GUEST EDITORS Jason Kichline is the Emmy award-winning producer of the web-tv series Reporting AIDS and serves as the Senior Finishing Editor for Oxygenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s On-Air Promotions & Marketing department. Mary Sotnick is a candidate for a Masters degree in English at California State University, Long Beach, where she is executive editor of Watermark. Lara Taubman Wisniewski is an arts editor and curator, currently living in Belgrade, Montana. Eric Vasquez works as an Art Director at World Wrestling Entertainment and is a regular contributor of professional design tutorials for PSDFan.com. David Whelan holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and lives and writes in London.
FOUNDERS Vanessa Jimenez Gabb Crissy Van Meter
ASSISTANT EDITOR Jessica Gray
FICTION Parasites | Sarah E. Bode 5 This Was Menarche | Mike Flynn 23 Sugar Daddy | Ilya Lyashevsky 40
Love Letter to Lady Lazarus| Kayla Miller 59 where you are now | Robby Nadler 71
POETRY girl girls girl | David Blumenshine 79 Stray Dog Blues and Others | Clay Cantrell 81 Due | Ashleigh Lambert 83 MISSING SCHOOL AS A SICK CHILD | John McKernan 85 Foursquare: Metapoetics | Anthony Ramstetter, Jr. 86
Parasites by Sarah E. Bode
Sophia I love watching Him. He likes to pretend I’m not always watching. He likes to act surprised when I know about something He’s done. He thinks it’s cute. Thus, so do I. One time, I remember when He had come home from school with a smutty DVD concealed in His book bag. I knew exactly what He was up to—the plan laid out in His head. He had locked His bedroom door in case His mother got curious or needed to deliver some clean laundry. He glanced around the room for me. We both pretended I wasn’t watching from the shadowed corners. I was both disgusted and proud. His shrink calls it a “healthy activity.” The kids at school call it “pie time,” in this case, cream pies. … “So what’s up?” He asks me, glancing over out of the corner of His eye. Wilbur, His cat, purrs from the floor, and He pats the bed beside Him. Wilbur jumps up, snuggling in next to Him. I wish I were Wilbur right now. I’m Romeo wishing I were a glove. I want to be caressed by Him, touched by Him, loved by Him. I tell him there’s nothing up. I keep eyeing Wilbur, wondering if I could kill him. The wretched thing constantly purrs, which grates my minute patience. I would love it if my competition disappeared, and Wilbur would be easy to dispose of. I doubt that He would notice. That’s a lie; I know He would notice. He would get all weepy and depressed over His dead, stupid cat. Fucking Wilbur. Wilbur looks over at me. His hand slides down Wilbur’s back and comes up to play with the cat’s ears. I wish He would play with my ears. I get up from my chair and sit on the edge of the bed. He looks at me curiously. Then He gives me the eye fuck—sliding from my blonde hair; to my gray eyes; to my plump, purple-painted lips; to my perfect chin, gracefully
pointing to my hefty cleavage. He knows every luscious curve of my body. He knows the way my breasts arch over the constriction of the lacey, fuchsia bra He’s dressed me up in today. He knows that beneath my clothes lay His very own dream girl. All He can think about is me—my perfection. He doesn’t think about his mother cleaning her guns in the kitchen, or his father drunk watching soap opera reruns. He doesn’t think about the test He has to study for. He doesn’t think about His cat. He can only think of me, and all that I am—all that He has made me. “God,” He whispers. I know what He’s thinking. Wilbur jumps off of the bed, threatened by me. “Come here, Sophia,” He beckons to me. He pats the empty bed beside Him. He sweats from the constant, mild fever—a mix of His rampant hormones and the meds the shrink’s got Him gulping down three times a day. It stirs me. I know what He wants; I want it too. I want His hands all over my palpable body—caressing my skin, making it sear. He wants His lips upon mine. His tongue dancing with mine. His legs straddling my waist. It’s pie time. Casey The florescent lights glare off the over-waxed floor of the hallway, and I curse Union High School for multiplying my headache into a migraine. More like Unholy High School. I think about Sophia and last night’s fantasy—her body taut and ready, her eyes willing and steamy. She had wanted me. Needed me. Robbie approaches my right flank, then Jerry swoops in on my left—his nose buried in a textbook. “What’s up, guys?” I ask them. I lean over to see what smutty anime magazine Jerry’s got safely sprawled under his Social Studies textbook. “Not much, man,” Robbie says. “You?” “I’m gunna fail Mrs. Robinson’s trig test,” I admit. “You study?” Jerry asks from the spine of his textbook.
“Hardly.” “Nah, man, you’ll do fine,” Robbie says. “Mrs. Robinson grades dudes easy. She’s desperate now that her and her hubbs split.” “Yeah,” I say, “I heard Mr. Robinson slept with a junior prostitot during the assembly last week.” “I heard it was a sophomore prossy,” Jerry says. “Well,” Robbie cuts in, “whoever it was, Mr. Robinson is a balla’!” Robbie fist pumps his right hand in the air and continues, “Dudes, we should be so lucky to roll in like Mr. Robinson. I heard he’s slept with ten prostitots, and that was just this year.” Sophia I wait for Him all day. I wait for Him to finish school. Some days, I wait extra while He’s with His shrink. When He arrives home, He usually comes straight to His room to find me waiting on the bed, ready for Him. Sometimes, He’ll get around to some homework or play some video games. His mother calls Him down for dinner, and I wait. When He comes back, He beckons me. The next morning, I watch Him wake to a headache. My head aches with His—He’s late taking His crazy-people drugs. The sheets cling to His legs. Wilbur is skulking around the bottom of His bed, purring a symphony. I wish he’d shut the hell up. He glances around the room. Finding me, His eyes widen. I chime a morning greeting. He squirms. Stumbling out of bed, He steps on Wilbur’s tail. I watch in amusement as Wilbur screeches and darts out of the room. “Mornin’,” He grunts. Clutching His head, He groans again and lurches into His bathroom. I hear the shower start up.
I step into the bathroom and watch His figure through the frosted-glass. Abruptly, He shuts the water off, slides the door open, and steps out onto the cool tile. Water drips from his body onto the bare tile floor. He grabs for His pill bottle, throwing back one Risperdal—choking it down with a handful of tap water. “What do you want?” He snaps. Suddenly, I feel alone. His eyes—instead of beaming—glare down at me. He growls, “You tricked me last night.” I inhale sharply, bringing my hands to my hips, appalled at His assumption—however correct they are. I tell Him that I would never do that. “Bullshit,” He grunts. I deflate. I tell Him that if He hadn’t wanted it, then He wouldn’t have done it. He wanted it, I know He wanted it. So He did it. He snarls, knowing I’m right, like always. Our uphill battle no longer invigorates Him. It’s killing Him. But right now I don’t care. I am the one who is right. I am always right. “I hate you,” He whispers. Casey “I heard,” Jerry says, “you and Lizzie were ‘studying’ together after school.” Robbie looks over at me and asks, “Lizzie who?” “Lizzie LaGanke,” Jerry says with a smirk. “That bitch from our first period last semester?” Robbie asks. I nod and shrug. Robbie grunts, “What are you doing hanging with that when you could have a prossy?” “I heard she slept with Mr. Robinson,” Jerry interjects. “More like Lizzie LaSkank,” Robbie says. “You going after Mr. Robinson’s sloppy seconds, now?” Robbie asks me.
Robbie and Jerry expect me to be a Mr. Robinson—not some desperate pussy. They want to be a Mr. Robinson. Hell, every high school boy wants to be a Mr. Robinson. “That’s disgusting, man,” Robbie says. “I’m not doing anything with Lizzie LaGanke,” I shoot back. Robbie and Jerry walk down the hall, freshman thronging around them. “We were just studying,” I yell at their backs. Robbie barks out a laugh, and Jerry shakes his head. … At our fourth “study session,” Lizzie suggests we should study at my place. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I say, thinking about Sophia. She furrows her eyebrows and pouts out her lips, “Why not?” “My parents,” I offer, hoping this will drop the subject. “I’m great with parents!” Lizzie says, grinning. It’s radiant—her smile. “Plus, we wouldn’t be bothering them. We’d just be studying in your room, right?” “Right,” I agree. Sophia’s going to flip the fuck out, I think. “Great! Plus, studying at coffee houses is horrible and a good way to go broke fast,” Lizzie says, flicking her hand about the café we are sitting in. It’s one of the worst ones in town; a pseudo-bohemian runs the place, putting up a front for the macro-economic owner. There are dread-locked and tattooed baristas. And the customers are Kasey-and-Keruaccarrying tourists. “Great,” I echo. Lizzie’s enthusiastic smile nearly blinds me. Sophia His hand touches hers, and I die a little. Lizzie—a living, breathing, high school girl. I’ve been watching them for a whole two hours, twenty-two minutes, and fifteen seconds. Sixteen: His thumb brushes her knuckle when He turns the page of the textbook they share. Seventeen: She smiles at Him. Even in the dingy light in His bedroom, her teeth gleam.
Eighteen: God damn, she’s flirty. Nineteen: He brought her home from school, trying to get a reaction from me, by parading her about. I refuse. My hair’s been the same washed-out blonde for the past week. Lizzie’s is a brilliant brunette—the enticing locks of a dark maiden. A dusty layer of freckles speckle her cheeks, making her all that more adorable. Her small lips are pink and shimmery. My wet, glossy, blow-job lips pucker with disgust. Now twenty seconds: She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater. It covers—giving an illusion of propriety. But it’s also three sizes too small. The whore has painted it on. Twenty-one: His attention slips from the poetry they are studying to the apprehension of and appreciation for His horniness. Twenty-two: He thinks of me. I smile. He’s measuring her against my thumb. But I’m afraid at how high she’s gotten with a little hand holding. The anxiety pulsates off Him—this feels like His only chance at a relationship. But He’s pussyfooting. Twenty-three: To me she’s vapid, but to Him she’s lovely. Beautiful. To Him she seems interested in Him. Or perhaps, just not uninterested in Him. Sitting next to her, He feels like the world sees him. Next to her, He feels. Twenty-four: She’s sitting there, pretending to read lines of Keats. She knows He’s thinking about fucking her. Which He is. Twenty-five: He gets all sexed up just sitting there next to her. Now, there’s no need for my tussled hair, or war paint, or lusty looks. I hate her. Casey “I’ve been thinking about asking Lizzie out,” I share between bites of my cold burrito at lunch. “What do you mean ‘out’?” Jerry asks. “Like girlfriend, boyfriend shit?” Robbie snorts. “Queer.”
“What, just because you can’t find a girl who would want to date a douchebag like you?” I say, standing up and tossing the remainder of my burrito on the tray. I see the sting of last summer’s romantic disappointment flare in Robbie’s eyes. “Yeah, that’s it, Casey,” Robbie says. He looks up at me from his set at the cafeteria table. “I think dating is below me. I think I’m better than that.” Jerry looks from me to Robbie. “Come on guys, don’t do this.” “I’m not doing anything,” I claim. “You’re asking Lizzie out. Way to be proactive, Casey,” Robbie lolls and rolls his eyes. “Just another prossydouchie-filled teen movie.” “Shut the fuck up, man,” I say. “I like this girl, but Christ, it’s not like I’m asking her to marry me.” I look down at Robbie. “You’re my guys. We’re a tripod, remember?” I ask the two of them. … Later that day, I ask Lizzie out. Sort of. I got nervous, and she had to fill in the blanks. “I was wo-wondering,” I stammer. I flounder, unsure of my phrasing, unsure of my hand gestures, unsure of myself. Sophia would think I was being a pussy. Finally, I’m able to spit something out—“I was wondering if you’d go steady with me.” “Are you asking me out?” Lizzie asks. I nod. “I’d love to,” Lizzie says and smiles. Promptly, I lean over and kiss her hard on the mouth. I imagine Lizzie buck naked, splayed out on my bed. Sophia I remember better days. Mornings when He would wake up thinking about me. Thinking about things He wanted to do to me. Mornings when He would dress me up.
Sometimes, I would be a dirty, clubby prostitot. Hair: tangled and matted. Nails: chipped florescent. Make-up: sparkly—smudged from the sweat. Clothes: tight and ripped in all the most suggestive places. My personality would be insipid and trashy. Other times, I would be a sex puppet. Hair: bed head. Nails: killer red. Make-up: smokey, Covergirl bedroomeyes collection. Clothes: lacey lingerie. My personality could be easily undone. One night, when I was a good girl, He had beaten me, upset over His shortcomings. But it’s okay, since all I am is an exercise concocted by His shrink. “Casey,” she had said trying to soothe, “you need a healthy fantasy to play with. Think of what you are sexually attracted to. This will help you release.” And here I am, forever morphing to fit His needs—an opiate to His hormones. At least, I used to fulfill those. Afternoons used to waste away until He came home, came home to me. Later the glimmering sun would slip down, lassoing the moon up. He always liked how I looked naked in the moonlight. He would fall asleep thinking of me—content only with Himself. But now, He’s got her. Lizzie—that good-girl tramp. He has tripped up on her. Now He thinks about her before drifting off to His usual post-coitus dreams. He liked her better when she was just the tease, and the possibility was never a probability. He can’t deny He didn’t want it. He can’t deny He doesn’t still. Incessantly. No more single-serving slices of “pie” for Him. No, now she’s serving up the daily, blue-plate special. … I want to claim that there’s not even an inkling of admiration for Him in me anymore—but there is. He’s practicing the things I’ve been preaching. He’s defied me, left me, and broken me—all for His own gain. How can I not be a little proud of Him? He’s gone from a squire to a foot soldier—still lowly, but minutely improved. Every time she laughs, I yearn to strangle tons of kittens. Cute, furry, adorable kittens. Casey
Lizzie perches on the edge of my bed. In the six months we’ve been dating, I’ve never seen her with such a serious face. Her forehead creases between her worried brows. Sophia’s forehead would never do that—it’s disgusting. “What is it?” I ask her. I can smell her sweating; I hope for a quickie. Lizzie paces around her room, wringing her hands. “I-I-I’m,” she stumbles. “I’m pregnant.” I suppress the urge to vomit. “I was thinking about having an abortion,” Lizzie whispers. “That’s your choice,” I repeat this from my middle school Sex-Ed class. “My choice?” Lizzie echoes. She pauses. My palms get clammy. I wipe them on the legs of my jeans. “You know what? I’m going to keep it.” “What!” I say. I double check my list of Sex-Ed answers. I’m forced to compile one of my own: “I guess I’ll do this with you.” “You guess!” She barks. Her eyes flare, and her breathing quickens. What happened to her being so fragile? So docile? She was so willing before—so intoxicating. “Casey, I need you with me one hundred percent. You are going to do this with me. I need you,” Lizzie screams. She puts her hands to her flat belly. “This needs you.” Then, she collapses on the floor, sobbing. All I can do is stare. She’s insane, I think. I fly to her side, cradling her in my arms. Lizzie’s sobs deepen. I can feel the wetness of her snot and tears through my T-shirt. I’m revolted. I should have known, I think. If Hollywood’s taught me anything, it’s that when a girl you’re fucking sits you down to talk, it is always the untimely arrival of the fetal parasite. Fuck. Sophia
Lizzie steps into the bathroom, leaving the door cracked. She’s washing her face—her make-up has run from all the crying. He paces. “What the fuck have I gotten myself into?” He asks His room. Purring answers Him. Looking down, He sees Wilbur slinking out from beneath His bed. Wilbur jumps up onto His unmade bed and looks up innocently. Suddenly, His hand comes raining down, and Wilbur hisses. He grunts as Wilbur defensively swipes at His other hand and catches the top of His arm. Wilbur darts off of the bed and into the bathroom. He snorts violently and punches his bed hard. The springs whine in protest of the abuse. Casey When Lizzie comes out of my bathroom, my arm is bleeding from Wilbur’s scratches. “What happened to your arm, Casey?” Lizzie asks me. “Wilbur got me,” I reply without looking at her. “Did you want to run some water over it?” She asks, reaching for my upper arm and pulling me up off the bed. “I saw some Band-Aids in your cabinet. Come on.” In the bathroom, I see the towel Lizzie used to wipe her face hanging by the sink. A slow chill comes over me. I see the bathroom window open. “That’s weird, Mom never opens windows up here,” I say, motioning to the window. “Oh, I opened it just now. It was so stuffy, and I was in such a state—I just needed some fresh air,” Lizzie says with a shrug of her shoulders. She runs my arm under the faucet. The cool water stings my scratches. I think about Wilbur. I think about how annoying he’s been lately. How annoying Sophia has been lately. I think about my future: What’s at risk? What I’m giving up? What I’m getting in return? Then we hear a loud screech and a thump outside. Both our heads turn to look out the window. Lizzie turns off the water and we walk over to the window to get a better look. On the street before my house, there’s a car, headlights lit, stopped. The driver has gotten out and is looking at something in the road, her hand to her head.
