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The Battered Suitcase New Directions in Art & Literature

Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Spring 2011


The Battered Suitcase New Directions in Art & Literature

Volume 3 – Issue 4 – Spring 2011

Contents Flash Fiction

The Thinnest Threads Kate Lu................................44

I’ll Meet You at the Film Forum Cooper Sy...............................4

Walking on Water Corinne Wasilewski.....................62

Les Reveries d un Promeneur Plus Solitaire Mihaela Tudor...........................31

Jolle Sara Basrai............................70

Credit Recovery Nathan Pensky...........................61

A Doll for Lola Ridge Steven Gulvezan........................81

The Spectator David Seavor…...........................67

Godzilla in Washington Charles Heinemann......................84

Summer in the City Susan Tepper............................93

Her Boyfriend Matthew Dulany.........................99

Saying It Bruce Bromley..........................149

Side Effects Dan Lundin............................102

Short Stories The Girl Most Elusive Douglas Sullivan........................8 A Brigand’s Lament Tammy Salyer...........................14 Elevation Adam Russ..............................24

Thaw Laura Bogart..........................110 Shiva Robert Doyle..........................121 30 Below Sandra Hunter.........................137 Salvage Nathan Tavares........................143

A Smile in the Dust Aubrey Bemis...........................27

Novelettes

Zero Hour Heathrow Nathanial Kressen......................42

Aftershocks Emily Capettini........................51


Aida in the Mirror Sahar Delijani.........................123

Narrative Non Fiction On Damien Hirst Kevin Ritter............................18 Limbic Resonance Nath Jones..............................40 Songs in the Key of Nerd Tom Panarese............................90 Gifts Alana DiGiacomo........................134 Sing Your Life: The Remix Libby Cudmore..........................151

Poetry After Two Hours in Rome Joanna M. Weston.........................6 Stragglers Kate Armstrong...........................7 Aliens Jacob Kaiser............................20 Diner Jacob Kaiser............................21 nowheresville M.P. Powers,............................22 Bucephalus, Etc. M.P. Powers.............................23 Disembodied Gardening Rebecca Schumejda.......................32 Valium Shannon Cavanaugh.......................33 Little Jimmy Dead Eyes on the Harbor Kristine Ong Muslim.....................48

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Spontaneous Combustion Robert Scotellaro......................49 Athletic Secrets Robert Scotellaro......................50 The Physics of Make-believe Robert Scotellaro......................50 Apartment Door Jennifer Styperk.......................66 Natalie’s Porch Swing Jennifer Styperk.......................66 London Jennifer Styperk.......................66 Haikus Miranda Merklein.......................69 Still Karen Garrison.........................73 I am Rhett Butler Shelly Reed............................74 Gravity Betsy Brown............................95 Brain Pollution Betsy Brown............................97 Upper Upper West Side Wanderings Betsy Brown............................98 Answering the Question George Bishop.........................107 Homeless In ... George Bishop.........................108 movie on mute Madelaine Caritas Longman.............109 Present Absent Voices Jospeh Kerschbaum.....................131 Life of the Party Jospeh Kerschbaum.....................132


Origin Andrea Judy...........................133 Perhaps Ana J. ...............................141 Icarus Ana J. ...............................141 Neurosis of Nora Roberts Ana J. ...............................142 Space Ana J. ...............................142 Psychobaggage Ian Smith.............................148 Urban 1 David Snyder..........................153 Urban 2 David Snyder..........................154

Art Jaap van der Wel   Hello..................................34 Gallerie Imaginaire....................35 On Stage...............................36 Black Angel............................37 Captured Souls.........................38 The Way It Is..........................38 Goodbye................................39  

Steffen Flauger   Der Weg................................75 Karambolage............................76 Screwed................................77 Telephone..............................78 Underwater Love........................79 Zeitlos................................80   Roger Regner   Untitled .........................115-120 C.R. Ventura   Field of Electric Smarties............155 Look to the Skies.....................156 The Crystal Waves.....................157 This Reflection of Your life...........158 Your Gaze Rests Easy..................159 I Delight in your Delight.............160


Cooper Sy Cooper Sy is a writer of fiction and poetry and writer/director of film and theater. She’s an MFA graduate of Tempe University, Film/TV and Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute in LA. Last Spring, Cooper directed and co-wrote the play, Acts of Faith, from the Collected Stories of Grace Paley. She was named Poet-of-the Month by Writer’s At Work, LA. Her feature film, Take Two, premiered at the A.F.I. Her award-winning shorts have been screened nationally and internationally. Cooper wrote and directed three films for a Showtime TV anthology series, The Phoenix Effect about second and third generation Holocaust survivors, partially funded by Leonard Nimoy’s foundation.

I’ll Meet You at the Film Forum

S

he asked, “How will you recognize me?” I noticed the motorcycle first, a green and white Harley. Some chick with slick, black hair and Goth make-up driving, stopped to let you off close to the marquee. She demanded you kiss her in front of everyone. You hated and loved it. The raw embarrassment made you feel special, not just one of the voyeurs, but in the thick of an adventure. You removed your helmet. Auburn curls fell onto your shoulders, matted, darker from the sweat of the ride. As you walked away, her strong arms grabbed your waist, a snake coil almost shutting off the oxygen. Her eyes, two darts, pinned your heart to an interior landscape. She smiled, giggled, and suddenly let go. Like a spring release. There was no way to avoid falling on your ass. Her laughter was distinct, loud enough to produce an echo. The contents of your bag, wallet, keys, and your silver barrette scattered on to concrete. You scrambled to stuff items back into your bag. Her black leather-gloved right hand revved the engine louder and louder until you could no longer resist turning around. The exhaust from her swift getaway left you feeling alone, more alone then you have ever felt in your entire life. I was inside the theater sitting between two strangers. To my right, a man in his fifties assured me he would not eat his popcorn loudly. On my left, a woman, about the same age, was completely absorbed in adding a column of numbers legibly written inside an unlined moleskin notebook. I began to concentrate on the screen, determined not to look back with hopes of catching a glint of the silver barrette as the movie images flickered madly between black and white. Every shot in the trailer seemed to end with the agonizing cry of a woman or man in pain. A bullet shattering bone, short, fat fingers clamping off the oxygen in a woman’s neck, and finally the high-pitched meow of an alley cat sensing danger. The sound pierced my defenses as it bounced off brick walls, city walls, the brick of New York City tenements built in the

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1920s, or perhaps earlier. The number of windows in the buildings amazed me. Hundreds, thousands. Some were dark, others harshly lit, creating deep shadows against the brick. The cat meowed again as the camera moved into a window where a curvy silhouette in a silk slip stood alone. The picture cut to black as a studio sell line splashed across the screen in thick, white strokes — Love and Murder: Two Sides of The Same Tarnished Coin. When the feature ended, I had to sit there for a good five minutes to situate myself in New York instead of Los Angeles. I felt completely absorbed in the motivations of Bogart’s character, an obvious sociopath or manic-depressive. I’ve seen the film many times, nevertheless, I hoped the ending would somehow be different, that Bogie would be dressed in a white tux, laughing, remembering the plot as if it were a joke he heard at a fancy cocktail party in London during the War. I was the last one to leave the theater. It was late afternoon; my eyes could not adjust to the red rays of fading sunlight. I didn’t listen to your messages until two weeks after returning to Los Angeles. The first was an apology, something about traffic, subway delays, pleading with me to call. The second message was a correction to the first. You apologized again, but said straight out that you met a kooky broad ten years younger who owned a green and white Harley. I laughed, surprised that I could hear the truth without breaking into a jealous rant. However, I have to admit the second time I listened, I wasn’t completely sure that my reaction was unlike Bogie’s in that noir classic. He laughed too after his girlfriend triggered jealousy. In fact, he continued laughing as he demonstrated how easily he could shut off the air supply by placing his hands around her tapered neck. My revelation came while riding my bike along the Pacific listening to Nina Simone sing Wild As The Wind. Crazy, but suddenly, I understood that Harley girl was not a threat or a rejection, but an affirmation of what we had briefly shared.


And the reason is simply this — you said “yes” surrendering at last to your goddamn sensuality. I couldn’t wait to get home to write what I hope that you’re now reading. I always carry a moleskin notebook and pen myself, so I stopped at a coffee shop right on the beach. These thoughts seemed to fall on to the page as easily as I became attracted to you. I don’t know whether you’re going to agree with how I chose to end the story, I’m betting — 50/50, maybe yes, rather than no. As usual, I was all sweaty and red-faced when I arrived back at my house. In the bathroom, I peeled off my clothes and

stepped into the hot shower. After slipping into a t-shirt and thin, loose boy shorts, I felt like I was thirty again. Remember thirty, when everyday seemed like an endless tunnel leading to the next? I pulled down the covers on the bed; the sheets smelled clean and fresh. I closed my eyes and didn’t care that I was taking a nap at one in the afternoon. My plan was to get up in a few hours, eat dinner, re-read what I had written, and then send it off to one of those literary journals. I didn’t sleep: a woman we both know, no need for jealousy, smiled, sliding her hand between me and my deepest fears.

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Joanna M. Weston Joanna M. Weston has had poetry, reviews, and short stories published in anthologies and journals for twentyfive years. Her middle-reader, Those Blue Shoes, was published by Clarity House Press and poetry, A Summer Father, published by Frontenac House of Calgary. Joanna can be found at www.telus.net/public/west34/.

After Two Hours In Rome In the wine bar, I ask to use the phone. The bar tender directs me up the lane to the white church. Umbrella up, I stroll on the cobble stones, peer into a tabacchi, a pizzeria, pass the church. After a right turn, I find the Tourist Info centre, buy a phone card, and call home. evening rain — walking carefully in new shoes

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Kate Armstrong Kate Armstrong lives and writes in Chicago. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Stragglers Voices echo silently through those corridors called streets, all those whispers of centuries past, all those lyrics perhaps forgotten though familiar melodies still in tune. From the shutters spout those rhythms of the steps that carved the ways, footprints in half-beats, shoes not in size to this time as the soles walk journeys of uncertain yet documented days. With this it is that songs do change, progress in new procession — fresh notes hummed, new walked rhythms — adding to a verse still new for but a moment until it bounces off stone and catches shutter — joining echo, joining steps — being made old in its newly antiqued association.

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Douglas Sullivan Douglas Sullivan returns to the Northeast to continue his writing maturation, after years exploring the South and West coasts. His experiences are broad, from managing a boutique coffee shop to fitness video production; Douglas prefers not to be in one state for too long. He has his eyes on the middle third coast for graduate school in the coming year; he maintains a keen respect for accuracy of statement, and an increasing adoration for the minutiae of baseball.

The Girl Most Elusive

T

he sensation of her cotton glove along the length of my leg and up my back lingers between gusts of midnight breeze. She’s been wearing the gloves for weeks now; they never feel like her actual hands. This doesn’t mean she keeps her distance. I’m not icy to the touch. She doesn’t experiment though. We haven’t tried one glove on, one glove off sex. I still wipe the blonde ringlets from her face; she continues looking me in the eyes. We both threw out our cell phones when she returned from the doctor. It’s been nothing but problematic. People can’t get a hold of us: my mother, her sister, some cousins. Frequently the phone just rings and rings; we’re fighting people off the line, always saying: sorry, someone’s beeping in, can I get you back? I haven’t been able to tell anyone the results. That first night after we learned was the first with the gloves. She put them on after we’d torn our way through two rooms, and fell, exhausted by each other, onto our bed. She said her skin was too dry; it was flaking and how disgusting is that, dead skin all over? The gloves keep her hands moist in the stale night air. “I hate this stupid house,” she says from the corner of the kitchen. “Me too.” “But I’ve always hated it, this stupid view and when it rains —” “It barely rains —” “When it rains, I always hear the water rushing down the gutter. It sounds like flooding. I can’t escape the feeling that we should be running away; it’s awful.” “Should we go out for dinner? Maybe to that new place down the street.” “I hate all the streets too,” she says. Our kitchen desperately needs paint. All our cooking has sweated the colors, leaving a brown tinge in the room’s sharpest corners. The oven works like a dream; we’ve each

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roasted a duck to beyond perfection. Both times, we surprised each other with the bird. She made mine the Friday of my first week in a shirt and tie. We were barely 25. I made hers over a year later, sometime in winter, when the duck was harder to find. It was to reconcile after our first failed ovulation, when we were still trying. Right now, the heat from the stove and the brown-tinted walls are popping the blue of her eyes. They’re the size of plates, and when she takes steps in my direction, I can do nothing. Mumble, maybe. But not once she’s this close. Six years in and still, not when she’s this close. “You’ll take me upstairs?” she asks. “I will, yes.” “Your face is beautiful when you do what I want.” “Are you gonna shut off the stove?” “It’s off,” she replies. “It’s still steaming.” “I’m not afraid,” she says. My hand is already a snake along her collarbone, my mind already scared, scared, scared. Her body’s a marvel. There’s a thin scar along her stomach, its fringes stark, and barren of color; there’s another inside her mouth, where her tooth punctured clean through her lip, but that’s from a car accident. Those scars unseen seem less a clear definition of survival. I lay her gently on the bed, though I can tell she hates that. The master suite swallows us in darkness, yet she slaps my face with accuracy. “Show me you’re a man,” she says. “I am, see how I put you down.” Her fingers slice along my side as I lick them. We claw and sniff our way into a familiar passion, but now — since — each time, I’m weary of her. I concern myself with how her body angles, which part of her seems jammed at an unorthodox way, listening for winces of pain between those of joy. I conjure sweat with worry as she buries her teeth into my neck. This is how it’s always been for us. We’re something of a sex anomaly


according to my friends, according to her former college roommate, as well. We have to shower afterward. Even if we’ve been drunk, or too stoned before, we stand under the staccato rush of hot water to slowly return to the people we are: the post-grad student, the sales manager, the cooker and oil changer, respectively. I’m out of the shower last. She’s already started a small trashcan fire; the slight orange flame blackening the plastic sides she’s standing over. “It’s only my medical stuff. The bracelets and files we’ve been saving,” she tells me calmly. “We might need those, ahead of us somewhere, the government or the people will need us to prove things, and that’s the proof.” “We can lie to them?” “I hate lying.” She smiles at my coyness before loosening my grip on my towel. She turns me around, and, in half-light, finishes drying my back. “Thanks —” “— Welcome.” The streetlights are on now. We’re used to being so tired that going to bed early has become routine; it’s another thing like body weight, or when you have to shit right in the middle of something important, that seems desperately near our control, yet at the last moment, is not. This hasn’t stopped our tucking in and pillow fluffing. She eases her gloves on so I can fall asleep under her synthetic graze. The morning opens with a bang on the front door. Followed quickly by another bang, followed by her absently grabbing a book off the nightstand, hurling it into the hall. “That’ll get ’em, Sweetheart,” I say through vaguely open eyes. “What is it?” Bang-bang-bang! “Honey, I don’t wanna start my Saturday with violent thoughts; see what’s going on out there.” I peak from the window: the mailman’s at the door in his Jamaican-style summer hat, impatiently holding a moderately sized package and electronic clipboard. I crack the window open, whistling down in the shrill way I know how. “Hey, you gotta sign for the parcel.” “Tell him to fuck off,” she says. “Tell him he’s bothering our together time.” “Can you just leave it?” “I’m sorry?” Leaning back inside, “Did you even order anything from anywhere?” “No, I hate waiting for packages.” The mailman steps into the yard for a better view. He’s waving the package as if the sight of it will escalate my interest.

“Yeah, sorry, but we don’t want that. Can you just bring it back to the post office?” “I can’t leave it; it’s gotta be signed for.” “I know. I don’t want the package though.” She pulls me inside by the foot, biting down on my calf as I watch the mailman’s head shake back to his truck. My nerves fire toward her teeth mark, I lurch away to the sound of her throaty morning cackle. “I’m not going to kiss you today. You’re on punishment,” I claim. “For what?” “Everything. You’re a dumb woman, and I loathe our time together.” She weaves across the bed, curling the blankets around her as she moves. “I’m not kissing you either, because your face looks ugly when the sun hits it,” she retorts. “That’s a terrible reason.” “Wars have started for less.” “They have not,” I tell her. “Okay, what’s a good reason for me not to kiss you?” “Sometimes I orgasm before you do and then I don’t go down on you until you orgasm.” A smile thins out across her face; she’s starting to crack. This insult game is her creation, something devised to determine who makes breakfast. I always end up going to the store for sausages. We eat them a package a sitting and haven’t yet figured to buy two at a time. She’s about to break character, jump on my torso to fake strangle me before diving inside my mouth for a kiss. I’m on the cusp of my first victory since prediagnosis, the restorative prize of an extra thirty minutes of slumber awaits. Then a thin trail of blood drips from her nose, gathering between wrinkles of fabric, and I end up trolling the frozen meat section. She isn’t hungry when I return home. We both undress, retiring to the thickness of our sheets and the warm scent of slept-in blankets. “It’s just from the temperature change,” she says. “The dramatic drop; yeah, you’re right,” I reply. “My nasal membranes are just drying and cracking, that’s all. That’s all.” “That’s all,” I say. As another night tightens around us, we haven’t tired of being in bed. We’re still rolling over and onto one another, halftangled, mildly sweating; our breath, once reeking of morning, now stale, hangs between our sentences like a third lover. I listen for her coughing  from my desk at work, twenty miles away. This week, there’s been meetings and luncheons, I suppose. My pouty secretary reminds me I made a large commission, by also reminding me she’s taking the vacation I promised as a result. She’s a young girl, barely from college. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 9


“Marcy,” I call after her. “Yes,” she replies, turning back toward my desk, “something else?” “Where are you going for your trip?” “Oh, my boyfriend booked us a last minute to Trinidad and Tobago.” “How exotic, what do they do there?” “Whatta you mean?” “Puerto Rico has rum; Cancun has the women, the crystal waters. What’s your place known for?” “I’m not sure, maybe. It’s just real pretty. We’re gonna spend a bunch of time just chatting and stuff I guess, y’know, bringing some excitement back. We’ve been dating for a year now.” When she’s run out of things to say, she often smiles before leaving the room. This time is no different, though briefly after she’s left, a conclusion comes over me with such sudden intensity I immediately chase after her. I fly down the halls, past the human resources people poorly hiding their affair, past the break room, mailroom, server room. She clearly took the elevator, but I have to reach her. I use the last of my fading stamina to hurtle down seven flights of stairs, my tie flapping into my mouth. She’s crossing the parking lot when I spot her, and without shouting her name as to make a scene, I speed walk toward her until my coughs and wheezes alert my presence. When she turns around, I’m red-faced, laughing with a near circus guffaw. She offers an odd look, one a cheerleader might give the chubby kid as she braces for his prom inquisition. “Sorry,” I finally say, my laugh calmed. “Did I forget something? The timecards, I always forget something huge and try to leave on this graceful note, but never actually can.” “I’m not going to be here when you get back; I wanted to tell you.” “Oh . . . are you going somewhere? Is there a trip I forgot to schedule? Oh, Jesus.” “No, no not all. I just won’t be here when you get back. I’ve just decided it. I might not even go back upstairs. You’ll either have a new boss or new desk. I wanted you to know why.” “Okay . . . why?” “Because I’m quitting. I’m going home.” Those last seconds of awkwardness with Marcy, as well as the week it concluded, dissipate once I cross the threshold into our home. My lovely is wiping her mouth as she comes around the corner from the bathroom. Her flannel shirt asunder, her stretch pants cutting her into the shape of desire. “I quit today.” “Quit what?” “Work. I’m done.” She isn’t baffled or surprised by the whole idea. She keeps a glass of water steady in her hand the whole time I’m explaining my news. Once I’ve finished, she considers me for a moment, then she runs out of the room, leaving me holding my tie and 10 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

coffee thermos. First stars are popping in the distant horizon; their appearance like early onset darkness. She sprints back into the kitchen, a rolled sleeping bag under her arm. “We can camp in the living room. We’ll be like teenagers. We can order pizza with extra meat toppings.” “Did you hear what I said?” “You made the decision, right?” She’s letting the sleeping bag unroll casually while she waits for my answer. “Yeah, of course. I didn’t even go back after I told my secretary.” “Then we must camp in the living room.” “Because I don’t have a job anymore?” “Because there was blood on my pillow, and I decided we’re not answering the phone anymore.” “Let the machine get it,” I reply. “No one has anything to say, anyways.” She’s right. I can’t pretend; to celebrate, we forgo pizza, and instead she’s cooking a chicken, which keeps staying pink near the bone. “Stop checking it; leave it covered,” I tell her. “I have to check it.” “Not that much.” “You’ll be mad if it dries out.” “If you stop opening the oven, I can promise to never be mad at meat again.” We’re wrapped in the sleeping bag before 7:30. There’s always a tiny pile of folded blankets nearby; since she’s been sick, we’ve had to buy new ones to rid our home of those germs. I feel their distance now. These are stiff, stuck with static, and creased so heavy the starch cracks as we spread them over us. The television’s turned off almost immediately after we’re situated. We twine ourselves into the other roads of love until we’re past the point of embarrassment, which leaves most of the furniture slightly greasy. “Does the way I feel when you’re inside change?” She asks. “Sometimes.” “Maybe the way I feel changes the way I feel; this could all be my fault. My body overreacting and ruining me for you.” She lunges for a kiss, sharp panic in her eyes as she clasps my face between her palms; mid-kiss she coughs into my mouth. It’s an accident, a body jerk so quick she could never have stopped it. Our mouths burst apart. I’m choking on spittle and phlegm as we both forget she isn’t that type of sick. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry —,” she keeps saying. I have to kiss her again to speed up time. I snatch her face, brush her eyes closed, and kiss her mouth so we don’t notice anything. We stay in this kiss for days. She stops looking for jobs, the milk spoils unopened, our answering machine picks up what seems like a hundred calls. When we wake, there’s a tiny bit of dried saliva at the corners of our mouths. We’ve managed to pick our way through a whole chicken, and the


neighborhood has decided to cut their lawns. All of them, it sounds. It’s Wednesday before we consider what day it is. We’ve continued camping in the living room, letting our souls hang out as we sloth around in boxer briefs and cotton panties. After cycling through all of our recorded shows, we start going through our collection of movies. “We should read to each other,” she says over breakfast. “That’d be cute,” I say, unable to keep my hands to myself even as I’m chewing. “You better not fall asleep when I’m doing it.” “I won’t. I promise. What are we reading?” “Something we already own. One from the shelves somewhere.” “Fiction?” “Isn’t it all?” She has trouble picking a book. She traces a thin finger along each shelf, occasionally pulling one out an inch to further examine before sliding it back. The idea expires as she plops down on the couch. A week later, we’ve stopped picking up our mail. We set up a post office box for bills and such, but we no longer are interrupted by packages and notices. We decide to disconnect our computer after she’s had a fever for a few days. All our shows are on season hiatus, so we cancel the cable. We insolate ourselves from distraction. This gives her more energy; she’s bouncing from room to room, flitting around with pop songs on her mind. There are a few hours late into the night that sleep finally slides through her; if I can, I prop myself on my elbow and watch her dreamily, brush thin strands of hair from her face, before she tucks a gloved hand back under the sheets. We eat all our leftovers and frozen meats throughout the next week.  We stop checking our bank account, opting for a running list of expenses on a legal pad. There’s been talk that our original starting number may have been incorrect. We’ve stopped asking each other how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, because we know neither of us would ever say bad, or terrible, or complain my stomach, my neck. We’ve begun living in a household free from questions. The murmur of our ringing phone is a frequent thumping, like the beat to our house.  It’s stinging repetition carries all the well wishes, kind words, and selfish assurances from those who care for us; sometimes we stop talking to listen, silently confirming we’re among the thoughts of others and still capable of living forever. “It’s nauseating; can’t we unplug it?” She asks from the bathroom, as I’m climbing into bed. “Just leave it. It’s like a night-light, only it’s sound.” “We’ll be fine without it,” she says, while pulling at her eyelids in the mirror, checking to see if her eyes are bloodshot, or if all her retching has burst any blood vessels, before coming

to bed. The following morning, my cousin leaves a message about my other cousin, his older sister. Her car was found flipped near a slick curve. “She’s dead,” he finally manages to squeeze out among his ramblings of: who would’ve thought, how could this happen, I’m sorry, call me and we miss you. The machine cuts him off as he’s losing to a string of stutters and sniffles, followed by the long minute the grieving often take to hang up.   I’m still staring at the machine when she comes downstairs. I collapse momentarily under the news. It passes quicker than expected. I’m leaning against the wall; she’s coming toward me with a glass of water when a shadow wipes a portion of her in darkness. The flash-forward of her absence fills me. I guzzle my water only to spit part of it back up. “I know there’s something to say, but I don’t know what; I just love you and love you and things will be great,” she tells me. “I know they’ll turn out great,” I reply. That afternoon we clean the house for the first time in months. She moves through the kitchen into the bathroom. I spend time organizing our movies, and arranging the bedroom. When I’m done, over the running dishwasher, I hear her vomiting into the toilet she just cleaned. Her eyes are rubbed raw when she comes out; still, she muscles her way through a dinner heavy with root vegetables and lean proteins. “We’re out of condoms,” she tells me as I’m climbing into bed. “We had a bunch in your bedside, over there.” “Gone.” “Gone?” “I’ve got the bruised perineum to prove it.” “So I gotta go to the store?” “I went last time.” “That has to stop meaning something. I don’t think buying condoms once is a hall pass for the next time.” “I’m not fucking you until —” “No, Sweetheart. I’m not fucking you until — so there’s that.” She fluffs the sheets to reveal her breasts, letting the covers fall softly to illuminate the lasting curve at her torso. I’m supposed to melt, and I’m supposed to be the man and tell her I’ll get the damn things. “The gloves are coming off then —” “No.” “They’re coming off.” “ . . . Fine,” she relents. “Just leave them on the nightstand, Sweetheart. We can burn them later.” Her antibiotics have made the pill ineffective; condoms have since become our contraceptive of choice. After not wearing them for years, sex feels as though suddenly swimming in the Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 11


kiddy pool. The available selection is vast and complicated; I don’t pay much attention, grabbing the brightest color as it crosses my vision. I aimlessly wander the aisles, struggling to think of something else to bring home, something that tops flowers. I’m fingering a stash of farm-fresh melons, when a hand grabs my shoulder. “I knew that was goddamn you!” My sister rips her glasses off in clichéd frustration. She’s already taking deep breaths, revealing as well, the dangers of living and dying in the same town. “I’ve called you a thousand times; what happened? Actually don’t answer that, I’m so goddamn mad at you . . . ” She trails off as she clenches her fists. I take a step back; if my terrible reflexes lead to the embarrassment of a broken nose, it would all but ruin my week. Her body quivers randomly. I give her some space for a moment of collection but end up hugging her as she starts sobbing. “It’s okay, everything happens, and we have to be strong,” I say. “You didn’t come to the funeral.” “I’m sorry —” “No card or flowers. No call.” “I’ve just been so worr —” “Don’t you dare use her as an excuse.” She forces a silence between us, grabbing onto it. I return to shopping, edging my way from fruits toward vegetables; she follows closely, patting tears as they well up. The distilled pop music of the grocery store, the hum and bustle of carts, shoppers, and sale announcements grows to an unsettling decibel. I let out a short scream right as my sister starts speaking. She yelps in return, quick and sharp. People around us decide to shop elsewhere, and in their disappearance, it’s clear she may have never believed anything I’ve said. “You know you look terrible. You’re pasty. Are you sick now? Did she spread it to you? Is that what’s happened to you?” She’s becoming hard to ignore. “Are you even going to tell me how she’s doing? Are you both rotting somewhere no one can see you?” “Shouldn’t we only be with people who make us happy?” “What? . . . Yeah, I guess. It’s not like that. You’re not retarded.” “We should. We should and we’re living so close together I almost never want to go out again. Imagine that: to never want to be outside again.” “ . . . It’s not as beautiful as you think it sounds.” “It is. I’m sure of it.” I jam my basket of fresh fruit into her limp hands and walk out holding just the condoms. The big box. I drive quickly home and through the following week; it’s the start of spring, when the sun is out long enough to grill outside. We can nearly finish a bottle of wine before she becomes too cold. She’s been staying in bed longer, sleeping less. I read from across the room, opting for here in the small 12 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

accent chair than to be all the way downstairs on the couch. “Is having a baby the most important thing you’ll ever do?” She asks. “I hope not,” I say as I’m laying down alongside her. “When I used to get my period I thought about it. Weeks, really, over the course of years, sitting on the toilet, bloody, thinking — if I never bring life, am I wasting life?” “My friends and I, we used to say we didn’t trust anything that bled for five days and didn’t die,” I say. She starts laughing with me, pulling at my book, at the bottom of my shirt; she crawls into the open space around me. I wake out of breath. Another gasp before my oxygen returns. She’s still atop me, stretched down my length. A thin sheen of sweat glosses over her exposed parts. She jerks awake. A moan swells from deep inside her. She clutches her abdomen. Tucks herself tight, rolling side to side across the bed. I’m by her waist, bracing her neck, looking for her eyes to reveal something. She doesn’t speak, just bellows. Her guttural groans smash around the room. I offer water, a hand to grab. She wants nothing. She endures, clutching herself until it passes. These cramps, as she’s called them, rip through her, leaving the afflicted area tender and twitchy for hours. That afternoon, while she’s napping, I go to the bank to withdraw all of our remaining money. It’s enough for a short while. I return to my car to find the doors locked, and my keys jangling in a taunting interior wind. My laughter swells as I take the first steps of a five-mile-walk home. Most of the afternoon is gone when I return. She’s pacing limply, her hair up off her shoulders. “I’ve been worried —” “Sick?” “That’s not funny.” “I locked my keys the car.” “You didn’t call AAA, did you?” “I set it on fire.” “You didn’t?” “No.” “You should have.” “I wanted to.” Her bracelet slips off her wrist, giving us pause as she gathers it. “You’re the only man for me.” She smiles, revealing a streak of blood at the corners of her gums. The crimson is startling. She sees the ghost cross my face. “It’s from flossing too hard.” “ . . . I figured something like that, it just —” “I know, it’s —” Neither of us finish our thought, as we fall into a silent cadence walking through the living room. “Remember this,” she says, kicking my heel as I step. I tumble into the lamp, which breaks. I snatch her at the waist, yanking her atop me on the couch. We plunder into the


coffee table, spilling magazines and used coffee cups onto the carpet.  We tussle and throw each other around the living room, knocking into the curio cabinet; her Grandmother’s figurines chip pieces off each other. The few hollow spaces of our home fill with the rattle of our clashing bodies. I stand up in a flurry of action to regain my coordination. She’s wheezing now, but still insistent on sparing. She comes at me from an obtuse angle, trying to take my knees. She’s too high, I slide step her, but my footing’s off, and I spin into the end table at an awkward slant. My pinky finger dislocates instantly as I’m bracing my fall. I come up wincing like a man who’s endured sports injuries, holding my hand, tucking my finger away from sight. She rushes to my aid, but I’m distracted by how red her forehead is. I check for a fever, letting her tend to my bent finger. “Please don’t say we’re done,” I tell her. “I can pop it back in.” “Are you hot? Should we sit down or something?” “I’m fine. Let me do this.” “What?” “Fix this. I can fix you.” “It’s gonna fucking hurt.” “It is, but I love you.” “Shut up —” She presses without warning against my lower knuckle. It makes a small pop; instinctively I almost punch her face.  “Shhhh . . . ” she says, cupping my hand insider hers. For several minutes, she tends only to me. A chill in the room forces her to leave me briefly to bundle up, but her return is akin to that of spring. A long winter in a few moments ceased by the simple pleasure of my eyes landing upon her. She’s less this time. Each time, for months, when she leaves a room, she loses fractions of herself. The sun off her angled jaw, a blouse hanging shapeless; her skin looks drawn in milk as I begin to

feel my swelling joint thump in my ear. The phone cuts into our moment; we close our eyes against it. She blows softly on my face; I kiss her cheek. The ring continues slashing noise until, in a burst of action, she breaks for the kitchen, yanking the machine from the wall. She skips, barely touching the carpet, back to me. We grab each other at the joints, trying intently to return to the moment prior, the virility of our shared pain, but that time is already lost, and before we can fear we’ve not properly filed away, there’s a knock at the door. When we don’t reply, the knock turns impatient. We huddle together. Our parents — my mother, her father and sister — appear at the front door. They’re peering in like monsters, their images distorted by the frosted glass. We scurry to the kitchen at first and then upstairs, being careful not to creak the wood as we’re tucking behind the bookshelf in the den. Their chatter bleeds through the spaces of our aged house. They’re calling to us. We tighten to our hiding spot. They’re banging on the doorframe now, and someone’s rattling a nearby window. Somehow, we remain out of sight, but they’re not leaving. They’ve split up; I can hear my mother cawing from the other side of the house.                The doors from another car slam shut, followed shortly by the sharp click of heels approaching on the pavement. I edge closer to her. My breaths labor from the awkward crouch we’ve settled in. She rubs her hands together; the friction from her sweaty palms whisper a soft coo, before she places them forcefully around my cheeks. The heat is magnificent and impossible. My nerve tendrils become a vessel to carry this instant down to my heart’s dark rivers and set it afloat. She runs her hands down my neck, settling her spread fingers under my shirt, and along my shoulders as she says: “When you tell this story later, tell your friends or my family, remember to say this was always how I wanted it. Just like this.”

