(SHORT) FICTION COLLECTIVE
PUSHCART PRIZE NOMINEES 2010
(Short) Fiction Collective is an online literary journal based in New York striving to publish the best fiction from new and seasoned authors around the world. Started in May 2010, (S)FC wants to foster an environment where the quality of writing is the most important thing.
PATRICK TROTTI - EDITOR WWW.FICTIONCOLLECTIVE.BLOGSPOT.COM
TABLE OF CONTENTS “YOU” BY NATHAN FULLER
“CLASH” BY DREW WILCOX
“PLANET RAIN” BY CC LONG
“TRAIN WRECK” BY ALLISON FINE
“VINCE’S WOMAN” BY KENT COOPER
“GUESS WHO’S COMING OUT TO DINNER”
BY JACK LOGAN
"You" by Nathan Fuller Published May, 18, 2010
You turn me over in your head again about a year later. You accidentally dig me up in the backyard of your mind. But you hadn’t found an old picture of us in a desk drawer that you were cleaning out, the desk you’d since moved to your garage, the picture from our first road trip, still smiling and hooded in the back of a speedboat. It isn’t a letter, or a shirt. It’s not a memento. It’s the way your mind happens to work. Sometimes you’re just watching the way the sunlights up your living room and you find yourself thinking of somebody you used to love. You almost laugh out loud, but then you realize no one’s around right now to hear you. You’re thinking it’s kind of weird that you thought of me now, with nothing to bring it up, no one said my name. When you stand up and walk across your house, into the kitchen, to pour a glass of water, you realize you’re still thinking about me. You don’t think about why we broke up. You don’t really remember why anyway, you just remember a deep sadness you used to get. You can remember a few shirts I used to wear. You remember how far my collarbone stuck out. You remember the way I kissed and how you couldn’t really explain me to your friends very well. But then you think about the sadness. You never told me about it, but as soon as you felt it, it sunk low into your soul. It made you cry once. It ran through your body, pumping down to your toes and all the way back up, and it told you I was meant for someone else. You don’t wonder what I’m doing. You think it’s possible I moved to Costa Rica on a whim, but really you figure I’m still close. It’s Saturday. You wonder if I think about you still. You call me. I’m awkward on the phone, until I make you laugh. You’d started to breathe quicker, but then you giggle and it’s loud and you’re relieved. We don’t talk very long. We say we’re gonna meet in the park and walk your dog. You say you had to walk him anyway and you could use some company. At the park I see you from the other side. You wear a long flowery skirt and a solid tight t-shirt. You look cute. I try to wear something you might recognize. Your hair is a little longer. Your smile is persistent and genuine, and I struggle to dam a hundred memories around the edges of my brain. We hug and start to walk, your dog leading us and the conversation. Then we catch up. We tell each other a few things we’ve memorized about ourselves and what we do. We wonder if we’d said these peculiar words
before. We both look skyward and then down. It’s silent for a little while but we don’t think much of it. Then I ask you a question and you smile wider than before. You have to wait to stop smiling a second to answer. You choose your words carefully and suddenly everything is easier. We can talk now. We sit down under a tree. We’re newer versions of ourselves but at least we’re parallel. We talk and laugh and ask questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask before. You’re more thoughtful. I’m more patient. We’re lying down now looking at clouds through branches. Time loses track of us, then comes back and taps us on the shoulder after about an hour. You remember you have to be someplace and we stand up piecemeal, necks, arms, backs, thighs, ankles, wiping off our knees and scratching where our skin touched the grass. You give me a long hug. One of us says that this was nice and the other agrees. We don’t see each other ever again, but we walk away happy to the ladders of our lives, now with stronger rungs to stand on.
“Clash” by Drew Wilcox
Published Monday, July 5, 2010
Don't run, and don't shoot. I've been waiting for someone to talk to. You look confused. Do you realize what's going on? I saw you crawl out of that tunnel. Let me give you some advice. It may save your life. If you're observant, you'll know it's coming about two minutes before it happens. There are telltale signs. They'll start walking in step with each other. Their breathing patterns synchronize. If you're staring at a group of them in a room, they won't realize that they're all doing it, but they'll stare at the same things and their body language will be exactly identical to each other. Before they even realize it, they've lost themselves, and if you weren't paying attention two minutes before that, then there are two possible outcomes. Option one is that you lose yourself along with them, and then you're a member. You won't find yourself syncing up with them unless they're like you. I don’t know what triggers it, but you'll fall right in with them, like a chain gang of like-minded personalities. If that happens, the only way you can separate yourself from them is with a bullet to the brain. Oh, yeah. That's option two, by the way. Most call it "locking in." If you're around another human being nowadays and you're not locking with them, you are their enemy, and they will kill you. Don't blame it on them. They lost the ability to think for themselves when they became a member of the mob think. Your individuality is offensive to them. They'll torture you, if you don’t fight them off. They've lost themselves, and they're never coming back. It's like trying to put the engine of a Camaro in a Mustang and firing up the ignition. It just doesn't work. Odds are, a few of them have already come at you. I can imagine you've done some pretty horrible shit in the past couple of months or so, but then again, so have the rest of us. When you scavenge for food or manage to find water, at least there's your mouth. They never break out in to fighting amongst themselves, but when groups fight groups, it's never a good thing. You get too many dead bodies on the ground, and then more mobs show up, waiting for the showdown to end so they can carve up the leftovers and
feed their group for a few days. You know we’re at an impasse here, but put down the gun. Please. Maybe you haven't seen enough of them to notice any patterns yet. We both know this isn't the way we wanted the world to end. I always thought it'd be the nukes myself, but as it turns out, it's both simpler and more complicated than that. The world turned upside down. People stopped thinking for themselves, and now they’re like packs of hyenas. The ones who haven't fallen in, who haven't "locked" with the others ---- we're sheep, really. It's only a matter of time. Keep that bullet close to your heart. You'll never know when you'll need to bring it home for your own sake. Whether or not you know the cause of all this is just plain worthless at this point. What does matter is that it happened, and now here we are. There's you, trying to live life, playing the game of survival, attempting to live the way you did before that high-pitched scream streaked through the sky and they all lost their minds. Be thankful you weren't driving when it happened. Imagine millions cruising on the freeway at seventy-five ---- they're headed in from a hard day, chasing the American dream. Then, you've got an empty brain that's been wiped clean of everything in a split second, surrounded by a thousand more empty brains. You've got those two, and then you've got inertia. At the end of the day, when the only thing alive on that stretch of highway is a stray cat, you've got a bloody mess. Something tells me that whoever unleashed this on the world is just curious. They wanted to see how we would behave when reduced to our original human instincts. In a way, I guess they could argue that we're stronger for it. People don't rely on technology anymore. They rely on their pack, their group, their brood. Those without a pack are weeded out and eaten. A half-eaten candy bar that you found in a trashcan, or human flesh. It's all the same. Survive. No group can exist alongside another indefinitely. It's impossible. There's no way to stop the strongest of the cliques from tearing the others apart, and it's only a matter of time before survival of the fittest becomes the norm, rather than the exception. I don't particularly care to be alive anymore, and I don't think you do either. I see it in your eyes. You've given up, and I have to say that I don't blame you. I see what the person who caused all this wanted. They wanted to see us clash. Nothing more, nothing less.
I'm scared, mostly because you're the first person I've seen since it all happened that hasn't been with anyone else. I see that you have your weapon ready. I don't think you have to worry about it, really. Look at your hands and feet. You can't stop staring at the setting sun, and neither can I. You've killed entire cliques to keep yourself going, and for what? To find one yourself. We're locking in, you see? You and I are meant to travel the rest of the world together, and it makes me happy, because all I've wanted is to see who wins. We're outnumbered, but you never know. Maybe the world will be our playground. You and me. As of two minutes ago, I'm trying to stop breathing, but my chest is rising and falling in perfect unison with yours.
“Planet Rain” by CC Long
Published Thursday, June 24, 2010
The 747 rolled into the birth and he heard the mantra, “Set doors to manual.” He looked out the window through the rain that pounded the standing water on the Heathrow tarmac. He waited for the familiar ding to release him from his seat belt and the purgatory of having to sit next to Carl Taylor for seven long hours, talking incessantly about money, money and more money. Carl was an investment banker or DMV (dead man walking) thanks to the latest economic crisis everybody in finance was hated and deserved to die. Ding. The Upper Class section clicked open their belts and rose in unison outfitted with bags and coats given back to them by the Virgin Air host and hostesses. Freedom was in sight. A song familiar to him filled the restlessness of the wait. Air weary passengers queued for the door receiving fast track vouchers from the blond stewardess that his fantasy had lain bare during intermissions of talk of a bad stock market, malfeasance and yields one way or the other, not to mention the world wide monetary crisis, the Yen’s bleeding and the devaluation of the Pound. Vedder incanted, “Don’t you think you ought to rest? Don’t you think you ought to lay your head down tonight...” The lyrics to a Pearl Jam song, All Those Yesterdays, that his oldest daughter had turned him onto from the album, Yield. The cabin door opened and a mellow waft of airport air mixed with the regenerated staleness of the cabin. He took his first step toward the door but was held back by a firm shoulder grab from behind. “Nice to meet you, Adam.” Carl put his hand out to shake and he responded in kind. “You too,” he answered, as Carl stepped in front of him and escaped through the cabin door. Carl called back over his shoulder, “Don’t forget Cheadle Industries,” an insider’s tip he had mentioned earlier that he would totally ignore because there was no insider information that could help anyone these days. He tried to respond but Carl was gone. He decided to take his time down the corridors of Heathrow. He wrestled for a cigarette from his coat pocket. It dangled unlit from his mouth. He did not want to meet Carl again in passport control and then be laden with him at baggage control. He couldn’t take it. There was good reason anybody in finance was hated. Yes, everything was about money especially when you needed more. Seven hours of high density financial speak had made him
very weary and somewhat depressed. He walked slowly on the moving walkway holding his briefcase by the tips of fingers looking through the floor to ceiling windows at the deluge that was washing them. The sound was a strange water chant. He had left sixtydegree spring-like weather in New York but he was glad to be here, nonetheless. He had been traveling to London frequently in the last five years, shuttling advertising for Pantene shampoo from the New York to London. Shampoo was the name of the game brought to you by your good friends at Proctor and Gamble. Passport control with a fast track voucher was too fast. Much to his chagrin he saw Carl still waiting for his luggage slashing through an edition of the International Herald Tribune. He looked up at him and waved him over. “Look at this, Microsoft is at eighteen bucks and Brazil is devaluing its currency not to mention Obama’s remarks,” he said relatively upset, business speak flowing from him like Niagara Falls. He folded the paper rough shod and barely taking a breath, asked, “Where are you staying?” “The Halcyon,” he said, searching the moving turnstile for his bag. “Holland Park? A little small for me.” Carl smiled. “I like small.” He watched the luggage chugging around on the conveyer belt. He did not see his bag and prayed Carl’s was there. “No health club,” Carl said, reaching down for a black leather soft suitcase. “I’m not healthy,” he answered, pointing to the unlit cigarette. Carl laughed and adjusted himself to the new weight. “Well, nice meeting you, again,” he finally farewelled. “Yes, and thanks for the tip,” he lied. Carl held one finger to his lips, winked and moved away through the immigration’s doorway. He watched his brown leather bag approach him on the conveyer belt. He let it go around again. He reported to the Virgin Air limousine desk and gave his name. He was approached by an older gentleman sporting a very impressive handlebar
mustache. “Can I take your bag?” he asked, reaching for and grabbing it. He for no known reason gave resistance causing a slight wrestling match with the driver. “Let me do my job, governor,” the driver said, irritated, snatching the bag away. Somewhat puzzled he followed the driver to the elevator up to the parking garage, where he waited for him to retrieve the car. He lit the cigarette and took the purposeful drags of a smokeless hiatus. His smoking doubled as soon as he landed in London. It was all about freedom. The driver returned in a Range Rover as he finished his cigarette. He lit a second as the driver came to take his bag. “Can I smoke?” he asked. The driver nodded affirmatively, a now extinct gesture in the US. He lit the cigarette as he opened the door and slid into the leather-upholstered seat. He cracked the window and enjoyed the feel of the damp cool air. His smoke funneled out without restraint. As soon as they left the garage a deluge soaked the car and dampened his jacket, but he didn’t roll up the window. The Rover sprayed rooster tails from both back wheels. The window wipers moved in marvelous syncopation. It was raining very hard but the premium range all terrain-vehicle moved through it smoothly. “Nice weather,” he said loud enough for the driver to hear, breaking the subtle tension from the earlier wrestling match. He finished his cigarette. “Tell me about it. This here is the fortieth day of rain. Down right biblical,” the driver lamented, “That’s probably why I’m a little touchy. Sorry about that.” “I thought you were just doing your job,” he said diplomatically, opening the ashtray and snuffing the butt. “It’s been raining for forty days and forty nights?” “Close mate, not constantly but a little rain every day. It’s diabolical.” He let out a giddy nervous laugh. He sat back not liking his entry so far. Relax, you’re back in London, he told himself. He watched the M40 float by, a myriad of cars all driving down the wrong side of the river. Sheets of rain blew against the windows. He closed his eyes just to hear it pound, but the thought of ‘rough hair’ disturbed his ablutionary auditory.
