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The Battered Suitcase New Directions in Art & Literature

Volume 4 – Issue 2 – Autumn 2011

Contents Flash Fiction Crocodile Cry, Crocodile Lie Sarah Pedersen........................1 Girl Talk Sarah Sorensen........................9 Spreadsheet Of My Heart Nancy Ford Dugan.....................22 Going In Kim Farleigh.........................68 A Thousand Aisles from Nowhere Jeff Baker..........................100 That Far to Deep River Jonathan Slusher....................104 Possession Erin Christian......................122 Bad Thunderclap Matthew Harrison....................168 Dinner with Sylvia Jonathan Pinnock....................170

Writers’ Workshop Dylan Gilbert........................61 My Superman Samantha Sigler......................64 River Duty Steve Upham..........................70 Border Crossing Leah Erickson........................79 Dinner With The Pigeon Prince Graham Tugwell.......................92 Q & A Brian Rowe............................. 95James Goes Out April Sopkin........................106 Deferring to Family Custom K.J. Hannah Greenberg...............120 To the Racing Men Creed Rykel Archibald...............124 The Partywallahs Arijit Sen..........................129

Short Shorts

Dusk Nyssa Anne Madison..................137

Monsters Philip Tate...........................6

Toccata and #&%$!! M. Shaw.............................143

Rash Accusation Andrew Montooth......................15

Locavore A.J. O’Connell......................166

The Happy Dress Andrea Dulanto.......................24

Shame Gregory J. Wolos....................172

A Song for Apples Meg Cook.............................28

The City Mitchell Edgeworth..................177


Poetry A Failing Heart Rochelle Germond......................3 Things to Know About Pheona Peter Picetti.........................4 Little Girl Sewing Carol Hornak.........................13 3 Haiku Craig W. Steele......................14 The Concrete Whore Jason Brightwell.....................20 Fireland Sharon-Beth Burke....................21 The Lima House Fiona Ritchie Walker.................26 Reading Celan At Night, at the Turn of Summer Laurie Sewall........................27 Poetry Cetoria Tomberlin....................42 Poetry John Tustin..........................44 On Listening to Female Poets Read Stuff About Vaginas Zac Hill.............................46 Finding Inspiration Leyre Bastyr.........................58 Poetry Emily Severance......................59 The Big Bang(s) Max Lockwood.........................60 Poetry Ben Westlie..........................87 On Hogarth’s ‘The Orgy’ from ‘A Rake’s Progress’ Susan Pashman........................89

Poetry Jessica Young........................90 Dragon N.P. Miller..........................98 Poetry Brian Barnet.........................99 Age Charles F. Thielman.................101 Poetry Larry O. Dean.......................102 Death Comes Softly Mary Vigliante Szydlowski...........134 Self-Portrait as Ganymede Lucien Darjeun Meadows..............135 Communion by Brimstone Sharla Anderson.....................136 Poetry Jennifer M. Dean....................187 Haiku Terri L. French.....................189

Novellas Portraits Pete MacDonald.......................50 Isabelle’s Haunting April L. Ford.......................149

Non-Fiction Guanacaste Beach Kate McCahill.........................5 11 Stops Sara Elizabeth Grossman..............11 Still a Strange Girl Shannon Barber.......................48


Nineteen Degrees Natalie McNabb.......................85 Aftershock Betty Thompson......................185

ART TigerLily Ernst Wonch Homemade Stars.......................31 Second Chance........................32 Broken...............................33 Happy Birthday.......................34 Cracked..............................35 Guidance.............................36 Oversee..............................37 L is for Lonely......................38 Empty................................39 One More Cup.........................40 Upstairs.............................41 Kika Seleneff Aleman Au Metro.............................73 Sardinas.............................74 Point du Vue.........................75 En La Piscina........................76 Incognita............................77 Du Feu...............................78 Tony Di Mauro Ritual..............................110 Kid Uzi.............................111 Recharge............................112 Confessions.........................113 Fumare..............................114 The Mermaid.........................115 The Boxer...........................116 The Hunter..........................117 The Spice of Life...................118 Twins...............................119 Ben Heine Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs Pencil Vs

Camera Camera Camera Camera Camera camera Camera Camera

55.................158 8..................159 16.................160 12.................161 42.................162 32.................163 7..................164 51.................165


Sarah Pedersen Sarah Pedersen recently graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in English: Creative Writing. She loves drawing, writing, learning languages and finding that little spark of happy in things. Her poetry has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs. This is her first published short story.

Crocodile Cry, Crocodile Lie

S

immering summer waits in the half-lidded eye of the crocodile, grin all-knowing and all-promising. Here, the day is a ball of fire in the sky, sweating the sin out of every mortal toiler. The music is the hum of insects, rich and deep, and the chuckling call of the wild birds playing their games of who-is-there and where-am-I. The reminder is the parched throat, the sticky tongue, and the daydreams of sky blue pools and the smell of chlorine. She was not yet old enough to toil, but not young enough to believe that days would forever be painless, distant dreams in a warm sticky haze. She had been told bitterly by many older, wearier types to Enjoy It While It Lasts and Make The Best Of It. She was tired of being told. She wanted them to end. Heels digging into the hot sand, the only patch underneath the curly high tree that didn’t contain burr grass, she contemplated the sticks and twigs laid out before her. They were a cold rock gray, witch fingers and sometimes witch hands. A wasp swam around her head in the thick air, humming in one ear and then the other. She was not threatened by his war cry, so lost in thought. Shoulder-high to finger long, her collection lay spread around her. She was building castles with them in her head, way grander than the teepees and fences of her younger years of summers past. She imagined carpets of fresh-mowed grass and a palm frond roof, and perfect square windows cut miraculously from seamless sides. This was the summer of ambition, of achievement. They could not say she played idly then, not in the face of her masterpiece. Golden-white hair, reaching in all directions for fear of the simmering air, tangled itself behind her small neck. A squirrel bobbed and weaved its stop-go dance in the curly high tree above her. From Beyond the Fence, somewhere in dark muddy waters that her mother warned her never to go near, the old crocodile croaked. As if that were her signal, she stood and picked up her first stick. While the wind purred through the trees she planted her sticks, dug her fingers and toes into the dry sand, and blinked

away the painful bits of bark and dirt that reached her eyes. She started with the outline of a shape. She wanted rooms, doorways, but after much arranging, she found that the sticks just fell over in the soft dirt. One room it was then, but a big one. A royal one, where she could eat and sleep, and clean only when she wanted to. When her sticks were not enough, she scavenged the grounds of the large acreage around her, picking burrs out of her feet whenever they stuck. The old crocodile muttered throatily from Beyond the Fence when she came near, and though she could not see him through the vertical slats of wood, she walked slowly and silently like a deer trying to escape the notice of a wolf. She decided she would have to build her walls extra-strong, in case the crocodile ever decided to break in while she slept and carry her away into the creaking croaking night. She never had to worry about that when she slept in her room in the house, curled up with her stuffed caterpillar under the heavy star and moon covers that she had gotten for her fifth birthday three years ago. Shivers of cold fear shot up her spine when the crocodile called again. The more she worked, the closer the calls seemed to get. I’m coming for you, they told her darkly. Back under the tree, she pieced her puzzle together with the frantic fury of one spurred by possibilities. The scornful laugh of a gull somewhere high above was her working rhythm. With serious eyes set grimly on her task, her game was now not a game, but rather a race to escape a fate that seemed inevitable. Sticky tree sap attached itself to her fingers, dirt piled up under her nails. She shooed a rowdy mosquito away from her shoulder, and in the dimming light of evening, her task was done. She stood back and surveyed her work. The sticks created a box, with one side being the tree. Inside was not a space she could lie down in, much less put a bed. The sticks refused to stand together without large slits and holes and there had not been enough, so she was left with a gaping opening for a doorway. She had not been able to detach any Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 1


palm fronds for her roof either, though there had not been enough of a roof to use them anyway. She wiped her sticky hands against her shorts and heard the crocodile croak again, a long, taunting call. He knew what she knew — this would not keep him out. Hot water rushed to the corners of her large eyes. “Caitlin, I’m home!” an adult voice called. “Caitlin? Are you out here?” The girl turned and ran past her mother who was standing outside calling and through the open door behind her. Her cheeks were a splotchy red. The mother watched, then looked over at the little stick house. She shuffled closer, slipping off stiff, tight work shoes. First one then the other was discarded in the grass behind her. She set down her large bag, full of things for working and buying, and pulled the tight bun out of her hair. When she knelt down her hands touched the ground, and dirt sunk into well-groomed nails. Her skin tickled as long

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blonde-white hair caught gently on the stick walls like spider webs. The mother crawled in, nestled her suit-laden back against high curly tree, and stared out across the yard. The lowering sun painted pink and purple colors against the wide open sky in its wake, and a gentle wind stirred up the sticky-hot heat, a reminder that the cooling night was coming soon. She sat, not like an adult who had been told what was proper, but like a child in a giant’s body who did not know how she had gotten there or what to do next. There were tears in her eyes, but she smiled. There was a smile. She heard the old crocodile too, groaning from the other side of the fence, but she wasn’t scared. She had already met her fair share of crocodiles; she knew there was no better defense than a castle of sticks. Crickets serenaded her as she laughed gently. “Mommy! Mommy!” Caitlin called, bounding out the door again, cheeks cooled and large eyes wide. “What’s for dinner?”


Rochelle Germond Rochelle is a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she is studying Creative Writing. Her vices are massive amounts of coffee, somewhat obscure Indie-Rock bands, and yoga. She enjoys sunsets and the beach, but not long walks.

A Failing Heart “Say an extra prayer or two.” But I haven’t threaded my fingers since the nights I knelt beside the bunk beds I shared with my sister. I recite the words now, anyway. I’m afraid if I don’t, these constant machine beeps will be the last sound you hear. If I don’t, my mother will never stop mumbling, “No news is good news, no news is good news.” A half-believed mantra guiding her pilgrimage from vacant room to vacant room. I can still hear the way we would giggle on your front porch, decorated with crinkled feather boas and plates of crumbled Neapolitan wafers. Your gray hair tucked under a wide brim of netted straw, your magnified eyes peering over the edge of a miniature cup whose handle was made for pinkies much smaller than yours. Bare gums and smacking lips, you sang of a flightless yellow bird.

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Peter Picetti Peter Francis Picetti is an avid fly fisherman recently graduated from The University of Montana in Missoula.

Things to Know About Pheona Pheona is 9, and orange. On regular days she can fly, and the wind shoots through her silk feather tines, scattered across her wings, with a span wider than most people’s. She gets sick regularly, coming down with a bad case of brown tattered feathers. She can only sit staggering, waiting death. Goose and rice soup is the meal of choice on sick days. Rice is easy to get, but chasing down geese requires extra determination. Pheona doesn’t mind the taste of down. Pheona digs a hole for herself to die, so her ashes won’t fly away.

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Doctors could preserve a quality of life, but death for Pheona feels good. Her friends think she is mental. She can’t wait to fly, again, she promises to be a better Pheona. In her will — for the next life — she says she gives her brother his gameboy back: but never does. Playing Zelda is the only way to fly she thinks, curling up in her hole. Her mouth is dry and sticky like peanut butter with no water. In the morning the gameboy plays its buoyant theme song next to a pile of ashes.


Kate McCahill Kate McCahill holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA from Wellesley College. Her current writing project is a collection of personal essays based on one year in Latin America, and she wrote this piece recently during a stay in Costa Rica with her mother and father. Kate’s work has been published in the Hawaii Women’s Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, and Connotation Press.

T

Guanacaste Beach

his one isn’t like the others we’ve seen. No palms, no birds, but the waves are enormous. No people, no hotels, just the curving expanse of this brown sand, the same brown as the sky and the dry, leafless trees. The air has a sweet, spicy smell: grass baked for months in the sun, grass that has almost forgotten it was ever green, grass that even the jaunty cows in the inland fields won’t eat. Grass the color of the iguanas that dart over the sand, flickers of movement on this crashing desert beach. And then there are the shells, those little empty homes. The whorls, the cracks, the crevices, the spirals, the shells that resemble bodies, the shells that resemble flowers. These are the ones we find in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: broken conch, white as bone. Smooth speckled cowries, ridged mollusks, whelks. Delicate cones. Slender olives, the exact color of my skin. A single, near-perfect sand dollar, thick at the center and thin as paper at the edges, and printed with lines, that dead body’s map. We pass clusters of snail shells, and then none for many steps. The smallest, whitest shells are round like moons. If you kneel down and look close, you’ll see that these shells, shattered by the sea, have made the sand; in your hand you can hold a million pieces — pink, blue, black, silver, white. And so the beach isn’t brown; it’s a rainbow, a millennia of shards. My mother and I pluck the shells we like best from the sand so that soon both of our pockets are bulging. We try not to let my dad notice; he hates when we go on trips and then cart things home: shells, stones, pine cones, nuts, leaves. Why do you need all that stuff ? He always asks. You women. And so my mother tells me he doesn’t have to know about the shells, four Styrofoam cups full so far, that she hides under the hotel bed and will seal in zip lock bags and stash in the luggage just before we check out. He’ll never have to know, she tells me now as we stroll the beach, and she wipes the swirling skeleton of a smashed conch on her shorts and slips it into her pocket. We walk and walk, and finally the still, brown heat is unbearable, and I just have to get in the water, I tell my parents, or else I am going to die. Until now, the ocean has seemed unappealing, better to look at than go in, with the water that’s brown with swirling sand, and the rock formations that are revealed at low tide. But I don’t care; I’m sweating, these shells

are weighing me down, and the water is right there, so salty and cool. I’ll be careful. I wade in; it takes a long time to get waist-deep. When I turn back, I see that my father has followed me in; he steps gingerly towards me, towards the rising waves. The bottom is all sand here, and as I pick my way deeper I start to trust the water more and more. The waves feel so good, the way they lift me off the ocean floor, splashing in my hair and onto my skin, cooling me down. My father and I stumble in until the water almost reaches our shoulders, and then we ride the waves as they crest, in and out, swimming against the current, getting water in our mouths. We can see my mother, standing on the shore and shading her eyes with her hand. The waves come; we jump to keep our heads above them. I return to the shore, but my father stays in the water. I squeeze out my hair, put on my cap, and then I watch him swimming there, letting the waves lift his body up and then set it down again. He is twenty-seven, he is sixteen, he is five. He jumps when the waves come, he paddles out and rides them in, he lets the water push him around. He is all alone in that ocean; no birds, just the shells, the hot wind, the cool and blessed spray. He is only thinking about those waves, the one that will come next, the one that will come after that, the big one that he can see in the distance. At night, we eat dinner and then walk out onto the beach to look at the water. The tide is at its lowest point now. Again, my mother waits while my dad and I walk to where the waves lap and cross over each other. It takes a long time to reach them; the water has sunk so low since morning. The beach is empty, and even though the resort, with its lighted pool and its lighted rooms, is right behind us, we are able to see so many stars. The Big Dipper is to the north and upside down. There is Sirius, my father says. It’s the brightest star in the sky. We silently admire the Milky Way, set low and bright and cresting the sky. We clasp our hands behind our backs and inhale. Here are the waves, lit at their edges by phosphorescence. Here is the Pacific Ocean before us. I am twenty-seven, I am sixteen, I am five: I am standing in the dark water with my father, looking out. Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 5


Philip Tate Philip Tate holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College and is currently on sabbatical from his teaching duties at Tompkins Cortland Community College in upstate New York. He has published in several literary magazines and is the recent winner of the Black Warrior Review fiction contest.

Monsters

F

rom the edge of the universe the earth would be nothing: a blue dot in an endless field of stars. No one that far away would pay attention to anything so small and insignificant. This is what enters my mind as I fumble with Sheila’s tight jeans in the front seat of my old Chevy at the drive-in — another thing time has since forgotten — the movie reduced to indeterminate random shrieks and howls from a tinny speaker hanging from the side window. My attention is on her. I tug at the waistband, hook a finger in the belt loop, pull at the top button, grope for the zipper. Radio waves go forever; if you wait long enough they will reach the edge of the universe. But they get weaker in the distance, so anyone listening would have to listen very carefully, with an antenna the size of their planet, an amplifier as big as a warehouse. This movie, bad as it is, will probably find its way out there, too, with the light waves reflecting off my windshield. A few billion years from now it will arrive at the edge — out there where the monsters live — and something with really sharp eyes and too much time on its hands will watch this crazy monster grab a voluptuous woman, fondle her, and carry her off. They will wonder what kind of planet we live on, if it has been invaded by sex-craved kidnappers. Sheila holds my wrist tight, not to move it, just to hold it still, suspended. I let go of her zipper, catch a breath. She tells me to watch the movie. I sit up straight, run my fingers through my hair like a comb. “It’s the worst thing I ever saw,” I tell her. “What is?” “This stupid movie.” “You haven’t seen much of it.” “I don’t need to.” The monster, a suspiciously man-sized thing with long hair and an ugly and asymmetrical face, has the woman tied up in heavy, noisy chains. She has large breasts and a short, short skirt. Every time the monster moves, even to look at her, she screams, the chains clang, and the music rattles the cheap speaker. The monster is from some other planet, probably other galaxy, way out there where things are so bored or hungry they are willing to spend eons in a rocket ship to come here and 6 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

steal our women, run their long fingers through their hair, leer at them, eat them. This one has come a great distance for sex and food, to scare the hell out of us. She sits against the door, sips the last of her Coke, her legs folded beneath her on the seat. “I think I’m going crazy,” I tell her. “For real.” “What kind of crazy?” “I don’t know. What kinds are there?” “Schizophrenia, depression, paranoia.” “I think that’s it.” “Which one?” “Paranoia.” “Are you afraid of something?” “Everything. I can’t even sleep at night, at least not until midnight. I lie there watching the window, waiting for somebody to break in. Something, I mean.” “That’s not paranoia.” “Then what is? “You think I’m trying to poison you with a microscopic dot on the tip of my tongue.” She waggles her tongue at me. “You think there’s uranium in your popcorn. You think little people live in your ears and tell you to do crazy things — maybe that’s schizophrenia.” “I’m not that kind of crazy.” She has to be home before midnight, so I have a little more than an hour with her. We have been going out for about three months, almost every Saturday night I can get the car and every school night our parents let us, which is not often. We drive around, idling almost, just to get out and talk, just to get out and be alone. We sit at the A&W, order something when I can afford it, then sit and talk. I could survive an eon or two in a space ship with her, rocketing across the universe to visit some planet where people have been sending out radio waves and light waves, telling us, whether or not they intended to, who they are. What they are. I haven’t told her about it, but I’ve thought out the whole trip. I know what we would do, what we would eat, how we would learn to spend long, long days (not always twenty four hours) doing nothing but drifting through the ether. That’s what you call it. There’s no air, and you have


to move through something. The ether. After a year or so we would get rid of our clothes, decide that they are artificial and useless, that they do nothing but hide who we really are. They are a hindrance that we can do away with. So we do. And for the remaining eons we are naked, weightless and naked, floating about the ether when we aren’t strapped in. I imagine her floating past, sipping something through a straw, naked. “What’s schizophrenia?” “It’s like you’re two people.” “I’ve heard of that.” “Is that what you are? Two people?” She looks at me as if I might say yes. “How would I know?” She keeps looking at me. I watch more of the movie. No surprise, the scientist is trying to save the woman. He’s an idiot, though, making one stupid move after the other, and every time, the monster thwarts him. It’s too stupid to talk about. On the edge of the universe they will see this and raise their eyebrows. I imagine they have eyebrows, that they are capable of raising them, and that it means about the same thing there as here: Well, I don’t know about that. I hope they are also listening to the radio because the radio makes more sense. They may think we’re really dirty people who need tons of soap and deodorant, and they may think we’re violent as hell if they listen to the news, and they would no doubt scratch their bald heads (if they have heads) as they try to figure out baseball. But by then we will all be dust. Too many eons to get there, those radio waves, those light waves. And if they’re smart, which they would likely be if they could build such huge antennas and amplifiers, they’ll know we’re already dust, that our part of the universe is history. Stars don’t last forever. Suns don’t last forever. “Fifteen minutes,” she says, and I see the night ending as they all do, with me walking her to her door. She will give me a quick hug, say she loves me, and I will drive off, dizzy, crazy, eons from where I want to be. I will idle around town for a while, the radio on, but mostly just thinking. I will imagine us in that rocket, the blackness out the window, the nakedness within, and all the time in the world. And it is as I said. I am idling through town. There are almost no cars on the streets. I drive, turn, drive more, wondering what kind of crazy. Maybe it is something new, an affliction that makes me think all the time, makes me think wild things about monsters and movies and radios and sex. Makes me desire a billion years alone with my girlfriend. A cop pulls me over on Eleventh Street. Lights, no siren. “Where are you going?” he asks. “Nowhere.” “Then go home. You’ve been up and down this street a dozen times.” “Okay.”

He shines his flashlight in my car. “Have you been drinking?” “I don’t drink.” He looks at my eyes. “Then what have you been doing?” “A movie. The drive in.” “Monster from Planet X?” I nod. “Great movie,” the cop says. “I thought it was stupid.” “Are you kidding? It’s a monster movie. It’s supposed to be stupid.” He laughs a good while, then waves me off, tells me to go home. So I idle home, wondering what they will make of this, the guy with the gun and flashlight, the big joke about stupid monsters, about them. She is in big trouble at home. Can’t talk on the phone, can’t go out. I pass her in the hall at school, she says she can’t talk. “They’ll kill me,” she says, and hurries off, leaving me half out of nowhere, confused. I am no good at logic — I proved that in math class — but I know what makes sense and what doesn’t. Given A and given B, I can figure out C. If all dogs are animals, and Fido is a dog, then Fido is an animal. That doesn’t confuse me. She does. School surrounds me like a fog: it drifts past, turns my skin clammy, but with no lasting effect. I remember a fact or two: the Civil War started in 1861, the Normans invaded England in 1066. That’s useful information. Every time I need to impress someone, which isn’t often, I can give them dates, other facts, things like the pull of gravity. I give them the numbers, 32.2 feet per second per second. They may not think I’m smart, but they’ll see that I know something. And that’s what I think: I know something. But I know nothing about her. My teachers are old and gray. They stand with their hands in their pockets, their eyes above us all, fixed on some spot at the back of the room where their monotonous lives are reduced to a point. I imagine that history is there on that spot. 1861, 1066. That’s history. But I want to know what they carry in their pockets. Old Mr. Smith rattles all kinds of stuff. I imagine coins, knives, bottle openers, dog whistles, sports whistles, starting pistols, magic rings, concertina wire, hubcaps, bits of iron from meteorites, all kinds of things metallic and tinny that make a racket when he walks. That’s what I hear as he walks up and down the aisles, telling us history, releasing dates from his mouth so they will drift into our ears and then we, too, will know. I’m half way there. In no time I will graduate. I will be out in the world, and all the things I know will serve me well. I will build a rocket ship, launch it toward the edge of the universe, me and her. And I don’t care how long it takes. I hope it takes forever, that we can float about naked forever. I will ease back on the throttle, let those monsters wait another eon or two, sitting at the table, tapping their fingers. “Yoo hoo?” He is talking to me. “What?” Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 7


“I thought you were asleep.” Mr. Smith has stopped by my desk. “I was just thinking.” “Ha!” “I was.” “About?” “Space travel, rocket ships. Science stuff.” He pats my head, walks away, jingling the pile of junk in his pockets. And she is gone, destroyed by the racket. The clock, which has been ticking away my life for most of an hour, has ticked its way to lunch. I eat alone. After school she will have nothing to do with me. “They’ll kill me,” she says, half running to avoid me. “Who?” I say, but she’s gone. I am left standing with my books, my lunch box, a dumb look on my face. I imagine them watching me from out there, my face reflected from the shiny tin of my lunchbox, my image arriving in twelve or thirteen billion years. They will examine my eyebrows, say, “Wow! They have them, too! And look, he has that expression — what do you call it? — dumbfounded. Ha, ha. That’s it! Dumbfounded! Ha, ha, ha.” The rocket will have some device at its back end that allows it to accelerate to a thousand times the speed of light. Otherwise, I won’t get there. And when I get there, when we get there, we will put our clothes on and emerge from the rocket, stand on the grass or whatever they call it, buttoning the last buttons on our shirts, and say, “We come in peace.” And my eyebrows will be as straight as I can keep them. There will be nothing on my face, and when she lets go of my hand and moves toward them, as she is likely to do, I will say nothing, and the expression on my face will not change. Let her go, I will think. She’s a smart girl, and even though her breasts have grown over the last few eons and she is wearing that short skirt, they will not notice or they will be from a different clan and have a different concept of sex. They will be asexual, and instead of taking her off to fondle and eat her they will bow deeply, showing the utmost respect, and then rise and say, “We have been watching you for thirteen billion years, and we are glad you stopped by. Other than popcorn, what do you monsters eat?” But we will have trouble, because of the language. They will not always understand us, and we will not always understand them. We will spend the rest of our lives repeating ourselves, asking the same questions, learning what perplexity looks like on strange faces. My mother left a sandwich in the refrigerator. She works most afternoons and knows I come home hungry. Turkey and cheese, lots of mayonnaise. I sit and eat, feeling as if the world is on a tilt, that none of it makes sense. I lean to one side, compensating. “Why not?” “They won’t let me.” 8 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“Then sneak out. I’ll meet you in the alley.” “I can’t sneak out.” “Why not?” “They’d kill me.” “Then open your window. I’ll come over.” “Don’t you dare!” There is a constant hiss on the phone line. Someone told me they put it there on purpose, so you’ll know the line isn’t dead. I listen to the hiss a while, listen to her move around, change her position, turn a page in her book. “What about Saturday?” “I doubt it.” “Good grief, what did I do? “You didn’t do anything.” “Then what did you do?” She won’t answer. In the living room my mother is watching television. The news is on. There is something about the war, dead people shipped home. They will get television. It’s really the same as radio, only fancier, and they’ll have thirteen billion years to make them so they can see what we’re doing. We are washing a lot, layering ourselves with cosmetics, then going out in the evening to shoot each other, have wars on the other side of the ocean. Let them make sense of that. I imagine trying to explain it, the way we kill each other. I am thinking of some logic that will cover it when she says she has to go. “How come?” “Homework.” “Then call me back.” “They won’t let me.” “Do you have to ask? Can’t you just pick up the phone?” “It’s in the living room. I have to pull the cord in here.” She whispers. Finally, I understand the danger. I hear that we are sending more soldiers overseas. My mother sighs loud enough that I hear it over the television. “Then I guess I don’t know what’s going on,” I say. “What do you mean?” “Where we stand.” “What does that mean?” “Just that you’re elsewhere. You can’t go out. You can’t talk on the phone. You can’t open your window. Is this it?” “What do you mean?” “Is it over for us?” The line is quiet, except for the intentional hiss, and I imagine that they have found her, carried her off for all those things they are known for. They have been watching a billion years and have fallen in love with big breasts and short skirts, learned how to outsmart smart scientists, fallen in love with shooting and reading grim reports on the television about the shooting, fallen in love with everything about our planet, even the soap. But I know how that goes: they will wash their hands when they are through with us.


Sarah Sorensen Sarah Sorensen’s work has most recently been published online or in print at Short, Fast and Deadly, Staccato, Dark Sky, Bastards and Whores, and Underground Voices. In the past, she has received honorable mention from Glimmer Train and been published by other small presses. Sarah holds an M.A. in English Language and Literature from Central Michigan University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Film Theory and Criticism. She has work forthcoming from Metazen and The Ear Hustler.

Girl Talk

“I

’d get kicked in the throat by John Wayne.” The swings creak while I consider Erica’s answer to her own question. I’m still in my work apron; and I have a belly ache from abusing the unmonitored soft serve dispenser. It turns out that all the weird chemicals in it become a lot more noticeable when you consume the equivalent of three large cups. We put more ice cream in the cups than in the cones. Anyway, it only starts out tasting sweet. I think about Erica’s question. “I thought that the whole point of this hypothetical was that you could survive anything,” I say. “Yeah.” “Okay. Okay, so you are telling me that normally that would kill you?” “Sure.” “I don’t know,” I say. “That seems kind of unlikely.” I play with the gummy vanilla ice cream stain on my jeans. My thighs look fatter than they used to, and I sigh. “So what’s your choice then, big shot?” Erica is so full of bravado. “Big shot.” She called me “big shot.” I didn’t think people still used that. I look at her and see how faded her black polo has become and wonder if she’s used it for every crap job she’s ever had. It’s big and oversized and masculine, but her breasts are huge and round. She tries to hide that behind the apron. “Would what I choose still hurt me?” “No, of course not,” she says. “That’s part of it. That it doesn’t hurt.” She snaps her gum; and it smells fruity and sour, the way old gum and bad breath smell. “Fine, then I’d go back in time and take the bullets for Lennon,” I say. “And throw them back in the guy’s face?” “What the assailer? No. That’d be stupid. I’d just make it so that Lennon didn’t die. Why, what were you planning to do after being kicked in the throat?” “I’d laugh in his face and call him a pussy.”

Erica works with me in the dump called Freezy Dip. It’s always just us on Thursdays. I hate seasonal work, but for now it’s what I’ve got. I think about John Wayne round kicking Erica in the throat. It’s better than this tiny playground in front of the Freezy Dip. “It’s my fucking birthday,” I say. It offends me that she didn’t remember after all the time that I’ve known her. “How old?” “Thirty.” “You’re thirty and you still work at Freezy Dip? God, why haven’t you killed yourself, yet?” “Fuck you,” I say, “You’re not much younger.” “Twenty-seven is a lot younger. It’s a whole different decade. A different generation.” “Right.” Erica fiddles with the chain of the swing, then spits on the ground, propelling the hard old gum into the woodchips. “Let’s get out of here,” she says. I felt like it was time to accomplish something big. Like today was the day my whole life was supposed to change. I thought about what we could go do. I could get a tattoo. I could smoke a cigar. I could sign up for a JCPenny credit card and max it out on bad underwear. “What do we do?” I ask. “Something big. Let’s do something big.” She takes me to The Wolf Lounge, a bad strip joint off the 75 and buys me a poorly executed lap dance from a woman calling herself Cupcake — a blonde-wigged stripper with a cigarette smoking Tweety Bird tattoo on the back of her shoulder. Old Motley Crue blasts from the speaker next to my ear. Erica goes ahead and buys a dance off the better-looking Pussy Willow, who turns out to also be a better dancer. I sort of like her cat ears, but her breasts are obviously fake. Cupcake insists on squeezing her face between my breasts despite numerous requests that she desist. Most of her eye makeup is sweaty and sliding off her face. It’s strange to look at, and I Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 9


can’t stop focusing on it. She keeps pooching out her lips and then smiling. It makes her look demented; and I smile politely. Next thing I know, Erica slips both chicks a twenty and a five, and we’re out back by the dumpsters, getting head. I look at Erica and Pussy Willow. It looks like a better time than Cupcake, who pokes at my genitals with a long plastic nail that comes off in my pubes. “You have huge labia,” Cupcake says, apparently trying to make small talk while she tugs out her nail. I notice that it has a sunset painted on it. Then Erica gets off and I pretend to get off too so that we can just leave. She hands both women another twenty, which I guess was part of the arrangement. Pussy Willow slips Erica her number and fluffs her hair back into the poof that Erica had flattened. Cupcake just takes the money and gets back inside, fearful of missing her next dance. “This birthday sucks,” I say, playing with the car radio. I settle on the blues program on NPR. “Yeah,” Erica says, “I know. But not that part, right?” “My chick didn’t know what she was doing,” I say, “I think she was high.” “You faked?” “Yeah,” I say, “obviously.” I turn the channel and listen to something doo-wop. “Shit, I’m going back for my money.” She turns the car around and we are going the wrong way down a one way highway, hurtling back to get our faces punched in by the big angry bouncer for asking for our money

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back. I think of all the dykes I’ve seen on TV with their pretty houses and their good jobs and their golden retrievers and wonder what the fuck happened to me and Erica. I look at her and hate her. Somehow all of this is her fault. Where is my two-stall garage? Where is my nice wife with her clean hair and regular clothes and normal perfume? Where is my wellmaintained car with its heated seats and CD player? Where is my desk, my office, my life? I’m thirty years old and terrified to get out there and get that job and meet that girl and be that person. Erica scratches the back of her neck and grumbles something about the money. Something about how many turtle sundaes that she’d have to stand around making to get that kind of money back. She squints at the note from Pussy Willow, complete with the damn heart above the i, and tosses it out the window. It’s hot and our faces are flushed and the highway seems endless. I wish to God that I was four years old again, sitting around with a bunch of old boring relatives and opening gifts that I would break the minute I tried to assemble them. I wished I could smell my mom’s homemade cake and watch her thin hands strain to scoop out the vanilla Hudsonville ice cream. Erica turned the radio channel and coughed. The sweat on both of our faces looked thick and greasy. The radio now blared some variety of death metal. A deep growling voice droned on about death. I have a feeling that death is a lot simpler and cleaner than all that. I turned the channel back to John Lee Hooker, and Erica glared at me. I answered Erica the only way that I knew how. “I wish John Wayne would fucking kick you in the throat.”


Sara Elizabeth Grossman Sara has an M.F.A. from The New School and works as a freelance copywriter and social media manager. She has work published in or forthcoming from The New York Press, Untreed Reads Publishing, The Nashville Review, and Narrative Magazine. Her story “11 Stops” was also chosen as a top 25 finalist for Glimmer Train’s New Writers Award. You can find her online at www.sosarasaid.com.

11 Stops Penn Station

The train lurches forward and begins to make its way down the familiar old track. We are still in the dark of the tunnel, and it resembles the dark of my room just before sunrise. I think of our morning in bed together, and how I wanted to devise a plan for stalling dawn in order to draw out a few extra minutes. The conductor comes by to punch our tickets. Brit nudges me with her leg after he walks past and whispers, “His hat looks very official.” “Doesn’t it?” I laugh.

Woodside

I sit across from Brit during the first leg of our trip in our own four-seat section. We’re on our way to my family’s house on Long Island. My feet, in cowboy boots rest next to her lap, crossed and leaning on the armrest. The two-toned burgundy and brown contrasts nicely against the cornflower blue and teal seats. The white toes of her black Converse are perched on the seat next to me. We are both reading and then pausing to look up at each other. I dog-ear the page and stick out my tongue until she looks up at me again, and scrunches her nose. High rises surround the train and the graffiti is abundant. We pass bubbly letters in magnificent colors drawn against the dreary gray of the buildings. “We don’t have this sort of graffiti in Alabama,” she says and continues to look out the window. “You don’t wear shoes in Alabama either, do you?” I joke. “And there is no plumbing!” she half-heartedly jokes back, humoring me by playing along. I think, but don’t say out loud: “There aren’t really any gay people ‘out’ in Alabama, either.” I can tell she’s thinking the same thing, and that she’s nervous because she’s enduring a lot of firsts. First real girlfriend. First time meeting the family. First time away from home. This is the first time she didn’t cry or pray after kissing someone. This is the first time she didn’t have to hide her relationship from all of her friends.

New York is another world. Different things are allowed here. I’m confident my family will love her. And this is a first for me.

Jamaica

Brit starts fishing through her bag to find Advil. Halloween was the night before and I felt sick as we got into bed; she felt sick after waking up. Wine and whiskey and gummy bears soaked in vodka were probably not the best combination. Throw in a few Ring Pops, mini M&M’s, and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or two, and that was our night. “Where is the bathroom?” she asks. “In the next car, probably,” I say. She gets up and pulls her tiny black cardigan on, walks to the door and struggles to open it. Inertia is sucking the door shut, but when she finally gets it open, wind rushes into our car and I watch as her strawberry blonde hair blows back. She teeters on one foot before regaining her balance and pushes through the door. I watch her walk away. For the first time, it doesn’t make me nervous. I know she’ll come back.

Locust Manor

I sit alone and continue to read Elizabeth Bishop, noting the dusty red brick of the housing projects we pass. The prose I read is lonely and quiet. I can’t relate anymore.

Laurelton

Brit comes back from the bathroom. She is stuck between train cars because she can’t get the door to unlatch. She calls me from her iPhone and I stare at the picture that pops up for a second before answering the call. It’s a picture of her resting in a position we call “the perfect cuddle.” It’s a picture of her waiting for me. No one has ever waited for me before. I get up and pull hard on the door handle. The suction breaks and I fall back a little as it opens, and she giggles.

Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 11


Rosedale

I watch as she takes in the entire train ride. Excited because she hasn’t been back to suburbia since moving to NYC from Birmingham, she stares out the window and talks about maybe writing a poem about it. I guess that’s what poets do. The trees, now oranges and yellows, fly by. Her hair blends in with the background for a minute. I begin to count her freckles. I get to twenty-nine before being caught. “What’re you doin’?” she asks, knowing exactly what I am doing.  I smile and look back at my book. She gets up and moves to sit next to me. “Where did you come from?” She asks this a lot lately, altering the tone each time. “Planet of the Apes,” I say confidently. Last time I had said I came from my mother. “Why do you always ask that?” “Because,” she says, “I like the way the answer is always changing.”

Valley Stream

She puts her hand in mine and I squeeze it three times. Our legs are next to each other now, and we are facing the way the train is moving. No one else is in our car. An empty swimming pool with brown rotting leaves at the bottom blurs past, and I look at the seat across from us and at her jeans. I say to her: “You know, I’ve always wanted a girlfriend who wears skinny jeans.”

Lynbrook

“Target!” she exclaims. I try not to smile. “A mall!” She keeps growing more enthusiastic. As soon as we come upon the water, I know she’s going to be elated. The simple pleasures of suburban Long Island zoom past us. Or maybe we zoom past them. Beyond the skeleton trees, the sky is a circus bag of cotton candy: pale whispering pinks on the bottom, the horizon an airy baby blue covering the top.

12 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

I rummage through my bag to find my iPod, but my headphones are tangled to the point of no return. She grabs them from me and begins to fix the jumbled wire. “I like untangling things,” she says. I watch her, as she happily concentrates. I watch as she untangles the fiber of our universe and solves everyone else’s problems.

East Rockaway

I don’t remember whether I mention it out loud or not, but the man’s voice over the intercom system who announces all of the train stops always sounds like Fozzie from The Muppets exclaiming, “Wocca, wocca, wocca!” East Woccaway.

Oceanside

Brit is still staring out the window with this sense of wonder and excitement that can only be described as “childlike.” “I’ve missed the ocean,” she says. “I know. I’ve missed it too.” “Wanna feed the seagulls later?” I think no, but say yes. I can spell incandescent and cumulonimbus and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, but instead I draw a heart in her hand with my finger.

Island Park

We arrive, and my cousin Jake picks us up from the train station. I shake out my sea legs as we walk to his car, a twodoor sporty coupe. After introducing them to each other, I ask Brit if she wants to sit in the front. She declines, and the three of us make small talk. I get a nod-smile from Jake, which is his silent seal of approval. When we get to the house, Brit squeezes out from the back, between the passenger seat and the door. “I like sitting in the back of two-door cars because it feels like you’re being born each time you get out,” she says and adjusts her sweater.


Carol Hornak Carol Hornak lives in suburban New Jersey with her husband and three children. A former preschool teacher, she currently writes poetry, short stories and is nearing completion of a novel. She has a short story forthcoming in Liquid Imagination.

Little Girl Sewing A sewing machine Sits before her. The needle grasps the fabric But she chooses to create her own Stitches. The rose. She must embroider a patch. This does not require the machine. Paper doll, a stick figure. Naked lady. Distorted mirror. Reality was dead. A faceless Who are you? With anger hidden behind The brass bars Of a prison. Of a mind gone numb by pain. The serpent resides Unhindered while The violin string hits the high note, Can hold no more And breaks. She stays on the swing. Every so often it glides. She sews. Stitches.

Autumn 2011 â–Ş The Battered Suitcase â–Ş 13


Craig W. Steele Craig W. Steele is a writer and university biologist whose musings occur in the urban countryside of northwestern Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, their two children, and one rubbish cat. He writes poetry and stories for both children and adults and teaches environmental biology at Edinboro University. Besides The Battered Suitcase, his haiku and senryu have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Modern Haiku, a handful of stones, Asahi Haikuist Network, Three Line Poetry, Prune Juice, Magnapoets, Grey Sparrow Journal, Haiku Pix Review and elsewhere.

3 Haiku single student stares out the window, eyes flicking — first spring butterfly

just finished mowing half-cut blowpop stems taunt me — chin stubble itches

commencement address — I crave the perfect silence between cricket chirps

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Andrew Montooth Born and raised at Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of art and architecture, Andrew Montooth led an idyllic and creative life until he was driven from home at age 14. Homeless and drifting at age 19, he adopted and raised a 3-year-old girl. His life as a young, single parent was a unique and thrilling experience. At 36, he married and eventually had two more children. He lives in Scottsdale with his wife and younger children and remains close to his oldest daughter. His works have made the short lists for the Demarini Award and Fish Publishing Award.

Rash Accusation

R

unning at full life-saving, adrenaline-pumping speed, I jump the remnants of a fallen tree and duck a low branch. I catch a glimpse of Mabel, ten yards ahead, and sneak a peek over my shoulder behind us. Brad is definitely whittling down our hundred yard lead. Big trouble. Women are on the same intellectual level as men, but running is a different story. Florence Joyner’s world record 100 meter dash took 10.49 seconds, a time matched regularly by high school boys around the country. Girls are simply not as fast as boys. Especially really ticked off boys. He’s going to catch up with us, and, I’m guessing, beat the crap out of us. Why I took off in a dead run, following her into the dark woods at night, I don’t know. Probably because Brad was screaming epithets and obscenities as he came lumbering across the parking lot of St. James High School, working his way to the only opening in the fence. Mabel and I were the last two players left waiting for our ride after soccer practice. Alone on the edge of the empty field, we chatted about nothing, kicked at loose asphalt around a pothole, drew in the comforting scent of a fireplace in the neighborhood. We watched, shocked, as his car pulled in, heard him start screaming before he jumped out of the car. We were both stunned speechless for three seconds. Before I could ask Mabel, Why on earth would the cops release him? Mabel had dropped her pack and started running in the opposite direction from Brad. Bad idea. Really bad idea. Daddy is always telling me I take my job as team Captain too far, that I get over-involved. He might be right; I might have gone too far this time. Why did I take charge and drag her and her mouse-of-a-mother to the police? Was it because Mabel’s mom just said, it happens and poured herself another glass of cheap Chardonnay? Maybe I get sick of my teammate’s parents ignoring our problems because they’re so wrapped up in giving up on us and starting a second family. Maybe it’s like the school psychologist says: I try to mother everyone because mine is dead. Heck, maybe it’s like Daddy says, I’m just an obsessed control-freak. No. It’s none of those things.

The school soccer field is ringed by a stately fence, wrought iron lengths between brick pillars, six feet tall, intending to keep bad people away from the students. Tonight it became our trap. Brad steamed toward us from the only opening on the parking lot side. Mabel bolted for the only other exit point, the one low spot at the far corner of the field. The fence follows the contours of a small ravine, dipping lower than the edge of the built up playing field. Jumping from the edge, she landed one foot on the brick pillar and continued forward, with three midstride stumbles, on her feet and running. When I followed suit, I quickly realized we had just run, full speed, into the darkest corner of Washington, DC — Rock Creek Park. Six miles long and a mile wide, five times bigger than Central Park in New York, the heavily wooded park stretches from the northern edge of Washington south to the Potomac. And now we are running through the woods like those losers you see in horror movies who leave the safety of the well-lit house to take their chances against a chain-saw wielding mad-man in the dark. Great. My cleats tangle in some stupid vines and I go down, face first. The ground, soft and damp from last week’s rain, cushions my fall. My nose fills with the smell of mud under damp fallen leaves. My hands shove deep into the forest rubbish, trying to push up so I can keep running. Before I get back to all fours, Mabel’s big hand grabs my bicep, yanks me upright. We’ve played soccer together for a decade and she’s always been the first to give me a hand up. She’s helpful like that. Always sweet and kind, always encouraging when the game goes wrong, always supportive when you get a yellow card. She backs me up on the field. No hesitation. Anyone who knows her could never be mean to her. It just isn’t right. And that’s why I wanted to help her. Mabel doesn’t give me time to point out the houses, a quarter mile up the hill, filled with people and telephones, where we could get help, call the police. Instead, she’s running downhill toward a fairly well traveled road. But I don’t see any headlights through the trees now that the park is closed. Maybe a jogger with a cell phone might help us. Or maybe we’d Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 15


scare the daylights out of them. I call to her, trying to get her to turn left, head up hill. She pays no attention. Should I go get help and hope Brad doesn’t catch her before I get back? I stand looking at the dim glow of safety up the hill, back at her ghostly figure disappearing into the dark. Behind us, Brad’s stumbling strides close the gap. Dang it. Can’t leave her alone. I push off, heading downhill after her. Mabel, our unfortunately named, and even less fortunately built, defensive-mid, is also our team puritan. It was she who banned four letter words from our mouths after our keeper got a red card for swearing at a referee. Not satisfied with our field vocabulary, she made us swear off swearing, even off the field. Now we sound like grandmothers, crying out SUGAR for a stubbed toe. So it had to be Mabel, plain faced with a body as solid, and featureless, as an oxygen tank, who would have boyfriend trouble. And I could see it coming. Brad was not the sincere type of boyfriend, not the hopelessly in love type, not even mildly enamored. My first impression of him was opportunist. He thought he was going to get somewhere with a girl often described as having a great personality. And that’s just wrong. I’ve loved her like a sister since we were five. She has a big heart and no one can hold the backfield like Mabel. A mildly handsome junior sporting expensive cologne, Brad’s convertible and his attentions won her over in a single afternoon. Sure she fell for it. It was the first time a boy had shown any interest in her. By the end of the week, she was heading for her first real date with high expectations. Twenty yards ahead of me, Mabel jumps something. I can’t see her, but I can hear her land in mud. There are only three eerie sounds in the woods: my feet, Mabel’s feet, and Brad’s feet, all trampling the fallen leaves and small branches littering the ground. The gap in the sound of Mabel’s footfalls indicates a jump. For a moment I think she’s using her head, making our cleats work to our advantage somehow. But no, she’s running blind, and I’m her only chance for survival. I turn up the speed, trying to catch up. The ground drops suddenly downhill as her obstacle comes into focus: a small stream bed. I leap, land on the far side in that very same mud, the embankment so steep that my hands grab a knot of roots at waist level. I stop for a second, hear Brad not twenty yards behind me. I scramble with new-found energy, my cleats dig into the slick banks and power me up and over the ridge. Brad splashes, stumbles, falls. The sound of water-soaked clothes dripping into the stream reaches my ears. Good. We can put some distance between us. His curse echoes through the trees. So does the sound of him, soaking wet, struggling up the embankment, slipping again, sliding back, landing in the splash. Now he roars his anger into the dark. I’ve lost Mabel. I look downhill, toward Beach Drive, empty except for a lone set of headlights that sweeps the trees five hundred yards away. No Mabel. Of course not; that would have been sensible, running to the street, flagging down the car. If she could even get there in time. On second thought, 16 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

what if the next car was a long time coming and there we were in an open flat that gave a boy in track shoes an advantage? My eyes scan up the hill, my ears pick up her crunching through the early spring growth. She’s up the slope and heading toward the houses at the top of the hill. Finally, she’s going the right direction. We need light, people, telephones. Mabel and I just finished two hours of soccer practice, including our Thursday night special: endurance conditioning. Meaning that we’ve left most of our calories spent on that field far behind us. Brad, on the other hand, spent the afternoon being questioned by Police Detective Liz Dickinson in a quiet suburban police station. We’re exhausted. He’s well rested. Mabel didn’t say anything about her date at Monday’s practice. That was curious. She posted nothing on Facebook or anywhere else for days. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure she’s been online at all since Friday night. Then, at Tuesday’s practice, the first water break, I saw something in her face when one of our teammates rehashed a big sister’s dating problems in college. Still a few years away, none of us can wait for the independence, the parties, the responsibilities, the opportunities — the unlimited varieties of boys. Stories of big sisters and brothers command rapt attention whenever they arise. Mabel was anything but rapt after the word date. She backed up, drank her water in uncharacteristic quiet, kept her gaze uncharacteristically earth-bound, her shoulders uncharacteristically slumped. I spoke to her, carefully, gingerly, sensing something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Pale and sickened, she was obviously recalling a painful memory. Of what, trust betrayed? Love that turned to common lust? Expectations unmet? She refused to talk about it. Until after practice when the two of us, like always, waited curbside for our ride. Then she unburdened herself. A fast food dinner, an empty movie, kissing in the back row, wandering hands, pushing back, heated demands, all of it ending in angry words. Not the adoration she read about, longed for, and actually expected. Preparing in the bathroom mirror, she had considered the possibility that Brad’s expectations for the evening were completely different from hers. She threw that kind of negative thinking right out with the loose hair in her hairbrush. For too long she had believed her mother’s assessment of her chances in love. Now was the time to prove everyone, including herself, wrong. She could attract a boyfriend. And there in crusty theater seats, the smell of greased popcorn clashing with her perfume, her whole imaginary world came crashing down. He knew nothing of respect. He cared nothing for her dignity. She had furiously staggered outside long before the movie ended. He followed her out, approached cautiously, seemingly penitent, and offered a ride home. She accepted. We burst onto a paved parking lot filled with government trucks, cold and dark since quitting time four hours ago. Our cleats clatter on the hard surface. Mabel, widening her lead, runs down the small lot toward a large tin building beckoning white in the overhead glow of ambient city light. I check


out one of the vehicles as we fly past, a truck with a horse trailer. Four of them in fact. National Park Service logo, police department. Maybe we will get lucky, find a policeman watching the trucks. As we round the end of the lot, I figure out where I am: the horse corral for the park police. Like the rest of the park, closed and dark. The horses are locked up for the night, the area deserted, but their scent is still strong in the crisp air: leather, mud, manure, sweat. Between the parking lot and the barn is a pile of junk; boards, pipes, chunks of concrete dug from the earth. The remnants of a recent renovation. A few strides farther we come across the paddocks and pens. Rounding the corner to the barn’s backside, where it’s slightly darker, Mabel finally stops, looks at me with pleading eyes. She wants me to solve the Brad-problem for her. And I know she’s right. I’m responsible for his rage tonight. We stand still, holding our breath. We’re hoping to hear anything that would tell us he’s going the wrong way or gave up. Instead, we hear the oncoming feet of an angry bull male. We have mere seconds. “Head straight out, fifty yards, then turn up hill,” I tell her. She nods. “There are houses up there. Bang on the door of the first one you come to and tell them to call the police.” She nods, starts to turn, stops, looks back at me. “Let’s go.” “I’ll be right behind you; in a minute.” She looks at me suspiciously and whispers, “Why? What are you doing? Let’s go.” Tuesday night, when she showed me the bruises on the inside of her arm, on her left ribs, and the finger-sized series of bruises reaching from behind her right ear to the base of her neck, I was outraged. She pointed out that she’d had worse bruises from legitimate tackles in regular season games. True. We’ve all had our share. But this was different. The geometry of the bruises was easy to plot, easy to understand the intent behind them. They were bruises made by someone with a sense of power over someone less powerful. They were bruises repulsive by their very existence. These were not gameday bruises; these were jail-time bruises. This was wrong. Just plain wrong. No one hurts my teammate and walks away. Or so I thought. Detective Dickinson explained some sobering facts to the three of us, Mabel, her mom, and me. She told us, No matter how strong you think you are, men, even smaller men, have greater muscle mass than women, not to mention a weight and therefore leverage advantage over women. That difference in base strength creates an almost universal difference of opinion as to what is feigned resistance versus absolute resistance. In other words, it would be a case of he-said-she-said without enough clear evidence to result in an arrest. We came to her three days too late. Too long a gap for forensic evidence to be plucked from the ether as seen so frequently on TV shows. We have nothing conclusive that could put the overly aggressive young man in jail. Detective Dickinson promised to bring Brad in to hear his version of events and to find some form of corroboration if there were any to be found. But she made it

clear there was little hope of charges being filed. Not good enough. I was livid. Mabel wanted to drop it, but I pushed the Detective, confident that Brad would confess his aggression and beg for mercy because of my accusation. A rash accusation, which I now see did not change Brad’s perception of Saturday night. Quite the contrary, he seems more than annoyed at our little visit with Detective Dickinson. He seems to think we sullied his reputation. Mabel was ready to walk away, lick her wounds, learn from the experience that she should never ride home alone with a boy, and let it go. I was not. Now, as the temperature drops and the frigid air freezes the sweat to our skin, I have to stand up and confront this raging teenager. My decision to pressure the police into questioning him brought us to this moment. Because I pushed the police, Brad now wants to extract a violent revenge for this insult. Making Brad my problem. But this time things will be different. I’ve had it with his male-dominated thinking about dignity, his reckless disregard for how he treats other people. This time I will not allow a victory for Brad. Oh no. This time, Brad gets hurt. Brad gets a taste of someone else’s power. I’m fivefoot-ten, one hundred forty pounds of highly skilled soccer muscle. Sure, he’s five-eleven, one-ninety. While I’m lifting weights, punching bags, running laps, he’s playing guitar in an upper-middle-class-white-boy-band pretending to be a ghettogangsta. Sure, he ran cross-country and plays lousy tennis. So what? I grind my jaws together tight, tense my muscles, heighten my awareness. Whatever it takes to do this, I’m ready. He’s going down. Brad’s cold and soggy footfalls trudge ever closer. He’s passing the Park Service trucks now, heading our way. “I need you to distract him, just go, straight that way.” I point and give her a push. “Then turn left, up the hill. Get help.” Mabel stands shaking her head from side to side. The footfalls stop. I put a finger vertically across Mabel’s lips and lean my ear toward the edge of the barn. Why did he stop? What is he doing? The sound of boards slipping away from each other combined with the clang of steel answers my question. Not good. Definitely not good. “Go!” I whisper tersely, giving her another push, while hoping he heard me. Mabel looks hurt, rejected. She backpedals ten steps, turns and runs. I edge toward the corner of the barn, my ears straining in the darkness. Sneaking a peek could give my plan away, so I tiptoe within five yards of the barn’s corner. Brad’s feet spin in place thirty yards on the far side of the barn, at the junk pile. He definitely heard Mabel taking off into the woods. On the soccer field we turn on all our senses to feel where the other players are, what kind of threat they pose, and how fast they’re going. I need that same tactical information now. I expand my senses outward, trying to discern his intent, his direction, his weaponry. My ears pick up nothing but the distant sounds of Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 17


the city, an un-muffled Harley a mile away, a dog barking briefly up the hill, another lone car on Beach Drive below us. Mabel’s feet running through the brush, echoing slightly in the trees. But nothing in that mass of sound tells me what Brad is thinking. His footsteps resume their march toward me, gaining speed as he gets underway. I’m trying to guess where he is in relation to the barn’s corner when I figure he must be almost around it. I dart to the corner in three quick strides. He comes flying around, almost smacking his shoulder on the barn as he rounds the corner. In the dark, my senses pick up the rusty pipe in his hand. About a yard long, it’s ugly and gnarled and dangerous. My foot swings out as if stealing an imaginary ball from an opposing player. I hook his ankle and slam my elbow into his back. His right foot flies upward behind him, his torso jerks forward, his hands fly out to break his fall. They don’t teach tripping in tennis, boring sport that it is. Apparently, they don’t teach landing either. Brad plows into the ground, hands first, the pipe crushing his fingers beneath his weight. Sliding to a face-down stop, his knees, palms, and knuckles rash raw against the hard-packed dirt. My momentum takes me three steps out from the darkness shrouding the barn. I instinctively look around to see if the ref saw me. Brad spins onto his back, leaps to his feet quickly, takes an aggressive stance with his knees bent. His eyes connect with mine in the black and gray world of night. He’s ticked off. “You forking itch!” he bellows like an angry bear. Well, that’s not exactly what he bellows, but you know how Mabel feels about foul language. Three years ago, some of my teammates and I took boxing lessons to gain from the weight and balance exercises and the core strength disciplines. I never fought anyone, never landed a real punch on a human being, but I still recall the theory. Stepping my feet into position, I put up my fists and give him a killer look. He might be bigger and stronger, it’s unlikely he’s had any boxing lessons. I like my chances. He raises the pipe quickly, pulls it back, swings it hard through the air. Three feet of arm, three feet of pipe, I’m four feet away. Whoa! Did not think about that. I backpedal fast, not wanting to take my eyes off him. His first swing whooshes through the air, missing my belly by an inch. The momentum nearly spins him around. He catches himself, pulls the pipe back behind him like a one-handed baseball bat. Before he can get it into swinging position, I burst forward again. Raising my right fist to distract him, I take two quick strides and land my right foot, the one that can launch a size-five soccer ball a hundred yards down field, in his crotch. Still have my shin guards on. One hundred ninety pounds of class-A jerk rises two feet in the air, lands on rubbery feet, topples to the left. His scream echoes from the District Line to the Potomac River. He clutches his so-called jewels with one hand, refusing to drop the pipe. He expends all the remaining air in his lungs with such violence that he can’t regain his breath. Winded myself, I bend at the waist, drop my hands to my 18 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

knees, sucking and puffing icy air. I stare at him. An admittedly evil grin stretches across my face. I nearly drool with pride. His eyes meet mine again, fiery and hate-filled. He staggers to his knees, then, unexpectedly pops to his feet. Holy crap! I thought that was supposed to incapacitate a guy for five minutes at least. Isn’t an all-star kick to the nuts supposed to incapacitate a guy for five minutes? That’s what I heard. So, what the heck? He’s moving more slowly, but he pulls up his pipe, this time holding it with both hands, aiming for my head. He staggers forward gaining speed and momentum with each step. Uh-oh. Time to take a shot at Flo-Jo’s world record sprint. I take off running up hill. No idea where Mabel went, no idea which house she might have already alerted, where the police might be headed. I’m just scrambling through underbrush as fast as I can go. Fifty yards out, I stumble on a rock or something, spin headlong into the dark. I tuck and roll, pop back up, slam into a tree. Throwing your full body weight and momentum straight into a tree trunk feels like getting kicked in the ribs by an elephant. I stagger forward, hear Brad’s footsteps, hear him muttering really unacceptable language, decide he was wrong for Mabel in so many ways. I pick up my pace. I crest a hilltop; see the houses another two hundred yards beyond. That last crash left me wounded. I feel the pain in each stride. I’m sure my left ribcage, an area as big as a hand, is skinned up badly. And Brad is gaining on me. I take off down the gentle slope. At the bottom is a wide low spot with plenty of mud. My cleats slip and slide as if I’m walking on ice. It slows my pace, and will slow Brad’s as well; I just have to stay far enough ahead that he can’t throw that stupid pipe at me. My feet slip again. I slow my pace further; looking for stepping stones in the dark, I see nothing useful. Finally, I find the far side of the mess just as I hear Brad discover the intricacies of mud. I hear the unmistakable sound of a body falling into the squish. Now is a good time to build that lead. Forget the aching ribs, I’m gone. In another hundred yards, I find a bike path and see the lights of houses. I tear through a bramble of thorns that scratch at my exposed knees and catch in my thick socks. Ahead of me lies the safety of my fellow human beings. Loving caring human beings. I hope. What Detective Dickinson implied was that men have a tendency to hang together defensively whenever women point fingers. Let’s just hope Mabel found a housewife or two to keep the mix balanced. As I run, I notice red and blue strobes flashing some ways up the road. The Police have arrived, but I’m going to pop out of the woods significantly down range. I hope they see me before Brad catches up with me. Something tells me he and his pipe are not going to settle down, police or no. He will need to be forcibly disarmed. And the police are too far away to supply the force. Behind me, I sense Brad making significant progress. The workout and the tree-wrestling have taken their toll on my speed. He might be thirty yards back or less. Working out the math in my head, the results are certain: I will not get to the


cop car before he gets to me. Not good. Not good at all. Bursting onto the street, the police cars are at least three hundred yards up the road. Their lights flash, their headlights shine, but none of it reaches my position. I race up the road toward them and hear Brad break out behind me. Because I’ve changed direction, he gains more ground by cutting the angle. Adding to my problems, my muddy cleats lose traction on the pavement. This has to stop. Time to take a stand, do something. It’s time to turn the tables on him and let him taste humiliation. He is an inch taller, has longer arms, a steel weapon, a fifty pound weight advantage, a lot more energy, and unrepentant rage. All I have is my intellect. Fair enough. Can I make it within screaming distance of the cops? Sure, but that won’t stop Brad from beating me to a pulp before they can stop him. My eyes scan the neighborhood for some advantage. To my left I see a house with an eight foot high retaining wall parallel to the road. A decorative stem wall, two feet high, juts out another fifteen feet. If I can get behind the taller wall, I can surprise him when he leaps the lower one and maybe neutralize the weapon. Or, I could end up trapped in a dark corner by a man with a steel pipe. Risky, but sometimes you have to take chances. I turn toward the wall and away from Brad. I can sense him changing direction again, losing some ground from the maneuver but making it up with speed. I leap the low wall, curve my trajectory and turn in a quick circle obscured by the retaining wall. A move we do every minute of every soccer game. I push my back against the taller wall and wait for my prey. His mind too filled with rage to realize he’s rounding a blind corner for the second time in ten minutes and might be well advised to take a peek first or at least go out wider around the turn. But no, his foot slams down on the lower wall, launching his body over the top at full speed. He turns his head as he passes my position, sensing my presence. Our eyes meet after he is committed to his leap. Too late to stop, too late for a defensive maneuver of any kind, his face registers abject fear. I jump two feet in the air, slam my left arm under his chin, hooking his neck, allowing his momentum to carry his body out from under him. He swings like a hanged man, suspended horizontally for a split second between heaven and earth. His eyes wildly search the skies above him for divine intervention. Sorry, Brad, I am your salvation. I slam his body to the ground and relish the sound of the wind leaving his lungs. In fact, he hits with such force that he doesn’t breathe for another twenty agonizing seconds. I worry I’ve killed him until he inhales with an ugly gurgle. I snap a quick kick to his head, smacking his cheek at the eye socket to make sure he wears a reminder of his sins to school tomorrow. All I need is one more reminder that

will last a little longer. Hmmm. Yes, I know what we need here. I take three steps back and retake those steps toward him as he rolls onto his side, writhing in pain, and slam my right foot into his mid-back right about where his kidney might be. From my boxing lessons, I recall that too many blows to the kidneys can lead to renal failure. Targeting the kidneys was banned back in 1922, even in New Jersey. I’m guessing one serious blow will not kill him. But it will make him pee blood for a few memorable days, without leaving any bruises that could be linked conclusively to my shoe. Perhaps he will spend his convalescence contemplating his treatment of Mabel in particular and women in general. Could happen. At least for now, with any luck, he should be incapacitated for a few more minutes. I leap back over the wall, waving my arms in the air and yell, “Over here. Over here!” Two officers on foot, Mabel, a man in a v-neck sweater, and a patrol car head toward the sound of my voice. I race to meet them, gasping and pointing to where they can find Brad’s carcass. Questions flow from the female officer, Are you okay? Did he hurt you? Is he armed? The other officer and the civilian take off and we follow at a quick walk. I shrug off my answers while gasping for air. After the others find my victim and create their own versions of reality, we join them. Brad sits on his haunches, hands on his knees, drooling puke out his mouth. Under the officer’s flashlight, his shredded forehead bleeds, he’s covered in mud, and his eye is already swollen shut. Huh. Looks like he fell. He looks up at me, ignoring Mabel, glares and points, “Her! She…She did it.” Holding up his bloodied hands, he retches into the grass at his knees, spits, looks back at me. Tears form in his blood-red eyes. “Assault! She assaulted me! I want her arrested. I’ll press charges!” The men look at me for answers. The women stare unsympathetically at Brad. I shrug, hold out my unscathed hands, turn them over to show unscraped knuckles, and back to the unscraped palms. I hunch my shoulders and contort my face into the universal expression, No idea what he’s talking about. I lean down, put a hand on Brad’s shoulder and speak quietly, “Y’know what I learned recently? It just doesn’t pay to make a rash accusation.” The officers give us a lift back to St. James where we grab our packs just as Mabel’s mom pulls in. We wave goodbye to the police, and head for the car. We toss our packs in the trunk, climb in, Mabel up front. Her mom asks, “And how was practice; did you learn anything new?”

