog. The bastard knew before me, and I’d never forgive him for it. The taller soldier spoke, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was saying. Parlez-vous francais? I said and slammed the door in his face. Rewind. Start again. This is Tuesday, right? Dry cleaners, walk the dog, a state home health aide visit to make sure I haven’t off’d my husband yet. Nothing happens on Tuesday. I eased the door open. The soldiers were still there. Berets on heads. Ribbons on chests. Uniforms so sharply creased they could cut you. I raced down the hall, threw myself out the back door, and down two concrete steps into the backyard. I tripped headlong on a pile of leaves I had raked up yesterday. My housecoat flew out behind me, and the only things between me and immodesty were a Life is Good t-shirt and my oversized men’s gym shorts that had “Morsel” written on the butt. The soldiers were on me instantly. They set me on my feet.
“Let me go!” I shouted, swinging for the crotch like they taught in YMCA self-defense class. “Let me go!” “Ma’am,” one demanded.
“Please,” said the other.
Don’t make us do it, I imagined them saying. There was a protocol. They were following orders. This day was following yesterday. Tomorrow was sure as shit going to come after. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and so on, no matter what the hell I did. Yes, sir. The world did not spin backward. My job was to sit still. To accept the news with dignity, and give thanks to Our Savior that my son had the special grace to give his life for the greatest country on earth. “Sit down, Ma’am,” the shorter one suggested. He was a freckled, short-haired, tight-muscled kid with a southern accent, not yet dry behind the ears, never a gridiron superstar, but no doubt he got his steady girlfriend knocked up before getting called off to war. I sat in the swing-set, knock-kneed, a leaf plastered to my forehead, another up the leg of my gym shorts. I stank of mushroom and moss.
“Missing,” the short one said. “Whereabouts unknown.”
“Strange place for it,” murmured the other, the tall boy from the north with the thousand-yard stare.
“Presumed dead,” the shorter boy admitted.
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The short one gave me the date. A week ago. A Wednesday. A quick calculation, and I had my answers: My son had already been dead when I was picking my nose in the checkout at Walgreens, cursing the girl they had hired straight out of Somalia. Already missing when I made a dentist appointment for Mrs. Kiernan. I hadn’t felt the earth quake. I was a terrible mother. “I think you’ve got the wrong boy,” I said, plucking this notion out of the air and winding it as tightly around me as the knots in the rope that held the swing aloft. I loved the idea. I wanted to make love to the idea. I wanted to Skype my son and share it with him, so we could both have a laugh.
“No, Ma’am,” the tall one said.
“Not possible,” added the shorter boy.
I struggled from the swing with all the dignity I could muster. I should have been better dressed to receive such news, like those widows that accept the folded flag from the coffin top. But I had no body, no coffin, no coffin top, no flag. No Jackie O. at the state funeral. I studied my ankles: the blue veins, the streaks of mud, the fragments of leaves. I was too old to start again.
The boys hadn’t once taken their eyes off of me.
“Come in,” I croaked. “You boys must be hungry. I’ll get you some breakfast.”
“No, Ma’am …”
“You got a date? A pretty girl waiting for you?”
“No, Ma’am, we …”
He looked to the other one to see whether he ought to spill the beans.
“Spit it out, soldier,” I said.
“We got to …”
Then I knew. So ordinary, so obvious. My boy was not the only one. There were others. “It was a bad day,” he said apologetically. “Many casualties.” I had played this bad day out in my brain a thousand times. Over and over, I had forced myself through it, because I had figured I could inoculate myself against its happening in real life. Then I’d go out to Target and buy my son a new suit, because he was going to need one for getting married, and one for looking for jobs, and one for coming to my funeral. “Come in anyhow,” I said reluctantly. “Not like these other boys are going to get undead if you have some pancakes.” The kitchen was full of Tuesday smells: coffee and brown toast and a sack of garbage waiting to be curbed. My crossword was open on the table. My cold coffee was where I’d left it when the boys rang. Oh, and my husband, too. Strapped to his wheelchair. A new cigarette at his smoke hole, stinking of urine, his eyes alternately wise and bitter like traffic lights blinking in the dead of night.
The soldiers stopped short.
“Good morning, sir,” they said in unison.
They removed their berets, giving my man respect, as if they knew just by laying eyes on him that he’d fought at Khe Sanh.
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“Can’t speak?” one of the soldiers whispered to me.