‘Rough hair’ was the root of the most recent critical meltdown on the Pantene business. ‘Rough hair’ was why P&G was spending thousands of dollars to fly him over. His, and the agency’s opinion, was that nobody describes or wants their hair described as rough. Rough hair? The absurdity of his life. He was alone, divorced with two daughters at UCLA. He was paying for that and everything else his ex-wife could legally coerce him to pay for, including enough alimony to feed a small village forever. He made over a quarter of million dollars a year and he didn’t have a penny to spare. He had just turned forty-five and things were getting no better. He lived in a cheap studio apartment around the corner from Gramercy Park and ate a lot of take out Chinese food. He wanted out of his life but there was no escape, except these trips to London. He arrived at the Halcyon Hotel off Holland Park Avenue. It was a Victorian mansion peach colored with white trim converted into a homey but elegant hotel. The rain had let up and he dodged a slow drizzle from the Range Rover door to the black baroque cast iron awning over the doorway of the main entrance. He checked in without any hassles and undressed in front of the TV set watching an Arsenal versus Manchester United football match, smoking another cigarette. He held the remote surfing the sky TV channel log barely glancing at the programs that swam by in multi languages. After flying through all one hundred and fifteen channels he turned it off. He lay down on the bed and looked out at the gray day through the pulled back green and white paisley ceiling to floor drapes. He took a final drag from his fag and put it out. He closed his eyes to see if there was any inkling of sleep in his body. Lights blinked in his closed eyes. He felt the firm bed against his bareback. His thoughts drifted back to the fantasy stewardess. She looked a lot like Princess Diana. Which made him remember that fatal day and the week after. He was in London then, too. On the day of her funeral with the haunting procession. He had gone to a masseuse of the non-professional variety to try to blur it out. He was quite depressed that day but not as depressed as the French beauty who massaged him. She wept for Diana as she massaged him, her tears mixing with the baby oil. ‘Rough hair’ popped back into his head. He sat up straight and went to his opened bag and pulled out a pair of khaki pants and a blue shirt. He put on
some black Doc Martins and a light rust colored anorak. He looked at himself in the mirror, his hair in dire need of a cut, his eyes itchy red with dark circles below. He was six foot tall and shrinking. He thought himself ugly. The blues were invading. He needed a margarita. It had stopped raining but the dampness permeated the duller than gray day. He walked up Holland Park Avenue; the ancient Roman road that runs through the center of London, changing as it goes from Holland Park Avenue to Notting Hill to Bayswater to Oxford Street splitting at Holborn and annexing the City. Century old white maples that line both sides of the avenue were pruned like amputees with sapling branches and leaves spraying out of their severations, unrolling in the warm dampness. Spring was in full swing, clearly a month or more ahead of New York. The smell of jasmine, lilac and honeysuckle from the myriad of walled hidden gardens he walked beside made the moisture rich and perfumed the dampness. He heard the distant howl of a peacock in Holland Park. He lit a cigarette and walked up Notting Hill, feeling the standing dew against his face. It was dot matrix rain, not falling just there. It was hard to keep his cigarette lit. He was soaking wet before he reached Ladbroke Grove. He quickened his step to the top of the hill and Nachos, a Mexican bar and restaurant. He frequented Nachos when he was in town. It was by far the best margarita in London. The food was fair and the help was worth watching. Two young women in particular had struck his fancy, a Swedish bartender that looked anything but Swedish. She was dark and wicked cool. Her name was Tara. She wanted to be an artist and was traveling the world to see if she was. Quick, smart and sarcastic, she had a definite opinion on most everything. The other girl, Karreen was a waitress and an aspiring dancer from South Africa, ‘currently performing at all the clubs throughout London and vicinity,’ she joked. They were both fun loving and about the age of his oldest daughter. He enjoyed their banter almost as much as he enjoyed his margarita. The bar area was mustard yellow and authentically decorated with Mexican bric a brac. The large picture windows provided expansive views of Notting Hill. He entered and took a napkin from a cocktail table to wipe his brow. He put out his cigarette. Hip-hop music grooved from the sound system. Tara was behind the bar, a myriad of tequila bottles glowing silver and gold filling shelves towering behind her. She turned and smiled through a grimace. Her hair was a long black mane tied straight up in a ponytail with a paisley necktie. She wore an orange Lacoste shirt that was shrunk so small her medium sized erect nipples were in full view. It was hard not to look at them.
“Hello doctor,” she said, using the nickname she had given him for no known reason, pronouncing her English more American than British, “the usual?” He nodded, shaking out his coat and hanging it on the back of the tall bar stool. “Nice day if it doesn’t rain,” he quipped. She surprised him with a scathing glance and kept looking at him askance as she made the margarita. She shook the shaker harder than need be, pounded it on the bar, and poured it into the salted rim margarita glass. She carried it to him never changing her acrimonious stare. She placed the drink in front of him and shook her head slowly. He was baffled; should he apologize for looking at her nipples? “You don’t understand. It’s not a joke anymore. We now officially live on the Planet Rain. It has rained here for forty days and forty nights. Forty days and forty fucking nights! Everything is different here now. It’s not the same London you left. It’s not cool Britannia anymore. Its wet, very wet and people are losing their minds.” She was serious. Her eyes were blazing brown and unwavering. She let out a very soft whimper. “And am I looking at one of those people?” He joked. She smiled slightly, shook her head wearily and walked away. He sipped on his margarita and watched her walk away on platform tennis shoes that made her at least three inches taller. Her black pants were a synthetic stretch material that clung to her like skin. Her hair fountained from her head. She was a visual paradise. He looked out across Notting Hill at where the infamous restaurant and bar, The Pharmacy, that Damien Hirst had designed, used to be. He liked that place. Now, Damien was auctioning off his own work and making millions. Who would have thought, making millions making art. “I miss The Pharmacy,” he said. “Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically, standing across the bar from him, looking out as a sheet of wind full with rain whipped the scene. She looked at her watch and then stamped her feet. “Noah was fucking lucky! He had an ark to flee the flood. All we get is seeping in. Dampness that permeates the ether; you breathe it, you taste it, you look through it. It’s nature’s version of the Chinese water torture test.” She looked outside at the rain
that pelted the windows and road and she laughed a tortured laugh. Karreen, the South African dancer, walked up with tray in hand and smiled at him. “She’s not boring you with her Planet Rain rant is she?” she asked, eyeing Tara suspiciously. He nodded. “To much E,” she mouthed. The party girls often partook in the ecstasy scene on their clubbing adventures. “I heard that! And my extracurricular skooby snack ingestion has nothing to do with this! Look outside girl! It’s fucking raining!” She choked out a whine. “I’m going rain insane!” She turned into a limp rope her head dropping to her waist like a rag doll. “All I want to do is cry and I can’t,” she whimpered, pulling her torso up. “Don’t start rambling on about your theory on crying, I need two golden margaritas,” Karreen ordered. “Make that three,” he added, wondering what ricochet she was going to pelt him with next. “You can’t cry on Planet Rain,” she moaned, trudging through her duties of mixing the margaritas. “You can’t because there’s no tears, all the moisture is outside. We are dry. Try to cry. I have, I can’t. I’ve pricked myself with needles. No tears. There are no tears on the planet and that changes everything. No release from the hurt, the frustration, the fear. It all wells up in the dry cavern in your soul and every attempt to cry is met with the most excruciating feeling of remorse and searing pain that turns your guts cold and hard. A slow painful strangulation that tortures the essence of your being. Try to cry, I dare you. You can’t! Nobody can.” She shook the margarita shaker and the put it down on the bar softly. Karreen lifted an eyebrow. “I think you should take a couple of aspirins and call me in the morning, honey,” she said, breaking the ice. Tara put the two margaritas on her tray just staring at her until she left. She carried the third to him. “So when did you arrive from the land of the free and the home of the brave
and the country with a black President ?” She changed gears like a Ferrari. “About four hours ago.” He licked some salt off the rim of the glass. “You Americans have it made don’t you, ruling the world an all? What was the weather like when you left the Big Apple?” “Do you really want me to tell you?” She nodded a put me out of my misery nod. “When I left it was sixty degrees Fahrenheit and sunny,” he said, taking a large drink of the citrus ambrosia, preparing for the worse. She chuckled in an eerie way, sounding suspiciously similar to the laugh of the driver when he mentioned the weather. Maybe everybody was going insane here he thought. She raised her hand to the window that was now being cascaded by rain. “It’s always sunny in America,” she lamented, looking at it. “Not always, haven’t you heard of El Nino?” “No, I’m from Mars,” she smiled wryly. “So how long are you here for doctor?” she asked, down shifting again. “A week, I wish longer,” he answered, letting the margarita chill his throat. “Stay longer in the rain? Wow, that’s a great idea. I like that. You have sixty-degree weather and sunshine to go back to! Go! Go! Are you crazy? If you aren’t now and stay around here, you will be!” She shook her head. “Being crazy?” he paused and then continued sadly whimsical, “That sounds like a good change. Better than what’s available for me in New York. Depression, frustration, irritation not to mention disillusionment, desolation and desperation.” He stopped himself, feeling all of the above simmer in him. He remained silent, drinking his margarita. He felt embarrassed. He finished his margarita and looked up at Tara standing in front of him, staring. “Let me warn you now, Planet Rain is not the place to come to get away from those things. It is the place you come to die from them,” she spoke
softly and seriously. “Thanks for the warning,” he said hesitantly, mulling over her words not knowing what to think. He put a ten-pound note on the bar. “No, thank you,” Tara said, pushing the tenner back at him. “They’re on me. Your money is no good here.” He looked at her and nodded politely taking the ten-pound note and stuffing it in his front pant’s pocket. He dug out two pounds and placed them on the bar. He stood putting his trench coat back on and raised the collar. “Here.” She handed him a white baseball cap with, Planet Rain, emblazoned on it in fluorescent red felt pen. “You even have your own hats,” he said, looking at the vibrant scrawl. “It will protect you,” she said. “You’re generosity is overwhelming,” he said, putting it on. “I feel sorry for you, being here now in your state,” she intoned. Her words made him feel strange and laugh a queer laugh he had never heard himself laugh before, sounding much like the eerie chortles he had recognized earlier of both the driver and Tara. Something was different here. Something was changed. He shook his head and left the bar without saying goodbye or thank you. The day was even grimmer. It was not raining but he heard distant thunder. People hunched over fighting gusts looked like lost gnomes. He walked on, letting the wind almost take the hat and then he caught it and pushed it back on. He walked across Kensington Church Street and onward past the crumbling Russian Embassy. He walked briskly but with no purpose or place in mind just trying to rid him of the feeling. At the Lion’s Gate at the northwest corner of Kensington Hyde Park he walked into the park pausing to look at Kensington Palace. He remembered being here when it was surrounded by an ocean size moat of flowers left by mourners for Diana. He had been in London for the entire week and had experienced the epoch of grief. The gongs of the bells of Westminster Abbey on the day of the funeral still echoed in his mind. It was strange how
