Jamie Brisick is a writer and director based in New York City. Sara Fuentes is AYP Program Director, Community Association of Progressive Dominicans. Alex Lemke is a 2013 MFA in Art candidate at California State University, Los Angeles. Eric Nelson is the author of The Silk City Series (Knickerbocker Circus, 2010) and The Walt Whitman House (Crumpled Press, 2013). Evan Shoemake is a writer and weight loss consultant.
[FOUNDERS] Vanessa Gabb Crissy Van Meter
[ASSISTANT EDITOR] Jessica Gray
[ISSUE No. 4]
The Physical Things | Jessica Lakritz…..4 A Night of Sweeping Romance | Adrienne Gunn…..6 Fallon | Christopher Murphy…..16 Last Picture Show | Lori Lamothe…..22 Thirty Percent Rob | Juli Anne Patty…..23 Palmdale | Stephen Lewis…..30 Postcard from Random Data off the Internet | Kristi Shewmaker…..31 For Sale by Owner | Julie Hart…..32 sonnet 313 [we laughed the rain down] | Adam Walsh…..40 Unstoppable | Kim Farleigh…..42
The Physical Things | Jessica Lakritz
1. Redwoods trees, paisano in the afternoon. Holes in a blue dress. Blue dress hanging on a doorknob. A sincere apology, to feel guilty, not believing in unrequited love or ghosts or the zodiac sky. Shark heart served on a plate, peyote and square dancing, in an orange, dark place full of sand and adobe and sunset.
2. The moon enters the scene this way, too small to cast much light. Two boys walk down the ramp toward the beach where our bodies lie, bellies moving up and down in rhythm, it seems, with the earth. I bet the boys could barely see our skin, just silhouettes. They might have imagined romance, only a fraction of how love functions. Us, we could blame it on the shark we ate, an aphrodisiac or a predator or just an animal acting like an animal. You reach up my skirt on our drive toward the beach. Before the boys appear, just the waves and a little shard of moon: the physical things come first. Spattered light through a canopy of Redwood leaves, hard scratches on our knees from the bark, a little blood shared between body and body and earth. Or a bottle of coconut rum, a seedy motel room near Puget Sound, bed sheets, the whitest white, taken from the instant between dreaming and waking, color of small deceptions, of truce, twisted around us. Then, you on your way, I on mine. Perhaps you feel sorry with your bottle of rum,
your jug of paisano, drawing the curtains to block out the whole bright afternoon. Instead of the alternative. The truth is I wanted to live through it all at any cost, another function of love. Perhaps the entrance point is how the moon changes the equilibrium of a room as soon as we both come.
3. We were talking about the future in terms of cities. We wanted to swim in the ocean at night. I wanted more. Is this what happens when the moon appears at the wrong time? The boys want to build a fire where we are. They bring their dry wood. But the ocean is gone, Big Sur and Coos Bay are gone. Who’s there? Who stands at the edge and looks up? We like to hear the water when we fuck. We like to sit naked under the moon. Yes, this is it. We were talking about places with no names.
[BIO]: Jessica has an MFA from Eastern Washington University and keeps a poetry haiku blog.
A Night of Sweeping Romance | Adrienne Gunn
Since her divorce, Christy had become a regular at the Northwoods Tavern. Sandwiched between a supermarket and a walk-ins-welcome beauty salon, the Northwoods was for people who liked things simple and consistent, locals who liked returning to the same parking lot where they’d bought bread and bananas in the morning for light beer in the evening. Christy worked at a bank a few doors down, and when Emily was with her father, Christy went for drinks with the other tellers, single women, all younger than her. They wore a version of this outfit every time they went out: spaghetti-strapped tank top, short skirt or tight pants, cheap heels. Tonight while sipping her first beer, Christy wondered if they looked ridiculous next to the Northwoods’ deer heads, fish tanks, and video poker machines. Jessica leaning over the pool table with her breasts hanging from her body like fat water balloons; Kelly chalking the tip of a pool cue in slow deliberate circles, her red mouth parted; Carrie perched on the edge of the table, her skirt riding high on her thighs, a pink cocktail in a rocks glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They seemed alternately desperate for attention from the fishing buddies, career drunks, mechanics, plumbers, and jig-grinders, and then just like girls having fun, because why should life be so serious? “Let’s do a shot,” Christy suggested, and then another, because more than anything she wanted to be as unfettered and unworried as these girls were and at the Northwoods there was a small reprieve from the sensible Christy she was in daylight – who was here even now – reminding her she’d taken a very pretty and promising young girl and whittled away at her with bad decisions until she’d become a thirty-year-old divorced single mother with a job instead of a career, boyfriends instead of a husband. So she drank and drank until she could laugh like them, toss her hair like them, be young and beautiful and free like them.
Troy went to the Northwoods rarely and especially avoided it around the holidays when the assholes returned in collared shirts and gray sweaters with pretty little wives in party dresses. Descending upon the Northwoods, the wives would exclaim like tourists over the mounted fish with names like Big Bertha or Cockadoodle, and the husbands would call the bartender “Johnny” and order the local draft beer; Troy’s life their quaint Christmas card. No, Troy preferred movies to alcohol and people. Sitting in a darkened movie theater with the understanding that all this happiness and good feeling was manufactured bullshit seemed more honest than any real life experience he’d ever had. At least with movies you were a willing accomplice to the illusion that loss, suffering, or pain, could somehow be overcome. That was what he found so uncomfortable about people – there was no way out, but people tried to be movies anyway. They just didn’t admit it. Tonight he’d come straight from a job and was awkward in overalls covered in splotches of pea-green paint that he’d spent the day slapping on the siding of a house. It had taken coaxing for him to celebrate a work buddy’s fortieth birthday and he only half-listened to the conversation while picking at the paint with his thumbnail. Troy sipped his warm beer and noticed a group of girls taking shots at the bar, wiping their mouths with the back of their hands and smearing their lipstick. And though he was surprised to see Christy standing there, beautiful in her tight jeans and tank top, he shouldn’t have been. They’d both lived in this town all their lives. Never left. Christy rushed up – she’d always been the sort of girl that rushed up – hugged his stiff torso, and without invitation sat knee to knee with him at the sticky table, just as she used to in art class. “My god, it’s Troy Haight! I don’t believe it. How long has it been? Twelve years?” “Looks like it,” he said, shifting in his seat. The pool table was being moved to the side, making room for the Friday night DJ who’d play songs like “Friends in Low Places,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” and soon the entire bar would dance together in a gesticulating herd, united in the spirit of drunken homogeneity. Troy planned to be gone by then. Christy smelled like something fruity and feminine and she had that same ease in the world he remembered. It both attracted and frightened him, because for as long as Troy could remember, he’d had the sense that the
world was against him. He supposed he could take a pill for it, medicate his life into a movie, but that seemed pointless. “You look great!” Christy touched Troy’s arm and tossed her hair. “Have you been here this whole time? Why haven’t I seen you? You bring back so many memories, Troy,” she said, though she could recall little in terms of specific time spent together, because outside of art class, they hadn’t spent much time together at all. All she had were impressions based on the customs and practices of high school – she the popular and pretty volleyball player who’d never had an awkward stage, he the shy and inoffensive artist who’d dealt weed out of his parents’ basement for cash he didn’t really need. But it was like a faucet had been turned on and was filling Christy with the feeling of him, of the Troy who had always adored her in a nonthreatening way, like a dog waiting patiently for a pat. “Do you still sell weed?” She laughed. “Oh my god, we could get high! Can you imagine? I haven’t gotten high in years and years. I would look ridiculous!” Troy surprised himself when he laughed. In high school Christy had always been able to make everyone laugh, and when it was at her own expense he’d thought she was sharing some secret part of herself that exposed the real Christy, the one that wasn’t so at ease in the world – more like him. Now he understood that the two of them smoking weed together was funny because Christy, the beautiful Christy, was proper and sweet, and Troy was gritty and capable of taking her someplace she shouldn’t be, but maybe wanted to be, like crouching over a joint in the alley behind the Northwoods. He looked at her hand resting on his arm. “No, I don’t sell weed anymore,” he said. “But maybe I should get back into it – it was good money.” They smiled at each other, each beginning to feel more like the undamaged and hopeful high schoolers they once were. The conversation turned to the years in between, but neither of them felt compelled to prove their great successes. Troy and Christy’s life stories had new narrators, who aided by nostalgia and alcohol found in the hard times and unimagined choices a fresh, clean perspective. “And so I left him,” Christy said. “I realized life isn’t just about making plans, paying bills, or
watching football every weekend. It can’t just be about that. About going through the motions, buying groceries, making meals, whatever. But that’s all we talked about. We just talked about our plans. Who would pick up Emily. What yard work needed to be done. And once the plans were made, these horribly boring plans, we had nothing left to say. How awful is that? We just stared at each other. How uncomfortable – can you imagine? So then we’d make more plans just to stop staring at each other! How about a movie Saturday? I could get a babysitter? We could have sex afterwards?” Christy put a hand over her mouth and laughed, took a swig of her beer. “Anyway, after my father died I looked at my mother and thought, that’s what I’m going to be. This is it. I mean I’ve never even been to California – can you imagine? And there was no way Brian was going to California, or anywhere other than softball on Tuesdays and poker every other Saturday. I’ve never even been across the country! I’m too young for my life to look like that. And so I left him.” Christy revealed this to Troy in a manner that suggested it had been rehearsed and recited many times to many different people, yet when she finished a new revelation came to her like an aftershock. It had been the right choice! Of course it had all been much more complicated than just plans and boredom – she felt she deserved to be loved – and the divorce had left her with a gaping wound that she tried to keep bandaged and hidden but that bled out at various and surprising moments, like when Emily had learned to tap-dance on the kitchen linoleum. Christy had thought it was so cute and funny, the pink leotard and the slow arm waving and mistimed feet clacking, but in these moments she wanted someone to laugh with, to share Emily with, as if her love for Emily couldn’t be real without someone else there to recognize it, and then the steadfast pain would return with surprising intensity and for a moment Christy would think family before jumping up to tap-dance across the linoleum herself. But Christy had left her husband and now her life was almost completely her own. Doubt that lingered and flared when she kissed Emily goodbye every other weekend and was saturated in all her new freedom – a freedom that she had desperately wanted but that had left her untethered and unsure of what to do with herself without the prescribed responsibilities of child and husband, leaving her to wander her apartment wondering if she should clean, read, watch a movie, eat, take a bath, go to lunch or the mall, see a movie, buy a sweater, balance her
checkbook, find religion, knit, take up running, call a friend, find a man to date – was replaced with elation, hope. Here was Troy Haight. Troy sipped his beer and nodded in agreement. The DJ had begun to play and one of Christy’s friends was twirled round and round by one of Troy’s married co-workers in coveralls. Really, Troy had no idea what Christy was talking about or what kind of life that was. He hadn’t been with a girl for longer than a month or two since Stephanie Conner in high school, and not one of his relationships had ever reached the point where dreams became responsibilities – weddings, mortgages, children, life insurance. He’d never wanted them to. He’d seen what plans and dreams had done to his father. Sometimes he thought he could remember a time when they had all been different, when he didn’t see them this way, but when he pictured family, he saw his shoulder-slumped father with nothing left, huddled in the backyard smoking the pot Troy had sold him; his obese mother with soup dribbled down her front, snoring in the recliner in the middle of the day; the little rat-dogs that peed all over the carpet; and there, on the couch, Troy, watching this shit-hell of a life around him, Troy a painter of walls and houses and not canvases, Troy accumulating and cataloguing the disappointments and annoyances of the hometown man. Now as he drank his fifth beer, listening to Christy and watching Bob lick that girl’s neck on the dance floor where the pool table had been, Christy seemed so vibrant that he forgot she never would have considered him in high school. He was drunk on the heat of her hand on his thigh and the way her hair fell around the curve of her ear and neck, the texture and shape of it striking him as this small sliver of worldly perfection that must be looked at and seen. “And so I packed up Emily,” Christy continued, “and we got our own place. Right off Riverside Road. Kind of by where your parents live.” And she thought of Troy in that big house, and imagined herself and Emily spending holidays there instead of at her small apartment, a space that constantly reminded them of what it wasn’t – a house. She imagined herself married again, imagined herself sleeping companionably next to someone, someone who knew how to take care of her, who offered her a whole new way to live, right this time, with rules and structures and a purpose she could understand. She beamed at Troy.
