FIVE Q UART ERLY SU MM ER 15 ANNIVERSARY ISSUE
SUM M ER 2015 ANNIVERSARY ISSUE
GUEST EDITO RS Joy Donnell Jeremy Jusek Katherine Liu Molly Schulman Alan Semrow
FOUNDERS Vanessa Gabb Crissy Van Meter ISSUE ASSISTANT Hassiet Asberom
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PO ETRY J. De Nero…5 Jacob Johnson…6 Zebulon Huset…9 Meggie Royer…10 Nolan Allan…11
FICTION Kendra Fortmeyer…13 Benedict Noero…16 Adam "Bucho" Rodenberger…33 John Waddy Bullion…41 Tyler Barton…56
Creatures by J. De Nero She woke under the pier with vertigo, her mouth, an open lock filled with water, eyes wide like somebodyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s grandmother gripping her curlers, ducking out of the line of a camera. She had heard of things like this before, that sometimes when the moon is gone creatures take the townâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s daughters down to the water and feed them ripe fruit from their hands. They teach them to stop wearing clothes and wrap themselves in their long soft hair. They call it keeping sharks at bay, more horrible than jumping ship, or all the terrible things they did, cutting holes in the family photos, taking knives to their tasseled strands. Sometimes when the moon is full, they swim out, hold up the whole crew of a craft just to use the plank as a diving board, jumping higher and higher each time trying hard to milk the moon.
South of Boston by Jacob Johnson
The two men are standing on the side of The road, the threshold of the field before Them, and the fire from the barn can be felt A hundred yards away, a soft, warm prickle.
The two are silent, and from the first to The second, one passes a joint to the Other, a careful pinch of the paper.
“It’s been burning since last night.”
“I’m not lying.”
And the barn was burning, all through the night And the morning. The rapture of the ash And the little flames was a dancing, fleeting Affair, stretching the orange ghosts into A miraculous, matte blue cloud. They smoke.
“It’s really been burning all night?”
“All morning too.”
“Damn.” - long inhale - “Even candles only have so much wax.”
Long exhale. The two men, although they are Really not even men, the two men watch From across the long field, backs to the road, The liminal dome connecting their globe to the sky and the barn and the rapture.
There are cars, for it is noon, or rather There must now be cars, for it is noon, but None stop and no one stands on the road with The two boys to watch the fire, to watch the Barn slowly ebb away and lose its mettle.
“You have any butts?”
“Not with me” - tapping his jacket’s sides.
There is a path through the field, made with feet, A little ways to their left. There is no crop; The field is completely, surely dead. And so the path is the only thing in 7
The field, the only human connection Between the boys and the barn, the great fire.
“It’s pretty hot as is.”
“I shouldn’t get any closer.”
And the rapture is beautiful before Them and to the entire world around them, And no cars stop to watch heaven’s calling And no man or boy hears a father’s call Until the fire has ascended on past The gold, the white, the leaves, the blue, the stars.
“Sure is a good fire, though.”
Spatial by Zebulon Huset Earth as display. Three-dimensional pixels as tiny, atomic bubbles of representation. I am air, one declares. I am tree. Waves of sound rippling through the translucent floam with mirage iridescence. I am A (flat). I am B (natural). There is a differenceâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; though mostly just attitude. Like moon wax/ wane when hemisphere plays Houdini. Find Polaris or its lack. Find a leafless, needled treeâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; is it cacti or porcupine? Learn to locate yourself in regard to the sun or its reflection. It's not scapegoating to blame orbital decay for nothing being where I left it. At first just small soft-edged images of small missing things as keys and socks slip off into that questionable mix of nothingness and never-there-at-all. But soon friends fall from the face, casting names and mug shots into the comet trail we wend across the vast black, too dervish to even wave see ya. 9
Inheritance by Meggie Royer On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the stones are laid in rows like an abacus, their reds and golds deepening into ash. Her hips swollen like waterlogged cacti, belly ballooning like puff pastry over the folds of dress. The gathered behead poppies and throw them over the coals as the library inside her home floods. Books gone to ruin. Spines cracked like her motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s skin as it sang over fire. They lower her in, daughter & unborn both, this crowd of angry men. Only one survives.
Ca$h Money by Nolan Allan My girl spent the day bargain hunting in a haunted house, so I hanged my sweaty scrimshaw print cashmere socks to dry. Fermented properly, like politicians abandoned by their elitist allies. Fill a copper cauldron with Bitcoins and melt them down so I can drip digital ooze into the a-hole eyes of my numbered nemeses. Their tone-deaf screams remind me of the familiar tomes handed out for free, you had enough of me? Like ranch, I dip and emerge whitewashed in the annals of antiquityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s erstwhile errata, medieval penis-trees penned in the margins, vellum villains scrawled vigorously as if all it takes to be remembered is a dull knife and a sharp pen.
Spontaneous by Kendra Fortmeyer
One day, Norma’s lung collapsed. She’d been working up the nerve to break up with her boyfriend when the pain hit. She didn’t suspect one of my lungs has caved without provocation. There was balder evidence: chest pressure, left side, arm numb. The earnest phrase, 50% of women resist the idea that they are having heart attacks. Norma was twenty-five, but there have been sadder statistics. The boyfriend drove her to the emergency room, both of them breathing shallowly. The night before, she had told her best friend that the boyfriend reminded her of a fish: his liquid eyes, his cold hands. Now she gripped that ectothermic hand, felt the thudding of the heart she’d been about to break. The doctors identified the culprit: a bubble on her left lung, pressing down on the tissue like a finger. “It’s just a 10% drop,” they said. “We could insert a chest tube, relieve the pressure.” “Or?” Norma asked, thinking chest tube? Thinking, pressure. “Your body will reabsorb it,” they said. “It will take about a week. No exercise.” She chose reabsorb. That night the boyfriend asked moistly if he could make love to her, and, penitently, Norma let him.
By her third spontaneous pneumothorax, Norma understood the failings of her body. She was familiar with the sensation that someone had threaded a damp cotton string from her chest to her guts, roiling her intestines with each breath. She wished she had a condition that carried more social currency: Parkinson’s, or Lou Gehrig’s. But a collapsible lung! This was a different thing entirely. This was a party trick, or perhaps instant death. “My God,” people said, “It happens a lot? Does it hurt?” “It feels like getting shot in the shoulder,” she told people, and one day somebody said, with a bit of a swagger, “Have ever you been shot in the shoulder?” And Norma, breathing shallowly: “Have you ever had a collapsed lung?”
Sometimes, after too many vodka tonics, Norma found herself sketching the respiratory system on napkins, on placemats. Saying, unsteadily: “These are your lungs.” A pair of balloons, residing darkly inside the pleural cavity, held in place by water tension. When something compromises that tension: boom! “Like a collapsing balloon!” she shouted. “Come on,” the boyfriend said, steering her away. “Let’s get you home.” That was after the fourth episode. She had given up on paper, and had Sharpied the faulty lungs onto her horrified hostess’ breasts.
Here was the thing: she wanted to love the boyfriend. He made sense on paper. He was good with children. They tried having date nights, and even attended couples’ therapy. Norma felt the therapist was eyeing her in a judgmental way, as if to say, you’re 25 and not obviously pregnant; for God’s sake, just date around. “Leave him,” her friends said. Her friend Marcia in particular. Marcia was just two years older than Norma but had been a heroin addict at sixteen, and now was wiser than grandmothers. “Do you even love him?” “What is love?” Norma asked. “He makes really good breakfast. If we broke up I might never eat breakfast again.” Marcia swatted her on the butt. “I think you’d come around,” she said. “There are eighty-seven different flavors in the cereal aisle for a reason.” Norma tried to imagine her life in eighty-seven types of cereal. Waking up to Cap’n Crunch, to Wheaties, to Life. The seasons turning like a marshmallowed kaleidoscope.
Her reasons for staying with the boyfriend: she was afraid of breaking his heart. She was afraid of being alone. She didn’t know how long it would take to find another man she could bleach her mustache in front of, and who wouldn’t ask her to just try anal. And now: because her lungs could collapse at any time and she did not want to die alone. Her friends were mostly healthy 25-year-olds, worrying about finding jobs and what does it mean when he doesn’t text me back for three hours. During her episodes, Norma felt fragile and proud. She felt superior to people unhappy for nonlethal reasons. 14
“Get the surgery,” the boyfriend said. Norma leaned against his chest. The doctor had proposed a procedure involving growth of scar tissue in the pleural cavity. “I’m scared,” she said. “I’ll be there,” he said. “I might die,” she said. “I’ll still be there,” he said. She slipped her hand into his, calculating her convalescence. Wondering how long before she could carry a gallon of milk again, go swimming. How long before she could leave the boyfriend, now caretaker-and-wiper-(she imagined and feared)-of-her-ass without feeling flattened by guilt.
She came home early from her pre-op and found the boyfriend in bed with another woman. She cried. The boyfriend cried. The other woman cried. She was a sweet girl, a redhead with a lisp. The boyfriend told Norma, in the tossed salad of moments after, that her name was Pearl, that she was waiting tables to get herself through school, that it wasn’t her fault, or his fault, that the whole thing had just happened. Like a bird shitting on your car, or a power outage just happened. “I didn’t mean to,” he cried. He looked at the ground, at the table, and the door Pearl had fled through, wearing his shirt. “I was going to tell you, but then you got sick, and I felt—God, I’m the worst.” Norma held her hands in her lap, feeling the pressure and density of bone. Later, stupidly, she would think, I’ll bet she has normal lungs, and would begin to laugh and then cry, hysterically, the two mixing and intermingling until they were inseparable, and she was lying on the floor inventing some new kind of breathing, one that involved shuddering and hiccupping and a jumping, jolting noise that went unh-unh-unh. But for now, she sat very still, listening to her body. In her chest, her lungs rising and falling, slipping blindly over their wet red walls. Expanding. Contracting. Expanding.
W hat W as the Shape of M r. Pivner's Soul? by Benedict Noero
Out far beneath the copse-engulfed, white-stenciled pine sign off Route 22 that reads, â&#x20AC;&#x153;Free Lots, We Want YOUR Development!â&#x20AC;? there sat the brain-damaged, cherry-eyed pit bull named Rico, taught to fight as a whelp, who salivated at the stucco yellow, red, and white fast food restaurant advertising chicken in a box and fried okra, in whose parking lot the infant Esmeralda did pull out all her hair before expiring as she sat roasting inside her family's tinted-window Impala one August afternoon while the mother went to her job at the register inside, never to be seen again. From here exit through the parking lot's twin mounted yellow poles, taking the second exit into the roundabout, then a dogleg and a turn onto the macadam road where a dyad of gutted and rusted Ford chassis remain, one lurched over the other, ringing and creaking twangs when young people in liturgy take the same position deep inside the pickups' bowels. Down farther and then away from the oncoming copse, you would agnize the rotting brown fallow lot where Julie lived with her daddy for all of her eighteen years. Here sat square the peeling repossessed trailer in which Julie never had a man and hardly did discover herself for having to share the only room with her father. Also a bunk bed, with her on top. The trailer was so small that Julie found it not at all a chore to spend nights splayed on the granuly back seats of the maroon Astro EXT parked in rear, or in the kitchen, itself made of gray-stained planks and put up ten yards from the home in the style of a dogtrot house, while her father would have, yes, a lady friend over or simply wanted to be alone or got so tanked that he passed out with the door to the trailer locked, forethinking that he didn't want his daughter to see him that way. Nothing to rouse him, no child's screaming or glass rapping or fishwife to howl his name. Julie sometimes left at dawn to stare at him through the trailer's soil-stained window as he lay. When the light showed specks and motes spinning in an oblique shaft, all that would be left in the glass were her very own two eyes staring back at her. Sometimes, peering at the reflection, she would be so dopey that she could only look at it and let out, What the hell you lookin at? Her only company in those hours were the crickets and tachinids and blue dashers and darners and occasionally some small deer. At a young age, she had just one friend, a boy who lived only with his mother, a hospice worker. The only memory she still had of the boy was him asking her what a 16
cunny smelled like. She'd narrowed her eyes and replied, Like a dog's cunny. He and the mother had left soon after. Inside the trailer was one rickety fat-bladed fan mounted within a steel cage, for safety, on the roof. The fan's black jewel center eyed peered directly down and also omni-directionally. The heat sprawled so that you swore you could feel it twisting and buckling the tin floor through the soles of your shoes. Outside, the sun punished. Julie would have dreams of jumping into a clear freezing pool of water, but the only thing around was where they had graded a low spot into a pond and put in a septic tank, now defunct. It was fenced off and filled with shit and they called it Spirit Lake. For food, it was lots of watermelon because it was cheap and plentiful and clear and tasted good, anyway, and could be picked up for one dollar each, local. And fried chicken, too, especially, and she couldn't ever understand why there were people in this world who would think that was funny because, as said before, the watermelon was cheap and practical and it kept you cool and the chicken could be bought for not very much or raised oneself, as it was the least expensive meat, and lean, and was quick and easy to fry on the sooty grill outside or on the fire pit, and so easy that Julie had started doing it when she was only four years old, and it made you full. Her daddy was a boozer who tried not to spend the Social Security benefits on cheap wine and beer but would end up a wreck without. A drinker of whiskey and vodka from plastic bottles. A perennial misser of workforce appointments. The slim white envelope arrived every two weeks in the mail and her daddy and the mailman would converse until the daddy could take it no longer and would ask for a ride in to town to cash the check right away, saying he had to go get his lemonade. Sometimes gone for days, Julie in his absence was left to what she'd done for years. Hands sticky with birdlime, whittling logs with a paring blade into pieces of furniture, mainly for show, or firing earthenware and terracotta into plates or pots, or smoking marijuana and checking on the small grow boxes set about in the damp chicken coop far out back, half a mile, on land unclaimed. She had an audio tape of Imitation of Life and the first Harry Potter book and knew the Harry Potter by heart. She read a coffee-stained copy of the I-Ching, got most of it, and had considerations about studying ontology, while not knowing exactly what it was. Her first crush was Dizzy Gillespie, a peeling poster of him tacked on the inside of the front door with duct tape, covered by a TV cartoon character design which Julie had not encountered in her life. Some tapes mixed with Dizzy and Fannie Hurst and Mary Stallings and a song by Tool, the medleys of albums picked up at a garage sale. 17
