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Rind Literary Magazine Issue 8 1


Rind Literary Magazine Issue 8 March 2016

rindliterarymagazine.com

All Works Š Respective Authors, 2016

Cover and in-magazine graphics By: Collette curran

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Editor in Chief: Dylan Gascon

Fiction Editors: Johnathan Etchart Jenny Lin Melinda Smith Stephen williams

Nonfiction Edit ors: Collette Curran Owen Torres William Ellars Anastasia Zamora

Poetr y edit ors: Shaymaa Mahmoud Sean hisaka

Webmaster: Omar Masri

Blog Manager: Dylan Gascon

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Contents Acknowledgements

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Contributors

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Fiction: Bomb/ Kevin Singer

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Remaking Wakefield/S.M. Kahle

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No point in telling/Tom Ray

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Cross country/dick yaeger

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In session/ian Johnson

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Supernova/frank morelli

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Poetry: Moving Day/Holly Day

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Long before the end of the world

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I could see the seagulls and the whales and my 9 year old self/ tim perez

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Acknowledgements Thank you to all of our contributors, past and present, for helping us get this thing moving. Thank you to the creative writing faculty of the University of California-Riverside, Mount San Antonio College, Rio Hondo College and Riverside Community College for your continued support of this magazine. Rind is proud to announce Dylan Gascon is now Editor-in-Chief. We’re excited for what the future holds. Rind is on the look out for original artwork and photography for our upcoming issues. If you or someone you know might be interested in contributing, send us an inquiry for more details. Please support the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival; find them at www.sgvlitfest.com. We’ll be there, and so should you. Check out our listing on Duotrope. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Regular updates on Rind and other fun and interesting things can be found at our affiliated blog site: www.thegrovebyrind.wordpress.com. If you would like to contribute to Rind, send your manuscript to rindliterarymagazine@gmail.com. Rind would also like to give a special thanks to Lisa Tate and Ron Lee for helping with this issue. Your contribution is duly appreciated.

Prost! –The Rind Staff

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Bomb by Kevin Singer

I tell a puppy-dog kid to move his suitcase from the door. I flinch at the sight of it, despite myself. Threat levels raised; any one of these bags could be hiding a bomb, but we've got to keep it hush-hush, as always. The kid's startled. He mumbles an apology and lurches the suitcase away. I move into the next car, trying my damnedest not to think about bombs. Up ahead my nephew Nick slouches in an aisle seat. He's on his new shiny-as-Christmas iPhone and whatever he's looking at gives him a shit-eating grin. On his lap is the briefcase he got just for his job, Italian leather, his full name embroidered on the flap. “Is he too dumb to remember his own name?” My sister Clare said. “Maybe he should put his cell number there too.” Kid's fresh out of college and already he lands a job at Goldman Sachs. When he was little he'd cheat at Monopoly and then lie about it to your face. Yeah, he'll go far in this world. I think of Lucas in that hospital bed. It burns me up. It's the 6:05, Northeast Corridor line from New York to Trenton, all stops. They're all crammed in – even the middle seats are taken. You’ve got the Indians and the Chinese. Probably IT, cause they aren't dressed the best and they’ve got their laptops out. You’ve got the college kids commuting back home, headphones blaring so loud I can hear every word of their crap music. Then you’ve got the rich ones—mostly white—with their suits and cufflinks, skirts and blouses and heels. All pressed and clean, always, like they never feel the heat, like nothing could ever break them. I shuffle over to my nephew. He pulls a staged double-take and nods, “Hey, Uncle Ray.” His pass isn't even out. I beckon and he fishes it from his nametag bag. That smirk. Just like my brother 6


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Kenny's. I force a smile. He's still just a kid, after all. “How's Lucas?” Nick asks. “Holding his own.” “Tell him I'm gonna come by this weekend. I got the new Call of Duty. It’s killer.” “Sure thing.” The smirk is gone, and now I see how much his blue eyes are like his father's, and mine, and my sister Clare's. “I gotta keep moving.” Tanya meets me halfway down. She's only three years on the job. She’s chunky and chatty, but sweet. “You talked to your friend Brad lately?” I shrug. They met up at a barbecue I had last summer. Brad got what he wanted. She wanted more. I don't wanna get involved. “Not in a while,” I lie. I don't tell her that Brad and I grabbed a couple of beers two weeks ago after I left the hospital. “You don't seriously want to waste the next twenty years of your life working for NJ Transit,” he said while eyeing a Dominican chick three stools over. “Doesn't it kill you being there, knowing that life's passing you by?” I didn't tell Brad about the box on the front seat of my beat-up Mustang. I wouldn't tell him how I waited till Lucas was asleep before doing it. I had no right. Forgive me. No, I had every right. “I thought you and him were best friends.” Tanya says. I half nod. Brad finished college and got into real estate. Now he rehabs old houses. I didn't make it past sophomore year once Suzanne got pregnant with Lucas. Everyone said I'd need a job with benefits, so I got a job with benefits. I keep punching tickets, trying to get away from her. “He's a sweetheart,” she says. She never had a chance, not with Brad. He never sticks it out for the long haul. His idea of long-term is three months. Sometimes I think guys like Brad have it right.

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We leave the tunnel. The car shimmies on the track as it picks up speed. The red sunset bleeds into the windows. Jersey now. Past the meadowlands: mucky nature in a tangle of highways and rail lines. A heron’s next to a clump of reeds, white feathers a staining the brown swamp. There's some brown fuzzy hair growing on Lucas's upper lip. Gotta remember to bring a razor and some shaving cream. I cross into the next car. Same faces. Same but different. Some nod off. Peaceful. I hate them for that. Suzanne could always fall asleep anywhere, drop of a hat. I was the insomniac. “You worry about crap that's never gonna happen,” she told me, just before she split for Miami, leaving me with two kids to raise. When Lucas was diagnosed she jetted back. Damned if I'd let her stay at the house. She's at her sister's. Two peas in a rotten pod. “Hi Ray, how's things?” “Swell, Coop.” Mr. Cooper's an antique. He smells of nicotine and coffee but he always smiles, like he's proud of his ultra-white dentures. “Call me Coop, everyone does,” he told me the hundredth time I checked his pass. “And the kids?” I don't tell him how Suzanne took Alicia to the mall yesterday. My sister Clare always takes her clothes shopping but Suzanne insisted it was her job, not Clare's, like she suddenly remembered she was someone's mother. So I come home and my little girl's wearing shorts a stripper would wear. “She's twelve,” Suzanne said. “She needs to feel good about her body.” I tossed them in the trash. Alicia still wouldn't speak to me this morning. “Growing like weeds. You know how it is.” I pat Coop's shoulder. Gotta keep on moving. The train rocks and I smell vanilla. A blonde ponytail girl licks tiny spoonfuls staring out the window. I should bring Lucas some ice cream. Häagen-Dazs. None of that hospital crap. His appetite is picking up. Doc says that’s good. Labs are good. Everything is good. But the words coming from

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her mouth don't match the look in her eyes. No donor, no hope. What if I get on the intercom and ask all these people? Lottery odds, but who knows? Maybe ice cream ponytail girl. I cross into the next car and then I see it: a blue duffel bag, gash on the side stitched with red thread, alone on a two-seater. An old man sits across the aisle. “Sir, is this your bag?” He looks up from his crossword like I'm talking Italian. “Your bag, sir?” He shakes his head. All I can think of is that dummy bomb they found on the tracks in Kenilworth last month, right after Osama got that pork-coated bullet between the eyes. I thought things would quiet down after that. They didn't. I keep it in my hand and back out of the car. Tanya bumps into me. “Unattended,” I whisper. A wrinkled woman, Chinese maybe, runs up to me. “That's mine.” I don't like her tone. “Ma'am, you can't leave your bag unattended.” “I just went to bathroom. Not unattended.” Tanya's hand is on my shoulder. She pushes forward. “It's alright. Just a misunderstanding.” I'm burning up. I know she's thinking about last month when I found that envelope on the ground, and the white powder on the seat near it. Anthrax. Well, it could've been. Ever since all this craziness started, I feel like death’s waiting around the next bend in the tracks. Even Alicia's noticing it in me, and she's just a kid. I've got an audience of faces staring at me. I need a breather, so I head to the end of the car. I slide the window open a hand's length. The air doesn't stink as bad as I thought it would. I touch the white envelope jammed into my back pocket, the one I wish I never opened. Damn Clare and her big mouth. “It's funny, we all got the same blue eyes, me and my kids, Kenny and his boys. You, Alicia. But not Lucas.” She had too many glasses of Chablis at Kenny's barbecue a couple months ago. That's what she's good at – guzzling wine and running her mouth. “Suzanne's father has brown eyes,” I told her. Then she got this embarrassed look on her face and said, “Oh, but he definitely has your

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scrawny build.” That's when I began to wonder, and I couldn't stop wondering. The train lurches to a stop at Newark. I key my door open and step onto the platform. Bodies get off, bodies get on. All those years ago when I started I'd play a game where I'd try and remember as many faces as I could. That game got old. Now 15 years gone by. How many of those faces got fired? Won the lottery and moved to Hawaii? Ran off with their secretaries? Died? If I had to do it all over again... Do what? I finger the envelope. GenView. I found them on the Internet. They mailed me a brown box with two cotton-swab sticks in plastic tubes. One sample from each subject for $199. Plus tax. Stu's outside the front car. He flashes his light – all clear. I flash mine back and step into the car, key the door shut, and we rattle on down the Northeast Corridor. A new batch of bodies. I walk down the aisle. Two men. Dark. Hairy. Sweaty. Skinny and tight, eyes ahead, bags on laps. I glare at them. “Tickets.” They flash their monthly passes. Their eyes are blank. The dead stare of a true believer dreaming of his 72 virgins, or the dead stare of a used-up office drone? I hold their stare. One of them shifts in his seat and looks down. No bombs. These guys are legit. I just know. I hope to God I'm right. I laugh out loud. God. Sitting on his big ass throne, playing with his toys. My second cousin Martha was the last one tested. One hundred and forty seven blood relations and not one damn match. What did Lucas ever do to you, Oh Mighty Lord? That's when I stopped the Sunday visits with him and his flock. I walk on through the car, checking tickets of the new bodies. I pass my nephew Nick again. His eyes are closed, slightest of smiles, lost in his music. Sure, he can be a cocky sonofabitch, but

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he's a good kid at heart. I look at him and feel the pull of blood. Sweet dreams, kid. Enjoy your peace while it lasts. At the end of the car three suits talk with the volume turned to 11. Tomato faces, most likely fresh from some whiskey-sick happy hour, each holding a bag-wrapped tall boy. I know the type: second generation Irish—sons of cops or firefighters—who muscled their way onto Wall Street. “Tickets.” One is hippo huge. He's holding court – loud, slurring, beer breath. He spits while he talks. When Lucas was born I held him in the hospital and he sneezed in my face, spattering me with his baby spit. His first sneeze. It scared him and he howled. “He’s the picture of you,” Suzanne told me. I was so cocksure I would protect him from any threat. Turns out I'm powerless. And a fool. “Tickets,” I say again. “Yeah I heard you the first time buddy.” Not even looking at me. “So I says to her...” “Sir, I need to see your ticket.” “What's your problem?” What's my problem, this prick wants to know. My son's body is failing him, and today I found out that I'm not really his father, that's my problem. “Just doing my job, sir.” I spit out “sir” as if I'd said asshole. He turns to his buddies. “I swear, these government workers. No good hacks in it for the fat pension.” My heart's clawing out of my chest. How the hell am I gonna tell Lucas? “Sir, keep your voice down or I'm gonna have to--” “Don't you tell me what to do.” He jabs a sausage finger in my face, closer, closer. Then he touches my forehead. Contact. That’s it. I grab his finger hard. He yelps. He's twice my size but I don't care. Then he shoves me, his white-shirted belly slamming against my rib cage. I stumble back

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and fall, his body sloppy on top of me. I knee him. He yells. Then he pulls a box cutter from his pocket. A box cutter? What the fuck? I clamp on his wrist and push it back but he's bull strong. He grunts and lunges. The hand inches lower and he swipes the blade on my face. Pain sears my cheek. I buck. I kick. Then an arm gets him in a headlock, pulls him off me. It's my nephew Nick. The man drops the blade, gasping for air in Nick's hold. “You okay?” I nod. Tanya runs up. She calls for help on the intercom. Stu comes. So do Leroy and Charlie. They slap cuffs on the fat bastard—he's heaving now and looking tragic—and Stu radios to Linden for the cops. They'll be waiting when we pull in the station. Dickhead's gonna need a good lawyer. Tanya pulls tissues from her pocket and presses them against my cheek. It burns. “You're gonna live, hon,” she says. Yeah, I'm gonna live. Drops of my blood are on the floor. Just a few. I stare at them. I can't do it. I won't do it. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the white envelope. “What's that?” Tanya asks. “Junk mail.” Lucas – my poor, brave boy. It doesn't matter one bit whether he has my eyes or not. All I know for sure is he's mine, no matter what some cold paper says, and when he's gone from me it's gonna blow me apart. Jesus. How can I ever get ready for that?

THE END

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Remaking Wakefield By S.M. Kahle

Charles Wakefield’s wife took his hand. The ceremony host asked the Career Service award nominees to stand as he read their names. When Charles’s name was called, he stood, feeling the eyes of the attendees on him. He smiled and acknowledged the host and attendees with a nod of his head. This, he believed, showed confidence but not overconfidence, which he felt, and humility, which he didn’t. The nominees sat again, and Charles tapped his feet while he waited through the explanation of the award’s importance. “And . . . the honor of the Career Service award goes to,” Charles slid his chair back, “Henry Hopkins.” Charles was almost out of his seat before he realized he hadn’t won. His wife took his hand again as he watched Henry walk by on his way up to the stage grinning madly—the fool. On the drive home his wife told him not to be disappointed--that he was sure to be nominated again. He pulled in to the driveway scraping the underbelly of the car. His wife glanced at him; he would chide her when she pulled in to the driveway going too fast. Out of the car, he was in his study at his desk before she stepped through the front door. There he stayed for another hour pondering his

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He awoke early the next day, a bright brisk October morning. He showered, shaved, and dressed, and like every other morning went downstairs and drank his coffee at the kitchen table with his wife. They discussed the leaves in the front yard, the leaky pipe in the basement, and the dance recital they would be attending that weekend for their youngest daughter. He told his wife he would be away for a few days on a business trip but would be back in time for the recital. He kissed her goodbye before crossing the threshold and closed the door behind him. He did not travel for business but instead took the subway toward the city, disembarked at the next stop, and rented himself a small apartment near the city center. There, he started his financial consultancy anew and created a life one subway stop away from his own house where he had left his wife and two daughters to live theirs. It is difficult to say when, precisely, the idea had unfurled itself over the shallows of his mind altering the direction of his imagination, but soon after, the previously devoted husband and father awoke each morning alone, prepared breakfast, and read the financial times before entering the city remade—a shadow. Most nights, after he had finished business for the day he would make dinner and spend the evening reading or watching television. Other nights, he walked to the subway, rode in silence, and emerged three blocks from his former home on Coral Street. Once ensconced under one of several large oaks that ran the length of the street, he watched the house he still considered his own. He watched as his family left and returned home and as friends and former colleagues visited.

Five weeks after he left he watched a police cruiser pull into his driveway and a large

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officer dislodged him from inside. Charles’s wife greeted the officer at the front door. Her face was pale and her dark hair was pulled back. As she spoke with the officer she clasped her hands together then lowered her head and wiped her eyes. She drew herself up after a few moments and began again head high. It was then that Charles had his first doubt about what he had done. He decided he would return home that evening. As he walked from the subway stop to Coral Street that night, he thought about what he would tell his wife when she answered the door to find him standing there. He arrived at the end of his street not knowing how he would explain his departure to her. As he approached the front steps he saw his wife sitting in the front room. He was at the front door when he heard his youngest daughter call down. Emily‌the recital. He froze. He had, in fact, attended her recital in disguise, realizing when her class took the stage, that neither his daughter nor his wife had attended. His wife called back. His heart kicked. He turned and knocked over the planter on the sidewalk. His wife looked up from the book in her hand to the dimly lit street outside. Charles started running and didn’t stop until he reached the subway.