the whole thing had affected him even though he never considered himself a big Di fan. It was a mass mourning contagion that no one escaped. He stood remembering, looking at the palace, drinking in the damp moisture of the park. He lit another cigarette. He walked on up the northern walkway paralleling Bayswater Road. Daffodils and rising tulips filled the grassy knolls under the mammoth trees. He reached The Fountains at the end of the Long Water of the Serpentine. It was a myriad of rising water, cresting and falling. He listened to the splashing din. The water rose from ancient urns that sprayed into a large elaborately landscaped pond. It was strangely desolate so he moved on spooked. Trudging up Buck Hill Walk across the carriage road that divided Kensington and Hyde Park. He walked with hands in pockets, head down and smoking, cig dangling from his mouth. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere he was startled by the powerful breathing and cantering of a mountainous chestnut horse ridden English saddle by a large man who looked down at him disdainfully. He had cut them off on the bridal trail. The horse reared and made him tremble. He scurried away, his heart pounding from the surprise encounter, cigarette lost and gone. He lit another. He paid more attention to his surroundings trying to shake the horse scare. The sky shown through with streaks of blue that were quickly covered by moving banks of gray clouds. The large lawns of Hyde Park stretched out in front of him and he could see Marble Arch, Cumberland Gate and a small gathering of people at Speakers’ Corner. He headed for the bastion of free speech. He had never been there on a Sunday when people came to espouse their opinions, standing on upturned boxes and stepladders. The first noticeable thing was that almost everyone was talking about religion in one form or another, the second was that because of the rain there was a real lack of tourists viewing the event and the third was that the hecklers were far more interesting than the speakers. One heckler in particular caught his attention. A short Middle Eastern man with a broken nose that a pugilist might sport, a missing tooth and a scar that looked like a third eyebrow above and between his other two thick black mounds of hair that rose from his brow. His hair was short, black and he could not believe the word came to mind as he looked at the man’s hair; it was ‘rough’. He wore a brown suit jacket that he took off and put back on while he pontificated. His yellowing white shirt was a short sleeve button
down. His pants were brown with no belt, his shoes were brown, too. His hackneyed English boomed out over the small crowd so that everyone’s attention came to him. He was verbally devouring a Latter Day Saint boy who stood in front of a sign that read: Miracle performed at 4:OO. This amused the heckler to no end. “Four o’clock! I want my miracle now!” He checked his watch. “It’s ten to four. Can’t you give me a miracle now? I want my miracle now!” he ranted, standing in front of the boy who retreated from the heckler’s breath. “Why not now?” he bellowed. “Not until four o clock” the boy said, pointing at the sign. “Wait a minute? You’re an American. A red, white and blue blood,” he twanged. “Where from boy?” he cross-examined. “Minnesota,” the boy answered nervously. “Minnesota? The land of a million lakes, huh?” he sniggered, “And you call yourself a Christian. What kind? Aren’t there about a million different types of Christians in the U-S-A?” The defenseless boy nodded patiently. The man pushed himself closer, seeming to grow in size versus the boy. He fanned his body odor, making the poster boy step back again. The man knew why the boy was stepping away and attacked the impropriety. “Don’t you like my smell boy? What do you think Jesus Christ smelled like after spending time in the dessert slumming from town to town? What do you think boy? You think he smelt like bloody Fairy liquid? How can a boy from a state with a million lakes know what a dessert god is like? He wasn’t white like you boy. He was like me, ugly, scarred and smelly. I’m from Jerusalem, all-American boy and Jesus Christ wasn’t from America. Your American Jesus Christ does not exist. The real Jesus Christ would rise from the dead if he knew you were his spokesman,” he paused and smirked, “I guess he already did that.” The crowd was pushing up from behind feeling the tension rise. He watched mesmerized by the heckler. The man’s voice was booming but his rhythms were hypnotic. He felt a push from behind and turned, coming
face to face with a blond haired, large breasted woman. “Ta, mate,” she apologized leaning even closer, listening. He felt her tit against his arm through his coat. “Do you understand, all American boy? Jesus was not from your land. You killed all the gods in your land when you wiped out the American Indians. You have no gods. Oh, forgive me, you Americans do have one god. Your most powerful and sacred god, money! Money is your god! And you worship it well,” he lambasted the boy. The boy stood dumb and immobile. The man tapped his watch a couple of times and then looked up into the sky. “Well the time is here, where is my miracle? Change some water into wine, Minnesotan. Show me your miracle.” At that instant another bright and shiny American boy stepped forward out of the crowd that had circled. He put down a small stepladder and climbed its three steps. The Middle Eastern man stood back gesturing grandly in mocking condensation. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the boy greeted the crowd. “I’m no gentleman unless turning me into one is your idea of a miracle,” the heckler clowned. “Ladies and gentlemen, please. We come to you because we believe in the power of prayer creates miracles. We want you to join with us in prayer,” the Latter Day Saint preached. A guttural roar came from the heckler. Then he spat out the words: “Prayer! Prayer! Let me see here, you’re facing northwest. I guess that is where Minnesota is but I assure you there’s no god that is going to perform a miracle for a begging boy! Here,” he said, stepping forward and flipping a fifty pence coin to the boy who watched it rise above his head and hit the sidewalk below. “Well there it is ladies and gentlemen! The miracle that these boys promised. An American who doesn’t love money.” He laughed in a maniacal loud cackle that made the crowd laugh guardedly. Then he turned from the boys and looked into the crowd. Brown crazy eyes leaped from the heckler’s face. He looked at him and held his stare and then turned back to the boy and magic all descended to his prior dwarf self and walked off mumbling, “Miracle, miracle.” As the heckler moved on looking for his next mark, the small crowd
followed him leaving the boy on the ladder smiling incomprehensibly. He moved away too, the woman with the breasts had backed away from him and he watched her as she moved as quickly as the crowd would allow toward the Marble Arch roundabout. Her breasts bounced recklessly. Then he felt it, or the lack of it. He had been robbed! Pick pocketed by the bigbreasted bitch. He panicked and jumped trying get a better view of where the woman was going. He lost sight of her and then saw her hailing a cab on the roundabout. He ran in full sprint to her, losing the hat but not stopping to retrieve it. She saw him coming but a cab had stopped and she stepped in. He arrived at the roundabout seconds later and hailed a cab, too. “Follow that cab,” he ordered and without taking a breath he asked, “Do you have a radio?” “Sorry mate,” the cab driver looked back, “What happened?” “That woman stole my wallet,” he said, watching the cab about two blocks ahead. The cab driver stayed steadily behind even through the countless speed bumps, quick turns and roundabouts that London has to offer. After about fifteen minutes of tailing the cab, the driver pointed out it was stopping. “She’s getting out, mate,” he said. “Get me as close as possible,” he said. The driver brought him to about a half block away from the woman, who was fleeing to a brick apartment block. He jumped out of the cab throwing the ten-pound note he had stuffed in his pocket at Nachos to the driver. “Watch yourself mate that’s council housing,” the cabby warned. He ran as fast as he could seeing her turn a corner. It was raining again and he was soaked by the time he got to the corner she had rounded. She was gone. He searched the desolate brick buildings that were state financed tenements. He heard a door open and turned to the noise seeing the woman hurry through. He ran to the entryway and heard her ascending the stairs. He followed her up the stairs three steps at a time catching her on her landing unlocking and opening her door. “Stop!” he yelled, making her freeze for a second allowing him time to make it to the door and slip his foot in the threshold before she closed it. She forced the door against his foot but offered little resistance against his shoulder forced entry. He fell clumsily into the room.
“What do you want?” the woman screamed. “You stole my wallet!” he yelled back, as what he had just seen flooded back into his mind and it stopped him in his tracks. On the floor were two ragtag twin girls, four years old at the most with long black hair, staring at him with big brown eyes. Beside them was a mammoth castle built from thousands of credit cards. MasterCard’s, Visa and American Express holographic stickers glimmered in the dull light. The woman looked, too and scolded the girls, “I told you not to play with those.” He stood there mollified by the sight, breathing heavily from his chase. She turned back to him screaming again, “You better get out of here before he gets here! He’ll kill you!” “I want my wallet,” he said, wondering who ‘he’ was but surprisingly unfrightened by the threat of death, “and I’m not leaving until I get it.” The woman growled but dug through her dress that concealed huge pockets where he noticed an array of wallets were deposited. She pulled his out. “Here, and you better leave, now,” she said in a threatening tone, again. He was dumbfounded. He stood there still in shock, weak with wondering what he should do next, holding his wallet clumsily. He looked at the girls again, who looked at him with accusing eyes. He turned to the door and left closing it behind him. He walked down the stairs trying to make some sense of what he had just seen. He stood at the entryway door looking out at the steady rain. He was sorry he lost the hat. He put his wallet back in his pocket and took some pride in that he had recovered it. He watched as a hunched over figure hurried toward the door. He opened it and the person stepped in and he stepped out only to be stopped by a gnarly hand. “I know who you are,” the heckler from the park spat, pulling him toward him with titan strength and unloading a spleen splitting punch to his stomach that knocked the wind out of him and made him vomit as he fell out into the muddy square. He spat blood. The rain pounded him as he lay there. “I never want to see you around here again,” the heckler warned and slammed the door.
He lay in a fetal position, the rain now soaking him in torrents. He heard thunder and felt the nausea of his existence wrenching in his guts. He tried to cry but nothing would come. The pain tore at his temples and turned his guts cold and hard. He screamed as he felt sharp blades of excruciating pain cut through his being. Still there were no tears, no escape from the hurt. He could not cry. He lay there writhing in pain, praying for mercy on Planet Rain.