Occasionally, afternoons were spent in bed, with her eyes closed, doing what she referred to as Watching the Show. She'd discovered at an early age that whatever went on in her head was largely out of her control, and so found interest in simply sitting, anticipating, waiting for whatever would bloom next into her mind. Julie all her life was unaware that the family couldn't receive food stamps not because Georgian lawmakers were discriminatory but due to multiple convictions of fraud from when her father would trade his one hundred and eighty-nine dollars a month in benefits for ten or fifteen dollars in cash to a friend to buy booze. Thus unable to feed himself and his daughter properly. She'd come to him when she was eleven with brick-colored stains on her cotton underwear and confided that she was afraid she'd become incontinent and he hollered Oh my oh God Lord where and how did that mother of hers get away to. The father was entering the preliminary stages of colorectal cancer with bleeding and anemia. He'd lost his trade as an aluminum welder and fabricator due to the boozing which one day left him dehydrated and drying out so bad that, gone two days without a drink, he had a seizure at work, causing him to black out. He came out of it licking his teeth and lips, wet and runny and tasting of blood for having clamped down on the chewy thing on the floor of his mouth. He'd hit his head so that he had to quit and couldn't go on disability since it was his fault, anyway. For a month he hauled brine in a watertruck before he was asked about a suspension on his license and he at least went down brawling with the men in charge. Now prone to fits, Julie had spent more times than she could remember with her arm cradled around his neck, scraping vomit out of his mouth as he writhed there on the ground, trembling uncontrollably as if dancing the jitter. Later, once enough years had passed, he became old enough to collect the Social Security. He'd sit and crisp with Julie in the front lawn, both bodies damp and a little bit slimy, and she'd think about how she knew good things awaited her at some point in her life and her good luck was bound to show itself sooner or later. In truth, Julie had wanted to work in music all of her life and dreamed of being a singer. A melodist and lyricist both. Her daddy knew how to play guitar and could drum a bit and would add in his low sad melodies to Julie's songs. At a time of obsession with Mary Stallings, she learned every note and word of â&#x20AC;&#x153;A Sunday Kind of Love.â&#x20AC;? Julie's first cover. 18
Her daddy knew this and knew also, after speaking to his few friends around town, that the Georgian economy had been, in most parts of the state, literally decimated over the last year. Despite this, the amounts of cash and investment coming in to the state had sprouted and exploded after legislation was passed to offer incentives to companies in the entertainment industry in order for them to leave Hollywood or New York City and bring their limitless supplies of work to the indigent cities of Georgia, like Atlanta, or Savannah, or Athens. Nowadays, more television and music was being put together in Georgia than in Hollywood itself. Rumors of pay abounded. From these acquaintances of her father came word that, just like the old days in Detroit or Los Angeles, someone could show up in town and get a job quick doing something with someone somewhere. Her daddy mulled this over. Julie had told him again and again that she'd wait until work became available in town or nearby and that she didn't care if she filled gas or sold French fries. Never considering to say it aloud, she'd considered that perhaps she could just sell herself. Her daddy would say no way in hell no way was that ever gonna happen and you get but one life to live and, while people like her mother or the fetal sister were lucky and had already gone on to the better world, the less fortunate like them, left behind, had to do in this life what they most wanted to do or at least try, because otherwise what's the point of living and being here instead of just moving on to the better thing. He said it wouldn't even be that bad, that when he'd had his fits it was probably like dying. One moment you're there and then out of absolutely nowhere, before you know what's hit you, you're not. Then waking up was a nice surprise, but he wouldn't have been particularly bothered if he hadn't come back, since, truly, he never knew he'd gone anywhere in the first place. The other word was that, well, if you had any hopes or thoughts or dreams which most people did about how much folks in the business were making well there's no way in hell you've guessed even near enough. The little workers at the bottom, who had the jobs Julie could conceivably get, were all expendable and left behind in Los Angeles to fend for themselves, and only the big people were the ones who up and moved their whole lives to Georgia in search of glorious tax compensations. The little people in Georgia would be local hires, like Julie. Following these developments for several months, her daddy finally told Julie about her prospects and what could be done. He said she wouldn't be all that far and he was sure he had his seizures under control. He reassured her as always how seizures aren't so bad usually in themselves
unless you have one in the wrong place at the wrong time and hit your head or neck so you break something or die. There were others, in lots nearby, who could look in on him and who he thought he could depend on for food and water and getting checked up on until Julie started making all that money. Then she could mail him a check each week that he'd, scout's honor, promised to spend only on food and necessities. As a precaution, a doctor Ho came from an hour away, pro bono, to examine the father. He said that, while he couldn't look at the father's delta or theta waves, or examine a scan of his brain in a magnetic machine built for that purpose, he could recommend some healthy habits. He laughed to himself, saying that everyone in this part of the state other than Julie and her daddy looked like they had some kind of syndrome. He'd later be caught unaware by the cancer become malignant in the daddy's colon, but for now he said that all seemed fine, that he couldn't see the daddy again until he got himself on Medi-Care and visited him at the hospital near two hours away. Julie walked out with him to his car and they crossed the berm next to the shit pond and, looking at it, he said that all would be well, and left. Julie packed up near everything she'd accumulated all her life, and a small backpack of emergency things, and put all into the Astro and kissed her daddy goodbye. On her own volition, she took the car to a mechanic, paying him ten dollars to check it and make sure it was road ready and wouldn't break down on her soon. He topped off the oil and coolant for free and asked when's the last time the serpentine belt got changed and she said she didn't know, and he told her good enough. For three dollars he sold her a small canister of aluminum wheel cleaner to get the car looking fetching. He began to explain the dangers of such chemicals but she waved him off, saying that she was aware, and placed the container in the holder of her backpack reserved for a canteen or bottle. He wished her good luck and fortune and Savannah and ached but for that he could go with her. She drove past the trailer a last time and parked in an ingress to a road leading nowhere. She looked at fir, cedar, alder, ash, cottonwood, and hemlock. Never again would she have to squat over a square hole twelve inches by twelve, arranged by planks of soft moist cedar and surrounded by tin walls with no roof, all turned mossy and brown with lichen by human waste and weather. To have to hold a plastic grocery bag underneath her as she shat into the hole and then dump the contents of said bag into Spirit Lake. She looked forward to the cool fluorescent and porcelain retreat of a clean 20
office bathroom marked for her sex. A limitless supply of both toilet paper and water and she spun the wheel a hard left, cutting off an oncoming truck towing broilers as she made for the freeway. No place in mind to go when she arrived, nor anywhere to stay. She felt good about finding a job and being able to rent herself a place to live close to where she'd find work and near a supermarket where she could walk to buy comestibles. She didn't mind if she'd have to sleep in the car and knew that you could shower at the YMCA for free. All her life told how industrious she was, now bolstered by that and determined to prove it.
Deep in the hills of Encino, California, Mr. Pivner relaxes in a Jacuzzi behind his two-story raised ranch home, overlooking the vast and abundant San Fernando Valley. He turns the bubbles up to high as he leafs through an edition of the national music trades, searching for a mention of his own name. A gardener behind him sprays a shower-setting hose over the east-corner Foxglove Tree in the parterregarden. The yard is sweet-scented and lush. The gardener considers the gazebo to his left, up a small slope. How well a line of Canterbury Spar would accentuate, elevate the path thereto. The Spar would take several weeks to import, but Mr. Pivner has expressed that he has both the time and patience for such things.
Three days on the road. At a distance not far from Savannah, Julie stopped at a Shell to fill the tank, and then waited her turn for a shower stall to open up, thankful that a previous inhabitant had left behind a bar of Irish Spring Soap. Half a mile back on the freeway, the sulfurous odor that her father did warn her about issued forth into the cabin like tear gas. Her memory racked, she could only come up with some remembrance of a feline and a converter somewhere unreachable in the vehicle's undercarriage. It was something expensive to fix, to which no spark would ignite and no cylinders would fire and so no engine would rev. The catalytic converter. She could not afford to have this fixed nor could she return home.
She, with the emergency backpack, left the van on the road's shoulder and hitched the rest of the way. She knew that fewer good things now awaited her but that she must go on. Doing as she'd always seen, she walked backwards, parallel to traffic, her face somewhere between cheerful and embarrassed. The thumb of her right hand pointed out just so, taking her chances here, she knew. She watched the people powered by carburetor engines, vehicles materializing at the horizon line, then bottoming out of a long, steep downhill trace. Faces scrutinizing her before passing on. She imagined that the instant after was one in which they gripped the steering wheel harder, grateful at not being her, and perhaps wondering what dysfunction or misguided decision had led her so astray. Almost two more miles when a car finally passed her and then slowed down and parked. She had been trudging absently and had not waved it down but when she saw it stop she began to run forward. A red Jeep. The car's plates foreign to her. Then inside, and an immediate sense of having done something wrong. An initial shock, almost an audible pop, of the stench of ketchup and used paper packets and testicular sweat filling the car. What sat next to her was a human expectorant. Stringy-haired, sebaceous, with drapes of pockmarked skin that hung down like folded sheets where the jaw should have been. He leaned forward and let her in, then immediately took off. A wet purple and red towel draped itself over the back of his seat, reeking of mildew and making her nostrils feel heavy. He said he could ask her where she was going but I-64 only goes one place in this part of the state so why bother. He hoped she didn't mind but the car had no AC, hence the towel. He said he picked her up because he liked black girls and planned on six hours at most before stopping for the night, so she could rest and then drive in the dark if she chose. Hitchhiking can take a lot out of a person, he knew that well, he said. She dozed on and off, wavy lines of orange spilling over the sky like ink trails, the sun not so much yellow as turning light brown. It baked the right side of her face. As the afternoon passed, the back-lit clouds looked like gore. Nighttime came within the hour.
Mr. Pivner eases his body out of the water. He is on the shorter side, with noticeable love handles, his chest hair a nearly perfect upside down pyramid. He grips the P-shaped swim handles on the Jacuzzi's edge, ready to heave, and a one, and a two, and a â&#x20AC;&#x201C;
Julie woke in the parked car to a moonless night sky. Pressed up against her cheek was a tire beater belonging to the stranger, who said that he was going over in that building there to see some girls. She'd better not go anywhere since there was no town any which way for thirty miles and she probably didn't know this but most of the people all around here were just like him. If she tried to leave, they'd either laugh at her or kick her back to the car. He left her and walked through the open door of the red and pink neon-lit building, The Pink Slip. He'd lied and returned promptly with a bag of Cheetos and a can of Dr. Pepper and something tucked into an armpit as he fiddled with keys. Once inside, he pulled the object out and showed it to be a flask. He said heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d asked himself why he'd want those dancers in there when he had a nice girl all to himself right here. He asked if Julie would like a sip of the flask. When she hesitated for a moment, he pulled out the tire billy and pushed the black rubber end into her temple. She took a sip, nearly vomiting the contents right back up. He told her to hold it down. The taste foul and unknown to her. He said to keep drinking and offered soda as respite. One by one the other cars forsook her as the Jeep sat on a patch of gravel and dirt, underneath a large oak tree, as the early morning hours approached. The sign for the Pink Slip had gone dim, leaving them in umbra. Julie felt sick to her stomach and told the stranger so. A push on the handle and a few steps out of the car and her legs swiveled beneath her entirely of their own accord. Her feet slinked and swerved about uncontrollably in oblong circles like a novice ice skater. She reached for something, got nothing, and fell face first into a bramble. The headlights came on. The soil beneath her was mostly top and jet black. The car's lights illuminated the tree branches overhead, turning their edges into an orange zigzag and looking like lightning bolts. She found herself shortly thereafter with the stranger's arms upon her, his hands clasped behind her and his chest to hers. She was tossed in to the back seat. She vomited, and momentarily a joyous sense passed over her and she felt devoid of any responsibility in this world. She closed her 23
eyes and welcomed whatever thoughts or images came, these being particularly interesting now, as she was drunk for the first time. Enjoying the show. She thwarted his attempts to mount her. She knew where to hit a man. Then, in the morning, she would understand the extent of what he'd done to her as she slept.
One dry and chilly Sunday in November, Mr. Pivner rouses his two adolescent boys at their early morning hour of eleven a.m. He takes them to an Ethiopian restaurant, located several towns over from him, but close to his work. Once seated, he wastes no time in requesting to speak to the owner. Introductions made, Mr. Pivner makes an effortful joke about his company's employees getting physically ill due to an inability to control themselves when faced with the restaurant's offerings.
A monkey's wedding outside in the morning. The car smelled of sick. Wipers made a tempo march towards Savannah. The contents of Julie's backpack were strewn about the car and the stranger, sucking on the flask, told her that he guessed she really doesn't own anything worth anything and that she'd better clean up the mess as they're an hour from outside Savannah. Two fluid ounces of your run-of-the-mill aluminum wheel cleaner, containing two percent gamma butyrolactone, the main ingredient in the solution, when applied to human skin are asymptomatic for anywhere from three to six hours, whereupon the exposed areas will experience not at all accidental cell death leading to severe necrosis. Similar to a host-pathogen infection. The “bodydissolving chemical.” The stranger called Julie a vixen, and said that's what she is and she ought to know it. He stopped at the final rest station, took his towel into the bathroom, soaked it in the sullied sink, then returned and draped it over the seat. Then went back in the station for Cheetos. By the time he was back in the car, Julie had already emptied out half of the odorless, colorless Mag-Lite Aluminum Wheel Cleaner over his towel. He settled back in to the seat.
A red brick elementary school, just opening for the day, passed on their left. She was dropped off there. Going into the school to ask for directions downtown, she was unable to even make it past the first security guard due to the state she was in. He wanted her to shoo, quickly, and said go east. With the small amount of money in her pocket, she bought an orange from a sidewalk stand and found a public library in a Colonial Revival building backed by a fine sylvan view. She searched for hostels and then job listings on the internet. Apartments were out of the question. She found that hostels were, too. She didn't know what a credit check was and even if she'd had enough cash for a month's rent, she'd still have to put up the security deposit while paying her first and last. Paying three months at a time instead of the promised one. In the end, the only thing cheap enough was a recovery house, opening in a few days, women only, and offering a decent enough weekly rate.
Mr. Pivner drives to work. Under his Chinese-imported suit, he wears a pair of chamois Calvin Klein briefs. The underwear allows his penis to breathe, in the heat of the Georgian summer, and keeps it elongated, to one side, rather than curled. He maneuvers his dazzling yellow Aston Martin down Highway 95, himself a regular sight for the fellow commuters, listening to Howard Stern on Satellite Radio and laughing hoarsely.