“Won’t,” I said. “He’d damn well be moving his chops if he had something to say.” Since the stroke, my husband was no longer one man. He was two unmatched halves, one stronger than the other. His chest heaved and fell. He had no eyelashes, no hair. His features were going one by one. Soon enough, all that’d be left was that puckered smoke hole and a pair of ears for listening to me rattle off the crossword clues. My husband puffed white like he just elected a Pope. I hauled a pan from the cupboard, and milk, mix, and a carton of blueberries from the fridge. I plucked a couple of blueberries from the box and hurled them at my husband. Then I hurled the whole box. I was fixing to follow up the blues with a fry pan when the shorter soldier removed it from my hand.
“Ma’am,” he warned gently and set it back on the burner.
I cursed under my breath and let a scoop of yellow butter melt to brown in the pan. “There’re more blueberries where those came from, boys,” I said, “if that’s what you were worried about.”
“No, Ma’am ….”
“No shortage of them. Enough for throwing and eating both. This is America. Land of plenty.” My husband’s slightly more rapid puffing subsided to almost nothing, a thin trail of smoke from a campfire gone out.
“Ma’am, while that pan’s heating up, maybe we could say a
prayer,” shortboy suggested. “Calm your nerves. I can start us off, if you want.” The two composed themselves. I looked from one boy’s face to the other. I took the pan from the heat. The stovetop burned bright with nothing on it. It was all I could do not to lay my palm flat on the cooktop to remind me I was human.
“What should we pray for, boys?” I asked.
The short one murmured, “His grace.”
“How ‘bout blueberries,” I said. “We’ll pray for enough blueberries to feed the world.”
The short one glared at me.
“Uh-oh. Looks like I’m in trouble again,” I said.
“Ma’am, I don’t think this is the time …”
“For joking around,” I said, finishing his sentence. It was an awful habit of mine. I used to do it for my husband all the time, so it was second nature, but it used to drive my son nuts. He formed his thoughts awfully slow, and I was so impatient, I’d rattle off some words to finish, and it would turn out he was saying something else entirely.
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “Just wait here.”
I fetched a huge Bible from a shelf in the living room. I joked, “I knew this would come in handy for something besides a doorstop.” Nodding at my husband, shortboy suggested the proper verse be selected by the elder in the room.
“You want to choose a passage, hon?” I asked.
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My husband looked back and blinked once and smoked. I laughed and turned to the boys. “Fool wouldn’t know prophet from poetry. Guess he’ll be just fine with whatever we choose.”
Shortboy looked skeptical.
“It’s better that way,” I insisted. “That’s why God gave us ears to hear with. Because listening’s more important than speaking out. And more important than smoking, too. The Good Lord would have given him two smokeholes if that was what counted most. You know what I mean?” Sometimes this house got so still, my husband’s breathing alone was a comfort, his cough and retch would break up my thoughts. But my son’s homecoming had been a riot. Trumpets and word games and the crossword done before I’d started the coffee. Some dawns he picked up the paper from the front stoop on his way in from a night with girls I didn’t know, and he woke mid-afternoon scarcely remembering he had finished it. While I was at work, my son sat with his old man for hours, at attention, lighting his cigarettes. Sometimes they watched TV, he said, but more often sat in silence. One day I came home from work, and my son was pontificating, his voice dangerous and raised, riffing on something about the war he’d read in the paper or heard on the news. I’d dared not enter. I imagined this was how it always was when I wasn’t around to silence them, and they could be men. The soldiers read aloud from Psalms. The short one had it by rote. The tall one stumbled along and got the words wrong, but even my husband had the grace to stop smoking until we finished. Amen.
“Maybe we should read another passage,” I said. “’Case the first one didn’t work. He mightn’t have heard us properly.”
“Oh, God hears your prayers, Ma’am,” shortboy said.
“I know for a fact that’s not true. You know how?”
“I been praying that he strike your ass with lightning since the moment you arrived, and I have yet to hear a stroke of thunder.” The tallboy stifled a laugh. My husband puffed like a freight train. Shortboy flushed. “I’m busting your chops, Tennessee,” I said. “Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Pancakes are coming up.”
“I’m from Tallahassee,” he snapped, but the other cuffed him,
and they pulled out chairs. They folded themselves at right angles, backs straight, hands at their sides, feet shoulder width apart. They were men capable of holding up the world. Me? I was a mess. I set myself behind the stove like it was the first time I’d ever been there. I couldn’t think what to do. What was a fry pan used for? Was it a sack of flour or a bag of rat poison?