“No, they moved. They’re off North Main now.” And as Troy said this, for the first time he didn’t feel embarrassed. So they’d had some hard times? It suddenly felt as simple as that. Life was a dirty, messy thing, wasn’t it? Maybe the world wasn’t against him, maybe this was just the world? Christy’d had some hard times and look at her here, her cheeks as rosy as a child’s, still as beautiful as ever, looking at him like if he kissed her she’d be glad for it. For the first time in years Troy felt compelled to take some sort of action and so he leaned forward, touched Christy’s knee, looked her straight in the eyes, and said “Listen, do you want to dance?” So began a night of sweeping romance that only the youngest of lovers can sustain. Troy and Christy were teenagers in an all-consuming, tunnel-visioned, speeding-car-off-the-highwayand-into-a-ravine kind of love. They drank and they danced, practically lapping the beads of sweat off each other’s faces, grasping and fumbling at each other and the pool table for support as they moved. Oh, this feeling! They were sexy, caring, funny, selfless, smart, important people! At the end of the night, Christy’s co-workers dropped them off at Troy’s house, which looked less ramshackled to him in the dark, drunken blur, and after an intense bout of lovemaking where Troy bounced the bed against the wall and felt like the eighteen-year-old stallion he had never been except during his own epic masturbations – he could, go, on, for, ever – Christy rested her head on his chest, smiling up at the wonder of him, thinking it was a miracle she had left Brian, her life was so open now, it was opening up right in front of her now. “Why didn’t you ever ask me out in high school?” Christy said. “Think of how everything could’ve been different! How much time we’ve wasted!” “You were too good for me in high school, remember?” Troy said, intending to joke, and immediately regretting it. The third party he’d been trying to ignore all night crawled into bed, curled against their naked bodies, and laughed. She’d been what he wanted, wet and appreciative and adoring, and he’d given himself up to it, believing for a moment that life – weddings, mortgages, children, life insurance – could be amazing with the right woman and that maybe he was capable of it. And now this interloper in bed with them.
Christy thought about high school. Though Troy’s family had money and his art and pot business brought him a small bit of charm, she had been too good for him then. She’d ignored him mostly. None of her friends took art – she’d taken it on one of her dreamy whims – and so they sat together and that was it. Christy had talked to him in art class. Mostly about herself. Thinking about it now scratched at her wound and it began to bleed. She no longer felt young and beautiful and free, even in her memory. She’d spent these years believing that in high school she’d been somebody and that was what was lost to her now. What kind of mother was she, drunk and naked in some man’s bed who was not her husband and who was not good enough for her? Christy noticed the musty dankness of Troy’s bedroom, the weeks old sweat stinking in the sheets, the clothing on the floor, the empty cans on the dresser, the recliner, television, and videogame console. She’d barely thought of Emily all night, had left her with her father and had gotten drunk and fucked Troy so she could feel good. And she had felt good. Troy’s sex had surprised her, he’d fucked her like she hadn’t been fucked in years, and the memory of it sent a fresh rush of blood to her crotch and she wanted to snuggle against him, to forget about the selfish and silly girl she’d been, and to look to something better. She pushed her body closer to Troy’s, caressing his belly with her hand, nuzzling his neck with her nose. He really had been wonderful back then, very introspective and creative. “Do you still paint?” she asked. “I could never paint like you. I remember how good you were. Mr. Eckerman used to always say so. Troy this and Troy that, everyone look at Troy’s.” “Yup. Houses. I paint houses.” “You know what I mean. Pictures. Do you still paint pictures?” “Walls,” he tapped her nipple. “I also paint walls.” “I remember how you used to paint.” Her remembering felt good to him then, as if to Christy, Troy was someone important, worth looking back upon. He hadn’t gone to college after his father’s business went bankrupt and the
lawsuit began, and then they’d lost the house. There wasn’t money for college anymore, so he just didn’t go. And it had felt like a stupid thing to do, to pursue something frivolous and uncertain like art once he’d understood that it was only an escape, a momentary mask on reality. What he’d really needed was a job, so he’d gotten one. But what did any of this matter anymore? These disappointments? He was lying in bed with the beautiful Christy, who used to drive a brown El Camino with a blue and white volleyball bag tossed in the back and who was looking up at him now with big eyes, and maybe what he’d done was a noble, right thing, and maybe staying in this town was what had brought him to her, and maybe everything was just about to begin. “You should paint me!” she said suddenly, sitting up in bed and fluffing her hair around her bare shoulders. “My portrait!” and the way she looked at him then, it was as if all the things he thought he didn’t want he was suddenly desperate for: a house with curtains on the windows, pancakes on Sunday mornings, an artist’s studio in the garage, Christy’s portrait hanging over the fireplace, maybe even a dog and a pool. He could hardly believe it was real; he wanted proof. While Troy gathered his supplies, Christy went to the bathroom and peed. She stared at her bare feet on the white tile. Her red toenail polish was chipped, but this didn’t matter – she knew this imperfection wouldn’t matter to him. She knew this certainly, just as she’d known the moment she became pregnant. Sometimes connection is certain. She paused at the mirror, licked her finger and rubbed the mascara from under her eyes, before returning to the bedroom and arranging herself on the bed in the way of ancient Roman women she’d seen on postcards of paintings at the greeting card shop, lying on her side with the sheet rippling in front of her, artfully covering her vagina, exposing one breast. Troy returned with a dusty, rectangular canvas, a plastic grocery sack filled with small tubes of paint and brushes, and a paper plate. She watched as he squeezed the tubes. Yellow oil spurted onto the plate, followed by coils of paint. Dull colors: brown, white, earthy yellow and red. He was quiet, contemplative, as he rubbed them together with a butter knife, and in the silence she felt silly lying there naked as if she still had the body of a teenager, as if she were
someone who didn’t have a child and responsibilities. She thought of a time when she and Brian had showered together during her pregnancy. Her body was stretched and oddly shaped and unfamiliar to her and she was sometimes ashamed of it, and then ashamed of the shame, that she was so vain and incapable of loving her child more than her body. And she thought of how he had looked at her and looked quickly away, her body making him uncomfortable too, and how he was supposed to have loved her forever, when she was no longer the teen dream, but a woman with imperfections, and how he should’ve made her comfortable then, how it was all supposed to have worked out, and then Christy wanted to cry. Troy wanted to savor every inch of her, so he began at her feet. Instead of outlining her body with a turpentine-thinned yellow, easily masked later on, and going back to work through the detail and color, he slowly defined each of her toes with his brush, painted her toenails cleanly white, shaded the rigid tendons across the top of her feet, curved the ankles into pleasing circles. The bedside lamp was on, and he saw her as an artist would, polishing her, changing her just a bit. On the canvas her feet became transcendent. The simple beauty of a foot! What was life if not this foot, post-coital and arrested in time, the smooth, bare sole somehow exposing all that was vulnerable and real? “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever known,” he said impulsively, the paper plate flimsy in his hand. “I think maybe I haven’t had much. That the world hasn’t given me much. But it’s all here tonight, isn’t it?” It was the most perfect thing to say, such a romantic thing to say. It was what she’d hoped for, this kind of acceptance. Yet Troy seemed so raw and intense then, so desperate and full of a need for her to fill, his eyes searching her face, his hair all askew, the dank mustiness of his bedroom, that he suddenly wasn’t what Christy wanted at all. In the wild look in his eyes, Christy saw him filled with the pain there was no cure for other than the Northwoods and small, euphoric moments where you felt like someone else. She would never love him, or anyone, as innocently as she’d loved Brian, accepting all of him without much thought. Troy wasn’t a salve for her wound – he was too wounded himself. No, there was no lasting comfort.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said, because it had been, for a moment. Christy relaxed into the bed, allowing her whole body to go slack and her eyes to close. Troy started again. Moved on to her legs, the curves of her calves, the width of her thighs, nice thick things for a man to bite and bury his face in. He was tired and he made more mistakes than he’d made on the feet. He’d spent so long on the feet that he was no longer drunk. Christy slept on the bed, a soft huff escaping her lips as she exhaled. Troy wanted nothing more than to go lie next to her, to close his eyes. But finishing this painting was suddenly the most important thing he’d done in the past twelve years, and stopping would mean failing at that too, when what he needed was evidence of all the dormant possibilities that beckoned still. With each mis-stroke he felt more and more like an imposter. He hated her for forcing him into this. He was a painter of houses. Walls. At the hips, things completely fell apart. Troy put down his brush and stared at Christy’s hips and the thick, white stretch marks that ran down them. As she slept with her stomach muscles relaxed, an extra handful of skin rested against the sheet, also lined with the marks. Troy stared and stared at the scars, wondering how he was supposed to paint them, what he was supposed to do with them, no longer able to see her as an artist would, with paint to cover, change, render. She had betrayed him, but he should’ve expected it, he’d been foolish to think any differently. Her breasts too seemed less buoyant than when he’d held them in his hands just hours before. And her face! When he looked at it, it was no longer the face of a seventeen-year-old girl, but as the early morning light began to stream through the blinds it illuminated the wrinkles of a thirty-year-old woman. Her skin was pallid and pulled and lifeless. Ever her hair seemed dirty and he thought if he got close enough it would smell. She was changed in ways that couldn’t be undone. The possibilities were slipping through his fingers, he could feel them going, going, and she would be gone in the morning.
[BIO]: Adrienne has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon and currently lives in Chicago, IL.