Outside the library, a mirage had appeared where the tarmac parking lot's edge and the road concurred. Julie went to a nearby park and laid down, in the shade, on a green steel bench. Other than sleep, she knew she must eat and find a job. In the night she sought out a shelter, was told it was full. She saw people in military-style cots, lined up in rows along the walls and looking like saddlebag refugees, some newcomers, and then others with the visage and rags of someone just stepped out of the mire or some other heathered, marshy wasteland. Julie spoke to a worker who, in his personally-instituted twenty minutes a day of being free from the usual judgment and cynicism of the job, told Julie of a nearby high school with a 25
gymnasium unlocked most nights. There were blankets and mats to be found. Julie asked if other people knew about the gym, like men, and the worker said that Julie would be better off taking her chances there than in the street, is all he said. The next day she was up and over to the YMCA. She nodded and smiled to the front desk receptionist there as if she, Julie, belonged, and then showered. The public library yielded Yellow Pages and a phone to call the welfare office. She asked about food stamps and said she was homeless. Over the phone, she said it was an emergency. The person on the line told her to wait one week for fifty dollars in emergency cash and to come in the next day to fill out an application and pick up her food stamps benefit card. One hundred and eleven dollars a month for food, until she started earning. More money than she had ever held in her life. Her eyes watered. Elated, grateful, Julie was a piccolo flute. A website had advertised opportunities at one BlastO-World Productions, and she took down the address. The office, located in a suite downtown on a state street, was a few miles from her, meaning walking distance, but it was hot out and she neither had nor could afford deodorant. She managed a bus. A bathroom in the McDonald's next to Blast-O-World offered Julie an opportunity to change clothes. She entered a stall and removed from her backpack a pair of black leggings, one pair each of clean white underwear and socks, and a peach-colored button-up shirt smooth and delicate in appearance and feel. This last she'd been given as a present several years prior but had never found a reason to wear, though a job interview now seemed like a good enough time and place. She thought of her father and of staying up late with him. The map used in their travels years ago, sitting on the floor of the trailer, from the father's short-lived sober interim, with red-penned traces of routes all across the South that looked like the thin intersecting lines on money. Him telling her that the more you explored the world, the smaller everything becomes, and then you become smaller, too. The realization that money isn't everything, but it certainly helps. A staff assistant at the front desk told Julie to take a seat. The office was on a hiring spree, as advertised, and a gentleman had canceled his afternoon interview, meaning that Julie could see the production manager on the new show that day. â&#x20AC;&#x153;The Show.â&#x20AC;? Simply the term bestowed upon any and all musical projects to indicate that all are equal in importance and, above all, just jobs. A multi-million
dollar recording session considered, in theory, to be no more important than the cheapest cut of meat that Julie would be working on. “Show business.” The production manager was named Jen and wasted no time in telling Julie that she, Jen, actually had a law degree. Jen was morbidly obese, afflicted with rosacea and suffering from daily migraines brought on by fluctuating blood pressure, a dividend of the obesity. She asked Julie some questions, and said how very impressed she was with Julie's ambition and knowhow in getting herself settled in a new city. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen in her green old age and so she would love to bring Julie on the team. Julie felt faint. She was told that she would start as a production assistant on an album being recorded for a rising young star. Minimum wage and twelve-hour workdays. She took herself out for a Coke as reward.
Each morning, upon arriving at work, Mr. Pivner observes the planed fineness of the dark oak wood desk in front of him, contemplating the thoughtfully rounded corners. Looking at the wall clock, his eyes settle slowly. Lids droop down and obscure sclera. He inhales deeply, and silently begins to recite his mantra.
The week since Julie arrived having passed, she was allocated her emergency funds from the state. Fifty dollars in cash. She put it in an envelope and wrote home to her father with the news and the money. It registered with her that giving it away felt better than receiving it. The production office's teal walls were further green-hued by the overhead fluorescent lights, themselves erratic and prone to blackout. People were pale from eighty hour weeks, looking sickly in the light's virescence. The office, recently acquired, had been ill-treated by the previous tenants. Julie's first task was to spackle holes in the walls left by said tenants. Not the most glamorous job, she was told, but someone had to do it, and now, who knows, maybe she could put “spackling” on her resume. 27
She picked up terminology. A&R, petty cash, lacquer master, craft services. VLF, larghissimo, sample rate converter and Midi Manufacturers Association. Faulkner array, KSHRFOO, pan pot, c clef, violet noise, acoustic lens, gobo acoustic treatment, autopunch, DAW, daisy chain, destructive editing. She learned quickly. One day, about a month in, she was introduced to a girl named Thumper. Named so for her two unfortunately and improbably-formed large top teeth. Though it was what she was known as, Julie still considered it name-calling, and preferred not to participate. She simply called her, Hey. Julie was then introduced to the unit production manager on the show, Mr. Pivner. The top dog. Julie spoke, but couldn't shake the sense that she meant literally nothing to him. She was infrared. Infrasonic. She vowed never to speak to him except for when she took his order for lunch, which had to be done every day. Thumper explained that she knew how Julie must feel about the job. That she held the very same job that Julie now occupied before recently receiving a promotion to associate producer. Perpetually hip-shot, Thumper relished in her explanations of the work. One hand affixed to her waist, and the other brandished outwards, she spoke and pointed around at the imaginary places where the topics she broached must have hovered, her hand moving back and forth, as if on a metronome. It was unfortunate but not at all uncommon for assistants on staff to order and pick up breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all members of an office. This one containing roughly thirty crew. This required the assistant to attend to each and every crew member, passing out menus, mentioning the daily specials, and collecting each person's costs for the meal that he or she had chosen that particular day. This additionally required the assistant to, on occasion, strong-arm those who made up to one thousand percent more an hour than the assistant into providing whatever nickels and dimes were necessary in paying the full price of the order, so that these costs were not passed on down to Julie herself. The whole ordeal made more stressful by the fact that the urban legend turns out to hold true, that one incorrectly placed or picked up lunch order for anyone above-the-line would make the person responsible, effectively, toast. Everything paid for using petty cash, the production's allocated funds for food, office supplies, and miscellany. At all times, Julie was responsible for one thousand dollars on her person, this known
as her petty cash flow. She saved receipts, copied them on to the necessary forms, handed them in to accounting. All done fastidiously. She did office work and cleaned and began to feel like little more than a glorified maid. Late nights when she got off a fourteen-hour shift, she wrote songs and sang as loud as she could into a pillow. Lyrics only now, no energy for melodies.
In the restaurant, Mr. Pivner makes a rather grotesque comment regarding how the burgeoning entertainment industry in Savannah has been doing its best to supply all local businesses with enough income to keep them afloat in these times of hardship. He notes that his office has always and will always pay in cash, no matter what, and will be as generous with their gratuities as the production's budget will allow.
The other cuisine-related task assigned to Julie was the upkeep and stocking of the office kitchen's many snacks. Two or three times a week, off she went to the supermarket, the petty cash tucked away in her purse, snug and pressed up against a pad of receipts, these her lifeline. Still sending money to her father whenever she could, him telling her he didn't need it, but her knowing better. This, along with her poor rate of pay, occasional denial of overtime wages, and costs for rent and utilities, kept Julie on welfare. She would arrive at the supermarket's checkout counter, hundreds of dollarsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; worth of cookies, chips, soda, and nuts in her possession, pay with cash, then ask for a receipt. Pulling a few microwave meals from underneath the cart, she would then fork over her food stamps card to the curious but not judgmental employee. An unfortunate but almost inevitable incident occurred once when she accidentally placed one of her frozen meals in with the office's groceries and was chewed out by one of the accountants for misappropriating funds. The father, now in the late stages of cancer, was in and out of a hospital many miles from home, medical bills rising exponentially. He preferred to spend his time around the small community. 29
Pleasure came from visitors received, growing and smoking marijuana, and finding solace in his prescribed pain medication. Julie, having been cripplingly apprehensive all this time, eventually decided to slash the Gordian knot. She approached Jen one day, when most of the department heads had left for an afternoon session, and asked if it would be appropriate to request some time with Mr. Pivner, or another executive, in order that someone might hear her sing or perhaps look at some of her writing. Jen reflexively raised hand to cover mouth, then pulled away to take a call. It had been hinted at by Thumper, and Julie eventually caught on, that there was an industrywide practice amongst assistants to falsify the gratuity on receipts obtained when purchasing work meals. If an order came in at three hundred dollars, Julie was to arrive at the restaurant, pay the full amount, and to later mark on the receipt that she had left a hefty fifteen percent tip, resulting in a tallied cost of three hundred and forty-five dollars. Julie then to pocket the forty-five. Fifteen percent was the max, generally, permitted by producers and production managers so that goodwill could be generated between the company and those establishments in the greater Savannah area, establishments which the production hoped to foster a dependable and fruitful relationship with for, potentially, years to come. Forty-five dollars was, for Julie, equivalent to six hours of on-the-clock work. Such a take-home would increase her pay by roughly thirty-three percent, after taxes. With that, not even a thought would be needed to paying for her father's monthly medications. Everything to be set aside in her entertainment union's savings account, the total sent home at the end of every month.
The restaurant owner smiles. He listens to Mr. Pivner a moment longer, then the owner's involuntary eye twitch goes manic right there in the dining room.
Julie, in the midst of her regular stretches, stood stiffly one night to answer the phone. She heard from a hospital just outside of Sparta, Georgia that her father had died. Yes, I'm his kin, she said. Yes, I can come. No, he's insolvent.
A beat. The restaurant owner's face is momentarily flushed. He crosses his arms, one hand cupping an elbow, the other holding a bicep, and rocks back on his heels. He says that, while he doesn't mean any disrespect, the thing is is that he isn't some sort of jerk and, actually, the nice young black girl who was always in and out collecting meals had never left a tip, and was known for not doing so. She had told him, one year ago, that she was forbidden by her bosses who considered it an unnecessary expense.
Mr. Pivner's neck, just below the line of his once-prominent jaw, begins to sprout red, splotchy, cumulus-like blots and traces. These steadily make their way down to his jugular notch. So, she's never left a tip with you?, he asks. No, sir. She always said, sorry, wish I could, but it's not my money, it belongs to the record company, he-he.
A sense in Mr. Pivner's ears of being suddenly submerged in water. He says thank you to the owner, eats his meal with the boys, and leaves a generous tip.
In the morning, Julie, as always, sets up breakfast first thing. The platters of bagels, cream cheese, lox, oatmeal, walnuts, and fresh fruit. She has turned on all of the office's lights and woken its three copy machines from their slumber. She sits at her desk, a simple plastic fold-out table tucked into a corner, and sips from a twelve-ounce paper cup, filled to the brim with caffeine-free green tea. She is writing the last verse of a song, one she's proud of, one that she's been working on for months, a song that she hopes to show to a co-worker, someone slightly higher above who's expressed
interest in the sweet way Julie jokingly self-proclaims her own talents. Mr. Pivner walks in swiftly through the front door, passing Julie. He does not look at her, but says, Come. It takes him less than a minute to confront and fire her. She is told that she will not be punished as long as she keeps her mouth clammed shut and doesn't ever, ever try to work in the industry again. Julie asks if she'll be able to file a claim for unemployment insurance with the company, which Mr. Pivner owns, she knows. No Goddamn way, I'll make sure of it, he says. Rising from her seat, Julie leans forward. She is highshouldered, her eyes large. Her fingertips press against the desk's corners, her hands making two small tents. From this angle, she towers above Mr. Pivner's slight frame. He squints at her. She leans in, centimeters from his face, and says:
Look at me.
Look at me.
The Forgetting M use by Adam "Bucho" Rodenberger
If, as one might be prone to do, you were to ask any of the previous men what she looked like, their descriptions would vary, each nuanced difference spilling into one great and nearly unbelievable truth. One said they remembered her being silver. Not silver covered, not like jewelry, but more a feeling that she embodied the essence of silver, a shine or gleam that seemed to blind him both inside and out while smothering him in glint and shimmer. The men all described her in abstract terms, unable to define her exactly by her physical features. They knew she was less angular and more curved, but could not in any confidence elaborate on what that meant, only that they knew the statement to be true.
She’s got my whole life in front of her; she knows about the food I like, (curry, kimchi, Italian) the kind I don’t, (hot dogs, sauerkraut, peas) and the allergies. (dust, pollen, mold, stupidity)
She knows I wet my bed until the age of nine, but continued to lose bladder control when I got into fights at school. She knows that I’m left-handed, mostly prefer the color black in my wardrobe, my sleep pattern for the last five years. (a ten-year history is preferred, but five is mandatory.
She knows that I’ve been arrested, (possession) that my mother smoked, 33
(Lucky Strike unfiltereds) my father drank, (bourbon, the occasional vodka) and that I was abused as a child. (belts, switches, the occasional bat or broken bottle)
She’s been provided a list of possible mental disorders or personality issues that might arise from this experience. (low self-esteem, possible bouts of depression, timidity, social isolation, suicide)
In her hands, she holds my medical records, a bone-ography of every break and sprain, (right arm twice, right elbow once, right wrist once) every pulled muscle, (strained tricep, cyatic nerve, rotator cuff capsule, tendinitis of the bicep) and the therapies and medications prescribed for each injury. (meloxicam, upper body workouts with stretch bands, physical therapy)
She is provided a comprehensive list of my lovers and exes (Donna, Linda, Faith, Samantha, Kristi, Kathy, Rose, Janet, Jessica, Tabitha, Bethany, etc.) along with an annotated index of every girl/woman I’ve ever kissed, felt up, flirted with, everything. (this list is too extensive)
The diagram looks like some perverted family tree of fornication, a skeletal structure of my sexual history and I can’t decide if I’m more proud of its many branches or horrified because she gets to see it now.
She knows what I like in bed (handcuffs, biting, scratching, hair-pulling, nipple play) and what I don’t. (butt play, oral, missionary) 34
She knows that I snore loudest after long love-making, but that it’s stopped easily by an elbow into my back or my side.
Another said she reminded him of his first love’s curves, the electric feeling of his hands exploring another’s body for the first time, the first touch of her lips to his, the way his heart raced when she placed her palm on the side of his face, the way she sighed into his neck as they napped, the way she smelled like slow afternoons. He could not remember the actual woman, only that she had evoked a memory that he had forgotten long ago and now, much to his delight, couldn’t seem to forget again. Not one of the men could remember if they had touched the woman in any way, either to grip her shoulders in greeting or kiss her cheek. They could not remember if they had pulled out her chair for her or if they had tried to touch her hand across the dinner table.