One year after he left he read his obituary in the morning paper. Finally. He arrived early for his funeral and watched from the tree-lined square nearby. Friends, family, acquaintances, and a few former clients walked from their cars with their jackets pulled tightly around them. They made themselves small against the wind nodding at one another as they entered the large white doors of the brick-plastered church. Once everyone had entered he crossed the square, slipped in quietly, and took a seat in an empty pew near the back. Soft sniffles and murmured conversations echoed in the high ceilinged church.

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He was pleased that his funeral was being held in this church. They hadn’t attended regularly, but when they had he spent most of the time marveling at the vaulted ceiling and stained glass. It was a handsome structure--appropriate for such a service. Scanning the room, he saw a table that sat where a casket would have and that several baskets of flowers were arranged to frame a large photograph of him. He was not pleased. The photograph on the table had been taken on his honeymoon. He was wearing a polo-shirt and a pair of gray Bermuda shorts with large white flowers printed all over them. Why hadn’t his wife chosen the photograph that was taken a few years ago by a portrait photographer? In it he wore a dark suit and somber tie against a sky blue background; his sandy hair was cut and coiffed precisely, all in the manner, he believed, of good taste. He looked serious and competent. It was the photo on his business card. In the pew in front of him, a woman he didn’t recognize whispered to the man beside her, “Can you believe that they had to persuade Carol to give her husband a funeral,” the woman whispered. “She didn’t believe her husband was dead. They convinced her to have one by telling her it was important for the girls. Poor thing,” the woman said as the organist began to play. “Can you believe it? The poor thing,” the woman said again. As soon as the service ended, Charles retreated to a coffee shop across the street. He counted the cars in the procession as it moved past; a tingling warmth spread through him as he sat counting, as car after car, moving by at a stately pace headlights on, claimed the city street. He shone underneath his tweed trilby. He had purchased the hat for occasions that required disguise, but after seeing himself in it, he had been wearing it regularly. After the rush of the first trilby he bought another, houndstooth this time, then a few newsboys, a bowler, and finally a fedora, wide-brimmed and black. He admired again the impression the trilby made when he caught his reflection in the window. He sat

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smiling, watching the cars pass. When he returned to his apartment he made notes of the day, as he would do occasionally—on those days he wanted to remember.

Not long after his funeral Charles began the walk back to the subway station after having spent the evening lurking near his house. It was nearly dark, and as he walked he heard someone approaching from behind. He quickened his pace as he walked to the subway. The footsteps behind him kept pace with his. He quickened his pace again. “Charles!” someone shouted. He had achieved a remarkable change in appearance with a few simple alterations--he had darkened his hair and had traded his contacts for glasses. But now someone was calling his name. He continued walking, afraid to look around to see who was shouting his name. He felt someone grab his arm and spin him around. “Charles!” It was Tom Hawthorne, a former client. “Charles, my god!” Charles stared back at him unable to make a sound. “It’s you….isn’t it,” Tom asked, his grip on Charles’ arm slackening. “Is it you?” “I don’t know who you think I am,” Charles wanted to sound intimidating and offended, but his voice emerged almost as a whisper, “but I have no idea what you are talking about.” “What…” Tom started. Charles wrenched his arm from Tom’s grasp, turned, and ran to the subway entrance. He hurried

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down the steps to the subway. He stumbled and nearly fell but righted himself by grabbing the railing along the side of the steps; sharp stabbing pain radiated from his right knee. He knew he had been fortunate to evade friends and acquaintances thus far. He stumbled around the corner at the bottom of the steps. He bent over trying to catch his breath, the pain in his knee stabbing. He clung to the wall watching the commuters emerge from the steps on the other side. Tom didn’t follow. Charles limped to the subway platform determined to avoid his former home for as long as he could. He returned to it a week later.

It had been months—years—since he left. He returned to the notes he made on particular days, special days, especially those from the day of his funeral. As that day receded further into the past, each reading returned him to it—to the warmth of the coffee shop, the grandeur of the procession, and the beatific brightness of the day. He had left his wife’s unfortunate choice of photograph out of his notes of the day, and but for the vaguest sense of something amiss, this detail did not trouble his remembrance. He sometimes imagined the day when he would return home, next week perhaps, or next month, soon though. He imagined his daughters running to greet him at the door, bright faces smiling--how he would lean down and scoop them up.

Early evening, November, nearly ten years after his funeral, he walked to the house on Coral Street. It had been two months since his last visit. He had grown accustomed to reading in his apartment most evenings--perusing his notes. As he approached the house he noticed a large truck, 19


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sides emblazoned with lettering meant to look like script, parked in his driveway. The script looked familiar and as he got closer he realized why. It spelled “Upscale Thrift,” the name of the consignment shop located a several blocks from his house. Two men emerged from the house carrying his desk. His stomach knotted. He watched as they carried his desk, then his chair, bookshelves, and several boxes to the truck. He started to walk toward the truck as the men were returning to the house, but he stopped himself and returned to his spot before being noticed. Soon after the truck pulled away, his wife carried several bags to the car and drove away. He approached as close to the house as he had ever dared after kicking over the planter nearly ten years earlier. His diploma and certificates, displayed in his study for so long after he left, were gone, as were his golf clubs, books, and photographs. His things had been there every time he had visited. They were fixtures of the household, and they were gone. He walked to the consignment shop five blocks from the house. The shop was closed and the alley behind it was empty except for several bags sitting against the night drop bin. He hurried over to the bags and opened one; the gray tweed of his winter coat was unmistakable under the yellow glow of shop’s alley light. He had worn it a week before his departure to chaperone his oldest daughter’s middle school dance. He dug through the bags pulling out blazers, button downs, undershirts, and ties. He sat against the back door of the consignment store holding one of his undershirts, his clothes piled in his lap. The undershirt was soft and light—the thin cotton folded over his hand. He brought the shirt to his face and felt its softness against his cheek. It had been laundered recently. He brought it close and breathed deeply, under the soap he smelled cotton—clean and organic, there was no trace of his cologne, but he caught a hint of his wife’s perfume, flowery and sweet. As he sat in the alleyway with his shirt pressed to his face he imagined her sitting, folding his clothes and placing them into the bags now beside him. He saw her before him, the steadiness of her movements, her slow deep

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breaths as she laid one of his shirts on her lap and folded one sleeve, then the other, then in half and placed it in the bag. Sometime before dawn he rose and walked home–undershirt stuffed into his coat pocket--flopping out over the top.

The next day he followed his wife as she walked to the subway. When they emerged from the subway onto a street busy with shoppers his wife moved quickly. He found it difficult to keep her in view as he struggled against the other shoppers. When his wife entered the department store half a block ahead, he moved out onto the curb near a parking meter and waited for her to appear again. When she came out she turned and began walking in his direction. He moved out into the sidewalk. He kept her in view and moved in her direction. She stepped slightly to her right as if to go around him, and he moved to intercept her. Their arms brushed and he pressed his shoulder to hers. Their eyes met, and they stood facing one another. He opened his mouth to speak; no sound emerged. What had he been doing all these years? The more he tried to reconstruct his intentions the more they slipped from him. He never once doubted that she still loved him. His wife blinked. He searched her face for some hint that she might recognize him. He wanted to say something; he had to say something before she walked away. “Carol.” His voice was weak. “It’s me,” he tried to say, but he wasn’t sure he had made a sound; his mouth was dry, his tongue thick. She stared back. Pain shot up from his knee nearly buckling his leg. “I don’t know who you think you are,” she whispered, “and I have no idea what you are talking about,” and she was swept away in the crush of the crowd. He stared after her as she found her footing and walked quickly now, on her way back toward the subway. He stood trembling and wideeyed, buffeted from all sides, watching her as she stopped once to look back along the crowded sidewalk toward the place where they had stood face to face for the last time.

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Holly Day Moving Day The old house slides past the windows, disappears in the rearview mirror, turns the corner and it’s gone, that whole part of our lives together in that place, the backyard where I carried my baby around each night, waiting for him to be able to see the millions of stars suddenly visible on stark winter nights, the stunted flowers I grew from cheap seed packets, the way the baby clothes fluttered on the laundry line printed with bright-colored cartoon monkeys and puppy dogs. He sleeps between us in the front seat, so quiet, unaware that he will never see that back yard again, that he will never see the children from this neighborhood again. There are so many miles ahead of us, so many miles of empty, unfamiliar country, flat, yellow plains, small, unfriendly towns rest stops full of hollow-eyed people and old people who ask too many questions, concrete cities where flowers rarely bloom and the residents only come outside at night. Three thousand miles to hold onto and believe in promises of white beaches, seabirds, and no more snow almost seems like too much to ask.

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Long Before the End of the World It’s under my skin, spread out like a thin layer of drying pus between the transverse ligaments of my forearms the ropey muscles that pit in the backs of my knees the serrated blade of spine, the muscles that knot between my fluttering scapula. All around me I see evidence that life will go on long after this cancer sets in, sends thin hair-filaments of death like optical tubing fetid piping through my body, pumping death into every pulsing, flapping organ and gasping orifice there’s no need to drop bombs or send plagues, not where I’m concerned—the apocalypse is already happening to me.

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No Point in Telling by Tom Ray The doorbell interrupted Charlie’s breakfast. He figured it was a salesman, and was ready to give him a hard time about calling early in the morning when people would be eating, or even sleeping. When he opened the door, however, he saw an older guy, dressed in a lime green, shortsleeved knit shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals. The man was of average height, a little taller than Charlie, with gray, receding hair. His eyeglasses were made of ugly brown plastic, with brass rims halfway around the lenses. His wrinkled skin with pink and brown splotches made him look to be in his late sixties or early seventies, about the same age as Charlie. “Hi. I’m your new neighbor, Earl Peeler.” “Hello. I’m Charlie Bertrand.” He extended his hand, which the man reluctantly accepted and shook. “Sorry to meet you on an occasion like this, but I notice that when you cut your grass, you don’t cut all the way to the property line. When I cut my grass it’ll leave an uncut piece on your side of the line. Unless I cut some of your grass for you, which I don’t intend to do.” Charlie would have thought he was joking, except that this Earl Peeler had a stern look on his face, clamping his jaw tight when he finished speaking, and staring intently. “Oh? I don’t cut my grass. I’ll tell my lawn service to watch for that the next time they mow.” “If you don’t believe me, I can show you the property line. I just had it surveyed

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before we went to closing.” “I’ll take your word for it. Just leave my part uncut, and I’ll make sure they cut my yard up to where you stop cutting.” He scowled back at Peeler; two could play at being a badass. “No, come on out, I want you to see it.” He added emphasis to his words by bobbing his head as he spoke, and motioned with his arm to the boundary of their properties. “I’m eating breakfast. I’ll tell my yardman about the mowing.” Charlie slammed the door. He went back to the breakfast nook in the kitchen, not able to eat until his stomach relaxed, which took a couple of minutes. By the time he felt like eating the meal was cold. He dumped the coffee into the sink, and poured a fresh cup. He warmed the bacon for a few seconds in the microwave, which worked okay, but the eggs couldn’t be warmed without making them hard, so he had to eat them cold, along with cold toast. He usually read the newspaper after breakfast while he drank his second cup of coffee. As usual he’d only made two cups, which meant he didn’t have a second cup this morning because of Earl Peeler. He could have made another cup, but that would be wasteful, and, anyway, he didn’t feel like the effort. After reading the paper he drove to the fitness center. As he came out of the locker room Charlie saw Jessica Blanchard walking on a treadmill. She was an old friend, who’d been the listing real estate agent for the house next door. When the house was on the market she would talk about it with Charlie, telling him about prospective buyers and generally exuding the salesperson’s enthusiasm. It occurred to him now that

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she’d said nothing more to him about it since the house sold. He stood next to her treadmill and said “Hi,” and she nodded at him and smiled. He went on, “I just met that new neighbor you moved in next door to me.” “Earl?” “Yeah. What do you think of him?” “Interesting guy. I think you all probably have a lot in common.” She spoke tentatively, and Charlie guessed that she knew Earl wasn’t going to be a good neighbor. “I hope to hell not.” “Why do you say that?” As she strode on purposefully, studying the control panel of the treadmill, he told her about Earl’s visit that morning. “What’d he want you to do about it?” “I don’t know. Come out and look at the property line, he said. I told him I was in the middle of breakfast and slammed the door in his face.” She laughed. “That doesn’t sound like you. I don’t blame you, though. He’s a character, all right. Very high maintenance as a customer.” The distance indicator on the treadmill control panel showed two miles, and she began a cool-down phase. “I’ll bet. Where’d he come from?” “He’s from around here, but they’d retired way out in the country. When his wife died his kids wanted him to move back into town, to be closer to them if he ever needed help. He never mentioned it to me, but I imagine his wife’s passing must have affected him” “Did I act like that after Margie died?”

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“No, you didn’t. But different people react in different ways.” “Yeah. Right.” His tone was skeptical. As Jessica finished cooling down on the treadmill, he went to the Nautilus equipment.

***

Charlie had almost forgotten about his obnoxious neighbor in a day or so. He didn’t spend a lot of time in his own yard, but when he left the house he would often see Earl puttering around. He never waved at Earl, and Earl never looked in his direction. He came home from grocery shopping one afternoon to find Guillermo, his yardman, mowing the lawn. He knew he was supposed to tell Guillermo something, but couldn’t remember what it was. After putting away the groceries, he looked out his living room picture window at Guillermo riding back and forth over the front yard. Giving up on recalling what he needed to tell the yardman, he sat down at his computer in the dining room to check email, and became engrossed in a Quora article. When the noise of the lawnmower stopped he paused again to try to remember what he had wanted to say to Guillermo. He didn’t succeed, returned to reading the article, and then suddenly recalled that he was supposed to make sure his grass was cut all the way to the property line. Jumping up from the computer, he ran to the front door to see Guillermo’s pickup truck driving off, pulling a flatbed trailer carrying the riding mower. He went outside, entertaining the thought of trying to chase down the yardman. Quickly giving up on that idea, he walked toward the boundary between his yard and Earl’s. Guillermo had cut up to the line where Earl had cut his own grass, along the

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property line still marked by the surveyor’s stakes. Although relieved that his yardman had mowed up to the line without being told, he was also angry with himself for caring about it. Earl was crazy to make an issue of it. It was just an excuse to make Charlie do something. He was mad that he’d let his neighbor intimidate him. After he’d been back on his computer for a couple of hours the doorbell rang. He opened the door to find Earl grinning. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” “What?” He was surprised to see Earl, and couldn’t think of what the neighbor was talking about. “The lawn. Cutting your grass up to the property line wasn’t so hard, was it?” He wasn’t aggressive the way he had been in their first conversation, and seemed genuinely pleased. Earl’s satisfaction made Charlie want to push him off of the porch. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. I told you, I don’t cut my own grass. The yardman must have just cut up to where you left off.” He was scowling, wanting to knock that self-satisfied expression off of the other man’s face. The smile faded slightly. “Well, whatever, at least the grass got cut right.” “Buddy, if that kind of stuff worries you that much, you need to get a life.” Earl stopped smiling altogether. “Anyway, have a nice day.” He left the porch and headed back to his own house, leaving Charlie feeling better.