Fallon | Christopher Murphy
Fallon took her car on the wrong way down Storrow. It seemed fine at the time, because the music, her choice, was so sweet with the R&B and I was pretty sure I was getting laid. She had put her hand like three times on my thigh at the bar. Once for emphasis, because she was a talker, but twice just to squeeze it there. Things went wrong when the first pair of headlights capped the overpass and came right for us. I might have grabbed the wheel. She definitely squealed, and everything went to shit. We both managed to get out of the car. It didn’t have airbags and it was canted onto the divider at a 45° angle. The seatbelt choked me and glass was everywhere. She kept swearing, “That motherfucker. That motherfucker!” Because it was obviously his fault. And I said, “Hey. Hey. Fallon, Are you OK? This is bad.” I was ashamed to be bleeding. But it was bad. The other car was hissing and Fallon’s car was leaking fluids and smelled like robot cancer. More cars were coming. The other driver fell out his door, saying, “What the fuck.” He had blood paintballed all across the bridge of his nose. He was on all fours with one hand cupping all the blood. It was a comedy routine. Fallon said, “Run.” I said, “Fallon. Your car.” “It’s my boyfriend’s. You retarded? Let’s go.” So I went. Against the headlights backing up and the scene lit across the overpass, with traffic going blissfully underneath as drunk drivers wove their way home. We jumped the offramp divider, and I watched as Fallon, in her big sweats with her big rump squished on the concrete, looked back at me and smiled. She had blood on her teeth. We ran again into the oncoming traffic of cars eastbound, towards Charlestown and Quincy and every waiting wife or empty house that each drunk would mourn or treasure. It was wonderful, all of them honking at us. Maybe it sobered them up. We could have saved a life. There were sirens, but we were far enough that she stopped running. Then we became a couple. First she sought out my hand, and when that wasn’t enough she pivoted. She had
round pointed eyes, like an Armenian, but everything else was Irish, or Italian, North Shore. We called them scuppas. Scuppa bitches from the North Shore used their nails in fights at Denny’s when everyone was getting breakfast at 3 a.m. They were opposite day buttaface, as in ‘she has a nice body, buttaface’. Their bodies were lumpy, but they had these sweet, animate faces. The girls I went to school with had designer windshield covers, their faces expected things. I mean she fucking kissed me. I was making $15 an hour as a summer job. This was the shit I was supposed to be educated out of. Her tongue was Jacques Cousteau. It was like she was exploring my mouth to unearth the wreck of my accent. She didn’t touch me until I put a hand on the back of her head, and then she grabbed my neck, and then my ass, like it was etiquette. She pulled away first. “You look like a boxer.” “You’re bleeding.” The corners of her mouth were smeared with it. “Oh yeah? You’re fun.” She led me by the hand down Boylston, and when the sirens rose behind us I took her to the Fens, by a neighborhood where I had friends who worked in finance. We played Frisbee here on the mornings after Saturday Sox games. My buddy’s Volkswagen diesel was parked two blocks away. “Let’s go to the bar,” she said. I said, “Let’s get high.” So there, by a footbridge that led to the Museum of Fine Arts, in marshes frequented by the gays so I heard, I took out my dugout, my little wooden box and my little fake metal cigarette, and I passed her the fresh hit two times. It was peaceful there by the bridge. Only one road cyclist and a hipster couple passed us, and they all recognized that we were there, and they all smiled. Fallon ignored the couple, scowled at the biker. She had worn her sweats out to the bar because she had worn her sweats to work. She had been trained in layout by Sandra, who had shown me a picture of her, Sandra, with Brett Michaels in the early 90’s. Her hair and shoulder pads enormous. She looked like dry sponge Sandra if current Sandra was wet sponge Sandra. Fallon was layout and I was proofing. They normally didn’t mix, but she had asked me out for a drink and by God
I said yes. You only possibly could imagine looking at the tax documents for Bernes & Bernes and trying to make sure, after 150 pages, that this 5 was supposed to be left-aligned by 1/8th instead of 1/7th. And Fallon, juicy saucy little Fallon always talked about how hammered she had been the night before, every night before. She wore sweats every day, and her ass was at such a peak of ripeness that old woman would have knocked it, smelled it, and then bought it. I wore sweaters. I had one on now. It was argyle. “So you’re fucking smart,” she said. I said I was wicked smart and she blew smoke in my face. “Don’t make fun of me.” “I’m not,” I said. “But I’m wicked fuckin’ smart, and you better recognize.” “Yeah, I’ll try.” She said, and when I offered a third fresh hit she refused. I took it, and she took the remainder. “Sandra told me you were smart, and I was like, ‘whatever, kid’s here’, right? I mean, Ray’s at Tipsy,” being Technical Publishing Solutions Incorporated, “but Ray was in Vietnam, so even if he is Ivy League, he’s not a pussy.” “I’m a pussy.” “Yeah, but you’re nice,” Her skin was full like an olive, I mean it felt like she was about to pop. There was so much strawberry in her hair and her lotion and her clothes that you could have floated me down the Fens on the smell of it. Was that a North Shore thing, all that fragrance? I didn’t at all know. She stuck her hand down the back of my pants and once there, she just ran her fingers up and down the fine hairs. I was so sick of girls who thought too much. I fingered her next to the bridge. It was like someone had popped a water balloon in my palm. I said, “Let’s go to a bar.” “Let’s go to a titty bar. I want to see titties.” “Fallon,” I said. “We’re like five blocks from the nearest Green Line stop, and then we’d have to transfer to the Orange.” “You’re right,” she said. “We’ll take the green, get off, and stop at a bar on the way. Stop being such a pussy.”
Fallon sat on my lap on the T. It wasn’t full, the train, but as soon as I sat she sat right on me and the whole weight of that scuppaness ground into me. “You’re bony as shit,” she said. “Jesus, fucking move over.” I did, and she sat two seats away. There was a group of Asian kids down the train, and she said to me loudly, “Fucking ching-chongs think they can math the train.” “What?” I said, The Asian kids looked over at us. One of them, who had a pool cue case slung over his shoulder and looked like one of those guys in the movies who rides a really expensive bike, sucked his teeth at me. “Fuckin’ what?” I said, and he slow turned to his friends. Fallon slid over next to me and yelled, “MIT’s the Red Line, dickheads.” I have many Asian friends. Not so many that I’ve gone in their houses, but they’re good kids, not all of them smart. I would have disowned them to a man to get Fallon back on my lap. Those sweats hid all sorts of wonders, her vagina foremost, which I imagined tasted salty and not at all like lentils. I made like I was scratching my lip and smelled my fingers. “I want a drink, like, now,” she said. “Little patience,” I said. “Thank God you’re not driving the fuckin’ train.” “What?” She said, and then, with her hand on my knee, “You sure you’re from Belmont?”
Fallon’s boyfriend wasn’t a bouncer at the titty bar, but he was a regular. We had stopped at an Irish bar on the outskirts of Chinatown, and Fallon had flirted with the bartender and almost gotten me into a fight with a crooked-nosed house painter who she said was eyeing her and what was I going to do? I had a buddy who had been a pretty big high school football player, and he said that certain girls were like standing near the pile, you never knew when someone would come flying in and snap your knee, end your career. It was thrilling. Her boy’s name was Travis, and that was warning enough. We sat in the strip club for about twenty minutes, enough time for me to buy us both $10 beers and throw a few dollar bills at the girl on stage, separated from us by the bar so I had to reach forward while the dancer, vaguely Central American looking because she was kind of
square-shaped and had no ass, tapped the indentation in her panties and then pulled them aside. She had a dainty belly. Of the two strip clubs that Boston boasted, this was not the classy one. Travis sat five seats down. I didn’t know at the time his name was Travis, but I knew he kept looking. “Darling, you are so sweet,” Fallon said, crumpled a five and tossed it at the stripper’s cleft. “Travis, what the fuck’s your problem?” So, the issue of the car came up. “Yeah I fucking wrecked your car!” She said. “That shitbox.” “You’re a fucking disaster. A fucking cunt disaster.” He had one arm full of tattoos, and one on his face, a small shamrock by his left eye. “Hey,” I said. “Hey.” “Hey fucking what, pussy?” He said. “This kid?” he said to Fallon. ”Really? He pay by the hour?” God she had such nails, like from a kung fu movie. The bouncer pulled them apart. I got between them. I’m not a fighter. “Hey,” I said. “C’mon, enough.” “OK, Harry Potter,” Travis said. “Let’s go.” I went outside. As much as inside was close and smelled too much like Glade plug-in outside smelled terrifyingly clean. Travis stripped down to his wifebeater. I knew going out the door that if I didn’t fight it would haunt me the rest of my days. This was medicine. “You having a good time in that fag-ass sweater slumming with my girlfriend?” “You want to smell my fingers?” Fallon stood to the side, and she said, “Kick his fucking teeth.” I didn’t know if she was talking to me. For years my plan was this: head-butt to the nose, kick to the knee, then take advantage and just wail. I thought people would pull us apart and then, say, ‘Johnson, you win. Let it be’. Travis stepped up. He had black, tribal tattoos disappearing from his shoulder down into his shirt. I said, “wait,” and threw the top of my forehead right into the bridge of his nose and felt it mush to the side. That’s something I can take with me.
I think I threw a fist going down. Travis had actually fought people. I don’t think I made any noises as he hit many aspects of my face, though I know I put my hands up thinking, stop, this should tell you to stop. Every shot made a noise like a kazoo in my skull. When he hit me in the face again it wasn’t so much things breaking as broken things singing out Travis got up and I said, “please,” and he stomped me in the gut. I made noises that will haunt my days and he kicked me again. Fallon put her hands on my face. The concrete felt so pleasantly cold. Travis went inside, and everyone else followed him, except Fallon, who rubbed my hair and told me she was so sorry. She went inside. I would have gone home, but my jacket was on the back of my chair. It was a J. Crew pea coat. I had gotten it for Christmas. It took every last bit of the shame I had to stand up.
The titty bar smelt like my own snuffling. Travis and Fallon sat together, her rubbing his knuckles and pleading forgiveness. His nose was red and two runnels of blood had crusted on his lip. I sat at the bar with my back to them and pretended like I had just stopped in to settle my tab. First Fallon, then Travis called me over to their table. I could see how, in certain situations, he was a good guy. He had bought me a beer, though he had drank some of it. “I didn’t know if you were coming back,” he said, “How’s your face?” I said, “Pretty,” and when he laughed I put that in my pocket. The Nicaraguan stripper sat with us, and I gave her twenty dollars to rub my leg. “The car was stolen,” Fallon said. “I took the T to work.” “You’re a fucking cunt,” Travis said, and he kissed Fallon on her eye with his hand gripping the back of her neck. “I’m never loaning you shit again. You take a ride with her?” “Nope.” I said. The stripper rubbed my leg so the back of her hand grazed the tip. “I don’t know you people.”
[BIO]: Christopher was born and raised outside of Boston and currently teaches at Northeastern State University in eastern Oklahoma.
Last Picture Show | Lori Lamothe
Today the sky is an unsent letter, blank as my mind on hiatus from the month’s train, endlessly clacking over incantations of days. And yes, you really can feel weather about to happen. Above us a storm thrashes in its net until snow sifts down, melting on contact with distraction— doors opening and slamming shut, lyrics left out overnight, the static of conversations flickering in and out of range. Substitute: canned laughter, the house’s beating heart. If I get up from this moment and pull back the curtain of our daily prose, will the moon still be its wallflower self, alone in its corner of sky, shining a pale and vicarious lunacy? Will you hold out your hand and dance me across the linoleum darkness under strobe-light stars and spinning night? If you see this, text smoke signals for the next showing at infinity’s drive-in, trace impractical equations onto the fogged windows of possibility.
[BIO]: Lori is a mentor for the Afghan Women's Writing Project and teaches part-time at Quinsigamond Community College.
Thirty Percent Rob | Juli Anne Patty
In photos, Rob is whole, or he appears to be. Even in person, you have to know him to know in order to be able to identify which Rob is present. It’s a mistake we make with people, expecting a cohesive whole. Love isn’t about getting to know a person, figuring out if their whole matches yours. You have to get to know all the different people a person is. You have to figure out if your love for one of those people is enough to outweigh your rage at another. Because we’re not whole. None of us. Not like we think we are. Least of all Rob. “Yeah, I know, Tom, but we’ve got to nail this down now, or before we know it, those two weeks will pass, and once again we won’t have gotten any of this done in ... yeah, yeah ... Yes. Yes, Tom. I know. But I’m telling you, you always think you have more time than you do. Nobody ever listens to me about this, but you have less. A lot less. What? Okay fine, but text me when it’s done. Seriously, Tom. Text me. Bye.” Seventy percent Rob and I are going hiking. He’s emailed me about it every two hours for the last week. What boots should he wear? Or should he buy a new pair? Did I check the weather? Which trail will we take? Maybe this one, or that, but maybe not because the drive might be so long that we can’t enjoy ourselves knowing how tired we’ll be on Monday. Sunday is the only day we’ve managed to get our schedules free at the same time. That morning, the texts: What will we pick up for lunch? Did I bring a wine bottle opener for the picnic? Have I packed sunscreen? Will the trail be enough of a challenge? But short enough to leave time for the picnic? Should we try a different trail instead? The texts arrive like gunfire, and already, even before he picks me up in his 1994 BMW—the “soon-to-be-classic” he bought last year and has washed and waxed weekly—already I know that seventy percent Rob is going to show up. I also know, by the fact that I have identified the
difference between seventy percent and thirty percent Rob, that it’s time for us to break up. I’m exhausted by the idea of the discussion, and I’m miserable, too, a fact that mystifies and annoys me. I should be overjoyed at the thought of being free of this. I should be running for it. But I haven’t, and I’m not. Rob has one hand on the wheel, the other turning the heat on, then off, then on. Bluetooth in his ear, Rob barely manages to make his replies to his gallery manager less than a bark. He grabs a receipt from the center console, crushed it, pegs it at the windshield. It bounces away at my head. Rob flips the heat off again. The next call is to his agent, then a sound technician, then his buyer. “I’m sorry, baby,” he says, tossing the phone into his lap. “I have all of these stupid tiny little tasks that I haven’t been able to get to all week. They’re killing me. I swear, is life even fucking worth living with all this goddamn stress we’re constantly under? Sometimes I wonder.” I sigh. “I’m here now, beautiful. I swear.” He puts his right hand on my knee and squeezes, smiles at me and then lifts his hand to touch my cheek. “I missed you this week. You make everything feel so much better.” I get the warm feeling, but only for a second. It’s less and less these days, the lifespan of that warmth. These are the words of thirty percent Rob, and I’m angry that seventy percent Rob has stolen them. Now I know why I feel sad about what I’m going to have to do. “Rob, you say that, but—” “Oh no.” He interrupts, the hand back on my knee, squeezing. “What? Baby, I know I haven’t been very attentive this morning, but I’m all yours now. Cross my heart.” He does his signature baseball player thanking God for his homerun heart cross, finger kiss. I want to laugh. I want to be in a better mood. I truly want to forget that I’m going to have to break up with him soon. I want him to change my mind. I decide to give him a chance.