She has transcriptions of the conversations from my last several dates. (many of the same questions asked different ways, at different points of each date)
She knows that my humor is self-deprecating, (and used often) and that I find the most joy in making my dates smile (no idea how this is calculated; it’s simply a statement on white paper)
She has, organized by date, the appetizers I’ve chosen, (lobster bisque, bruschetta, French onion soup, bhan-mi sliders, samosas) the main courses, 35
(pasta carbonara, coconut curry shrimp, cioppino, filet cooked med-rare) and the desserts. (tiramisu, cheesecake, green tea ice creem, gulab jamun)
She has a bar graph detailing the kinds of dates I’ve taken women out on: Dinner (42% with lunches making up 8% of that total and brunches 3%) Drinks – Alcoholic (17% where food was not involved; 22% where it was) Drinks – Non-Alcoholic (36% - coffee shops make for more comfortable venues for women on first dates) Physical (5% - hookups, booty calls) Sport Activity (4% as I once took a date bowling, another to do miniature golf)
She has a list of the number of times I’ve gone in for the kiss on a first date (3) and the number of times my previous dates have gone in for the kiss. (1)
There is the number of dates that led directly to one-night or multiple-night stands (2) and the average number of dates I went on during an average month. (4)
Yet another came away from their meeting with the unmistakable taste of cherry on his lips though they had not eaten any, nor had they kissed, so it wasn’t some flavored gloss transfer. For 36
weeks following, he would lick and lick and still the taste remained, vexing him and confounding those he had asked for advice. His dreams would come in shades of warm, soft reds, the faces of the women appearing blurred and formless. Much like the others, he could not remember what she looked like nor could he accurately describe the women that pleasantly haunted him in his sleep. The majority of men could not, on average, remember a thing about the meal that they had eaten with her. Those that couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t remember, however, remembered eating again once they were home, inexplicably believing that no meal had occurred earlier.
She has the total number of drinks consumed on date(s), (94) the total dollars spent on dinner and drinks consumed and bought for every date, ($1,237.65) the total cab fare spent, ($512.18) number of flowers/bouquets bought, (13 single stems / 4 fulls) number of shirts ruined, (7 - three by wine spills, one by gravy, two by lipstick that would not come out, one from changing a blown tire) number of wallets lost, (1) number of wallets recovered, (0) credit cards cancelled, (8 â&#x20AC;&#x201C; five from the loss of wallet, three from identity theft) business cards/contact information exchanged, (17) number of second dates confirmed, 37
(6) number of those who cancelled or were complete no-shows, (6) and the number of dinner reservations cancelled. (3)
Another man left his meeting with her and, for weeks after, could not get the smell of rose water out of his nose. A distinct smell he didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t mind, but he lost the enjoyment of smelling a meal before eating it, sniffing a wine before drinking it, smelling a storm on the air before the its arrival, the smell of his four-year old daughter after her night time bath as put her to bed. Soon, he began to appreciate the benefits of smelling only something sweet and soft. He held week old trash up to his nose and still the smell of rose water remained. The smell of portable toilets at the park or concerts no longer made him nauseated. Despite this fact, he could not tell you what the woman smelled like, could not confirm that the perfume she wore was the same that had taken up permanent residence in his nose. Other men described different smells that had taken over in their lives, and still, none could definitively state where they had smelled the scent first.
What she does not have in front of her, splayed out on some dating service printout, is how deeply I drink of a woman, how fully I immerse myself in her essence to the point that I feel like I am â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;not waving, but drowningâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; (thank you for that one, Stevie Smith). I gulp of her rather than that of the air, choosing to make her the last thing I taste before the black overtakes me. If I am to die, it will be a prayer of her that passes my lips and not one spun from a fear of the unknown.
What she could not know is how her clavicle holds the scent of the day like a gift for me to enjoy that night, a tiny glimpse into the workings of her that I’m allowed to experience. The day arrives upon her shoulders and deep within her hair in the same manner every time. The will power needed to simply exhale is unimaginable. I want to keep the entirety of her scent, hold it prisoner, take it with me into my own dreams. She cannot possibly know that I will watch her, silhouetted on the couch by the afternoon sun, reading or lazing about, and feel my entire body crumple from want. Sunlight will bathe her skin in warm corona, will soften her hard edges – her knees and elbows, her fingers – and gently carve her into flawless, curved marble. It will be her smile that reminds me that her existence in that moment is real and true. It is those same warm curves my aching fingers will rest upon as her life pulses slow and steady beneath the skin as she sleeps. She does not know that she will be a slumbering lullaby composed of every sensation.
For weeks after, the other men found myriad sounds buried deep inside their ears; the twinkling of softly blown wind chimes, the slow sound of grass pushing through dirt to drink the sunlight, the whisper of hummingbird wings pitched down to a gentle, galloping rhythm, the not unpleasant gasp of dying starlight, the crescendo of sad symphonic strings over and over, the rustling of sunrise, the low hum of conception. They could not remember if she sang or what her voice sounded like. They could not, with any assurance, match her voice to her picture if given the chance nor could they remember how her laugh made them feel.
Times she smiled at my bad jokes: (12)
Times she laughed at my good ones: 39
Number of minutes our eyes met each other: (49:30)
Number of times we broke eye contact, only to return to it immediately: (18)
Number of times her smile made me flush: (23)
Number of times her laugh made me melt: (So, so many)
Number of times I imagined a future with her while she spoke: (7)
Number of children I thought we would have: (2)
Number of â&#x20AC;Ś. (I forget)
UP N’ CO M ERS by John Waddy Bullion
When I was in fourth grade, my school abruptly dropped physical education from its curriculum. Dr. Villanueva, our Older Group teacher, had read an article in a leading alt-ed journal over the summer which said that P.E. was bad because winning squads received "preferential treatment", so that fall she swapped out P.E. for "U.P.", which stood for Unstructured Playtime— basically, recess with more sitting around. My Up n' Comers classmates—the lazy, lumpen offspring of the town intelligentsia—used the free hour to play cards, read books, even take naps. But to me, it made no sense for us to be outside if we weren't going to do anything, because except for a brief cold snap at the end of September—the same week that my father, the Professor, had moved out of our house to shack up with his mistress—the weather that autumn had been unseasonably warm. Instead of the usual fall foliage, our streets were lined with trees that looked as brown, sick, and shriveled as spinach left wilting on a dinner plate. Swimming pools that had closed on Labor Day had reopened to great civic fanfare. And for the first time in the event's long and checkered history, organizers of the annual Campus Avenue Oktoberfest had reported more cases of heat exhaustion than arrests for minor-in-possession. When the heat index hit ninety-eight one afternoon two weeks before Halloween, Dr. Villanueva, who had always been prone to drastic decisions, panicked and informed us that we would have to cut U.P. short. I was just finishing a set of chin-ups on the monkey bars, and instead of completing my last rep, I hung there in mid-air as the members of Older Group waddled drowsily past me on their way back to the classroom, a sad parade of spare tires, cankles, and farmer-tans. That’s when it dawned on me that, thanks to the intensive workout regimen my grandfather had put me on, I had become a living, breathing anatomy lesson and, as such, had more to teach my classmates about the human body as physical specimen than the see-through plastic torso that was perched on the corner of Dr. Villanueva's desk, compliments of the osteopathic medical school down the street. So, I dropped to the ground and whipped off my shirt. Eoghan O’Shaughnessy, who was the most ignorant kid at Up n' Comers and whose father, like mine, taught in the English department at the same university that ran our school (thus 41
qualifying us both for the faculty discount) snorted at my rippled abdomen. “Gaylord’s gut’s all arseways,” he declared, as if that was to be the last word on the subject. Then, to compound that insult, one of the Weinberg twins—Kim or Keziah, I could never tell them apart—poked her grublike finger in my stomach and announced that it was totally yucky. I gritted my teeth reflexively, reminding myself that I wasn't out to impress girls, or to make the other boys respect and fear me. My main goal was to somehow use my newly bulky frame to get myself expelled from Up n' Comers. "It don't matter how," my grandfather had told me, "long as you get kicked out." According to him, my entire future depended on it. That fall Grandpa had quit his three part-time jobs (construction worker, nightclub bouncer, rural mail carrier), traveled sixteen hours by bus from south Texas to our Missouri home, and promptly appointed himself man of the house in the Professor’s absence. The gym bag hadn’t even left Grandpa’s shoulder before he’d asked me how school was going and I’d told him, much too eagerly, about the fourth- through sixth-graders in my Older Group class, the class hamster we’d adopted and named Alf, and the photocopied Up n’ Comer Dollars we earned instead of letter grades. “You gotta get him outta there ‘fore it stunts him for life, Marsh,” he grumbled at my mother, and right then I got the sense that the drunken, whimpering long-distance call Mom had put in to Grandpa the night she’d given the Professor the boot was the first time father and daughter had spoken in a long while. I also got the sense, from the way Mom was shaking her head as vigorously as the cocktail shaker she happened to be holding, that it'd be a cold day in hell before she would ever voluntarily withdraw me from Up 'n Comers. But Grandpa hadn't always been so down on private education. After my grandmother had ditched him and my then-twelve-year-old mother to run off with one of his old army buddies, Grandpa yanked Mom out of the San Antonio public school system and enrolled her in Providence, one of the most exclusive and highly-ranked preparatories in the American Southwest. To help make ends meet, Grandpa cycled through an endless series of odd jobs, often taking on several at a time in order to keep pace with the school's sky-high tuition payments. My mother blossomed into a star pupil at Providence, carrying a perfect 4.0 from seventh through twelfth grade. She could've gone anywhere for college, but the only brochure she seemed interested in waving under Grandpa’s nose had the words THE MIDWESTERN IVY printed on its every flap and fold, along with photos of
foliage so vividly colored it appeared to be aflame. "Lemme get this straight," he said to her at the time. "You wanna move halfway across the country for a bunch of dead leaves?" But Mom was persistent. She reminded Grandpa that the dead-leaf school was the only place that had offered her a full ride, and after weeks of hectoring Grandpa finally relented. But neither he nor Mom could've predicted that a chunk of that generous scholarship would be applied to a Freshman Honors English seminar taught by a jolly, charming, grey-haired member of the humanities faculty some thirty years her senior. And of course neither he nor Mom could've foreseen that by the time she would sit down to take her first college final, she would be pregnant with me. Though they wouldn’t speak again for years after the shotgun wedding he refused to attend, Grandpa and Mom could at least agree that without her good schooling, she would never have met my father. While I couldn’t fault that logic, I wasn’t quite on board with the idea that private school offered a superior education. The Older Group at Up n’ Comers had its share of world-class knuckleheads—like Enid Tremaigne, who had returned from a summer in France insisting that adding the letter “x” to any word made it plural, even when the words in question were English ones, or like Grant Goss, who’d brought to Show-and-Tell what he claimed was a "piece of UFO", though anybody with half a brain could see was a rusted Folgers can he’d probably fished out of the creek behind his parents' property. I'll admit that this made Grant more of a liar than an idiot, which was the main reason I pinned him to the floor later that afternoon and gave him Indian burns until he told the truth. When Up n’ Comers District Court convened the next day, a jury of my peers fined me twenty Up n’ Comer Dollars and sentenced me to an hour of time-out in the corridor. As Dr. Villanueva escorted me to my holding pen, she passed me a sheet of scratch paper. "Your written apology to Grant will run in this week's Up n' Comer," she told me, referring to the newspaper edited by Emily Quatermain, a fifth-grader who'd never met a typo she didn't like. We'd made it all the way to the door when Dr. Villanueva abruptly leaned down and began whispering in my ear. “I know you’re going through a lot at home, Gaylord,” she said, “and I wanted to tell you that I'm here to help." Her flat, faintly hostile tone, however, made it sound like she'd rather do anything but. The corridor that connected the Older and Younger Group classrooms sported a row of dull green cabinets on one side and a crusty, sputtering radiator on the other. In theory I was supposed 43
to sit in that drab space and wallow in remorse while my classmates frolicked next door during a climate-controlled edition of U.P. Instead, I tickled my fingers over my hard stomach and thought about how I was another step closer to achieving the goal that Grandpa had set for me. Then I set the scratch paper aside, hooked my toes beneath the radiator, and did sit-ups until I hit my mark.