*** “I hate to bother you, but I have a doctor’s appointment, and the neighbors whose daughter Hannah usually plays with have gone on vacation. Can she stay with you for a

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few hours?” Nicole, Charlie’s daughter-in-law, was asking over the phone. “Sure, bring her on over.” “It’ll be this afternoon. I didn’t realize until just now that the Tiptons had gone on vacation. If I’d known, I would have called you earlier, or been able to make other arrangements. It’ll just be a couple of hours. It’s not an emergency or anything, just a routine visit.” Did he come across as being negative? Why did she always have to apologize and explain? He was glad to take care of his granddaughter. Did Nicole think that he didn’t want to do it? “That’s fine, Nicole. I’m not going anywhere this afternoon. Whenever you bring her, I’ll be here.” “It’s just that I hate to take sick leave while I’m teaching. I try to take care of routine doctor’s appointments during the summer.” “No problem. Just bring her on over.” “She’ll have lunch before I drop her off, so you won’t have to worry about that. She’ll probably just stay in your yard the whole time practicing her soccer. She wants to stay in shape for soccer season.” “Okay. Just bring her on.” He was getting tired of Nicole’s chatter, but didn’t want to cut her off. His late wife, Margie, had cautioned him about being one of those in-laws who made their children’s spouses feel unwanted. Margie was right, he knew, and he listened until Nicole finally stopped, and said good-bye. He was at his computer after lunch when he heard Nicole and Hannah coming through the front door. He got up and went to greet them.

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“Hi, Grandpa.” Hannah was wearing athletic shoes, shorts, and a short-sleeved shirt with a soccer ball pictured on the left side of her chest. She was small for a ten-year-old, Charlie thought, and skinny. She could grow out of that, he hoped. Her dark hair was plaited into two braids hanging down her back. She carried a soccer ball under her arm. “Gonna practice your dribbling today?” “Uh-huh.” “Good.” “She won’t be any trouble. She can just play in the yard.” Nicole was starting her nervous chatter again, so he moved to cut her off. “We’ll be fine. You know where the yard is Hannah, get to it. You better get going, Nicole. You don’t want to miss your appointment.” His comment seemed to startle Nicole, but with Hannah headed for the back door and Charlie turning to go back to the dining room, she left. He hadn’t been at the computer for long, maybe twenty minutes, when he heard the TV in the family room. Hannah must have gotten tired of soccer already, which wasn’t like her. Once she started her drills she usually stayed at it, almost obsessively he thought, juggling the ball on her thighs and ankles, practicing dribbling, repeatedly practicing her kicks. To Charlie her intense concentration on soccer practice seemed abnormal for a kid her age. Now that she was acting more like a ten-year-old, it worried him. If she’d injured herself, like if she twisted her ankle, Nicole would hold him responsible. He went into the family room. “How’s it going?”

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“Fine.” She said it in that voice which he understood to be ironic. “I’m just trying to find something on TV.” “Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?” “No, I’m fine Grandpa.” She continued scrolling through the cable “Guide” grid on the TV screen while he stood in the doorway, his hands in his pockets. After a minute of silence she added, “I think I made your neighbor mad.” “What happened?” “I accidentally kicked the ball into his yard. He came out and told me not to do that anymore, that I was trespassing.” “Which neighbor was it?” She pointed in the direction of Earl’s house, as Charlie had expected. The family on the other side was never at home during the day, and, anyway, they wouldn’t have said anything about a ball landing in their yard. “Did he yell at you?” Charlie was smiling, trying not to make it appear like a big deal. It was a big deal to him, though. “Yeah, a little bit.” “Aww, that shouldn’t keep you from practicing your soccer. That guy next door just gets testy sometimes, like old people do. Come on, I’ll practice with you, and if he comes out I’ll explain it to him.” “That’s okay, Grandpa. I don’t want to be any trouble.” “You’re no trouble. Come on, let’s go.” He spoke more sharply than he intended. He wanted make a point to Earl, and needed Hannah to come outside with him to do it. Out in the yard he thought he did a decent job challenging Hannah as she

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dribbled. He was never a jock, and had never even played sandlot soccer when he was a kid. He’d gone to plenty of games when his son Bob was a kid, though, and he’d been to Hannah’s games. After a couple of minutes he maneuvered the ball to the edge of his yard and kicked it onto Earl’s property, hard enough for it to land in the middle of his neighbor’s yard. Hannah had been laughing while Charlie was fighting her for the ball, but she stopped abruptly when the ball flew next door. Charlie stood there silently waiting for a reaction from Earl, and in a few seconds the neighbor came through the sliding glass door and onto his deck. Then Charlie walked to the ball, finally looking up at Earl as he bent to pick it up. “Howdy, Earl.” He spoke languidly. The neighbor stared at Charlie. He appeared to be hesitating. Charlie saw that Earl had come outside relishing the idea of yelling at the little girl again, and was unpleasantly surprised to see a man standing there. He finally spoke. “Don’t be kicking that ball into my yard.” “What was that?” Charlie was walking toward Earl now. He purposely kept his tone relaxed, in contrast with Earl’s belligerence. Now Charlie was standing directly in front of Earl, who was elevated a couple of feet above Charlie by the deck. They were in arm’s reach of each other. “You shouldn’t be in my yard. You’re trespassing.” Charlie’s walking straight at him, and standing right in front of him, seemed to have rattled the other man. His voice had become defensive, which was the effect Charlie had hoped to have. “Relax, Earl. It was an accident.” He had spoken normally, looking up at the old man. Then he lowered his voice. “You’d better never yell at my granddaughter again, I

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don’t care what she does in your yard. She didn’t hurt you. You yell at her again and I’ll kick your ass up one side of Mockingbird Way and down the other. If you want to yell at anybody, do it to me, not to a little girl.” Earl didn’t speak at first. Charlie had guessed that he was a bully, who would buckle with any resistance, even though he was bigger and heavier than Charlie. The frightened expression on Earl’s face, and his stuttering response, confirmed Charlie’s suspicion. “You’re overreacting. I didn’t mean anything.” “You remember what I said.” He turned and walked back to his yard. Hannah was staring at him, and then smiled. “What’d you say to him?” she whispered. “I just told him to lighten up.” Her eyes were shining in excitement, and she giggled. “He looked scared.” Charlie glanced back at Earl’s deck, and saw his neighbor had gone back inside. He dropped the ball at Hannah’s feet. “Go ahead and practice. If the ball lands in his yard, just go over and get it. Or call me and I’ll get it for you.” Back in the house, he poured himself a glass of iced tea and had just sat down at his computer when Hannah came into the dining room, panting. “There’s something wrong with that man.” “What is it?” “I don’t know.” Charlie thought Earl had decided to come back out and renew the confrontation. “If he wants a fight, he’s got it,” he said, getting up. He wasn’t much of a fighter, but he didn’t want Hannah to be afraid to play in his yard. Besides, he was sure Earl would

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back down again when confronted. Hannah said, “No. He’s fallen down.” Charlie followed her back into the yard. Earl was lying face down in his yard, a few feet from his deck, his right arm extended beyond his head and his left arm by his side. Charlie jogged over to him. “Are you all right?” he asked, shaking Earl’s shoulder slightly. The old man groaned. “What happened to him?” “I don’t know. After you went back inside I dribbled to the other side of your yard, then started back, and saw him laying here like this.” She spoke in her grownup tone that amused him and saddened him at the same time. Although her voice was calm, she wore a child’s concerned expression. He squatted next to the prone body. “Can you hear me? Can you talk?” Earl just moaned again. Charlie knew not to move a person with a possible back or neck injury, but he didn’t think that was the problem. He grasped each of Earl’s shoulders and gently turned him over on his back. Earl’s mouth was pulled to one side, and his eyes were staring. Charlie could see it was a stroke. He pulled out his cell phone and called nine-one-one. The operator was crisp and efficient, staying on the line and trying not to excite Charlie. He started to tell her she didn’t need to worry about calming him down, since he didn’t care that much for the guy anyway, but decided that was better left unsaid. There was nothing much for him to do until the ambulance arrived. Earl wasn’t bleeding, was breathing, and had a pulse. Still, Charlie became anxious. He smiled at Hannah and said, “They’ll be here soon,” trying to reassure her even as he was beginning to panic. She smiled back, standing awkwardly with one arm hanging by her side and the

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other arm reaching around behind her back to grasp it, and with her legs crossed. The ambulance arrived in what Charlie guessed was about forty-five minutes. Two athleticlooking EMTs, a man and a woman in blue, short-sleeved uniforms, carried big equipment bags. After they started working on Earl, Charlie looked at his phone, and found only fifteen minutes had passed since he’d called the emergency number. As the man worked on Earl, the woman asked Charlie about Earl and what had happened. He told her Hannah had been playing in the yard when she noticed Earl lying in the grass. He couldn’t tell her about Earl’s medical history, or relatives, or anything else she asked him. The man nodded at the woman, who went to the ambulance parked in the street and drove it through the side yard into the backyard. Charlie wanted to joke that Earl wouldn’t like them driving on his grass, but again held back. People didn’t always appreciate his humor, particularly in these kinds of situations. Once Earl was loaded into the ambulance and it pulled away, Charlie said, “Let’s go inside, kiddo. I’m kind of thirsty.” Hannah said, “Okay,” and seemed to relax. They went into the house. She got a Coke out of the refrigerator and he poured himself a new iced tea; the ice cubes had melted in the one he’d poured earlier, watering down the drink. “You want to practice some more soccer?” “No. I think I’ll just watch TV now.” “Yeah. Them carrying that guy out in an ambulance kind of puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?” “Yeah. Do you think we made him have a stroke?” She said it like it was just a matter of curiosity, but her face looked worried.

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“No, absolutely not. He probably wasn’t feeling well, and that’s why he was so crabby. It was probably coming on all day, and we just happened to be there when it hit.” He said it as if he spoke from a repository of knowledge that only adults are privy to. There was no need to make Hannah feel guilty, even though he suspected that his confrontation, caused by Hannah, might have been the cause of the stroke. She hadn’t asked for the confrontation, of course, and had been willing to just spend the afternoon watching TV. If the soccer ball caused the stroke, that was on Charlie. “No need to mention to your folks about that guy fussing about the ball. The main thing is, we called the ambulance, which probably saved his life.” Hannah said okay. He wondered if she could see that he thought he might be responsible for Earl’s stroke. When Nicole picked up Hannah he didn’t say anything to her about calling an ambulance, but that night he got a call from Bob. “Hi, Dad. Hannah said you all had some excitement there this afternoon.” “Really?” “Yeah. About the ambulance?” “Oh, yeah. Guy next door had a stroke. Fortunately, he had it in his yard, so Hannah could see him. She was playing soccer in my backyard.” “That’s what she told me, and you called the EMTs. You probably saved the guy’s life. Is he a good friend of yours?” “Not really. He just moved in recently. I hardly know him at all.” “Anyway, it’s great that you were able to save him. They ought to put something in the paper about it.” Bob was always looking for ways to get free publicity, even indirectly, for his insurance agency.

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“I hope not. It’s not worth a newspaper article.” If Earl recovered, he might tell a different story from the one that would be written up in the paper. It would be embarrassing to have to own up later to the dispute, which Earl might feel caused the stroke. “I really don’t like news article making a hero about people just doing the normal thing.” He must have spoken harshly, because Bob said, “Okay, if you feel that strongly about it. Still, I’m proud of you and Hannah.”

***

He was out of the house most of the next day, going to the gym, and then having lunch with other retired guys he’d worked with at the plant where he had been director of quality assurance. After that he went grocery shopping. Back home, he’d parked his car in the garage when he remembered he needed to check the mail. He walked down his driveway to the mailbox at the bottom of the hill, and was starting back to the house when he saw a late-model, black Lexus pulling out of Earl’s driveway. He’d slackened his pace to get a better look at the car. It was going up the street fast, but slowed as it got close to his driveway. He took a couple of hurried steps to get into the house before the driver could engage him. He glanced back, and the car was stopped at the end of his driveway. The driver clearly intended to talk to him, so he stood still. A woman in her forties with short, stylish, dark hair got out of the Lexus. She wore a gray pants suit with a white blouse, and sunglasses. She was full figured, tall, and

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fairly attractive. She walked confidently up the driveway, with a large black pocket book hanging from her left shoulder. As she approached Charlie she extended her hand, “Hi. I’m Tara Rutherford. Earl’s my dad.” Her full lips formed a broad smile. “Hi, how are you. I’m Charlie Bertrand.” He hoped the confidence in his voice hid his worry about what Earl might have told his family. “Did you call the ambulance yesterday?” “Yes.” “We can’t thank you enough. The doctor said Dad would have been in worse shape, or might even have died, if the EMTs hadn’t gotten there when they did.” “Glad to do it. It was just lucky that my granddaughter happened to be in the yard and noticed him lying there. How’s old Earl doing?” He felt hypocritical calling him “old Earl,” implying they were good friends. “Not too well, I’m afraid, but at least he’s alive. He’ll need a lot of therapy once they get him stabilized. He’s paralyzed on his right side, and can’t talk. The doctor said he might be able to recover some of his ability, given time and therapy. He’s lucky to have a good friend like you.” “I don’t really know him that well. We’ve just spoken a couple of times since he moved in. I don’t socialize a lot.” “That’s like Dad. He’s not good at making friends.” She seemed amused, and then became serious. “You were good enough a friend to save his life, though. That’s all that matters.” “I hope he gets to feeling better soon.” “Thanks. We’re praying for him. I just came by to get his pajamas. He’s in Park

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West Hospital. I’m beat. I was there all night. He can’t receive any visitors just yet. I’ll let you know when he can.” “Thank you.” Would she expect him to visit Earl in the hospital? He hoped she would forget to tell him when Earl could receive visitors. “I’d better let you go. I didn’t mean to take a lot of your time.” She came closer and hugged him. He was stiff, not wanting to return her embrace too warmly, but trying not to give her the feeling that he was rejecting her. She patted his back. As she turned to leave he saw a tear starting at the corner of her eye behind the sunglasses. A few days later Charlie answered the doorbell to find a broad-shouldered man in his forties. He wore a dark blue sport coat, tan slacks, and an oxford blue shirt with no tie. He was carrying a large gift basket wrapped in pink, shrink-wrap plastic. “Mr. Bertrand? I’m Todd Peeler. You know my dad, and I believe you met my sister Tara the other day.” He was tall, with dark hair like Tara, and like Earl must have had before he turned gray. He had a square chin like Earl, and looked more like their father than Tara did. He was smiling pleasantly. “Yeah, of course. Come in.” He knew the gift basket must have been for him, which made him as uncomfortable as Tara’s show of affection. “I can’t stay. Tara and I just wanted to give you and your granddaughter a little token of our appreciation.” He extended the basket forward, and Charlie took it. “There’re chocolates and other sweet stuff in there that your granddaughter might like better than the fruit and cheese. Or maybe she’ll like the fruit and cheese more, and you’ll like the sweets. Whatever.” He chuckled. “We just wanted to say thanks again.” “Thanks, Todd. You all shouldn’t have done it. All I did was make a phone call.

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I’m not really a close friend of you dad’s. We’re just neighbors. I hardly know him, with him just having moved in and all. I just did what anybody would do.” “Well, it’s easy to help a friend, but not everybody would go out of their way for a stranger.” He laughed. “I know Dad can be a pain in the ass, and isn’t very sociable. What you did was really exceptional.” “It’s nice of you to say so.” All he did was make a phone call. Why did they think that was exceptional? “You sure you don’t want to come in for a drink?” “No, I’ve got to run.” “How’s he doing?” “He’s progressing, but slowly. He still can’t talk, and he’s being fed through a tube. We hope he’ll be able to be up and around soon, and able to communicate better.”