To achieve this, I do what I’ve been doing for months, what I only just realized a few days ago I was doing. I cast my mind back to the last time thirty percent Rob showed up. It was six weeks ago. I had a cold, the kind of cold that makes you want your mom and your oldest pajamas. And death. Rob checked on me all day by email, which wasn’t all that unusual, but then he showed up at my door. He held a bag packed with tomato soup and grilled cheese ingredients, a bouquet of flowers and a new pair of flannel pajamas. He cooked. He set his laptop up in my bedroom and put in a DVD, then propped us up on the pillows and held me, feverish and sweaty, against his chest until I fell asleep. Thirty percent Rob. Six weeks ago was the last time I saw him. Since then he’d been planning his newest gallery opening, and I’d been understanding. Compassionate. It was a stressful thing, putting your infant creations out into the world. I’m a writer. I know all about it. I didn’t see him during the week, our usual schedule. I almost never longed for more time with him, and it didn’t occur to me why for many months. It had been seven now, since we’d met at a mutual friend’s dinner party. At first there was a lot of thirty percent Rob. I thought he was Rob. And then I started fantasizing about the times when Rob was that guy, the one I met that first night and all those early subsequent nights. I don’t even remember when seventy percent Rob showed up the first time. I didn’t recognize him. To me, he was all-Rob, and he’d just had a stressful conversation, a hard day, a bad night’s sleep. And then I started coming up with excuses. It was stress, obviously. Poor guy. Then it just happened, like all the most pivotal moments in life that sneak up and jump out at us. Or out of us. He embarrassed me at a party, lecturing the waiter about the temperature of the room. He was so enraged, he had to leave the table. I was busy pressing my most apologetic looks on the waiter, the other guests nearby, and my friend, our host. I needed to explain his behavior, to justify his existence in that moment, and I came up with a joke: I’m so sorry, I said to my friend. I guess seventy percent Rob is with us tonight. Thirty percent of the time Rob would never talk to a waiter like that.
“Baby, are you listening to me?” Rob has been talking about his show, which opens in three weeks, and I’m not listening. All I can think is that I’m looking at three more weeks of seventy percent. “Listen, love, I need your advice. You’re so much better at this than I am. How do I get Angela to kick in free catering? I mean, she’s your friend, really, and, you know, she fucking knows, I’m an artist. I’d love to pay her, but I just can’t afford it.” “You know what, Rob?” I’m out of patience. It happens quickly. “She’s going to call you, but I’ll just break it to you now. Angela can’t do your show. She got a paying gig, and you were already only offering to cover her expenses anyway. You’re not the only one struggling to make your dreams come true.” “What?” Now Rob is out of patience. “Fuck! That’s just fucking perfect. Who cancels three weeks before an event? How are you even friends with this person? She’s never going to be successful if she can’t even behave like a fucking professional, and I’m sorry, I really am, but I’m going to tell everyone she screwed me. I can’t believe ... did you tell her this would be okay?” “I don’t have any authority over Angela, Rob. And you know what? You were a jerk to her at the planning meeting. I can’t say that I blame her. How can you talk to someone like she’s your servant and expect her not to dump your gig? Even if she were your servant, you’d be an asshole to talk to her that way.” Rob says nothing. He pulls the car over at the next overlook. We’re near the top of the mountain now, having driven to one of the highest trails, closest to the waterfall. Rob could only carve a few hours out of his day, and he wanted to get to the scenery and the food and wine right away. The view here is pretty amazing, and I try to use it to tune out whatever it is he’s going to say. He hangs his head. He’s silent for a long time, and then, “Oh my god. You’re right. I’ve been an
asshole for weeks now, haven’t I? I swear, I just get so ... wound up ...” He turns his entire body toward me, and he pulls me to him with both arms. I am a sucker for hugs. And a sucker for someone who doesn’t ask before he gives them. “Please, baby, tell Angela I’m sorry. No, I’ll tell her. I’ll text her.” He picks up his phone and starts pecking the screen with both thumbs. “Dammit!” He slams the steering wheel with his right hand. “No signal. I didn’t even think of that. I’ve missed at least six thousand emails by now.” Ah. So close. But I already knew which Rob was in charge today. I know better. Why do I keep hoping for something different? I keep thinking it’s like an addiction. It is an addiction. Thirty percent Rob can lift you, hold you, even just lock his eyes on yours in that way he always does, and everything else disappears. Thirty percent Rob listens in a way that makes the noise in your own head fade away. Thirty percent Rob keeps one hand on your leg all night long and you sleep soundly no matter what when he’s in the bed with you. But the thing is, thirty percent Rob might not even show up thirty percent of the time. That’s being generous. Rob shakes his head, once, hard. “I need to hug you again,” he says as he pulls me toward him. “You make me calm.” We sit like this, him holding me, for a full minute. I start to relax because that’s what embraces do to me. And his embrace, it’s sincere. It always is. It’s maddening. He pulls back, kisses my forehead, then my lips, then looks at me. “Let’s just forget it. Let’s not worry about anything. I want to see something beautiful with my beautiful girl. I love you.” I want to scream. We unload all the stuff. We hike. On the way, he brings up, then dismisses, or makes an attempt to dismiss, a list of no less than twenty other things that are worrying him. He thanks me for listening. He tells me how great I am.
We get to the falls, and Rob insists on a picture. He smiles that smile like he’s someone else entirely. Only now I know better, and once you know, there’s no not knowing. I have no idea why, because I’m hurting and it’s him who’s hurting me, but I wish to dial back that knowing. I wish thirty percent Rob had just shown up so I could pretend for a little while longer. I already hate myself for wishing for this, and I know it will haunt me, this willingness to settle for so little of something so good. But I also know if thirty percent Rob had spent the entire afternoon with me, I wouldn’t do what I’m about to do. I hate myself almost as much as I hate seventy percent Rob. I click the digital shutter on Rob’s phone and lower the camera. “We’re done, Rob.” “With the picture? Is it good? Maybe take one more.” “No, Rob. Done. I haven’t seen the Rob I fell in love with for more than thirty seconds all day. I’ve hardly seen him for weeks.” “What are you talking about? That’s not fair. You know I’ve got a lot on my mind.” He says this, but he walks over and puts both arms around me. The hug is strong and intense. And criminal. Seventy percent Rob never listens well, but somehow he’s learned my weaknesses. I start to wonder if thirty percent Rob is in cahoots with his diabolical twin. I start to wonder if I’m losing my mind. “I’m sorry, Rob. It’s just done.” “No. I refuse to let you go. You have to explain this to me. I know I’m a big bag of anxiety a lot of the time, but I’m trying so hard. Please don’t give up on me.” I think I see thirty percent Rob looking at me through those brown eyes. I ask him to take me home. It is nearly impossible, but I manage only because I know I’ll just have to face this moment again if I don’t. Rob sighs. We gather the stuff and walk to the car, no sound besides our feet crunching rocks and the leaves that have fallen. The aspens are golden and the sun ignites behind them, red
rising to amber. The cold is sinking in now, and I can feel it through my fleece. I want his warmth. I want his arms. I want to take it all back. I won’t and I know I can’t. He drops me off, and seventy percent Rob doesn’t look back when he drives away. Thirty percent Rob, though, he stays. I have a photo of Rob. He texted it to me. He’s standing by that waterfall, grinning that easy grin. I have a hundred pictures like this one, him posing, standing in front of some landmark he will forget for a photo he will never look at. Often with someone famous or semi-famous, and you can’t see me, mortified, behind the camera. That’s where I always was, always preferred to be. But this photo, it’s not just one of the hundreds I will flip through, and he will forget. This one’s important because it’s the last.
[BIO]: Juli Anne Patty lives in Jackson Hole.
Palmdale | Stephen Lewis
A community of swimming pools huddles around the lake like newborns. The lake, manmade. The pools full of inflatable palm trees. Phone calls from the Palmdale area. On the phone, a wife and a husband, both say that spiritual disasters do not make an individual. Identity relies heavily on differences, but often succumbs to sameness. They laugh until the phone disconnects itself. Another person hopes not to remain at home, as heat will silence a brain. Outside people grind through the light of the sky. Inside everyone becomes the same height. Two people grind pepper in four palms. Stephen is the managing editor for Subito Press and editor of Robot Melon.
Postcard from Random Data off the Internet | Kristi Shewmaker
i’m tired of routing through a network so nebulous so intangible i want to reach out and touch someone so i thought i would try something new rather old fashioned retro well new for me ok so i scrawled myself in lead on this thin piece of tree so what i don’t need sunlight water or carbon dioxide so what my roots aren’t found in the ground i normally fly high speed on the information highway like a monkey swinging tree to tree i ping ip to ip to business to home to mac to pc to laptop to phone to tablet to gizmo gadget but this time i wanted my 1s and 0s to arrive with a stamp so i licked it and sent it with an old school mailman who walked house to house carrying his satchel wearing blue shorts in summertime dropping me through the metal slot in your front door with no password where i landed on linoleum in your entry hall oh goody you got mail you do not even have to open me my words are displayed for all to see you see i wanted you to touch me pick me up hold me in your hand but my bytes have no commas you furl your brow shake your head this is weird toss me in the wastebasket where i can’t wait for you to take me out with the trash for the garbage man to collect me throw me in his truck for an open my senses stench filled ride see how he jumps on the side for a short trip to the next house oh boy the reverse high pitch beep beep beep then brum brum to the dump better than standing by in your desktop recycle bin until you delete me forever.
[BIO]: Kristi graduated from The Writer’s Loft at Middle Tennessee State University and lives and writes in Dallas.