Under the stately white oak tree in our front yard there hung a canvas hammock that belonged, technically, to my father. It had been presented to him that past spring by his colleagues, in commemoration of twenty-five years of distinguished service to (and, by implication, rapidlyapproaching retirement from) the Midwestern Ivy. But during its brief stint on our property, the hammock had collected more acorns than warm bodies, and the Professor had seethed about its gag-gift trappings. "This weekend," he could be heard grousing throughout the summer, "that eyesore is coming down." But he never followed through on these threats, which turned out to be a good thing, because on the night he decided to come clean about his affair—this was after Mom had kicked him out of their bed, chased him down the stairs, shoved him out the front door and locked it behind her—sleeping al fresco in the hammock was pretty much his only available option. Problem was, a cold front had abruptly descended upon the area, a bitter chill that I could feel through my second-floor window pane as I watched my father curl up in a fetal position in his hammock, his pale, chubby legs tucked beneath his flannel nightgown. I wouldn't have put it past Mom to leave him out there all night, but as it turned out, fifteen minutes and half a bottle of pinot noir were all it took for her resolve to weaken. "Call that girl and tell her to pick you up at the end of the block," I heard Mom yell at my father moments before she winged both a hastily-packed suitcase and the cordless phone at his shivering, huddled form. “That way, she won’t have to show her face. And I won’t have to rearrange it for her.” Since that night my father had, for all intents and purposes, dropped off the face of the earth—we hadn't heard a peep from him in over three weeks. The cold front had departed with him, replaced by the same mutant jet stream that had treated us like its own personal stew ingredients all through September. The only person in town who seemed to be thriving in the jungle-like heat was Grandpa, who believed that the outdoors was where a man did his most honest work, no matter the conditions. After he picked me up from Up n' Comers on the day of my sentencing, I spent two 44
hours mulling behind our old push mower while he went around cutting dead tree limbs with a pair of garden shears, barely breaking a sweat as he worked. A little after five he beckoned me over to the oak. "Heard the Professor hated this thing," he said, pointing to the hammock with the shears. "Well, know what? I guess great minds think alike." With a few deft snips he cut the ropes that fastened the hammock to its tree-hooks. He gathered up the canvas from the ground and crumpled it into a tight wad. Then he set the balled-up hammock aside, hoisted himself up on one of the lower branches, and started doing pull-ups. According to Mom, Grandpa's physical fitness kick was a recent development, but he'd always been in great shape. “This here’s called the mesomorphic form,” he yelled down to me, no strain in his voice as he rose from a dead hang to chin-level with the branch. “Your daddy, now, he’s an ectomorph. Means he’s got more places to store fat.” When he hit his 20th rep, Grandpa performed a nifty dismount and stuck his landing, beaming like an Olympian expecting perfect tens. But then I realized that he was grimacing, not smiling, because he had caught sight of Mom and Dr. Villanueva, who were sitting in wicker rockers on our front porch, their murmuring mouths distorted by poised glasses of gin and tonic. “I guess I thought Richard had just gotten too old to pull off this kind of thing,” Mom was saying to Dr. Villanueva, who had invited herself over to our house yet again. “Look at this way, Marcia,” said Dr. Villanueva. “You're free! Now you can do everything you talked about back when we were in undergrad. Enroll in law school! Move to D.C.! Write your novel!” Mom gave Dr. Villanueva a look like my teacher had just removed the lime wedge from the rim of her highball and squirted it right in her eye. “That was you who wanted to do all that,” said Mom, “not me. Remember?" Dr. Villanueva had been Mom’s old college roommate, her maid of honor, and—though they hardly ever saw each other socially after I’d been born—one of the main reasons Mom wanted to enroll me at Up n’ Comers. Dr. Villanueva's credentials were impressive: star speaker at all the major conferences, fixture in the peer-reviewed journals, and one of the youngest PhDs in her field. But plop her down among a group of mouth-breathers who couldn't care less about the lines on her vitae and she would magically transform into a harried, disorganized, easily-flummoxed teacher who couldn't run a classroom to save her life. I was beginning to think that Dr. Villanueva had established 45
Up n' Comers District Court (which, like Unstructured Playtime, was another new wrinkle that fall) because she was too much of a wimp to dole out discipline herself. All evening, whenever our eyes had met from across the yard, Dr. Villanueva would look the other way, and I could just tell that even though she was matching Mom drink for drink, my teacher was taking great pains not to reveal how much trouble I was in at school. “Enough of this pity party," Grandpa muttered as he plucked the wadded-up hammock up off the ground and flung it into the neighbor's yard. "Go get your grip together. You and me’re headed to the Y, Buck.” Grandpa hated that my given name conveniently doubled as a playground slur, and he told me that if I was going to survive public school, I’d better have two things: a nickname, and a vicious right hook. The YMCA downtown was where we worked on the latter. As ropey as my muscles were from working in the yard, I went through my routine that evening with the usual gusto. I started on the treadmill, easing my way from a jog into a sprint, and then, once my heart rate peaked, I moved to the speed bag, standing on a stack of risers Grandpa had filched from the aerobics class next door. As my fists flew, he leaned against a nearby Nautilus and studied his fingernails. “Her name’s Daphne,” he told me, apropos of nothing. “She’s a sophomore but she has the hours to be a junior. She’s in your daddy’s Brit Lit seminar every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She grocery-shops at the IGA, even though the Schnuck's on Seventh is more convenient from where she lives. Likes the produce there better, I reckon." It wouldn’t occur to me until much later that, while I was in school and Mom was sleeping off her now-nightly benders, Grandpa was most likely following the Professor and his mistress around town in our Volvo, not working out all day at the Y like he’d claimed. Just then two older men wearing Lacoste shirts and white Daisy-Dukes walked by on their way to the squash courts. Grandpa’s gaze drifted in their direction. Sgt. Andy Yates, the man who’d stolen off with my grandmother, had tiny shards of grenade shrapnel—the remnants of training mishap at Fort Hood—still lodged in his calves. Whenever Grandpa spied an elderly white male in shorts, he always scanned the backs of the man’s legs for the tell-tale spikes, on the off-chance that his ex-best friend had reappeared to receive a long-overdue ass-whupping.
When we returned home, Grandpa and I found Dr. Villanueva passed out on our living room couch and Mom face-down on the dining table, her drool pooling on one of the Professor's old legal pads. Mom had filled Grandpa's spare water bottle with crème de menthe and several pages of the lined yellow paper with her jagged, urgent-looking handwriting. Grandpa slid the pad out from under Mom's face and squinted at it. Cursive still gave me trouble, but the look on Grandpa's face told me that Mom had, in all likelihood, spilled out her undying devotion to the Professor in the form of some sort of epic poem. "What's it say?" I asked, wanting specifics. Grandpa ripped the pad, cardboard backing and all, into halves, then quarters, then eighths.
Early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of Grandpa yelling “...and stay gone!” as my teacher’s Tercel peeled off down the street. By the time I came downstairs, he had rounded up every liquor bottle in the house and was rinsing them all out in the kitchen sink. “Drag this to the curb,” he told me as he dropped the last bottle into the garbage bag propped up next to him. “Be a good workout.” It was the only thing he said to me all morning. Grandpa was a little more talkative when he picked me up from school. Apparently, after he’d dropped me off at Up n’ Comers, he’d come back home, loaded my still-loaded mother into the Volvo’s passenger seat, and driven her to the new shopping mall off the business loop. They spent the rest of the morning going store-to-store, inquiring about employment. “I had to do all the talking,” he told me, shaking his head. “Your momma wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind. She fell asleep in the mattress store and she throwed-up twice at WaldenBooks.” Finally, around two o’clock, they’d made their way to the deserted food court. By then Mom’s hangover had made its full arrival, drenching her in a cold sweat as she worked her way through a stack of job applications. Across from her, Grandpa leaned back in his chair, his running shoes propped up on the table's edge, keeping one eye on Mom’s progress and the other, by force of habit, on the bared calves of a group of male mall-walkers that had been bussed in from a local retirement home. "A job," he told me, "is gonna help your momma forget about the Professor.” Then, after a moment, he added, “At the very least, it oughta eat into the time she'd of otherwise spent writing mash notes to him."
Unlike Mom, I’d been instructed to avoid work at all costs. For nearly a month I had failed to complete a single assignment, though I had been making sure to fill in my name at the top to leave no doubt who the idiot was. But now when I got the graded copies back, I would find minimum wage—three Up n’ Comer Dollars—stapled to them, along with comments like SAY HI TO YOUR MOM!, HOW’S YOUR MOM DOING?, or MARCIA—CALL ME. “You’re all of a sudden dumb now?” Eoghan O’Shaugnessy inquired one day as he sat next to me. Older Group was supposed to be quietly going over mistakes on our corrected multiplication worksheets while Dr. Villanueva prowled the room, taking names on her steno pad. Recently, she had taken it upon herself to personally levy every single Up n’ Comer Dollar fine. “From now on,” she had announced the morning that Grandpa had banned her from our house, “I am judge, jury, and executioner. I am the dictator-for-life in this classroom!” We had heard bluster like this from Dr. Villanueva before, only this time around she seemed to really mean it. That period alone, she had already nailed Katie Ann Kunkle (for "chewing gum too loudly") and Jeffrey Schreiber (for “zoning out," as she put it, refusing to elaborate). I watched my teacher wobble through the maze of desks. Her eyes were wild. Her rumpled outfit looked slept-in. Her frizzy hair hung down like cobwebs on a haunted house. "Hello in there!" Eoghan rapped his bony knuckles on the side of my head. He chuckled. “You're about as dense as bottled shite, aren't you?” He was one to talk. Eoghan was a fifth-grader who, had he been enrolled in the public school system, probably would’ve been held back due to sheer incompetence. Lucky for him, Up n’ Comers was so exclusive it didn’t group students together by grade, which meant he was lumped in with fourth-graders like me anyway, not to mention sixth-graders who were almost as rock-dumb as he was. I glanced at his paper. All of the answers on his times tables had remainders. “You’re a retard,” I informed him. “Ooh, clever man,” Eoghan said, a little too loudly, which summoned Dr. Villanueva and her pad. "What’re you fining me for?” he demanded as she scribbled down his name. “Gayle’s not done a one of his problems.” Dr. Villanueva scowled. “Why are you concerned about Gaylord’s work?”
“You think I’m cheatin’?” cried Eoghan , a reedy, complaining lilt rising in his voice. His father taught Irish lit, of course. “How can I cheat off his work when he hasn’t done any?” Dr. Villanueva had heard enough. She grabbed Eoghan under his armpit and jerked him violently out of his desk. As she dragged him toward the corridor, I felt something roll over my toe. It was Alf the hamster, out of his cage and cruising around the room in his clear plastic bubble. He looked up at me and wrinkled his nose. He reminded me of a critter on a Saturday morning kidsshow, a furry sidekick who said wise things in a helium voice. It took every ounce of my willpower to keep from punting Alf across the classroom.
After nearly a week with no luck on the job front, Mom scored an interview at the Penney's shoe department, and the manager, a sophomore at the university, had hired her on the spot. By the time the kid got done training her it was like she'd been measuring feet and lacing up shoes for years. "You're a natural," he told her. Then he added, with a wink, "Bet you feel real special, hearing that." Soon he was plying her for suggestions on everything from what to stock in the staff fridge to which professors to avoid when registering for spring classes. He'd made Mom feel so at-ease that when he invited her to the Sigma Nu formal that weekend, she'd told him yes without hesitating. “What have I done?” she moaned from her seat at the dining table that night, where she was drinking unspiked diet soda out of a can. Grandpa and I were over in the living area, watching a cable TV fitness show for mistakes. “Gal in the back,” he said to me, pointing. “Cheating on her side lunges.” I nodded. “Dad, will you listen?” Mom pressed. “He’s my manager. Whether I go out with him or not, it’ll make things awkward.” "One little job ain’t the end-all, be-all, Marsh," said Grandpa. He reached over and patted my head with a mixture of affection and menace, mashing my hair to my skull. "Buck, did you know that back when I was putting your momma through school, I was a janitor, a milkman, a fry cook, and a private detective? And that was just fall semester, eighth grade.” “Did you also know, Gaylord,” said Mom, drawing my given name out like a knife, “that the real reason your grandfather worked all those jobs was because he kept getting fired?”
“My word, you got a poor attitude. An eligible bachelor just asked you out. Were you this worried about making things awkward when you started up with your ex-husband after English class?” The aluminum can in Mom’s hand made a popping sound. “He’s not my ex-husband.” Grandpa held up his hands in a gesture of mock-surrender. “You’re right. He’s the ex-husband of them other two ladies. He’s your estranged husband. See? I know some four-dollar words too.” Mom opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Instead, she just chucked her soda across the room at Grandpa's head. He shot up a hand to shield his face, and the can ricocheted off his wrist and came to rest on the living room carpet. Little brown drops of Nutrasweetened liquid dotted Grandpa’s cheek and neck as he glared at her. Then Mom stood up, mule-kicked her chair into the wall, and stomped out of the dining room. Grandpa plucked the dented can up off the stained rug and balanced it on the sofa's arm. “I wouldn’t worry about her, Buck,” he told me as he wiped soda off his face with the collar of his wifebeater. “Your momma’s gonna tell that boy yes. I reckon pretty soon she and him will be double-dating with the Professor and his Daphne. Then maybe Daphne and the boy will fall in love, it being more age-appropriate, and that’ll free up your momma and daddy to get back together.” His voice was light, almost singsong-y, but when he turned to me, the pupils of his steel-blue eyes were as hard and concentrated as drill-tips. “Who am I kidding? We both know that’s about as likely as you riding a big yellow bus every morning with all the normal kids, or me winning Mr. goddamned Olympia!” And with that, Grandpa launched himself off the couch and out the front door. Down the hall I heard rummaging noises, and then what sounded like the familiar rinse and glug of an upturned liquor bottle. Was that Mom, drinking from a secret stash that Grandpa had failed to confiscate, I wondered? I went and stood in the doorway with my arms braced on the frame, noting with some dismay that my wingspan was barely wide enough to allow this. I peered out into the dark yard. Finally I caught a glimpse of Grandpa’s shadowy form bobbing up and down beneath the oak. He was getting in a few nighttime chin-ups, and even in the darkness I could still make out distinct groups of muscles rippling across his back. Lats, I thought, mentally quizzing myself. Delts. Rhomboids.
I shut the door and felt my middle. A thin layer of flab had built up, encasing my abs. Grandpa had abruptly quit going to the Y in the evenings, and since he was my ride, that meant that I had stopped, too. I knew that he was frustrated with me, but I had no idea how to go about making things right. I had spent my entire childhood receiving lavish praise for even the most minor accomplishments, and had never, to my knowledge, disappointed a single person in my life. Back in the living area, the workout lady was still exhorting away. “That’s right!” she yelled to her minions as they marched in place. “You’re getting it now!” I muted the TV and spent the rest of the show flipping the bird at the screen. By the time the credits rolled I could've sworn that both my middle fingers had biceps.
The next day at school, Dr. Villanueva announced that Unstructured Playtime needed, well, more structure, which was how I found myself out on the playground gripping the sticky palms of Grant Goss and one of the Weinbergs as we stood in a Red Rover line. It was humiliating, playing a game better suited for the booger-eaters in Younger Group, and it didn't help our team’s cause that our best athlete—me—was marooned at the end of the line next to Grant, who was barely touching my hand and was shying away from me so dramatically that his spine was bent at an odd and painful-looking angle. Our side called Eoghan right over. He strolled toward us, in no particular hurry. When he got to me and Grant he stopped. “Well then, Gayle,” he said to me. “Are you going to kiss Dr. Villanueva?” “No,” I said. “Yes you are,” said Eoghan. His grin made him look smart and stupid all at once. “You’re going to kiss Dr. V because your Da’s kissing one of his students. My Da says your Da’s done it before, when he taught your Mum. My Da says that if people find out, your Da’ll get fired, and then you’ll be too poor to go to school here.” Hiding an affair with a student wasn't exactly uncharted territory for the Professor. My father had seniority over Eoghan's dad, more influence in department politics, and an old-boy network among the faculty that would close ranks to protect his job and reputation. There was little chance of the Professor's teaching contract being terminated. Maybe Eoghan was beginning to sense this.