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Jason Brightwell Jason Brightwell lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is a graduate of the University of Baltimore with a BS in Forensic Studies. He believes whole-heartedly in word therapy and the power of language. He is regularly haunted by one thing or another and is constantly searching for the right thing to say. His work has appeared in various journals including The Blind Man’s Rainbow and Phantom Kangaroo. You can find him blathering on and on at www.blatheranddrone.blogspot.com

The Concrete Whore I see her — everyday — she takes them in silently and lets them out quietly. And although she’s big and old and faded by time, they still come to give her some.

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Sharon-Beth Burke Sharon-Beth Burke is a ukulele-playing, tea-making, squirrel-feeding poet of student proportions. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and studies English Literature and History. She likes to experiment with paint, pens and paper when not writing glossy highbrow articles for SoundProof Magazine. She hopes to one day grow an adequate pair of wings, and likes to see strangers on trains reading her words. If she had to describe herself in seventy-five words, she would write [please return to start, and start again]. You can find her online at http:// animalizard.wordpress.com/ and http://twitter.com/sbethself

Fireland So I’m chatting with 22 m UK on omegle and realise in replying that I say FIRELAND, see, get it? F Ireland I leave the room I leave the screen the word is huge and burning and too big to put out like an ‘old flame’ or a belly bomb there are fish diving inside of me and my eggs cramp, I wonder how long, how long is the wait at the wayside of learning and how the hell do I translate, communicate, teach, touch, reach without my knowledgeable fish and without realising I have realised that this is not it, not what I get, or am given, for four weeks ago I was forgiven and the god of the immediate was a glance rather than hands that made and mindfully, fed and I was glad of this experience mine is not to wonder why but to know, not to impart but to grow, for sometimes in imparting we can harm, we can control without knowing we control that demon may use ‘over’ as tolls to slice and splinter and enslave, and no, that would not do you know, not now that I know what I do as you do not, for I have waited as I always wait out of habit, then came the world in a word FIRELAND

Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 21


Nancy Ford Dugan Nancy Ford Dugan lives in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio and Washington, DC. She has a Psychology degree, extensive musical training, a corporate job and an errant tennis forehand. Her short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Cimarron Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, The Alembic, Lullwater Review, The MacGuffin, Epiphany and Coe Review.

Spreadsheet Of My Heart First column: Boyfriends by decade Second column: Length of relationship Third: Method of breakup (e.g. Twitter, face-to-face, or through doorman) Fourth: Most romantic moment (e.g. made you mixed tapes with songs you, as opposed to he, actually wanted to hear) Fifth: Most annoying habit (e.g. mispronounced “forte,” purposely left voice messages when he knew you weren’t home) Athletic tics (e.g. runs funny with knees too high, poor sport when loses) Owns sports coat? Yes or No Secret nicknames given to him by your friends (e.g. Dud, Loser, Pedophile) Taller or shorter than you? Pick one Employed? Yes or No Prison record? Yes or No Has toolbox AND knows how to use it? Yes or No Soap user? Yes or No Insisted on Indian restaurants despite your objection to curry? Yes or No Name starts with B? (i.e. Brad, Brian, Brent, Ben, Bob, etc.) Yes or No Heavy on the cologne? Yes or No On medication? Yes or No (If yes, specify whether for mental illness, sex drive, all of the above) Mentions his SAT and/or PSA scores? (1 – never; 2 – sometimes; 3 – every chance he gets) Assumed incorrectly there was nothing you’d rather do than listen to him play guitar? Yes or No 22 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011


Chronic whiner? Yes or No Chivalry rating (1 — never lifted your luggage or held a door open; 2 — too weak to lift; 3 — occasionally lifted/held door, but only if your hands were full) Uses red hair dye? Yes or No Marital Status: Split cell to Never Married, Says Not Currently Married but you’re suspicious, or Possibly Married but you can’t believe anyone would actually go through with it Spittle forms at his mouth edges when he speaks? Yes or No Embarrassingly loud in public places? Yes or No Insists on seeing special-effects movies? Yes or No Hates his mother? Yes or No Most baffling comment (e.g. “I thought we could just be friends who have sex”) Summary: TOTAL number of cells on spreadsheet once information is compiled = 6,204. Qualitative Conclusion: You’ve dated way too many non-lifting, mom-hating, short men whose first names start with a B. Recommendation: Join a gym. Get a dog. Read a book. Go to chick flicks. Be your own cell.

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Andrea Dulanto Andrea Dulanto is a Latina lesbian writer from Miami, Florida. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University, and her B.A. in Literature & Women’s Studies from Antioch College in Ohio. Currently, she works as a freelance writer and editor and teaches writing at Florida International University. She has led creative writing workshops at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Her publications include BlazeVOX, PopMatters, Elevate Difference, Sinister Wisdom, and Court Green and other writing can be found at andreadulanto.wordpress.com

The Happy Dress

R

uth’s parents had asked her not to leave them. But she was thirty years old, and she didn’t want to drive through the upstate New York winters anymore. She rented a room in a two-story clapboard house by her job at the university and promised to visit on Sundays. Three other people lived in the house with her. Kate and Michael were together, both right out of high school, working part-time jobs and selling weed. Gary was around Ruth’s age, unemployed and on disability. It had been three years since he slipped on some icy steps and hurt his back. He used to work as the activities coordinator at the community center. Now, he plodded through the house wearing shorts and a basketball shirt — his gut slightly protruding, glassy-eyed from the pills. Gary’s bedroom was next to the stairs; he kept his door open as he watched television. When Ruth came home from work, she tried to keep her head down as she walked past him. “Hiya, Ruth.” His hairy, pallid legs stretched out on the couch in his room, his face lit up by the sickly light of the television. She nodded at him, but she wouldn’t stop. Ruth lived on the second floor alone, her room adjacent to the upstairs kitchen. She was used to the quiet of her parents’ home, where she had lived in the attic. Her mother said that’s why she had no friends, always strange and on her own. Her father would tell her mother to ease off, that Ruth only wanted to be alone with her thoughts. Nothing good can come from that, her mother would say. Nothing bad has come from it yet, her father would respond. But the kitchen brought everyone upstairs with their clanking pots, whistling teakettles, shuffling feet. It bothered her, not knowing what to expect from the noises out there. Kate and Michael fought over microwave meals at two a.m., yelling bitch, asshole, fuck — words that made Ruth bury her face in her pillow. When she went downstairs to use the bathroom, she could hear them making up behind the door of their bedroom. She sometimes wished she was back with her parents. 24 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

Gary often met Ruth in the kitchen. She boiled pasta as he poured his soup from a can. “My ex-wife works in the Engineering Department, she’s been there for ten years. You’ve been there how long?” “Five.” “Good benefits. It helps — we have two kids, you know? I’ve been out of work, so it’s good she’s got that job.” He stirred his soup and tapped the spoon on the edge of the pot. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette?” Ruth went into her room and brought out one cigarette. Gary had begun knocking on her door at all hours, asking for cigarettes. At first, she always answered, even if she lied and said she didn’t have any. Then she ignored the knocks on the door and felt guilty. But she barely had enough money for herself. She didn’t owe him anything, not even a cigarette. She ignored the knocks on her door and kept on reading Virginia Woolf ’s diary. For the past ten years, Ruth’s set schedule of work and solitude led her to believe that everything could be ordered into place. She didn’t always think that. When Ruth was twenty, she took courses at the community college, thought of applying to schools in California where it was supposed to be sunny all the time. That was the year that Eve, her younger sister, killed herself. They hadn’t spoken to each other in months. Ruth had never even seen Eve’s new apartment. When they were kids, Ruth would comb her sister’s hair and paint their faces with the stubby old lipsticks their mother had given them to use. Her mother gave Ruth an old house dress with red and purple flowers — the happy dress, her sister called it. Eve swam inside of a gray bed sheet wrapped around her shoulders. “Who am I?” asked Eve. “A princess,” said Ruth. “No.” “An actress.” “No.” “Who are you?”


“A witch,” Eve whispered. “A witch with a mouth...” She lunged at Ruth. “Full of spiders!” Ruth screamed and laughed and ran away, tripping over the hem of the happy dress. When Ruth wore her other dress, her angel gown from a Christmas play, she tied an old lace curtain over her head and pretended to be a bride. Eve never had the patience to finish that game. Ruth was left with rows of stuffed animals blankly watching her walk down the aisle. When Eve was seventeen, they had her hospitalized. The nurses tied her down. Ruth and her parents stood next to the bed as Eve fought against the restraints. She arched her back as if she was purging herself of venom. But her voice was almost inaudible, they had to lean close to hear her. “Get the fuck away from me.” Their parents walked out of the room, but Ruth stayed behind, staring at her sister. She was afraid of Eve, afraid of this body strapped down to the bed. But she couldn’t stop staring. Eve closed her eyes. “What do you know?” she said. “What do you fucking know?” Ruth found her parents waiting down the hall. As they left the hospital, Ruth made sure they followed all the exit signs, so they wouldn’t get lost. Someone pounded on the door to her room. Ruth hesitated. This request was more urgent than a cigarette. She found Kate, manic eyes, breathing heavy. “Something’s wrong with Gary!” They ran downstairs. He was on his couch with his eyes open. But his face was blue. “What happened?” “We were watching TV and when I turned around, he wasn’t moving!” Kate leaned over him. “Gary!” she yelled. “Go!” said Ruth. “Find a phone, call 911!” For weeks, they had been using pay phones at the gas station down the street — no one could afford to turn on the service. Kate ran out into the snow, and left Ruth in the empty doorway of Gary’s room. It was quiet, and she didn’t want to move. She wanted to pretend that the body on the couch didn’t exist. Maybe she could stand there until the ambulance came. Maybe she wouldn’t have to do anything at all.

Ruth glared at the hairy legs stretched out on the couch. But Gary didn’t move — slack-jawed, eyes open, blue. She knelt next to him. “Gary.” Ruth had forgotten CPR, that’s what she told herself. But even if she’d never taken the class, TV and movies could have taught her to tilt the head back, clear the mouth with her fingers, pinch the nostrils, and put her mouth on his mouth. That would at least be some effort. But she had to get close to him. Ruth stared at him, she got close to his face, touched his rubbery arm, nudged him. Nothing. “Gary.” She knelt there, did nothing. People had gathered in the hallway outside of Gary’s room — the front door had been left open, and Kate must have yelled for someone to help. Who were these onlookers with coats and hats? College kids walking up the street to the bars, someone from the bus stop? Ruth got up, ashamed, and called out into the crowd. “Does anyone know CPR?” No one said anything. Ruth thought of the stories where a person saves someone’s life and then shrugs off the heroics: I did what anyone would have done. She knelt by the couch. The breath was leaving him, and people had gathered outside in the hallway to watch it go. Please, Gary. Get up. It was Kate who pushed through the crowd — maybe the adrenaline had kicked in, and she let it take over like drugs, or maybe it was drugs — but Kate was the one who shoved her fingers into Gary’s mouth and breathed into him. Later, she would tell everyone that she had seen it on TV. Less than a minute later, the paramedics arrived to shove a tube down Gary’s throat. “What’s his name?” one of them asked. “Gary,” said Ruth. “Gary, we’re going to take care of you, alright?” The coats and hats had left the doorway, and the paramedics collected the prescription bottles from the floor, zipped them into a plastic bag. It was a comfort for Ruth to watch them, these bodies with purpose. They were in their element. She envied their latex gloves, their dark blue uniforms and machines. She envied Gary for being able to surrender himself to these capable hands. As she watched the red lights from the front door, Ruth’s body yearned to stretch out, to rise above the onlookers, the snow and houses and ambulances, to rise above the red lights. But she turned away to climb the stairs to her room.

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Fiona Ritchie Walker Fiona Ritchie Walker is originally from Montrose, Scotland, now living in NE England. A former journalist, her current work in fair trade takes her to developing countries where she gathers real-life stories about the producers. Travel and a whole range of working experiences – including chambermaid, waitress, shop assistant and a short stint gluing display boards in a factory in Amsterdam – help to provide settings for her writing. Fiona’s poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies, including the New Writing Scotland series, with her last collection, Garibaldi’s Legs, published by Iron Press. Several of her short stories have also been published. www.fionaritchiewalker.com

The Lima House We went upstairs only to show me the neighbourhood beneath the donkey-belly sky, stood together at the window with its yellowed tape, trapped tinsel. Books had been thrown in the corner of the abandoned room. How many languages? A first aid kit, door open, bandages in a neat, dusty row. Over the fireplace a clean circle. Pinned to its left, a calendar, all the months gone. Two lamps, a chandelier and on the landing, a stained glass boat frozen in a dusty sea. Down the servants’ stairs, a kettle sat on the rusted stove, heavy with old water.

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Laurie Sewall Laurie Sewall is a graduate of Northwestern University and has and MFA in Poetry from New England College and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University. She lives and teaches poetry in rural Iowa. Her poetry was a finalist in the Atlanta Review 2011 International Poetry Contest. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pinch and in the anthology This Enduring Gift.

Reading Celan At Night, At The Turning Of Summer Here in this stone-covered house I am handing out grief into cups — legs and arms into hands cupped to hold water, as rain pours over the roof on a dank Monday evening, tabernacle in which dusk never falls. All day dark into night, all night fog into morning. The hours are orphaned, glass in my blood. Sorrow of my ancestors hovers like sediment, liquid inside my skin, held in the husk of my mouth — and is not transformed.

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Meg Cook Meg Cook is a 24-year-old writer from Western Massachusetts. She is a recent graduate from Emerson College’s B.F.A. writing program, where she was published in Stork, a student run literary magazine. In addition to writing, she enjoys traveling, reading young adult fiction and playing her banjo. Meg currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she is at work on her first novel. You can find her online at www. girlwithapen.tumblr.com

A Song for Apples

T

he morning after you left me, I found Diana in the kitchen slicing apples. She wouldn’t have dared if you were still there. “Where did you find those?” I asked, even though I knew she had stolen them from the orchard across the street from our trailer park. “I’m just trying to help out,” she said as she hacked a red delicious in half with the biggest knife in the kitchen. Her small frame, small even for sixteen, looked strange against the kitchen counters, my oven mitts, and mix-matched dishes piled up in the sink. She was wearing thick eyeliner and combat boots, and didn’t look the least bit domestic. My tiny kitchen was filled with multitudes of crisp, white fruits, peeled and cut into equal pieces, their translucent red skins littering the floor. The trailer just wasn’t big enough for all those apples. She refused to do anything with them once they were sliced. She told me it was my job to be a good foster mother to Tommy because I was the best he would ever have. “That’s not a compliment,” she said, throwing the peeler into the sink and drying her hands on a towel. “I’m just glad he never touched Tommy.” I didn’t say anything. I just sighed and started gathering the naked, white apples and piling them in a mixing bowl. Diana left the dishtowel crumpled on the counter and secluded herself in the bathroom. She left the door open a crack, and I wondered if that was an invitation. My skin was sticky and sweet smelling from the apples. I pressed my hands together, as if I might pray, and thought how we never talked about you until after you left. It was still morning, but it seemed as if the whole sky was darkening, and I could feel something slithering beneath the trailer, begging Diana to let it in. When you left the night before, I pretended I was asleep, but I heard the heavy drop of your footsteps, the growl of your pick-up truck. You didn’t touch Diana, and I wondered why. You left a shape behind. I couldn’t decide whether it was 28 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

a good shape or a bad, distressing shape. I wanted to love it because it was your exact outline. When I rolled over in our double bed that morning, you had left it imprinted, just how you slept: on your left side facing me. The cream sheets held your form like a shadow; I could even see the bump on your nose. I could see your messy hair all scattered above you and how you slept with your lips just slightly apart. Your right arm was missing because it had spent the night resting on my shoulder. I spent the rest of the day baking every apple concoction I could think of. I made pie, then cobbler, cake, bread; I consulted every coffee-stained cookbook I got at Goodwill, each one masked in the looped ink marks of previous owners recommending one recipe over another. We couldn’t eat apples for the whole week, and the fridge was empty. Tommy was turning his nose up to anything Diana sliced and I cooked. I bought seven plump oranges at the corner store. I thought, Diana could make orange juice the next morning, and then maybe she would forgive me for keeping you around so long. Diana didn’t want to make orange juice. “Make your own goddamn OJ!” she yelled, and stalked off to the bathroom once more. I stared at the oranges, the leftover apple slices turning brown on the cutting board, and thought about washing the sheets. Then, Diana started screaming at you in the bathroom. She was telling you she would grow up soon. She was telling you she wasn’t at all like me. I pressed my ear against the thin wood of the bathroom door. I could hear glass shattering amid her screams. “He’s gone, Diana,” I said. “He left last night and he won’t come back.” Slowly, I pushed the door open. I began to tell her I would stand by her from now on, that I wouldn’t let him come back, but I could feel my voice break when I saw her neck. She had removed her normal black scarf; it lay lifeless on the floor.


Her skin was painted black and blue in strange alien patterns. I imagined your hands there and shivered. It was the worst she had looked in a while. She had smashed cologne bottles against the medicine cabinet mirror, fracturing the glass. I looked at her splintered reflection in the cracked mirror and imagined a Diana I had never known. A baby girl wrapped into a ball. A child with long dark hair that curled at the ends. I imagined the child laughing. “He told me I was weak,” she sobbed into the oval sink. “He said I would stay stuck in this damn trailer park for the rest of my life, just like you.” “Did he ever …” I began, and I could feel the trembling. It was only in me and never in her. I thought it strange that it was only now that I could ask the question that had been following me around for months. “No,” she interrupted, whirling to face me. “You don’t have to be jealous. He never loved me. He would never touch me like that.” She slammed the door in my face. The first time I saw the bruises on Diana’s arms, her thin lips swollen and misshapen, I told myself it must have been one of the boys she was seeing at school. It wasn’t long before it was obvious that wasn’t the case. I am not stupid; I just thought if I didn’t know for sure, if I didn’t say it out loud, it wouldn’t count. “Mommy,” Tommy’s worried voice echoed from the kitchen, “what’s wrong with Diana?” It was the first time Tommy had called me Mom. The word clung to me like laundry fresh from the dryer. “She’s sick, Tommy,” I said, without thinking. Tommy’s eyes were like cold water. They could see right through me. I thought I might get used to Tommy calling me Mom. The whole foster parent deal had been about the money. Some girls living in the same park told me it was a good way to make extra cash, because the government gives foster parents big checks. They told me if you don’t spend all the money on the kids, there’s no reason you can’t spend it on yourself. So, I got Diana three years ago, and two-year old Tommy a year after that, right before I met you. I never meant to be this sort of person; you weren’t around then to make me worse. The best decision I ever made was to tell you to leave Diana alone, which just made you leave altogether Diana would never call me Mom, but nobody has ever expected anything of her except for her to start cutting again and fly like a shackled crow into the dim fields singing to herself all night. I sometimes wished I could be like that again. Messed up and confused. Singing to apples instead of thinking about children that aren’t mine. Or shapes my lover left behind. I would wash the sheets, I decided. I put Tommy down for his nap, his body felt heavy in my arms, and walked into our bedroom. I hadn’t made the bed, and the sheets looked

crumpled, as if someone had shot them down dead. I will wash the sheets and make a clean start, I thought. I can’t sleep with ghosts. When Diana first came, three years ago, she brought some ghosts with her. I told her those would have to stay out of my house. I told her she had to shed them or she could try another foster family on for size. It was before I got Tommy and, of course, before you. I was stronger then. “What the hell are you talking about?” she was wearing a purple and black ensemble, the eyeliner dripping in thick coats beneath her hazel eyes. “This isn’t a house. It’s a trailer. Last time, I had a house. Where is my room?” That was all she wanted to know. People told me that’s all most of the teenagers want to know. I shouldn’t take it personally. She was fourteen and wore plastic beaded bracelets shining neon colors on both her wrists to cover the scars. It was more a statement than an attempt to hide. I imagined her living in a house. It wouldn’t have been a big house, but it would have been nicer than my two-bedroom trailer. I showed her to her room, and, without a word, she shut the door in my face. The next day, my pearl white bathroom was speckled in a deep maroon hair dye. The next month, it was bleach and electric blue. “Listen to me Diana,” I said. Our bedroom felt cramped with her there. The light was dim, but I could smell the staleness, the unwashed sheets. The walls in the trailer were short, making me feel trapped in my own home. “No more apples,” I said, gathering the stripped sheets in my arms, “Tommy can’t take it. I can’t take it.” She was leaning in the doorframe looking in at the bed, just a sunken mattress on the floor surrounding by scattered clothes, empty beer bottles and stacks of dishes. The filth of my room felt magnified under her scrutiny. “I thought he would marry you,” she said. “I just kind of assumed.” I gripped your shadow tighter, unwilling to let it escape into the air. “I thought things would just keep going like they had been,” she continued, “I thought he would keep sleeping with you and hitting me.” You hit Diana when I wasn’t home. I don’t know what you thought I knew, but I knew everything and didn’t whisper a word. “You don’t marry people who hit teenage girls,” I said, trying to avoid looking at her neck, feeling guilty that mine was so clean, so white. “If there is anything you should learn from me, it’s that.” She told me she hadn’t learned anything from me because I was weak. She told me she hadn’t learned anything at all in the past three years because I had made her weak. I tried to tell her then, that I wanted you to stop, that I told you to stop, and that’s why you were gone. I wanted to let Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 29


her know that somewhere along the way, I had started loving something about Tommy, about her. But the words wouldn’t form. Instead, I saw myself at sixteen, standing just where Diana stood, in the same trailer, surrounded by the same empty walls. I thought about what you told her: that, like me, she would never leave this trailer park. I grabbed the pillowcases from the naked mattress and brushed past Diana. She smelled like hair dye, peppermint and a little like you. The bruises creeping on the pale skin of her neck would be better one day, I told myself, and then this would all be over. Instead of deep purples, they would turn a sickly yellow and then slowly fade. It was approaching dusk when I came back from the Laundromat, and Diana was gone. She won’t come back, I

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thought. She hated me for letting you hurt her. We all thought we could be rid of you, but I have washed everything and you’re still wandering around our bedrooms, kissing our scars. I walked in our bedroom, my bedroom, and unpacked the sheets. They smelled like some generic scent, lavender maybe, but their warmth was already beginning to fade. I stretched the sheets across the length of the double bed. The lights were off, and I could barely see where the corners of the mattress were. I gave up and lay on my back, the fitted sheets curling around my sides. I could see myself clearly then, as I was when I was sixteen, standing restless in the same trailer park, one state over. It didn’t matter so much where people lived, I thought, they never seemed to change. If I had known you then, I wouldn’t have been as strong as Diana.


TigerLily Ernst Wonch TygerLily Ernst Wonch, originally from Illinois, has had a camera in her hand since elementary school. As in her writing, photography serves as a way to express her feelings about the world around her. TygerLily’s work is inspired by the simultaneous feeling of peace and loneliness in addition to the solitary pleasure captured in the people and events of everyday life. Her photography has been on exhibit in New Chemical History, featured in 63 Channels.com and in Growing Strange Magazine. Her work has appeared in Thieves Jargon, Sunsets & Silencers Magazine, F-Stop Magazine, Filtered Magazine, Phirebrush, Gapers Block and others. http://wgp.carbonmade.com/ and http://www.tygerlily.net/AwakeWithCoffee/

Homemade Stars

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Second Chance

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Broken

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Happy Birthday

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Cracked

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Guidance

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Oversee

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L is for Lonely

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Empty

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One More Cup

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Upstairs

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Cetoria Tomberlin Cetoria Tomberlin received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Berry College in the Spring of 2010. She currently lives and works in Rome, Georgia and is presently at work on her first novel.

Trying Too Hard I really tried to get your poetry. I thought people should get each other’s poetry if they were gonna be in love. I keep revisiting your spaceship analogies, but they sounded really stupid in context. I changed the line breaks and took out the punctuation, which made it cleverer, but I don’t think you were going for that. I wrote it backwards on the bathroom mirror but only found over exfoliated vowels and consonances. I considered translating it into French, but I don’t speak French. I tried to ask you about it, but kept mispronouncing words and mixing up all the sentences. Nothing made sense, but I thought that’d make it easier to understand. Mostly, I had trouble with your syntax, which didn’t surprise anyone, really. I slept with a copy under my pillow and prayed for osmosis even though I don’t believe in science. I really hoped you’d think I was cute and catch on that I thought, well maybe, we’d look nice in a photo album. We could skip pages if you liked, just glance at the birthdays and anniversaries or just the birthdays. I don’t know which you prefer, but I’d guess birthdays, if I had to. But I’m a really bad guesser.

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Assimilation I buried her in the clay years ago. The me I used to be. She didn’t wear dresses, but she really liked them. She was adorable; the way she spoke like sweet tea as thick as syrup served graciously. An extravagance, really; the way she smiled at everyone through slightly crooked teeth. You can’t imagine how lonely she made me feel memorizing silver screen romances, crying at all the sad parts; it was plain pathetic. She had a lovely way of lying. The trick was a modest amount of arrogance. Though I never mastered it, I was smart enough to be envious. She wasn’t great at apologizing, terrible really. Her face wasn’t fitted for sincerity, not the real kind anyway. Despite everything, I missed her. I spoke to God in her voice. I was terrified He couldn’t understand me, but certain He loved her more. Her, with that pretty southern confidence that comes from an unambitious understanding of what makes us who we are. Sure, she was prideful, but you wouldn’t have held it against her long.

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John Tustin John Tustin began writing poetry three years ago after a ten year hiatus. He’s been published here and there, and rejected ‘most everywhere. His sensuous poem, “Friday Afternoon,” appears in Lyrotica ~ An Anthology of Erotic Poetry and Prose from Vagabondage Press.

Pretzel Crumbs It’s after midnight. I kill the mosquito plunging her needle into my arm. She dies mid-suck. Selma Hayek in a pink nurse’s uniform stares at me from my television. I get up from the couch, woozy, half-hard, and successfully brush all the pretzel crumbs from my chest and belly hair with a single pass of my hand. And that’s as good as things get around here on a Sunday night.

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Thigh-High I like when your stockings are torn or one thigh-high on and one thigh-high off how that looks spread out over me and no lipstick disheveled hair and wild eyes confused aroused unable to realize or formulate or remember your eyes water and my heart leaps from my chest through my struggling mouth the shuddering noise and blurring movement the battle the conquering the inevitable collapse and afterward you tell me my lips are soft yeah soft like all of you eyes and hips and the rest of your slick butter body my love my meat my stammering heart now let’s get cleaned up and get dressed stumbling and embarrassed and come up with an alibi for how you managed to tear one thigh-high stocking and lose the other one on a drizzly Thursday afternoon

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Zac Hill Zac Hill is an author, poet, teacher, consultant, and game designer living in Seattle, Washington. He is a designer/developer for the card game Magic: The Gathering and a columnist for The Huffington Post. Before moving to Seattle, he was a 2008-2009 Henry Luce Scholar at the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A finalist for the 2009 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Award and the 2010 Flatmancrooked Poetry Prize, he teaches workshops on creative writing at the Richard Hugo House. He can’t get enough of the “Birds with Arms” Internet meme.

On Listening to Female Poets Read Stuff About Vaginas (while covertly I attempt to play Angry Birds) I hate the way that people write about having sex. Hips’ hypnotic gyres, mystical ululations, bite of incisor into fecund flesh, etc. I hate having sex. The slap of body on body. The profane sucking. Stuck wet vacuum. Every stain. The bathroom visits. The actively closed doors. The pained faces. The glitchy seizures.

obligation to create meaning from experience — which is the lie. The truth? In that same line I splurge on Charmin Extra-soft to wipe my ass. Worth every penny. Romantic? No. But in that line, where the man in the baseball cap bitches at the clerk who bruised the peaches with the yogurt in the paper not the plastic and the woman on her cellphone pulls her stepson by his earlobe as he reaches for the candy, I am smiling, because

The knowing we’ve both seen them. I get to come home to you, The waking up. The missing sleep. The needing sleep — which sounds so silly. The shame of silliness. The temptation to fart, which is resisted. The foreplay and the feeling, when what you want is work: the tedium of work, the earned joy, the symphony of strain and obligation. I want to meet a schedule and sign a form. I want to count my words-per-day. I want to sit in traffic. I want to sit in my Lesro chair. I want to sit in line for groceries with absolutely nothing to entertain me, no distraction, no lie, no

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and yeah I’ll burn the chicken from the package like I always do and shouldn’t, and you’ll call Karen and Jared, whom I hate, and we’ll watch football, which I love, and we will talk about nothing, or our friends, or celebrities we have never met, places we will never go, dreams we will never realize — and don’t have to. In these moments you are made of light. When you cry and ask me about the why of everything, I remember these. Read these, these moments of profane indifference. To be alive


is to swim in the dense sogginess of a gray Sunday. To stand in another line. To wait for the plumber to call. To watch a light burn out in the bathroom and unscrew it, feel its heat after it dies, marvel at the human ingenuity that led to its genesis, and screw it ineffectually back in. When I move in you there is no song. No melody, no wisdom in your body. There are sounds, and thoughts, and holes where thoughts are not. There is a you beneath me. There is wisdom in your you. You asked me once to role-play, and when that failed, to pen erotica. Okay: I’ll write a fantasy about a knight in shining armor who sweats atop his horse half-dreaming of a well-lit office and a comfortable chair.

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Shannon Barber Shannon Barber is a 34-year-old author from the Seattle area. She writes both fiction and non-fiction. She likes to crochet, pretend to be a photographer and often stares longingly at her purple French Press. She is not college-educated; she has a tech-related day job and really loves listening to other authors speak. Big friendly dogs turn her into a puddle of gibbering foolishness, and she knows it’s really not all that serious. Feel free to come visit her website and say hello, she likes that: http://shannon-writes.net

Still a Strange Girl

I

am a woman in my thirties and like many other women my age, my girlhood was changed; by the magazine Sassy, the discovery of bands like 7 Year Bitch, L7, the Gits and RiotGrrl culture. I have lived in Seattle for most of my life; I saw a lot of this culture up close, but rarely personally. I was too young and too shy to go out and experience the birth of angry girl culture, but the hooks were sunk. My desire was to grow up and be like Mia Zapata or Donita Sparks — I wanted to stand with one foot up on an amp, shredding on a guitar and screaming into a mic. I wanted to wear my hair messed up; I wanted to wear torn up baby doll dresses and Doc Martens. I was already pissed off, and in my heart I knew that those women, those magnificent women, were for me. This obsession was something I kept to myself, one more secret for my diary. It became another of those things that hurt my tender heart but, that I couldn’t say to anyone. Around the age of 13 or so, magazines like Sassy were still absolutely aspirational. From the pages of Sassy I began to develop many opinions that I still hold to this day. I learned an appreciation for all things DIY, I started to actively want to see beauty in a new way, and yet, every time I cracked that magazine or sat watching 120 Minutes on MTV hoping to see one of those women I loved so much, something was missing. I felt uncomfortable in ways I could not name. That tiny hurt was always there. It was the same hurt when as a very young girl I read about slavery and saw that no one but me looked to be upset. It was the same pain I felt when, as older children, I listened to other children giggle about how funny the picture depictions of slaves were. In 1993, I snuck away by myself and went to some kind of fund raising event to do with Mia Zapata’s murder. It might have been something else, but Mia was all anyone was talking about. Rumors abounded, there were tears on my cheeks as well as many of the other people there. I thought things were going well until I began to notice that no one was speaking to me. When someone did speak to me, it was to ask what I was 48 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

doing there. I wasn’t dressed like them, I clearly didn’t know anyone, and I was a Black kid. At that age I had already spent so much time justifying all of the “White” things I was into, I hated that I had to yet again. I tried, and I felt that I was tolerated. I wasn’t welcomed. No one hugged me, no one gave me a tissue, and no one else spoke to me. I left not long afterwards. Just like those magazines, I had no Black people to look at, I was too fat, I couldn’t afford the look, I couldn’t afford to go to shows, I went to a school no one ever heard of, I was too shy, I felt ugly and so out of place, I couldn’t keep trying. I wanted so desperately to yell and make a fuss about how I was not just some weird, chunky, little Black girl; I was one of them. That, I too, wanted to kiss girls and was confused about my upbringing vs. the values I was developing. I wanted to feel real solidarity and be in a group of Grrls with fists upraised and stomping the shit out of everything. I wanted riotous sisterhood. I was too young, too tender, and too shy to add my pain to theirs, to add my little voice to theirs until together we roared. My rage lived only in the diaries I kept. I read books, and I stopped reading Sassy. I started reading books by older queer women and men. I wrote more. I kept feverish diaries where I analyzed to death my reactions and interactions with people. Decades later, I am still angry. I tend towards all black and well-worn Doc Marten boots. There are steel rings in my face and fuck you in my eyes. I did not grow up to roar like Mia, Donita or Selene Vigil. My singing voice has more in common with Johnny Cash than Kat Bjelland, but I can’t play the guitar. I no longer try and explain the “White” things I like. I hold my position as an other amongst others with pride and defiance. I will not let go of the multitude of things I am just to feel solidarity. Solidarity doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. As I grew up, I realized that I’d rather raise an eyebrow with the words I leave in my wake than because I am part of a selfidentified alternative group. I still write. I write publicly and without shame. I am fat.


I am Queer. I am Black. I am a strange bird. I will say things that make people uncomfortable with impunity. I love. I am compassionate. I am unbalanced. I am full of rage. I have learned to smile when people squirm and become visibly uncomfortable in my presence. My tongue has grown sharp enough to shame grown people who should know better than to try and touch my hair. I learned that, even without the guiding hands of women I put into the category of Goddess, I could still grow up and be one hell of a woman.

Most importantly, I learned the most valuable lesson. You don’t have to like me, and I don’t have to care if you don’t like me. If your question is too stupid, the answer is my middle finger. I learned that I don’t have to seek solidarity to find peace and belonging. I still love Riotgrrl culture. I still love all those things that have put me firmly into the category of the other within the other and after all these years I found what I was really looking for. I found my voice.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 49


Pete MacDonald Pete MacDonald writes fiction and non-fiction, harvesting ideas from the rich, fertile soil of his odd and fortuitous life, including his current day job as a public defender. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Barrelhouse Magazine, Inkwell Journal and other literary magazines. He teaches fiction writing from time to time at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House and practices vipassana meditation daily, as a way to let go of the idea of one day winning various awards, including an Oscar for Best Actor, Major League Baseball’s Comeback Player of the Year, and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Portraits J

ust as the cigar-colored sky began to transmogrify into the gray light-haze that passed for night in L.A., my mother’s ’64 Chrysler New Yorker began choking to death on the I-405. It took everything I had to get it to the next exit. I managed to yank the beast into neutral, turning it down a long, steep off-ramp, running a red light at the T-intersection at the bottom, whipping it to the right to avoid piling into the cement wall straight ahead. It finally rolled to a stop in a deserted neighborhood of empty streets and forgotten warehouses. There was nothing around except a mattress stained in mercurial patterns of perversely suggestive pinkishyellow, and an old TV with one of its antennae broken but still intact, its screen reflecting the end-of-the-world quality of dusk dying into night in wherever it was I was. I pushed the heap to the curb, breaking into a piggish sweat. I ripped off my leather jacket and threw it onto the back seat. Skin-tight pants clung to my legs, from the tops of my silver storm-trooper boots to my hips. The hair glue that I had used that morning to keep my mohawk as erect as the spikes on the crown of the Statue of Liberty was melting like tar into the dermal layer of my head. I had no idea what to do. I had no AAA card and hardly any money. The river of freeway traffic churned in the background, ratcheting up my anxiety, making me feel as if I were about to be washed down the stream of a waterfall. In my mind’s eye I saw my girlfriend, Cornflake, wading in the shallows at the bottom, eager to see me impaled on a rock. I’d made a mistake with her earlier that day and was about to make another one. I walked around until I found an old bar called the Short Fuse. Its neon sign was in the shape of a bomb with its fuse lit. The bar occupied the ground floor of the only building on the block not condemned or otherwise boarded up. Twenty feet from the entrance, a stripped Chevy Impala lay naked, raped, humiliated by neighborhood predators. Hoping the Chrysler would survive on its own for a while, I pushed open the heavy wooden door that stood between me and what waited for me inside. I imagined what it would be like to have to break the 50 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

news to my mother, Vern, that there was nothing left of the Chrysler but an empty shell. I pictured her picking up the 9mm Glock pistol she kept stuffed between the couch cushions — the couch upon which she had floated, as if on a life-raft, most of the evenings and weekends of her life — and firing it point blank, hitting me just above my mono-brow, killing me instantly. I kept my sunglasses on as I entered the bar. Confutatis Maledictus from Mozart’s Requiem screamed from invisible speakers placed in many dark corners of the black ceiling, taking me back unexpectedly to so many Decembers of my childhood. All my life, every 5th of December, the anniversary of Mozart’s death, Vern played his Requiem Mass at full volume over and over again; it was one of many eccentricities that had driven my father away. Another was her undying devotion to Liberace. Still another was her devotion to me. I groped my way further inside, waiting for my eyes to adjust. The air-conditioning was set to about fifty degrees and for a moment my whole body felt like an ice cream headache. Above the bar a bust of Beethoven hung suspended in the air, scowling down at a sink full of unwashed pitchers and glasses. Beer-soaked sawdust and cigarette smoke smelled like the last few thousand nights of my life, playing gigs with my band in so many dives for so little money. Three men and a woman, each wearing what looked like hospital garb — doctors’ coats, covered in blood splatter — sat at the far end of the long wooden bar eating peanuts and watching a Dodgers-Pirates game on a gigantic wide-screen TV with the sound down, Mozart making every pitch look as if it might be the last ever, anywhere. As my eyes adjusted further, I saw that they were all employees of a place called Mitch’s Meats, the logo on the backs of their coats featuring an Irish looking guy with red hair spilling out from under a tilted chef ’s hat. He offered the viewer a variety of uncooked animal parts on a platter. At the near end of the bar, closest to the door, a bald young woman in round sunglasses — two perfect dark circles capable of accommodating any dream you poured into them — sat


sipping a drink. Her face had a bird-like delicacy reminiscent of Aubrey Hepburn, although she wasn’t as pretty. We made eye contact. That is, my shades made shade-contact with her shades. I felt a flush of recognition of the life force — oh yes, even after today I’m still alive, I said to myself. She smiled ever so slightly and sucked deliciously on a cigarette. My cell phone service having been shut off recently, I walked toward the shiny rectangle of a payphone hanging on the wall in the back by the bathrooms and called Vern. “No, Vern, I’m not calling from jail,” I said cupping my hand over the mouthpiece so she could hear me over the music. “The car broke down and I don’t know where I am. Can you call Triple-A? I don’t know the address where I’m at. I didn’t do anything to the car! Just a minute.” I read her the address from the thing on the phone. “I took the car because Cornflake is pregnant! Pregnant! I was on my way back from her place when the car broke down. She’s so fucking pissed at me. Hell no, I don’t think it’s good news. The Bottomfeeders need my full attention right now; we’re on the verge. Yeah I know: Grandma Vern. Yeah, I knew you’d love that. Right-O, Mom. OK, I’ll see you in a little while.” I stepped up to the bar on the far side of the butchers, close to the bald woman, but not too close. I was fed up with Vern always thinking I was going to jail, and disgusted with Cornflake for getting pregnant, and became preoccupied thinking about dirty diapers, crying screams in the night, and, once the kid was born, no sex for months. “Hey, hey, I know you,” said the bald woman, pointing at me with her cigarette. She gave me a sexy smile, looking at me over those shades with the tops of her eyes. If she had any hair she wouldn’t be sitting here alone, I thought. “Huh?” was all I could manage. “Don’t try to bullshit me with that ‘huh,” she said. “You’re famous.” Her voice was melodic, playful, wrapping around me like a lasso. “I’m not,” I replied. “I’m nobody. I’m waiting for a tow truck.” The bartender materialized and tossed a broken glass into the garbage behind the bar — crash! — and leaned a broom against the counter. “What can I git ya?” he said. “Vodka and tonic,” I said, reaching for the little cash I had. But Baldy grabbed my arm, her fingers manicured and polished, no wedding ring, no ring at all on any finger. “It’s on me, rock star,” she said. “Hey thanks for the drink, but really, I’m not who you think I am.” “Who do you think I think you are?” “I don’t know, but if I was whoever you think I am, what would I be doing here?” “Having a drink with me. Lighting up the Short Fuse.” I laughed at that one. “I’m Clyde Barrow of The Bottomfeeders. Nice to meet you.” I offered her my hand and

she shook it firmly. “You’re right, I’ve never heard of you or your band. But I’m buying you a drink anyway.” A few minutes later I sat across from her in a booth, intimate, exclusive, our faces lit by an oval red candle, its holder dressed in a sexy plastic fishnet stocking. I did not take off my shades, lest I spoil the remarkable effect I was having on her and she didn’t take hers off either. Her white V-neck midriff revealed her small, perky breasts to great advantage, and walking over to the booth I had noted a fine, shapely ass filling out her Levis. It turned out she’d thought she recognized me as a guy called “Flinch” or “Finch” or “Fish” or something, a member of The Hopeless Bastards, a band from Burbank. “I kinda like you anyway,” she said. “Likewise,” I said. “I like your hair — I mean your head. It’s so . . . round.” I felt myself blushing. “Well, I love your mohawk. It looks like a car-wash brush, except that it’s purple. Great effect. And I love that necklace.” I wore an effigy of Sarah Palin that Cornflake had given me for my last birthday. She had formed a noose with a piece of yellow twine around the neck of a six-inch embroidered action figure of the former Alaskan Governor in safari gear and a rifle, with a dead moose (an ingeniously altered miniature Beanie Baby) slung over her shoulders. Then she’d carefully broken the neck open like a Pez dispenser and placed tiny clay sprouts she’d made, which looked like miniature white asparagus, into the neck cavity, securing them with crazy glue. When I asked what they were she’d replied, as if she were a pathologist giving test results, “Stem cells.” (It wasn’t by accident I had stayed with her for three years.) “A friend made it for me,” I said, telling myself that Cornflake was indeed my friend. Earlier that day I had been at Vern’s fixing myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich when Cornflake called and dropped the baby bomb. Vern was at Lockheed, working. I had had no idea Cornflake had even been late with her period. I took Vern’s car — something I’d been forbidden to do since it was impounded when I’d gotten busted for a DUI on the way home from a gig last year — and drove straight to Van Nuys. Cornflake’s apartment building was one of those 1970s concrete box jobs, horseshoe shaped, with a swimming pool in the middle that nobody ever cleaned or used. A cement walkway flanked on both sides by dry, mustard-colored grass led to a couple of dead or near-dead palm trees drooping beside a sun-bleached, gated entrance. A white wooden sign on the gate, weathered and rotting from umpteen years of too much Vitamin D, told visitors they had arrived at the The Royal Palms. She was waiting for me, sitting on the steps, wearing the white prom dress she’d picked up last weekend at a garage sale in Glendale, now modified with a red silk belt and yarn animals — giraffes, elephants, cats, dogs, emus, a zebra or two Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 51


— she’d made in rainbow colors hanging from it like a charm bracelet. She’d also splashed acrylic paint, Jackson Pollockstyle, to the lower lace portion in the same rainbow colors. It worked, especially with her sexy laced red boots peeking out from below. Her crimson-black hair was piled high on her head like a sleeping cobra, in circles. “You did an amazing job with that dress,” I said. “Thanks.” We kissed, hugged, sat down together on the steps and looked nervously at each other. “Did you take the day off from work?” I asked. She’d recently gotten hired as a veterinary assistant. She wanted to be a veterinarian someday. (To see her comforting a sick animal was enough to make you fall in love with her.) “I called in sick,” she said. “I had a panic attack.” “Oh no. You need something to calm you down, baby? I got a few lorazepam on me.” She sighed. “I can’t take anything because of the baby.” She was the unlucky offspring of horrible parents. Twelve years ago — at the age of thirteen — she’d run away from home, moving to San Francisco with a thirty-six year old “boyfriend” who called himself The Oracle. His real name was Patrick Phipps and he was a fry cook. But he believed he was The Oracle. There had been no traveling circus for Cornflake to join, but if there were, she would most certainly have chosen that instead; she would have been the sad little clown with dimples. Now she talked non-stop about buying baby clothes, baby toys, having a baby shower. She said we’d better start looking for a place together before it was too late, before she could do nothing but waddle. The kid was due in January somethingor-other, eight months away. The only cheerful thought I had was that we wouldn’t have to worry about contraception for a while. I lit a cigarette. She told me to put it out. I flicked it onto a patch of the dry grass which began to smolder, smoke rising like distress signals from tiny Indians. I considered taking a couple of the lorazepam myself. “It’ll work out — either that or it won’t,” I finally said. “What is that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. Sorry.” “Shit!” She started to cry. “You don’t want the baby!” “I’m just not sure we’re ready for this, C-flake.” “Nobody’s ever ready to have a baby, Clyde. We just have to move in together and you have to get a real job. It’s not that complicated.” I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t trigger a nuclear-type response. “Don’t you love me?” she asked. I shook my head in disgust. “With all of my achy-breakyheart, Flakey. Duh.” “Dr. Feingold told me to avoid upsetting situations. You’d better be nice to me, goddamn it.” “C-flake, come on. I’ll be nice to you. You know I will. I am being nice to you.” 52 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“That means you’ll get a job,” she said, looking at me with annoying earnestness. “It’s time we grew up.” What a fucking nightmare this is, I thought. I had been unemployed for most of the last five years, making a little money here and there as a freelance tattoo artist and doing some yard work for my landlord. I had hoped that by now The Bottomfeeders would have provided an income — if not millions of dollars and superstardom, then at least enough for a life of some kind. I lived with the other four band members in an old guest house in Topanga Canyon. Our landlord was Jed Blackburn, the action adventure movie star. He owned an acre and a half on the southeast end of the canyon, living the high life in a much larger house a short walk up the hill from our fucked up little bungalow. He didn’t give a damn what we did or how loud we played in our sound-proof garage, as long as we paid the rent, stayed out of his way, and kept the grounds looking rustically unkempt. The thought of providing for a family made me nauseous, claustrophobic. I was only twenty-nine; I had a lot of good years left. “What if you — ?” I was going to ask her if she’d let me wait a month or two, give the band one last chance over the summer to make something big happen. “I’m not having an abortion if that’s what you’re asking. So you’d better decide what you want to do. I’d suggest if you really love me, and if you want to be a better father to our child than your father was to you, you get a job. This week.” “OK, Flakey. OK. I’ll get a goddamned job.” She looked at me for a long time to make sure I was serious. I must have convinced her I was because she said, “I love you, Clyde-O.” She got up and went into her apartment. I followed. We made love. She threw up. I told her I changed my mind about getting a job and she threw me out. “You’d better check on that tow truck,” Baldy said. I sauntered to the door as if I had all night. I ran the three blocks to the Chrysler. It was still there, no sign of having been molested. As I ran back to the bar, I assured myself that nothing bad would come from hanging out with Baldy. She seemed lonely, a bit desperate, and who hasn’t been there a time or two? I was happy to provide her with a little company while I waited. I asked her about herself. She had put on lipstick while I was out and I noted fresh eyeliner around her big brown eyes. She said that she loved new experiences. As she put it, “The way I see it, it’s like…Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to… Strawberry Field…You know what I mean? So what the fuck?” I had no idea what she was talking about, but two more free drinks later, I felt that I was indeed about to be on the receiving end of something wonderful. The Dodgers lost the ballgame and the four butchers gently slid off their stools, swaying out into the night as the Agnus Dei washed them out the door on a choral wave. A couple of black


guys in dusty overalls came in and sat at the bar. All these people have jobs, I said to myself. “Looks like Triple A’s not coming,” Baldy said. By this time we were both tanked. “I’m gonna be a father,” I told her. “Congratulations,” she said, lifting her glass. “Who’s the lucky momma?” She lit another cigarette, even though one was already burning in the ashtray. She put the first one out. “Fresh start,” she said with a nervous giggle. I told her about Cornflake, but it came out all wrong, like when I said that even after three years I still wanted to be with her almost every day. “So this isn’t one of those days, or what?” Baldy asked. Looking at her, the vodka doing its work, the music, so peculiar in a bar, so perfectly hypnotizing, I had no choice. I kissed Baldy then; we were all over each other, all tongues and tongue-studs and hands, hands, hands. She kept calling me Clyde and I kept wanting to call her Baldy, never having gotten her name. Then I almost called her Cornflake. “Let’s go upstairs to my place,” she breathed into me. “You live here?” The living area of Baldy’s cozy digs was L-shaped, with a two-seat kitchen table and a kitchenette on the short end, a futon couch and an orange, fake leather easy chair — probably brought up from the street — on the long end. There were lots of books everywhere and rows of black and white photographs on the walls. Several cameras and camera bags were neatly stacked in a corner. She went to her CD rack and selected something involving a sitar, cello and a blues harmonica. It was sensual; I thought I could smell tamarind, coriander, fennel in the music. It reminded me of a Middle Eastern restaurant Cornflake and I liked. Baldy extracted two Pabst Blue Ribbons from her half-sized refrigerator and put one in my outstretched hand. She playfully held onto the can for an extra second, tugging it towards her. Unable to understand why I’d allowed myself to stay there, I let that pass. What the hell was I doing? I wondered if Vern’s car was still OK. I wondered whether the tow truck was down there somewhere. I wondered if this was going to be one of those crucial turning points in life, one of those moments you look back on and say to yourself, oh, that’s what that was about. She sat down on the couch and sipped her beer, looking out the opened window at a grid of grim, abandoned buildings, listening to the music, her left hand suddenly softly stroking the inside of my thigh. I couldn’t stop looking at a framed photograph on the wall across from the couch. A woman was swallowing two swords in front of a circus tent, her head back, arms outstretched Christlike, the swords vertical, handles joined together, echoing the cross of the swallower’s body. “Diane Arbus,” Baldy said. “Wow, she sure had…swallowing ability,” I said. “No, the photographer is Diane Arbus. I don’t know

who the sword swallower is, but she reminds me of myself sometimes.” “Is that so?” I made no attempt to disguise the innuendo. Baldy laughed and got up to light several white candles placed around the room in strategic places, achieving a kind of meditation-room-slash-whore-house effect when they were all aflame. I tried to make my mind temporarily shut the door on Cornflake. “God, I just love your necklace!” Baldy said. “May I see it again?” I took it off, gave it to her. Our hands played a little as they touched. She laughed, delighted. “This is wonderful!” She put it on. Up my thigh walked her fingers. Her need for me was inexplicable. I kissed her softly, then more passionately as the music worked its way around us, Baldy’s hairlessness heightening my sense of adventure. It was as if I were about to fuck a monk. After we made out for a while, she climbed on top of me. I stared up at the sword swallower as Baldy unbuttoned my pants. Sarah Palin hovered above me, her stem cells peeking over her neck at me like little spies. I thought if Baldy was going to give me a blowjob I’d better ask her her name but I didn’t. Ten minutes later I was searching through my wallet for a condom. I hadn’t had to use one since I’d been with Cornflake because she was supposedly on the pill. Supposedly. “I can’t get pregnant,” said Baldy. “If…if that’s what you’re worried about.” “Really?” “I’ve got no ovaries. The doctor ripped ’em right out of me, along with the rest. You can come inside me and it won’t matter at all.” I wished somebody had taken out Cornflake’s ovaries. “But what about STDs? Aren’t you afraid of that? Not that I have anything. I’m clean.” “But you cheat on your girlfriend,” Baldy said. She gave a wicked smile. “You’re the first,” I said, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. Cornflake had always been suspicious and jealous. When the band went to play gigs she’d always worried about our “groupies,” a non-existent troupe of lusty whores supposedly out for the usual sex and drugs and rock ’n roll. And whenever Jed Blackburn had had a party up at the house — never with fewer than a half-dozen wannabe starlets, high on Ecstasy, skinny-dipping in his pool — she’d insist on me spending the night at her place. But I’d told Baldy the truth. “Well then, never mind,” she said. “I go by my gut and my gut tells me it’s getting late.” We wrestled from the couch to the floor, the strange music taking me further away from myself; I felt like I was dreaming. I threw myself into Baldy with total abandon. When we were done she said, “Goddamn, I needed that. Now let’s take a look-see at that car of yours.” Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 53


I sat in the passenger seat watching as Baldy sat behind the wheel, putting the key in the ignition. It turned over nicely, but failed to start. She turned on the headlights and lit up the dashboard. “You’re just out of gas!” she exclaimed. I felt like an ape. She jumped out and went to her pick-up truck, which we had driven to the Chrysler, and brought back a red one-gallon container of gas with the word “flammable” stenciled in faded yellow lettering on the side. I imagined the word “smart” stenciled on the crown of her head. “I was a fucking Girl Scout. What were you?” She grinned, pouring the gas into Vern’s car, which thirstily sucked it down. A moment later the car started. I was embarrassed, but extremely pleased. “I owe you,” I said. “I owe you big time.” I handed her a five-dollar bill. “No. You take that and buy more gas, you dumb ass,” she said laughing. I pulled her to me, kissed her long and hard and a little desperately. I knew I’d never see her again. “Come over tomorrow,” she said. “Actually, I can’t. I’m spending the day recording.” It was a lie meant to impress as well as to deflect. “With The Bottomfeeders?” “Yeah.” “I’m a photographer,” she said. “Tomorrow I’m driving down the coast, looking for people to photograph. Older people. You could blow it off, come with me.” “I wish I could,” I said, which wasn’t true. It sounded excruciatingly boring. Still, I found myself imaging Baldy as my new girlfriend: no kid, no possibility of a kid. “Well shit, that’s cool. Hey, can I take your picture?” she asked. “Um, sure.” “C’mon.” We went back up to her apartment. She asked me to take off my shades, asked me to think about what I loved most about life and shot a few photos of me, but didn’t seem satisfied. “Promise me those won’t end up on the Internet,” I said. “You’re lucky you’re not who I thought you were or I’d sell ‘em on Ebay.” Outside a moment later, a dozen Harley-Davidsons roared up the street in a V formation, ridden by men with big heads tucked into little black helmets. They turned the corner, decibels returning to normal as they made their way toward the freeway entrance. Baldy planted fingers in her ears as they passed. “Well, see ya around,” I said, putting on my leather jacket. We kissed again for a long time, more because of her clingy vibe than me. I was ready to get back to my life, even though I was scared to death of it. “Just in case you wanna see the pictures,” she said, writing her phone number and email address on the back of my hand, 54 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“you’ll know how to reach me.” Outside Vern’s house, crickets chirped incessantly. Her light wasn’t on but she often sat in the dark when she was upset, chain smoking on the couch, listening to Liberace. I wanted only to bring her back the car and to present her with a bag of ripe peaches I’d picked up at an all night market, hoping to restore equanimity to our relationship. The door was slightly ajar. I was startled for an instant, frightened by the threatening motion of a large circular blade, a kind of medieval chopping device, coming towards me. I let out a little gasp, but it was only the shadow of my mohawk on the door. “Clyde Barrow? Is that you?” Vern called out from the darkened interior. She was pissed off. “Yeah, Vern. It’s me.” I walked in, closing the door behind me, turning on the light, and there she was in her long white nightgown, sleepyeyed and well fed. A large pizza box lay open in front of her on the floor, empty. Her ever-present quart-size ashtray full of cigarette butts balanced on the arm of the couch. A pink thing that bore a faint resemblance to a robe was draped over the other arm. “Where were you? Triple-A came and you weren’t there. They called me. I was charged for them coming out because you weren’t there! I thought you’d been murdered or something.” She was yelling, and the vibrations of her voice and the agitated movement of her body threatened to knock the ashtray off the couch. “I had a little incident,” I said in the quietest of voices. “Clyde!” Cornflake came out of the bathroom. I hadn’t seen her car parked outside. She was wearing the cute little nightgown I’d bought for her at a yard sale, one with about a hundred Quasimodos sleeping on little stone beds. “Zzzzzz . . . ” was printed in cartoon lettering inside little thought-balloons above each of their heads. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. “Hi!” I said. “We were so worried about you! Your mom called me thinking you were hurt, or kidnapped or something.” Then she began sniffing the air around me. “Where were you, Clyde? Are you drunk?” “What do you mean ‘I had a little incident’?” Vern asked, her voice laced with suspicion. What kind of little incident, you bandit boy?” Terrified that Cornflake might smell Baldy on me, I stepped back, a fake laugh erupting like a burp, and said to her, “Don’t be ridiculous! What idiot would want to kidnap me?” I quickly lit a cigarette and then secretly panicked because there was Baldy’s contact information advertising itself in black ink on my hand. I thrust the hand casually into my pocket. “Put that cigarette out!” Cornflake commanded. “Sorry! I forgot!” I smashed it out in one of Vern’s secondary ashtrays.


