“Van and Dog” / William Joseph Stribling
ISSUE TWO Editors
Thomas John Nudi Christopher Cartright John C. Fisher
Enzo Carbone Joshua Steward
Finance Stefan Massol Founding Board
Thomas John Nudi Christopher Cartright Ryan Cheng Zach Lundgren
Blacktop Passages is published digitally and in print. Issue Two © 2016 Blacktop Passages. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized outside the context of the publication itself without the prior written permission of Blacktop Passages. (ISSN: 2328-8396) For subscriptions, the PDF archive, submission information, or anything else, visit www.blacktoppassages.com or contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTER FROM THE EDITORS It’s been a long, hard road to Issue Two, and it only seems appropriate to parallel that journey by following the path of the poetry and fiction we’ve collected over the past year and a half, state to state. While the photography in this issue is international, our poems and short stories represent a view of America from the stormy East to the Wild West. In between, we wander through that middle part, where things may get a little strange. When we started Blacktop Passages, we were looking for a more functional reason to keep print alive. We scattered free copies of our first two issues along the US Interstate Highway System, hoping to reach readers who might not have known how much they needed fiction or poetry in their lives—until our contributors found them through our pages. While we can’t maintain that distribution model and remain the ad-free, subscription-free, all-volunteer organization we are now, we still want to produce a quality print magazine for readers who love the feel of paper on their palms, that smell of ink. You’ll always be able to buy print copies of our journal at-cost, and we hope you’ll share this issue with friends and strangers along your travels. But whether you’re reading this in print or online, barreling along in the backseat of a car or bundled up before a fireplace, we hope the love we put into this issue, the love our writers and photographers put into their pieces, will reach you. Start on the East Coast with Holly Day’s “Train to Gainesville,” or on the West with Marc Swan’s “Numbers Game”—where you begin and end is up to you.
4E The poems, fiction and photography collected here come from voices from across the nation, from people who have never met. But their stories exist alongside one another, beside your own. Enjoy your trip. Sincerely, The Editors of Blacktop Passages
â&#x20AC;&#x153;Morning on the Verrazanoâ&#x20AC;? / Bettina Gilois
“Mobile” / William Joseph Stribling
TRAIN TO GAINESVILLE Holly Day
It’s very hard to cut yourself on a moving train without doing real damage. Even though the shocks on most city express trains are pretty decent, there’s still flotsam on the tracks, bits of broken concrete, dead cats and dogs bumps in the road that cause the cars to sway just enough to turn what should have been a single straight, hairline crack, just enough to let out the pressure into a crazy spurting hole that looks like the result of a back alley knife fight a mugging gone horribly wrong. You have to choose your canvas carefully, the tough skin on the top of your leg the area right above where your shoe ends, some place easily hidden. The inside of your thigh, that long, white stretch of inviting flesh is not a good place to cut on a train, it’s too soft, goes too fast too messy and prone to accidental rending. That’s the spot you save for home, with the lights down low, no curious onlookers trying to decipher what you’re doing with your hands underneath your open notebook.
“Mt. Diablo Wide”
“Mt. Diablo Medium”
“Mt. Diablo CU” / William Joseph Stribling
I’LL DO SOMETHING DRASTIC THE NEXT TIME WE MEET
“Donut Break” / William Joseph Stribling
ne summer, when I was in college, I planned a hike from Georgia to Virginia on the Appalachian Trail. It was going to be over 500 miles and take seven weeks. I spent the last afternoons of classes doing calf-raises and squats in the hallway of my dorm, listening to Bob Dylan’s Hurricane on a boombox that could get pretty loud. There was no AC, and I’d been tying a bandana to my forehead, breathing hard, when a sophomore named Jeremy Urosky walked up to me. He was on the lacrosse team, and I hardly knew him. But I knew his name, at least, so when he asked if I was Shaun Fenster, some small part of me twisted at the formality. We all knew each other’s names, even if we hadn’t been introduced. It was a tiny school. “You’re doing that hike, right?” he said. “You’re going alone?” “Yeah,” I said. “Who are you going to talk to?” “I’ll meet people along the way,” I said. That had been my plan—to find the company I wanted in other hikers. A summer hike on the AT; I knew there’d be other people. “You want a partner? I mean, to start out with?” I hadn’t expected anyone to ask to join me, and I faltered. “I’m planning on 15-mile days,” I got out. “It’ll be tough.” “My dad and I used to do overnights on the Continental Divide,” he said. “The Montana section. Then I did some of New Mexico when I was in high school. You have to carry two gallons of water at all times. I humped a seventy-pound pack.” I thought about that. “You were close with your dad?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t want to share a tent.” That’s what had kept me from posting my plans on the message board outside the cafeteria, where the student body propositioned each other with flyers—buddying up for Euro trips and rides home for gas money and summer sublets. I knew that once I was dirty from a day of hiking, I’d want my own private nylon ceiling to stare up into. “You
12E have a tent?” I asked. He looked at me and smiled, knowing I’d already agreed. “I’ve got it all,” he said. We drove a rental down to Springer Mountain, where my sister, Susan, was going to meet us with her husband. Susan lived in Atlanta then. I’d worked the details out a month in advance. Even after a few hours in the car with him, each time Jeremy spoke, it gave me a fresh shock that I’d agreed to let him come along. Sitting there next to me was a stranger. When it was his turn behind the wheel, he clammed up, concentrating on the road like he was new to driving—and he continued his silence when I took over again. It seemed to me there was something stuck in his mind, or that he felt he’d embarrassed himself in some way… that I hadn’t let him off the hook. One of my problems back then was saying no. I recognize that now. It would have been so easy. I remember thinking back to that morning, Jeremy standing in the hallway with his arms crossed behind his back; me, sweating, tying that bandana in a knot at the base of my skull. If our places had been reversed, I would never have approached him. He’d asked because he was an athlete, and because he’d been conditioned, somehow, to seek out what he wanted. But if I’d have said no, I believe he would have simply said okay. “It’s good of your sister to come,” he said finally. “What?” I said, though I’d heard him. “It’s good of her. That she’s willing to meet us. That she’s taking time out of her day. It’s good to have family who’s generous like that.” “You have siblings?” “I have a sister, too, but we don’t speak.” He was wearing squared-off Oakleys, and when he stared out the window, it was like he was posing for a picture. “Sorry,” I said. “There’s no lack of love between us. I’m just not ready. When she calls me, I don’t answer.” “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want,” I said. “My sister’s only going to hike in with us a mile. Then she has to get back
13E to work.” “When I was a kid, I heard somewhere that Native Americans don’t celebrate birthdays,” he said. I saw that his train of thought had not stopped for mine as it went past. Maybe he hadn’t heard me. “I don’t even know if that’s true, but I’ve always remembered it. Something like, they only celebrate milestones. Some big life event, or some time when they’ve overcome something emotionally. Only stuff that’s really worth celebrating. Like just being alive for another year is no big deal. So, when you get braver or stronger, or you build your first house or learn how to fish or something, that’s when you have a party.” He continued to stare out the window. He had feathered hair and a jaw that twitched when he concentrated. I remembered, faintly, hearing a rumor that the girls in our hall were crazy for him. It was the kind of thing I’d pay attention to. I was a virgin still. “I’ll talk with my sister when I have something important to say,” he said. “When what I have to say really means something.” “What’s the lacrosse coach think of all this?” I said. “How would he even know her?” “Of the hike, I mean. What’s the coach think of you hiking all summer?” “Old Nate?” I happened to know the lacrosse coach was a stickler. He’d given the drinking speech at freshman orientation, insisting we all respond, ‘Excellent, Mr. Weber,” when he’d asked us how we were doing. I had the sudden suspicion that Jeremy was not going on a hike at all, but was running away. “He loves the idea. All those rocks on the trail will strengthen my ankles, tighten up my balance.” “What do you play?” I asked, and he looked at me with thesmiling pity he might use on the hopelessly uninformed. “Attack.” We stopped for gas somewhere in North Carolina. There was a recreation area off to the side with a trailhead on a wooden sign. I could smell the summer wilderness just behind the wall of trees, into which a pathway disappeared. “Maybe we should start here,” I said. “Just walk home.”
14E “No,” Jeremy said. He’d balled his left hand into a fist. “We have to meet your sister.” “I’m kidding.” I had a tendency then to smile like a fool. “I’m just ready to get going. Aren’t you?” “Sure,” he said. “I’m gonna take a leak.” When we were back on the road, the sun shone down flat and hot, and the air through the windows felt good. We were driving through green fields of something low to the ground. “Look at those triangles,” Jeremy said. “It’s like a painting. Like they were painted on the road.” His eyes were wide, and my first thought was that he’d done some kind of drug in the toilet. “Yeah?” I said. “Shadows. You see them? It’s just the trees, but they cancel out the light. Can you imagine cancelling out light? Look,” he said, oscillating his hand at me. “I could stand out there and make a shadow just like this. Light should be everywhere, but it’s so easy to block it out. Looks like they’re goddamn stencils.” It was true that the big pines were casting shadows across the highway, and the one car in front of us was dragging a buggy-black shape behind it. It was true that for a moment I marveled at it, too, the day making me spacey enough to delight in the wonder of something so basic and beautiful as a midday shadow. “Are you okay?” I said. “No,” he said. “I have these moments where I feel like I’m dreaming.” Susan met us in the trailhead lot. Her husband, Paul, was with her. I hadn’t expected him to come. He was a man who would ask me if I wanted to talk to my sister instead of chatting me up on the phone. The two of them had on expensive-looking packs and hiking boots. They wore matching purple tops made of hi-tech material. “You made it!” Susan said. “What a drive!” I said. Susan had left home for college when I was only in the sixth grade. With her marriage, her career, her group of friends I’d never
15E met, she sometimes felt more like an aunt, or a friend of my mother’s. “This is Jeremy,” I said. “He’s on the lacrosse team.” Inexplicably, I felt my face get red. “He used to hike out West with his dad,” I went on. We were all quiet, waiting for Jeremy to pitch in, to say something cheery to these people who were doing us a favor. I said, “It will be good to have the company.” Paul said, “Or someone to call for help when the bear attacks.” He was being a sport for a change, grinning up at Jeremy and inviting him to join in with the ribbing. Suddenly, we were all on the same team, doing our best to coax him out. Paul said, “Where are you from, man?” Jeremy sighed. I heard the air escape his mouth like a bag being squeezed. As he did, something squeezed inside me, too. I thought about going home. The image of Paul’s bear attack was not a bear attack, but some other pulsing problem in the future, something awful that was bound to happen, that I’d be bound to deal with alone. “Ottawa,” Jeremy said. “At least, that’s where I was born.” “A Canuck!” said Paul. “You play hockey?” “Not really. We moved when I was two.” There was a three-mile approach trail to get to the Springer summit, and Jeremy started up it. “Ready?” I said to my sister. “Aren’t you going to ask us what we’re doing?” she said. “You mean with your gear? Oh. I guess you’re coming with us.” “Well, duh.” “Sorry,” I said. “Just for the night,” she said, softening already. “We thought it might be fun.” “Yeah,” said Paul. “Fun. We took off work.” “You didn’t have to do that,” I said. “It will be fun. Hey,” she said, leaning into me, lowering her voice to a tone of playful conspiracy. “Your friend is cute.” “Oh, yeah,” said Paul, coming up on us, marching ahead
along the trail. “A real charmer.”
There was a plaque at the summit—the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—and Susan took a picture with me hunched down beside it. Jeremy had already gone ahead by the time we got there. “How will he know where to stop?” Susan said. “I don’t know. I think it’s different when you hike out west. I think you can see down the trail much farther.” “What’s that got to do with it?” Paul said. “What if there’s an emergency?” “I mean without the tree cover,” I said. “You don’t have to stick as close together.” “Yeah. I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking.” I didn’t like how easily Paul had included me in his agitation with Jeremy. We still had to spend the evening together, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to play both sides. Jeremy would see where the battle lines were drawn. “I’m sure he’ll stop,” Susan said. But he didn’t. We made camp that night at a three-walled shelter with a fire pit. There was another hiker there, planning to walk all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It would take him six months, he told us. He introduced himself as “The Razor’s Edge.” “When you Thru-hike, you get a trail name,” he told us. He built a fire, and read us Bible passages. Paul rolled his eyes. When The Razor’s Edge kept going, he whispered, not quite quietly enough for kindness, “How much of this do we have to take?” I was glad The Razor’s Edge was there, though. He gave Paul’s anger a target. Only when it was getting really dark did Susan say, “Should we worry?” “No,” I said, but I could tell that her worry had already picked up speed. She pulled a cell phone from her pack. “Who are you calling?” Paul said. “The Mounted Police?” “Don’t,” I said. “I’m sure he’s fine. He’s done this kind of thing before.” “Well I haven’t,” she said. Panic was making her voice shake.
17E “I haven’t ever heard of anyone doing anything like this.” Paul looked at her with the eyes of an inveterate catastrophe-settler. “Be calm,” he said. “Just calm down. We’ll take deep breaths.” I watched my sister’s chest rise and fall. The Razor’s Edge had come closer to us without any of us realizing. He stood above us with his Bible open, smiling like he understood the general plight of man. “‘Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him,’” he said. Paul had beers that he’d stuck into the roll of his sleeping pad, and he drank one with his arm around my sister’s shoulder. Then he drank the other. I watched the fire burn. That night, through the nylon of our tents, I could hear her crying. In the morning, The Razor’s Edge was gone. I kissed my sister goodbye and shook Paul’s hand, and listened to him say, “This ought to be interesting for you, at least.” Though the rhododendron and the mountain laurel was blooming, I didn’t see it as I hiked—I made the long, grinding climb up Sassafras Mountain, covering my shoes in the red dust that rose from the pine needles. At the summit, I didn’t look out at the vista. My mind was that roiling soup that only reveals ingredients as they bob quickly to the surface and are sucked down again. I’d told Susan and Paul that I was fine. In the early afternoon, I found The Razor’s Edge sitting on a stump. There was a whole row of stumps, the tree-flesh still bright yellow from where the chainsaw had cut through. I picked the one right next to him. “That climb kicked my ass,” I said. The straps of my pack dug into my shoulders, and taking it off was a breath of air against my back. I was soaked all the way through. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” said The Razor’s Edge. “There you go,” I said. “Here,” I rummaged through to the
18E bottom of my pack. “You want a Little Debbie?” “What’s that, cream pie?” “Cream pie, yeah.” “Eww-ee,” he said, his eyes alight with pleasure. We hiked the rest of the day together, and made camp at a shelter 11 miles in. “I like this Georgia dirt,” he said. “Easy on the knees.” “You got knee problems?” I asked. He said, “The Lord gives me no problems I can’t handle.” We made another fire, and I ate a peanut-buttered bagel. The Razor’s Edge ate a trail mix that consisted mostly of gummy bears. Already, the dirt caked around my ankles felt routine. I had no great urge to shower, no great desire for a bed. When the sun went down, The Razor’s Edge sang hymns and tooted on a little harmon ica. A breeze dried the sweat into salty stretches on my face and arms. After a while, he pulled out a flask. It had gotten fully dark, and the treetops obstructed any light from the stars. We hadn’t pitched our tents yet. “Turkey?” he said. “Sure.” I wasn’t accustomed to drinking, and he laughed when I puckered my face. The warmth seemed to hang in the space between my neck and ears. “Belt another,” he said. “You gotta chase the first with a second.” After a while, he said, “You know John Prine?” “Sure,” I said again. The Razor’s Edge sang: “Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper Go to the country, build you a home Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches Try to find Jesus on your own.” I joined in. It was the only verse we knew, and we sang it over and over again. I felt delirious with being there. If there’d been a bucket of peaches at my feet, I would have eaten them until I was sick. I stumbled to my pack, clicked on my headlamp, and fumbled
19E through my tent poles. “Blow up your TV, blow up your TV, blow up your TV!” sang The Razor’s Edge. I got into my tent and giggled. For a while, I could hear him knocking around outside, and when it was quiet, I thought of what Jeremy had said about the shadows. If they were miraculous, I was floating in a great miracle now, dark as it was. I was drifting off when the mouth of my tent unzippered. I felt hands press the nylon floor down into the ground. I recoiled as if they were animal claws. “We’re friends now,” The Razor’s Edge said. This time, that sense of dread was sharper. I was trapped, but there seemed to be no real danger. I didn’t want to be rude. “Yeah, but I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine in here by myself.” My heart was beating fast. “Just one night.” His hand was on my ankle and it was that touch that sent me shrimping into the rear tent-supports, unmooring the base so that it puffed for a moment before enveloping us. The Razor’s Edge found his way out first. “God’s will,” he said. He was standing next to the fire shaking himself off like he’d just come up from water. “God’s will was done here tonight.” “I’m gonna keep going,” I said. I gathered my tent in my arms and stuffed it into my pack. I headed on the trail blind with my arms out in front of me. “Nothing to be scared of,” I heard from behind. “God’s grace, Shaun. You’ll remember it.” I walked fifty steps in the pitch black, dinging my ankles against rocks and spilling into the arms of a bush before I thought to turn my headlamp on. The forest groaned with horny life, and it began to thwack against my forehead. Big-winged things. I was disappointed to find that I was scared. Quite simply, I was scared of the terrible dark. I found a clearing and set the tent back up, keeping my light on until I thought what that must look like—my tent as it would appear to a woodland creature—a glowing blue orb, and so I sat in the dark and imagined for the rest of the night that I heard The Razor’s Edge coming toward me with a camping knife. But he didn’t come.