For Sale by Owner | Julie Hart
There you are. Come right in. Don't worry about taking off your shoes; it's just a habit of mine of long standing. No, you're right on time. I like that. This is the living room, obviously. Against this wall stood the HiFi; Ellen and I used to strum along on badminton racquets to " I Love You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah." The couch was along this wall and we used to haul one end of the coffee table up onto the couch and slide down it when our parents were still sleeping on Saturday mornings or when they were at bridge club and we could convince the babysitter that our mom and dad always let us do that. There was an end table on this side of the couch, where Mom left a cigarette burning in an ashtray one day and went to the kitchen to stir the chili or something and I took a big old drag on her Virginia Slim and fell to the floor in a fit of coughing. Mom suddenly reappeared above me and asked if I'd tried to smoke. That woman could see through walls. The recliner was over here--big, blue, and nubbly--and we squeezed into it, Ellen and I, to watch "The Birds" on TV with our arms over our heads to keep the pigeons out of our hair. The piano was over there; I can still hear the kitchen timer ticking beneath Au Clair de la Lune and Clementi sonatas. We used to put the Christmas tree right next to it, even after the cat climbed it one year and brought it down on the piano bench and spilled the water from the stand all over the backboard and right leg. Through here is the full bath and master bedroom. This little hallway was the scene of parenting lessons in picking battles and then abandoning them--e.g. my mom insisting we wash the walls before my grandparents' visit and me arguing the whole concept of hierarchy with her from first principles. Sitting on this toilet, I felt the great pathos of Robert E. Lee's life. I finished his biography and cried, cried real tears for his dilemma. Over there, on the edge of the tub, I was tortured, needlessly I might add, for the sake of beauty, my scalp practically lifted
from my skull by the fierce combing my mother put through my newly washed and horrifically tangled hair. Tortured for beauty without ever attaining it. The master bedroom, small, I know, but the scene of several minor crimes: a piggy bank was smashed here by unknown teenaged criminals; a diaper pin was wielded inexpertly by ten-year-old me and jabbed into a little baby's hip meat. I admit it. The closet in here looks small, but is deceptively deep. It still holds the impress of my mom's white cloth coat with beaver collar, the faint hint of her perfume. I used to hide in here among the silks and wools, to breathe in adulthood. Now the kitchen is a little narrow but well laid out, improved by several clever designs of my dad's: this sliding door pantry where we kept the one box of Lucky Charms we persuaded my dad to buy us, and then refused to eat for about a year until he forced us to finish off the rubbery little green marshmallow bits. This countertop can flip down for more space, flip up as a breakfast nook. And here is the pass-through for dishes from the dining room, which is, as you can see, the best room in the house. The scene of Solomon-like wisdom from my dad: when there was leftover pie or cake to be shared, he decreed, "One cuts, the other chooses." I believe I can still faithfully bisect any dessert item put before me. Which reminds me, would you like a slice of this pumpkin bread? Okay, maybe later. The basement's next, down these stairs, the slats here through which I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, not really knowing why everyone wanted me to pay attention to them. Smelled like teen psychosis to me. This curtain covers a closet full of shelves that we stocked with games and toys, multi-cultural picture bingo, etc., but of course, you can store anything you like there. We had a massive desk right here, never ever used as a desk that I can remember. The drawers were full of tax receipts and jars of nails and screws and we only ever sat at it to play school. Which we tired of in five minutes. Too much like our own paltry reality to be much fun, I guess. We did set up a steeper slide here using well-varnished shelving boards, though how exactly we anchored them at the bottom, I can't remember. I ate a whole box of crackers sitting right there. And once I was watching TV down here, got cold and pulled a blanket over me, then without thinking about it really, took off all my clothes and just luxuriated in the warmth and sensual feeling of the blanket on my bare skin. The cleaning lady, Mrs. Gallagher, must have seen me and told my mom, because Mom came down and asked me Â
what I was doing, told me I shouldn't do it any more whatever it was, and explained that good girls didn't do that. I suppose a different child would have been shamed or frightened into taking on some measure of guilt, but I felt curiously detached. Somehow I knew that my innocent pleasure was more of a problem for them than for me, more of a problem for Mrs. Gallagher than for my mom. Her protests seemed pro forma to me. We used to bang on the side of the big old black and white TV to get better reception. We thought it helped at the time. Maybe not. Through here is the laundry room, which will forever be associated with the day I got my period. I think I must have felt that first little scratching scraping discomfort, like being pulled at with a crochet hook deep inside you, right here in front of the dryer and then maybe an hour later discovering that first teaspoonful of rusty brown effluent on my underwear. I wasn't happy about it. I was eleven and pretty ticked off that not only did I have to be a woman, which seemed boring and pointless to me, passive and froufrou and icky, but this physical disability, this leakage of my physical power was going to both weaken me and be messy to clean up. And every month. Every month. No fair. I was going to have to walk around really carefully, FROM NOW ON, trying not to bleed onto everything. Well, I didn't agree, but I wasn't consulted. Again. This way to the bomb shelter. Yup, I guess the contractor in the late 40s put these little concrete-reinforced bunker rooms into a lot of the houses in this GI bill tract. We came down here when there were tornado warnings, once with a full bowl of popcorn that we polished off way before the all-clear siren sounded. I remember these shelves being lined with homemade canned goods from my grandma. Peaches, tomatoes, pickles, jam. Let's go back upstairs, shall we? Here is the door to the garage. Pretty basic. Along these unfinished walls we stored our lawn tools, rakes and such, and here I kept milk cartons full of rocks. My collection. I was standing right here one Saturday afternoon when my sister came through that door, shouting back over her shoulder at my dad. He had been telling her for the third time to get going on some job she was supposed to do and I watched him as she kept talking back, watched his facial expression
click past annoyance into anger and then fury as she just kept razoring into him with weapon words like "stupid" and "pointless" until he came after her, grabbed one of her arms and started paddling her behind. She was shocked. She couldn't believe it! I felt a warm glow of vindication. I too had often had that reaction to her all-too-ready "wit," if it could be called that. I guess she believed that old chestnut, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." She had no occasion to find out how words hurt, since I could not wield my tongue as she did. I, however, had often been moved to kick her smartly in the shins to get her to shut up, because asking her to didn't work. Ever. My vindication consisted of finding out I wasn't the only one who found her mouth infuriating at times. Good. I had thought it was some kind of flaw in my character, something we were encouraged to continually examine in Catholic grade school. Let's go this way and back in through the front door. Here on these steps, the teenaged boy my parents volunteered to take in when he was having problems at home used to sit and smoke with his friends and flick the butts into the hydrangeas. My mom hated that. Now this door, obviously, leads upstairs. It was on these carpeted stairs that I realized I had told my first lie. My grandmother had given me a kiss good night and told me to say my prayers and like the good little people-pleaser they were all hoping I'd become, I said, "Yes. I will." On the steps here it flashed into my mind for the first time that 1) I never prayed, I only repeated words by rote when forced to socially; 2) I had no intention of starting; 3) I did not feel the least bit of guilt or shame about it; and 4) I had no intention of telling anyone about this. And I didn't. Not until they sent me off to confirmation class. First hint that I was not going to be telling people what they wanted to hear. But you know that already, don't you? You've long been wondering about square footage, plumbing and when the roof was last replaced. We'll get there. Bear with me. Also on these steps, Ellen and I used to creep down entirely silently, open the door a crack and try to watch TV after our bedtime, but somehow--we were mystified by this--after one minute of triumph (we'd done it!), my dad would say firmly from the recliner, "Kathy, Ellen, back to bed." All without turning around. How did he do it? we wondered. These stairs didn't creak any less in those days. Perhaps rather more.
Two bedrooms up here. The one on the left was the guest bedroom and the crib was in there when my second little sister came along. Then when the teenager came to stay with us for a few months, he was in here. We loved Tim. He was great. We'd never had a big brother and he was tall and strong and taught us how to shuffle cards like card sharks. An excellent older brother. He would babysit us, let us dangle from his biceps, make us bacon and egg sandwiches which we dipped in ketchup, much to my mother's horror. How déclassé to drench anything in ketchup! One night he asked me to come in here and lay down on his bed and he put the pillow over my eyes and told me to wait. I did. What new trick would he delight me with this time? He asked me to open my mouth, so I did. He put something soft and slightly rubbery in my mouth. It had no taste. I was a little mystified. What was this about? He took it out again and told me to stay still, to leave the pillow over my eyes. And why would I doubt him? A minute or two later, he took the pillow away and said, Off you go. Much, much later we found out what kinds of problems he was having with his dad at home. His mom had recently died, his father was distraught, and to top it all off he was extremely dyslexic and thought he was stupid. He couldn't read even a McDonald's menu as we stood in line. He'd ask us what we were going to have and then extrapolate. Poor guy. He joined the navy and went to Vietnam, but wasn't traumatized, as far as I know. I wonder if my own capacity for compassion was begun by that experience. Not right away, of course, but later, when I finally figured out what he had wanted. When I understood better the urges that could make a person try something so outlandish. But the point is, he couldn't go through with it, could he? Not enough anger, not enough desire to use me as an object. The poor guy. No way I could really help him with his problem. Not then. Ah, well--and . . . Down here is the half-bath, where I added to my sins by swearing I had washed my hands after using the toilet when I had done nothing of the kind. The bedroom here is the one I shared with Ellen, first also sharing a double bed and trying to gouge each other's shins quite inexpertly, once even using a purple crayon to mark her side of the bed from mine on the bottom sheet. Didn't work. Later we got twin beds. When Tim was staying with us, Olivia's crib
was squeezed in here too and we kept her awake, asking her to pronounce words she couldn't say and giggling ourselves weak. "Ice Blue Secret!" we'd say. "Ice Blue Shriek-it!" she'd say. We'd dissolve in more giggles. She was a screamer, Olivia, but trainable and much more interesting than a dog or cat. Here's where we used to set up a TV tray as a little altar and play mass. Ellen especially loved being the priest. Figures, since she was the theatrical one even then. We had some shelves attached to the wall here, for a few books, but dolls and knickknacks took up most of the space. I remember reading through the six volumes of an abridged kids' encyclopedia, including--most interestingly for me--a parenting guide in the last volume, the black one, which made it seem doubly serious. So you might be able to understand why people behaved so bizarrely, lashed out at people they clearly loved, scolded them for doing exactly what they also did sometimes. This could be understood and analyzed, not just endured dumbly. I was relieved and energized. It could be done. I read on. There's quite a large closet here, large enough for us to play happily sitting on the floor, our school uniforms hanging above our heads as we tried to sew tiny garments for trolls and other dolls. Here is where our Barbies suffered torture and dismemberment, their heads torn off to get their evening dresses on, our frustration with their stiff legs ending in dented-in boobs. Ah, well. Beauty can be a curse, even for Barbie. We so wanted this trap door to the crawlspace to be a magic portal to secret and occult worlds, but hey, it was all two-by-fours and asbestos insulation in there, hot and stuffy, with nails poking up threateningly from the wood. Our imaginations were far stronger than the reality around us, which continued mundane despite our heroic efforts. This door I hid behind to scare Ellen. She tried to do the same to me, but I always saw her toe or heard her breathing, so she'd jump out shouting, "Boo!" and I'd calmly say, "Oh, Ellen, I didn't see you there. What was it you wanted?" I'd bide my time until she'd forgotten that and I'd lie in wait for her, leap out with my mega-boo and she'd freak out. It was too easy. Before I had to, I decided to stop shooting that particular fish in a barrel. I found out the only way to stop a quid pro quo like that was to bow out unrequited. That I learned in this very room. Probably infuriated her. Ellen, I mean. I stopped playing that game when maybe she wanted to continue. Â
I don't know. I didn't ask her or give her a choice, really. Also over here, standing right here where the old carpet had a paisley-shaped swirl of glue on it, I decided not to keep calling Olivia Ollie. She hated it. Whenever we said it, Ollie, with an intonation both teasing and malicious, she would fly at us and her little fists would try to get at us. Ellen and I both did this. But just here, I suddenly had the thought, she doesn't like it, what does it cost you to call her Livy, which she does like? And that was it. No more Ollie. What we said hurt her. How could we continue when we'd learned that? She was our little sister whom we loved 90 % of the time, why torture her like that? And just like that, whatever strange pleasure you get from being the teaser, even if you absolutely hate being teased, evaporated. From this window we shouted down to the Paulson boys as they mowed their lawn, evenings in early summer where we were sent to bed before the sun had set. They always waved; they never shouted back. Watch your head. These dormer ceilings can be treacherous until you get used to them. Shall we go down? I can show you the backyard if you'd like, if you're interested. Fenced, a sandbox built by my dad. I hope you're interested. You seem just the type of person I could imagine selling it to. You're not planning to flip it, are you? As if that's possible in this market. You're probably wondering why we've held on to it this long. Good question. Although we moved out long ago, my siblings wouldn't agree, as if selling it would strip them of their childhood memories. At first I didn't realize that was what was staying their hands, but once I did, it became easier to convince them. How could anyone forget this stuff? It is not just in the photos, or the old toys, or in these rooms. Each of us is built of these memories, our very sinews and tissues contain the past and can instantly recall us to it. It's all up here, right between the ears. You can't sell off a section of your brain for the storage of other people's memories, can you? I think we have to release the house to allow new memories to be formed here. The palimpsest of ours will continue sub rosa. They might have been thinking that if they kept the house in the family, they could store their
memories here and not have to go through them one by one, choosing which ones to save, which to toss. Which to incorporate fully into who they are, which to listen to as they take care of their own children. I don't know. As if the hard job of remembering and sorting through your own history for who you could be will be spared them if they can always visit the scene of the crimes. Here next to this fence is where I chased Ellen with a worm and told her I'd make her eat it. I didn't. Here by the lilies of the valley is where Ellen caught our tomcat with a chipmunk in his jaws and hit him repeatedly on the head until he released the scared little thing. Bartholomew's eyes were helpless with betrayal. Here in this opening under the lilacs we took off our shirts and traced circles around each other's proto-boobs and wondered what form physical love took. We didn't know. We had no idea. We were so lucky not to be forced to find out before we wanted it. I do not love this house the way my siblings claim to. They didn't want to move out. They cannot seem to let go of anything. Lucky for you, you didn't see the scrum at the yard sale. "You're selling that bride doll?" But strangely they can't remember anything until physically stimulated by objects. It's a strange species of sentimentality that rejects the notion of ever being able to change, to move on, to develop into an adult. Too reminiscent of that truism some people write in each other's yearbooks: "Stay as sweet as you are! Don't ever change!" Who would ever wish that on another? But the beloved old dog has got to go. Is it sad when you have to make the decision to put the old dog down? Or is it a relief?