“You forgot that I’m pregnant? You are drunk!” “Shut that goddamned light off, will you?” Vern said, her chubby arms blocking her eyes. “Answer my question, Clyde. What kind of little incident did you have?” “I will in a second. I have to pee.” I shut off the living room light, went into the bathroom, closed the door, peed. While I was peeing, I wrote down Baldy’s number on a piece of toilet paper and stuck it in my pocket. Then I flushed the toilet and began vigorously washing my hands and face. “You owe me big time, buddy. How did you fix the car, anyway?” Vern yelled through the door. “I got a friend to help me. It wasn’t anything too serious.” “Don’t you ever take my car again without asking me,” she said. “So what was wrong with it? What did you do to it?” I never wanted to leave that bathroom. The window was too small for me to climb out, but I fantasized about it anyway. I had not been able to come up with a story about why I’d not been there when the tow truck came and now I had to think fast. I dried myself off and burst out into the living room, making breathing sounds to communicate how relaxed I was now that I’d peed, and how refreshed I felt after washing up. I handed Vern the bag of peaches. “These are for you.” “What friend?” Cornflake asked. “You still haven’t answered me: what little incident?” Vern asked, taking the bag. She opened it and savored the smell of the fresh peaches. “These are divine!” “What friend?” Cornflake repeated. “Nobody you know,” I said, smiling too hard. Another mistake. “So why the hell you weren’t you there when Triple-A came?” Vern demanded, setting the bag aside. “What do you mean, ‘nobody you know’?” Cornflake asked. “Where’s Sarah Palin? What is going on, Clyde? Where were you when the tow-truck arrived?” “I fell asleep. I fell asleep in the bar. I think somebody drugged me and stole Sarah Palin.” It was enervating, this deception. “Hey, Vern! Did you know C-flake is pregnant?” “You told me that on the phone, Clyde. You don’t remember that? How drunk are you?” “What do you mean somebody drugged you?” Cornflake asked. She grabbed her phone. “I’m calling the police.” “No, no, no, don’t call the police! You ought to know by now the police never make anything better. They’re like a virus. Don’t worry, I’m OK. Nobody drugged me, exactly. I . . . I don’t know what happened.” I went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of water, taking time to get away from them, trying to think. I could hear their voices, low, conspiratorial, their muffled words penetrating the air like burglars’ whispers. “I got a little too drunk is all,” I yelled over the sound of the faucet as I washed out the glass. “I completely forgot about the Triple-A guy. I’ll pay you back, Vern. I’m sorry.” Walking back out, I noticed that all the light in the room was coming from

the waxing moon, shining through the living room window. Vern and Cornflake glowed like ghouls. I ached for a cigarette. “Well. Thank you for these marvelous peaches,” Vern said, sniffing the contents of the bag again. “You’re very welcome,” I replied. “I’m sorry about the car.” “That’s OK,” she said. “Now come here, you idiot, and tell us what really happened.” She hugged me, keeping one hand on the ashtray to keep it from falling over. “Let’s go out on the porch for a smoke,” I suggested. “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” said Cornflake. “I wanna know where you were and what you were doing before you two go out there and destroy yourselves.” “Right-O,” nodded Vern. “The smoke can wait, Clyde. We need answers.” She leaned back into the well-worn hollow her body had created in the couch so many years ago. The last Liberace song ended and the needle on the old turntable stuck in the final groove, the scratchy sound driving me crazy. I turned it off. “Hey, did you know that C-flake wants us to get married?” I asked cheerfully. “It’s about time you did. You’re never gonna do better than Flakey,” Vern said with great enthusiasm. “But now I think you’re gonna wanna go ahead and tell us what we want to know, son.” “And that’s another thing,” Cornflake said. “From now on I want you guys to know I’m going by my real name. I don’t want anyone calling me Cornflake, C-flake, or Flakey, ever again. I’m Genevieve. That’s who I am from now on! Genevieve!” “Genevieve is such a pretty name,” said Vern. “I wish my name was Genevieve.” “Can I call you Jenny, baby?” I asked. “No! Right now, you can’t call me anything. Maybe forever.” She put a hand on her tummy and caressed it. A moment passed. Nobody said anything. A beam of moonlight shone on the wall, spotlighting a framed photograph taken of me when I was several minutes old. I looked like Winston Churchill in his last days. I’d never understood Vern’s wish to humiliate me like that. “So. Right now, Clyde. Answer the question,” Vern said. “What question?” Vern cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted at me as if she were testing the echo in a canyon. “WHAT LITTLE INCIDENT?” I thought she might give herself a heart attack, yelling like that. “What little incident, Clyde?” Cornflake crossed her arms and waited. We all stood there as the night wore on. I heard myself break the silence. I sounded ridiculous, idiotic, cruel: “I met someone else.” “What?” Cornflake asked. “What? Oh my God.” “Terrific,” said Vern. “Just terrific.” “It kind of just happened,” I said. I hated myself for saying Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 55


it but it seemed the only way out. And I thought if I said I was “in love” my transgression wouldn’t be frivolous, meanspirited, stupid, meaningless. “I love her.” “You love her? You were with someone tonight and you fucking love her?” Cornflake cried. “Tonight, of all nights?” “I’m so sorry Flakey.” ”Don’t you ever dare call me that again!” She looked as though she didn’t recognize me. Her worst fear had come true and she was completely, insanely, hurt and angry. I tried to speak but couldn’t. I stood there shrugging, my palms turned up in the air, my hands visibly trembling. I finally heard myself say, “It’s terrible, I know. I’m confused. I’m sorry. But I want to fix everything. I’m really sorry.” Cornflake let out a shriek. “Vern! Tell him to leave! Please! I can’t stand to even look at him! I’ll kill him! Please, Vern! Before I do something crazy!” Vern calmly lifted the black and silver pistol from the couch cushions. “What are you doing?” I asked. “So nobody gets hurt,” she said. She emptied the clip, and took the round out of the chamber, staring at me the whole time in disbelief. She got up off the couch and put her arms around Cornflake, mouthing the words “Get out!” to me while Cornflake wept copiously. “You want me to leave?” Vern waved me toward the door with the barrel of the gun, as disgusted at me as I’d ever seen her, and that’s no small observation. I drove Vern’s car out to Topanga Canyon. On the way, I looked up at the Hollywood sign lighting up the hill in those white iconic letters — letters that had spelled misery for so many, myself included. Now I felt an uncanny sense of clarity about my life that had always eluded me; I could now confirm what I’d always suspected: I would never, ever find my way; I would always be lost and if I ever came to know the way, it would only be when it was way too late to matter. But at the same time, already gnawing at me like a Darwinian scientific proof thriving somewhere deep in the crevices of my brain, the image of Cornflake with a baby suckling her at her titty made me feel unexpectedly not lost. The night had become so confusing, so frightening, so disturbing. We would have to name the kid, I thought. We could maybe name it something fantastic, something sort of quasi-spiritual, like Mojoboy or Lovechild, or something boring and American, like Mickey. I got home and dug Baldy’s number out of my pocket. I had to get Sarah Palin back. The phone rang and rang, but no answer, no voice-mail. Had I copied it down wrong in my moment of panic? I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a tremendous headache. My mohawk was drooping, as if a sixty-mile-anhour Santa Ana wind had raged through it all night long. I felt 56 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

dead inside. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was crying. I was so glad that the other dudes were all asleep. Fighting rush hour traffic — goddamned people with jobs — I drove out to Vern’s but she and Cornflake were gone. Forty minutes later I knocked on Cornflake’s door at the Royal Palms. Nobody answered. I sat down on the doorstep, leaned against her door and fell asleep. I woke to Cornflake nudging me with her foot, each sweet little toenail painted a different, cheerful color. “Hey, fuckhead, wake up!” “Hey,” I said. My neck felt as if eggs had been fried on it. I’d always sunburned so easily. I hoped the kid would inherit Cornflake’s Mediterranean melanin. “What are you doing here?” “I fell asleep,” I said. “Go home, Clyde. Get out of here.” “Corn — Genevieve, baby. I wanna give him or her — our kid — a great name — I’ve thought of a couple. I’ll get a job; I’m not giving up on The Bottomfeeders, but we can still make a life.” I heard myself saying these things not even knowing if they were true. I wanted them to be true as much as I wanted Cornflake to tell me she’d decided to have an abortion. It was weird. “You’re insane. It’s not that easy. No way is it that easy.” “I’m not in love with anyone else, Cornflake. I’m really not.” She looked at me, that scientific observer’s gaze scrutinizing me with clinical precision. “But you didn’t lie about being with someone else did you?” I thought long and hard about how to answer that. “It was just a stupid mistake.” She began fidgeting for her keys. “You . . . you punk-ass idiot!” “I’m sorry, C-flake — Jenny — Genevieve, I mean.” “What do you want me to say?” She looked at me with disgust, her sunglasses mercifully hiding from me the degree of hatred that must have been in her eyes. “What do you think I want to say right now? You are a child, Clyde. A child in a man’s body. I wouldn’t let my baby anywhere near a shitbird like you!” “I’m sorry, goddamn it. I fucked up. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. I’m apologizing. Please.” “Go away!” She began to cry, pushing me away when I put my hand on her shoulder. “Get the fuck away!” I drove the Chrysler away, not knowing whether she’d ever forgive me, or whether I’d ever have another moment of clarity like I’d had last night. Was I still a child? I didn’t know. What I did know was that I didn’t feel like anybody’s father, or anybody’s lover, or anybody’s son. Baldy’s neighborhood was not much more welcoming in the daylight and it still depressed me. I drove around looking


for her truck but there was no sign of it. I walked into the Short Fuse. There was no Mozart this time. The place was quiet and empty except for one lonely old man at the bar leaning into a cocktail, his wispy, thin gray hair hanging like cobwebs from his head. The bartender, a tattooed hipster wearing half a dozen earrings and a Hare-Krishna pony tail, looked at me as if I were a ghost. I described Baldy to him and asked him if he knew her. “What’s her name?” “I don’t know. She lives upstairs,” I said. “She’s a photographer.” “I’m drawing a blank. How about you, Oswald?” he asked the old man. “You know a bald photographer who lives upstairs?” He obviously thought the old man would deny knowing her to me. After all, who the fuck was I? But the old man nodded, took a drink of whatever it was he was drinking and looked at me. “You’re talking about Rachel. She took pictures of me that are gonna be in a book. She calls ‘em portraits. I call ‘em pictures, but she calls ‘em portraits. She’s gonna put ‘em in a book. That’s right. Wait around here long enough she’ll show up because she’s gonna show me the book when it’s ready. A book of portraits of people like me.” “What do you mean, people like you?” I asked him. “The way Rachel put it, it’s pictures — portraits — of people who laugh. At life. At the way things go. That’s me. I laugh at the way things go. Don’t I?” he asked the bartender. The bartender just nodded and poured some whiskey into his glass. The book sounded hokey as all hell. People who laugh at the way things go. In other words, it was a book about imbeciles.

But I thought I’d humor the poor old bastard; I had nothing else to do. “Can you pour me some of that?” I asked the bartender. I turned to Oswald. “Can you tell me more about that? Because I think I spend way too much time taking myself too seriously.” Oswald looked at me with contempt. The transformation was instantaneous. “Do I look like a goddamned philosopher? Do you think I give a damn about how you see yourself ? I don’t know anything about anything.” The bartender brought my glass of whiskey over. I gave him my last five bucks, drank the whiskey down in two gulps. “That makes two of us,” I said to the old man and walked out. Before heading back to drop the car off at Vern’s I stuck a note into Baldy’s downstairs door: I gave her my phone number and asked her to call me because I needed Sarah Palin back, that my life depended on getting her back, and that with all due respect I would prefer not to be a part of her book, if that’s what she was thinking of doing with the portraits. Two days later I heard from her. I borrowed Vern’s car again and Baldy met me outside the Short Fuse where she gave back Sarah Palin (still an intact effigy), and she also gave me copies of the photos she’d taken of me, assuring me that I needn’t worry about them being included in her book. “Thanks,” I said. There were four of them and in every one I looked a lot older than I had felt that night. “It was fun meeting you,” she said. “I hope it all works out for you.” “Same here.” She went into the bar and I got into the Chrysler, started the engine, and hung Sarah Palin from the rear view mirror before driving out to Van Nuys to find Cornflake.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 57


Leyre Bastyr Leyre Bastyr is a student majoring in Spanish and English and minoring in West European Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has always enjoyed reading and has a great appreciation of poetry and novels. She is also a soccer fanatic, and is either watching FC Barcelona or playing the sport. She has been playing piano for thirteen years, and has a deep respect for those who can express themselves through music. She is currently studying abroad in Spain, where she hopes to establish a life in the future.

Finding Inspiration When she dances, pure bliss to the imagination, only light tapping footfalls in the cavernous, mirrored room. She dips, she twirls and the world would have its eye on her, if only the world knew she danced in that cavernous room. Single movements join to concoct genius, a phrase is created through a curving back, that arching kick a staccato. A hum filters into the air, twining ‘round stepping feet and lifting into sweet melody, flitting to the silent corners. She comes to a stop at the hollow corner tucked in with a mute, lonely piano. The fall onto the stool is graceful almost like an afterthought. A pause so slight, then hands flow across the keys. Sound wraps itself around her thin waist; she leans back into her lover’s arms. To be alone is surely blissful to the mind, serene for the body. But a lover, an inspiration, is heavenly for the soul.

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Emily Severance Emily Severance teaches elementary special education in New Mexico. She has a BA from The University of Michigan and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has had poems accepted by Breadcrumb Scabs, Defenestration, Muddy River Poetry Review, Puffin Circus, and Sisyphus.

Double Agent

Ta-Da

The Intelligence agents have been peering in my window again (following me around town.)

In the event of my death, please notify my mistakes they’re on their own.

I think they might be suspicious of my communiqués with the moon.

No more will be engendered to keep them company, join their corps, provide reinforcements. One advantage:

I whisper to the gas pump “Keep a low profile.”

as memories of me fade, so will the recollections of all I’ve done wrong. My collection of errors

Empty the water balloons. Tap the change of plans on the alien scar above my tailbone.

will weather faster than a tombstone. No more faults, fouls or mishaps. I bid them all good-bye. Carve my epitaph deep:

Time to switch sides?

So Long S-u-k-e-r-s!

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Max Lockwood Max Lockwood writes songs and poetry about what it means to be fully human in the cascading tumult of industrial civilization’s demise. He lives out of his station wagon (essentially) in the conservative hotbed of Grand Rapids, MI, where he plays in the folk rock band Big Dudee Roo (www.bigdudeeroo.com). He tries to encourage people to find new ways to resist the dominant culture’s lies, subjugation and ecological destruction, and in so doing, stumble upon their own humanity.

The Big Bang(s) Shoot me a wish. Send it flailing across the nighttime, light-polluted sky. No, even better. Use a blunderbuss. Pack it tightly with every extraneous desire that ever was. From a child’s imagination a raven’s deception an elderly woman’s eternity a tentative lover’s touch a sunset beckoning twilight into its mouth a river meeting the sea and a drop of rain at its source a fork impaling a bite of ham an earlobe sinking with age a grandmother’s last sip of alcohol. Pack all these things in as tightly as you can manage. Fill the blunderbuss with gunpowder. Make sure it’s enough — I want to see a real BLAST! Light it well and hold it steady. Thank you. Maybe now we can catch a glimpse of each moment’s brilliance. Shattering the darkness in our eyes.

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Dylan Gilbert Dylan Gilbert spent many years in New York City working as an actor in everything from performance art to Shakespeare. He now lives with his wife and teenage son in New York’s Hudson Valley. His fiction has recently appeared in The Westchester Review, Pearl, Slow Trains, Red Fez, and others. His website is http://dylansstories. weebly.com/.

Writers’ Workshop

“I

lean against the cold cement wall, slowly sliding down, my back starting to burn. My ass hits cement and the gun in my hand clanks against the floor.” Clayton paused, cleared his phlegmy throat a few times and glanced around the space, an elementary school classroom used for adult education in the summer. Then his eyes wandered back to the manuscript. “I stare at the ghostly cobwebs strung in strands and clumps on the back wall, my eyes half shut and blurred. I begin to see the curve of her cheek bone in those webs, the slant of her nose. Even in the bowels of hell, she haunts me!” Clayton stopped again, looking up from the manuscript, his face twisted as if he was experiencing the same torment as the character in his story. I gave him a nod, encouraging him to keep going. He rubbed his palms across his scraggly beard and continued. “‘Get out of my brain!’ I cry. ‘Out!’ I grab a rodent-gnawed box lying beside me and hurl it at the webs. ‘I’ll get you out of my head, my motherfucking head!’ I shout. I maneuver the clip from my front pocket and shove it into the butt of the gun. I raise it slowly to my mouth. It clacks against my teeth and tastes like oil and grit. My trembling hand squeezes the trigger. The bullet blasts through my brain and out the back of my skull, splattering the wall with blood and brain. I slump sideways. ‘Who’s laughing now, Loretta?’ I cry out. Then all turns to black.” He looked up, his eyes wide, his face even more gaunt than usual. My classmates looked at him uncertainly, shifting in their plastic chairs and taking quick glances at one another. “That’s it,” said Clayton. “Wow,” said the teacher, a mousy 24-year-old with an MFA in creative writing from Cornell. “Let’s go around the room and give Clayton some feedback.” She forced a smile and looked to Lorelei, an empty-nester trying to write a romance novel. “Well,” said Lorelei, “I was a bit confused at the end.” “How so?” said Clayton. “He died, right?”

“Yeah, he put a .44 Magnum in his mouth and blasted his brains out.” “It’s just, how does he know blood is splattering on the back wall if he’s dead?” “Maybe he’s a spirit,” said Dirwin, long-haired and reeking of clove cigarettes. “But if he were a spirit, the story wouldn’t end there, it’d have to continue,” said Will, long, lean and published. “He’s not a spirit. I’ll clean that up,” said Clayton, jotting a few notes in his journal. “I’d like to comment on the language too,” said Will. “Yeah?” said Clayton. “It’s overwritten. Too many adverbs and adjectives. Let the nouns and verbs tell the story.” Clayton stared at Will, a grimace edging into his features. “Like in the first page, you say he slapped his grandpa hard. Duh? It’s a slap. It’s inherently hard, so it’s best to cut the adjective. Or at least use a less obvious adjective.” “Yeah,” added Dirwin, “like an ugly slap, a loving slap.” “‘A loving slap?’“ said Clayton. “Or just a slap,” said Will. “Boil it down to its essence. You know, you should take a look at some Carver.” A bead of sweat trickled down one of Clayton’s sideburns. “Carver?” “Raymond Carver, the master of short stories,” beamed Lorelei. “Yes, that’s what you need, a heavy dose of Carver. That’s Doctor Will’s prescription,” said Will. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” added Dirwin. Clayton looked around the room, distress creeping into his face, and I started to feel for him. “Eh, Carver’s overrated,” I said. Everyone except Clayton looked at me with horrified faces. Will lifted two fingers over his head and shot them right at me. “Sacrilege!” he said, a big smile on his weasel-like face, but his eyes were burning. “Sorry, I just think maybe his stuff is a little too boiled Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 61


down. Nothing really happens in Carver.” “Everything happens in Carver,” said Will. “It’s just between the lines.” “I’m just saying, I don’t really get him. ‘A man and a woman lived in a house, they drank beer, they moved.’ So what?” “Just for the sake of time we should continue,” squeaked the teacher. “Well, my issue with the story,” said Dirwin, playing with a Rubik’s Cube he found in his desk, “is that the main character isn’t sympathetic, you know? He’s not very likable.” “He’s in a suicidal depression,” said Clayton. “I know, but I didn’t care about him. Even when he kills himself, I was like, whatever. If you make us like him, we won’t want him to die.” “But how?” “How?” Dirwin looked to Will, then Lorelei. “Maybe show a good side to him, like he has a pet he loves,” said Lorelei. “Where would I put a pet in the story?” “How about he feeds a stray cat in the old warehouse. People who take care of needy animals — very likable,” responded Lorelei. “But then he can’t kill himself,” said Dirwin. “Then he’s leaving the cat. Then we really hate him.” Clayton’s eyes darted from one to the other, his neck sinking into his shoulders. “Make him live!” said Lorelei. “Helping the cat brings purpose to his life and he decides not to kill himself.” “He has to kill himself,” said Clayton. “It’s called ‘A Date with My Magnum.’” “So he calls the date off,” suggested Lorelei. Clayton’s face was tight, his teeth clenched. “I don’t see him as a cat kind of guy.” “No feedback from the writer,” chirped the teacher. “Can I go now?” I said. The teacher nodded. “First, I didn’t think the character was so unsympathetic.” I was lying my ass off, but I just wanted to give the guy a break. Plus, if he went postal, maybe he’d spare me. “I understand he is in deep despair and is not himself when he slaps his grandpa. I feel for him in a way.” “Thanks,” Clayton said under his breath. “Really?” said Will, as if I’d just said I eat babies. “Yeah, really. I also like some of the language.” And I meant it. Better than the garbage I’d been writing lately. “You took some chances, maybe it doesn’t all work, but you had some really vivid imagery, like the description of the whiskey burning his throat and even seeing Loretta’s face in the spider webs — that was cool.” After class I walked into the bathroom, a row of urinals with yellow disinfectant cakes at the bottom. I was taking a whiz when Clayton walked in and pulled up in the stall beside 62 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

me. We nodded. He looked at me as we peed, his face taut like he wanted to say something. “A little rough in there, huh?” I said. “They just don’t get my work.” “Yeah.” “I’m trying to make art and they’re blabbing about fucking adverbs!” “Yeah,” I said, zipping up so I could make a quick getaway. The last thing I wanted was to get caught up in this dude’s personal drama. “I mean, the guy’s about to take his own life, to off himself, and they’re talking about feeding a fucking cat!” “Yeah, it sucks,” I said, washing my hands. “They just don’t get me. But you, you do.” “Well, you know,” I said in the back of my throat. “Anyway, take care.” I pushed the door open, but he grabbed my arm. “Wait! I was thinking, how about we bail on these clowns and form our own writing group.” A minor panic shot through my body. I remembered the time I was nice to this guy, Bernard Hensel, from my accounting firm. Everyone despised him, and though he was kind of peculiar and smelled of fish, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to be nice to the guy. It was fine till he got fired and started calling me drunk and weeping at all times of the night. I tried to escape his midnight rants for months till I finally changed my phone number. “I think I’m going to stick it out a while,” I told Clayton. “What, you like this crap?” “It’s okay. Well, take care,” I said as I pushed the door open. “Wait!” he said, grabbing me again. “I have another manuscript, something I’ve been working on. Do you mind looking at it? It’s just, you get me, my writing. I can’t show it to them. “Uh, okay.” He started digging through his backpack, pulling out various items: a bag of roll your own tobacco, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, a power drill. I was just waiting for the human finger. He pulled out a manuscript the size of a New York City phone book. “Here, buddy. And thanks.” He locked my hand in his moist grip and shook. “This is kind of long.” “It’s not so bad, double spaced.” I flipped through it. Double-sided, no freaking margins. “All right, I’ll start it and bring it back next week.” “Don’t bother. I’m not coming back. I can’t deal with these simpletons. What’s your cell?” I thought to give him a fake number, but how could I? He might just come to the class and find me, so I told him. “Cool, I’ll call you in a few days, see what you think.” I was scrambling for an excuse to keep him from calling — a medical condition, a sick child, a paranoid wife. We walked out of the bathroom. “Which way you going?”


he asked. “South,” I lied. “Hey, me too.” Oh, brilliant, now I had to walk the wrong way. We went down the stairs together. “It’s so fucking awesome to find a buddy who gets my work. This is great!” he said, his voice echoing in the stairwell. “Listen, Clayton,” I said at the bottom of the stairs, “I might not have so much time to read this and talk and stuff.” He locked his eyes on mine, the cords in his neck tightening. “Really?” “Yeah, I got a sick kid at home,” I said, lying my ass off. The closest I had ever come to having a kid was watching the class guinea pig for a summer in third grade. “What’s wrong with the kid?” he asked, his eyes darkening. I’d had enough and realized I needed a broad stroke here. I had just read an article about the prevalence of peanut allergies

in children. “Allergies. My daughter has life-threatening allergies.” Clayton gripped both my shoulders in his hands and drilled me with his eyes. “Dude, I’m a survivor of severe childhood allergies. If I ate a peanut right now my head would blow up to the size of a watermelon and you’d have to stab me in the thigh with an Epi-Pen.” I pondered whether I’d do it. “I want to meet your kid. I could give her hope.” “Well, sure, okay.” “The story I gave you is all about my battle with childhood allergies! It’ll be an education for you,” he said as we headed south. During the walk I told Clayton all about the trauma of my little girl suffering with allergies: peanuts, strawberries, cats — which really broke her heart as she was an animal lover. It was possibly my best story ever.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 63


Samantha Sigler Samantha Sigler is a writer and a recent graduate with a BFA in creative writing and film studies from Chapman University, Orange, California. A native of Colorado, she now currently resides in Kansas City as a freelance writer. She has recently been published in All Things Girl, and Six Sentences. She is a coffee addict and enjoys traveling with a personal goal of visiting every state in the United States at least once in her lifetime. She is currently working on a young adult novella and a screenplay.

My Superman

T

wo days passed before they found him. I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee and eating Cheerios when I got the phone call. The police wanted me to come down to the morgue. A body had been found. They said that they found my name in his address book. I was his sister, but I didn’t recognize the name and it sounded like it was some closet crack-dealer who gave himself the axe before the cops found him. It was probably a mistake. Another woman out there with my name lost her brother. Not me. But I went anyway out of civic duty. The last Thanksgiving we spent together was at our parents’ house while I was still in college. He broke the news that he was getting married that spring. He was also going to start his own business as a consultant for small companies. My mother liked the idea of potentially having grand-babies to babysit. My father thought it was a wise business move for my brother; people would always pay big money for advice. I was fine with it all, until he told me that he wouldn’t be able to make my graduation. The wedding would be the week after and across the country. There would be too many last minute details. Both of my parents understood his difficulty, but I didn’t. I screamed at him for being a lousy brother and I cried into my pillow the rest of the night. This was important to me, and I wanted him to be there. Couldn’t somebody else pick-up the slack for him? Doesn’t blood come before everything else? He did come to my graduation, but it didn’t really change things. I felt that he came out of guilt rather that really wanting to be there. And there was a difference. After that, every fight we had seemed to build off of the last one until we were walled-off completely. I wore a navy blue suit, and I had no intention of taking a full day off from work for something that wasn’t my problem. I wanted to take the subway, but my husband Jim wanted to drive. He seemed to think that this would take a while. He gets sentimental like that sometimes. “Christ, if this takes longer than an hour, I’ll tell the damn cops they can keep him,” I thought. 64 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

My husband stopped at the corner of 23rd and Washington. “Do you want me to go in with you?” He asked. “No, Jim” and I got out of the car. I ignored the sea of homeless beggars and prostitutes with white powder on their noses. Everybody has a story to tell. I walked up the graffiti covered steps and pushed open the heavy metal doors. Everything was sterile and covered in plastic. The fluorescent lights turned the furniture and reception desk into an odd shade of beige. There were no windows and there wasn’t even a mouse to stir up noise. I felt like I was being buried alive. “I’m here to collect, or identify . . . ” I started to say. I couldn’t find the right words. “Oh shit” was all I could think. “Name?” “Mine or the person I’m here for?” I’m messing this up, I know it. “The deceased person.” “Jason Block,” I said firmly. Mr. Jason Block. Mr. Jason L. Block. Mr. Jason Lee Block, I repeated it over and over in my head. The name sounded so familiar and distant at the same time. It was a name that I heard before, but only in an obscure modern fairy tale. Mr. Jason Lee Block committed suicide according to the police. Mr. Jason Lee Block hung himself in his apartment and . . . “Relation?” “I might be his sister.” When we were little we used to play hide and go seek. Mostly we played by ourselves when our parents went out on their date nights, but every now and then we played with other kids. I hated being the one who had to be the finder. I could never find anyone, and I would get mad because I thought everyone was deliberately playing a trick on me. I would start to cry, and then he would come out of hiding. Always, he would take me by the hand, and we would go find the others. If it was just us, he would always be the seeker. Walking down the hallway, I wanted somebody to tell that it was just a trick. They pulled him from what looked like a file cabinet on steroids. He isn’t mine. He can’t be mine. But that


face was unmistakable. It was worn around the mouth from years of frowning. He had wrinkles and a receding hairline from stress. There were sagging eyelids from sleepless nights and stained cheeks from uncomforted tears. But he still had those green eyes and Pop’s nose. I could only find the strength to nod my head in acknowledgement. He really was mine. It was an apparent suicide. An open and shut case. He hung himself from the ceiling fan in his apartment with one of his ties as a noose. The funeral service would be in a week. He changed his name from John to Jason. There are so many Johns in the world that he never really had a chance in standing out from the crowd. The name Jason was what he aspired to be, cool and confident. I use to call him blockhead. I guess that’s where he got the last name. I don’t know when he changed his name. I stumbled back to the car and without a word; Jim started the car and drove home. I read about suicides in the morning paper. It seems like every week another lost soul takes the plunge. Their lives were so beyond rock bottom that they had only one way out. It’s one of the many reasons that we left the city, even though it added an hour to Jim and my commute to work. It’s not enough to worry about gang members breaking down your door or stealing your car, but you also have to worry about finding one hanging from your ledge. Outside of the city at least, these things happen quietly in your neighbor’s garage. I was six when I first saw a suicide. A girl, of about fifteen, hung herself from a tree in the middle of the night. It looked like something out of a low-budget horror movie. I remember the police cars and the small groups of parents huddled together in their bathrobes with horrified looks and whispers. I never saw the body, my father wouldn’t let me leave our doorstep, but John slipped past his guarding arms. He was only ten. It was the shock of the year for our town. I didn’t recognize her name or face at the memorial. Her family was new, and she was picked on at school for it. When John came back, he didn’t say anything. I asked him for details, but all he said was that he didn’t understand any of it. Somehow it doesn’t seem possible that a person could think such a thing. Who wakes up one morning and decides to jump off a ledge or swallow a fistful of pills? Nobody I know, especially him. I just don’t see how he could have a reason. He was happy. That’s what he said in his Christmas cards. What the hell did he have to feel bad about? It wasn’t like he was a pimp on the street; he had two kids, a wife, a steady job, and an affordable mortgage. All he had to complain about was his tennis game, and even that wasn’t atrocious enough to commit hari-kari. I don’t get it. We sat at a stoplight for god knows how long. I can feel the tears dripping down my cheeks to the end of my chin, falling to my legs. I don’t understand any of this. I don’t understand. “Do you want to talk?” Jim asked. “About what?” “About how you’re feeling.”

“Dandy.” I knew that I hurt him. He always wanted to talk about the feelings that I wanted to suppress. We were an odd couple like that. Jim was thoughtful and quiet before he spoke. “When was the last time we saw him?” “Before he sold the business. About a year ago. Maybe longer.” “Do you think his little girls know?” “They’re both away at college in California now. So, probably not.” “Guess they’re not so little. We’ll have to call them when we get home and tell them what’s happened. What about his wife?” “Ex-wife. She’s in Denver.” “When did he get divorced?” “I don’t remember. That’s not really something you talk about at birthday parties.” Neither of us spoke again until the next stoplight. I watched the whirl of lights go past and blend with my tears to create just colors and shapes. During our summer breaks we would camp out in our backyard. Our father worked in a factory that produced car bumpers while our mother was a full-time nurse. When they came home, they were usually too tired to drive for two hours to the wilderness. I didn’t mind though, and neither did he. We would pitch a tent and build a pretend campfire because we weren’t allowed to play with matches. We would eat a bag of marshmallows and he would tell ghost stories with a flashlight under his chin. It was the normal, stereotypically suburban life, but it was always special to me. We would lie in the grass and look at the stars. We spent hours like that, just watching and talking. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t work out together. We hit another red light. I looked out my window and I said, “Did I ever tell you that when we were kids, he would build forts and airplanes with me?” “No, you didn’t.” “Yeah, and we would watch scary movies when we were alone in the house. He would hide beneath the stairs to jump out at me.” “You’re kidding.” “No. Other older kids in our neighborhood hated having to babysit. But my brother and I always had a good time with each other. I really looked forward to hanging out with him sometimes. He used to tell me that he did it just for the extra cash our folks gave him. But I knew the truth. He would have done it even if he hadn’t gotten paid. He was always willing to help. I wanted to be just like him.” “Sounds like you were close.” “I guess we were.” “What happened then?” “What do you mean?” “I mean two people don’t suddenly wake up one morning and decide to not talk to each other again. Usually siblings Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 65


grow closer as they grow up. What happened?” “Nothing really. Just a lot of little stuff.” “Like what?” “Our parents died, so there was no longer a family holiday that we had to attend. We both got different jobs. We had families and busy schedules. We just grew apart.” “There was no big argument? No fight between you?” “No. Just a lot of little ones. There wasn’t really one argument that I could pin-point, but all of them together changed everything.” “What were the arguments about?” “Our different choices in life. I could never understand his direction and the same for him. We grew up and the world changed on us.” “I don’t think things have changed.” “Maybe that’s the problem.” Jim didn’t answer. He knew that we were having problems. I knew we were having problems. The neighbors knew. Still, we didn’t dare approach the subject of a divorce or even a separation. It was unheard of. Jim changed the subject back to Jason and me. “Was it fun while it lasted? “That’s an odd question.” “Is it? I was just wondering.” “You’re also asking a lot of questions.” “I’m just trying to make conversation. I don’t know exactly what to do here.” “I don’t know either. I just know that yesterday I thought my brother was alive, and today he isn’t.” “Then let’s talk about it.” “What is there to talk about? Yesterday he was alive, today he isn’t. End of story.” I didn’t want to go any further. I knew that it was going to hurt. “You didn’t answer my question.” “Was it fun? You want me to answer that question? Fine, it was fun. I had fun at least. I thought he did too. Are you happy?” “Don’t take that attitude with me. I’m trying to help.” “Doing a great job.” He didn’t respond. Jim didn’t like fighting and would rather simmer with internal rage than explode with one sentence. I knew that taking my anger out on him was wrong but I’ve gotten used to doing so. I should probably file the papers next week. “I just can’t remember a time when he wasn’t happy. Why didn’t he say anything? I would have listened. I really would have.” I looked at Jim for conformation. In my heart, I really believe that I am great listener. Jim didn’t have an answer, and the car lurched forward. I searched every cell and cavity of my brain for a memory or incident that would explain this. That would explain how this was the only solution. “Did I ever tell you that I used to dress up in his old Halloween costumes?” 66 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“No, you didn’t.” Jim was trying to mask his rage with an unnatural soothing tone to his voice. “Yeah. One year, he dressed up as Superman. I mean blue tights and red trunks, the whole shebang. And then of course, I threw a fit because I wanted to be Superman too. So the next year, I got to be Superman and my brother was an Elvis Presley impersonator.” “Don’t little girls usually want to be a princess or a ballerina?” “I guess. But, my brother loved the Superman comics, so I assumed that there was something special about being Superman.” “Well, he does travel faster than a speeding bullet.” “Exactly. And he’s always helping people, and he always knows what the right thing to do is. He never hesitates in the face of evil or greed. He’s just a hero.” I looked at my hands. “Jim, how did this happen? How did I let this happen?” Must have been October, but I can’t remember why John was at our house. It wasn’t a major holiday. I guess it’s not really that important in the grand scheme. Anyway, he was there, in my home, eating my bread, drinking my lemonade. We were doing the usual chit-chat; how he was, how I was, how the kids were, all the usual bullshit you go through when you’re talking to a stranger. We were both startled when my son squealed in delight out in the backyard; he loved the garden hose and the rainbow of water that would fly across him. I smiled at him and looked at my brother. He was smiling too, but it was different. He was faking it. That was obvious. It wasn’t because he didn’t like my kid. There was a longing behind his smile, a sense of desperation. I didn’t want him to be there. I wanted to go back to work and finish my projects before we went on vacation to Mexico. Instead I had to play the role of the good hostess. Looking back, I think he knew he was unwelcome. He looked at me and asked, “Would you change anything in your life?” That’s such a cop-out question. I knew he wanted me to tell him some deep, dark secret like that I eat Oreos in the nude, or that I sleep with a night-light. He asked the question because he had something to say that I didn’t want to hear. “I would want to be a millionaire, living in Beverly Hills with a four story mansion and servants, and I would want a jet airplane, and . . . ” “Be serious,” he mocked. “I am,” I firmly stated. There was that look again, that look of defeat coming from him. “What would you change about your life, John?” I exaggerated. He hadn’t changed his name, then. I thought it was pretty pointless conversation. What the hell does it matter? You can’t change the past. “A lot of things” he whispered in a tone so low that you had to strain yourself to hear. That’s if you really wanted to hear him. “How’s the wife, John? How are your girls?” I wanted to


change the topic so badly. I didn’t want to see my big brother in pain, I wasn’t ready for that. It’s like the first time you realize that Superman is just a guy running around in tights and underwear. John was my Superman, growing up. He hated flying, but everything else was the same. He helped little old ladies cross the street and rescued cats from the tall trees in the park. He even liked the colors red and blue. He was perfect in every way, except that he couldn’t fly. But, the guy I was looking at wasn’t the same John. He reeked of imperfection and humanity. It couldn’t be true. He could jump over buildings and race trains if he wanted. He didn’t need anyone to take care of him. He’s Superman. He just stared at his lemonade for the longest time and rotated the cup clockwise on the counter. Nervous habit we both picked up from our father. He wasn’t much of a talker either. “Earth to John, come in, John” as I started to wave my hand in front of his face. He hated it, said it broke his concentration but it made me laugh. “I hate my job,” he said. “Find a new one.” “I hate my house.” “Rent an apartment.” “My marriage is falling apart.” “Get a good lawyer.” “My little girls hate me.” “Adopt one from China.” “Can’t you be serious for once!” he screamed out, as he stared at me, pleading with tears brimming out of the corners of his eyes. I couldn’t bear the sight of him like this. This isn’t

Superman. I turned away. “What do you want me to say, John? Yes, shit happens, and life isn’t always perfect. But these are things that you’ll get over. You’ll find a new job, you’ll get a new place and once that happens, who knows, maybe your marriage will be fine. It’ll be a fresh start. And for the love of God, your girls don’t hate you. Just pull yourself together and start again tomorrow.” He just stared at his lemonade. I didn’t know what else to say to him. Another squeal came from the backyard. My son started to dig up the flowers in my neatly trimmed garden. “Shit,” was all I could muster as I headed for the door. I lost him, right there at that moment. He didn’t come back to the house again. The officer who met me at the morgue told me that he had been renting the apartment for over a year, as he started his new job in Project Sales and Management for a big corporation. He changed his name to Jason Block, so that his fresh start would be complete. Guess that wasn’t the best of advice. The engine was turned off and we were sitting in our driveway. It was the early part of the afternoon, and my son was playing with the garden hose, drenching his whole body in water. I turned to Jim and looked into the deepest part of his eyes. There was no love left, but I hoped that there was comfort. I hoped that I was wrong. “I should have known.” I could see the corners of his mouth begin to turn and he said something, but I didn’t hear him. I got the answer that I didn’t want to know. I understood now, and the tears turned into sobs that shook my whole body. I killed my brother. I killed my Superman.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 67


Kim Farleigh Having a taste for the exotic, Kim has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in varied publications, including Descant, The Houston Literary Review, Full of Crow, The Mad Hatter’s Review, Unlikely Stories and more.

Going In

“I

was able,” James said, “to avoid thinking about it until yesterday; but last night it was just impossible.” I was stretched out on a bed, my head on a pillow. He was sitting upright on his bed’s edge. An even lemon-gold glow from the light on the ceiling filled the room. A vehicle’s drone rose outside, disappearing into a nothingness so pure that it felt as if the droning had never even existed — like a fleeting, forgettable presence annihilated by supreme indifference. James’s head had momentarily shot up in expectation — then it had fallen as the sound had drifted away. “My hands shook when I knew there was no turning back,” I replied, “the first time I went.” “It happened to you, too?” he asked. His head turned like a revolving door. He had been staring down at the floor. “You!” he belched. “It happens to everyone,” I said. “You don’t look too worried now.” “I was the first time. And I was alone — literally. Imagine that.” He got up and stared out the window. Another car’s drone rose, then dissipated, quenched by quietude, the sound dissolving so deeply into night’s silent, engulfing sheath that it may as well never have even existed. “When I was a kid,” James said, “I thought dying was nothing. But now I don’t want to die.” “It’ll be so exciting you won’t care.” He glanced down, not moving. Premature death implies permanent annihilation. He was supposed to live a long life — to have a biographer! Dying now would have prevented the revelation of a great destiny to a vast, adoring public. “When I was a kid,” he repeated, “I didn’t care about dying; but I do now.” I persisted: “People drive in with guns. It could be suicidal to try to stop someone unless there was an agreement with the driver. That’s impossible in our case.” 68 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

James was framed by window blackness. His corneas were bone-white against that blackness. He resembled a frightened child before that blackness. That blackness, supreme with impartiality, had no regard for destiny. “The drivers who stop,” I continued, “work with thieves. We’re not in that situation.” “What do these vans look like?” he asked. “They stand out; but it’s impossible to know who’s in them, unless the driver tips somebody off.” “They stand out?” “Yes. But anyone could be in them.” James stared without looking. Indecision had crippled his mind. The blood pouring out of a woman’s head on the cover of the magazine that lay on my chest didn’t help. Such things had once been intriguing. The photograph had been taken at our destination — Baghdad. “The vans are white,” I continued, “without markings. And they could be full of guys with guns so you’d really have to know what you’re doing if you tried to stop one.” James’s head flicked spontaneously: The word “guns” slapped in the face. He stared at the floor. His eyes, contrasting with his face’s statue stillness, shone like glass aglow in alabaster — like rabbit’s eyes before headlights. He broke out of his trance and said: “I don’t know why I have to complicate my life. Why can’t I just be happy with the beach like most people? Why do I suffer from this affliction?” He was now being Shakespearean. A place in history was his if only premature death could be stopped! “You’ll be so happy,” I replied, “that you’ll be able to die.” “But I don’t want to die.” “There are things,” I said, “that you can’t learn from books. You know you have to do this. You know that.” The silence focussed thoughts on interior matters, the light enhancing the blackness outside. “Ignorance,” he said, “is better than dying.” “We’ll see tomorrow.” He continued staring out the window. Our room was above


the hotel’s entrance. Neon glowed above a car park: purple, orange, red and green in blackness, shining with lurid freshness . . . I could imagine him thinking: I only saw the neon before — not the rest . . . “It isn’t going to come any earlier,” I said, “by staring out the window.” “I just wish he’d get here so I could get this over with,” he said. He rested his elbows on the window jamb. He looked down at the hotel’s entrance. The world’s stillness sat well with my excited tranquillity. This time I was going in with company. The first time I had been like him now. A teething problem. And my calmness is only agitating his uncertainty. He’s gripped by irresolution; now that the moment of discovery is close, his impatience has become so distracting that the room’s contents — including me — have become meaningless. Only Nuri’s existence has relevance for him now. The phone rang. James’s head spun. I answered. James stared at me with sharp, crystal, cat eyes. He wasn’t looking through me now. “Okay,” I said, “we’ll be down in a minute.” James fled towards the door, picking his bag up in one athletic swoop. I followed him as quickly as I could. The peaceful gentleness that oozed from Nuri’s muscular frame had the certainty of truth. His black beard floated

against his white-cloud apparel. He looked trustworthy — like the embodiment of veracity — like a man happy to face the inevitable. In the van, James asked: “Mister Nuri — is it dangerous?” Nuri hadn’t even had time to close his door, let alone put on his seat belt. “No, no,” he replied, half-smiling, “it’s safe.” A charming liar, I thought. James’s body seemed to get punctured, as if toxic gases of concern were escaping from pores in his skin. All day, waiting to hear Nuri’s relieving words, he had been terrified about having to face truths that would have planed smooth his youthful egotism, deflating the importance of his “affliction” – his destiny. Difficult things may have been necessary for immortality, and the tragedy of the world possibly not discovering his profound worth had come to him like a deep, shuddering, hollow clang of terrifying fate. The van’s interior darkness now meant that James could see the lit-up street, the outside re-gaining relevance. His head fell against a headrest. His eyes filled with their usual arrogant security. Nuri’s reassuring veracity had stopped self-analysis. Briefly, James had been a better person, closer to self-awareness than he had ever been before, but he hadn’t known it. Now that he felt free again of life’s dangers, dying had become easy again — just like when he had been a kid.

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Steve Upham Steve Upham hails from Wellington, New Zealand but after many years travelling now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. When he is not writing he likes to hang out with his kids, listen to music and go for walks along the river.

River Duty

M

e and Joe were standing under the shelter in front of the mall watching people get out of their cars and run inside. We were waiting for the rain to stop before going out to collect the stray shopping carts that had been left out in the parking lot by people who couldn’t care less. But it was one of those days where it looked like the rain would never stop. It was falling hard, bouncing off the parking lot like spent shells from an M-4. It had been like that all week. Joe lit up a smoke. “This is bullshit,” he said. “Look at that dude,” and he pointed to a guy getting into his car, leaving the shopping cart in the next parking space. “I should go out there and kick his fucking head in.” Joe’s all talk. I knew he wouldn’t do anything like that, and besides he’s not all there. I don’t mean in his head, although I’m sure he has his problems, but I mean his right leg is missing. He got it blown off in Fallujah, courtesy of the friendly fire unit of the US Marines Corps. Anyway, Joe doesn’t look like he could scare anybody, even when he puts on his old marine fatigues in the weekend and goes walking around town. He just looks desperate, like an evacuee that hasn’t slept for days and doesn’t know where his family is. I’ve seen thousands of them. “When do you think it’s gonna stop raining?” Joe asked. “How the hell do I know,” I said. “Once we’ve finished collecting all the carts, probably.” Joe laughed. “Damn right,” he said. I turned around to see Lawson, the forecourt manger, heading towards us. “We better get going,” I said to Joe. I pulled up my hood and stepped out into the rain. It pissed down on my hood. The sound it made reminded me of the small bits of rubble that fell on my helmet after a roadside bomb. I heard Joe limping behind me, his false leg clicking as he walked. “Why can’t I get a job indoors?” he said. “I should get a job in an office and talk to girls all day.” We collected up the abandoned shopping carts and put as many as we could together in a chain and pushed them back to the mall. Lawson was waiting for us in front of the entrance. 70 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“Where the hell have you guys been?” he asked. “Some of those carts have being sitting out there all day. They’ll fucking well rust.” “We were waiting for the rain to let up,” Joe said. “You don’t get paid for waiting around,” Lawson said. “If I catch you slacking off again you’ll be gone, you understand? When those things fall apart it won’t be me paying for them. It’ll come out of your fucking pay.” “We’re going back to get the rest,” I said. “Well one of you can get them. I need someone to go to the park. I’ve had a report that one of our carts has been dumped in the river. It’ll be those kids. They go joy riding in them. One day I’m going catch them and I’ll fuck them up. These carts cost a lot of money.” “I’ll go to the park,” I said to Joe. I knew he didn’t want to do it. I didn’t mind. It was a good walk. “You sure,” he said. I nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay.” “Hurry up then,” Lawson said to me. “It shouldn’t take you long. Don’t go jerking off. I’ll know if you do.” I watched him head back inside. I imagined a bullet ripping through his back, sending him sprawling to the ground. Dead before he hits it. I jogged across the parking lot and climbed over the chain link fence that separated the lot from the park. The park was muddy because of all the rain and there were tyre tracks all over it from where someone had driven their car around it. I headed towards the pines at the end of the park, kicking crushed beer cans out of the way as I went. I could hear the river from half way across the park. I took a track through the pines until I got to a clearing where I could see it. I took shelter under some branches and looked up and down the river for the cart. I couldn’t see it. Because of all the rain, the river was higher than usual and the water was rushing past. I thought the cart might have been washed away. I took out a smoke and lit up and looked across at the hills. They were covered in a thick grey cloud. No blue sky and palm


trees here, only a hundred shades of grey. I thought about just standing around for ten minutes then going back and telling Lawson the cart was gone, although I was sure he wouldn’t believe me, he could come down and check it out for himself. I decided to walk along the riverbank a bit, at least to the bend, to see if it was further along. I thought I saw something move through the pines across the river so I stopped to have a look but I couldn’t see anything. I thought it might have been a deer. I pretended I had my rifle with me and took aim. I hadn’t been hunting for a while and couldn’t wait to get back up in the hills when the weather improved. I was thinking of taking Joe with me. We could both get dressed up in our marine fatigues and shoot the place to hell. I got to the bend and looked back from where I came. My boot prints left a trail in the mud. I continued on around the bend and that’s when I saw the shopping cart. It was upside down in the river. It must have been jammed between some rocks. I was pissed to see it. I knew I’d have to get in to fetch it. I threw my smoke in the river and watched it rush away like a small boat in a giant storm. I stood back under a tree and lit up another. I looked around. I couldn’t see anyone else. I remembered the amount of times I had to get in the dirty river just outside Mosul and pull out bodies of dead Hajjis. Some days, a shit load of bodies floated down that river, most of them swollen and charred black. It was like some factory was fucking making them and using the river as a conveyer belt, and we couldn’t keep up. We had to put down iron nets to catch them overnight, and then we’d pick them out in the morning. We put on gloves and lifted them out and threw them on the riverbank. Sometimes it was hard to see ‘cause of all the flies that swarmed around us. As soon as you lifted a body out, they were all over it. We had two guys to each body. If it was a kid, you could usually lift them out yourself. We never threw the kids out. We carried them out and gently laid them down. The goddamned flies would swarm all over them. It was hopeless. The army Imam said prayers as we lifted them out. The bodies were then stacked onto the back of a truck and driven away. I don’t know where they took them after that. No one wanted to do river duty but low rank grunts had no choice. There was nothing good about it. We prayed for snipers so we could get the fuck out of there. I’d seen dead animals before, I even shot a few myself, but the first time I saw a dead body was in that fucking river. I saw more than anyone has a right to see. I put out my smoke on the tree and looked up and down the river, a habit from the days when I had to worry about snipers. I stepped into the water. It went up to my knees and I could feel my boots fill up. It was cold. The river rushed around my legs and I could feel its pull as it tried to drag me away. Some days I would’ve let it take me, and maybe that day too, I don’t know.

The rocks under my feet were slippery, so I stepped slowly over to the cart. One of the wheels was missing. I thought about leaving it there, but I was already wet and they could probably replace the wheel. I could carry it back, thinking that Lawson might even be impressed. But as I reached out to the cart, I fell, my arms crashing in first, followed by everything else. The cold rushed over me in a second. I stood up and grabbed onto on the cart to steady myself. I thought I heard laughter. I looked across the river then turned behind me. I couldn’t see anyone. “Joe?” I yelled, thinking that maybe he had come looking for me, but there was no response. Then I felt something grab my hand. I looked down and saw a hand holding onto mine and the face of a young girl. Her eyes were wide open under the water. Her body, what was left of it, was naked. Her legs were missing and so was her other arm. She was badly burnt except for her face. I tried not to look at her. I even shut my eyes, but I could still see her. I shook my hand to get rid of hers, but her fingers were gripped tightly around my wrist. With my free hand I grabbed hers and tried to pull back her fingers, but they were stuck to my wrist. Then, she let go, and I fell back in the river. I tried to get up, but I was under fire. Fucking snipers were everywhere. The bullets were kicking up splashes of water all around me. I could hear yelling. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I got hit on the back of my head, and it knocked me back down. I thought I was dead for sure, but it didn’t kill me. I put my hand up to my head and saw blood on my fingers. I thought it might have only grazed me. I had to get cover. I forced my legs and arms to start moving. I crawled along the river, grabbing onto the rocks underneath to help drag me along. I was swallowing lots of water and coughing it back up as I went. I felt something hit me on the back. I dropped my body under the water and held my breath. I didn’t think I would be able to move, my body paralysed as the bullet severed my spinal cord, but I could still feel my legs. Pretend to be dead, I told myself, and maybe they’ll forget about you. But I knew that wouldn’t work. They would drag my body out so they could hang it up on the bridge as a warning. So I got moving again. I heard shouting behind me but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I got hit again as I crawled out of the river, this time on the right shoulder, but again, it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I kept crawling, heading for the cover of the pines. I could hear bullets hitting the dirt with a thud. I was praying as I crawled. I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I made it to the pines and took cover behind them. I could hear bullets hitting the trees, breaking branches and ripping through leaves. I covered my head with my arms. I wanted to shut my eyes, but I didn’t know if the trees would be the last thing I’d ever see, so I kept staring at them. Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 71


“Come on out, retard!” I heard someone yell. I sat up. I put my hand up to my head. The blood was still running, and I could feel the cut. “Come on out, chicken shit!” Someone yelled. I pressed my body up against a tree and slowly moved closer to the edge. Then I saw them, the kids from the mall. The same kids that sat outside smoking. There was about ten of them, a couple of them girls. They were throwing rocks at me. Some bounced past me, while others hit the trees. “Fuck you and your fucking trolley,” one of them yelled. I sat there, not knowing what to do. I had killed Hajjis

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for less. I once emptied a load into a car that didn’t stop at a checkpoint. I killed four from the same family. A grandmother, mother and two kids. The youngest was a girl around six years old. She looked the same as the girl in the river. I looked down at my clothes. I was covered in mud. I took out my smokes. They were soaking wet. I knew they were useless, but I still stuck one in my mouth and tried to light it but the lighter didn’t work, so I threw it and the smokes away. I sat in the mud until the stones stopped hitting the trees. I waited awhile before having a look. They were gone. The cart was still in the river. I couldn’t see the girl.


Kika Selezneff Aleman Kika is a Spanish contemporary painter born in 1970, in Murcia, Spain. All her paintings are realized in acrylic combining different techniques and textures. Her works evoke the moments, atmospheres, and sensations present in daily scenes, playing with colour and light on figures and objects. She began exhibiting in Spain and the USA, before moving to Paris, France, where she has enjoyed considerable success with all major shows sold out. She works a frantic pace with dedication, determination, and unflagging vigour and energy. Her life is shared between France and Spain and continues to expand beyond Europe. http://kika.guidarts.com/

Au Metro

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Sardinas

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Point du Vue

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En La Piscina

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Incognita

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Du Feu

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Leah Erickson Leah Erickson has been published in many literary magazines and journals, including The Saint Ann’s Review, The Stickman Review, Menda City Review, Forge Journal, The Absent Willow Review, Prick of the Spindle, and The Summerset Review. Her work appears in the print anthology Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind. She has work upcoming at Membra Disjecta. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband and daughter.

Border Crossing

M

arcus awakened, slowly rising to the surface of consciousness from the depths of a dream. It was a new, recurring dream in which he was trapped in a maze of mirrors, and he couldn’t get out; the mirror maze would then suck his soul into its trick reflections, absorbing him. Always he’d wake in a sweat. But when he opened his eyes, he did not see the usual still life of the familiar objects in his Manhattan apartment. And there was no noise of taxis and sirens from outside his window. Am I in LA? he thought blearily. Sometimes he woke discombobulated in the mornings when he was traveling a lot ... But no. He didn’t recognize this room at all. He was in a kind of trundle bed, under an intricate quilt such as you would find hanging in a folk art museum. The ceiling was high, made of rough hewed beams, and slanted sharply down, like an attic. The furniture was of ornately carved dark wood, but old and dry. He checked the nightstand for his wristwatch, his glass of water, and his amber Rx bottle of pills. He opened the nightstand’s small drawer. Empty. He went to the window and drew aside the white muslin curtain. Rolling green hills, jutting mountain peaks shutting in the land in the distance. Here and there in the landscape was a house with a steep thatched roof. An unpaved road snaked in the foreground. The unseen morning sun tinged all of this with incandescent light. Marcus stood there for some moments, his mind churning and grasping. He was a filmmaker, a well known one. He was due to receive a prestigious award that week. (One that he knew he didn’t deserve.) There was a picture in his mind of the recently purchased tuxedo, hanging back home in his closet. The Italian leather shoes that he had shined so they glistened. They were home, now, in his closet. And he was . . . here. Just then he heard the faint sound of voices; a group of men wearing work clothes were walking down that unpaved road, past the house. They carried scythes over their shoulders. Although he couldn’t make out the words they were saying, he

had a sense from the swing and cadence of their speech that they were not speaking English. His confusion was overtaken now by fear. Fear that he had lost control of his faculties. Is this real? Am I real? Am I dreaming? Am I dead? But of course he was not dead, of course he was real. There was a sour feeling in his stomach and a tight feeling in his chest. This physical discomfort made him know that he, and this, were real. He knew he must recover himself and think, retrace the events of the previous day. Well, the day had been ordinary. He had spent much of it at home, going over material from a recent location shot. Photographs and such. He had been viewing some screen tests. Looking over the script. It was to be his first new project in four years. Sure, he’d been a little anxious. He needed a success. People had begun to write him off. It was said that his movies were becoming too cerebral. Too self-indulgent. It was said that Marcus was losing his relevance. And he was worried he that maybe they were right. He had no more inspiration. No more energy. He had no more films in him. A horse drawn wagon rolled down the road. What was this place? He felt as though he’d landed in the middle ages. Had he gotten sucked into a fairy tale? All these myths and fairy tales, he thought, just variations on the same story told over and over. Even this one! A man, waking up in an unfamiliar world. A story told many times, right? I know this story! He willed his heart to slow down. All he needed to do was connect the dots. Find the patterns. So many answers lie just beyond our awareness, he thought. The secret was just to not try to hard to see them. Let the subconscious do the work. He would just go with it. Whatever this was, he was equal to it. He opened the bedroom door and went down the splintered wooden stairs. Everything seemed narrow and cramped and twisting in this house. The stairway led him to a long narrow foyer. Which led to a long narrow living room. Shabby but clean. Old sagging sofa with an afghan draped over it. Dark end tables Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 79


with doilies on top. The kitchen contained a plain wooden table and chairs. The refrigerator was an ancient one, whirring and clicking to itself. There was a covered dish inside of it. A stew of vegetables, mostly cabbage, with a white sauce. He went through all the rooms of the downstairs and looped back into the front foyer. He opened the closet door. It contained a shovel, a pick ax, a scythe, and a pair of work boots. He stood looking at these things, feeling lost and confused for just the one moment. The he put on the work boots. They were just a little big. He picked up the scythe, gravely, resolutely, and went outside to follow those men. Nothing can shock me, he thought. If somebody is testing me . . . if they think they are going to break me . . . So much green and wide-openness. It was beautiful but dizzying. Every detail so distinct. Each twig and branch as sharp and clear as those snow capped mountain peaks in the distance. Finally he heard voices ahead. Coming around a bend, he had come to a hay meadow. He approached the men, scythe weighing heavy on his shoulder. First one man turned to him, and then there was a growing silence as they all turned. Soon all he could hear was the wind whispering through the hay stalks. “Hi. Hello. I’m Marcus. I’m here to join you. I’m here to help.” He approached one man. He was youngish, wearing a toboggan cap and a plaid flannel shirt. When Marcus put out his hand, the young man looked at it, and then looked away. There was a look of superstitious fear on his face. In fact, they were all looking away. One man spit on the ground. Another crossed himself. Marcus lowered his outstretched hand and walked away. He found a place for himself apart from the others, and swung his scythe into the hay. Swoosh. He wasn’t used to using these muscles. He was fifty-eight years old and not in the best shape. But he took it up and swung, and swung again, until he got in a sort of rhythm. It wasn’t long until he was covered with sweat. But he kept swinging the scythe relentlessly. In his other, old life, he was known to always go overboard in his singlemindedness. His extreme nature could send his cast and crew to tears. He’s a crazy man, they’d say. “Fuck it,” he panted to himself. I will demolish this hay. Soon there was the murmur of voices around him again, in whatever language this was. Eastern European, it sounded. But which one this was he couldn’t guess. As the men worked through the day, sometimes they would sing. They broke for lunch, which they ate out of buckets, food that was wrapped in checkered cloths But Marcus kept going. And going. He couldn’t stop. Kick its ass kick its ass . . . *** 80 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

As the sun began to wane in the afternoon, Marcus had to stop, exhausted. He was shaky all over, and there was a deep ache in his lower back. The hard labor had left his mind feeling empty and scoured out. But the feeling was not unpleasant. The light was failing as he began the walk back to the house. He knew he had to hurry. If it got too dark he’d not be able to find his way back at all. And he needed food, needed water. He was lightheaded. But he hated cabbage . . . it was red meat he wanted . . . Suddenly, before he knew what was happening, a dark form jumped from the bushes and was coming at him. What the? Something taller than him, covered in fur, with teeth and flashing eyes. A bear? A large dog on hind legs? It sprung towards him, and Marcus let out a loud yelp. At the sound of his yelp, the thing flickered and vanished, mid-jump. Leaving only an afterburn image in Marcus’s mind. A wolf. Marcus ran to the house and slammed the door. If I’m hallucinating, it’s only because I’m so tired and hungry! He drank some tap water that tasted of grass and dirt. He ate some of the stew, cold, straight from the dish. I just won’t think about it again. After sitting on the couch, staring into space, he investigated the house some more. Every drawer was empty, as though the house was nothing more than a movie set of props. All he had found were eating utensils and some chipped white plates and bowls in the kitchen. There was an old upright piano in one of the small rooms in the back of the house. On it was a book of sheet music. It was opened up to a song called Desteapte-te, Romane! Romania! He was glad to at least know where he was. But there was another feeling, too. A connotation of the idea of Romania. Something like guilt. Something like a bad taste in his mouth. It was the girl. Nadya was Romanian. Nadya of the long neck, the dusky heart shaped face. The large tilted eyes beneath the jaggedly cropped black bangs. It was all a mistake. An accident. He wasn’t a bad person, he thought. He had just used poor judgment one night after drinking too much. She had wanted him to call her afterward, and he had said he would. But he had taken that scrap of paper with her number on it and thrown it in the trash. In fact, throwing it out was the last thing he remembers doing before going to bed and waking up here. But Marcus put the thoughts out of his mind, and went to bed. It was on the catwalk that he first saw her. She wore a long gown of crinkled black leather. Her hair was dressed in Medusa-like coils. Her eyes were painted as black slashes. Around her graceful neck hung tangles of delicate chains. He had had a front row seat, with a group of his industry friends. And at the party afterward the girl had come to him.