20E When the sky purpled enough for sight, I was back on the trail, double-timing it up a climb so fast that my chest pounded and sweat tingled in my hair. Mist had settled in the valley below me, and I ate an energy bar still walking. It wasn’t until midday, just about tired enough to drop, that I saw him. Jeremy had propped his pack against his walking stick, and was pulling fists of greenery from the side of the trail. “Jewel weed,” he said, grinning and looking fresh. “What the hell?” I said. “You can rub it on your legs when you get poison ivy.” “What happened to you yesterday? You abandoned us.” He righted himself and grinned some more. “Abandoned?” he said. “I’m not your dead-beat dad, Shaun. Let’s choose more appropriate words, shall we?” “What do you call what you did to my sister? Where the hell’d you camp last night?” “Are we or are we not in these beautiful woods? I didn’t think there were rules to this. We’re not friends. Remember? I hardly know you. That was a selling point for me. That’s why I agreed to come along. I like hiking alone.” “You asked me if you could come.” “Listen. You want to hold hands for the next however many weeks, you need to find someone else. Believe me, you will. I’ve seen people on the trail already today.” “Yeah,” I said. “I know there are people. You’re not the only goddamn one who knows there are people.” He bugged his eyes out and crossed his arms so that the jewel weed seemed to sprout from his armpit. He was waiting for me to accept his terms, though I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. I felt like what I said next should somehow salvage our partnership. “Just,” I said, “let me know. Okay? Let me know when you’re going to take off.” “I’m taking off, Shaun,” he said. “Right now.” “Did you eat yet?” I felt that same heat coming into my cheeks. Something had been resolved. “Come on. Stick around and eat.” For the first time in hours, I let the ease of sitting down pass
21E through my muscles. I dragged out the last bite of bagel, knowing that Jeremy would be off down the trail as soon as I licked my fingers. I wanted to lie down right there and go to sleep. “Okay,” he said. “You’re happy now? You ready to kick this thing in the ass?” “Ready,” I said, and to my strange delight he waited as I strapped my pack on, hiking just in front of me for the rest of that day. We summitted a peak, and then took a peanuts and M&M’s break together. Later, we made camp. The Razor’s Edge was gone. With the pace we were making, I was not concerned I’d see him again. Not if I kept walking. We’d pitched our tents that night on a piece of ground that exuded smooth stones the size of softballs and yet I slept like I’d been drugged. In the morning, Jeremy was gone, his tent footprint just a square of matted grass. I boiled water for oatmeal. There was nothing final to the way he’d left. I knew I’d catch up to him, and when I did, later that day, he waited for me, let me pass him, and then lagged behind for the afternoon. It was a hard day of climbs, three peaks, all harshly switch-backed. By 5 o’clock, I was done. I made camp and ate dinner and was in my bag with a good two and half hours of light left. A shadow came over my tent and said, “Knock, knock.” “Yeah?” I said. “I think I’m done today, too. You got any water left?” “No,” I said. “But the spring’s good.” He walked off to the spring and made his dinner, and then set up next to me until morning. It became our routine so quickly: we’d pass each other back and forth, never talking much, until we crashed for the night. Often we slept on the wooden floor of those shelters, right next to one another, so that I could hear the rasping of his breath. About a week in, he sprinted ahead of me by a full day, but I dug in for the next twenty miles—a day and a half—and found him in a stream, his body submerged up to his neck, his eyes closed, exposing nothing but a floating head. “Jeremy,” I said, as sweetly as I could. He sputtered and sunk and came up smiling. He was naked.
22E “Shaun!” he beamed. “This water! Oh my god!” He hoisted himself up, letting his pink penis dangle with the comfort of someone used to locker rooms. He had dark hair from his chest down to the tops of his thighs. “How’d you like that climb?” I said. “Hey,” he said. “Shaun.” He came and put his hand on my shoulder, naked still. “I forgive you.” “Yeah?” I said, playing along. “Yeah,” he said. “I understand why you did it, and I might have done the same, now that I see what they mean by ‘trail disease.’” “What who means?” “All these thru-hikers. You haven’t heard them? ‘Trail disease.’ How we’re always starving. I mean I am just fantasizing about burgers these days.” “Yeah,” I said. It was as if giving it a nickname had breathed an emptiness into my stomach. I’d been doing it, too. But in my head it was Rocky Road. I was so relieved to hear it spoken that I forgot he’d accused me of something. “Just ask next time,” he said. “I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you whatever you need.” “Ask for what?” I said. “Extra food. Those Pop Tarts you took from my bag.” “I haven’t been near your bag in days,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in days.” “I know.” He was calmly practicing his Buddha-nature or something. I wanted to punch it out of him, but he stood there grinning and naked so that my violence would have seemed childish. “It must have happened days ago,” he said. “This is the first time I’m getting a chance to talk to you about it.” “What can I possibly say?” I said. “How can I possibly defend myself?” “You don’t have to say a thing,” he said. “I’ve already forgiven you.” I took off up the trail, leaning my body hard into the pounding of my steps. There was a climb right out of that swimming hole. I couldn’t hear him following me, or even breaking branches hurry-
23E ing to gear himself back up. It was better that way. I could put some distance between us. By the time it flattened out, the sweat was pouring off of me, but I didn’t take a break. I kept on hoofing it. The next three days were strange. Something fragile had crumbled and left within me a density instead. My pelvis felt weighted with a shiny metal ball, propelling me forward on the upward swing of a giant pendulum clock. I rarely stopped for water breaks, and at night I hiked until I couldn’t see. I wasn’t boiling water for rice at dinner, but wolfing what was left of my dry food: the bagels, the cheese, the bag of peanuts and the energy bars. I set my watch alarm for 4:30 in the morning and was on the trail in the dark and mist, spider webs draping across my face. I did a 22-mile day, a 23-mile day, and a 19-mile day. On the fourth day, my shins rebelled. It started with a twinge so acute that I had to remember if I’d banged into a rock. It spread, and by the end of the day, both my legs were burning. It was like countless tiny fractures—so that at each step I was balancing myself on increasingly brittle bones. I limped into a shelter, nearly crying, and was relieved to find it empty. It had a tin roof and looked out onto a gulley that crossed the trail. I sat up on the deck and sipped from my water bottle. Then I lay down on my bag to think of a plan, but instead, I fell asleep. And sleep, like a salve, soothed me. In the morning, it was raining hard enough to make a racket on the roof. I lay there for an hour or two, just listening. It was cool, and when the wind shifted, a bit of mist settled on my face. I got out to test my legs, and electric shocks ran up my shins. I ate my breakfast slowly, and thought a little more. My only plan was not to walk, and so I sat, nibbling on the last of my peanuts. I was hurt and out of bagels. Somehow, I’d have to hitch into town, either for a doctor or a grocery store. It was around noon that Jeremy showed up. I couldn’t believe it, as fast as I’d been going. He was soaked, his hair plastered into face. “How fast were you going?” I asked. I wanted to hear that he’d been trying to catch me. “I haven’t been looking at my watch,” he said. “I love it, though. Strolling through the rain. What’s with you?” He pointed
24E his walking stick at the sleeping bag I hadn’t put away. “My shins are on fire. I don’t know if I can go today.” “Shin splints, probably. I’ve had them. In high school, my team used to run on pavement. Everybody’d get shin splints.” “What do you do?” “Nothing to do. Rest. Ice. Sometimes it gets better once you’re warmed up. Try walking it off a little.” I got up and tried to get to the creek, but felt my legs collapse beneath me. I had to grab a tree. Jeremy plopped his pack onto the floor of the shelter and unzippered it to find his map. “Look,” he said, pointing to where a red line intersected with a blue one. “There’s a road right here. That’s four miles away. You can make it. Then you’re in Franklin. You can call your sister. What are we, a couple hours drive? Take it easy at her place and then have her drop you back off in a few days. It’s dumb to do it here. You’d just be uncomfortable.” “You’re right,” I said, too quickly, and he said, “Alright then.” I felt some of that brotherly spirit again, half expecting him to let me put my arm around his shoulder and get me hobbling up the trail. But he didn’t dally. He swung on his pack and bolted up past the gulley. A spray of mud spattered up his legs from where the bottoms of his feet had flung it up. Eventually, I hopped around through the forest behind the shelter, gunking up my palms on tree sap, until I found a stick with a smooth curve I could lean on like a crutch. I spent the rest of the day picking down the access trail, stopping to rest when my legs hurt too much to stand. I took breaks fifteen minutes apart, but after a couple hours, I could only limp a few paces before having to lie down again on the trail. Once, I opened my eyes to the sound of footsteps, a small muted rumbling up above. Sticks had popped. I had my ear pressed to the ground, and when I sat up, pine needles adhered to my cheek and forehead. Another hiker was standing above me. He wore his bandana like a hippie, rolled, and his legs were as sturdy and hairless as banister poles. “Hey, buddy,” he said. “You okay?” “I think I have shin splints,” I said. “They hurt like hell.”
“You getting down to Franklin?” “Trying to.” “What can I take? Come on, let me help you out.” We transferred my tent and food bag over to his pack, a good fifteen pounds. “You sure?” I asked. “Hell yeah. It’s like another mile, tops. Trail magic, right?” “Right,” I said. He went on ahead of me, and then stopped and seemed to consider. He looked over his shoulder and said, “I’ll leave your gear right by the road.” “You’re really helping me out,” I said, but by the time I’d made it to where the trail left the woods, I couldn’t find where he’d put it anywhere. He was gone. I hopped around, looking behind trees, then called him a motherfucker to the empty road in front of me. The grass was high and yellow and the crickets and grasshoppers shrieked, and by the time I was standing on the roadside, my face was hot with tears. I stuck my thumb out and caught a ride into town. The driver left me in an empty parking lot with a fireworks stand. There was a payphone there, and I called Susan. She’d just gotten home. “I can barely walk,” I told her. “But otherwise, I’m okay.” The fireworks stand was made of bright tarpaulin, and a man with a long brown ponytail and turquoise jewelry stood behind the pyramids of cylindrical paper bombs. I dropped my pack on the asphalt just behind his line of vision, so I could sit by myself in peace. After a while, I slid down and rested my head on my pack. I fell asleep. When I woke up, a line of cars was at a standstill down the road. The beating of helicopter blades was getting closer. The man behind the fireworks stand was sitting on a camp chair, smoking a cigarette. I left my pack on the ground and walked to him, my body feeling wonderfully light. The man watched the traffic with a little smirk on his face, squinting and sucking the cigarette. “You know what happened?” I asked. He tapped a wallet-sized radio. “Five-car pileup,” he said.
26E “There’s a dead man’s turn up ahead.” “Did you hear any ambulances?” My heart was beating fast. I wasn’t sure of my bearings, of which way Susan would have come. “They’ll be here soon, I guess. No point in rushing, though. They’re just gonna be harvesting organs.” “You don’t have a cell phone, do you?” I said. “You gonna buy some fireworks? Or just sit over there with a walking stick up your ass?” It took Susan another hour and a half, and by the time she got me back home, it was past midnight. On the drive, something had been decided, and Paul got up at dawn the next morning to take me to the bus station. He was oddly pleased to buy me the ticket home, like by doing so he’d won an argument we’d been having. Back in Maryland, I had to wait a few hours at the bus station because one of my father’s clients had been late. When my father saw me, he shook my hand with the easy respect I’d seen him give players he’d bested on the golf course. I’d been having trouble thinking of how to tell him why I wasn’t on the trail, but he didn’t broach the topic. He was rushing around. It was as if I’d already done what I’d set out to do. That was the summer he’d finally moved into the Bay house, though he spent most of his time in the city, in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his new girlfriend, Sharon. He seemed pleased to have me back to look after the place while he was gone. He offered me $500 to paint the deck on the waterfront side. In a few days, my legs were feeling better. I started going for walks around the neighborhood, feeling that wonderful lightness again. Just my body, walking. No tent, no food, no mountains. The air was warm off the water. I had the house to myself, and cooked microwave pizzas for dinner. I woke up early each day to paint for an hour, before it was too hot, and while the sky and the Bay were the same light gray, both like quicksilver. There was a community pier at the end of the block, and I’d stroll along the boards with my hands behind my back. Men fished and spoke in Spanish. Occasionally, I’d have to step around a patch
27E of fresh fish-blood that stained the decking, and once, a fisherman asked me to hold his rig while he reeled in another. While he was occupied, I felt a tug on the end of the line. The man looked over and saw it, too. He opened his eyes wide and nodded his head and said, “Go, go.” I reeled it in and pulled up a six-inch white fish with a ridge on its back like a novelty comb. I watched the man slide his hand down from the mouth, pressing the comb back before unhooking it and throwing it back. “Too small,” he said. “I only take keepers. Not like them, ha.” He gestured to the rest of the fisherman on the pier. “How many do you catch?” I asked. “Today? Not many. Come back at night you want to see keepers.” So, I went back that night. The tide made shushing sounds against the sand, and as I walked out over the dark water, my footsteps could have been echoing over an ocean. Everything was quiet, deadened. I watched the men stand above their shadows, pulling excitedly on their poles. I went and stood between two light posts, watching them move their fists down over caught fish’s mouths until the hooks were free, watching them drop them into buckets. By the second night, they’d gotten used to me. They yipped unabashedly with a fish on the line. “Come here. Look,” one of them said. He held the fish up and squeezed its cheeks together, opening the mouth to expose a row of sharp little teeth. “See,” he said. “A monster.” On one of those nights, I watched as a man in a straw hat hoisted a skate up on the pier. At first, I froze where I was. All I could see were the fins flopping. It looked as monstrous as anything I could imagine would live in those waters. Three or four of the men gathered around, while the man who had caught it stepped on it, right where the tail connected to its body. Then, he cut a circle in its head. It bled as a man might bleed, thick black blood. When the flopping stopped, he cut the tail, and then he cut the fins and put them in his bucket. With the side of his boot, he scraped what was left of the animal back into the Bay. It left dark streaks on the pier. I finished painting the deck. On weekends, my father and
28E I would go out for dinner. There was an Italian place up the street, and a little dock restaurant at the marina, where a girl I knew from high school was working as a hostess. “Are you hiring?” my father said. It sounded like a come-on. “Only if you want to wash dishes,” she said. After she’d brought the check, I lingered as my father went to get the car, and filled out an application. They called the next morning to offer me the job. It was easy work. After a week, I felt my brain was floating in the suds. I’d see her, Amanda, before I walked into the kitchen for my shift, and she’d be gone by the time I left. For a week, near the end of the summer, I convinced myself I loved her. One night, after a late shift, we stood together in the parking lot. I was feeling dreamy. “Shaun,” she said, and squeezed my hand. “Are you going to take me back to your place and fuck me silly tonight, or what?” Then she laughed. I tried to say something that would change it from a joke, but I couldn’t think of anything. She drove a little white hatchback, and after she let go of my fingers, she got in and closed the door like she hadn’t said anything. Then she drove away. I’d missed my chance. Things weren’t the same after that. It was only at the end of August, packing up for school, that I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. I was nervous about running into Jeremy—that I’d see him paling around with the lacrosse guys—that in front of all of them it would be revealed that I’d chickened out. But when I finally asked around, I heard that he had transferred. That was all ten years ago. Ten years ago this summer—July now, so ten years ago and a month. Last week, Jeremy looked me up on Facebook and told me he’d be in town. We engaged in an endless email exchange that could have been taken care of in a single call. But neither of us wanted that. The Olive Branch on F Street, did I know it? I did not. Not the shitty Italian thing, he wrote. It’s a vegan place. He was sure I could find something I liked, and sent a link to the menu. Okay, I wrote. I’m sure it’s fine. It’ll be good to see you. I didn’t know what to wear to a vegan restaurant. I was anxious in a way I hadn’t been anxious for a while. Last year, a
29E friend from work took me to an anti-war rally on the Mall, and I’d squirmed the whole time. These days, I live in the part of my brain that tells me that I’m fully formed, that I’ve figured out the more complicated parts of surviving in the modern world. But sometimes, it wavers. Sometimes, I slip back into feeling this way. When I got to the restaurant, Jeremy stood up from his seat, and grinned enormously. He had either already been drinking or had changed into a creature of pure kindness and light. I recognized him immediately. His hair was still thick, and his face still had that aggressive handsomeness that the girls in the dorm had liked. He looked gaunt, though, and as he stood, I thought I saw him shaking. He wore a vest that he could have taken on a fishing trip, full of pockets. “Shaun,” he said. “Oh, wow. It’s you.” Though I’d already seen the menu, I let my eyes pass over the categories. It was nice to sit there quietly with something in front of my face. When the waitress came, I ordered the Udon Bowl. “So,” I said. “What brings you down here?” “One of these conferences that seem to take up so much of my time these days.” “What do you do?” I asked. “Oh, right. Duh,” he said, bouncing the heel of his palm off his forehead. “That’s kind of important in this reintroduction. I’m a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College.” “Really. You studied philosophy, I guess. It was strange not seeing you when I got back. You know, I thought we’d have this big reunion. Do you like it?” “The students are my life, Shaun. Really, they are my life. I’ve come to see the truth about small communities. It’s all right there, everything a person needs. I can ski to work in twenty minutes.” I felt myself rambling just to put words into the air between us. “I bet you’ll grow old there. Small college. Great students. I bet you just love it.” “I’m building a zero-carbon-footprint house. It’s amazing what you can do when you work with a builder these days. I mean, it’s really exciting stuff.” “What’s your research?” I said.