His goofy look had been replaced by a slightly pained expression that made him appear as though he was straining to keep a fart silent. But even though I loathed Eoghan, I wasn't nearly as mad at him as I was at my overall situation, which had taken a turn for the worse that morning when Mom had woken me up to inform me that Grandpa had up and left the night before. “I went in to pee about a quarter to two,” she had told me, sitting on the edge of my bed. “I look out the window and lo and behold, there’s your grandfather loping across the yard, gym bag all packed. Probably headed to the bus station.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t gonna stand in his way.” "Why not?" I demanded, tears welling in my eyes. She looked past me, out the same window where I'd watched the Professor's walk of shame one month prior. She was quiet for a long time. "News said it might actually get nippy today," she finally said. "Imagine that." I had been turning those words over and over in my head all morning during class. “Does it feel nippy out here to you?” I asked Eoghan. “Nipply?” he said, too startled to keep the wariness out of his voice. “No, nippy,” I said. “You know, kinda cold.” “Cold?” Eoghan looked up at the sun, a hot coin in the cloudless sky above us. “Could burn the balls off a brass monkey, this.” I let out a relieved sigh. “Thank goodness,” I said. And with that, I took Grant Goss by the arm and basically flung him at Eoghan O’Shaugnessy. Their skulls clopped together like two coconuts and they tumbled to the dirt. Grant was unconscious before he even hit the deck, but Eoghan was still groaning when I walked right up and commenced kicking him in the throat, the face, the kidneys, and the nuts.
My first inkling that I'd somehow broken the mold for insubordinate behavior—that there would be no Up n’ Comers District Court, no steep Up n’ Comer Dollar fine, no debt to Up n’ Comer society repaid in the corridor—was the look of undisguised rage on Dr. Villanueva's face as she dragged me through the Older Group classroom and into the admin office. "Contact his parents immediately," she hissed at Mrs. Darva, the secretary. "I want him out of my sight."
I slumped on a bench and counted the squares in the checkerboard carpet pattern while Mrs. Darva dialed my home number. I didn't bother to tell her that no one would answer, nor did I provide her with Mom's contact info at her new job. I was too preoccupied with trying to mentally pinpoint where Grandpa was at that exact moment. If I knew anything about geography—hardly a given, considering my education—then he was probably more than halfway through Oklahoma. But then another thought hit me: what if Grandpa wasn't headed back to Texas? What if he'd just caught the first Greyhound out of town, not caring what direction it was headed? Of course, I thought, sitting bolt upright. Suddenly I understood why he kept taking on all those jobs back in San Antonio even after Mom had left. Our town was likely just the first stop on his whirlwind tour, and probably would've been even if Mom hadn't called him in drunken despair over the collapse of her marriage. Grandpa had no doubt been plotting a trip like this for years, I realized, saving up as much money as he could. Pretty soon there were going to be bus terminals all over the country whose phonebooks would be missing any page with a listing for an Andrew, an Andy, or even an A. Yates. And eventually, somewhere in America—heck, knowing Grandpa, somewhere on this planet—one of those Andrew, Andy, or A.'s was going to hoist his creaky, shredded body out of a ratty old recliner to answer his doorbell, only to come face-to-face with my grandfather standing there on his front porch, looking for all the world like a grenade that had been waiting years to go off. The familiar sound of Mom's exhausted greeting on our answering machine, filtered through Mrs. Darva's earpiece and piped into the silent, airless office snapped me out of my reverie. Mrs. Darva made a little hmph noise and hung up without leaving a message. She moved her index finger down to the next number in the Up n’ Comers parent directory.
The Professor showed up half an hour later. He gazed at me over his reading glasses, looking more studied than stern. “Mrs. Darva was just telling me about Gaylord's run-in with theO’Shaughnessy boy,” he said to Dr. Villanueva. He was regarding my teacher with his trademark gentle leer, idly tapping a scroll of lecture notes into his fleshy palm. Like Mom, Dr. Villanueva had been a former pupil of my father's, although from the way she was quivering in his presence you'd have thought her participation grade still hung in the balance. Her voice wavered as she related my unconscionable act out on the playground. Then she moved on to my greatest hits: the first Grant Goss incident, the undone homework, the shirtless preening. 53
Finally she launched into a lengthy filibuster about the toll my behavior had taken on her, and about how there was no future for me at Up n' Comers, or anywhere else for that matter, when I could inspire in otherwise decent people the kind of anger, frustration, and despair that she felt right then. I stared at Dr. Villanueva as she rambled, thinking all the while that she sounded less like a teacher than some bratty schoolgirl getting revenge on the boy who’d stolen her best friend. The Professor was displaying about as much interest in Dr. Villanueva’s venting as he might one of his charges' end-of-term pleas for extra credit. “Does his mother know about this?” he finally asked, his voice a shrug. “I suppose it hardly matters. The only person Marcia's ever cared about is Marcia. She treats Gaylord like a housemate. But I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know, Cleo.” I thought, Cleo?!? The Professor doffed me on the head with his rolled-up notes. “Guess we’re done, my friend,” he said. “Don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here, I’m afraid.”
We lingered awhile at the front entrance. The air outside had turned brisk, just as the news had predicted. A sudden breeze sent a cluster of newly-fallen leaves skittering across the parents’ parking lot. The Professor took a seat on the top step, and when his rump hit the hard concrete, tiny clouds of chalk dust, some of which had to be decades-old, plumed from his faded corduroy jacket. “O’Shaughnessy’s kid, huh?” he asked. He began to laugh. “Ah, the luck of the Irish. Shame on me for saying that. For that matter, shame on you,” he said, slapping himself lightly on his whiskery jowl, as if this was all the punishment either of us deserved. He looked back at the building. “Never liked this place,” he told me. “But your mother wanted you here. I told her the Ed College can barely teach its own students. It sends them out into the world to do just that: barely teach.” It occurred to me then that there were so many things I’d never seen my father do—like dance, or giggle uncontrollably, or order pizza over the phone—that now seemed possible, secret things that I would probably never know about. What I did know—or what I could now make an educated guess at—was that my father no longer loved my mother; that my mother, no matter what she told her boss that afternoon, would soon be out of a job; and that Grandpa had come here looking for a reason to kidnap me, to rescue me from the same bucolic black hole that had swallowed up my mother, and I'd given him none. These were the facts of my life at age ten, and 54
they settled over me as hard and solid as muscle as my father abruptly, and not without some effort, stood back up and offered me his hand. I took it and together we walked down the steps of Up n’ Comers for the last time. “There’s someone I'd like for you to meet,” he told me as we made our way towards a small, white Mazda with out-of-state plates. The girl, Daphne, was inside. Both of her hands were still on the steering wheel. She had short, dark hair and a worried mouth, but I was too young to tell whether or not she was pretty. The Professor removed the scroll of lecture notes from his pocket and rapped it on the glass. Daphne turned. Her left hand slid from the wheel and the window cranked down, revealing an oval face, a hopeful smile, and a pair of startled green eyes that stared out at me like I was a test question she’d forgotten to study for. It was painfully obvious that Daphne had no idea how to behave around a child. I loved her immediately.
M other M ay I Stand Stock Still by Tyler Barton
Ben’s the smallest and naturally not the Mother. Angie is. She's pretty big. "May I take two giant steps?" Ben asks. Angie either feels a little pity or else knows what her unfairness does to us, me especially. She lets him slide. "Yes my little freakin' prince." He forgot to say “Mother”, breaking a major rule, but he's granted permission anyway? It’s unjust. You have to address the Mother as “Mother” or else you don’t get to move. That’s the rule and we all know it. Angie just does whatever she wants. Luckily his two "giant steps" only bring him in line with me, not ahead. Thank God for those coffee-stirrer legs. Ben's legs. He’s a practically a toy, the doll-version of a ten year old. Angie turns around and smiles at him, breaking another rule. She's supposed to stay faced away. But if I call out to correct Angie on the rules, I'm breaking a major rule: speaking out of turn. My mom calls Angie a sociopath. She calls my dad the same thing. Dad says kids are just ginger-prejudiced. My hair isn’t red as his, but my freckles are everywhere. Like God spilled dry dirt all over me. It doesn’t seem fair, but I don’t always get what that word means. I know this: fair in games is following rules. While the rules are: you win by being the first one to reach the Mother. The kids all start together on one side, and on the other, Mother faces away so she can’t see who’s ahead. You each take turns asking Mother for permission to move a number of steps forward. If you ask right, she’s supposed to let you, but she can choose to make you go back steps if you ask for too much. It’s up to Mother what’s too much. For Angie, everything is too much. Including her make up. A red oval of lipstick misses her mouth all over. Her eyeliner makes her look like a football player. But everyone loves her hair. All waves of yellow. It goes up in the wind every time she turns toward us, ignoring the rules. Last turn, I got "one modest step forward" because I totally begged for it. Angie never gives me the time of day. In fact, she steals from me most times. Friends, hair ties, skittles. Little things.
There are only three of us children and one Mother. Everyone else is inside probably watching the same VeggieTales movie from last week. They’re all afraid of Angie. I’m so nervous about what to ask her for. But it isn’t my turn yet. I observe the others and take notes. Following all the proper rules, Evaline asks if she can take "an eentsy step”. She even adds a polite "please". Angie gives her the go-ahead, which is strange because Evaline is my Special Buddy. Automatically, Angie should hate her guts. We’re each allowed to invite a friend once a week. I've never had the same Special Buddy twice. Angie demanded that Marla admit to all the campers she was hideous. Marla was in fact really pretty, but she still followed Angie's order. Angie slapped Claire and then started crying herself, blaming Claire, lying to the Counselors, and getting Claire forever banned. In fact, I'm no longer friends with anyone I've ever brought here, and I can already feel this one slipping. Evaline wanted her mom to drive her separate. Easy escape plan. I’d asked her after youth group. She kind of smiled and didn’t say anything. Chewed her fingernail. It wasn’t a no, but it wasn’t really a yes. Luckily her mom heard me ask. Evaline doesn’t have any friends either. Angie never brings a special buddy, so she ruins everyone else's. Something Angie forgets is: Week One, she was my Special Buddy. I invited her to Principlz. I met her at church. “Are you going to any day-camps this summer?” I stupidly asked. That day seems like forever ago.
Evaline takes a step and Angie flips. "That wasn't EENSTY!" A breeze blows or else the grass bends to Angie’s voice. It gets raspy in yells. The five of us shiver a little. It's summer, but not that warm. The sky: blue and white. Principlz Pre-teen Day-Camp is in the distance, two whole minutes running. Counselors are years away. I wonder, What if we were dead out here? What if Angie had a gun? Where would they be? "Take a dang crabwalk backwards, idiot," Angie answers. Evaline can't crabwalk so instead just cries. A little quiet cry. She gives it her best and kind of slides on her back, pushing with her feet. You can smell the dirt she's bringing up. You can see a part of her disappear. It feels hotter all of a sudden. I want to know if the sun found its way around a cloud,
but I can't look up. I stare straight ahead. Ignoring the rules yet again, Angie stares back. It's my turn. I don’t have a plan. I just talk. "Mother, may I stand still?" Angie tilts her head, unsure of her next move. *** Principlz was the passion project of William Scotts, a minister-turned-businessman from Philadelphia. It was originally planned to be a day-care. If you looked at the sign, you could spot the after-thought of "pre-teen" in the way the letters were vertically stacked in the small space between "Principlz" and "Day". The market research wasn't done in advance. Landisville had three day-cares already. At a board’s meeting near the end of the construction project, William pointed out that none of the local day-cares took children in the double digits. But the committee didn't want kids sneaking off and getting each other pregnant, so Principlz decided to admit only the pre-teenaged. The result: “-care” was changed to “-camp”. The vast yard and massive establishment that made up the Principlz property often dwarfed the ten to fifteen students that attended on an average day. Principlz couldn't afford to buy new equipment, toys, or entertainment, so William—who invited people to call him “Head Honcho”—sold naïve parents on the claim that it was healthy to encourage children to be childlike for as long as possible. There were koosh dodgeballs, stuffed animals, and a costume chest. Outside: a swingset the tweens could easily tip over. The environment would inspire and sustain youthful innocence, imagination, and wholesomeness, the Head Honcho promised. So few parents bought this line that he only ended up needing three counselors on most days, which was truly all he could afford.
While the secret round of Mother May I unfolded in the back yard, the Head Honcho was seated as his desk, reviewing the results of June’s Rap-Sesh. These were one-on-one meetings between he and his new counselors, used to gauge morale as well as moral alignment. He’d ask them each about their joys here at the job, their shortcomings, their future plans, and then, their free time. To Callie, whose Rap Sheet he was reviewing with a red pen, William always seemed to be hitting on her. Yes, she was often late. Yes, she sometimes let words slip around the campers. No, she couldn’t see herself in five years. But why the third degree about boyfriends?