“My son loved his pancakes,” I said brightly. But I had no real
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memory of whether he did or didn’t. It just seemed like a good mother would have made pancakes that a boy loved. And the best mothers would never have called their sons lazy, or complained to the girls in the office that their sons took after their father. The best mothers never got impatient, never vexed their children, never let their sons grow up headstrong and proud. The best mothers never gave thought to death and loneliness, only to glory, and the goddamn consolation of meeting their boys again in the hereafter.
“How’d it happen?” I asked.
“Classified, Ma’am. Special Ops.”
“Like a hero,” the tall one said.
I set pancakes on their plates and their plates on the table. They stared politely.
“Go ‘head an’ eat,” I said.
“What about you?”
“I had my breakfast.”
“No, Ma’am, you haven’t. I can tell.”
“So I’m a big fat liar. So what?”
“You ain’t fat, ma’am,” shortboy said gallantly.
“Thank you. Thank you for saying that. But really. I could no more eat than dance. Not now. You have to understand.”
The two of them rattled forks and knives. My husband smoked. I scrubbed the pan and set it in the dry rack. I picked up the vacuum cleaner and stowed it away. I retrieved the cracked photo of my grandparents who never let a child die on their watch. I shut the back door and turned the key in the lock. I locked the front door, too, pulling the key from the hole in which it had sat for thirty some odd years, turned occasionally, but never taken out. I went around and shut all the windows to make it airtight. “Look here,” I said when I ran out of things to do. I dropped a scrapbook on the table. “Here’s the day my son was born. Here’s him at the spelling bee. Here’s him looking sour because I had to paddle the behind of one of his best friends. “I was always embarrassing him. He used to wish I’d act like the other mothers, but his friends loved me. According to him, they thought I was ‘the shit.’ Which was apparently a good thing.”
I flipped another page and another after that.
“He was a sensitive kid, but never let anyone know it. When he was stationed in Tikrit, he missed his grandmother’s funeral. But the very day he came home on leave he told me to get dressed up and took me out to the grave and bought flowers to lay on it and let me link my arm in his and cry my eyes out. He didn’t cry, though. Not a tear. ‘If the Army wanted me to have emotions they would have issued me some,’ he said. After his father, he was the toughest son of a bitch in the world. No one was going to know he had a heart inside.” “He looks like he was a squared away soldier,” the tall boy observed politely.
“He didn’t write me enough,” I said. “And he was too skinny.”
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“Working and fighting dawn to dusk,” one boy said.
“That’ll do it,” said the other.
“Comes back,” said the first, patting his gut. Then he realized what he had said, that it wouldn’t ever come back. Not for the boy in the picture. Not for me.
“You been over there?” I asked.
The boy nodded.
“Some of your boys never came back?”
Again, the nod.
“How do you forgive ‘em? The Iraqis.”
“I’m not sure as we do, Ma’am,” shortboy said fiercely, glaring at his friend. “You look at the future, you look at the kids. You tell yourself, the kids didn’t do it,” the tall boy said.
“Half of them killed your men,” I said.
“Ain’t their fault what their fathers did.”
“Does that work, telling yourself that?”
“Not really. Maybe the dead would do better at it than me.”
There was no matching wits with the dead, no matching morals. The dead were angrier or more forgiving, whatever the occasion might call for. They were always better than you.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The kids might not have pulled the
trigger, but somehow, you can’t help but think they gave succor to the enemy.” I had no idea where this word succor came from. I had never used it before in my life, so far as I knew. It was the kind of word you didn’t ever say aloud. Hell, by the sound of it alone, my Daddy would have washed out my mouth with soap, telling me it wasn’t the kind of thing a good girl said. Succor. S-U-C-C-O-R. My boy would have known that word. Never did so much as got a B-minus in English, but he could kick your ass at Scrabble. When he was home, we played games I always lost. All I ever did was set down words on the board like S-T-A-Y and H-O-M-E and N-E-V-E-R that weren’t worth much when you added up the letters.
“You boys play Scrabble?”
They shook their heads.
“You know what succor means?”
“Not exactly, ma’am,” the northern boy volunteered, “but I could guess.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not like it sounds.”
“I wasn’t thinking nothing. I was just …”
“My boy was a Scrabble champ,” I said. “Not sure where he got the words. I mean, look at me. My Daddy believed that if you gave a girl learning, she’d soon earn a reputation for uselessness. And my boy’s father ….”
We all looked at my husband.