30E “That’s actually one of the things I want to discuss with you.” He chewed on a forkful of sprouts. Then he smiled. “I’ve felt so bad about this ever since the hike. Can you believe it’s been ten years? When I saw you in that hallway, doing those exercises, I knew you’d never make it. Wait, wait,” he said, holding up his hand. Had I flinched? Had he seen my muscles tighten? “I wanted to go because I thought maybe I could keep you on track. You probably don’t believe that, and I don’t blame you, but it was one of those strange moments where I just knew. I knew I could help you get through something important in your life.” He lowered his hand, as if he’d built a morally unassailable justification. “But then I didn’t. I let you leave. I kept on going. I know this may sound arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it as a way of apology. That was a period in my life when I often felt superior. I had such great physical strength! But I never felt superior to you in spirit. I want you to know that, Shaun.” “How does that tie into your research?” “If you only knew,” he said. He shook his head at his plate of beans as if beans were a funny thing. “Listen, the reason I wanted to get together was to extend an invitation. I want to get you back out on the trail again. Let’s start from where you left off. It would mean a lot to me.” I had to resist the urge to reach across the table and grab him by his vest. Weighing whatever he did now, I felt I could fling him over my head. But I didn’t move; I sat there and felt my anger burn. My anger felt like what I’d come there for. “Well?” he said. “What do you say?” “What about your students?” “It will be summer soon. I don’t teach in the summer.” I laughed—one of those head-back laughs I’d only ever seen in movies. I loved it, the tightness in the back of my neck, the wildness of my volume. People at other tables turned to look. “Shaun?” “I have a family now,” I said. “My son was just born. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t… My son was born last month,” I said quietly. He smiled his buddhic smile again. “I didn’t know. Congratulations.” His warmth broadened, and I was scared for a moment
31E that he would stand and call the restaurant to attention with a clink of his glass. “That’s wonderful news.” I wolfed my food to make the meal go faster. Both of us ate like that, fiercely, territorially, and I remembered eating on the trail—that hunger that could not be satisfied. How I’d felt, for those minutes, like an animal must feel. It hollowed me there as it had hollowed me then. A cavity of wanting. Too much of me had been civilized, though. I was too grown up to let that hollowness remain—to want to let it sit there. “Okay,” said Jeremy, when the meal was over. He held the door for me and we stepped into the balmy evening. It had rained while we ate, but I hadn’t noticed. Now there were hot puddles quickly shrinking on the sidewalk. “If you change your mind, you know how to reach me.” “Sure, I do.” I said. “I guess no one’s out of touch anymore.” I drove home to my apartment and sat outside on the balcony. The woods were full beneath me; there was a creek down there, with trails that ran through the easement. You could hardly tell I was in a city. A neighbor banged around on the deck overhead. I didn’t know why I’d said what I said, about having a son. I don’t have a son. My girlfriend took a job in Atlanta, and now I’m single again. But I felt the joy of all that nervousness behind me, the thrill of my life, as if it would be a new life. My body felt light again, inconsequential, just as it had when I’d taken off my pack. I brought out my laptop, and looked up the philosophy faculty page at Hampshire College. I was not surprised to find he wasn’t listed.
“RV” / William Joseph Stribling
DRIVE LIKE A CHAMPION
“Untitled” / Kathleen Uttenweiller
n a Friday morning in June, Dan sat in a booth at Hardee’s with a cup of coffee and a plain biscuit. He didn’t have the appetite for either, but eating was a comfortable routine. Every few minutes he pulled out his cell phone and checked the time. He’d shown up at the bank right when it opened at nine o’clock, the agreed upon time, but was stopped by Chuck’s secretary when he tried to walk into the manager’s office. “Mr. Palmer is in a meeting.” She was a little too curt for Dan’s liking. And the whole “Mr. Palmer” thing was obnoxious too, considering they’d all known each other since high school. “I know, Susan. I am the meeting.” “No, they don’t need you in there yet. Didn’t you get the email? You can come back at ten.” He only lived five minutes away but didn’t feel like going back home, so he killed the hour at Hardee’s. Grabbing a bench that faced Highway 49, he sat watching the morning traffic flow past the window. Most of it was headed south into Charlotte and would all be crowding its way back come the end of the workday. Dan knew several of the people who came in and he nodded and waved. One of them, Ron Coley, came over and sat down. He and Dan talked about the heat and Ron’s grandkids. Also, a recent storm had knocked over a tree in his yard, and he offered Dan free firewood, if he wanted firewood in June. Much to Dan’s relief, Ron didn’t ask about the dealership. Not that Ron knew anything. It would have been an innocent conversation, but, still, it would have been hard. After 23 years of providing jobs to Harrisburg and selling quality automobiles, Dan Stewart Toyota was bankrupt. He had filed for Chapter 11 several months prior, but was unable to afford even the reduced loan payments. His creditors had found a buyer for the dealership, and, at their strong encouragement, he was signing it over today. Ten o’clock finally came, and Dan returned to the bank. His lawyer, who had evidently checked his email, arrived right on time. The meeting with Chuck was humbling at first, then it descended into tedium. There were half a dozen attorneys in the room – some
36E representing the buyer, others Dan’s creditors. Dan must have signed his name at least three dozen times. Finally, he stopped reading the forms or listening to the lawyers’ explanations; he was a robot: scribble, push across desk, scribble, push across desk, scribble, push across desk, yawn. When it was over, both he and Chuck seemed embarrassed at having to shake hands, and he avoided Susan’s eyes when he walked out. Back home, Dan went online and checked the weather forecast for New York City. He packed a suitcase and hung dress shirts and slacks from the dry-cleaning hooks in the backseat of his Land Cruiser. Unsure how long he would be gone, he left on a few lights and moved his second car from the garage into the driveway so the place would appear occupied. By one o’clock, he was headed north on Interstate 85, his GPS directing him to “287 Marin Boulevard” in Jersey City, a budget motel located a few train stops from his daughter Abby’s apartment in Manhattan. This trip had been on his mind for several years, Dan always saying he would make arrangements next month, once things slowed down at work, assuaging his guilt with impotent good intentions. But recently it had begun to gnaw at him, how long it had been since he’d seen his only child – four years. And as the dealership became more and more of an albatross, the thought of seeing Abby was something he clung to. For the past week, as Dan packed up his office and made the necessary arrangements, he found that Abby was all he thought about. When he looked at the clock at 10:25, he wondered what she did at that time. Did she have a routine, so that 10:25 every morning was the same? He often got lunch at Chong Chin’s, a greasy Chinese joint in the Food Lion parking lot, because that was her favorite as a kid. I-85 was empty that morning and Dan had just passed the mall when he looked up and saw himself, 50 feet in the air and 15 feet tall, grinning at midday traffic: “With our easy financing plans, anyone can drive like a champion!” When he first had that billboard put up 12 years earlier, he was proud of it. Every time he passed it, he would slow down just to look, even changing his family’s route to church so that he could see
37E it on Sunday mornings. Ostensibly, this was so he could ensure it was well-maintained and that his advertising dollars weren’t being wasted; really, he just liked to look at it. Every feature was memorized—the way the orange background at the top faded to white at the bottom, the red letters and slanted font of the text, his confident, arms-crossed stance, the gaudy national championship ring on his finger, complete with reflective silver paint for the diamonds. But recently, as the complications of running the dealership weighed heavier and heavier, he was less enthusiastic about having his face plastered up for the whole town to see, and as he drove past the billboard that morning, on the way out of town, he had a vision of blowing the whole thing up. He looked at the base, a three-foot thick metal cylinder, and wondered how much dynamite would be required. He pictured it toppling onto the interstate in a cloud of dust, one less high-profile reminder of who he was. In two hours he was out of North Carolina, and the drive through Virginia was similarly uneventful. Outside Baltimore he stopped at a Motel 6 and got a room. There was a 7-11 across the street and he bought a six-pack of Heineken and fell asleep watching an unfunny sitcom. The split with Abby came near the end of her time in college. At that point, Dan had been divorced from her mother, Cynthia, for several years. He saw Abby often, driving up to Chapel Hill to attend football games with her, Abby sometimes staying at his place when she came home on weekends, driving the shiny green 4-Runner Dan had given her at high school graduation. In April of her senior year, she had been in town, and they met for their customary dinner of chicken fried rice and egg rolls. Since she was one month from graduation, the conversation centered on jobs. “You know there’s a place for you at the dealership,” Dan said, not for the first time. “At first you’d be answering phones, but soon enough you could be a supervisor.” “OK, Dad. I’ll let you know. I’m still waiting to hear back from some people.” Her tone was abrupt. She had been short all throughout
38E dinner, hardly eating or looking at him, a stark contrast to her normal ebullience. The waiter put the bill on the table. Dan opened it and shook his head. They had both had alcohol and it was higher than he’d expected. “I might take this out of your mother’s alimony for next month. She’s been gougin’ me,” he said with a chuckle. “Well, you’re the one who cheated—not her.” He looked up from the check. “She told you that?” “Not really.” “So she did tell you.” “I figured it out and she just confirmed.” “What does ‘figured it out’ mean?” “Come on, Dad. You’re Mr. Football Star. I know how that goes.” Dan’s ears burned red. In a daze, he opened his wallet, rifled through old receipts, pulled out his credit card. The waiter swooped in, then left. “How long have you known?” She glared. “She told me a month ago, but I’ve suspected for longer.” “I’m sorry. It was dumb, totally my fault. But you need to understand – we were going to divorce anyway. Your mom and I are both happier apart.” “Was it just one woman? Were there others?” “Just one.” He said this weakly, unable to make eye contact. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself with a sip of beer. Abby stood up and walked out without another word. Dan attended her graduation the next month, afterwards meeting his daughter and ex-wife for an awkward lunch. A few weeks later, he drove a U-Haul up to Manhattan and helped Abby get set up in her new apartment. They spoke several times after the move, but she soon stopped returning his calls. Dan persisted for a while, leaving weekly messages in which he encouraged her to work hard and stay safe. But the lack of a response wore him down. He started to imagine her reaction as the phone rang: the eye roll when she saw him on the caller ID yet again, the snide comments she made to friends as she pocketed the phone without answering.
“Tuscon Motel Pool” / William Joseph Stribling
41E Enough of these thoughts and he finally stopped calling. He didn’t totally cut off contact. Every few months he’d try again, doubting she’d answer, but wanting her to at least hear his voice. And for her birthday and Christmas, he sent IKEA and Lowe’s gift cards, his way of helping her keep up the apartment. He got a number of stiffly worded thank you notes in response, but no calls. The night before he signed away the dealership, Dan saw himself on TV. This was not an unusual occurrence and, really, it would be odd for a resident of the greater Charlotte area to watch TV for a whole night and not see Dan. He came on during a King of the Hill rerun, right after an ad for barbeque sauce. It was one he’d filmed a few months earlier. He watched himself walk in front of a row of gleaming cars, wearing a #58 football jersey. He stopped in front of the grand prize, a gleaming SUV: “And I’ve saved the best for last. You can be driving this beauty for one-ninety-nine a month. You heard me right: oneninety-nine a month! Come on out where champions shop: Dan Stewart Toyota!” Dan on the TV was yelling and Dan on the couch turned the volume down. Why did he always have to yell? Maybe they needed better audio equipment. The Dan Stewart Toyota logo filled the screen while his theme music played, a generic pep-bandsounding fight song that the ad agency came up with years earlier. The next commercial featured a family of cats who shared a cell phone plan, and Dan turned the TV off. He got a beer from the fridge and went out to his back yard, grabbing a putter and bucket of golf balls on the way. Sounds filled the wet air, the humming engine of a summer night – crickets and cicadas and 18-wheelers on the highway. He had a putting green in his backyard, a 20 by 20 patch of earth that he’d tamped down and planted with Creeping Bentgrass. It required a significant amount of maintenance and there were some years it got out of control, but this summer he’d been meticulous, trimming almost daily, welcoming the Zen-like distraction it afforded in the midst of his financial chaos. He lined up a row of balls and began hitting three footers.
42E He was a fast putter, always using the same motion – eyes on the ball, trace the path to the hole, trace it back to the ball, swing. No interminable practice swings or eye-level inspections of the landscape. Dan’s mind was full, and he hoped to empty it, if only temporarily. He wanted to shake the feeling of smallness he’d been contending with all day, an uncomfortable concept that took root in him as he grappled with what it meant to no longer be the owner of anything or employer of anyone. He’d passed the dealership earlier that day while driving, and had the uncomfortable thought that he would soon be just a customer, not even able to use the employee bathroom. After ten minutes of erratic short putts, he moved on to fifteen-footers. There was a break in the green he liked using, a gentle pitch that moved the ball from left to right. With long shots like this, the goal was not to make it, but to drop the ball within a six-inch radius of the hole. But what kept Dan coming back was the rare occasion when one of these actually dropped in, when the ball rode on the edge of the ridge until the exact right spot, finally breaking in its long, preordained arc towards the cup, where it would drop with a satisfying plunk. He had gotten through one bucket of these – no makes and few within his precious six inches – and was collecting the balls in the bucket when he heard his neighbor’s garage door open. He had been hoping for privacy, but he dutifully emptied half the golf balls in a spot five feet from the hole, on the opposite side of the green from his putting line. A young boy with shaggy hair and a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt walked across the yard, holding a putter that was nearly as tall as he was. “Hey Alex.” The kid nodded in response and went to the pile Dan made. Without a word, he began putting, swinging his oversized club in the pendulum method that was currently trending among pro golfers – top of the club nestled under his chin, one hand on the top, one in the middle, the motion just like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Alex swung this way from necessity. He had no childsized clubs of his own, so Dan had given him an old one and taught
43E him the long-putter technique. Dan watched as he lined up five-footers, sinking about half. “Nice.” Alex grinned and Dan returned to his long shots. Alex soon mimicked him, eschewing shorter putts and kicking his collection of balls to a spot about fifteen feet from the hole on the opposite edge of the green. There was a slight ridge there, too, and when two people putted simultaneously there was a pleasing symmetry to the motion of their shots, the balls’ curving paths bisecting the green into a yin-yang. Dan was normally a good putter, but tonight he couldn’t find his groove. After several minutes of him and Alex taking aim from the same distance, Dan noticed with slight annoyance that, of the cluster of balls sitting near the hole, the majority weren’t his. Alex was also good. Dan had given him permission to use the green whenever he wanted, and several nights a week he would look out his window to see a familiar small figure with his head down, diligently putting away. Dan wondered if the pendulum motion was the reason for the boy’s success, and considered buying a long-putter for himself. Eventually, Alex’s mother called him home. Dan putted for a while longer, then went inside, too. He checked his email before going to bed. He’d just started applying for positions he found on internet job boards and since then had been compulsively checking his inbox, hoping for a response. He hadn’t heard anything yet, however, and this night was no different. The only new mail he had was spam. Dan was Harrisburg’s favorite son, a high-school football star who went on to even more success in college as a starting defensive tackle on Clemson’s ’81 championship team. In church, at the grocery store, at the Little League fields, he’d catch people glancing at him, pointing. Young boys, escorted by their dads, wanted to talk to him, and he would tousle their hair and let them try on his Orange Bowl ring, which swallowed their tiny fingers. Older men would corner him and recount their memories of his games, both from high school and from Clemson. Women took notice, too.