But her boss simply believed in sustaining purity. He suspected Callie and Jacqueline—Callie’s best friend, the other female employee—had a relationship that would expose the kids to something poisonous. He had questioned her maybe a little too hard. “What is Jacqueline to you?” She had kindly declined to answer. When she left she’d turned and gave his door the finger. This he learned from a parent who was waiting outside to sign her son up. *** I’m patient, standing still. No one has ever asked to stand still, but Angie must like my respect. When she invites me to move closer two steps, I'm on top of the world. I giggle and almost bite my tongue over it. Angie hates laughter during the game, and mostly anytime. I wait before taking a step, expecting to be punished, but Angie looks past it. This is incredible. I imagine pushing her on the swing. Braiding her beautiful hair. Weekend sleepovers. Best woman at her wedding. I know I should start moving. Unless this is a trick. Because if this is a trick... I force myself to look directly in Angie's eyes. She keeps moving them away. It's a trick. I can't let her win. "I asked to stand still," I declare. "Two steps! Move it!" I cross my arms, stay where I am. I see her face change and I've figured out how to make her push me on the swings. She can be the best woman at my wedding. I'll take her hair ties when I need one. And maybe even when I don't. "Holly, you have to listen to me. Duh!" "Grant me the permission to stand still, Mother. That's what I want. I don't want to come any closer to you. You—you’re..." Evaline and Ben are both staring at me. I feel them asking, What have you done? Angie yells, "Spit it out sherlock!" “You’re fat!” I find myself screaming, “I’m not coming near you! It might be contagious." The game ends with that. I win. 59
Seconds ago, I didn’t even know winning was possible, or that it’s what I wanted, or how different it feels. There's laughter. Ben is losing it. But I glance back and Evaline looks like I stabbed someone. Like she wants to vanish. I hoped maybe she’d be proud of me. "Everyone, we're going back inside. Let's go!" I say, pointing confidently at Principlz. Besides kind of having to pee, I don't know why I choose to lead us back to the building. I could just as well lead my new followers traipsing into the woods, or in circles around the yard until sunset. To a new country where I’m the ruler. I just want this to lead somewhere, at least. I start for the building. My ears are hot, burning. I can hear that no one is following me. Stick with it, I think. Take two-hundred steps, full-stride. Don't look back. People in the Bible turned to salt. Stay you, I say to myself. Suddenly, I can hear them coming. First the little-boy shorts swishing quickly beside me. Then Angie's on the other. I've never felt more beautiful. The heat is serious. I look up and the sun is beaming. "Now!" Angie roars, and they're on me. *** Callie and Jacqueline applied to be counselors in the same tongue-in-cheek way they ran for class office freshman year: to prove a point. Kaitlyn and Ashley, having ruled the Intermediate School, were the incumbents. During the freshman assembly, Callie overheard their shit-talking about there being no need for a vote. They'd be president and VP again, and probably for all four years. "Fuck that," Callie had told Jacqueline. They were best friends. They would run, and win, and if they felt like it, just run the school into the ground. Actually, neither Callie nor Jacqueline had a clue about class officer responsibilities. It didn't matter. They ran a dirty race. They sold it to everyone like: Wouldn't it be funny to see Kaitlyn Leathery cry? Wouldn't you love for Ashley to just not have one single thing for once? You know she vacations in Italy right? They hung ironic posters, their faces photoshopped onto Uncle Sam kissing Rosie the Riveter. They won. They hated it, and it didn’t even last a full year, but Kaitlyn and Ashley never won again, because they stopped running. It worked. Jacqueline sort of liked making a difference, even if her peers only looked to her to sell candy for the class trip, but Callie balked at the responsibility. She was asked by the principal to step down
after a semester; Jacqueline faithfully quit with her. Their term was short-lived. Yet, they savored the victory, the feeling of subversion. So when a representative of the new, local, pre-teen day-camp came to the senior Drama class to explain that Principlz was in need of "wholesome, dependable, and kind" young men and women to be his “Counserlz” for seven dollars an hour, and had spoken patiently, looking at each student— except for Callie, who’d decided to challenge the school’s one-inch cleavage rule that day—in the eyes, she felt that burn once again. She texted Jacqueline: Yo lets get jobs at this god school.
They did, and here they were. It was the Monday shift, eight to four, the least busy time of the week. They had ten kids. Jacqueline sat them in front of VeggieTales when they came in. These were ten, eleven, and twelve year olds. They disliked Principlz as much as the employees did. Jacqueline met Callie and Martin at their usual post in the kitchen. This was their fifth week as Counselrz. They were seventeen and it showed. Martin was sitting on the counter complaining. The girls were on their cell phones. Martin said, "This is just sick. I mean, they're old enough to be getting boners and shit. Why do we have to treat them like babies? Plop them down to watch a tomato and a dildo tell stories." "At least we're not fucking them up. All these kids will turn out to be perfect little angels," said Jacqueline, almost believing it. "Yeah right! More like school shooters," added Martin. "Regardless, they'll be crushed in High School," said Callie. Martin pulled a pack of American Spirits from his back pocket, "Who isn't?" “Are those yours?” Jacqueline asked, turning to Callie, “Don’t you smoke the same brand?” “Yeah, they’re hers. I was returning them.” Martin threw Callie the pack. “People borrow packs of cigarettes?” “Jac, you don’t get it because you don’t smoke. It’s ‘so gross’,” Callie said, rolling her eyes. “Mar, Let’s have one quick.” The pair walked out of the kitchen. Outside, they would hide around the corner of the building and speed-smoke. Jacqueline hated her habit, but figured one of them would grow out of it. Either Callie would stop smoking, or she’d give up caring. Their history was long, and the future was longer. They’d applied to all the same colleges. There was time. 61
*** Principlz is the size of a cellphone in the distance. We're still too far away for any of the counselors to see anything. I wish I had my cellphone. I'd use it to call Mom and tell her what's happened, that I'm being held down against my will, that my own Special Buddy has turned on me. But they take your phone when you get here. You get one Call Pass a day, and you have to ask the Head Honcho for permission. He dials the digits for you. I've only had my phone for six months—Dad got me one for my twelfth birthday even though Mom swore I’d have to wait until fifteen—but I'm pretty sure I can handle the three clicks it takes for Contacts, Mom, Call. We can't have technology at all here. There's this wide open yard. And all these other kids. They want us to “connect with each other and imagine.” It’s painted on the wall in the lobby. But I'm not connecting with anything, except maybe bugs, as I snort an ant out of my nose. I’m trapped. Flat on my stomach with two of them sitting on me. Alone. Evaline sits in the grass facing away toward the tree line. Angie’s calling shots and of course Ben is obedient. The grass makes my face itchy. It tastes grosser than spinach. The worst part is how badly I have to pee now. "Let me go!" Angie asks her children, "Well, family, what do you think we should do with our naughty daughter?" "Seriously! Evaline, help me! Ben. Ben, listen." "Any ideas?" Angie asks, looking around. Evaline is silent. I could slap her. I might, if I ever get them off me. I try to shake them off but Angie's like bricks, and Ben is holding down my legs while sitting flat on my butt, which is not helping my bladder. "We could ask her to stop playing Mother May I wrong," Ben offers. "What in heck would that teach her, Benjamin?" Angie says. "That we don't like it." "She obviously don't care about our feelings, so?" With that, Ben gives up. Pitiful. My face is getting hotter, probably turning red as the letters in Mom's King James bible. It's like they’re squeezing all my blood up to my head. How guilty would they feel if my face exploded? To
make it worse, Angie leans in so close that her lips touch my ear as she whispers, "It's clear she only cares about her feelings." I start screaming. Maybe someone will hear me. I just want rescued. Angie says, "Yep. Daughter doesn't care about us. She ruined our game, so we need to teach her how it feels to have something ruined." I scream again, as loud as I can. Angie responds by bouncing her butt up and down on my back. My screams come out in different volumes. "Quiet little daughter. Please behave now." “Yeah, just listen to Mommy!" Ben sounds like he's going to cry. He's never been one for confrontation. During movie time, he always hides his face when the villain comes on screen. Scooby Doo, Shrek, VeggieTales: even the cutest monsters scare him to death. I wish he could see himself. He'd be bawling his eyes out.
I give up on reaching any counselors, so I try to reason, to make sense of it to Evaline who can hear me even though she’s still just sitting in the grass, facing the building, pretending like this isn’t even happening. "This is so unfair! She changes rules. Why can't I change a rule? Why is that not fair?” It's not even the pain of them on me, or the fear of what she'll do. I'm desperate for them to get this: that I won and it's as fair as anything. "What's fair, baby,” Angie is saying, “is you make it up to Mommy and your siblings. Tell us, how are you gonna make up with us?" The only thing I can think of is the Skittles I'd brought to share with Evaline today. But Angie already stole them, and she probably ate them all. I have nothing to give them. I have to pee I have to pee I have to pee, is all I can think now. "Get off!" "Not until you make up." "What do you want?" "You need give Mommy a kiss and tell her you're sorry.” She’s smiling so ugly with her messed up red lips. “Then you need to kiss brother and sister and tell them too." *** 63
The door to the kitchen swept open. "Aaaand I just did a head count. Six? We're low today. Aaaand the film is almost finished! What do we have next?" The Honcho was always mid-sentence. He was unsettling, unpredictable. Constantly smiling, but with a lit fuse hiding behind it. Callie and Jacqueline had at times privately discussed deserting him. Just walking off the job. They knew Callie’s performance report for June was miserable anyway. When he surveyed the kitchen his eyes bugged out. Only one counselor. A cell phone out. With his hands he emoted, turning them over slowly in a cartoonish shrug. “Aaaand where is everyone?” Jacqueline tried to explain, “They’re around. They just—” “Aaaand looks like we’re, what, Candy Crushing? Twittering? Give me.” “No, no. I was only checking to see—” “What? The weather? That’s your buddy-girl’s excuse. Get creative. Plus, Jac? Look outside? The weather is up there. You just have to look.” She imagined him scrolling through her pictures. Her and Callie skinny dipping in the hot tub. Her and Callie, in a sense, dancing naked on the bible. His jaw dropping. Or worse. “Fools forget rules, Jac,” he sung. “Phooone.” Jacqueline hated when anyone but Callie called her Jac. She handed her iPhone over and clenched her teeth. The Honcho put it in his shirt pocket. She considered reaching for it and dashing, grabbing Callie’s hand on the way out the door, that grimy cigarette falling out her mouth and burning Martin’s shoe. She moved her arm to reach for the phone. He gave her an awkward high-five. She couldn’t. In a mere month at Principlz she’d learned something about herself: the kids meant more to her than the little paychecks. She couldn’t abandon them with Honcho and Martin, Veggie Tales, all the empty space. Something caught her mind. “Wait. Six? You said six?” she asked, suddenly concerned. “Six beautiful little youngins, all crowded around the TV. Aaand now that I think of it? Jac? Haven’t they seen that Veggie Tale a number of times now? I recall—” “Well, wait. We signed in nine. I think. Or ten.” The Honcho put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Jac? How many?” 64
“Nine plus a guest,” she said, hurrying past him and through the door. *** I bet we all wish we were in different places right now. With Angie sitting heavy on my stomach, pinning my arms to my side, Ben's head hovers over mine. His spiky hair blots out the sun. It's one of those natural spikes, not gelled, but a buzz-cut a month grown out. His face looks sour, but then he relaxes it. He’s actually angelic. A simple face. Skin bright white. Plus there's this halo of sunshine around him. I close my eyes and push out my lips. I've never been kissed. I have my legs crossed, a little worried I might pee. Ben kisses my cheek, lightly, and I actually kind of like it. Angie yells about how he did it wrong. Evaline lets out a sad sigh. She hasn't spoken since her eentsy step. "Well, since Evaline is too much a puss, and Ben doesn't know where your dumb mouth is, I guess you'll have to kiss Mommy three times!"
Even though none of them are here to help me, some of the counselors at Principlz are actually pretty okay. You can tell they aren’t in love with the job, but they probably get paid better than at Food Lion. Jacqueline is my favorite because she really talks to me and even laughs at things I say. The others can be nice, but she actually cares. Maybe Jacqueline is sick today and that’s why I’m trapped out here. Regardless if they’re nice or not, none of the counselors ever get too touchy-feely about the religious stuff the Head Honcho is always flaunting, which is a relief. In fact, I'm pretty sure Jacqueline likes girls. I saw her holding the hand of the other girl counselor at the movies when my Mom and I were there to see Frozen. I pointed it out to Mom, and she just said, "Some people are that way. It's okay." And it is okay. I believe that. But it's not for me. So when Angie moves her pink face up to mine and purses her lips, I can think of nothing to stop her but to spit. It's a weak one, and stringy. Most of it lands back on my mouth. Luckily, it's enough to freak her out. She rolls off of me and wipes her face into the grass. Her lips make a pfft noise that never ends. What else did she think she was going to find inside my mouth? I know this is my chance. I wrench myself off the grass and pounce on our wounded mother. I grab her hair from behind and pull her back on to the grass. How did we get here? I think. Where is Jacqueline? I want to ask. Instead I start screaming at her face. "I don't like you like that!" 65
She keeps pffting, scrunching up her face. "In fact, no one likes you. You make everyone hate you!" I push her down and sit on her chest. I’m not sure what to do exactly, but I feel like Angie deserves payback. Ben and Evaline start walking back. Traitors. How comes when I'm the Mother all the kids abandon me? What is it about Angie? Her age? Because she has some boobs now? Because she’s thirteen and legally shouldn't even be at Principlz anymore? The truth is, she's actually just fat, and she can’t cover up her ugliness. On top of her, I feel my butt sinking into her soft stomach. Breathing heavily, with her arms up over her head, she smells like a sub. I wish they would turn around and come see this. See how awful she is? I wish Evaline had never agreed to come here. I wish Ben or anyone cared that I was standing up for myself. “Get the freak off me! What are you doing?” she says. So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you said Jesus. I’ve got to hold up my end of it. She refuses to straighten her lips, makes her red mouth an oval in motion. It's tricky. I kiss her top teeth, basically, and a little of her tongue. I hold it there for a few moments, and everything feels warmer. I don't know why she isn't screaming, but her eyes look freaky, like she’s watching a scary movie. She’s staring through me. And then I realize two things. The Head Honcho plucks me up and holds me under his big left arm. That's the first thing: we're in trouble. On Angie's stomach is a wide wet spot. It looks like something is seeping out of her. Her white shirt is sticking to her belly, and she starts up with the pfft noise again. I peed, is the second thing. *** The credits had rolled already. VeggieTales was back at the home menu screen, replaying the same two quotes. The soon-to-be teenagers were growing restless. Jacqueline came through the door and told them they were going to hang tight here, maybe play Duck Duck Goose. “I’ll be right back,” she assured them, even though no one looked worried. Then she walked quickly back out of the door.