[BIO]: Julie lives in St. Paul, MN.
sonnet 313 [we laughed the rain down] | Adam Walsh for pam
between sky and us i found where you keep worry // tucked behind patience and a cloud // one that never leaves stays put mamá mentioned them // in her farm songs about roosters chasing her in circles // papá mending fences // mamá y sus pollos //
it s rain lluvia that washes memory deep into skin // something you can t scour away such as pérdida // a scent that follows you into a forever i d like to tell you about //
on this en este dĂa cuando visitaremos this place // este lugar to stay like the clouds // laughing the rain down //
live with me in this next line // from here now we can eat the stars
[BIO]: Adam received his MFA from Eastern Washington University.
Unstoppable | Kim Farleigh
Pedro Hermoso de Fuentebonito and Antonio Espíritu Santo mounted horses beside the third rider. The gates opened: the roaring-water crowd made Espíritu Santo feel immortal, the feeling he returned to crowds. From the centre, they reversed, three horses’ bottoms meeting the barrier simultaneously at equidistant points around the ring, Espíritu Santo not smiling as they lifted their hats to the President of the rejonería who sat in the high balcony above. Arsehole, Pedro thought, dentures glowing in his open mouth. Being first up, he stopped at the barrier beneath the high balcony, and raising his hat again to the President, he thought: You prick. Pretending to revere authority figures, who lacked the virtues to fight bulls, freshened Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s grin, his calcium lights suggesting that he was delighted to be performing for a man he detested. But the President wasn’t the only man Pedro detested. Being Spain’s youngest ever equestrian champion, early accolades had reinforced his natural superiority. A bull faced him in the ring’s centre. Ribbons, stapled onto the bull’s back to indicate the breeder, fluttered, Pedro clutching a lance, the horse’s front legs going one way, then the other, Hermoso de Fuentebonito planting the lance tip into the bull’s neck, twisting his wrist so that a white flag fell from a capsule under the lance’s tip. He rode across the ring, the vertical lance aloft, fluttering white not representing his intentions. “He thinks I should do that,” Espíritu Santo said. “Raise white flags.”
Pedro’s red jacket made Espíritu Santo add: “Let’s hope red reddens.” Luis Fernández García said: “He might become a friend.” “With friends like that,” Espíritu Santo replied, “who needs a social life?” Antonio’s dry smile emphasised his humanoid-crow appearance. His irises were black; observing, he calculated, determined to do unheard-of things, creativity and revenge equal in his scheming mind. Pedro took a long banderilla from a man whose crystal-covered bullfighter’s suit flickered with stars, the green-and-white stick handed over the fence, fans flickering in the crowd’s hands, rider and horse approaching the bull, Pedro admiring the bull’s curiosity, an animal bred for serious games. No game is more serious than this, Hermoso de Fuentebonito thought, except war. And you, bull, are in a war. A red slash, on the bull’s left flank, beginning where the lance-flag had pierced the bull’s black hide, impressed Hermoso de Fuentebonito: the same width to the stomach as if a craftsman had adorned the bull’s ebony with a red ribbon of glory. The crowd cheered as Pedro extended his right arm so that the banderilla was perfectly vertical, his horse’s front hooves lifting up and down, Espíritu Santo saying: “Oh, how beautiful,” Luis saying: “You should be happy that they’re so easily pleased,” Espíritu Santo replying: “They’ll be dancing for joy after I get through with them.” His smile was grimace-like. Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s horse reared up, forelocks describing three-quarter circles, the bull closing in, the horse, feigning a move to the right, went left, Hermoso de Fuentebonito leaning over, the banderilla piercing the bull’s shoulder, fans dropping as hands clattered, Pedro raising his hat to the crowd.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s perfect execution of the fundamentals was designed to demonstrate to his young enemy that art and flashy tricks aren’t synonymous. Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s third long banderilla ended up swaying vertically in the bull’s shoulder, the bull believing it was chasing the horse; but it was being led around the ring, horns fractionally behind the horse’s rear, man and horse looking behind at the following bull, the three so close that they became an eight-legged, three-headed beast speeding beside the barrier, the crowd’s roaring increasing as the three-headed creature negotiated a circle at running speed inches from curving wood, the rider not even glancing at the barrier. When the bull stopped, Pedro raised his hat to the crowd, his teeth making Espíritu Santo think of a shark, bone-white in lips shaped like a leaf, Espíritu Santo silent, his chin on his right forearm, the forearm on the barrier’s top, his clamped lips forming a downward curve. The crowd’s roaring died, fans flickering like butterflies upon fabric petals, clothing hues making the stands resemble a steep field of flowers. Hermoso de Fuentebonito took three short banderillas from the man in the shining apparel; the sticks got deposited into the bull’s shoulders, Pedro’s right arm like a fulcrum, each banderilla proceeded by the horse sending the bull the wrong way, Hermoso de Fuentebonito circling the bull, leaning over, right hand on the bull’s head between the horns, man, horse and bull rotating, connected by that hand, the crowd roaring, the hand, coming away, raising Pedro’s hat, the bull left standing, Espíritu Santo saying: “This is nothing.” Luis said: “He’s got other tricks. He’s waiting for you to set a standard.” “He isn’t going to be disappointed.” Skill is dormant without confidence; but confidence must appear as quiet assurance blessed with the humility required for learning. Luis García was attempting to mould his young compatriot into the performer that Luis knew that Espíritu Santo could become, both observing Pedro’s right arm being raised, a red stick
hanging vertically from that raised right hand, the bull watching, its black back now decorated with artefacts as if an African tribesman in ceremonial dress was before a man attired like an eighteenth-century colonialist, the tribesman armed with ivory daggers, the colonialist preparing to kill with a lance, the horse rising, butterfly fans flickering in the crowd’s hands, the black bull dashing towards the charging, white horse, like opposites attracting, the lance’s mortal spike finishing between the bull’s shoulders, the bull’s tongue hanging out, the horse, facing the bull, stepping forwards, the bull stepping back as the horse stepped towards it, the bull’s tongue reddening, the distance between horse and bull maintained, two facing creatures stepping towards the barrier. The bull’s rear legs crumbled, an assistant thrusting a dagger into the bull’s spine, bull legs suddenly horizontal in death. “Every time I killed,” Luis said, “I recalled my doubters; I transferred the hate that that produced onto the bull so that I would kill with the efficiency that revenge produces. Nothing has been purer for me than that.” Espíritu Santo looked at Luis, mouth ajar. Never mock someone’s sense of destiny, he thought. “You’re too young yet,” Luis continued, “to appreciate that. You haven’t had any doubters. I had plenty. I didn’t have your talent. So show these people how great you are. And do it for people like me who never had a chance to be in your league.” Antonio patted him on the back and disappeared into the pens. Luis observed the ring where horses, decorated with red and white paper that rose from the horses’ heads, like feathers from a grenadier guard’s hat, were dragging the dead bull across the ring, the carcass’s curving trajectory leaving a question mark in the sand, that carcass making Luis recall his father carving up dead cattle in his childhood village where the roads had been unpaved, where everyone, gathering wheat in golden fields, had bowed under the jagged-fist sun, dying where born. Luis had not been prepared to suffer the same fate. They laughed the day he left; he was
going to Madrid to learn bullfighting, no one expecting him to get out of the butcher’s shop where one of the truck drivers, who passed through the village, had got him a job. In Madrid he used an electric light for the first time, the first place he saw a car, the first place he had a drink from a tap, the first time he slept on a bed, and not on a straw mattress on the floor. He jumped the fence at the bullfighters’ training camp at Batan. Trainees were receiving instruction, a red cape being drawn back and drawn back and drawn back, Luis’s mind floating like a kite as that cape went back and back, back like a bow yearning for release. The instructor’s head turned; the distracted trainees weren’t looking, the instructor seeing a short, strong teenager, with a bent nose, staring from the ring’s barrier. “Please, señor, I need a job here. I’ll do anything,” Luis said. The instructor asked: “And what are you dedicated to?” “I’m a butcher’s apprentice,” Luis replied, “but I’ll do anything. I want to fight bulls.” The instructor, Jesús Del Bosque, had had a distinguished career as a bullfighter, cutting two ears and a tail one day during the Festival of San Isidro in Madrid, the highest achievement for a matador. “And is your name,” he smiled, “Pedro Romero?” Luis’s big, shy smile delighted Jesús. “Luis Fernández García.” “Well, Luis Fernández García,” Del Bosque said, “if fighting bulls is what your want to do, then that’s what you’re going to do.” Del Bosque acknowledged that desperation that separates obsession from desire. “Be here tomorrow,” he said, “at nine o’clock.”
Luis clenched his shaking fists, that liberating revenge against doubters. He handed a lance-flag to Espíritu Santo and said: “Be yourself. That’ll be enough.” Espíritu Santo, who Luis knew was one of “the chosen ones”, faced a waiting bull. Curiosity has killed some cats, Luis thought, but it has annihilated more bulls – and killed countless men. Cats, Luis thought, are third in line. The bull’s eyes resembled crystals of inquisitiveness. Curiosity produces knowledge; and there is no greater knowledge than discovering what you possess under death’s threat, that knowledge so great that men die trying to get it. What beautiful eyes you’ve got, bull, Espíritu Santo thought, the eyes of one who can’t resist dangerous games. And I know how you feel. We, bull, are amongst the chosen few, and I already feel ten metres high and I haven’t even done anything yet. The horse stared at the bull who stared at the man. Luis wondered what a horse and bull would say to each other if they could speak. Perhaps: “No bastard will ever get on top of me.” (Bull). “That’s because you’re an idiot.” (Horse). The horse’s front legs reared, the bull charged, the elusive horse sending the bull the wrong way, Espíritu Santo inserting the lance into the bull’s back, twisting his wrist, releasing a blue and red flag that he waved into the bull’s face, the bull pursuing the horse, man, bull, flag and horse circling the ring at sprinter’s speed, all elements unifying, the horns almost touching the horse’s rear, horse and man looking behind at the horns, hail-storm applause rising as that unity rushed inches from the barrier, moving out slightly to avoid the protrusions where bullfighters could enter the ring, then moving back to brush past upright wood, the crowd’s applauding erupting into cascading appreciation as the bull stopped its charging, Espíritu Santo riding across the ring, holding his flag pole aloft, blue and red a pretty rectangle above his circular, white hat that he raised to the crowd that clapped and smiled, brought alive by something so alive that it made everyone behave homogenously.