“Let’s go make sure everything’s okay,” Lizzie suggests. Sophia Fucking tramp. Fucking dimwit. That fucking little tart has up and killed Wilbur. His body just lay there on the dark pavement. Accosted by the tires of a fucking Dodge. Fucking bitch! He slams His door shut with a loud thump and strides across His room in order to punch a pillow. Tears stream down His face. “Fuck,” He says. I tell Him that Lizzie is a bitch. It’s all her fault. “I can’t believe she would do something like this. Why would she want to hurt me?” I tell Him it’s because she’s a crazy, pregnant cunt. He sits on His bed and slumps, overwhelmed with grief. The slash marks on his arm still raw from Wilbur’s attack earlier. “I miss him already,” He says. His words hang in the air of His room. He had shouted at the sight of Wilbur’s lifeless body. He had shot Lizzie a look filled with pure hate. Oh, how He hated her right now. Good—fucking whore deserves it. … Later that night, I make sure He’s sleeping before I go into the bathroom and empty his bottle of meds down the toilet. Things need to be done. He can’t handle them if He’s a zombie. Casey I go to school the next day barely functioning. I can’t stop the stream of flashes of Wilbur’s limp body—bloody and gritty. Half-way through third period, I suddenly realize that everyone is looking at me. When I glance around, their murmuring ceases. In the halls, Robbie and Jerry approach me. “It true, man?” Jerry asks me.
“Is what true?” I ask. “Knock, knock!” Robbie says. “Lizzie?” “What? Shhhhh. How did you know?” “Come on, dude. You know how things get around.” Robbie shrugs. “Yeah,” I relent. “And?” Jerry asks. “And what?” I ask. “She been cheatin’, or are you gunna be a poppa bear?” Robbie asks. “She told me it was mine.” “Wow, dude, that sucks,” Jerry says. Sophia I stalk Him down the hallways. He’s talking with two guys. His shoulders are tense, and His mind is elsewhere. He’s worried about Wilbur. He’s worried about Lizzie. He’s worried about His kid baking. He’s wondering how He can make everything just go away. I tell Him I can help. I watch as His head turns away from His friends. His eyes search the body-ridden hall for me. When He sees me, my body blushes. He hasn’t looked at me like that in six months. He waves at His friends without looking and preys upon me. He walks right past me, knowing I’ll follow Him. I already know where we are going—to the boys’ bathroom on the third floor. It’s His hide-away-place. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen it lurking in the corners of his thoughts. The sun’s showing through the floor-length windows, illuminating every scrap of dirt and grime that has been sitting undisturbed for ten or more years. Sometimes He’ll open one and lean out of it, smoking pot or a cigarette. He comes up here because everyone else thinks it’s haunted. Sometimes, an errant freshman will dodge in and out, not knowing any better. But afterwards, they never come back. The door slides shut with a thud. “What are you doing here?” He demands.
I say that I wanted to make sure He was okay. Last night was hectic. “Bullshit.” I ask what He means. “I mean, what the fuck are you doing here?” I tell Him that I’m here to finish what He’s started. I tell Him that I’m here to clean up the mess He’s made of our life. I tell Him that I’m out and ready to Godzilla this place. That last one gets me half a smile from Him. … I sit with Him in fourth period as He broods over things. He hates Lizzie. She took away the only real thing He loved in this world: Wilbur. Lizzie killed Wilbur, and He hates her for it. When I get bored of sitting there, I get up and walk out. I amble the halls, looking for trouble, thinking, plotting. I see several teachers and other students walk by, but no one says anything to me or asks to see His hall pass. I walk out thirty minutes before the bell rings, I take Him home—thinking, scheming. He’s supposed to have a therapy session tonight, but I don’t feel like going, so instead I make Him masturbate. No porn, no fantasies, no hair dye, no silly lingerie. Just me. Me standing there in front of Him. When He tries to touch me, I back away. I tell Him He’s only allowed to look. … Later that night, His father raps on the door. “Casey!” he screams. “Yeah?” He answers. “Your therapist called. Why didn’t you go to your appointment? You know we pay damn good money for those, and here you are just wasting it!” Casey looks at me, wanting to know what to say.
I tell Him He got sick. Threw up all over the park on the way home. “Well, next time, suck it up. You just threw up a lot of your mother’s hard-earned cash,” he grunts. We wait for the thumping of him walking down the stairs. “I shoulda gone,” He mumbles. … When He goes to bed, I try to think of everything. I try to remember all the details. I scheme the night away. We walk to school the next morning. It’s chilly out, but not unbearably so. I watch as He pulls His jacket closer around Him. I tell Him to text Lizzie. Text her telling her to meet Him in the third floor boys’ bathroom at noon. “Why?” He asks. I tell Him to shut the fuck up and just fucking do it. He does. I tell Him not to ask anymore stupid fucking questions. Casey I’m jittery all the way through first and second period. I’m on edge and nervous, but I can’t put my finger on why. All around me, people are talking, but I can’t hear anything they are saying. It’s all vowels and hand gestures. Bile creeps up the back of my throat. I could throw up at any moment. I’m sweaty and sticky. My heart is pounding. My hands are clams. Robbie and Jerry try to stop and talk in the hall between periods, but I brush them off. I feel mute. I have no control. She has it. Sophia We walk out of second period, ignoring everyone around us. We walk across the school to the back stair case, up three flights of stairs, and slip silently into the bathroom. We check all the stalls for feet. Then double check them for bodies.
We are alone. We wait. It’s the lunch period, so everyone is on the other side of the building, eating in the cafeteria. It’s stuffy in here today, so we open several windows. The building is so old there aren’t any screens, just fresh air. It gushes in from outside, like blood from a deep flesh wound. We sit on the window ledge, our backs to a fatal fall. After five minutes, there’s a tiny knock on the door. It squeaks open, and Lizzie pokes her head around. We tell her to come in. Her body follows her head, and she hesitantly enters the bathroom. The heavy door closes securely behind her. “Hey,” she says meagerly. We greet her, warmly enough. “What’s goin’ on?” she asks. She’s filling the silence with verbal clutter. People are so afraid of a little silence, a little quiet, a little room to breathe. “Nothing,” He replies. “Nothing at all.” We tell her we just wanted to talk. Her head nods, but her eyes look worried, concerned, frightened. “It’s okay,” He assures her. “I just wanted to talk to you, somewhere where we wouldn’t be bothered.” He motions to the bathroom around them. We offer her a seat on the window ledge, by the fresh air. “This view is great!” she says before sitting down. I nod my head. I tell her I come up here all the time to think. “Doesn’t anyone ever bother you?” she asks. I tell her no, no one ever comes in here. I assure her we’re all alone. “Oh, oh good,” she whispers. “What did you want to talk about?” I tell her I hate her. I tell her I can’t stand to look at her anymore. I tell her she disgusts me. I tell her that she’s a murderer and a liar. I tell her that she’s been fooling around on me. I tell her that she’s a tramp and that I don’t love her anymore.
She begins to cry. I tell her she’s weak and stupid. I ask her why she wasn’t on birth control like she told me. I tell her she tricked me. I tell her she’s a whore. Before she knows it, I’ve got my hands around her neck. Her eyes pop open, wet from the tears and stare up at me. It feels good to wrap them around that pretty little neck and squeeze. Her eyes begin to water, wetting the sleeves of my jacket. I tug her up by her neck so she’s standing. Her back is framed by the looming open window. I squeeze hard. I tell her I trusted her, loved her, cherished her. I tell her that I was genuine and how I’m hurt that she would do something so malicious to me. I ask her how she brought herself to kill an innocent, sweet cat. I squeeze harder. Her hands have come up to try and pull my arms away, but she’s too weak. I tell her that I never even loved her. Then I pull my hands away from her neck and shove her out the window. Casey I’m speechless. I can only stare at her body three stories down. Stare and wonder. Wonder if she’s alive. “I fucking hate you,” I scream. Sophia tells me I hate myself. “You’re vile!” Sophia tells me I’m vile. “Fuck you,” I shout. Sophia tells me to go fuck myself. I walk away from the ledge, and Sophia asks me where I’m going. “Away from you,” I reply. Sophia asks if I’m going to her. I walk out the door, throwing, “What the fuck do you care?” over my shoulder. Sophia screams that I’m a weak, pathetic creature. Worthless. Pointless. Nothing.
… When I get down to the ground level and outside, several frantic people have gathered around Lizzie’s limp body. I force my way through the throng to get to her side. She’s Wilbur. She’s bleeding on the pavement, like Wilbur after he was struck by that god damn Dodge. Except Lizzie’s been struck by me. I stare for a while. I look up from Lizzie’s body for Sophia in the window, knowing she’d be watching, but she’s gone. I glance around me on edge. The squeal of tires brings me back, and I watch as an ambulance fires toward us. … I wait for my court-appointed shrink to show up. I sit in the cinderblock-lined room and wait. It’s been six months of waiting in this juvie jail. It’s been six long months of constant badgering from this woman. She’s different from my other shrink—less compassionate, more like the Inquisition. Finally, she shows up and begins our state-mandated, weekly session. “How are we doing today, Casey?” she asks me. “Fine,” I say. “Good, good. No nightmares?” “No.” “Good, good. Any thoughts?” she asks, scribbling down notes on her pad of paper. “No.” “And how does that make you feel?” “Lonely.” “What about your parents? Have they come to visit you lately?” she asks, but she already knows the answer, she has my file with my visitor list in it. But I play along. “No.” “And how does that make you feel?” “Lonely.”
She scribbles again. I’ve given up trying to read her writing from across the table. “Well, I have some good news. Lizzie is walking again.” I nod my head to show I’m pleased. I am—pleased that is. But it hurts too much to think about Lizzie. “Is there something you would like to tell me, Casey?” I know what she’s getting at. She’s been trying to get me to tell her for the past six months. She wants me to tell her that Lizzie was pregnant. She wants me to break down crying about how I’m a murderer and a wretch of a human being. I can’t. I know, but I can’t. “No,” I say and weave my fingers together, placing my hands out in front of me. “Have you seen Sophia?” “No.” She looks up from her pad. It’s the first time she’s brought her up in six months, thinking she would catch me off guard. “No?” “No.” She scribbles. “And how does that make you feel?” I sigh, trying to think of any words besides “no” and “lonely.” “Casey, how does that make you feel?” she prods. “Lonely.”
This Was Menarche By Mike Flynn
This part of the trip was not favorable. The road was long and the sun nuked the concrete that the wheels sped
over, and up ahead on the horizon, where the sky reconciled its relationship with the land, eternity appeared mortal. Being stuck in the car for hours upon sticky hours always lead to answering questions that required further explanation beyond reason. That’s what Nate thought, at least, while riding with his wife, son and strikingly inquisitive preteen daughter Lillie. “What’s a misanthrope?” asked Lillie. She was a smart girl tucked smartly into her seat in the back of the van, with her brother Lenny, whose eyes were glued to one of those handheld games he got for Christmas. And he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. “You are,” said Lenny, with a sharp ruffian polemic, “and don’t even think about asking me what it means.” The word rolled off her father’s tongue the same way it did whenever he tossed back his favorite beer at his favorite bar with buddies from work – with an indifferent casualness – as he sat up front and complained to his wife about his boss. He didn’t think the kids were listening, as they were busy tending to their own worlds. Lenny had been trying to conquer a certain level in the fighting game and played it so much that he ended up developing a phantom twitch in his thumbs that annoyed him for weeks. But he was hooked and bored over the summer. And Lillie flipped through a novel trying to increase her speed-reading skills, aided with a bookmark that she used to slide down each line to trace her pace. Her reading was righteous and courteous, unlike the grotesque sounds of human flesh being punched, kicked and sliced that blared from the speakers of Lenny’s toy. Toy, Lillie condescendingly called it. She wanted to thump him on his forehead, but he claimed his own row, behind her, which allowed him to stretch his growing legs he intended to use for track and field come springtime.
Lenny was entering high school in the fall, which made him feel entitled to belittle his sister every opportunity he got, due to the fact that she was still learning derivatives and pre-algebraic mind benders. But she was heading into the big girl territory of seventh grade in the coming months. The ride was going to be long and Lenny requested his own row for comfort, the previous night. They were driving to Charleston to see their grandparents – Nana and Granddaddy – celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. It was promised, on the invitation cards they mailed, that there would be lots of dancing and lots of drinking. Top shelf liquor for the adults. Plenty of cake and soda for the kids. Lenny adored his little sister but with her, one question begot another. And it seemed to go on forever. “We learned the origins and meanings of words in language arts last semester. Anthropo has something to do with humankind. But mis – I understand that to be just an antonym if anything. Does it mean your boss is a killer?” “Yeap. That’s exactly what it means. Now shut up,” said Lenny. He had no clue what it meant. He wasn’t as bright as his sister when it came to understanding and dissecting the American lexicon. In the fifth grade, he competed in a spelling bee and got laughed all the way back to his desk, that was graffitied with misfit vulgarities in black sharpie markings and polluted with petrified pieces of chewed gum underneath, after spelling potato with an e at the end. The class was full of brainiacs and he never liked any of them. From that point on he thought that reading books was an activity only done by fat kids cast adrift from social circles who had faces that were attacked by acne. “Just like a dummy. You say the first thing that comes to mind,” said Lillie, “even if it’s the wrong answer.” She spoke from the gut as if she was extra perturbed more than any other time before. She was tenacious about her emotions. And these emotions, delicate in their featherweight, threatened to take a plunge as if rocking on the ledge of a rooftop building high-fiving the troposphere with a prophesizing stampede of aggravating winds approaching from afar. “Sweetheart, misanthrope means you hate others,” said Nate while turning around to face Lillie, “and seclude yourself for whatever reason. I guess my boss just has a hard time being around normal people. He even told one of my coworkers, ‘You’re hard to get rid of, like sand in the teeth.’ Can you believe that?”
“Why does he say things like that?” “Because, he’s an asshole.” Asshole? He turned back and met the glower that his wife, Harriett, threw from behind the wheel. She didn’t have to say anything. Harriett’s brow was furrowed like folded chocolate icing on a cake and her lips were slightly parted, exposing a grimace he only saw on two occasions: a moment such as now and after she had an orgasm. He reached for the radio dial and turned to a different station. Harriett added some weight to the gas pedal and accelerated. They passed a sign while driving through Augusta, Georgia, denoting that Charleston was 150 miles away. Halfway there. Harriett was now up, alone, in her restless drive. She’d escape the lure of the hypnotic doze that the other passengers had acquiesced. The fetid smell of cow dung mixed with the mugginess of a southern summer hung stagnant in the passing air. In fact it was the fragrance of Hell. “Whew!” shouted Harriett. She scrunched her nose and closed the vents to let an interior breeze circulate throughout the van. “It’s your turn to drive,” she said to Nate. He jerked out of his nap, disoriented and groggy, after Harriett gave him a punch to the shoulder when he didn’t answer the first time. “What?” “I said it’s your turn to drive. This heat and getting stuck behind eighteen wheelers is draining me.” “Okay. But just a few more minutes. And wait till we pass these grazing fields before you pull over. Smells like the Devil’s ass out there.” Lenny and Lillie shared a chuckle. They liked when their father used profanity around them. The entertainment value of it even swelled when he got drunk. But going to their grandparents wedding anniversary, Lillie knew she’d get more of a show out of it because her father’s brothers like to get even drunker. And then they liked to fight over past aggressions and grudges they held on to with possessive grips that were most likely attached to their insecurities. “I think I have to go to the bathroom,” said Lillie. “You think? Either you do or you don’t,” said Nate.
“Never mind. I can hold it.” Lillie slouched in her seat as her eyes ticked to the cars passing them up on the road.