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 13


Tammy Salyer Tammy Salyer is an ex-paratrooper who replaced the thrill of jumping with the thrill of writing about things that are even crazier than she is. She has a lot less bruises now and gets to have fun now, no matter what the weather is. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and finds it very strange to write bios about herself in third person. Her terrestrial, but no less clumsy, adventures and other mental detritus can be chuckled over on her blog at http://soiwrotethisbook.blogspot.com.

A Brigand’s Lament

T

he horrifying thing about a killing a man with a cutlass is, whether with a forehanded butcher’s chop or buccaneer’s backsweep, the dead man’s guts always spill out with the same bloody, steaming force. Plop! Right on the deck. It is grotesque and wholly undignified. More unsightly — and messy — than any damage a single, well-aimed lead ball inflicts. For this reason, Philipe has never grown comfortable handling a sword. Which is a sad, unmanly trait for a pirate. Philipe, lucky for him, is not just any run-of-the-plank, cutfrom-the-same sail-cloth as the others, pirate. He’s the son of the notorious pirate captain, Jolly Rupert, aka Captain Natty Beard, aka the Tyrant of Trinidad, who has ruled the Caribbean from the helm of the Bloody Hosanna for the last 15 years. A hard man, at whose feet the seas bow, undefeated, richer than the Queen, and feared by all. Beneath his father’s jack, Philipe thus reigns as the second most feared man on the ocean. With a wink to himself in the mirror as he makes ready to go above deck, he takes a moment to preen, captivated by his own image. Indeed, he looks the very paragon of a fearsome rogue: brown skin gleaming like copper in the island sun, gold-capped teeth, gems in his ears — maybe a few too many — and Oriental silk breeches, torn and stained, but silk, nonetheless. The tattoo of a Phoenix rising from the ashes of a British Cutter, blown in two, adorns his left forearm. An unquestionably marvelous piratical ensemble. Missing only a sword. Relentless tropical sun penetrates the sea’s mist as he steps onto the main deck, steaming the ship-hands like oysters in a pot. His father stands at the banister and motions toward an approaching ship with a looking glass. When Philipe puts it to his eye and peers across the water, it’s as if a dagger of pure rapture pierces the walls of his chest. His heart thunders at the sight of a treasure more arresting and more beautiful than any mountain of schwag: the most exquisite, blonde-ringletted male specimen of a pirate ever to sail the seven seas. 14 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

As quickly as the wind can take them, the Hosanna floats a-berth the Golden Temple, hailed by the flying yellow jack of Captain Black Breath Bartholemew. Philipe holds his breath for the short passage, desiring nothing more than another look at this angelic rogue. By the time they come within long boat range, he’s smiling broadly enough for his golden teeth to glitter in the sunlight. Near the Golden Temple’s bowsprit, the unfamiliar pirate stands poised like a trophy, flaunting a smooth, hairless chest through the spread neck of his poet’s shirt, tight, black breeches tied around his slim hips with a red silk sash, white teeth flashing at the sea as if to say, “You’re no match for a man of my caliber.” Tall and proud and imposing. Philipe’s eyes linger on his young face, captivated. Unlike most of the unkept ruffians he sails with, this gorgeous swashbuckler keeps his chiseled jaw cleanly shaven. It’s impossible to tear his entranced eyes away, and Philipe’s prayers are answered when the man follows Black Breath aboard the Bloody Hosanna at Natty Beard’s invitation. The funnier thing about Philipe, funnier than his peculiarly unnatural aversion to swords, is his even more unconventional — one could say — lifestyle. It wouldn’t be enough to say he is lavender, or light in the peg-leg, a dandy, or limp-wristed, or even effeminate. No, a better word for him would be gay. A poof, a queer, a sodomite, a bugger, a frequenter of Cock’s Lane, a molly. True, his preferences make some of the more “traditional” bilge-blighters uncomfortable, but the son of a wealthy cutthroat rules like royalty in these waters, leaving him at his leisure to pursue any kind of kinky carnality that pleases him. Though he can see it dancing on the tips of his brothersin-arms’ tongues, these days no one dares to call him “Philipe the Fairy.” Too many men have been left to dangle by their toes from the mizzen mast at the mercy of pecking crows for offending the son of Captain Natty Beard. And what does it matter? In Trinidad, a rich lad can buy love in any form, guise, gender or beast he desires. The colonized


diaspora of Caribs, Arawaks, Taino, French, British, Spanish, and Dutch makes the mix of people living in the East and West Indies anything but typical, so why should one expect their customs and practices to be? His father used to tell him that he was the unfortunate hybrid of a mermaid and a pirate, the product of Natty Beard’s unabashed sex-appeal to all women, even ones with fins. And while the fairytale seemed plausible and appealing when he was a small child, Philipe suspects that it was just his father’s reasoning for Philipe’s uncommon behavior. Though sensational and extravagant, the course of a wealthy pirate is also lonely. Their transient, greed-driven way of life doesn’t allow for real love, and every momentary dockyard romance ends the same — temporary satisfaction followed by weeks of nothing touching his lips but the salty spray of the ocean. While he covets loot as much as the next scallywag, his heart desires something greater than gold. Dizzy with desire, perhaps even love, Philipe swaggers into the captain’s chamber. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to speak, so stricken is he by the stranger’s presence. Black Breath greets him with the same exaggerated formality in which he addresses everyone — a vice-like grip of Philipe’s proffered hand, followed by muculent kisses delivered through a cloud of rotting Mako breath to each of his cheeks. Black Breath is one of the few men in the world Philipe wishes was uncomfortable with his choice in mates, if only to spare him the noisome air from his rotting lungs. At least this, time Black Breath’s newest crew member grips his focus to fully to notice. Much. “Rupert, Philipe, please meet my nephew, John Silver.” Natty Beard grunts a perfunctory greeting at the succulent Silver, too used to seeing a pirate here today and gone tomorrow to be bothered with formal acquaintances. But Philipe grasps John’s outstretched hand in something close to reverence, trilling, “A pleasure.” Silver makes no notice of Philipe’s tone, merely returns the handshake casually, with the same strong grip as his uncle. Phillipe revels in the hardened skin of his palms, wondering what they’d feel like wrapped around his more sensitive bits. Greetings concluded, they recline on worn, velvetcushioned seats around a teak table, stolen from the captain’s berth of a doomed British Man-O-War. As Argentinean wine once bound for Madrid is poured into their chipped crystal goblets, Black Breath launches into the reason they’ve come aboard: a proposition to unite and capture the Havana Harlot, a caravel captained by Red Eye Rodriguez. Of late, the usurper has steadily overstepped his range and encroached into Natty Beard’s and Black Breath’s waters, enough reason to send the scum to the depths. Philipe pays no attention to most of the exchange, his heavy-lidded eyes remaining attentive to Silver’s every move. The negotiations are nearing an end when a suggestion from Silver jolts Philipe from his ruminations. “Uncle, Captain Natty Beard, it be grand to seal this accord by releasing both

Philipe and I to lead the charge. We shall take the mangy rat’s vessel, then share the pleasure of beheading Red Eye as compatriots?” His amber eyes rest on Philipe as he speaks, their intensity like silk against his skin. “John Silver, love, that would be quite impossible.” John’s brows fold in a puzzled look. “Why?” Philipe answers, “I don’t carry a cutlass.” “You don’t carry a . . . ” And then, in a humiliating torrent, John Silver gushes smug laughter. A blush, like a fountain of his own spilled blood, enshrouds Philipe from head to toe. The armpits of his shirt, stained yellow and reeking, ooze from damp to wet. “Ha, ha, ha, so it’s true, the stories I’ve heard about you. ‘Philipe the Fairy,’ afraid to spill a man’s blood! What kind of a pirate . . . ?” And off Silver goes in another gale of amusement. They made as much haste overtaking the Harlot as the equatorial currents allowed, and now the sounds of cannons and screams fill the night around him. He should be pleased; the ship will soon be his. Yet he can’t manage to swallow the oily slime of self-pity that taints the flavor of victory. There are no words in English, Spanish, French, nor any other tongue uttered by the nomadic seaman, slaves, slavers, or merchants drifting in the Caribbean waters adequate enough to describe the dread and agony that sliced through Philipe upon Silver’s harsh cock-a-snoop. Even the cold sickle moon illuminating the fracas could not have torn more cruelly through his heart. Only Silver’s hasty apology for slighting Philipe, prompted by Natty Beard’s threat to have him drawn and quartered and hung from the mainmast, and Black Breath’s word that Philipe would have the Havana Harlot for his own flagship had saved the mouthy tramp. Philipe knows it doesn’t matter to the fair-headed pirate, but John has it wrong. Philipe doesn’t fear shedding blood, not in the least; he gains just as much satisfaction as the next seafaring swain at watching the defeated of a well-fought conquest fall and die, like condemned trees in a shipyard. But from a distance, hastened by a lead ball, not in the slow, vulgar fashion of a disembowelment or dismemberment. There’s simply too much gore when a man’s been cut to bits, and far too much effort required to accomplish such a tasteless task. It’s quite impracticable, and smells appalling. As the velvet ocean pushed them relentlessly toward the Harlot’s haven, these last few days, Philipe almost wished the rankled pride of the Golden Temple’s captain would burst free and compel him into an ill-conceived attack against Natty Beard’s impertinent retributive demands, ridding Philipe permanently of the scar that reopened in his chest each time he looked across the gap separating the two ships and spied Silver’s haughty form. But the Hosanna’s 24-pounders, their mere presence enough to turn a fighting man’s ballocks into ice with fear, have dissuaded greater foes than Black Breath. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 15


A lesson the Harlot has learned, and well. Philipe gazes through flumes of ashen cannon smoke upon the beaten ship’s deck as hands from the Hosanna and Temple mete out the fates of its last few survivors, the conquerors’ blades drawing through necks the way a golden chain drips through a victor’s fingers. Only the few that had volunteered to be pressed into service for a new captain are excepted from sentencing. These men stand against the balustrade, hands bound with chafing hemp rope. Their pocked and dirty faces, missing teeth, and skin that ranges through every hue of brown, bespeak the story of men whose lives could not be imagined any differently, who had always belonged to the master of them all, the mysterious and violent sea. To a man, their new terms of servitude will differ in no way that matters, confirmed by the resignation in their vacant eyes. Lit up by lanterns and a few small fires, he can see that the Harlot is not much worse for the wear, despite the running down and attack by the two more experienced pirate crews. Her elegant structural lines cant gently backwards as if windswept, the smooth, burnished wood of the balustrade glows with a deep warmth, a freshly tarred deck shines with a reddish glow, and the masts stand tall and straight, made of a handsome hardwood from somewhere in the Americas. Admiring the beauty of his first command, he moves towards the gangway that will take him down to main deck, where, for the first time as Captain, he’ll cross the plank that’s been laid between the two ships. He’s dressed to the nines for the occasion, determined to make an entrance that will overshadow all of his hidden shame and heartache. As he slings his musketoon behind his back to grab the banister, movement on the other ship’s deck grips his full attention. He turns and sees a sight that is both unbearably delicious and cloyingly bitter. Red Eye Rodriguez — obviously none other, given the red silken patch that covers one eye — has emerged from the captain’s berth with one arm clasped to John Silver’s left elbow and the other pressing a curved and bejeweled cutlass against the fragile skin of Silver’s stretched neck. Philipe has a clear view across the short distance into Red Eye’s one peering orb. The older pirate stares back with fury and gall. “Give me a long boat and four of my men, or Black Breath’s nephew breathes from a hole in his neck for the rest of his short life.” Like a sultry tropical wind, the moment gusts through Philipe’s soul. Here is the revenge his wounded pride covets. Here is his chance to make Silver pay for the knife cleaving his heart. As he absorbs the scene before him, silently taking measure of his options, his father sidles up to his side. Natty Beard’s rum-hardened voice drips into Philipe’s ear. “G’head and take the shot, Philipe. Serves the brazen clamhead right for trifling with you. She’s yer ship now.” His father is right. Silver had besmirched him, taunted him, laughed at him. Him! The son of the Tyrant of Trinidad, Philipe, 16 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

the only marksman in either hemisphere who can slay a man at fifty yards. Silver dared to tease, to challenge. What cheek, what foolishness! Now it is his turn to lay the weakness of this lesser man out for all to see. Layers of wafting, sea-drenched vapor hid Black Breath’s vessel from sight and Natty Beard’s men hold the rest of Red Eye’s captured crew on the foredeck. No one will see the shot Philipe is about to take. Silver’s life lies the width of a raven’s quill from being over, and Philipe controls his fate. It is as easy as shouldering the wide-bore musketoon and pulling the trigger, letting its spreading payload of lead balls and crushed glass dimple and shred their flesh until it resembles the singed sails fluttering from the Harlot’s mainmast. And yet . . . and yet. Either of his wheel-locks could easily broach the distance, sending lead crushing through Red Eye’s skull, liquefying his brain. John’s life would be spared, and he would have Philipe, yes, the Fairy, to thank. What then would Silver think of him? A sudden explosion of a musket firing echoes between the sails, the delicate cloud of smoke from its powder charge quickly swallowed in the darker smoke still lingering from the Hosanna’s sixteen port cannons. He spins, furious at being outshot, to see who has fired. Natty Beard squints at the carnage he’s created, absently scratching a furrow in the depths of his greasy beard with his free hand. “There you are, son. Yer first command.” And he spits a wad of greenish goo over the banister. Clenched with panic, Philipe whirls back towards the lower ship’s deck. There, in a spattered veneer of blood and tattered cloth, lies his beloved — broken and lifeless, but still beautiful. Blackened holes speckle Silver’s chest where his cotton shirt punches into his skin in a peculiar way, like mouths sucking on a lemon. Enough of Natty Beard’s shot struck Red Eye’s exposed arm and lower jaw to reduce the brigand to a mewling parody of a pirate. “You should be able to use yer pistol to finish him off.” Natty Beard says, stomping down the gangway to begin tallying his new booty. Gasping with shock and loathing, Philipe pulls out a pistol, the oiled wooden grips fitting comfortably in his hand, and raises it. The sound of Red Eye’s groaning fades from his hearing, compassion having long since lost any hold on his senses. But it isn’t the defeated pirate’s head that appears in his pistol’s site. Fathers and sons: a complex issue on the easiest of days. But in this moment, Philipe’s feelings are not in the least complicated. Bloody rage, a mad thirst for revenge, hatred and murderous intent, oh yes, all quite simple to express. Especially when the object of your fierce passion stands three yards in front of the barrel of a pistol, and yours is the finger on the trigger. Contemplation spills away like an overturned chest of gold and his finger convulses. His father pitches over the poop deck’s edge as if overcome by the urge to take a casual dip in


the sea, but the sticky spray that blows back towards Philipe is not saltwater. From the lily-livered laggards of Liverpool to the ragged roustabouts of Rampanalgas, no new recruit folded into the frothing bosom of the seven seas scrubs more than a smattering of scummy decks before hearing the terrifying tale of a pirate so fearsome, so fey, that even the seagulls change course when his ships approach. Philipe the Ferocious, aka the Rapacious Revenger, aka the Scourge of Sainte-Croixe, captain of not one, not two, but three dreaded attack ships, so powerful, he commands all from one deck. Said to be more

bonny than Prince Felipe of Spain and more barbarous than the Mongol Khans, no man — or young lad — within range of his long guns has a prayer of escaping. The stories say he was once a man of purity and morals, inopportunely fathered by a notorious cutthroat. They say he would never have spilled a man’s blood in such base pursuits as greed or triumph. But when his true love was slain, all reason and rectitude left him, turning him into a patricidal ponce, a degenerate desecrator, a marauding monster. No matter if you are a man born between the silk-clad stockings of an aristocrat’s wife or the gut-splattered thighs of a fishmonger’s wench, there is no pain more piercing, no torment more tortuous than the loss of love, even if unrequitted.

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 17


Kevin Ritter Kevin Ritter is a high school senior in Cleveland, Ohio. Most recently, he performed a poem titled “11:9” at the 75th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He is a founding member of the Lakewood High School Pretentious Club, a ukulele enthusiast, and heavily involved in the performing arts. Follow his blog at http://www.kevinritter.blogspot.com.

On Damien Hurst One I dreamed that he was trying to come into our house, his hands clawing at the door ripping through the screen and trying to grab us. He wanted to kill us. We braced ourselves against the walls and prayed. Some say that it is romantic to die for art; it is not romantic to die for someone else’s art to be put in a vat of formaldehyde and be shown to the world as a spectacle. Damien Hirst wanted to put us in a vat of formaldehyde. He gave up on the door and broke the windows one by one throwing rocks through the glass which shattered raining sharp confetti from the walls pricking the sides of our faces. We curled up in the fetal position on the floor and looked out the window panic stricken; we could not see Mr. Hirst only the sky could which was red our hearts beat faster and faster and though we could not see him, we could hear him calling our names “kevin, rachel, come outside, come outside rachel and kevin.” and we could feel his breath on our necks like some grim reaper coming for us. coming to get us. Damien Hirst was going to make an art project out of us.

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Two At the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the contemporary wing, there is a piece of art by Damien Hirst on display. It is titled Bringing Forth The Fruits of Righteousness from Darkness. Essentially, it is a stained glass window similar to those that might be found in a Gothic cathedral. The difference is that the glass is made up of thousands of dead butterflies. I spent a long time standing by this piece and watching people look at it. One woman approached it, and she said to me “It’s beautiful.” I agreed. “But it’s kind of morbid, isn’t it?” “Well, they aren’t real. They can’t be real.” “They’re real.” She looked sad for a moment. Her hair was graying. She rubbed her hands together. I said “I really like watching people react to this piece. People take it so many different ways.” “I can imagine so. I’d like to see a child react to it.” Children don’t usually seem to register the fact that the butterflies are dead. They are more in awe of the scope of the work. They stand extremely close to the glass case and let the colors surround them. There was a large family that came by: a grandmother, her daughter and grandkids. One of the grandchildren looked horrified. “Are those real butterflies?”

The grandmother sniffed. “Of course they aren’t real.” The mother chimed in “No, they are.” The grandmother was horrified. “That’s just sick. That’s sick. Who would kill a bunch of butterflies like this?” “Well, it’s not like they aren’t going to die in a few days any way. And now they are forever immortalized in this piece of art. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Don’t you want to be remembered when you die?” “Not if it means I’m going to die prematurely. I just want to go about my life.” The grandmother folded her arms and went to look at some photographs that wouldn’t force her to grapple with mortality. I stood there for forty five minutes, watching other people deal with their mortality, and in doing so, grappled with my own mortality. When I go, I will not be immortalized in a Damien Hirst composition. He will not be so kind as to manipulate me into a Gothic stained glass window. I am left to leave my own legacy to this world. What people will remember me for I am not sure yet. All I know is that I want it to be as beautiful as the butterflies in the Cleveland Museum of Art. All I know is that I want some teenaged boy to absorb it and gain something from it. I want small children to walk up to it and stare at it and let their imaginations run wild. I want people to talk about it, most of all. I want someone to talk about it.

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Jacob Kaiser Jacob Kaiser is currently working away on his first chapbook. His work has been published in fourpaperletters and amphibious, recently accepted by Grey Sparrow Press to be featured in spring of 2011 and now in The Battered Suitcase. He currently attends Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and is working toward a master’s degree in English. Jacob can be reached at jacob.kaiser@hotmail.com.

The Aliens The aliens are coming to get us I heard her scream With her blue hair and matching eyes As she ran away from the stadium And the bright lights in the distance That blinked obnoxiously behind. First white, then yellow, then red And I think I saw a purple and a green. But what I didn’t see Was any alien chasing her. In fact, nothing was chasing her It was all in her head. How stupid she was Until I thought I saw an alien And ran away from those Obnoxiously blinking strobe lights. All to remind me that LSD can make a hypocrite out of any of us.

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Diner It was at this run-down diner, in the middle of everywhere,  Where I told her I loved her.

(She was right about me and my faithfulness to her and it almost killed me to admit it.)

At first, she laughed thinking I was trying to  pull some sort of joke on her. Then grabbed a cigarette from her purse and  inhaled deeply, stared into my eyes. Then exhaled.

After she left, The diner staff   Would look at me  With an ugly sneer,

She combed her fingers through her dark snake-like hair Reminding me of Medusa. If she had stared at her own reflection she would have turned to stone. I sat there quietly (Wearing the same shirt  from last night when I got too drunk  And fought another man  who was just as drunk and angry  as I was then) Waiting for her to say anything.

“I’m thirsty.”  I tell them. I knew right from the beginning She was going to hurt me. Just like I knew He was going to cheat on her And I would fall  right back on her again. “Would you like a refill?” The waitress asks me. “No, but I would like a bottle of your cheapest wine.”

“. . . I can’t . . .” She told me. “You could never be faithful to me.” In times like this, I would grab A chair and whip it across the room And watch it crash through the window Shattering it into a billion broken shards like shrapnel, after a bombing. But that didn’t happen.

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M.P. Powers M.P. Powers has poems published or forthcoming in Rosebud, The New York Quarterly, The Smoking Poet, Unlikely Stories, A Cappella Zoo, and many others. For more information, visit http://www.nyqpoets.net/poet/ mppowers.

nowheresville past midnight, in this dark room i inhale a cigarette and wonder where you are as a splintered piece of moonlight floats along the floor and climbs up my pantleg my nose is burning and i feel like lord alfred tennyson’s corpse caught in a pale dream i feel like all the dud fireworks in the world and i walk onto the balcony; it creaks below me, despair disguised as a dog is barking somewhere; a slender thread of purple smoke loops around my fingers, this silver cloud eats silently the moon as night drowns itself in darkness, i take another drag and wonder where you are

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Bucephalus, Etc. If your toilet’s stained with blood and your mind is a trash heap with seagulls flying all around it and you just spent your last six bucks on a bottle and an area rug with a tiger embroidered on it and you’ve got dirty bedsheets for curtains and your dog’s blind and the garbagemen are starting to look like FBI If all your dreams are about people stealing things from you, or serialkillers and you wake up in the morning, cigarette burns on your heart, hole in your lung, grandpa’s gold tooth on a chain about your neck and the sad face of humanity glaring back at you WHEN ALL YA WANNA DO IS CLIMB BACK IN THE WOMB and forget everything you know And forget about yourself AND LET YOUR POEMS BURN LIKE DEAD MAPLE LEAVES and let the foie gras fatten itself And start over again beginning at the part where her voice trips over your heart AND THE BULLHEADED DARK HORSES deep in you spring forth with elemental force because ya can’t be late if you’ve got nowhere to go and it’s never too late (to Mendelssohn . . .)

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Adam Russ Adam Russ has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, an economist, a high school math teacher, and currently as a full-time dad and part-time writer. His short stories have appeared in Paradigm and the Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, and have won awards from Writer’s Digest, The Baltimore Review, and New Millennium Writings. He has just completed his first novel. Adam lives in Davis, California with his wife and son.

Elevation

S

even pounds, 13 ounces — 19 and three-quarters inches long. I started out solid. I had prospects. After all, such figures placed me squarely at the 51st percentile for both height and weight in the newborn American male category. It was the last time in my life I have ever been above average. In the 30-some-odd years since the day of my birth, I’ve lost 50 and some change of those percentile points to my generational cohort. The fact that I’ve kept track into my 30s, well beyond the time when the human body reaches its full height, is a testament to my delusion that a growth spurt could be right around the corner. Some of us are just “delayed” or, my personal favorite, “grow to the beat of our own drummer.” Unfortunately, my little drummer boy lost his sticks at 4 foot 3 and I haven’t heard a note since. Don’t call me a midget, one of the little people, or a dwarf. And if I hear the words “vertically challenged” thrown in my general direction, I’m going to get angry. In the words of the mild-mannered Dr. David Banner, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” On second thought, I probably shouldn’t use The Hulk reference. The turning green thing coupled with my height can’t help but bring to mind leprechauns, and that’s not quite the image I was going for. I’m short. I can handle that. There’s no need to sugar-coat or pretend to ignore it. It’s a fact. I’m okay with it. It doesn’t define who I am. Well . . . actually it does. It defines every fiber of who I am and dominates all aspects of my life. It determines my career prospects, my friends, my recreational pursuits, and the women I never date. There you have it: work, social life, leisure, and love. What is that, like the trifecta plus one more thrown in for good measure? There’s this famous logic puzzle. Stop me if you’ve heard it before, but it goes something like this: A man lives on the top floor of a high-rise apartment 24 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

building. Each morning on his way to work, he takes the elevator to the bottom floor. In the evening, he gets back on the elevator, and, as long as others are on the elevator or it has been raining that day, he takes it directly to his floor. However, if he is alone and the weather was sunny that day, he rides the elevator half-way up, gets out, and walks the rest of the way up to his apartment. The challenge of the puzzle is to figure out why he does this by asking questions that can only be answered with a Yes or a No. I like most puzzles, but this isn’t one of them. It hits too close to home. After surviving 18 years in a rural Midwestern town, I moved to the city. It was liberating. Walking in the streets surrounded by skyscrapers a thousand feet tall, being a foot or two below the human norm loses some of its significance. Those towering structures were my savior from the corn-fed giants that walked the halls of my high school back home. I wanted to live in the highest building I could find. And so I do. I live on the 65th floor of an 82-story building that I call home. It wasn’t until I had been living there almost three months when it finally happened. Usually there are so many people waiting for the elevators that everyone has to squeeze to get on. Somebody near the buttons always asks “What floor?” In an otherwise mind-your-own-business-and-don’t-makedirect-eye-contact mentality, the “What floor?” gesture on a crowded elevator is one of the few acts of public civility that can consistently be relied upon in today’s urban environment. It was a Tuesday. I remember because I was thinking I had just enough time to put a pizza in the oven and have it ready before the opening theme music of my favorite TV show. Except for the tall doorman who always greets me with a private chuckle and a sardonic smile, as if my very existence is designed for his personal comic relief, the lobby was oddly


empty. I pressed the button to call the elevator and watched the numbers light up in descending order. The doors opened. A waft of perfume and two women who were mostly legs in my peripheral vision exited the elevator. I stepped inside and turned 180 degrees to face the closing doors. Like a well-disciplined soldier, the elevator car waited for further instructions. I took a step forward to the panel of buttons to find my floor. The 65 was out of reach. I stood on my tip-toes and stretched my hand upward, knowing that I wouldn’t be close. With the tip of my middle finger, I was just able to press the lower half of 41. The button glowed and the elevator began to rise. Using every ounce of my athletic skill and dexterity, I leaped into the air and managed with a single desperate smack to press both 43 and 45. It was the best I could do. You try jumping into the air on a rising elevator some time. It’s harder than you might think. Needless to say, after climbing 20 flights of stairs to my apartment, the pizza was not ready in time for my show. But that was the last 20 flights I’ve walked up. Humiliation is a cruel but thorough teacher. Now, I always carry an umbrella, no matter the weather. I’ve started seeing a therapist. Not seeing as in dating, but seeing as in paid visits. She’s really great. She listens to me. Although on my more cynical days, I can’t help but think that if I walked up to a stranger on the street and offered him a hundred bucks to listen to me for an hour, he could pull off a pretty convincing session. The most startling discovery I’ve gotten from my therapy sessions to date is that I have a fetish for the tops of people’s heads. Who knew, eh? Maybe it’s obvious to you, but I certainly didn’t see that one coming. A friend of mine once told me that city life is all about voyeurism — looking out at the next high rise to see what people are doing in assumed privacy. For me, however, the best view from my apartment window has always been straight down. I love the perspective and the way you can tell time by the flow and volume of the bustle below. Absent a pair of binoculars, which I find a bit creepy, from the 65th floor I can’t really see enough detail to feed my apparent head fetish, so when my therapist first brought it up, I had my doubts. But when she pointed out that I was a barber, which is true by the way — I’m a co-owner of a moderately thriving shop downtown — her case got a little stronger. Why did I start going to therapy in the first place, you might ask. Well, that’s the crux of the matter, I suspect. I think my therapist is hoping that if I just turn the faucet on and let the words flow, I will eventually get to talking about what happened that day. No, not the too-short-to-reach-the-buttonin-the-elevator day. What she’s after is the day my mind refuses to let me recall while awake, but gives free reign to torment my dreams each night. I can never remember the details when I wake up, but the flashes that linger are enough for me to wonder if I ever want to recall what happened. I could tell you the beginning and the end, but if you’ve

read the newspapers or turned on a TV anytime in the last few months, you’ve likely already got a good sense of those details. It’s what happened in the middle that I can’t seem to pin down. And somehow I know it’s what happened in the middle that matters. I’ve always lived my life under the radar, but now I find myself lit up like a beacon. My answering machine is always full. That’s a new experience for me. I haven’t heard Hal say the once familiar “No new messages” since before that day. I call any machine that talks Hal. Unoriginal, I know, but it’s what I do. The messages are from journalists mostly, from every major and minor newspaper, magazine, radio station, and television network under the sun. I never return their messages, but I don’t mind them. I realize the callers are just doing their job, serving up the fodder to feed the public appetite for the sensational story of the moment. It’s actually kinda funny to listen to the messages, one after the other. They are so similar, as if read from a script: “chance to tell your story,” “struck a chord in the hearts and minds,” “want to know the real you,” “what was going through your mind,” “what did it feel like,” “the horror,” “the tragedy,” “the hero,” “have you seen baby Chloe since?” It’s the calls from family members and friends back home who have never called me before that piss me off. What is it about proximity to celebrity that is so appealing? I use the word celebrity here in the loosest sense. I realize the attention will pass. I hope it does soon. I can’t go to work. I’ve tried, but each time I show up, the barber shop gets so crowded with people either constantly asking me questions or just staring at my every move that I can’t concentrate on the head of hair beneath me. Yes, beneath me. If you’re having a hard time picturing my 4 foot 3 frame at work, I’ve got a custom-built platform made of molded rubber 18 inches high that curves around the chair. I stopped showing up all together when my scissors snipped the ear of a long-time customer, almost severing his lower lobe clean off. It’s the blood on the blade that brings it back to me. Not at that moment, it didn’t. I was too shocked and embarrassed to do anything. Everyone in the shop gazed back and forth between me and poor Gordon, cupping his ear as blood ran down his neck. All noise seemed to stop. Even the incessantly chatty announcers on television, Mets versus the Phillies as I remember, didn’t seem to have anything to say. I apologized profusely and offered Gordon free haircuts for life. I’m not sure he’s going to take me up on that. I’ve heard the expression a flood of memories before, but never really experienced it until the image of the drop of liquid red against the shiny metal of my scissors released a rushing torrent of dark memories from the middle of that day. They overwhelmed me. I managed to make it to the back room of the barber shop and lock the door. I flipped off the light, curled up in a ball, and rocked back and forth for hours. I’ve had a little time to process it. I could never figure out Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 25


why I always cringed the many times I was referred to as a hero after that day. I initially thought it was just my inherent shyness or some sense of modesty. Now I know different. Here’s what I remember. Around 8:30 a.m., I was on the subway train headed to work. My stop is early enough in the route that, as long as I get on the last car, I can usually get a seat, but not always one of the ones I want. I was in a seat that faces backward, which always makes me a little nauseous. But, sitting backward in the last car of the train that day probably helped save my life. I remember swaying slightly back and forth as the train picked up speed through the tunnel. I was feeling bold that morning, so I had a pen in my hand hovering above the daily crossword puzzle thinking of a four-letter word for Cracker topper, third letter i. Monday through Wednesday, I can usually finish the Times puzzle before I reach my stop across town. Thursdays and Fridays take longer, and I often have a few errors and unsolved clues left over before I finally give up. The weekend puzzles — forget about it. They just make me feel stupid. Brie. Yuck — can’t stand the stuff. I started to write the word down but never got the chance to finish. The force was sudden and powerful — I am surprised anyone survived. We know now that debris on the track from a partial tunnel collapse caused the derailment. Like a kid playing with one of those plastic segmented snakes in the gift shop of every zoo, the cars of the train twisted, bounced, and buckled inside the tunnel. Experts say that the derailment itself was the cause of 15 percent of the fatalities. When I first heard those numbers, I thought, what kind of job prepares you for figuring that out and who the hell needs to know those details anyways? Apparently insurance companies do. One of the forward cars lurched upwards and slammed into the tunnel ceiling, which was already weakened from the partial collapse that had caused the debris on the track in the first place. Experts estimate that nearly 60 percent of the fatalities were caused by the several tons of concrete and earth that fell to the ground, bringing the wild ride to an abrupt halt. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell; my senses were assaulted by horrors I do not intend to describe. I don’t give a damn what reporters want to know or what my therapist says is good for me. There is a reason my mind hid this from me, and if I could, I would bury it forever. Every part, that is, except for the woman. Her daughter should know that part when she’s old enough — when she’s ready. We were trapped inside the car, blocked in on all sides. A frantic search by those who could still move revealed the only opening — a small hole through the car ceiling. The opening was jagged, rimmed with twisted metal. A man stood on the

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back of a seat and tried to force his way out, only getting his head and one arm through before cutting himself severely. Two more tried with similar results. Eventually they noticed me. They sized me up and told me to try. I didn’t want to. Fear had me frozen. Pleas turned to shouts. I was grabbed and hauled into the air. I dropped to the ground when I scratched the eyes of someone holding me. Before I had time to scramble away, I was in the air again and being shoved through the hole. The sharp metal bit into my shoulders and tore down my arms. After my body was contorted in ways I thought impossible and deeply lacerated, I found myself on top of the train looking down into the car. Some of the passengers looked up at me. Others would not meet my eye. At the time, I knew that despite my injuries I should feel glad, relief at having escaped. I was certainly in a much better position than they were. Instead I felt like an outcast; bitter resentment rose up in me. Angry, frightened, and in pain, I stumbled through the fallen tunnel to get help as I was ordered to do. A woman’s voice called me back. It was a hesitant shout, as if she were struggling with a terrible choice with little time to think it through. I peered back into the hole. The woman had climbed onto a seat back and was reaching her hands through the opening, holding out her baby. The child wailed and wriggled, causing the metal to savagely pierce the woman’s arms. She did not let go, but continued to use her arms as cushions to protect her child. I had no choice but to take the baby. I waited, expecting the woman to tell me what to do. She didn’t. The only thing she said to me was, “Her name is Chloe.” It was the picture that did it. You know the one. It has graced the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines the world over. There is all 4 foot 3 of me, bloody and covered in dirt, emerging from the entrance of the tunnel carrying a baby who has her arms wrapped fiercely around my neck like a favorite battered and abused teddy bear. If you didn’t know the truth, I guess it would look pretty heroic. Experts say that the remaining 25 percent of the fatalities were caused by asphyxiation and smoke inhalation from the fire that spread a few minutes after the crash. Other than “the little hero and the baby girl” no one else survived. Her dad has been very kind. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten several invites to family functions. He says he wants me to check in with them from time to time — to be a part of her life. I met them in the park a few weeks ago, and when she saw me, she latched onto my neck and wouldn’t let go for over an hour. When she looks at me with those big irises flecked with gold, it kills me. I went to her birthday party yesterday. Chloe is growing like a weed. She is going to be tall.