44E Most of the girls he went to school with were still in town, and, husband in tow or not, they always seemed eager to “catch up” and laugh at his jokes. He was accustomed to the attention and felt that he handled it well. Dan was a large man, six foot three and over 300 pounds. His waistline had expanded significantly since his youthful heyday, but his arms and hands retained their vigor. Even though he had not exercised in years, he used to perform occasional feats of strength that impressed his employees, swiping up 100-pound boxes with one arm and sliding heavy equipment around the garage like chess pieces. His hair was a close-cropped flattop, dyed black, looking the same as it had in his high school yearbook. Owning a car dealership wasn’t in his plans when he graduated from Clemson. His degree was in Interdisciplinary Studies – the stereotypical easy jock major – and he went to class mostly to stay eligible for football. Naturally, he hoped to play in the NFL, and the summer after graduation, he flew to Texas for the Cowboy’s training camp. It was a sobering experience, the first time in his life he felt physically outmatched. When he got cut, one of the coaches suggested that the Chargers might be a good fit for him, but that turned out to be more of the same, and he was cut within a week of arriving in San Diego. He was not NFL material. Flying back east, Dan contemplated for the first time a life without football. A sad thought, surely, but it also never occurred to him that things wouldn’t work out, that without any marketable skills he might struggle to find work. He blithely assumed that things would just fall into place – a reasonable assumption, because they always had in the past. People made accommodations for him; the world seemed to bend to his wishes. The death of his NFL dream notwithstanding, Dan’s confidence was back by the time he landed at Charlotte-Douglas Airport. His faith in himself was rewarded, because it took less than a week of searching to find a plum job in sales at Braswell Motors – great base salary plus commission, his starting pay on par with some of the more experienced salesmen. Mike Braswell did this not because he was a football fan, but because Dan added prestige to his
45E business. Several years later, Dan became a manager. He eventually jumped ship for more money at Zickerman Toyota, a brand-spanking new dealership that opened in Harrisburg in ’89. And when Ed Zickerman got ill and had to sell the place a few years later, Dan had no trouble getting approval for a loan to buy it himself. After all, several guys at the bank were Clemson boosters. Later on he became known as much for his ads as for his football. The whole “drive like a champion” thing started soon after he bought the place from Zickerman and changed the sign out front to read Dan Stewart Toyota. The ad agency he hired suggested that he use his football success to help with marketing. Soon after, he was on TV holding a football and loudly exhorting viewers: “Y’all come visit us today, and we’ll have you driving like a champion by suppertime.” There was a huge inflatable football out front, as well as hash marks and an end zone painted on the floor of the showroom. And then there was the billboard on 85, which had been up for so long it became something of a landmark, useful in giving directions. Dan woke up in his Maryland motel room and stared at the ceiling for twenty minutes. Getting out of bed in the mornings was a chore, his body creaky and aching from years of football. He spun his championship ring around on his finger. He used to remove it when he slept, but now it would come off only with great effort. His fingers were swollen and gnarled, the product of untold collisions, jammed and abused by an endless array of offensive linemen. He finally got out of bed, slowly, feeling for the brittle motel carpet with his toes, then shambling over to the sink to down four Advil. His knees would feel better once he got moving around. The motel had a meager continental breakfast, and Dan helped himself before leaving, balancing his weight on a flimsy chair, squeezing his legs underneath a postage-stamp of a table. Sports highlights played in the background, and he halfway watched while eating two bagels and drinking watery coffee. The other patrons were business travelers, not tourists, dressed in the polos and buttoned-down shirts of their professions. After refilling his coffee for the road, he left, planning to be in New York by the
46E afternoon. He stopped at a gas station outside Wilmington, Delaware. His SUV burned through a lot of fuel, but only now was Dan, newly unemployed, feeling the sting. It cost $78 to fill up, plus a 20-ounce Coke and a gas-station hot dog. He thought about how Abby used to chide him for his eating habits. He listened to AM radio as he drove, flipping back and forth between conservative opinions and sports talk. The phone rang soon after he crossed into New Jersey, a number he didn’t recognize with a South Carolina area code. “Dan here.” “Hey there, Dan! Randy Blackmon. How are ya?” Randy owned a Toyota dealership in Columbia, SC, two hours south of Harrisburg. Dan had run into him at numerous corporate get-togethers over the years. “Doing great,” Dan said. ”Hope you and the wife are well.” They went back and forth for a few minutes about various topics – kids, mini-van sales, Clemson’s recruiting class. “Alright,” Randy said, in a tone that indicated he was finally getting to the point, “I imagine you’re wondering why I called.” “Sure.” “I have a job offer.” “A job?” Dan’s initial reaction was to ask how Randy knew he needed one, since Dan Stewart was still on the sign out front of the dealership, the TV spots were still running, and his face was still on the billboards. It was one thing to post his unemployment for anonymous HR reps to see, quite another to talk about it with a man who did what he did, only more successfully. But his Chapter 11 filing had been no secret, and he had to assume his loss of the dealership was now making its way through the corporate grapevine, too. “We’re trying to figure out a new ad campaign,” Randy said. “Sales have been hurting lately, what with the economy and all the safety mess.” The “mess” he referred to was Toyota’s sticky accelerator pedals and top-heavy SUV’s that had been all over the news in recent months. Suddenly it was no longer safe for Mom to cart the kids
47E around town in her 4-Runner. “I love what you’ve done with marketing. The whole ‘drive like a champion’ thing. You’ve really carved out a brand for yourself, something I’ve been trying to do for years. And heck, we’re right in the middle of Clemson country. I want you to do ads for us.” “No kidding.” Dan turned the radio off. “Commercials, you mean?” “Yeah, but everything else, too. Billboards, promotional events, what-have-you. You know better than I do what all that entails. I think it’d be a huge hit down here.” “So, what else goes along with the job?” Dan tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “I mean, making commercials isn’t a full-time thing. Did you guys have a management position that’s opened up?” “No, we don’t have any openings in management.” Dan paused and an air compressor churned away in the background. “We’re just wanting you to help with advertising.” “That’s great and all. I’ve been doing ads for the last fifteen years, but I’ve been managing for over twenty. I’ve got lots of experience in that area, Randy.” “I know, I know. You have a ton of expertise in management. But we just don’t have a need. You’re welcome to a spot on our sales team, if you like. I can make room there. But listen, we’re going to be paying you full-time. If that’s your concern, don’t worry about the salary.” Randy waited for a response, but Dan didn’t speak. “Sound like something you’re interested in?” “You just want me to do commercials?” “Yeah, commercials are the main thing, but we do lots of promotional stuff as well, making appearances at events, et cetera. You’d be an in-house advertising consultant, basically.” Dan scratched the back of his neck and shifted in his seat. Randy sensed his hesitation. “You don’t have to give me an answer right now. How about you let me know by next week?” “Sounds good.” “Thanks for the time. Nice talking to you Dan.”
48E “Same here.” Dan hung up the phone, tossed it on the passenger seat, and turned the radio back on. It was a New York sports show, a bunch of callers with thick accents yelling about the Yankees’ bullpen, and it annoyed him. He turned it off and rolled down the window, the thick summer air whipping around the car. “They want me to be a damn mascot,” he said aloud. However, for the rest of the drive, he thought about it. Randy was offering a steady paycheck, as well as a chance to stay on Toyota’s health insurance. Dan knew he had to figure out something to do next. He wanted to branch out, maybe find a different line of work, but every decent position required experience in the field, and his only experience was the auto business. Dan Stewart Toyota had not always struggled. In fact, profits flowed in steadily for the first fifteen years he owned it. He bought a house on Lake Norman and two boats. He bought a new Lexus for Cynthia every couple years. But in the early 2000’s, Dan decided to renovate, a decision that confused a number of people, Cynthia included. Sales had not slipped – they were in fact increasing – nor were the facilities outdated. Dan was just tired of the building and felt it was time for an upgrade. He began subscribing to an architecture magazine and contracted with a firm in New York City, several times paying for their designers to fly in and hear his ideas. The end result, after four years of planning and construction, was a gleaming palace of glass and slick concrete. The showroom floor doubled in size, the garage sparkled with new equipment; and facing the highway for all to see was a vast window of expensive smoked glass, 20 feet high by 80 feet long. All this trouble earned him a glowing article in This Way, Toyota’s corporate magazine, which wrote that Dan “represents Toyota’s tradition of never settling, always innovating.” The loan he had to procure for this work was enormous, but for several years he made his payments on time, just one more check for accounting to send out that Dan hardly thought about. However, in 2010, two events combined to make his situation untenable. At that point the economy had already been in the dumps
49E for several years; Dan was feeling the squeeze, but he was managing. Then the knockout blow came in the form of the safety recalls. Sales dropped for all Toyota dealers, not just Dan. However, the other dealerships didn’t have the debt-load that he did. He made layoffs, which bought him a few more months, but by the beginning of 2011 he could no longer afford the payments. His creditors sued and he filed for Chapter 11. In addition to the private equity firm that had financed the renovations, Dan Stewart Toyota also owed money to the bank. Chuck, the Wells Fargo officer in charge of Dan’s account, was an old high-school classmate who had idolized Dan, the havoc-wreaking defensive end. For years, they had talked football whenever Dan was in the office, and Chuck did all he could to ease the tension once Dan’s financial situation deteriorated. In their first meeting after Dan’s bankruptcy filing, he started off by talking about their senior year, when Dan had led Central Cabarrus deep into the playoffs, only to lose a controversial game to Sun Valley. Dan stonewalled him and after that their conversations were strictly business. A few miles after his conversation with Randy, Dan saw a billboard advertising Captain Steve’s Driving Range, and he got off the interstate. His clubs were in the trunk, packed just in case he had the urge. Captain Steve’s was a run-down joint, for which Dan was thankful, not wanting to drag a collared shirt out of his bag just to hit a few balls. He pulled into a gravel parking lot and hauled his clubs inside, where he bought a large bucket for ten dollars. Once on the range, he picked the spot with the least number of divots and dumped out his bucket. He started with his 9-iron, taking easy swings to warm himself up, pitching shots towards the 100-yard flag. No one else was there, and he enjoyed the solitude. After ten minutes, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his golf towel and switched to his 7-iron, taking aim at the 150 flag. Some of his shots were nice, sailing effortlessly towards his target, but just as many were not. For someone who played golf as often as he did, Dan wasn’t that good. And he knew it, having been stuck at a 28-handicap for years. He also knew the reason he wasn’t good. It was his work habits. The majority of his practice time was spent putting, which
50E he enjoyed because he excelled at it. This was the odd paradox of Dan’s golf game, that a hulking, 300-pound ex-defensive lineman was most comfortable with the delicate art of putting. He might flounder in sand traps and spray drives around the course with all the subtlety of a fire hose, but once he was on the green, a two-putt was a pretty sure bet. But that was his problem. Since putting came naturally, it’s all he wanted to do. Fixing the rest of his game would require serious toil, hours at the driving range, hitting the same shot over and over and over until it was burned into his muscle memory. Something Dan had begun to notice about himself recently, and not just on the golf course, was that the only skills he had were those he was born with. He had been a good football player because he was big – 6’1” and 220 pounds by the ninth grade. He didn’t have to lift weights to be stronger than the other kids; it was written in his DNA. In fact, his high school coach used to have fits trying to get Dan to work harder in the weight room, which Dan thought was foolish, assuming that lifting was for those who weren’t naturally strong. He saw the same trend in himself professionally. The biggest strength he had as a car salesman was his charisma, which wasn’t something he’d ever had to cultivate. When it came time to drill down and get serious about business matters, he’d always been content to delegate responsibility, falling back on the same excuse: that the brass tacks stuff wasn’t his skill-set, that he was more of an ideas guy and a people person. But as things had fallen apart in recent years, forcing him into introspection, Dan began to have the uncomfortable realization that maybe he wasn’t a Steve Jobs-esque big-picture guy; maybe he was just lazy. Because schmoozing with customers and planning epic renovations were a lot more enjoyable than unsexy tasks like sitting down with a spreadsheet to analyze sales metrics. But he knew that if he’d done more of the latter, he might still own the dealership. It was like the time he’d tried to teach Alex to use a pitching wedge. It seemed like a logical step – the boy spent hours on Dan’s putting green; now it was time to move on to the other clubs in the
“Open Road in Eastern Europe” / Charla Allyn Hughes
53E bag. But Alex gave up after ten minutes of divot-making futility, saying he would rather just putt. Dan found this annoying, but he also understood that he wasn’t one to judge. He tried to be different at Captain Steve’s, though. When his 7-iron was erratic, he stuck with it, resisting the urge to switch to another club or wander over to the putting green. He had about thirty balls left, and decided that he’d hit them all with the 7 to see if he could make improvements on his swing. He took his time, careful to keep his feet square and his wrists straight. He’d hit about ten shots in this manner when another golfer joined him on the range, a woman. She had a bag of Nike clubs with a fuzzy pink cover on the driver. She set up two spaces in front of Dan and began hitting. In between his own shots, Dan observed her with interest. She had a nice figure, and looked maybe ten years younger than him. Her brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and her golf skirt ended mid-thigh, revealing toned legs. Dan continued to hit his own shots, holding his follow-through a little longer after good ones, hoping she noticed. When he ran out of range balls, he didn’t want to leave, so he went back into the pro shop for another bucket. As the two silently swung away, Dan thought of how he might strike up a conversation. He ran through various pick-up lines, and decided he’d open by asking about her Nike clubs, saying that he planned to buy a set of his own, which was true. Not until she was finished, though. She seemed serious about her game, so it was best not to interrupt. He would speak to her casually as she left, between his own swings, as though it was an afterthought for him. If things went well, he hoped she might stick around and hit a few shots with him, maybe go out for lunch somewhere. But as he didn’t plan on staying in Jersey for more than a day, he was not looking to cultivate a relationship. His ultimate goal was to get her into a hotel room. The notion of bedding a woman within twenty-four hours of meeting her was not new to Dan. He’d done so on numerous occasions, starting at Clemson, where his status as an athlete made such connections easy. He hadn’t had to endure the elaborate wooing required of most men, didn’t have to impress ladies with his wit or
54E suavity. He just had to be Dan the Football Player, and women–not all of them, but certain ones – were duly impressed. He’d later had similar results as Dan the Ex-Football Player and Dan the Wealthy & Ubiquitous Car Dealer. He knew it would be a bit more challenging this time since he wasn’t a known quantity to this woman, but he was willing to try, having a confidence born of his previous successes. Dan continued to hit his shots, pausing frequently to watch her. She had a good swing and he wondered if she’d played in college. He was admiring the way her hips rotated during her drives when she caught him looking. There was no denying it on his part. He was leaning on his 7-iron, staring right at her. He didn’t look away, and thought this might be his chance to start up a conversation. He was about to ask, “How you like those Nikes?” when her expression hardened. She looked on the verge of saying something, but didn’t. Instead, she picked up her bucket and bag and marched right by Dan, moving to a spot behind him, out of his range of vision. He bit his lip and his stomach churned with embarrassment. He wanted to turn around and tell her who he was, to explain that he wasn’t some random creep at a driving range. He recognized this urge as ridiculous, however, and suppressed it. He instead returned his attention to his bucket, nearly empty. There were four balls left, which he guided onto the mat with his club. He sliced every one. Not wanting to leave on a bad note, he walked out onto the range. There were a few extra balls lying close by, and he picked up a handful. It took him a few hacks – some low line drives and a worm burner – before finally finding what he was looking for, a missile of a 7-iron, the ball’s backspin projecting it into a bell-curve arc, dropping well past the 150 marker. He picked up his bag and left, not looking at the woman, who was still swinging away. A few exits after the driving range, Dan stopped for lunch at a chain restaurant that served breakfast all day. He sat in a booth with a plate of eggs and hash browns, reading the sports section of USA Today as the room buzzed around him. A construction crew
55E ate next to him, having a lively discussion in Spanish, laughing frequently. At another nearby table, a mother struggled to control two young boys, frequently reminding them to use “inside voices.” Dan skimmed a few articles in the paper, but didn’t absorb anything. His thoughts were elsewhere, replaying the scene at the driving range, the way that woman had glared at him. He’d seen the same look from Cynthia, too, at the end. And oddly enough, mixed in with these unpleasant thoughts was a memory of a sermon he’d heard years earlier, one of the few things he ever heard in church that had stuck with him. He was never good with Old Testament names, but he remembered this one – Esau. The guy came in starving from a long day of hunting and his brother was making soup. Esau requested sustenance and his brother, who was younger, demanded Esau’s birthright in return. And Esau gave it up, right there on the spot, in exchange for dinner. So of course the preacher’s focus was on Esau’s foolishness, how he was sold out by short-sighted enslavement to his appetite, how any man who could so easily cast aside his birthright didn’t deserve it in the first place. Dan had never forgotten that sermon, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it now. He tied it to a theme he’d been mulling over, the notion that his early successes ruined him for normal life, in a way. The heady rush of playing in front of 100,000 people as a teenager had ill-prepared him for the decades that were to follow. From a young age, football had conditioned him, priming his brain to need stimulation, to be intolerant of monotony. But it was that very thing – monotony – that was in his best long-term interest. If he’d been content with one woman, he’d still be married to Cynthia and have Abby’s respect. If he’d been content with an unexceptional building, he’d still own the dealership. He wondered if perhaps every person was granted a finite amount of excitement in life; the smart ones rationed theirs, enjoying small bits at a time, whereas he’d been foolish enough to waste all his by the age of 22. Then he spent his adulthood looking for more, to disastrous effect.