“Train Wreck” by Allison Fine Published Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Part 1: Biographical On the long train ride from Clark & Lake, downtown Chicago, to Irving Park (Blue Line) she noticed a twinge in the left arm. Nothing much. Pulled it probably at the Y when the trainer stepped up her usual work out and added a couple of reps. Marlene took pride in her hypochondria but even this didn’t warrant much attention. Her iPod blasted Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 conducted by that new hotshot L.A. kid Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Marlene reflected on what it would be like to be 28 years old and able to do something so monumental as to conduct a huge orchestra. In front of critics and consumers and stars and a bunch of Hollywood hyped up weirdoes who wouldn’t know Mahler from Mussorgsky anyway, but suddenly waxed intellectually curious and intelligent about Beethoven and the unfinished 10th symphony Mahler left before he died! God. Marlene hated the whole world at that moment. There was nothing (that she could see) so great about being a late bloomer. Being young and incredibly happy was all there was, right? or maybe old and rich; old, rich and a man, with a string of lovers behind and a dutiful wife in front—or beside—whatever. She was not young. Sixty had come and gone without much flare or celebration. She had two rooms (paid for by the loving daughter) and a part time telemarketing job, food stamps and the ability to attend expensive theatre for free thanks to her good job selling season subscriptions to 3 major Chicago theatres. This time it was Chicago Shakespeare that put her sales reward on a platter offering up Richard III. An evening to remember, she smiled; a journey well worth the candle. Something about the effort it took to keep her attention on the stage, on the play, on the story, on the characters, and not notice the strained, awful vocal machinations of the actress playing Queen Elizabeth, or the odd mixture of accents—the terrible thing American actors do to mangle Shakespeare, (she thought) I mean, get it right! Either have everyone do a straight English accent or everyone do American! But some of the smaller parts had actors who, while handsome and dashing and moving about the stage with flair, could hardly speak, whereas the larger parts had seasoned actors doing their version of Elizabethan English dialect, bodies worn smooth with many years of exercise—(you could see the back muscles ripping on the torso of Lady Anne—a kind of musculature that Marlene was absolutely sure no woman had in Elizabethan times—I mean—come on! Did they have weight toning machines then? Other than for torture?) –No consistency! The costumes
were great, however, and she loved Richard, played the traditional way with the limp and the hump, a certain sly, humorous, diabolical nastiness to him that she savored. Three hours went by rather fast, she reckoned, the audience was calm and friendly, the seats excellent and comfortable and after the whole thing was over she congratulated herself on going on this rather tedious but interesting journey. Thank God it’s over! She thought but still—glad she went through it. Mostly because of Shakespeare and the language and the story and the characters—it was Shakespeare taking her along on the journey and thank you to the actors and the theatre for making it, while not transcendent or glorious, certainly palatable. The twinge in her arm interrupted her thoughts as the train slowed down then lurched past Damon. Sometimes on late nights like this (hardly late, really, just 10:30, but at sixty 10:30 is late) she wondered what it would feel like to be the demographic that was so Chicago: thirty-five and hip and young and glad to be alive, working at some corporate gig that was not much fun but paid really well and made life affordable—the new boots, a wonderful colorful Ralph Lauren bag or some great, textured tights— clubbing, laughing with friends—she had never been a city girl! Not much. By twenty-nine she had three kids and a house in a blue-collar suburb of a loathsome ugly town in Michigan. The town was big enough, her family was there, she’d grown up there, but it was such a dead end! Little did she care then—playing two nights in a club, (The Olde Worlde Café where she was billed as the hip and rousing singer-songwriter who played the piano and got people up and dancing with her “show tunes.” what show tunes?) raising kids without a care for finances since Dad picked up the tab, life was creative and fun—she always knew once the kids were grown that she could pursue that elusive career as a writer and musician she’d always dreamed up. And so, here she was at sixty, the education completed (finally) the career elusive as always, poverty, hopelessness—the dismal failure of bad decisions and a life wasted. (So she came to the conclusion as the train stopped at California and Western). That arm, that arm was hurting now; more than a twinge. Bad digestion, she concluded. Affected her everywhere. IBS—the curse of control freaks with no control over life. Meditation. That was the antidote, she decided. She’d meditate here on the train while watching out the darkened windows and listening to the cell phone conversation of the girl behind her. The ellipsis of time had become the staple of her life. Mornings, noons, nights, weekends….
I don’t care what he said about her he’s lying. She’s lying too. They’re all thinking they can put the wool over my eyes, but I’ve been very careful— you know—yeah—I’ve watched the scene. She’s not as pretty as she thinks she is. Yeah. No. I know. But still—well, maybe in high school but come on! She’s thirty! OK. Twenty-eight? She’s lying. Really… Marlene hated cell phones for the intrusion they permitted in public places. Really, there was no privacy anywhere. Forced into riding buses and trains when the economy crashed and she crashed with it, she gave up her car and told everyone she was going green. Well, to be truthful, there was a certain pride in being sixty and living in 2 rooms and not driving—it was a statement. However, she knew the truth of the matter—if it weren’t for her daughter she’d still be in the shelter system, shuffling around from one desperate handout to another; spilling her lying guts out to social workers who gave a damn about her as much as her coke-addicted shelter-mates. She’d spent her entire adult life thinking motherhood was a vocation and suddenly in her fifties she had no vocation. But truth: she really always wanted to live her life like all the male artists she admired. She admired them because she wanted to be them, but as a woman, she hated them too because of the cavalier way they used women and wives as muses and back ups and support systems and cooks and cleaners and baby minders and watchers and secretaries—women were chattels to them--in some cases, worse! They were maids, only to be discarded and replaced by some younger version! Women just could not live their lives like that, she realized—and then there was middle age. She became middle aged at thirty-three, she reckoned. It was all over. How could you be an adventurous artist with three kids and a ticky-tacky 3-bedroom house in a blue-collar suburb of a hideous Michigan town? She tried her best anyway, while doing the laundry, the shopping the cooking, the carting back and forth to violin and dance and forty-seven came and went when she got the last kid out the door and ran off to the mountains of the west. West of the Continental Divide: in das Berge das blou ze…there you feel free! Back to school in her fifties because no one would publish her work and she wanted to find out: what am I doing wrong? The trick was to train her writing to be professional and dense and complex and deep—it was. But no one was buying it. They weren’t buying her lyrical jazz-like dreamy songs either, (in her fifties, fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty six—how glad she was when she got into grad school NOW, she said to herself, NOW I am going to be a winner!), she lost the weight, she gained the weight; overweight, middle
aged, unattractive except to wimpy washed out men who claimed on their profiles that they were sensitive and good listeners or heavy guys in their fifties who had two ex-wives and a lot of marital baggage, or the men who told her they liked “overweight women.” Even when she lost the weight for a season and got thin and beautiful, the pickings were slim: the Native American jazz pianist, something Redhouse was his name? A recovering alcoholic living in his father’s basement with no car; or the male nurse who lived in his friend’s caravan and had developed a new vitamin for eternal youth; the 5’2” chemist who had never had sex. What’s wrong with the world? Her dreams of life after life were colliding with reality and it was not a pretty sight! There was no place to go anymore. It was the realization that life was a one- way street and she was nearing the end of the street. No turnarounds. At Logan Square she felt a wave of nausea that was terrible, like she was about to throw up and in fact, she decided to get off at Logan Square, throw up in the McDonald’s bathroom near the station and walk over to her daughter’s place. Something didn’t feel right. Where are my keys? She felt inside the voluminous black Target bag for her house keys, finally finding them toward the bottom with her transit card. I am sick, she thought. Maybe I’ll die, she thought with newfound hope. Ingmar Bergman was her touchstone. The man had demons, so did she. He needed muses (interchangeable, moving, ever shifting—slotting various beautiful, gorgeous, strong, creative women into the place of muse— women who saw their creativity realized in the body of a man) not her! She had her own male muses! She wrote an essay for her Creative Non-Fiction class in graduate school: Stalking The Male Muse—first it was Richard Burton, (ten to twelve) then Paul McCartney, (fifteen to twenty) then Robert de Niro, (thirties) then Al Pacino, (ditto) then Robert Redford, (forties) then John McCain (that was a weird, politically charged creative phase) (fifties) and then Gabriel Byrne; (now!), all famous Alpha males that lighted her sexual fantasies and charged her creative output. Problems came when she tried to make the muses into real people and go find them! As if that could be done. She realized that her art required an inner muse, or a real guy—one or both simultaneously. Where is my muse? She shouted in the train. Now I’m becoming like that crazy woman who sits in Logan Square station on the bench surrounded with 15 bags talking to herself all day and all night. The woman had been there for three months, and now, suddenly, she was gone. Marlene feared
someone had gotten rid of her, told her to move on, committed her or something, who knows? The fact is, she realized, that her entire life was mostly now behind her and it all looked like a monumental train wreck. In fact, even the kids saw that. The other day she had a wonderful lunch with the oldest daughter, the one supporting her financially and otherwise, and saw the girl actually looking at her with love and some sort of admiration. She thanked the daughter for all her help. I’ve learned so much from you, she told her, reminding herself that role reversals happened all the time. Have you learned anything from me? Yeah, said the beautiful daughter, as she got out her credit card to pay the tab, what not to do. Oy, Marlene comprehended, I am now example of what not to do. It hurt, even if it was true or not true depending on your perspective. That was the day she lost her keys, found the lifetime membership card to The Art Institute and killed a large black beetle escaping from underneath her bathroom sink. It was a full life, one could suppose, even if it was filled with damp rooms and cold expectations. On one otherwise deadly night, she had walked through the glistened rain soaked street to her gated apartment building. Four strange looking men loitered outside the gate wearing hoodies and ugly pants with inadequate shoes, but she knew then, somehow that in spite of whatever crappy deals they might be doing, it had nothing to do with her and wouldn’t affect her life. Now she hurtled through the night on this train, with some kind of mental confusion entering her brain in spite of an effort to take a linear position of rationality. Nothing worked. She felt the twinge in her left arm as if it belonged to someone else, and a curious sense of detachment washed through her, as if life were delivered up to her in a foreign language; a language not just from another country but maybe from another planet. At Logan Square she took the escalator up to the street. It was a dark and cold night threatening to rain. This fall had been nothing but rain; Chicago this year had been denied the promise of Indian summer. There were few brilliant, colorful fall days—it was all one gloomy, rain soaked day after another. Thank God for the Marc Jacob boots, she thought, (and the collection of umbrellas hanging on her bathroom door). Living in Chicago was boot camp for the elderly, she supposed, and she included herself in this dubious group even though some thought she looked younger than her age. Anything over sixty is elderly, she surmised,
without much regret. The weather was horrendous most of the time, public transportation was slow and inadequate at best, and not that cheap, everyone or most everyone had a car anyway, except the very young, the twenty-somethings and poor people like her; they either moved too fast or too slow, some were busy in this city of commerce, but there were many who seemed not busy enough. The winters, filled with inordinate amounts of snow, wet, icy, cold, chilling to the bone, spring rain and more rain, summer was lovely except for the week or two of inevitable heat wave accompanied with homicidal humidity—she found herself always sweating in Chicago, no matter what the season! Her two rooms were too hot in the winter when the radiator heat kicked in and she had to keep a window open—she’d wake up in January sweating, throwing the covers off, lurching into the kitchen for a glass of filtered water (courtesy of Walgreen’s Brita Water Filter) sweating in the spring with the temperature going up and down and up and down, sweating through the summer when the heat rose up to the 90’s and the humidity made it feel like a tropical urban jungle, sweated in the fall—Chicago: the city that sweats, she concluded, everyone sure sweats for a living here, she thought, leaning over the garbage can on the corner of Milwaukee and Sawyer throwing up the gutless insides of her gut into the can filled with newspapers, Styrofoam cups, newspaper ads, plastic water bottles coated with fishbone—who knows? and other bad smelling garbage. My depression 101, she thought, now feeling much better. A sigh heaved up from the deep reaches off her bowels, growing into an expansive cry that echoed out of her like a wailing ghost that had returned from dead to the wrong place. She was bent onto her knees, crying, screaming and laughing simultaneously. Are you all right? She looked up to see a youngish man in a dark green long coat slinging a gorgeous deep plum leather briefcase over his right shoulder. I’m fine! She shouted at him, a little too loudly. Do you want some help? I’m going to visit my daughter on St. Louis. I’ll be—I’ll be—she tried for the word fine but just could not get it out. St. Louis is kinda far from here, isn’t it? Missouri?