Aubrey Bemis Aubrey Bemis has a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington College, a master’s degree in humanities and social thought from New York University, and an all-consuming obsession with Tom Stoppard. Her work has appeared in The Prick of the Spindle and Woman Around Town. Aubrey is from Queensbury, New York.

A Smile In Dust

T

he front tire of my brother’s old bike — my bike now — is planted on the very last inch of dirt before the drop-off to the Hudson River, the roundest part of the wheel sticking out over nothing. The danger of the nothing swirls around inside my stomach and makes my arms tingle and my head light. The nothing wants me to come join it, but the rubber toes of the canvas summer sneakers my brother wore last year will not let me. They are dug into the ground like tent stakes keeping me anchored to the earth. Though my senses tell me not to, I want to pick up my feet. I imagine myself tumbling with my bike down to the river, as far away as the top of a telephone pole and nearly as straight a trip. Maybe I’ll drown today, and my brother can give his old stuff to the Salvation Army next time. I can’t think or I’ll get scared, so I let my feet go and pretend that they’re not mine. The bike jerks forward and every muscle in my body jerks back — some defiant reflex that knows I can’t swim very well. The mini-heart attack jump starts my nervous system, and I remember that the world is real. I reclaim my feet and focus my eyes on the far-down river water. I know this view absolutely. I take a few steps back from the precipice, lamenting my familiarity with it, and turn my bike to face Saratoga County Route 27. I am not lost. This morning I set out for obscurity, but every unknown road has led someplace familiar. Now, for the fourth time today, I find myself at the edge of the Hudson. It has followed me here from home. I think maybe I should follow it back, but it’s still too early. There’ll still be people out around the neighborhood on their porches. Sometimes, on nice Sundays like this, people spend all day sitting on their porches. They sip Kool-Aid and gossip with their tie-dyed tongues. They call to each other from porch to porch. They chatter, throw their heads back, and cackle. I hate their awful noise. They get quiet when I ride by on my hand-me-down boy bike. I hate them looking at me. Sometimes they even talk to me about things it’s polite to ask when you know someone’s

parents or when someone goes to school with your kids. Having to talk to other people’s parents is almost worse than having to talk to other people. If I could find some abandoned building to live in, no one would probably ever see me again. Especially not the neighbors. But not because they whisper to each other in their plastic lawn chairs about how sorry they feel for me, that girl down the street who they don’t imagine has any friends. At least, she never hangs around any of their daughters. They tell their daughters to be nice to her at school and not to make fun of her because it isn’t her fault she has to wear her brother’s old clothes. She’s probably embarrassed, they say. That’s why she doesn’t talk to other girls, or anyone, as far as they know. She’s embarrassed, not weird. They tell their kids it’s not polite to call me weird, but they’re not sure if they believe in what they’re saying. But I am not prompted by the neighbors’ false ideas of me to find someplace away from them. I am not motivated by untruths. The neighbors live around me, and think I’m someone else. They think I secretly want to read magazines about expensive dresses that I’ll make my parents buy for me to wear to Prom with some boy from around the block in a borrowed tux. We can squeeze into the back of some rented limo with a bunch of other kids and take poor quality photos of ourselves from arm’s length with our camera phones. They think I secretly want to be that kind of girl. They think I’ll admit it, one day, after I grow up a bit. They think I’d be like their daughters, if I could. They think I want to be friends with their kids, but that I am too quiet, or too shy, or too embarrassed that I’m wearing my brother’s old jeans. So they tell their kids to be nice to me. They tell them that I’m not weird, or that, if I am, I’d rather not be. It has never occurred to them that I think their kids are stupid. It has never occurred to them that I like these clothes, that I don’t really care about clothes, and that these are Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 27


comfortable and fine. They’d turn me into some lip-glossed girl, sprayed with flowery scents that would make bugs chew my skin off, wrapped up in a pastel sundress, if they could. It would get tangled and twisted and smeared with bike-chain grease, stop up the gears, and make me crash into a tree. I’d become paralyzed. Then I could sit still and watch reality TV until the world ends. That’s what they want — to make me be that kind of girl. I’m sure it hasn’t occurred to them that I think Prom is a waste of money or that I would be bored there because I hate dances. They probably think I want to go to dances with gooey eighth-grade boys in pants their moms picked out and dirty sneakers, who pour Pop Rocks into other people’s Cokes, or with a cluster of giggly, stupid girls in too-short dresses, who dance with each other. But, I am not those girls, and I will not be those girls, and I don’t want to be friends with those girls or with anyone. It hasn’t occurred to the neighbors that I just don’t really want friends because I like being alone and I like bike rides and other solitary activities. Nothing about me has ever occurred to them. I know what they think; they don’t think anything. But it’s not them; it’s their looks. I don’t care what they say, think, or do about me, but I just can’t stand their prickly eyes. Their eyes pinch at me and burn me, and shrink me, shrink me very small until I can’t find myself. I don’t know what the looks want from me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about them. I don’t know what is to be done about them except stay away. So, I stay away, especially on Sundays. There are too many eyes on Sundays. So, I take long bike rides to nowhere. I take my shrunken self and I claim it back and I try to get lost with it, away from them, and I look out for lost places where I can live and get lost inside. It’s not because of the neighbors; it’s because of their looks and all the judgment in their eyes. Their eyes send me down the streets and toward the river. Their looks throw me away, into the water. I resist the ease of the river and look away across the street. I wonder if the building I see there is abandoned. I’m sure it’s lost, way out here on the edge of nothing. I always look for lost places, but I hardly ever find them. Most places know just where they are, or else, I suspect, some places are so lost that even I can’t find them. Only a very lost person can find a very lost place, and, as lost as I am, as lost as I try to be, some places are more lost even than me. I never find those places, though I hear them calling, like neighbors from their porches. The building is an old warehouse of some sort, probably haunted by the ghosts of warehouse workers who were crushed to death by heavy wooden crates that fell from very high up. From here, I can see a sign on the front of the building that says Epic Ventures. I wonder what kinds of heroes have braved what kinds of perils in such a forsaken place. I know the place is forsaken. It is all alone. The building impressed with a legion of garage doors standing one next to another next to another and another. 28 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

There could be anything behind those garage doors. Behind most of them is probably just old furniture — maybe some boxes of things. Behind some of them, maybe, there isn’t even anything. But, I’m sure, behind one of them, there is a reclusive artist — maybe a painter. Maybe, he has painted the entirety of the inside of his space in the most beautiful painting imaginable that no one will ever see except for him. He wants it that way, I am sure. Suddenly, I have an overwhelming need to be inside a door. In one of these storage units, behind one of these garage doors, I will find a place that is not taken, and I will claim it as mine, and I will plant myself there and grow up. I begin to pedal slowly across the street without looking both ways, focusing on the building. I can’t think or I’ll get scared, so I let the building’s gravity pull me in. Before I realize that I’ve moved, I am standing before a long line of garage doors, my bike discarded in the dirt somewhere along the way. The first garage door I try to open is locked and so is the second. With each failed attempt, I begin to feel increasingly as though I’m full of popcorn, a new kernel bursting somewhere in me at each locked door, the grand finale impending with the rising heat, uncertainty, and threat of doorlessness. I think the building must not want me. It will not permit me in. I fear there is no place for me inside. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe the river is the only place for me. The river is still there, across the street. Its calm flowing promises call me back, but I push them away from my mind. I don’t want to know what’s real now. I imagine my brain waves creating a force-field around me, building a dam between me and everything to stop the thoughts from engulfing me, closing off airtight seals. What’s best is not to know what’s real. I beg the doors to let me in. I need to find an entrance. And something, maybe the need itself, finds me one somehow. At the end of all the garage doors, there is a regular, personsized door propped open with a rock. I approach the door with joyful caution, and I open it slowly to make sure nothing jumps out. I close it slowly behind me, too, so it doesn’t slam back into the rock and upset the silence. I don’t want to disturb the ghosts of the dead warehouse workers who have left the door open for me, to help me find my place here. The ghosts welcome me into a big, mostly empty room with a very high ceiling and creaky, wooden floorboards. I lightly roll each step from ball to heel to minimize the creak. The room smells like dust and mildew, and I think I sort of like it. I don’t worry about allergies or my pores becoming clogged and causing pimples, like regular girls who just land in their places without ever needing to look for them. The ghosts don’t judge me like those girls — the neighbor girls. Or like their parents. Or like my parents. They don’t notice that the shoulder seams of my t-shirt fall in the middle of my upper arm or how tattered the bottoms of my jeans are from being stepped on. I look for the reclusive artist. He is not at home, but I can see where someone might have lived here once. Maybe, a very


long time ago. There are remnants of a person scattered about the room, not the gory, horror movie kind, but just things left by people who are gone now. I feel bad for the things in the room all alone and abandoned, unwanted and out of use. I will claim the things as mine, hand-me-downs from the artist, like hand-me-downs from a brother. I will live here in the artist’s stead and this will be my place from now on, and these things will belong to me. There is a grimy, metal kitchen sink on the floor in the corner. It’s full of dirt and cobwebs and scratches from forks and knives being carelessly dropped into it. I think how strange it is that something that used to sanitize is so filthy now. Some family somewhere ate off of plates washed in this polluted sink. Some woman bathed her babies in it — her boy and her little girl. The girl, in a hasty ponytail, plunged her arm into its water to see what damage she had done, made the water murky with her blood, realized the tin can lid had not been sharp enough, wished it had straighter edges, was somehow glad it didn’t, wished she knew what else to do. When I live here, I will clean up the sink and use it for keeping things like books and extra socks. There is a heavy interior door leaning on its side against the wall. Maybe it used to lead to someone’s bedroom or their bathroom or their kid’s room, but now it just leads to the dirt on the floor. If it were up on its hinges, it would feel substantial to open and close, not hollow the way so many doors feel. It’s a door that could be slammed over and over without breaking. It was slammed, I suspect, by the mother, in frustration or by her boy, in carelessness or by her girl, in a scared and purposeful sort of way. I wonder if the girl slammed it on her way out of the bathroom where she bandaged her injury. Or, did she slam it on her way into the bedroom where she hid the tin can lid and her arm, long sleeved in August, and especially her thoughts, from her mother? When I move in, I will sleep under the door for protection from what’s out there. Near the sink, there is a desk made out of some kind of dark wood, missing all its drawers, but looking almost usable underneath the dust. I imagine the mom paying bills at the desk in the corner of the kitchen, unknowingly, while the girl cries on her bedroom floor. Or the girl herself, sitting down late at night after her mother and her brother have gone to bed, to write in her diary or in a note of explanation, or to do her algebra homework. I wonder how long the girl lasted, what happened to her after, and how her story came to live here in these objects. Maybe the ghosts here aren’t dead warehouse workers, but people whose things somehow came to be left here. Maybe the artist himself is a ghost who has arranged these things in a way as to make them look delicately abandoned, rather than cruelly piled or otherwise degraded. I make a smile in the dust with my index finger, and I hope the ghosts know it is meant for them. I do this because I want to appease the ghosts. I do not want them to have any reason not to want me. I want them to

know that I believe in their presence and that I plan to coexist with them here without bothering them. But I want the ghosts to be more than appeased. I want them to be happy. The ghost of the girl, in particular, I want to be happy, because we are so alike. I want to tell her we are so alike. I will be like her soon, a ghost of a girl too. I practically already am. And I don’t want her to need to dwell in the drain of the metal sink forever, and I don’t want to live in the river muck. I want to tell her that I don’t judge her, but that I will be her secret friend. I will live here and be her friend, even if ghost girls like us don’t need anyone. I know what she knows because we are the same, and I know that we need one another. I just want her to be happy, and happy with me. Happy because of me. Happy that I’m here as a friend and not an intruder. I realize now that, without knowing why exactly, I love the ghost somehow, like we are ghost sisters, and I need her to love me back. The ghost girl accepts the smile I’ve given her and makes a gesture back to me. It is a message in an empty bottle that I find on the floor and hold up to my ear because she tells me to. If seashells retain the voice of the sea, I imagine that empty bottles retain the voices of their emptier. I know her voice is in the bottle, but it does not speak to me. So, I study the linguistics of her silence, and I understand because I’m fluent. She tells me something she’s never told anyone, but I don’t know what it is in words. Even so, I can feel it and it feels reassuring. She trusts me and loves me like I love her. The silence in the bottle leads me to a hallway off the side of the room, containing more doors, but not garage doors this time, just regular doors on regular height walls that don’t reach halfway to the ceiling. It scares me because they do not belong here in this place for things past. They look too much like the walls of someone’s house, not like the sideways door the ghost girl slammed and left here for me. They stand up straight, still able to be slammed. They have not ended. They are right now and in progress. They do not belong to ghosts like the girl and me. The living are intruders here. They have come and stirred the dust and killed its peace and perfect stillness. Why has the ghost girl’s silence brought me here? To remind me that I’m living? To spite me for being real? Has she brought me here to tell me I don’t belong to the same world as her? That she won’t have me living here with her? No, the ghost girl loves me. The ghost girl will not hurt me. She only wants some sympathy. I think, she only wants to share the sadness and to show me what the living have done to her place. How horrible of them to do this to her, to make a hall of walls, doors that open and close like her door doesn’t. How horrible of them to bring life here to her resting spot. Can’t she have this one place? I suddenly understand why she must haunt the sink drain and not wander. Even here, it is all that’s hers. She’s earned that and nothing else. And maybe she means for me to know that all that is to be mine is the river and nothing else and not Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 29


even that. That there will be boats and swimmers and that they won’t ever know I was there. That they won’t even care. I discover one open door in the hall. It leads into a bathroom. There is a sink in the corner, standing and real. It is made of the bulky, round-edged ceramic that is sometimes found in old houses or at camp grounds that were built before ceramic was so modernly streamlined. I approach it and try the cold handle. The handle shrieks when I pull it towards me, and rusty orange water sluggishly pumps through the old pipes into the thick ceramic basin. I imagine the water being forced up from the river bottom and being sucked up through pipes and pushed and pulled and treated with chemicals to come out the faucet all metallic with the trivial, ordinary minerals that make socks dingy in the washing machine. I imagine myself on the bottom of the river being filtered through the things that purify and dripping, drop by drop, into the sink and down the drain and back into the river again. I think of the ghost girl standing at the sink, repeating, miming, repeating. Over and over. How? How? How did she come to do this? Over and over. Cutting, cutting. Had she? Did she drain all her life away? I know what she knows, and she doesn’t know this. This is the thing she doesn’t remember. An important thing, but sometimes she doesn’t know what is real. She’s put her actions back together so many different ways that she doesn’t know which one’s real. She doesn’t usually want to know which memory is real. I think of her blood draining as she mimes. She is part of the water. I cannot stand to think of her only as water. She mimes and mimes, and I want to stop her and pull her away from the sink. I want to stop her and tell her no. I want to slap her, break her trance, force her to become aware of herself and of the world. Where are you going? Where are you going? I want to ask her where she thinks she’s going. Down the drain, she says. I tell her no. I tell her it’s dark in the sink drain. No light. Dark and terrifying with no way back. There is no way back. But, the ghost girl, I realize, would not enter this bathroom. It is real like the house walls. It is one of the places that has been taken from her, like every place but the metal kitchen sink on the floor in the corner of the big empty room. This place is real, and I could live here with myself, away from everyone, but I would not be lost. You can’t be lost in someplace real, not in the way that cools you from the inside and makes you

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calm and light because you don’t know who or where you are. Reality makes you feel yourself and admit that you exist in your brother’s old clothes on your brother’s old bike, as undeniably present as the Hudson River. I have the terrible thought that the world of the ghost girl might not exist at all. What if the ghost girl doesn’t exist at all? What if, whether she is real or not, whether she has died or not, the ghost girl is nowhere? There is no one else, and I am alone. What if the ghost girl fell into the sink, was sucked down the drain, and that was the end of her story? What if I end at the bottom of the river? The most awful thought is that I will end. I will achieve the bottom, finally lost, and I will not be. I will stop, not lost with myself, as I want to be or lost away from others, but lost even from myself and gone. What if I’m gone? Where will I be when I’m gone? I am not a ghost girl. I am a real girl. I can’t escape that I’m a real girl because reality is like the river, following me until I veer off somewhere unknown, losing me, and somehow finding me again. Somehow, reality always catches up. Reality is fast. It spins around my head, blurry and inexplicable. People slide by and try to pull me along with them to the places they think I should go. People push and pinch me with their arms and with their eyes, and I just can’t stand their looks. I’m a real girl who knows more about ghost girls than real girls, who is a ghost girl, who wants to be a ghost girl, who doesn’t want to exist, who is afraid of not existing, whose life is imaginary, whose friends are made up, who doesn’t have friends, who doesn’t want friends, who can’t relate to friends, who needs something, maybe someone. Who wants to be someone. Who isn’t herself. Who’s wearing someone else’s clothes, who’s riding someone else’s bike. Who isn’t sure there is a her at all. What if she doesn’t exist at all? But, I want to exist. I want to be someone. Not a neighbor, not a Prom queen, a me. A real me. Not a fairy tale, happily ever after me. A happy right now me. A happy with myself and because of myself me. This morning I set out for obscurity, expecting to find myself among the lost things, but every road led someplace I’d been. I was me everywhere I went. Without the neighbors, without the judgments, I was always me. Even when I tried to give myself away. The ghost girl gave back everything I gave her, and I could not get lost. I gave a ghost girl a smile in dust, and she gave it back to me in a bottle. She said, keep it. It’s you.


Mihaela Tudor Mihaela Tudor is an English lecturer at the University of Hail, Saudi Arabia, teaching a course on technical report writing. Her goal is to motivate students to use their skills in the scientific area, helping them to develop the taste for research. She has also been interested in exploring cross-cultural environments through direct interaction within the educational arena, experimenting new ways of life and trying to identify what can bring union in terms of ideas, beliefs, customs and traditions between different cultures.

Les Reveries D’Un Promeneur Plus Solitaire

W

hy was I to come back this time? The bridge was in front of me but I couldn’t see its end, its purpose, couldn’t hear its message; so, I thought, there was just a bridge in front of me, leading to the same place, but, at the same time, to nowhere, feeling that this pointless journey, with no desired expectations, was not meant to make me better, but a turning point to chaos, solid emptiness and graceful spiritual motionless. Seeking for new worlds, embellishing life with dreams, going deep inside and show gratitude towards the universe for a single instant lived in the shade of different visions — I was done with all these; I was done with me, marching through lonely towers, connecting them to myself with ribbons of the so-called hope, and done with all the rest belonging to the Other; done with the garden; done with the bird; done with the wind, carrying into the skies my whispers that had never heard anyway. A thorn of a rose, then many more, grabbed my green dress, trying to hold it back and, probably, tear it apart; take it, make nothing of it, and I took it off, in the middle of this darkness, with no moon, no candle, and no eyes. Get everything you want from me, may it be you, nature, or you, man, then leave me alone, if I am not worthy to bear your bonds. There was one more thing to do — to be done with writing if I wanted to be safe from any outside opinion, idea, look of interest, critic of any kind, and feeling of any sort. I was thinking of old beggars, waiting in humble silence for a coin, looking at that dirty hat in front of them, empty as the crater of an extinguished volcano, but full of memories coming as if they had belonged once not to them, but to someone else, those pictures with families and all the other loved then, smiles and cries of joy or sorrow, hopes, dreams . . . then I saw coming out of the hat disappointment, lost illusion defended up to the end — actually the only things I could feel alive there — distress coming out from misunderstanding, wrong choices, lived instants of exotic beauty, charming faces who

never believed in the bearer of the hat — I was seeing all these gifts that make a real world more real, ugliness more ugly, materialism stronger and love more inexpressive and selfish. Truly, I wanted to be a beggar too, but not at the end of my life, at that precise moment of my thinking. I didn’t want to be the one throwing the coin without a word, without giving a minute of his life to look into my eyes and see if the coin was that I really wanted; many would say it is too dangerous to show too much affection to a beggar, because it turns against you and he might kill you. So what? Isn’t it more dangerous to fear everything, then, when you believe that you’ve reached a sea and get ready to jump you jump in nothingness? Of course, this world of mine was not to believe in death paid in exchange for a smile and a kind word, but my world was not theirs; my world was to be given — theirs was to never be touched; my one was to vibrate, their one was to be measured; therefore, I’ve given up mine and the quest for theirs as well, staying naked in this darkness of the landscape, not thinking, not remembering, not fearing . . . how could I have felt fear when all had disappeared so fast? All I knew was that I had to come back and took this duty as a new call — although I hated the presence of this new as implication of a such impersonal word to me, like all the taken advice to open the eyes to all new possibilities . . . . There aren’t any new possibilities, we create them through what we feel and what we are; there’s nothing there new waiting to best hit you so you can get the impression that you’re living an extraordinary thing; there s nothing that awaits you, stepping forward like a king to get it from the branch of a tree or the plate of a beautiful mermaid, no, there’s nothing like that; you can get only what you work for, you give then you get — don’t forget the rule — so, all I knew about was this return and I only saw it as a return, in the most direct and immediate meaning! By the way, thank you world, for being the way you are!

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Rebecca Schumejda Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Falling Forward, a full-length collections of poems (Sunnyoutside, 2009), The Map of Our Garden (Verve Bath, 2009), Dream Big Work Harder (Sunnyoutside, 2006), The Tear Duct of the Storm (Green Bean Press, 2001), and the poem “Logic” on a postcard (Sunnyoutside). She received her master’s degree in poetics and creative writing from San Francisco State University and her bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from SUNY New Paltz. She can be found at www.rebeccaschumejda.com. Falling Forward and Dream Big, Work Harder are available on Amazon.

Disembodied Gardening As I straddle a row of carrots, I unearth a plastic doll head with long, blonde, dirty dreads, and features dull like beach glass. Behind the corn I find one arm missing several fingers; by the snap peas the other. I suspect a brother, a rusty shovel a ransom note, and a sister who disregarded keep out signs. When I look at my wilting tomatoes, I imagine the torso below, obstructing the path of the roots. The sister’s tears, the search party, only two legs recovered, a trip to the store for a replacement doll. As I dig out several onions, I consider their lives now, twenty years later, the brother an attorney or butcher; the sister a social worker or psychiatric patient.

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Shannon Cavanaugh Shannon Cavanaugh is stay-at-home mom of three little boys. In between wiping their various body parts and playing helpless animals in their games of “Predator & Prey,” she blogs at http://themildlyinterestingcaseofbanana.blogspot.com. She has a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and has worked in human resources, corporate training, and records management. Shannon is also a dancer, having taught and performed her whole life. She has always loved writing, but only recently acquired the courage to call herself a writer. Shannon has read amazing poetry at The Battered Suitcase for a long time and is thrilled to have her first published poem appear here.

Valium they all need something now desperately pieces of me resolve. I can do this for love (with coffee, Prozac and wine) beautiful faces give me glow passion (resentment) pure hearts give me love life (guilt and shame)

fine. I’ll keep mine my coffee my prozac my wine sigh. and she thought I was joking (but I wasn’t joking) when I told her I’d have her valium just you know only if she wasn’t going to use it

breathe. I can do this for love (with coffee, Prozac and wine) oh shut up so you’re better than me so you don’t yell (or scream sometimes) so you do it without coffee, Prozac and wine

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Jaap van der Wel The career of the Dutch artist Jaap van der Wel can be divided into three periods. Until the mid-eighties his life and work was dominated by political activism and the social relevance of art. In 1985 he decided to break away from the art scene, preferring to work as an outsider and make a statement about the human condition. The introduction of the computer opened a whole new range of opportunities, which he eagerly explores and exploits: digital visuals, multimedia and social networks. However, painting and drawing remain the basic essence of his art. Visit him online at http://www.wix.com/jaapvanderwel/jaap-van-der-wel.

Hello

34 â–Ş The Battered Suitcase â–Ş Spring 2011


Gallerie Imaginaire

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On Stage

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Black Angel

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Captured Souls

The Way It Is

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Goodbye

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Nath Jones Nath Jones writes in deference to existence. Her work calls attention to the subconscious acts of our lives. In 2011, she will finish an MFA in creative writing with a fiction emphasis at Northwestern University. Her writing has mainly been offered in unpublished forms. But recently, her short stories have appeared in From the Edge of the Prairie and PANK magazine. Her poetry debuted in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. An article of hers was published by Sailing World, and she was a guest blogger for Jane Friedman’s online publication, There Are No Rules.

Limbic Resonance: Responses To A Match.Com Questionnaire I Me? You know how some women have those really nice sitting rooms? With the Ethan Allen furniture and the Anderson windows that open out so that, theoretically, you can clean them on a regular basis? You can hear that Windex squeaking in circles, which dissipate to some untraceable ethereal cleanliness, right? You know how some women vacuum their stairs — those soft almond carpet stairs? You can see the stripes like lawns, right? Some wifely halo throbs with surging current and flickers neon in the mind’s eye. Well, but I’m not really like that. I have a plywood sitting room with no furniture where long-lost friends come and do gymnastics well into their thirties. I’ve got mirrors, which breathe bright finally after years’ dark storage box. I’ve got shine and mercury light filling up this column-spine. II Who I’d like to meet? Dear Lord no more glaciers, and please God, no more rocky white waters. Any other emotional current? Yes. Of course I can handle it. In fact, repress away! I’ll rout you out and express enough for the both of us. So hit me with your best shot. Part of me wants to overcome this “addicted to the thrill ride” part of my intimate life. I know it’s pathologic. I know it’s divisive. It’s a cycle of heart-break, a norm of defeat. But where would I be without the constant devolution? My ego might shatter. The police state might start taking hold right in my individuated revolutionary tummy. Still, I’ve had all the lovers with all the drama, and yes, it does seem to breed an insurmountable sort of instability — seems befitting, artistic. Some manifest agony, preposterous, if consummate evidence of an insidious disrespect for others. I have learned that nothing comes of it — that people can get hurt, that nothing lasting exists in constant resonance. I’ve learned a lot. 40 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

You can’t extract expression of emotional undercurrents. But you know what? I’ll tell you what. Come hell or high Freudian dreamscape crazy-water, I love sublimation and evaporation and condensation and thunderstorms. I love believing in the purity of an aquifer. I love rivulets trickling through bedrock into silent secluded streams, cleaving cliffs. I love rivers on a sunny day moving quick. I love the immensity of oceans. And, Honey, I love those mighty unmoving waves in the bowels of the earth. So, whatever I’ve learned from the men I’ve failed to love, surf ’s up! See you in the pipe. III Do I want what? Who knows? Maybe. (Blind Faith enters stage left dressed in a fad of Transparency!) I suppose the main problem is that I don’t want my children to have me for a mother. This creates a secondary problem wherein the logical choice is for me to become someone other than me, in order to have children, so that I can be their mother. That’s what my mother did. But it seems illogical, irrational even. That’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t last in accordance with its inherent value as much as it finds a pocket in you somewhere to burrow down in real safe. That’s the kind where you find yourself breathing real slow, staving something quiet off. There is no way out of this bamboo trap — not having children does not solve the syllogism. IV How? Seriously? Isn’t that sort of rude? Well if you must know, Introvertigo. Extrovertigo. I come and I go. How do you do it? On Wednesday mornings with the light pouring in through slatted blinds? Isn’t that sort of trite? I do it. I do it skin fine with tree-frogs starting to sing when the shower-timers go off in their cages at four a.m. in the back room of some well-


remembered trailer. There waves in the aquifer. Do I want to surf the submersion? Yes! Of course! Let’s stand up, crawl into the windows behind the bed and lie there naked precarious on the sill with our haunches pressed against the glass, the hair on your thighs matted with sweat, the mounded portions of my body cooling down against that pane after exertion. Why do you ask? Why does it matter? Caress me wild, free, hostile, unending and sweet, if you want. Or not. You don’t have to. Probably something sensual of a youth gets lost in the morass of a long-term union. But I also see your point. It seems there must not be waves underground — no wind where hushed minds near a personal heart, when bodies and glass rest together. Can’t be any kind of motion there — grudges belie

the intimate. Probably instead of raking your wrist gently some black and white blind stills of lost moments corroborate down there with stalactites and the torturous drips, so slow. Introvert, I go. Extrovert, I go. Silent. Probably it calcifies, and the surfers get bored waiting for conditions to change. Probably waves that do get started panic underground for whatever reason, sealing themselves off from a fumbling undulation, and just escape what’s possible. V No, I’m not doing anything this weekend. What do you want to do, split a milkshake? You can have the cherry.

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Nathaniel Kressen Nathaniel Kressen is a Brooklyn-based writer. His plays include When Someone Finds You, Empathy in the Rape Farm, Incomplete and Beautiful, and Five Years to the Day. They have been performed and workshopped at PS 122, Soho Rep Walkerspace, the American Globe Theatre, Alive Theatre (CA), The Source Festival (DC), Longwood University (VA), Old Armory Theatre (ND), Connecticut Heritage Productions, Prophecy Productions, The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is at work on his first novel, titled Jumper’s with the Gypsy. Nathaniel can be found at http://www.NathanielKressen.com

Zero Hour Heathrow

T

he clocks all read 00:00. If I had a camera, I would record this moment. There are fellow squatters, expatriates and general lowlifes all around. There are no flights set to depart for hours. We have camped down in Heathrow for our own reasons. I doubt anyone will share. I will share with anyone who asks. I have killed my sister, and she is being sent home to America in a box. My parents will meet us at JFK. I can recall the city though I haven’t been there for some time. Years. Perhaps months. The days pass in flashes now, and I have trouble stringing them together. I do not miss America. It may have been good to me, but Europe gives me what I deserve. The lack of welfare makes people take ownership of their mistakes. I can recognize some mistakes but not others. Everything is done with the best intentions. There is a family here with two small children. They are curling up like fetuses around the cold steel rails of the arm chair benches. These are designed to prevent people splaying themselves out. Nevertheless it happens. Others are on the floor. I am on the floor. I plan to stay here until dawn, wrapped in a sort of circle where my head disappears in my knees. The air conditioning is turned up. It’s the dead of winter. Or so I thought. It’s impossible to be sure in England. It’s a country caught in perpetual despair. It might be summer. But there was an occasion for her visit. New Year’s? That would make it winter. It’s rain regardless of the season. The air is unbearable. People get up and bow their heads into their chests. They have given up. I will stay lying here all night. I get up. I look out the window. There is purple light bathing the sidewalk below. Three backpackers smoke rolled cigarettes. I try to imagine their names. They come much too easily. Maybe I’ve met them before. They come from money but try to hide it. They have a glow. I had a glow. I fought to put it out. There was a dank afternoon I realized I’d done it. That it had been extinguished some time. I wonder how long I didn’t notice. The tall one is Roger from Delaware. He has opinions. The

42 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

other listen patiently if not attentively. The fat one is Paulie. His beard could have lice in it. His shirt pictures Scrappy Doo eating an ice cream cone. The girl’s Sandy. I see her and smell orange-flower water. I taste the chalk of thick foundation. I remember dreads tangled with the musk of marijuana. She has zero makeup now. I hear myself telling her I like it that way best. Don’t get involved. Bad things happen when you commit. The minutes are clicking closer to departure. If my father comes to the airport, he will want to hit me. But he won’t in front of strangers. He won’t in private either. He’ll stomach it and let the anger eat away at his insides. He’ll let the acid kill him rather than give in. I killed my sister, they said. My mother said. She’s crying in the suburbs now. They demanded my flight information. They will be there. I want to run but there’s the box somewhere to think of. She was taken in a van and put onto a belt and pulled into the bowels of this ugly place. My sister Lilian is decomposing. I wonder if preservation methods are different here from the U.S. I inhale deeply and try to sniff embalming fluid. There is nothing there. The kids outside still smoke. It cues memories of hostels, restaurants, bars, borders, customs, trouble, getting out of trouble, letting fate take its course, getting lost, finding dirt, sitting in dirt, sleeping in dirt, sleeping in a red light window, sleeping in a grass bed off the Rhone, sleeping with Sandy. Cut off. No memories. Move on. Don’t get involved. A baby cries and cues my move from the window. They shouldn’t be here. They should find a hotel. The child is furious. There’s whiskey in my pack. I pull out clothes to find it. It’s gone. I must have drunk it. Maybe that night in the bar. Did I share my whiskey with Lilian? It must have been a peace offering. She bought drinks if I remember. And when the bar closed, I offered the bottle. We sipped on sidewalks. Grey ones, not purple. She cried. I caused it. I said something I shouldn’t. We drank much too much. We passed out on the sidewalk. I woke to the insane traffic patterns. She never woke at all.