They eventually wheeled into a rest stop off the highway. Their car pulled up next to one of those large Winnebagos crammed into a space marked for compacts. Nate hadn’t seen one since he was a kid while taking road trips from New York to Charleston with his parents and two brothers, packed and sweating heavily in the back of a Lincoln Continental without air condition. “Why they gotta park it sideways? I can’t stand these rude ass Rednecks,” said Nate. Harriett didn’t like confrontation. She passed up that spot and parked alongside a curb where resting benches were positioned. “Where you going?” “The last thing we need you doing is saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Nobody got time for your foolishness today,” she said. Her nostrils flared every time she got annoyed and they were steadily distending to the likes of a raging bull taunted by a matador’s cape. Nate bottled his retort knowing that if he swam through his memory, and assembled his habitual thoughts, he’d locate the four words that quickly humbled him and kept their marriage in rapture: happy wife, happy life. Harriett parked the car and stepped out stretching her small frame tall. She had long arms and they extended well above the top of the van, growing out her sleeveless blouse that was damp from the sweat on her back and bosom. Beads of sweat sat on her neck like condensation on the outside of a glass of cold dark chocolate milk. Nate and Lenny took out a football and began tossing it. “I wanna see you go long, boy,” said Nate, “hike!” He snapped from his imaginary center and took a five-step drop back into the pocket, in reminiscence of the great Houston Oiler quarterback, Warren Moon. Lenny sprinted over the open concrete, going deep. Lillie weaved under Lenny, with the deftness of a secondary receiver headed for the sideline, and made a beeline for the rest room. The toilet was unbelievably unsanitary. There was barely any toilet tissue. And the trickles of urine speckled across the rim of the seat was more than just a cry for attention; this rest room needed a miracle that should include Mr. Clean and his sparkling smile. She grabbed what she could from the paper towel dispenser and locked herself in a stall
constructed for the handicap. Extra room, she thought. She dropped her shorts and noticed droplets of dried blood in her white panties. Her heart raced and her breaths shortened. It wasn’t the same excitement she had after her first kiss, where her lips buzzed throughout the day and the feeling flowed over to the night on a natural high that felt synthetic. But she felt alone in this experience the same way she felt isolated and ashamed when her mother made her wear the headgear to her braces that was correcting an overbite, out to the Hollywood Video on a Friday night, and ran into someone from school – not just anyone but her crush Billy Parker, where she squatted and duck walked between the foreign film and drama aisles, periodically taking a peek over the shelves, hoping that he nor his parents would be in the mood to watch Amadeus and happen to spot her. This was menarche. Some of the greatest women – every woman – whether famous or infamous, have been through it: Adam’s Eve. Queen Nefertiti. Jeanne D’Arc. Lizzie Borden. Susan B. Anthony. Coretta Scott King. Shirley Chisholm. Angela Davis. Nana. Auntie. Mother. This wasn’t supposed to happen for another year. At least that’s what she was told in Sex Ed. Lillie blossomed into a woman in the oddest of places. And she still had some 150 miles to go before reaching a comfortable, clean bathroom. So she began to do what any girl did in this situation. Wait. What exactly do girls do in this situation, she thought? She took the balled up paper towels in her hands, stuffed them into her crotch, pulled up her shorts and left. Back outside, the sun soaked her eyes, bleaching the world white as her pupils adjusted. She looked around after her vision refocused. Then darted through the crying babies, the fathers searching for cell phone service to handle business calls, the smaller kids chasing their siblings around releasing the sealed energy from the long rides from wherever they came, and made her way back to the car. Nate and Lenny were still playing catch with the football. And Harriett had opened a cooler where sandwiches were packed on top of ice that buried the sodas, waters and Caprisuns. Lillie sat back in the car and fastened herself into her seat. “We got a couple more minutes before we leave, sweetie. Why don’t you get out and stretch your legs some more,” said Harriett. She chewed on a tuna sandwich, wiping the corners of her mouth with a napkin after each bite. She was adamant about not looking like a fool whose face became freckled with breadcrumbs and dollops of mayo. “How far are we from Nana’s?”
“Child, I am about to get in that passenger seat and pass out, so ask your Daddy.” Lillie fell into a pout and she didn’t care about hiding it. “What’s the matter?” “Nothing,” said Lillie. “Don’t nothing me. What I tell you about poking out your lip? Keep it up and it’ll get stuck that way.” “I don’t feel good, Mama.” Harriett moved over and felt Lillie’s head with the back of her hand. “You don’t feel warm. Is it your stomach?” Lillie nodded. And her eyes began to water. Harriett recognized that expression. It wasn’t some ordinary stomachache. She gave her mother the same look some dozens of years earlier. “Is the rest room this way?” Lillie nodded in the direction where Harriett pointed. “C’mon. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Aunt Flow is always showing up uninvited and empty-handed. Remember that and you’ll never be unprepared.” Harriett dug around in her purse and pulled out a pantyliner. “I’m sure it’s too nasty in there to show you how to use a tampon. But this will have to do for now.” Lillie stepped out the car. She had an awkward gait heading towards the sidewalk – pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, as if she was walking with a dodgeball between her legs. Harriett had noticed. “And why you walking like that?” She yanked her by the arm and dragged Lillie off. A mother and her two daughters occupied the only stall. Harriett checked herself out in the water-spotted mirror tattooed with juvenile obscenities scratched in with a razor, flicking some wild hairs out of her face as she waited. Lillie didn’t know what to do so she mimicked her mother, sharing the only mirror. The toilet flushed and the mother and her girls exited, washed their hands in the other sink, then left. “Come on,” demanded Harriett, “let’s get this over with.” She again yanked Lillie by the arm and guided her into the stall. “Girl what were you thinking?” said Harriett, as she flushed the paper towels stuffed between Lillie’s legs down the toilet. “I didn’t know what else to do.” “You could’ve came and told me beforehand instead of lollygagging out there like some fool plagued with hemorrhoids. How many times I gotta remind you and your brother that I can’t read minds?” Harriett opened the pantyliner. She pulled down Lillie’s shorts and did what women do to properly manage their womanly issues. “We’ll have
to wait till we get to Nana’s for some clean underwear. I’m not digging through all that packed luggage right now.” Harriett then took out a miniature generic pump spray bottle that she must’ve bought off the value shelf at the drug store and misted up Lillie and herself to freshness. They now smelled of lilac. Lillie looked up at her mother when she was done. Her eyes bulged like a puppy dog. “I’m sorry,” said Lillie. “Girl, there’s no need to apologize for the Lord’s doing. This is something that’s going to happen once a month. For the rest of your childbearing years. And it’ll keep happening so long as there isn’t a baby inside you, which better stay that way until you’re married. You hear me?” Harriett jerked up Lillie’s shorts and punctuated her last words with a stern fastening of the waist button. “I can take it from here, Mama. Thank you.” Lillie walked out the stall and left the rest room. Harriett went back to the mirror and stared at her reflection. She was fatigued from the drive and her eyes were beginning to droop. There was no one to thank other than the responsibilities of parenthood for her weary eyelids as she savored the beauty of the moment and succumbed to the fact that this was the last time a baby of hers would no longer be just that. Her baby. She now had not just one young adult on her hands, but two.
Nate drove, packed tight behind wheel. So tight that he could’ve leaned forward and kissed the windshield. People had their ways of staying alert on the road and that was his. Harriett was passed out in the front wearing an eye mask, with a slack jaw and all, like a drunken party girl at Mardi Gras napping on a Canal Street bus bench, three sheets to the wind. Shuffled jazz music from the CD stereo coated the car with serenity. Lenny was stretched out on his row, lying down with his right leg propped up on the back of Lillie’s seat. Lillie stared out the window as they passed coniferous trees and vegetation curtaining a vast woodsy area that lined both sides of the highway. The car rolled over smooth pavement – a natural melatonin that found Lillie settling into a drowsy daze.
Nate peeked into the rearview mirror and borrowed a glance at Lillie. “How you doing, Bunny?” he asked. He’d been calling her Bunny since she was born because he felt compelled to give her a sweet nickname to commemorate his feeling when she came into the world. He often told friends that he’d felt a change in his life when he had a daughter. Bearing Lenny made him feel like a victorious warrior returning home from war, but on the day of Lillie’s birth, he felt vulnerable yet protective the moment he rocked and cradled her in his arms. “Music too loud?” “No, Daddy.” “We don’t have far to go. Mom and Dad are gonna be so happy to see you two. I want you to tell them happy anniversary soon as you see them. They’ll love that.” “Are Uncle Gerald and Ronnie gonna be there too?” Nate paused. He knew she loved her uncles. And they loved her. They’d do anything for her. But accepting the fact that their only niece was becoming a woman would be hard to do like swallowing a jawbreaker prematurely. Nate knew what kind of fit they’d pitch once they saw her. When Lillie turned five, it was damn she getting’ big, Nate. At ten it was damn, she getting’ big, Nate. The girl is starting to grow tits. He couldn’t imagine what they’d have to say now that she was twelve. But Lillie had a little secret – something that mothers and daughters kept from fathers until they felt the time was right to deliver the news. “Yes. They’ll be there.” And Nate ended it at that. He knew that his two younger brothers were a lot to handle. Gerald was always caught up in some quarreling triad between his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. And Nana bailed Ronnie out of city jail after giving up one of her monthly social security checks to pay the bondsman. Everyone knew what he did but Ronnie claims the sex between him and the woman he met, who accused him of rape, was consensual. He still had to go to trial and be convicted. Nate hadn’t told Lillie what he was in jail for. But she found out through her mother. Not in the traditional way, when a parent sits their kid down and discusses why a family member had to be punished for something wrong they did. No. It was when her mother got on the phone on Saturday mornings gossiping with one of her sisters or cousins and bad mouthing her husband’s brother for all the embarrassment he brought to the family by failing to keep his dick tucked behind his zipper – in those exact words. All Lillie knew is that her uncle learned
his lesson after being away for a while – all five days – for reasons never discussed in detail or explained from his perspective. It was his first arrest. And thinking back to when her mother’s conversation stole her attention, Lillie played, very well might I add, the role of being the innocent little girl pretending to be engrossed in teenage drama shows while more exciting things were being discussed over the phone. Nate drove for the next 40 miles skipping through tracks on the CD and letting the wind whip against the left side of his face from the open window. Lillie read her Goosebumps book. This was the third in the series she breezed through this month that she bought at her school’s book fair before summer break. She liked them bent on the spine, with each crease descending, denoting her growing intellect that matched her expanding library at home. She had two more to go but felt confident in finishing them by the time the leaves started changing colors in September and she was back in the midst of immature boys shooting spitballs over her shoulders through straws, at the teacher as he scribbled reading lessons on the chalkboard. Nate pulled the van up at a gas station that was under renovation and headed inside to pay with cash. Harriett lifted her sleeping mask, looked around, and then fell back asleep. Lillie smacked Lenny’s foot off the edge of the seat. “Wake up.” “What you hit me for?” “We’re here.” He rose groggily. He rubbed his eyes, yawned like a young lion rising from a nap and surveyed his surroundings. “Where we at?” “Charleston. Where’d you think we were going? Florida?” “This ain’t Nana and Granddaddy’s,” he said as he climbed over the seat. He palmed Lillie’s head, smashing her face into the window, while exiting the van. “Where’s the bathroom?” he asked as he stretched his arms to the heavens. “In the trees behind the station, with the rest of the animals,” replied Lillie, without lifting her eyes from her book. Lenny extended his middle finger at her, turned and continued on.
Lillie let him carry on as he let the blood flow through his legs and found his footing on his trek to the rest room. He was a gangling young man who stepped furiously over the gravel crunching underneath his shoes as the sun beat down on the nape of his neck. Lillie stopped reading and bookmarked her page. Then her eyes searched for her mother’s attention. Something brewed on her mind. Harriett didn’t like being woken by her kids with silly questions, but Lillie couldn’t let this stew any longer. “Mama,” she asked. Harriett laid still, dancing in her dreams of the days before bearing children and disciplining their impish behavior. “Mama, can I ask you something?” Lillie persisted. “What is it, child?” Her mask remained over her eyes. “Did uncle Ronnie really rape that woman? Is that why he went to jail?” Harriett raised her mask and blinked her eyes open, sitting up. She turned and studied her daughter’s posture. If she was slouching, she was just being nosey. But Lillie sat upright, back straight with her seat belt still fastened. This girl is serious, Harriett thought. Harriett cleared her throat and paused for a moment before she proceeded. “Well, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.” “That’s what they say on Law & Order. I wanna know the truth.” “That is the truth. The prosecuting lawyer is going to try and find evidence on Ronnie. That’s what they do. But so long as he claims his innocence and remains truthful, he shall be set free. That’s how it works.” Harriett turned back around and faced the road that stretched out ahead patiently awaiting their return as a few cars zoomed by. “But how come when you were talking to Aunt Tessa on the phone, you said—“ Harriett whipped her head back around to Lillie. “You know better than to be eavesdropping on my phone conversations!” Her scowl held venom and her voice dropped to an octave that emerged only when she did not want to repeat herself. “I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was in the room watching TV with you.” “You need to learn selective hearing, child. Tune out all the parts that ain’t meant for your little virgin ears. That’s what you should be doing instead of worrying about what I say on the phone.” Harriett stepped out the van and opened
the back door. She dug around in the cooler in the trunk, stroking through the slushy water scooting melting ice cubes out the way and pulled out a bottle of water. She downed her drink in just eight greedy uninterrupted gulps. Lillie watched her mother slam the door and stroll inside to the convenience store. She sat waiting for the rest of her family to return, rubbing the frayed spine of her Goosebumps book for comfort.
The party had life. Its soul was the music and laughter was the pulse pumping through everyone there. Lillie sat at a table with some cousins whose names she couldn’t remember to save her life. They always knew hers though. And the guilt of not making much of an effort to learn them sank deep into her heart, settling with her embarrassment. She leaned on her mother’s memory whenever she could steal moments away with her and ask: Whose son is that again? And, That’s aunt who? Lillie spent more energy into trying to avoid having to call on someone whose name escaped her mind rather than just enjoying their company. Her family was large and they came out in droves for functions such as these. And no one turned down an engagement full of free liquor and food, no matter whose name was remembered or forgotten. Nana and Granddaddy, rested in their lawn chairs set up along the edge of the house, away from the activity, as people greeted them when they took breaks from dancing and casual trips to the open bar. Granddaddy filled out his six-foot-three frame with strong old-man muscles – strength undermined by the youth – that he kept from his days of building them playing with the Cleveland Browns in the 60s. And Nana sat respectful and content as a lady does who sold home-baked pies for a living. There were tiki torches mounted in the ground burning bug-repellent candles to keep the mosquito bites away. And a DJ took charge over a playlist of old school R&B music from the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Lenny hovered around the booth badgering the DJ to play something the young people could dance to. Perhaps some modern hip-hop. Some gangster rap. But the old folks paid for the gig and were going to get what they wanted.
“Come on, man. I know you got some Eightball & MJG up in there,” said Lenny. “I can only hear Maze and Frankie Beverly but so many times.” He took sips from a red cup that he had snuck some Vodka into, mixed with his punch, compliments of Uncle Ronnie. “I got you,” replied the DJ. He’d say this every ten minutes keeping Lenny at bay whenever he would return with his same requests. But Lenny’s good memory was drowning in the alcohol he consumed. Every approach was new to him and he sounded like a scratched vinyl of an Otis Redding record, skipping and repeating the same lyrics. “I left my home in Georgia. Headed for the Frisco Bay. Cos I have nothing to live for. It looks like nothing’s gonna come my way… Come my way… Come my way… Come my way… Wastin’ time.” Lillie observed everyone at the party. She was bored but knew better than to take out her book and start reading. She rose up from her table and joined her grandparents. Their faces brightened with joy when she sat down. “Y’all enjoying the party?” Lillie asked. Nana nodded and squeezed her husband’s hand. “Any time we can get our children and their children together is enough for us, baby.” “Can I get y’all anything? Some cake? A burger? The punch is slamming.” Nana smiled at slamming. Lillie kept her grandparents feeling young anytime she shared her slang with them, and they loved her for it. “Why don’t you go dance with some of your cousins’ friends. They look like they know how to treat a pretty young lady right.” She then shooed Lillie away to enjoy the moment with her husband, as other guests came up offering their praises and gratitude for the invitation. Lillie approached Lenny at a table where he sat telling knee-slapping dirty jokes to his male cousins that he most likely heard on the DVD’s of Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. “Where’s Mama?” asked Lillie. Lenny was a bit tipsy and his words slurred. He craned his neck and shifted his eyes around as if they would find their mother but landed back on Lillie, unsuccessful. And then he offered an apologetic shrug. “You want a sip of this?”