56E When he arrived in Jersey City, it was early afternoon. He checked into another cheap motel and showered off the sweat from the driving range. Then he got directions to the PATH station from the desk clerk and was soon on a train into Manhattan. Abby lived at 349 East 12th Street, several blocks to the east of Greenwich Village. Cynthia, who was in regular contact with their daughter, had provided Dan with her current phone number and confirmed that she lived at the same address they’d moved her into four years earlier. Dan rode the train all the way until its last stop – Penn Station. He could have gotten off closer to his destination, but felt like walking. He bought lunch from a street vendor, another hot dog and Coke. It was sweltering outside, almost as bad as North Carolina, but in place of humidity was the accumulated exhaust from hundreds of thousands of mostly-idling cars. Sharply dressed businessmen loosened their ties. Dogs on leashes shuffled by, tongues lolling out. As he got closer to Abby’s place, details from the weekend he helped her move in came back to him: the Strand Bookstore at the corner of 12th and Broadway where he had coffee one morning; a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant down off the sidewalk where they ate the first day they arrived; the careless, bohemian vibe of the young people he passed. When he got to 349, he didn’t even need to look at the number. On the bottom floor, just like last time, was the Thai Terminal. Abby lived up above, at the top of five flights of narrow stairs. The door into her building was locked; visitors had to be buzzed in. The brass doorknob was still loose, which he’d pointed out several times as a safety hazard during the moving process, though Abby and Cynthia hadn’t seemed too concerned. The door itself was still covered with a mishmash of stickers, the most conspicuous being a large one with “Scarlet Harlot” written in bold letters. Dan assumed this was a band. He called Abby’s cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail and he didn’t leave a message. He found a shady spot under the Thai Terminal sign and waited. As he waited, Dan’s thoughts again wandered back to the move, the last time he had seen his daughter face-to-face. Even
57E though he drove all the way up to help her move, he wasn’t entirely supportive of her decision to pursue a career in theater after he’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on her sociology degree. Dan kept hinting that Abby should find a “day job” and act at night, which led to several sharp exchanges between the two. She had always been different than her parents. Dan and Cynthia were very much in the All-American mold – he was a football star and she a college volleyball player – but Abby had eschewed team sports, preferring drama troupes, dark clothes, and scrawny, long-haired boyfriends for much of her adolescence. Her grades were always good though, so these diversions didn’t bother her parents, who admired her individuality. However, Dan had a harder time dealing with his daughter’s post-college career path than had Cynthia, who felt that their daughter should “follow her heart,” a phrase she used frequently and that Dan was sure she lifted from one of the terrible Lifetime movies she so enjoyed. Eventually, a young man carrying groceries opened the door. Dan tailgated in and climbed the stairs, then knocked on 329. A woman opened the door. She wore pajamas and tattoos covered both arms, and Dan recognized her as one of Abby’s theater friends. They’d been roommates in college and had moved up here together. She eyed him warily. “Hey, Megan. Abby around?” “Oh.” She recognized Dan and her suspicion dropped, though she was still a bit cold. “Hi Mr. Stewart. Not right now. She’s at rehearsal. There’s a show tonight.” “Where at?” “The Met,” she said, and laughed to herself. Dan was glad she laughed, because he would have believed her otherwise. He laughed too. “Really, where is it?” “It’s where all her shows are – Louie’s on 4th.” “On 4th Street?” “No, that’s just the name – Louie’s on 4th. It used to be on 4th Street, I guess. It’s up on 22nd near the VA.” Megan told Dan that the play started at eight and gave him directions. Dan thanked her and said goodbye. He also told her not to let Abby know he was in town, that he wanted his visit to be a
surprise, to which she responded by smiling inscrutably. He couldn’t tell if the expression was genuine or condescending.
It wasn’t yet four o’clock, and he didn’t want to show up early, deciding to wait until the play was over to surprise her. In the time between, he wanted to see the Empire State Building, which required a subway trip back the way he came. After standing in line for an hour, he spent another hour at the top. Each of the four sides gave a different view and he spent a long time at each, studying the city and its infinite moving parts, breathing in gusts of air fresher than the stuff down at ground level. He picked moving objects and tried to follow them in the crowds – cars as they snaked between buildings, people as they inched along the sidewalk. Born and raised in the South, Dan felt like Manhattan was another planet. The hustle and noise frightened him, as if the whole place were constantly on the verge of chaos. He couldn’t understand what held it all held together, what unseen force kept that island from imploding under the stress of millions of people, each hell-bent on his own agenda. It was a far sight from his upbringing, the slow pace of North Carolina where everyone knew everyone’s business, where an article in the newspaper about Dan as a promising middle-school football player had marked him as a big shot. Dan had always preferred life down there. In his commercials, he exaggerated his Cabarrus County drawl, not only because it made him more relatable but also because it was a badge of honor. One of his managers at the dealership had been from New Jersey, and Dan gave him no small amount of grief over being a Yankee, never missing an opportunity to inform him of the manifold benefits of being a Southerner. But oddly enough, for the first time in years, Dan felt himself able to relax in, of all places, New York City. He was aware of an enormous sense of life here, a raw vitality that dwarfed all the charisma he’d spent his life trying to project. The city’s pandemonium humbled him as much as it intimidated him. New York was a thing unto itself, huge and immutable. It didn’t register his presence, and neither did the people he passed on the street. The pressure of making a good impression – present everywhere back home – was gone.
59E He remembered having this sense the last time he’d visited, thoughhe didn’t remember liking it so much. Eventually, he took the elevator down and got on the subway back to the East Village, where he had dinner at a café, sitting on the patio as the day cooled off. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Randy again, but Dan let it go to voicemail, not wanting to be forced into conversation about the job. It seemed like the perfect transition, an opportunity for him to continue in his area of expertise, but he felt conflicted. Dan knew that, for all his other failings, he was a great salesman. Randy wasn’t the first person to acknowledge this. Dan had fielded many calls over the years from other dealers soliciting advice, and he even used to lead an advertising seminar at Toyota conventions. Inventory, payroll, taxes, and all the other minutia of the job held little interest for him, but he loved to sell. Even as he filed for bankruptcy, he was outselling other dealerships in the area. It was just that damned loan that killed him, one bad decision he could not sell his way out of. In his gut, though, the job felt wrong. He knew what Randy wanted – a second-rate celebrity hawking cars for him. And there was a time in the past when such a position would have appealed to Dan. When he first started making commercials, the experience was a rush. He loved the blinking red light of the camera and the thought that what he said would soon be scrambled into a signal and broadcast for hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – to see. The make-up women powdered his face and the boom mike hung over his head and he soaked it up. Making commercials became his passion, and he paid attention to the smallest details. He would invite himself into the cutting room as the ad team edited and give his opinion, becoming a self-taught expert in the art of commercial cinematography. Once he had an entire spot re-shot – after a harried editor had spent all day working on it – because Dan didn’t like the way the clouds looked behind him; he thought they were both asymmetrical and too dark. For him, the apex of the experience was the first time he ran across a commercial by accident. Not when the ad guys showed it
60E to him in his office, but when he was watching on his own couch and it took him by surprise. He bought ads in certain time slots, but never knew exactly when his spot would show up, which heightened the anticipation. When Abby was a kid, they used to sit on the couch and wait to see Dad magically appear on TV. Will it be this commercial break or the next? But recently, watching the ads just made him embarrassed and self-conscious. The loud-mouthed confidence he expressed in front of the camera no longer matched the way he felt. He had failed, in a very public and spectacular way. People had lost their jobs because of a foolish decision Dan had made, one he could have avoided by taking the advice of the numerous people, including his ex-wife, who told him he didn’t need to renovate, that he was taking on too much. Naysayers who, at the time, had provided Dan with all the more incentive to build and build, just to show them he could. At seven thirty he paid for his dinner and walked up to 22nd Street, where he located the theater, which occupied an old warehouse. ‘Louie’s on 4th’ was painted above the door in elegant script and there was a marquee outside, backlit by yellow light. The night’s feature was called The Saga of Apples and, according to thesign, it showed at eighty on Wednesday through Saturday and five on Sunday. Dan didn’t stick his head inside to look around, but from the street it looked like a nice place. Surely a low-budget operation and probably not on par with the Met (whatever that was), but it seemed well-maintained. A crowd of people milled about in the lobby and a middle-aged, bearded hippie with a metal cash box sold tickets from a folding table. Dan bought one for ten dollars. “Haven’t seen you before,” the hippie said. “How’d you hear about us?” “Just walking by. Looked interesting.” “Excellent! I knew that marquee was a good investment. You’re going to love it. This one’s gotten some good press.” Dan took a program from the table and went in to find a seat. It was a small theater, stadium seating with concrete tiers leading up to the top; he estimated it could hold about two hundred
61E people. Walking up to find a place near the back, he saw that the seats in each row were different: one was full of metal bleachers, another had cushioned movie theater seats, another had fold-down ballpark- style seats. He sat at the top row on a cushioned bench taken from the back of a minivan. He was twenty minutes early and watched a stagehand make adjustments to the set, hammering a windowsill into place. Inevitably, his thoughts drifted back to Randy and the job. “Consultant” certainly had a nice ring, but he recoiled at the thought of putting himself out there anymore, trading on his appeal as a washed-up jock to invade peoples’ homes and perpetuate his status as a local celebrity. He felt like his whole life had been a sales pitch, cars just being the most recent manifestation. Before that, it was football. He used football to sell himself in return for all sorts of things: women, recognition, a college education, a career. But at the moment, having wrung all he could out of his former glory, he wondered what the end result was. Things had come easy for so long – so much had been handed to him because of who he was – he now felt that he didn’t have any reserves of character underneath, no ballast with which he could steady himself as he reeled in the wake of his broken relationships and colossal failure as a business manager. Wanting a distraction, he thumbed through his program. The name Abby Stewart was all over it. Not only had his daughter co-written the play, she also played a main role and was listed as one of the theater’s managers. On the back was a message addressed to “Supporters of Louie’s.” Abby’s name was signed at the bottom, along with several others. The last paragraph caught Dan’s attention: We are looking at the very real possibility of having to close our doors. Independent theater has never been a hugely profitable enterprise, but until now we’ve been able to make ends meet. However, we have currently fallen behind on our lease payments and are in danger of being evicted. Simply put, we need to raise $10,000 by the end of the summer. This will both satisfy our creditors and enable us to continue producing quality plays. If you enjoy & value the work we do, please consider making a donation to help us meet this goal. Louie’s has been
62E in business for nearly 20 years, but we have never been in this kind of financial situation before. He read this several times. Shortly after eight o’clock, the lights went down and the play began. It was a mob tale, the story of Apples and his rise through the criminal underworld, all in three acts. Dan learned from the bill that Abby was playing Apples’ love interest, and throughout act one he waited in vain for her. It wasn’t until the middle of act two that she entered from stage left, arm-in-arm with the main character. When she walked onstage, Dan’s eyes teared up and he unconsciously twisted his program in his hand. He had forgotten just how small she was, a little over five feet. On the drive up, as he imagined conversing with her, it was with a grown woman, but this seemed to be the same girl he dropped off in the city four years earlier. Her hair was longer than it used to be, now halfway down her back, which only increased her aura of youthfulness. He felt transported back to all the high school plays he had attended, his pipsqueak daughter comporting herself with perfect ease and confidence, inhabiting the stage as naturally as he once inhabited the football field. She wore red lipstick and a black dress, looking confident in the role of a swinging woman from the Prohibition Era. She was passionate and furious, which was only appropriate since her love interest spent most of the play getting into all kinds of trouble. She was brilliant, performing her heart out in front of a half-empty theater in a remote corner of the city. Dan could hear Abby in much of the dialogue, both hers and that of the other characters. It was obvious that she’d written this; her fingerprints were all over it. And the production values didn’t seem amateur, either; the acting was good and the story compelling. Dan felt the play would have kept his attention even if he didn’t have a personal stake in it. When it was over, the whole theater, perhaps 60 people total, gave a standing ovation while the cast joined hands and bowed at the front of the stage. Dan waited in the lobby outside, hoping to surprise his daughter. It seemed like he ought to stick out here, a hulking, middle-aged man in a crowd of young artistic types – and
63E in North Carolina he might have – but no one seemed to take notice of him. After waiting half an hour, he still hadn’t seen Abby and the lobby was empty except for himself and a girl sweeping the floor. He asked her if she knew where Abby Stewart was. She eyed him in much the same way Megan had, and he explained that he was Abby’s father. “She left a little while ago. Her and most everyone else. I think they went to a club. Or back to someone’s apartment.” “Thanks.” He would wait until tomorrow to call her. There was no hurry. He headed west on 22nd to catch the train back to his hotel. The next day – Saturday – Dan sat at a table in Boudreaux’s Café with a cup of black coffee and a cheese Danish. It was lunchtime and he had thought about ordering a beer, then decided against it, wanting to project a good image. Not that he’d ever had a drinking problem, but he felt that a wayward dad trying to reunite with his daughter was best served ordering something non-alcoholic. Dan had planned to call Abby that morning, but to his delight, she actually called him first, having learned of his visit from her roommate. Boudreaux’s was three blocks from Abby’s apartment and had been Dan’s suggestion. He found it with a Google search on his phone and the French name sold him, making it seem sufficiently classy. They decided to meet at noon, but he arrived early and was on his second cup of coffee when she walked in, dressed casually in sandals and a long, loose-fitting skirt. He stood and hugged her tightly. He had the same feeling in his throat he’d had the night before when she first walked on stage, and he took a deep breath, trying to keep his eyes from tearing up. “It’s good to see you, sweetie.” She squeezed him back. “You too, Dad.” They sat down and picked up their menus. “This place any good?” he asked. “Definitely. Good choice.” Abby picked up her menu and Dan took a sip of coffee.
64E “I saw your play last night.” “I know. Megan told me she gave you directions to Louie’s.” “I loved it. You were incredible.” “Thanks.” “Better than Oklahoma,” he said, referring to the musical that he’d seen her perform in high school. “Now you’re just making stuff up,” she said, smiling. “Not at all. I found this one more entertaining. And you wrote it?” She nodded. “How do you even know how to do that?” “I’m just around the theater a lot. I guess I soak it all in. And I took a script-writing class in college.” Her cell phone buzzed on the table and she put it in her purse without looking at it. Dan wanted to besiege her with questions – about her life, her job, men – but he restrained himself, letting her pick out lunch. He watched her as she scanned the menu and was reminded of her reading as a kid, scrunched into the LaZ-Boy with her legs hanging over the armrest and a doorstop-sized Harry Potter book on her lap. When the waitress returned for their order, Dan wasn’t ready. He fumbled with the menu. “Think I’ll get the po’ boy. Don’t know about a side.” He paused for a moment to consider the list of options. “Debating baked beans or fries.” He waited for a suggestion from the waitress but none came. Her pen hovered above her pad, waiting. “Guess I’ll go with the fries.” She scribbled his order with no comment and Dan was sure she had him pegged as a bumpkin father visiting his cosmopolitan kid. Abby’s order was more concise. “Turkey wrap and Cesar salad. Dressing on the side.” The waitress left and Abby sipped her ice water. Dan’s questions burned inside him, wanting to all come out at once. He started with the most basic. “How’s work? Last I spoke with Mom, she said you were at the American Heart Association.” “Yep, been with them for a year or so. I’m a volunteer
“Bridge” / Kathleen Uttenweiller
67E coordinator.” “Sounds like a good job.” “I like it, most days. Non-profits don’t pay much. I’m actually making about the same as I did waiting tables, but now I work more 9 to 5 hours, which frees me up to do stuff at the theater.” “Still in that same apartment, too.” “It’s a great location. Affordable by Manhattan standards.” “This is a safe neighborhood, right?” She laughed. “Dad, I’m practically in Greenwich Village.” “Honey, that doesn’t mean anything to me.” “Yes, it’s safe. But I’m still careful. I don’t walk around at 2 a.m. by myself.” “Glad to hear it.” Honestly, Dan felt that his daughter might be safer in the city than he was. Everything about him marked him as a rube outsider – his clothes, his accent, his meandering way of ordering po’ boys. But Abby, despite growing up in the same place he had, with many of the same influences, somehow fit in, as Dan knew she would anywhere she went. There was a worldliness about her that he lacked. He found it hard to believe that he’d had a hand in making someone so independent and strong as to actually move to this place and make things happen the way she had. Four years later and she was still doing it, still grinding it out as an actress when most others would have packed it in and moved on. And she’d never asked for money from either parent, somehow managing to support herself while living in a place where it cost $40 to buy lunch for two. Dan knew he couldn’t have done that in his 20’s, and he even doubted if he could hack it in New York now. He marveled at his tiny daughter, half his age and size but so much smarter and stronger than himself, and he found strength in the knowledge that, for all his other failings, fatherhood was one thing he’d done right. Even if she wanted little to do with him now, he’d gotten her safely to adulthood. She could take care of herself, and he was the party who would suffer most from any rift between them. “How many plays have you written?” he asked. “A couple, but this is the first to get produced.”