What was said? Why did she come? There must be answers. The people here are all sleeping. They’ve returned to the ground out of desperation. A couple spoons against a wall. I will them to wake up and start at it. I watch them breathing from my perch above. I am close. I want to touch them. I want to say whatever it is that makes sense to people in such times of simplicity, sincerity. I lost that in the search for something louder. Maybe I never had it to begin with. There are no workers around. I eyeball in every direction. I sniff for embalming fluid. I call out her name but my voice is hoarse. I find a doorway and go down a flight of stairs. I am a spy. I glance around corners without caution. I dash for cover at lightning fast speed. At times, I walk. Other times, I sit as still as a statue. Splayed out in the middle of a corridor where any moron could find me. I wish someone would. I am lost. There are piles of dead bodies upstairs but not the one I need. I need direction. I need the warmth of a woman. I start out for Sandy. If she is returning to America, she will be on my flight. There can only be so many. There is not a soul alive. Or I am dead. One or the other. If I reach this bend and Sandy is there, then there is hope. I turn the corner, and there is nothing. I look at the signs, but they are foreign. I knew this language once. I was my language. I wrote privately but well all the same. One professor saw it. Said if I cleaned up, I might have something. Cleaned myself up, I know now. At the time, I thought he meant typographical errors. It was a story of a man and his horse lost in the desert. The water is low, and one must die. He feeds the water to his horse. And he dies on the crest of a hill overlooking a city he doesn’t have the strength to reach. I am outside bathed in purple. I don’t understand. This is the way of telling there is no life inside this building. No departures. No arrivals. No commodities. Only sleeping corpses of all ethnicities laid out in a staggered snoring rainbow. I have opinions of most races. Not negative necessarily. Just observations I feel hold truths. I am sure I inspire thoughts myself. Or I am invisible. Walking now, I am the last man alive after an apocalypse. I want to join the rest. I want to reach the town. But my throat is closed and the desire for release proves stronger. Sandy is nowhere to be found. Maybe I imagined her. I sniff for fluid and return to hunting for my lost sister. I never saw her dead. She looked fine to me. Just silent. She was loud but could have lost her voice. She is alive. There is no funeral on Sunday. There is no reason to return to America. It is too young a country to hold corpses. Europe is drowning in them. I am at home. I sleep on monuments. I speak to the great figures of history. I awake forgetting if they answered me or not. I don’t speak often. When I do I do it softly. It nonetheless proves hurtful when I don’t receive a response. I am in the muck now. Somehow I have passed unnoticed to a chain link fence and slipped underneath. My fingers are torn and bleeding. I must have dug into the ground. I reach

for my back. and it is raw. Long, infected scratches the length of my spine. I choke on a lump in my throat. The nerves have killed me. Lilian is young by two years. Was young by two years. She topped me in all categories except imagination. I love her. Loved her. She was flawed and jealous and perfect. She could have won medals, awards, acclaim. She was on the road. But she thought I had some secret and wanted in. She drank herself into a frenzy that night, dropping sterling after sterling on the bar, demanding that I focus, demanding an explanation. How could I disappear? What did I find? The questions were impossible to answer. She drank more. We left the bar at closing and took to the streets to drink whiskey. I welcomed the occasion. I had never seen her lose control before. I tried to comfort her. I did not want her to feel pain. I willed my heart to swell with heat amid the rain and encompass us both. When I woke, her skin was cold. I am on the tarmac. The sun is rising, and I see life stirring all around. Trucks are moving. The windows are lit. Men in vests glow in the cracking dark. There is no reason I should be allowed here. I am invisible. I have always been. I have killed someone who could be seen. Should have been seen. Should have been acknowledged. Her light’s been plugged up. Put out. Left to rot in some basement in a country full of monuments. There is a plane arriving. I center myself on the tarmac and debate if I should lie down or stand. I try one. My back screams against the asphalt. I stand. The wind is cold and somehow getting colder. I weather it. The roar approaches. I force myself to think of Saturday morning cartoons. Taking her to Junior Prom. Waking in the ER and having her at my side. She was my constant. I killed the best thing about myself. The plane is five hundred yards off. Four hundred. My ears are bursting. The fluid in my head is boiling. The plane is pulling close now, and I’m screaming. I can’t hear myself. I am deaf. I am dying. The wheels are out and heading straight for me. Thank God I wore black. Thank God they can’t see me and rip me from my spot. Thank God I’ve already checked her in for this morning’s flight. She deserves to go home. I’ve chosen exile, and I mean to see it through. The plane is a hundred yards off. My eyes are tearing. I am calling her name. I’m coming. I’m coming. I’m coming. I am knocked back on the pavement. The wind pushed through me, and the wheels have missed. I am shocked and dead for a moment and willing someone to find me. No one does. I stagger to my feet and return to my hole under the fence. The purple lights have all been extinguished. There is commuter traffic now. I bump into someone, and they curse at me. I welcome it. I am glad to have made contact. I find my luggage untouched inside. As I reach my seat, a familiar voice calls my name. There is Sandy. She looks beautiful in the light of dawn. I take cue from her smile and embrace her. I sob without hesitation. She doesn’t push me away. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 43


Kate Lu Kate Lu, a native New Yorker, is currently a student majoring in English and creative writing at The George Washington University, where she is also the fiction editor of the G.W. Review. When she’s not writing, she enjoys taking epic walks around Washington, D.C., and sassing people. Her work has previously appeared in Sillymess. She can be found at http://www.sadisticicecream.deviantart.com

The Thinnest Threads

I

was one of the last people to see her alive. It was almost humiliating when the police called me in for questioning. Relationship to the deceased? One night stand. Oh. Yeah. It was a long night. And even after I got out of the station and began stumbling home in the early morning light, I couldn’t shake the feeling — that jumpy, gut-twisting feeling of anticipation, like you just might pop out of your skin. Which is why, when I got home, I couldn’t fall asleep. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, not quite breathing in the still air of the hot July day, thinking. Wondering. What had she been thinking in those few moments before it ended? And who was she, really, anyway? There’s not much that one can gather from one night of — right. (I can’t even think the word. Suddenly, I’m thirteen again and sex is still very, very funny.) I rolled over onto my side and glanced at the clock; it was nearly 6:30. I gave a little muffled groan and then sat up. That excitable feeling was ramming away at my insides, insistent and persistent. It didn’t just move; it spoke. And it asked for answers. I can feel his eyes on me, sitting a little ways down the bar. I purse my lips and sip at my drink, trying to ignore him. I don’t need this, not right now. I flinch when he comes to sit near me; the motion makes the ice in my glass clink noisily. He notices. “Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says disjointedly, suddenly nervous. “Er — you probably don’t remember me, do you?” I turn around to look at him now, and at first, I don’t think I do. “Are you sure you have the right person?” I ask him dryly. It’s not like that line hasn’t been tried on me before: I think I know you from somewhere, have we met before . . . ? “Well, I was sure,” he says weakly, the joke falling flat. Then he tries to make his face more serious. “I uh. I sat next to you in English, junior year of high school. It’s me — it’s Ed.” 44 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

I blink. The memory doesn’t come to me right away, swimming away behind my eyes. “Ed . . .” I murmur, trying to place him. He gives a half-sigh, half-laugh. “Well I suppose I wasn’t the most memorable kid ever. Look, sorry for bothering you, I s’pose I’ll just go now —” As soon as he says those words, I remember. Self-effacing Ed. “Edgar? Are you really — My God, you haven’t changed a bit!” “Could have fooled me,” he mutters. I laugh at this. “Jesus, what’re you doing in a place like this?” I ask. “I could ask the same of you,” he says, grinning now. He reveals a single chipped tooth, and I know for sure that it’s him. “Sit down,” I say. “Tell me about yourself.” He does. “Let me buy you a drink,” he says. I guess that it isn’t quite right to call her a stranger; I did know her once, though briefly and faintly. For me, she was that girl — you know, the one you want, the one you can’t have. The one you fall into puppy love with from afar and never really get to know. I’ll be honest: Once upon a time, we lived on the same block, although we might as well have lived on different planets. We sat next to each other in English and spoke hardly a word to each other. Different universes — ones that I’d once hoped would merge. They never did. We left for college on the same day, and I had not seen her since. Until that night, of course: two perfect strangers in a bar. It was like a horrible premise for a B movie. These thoughts made it impossible to sleep. I dragged myself into the tiny kitchen and made myself a pot of coffee. I sat on the cracked counter, sipping at it, burning my lips, thinking. Contemplating. Carly Cooper. The name sounded funny when I said it aloud, and I instantly felt foolish. Carly Cooper. I’d never expected to see her again, and now, I never would.


The uneasy sensation continued its sadistic dance in my stomach, and the boiling hot coffee wasn’t helping. It was like stage fright — an anxiety that felt like a sack of rocks had just been dropped into my gut, real and surreal all at once. There was that, and there was the guilt. Guilt. At not knowing. Feeling like I had taken advantage, knowing, under the circumstances, that I hadn’t. Not knowing who she was, really, not even now, knowing what I had done. What we had done. I gulped down the rest of my coffee, scalding my throat in the process, and hauled myself off the counter. I headed back to my room to dress. I needed to move, or I would drown in that confused muddle of feeling. And I needed to figure things out. “I’m going to assume that you don’t always do this,” I say to him, between sips of the drink he’s just bought me. “Do what?” he asks. “Go to bars. Pick up girls. Buy them drinks.” He sputters. “Oh God, if you think that’s what I’m pulling —” “I don’t!” “Really.” He gives me a wry look. “Well, all right, a little bit,” I admit, laughing. I can’t remember if he used to be this funny. I don’t think I’d ever heard him say more than two words at a time before. That was a long time ago, I remind myself. He’s a different person now. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint,” he says. “So what have you been up to, anyway?” I ask. He shrugs. “School, mostly. Law.” I raise my eyebrows. “Impressive.” “I suppose.” He smiles. “But what about you?” “This and that,” I say. “I just can’t seem to find anything that I like to do. Not any more, anyway.” “I remember that you used to say that you wanted to be an artist. A painter.” I snort at that. “That was a long time ago.” It seems to be the catchphrase of the evening. “What happened?” “Real life happened.” He doesn’t say anything, just stares at the table, lost in thought now. The buoyant mood of the happenstance meeting has faded. I feel a bit like a murderer. He opens his mouth to say something, but at that moment, there is a sudden, loud crash from the back of the room. All heads turn, taking in one hulking man standing over the table he’s just knocked over, as well as another man lying on the floor in a pool of liquor and broken glass. “Let’s get out of here,” Ed mutters, taking my hand and leading me away. My mother was surprised to see me on her doorstep. Visits were usually restricted to Christmas and Mother’s Day. “Ed? What on earth are you doing here?” she asked, stunned. She peeked out of the space between the mostly closed door and the doorjamb like I was a robber.

“Well, I suppose you wouldn’t believe that I wanted to see you,” I joked weakly. She made a tsking noise and then opened the door wider. “Come in, you silly boy.” (See, it didn’t matter that I was nearly 30. I was still a boy to her.) She led me through the small ranch house to the kitchen. “Sit down. I’ll find you something to eat. It must have been a long drive.” I barely listened to her polite chatter. Being in this house always made me feel a little depressed. Nothing had ever been the same since my father had died; even this tiny house seemed to echo emptily without his laughter to fill up the rooms. “You look lost, dear,” my mother said, pushing a sandwich toward me and taking the opposite seat. I ran a hand through my hair. “Well, Mom, I feel lost.” She sighed. “You always were a — different sort of child,” she murmured. “I remember you in college, wondering what you’d be.” “I think I’m still wondering that,” I admitted. “I’m sure it’ll all turn out all right, whatever it is,” she said. She wasn’t the kind to ask what was bothering me. It wasn’t because she didn’t care, but rather the opposite. My father had always been the more aggressive parent; my mother was more uninvolved, as if to compensate. We sat in silence for a while. It was the comfortable sort of silence, with both of us lost in our thoughts. “D’you mind if I go up to my room?” I finally said. “No,” she said. “Just be warned, I haven’t dusted in there in the longest time.” I pushed my plate away and went up to my old room, taking a seat on the bed. It was disturbingly nostalgic. The entire room had been stripped bare, leaving only the bed and the desk intact; everything else had been sold off when I moved out. The color of the paint was still the same, though, including the bright patches where posters had once hung. The stain on the floor where I had spilled half a liter of soda remained; the dents in the desk where still there; the hangers in the closet, long empty, were originals. I felt like I was sitting in a ghost’s bedroom, everything caked in dust and a sense of abandonment. After a few moments, I went to the desk and opened the bottom drawer, pulling out my high school yearbook. I flipped through the pages; nothing really registered. There were notes from friends (Good luck!), pictures of people I didn’t know, blurbs from teachers I’d never had. I took a breath, closed the book, opened it again. Tried to find her. She had been a second-string cheerleader, so she showed up on some of the sports pages, and in her class portrait, but nowhere else. Her eyes always looked right into the camera, grinning, but somehow empty. Devoid of any real life on the flat plane of paper, so unlike our last meeting. Another ghost. I didn’t know what I had been looking for, other than Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 45


something to identify her with, besides the girl that I had almost-loved, in a high schooler’s infatuated sort of way — the girl from English class. There were so many lost chances. I wondered, again, what had made her the woman she had become. “Where are you taking me?” I ask him as he pulls me along the streets. “Away from there, obviously,” he huffs. But he slows to a stop. “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?” I shrug. “Somewhere where we can talk.” He gives me a funny, crooked smirk. “Am I really that interesting? Anyone else would have run far, far away by now.” I laugh. “I don’t know about interesting, exactly . . . but it just feels good to talk to someone who sort of knows you.” “Sort of.” We wind up walking without ever really going anywhere. It’s nearly midnight, and the streets are almost deserted. I wonder, briefly, if I should be afraid of him, this person who might as well be a stranger to me — but I dismiss the thought almost immediately. I feel safe. That’s really all I need. At some point, we begin strolling along the boardwalk. I can see nothing but the moon shining off the black water; no one else is in sight. “Tell me,” Ed says finally, “why are you still here?” I shrug. “Because I haven’t had a really good conversation with someone in a long time? Because you didn’t come here with any idea of who I am now.” He smiles ruefully. “I don’t really know who you were then, you know.” “Well, I never really knew you, either,” I say. “So I guess that makes us even.” He looks up at the sky as he walks. “You want to know something funny?” “What?” “When we were kids, I used to have the biggest crush on you.” He grins at the stars, and then looks at me. “You never knew, did you?” “No.” I feel a bit stunned, and, for some reason, a little ashamed. “I thought so.” Yes, definitely ashamed. There is a silence, and I let it sit while I think. “Why?” I finally ask. “I don’t know. To be perfectly honest I thought you were gorgeous.” I blush at that. “Although it’s true, I never knew much about you.” “Well, we never spoke.” “I wish we had.” He is looking straight at me now, and though I want to look away, I can’t. “You . . . I mean, I don’t think I’m the sort of person you would have wanted to talk to,” I say unevenly. “Haven’t you been listening to me?” “Sure,” he says, “but I don’t know who you were then. And even now, I don’t think you’re so bad.” “You’ve got a twisted sense of conscience, then,” I joke weakly. “Maybe,” he says, shrugging. “But it doesn’t matter much to me right now.” “Ed?” I stop walking; it takes him a moment to realize and stop, too. “Hm?” 46 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“Why didn’t we ever talk?” “I don’t know. Just us being kids, I guess. But we’re talking now, aren’t we? Isn’t that what matters?” “Yes,” I say. “But we could have never met again.” “But we did, didn’t we?” “Yes.” And then I kiss him. “Did you find what you wanted?” my mother asked when I came downstairs. She was still sitting at the kitchen table; it seemed as though she had been lost in thought. “Not exactly,” I said, sitting down again. I had never been close to my mother; she had always been on the fringes of life, quiet where my father had been boisterous and loud. Now, though, I felt a sudden desire to know all about her. Wasted time. Wasted chances. Carly’s death was getting to me. “Do you remember Carly Cooper?” I asked her. “Of course I do. That nice girl who used to live up the block . . .” “She was murdered last night,” I said bluntly. “She — what?” My mother’s eyes went wide. “I uh — I was the last person who saw her alive,” I said simply. “Except for — for whoever did it, of course. I ran into her in the city, and we were catching up, and it’s like I didn’t have enough time —” I was babbling. I clamped my mouth shut then; if I let slip that I had been to the police, even my passive mother would throw a fit. “I felt the same when your father died,” she murmured, looking at the window without really seeing anything. “He was my best friend, you know. We were so different, but . . . It’s always felt like we didn’t have enough time together. I still miss him.” She looked back at me. “You always did have a soft spot for that girl, didn’t you?” That surprised me. I didn’t know that my mother had paid any attention to my teenage life. “Well, yeah,” I said dumbly. “I just wish that I had known her better.” She shook her head. “Be thankful that you got to see her at all, Ed. Life moves so fast; anything can happen in an instant.” I nodded. It was stock motherly advice, but it was like salve for a burning wound. “Thanks, Mom.” She stood up and walked over to the refrigerator. “Are you staying for lunch?” I shrugged. “Yeah,” I said, “sure.” His apartment door bangs when he throws it open, his lips locked on mine. He breaks away to close it and turn the locks. “This is insane,” he breathes, mostly to himself. I bite my lip. “Maybe I should go.” “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he says, turning around to face me. I can tell that he means it. We stare at each other, five feet apart, his back to the door, mine to his living room. It makes me uneasy. “You know that this is going to mean absolutely nothing tomorrow,


don’t you?” I say to him. “That we’ll probably never see each other again?” “I know,” he says. He looks so solemn. “And you’re sure?” I ask. “I’m sure.” He crosses the room to stand right in front of me. “But please know . . . that I don’t think any less of you. Not after all that.” I smirk. “Of course. Just two lonely people . . .” “. . . connected by one thin thread.” He takes a step toward me, so that our chests are a fraction of an inch apart. “Ed?” My breathing is shallow, and his name comes out as a whisper. “Yes?” His breath tickles my face. I give him a half-smile. “I liked you then, too.” His kiss nearly knocks me over, but his hand is suddenly supporting me at the small of my back. I loop my arms around his neck for added security. He hooks an arm behind my knees, picks me up, and carries me to his bedroom. “You’re sure?” he asks again as he deposits me on his narrow bed. “Yes, if you are,” I say. He responds by kissing me again, his weight pressing me against the mattress. Two lonely people, connecting. Joining to make one lonely person, full of hope. I had never talked to my mother so much in my entire life. Reliving childhood memories, talking about the weather, discussing current events — it was strange, but it felt familiar, like coming back home after a long trip and finding the furniture rearranged. “You and I used to be close, once,” she said at one point, as though reading my thoughts. “When you were just a toddler. And then you realized that you were more like Daddy.” She laughed. I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. You just never seemed to be around.” “No,” she said, “I suppose not.” Then later, when I was preparing to leave: “What are you going to do?” I knew what she was talking about. “I don’t know. I just wish that I had the — the time to get to know her.” She shook her head. “You would have loved her, I think.” Would have. I didn’t know now. It was strange, the not knowing; it felt like limbo. I wondered where she was, at that very moment. “Bye, Mom.” “Goodbye, sweetheart.” “I have to go,” I tell him, getting up and looking around for my clothes. He doesn’t say anything, just lies back, hands behind his head. I get dressed in the silence. “Well, I guess that’s it, then,” I say when I’m ready. I feel unbelievably awkward. He looks at me, then. “Yeah.” His face is unreadable. “What?” I say. He smiles faintly. “Nothing.”

He gets up then, tucks a sheet around his waist, and walks me to the door. “I hope . . . everything gets better for you,” he says simply. “Yeah,” I say, “me too.” He kisses me on the forehead, and opens the door. “It was nice seeing you again, Carly.” I almost laugh at the strange irony of it. “Yeah, you too, Ed. Good luck, and all.” I can’t resist kissing him once more before leaving. I don’t turn back, but I hear the door click shut behind me. I must look like a mess, but I try not to think about that as I head toward the elevator. A man is in there when I step in, but I ignore him. When I reach the first floor, I begin to step out, but I feel a rough hand around my wrist. “Excuse me, miss,” a smooth voice says from behind me, “but I don’t think we’ve met before.” It feels like the worst kind of breakup, the kind with no closure and no explanation, just a hastily scribbled note that you can’t really make out, and even then it doesn’t reveal much. I don’t think I’ll “get over” her, not in the traditional sense; she’s become a part of the story of my life — however faint and brief. I don’t think about her all the time. I can go weeks without thinking of her once. But then I’ll pass by the bar, or the boardwalk, and I’ll remember, for a moment, and then get on with it. They did catch her killer, days later. I’m a free man now, I suppose, but I don’t really feel it. I just feel the guilt — fading day by day, but still there, prodding me with regrets and unspoken words. The missed chances of two lonely people, connected by the thinnest thread. Ed’s arm is around me, his fingers idly tracing circles on my shoulder. “What are you thinking about?” I ask him. His lips twitch in an attempt at a smile. “You wouldn’t want to know.” “Why?” I ask. “This is supposed to be no strings attached and all of that.” “Tell me anyway.” He gives a little sigh; I can hear it in his chest, my ear pressed against his heart. “I could love you, you know,” he says simply. The words chill me; goosebumps rise on my arms. “I told you that you didn’t want to hear it.” “Yes and no,” I say. “I guess I feel almost the same way.” He smiles, then, a rueful, ugly thing. “Almost,” he says, “but not quite.” He looks me in the eye now. “You lied, didn’t you? You never did like me back then.” “No,” I admit. “But I like you well enough now.” I can’t say the word “love.” It would be too much, now, and too late. He looks back up at the ceiling. “Well, I guess that’s enough.” I kiss the skin above his heart. “Is it?” He smiles in earnest now, and pulls me closer. “Yes.”

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 47


Kristine Ong Muslim

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, A Roomful of Machines (Searle Publishing, 2010) and the chapbook, Doll Plagues, Doll Lives, forthcoming from Thunderclap Press. Her poems and stories have appeared in over four hundred publications worldwide including Boston Review, Contrary Magazine, Narrative Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine, and Southword.  She has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize and four times for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. Her publication credits can be found at http://kristinemuslim.weebly.com

Little Jimmy Dead Eyes, on the Harbor Water was immutable; the city could not change it. My small-town eyes had long adjusted to the city’s soot-stained walls and pavement; I no longer desired to understand it devoid of its filth. Not far from me, a child pointed out something to his mother. I wanted to find out what it was, but a man reading a tabloid blocked the way. A yacht sailed past. This was the first time I had seen one, and like anything else in the city, it was bigger than I thought.

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Robert Scotellaro Robert Scotellaro is the author of East Harlem Poems (Vagabondage Press), Blinded by Halos (Lion’s Breathe Press), and The Early Love Poems of Genghis Khan (Lion’s Breathe Press). His latest chapbook of prose poems is Rhapsody of Fallen Objects (Flutter Press, 2010). He has also written a picture book (Willowisp Press) and two full-length poetry books for children by Hands Up Books. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and he is the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. Raised in Manhattan, he currently lives with his wife and daughter in California. Robert can be found at http://www.FlutterPress.webs.com

Spontaneous Combustion (A Compendium) Genghis Khan was believed to have said, while stooping over an eerily familiar pile of ashes: “When the blood stops boiling in a man, the body becomes tinder.” Freud deemed it the consequence of unexamined dreams scraped together, sparking over dry leaves. Pope Pious IX was certain the devil sat around a campfire somewhere in the vicinity of the third rib, tossing in accumulating twigs of sin. Conan Doyle blamed it on a preponderance of misleading clues, building in the cerebrum like magma. I, personally, ascribe to the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote theory where, deep inside, the Road Runner is chased to the edge of a cliff, then turns suddenly and hands Wile E. a birthday cake with a lit stick of dynamite in the middle of it. But Hemingway, Hemingway would have argued it was simply a matter of the pilot light going out at the center of things. And the fact that all the windows were shut because of the rain. Outside, a cat can be heard crying three stories below in the street. A man in his robe enters the kitchen and sits down at a small wooden table. Sighs. Takes out a cigarette and lights it.

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The Physics of Make-Believe 1. Malleable Materials The law of malleable materials states that a cage can be an airplane, if the construction source is Play Doh. This can be applied to marriage, early childhood, and a wide range of collapsible vistas. Vigorous kneading/needing may be required. 2. Erasure Renowned physicist, Roberto Torscoella, contends in his treatise, “Marks Undone,” that friction against a stationary object, or set of objects, is critical to its/their dissolution or “molecular entropy.” Friction plus pressure and lateral motion = erasure. This hypothesis can best be applied to The Scribbled Life. Particularly to “the scribbled life.” 3. Pliable Vision Pliable vision, or “Filtered Vision,” affirms that viewing situations through convoluted, or web-fractured glass in varying hues, can establish the integrity of reconfigured outcomes. Gazing through a reversed telescope, the sky from underwater, decrepit landscapes through smoke, kaleidoscopes, or chandelier crystals, are all viable components of this law. On nights when the tide or blood is high, viewing a loved one through the hollow bones of a past regret can also be applied. Though more stable and less mitigating applications are suggested.

Athletic Secrets Be leery of those secrets that are overly fit. The ones that workout in the dark — deep, where the pressure is strongest. All sinew and sadness. That clean and jerk the wee hours over their heads. Do heavy-footed jumping jacks, panting with each count. Better, the ones that are flimsy and know how to float. The ones that are bubble-bodied, bean-poled — skin and bones. Ones that burn up in sunlight like scrawny slapstick vampires. Ones made of fog and smoke — a good stiff wind can blow away.

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Emily Capettini Emily Capettini is a graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and fiction editor for Rougarou: An Online Literary Journal. Her work has previously appeared in It’s Your Rite!: Girls’ Coming-of-Age Stories. Originally from Chicago, she makes valiant attempts to suppress her accent in Louisiana, but is mostly unsuccessful, much to the amusement of her (non-Midwestern) classmates and colleagues.

Aftershocks

P

rotect Minefields Of Marijuana weeps the placard, bouncing on a faceless stranger. Alice pauses, her foot hovering in the air, a couloir existing beneath her. This was certainly a new addition to the ethic labels that always milled about this part of town — parasites and bloodsuckers, distilling lies into truth without a break in words. Just last week, she was thumped in the head with New Testament and Psalms. “Forager of blasphemy!” they called by way of insult when she left it on a warped park bench. She was not a typographic individual. Admitting herself as a sinner on paper was old country work, by and large striving with less heart. Once aardvarks were extinct, and there was a surplus of ants to evolve and destroy picnics in a manner of carnage never anticipated, then there was admittance: “The aardvark seems misjudged, our profuse apologies. Information was misinterpreted, and we regret the following effects . . .” She had turned off the radio then, it being a tale of distillation once more. ABO Blood Group Devotion howls another, noosed and dangling over a clot of supporters, a guillotine ready to fall. There was no moving ahead for some, a rise in age be damned. A genogram appears, when she wanders too close, shoved under her nose. It is her family, she notices, connected by spider web lines, documenting the faults so common in her personality. Alice takes it, the ABO Blood Group devotee lurching too close for her liking, eyeing the pulse in her neck too hungrily for her liking. “Not even close,” she says and hands the diagram back. Her mother is marked as “suicide,” but that is only a way of saying “murdered” without offending the offending party. She advises him to try someone else and scurries away before his sense of smell catches up to her steps. In a sudden current, a rip tide, she is swept away, colliding with another passerby on the street, a rapid among the flow of the crowd. Alice pushes back, a forbid lack of twig years before he’s

staring, and she hesitates. He turns his palm upwards, a sign illuminating. “Noah,” he tells her. “Alice,” she whispers in return. The crowd around them has stopped, and Alice half-turns to follow the collective gaze. An endless state somewhere and people are being plucked from the crowd by the dominant species. A slum deer bled deep, a red crux color made of queried tutus before Noah’s hand closes around her palm, and her mother’s winery cabañas fall behind them as they escape. “You’re not like the rest.” Alice tilts her head and considers. Open and shut. “I meant, I haven’t seen you in one of the communities before.” “I live alone.” Noah turns from where he’s fetching a drink for her from his rations, putting it over the fire to boil away impurities and plague. “Alone? In times like these?” “In times like these.” A perpetual progression of oneness. “How?” “Fractured footprints,” Alice tells him as she takes the offered water. She doesn’t tell him how tragedy had a way of sticking to her family’s footprints, even before half of them had become goveys. “And you’ve got a trail leading to your door,” he guesses. “So, your family, too?” “Have you met anyone who says ‘no’ to that question?” Cove reed melted and sin and it’s not in the dead, the secrets, Alice wants to scream. We’re not drowning, but thirsting for them. The secrets. “Quadriplegic for my crime-busted head.” He lifts his glass. “That’s what I did before this.” And Alice knows what he means to say, to continue: Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 51


before this, before the rose fled from the sunsets and pollution caked our atmosphere. “A detective?” “Private business. Nothing as logical as a man with a badge and a hat eighty years out of style. ” Alice is conscious of her own heartbeat as the light outside is extinguished. Night spreads through. “Their vision is better at night,” Noah cautions as Alice reaches for the door. “Everything of theirs is better at night.” No civilization had living memory of such things, a tide that had slammed against them again and again, always more powerful when it returned to drown the fragments of humanity. Fleeting breaths in eternities, snuffed out, rekindled and memories gone. Individual thought was cause for removal. Alice walks across a deserted highway, ramshackle communities sprung around her, striated thin. Outsiders’ sight and sense of touch might be more sophisticated, but their sense of smell and hearing paled in comparison to the goveys’. She crosses into unkempt cornfields, through ash, where stoics tie pulp-catching nets, things that told of moving about to cosign togs. A trick to keep her trail hidden. Movement and Alice crouches, freezing, caught of time. They stagger past her — four goveys and one outsider. She’s screaming, etching trills of horror, before they grab her chin and pull. The outsider stops in a snap, head lolling back, sanguinary between her teeth and a jagged porcelain column, wax and carmine pointing towards a poisoned sky. Alice’s heart feels like it might burst, but she digs her shaking fingers into the ground. Most outsiders lived together, for safety and comfort, but this comfort made humans all the more easily discovered, tracked and eliminated. Minefields in every direction; one wrong step and extinction edged closer. Three goveys stoop to feed. The last looks in her direction, holding her gaze for a moment before returning to his kill. Alice waits until they begin to squabble over the heart and then slinks away into the murky night. Noah appears at her front door a few days later, and Alice nearly takes his face off with a shotgun. “What are you doing here?” she snaps. “Wanted to see if you got home all right,” Noah offers. “I could have killed you.” His head swings, mouth stretching wide with an unhinged grin. “Why ether ever?” “What?” Noah blinks at her, perplexed. “I said: Are you going to let me in?” Alice stares, and she aches, suddenly, for the jury’s lye. But she moves aside, and Noah slips in. He looks around, peeking 52 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

up the stairs, into the dusty sitting room and unused kitchen. Alice feels a scream bubbling up in her throat, and she wants to yell, to say, come see the tombs! Come see where I buried my family when they tried to strip my skin and let tsamba bubble up to fill the crevices! But the memory is not with him, lost in a fleeting breath of eternity, and she can only watch it curl into the dark, dusty corners of her shelter. Stronger at night. “You have a big family,” Noah comments as he investigates the mantle above her fireplace. “Had.” Alice clicks the safety on her weapon and shoves it back in the sling tied at her waist. Noah turns, eyes on the weapon. “Do you always carry that?” “Yes. Always.” “Why?” “To chase out people who wear out their welcome.” Noah gives her a long, evaluating look, one that Alice returns with a glare. Lies, tsamba bled out, and she wasn’t about to divvy attention to an art of something trustworthy. Shining shapes and glass aspirins, Alice isn’t fooled. “How did you find me?” Noah smirks. “You didn’t make it easy. I asked about the crazy girl who lives on her own. Everyone seemed to know who I was talking about.” Wet camera sods, she curses. Alice thinks of poppies and pearls, the dead glance that graced her own as she edged trees. “Down and daring,” Alice returns, wondering if he’d leave faster if she pulled the hidden knives from the walls. “Don’t you think you’re being overcautious?” Noah asks through ink and bulbs. “I mean, if they want to eat you . . . ” “Why are you here?” “I’m curious.” “About whether I’ll give up and let the goveys snack on my vital organs?” Noah grins, stepping close. “About you.” He grabs her wrist before she can touch her shotgun. The touch burns, waging an arc against her senses. “How old were you when they turned?” She flounders, a rampancy to filch back her single-minded survival and flee. Alice catches him under the chin with her free hand, and Noah falls backwards. He stares, looting an idea from her quick reaction. “Fifteen,” Alice replies. “Don’t touch me.” “So you’ve lived here for seven years, an eternal progression over your youth, crumbling and waiting?” Alice points the shotgun at him. “You’ve worn out your welcome.” As Noah leaves, Alice realizes that he is something she’s never had precautions against. It was in the night that the forest vanished. Alice sees it


happen from a window seat in what had been her younger sister’s room. With her feet tucked beneath her, she watches her world hemorrhage and decay. The forest had not been silent for hundreds of years and now it was like the rest of them, a wispy, echoed memory stuttering, skipping over the same moment in life — an eternal progression on some momentary impressions. Alice’s feet were cold, her fingers stiff around the barrel of the shotgun. She had been sitting here for hours, drowning in the silence, in her own erratic heartbeat. “I’ll bet you never had to do this,” Alice whispered. “Grandpa had the decency to die from lung cancer.” Wasted away, her grandfather had, yellowing like the tobacco stains on his fingers until he was nothing more than a crumpled remnant of a man, snuffed out. A long death, but one without the danger of a Second Wind. Her answer was the same as before, a wheezing breath. They were coming farther apart. This was the first breath in thirty minutes. Alice’s hands trembled, and she began to count again. For weeks, there had been warnings on the news about a plague traveling west, precautions to wear gas masks when outside and not let in anyone who was infected. The problem was that Alice’s brother hadn’t known the signs. Neither had her mother. She never found out who had brought it in first, but that hardly seemed to matter after they tried to murder the rest of them. A fragment of her family escaped that time, though later — The form on the bed convulsed. Alice pulled the safety back, slid her hands into position. She stumbled out of the chair, watching with suffocating terror as the last of her family rose, no pulse beating steadily beneath his skin. Alice fell against the wall, choking down a terrified scream as the govey reached for her, thirst in his milky eyes. She raised the shotgun, thrust it in to the face of what used to be her father, and squeezed the trigger. “What if it’s evolution?” a voice whispers nearly a week later. Alice keeps her head bowed as she navigates the market, worsen about before the cautionary pulls back between years. The ABO Blood Group devotees are staring at her again, their gazes burning into her back. Noah shifts beside her. “Vultures,” he comments. “Always looking for a way to keep themselves out of a jam.” He’s standing close. Alice can see wrinkles where delicately pulled expressions left their premature marks. He no doubt worked in toad-eat tucks and drawing-chambers before, selling out to betray weary peplums rather than survive like the rest of the outsiders.