Lenny and the cousins let out some hyena cackles, knowing they would be quite entertained to see Lillie get her first taste of intoxication. She pushed away his extending hand that he offered. “Mama ain’t looking for you so why are you worried about finding her?” he said. “None of your freakin’ business.” She shoved him out his seat with his drink spilling out on the grass and pressed on with her mission. Lillie had managed to escape a few more invitations on the dance floor from the older men in her family who thought they could perform the popular moves from the younger generation. She found her way inside the house near the kitchen, but stopped at the door. There, her uncles and father gathered. Ronnie took after Granddaddy, in brooding size, with a scar running across his left cheek. It was something he got as a kid while attempting freestyle tricks on his bicycle and carried it his whole life, treating it as a testament to his fibrous quiddity. Gerald was the smallest of his siblings. But he was also the loudest. Nate often joked to Lillie that Gerald spoke in that manner to make up for his lack in height. He called it the Napoleon complex, where Lillie would come to understand what it meant after doing some extra credit work in history class. The three brothers crowded the marble top island counter where a battalion of alcohol, which had mostly yet been consumed, sat. Jack Daniels. Grand Marnier. E&J: Erk & Jerk to the grown men who gave the brandy its sobriquet after indulging in underage drunken binges and learned of its consequences the hard way. Five bottles of some offbrand vodka were open and half full. There was a lot of whiskey – some Canadian – and bourbon from distilleries in the American south. Nate and his brothers all held cups and were already engaging in behavior brought on by their bibulous traditions, suggesting that they were trying to drink one another under the table. “So no one believes my story?” said Ronnie. The seed of rage had begun to blossom in his voice. “Of course we believe you,” replied Gerald. “I don’t,” said Nate.
“And what the hell were you doing, getting it on in the alley behind a bar?” said Gerald. “Should’ve just taken her to your car, dawg.” Nate then followed up with his two-cent opinion. “Hell, it was parked just a block away. In a residential neighborhood, no less. I mean, did she look that good?” Ronnie downed his cup of straight vodka and poured himself some E&J. “That ain’t gonna do you no good, brother,” said Nate, as he hid a grin below the brim of his cup. “Mixing light and dark like that makes you look like a rookie.” “I know what the hell I’m doing.” Ronnie’s annoyance with his brother molded his face into a grimace. Lillie finally grew the courage to bring herself fully into the kitchen after rapping her knuckles on the doorframe. “Have you seen Mama?” They turned and found Lillie cowering in her stance like a lamb lost from her flock. “She out on the dance floor, ain’t she?” said Gerald. “I didn’t see her.” Ronnie added. “What you need?” asked Nate. She rolled her eyes toward the floor and fell mum. “Damn, girl, spit it out!” “Come over here and give your uncle a hug, Lillie.” Ronnie stretched out his bulging arms as they enveloped her. “Damn, girl. You getting big!” She knew that was coming. He rubbed her on the head the way a man does a puppy that’s fetched a tossed tennis ball, clenched between its teeth. As Ronnie released her, she backed away toward the door. “Well?” Nate stood, growing impatient for the answer. “She was supposed to give me something.” “Like what,” said Nate, with raised arms and opened palms, “some money?” “Daddy…” She wore her shame heavy on her shoulders, which began to loll. But Gerald, being the smart one of the bunch, picked up on it. “Oh, damn, Nate. You’re little girl isn’t so little anymore.” “What?” Their stares hushed the room. Lillie’s eyes bounced to the ground, scouring for her dignity.
“Oh,” said Nate, as it finally hit him the same way an April sky opens with a spontaneous downpour and surprises a man riding on the freeway in his convertible. He didn’t know what else to do. Lillie’s his only daughter and he didn’t have to go through some bullshit like this with Lenny, he thought. “Look at you. Grown and all. Wow,” said Ronnie, alleviating the awkwardness. But a pinch of creepy rested too hard on wow, and Nate took notice. It was enough to rouse a stir in him since he never heard his brother use this tone before. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means she’s gonna start experimenting. You can’t stop that.” His tone was tinged with amusement. “I’m not like that,” said Lillie, assuring them with folded arms and a tapping foot. “Drinking all that liquid courage is gonna get your ass beat,” said Nate. He laid his eyes on Ronnie who kept sipping out his cup. “You ain’t beating nothing but the living room rug, out on your porch.” Ronnie took another sip from his cup without taking his eyes off his brother. He was bigger and more likely stronger, but Nate kept the age difference in the back of his mind, remembering the old days when he was victorious. Nate then stepped up, getting right under Ronnie’s nose. “Keep pushing me, Ronnie.” “Don’t get mad at me cos your wife is the breadwinner.” And he took another sip. “So you ‘posed to be big and bad now that you went to jail? You ‘bout to get locked up again for saying and doing stupid shit as always.” That was the one button Nate pushed that Ronnie couldn’t take. Stupid shit as always. He was sensitive about his actions and knew that he needed to change, but didn’t need people holding up a mirror to his face to remind him of who he was – especially his family. They then fell into a wrestler’s grapple. The struggle ballooned into a fight. Their quarreling mass spilled over onto the countertop. Then found its way over the kitchen sink. The stove. It even banged up against the stainless steel refrigerator. “Stop it,” said Lillie. No one seemed to have heard her. So she repeated a bit louder. “Stop it!”
Gerald became tangled in the grapple after trying to break them apart, and now the three of them maneuvered through the kitchen like a choreographed ballet. There was a table in the dining room that was adjacent to the kitchen. It invited the three-headed sibling monster to its chairs, which they scattered about. Their parents removed all glass fixtures from their home. The glass dining room table. Gone. The glass cabinet encasing the fine China. Gone. All sold to the customer with the best offer at the garage sale. As they grew older, their fights got more violent and they tended to ruin more furniture. A few punches were snuck in. To the gut. To the kidneys. Jabs were confined to a tight space. No contact to the head or face, just all fair body shots. Heavy breaths and frustrated grunts puffed into the air as they searched for good positioning to make sure their swinging fists made impact. Lillie raised her voice a little louder. “Stop it, now!” she said. They didn’t. What could a little girl do to stop three grown men from potentially killing each other, she thought? She had enough and proceeded to climb the island countertop, steadied herself up tall and grabbed one of the empty liquor bottles. She slammed it down. It exploded into an amalgamation of large chunks and glass granules. “I just needed a fucking maxi pad from Mama!” Her nostrils flared and her breaths were heavy. They stopped and stared at her. Lillie looked just like her mother when furious, Nate thought. A pissed little brown version, who was for sure mama’s baby and daddy’s little lady. Nate and his brothers regained their composure and attended to her, high above on the counter, in a manner that royal fools take heed to a princess’ verbal lashing. She jumped down off the counter and stomped out the kitchen without saying a word. She left behind the mess for them to clean up. The screen door that lead to the back yard creaked open and slammed shut behind her. Nate picked up his cup off the counter that was tipped over and stole a sip from what was left inside. He refilled his brothers’ cups. Gerald shook his head and left the kitchen on sobering steps. Ronnie took his cup, tilted his head back and swallowed the contents. He then stuck his cup out for more.
Nate refilled it, and then his own cup before falling into a reverie, while staring at the door that lead to the music, laughter and the dusking atmosphere â&#x20AC;&#x201C; muggy and blissful â&#x20AC;&#x201C; which was in stark contrast to the air conditioned room, where he stood, that held nothing but a cold rejection.
Sugar Daddy by Ilya Lyashevsky
Wearing a wrinkled black t-shirt and dark blue jeans ripped at the knees, Michael Herzev stepped off the plane into the soft heat of the Balkan summer. Under a hazy, ambiguous sky—Just for me? he thought—an airport bus waited. Beyond it, a landscape green, flat. The horizon lost in a faintly smoggy mist. Descending to the tarmac in the diffuse sunlight, Michael breathed in the still, peculiarly fragrant air, welcoming it after the climate-controlled closeness of the plane. At the baggage claim his bag was late to appear. But finally it was spit up by the curtained orifice feeding the steel carousel, and he took it up, carrying the old, frame-stiffened blue backpack (its straps now concealed) by its side handle, like a guitar case. In the short hallway leading to the exit, several customs officers dressed in the dark loose uniforms of local police stood idly. They took no interest in him as he went by. Coming out, he found Bella waiting for him, standing a little apart from the small crowd gathered behind the greeting barrier, smiling with excitement and anxiety. His feelings when he saw her were odd, warm, with something of resignation in them. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, cut in a boyish style. She asked him if he liked it as they walked through the terminal. He said yes, naturally. The hairstyle might not have been his personal favorite, but in his mind his answer applied to Bella’s appearance as whole, which was objectively marvelous. Slim, skillfully made up, she wore a long bright skirt of some light material, dense with folds, a form-fitting tanktop, pendent earrings he’d bought her a few months after they met. She’d gotten a light tan and the skin of her arms, shoulders, neck, face, had a smooth, supple look. A pair of platform sandals added to her already impressive height. Atop them she was taller than most men. In the quiet, largely empty terminal, they turned to look after her as she passed. They did not to speak during the taxi ride. Bella didn’t like for cab drivers to know they were transporting a foreigner, fearing a fare hike, and warned him to keep quiet. Getting in front, she gave directions, while Michael sat
quietly in the back, holding on to the front seat (there were no seatbelts in the back; a striped cloth seat-cover hid the buckles) as they maneuvered through the traffic of the capital. Michael was unconvinced of the necessity of Bella’s precautions—the cab was metered, though maybe that didn’t make a difference—but made no protest. Financially, he was in no position to scoff at such prudence. Despite a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the dash, the cab smelled of cigarettes. Looking out the car window, Michael saw billboards advertising vodka, cellphones, cars, next to and sometimes right on top of communist era apartment buildings, their walls in black patches where the plaster had fallen off. On balconies, laundry hung drying next to upturned satellite dishes. On the back of the driver’s seat hung a credit card ad featuring a native female Olympic gold medalist in pistol marksmanship. She held the credit card as if it were a gun. Once they were able to talk again, almost the first thing Bella told him, after they got to her apartment and he changed and they went out again, was that she was badly depressed. Part of it was being back in the country, she explained. She had been alone there for over a month and the place got her down. “I guess I’m not used to it anymore,” she said. “Everyone is so negative. I can’t take it.” A few days earlier she had gone to see her father and that made things worse. “Whenever we meet he only wants to talk about his own problems. I understand things are difficult for him right now, but he’s still the parent and I’m the child, not the other way around.” Bella’s father had once been a stage actor of some renown, but hadn’t worked for years. He lived on the other side of the city with his girlfriend. Bella contended that the girlfriend poisoned his mind and that many of his present opinions were not his own. “When he speaks I hear her speaking through him,” she said. Sometimes she attributed to this her father’s failure to acknowledge her accomplishments. Bella was finishing a sociology doctorate at Brown, and had already been awarded several prestigious grants, but news of these successes didn’t seem to elicit the desired reaction from him. “Whatever I do right, he just says, ‘Eh, it’s to be expected,’ ” she told Michael in exasperation. “Expected because I’m his daughter, and so of course I must do well. It’s nothing special. But they can’t stop talking about Ninka’s daughter. She’s taking some accounting courses or god knows what. They make it sound like she’s cured cancer. They
don’t understand the work I do, and they don’t try to. They dismiss it. It’s not serious to them because they don’t think I’ll make any money with my degree. And they’ve never heard of Brown. All they know here is Harvard. If you’re not at Harvard you must be a dummy. They make me feel like everything I’m doing is worthless. And sometimes I start to believe it!” She had brought herself close to tears, but held them down: they were in public and there was also her makeup to think about. And now her tone altered. She began to speak of the troubles she was having with practical matters. In particular, her attempts to upgrade her home phone line, which were hampered by the building super, a nutty old Soviet sympathizer who wouldn’t lend her the key to the building’s phone line control board, or some such system, which the phone company needed access to. He claimed he didn’t have the key, but Bella was sure that he was lying. She believed he was making things hard for her out of sheer crazy spite. Michael listened to all this thoughtfully, sipping his tea. They had gone downtown—a short walk from Bella’s building—and sat at an outdoor café across the street from the former Palace of Culture, a massive structure of sandcolored stone faintly resembling an accordion. Kids on skateboards and BMX and mountain bikes raced about the “central park” that stretched from its entrance, bristling with dead fountains. On the concrete ramps and stairways, they hopped, spun, crashed and leapt up again. There was a billboard on top of the palace now too. Michael at first thought the billboard had been vandalized, but then understood that the advertisement itself was done in graffiti style—to appeal to the youth market, presumably. Sitting in his stainless steal chair, Michael had not been saying much. His travel fatigue aside, Bella’s grievances were not new to him. Almost all of them he knew about from their phone conversations. Back home, too, complaints of a similar tenor were not infrequent. So he knew what was expected of him. Only, right then he wasn’t sure he could summon the strength for the usual pep talk, the remonstrations and reassurances. The time we’ve spent apart has affected me, he thought. I feel I am starting to resent these continuous demands for sympathy. Also, at that moment he felt he deserved, or at any rate would have liked, to get some sympathy himself. For he was hard up. Could not, in fact,
afford this trip. He’d charged the ticket to his credit card and withdrawn his last thousand dollars for expenses. He wasn’t sure it would be enough for the three weeks he was to spend here. Looking past Bella, he now watched the café waitresses taking and bringing out orders. They wore one-size-fitsall orange dresses, short enough to pass for long shirts. One bigger girl looked like she was barely able to keep decent in the thing. When she leaned over, very little was left to the imagination. Their own waitress was young and rather pretty. The orange uniform sat well on her and showed off her white shapely legs. Michael, who was a sculptor, had the thought that legs like that would look great in marble. When the girl came to tell them her shift was ending, he gave her a generous tip (it still amounted to a miniscule sum). Day was turning into evening, but the heat was slow to depart. Stray dogs, dirty, comfortable old survivors, lay panting on the dusty pavement and on the grass under broad-canopied trees. Across the street, a line stretched out the door of a currency exchange bureau beneath the single patchiest façade Michael had ever seen: you couldn’t tell if it had more bare concrete or paint. “Why are you so quiet,” Bella pleaded. “Say something.” “Oh,” Michael said. “Well. Yes.” And roused himself and said something.
On their walk back, they passed through the central park. All the benches along the promenade were packed tight with old people, observing those going by expressionlessly, out of faces desolated by time. At the park’s far end a giant statue commemorating some socialist triumph was slowly disintegrating. A graffiti-covered fence (Michael noted that here the graffiti was genuine) surrounded it to protect passersby in case any more of it collapsed. Later, going down tree-shaded side streets, they went by the apartment of one of Bella’s close childhood friends. “We had so much fun here,” Bella said wistfully, looking at the dark windows. “We did such silly stuff. We’d pretend one of us was a foreigner and talk gibberish and the other one was an interpreter and was translating for them. And we’d come up to people and do this bit and think we were very convincing.”
Michael smiled at the story. Hearing such childhood memories greatly moved him. He could see Bella, skinny and boyish, earnestly speaking in her made-up tongue. Transfixed in the act of recollection, Bella’s face was at that moment full of melancholy yearning. In the shadows of early evening her skin looked wonderfully smooth. The noble cheekbones, nose, chin like those of some imperial likeness done in porphyry. But in a moment her expression changed, as she remembered that the friend, with whom she’d left several messages in the preceding days, still hadn’t called her back. Passing through an outdoor market set up along a central thoroughfare, they bought cherries and apricots. The ripe, luxurious fruit was measured in kilos inside battered metal bowls on mechanical scales ancient and rusty. The vendors, efficient, sometimes sly, mostly affable, their rough hands dark with grime, counted up the totals using pocket calculators. With the dusk deepening, many were starting to clear out their stands. Red trams rattled by on rails running down the middle of the street, with an occasional German sedan bearing an impatient businessman or Mafioso trailing close behind. As they walked single file down narrow sidewalks, past clothing and sunglass and cellphone shops, Michael sampled the fruit, rubbing it on his shirt by way of a wash. He offered some to Bella but she had grown distracted over her childhood friend’s silence. In her current demoralized state, it threw their entire friendship into question. “When I come here I go out of my way to try to see everyone,” she said with emotion, “but no one else wants to put in any effort. Are these called friends? Well, fine. I’m not going to try any more either. If they don’t want to call me, I’m not going to call them.” For a time she carried on in this vein, working herself up to state of great excitement. Michael plodded alongside her in silence, carrying the plastic bags laden with fruit. He suddenly felt like he was reaching a breaking point. He didn’t think he could stand being around such eruptions any longer. That meant having to break things off—not now, but possibly upon their return—after nearly a year together, and the prospect cast him into a mood of dark, irritable sorrow. For a time, when Bella spoke to him he could hardly bear to answer. Eventually her friend called and they sounded thick as thieves again, but this did little to cheer him up. It only magnified the unreasonableness of Bella’s earlier hysterics.