Antonio took a long banderilla from Luis and returned to the bull whose left flank was now streaked red. The horse’s head went one way, then the other, its sideways strides so enormous, unexpected and original that the crowd gasped, certain the bull was going to strike with its horns; but it missed, Espíritu Santo leaning over, driving the banderilla into the bull’s back, contact producing a hissing squelching, the crowd’s roaring resembling a rushing river, Espíritu Santo riding around the ring, right hand raised, river crowd a single entity of appreciation again. “He thinks,” Pedro smirked, “that he’s done something special. What a baby.” Pedro hadn’t realised yet that Antonio was being deceitful. Espíritu Santo knew that what he had just done was outstanding, but it was what you would expect from genius, and what you would expect from genius wasn’t what Antonio had in mind. “Give me both,” he told Luis. “Are you sure?” Luis asked. “Completely.” Espíritu Santo faced the bull, holding the two remaining long banderillas, one in each hand, all four limbs operating independently of the rest, vertical banderillas, like vast, tropical fangs, hanging from his outstretched hands, the crowd cheering with the pleasure of the unexpected, the horse’s head swaying one way, then the other, front hooves moving with the head, the dancing horse holding up a humanoid, tropical insect whose colourful fangs were poised to pierce a horned beast, the horse avoiding the bull by making a sudden, huge sideways step that surprised the crowd, Espíritu Santo’s elbows rising up, spreading apart, fangs, in front of their owner’s face, plunging at forty-five-degrees, striking the bull’s back on either side of the lance-flag’s red stump, an excellent target against black, the banderillas swaying, falling, hanging against red flanks, the crowd unleashing rushing-water delight, hands beating, that, from a distance, resembled beating wings, Espíritu Santo smiling, waving his hat, acknowledging the generosity in this unity of appreciation, Luis thinking: What creativity;
Hermoso de Fuentebonito thinking: Have I got a surprise for you, kid; Luis thinking: Hermoso de Fuentebonito is going to do something about this. He isn’t going to let this go. The crowd, returning to waving fans, had been opened up to unexpected possibilities, freshened by originality, like unexpected palliation born from renewed hope. Taking the three short banderillas from Luis, Antonio said: “Prepare thyself, humble, but noble, servant for bang, bang, bang.” Espíritu Santo’s smile was boyishly naughty. Luis said: “It’s not me who has to prepare himself, but Señor Hermoso de Fuentebonito.” “He’ll never be ready for it,” Antonio replied, the response Luis had been expecting. Luis watched Espíritu Santo’s horse’s tail, of creamy, cascading follicles, spreading as it fell towards the ground, a waterfall of delicacy and exuberance that shone, like youth, making Luis contemplate the vein of talent running through his young compatriot, shining, Luis thought, like confidence. We admire confidence, he thought, because it appears as natural and as beautiful as that tail, a tail like ivory silk; there’s nothing more beautiful than a downpour of follicles enveloping a face of great beauty, for that showering concentrates our minds upon the positive things that lie beneath those beautiful facades. And this is the power of confidence. Espíritu Santo faced the bull whose eyes didn’t express confidence, iris lights switched on by the thrill of being invited to play a dangerous game; bulls aren’t as stupid as they look. This one knew its opponent had great trickery; hence its iris lights possessed wariness mixed with the determination to learn. And so Espíritu Santo knew from those lights that what he was about to do would require maximum skill without margin for error; but justified confidence told him in its clear voice that what he was planning was within his grasp, even an elegant trifle whose execution was going to exhibit an audacity that would make the traditionalists believe that Antonio was mocking the past. The three short banderillas went in, one, two, three, bang, bang, bang, rapid-fire succession,
Luis’s heart rising like a fountain of wonder, Espíritu Santo circling the bull on his horse, spinning, leaning over, right palm on the bull’s head between the horns, man, horse and bull rotating as one, all elements harmonised, the crowd, smacking their hands together, producing the sound of hailstones striking corrugated-iron, Pedro saying: “Gentlemen, I’ve got a little trick of my own,” Espíritu Santo riding over to the barrier, front hooves placed on the barrier’s bottom rail, horse and man rising, hands and hat rising to salute the rising crowd, Luis thinking: Talent turns imagination into reality; that is power. He had never seen a rider acknowledging the crowd by getting his horse to place its front hooves onto the barrier’s bottom rail, Luis thinking: The crowd appreciates his extraordinary creativity more than some professionals because the crowd’s envy is ego-free. Espíritu Santo rode over to Luis; taking the killing lance, Antonio said: “I’m going to call this horse Cervantes. He’s almost as intelligent as you.” “Cervantes was a gorilla in comparison to me,” Luis replied. “There’s nothing like self-belief,” Espíritu Santo said. The bull, with its African-style adornments, stood waiting for its beguiling playmates to return. A red lance rose above the horse’s white head. The bull now had no illusions about that prong’s intentions. It knew it had to avoid that fang while trying to gore that double-headed creature whose sense of humour possessed eccentric naughtiness. This time the bull didn’t follow the horse’s movements; it focused on its own will, not moving when it should have, fang missing its target, Pedro saying: “Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen, why do upstarts ignore the basics?” Luis thought: That prick up there will use this to avoid giving Antonio an ear; but he’s really going to get it from the crowd. Luis was referring to the fight’s President, a narcissist disdainful of fanciful displays unless they involved obsequious respect for his authority. And Pedro knew it very well. He had learnt all
aspects of the game, in and outside the ring, “the noble art,” he often said, “of artistry.” He was amused by how Anglo-Saxons said mierda de toro when referring to artistry. The second attempt ended with the killing lance’s head rammed in perfectly between the bull’s shoulders, a blade between the blades, Luis thought, as he flashed a pink cape into the bull’s face, Espíritu Santo dismounting, observing the bull whose legs had found strange, skew-with positions, a creature now lost in impending death’s wilderness, that desert where no game pleases; and when the shadow of departing consciousness flashed away, the bull’s legs horizontal to the sand, whose blood necklaces had been laid by the hands of creative brilliance, fluttering, white handkerchiefs of appreciation erupting amid the whistling crowd that rose, demanding that el President de la Rejonería award this display with the merit it deserved, the whistling mounting as the President’s handkerchief didn’t appear over the balustrade of his high, white balcony, someone screamed: “What’s that bastard up there doing?” Luis told Antonio to “get into the middle and acknowledge the crowd. They’re more important than him. They’re your gauge – not that bastard up there.” Espíritu Santo stood in the arena’s heart, rotating, his raised hat following the ring’s curve whose occupants produced a snow-white avalanche of butterfly-wing fabrics, Antonio feeling as if he was flying, like in one of those dreams, Luis recalling the day when Jesús Del Bosque stormed into Batan’s offices, and slapping his hands down on the President’s desk, Jesús had said: “If you throw this kid out I’m leaving!” The son of the man who Jesús had screamed at was now observing the rotating Espíritu Santo who failed to acknowledge him, Espíritu Santo still young enough to believe that merit comes because of talent and nothing else, Hermoso de Fuentebonito grinning his toothy, leafmouthed, wicked grin that flared Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s nostrils, as if Hermoso de Fuentebonito was smelling something putrid, Hermoso de Fuentebonito saying: “This bastard isn’t generous, kid, unless you kiss arse. Purse thy lips in the name of artistry.” He said this before heading off to mount a horse. His view of politics: Adore fooling them into
thinking that your feelings are genuine. His estimation of the situation was accurate. The President used the failed attempt with the killing lance to not award an ear, Luis repeating: “The crowd is more important. They’re unprejudiced towards originality. They know the past gets left behind.” He recalled Jesús saying: “This kid has got more guts and inspiration in his left earlobe than most people will ever have in their entire bodies. You throw him out of here and I’ll take everyone from here and start my own school.” When Pedro rode back into the ring, the crowd knew that the challenge that had been set by Espíritu Santo would now have to be met, and surpassed, if Pedro was going to maintain his reputation as history’s greatest ever bullfighter on horseback; so excited ignorance filled the atmosphere, an unknown awaiting, expectation as fresh as the white that had just erupted, like a spring- outburst of petals, over the crowd, waving fans wafting in hot air, heads still, faceless heads turning into faces as the eye traced a path around the ring to where that eye’s beholder might have been, the stillness, apart from the fans, filled with the concentration that comes from our fixation with the present, the past meaningless to the beholders of those eyes whose imaginations demanded the new, fascination magnified by a fight that had become a question of dignity. And there is no bigger question than that. Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s determination had been uplifted by this atmosphere that felt like an impertinent suggestion, for it suggested that he might not be able to meet the challenge. He interpreted it this way intentionally. Even if only one person doubted his capacity to strike back, he was going to make that individual regret their “failure of vision.” The bull, fascinated like the crowd, was absorbed by Pedro’s horse that lifted its front hooves up and down before the bull’s face that looked sweet as it stared, the crowd’s silence slashed by roaring, spontaneous surprise, charmed by this dancing, the lance-flag vertical in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s right hand, the horse’s head swaying with its hooves. Surprise, the artist’s goal, should be natural, an unconscious manifestation of a deeper
inspiration, a force that keeps imagination out of its dungeon of dormancy. And the biggest force is love. Whatever they say about me, Pedro thought, no one is going to claim that someone else has loved this more than me. For the one thousandth, three-hundred and eighth time, Hermoso de Fuentebonito was in a rejonería; it had been the same every time, like dreaming while flying, the crowd’s chorus as uplifting as anything he had ever heard in a concert venue. The horse stopped dancing, face-to-face creatures in a tension made to be snapped. The horse’s rising front hooves became the wooden tips of sinewy arcs of elegant provocation. The bull went one way, the horse the other, Hermoso de Fuentebonito, in his red jacket, planting a green-and-white stick into a black hide; then riding across the ring, his colours flying, the bull pursuing, Hermoso de Fuentebonito placing the flag into the bull’s face, the three creatures speeding around the perimeter as one. When the bull stopped pursuing, Hermoso de Fuentebonito spun his horse to face the bull; he charged, spinning his horse in the tight space between the bull and the barrier, the bull just missing with its horns, no margin of error in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s daring calculation, the crowd heaving out its fast-moving-river music of felicitous surprise, a song with pitches of varying delight. Pedro rotated his horse in the ring’s centre, acknowledging the crowd’s freedom from vanity. The crowd, liberated from immature judgment, adored the brilliantly unexpected, moved by the twisting of rules, by the invention of new ones: by brave execution of unconsidered newness. “These babies,” Espíritu Santo pronounced, “haven’t seen anything yet.” It’s motivating for a talented man to discover that rules can be broken in pursuit of excellence. Pedro stopped his horse’s rotation to face the President whom he acknowledged with that smile that glittered between delight and disdain.
“Sucking up as usual,” Antonio said, and Luis smiled. Pandering to egos wasn’t Espíritu Santo’s forte, and neither was being insulting to inferiors, his life sliding along sincerity’s steel edge. Seeing Hermoso de Fuentebonito insert two long banderillas into the bull’s back, he said: “The only thing the man has ever done is respect what others have done. He’s an unimaginative machine of calculating repetition.” But the crowd saw it differently. They were interested in what Hermoso de Fuentebonito could do, not in what he was like, and what Hermoso de Fuentebonito did was so gracefully executed that his potential seemed limitless, the crowd interested in the future, not the past. Because Hermoso de Fuentebonito did things so easily – seemingly no barrier to his freeflowing expertise – he provided a surrogate lift for the crowd out of the predictably of limited circumstances, a vicarious link to greatness. But Espíritu Santo was so gifted, creatively, that it didn’t surprise Luis that his young companion felt that Hermoso de Fuentebonito wasn’t creative enough, Espíritu Santo’s unique point of view born from his unique talent, Antonio’s vision often appearing radical to those without his gifts. Hermoso de Fuentebonito took the game onto a new level. Arms outstretched, short banderillas in both hands, the crowd singing their river song of excitation............ The short banderillas landed beside their longer brothers, Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s right hand connecting three rotating creatures, hand between the horns, little room for manoeuvre, time becoming mesmerising forgetfulness, the crowd’s roaring a crackling oneness of different pitches. The man broke the link by taking his hand away, finishing this balance of elements by raising his hat to the crowd, the bull now a bemused spectator in the ring’s centre. “One day,” Luis said, “they’ll learn that bang, bang, bang is more difficult.” “Who’s going to teach them?” Antonio asked.