“They seem to like the looks of you.” Alice elbows him and retreats, stalling the budding. “Why are the stoics so keen on you? You’re just like every other weary peplum around here.” Alice wages an arc over suspensors that be. “To you, an uncow is an almost-sect,” she snaps and flees. A devotee gives chase, crinkling about the corners and snuffling like pupa-loons. Alice sneaks through the ink until she emerges from the ore overkill, nearly smothered by the stench. She doubles back into the Ark Square overrun with outsiders. Alice slips past the rest of the devotee mob, eagerly awaiting the new capture. “Thy scam is the brunt from which I churl nuns!” one calls in support, waving a pulp-catching net. Alice feels a chill darken her insides and plunges into the milling crowd. She glances back. Noah smiles at her, showing teeth, and waves. The fir’s ardors bide height. “This is an unusual courtship, I must say,” a familiar voice calls to Alice across the field as she gathers clusters of draw and flippancy, old crops that have gone long unattended since the plague. The farmhouse windows are stark and empty of human breath. Alice falters at the sound of his voice. “We are not courting.” Noah strolls along the row, picking up ripe vegetables. “Ah, fair maiden, how can you be so cruel?” “Easy. I don’t like you.” “I suppose that’s fair,” Noah replies with a smile. He hands her the food he’s gathered and studies her, old photographic. When she stops and stares back, Noah picks up a branch lying at their feet, prodding at a half-rotten pumpkin. Wildcraft oats around them sway in a heater-clapped wind. Winter shivers, waiting in the wings. “I’m busy,” says Alice. “Winter’s coming.” Noah looks up at the sky, scowling and grisly above them. The pollution slung lowage still causes deaths, Second Winds; a delicately pulp-catching pully system meant to draw them all into something. “You miss the sky?” “I don’t look up anymore.” Alice bends to pull up a few roots. “That’s not what I asked,” Noah tells her and taps her shoe with the branch. “Do you miss it?” Alice straightens and lets out a breath through her nose. “The same way I miss the forest.” “Let’s go see it again.” “What?” “Let’s go find the sky.” Alice croaks a laughter toad, and she answers, “What are you, insane?” Noah ignores her, the cracks inabstracted as he fills in. “There’s a gap in the pollution, over the Rockies. Colorado.” “Those are just rumors, tales of distillation fed through the Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 53


public to keep the wet camera sods from offing themselves. And Colorado’s three days’ drive from here. At least,” Alice answers, up-to-the-minute dismissive, gums lineless with old forgotten hope and drive. “Even if you had a car. Walking would be suicide, and that’s a long way to go for something that probably isn’t true.” “I have a motorcycle.” “And your fuel?” Noah husks an ear of corn and waves it at her in reply. An electionary feeling creeps through her, withdrawing what must be ancient emotions from her memory bank. The toad vanishes from her laugh, disappearing into the air around them. Noah smiles, wide and happy, at her. He drops the ear of corn into her basket and freezes, wrinkles whereby appearing around his eyes. An arm cranes backwards, and he’s taken her shotgun and fired before Alice can even think of that old boyau. A govey is crumpled behind them, unmoving. Alice’s breath stutters and she gapes — othergates sheer, surely this must not be. But Noah grabs her by the arm, and they’re running again, worsening about like the day they met. There’s a forbid lack of cover in the trampled field, and Noah leads her, weaving, through the hoardes of ofdraw and wildcraft oats while something crashes behind, chasing and wolfish howling. “It’s day time!” she insists. “Doesn’t matter!” Noah yells back over his shoulder. “It’s evolution!” Alice doesn’t ask how Noah leads her back to her own house, but she pushes him inside and turns the deadbolts in the door. It’s a tumbly defense, but the best she can muster without the preparation of dusk. When she turns, she finds Noah locking all the other windows and doors. “Upstairs,” Alice says as she grabs and buckles on more weaponry. “The bathroom?” Noah sounds almost hysterical, but Alice pulls him inside and locks the door behind them. “Panic room,” she corrects and nods at the linen closet behind Noah before handing him the extra weapons she grabbed. Noah opens the doors behind him and blinks at the supplies stored there. “You’ve been expecting this?” Alice loads the sawed-off shotgun she carries and crawls into the bathtub. “Yes.” Noah wedges in beside her. “Why are they so interested in you, the devotees and the goveys?” Alice says nothing and kicks shut the sliding door, hiding them from view of the rest of the bathroom. The opaque plasticator will be little protection if the goveys get inside. If they follow. “What if they set the house on fire?” Noah asks. “They won’t.” “Can you be sure?” Alice nods. “They want me alive.” 54 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

Noah gives her a long look, no idea about the womanhood flocked upon her and doesn’t ask about the pintail and retracted Heraclitean that coats her like poison. He leans against her shoulder as he loads the shotgun she gave him. An intimacy born of terror. The night is silent, but that puts Alice on edge. She cannot simply loller on with so many distrustful and cheesecake expressions following her tracks, her scent. Noah dozes at her left shoulder, but Alice chews her nails. The ghostism outside is broken occasionally by a howl that straps ice around her plum purple heart. “Stressman pumpkin,” Noah says into her shoulder and snores. The honey-suck crawls along the outside windowpane and something turns in Alice’s stomach. She can’t afford to waw, but . . . A creak downstairs. She unfolds from her cramped position and rises from their bare, footballene fortress. She carefully draws back the safety on her shotgun. The soft click writes a downbeat crashing through the silence, and she winces. Alice creeps to the door, putting her ear against it. Message paduaks in her chest, fingers quivering — still shaking, still nervous, even after all she’s killed, all she’s hunted; everyone she once knew and their bodies stacked like planks in the cellar, skeletons in the closet — as they double and triple check the locks. She waits a moment longer, listening carefully for the scrape of living corpse. Nothing. Ghostism quiet, only broken by the paduak-paduak of her heart, straining against a tumbly defense of flesh and bone. “You ought to shut your eyes for at least a moment.” Alice half-turns to see Noah awake and alert. He blinks, owl-wise, at her. “Big day tomorrow,” he adds. “Get some sleep.” Alice snorts. “And let the goveys have hisis sway?” “There hasn’t been a noise in four hours.” Noah yawns and kicks at the side of the tub. “They’re not quiet creatures.” “I thought you said they were evolving.” Noah sighs, shutting his eyes. “Grace doesn’t come with evolution.” Alice checks for her extra ammunition and listens to the ghostism outside for a moment longer. “What’s tomorrow?” “Colorado.” “I told you that was suicide.” “You said walking was suicide. Motorcycles are much safer.” “Do you have helmets?” Noah barks out a startled laugh, sunbeam soaked and roots deep-fetched in the sound that has become so rare these days. “Helmets? We’re going to be on the run from an army of goveys and you’re worried about helmets?” “Not safe, otherwise.” “Nothing about this is safe!” Noah exclaims. “Nothing


about the lives we’re taking root-end in is safe!” “I’d rather not die,” Alice begins, her hands shaking, “on the side of a road with a head injury. I’d rather not be an easy feast for them.” Noah considers, cool-down palm as the dip inabusively sits between them. “Why do they want you alive?” Alice flickers ana, and her face becomes startlingly rural. She looks away from him. Alice yanks the ration cabinet and rummages through it. “Breakfast?” “Tell me,” Noah insists. “I want to know why they brave the sunlight and send their minions running after you through a market of peplums.” There’s no noachical consequence she can claim, Alice knows. She hands him a meager meal. “I’m going to check outside. Stay up here, and if they come in, don’t make a sound.” “They’ll smell me.” “They won’t care, unless you make a ruckus,” Alice scolds and unlocks the door, shotgun at the ready by her side. She peers around the corner of the doorjamb, staring down into the hallway, her spinal runanga low as her feet press creaks out of the floor. Alice opens the door further. “Wait.” She turns, almost cursing him for a waste-good of flesh. “Quiet.” “One thing — why do you live alone?” Alice wants to tell him to go toad yourself and to leave her be, but the charm arout from his face silences her. She sweeps upaithric out the door. Fanning out-and-out, Noah slides the bathroom’s narrow window open and climbs down a trellis where haddock had been.

everything she may need for a journey with no end and casting off extras. Noah follows her, whistling, and steps into the eye of the storm. “Why are you angry?” “I’m not going to Colorado. Screw you and screw your sky.” Noah storekeeper laters around her kitchen, poking through cabinets and testing the sink faucet. “I want you to come.” “I can’t.” “Why is that? They’ll kill you if you stay here.” “I told you —” “They want you alive. Right. But still —” “I’m not staying,” Alice interrupts before he can spout any embarrassing nonsense about being concerned for her welfare. “I have to find a new place, somewhere where they won’t look for me.” “How do you feel about mountains?” Alice gives an exasperated sigh. “No. No mountains, no Colorado. I am not coming with you on a road trip.” “So you’ll stay and walk instead? One mildly dangerous road trip for a deadly expedition.” Alice is quiet for a long moment. “They’re fast.” Noah smiles, trying to be encouraging. Or convincing, Alice isn’t sure which. “They can’t outrun vehicles.” “And you’ve tried?” “Yes, I have.” Alice laughs and again, it sounds less bitter than the time before it. “You crazy bastard. How did you convince them to chase you?” “Well. Who can really say ‘no’ to a tasty meal these days?” “You’re out of your mind,” Alice tells him again. “What do we need?”

Alice stares at the front door. The three-double front locks are ripped to pieces, strewn about the foyer and outdoor stoop. She stumbles, lightheaded, for the closet to retrieve a broom Andalusian and sweep up the mess. The night-blowing following was not been the house settling, but a sisterize sent of goveys mocking her. A purr rumbles up to her front door, and she peeks between torn curtains. Noah swings off of a heap of metal and oil and waves cheerily. She doesn’t move until he slips inside and stares around at the mess. It kissers her back to reality, and Alice scowls. “How did you leave? I didn’t see you.” Noah shrugs and peels off a pair of beaten gloves, holes worn through beneath his fingertips. “Bathroom window.” “Are you out of your mind?” Alice rages against his smiley as panic wages an arc for space in her attention. “You might have led them back.” “They already have a pretty good idea of where you live.” Alice spits a curse at him and storms into the kitchen. She winds a path of destruction through the room, sweeping up

The motorcycle is barely strong enough to fit their packs and both Alice and Noah. It’s a narrow squeeze, but Noah loads everything and ties it down securely with ease. “Done this a lot, then?” Alice yells, once they’ve blazed off down the road, and no goveys in any which way behind them. The wind in her face sweeps away her voice, wholer truth slipping between the cracks of her teeth. Noah hears her and seems to hesitate, then laughs. “Well, when you like to piss them off as much as I do, it pays to keep moving!” The motorcycle’s engine ruptures through the eerie silence of the roads, and Alice feels calm as they ghostless drift through places that were once homey, now destroyed like rocks thrown through dusty windowpanes. Warao erupted everywhere, it seemed, and Alice wonders how many humans remain in the world. How long would they continue to remain in a world quickly becoming something else’s? “I don’t suppose you’re beliking the ride enough to stop for a meal?” “Where would we?” Alice tries to look around. It’s all Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 55


overgrown pocket boroughs of dead towns and forest. “Anywhere you like, milady! Our fine steed could use a rest and some refueling.” They pull off into a corner of forest. Ham and bees, the lunch becomes. Insects remain unaffected by the change in the humans, and Alice almost wishes for spartanly baths that would cleanse her of plague bacteria as pollen does with bees. The offer leaves with hue, and an ore overkill settles in the sky above them. Noah refills the motorcycle’s tank, and they kick off once more, scrubby volutes and a rampancy to filch. A govey occasionally peers through the forest branches or out of a run-down house as they pass, but none give chase. Not yet. For now, the goveys just watch the scene with their human memories, old country memories, still within them. They stop for rest on the second day. Alice is not very good with the motorcycle, strange handles under her hands and a gas pedal she’s unfamiliar with. The first time she tries, they nearly crash, but Noah only laughs once they’ve escaped certain death. Alice tries again and feels foolish, blue minting in the nude and a tie to her sin, as she unsteadily sets off once more. A truck above her tea fife glams, and Noah whoops as they pick up speed without a waver. The goveys give chase later that same day. Noah wanders away from where Alice is standing guard by the edge of the road, in search of fresh water. He looks up when the first twig snaps, but it’s already too late, the angeline radar useless, as a pack of goveys prowl into sight. Noah straightens up slowly. One standing nearby — the leader if the string of human teeth around his neck is any hint — tilts his head. He’s listening, Noah realizes, and beacher useful that he can talk his way out of this. “I need more time.” Forbid lack of twig years, hesitation could be murder. Back at the edge of the road, Alice stops packing and smells decayed emotion in the air. The govey at Noah’s right growls and snaps at his arm. He flinches and yanks away, nearly becoming an easy meal for the one at his left. The leader lumbers closer, the pack closing in around him. He backs away from where an epoch lute will stall the budding, but a rescue roars into the clearing. The motorcycle slides on the grass, and Alice is pale-faced, scrubby from the sill of her silts on the bike, when she orders him to get on. Noah doesn’t need another warning, grabbing her around the waist a half-second before they’re moving again. He can feel her shaking as they barrel through wilderness, blasting and busying the inn’s foal before he dares to ask, “Do you know the way back to the highway?” 56 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“You’re welcome.” They emerge onto blessed concrete. Noah feels wounded somehow and guilty. Lint in his manpaper gardens as Alice calms and handles the motorcycle with sudden ease. “You’ve gotten pretty good at this.” “Fir’s ardors,” she answers. “The road seems easier once we’ve dodged pine trees.” Noah frowns then grips her tighter. “Ah, my lady knight! How brave you were to ride this handsome steed in to save the fair gentleman’s life!” “Take your hands off of me.” “I’ll fall if I do that.” “You may make a worthy sacrifice, then.” Noah grins at the back of her helmet and loosens his hold, just a little. The goveys are stubborn and attempt several more attacks, but Alice is awfully handy when she has a weapon in her hands, waging an arc against the goveys with an impressive war waw. Her throwing arm would have made any major league baseball teams sign her in a flash, sex irrelevant, Noah decides after watching her dispatch several goveys from a distance with a few rocks. “What, no al segno?” he asks later as they shimmy down the tree they had been hiding in. Alice had grabbed all the weapons and made Noah climb the tree before her. “Not with my life,” she replies. Noah sulks, surveying the damage to their ride. “I thought we were making progress.” Retracted Heraclitean sweeps over Alice’s features, smoothed by the afternoon light. “I . . . haven’t really . . .” “Been around normal people much?” “Something like that. Thank you. For your help.” Noah shrugs, unpacking his tools from the back of the bike. “It’s fine, a bit hard to loller on with your pintail rain cloud tagging along behind us. Rusts the paint, you know.” “Sod,” Alice tells him, but there’s something warmer in her voice. “At your service, milady.” “Do you know what you’re doing?” “Have faith.” Alice sighs but doesn’t comment. The daylight fades before Noah can finish, and when he turns, Alice emerges from the woods with wildcraft in her hair. She puts a hand on her hip at his startlingly rural expression and waits. “Are you crazy!” he sputters. “We just got attacked by goveys in this very place and — and — you’re out frolicking!” Alice rolls her eyes. “Hide the bike. I set up camp.” Noah thinks he must have looked completely flabbergasted because Alice doesn’t wait long before she hides the motorcycle


herself and drags him between the trees by his wrist. Alice has indeed set up a camp, though it’s difficult to distinguish it from the rest of the woods around them. “Forbid lack of twig years, you’re still surprising me,” Noah comments as he glances around. “Where did you learn to camouflage like this?” “Other weary peplums wandering through,” Alice answers, bending to turn on one of the electric lamps. She drapes a cloth over it, dampening the light. “When they haven’t got money, they trade secrets.” “Your tsamba isn’t dispirited easily, is it?” Alice’s eyes stay on her task, but she answers: “Maybe that’s why the goveys want it so badly.” They spend the night there, and Noah, exhausted and loose-tongued, says something he never would have without cover of darkness, “You remind me a bit of my sister.” Alice’s steady breathing doesn’t change. “Same kind of determination. The devotees and goveys were keen on her, too, and her morals. It was what got her killed, her refusal to turn against her own kind and labor in the toad-eat tucks and drawing-chambers.” Noah pauses, his chest prickling with memory. “Waged a good arc. She was resourceful. Too stubborn, though. She couldn’t even see . . . ” Something screams in the distance. Open and shut and words again slip involuntarily past Noah’s lips. “But they caught up with her. Cracked open her rib cage and squeezed the last paduak from her.” He wallows in pintailed silence, waiting for something to push aside the carmine, which soaks his black-and-white brain. Noah is nearly asleep when Alice’s cool fingers find his in the dark. “I’ll tell you,” Alice says as they lay in quiet hiding a day or two later, morning just beginning above their heads. “Tell me?” Noah asks, nearly soak-holed in sleep. “Why they’re so fee-farmer frantic to get their hands on me.” Noah sits up, turned in the direction of her voice. He fluviates around at the flashlight beam on his face. Alice pulls aside her hair, clay-earthed in the low light, and tugs on the collar of her shirt. She turns her face away as Noah edges closer, peering at her bared shoulder. Crescent moons facing each other, stainless steel teacup rings interrupted by the curve of bone and muscle. Noah stares at the faucitis, the revelation and his fingers snaggletooth against the mark. “Is this . . . ?” Alice’s voice is dry dock when she answers, “Yes. It is.” “But I thought — when we were running —” “It’s an old mark.”

“How old?” Noah sits back. Alice rearranges her shirt. “Seven years.” “But you’re . . . human.” “I’m unchanged,” Alice corrects. “I can’t be human. I can’t have started as a human if the bite had no effect.” “Evolution?” Noah offers. “You can hand out-and-home.” Alice gathers up her pack. “I’ll find my own way.” “What makes you think I’m leaving you?” “I’ve been bitten.” “You seem pretty stable to me.” Alice finds it bulbiferous that this old age pension fluorescent is not discouraging. She expected a forehold try to run her through, andabatism gaping. Ever since she was forced to leave and exist somewhere isolated, the al segno went, and Alice expected nothing less but deception and murder to be hurled at her. The roots of hate were roots deep-fetched and curling under her footprints. “I could change at any moment,” she insists. Noah scoffs. “What, after seven years? No plague infection is ever dormant that long.” “How do you know?” Alice grips the scarf at her neck. “What makes you so sure I’m not a danger?” “Oh, you’re a danger, just not a govey.” “The wound never heals. I’ve tried everything, but it just sits there, open. They think I’m a spy, the others.” Noah reaches for Alice, pulling aside her scarf and collar to take another look at the scar. It isn’t easily covered. He had wondered why Alice’s dress was more eccentric than others: scarves or collars, he’d once seen her with a bandage over the bite. “They don’t have much sense of decorum.” “They all see the bite and that’s it. They think I’m one of those wet camera stoics who feed their fellow humans to goveys to keep their own mangy selves alive! All the peplums stop listening once they know I’ve been bitten.” “Have you tried some herbal salves?” She slaps his hand away. “Why aren’t you afraid?” “What’s to be afraid of ?” Noah puts his chin in his hand. “I’ve seen them up close, you know. You look nothing like them. You don’t even look like a human that’s been bitten, or someone sandwiched between developing stages.” “You’ve seen that?” Something inside of her screams, chi repelling the set gut, you are not the only study going about to form shapes shining! Noah nods and turns to face the small fire they’ve dared to build. It will give away their location if there are any goveys around, but goveys will stay away while it still burns hot. “Yet you’ll let me plunge into the same darkness, the same gasbags and pews?” Alice feels the pressured building turning inside her, hand-ball folded and reaches, foraging for fury. She cannot understand this anomaly amoret that stands before her, this restock of self-possession and calm. Alice almost wishes he would get on with it and kill her already. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 57


“If it’ll make you feel better,” Noah slides into her whirling thoughts, waveson and cautious. “I have some pretty ugly, disfiguring scars I can show you.” He reaches for Alice’s hand, the one she broke when the bedstead slammed on her hand and trapped her the first time a govey tried to change her. Alice lets him, a writing downbeat slows, and her thoughts decelerating to a slow four-four time. The reestablishment between them is unexpected, and Alice is surprised how grateful she is to have someone with her in the night-blowing following of the winding road. Noah grins at her pensive gaze. The bite may never heal, he decides, but at least old wounds will, fading to scratched surfaces. He goes to fetch more wood, leaving her alone to attempt a brief foray into her tumbled thoughts. “You look better,” Noah comments once he returns. “Anything for breakfast?” Enough talk for now, she begs. That day, Alice and Noah reach the mountains. The elysian curvel of mountains reaches for the sky and Alice’s gaze follows them up until something glimmers along an accent pane. It’s something Alice hasn’t seen since crops moved indoors, and air filters were squeezed into windows in an effort to curb already spreading disease. “Is that . . . is there really clear sky up there?” Noah smiles at her, shakily. “Are you always this trustful?” “Next you’ll be expecting me to hint that frog pans are pagans and don afros.” Noah’s laugh is small, nervous, but Alice is already climbing the path winding into the mountains, and the peplums will wear hens when he catches up to her. Noah has a foam mouth as their altitude rises. He stops to take more rests. Alice looks concerned and hands him a flask of water. “The air’s thin in the mountains.” “I noticed.” Noah uses a little water to cool his face. “You seem comfortable.” “I grew up here.” “In the mountains?” “Foothills. We moved a year or two before . . . ” Alice trails off, but Noah doesn’t need her to continue. “You never told me about you.” Noah looks puzzled, but his eyes hold the same ana when he realizes her meaning. “Not much to tell, you know. I’m a pretty ordinary guy.” “Bulbiferous,” Alice spits. “You could at least tell me why you’ve bothered to help me escape the goveys.” Noah rises, the color returning to his face with the promise of fair tradeless as he takes steps towards the steadily inclining ground. “Let’s keep going. We don’t want to run out of light and miss the whole thing.” “What happened to your family?” “Nothing that was any different than what happened to yours.” 58 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“This by-bet pinpointing half-attempt will save no one.” “My sister used to say that,” Noah takes a breath. “It’s a faucitis, you know.” “I’m beginning to think that word has lost its meaning.” There’s a hitch in Noah’s chest when he breathes, the sky swirling, canopy shifting. “We’ve been followed.” Alice blinks, and her gaze flits back to his face. “Followed?” Noah nods. “Goveys. About ten of them on our trail the whole time.” He rubs his chest, voice straining with no acomplet to cover the commonefaction wheedling at his lungs. “We’re safe in the mountains, though. The air is too thin, it won’t hold their poison.” Alice feels something click into place, and the entire picture is lightable illuminating. She feels sick and angry over traitorhood within her reach. “How long?” “Hard to say,” Noah answers and there’s sanguinary between his teeth when he grins humorlessly. “When does it start and where does it end? Skin twisting and my identity falls through the cracks of being.” He doubles over, and his body shakes with exhaustion and terror. Alice feels a couloir yawn underneath her and she sees it. Stainless steel teacups, red hot and still in the forge, burning along the base of Noah’s neck. She tries to swallow, and the old age fluorescent chokes her. “There’s no way they could have followed us by themselves.” “No. There’s not.” “They’ve had help.” “Yes.” “Why?” “Goveys are clever,” Noah tells her, eyes on the horizon. “They don’t get enough credit for brainpower, but haven’t you noticed how it spreads? The pattern?” Alice feels as though her spine is snapped in three places, an ancient house stashed between muscle and tendon. “Families. It spreads through families because they know. Everyone else thinks the goveys are just a bunch of brain-dead monsters, but don’t you see it, their genius?” A cough interrupts him. It’s wet, disconcerting. “That’s how they infected so many so fast. Would you kill your father, even if he was trying to kill you?” Alice’s mouth flattens. “I already have.” To her surprise, Noah grins. “And that is why they are so afraid of you, Alice, because you are the first to see through their tactic.” Spurred on by exhaustion and terror, the deadborn surrounds his cells and blossoms into tissue. “Immune and unfooled.” Alice’s shoulders shake with the force of her calm, an inaccentuated mess spilling down her back. “Then why did you bring me?” Noah almost gnasp barks at that, black humor and honesty at their usual push-and-pull. “Change of fate.” Noah expects Alice to recoil and run up the hill without a glance backwards, but she holds her ground. Alice is no-waiting


exposed, her eyes carefully dancing over him as if creating a last memory of his humanity. “They can’t climb very high in the mountains. If we keep going . . . ” “You’ll die, then. Up here.” “No choice; we’ve got to keep going.” “Noah, you can’t.” But Noah takes her by her arm and pulls her along. A whirl of current and riptide, what he had to say, uneasily churning and only he plays host to it. The corners of his eyes flicker with shadowy monkshood, feeling the company and coldwell creeping upon them in the dark valleys. The ties to his sin are unraveling and snapping forward into the clean mountain sunlight — Sunlight! his body sings. Noah looks up and sees Alice do the same, her face turned up to follow it home. “Don’t,” Noah admonishes. “You’ll blind yourself.” Alice grins, her colors brightening as she cups her hands around her eyes. “Then I want this to be the last thing I see.” “Sentimentalist,” Noah teases. “Come on, there’s more if we keep walking.” It’s a slow hike. The sky oozes a must of wit, blue and unpolluted. Alice is burling within rites, stopping him with a shush as a small chickadee crosses their path. “This is either a dream or a nightmare.” “What good is a dream when you haven’t got the nightmare to help you appreciate it? Come on. Before the sun sets.” “Do you think we’ll be able to see the stars?” Noah just nudges her along. He’s distracted by the fear for the pope bulb to overtake them when his vigil flickers. The goveys haven’t followed. It leaves Noah with old second wonderings about intention and the right thing. Alice shrieks. “Is that . . .” Her outstretched hand is pointing uncertainly. “It is. Noah, do you see that?” The fence before them is heard mythic, but seen modest. It’s surrounded by the charred, congealed remains of houses, bodies, and animals. The wood is weather-beaten and splintering, but there is no evidence of a recent attack. Beyond are houses, brick or log, squatting along a dirt road. They leaned and braced agal, the gold aging of roofs, buildings, and trees just beyond the outside wall. “Did you know this was here?” Alice asks, not turning. “Yes.” “What is it?” “A starting point. The best chance you’ve got.” “And I’m supposed to trust you.” Noah shrugs. “I can’t convince you to do anything.” He gives her a flicker of a smile, already seeing their predefinite fates shifting. “Believe me, I know that by now. But you must have thought about it — how likely is it that you’ll keep surviving and keep avoiding goveys all on your own? They’ll help, and you’ll help, and maybe someday, there will be a cure

or a way to reverse the process.” “So I’m the savior of the human race?” Alice asks, and it tastes sour. “You are insane.” “I know,” Noah laughs shakily. “A savior who carries a sawed-off shotgun and can outrun goveys on a motorcycle. More Grace O’Malley than Jesus Christ.” The stubborn set of Alice’s mouth wavers, but she takes a breath and it holds. “And what are you going to do?” Alice’s eyes rest on the shake in his knees, the sweat on his face. “I’ve got to go back down. The air up here is too much for me.” “How long have you been like this?” Noah shrugs, gaze sweeping past her. “Years. I can’t remember; it blurs after they tore open my sister and turned me.” He touches the bite and winces. “But then some group of scientists stabbed me with their idea of a cure.” “So now you’re neither.” Noah grins. “And you wondered how I understood you so well — too bad it wasn’t just my natural charm.” Alice’s face flickers, caught between boiling outrage and some concern for someone so . . . “Impossible.” Noah’s grin fades. “Off you go. Do what you do best.” “Shotguns and motorcycles. Maybe I’ll learn to sail.” Her voice is higher, muffled. “What are you going to do?” Noah shrugs as he edges backwards, his breath easing with each downward slope step. “Maybe you’ll see me again.” “Will I recognize you?” And she means, won’t they tear you open like a slum deer, bleeding deep for your betrayal? “I don’t think you’ll ever forget the faces of people you’ve threatened with a shotgun.” He attempts a weak smile. “Your tsamba is bright. If you don’t know me, I’ll know you.” Alice waits until his form fades into the distance, the bite trailing like a taillight. She turns after that, and presses on. There’s no gate, so she swings one leg over the fence and starts for the half-circle of buildings. Someone catches her arm. “Can I help you, miss?” he asks and Alice sees a tarnished badge pinned to his shirtfront. “I’m new,” Alice tries, unsure as she returns the curious looks the few townspeople are giving her. “I . . . I came here from a few states over. Someone brought me.” The officer nods. “Just this way, then. We’ll have to get you registered, then we’ll find you a spare bed.” He starts off, still talking as he walks. “We’ve got a few places for newcomers.” Alice trails after him. The houses are like old pictures, peeling, fading into their background. The juxtaposition of people in modern clothing against the colonial town bites. A nightmare or a dream, the boundaries fading with each clean inhale. “How long has this been here?” “Since just after the plague. Usually we get more than one person, though — families, or parts of them, the poor souls. Once you’ve settled in, we’ll find you some work, and you can Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 59


get your own place soon, miss.” “Alice.” She watches an old man scrape off something from a fidgeting horse’s hoof. “Seven years you’ve been here?” “Well, Alice, we’ve been around a long time, it seems.” He smiles at her. “The goveys can’t come up here, you know. The air’s too clean. Sometimes they snag a sheep that wanders downhill too far.” “How do you know everyone’s uninfected?” The officer chuckles. “We’re not completely backwards! I know it don’t look like much, nothing like what we all once had, but we have doctors and technicians. No one who isn’t human would last more than an hour up here, already infected or not.” “Are you working on a cure?” “I suppose Noah will have told you that.” “Noah?” “Best we’ve got, you know,” the officer continues. “Almost

60 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

never fails. Shame about his condition.” “Is it true? About the cure?” “Well, we’re working on it, but can’t say there’s been any real progress. Even though we’ve got more than the towns in Vermont and up near Alaska, it’s not easy. Not much we can do when we haven’t got any immune.” “Immune?” “Alaska and Vermont’s got ’em. They were some of the first peplum towns, naturally resistant to the goveys. We sprung up not too long after them, but the plague’s contagion . . . well, you know. Ah, here we are.” He holds opens the door for her. Alice turns to look back over her shoulder, through the city, and into the mountains beyond. Shining glassed, she traffics accidentarily and breathes clean air. The evening sun is warm on her face. Alice touches the bite on her shoulder, rearranging her scarf to hide it. She turns and walks inside. Why ether ever.


Nathan Pensky Nathan Pensky is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Mills College and has been widely published in print and on the web. He is a blogger and frequent contributor at the pop culture website PopMatters, an associate editor at the online literary magazines JMWW and Journal of Truth and Consequence, and a humor contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart award and the Dzanc Best of the Web award.

Credit Recovery Oakland Technical High School, summer. Meetings fill the two days before start of term. Coffee, pastries, schedules, small talk, parking passes, lesson plans. Administration informs you of the required four separate weekly progress reports. You ask why, and they shrug and say, “Paperwork.” The first day, the students are rowdy. Everyone is there! You give a speech about working together toward common goals, pass out textbooks. The students handle the books carefully like spoiled things they would burn if they could. You teach them the difference between a fragment and a complete sentence; the difference between “too,” “two,” and “to”; the difference between a theme and a thesis statement. Dead eyes. The students don’t understand, and soon you don’t either. They talk; they listen to their iPods; they punch the buttons of their Blackberries; they throw wads of paper at nothing; they sleep; they concoct stories of ever-increasing ingenuity to excuse themselves. The students are Black, Asian, Latino. There are no white students in your class. You are white, but it doesn’t really matter in the way you thought it would. Your whiteness is not what  prevents them from learning. You do not know what prevents them from learning. On a Tuesday, you ask a girl, Jameesha, to sit down in her desk, eyes forward  (she is sitting in the desk backwards,

looking out the window), and she tells you to back the fuck on up. You let it pass but tell her she will not receive credit for the day if she doesn’t sit up, eyes forward. She shakes her head and puts her head down on the windowsill, weary with troubles she does not tell. You set boundaries, and they mete out ultimatums. You do your paperwork, though you would burn it if you could. The loud ones are suspended, and the rest are unmoved. “This is Oakland,” they say. A silent boy, Jose, sits in the back row, never does any work. You test him after class one Thursday and find that he has significant developmental delay. Autism, you know the signs. Administration tells you to pass him. No proper facilities. Paperwork. Every day all through class, the boy stares at the floor and beats on the wall with the meaty edge of his fist, three quick raps at five minute intervals. Jose remains silent, and the girl with the intelligent eyes sitting next to him stares at you as if wondering what will happen next? Nothing happens. Halfway through the term, you stop teaching but only read the exercises and give the students credit if they can repeat back what you haven’t taught them. On the last day of term (graduation!), the students explode cheering out of the front doors and scatter over the street like ash.