It's not that they didn't look into the back yard. They did, but in the panic of it, they failed to notice the little blips that were children out near the tree line. Instead, the Honcho and Jacqueline split up, checking every empty room, peeking their heads in, calling, "Kids, kids!" because they couldn't determine exactly which were missing. They checked the kitchen again, in case the escaped were playing tricks. Here, William told Jacqueline to go watch the others. He would handle this. He went out and through the lobby to the front windows. Jacqueline ran back into the playroom with the six. Two boys were taking turns slapping each other, each time increasingly harder. A group of four girls were playing school. One was standing at a collapsible chalk board, explaining a math problem. They didn’t even notice Jacqueline when she walked in. It was times like these she thought critically about what her role was here. Make sure they don’t die, she decided. Everything else was extra. Don’t lose them. She was ready to go back out, continue the search, when a faint knocking came on the sliding glass door. She pulled back the curtain and there were two of the missing children. They looked frightened. Jacqueline slid open the door and knelt down to look them over. “Thank God,” she said, "Where are the other two?" Evaline wouldn't answer, but wanted to know if she could make a phone call. It wasn't too late for her mom to save her from this place. Ben stood close-lipped with worried eyes. "Benny. Are they out in the backyard?" "Yes. Fighting. And kissing." "What? Ben, What?" "Did I snitch?” Ben tucked his chin against his chest, like he was trying to look inside his t-shirt. “Everybody wait here. Keep being good. I’ll be right back again.” Ben looked at Evaline, waiting for an answer. *** I must be dangerous now. We’re on the way back to Principlz and Jacqueline’s holding Angie's hand, listening to her sniffing and pffting like some machine. I watch them while being carried longways, like lumber, under the Honcho's arm. They get smaller because the Honcho’s hurrying. I don't know why he’s walking so fast, as if I need to be disposed of before I poison anything else. Like I’m a germ. 67
Angie is crying, probably faking. Shouldn’t I be crying? Someone should be holding my hand. His hand is hurting my side. I could walk just as fast if he put me down. Let me go. If this is what its like to win, why do people try? *** When Jacqueline walked into the lobby to tell the Honcho about the girls in the backyard, she found he was not alone. Martin and Callie were being lectured. The Honcho was on a roll. She considered running out into the yard to check on the girls herself, but what she heard stopped her. “...its exactly that type of behavior we’re protecting against. We’re sentinels against debauchery.” “It wasn’t all what you think,” Martin was explaining. Callie’s head was lowered, her eyes tucked beneath her brows, staring at the Honcho’s chest. Her mouth was almost pouting. This was how she looked when she was mad at someone for being mad. Eye contact was out of the question. She’d given that look to Jacqueline plenty of times. It’d burned holes into her torso. “It’s exactly what I saw. Touching. Sucking face. And cigarettes? This is, you know full-well, a smoke-free workplace.” Jacqueline’s gut tensed. She wanted to be saved details. She was never sure what her and Callie were, but it was clear to her it wasn’t something that included other people. It was just them, whatever it was. Her thoughts went to the future, to loneliness, an empty dorm. She had to stop it. She focused on the children. It was her job. She was at work here. “I found two.” Her voice cracked when she spoke. “The others are in the backyard. I’m going to go check on them. I don’t know how they got out there.” The three of them looked her way as she turned towards the back door. “I’ll come with you,” said the Honcho, “You two go in with the children. Just try not to pervert them on your last day.” Callie’s gaze snapped from the floor up to the Honcho, but she caught Jacqueline’s eyes instead. It was like looking truth in the eyes, that truth being: something had just ended. *** The Honcho has Angie in his office. She gets to go first, naturally. Although, I don't know what's better, first or second. They gave her a new shirt. I'm still in my wet shorts. Jacqueline is on the same bench as me, but she's like three spaces away. I guess all the other counselors are with the kids, 68
probably playing soft dodgeball. Jacqueline is either the only one who cares, or she's in trouble and punishment around here is sitting with the delinquents. I’ve been sitting stock still on this bench long enough to decide on the best way of explaining myself, but I'm still not sure. The truth? It sounds like a lie when I tell it in my head. Where do I even start? The kiss? The game and the rules? My Skittles? Neither of us are speaking. I guess maybe she's mad at me? Does she think I'm like her? Is that not allowed? I want so bad to say, "That Angie is such a sociopath, right?" but that somehow feels wrong to say. But then Jacqueline breaks the silence. "You two need to ignore each other," she says under her breath. "She ignores me because she wants me to know she hates me." "It could be she’s just bored here. Or maybe she actually likes you." "We aren't in love,” I say. “What?” Jacqueline turns her head sideways. “We aren't like that. At least I'm not." "Like what?" "Like, like I don't like her." "That's pretty obvious—you peed on her," Jacqueline laughs. Is this whole thing funny to everyone? If so, I think the joke is on me. I certainly didn’t try to pee on her. "But she says you kissed her too," Jacqueline adds. "That was just payback!" "Hmm." Jacqueline stands up. "I'm going down to check on the other kids,” she says. I don’t want her to go. “Can you tell Evaline I’m sorry? I think she’s mad at me.” “Her mom just picked her up,” she says, walking away. “Holly, listen. Just do yourself a favor and tell the truth in there.” The truth: I don't want to like Angie, I just want to make up. I want this to be over and I don't think either of us should go to the other's wedding. One part of me, the wet, embarrassed part thinks I should probably just stop coming here. The other side of me, the unbruised part, the part containing my head says, no, she should stop coming here. She shouldn't be allowed back. *** 69
“Did you really apply?” Jacqueline asked Callie in the kitchen of Principlz. Callie was looking somewhere near her waist, and Jacqueline wanted eye contact so bad she was leaning down. “To?” “Fucking school.” “Yeah.” “I don’t believe anything you say.” “Listen, you aren’t the fucking boss. You aren’t my mother, or my boyfriend.” “Or your best friend? Or someone you kiss when you’re drunk?” “Exactly. You’re those things. You’re that. That doesn’t give you this power to judge me.” Jacqueline could hear the sound of sobbing from the floor above them. The playroom next door was loud with running and screaming. “I never forced you to apply to school,” Jacqueline said. “Yeah well I didn’t get in.” “You were waitlisted.” “No. I was rejected.” Callie brought her eyes up to Jacqueline’s face. The tension Jacqueline had saved for this moment nearly left her. She felt sorry, but still more offended. She bit down hard on her teeth. “Do you love Martin?” “Love? Jac, he’s a good kisser. He gives me cigarettes. I like his company.” “I like your company. You like mine. I’m good—” “Please don’t do this.” Jacqueline walked over to the window. She looked out at where someone she was trusted to care for had just fought, kissed and, pissed on someone else she was trusted to care for. The room was quiet. The sun was still out and a wind blew against the window. Callie started tapping her foot, which meant she was bored, which meant she was about to leave. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I was gay now? Because of you.” Jacqueline spoke to the window. “Shut up, please. Let’s go. Let’s leave. I’m serious.” Jacqueline turned, “I’m not quitting.” “What?” Martin walked in holding his coat, smiling. “We out?” 70
“You’re leaving now?” Jacqueline asked. “Yeah, fuck this. You should hear all he said to us.” “You can’t wait till pick-up?” “No. Let’s go. All of us.” “I’m staying. I’m not following you.” “Jac, the guy’s a psycho. He probably wants me gone so he can get with you.” “I can handle myself,” said Jacqueline. Her eyes were watery and focused on Callie’s. She kept blinking and trying hard to stand still, to focus and think. “Seriously?” Callie returned to looking at the floor. “I need the job. I like the kids. I need the money. For school.” “Jac, we can get other jobs. Grow the fuck up.” “I like the kids,” Jacqueline said. Martin opened the door and Callie walked backward, away from her. Jacqueline kept her head up and glared at them. Callie rolled her eyes one last time before leaving. When they were gone she allowed herself thirty seconds to settle. She drew breaths and counted. Then she went in to the playroom and composed a game of charades. The kids looked relieved to see an adult. *** With Jacqueline gone, I get up and move closer to the door. I want to know what Angie's telling him. With my ear to the door, I can only make out mumbles and footsteps. The Honcho is probably pacing. He is always pacing. With my ear on the ground, right next to the space where the door doesn't quite touch the carpet, some sounds come through. It sounds like sobbing. What are our rules, Angela? When someone's mean you gotta be nice back. Exactly. Were you nice when she was mean? There's a silence. There's a word for this thing they’re talking about. It sounds like something I remember from my bible, or from one of the Honcho's talks. I can't place it. I try to focus because I want to hear how she answers the question. I wish I could hear if her head was slowly nodding or slowly shaking.
Next there's a noise like when dodgeball flies past your head. Like air sucking away from you, and this is Angie, doing something like crying as she repeats, Mean back. Always I'm mean back. Mean back. I hear her standing up; the chair creaks a bit. I run back to my place at the bench. A minute later the door opens and Angie comes out alone. Her face is all crinkled and horrified. The door behind her closes. The Honcho stays in his office. I whisper, "Should I go in?" "No,â&#x20AC;? she mouths. She's walking towards me to take a seat on the bench. She has a small piece of paper in her hand. Things are written on it in blue marker. She sits beside me without making eye contact. I'm tense and ready to fight if that's what she wants to do, if that's what we're supposed to do. Maybe the list in her hand is a set of rules for a fight that will somehow solve all the problems of having to know other people. The Honcho wrote them down for her so she wouldn't forget. This whole thing was planned. Jacqueline is behind the hallway door, waiting to hear a bone crack or for some other foul play. Is biting allowed? Hair pulling? The Honcho is guarding the other door. We're trapped to battle it out here. When she speaks I almost hop up and hold my fists in front of my face. "He wants to know if you love me." "What?" "That's the first thing I'm supposed to ask." She looks down at her paper. "Do I love you how?" "At all." "No," I say. I think I sound pretty confident. I look at the wall in front of me. There's a picture of hole nineteen at a golf course. In the glass I see a bit of my reflection. A redness at the corner of my mouth, her lipstick. "Me either,â&#x20AC;? Angie says. She pauses before the next question. I'm a lot less tense, but still scared of what the Honcho wants her to ask me next, and whatever's after that. The silence is hard to deal with, so I blurt out, "I'm sorry." "For what?"
"I don't know. Not loving you? I felt like I should say it. Does it say that on there? To say that?" I want to know what is on that paper, what the instructions are, the rules. "I don't like girls,” Angie says. There’s something majorly different about her and I can’t figure it out. It’s making me nervous. "Me either," I say. "Okay so don't be sorry." "I don't even like you. I'm sorry." "It's okay,” Angie says, looking down at here paper. “Do you want to continue coming here?" "I don't know. Is that what it says?" I want to rip the paper from her hands so bad, answer the questions right, and just shove it under his door. Maybe if I don't know the answers I can use my Call Pass and dial Mom. She'd know. She's rid herself of sociopaths before. Angie is just staring at the golf picture. "I guess this place is kind of for babies,” I say. Angie doesn’t say anything. “Is that what it says to ask?" I want to be sure that she’s not messing anything up. I feel like this is a second chance for us. She nods. More silence. I get curious: "Do you want to keep coming here?” "I do." "Why?" "I don't have friends anywhere else." I wonder which of us she considers her friends. "Me too. I want to keep coming here," I say. When I hear my words I know they’re true. "Then William says you have to learn to love me.” Angie inches away a little, so I can’t see her face at all. "Like how?" "I don't know he told me the same thing." We both sit still. I kind of want to kiss her again, but on the forehead or the cheek like grownups do in public. I almost lean over when the door to the hallway opens. Jacqueline walks in, passes by with a sad smile, and knocks on the Honcho's door. "Their mothers are here,” I hear her say. I’m worried we’ve been banned from Principlz for good. I have to stop this. 73
"I think we made up!” "Lovely, lovely, but you two are heading home, regardless," the Honcho says, exiting his office, pointing toward the door to the stairwell. Angie and I stand up together. *** Angie's mother took up a lot of space in the lobby. She wore a jean-jacket and a ballcap; she was breathing heavily from the walk through the parking lot. Holly's mother did her best not to look, but she couldn’t help notice this woman was smiling. Maybe it wasn't a smile, but the way a dog pants with the corners of its mouth pulled back. Holly's mother watched the door instead. They were both silent. Muffled sounds of childish yelling came from somewhere in the huge building. When their daughters entered the lobby, the mothers spoke simultaneously. "Let's go.” Angie’s face looked bruised, tight and red. Holly stared directly at her mother. "We're not leaving for good are we?" Holly asked. "I don’t know. We'll discuss it." Angie's mother turned towards the door, holding her daughter's hand, "Well, if it's any help, she's thirteen next week. We sure ain't coming back." Through a window in the lobby, a small shape appeared. Ben’s face, blurry, ghostly. Holly and her mother noticed him watching. Ben was clearly fixed on Holly, and Holly's mother considered his fledgling face as if it belonged to an alien. No one waved. Holly wanted to wave, but was worried that might make everything final. "I don't think we will either, honey," Holly's mother replied, as if amending her answer to her daughter, "We're a little too old for this place anymore." Holly was near panic, squeezing back tears from her eyes. Would crying make her seem like she belonged here? She didn't know what to do. Run? Yell something? Hug someone? She didn't even know what to do with her hands. Her shorts were starting to dry. She put them in her pockets where they tightened into fists. Angie’s eyes were hidden in her arm, her hair a ratty mess of tangles. They followed in a line out the front door. A wind blew into the lobby where Jacqueline stood, watching them go, waving to their backs.
The two women and their two girls walked to the cars. It seemed to Holly like her mother was running to the car. Even taking twice as many steps didn’t catch her up. She wondered where Evaline was, how far away she’d already gotten. Probably home, gone, forever. She glanced back over her shoulder for Ben. His head was in the front window, like he’d been following her. For some reason he terrified her, and she turned back in the direction of her mother, the parking lot, the world. “Holly. What are you waiting for?” her mother asked. In the backseat, Holly watched Angie climb into shotgun of her mother's Ford Suburban. The girls saw one another for a moment and both opened their eyes a little wider, as if to say goodbye for good. Or to ask, What happened? "I want to stay here," Holly asserted. "It's time for us to leave." Her mother looked at her through the rearview mirror. "I want to still come here. I want to stay right here." "Holly, baby, no you don’t.” She put the car in reverse and pointed them towards the exit. Holly twisted beneath her seat belt, sat up on her knees, and looked out the window. The building, the yard, something watching the mothers leave: these things grew smaller. She could not make out her reflection. Her mother pressed a button and the window slid down halfway, as far as it would go. Holly held out her hand to wave, but an unruly wind blew it back inside.
Nolan Allan is a writer from North Carolina and you can follow him here @nolanallan. Tyler Barton recently moved to Mankato, Minnesota from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University at Mankato and the fiction editor of Third Point Press. Follow him @goftyler. John W addy Bullion is a medical librarian in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @jwbullion. J. De Nero received her BA in English and Creative Writing from The State University of New York at Fredonia. She splits her time between traveling stateside and teaching English in South Korea. Kendra Fortm eyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction for Broad! Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @kendraffe. Zebulon Huset teaches a creative writing class in San Diego and publishes the writing prompt blog Notebooking Daily. Jacob Johnson is a fiction and poetry writer from Massachusetts. Benedict Noero lives in New England. Adam â&#x20AC;&#x153;Buchoâ&#x20AC;? Rodenberger is a 36 year-old writer from Kansas City. M eggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College.
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