“God bless him, he hasn’t more than a dozen words of
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vocabulary total, and most of them neither fit for print in a family newspaper nor for church.” I went over to my husband, smiling. I took the smoke from his hole, took a drag, placed it back. I picked berries from what was left of his hair and the folds of his hospital Johnny. I ate a few myself and offered him a couple. It was the first thing gone down that smokehole other than smoke all morning. I’d be lucky not to choke him, the bastard, but no doubt he’d bounce back. We tell ourselves that if we make a home that’s good enough, our sons will never follow their fathers off to war, and–if they do–our enemies can’t kill them because death’s no match for pancakes. It was futile, no better than magic, no better than prayer, but we told ourselves these things anyhow, just for a moment of feel-better, and because we’d kill ourselves if we found out later even puny efforts could make a difference, like monarch’s wings and storms in distant places. “He was no sissy, my son,” I said. “His father took him to the gym and taught him to box. He spent his teens mad-dogging everyone who crossed his path, and if one of them looked at him twice, he got in a fight. I was always getting after him about the fights.” The boys pushed back their chairs like it was a military maneuver.
“Thank you, Ma’am, the pancakes were wonderful.”
I jumped across the room and snatched at their arms, maneuvering myself between them, and looking from one to another.
“Tell me your war stories,” I said. “Are we winning over there?”
They froze up as stiff as furniture. War stories were for older
men, not the boys doing the fighting. “Tell me about your brothers and sisters and mothers, then,” I said, tugging at their sleeves. “Tell me what games you like to play.” I sent an electronic Scrabble game to Iraq, but my son gave it away to some Iraqi kid in a little village in the middle of nowhere. He said he preferred the feel of the tiles. Besides, he always beat the crap out of the computer, and a computer doesn’t care if it wins or loses. Like his father, my son preferred a worthy competitor, an enemy you could respect.
“Someone we can call for you, Ma’am?” the short one suggested.
“A preacher?” He disengaged my arm from his, and the loss of contact was a shock. I swallowed down a hollow, pukey feeling.
“Tell me about your girlfriends at least,” I begged.
The boys headed for the front door.
“Why am I doing all the talking?” I asked. “Don’t you have something you’re supposed to say?”
“Ma’am? The door’s locked. You got the key?”
“Missing?” I asked.
The boys came back to the kitchen.
“Presumed dead,” one of them confirmed.
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I looked to my husband. He would know what that meant. A military euphemism for some plain speaking I couldn’t be expected to bear. A sweet, military kindness. Our armed forces. They’ve got phrases for all manner of terrible things and acronyms that can fill a Scrabble board.
“The key?” the tall one reminded me.
“You play Scrabble?”
“You asked already, Ma’am,” shortboy said.
I tried to tease the teen out of the young man’s face. I was surprised to find him resisting me, maybe even disapproving of me. I’d always been good with my son’s friends. They told me things; they came to me; they were more comfortable than in their own kitchens, and more than once I had harbored a black-eyed runaway for a day or two, no questions asked, before quietly brokering a peace. “You boys want a dictionary? A Scrabble board? Boxing gloves?” gear.
I headed for the second floor, ready to let them try on my boy’s
“Ma’am, we really need to go. May I have the key?”
“I can’t let you,” I confessed, staring at the tall boy’s scar. I felt wistful for some innocence he probably hadn’t known for years, wistful for a boy who had a mean right hook but still played Scrabble on Saturday night. Not that my son was an angel. He was a mad, contrary son of a bitch and not all good. When he was ten or eleven, I embarrassed him by entering him in a spelling bee. He had deliberately failed it, misspelling words I knew he knew full well and staring at me
all the while with his father’s eyes. A waste of $40 entry fee was nothing compared to the humiliating sympathy from parents who could afford to send their kids to private school and dress them in tweed and who thought their kids were better than mine. I’d never forgive him. “I can’t allow you egress,” I said. “E-G-R-E-S-S.” Another fifty-cent word pulled from my ass. “I can’t let you ruin these mothers’ lives.”
I pulled the key from my pocket and tried to summon the nerve to swallow it. The soldier snatched at my hand. I dropped the key between my breasts. Game over. Sweep the tiles from the board and pack up the box. There were no words to say, nothing to be done. Your son is dead. Be content with glory, a folded flag, and a pair of old dogtags.
“You’ll have to come get it if you ever want to leave,” I said.
My husband chortled, puffs of smoke from his lips signaling . . . what, exactly?
“Dirty mind,” I snapped.