When they got back to the apartment, he was so wrapped up in his unpleasant musings that he missed the signs of the next impending crisis. The super was still refusing to give up the key to the phone box. Bella had gone down and knocked on his door, but got no answer, yet was certain she heard movement inside. “That crazy old fart,” she cried, returning. “He won’t even talk to me. I heard him moving around behind the door. Or it could have been his daughter. He keeps her locked up in there. She doesn’t open the door unless he’s home.” She tried to busy herself with other things—at her insistence they would shortly be going to the sea and there were logistical matters (car, itinerary, cost estimates, and so on) to attend to—but the unobtainable key wouldn’t let her rest. The line upgrade would evidently reduce her phone bill, especially the dial-up internet charges, but it clearly wasn’t the question of money that so got to her. She couldn’t handle being at the mercy of the loony super. “God, it makes me so angry! So angry!” she panted, pacing around the bedroom. At last, overcome by her passions, she collapsed weeping on the bed. Michael, brooding in twilight on the couch in the other room, followed these developments with half an ear. Each time another one of Bella’s exclamations pierced through the wall, he gritted his teeth, feeling absurdly like a child forced to witness a parental meltdown. He was shaken out of his funk only by the sound of Bella’s tears. These moved him to act. Jumping up and striding into the bedroom, he prepared to assume an outwardly brisk, confident tone. The room was brightly lit by a low-hanging ceiling lamp. Bella lay curled up on the yellow felt covers, her body shaken by sobs. Tears made the long lashes of her tightly shut eyes clump together. Her pink-lipped mouth, distorted by crying, was wet with drool. “Now what are you torturing yourself for, babe,” Michael said. “This isn’t such a huge disaster.” Which wasn’t a great start, for Bella just cried harder. “Alright, look,” he tried again, “you take it easy and I’ll go and see if I can’t get that key from the old commie.” “How are you going to do that?” she croaked. “Threaten him with expulsion from the party. I don’t know. I’ll talk to him and see what the deal is.”
“You don’t even speak the language.” “If the guy loved the Soviets so much, he’ll probably speak Russian. Anyway, we’ll find some way to understand each other.” Bella’s sniffling began to subside. She sat up. Michael could see he was making headway. Now all that was left was to get the key. On that score he wasn’t nearly as confident as he’d made himself sound. Still, going down the unlit stairs (he hadn’t the patience to wait for the elevator), he felt some exhilaration. Normally he showed little initiative when called upon to do something, but now felt a curious power within himself. In the concrete-cool, echoing murk his pulse beat strongly in the gut and temples. His Russian, which he’d first absorbed from his parents and then studied fairly diligently in college, was still reasonably good. And he did in fact hope the language would offer some advantage in the negotiations. Perhaps awaken the old communist instinct of deferring in all things to the line coming from Moscow. Briefly, he imagined himself overawing the super in secret police fashion, with an unspoken promise of violence. But he knew well enough he had no skill in bullying. Charm (or at any rate amiability) and persistence were far his stronger suits. Descending, jumping down to the landings over three, four, five steps, he tried to work out his angle, his story. Who was he to Bella? Why did he come to speak on her behalf? At the same time, another part of his mind moved in a different direction and he thought, Really, it is in some ways a performance, Bella’s extravagant suffering. A kind of artistic attempt to communicate her pain. And I suppose its intensity is inversely proportional to the size of her audience, which is just me. And her, he realized. Yes, Bella is also a spectator of her own spectacle. And the show she puts on heightens her self-pity and causes the whole thing to spiral to ever greater depths of half-simulated anguish. Still, the basic, underlying emotion isn’t fake or aberrant. Only its outward manifestation ends up seeming excessive. And I’ve got to consider if that’s not due also to my recent tendency to give her inadequate consolation. The more I withhold my pity the more strongly she may feel the need to demand it. Several minutes later, he was taking the elevator back up to Bella’s floor, carrying with him a promise from the super to have the key ready for him the next day. This was an accomplishment he was himself not a little surprised by, considering how their interview began. At first the man wouldn’t even open the door, but had Michael state his business
through it. When at last he showed himself, it looked as if Michael’s call had gotten him out of bed. Following the snapping of a multitude of locks, he appeared in the entryway dressed in an undershirt made taut by an older man’s paunch. He must have been about sixty, neckless, his short gray hair in disarray. Attached to a square, thickset body, his naked arms and legs looked oddly spindly. Bella’s reactions to mishaps and difficulties may have been disproportionate, but when it came to sizing people up Michael knew her to be fairly perceptive. And in this case he was inclined to agree with her judgment. One close look was enough to confirm that the poor fellow was at least a little mad and not merely disoriented by a late night visit. His wide-open dark eyes, huge-pupiled, below brows of Brezhnev bushiness, stared with anxious, unflagging intensity from a face pallid, loose-jowled, its grizzled stubble evoking the final despair of derelicts. (Michael’s imagination suggested to him that the man had heard of the end communism with that look on his face, and it had remained there since.) His head was pulled permanently into the shoulders as if anticipating a blow. Michael thought he could smell the sourness of the man's breath, the mustiness of the airless apartment. For a moment he nearly despaired of getting anything out of him, but then it seemed that his repeated mentions of Moscow and the excessive politeness with which he spoke were having a positive effect. He had taken some money with him—two twenties—and now tried to get it across that he was willing to offer compensation for the super’s services. He was beginning yet again to lay out his case—he was a visitor from Moscow, experiencing trouble with the phone line, and so on—when the old man stopped him with a few placating, slightly irate waves. In imperfect, halting but understandable Russian, he told Michael that he did not have the key, as he had already explained to the young lady from the apartment under discussion. But he knew who did. Gesturing for Michael to stay put, he disappeared inside, leaving the door half open. As he waited on the landing, Michael allowed himself a measure of optimism, though he had sensed some disingenuousness in the man’s act and suspected he was sticking to his story for appearances’ sake. Under the old regime it was not uncommon for the super to be in contact with the state “organs.” Reporting on the sayings and doings of the tenants. So Giorgiev—as the super was called according to a plaque above his door—might not have been a stranger to dissembling. Still, Michael reflected, he must be having a pretty rough time of it in this new order.
At one point, glancing through the door, Michael thought he saw a figure in a long nightgown flit across the dark hallway. Was this the imprisoned daughter hiding her maiden charms? Whatever her true condition, Michael assumed that old Giorgiev didn't relish the thought of her setting foot outside his building. It must have seemed to him like sending her into Babylon or Gomorrah. In another moment Giorgiev was back, his outfit unchanged except for old sandals replacing the house slippers on his feet. It made Michael cold to look at him, but later he understood that the undershirt and boxers was all the man ever wore inside the building. The other tenants had probably come to think of it as the official uniform associated with the super’s office. Locking the door carefully behind him, Giorgiev led the way to the dwelling of a certain Afanasyeva, one floor down, but she wasn’t home or wasn’t opening. The super was apologetic, and back in his own doorway told Michael that he would get hold of the key for him by the following day. Reporting these results to Bella, Michael felt reasonably good about his showing. Bella was not without her doubts, but she agreed to wait to see if the super delivered. With petting and coaxing Michael persuaded her to go to bed, and they slept in each other’s arms, not waking the next day until noon. In the dark, as they were falling asleep, Bella got both arms and legs wrapped around him. With her face hidden between his neck and shoulder, she whispered, “I’m so happy you’re here. You make me feel calm.” And Michael said that he was happy also, and at that moment meant it. * The seaside spot that Bella wanted them to go to was near a summer camp she went to as a girl. It was a secluded, peaceful beach that she recalled with fondness. “It was really wonderful there,” she said. “But I’m kind of afraid to see what’s become of it.” Nonetheless, she dug up maps and worked out the driving route. She also found them a rental car, a small, new, bright red Kia, which had little power but plenty of trunk space (needed for Bella’s suitcase). Once the mad free-for-all of the streets of the capital was behind them, the drive to the coast was charming. The countryside, painted over in floral green and gold, was unpopulated, warm, dreamy, seemingly untouched by history. Giant sunflowers, in ranks of thousands in their fields, followed the sun with black and yellow faces. Fist-sized
peaches and watermelons like striped cannonballs lay in pyramids beneath the red umbrellas of roadside vendors. From the height of the coastal roads, the sea looked like an immense, clear blue lake. One time, when making a pit-stop, they sat down at a café overlooking a Roman amphitheater. Michael admired the partially broken down colonnades back of the stage, which resembled a temple entrance or Hellenic cityscape. The ubiquitous fluted column, he thought. That architectural standby of the old empires. In general, the ancients didn’t really seem too concerned with variety. They had their standards and they stuck to them. Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Aphrodite, and the rest of that Olympic cast was all they ever needed. Which was really not a bad way to simplify things. Infinite choice tended to induce paralysis. Michael had himself been casting about for a strong subject for some time. His sculptures weren’t selling, and the attendant money worries made it difficult to recover his inspiration. The trip to the Balkans he had partly justified with the thought that it would do him good to get away, to spend some time in an unfamiliar place and clear his head. Looking down at the stone stage, Bella said, “My father had performed there. When I was little. In the 90s.” Then she told Michael she regretted not receiving more guidance from her parents as a child. “My father could have easily gotten me into acting,” she said. “But he refused to do it. I don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t want that kind of life for me. Traveling all the time, etcetera.” Her long fingers were playing with a white sugar packet, which she finally tore and emptied into a cup. “Sometimes I feel completely directionless. I have no idea what kind of job I’ll be able to get. It's like I can't believe that anyone will want me. And I have these fears that I’m going to end up on the street.” Even as he put his arms around her, Michael was aware that Bella’s worst-case visions of the future were hyperbolic, a kind of fantasy masochism. Yet they were not, in the end, an utter impossibility—his own present situation offered painful evidence of the fact—and it must have been his sense of this (our common vulnerability!) that tugged at his heart. Her cheek against his chest, so that Michael could feel her voice in his lungs as she spoke, Bella said, “It’s funny, but do you remember that movie, with Schwarzenegger, where he carries the little girl in his arms?” “Sure, Commando. Who could forget.”
“I remember wishing he was my father. Somebody I could count on, who would protect me.” Michael still hadn’t met Bella’s real father and so had to approximate the contrast. They had been supposed to meet with him before leaving for the sea, but the meeting never took place. Bella put off calling him, and each time she remembered that she had to do it she would grow angry and declare that if he wanted to talk to her it wouldn’t kill him to call first. When he did call, a day before their departure, Bella accused him (to Michael) of wanting everything arranged on his terms and refused to see him, claiming to be busy. “He’s become so selfish!” she cried. “He wants to meet today because he’ll be in the neighborhood to pick up Ninka. He acts like it’s hard for him to make it over here but he’s just lazy and doesn’t want to spend the money on gas. I didn’t even tell him that we are renting a car because I know that’ll make him think I’ve got money. I do have some but only because I save it. And I don’t have very much. I’m sorry but I am not going to feel guilty for spending it on myself and not on him. When has he ever helped me when I needed it? He’s not spent a dime on me since I was a baby.” Sitting on the bed, a book closed on his finger to mark the page, Michael watched her, thinking of his own parents, who had just celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. They had paid for his private school, his car, his Ivy League college. And neither was it money given in place of love. The love was there. He knew this though no one in the family except his grandmother made much use of the word. His eyes on Bella as she talked, he wondered if the differences between them were not too great after all. It wasn’t clear how much of her anger Bella’s father actually deserved, though he knew that Bella had spent a good part of her childhood living with her grandparents. In any case, these kinds of tit-for-tat squabbles between family members were incomprehensible to him. All my life family has been an unconditional thing for me, he thought. Inviolable. I have never seen the other side of it. Probably, this is how much of the world lives and I just never knew it. The mood that had descended on him following the episode with Bella’s unresponsive friend returned. It did not lift until the next afternoon, when they were in the rental car, leaving the capital for the open space of the country. *
As they drew closer to it, Bella’s uneasiness over the fate of her favorite beach increased. One of the main reasons for going there was to escape the seaside crowds, but by the look of things along the rest of the coast that might no longer have been possible. There was a tourism and real estate boom on, and everywhere construction projects were in full swing. Every village they went through seemed to have a real estate office and at least a half-dozen houses for sale or in the process of being built. The resort areas were teeming with gaudy new hotels and condos. Bella would get pretty worked up about it. She deplored the ugliness of the hotels and the destruction of the natural beauty that was supposed to be the reason for their existence. She prayed for an earthquake or a tsunami to sweep them all into the sea. Their own destination was officially part of a wildlife refuge, yet that apparently meant little in this part of the world when large sums of money were involved. As if to give further proof of this, the European Union was threatening to withhold billions in aid to the country due to embezzlement and corruption concerns. They arrived at Bella's secret beach on the second morning of the trip, while the sun was still low. Save for the small blue shield right at the turn-off, there had been no advance signs pointing to the spot, and they had been alone on the road. These indications of continued obscurity were encouraging, but driving down the single-lane road leading to the water, they were able to see, across a field of waist-high brittle gold weeds, the tracts of cleared ground and idle bulldozers sitting around like toys in a sandbox. A billboard had been thrown up advertising the luxury condominiums-Here too they know what to call them, Michael thought--that would be going up there in the very near future. It was a pastoral image of alabaster façades with blazing red roofs enveloped in brilliant green foliage. Bella snorted in disgust at the sight of it. Walking onto the beach itself, she at first wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay. The thatch roof snack hut by the entrance made her groan, and then they saw the umbrellas. Four long rows of them dug into the sand, shading plastic lounge chairs, their straw tops like the hats of Asian peasants. In the best of times, Bella was against such manmade “conveniences,” and boycotted them. Now, their presence seemed to be more than she could stand. She said to
Michael, “Someone should burn them. As a statement.” Adding with a laugh, “We could even do it. No one would have a reason to suspect us. And we’d be going back to the States soon anyway.” Michael chuckled, though he felt tense. Having to continually anticipate Bella’s mood swings was hard on the nerves. Nevertheless, her idea caught his imagination. There was a kind of Robin Hood flair to it. He had a clear vision of the fire blazing hugely up against the night’s blackness, instantaneous and complete as a gas flame. Bella was convinced, and it was not improbable, that many of the seaside construction projects were mafia-financed. Against the men behind them, neither public protests nor government regulations did much good. And so different methods were perhaps called for. There was a lighter in his backpack. Mentally, Michael tested Bella’s assertion that they’d easily get away with it. The cops here weren’t paid enough to give a damn—a stereotype, he admitted, and probably wrong. Still, they might blame it on some local kids, the usual troublemakers, before they thought of looking at the tourists. With a sudden stab of fearful excitement, he perceived that it could actually be done. . . They had to go a good distance past the umbrellas before Bella would lay down her towel. But once she’d felt the seawater again she began to cheer up, and was soon talking of having boiled corn of the kind they used to sell on the streets when she was a girl, and discussing with Michael the lodging situation by the beach. She was hoping they’d be able to stay at one of the old summer camp cabins, which she thought might now be for rent. In an effort keep up her spirits, Michael went to take a look at them later that afternoon, despite some misgivings about how he’d communicate with the cabin owners if he found them. In such an out-of-the-way place, they might not have spoken English. And since it was no longer mandatory, few people bothered to study Russian. Michael didn’t blame them, either. The sooner they put their Eastern Bloc days behind them the better. The thought brought back to him his encounter with Giorgiev. Michael was still a little proud of how he’d handled him. The super spoke Russian of course, but that had anyhow been an emergency situation, where such concerns as language barriers had to be brushed aside. Though in the end the entire struggle turned out to have been unnecessary. Giorgiev had produced the key as promised, sanctimoniously refusing the money Michael offered him in
thanks. He even invited Michael into his apartment, which, with its furniture—the dark wood sideboards and dusty shapeless couches and Soviet make television—was a sort of time capsule from around 1975. But when Bella called the phone company to get the line upgrade, they did the whole thing remotely. The phone box didn’t have to be touched. The super’s key lay unused on a shelf by Bella’s front door. Michael returned it to him after what he thought was an adequate interval.