Even though she was clean faced with her long hair down, wearing a simple blue dress, she still looked unreal. So tall and so thin. She reminded him of a racehorse. A greyhound. And she was so serious looking when she asked if she might have her picture taken with him in her accented English. Downright grim! She didn’t smile for the flash. She stuck by him the rest of the evening, but didn’t say much of anything. He’d done some cocaine that evening, drunk a lot of whiskey shots. It wasn’t until very late that took her back to his place. The sex was mechanical, it was quick and later he could hardly remember it. Afterward he fell into a deep sleep. It wasn’t until shortly before sunrise that she woke him, quaking and sniffling. When he asked her what was the matter, she said, “I’m ashamed to ever return to my village.” “Village?” She was fifteen years old, and she had come from Romania. The modeling agencies had started traveling to her country ever since the borders had been opened, and travel restrictions lifted. They wanted the young girls for the catwalks. Her country had no laws protecting schoolgirls. No minor labor laws. And there were so many beautiful girls in the villages. Their “exotic” look was fashionable. At least, she said, she was able to send money home and support her family. They were very proud of her. But now that she was no longer a virgin — — he looked, and there was blood on the sheets — — she was ashamed of herself. What she had allowed was a mistake. She couldn’t see in the darkness how his face flushed in shame, how his heart was racing. Fifteen! What had he done? This was lower than low. He had damaged this girl, a mere child. And what was more, he was a criminal. If this got out, his career . . . He didn’t know what to say, so for a long time said nothing. “Don’t worry,” he at last told her. “I will help you. I can be a great help to you. And I would be glad to do it. “He felt awkward. He knew his voice sounded too hearty, too cheery. “I think you’ll find that meeting me may have been the luckiest thing. I won’t let you down.” But as she got up and dressed in the blue twilight (thin, so thin) he did not like to look at her. And when she got her bag and stood to go, he found a pad of paper in the nightstand, and had her write down her cell number. What a relief when she finally was gone. Because when she wasn’t here, she wasn’t there. The next morning when he went down to the kitchen, he found a small loaf of dark bread and some cold pork. He ate ravenously. Then he went outside to explore the area. He started walking down the lane in the direction opposite the hay meadow. This day was humid, the sky heavy with clouds. He saw a shepherd in a field with his small flock. He passed small

houses, close together, all with thatched roofs. Like his own, but smaller. He saw mothers with small children in their small fenced in yards, hanging the wash, feeding the goats. It wasn’t that the place was that foreign to him. He had grown up in the farmland of the Midwest, and had never been to the city until he took a bus to New York at eighteen. How innocent, what a hick he had been! But he missed the headiness of those days. He had been poor, lived monastically in one closet sized room, eating beans and rice. But when he began as an actor/playwright. He had lived for his work. He had been pure. Inspiration thrummed through his veins. He was alive. He was on fire. And well . . . he could only hazard to guess why he was now here. And he was guessing that it was actually a good thing. Perhaps this was a benevolent universe, trying to teach him a lesson? Get him back on the right track, and working again? He had been drinking too much and doing too many drugs. This . . . vacation could give him perspective to see his life as it really was . . . But this thought was interrupted when something — some creature — rushed by him on the road, brushing against his arm. It was a child-sized creature with a human body and the head of a rat. It wore pants and a long, heavily embroidered white shirt with a wide leather belt around it. Marcus stood in the road, appalled, gaping at its tiny ears and its long scaly tail. And when he started walking again, he couldn’t remember what he’d been thinking about before, or even which direction he had been headed in. That night he decided to stay up. To sit in the dark and wait. He was going to find out who was leaving him food. It wasn’t until deep in the night that he heard the back door creak open, and tentative footsteps. He flicked on the light. The man jumped back, his eyes wide. He was about Marcus’s age, with close shorn silver hair and prominent eyes that now bulged in surprise. He was wearing army surplus pants with suspenders over an old t-shirt. “Who are you? You’re the one who brings the food, huh? What is this all about?” He expected the man not to understand, but his answer was in accented English: “I was just trying to help.” “Here’s how you can help. Tell me what the hell is going on here! Why are you here?” “Well, some of the people in the village . . . they have been saying that you are a ghost. A bad spirit. An omen. That is why no one will look at you. But I felt sorry for you. I felt . . . obligated to help.” “Whose house is this?” “The house is no one’s. This is a house of bad luck. Abandoned.” Marcus started to pace back and forth. He began to feel a tingling in his arms and legs. His heart was beating so fast that it was making him feel faint. Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 81


“Go on, go,” he growled at the man. “I don’t need you to feel sorry for me. I don’t need your sense of obligation. Go!” And he was gone, as quickly as if he had evaporated. Since he didn’t know what to do with himself any longer, Marcus spent the day standing in front of the house. He watched the workers walk by with their scythes in the morning. He no longer tried to join them. He stared at them, trying to will someone, anyone, to look at him. But no one did. He was beginning to lose faith in his very reality. He was beginning to talk aloud to himself, “I am Marcus O’Reilly. And I am not a bad person. I do the best I can.” The large muddy work boots shuffled and flapped as he walked. His shorts and t-shirt were rank with dirt and sweat. He needed to shave. He looked like a crazy man. He had never felt this way before, so lost. He had not always felt this way. He had been efficient. Focused. So meticulous in the details of his films! It was what his films were known for. The details. That final day at home, looking at the location shots from a large private home in Long Island. A sleek, modern house. Glass and steel. Everything in it white, white, white. He’d photographed ceiling fixtures, strange corners, doorways and closets. But looking at these photographs, he felt such an odd feeling. Like he could walk into that cold, empty house. And live in it. It made him feel despair for what he had become. When nightfall came, he stared out the window, thinking of his night with Nadya. The way she followed him like a pair of disembodied eyes. Taking him in, taking it all in, as it really was. Her eyes were pure, without guile. You are the one with the power, she’d told him in bed, and he’d laughed. I need to be an actress, she’d begged, and he’d said, You don’t know what you’re saying, child. I support my whole family, she said. They are gypsies. Shunned and poor. The modeling agency seeks the skinny girls from my country. But they are skinny because they are hungry! She gripped his arm. Make me an actress! Why? Because they say I am getting too fat to model. She stood up to show him her naked body. The girl wasn’t fat. She was going through puberty. A late bloomer. Dear little girl. And also, I do not go hungry anymore. These memories in his mind’s eye seem superimposed over the scene in front of him. The moon that evening was full and bright. The woods stood in black repose against the evening sky full of stars. On the edge of those woods, he thought he saw a stirring. And then he heard a tinkling. He rubbed his eyes. It was coming closer. A ring of naked women, diaphanous as if made of smoke. Fairies, dancing together. They wore bells around their ankles. There were others here and there, perched in the trees, faintly glowing. Marcus watched, lost in the beauty of it, until 82 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

one of the creatures spotted him, her eyes filled with anger and scorn. She started towards his window. Marcus covered his eyes and put down the curtain. I am not a bad man. He couldn’t sleep the rest of the night; he was growing desperate for human contact. So he sat up in the dark, waiting to see if the man with the food would return. When the door at last creaked open, he did not switch the lights on. He just said, “I’m sorry.” “No problem,” said the man, laying a covered dish on the table. “I am Emil.” “Your English is very good.” “I went to school in England for a while. Then I lived in different countries in the Union, so I got out of the village. But then I came back. My mother was sick. That was a long time ago. Now she is dead.” Silence for a while. “So, what do you make of this? You don’t think I’m a ghost? Why do the people say that about me?” Emil said nothing, just shrugged Then Marcus told him everything, starting with the morning he woke up in the strange house, moving backwards in time to his last day at home, throwing out the phone number of the young Romanian girl. Then the story of the girl herself. “So, you say the girl is Roma? A gypsy?” “That’s what she said.” “Perhaps the girl has put a curse on you. And that is what sent you here. “What? A gypsy curse? That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing. And talk about politically correct . . . ” The man smiled. “Some would say, I suppose.” Some more silence passed, and then Marcus said quietly, “I need to tell you something.” “Yes?” he spoke as quietly as Marcus. “I’ve . . . seen things. Hallucinations. But they were so real. I . . . was almost mauled by a giant wolf.” “Oh! Werewolf. Yes.” Marcus furrowed his brow. “And . . . I saw spirits? Beautiful naked women dancing in the moonlight, bells on their ankles ...” “The lele. If you see them, turn away. They don’t like to be spied on.” “And. I saw a small person. With the head of a rat.” “Rohmani. Harmless. Very common.” “What, so you’re telling me these things are real? The wolf thing . . . when I cried out, it kind of flickered and disappeared. It couldn’t have been real.” “Depends on what you mean by real. This land where you are now? This is a place with strong folk traditions. Folklore! Fairytales! A lot of it started in Romania. In this village the beliefs are especially pure and strong, because we are cut off from the modern world.” “So what are these things?”


“Well, I guess I would call them memories. Dreams? They are encoded in the people and in the land. In the collective unconscious. Passed on for centuries.” “I don’t know if I can buy that.” “Well, I’d imagine it’d be hard for you to understand. You come from a different place. Americans believe in living in the moment. New beginnings. Cutting yourself off from your past. It is different here. The past is now.” Marcus closed his eyes, pressing his temple. Again that sense of unreality came over him, a sense of losing his identity. His atoms dissolving away . . . ”Listen, I need some help, and you’re all I’ve got. I need to get out of here. I am expected to be at an important function back home. How do I get to the nearest city? With an airport?” The man shrugged. “The nearest city with an airport is Baia Mare.” “How can I get there?” “There is a train that goes there. First you would travel by horse cart to the station. I could provide you the cart. You will need money.” “I can make arrangements. People know who I am. If I could just get to a phone, a computer. Something.” “Where is it that you need to be?” “An awards ceremony. For my ‘achievements’ in cinema! Ha. Well, if I miss the ceremony, then at least people will know something is wrong. They’ll look for me.” “Maybe not. Perhaps the gypsy left a changeling in your place. No one to know the difference.” He smiled wryly. Marcus laughed without mirth, then put a hand on Emil’s shoulder. “A ride. To the train station. Please.” The cart was rickety, the horses thin and mangy looking. Marcus sat high on the seat next to Emil, watching the scenery roll by. It was beautiful country, but it did not make him feel uplifted. He felt under siege, as though eyes were watching him And he jumped when, from behind the trees to the right of them, an old woman peaked out, with long gray hair and dark socketed eyes. She smiled leeringly at him. Marcus felt childlike terror. “Muma Padur. Some say she was the basis of the witch in Hansel and Gretel.” “Please! I don’t want to know.” It took about an hour and a half for them to reach the train station. A stark little cinderblock building next to some lonely looking train tracks. Emil gave him two bills. “They will not know you at this station. This will get you a one way ticket.” “I will pay you back,” Marcus stammered. This man had to be as poor as all the others in the village. Money for a train ticket had to be a big deal. “Don’t worry. I know I am doing a good deed for my village. No offense, but I feel you do portend bad luck. You are an apparition. I am going to make you vanish.”

Marcus looked at him with his mouth hung open, feeling stung. But he then turned and went into the building. At the counter he merely said the name of his destination, “Baia Mare”. The attendant, his hooded eyes trained on something over Marcus’s shoulder, slid him a ticket. Marcus, feeling dejected and tired, went to sit on a metal bench and wait. The station began to fill with people, to get more and more crowded. When at last a train pulled in, every person rose up as one. “Baia Mare?” He asked a woman in a shawl. She grunted an affirmative. The train was more modern than he thought it would be. The seats were plush, if a little worn. Marcus sat in the corner. As crowded as the car was, no one chose to sit in the vacant seat next to Marcus. Screw it, he thought. I won’t have to deal with the insults much longer. I’m going home. Where at least people know me. The train ride seemed to last for hours, but he didn’t know for sure: his watch had died at some point, its hands frozen at 2:35. They went through tunnels and curved around mountains. At one point the lights flickered out for a minute, but no one made any notice. He must have fallen asleep at some point, because he woke up to find the train stopped and everyone standing up and gathering their belongings. He walked out of the station into the unknown city. It looked like plenty of other cities he’d been to. It had high rises and paved courtyards. Fountains and sleek modern churches. It was only when you really looked that you saw the cracks in the pavement, and the weeds overgrowing the common gardens. It gave the city a strange feeling of abandonment, even though it teemed with people. Marcus had no plan, exactly. All he needed was to talk to some official person. Someone who knew English. Someone who, when they saw his face, would know who he was. He prayed to himself that he had been declared missing, and that it was a major news story. He wandered around until he found a simple white building with a peaked roof. There was a street sign pointing to it with an arrow that said, Politia. A couple of men wearing police uniforms were walking out. He approached the front desk. A middle-aged woman was manning the phone, with long brown hair pulled back from a high forehead. When she looked up at Marcus she smiled kindly, but with no trace of recognition. “Hello,” he said, “I need someone who speaks English. I am a citizen of the United States. I am Marcus O’Reilly. I am American.” The woman smiled uncertainly, held up her palm for a moment, and went through the doorway behind her. He stood there, listening to the murmur of an unseen television. There was a framed poster on the wall over the desk: a view of the Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 83


countryside. It looked exactly like the place he had just come from. He leaned closer. Was that the house? The poster was old and faded, the frame cheap gold-toned plastic . . . Soon the receptionist returned with a man. He had a thin face with hollow cheeks and black mustache. He wore a beret with a crest on it. “Hello,” the man said. “You are an English speaker? What can I do for you?” “Yes,” said Marcus, trying to think how to word his predicament. “There has been, well…a mistake that has happened.” “A mistake?” “Yes, you see,” he laughed, “I’m not supposed to be here. I need to return to the United States. Immediately. I need to make a long distance phone call. I need to be wired money, arrangements need to be made…” “Who are you?” “I am Marcus O’Reilly. You may know of me. I am a filmmaker. If you don’t know of me, you may know of my films. Red River Weeps, Dreams of Dying, The Lost City . . .” Listing the names of his own movies, he remembered scenes, faces and vistas. A beautiful actress’s trembling smile and darting eyes. Men in period costume, racing on horseback across grassy plains. A dead girl, lying pale in blue moonlight. But he could hear no dialogue. Funny, he’d spent a lifetime on his craft. These films were once his babies. Now they were strangers. No matter how much of his soul he had put into his art, none of it came out the right way. Nothing that he ever tried to say was ever truly expressed. Why couldn’t he say what he needed to say? He looked down for a moment at the peeling linoleum floor, thinking of all of this. “May I see your identification, please?” Marcus patted his thigh where his wallet was usually nestled in his pocket, and shrugged. “Well, I woke up here in my night clothes. So I don’t have my wallet. It’s at home, next to my bed. But listen-it all will become clear. There are people looking for me. I am supposed to accept an award. Today, actually. I am supposed to be at an awards ceremony in New York. Check the media! The American news networks. Make some calls. I am a missing man.” “But sir, everyone must carry identification. You cannot get on a plane with no identification. You have no passport to cross borders.” Marcus felt a heat surge through his body. A beating in his chest. War drums. He was under siege. “Listen! Get me a telephone. A telephone! It is all I ask. Get me an American consulate! It’s all so simple. Why are you making this complicated?” “You have provided no identification, sir. I will have to hold you here, I am afraid.” “Bullshit! I am tired of this! How can you not know who I am! How can you not fulfill my simple request!” 84 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“Sir, please lower your voice.” “I won’t!” Two policemen appeared from nowhere to grip his arms. “What is this? This is an outrage! Why won’t you just listen to me!” He thrashed his arms, trying to get loose. He kicked a rickety metal chair so that it went flying. The grips on his arms tightened. They were carrying him away. They led him through a twisting maze of hallways until they came to a holding cell and locked him in. As the bigger of the men turned the key, Marcus looked him in the eye and tried to appeal to him. “Listen. I’m not crazy. I’m a reasonable man. Just try reading the news from America . . .” But the policeman looked at him, not comprehending. It was not pity that shown in his eyes, but a detached, distant interest. A puzzlement. Which drove Marcus right back into a fury. “I’m in fucking limbo! I’m in no man’s land! I’m in purgatory!” He seemed to have gone temporarily deaf and blind, his vision filled with red. He was thrashing and striking out against something unseen, screaming, “I have an identity!” When his senses came roaring back, he was lightheaded. His shoulder hurt. There was a high electrical humming in his ears. Looking through the bars he could see down the hallway into the doorway of a waiting area. It was empty except for one old woman in a striped housedress, nodding off over a pile of knitting. There was a television bolted high on the wall, turned to a news station. Although he couldn’t understand the language, he watched a montage of different scenes. A crowd of people with signs, protesting a motorcade. A diagram of a satellite in space. An old farmer showing that his well is dry. A ballerina twirling on a stage. And then: Marcus was shocked to find that he was staring at himself on the screen. Wearing his new tuxedo! Standing at a podium, accepting his award! He looked so well rested and calm. There was brightness to his eyes, and good color in his cheeks. He was saying something. Marcus strained to here, but the newscaster was speaking over him in Romanian. “Hey! Guard! Look at the TV!” But the Marcus on the screen finished with a bow and mouthed “Thank you.” When he turned to exit the stage, Marcus screamed, “Wait!” But he kept on walking, and when just as he was to approach the wings of the stage, he stopped to take the hand of a tall thin girl in a long spangled dress. The camera trained in close for a minute, though the girl’s face was turned away. They looked like father and daughter. Then the scene faded into a commercial for chewing gum. Marcus stood still and quiet, staring at the screen. Then he glanced up and down the hall, looking to see if someone, anyone, had been a witness. There was none. A smile pulled at the corners of his lips. Then he slowly, quietly, began to applaud, clapping his hands that stuck threw the bars. Then louder. Then faster.


Natalie McNabb Natalie McNabb lives and writes in Washington State where her dog, Skookum, and cat, Mo, can usually be found beneath the trees of her Eden with a squirrel tail, an exhumed mole, or an up-flung mouse. She loves red — red dragonflies resting on bamboo stakes, red wine in her glass, red flip-flops on her red-toe-nailed feet — and words that caress, tickle, irritate or beat against her soul. Natalie was a Top 10 for The Micro Award 2011 and Top 25 for the Fish Short Story Prize. Her work appears in various anthologies and literary journals. Please visit her at www.nataliemcnabb.com.

Nineteen Degrees

I

t is two days before Thanksgiving and snow is everywhere. Commute times doubled and tripled last night, but I was one of the lucky who headed home before snow started sticking and city busses began sliding down hills despite chains. Several optimistic neighbors have wheeled their garbage cans to the street, but Seattle slows to a near-halt when snow flies. If the university is closed and I am consequently home, the garbage and recycle will remain right where it is for a few more days. Today, I decide, I may as well make our own turkey; otherwise, we will get what we get at the family gathering and no more. If there are ever leftovers the starving singles take them home. So, if we want to feast on stuffing and turkey sandwiches for a week afterward, a childhood tradition I have not been able to give up, I must make our own. Sally calls though, and the thawed turkey must wait awhile in the sink. She accuses my husband, son and I of leaving figure eights and donuts in the snow all over her street. When the roads are like this it is just what we do, goofing off with the four-wheelers on roads and side-hills, dropping in on nearby friends hoping for a late-night cocoa. Sally could not or would not get up, and so we left our signature. We discuss the sun that has finally come out, but that will never melt the six inches of snow I am staring at on the back deck, at least not while it is only nineteen degrees out. Then I see something — a leaf ? — hanging from the metal perch that circles the base of the hummingbird feeder just below its red metal flowers. I squint, trying to see it better, and whatever it is moves erratically and then rises nearly level with the metal perch. “I’ve got to go,” I tell Sally and drop the phone on the kitchen table. My husband loves his birds and is always filling our feeders faithfully. He will be devastated if I cannot fix this. I run to the front door, slip into my shoes and race back, grabbing the red towel from the kitchen counter as I pass. I am out the back door, through the snow and standing at the feeder in an instant. But, when I get there, I can only stare. A hummingbird is hanging upside-down, its talons wrapped

around and frozen to the metal perch. This is an Anna’s Hummingbird, not a metallic green and fuchsia male, but a green-tinged and gray-brown female. She flutters, flips partially around. These are the only birds that can fly backwards, but not with their feet stuck to metal. She flips her tiny body, little more than three inches from beak to tail, up and nearly level with the perch again. My husband and I never would have imagined that at nineteen degrees a hummingbird’s feet might become frozen to the metal perch, that by feeding them we might might kill one. The hummingbird just hangs there, blinking. I must do something. I wrap the towel around her, but am afraid of crushing her, and though her feet would warm in the towel, it does not seem fast enough. I grab the perch with my middle fingers and thumbs, still cupping the hummingbird in the towel, and lift the feeder from its hook. My first thought is to take it all inside, but I cannot have a hummingbird loose in the house. I consider a hairdryer — plugging it in, warming the metal — but the blast of air and noise would probably burst her pea-sized heart. The cord would not be long enough anyway either, and I cannot put the hummingbird and feeder down now without risking an injury worse than what she may already have. She flutters again, settles, and I follow my first instinct — I take the whole thing inside. I kneel on the floor just inside the door with my elbows on either side of the floor vent and hold the hummingbird, feeder and towel over the warm air. She flutters, becomes still again, and I begin to wonder how she could have hung upside-down like that without breaking her legs — maybe she has. I peek carefully, so that she does not fly off, and carefully so that I do not add to any injuries she may already have. Her eyes are closed, and I open the towel a little more to find that her feet are already free of the perch. Better yet, they do not appear damaged. I move everything away from the vent and hold it outside the door, hoping she is able to fly. She is so still though, and her eyes remain closed. I prod her with a finger, and she opens Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 85


her eyes, but just to slits. I prod her again. When she opens her eyes completely and moves, I realize that the crest of her right wing has now become frozen to the metal base of the feeder. She flaps again and tugs it loose, leaving behind tiny greentinged and grey-tipped white feathers. Unbelievably, though, her wingtip has become wedged between two red metal flower petals. It is far too fragile for me to remove, and when she stops struggling, I can only prod her belly again and again. She finally angles her wingtip just right, tugs and it slips free. I put the feeder down just inside the door. A few feathers are still stuck to it, one is on the rug and others drift about the hardwood floor. I am suddenly grateful for the snow that kept me home and Sally’s call that kept me looking out at our back deck instead of working in the kitchen on our turkey while this poor little bird flipped and fluttered, stuck and hanging upside-down from our perilous perch. She would never have lasted long at nineteen-degrees. If a few lost feathers are her

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only injuries, she is lucky. Though she is free now, she just sits in my hands — maybe still too cold, maybe in shock. Perhaps warming her again will help. I close the towel around her, cupping her in my hands. She is so light, like a penny, and each time she stirs it is so faint, like moth wings against the towel. I open the towel up and, before I even draw a single breath, my little Anna’s hummingbird buzzes off, up and over the snowy deck railing toward the arborvitaes. Just like that, she is gone. I kneel there with the cold in my face long enough to feel it fighting the sun and, then, to wonder if it is really the other way around — if it is the sun that fights the cold — or if each wrestles the other, inextricably bound in an essential tug-ofwar that keeps this world in its teeter between existence and non. I drop the towel beside the feeder, close the door to shut out the cold and go make our turkey.


Ben Westlie Ben Westlie has been published in the anthology entitled Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25 edited/selected by Naomi Shihab Nye, Third Coast and The Fourth River. His Chapbook titled Sometimes Out of Turn was a runner-up in the Stonewall Chapbook Competition sponsored by Brickhouse Books. He’s an adjunct instructor who teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Humanities.

Extraordinary Construction This is the moment where you lie to me about knowing what you feel. You’ll look at me-not in my eyes, But, somewhere searching for thoughts To decode, to unravel-so what comes out Of your mouth will matter. I’m counting the seconds I have you near. If I add them up it might be enough to be closer to you. Lies are so precious-such an extraordinary construction of falsity. This is the moment where I listen like the good boy I want to be for you.

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Pleasure Without Conscience The one he wanted wasn’t a girl. his cravings were for chest muscles, and body hair in the crevices of thighs and shoulders. To swallow all of another to hear all his heated flesh sing out. To look up to a lustful baritone sigh, to feel welcome to understand his stumbling with women, to contemplate the slightest brush of facial hair upon his chest, neck in between his own legs. Oh, how he glows so vibrant his organs rejoice! He becomes a hovering cloud Traveling to a place Where knowing Just doesn’t matter.

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Knowledge Without Character She has something to tell us. It’s in her leaning closer to everyone passing by. She takes in breath as if to keep the eruption of sounds from forming language that will not leave. The strangers slow in their step like hearing a song that makes them something real. She’s slow to emerge Like waking up on days soaked in rain Her body content with cotton filled covers. Her body one that calls out to the ones without names shuffling about towards everything they know like jets at night drifting on to their next landing. She stays so silent, her many selves inside her are mimes performing how her body speaks through their coated faces, their delicate limbs, for no one. Oh yes, she has so much to tell us Though has misplaced the order of words, and the proper language.


Susan Pashman Susan Pashman began adult life as a Physics major and did graduate work in Philosophy at Columbia University. Once she had managed to get her two sons through college, she ran off to the beach, a tiny whaling town on the East End of Long Island, where she resumed teaching Philosophy and started to write. Her first novel was published in 1995; her essays and short stories have appeared in various literary magazines. Her second novel is with an agency in New York and she is completing a memoir about her philosophical quest for a meaningful concept of Sabbath. You can find her online at http://www.susanpashman.com

On Hogarth’s ‘The Orgy’ from ‘A Rake’s Progress’ At yon round table sprawls a rake, A dissolute, belov’d by girls Who cannot but great notice take Of how that handsome flaunts his curls.

But as he dreams, this other pearl — Her hand maneuv’ring in his shirt To toy with all his hairy swirls — Does show herself a worthy flirt.

For nothing draws a maid like hair On heads or chests or arms or cocks, Or makes the fair sex wish him bare So much as long and golden locks.

“You are some wench,” he says, “a fox, I’d like you, both, I must confess, And if I did not fear the pox, ‘Tis a desire I’d soon address.”

The lad kicks back and quaffs his wine While ladies hasten to undress; He’ll have them here if he’s inclined, There’s not one craving he’ll suppress.

Thus Hogarth did with Beauty’s Line Portray an Orgy for our Rake: All youthful flesh, and joy divine, And time well-spent for pleasure’s sake.

It’s almost midnight by the clocks When he espies a spirited mare Of ivory breast and ruddy hocks And silken cheeks and ankle fair.

Why pass the time with other jocks At checkers, horses, cards or chess? This lad will say when old age knocks, “I fondled girls, and thus, progressed.”

Soon thinks he of the sounds she’ll make When once beneath him she’s supine: Moans and sighs, she will not fake The thrilling trembling down her spine.

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Jessica Young Jessica Young’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has appeared most recently in Versal, Cold Mountain Review, CENTER, A Cappella Zoo, and Roger. She won the 2010 Bateau Press BOOM Chapbook Contest for her chapbook Only as a Body, the 2010 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, two Hopwood Awards, a $25,000 Zell Fellowship, and the 2010 Moveen Residency. She completed her undergraduate work at MIT and did a MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Michigan. Jessica can be found at her website: https://sites.google.com/site/jessicayoungpoetry

Little Red Riding Hood Oh sweet little red, if we just change your hue, there are myriad things you can’t do we can do. You know our tendency to revise the past: at the end of The Little Mermaid Ariel kicks the bucket, vilely, but we tell kids what kids need to hear. She lives, loves. Recall now Cinderella, whose poor sisters take knives to their feet, slice their own toes away, that the stubs might slide into glass slippers like butter. You know the drill: innocence wins. Red and grandmother make it out alive, scared but alive, load that sucker down with rocks. Good triumphs; the ever-after is as happy as ever-afters get. But you think you’re one step ahead here. You know the real ending, gross and gory. Maybe you’re even aware of the version with a slice of sexual. Think that’s the real ending. And it is. But what you’ve missed is the beginning, and so you’ve missed the point — namely, how Red and company were looking for an exit, concocted a plan to lure that wolf with jelly-slathered biscuits, whistling for him to come on out from the deep darkness of the woods. Red, standing there, singing in a voice thick as molasses, making that irresistible “come hither” motion, rolling finger by juicy pink finger. She coaxed that creature, swiveled those jelly-biscuits under his wet and wanting nose. How she begged him to come home with her, offered him all sorts of sweet pieces. Ask yourself: how can a wolf refuse a gesture like that? You know the answer: he can’t. Red and grandma knew it, too, begged him to take a bite, to put an end to it. But don’t stop there. It’s tempting, I know. Resist. Ask questions. Just don’t ask why these stories get watered down. Don’t ask who does the watering. None of that matters. What matters is this: there once was a little girl, a girl sad enough to invite death, but doubtful enough to have sweet grandma go first.

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Newspaper - Printed Publication Responsible for Education and Entertainment of Billions - Dies at 403 It was a day everyone saw coming, but none knew, really, how to handle. The newspaper, which died last week in a board room in New York after a recent battle with the internet and a decreasing overall readership, was best known for its ability to inform, exercise eyes and brain. The newspaper (rarely going by its full name, printing with movable type), was born in Strassburg in 1605. Blogger Jennifer Olde comments: “The newspaper spred [sic] like fire on, um, well, dry newspaer [sic],” with presses in France, Sweden, England, and America starting up quickly. “The industriel [sic] Revolution helped circulation,” Olde said, “and the newspaper enjoyed wide readerhship ‘til the last few decades when non-stop tv got big and the internet hapened [sic].” As advertisers moved away from print media, many papers switched to online modes, finding greater success there. Abandoned, the newspaper “just up and died, lol” stated Olde in her recent blog posting titled: “How the newspaper died, and why I no [sic] its [sic] for the best!!!!” The newspaper is survived by relatives Maggy Zine, Ray Dio, and Mo Vies. Funeral services will be held at the Strassurg Cemetery website, best viewed with a cable modem. In lieu of flowers the family has requested friends instead take out an advertisement in a local magazine.

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Graham Tugwell Graham Tugwell is a PhD student with the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches Popular and Modernist Fiction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, he enjoys writing work of abiding strangeness, aimed at provoking that apocalyptic oscillation when the brain cannot decide what is appropriate — laughter or grief. He has work forthcoming in Kerouac’s Dog Magazine, THIS Literary Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Anemone Sidecar, Plain Spoke, Sein und Werden, The Quotable and Pyrta. He has lived his whole life in the village where all his stories take place.

Dinner With The Pigeon Prince I dreamt. I dreamt such dreams should not be dreamt, of stone walls slick with stolen sweat, and freezing moments crystalline the amber-slow of ticking time, the gambrel spars that frame the nest are pulled apart: proclaim the guest: we’re in a belly of our own; sucking on the seeds we’ve sown. Bend in greeting, forced in meeting, have yourself prepared for eating, the filth for flesh you’ll feel is fleeting. Groan, the laden table groans, from ladles draining gravy flows, plate-laden with growths from gardens grown. Greased meats complete the heart of home, cutting mutton from the bone, shanks of beef for thankful teeth, pork rising stews in lemon steams. Welling forth the fruits of wealth, grape-hake melts on agate plates and glazed with wine to satiate a brace of pastry, cut and baste, of purling port that pours from vats, of blooded butter, of crackling fat, finely mince quilted layers of minted quince: only the finest for the Pigeon Prince. Fill your mouth with juices sweet, wrap your tongue round tender meat, and licking, lick the sides of skins: tonight you dine with the Pigeon Prince. This is the feast of which I’ve dreamt, the visions of food that sleeping sends, and silent at the banquet’s end, in sable velvet shot with jet, neck collar-clasped a pink cravat, sits the brooding Pigeon Prince, golden forks in silver wings, twin-tines shining sharp as pins, under hundred burning candle wicks. Deer and pheasant newly killed, jointed, cut to roast or grill, spirits distilled and crisply chilled, grains and coffee freshly milled, in darkness learn to feast you filled. Steam-swirled scents from tureens seeps and sees the tumour-nostrils weep; swallowing gulps of gourmet greed, slavering dampens mouth and beak, the smell of apricot and 92 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

fenugreek, of durian and meadow leek, umami tastes of labneh cheese Here is the hunger, the ravenous need, the thirst and the emptiness calling to feed. Peering eye-point pierces mine, enigma-eyed, the glare beguiles; an orange gem, a jewel, no gleam of warmth dispels the cruel, the blunt beak rheumed with charcoal lips the coal tongue licks and leaves a thread of crystal drool. Violet feathers glint electric green, the neon neck in half-light gleams, sheds a musty funk of dust and mould, ages nesting in its folds, an ancient half-dreamt, half-felt thing, rotting from the outside in, bulked mass round on clattering wings, strutting, bobbing, banded grey, purple as the death of day, with toes the thumbs of wizened wives, in penitence the Pigeon shrives: Winter brings its heavy cost; my toes were lost to snows and frost . . . And now: The Prince of Pigeons first request; strip in silence, clothes divest; he seeks to see me look my best, for feasting wear the finest dress. Protest? I may only acquiesce. I want to watch you bending under grey brocade, strained and strapped with reins of lace, plump bulbs bulging from the whalebone waist, and see you spilling up and out, the suet dermis, pale and proud, translucent chest shot through with veins, the pressure of the pulling pain . . . I want to watch. I want . . . The Pigeon staring, worn in wearing, clothed in chosen clothing baring, ashen flesh revealed and clasped in whalenet stockings, whalebone basque, slighting in the slender squeeze, never felt this narrow feel, form conforming, form deforming, feel my figure faults transforming, stitching cinching stays of white, how will I dine when tied so tight?


Now my love in love devour, open wide for the eating hour, gizzards gorged on passion’s power, against the turgid ticking of amber time, we’ll gobble, guzzle, and gluttonize, now taking it in turns to gorge, wield your golden knives and forks; this is how the feeding works… Slake my thirst, break my bread, first things first you’ll have me fed… Mirthful maw mouth yawning broad, beak lips lining keratin jaws, to plug this gap, without a pause, force down plums in radish sauce, a gelatine jam of hips and haws, creams and crepes to cram the craw. The neck expands with choking gulps, necking lumps, mashing roots and ribs to pulp, rolling eyes and glottal sighs and spastic wings that stroke my thighs, and in the shadows of the nest feathers rise and knead my breasts. Unfh, ungh, mnumf — oh . . . Tears on cheeks, grease on beaks, consume in minutes food for weeks. Fed full…brimming belly numbed…atiated orotund…and now my one, you’re next to feed; soon you’ll sigh the song of greed, your juices join my walls of sweat, dip yourself in hot excess…

The cracking beak is wide to gloat, crazed-eye pupil contracts and bloats, the black tongue slithers from the throat, and the voice, oleaginous utterance croaks: Now I’m full, in fullness blooms, the final dish for feasting looms, the law proscribes devouring doom, the Pigeon Prince consumed by you . . . Through eyes raw from the vapour haze, horror melts my glut malaise; the Prince is rising from his place, mounts the table, scatters plates, pink-ribbed legs inviting, splayed, wingtips beckon: have a taste, as fabric tears, as cloth is frayed. Bursting sable, ripping jade, the strain of velvet’s my serenade. The stink of the Pigeon all pervades. May I evade? My will’s decayed; knife dragged along his shoulder blade, reveals the muscle meat displayed. Face shocked full with feathers cooked and cold uncooked, jaw lost in the Pigeon pleats I stain my teeth on feathers’ filth; I’m savouring sediment, sand and silt, fist-sized ticks, dirt and grit . . . Now, you’ll eat every piece of me, and eat me, have me eaten, ate . . .

Swollen in a flatus cloak, reeking with the smoulder choke, reeling smuts of tallow smoke, across the boards of mouldy yolk, limply on distended limbs, eyes immobile madly grin, the feather belly fit to spill, pricking prongs like pricking pins, crawling comes the Pigeon Prince, gilded forks are candle lit, dual-tines wet with ample spit.

The horror: Weeping, I can only eat. Start upon my stomach flesh, bite upon the belly breast, that’s where my finest meat is kept where dreams are dreamt, where sleep is slept.

Come; you’ll eat, forget you’re free. You’ll see you’ll eat. You’ll eat from

Eat me up, consumed entire . . . what is the lie and who is the liar?

The horror: Choking, I only chew.

me. The Prince approaches heavy jewelled and hunger fuelled, bearing liver ribbons lithely skewered, pepper scallops kumquat-cured, flash-fried chicken ligatures, all this gluttage must I endure, all this food and drink impure, oils that slither through my hands, grazed on loins of April lamb, force me full of char-grilled ham mussel-stuffed, jammed with clams, crouching on a bed of yams, washed down with whiskey by the dram. Force-fed by the Pigeon Prince, a hole unending midden pit, a dirt-filled ditch of damp disgrace, a dump for scraps and kitchen waste. I am the strain; I am the pressure mounting pain, the tearing lace, the cracking stays, my stomach rolls in waxen sways; I’m rupturing; my sides give way, I’m ready now to detonate. I fear my skin will perforate, and weep a halfdigested paste of rectal curls and offal aches . . . Swallow, chew, bite, and gnaw, consuming is power, the eating is law, now I am yours and you are mine, together cased in amber time . . . these are the moments you’ll strive to forget, the bird and his urges, the kingdom of sweat . . .

The horror: Mouthfuls from the body bitten, bitten from the thing still living. The sweat walls shake, the candles gutter, my teeth bite bone and marrow butter, the bones denude, the ribs protrude, from the bitten mess the spine extrudes. Among the detritus on the table, amid the shreds of jet and sable, the skeleton of the Pigeon Prince is able to rise a pace, to stare intensely at my face, the neck still feathered; the head untouched, the beak is smiling, the eyes exult. I’m nothing. You’ve bitten me back to nothing now, the glory of the feasting vow, we all have roles for good or ill, the turn is mine to have my fill. I climb the table, and crouching weep, I give myself unto the beak. And then . . . And then . . . And then slowly, unhurried, with delicate bites, the Prince of Pigeons completes the rite. I’m eaten. Soft parts prey to the working mouth that clicks and gobbles and hollows me out, and slowly scrapes me of my meat, the Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 93


Prince of Pigeons greedily eats till we’re nothing left but shells of skins, and I lie forever with the Pigeon Prince. And time slows creeping; the minutes canker, drags to golden syrup amber and the last words whispered tease a tear: We will rest for ever here . . . And I am left to contemplate why sleeping leaves me in this

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place; is the Pigeon Prince real or fake? Or am I dreaming to escape? How will I know when I’m awake? You feed it . . . And it feeds you . . . You eat it . . . Then it eats you . . .


Brian Rowe Brian Rowe is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Loyola Marymount University, where he worked for four years as a staff writer on the Los Angeles Loyolan. He has written five feature-length screenplays, as well as over fifty short films. His short story “Kelly” was published in Mobius Magazine, and his short story “Pumpkin Milkshake” was published in Horror Bound Magazine. He has recently completed two novels, one a Hollywood sexual thriller and the other a young adult fantasy comedy.

Q&A

O

nly one standing ovation? The horror director waved to the crowd and took a seat on the sticky stage. The freezing Santa Monica theatre was at full capacity. He crossed his right leg over his left and settled in for another night with fans remembering his 1975 slasher classic, the only film on his resume that was still being shown anywhere in the new century. It would be his third Q&A of the month, following his appearances in Hollywood and Century City. It was a busy time for Theo Hauser. It was October, after all. The moderator for the evening wasn’t a significant film director or personality; the young man before him looked like he belonged at the concession stand. Mr. Hauser,” the moderator began, “we are so happy to welcome you to our screening tonight and to give the audience an opportunity to meet one of their favorite filmmakers. How does it feel to be here talking about a film you made thirty-five years ago?” The director laughed and started scratching his bald head. He was close to seventy. “It makes me feel old.” Most of the audience laughed. The crowd was a mix of all ages, from pre-teens to centenarians. No, honestly, it’s a joy and a privilege,” the director said. “When we made Chainsaw Murders back in ’75, we shot it in sixteen days. We had no money, no experience. The enthusiasm got us through.” “And the film wasn’t a success right away, is that correct?” “Yes,” the director continued. “It took a couple years for the film to develop a cult following. It wasn’t until it started playing in drive-ins did people start talking about it, and it wasn’t until critics started praising it in the early 1980’s did people start approaching me about it…” And on and on they went, the director trying not to bore himself with the same old stories, jokes, and life lessons concerning his ancient horror masterpiece. He went on to make five more movies after Chainsaw Murders, but nothing had made a dent at the box office. When his controversial 2002 feature

about the Columbine massacre went straight-to-DVD, only to be pulled from shelves days later due to customer complaints, he knew his days as a horror director were numbered. The older he became, the more he wondered if he’d ever be able to get another film off the ground. And so the director spent the latter part of his career traveling the country attending horror conventions, film festivals, and small town screenings. And everywhere he went, nobody ever wanted to talk about his other movies. They all wanted to talk about Chainsaw Murders. Sometimes he felt like a one-trick pony, a creative visionary who once had a shot at a memorable career but failed miserably. But then he remembered that it could be worse. Better one classic than nothing. “OK then,” the moderator said. “Now we’re going to open up the floor to questions. If anyone with a question would just raise their hand…” At least twenty hands shot up in the air. “Yes,” the moderator said. “You, with the orange shirt.” The first fan sat in the second row. He was so fat, the director wondered how he had managed to physically enter the theatre. “Yes, hi, Mr. Hauser, this is a real honor,” he said. “I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I was wondering if you are ever going to make a sequel to The Chainsaw Murders.” The director had gotten this question so many times that he had exhausted his toolbox of answers. Sometimes he would respond with something funny and witty; sometimes, cold and bitter. Occasionally he would delve into a long story regarding the years he spent writing a second installment that in the end proved to have too high a budget for any studio head to sign off on. “No,” the director said. The second question concerned the casting, the third concentrated on his use of music, and the fourth dealt with his rumored romantic relationship with the film’s leading lady. “We slept together once,” the director said. Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 95


There was some mild laughter scattered throughout the audience. “OK, fine, twice. What can I say? She was hot.” A lot of the younger boys in the audience applauded. Even the moderator shared in their enthusiasm. “Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Hauser,” he said. “Another question?” A few timid hands popped up, but it was a man in the center of the room who raised his hand highest of all. “Yes, you,” the moderator said. “The one with the black jacket.” The man nodded and got up on his feet. He had short black hair and a pale, pedestrian face. He flaunted a prominent smile that would’ve been more noticeable if it weren’t for the tears in his eyes. “Mr. Hauser, I just wanted to thank you so much for gracing us with your presence this evening and I wanted to congratulate you on the thirty-fifth anniversary of not just one of the finest horror films ever made but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time…” This fan had a weird voice and an even weirder rhythm to his speaking, enunciating specific words and phrases, that gave the room an instant aura of awkwardness, so much so that the director wanted to bolt for the emergency exit right then and there. “…I have seen this film well over fifty times, and every time I see it, I find myself just glued to the screen and captivated by every single shot and moment that resulted from the creative wonderland that is your brain…” The guy wasn’t stopping. Worse, there didn’t seem to be a question in sight. The director glanced briefly at the moderator, who seemed at a loss for what to do. “…and you are so well-regarded for The Chainsaw Murders that many neglect your other truly terrific films including Row Boat, The Millennium Killers, Sick Sassafras, and Columbine: A Day in History, the latter of which may be one of the most underrated films in the history of the cinema…” “Question!” a young woman coughed behind the man. “Ask a question!” an older guy screamed from the back of the theatre. The moderator forced a smile and turned to his left. “All right, let’s open the floor to some other people…” “…And in conclusion,” the man continued, “I think I speak for everyone in this room in saying that we could not have been treated tonight to a more talented, spectacular genius of a filmmaker than our very own Theo Hauser, a man who will continue to make incredible motion pictures for many more decades to come. Mr. Hauser, I would like to take this opportunity to consider you my friend. Thank you and God bless.” The man finally took a seat, making for much applause in the room. The moderator immediately took the next available 96 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

question, but the director couldn’t keep his eyes off the strange man. The guy had a giant brown briefcase resting on his knees, as well as what looked to be a guitar case on the aisle next to his seat. The director wondered if this bizarre individual expressed his brand of irrational behavior with lots of directors at a multitude of venues, or just with him. “Mr. Hauser? Did you get that?” The director glanced at the moderator. “Hmm?” “This young woman in the front here just asked if you had any projects in development.” He looked down to see a pretty girl no older than twenty waving at him. “Oh, yes, hi there,” the director said, trying to blink himself out of his daze. “I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. Currently I’m working on a new screenplay.” “So we’ll be seeing a new film of yours soon?” the girl asked in a genuinely hopeful tone. “Honey, as soon as I can find my ending.” Laughter erupted from the entire audience, clearly from some jaded screenwriters. “Well, on that note,” the moderator said, “I wanted to thank you all for coming out tonight for this thirty-fifth anniversary screening of The Chainsaw Murders!” Everyone started clapping, and the director began the arduous process of waving and nodding to everyone. “And I especially wanted to thank Mr. Hauser for making his way out to Santa Monica tonight,” the moderator concluded. “Sir, this was a real treat.” The director shook the moderator’s sweaty hand and darted his eyes to the side exit where a limousine awaited him. He was about halfway to the door when a group of fans charged up to him so ferociously he momentarily feared for his life. “One at a time, please,” the director said. Fans were pushing items at him to sign that were mostly related to The Chainsaw Murders, but a VHS of Row Boat happily surprised him and one of the masks from The Millennium Killers made him smile. After a few minutes, the group in front of him receded into just two or three people. He wanted to get out of there. He wanted to get home to work on his new script. “Mr. Hauser, Sir.” Somebody pushed an old laserdisc box set of Chainsaw Murders in the director’s face. He did a double take. “Oh, wow,” the director said. “The three-disc set! Where did you find this —” He looked up to see the man with the briefcase. He was standing completely still, a dopey grin on his face, his eyes staring into the director’s. “I’ve had it for years, Mr. Hauser. Still in its original wrapping. I’ve never allowed myself to open it.” The director politely nodded and glanced behind the man to see that he was the last of the autograph hounds. He signed his name in the center of the box and started


making his way to the exit. “Oh, Mr. Hauser! Can you sign another?” “No, sorry, I can’t,” the director said. “I’m late for another function.” “Please.” The man rushed up to him just feet away from the exit. The director turned around, trying to hide a sigh. “Okay. One more.” The man opened up his briefcase and handed the director a screenplay. But it wasn’t just any screenplay. “You must be joking,” the director said, flipping through the eighty-six pages, which were covered in lots of ineligible writing. “These are my notes.” “Yes, Sir. That’s your personal script from the 1975 shoot. Some guy in New York auctioned it off in the 1990s. I paid top dollar for it.” The director nodded and signed his name above the title on the script’s cover. “Well, thanks for the support.” He started walking out the door. “But wait,” the man said. “I just have one more thing.” The director turned the corner outside to find his limo driver enjoying a cigarette. “Please get in the car,” he said, pushing past him. “I need to get out of here.” “Sure thing.” The driver started making his way to the left side of the limo. The director pulled on the door handle, but the door was locked. “Mr. Hauser! Theo!” The man with the briefcase skipped up to the director in a droll manner that suggested he was a child in a grown man’s body. “I’m sorry,” the director said. “I have to go. Good night.” “I just have one more thing for you to sign, I promise.” He put his briefcase down and pulled up the guitar case. He started to open it when the side door of the limo unlocked. “Good bye,” the director said. He opened and shut his door before the man could stop him. “No! Wait!” “Go!” the director shouted at his driver. As the limousine started pushing forward, the man started chasing after it. He pressed the palm of his left hand against the side window and dragged his heavy guitar case with the fingers of his right. He lost his grip when the limousine made a right on busy San Vicente and started speeding down the center lane. The director closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until he knew he was out of Santa Monica and back on the freeway, heading toward his home in the San Fernando Valley. Another crazy fan evaded. The director arrived a half hour later to find his upscale Studio City neighborhood home dark and abandoned. He tipped the driver and entered in his six-digit code to get through the front gate. He entered the house and made his

way to the kitchen. Some whiskey on the rocks helped ease the pain. His third wife had just moved out on him, and his only child was studying political science in China. He was alone in the big house for the first time in years, and the loneliness was eating away at him. The director set the drink down and made his way to the study. He turned on his laptop to see a cursor blinking on a blank white page. He tapped his fingers on his desk and rested his thumb against his chin. He cracked his knuckles and stretched out his stiff back. As usual, he had nothing. He sighed and closed the laptop. The director hadn’t been able to write a word in six months. Maybe later. He returned to the kitchen, this time to pour himself some special XO brandy. He started opening the liquor cabinet when something black on the kitchen island caught his eye. The director took five slow steps forward and turned on the overhead lights. He looked down confusedly to see the guitar case. “What—” A loud, earth-shattering roar came to life behind him. Before he could turn around, a shooting pain struck him fiercely in his back. The director started screaming. Whatisitwhatisitwhatisit! A chainsaw smashed through the front of his stomach where his belly button used to be. The director looked down, horrified, before belting out another succession of violent screams. As blood started spilling toward the kitchen floor, the chainsaw turned off. He remained standing, near unconscious, the chainsaw balancing itself on his intestines. That was no guitar case. “Mr. Hauser, here’s my pen.” The director turned his head to the left to see the man with the briefcase. “As I was trying to tell you at the theatre, I have in my possession the last known chainsaw used in your film. It appears at the end when the sadistic killer finally meets his match. Can you believe, Mr. Hauser, that the chainsaw still works after all these years?” The director slumped to the ground, the chainsaw still protruding through his stomach. As he started fading into nothingness, his final glimpse was of the man putting a black sharpie in his hand and assisting him with his signature. “Just here.” The director finished signing his name in the center of the chainsaw’s blade, and as he released his final breath, he felt the chainsaw roar to life again, this time moving up from his lower intestines toward his throat, ripping through his brain and out the top of his head. Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 97


N.P. Miller N.P. Miller is a Baltimorean native currently residing in Winston Salem, North Carolina. His poetry has appeared in such publications as Twisted Tongue, Dark Gothic Resurrected, and Moon Washed Kisses. He is 23.

Dragon Dragon’s blood incense burns on the dish. Its murky mist curls around my nostrils. I believe I have reached chemical-induced nirvana. Reality drifts like glaciers and bank accounts. I want to become an Arthurian dragon. With wings spread wide, I shall fly far away. Golden arches and supercenters become non-existent. Life morphs into an aimless, lonely cumulous cloud. I burp a fireball deep from the chasms of my throat. Now there lies below me a crispy little village. My massive reptilian figure swoops down. I snatch a damsel in distress between my teeth. In my lair, I patiently await the knight’s arrival. The damsel’s clothes mysteriously disappear. Being a dragon, I find no attraction in such things. She will, however, make a nice, meaty appetizer. Tonight, Galahad will serve as the main course. I will barbeque him within his tin can armor. His bones will crunch and his blood will boil. This will be the highlight of my day. I’m so fucking cool. I hope this malignant magnificence will last forever. But tomorrow, sadly, I must return to school. I resume life as an awkward Dungeons and Dragons geek. But I can still fantasize and hallucinate. My life beyond life.

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Brian Barnett Brian Barnett lives with his wife, Stephanie, and son, Michael, in Frankfort, Kentucky. He has appeared in nearly thirty publications, online and in print, including several anthologies. He was co-editor of the anthologies Toe Tags, Toe Tags II and Long Live The New Flesh: Year One with William Pauley III, and has published a collection of horror stories titled State of the Dark. For up-to-date news on all things Brian: http://merrilyhauntingfrankfort.blogspot.com/

Old Man, Zombie Slayer Eat someone your age Get off my lawn, ya hippies I’m getting’ my gun!

Boom! Headshot, Hollywood Zombies all around Thanks for nothing, Romero Rotten cinema

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Jeff Baker Jeff Baker spent his infancy in Bogotá, Colombia, his formative years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and his (supposed) adulthood in various locales around the country. He currently lives in Seattle. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Booth, Anatomy, Fictitious Mag, Fiction at Work, Chum, and The Pedestal Magazine. He can be reached at anejdb@vmmc.org

A Thousand Aisles from Nowhere

T

here was a media frenzy about those campers that got lost in the Everglades last summer, but where’s the outrage about the estimated fifty-two people that have disappeared in Costco in the last year? The problem seems to be getting worse. In my town, we’ve lost three people this month alone. The most recent was my friend, Ed Hillary, who visited the store last Saturday morning and has not been seen since. A search party was formed as soon as his family noticed he was gone Wednesday night, but unfortunately the bloodhounds got distracted by the acre of chew-toys, and the two volunteers that did not become lost themselves abandoned the search in favor of a special on paper towels — 200 rolls for $7.99. Perhaps it’s fitting — if there’s one thing I’ll always remember about Ed, it’s that he was always spilling things. It’s a detail to mention at his funeral, if there ever is one. We don’t know if Ed is even dead, alive, or — my own pet theory — cryogenically frozen in one of the corndog freezers. The shopping list that was found at least tells us what he was looking for: wood glue, radish seeds, Hello Kitty shoestrings, 17.34 feet of bungee cord, liver-flavored floss, a hydraulic jack, raccoon vitamins, Bundt-cake mix, varnish, and a left-hand glove (you’d have to know Ed). Ed’s distraught wife, who’d rushed to the scene after a nap and catching a movie, was philosophical. “Such is life,” she said,

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chewing thoughtfully on her fourth helping of spinach-wrap samples at the deli. “Ed’s in a better place now — somewhere between tires and bakeware, we think — and it’s time to move on. Ooh, look! Lip gloss!” I have a solution to this disturbing problem. First, never enter Costco without a compass, a GPS tracking device, two cell phones, a month’s supply of food, an emergency blanket, flares, and a sherpa, preferably one from a family that has lived in the store for at least two generations. Second, use the Buddy System. Under no circumstances should you become separated from your Buddy, no matter if he wants to search for a fifty-five gallon drum of cashews, and you’d rather see what happens if you inhale a calming cranberry aromatherapy candle into one nostril and an energize! into the other (olfactory hallucinations). Be sure to pick a Buddy that is good in a crisis, plump, and weaker than you are, in case cannibalism becomes necessary. Third, if you do become lost, stay where you are, yell for help as loudly as you can, and rest assured that the chance you’ll be heard over the P.A. system and the beeping of forklifts is actually quite slim to none. I have a fourth idea, but I just noticed that I’m running dangerously low on both Pringles and lawn furniture, so I’m going to run down and pick some up. Will finish this when I return. If I don’t, tell my family I loved them. And that there’s a killer deal on lawn bags.


Charles F. Thielman Raised in Charleston, South Carolina and Chicago, educated at red-bricked colleges and on city streets, Charles has worked as a youth counselor, truck driver, city bus driver and bookstore clerk. Recently married on Kauai, a loving Grandfather for five free spirits, his inspired work as poet and active shareholder in an independent bookstore’s collective continues. He’s on the Boards of the county and state writers’ organizations. They are promoting the Poetry Box Project – the boxes are like curbside realtor’s boxes, but with copies of poems inside; these boxes help build a sense of community! Plant One & Feed It!

Age Owl wings rowing across a snow meadow under a blue moon. The blue moon of the birth you have seen, awakening to wonder about a dream, trying to reclaim its skies. Wiping shower fog from your mirror to find your eyes, you whisper a question or two, holding a towel to your belly, feeling your skin cooling, beard stubble more white than gray, seeing marrow and faith.

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Larry O. Dean Larry O. Dean was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, where he won three Hopwood Awards, and Murray State University. His most recent chapbooks are About the Author (Mindmade Books, 2011) and abbrev (Beard of Bees, 2011). Selected magazine publications include The Berkeley Poetry Review, Passages North, Big Bridge, Keyhole, and OCHO. Also a critically-acclaimed songwriter, Dean has numerous CD releases to his credit, including Fables in Slang (2001) with Post Office, Gentrification Is Theft (2002) with The Me Decade, and Fun with a Purpose (2009) with The Injured Parties.

Beth Feels Blessed To Be Alive Following A Near-Death Experience Beth feels blessed to be alive following a near-death experience — that is, until she realizes that she must protect a mother and her daughter from mobsters in order to get into heaven. Who knew fashion could be dangerous to anything beyond your credit card balance?

Daniel Is A Reluctant Killer Daniel is a reluctant killer and teams up with the trigger-happy Colleen. Battling a sense of uselessness and embracing her nurturing nature, she adopts juvenile delinquent Wesley.

Hank Is Midwestern, Christian And Corn-Fed Hank is Midwestern, Christian and corn-fed; Rebecca’s a sophisticated Jewish city girl. He returns from the grave to take her back.

Left Orphaned By An Accident Left orphaned by an accident, and shamelessly pursuing handsome French teacher Mr. Powell, 18-year-old Jesse is pumped to start her first year of college. Will the two be able to save their relationship? Tune in!

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No One Notices At First That Laurie Is Unraveling Mentally No one notices at first that Laurie is unraveling mentally — not even her husband. When she walks into his karate class and he instantly falls in love with her, their amazing journey as a family is one you’ll never forget.

Rita Suffers From A Serious Psychological Diagnosis Rita suffers from a serious psychological diagnosis — commitment phobia. She gets paired up with the precinct’s best cop, an old-school type who plays by his own rules.

Two Desperate Truck Drivers Two desperate truck drivers, Josh and Donny, accept an assignment to haul covert government cargo. As the young lovers run throughout the streets of San Francisco celebrating the news they come upon a group of girls playing hopscotch.

What Happens When A Teacher For The Blind What happens when a teacher for the blind loses her own sight? She gets hooked on crystal meth and is sucked deeper and deeper into a dangerous drug cartel!