***

That night he took the basket over to Bob and Nicole’s. Nicole was excited by the gift. She removed the plastic wrapping, and tried to give him some of the food. He said, “I don’t need that. It’s too fancy for me, and loaded with cholesterol. I’m not into that French stuff. And when I want chocolate I’ll buy a Hershey bar.” Actually, he liked camembert and boursault, and Toblerone chocolate, all of which were in the huge basket. He tried not to admit to himself that he would feel guilty enjoying the expensive gift. “Well, take some fruit, anyway.” “I have apples and bananas at home. I don’t know how to eat a mango, or what’s

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that other thing?” “Papaya.” “Yeah. I don’t need that, and you all will appreciate it better than me.” Nicole was happy to take the entire basket, but Bob said, “Gee, Dad, I thought you liked that rich stuff.” “When I was younger maybe, not now.” “All right, then. I’m awfully proud of you and Hannah.” Charlie was glad to see that Hannah was delighted with the basket, which he took as a sign that she had forgotten about the incident leading up to Earl’s stroke. As he was leaving, however, she followed him out to his car, which was unusual. As he got in the car she said, “Do they know you had a fight with that man?” “Does who know?” “The man’s family, that gave you the basket.” “It wasn’t really a fight. We just exchanged words. Anyway, there’s no point in telling them about what happened before. It did not cause his stroke. Google ‘stroke.’ There must have been a blockage in a blood vessel in his brain already. That’s what causes strokes. It’s a good thing you stayed out in the yard when you did. If you hadn’t seen him after he fell, he would’ve laid there for hours, maybe days.” “You think so?” Her voice was hopeful. “I know so. Don’t worry about it.” She suddenly put her arms through the open window and around his neck, pulling him toward her for a cheek-to-cheek hug. They weren’t a hugging family, and he was surprised by her gesture. It made him feel good, though. She said, “Thanks, Grandpa.”

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He patted her back and said, “Thank you, kiddo.”

***

He didn’t know whether or not he’d caused the stroke. The articles he read online said there was a relationship between high blood pressure and stroke. How that worked wasn’t clear to him, but he wondered if the stress he put on Earl during their confrontation might have pushed his blood pressure up, causing the blockage to be manifested. Maybe the blood pressure went up, causing a blood vessel to burst. He was sure he wasn’t legally liable for the stroke, but it bothered him that Earl’s kids might someday blame him for it. Of course, that could only happen if Earl told them about the soccer ball incident, which he hadn’t been able to do. Not yet, anyway. During the short period when Earl lived in the house, Charlie would see him doing yard work. He would rake the grass clippings after he mowed the lawn, even though there was a bag on the mower that would have caught most of the clippings. He seemed to enjoy trimming his shrubbery and weeding his flowerbeds. Now a yard service came and mowed Earl’s grass, which Charlie reflected would probably not have pleased Earl. When autumn came the yard service raked the leaves. Once a week or so Charlie would see Tara or Todd pull into Earl’s driveway, to pick up mail and check on the house, he guessed. In the spring a “For Sale” sign from Jessica Blanchard’s company went up, showing Jessica as the agent. She dropped by to see Charlie a day after that. She said, “Tara and Todd have finally given up on Earl ever being able to move back home. He’s in a nursing home

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now, and they don’t expect him to ever move out of it. Todd already had power of attorney, and was able to list the house.” “Bummer. How’s Earl doing?” “I haven’t seen him. Tara told me they took out the feeding tube a while ago, but eating is difficult for him. He can walk slowly, with a walker. He’s still having trouble speaking, and his mind doesn’t seem clear. It was a massive stroke, really did a lot of damage.” “Sorry to hear that.” He hoped Jessica thought he was sincere.

XXX

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Cross Country by Dick Yaeger “It’s time,” Sam Baker said to himself, walking to his car in the parking lot of Baker & Stein Law Offices. He stopped, keys poised at the door lock, and looked straight up into the sky, batting his eyelids as snowflakes from the season’s first snow melted on his face. He stuck out his tongue to catch a few flakes, bringing back childhood memories of anticipation and excitement that accompanied the occasion: sledding down Tincher’s Hill—the biggest, scariest one in town—and skating on Horseshoe Lake wondering if the ice was thick enough, but not giving a shit. And the winter it snowed so much they closed school for two weeks. Damn, that was great. Only thing better would have been skiing during those free days. Hell, if Iowa had mountains, he probably would have become a professional ski bum spending summers skiing in South America with all those Latin bunnies. Images of bikini-clad hotties shushing down a diamond slope made him smile. Sam Baker had been a downhill skier since he moved to Utah with his family as a teenager fiftyyears ago. It was his sporting passion, but at the end of last season he vowed to experience the crosscountry alternative. He had convinced himself it wasn’t his growing age, the nagging hip, or the broken ankle that kept him on crutches for six weeks last year. It wasn’t the kids speeding past him on those damn snowboards. It was the challenge of a new experience. He looked at his watch and smiled. “Plenty of time.”

The ski department at REI was crowded.

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He figured he wasn’t the only one motivated by the first snow. Should have come here last spring when they had their end-of-season sale. Mostly kids these days. Lucky kids—they have great gear to choose from now. They’ll never have to endure those blisters and uncontrollable wooden skis. Maybe it was better to come back during the day when it’s less crowded. “Be with you in a couple minutes, Sir,” a clerk fitting boots to a customer yelled, motioning at Sam. “Uhhh…no problem,” Sam said, acknowledging the clerk with a wave. That’s good. He wasn’t sure what he wanted and needed time to browse, conceding the fact that he should have done his homework before coming. That wasn’t like him. Sam walked to the rack of downhill skis and confidently pulled out a specific style. He turned it over, admiring its new shape and coating. He stared at it for a moment, then shook his head, put it back on the stand, and walked across the department to the cross-country section. He looked at the tag on one ski, read the information, then turned the tag over and grimaced at the price. He repeated the procedure on several other samples, trying to ignore the prices, and going back often to compare options on previous models. He finally removed his final choice from the rack, sighed deeply, and set it aside. In the opening space that the ski vacated, his eyes riveted on a sign in the adjacent back-packing department.

1991 WINTER SALE SUB-ZERO SLEEPING BAGS.

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***

December 1950, Chosin Reservoir, North Korea.

Sam was cold, fucking cold. He didn’t believe it could get that fucking cold. He couldn’t feel his feet and knew they were frostbit. The fucking things were probably already black like that stupid coldweather training film where a corpsman pulls black gangrene toes off a grunt. Maybe he should go to the med-tent and let them pull his toes off. At least, they’d allow him to sleep. God, he needed sleep. The First Marine Division had gone as far north as possible without crossing the Yalu River into China. Chinese Chairman, Mao Zedong, fearing it would happen, had ordered massive numbers of Chinese regulars into North Korea. The Marines were outnumbered five-to-one and surrounded in the freezing, God-forsaken wilderness. The perpetual overcast made air resupply impossible. They were on their own. “Goddamn it, Ralph. Get that thing back together,” Sam said, huddled in a pre-dawn frozen foxhole. “Those assholes are gonna be here any minute.” Ralph had disassembled his BAR. The pieces were scattered on his poncho in the bottom of the foxhole. He wanted the parts perfectly clean and dry before the next anticipated Chinese assault. Any hint of snow, mud, or oil on metal parts would instantly freeze and jam the automatic weapon. Everything froze, and if it was metal, it probably froze to something else. Ralph took off his trigger-finger mittens and warmed his gloved hands in his armpits. Then he would work on his weapon until his fingers were numb and repeat the process. He

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didn’t need to see the parts in the dark, but he had to feel them. Sam and Ralph Stein joined the Marines after Pearl Harbor and became instant buddies at boot camp in San Diego. They stormed the beach together in America’s first WWII offensive on Guadalcanal and survived the pitiless island-hopping campaign in the Pacific for three more years. They talked about everything those years, but especially about going to college and becoming lawyers. After the war, they both finished law school, passed the Utah bar exam, and set up shop in Moab together. The dream that kept them alive in the merciless Pacific jungles had finally come true. The North Koreans and Chinese had a different dream. First came their damn bugles. The sound came from everywhere, echoing off the surrounding cliffs. Then came the thump-thump-thump of Marine mortars, and the sky blossomed with white-hot flares. The falling lights created flickering strobes of the first wave of screaming Chinese stumbling over the frozen bodies of their comrades from earlier attacks. After them came a shoulder-to-shoulder swarm of shrieking, insane humanity. There was no attempt to evade the Marine defense. They recklessly charged in a sake-addled, suicidal obligation, firing their weapons at no particular target. Sam clicked the safety off his M1 and glanced at Ralph. “Got it,” Ralph yelled, slamming a magazine into his BAR. The kyak-kyak-kyak of three-shot bursts reassured Sam. Ralph’s weapon was working perfectly. “Focus,” Sam’s head roared inside. Pick your targets, empty your clip, reload. Don’t let them overrun your position. Watch left and right. Focus. Pick your targets, empty your clip, reload. Don’t let them overrun your position. Focus . . . .

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Another firefight was over. The bodies were piled higher. A few isolated shots came from behind them. Despite their efforts, there were so many Chinese that a couple always got past the first line. Usually out of ammo, they would run frantically into the camp with their eighteen inch rifle bayonets looking for an easy target, hopefully an officer or mortar crew. They always met a Marine and died. Even the cooks nailed a few. Sam watched the gray-white sun rise behind the heavy overcast and waited for the moans of wounded Chinese to stop. It never took long. The fucking cold. “I’ll get some ammo,” Ralph said. “Grab some zees,” Sam replied. “I’m good. Relief should be here soon and I’m wide awake now.” Adrenaline had that affect. Ralph smiled, nodded, and crawled out of the foxhole. The heat was still rising from the barrel of Ralph’s BAR as Sam rubbed his mittens along it. The post-assault time was the safest, so he climbed out of the hole and moved two new bodies that were blocking their view. At least they weren’t soaked with blood and wouldn’t rot. The fucking cold. He threw empty brass, magazines, and clips out of the hole. Had to keep the home tidy for visitors. Early morning was the best time. The bitter nighttime cold was fading and the afternoon winds hadn’t started. He sat down in his foxhole, leaned against the frozen dirt wall, and relaxed.

“Crap!” The bugles woke him. “This isn’t right,” he mumbled. Assaults aren’t this close together. Where the hell is Ralph? He glanced backwards. The whole company was scurrying. Shit, the little assholes are getting smarter—coming out of the sun. Hard to see. He snatched Ralph’s BAR—still

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warm—and emptied the two remaining magazines in their direction full-auto. Screw the burst discipline. Where’s Ralph? He’s gonna get a new one ripped when he shows. He grabbed his M1 and emptied his last four clips. Six rabid Chinese rushed toward Sam out of the sun as he struggled to yank his .45 from its frozen holster. Three fell within a couple yards before his pistol emptied. “This isn’t good,” he mumbled, leaning over to find his bayonet somewhere in the bottom of the hole. “Shoulda been fixed.” Three Chinese ran past him into the camp lusting for a bigger prize. It was over as quick as it started. A few shots from inside the camp cleaned up the intruders. Minutes later, a bearded corporal and pfc showed up—their relief. “How’d we do, Carl?” Sam asked, climbing out of the foxhole with his rifle and Ralph’s BAR. “Did OK,” the corporal answered. “Couple wounded.” “Good. Have fun,” Sam said. He was hungry and needed sleep in a bad way. Easy choice. Sam Baker headed directly for his tent already dreaming of a couple hours sleep in his filthy sleeping bag. He was pleased to see that Ralph had beaten him to it. He removed his helmet and climbed into his bag fully clothed. When he pulled the bag over his head, he noticed a large tear in Ralph’s bag and a blotch of icy blood where Ralph’s frozen fingers gripped the closed metal zipper.

***

“I can help you now,” the REI clerk said. “Sorry for the wait.”

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Tim Perez

I could see the seagulls and the whales and my nine year old self Standing at the foot of your bed wondering where Father was only to find the pale porcelain foot of a man that wasn’t Father cuddled next to you. I wanted to fling him from you like a flat stone, I wanted to jump over him like a hurdle. And when his one eye opened like a reluctant oyster and the blue pearl of his eye caught my fist I knew I could never go back again—ever. My brain a lightning bolt drawn crookedly by my nine year old self, and I ran around a house that wasn’t my home banging like a crazed man looking for a way out finding—none. Pushing mother away in her silk nightie, the pale footed man holding a frozen steak to his eye. In the background I learned the sky’s blueness and I looked beyond the horizon of mother’s face that was once my sky and I watched it melt along with the sea and the only discerning differences: the grey herring gull’s keowing and in the cruel cool darkness the whale’s song undulating along the sea bed floor like the carcass of a fantastic mystical beast.

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In Session By Ian Johnson

I was thirteen when Mom and Dad became Mom, and Dad. While we transitioned, my mother signed my sister, Hannah and I up for therapy. I battled to avoid it -- minor tantrums, tepid threats -- all the way up until the inner door in the waiting room swung open and into my life Dr. Stephanie Kingsley stepped. She trod gently across the carpet, as if wading through sand into soft surf. Hannah had already gone in, summoned by some older lady with crinkly eyes. ‘You must be David,’ she said, closing the distance, finding my eyes and extending a hand. 'I'm Stephanie.' I set the Field & Stream I hadn’t been reading back on the coffee table. I rose. ‘That's me,’ I said. I followed her down a fluorescent hallway to her office. ‘Sit anywhere you’d like,’ she said, gesturing towards a couch and two chairs. She stood at my shoulder. She’d wait until I chose to choose herself. I felt it some kind of test, an initial assessment. If I sat close to the window, would she think I wanted to jump? If I sat in a chair, as opposed to a couch meant for two, was I closed-off? I noticed her desk chair, a blue bosu ball snugly crunched into a black plastic frame. I wanted to sit there, but, not an option. Unable to decide, I pointed to the floor. ‘There,’ I declared. ‘Please,’ she said. So I sat on the carpet, back against the couch, and clasped my hands around my knees. Stephanie lowered to the floor too, stacking her ankles at her groin as if to meditate.

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To begin she ticked off a series of questions. ‘Standard procedure,’ she said. Was I or anyone I knew planning on hurting themselves? Was I having suicidal thoughts, and if so, did I have a plan? I gave several meek nos. She made a few scribbles and set her clipboard to the side, and smiled. It was a polished smile, a professional uptick at the corners, at root inauthentic -- what was there to smile about? -- But it had been so long since I’d seen one that it was hard not to widen my eyes a little. She said we could spend the hour getting to know each other, to see if I felt comfortable around her. ‘You can ask me anything anytime you want,’ Stephanie said. Will you marry me? The thought was so sudden and unexpected it felt like I’d asked it aloud. My cheeks burned. Her smile downshifted slightly. Curiosity wrinkled the skin around her eyes. ‘So tell me about yourself.’ Walking in with Hannah twenty minutes earlier, co-pay in my pocket -- Mom was busy and wouldn’t come inside -- I knew I’d have nothing to say. Rather, I had plenty to say about plenty of things, but would make a show of not saying it, to prove some vague point I couldn’t quite articulate. Now, I suddenly wanted to say everything, but couldn’t say anything, because by now I was helplessly in love with the woman giving me full attention across the carpet. Thirteen is old enough for love. I stared with affection as foreign as the smile had been. At the shock of curly auburn hair that bounced when she nodded. The mild puff to her cheeks, her posture, the bony inviting warmth of her hands. The lightness of energy she seemed to radiate, that contrasted so starkly with the kind I lived in at home.