His eyes widened in delight, whether because he had gotten my goat, or because of the mundane joy of knowing that someone somewhere had read his smoke signals, I couldn’t begin to say. The soldiers looked at one another. Scheming. I suddenly wished I had a bigger bosom to hide the key in. Pockets that could be sewn shut. Gums that would stop flapping. I took shelter behind my husband’s chair. The boys’ surprise
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gave way to awkwardness, but there was no pity in their eyes. They had done worse. They had done things they were ashamed of. Truth yields, but they would not. In a coordinated assault, they disarmed me. Hands rifled my housecoat. The short one took possession of the key. All the while, they apologized to my husband, saying they didn’t mean any disrespect. When they left the room, my husband stroked my cheek with that crabbed hand that’s had but one use for years, lifting smokes. His knuckles were worn, the skin brown as the boy that mows the neighbor’s yard. There was no need to spell things out for him. He was a thinker. He’s been sitting here forever. He’d fought in Khe Sanh. He’d known what the doorbell meant at dawn. He’d known maybe before my neighbor did. He’d known that because we have but one brain and two eyes, imagining it in your head was worse than seeing it unfold live.
I Know What itâ€™s Like to be Dead
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Marmite and Mango Chutney Amita Murray
untie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms. “Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.” The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary. When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever. “The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek
after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite and then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and roll them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing. Veronica works as a relationship blogger, under the pen-name Dadi Ma (or Grandmother), for a successful e-magazine for the underforties Londoner, the female professional looking for love, shoes, and weight loss on her morning commute. “Love, shoes and weight loss – that’s all they ever want. I’m not very good at this advice stuff, am I? Am I?” Veronica would ask me. “I’m not very good at anything. Why am I so pathetic?” Dadi Ma is supposed to be perennially sixty-fiveyears-old. Her birthday, for no particular reason, falls on Halloween. She gives funny and old-fashioned advice to women who write in. And she is very popular. Veronica has been working in this role for five years, ever since she was twenty-seven. Ironically, for most of those five years, she was miserably single. It was a thing with her, this lack of a significant relationship. At the time, it didn’t matter to her that she was a successful writer. As I was crooning my way through the pub circuit on the dodgier outskirts of London with mournful, soft-boiled tunes to go with my cello that I penned feverishly in the middle of the night and that no one wanted to
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buy, Veronica was already working for a lifestyle magazine. She lived in a studio flat near Holborn. Meanwhile I lived in this six-bedroom gig with Australians and South Africans and Kiwis and a pet iguana with uncertain antecedents, but knowing eyes and an uncanny ability to be in the Now. No one even had a bedroom to their name, and no one knew with any accuracy how many of us were living there at any given time. If you found a bed to sleep in at night, it was taken as enough. If it was empty of foul-smelling, travelling strangers, it was practically a Christmas present. Whenever we met up, I was determined not to let Veronica’s lack of relationship become the main topic of conversation. I came with lots to talk about, my shoulders squared and my eyes fierce with resolve. My flatmates. My “voluntary” work as a singer and cellist. My various pointless dates with married men, unavailable men, stupid men. I talked fast and furiously, in a rush to make the silence stop. My words spilled out like people who worked in office jobs, at five o’clock anxious to get out of the door, paranoid of staying a minute later. But Veronica’s “thing” hung over us. It was the thing That Must Not Be Named. It was the body in the library. It was like nothing else existed. We could never talk of anything else in those days. If I talked of anything else, Veronica sat there looking sad and accusing. It was like her eyes were telling me I was selfish to talk about anything other than her love life, or lack of it. In the end, I would always give in and ask her how it was going. She would tell me in great detail, great globular words that would rise and rise ‘til they exploded all around me, spilling their hunger for love everywhere, so that I was drowning in them, flailing about like a fly stuck in honey. She would tell me how it was all hopeless. How she was doomed to be one of those women. How she would never find love, and love would never find her. “It must come from not knowing who my father is, you know? You will always have that,” she would say,