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Jonathan Slusher Jonathan Slusher is a native of the Garden State, now living in the San Francisco Bay area. He has a MS in Environmental Science and has spent the past six years — two of those abroad in France — as a stay at home father. You can find recent work by Jonathan in Paper Darts Magazine, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, and on his webpage at www.waterlanding.net

That Far to Deep River

S

he’s six years old and the most beautiful thing in your life. No one else can lift you up from a middle-age rut like she can. No one else can put you right back there faster. You’re on a remote beach, and the autumn light is perfect. October is summertime in Northern California. Last week, your little guy turned three years old. High Five! He just descended the one hundred and thirty-seven wooden steps all by himself for the first time. About halfway down the cliff, twenty-two pelicans soared over your head without making a sound. It’s the days like today that get you through the tough times; in the middle of the winter, when it is dark at five p.m., the kids are sick, you’re sick, and your wife is on another essential work trip to Basel, Milan, or Brussels. You don’t go anywhere anymore, but you also don’t regret putting your career on hold to stay at home with the kids — never, or at least, not on a day like today. At first you didn’t want to have to a second child. You were worried that you wouldn’t be able to work up the motivation to do it all over again. Baby Einstein, A B C, the repetition, the crying, and the leg kicking, shit-streaked diaper changes; how could you give a second child all the attention that they deserve? You couldn’t. You weren’t able to. But you’ve done okay. He’s a happy little boy, most of the time. You love them both equally and unconditionally, but she’s more fragile. She’s more complicated. You worry about her too much. Knowing this doesn’t help. The reddish sandstone is smooth, but your outstretched fingers grip it easily. Up on top, you hold him by the shirt and remind her not to get too close to the edge. The rock is wide and seems relatively safe — you’ve been up here before — but it stretches far into the sea. At the end of it, cold water swirls and froths a dirty blonde topping of foam below. A few ducks ride the incoming swells. She points downward at the water, “How far is that?” “Ten feet.” “How deep is it?” 104 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

You’re not sure. “Let’s not find out.” She stares. You scan the horizon for dolphins. She loves dolphins. She loves baby seals, baby otters, lady bugs, and dogs. She wants to be a Beluga whale trainer or a veterinarian. Whoosh. A big wave crashes below. He crawls up your chest and wraps both arms around your neck. “We should probably climb down now.” But she doesn’t hear a word. Her green-blue eyes are lost in the depths. “Papa, if I fell in, would you save me?” Of course you would. “Would you never give up? Would you keep on swimming and swimming until you found me?” Found her? How far down does she mean? Would you never give up, even if it meant that you would surely die trying? Could you will yourself to keep swimming, knowing that it was a hopeless cause? Could you go down that far? You want to think that you would. You have to say that you could. You look at her and make a conscious effort not to blink. “I would never give up on you, honey. No matter what, I would keep on swimming. I would never give up.” She’s nine years old and she doesn’t have any friends on the playground. She hates school. She sits in her room and thinks. She thinks a lot. She wants to know why some people have so much and others have so little. How come all of the shoes that dangle from telephone pole wires are always boy’s shoes? “When something dies before it is supposed to, does it still go up to heaven?” Of course it does. Is this why she’s been sad lately? She said she doesn’t want another hamster. She had him outside and let him go. It was an accident, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. You don’t know whether you should talk about it and decide to make homemade pizza for dinner instead. The kids eat shredded mozzarella cheese by the handful and pick off pieces of uncooked dough. The pizza comes out of the oven golden brown with an uncured turkey pepperoni


smile, but they’re not very hungry anymore. She’s eighteen years old and it will never be the same. She’s done something tragic. The boy made a video. He sent it to his friends. You know his family. Everyone has seen it. You’re sure they have. Your wife can’t go to the hair salon anymore. Work is awful. She’s so embarrassed. How could she have done this to her? Your son is in Saturday detention for fighting. He’s never been in trouble. His skinny guidance councilor — are there any other problems at home? — has a disturbing voice and creepy eyes that keep coming back at you at awkward moments. Your family is unraveling. What can you do? You’re upset, but not as much as you should be. Something else bothers you even more, something that’s been missing inside you for a long time; too long. Deaths, disappointments, stinging regrets, you’re numb; you’ve been through worse than this before. That which you can’t feel, but know you should, keeps hidden the superior version you believe still exists inside you. Graduation is two months away. She has a friend whose parents own a cabin on a river in Maine. Maybe she doesn’t want to go to college, at least not right away. This cabin guy, it’s nothing serious. They’re more just friends. Don’t worry. She wants to live her life. She needs to get away. She wants to be a writer. She has some money saved. She’s gone. You send Christmas and birthday cards to a P.O. Box. Your wife signs each of the cards using only her name, without a complimentary close — Mom. Your son leaves early for college, he’s on the men’s soccer team. You adopt a Husky Shepard mix and get a part time job at the community college. The long runs with the dog often quiet the stinging chatter in your mind down to a sweet whisper, but eventually you feel guilty about feeling good. She’s twenty one and there’s a letter in the mailbox with a postmark from Deep River. She’s in trouble. It’s bad; a six

hundred and forty plant cloning system was found in the shed. Her boyfriend is in worse trouble. He’s been in trouble twice before. She didn’t know everything, and he wants to blame things on her. She wants nothing to do with him anymore. Your wife wants nothing to do with her anymore. Whom do you choose, between your only daughter and the woman that you married? Thank God no one has asked you, but it could happen at any moment. This mess; your son probably doesn’t even want to know. Who could blame him? You know you’re on your own. Pescadero, California to Deep River, Maine: Trip Distance: 3,318.36 mi Time: 49 hrs 33 mins You’re at your desk writing another story you’ll never let anyone see when the phone rings. It’s your wife. She can have your office, but not the guest room. You need to have guest room in the house. She’s already ordered a new, full-sized bed. It’s coming on Wednesday. Shake your head and smile, you’re a reluctant optimist. This old desk will fit just fine in the garage. You start packing the vintage vinyl first, then the books. Its fifty degrees outside and raining like hell. The car is packed, but you let it warm up. You’re waiting. You did tell him everything, and he did care. He pulls into the driveway much too fast for your liking, but now is not the time. He’s shouldering a big blue backpack — the one he wore on the Yosemite trips, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley, and Anza Borrego. You pet the dog and kiss your wife goodbye. When she holds open the screen door, you take a mental snapshot that will get you through the next ten days. You like the way that you looked in her eyes. A running start, tip toe splashes across the driveway. Jump in. You’re soaked. It’s cold. You still holding your breath?

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April Sopkin April Sopkin lives in New York, but not for much longer. Her fiction has also appeared in issue #4 of Makeout Creek.

James Goes Out

F

or James, that morning was a different morning for four reasons. First, he’d woken up in bed and not on the couch with the TV going. This first difference was defining, because James was partial to Jim Beam and a tight little joint before bed. And in that pliable state, his fifty-five year old body was unlikely to find its way to the bedroom when already settled deep into the low-slung couch. The morning’s second difference included taking a dump without need for distraction. James dropped anchor on the cushioned toilet seat and didn’t bother to reach for the magazine at his feet. It was the smallest of the four reasons, but it coming so fast after the first made him wonder if perhaps the cruise control of his days had shifted back into gear. He went to the kitchen and pointedly performed a few regular habits to see if he still could, cosmically-speaking. Turn on the radio. Brew the coffee. Slice the cantaloupe. James stood near the kitchen window and half-listened as the radio commentator loosed a string of headlines. His mouth was mossy and tart, so different from the cold softness of the fruit. A sharp hangover pulsed in his temples, unusually severe, but typical of his mornings to suffer such a headache. Last night’s severity was necessary. The paper advertised the Hollick dive’s end-of-semester two-for-one deal, but it had been the wedding announcement in section D that inspired James’ participation. His ex-wife — Lillian was her very nice name — had remarried to a psychiatrist named Guy. According to the announcement, the ceremony took place on a glacier with the lovebirds bundled in matching parkas, while vacationing on a twelve-day Alaskan cruise. He flipped the radio to some music — something Spanish, salsa maybe, it was senselessly ecstatic. Appropriately selfmocking, he felt. He opened the window and crawled in his robe out onto the fire escape, where he sipped coffee and waited for the peaking sun over near the cemetery on the hill. No cars and empty streets all around. His perch was only two 106 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

stories off the ground, yet somehow he gazed out across the entire little city and felt not above or among, but without. This was the third difference. James didn’t know how a person grew up when they were already a grown-up, or changed when they’d made no choice to do so, but he sat there long after his mug was empty. He squinted into the breeze that tossed his salt and pepper hair. The salsa music four times cut to station identification and ensuing commercials. And his low-slung midsection sat in his own lap, hugging him. He now knew: when ordering a whiskey neat during a twofor-one special, the drink was served as a double in a tall glass. And drinking from a tall glass tended to trick the lips into full swallows, as opposed to a rocks glass and its corresponding sip. And now, recounting the number of drinks consumed was impossible. And throbbing. His head fell in his hands and his eyes closed against the spins. Was he sweating from the hangover or the remembering? Perhaps he should get off the fire escape, he thought. In the bathroom, James brushed his teeth and then wandered aimlessly into the kitchen while swishing stinging mouthwash between his cheeks. He turned down the music. It was then he noticed the two plastic juice cups in the sink — the kind he used for whiskey, because his ex-wife had been such a fan of the proper glass set with the bubble imperfections. He crept to the arched entryway of the TV room and paused when he spotted the foot hanging over the arm of the couch. Painted and white and buffed, unmistakably female. Certainly, this was the fourth difference from all the other mornings. With stealth, he returned to the bathroom and spit out the mouthwash. On went yesterday’s pants and he tucked in his undershirt. Back in the TV room, James cautiously circled around to the front of the couch he had not slept on the night before. The woman wore nothing but a t-shirt (one of his, he noted) and black underwear. Her long hair was a faded brown-


blonde mix and fanned purposefully above the pillow, out of the way. He stood over her. The line of thick, neatly trimmed bangs across her forehead was familiar to him, as was her faded red lipstick. She woke up only after moaning and turning her rear end to face him. Over a shoulder, she peered back with barely-aware eyes. “Dad?” James stepped back. “I’m kidding, you goon.” She sat up, pulling the T-shirt down to cover her underwear and bent over her knees in laughter. “Yes, I know,” James said. “I don’t have any children.” “You and your ex didn’t have any,” she said. “Yeah, you told me. She had a bum uterus.” James stepped back again, hitting the coffee table and upending a glass of water onto the carpet. “I would never describe it like that,” he said. The water soaked through his argyle socks. “You sure did.” The woman stood up, hands on hips and shaking her hair down her back. “Also,” she kicked the couch behind her, “you told me this thing was a pull-out. It’s not.” “We met last night?” “At the Hollick.” “The bar near the community college?” “Near TCC, yeah. On Roanoke Boulevard.” She smiled, still holding her hips in a paused and waiting manner. “You having a little amnesia?” He didn’t answer. James remembered being at the Hollick dive, and he remembered chatting with a woman, but he couldn’t recall the series of events that led them to this moment. “You were pretty ripped,” the woman said. “I’ll forgive you if you make me pancakes. Or waffles.” James tried to consider his options or perhaps fumble for a memory, but his brain instinctively told him there was a waffle maker in the drawer under the oven. The insistent reality was, he was hungover and starving. His mouth dampened for fluffy, sticky waffles, and he felt light-headed in the present situation. She followed him into the kitchen and sat on a stool at the counter while he prepared breakfast. The woman wasn’t that young, he saw now — her skin was merely very white — but probably firmly in her thirties. She wore dark makeup, now smeared, and had a line of unused piercings up one earlobe. It reminded him of the time his ex-wife tried to hang a mirror in their walk-in closet and she kept having to hang it higher and higher, so by the end there were several holes in a vertical line on the wall. He whisked the batter in a ceramic bowl and spoke over the noise. “We talked a long time last night, did we?” He grinned politely. “Yeah — can I get some coffee?” James filled his Elvis mug and gave it to her. She gingerly took a sip, but was startled by the sudden, tinny rendition of

A Little Less Conversation coming from the mug. They both jumped. “Motion activated,” he said. “I burned my tongue.” “I got it at Graceland last year.” “Cool. Can I get some water?” The small-talk approach was not yielding any hints, and James supposed he only had the time it took to make and eat the waffles if he was going to gain answers. He needed to be more direct, but the prospect unnerved him. He was a professor of literature, not accustomed to posing direct questions, but rather sweeping philosophical reflection. He whisked the batter harder. He thought of the poster outside his office door, and every office door for that matter, all down the yellow-lit, beige-tiled hallways of Tanke Community College: “The only stupid question is the one not asked.” Normally, James would never subscribe to such a trite sentiment, particularly not for a woman lacking enough taste to sit pantless in his kitchen. But he needed to know if he should call the police. “Do you work at the Hollick bar?” “No,” she said. “But you go there a lot?” “Yes.” She smirked at his tone, which was quiet and serious. “I think,” she said, “that you don’t go there often.” She leaned forward, sipping straight from the lip of the mug, not wanting to set off the music again. “You probably go to the Kettle Club over in the mall.” “How do you know that?” James paused in pouring the first waffle and held the ceramic bowl mid-air. “All the teachers go there.” “I told you I was a professor?” “You sure did. And then I laughed.” She laughed now, too. “I love this game.” James ignored this slight and pushed down the waffle maker lid. They were silent until the first waffle cooked and he dumped it on a plate for her. It smelled like sweet gold and his stomach rumbled loudly, but he pressed on. “Did we have sex?” “What?” James stumbled. “I mean, I don’t believe we did.” “What makes you think we didn’t?” “A person usually, you know, feels as though they’ve had sex, after they’ve had sex. Physically feels, I mean.” She smiled. Not a bad smile, to be sure. It was symmetrical and her teeth were equally white-ish and straight-ish, but the smile clearly had knowledge he didn’t. This was unattractive. “We did not have sex,” he decided. “The waffles are delicious.” “You’re welcome.” “Are you upset?” She pushed a forkful into her mouth. “Did you drug me?” She shook her head and flipped him off. After she swallowed Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 107


the waffle, she added, “I’m not some weirdo. Goddamn. Check the place — I didn’t steal anything.” James poured another waffle into the maker and closed the lid. He checked his wallet in his back pocket and there were all his credit cards but no cash. He presented it to her. “You paid for everything,” she said. “How so?” “I mean, you insisted. Especially the absinthe. Because it was like, twenty bucks.” James stared. “It’s not even a big deal in the U.S., I promise.” She cut the air with her fork for emphasis. “It’s the European stuff that’ll knock you on your ass. We talked all about this last night. I think that waffle is burning.” He upended the maker. The singed waffle plopped on his plate. Doused in syrup, he forgot his problems until the plate was empty, and then they rushed back. He had no idea how long this reverie had lasted, but the woman appeared to have noticed his mental drift. “Maybe I should go,” she said. She retreated to the TV room, but came back carrying her clothes rather than wearing them. He busied himself with pouring another cup of coffee and carefully stirring in the sugar substitute. In his peripheral, she shimmied into her blue jeans and threw off the T-shirt. He didn’t see much, but his pulse intuited the stare of naked breasts in his direction. His downcast eyes slid a quick look, but she was already clipping on her bra. It was a cheetah pattern and he felt confusingly unimpressed and aroused. She buttoned her blouse and grabbed her purse. “Listen.” She paused at the door. “I’m not mad or anything. I had a good time.” James put his coffee down. She turned to leave, but stopped herself again. “Before I forget — you did say you wanted a thousand words on either theme or narrative technique, not both, right?” “I’m sorry?” “For Thursday’s class? The final? Sun Also Rises?” James tasted his mouth. He touched his lips. “Yes,” he said finally. “It’s an either-or option. For Thursday.” “Cool, thanks.” She nodded and shut the door. After some paused time, James went to his briefcase and pulled out his laptop. He sat on the couch and waited for the relic to load its start page. Knee jangling, a squishy sound came from the soggy patch of carpet. His reflection in the blank TV shot him worried looks. James opened the class list. To his surprise, each name immediately registered a mental snapshot of the corresponding student. A brief high of confidence convinced him it’d all been a prank, perhaps, until he read her name — Elizabeth Wilson — and involuntarily pictured her arched buttocks on his couch. Further still, he pictured the red split of her mouth inhaling suddenly. 108 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

James sat back into the couch cushions. Elizabeth Wilson liked to be called Liz. She sat in the third row, near the door, because she often came late and left immediately. She wore dark and heavy make-up. James remembered wondering if she was a bartender or a stripper, as there seemed no reason to be so pale and dark at 8:30 in the morning if one weren’t engaging the underbelly on a regular basis. Also, her one addition to open discussion had been questionable trivia regarding Hemingway’s proclivity for body shots from the small of a woman’s back. James went to the kitchen for water, but only filled the glass and put it down. He stared at the two plastic juice cups in the sink while a slow memory crept up his throat and into his brain like a belch. She said call me Liz. They’d talked a lot, although he had no memory of a specific exchange. But there was shame and worry at all the conversational possibilities, of having been soft and sincere with a veritable stranger — because he could be very soft and very sincere, but it’d been a long time. And there was that wedding announcement. In his mind’s eye, he saw her chin propped on hand as she nodded empathetically to whatever he was saying. Then the moment switched to another, and she was laughing loudly, head back like an animal, and he reached for her knee. Her jeans were tight and the kneecap felt like a hard disc under his palm. She kissed him. He did not forget to close his eyes, as he always thought he would when kissing a woman who was not his wife. Five years on, and still, the divorce didn’t exist for James the way it did on legal papers. Being married thirty years meant you were forever — no matter if forever wasn’t actually spent together. Papers filed in a cabinet somewhere could not sever the attachment of knowing someone long enough to witness the diminishing of their beauty. No separation of property could articulate the time spent falling slowly out of love and then suddenly back in and then slowly out again and then the strange wait for the see-saw to swing back, all of which no one talks about. James remembered. He remembered hugging this woman, his student, Elizabeth Wilson, over and over again, inadvertently, as they stood in his hallway near the TV room. She’d guffawed when she realized the intentions of his confused hands and she said, “It comes undone in front,” and then removed her bra herself. He was confused by her laughter — was she laughing at him? — and he suddenly had no memory of inviting her over. He went to the couch. He needed to think about the way in which they got to this point. He grunted as she immediately sat on top of him, straddling. Her jeans cut a lip of fat around her waist and she kissed him for such long stretches that his arms kept dropping to his sides on the couch, and she kept picking them up and returning them


to her waist or breasts or backside. He could not keep up. In the room’s darkness, he supposed it seemed to her that he was overcome by a near-catatonic bout of passion. She wouldn’t notice anything, as long as he kept kissing her back. In the hallway, now, James found himself with forehead to wall. The women, nowadays. The way they pushed, like it would only take a hard press in all the usual places. He’d had no idea the world wasn’t nervous anymore, and this led him to wonder if his ex-wife had discovered this fact long ago. Did her new husband know it, too? They must — to bother remarrying at their age. Well, was that not proof of an ascendant perspective? James felt he was inside of himself, a small and fetal other-self, turning end over end as if his gut were a dryer. It was misery to learn of one’s ignorance. He pulled his forehead off the gummy wallpaper and stalked back to the couch. The night was little more than a smear of moments, but there was the progressively crushing suspicion that he had disappointed. He re-read the class list. He sat back and closed his eyes, faintly detecting the low music in the kitchen. He was sweating, too, and could smell it — like spice and something sour. He thought back again to her on top of him in the dark and it was as if she were there again, on top of him now, and he couldn’t breathe. He remembered now. It was clear enough. “What’s wrong?” Elizabeth Wilson was kneeling in front of him, looking up, asking this question. At first, he hadn’t understood why she was asking. He knew he was soft, of course, but why was she asking what was wrong? As if a question like that in a moment like this could ever be answered — that question, it was meant for stale dinner conversation or long car rides when someone sighs. To ask it now and to be so casual and direct in a moment that was nothing short of mortifying, well, that sort of approach was not going to get the job done, as it were. In fact, it was cruel. He wanted to shove her away, but covered himself instead. “There’s nothing wrong,” James told her. “Something’s wrong,” she said, and then asked for more:

“Just tell me what you want.” James could not imagine what that would be, nor what words he would use to illustrate, and he couldn’t suffer to hear how he might sound saying any of it. So, he just said, “No.” Her hair was too long in front, and she casually tossed her head to clear her eyes and in that small movement he saw her ease and confidence. And she wasn’t even beautiful. She had to be thirty-five or thirty-seven, maybe even forty. Her knees were long since lily white, and it unnerved him. She was smarter than him, or she thought she was. Or she was. “We can wait awhile,” she’d said. “We’ll watch some TV.” She got off the floor and sat next to him on the couch. He put himself back into place and loudly, accidentally, snapped the elastic band on his underwear. It stung. The TV glow flooded the room and they passed back and forth his last half a joint, which made Elizabeth Wilson cough and sputter, but he never looked over. At some point, James assumed, he must’ve simply gone to his bed. There were other details, he was sure, but the significant dots were already connected. He couldn’t bear to trace the whole web. Now, he closed the laptop and went back to the kitchen. He rinsed the waffle dishes, drying them immediately and putting them away. He brewed fresh coffee and turned the music back up. The robe went back on, too. On the fire escape, he pulled last week’s exam papers from his briefcase, balancing it on his knees as a makeshift desk. He flipped through the considerable stack. Hers was near the bottom. James drew the red pen close to the paper many times, wanting to make every minor correction — careless penmanship, so many uncrossed T’s left as L’s — but he’d never done that before, so he couldn’t start now. If the answer was a right one, he kept going down the page. When it was a wrong one, he paused and made a note of it. The sun hit a high place and every car turning down his street caught a flare on its windshield. She would pass.

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Anthony John DiMauro After twenty three years of wandering in the forests of Pennsylvania, Tony arrived in the great city of New York,. survival knife in hand. Tony is an illustrator, designer and fine artist whose gritty, painterly illustrations have been exhibited in galleries such as Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles and SVA Gallery in New York. He works as a freelance illustrator and designer, creating work for clients across the United States while completing an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. When he isn’t creating artwork, Tony listens to abrasive electronic music and ponders philosophy. He is a full-contact kick-boxer and mixed martial artist, speaks fluent English, HTML, and parla un po’ Italiano. www.tonydimauro.com

Ritual

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Kid Uzi

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Recharge

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Confessions

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Fumare

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The Mermaid

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The Boxer

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The Hunter

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The Spice of Life

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Twins

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K.J. Hannah Greenberg Abetted by her hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs, K.J. Hannah Greenberg tramps across literary themes and genres. Although she devotes her eclectic writing to lovers of slipstream fiction and to oboe players who never got past the second orchestral chair, she also writes for mothers who are too busy mopping carpets, diapering doll bottoms, and chopping beans to think clearly. She has broadcast: three books, one musical, hundreds of freestanding short stories, poems, and essays, more than half of a dozen blogs and magazine columns and, according to her sons and daughters, lots of parental attitude.

Deferring to Family Custom

G

ravity, especially as expressed in inertia, diminishes when objects pass through a parabolic arc. It is only when things change directions, horizontally, that G-forces are experienced. At family gatherings, Barnett tried to connect to Ramona, to appreciate Sal, to make small talk to Yarb and to defer, during conversations, to Sigbjorn. It was less important to Barnett that he understand the unfolding of domestic events than that he work to accept them. Sure, he detested the frequently present goat cabrito and passed on offers of the family’s featured reindeer roast, doubling back to the long buffet only for extra helpings of blood orange tapenade and of stottie cakes, but such behavior was expected as Barnett was a stalwart vegetarian. Less predictable was his affinity for the war stories of Uncle James or for the gossip of Great-Grandma Sophie. As though he had been incorporated into the collective decades, rather than months earlier, Barnett paid premium for the right to sit with the elders. His strategy profited him; short weeks after elbowing his way next to Uncle James, Barnett was marrying Ramona. Sigbjorn hustled to compose a speech for the wedding. He meant to scribe that marriage is about giving, that parenting is about perpetuating values, that true friendships have depth and that communities are, ideally, havens, but all he could think of were references to his and Barnett’s fraternity days. Thus, he penned that married men were like Gotlanders; all brawn and no clout, that parenting meant a permanent end to partying, that true friendships could be bought and sold as easily as blue chips and that communities, actually, usually suffered enough extensive demarcation from their gates and fences as to keep out all but the most boorish of individuals. Despite the content of Sigbjorn’s oration, all would have gone well at the wedding feast had Yarb not chosen that very celebration to challenge Sal to a duel. From one side of a linen-covered, chandelier-laden table, Yarb shouted enough profanities about Sal to silence a fleet of fishermen. Sal drew a checkbook. Yarb countered. 120 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

Faster than the most stout-hearted of penny stock investors could click their heels together, the men were at it, wielding their writing implements as though theirs were the only charitable donations being made to a certain boys and girls orphanage that year. Uncle James fainted before the two finished passing around their inscribed bits of financial paper, so great were the numbers of zeroes on each succeeding cheque. Great-Grandma Sophie finally brought to an end to that combat by declaring that the next family member who deigned to shower large amounts of riches upon strangers’ offspring would be the next family member to accompany her on her annual sojourn to Quechee, Vermont. She hosted an annual quilting circle there. Sophie traveled north every summer at the bequest of her friend George Smith, a pioneering anesthesiologist. What he lacked in facial hair, he more than compensated for with skilled mixology. Great-Grandma was particularly fond of the Sazeracs he served in egg cups. Her quilt patterns were exceptionally creative mornings after she had sipped with George. Ramona took advantage of the break in activity and called all of the unmarried women to the hall’s kitchen. The first one to locate a live waiter would receive her bouquet. She had no intention of tossing, and thereby ruining, her flowers. While the young girls, accompanied by a few fey divorcees, scampered across the banquet space, Sigbjorn began to toast anew. He meant to wish the groom the best of lizard bladders and of hedgehog tongues. Had a bridesmaid, who had been disinterested in Ramona’s summons, and who was decked in a bright fuchsia tutu, not tackled him just as he was discerning between agamid and helmet reptiles, he would have progressed to describe, in detail, the mating habits of spiny mammals and would have wished Barnett similar success. As it were, the wrestling move of Ramona’s attendant caused such a domino effect that Sigbjorn was knocked into Sal, who fell backwards against Yarb, who screamed so shrilly that his gender preference was revealed, in turn causing Uncle


James to slap his own knees so hard as to disturb one of the few busboys who had ventured into the fracas, who, in turn, threw his tray into the air, managing to hit a not-so-hidden generator and to cause all of the lights to go out. Half of an hour later, when the guests reconvened by candlelight, it was noted that the bride, the groom, and Great-Grandma Sophie were missing. The subsequent smugness, which shone from Yarb’s face, was attributed not to his lineage, but to his emotional and intellectual attributes, i.e. to his animal nature. In the dim light, it was impossible to surmise whether that spotlit man dripped blood or bar-b-que sauce from his jowl. Cousin Nancy screamed anyway. Yarb, who was unfortunately seated next to Nancy, seemed to be interested in flesh of one sort or another. Whereas the room’s illumination did not fade out, completely, for a second time, Nancy’s husband Elmer, a tax accountant of no small measure, whipped his pocket calculator out of his vest and beaned Yarb with it. The ruckus that followed enabled a handful of twenty-something year-old cousins, a wheezy ex-wife of a stately brother, and the bride’s best friend to make their exits. Barnett’s siblings, too, were itching to walk out, but could find no cover for their departure until an inventive niece threw a handful of lemon and potato pudding at the reception hall’s manager. The ensuing arrival of a biker pack, all relatives of the multi-pierced, chartreuse hair-colored supervisor and the advent of an a capella boys’ choir, the bride’s mother’s choice of entertainment for the festivity, transformed the staid event into an extravaganza, the likes of which the family witnessed only on alternate holidays. In a corner of the room, the groom’s mother and father began to recite, in exaggeratedly long syllables mantras meant to shepherd crowds toward acts of non-violence. Concurrently, in the room’s four corners, motorcyclists were comparing notes on the latest issue of Analytical Chemistry; by day, the majority of them worked for the National Institute of Health. Those leather-clad men and women were high on adrenaline

having stayed awake the night before stuffing bags of candy, a seasonal gift, for the same orphanage patronized by Yarb and Sal. Had they known that the bride’s relatives were major donors, those gang members would have carried Yarb and Sal on their shoulders and out into the night. As it were, leather studded and tuxedoed guests, alike, were stuck in a large space where a food fight was ensuing. Those club members leaned woozily against the room’s walls trying to determine which ruffians they were supposed to quell with their puny muscles. The chief caterer was no longer of help to the celebrants as he, too, had fled. By the time that the bikers had given up acting tough and had returned to arguing about footnotes, there were few comestibles left to fling. The party’s children, all of whom were ten year-olds, matched in height, hair cut and clothes, in order to add glamour to the wedding procession, and all of whom had been hiding under tables, during the banquet, quaffing all matters of noxious food and beverages, were no longer pointing or snickering. Instead, those elementary school-aged children had taken to making evil faces and barfing. Eventually, one among their number suggested that they float boats, which they were to construct from paper tableware, on the pond at the property entrance to the festive hall. Giving no heed to the parking lot’s now rapidly moving cars, to the nonswimmers among them, or to their expensive wedding couture, the children, too, scuttled away. In the end, Uncle James, as aided by Great-Grandma Sophie’s newest husband, Bob, paid the bills and supervised the cleanup. The event stayed fresh in the family’s mind for a month or so until the next gala occurred. That occasion was Ramona’s thirtieth birthday party. Savvy to family customs, Barnett hired a cake-decorator with an advanced degree in anthropology. Accordingly, the chef had built, on Ramona’s primary party treat, giant ruins depicting the winning score of her favorite badminton team. Only a few second cousins noticed that the oversized hamburger, beneath that delicacy’s icing, was still moaning.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 121


Erin Christian Erin Christian received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Georgia, where she interned with The Georgia Review and the UGA Press. In 2009 she was accepted into the Southern Women Writer’s Conference fiction workshop, and in 2010 she served as a fiction panelist at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference. She currently works as a Writing Consultant, freelance writer and freelance editor in Savannah, Georgia. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Staccato Fiction, Grey Sparrow, and Little Patuxent Review.

Possession

A

fter I let myself in, I found him face down in her bedroom. A tipped over bottle of Budweiser was leaking a small puddle near the silent oxygen machine. He was still dressed in the clothes from the funeral from four days before, but his suit jacket was lying across the bed; his blue shirt was dark around the back and neck. He didn’t have either of the wall units running, and the humidity glistened on his face. “Jesus Christ, Sid. What are you doing?” I fidgeted with the pen and paper that I’d brought to help him and Grace do inventory. Grace was really keen on knowing exactly what was where before we tried to divide anything. “I don’t feel good.” He spoke into the beige rug, drooling a little and flinching like he’d been kicked. “Mama’s here; I know it.” My spine felt crawly, and I inched around him to pick up the beer bottle. I dropped it in the wicker waste basket. “Listen, Sid, Grace called me to come help you. She said she had to watch her grandkid longer than she planned, so you just stay there and stay still.” I began looking around the room, jotting down notes of everything on top of the dresser and chest of drawers. He just sort of whimpered a bit, tugging at his gray hair with his right hand. Luckily, mainly just old papers and empty nebulizer boxes were visible. There was a little glass music box, though, and some ceramic pitchers. I clenched my teeth together and backed away into the den. I figured Grace could start on all the stuff in the closets or in drawers when she got there. I made it through the den quickly, the photos, the VHS tapes and records, even the candle-holders and candles that had never once been lit. But it was when I was in the kitchen, working on the dishes, that I heard a lowing coming from Sid’s room. From the hallway I could see him through the cracked door. He was slumped, sitting on the side of his bed, clutching one of Mama’s pink, flowery robes and pulling tissues from its pocket. I shuddered. They were probably hers. I snuck back into the kitchen and felt bile rising in my throat at the smell of some bacon Sid had tried to cook. It was 122 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

still in the pan, ice cold, with a fly on its side in the grease. The salty, fat stench made me want to wash my hands. I grabbed my cell and pressed my forehead against the glass in the back door. “Grace? When you said Sid would be here, you didn’t tell me he was already in this sort of state. It’s 9 o’clock in the goddamn morning.” I tried to whisper and cupped my hand over the mouthpiece. There was a beat of silence, and then, “What did you expect? He’s been in that state since he left high school in ’73.” “He was on the floor, Grace, drooling beer everywhere. Now he’s blubbering over a robe.” There was a pause. “I think he’s using her old used tissues to cry into. I don’t know how to deal with this shit.” The pause continued, and my chest tightened. I felt pressure building behind my eyes. “Well, learn.” She said. “I’ll be there eventually. I’ll get the stuff you don’t.” Grace hung up, and I looked at the cabinets. Only two more shelves were left, and then all I had to do was the living room. My face had begun to tingle around my eyes and mouth, and my fingers felt like they were going to sleep. I tried to focus on slowing my breathing. Aside from my whispered counting and some audible nose blowing from Sid, there was silence for a good while. When finished in the kitchen, I whispered thank you, thank you, thank you and headed into the living room. “Lauren! Oh Christ! Get the hell in here!” At his yell, I felt a stab of cold in my stomach, and I peered through the open doorway of the living room that connected to the hall. Sid’s arm was splayed out across the threshold of his room. His fist kept clenching. I crept closer but stopped just short of seeing the rest of him and watched his hand. “You there? Lauren?” His voice had softened from to a strained whisper. “Yeah, Sid,” I walked over to face the doorway head-on. He was lying on his back, gnawing on his moustache, and I could see his eyes flitting even though they were closed. “She’s here, Lauren.” Sid rolled to his side and buried his face in that robe. He kept flinching inward, and I could smell


beer and the menthol of his Kool cigarettes. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry. I sat down in the hall. “What are you talking about? She’s dead, Sid. You’re still in your funeral clothes for chrissakes.” I looked at the wall behind him, at the yellowed blinds, at anything but him, that robe. “God, she’s here. Her spirit.” He thrashed over onto his other side and clenched into a ball. His voice became almost inaudible. “Inside me, Lauren. Holy, Jesus. Mama . . . ” He got up on one elbow and squinted up at me. “ . . . has entered my body.” I stared at him. “This makes no sense. You’re drunk, and God knows what else you’re on. You hear me? No Goddamned sense.” I unfolded my legs to stand up, but before I could his fingers were digging into my calf. He pulled his face so close to mine that I could see the little red veins snaking toward his green

irises. I felt my face flush hot and pressure building behind my eyes and around my forehead. He furrowed his brows, and his eyes welled up. “We can’t leave yet. She won’t have nowhere to go. She’s here. She’s got no one else.” His grip tightened. I tugged my leg back, but he held on. His eyes squinted a little, and the water in them shifted but did not fall. “Don’t go.” We sat like that for I don’t know how long. I looked away again, at the blinds, the wall. His grip softened a bit, and I looked back at him. He still gazed up at me, squinting and blinking rapidly. He then laid his head on my knee and pulled those tissues out of the robe again. I tried not to look, took in a deep breath and focused on some fishing lures sitting in an old yellow ashtray on his bedside table. In my peripheral vision, I saw him begin to close his hand, but then open it again. Keeping my eyes on the lures, I took it.

Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 123


Creed Rykel Archibald Creed Rykel Archibald lives in Salt Lake City. Two of his stories have appeared in Scribendi. He earned a BA in English Literature at Westminster College and currenty works as a wilderness guide in central Utah.

To the Racing Men

N

icolas limped with purpose towards the cash register, stopping briefly to knock admirably on an ebony coffee table. A blonde woman with big hair stood in front of a computer. “I guess my table must have sold,” Nicolas said. The woman looked startled. “Merry Christmas, Nick,” she said. “I called yesterday and asked the gay guy if my table sold, and he said it did. So I came by to get paid.” “Nope, it hasn’t sold,” she said frowning. “I’m sorry.” “He said it sold.” “I told you three days ago that it hadn’t sold.” “Exactly,” Nicolas said, “but then I called the gay guy yesterday, and he looked everywhere and couldn’t find it, so he said it must’ve sold.” “He was lying,” she said cheerfully. Nicolas began pacing the showroom searching for the table. He went into the connected warehouse. His red eyes darted about from a mass of greasy gray hair. He disappeared back into the showroom. “It’s not here,” he said. The woman kept her eyes on the computer. “It isn’t in the store,” she said, “But it hasn’t sold, so I can’t pay you for it.” “Where the hell is it? I could store it myself.” “It’s actually staged in the Park City Parade of Homes. So, lots of interested people are seeing it every day. It’s a very big honor.” “I should get paid for it then.” The woman exhaled, “Remember we agreed that because it was so expensive, I would only take it on consignment? Consignment means I can’t pay you until I’ve actually collected money on it. And I haven’t collected money on it, because the Parade of Homes is a non-paying job.” “I have hip problems,” Nicolas said, “I can barely walk. This isn’t something that just gets better on its own.” “I’m so sorry,” she said, stepping slowly out from behind the cash wrap, “unfortunately I’m not authorized to give pay 124 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

advances on consignment pieces.” “Do you want to buy some benches?” Nicolas asked. “I’m not in a position to do that right now,” she said, folding her arms. “If you weren’t so cute I’d punch you. Legally, you should pay for my gas driving out here.” They both stood in silence. “What fun things do you have going on for Christmas?” she asked. “Nothing now,” he said, limping back towards the warehouse. “I’ll be back everyday until I get paid for those.” “We’re not open tomorrow,” she called. “Merry Christmas.” “Shit,” Nicolas said. “I’m short.” The girl behind the register stared at him. On the counter sat a cup of coffee, a pouch of rolling tobacco and one can of dog food. “I’m gonna have to return the coffee,” he said. The girl stared at him from behind the cash register. Her blond ponytail seemed to be wagging at him. “How am I supposed to return coffee?” she asked. “What do you want me to do?” Nicolas said angrily. “Are you sure you’re short?” the girl asked, “Let me see.” Nicolas held out his hand. The girl counted coins. “Can you get a cheaper dog food?” she asked. Nicolas shook his head and tapped a finger on the can, “This is the only one she eats. She has lots of hip problems. She’s half Golden Retriever. I should have gotten paid today but this bitch totally screwed me at Mountain Furniture.” “You want me to take off the tobacco?” the girl said. “No,” Nicolas said. “I have to have the cigarettes. They’re not for me. They’re for my friend.” The girl stared at him. She wore a ring in her lower lip and she tongued it silently. “Why can’t you just return the coffee?” he said. “How am I supposed to return coffee?” the girl asked, “I can’t just dump it back in the pot and resell your cup.” “I didn’t put cream in it and I haven’t drank it yet,” he said.


The girl glared at him in a manner absolutely unique to teenagers. She punched a button on the register. “The coffee’s on us today,” she said, “Merry Christmas. Now it’s six seventynine. You have that much.” She held her hand out. Nicolas began setting stacks of coins in her open palm. As he released the coins he dragged his fingers apart slowly so he grazed the girl’s skin as much as possible. She wore a bright red bra under a thin white tank top. “Getting into the Christmas spirit with that red bra?” Nicolas asked. The girl slammed the cash register and folded her arms. “See you later,” Nicolas mumbled. He picked up the dog food and the tobacco and turned towards the door. “Wait,” the girl said, “Take the coffee.” Nicolas stopped. “I returned it,” he said. “I don’t take nothing that I can’t pay for.” The girl picked up the cup and held it out towards him. She spoke sternly, “If you leave it here, I’m just gonna throw it out.” Nicolas stared at her a moment. Her ponytail was wagging again. He grabbed the coffee cup out of her hand, “Throwing it away would be wasteful,” he grumbled. “There’s plenty of people in this town that could use a hot cup of coffee this time of year.” He turned away and jangled out the door. Nicolas parked in a dirt lot along the Provo River. On summer days, the lot parked fly fishermen. On Christmas Eve Day it was totally empty. Nicolas let the dog out. He opened the food can and set it on the ground for her. She licked it clean, hunched over like a blond grizzly in her winter coat. Nicolas rolled a cigarette and mixed in the last few crumbs of marijuana from a black film canister. He leaned against the truck facing the Timpanogos Mountains; peaks shrouded in clouds; steep black pitches laid with snow. Nicolas put the spliff in his lips and lit it with a match. He leaned against the cold truck and took a long drag. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the girl in the gas station. He imagined himself removing that red bra — her teenage breasts sinking slightly and then rebounding as teenagers’ do. He thought of the skin around her nipples. He thought back to the girl he almost married. Thirty years ago and still the best sex of his life. They lived in old town Park City in an old mining house above Main Street. The living room and kitchen had beautiful cabinets and wood floors. Nicolas made all the furniture in that house. They had a good porch and lots of pot. In the summer, his fiancée never wore shoes. Summers in Park City are immaculate. Folks may come for the winters, but they stay for the summers. With her bare feet on the twilight pavement she looked like a humble daughter of God, like the Lord Himself plucked her from the vine and set her deliberately in front of the beer bar with hazy, incorruptible eyes. She was barefoot the morning she left. That was thirty years ago. Nicolas awoke abruptly on the floor. He tried to

move but his entire body throbbed. He slowly opened his eyes and saw thousands of little diamonds scattered across the knotted wood floor. They glinted in the morning sun blowing through the kitchen window. Nicolas raised his head slightly. He held his right hand out in front of his eyes. His knuckles were torn open and threads of blood — some dry, some wet — crisscrossed down his arm. His hand trembled slightly and he smelled something metallic. Then he saw her feet. She was sitting on the sofa, fully dressed, with her bare feet resting softly on what Nicolas now perceived to be pieces of the shattered window. Her eyes were scrunched up. Her arms were folded across her chest. “Baby, did I hurt you?” Nicolas moaned. She shook her head slightly. “I could never hurt you,” he said, still lying on the floor. After a moment his voice croaked again, “I’m assuming I broke the window.” She bolted up and held both arms stiffly at her sides. “You didn’t just break the fucking window, Nicolas,” she screamed. “You broke every fucking piece of furniture in the fucking house!” She began crying and Nicolas sat upright. “You took a fucking axe and chopped up everything we own,” she sobbed. “You chopped up our bed.” Nicolas staggered to his feet and looked around. The dining chairs were smashed to pieces. The table was on the ground with all the legs hacked off. The cabinet doors were ripped away and there was broken dishware everywhere. Nicolas felt as if he might vomit and slumped back down to the floor. The front door was wide open and her trunk was sitting on the porch. She stepped over the wreckage and loomed above him. Nicolas went to speak, but she silenced him with her hand. “I’ve tried, Nick,” she said. “But this thing seems to move from generation to generation, and I can no longer foolishly believe that it will just get better on its own.” The spliff was getting short. Nicolas pinched it and carefully sucked out the last hits. He had an advantage over most because he could never feel the roach burning his hand. He whistled and in a moment, the blond dog was at his side. She panted happily. Nicolas scratched her head and ears. He patted her rib cage. He crouched down on the frozen ground and kissed the dog’s snout. He rolled her ears back and forth between his fingers. “It’s been a shitty day,” he told the dog. “You wanna go see the Short Pole?” He stood up and slapped his thighs. The dog barked. The wind tossed his slick gray hair about. “Let’s go see Mary,” he yelled. Three old greyhounds ran alongside his truck like ailing spirits. The blond dog whined. When he parked and opened the door the greyhounds pushed their slender noses into his lap. The blond dog barked and squirmed out of the vehicle. The dogs sniffed each other. Nicolas kneeled in the dirt and stroked a greyhound. He had a shiny black coat and a thin gray face. Nicolas held his snout and tried to look into his Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 125


eyes. The greyhound slipped out of his grip. Nicolas put his hand around the dog’s leg. Again the dog pulled away agitated. Nicolas rubbed its back softly. “I’m sorry old man,” he said. “I’ll quit messing with you.” The dog closed his eyes and relaxed. Nicolas looked up. It was finally beginning to snow. Small flakes fell down quietly. “Quit fingering my dog,” someone shouted. “That one’s a boy!” Nicolas looked towards the house and saw his old friend Terry standing on the porch. Nicolas stood up with a groan and led the pack of dogs towards the house. “If it isn’t Chief Short Pole,” Nicolas said. Terry chuckled slightly, “How many months you been planning to say that?” “Only three or four,” Nicolas said. The men embraced in an awkward hug. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” Terry asked. Nicolas looked out over the property, “No reason in particular. Just wanted to make sure you’re still alive. Make sure you didn’t turn into an eagle or some shit and run off into the hills.” Both men chuckled. “You still have that rat tail going?” Nicolas asked. Terry turned his head slightly so Nicolas could see. His whole head was shaved bald except for one tightly wound, six-inch braid growing from the spot where the skull ends and the neck vertebrae begin. “You were Mormon when we were kids,” Nicolas said. “When did you get the third dog?” “We’ve had him about three months.” “Bullshit.” Nicolas said. “I’ve been here within the last three months.” “No. It was autumn when we got him. He was injured from the goddamn racing and I was walking him around trying to rehabilitate him. It was still warm then.” Nicolas stared at the dog and scratched his ears. The two men stood quiet for a moment with dogs all around their feet. The snow came down harder now and was beginning to stick. “Come in and warm up,” Terry said. “I gotta check on the food.” Nicolas sat at the table and his friend disappeared into the kitchen. Stuffed pheasants, dream catchers, sacred tobacco pipes, and old photographs adorned the walls of the house. “Has Mary left you to do all the cooking by yourself ?” he asked. Terry reappeared through the kitchen door. “No. She’s done most everything. She ran into town for a meeting, though.” He sat down and put a Marlboro between his lips. He walked to the kitchen and returned with an ashtray. “Could I bum a smoke?” Nicolas asked. “I don’t have any.” His friend passed him the pack and Nicolas lit up. He took a long drag on the skinny cigarette. The blond dog got up from the floor and sneezed. She walked towards the door, pawing at her snout. Nicolas dropped his cigarette in the ashtray. “I’m sorry, baby,” he said, 126 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

running to the door. He let the dog out and closed the door gently behind her. “Fuckin’ dog hates smoke,” he said, “She’s worse than an ex-smoker. If I wake up one morning to see her painting a white line twenty-five feet from the trailer door, I won’t be surprised.” “I heard the city was trying to kick you out? Re-zone the area or something?” Terry asked. “They tried,” Nicolas said, reclaiming his cigarette, “but they can’t kick me out. The cops just like to harass me ‘cause I smoke weed. They came over one night and they were saying all this shit about how I can’t live there because it’s considered industrial, but I just told them, ‘Look, I don’t like you or what you stand for.’ They eventually left.” Terry snubbed out his cigarette, “You’re still smoking that shit, huh?” “I still smoke a little weed, but I haven’t done any hard drugs in more than thirty years, and I haven’t drank since my fiancée left.” “You’ve drank since then.” “Barely,” Nicolas said. Terry smiled, “Why don’t you stay for dinner? Mary would love to see you.” “Naw,” Nicolas said. “I need to get to the pharmacy before they close. I need some pain meds for my hip.” “Nick, there’s no pharmacy in Heber City open on Christmas Eve. Besides that shit’s just heroin in pill form. You shouldn’t fuck with it.” “It’s Lortab,” Nicolas said. “Still. You shouldn’t fuck with it. The pharmaceutical industry is more evil than the oil companies. They don’t give a fuck if they make junkies out of everyone in America. If your hips hurt, I’ll give you four ibuprofen and a hot bath.” “Your wife might object to you giving me a bath,” Nicolas said. “I’m serious. You used to come over all the time and get a shower. We never see you anymore. We have this bath tub with jets and all that. Why don’t you sit in there a minute, and by the time you get out, Mary’ll be home and dinner’ll be ready.” “Can you loan me forty dollars ‘til I get paid?” Nicolas said. “Hell no.” “Can I smoke in your bathtub?” “A cigarette?” Terry asked. “Yeah.” “Shit.” Nicolas stepped carefully into the tub. “Jesus Christ, that feels good,” he mumbled. He turned off the water and settled in. He looked at himself curiously. His body looked foreign to him, partially because he rarely saw it and partially because it was submerged in water. Especially in the florescent light of a bathroom, a submerged body looks ghostly strange. All the little hairs stand up leaving the skin exposed. Spots and freckles appear that are typically invisible. The limp penis stands up


buoyantly. His penis looked like a sea anemone. He reached down and batted it from side to side. He thought it should have been bigger. Perhaps the water and the angle obscured his vision. He raised his hips out of the water and examined his package in plain sight. He still felt dissatisfied. After a few minutes of pushing random buttons, Nicolas got the jets roaring. He lit a cigarette, laid back, and took a slow drag. He took the fiancée to the Spanish Fork hot springs back when it was a big naked place. They rubbed silky black mud all over each other and let it dry. They stayed until nightfall when the crowd died out. They took advantage of the low gravity in the deep pool. She had the large brown nipples of motherhood and they tasted like salt and wind that night. His penis perked up out of the bath water. Nicolas sat up and found the soap. The table was set with a flickering candle, and the whole room reeked of food. Mary was in the kitchen with Terry. She wiped off her hands on her apron and hugged him. “Mary and Terry, what’s for dinner?” Nicolas asked. “We have a salad with butter lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and cilantro,” Mary said. “Then on top of that, we put a layer of baked root vegetables, which is basically red potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and onions baked with olive oil and rosemary. I put a homemade lemon miso salad dressing on that. Then we have elk steaks from our neighbor’s tag and homemade bread with raspberry jam.” “Goddamn,” Nicolas said. Mary smiled. Her teeth were crooked. She had long red hair that reached the small of her back. Her face was pretty, but she dressed like a man. They all sat down with the food. “You wouldn’t mind if we say grace, Nick?” Mary asked. “It’s your house,” Nicolas said, “Just make it quick ‘cause I’m starved.” Mary smiled and offered Nick her hand. He could smell soap on his thick beard and he felt for a moment like a prophet. Mary bowed her head and closed her eyes, and Nicolas followed her lead. “God,” she said, “We thank thee for this meal that we’re about to eat. Thank you for the fresh snow and the beautiful country that we have to live in. Lord, thank you that Nicolas could be here with us on Christmas Eve. Thank you for Christmas and thank you for the good example of Jesus. God, we are grateful today to be clean and sober. I can’t speak for anyone else at this table, but Lord I know I don’t deserve this life. Thank You. Thank you for the dogs and please bless them. Please be with the greyhounds that are still slaves to the racing men, and please be with the drug addicts that will die tonight. Lord, comfort their mothers. It’s not their fault. God, please direct us to know thy will for us, and give us the power to carry it out. Amen.” “Amen,” echoed the men. *** On the drive home Nicolas, felt agitated. An hour ago, he’d

cornered Mary in the family room while Terry was cleaning dishes in the kitchen. “There’s some shit going on with my prostate,” he whispered, “and I hate asking, but I can’t afford to get the exam.” She told him about some free clinics and sent him home with a loaf of bread and some cigarettes. Nicolas lived in a 12-foot trailer set on cinder blocks in the parking lot of industrial storage units. In the unit closest to the trailer was his shop. Nicolas unlocked the trailer door and let the dog in. He threw the loaf of bread in the door and then stepped back and lit a cigarette. Several inches of snow had fallen, and the plow man arrived. He watched the plow truck grind loudly about the buildings, curls of powder sprayed off the blade. “Fuck me, asking for money” he said aloud. He lit another cigarette. Nick’s father had died in December. He could never again violate hallowed days for his children — that’s what Nick’s mother said. One Christmas with the fiancée, they got very stoned and tried to act like children; a gestalt experiment, to imitate what Nick should’ve had and did not. But Nicolas couldn’t be a child, not in some intentional way. So instead they fucked slowly and quietly on the ground next to their small tree. The snow fell beautifully across the lot. Nicolas blew smoke into the trembling flakes. He tossed a butt. “Mother fucking asshole,” he said. He walked quietly over to the shop, opened the lock, and pushed up the big garage style door. He moved carefully through the dark space and picked up a rag. He opened a can of paint thinner and drenched the rag. The excess chemical dripped on the cold floor and made puddles with the sawdust. He held the wet rag tightly over his mouth and nose. He inhaled deeply. He held his breath and exhaled and then sucked in the fumes again. He began breathing heavily in and out and in and out. He huffed and puffed. His body felt limp, and the light around the rim of his vision field skipped black and then shifted again. He leaned against the workbench and breathed violently. Everything got dark around the edges. He counted to ten, panting. He saw the northern lights. He heard a boat. Nicolas lowered the rag from his face and staggered outside. Rainbow-colored flakes twinkled down. Footprints printed around his trailer. He struggled to keep his vision from slanting. He saw a small lunch-sized paper sack sitting near his trailer door. He held the rag in one hand and picked up the bag with the other. It was filled with Clementine oranges. Someone had written in red marker on the bag, “Nicolas, Jesus lives and loves you. Merry Christmas, your brothers in Christ.” Nicolas stared for a moment and struggled to focus his eyes on the words. When the message finally registered, he spiked the paper bag sloppily into the ground. The little oranges scattered. “I don’t have any fucking brothers in Christ!” he screamed. With a drunken heave he smashed an orange under his boot. The peel burst, and the flesh and the white pith flayed out in each direction. He stood totally still, breathing deep, furious breaths. He lifted his boot slowly and stood on one foot. The orange was broken. He nearly fell. Snowflakes Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 127


landed in his gray hair.And in that moment, the Lord reenacted a miracle that had not been seen since Jesus walked the earth and fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes. From the squashed orange, Nicolas looked out and beheld a massive mound of oranges piled in the freshly plowed lot. The orange mound was nearly eight feet tall and seemed to glow under the yellow lights. He dropped the rag and wiped his eyes. His eyes burned, but still he saw the pile of Clementines. Nicolas paced

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thoughtfully around the pile, feeling a sharp and exhausting pain through his skull. He reached out to touch the fruit, but hesitated when he realized the dog was barking inside the trailer. He let the dog out. She huffed around sniffing the fruits and licking snow. Nicolas patted her head affectionately. They stared at the orange pile in silence while snow collected on their shoulders. “Dog,” he said, “We gotta find some animals that eat fruit.”


Arijit Sen Arijit Sen is a PhD student at the University of Missouri. He’s originally from Calcutta (before the name was changed), though he’s also lived in Bombay and Madras (before their names were changed). His last known residence was Tempe, Arizona, and he is fully expecting its name to change soon. He is often to be found pretending to write a novel.

The Partywallahs Before the party starts, the hostess pulls the Object aside and into her room and explains that the Subject will soon be arriving. He is a rite of passage, a manner of belonging. The hostess alludes to having met the Subject in similar circumstances, back when she had first arrived among the Partywallahs, before meeting the host and marrying him. “Everybody does it,” she trills triumphantly, before ducking out, back into the dining room. The Partywallahs meet thrice a week. They meet at the homes of whoever decides to host them, in the posher parts of town. New wealth accumulates in Alipore, older wealth on Judges’ Court Road. Some live in fancy condominiums in the New Calcutta Township. But the most favored houses are in North Calcutta — dilapidated memories of ancestral wealth surround the Partywallahs there, signs of long-ago excesses. They are happiest there. The Object looks around the bedroom blankly. There are framed pictures of the host and hostess arrayed around the room, attesting to marital bliss. The Object thinks briefly about the notion of marriage, unsure if she is meant for it. She does not believe she is unattractive — she is pretty in a wide-eyed, firm-buttocked way. She is fair-skinned and loose-limbed. She is built for the camera. She believes this. The Partywallahs are rich. From time to time, pretty young girls arrive, usually through recommendations and introductions. Soon they are matched with the single men. Those who do not find someone are dropped. The men are uniformly rich and successful. When they have a certain amount of money, if they know the right people, they become a Partywallah. The married women are in the dining room. Their conversation is about maids and schools and the impossibility of finding dependable chauffeurs. One of the youngest wives — newly incorporated — asks innocently about a painting on the wall. She is recently returned from college in America, she majored in Art History. There are rumors that she experimented with women there.

The hostess stares her down. “A time and a place for everything,” she smiles. All pre-Subject arrival topics must be accessible to the basest intelligences. Upliftment may only be conducted by the designated uplifter. Until then, it is imperative everyone stay calm. The hostess discusses art as an investment. Money is universal for the Partywallahs. “Riverboating in Kerala...” “Teak investments in Indonesia...” “A pineapple bottling business...” “Consulting with an African Head of State...” “Technical innovations for wind-turbine projects...” When the breathless inventory pauses, the wives look into the drawing room. Stomachs tense slightly, moods tighten minutely. The men are huddled in corners of the drawing room. Balding men congregate, foreheads slick with sweat and ill health. They talk about work, investments, houses they plan to buy. In other corners, men with hair have trapped unmarried women in conversations that skirt on the edges of sexual explicitness. The hostess is well behaved. “This is her first party,” she tells the wives, motioning to the Object. A woman looks sympathetically at the Object. “He will be here soon. Don’t worry. You’re a pretty young thing.” “He will gobble you up.” The Object wonders if she should leave the dining room. Perhaps she will feel more comfortable with the men. Sensing her thoughts, three wives stand to form a blockade. “Not yet, my dear. Tonight you must wait for the Subject.” There is a polite nastiness in the air. “What brings you to the Partywallahs?” one of the wives asks. “She has come to be an actress. She is living with her aunt, an old friend of mine, Mrs. D’Souza?” The Object nods in abject agreement. Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 129


“She is too fat to be an actress. Actresses must be slim. It will never do.” “Cameras add five kilos.” This is when the Object wonders how long till the Subject arrives. This is always when the Subject is most keenly awaited. The host explains capital gains taxes to an eighteen year old girl. He slurs his words slightly, leans over her to ensure support in case of inadvertent toppling. He still has some hair, grown long and swept across the dome of his shiny skull. They are discussing the chandeliers in the dining room. They are discussing the stock market in the drawing room. They are talking about the special-ness of mediocre sons and daughters. They are talking about secretaries they want to have sex with. They are imagining the children’s swimming coach at the Club. He is naked. He is with the children’s tennis coach. They are partaking in raunchy banter. They are bankers and lawyers and captains of industry and financiers and businessmen and homemakers and social activists and teachers in their spare time and collectors of fine art and fans of literature they buy but do not read and invitees to museum exhibit openings and engineers and intellectuals proud of anti-intellectualism and doctors and collectors of fat bank accounts and sufferers of diabetes and divorcees and bureaucrats and architects and secret poets and closeted homosexuals and insecure men and women trapped in happy marriages and successful careers. They believe themselves happy. They worry they are sad. They wait for the Subject. The Object senses the purgatory the Partywallahs inflict on themselves, but is unaware of it. She is impressed by the charisma of the not-yet present Subject. Perhaps she wonders about him. The Subject is a filmmaker. He has a soul. He has a beard to prove it. He dresses shabbily and eschews monetary gain. He is making a film, a magnum opus. The film is in its seventeenth year of production. He has been shooting a section entitled “Panic” for the last two and a half years. At the last gathering he talked about how one must film Panic. “Picture a dark room. So dark that the viewer cannot see anything. The shot must be maintained for the exact amount of time it takes to convince the viewer that there is a possibility the cinema might be experiencing a power cut, that disaster might have struck outside the theater. Anything could be happening. Perhaps there is a fire somewhere. The viewer’s imagination supplies the terror. At the height of this terror, when there is a tensing of breath and a tightening of chest, the filmmaker must insert a single point of light in the very center of the frame. It is very important that be the exact center. The viewer is confused now. Panic dissipates, confusion sets in. The Human Condition.” 130 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

The problem with Panic lies in the editing room. The Subject is the Partywallahs’ artist friend. They are very proud to know him. No one remembers how the Partywallahs came to be. They are one of life’s mysteries. When asked, the Subject takes credit for them. He is the heart of the Partywallahs. The rest of them make up the arms and legs, the sinews and the muscles, the stomach and the brain, the liver and the kidneys. But at their beating center is the artist. No one argues with the Subject when he says these things. How could they? It is assumed that he knows what he is talking about, though at times he doubts himself. It is assumed that he has their best interests at heart. He is their heart because he is their matchmaker. Every marriage at the gatherings has been filtered through his bedroom. The women are uniformly too pretty for their husbands, but the Subject — over what the husbands imagine were affairs of enormous passion — has convinced them to marry their spouses. Despite the commonality of the Subject, the question is never broached directly in spousal bedrooms. It is a tacit understanding. Sometimes the Subject wishes that they remembered his contribution to their marriages. They are talking about him. Delicately, the women skirt around the issue of their affairs with him. The men, wandering over from the drawing room, do not remind them. They talk of his genius. Only a genius could take seventeen years to not make a film. When the Subject arrives the party will become fun. The erstwhile Art History major clutches the Object’s hand en route to the bathroom. “Do not leave with him,” she tells the Object. Her voice is pleading. The Object thinks the Art History major’s affair must have ended recently. She is perhaps impressed by the Subject’s memorability. She nods sweetly at the Art History major. The Object feels a shiver run up her leg. It is a shiver of anticipation. These things happen, the Object tells herself. She is a Partywallah now. Rules must be followed. She might be the one to tame the Subject. If the Subject requires taming. Years from now, when a new Object appears among the Partywallahs, someone will say, “It used to be that you would now be acquainted with the Subject. But he is a changed man. He is married and settled. Look how happy his wife looks!” The Object fixes her dress. She lowers the neckline, heightens the hemline. She practises a smile. She imagines simpering. A filmmaker’s magnum opus is a good way to enter the film industry. She has always imagined critical success accompanying commercial success. A director/heroine real life couple making magic in reel life. She allows herself to imagine the interviews. She giggles. She wonders why she is giggling. She wonders if she wants


to be an actress. She is confused and complicated and worth knowing. She is not yet entirely devoid of emotion. The room pulses when she returns. Small knots of people orbit an invisible presence that is obscured from the Object’s vision by the volume of bodies. The air is heady. The men are talking faster, convincing the unmarried naifs to ignore the newcomer. The Object has already been picked, they want to say. Their jokes are crude now, direct. The women are laughing louder, manicured hands flying to necks in displays of greatly controlled merriment. “The party is alive,” someone tells the Object. It is one of the young wives. Her face is flushed, her foot tapping the floor mercilessly, syncopated with an imaginary rhythmn. “He is here. The party begins.” The Object ignores her, drifts towards the center of the room, to the sun that holds the planets in order. How can she help herself ? From below the host’s right shoulder she can see the sleeve of a dirty kurta. Next to the host, the hostess has a hand delicately perched on a strong shoulder. Between the host and hostess’ heads she sees the flash of strong white teeth. She wonders what to do. The Subject explains the philosophical underpinnings of his filmic technique. The Object thinks his voice can best be described as mellifluous, complemented by a subtle hint of raspiness. In school the Object received top marks in Vocabulary every year. She retires to the drinks table. The people clustered there sweat feverishly. One of the bankers explains how he plans to finance the next section of the Subject’s magnum opus. He lets the words ‘magnum opus’ stick in his mouth a little — one is not sure if he is sincerely enthusiastic about providing the Subject money. “Everyone should be involved in art at some point in their life,” he explains expansively, his right hand moving close to a young girl’s breast. “We are in the business of making money, but he is in the business of saving people from themselves. What worthier cause could one be involved in? Especially if there is a producer credit to be received. Not that I am doing it for that, of course. But how would we replace him if he spent his spare time begging for funding? We would just die away. No, we cannot let that happen.” The others nod in agreement. A few promise to give the Subject money. An intimate producerial relationship with a magnum opus is their hope for eternal salvation. The Object finds herself disturbed by this conversation. It is the unfamiliarity with the Partywallahs’ code of morality that is unsettling. She realizes that the Subject’s seduction, in the absence of true suspense, would necessarily be unromantic. She is unsure why she is considering the arrangment presented to her. She drifts out onto the balcony undisturbed. There she will think through the events of the night before coming to a decision.