Why don’t people understand shit? Marlene thought as his hand came under her arm, lifting her up. She realized as she got to her feet just how bad she really was. The thought of making the five blocks or so to Wrightwood and St. Louis seemed insurmountable. I’ll be fine. I can make it there. He nodded. All right. But I can call an ambulance if you want. You don’t look— Oh, no—no need for that. I have a cell phone anyway. Okay. He figured she was on her way down the steps to the O’Hare train to get to the airport to fly to St. Louis, Missouri. But she wasn’t following and he had an appointment at Dearborn Street Oyster bar and while this appointment was pleasure, not business, he knew it could be business and pleasure as well. The woman was about forty and had a growing cell distribution company; she was CEO. In these days-He left. Mercifully. With his thoughts trailing down the stairs behind him, down the steps to the station. Thank God she was alone on this nasty, rainy night. She began to round the corner to Milwaukee, so she could walk to Kimball and negotiate her way to Wrightwood toward her daughter’s place. Somehow she knew she wouldn’t be making it that far. There are many ways that people die. Some people die in peace, though very few, some die by surprise, quite a few, and some die somewhere in between. This was Marlene’s death. At least, that’s is what the thinker was thinking. Even in this state, she knew somehow that the thinker and his thinking were separate from her. Perhaps his gender was indeterminate, but she intrinsically felt two things about this: 1) It didn’t matter. 2) It was beyond gender. 3) She referred to the thinker as “he.” The rain fell a bit harder as she sank onto the blessed sidewalk with relief. So glad to know it was all over. Her black Target bag sat on her hip as her body turned on its side. She felt the sidewalk and the rain as if there were warmth coming up from the earth to greet her. So glad to know she could rest at last. Her life, she concluded, just as a warm feeling passed through her cold
body, had been a train wreck anyway. Part 2: The Whiteness of the Room What life really was had never been explained to Lyle. He moved noiselessly about the room, his large, 6’4” three hundred-pound frame finding a balletic sequence of events and movements mastered over many years of practice. He was not a yogi or a master of any kind, he was that sort of worker that is large, looming and invisible simultaneously. His blue scrubs were wrinkled, spattered with blood from the patient in #4 with acute bloody diarrhea. Looking down into the pasty white visage of Marlene, he saw her puffy cheeks, the bruise on the left eye from the fall and the scrape on her cheek, her arms, dangling over the side of the gurney which he placed respectfully at either side of her on the bed. Hello, I’m Lyle, he shouted into her closed eyes and swollen face. Marlene heard: Below! You’re style! And did not respond. It was one of those strange dreams that she often had where people spoke a language she had never heard and there were energies floating in fourth dimensional space, which she had no concept of in three dimensional reality. And he was the thinker and had been monitoring the perception of so-called linear reality since Marlene, the doer, had, in a sense, checked out. However, Marlene, the doer, (and the thinker I might add! said the doer in her own dimension to the thinker) was making her own observations and shouting them out in some kind of nursery rhyme; a nonsensical way, but it was her way alone at this time. Groaning, moving her head from side to side. The room, sterile, white, the ceiling pricked with a whiteness that mirrored the walls, the trash receptacles, the sink, the paper towel dispenser and the paper towels, the rolls of wrapped toilet tissue stacked on the counter next to the sink, the floor, white too, with a red and green stripe leading to X-Rays or Oncology or some other department, if you followed them, if you knew which color led to where; the exactness of the gurney with the tight white sheets, the pumping mechanism to raise it higher or lower, the terrible glaring light— couldn’t someone dim the light? The Light, The Light, Maureen called out but Lyle heard: Lie, Lie. Sorry honey, can’t understand you. Doctor will be here soon. They say heart attack quite easily but few people talk about brain attack. The cerebral accident that changed Maureen’s world flipped her upside
down on a stretcher in an ambulance with a siren moving down Milwaukee toward Swedish Covenant Hospital emergency on California where the “science of feeling better” was put into practice by well-meaning doctors, nurses, staff—the incredibly alternate world of the thousands of people who run the busy hive of hospital life that is dedicated less toward the convenience of patients or their comfort than toward the convenience of scientific practitioners who like things fast, white, light airy and easy to get at. If we are going to perform scientific miracles, Dr. Marty Peterson was heard to say, we can’t let the patients get in the way. To be sure, this was at a private meeting of primary care physicians who had been hand-picked to serve on the committee, there was wine served, it was a catered buffet—he could be excused for that one sliver of a moment of honest revelation. It meant nothing to Marlene. Lyle dumped a wad of paper lining into the trashcan and let the lid slam down with a lively ping onto the metal surface it covered. There are some doctors who really care, he thought with a shard of guilt. The beetle’s outer wing scurried out of the room, as admirably as a 6’4” 300 pound man can scurry, leaving Marlene alone with an IV in her left arm and a terrible dream erupting and unfolding without her ability to grasp it’s meaning. Any time now I’ll wake up, she thought, but who was doing the thinking now? The dreamer, the doer or just Marlene! She could not even move her arms and her legs were stiff and dead like tree trunks at the end of her body. Thrombolytic had been given, tPA to be exact, to control the clotting mechanism and someone had ordered Coumadin when they rolled her in from the ambulance. You’ve had a hemorrhagic stroke, we’re going into surgery to remove the pooled blood from the brain and repair any damaged blood vessels. From the CTA scan I’m looking at the Amygdala here as the location of the hemorrhage but we won’t know for sure until we operate. I’m going to die, Marlene thought. Better call the kids. No. They’ll groan. I’m a vegetable already. The lights! The lights! The lights are bright, aren’t they? Dr. Susan Bergot had learned to understand the mis-understandable after only a few years treating stroke patients. We’ll be medicating you soon to get ready for the operation so you won’t be seeing those lights much longer. The medical student in attendance began prepping Marlene for the pre-op anesthetic.
The kids, two daughters and a son, arrived after Marlene had been in surgery for almost five hours. The son had had to get a flight from New York. The girls came from opposite ends of Chicago, the youngest a medical student herself at UIC hospital. The oldest had to get a friend to take the dog because her husband was out of town and no one knew how long she’d be in the hospital. Her mother had had a stroke. If it’s the Amygdala we’re done, thought the youngest. The whiteness of the room; a cloudy day outside the window; white snow tumbling down in large flakes, some of it sticking to the window, bells, televisions, laughter, moans, conversation, fear rising up and down like waves. Marlene watched it all. She was too drugged up to feel panic—it swelled inside of her but died a small death as soon as it tried to reach the outside world. No one could see her; she was cold. Only a thin blanket and a small sheet covering her legs and torso. How to get warm? Someone who saw beyond the blood pooling in her brain; understood her to be something more or other than a series of symptomatic behaviors signaling a need for science and medical intervention, someone other than the three children pooled into a clutch of energy outside the room in the hallway, the youngest checking her iPhone for messages, the oldest doing the same, the son standing ceremoniously off to the side wondering and observing the intersection of fate and reality—this someone, Jay something-or-other, a third year medical student, took a clean blue blanket from the inside cupboard and placed it around Marlene’s legs and torso. The warm, clean woolen fabric warmed her entire being. Warmth was the antidote to cold, she reflected. I can think! The doer thought, while the thinker lay dormant, silent, I am waiting, waiting, waiting, so were the words that came from somewhere to nowhere and back to somewhere. This was only one day. There would be others. The doer and the thinker were in sync now, even though the outside world had no knowledge of it.
“Vince’s Woman” by Kent Cooper Published Thursday, August 19, 2010
That night in the bar, Marian managed to get several more gin and tonics out of Vince without him making too much of a fuss. He was busy talking to those boys, Darrell and Johnny, probably about football, judging by the way Vince was lifting his arms around. His voice was too soft for her to hear what he was saying, but she wasn’t interested anyway. She raised the gin to her lips, but hesitated before drinking it. Marian dreaded the bitter taste and the dullness it would impose on her. Still, the need to smooth over the sharp corners was more than she could bear. She took a sip, forcing herself not to cough. It was dark outside and the feeling of loneliness was closing in on her. It was always dim in the bar, even in the daytime. The only windows were at the front of the tavern and the wide roof façade on the body shop across the street, blocked much of the sunlight from coming in. A large rendition of a pocket watch, cast a bluish pall over the counter. Two small lamps with gold shades, struggled to provide light at either end of the bar. The gin gave her a slightly dizzy feeling. Strands of blondish-brown hair poked carelessly over her forehead. She sat where she wouldn’t have to look at herself in the bar mirror. She hated the crumbling mess her face was becoming. It seemed like she was getting older by the day. Only in her large dark eyes, she felt, was there any sign of the beauty she once was. She looked over at Vince and the boys again. Marian couldn’t see why Darrell hung out with those friends of his. He was a good looking kid and a great athlete, she’d heard. Darrell was probably screwed up like most juveniles, but eventually he’d probably find his way. The other boy, Johnny, was skunked from the word go. And Sam, who left the bar earlier, was going to be a drinker, she could see that from a mile away. A deep feeling of remorse came over her. It was August already. Soon it would be September, then October and winter would quickly follow. Time goes so fast after high school, she thought. It was over a quarter of a century since she graduated but it seemed like only yesterday. She felt panicked. Her life was darting past her and she had no way of stopping it. Nothing to put her heels against.