According to Bella, the summer camp cabins weren’t far from where they left the car. The last time she had stayed in there, the camp was still known as a pioneer camp, after the Soviet fashion. Though likely the naming convention didn’t much bother her then. Happy to be out of school, she’d hiked along the shoulderless roads and stayed in the water all day like a fish. She had told Michael how at thirteen she was kissed by an eighteen-year-old lifeguard whom she thought terribly handsome, and ran away, mortified. She’d not stopped regretting it since. As for the lifeguard, he’d probably thought she was sixteen. A tall, striking, confident-seeming girl, Bella said she had always given the impression of being a few years older than she was. Pictures of her as a teenager confirmed this. Seeing them, seeing the lovely clean lines of her face—which indeed appeared little changed—Michael wished he had known her then. He was able to locate the old cabins without much trouble. Discovering whether they were for rent proved more difficult, however. Tramping back and forth in front of them a few times, he saw no sign of a rental office and no one he could ask to point him to it. Oppressed by the heat and silence, he soon gave up the search and went back down to the beach. On the way, he got himself a bottle of cherry juice and a cup of tea for Bella. When he got back, Bella was napping, a straw cowboy hat which she’s brought with her from the US covering her face. For a moment he stood still, watching her. Her long body. Her city tan didn’t show and her skin still looked light, defenseless. Michael followed the smooth, sea floor descent from the height of the ribcage to the depths of the belly. A beautiful form. But anonymous. He lifted up the hat to see her face, and woke her.
Debriefing him on the cabin assignment, Bella was not satisfied. “What use are you?” she asked when it became clear he knew nothing definite save the cabins’ color and location. He partially redeemed himself with the tea, however. “I take it back,” Bella said, grinning. “You’re not just useful. You’re the best boyfriend ever.” Sighing as she lay back down, “I am really glad you are with me.” Sensing in this another half-conscious attempt at blackmail, Michael said nothing. He was thinking of a couple he had noticed sunbathing by the beach entrance. The man, big as a whale, lay spread-eagle on his back as if he just threw himself down onto a feather bed. His outer thighs red with sunburn, the belly rising up like one of the Thracian burial mounds that still dotted the country’s plains. Next to him, his much thinner companion lay on her stomach. An attractive wide face, long hair bleached blond, huge all-black sunglasses. She was looking off into the distance, her expression unreadable behind the big shades. This sort of pairing was far from unusual here. Bella thought the phenomenon disgusting, yet she admitted that she sometimes wished she could bring herself to go for a sugar daddy. It would have made life easier. “Why aren’t you rich?” she sometimes demanded of Michael, poking him in the ribs. She said it as a joke, and he usually just smiled ruefully in reply. If she only knew just how un-rich I am right now, he thought. Certainly Bella understood that he was in something of a tight spot, but the full extent of his financial troubles Michael had kept from her. Knowing it would have only frightened her and made life more difficult for both of them. Though if she had known, she might not have been so insistent on him coming to see her. He had once tried to hint that it might not be possible, but saw that it would hurt her feelings if he didn’t come. Without the excuse of insolvency, it would have provided her with further proof that, as she often asserted with a tragicomic air, he didn’t miss her as much as she missed him. Whether or not this was so, Michael himself could not say. He did seem to bear their separations with greater equanimity. But maybe that’s because I’m confident the separation is only temporary, he considered. If it wasn't, in the long run I am not sure which one of us would have it worse.
Bella was still curious about the cabins, and eventually they went back together, plodding past the straw-topped umbrellas and the untroubled beachgoers reposing in their shade. Bella was able to track down the manager, a toughlooking woman who lived with her family in a long low structure behind the cabin compound. Showing them their room, which was now as neat and full of amenities as a standard American motel room (with, however, a peculiar, brackish smell in the restroom), the manager claimed it was the last one she had left. Invigorated by their success, Bella then wanted to go to town for boiled corn. Michael went along with this in the interest of preserving her fine mood, though his heart had been set on consuming the giant watermelon theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d bought that morning from one of the side-of-the-road fruit vendors. Thinking of his reluctance later on, and forgetting its connection with the watermelon, he would be struck by its prophetic quality. In town, which was overrun by German and Russian tourists, he struggled to keep up as Bella wove rapidly through the sunburned crowd. For a while they didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t see any corn, and she began to show signs of exasperation. Michael feared an explosion, for Bella often took it hard when her prandial expectations were disappointed. But her good humor held up long enough for the corn to be found. A woman with a mournful face was selling it near the town square out of a large pot set on a small foldable table. Michael noted that the woman must once have been quite attractive, but now kinky white hairs grew conspicuously on her chin. With mournful eyes she watched Bella, handsome, tall and smooth-skinned, and already a shade darker than she was that morning, salting the ears generously out of a plastic shaker. They ate sitting on a bench facing a church, a modest stone house with a pitched roof. A plump, enterprising fellow had set up a little business renting out miniature SUVs and sports cars in the church courtyard, and small children trundled about in these on the dusty flagstones. Sitting somewhat hunched, her attention on the meal, Bella cleaned her corn with great thoroughness, sucking the juice from the closely sheared cob. Though normally quick to get irritated by eating noises, Michael found the scene endearing. He imagined that for Bella this eating method dated back to when corn was a treat no bit of which could be wasted. When she began to eye his own half-gnawed corncob, he gave it up willingly. While she ate, he watched the throngs of red-tinted tourists wandering with kids in tow past the souvenir stands
lining the sidewalks. Local teenage girls with dyed hair and bare bellies were selling magazines, postcards, CDs, sunglasses. Michael sized up their leggy curveless shapes with interest. They had some difficulties getting back out of town. The narrow streets were packed, and they had to crawl cautiously through the flowing crowd, watching for errant children and motor scooters. At the edge of town a black Mercedes SUV pulled up behind them and stayed on their tail, its high grille filling the rearview and its motor revving impatiently. Here, perhaps, was one of the brutal masterminds of all the seaside development they had witnessed. Michael, for his part, had more or less gotten used to this sort of thing in the short time he’d been driving on the country’s roads. Bella, though, was unnerved. “What does he want,” she muttered plaintively, twisting around in her seat. “Get away from us, you cretin!” Happy to oblige, the Mercedes tore past them once they got out on the coastal highway. “Can’t you take it easy?” Michael said, himself a little shaky. Dusk was settling on the sea as they followed the undulant road back to the beach. At a distance, the blue-black surface of the water looked perfectly still, and the sea and sky were close to becoming indistinguishable. On the radio they heard it confirmed that the EU would be freezing its transfer of aid money to the country, its warnings of corrupt dealings having fallen on deaf ears. Saying she couldn’t bear to listen, Bella changed the station to pop music. But that too was interrupted by news reports and she switched the radio off. Michael, feeling that something had to be said, tried to put the situation in perspective. He spoke of the afflictions the country had endured—purges, autocracy, political and economic upheavals, mass emigration—but of the inevitable if gradual improvements that would come with time. “Perhaps in a generation—” he was saying, when Bella cut him off. “I know everything you’re telling me,” she said. “But I don’t want to talk about this any more. It’s giving me a headache. Please. I can’t stand it.” A few minutes later Michael realized that she was crying. “This country,” she sobbed. “This country. Every time I come back it gets worse.”
When they got to the cabin she went quickly inside. Michael sat at the picnic table out front, trying to read under the weak orange light of a lamp attached to an awning post, the night deepening around him. Once, he thought he heard Bella crying again. Closing the book, he sat still for a time, listening to the darkness. Crickets were fiddling. The ceaseless, distant whispery rumble of the sea was there. Now and then a coyote howled in the hills. Standing abruptly, he stepped through the bead curtain into the room, intending to say something, but saw that Bella was asleep. She lay face down on top of the covers, still wearing her fleece vest and white capris. Michael observed her briefly. Then he went to where his backpack lay on the floor, bent down to rummage in it, and went out again, closing the door quietly behind him. It was a short walk down to the beach. Michael felt his mind to be calm and clear, but his heart beat rapidly. Automatically stepping out of his sandals on reaching the sand, he was mildly shocked by its coolness. It had burned his feet in the afternoon. The sound of the sea seemed louder now than during the day. The tide coming in? Michael was vague on how the process manifested itself aside from the water rising. He wasn’t really a man of the sea. Though its strange power was not entirely lost on him. Those endless, regular, indolent, insentient, futile yet unstoppable blows. He could see where, after the breakers hit, the black water slid along the smooth slope of wet sand like warm oil on a pan. Nearer, the shapes of the umbrellas in their geometric arrangement were drawn in chiaroscuro. Their tops resembled witches’ hats also, Michael realized, with their elongated, curving, pointed tips. From the far end of the beach came the yellow twinkle of a campers’ bonfire. It meant they too would be able to see a flame at this distance. Michael’s mind was working with great speed and lucidity. We all look for what we need most, he thought. Bella’s need wasn’t money, that’s why she chose me. Then he thought, When another’s suffering so far exceeds your own you are under an obligation to help share the load. I know the help I offer will cost me something too, but I am certain the net change will be toward happiness.
He held up the lighter. It felt flimsy yet potent in his hand. The helpless, he put it to himself, sometimes had to resort to desperate means. Spinning the wheel a few times with his thumb, he watched the flinty sparks spring forth like tiny fireworks until the flame arose at the steel aperture: an orange spear point with a blue base, then a bright streamer desperately fighting extinguishment, then nothing—his thumb off the plastic pedal, the fire-giving liquid sloshing harmlessly in the translucent tank. He did it again, letting the flame burn longer, feeling its heat, watching it flow pulsing upward, making him blind to all else around him while his heart beat profoundly, deeply, quickly, hollowly in his chest. * Back at the cabin, Bella still slept. Michael sat on the closer of the empty beds, watching her. The lighter he laid on the nightstand. For a minute, back at the beach, he had considered tossing it into the sea, but then thought of how upset Bella got over beach litter and put it back in his pocket. Anyway, you never knew when a lighter might come in handy. He had started no fires in the end. On the beach, the umbrellas stood unharmed. Pulling off his sweatdampened shirt, Michael thought, I’m not the guy to revive the People’s Will. I lack the proper revolutionary zeal. I’ve seen my share of Rambo movies, but when it comes to the point I just don’t have it in me to destroy. In the dim light of the ceiling fixture he looked at Bella across the few feet of tile floor that separated them. The posture of her repose was childlike, the head turned to the side and arms up. At the temple, some unruly, wavy wisps of hair stuck up. The exposed cheek was a little puffy with sleep. All this stirred him. Awoke a familiar tenderness. Moved by a sudden impulse, he reached for his notebook and began to quickly sketch her form. Bella lifted her head. Her other cheek was marked pink by the folds of the blanket. Her lids fluttered, struggling against the confusion of dreams. “Did you go somewhere?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep. She was already lying back down. “Just stepped outside for a minute to get some fresh air,” he said. “But now I’m back. Don’t worry. Go back to sleep, babe.
Love Letter to Lady Lazarus Kayla Miller ____________________________
Stepping into the funneled air of the oncoming subway train, the woman thought mainly of her shoes. Funny thing, shoes. The way they carry us, without judgement. The way our oxfords or slippers or stilettos know the intimate places we take them, places perhaps unknown to all others. Accompanying us as we tread through our secrets. She was purposefully not thinking of the night before. Or the night prior to that one. But still, the soft stink of sweat and body fluids clung to her hair. She could catch it, just barely, if she turned her head quickly, smelling the ruptured air after her curls had rearranged its atoms. Instead, she cast furtive looks to her fellow subway goers as she boarded the train, her commuting comrades, releasing a line and searching for any possible takers. Painfully aware of every retina attuned to her, the woman chose the tooth decay-yellow seat furthest from another passenger. In the quiet of the early morning, there were few others on this, the first train of the day. The woman was becoming accustomed to zipping through the belly of her raucous city in the fuzzy light of predawn, the dampness of the air sticking to her skin as she descended stair after stair into the labyrinthine underground world of public transport, always sure to watch each step, her heels or boots or sandals clicking on the pavement, a lullaby increasingly lulling to her, this ritual, the infinite novelty of leaving the strange bedclothes of stranger men. At once she hoped to be unnoticed and noticed by the other passengers. She wanted to be invisible and to be glowing, a shimmering iridescence, like that wavy air over hot hot blacktop. She picked her cuticles as she scanned their faces, hoping and not hoping to make eye contact. She smiled at a tired-looking Hispanic man, the heaviness of his lids apparent even at this distance, even under the tatters of his baseball cap. Two black women conversed across the train, sitting next to one another, their shoulders touching and their hands gesticulating, a skit of normalcy and comfort and closeness and ease with another human being our woman could not fathom, and she watched them as if watching television, seeing but not believing their friendship.
A businessman punched digits into his electronic equipment without blinking, with eyes that did not stray and rove over the rest of them, and certainly did not make eye contact with the woman. This was both a victory and a defeat, victorious in her need to be unobtrusive, defeated by the fact that she wasn’t attractive enough to attract his attention. The conductor’s voice purred from the audio equipment above. At least, the woman thought it a kind of purr, a catlike allure to his voice, and she wondered how he looked, and she wondered whether he went home to a house lit and warm with life, and she wondered if he spent nights with lotion and porn or making love to his wife. The brief crackle before his speech seemed a spell, some kind of statically charged hypnosis, and our woman licked her lips, imagining running the heat of her tongue over the tiny holes of the speaker box. Stops clicked by. The woman studied her windowed reflection surreptitiously, lost in the blackness of underground tunnels, eyes crawling over her freckled skin, pouting lips. This early, there were few others shuffling in and out of train’s recycled air, few opportunities for the electricity of locked eyes. Most stops were deserted, or perhaps enlivened by small clusters of human beings, night workers and vagabonds. No one talked much. Later in the day, this train would be filled with all types: groups of petite and smiling Asians whose uninterrupted stream of giggles would make all others feel left out, backpackers who would unsuccessfully try to keep their burdens from bumping into fellow passengers, panhandlers with outstretched fingers and notes of wretchedness in their voices, businesswomen in black pencil skirts checking their lipstick between stops. She felt him somehow hers. When she first saw him, he was sitting alone on a concrete bench, hands folded and staring at his feet as he waited for the train. The sole occupant of a vast platform, a boy no more than eight- or nineyears-old, and small, so small, his translucent legs dangling inches from the ground. He waited until the train came to a complete stop before moving towards her compartment. He sat directly across from the nervous-looking woman, in the seats reserved for elderly passengers, facing our woman but never looking up, his toy blonde head fixed on his shoes. The subway rides home after nights spent soliciting were usually the worst. That long stretch of minutes, suspended above magnetic rails and trapped like rats, the nakedness of seeing other people preoccupy themselves, or slump in exhaustion, or bite their fingernails. The woman hated this, this part of it. She loved the feel of substances in her
system, she loved the magnetic pull of hips and eyelashes, she loved shedding the ill-fitting pelt of her cheap getups and the scratchiness of the sheets she left in the dark. It was this part, though, the ride back to her shitty apartment, the thick air of the subway and the old smells of shit and food, the stink of unwashed humans and dilapidation. She hated this. She watched the boy with an unprecedented sense of ownership, a maternal and protective intuition foreign to her. She’d always felt a disdain for children, generally deigning to be in their presence, but there was something in the stoic posture of his dwarf body. His composure, almost a resignation. Like an old man. Our woman observed him as he studied the floor, and the next stop, which had been hers, clicked by. One stop over meant a longer walk home, but that was fine by her anyway. She exited the train with her scarf parachuting in the whooshed air of parting doors, and put her sunglasses on before she made it back to daylight, back to a Sunday she planned to sleep off. Tuesday meant groceries, staples only, since everything was so fucking expensive in this city. Peak commuter hours meant close bodies and noise, and the woman was grateful as she crossed the threshold, holding the gaze of a middle-aged man as the wind from the subway doors pushed her hair back. He rose and left, winking, and she looked away, sliding into his seat, a guilty church parishioner delighting in confession. Rush hour: the hustle of bodies, jean-clad and sweatered, laughing loudly, heads bobbing to music, eyes attuned to books. Subway dynamics were markedly different from the interactions of those not subterranean, the shared confinement of strangers creating a fleeting kind of kinship, a camaraderie amongst noncomrades. When she’d been on the train long enough to enter a kind of dreamlike fugue, the woman noticed the bright blonde head of the same boy among the throng of incoming passengers, one stop before her own. In the seat facing her, an obese woman rose with a swift exhalation of air. Quietly, the boy took her seat, across from our woman, his eyes affixed to his dainty fingers, clasping and unclasping them, and she watched his well manicured fingernails with a fragment of contempt. As again her stop passed, the woman watched the boy pull a sandwich baggie full of little toys
from the pocket of his khakis. The bag was not knotted shut, but twisted tight, and the woman watched as he clipped the top and allowed the bag rotate, unwinding itself. He opened the bag, his birdlike wrists held aloft. Small noises floated to her ears. The woman glanced around the fullness of the train, but not one other passenger had noticed her boy, their eyes sliding over her own face as if on tracks. No one looked at him at all, as if some reverse gravitation compelled their irises elsewhere. Our woman watched his small hands pick through the mumbling bag of toys. Quickly, she tried to remember if anyone had seemed to take in the boy Sunday morning, if the early eyes of any of those humans had found him. Had they? The bag’s rustle, what was first a low murmur, became a steady buzz. Slowly, the bag’s low notes graded into distinguishable sounds, or at least what she perceived to be distinguishable sounds; she seemed to hear the trumpet of an elephant, low, very quiet, like a television tuned to just-above silent. It was difficult to pick the sounds apart within the noise of the commuter train, but perhaps a low roar? The child did not look up, but continued to shift through the bag’s contents. Finally selecting one of the small toys, he plucked it up and raised it to his lips, as if to kiss it, slowly. While between his undersized fingers, our woman heard the little figure screech, a high-pitched repetitive noise, a toy crying thing. Her eyes sharpened, and she saw the sleekness of the thing, with a tail and minuscule fins, a bottle nose, and shiny, so shiny, and its mouth opened and closed, and the tiny white dots of caricature teeth were housed within. A very small, very much alive dolphin squeaked in this boy’s grasp. The woman stopped breathing. The micro sea creature, it flailed and moved about, wriggling like a doomed, hooked worm. With irises fixed and small pinprick pupils, her boy popped this magicked animal into his mouth like candy. Consistent with the movement of his jaws, the woman heard a faint crackcrackcrack, the pinky-length spine of the dolphin crunching. He chewed with his mouth open, blood slipping in the dark corners of that hot hole, pooling at the sides and waxing between the boxed ivory stones of his teeth. A thread of blood escaped the corner of thin pink lips, and the boy’s fingers quickly wiped, no, scooped the blood, corralled it back to the confines of hungry mouth.