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I wanted to ask how Hannah was doing, and say whatever Hannah was saying. Hannah could articulate what we were here to get out. I rocked slightly, silent. I feared my manhood sprouting unwantedly. Certain it would any second embarrassingly bulge, I hugged my knees tighter, which I saw Stephanie seeing as turtle retreating into shell, a scared and scarred little boy unwilling to open up. Not the impression I wanted to give, but neither was the kind that went convex on my lap, so all the tighter I hugged, just in case. Stephanie looked away, giving me room to think. I remembered why I was here: my parents and the gaping chasm between them. An event for which I was suddenly and obliquely very grateful, as it had plopped me here, on the floor of some clinically clean therapist’s office, with Stephanie, whose job it was to mend the collateral chasm my parents had split open in me. It was hard to accept, however, that someone would genuinely want to help me. If I couldn’t accept help, I couldn’t accept Stephanie, not at first. I had to be sure she wasn’t like my parents. Because of them, it was easy to tag hostility and deceit as the hallmarks of everyone over a certain age, whether or not I knew them. Part of me assumed every adult was going through a divorce, whether or not they were married. But gratefully another part of me knew how awful it was, the home situation. As opposed to believing it was normal. So I didn’t have much to say about it, not yet, but I knew I should say something, if only for Stephanie to think we’d work well together. I wanted to hear her say it. I think we’ll work well together.

At the end of the hour Stephanie walked me back down the hallway. I hadn’t told her much about me. Or of home or Hannah. I talked instead of friends at school, girls that

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liked me, or whom I wanted to like me, the sports teams I suddenly wanted to join, stuff to convince her I was popular and well-adjusted. ‘See you next week,’ I said before she could. She smiled. In the car, my mother asked how it went. ‘I think it’ll be good for me,’ I said, truthfully. ‘That’s wonderful,’ my mother said, rightfully surprised. ‘And how was yours?’ she asked, glancing at my sister in the rearview. ‘It was fine,’ Hannah said, nose pressed into a book.

I saw Stephanie every week for some months. Every week I loved her a little more. Marrying her right away was unrealistic. One, it was illegal, and two, I saw her primarily to discuss an unhealthy manifestation of marriage. Blurred lines. Still, I wanted to woo her, to get ready for when I got old enough, and the only means at my disposal was impressive therapy. I needed to be her smartest, best-behaved, best overall client. I showered before sessions, ran a razor across the fuzz on my cheeks, combed my hair, clipped my nails, picked out nice clothes, or what accounted for nice in my closet. I asked Hannah if things matched, holding a shirt in each hand, asking for her help. She’d frown in sisterly disgust before nodding to the left or right. I stopped short of ironing. I wasn’t an ironer. That’d be too suspicious. In session, I fed Stephanie the wittiest, most astute versions of me. I regurgitated as my own insights I picked up elsewhere, from Hannah or at school or even from Mom and Dad. I talked about myself as if I were some third party in the room, reading her face for reactions. Good point? Bad point? Try again? But her face was mostly blank slate, so I talked for the sake of hoping.

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Dad by now had moved out and found his own place, a little loft on the edge of downtown. He still spent the occasional night at home; I think just to sleep with my mom. I could hear them down the hall, a more rigorous-sounding exercise than I remembered pre-separation. But then Dad found a new girlfriend, some grad student, and suddenly he wasn’t around as much. What had been at least on the surface genial -- cooperation with carpools, the occasional family dinner -- suddenly shifted brittle. My sister and I became pawns, bargaining points. Threats included us now. Hard not to feel guilty, like we were somehow at fault. Sometimes they told us not to cry, that the marriage had the thickest of silver linings, because we got you and your sister out of it, as if Hannah and I were too young to detect tone.

All of which I related to Stephanie. I’d taken to the couch, sitting on the far end in hopes she’d occupy the other. That our knees would touch. One day our hips. One day our lips. But whenever I took the couch she took the chair directly opposite. And when I took the chair she took the couch. ‘There were a lot of sad thoughts, I think,’ I told her one session when she asked about my week. ‘So you felt sad,’ she said, bluntly. ‘Yeah.’ ‘Let’s try saying it like that. Put an I at the beginning.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ever eager to get it right. ‘I had sad thoughts.’ ‘So you were sad,’ she said again. ‘Yes, I felt sad.’ ‘There you go,’ she said. ‘When you say it like that, when you own the feeling,

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you experience it better.’ I love you. ‘Did you notice a difference?’ I nodded vigorously.

Once Dad got the girlfriend, Mom gave up hope. I don’t think she was holding out for reconciliation, but they’d been friendly enough. Now the embarrassment of Dad’s new girl integrating their old social circles shrunk and shriveled something inside her. She functioned passably throughout the day, but as soon as Hannah and I closed our doors at night she’d pour white wine and sit in the living room under a depressing cone of nauseous yellow light emanating from the table lamp, no books, no TV. I know because when I got up to pee I’d tiptoe down the hall and show my face. ‘There’s nothing to look at here,’ she’d say when she saw me, in a voice I didn’t recognize, as if we didn’t know each other, as if hours earlier she hadn’t hugged me so tight, whispering how much she loved me, apologizing for ‘that man’, how sorry she was for getting me involved in such a mess. She never had more than a few sips of the wine. Perhaps abstinence reminded her she had some control left, that she wouldn’t drink herself into a single-mother perdition. Or maybe the wine would’ve numbed the pain. She poured it down the sink before trudging to her bedroom in the wee hours, where she slept, or tried to sleep, alone, usually fully clothed, in the fetal position, often without climbing under the covers. This was unfair to Mom, from a sleeping standpoint. Dad got a whole new place, a new bed, someone new to share it with. Mom had to stay where the poison pot had once boiled, where the searing leftovers of every insult and accusation speared her eyelids every time 59


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she bid for somnolence. She was seeing a therapist herself, had been seeing one for some time, since way before the split. For the sake of their marriage it turned out Dad had gone sometimes. No good had come of it though. Custody discussions and negotiations were eventually settled, after scores of meetings with lawyers and social workers, men and women who kept neutral faces whenever Hannah and I happened to be around. Mom would have us during the week. Dad had weekends when he wanted them. Dad would pay x times 2 every month in child support. That was the phrasing on the agreement. I was an x. My childhood had a monetary value. I learned a lot about what was going on on the way to Stephanie’s office, when Mom would give us updates. Perhaps so we knew what to talk about in session, she’d send us in raw. She made Hannah put her book down to listen, as she explained/rationalized all that’d happened in the past seven days. I shouldn’t be telling you this about your father. He loves you, I know, but. Then, in the hundred or so steps from the parking lot to the glass doors, as Mom sped away with promises to be back in an hour, off to a coffee shop or the hairdresser or wherever else she was busy, Hannah and I would trudge up the concrete path, acknowledging each other in the way our slow paces forward found a synced rhythm only siblings could synchronize to. Side-by-side, step-bystep, off to reap professional psychological help. We didn’t talk about things, Hannah and me, yet we understood each other perfectly, the result of so many awful experiences so intimately shared. She didn’t look

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forward to therapy, like I mostly did. She’d grown thinner in the past year, paler. Her hair, once a vibrant brown, now lay sticky and staticky, like she’d just doffed a hat. Sometimes at night I’d go to her room to do homework. I’d sit at the foot of her bed, on the floor, a three-ring binder on my lap, Top 40 streaming softly from her portable radio. Sometimes I tried to imagine Mom and Dad down the hall, still together, still happy. Even though I now knew what love was, I didn’t know what happy was, if they’d ever been or even wanted to be, Mom and Dad, so I troubled to imagine much at all.

Therapy in a three-story brick building. A lawyer’s office on the second, some tax center on the first, and Stephanie’s group had the third. The shades in her office were always up, offering a view of the always-busy Murray Ave. Plenty of passersby, living in bubbles. En route to theaters, grocery stores, banks, libraries, pastry shops, car repairs, pizza joints. Living in bubbles, or out of one, hoping to get back in. The horror of a popped bubble. Three diplomas hung in a pyramid on the far wall. BS, MSW, PhD. Two nature photos, one a silky beach sunset, the other a humming green forest, hung elsewhere. No pictures displayed anywhere else. None on her desk, which was always neatly organized. I always looked for my folder, my name in red sharpie on the tab. I liked thinking she’d been reading about me, like I was special enough. I imagined a framed photo of myself in the corner. Maybe she’d be in the picture, too. It would have a thick wooden frame. The kind that stood up on an oblique leather flap, leaning away from the bullshit. Stephanie and I would be cheek to cheek. Non-professional smiles. Sometimes during sessions, when Stephanie gave me a minute to think, I imagined complementing the fern on the far shelf. But I wasn’t sure if it really

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was a fern, and I didn’t want to call it a fern when really it was some sort of baby palm, so I kept quiet about it. I imagined us having sex, Stephanie and I, but still a virgin, wasn’t sure what to imagine there either. How to imagine it. I couldn’t picture Stephanie naked. Her hands, nape, and head. The only parts of her I’d seen bare. Occasionally when she rolled up her sleeves. Once when she wore open-toed shoes. I filled in the blanks with memories of Mom at the pool, which were discouraging. When I did manage to summon something pleasurable, I could only summon Stephanie in therapist-mode, never as my lover. But she was always soothing, even motherly. Go on, let it out, she said in my fantasies. One night, the three of us, Mom, Hannah, and me, sat having dinner. Hannah’s latest book rested by her milk glass, unopened. She’d made a deal with Mom. She’d finish half her plate, then she could pick up and read for the rest of the meal. I liked it when she ate slowly. ‘Hannah, you haven’t told me much about Dr. Strickland.’ Though the comment was not intended for me, I immediately blushed and dug deeper into my noodles. Dr. Strickland was Hannah’s therapist. Hannah called her Jane. I listened as Hannah ticked off Jane’s annoying habits. Jane insisted on bringing God into every conversation. Jane nodded along with her mouth agape, like everything Hannah said was shocking. Jane had uneven nail lengths, which Hannah couldn’t help being disgusted by. Even before the divorce, Hannah had been way older and harder than her classmates. She remembered the fights way more than I did. She’d found solace in books. She spent her days immersed in literature, which only handicapped her ability to make

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friends, and so the more she aged and hardened. Too young to live like an adult, but too old to stay a child. A non-world occupancy. It was too soon to tell how the divorce would affect the rest of her life, if she’d ever equilibrate, if she’d choose boyfriends or a husband based on the first-hand impressions of marriage she’d soaked up since toddlerdom. ‘Your turn, David. How’s Dr. Kingsley?’ I nodded several times. ‘Good.’ ‘Still think you’re getting something out of it?’ If Mom pressed, I had a fine line to work with. If I reported Stephanie was fantastic, that she’d been doing a tremendous job, I risked Mom pulling me out, mission accomplished. If I said Stephanie sucked, I risked Mom finding me someone new. ‘Yeah, it’s progressing.’ Progressing. One of Stephanie’s favorite words. ‘That’s great, Davey,’ my mother said. She seemed pleased. ‘David has a crush on Dr. Kingsley.’ I jerked in Hannah’s direction and responded much, much too quickly. ‘Not true at all.’ I shook my head back and forth, back and forth, trying to shake the blood from my cheeks. Hannah looked at Mom. ‘He just goes because he likes her.’ I couldn’t tell which was greater, my embarrassment in being outed or my surprise at Hannah having outed me. My fork clattered. ‘No, I go because I need therapy.’ The words sounded funny even as I spoke them. I did need therapy, but that wasn’t the point. Hannah picked up her book and seemed to forget she’d said anything. My mother seemed to suppress a smile, which was surprising, as I’d forgotten she knew how. It didn’t seem a big deal I was in love with my therapist. They thought it cute, the two of

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them, like each had pinched one of my rosy cheeks to tell me so. How adorable, they seemed to imply. Right then I crumbled into a thousand mortified pieces. The idea that Stephanie and I might’ve ever. That I could woo her. That I’d held out hope of marrying a woman more than twice my age, someone as old as my mother. And, in collateral shock, the divorce, too, suddenly got real. I felt flattened, sucked empty of oxygen, finally realizing what was happening. My family was no longer a family, and that we’d ever been a family seemed to be in doubt. Dad was never around. Mom never smiled. My sister lived in books. Crumbled into a thousand pieces. And worse, little desire to sweep up.

Next time with Stephanie wasn’t as thrilling. Mom didn’t give talking points on the drive in. Because she and Hannah -- how had she guessed? -- knew my feelings towards her, I assumed Stephanie now knew too. That she’d known all along. I feared she’d give me the same how adorable look I’d gotten at home and I’d be embarrassed all over again. But when I sat down (chair) and crossed my arms her expression was the same passive empathy it always was. Before I could say anything, my chin dropped to my chest. So heavy it hurt my clavicle. I let it hang. Tears ran warm on my cheeks. The snot on my lip, the Kleenex soft as I attempted to wipe it all up. I hadn’t noticed when Stephanie had moved the tissue box for me. ‘I don’t even know why I’m crying,’ I blubbered. ‘Are you supposed to know? Do you have to?’ Stephanie said. I had a little wastebasket at my feet. I tossed in another soggy tissue. ‘I’m sorry,’ I kept

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saying. ‘What is there to be sorry about?’ ‘I have no idea why I’m like this.’ Through my tears Stephanie took on blurry Picasso angles, as if through a kaleidoscope. ‘Yes you do,’ she said. ‘You know, but you think you don’t because you don’t have words. Words are just labels. Just feel for now. You’re doing great.’ It was too soon to tell how this relationship would affect the rest of my life, if I’d choose girlfriends and maybe a wife based on impressions of love formed in a therapist’s office. Maybe I’d date girls, girls I loved mightily, because of some built-in impossibility of love in return. I could talk to them about anything except the fact that I loved them. I have feelings of love for you. I feel love towards you. I’m in love with you. I own it. It was too soon to tell if I loved her because she was Stephanie or because she was my therapist. Assuming a difference. Later I’d learn about transference. Maybe I would’ve loved a man therapist, too, or a robot, had one greeted me that first day with an electronic David? Maybe, at home with so much that wasn’t, I simply needed something or someone to attach to, someone safe, someone unwilling to rip me down the middle and piss on and bargain for my essential innerness. I saw Stephanie another year or so, off and on. I made her a card. Several, actually. Several versions of the same thing. I didn’t give it to her. I forgot on purpose to bring it. By this time things were official. Papers signed. Lawyers paid. Kid-time divvied up,

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along with everything else that Dad did or didn’t take to his new digs. Dad had dumped, or been dumped by, the first girlfriend, but quickly found another, someone a little older, a widowed librarian. Mom claimed she was too busy to date. She’d started drinking the wine she poured. She fell asleep in the living room now, hair scrunched against the arm of the couch, mouth open like Jane’s. The sheets in her bedroom smooth for weeks. Sometimes when I stumbled upon her like this I thought I could turn off the light, or at least the flickering television, as if she’d sleep better because of it. Sometimes when Dad dropped us off on Sunday nights he’d come inside for a minute. If dinner were ready, he’d sniff and remark it sure smelled good, like he wanted to set an extra place at the table. But he never stayed. I’m not sure who in the room wanted him to. He was extra now. Sometimes Mom scooped a little in a Tupperware container before she sent him out the door. I’m older now, but I still think about Stephanie now and then. I consider her my first true love. Sometimes I try to gauge her impact, what my life would be like if she’d never been in it. It’s an impossible exercise. There’s no real way to know what therapy did for me, or for Hannah. There’s no telling I could be objective about it either, if I could admit Stephanie had somehow failed me, if my love for her somehow interfered with her attempts to heal me. But at the very least, she unholstered and disarmed the worst of my emotions in the worst run of my life, kept my most horrible feelings away from what might’ve been horrible alternative outlets. She taught a scared and scarred teenage boy how to emote, de-thawed his heart in the most arctic phase of his life. So how then, did she not do her job? How am I not a better man? How, then, in a world of women who are not Stephanie, do I ever find one?