But so what? Her existence was empty and meaningless anyway. The only thing she and Vince talked about anymore were the receipts. The amount of money they made or didn’t make, what they could be earning someplace else. She felt other things, but whenever she tried to express them, Vince looked bored or disgusted. Unless she was drunk, she kept quiet. But even drunk, she couldn’t say what she wanted to say and in the end she wished she had kept her mouth shut. Marian took another sip of gin and coughed. It made Vince turn and look at her. “I thought you were going to clean the cooler,” he said. “I am. Later.” “Not if you have too many of those.” Marian didn’t answer him because she knew what she would say, and what he would say, and the very words they would use in the argument. She didn’t feel like fighting. She felt like walking out to the road and thumbing the first car that came along. But she worried that no one would want her anymore. She wasn’t even sure that Vince did, and he was her husband. A man came in the front door and walked straight to the bar. He wore a suit but his stout body looked uncomfortable wearing it. His dark blue tie was loose in an unbuttoned collar. There was something familiar about him, but Marian was always seeing resemblances in people. The man slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter. “Whiskey and soda,” he told Vince. The moment she heard his voice, Marian realized she did know the man. He was Lyle Goodson. She had gone with Lyle for a while when they were kids in Washburn, a town less than twenty-five miles from here. She thought he had moved to California years ago. Marian slipped over two seats so she could see herself in the bar mirror. She brushed the hair away from her eyes with her fingers, wondering if she should speak to Lyle, or pretend not to know him. Lyle had fleshed out some, but he looked better than her, she thought, staring at her face in the mirror. Vince served Lyle and gave him change for the five dollars. Lyle took a quick drink. “There’s times I wonder why a man gets out of
bed,” he told Vince, holding the glass near his mouth. He took another drink. “Problems?” Vince asked. Lyle shrugged and finished the whiskey off. He pushed the empty glass toward Vince. Marian remembered them going on dates in his parents’ car, a rattletrap with a badly placed stick shift. They always had fun. The first time he touched one of her breasts, she stopped him. But on the dates that followed, she didn’t hold him back. A few months later they quit seeing each other. Nothing was wrong. They were young and there were so many things to do and so many kids to do them with. They had even been friends afterward. It was probably the finest relationship she ever had. Marian wanted another drink but she didn’t dare use her voice in front of Lyle. Vince served Lyle another whiskey and soda. “Get one for yourself,” Lyle said. “Fix up these boys and the lady down there.” Vince brought Marian’s drink first, giving her a look that meant for her to take it easy. She hated it when he did that. She took a bobby pin from the back of her head and used it to keep the loose hair out of her face. It made her appear better in the mirror. “Thanks for the drink, Lyle,” she said. Lyle squinted at her. “I know you?” “Marian Balstead. Used to be.” “Marian!” he said excitedly, moving over to her. He threw his big arms around her and almost hugged her breathless. He leaned back and looked at her again. “How the hell are you? Goddamn, how long’s it been?” “A pretty long time and I show it.” She felt nervous in her stomach. “That’s my husband, Vince.” Lyle reached over the bar and shook hands with Vince. “Your wife here was quite a looker in high school. We’re old friends. We got back to Washburn High School, before they even dreamed of the dam.”
“Glad to know you,” Vince said. Marian gazed up at Lyle adoringly. “What have you been doing since I last saw you?” “Hell, I wouldn’t know where to begin. A little of everything. Right now I sell medical supplies to hospitals and med schools. Places like that.” “Where do you live?” “Bismarck. But what about yourself? How you doing?” “I’m right here where you see me.” Lyle scanned the room. “It looks like a nice bar.” “We do okay on weekends,” Vince said. “How’s the dam coming? It looks pretty well finished.” “They got one major project left,” Vince told him. “The spillway and then some secondary dams. Riverdale will start thinning out in a year or two.” “Once the dam’s completed, Riverdale disappears, right? Maybe Washburn can win some football championships again.” “Riverdale won’t have much next year,” Vince said. “The good players will all graduate. Like this knucklehead here.” Lyle looked at Darrell. “So you’re on that team, huh? One hell of a powerhouse. I saw you play my old squad. It wasn’t pretty.” “I watched all the games,” Johnny said. “And I didn’t see them do squat.” Lyle stared at Johnny a moment, like he was wondering who this guy was and what he was doing here. “Riverdale boys can’t block for shit,” Vince said, sensing trouble. Johnny was staring back at the man as hard as he was being stared at. Lyle laughed and looked back at Vince. “They must have been doing something right. They beat up on our boys pretty bad. Give these guys
another round.” “Thanks,” Darrell said. Lyle slapped Darrell on the back. “You boys should be having fun while you can.” Darrell grinned and shook his head. “Some guy was telling me I ought to get serious about life. He told me it would be gone before I knew it. Before long I’d be sitting around trying to find my pecker.” He looked at Vince, who was remembering saying something along those lines and it was true. It did go fast and nobody young ever seemed to know it, Vince was thinking. “Whoever said that is full of crap. Now’s the best years you’ll ever see. If you just knew it. Get your kicks while you can. You’ve got the rest of your life to be a moron like me.” “Lyle, you make it sound so miserable,” Marian teased. Lyle laughed. “Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m just pissed at the world.” He looked at his watch. “Hell, I have to run.” “Have another one,” Marian urged. “I’m sorry but I’m late already,” Lyle said, squeezing her arm. “I’ll stop back in, now that I know you people are here.” He stared into her eyes in a way that made Marian realize she was special to him too. He shook hands with Vince and the boys, then left. Marian raised up on her stool and watched Lyle’s headlights swirl across the darkness as he backed around. The car shot forward, brightening the paved road a moment, then the car was gone. She lowered herself back down on the stool, wondering where Lyle got his sense of purpose, his energy. The only reason she cleaned the trailer anymore was to keep from being buried in trash. She had never felt so dejected. Before Marian could stop herself, tears welled into her eyes. If Vince noticed her tears, he didn’t mention it. He gave the boys more drinks and talked about some stupid football injury he once had. Disgusted that she was being ignored, Marian grabbed a bottle of Gordon’s gin and went out the back way of the bar. When she got to their trailer, parked a few feet behind the tavern, she didn’t feel like going inside.
She sat on the metal step and leaned back against the tin door of the trailer. Marian uncapped the bottle of gin and took a strong drink. She felt the taste of the gin rise into her nostrils. She looked up at the stars, so clear and twinkling. She never believed what those college professors said, that the stars were millions of years away and were millions of years old.. How could a stuffy college professor know that? They got paid big bucks for those kind of crazy ideas and what could anyone do about it? The professors had the telescopes and all the time in the world to give out their baloney. She could look at the stars and tell they weren’t that old but who was going to listen to her? Even her own husband would tell her she was full of shit if she tried to give her opinion about that. Inside the tavern, Vince hit his fist on the counter. “I’m going to get rid of that dizzy bitch!” he said. “Who’s that?” Darrell asked. “Marian. I saw the way she looked at Lyle.” “That was for old times,” Darrell said. He liked Marian because she was a real woman. She stuck it out with Vince through some rough years, and finally wound up living in a drafty trailer behind the bar with him. It made Darrell sad that Vince would talk about her that way. “Yeah, old times,” Vince snorted. “When Lyle comes through again, I’ll get him drunk and make it clear they have my blessing. They can go back to high school and fuck in the backseat of his car again.” “Marian will kill you,” Johnny said. “She’ll love me for it.” “Sounds like a perfect plan then,” Johnny said. “You get Lyle drunk. He realizes he loves Marian again. If Darrell and I are here, we’ll sing a song like “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” You sneak out to the trailer and pack a suitcase and some food for them. Show the lovers the door, and if Marian doesn’t put a knife in your gut, they’ll leave clean. I don’t see a hole in the plan if Marian doesn’t stick a hole in you.” “Why do you want to get rid of her, anyway?” Darrell asked. “It’s not like you have anyone else.”
Vince leaned on the counter with his arms folded under him. “People change,” he said. “That’s what you have to watch out for. Marian was a damn good woman when we started out. Me being in football, it was tough. She’d go right to work on any little house we rented, trying to make it into something. Marian was cute then. Had these flirty eyes and was always laughing. Not like now. We traveled a lot in the beginning, first football, then trying to settle down and find a place for ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we lost it.” “Lost what?” Darrell asked. Vince looked as though he might cry. He glanced at the boys, his face tinted blue from the dangling clock light. “The ability to talk,” he said. “It was like something came between us that we couldn’t get around. We both knew it, we both felt it there, but we couldn’t do anything about it. We still can’t. I’d like to see her find someone. Lyle looks like a good choice.” “If it fails, you’ll probably die,” Johnny offered. “Except for that, the deal looks solid, man.” “If it works, you’ll probably be a lonely old fool,” Darrell told him. “I’m a lonely old fool now,” Vince said, serving them another round. Marian stood up from the metal step, holding the gin bottle by the neck. She went around to the road and started walking west on it. Luckily, she was wearing her flats. She hit sections of loose gravel on the shoulder of the road and easily handled her footing. The road seemed to want her to slide down into the ditch but that wasn’t going to happen. She felt proud about that and wondered where she was headed. She stopped and uncapped the bottle and took a long stinging drink. Then Marian recapped the bottle. Looking up at the stars now, made her dizzy and wobbled her legs, so she kept going until she came to a rise of land that lifted up from the road. She climbed it a ways and sat down. The grass was short and not unpleasant to sit on. She lay back on the ground and looked at the stars again. Such a magnificent spectacle, thousands of tiny twinkling lights glittering across the huge black sky. She could barely contain herself. She didn’t understand any of it but who asked her to? It
was just there and she was seeing it in her own way. She got mad at the professors again for trying to take that away from her. They just droned on and on until pretty soon the stars weren’t anything one could just look at with a sense of wonder. According to the ding bells, they were only dead matter, reflecting borrowed light that took forever to get here and might not even exist any longer. Marian decided that she was going to stop listening to the radio. Lying there quietly, she could barely hear the faint screeching and rumbling of the machinery down in the basin of the dam. Whatever they were doing was nothing in comparison to these stars. It was just men trying to compete and change things, to honor themselves. These beautiful glimmering lights were flung all the way across the night and she didn’t need to know anything more than that. Vince let the boys out of the tavern and locked the door. He went back to the trailer hoping that Marian wouldn’t be awake. He didn’t feel like arguing with her. Talking about the past with the boys, had put him in a melancholy mood. He looked in their bedroom. Marian wasn’t there. He got worried, thinking she might have done something to herself. Vince didn’t see the bottle around, which only added to his worries. It meant she had to be outdoors somewhere. Vince went out to their old Chevy and got it started after a little sputtering. He backed the car around and drove up onto the road and turned away from the dam. He was certain she wouldn’t walk across any fields; she was never real happy with darkness. And she wouldn’t go toward all the construction lights on the dam. It would be embarrassing if she was seen; a lot of the men frequented their bar on weekends. He drove almost a mile before he saw her in the headlights, sleeping on a hillside next to the road. She was out flat on her back, the bottle of gin standing not too far from her head. She hadn’t done much damage to it, the bottle looked to be two thirds full. Vince turned the car around and parked on the shoulder of the road below her. He climbed up to Marian and gently pushed on her shoulder. Gradually, she opened her eyes and looked at him. “What’re you doing here?”
“I’ve come to drive you home.” Marian sat up, still confused. She shook her head. “Where were you going?” he asked. She stared at him a moment. “I was going to go tell those professors they’re full of shit.” “They been bugging you?” Vince asked, helping her stand up. In the starlight, there in the night, she was cute and clinging to him. “Those are young stars,” she insisted. “Those professors can’t leave nothing alone.” They left the bottle there and started down the hillside. “We won’t serve professors in the bar anymore,” Vince said, hoping she would think that was funny instead of getting mad. “I’m happy about that.” Marian let Vince help her into the car. Both of them were laughing and feeling better about things. If you ever have a good laugh with someone, Vince once told the boys, you have a friend for life. He remembered saying that, as he started the car up.