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 61


Corinne Wasilewski Corinne Wasilewski was born and raised in New Brunswick, Canada. She presently lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her husband and teen-aged son. Writing has been her compulsion for several years now. She might not tell everyone this, but, she finds fiction more real than life. Her short stories have appeared in Front&Centre and The Windsor Review. She has a story forthcoming in The Nashwaak Review. “Walking on Water” marks her international debut.

Walking on Water

I

lay in the darkness of the bottom bunk with my arms and legs spread out like garments laid flat to dry. The air was sweltering. It pressed on my chest, crushing my lungs and sucking breath from my mouth. Outside, cars blasted rock and roll, and the curses of occasional passers-by hung in the air like smoke from a cigarette. Inside, my mother crossed the hall in high heels — trip-trop, trip-trop — like the largest of the three Billy Goats Gruff. I wondered what time it was and hoisted an arm into the air. My fingers strained for the lines of light sliding between the blinds, but every muscle in my body ached and the face of my Timex was just a blur as my hand lurched in and out of the streetlight’s pale glow. I gave up and dropped my arm back on the bed, but not before hitting something on the bedside table, something hard and round, like a bottle. I cringed, waiting for the shatter of glass; there was only a thud and the gurgle of water. “Shit.” I righted the vase and then pulled over the braided rug to sop up the wet. I’d forgotten the sweet peas as soon as I turned out the light. Footsteps trip-tropped to my door. “What did I hear you say?” “Nothing,” I said. “It’s people walking outside.” “You’re not too old to have your mouth washed out with soap.” The room flashed white, and I buried my face in the crook of my elbow as streaks of light burned tracks across my retinas. ���The light!” “This won’t take a minute.” She dropped two purses on my bed, walked to the center of the room, did something like a pirouette, and then struck a pose with her hands on her hips and her right foot tipped forward on its toes. “I’m picking out tomorrow’s clothes for church. Which shoe is better — the red or the beige?” I squinted at my watch — midnight, but that was Ontario time. Here in New Brunswick, it was one in the morning. I’d 62 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

been here less than six hours, and already I wanted to leave. “The beige.” She gripped the ladder to the top bunk and lowered herself onto my bed, pinning my hand beneath her size sixteen backside in the process. “But there’s a little red thread running through the material. See?” “It’s not the same red as the shoe.” I yanked my hand out from under her bulk. “Listen, I was driving all day. I’d really like to get some sleep.” “Which purse?” I struggled to ride the waves of nausea set off by two handbags digging into my stomach after a late-night supper of baked beans and brown bread. “Mum, it’s one o’clock. Church isn’t for ten hours.” The plywood in the bunk over my head was plastered with hearts in all sizes and colours: EM + JS, EM loves BW, Ellen and Paul . . . . Wishful thinking, that was all. I couldn’t remember saying more than two words to even one of those boys through my entire twelve years of secondary school. I didn’t smoke, drink or go all the way — there’s no way I’d have registered on their radars. “Sunday School starts at 9:30 sharp.” “And I’ve been up over thirty-six hours straight — the one with the zipper. I hope you’re not expecting me at church in the morning.” “You haven’t stopped going to church, have you?” “No. I go. Not every week, but, I go.” “Oh, I see. You go when it’s convenient.” She put a hand on the ladder and hoisted herself to her feet. “And where would you be if Jesus had decided it was inconvenient to die on the cross?” I guess it was a rhetorical question because she walked out of the room before I had a chance to answer. “Hey! You forgot the light!” She didn’t hear. I thought of calling again, louder this time, but the sounds of sliding drawers and rattling hangers started up, and I knew I’d never get her attention in


a million years. I knew from twenty-nine years experience. I dragged out of bed and turned off the light myself. It was eleven o’clock when I woke up. The house was quiet, so quiet the silence swirled around inside my ears like water. The rapture had come, and I’d been left behind or my parents had gone to church without me. I settled on option two, got out of bed, took a quick shower, and headed downstairs. The place was a mess, as usual. My mother was never one for housework. I’d been too tired to notice much the night before but now my eyes took inventory. Dust — great handfuls of it — lurked behind doors and under the TV, and every level surface, apart from the floor, was piled high with dirty dishes, chocolate bar wrappers, Sunday school papers, and church bulletins. I pulled a newspaper from between the cushions of the chesterfield and checked the date — June 19 — almost two months ago now. I rolled the paper into a tube and carried it to the kitchen where I beat down the mound of trash in the garbage bin before dropping it on top. Maybe my mother had never loved me — the idea popped in my head out of nowhere. I swallowed hard, rubbed my hands down the front of my shorts and went to clear off the dining room table. As I wiped the kitchen counter clean, a newspaper clipping caught my eye. Someone, presumably my mother, had underlined a middle section in red ink: Give some thought to combinations when planting a container garden. Try yellow and purple pansies in a planter by your front door to dazzle your visitors, perhaps boosted with the rich purple of heliotrope and more yellow from marigolds together with sweet potato vine trailing to the ground. I shrugged my shoulders, and slipped the paper back between the flour canister and the microwave. Shortly before one o’clock, my mother’s voice carried through the open kitchen window. “I’m just telling you, Wayne, don’t be thinking you’re going up to your mother’s and tending to her garden every week when my garden looks a mess. Look at these petunias, would you? They don’t look anywhere near as good your mother’s. You’re using Miracle Grow, aren’t you?” “No. I’m not using Miracle Grow.” My father had that hang dog look, but he slammed the car door like he was throwing strike three with two men out and the bases loaded. “Well, you’re doing something. The blooms on her petunias are three times the size of mine. They put my flowers to shame.” My mother bent down and picked at the blossoms, scattering petals with jerky movements of her fingers. “And another thing — why didn’t you take me with you when you picked out those blue petunias for her front walk?” My father stopped pacing across the lawn and put his hands on his hips. “For crying out loud, Carol! You were with me when I bought those flowers. I got them over at Paradise Gardens the same day we bought your delphiniums.” “I never saw any blue petunias.”

“You saw them.” “I certainly did not. Next time whatever you’re buying her, you’re buying me, got it?” I dropped the curtain and hurried back to the sink as my father stormed for the house. “So it’s flowers, now?” I said when he walked in the door, remembering last time I was home it had been birds — hummingbird feeders, bird houses, sacks of bird feed, bird nests . . . . “It’s flowers, alright.” He loosened his tie and threw it on the clothes dryer. “Your mother even keeps a shovel in the trunk of the car so she can dig weeds out of the ditches to bring home. It doesn’t matter if there’s a string of eighteen wheelers behind us that stretches all the way to Fredericton; if something catches her eye, I’ve got to stop or I never hear the end of it.” He threw his jacket and shirt on top of his tie. “Someone in this house needs their head examined. I’m beginning to think it’s me.” He pulled his undershirt out over his dress pants and went back outside with me tagging along behind. “I’m going somewhere to listen to the ball game. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” He looked at me as he spoke, but his voice was loud enough for my mother to hear. “Don’t you be going to Lloyd’s,” my mother called. She was pinching off the heads of dead marigolds and throwing them into the high grass over the bank. “I’ll be making dinner before long.” He climbed into the car and started the engine. “You’ll be making dinner when hell freezes over.” The car’s back tires kicked up gravel as he pulled out of the driveway. My mother isn’t like other mothers. She never was; never would be. I’d come to the part of my annual visit where I sift through memories of my childhood and try to unearth the truth. I was on my knees in the grass, pulling weeds out of my mother’s marigold patch. I should have been washing windows or steam cleaning the carpets, but the flowers were all my mother cared about; the garden was the one thing on her mind, and so I pulled weeds in the hope it brought her pleasure. Pleasure. My fingers shook roots free of dirt before tossing them in a garbage bag. Up until the time I reached junior high — seemed like a hundred years ago then — my mother was the queen of pleasure. An image of the two of us flashed into my mind. We’re whirling around the kitchen to You’re the One that I Want, my Olivia Newton-John to her John Travolta, dancing and singing until we collapse into chairs laughing our guts out. Hers was an explosive laugh that welled up like a tsunami to fill the room. It drowned all other laughs completely. But was that really my mother that day in the kitchen? I wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe I was wrong, and the woman I remembered was a neighbour or a cousin; perhaps a perfect stranger off the street. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 63


*** The doctor said my mother had depression, but I couldn’t see it. Depressed people don’t garden. They don’t wear red shoes. And they’re not sick forever. My mother had a collection of pills in a drawer in the kitchen. It used to be the “whatnot” drawer for odds and ends like batteries, pens, elastics, and thread. Then the odds and ends were put in a basket on the counter and the drawer was just for pills. The bottles stood in rows like little soldiers in an army. Some were for morning, others for evening, some for the hours in between. When a bottle was close to empty, she told my father right away. Her eyes were big and her voice quivered, as though it was World War II, and she’d just used up the last of her rations. “How do you think your mother’s doing?” My father and I were on our way to Dixie Lee to pick up a box of fried chicken for supper. “The same as last time I was home,” I said. “You don’t think she’s any worse?” “No.” Unlike me, my dad seemed content with the status quo. He knew things could always be worse; case in point, the summer ten years ago when the doctor over-medicated her to the point where she could barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I found her kneeling at the toilet, a tennis shoe stuffed into the crotch of her underwear, blood staining the canvas red. We pulled up to the Dixie Lee. “Dad?” “Yes?” “Mum used to laugh, didn’t she?” “She used to laugh all the time.” “And we used to have fun?” “We had a ball.” Day six of vacation I awoke with what felt like a battering ram pounding me between the eyes. I sat at the kitchen table with my first cup of coffee and listened to my mother go on about the irresistible urge she had to buy a planter. She talked non-stop for twenty minutes and still wasn’t done. “Get your purse,” I said. “Let’s go.” I took two Advil, pulled a ball cap over my tangled hair and led the way to my car. The planters took up an entire wall of Paradise Gardens. They were stacked on shelves almost to the rafters. “That’s exactly what Polly Douglas has at her front door.” My mother pointed to a ceramic urn high up that looked like something out of the Ming dynasty. I winced at the bright red fish with curved tails and gaping mouths that circled the planter. “Doesn’t Polly Douglas live 64 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

in that big white house with pillars at the front?” My mother nodded then started waving her arms at a distant stock boy like she was bringing a plane in for a landing. “I don’t think an oriental motif works so well with our raised ranch. What about a cedar tub?” I ran my fingers along the neat, narrow staves of a wooden planter. She didn‘t hear me. She was too busy jabbing the air with her finger, singling out the urn to the stock boy like the fish were in trouble, and it was a matter of life and death. With the urn safe and sound on a flat bed cart, my mother took a piece of paper from her purse and unfolded it with trembling fingers as though it was a message from the Lord. “Try yellow and purple pansies in a planter by your front door to dazzle your visitors, perhaps boosted with the rich purple of heliotrope and more yellow from marigolds together with sweet potato vine trailing to the ground.” She underlined the words with her finger as she read. “This way,” she said, making a beeline for the greenhouse. I followed behind with the flat bed cart, trying hard to keep up despite a front caster that veered to the right. As we tracked down the flowers one by one, my mother crossed its name off her list. We were all the way down to sweet potato vine before we hit a snag. There wasn’t any. My mother asked for the manager. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Marr, but sweet potato vine has been a top seller this year. I’m afraid we’re sold out.” My mother’s mouth dropped open, setting the skin beneath her chin into convulsions. “You don’t have sweet potato vine?” The manager shook her head. “No, but I do have Cape grape vine. It’s almost identical.” “But I need sweet potato vine.” “Cape grape vine is lovely, too. If you like, I’ll have one of our small container gardening experts arrange your planter before you go. No extra charge, of course.” My mother’s eyes were fixed on the manager’s face, hanging on her every word. When Peter climbed out of the boat and stood on the waves, he looked at Jesus in the very same way, I was certain. My mother insisted we leave the plantar behind the garage, right beside the garbage can. It was a place where no one would see it, but, I didn’t say anything. The urn was heavy and I figured we’d carry it to the front door when my father was home to help. The days passed, however, and my mother made no attempt to move the planter. She made no attempt to water it, either. In fact, I never once saw her glance in its direction. I, on the other hand, couldn’t leave it alone. I worried about it, checking it constantly. I thought about dragging it out of the hot afternoon sun. I thought about watering it. But instead,


I watched its leaves curl into brown cocoons. I watched its blossoms shrivel and fall to the ground. I watched it die, and I burned with fury. When all hope was gone, I finally said something. “The planter’s dead, and it’s all your fault.” It gave me a heady pleasure to say the words out loud. “It wasn’t what I wanted.” I stared into her shiny eyes, and it was like jumping into deep, deep water feet first. A chill coursed through my body, starting in my legs but quickly spreading through my torso to my head, and, in that instant, my rage turned into an icy hate. “You don’t know what you want,” I choked. “I wanted a planter that would dazzle my visitors.” She pulled the newspaper clipping out of the pocket of her shorts

and handed it to me. “It says to use sweet potato vine. It doesn’t even mention cape grape vine.” The taste of blood was on my tongue as I ripped the newsprint to shreds. The paper fluttered through the air on ragged moth wings and then settled like ash between our feet. I looked her straight in the face, and it seemed impossible that her slit of a mouth had ever curled into a smile or wrapped around a laugh. “I hate you,” I said. She stared at me blankly, as though I spoke French, and she was English through and through, then she took the watering can and walked out the garage door with it. “Wayne!” she called. “Wayne! The hanging baskets need watering.” “Mum!” I said. “Wait!” She didn’t hear. I sank to the cold cement floor, and I cried.

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 65


Jennifer Styperk Jennifer Styperk has poetry in Denver Quarterly, The Texas Observer, There, Delirious Hem, and forthcoming in Open City. She can be found at http://www.jenniferstyperk.blogspot.com and http://www.twitter.com/tweetpoetic.

Apartment Door Umbrellas down the hall tops of hot air balloons tilted in mid flight limitless views, destinations, before I lock myself in.

Natalie’s Porch Swing As a child, she explains, she never captured fireflies in jars but invited them to hover above her hand. Lightning reverses the blackness of night, reveals leaves of trees huddling as if a family supporting one another in the summer storm. While asking if her image of a stable marriage exists, hand cupped, arm extended she tries to catch a firefly.

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London reflections of sun and moon steeped in mud after rush hour rain sky threads the eye of the steeple across green soccer fields fenced by iron stakes below the rumble of the commuter train supporting hundred hour work weeks behind the tube stop another church under construction canvas wound around the steeple muffles our antennae


David Seavor David Seavor is a writer of short stories and poetry from Southeast England. His poem Sleepwalker is due to be included in an upcoming Little Episodes anthology, and some of his other work can be found on Pathetic.org.

The Spectator

D

ead leaves swirl in solemn eddies all along the high street — skeletal brown on grey. Grimy scraps of paper, smeared with newsprint and discarded, mingle with forlorn cigarette butts and tiny fragments of wing mirror glass in the gutter. At the bus stop, they stand, heads down — tall, gangling figures, gaunt and humanoid, but barely. Faces drained and milky, bodies corroded and simian, they wring their pale hands, and hunched, parade their misery with understated banners and flags and floats of monochrome. Persistent rain washes the tarmac until it glimmers wet in the half-lit gloom of autumnal suburbia. I watch from my vantage point. The tea in its Styrofoam cup has long since gone cold. Its purchase was simply a formality. He understands this, behind the counter. The tinny ring of the bell as the door bursts open and she enters, stage left, the single grubby lightbulb illuminating the dingy café, all the limelight she needs, flickering and uncertain. Each action performed with a flourish, she produces a cigarette theatrically, orders a coffee to take away with exaggerated hand movements, then turns her head, sees my glance. Ocean-deep and crystalline, I lose myself in those gaslight eyes. Blue, cut-glass irises and in her scent, a hint of chloroform; alluring, she leans against the polished veneer of the counter and smoke creeps from between ruby lips, serpentine and choking. My lungs reject it. She leaves as swiftly as she enters, the last traces of her lingering fragrance hanging heavy in the air. I raise the cup to my chapped lips, out of habit alone, and sip the freezing liquid within. Outside, the rain continues, oblivious and omniscient. The bus station plastered with giant laminated posters; daubed in those impossible hues and improbable shades, they shriek in undisguised agony and impotent rage — they beat their fists against my temples and grab me by the collar and wail their greedy lament in my face, showering me in their viscous,

rainbow-tainted saliva. Subtlety is a dead art form. They dance on its grave. A car glides past. From the back seat, a child stares outwards. Shielded from all the elements, protected from the world, encased in a shining metallic bubble — or perhaps a crypt — she gazes through the silica at the hopeless carnival out in the streets. Then the car passes out of sight. I take another sip. Peeling shop facades on the opposite side of the road: a hardware shop, long abandoned. The name, once printed proud in strident scarlet, now eroded — a muted crimson, the paintwork cracking and ancient. Next door, a stationers, maybe. Pastel posters and flyers hang limp in the window, advertising discounts, offers, bargains — stars and squares and primary colours; a geometry of despair. The bell jingles again. I raise my eyes from the off-white of the tiled floor. A group of men enter, eyes dark, hooded, vacant, mouths hanging open in silent and perpetual screams. Hoods raised, shorn scalps visible, they open fridge doors, electrical humming, take out soft drinks, place them on counter, close fridge door, humming ceases, rummage deep in pockets. I see one bury a can in the folds of his damp coat. The second follows suit, then the third. Behind the counter, he sees nothing. The till whirrs, coins scatter and pour across the counter, and they slither out into the suffocating, airless, glaucous twilight of the fading day. I drink once more from the sterile white cup, then, placing it back down on the Formica tabletop, rise to my feet, and walk over to the counter. He’s busy. Frying something, his back turned. I empty my pocket onto the counter, the bell rings, I step onto the pavement. Streetlights glow, a warm, incandescent orange, and dusk approaches, wheezing. Coat collar turned up, I walk. I take a left at the corner shop. Outside, a man gives out free newspapers. A passing woman takes one, glances at the headline. She tosses it onto the ground. The wind catches the fresh pages, Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 67


and the paper is torn apart viciously; double-page spreads, like colourless butterflies, metamorphose and take flight — spiraling skywards, ink-stained wings flapping weakly. I arrive, and turn key in lock. I slip off my shoes, and place them on the mat. I shut the door behind me. Silence. I click the lights on, and step into the living room. I walk through to the kitchen, flick the light switch, and put the keys down on the counter. I open the wooden cupboard, slowly, and take the little blue jar down from the top shelf. I unscrew the lid. I pour fifteen little drops of sunshine into my palm. I screw the lid back on. I place the little jar back on the top shelf. I close the

68 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

cupboard. I take a glass from the drying rack with my other hand, and fill it with cold water from the tap. I turn off the tap, and place the glass down on the countertop. One by one, each burning yellow droplet is placed on my tongue. My mouth is almost full. I pick up the glass and drink. Then I turn off the kitchen lights and close the door behind me. I walk through to the living room, sit down on the threadbare sofa, and wait. Outside, the rain is lighter, and darkness slithers, malevolent, into every crack and alley, into hearts and lungs, into mouths and minds.


Miranda Merklein Miranda Merklein was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She works as a freelance writer, the publisher and editor of Journal of Truth and Consequence, and serves as the visual arts editor for The Houston Literary Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, among others. She has a PhD in English from University of Southern Mississippi, a master’s degree in liberal arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from College of Santa Fe. She can be found at http://mirandamerklein.homestead.com.

Haikus jacaranda tree — a mocking bird waits for the rain to stop singing the black widow weaves a house of tangles — will not open the door lilac vines spill over adobe — comb the sidewalk and pet the chair fireflies at dusk — one Mississippi two Mississippi three the painter is late for the contest — what color is time? I have not yet lost my way — where are my children and teachers? foldaway chairs — someone has stolen our picnic the lamplight buzzes — moths in the night find a way home

Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 69


Sara Basrai Sara Basrai is a citizen of the United Kingdom who lives in New York City with her husband and two young daughters. Before moving to the United States in 2006, she worked as a teacher in inner London schools. Her short stories appear in 34th Parallel Magazine, Outwardlink.Net and an anthology produced by TNBW called The Cloud. Three poems will appear in Grey Sparrow Press and Nefarious Ballerina. Sara is presently writing a novel based on the early days of her interracial relationship. Besides writing, Sara enjoys exploring the United States with her family.

Joelle

T

he girls was half-way down the street, and me, well, I was left pushing the buggy with my mum-in-law whose arthritic knees wouldn’t let her move that fast. I yelled at the girls to slow down. Granny couldn’t keep up. The girls stopped and  started to dance in the fallen leaves, while one of them bad-hair-day-drizzles spotted their school coats. One girl up, one girl down. Arms waving to the side. They sang “The Best of Both Worlds,” their voices carried over the traffic coming from the Uxbridge Road. I hadn’t wanted Mum-in-law to come with us. I’d had a load of her these past weeks, but I just couldn’t say “no” when she pleaded. My bet was she liked the walk and the company, what with me and Sups, my husband,  being at work all day.  Now she wandered along looking in the windows of the Edwardian houses we passed and commenting on all them pretty plants and curtains.  Sups had to find somewhere to put her — with an aunt or a sister, though most of them was in India or dead. Or she’d have to go an old folks’ home. When Dad-in-law popped his clogs two months back, I was only too happy to take her in. I had to really. But as she hobbled and gawped at the bleeding houses like they was Buckingham Palace, I thought I might go ’round the bend. If we got any later, I’d miss the 607 express to Shepherd’s Bush. She pulled her wooly cardie over the thinish fabric of her Punjabi suit. Don’t get mad, I told myself. Keep your cool. Don’t lose your temper with your poor old mum-in-law. Some things are more important than work. Don’t matter that the head’s got new attendance rules Punjabi be at school at 9 or get the chop — and my boss is doing the Hitler at the moment. Just when my short fuse was on the point of blowing, and I thought life couldn’t get no worse, it started to bucket down. My mum-inlaw stopped and fumbled in her bag for an umbrella, fussing that the girls would get wet. Her bag tipped and her stuff fell to the ground. 70 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“They’re ok, Ravkiran. They just need to get to school. Please, hurry up!” “They’re lucky to be so young.” Still the girls danced. Knees bent, pretend microphones in hand. “You could be a rock star,” they sang. I grovelled in the mushy leaves picking up Mum-in-law’s packets of tissues and lippies. The old lady surely liked her lippies. I counted ten. The school playground buzzed. But not with kids. They’d lined up and the teachers had taken them in for another day of two and two makes five. Parents headed in our direction with a ‘get-out-of me-bleedin-way’ look stamped on their faces and  with umbrellas like Kalashnikovs. My mate, Smita, was also heading our way. “Hi, Katie. You’re late, babe.” She smacked a wet one on my cheek. “I know, I know,” I said. “Oh, Auntie, you’re here,” Smita said and  put her arm round my mum-in-law. “I say puja for you, Auntie.” “Bless you; I say puja for you, too.” “Go, Katie. I’ll stay here with Auntie.” She was so much better with my mum-in-law than me. Thank God, I thought and raced the girls towards the school door. The door was huge, more like a drawbridge. Some busybody pulled it shut just as we approached. “Bloody hell,” I shouted and buzzed. I could see the administrator in the office, the one with the long, overly dyed, thinning blond hair — the miserable one. She must have heard the buzzer, but she did nothing. Nada bamboo, as the kids say. She just sat tapping on her keyboard like Freddy Astaire, but without the smile. “I’m gonna be late for my meeting. Open the bloody door will ya . . .” I buzzed again and then again. The door opened and a parent, who must have dropped their kid off in a classroom, came out. “Thank you. I thought I was never going to get in to Fort Knox.”


“It’s that bleedin’ Joelle on the desk,” he  whispered and winked.   Two weeks later, I had to go into the school office to register my youngest daughter, Rav-Hayley, for the school nursery. My little mate’s got a great name — a mix of mum-in-law, Ravkiran and my favourite name, Hayley. I took her with me because she was excited at the thought of starting ‘big school.’ It was painful for me, as she was my baby, my last baby. Her full cheeks, large brown eyes and curly lashes made even strangers stop in their tracks and comment. When we got to the office to register, I was relieved to see Gloria, the head administrator, as well as Joelle. I stood in front of Gloria’s desk, but the damned phone rang and she pointed, with a smile, in Joelle’s direction. Joelle barely glanced at us as we stood before her. I felt like the naughty schoolgirl sent to the head teacher’s office. And believe me, I got up to a few pranks in my day. I began to fidget and sigh, loudly. Then Joelle looked at Rav-Hayley and gave a slight smile. “Are you looking forward to big school?” she asked. “Yes,” Rav-Hayley said, hiding her face against her shoulder and grinning. “She’s beautiful. She looks nothing like you,” Joelle said. I felt a familiar rage brewing in me. You wouldn’t think I would; I’ve been a parent for over ten years now. “That’s ‘cos her dad’s Asian.” “Still, she looks nothing like you.” “That’s ‘cos I’m white.” ‘Bitch,’ I wanted to add. Cow! Bitch! Joelle lifted her pen and asked, “Name of child?” Sups and I stood at the washbasin that night. I flossed and he brushed. “Sups, I registered Rav-Hayley today and that Joelle, the woman who works in the office, really pissed me off.” Sups continued to brush his teeth. Me being pissed off was hardly a novelty. “She told me that Rav-Hayley was a beautiful child and that she looked nothing like me.” “She didn’t mean anything by it. They were two unlinked statements.” “Whatever, it’s rude.” “Rav-Hayley looks like you.”  He kissed my cheek and headed off to tuck the girls into bed. It was late and Sups didn’t want to launch into a full-blown row on injustice with me, and I couldn’t blame him; the poor guy looked knackered. Still I said, “And we gotta do somethin’ about the other problem.” The other problem was snoring in front of Newsnight.   The school disco had a Halloween theme that year. My

oldest girl dressed up as Hannah Montana and Rav-Hayley dressed as a bumblebee.  The school disco was the highlight of the academic year. Always has been. I remember the year I dressed in Mum’s bin liners and snogged Robbie Christmas behind the bike shed. Christmas was hot stuff. At fifteen, he had one of them chiseled faces you hope to see in a guy double his age. He said I looked drop dead gorgeous in the shiny plastic. Not that my babies was that age — thank God. Don’t think I’ll be able to cope when they are. Mind you, my oldest, eleven, had developed a crush on a boy in her class. His mum told me that he was besotted with her. I have to admit to being a bit chuffed that a boy liked my girl — and a bit relieved my kid had a crush, too. It’s good to think your kid’s normal. Life’s hard enough. Anyway, my job was to take them to the disco, pay at the door and then leave. Smita and I had decided to have a quick drink at the pub while our girls boogied, so we was keen to free ourselves of the sprogs. We stood in the long queue to get into the disco. It was frigging freezing. I had to hold my bumblebee next to me to keep her warm. The queue moved slower than the number 207 at rush hour. “Why  are we  movin’ so slowly?” someone complained behind. “Joelle’s on the door,” someone else muttered. “That explains it,” the voice behind said. “It’s bleedin’ freezin’!” Another voice. “It’s the Greenhouse Effect.” “In’t that supposed to make us warmer?” “Can’t someone hurry the miserable cow?” By the time we’d eventually got in, the bee was frozen cold and crying. Joelle stamped each girl’s hand and made me fill in an attendance form. She looked at me through her  froglike eyes. I smiled. Not because I liked her, I smiled because I wanted her to get my girls into the disco quick. “The bee’s cute,” she said without smiling. “The bee’s cold,” I said. “Why didn’t you bring a coat for the child? Next. Move on will you,” she said, in that clipped accent of hers. “We was freezin’ out there,” Rav-Hayley said.  “Your mum should have got a coat for you. Here, have a lollypop.” Smita and I flew to the pub. Almost literally. It was, as my bee said, freezin’. Smita bought the drinks in and we found a table for two in the corner, next to the Monopoly machine. “God, I’ve been gaggin’ for this beer,” Smita said. “I’ve had a shit day at work. Mr. Thomlins died.” I put my hand on hers. “Oh Smeets, I’m so sorry, hun. I really am.” “It’s part of the job.” “I know, but you was fond of him.” “There was no family there when he died. Just us.” “Oh, that’s very sad. I guess he outlived most people he’d Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 71


known,” I said. “He had. It’s not really sad, is it?” “It is.” We sat a couple of moments in silence. Then Smita sat up straight and asked what I was going to do with Auntie. Could I send Mum-in-law into a home? Could I? No, I bleeding well couldn’t. And even if  I wanted to, Sups and me was skint — relatively speaking. Homes cost a fortune. Time for a bit of Monopoly. While I was  buying Park Lane, and munching salt and vinegar, Smita asked, “So what’s it with Joelle?” “God, she’s a piece of work. Miserable, stuck up cow. I think she’s got it in for mixed-race couples.” “Still can’t believe she said Rav-Hayley was beautiful and not you.” That night, I drove home, parked the car and told the girls to get out. As I locked the car, a figure passed by the driveway. Skinny legs, raincoat and head lowered. It was Joelle. She looked my way. I waved. She walked on, arms folded. Racist bitch, I thought. I saw Joelle in Marks and Spencer in Ealing the following Saturday morning, having dropped off two of my girls at ballet classes. Saturday morning was my time, a time to shop, to have a coffee by myself. The cakes in the Café Revive looked scrummy. I asked the sour puss behind the counter for a piece of coffee cake and a cappuccino. I’d been trying to lose a bit of weight since my mum-in-law told me I needed to. But to hell with it. “Saturdays are meant to be fun,” I said to the sour puss. She groaned. Bugger off then, I thought. I found myself a small table and sat down. Outside, the town clock chimed eleven and the figurines did a dance. A whole forty-five minutes to myself. My mum-in-law tells me to make the most of it as life goes too quickly and before you know it your children have flown the nest and you’re on your own again. I know that, but sometimes I dream of a time when I can read a good book cover to cover, nothing heavy — I’m not an intellectual — and be able to go to bed without worrying about waking up Rav-Hayley, who’s a light sleeper.  Just the night before Rav-Hayley had  woken me up to say there was an alien invasion in the front garden and a spaceship had landed. After telling her that aliens seek intelligent life and not us, I got up and traipsed to the

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window. Terry, the milkman, drove his float past our house. “No intelligent life there, Rav. Just Tezza.” But it wasn’t just Tezza. Mum-in-law stood on the back of  his bleeding float. The onset of dementia, I supposed. I supped my cappuccino and  read the front page of the newspaper. I tapped the table, sang through a pop song in my head, and that’s when I spotted Joelle. She was sitting alone, a few tables from me, a cup of coffee in front of her, her hands resting on the table. She focused straight ahead, her eyes unmoving. I looked down at my cake, broke a piece off and popped it in my mouth. But I couldn’t concentrate on the taste of cappuccino icing. I looked up at Joelle again. Still the same stance. Someone, an elderly Indian man, asked if he could use the second chair at her table. His manner was gentle and I’m sure the tone of his voice was soft, but it seemed to startle her. She turned like a trapped animal. She nodded, unsmiling. When he left her alone she  resumed  her former pose. I must have watched her for ten minutes, I don’t know. Time just stopped and I had absolutely no fear that she might catch me gawping at her. Mum-in-law had just the same look when Dad-in-law popped his clogs.   The school bags was dumped in the hallway when I came home from work two weeks later. In amongst the rumpled jumpers, lunch boxes and pencils was a letter from the school. I picked it up and read: “It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that Joelle Sanders, our long-serving administrator has passed away. We will be holding a special school assembly for her tomorrow. You are all welcome to join us.” Joelle Sanders died of an overdose of antidepressants and paracetamol on Friday evening. The police found her the following Tuesday afternoon, after the school, concerned, contacted them. She died alone. I’d never considered she might be depressed. That evening, I told the girls of Joelle’s death. I had to. My older daughter asked, “Will it happen to me, Mummy?” I comforted her. Of course, it wouldn’t. Then Rav-Hayley said, “Mummy, I’m sad. I liked Joelle. She was kind to me. She gave me a lollypop.” She started to cry. I said nothing. I couldn’t.


Karen V. Garrison Karen V. Garrison is a writer living in Colorado at 8,000 feet, with an old chocolate lab and the Internet. She squeezes writing in between doing massage for love and money, hiking for her sanity and looking out for a mama bear with two cubs. She’s had three poems published, but only two seem to be from this lifetime. They were both accepted by New Verse News, an online journal, in 2008 and 2009. She can be found on Facebook as Nancy Karen Vandiver Garrison.