as if this was my chief fault. What was wrong with her, she would wail. What was it stopping her from having what everyone else had? But it was not a rhetorical question. She wanted answers from me. When would she meet someone? Could she improve her chances by losing weight, getting a haircut, reading the Hitchhiker books, sitting in the Tate, looking cool and hip? Was it that she came across as too independent, or was she too clingy and needy? “It’ll be alright, there’s nothing wrong with you,” I would say. “You’ll definitely meet someone. Definitely.” I smiled reassuringly, I gave her hugs as she left, I gave her all my optimism, and returned home sapped and dry. Veronica read horoscopes obsessively and took them personally. She read between the lines, she read them over and over for some hint that today would be the day she would meet someone. At times when I was in a relationship, she would hate me. I just knew it. “I could have been a singer,” she would say. “It just never attracted me so much. I need a challenge, you know?” When Veronica brings Gary home for lunch for the first time, Auntie sits hunched in her wheelchair, a frown etched on her forehead, and a drab brown sari wrapped unresponsively around her. She is usually the master of organizing dinner parties, making sure that she makes her numerous relatives feel culpable if they don’t make an appearance, by saying things like, “People forget their family,” or “You’re so busy all the time, I thought I’ll only have to make an effort, no?” or “I’m too old for you now, is that it?” But today, relatives are conspicuous by their absence. She does not think the occasion demands a dinner party. It ranks somewhere beneath contracting chicken pox in her estimation. Gary reaches out and touches her hand – a courageous but foolhardy move. Veronica and I hold our breath. What will Auntie do? More importantly, what will she say? Her hand is unmoving, as if the
Berkeley Fiction Review
stroke has wiped out the feeling in her right hand, or she wishes it had. She stares at him for a long time. But Gary stands his ground, and just stares back. She reaches out slowly to the teacup set in front of her on the coffee table. It takes her five minutes to pick it up with a shaking hand that is roughly the look and size of a dehydrated prune. She finally brings it to her lips. The stroke has had no effect on her arms or hands, but this doesn’t stop Auntie from making the most of the situation. But in any case, Gary doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look away, doesn’t try to rush her or help her. “What do you see in her?” she says in the end, after she’s taken a slurping sip and let a drop of overcooked Red Label tea trail all the way down her chin. Veronica and I let out a collective breath. Of all the things she could have said, this is not the worst. Not by far. “She’s feisty,” Gary says. Auntie snorts. “I know your kind. Men have their fun, then leave.” “Not all men,” Gary says. “Men of your kind,” she says. “You have no family values, you here in the West.” “We must find a man for Aisha,” Veronica says, intervening, nudging me in the ribs. “Since only an emotionally-stunted married man with six children will do for her, that’s where we should look.” I turn away, smiling through the stifling rage. “You be nice to her,” Auntie says to her. “Young people,” she adds, shaking her head. It is not clear to whom she is speaking, since
she doesn’t approve of any of us this precise minute. I turn back to see Auntie playing with the ring of her finger, round and round, staring at nothing. My mother left her the ring with the understanding that Auntie would leave it to me. Gary has moved out of earshot, as has Veronica. They are huddled over a cup of tea, in that intimate way people have. “You mustn’t mind her,” she says to me, as I stare at them. “She didn’t have a father growing up, like you did.” “I know. I don’t mind,” I say. “Of course I don’t.” I do, of course I do. I hate her. I hate how I have to make her feel okay about herself. I hate how it’s my job. Lunch is a scary business and Veronica and I are barely breathing. Auntie has given Seema (who Auntie persists in calling her servant, though we try to tell her Seema is an employee, a cook even, but not a servant or a maid) instructions to make the biryani as hot and spicy as she possibly can. Seema has outdone herself. There are hard little pepper pods hiding under the chicken like landmines, the rice is boiled in cayenne, and skinny green chillies are chopped up into bits that are precisely the same size as the green beans, so you can’t tell the difference. Gary is sweating within minutes, wiping his upper lip and his forehead. I see a tear escape all the way down his cheek. But he perseveres. In fact, he keeps on serving himself more and says how he’s never eaten biryani half as good. Auntie’s eyes glitter. She mumbles something about how it is surprising that a mixed-race man like Gary can handle Indian chilli. She watches and waits. She is waiting for him to do something stupid. So far, he is managing not to. But it can’t last forever. “Maybe if you’re so good for her, you can help her get a proper
Berkeley Fiction Review
job,” Auntie says to Gary, as she nibbles on a mini Mars bar after lunch. It is her favourite dessert. She uses her index finger – now surprisingly sure and stable – to blot the little crumbs of chocolate that fall on her sari. She blots them, and then licks the finger, leaving melted streaks of chocolate on her fingers. She sucks on these as she talks. “What is it with Westerners? Freelance, freelance, we’re going freelance. Going mad is what. Going up Chowringhee Lane.” “It is a proper job,” I say. “Veronica’s a successful writer. Not like me, singing half-heartedly in pubs that no one goes to.” I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that. It’s hardly as if Veronica’s life needs embellishing. It seems kind of perfect to me. A creative career that pays. A flat. Gary. “You have a beautiful voice,” Gary says, turning to me. I am not sure if he is making fun of me. He and Veronica have seen me play at a pub. They were the only two people there that night, except for an ageing gentleman with no teeth and leather elbow patches who follows me on my “tours” and always kisses my hand afterwards and tells me he loves me. I always thank him. He is about ninety years old. “If it didn’t sound quite so sad,” I say. “It has heart,” he says. “It makes you long.” I am startled. I turn to Auntie, to make a joke, to make the moment disappear. But her eyes are full of something I have never seen in them before as she watches me. Fear. I have always thought she is beyond fear. When things broke down with Gary after a year of marriage,