Feeling the rubbery give of waterproof skin, the bouncy and buoyant taste of saltwater trapped in muscles and sinew, the woman felt a simultaneous revulsion and gravitational pull, the writhe of her innards both disgust and thrill. Eventually, purposefully, he swallowed. She felt a lump rise in her own throat. The strong taste of bile on the tongue. His hands twitched, and an itch rose within the pads of our woman’s fingertips, the need to scratch and claw suddenly strong underneath her nails. The next stop was miles from her apartment, but she found herself pushing into strangers, a kind of panic filling her, a buzzing in the ears as she exited the train and fast-walked out of the station, leaving her staples behind. Our woman daringly entertained thoughts of the slight boy during quiet moments in the remainder of her work week. Though she felt entranced by what she’d seen, the woman didn’t mention the boy or his bag of animals to the men she talked to when she went out, hoping to allure yet another stranger; scripted conversations: a formality, really. The woman’s routine didn’t vary in its wake, and she’d convinced herself it was a nightmare she’d had, was convinced it wasn’t possible, what she’d seen, that there wasn’t a way the rest of the train hadn’t reacted, and she’d fallen asleep, she’d been tired from lugging groceries around and fell asleep. The woman thought that, in the dream, she would have liked to believe the animals, not animals, but robots, some kind of miniature automatons. But she’d seen the blood, and heard the snap of bone. She was thinking of this nightmare when the boy boarded the subway again, the next Sunday, a week after their first meeting. Another predawn morning, the soft part of touching lips, then a wall of cold air as the woman left a new apartment and descended the subway steps. The stop before hers, instinctively she looked out the window, locking eyes with the boy expectantly. This first train of the day, his platform was desolate, his red-vested body a short line of color in the gray of concrete upon concrete. He boarded and sat across from her; she forced her gaze elsewhere, anxiety making her sweat, she could smell herself. She felt, rather than heard, him rumble in his pockets, small fingers searching for what she knew to be a plastic baggie, and she looked, without really meaning to.
Easily, this time, she heard the noises of the animals. Various pitched screams, the caw of birds, the hiss of snakes. Our woman’s head jerked furiously from left to right, there were two other passengers, everything had been silent, but her comrades continued to doze, and seemed listless, half-asleep, staring out black windows.
The boy’s fingers rifled through his zoo like marbles. He selected something, pulled it from the bag, she knew it was intentional, the hesitation in his movements, and she heard the elephant first, she heard it’s trumpeted agitation, and her eyes found its impeccable ivory tusks, the length of her pinky nail. The whole perfect thing was no bigger than a large coin. The boy ate the animal in a more fluid motion this time, less muss and fuss in the crunching of elephant bone than in the chewiness of the dolphin’s skin. But oh, so much louder. Each movement of the fair boy’s jaws rang through her. Electrified her. He gulped once, and his small eyes, which had been glued to the baggie’s contents, locked with hers. His hands, holding both sides of that tiny circus, rose and outstretched, and he was reaching out to her, and she couldn’t think, the world seemed a loud sharp pang of sound and light and a ringing in her ears, the woman couldn’t think because she didn’t know what to think, how to react to this, this child, to what appeared to be an offer.
Our woman leaned forward, bridging the gap between them with one long arm. The growls and cries of individual creatures became louder as she stuck a tentative hand into the plastic opening, her fingers closing about a fluttering shape she hadn’t seen from her seat. She pulled her hand back as if burned when she felt its hysteric presence inside her cupped palm; though she didn’t let go, she broke the boy’s gaze to stare at her limb like a foreigner. Our woman felt the miniature body frenzied in her hand, and she remembered catching fireflies in the thick dark heat of her childhood. Slowly she brought both hands together, making a small enclosure, peeking through her thumbs at the little alive thing she’d chosen.
It was an owl. A perfect owl, with eraser-length bristles of undersized eyebrows over its golden eyes. She felt little pricks of talons when it landed on her palm or fingers, though mostly it fluttered about, terrified within this new enclosure; sure, the woman sensed, of its fate. The conductor announced an upcoming exit, his voice a bread-crumb trail back to the woman she had been minutes before. He said a name she’d heard in the mouths of friends, a part of the city unfamiliar. She stood up abruptly. She felt self conscious, she didn’t know how to hold her body, or what to do with her cupped hand. First she held it at her chest, then let it hang limp against her side. With her free hand she held onto the subway rail with a slick, whiteknuckled grip. She didn’t look at the boy, though she felt his eyes on her. Our woman left the station at a near run, the owl going wild in her hand. She moved through the streets as if underwater: slow, deliberate strides and a look of discomforted awe. She waded into a jewelry store with a glass-walled storefront, strange and glittering pieces on display. Feeling nervous, sure that she appeared suspect, she looked through the store’s boxed glass, the shining items inviting and calming, and her eyes followed the glint of a gold necklace. The woman’s eyes flitted to the nearest attendant and purchased the necklace in breathy tones, asking to be shown the bathroom after the salesperson folded her receipt, one hand confining the small owl, occasionally hooting at a near silent volume. After locking and re-locking the bathroom stall, the woman looped the long chain of the necklace around her, a delicate and ornate miniature birdcage suspended between her breasts. Her free hand fingered the latch, opened the golden dome from a hinged side, the top separated from the bottom like the gaping mouths of plastic Easter eggs. Trembling slightly, she put the minuscule owl in the cage and clicked it closed. She left the store with her breathing erratic, and the woman’s heart beat a new rhythm. The owl flew from corner to corner of its gilded home, and she was glad of the company. where you are now
Because I was still bummed out about Jean Luc, I didn’t pay attention to the zombies. It had been a month since I found out he was dating someone else. That means when we went down to Queen St. and ordered chips at the Belgian beer garden, he wasn’t going to be mine no matter how many beers I bought him that night, no matter how I tried to use my Americanness as a factor to up my worth— like dropping in Idaho or baseball into the conversation even when it didn’t fit. That guy’s mole looks like the state of Idaho. He was so beautiful and lean that I should’ve known that there was a catch when he came back to my flat and we had sex. I’m talking walking-around-Florence-looking-at-the-bodies-of-all-the-men-in-those-statues beautiful. But if I got to do it over again, I would still do it. The sort of guy you fuck just to say you did. Maybe that’s what bothers me the most: I did it and now I can’t anymore. Like I know what physical human perfection is and everything else bores me. I told myself to get over him, that this is New Zealand! I told myself you’re twenty, you can drink legally here. Most guys find you incredibly sexy. Everyone wants to be where you are now. But I couldn’t snap out of it the way you know you’re dreaming and on the cusp of waking up— but can’t bring your eyes to open. So I went to the South Island, saw the majestic scenery, and it made me think of Jean Luc’s chest. Looking out from a fjord with nothing between Antarctica and your face makes you feel like you’ve ruined everything in this life if there’s no one to turn to and say can you believe how amazing that is? I mean he’s Belgian and spoke with a French accent; Antarctica is the largest desert on earth, which means it’s only a wasteland. I told my mom this hoping she’d be sympathetic, and she said perhaps I should try changing my study abroad to Israel, as if you could just switch countries like that, like this was going from pb&j to egg salad. I told her that’s not how it works and, besides, I’m super pro-Palestinian; she hung up. I’m sure somewhere in me I’m upset about that too because I haven’t spoken to her since, but right now I only care about Jean Luc. Today, I’m thinking about how his skin smelled like switch grass. I don’t even know what switch grass is. And that’s why I didn’t care about the zombies. Some French submarine sneaked into the harbor against the country’s no nuclear materials laws. Long story short, it tore against the sea shelf and the thing exploded. There was
fallout or something. I haven’t really paid much attention to it on the news, and the science seems sketchy to me, but somehow that made the zombies. Because the Symonds St. Cemetery is a block away from my flat, this should’ve been important, but I live on the twenty-fourth floor and the elevators in my building are key card-activated. I know from movies that zombies are slow, and they don’t like stairs because they don’t have much knee movement with the whole locked joints issue. Plus, pacifism or not, it’s not like the country was going to let the zombies just eat people’s brains. The gun shots kept me up all night the first time. I can understand how zombie attacks are rare in the sense that they’re not common, so it’s not as if most cities have contingency plans to deal with that kind of situation, but after five minutes of shooting and seeing nothing is happening as those dead guys continue to stumble toward you, you’d think they’d learn to save their bullets. Instead, they brought bigger guns, then bombs. On day three of the invasion one of the soldiers got trigger-happy and blew up the Grafton St. Bridge. I wanted to yell from my window that zombies are obviously already dead, so shooting them wouldn’t do anything, but I didn’t. I put my headphones on and listened to Fiona Apple while attempting to write a paper on the country’s commercial appropriation of Maori culture. Eventually then squad tasked with killing the zombies learned this direct attack thing wasn’t going to work, and the city held this big meeting that I didn’t go to about ways to defeat the zombies. Instead I masturbated to the mental image I had of Jean Luc in my shower. I’ve never washed the towel I lent him. I only heard about it later on breaking news interrupting a delayed airing of The Amazing Race that the idea chosen was to round up the zombies and transport them to the South Island, where hardly anyone lives outside of Christchurch. I don’t hear complaints about the plan, so I’m assuming that worked. But eight days after the zombies first rose, new zombies came. Only this time they were from the Jewish cemetery. The Symonds St. Cemetery is divided into five sections: the Jewish one is on the northeast corner. It’s the smallest of them by far, and you’d only know it was different when you passed it pre-zombie apocalypse because the gravestones are written in Hebrew.
This is where I come in. So panic sets in about these news zombies at first, but then it dies down. The National Guard or whatever New Zealand calls their guys is dispatched to battle and contain the Jewish zombies, but when they arrive they notice the Jewish zombies don’t leave the cemetery. They just stand there. The troops stare and take pictures with their phones that they then post on the internet. Suddenly, people all over want to see the Jewish zombies. Everyone goes. And that’s fine because these zombies don’t paw for the spectators’ brains. They just stand there. It’s like some zoo exhibit with boring, smelly animals. But one day I’m feeling particularly down and want to forget Jean Luc because it would’ve been our two-month anniversary, so I decide to see the Jewish zombies. I leave in the morning, but the crowd is big, so I don’t push my way to the front until early afternoon. The locals are flashing their cameras as if they’re tourists while the tourists are at the Sky Tower bungee jumping because they saw the Jewish zombies yesterday. One of the Jewish zombies looks at me. He has a thick beard that is ruined with dirt. There are worms in it. He signals the others. They all nod, then walk over to me. At this point people are panicking because the Jewish zombies are finally doing something. Truth is I want to get away, but so many people are pushing into me so they can see that I can’t. I’m stuck. I’m about to get my brain eaten, and I blame Jean Luc in my head. But that makes me smile because I always smile when I think of him, and this makes my impending death seem stupid. The bearded zombie comes close, and he smells like what I think the holocaust would smell like if it were a perfume. He stares and everyone around me is screaming, but they’re too drawn in to move either. At first I don’t hear him, but I see his mouth move, so I yell for everyone to shut up. For some reason they do. I can’t explain why that moment of crowd shushing seems more incredible than the zombies, but it does. When he repeats himself so that we all can hear, someone calls out he’s speaking zombie. But it’s not; it’s Yiddish. Why I speak Yiddish is because my mom is old world, back when Jews wouldn’t speak Hebrew because it was a sacred language. I forget what changed and made it unsacred, but I think it was Israel. These zombies were buried starting in 1854, so I guess they never got the memo. My mom would talk on the phone in Yiddish when she didn’t want to me to hear her gossip about the neighbors, but that’s how I learned it as a kid.