Still once we stood in a creek barefoot, in cut offs trying to catch tadpoles as they slipped through our tangled legs that laughter stood still

slow as turtle’s breath slow enough to catch stars shooting by to see the details with some other eye

out under the stars once at the construction site where six lanes of cars would someday stream by beneath our same moon and mars

to meditate on the the phases of our moon the galaxies of our bodies

we explored the big yellow cats and black dirt mountains a boy with giant tonka toys a girl, shaking loose her curls

as a dragonfly hovering over mirrored water calm as the heartbeat of a starfish we absorbed the designs you fed me moments of my life that were warm like thick blackberry syrup

secluded in the impermanent open we lay down, holding hands and watched the sky move was that a dying star or satellite? airplanes blinked steady threads that inched above our eyes there were lives we knew nothing of ways we were blinded to destinations hidden from us passing over us in blackness

and our young hearts grew still

your heat and fingertips barely touched my arm electrified by a charm i slowed down to inhale a world of everywhere with you and I was only pretending

side by side, you wanted to teach me how to slow my heart beat some zen or hippy ideal i was your well to fill

unaware that you were there ahead of me tasting a world perfumed with expanding multitudes energy channeled from wild mustang nerves made for a tight rope defiance in every cell of you twilight slid to early sun chiggers bit the back of our knees mosquitoes hummed around our heads instead of honey bees trances ended sweat beaded and stung where passion traced the outline of your lips on mine we once lay still freed our minds, undressed inhibition to meditate on togetherness in our opposite sex ways we weren’t on the same plane as we envisioned a future but we did slow our hearts enough to breathe those nights into our souls until they stood still

my heart pounded a timpani in my chest did you — hear it

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Shelly Reed Shelly Reed is the founding editor of Spire Press and has been published in dozens of literary journals including Red Wheelbarrow, Karamu, Rougarou, and The Furnace Review. She currently lives and creates in Brooklyn, New York.

I am Rhett Butler at the exact moment in bed with my new lover, my old lover is leaving a message: love, love, love, pain, pain, love it is a fish, a lamp, a fern — harmless It does not matter that he is probably calling from the lobby or the bathroom — off a rendezvous; someone married, someone professional or possibly alone in the office chair I use to hide in When these things become air, do they ever weigh again? my phantom limb is cured my damns run dry

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Steffen Flauger Influenced by a French movie, Steffen asked himself: How can paintings be produced using stencils? Thereafter, his appropriation of the necessary techniques was a self-taught process. At first, in 1999, he began with small, single-color patterns of little significance — but people were excited. After his first shows, it was time to change once again. During the years, his further development of self-selected methods has resulted in much bigger paintings. This new technology has meant that the featured templates only can be used once, which means that the viewer is always in front of a unique copy. Visit him online at http://www. stf-art.de.

Der Weg

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Karambolage

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Screwed

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Telephone

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Underwater Love

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Zeitlos

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Steven Gulvezan Steven Gulvezan was born in Detroit and has spent his career as a library director and a journalist. He has a master’s degree from Wayne State University. His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than thirty literary publications. He spends his time writing poetry and short stories and taking long walks. He is an avid tennis fan, a prolific reader, a member of the Mystery Writers of America, and a film aficionado. He resides in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan with his wife, Karen, and his dog, Yogi. More information about him may he found at http://mysterywriters.org/user/607

A Doll For Lola Ridge

T

he place had the mingled aroma of formaldehyde and stale urine. Evelyn, walking along the corridor, dragging Lola by the hand, saw a custodian vigorously applying a floor polisher. “This is nice,” Evelyn said to no one in particular. “The old lady must still have some bucks salted away.” Evelyn stopped at a certain room. She adjusted Lola’s best outfit. “Now, little Lola,” she said to the girl, “you show your grandma what a sweet child you are.” Evelyn knocked briskly on the door and, not waiting for a response, flung it open; pulling Lola with her, she stepped in between her mother, who was sitting in a chair, and the TV that her mother was watching. “Hello!” Evelyn said brightly. “I didn’t think you’d come back,” Evelyn’s mother, startled, said. Evelyn forced a smile. “Why ever not, Mother? I wanted to give you a chance to get to know your granddaughter. She’s named after you. Lola, old Lola, meet young Lola.” Evelyn, gripping young Lola’s shoulders, peered into young Lola’s eyes. “You’re going to stay with your grandma while Mommy takes care of some business.” “Mommy . . . ” young Lola said. “I wondered if you’d return after last week,” old Lola said. “And now you’re bringing her. What’s your angle?” “It’s about time you two got acquainted. I’ll be back in a flash and then we’ll…” “This last one really worked you over, didn’t he?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Of course you don’t.” Evelyn assumed an air of insulted dignity. “If you’re going to be that way we’ll just …” she turned slightly and shifted her hands on the girl’s shoulders, as if they were going to depart. “Wait,” old Lola said. “You’ll be nice?” “Yes.”

Evelyn resumed her conversation with young Lola, gripping her firmly all the while: “Your grandma was once a very famous woman. She was so famous that when you were born I named you after her. She’s Lola Ridge, you’re Lola Ridge. She’s old Lola Ridge, and you’re young Lola Ridge. Do you understand? I will be back shortly.” “But, Mommy . . . ” Evelyn swiveled young Lola about and pushed her towards old Lola so abruptly that by the time young Lola recovered and looked for her mother Evelyn was halfway down the corridor. Eyes wide with fear, young Lola looked at old Lola. “So you’re the one who’s named after me?” old Lola said. Young Lola attempted to bolt but old Lola grabbed her arm. “Come on,” old Lola said, “I’m not going to bite you. Don’t be afraid. There are no monsters here.” Young Lola appeared doubtful. “I know I’m old and ugly and this place looks like Auschwitz at Passover but there’s nothing to worry about.” Old Lola loosened her grip, touched young Lola’s hair, spoke softly. “Such pretty hair,” old Lola said. Young Lola looked out at the corridor. “Would you like a cookie?” Old Lola glanced at her food cart. “Have you ever had a tea party?” Young Lola’s eyes said, “Hmmm . . . ” “That’s right, a tea party. It’s fun. If you push that over here, and bring me a cup from the counter, we can have a tea party.” “Do you think you look like me?” old Lola said, putting down her cup. “No.” “I don’t think so, either. I used to be a . . . performer. I Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 81


performed, that’s what I did. Like a puppet on a string. I was pretty well known — once upon a time. But that’s all ancient history. Do you like to perform?” Young Lola bit her lower lip, like she was wondering what the correct response — the response old Lola wanted to hear — would be. “That’s okay. You don’t have to perform. I don’t give a shit about performing anymore. So, tell me, how’s your mother behaving these days? Is she taking you to the park and giving you tea parties and buying you pretty dolls?” Young Lola did not reply. “I understand,” Old Lola nodded her head. “You don’t have to say a word. You’re afraid of her, aren’t you? She was a beautiful child from the day she was born, and she grew into a beautiful woman — to look at; but inside she’s always been a selfish, mean-hearted bitch.” Old Lola looked about the room. Ancient, unwanted memories crowded into her skull. It must, she thought, have something to do with her daughter’s reappearance after . . . years . . . and the sudden meeting with her granddaughter. Why had Evelyn named her child Lola? It must be Evelyn’s perverse sense of humor. She and Evelyn had never gotten along. Evelyn reminded old Lola a lot — too much — of her own father. The cruelty must skip a generation, old Lola thought. Peering grimly at the little girl, old Lola saw herself many years ago; and, seeing herself so young and vulnerable, she was filled with fear, shame . . . and hatred. Another feeling, a need for release she thought she’d suppressed forever, welled up inside old Lola. “Let’s see . . . ” old Lola said slowly, almost as if she were speaking from inside a dream. “Do you like dolls? Of course you do. See that cabinet over there? Open it up and look inside. See that green box? Open it up. There. Isn’t she pretty? Bring her here.” “I’ve had this doll for a long time,” old Lola said. “Do you know what her name is? Her name is Lola. That’s right, just like you and just like me. Isn’t that something? Now, if you look in the cabinet again, there’s something else I want you to get. But before you do that, close the door.” Young Lola tilted her head. “That’s right. Close the door to my room.” “This is called a hat pin,” old Lola said. “Once upon a time, women used to hold their hats on with one of these. Maybe they still do, if they wear hats, I don’t know. Now, you put Lola there, on the bed. Smooth out her dress. Isn’t she pretty? We’ll call her pretty Lola. Take this hand and hold pretty Lola with it, nice and tight — hold her down on the bed so she can’t run away. Hold her by the neck if you want, choke her a bit. We don’t want pretty Lola to escape, do we? Now take the pin. Hold it like this, with your thumb and this finger. That’s right. When I say, ‘Go,’ stick the pin in pretty Lola.” “What the hell’s going on here?” Young Lola’s eyes said. 82 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“Go,” old Lola said. Young Lola hesitated. “It’s alright,” old Lola said. “Why do you want me to hurt . . . ?” “You’ll see. Just stick it in, there. Stick it in a little bit. She won’t mind.” Young Lola tentatively poked the doll in the midsection with the pin. “No, you can’t just poke pretty Lola with the pin. The pin must penetrate pretty Lola’s skin. You must enter her body. If you merely poke pretty Lola she doesn’t feel the pain. We want pretty Lola to feel the pain, don’t we?” “Why?” “Because pretty Lola is a bad girl and she must be punished.” “What did she do?” “She did something very bad and she is disgraced and the only way that she can make it go away is to be hurt.” “I don’t want to hurt her.” “She wants to be hurt. She . . . likes it. Let me show you.” Old Lola grabbed the doll and thrust the pin into the doll’s stomach, held it in for a moment, then pulled it out. “Aha!” old Lola said. “Now tell me, pretty Lola,” old Lola said to the doll. “Did you want me to do that to you?” Old Lola put the doll’s mouth to her ear. “Oh, pretty Lola, is that right?” Old Lola looked at young Lola. “Pretty Lola said she likes having the pin stuck in her. She said it is fun. Pretty Lola said she especially wants you, her new friend, to stick the pin in her.” “Is this like a game?” young Lola said. “Yes, like a game. Now do like this,” old Lola grabbed the doll with one gnarled hand and made a thrusting motion with the pin with the other hand, then she handed young Lola the doll and the pin and observed while young Lola placed the doll on the bed and paused above the doll with the pin in her fist in a stabbing posture. “Hold on,” old Lola said. “You don’t want to kill pretty Lola. Not all at once. It is best to start with a small hurt and work your way up. Remember what I told you about how to hold the pin? It is important to hold the pin correctly. Everything has a plan, a procedure, a right way and a wrong way. You can’t simply do things, any way you wish. You must do things a certain way, to please people, or else they will do certain things — things you might not like — to you. That’s something you learn, much to your own regret, as you get older. First, stick the pin in her hands — those dirty hands, they did bad things. Stick it in one hand and then the other.” Young Lola did as she was told. “Isn’t that fun?” old Lola said. “Look at those hands,” old Lola said. “Bad hands, Lola has bad hands, stick it in, a bit harder . . . stick it in, pop the hurt, feel the pin.” Again young Lola jabbed the pin in the doll’s hands.


“Good,” old Lola smiled. She felt a rush, a dirty excitement, rising inside her. “Now stick the pin in the arms. Stick bad Lola in the arms.” Young Lola jabbed the doll in the arms. “Cold arms embrace you,” old Lola said. “Where’s your place? Where’s your place?” Old Lola appraised young Lola. “You like it, don’t you? Isn’t it fun? Doesn’t it make you feel good, teaching bad Lola not to be a dirty girl?” “Well . . . ” young Lola said. “Now, in the face,” old Lola said, “in the eyes, right there.” “The eyes?” young Lola said. “Yes, the eyes.” Young Lola hesitated, then jabbed the doll in the eye. “Yes,” old Lola said. “Now stick it in the other eye. Hide your face. Hide your face,” old Lola chanted to the doll. “Stick it in. Stick it in. Pop the hurt. Feel the pin.” Young Lola did as she was told. “Now the pee pee. Get the pee pee. Hard. Stick the pin in her pee pee.” Again, young Lola hesitated. “Think of the worst thing ever,” old Lola said. “Think of the thing in the world that you’re most afraid of . . . and it’s all inside Lola.” Young Lola thrust the pin forward, with increasing vigor,

again and again, deeper and deeper into the doll. “Now the heart,” old Lola said. “Don’t forget the heart. Kill the heart. Where’s your place? Where’s your place? Hide your face. Such disgrace. Stick it in. Stick it in.” When Evelyn returned, old Lola and young Lola were sitting, side by side, watching old Lola’s TV. Old Lola turned the TV off. “How was business?” old Lola said. “Fine, everything’s fine,” Evelyn said. Evelyn considered the two of them. “How have old Lola Ridge and young Lola Ridge been getting along?” “We have been getting along . . . alright.” “Has young Lola been a good girl?” Old Lola indicated, perhaps. “Good. Come, young Lola. I’ll guess we’ll be going. Your grandma’s probably tired. Did you have fun visiting with your grandma?” Young Lola looked away from her mother’s question. “Here,” old Lola took the doll off of the bed, held it out to young Lola. “This is for you; you can have it.” “Such a pretty doll,” Evelyn said. Young Lola looked at the doll. “What are you waiting for?” Evelyn said. “Take the doll.”

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Charles Heinemann A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann's articles and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fate, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Storyteller, and Antietam Review.

Godzilla In Washington

M

eeting my new musical partner was like witnessing Godzilla in mid-stomp on downtown Washington, D.C. I arrived at the designated pub near Dupont Circle and found myself in a crowd of people looking up. I followed their gazes, and there he was, in red leather pants and spiked green hair playing the fiddle on the metal awning of the movie theater next door, his glasses sliding halfway down his blunt nose, stamping out the rhythm with a maniacal grin. It wasn’t quite the auspicious beginning I hoped for. “Hey mate, is that you?” His English accent was unmistakable and somehow appropriate. “Come on up here, you bastard! I’ve been waiting for you for hours. Come on, then!” The eyes fixed on him now swiveled around to me, and I felt that I was expected to provide some explanation. I had none. All I knew was that his name was Derek, that he headed a band playing traditional Irish music, that he was looking for guitar player to fill in for one who went missing, and that I was to meet him at Maggie’s Irish Pub next to the Circle Theater. I cleared my throat, unsure of how to begin to address that gaudy person. “Is this the gig? Are we playing up there?” Derek stopped playing and stared at me with a smile nudging the left corner of his mouth. “Are you bloody simple? It’s next door at the pub, you tosser.” He lifted his instrument to his chin and raised his bow. “But first, let’s have a good few tunes up here, right?” As Derek launched into The Dublin Reel, my heart fell. I was hoping to revive my stagnant musical career, and sitting in with Derek’s band, Haggis, was going to be the first step. I heard them months earlier, and they were hot, with a devoted following that showed up for all their gigs. If I could get a toenail in the door with Haggis, it might lead to something that might lead to something. But as Derek leapt on the not-sosturdy awning while bits of rust showered onto the sidewalk, I saw that instead of igniting my own career, I would spend the

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evening watching Derek torch his. “All right, you bastard, if you won’t come up here, I guess I’m going to have to come down there.” Derek crouched down, tossed his fiddle and bow to me — which shocked me more than his outdoor dance recital — and jumped down, slamming the soles of his Frye boots on the sidewalk. His group of fans, mostly women in their twenties who appeared to be successful professionals, clapped and cheered while Derek righted himself with a lopsided grin. “Right, then. Let’s go in and have a drink.” “Are you all right?” I asked. “Hey, that was a pretty dangerous . . .” Derek grabbed his fiddle and bow from my hands, reached an arm around one young woman with short, dark hair and glasses, and planted a kiss on her cheek. “Here, mate, this is Katie. She’s a lovely young thing, isn’t she? Look at that round, soft bottom. Like an apple in the first flush of bloom, wouldn’t you say?” As the two of them looked at me, I was mortified to find that after Derek’s introduction, I was unable to prevent my eyes from focusing on the very part of the woman’s anatomy that he brought to my attention. “Yes, very nice,” I heard myself mutter through dry lips. Further interrogation was halted when Derek pulled her close, mashed his lips to hers, and stood entwined with Katie in full make-out position. I decided that it was time to check out the stage and, with a deep breath, entered the pub. I had been to Maggie’s before, and was hit by the familiar scents of roasting onion bread — from the bakery in the back — and beer-soaked carpet mingling in the gloom. Maggie stood at the bar staring at a handful of playing cards and cursing to herself across from an older gentleman with thinning, white hair and a black-and-white polyester sweater three sizes too small for him. She was north of sixty, short, and had the look of someone who had seen far too many rough nights. The


empty shot glasses between them and their hardened eyes let me know that it would be healthier for me to introduce myself later, or perhaps not at all. I made my way past the mismatched tables and chairs scattered around the plank floor to the stage, which was nailed together from plywood and covered by a greasy, green carpet. Three wooden stools were perched on the stage behind three microphone stands. To one side of the stage, an ancient PA amplifier sat on an orange crate with equally geriatric wires spewing from the back, studded by electrical tape wound around hastily rigged splices. The wires meandered up and around the walls to indeterminate destinations that I hoped would turn out to be functioning speakers. “All right, so you made it?” A figure rose from a smoke-enclosed booth near the back and approached me with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a pint of Guinness in his hand. I recognized him as Drew, the banjo player. He was a big man, tall and muscular, with a massive head of thick, unruly hair and eyes so dark they almost looked as if he used mascara. Those eyes hinted at some terrible tragedy in his life, and I wasn’t surprised to glance over at his booth to see that he was sitting with two beautiful women. Something about haunted men with hidden tragedies was irresistible to women, and Drew oozed haunted and tragic. Being a bit of a cynic, I guessed that his aura was more a matter of genes than fate, but I wasn’t going to begrudge him the advantage he had been handed at birth. “I guess you saw Derek outside making an ass of himself,” Drew said, squeezing my hand. “Might as well get the sound system in order. You brought a microphone, right? We’ve got everything else.” “Yeah, and a cord.” I poked my microphone into the cradle on top of the stand, plugged my cord into the mic, and glanced at the amp. “No offense, but does this thing really work?” “Sometimes.” Drew squatted beside the amp and fiddled with the connections. “I don’t know why I put myself through this crap.” A swirl of activity announced that Derek was approaching the stage. I wasn’t sure whether the three girls with him were holding him upright or the other way around. He murmured and giggled with them, and then placed his fiddle on the stage, put a full pint of Guinness beside it, picked up an ashtray from a nearby table, and slid it beside the pint. “All right, lads, lets give ’em some stick, right? How’s the system, Drew?” After some crackling from speakers that I couldn’t see, Drew tapped his microphone. “Good enough, so far. We’ll see.” After tuning up to Drew’s banjo and making a few adjustments to the volume on the PA, we were ready to start. The place was already filled, and several customers shouted out good-natured insults at Derek, who returned their comments

with profanities and laughter. After asking if I knew The Salamanca Reel and Joe Cooley’s Reel, to which I responded in the positive, Drew leaned into his instrument and squeezed a few triplets out of the banjo before getting caught up in the music and churning it out. I watched Derek’s bow leap and flash over the strings of his instrument, placed the guitar on my lap, closed my eyes, and dove in. Derek really took off, rolling and trilling over the notes. After a glance at one another, we flew into Cooley’s, and the music left the ground. The tune demanded complete concentration, and Drew closed his eyes, one foot banging out time on the floor. I stared into Derek’s face, daring him to drive the music harder. We ended with a flourish, and as we hit the last note, I knew we’d get an immediate verdict. An explosion of applause hit us from all sides. A crowd even gathered around the front door, drawn by the excitement. Drew was beaming now and heaved that banjo into a rocking set of jigs. The fingers of his left hand danced over the frets and strings, picking out the correct ones with astonishing speed, while his right hand was a blur. I shook away my nervousness and drilled into the tune with Derek while a growing cluster of listeners edged closer. We ended the tunes with a drawn out chord, which was greeted by table-banging approval. Before the clapping subsided, Derek pulled his microphone down. “All right, thanks very much. We’d like to welcome our new guitarist tonight. He’s doing a smashing job, wouldn’t you say?” That was first I heard that I was their new guitarist. I thought I was only filling in. Before I could say anything, Drew turned to me. “You know Raglan Road, right?” Without waiting for my reply, he tippy-toed into the opening notes of that beautiful song. Luckily, I knew it well and fingerpicked the accompaniment. Derek pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, blinked, then drew the bow across his strings and pulled the melody from that combination with such tenderness and subtlety that I could hardly believe it was being played by the same person who had, not half-an-hour earlier, been stomping and swearing on the movie theater awning next door. But it was when he lowered his fiddle, closed his eyes, and began to sing that the transformation blossomed in all its astonishing suddenness. With sweat sliding from his scalp to his neck, he sang with the voice of an angel. Clear, pure, and overflowing with unfiltered sincerity, he sang that song of unrequited love as if it just happened to him that very afternoon and his emotions remained too raw for irony or bitterness. After a couple of verses, he brought the fiddle back up and played a solo of soaring, aching notes that startled all within listening distance. After the solo, he put the fiddle on his lap, picked up the cigarette smoldering in an ashtray at his feet, and smoked while Drew massaged out a sweeter succession of notes than I thought possible for a banjo. At last, Derek sang the last verse in a near whisper, and let the song go like a child

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letting go of an outgrown toy. Before I — or the audience — could recover, Derek again lifted his fiddle to his chin and lashed into a string of swirling, lickity-split jigs that sent a shudder through the room. Unable to remain sitting, most of the audience sprang to their feet and attempted fired-up approximations of Irish dancing while Maggie and her card game rival hurried back and dragged chairs and tables from harm’s way. That was how our first night together began, and it seemed like that evening continued for nearly a year. We played two nights a week at Maggie’s, a couple at a larger, more Irishthemed club uptown where we got the same response and many of the same audience members, and odd gigs at colleges, festivals, and other bars. All this happened at a time before people began taking a closer look at their health and held a fatalistic view of life that bordered on European. Almost everyone I knew smoked and drank but possessed a fierce determination to have as much fun as they possibly could before it was out of their hands. I got caught up in the drinking culture, and everyone around me, except my family, agreed that my increased drinking was a good thing, leading to distinct improvements in my overall demeanor. The problem with that lifestyle is that life tends to dribble by more rapidly than usual, and that ten-month stint with Haggis seemed like a couple of days. Derek moved in with a succession of girlfriends, each of whom ended up dumping him after they tried putting up with his drunkenness, blatant flirtation with his fans, and occasional burst of public displays like the one I witnessed on that first night. Drew took up with Joyce, one of Derek’s ex’s, and they moved in together and rarely left their apartment. Joyce’s anger toward Derek and whatever he had done to earn it appeared to be a foundation of their relationship, because Drew became very cool toward Derek, and when Joyce came to our gigs, she would sit with Drew far from the stage during breaks. I found myself going out with a lovely girl who lived in her parents’ basement, and she would sneak me in after they went to bed. I say “found myself,” because during that period when I was always at least half drunk, people and occurrences drifted in and out of my life without any effort on my part. After ten months of playing in bars and drinking for free, it began to dawn on me that I was headed in a very dangerous direction. Looking at Derek and Drew, who had lived that life far longer, it wasn’t difficult to see what lay ahead. Drew became sullen and inward, and even during gigs drank enough to kill a shipload of sailors. So many girlfriends threw Derek out that he was on the verge of becoming homeless. I lived in a small group house, and after Derek spent a couple of nights on our sofa, my housemates voted to bar him from future sleepovers. Maggie let him sleep in her pub, but only when the baker was working and could keep an eye on him. One night, Derek scurried up to me on a snowy sidewalk as I was walking to Maggie’s. He was wearing only a T-shirt, 86 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

underpants and those Frye boots. “Hey, mate, here, I need a bit of help.” “All right, Derek, come on. We’ll go over to my place and get you some clothes. What happened? Were you mugged?” “No, I lost everything to Maggie. We were playing cards, and I just wanted to win something back from her, you know? She already had my money and my watch. And, bloody hell, she wouldn’t let me win them back. I still had these Frye boots, and I’m due for a bit of luck. Now I’m banjaxed.” We turned and hurried toward my place, which was a few blocks away. I stopped and stared into his face. “What’s wrong with you, man? You lost your damned pants in a poker game in December to an old lady? Are you nuts?” “Mate, you don’t understand.” He turned his face away, and tears emerged from behind his glasses. “Everything is screwed. Christina is leaving, mate. She’s leaving. I can’t bloody take any more of this.” “What are you talking about? You mean that girl with the really long hair and big eyes? You’re in love with her? Derek, you’re in love with everyone.” “No, this is real. I really love her, mate. I’m in love. It really hurts.” His face squeezed itself together as a fresh gush of tears wetted his cheeks. At that moment, I realized I had only seen the eccentric, flamboyant fiddler and failed to perceive the vulnerable kid that was the real Derek. After all, something drove him to act out the way he did. I knew a few things about him — his mother died recently, his father’s relationship with him consisted of sending monthly checks from a trust fund, and he had grown up living in many different parts of the world, none long enough to call home. He was a person with a great and deep pain inside, and losing his latest girlfriend tore the scab away and exposed the wound. “Come on, Derek. Let’s at least get you some clothes, all right? We can talk about this and see what we can do. But I still don’t understand why you had to gamble your clothes away.” “Because I’m a bloody moron, that’s why. Whenever I feel bad, I do something bloody stupid. I don’t know why. I just do.” We showed up twenty minutes late for our gig. Most of our fans had gone home for the holidays, so we didn’t recognize many faces in the audience. Drew shook his head without looking at Derek and played a few notes to help us get in tune. We started with jigs and sounded tight and lively. I hoped that Derek would pull himself together and get through the night. About a dozen inebriated young women trailed in, one wearing a wedding veil and a belt of bright plastic sex toys tied around her waist. A bachelorette party! To musicians, these traveling girl-parties are the most dreaded of visitors. One girl stumbled to the stage with a grin that betrayed her inexperience with alcohol. “Hey, my best friend’s getting married! Woo hoo! Come on, guys, play her a song, okay? Can you play her something? How about, you know, something about, you


know, the first night? In bed? Come on, you can do it! Please?” “All right, love.” Derek pushed his glasses up and began to sing Maids When You’re Young, a song about a young girl who finds her much older bridegroom a disappointing lover. We put as much gusto into it as we could, but the girls were oblivious to us. They staggered around drinking and hooting at each other. After we finished the song, several more girls came up and shouted at us to do another song for the bride. Derek looked rattled. “I’m afraid we don’t have more songs like that, but here’s a jig called The Bride’s Favorite.” As we plunged into the jig, the girls hooted and hopped for a few moments until the bride-to-be lurched to a trash can in one corner of the room. Her hunched back and convulsive heaves announced that the bachelorette party was winding down, and her friends rushed over and guided her out into the night. Drew and I glanced at each other, but before we finished that jig, a group of guys in their twenties wandered in, ordered beers, and planted themselves in front of the stage. They talked together in loud voices so they could hear each other over the music. Unfortunately, we could also hear them clearly, but couldn’t hear each other at all. We gritted our teeth and made it to the end of that tune. “Hey lads, would you mind moving over a bit?” Derek asked. “We’re having a bit of trouble hearing ourselves.” “Right, oh right, sorry about that,” said one. The group moved to one side and continued shouting at one another while we tried to play a song. Derek had a series of shots of whiskey brought to him on the stage and his playing was becoming careless. As Derek mangled the song, Drew glared at him, his lips tight. Drew led us into a set of reels, and some more guys came in to join the group already there. Bit by bit they shifted and moved until they once again stood in front of the stage. Their faces flushed with alcohol and voices bellowing, they were having a great time, but we couldn’t hear ourselves play. After we barely managed to get through the reels, we sat for a few moments. Derek again asked them to move. One young guy with short blond hair and startling blue eyes turned his flushed face to Derek. “Hey man, are you a Brit? What’s that accent? You sound like a Brit! A goddamned Brit!” Derek laughed and muttered something, hoping to make a joke of it, but the young man was having none of it. “You’re a goddamned Brit, aren’t you? What in the hell are you doing in an Irish bar? Get the hell out of here, Brit!” Drew put down his banjo and rose from his chair. I got up too, ready to defend Derek, who I knew was already feeling vulnerable. Luckily, Maggie hurried back and escorted the guy to the door. It was time to take a break, and I could see that Derek wasn’t his usual cheery self. What was usual was that he was drunk, but it was taking an ugly turn. As he stumbled off the stage he grabbed my shoulder. “Here, mate, hang on. Let’s have a drink together, right? You’re my best friend, mate. The

best friend I have left.” His eyes weren’t focusing, and he squashed his words together. “Maybe you ought to have a coffee or some water, Derek. We still have two sets to go.” Derek’s face tensed and his body clenched. “Bloody hell, mate. I don’t know what’s going on in my life any more. What am I doing here? I should be at Christina’s feet begging for forgiveness. I love her, mate. Instead, here I am wanking away on the fiddle, getting pissed as a rat, getting slagged for being a Brit. I’m not even wearing my own clothes. I don’t even know where I’m going to sleep tonight after the gig.” He raised one hand and closed it into a fist. “I’ve been a bloody idiot, mate. Bugger this!” With a quick jerk, he turned and punched his fist into a wooden column beside us. The impact of his fist sent a thud through the room, but the column and its layers of bright green paint didn’t budge. Derek, however, sank to the floor, his face purple and his eyes so wide his glasses fell off. “Oh bloody hell! Holy Jesus!” Drew appeared and stood over Derek with a smirk. “Nice one, Derek. Lucky that was your bowing hand or we’d be totally screwed.” I helped Derek to a table where I convinced him to sit down while I got some ice from the machine in the back. I brought back a small bucket of ice and stuck Derek’s hand into it. “Come on, Derek, calm down, man. We’ll figure out something to do later on. We’ve just got to get through this gig tonight. Can you still hold the bow?” “Yeah, I think so. God, I’m a bloody idiot.” The next set was more perfunctory than the first because Derek was trying to keep it together while Drew and I covered for his weakened playing. Unfortunately, Derek continued to drink whiskeys, and by the time we took our next break, his eyes were half closed and his mouth drooped open. When we left the stage, Drew retreated to his booth while I helped Derek up. “Here, why don’t we go for a walk outside? You could use some fresh air.” Derek shrugged me off. “I’m not going for a bloody walk, mate. I need a drink.” “Man, you’re wasted. We only have one more set.” “Screw it, mate.” He stood swaying, his face downcast. At last he turned to me and flopped an arm over my shoulder. “Here, mate, you’ve been a good friend. A good friend. You’re a good man.” He paused, struggling to focus. “I’m a bloody idiot.” “I know.” I got him to sit down with some coffee and put his hand into ice again. While he sat slumped in his chair, I walked up to the bar for a drink and saw Christina. She was slightly heavy-set below the waist and slender above, with very long, gleaming hair and violet eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s. Her strong features and intelligent expression made her undeniably attractive, and the sparkling silver earrings dangling from those smooth, rounded lobes added an air of elegance. I ordered a Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 87


Guinness, keeping an eye on her and hoping she would remain out of Derek’s sight. When we returned to the stage for our last set, the place was crowded and noisy, and Derek showed more signs of life. He took a sip from his coffee cup and gave me a wink. “All right, lads. “The Salamanca,” right?” We flew into the tunes at a gallop, and the crowd responded with a whoop. Derek’s playing stuttered and glided along with its characteristic panache, while Drew’s injections of dissonant chords at crucial phrase shifts drove the tune with manic energy. My eyes scanned the perimeter, watching for Christina. Derek shot me a smile and charged into The Sailor’s Bonnet, a wild reel that never failed to get everybody, including us, going. I felt like I was sitting a foot above my stool. Derek tore the tune up, slashing and sliding so fiercely that it nearly exploded. Even Drew was caught up in the excitement, closing his eyes and pushing into the tune with everything he had. Then I saw her, sitting at a table near the back with a guy in a long ponytail and wearing a jean jacket. She sat watching us without expression. I turned to Derek and saw his eyes. He knew Christina was there. I wished we could have made that set of tunes last all night, because I knew Derek wouldn’t stop playing until it was over. Unfortunately, they came to an end and the audience erupted. Derek turned, tossed his fiddle onto the stage, and smashed the amplifier full force with his bruised fist. The audience cheered as he hunched in pain. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I heard Drew groan. I got up and bent over Derek. “Hey man, are you all right?” “Oh, holy Jesus, I’ve broken my friggin’ hand, mate. Oh Jesus, it hurts.” “Are you sure? Let me see.” Derek looked up, his face twisted and tear-soaked. “I can’t take this. She’s here, the bloody bitch. Why would she come here?” The audience quieted down and a curious buzz ran through the room. I felt a shock of panic. “We’ve got to play, Derek. Can you do it? Do you want to go the hospital? Oh crap, what should we do?” Derek straightened himself, jutted out his chin, picked up his fiddle, and started to play a slip jig. In the middle of the first phrase, his face went white, the bow dropped from his fingers, and he slid from the front of his stool and landed on the floor. That got a laugh from the audience, but the laughter stopped when they got a look at those glassy eyes and graying face. He held his bowing hand out in front of him, and it didn’t take a doctor to see that it was broken. I glanced to the back of the stage and noticed Drew picking up his case and opening the back door. When he saw that I spotted him bailing out on us, he gave me a wink and a thumbs up, slid out the door, and closed it behind him. After that night, I didn’t see him again for twelve years. 88 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

A tall man with thinning hair and glasses jumped up onto the stage, knelt beside Derek, checked him over, and squinted up at me. “He’s got some broken fingers and possibly a broken wrist. Call an ambulance. He’s going into shock and he’s had a lot to drink. Go, he needs medical attention now.” Feeling as if I were hallucinating, I ran to the bar and told Maggie to call an ambulance. A crowd gathered around Derek, so I darted in and out of the pub waiting for the paramedics. It seemed like hours later when an ambulance pulled up with a screech and two big guys in blue uniforms jumped out. I led them to the stage, and they checked Derek over before leading him out to the ambulance. I wasn’t sure who was more in shock — Derek or me. “Hey, can I go to the hospital with him?” I asked one of the paramedics. “Afraid not. You can follow us if you want.” The ambulance sped off into the night while the crowd moved outside. I looked over at the metal awning of the Circle Theater and noticed that it looked askew. My band, my friends, all scattered to the ends of the earth in the space of a few minutes. I felt like the ground slipped out from beneath me. Finally, I returned to the stage and packed up our equipment. I took Derek’s fiddle and microphone home with me. The next day, I called the hospital, but they knew nothing about Derek. After a few more calls I found another hospital where he was taken, but he was released earlier that morning. They couldn’t tell me where he had gone. Weeks later, while winter winds strafed the city and I was on my way to a job interview at a record store, I ran into Christina. She rushed up to me. “Oh, thank goodness I found you. Derek has been frantic.” “Where is he? What’s happened to him? I’ve got his fiddle. And why didn’t he call me?” Christina shook her head, and I couldn’t tell if she was about to laugh or cry. “Oh, he can never remember anything, so he couldn’t remember your number. He wrote it on some piece of paper he kept in his fiddle case.” “Damn. I have his fiddle at home. So where is he?” “He already left.” “Left? Left to go where?” She paused and looked up at me. “He’s gone back to England.” “England? What the hell . . .” “He’s embarrassed. He feels really bad. His life is screwed up, and he knows he screwed up. He says he’s really sorry about what he’s put you through, and he’s sorry about the band, but he had to go away for a while. He says he’s going to London School of Economics, like his dad. I’m really sorry.” The winds picked up strength, and the clock on the corner bank ticked down the last days of the year. Traffic hurried by, and bike messengers bundled up in sweaters and wool caps soared through the streets. I knew at that moment that he would never again be the Derek I knew, and in a few years


wouldn’t even be the Derek who sat onstage with me weeks earlier. Drew, Derek, the band, those smoky, sweaty nights at Maggie’s — all, without fanfare or advance warning — vanished forever. I heard occasional rumors about Derek over the years — he was a pop star in Spain, he got married to a French girl and lived at a winery in Burgundy, he had six kids, he was working in a chip shop in Ireland, he had a heart attack and barely survived, he had grandchildren. But I never managed to track him down and contact him. One night nearly thirty years later, I was half watching the BBC on television, and there he was. His hair was wispy and

gray, his glasses thicker than ever, and he wore a suit. It was a story on some economic summit in London, and they were showing a group of economists going into a meeting. I only saw him for a few seconds, but the bolt of adrenalin that raced through my system didn’t lie. It was Derek. We are all on a one-way street. Everybody knows that it’s true, of course, but at that moment the little scrap of knowledge always present, always taken for granted, reared up in all its glorious, inescapable, and invincible power. Like Godzilla in Washington.