Veronica disappeared for a while. She was still in London, we knew that much. But she never appeared at family dos. Or met up with any of our numerous cousins that were spread like linseed all over London. She couldn’t bear to be confronted by what she, of all people, must believe was a colossal failure. When we meet at Auntie’s funeral, I have not seen her for over a year. Not her, and not Auntie who refused to see me after Veronica disappeared. I try to catch her eye through the service, but she refuses to look at me. She is wearing a black skirt, tights with snowdrops on them, and a jacket that is tailored for her. Despite the bad couple of years she’s had, she is as successful as ever and is now writing for other blogs and magazines. I see her name everywhere. Even when I am not looking for it. Over lunch, I walk over to her. I stop at the table, laid with Auntie’s favourite food that no one else likes. “I am sorry, Veronica,” I say. She shrugs. “It was a matter of time. After the stroke.” She bites into a roulade, then spits it out into a paper napkin. She looks thin. “How’s Gary?” she asks. “He’s fine,” I say. “He wanted to come, but I thought it would be better if he didn’t.” “She knew, you know,” Veronica says. “Mummy knew.” My heart beats painfully. “How do you know?” “She stopped inviting you to things. Even before it happened with you and Gary. She knew before you knew. She watched you like a hawk.” It’s hard to hear. But for the last year I have been free of Veronica
Berkeley Fiction Review
and that familiar guilt. I have not had to take care of her. That is something. The will is read later on. Auntie has left me my mother’s ring. This is not something I expected. I roll it round and round on my finger. I thought she would leave it to Veronica. There is a note with it. “Take care of her,” she says. “She only has you. She didn’t have a father growing up. Family is all we have.” And I am not free. “It will be alright, Veronica,” I say as I leave. “It really will. Definitely.” I give her a hug.
Berkeley Fiction Review
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS Andrew Abbott loves you from Maine. Find more of his work at ALLABBOTT.com. He wishes to thank the Berkeley Fiction Review for being awesome. Andrew Ellis Bates is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review and Slush Pile Magazine. He currently lives and writes in the Thousand Islands region of Northern New York. Amy Yolanda Castillo lives and works in St. Paul, MN. She is a graduate of Augustan College (SO) and the University of Minnesota Law School. Her stories have previously appeared in the Grey Sparrow, J. Journal, Emrys Review, and Third Coast Magazine, among others. Dickens Chong is a senior architecture student at UC Berkeley. He started to learn about photography in Fall 2014, and since then, he has not been able to take his hands off the camera. His current interest is taking fashion-related and conceptual photographs. Lauren Cooper has always had a stick of graphite in her hand and a sheet of blank paper in front of her. A third year Comparative Literature major and Spanish and History minor at UC Berkeley, her artwork appeared in Issue 34 of The Berkeley Fiction Review, and she has had two analytical essays published in The Folio: Berkeley English Undergraduate Journal. Lauren is also an editor on UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal. Scott David has published dozens of short stories, novels, a memoir, and a guide to wine and cocktails under various pseudonyms. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, MA. Tricia Dowcett-Bettencourt teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. Her work has been published in Brain, Child magazine, as well as in various blogs. “Floating” is from her current work-in-progress, a collection of stories whose central characters disappear and reinvent themselves in the cities and mountains of Alaska. She lives with her husband, two children, and two exuberant Labrador Retrievers in central Connecticut. Brittany Foley is currently an undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying English. Brittany is interested in working with novels and perhaps writing a few of her own. When she’s not reading for class, it’s guaranteed that
she’s reading something that makes her wonder what creatures lurk out there in the dark. Allen Forrest, graphic artist and painter, was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas. Natalie Garnett is a fourth year Integrative Biology and Art Practice major at UC Berkeley. She enjoys drawing her friends, sketching outdoors, hiking, and climbing trees. Jeremy Gluck is a UC Berkeley graduate living in Northern California. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Monkeybicycle, and Prick of the Spindle. He enjoys purchasing items via the Internet. William Mark Habeeb lives in Arlington, VA, teaches at Georgetown University, and has just completed his debut novel, Strange Days. He has also published over a dozen works of non-fiction (scholarly and also YA educational). Rebecca Heikkila is a self-taught artist living and working in Oakland. Rebecca is primarily a painter interested in portraiture, but also creates mixed media and 3 dimensional masks and objects. Her work is viewable at rebeccaheikkila.com. Nick Katsafanas writes short stories and raps as Jeff’s In The Circle! with his cousin Josh. You can follow him on twitter @2gyroz, and/or check out his music and writing at jeffsinthecircle.com. He currently resides in a studio apartment above a women’s shoe store in Providence, RI with his beta fish Larry David. Lizzy Klingen is a current third year undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying Cognitive Science and the Practice of Art. Her piece called Introspection is a work from her current body of artwork, which focuses on transparencies and human perceptions of transparencies.