*** The night is sticky. Few stars brave the evening haze. A slash of purple punctuates the sky further east, the reflection of streetlamps and burning cowcakes. The Object wonders if she should have left home. It is exciting here, but she does not know anybody. From inside come snatches of conversation. “Maids should be invisible at these parties...” “Why torment them with their situation?” “Lovely food, really...” “The cleavage on her dress! For a woman her age! I’m not one to dictate anything, of course, but really...” “The children are doing so well. Piano classes, jet-ski lessons. No, of course not here. We fly them to Thailand.” The Object sighs. She realizes she will become like them if she leaves with the Subject. The hostess has whispered into her ear — the options are many. Single men are waiting for her to meet the Subject. Only then can they plot their behavior. “They will be jealous of you soon, you know?” The voice comes from the balcony door. A man is closing the door, his back to the Object. He is wearing a dirty kurta. The Object smiles. She is not trained for this situation, but she has learnt quickly from the Partywallahs. “Why will they be jealous?” she asks innocently. “A pretty young thing like you?” The Subject is shorter than the Object has imagined. He is broad about the shoulders, his legs appear muscular. The beard is properly unruly, the hair just wild enough. He wears thickrimmed glasses from behind which twinkly eyes beckon. He is handsome, but no matinee idol. A mole under his left nostril is just big enough to draw attention, not big enough to force its presence. “There is a slum over there,” he says, pointing to a sprawl of aluminum rooftops. “Real people live there. Here is all fun and games. We drown imaginary sorrows in overfilled glasses of wine, too-large tumblers of scotch. Real emotion happens there — on the ground.” The Subject winces at this statement. The Object attempts another introduction. “I take it you have recently arrived from the provinces? Coochbehar, was it?” “How did you know that? Are you a friend of my aunt?” “Perhaps. No, you could say I just know the details of your story.” “Do you?” she asks. “Or I simply asked our gracious hostess to fill me in on her prettiest guest.” A head sticks out of the balcony door. It is the Art History major. “Whatever are you two doing there? Come in and save us, O Filmmaker of the Gods. They’re talking about the commodities market and school admissions again. Save us from our sins!” The Subject looks at the Object. “Come in with me. Let us Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 131


save them together.” She follows him inside. What else could she do? Through the evening, the Art History major presents herself as a third to the Subject-Object coalition. Every time the Object attempts to leave, the Subject pulls her back. “Don’t leave me alone with her,” he pleads. “She is happily married and settled down. The ship has sailed.” The Object wonders if she wants to settle down. The Subject wishes he did. He attempts to inject life into the evening. He moves from person to person, blocking conversations he finds unappetizing, strengthening those he likes, introducing new topics to those who are bored. They are limited to brief dictums; when announced, conversation shifts focus. Reubens...the Goddess Kali...Firdausi...Charlemagne...the Great Depression...the invention of silk...the Magna Carta... nuclear activism...Keats...rotator cuff surgery...Chinatown... Amphibians...brown...Tagore...Turin...cod...seminal thoughts... The Object attempts to slip away again. This time she is more successful. She gets to the bathroom door before the Art History major catches up to her. The Subject notices this. “Leave him alone,” the Art History major says. “I will,” the Object promises. “I don’t believe you.” “I will,” the Object says. “It won’t be good,” the Art History major says sadly. “It just won’t.” The hostess arrives. “I see you’re making quite the impression on our artist friend over there,” she says. The Art History major leaves. She walks off, back into the fray. “I feel uncomfortable. You should not have told him so much about me.” “But I didn’t. He gravitated naturally.” This confuses the Object. This complicates matters for the Subject. When the Object returns, the Subject is leading the party in a complicated game. “Forget the past, the burning deck. We are looking towards the now. The then is over, alas, alack! Where we go is where we come from.” The party chants back: “Sip, flip, lickety-split.” “Everyday blue-pink is tomorrow’s sorrow — fight it now yes and no. Let swallows fly in a straight line.” “Excelsior. Matador. Puttermeister.” This is the right answer. The game is in recess. The Subject looks at the Object. He comes over to compliment her dress. A new game is suggested. The men and women are separated again. The rules are laid out: Slippers need to be stolen, money must exchange hands. A barter system is in place. Sexual favors may not be used as currency. Currency may not be used as currency. The words elephant, chamomille, 132 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

and lemon tart may not be used. The rules are too complicated for the Object to follow. As the game begins, the women lose interest. They discuss the Art History major’s attempts at infidelity. The men stop the Art History major’s husband from making a scene. He realizes the futility of attempting an attack on the Subject, and subsides. The Art History major begins to cry midway through the game. Her husband, red-faced and blustery, frustrated at his impotent anger, begins to sulk. A chauffeur is dispatched to take them home. The party begins to wind down. People leave quietly, in twos and threes. The Object thinks about going home. “Not yet,” the hostess tells her. “The best first impression is the last impression.” The Object approaches the host. “The filmmaker will take you home. Be nice to him. Your prospects depend on it.” The Object realizes she does not want to leave with the Subject. She has considered it dispassionately. She wants to be an actress, not a Partywallah. The Subject is the last to leave. He thanks the host and hostess charmingly. He waits for the Object to do the same. In the car the Subject turns pensive. “I live near here,” the Object tells him. “I don’t,” he replies. “I think I want to go home.” “I think you can’t.” The Object is unhappy about this. She does not know what to do. She is unsure why she is in a car with the Subject. She is unsure of the Partywallahs. There are many things she is unsure of, and that thought unsettles her. “So where are we going then?” “A Subject and an Object, to function together, must commit a Verb.” This idea terrifies the Object. The Subject lives in a small flat near Keotala. He has never thrown a party. “They would never come,” he tells the Object as he parks the car. “The house isn’t big enough.” They sit silently in the car for a while. “How did you know I was from Coochbehar?” she asks. “I told you.” “The hostess said she never said anything to you.” “I told you. I just know the details of your story.” “But how?” “We should go in,” the Subject says. The Object does not want to go in. She does not want to sleep with the Object. She does not want to be a Partywallah. The Object sits quietly in the car. “You don’t know what you are doing,” he says. “I don’t.” “Why are you here with me?” “I don’t know. I don’t want to be. But here I am.” “Here you are,” he says sadly. “Because I want it that way.”


“But what about me? What if I don’t want that?” “It doesn’t matter.” “Why? Why does it not matter? Why do you know the details of my story when I don’t know the details of yours?” “Because this is my story.” They sit on the bed. Her feet are curled beneath her, she sits on the edge. “The host said my prospects depended on leaving the party with you.” “Not just your prospects. Your existence depended on it.” “I would have existed regardless. I am my own person.” “But of course. Except you are not.” Dawn arrives. The streets wake quietly. Stray dogs bark at the moon. The Subject smokes a cigarette. He makes no attempt to touch the Object. “I will never finish this film,” he tells her. “I have many ideas, but they never coalesce. I want to capture every human emotion, create a tableau that reaches everybody. I have filmed Panic, Fear, Loathing, Hate, Desperation, and Love. But they make no sense together. I must film the synapses of the human brain. Film them in conjunction with each other. If I can understand a person fully — a person capable of those emotions, capable of them in full, then I may film them all again. Then the magnum opus might be complete. Then it might be hope for a universal salvation. The film is about revulsion and attraction working in equal measure. The give and the receive acting in concert. Together.” “Someone said that tonight. Hope for a universal salvation,” the Object says. “I did.” “But you were not there.” “I said it.” “I am my own person,” she says. “I came here because I wanted to.” “But you didn’t want to. You decided against it. But here you are.” “Then why did I come?” “Because I needed you to...” “So?” “The Partywallahs are not nice. There is an innate inability to understand other people at work. They were not always like this, you know? They were able to speak of things that had consequence. I knew them before they were Partywallahs. They were simple and naïve, and had dreams and ideas, and a life of infinite possibilities. That is why I made them. But instead of heightening their senses of self, they dulled it. They ruined themselves, and I am left with their ruins. Unable to complete what I had begun.” “They could have ideas. They might hide those in front of you. Perhaps they are scared the others won’t understand them. It is easier to be a part of the herd.”

“Are you a part of the herd?” “But I am not a Partywallah. I will not be dulled by them.” “You will. That is the way of things. Don’t you think I have tried this before? Everytime, it fails. Eventually, everyone becomes a Partywallah. Perhaps it is the fault of my imagination.” The Object thinks about this. “I was going to save them. They were going to be my raw materials. Instead they are barely human anymore. They have no life unless I invent it for them. And they have taken me with them.” “You sound very sorry for yourself.” “I am. I gave everything up to create them. And now I am a court jester, unable to bring them to a thought of their own. I am to watch them dissolve in front of my eyes, into one indistinguishable entity.” “And you brought me here to tell me that?” “I brought you here because I am expected to. And you came because you were expected to.” “Then we are both trapped by our expectations.” They sit. The Subject lights another cigarette. Eventually the crows start cawing outside. The sun rises. The Subject is sprawled on the bed, the Object curled up at the edge, her eyes closed. “It is not what you think,” the Subject blurts out after a while. It has been sometime since they spoke. He realizes that the Object has gone to sleep. He will let her sleep. When she wakes up he will drive her home. He might introduce her to one of the single men so recently acquainted with the Partywallahs. There is the pencil company heir and the razor blade manufacturer and the lawyer about to be promoted to the High Court and the police officer with a hand in every till and the retired Colonel with a tomato farm and the shipping tycoon with his own island. There are many options for a pretty girl who becomes a Partywallah. These are things he will tell her when she wakes up. Or he could say nothing. Let it pass unsaid. He gets up to make himself some tea. She snores softly, delicately. She looks peaceful. She has gone to sleep, as no other Object has. The Subject wonders if he is getting old, if he is no longer charming to the Objects. He thinks, there are other women. But it is hard to say goodbye to them. He hopes she does not find the men to her liking. He hopes she does not want to be a Partywallah. He hopes she cannot be a Partywallah, even if he wants her to. He hopes she will resist her creator, she will fight his wishes and cynicism. He hopes he will panic when that happens.

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Mary Vigliante Szydlowski Mary Vigliante Szydlowski lives in Albany, New York and began her writing career in 1978. She has published six adult novels under various pseudonyms: The Ark, The Colony, The Land, Source of Evil, Silent Song, and Worship the Night. She’s also published three children’s books: I Can’t Talk I’ve Got Farbles In My Mouth, The Duck in the Hole, and Kia’s Manatee. Her articles, short stories, poetry, and children’s stories have appeared in magazines and newspapers. Her picture book, Our Baby, was chosen as a July 2010 selection on the British children’s website Smories at http://www.smories.com/watch/our_baby/.

Death Comes Softly Death comes softly? Maybe not. But it comes never the less. It comes in the wind. In the darkness of night. In the bright light of morning. In the thundering storm. In the silence of shadows. It’s a soft breeze that gently blows against your cheek, that grazes you lips and sucks the breath from your body. Death’s bony fingers gently stroke your throat. “Be not afraid” he whispers! His hands encircle the wrinkled flesh and slowly squeeze until all that remains is the gurgling sound of life seeping out. Death envelops you in his strong arms. He bends to kiss your hand, and the pale skin of your wrist. Sharp teeth glinting, He silently and seductively opens your veins. Warm and sticky the blood oozes out. He draws you to him in a cold embrace. So begins the final dance. Life is ending. The lights flicker out. The darkness looms. The pain recedes. You surrender. Your eyes close in ecstasy, in gentle repose. Death comes but once. Be not afraid! 134 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011


Lucien Darjeun Meadows Lucien Darjeun Meadows is a being concerned with Being. He has read more than two hundred books this year, primarily about Ancient Greece and bicycling. For Lucien, poetry is an alchemical process, informed by the confluence of myth and modernity, the narration of self, and the construction of gender identity. He is a recent graduate of Goucher College, and publication credits include Appalachian Heritage and Orange Octopus Gender Zine. Lucien lives in Maryland with his cosmic cohort, radiant muse, divine spark!— and a plastic cat named Euripides.

Self-Portrait as Ganymede my dilated eyes wide in this nylon halter arms and legs lashed together and I am stretched in these ropes in the bare middle of your love waiting like an awkward colt for your grey feathers to slide down smooth skin to the darkness you hold my heaviness in your hand my fragility entrusted to granite and thunder between us I crash dissolving afire when my body becomes part of your body unraveling as I sag in these soft ropes and wait for you your thirst never filled your talons deep into my soft shoulder digging under my bones godlike you mount I spasm when you bury what is lost in giving you ride this body hard into the coming death that unavoidable dawn

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Sharla Anderson Sharla Anderson has poetry and short fiction published in several online/print publications. Some of which are: House of Horror Best of 2010, Boston Literary Magazine, Shadow Poetry Quill, Blood Moon Rising, Static Movement’s Poems from the Dark Side Anthology, and Daily Flash 2011 365 Days of Flash Fiction. She is an avid convention goer, book escapist, and healthcare professional who lives in Pennsylvania with her family. She blogs at bedofbrimstone.weebly.com.

Communion by Brimstone As sulphur eclipse the skin cry be kindled cries call darkness in perfume pitch along lost priory halls Where rapture once pooled its white light within palms carved as fonts Palates titillate when eremitic choirs moan incantations that burn on braised tongues

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Nyssa Anne Madison Nyssa Anne Madison is the alter-ego of a New York writer whose work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Ripple Effect: A Collection of Fiction and Art, Purpleverse, Sinfully Twisted and It Happened at the Green Room. She is also a 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee.

Dusk

“L

ance, I got the package you sent,” a man’s voice confirmed on the other end of the line. “I need to talk to you. Now. Call me immediately. I am so not joking. If I don’t hear from you by tonight, I am flying over there.” Lance snapped closed his cell phone as he entered his office, tossing his briefcase on his desk. Glancing around the room, as he always seemed to do upon entering, he wondered how his life ended up here with him teaching classical studies at Loyola instead of excavating some far-off cavern, discovering treasures of the worlds about which he now teaches. Then he remembered that 99.9 percent of the digs he had been on resulted in sore muscles, sunburned skin, and little else. The blinking red light on his desk phone seemed to be pulsing out a message in Morse code. Picking up the receiver, he punched in the password to his voicemail. It was Kevin — again. Lance deleted the message without listening to the whole thing, immediately dialing. “Hello.” “I was right, wasn’t I?” Lance asked without preliminaries. There was a pause. “Yes.” Lance sucked in a breath. He knew, but to have it confirmed . . . He sat heavily on his chair. This was it. This was one of those moments where the Universe shifts, fates are altered, and lives are irrefutably changed. “Fuck. That means —” “We are, as they say, not alone,” Kevin finished. “Fuck.” “I believe you said that already.” “It bore repeating.” “Come to Nevada.” “Is that an invitation?” “More like an order,” Kevin said, suddenly serious. “That wasn’t the first communication, but it was the most in-depth. We’re going.” “You’re going to Tanali?” “We’re going to Tanali.” “Fuck!”

*** Lance ran farther back into the cave, praying nothing in the abyss before him would stare back, barely keeping his feet as he stumbled over the unknown terrain. He listened for sounds of claws on stone, but nothing could be heard over the tattoo of his own heart and the hard intakes and releases of breath. Ahead, he spotted a dim shimmer of golden light. He ran toward it, unsure if it would lead to his salvation or his demise. He stopped abruptly, catching himself on the ragged stone edging of an unexpected drop. Peering down, he discovered the source of the light was from a flame issuing brightly in a copper-like urn at the base of a golden sarcophagus bearing an image of a woman, so detailed, that even from his height of 100 yards or so up, her beauty was strikingly real. In his distraction, he had forgotten about the predators that had chased him into the cave in the first place. Fishing his flashlight from his flap jacket, he illuminated the cavern in a burst of white light. Before him was a set of steep, narrow stairs leading down into the heart of the chamber. Drawn by his life calling, by his desire to find something that would make sense of his existence, he descended the steps, nearly sliding down them, not thinking about how he would climb back up or what might await him once he did. All that mattered was that tomb and what that human-like woman figure carved into the strange stone might mean. When he reached the bottom, he was surprised that the tomb was so small, barely five feet long. Perhaps it belongs to a child, he thought. The engraving showed differently. It was definitely a woman’s body, complete with full breasts and curved hips. The lid was a monument to the most beautiful creature he had seen. Her mere image on stone seemed to entrance him with her flowing hair and large doe eyes. Up close, the subtle differences between her and a human were more noticeable: the shorter, pointier nose; extreme thinness of her limbs that, instead of looking skeletal, looked delicate and right; the way her big eyes dominated her face. Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 137


He gently traced the cheek of the image with a forefinger. The stone was smooth and cold, like marble back on Earth, and it felt . . . alive, as if it were vibrating under his touch, responding to his caress. He stroked the ridges of hair carved in flowing waves reaching nearly to her knees and could almost feel its silky texture beneath his fingertips. As if reading Braille, he closed his eyes, allowing his mind to build a three-dimensional picture of the hills and valleys of the carving’s landscape. He could picture her, petite, yet unmistakably grown, her body half shadowed in the never-ending twilight glow of the planet, her hair wrapping around her like a cloak as her eyes took in all around her. In his vision, she was as splendidly naked as she was on her memorial. As his thoughts turned to the delicate curves of her body, he jerked his hand away, shaking his head. It had been too long, too many years, hell, decades, since he had seen a woman, let alone touched one. He felt perverse, nearly having a pornographic dream in the middle of a burial chamber of sorts he’d stumbled upon while running from a strange beast. The part sabre tooth, part grizzly had killed Kevin, the only other survivor from the mission that was Earth’s exploratory committee to Tanali. Storms, technical problems, bad radar, the fact space travel of this magnitude had never been attempted before, any number of things could be blamed for the ship veering off course and making a crash landing into a mountain range at the northern part of the planet. For nearly a week, Kevin and he had tried to send messages back to Earth between vain attempts to salvage the ship and bury the dead in ground that wouldn’t give way. The fallen crewmates had been burned on pyres the second day, the day after the predators first came, following the coppery scent of blood hanging in the air. Once admitting the grand failure of the mission and spending several days coming to terms with their fate — the fact that, in all likelihood, they would never leave this planet — the two survivors had gathered as many weapons and as much food as they could carry and set out to find shelter that wasn’t washed in the blood of their companions. And now Lance was alone, terrified, and wondering if it wouldn’t be more humane to just sacrifice himself now rather than face the ongoing challenges of being an alien invader completely unwise to the inhabitants or ecology of the planet on which he was now stranded. He glanced at the sarcophagus again. Frightened as he was, he wanted to see a live version of the image before him. Sighing heavily, he decided to return to camp to reclaim as many provisions as he could, take care of Kevin’s remains, if there were any, and then return to the chamber, where he felt he would be reasonably safe from the predators. As for the other inhabitants of the planet, well, that remained to be seen. *** 138 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

When the screeching of metal against rock, bending and breaking, stopped competing against the screams of the humans doing the same, an unnatural silence fell, and Lance lost consciousness. As he floated in the darkness, he noticed a soft glow in the distance. It grew as if cresting a hill until he could make out the figure of a woman. Her skin was luminous like a flame flickering behind frosted glass: white, gold, sparkling — utterly dazzling. The hair that draped around her looked spun of fine strands of gold, copper, and bronze. Her eyes, her hypnotically huge eyes, were of the darkest chocolate with pupils so dilated, her irises were nothing but frames around them. She reached for him, her skin warm against his, as if perhaps it were fire in her veins that gave her such a glow. And when her plump, peach lips met his, sparks danced around their mouths. Lance jerked awake, adrenaline coursing through him after such a sudden shift in states. Glancing quickly at his surroundings, he spotted no immediate threat. He strained his ears, listening for a growl, a click of claws, but there was nothing. Just the perpetual silence. He gazed up at the sky and cursed. He wasn’t sure if it was the planet as a whole or just this area, so near the top pole of the globe, but the sky remained a constant twilight, never bright, never dark, just perpetually dim, like the pretense of a storm that will never manifest. Kevin had found it promising, likening it to a forever dawn, a potential waiting to be fulfilled, but to Lance, it was an unyielding dusk that stubbornly refused to give way to the utter darkness of night. It was distorting his sense of time and interrupting his body’s natural sleep patterns. But what was worse was that without the natural marking of the end of one day and the start of another, he felt like he was trapped in an endless time loop, some purgatory designed to make him lose all semblance of sanity when he needed his wits the most. He stood up and stretched with a groan. He was too old to sleep on rocks. Exhaustion had evidently overtaken him — last night, yesterday, some time — as he held vigil over his friend’s burning remains. He was surprised the predators hadn’t come for him while he slept. Perhaps the smell had deterred them, he thought. The stench of burning bodies was unlike anything he had encountered before, yet he found no solace in knowing he would never have to smell it again. He shook such thoughts from his head and began to gather up all that he could carry, making food his first priority since he had seen very little vegetation during his time on Tanali. Deciding that his previous plan of returning to the burial chamber was a good one, he set off. Time past — though be it days, weeks, or even months, he was unsure, the relenting twilight offering him no mercy — and Lance developed a routine. He would leave the chamber


and scout the surrounding rocky range, a different direction each day, mapping out a circumference with the chamber as its center. When he began to tire, he would return to what he had taken to calling “home,” where his Lucy waited. It began as a bad joke in his unraveling mind, when upon his return to the tomb once, he had yelled out in a bad Latino accent, “Lucy, I’m home.” Since that point, he had begun to think of the woman resting there as Lucy. As if naming her made her real, he began to talk to her, or at her, as it was. I guess I know I am still sane, because she hasn’t answered back yet, he often mused to himself. She was still the only native he had encountered, her perpetual flame the only other sign of life in the tomb. He wondered if such a northern part of this planet was much like the Arctic at home, sparsely inhabited, barren nothingness. It seemed logical enough, given the lack of vegetation and water. He counted himself one lucky bastard when he found a tiny stream of water pooling in one of the “antechambers” to his new residence. One day, out of stupidity, sheer boredom, or a subconscious wish for death, he shot one of the tiny critters he had nicknamed jackalope that often jetted across his path and cooked it in a fire made up of the strange, bark-like vines that clung to rock faces here, like ivy on a fencepost back home, and ate it without a thought to his self-preservation. When he survived the night without illness or death, he assumed he found a new source of protein. He had developed a pattern to life on Tanali, useless as he often thought it was. He walked, he ate, he slept, and he dreamt. He believed it was his strange, wonderful dreams of her, of Lucy, with her glowing body and whisper of a voice that kept him sane, though he wasn’t sure sane people had erotic dreams featuring dead alien females in whose burial chambers he was now living. But he refused to dwell on that for too long. A persistent trickling awoke him, and he groaned, thinking his sink was leaking — again — until he remembered that it had been quite some time since he had been anywhere with indoor plumbing. Crawling out of his bed, which consisted of two sleeping bags and several skins of jackalopes vaguely stitched together with string tied between slits he’d cut in the hide, which, all in all, was fairly comfortable, Lance stumbled toward the source of his wake-up call. The antechamber puddle was becoming more of a wade pool as water ran down the drainage path carved into the stone from years of rain making the same journey. The steady flow piqued Lance’s curiosity. The atmosphere here had been just as bland and uneventful as the ever-present twilight. Deciding to investigate, he clambered up the steep steps, long since learning it was easier to do so on all fours than upright. Meandering the now-familiar path, he was greeted at the exit by a heavy downpour of rain. A childish joy ran through him at the sight before he rushed out, dancing around in the shower like a child splashing in puddles. Stripping off his grimy clothing, he let the precipitation wash over him, cleanse him, renew him. Even long

after his skin was freed of dirt and grime, he remained in the rain, rejoicing in the feeling of familiarity as it pulsated against his skin. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend to be home. After two sleep cycles — the only way Lance could keep track of time anymore — the persistent rain had lost some of its joy. Returning to the chamber, he removed his soaked clothing, spreading it along the floor to dry with “yesterday’s” clothing, which was still wet. He only had two sets of clothing; food rations had been a higher priority after the crash. Wrapping his jackalope blanket around him, he pulled out the one non-necessity item he refused to leave behind. The book was small, about the size of a mass market paperback, but only half as thick. It had arrived inconspicuously on his desk, an anonymous package bearing a FedEx label with no return address. Its cover was, Lance guessed, some sort of animal skin, and the pages were thin and delicate, like sheaves of tracing paper, only less translucent. The text was handwritten, intricate calligraphy in a rust-brown ink, letters swirling and joining in a complicated dance. At first, he thought it was Old English, but it wasn’t. Nor was it Latin, or Sumerian, or Roman, or any other old language he knew. It was similar, but not the same. Letters and phrases of one language partnered with those of another to form new compounds that left his brain hurting. Intrigued by the puzzle, he spent nearly a year surrounded by his own Rosetta stone of notes as he slowly learned the key to the secret code of the Tanalian language. He opened the cover and began to read, though the story had long since been memorized. Providing his translation held true, it told the tragic story of a young woman sacrificed for the betterment of her people, much like the Aztecs’ ritual deaths in honor of their gods. What set this tale apart was that the priest who wrote this story was also the one responsible for taking the life of the woman. And in true tragic form, the woman was also his only child. But what never failed to capture Lance’s imagination was the hastily scrawled addendum to the story in which the priest confesses that he could not kill his daughter, and, instead, bespelled her into a deathlike sleep so she may rest “without bearing harm” for all eternity. Closing the book, he stretched out on his makeshift bed and closed his eyes, wondering what necessitated the sacrifice of the woman and if the father really was able to suspend her life in some way or if he just gave her another type of death through a poisonous potion or something. Then again, he mused, this could just be fiction. He allowed his mind to drift until he fell asleep to the sound of the pool in the antechamber swell with new life. She lay beside him, their limbs still a post-bliss tangle, her body that same glowing wonder it always was. Looking down at her, her big, round eyes intently trained on him, Lance thought himself in love. Part of his brain realized this was nothing more than a recurring dream, a fantasy his mind created to fill the Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 139


void of human contact in his conscious existence. But mostly, he didn’t care. He loved spending time, even if imagined, with this beautiful creature who was as smart as she was luscious. And the sex! He hadn’t experienced anything like it in reality or fantasy before. It was as if when they joined, they did so on some level other than just physical, the friction of their bodies creating a fire that burned all barriers between them. “I wish you were real,” he whispered against her neck, relishing the shiver caused by his breath on her skin. “I am real,” his Lucy said, turning her head to give his lips more access to her sensitized skin. “Real as in physically lying in bed next to me, not in a dream.” “I may not be lying in your bed, but I am lying next to you.” He pulled back, abandoning her collarbone to look into her captivating eyes. “What do you mean?” “You live in my temple.” “Oh.” “Oh?” She looked amused at his matter-of-fact response. “Well, yes,” he said. “I guess my mind knew that.” He leaned down and captured her soft, peach lips in a searing kiss. “But I’d much rather you were alive next to me physically so that we could do this,” he positioned himself between her thighs, “somewhere other than my dreams.” There was no more talking, just the sounds of two bodies repeatedly becoming one. The clacking of stones tumbling to the ground jolted Lance awake. He stumbled into the antechamber to investigate. The constant flow of rain had finally worn the rock away enough for part of it to crumble, revealing a hidden room behind it. He peered through the small window, shining his solarpowered flashlight’s weak beam into the darkness. It was a small area, more like a nook or a closet than a room. It was just large enough to contain a chest and what looked like some personal artifacts: clothing, jewelry, a book. Eager to have something else to preoccupy himself with while the rainy season continued its tirade, Lance began to excavate the alcove, careful not to pollute his source of drinking water with excess stone and dust. It was a slow process, but as he had little else to do, he didn’t mind. Using jackalope bones, he carefully chiseled away the wall, just like he used to do while working on a dig at Pompeii, careful not to disrupt the surrounding area and to preserve any other treasures that may be waiting to be unearthed. He’d mined until his arms got tired, and then he’d take a nap, or at least close his eyes and allow his fantasy to take over. He likened it to tuning in to watch a soap opera, or if he were honest with himself, a pornographic movie. But as it was the only form of entertainment he had besides the muchread book, he found no reason not to indulge himself. When he’d finally cleared enough of the stone to remove some items, he reached for the book first. The archaeologist 140 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

inside him was chastising him for his careless disregard for protocol and the irresponsibility of disturbing findings before they could be properly documented. However, the very bored and thoroughly curious reader inside him overruled any such objections. After all, it wasn’t as if he had the equipment to properly document anything nor was there anyone to view such documentation, even if it existed. Settling down in his bed, he examined the new tome in his hands. It was nearly identical to the one he possessed: same animal-skin cover, same delicate pages, same ornamental writing done in odd-colored ink. He wished for his Rosetta stone to speed up the translation process. After what seemed like several hours had past while he tried to decipher the first page, he gave up in frustration. I won’t be able to do this without writing, he thought bitterly. Forming an idea, he trekked his way out of the cavern and into the rain-washed world. Dotting the vines he used to make fires were tiny, red berries. Lance had never been brave enough to taste them; they looked too much like poisonous holly berries for him to risk it. But they would do for making ink. He filled a jackalope skull, its eye sockets plugged with stones, full of the berries before returning to the welcomed dryness of the cavern. Once stripped of his wet and chilled clothing and bundled in his warm skins, he began mashing the berries, using a bone as a pestle. Adding just enough water to get the right consistency, Lance congratulated himself at his first attempt at making ink. It wasn’t the perfect solution as berry juice seeped out the skull, but it would do. Using his fingertip as a brush, he began to translate the book, word by word, drawing and then crossing out and redrawing letters on the smooth stone floor. It was a slow process as Lance’s little-used reasoning skills protested the exercise. By the time he had made sense of the last word on the last page, many sleep cycles had passed, and the floor of the chamber was covered in red letters. He stood, admiring his success, but was too tired and his eyes too unfocused to read the epic painted on the floor. Choosing to sleep now and look upon his endeavor with fresh eyes tomorrow, he wiped the ink from his hands and snuggled exhaustedly into the pile of skins, welcoming the darkness that would bring her, his Lucy, to him. His fingers traced the delicate curve of her hip as he cradled her next to him. “Are there others like you here?” “Why? Am I no longer enough to satisfy you?” she asked saucily. “More than enough.” He kissed her with fervor to illustrate the point. “It’s just that I’ve been on this planet for what must be months now, and I have never seen one of your kind, or any evidence they exist except for your tomb.” She stilled for a moment, a look of deep concentration etched in her features. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “It has been a long time since I have been free. You are the only


one who has come to visit me.” “Maybe I should go find them.” “No,” she said suddenly, sitting up to fix him with a dangerous glare. “You will not go anywhere. You will not leave me.” As if sensing his sudden apprehension, she relaxed her face as she drew her fingers down his bare chest, leaving a trail of harmless sparks behind, as if their passion had a physical manifestation. “If you go, then whoever shall I do this to?” She lowered her head and her catlike tongue mimicked the movements of her fingers down his chest, lower and lower, until he had forgotten everything but the warmth of her mouth. Lance paced the length of the room, his trail the gutters between columns of his work, reading and rereading the words that had dried like bloodstains on the stone. He stopped, shook his head as if to clear his thoughts, and resumed his circuit. It can’t be right, he thought adamantly. But what if . . . He walked over to the sarcophagus, and with a strenuous push of protesting arm and back muscles, slid the lid off until it crashed on the floor. There, inside, lay his Lucy, not a shriveled mummy or a pile of former bones reduced to dust, but a beautiful, perfect female Tanalian who looked as though she were merely asleep, resting on a thick cushion. Lance gasped as he drank in the sight of his imagination made real. Color danced along her frosted skin as if lit from within as waves of bronze, copper, and gold tendrils snaked down toward her knees. She was everything he had pictured, yet more amazing than he could have envisioned himself. He reached out to brush her silky hair away from her face. Agonizing over what to do, he glanced at the red words on the floor. What the hell, he thought. “Per meus spiritus, ego liceor vos ago iterum,” he whispered against her lips. “With my breath, I bid you live again.” Wishing with all his heart that the spell would work, that his Sleeping Beauty would awake, he did what all princes do: In an act born of love and desperation, he kissed his princess, praying that to do so would breathe life back into her still body. Slowly he withdrew his lips and waited for his princess to awake. And waited. And waited. Chastising himself for believing in fairy tales and ancient writings in alien books, he felt like a fool, a fool who desecrated a tomb and molested the body inside. “I need to get the hell out of here!” Trembling, he began to disassemble the home he had created in the chamber. But as he did so, his eyes kept stealing glances at the alien woman. Giving up all pretenses, he sighed heavily as he sank onto his bed, and stared at her form until his eyes grew heavy, and he fell back against the skins in a deep slumber. He screamed her name as pleasure coursed through his

body. When he regained control of his senses, he found her licking her way up his sternum, long, sure strokes of her tongue leaving a damp trail up to his throat before her mouth descended on his. She greedily ate at his mouth, feeding at the pleasure she found there. Suddenly, it was too much; he couldn’t breathe. It was as if the air were being forced from his lungs into her mouth. But it was so much more than air; it was something rooted much deeper in him, something much more intrinsic to his Self. He fought against her; pushing her body off his chest, he scrambled away from her. He tried to talk but could do nothing more than gulp in breaths of air. She reached for him, but he shrank away, confused by what was happening. “You got your wish,” she whispered. “I’m real.” Lance looked at her, eyes wide, and then looked at the surroundings. They were in the chamber, not in the random scenery of his dreams. And in the center of the room stood an empty tomb. His eyes shifted back to hers. “How?” She pointed to the words on the floor. “You released me.” “It was real?” “Yes,” she said sadly. “My father was to sacrifice me, but he couldn’t. Instead he tried his best to stop what was happening by trapping me here.” “Why . . . ” His question died on his lips as she disentangled herself from the skins and stood, baring her nakedness before him. “This is really real?” he whispered, too afraid to move, to even blink for fear she would disappear like his dreams. She walked to him, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling his mouth to hers. She traced his bottom lip with her tongue before plunging it inside his mouth, claiming him as her own. When she released him, she slipped her tiny hand in his and led him back to the bed. Lance’s mind was swirling. Perhaps he was still dreaming. Perhaps all the solitude finally drove what little sanity remained from his mind. Or, perhaps, it was all true. After all, it was the book that brought him here, to a foreign planet in the first place. Was it so far beyond reason to believe its contents true? But if she was the priest’s daughter . . . His eyes flickered over to a smear of red on the floor, the hastily discounted confession deemed unimportant, obviously not real. After all, there was no such thing as — His thoughts were interrupted by the feel of her skillful hands stroking him while her mouth nipped at his neck before her tongue flicked soothingly against it. It had been so long since he felt another live being naked against him, her heart beating against his, her lungs filling with the same air. He lost himself to the sensation of skin against skin as he lowered them to the floor, her body cradling him between her thighs. He gasped as their bodies joined, not in pleasure but in fear. Their union engendered an epiphany, a moment of absolute truth, absolute horror, and she laughed, knowingly. “I can see you have solved your riddle.” Lost in his realization, he offered no resistance as she rolled


their bodies, pinning him below her with unnatural strength. She slowly rolled her hips, reminding him that they were still locked together. Pleasure rolled through him, chasing away his thoughts. She leaned closer to him, whispering hot breath against his ear. “You know what will happen.” Her tongue licked a path from one ear, across his jaw to the other before continuing. “It doesn’t have to end in pain. Let me reward your sacrifice with pleasure.” She circled her hips, clenching him tightly inside her, illustrating her point and eliciting a groan from him, followed

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by a weak “yes.” As she kissed him fiercely, his mind went blank as if all thoughts, all intelligence had been erased in the space of a heartbeat, leaving him with nothing but his senses: the taste of her mouth on his, the smell of the alien flowers clinging to her skin, the sight of her abyss-like eyes locked on his, the sounds of their mutual pleasure, the feel of their bodies moving as one. As he neared his climax, Lance noticed the world rapidly darkening around him. With a strangled cry, night had come.


M. Shaw M. Shaw has eaten two books in the course of its life: The Things They Carried and Little Women, in each case because it hoped to gain their powers. It has burned a number of others because it hoped to gain insight from their sacrifice. It is taking applications for a third book. Books are not to be eaten lightly. It is very hard to do.

Toccata and #&%$!! 1. The Situation.

Three jobs, 24 hours, minus eight for sleeping, because with three jobs you need all the sleep you can get. So that’s three jobs, 16 hours. Sixteen times seven makes 102 hours a week I spend awake. One of the jobs is full-time, two are parttime, so all together I work about 100 hours a week including commutes and break time. So, on a weekly basis I’ve got work, sleep and two extra hours, during which, inevitably, a young woman comes to my house and asks if I’d like to be abducted by aliens.

2. I shouldn’t have.

You’re probably wondering, why three jobs? It basically comes down to this: I shouldn’t have bought this house. We — that is, Jessica and I — thought that we needed the space, because Emily and Jacob were getting too old to sleep in the same room. In retrospect, I’m not even sure that was true, but even then we didn’t need this house. I just got stars in my eyes when I saw how much the bank was willing to loan me. Mortgage. I shouldn’t have had an affair with my boss’s niece Natalie, causing Jessica to divorce me and my boss to fire me. Alimony. Child support. I shouldn’t have allowed my political beliefs to stop me from applying for unemployment. I assumed I could get a job at another ad agency pretty quickly, but every time I got an interview they asked why I was fired, and I’d have to say, “I slept with my boss’s niece.” Surely, I thought, surely one of these hiring managers must not have any nieces to worry about. But no: they all did. Some of them were nieces and they liked it even less. Lost income. I shouldn’t have kept using my credit cards while I was looking for work. Debt. I shouldn’t have lied to Natalie about being sterile. Child support. I shouldn’t have claimed it wasn’t my fault when Jessica was thinking of forgiving me. We both knew that it was completely,

totally, 100% my fault.

3. Two extra hours

My lying son-of-a-bitch doctor told me I need eight hours of sleep a night. It’s not nearly enough. I’m tired all the time. The only significance eight hours has is that it’s the minimum amount of time I’m able to sleep before getting up. This is why the two extra hours when I’m not working or sleeping are the worst of my entire week. I have to find some way of occupying myself that won’t end in me falling asleep. Reading or watching TV are impossible, as is any kind of exercise, because if I stop to rest then it’s lights out. I used to be able to listen to talk radio to get myself too indignant to sleep, but now, not even that works. I don’t care anymore, you see. My choice of activities is usually limited to laundry, showers (both badly needed) and making espresso with the machine I bought back when I still had money. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, even if I have to use the cheapest beans available. The noise keeps me awake. On very rare occasions, I have made love with the young woman, but it doesn’t turn out well. Even when I have the energy, she has to keep pinching me so I don’t fall asleep. I think it’s supposed to be an incentive. She tells me that if I were abducted by aliens I could set my own sleep schedule. However long I want, whenever I want. Sometimes the two extra hours make me remember what leisure was, which is the worst thing about them.

4. Forty-two minutes

If I had to pick out the most absurd relationship I ever had with a woman, it would have to be Natalie. She was 12 years younger and there was no reason for her to be attracted to me. I’m not good-looking. I’m not well-endowed. It had to do with her extremely obscure fetish. She met me in the break room at work, eating lunch, while she was visiting her uncle. Something about where I was sitting in relation to the window and the way I was holding my silverware. Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 143


There wasn’t much reason for me to be attracted to her, either. She was bony, slightly lopsided and had a rare genetic defect that made her smell like an earthworm. I don’t have a fetish. I don’t have an excuse. It was 42 minutes before we were discovered. Shortest relationship of my life. After the divorce, she refused to marry me. We have nothing in common, she said. She wouldn’t get an abortion. I went to her place to plead with her. She said she wanted the child, but she was going to tell it that its father was dead. I said I wouldn’t leave until she agreed to get an abortion. She got a restraining order. I ruined my life in 42 minutes and all I got was this stupid restraining order.

5. The umbrella of the unskilled

I do have one real talent: I have an excellent ear. I can identify any musical note I hear so well, that I’m able to transcribe music just by hearing it once or twice. However, I’ve never figured out how to turn this into a marketable job skill. I don’t even play an instrument because my high school cut the music program. The work I have, therefore, falls under the umbrella of the unskilled. My first part-time job is delivering pizzas. The other is making phone calls for a charity supporting research for some disease I don’t give a rat’s ass about. My full-time job is at the amusement park, where I drive a golf cart between all the entry gates and parking lot booths and things, checking if they need any supplies. They almost never need anything. Water cooler jugs and receipt books all go out once or twice a day, with other things going days or weeks in between. Most of the time I do virtually nothing, which is hard because I must not sleep. I eat one or two meals a day out of food stands at the park. One of the camper lot attendants, an obese 53-year-old with one leg, has a master’s in computer science. He keeps telling me that he could easily make a program that would allow all the gates and booths to request supplies by text messages that would be sent to a supervisor’s email every couple hours. To simplify deliveries, he says. I’m terrified of this man. If he ever goes through with this, my job is gone. I keep lying to him that I’ll pass his idea to the higher-ups. I’ve got bed sores on my ass because all my jobs involve sitting down. This is why the young woman is never on top. She tells me that if I were abducted by aliens I wouldn’t have to work.

6. The catch

Being abducted by aliens sounds like it must be some sort of scam. Like Amway or one of those emails where they say you’ve inherited a bunch of money. Or one of those websites that claim you can get expensive electronics for a few bucks. I’ve seen plenty of scams lately, especially in the job ads: Part144 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

time, make $1200 a week, no exp. necessary, will train. Any of those ones that sound like they’re trying to sell you something instead of recruit an employee who fits their needs. Too good to be true. But the warning signs are always there. For example, the young woman refuses to tell me her name. She claims it’s unpronounceable by the human tongue. Coming from someone who is human to all appearances and speaks perfect English, this reeks of horseshit. When I asked her to explain, she said this isn’t her real body, merely a modded human body being remote-controlled via geosynchronous satellite. I asked which satellite and she said that even if she could tell me, the answer would mean nothing to me. When she gives me her sales pitch every week, she says that despite all the popular urban legends, hers is actually a highly ethical business. The term “abduction” is inaccurate and only used to agree with common parlance. They only take people who give full consent, in their right mind, with an understanding of what they’re getting into. Being abducted is actually a rare opportunity, given only to those who meet the rigorous preapproval requirements. “What’s the catch?” I say. She says there’s no catch. I ask, “What are the preapproval requirements?” She says, “I don’t have the exact info right in front of me, I’m only a low-level recruiter, and you’re only one of my contacts, but it has to do with certain degrees of mental and physical aptitude.” And that’s where I know it’s a scam.

7. No hablo Inglés

I met Jessica when she was a dental student. She was filling in a cavity in one of my molars at the University hospital. I was sick that day, and she had to stop the operation three times so I could go throw up. I decided to send her a real nice Christmas card. At the time, she was married to a man eight years older than her. By the time I came by the hospital to drop off the card, he’d been convicted of conspiracy to the murder of his first wife. It was kind of a there she was, there I was scenario. We were married for nine years. I haven’t seen her or the kids for almost two years. If she’s not a lesbian by now then she must really hate women. Jessica put her career on hold to raise the kids. When I look at my children through my own overworked, pessimistic version of objectivity, they’re both real brats. One time I tried to call them at a time when they would be home from school but Jessica would still be at work. Emily picked up and asked who was calling. “It’s Daddy,” I said. “No hablo Inglés,” she said, and hung up. When Emily was four and Jacob was two, she used to pee on the kitchen floor and blame it on him. When they were six and four, we told the story at dinner one night. Jacob promptly


peed on the kitchen floor and blamed it on Emily. I’m told my kid by Natalie is named Hubert, pronounced “who bear” to fit the story that his father was Belgian.

8. Not interested

The reason this whole being-abducted-by-aliens thing is so easy to deal with is because it’s all talk. Every week the young woman tries to convince me; I tell her no, and that’s it. Other people might react more negatively, but in the scheme of my terrible-ass life, something like this barely rates. When I still had a family, we were once held hostage by a canvasser. Yes, I mean a charity canvasser. He was collecting money for children in, I think, Ethiopia, or maybe Indonesia. Door-to-door, like the young woman. I told him I wasn’t interested and he kind of snapped. “Not interested!” he kept repeating. “Not interested! Buddy, I’m not here to pique your fucking interest! I’m here for the kids, who are starving to death whether or not your ass is interested!” I tried to shut the door, but he bulled his way inside first. He punched me in the face. “That’s for your goddamn yuppie fucking attention span!” he yelled. Jessica ran in with my gun, but she slipped and fell down the stairs and he got it. Long story short, he kept us in the basement for 2½ hours. Me, Jessica and the kids huddled in the corner, while he ranted about starving Ethiopian children and demanded we donate all our money. I told him to go to hell, which nobody in the room seemed to appreciate. He finally went away when I agreed to write him a check for $4,856.76: my entire account balance. After he left I called the bank, got a machine saying they were closed, tracked down the home phone number of our personal banker and made him promise to stop payment on the check first thing in the morning. Then I called the police, but they never found the kid. I couldn’t remember his name or the charity he worked for, and he was gone from the neighborhood by the time they showed up. Then we went to hospital to deal with Jessica’s forehead, which had been bleeding since she fell down the stairs. As a result of this and other things that came out in court during the divorce, I am no longer allowed to own a gun. I keep promising to donate to the NRA, but it hasn’t happened yet. I kind of enjoy the young woman’s visits, actually. She’s now started telling me that I don’t really want to be abducted by aliens. “It’s not a good racket,” she says, “just between you and me.” I asked why not, will my body be modded like the one you’re using? (I was only half-serious, of course.) She said that, too, was only done consensually. Like with cadavers in medical schools, it was only done with voluntarily donated bodies.

“You’re using a dead body?” I said, aghast. She said the body wasn’t dead. I asked what I would be doing if I were abducted. She said if she told me, she’d be fired. I said, “Won’t you be fired for trying to convince me that being abducted is not a good racket?” She said that if her supervisor found out, she’d claim it was reverse psychology. “Is it?” I asked. She declined to comment. I asked what kind of attractive young woman would consensually allow her body to be used in this way by an alien. She said, “Do you want to have sex again?” “No,” I said. “That body doesn’t belong to you, I wouldn’t be comfortable with it.” See, nothing has to happen if I don’t want it to. It makes the two extra hours slightly more bearable.

9. Problems

It’s not that I didn’t try to sell the house. It’s just — well, things got complicated. I went a little crazy during and after the divorce, did some things my homeowner’s insurance refused to cover. And because I did those things, they wouldn’t cover any of the subsequent problems either. They wouldn’t help me out on the roach problem because they claimed it was related to the hole I made in the kitchen wall. It’s really a nice house. three bed, 2 ½ bath, two living rooms (there’s a special name for the second one but I forget what it is), nice floors, big finished basement, balcony, patio . . . I got a cat for companionship but all it did was cover the carpets with excretions and run away. So, if I sold the house it would have to be as a fixer-upper. I didn’t want to do that at first. Now I’d be glad to, even though it wouldn’t come close to paying off my loan. The problem now is that I’m afraid to sell it. Here I am, creeping toward freedom an inch at a time. My life is shit and it is also so much better than it was before I had the three jobs and the young woman. I’m afraid to change anything, not just because I’m worried about it getting worse but because I don’t have the time or the attention span. I’ve got two hours of free time to work with and I’m too tired to deal with realtors and that crap. Tax time is going to suck. Fuck you anyway. I don’t have to explain this to you. Sorry. I’m so tired of people asking why I don’t just sell the house, like it’s that easy. The young woman says that if I were abducted by aliens then their planetside agents would handle all my debts.

10. Ave Maria

It’s so obvious that I’m going to be abducted by aliens. I mean, that I’m going to tell the young woman that yes, I would like to be abducted today. She’s extremely dedicated. I’m Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 145


not getting any saner. If she thinks I don’t really want to be abducted, like she says, then why does she keep coming back? This life sucks and I want out. The thing is, I’m still not sure she’s telling the truth. If I give in, and she tells me what a dupe I am, and a guy with a video camera jumps out of the bushes, I’ll probably kill myself. So I asked her if she could give me any proof that she was an alien. She said, “I mean it. I’m serious. You don’t want to be abducted. I have to keep coming here because it’s my job, but you don’t have to do anything, so just leave it.” “Come on,” I said, “just do something to prove you’re an alien. Say something in your native language.” “Let’s have sex,” she said. I said, “For the last time no, I’m not into the someone else’s body thing. What I want is for you to talk alien for a minute.” She said, “Okay fine, I think if you give me a second I can override the protocols and say something in my native language.” A minute later she started talking music notes. She did the scale in B-flat major. “Whoa,” I said, “do that again.” She did. Then she did a chromatic scale. Then Ave Maria. Then she kept repeating the note C. “You’re asking if I see?” I said. “C,” she said one last time. Her voice was somewhere between a clarinet and a Casio keyboard. I still don’t know though. She might still be able to do that if she were human. She’s just lucky I could figure out which notes she was saying or it wouldn’t have worked.

11. A degree of kinship

I asked a few people at my jobs whether they think aliens could be real. The guy in the camper lot with the computer program said he’s not really sure, figuring that out involves advanced mathematic and scientific probabilities, but they thinks they’re real. His favorite book is The Butterfly Effect. He goes on about it like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know if I trust him. Here’s the thing though: he asked why I wanted to know, and I was so out of it mentally that I told him the truth. He nodded and acted like it was totally legit. He talked about all the credible alien abduction stories he’s heard. I remember there was one about an 18th century pirate who thought he’d been captured by Indians, but supposedly if you read his account closely you can tell he was actually abducted by aliens. He just didn’t know it because nobody had heard of aliens back then. The aliens looked like big, four-legged spiders and they communicated by odorous vapors. The pirate must not have known much about Indians either. I asked the manager at the pizza place I deliver for and he somehow ended up talking about how we never really landed on the moon. It was all done in a Hollywood studio, he thinks. 146 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

This guy’s attention span tends to wander. He’s kind of like me, in that he works 80 hours a week between the pizza place and the daycare center his sister runs. Only he does it so he can afford to live in a gated community, drive an Audi and send his daughters to an expensive private school. I feel a degree of kinship with him despite the fact that I hate his guts. I was going to ask the woman who sits next to me at the call center, but decided not to while she was ruminating on 9/11. She wonders why other people don’t realize that it was obviously a conspiracy by the Israeli government, the only party that ultimately gained from it. I know what Jessica would say. She thought aliens were bullshit. I remember how much we used to spend on laundry. Jessica was so afraid of dirt and germs and dead skin that she used an entire big jug of detergent, an entire bottle of bleach alternative, and an entire bottle of fabric softener every week. She was so afraid of detergent residue that she would give every load 2 extra rinse cycles. She was so afraid of mildew that she would dry every load for 90 minutes. The cost was astronomical. All our clothes fit wrong. The people around me believe the most ridiculous shit, and I have trouble with the single most likely person to be an alien I have met. I, too, believe in things far more preposterous than aliens. I believe that no one should have to pay taxes, that an unregulated free market would solve all our problems, that anyone who works hard will succeed, that the President of the United States is not an American citizen, that a fertilized egg is the same as a person. I believe that nothing that has happened to me is my fault. I believe so many things that I know are wrong. But aliens? Forget it. That’s too much.

12. Never mind

I’m just crotchety because I’m tired. The lack of sleep is wearing me down.

13. Our idea of a joke

In addition to no longer using words, the young woman seems to have lost some of her fine motor skills. Her movements are jerky and she has a hard time picking things up. This has changed the nature of her visits somewhat. Now, instead of trying to convince me to be abducted by aliens, she says vocal renditions of certain classical pieces that I recognize, but can’t name. I can’t even remember the composers’ names except that most of them begin with B. I just say, “Do the one from The Phantom of the Opera,” or “Do the one from the movie about the dog.” She knows what I mean. Other times we talk in a very limited way, her finding creative ways to spell the words she wants using only the letters “A” through “G.” Generally I just ask questions and she either replies C (sí) or nothing at all. For example: “If I tell you I want to be abducted, will it happen?”


“C” “And I wouldn’t have to work or anything?” “C” “And they wouldn’t do anything without my consent?” [ ] “What would they do without my consent?” [ ] At this juncture I got out a pen and note pad for her to write what it seemed she couldn’t express with music, but she couldn’t manage to write legibly. She was similarly frustrated by the computer keyboard. I asked, “Do you still think I don’t want to be abducted?” “C” “Why not?” “C-A-G-E” “Cage?” “C” “What’s cage?” [ ] “You said cage, right?” [ ] (She twirled her hair jerkily around her finger, poking herself in the ear several times on accident.) “What did you say then?” “C-A-F-E” (It made sense. I was so tired, I could have misheard a note.) “Café? You’re saying you want to go to a café?” “C” There aren’t any cafés nearby that I know of, so we ended up going to a Starbucks inside of a Target. I asked what she wanted to get and she spelled “B-C-A,” which spelled nothing so I tried pronouncing it aloud: “BCA. B’ca. B’kuh. Buh kuh. Mocha?” “C” The barrista wore a statuesque expression. I ordered a pumpkin spice latté for myself. I almost felt a kind of momentary relaxation that might have been interpreted as happiness if you paid no attention to events happening on either side of it. Casual adult company. A not-unattractive young woman, who certainly did seem more at ease than she had at the house, although she often stared into space, smiling almost mournfully. I suggested she say some of the pieces she was used to reciting for passers-by on the sidewalk, imagining a growing crowd to cheer on these two inventive panhandlers. We tried it, but all we got from the retirees and housewives drifting in and out of the store were perplexed scowls. A woman pushing a double-stroller asked if this was our idea of a joke. They didn’t seem to believe in what we were doing. Classical music may be too old for the suburbs; we should have thrown it away and gotten some new music by now. There were 34 minutes left of the two extra hours. “Let me taste your mocha,” I said to the young woman. She did.

I said, “I can make a better one. I have an espresso machine. I’m pretty good.” So we went home and I made her another mocha which was better. And then we had sex.

14. If you can believe it

I’m starting to think that the word “believe” should be deleted from the English language. Or we should make it illegal to use it for things that are real, like classical music. You should only be able to believe in things that don’t actually exist, like evolution or aliens. If things are real, why should I give a shit if you believe in them? The woman at the call center who talks about 9/11 being an Israeli conspiracy (her name is Noah, if you can believe it) always says “I don’t believe in Iowa” when somebody mentions it. I thought it was a joke until I realized it wasn’t. She’s never met anyone from there, or even anyone who has been there before. But neither have I, you see. Maybe I shouldn’t believe in Iowa either. If nobody believes in it, will it go away? Was it there before anyone believed in it? Did America even exist before Christopher Columbus wanted to find it? Did he exist before some Injun came up with the idea of pink people? Did an Injun science fiction writer invent the idea of beards? What if…

15. What time is it? Fuck.

16. Trid pnch u

I couldn’t find the young woman after waking up, but I did find a message on the bedroom wall, written with yellow spray paint in wobbly letters: sory trid pnch u no wakup I can’t recall ever buying yellow spray paint. By the time I figured out what was going on, I had completely missed my shift at the amusement park, but I checked my voicemail, and they hadn’t tried to call me. I lost a job this way before. I was a cook at McDonalds and they fucking fired me for this. In my panic, I decided that the young woman couldn’t have gone far (not that I’d ever known where she went besides my house) and I had to find her. I don’t know what I expected her to do when I found her, but I sure ran around the neighborhood enough. I ran until my legs wobbled when I tried to stand still. It didn’t take long. My legs are basically made of Jell-O. When I stopped and looked around, I was lost. These suburbs, they can be real confusing. The whole subdivision is basically a web of cul-de-sacs where the streets aren’t laid out in any kind of pattern. I’d never had to see any of the streets that aren’t between my house and the freeway. Now I was smack in the middle of them, couldn’t remember my route, no clue where they led. Even if I’d had a compass it would have been worthless, the way the streets curve around. And it was Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 147


getting dark. It got dark. I was hungry, my hands shook. There were no streetlights, I’d left my phone at home. A few times I wanted to call out for the young woman but not knowing her name I had to settle for “Help!” That was when I realized there were no people. I hadn’t seen a single one yet, I just hadn’t noticed, because the neighborhood looked so damn inhabited. Cars in driveways, garage doors open, toys left in front yards. Only the people were missing. Indoors? Maybe, but all the houses’ windows were closed-curtained. The only sound was the highway, somewhere off in the distance, and the occasional unseen car on a nearby street. Who lives here? Do I know who my neighbors are? What do they look like? What are their names? Maybe the yards. At least I could look at the yards and know where I am. Do I know my yard? What does it look like? But the yards were just as undifferentiated. Looking at them, I saw that everybody owned the same stuff: doormats, lawn ornaments, garden furniture, even the same plants arranged in the same way, all of it probably bought at the Target store where I’d had coffee with the young woman only a few hours before, all designed to look homey, even rustic, as long as you didn’t look too long or too close or notice that everyone else’s came from the same mold in the same factory in the same China. The houses all had shutters, but they were made of plastic. The neighborhood, a Hollywood facade waiting for the aliens to come and push it over. At last, I just decided to walk into a random house and beg whoever lived there for help. When I did, it turned out to be my house.

17. More than ever

I finally went to sleep last night, at the time I normally do after coming back from the amusement park. I woke up and the clock said it was 3:18 a.m., making it the first time I’d been able to wake up after less than 8 hours. I propped myself up on my elbows, rubbed my eyes, and froze when I heard a noise downstairs. It couldn’t have been the young woman. She doesn’t have such a deep, masculine chuckle, and her feet don’t make nearly so much noise on my floor. Whoever it was found my house very funny, especially the burners on the stove which he kept turning on and off, chuckling, chuckling. He made himself an espresso. Then he left. If I screamed in this house, no one could hear me. I hate this place more than ever. When I showed up for work at the amusement park later, the receptionist at the gates office politely asked what I was doing there (clocking in, of course). “Didn’t you hear?” She said. The new tech guy, the one they’d promoted from the

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camper lot, had automated the whole resupply system. They’d figured I must have gotten the memo when I didn’t show up yesterday. My heart lit up for a moment at the prospect of claiming unemployment, until I remembered that I still have two jobs. No health insurance anymore, though.

18. I’ve decided

I’ve considered my choices carefully and I’ve decided to go with being abducted by aliens. I’m going to sit here and wait for the young woman to come back, and when she does I’m going to insist on abduction no matter what she says.

19. But wait

People have to work for what they earn. If I’m abducted by aliens and it’s as good as she says — (Where is she? She should normally be showing up around this time) — it won’t be because I’ve earned it. Really, it would actually be bad for me, because I’d be habituating myself into a state of dependency upon a benevolent sort of government to provide for my wants even though I don’t work for them — (Maybe they figured out what she’s been doing and fired her too, or something went wrong and her human body doesn’t work anymore, and she’s not coming. I’m out of luck.) — which is basically communism, which doesn’t work. Maybe, thinking of it that way, it really isn’t a good racket to be abducted by aliens. Well, when she gets here I can just ask her a few more final questions — (If I can’t go up, I’ll go down. Into the sewers like a ninja turtle. In the dark I’ll ask, “Are there any aliens down here?” and they’ll answer, “Yes!” from somewhere in the gloom. I’ll ask if I can live with them and they’ll say, “You have to earn your place here. What benefit could you possibly be to us?” and I’ll say, “I have an espresso machine and the knowledge of how to use it.”) — so that she can clear things up for me. I’m not going to end up a drone in some collective. You only have yourself to blame for the things that happen to you, and if I don’t take responsibility, then whatever happens will be all my fault.