“Time,” Luis replied. Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s smile was rich with naughty gratification. The thing isn’t what is better, he thought, but what people believe is better. Not having sufficient knowledge, they believe their eyes. They believe anything. Their instinct for believing is their instinct for survival. “Time,” Luis continued, “for Hermoso de Fuentebonito to tell them.” Antonio looked quickly at Luis. “He’ll tell them for sure,” Luis said, “when he retires, which will be a long time before you do. It’ll give him enormous pleasure telling everyone that they’re wrong.” The knowledge that Espíritu Santo suddenly gained came like a fast-working antidote. Luis removed impatience from Espíritu’s waiting. Destiny is unavoidable, a hard fact swallowed with recognition sweeteners. “Do what you can do,” Luis said, “and he will do the rest for you.” “How do you know?” Antonio asked. “Being recognised as the best,” Luis said, “gives a man the opportunity to be modest. There is no greater opportunity than that. That was what I observed about Jesús Del Bosque. His gratitude was religious, to the point where he would help anyone. It’ll happen to him as well.” Luis pointed at Pedro who was poised to eliminate another victim. Hermoso de Fuentebonito had already killed three thousand, two hundred and seven bulls, this going to be amongst the sweetest. Being doubted by a young rival was inspiring, a fresh thrill late in his career, a new opportunity to demonstrate what had to be done to reach the zenith. What was necessary to reach the summit wasn’t just based on brilliance with horses. There were other factors, common sense to find those others factors amusing. Pedro turned his horse away from the bull to raise his hat again to the man in the presidential box. Sometimes, Pedro thought, it pays dividends to dedicate a kill to someone you detest. I’ve
never been a great one for sincerity, except with myself, which is the only sincerity that counts. “Beautiful,” Luis grinned, watching Pedro’s hat describing an arc of acknowledgement. Luis adored the wit inherent in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s flamboyant insincerity; he thought that Hermoso de Fuentebonito should become a politician. Pedro, turning his steed’s white head to face the black beast, noted how wonderfully placed the banderillas were, like a composer who, hearing the final touches to one of his compositions, realises that improvement is impossible. And this is the real reason for sincerity, he thought. You cannot fool yourself. If you produce garbage, you recognise it. You acknowledge the opportunity to show improvement. This gives you another yardstick to measure your performance. The more yardsticks you have the better. His mind, blanketing, entered the arena’s silence whose purity possessed the intensity of profound concentration. The stillness of man, horse and bull was made to be broken, a stillness without tranquility, the damn of rising expectation reaching its brim. The sound born from the rhythms of swishing fans got engulfed by the arena’s quietude, a silence broken by a waterfall roar as the killing lance struck, volume increased by death’s hand. The bull wandered without purpose, its back a display of coloured paper dipped in blood. It stood, rear against the fence, facing Hermoso de Fuentebonito who had dismounted and was now leaning forward, right leg stretched, weight on the left leg, right hand of death on the bull’s head, arm outstretched, weight forward to “pressure” the bull to collapse, the bull collapsing – dead. Snowy handkerchiefs fluttered in flying fingertips, the President’s white cloth going over his balcony’s balustrade, the crowd roaring. An assistant cut an ear off the bull; Hermoso de Fuentebonito held it up as he circled the ring, people rising, Hermoso de Fuentebonito being pursued by three assistants whose crystal
covered clothes sparkled, the crowd’s applause rising and falling around the ring with Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s movement towards and away from the rising sections, like an auditory Mexican wave, fans being thrown from the crowd, Hermoso de Fuentebonito picking some up and kissing them and throwing them back, his assistants throwing back the rest. Espíritu Santo had mounted the horse he most loved to talk to, the creature who best understood. He whispered into his horse’s ear: “I love you, baby, you know that. Today we need your best. Be free.” He could hear the roar that indicated that Pedro was circling the arena, Hermoso de Fuentebonito going to its centre, the ring’s circular rows like ripples expanding out from an explosion of wizardry. Pedro rotated on the spot, holding aloft his hat and the ear, his teeth exposed by the idea that recognition has to be sought by the talented from the untalented so that talent can flourish, his pirouette completed with a final acknowledgement to the President. Hermoso de Fuentebonito felt grateful that he accepted realities with amusement, unlike Espíritu Santo whose entry into the ring occurred as dark clouds obscured the sun, crooked, gilded light outlining vapours that had turned the sun into a hazy-edged globe. Espíritu Santo had too many things on his mind as he lined up the bull with the lance-flag, crying out: “Hey, hey, hey,” to get the bull’s attention, so many things that he made a clean swipe, his “ahohhhh,” audible to those near the fence. The crowd groaned. It’s surprising how encouraging a crowd can be, after its original cynicism, when it understands that you have the right to do what you want to do. The crowd had things on their minds as well, especially what was going to happen in the later stages; so they ignored this error, knowing that something remarkable awaited. Their appreciation of Espíritu Santo’s talent was now so
high that any errors the young horseman committed were passed off as anomalies. But the President wasn’t so generous. “He’s not interested in details, is he?” he said. The meaning of “details” might have been beyond many, but not Hermoso de Fuentebonito who would have interpreted it as an expression of relief. Andrés Martínez, the President, didn’t award accolades without receiving them, his picturesque self-analysis not enabling him to judge with that love for art that creates its own system of objectivity, Hermoso de Fuentebonito, behind the barrier, saying: “Basics, man, basics. Don’t you know El Presidente was born to misuse power?” Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s teeth looked as if they were being exposed by wires pulling the corners of his mouth towards his ears. He knew that his throne on the pinnacle of greatness was now not going to be challenged that day. Espíritu Santo was an upstart who needed humility, something Martínez, Hermoso de Fuentebonito thought, could use himself; but that bastard up there will never have to face a test to his glorious self-perception. He has come from a hallowed past whose virtues cannot be challenged. Time has frozen those virtues into an unbreakable capsule that chance has inserted into the walls of tradition’s halls. And doesn’t that bastard lap it up, like an emperor who thinks he’s been blessed by divine providence. He has never had to live with permanent obscurity being a threat. Espíritu Santo’s second lance-flag attempt was better, but not perfect, the flag not unfurling as it should have. Then he missed with the first long banderilla and when he inserted it perfectly with the second attempt he lifted off his hat and rode quickly to the fence, giving the spectators the opportunity to express their appreciation, spiting his rival who said: “At least he’s learnt the art of taking the piss.” “He loves himself, doesn’t he?” Martínez persisted. Self-love wasn’t permitted unless it involved an inflated acknowledgement of others’ undoubted qualities.
But the crowd did love Espíritu Santo. They loved him for his audacity, his flair, his imagination; and they loved him because he was sincere; they loved him unconditionally, because that was how they loved art. Espíritu Santo felt that love. It steadied him, clearing his mind, giving his thoughts a quality of crystalline mother-of-pearl. He needed that tranquillising love; it was for this reason that he had provoked an undue outburst of recognition after a poor beginning. The trick worked. He flourished on confidence. You gave him confidence and he rewarded you with brilliance, satisfying your love of genius. He reversed away to the fence, his horse’s hooves prancing, the crowd clapping; he charged the bull, placing the banderillas correctly and dangerously at high speed, roaring enrapture enveloping the ring, thrilled disbelief evoked by reckless bravery. The third long banderilla was followed by a pass so close and at such a shallow angle to the bull that some people gasped, thinking that the horse had been hit. Then Espíritu Santo circled the bull, his horse’s neck extending, its teeth becoming exposed, the horse pretending to bite the black hide, the impromptu-choir crowd producing its crackling, river song, the horse’s jaws champing, the bull turning and turning, being nipped by a cheeky, white head. Then Espíritu Santo rode quickly around the ring’s perimeter, holding his hat aloft, Luis thinking: Resolve is measured by how quickly a man recovers. Espíritu Santo placed three short banderillas in in rapid succession, bang, bang, bang, his trademark style that was so original that it was never going to bore, always entertaining, like a permanent one- off, like a truth that could be read and read and read, gaining poignancy the more it was analysed and read. Espíritu Santo circled the bull, holding his hat in his right hand; he leant over, placing the hat between the horns onto the bull’s head, the hat staying there, Espíritu Santo riding away, a white hat crowning a black head. The gasping, yelping, grinning, laughing crowd looked at the stationary bull, the white hat
perched between the horns, the bull’s red flanks covered by colourful banderillas, the bull adorned like a tourist in Hawaii. Hermoso de Fuentebonito was appalled by this “ridiculing of a bull.” He was twenty years older than Espíritu Santo, beyond his education to consider doing such a thing, even if it gave the crowd pleasure. There were limits that had to be preserved; Hermoso de Fuentebonito felt that Espíritu Santo had done this to spite the past’s traditions. “You have permission to kill me with a killing lance,” he told his assistants, “if you see me do something like that.” But Espíritu Santo had not considered the past’s traditions; he was concerned about demonstrating his art in any way that pleased the spectators, the general response over time, in his opinion, the defining factor in terms of justification. This placing of hats on bull’s heads was going to become a part of the tradition, separating itself from questions of decency. Espíritu Santo raised the killing sword, the bull fixated on the heads that faced him. The sun had now half emerged from behind a cloud, its misshapen radiance sending bands of light towards the ground, cloud edges ringed gold. The bull charged, three united creatures, moving in different ways, Espíritu Santo’s right hand just above his head, his left foot protruding out from near the horse’s back, the horse balanced on its front left hoof, the three other hooves off the ground, the horns under Espíritu Santo’s face, the lance at sixty degrees, the right arm and lance forming the top sides of a triangle, and then............ The bull staggered, Espíritu Santo dismounting, men in sparkling suits waving pink capes into the bull’s face, Luis amongst them, the bull’s back hooves awkwardly apart; the bull plummeted, terminal-velocity crash in the flash of an eye, four rigid legs horizontal, the crowd rising, Espíritu Santo clenching his fists and punching the air, the crowd roaring, white handkerchiefs fluttering around the ring, the crowd demanding that Martínez award an ear, fabrics waving, Martinez not giving the ear, the crowd’s whistling getting louder, Espíritu Santo
pirouetting in the ring’s centre, acknowledging the crowd’s appreciation with a raised hat, the whistling like a shrilling plea for justice, the ear still not being awarded, someone yelling: “You blind bastard!” Luis said: “Listen to that crowd. Forget presidents. That’s the sound you want to hear. Look at that winter white in summer sunshine. They know.” The fluttering white always reminded Luis of butterflies upon steep fields of coloured flowers that made him recall the poppy fields of his youth; the fluttering stopped and the roaring descended to a rumbling soft clattering and the crowd was taking a rest from its appreciation and Luis and Antonio left the ring and then all three riders returned with their assistants. They grouped on the other side of the ring, facing the doors that led back into the changing rooms, Pedro hugging Leonardo Hernandez, the other rider that day, who had cut an ear in his final, clinical performance that had lacked creativity, but had observed all the basics, and Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s felicitation of Leonardo wasn’t just designed to hammer into Espíritu Santo the necessity of doing the fundamentals perfectly, of pointing out who was best, but Hernández had come back after losing the sight in his right eye in a terrible accident, Hermoso de Fuentebonito admiring this tenacity; the assistants of the three riders shook hands in a sombre ritual of acknowledgement that contained a genuine, but repressed, undercurrent of respect that highlighted the fact that Hermoso de Fuentebonito and Espíritu Santo were ignoring each other; then Pedro took off back across the ring, holding up the ear that he had cut, the crowd roaring and applauding, Espíritu Santo feeling small – he didn’t want to be there – and when it was his turn to start walking back across the ring his head was down, a man who had not cut an ear between two who had; but the crowd screamed and roared and clapped and shouted and yelled, thumping their hands together, raising those hands above their heads, the vast increase in volume making Espíritu Santo lift his head; when his head went up the volume went up even more, causing Espíritu Santo to cross his arms across his chest as if to say: “What else could I have done?” a wave of cheering sweeping around the ring, Espíritu Santo’s doubts getting replaced by that motivating certainty that causes a man to think: You bet your fucking arses my performance was magnificent! His chin could now not have been higher, Luis thinking: Yes, crowd, you’re right. You have seen something today that you know cannot be
stopped. And Hermoso de Fuentebonito knew it as well; he just wasnâ€™t telling anyone yet.
[BIO]: Kim has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine.
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