68E “How long have you been performing it?” “This is our third week. One more after this.” “And the mafia angle – where did you get that from?” “I don’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by the mob. I think it goes back to you watching the Godfather movies when I was a kid. You said I was too young to watch them, so of course I became fascinated with that stuff. Seemed like a good idea for a play, so I read a couple books to research it.” “Well, it was a good idea. Ol’ Marlon Brando himself would want to be cast, if he were still around.” “Thanks, Dad.” “I’m not sure you’re right about it being your first play to be produced, though. What about the one with Moses and the Pharoah?” Her eyes went wide. “Oh my God! I can’t believe you remember that!” “Course I do. I videotaped the whole thing. Pulled out the tape and re-watched it a little while back.” When Abby was in fourth grade, her Sunday school class had put on a play at church about the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. She wrote the script for it, complete with melodramatic dialogue and a made up side-plot about the Pharaoh’s wife getting killed in one of the plagues. They laughed about this for ten minutes, remembering the goofy costumes the kids had worn and how half of them performed with script in hand because they couldn’t memorize the lines. “I’d love to watch that tape next time I’m down,” she said. “Definitely. It’ll take you back in time.” The food came and out they continued talking, Dan updating Abby on the goings-on of Harrisburg. He was evasive when she asked about the dealership, saying things were fine and quickly changing the subject, not having the heart to admit the truth. As much as she talked to her mother, she would find out soon enough. He steered the conversation back to safer territory – fond memories of Abby. They had a few more laughs, but the conversation wasn’t able to make it through the end of the meal. When Dan had a few bites of sandwich left, he ran out of things to say.
For what felt like a long minute, they sat in silence. Dan tried to think of something else to bring up, another funny memory, but couldn’t. He swirled his fork in a spot of ketchup on his plate. It seemed that once the “how’s life?” questions were answered and the common pool of memories drained, they had little to say. They used to talk for hours – he’d drive up to Chapel Hill for a football game and spend entire days with her. Lunch on Franklin Street, then a slow walk across campus, making their way to the stadium. Never once on those visits did he feel at a loss for words. Their conversations flowed smoothly, meandering from the past to the present, the concrete to the abstract. They would laugh about high school boyfriends of Abby’s that he’d disliked, talk about her classes, debate the liberal bent her politics were taking. But now there was a distance between them, and the fact that they simply retreaded old experiences meant they would inevitably run out of things to talk about. The waitress walked by, and Dan asked for another cup of coffee, just to break the silence. He felt if they were quiet for too long, Abby’s next sentence would be something like, “Well, it was great catching up…” Hoping to avoid this, he started into another round of questioning. “Got a boyfriend?” “Not at the moment.” “Good,” he said with a grin. “Dated a few guys up here, but no one serious.” “High standards, huh?” “Something like that.” “And how about your theater? You been involved with them ever since you moved up?” “Pretty much. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to have a boyfriend – I spend all my weekends at Louie’s.” “You like the people there?” “They’re the best. I call them my New York family. We look out for each other.” The idea of Abby having another family stung Dan, but he tried to hide it. “And how’s that work, exactly? You guys putting on plays
70E year-round? Do you get any time off?” “Normally we have two seasons. We’ll do a summer play and a winter play, and we spend the time in between doing all the prep work – rehearsals, set building. But things are up in the air right now. I don’t know if you saw the letter in the program, but we’re kind of in financial trouble.” “Yeah, I think I saw that.” Acting like he’d hardly noticed. “We’re considering adding a play this fall, just to help make ends meet.” “Sounds like a lot more work.” “Yeah, and not everyone’s on board with the idea. But it’s better than going under.” This last sentence came out with a trace of belligerence, and Dan got the impression that she’d said it before, perhaps in an argument with her fellow thespians who weren’t “on board.” Abby’s grit was something else Dan loved about his daughter, another trait that became more evident as she aged. Despite her avant-garde sensibilities, underneath she was a bulldog, as ambitious in her own medium as he’d ever been as an athlete or a businessman. Probably more so. She was not in New York to put on the trappings of the artistic lifestyle, sipping lattes and combing thrift stores to stay on top of fashion trends. She worked long hours and sacrificed her personal life, and Dan pitied any of her colleagues who didn’t share this sense of mission. The thought of this actually made him grin, imagining some beleaguered young actor running into his buzz saw of a daughter. “What’s funny?” she asked. Not angrily, but with a bemused smile herself. “Nothing, honey. I’m just thinking of you. Just proud of how hard you work.” “Thanks.” “What you’re doing right now – no way I could have done that at your age. I wouldn’t have lasted a month in New York.” “You owned a car dealership when you were my age, Dad.” “Not true. I was a manager then; didn’t get the dealership ‘til later. But even that’s not as impressive as it sounds. Football paved the way for a lot of it. I didn’t exactly pull myself up by the boot
71E straps like you’re doing.” Abby smiled at the compliment, and the waitress refilled Dan’s coffee. “Be right back,” Abby said, getting up to use the restroom. Dan was glad for the break in conversation. He’d been meaning to get around to an apology and needed a few minutes of silence to mentally prepare. There was a brief moment earlier, when their conversation was going well, that Dan thought maybe he wouldn’t have to say anything, that they could simply pick up where they’d left off. That feeling was fleeting, however. The overall impression he got was that things were different between them. It was as if, conversationally, they were tiptoeing around a huge pit, and he knew they needed to jump in for things to get better. He’d had a longish monologue planned, but scrapped it, deciding it would sound too rehearsed. He would just go with his gut. Abby came back to the table and sat down. “Don’t know about you, but I’m getting a dessert,” he said. “Want one?” “I’m full, thanks.” Dan perused the dessert menu and ordered a strawberry cheesecake, asking that an extra plate be brought out with it. “In case you change your mind, you can help with mine.” The waitress cleared their table and refilled Abby’s water. Dan gripped his coffee cup with both hands, unconsciously drumming a beat on it. “Honey, I’m sorry it took me so long to get up here.” “It’s OK.” Her tone was light, as though he had apologized for being five minutes late. “No, really. I’ve been thinking about you a lot, but I also wanted to give you space, you know?” “I know, Dad. I appreciate all the cards. You’d be proud. I bought a cordless drill with the last one.” “That’s my girl.” He took a sip of coffee and watched the hostess seat an elderly Jewish couple at the table next to them. “I know you were mad at me for a while,” he said, “but I’d love if we could start over. Go back to how things used to be.”
72E She gave him a curious look, opened her mouth to respond, then paused, seeming to weigh her words carefully. “Dad, it’s great to see you, and I’m glad we’re reconnecting, but I’m still mad.” “Oh.” “It’s going to be a long time before I’m not mad. If ever.” “Listen Abby, I’ll apologize again. I was wrong. I messed up a really good thing – with you and with your mother.” Abby went on as though she hadn’t heard him. “Jesus. I can’t believe you think everything’s okay just because a few years have passed. I mean, there was Mom, taking care of me, working her ass off at home and at the bank, married 23 years – for what? To end up middle-aged and alone. So I’m mad on her behalf. And I’ll stay mad until she finds a good man and is happy again.” Abby paused for a moment to let this sink in. Dan recognized her tone and steeled himself for what was to come, knowing that – like her mother – Abby could switch from friendly to incensed with little in the way of build-up. “I’m mad for myself too, you know. You wrecked my childhood memories. We did lots of great family stuff, but knowing what I know now, it all seems fake.” “We had good times. Nothing fake about that.” “But it’s different now. Take our Disney trip – probably my all-time favorite vacation. When I used to remember it, it was the parade and the buffet in the hotel and all the rides. But now, I realize it had to be torture for you. You just spent the whole week waiting to get back to your girl on the side – whoever she happened to be at the time. I’m sure she was more fun than a boring wife and whiny little kid.” “That’s not true,” Dan said. Abby was right in assuming that he’d had a woman waiting for him back at home, but wrong about him hating the trip. He wished for a more eloquent response, but was unable to think of one. “It’s like that for all my family memories,” she went on. “If I see an old family picture, I don’t feel nostalgic or happy. I just feel awful for Mom. I think it’s so hard for me to deal with because I
73E had a great childhood. It’s not like I was a miserable kid and what happened was just one more terrible thing. I mean, damn, you were Mr. Husband-of-the-Year, always spending money on Mom, taking her on cruises, sitting next to her in church every Sunday. And the whole time, you were cheating on her.” “It wasn’t the whole time.” Dan felt stupid after saying this, as if he wanted credit for being a partially faithful husband. He let Abby continue. “This is one of the reasons I don’t have a boyfriend. How am I supposed to trust a guy? No matter how sweet he is, I’ll never fully know him. We might get married and have kids and a great life together, but I won’t be able to relax. Not fully. Mom was relaxed, thought she had a perfect marriage, and look where it got her.” Abby paused, struggling to maintain composure. She hadn’t raised her voice, but it was starting to waver. Dan sat quietly now, no more rebuttals, ready to let her finish. The waitress approached and put a towering mound of cheesecake in the middle of the table, along with an extra plate. Mechanically, Dan picked up a fork and cut it, giving half to Abby. He pulled his plate in front of him and took a bite, barely tasting it. His vision blurred and he looked down at the table, waiting for the moment to pass, hoping she wouldn’t say anything until he’d had time to gather himself. His eyelids felt wobbly, on the verge of spilling over. He took a couple deep breaths and the tears receded. For the next few minutes they ate in silence, Abby surprising Dan by cleaning her plate. “I thought you didn’t want dessert.” “I didn’t. Now I’ve gotta go to the gym.” She half-smiled. “Always the healthy one. Surprised you didn’t get on my case about ordering dessert, like you used to.” “Maybe next time.” He took another bite and washed it down with a sip of coffee. “How long you in town for?” she asked. “Probably heading back today.” He knew this might come across as strange, but it also felt right. He’d seen her play, bought her lunch, got to apologize in person. Better to not overstay his welcome.
74E “So soon?” “Yeah, duty calls.” If she had asked for elaboration at this point, what business was so pressing as to require him driving back on a Saturday, Dan was prepared to lie. He’d already admitted to being a reckless husband, she could learn about his reckless business practices later. She didn’t ask, though. “Well, thanks for coming up.” “Any time.” “We’ll have to do this again.” “Absolutely,” he said. “And I’d like to see you next time you’re back home.” “Probably won’t be ‘til Christmas, but we’ll get together.” He flagged down the waitress for the bill. When it was paid, he bear-hugged Abby again and they said goodbye. He boarded the PATH train at the 9th Street station for the ride back to Jersey City. He was still jittery from their conversation – the acid in his stomach rumbling and eating away at his insides – and the rhythmic motion of the train soothed him. He leaned his head back against the glass and watched the view through the window opposite him, the churning blackness of the tunnel’s guts interspersed by flashes of yellow light bulbs. Leaving so soon wasn’t in his original plans, and he felt a little strange, but he convinced himself it was a nice gesture – even a noble one – driving twenty-four hours round-trip just to see her for lunch. Abby’s anger had caught him off guard in the moment, but it really wasn’t that surprising, as justified as it was. He was actually relieved to get her furious monologue out of the way, knowing those feelings would have come out eventually. What he couldn’t shake was the end of the conversation. He meant it when he said he planned on going back home, but he’d also expected her to put up more of a fight, maybe ask him to stick around and see her play once more. She hadn’t though, and beneath her good manners Dan sensed ambivalence, the suggestion that it had been nice to see him, but now it was time to run along. There was more finality in
75E his departure than he was comfortable with, as if he were an old teacher or coach, someone with whom it was pleasant to reminisce, but that’s all. He worried this would be the new character of their relationship, that they would get together for food, laugh about the past, and then he would graciously get out of her hair for another six months to a year, when they would replay the same stale act again. A Hispanic family got on at the Newport stop – mom, dad, and two school-aged boys. One of the kids sat in the seat next to Dan, video game in his hands, headphones in his ears. Seeing that no empty seats remained, Dan stood so the mother could have his. She didn’t notice the gesture and remained standing. Dan’s stop was next, but he didn’t get off. He watched as the doors opened and remained where he was, gripping the metal pole, unable to take that step out the door because he knew where it would lead – back to his hotel room, then to 95 South, then to Harrisburg, with its promise of an empty house and more aimless days of unemployment. He pictured himself there tomorrow, drinking a few cold ones on his putting green, nothing different than it had been before. Dan stayed on the train until its route terminated at Journal Square and the car emptied. He took a seat by the window, and in a few minutes it was moving again, heading back into the city. Dan was in front of Louie’s by 3:00. Two twenty-somethingyear-old men slouched in metal chairs out front, smoking and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Can I buy a ticket for the show tonight?” “Ain’t gonna sell out,” said one. “You can get one at the door.” His smoking partner smacked him on the arm, then turned to Dan. “I apologize for my colleague. Not much of a business mind in that one. Be right back.” He returned shortly with the same metal box Dan had purchased a ticket from the night before, opened to reveal stacks of ones and fives. “Ten dollars.” “And you guys putting this on tomorrow too, right?”
76E “Yep.” “How many shows next week?” “Four, then we’re done. That’s the last week.” Dan leafed through his wallet and pulled out sixty dollars. “OK. Six tickets.” “Damn! We need to get a frequent customer card or something. Give you a free play.” He took out a roll of perforated red tickets and tore off six. “We’ll see you at eight o’clock tonight. Thanks for the business.” “You bet.” Dan walked over to Park Avenue and headed north, happy to have another afternoon to kill in the city. Times Square was his eventual destination, though he was open to detours. He stopped for a snack in a coffee shop and when he was through eating, called Randy. He left a message thanking him for the offer, but declining the job. He wished him good luck with the new ad campaign. Dan hadn’t written off the auto business entirely, but he also knew that he’d filmed his last commercial. He had some applications out that he was hopeful about, and he would be sending more soon. Most were for sales manager-type positions, some in North Carolina, some in South Carolina. He even thought about looking for something in New York City, just to keep his options open. Back on the street he continued north, sweating heavily, mopping his face with a handful of napkins. He didn’t want to take the subway though, enjoying the city and the opportunity to exercise his creaky knees. He fingered his ring as he walked, caressed for the millionth time the diamonds and engraved lettering. He kept his eyes open for pawnshops, wondering how much it would fetch. Surely not ten grand, but it would be a start.
“Crash’s Composure” / Eleanor Leonne Bennett
THE CORNER OF CALUMET AND
COMMONWEALTH Joan Robinson Detroit branch-sifted light spreads on tufts of herbaceous tousled lawn. Pink hydrangeas nod; their blowzy blossoms thrust through soot-blackened window frames. A poplar fountains through the parlor, pierces the rotted roof beams, and arches its branches blue. A man with grey felty dreadlocks walks his kindergartner in the middle of the quiet street. “Howya doin’ baby girl?” A pheasant strides across the cracked, chicory fringed boulevard.
“Bike Lane” / Kathleen Uttenweiller
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist of almost fifty awards. She was the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of the Year in 2013. Eleanor’s photography has been published in British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has been displayed around the world consistently for six years since the age of thirteen. In 2015 her work appeared as the cover for the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology. She is also featured in Schiffer’s Contemporary Wildlife Art published this Spring. Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, MN, who teaches needlepoint classes for the Minneapolis school district and writing classes at The Loft Literary Center. Her poetry has recently appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review, Slant, and The Tampa Review. She is the 2011 recipient of the Sam Ragan Poetry Prize from Barton College. Her most recent published books are Walking Twin Cities and Notenlesen für Dummies Das Pocketbuch. Bettina Gilois is an award-winning screenwriter and author who has been writing in Hollywood for over twenty years. Her screen credits include Disney’s McFarland, USA, HBO’s Bessie, and the Disney/Bruckheimer production Glory Road for which she was nominated for the Humanitas Prize. She lives in Los Angeles. Evan Howell has published fiction in The MacGuffin, The Rockhurst Review, Muscle & Blood, Swill, and Relief. He works in the healthcare industry in Charlotte, NC. Charla Allyn Hughes doesn’t sit still very well. When she is not teaching yoga or working on her PhD in Baton Rouge, LA, she is traveling, writing, and taking the occassional photo.