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So we never got married, Stephanie and me. But marriage, I know, is just a label, as is divorce. You don’t need one to feel like you have or have had one. Though all marriages, even the kind that don’t end in court, still end one day, sunk into the depths of time and inevitability. Every breath is one breath closer to the end. So in the end I guess it doesn’t matter, if “The End” is where we all end up anyway. It’s supposed to matter, the trek from Here to There. Sometimes I want it to matter. It’s human to want it to matter. It’s human to want to be healthy, to accept what I’m supposed to be accepting, to heal what needs to be healed, but it’s hard to tell if I want this because I want healthy for myself or because Stephanie wanted it for me. When I get lost, I remind myself it doesn’t matter. It’s supposed to matter. But it doesn’t.

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Supernova By Frank Morelli Something happens on the way from mega star to living legend that always throws me for a loop. At some point, the home runs and the championship rings and the cascading champagne all boil down to a mucky sludge. It washes off the highway and stagnates in reeking pools until the weather gets hot enough and dry enough to evaporate its very existence. The charismatic kid with the big dimple on his chin and a cheek full of bubblegum turns into the arrogant egomaniac who finds himself hiding on his yacht between child support and hit-and-run hearings. That, in a box of Cracker Jacks, is Fain Driver. A centerfielder with all the tools to be one of the all-time greats—and a ring from his rookie season to match. A kid who, within a few weeks of his call-up to the bigs, had the fans of Pilot City staring dreamily into his baby blues and lapping up eight dollar beer from the palms of his hands. A kid who let the outright impact of his own phenomenon up and take him away. Back then, Fain couldn’t have predicted his career would take such a misguided short cut down a very dark alley. It all happened so quickly. Like he’d been jarred awake one morning to find he was three years removed from stardom, but still very much mired in fame—another loss to a mediocre team; another 0-for-whatever from the Cosmos’ biggest stick; another press conference, press conference, press conference. Flashbulbs crackled as Fain took his usual seat at the podium. The brim of his cap hung low on his forehead. All that was visible were the whites of his eyes and his lower eyelids. The bitter smirk of contempt occupied his lips—an accessory he found permanent since the casual days of rookie innocence had long washed away. For a moment, he remembered his first trip to the podium. It had been a valiant marker to the

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end of a conquest in which he’d helped the Cosmos walk-off with a home run in his first professional at-bat. The questions had been different back then. Easy to shrug off with a boyish smile and a few laughs. ‘Were you nervous?’ ‘No. Been practicing that in my backyard since third grade.’ ‘Are you the missing piece this team has been looking for?’ ‘I don’t know about missing piece, but I wish I’d brought a pen to get autographs.’ ‘What’s your favorite cereal?’ ‘Hands down, Lucky Charms. They’re magically delicious?’ But the uncanny magic from seven marshmallow shapes inevitably vanished, and along with it much of Fain’s luck. The current crop of reporters served up a harsh reminder with each bullet they fired. “Will you ever regain your form?” “I never lost it. Next question.” “Your average is hovering around .260. Will you ever be a .300 hitter again?” “That’s the plan. Next question.” “Do you feel this team is underachieving, and is that a sign of surrender?” “We’re professionals. We go out and do our best every night. Sometimes you get a bad bounce. That’s baseball. Next question.” “Does a bad bounce account for three strikeouts and another 0-for-4?” Charlie Calla, columnist for the Pilot City Record, always had a way of jamming the needle into Fain at an awkward angle. The guy had built his career on Fain’s back, and not because he had a lot of warm and fuzzies to share. “Like I said, that’s baseball. You get hot and cold. We can’t all hit dingers every night.”

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“But isn’t that why Mr. Wisner pays you?” “He pays me to be a professional. Isn’t that why the Record pays you? Next question.” “Do professionals miss team meetings and get spotted at seedy motels?” “I don’t have to answer that. Team already issued a statement on the situation. Next question.” Fain squirmed in his chair and a bead of sweat slipped out from under his cap. It glistened in the lights as it rolled down his face. His smirk tightened to a scowl. “Word on the street is you got yourself a few playthings. Maybe they’re more important than the 60,000 people who write your checks?” “Go to hell, Charlie,” Fain mumbled before swatting the microphone with the back of his hand and storming out of the room. Calla would have plenty to write about in his morning column, none of which would have much to do with the game of baseball. And Fain, well, he was far from finished with the question and answer session despite having sidestepped a room full of reporters. He didn’t take two steps into the clubhouse before he was accosted by Manager Russ Broyles, and Mr. Wisner himself. “Driver. My office. Right now.” The Pilot City skipper rarely raised his voice, and this little run-in was no different. But the gaunt face and rigid jaw line gave Fain the feeling he had not been summoned to discuss bunt coverages. “Have a seat,” Broyles said in his patented, solemn tone that most people—those who’d never sent in a squeeze play to the third base coach or slammed a bullpen phone down on its hook— usually reserved for funerals. He was a good manager. A player’s manager. The kind of general who knew the precise moment to run his troops through the mud, and when it was best to let them catch

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a few winks behind the thick canvas of their tents. But he didn’t have the final say. Lord knows he’d earned the right. A man can’t spend fifty years sitting three feet below a professional baseball diamond, and half his weekends paying fifty cents to take a piss at the rusted-out gas stations in sawdust towns throughout the circuit, without picking up a thing or two. Wisner was a real vulture; a control freak of the worst kind, who dictated the use of every hay-penny he earned. In the long run, at least half the man’s decisions would cost him twice more than his worry—but that’s another story altogether. Fain plopped down in one of the musty, leather chairs that haunted Pilot city’s dungeon of a clubhouse. The chairs were regular adornments since the team’s founding, and maybe even before that if it were in any way possible. “So, Skip? What’d you want to talk about?” He said it like he didn’t already know what was coming. If there was one thing the rangy centerfielder had learned during his four-year tenure with the team, it was how to play a number of assorted games that in no way resembled the game of baseball. Our nation’s pastime, maybe. But not baseball. Broyles didn’t respond. He’d endured enough of these little meetings over the years to realize his voice was not all that welcomed. “You know damn well why you’re here, young man!” Wisner snapped. Fain smiled and shrugged. “Why don’t you explain it to me, sir. I’m a little slow.” Wisner’s face ripened like a summer tomato. A plump, blue vein rose to the surface of his bald forehead. Fain could see it pulsing. He liked to make the damn thing dance a little; he relished in it, really. Fain and his pal T.J. had a running wager that he’d be able to make the darn thing pop before his five-year contract expired. The bet was looking better

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and better each day. “That’s just the problem with you new age athletes!” The words rattled out of Wisner’s mouth like an entire fleet of bumper cars riding up each other’s rear ends. “All the talent in the world and not an ounce of respect. You’d think the whole damn world was built in your honor. Well, that’s not how things get done around here. You want to keep wearing that uniform, you’re gonna do things my way. I don’t give a damn if you go 0-for-20 and then get locked up for treason on your way back to the dugout. You’re gonna walk into press conferences with a smile and answer every damn question that comes your way…and don’t think I’d have any problem watching you collect your check on the unemployment line from here on out, big shot.” Fain didn’t blink. “You won’t cut me,” he said as he picked at a hang nail. “Come again?” “I said you won’t cut me. You think another club won’t scoop me up in the time it takes a mouse to shit? And you better believe I’d sign within the division for a slave’s wage just for the chance to watch that wrinkled ass of yours shiver in the seat when I step up to the plate.” Wisner stared at Fain. Hatred burned in his pupils, and the centerfielder’s lips curled into a wicked grin. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, I own your ass. You’ll do what I say if you ever want to set foot on a diamond again.” “Yeh, suh, mista boss man. Whateva you say, suh!” “You no good, son-of-a…” Wisner took two menacing steps in Fain’s direction, and the young ballplayer shot up from his seat. He was up to the challenge despite his considerable advantages in age and size, but Broyles was not about to have his office

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turned upside down. “Sit your ass down, Driver!” he barked, and perhaps the sudden jolt in volume from the mildmannered coach was enough to knock some sense into the youngster. “Mr. Wisner, you mind if I have a word with my player in private?” Wisner took a contemplative step backward, gave a slight nod of the head, and retreated from the office. As I mentioned, Russ Broyles was a big fan of silence. He let a little dose of it sink into Fain’s eardrums for just enough time to let King Kong climb down from the tower. “Now, kid, I’m not one to go into hysterics over stuff like this and I’m not Wisner when it comes to making threats I won’t turn into promises. But I do agree with at least one thing the old buzzard had to say. You have a considerable amount of talent left in that body of yours, and I think you’re fully aware of the fact. Something just doesn’t add up, Driver. Been coaching you almost four years now. I don’t question your love for the game, but you’ve been going out there each night like a goddamn blow-up doll...and you walk off at night’s end like something two rungs down the evolution ladder from a zombie. Now—is something brewing at home I don’t know about? Everything kosher with you and Whitley?” Fain glanced down at his shoes a moment before answering. One of his laces was ragged and threadbare. He’d need to replace that. “Nothing out of the ordinary, Skip. Everything’s fine.” Broyles stared at him for a few seconds, letting the silence beat Fain over the head like a police baton. “Well, then. I’m suspending you for two games. Get your damn head on straight and report back to me as a ballplayer.” Fain nodded. There was no sense arguing with Broyles once he’d made a decision. He was an old ball coach—which is a polite way of

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saying he was an old dog. No new tricks. “We’re finished here, Driver. You’ll be on the lineup card Thursday. I’ll deal with the press.” Fain slinked out of the office without another word. If it were at all possible, he felt even more burdened than he had over the course of the past three turmoil-ridden seasons. Given the circumstances, he knew a drink would be his only solace on a night like this. He snatched his cell phone off the top shelf of his locker and dialed ‘one.’ He knew she’d be home. She seldom left the house, and ventured out even less since her husband had abruptly transformed into Pilot City’s most infamous resident. “You on your way home, honey?” Her voice was always soft and casual, almost playful—as if her next sentence was bound to be one of a flirtatious waitress at a truck-stop diner. Even as a stick-thin teenager with pointy elbows and braces, her measured cadence never seemed to match her age. She was a natural beauty, alright. The kind of girl who never wore more than a thin smear of lipstick, but you’d never know the difference. Fain knew he loved her on the third day of ninth grade when she pegged him between the legs with one of those hard, rubber dodge balls in gym class—and she didn’t feel an ounce of sorry about it. He asked Ms. Whitley Strib out the next day and they’ve been together ever since. Never once argued, even as Fain jumped through the various hoops that were necessary on his way to the bigs. Believe me, there were many. Even a superstar takes his knocks on the way to the big dance. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t bear to bring his problems home to her. It’s hard to say. But I can tell you Fain Driver loved that little girl just as much as he did on the third day of ninth grade.

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“I’ll be pretty late tonight, darling. Have a few things to take care of before I head back.” “But Fain, that’s the third time this home stand. Once more and it won’t be a home stand at all.” “Come on, sweetie. Had a rough day at the office. Haven’t you been watching the news?” “Yeah, I seen it. So what, you catching a few beers at Buzzy’s with T.J.?” Maybe Fain hadn’t recognized it before, or maybe there’s a first time for everything, but there was a twinge of disbelief in her voice. “Yeah, that’s the plan.” He waited for her to respond, but when all he heard was the sound of a television in the background, Fain could only continue with the next logical step. “What? You don’t believe me?” “I didn’t say that, Fain.” “After all this time, you don’t trust me?” “Fain, I didn’t say a word.” “You’re not buying in to all this media crap are you, Whit? Please don’t become one of them because—“ “Fain!” The sweet drawl became shrill, and for a moment Fain Driver wondered if it was, in fact, his wife on the other end of the line. “Look, have a good time at Buzzy’s. Say ‘hi’ to T.J. for me and I’ll see you in the morning.” And then Fain heard ‘click.’ No ‘I love you.’ No ‘drive carefully.’ No ‘honey.’ No ‘sweetheart.’ Just a click and more silence. Things were really starting to unravel for Fain Driver. First his career, his image, and his place among the league’s elite. Now his

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marriage. And what was worse: Fain Driver didn’t care anymore. He grabbed his duffel, tossed it in the trunk of his Porsche, and gunned it to Buzzy’s Tavern. Good old T.J. Lindsay would understand. Fain could always count on him. The man was so dependable, Fain called him from the road and hastily requested his presence at the tavern. When he arrived, T.J. had already reserved him a stool at the bar, ordered a pitcher of Scherzski’s, and siphoned off at least half of his own glass. “Where’s the fire, buddy?” he asked without looking up from a crossword puzzle. T.J. was what Fain liked to call a ‘word freak.’ The two of them had signed on with the farm club on the same day, so the equipment manager didn’t go through too much head scratching when it came to bunking them up. T.J. was busy playing himself in Scrabble the first time Fain laid eyes on him. Hadn’t even unpacked his bags yet and the guy was scratching out triple word scores. I guess he was just the type whose gears were always cranking with one worry or another. The word stuff kept his mind from shorting out. Those catchers are always about a straightjacket shy of the loony bin, if you ask me. I guess you’d have to be to deliberately put you body in front of rocks being hurled at over ninety miles per hour. Aside from his eccentricities, T.J. Lindsay was about as genuine as they come. Fain could trust him with anything, including his wife—which is a whole heap more than he could say about the gang of cockroaches who inhabited Pilot City’s clubhouse. “Shitty day, T. Seems like they’re all shitty anymore. Broyles put me on the shelf for three days. Said I better get my head out of my ass.” “Could have been worse, you know. The way Wisner shot out of that office today,

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I thought someone was pocketing a leftover hot dog down at concessions.” “Yeah, well, the old man almost left with a mouth full of Chiclets.” “That wouldn’t be smart, Fain. You know how much the owners like to cup each other’s cheeks.” “I know, I know.” T.J. bottomed-out his glass of beer and blew some erasures off his newspaper. “Hey, what’s a four-letter word for sacrifice that ends in a T?” “You asking me? I thought you were the word freak.” “It’s bunt, you numbskull. Just thinking maybe you drop one down in your next at-bat. Get the legs churning a little. Maybe bust out of that slump.” “Ah, you know, not really my style. I’ll bust out in my own way. On my own time.” “Your funeral, pal.” T.J. refilled his glass and set the puzzle down on the bar. “So, he call you again?” “Not since last time. I did what he wanted, so I expect a call soon. He doesn’t like to give me too much vacation time.” “What’d he have you do this time?” “You’re the one with the newspaper. Why don’t you tell me?” T.J. took his newspaper, swept a pile of stray peanut shells on top, and flung it into a wastebasket behind the bar. “What? From Calla? You think I’d believe a word of that hack’s writing? Come on, I want to hear it from you.” “Not much to it, really. Told me to go over to the Hide-Away Motel—“ “The one down on Port Street?”