Berkeley Fiction Review
194 CONTRIBUTOR NOTES
Kathleen Lane’s stories have been published by Swink Magazine, Poor Claudia, Chronicle Books, Forest Avenue Press, Coal City Review, and others, and her middle-grade novel is forthcoming (spring 2016) from Little, Brown. She lives in Portland, OR, where she’s a Literary Arts writerin-residence, co-host of the art and literary event series SHARE, and currently at work on a short story collection. Mallory McMahon is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and MFA candidate at The New School. Her fiction has been shortlisted by The Masters Review (2014) and appeared in TQ4, the 4th Edition of the Tupelo Quarterly and tNY’s EEEL (formerly The Newer York’s EEEL); she was also the recipient of third place in the International 3-Day Novel Contest (2013). She tweets about writing and other things at @MalloryTMcMahon. Remy Merritt is a 2015 graduate of UC Berkeley with degrees in English and Political Economy. Her studies have inspired her to question the interplay between pop culture, consumerism, and political structures. She hopes to eventually fictionalize these observations into a collection of vignettes. Amita Murray is a writer and academic, based in London. She has published stories in literary magazines like Brand, Inkspill, The Front View and others. In 2015, she is a Leverhulme Writer-in-Residence at University College London. Having lived in three different continents, she is told that she is a bit of a cultural abyss. She takes it as a compliment. She can be found @AmitaMurray. Burhan N. Nagarwala is an artist from India currently living and working in San Jose. His artwork shows that life is full of goals and passion; we just have to keep walking. He loves the color black, so most of his works are in charcoal. He is into realistic and conceptual art, and he enjoys that each person takes something a little different away from the same picture. Rebecca Olson grew up in West Virginia and currently lives in Berkeley, CA where she is a student. She enjoys photography, writing poetry, and dancing Argentian tango. Skye Asta Devine Schirmer is an Oakland based artist and printmaker. She recently relocated to the East Bay from Boston to do a Residency at Kala Art Institute and now works as an intern there. She received her
BFA in Printmaking from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston in 2013 and studied at London Metropolitan University in 2011. Skye is currently working on a large series of etchings and sculptures and will be featured online in ARTiculAction Art Review’s Biennial Edition. More of her work can be seen at www.astadevine.info. Aaron Sommers’ fiction is featured in The Emerson Review, Lifelines: The Literary Journal of Dartmouth Medical School, and Word Riot, among others. He’s a contributor to the Ploughshares Blog. His full-length play, “The Death of a Dragon Slayer,” was produced in 2014. Sommers lives in New Hampshire. There’s more about him at www.aaronsommers.com. Barbara Yost was an award-winning newspaper feature writer for many years and now works as a freelance journalist and fiction writer. She has a degree in English from the University of Iowa, a master’s degree in English from Arizona State University, and an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State. She has had short stories published in such literary journals as Roar, Prism Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, the Saturday Evening Post anthology, and the Manifest West anthology.
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Andrew Ellis Bates Amy Yolanda Castillo Scott David Tricia Dowcett-Bettencourt Brittany Foley Jeremy Gluck William Mark Habeeb Nick Katsafanas Kathleen Lane Mallory McMahon Remy Merritt Amita Murray Aaron Sommers Barbara Yost
Issue 35 includes the following stories: “The Early Departure of Cameron Bailey” by Aaron Sommers, “Where Have All the Boys Gone?” by Kathle...
Published on May 1, 2015
Issue 35 includes the following stories: “The Early Departure of Cameron Bailey” by Aaron Sommers, “Where Have All the Boys Gone?” by Kathle...