Joan Robinson graduated from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a MFA in creative writing. She teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada, and her work has appeared in Fox Adoption, 300 Days of Sun, Interim, (r)evolve, The One Three Eight, and Chance. She enjoys creative wandering with her husband Gregory in the Mojave’s vast spaces. William Joseph Stribling, a proud contributor to Blacktop Passages, holds degrees in film & TV production and dramatic literature from New York University. He also holds a master’s in screenwriting from Chapman University. His short films Beyond Belief, Break A Leg, and Down in Flames have been official selections of nearly 75 film festivals worldwide, garnering several awards and nominations. Stribling’s first feature film, Lies I Told My Little Sister, is available on home video through ARC Entertainment, and his follow-up, Bear with Us, is finishing post production, as is his latest short film, The Archetypes. Kathleen Uttenweiller (formerly Babarsky) is a photographer from Virginia. While it is slightly dangerous and she doesn’t recommend it to anyone, she has recently been taking photos while driving, most of which are focused through the windshield of her Celica. “I don’t pause and think about a photo before I take it; I see something I deem beautiful and SNAP, a second later, it’s out of my sight.”
NOTES DRIVE LIKE A CHAMPION Evan Howell— “The inspiration for ‘Drive Like a Champion’ was the poignant loneliness that can accompany solo road trips. Dan is going to see his estranged daughter and has no assurances it will go well. The road offers him no solace, only a quiet place to think and to reckon with his mistakes. For a man not inclined to self-reflection, 95 North is as close as he’ll ever get to a monastery. Taking place on 85 and 95 North between Harrisburg, NC and New York City, Dan passes through Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, and Philly.” OPEN ROAD IN EASTERN EUROPE Charla Allyn Hughes— “I took this photo on a drive from England to Mongolia. I think I was in Hungary, but it was a crazy day—my group got a little lost and passed through four countries before landing in Romania for the night. I loved all of the sunflowers along the road and may have picked a couple to keep in the cup holder.”
“‘Numbers Game’ is about a good friend who passed on after some great years of recovery bicycling the backroads of Sonoma County. In the end, it was the cigarettes that got him. He lived in Cotati, California.” NEON BONEYARD
“Written in Auburn, Alabama, but mainly taking place in a van on the interstate between Nashville and Fargo, the story materialized during a class on micro-fiction taught by Chantel Acevedo in the fall of 2014. This piece comes from an amalgamation of memories and experiences on a Greyhound over a decade before.”
“Taken at its namesake, the Neon Boneyard, located at 770 N. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, Nevada 89101.”
END OF A LONG DAY Christopher Woods— “Those donkeys live in a 150-acre pasture where we keep our horse. They are cute, but often ornery. I will tell them that their photo has been accepted. They will be glad indeed for their fifteen minutes of fame. It was taken in Brenham, Texas.” BURNED MOTEL, GRENVILLE, NEW MEXICO Christopher Woods— “There sure wasn’t much to that town. Doesn’t help when things burn down.” A KIND OF MIGRATION Ag Synclair— “‘A Kind of Migration’ was inspired by a period of my life spent in Western Montana and the life-changing events that took place there... or... the migration, as it were.”
“The general location is what I call Resume Speed, Kansas and the USPS calls LaCygne, KS (but LaCygne is in Linn County and I’m in Miami County and maybe 20 miles from LaCygne where I haven’t been in 25 years.) So there you have that. My own mailbox was the starting point for ‘Jesus Rust’, in that it has a rust spot that looks sort of like a map of South America, if anything. I gathered my bills and congratulatory Dish Network offers, went inside, and wrote ‘JR’.”
CONTRIBUTORS Heather Buchanan is a recent graduate of Chapman University’s creative writing program. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Student to Student, Campus Voices and the forthcoming Campus Survival Guide, all of which are published by Regal. Her writing and editing can also be found on www.MorkansHorse.com. Melanie J. Cordova serves as editor-in-chief of Harpur Palate and has stories out or forthcoming with Ghost Town, Red Savina Review, Whitefish Review, The Oklahoma Review, Yemassee, and various others. She reviews books for The Santa Fe Quarterly. You can follow her on Twitter via @mjcwrites. M.R. Smith is a technology executive writing in Boise, Idaho. His work has appeared in publications such as The Cascadia Review, Camas, The Literary Bohemian, Punchnel’s, The Red River Review, the FutureCycle Press anthology What Poets See, and the Western Press Books anthology Manifest West, among others. Marc Swan lives in Portland, Maine. He recently left the regular work-a-day to focus on travel, music and writing, not necessarily in that order. He has poems out this year in Poet Lore, Chiron Review, Gargoyle, Ottawa Arts Review, Mudfish, and Straylight, among others. Ag Synclair publishes The Montucky Review and edits poetry for The Bookends Review. Widely published in the small presses, he manages to fly under the radar. Deftly. Jessi Walker grew up in the South and likes to see how far away from home she can get before she runs out of gas. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Auburn University and is currently living undercover as a respectable human being in Huntsville, Alabama.
Guinotte Wise has been a creative director in advertising most of his working life. In his youth, he put forth effort as a bull rider, ironworker, laborer, funeral home pick-up person, bartender, truck driver, postal worker, ice-house worker, paving-field engineer. Of course, he took up writing fiction. He has been published in numerous literary journals and his latest books, a novel, Ruined Days, and a short story collection, Resume Speed, will be published in 2015. You can visit the author on the web at www. wisesculpture.com. Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Texas. His books include a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His photographs have appeared in a number of journals, with photo essays published in Glasgow Review, Deep South, Public Republic and Narrative Magazine.
“6139” / STAFF
think you’ve lost it.” “Could be you’re an unbeliever, Rex.” “Graven images. Mailbox worship. Not my deal.” He turned the sound up on the game. Outside, Francine held the box so Tiffany could see it, and watched her face for the recognition. It didn’t come. Francine held the box sideways, pointed to the eyes. “This is the eyes? See? Here’s the beard.” “Oh, now I see it; you’ve got to look at it awhile, like those puzzle pictures. Wow. Yes. Well, got to run, hon, mail to deliver.” The Jeep made a knocking noise as it took off. Francine looked at the rust spot. It hadn’t changed, but it was not as convincing as before, when the sun shone on it and she’d seen it in a dizzying moment of exaltation. The pastor called it pareidolia and had to print it out for her. “It’s the tendency to see faces or objects in indistinct shapes. I should think a good many artists have this affliction. Well, maybe just an unusual way to see things.” Then he talked about the grilled cheese sandwich on eBay that looked like the Virgin Mary. “So you think I should eBay this?” He laughed. “Sure—or reinstall it so you can get mail.” Francine decided to tell no one about the baking potato that was the spitting image of Jay Leno. Fuck it. Their loss, not mine.
he reason their mailbox was down is that it developed a rust spot on the back, right where the pressed metal says Steel City Mfg, Youngstown, O. Francine didn’t want it to rust anymore because she saw the face of Jesus in it, and, oxidation being unpredictable, it might turn into something else. “Yeah,” said Rex, from the recliner. “It might spread and be Richard Nixon or something, and how would you get on Good Morning America with that?” “I don’t want to be on Good Morning America, smartass. Have you taken a good look at this?” She held it in front of his face. “I’ll look at it after the game, Francine. Get the damn thing down out of my face. Aww, look, I missed the play.” “They’ll show it again,” she said. “It’s not the same as seeing it when it happens.” Francine went outside to wait for the postlady. If she wasn’t right there, now the mailbox was down, she’d pass them up. Francine glanced up at the sky. Looked like snow again. Tiffany, the postlady, drove up in her Jeep Cherokee with the steering wheel thing on the right. “Hi, Francine. You’ll have to get a proper mailbox up or come get your mail at the post office. They won’t let me bring it anymore after today.” She handed Francine a couple of bills, a Land’s End catalog and the Rolling Stone. “I’ll get a new one today, Tiffany. Thanks.” “Walmart has ’em. Can I see the old one? I heard about it.” “Sure, pull in the drive. I’ll run and get it.” Inside the house, Rex held the box, studying it. “This blob is Jesus?” “Everyone else can see it. Here, I want to show it to Tiffany.” She took it from him and started toward the door. “Could be they’re just being nice, Francine. They might
“Utah RV Sunset” / William Joseph Stribling
32W “There you are, sweet cheeks,” said the woman on the end, dismissing her machine with a wave. Her voice was rough next to the dull hum of the lights. “The luck’s all dried up here. Come give me a kiss.” A few looked up at him as he passed, giving Manny an absent smile and maybe a yawn, glints of silver at their throats from the delicate ribbon that supported their personalized meteorites. To have traveled such a distance, jumped all alone from there to here, only to become comets looped around chains on twelve necks.
“Maybe you could gamble your way into money that’d get you to California.” At this suggestion Geoff ’s eyebrows knitted together and he turned to stare at Manny. “I don’t know where she is, man.” They were quiet for the rest of the ride. The sun was fully up when they arrived at the cabins. Manny hopped out of the Jeep and walked around to his shed and packed together a few bits of iron to bring with him to Cities of Gold. On his way back to the Jeep, he saw Geoff rooted to the spot ten feet from the cabin, standing with his back to Manny. He still held the unopened Red Bull in his left hand. In the window Manny could see Jasmine huffing and pacing to be let out. How much longer would he stay? Long ago the distance between Texas and California was only space that got you to Texas or California. It was just landscape to get through, to survive. Horses and mules dropped along the overland trail west from beneath travelers for whom the allure of gold mines in California was enough to risk their lives. Manny imagined them stumbling off their dead animals and walking onward, pushing forward, always walking west, past dead bodies that the dry desert refused to decompose littered along the trail. The aridity preserved them, sucking their lips to their jaws and baring their pristine animal teeth as mile markers and glints of light in the night. He wondered if Geoff would go West, too, how much longer he’d stay here in the Pecos Wilderness. Five years from now when Manny stands in line at Safeway with toilet paper and ground beef in his basket he’ll have a flash of that night they drove to the Turkey Mountains but only be able to remember the dog at first, not the kid. Just another in a long line of tenants paying rent under the table. But then the head will come in a flash, the scrap of hair and flesh in the sink, and Geoff ’s panicked face will pass behind his eyes in a blink. The drive to Pojoaque was swift. His gear was still loaded in the back of the Jeep and it rattled as he pulled into the Cities of Gold parking lot. A few familiar cars, the same electric buzz when the automatic doors whirred open. As he walked down the line of penny slots, he saw the old ladies perched in front of them, twelve in a row. He wondered if he looked to Geoff like they looked to him—unchanging in a life where so much had suddenly altered.
30W a bit more. But we should get out of here soon.” Dawn hit when the Jeep turned onto the 25. Manny cracked a window and the air that spilled through was so dry it hurt his nostrils. They only encountered two other early-morning drivers. When passing one of them Manny peered into the car to see who was up at that hour, only to see an old man with short white hair peering back at him. His bleep from the satellite was long gone now. It had been a slim chance that’d he’d even track the new arrival down anyway. There was too much vast, open space down south. Navigating through it was like taking his Jeep into the dreams of whales—driving over rolling hills that sprawled like a paper-thin yellow ocean floor beneath a sea of brilliant blue sky. No wonder his father loved it. It had been more than just a place to jump for him. Maybe he’d go south next weekend instead, spend time waiting for the Perseids by making fake iron meteorites in his shed. Today he could catch the early-morning crowd at Cities of Gold Casino, see if he could get an old lady to commission a comet ring or something. “I should’ve looked for her.” Manny blinked. “What?” “My sister.” Manny cleared his throat and reached into the back of the Jeep, feeling around for the second cooler of Red Bull that hadn’t been dumped the night before. His fingers brushed the dirt still on the shovel and the barrel of the shotgun, both cold and clinging on his skin. He found the cooler, pulled one of the drinks from it, and handed it to Geoff. “Yeah maybe,” he said. Then he grabbed a drink for himself and the cooler squealed shut. Geoff gripped the drink and open-shut his mouth like a fish, staring at the long stretch of brightening road before them. “You have classes today?” The kid shook his head. “It’s Saturday.” Manny nodded. “Right.” He wished the radio worked, took sips of Red Bull just to do something at all. The shock from that evening had faded into a dull throb, into something pulling him by the navel back home. “Thinking about going into Pojoaque, if you want to come. Going to the casino.” Geoff tapped at the top of his unopened can.
29W He would’ve scraped at the woman for hours to keep it. “Where’d she come from?” he’d asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.” His dad shrugged, frowning into the sun at the woman’s back, sweat dripping through his white hair behind his ear. Didn’t know where she went, just stumbled off jarred and confused and disappeared like a mote in the eye. On the borderland of the borderlands, the northern tendrils of the Chihuahua desert. They should’ve just let her have it. The silicate meteorites were the hardest to sell. The old ladies at Cities of Gold said they were too pretty to be from space. “Why should you move out to Mora? There aren’t skies out there,” his dad said years later. “Too many trees. You need to see what’s going on above you. Stay here with me.” A year after that his dad died and Manny bought mountain land, only going back to Pojoaque for the casino. Why move to where leaves obstructed the sky? Why keep selling at the poor casino that made more money from its bowling alley than the penny slots? He didn’t know. Why should he know? Comets exploded through space, expelled from the sun in our solar system and lassoed round and round in the sun’s gravitational pull. Maybe that same gravity pushed him into the forest. Maybe Pojoaque was his sun. A tinny echo swept through the trees. Manny watched as Geoff swung the shovel down against the topsoil. In the deep hole was the head, a layer of the biggest rocks Manny could find, and soil from the leftover pile. They’d have to spread foliage over the top to make it look less like buried treasure. Geoff frowned as he took the last of the unearthed dirt and kicked it around with his shoes. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he said. Manny shrugged, as if to say there wasn’t any help for it. He squinted into the trees around them for any movement. They were making a lot of noise and it would be dawn in an hour or two. When he looked back at Geoff and the grave, he nodded. “Looks good,” he said. “Grab some leaves and brush and we’ll camouflage it
28W had to do to unearth it. If the stench was so alluring that the dog didn’t mind the radioactive rabbitbrush, the hairy mahogany leaves, just kept digging, pulling, scratching, until more than just the woman’s hair came unplanted, her skin bulbous as a new potato. “Here, this is good enough.” Manny stopped and pointed to some trees more densely clustered than the rest. When Geoff put the cooler down Manny handed him the shovel and leaned the shotgun against a tree. “Dig it deep. I’ll go find some rocks.” “Rocks?” Geoff took the shovel absently, his eyes darting about in the dark. “To put in the top of the hole,” Manny said, “so the animals don’t dig it up.” He pointed to the clump of trees. “Over there, but not too close, okay?” Geoff nodded and took a step, but his foot kicked the cooler and he stumbled. The woman’s head went sprawling from the plastic bag and the kid let out a cry. The head rolled over in the dirt, a pine needle peeling off a filmy open eyeball. The needle landed with a whisper on the night blue soil. Manny had to cover his mouth with his sleeve to stop himself from gagging. As Geoff stood, he went off in search of the heaviest rocks he could find on the slope. Why just the head? He wondered who’d go through such trouble to do that to a person. Unless it was Jasmine who’d somehow ripped it from the rest of the body to bring it back to Geoff like a deflated basketball, he didn’t see what could possess someone to do what had been done to her. Had it been an accident? Or had the murderer really been so enraged as to remove her head from her body? He stooped to pick up a rock and made a basket with his shirt. Manny had never been violent, could never do that to a person, but he’d always been protective of his comets. They might be international property up in space, but down here on earth it was first come first served. Once when he was twelve and went south with his dad they’d had a scuffle with a white lady over some marble-sized silicate mineral meteorite. She’d popped up behind Manny like a gopher and knocked him over, grasping at the rock. His dad rushed at her with the shotgun and she lurched off him. Manny remembered clinging to that meteorite like it were part of his body.