20. Never mind again

I’ve been trying to make my life make sense for the longest time and it hasn’t worked out for me yet. Author’s note: In 2009, between jobs, I was doing some charity canvassing in the suburbs surrounding the city where I was living at the time. In one such distant community I once knocked on a door and found it to be almost imperceptibly ajar, though nobody answered. Looking through the windows, I could see a large hole in the kitchen wall that exposed some of the plumbing, and a mostly-illegible message spray painted on the living room wall. I contacted the police who asked for my information and said they would investigate, but I never heard from them. I haven’t been back to the house and I doubt I could find my way there anyway.


April L. Ford April lives in New York state, where she teaches French at SUNY College at Oneonta. She’s working on a collection of fiction called The Poor Children, that includes “Isabelle’s Haunting.” When not writing or teaching, she travels to her native home of Montreal, Quebec in pursuit of authentic French coffee and pastries. Vive les croissants et le café au lait! You can find her online at http://www.cogentwords.com.

Isabelle’s Haunting

“I

wish I could have known Isabelle.” Madame Jasmin always chuckled one of her throaty smoker’s chuckles when I said this, twining her arthritic claws through my hair and cautioning, “Be careful what you ask for, ma princesse.” I had such a sweet face, she said, and such perfect ringlets, I would have put Shirley Temple out of business. My innocence was priceless. Royle once told me Madame Jasmin brought men to my bedroom at night, allowing them to peek in as I slept on the bottom level of the bunk bed, unaware. The staircase leading from the main floor to the attic was at the south end of the house. My room was on the second floor, across from Madame Jasmin’s at the north end. “So you don’t hear the stairs creaking when she sneaks men up to your room,” Royle claimed. His bedroom was in the attic. Madame Jasmin scowled when I asked if this was true. Royle was too confident for his age, she said. Some kids thought they knew everything. “I don’t want you in the attic because there’s a draft. I need you in good health, ma belle.” Royle liked to keep the attic window open, especially during winter, and sit on the ledge, dangling his spindly legs down the exterior wood paneling. He would sway there for hours at a time, imagining a tightrope extending from underneath his bare white feet to the peak of the mountain. His eyes would lock onto the ski-lift shuttling people to the top, lips forming muted words of encouragement as he braved his way across the only thing separating him from death. As long as Royle had a dream, I knew he was okay. I wanted to be a painter, so I would sketch my brother as he dreamed, doing my best with scrap paper and crayons to make his vision real. Year after year, from the time Royle and I were placed in foster care at age eleven, Madame Jasmin promised me a set of paints for my birthday, but business always increased during the holiday season, and she would purchase a new Christmas outfit for me instead. “Ask Monsieur Bergeron or Monsieur Dubois,” Royle said one year. “They bring you all kinds of other gifts.”

But those gifts, antique wooden toys with stiff limbs and chipped eyes, were really for Isabelle, and my slipping out of character would have been a violation of Madame Jasmin’s Golden Rule. Madame Jasmin had lived in the historic A-frame house with her husband, Monsieur Gallant, until he died from lung failure. Monsieur Gallant had never smoked a day in his life and would not tolerate his wife’s habit indoors. It was only during his last days, when she had to be at his bedside every hour to clean the blood and phlegm that leaked freely down his chin, that he relented. “I was so nerveuse,” Madame Jasmin told us on one of her softer days. “I knew he was going to die, but you don’t realize how long it feels to wait for that final moment until you are actually waiting.” When Monsieur Gallant finally took his last breath, she was ordering her next carton of cigarettes at the import boutique, one mile away. Madame Jasmin never had children, even though Monsieur Gallant had pleaded with her often to reconsider. He had been a handsome man, judging by the sepia photographs hanging above the fireplace in the living room, and Madame Jasmin had been striking in her youth. Her story changed a little each time she told it, but in truth she had met Monsieur Gallant at a silent auction. She went there that evening in search of Cubist paintings and returned home with the artist. “It was le coup de foudre. There he was in his three-piece tailcoat suit, all pinstripes and smiles, and I knew he was the one.” Royle wagged his finger. “Last time you said he had a cane.” “Oui, he did,” Madame Jasmin said, an ambiguous curve to her lips. “And he leaned against it like he was much older than he was. Très charmant.” “But he was much older than you, right?” “Yes, petit gamin. But at that time his cane was for his public image not his health. You will understand this some day.” Le Pionnier, as the house was known, had a history of Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 149


hauntings. Supposedly its first owners, a wealthy husband and wife with five children, purchased it custom-built in the fall of 1939 and died inexplicable deaths beginning one month later. First, it was the youngest child, infant Valérie, who was found lying face down in her crib in October. The autopsy revealed she had drowned in lung fluid, but the cause was neither viral nor bacterial. The following month it was the twins, toddlers Benoît and Pierre Lamont. They awoke in the middle of the night convulsing, gasping for air as they called out to their parents, and by morning they were two more stiff bodies in the hospital morgue. Twelve-year-old Isabelle was the next to go, but her death was never confirmed. Her bed was found empty on the December after the twins’ deaths, not a crease in the sheets or an imprint on the pillow, even though Madame Lamont swore on her dead children’s graves she had tucked Isabelle in the night before. Isabelle had been a difficult child, however, suffering from bouts of what they called hysteria in those days, so her “death” was considered a blessing. By January 1940 the family was three: Monsieur Lamont and his wife, and their eldest child, Yvon. The town waited with held breath all month, as any day could mark the calendar with another Lamont death. January came and went and so did most of the new year, until one morning in November when the maid went to the attic for her broom and dustpan and found Monsieur and Madame Lamont and son Yvon on the floor, blood and phlegm stained down the sides of their shocked faces. The house opened for sale a few weeks later, but nobody wanted to live there. People clomped through the empty giant in packs, posing as prospective buyers just to get an inside view of the castle of horrors; nobody made so much as a paltry offer on the place. In 1941, the town assumed responsibility for the house and turned it into a bed-and-breakfast for skiers. Le Pionnier could host up to twelve guests between its six bedrooms on the second floor, and the in-house staff shared quarters in the basement. Isabelle’s bedroom, which became mine once I was placed in the house, was the most popular; it had been preserved right down to her wardrobe of smocked nightgowns. The room was adorned floor to ceiling with brittle, curling sheets of Isabelle’s couplets, inspired by the gloomy conceits of her favorite poet, Émile Nélligan. The walls underneath were a deep rose color, hairlines of wood showing through in places where Isabelle had scraped her nails during bouts of hysteria. Guests who stayed in the room were usually intrepid young adults on their first unsupervised outings, craving the thrill of sleeping on the “bunk bed of insanity.” Le Pionnier ran as a successful operation until November of 1950, when two guests were found lifeless under the pink wool blankets of the bunk bed. Both girls were discovered on their backs, blood and phlegm crusted on their faces just like the last round of Lamont deaths on the same morning ten years earlier. But there was something more unsettling about 150 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

the finding, what became known as “Isabelle’s Haunting”: The girl on the bottom bunk lay with one arm over the edge of the bed, wrist contorted so that the palm of her hand faced the floor. Her hand, as with the rest of her body, was bone rigid, and her fingers were pressed to the floor as though she had been pushing against it. Perhaps because the commotion of death occupied everybody’s attention at first, nobody noticed until later the hairline scratches on the floor underneath where the girl’s fingers had twitched with life for the last time. Once again Le Pionnier opened for sale and people filed in to take a morbid look, but nobody proposed to stay after sunset. The house operated as a daytime ski lodge for a few seasons until business suffered when a new bed-and-breakfast opened at the top of the mountain. In 1953 the house was vacated entirely; nobody even bothered to cover the furniture or board the windows and doors. A “No Trespassing” sign was posted in the front yard, and for seven years more the house remained vacant. The town ignored its growing decay, paid no attention to the midnight reverberations of beer bottles clanging against its sides. People joked that Isabelle had returned home whenever attention-seeking teenagers swore they had seen somebody rocking back and forth under the frame of the front door. It was a good joke, the town thought, for the front door of Le Pionnier had been replaced with a wound as wide as the wrecking ball that had finally begun to demolish the house. That was when Madame Jasmin met her coup de foudre, in 1960, and although she refused to bear children for him, she had no qualms about spending his money as though she had borne him many. Overnight Le Pionnier became the town tourist trap, the haunted house at the foot of the mountain. Madame Jasmin had researched its history thoroughly and employed her keen business sense to turn horror into income. In the beginning years, Le Pionnier was renowned for its haunted dinner theatres and promised apparition of twelve-year-old Isabelle Lamont. As there was no guarantee she would appear, a list of regular, curious guests began to build. Madame Jasmin kept guests entertained with acts like Yvon, the fourteen-yearold bellboy with fake blood and phlegm caked onto his face, and the mute Monsieur Lamont look-alike butler who hovered around the dining table. If guests grew impatient, Madame Jasmin would retrieve one of infant Valérie’s dolls from the attic, sit it in a splintered highchair at the head of the table, and babble to the doll as though it were Valérie and she were Madame Lamont. Nobody ever had the nerve to comment about Isabelle’s non-apparitions after spectacles like that. Monsieur Gallant, generous husband that he was, permitted his wife to do whatever she pleased with Le Pionnier as long as he could seek privacy in the attic, where he spent endless hours taking apart soft, beautiful things and reconstructing them into objects of appalling disfigurement. When I first arrived at the house in 1970, five years after Monsieur Gallant’s death, Madame Jasmin had to remove his paintings from the walls because the lopsided triangular eye of a man, or the


hollow black square of mouth on a woman would lurch me into nightmarish sleep. The painting that both frightened and fascinated me the most was Monsieur Gallant’s last, his vision of how Isabelle had looked the night she disappeared. According to the photographs in the Lamont family album, Isabelle’s hair had been abundantly blond and curly and her expression apologetic, even when she smiled. A beautiful, solemn child. Yet, Monsieur Gallant hacked her apart and patched her back together with uneven red gaps for eyes and a diamond-shaped mouth cut into an unending scream. Her hair rotated around a boxy head in spokes of bright yellow, and her hands wrapped around her throat as though they were somebody else’s, trying to strangle her. Madame Jasmin insisted the painting remain in the hallway outside my bedroom door. Whenever I had the courage to look at it, I felt the impulse to scratch away at the paint, wondering if the canvas underneath would be bruised from the scream caught in Isabelle’s throat. Madame Jasmin kept Le Pionnier running after her husband’s death — if anything, she was forced to in order to afford the land taxes. By 1965, the little-known town had expanded to a population of five thousand; the baby boomers had moved in with the intention of transforming it into a thriving exurb. They tore through the forest at the base of the mountain and paved the roads to gated communities and specialty shops. They opened cafés, restaurants, and schools. They even opened a racquet club, yet the economy idled. There weren’t enough children to fill the schools, for the affluent townspeople worked in the city and were too tired at the end of their long commuter days to do anything but delay plans to procreate, or sit in a café and read, or dine out, or participate in a swift match of racquetball. And so, in 1969, the mayor launched a campaign to invigorate the economy: Any family that produced offspring during the next five years would receive a check for one-thousand tax-free dollars for the first child, and five-hundred dollars for every subsequent one, in addition to a one-hundred dollar increase to the monthly family allowance of every child they already had. By then, Madame Jasmin was forty-five and widowed, so “producing” was out of the question. Acquiring, however, was not. Cecile, one of Le Pionnier’s regulars, had been fostering children for years, and she informed Madame Jasmin that the town looked favorably upon this. Whatever it took to ensure growth and prosperity. As long as the kids were viewed as contributions toward the town’s wellbeing. Madame Jasmin wasn’t thrilled with the idea of bringing waifs into her home, but, as they say, money talks. If she could find a young adolescent boy who looked like Yvon Lamont, then she would no longer require a paid actor’s service. There was no way she could enlist a child to play the role of Monsieur Lamont, but he wasn’t absolutely necessary. A girl. She needed a girl who looked like Isabelle to revive the lost effect of Le Pionnier’s haunted dinner theatres. That was when my life and Royle’s became what I remember.

We had been wards of the government since birth; our parents left the hospital without us, and three months later we were placed in an orphanage. My memories of the years before Madame Jasmin are sparse and unreliable. Mostly I remember sounds, especially the thin, mournful voice of a choirgirl, which I surely dreamt up because life at the orphanage did not include trips to the choir. Royle refused to have memories, and his gift for imagining wonderful, impossible things made him cynical toward our reality and those who controlled it. Grownups were always amused by his relentless quests to expose inconsistencies in their words, and they never seemed concerned when he actually did. Royle was fascinated by the way grownups toed the line of truth like a game of hopscotch, and his fascination gradually developed into an obsession with tightrope walking. Madame Jasmin wanted only me at first. She swished into the city orphanage, x-rayed the children’s playroom from behind ornate fuscia-rimmed glasses, and then pointed to Royle, who sat listlessly in a corner. “Him. I want a girl just like him.” The House Mother grinned like she had just won the lottery. She had been trying to get rid of us for years — by then we were the oldest kids in the orphanage — but as soon as prospective parents learned we came as a pair, they shifted their eyes to a scrawny ringbone kid drowning in a handeddown nightshirt and said, “That one’s cute. Don’t you think, dear?” Madame Jasmin smacked her hands together when the House Mother pulled me out from behind the bookshelf, and she jammed a crooked finger through one of my ringlets when she learned I had never taken ill a day in my life. “Bonne petite gamine!” Royle glared from his corner, squeezing himself between his arms and humming the theme song from Alfred’s Hitchcock’s Psycho. The House Mother eyed me warningly. I knew the routine: Royle and I were to wait in the playroom while she served Madame Jasmin hot cocoa and assured her that it might seem a bit much at first, two kids, but in fact we were unusually gifted and destined for great things. That was why we were the oldest ones at the orphanage: We were too special to send home with just anybody. “She’s crazy,” Royle chanted between breaths of Psycho. “We’re not going anywhere.” “You mean I’m not going anywhere. And by the time I find you, you’ll be married to some French guy with stupid glasses.” Royle’s mouth bunched into a little rosebud, his face ascetic as he focused on an invisible tightrope. I watched the adrenaline dilate his pupils, the rush of height color his cheeks, and then reached for my pencil and paper and began to sketch. We routinely lost hours doing this, living in our own world, so who knows how long the House Mother had needed to secure her victory. Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 151


“Monsieur Gallant was a painter,” Madame Jasmin said, leaning over me. Her nostrils flared with irritation when she said hello to Royle and was received by a grunt. She turned her back to him and stepped between us, and right then I knew I had to put my brother first. “We’ll run away,” I told the House Mother, who loomed behind Madame Jasmin. “Don’t be so childish. Madame Jasmin owns a very famous haunted house. You’ll be the best-dressed kids every year on Halloween.” I returned to my sketch, and Royle resumed his rendition of Psycho. The House Mother spoke into Madame Jasmin’s ear. “The boy’s a bit shy. You’ll want to keep them in the same bedroom at first.” “Of course.” “You may pass by next week to collect the check. In the meantime, I’m sure the bonuses will be sufficient to start you off.” The conversation continued as the old and new mothers left the playroom, but Royle had heard enough to know. “That crazy woman is being paid to take me. She wants you, but the orphanage had to sell me to her.” All I could do was take my brother’s hand and lead him to our bedroom, where he sat on his plastic-covered cot and sulked while I divided our modest possessions among the kids in the orphanage who had none. Madame Jasmin put Royle to work immediately; just minutes after welcoming us to Le Pionnier and telling rather than showing us where everything was, she held a framed, water-stained photograph of Yvon Lamont next to his head. “You see, petit gamin, you have the same hair color.” “That’s because the picture’s old and yellow. And you said Yvon was fourteen. I’m eleven.” Though it was apparent she disliked Royle in the way she pressed her fingertips to her temples, Madame Jasmin kept her sentiments from thwarting her business sense. A witty ghost for a bellboy, what a treat for dinner guests! Of course Royle was cynical, not witty, but guests who attended the dinner theatres were too much in awe to know the difference. We were homeschooled on weekdays by Cecile, the Pionnier regular who had enticed Madame Jasmin into becoming a foster parent. Cecile arrived every day at nine o’clock sharp with two of her wards, Marc and Manon, and spent mornings teaching us grammar and arithmetic. Marc was fourteen and Manon nine, and the two reminded me of mice the way they tiptoed into the parlor at the back of the house and wrinkled their noses at its musty smell. Madame Jasmin had restored the parlor to look like it had in 1939. The Lamont children had been homeschooled, and she was determined to recreate the environment in which they had learned, even insisting Cecile use the ruler if we disobeyed. Royle disobeyed often, but never when Cecile was near. Though Marc and Manon would eye 152 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

him warningly, they never tattled because his odd behaviors made them nervous. “There’s something wrong with your brother,” Manon told me one recess, as Royle treaded across the parlor with arms extended at his sides like an airplane, each bare white foot stepping precisely in front of the other. “No, there isn’t,” I said, suppressing my urge to twist her nose like a bottle cap. “He can talk to the dead. He’s met the Lamonts.” Royle must have heard me, for he started muttering to himself as he traveled the room, rolling his eyes back until only the whites showed. “See? He’s talking to Isabelle right now.” We spent afternoons doing arts and crafts, as Cecile informed Madame Jasmin that all quality schools included these in their curricula. Marc and Manon got to do whatever they pleased, usually maladroit scribbling or half-wit attempts at building popsicle-stick houses, while Cecile made Royle paint. “Your sister’s an artist,” she tried, when at first he merely skated his eyes over her poor excuse for a paint set — an old newspaper, a split-haired brush, and a can of oily, industrial paint. Royle didn’t approve of being insulted; however, I could feel Madame Jasmin watching us from the hallway, so I spread a piece of newspaper across Royle’s tablet desk and stuck the paintbrush in his hand. “You paint me while I walk the tightrope.” “You don’t walk the tightrope.” “Then I’ll sing, and you paint the story I’m telling.” “Dance too,” Royle said, dipping his brush into the paint and swirling it around lackadaisically. “Sing that song the choirgirl sings, and dance like Isabelle Lamont would have danced.” Madame Jasmin leaned against the parlor doorframe, perked with interest. Despite my cotton mouth, I went to the center of the room and pointed then flexed each foot as I begged my memories for the lyrics to the choirgirl’s song. After a minute of suffocating inability, I began to sing, humming at first as my legs worked independently from the rest of my body and swept me around the room. I closed my eyes as the sounds coming from my throat began to form into words, and I imagined I was the paintbrush in Royle’s hand, skimming across the paper from the safety of warm, familiar fingers. I had never sung the choirgirl’s song before; it had been only a vague memory until then. And yet, my diaphragm lifted the lyrics to my consciousness, my limbs retrieved memories from Isabelle’s short life at Le Pionnier, and I danced before eyes that were perfectly blind to what was really happening. From that moment on, Madame Jasmin took complete charge of my life. First, she withdrew me from homeschooling and enrolled me in a finishing course for girls. She drove me to class each morning and trusted other mothers to return me safely


while she attended to dinner guests. One week into my new formative education, Madame Jasmin terminated Cecile’s services and took charge of Royle’s homeschooling. Like before, he spent mornings learning grammar and arithmetic, but afternoons under Madame Jasmin’s tutelage were without plan or structure. She scolded him for spending his free time staring out the attic window, but she never encouraged him to do otherwise. If anything, she enabled his lassitude; with little else to interest or distract him, Royle would reliably appear in his smart bellboy suit every day at five o’clock, ready to cater to dinner guests with a sour face. After I completed the finishing course, Madame Jasmin enrolled me in ballet. Then piano, then voice, and then a specialized history course about how girls thought, behaved, and dressed in the 1930s. This went on until Royle and I turned twelve, by which time I could converse demurely about the Great Depression, hum every Glenn Miller and Django Reinhardt tune, and angle a cloche hat on my head just right. “You’re different now,” Royle said on the evening of our twelfth birthday. We were sitting at the dining table waiting for Madame Jasmin to light the candles on our cake. “I’m more mature now.” “Madame Jasmin says I can start public school soon.” “I’m going to private school.” “I think she has different plans for you.” “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, chers gamins! Happy birthday to you!” Madame Jasmin entered the dining room grinning behind a mountain of chocolate, Royle’s favorite, topped with twelve hissing sparklers — one of few thoughtful gestures she ever extended to him. The layered cake glistened with icing and our names looped across the top in raspberry jelly. Royle looked away when Madame Jasmin presented the knife so he could make the first cut. Used to his antics by then, she handed the knife to me. “Well! Le Pionnier’s dinner theatre days are over. No more Yvon Lamont for you, Royle. You can start public school now.” I felt like she was speaking to me through Royle, who pursed his mouth as if to say, “Told you.” “And you, ma belle Fancy, are ready to begin your work.” “My work?” “Yes, princesse, nothing in life is free. Your brother has learned this, and now it’s your turn.” “I don’t understand.” “I will need somebody to keep guests company when they come to spend time in the house.” “It’s going to be a ski lodge again?” “No, gamine, a place for people who are curious about its history, like a museum.” “Oh.” But we didn’t have any artifacts except for Isabelle’s bedroom set, which had become mine, and which I wasn’t willing to share with strangers. There were also Monsieur Gallant’s paintings stored in the attic, and I wasn’t eager to see them splayed along Le Pionnier’s walls again.

Madame Jasmin rubbed her hands together and smiled. “This house has so much unsolved history. So many things have happened here with no explanation. La mort, for example, there has been a lot of that, but nobody knows why. Some people are fascinated by this and willing to pay to just be here, to feel the energies.” And other people, men, were willing to pay large sums of money to meet the legendary Isabelle Lamont. “I can’t believe you don’t think she’s crazy,” Royle said later, when we were alone in the attic. I swiveled my head side to side and studied my features in the pink and gold hand mirror Madame Jasmin had given me after dinner. “I could be the perfect Isabelle, don’t you think? I kind of look like her.” “Isabelle was just a girl. I bet you she died like the rest of the Lamont family, from some lung disease. The town just wanted to be famous, so it made up a story.” “Then what about those two girls who died in her room ten years later?” “People die all the time, Fancy. This house is so old, people are going to die in it.” Sweet Royle could be too confident sometimes. This infuriated Madam Jasmin, but she never truly understood my brother. She treated his mood swings between listlessness and insolence like different personalities, and occasionally she threatened to return him to the orphanage if he didn’t pick one, preferably the former, and stick with it. “I just think it would be fun, Royle. You got to be Yvon for a year.” “She made me.” “Just be happy we’re together, okay?” Royle slipped down from the window ledge and ducked under his cot, reappearing with a box of scrap paper and mottled crayons. “Now that you aren’t taking all those girl classes, you can draw again.” Drawing. I had forgotten all about it during that last year. Every paper in the box was crowded with images. I couldn’t discern what the images were supposed to be, but I knew their sharp lines and angles came from Royle’s meticulous hand. “Are these from Cecile’s classes?” “I never did anything for her again after you left.” “When did you do these?” “When you were gone to your girl classes.” My chest hurt as I studied Royle’s drawings; some of the indents on the pages were so deep, the paper had torn. I could tell he had been determined to create something I would like, something soft and flowing and not brutal like Monsieur Gallant’s Cubist paintings, the only artwork he had ever been exposed to. My brother, in silent, defiant response to my absence during that last year had used drawing as a way to keep me close. This was clear in the desperate, repeating patterns of his work. “When I’m better, I’ll make something for the hallway so Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 153


you won’t have nightmares anymore.” Royle looked so vulnerable standing in front of me with his offering, a small boy seeking his mother’s approval. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I hadn’t had a nightmare in a while, though I couldn’t remember when they had ceased, or why. The following morning, Madame Jasmin took me to the tailor’s, along with Isabelle’s preserved wardrobe. Monsieur Bergeron knew all about the Lamonts, for his father had run the shop when the family purchased Le Pionnier in 1939. He scanned me from head to toe with wide-set, bulging eyes and nodded like a satisfied army general when Madame Jasmin announced I would be impersonating Isabelle. “I hope you won’t disobey too much, ma chouette,” he said, snaking his measuring tape under my arms and around my chest. I blushed and told him no, I would just look like Isabelle and maybe talk to some of Le Pionnier’s visitors about her. Monsieur Bergeron seemed disappointed with my reply, so I looked to Madame Jasmin for instruction. “Fancy…Isabelle…will entertain guests as they wish. I already have a list of people waiting to meet her. Perhaps, since you always give me such generous discounts, I could add you?” After we left, she informed me that from then on, whenever we had guests or she brought me somewhere in relation to my role as Isabelle Lamont, I was to introduce myself as Isabelle. The new business started gradually, guests visiting Le Pionnier on weekdays for afternoon coffee and pastries with Madame Jasmin. They sat in the living room and discussed les jours du passé, oohing and ahhing as they pored through the Lamont family album. The week before Madame Jasmin opened the house to guests, she commissioned an antique reproductions company to transform the living room (except the windows, which were sealed up) into the one from the Lamont album. Wall sconces with pleated gold silk shades were mounted at even intervals around the room. A rust-brown fringe chandelier was installed above the curved-back Eloise sofa, where guests could sit and enjoy the glow of the fireplace while they perused the photo album. Burled walnut smoking stands bookended both ends of the sofa, and a card table across from the sofa boasted a genuine Victor Victrola, Guy Lombardo’s “Enjoy Yourself ” spinning softly under the needle. Madame Jasmin chose floralprint wallpaper reminiscent of a springtime meadow to create the illusion of light and space, and her finishing touch was the tufted gold chenille Cleopatra bench beside the Victrola, where I was to sit whenever guests asked to meet Isabelle Lamont. My services weren’t required at first, even though Madame Jasmin made me dress up and wait in the parlor while she sat with guests. Monsieur Bergeron had adjusted Isabelle’s wardrobe to fit me properly, but I didn’t feel comfortable in the maize rayon skirts or taffeta plaid gloves. My head hurt from wearing my hair in tight braids, and my thick, curled bangs made me look like a Nancy Ann Storybook Doll. Although young girls weren’t supposed to wear make-up in the 1930s, 154 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

Madame Jasmin patted rouge on my cheeks and gloss on my lips to make them look fuller. “You look like a clown,” Royle said one afternoon, as I sat at his old school desk carving IL into the wood. I arched my back to escape the scratch of my blouse. “I do not.” “Have you been sitting here all afternoon?” Royle glanced over his shoulder before entering the parlor. Madame Jasmin had told him that as long as I was working, he was to either join some after-school activity or use the back entrance to the house and wait in the basement until the last guest left. I rose to offer Royle his desk, but instead he took my hand and led me to the doorframe. “Listen.” I leaned into the hallway and listened. “She sleeps comme un bébé, Monsieur Dubois. I promise you.” “So, she heard nothing last night?” “Rien. Would you like to schedule another viewing? Friday nights are quite popular. She’s had such a long week by then.” I looked at Royle. “What are they talking about?” “You. I wasn’t lying.” I had never accused Royle of lying, but just the thought alone of men watching me sleep seemed ridiculous. Why would they do that? I heard Monsieur Dubois click his tongue as Madame Jasmin described what I was wearing at that moment and would he like to have a sitting with me? Royle let go of my hand and kicked his bare foot against the doorframe. “You’re like her show-and-tell.” I made a shushing motion and tried to follow the rest of Madame Jasmin’s conversation with Monsieur Dubois, but the topic moved from me to town gossip. When I turned my attention to Royle, he crossed his arms over his chest. “I want to be with you when you meet that man.” Sweet Royle; his jealousy was so sincere, I actually considered his demand; but in the end, I could not disobey the house rules and let him suffer the consequences. Later, after Madame Jasmin was locked in her bedroom crying herself to sleep with a romance novel, I went to the attic and sat with Royle. “Hey, baby brother.” Even though we were twins, I had always felt older, more able to accept what our lives were and move from day to day without letting my frustrations control me. Royle was the more sensitive one, more fragile, which was why he needed me to watch over him. “How was the sitting with that man?” “Monsieur Dubois was very polite. He gave me a handcrafted miniature rocking horse for my night table. He said I used to have one I could ride, but I’m too old for that now.” “Isabelle.” “What?” “Isabelle used to have a rocking horse she could ride. We never had toys.”


I tousled Royle’s hair and laughed. “Isabelle. Yes, Isabelle had a rocking horse.” Monsieur Dubois must have told his friends about me, for suddenly I had daily sittings with different men. Sitting hours were from one to five, Monday through Friday, after my homeschooling with Madame Jasmin. I was free to do as I pleased evenings and weekends, as was Royle, and I was disappointed that my brother chose to isolate himself. “Haven’t you made any friends at school?” I asked, shortly after our thirteenth birthday. Madame Jasmin had once again promised me a paint set and ordered a tailored low-hemmed ankle skirt from Monsieur Bergeron, instead; but much to my surprise, she gave Royle a sketchpad and some charcoal. Despite her disdain for him by that point, she was evidently pleased that his artwork was beginning to resemble her late husband’s. “Why don’t you invite a friend over this weekend?” “I saw a guy outside your room again last night.” “What guy? How?” “I just did.” “You were spying on me?” I felt as though Royle had been trying to punish me, lately. He had started ignoring me at the dinner table and any other time Madame Jasmin was around, so the only place I could access him was in the attic. Even there, he barely acknowledged me. One time, he drew a thick charcoal line down the center of the attic and walked across it in his bare feet, and then stomped black prints through the house until Madame Jasmin hurled the mop and bucket at him and split open his bottom lip. “What do you talk about with those men, Fancy?” Royle’s hair was stuck to his face in greasy strips, and his body gave off an odor that reminded me of the orphanage. “Do they make you call them father?” “Stop it.” “Then tell those men to stop calling you Isabelle.” But how could I? I had grown to love the girl who had disappeared from Le Pionnier in the winter of 1939; I loved her like a sister. I had memorized every poem she had written and discovered why she had felt a connection to the words of Émile Nélligan. I had even begun to decipher what she had scratched onto the rose-colored walls of her bedroom. “I think she was asking for help.” Royle pulled at his bed sheet to turn it down. “I’m tired now.” “Oh. Well, goodnight.” I rose to leave and found myself looking straight into the eyes of Monsieur Gallant’s Isabelle, sitting on top of a chest of drawers Royle had dragged out of storage. Isabelle screamed her silent, unending scream, and my ears started to ring. “What is this doing here?” Royle rushed over and stood between me and the painting, though I couldn’t tell which he was trying to protect. “You hate it, so what’s the difference?” “Madame Jasmin will kill you if she finds out!”

“It’s been here for months.” That night I was determined to prove my brother wrong… and yet, I also felt exhilarated by the possibility he was right. Men were willing to see me even in sleep? What did they think about as they watched me? Did they find me pretty? In order to stay awake in the dark, I recited Émile Nélligan’s “La fuite de l’enfance” in my head. Over and over again, I recited the poem in ways I imagined Isabelle might have, fending off my growing fogginess until I heard a creak in the hallway floorboards. Each footstep was slight and precise and sounded like it belonged to one person only. Was it Madame Jasmin coming to check on me? Had Royle been repeatedly fooled by the dark? I held my breath to take in as much sound as possible. The person was not wearing shoes, which would have been unusual for a guest; men who visited Le Pionnier never removed their shoes. I turned onto my side and faced the wall where the man’s shadow would become visible against the hallway light that spilled into my room. I would watch his silhouette as he watched me, unaware. I waited and waited, but no silhouette appeared. The footsteps stopped, and I heard something brush against the wall outside my bedroom. Otherwise, the hallway was still. Then it occurred to me: Isabelle. Maybe Isabelle had returned home! Maybe she had disappeared in 1939 and not died like the town declared, and she had been trying to return home ever since. And so that was whom Royle had seen at my bedroom door, only he hadn’t realized because it was dark and who would have expected Isabelle to return home after so many years? I rolled onto my back and exhaled giddily. “Isabelle?” I heard a gasp, and my skin began to tingle. “It’s okay,” I said, sitting up and touching one foot at a time to the ground so as not to scare my visitor away. “Your room is just the way you left it. I always put everything back exactly where it was.” Isabelle whimpered, and my body warmed; she was frightened, and I would make her feel safe. I opened the door and looked into the hallway, making sure my every movement was as beckoning and as gentle as possible. Royle hunched forward and wrapped his arms around his bare torso. His body jerked back and forth as though he was having a seizure standing up, the tears dripping off his chin so thick they appeared opaque. “I heard noises in the hallway again.” I had opened my bedroom door to a worse horror than Monsieur Gallant’s mutation of Isabelle — worse, even, than if the mutated Isabelle had come to life and stepped out of the painting. “You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?” Royle sniveled incomprehensibly and tried to squeeze past me into my bedroom. I blocked his entrance. “Haven’t you?” Before he could answer, Madame Jasmin’s shadow expanded into the hallway like a hot-air balloon. “What’s going on out here?” I knew she would punish my brother severely if I told the truth. Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 155


“Royle had a nightmare.” Madame Jasmin screwed her eyes onto Royle, and for the first time I saw what she saw. Still, I had to behave like Isabelle would have if one of her younger siblings had awoken crying from a nightmare. “Come on.” I pointed at the staircase, and Royle stuck out his hand. I felt sick to my stomach, but I hooked my fingers through his and led him back to the attic, leaving Madame Jasmin to gawk at his exposed backside. We never spoke about that night, but it was impossible to go back to the way things had been. Royle retreated further into himself, and Madame Jasmin lost all tolerance for him. When he refused to eat his meals, she threw them out and told him to starve. When he tracked charcoal through the house, she coolly handed me the mop. When he stayed out past dark, she locked all the doors, forcing Royle to scale the house and climb in through the attic window. And when he caught pneumonia the autumn before our fourteenth birthday, she waited until he was delirious from fever before phoning the doctor. “I’ll take you shopping for a paint set this weekend,” Madame Jasmin said the night before our birthday. “No, thank you. But maybe Royle would like one.” Royle looked up from his untouched dinner plate — not in anticipation of a new paint set, but in case I had finally forgiven him. I was surprised at how long I had held a grudge against him; my increasing popularity with Le Pionnier’s patrons had obscured time, I guess. A year had changed my brother significantly. He was no longer shorter than I was, but four inches taller. And though he was thin from continual bouts of illness, his arms were remarkably muscular and his shoulders filled out the top of his T-shirt. “I have something for you,” he said. “For Isabelle, I mean. It’s at school. I’ll bring it home tomorrow.” Royle pushed his chair back and retired to the attic. Madame Jasmin patted my hand and whispered, “I hate to tell you, gamine, but there’s something wrong with your brother.” Those familiar words didn’t upset me like they once had. I had to work the following day, even though it was my birthday. “Tomorrow,” Madame Jasmin promised. “Tomorrow you can take the day off.” But I didn’t mind working; it had become my life, and I secretly dreaded weekends because I no longer had Royle to keep me company. Monsieur Dubois brought me a leather-bound copy of Émile Nélligan’s Motifs Poétiques, and Monsieur Castonguay, a new patron, presented me with Billie Holliday’s God Bless the Child record. “I hope you like your gift, Isabelle. Fourteen, hein? You are no longer a little girl!” I bowed my head and smiled, the tickle from Monsieur Castonguay’s attention spreading underneath the new maroon

empire-waist dress Madame had given me that morning. “Merci, Monsieur Castonguay.” “Please, ma belle Isabelle, call me Father.” “Oui, Papa.” Monsieur Castonguay leaned back on the Eloise sofa and spread his arms across the top. “Dance for me,” he pleaded through trembling mouth. “Dance to Billie Holiday.” I rose from my Cleopatra bench and straightened my dress, but then a loud thud from the front entrance of Le Pionnier interrupted our sitting. Monsieur Castonguay snapped to his feet, and Madame Jasmin’s heels click-clicked down the hallway. It was too late: Royle ran past her and into the sitting room, a large, gift-wrapped canvas secured under one arm. “Fancy, you have to come with me.” Monsieur Castonguay looked from me to Royle, whom he knew absolutely nothing about, his mouth opening and closing as he fumbled to button his shirt. Madame Jasmin caught up to Royle and slapped him across the face. He ducked and flinched as she flapped her arms and screamed at him, but he did not retreat. “Come with me, Fancy, please.” Monsieur Castonguay deposited a humid kiss on my cheek and excused himself. “Sweet dreams, Isabelle.” Just like that, Madame Jasmin composed herself and ushered him out of the sitting room, one hand on his back as she confessed that she had brought home a new foster child, but things were not working out, so the boy would be returned. Royal dropped his canvas on the floor. “What’s happened to you, Fancy?” “You are not supposed to come in here while I am working.” My reply launched Royle into a frenzy. “Fancy, please listen to me! A guy at school —” “What guy?” “A friend! A friend, Fancy. You told me to make friends, so I did!” The front door slammed shut, and I heard Madame Jasmin shriek and pound her hands on the wall. God knew how she would punish Royle. As he, too, sensed the inevitable, he started talking quickly, urgently. I could barely make sense of his words. “… not normal…he told me he saw a movie about … Fancy, you don’t have to —” “My name is Isabelle.” Madame Jasmin was at Royle’s side instantly, digging her claws into his neck and hauling him up the stairs; I had never seen her so nimble. The two fought brutally. They reached the second floor, and I heard visceral howls intercut with gurgling sounds. They reached the attic, and I heard fingertips scraping along the walls and objects crashing to the floor. A part of me wanted to beg Madame Jasmin to stop — lock me in the attic instead! — and through that impulse came my first real understanding of the word hysteria. Maybe Isabelle Lamont had died from hysteria after all, run off in a fit like the one


Royle was having and died, finally, unable to care for herself. No one would ever know, which struck me as a greater loss than Isabelle herself. Madame Jasmin must have grown exhausted from struggling with Royle, for she didn’t return to the sitting room after all the yelling and banging upstairs died down. An hour passed while I sat on my Cleopatra bench listening to Billie Holiday, hands folded neatly on my lap. It was dark outside when my stomach began to rumble for my birthday dinner. Would there still be a celebration tonight? I went to Royle’s canvas and leaned it upright against the wall. The wrapping paper was inscribed with “For my sister on her fourteenth birthday.” I unwrapped my gift slowly, enjoying the sound of its tear harmonizing with the gentle scratch of the Victrola. Royle had made me

a real painting, not one of his angry charcoal sketches that stained everything it touched, and I wanted the feeling to last — the feeling of exhaling right before everything goes black, or breathing for the first time ever. I smiled as I gazed into the uneven red gaps that were my eyes. My hair rotated around a boxy head in spokes of bright yellow, and I chuckled; Royle had always struggled with my ringlets. He had painted my hands differently than Monsieur Gallant had, not wrapped around my neck, and I realized that was what had terrified me about Monsieur Gallant’s painting: Imagining I would ever want to hurt myself. But I didn’t want to think about unpleasant things — it was my birthday — so I carried my gift upstairs and hung it on the wall outside my bedroom, and then I went to sleep with forgiveness in my heart. Sweet Royle had known after all.

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Ben Heine Ben Heine is a visual artist. Visit him online at www.benheine.com. All images in this gallery are © Ben Heine, 2011.

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A.J. O’Connell A.J. O’Connell is an author, journalist, adjunct professor, and professional hyperbolist who lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut with a spouse, two pets and a suspiciously deep compost pile.

Locavore

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wo hundred years of gardening has made me an expert. My strawberries are the size of an infant’s foot. My string beans are the length of a man’s ring finger. My compost heap is vast, ancient, and deep. I’m out there when the pests come, when the raccoons come humping through the yard and when the squirrels scrabble down to get at my berries. I’m ready for the voles and the possums, for the cats and the foxes. I hear them rustling through the stalks, their little hearts beating fast, while I crouch, weeding in the dark. I smell them before they squeeze through the cracks in my fence. My neighborhood is as free of nocturnal pests as my garden. Drunks, burglars, drug dealers, prostitutes — they only ever visit my street once. I have to eat something, and I like to think that I do my part to clean up the block. My neighbors organized a crime watch on our block some years ago. They taped a flyer to my door. I never signed up, not really, but I like to think of myself as an unofficial member. I’ve always been drawn to causes. It’s a weakness of mine. I sell my produce at the farmers market. Well, not in person. I have someone that does. I pick the vegetables and pack them up at night, and my man picks them up in the morning. They’re sold out by noon; he drops off my money in the evening. Oh, they love me at the farmers market: Big fruits and vegetables, in season, all organically grown from heirloom seeds. We sell out every week. I’m in vogue these days; organic gardening is the rage with the discerning public. Reusable bags, baskets, buckets. Using rainwater to irrigate crops. Composting as if it were an art form. It was just yesterday when I was hearing about the modern convenience of disposable bags, canned food and fertilizer. I remember her well, the woman in the dress whirling on television and pulling her black and white roast out of the oven, while the male voiceover said she was saving time. Time. I have nothing but time. That was supposed to have been progress: Women in new dresses, smoking in the kitchen and spooning beans out of 166 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

cans. Now progress means something different. Progress is going back to the days of walking to market with a basket on your hip. Isn’t that funny? I know this because I read about it, using something truly progressive. The Internet. It’s amazing. I’ve never been as connected with others of my kind as I am now. I log in to at least five gardening sites a day. I email other gardeners. I see them working in their plots on YouTube. There have always been gardening societies but you had to mail away to be a member and they ended up with your address, which was inconvenient, because they also had meetings and they knew where to find you if they wanted you to attend. This new lot has the blogs, and message boards, and newsgroups and wikis. No membership required. Just an email address. You don’t even have to participate. You can just lurk — that’s what they call people who read the boards but don’t comment — lurkers. I’ve always liked lurking. I’ve learned a few things too, which just goes to show me; I’m never too old to learn. It was the Internet that led me to the farmers market, in fact. It’s working out very well for me. For anyone else, it wouldn’t amount to much, but for my needs, it’s a tidy sum. The house is paid for and I don’t need to buy food. My bills are small; just enough heat to keep the house pipes from freezing, the phone lines, electricity, property taxes. I don’t keep a car anymore. I should, but they age so quickly, and always need work. That leaves a lot of money for the things I like. My laptop, an iPod, my big television (so much better than the black and white one on which I watched the commercial with the roast), a DVD player, my Kindle. I really do enjoy technology. I even have a webcam in the yard, pointed at my garden, so I can see it when I can’t sleep in the middle of the day. The picture quality is good, not as good as I’d like, but that’s no bother. All I have to do is wait a short while and they’ll have invented exactly what I want. Gadgets in this century have the lifespan of an day lily; they blossom in the morning and are crumpled up by evening. It’s a pity — about the lilies I mean — because I’ve got them all over the yard and I never get to see


them, or I didn’t until I installed the webcam. Now I print out stills and hang them all over the house in the spring. I love the Internet; it saves me from boredom. When I can’t sleep during the day, I log on and read blogs. I read pages maintained by organic gardeners, by vegetarians, by vegans, by environmentalists, and people who support green lifestyles. Be sustainable, they say. I am. Eat local, they say. I do. I’m most interested in these vegetarian and vegans. What an odd culture to cultivate. Of course, vegetarianism is nothing new. But two hundred years ago, it didn’t have such a fancy name. Back then, vegetarians were just called People Who Can’t Afford Meat. They certainly didn’t flaunt it. Well, not unless they were begging. But the vegans. That is new. To go to such extremes for a cause, to cut out animal products entirely; that is dedication I admire. You’d think they’d be starving, gruelly creatures, but there’s such care, such attention paid to their diets. They must think about food all the time. That’s the danger of being on a specialty diet, I guess — you cut something out, so you’re always thinking about what you eat. I guess you could say I’m on a specialty diet, too. But I don’t give too much thought to food, not my own food. What I think about is the garden. I think about it every night in summer and I think about it all winter, when I grow seedlings in the house, and raise orchids in my greenhouse. And in the spring and fall, I dig and turn the earth quietly, so I don’t wake the neighbors. It’s a deeply satisfying pursuit. Sometimes I forget to eat myself. And of course, there is the Internet. Sometimes I think I’ll start vlogging on YouTube, but I know that’s not a wise idea. Some people aren’t that far removed from the mob, the torch, and the pitchfork. You should know, I’m aware of what you all think about people like me. I’ve

read the books and I’ve seen the films, and a little is true, but most is not, and I’m not going to say which is which. I am not one of those morose suicidal creatures who contemplates, for pages on end, walking into the sun for humanitarian reasons. Humanitarian. Maybe that’s what you could call my diet. I learn about a lot of things online. The other day I couldn’t sleep and I Netflixed Food Inc. The footage of the chickens and the cows was horrible. No one ought to treat their food like that. Kill it quick; best if it doesn’t see you coming, that’s what I’ve always done. I’m not one of those Anne Rice creatures that wants to have a deep, revealing conversation with its dinner. That’s ridiculous. If you’re hungry, eat. Don’t torture the poor thing. But the creatures in Food Inc. live wretched lives, just to be sold as meat. I’ve seen a lot of chickens, pigs, sheep and cows in two hundred years, and not all of them were welltreated, but none of them spent their lives in pain. Some of these modern animals are diseased. And even more disturbing, the farmers pump the animals full of hormones and spray down the vegetables with pesticides. And both animals and vegetables are genetically engineered. That’s no good for any of us. That sort of thing contaminates the food chain. So I think I will change my diet. I could be greener, so maybe I will go vegan after all. It will probably be a little difficult because there aren’t that many around, but I think it’s a worthwhile sacrifice if I can avoid the pesticides and the hormones and the E. coli that will surely make their ways into my own bloodstream. There are a lot of vegan types who go to the farmers’ market. They probably shop at my stall. I should get my man to pick one up for me next week. I like the idea of growing my own. You really can’t get any more local than that.

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Matthew Harrison Originally from Atlanta, Matthew Harrison lived in Seattle and Los Angeles before moving to Massachusetts, where he’s currently working toward an MFA at UMass-Amherst. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, At Length, Phantom Kangaroo, Smokebox, and Danse Macabre.

Bad Thunderclap

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aberqueen tapped her bronze bikini. “Lo, Thunderclap,” she said to the broad-chested man standing on the golden bridge over Moaning Chasm. Red and blue tattoos of stars and moons covered his face and neck, and his panther-black hair fell to his chainmail kilt. He lowered his crossbow and nodded. “Lo,” he said. Somewhere an ox-horn bugle blared a single high note. And so connection was made. Saberqueen’s bare feet puffed small clouds of dirt in the path leading to the bridge. Her silver arrows rattled in the calfskin quiver on her back. “Long time,” she said. They’d been meeting for months to trade plunder from the villages they’d ravaged (dog pelts and smooth magic bones and mammoth tusks carved with hieroglyphics and silver goblets inlaid with diamonds and intoxicating perfumes) and to chat. Thunderclap comforted her. She knew he lived in Utah — he’d let that slip out once — but nothing more, and their secret histories put her at ease. With Thunderclap, she could vent about her husband, Tim Ryan Pace, whose beef-jerky breath and black ear whiskers somehow convinced Joy Kilcrease, the manager of Clothland in Redondo Beach, to have an affair with him. Thunderclap might be a sleaze back in Salt Lake, it didn’t matter when Saberqueen joined him above the sweet mists of Moaning Chasm. To her, Thunderclap was a tender savage. He listened. Last time she hailed him, he gave her a curved dagger in a copper sheath studded with amethysts, its handle made of onyx shaped like a stallion’s head. Later that afternoon, while Tim Ryan manned his Sports Chalet store in Torrance and the twins, Ryan and Timothy, Jr., were doodling or doing arithmetic or whatever kids did in third grade on Mondays, Saberqueen had tackled and killed an ibex with the dagger. Thing is, Thunderclap understood her. He believed in her abilities. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, stepping onto the golden bridge. Week after week she’d found the bridge empty. She’d sat and waited, hummed some Van Morrison, her muscular tan legs dangling over the Chasm. Thunderclap had 168 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

never showed up. Each time, Saberqueen drew her bow and shot down a few pterodactyls, got bored, went home. Without the brutal strength of Thunderclap, the thrill of ripping through forests to invade tranquil villages near bays jeweled with sunlight faded. “Hey Saberqueen!” he bellowed. She stopped, gripping her bow. Thunderclap smiled. His white rows of sharp teeth spread the stars on his cheeks apart. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I actually got a free iPod to test out and keep! They’re only giving away a limited supply, so I’m telling you this! I absolutely love my iPod!” He crossed his arms and squinted at her, rolling his tongue in his mouth. Saberqueen glanced behind her. The dirt road twisted into the distance between giant boulders. The two suns flared at the horizon. She looked back. A small tattooed man stood beside Thunderclap. His black hair also reached his chainmail kilt. He held a crossbow the size of a violin. “What’s this?” she said, instinctively reaching back for an arrow. “Wait,” Thunderclap said. His voice reminded her of old lawnmowers. “You don’t sound like yourself,” she said, staring at the small Thunderclap. “Who the hell is that?” The big Thunderclap sighed. His chest seemed to bubble for a moment. His eyes became black question marks, black number signs, black ampersands in succession like a slot machine of symbols. He shook his head and garbled something doggish. He beat his fist into his washboard stomach. “This hack,” he said, gesturing at the little man. “Well, out with it. I have a virus. I’m sorry. It’s why I’ve been gone so long.” Saberqueen panted. Why hadn’t he told her? She might have the virus, too. Their muscular tan legs had touched so many afternoons while sitting on the bridge warmed by the two suns and trading clay pots and animal pelts and spitting into the Chasm. She glanced right, left, checking for small Saberqueens.


“You’re okay,” Thunderclap said, pulling his long black hair back into a ponytail. “It’s all me.” The small Thunderclap had clamped an iPod onto his chainmail kilt. His eyes were closed, showing two blue moons tattooed on each eyelid. His head bobbed to the music in his earbuds. “You’re no good you’re no good you’re no good, baby you’re no good,” he sang. “Kill him,” Saberqueen said. “Now.” Thunderclap shook his head. “I’ve tried.” Saberqueen clutched the stallion head of her dagger. “He’s fucking up our world,” she said. Thunderclap hung his head. “I’ve missed you, Saberqueen.” “Look at me,” she demanded. “What are you saying?” He met her gaze, and for the first time she noticed the bruised bags under his dark eyes. His face looked swollen. Saberqueen raged. She clanged the dagger against the bronze top of her bikini armor. She filled the Chasm with her sabertooth growl. Pterodactyls rasped into the trees. Raptors cowered. Venus flytraps winced. Stegosauruses hid their heads in tree hollows. The T-Rex threw up its tiny hands and tiptoed off. Saberqueen pointed the blade at the small Thunderclap and advanced. “No!” the big Thunderclap shouted. “Then you’re sure to catch it. Don’t.” She froze, dagger still thrust out. “Saberqueen, there’s one way to rid of this.” She lowered the blade. “And still meet here?” He stared down at her, for the moment regaining, she thought, his noble stature. “Delete Thunderclap,” he said.

“What?” “Delete me.” The small Thunderclap winked at Saberqueen. He moved his potbelly as if hula-hooping in slow motion. “I absolutely love my iPod,” he said, flirting with her. “I don’t follow,” she said to the big Thunderclap. He came to her side and leaned close. “I’ll come back,” he said. “I might look different — new password, new digs — but I’ll be here on the bridge, waiting. I need you, Saberqueen. Just remember this: you’ll know it’s me when I offer you the feathers of a Protarchaeopteryx.” Saberqueen stepped back, smirking. “You crafty heathen,” she said. Big Thunderclap beamed at her. They embraced. “Until the bugle blows,” he said. He climbed the golden rail of the bridge and balanced there holding his crossbow like a guitar. “You’re beautiful in bronze, Saberqueen,” he said before falling backward, his black ponytail flapping in the wind. The small Thunderclap bounced. “I can’t believe it!” he said, running in a small circle. “Free to test, free to keep!” He leapt off the bridge. Saberqueen sheathed her dagger and turned to the long dirt road. One of the two suns had set. The other hung above a boulder like a paused explosion. The horizon flickered red. She kept her eye on the second sun. She took her time going home.

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Jonathan Pinnock Jonathan Pinnock has had over a hundred stories and poems published in places both illustrious and downright insalubrious. He has also won quite a few prizes and has had work broadcast on the BBC. His novel Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens was published by Proxima Books in Fall 2011. He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and he tweets as @jonpinnock. Mrs. Darcy’s own much nicer website may be found at www.mrsdarcyvsthealiens.com.

Dinner with Sylvia

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he main course came as something of a surprise. “I thought you were a vegetarian,” I said to my companion. She didn’t say anything at first, but gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. She continued to say nothing as she sliced off another chunk of her steak and put it into her delicate mouth, closing her eyes in ecstasy. “So, I take it that you’re not — “ I said, but she forestalled me by raising a hand. She was still savouring her mouthful. After a moment, she dabbed gently at her lips with her serviette and smiled at me again. “But I am, my dear, I am!” she said. She cut off another piece, and gestured to me with her knife. “Go on,” she said, “Isn’t this just heavenly?” I had to agree. It was, by a considerable margin, the best steak that I had ever eaten in my life. But that didn’t really answer my question. I finished my mouthful and gave her a quizzical look. “Okay, Sylvia, I give in,” I said, “I agree that this may well be the best steak on the planet, but — “ “But nothing,” she said. She paused for a moment, then lowered her voice. “All right. Get out your cub reporter’s notepad — you can start taking notes now. But be warned, everything – and I mean everything — I say is completely unattributable. Not a sentence, not a word, not a single consonant. And if I find anything that looks remotely like a wire on your person, I shall have no compunction in strangling you with it. Understood?” I gulped. “Understood,” I said. She took a deep breath, and then continued in more measured tones, “Sorry, darling, but I have to be unbelievably careful. Now, where were we?” “I was about to ask how you squared vegetarianism with eating this steak.” “Of course you were . . . of course you were.” Her eyes flickered upwards for a moment. “What if I was to tell you that it wasn’t technically meat?” “Sorry? You mean it’s some kind of substitute?” I shook 170 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

my head. “Well, if it is, it’s a damn sight more realistic than some of the soya crap I’ve eaten in the past. Or — what was the stuff called? Quark? Quirk?” “Quorn, my dear. Uh — uh. You’re jumping to conclusions, and you’re jumping in all the wrong directions. Do you really imagine that I would have asked you to pay a hundred smackers a portion for some fungal meat substitute?” She’d ordered off-menu, with plenty of surreptitious nods and winks, so the price came as something of a shock. I wondered how I’d get that past accounts. “No, please be assured. This steak did come from a cow. But one of a very special herd.” “Must be very special indeed,” I said. (A hundred quid a portion, I thought. Jesus.) “Very special indeed,” she continued. “A few years back, a dairy farmer somewhere in the south of England — and I’m not going to say where, so don’t even ask — started noticing something strange happening to his cattle. Or to be specific, the cattle that grazed in a particular field.” “What was strange about them?” I said. “Some of them — the younger ones — took to gamboling about like spring lambs. The older ones, unfortunately, didn’t fare so well. In fact, several of them keeled over and died. Naturally, the vet was called in, and what he found was so bizarre that at first he refused to believe the evidence of his eyes. So he called in a government expert, whose first act was to arrange a complete news blackout.” “Go on,” I said. “Well, it seems that when the original vet performed the initial post-mortem on the first cow to have died, its cell structure had been radically changed. Changed so that instead of being an animal, it was now technically a plant.” “Excuse me?” I said. Her eyes flashed a warning to me, and put a finger to her lips. “Not so loud,” she said. “Please. It’s not just my job I stand to lose if anyone finds out I’ve been talking to you. Anyway, it’s not quite as strange as you might think. Bear in mind that we


share half our DNA with the banana.” “Yes, but hold on, Sylvia —” “Cool it. Just think about the panic that must have gone around the Min of Ag. Of course, there was only one thing to be done — destroy the lot, including the ones that were still bouncing blissfully around in their field.” “I think I can guess what happened next,” I said. “Yup. Farmer Giles didn’t like the look of the compensation deal, and snuck a few of his prize herd off to the slaughterhouse before anyone noticed. Then it all got a bit strange. Because reports started coming in from the butchers in town that some of their steak was — different. Tastier. More tender. In fact —” She glanced meaningfully down at my now almost empty plate, “— in fact, probably the most wonderful steak their customers had ever tasted. Don’t you agree?” “Bloody hell,” I said. “Is it safe?” She ignored me. “Aren’t you interested to know why it’s so good?” she said. I nodded. My knife was limp in my hand. “Turns out that in super-herd’s field, there were clumps of little mushrooms. Ones that no-one had ever come across before. Mildly psychotropic, but never mind. The point is that they had the ability to disrupt the cows’ genetic makeup, so that they absorbed into their DNA whatever they happen to be eating, softening the edges of all that gristle and fat.” She paused, gently twisting her long black hair round her fingers. “Of course, every scientist in the country descended onto the field, looking for those mushrooms. The idea was that their essence could be distilled into a single additive, to be applied to every cow in the country. Naturally, it didn’t go entirely

smoothly —” “Hold on . . . when was this exactly?” “Late eighties,” she replied, “But you’d worked that out already, hadn’t you?” “Good God. BSE?” Sylvia nodded. “Remember rule number one of cover stories. If you’re going to make one up —” “Make it bloody enormous,” I said. “In the end, of course, the whole scheme was abandoned. Except for Farmer Giles, who quietly re-populated his herd and continued to graze them on his special pasture.” “But is it safe?” I said. “Well, I’ve certainly eaten plenty,” she replied. Then she looked significantly into my eyes, and I realised that over the last few minutes her leg had curled itself around my own under the table. She gently took my hand and interlaced her long fingers in mine. “Now,” she whispered, “I have a room upstairs, and since you’ve been a good boy and bought me dinner, here’s the other key. See you upstairs in ten?” I watched her glide away, and signaled to the waiter to settle the horrendous bill. I had a vague feeling that I’d been conned. In the middle of the night, I dreamt I was being smothered by a strange writhing convolvulus that was probing my every orifice with its tendrils. I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart thumping away insanely. Sylvia’s arms and legs were wrapped around me, clinging to my clammy body. Next morning, she was gone. All that was left on the pillow next to me was a single leaf.

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Gregory J. Wolos Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, elimae, Apple Valley Review, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream Magazine, Emprise Review, and a dozen other journals. In the last year, his stories have earned recognition in several competitions, including a Pushcart Prize nomination. One of his stories was selected as winner of the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction, and another won the 2011 New South Writing Contest. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is www.gregorywolos.com.