“Guess Who’s Coming Out to Dinner” by Jack Logan Published Monday, August 23, 2010
Michael stared at the house from his car, which he had purposely parked across the street instead of in the space that had been left available to him. The windows of the house still had the shades drawn from how bright had been earlier, but Michael was a cautious person. He watched the house absently, occasionally seeing a silhouette pass in the white curtains. He would have liked to think he was mentally preparing himself, but since he wasn’t thinking of anything he had to call it stalling. Michael suddenly became aware that he kept stepping down on the gas pedal of his car, even though it was in park and the keys were in his pocket. The half thought flickered across his mind, that if somehow the car started moving in this state that he would be vindicated in leaving. He pressed down harder a few times and then gave up. The car door slammed behind him, which was his first indication that he had started moving. The second was the cold, which combined with the wetness gave Michael the sensation of being a bath towel. January was a miserable month. Halfway through the first month of the New Year and everything already seemed exactly like all the years before it. He had been convinced to make a resolution to go sky diving, but couldn’t have his mind acknowledge that it would be a life changing experience as opposed to a life ending one. Suddenly the door was inches from his face. Michael now contemplated the use of knocking versus the doorbell. He felt knocking implied more dominance while the doorbell was for occasion’s that-. Michael realized that this is what people meant when they accused him of over thinking “stupid shit”. He knocked on the door and heard a new sort of hustle come from within the house. He wished he had used the doorbell. A quick set of footsteps approached the door, which was then forcefully swung open. Michael shifted around in the mixture of cold and warm air, which he normally would have found a very pleasing sensation. Sarah smiled at him warmly, but her eyes betrayed her lack of humor regarding tonight. “Ready to meet my parents?” She said sweetly, which translated into “You’re not going anywhere” which would not have been said as sweetly, as a result of the several time Michael had postponed this meeting. Michael chose to ignore the translation, “Want to go see a movie?”
Sarah stared at him for a moment, a quick trial going on in her head. She shook her head in a kind yet undeniably dismissive manner. “No, I think we’re going to do this tonight.” Michael straightened himself up and walked into the house. Although the house had appeared a little plain on the outside, inside laid luxury. The floors and furniture were all wood, and although Michael could spend a solid five minutes fumbling with words to describe them all he wouldn’t come up with anything better than the obvious “expensive”. He could feel the natural warmth emanating from a fire in another room; it’s sharp crackling showing how well fed it was. “There’s a coat rack in the hallway.” Michael turned around to see Sarah’s mother, who had come out to greet him. Her name was Nancy Jacobs, but Michael would never call her by her first name. She looked very similar to Sarah, only older and possibly made for television. All her curves seem to have more sharpness to them than was usual, but it could have been her clothes, which were impossibly stiff. Everything she wore projected an image of an early American sitcom, but modernized enough so that it would be impossible to mention to anyone and receive a real reaction. They would just be able to stare at you, trying to convey they got the gist of your complaint but couldn’t articulate it. “Oh, thank you!” Michael said with forced enthusiasm. Michael’s body automatically was ready to receive a handshake or a hug, but Nancy was holding her hands out to take his jacket. To hide his surprise Michael took off his jacket doubly quick, creating a small tear he wouldn’t discover until three days later. Nancy took the jacket and automatically folded it while she told her daughter how tall and handsome and well dressed her adorable boyfriend was. “Hey that’s right.” Michael thought to himself. He was tall and handsome, although handsome was debatable, and the store clerk had assured him this jacket was sure to impress anybody, so what did he have to worry about. Sarah’s mom was already on his side, so all that was left that he HAD to impress was her dad. She also had two brothers, one older and one not. They were not labeled a priority. And her dad really had no reason to be against Michael. “I’m already sleeping with his daughter,” Michael thought, “so he really has nothing to prevent by splitting us up.” There was some satisfaction accompanying this thought, but Michael’s brain was telling him he might’ve made a logic jump. He decided to keep his theory to himself.
The three moved into the sitting room, and Nancy proceeded to fire off a barrage of simple questions which all could be answered with a yes or no. This was greatly appreciated. “So you want to be a lawyer?” “Yes.” “I bet that requires a lot of studying.” “Yes.” “Oh, but you don’t have any problem handling it do you?” “No.” Michael was having a great time. The three enjoyed a solid two minutes of pleasant, pedantic conversation before the youngest of the family, Jimmy Jacobs, or JJ as he would tragically be known for the entirety of his life trotted into the room. JJ walked with a clear purpose, at least to himself. If every step he took didn’t make some fragile glass vase shake on a thin table, then he would walk harder. He stopped right in front of Michael and stared up. Michael stared down at what seemed to be the most aggravated four years old. His face was contorted by anger and mistrust, all of which seemed directed at Michael. After a few moments of silence from everyone in the room, JJ punched Michael in the knee. Had he not been a puny four year old, it would have been called a haymaker. Both women laughed uproariously. “Oh don’t mind JJ, he’s just shy!” Sarah said as she picked up her little brother, keeping him in her lap as she sat back down. “Shy people don’t hit.” Michael said rather flatly. It didn’t matter since both Sarah and her mother were fawning over the little child. JJ stared maliciously at Michael. He had the eyes of a shoddy actor asked to play a pervert on a cop drama. He began to wedge himself into his sister’s cleavage, as if he was wearing her breasts as a hat. He smiled when he succeeded. Michael decided that he was a horrible four year old. Michael looked around the room. While it was well adorned with what he was sure were luxury items, the only thing that caught his eye was a rather shoddy grandfather clock. The clock’s wood still had a certain luster, but its brass insides were badly tarnished. It also seemed to take just a fraction longer to rotate than it should, just over a second. Michael turned this over in his head, trying to discover why he even noticed it when he took a deep
breath, smelling the air for the first time. “Hey, whatever you’re cooking smells delicious.” He said smiling, turning to Sarah’s mom. Nancy looked up from her youngest, “It really does, and I wish I could take credit for it. Frank’s doing the cooking tonight. He’s roasting a boar.” For a fraction of a second the room was silent, and Michael somehow felt that the silence was emanating from him alone. “Wh-Wow. I’ve never had boar…before.” “Daddy brought it back from his latest hunting trip, you’ll be amazed by how big the thing is!” Sarah said, now bouncing her baby brother up and down on her knee. JJ was still smiling, much to Michael’s dissatisfaction. “Oh, so he killed it himself. That’s… impressive. So where did he go hunting? I don’t think there are any boars around here, are there?” Sarah shook her head. “Not around here. Daddy hunts in…” She looked over to her mother. She looked like she had stumbled across something she was slowly realizing was a puzzle. Her mother looked back at Sarah with absolutely zero concern or thought on her face. “Somewhere else.” Sarah finished her thought with a smile and enthusiasm, but she seemed unsatisfied with her own answer. Michael decided to push past it. “Well it smells great and I can’t wait for dinner.” Michael was aware that he had said all these things moments before, he figured that having a second go at the conversation would lead it to a more pleasant place. “Daddy would love to hear that! You should go out to the back and tell him!” Michael considered a third try at the dialogue, but concluded three attempts was bordering on psychotic. “I’ll go do that.” Michael replied, with tone, color, and soul seemingly having abandoned him. He waited for a moment to see if anyone was going to join him. Both women were focused on JJ, who was apparently doing something adorable with his hands. Michael stood up, imitating a slinky. He trudged down and out, to the lower deck of the house. The barbeque pit was about twenty-five yards into the sizeable and heavily forested backyard. The front yard of the house had been perfectly manicured, most likely to fit the standards of some neurotic neighborhood committee, populated by people who had so little to do that they had fabricated a formula relating grass length to property value. But the backyard was well
guarded from complaints by a tall and imposing bamboo fence. In the back, nature did what it wanted. The smell of the roasted animal got stronger with every step. It pulled forth a strange sensation for Michael, a different kind of hunger. One that was based more on the tactile sensation of sloshing carcass around in one’s mouth than simple nourishment. “You would be Michael.” Michael’s head snapped over to Sarah’s father, who was steadily and easily cutting the boar into pieces fit for serving. Michael breathed a small sigh of relief that this wasn’t being done at the dinner table. Frank Jacobs was built almost exactly like Michael, maybe an inch taller. Lean muscle that was in no place surrounded by noticeable body fat, which was impressive since Jacobs was at least twice Michael’s age. He was dressed in a thin army jacket that was worn open over a blank grey t-shirt. The jacket was adorned with faded patches, none that Michael would have been able to identify if they looked brand new. “Yes sir, Mr. Jacobs, it’s very nice to finally meet you.” A pause dangled around the two men for a moment, but Michael felt it affected himself more than Frank Jacobs. He was correct. “Sarah is very fond of you.” Michael found it impossible to take comfort in good news. Instead he concerned himself with whether or not Frank Jacobs had yet turned around to look at him. Michael didn’t think he had, but the unspoken modern societal rules of courtesy dictated that as being impossible. The reason Michael had uncertainty was that he himself was having trouble looking up directly at Mr. Jacobs. Michael’s inability to focus led him to drift to the boar’s head, which he now recognized as being severed. It was horrifying, but also a good conversation piece. “I thought that you usually cut this thing up on the table, like a turkey? You know, to keep it fresh or something.” Frank Jacobs threw away a small shrugging motion, “Nancy and Sarah get uncomfortable when I carve it at the table.” Michael nodded; trying to convey that he thought this was a deep psychological observation. This was unsuccessful since Jacobs was still looking down at the roasted boar. Michael once again drifted to the boar’s head. He found himself drifting back to either early high school or late grade school, when he was prompted to read a book about a group of school kids who landed on an
island. The book had a pig’s head and a statement on society. “It seems like you are put off by it as well.” Michael looked up and saw Frank Jacobs looking at him. In the short time he had been talking to the man, Michael had figured that Mr. Jacobs would have a worn and tired face. He did not. Whatever life had done to Frank Jacobs, he didn’t seem to mind it. “No sir, not put off, not really. I was just remembering a book I read in school way back when.” Jacobs glanced down at the severed head and back at Michael. “Lord of the Flies.” Michael nodded emphatically. “Yeah that was it! So you read it?” Frank Jacobs nodded slightly. “For the same reason you did.” Michael was feeling better, and thankful for a book that he hadn’t thought of since he put it down thirteen years ago. “Yeah, I remember thinking that if this is such an important thing, than shouldn’t you makes us read it when we’re older. I feel like a lot of things went over my head back then, and the teacher seemed to get aggravated when we wouldn’t have the some big revelation about the reading.” While saying all this, Michael indulged himself in hand gestures. Jacobs seemed to take a moment to ponder Michael’s words. “You could reread the book.” Michael nodded in agreement with what he knew he wasn’t going to do. “Yeah maybe I should!” Frank Jacobs smoothly arranged his knives and all the meat onto a large metal tray. “Oh, you’re done with all the… prep work?” “Yes.” Frank replied, as he took a hold of the boar’s head and threw it far into the thicker part of the bushes. Michael stared at the man, wondering if it was acceptable to ask why. “It makes good compost.” Frank answered anticipating. Michael was mentally nudging himself to move beyond it, not understanding why it had stunned him. “Oh, okay. Will that attract rats?”