27W half on the sky and half on the path to the Turkey Mountains. They weren’t far now. The thinning forest thickened once more and the dirt road climbed. “She called the day before I moved out and said she’d found a ride to Los Angeles and that we shouldn’t worry. I don’t think she was telling the truth though. We have an aunt in Sacramento so that’s probably where she is.” “California’s a real distance for a thirteen year old.” Manny steered the Jeep off the road and navigated through trees for a while in the dark, spooking animals that flittered away in the underbrush. He didn’t know why Geoff was telling him this, not that night anyway. “That’s too bad.” When the Jeep stopped, Geoff roused himself. He sighed and cracked his knuckles, but that sharp trill to his voice returned when Manny told him he’d have to carry the cooler. “Me? What?” “It’s not my head. It’s your dog’s head.” Geoff ’s face twisted, the corner of his mouth pinched. “I didn’t bring my gloves.” “Just pick up the cooler.” Manny reached into the back of the Jeep and pulled out the shovel and the shotgun. His father had always told him to stick to the shovel if he had to choose, but if possible take both. They marched into the forest a long ways from the Jeep. The Turkey Mountains had few visitors, and even those only came to the highest point through the well-worn paths of tourists before them. Manny knew no one ever explored the area—it wasn’t near water and wasn’t as picturesque as other places people went to around there. Wasn’t even a mesa. Geoff shuffled along behind him with the cooler held outstretched like an offering in his palms. Jasmine had brought back other things before—a calf ’s femur, the delicate spine of a towhee, the coyote skull Geoff had boiled clean and placed on the mantle. The lab sprinted around the shabby log cabin every morning, checking for signs of bears and relieving himself on certain trees before following his nose into the woods. Never this before, though. Never something so raw, recent. Manny wondered how much digging, how much pulling Jasmine
“Desert Truck Stop” / William Joseph Stribling
24W sat nestled in the southernmost tip of the Rockies in the north of New Mexico. By the time he’d gone east enough to hit the freeway, the land shook out the mountains and flattened itself out. Just south of the mountains were mesas that divided the state into the chunks of mountain and desert it was. They stood as the gateway to the desert below, dusty sentinels of red and black and green, keeping watch over the hot breath that the Chihuahua Desert blew in their direction. “We used to drive through here on our way to Santa Fe. Me and my family.” Geoff pushed in the lock to the door and pulled it back out with his fingertips. Manny glanced at him. Geoff ’s tone made him want to pat the kid on the head. “It’s nice, yeah?” “We stopped once off I-25 in Vegas because Ashley had to go to the bathroom and she came out screaming because there was a cricket on the toilet seat.” “She your sister?” Geoff nodded. “My little sister. She ran off a few months before I came to school here, just after she turned thirteen.” Manny didn’t know what to say. He switched his left hand to the steering wheel and leaned his elbow on the center console. The movement made Geoff glance at the cooler behind him again. “She loved Jasmine, man. That dog was her dog before he was mine, that’s for sure. When we got him she begged to name him after a princess. He was always finding her, bringing her back. We’d play hide and seek and I’d get Jasmine all riled up and he’d sniff her out.” Geoff smiled and popped the lock back into the door. “Whenever she told my parents that she was running away to the neighbor’s house, we just let Jasmine trot after her an hour later. Sure enough she’d be chatting him up on the sidewalk in front of our house pretty soon after that.” Manny cleared his throat. He never had any siblings. He thought that having a younger sister might be a little like having a pet, at least until she had a personality. How long did that take? Eighteen years? “Always bringing her back.” Geoff ’s eyes flickered to the head behind Manny and then to Manny himself, whose eyes were fixed
23W the Sherriff ’s promises after a nine year-old girl tripped over the exposed foot of the first of three bodies buried in a similar shallow grave near Laguna de Agua. It wasn’t worth involving the cops, Manny knew. They wouldn’t trust Manny after they looked up his record in Pojoaque and they definitely wouldn’t trust Geoff full stop, not a white kid from the suburbs. It was more than just not having a business license for selling meteorites to the women in Pojoaque. It had been a few years now since he’d weaned himself off jumping like his dad, who always said that time didn’t make a difference to the police. But now the kid had him involved. He swallowed the shock down deep into his stomach. He’d be taking a drive after all. An hour later, after locking Jasmine in the cabin and convincing Geoff to take off the rubber gloves, Manny drove his Jeep down the familiar road southeast. He wished he were only following the blip on the radar that popped out at him hours ago. He could have been halfway downstate by now. The night sky shone purple and black like a bruise in his windshield. No clouds, only stars. He wished Geoff had driven so he could watch for the bright flashes of his industry, but the kid sat with his legs crossed in the passenger seat, clicking his fingernail rapidly against the door handle. The wind roared by and washed out everything else—the crow calling, the whispery fall of leaves around them. These were the sounds of silence, of solitude. Geoff kept peeking at where they’d stashed the head: behind the driver’s seat, wrapped in a plastic bag and shoved into one of the small coolers that once held Red Bull. That solitude was probably why she ended up out here. What better place to stash a body than an Old West that easterners thought had been abandoned to the desert long ago. “Where are we going?” “Turkey Mountains.” Geoff looked out the window at the thinning forest. “Is it far?” “You want this thing to be close by?” The kid shifted in his seat. Manny punched the FM button, but the stations kept cutting to static so he turned it off. His cabin
22W about six months, him and the dog. Geoff had come over to Manny’s shed a few times while Manny was manipulating the iron he bought on the cheap at the scrapyards. He liked to get stoned and watch Manny distort the metal into hundreds of tiny, chunky globs, and Manny liked the way Geoff whistled through his teeth when he compared a piece with a real meteorite and said he couldn’t tell the difference. Called him an artist. Told him to register for pottery classes at his university, like they did the same thing there all the time. “Well what do you think you’re gonna do with this thing? Can’t call the cops.” Geoff dropped the arm that was still pointing to the sink. It hit his hip and swayed his body. “For Christssake, that thing stinks.” “Why not call the cops?” Geoff bit his lower lip. “I get service on my cell phone if I go out to the road.” Manny frowned. The kid hadn’t been here too long, moved from Denver the year before and thought it was the same place. “Because it’s a white lady. They’ll think you’re in with those bodies they found at Laguna de Agua last month.” Geoff ’s voice was shrill. “You mean this is part of that? This is part of that prostitution thing?” Geoff ’s panic barely reached Manny. He’d reacted in the same way when he was twelve and found out his dad brought much more than his son to deserts as far south as DeBaca, Roosevelt, and Chaves counties. His father called himself a “jumper,” a small-time smuggler of more than just meteorites. Manny knew that deserts could swallow people whole, but they vanished in these mountains just as frequently. It’s a different kind of person who can hide behind a tree, though. Once last summer Manny found a desiccated severed finger in an old bird’s nest in his gutter. The mountains can’t do that by themselves. The Mora County Sherriff ’s office claimed a few years ago they were cracking down on human trafficking in their jurisdiction after a shallow grave of bodies up near Taos unleashed a rash of panic throughout the area, as if it would be impossible for the women to be shuffled around their shrimpy borders. Last month the Las Vegas Optic ran a special update on
21W wanted him to look into the sink, but he couldn’t bring himself to peer over the ceramic lip. Next to him the dog sighed, looking up at the two frozen people in the room. Manny had only ever felt this dark foreboding a few times before, usually when he was out in the woods. Once he’d gone cold at the sound of a rustling in the underbrush, but when he forced himself to stumble over, wooden-legged, to investigate, there was nothing there, nothing beneath the leaves at all. It somehow felt like a near miss. He knew it couldn’t be something good in that sink. “What is it?” he asked Geoff. “What are you pointing at?” Geoff shook his head, a jerk to the left, and didn’t answer. Manny cleared his throat and unstuck his legs from the floor, sliding his shoes over the wood. A ball of hair came into view. From the size of it, Manny thought the hairball had to be a couple pounds. Was the kid washing his dog in this sink? How could so much hair exist in one spot? He grimaced when the smell hit him and slid forward some more, covering his nose with his hand. But it was not a hairball—it was something else. He could see now that the stringy black hair was only on its outsides. An animal? He slid closer. The breeze from the open door shifted the hair and revealed the gentle curve of a—it had to be—was that?—a chin. And then when Manny saw the ribbing of torn flesh at one end he felt the corners of his eyes suddenly burning. He rubbed them with his palms until it passed and turned away. The kid let out a low whine. “Jesus Christ,” Manny whispered. Geoff shook his head in quick jerks again. “I couldn’t just let Jasmine sit out there and gum on it. He could get a disease or something.” Manny’s stomach churned and he couldn’t bring himself to look at the head. Instead he stared at Geoff ’s shoes as the kid paced back and forth. “What the hell, kid? What the hell?” He put his hands on his thighs and leaned over. “I didn’t know what to do. Jasmine found it in the woods when I let him out earlier.” Manny sure hoped so. He shook his head. He thought he knew this kid pretty well, but who’s to say? He’d only been there for
20W thought might be starting to poison him, one frozen water bottle, a pair of socks, one antiquated shotgun he’d never fired, a Cities of Gold Casino sweatshirt, two pairs of pants crumpled up and thrown in the back, one toothbrush. The summer night air was still fresh from its afternoon monsoon and Manny sucked in a breath as he tossed the last of his items into the back of the Jeep. When he walked around to the driver’s side door, a dog barked. His tenant Geoff must be letting Jasmine out. The big black lab bounded the fifty yards from Geoff ’s cabin to the Jeep and stepped on Manny’s foot. Manny scratched the dog on the head and looked over at Geoff, who stood in the doorway, waving weakly at him with elbow-length yellow rubber gloves over his arms. “Heading south for the week?” Manny nodded, his mouth opening to answer, but he was stopped by the look on Geoff ’s face. Instead he said, “You been— you been cleaning in there or something?” Geoff stared at his gloved hand, which still hung in the air like a fading balloon. He paused. “Could you come over here quick before you leave?” Manny shut the Jeep door and Jasmine sprinted back to his master. The quaver in the kid’s voice unnerved him. He hated having to rent out the extra cabin, but it wasn’t every day that he sold or even found a space rock, for all his searching. His land wasn’t too far from the university—maybe thirty miles—so some students and adjuncts preferred a pretend mountain life to living in a small town. The place was nice enough, but it attracted a certain type of tenant, one who didn’t mind that some long-withered headless doll was still nailed to a post at the corner where his dirt road met Route 518. Manny hadn’t bothered to take it down after buying the land fifteen years before. Since then Manny’d had a stream of tenants blinking through his life. Geoff kept the cabin dark. The entryway smelled like pot and mold. The kid, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, stood in the kitchen, pointing at the enormous industrial sink and staring at Manny with the widest owl eyes he’d ever seen. Manny felt dread swirl into his stomach. The kid obviously
anny chased comets. He was big into comets. He told women at the casino that he had stars in his blood. “It’s the family business.” He smiled. No family left out there in the mountains, only a log cabin and a tenant with a big black dog in the cabin next door. No women either, just old ladies. Cities of Gold Casino smoked all the others out after Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino opened seven minutes down the road. “Good riddance,” Manny said, walking down the empty lanes of penny slots. “More chances for me.” Chasing comets was chancy, too. Manny stayed up most nights staring at his computer for some flash on the satellite that meant a rock was on its way “from the moon or something” before he either flopped into bed in the pre-dawn light or hopped into his Jeep and chased that bit of space through the Pecos Wilderness and onto the Great Plains. Calling it a comet was more exciting than allowing it to remain a meteorite. It made the old ladies at Cities of Gold who bought his stones think of brilliant flashes and fiery impacts. They didn’t know the difference. More often than not Manny had to drive southeast, close to the New Mexico-Texas border, on his quest to find them, setting up camp for two weeks at a time and combing the landscape for any meteorite his dad and granddad and countless others might have missed. Sometimes they were laughably easy to find, just lying there atop the sand as if tossed like litter from passersby. Sometimes not so much. So far, he’d paid about a dozen farmers in the area to save any rock they found when tilling the land. He even gave them a bucket to keep them in after one Texan farmer tossed him a plastic Safeway bag with a gash in its side. It wasn’t one in thirty that came up genuine meteorites—but when they did, when they emerged from foreign soil to sit quietly in Manny’s bucket like some bewildered animal, Manny could have swallowed them whole for joy. Now the Perseids were on their way and Manny wouldn’t have to work so hard. Early in the evening, his online scanner beeped and he began to pack for his late-night drive south: one shovel, two coolers of Red Bull, a bag of Cliff Bars and Tostitos, bandages, gloves, an iron flask he’d fashioned a year ago that he now
THE WATER DRINKING PLACE
Melanie J. Cordova
“Gas Station (End of Roll)” / William Joseph Stribling
lies on its side; its footless cavity gapes at the pavement. Perhaps she caught it on the car frame as she escaped a drunken argument with the driver, or maybe she kicked it off, fighting a ma who grabbed her from sidewalk and pulled her into the open door of a van. Most likely, it occurs to me the next morning as I pass it again, the shoe is a castaway, fallen from the top of an overstuffed garbage bag, collateral damage of a hasty break-up move. The shoe offers no answers as it shuffles slowly between the yellow turning lane markers until one day the street sweeper claims it, and it disappears.
(INTERSECTION OF SPENCER AND MAULE)
Joan Robinson For most of a week, it lay in the crotch of the same curve where the man died, flung from his scooter head-first into the yellow fire hydrant. His grandson behind him landed unharmed. I saw the black plastic shrouded body lying at roughly the same spot the shoe lies now. In fact, I can see it from the break room window, while my Teriyaki Shrimp Rice Bowl rotates in the humming microwave. Later, I will pass it while driving home. A high-heeled womenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s shoe, an anonymous black leather pump,
“P1320063” / Eleanor Leonne Bennett
andy was a hooker. But she’s not anymore.
When I picked her up in my ’76 Chevy van, she said she was going to Chicago. Once we got to Nashville, though, she just asked where I was headed. I told her Fargo. I’ve only been to Fargo once, and all I saw there was the Greyhound station, directly across the street from a titty bar. I wasn’t really going to Fargo, but she said she’d go, and offered to pay for gas. Now that I think of it, it was pretty strange that I don’t remember anything about Fargo except the titty bar. I decided that we should go to that titty bar. It became our destination. I hadn’t had a destination before. About halfway through Kentucky, we started joking about getting married. By the time we were through Wisconsin, we had started calling one another “honey” and talking about our kids and the bills. She told me that I was going to have to get a better job than the one I had, which was none. “Diapers ain’t free,” she said. I told her that she needed a better job too—what kind of example was she setting for little Junebug? At this she told me that if I had gotten a damn job when she got pregnant, she wouldn’t have had to peddle her ass. I was pissed at first, but then I figured she was right and promised I would do better. By the time we got to Fargo, we agreed that she would jump on the pole one last time, just to get us enough money to settle into our new place. I told her it wouldn’t be for long because I would have a job lined up in a week at the most. She said, “I know, baby. I know.”
“I-5 #2” / William Joseph Stribling
A KIND OF MIGRATION Ag Synclair
it was easy for us then like winter, we arrived ripe as stars high above the bitterroot we collected random things chased birds walked into the hot mouth of august and found your pretty bones then, on long afternoons we took our whiskey, hard like they do in the west
“Desert Biker with Flag” / William Joseph Stribling
That rock was big as a house and people said a volcano threw it before the town came along. We learned all the handholds pretty quick and kept part of our lunches for after school to eat up on top. When we made the fire up there you can bet everyone in town saw it. But not a single truck came in off the freeway for us. They just pounded on to Portland and we still had to go back to school on Monday.
HUNTINGTON SIGNAL FIRE M.R. Smith
For Brad My brother and I knew our town was invisible from the freeway. We were going to have to make a signal fire. The Oregon Trail went right through our front yard, but it wasn’t much use to us, so we spent our weekends catching catfish in the Snake.
“Burned Motel, Grenville, New Mexico” / Christopher Woods
“End of a Long Day” / Christopher Woods
“Neon Boneyard” / Heather Buchanan
NUMBERS GAME Marc Swan
for Carson P Boyd III
On that uncertain Friday night twenty-six years ago, I said, “Why wait ‘til Monday? Pour the rest down the drain and make that call.” He did and lived eighteen more years moving easily along the northern California blue highways, helmet on, pedals spinning, “up to sixty miles a day,” he’d say, cruising that rugged coast. This led to the last cigarette; he burned the pack—an effigy to honor life. He bought a used Porsche and drove that along those same roads, not James Dean style this time, quieter, enjoying the scenery, the way the wind shot through his hair. And when the wayward cells arrived in his groin, lungs, brain, for two years he fought and fought.
“I-5 #1” / William Joseph Stribling
ISSUE TWO Editors
Thomas John Nudi Christopher Cartright John C. Fisher
Enzo Carbone Joshua Steward
Finance Stefan Massol Founding Board
Thomas John Nudi Christopher Cartright Ryan Cheng Zach Lundgren
Blacktop Passages is published digitally and in print. Issue Two © 2016 Blacktop Passages. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized outside the context of the publication itself without the prior written permission of Blacktop Passages. (ISSN: 2328-8396) For subscriptions, the PDF archive, submission information, or anything else, visit www.blacktoppassages.com or contact us by e-mail at email@example.com.