The zombie said he and his people were hungry. I asked him why he wasn’t eating brains like the other zombies, and he gave me this look as if I were the zombie. In Yiddish, he told me it’s because people’s brains aren’t kosher. That made sense. I didn’t want to be the liaison for the Jewish zombies, but they were no Jews in Auckland who spoke Yiddish, and even though I stopped believing in god a long time ago, I was the best thing going for them. The mayor heard about me talking to them, and suddenly I’m given this position that comes with business cards, like I could hand them out at bars to guys— but the number on there isn’t my personal line, so it wouldn’t work. The gig even has money, which I couldn’t accept because my student visa status doesn’t let me work. When the mayor found out the Jewish zombies posed no threat to people, she wanted to know how she could keep them happy. The Jewish zombies were a tourist goldmine because who else had zombies, specifically Jewish ones, who didn’t try to eat your brains? I told her to feed them. I gave her a list of kosher animals, which included sheep. Lamb’s brain is kosher, and there are four of them to every human brain in the country. It was a compromise the Jewish zombies and public were happy with. After the Jewish zombies ate, they regained their strength and moved about freely. They asked, politely, to be let out of the cemetery, and the mayor said O.K.— as long as they didn’t attack anyone. Simple as that. In fact, they were so far from that rampaging zombie stereotype that they went to temple to pray because it was Friday night. They became doctors and sent their zombie children to study to be lawyers at the university. Everyone was happy with the situation but me. The Jewish zombies visited me frequently because I was the first one to trust them, and that meant something to them. They’d come and cook me dinner and ask me about the new world. I told them about the sad stuff. I told them about the good stuff. When they heard about Israel and I asked if they wanted to go, they shook their heads and said it wasn’t right for them to set foot on that sacred land in their condition. If I were a Jewish zombie, I’d at least want to see what all the fuss about that wall is about. Sometimes the Jewish zombie mothers would ask me if I were seeing anyone, and it made me miss Jean Luc, but I never mentioned I slept with him because we’re talking very religious Jewish zombies here, and premarital sex with
a goy would break their hearts. Once they asked about my family, and when I told them what happened between my mom and me, they said I wasn’t being respectful. The chief rabbi Jewish zombie went on about the fifth commandment, and the other Jewish Zombies in my living room nodded their stiff heads in agreement, which dropped dirt on the carpet. After that I stopped seeing the Jewish zombies in my apartment. It wasn’t a big deal because several Yiddish schools had opened up—other people wanted to learn to talk to them. The mayor also flew in a guy from Poland to teach Yiddish at the university, which became the most popular major after communication studies, psychology, and business. With that, no one needed me anymore, and the semester was ending anyways. I think about the stuff I could’ve asked the Jewish zombies while they sat in my apartment and practiced the capitals of the states in America that weren’t even states while they were alive. Like what happens when we die? But I don’t think I want to know that because now I know we can come back from wherever it is we do end up. That gives me hope. But I also don’t think about them much because being the Jewish zombie liaison took up a lot of my time, and I had three essays due by the end of the semester I had neglected amidst my depression and duties. After all, I came to New Zealand for school. The winter rains were starting, and everything was ready to go gray and die, which meant back in the U.S. summer was coming. I received calls, including ones from Oprah and the Vice President. They all knew about me. I even had book deals for books I didn’t have to write, just say that I did. A new life with people I didn’t know was waiting to meet me. And if so many people that far away knew, there’s no way Jean Luc didn’t. Even though I came from America and it always seemed boring, now, when I heard Idaho, it felt new, like I was coming back to a world that moved on without me. By that point I was ready to go home.
where you are now by Robby Nadler Because I was still bummed out about Jean Luc, I didn’t pay attention to the zombies. It had been a month since I found out he was dating someone else. That means when we went down to Queen St. and ordered chips at the Belgian beer garden, he wasn’t going to be mine no matter how many beers I bought him that night, no matter how I tried to use my Americanness as a factor to up my worth— like dropping in Idaho or baseball into the conversation even when it didn’t fit. That guy’s mole looks like the state of Idaho. He was so beautiful and lean that I should’ve known that there was a catch when he came back to my flat and we had sex. I’m talking walking-around-Florence-looking-at-the-bodies-of-all-themen-in-those-statues beautiful. But if I got to do it over again, I would still do it. The sort of guy you fuck just to say you did. Maybe that’s what bothers me the most: I did it and now I can’t anymore. Like I know what physical human perfection is and everything else bores me. I told myself to get over him, that this is New Zealand! I told myself you’re twenty, you can drink legally here. Most guys find you incredibly sexy. Everyone wants to be where you are now. But I couldn’t snap out of it the way you know you’re dreaming and on the cusp of waking up— but can’t bring your eyes to open. So I went to the South Island, saw the majestic scenery, and it made me think of Jean Luc’s chest. Looking out from a fjord with nothing between Antarctica and your face makes you feel like you’ve ruined everything in this life if there’s no one to turn to and say
can you believe how amazing that is? I mean he’s Belgian and spoke with a French accent; Antarctica is the largest desert on earth, which means it’s only a wasteland. I told my mom this hoping she’d be sympathetic, and she said perhaps I should try changing my study abroad to Israel, as if you could just switch countries like that, like this was going from pb&j to egg salad. I told her that’s not how it works and, besides, I’m super pro-Palestinian; she hung up. I’m sure somewhere in me I’m upset about that too because I haven’t spoken to her since, but right now I only care about Jean Luc. Today, I’m thinking about how his skin smelled like switch grass. I don’t even know what switch grass is. And that’s why I didn’t care about the zombies. Some French submarine sneaked into the harbor against the country’s no nuclear materials laws. Long story short, it tore against the sea shelf and the thing exploded. There was fallout or something. I haven’t really paid much attention to it on the news, and the science seems sketchy to me, but somehow that made the zombies. Because the Symonds St. Cemetery is a block away from my flat, this should’ve been important, but I live on the twenty-fourth floor and the elevators in my building are key cardactivated. I know from movies that zombies are slow, and they don’t like stairs because they don’t have much knee movement with the whole locked joints issue. Plus, pacifism or not, it’s not like the country was going to let the zombies just eat people’s brains. The gun shots kept me up all night the first time. I can understand how zombie attacks are rare in the sense that they’re not common, so it’s not as if most cities have contingency plans to deal with that kind of situation, but after five minutes
of shooting and seeing nothing is happening as those dead guys continue to stumble toward you, you’d think they’d learn to save their bullets. Instead, they brought bigger guns, then bombs. On day three of the invasion one of the soldiers got trigger-happy and blew up the Grafton St. Bridge. I wanted to yell from my window that zombies are obviously already dead, so shooting them wouldn’t do anything, but I didn’t. I put my headphones on and listened to Fiona Apple while attempting to write a paper on the country’s commercial appropriation of Maori culture. Eventually then squad tasked with killing the zombies learned this direct attack thing wasn’t going to work, and the city held this big meeting that I didn’t go to about ways to defeat the zombies. Instead I masturbated to the mental image I had of Jean Luc in my shower. I’ve never washed the towel I lent him. I only heard about it later on breaking news interrupting a delayed airing of The Amazing Race that the idea chosen was to round up the zombies and transport them to the South Island, where hardly anyone lives outside of Christchurch. I don’t hear complaints about the plan, so I’m assuming that worked. But eight days after the zombies first rose, new zombies came. Only this time they were from the Jewish cemetery. The Symonds St. Cemetery is divided into five sections: the Jewish one is on the northeast corner. It’s the smallest of them by far, and you’d only know it was different when you passed it prezombie apocalypse because the gravestones are written in Hebrew. This is where I come in. So panic sets in about these news zombies at first, but then it dies down. The National Guard or whatever New Zealand calls their guys is dispatched to battle and
contain the Jewish zombies, but when they arrive they notice the Jewish zombies don’t leave the cemetery. They just stand there. The troops stare and take pictures with their phones that they then post on the internet. Suddenly, people all over want to see the Jewish zombies. Everyone goes. And that’s fine because these zombies don’t paw for the spectators’ brains. They just stand there. It’s like some zoo exhibit with boring, smelly animals. But one day I’m feeling particularly down and want to forget Jean Luc because it would’ve been our two-month anniversary, so I decide to see the Jewish zombies. I leave in the morning, but the crowd is big, so I don’t push my way to the front until early afternoon. The locals are flashing their cameras as if they’re tourists while the tourists are at the Sky Tower bungee jumping because they saw the Jewish zombies yesterday. One of the Jewish zombies looks at me. He has a thick beard that is ruined with dirt. There are worms in it. He signals the others. They all nod, then walk over to me. At this point people are panicking because the Jewish zombies are finally doing something. Truth is I want to get away, but so many people are pushing into me so they can see that I can’t. I’m stuck. I’m about to get my brain eaten, and I blame Jean Luc in my head. But that makes me smile because I always smile when I think of him, and this makes my impending death seem stupid. The bearded zombie comes close, and he smells like what I think the holocaust would smell like if it were a perfume. He stares and everyone around me is screaming, but they’re too drawn in to move either. At first I don’t hear him, but I see his mouth move, so I yell for everyone to shut up. For some reason they do. I can’t explain why that moment of crowd shushing seems more incredible
than the zombies, but it does. When he repeats himself so that we all can hear, someone calls out he’s speaking zombie. But it’s not; it’s Yiddish. Why I speak Yiddish is because my mom is old world, back when Jews wouldn’t speak Hebrew because it was a sacred language. I forget what changed and made it unsacred, but I think it was Israel. These zombies were buried starting in 1854, so I guess they never got the memo. My mom would talk on the phone in Yiddish when she didn’t want to me to hear her gossip about the neighbors, but that’s how I learned it as a kid. The zombie said he and his people were hungry. I asked him why he wasn’t eating brains like the other zombies, and he gave me this look as if I were the zombie. In Yiddish, he told me it’s because people’s brains aren’t kosher. That made sense. I didn’t want to be the liaison for the Jewish zombies, but they were no Jews in Auckland who spoke Yiddish, and even though I stopped believing in god a long time ago, I was the best thing going for them. The mayor heard about me talking to them, and suddenly I’m given this position that comes with business cards, like I could hand them out at bars to guys— but the number on there isn’t my personal line, so it wouldn’t work. The gig even has money, which I couldn’t accept because my student visa status doesn’t let me work. When the mayor found out the Jewish zombies posed no threat to people, she wanted to know how she could keep them happy. The Jewish zombies were a tourist goldmine because who else had zombies, specifically Jewish ones, who didn’t try to eat your brains? I told her to feed them. I gave her a list of kosher animals, which included sheep. Lamb’s brain is kosher, and there are four of them to every human brain in the country. It was a compromise the Jewish zombies and public
were happy with. After the Jewish zombies ate, they regained their strength and moved about freely. They asked, politely, to be let out of the cemetery, and the mayor said O.K.— as long as they didn’t attack anyone. Simple as that. In fact, they were so far from that rampaging zombie stereotype that they went to temple to pray because it was Friday night. They became doctors and sent their zombie children to study to be lawyers at the university. Everyone was happy with the situation but me. The Jewish zombies visited me frequently because I was the first one to trust them, and that meant something to them. They’d come and cook me dinner and ask me about the new world. I told them about the sad stuff. I told them about the good stuff. When they heard about Israel and I asked if they wanted to go, they shook their heads and said it wasn’t right for them to set foot on that sacred land in their condition. If I were a Jewish zombie, I’d at least want to see what all the fuss about that wall is about. Sometimes the Jewish zombie mothers would ask me if I were seeing anyone, and it made me miss Jean Luc, but I never mentioned I slept with him because we’re talking very religious Jewish zombies here, and premarital sex with a goy would break their hearts. Once they asked about my family, and when I told them what happened between my mom and me, they said I wasn’t being respectful. The chief rabbi Jewish zombie went on about the fifth commandment, and the other Jewish Zombies in my living room nodded their stiff heads in agreement, which dropped dirt on the carpet. After that I stopped seeing the Jewish zombies in my apartment. It wasn’t a big deal because several Yiddish schools had opened up—other people wanted to learn to talk to them. The mayor
also flew in a guy from Poland to teach Yiddish at the university, which became the most popular major after communication studies, psychology, and business. With that, no one needed me anymore, and the semester was ending anyways. I think about the stuff I could’ve asked the Jewish zombies while they sat in my apartment and practiced the capitals of the states in America that weren’t even states while they were alive. Like what happens when we die? But I don’t think I want to know that because now I know we can come back from wherever it is we do end up. That gives me hope. But I also don’t think about them much because being the Jewish zombie liaison took up a lot of my time, and I had three essays due by the end of the semester I had neglected amidst my depression and duties. After all, I came to New Zealand for school. The winter rains were starting, and everything was ready to go gray and die, which meant back in the U.S. summer was coming. I received calls, including ones from Oprah and the Vice President. They all knew about me. I even had book deals for books I didn’t have to write, just say that I did. A new life with people I didn’t know was waiting to meet me. And if so many people that far away knew, there’s no way Jean Luc didn’t. Even though I came from America and it always seemed boring, now, when I heard Idaho, it felt new, like I was coming back to a world that moved on without me. By that point I was ready to go home.
girl girls girl by David Blumenshine * i immediately recognized the high priestess unexpectedly bumped into me with bloody knuckles chicago chafed brick walls or xema wouldn’t occur to my shrill moment until later when the prince came down in price saying go back to work on words as your words are simply a heap is a heap to so much phantom venus snared mars to refuse a wink in this throat while tongues blur uniform women wonder woman which i owe more than own * a tense awe from that weaseled front row next to the boss two slut shamed red lips singed Bet, screening beta version inscribe her rabbinical fuck superflous to know future shadows massachettus cast veiled my eyes what is is my plural voice sprung drunk questions about face all i read & listened to her pun enhanced interview codex scholars in the lecture hall built scholarly wherein i lost that tone for a flame as piled up smoke like a lie tourist attention * herein i can’t escape i choose brief louding now she got on deck like next up but but forever i
look folly sweating to jay-z cornered pockets brimming with quarters tilt walking to the bodega for camels being as my firebird is is impounded iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m ezra the sphinx nose twerking white beach tan bay back or pelican amongst other floridian birds colored dull ugly in the lines ugly uglying up lines i donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t exhaust myself for this heap i repel to attachments ripple cloak infinite no home goes meanial the child superugly in a love
Stray Dog Blues and Others By Clay Cantrell for Robert Barbour He littered his biography with Spanish wine bottles to prove to his ex-lovers he could follow a thread through a narrative of muted strings and wrecks, each chapter title a love note to a different era, handwritten in wild cursive. A hanging judge would have believed every word. He’d wake from whiskey dreams and look at the hills brooding in the east with their blue crests. He found sentences in their inertia. Their immense silence gave him context. Weeks would go by without phone calls when his only words were branded on paper or spoken in short notes to his dog, Custer, who laid like an artifact by the wood stove. He wondered what his isolation meant as a bookend to years of dead roads. On the night of his birthday, he drank red wine and listened for voices in marginal atoms. Diesel brakes whined in the spiritual distance between Cherokee Creek and Jackson. He followed his shadow in the moonlight past ditches of insanity and empty mailboxes with names he didn’t recognize, thinking of endings that had already taken place. An evening spent cooking catfish with his mother or a long breath of harmonica taken when he played in the house band at King’s Palace. He wanted to be remembered as a man of taste and not as a hermit listening to spirits. Chapters One through Fifteen were synonymous with wives and lovers but he had no one he could name an ending for. He lit out across a galvanized culvert, seeking a story in which he would rise from the slow death of muteness and Army pensions
to the status of someone like Moses, [no stanza break] come down from the mountain with the Law. When he woke in the hospital he was deaf and his wrists were jelly. *** A sunspot wrinkles in from an unmapped region as I piece through his papers, looking for a way to make his voice kick. The transitions between marriages wail like blue notes. I cannot account for the gaps in his story or the surface tension he never explains. There are no clear Band-Aids to mend the silence. I don’t know what it means to lose the song before the last verse. One chapter begins in the pastoral: a day spent riding horses, his kids by his side, and the rosy fields of June swaying with idealism in the distance. Twenty pages later, the hospital breaks the narrative. The story gasps and dies like a dirt road veering into nowhere. Because aren’t all biographies eventual let-downs when the subjects begin to dissolve? I live here now, where moonlight shines off his cabin’s tin roof and the joy of his words propels me to song. I think his best ending lives here, too. He walks onto this porch in early spring and notices the horizon blurred in sky and fog. He forgets for a moment he’s responsible for this story.
Due By Ashleigh Lambert Now we approach the time to make good My only kind violence prepares its defense In the seat of this silence lies my ranting and raving There is at once too much to get out of me and nothing for me but to get out of the way We finish breakfast We finish each other Any time you’re ready for the grand intrusion. I’d prefer it to all these calls from worried aunts. Without work I’m dislodged from the rhythms of a day Any time at all is what I’ve wanted for years: uncounted hours for haunting the city or scribbling in bed. Now time is a tithing paid to you, our god. Is it because you feel there’s no place for you? It worries me so I am clearing away Abandoning the site I scatter myself Pick up what can be carried and from these selves, a trail Expectations amok Body over-‐ ripe
I don’t blame you for the new I promised myself You are welcome sings all I have left
MISSING SCHOOL AS A SICK CHILD By John McKernan
The chalk on the sidewalk means hopscotch The sunlight too loud for this cup of tea This house crawling with silence Something’s always wrong with my body I’ve been carrying for all these years Am I wearing some kind of dream? Fresh white sheets
Crisp yellow pillowcase
Far away Sister Mauritius The kind one with the black beard calls out my name That’s empty space not a shadow in my desk in the back row The alphabet is spinning sideways in the grooves of my brain Again & again she calls my name So I can be in two places at once My mother downstairs sends my name up the stairs I like how it rounds the corner of the first landing & takes hard left turns I don’t know if I like my name as much as my mother’s voice lifting it -- like a host – through the bright emptiness of this house Somehow I am my name
Anthony Ramstetter, Jr.
Sarah E. Bode is in attendance at UNC Wilmington, currently writhing in the throes of her master’s thesis. David Blumenshine is editor-in-chief of similar:peaks:: and is a used bookstore employee. Clay Cantrell is an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis. Mike Flynn resides in Los Angeles and writes for television. Ashleigh Lambert was formerly an editor of the digital literary magazine, InDigest, and lives in New York City. Ilya Lyashevsky is a PhD student in Cognitive Studies at Columbia Teachers College and a writer working with Electric Literature's “Recommended Reading”. John McKernan lives mostly in West Virginia where he edits ABZ Press. Kayla Miller is currently an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Robby Nadler is a baker for Independent Baking Co. in Athens, GA. Anthony Ramstetter, Jr. is a current graduate student in the M.F.A. Poetry Program at Louisiana State University and has earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Poetry from Miami University of Ohio.
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