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“Is there another one? I hope not. This place could have made a grease trap feel scummy…Anyway, he told me to ask for the key to Room 5A and leave an autographed ball on the pillow.” “That it?” “I wish. Turns out the room was already occupied…by a…you know….a lady of the night. And that scumbag must have been surveying the place.” “So that’s how Calla got the picture of you getting cozy with the scraggly-lookin’ broad.” “Well now, there’s a good boy,” Fain said in a high, mocking voice, “and I thought all you could do was fill in little boxes with different letters.” “No need to get cranky with me, hotshot. I’m the only one on your side. Remember?” “Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry. Just getting tired of the whole situation. This guy’s been hounding me for three seasons. It’s getting where I don’t remember baseball without him.” “Why don’t you get the police involved? He’s probably just some loony fan looking for his fifteen minutes.” “You know the deal, T. It’s bad enough the guy probably knows what I’m wearing as we speak. If it was just me I’d take the chance. But it’s her. I can’t let him hurt her.” “And what does Whitley think about all of this?” “You think I’m stupid enough to tell her some psycho’s watching her every move on account of me? You’re the only one who knows, and it’s gonna stay that way until he makes his mistake. And when he does, T, I’m gonna be the one to snap the son-of-a-bitch

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in two.” “You can’t keep this up anymore, Fain. This idiot’s gonna bring you down. Everything you’ve worked for, everything—“ “Then so be it….because as long as she’s safe, I’m happy. That’s all that matters.” T.J. Lindsay was speechless. In all the time he knew Fain, he’d never once thought he’d flush his career down the toilet without a second thought. Baseball, to Fain, was akin to breathing. T.J. imagined his friend away from the game would be like a carp flopping helplessly on a fisherman’s deck. “I gotta take a piss,” T.J. said finally. “After one beer? What are you getting soft on me, buddy?” “Been holding it since the second inning—and with Jackson pitching, those were some long damn innings.” “Yeah, you’re not kidding. I could have written my will and had it notarized before he closed out the fifth.” T.J. stretched and hobbled off to the bathroom on his catcher’s knees. Fain signaled the bartender for another pitcher. That’s when he felt the familiar vibration in his pocket. For a second he was relieved, thinking it might be Whitley calling to catch up on the ‘I love yous.’ But in his heart he knew who’d be on the other end when he picked up. “What do you want now, Boss?” Fain managed to ask in once hoarse grunt. The response was issued in the same distant, raspy voice as always, as if the man was a strange hybrid of Franciscan monk and turkey vulture. “That’s no way to treat a friend, now is it Mr. Driver?” “I guess it depends on whether or not friendship is based on blackmail,” Fain said

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in disgust. “That’s us getting to know each other, Mr. Driver. Nothing more.” “I’m tired of playing games, Boss. I’m a baby’s breath from getting the authorities involved. I want my life back.” “Ms. Strib would be very disappointed in that decision. I assure you, Mr. Driver. There wouldn’t be much life to organize without her, now would there?” Fain’s insides began to crawl the same way they did every time Boss mentioned her. He knew he didn’t have an ounce of control in this game, nor a single opportunity to retire from it. He could only face it. “You got a point in there somewhere, Boss? I don’t have all day to shoot the shit with a criminal.” “Of course, Mr. Driver. Don’t I always work to a point?” “Unfortunately.” “By the way, thanks for the signed baseball. It will go nicely with the rest of my artifacts. Maybe you can keep the photograph as a memento of our transaction. I believe you can find one at any newsstand from here to Mars.” A pathetic cackle, like a draft blowing through a rotten windowpane, whistled through Fain’s receiver. It seemed forced and artificial, all to drive the dagger just a few inches deeper—to control the idol at all levels. “You rotten son-of-a-bitch,” Fain said in a low growl. “If you ever build up the tiniest shred of courage—enough to show your face in the light of day—I promise that light won’t shine long.” “We both know that will never happen, Mr. Driver. You may be a phenom on the field, but I have something you will never have…sheer wit, my friend. I am always

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twenty—no, maybe thirty—moves ahead. And you are like a newborn baby working his way through a maze of complexities. So…well done on your previous mission. I gather you will work ever quicker on your next puzzle if you have the slightest concern for you beautiful wife’s safety.” “The hell do you want this time?” “Take a ride to the old sweat lodge—the Rattlesnake Casino—it’s the one out there on the reservation.” “I know the one.” “Good. And do it before tomorrow’s game. I gather you won’t be playing in it based on the latest scraps I’ve picked off the news ticker. You really mucked things up this time, my boy.” Boss paused momentarily to release another strained cackle. “Anyway, take the cash from locker 23. The key will be waiting for you at the concierge. Replace the cash with a little token of your generosity— say, a mitt autographed by yours truly. Then place a bet.” “What do you want me to bet on?” “Why, the Cosmos of course. In fact, why don’t you just go ahead and bet against them— being as their best player will be out of the lineup.” “Are you kidding? They’ll ban me for life.” “Maybe you’d like to bet against your chances of seeing Ms. Strib again. Boy, she’s so pretty when she nestles in for bed. Oops! Looks like she just flicked her bedroom light off for the night.” “You bastard! You stay away from her!” “Goodbye, Mr. Driver.”

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More than a few sets of eyes had diverted their attention from their beers at Fain’s sudden outburst. He hadn’t meant to cause a scene. For all he knew, Boss was spinning a yarn about his current view of the slugger’s wife. On the other hand, Boss may have been lurking just below her window. Fain was quite certain she was safe—at least for tonight. Boss wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the precious, little plan he had orchestrated. Fain had learned at least this much about him over the course of their bizarre relationship. It was just the thought of Whitley’s vulnerability—the fact he was the outright cause of it—that brought his blood to a boil. “What the hell’s got you all in a tizzy?” T.J. had returned from his trip to the john, and his voice and a healthy swig of beer were enough to bring Fain’s blood pressure down to a reasonable level. “He called again.” “Just now?” “Yep. Look, can you do me a big favor tomorrow?” “Come on, Fain. Did you really need to ask that question?” “I guess not. So…can you go out there tomorrow afternoon and win a damn ballgame? Win it big. Don’t make it exciting.” And with that, Fain Driver tossed a few bucks down on the bar and raced home to be with his wife. Fain’s arrival at home was not met with the usual greeting. Whitley had always made it her habit to meet him out front, holding a brandy in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. They would enjoy a few fleeting moments together. She was never angry. Never regretful she’d married into the frenetic life of a

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professional ballplayer. She always understood—and Fain always looked forward to the moment he’d spot her dark outline silhouetted against the lights of their driveway fountain. He imagined her to be a seductive mermaid risen up from the sea and perched on a barnacle-encrusted jetty in wait for her sea captain to sail into port. Tonight there was no mermaid. The fountain was dark and stagnant—only the faint buzz of mosquitoes multiplying on the water’s surface. The house was a dimly lit shell of itself—an old codger on life support in a low budget hospital. Fain fumbled in the dark for his keys and let himself through the front door. He carried his duffel up the winding staircase and entered the bedroom, hoping the lamp would flick on and Whitley’d be waiting for him. She didn’t budge. She didn’t even say a word to him when he undressed, crawled into bed, and ran his calloused hand along the outside of her thigh. She gripped the pillow tighter and inched a little closer to her edge of the bed. Things were not good. Fain awoke with a dagger between his eyes. He had not had too much to drink the night before, but his neck and shoulders ached with the weight of Boss’s new set of directives. He reached for Whitley and found nothing but a section of wrinkled sheets and a cold pillow. A wave of panic suddenly jolted him upright in bed. Had he snuck in here and stolen her right out from under his nose? Had she packed her bags while he lay motionless and tiptoed off to her mother’s? Had she stumbled upon the bottle of muscle relaxers in the medicine cabinet and drawn herself one final, farewell bath? Fain jumped out of bed in a tangle of sheets and blanket, and stumbled through the door of the master bathroom. All was dry and sterile white. He shot down the

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staircase, taking two steps at a time, and skidded across the cold, tile floor on bare feet. Not a single dish in the sink, the coffee maker empty and silent. He scrambled through the back door and onto the outdoor deck. And there she was—about fifty yards deep in the garden, kneeling among the wild flowers she had planted the previous Spring. Her back was to Fain and the sun was rising in front of her, outlining the soft curves of her neck and bare shoulders as they danced beneath her grandmother’s straw hat. Fain’s breathing slowed to a normal pace and the beads of sweat cooled on his brow, but his heartbeat remained unsteady—like the first time he’d built up the courage to talk to Ms. Whitley all those years ago. “I missed you last night,” she said to Fain as he shuffled across the grass. Her voice held the melodic tone once more, but with a slight edge. She remained focused on her flowers even though she was sure Fain longed to see her face—to see her smile and know things were normal again. But things weren’t normal. Fain knew it, and Whitley knew it. And what’s worse is both of them knew somewhere deep inside, it would be very hard to ever make it feel like old times again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Last night—I just needed—“ “I always knew the day would come, Fain. The day you finally got tired of the standard model and went searching for something a little more updated.” “Whit, you can’t really believe that. You can’t possibly think—“ “And what else am I supposed to think? You got half the newspapers in the country running articles about your playthings. You’re never around anymore even when you’re around. You’re distant, Fain. You’re not the snot-nosed kid I pegged with a dodge

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ball.” All the melody was gone, and Whitley’s voice sounded more like a broken down car being started up repeatedly on a frigid winter morning. “Whit, come on. I love you more than anything. I’ve always loved—“ “Don’t go and say it again, Fain! If you don’t mean it you’re making everything that came before it look like the inside of some cheap, pay-by-the-hour motel!” “Whit, you don’t understand. Someday I’ll be able to explain it to you. Someday soon. I promise. And then it’ll all make sense to you.” “And I assume that day won’t be today?” Fain’s silence told Whitley all she needed to know. She could say nothing more. All she could do was rip a few heads off her flowers and spike them in the garden. Then she stormed past Fain back up to the house. Fain knew there was no use trying to stop her. The only thing he could do was keep her safe until the time was right to grip his hands firmly around Boss’s throat and tighten until he could feel life no longer. He knew he had no choice but to venture out to the Rattlesnake if there was any hope of ever finding his victim. Fain got dressed and hopped back in the Porsche. The Cosmos had a day game. It was customary for he and T.J. to grab a cup of coffee and a plate of pancakes together when the occasion presented itself. His suspension was not grounds for a departure from the tradition. T.J. was pouring an ungodly amount of sugar in his cup and absent-mindedly working another crossword when Fain arrived at the Starlight Diner. They’d been coming to this place since their rookie season, and ballplayers seem to stick to their habits, good or bad. Plus, they’d built up quite a relationship with their usual waitress, Betty—she’d

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always make sure a couple of extra flapjacks made it to the top of their stacks before she delivered them to the table. “Gonna miss you out there today,” T.J. mumbled from behind his paper. “Haven’t played a game without you since we broke camp back on the farm.” “You’ll be alright. Same game, different day.” Fain was distant, and T.J. noticed it without having to make eye contact with his friend. “Somethin’ eating at you, Champ? Seems like someone took a dump in your coffee this morning.” “Feels that way too. But don’t worry about it. Just go out and do me that favor today.” “You got somewhere to go?” T.J. asked after Fain inspected his watch for the fourth time since he arrived. “Got an errand to run after breakfast. Looks like I’ll be cutting it close on time.” T.J. knew Fain was not the kind of guy who filled his day with random errands, unless they had something to do with mending a ball glove or picking out a pair of new spikes. “Why don’t you skip the errand today. See what comes of it.” “We had this discussion already,” Fain said between bites of pancake. “I don’t have that option.” “How do you know if you don’t give it a go? Maybe it’s all a big bluff. Come on, Champ. I know you have a better poker face than that.” “This isn’t a hand of cards, T.J. Believe me, I wish it were.” “So, what’s the errand?” “It’s not important…and best if you don’t know a damn thing about it.” Fain

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shoveled the last bits of pancake into his mouth and filtered what was left of his coffee down after it. He tossed a couple of twenties down on the table. “Breakfast is on me. Good luck today returning the favor.” T.J. grunted and shook his head as his friend swept back out to the parking lot. It was a two-hour drive out to the Rattlesnake, through a wasteland of flat plains and dry earth. About the only point of reference, besides the occasional road sign or truck stop, was the fat yellow sun hanging high above. On this day, Fain thought, it was so plump he could almost see its gaseous body revealed in the swirls of heat. He wished one of its rays could burst forth and ignite the son-of-a-bitch who’d sent him on this so-called errand. The Rattlesnake Casino rose up from the desert floor like an Aztec ruin, its faux-stone steps modeled after those found at Machu Picchu. At this early hour, the parking lot was nearly as vast and wide open as the desert itself. Not much of a chance anyone would recognize him here, Fain thought. Only winos and derelicts had the gall to throw money away before noon. But he was wrong. He should have known Boss would complicate matters for him. God forbid he just walked away with what he wanted—some valuable memorabilia and a king’s ransom on a single bet. But then, Fain thought, is that really what Boss was after? What was it about their little relationship that kept Boss plotting away in whatever dungeon he inhabited? Was it the power? The second-hand fame he leeched off Fain in some bizarre version of reverse osmosis? Was it Whitley? Fain felt the familiar burn in his ear lobes and his pulse began to race with rage as he climbed the casino steps and walked through the grand, double doors. But he didn’t

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have a chance to fully realize this particular emotion. “Mr. Driver, we’ve been expecting you.” She was a pretty blond in a blue-sequins dress and stiletto heels. Before Fain could respond, she’d taken him by the hand and was leading him across the casino floor. “What do you mean ‘you’ve been expecting me?’” he stuttered. “Your people phoned ahead and asked if we could give you a warm welcome. Your publicist, I assume? Now, there’s a package at the concierge—“ “I don’t have a publicist.” “Well, that’s not important is it? The important thing is you’re here…and the Rattlesnake Casino intends to treat you as one of our finest clients. After all, you are very important Mr. Diver.” They’d walked a complete path across the casino floor and Fain suddenly became aware that he might be noticed. He quickly snatched his hand away from the woman and took two steps in the opposite direction. “I’ll take my package now,” he said nervously. “Mr. Driver,” she said both amused and surprised. “I promise I won’t bite.” She offered her hand once more. “My package, please.” “I see,” she said, her smile quickly fading to an insulted frown. “I’ll get that right out to you…and you enjoy your stay.” A few moments later, a porter handed Fain a small, yellow envelope. Fain carried it over to a set of aluminum lockers in an adjacent hallway. He flipped the key out of the envelope and found Locker 23. Inside was another envelope containing the wad of cash Boss had promised. Fain reached inside his jacket pocket and replaced the envelope with a beat-up mitt he had used in high school. His signature was

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the only script on the glove that had yet to be worn raw. He dropped the key off at the concierge and mentioned that another guest—a Mr. Boss—would be arriving shortly to pick it up. Then he headed over to one of the betting windows to get the whole damn thing over with. The teller, an older gentleman with white hair and a pair of gold spectacles pulled low on the bridge of his nose, stared at him with an odd sense of recognition. But he made no protest as Fain dropped the stack of bills on the counter and said, “Put it all on the Broncos in today’s game at Pilot City.” That’s when Fain felt a heavy paw grip his shoulder. The smell of dime-store aftershave tickled his nostrils, and Fain knew it was Charlie Calla before he turned around. “You’re making my job easy, Driver,” Calla grunted through his porky lips, which were now beaming from ear to ear. Fain had rarely seen the guy smile in the time he’d been playing for the Cosmos, a team Calla had been covering even before Fain Driver was leaving stinky loads in his diapers. “What the hell are you doing here? You stalking me, Calla?” “I think the proper question—my lead question, mind you—is what the hell are you doing here? And ‘stalking’ is such an ugly word, Driver. I prefer to call it reporting. Besides, I got an anonymous tip you’d be here. Been getting quite a few of those lately.” “Maybe you should check the reliability of your so-called sources.” “Imagine that headline, Driver. ‘Calla Has News Sources.’ Not quite as punchy as ‘Driver Bets on Baseball’ or ‘Driver Seen with New Gal Pal.’ Got the pictures to prove it. And who needs a source when they got their own two eyeballs and a roll of film?” “Come on, Calla. This isn’t what it looks like.”