Frank Jacobs picked up his tray full of boar meat and knives and started walking back to his house. “There are traps.” He replied. Frank pushed the backdoor open with his foot and walked into the dining room. He placed the tray down in the center of the dinner table. He then took the knives to the kitchen and washed them off in the sink leaving them to soak. Upon his return to the table, he called out to the rest of the family that dinner was ready. Michael had passed the dinner table on his way outside and it had been completely bare. In his absence Nancy Jacobs had completely filled the table with an overabundance of different vegetables and side dishes, all arranged ornately on a blue and white tablecloth. Michael heard Nancy call out, “Great timing honey, Anthony’s car just pulled into the driveway!” Anthony Jacobs was Sarah’s older brother. He was an investment banker, or something that someone with little knowledge of finance would call an investment banker. Michael had seen several pictures of Anthony, and he always seemed to be dressed in a business suit that seemed a bit too stiff. The party began to assemble. Michael sat down at the middle of the table, Across from Sarah. Frank Jacobs sat at the head. Sarah’s mother came and placed JJ in the seat to the left of Michael, “Take care of my little angel, won’t you? Hahaha!” Nancy gave a plastic Barbie smile that indicated that Michael just received the best job in the whole world. Michael shifted his eyes over to JJ without moving his neck. The unattended child was once again staring at him malevolently. Michael wanted to strike the child. In a lightning blur Nancy had moved around the table clockwise and served everyone an equal portion of everything on the table. She somehow had arranged it so that while every plate was packed, no two foods were actually touching. It looked like the world’s most pristine TV dinner. Nancy set two more plates, one for herself and one for Anthony, and hurried off to greet her son at the door. Michael looked around the table. Mr. Jacobs’ eyes were fixated on the meat, which was slowly cooling in the center of every plate. Michael got the impression the man would have preferred to have carved the beast at the table. For a moment the thought appeared that what Jacobs really wanted to do was eat the thing outside, but Michael waved the thought away as weird and pointless. There seemed to be some commotion coming from the hallway. Michael
could hear the hum of stressed, but contained voices. Sarah was craning her neck to the side in an attempt to see something, but couldn’t make the angle. He briefly considered poking his head out, but was distracted by JJ. The horrid little child was one by one putting his green beans onto Michael’s plate. Each time it was a quick motion and might have gone unnoticed if children of the age of four had the ability to be subtle. Instead he came off as a Vegas card dealer, but throwing greens instead of blacks or reds. This was a true affront to decency, and Michael would have bet anything that the terror had not even been made to wash his hands all day. When JJ had placed about half of his green beans on Michael’s plate, Michael scooped the entirety of the green beans on his plate, both his and JJ’s, and ceremoniously dumped them back on to JJ’s plate. The child made a wet hissing noise that sounded like the combination of an oxygen tank with a leak and a large rat. Michael was gloating over his victory, watching the four-year-old scowl at what was now an overflow of green beans on his plate. Meanwhile Sarah’s sister sat down next to Michael, wearing a scarlet red dress that had a few decorative cloth flowers on the left strap. The dress clung tightly to her, except it was a bit loose around her flat chest. The gears in Michael’s head sputtered and backtracked. Sarah had two brothers. And both were sitting on either side of Michael. Anthony was moving very carefully as to not tear the dress that didn’t quite fit him. He had a businessman’s haircut, as well as pearl earrings and possibly a light coat of natural colored lipstick. Coming down off his shellshock, Michael looked around at the rest of the family. Sarah was astounded, mouth hanging completely open. For an instant Michael wishes he had a camera, as Sarah never let herself have her picture taken with her mouth open. She maintained it made a person look half as smart as they were. Her surprise indicated that her brother’s decorum was not business as usual. A Spanish gentleman wearing a suit Michael wished he owned had discreetly taken a seat next to Sarah. The man looked as if he was here only as an observer, someone devoutly intent on not saying a word. Nancy was frantically pulling on her eldest son’s arm, trying to escort him out of the room. Her eyes kept dashing between everyone in the room, and her smile was so rigid it looked as if she would bite through her own teeth. Frank Jacobs only reaction had been picking up his knife and fork, and after recognizing his wife’s frantic state putting them back down. In this frantic moment lay the only time in the evening when Michael seriously considered running to his car and driving away. He forgot about this course of action when he looked down and saw that the green beans
had reappeared on his plate. Immediately he shot his hand down, scooped them all up, and shoved them all into his mouth. He chewed very purposefully at eye level with JJ, particles of green bean juice misting the child’s face. On one final bean related note; Michael found the green beans to be delicious and wished he had eaten them at a slower pace. Michael turned his full attention, while at the same time trying to look as if he was not paying attention, to the small war occurring to his right. Nancy was still pleading with her son, begging him to “go upstairs and come down normal.” Anthony was boldly ignoring her, while at the same time ensuring her that he heard every word. He portrayed this by steadfastly looking forward and keeping his chin slightly elevated, giving of an air of forced quite dignity. This unfortunately clashed with his dress, which really was a fun and festive number to be worn at a more relaxed occasion. Then the commotion stopped. Michael strained to see what had happened. In her frantic pulling, Nancy had broken off one of her fingernails in Anthony’s skin. She stared in horror at her own hand, no longer flawless. Jagged. She quickly ran out of the room to find a nail file. The night previously held some awkward silences, all of which would now be forgotten. Aside from the quiet the only thing Michael noticed was that Sarah, for the first time ever, looked furious. Michael couldn’t take anymore. He turned to Anthony, put on a smile, which had zero chance of looking natural and said, “Hey.” This was at least his intention, but he accidently added one or two extra e’s, and maybe an a. Anthony in response assumed the defensive, “I’m sorry, who are you?” This was stated with no sign of apology or inquiry into Michael’s identity. “Fucking liar rude prick!” Sarah screamed from across the table. “You fucking know who he is, that’s the whole fucking point of the dinner!” Sarah was red in the face, with tears streaming down. Anthony shot back, “That’s the point! You could bring home anyone you want and it’s fine, but for me, for me!” Anthony ended by violently poking himself in the chest, while Michael wondered who “anyone” was in regards to Sarah. Anyone is a tricky word; it is singular but can imply a large number that can make men feel inadequate. As the two eldest siblings fired back obscenities, the rest of the table tried to imagine they were dining alone. JJ had already eaten all the boar on his plate, and was now finger painting with his remaining vegetables. Frank
Jacobs nursed his beer and imagined being off in some remote jungle, where he would not have found a drink so easily. Michael and the man who had yet to be introduced occasionally glanced at each other and participated in non-vocal communication. Mostly nods and shrugs. Sarah doubled her volume, “And don’t think I don’t recognize that dress you asshole, you better pay for it in full because it’s ruined from here on out!” “It looks better on me!” Anthony yelled back. Sarah’s eyes darted over to Michael, and Anthony’s followed. Michael realized he had been swallowed into the debate. He coughed a few times and turned to Anthony, and in his most diplomatic tone said, “Well, a dress like that needs, ah…” Michael groped the area around his own chest, the universal guy sign for boobs. He figured Anthony still knew it. Anthony was about to reply, but his father spoke first. “You were recently seeing a young girl.” Anthony slowly looked over at his father for the first time at the dinner. “Gabriella. Well, I had to break that off, obviously.” Another silence crept up, a forced calm. Anthony’s dinner guest broke it, “She was my cousin, sir. That’s, ah, how we met.” Frank Jacobs looked at the young man, and then back to his son. “That will make any dealings with their family very awkward.” Anthony looked down, with an air of having been defeated. “Yes, I suppose it will.” At the moment Anthony said this, Michael muttered under his breath “Can’t have an awkward family gathering, that’s the worst.” Sarah was the only one who seemed able to decipher this, and shot him a dirty look. Nancy moved swiftly back into the room, her nails all having been shortened and smoothed out to equal length. She threw the heaviest coat onto her son, and spent another second making sure it covered every inch of his dress. She seemed satisfied. Michael noticed it was a woman’s coat, and wondered why this was a major improvement. Nancy glided over to her seat next to Frank and after taking a moment to reposition all the
silverware that had been shuffled, began to eat. Her knife strokes cut at the plate every time. Frank Jacobs immediately followed her lead, going right for the cooled boar. He sloshed it around in his mouth approvingly. His eyes moved to the upper right corner, recalling some distant but fond memory. He glanced down at his watch, made a brief calculation regarding the time, and resumed eating. “Mom, dad, I’m gay.” Anthony said, hunched into his mother’s coat. Nancy cut her plate again while Sarah released a small laugh. “I think we all gathered.” His sister gave him a weary smile, which he returned. Michael looked around. Everyone at the table, except for JJ and Mr. Jacobs, seemed too tired to fight. Some people still had the urge, but lacked the fire. Michael breathed out happily and ate some of the boar. It was far too salty in his opinion, and he decided to get a hamburger as soon as he escaped. The meal moved slowly, and without much talking. Whenever someone did say something, almost everyone at the table looked up and somehow conveyed that they recognized that whatever was said was deeply important. None of it was worth writing about. After dinner, Michael found himself sitting alone in the room with the fireplace. The fire was fading, but the warmth still reached out to him. Anthony walked into the room, having redressed himself in jeans and a collared shirt. He sat down next to Michael, with a couch cushion separating them. “You changed.” Anthony cocked his head to the side. “Well I have to get the dress cleaned, it’s casual Friday at my office this week.” Michael laughed. Anthony shifted uncomfortably, “About tonight- I” “I don’t really want to talk about it.” “Thank God.” Anthony rolled over thoughts in his head, trying to remember something about Michael. “Sarah said you’re going to be a lawyer?” Michael nodded “Yep, studying for the bar right now.” Anthony picked up a small piece of wood on the floor and flicked it into the fire.
“Did you always want to be a lawyer?” Michael looked over at him. “Well when I was a kid I wanted to be a fisherman for the longest time… but then I learned that fishermen had to go out on those dangerous boat trips in the horrible waters like you see on TV. I thought they just sat around and fished. I would have been really into that.” The fire dulled a bit more. The two sat in silence until JJ trotted into the room, walking in front of the couch where both were sitting. He looked at Michael and scowled. He then turned his head to Anthony and said “Faggot.” The two stared each other down for a minute, and then Anthony gave him a swift boot to the chest. Michael noticed that Anthony was still wearing his size eleven heels. About thirty minutes later Michael was getting ready to leave. Nancy brought him his coat, while all the time her eyes dangling toward the floor. Frank Jacobs was sitting in front of a restocked fire reading the paper, as was the man who Michael had finally been introduced to but had forgotten his name. Sarah ran down the stairs and gave him a hug and a kiss. She held onto him a few seconds longer than she usually did. Anthony waved goodbye from the steps. Michael waved absentmindedly and said, “Thanks for dinner I had a great time.” Nancy looked up and glared at him with bloodshot eyes. A bit of drool escaped on the right side of her mouth. Frank Jacobs briefly looked up from his paper at Michael, then stared back down. Michael left immediately, and didn’t call Sarah until three days later.
To celebrate our first year we have decided to produce a PDF of the six stories that we nominated for this year's Puschart Prize.