Shame

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omeone had taken up residence in Paul’s mother’s garage. He wasn’t a forensics expert, but even suspended cops remembered their basic crime scene training. His discovery came a week after Mom’s funeral, when he finally got around to the disorder that made his big sister gasp just hours before her flight back to Indiana. She’d peeked into the garage through the kitchen door. “Paul, you’ve got to clean this place up! It’s a junk heap.” “It’s a family museum.” “A museum of junk. Clean it up and have a garage sale. Do it now while you’re on ‘vacation.’” She gave her brother a hard look. His suspension from the force had been an embarrassment for her, too. It had been difficult at the funeral, because Paul’s name had been in the paper for days, and when his mother’s friends from AARP took his hand, he couldn’t meet their eyes. Every time one said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” Paul thought they meant his job. Thank God Mom had been in a coma when the news broke. He’d been caught sleeping, and a little stoned, in his cruiser — his “lifeboat,” he called it when he showed it off to school kids at special programs. He always saved the flashing lights and siren for the end. “What do you do when you hear this, kids?” he’d yell over the wail. “Pull over!” the children would shout in unison. The “loveboat” he called the car years ago when he told his pals about screwing Vicki, his brand new (and short term) wife in the empty Walmart lot at three a.m. “Who’s going to bother a rocking and rolling Loveboat marked “POLICE” in the middle of the night?” he’d winked. But this time the mayor himself, burning the midnight oil on a re-election crusade, surprised Paul, asleep on the job. Asleep on two jobs, really: John Kasinsky of Kasinsky Karz paid fifty dollars a week for the “special eye” Paul kept on his lot. A knock at his window and the glare of a flashlight had rudely awakened him. Neither officer accompanying the mayor met his eye. 172 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“That weed?” the mayor sniffed. Results of Paul’s drug test were pending. Thirty days suspension and dismissal likely. Plus criminal charges if missing items were traced back to him: he had a taser and a Glock 17 semi-automatic that slipped through the cracks after the Glock 22 replaced it as the new duty gun. Nobody knew about the .38 Special Smith and Wesson he’d pocketed during an arrest or the big bag of pot “samples” he’d collected. Paul was wading through the cluttered garage, gauging the magnitude of the cleanup his sister had been right to demand, when he saw the broken refrigerator and remembered the departmental loot he’d stashed there — a few tokes would take the edge off. Then he discovered the refuge. Its orderliness gave it away. Isolated by a wall of boxes were a sagging rocker and an industrial spool that served as a table. A mug on it featured Snoopy sleeping on his dog house — “I think I’m allergic to morning.” On the workbench was a hotplate, and on the shelf beneath it were four cans of beans and a pie tin containing a can opener and a spoon. Under a sheet-draped stool were a stainless steel bowl and a bar of soap. Both the hotplate and a standing lamp behind the rocker were plugged into an extension cord. Next to the lamp was a box of children’s books, topped by The Cat in the Hat. By the time Paul found a sleeping bag and pillow in one of the boxes stacked to hide the space, his heart thumped and his nape hair tingled as if he’d arrived at a crime scene. He dug into the box of books and discovered a notebook with a pencil slid into its spiral. Letters of the alphabet had been carefully printed in it: a whole page of As, then Bs, and so on, all the way to Z. In the back, quotations had been copied out: “The sun did not shine/It was too wet to play,/ Soo we sat in hose/ all that cold clod wet day.” The Cat in the Hat. Though the passages had been copied neatly, letters were transposed and words dropped, as if the transcriber hadn’t understood what he’d printed. Paul took a tour and wasn’t surprised to find that the lock


on the garage door was broken. He looped a chain around the guide rail so the door couldn’t be raised. He’d probably missed hundreds of clues, but the chaos was overwhelming, and he was on his own. The idea of a resident intruder loomed like a midnight iceberg. None of the homeless he hustled out of the library or off the benches downtown had the wherewithal to find the suburbs. The visitor must have been a journeytoughened survivor who’d taken a wrong turn a few thousand miles back. Paul’s cell phone hummed against his thigh. Diane — had he started cleaning up? “Keep your eye out for valuables,” she said. “And things you might want for sentimental reasons.” Should he ask what she knew about someone in their garage? Would she think he’d failed as his mother’s protector? He’d taken Mom to doctor’s appointments, bought her groceries, watched TV with her on Sundays. Twice she’d rolled onto her “Life-line” button in the middle of the night, and he’d raced to the house in his cruiser to find her sleeping peacefully, lost in her tossed sheets like a child’s doll. The second time he didn’t bother to wake her. Had the intruder heard him enter? Had Paul disturbed his copying: “We looked, and we saw him come on in the mat./ We look, and saw we him — the Cat in Hat.” Paul hadn’t seen a light, but why would he have looked? “It’s all worthless. There’s just the TV, and people only want flatscreens.” He looked at the box of books. “You want our old Dr. Seusses for your boys?” Christ — what about the stash? Paul hurried to the refrigerator. “My boys are not readers,” Diane said. “But somebody’ll take that TV for five dollars. They’ll take silverware and dishes and old clothes. Catholic Charities already moved out the big furniture, right? But put out anything that’s not actively moldy. We’re paying ‘Stan the Trashman’ to throw out whatever’s left over.” “Actively moldy,” Paul echoed, half-listening. He checked the freezer: the pot was there and behind it the taser and the Glock semi-automatic. But he kept pawing and broke into a sweat. The second handgun was gone. Diane sighed. “You knew this day would come, you and Mom. If she hadn’t gone downhill so fast, she’d have had to enter a facility with that hip of hers before too long. You should have been cleaning things up a little at a time.” “She was doing okay. I had it covered.” Paul set the semiautomatic on the spool table and dropped the taser into a paper bag with the weed. “That place we talked about would have been a nice,” Diane said. “She would have had friends to eat with. Well, that’s water under the bridge. Save Dad’s stuff, like his medals — his Purple Hearts. Remember what he used to ask? ‘Why would they give you a medal for being a good target?’ But he was proud of them. Maybe some day, my kids will be proud they’re related to a hero. Maybe you’ll get a second chance at a family of your own and they’ll want to know about their granddad.”

Paul scanned the garage. It would be impossible to tell if anything else was missing. But the gun . . . he felt queasy. “What about golf clubs, gardening tools?” “I said — moldy, throw it out. But people will take broken stuff if it’s antiquey. Use your judgment — and don’t fall asleep on the job.” Paul winced. She couldn’t know what he was up against. “Why were there two Purple Hearts?” he asked. “The mortar shell that almost killed him I know about. What’s the other one for?” “You know that — you just forgot. He got shot through the hand, his first fire-fight. He wrapped it in a rag and kept going. That’s why his little finger stuck out, remember? “Yeah.” The stiff pinky — he pictured his father holding out his little finger while he drank a cup of coffee, as if he were mocking prissiness. “This’ll be a trip down memory lane, Paulie.” Paul looked at his own hand, imagining it with a hole he could see through — the raw edges oozing blood, bits of broken bone. He’d never been shot at or had to discharge his weapon, except at the firing range. “On the way over this morning, I put signs up around the neighborhood. For nine a.m. Saturday.” “Good,” his sister said. “Those places are too small,” Mom said about moving during one of Paul’s Sunday visits. “I’m used to space. What’ll I do with my things?” Things Paul imagined as a huge ball of foil that got bigger and bigger over the years — a ball of time layered with memories. He saw the big, shiny time ball rolling off while he drove his mother to a senior facility in his police cruiser. He’d run the siren to commemorate the move, as if they were leading a parade. The time ball would roll off the edge of a cliff and splash into the ocean. Paul would watch from above as it sank out of sight. “Mom,” he said, “think of it like the Titanic. It’s sinking; nothing’s going to stop it. Sure, you’ll lose some stuff. But some people will lose everything.” “Did you know there was an unknown Titanic baby? One that stood for all the others that were lost?” Mom’s voice shook, and later Paul wondered if this was the first sign of the brain tumor that killed her. “It was buried in a special grave in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Well, I heard on the radio they got it wrong.” “Wrong?” “Mmm. For all these years they’ve been trying to identify it. They thought they had narrowed it down to a little Finnish boy. They told the descendants, and some of them flew over to visit the grave. But scientists just did a new test.” “DNA?” “I think — and it turned out the unknown baby was English. His whole family had drowned. They had to inform Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 173


the Finnish people that their baby — their family’s baby from the ship — was still unidentified.” Paul was no psychologist, but he knew Mom was thinking about her first pregnancy, which had ended in a stillborn birth. She’d never actually told him about it — the only reason he knew is that Diane had found out somehow, and when he was just six or seven she’d told him he was a substitute. “They only wanted two kids,” she said. “If that stillborn lived, they wouldn’t have needed you. You’re a substitute.” She’d called him “Subby” for a while, and Paul didn’t dare explain his nightmares to Mom. To him it was “still born,” two words, and he pictured a little skeleton, standing erect, like the skeleton of a monkey he’d seen once in a museum. In his dreams the little skeleton would be silhouetted in the doorway of his bedroom. It watched him, but didn’t move. He could tell it was tired and sad and wanted his bed. A trip down memory lane, Diane had said. With every box he hoisted, the Glock in Paul’s pocket pressed against his thigh; it bumped into door frames he squeezed through with full arms. An armed resident-intruder might be hiding around the next corner, inside each closet. The garage was stuffy with mildew and dust as he dragged things into place, but Paul left the door chained shut. And on Thursday night Paul camped in the garage. He took over the intruder’s nest. He left the sleeping bag and pillow in their box, wrapping himself instead in a floral comforter from Mom’s closet. An exercise mat protected him from the concrete floor. Though Paul had lived in the house for over twenty years, he’d never slept in the garage. The lamp behind the rocking chair brightened the corner like a campfire, but threw shadows against the walls. He thought of a Poe story his father had read to him and Diane one Halloween: the only part Paul had understood was that a drunk got walled up in a catacomb; sometimes when Paul turned the key in the holding pen at the station, he’d call the prisoner “Poe.” He thought of Jesus waiting for angels to roll the big rock away from the mouth of the cave he’d been laid in, washed and anointed. It must have been dark in that cave, unless Jesus illuminated it with his own glow. Paul heard the wind rushing through the maple and oak trees but was listening for the rattle of the garage door’s chain. He couldn’t sleep and remembered Mom’s old radio. It had been her pipeline for stories like the one about the Titanic babies. It was across the garage on a table with some other ancient electronics, invisible from his nest. He’d just about resolved to rouse himself and get it when a buzz next to his head bucked him upright — his phone grinding like a chainsaw on the concrete. For a second he thought the sound came from the gun beside it. Diane. He was glad to hear her voice. “Right on schedule,” he told her. “I’m staying at Mom’s to save time.” No need to tell her he’d bedded down in the garage. “I’m setting things up like a Walmart: haphazard aisles, 174 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

so customers’ll have to circle around things they don’t need. Gets them to buy more.” “Um-hmm — did you come across anything interesting?” Paul sat on the edge of the rocker and looked down at his gun. “Nah — vacuum cleaners they don’t make the parts for anymore. Clothes, clothes, and more clothes.” He thought hard. “Got a box of ash trays — remember when everybody put out ashtrays?” “What are you doing with the mementos? Mom and Dad’s wedding album, things like that?” “Taken care of,” Paul lied. “I bought some of those big Rubbermaid storage containers, and I stick family memorabilia in them as I go.” “Just try to exercise good judgment.” Which he would most certainly do, he said, but he was thinking about the missing gun. It lay, he was certain, deep in the intruder’s pocket. Where was the intruder? Was he like the raccoons that lived in the city sewers, emerging at night to lumber about the streets on their tiny human paws, overturning trashcans, peering through their bandit masks when caught by the headlights of passing cars? Paul promised Diane to label as many things as possible to “nip niggling in the bud,” and brother and sister said good night. The radio he finally fetched didn’t sooth him. He’d doze for a minute or two, but then the voices would startle him. He listened to the hourly news summaries for reports of armed robberies. Eventually, he fell into a fitful sleep, disturbed by dreams that maybe weren’t dreams in which he heard conversations about the mayor’s crackdown on police corruption. Had he heard callers bring up his name, rake him over the coals, call for everything short of a public execution? When Paul woke, he felt stiff and crawled-over. He resolved to shower in the bathroom off the den before starting his work. This shower hadn’t been used since Paul had given up jogging around the neighborhood during his Sunday visits. There was no soap or shampoo, but all he wanted was a quick rinse. He gasped at what he saw in the drain: a black clot of hair. Paul was a crew cut blond. And there was a black hair on one of the towels hanging from the bar. He recoiled and, naked and dripping, rushed into the garage for his Glock. Shirtless, Paul sorted and stacked for hours, his holstered gun strapped to his chest. He was surrounded by lamps that lit nothing, clothes stripped of connection, books as solid as pageless bricks, tools with nothing to repair, electronics drained of light and sound. When he stepped into the house for a drink, its emptiness startled him. He called Diane in the late afternoon. “Done,” he said. “Ready for tomorrow. Filled seven Rubbermaid tubs with memories.” Diane didn’t respond. Preparing to call his bluff ? “Lucky seven,” he said. He felt as if she’d seen him dump photo albums into black trash bags, and his cheeks burned.


“You saved the family,” she said softly, and his blush spread up his temples and down his neck. “It must be lonely there.” “Lonely,” he repeated. “Titanic’s going down. Only so much room in the lifeboat.” “The what?” “Nothing. I forget what the front of the house looks like.” “Well, that’s silly. Go look at it. Take a picture.” Paul shook his head. Seeing their home that way was over. “I used to think it had a robot’s face. The windows were the eyes, the front door was like a nose, the stoop like a hard little mouth — ” “The attic — what was in the attic?” Diane asked. Paul coughed. Dust coated his tongue. He’d avoided the attic. “Nothing,” he said. “It got cleaned out when it was insulated. A lot of the stuff in the garage came from up there.” “You double-checked?” “Yup. Just some extra insulation.” He’d have to go up. He knew it was a perfect hiding place. The intruder would have had to pull the ladder down from the ceiling outside Mom’s bedroom. “Well, we love you. Don’t dither over nickels and dimes.” “Anybody gives me a hard time, I’ll call a cop,” Paul said. “Mmm — God bless you with that, too.” It had to be 120 degrees in the attic. Paul stooped under the sloped ceilings, hunching across loose planks toward the single bulb suspended at the far end. Pink insulation leaked between the joists. He might have been trapped in the hold of a capsized ship — the idea and the heat made him dizzy. A less careful detective might have dismissed the arrangement under the light as random spillage. But Paul knelt for a close look: a Bic pen, a plastic soldier, a Weeble figurine, a fat Dalmatian puppy, and the husk of a June bug beetle. A mesh of spider webbing connected the objects. What did they mean? His father had been a soldier, and his mother maybe wobbled like a Weeble doll, especially as her hip deteriorated. The chubby Dalmatian was obviously Diane. A pen was a defining thing — that would have to be him, the only one with the perspective to put things in order. A pen he could hold in his hand, like his gun. But what about the dried out beetle? The spider web connected it to Weeble-Mom and soldier-Dad. It was the stillborn. Sweat dripped from Paul’s brow, clotting the web. He sat back on his heels, and his assessment of the display changed: June bug baby; doting parents; a dog standing in for a host of animals; the pen — a gift, representing the three Kings. Paul counted on his fingers. He could be both the pen and a king. Diane was a king, too. That left room for a third King. His thoughts spun. The pen reminded Paul of the spiral notebook, and he shuddered with a revelation — the secret was buried in the alphabet lists. ***

Paul sat on the rocker smoking a joint, the notebook on his lap. Page after page, each devoted to a single letter copied hundreds of times. What mattered — the letters themselves, or the patterns they made? Twenty-six pages, a through z. Then blank pages, starting from the back, quotations copied from Dr. Seuss, about a dozen, one quote per page. Jews started books from the last page, right? And they wrote backwards. He’d been to a bar mitzvah once and couldn’t find his place in the prayer book. Who else wrote backwards? Arabs? “This one a has little car, this one has a litlle star.” Paul had a little car — his police cruiser, the lifeboat. And his badge was a star. If Paul tried to print that line from One Fish, Two Fish backwards, letter by letter, he’d make mistakes too. But if it was printed backwards, why did it read left to right? He toked and held his breath, always listening for the chain’s rattle. How fast could he unholster his Glock? He glowed with paralysis. Then he snatched the page of Cs in front of him, flipping to D as fast as he could, then to E, F, and G. He could make words. D-E-G — that meant nothing, but if he stuck O in the middle, he’d have “dog.” Any word he wanted to make was at his fingertips. Names: D-I-A-N-E, P-A-U-L. Enough letters for all the stories in the world. Paul spelled M-O-M, and he saw his mother in her hospital bed, shriveled to the size of a dwarf, gray, sucking her last breaths. He tore the V page on V-I-C-K-I, and felt his ex-wife beneath him, rocking with his exertions in the back seat of the cruiser, her breath stale with cheap champagne. So the notebook was a memory book. And the future was stories, too. Paul grunted as if something had punched him. His damp fingers marked the alphabet pages. He saw it: the intruder would be back for his book. But the advantage had shifted to Paul. Who comes to these sales? What do they buy? What are they willing to pay? For Paul, who sat in front of the open garage in the intruder’s rocking chair, the open cash box on a snack table at his side, the event was like a movie he knew by heart. A beautiful day, as he’d foreseen. He hadn’t slept, and had showered fiercely. He wore jeans and a loose Hawaiian shirt that hid the gun strapped over his heart. An old man with a hunchback bought a Monopoly game for a dime. Paul told him that a lot of the real estate cards and half the Chance cards were missing. “Got another partial set at home,” the man said as he shuffled off, certain his two halves would make a whole. An unfamiliar middle-aged woman, overgroomed for a Saturday morning, clacked up the driveway in heels, expressed sympathy over his mother’s death, and left a card Paul dropped in the cash box. Around noon he turned his chair sideways to watch customers sift through the rubble of the past. The clothes, tools, and appliances floated like jarred animals in formaldehyde. But when a thin girl in a halter top held up a cub scout shirt Paul mistook for his police uniform, his reflexive “Hey!” got only a glance. She lifted her chin to ask Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 175


the price, and when Paul said a dollar, she shook her head. He saw then that she wore two hearing aids, so he held up a single finger, and she nodded. Paul’s vision of the day’s climax hadn’t accounted for the drag of time, and as customers dwindled, he fidgeted. He tried to call up his years on the force, but places and faces smeared like a bug swiped across a windshield. For a moment he wondered if there were enough letters in the notebook for every story. Maybe thinking wasted them, leaving some futures incomplete. He folded his arms and felt his Glock. He tried to clear his mind. He really had no choice but to surrender to his faith. He might have napped — the sun had dropped behind his neighbor’s pine tree, and Paul flinched at the figure interrupting the light sparking through its branches. The man before him was thin and pale, his dark hair lank, his eyes like black ice in deep caves. He needed a shave. His white shirt was yellowed under the armpits, and his brown pants pooled over scuffed shoes. One hand disappeared in his pocket, as Paul knew it would. But his other arm, and this was a surprise, lay across the shoulders of a child. Had the boy been sleeping in the garage too? He hadn’t been in Paul’s vision. It was likely that his presence didn’t matter. The advertised end time of the sale long past, the garage was empty of customers. The man nodded toward the tables, and Paul waved him back, then closed his eyes, rocking in time to his pulse beats. Before he reached two hundred, a throat cleared. The man held the spiral notebook in one hand, the other still lost in his pocket. The boy beside him lifted eyebrows like the man’s and opened his fist, revealing one of Paul’s father’s Purple Hearts. Paul had lost track of them. The ribbon was faded, but the medal gleamed. Paul reached into his brightly flowered shirt. “Take it,” he said to the boy. “Take it! Free!” Paul pulled out

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his gun and aimed at the middle button of the man’s shirt. The look of fear was familiar, and things fell into place “Run!” Paul shouted at the boy. He tried to hold the man’s gaze, but the black eyes darted to the child. “Run, dammit,” Paul repeated, then, to the man, “Tell him to run!” and the man yelled something Paul didn’t understand, and the boy burst away, his sneaker’s slapping down the driveway. The man’s eyes glittered between the Glock and the street. “Hands!” Paul said, and stood. The man groaned when the gun’s muzzle pressed into his sternum. Paul grabbed the notebook and tossed it on the rocker. With the boy gone, the script was clear. “Hands,” he said again, his gun in one stained armpit, lifting, and the arms rose like a marionette’s. Paul reached into the pocket, and, as if it were a pound of gold, his fingers found the .38 Special. He tossed it on the rocker on top of the notebook. The man gibbered something, but Paul wasn’t listening: the rambling disclaimer of the guilty, the same rant he’d heard from hundreds of shoplifters and drunk drivers and peace-disturbers. Some of them shook with terror, too. But none of them had taken up residence in Paul’s family’s house, none of them had dared shower while his mother slept, believing herself alone and safe. No other perpetrator had climbed into the attic to kneel at a shrine that meant God only knew what. “Down!” Paul shouted, and the man staggered back from the thrust of Paul’s Glock. Paul pointed it at the blacktop in front of the garage. “Get down.” The man sank to his knees, his eyes rolling from Paul’s to the gun and back. He hissed in a strange tongue. His lifted hands opened and closed. Paul aimed his Glock between the intruder’s dark brows — the color of the clot in the drain. And of the June bug husk between his parents. Paul was the pen, and it was up to him to mark the end of history. “Pray,” Paul whispered to the kneeling man. “Pray for all we’re god-damned worth.”


Mitchell Edgeworth Mitchell Edgeworth was born and raised in the cultural wasteland of suburban Australia. He graduated from Curtin University in 2008 with a double degree in Professional Writing and Creative Writing, which has somehow failed to secure him a career. After teaching English in South Korea in 2009 and backpacking across Asia and Europe in 2010, he has returned to Australia.

The City

D

reams of Scarborough Beach. White sand and Norfolk pines. Turquoise water and indigo reefs. Rottnest a smudge on the horizon. I rose through the dreamscape, past Observation City and the Stanford Arms and Jimmy Dean’s, rushing towards the surface through bleary layers of darkness, through the nausea that exists halfway between intoxication and a hangover. There was drool on my pillow. My apartment was dark and cool, the air conditioner wheezing quietly, the sun shining brightly through the cracks in the curtains. A tickling sensation in my throat and queasiness in my chest. If I moved, I would vomit. The question was whether I could make it to the bathroom in time. Cheap glaut vodka and stale beer swirled around in my stomach, demanding the stage. Oh fuck. I stumbled out of my sweaty nest of sheets and blankets, staggered out the bedroom door, shot across the living room into the bathroom and made it to the toilet just as a vile mix of poison came hurtling out of my throat. I clung to the seat as my stomach emptied itself, the last few strands clinging to my lips, and coughed and spat out the rest of the mess. My teeth tingled with stomach acid. I groaned and knelt there for a while, eyes closed. It was only when I flushed the toilet and shakily got to my feet that I realised there was a naked girl in the room with me. She was coiled up in the corner, lying against the grimy bathtub, eyes closed and chest moving slowly as she breathed. I stared at her for a while, completely bamboozled. I’d come home alone last night. I knew that for sure, because I’d had a lot of trouble climbing up the steps to my apartment, and had been irritated that nobody was around to help me. At the time, in fact, I recalled proclaiming it the world’s greatest injustice. I knelt down next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder, as if to reassure myself she was real. She was in her teens, white, with long black hair. A little chubby, maybe, but fairly pretty. I tried to wake her, but she wouldn’t stir. I splashed some water on her face and she still didn’t react. A newborn. Fucking fantastic.

I picked her up, carried her out into the living room and laid her down on the couch. She’d probably arrived some time last night, while I was doing vodka shots and playing pool at Berkeley’s. Which meant she’d probably be waking up sometime tonight, or in the early hours of the morning. I checked my phone. I was on the closing shift at work, but I could probably be back before she woke up. I scrummaged around in my wardrobe looking for any clothes Stacey had left behind when she’d stormed out four weeks ago, and came up with a pair of shorts and a loose-fitting blouse. That’d have to do. I took them out into the living room and dressed the girl, muttering “This is weird.” That done, I brewed myself some coffee and switched on the TV. It was about 9.00 on a Sunday morning, and the airwaves were a mix of soap operas and political talk shows. I stirred a few aspirin tabs into my coffee and sat down in the armchair to channel-surf. Ryan Westfield was interviewing Councillor Sears about the new zoning laws in Lakeside. A bunch of glaut musicians were playing hugely complex wind instruments in a park. An argaut weatherman was pointing out across a neon map of the entire city, chattering on about what I presumed was record high temperatures. There’s too much alien shit on TV these days. Over on the couch, the girl stirred and murmured something in her sleep. She was quite pretty, I decided. Or maybe it was just that I hadn’t had sex in a month. Alright, that was creepy. I had to get out of here. I pulled my sneakers on, grabbed my phone, wallet and sunglasses, and stepped out the front door. “Don’t go anywhere,” I said, and closed it behind me. I rode the subway downtown, towards the Lake and the Grand Bazaar. It was fairly busy. I live in Stonewall, which is at the heart of the Human District, but as we got closer and closer to the Lake, more aliens were crowding aboard. A hugely fat sloam sat next to me reading a newspaper in their moving-language alphabet, breathing deeply out of his great Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 177


slit of a mouth. On my other side was a zero with a beautiful golden sheen to his armour, clutching the overhead rail with metallic fingers and scanning the carriage with an electric blue eye. At South Street Station a pair of crystalline Supervisors got on, shaded green for transit guards, and everybody avoided their gaze. I got off at Hyperion Station, bought a chocolate bar breakfast at a newsagent and trotted up the bustling steps into the searing sunlight. My armpits and back were wet within minutes. I’ve always hated summer, but in the City it comes close to unbearable. Perhaps not quite as hot as an Australian January, but easily as humid as a Singaporean . . . well, any month in Singapore is nightmarish. I walked across Hyperion Park, trying to stick to the shade of the pine trees. Most people were sitting on benches reading newspapers or talking, though a few brave souls were playing a soccer game out on the grass under the relentless glare of the sun. The skyscrapers of Lakeside were dazzling above the treetops, with a few airships and balloons hovering around their peaks. Even higher were birdmen riding the thermals of hot air, moving in slow and graceful circles. The shadow of a Supervisor dreadnought moved quietly across the park. I headed the other way, through Sapiens Plaza, where the flags of hundreds of human nations hung limply on their poles. At the edge of the park I reached the Grand Canal, which separates the Human District from the Argaut Zone. Boats and barges were drifting up and down the green water, carrying coal and timber and plastic and steel from the industrial zones at the edge of the city, up to the ports and harbours of the Lake. People streamed back and forth over the bridges, carrying shopping bags from the Grand Bazaar. I caught a glimpse of a child, always a rare sight in the City, sitting on the shoulders of a man who’d presumably taken her as his charge. She looked about seven or eight, smiling quite happily and munching away on a cloud of fairy floss as large as she was. People stopped to smile and wave at her as her guardian carried her past, some even taking photos. It’s never really a good thing to see a child in the City, I suppose, but you can’t help but be happy when you do. I never had much contact with little kids back home, but you sort of take them for granted as part of the background, and you notice when they’re gone. I crossed over the Bridge of Geese, which the council had only recently finished rebuilding after it was destroyed during the Fire Blitz. I paused for a while to watch the water traffic going up and down, and fought back the urge to vomit, which I’m sure would have endeared me to the many passers-by. It had been quite a while since I’d been awake this early on a Sunday morning, and it shocked me to see how many people were up and about when they could have been in bed. How can you tell it’s the weekend if you get up at the same time? On the other side of the bridge was the Grand Bazaar, where the streets plunged into the Argaut Zone’s medina with reckless abandon, twisting and turning in a labyrinth of joyous 178 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

consumerism. The Bazaar is, strictly speaking, Argaut Territory, but it’s so chaotically multicultural that most people consider it an extension of Lakeside. The stalls and shops overflow with the most random and bizarre objects from every world, you rub shoulders with argaut and sloam and zeroes and creatures stranger still, and you’ll hear more languages in one minute than you’ll hear anywhere else for the rest of the day. It’s easy to get lost for hours. At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, the market was as busy as it ever gets, and the air was filled with the riotous clamour of thousands of merchants, salesmen, hagglers, buskers, and preachers. I stopped at a second-hand clothing shop run by a rotund Russian woman who didn’t speak a word of English, and bought a few bits and pieces of clothing that I thought might fit the newborn asleep on my couch. Then I set off in search of Kervala’s, a bookstore owned by a friend, partly to talk to him and partly to pick up some kind of welcoming literature for the girl. I ended up wandering for another few hours, lost again. I must visit Kervala’s twice a week, but the stalls and shops change so often around here, it’s impossible to remember what the street looks like. Eventually I figured out where I was, but came across some kind of commotion further down the street: shouts and screaming, a few Supervisor drones hovering in the air taking photographs. People were running in the other direction, and I could hear the tombstone voices of Supervisor ground patrols shouting out in dozens of languages. A scrap of English — “DESIST! LOWER YOUR WEAPONS. . .” I nipped into an alleyway, trotted down some stairs, and pushed open the door. The bell tinkled above me as it swung shut again, and I was in the cool and quiet confines of Kervala’s Antique Books. The store itself seems quite small — a typical cramped second-hand bookstore, with narrow aisles and old bookshelves and spare books and papers stacked in every available space — until you follow the shelves, and they twist and turn and branch, and you realise that the entire store is actually a very large and difficult maze. Kervala’s office is towards the back, near the entrance to the archives, and I carefully made my way through the papyrus jungle towards it. Titles leapt out at me from the shelves: Kidnapped! by Robert Louis Stevenson, Himalayan Journals —Volume I by J.D. Hooker, Why We Are Here by Margaret Stolanz. (I slipped that one off the shelf; all the guides for newborns adjusting to life in the City are pretty much the same.) Moby-Dick. Birds Of New Zealand. A Human’s Guide To The Sloam Hives. Treatises, novels, plays, essays, poems, manuals, travel guides…anything and everything ever written down, either back home or here in the City. Whenever newborns arrive, they’ve usually brought something with them. I’ve long since lost the clothes I was wearing when Desmond found me, but I still have my grandfather’s Seamaster and a few Australian banknotes. Hey — The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.


Kervala’s not kidding when he says “rare” books, either. There’s some fascinating stuff tucked away down here, ranging from modern paperbacks to 15th century texts. I’ve seen Stephen King sitting next to a first-edition copy of Gulliver’s Travels, glossy university textbooks propped up by a threehundred year old Koran, cheap romance paperbacks side by side with a Voynich manuscript. He even claims to have a Gutenberg Bible somewhere. And that’s just the Human stuff. There’s sloam books with the words crawling over the pages, zero plate stamps, argaut poetry and plays . . . pretty much anything that you could conceivably want. The City is old, and people have been coming here for millenia. There’s stuff here you’d never be able to find back home. I found Kervala in the backroom, reading Al-Arabi. He was in an armchair by the fireplace, his feet propped up on a stack of books. He was wearing red sneakers and ratty, frayed jeans, but as usual, when my eyes travelled further up his body, I found his torso wreathed in darkness. When I first met Kervala I thought he simply had a habit of standing in dark places. It was only later that I realised he causes the dark, spawns his own shadows, no matter where he goes. Sometimes, stretching and shifting behind him, the shadows looks like wings. I’ve never seen his face, although occasionally I catch glimmers of orange light, which might be eyes. I don’t have a clue what he is. Most people in the City slot into one of the Seven Great Races (not really PC to say that anymore, but whatever) which make up about 80% of the population, or the seventeen lesser ones that make up another 19%. Kervala is a member of the remaining 1%: a fascinating collection of miscellaneous irregulars, people who seem to be the only member of their species in the City. Perhaps the only member of their species that exists at all. Kervala is even more fascinating than most of the others, because I’m almost certain he comes from Earth. Either that or he’s very strongly latched onto humans, specifically Arab-Muslims, as a surrogate species. He speaks fluent Arabic and Persian and has many friends in the Human District’s Islamic community. I often suspect that he’s friendlier to me than he is to most people because of my ancestry, even though I was born and raised in Australia and speak less than a hundred words of Arabic. “Good afternoon, Aziz,” he said as I entered. “What’s going on outside?” “Some fuckwits protesting against the Supervisors, or something. They haven’t cracked out the water cannons, so it can’t be too bad. Where’s your weed?” “Top drawer. You have a hangover?” “Well, yeah,” I said, finding his little leather pouch, “but normally I’d go right back to sleep. I’ve got a fucking newborn unconscious on my couch and . . . I don’t know, I felt like I had to get out of the apartment. She was creeping me out.” Kervala said nothing as I sat down in the armchair opposite him and rolled myself a joint. “I found her naked on my bathroom floor when I woke up. What are you supposed to —

God, Kervala, I’m sorry, but how the hell can you have a fire going on a day like this? It’s forty fucking degrees outside.” I stood up and pushed my chair further back from it. “I like it.” “You’re weird. Anyway. As I was saying. What are you supposed to do with newborns?” “I’ve never had to deal with one,” Kervala said, as I slowly exhaled smoke and felt the nausea in my stomach begin to retreat. “Have you?” “No . . . actually, sorta.” I told him what had happened. It had been three years ago, not long after Desmond left, when I was settling into having the apartment to myself. An olive-skinned man in his forties or so, wearing a military dress uniform, had appeared unconscious in my bedroom. I’d called in sick to work so I could wait for him to wake up. When he had, he’d started screaming in Spanish and run off into the night. Problem solved. “What did Desmond do when he found you?” I shrugged. “Gave me food and water. Explained what had happened, where I was. He let me stay with him and found me a job . . . Christ, I don’t have to do that for her, do I?” “What’s the problem? Is she ugly?” The thing about Kervala is that, because I can never see his face, I can never tell whether he’s being serious or sarcastic or just stirring me. “ . . . That has nothing to do with it. I just kicked Stacey out last month. I don’t want another roommate again.” “Perhaps you should try not having sex with this one.” “I . . . she can’t live with me. I don’t even know who she is. She might not even speak English.” “Well, wait for her to wake up.” I groaned, and tossed Stolanz’s book onto his coffee table. “How much for this?” “Five dollars. I hope you’re not going to just leave her unconscious in an alleyway with it?” “Actually I hadn’t thought of that,” I said, fumbling for my wallet and putting some notes down on the table. “Not a bad idea . . . “ Kervala was silent. “Oh, come on, I’m not really going to.” At least I didn’t think I would. Did other people do that? Surely that must be fairly common? No. I couldn’t do that. “I gotta get to work,” I said. “Thanks for the weed.” My shift at the New Temple Bar started at three o’clock, but I was running late, and the Sunday arvo crowd was already thick. It was mostly humans as usual, but also a pair of sloam crammed into one booth arguing with each other, and some whisperers clustered around a smoking hookah. Our head bouncer Kobe was eyeing them suspiciously. On the other side of the bar, a fight erupted between a group of humans. The other bouncers rushed into the fray and dragged them outside, but Kobe, a card-carrying member of the City For Humans Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 179


Party, didn’t budge. I pushed through the crowd by the bar, nodded my hellos to Patricia and Valiant, and ducked into the backroom to grab an apron and punch in. Stagg was sitting at his desk licking his fingers and organising paperwork. “You’re late, Aziz.” “I had a fucking newborn show up in my apartment this morning.” “So drop him off at a halfway house and be done with it. I don’t see why that should take two hours.” “I was talking to a friend about it,” I said. “And she’s still unconscious. And fuck you, Stagg.” “Gunning for that raise, eh?” I slipped back out into the hubbub of the main bar, snooker balls cracking and the pinball machine pinging between snatches of conversation in a dozen different languages. Stagg built the New Temple Bar from the ground up when he arrived in the City thirty years ago and acts as though it’s the kingdom of heaven and himself Saint Peter. Fucking Irish. I’ve worked there three years and can count the number of times I’ve shown up late on one hand. Oh, all right, two. And not counting hangovers. Patricia and Valiant were the only other bartenders on, with most due to start shift at six. Patricia’s a relatively new arrival who’s been working here since she arrived in the City from South Africa eight months ago; Valiant is a zero, who’s been here almost since Stagg built the place. I have no idea why a zero would want to work here, or anywhere for that matter. I don’t think Stagg knows either. I’ve looked at his payslips and they’re always blank. He sleeps — or turns himself off, or whatever it is zeroes do — in one of the storage rooms. Valiant was carrying a fresh cask up from the cellars when I emerged, elbow joints clicking, and I helped him fit it into the bar. “Hello, Aziz,” he said, his enormous blue eye rotating and focusing. “You are eighty-three minutes late for work.” “Yeah, tell me about it,” I said, and turned to serve a skinny looking kid. Probably about seventeen, but the City doesn’t have liquor laws. “Hey, Patricia,” I called out. “What happened to you when you first came here?” She’d told me before, but I’d forgotten. “Woke up at a UCC mission,” she said. “They talked me through it, found me a job.” “Doing what?” I asked. I couldn’t exactly imagine the Universal Christian Church setting someone up as a bartender. “Working in a factory,” she laughed. “That lasted about two weeks.” While filling up a jug of Redwood for a burly guy in overalls, probably a dock worker from the canals, I glanced at Valiant. “Hey, V. What happened to you when you first came here?” The zero was sliding up one of the ladders to reach a bottle of top shelf spirits, his spindly legs gleaming in the sunlight coming in from the arch windows. “I was accepted into my new life by my brothers and sisters of the 21st Singularity,” he replied. 180 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

So much for that. “What happened to you?” Patricia asked me. “I woke up in a guy’s apartment, and he let me live with him,” I said. “Desmond. He’s not around anymore. I have that apartment to myself now.” “I liked Desmond,” Valiant said, pouring that oddlyshaped bottles of spirits into a cocktail mixer for one of the whisperers. “He was polite.” “Good. . .to hear,” I said, and turned back to Patricia. “I found some woman unconscious in my apartment this morning. Newborn.” “Gonna keep her?” “I dunno,” I said, dropping a tray of used glasses into the soak. “I feel . . . like maybe I should? Desmond did it for me.” “She’s cute, huh?” “That has nothing to do with it. I split up with Stacey like a month ago. I’m not. . .I don’t need another woman around.” “So she is.” “Why do you think that?” “Because if she wasn’t, you would have dragged her off to a halfway house before you even came to work.” “Well then, I guess you’re lucky you didn’t arrive in my apartment.” Patricia gave me a look of mock hurt, but I could sense something real under it, and regretted the remark. It wasn’t about her looks — she’s quite pretty, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t tried to crack onto her while drunk. It was being taken to a mission. It hadn’t been that long ago. I thought about that for a while, serving glass after shot after bottle, stuffing cash into the register and, because I was in a sulky mood, cutting customers off every time they were rude to me. Arriving in the City is no Sunday pleasure punt. Your entire world has already been ripped apart before you even arrive. No matter what confronted you, it would be shocking. Nobody knows what to expect. And then you just show up in . . . God knows where. If you still believe in God, after seeing this place. Maybe it’s just because I was already an atheist, but I don’t get it. The City, in spite of what it is, is swarming with religion. Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues — and that’s just the human gods. And it’s these places of worship, of every race and creed, who run the majority of the halfway houses to welcome new arrivals. Long dormitories with rows of beds, rough blankets, curfews, and lights out. Communal rooms. Group activies, therapy sessions. Trying to sleep at night in this terrifying new place where bizarre monsters prowl the streets outside the Human District, not meaning you any harm but horrifying nonetheless. Listening to the others whimper or cry in their sleep. I looked up the statistics once. Ninety-five per cent of human arrivals end up in a halfway house of some kind. A good fifty per cent of them go out the “revolving door” (a charming little euphemism) within one month of their arrival,


because they can’t handle it. Granted, that may not be because of the halfway houses. But I know that I was happier living with Desmond than I ever was back on Earth. I’m not sure I would have felt the same if I’d been crammed into an overcrowded dormitory with a bunch of other frightened, apprehensive newborns. Desmond had done a lot for me, perhaps more than I’d realised. Was I obligated to pass that down the line? Goddamn it, I never asked for it. The summer sun begrudgingly slunk towards the horizon, disappearing behind the skyscrapers around six. The other bartenders showed up on time, Stagg bitched at them anyway, and we worked through the evening. My newborn was the discussion topic of the night. “I had one show up in my kitchen last year,” said Henrik Borten, a Norwegian kid with an irritatingly chipper attitude. “African guy, about fifty. No idea what he was saying.” “What did you do?” I asked. “Took him to the mission,” he shrugged. “That’s what they’re there for.” “Yeah,” nodded Andy Mills, a Brit who was second only to Valiant as the New Temple’s longest serving bartender. “I never had any at my old place in Kingfisher, but since I moved to Stonewall, I’ve had three. Dunno why. But I took ‘em all down to the Red Cross place on Hyperion Av, no probs.” The staff were pretty unanimous on that, and discussion drifted to other topics as the night wore on. Someone was crooning out “Hey Jude” in the karaoke rig in the corner, dodging hurled beer bottles and coasters. The bouncers split up a fight between a bunch of humans and whisperers, Kobe slipping his knuckledusters and pushing right past the humans. The brawl continued outside, until eventually a patrol of Enforcers showed up and dragged half of them away to the Tower. Kobe watched through the gate with a smirk on his face. I’d like to see that fuckhead dragged away to the Tower sometime. We talked about the protests in the Bazaar that morning, argued about the upcoming council elections, teased Patricia about her new boyfriend. My thoughts kept returning to the newborn. Henrik and Andy were the only ones who’d dealt with a newborn before. The others had just nodded as though it was common sense, the way you might naturally assume you’d get an abortion if your girfriend got pregnant. Henrik and Andy had affirmed that, but done it quickly, and changed the subject. We don’t owe anybody anything. Nobody asked to come here. If you don’t like it . . . well, leave. The bar closes at midnight on Sundays, and the bouncers managed to hustle the last of the patrons out by a quarter past, before leaving themselves. Stagg asked us not to make a pig’s breakfast of the place for once, and we gave him a goodhearted fuck you, to which he replied “Aye, and yourselves,”

before tossing the keys to Andy and letting himself out. Valiant trooped into the storerooms for the night, having been working since nine am, needing to recharge his batteries or whatever alien power source he has tucked away in there. Andy cranked the jukebox up and played Radiohead as we mopped the floors, put the chairs up on the tables, washed the dishes and swept up the broken glass. We finished about one in the morning, and the others gradually drifted towards one of the corner booths for an end-of-shift drink. I untied my apron and headed for the door. “Not joining us, Aziz?” Andy grinned as he poured a few jugs of Redwood. “Following the Qur’an at last?” “Yes,” I said. “I’m going home to pray, and then I’m bombing the subway tomorrow.” It was a shit joke, but I was in a shit mood. “No, really,” asked Patricia. “How come you’re in a rush?” I shrugged. “Got an unconscious girl on my couch who could be waking up any minute. I’d rather she didn’t freak out and mess up my apartment.” Andy gave me an exaggerated masculine wink. “If by ‘rather she didn’t’ you mean ‘rather she did,’ and ‘mess up my apartment’ you mean ‘have sex with me,’ than yeah, I know what you mean, mate.” “You’re a tool,” I said. “See you Tuesday.” “Thanks for the help today, Aziz.” “Thanks for giving me extra shifts next week, hint, hint.” It was hot outside, far hotter than it should have been for nighttime. Fuck this city. It’s either freezing cold or boiling hot. I don’t mind the winter so much, but anywhere you get sweaty after walking a hundred metres is unfit for human habitation. I headed along the waterfront towards Lakeside Station. There were still a few groups of people out, mostly drunkards staggering home, singing loudly or meekly accepting move-on notices from Supervisors. The Tower loomed up in the distance across the black water, sparkling lights warning away airships and gliders and birdmen. A scant few stars were glowing in the sky. I counted twelve; on a clear night I’ve made it to twentyseven, though some were faint pricks of light that might have been my imagination. I still miss the crowded night skies of Earth, the hundreds of constellations elbowing each other for space. Having two moons doesn’t quite make up for it. I reached the subway station, tagged on and rode an empty car back down towards Stonewall. I was tired. Tired from work, tired from being awake since nine, tired of thinking about the girl in my apartment. I’m tired most days, I guess. I haven’t slept well in a while. Got off at Stonewall, the train clacking off down the tunnel behind me with a whoosh of stale air. Past the shuttered newsagent and coffee shops, the hawkers at the subway stairs selling flowers and newspapers. Cut across the small, nameless park and made my way up Wellington Parade, past all the silent branching streets: Erebus, Elysium, Tartarus. The early settlers had a fucking hilarious take on their situation. My apartment Autimn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 181


building is on Asphodel Road. Draw your own conclusions from that, but Elysium Street is the next one along and the buildings are all the fucking same in this neighbourhood. That includes Tartarus Road, except it’s closer to the subway station, so the rent’s higher. Such irony! You might even slightly raise the corners of your mouth. Bless this city. I realised, as I trudged up Wellington thinking about street names, that I was dreading going home. I didn’t want to face up to it. To her. That pissed me off. It was my own fucking apartment, and I was full of dreadful anxiety about sticking my key in the front door. I pushed through the lobby, hauled my way up to the fifth floor, and stood outside my door. “Fuck this,” I muttered, and opened it. She was still lying on the couch. I sighed, tossed my phone and wallet onto the counter and put the kettle on. I wished she’d just fucking wake up so I could get this over and done with. I had a shower. When I emerged she was awake, sitting up on the couch, looking around with quick breaths and an agonising look of horror on her face. “Look who’s alive,” I said. “Wh . . . wh . . . where am I?” she gasped. Fuck. I’d been hoping that at least she wouldn’t speak English, so I wouldn’t have to go through the explanation of everything. “On my couch,” I said. “In my house.” “But I . . . “ “Yeah,” I said. “I know. So did I. This is what happens.” She tried staggering to her feet, but slipped and stumbled. I reached out to grab her arm. “Easy,” I said. “Sit down. You’re weak. Just take it easy. Let me get you something to drink.” She burst into tears. I put the kettle on and made her a cup of tea, hoping that she’d have finished sobbing by the time I sat back down. No such luck. I gave her the cup of tea, and she peered at it with tear-streaked eyes. “What is this?” she sniffed. “Tea,” I said. “What’s your name?” “Sophie,” she said, and took a sip. “Sophie Granville.” “How old are you?” “Sixteen.” “You’re American?” “Yeah. How did you know?” “Your accent.” Was she an idiot, or just sheltered? “Whereabouts?” “Bakersfield,” she said, then added “California.” “My name’s Aziz,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” “Are you English?” “Australian.” “Oh.” She sniffed miserably, and asked, “Am I in Australia?” Oh God. Why couldn’t she have arrived next door? “Not . . . exactly,” I said. “Why don’t you come upstairs and I’ll show you?” *** 182 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

We stood on the roof of my apartment building in the stinking heat, staring out across the city lights towards the lake and the imposing monolith of the Tower. Sophie stared at it all, at the twin moons, at the gliders and planes and winged creatures, and sat down very suddenly. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I didn’t . . . I didn’t think this would happen.” I almost laughed. “Nobody does,” I said. “What did you expect?” She was silent for a minute. “I don’t know,” she said, and I could tell she was on the verge of tears again. Of course you didn’t, I thought. You really didn’t think that far ahead. “What’s the Tower?” she asked. “That’s where whoever’s in charge lives,” I said. “That’s where the Supervisors come from.” “The what?” “They’re like cops. There’s only a few laws, though — don’t hurt or kill anyone. Don’t try to get into the Tower. Look, I should give you a heads up now: it’s not only humans that live here.” “You mean . . . like . . . animals?” “No. I mean, like, aliens.” “What?” “Yeah, it’s a bit of a shock. There’s about seven major races, including humans, and another twenty or thirty minor ones. Some of them can be pretty frightening to look at, but don’t worry, they won’t hurt you.” “I want to go home,” she said, and started to cry again. I didn’t move. Didn’t want this lost and broken SoCal girl imprinting on me and clinging to me. I sipped my coffee and stared at the blinking lights on the distant Tower. After a long time she stopped crying. After a while you just can’t do it anymore. I learned that a long time ago, before I even came to the City. “What happens now?” she asked in a ragged voice. “What do I do now?” “Well, you have two options,” I said. “One is that you can settle down here in the City. I’ll take you to a mission, they’ll process you, help you find a job, stuff like that.” “What’s the other option?” “You leave.” “How?” “You know how. Same way you got here.” She swallowed. “Where will I end up?” I shrugged, and drained the last of my coffee. “Who knows?” She didn’t say anything. The northern horizon had a tinge of grey to it, even though it was only four in the morning. Fucking summer. “This place isn’t so bad,” I said. “Look, I’ll take you to a mission, and you can take a crack at life here. If it doesn’t work out, you can always leave. Okay?”


She sniffed and nodded. “You a Christian?” I asked, as I led her back down to my apartment to grab some shoes. “Sort of,” she said. “Well. I don’t go to church or anything. Why?” “Because there are two missions nearby,” I said. “One of them is run by the Universal Christian Church, the other by the local Sunni community. Muslims. Which do you want to go to?” She looked around, biting her lip, and oh yeah, here it came, fuck off . . . “Couldn’t I stay with you?” “Against the law,” I lied. “New arrivals have to be inducted at a registered organisation. There’s a Red Cross one if you don’t like the idea of a religious one, but that’s a few districts away.” “I’ll go the Christian one,” she said sadly. I felt like shit. We left the building and headed down Wellington Parade. The clouds above us were pink and orange; the sun would be rising soon. There were a few people out, even at this hour, all of them human. I was hoping we could get to the mission without running into a non-human. From how she’d been acting so far, Sophie would freak. “Is it always this hot?” she asked. “It’s the middle of summer,” I said. “It snows in winter. What was the date when you . . . left Earth?” “January 20,” she said. “What year?” “2010. How long have you been here?” “I came here in March 2002,” I said. “So I guess eight years. Time . . . sort of changes, here. Not too much, but it can be hard to keep exact calendars.” “How old were you when you came?” “Thirteen,” I said. “Wow. That must have been hard.” “Yeah. It was. But the missions help you through it. I went to the same one you did . . . though all the staff have probably changed over since then. But it was a good place.” Oh, you stinking cowardly son of a bitch. We turned down Erebus Street, home stretch, and just my fucking luck — an enormous sloam was coming up the sidewalk towards us, oozing along, leaving behind that gross silvery trail the older ones have. I felt Sophie freeze in her tracks, and I had to drag her along. “It’s not going to hurt you,” I said. “Walk on the other side of me if you have to.” She was shivering with fright, and with great reluctance I reached out and held her hand. “Don’t scream, whatever you do.” “Will I make it angry?” she whispered. “No, but you’ll hurt its feelings. Come on!” The sloam pushed on to my left. Sophie stayed on my right, virtually walking in the gutter. I nodded good morning to it,

but it ignored me, as sloam usually do. “That’s called a sloam,” I said. “You don’t usually see them around here. This is a human neighbourhood.” “It’s gross,” she said, staring over her shoulder. “Well, I’m sure he thinks you’re gross,” I said, and then wondered why I did. Sloam are gross. “I know it’s hard to get used to. Just don’t leave Stonewall until you’ve settled in a bit.” “Why are they here?” “Same reason we are.” “But that’s . . . that’s just . . . “ “What? Look at it this way: you come from Earth, and now you’re here, in the City. So you know at least two different worlds exist. Even without the non-humans, you could reasonably assume other worlds, and with the non-humans, you have evidence.” “Couldn’t we all have just . . . had our own worlds? Ours in ours, and them in theirs?” “We don’t make the rules, Sophie. None of us do.” I glanced up. “We’re here.” It was a nondescript apartment building, just like all the others in the street, but with a small cross hanging above the words “EREBUS STREET UNIVERSAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH WELCOMING HOUSE.” I opened the door and we entered a small lobby that smelt of mouldy carpet. There was a waiting area, a few chairs, some newspapers, and nothing else. “They might not open for an hour or so,” I said. “You’ll have to wait here.” “Will you wait with me?” she asked. She was still holding onto my arm from when we’d passed the sloam. I pulled it away, like slowly peeling off a band-aid. “I’m sorry, but I have to get to work,” I said. One more lie couldn’t hurt. She nodded sadly. “Okay.” In my defence, I did at least feel terrible about it all. She was sixteen, lonely, scared, obviously not in a good state of mind even before she’d come here. There’s an instinct in the male brain that flares up when a pretty young woman is in tears in front of him, and a strong part of me wanted to sit down with her and put my arms around her and take her under my wing. Another part of me — which was also the part that wanted to go home and go to bed — knew that the last thing I needed in my life was a sad, helpless little duckling becoming dependent on me. “Here, I almost forgot,” I said, fumbling in my bag. “I got you a book. It’s about adjusting to life here. They’ll probably give you some stuff in there, but . . . this is a good one. I read this when I first came here.” God, the lies! Sophie took the Stolanz book carefully, her fingers brushing against mine. “Thank you, Aziz,” she said. “And thank you for bringing me here.” “No problem,” I said. I bit my tongue and managed to stop myself adding, “Come see me anytime.”


“Can I ask you something?” she said, as I turned away and put my hand on the doorknob. Please don’t ask me if we can see each other again. Please. “Sure,” I said, turning back to her. “How did you kill yourself ?” I stared at her for a moment. She would have been hysterical if she wasn’t so exhausted from the experience. Sad, weak, lonely. I assumed, because she’d been naked, that she’d slit her

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wrists in the bathtub. Everybody wonders about other people’s methods. But you don’t ask. Partly because it’s rude . . . but mostly because it doesn’t matter. “I took painkillers,” I said. “But a better question would be, ‘why’?” I opened the door and walked out into the street. The sun was rising above the rooftops, already blazing hot, proclaiming the start of another new day in the City.


Betty Thompson Betty Thompson is a recent graduate of Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts where she studied writing and literature, as well as political science. Betty currently lives in Boston, but will soon be moving back to Tokyo, Japan, where she studied abroad. This is Betty’s first published piece, although she has other creative nonfiction pieces in the works.

Aftershock

L

ater, Lora would tell me that at that moment, everything started falling off the shelves at the convenience store, everyone on the main road rushed out into the street, all the cars on the road stopped, and she had to hang on to a street post box not fall down. But still on the phone with her, and thinking I was by myself in her house, I stumbled out into the hallway, hitting the walls with every shake. One of her roommates was luckily also home, and she ran out into the hallway at the same time. “Lora, there’s an earthquake.” “What? No there’s not. I’m in the conbini now. I don’t feel anything.” “It doesn’t feel like a normal earthquake.” “I don’t feel . . . oh shit — get under something!” “What do we do?” we asked each other, standing in the kitchen and watching everything fall around us. Lora’s other roommate was in the shower, and she ran out in a towel. We heard the mirror in the shower crash behind her. “There’s nothing to get under,” I was yelling into the phone at Lora. “Then get out of the house! Get out now! I can see every building moving!” We all rushed down the flight of stairs into the street, clutching onto the fences along the road for support. Standing outside on the street, we all stood transfixed while watching the buildings and silently praying that they wouldn’t fall over. Between looking at the swaying power lines, the cars in driveways, and the tops of buildings, I wasn’t sure anything was still moving or if my legs were just shaking that badly. The only thing that gave me a clue was the noise. In the dead silence of panic, the only audible sound was the creaking of buildings, sounding like the old rusty sides of a boat leaving a dock. When the earthquake hit, we had no idea where the evacuation site was, though all neighborhoods have one. Instead, we just followed the crowd of people heading in one direction. We ended up at a large park a few streets away.

“When you get up in the morning, you’re going to see that there was an earthquake in Tokyo, but I’m fine.” My mom said when she turned on the news the next morning it was there, and thank God I had called her, because they were making it seemed like all of Japan, including Tokyo, was in shambles, underwater. What I didn’t know at that moment was that I was fine, but thousands of people were not. When the worst of it stopped, and just the cars were rocking back and forth occasionally, I hung up with Lora and we all looked around the street. The American embassy told everyone to leave the country. After shutting down its office in Tokyo, of course. The French embassy told its citizens that the next earthquake was happening that night. The epicenter would be in Tokyo, and everyone needed to get out immediately. Families were outside with their coats and emergency earthquake bags. I looked around at myself, Alyssa, and Diana. Alyssa had her cigarettes, I had my phone, and Diana was in a towel. We laughed nervously while we waited for Lora to come down the street. Back in the house, we organized the kitchen but left everything on the floor. We tried to pack emergency bags and realized we didn’t have bottles of water or flashlights. We had to rush out three times when aftershocks of 8 or more rocked the house. Earthquakes are never measured until after they happen, so every shake is another event where I half put my shoes on and sit in bed, waiting to see if I should run out of the house or just stay put because it will pass like the twenty others before it. All the while, the memory of just how bad the original earthquake got is replaying in my head. On March 11, 2011, in Tokyo, the anchors were saying, “An earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 and an epicenter in Ibaraki has hit Japan.” An earthquake is the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust that creates seismic waves. The Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 185


seismicity or seismic activity of an area refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. I define it in my head as absolute panic: the microwave falling off the shelf, all the cups and plates breaking, mirrors falling off the walls and shattering, not being able to stand without clutching on to something, my legs shaking for hours afterwards, and one constant thought, “What if this doesn’t end?’ All night, I was woken up once every three hours by a substantial aftershock, my shoes next to the bed, earthquake bag now packed with water and a book light by the door. Lora would poke her head down the bottom bunk where I was lying and we would wait and see if we had to run outside again. The sliding door between our rooms stayed open in case we had to wake each other up to get out of the house. We all joked among ourselves about our impending deaths, which we nervously found hilarious amidst the eerie noise of creaking buildings and the numerous radios that were being listened to throughout the emergency evacuation site. The sky slowly grew darker and darker, and a few raindrops began to fall. The weather forecast for that day was supposed to have been sunny. I remember wondering if the apocalypse was coming. We kept the news on for the next three days. Every time another earthquake or aftershock struck, the TV would beep, the news would go silent, and a map of Japan would show where the epicenter had been. There were over 200 aftershocks in Tokyo alone. They say nothing of what a coastal town looks like after a tsunami, with planes floating through towns, knocking down existing structures, carrying away houses while entire populations, if not already swept away by the tsunami, were huddled on the tallest building they could get to. In the aftermath, these people were stuck on top of these buildings, water surrounding them in what used to be their neighborhood, waving towels and umbrellas so that passing helicopters will notice them. In one town in Miyagi prefecture, a pan-out view showed a wave gradually dragging rubble and houses toward what appeared to be a highway. “There are cars on that highway driving right toward that tsunami,” Lora commented, looking at the television.

186 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Autumn 2011

“They probably won’t know it’s coming until they drive into it,” I responded, choosing to look at the wall next to the TV instead. The news in Japan, while showing these images, didn’t comment on them. It had the subtitle of “Sendai, Japan” underneath the news clips. People could watch them and draw their own conclusions. No one’s supposed to tell you how you feel. Especially when we all just experienced something terrifying. We found that there had been two earthquakes: one in Miyagi and one in Ibaraki. Half of Miyagi was underwater from an ensuing tsunami. Three whole coastal trains were missing. The airplanes at Sendai Airport were being washed along with the waves. A nuclear reactor was exploding. One of the world’s biggest oil refineries was on fire. No one on the northern coast of Japan even had a warning to get out of the way — not that they would have had the time to get out fast enough, anyway. The aftershocks are described as being “a smaller earthquake that occurs after a previous large earthquake in the same area (the main shock). If an aftershock is larger than the main shock, the aftershock is redesignated as the main shock and the original main shock is redesignated as a foreshock.” I define it by the absolute panic that set in every time I even thought the earth was moving. Half the time I couldn’t tell if it was actually a tremor or if it was just my own balance still being thrown off. Even when on solid ground, I define it as the absolute panic of waking up at three in the morning, convinced that my room in Boston is shaking, and I need to get out of the house now. I define it by sitting in a restaurant with my family upon arrival home and constantly feeling like the table is shaking, and staring at my soda to make sure the liquid isn’t moving. It’s expected that when flying out of a disaster situation, I would feel a sense of relief, a sense of safety of being far, far away from the potential dangers to come. Especially after my flight was delayed an hour due to yet another substantial-sized aftershock. It isn’t ever speculated that leaving such a situation would feel like shit. Feel like an asshole. Feel like I’m leaving behind everyone to fend for themselves. Feel a sense of absolute worry that wasn’t there initially, because at least when I was also there, I knew everyone was safe.


Jennifer M. Dean Jennifer M. Dean graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas and then briefly considered becoming a pirate before settling on poet instead. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where Nebraska winters make piracy on the high seas seem just a bit more appealing in retrospect.

Word Problem Two minus one. A broken heart, reduced to the basic arithmetic of an abrupt dash

If you continue as you are, you will — in five months time — have mourned the relationship longer than the length of time you even knew she existed. What you are having trouble with is higher math.

fractions, percentages, ratios — come later. In the beginning, there is only addition and subtraction. For example: The total time, from when you took her on your first date — a walk through a wisteria trellised park — to the time she returned the white-gold engagement ring the following spring, is sixteen months minus the eight you were engaged leaving eight.

Ratios can be tricky, so I’ll help you out. You have ridden the circuit of sympathetic friends for three-fourths the entire length of your past relationship, or seventy-five percent. To put it another way, if you only have a quarter of a tank of gas left, how much farther can you carry this load?

In the past year since you have groaned over beers to friends. Settling up your tab, you must realize the times you mention her name or the break-up in conversation increases exponentially, the more you swill.

Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 187


Fruit Salad Faith I believe in Corinthians II, Chapter 13. I believe we accept the love we think we deserve. I believe “no man so good that he has no faults and none so bad that he has no worth”. I believe the Hippocratic Oath, especially the first part — “do no harm”. I believe every body remains in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. I believe time depends on velocity and contraction is a fundamental consequence at the right speed. I believe “clickit or ticket”. My Winchester 12 gauge says I believe in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Money talks and Bullshit walks. You won’t believe who he’s dating now. Traits become more or less prevalent in a population based on the survival rate of their bearers and their ability to reproduce successfully. I believe sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Everybody has to believe in something, I believe I’ll have another. I don’t believe we’ve met. I do believe that cracking sound came from the limb you just went out on. “Faith means belief in something about which doubt is theoretically possible.” Do you believe in magic? I believe “the Real is only accessible in so far as it can be languaged” that “in the beginning was the word and the word was good” and we all believe in spreading it around.

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Terri L. French Terri L. French is a poet/writer, Licensed Massage Therapist and barista living in Huntsville, Alabama. She and her husband have a blended family of four children and three cats. Terri finds her haiku in the crooks, crannies and corners of her everyday world and experiences. She is a member of the Haiku Society of America and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave. Her haiku and prose have appeared in Lilliput Review, Heron’s Nest, Sketchbook, paper wasp, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her book, A Ladybug on My Words is available at Amazon. com.

Haiku a field of wind turbines — my cartwheeling thoughts deer crossing the doe looks both ways turtle tumbling down the pebbly knoll — this pain in my side at the thicket’s edge a hearth — untold stories calling from the fence-post I ask the quail “who is Bob White?”

Autumn 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 189


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The Battered Suitcase Autumn 2011  

Volume 4, Issue 2 The finale issue of The Battered Suitcase

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