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“Oh, it’s not? A disgruntled and recently suspended player heads out for a little fun and some redemption on his day off? Best of luck explaining this one, Driver. Better have your story straight before the evening edition hits the streets.” Indeed, it would be a long, desolate drive back to Pilot City for Fain. Among all the worries—the destruction of his career, the impending meeting with Wisner, his possible release— only one truly made his heart want to explode. How would he ever reconcile with Whitley after this? He drove around aimlessly, watching the buzzards in their lazy, circular patterns above him, every now and then catching an awkward wind current that threatened to send them spiraling to the Earth in clumsy heaps. The sun had long ago passed overhead and was now teetering toward the Western horizon. Fain noticed the needle on his fuel gauge was closely following the same pattern, so he pulled off the road into a dusty gas station. The pumps were so old and corroded he imagined the last customer to stop off on this desolate stretch of highway must have driven a Model T Ford. He flipped on the radio to keep him company while he pumped, and tuned in to the last inning of the Cosmos game. T.J. was at the plate nursing an 0-for-4 performance that quickly became 0-for-5 after a swing and a miss. The Broncos led 10-3. Of course they did. Yet another feather for Calla to place in his cap before the evening post. Then Fain felt the familiar buzz in his pocket once more. Boss was forever on cue, the bastard. “Mr. Driver,” he screeched in his raspy tones, “my compliments on another job well done.” “Go to hell, Boss,” Fain grumbled with what little conviction he still possessed.

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“One day, my fine sir. One day. Unfortunately for you, that day is not today. But fortunately for Ms. Strib, she’ll live to see another.” “That’s why you called me? To taunt me? For kicks? I’m hanging up, Boss. You’ve had your fun for the time being.” “No, Mr. Driver. Although it is very satisfying to get under your skin, I call to discuss more pressing matters.” “Pressing?” “That’s right. A finale to our little business arrangements.” “I’m done, Boss. Don’t ask for anything else. By the end of the day I’ll be ruined and you’ll have what you want. That is what you wanted all along, isn’t it?” “I believe time will reveal what I’ve wanted, Mr. Driver. Time and time alone.” “You’ll have to find another watch then, Boss. Cause this one’s stopped ticking.” “That’s a shame, Mr. Driver. The loss of Ms. Strib will be so futile now that you’ve come mere meters from the finish line. That’s right, Mr. Driver. The game is almost over. I’m offering you an out. One final request and we can both go our separate ways.” Fain didn’t know what to say. On one hand, did he really want it to end? If it did there was no way in hell he’d ever track the bastard down, and then how would he be able to quench the lust of redemption that’d been boiling in his veins for the better part of three seasons? On the other hand, a life without Boss was what he’d been praying for all along. How could he not take the opportunity to rid himself of the disease forever? “Mr. Driver? Are you still with me? Mr.—“ “What’d you have in mind, Boss?”

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“Your easiest task to date. Tonight. You select the prettiest bat in your collection. Sign it and deliver to the bus station in Anchor Springs.” “Anchor Springs? That’s a three hour drive.” “Is it time you’re worried about, Mr. Driver? Based on your actions today, I believe Mr. Wisner will be more than happy to give you all the time you’ll need. Once the fans read about your exploits in this evening’s paper, I think you will be thankful to be as far away from Pilot City as possible when the death threats start rolling in.” “You made your point.” “I’m glad. Now, leave the package at the ticket window. I’ve arranged for them to hold it for the arrival of a particular passenger.” “I’m guessing that passenger will be you.” “Look at you, Mr. Driver. I see my wit has begun to rub off even upon a great fool. I guess my greatest work has finally been achieved. So long, Mr. Driver. Our business transactions have been memorable to say the least.” “Now listen here, you snake! There better not be any funny business this time or—“ But Fain could only hear the opaque silence of a dead line on the other end. Boss had hung up for the final time. Fain paid the attendant and sped back through the desert to Pilot City. With any luck, he could get to Whitley before news of his casino incident broke to the public. He was not so lucky. He entered the kitchen, dimly lit by a single pendant light hanging from the ceiling above the sink. The bulb was concealed behind a glass shade, marled with brown and black blotches like a jewel. It emitted a warm glow. Fain usually welcomed its

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softness. Sometimes it thrust his mind back to Mino’s, the quaint Italian restaurant he and Whitley considered ritzy back before they had money. He proposed to her there—knelt down on one knee and asked Ms. Strib to be his forever as the waiter approached awkwardly with their espressos and plates of Tiramisu. Now Whitley sat at the kitchen table with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. She fumbled with a cheap lighter, spinning it like a top on the stack of papers that lay before her. Fain had never known her to smoke but, at that moment, in front of a kitchen table they’d barely used since they’d moved in, it occurred to him maybe there were many things he didn’t know about the striking country girl he’d fallen in love with as a teenager. She lit up. The smoke drifted like a self-possessed spirit and hung in a heavy cloud over the warm light. The flame seemed extinguished. Everything that once struck Fain as natural and radiant was somehow exposed as cold and synthetic. Whitley flicked an ash on the tile floor, and Fain noticed a faint line across her finger where the sun had not penetrated the band of platinum since he’d first slipped it upon her. She said nothing. Her glare burned holes in the tabletop as she held up the sports page. On the cover was a full-color picture of him being lead across a casino floor by a buxom blond in a sequins dress. The headline read, “Driver Lays it all on the Line.” When Whitley was sure Fain had registered the moment, she slid a manila envelope thick with paperwork across the table. Fain didn’t need to look inside to know what it contained, but he nervously bent back the metal clasp—perhaps possessed by his own shock—and slid the first page half way out of its wrapping. The words ‘irreconcilable differences’ stared at him like a set of

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glowing, green eyes in a pitch-black jungle. He read no further. He simply dropped to his knees. But there was no waiter with espresso and Tiramisu this time. Only her sweet smell, of lavender and rose water, as she brushed past him. “I’ll be back to pick up some things,” she said. He didn’t respond. He’d lost her, and Fain realized there was nothing he could do to bring her back. But he still loved her. Nothing could change that. Not a trumped-up news story printed in the local rag; not some Harvard bullshitter; not even a psychotic monster like Boss. If he could no longer have her, at least he’d be there to protect her. Just this one last time he’d do it. Then he’d track down the bastard if it took him every waking second that remained in his putrid life. Fain knew he was batting with two strikes. He threw a few changes of clothes in his duffel and hopped in the Porsche. The house he and Whitley had built brick by brick since high school shrunk in the rear-view and, with it, the life he had always wanted. The life of a star that burned dangerously bright and was now nearing its inevitable implosion. He dialed the number while weaving through traffic on the interstate. Lately, it seemed like Fain had called his only friend so many times under these circumstances that his touch on the keypad had become muscle memory, like coasting back on the routine fly ball, or getting the first-pitch fastball and riding it deep into the right field stands. Only, Fain never knew T.J. not to answer his call. After five or six rings, Fain was directed to voicemail. Fain thought about hanging up, but he figured he better let someone know of his whereabouts just in case. “T, I’m heading out to Anchor Springs. One last errand at the old bus station. I’ll be there as long as it takes.” And Fain meant it, too. He’d play nice and leave the bat just

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as Boss had asked. But he wasn’t leaving until the slimy bastard showed up to claim it. Then he’d have his revenge. He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d do when he finally laid eyes on the man who’d been holding him hostage from behind the scenes all these years. He figured he’d let his heart take over the decision-making. The authorities would sort out the rest. Fain allowed a few gruesome fantasies to play in his mind as he slipped the Porsche between cars like a shoelace through an eyelet—his hands gripping Boss by the throat and slamming him to the ground amidst a throng of unlucky sightseers; the sickening pop of his own knuckles pounding hard against Boss’s skull, hitting him again and again; the panic rising in Boss’s eyes as he realized nothing or no one would pull Fain off of him, and death would be the only reprieve from the episode; his fist continuing to pound at raw flesh long after Boss’s body has turned limp and lifeless. And then it occurred to Fain, and not a moment too soon—the bat. The entire reason for this expedition, and Fain had forgotten to bring it along. He’d have to make a pit stop. Fain downshifted the Porsche and flung it across two lanes to make it off the next exit—as luck would have it, the exit for Pilot City Park. He would swing by the old clubhouse one more time. Maybe he’d be able to avoid Wisner if he played his cards right. But Fain lost that hand, too. The clubhouse was dark and empty but for an old man and a cloud of cigar smoke rising above the leather armchair in Broyles’s office. Their eyes met, and Fain could see the vein start to bulge again. “You have the gall to walk in here after what you done, boy?” Fain lowered his

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eyes and walked toward his locker. The last thing he needed was a confrontation. “You think this is some kind of game?” Wisner’s voice was rising, and Fain could tell he was not about to slip in and out of the clubhouse quietly as he had hoped. “Answer me, god-damn-it!” Wisner pushed his way in front of Fain and stood nose to nose with him. “Not now, Wisner,” Fain whispered. “Oh, this is happening right here and now, young man. Now answer me or—“ “Get the hell out of my way, old man!” Fain didn’t know where the anger came from or how it materialized in the way it did, but he felt his hands push hard against Wisner’s corduroy lapels and, the next thing he knew, the Pilot City owner had left his feet, toppled over a row of folding chairs, and landed flat on his back. Both men were silent. Only a steady glare of surprise and terror, mixed with outright hatred, connected them. “Pack up your shit, hayseed,” Wisner finally said in a low growl. “I’ll give you a five minute start before security drags you outta here by your ears.” Then the old man wobbled to his feet, picked up his bent cigar, and strutted out of the clubhouse with a puffed chest. Fain didn’t have time to dwell on what would amount to the end of his career. None of it mattered anymore. He rifled through all of the shit in his locker. He wouldn’t be taking a single stitch of it with him. Too many memories. Too much hard work washed down the drain. When he found his prized bat—the one with which he’d clubbed his first home run—he started for the door. But then he realized he needed a marker to sign the damn thing. He didn’t think to bring one, and he sure as hell couldn’t ask Wisner—that

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wouldn’t go over very well. He stepped over to T.J.’s stall. His old buddy wouldn’t mind if he grabbed a lousy marker out of his duffel. T.J. wasn’t one to sign many autographs—wasn’t real popular with the fans since he hid behind the mask and chest protector every night—but the son-of-a-bitch was always prepared. Fain unzipped the duffel and dumped it on the floor next to T.J.’s stall. The marker fell out along with a few other items Fain hastily jammed back inside. Then he noticed something funny. A baseball. With a signature on it. And the signature looked all too familiar—I mean, it was the same one Fain had always written on balls and baseball cards and napkins. What the hell was T.J. doing with it? He dumped the duffel again, and that’s when he saw them—a glove and a crinkled up note. The glove was worn raw under Fain’s signature. The note was handwritten in the same bubbly cursive he’d known since the ninth grade. ‘We’ve got him by the balls now’ it read. ‘See you tonight, love. Signed W-S.’ The air filtered out of Fain’s lungs in one long breath, and he struggled to refill them. The blood pounded in his temples, and his teeth grinded together like dry factory gears. Fain would not be driving to Anchor Springs. He knew that now. Just like Boss had mentioned, Fain would be saving himself a whole lot of time. He left everything on the clubhouse floor and carried only his prized bat back to the car. No point in signing the damn thing now. It only had a few swings left in it anyway. The Porsche seemed to guide itself back home. Fain stared blankly through the windshield, caressing the bat he cradled across his lap. He felt Boss’s raspy voice biting

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at his eardrums. “Hellll-ooo, Mr. Driver—Ms. Strib wouldn’t like that now, Mr. Driver—Ms. Strib is so pretty when she lays down to sleep, Mr. Driver—Ms. Strib, Mr. Driver—Ms. Strib—“ Fain cut the engine and coasted the Porsche to a halt where the driveway met the street. Boss’s car was parked beside the fountain as he’d expected. All this time trying to wrap his hands around the snake’s throat and he’d been riding passenger in his car and buying drinks for him at Buzzy’s. All this time trying to make sense of the whole situation—to find a voice of reason within the mire of uncertainty and dread—and the voice turns out to be the same raspy one that had set the wheels in motion. All those puzzles and word games over pancakes, just to find out he had become T.J.’s most ornate puzzle—one to glue upon an off-white vellum and frame above the mantel. And her. His love. His muse. His life. The fat, black widow at the center of the web waiting to devour him. Fain slipped his key in the lock and crept through the back door, passing smoothly and noiselessly like a celestial body through the heavens. His hand gripped the bat tightly midway up the barrel, and he crept up the winding staircase to the bedroom. His heart fluttered in his chest. The faint sting of stomach acid gnawed at the back of his throat. It was time. Fain kicked the door open. He saw them. The sheets were crumpled and lying on the floor. Her hair hung down in tiny curls on her bare shoulders and her arms reached high above her head. He lay beneath her, his putrid hands clutching at her arched back and her legs gripped tightly around him. Their eyes flashed with terror in the candlelight. Fain could see his own hulking

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form dancing in the four tiny reflections they cast. His hair was greasy and hanging over his ears. His shirt, sweat-stained and untucked. The bat idled on one shoulder. He provided no time for explanation--didn’t think they had earned as much. Fain gripped the bat in both hands like he had so many times before—since he was a little kid in his backyard, dreaming of the big hits that would one day make him a star. Then Fain Driver took the final swings of his career.

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Cosmos Star Plummets Down to Earth By: Charlie Calla PILOT CITY – Famed centerfield, Fain Driver, was found dead in his own home this morning. The popular slugger, embroiled in gambling and infidelity scandals in recent weeks, is now at the center of an apparent murder-suicide. According to police, Driver was found hanged in his bedroom next to the two brutally beaten bodies of his wife and a Pilot City teammate, catcher T.J. Lindsay. The murder weapon, a 34-inch Louisville Slugger, was also found at the scene. “At this point, we have to treat it as a homicide and subsequent suicide,” said Police Chief Harry McCormick. “We’re unclear as to motive, but I’m sure the details will unfold as we run the normal protocol.” In addition, it was reported to police that an enraged Driver visited the Pilot City clubhouse just prior to the murders and attacked owner Henrik Wisner without provocation. It has been a long, strange road this young player has walked since he burst onto the scene several years ago and stole many of our hearts. However, as this reporter has seen time and time again in a career that’s longer than he’d like to admit: the brightest stars can shine too brightly. Their intensity grows until white-hot, the point at which implosion becomes inevitable. So goes another young Supernova.

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Contributors KEVIN SINGER- is an Army veteran and former journalist who spends his free time drinking, running, renovating his house and snowboarding. He’s the author of the supernatural thriller The Last Conquistador, and his short story, The Girl Who Slipped Through the Mirror appears in the anthology Young Adventurers by Intrigue Publishing. He lives in Jersey City, though he’d rather live in Hawaii. S.M. KAHLE- lives and writes in Maryland. She is a recovering academic with a graduate degree in media in cultural studies. HOLLY DAY- has taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, since 2000. Her published books include Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar Allin-One for Dummies, Piano All-in-One for Dummies, Walking Twin Cities, Insider’s Guide to the Twin Cities, Nordeast Minneapolis: A History,and The Book Of, while her poetry has recently appeared in New Ohio Review, SLAB, and Gargoyle. Her newest poetry book, Ugly Girl, just came out from Shoe Music Press. TOM RAY- is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee. After active duty in the U. S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam, he entered government service as a civilian. After working thirty-five years in the Washington, D.C., area, he retired to Knoxville. DICK YAEGER – Dick Yaeger lives in Sunnyvale, California, is a retired physicist, former Marine, and active rower, much of which percolates into his novels. His first two novels were light urban fantasy. Between novels, he decompresses with short stories. If not writing, he might be found at his forge creating iron artwork. IAN JOHNSON - After graduating from Davidson College, he played professional basketball in Europe for five seasons. Following some extensive traveling, he settled in Pittsburgh a couple years ago and devoted himself to writing. TIM PEREZ- currently teaches Language Arts at Santiago High School in Corona, Ca. In 2000 he earned an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Long Beach State; that same year Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series published his chapbook titled Crooked. Most recently (2013) Moon Tide Press published The Savagery of Bone his first book of poems. He has been published in various journals and on-line journals such as Xican@ Poetry Daily and The Cadence Collective. FRANK MORELLI- plucked his roots from the cozy, northern soil and buried them in the sunbaked clays of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Ranfurly Review, Jersey Devil Press, Ghostlight Magazine, and Monkey Puzzle Press.

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