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Tom Panarese Tom Panarese has been writing or editing in some way ever since he accidentally found himself taking on the role of editor of his high school newspaper. Since then, he has been featured in Education Week and contributed to the 2005 anthology Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity and Youth Cultures. He can currently be found blogging at “Pop Culture Affidavit” and teaching high school English and yearbook production. He lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife, Amanda, and son, Brett. You can find Tom online at http://popcultureaffidavit.wordpress.co

Songs in the Key of Nerd

T

he most important moment in a person’s life is when he finally realizes that he is not cool. It happens to everyone. One day you’re “the guy” and the next day you’re “that guy,” a poindexter in a room full of Tony Maneros who has to either learn how to fake his way through being with it, or give up and rebuild. It can be traumatic — one wonders what goes through the heads of washed up rock stars, jocks, or fraternity guys when they realize that trying to carry on the carousing and fun of their youth is pathetic. Luckily, I haven’t had that moment. I’ve never actually been cool, nor will I ever be. I found this out in the fifth grade, right before I emerged as a socially awkward teenager from the primordial elementary school ooze of one big all-inclusive group of kids (well, all-inclusive with the exception of the incontinent nose-picking glue eaters). Because in the fifth grade, the battle lines were drawn and by the time you hit the sixth grade, you had to choose a side. No longer did you have to invite the incontinent, nosepicking glue eater to your birthday parties and no longer were the kids in your class “smart” or “stupid.” They were “cool” or “nerds” and either kicked ass or had their asses handed to them on the playground. My final two years at Lincoln Avenue Elementary were spent falling squarely into this latter group; while I developed a devotion to Star Trek, listened to Billy Joel, and began wearing Harvard sweatshirts, kids I had been friends with a year or two earlier were investing in Vision Street Wear, swiping 2 Live Crew tapes, and not caring very much about the grades they were getting. In fact, they were smarter in what mattered. My only experience with porn was maybe the nudity in Conan the Barbarian, so when a dirty note a girl named “Lillian” wrote about giving some guy a blowjob went around the guys in the class, I had to ask Evan, one of my few remaining popular friends, what “cum” was. “You know, what comes out . . . ” he began. “Oh, you mean the semen!” I said, recalling a sex education

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filmstrip we had watched a week earlier. “Yeah,” he said. We returned to our seats and spent the next few days speculating who “Lillian” was, while I hid my slight embarrassment at needing to look up a dirty word in the dictionary. Here were kids who were French-kissing girls on the weekend and I spent my spare time writing stories that starred my sister’s stuffed animal cat, Sylvan. I didn’t have what it took to make it with that crowd and came to realize pretty quickly that I was not the “right person.” If anything, I was the wrong one. Nowhere was this more evident than in chorus class. Oh sure, everyone who was pushed around in school has a few hundred stories about being practically drowned in a locker room shower or the scars resulting from dodge ball. But why is it that we’ve spent so much time worrying about competition in gym class and dodge ball trauma, but nobody is ever concerned about the fresh hell that is making a group of kids sing “Free and Glad to be Me?” Chorus class at Lincoln Avenue began in the fifth grade, augmenting what was formerly known as “music” class. Music class had been pretty harmless. We sat as a class, played “Hot Cross Buns” on our recorders and made up alternate lyrics to “Camptown Races” and “Waltzing Matilda.” I’m sure that it irritated our teacher when we decided to add the phrase “everybody hit the deck!” to “15 Miles on the Erie Canal,” but we never seemed to get into trouble. Chorus, on the other hand, was wholly different. The object wasn’t simply to learn about music, but it was to be able to perform. While our teachers went out for a smoke, we were lorded over by Mrs. Moger, whose job it was to teach the entire grade the nuance involved in singing “Fifty Nifty United States” on key and in front of our parents. Corralling eighty kids is not easy, but she was an old pro and knew exactly how to keep us all in line: guilt, tears, and empty threats. Her experience showed the minute you met her and saw the colored and re-colored brown bouffant, primary-color


red lipstick and faint hint of white powder that was probably applied by using one of those giant plush pads we were familiar with from Tom & Jerry cartoons. She would start teaching us a song by singing it for us. If it were Christmas, we would be treated to “Silver Bells” or “White Christmas”; for the spring concert, we learned whatever matched the theme, like “We Go Together” from Grease for our sixth grade Broadway review. It was a mix of standards and popular music that was always butchered, like when we sang a sped-up, major-key version of the refrain from Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You” at our sixth grade graduation. Years later, I would see Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer play chorus teachers on Saturday Night Live and laugh in horrible recognition, especially remembering how we all thought, even then, that the songs we were singing were lame. Slowly, we would move toward that day when we stood on the risers in front of our beaming parents, the boys in white shirts and black pants and the girls in white blouses and blue skirts. And we would pull it off, sometimes barely, and never without at least one day of drama wherein Mrs. Moger would leave the room in hysterics. In the sixth grade, it was one of the days we were working on singing all the parts of Oklahoma! — the girls on soprano, the boys singing an impressively masculine alto — and we, as an entire grade weren’t very into it. We sang, but with the same commitment most of us might give in church. If you were standing in the back of the cafetorium, you would barely be able to hear our collective whisper over Mrs. Moger’s loud, animated piano playing. Halfway through the third verse, she stopped. I looked up from my sheet music, a little confused because we still had to do the “Oklahoma, OK!” part. Mrs. Moger said something I barely heard over the joking around over the boys in the row behind me, and stormed off the stage, her Easy Spirit pumps clacking with each step down the lacquered stage. That shut everything up. We’d had teachers yell at us before, but I could not recall a time when a teacher actually left the room visibly upset, especially over something as silly as Oklahoma! Almost immediately, the differences between me and some of the other boys were apparent — they snickered and I searched my mind for what I had done wrong. By the time I had finished going over the past few minutes, Mr. Mackenzie was already on the stage tearing into the entire grade. “I expect more from you,” he said, as if he were speaking from some teacher rant script, “In a few weeks you are supposed to get up in front of your parents and the school and sing this. You know this is unacceptable and you need to apologize to Mrs. Moger.” Okay, those might not have been his exact words, but they could have been gibberish and most of us would have straightened up. “Mr. Mac” as he was called, was one of only three male teachers in the school and the most intimidating. You got a little scared if you found out he was going to be your teacher, even if you heard great things about him from his students. As he berated us for our disrespect, his thinning

hair bounced a little with each consonant and tiny globs of spit began to form on the sides of his mouth. After a little while, even I tuned him out; that is, until he said, “And you won’t get to see Cats.” One by one, my classmates and I started paying attention. The trip to Cats had been planned a few months earlier and we all had been excited to go. It was supposed to be the greatest field trip of all time, so even though we all knew it was an empty threat, we left class feeling panicked. I also felt guilty because I was one of Mrs. Moger’s “select” chorus students and should not have been in that situation. Select chorus was a small group of singers and actors that had been chosen because of our talent. We were the feature of all of the concerts, putting on performances of A Christmas Carol, Cinderella, and a Les Misérables medley. Being in the spotlight can be both monumentally exhilarating and embarrassing. It actually was a boon to the reputation, because many of the popular girls were in select chorus, so I saw them on a lot more of an intimate scale during rehearsals than I did in class and the hallways. In a way, I was “hanging out” with them. When Jessica Stock lost out on the part of The Ostrich in Alice in Wonderland, she talked to me because I had seen both her and Tatum Brauer’s auditions and hers was much better. But it was a double-edged sword. As Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, I was finally in the spotlight after such monumental performances as “a card” in Alice in Wonderland. I nailed all of the lines on the day I was to play Scrooge, except for one major screw-up. While I was being shown my life by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Amanda Geaslin, the girl playing Belle blew her first line. Rather than play along and keep walking, I threw my hands in the air in a “what the hell” manner. Thankfully, she recovered and we went on with the show, but afterwards, I found myself being reamed not by Mrs. Moger but both Jessica and Tatum — throwing my hands in the air had made things worse. I felt horrible. Not because I had made Amanda feel bad, but because I had upset the popular girls. And it was downhill from there. I got some prominent parts in our other productions, but clearly Mrs. Moger was playing favorites. I never got the feeling that anyone resented me for the times she encouraged me to take better roles, but by the end of the sixth grade, I was getting the feeling that I didn’t want to keep doing this. I had been given a big solo in the spring concert, singing a cleaned-up version of “Master of the House” and while I wasn’t bad, I was clearly outshined by the other person who had gotten the part, to the point where after my parents saw both performances they could not stop gushing about the other guy. Years later, I would see him do an excellent recital of Mark Antony’s funeral oration, so they were justified in their praise, and while I didn’t feel put down by it, I know that I was feeling burned out from chorus class. I decided to use the only way out of chorus: music theory Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 91


class. It was one of four options Mrs. Moger offered to us as our required seventh grade music class. Since I wasn’t in band or orchestra, I had two choices and one day in music class when she was filling out the junior high music paperwork, she asked what I would take, and I quietly said, “Music theory.” “Oh,” she said, disappointed. I think I even detected a slight puppy dog whine, and that was enough to make me change my mind and take chorus. I really do wish I’d had the balls to stick with my original decision, too, because my seventh grade chorus class went through three teachers and I spent more

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time getting acquainted with wet willies and sneaker wedgies courtesy of Dan Diaz, than I did the medley of surfing songs we sang at the spring concert. If I wasn’t turned off to being a theater person before, well that did it. And I’d say a lot of other people were, because to be honest with you, those torturous years were the beginning of the end for our innocence. I mean, it sounds completely cliché, but we wouldn’t be the same after the seventh grade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the chorus experience didn’t sour a few people to any form of voluntary public expression.


Susan Tepper Susan Tepper’s new novel, What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (co-authored with Gary Percesepe), has just been released by Cervena Barva Press. She is the author of Deer & Other Stories (Wildnerness House Press, 2009) and the poetry chapbook Blue Edge. Tepper has received five nominations for the Pushcart Prize, she hosts the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC, and is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review.

Summer in the City

T

he rats have invaded our apartment building. They sprayed Central Park, and the rats, not stupid creatures like the park officials, have jumped the park and escaped into the basements of the nearby buildings. “What’s the point of paying these high rents?” I say to Mickey. He is one of those fearless men. He used to surf the big ones in Hawaii. They called him Kahuna or something. I believe his ego has reshaped to form a surfboard. “What’s a little rat?” he says. “They bite and carry disease.” “I’m sure there’s a vaccine . . . ” Since giving up surfing, he’s taken to Off-Track-Betting. I’m less than thrilled. I want to go away somewhere near a beach or the mountains. It’s summer in the city and it’s hot. Very hot. “Hey, let’s rent a cabin on a lake.” I sit close to him on the couch. “Hmm?” He’s marking up his racing form. “Pay attention, please.” “Sandra, you’re breaking my concentration.” I get up and wander to the window looking out at the park a mere four stories down. “If we’d taken that unit on the 18th floor, I would feel safer. Remember that nice one with the step-down into the living room? And the French doors that closed it off to the rest of the apartment?” Inwardly I’m counting the number of floors between our fourth floor and the 18th floor. “Fourteen floors.” “Hmm?” “There are 14 floors of safety up there. The rats would probably never go that high.” “Sandra, why don’t you take a walk? It’s a beautiful day.” “Where should I walk, in the park with the rat spray hovering in the air? Is that where you suggest I walk?” The whole situation has me feeling low. I want to get out

of the city. Mickey wants to stay and play the horses every day. I know how his mind works. He likes the local OTB, with all the local weirdoes. “This is about not leaving your precious OTB, right?” I grab my little black purse, the one that just about fits my money and phone, and slam out of the apartment. He doesn’t follow, of course. Down in the lobby, Mario the doorman gives me a cautious hello. That means I look upset. One thing about doormen — you can’t put anything past them. “Hi, Mario,” I say trying to avert my head. He has a big yap and will tell people that I’ve been fighting with Mickey. When any of the neighbors have problems, he tells me! So and so is trying to get pregnant, he told me the other day, but so and so’s husband don’t want to, he’s fooling around with so and so in 9K. No privacy in this city. No goddamn privacy! Doormen should be replaced by robots, I’m thinking, stepping outside into the hot, white glare. Mickey and I, we’re doomed. I want a different kind of life. I want trees and a little garden, maybe a deck, some nice lawn chairs. A striped umbrella. I am feeling teary about what I want that I’m not going to get. At the café on the next street I see a man who used to be my doctor. He’s still a doctor, though not mine, I guess, since I have stopped going to him. He used to be my heart doctor when I had a few mysterious fainting spells. Each time I went, he seemed more attractive. His nurse was deeply in love with him. You could see it all over her face. She wasn’t pretty and he seemed disinterested in speaking to her except to say things like take the blood pressure. Do an echo. Do a cardiogram. Then one day I went there and she was gone. Lenore who had done all my cardiograms. “Where is Lenore?” I’d asked him. He said they parted ways. Then he told me to lie down, and he slapped the Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 93


cardiogram stickers underneath each of my breasts. I stared at the ceiling trying not to breathe loud. After that, I left him. I couldn’t face him down after the cardiogram. Not knowing what I knew. So, here he is in the little café, having coffee or something at a table by the window. I stop and watch to see if anyone else might be joining him, perhaps someone who has made a pit stop in the ladies room. But he keeps sipping, now and again, and nobody else sits at his table. What the heck, I tell myself, heading into the café. “Why hello, Doctor,” I say. He looks up like he has never seen me in his entire life. I’m waiting for him to say “Do I know you?” That is how quizzical he looks. “Sandra,” I say feeling really embarrassed. “Your old patient.” Oh god. “Yes, how are you?” “I’m OK.” “How is the fainting?” “It’s stopped.” I laugh slightly and shrug thinking he will laugh too. He doesn’t. “Well, anyway,” I say starting to back away, “have a nice summer.” “Yes,” he answers. That same absentminded way of

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speaking that Mickey has perfected over time. Except this guy hardly knows me. Other than my heart, what does he know? Does he know I prefer body-wash to soap? Does he know I lean forward in the shower to rinse out the shampoo? Or that I like just a tiny amount of milk in Shredded Wheat? Other than my heart and its chambers, what does this fucking guy know? Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing. Practically sprinting, I leave the café and hit the hot white pavement again. My summer. My vacation in the city. Poor me. I feel so sorry for me. No one loves me. No one wants to ride up on a big horse and save me. Mickey only wants to bet on them. And the doctor, I don’t have a clue what he wants, but it sure isn’t me. After getting an ice cream bar from a street vendor, I wander back to our building. The park has a cloudy drift over it, a shroud of what is obviously the rat spray poison. In other times, I would’ve assumed it was smog. Now, thanks to Mario, our doorman, I’m better informed. I’m wondering how many rats have made a home in our home. “Mickey,” I shout out as I enter the apartment. The place is so still.


Betsy Brown Betsy Brown lives in New York City and studies media, culture and the arts. She is the founder of her college’s literary magazine, The Minstrel, and has performed her music and poetry in many locations, including the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan, the 34th Street subway station, and the Makerere University sculpture garden in Uganda. She can be found at http://wordsbybetsy.blogspot.com.

Gravity When I left you my obsession switched to skydiving. The air impregnated me and in my brain I birthed a thrill-baby who grabbed me by the hand and screamed, “MORE.” I began to breathe in risks like oxygen. You see, air is my favorite element because you are most in love with it when you are in danger. Air pulled back my lips and rattled my jaw during skydiving. Air tickled my temples on the backs of motorcycles. Air tasted like candy when my life jacket finally tugged my head above the rapids. My affair with air was my ecstasy. I bought a bike. I rode it through red lights just to see if a truck would brush my bumper. I climbed rooftops in storms to see the lightning lick the rods above my head. I had found my own metaphorical form of love, complete with highs and lows fun and fears and the rough tousling of hair. And air is not thrilling without gravity. I’d have no story to tell if I hadn’t jumped out of the plane, fallen into the river, flown down the hill on two wheels.

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And at the end of each thrill, when my muscles ached from my falls gravity pulled warm drops of water onto my dirty hair and made me clean. This is love. One minute it sucks me down ten thousand feet, the next it lays me down to sleep. When I left you my obsession switched to skydiving, but now I want you back, because even in your absence you were there, in the air, pulling me into the depths of both danger and redemption.

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Brain Pollution I’m drowning in -ologies. Theology, biology, sociology, ontology . . . a thousand slimy liquids fill up my neck and head like a brown and black lava lamp, some sort of abstract oil spill in my skull sloshing against my cerebrum and cerebellum and brain stem. But when I lay down horizontal and let the -ologies drain out my ear they may fill a cup or even a bathtub but they slip through my fingers, watering the carpet down to the concrete below. Will this liquid grow a tree of knowledge or will it evaporate, evaporate, into tiny droplets floating confusedly through the classroom? My head feels like the dregs of the Hudson today. the swamp in my skull could not water a tree or hydrate faint runners along Riverside. -Ologies and -isms alike could create black paint for black lines in coloring books, but I want color. My gray matter longs to taste the tangible. Give me a cornucopia of color, a fruit salad of specifics. bright pink and green mangoes, blushing watermelons, pointy pineapple leaves spring up like green fireworks — I want something solid and sweet in my brain. -Ologies may create clouds over countries, but the irises of the people are flecked with blue and gold.

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Upper Upper West Side Wanderings (to Ginsberg and Plato) time! that’s it! time is the handcuffs of the world, time is the anklecuffs of the world, the neckcuffs and kneecuffs and headcuffs and heartcuffs of the world til we’re all chained in a charm-bracelet line a long long six-billion-foot-long line, strung to the wall like slaves in a cave and we laugh and we cry and we live and we die and we kiss and we piss and we fuck to the rhythm of shadows, shadows on the red brick public schools of Harlem, shadows hiding in corners of Morningside cathedrals, shadows shaped like baby ABC blocks in Trump Towers shadows, time chains us up till all we see are shadows. it would be nice to be God, I think. God has no handcuffs, or anklecuffs, no cuffs at all God, Thou art free You are free from the binds of time, You are in a billion and one places at once combing reality with Your big blue and brown eyes. if I unleashed myself from time, like a great big God, where would I go? everywhere, all at once, of course,

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I’d perch like a bird in the inner elbow of a tree with a work of Shakespeare, curled up like the wrought-iron fences that hug the brownstones, the fences I can’t help but touch because of their curls. I’d jet ski on the Hudson, water spewing like spit behind my wet wetsuit-covered body, I’d sit and eat pastries and quote from children’s books all damn day — PeterPanAliceinWonderlandTheJungleBook, I’d jingle jangle rumble rumble tumble down the subway tracks, I’d sleep all day, I’d never ever sleep, I’d give a hug to the whole world, I’d sit on a step all alone all these things at once if I could melt the handcuffs of time I’d rise to Mount Olympus and smash pocket watches for fun, throw the tick tick tick tick ticking Timexes out the window, put grandfather clock pendulums in the blender, and hear the blender ROAR till the metal is mangled a ha! I killed you, time, you are dead. after all, in my mind when time flies, it doesn’t just fly, it spreads its wings and, in a rustle of golden hands and feathers, it’s gone.


Matthew Dulany Other short stories by Matthew Dulany have appeared in The Ontario Review, turnrow, The William & Mary Review, and The South Carolina Review. Two poems are forthcoming in Third Wednesday. He is currently at work on a novel.

Her Boyfriend

A

fter three years in New York working for the publisher of a popular women’s magazine, he applied to the graduate program in sociology at the state university back home. It was hard being back, harder than he thought it would be. It was like stumbling upon the past, and he was thankful it was only temporary. His dissertation would be done in another year, hopefully, and then he would leave again. Perhaps someday he would reminisce about this second goround with fondness, but now it was only a time to be endured, to be got through with diligent study and an eye on his future. He always had an eye on the future. He made a conscious effort not to be too much the New York-centric snob and found time to be social with people in his department and outside of it, and he had enjoyed three one-night stands and two flings of longer duration, the first over the course of a few perfect autumn weeks his second year, the second fitting quite neatly within the season of the following spring. But he was mostly, and currently, without a companion. He was pushing thirty and was, when he bothered to be honest with himself, dolefully aware that he had never once been in love. When he told his friends about his decision to register with the web dating service — a confession made to preempt any undesirable intrigue or rumoring that might result from one of them happening upon his profile by chance — he claimed he did so with the semi-serious notion of using his experience as a basis for a paper on networks, though really he knew, and perhaps the more perceptive of his friends did too, that it had more to do with loneliness. He asked Amber, through the service, what she did for a living, and she wrote back that she was now waiting tables at a Denny’s, but that she planned to go back to school — for what she didn’t say, and he failed to ask — and that she sometimes helped her dad on his farm. It was that last bit that interested him the most, as farmer’s daughters were reputedly, by lore,

sexually game. It was a long way to go for a date. He imagined farms he spotted from the highway, the distant grain silos and grazing cows in the twilight, as belonging to her father. He met her at the bar at the restaurant. She was just as attractive as her picture indicated. They ate at a table by a window overlooking the water. Afterwards he took her to a bar he had spotted on the way, a few miles back along the shore. It was a less genteel establishment, he realized too late. There were few other women present and Amber drew some undesirable attention, and they left without finishing their drinks. Perhaps she was enamored by the way he held her elbow and steered her out the door, and she invited him back to her place. They returned to the parking lot of the restaurant for her car, and before she got out of his he kissed her. They drove inland in tandem. After half an hour further north — putting the trip back home at more than two hours — he began to wonder if she had chosen the restaurant because of its location or because there was no place decent closer to her, or no place she felt was good enough. Certainly Denny’s would never do. He asked her how often she went on web-set dates and she claimed this was her first time. But how else might she meet a guy out here? Hopefully she never went looking for love in a place like that wretched bar. The country opened up again and soon they arrived at her box-like, one-story house hard by the road. The front door opened directly into a small living room. She turned on a popular radio station and told him to make himself at home and went into her bedroom. She didn’t close the door all the way. He paced. There was a NASCAR calendar and some pictures of horses and mountains on the walls. He looked inside a mug on small table in the corner. It was moldy at the bottom. The mug on the coffee table had a dried-up teabag in it, but no mold. The music was annoying, and he turned it off. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 99


He turned on the TV. He sat on the couch and flipped though the channels, trying to find ESPN. He hardly ever watched ESPN — he didn’t even own a TV — but somehow it seemed like the thing to do. She came out of her room in shorts and a t-shirt that read Aruba. She offered him a drink. He accepted a beer, and took it in the can. He looked at her legs as she walked in front of him. The shorts were tight on her hips. He asked her what channel was ESPN, and she said she didn’t know. He found it eventually. They were covering baseball. She sat on the arm of the couch with her arms folded across her chest. She was now wearing a bra that lifted up her boobs. It was funny, since she had bothered to dress down otherwise. She seemed a bit lean. He asked her how often she worked on her father’s farm. “Just at Christmas,” she said. “There’s not much to do there the rest of the year.” “What do you mean?” “The trees just grow; that’s all,” she said. He began to feel foolish. He had felt slightly so since setting out early that evening, but it was nothing to slow him down or make him look inward. Until now, this pursuit had been little more than a lark. Now, however, in these close quarters, he began to feel differently. He felt foolish about watching ESPN too. They were watching the baseball highlights when she said something about her boyfriend taking her to a game one time. He asked her what else she liked to watch, and she mentioned a few things, one being the Travel Channel. He found it. The program seemed to be about food markets in Italy. “Have you been there?” He raised his can of beer toward her chest. “Aruba? Yeah, my boyfriend took me there last winter.” “Where is he now, by the way?” “Who? My boyfriend?” “Yes. Where is your boyfriend?” “In the Army.” “In Afghanistan?” “No, he’s in Germany now.” “Are you worried about him?” “He’s a tough guy. He’s really big.” “Makes a big target.” “That’s not nice.” “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m sorry. It’s just that, if I were you, I might be worried. But of course you would know better how to handle it.” “If he knew you were here he’d beat you up.” “Like if he walked in right now? Or do you mean if he heard about me being here he would hold a grudge and track me down when he got back from Germany?” “I wouldn’t be so smug, you know. He’s a big guy.” “Big and jealous?” “Very jealous.” 100 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

“So we should both be worried.” “Oh, I don’t know what he would do to me. I’m afraid to think about it. One time he found out I was talking to this other guy, and he poured hot water into my stereo.” “For talking?” “You know what I mean.” “We’re talking.” “We weren’t talking before, in your car.” “Did it ruin it?” “No, I liked it.” “The hot water, did it ruin your stereo?” “Oh, yeah.” “Why did he ruin your stereo?” “He was jealous.” “But why your stereo? Was it a gift from the other guy?” “No, I picked it out with him.” “So it was partly his own stereo that he ruined.” “Well, he paid for it.” “I see. But why hot water? Wouldn’t cold water work just as well?” “I don’t know.” “I guess he’s just a hot-tempered son of a gun, huh?” “Oh, yeah.” She looked like she was thinking about it. She started walking around the room, looking through piles on shelves. “I’ve got pictures from Aruba.” He finished the beer and set the empty can down on the coffee table next to the dirty mug. “Got another?” She went into the kitchen. She seemed nice enough at the restaurant, and she certainly turned him on in his car, but this business about her boyfriend was no good. He probably was a real guy, sure, but it was a dubious relationship she was describing. When she came back and handed him the new can of beer, their fingers touched. It was the first they had touched since he kissed her. “We can look at the Aruba pictures on my computer,” she said. “I don’t need to see pictures of your boyfriend.” She made some kind of face and left the room. He couldn’t believe he had truly upset her. Maybe she was just trying to be funny. He drank his beer and flipped around on the TV, settling on nothing. His eyes wandered around the room. He noticed the curtains were hand-sewn, and not well. By the closet there was a small scratching post for a cat. And now he began to feel a rising affection for the girl who lived here. It came over him quickly, and against expectation. He was no one to try to force a woman to do anything she didn’t want to do in the first place. Nevertheless, he was confident from her signals, indeed from the way she had responded much of the night, even from the gist of her e-mail over the past week, that were he to make a play for her she would receive him. He could be wrong, things could go wrong, sure, anything could happen, but from the very beginning he had an inkling that his connection with the university impressed her, that she viewed him as something


like gallant for showing an interest in her, and that she had an idea that this meeting might possibly lead somewhere he had no intention of going, some fantastic horizon of cultural refinement and economic stability and babies. No, she did not agree to meet him simply for sex. If she was that way, then he didn’t want anything to do with her. And yet that was what he had come out here for. This poor, far-out farmer’s daughter, just how much did she earn pouring coffee at Denny’s? Yes, there had been haste and misjudgment, words bandied online that seemed to matter less than words traded in person, and soon he had found himself here, ready by some curious promise to himself to take advantage of this girl. But if before his intentions in following her here, in driving all the way out here to the sticks — to the sticks of the sticks — were so base, now they took another turn. Now he wanted to hold her and kiss her. He felt as if in love with her, as if immediately in love. He wanted to sleep. He felt as if he could stay here for a long, long time. He felt he could live in this cozy little house with the faux wood-paneled walls and the car headlights periodically lighting up the hand-sewn curtains and this sad, darling girl lost in it all. He wanted to find her. He wanted her at this moment more than at any other since meeting her, even since before meeting her, before hearing her reedy voice over the telephone, when he had nothing more to go on but fantasies based on her dating service profile. It brought him to his feet. He wanted to put his arms around her and hold her. He wanted her to take him in.

He turned off the TV. He found her in her bedroom, on the bed. He shook his can and said, “Maybe I’ll have another.” “I’m all out,” she said. “There’s some bourbon, if you want. I’ll get you a glass.” “No, no. Thanks, no. I shouldn’t mix. Not this late.” “Is it getting late?” She stretched toward the clock on her bedside table. Her shirt rose off her waist. She rested her head on the blanket. She smiled. She rolled on her back. “This is early,” she said. He looked at the clock himself. It was a little before eleven. Next to the clock was a small framed picture of a man in khaki military camouflage, holding a rifle in a desert. His face was obscured by his bucket hat and his sunglasses. Amber was staring at the ceiling. Her legs were smooth and warm looking and he thought about kissing them. He thought about pushing up her shirt and kissing her belly. She was looking at him now, smiling still. He leaned forward and kissed her lips. He said, “I’m going to go.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m going to go.” It was not unusual. Emotions lifted just as suddenly as they came down upon him. Of course he couldn’t live here. He certainly wasn’t drunk, but then he wasn’t exactly sober. He recalled passing a McDonald’s on the way, only a few miles back. He could make it there and eat burgers and fries and drink coffee until he felt okay.

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Dan Lundin A West coast native, Dan Lundin currently lives, smiths words and constructs things (to the full extent of the law) in South Pasadena, California.

Side Effects

A

lways it felt like too much or too little, the consequences being blood that flowed too fat or too thin and only ever passed through just right (sympathy for Goldilocks). Too little was easily remedied with another pill, or pills, depending. Too much could lead to several things, but most times I worked it out with caffeine, coffee specifically, espresso preferred, and that was where I was at the moment, adjusting myself, the numb having edged a bit too far, especially for operation of heavy machinery, with a large coffee, two shots added, an old man’s depth charge. Insulated cup in hand, corn nuts and bottled water within reach, I returned to the road, the 10 freeway, heading east and into the desert. Is there anyplace more American than the developed desert? I wondered. Unlike those towns positioned to take advantage of nautical transport or raised over mineral deposits or oil reserves or built within groves of timber or fertile land, the towns of the desert have no pressing reason to be, no plan grander than to provide for pool adjacent entertainment in an easily managed landscape. The Europeans may have their idle Riviera, but even there, production persists — Bouillabaisse, Pan-Bagnat, perfumery, the cultivation of flowers. Left alone and to my own devices, I could survive in the Riviera. I would not suffer from poor appetite or exposition au soleil. There is life in those hills, in the nearby sea, even in the air, an air that exhales more than it takes in. Not so the throbbing desert sky. Only the refrigerated, modern American man would dare to make this wholly unsustainable land his playground. “Is there anyplace more American than the desert? All developed, lawned up and malled out?” I asked no one in particular, the words spilling out unconsciously. But I had a passenger, and sitting next to me, she was close enough to hear. “Oh, I don’t know,” Melinda replied. “Some of those Middle Eastern cities come to mind. Dubai. That Abu place. Can you turn down the air? I want to feel the heat.” I would be sweating within minutes, but the matter was not worth arguing. The only argument that makes sense having is one you can win, and I couldn’t win, not against Melinda. Even

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if I had, which I wouldn’t have, because I never did, not on issues of temperature or travel destination or the optimal level of mattress firmness, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Melinda was more than capable of holding a petty grudge into the wee night, and as her legs stretched out naked before me, her toes pushing their prints into the windshield, her calf muscles bunching toward her knees, I had other things in mind. We had met on the prior season’s Dancing with the Stars. Melinda had played the part of professional dancer. I had played the roll of her partner, one of the learns-to-tango “stars.” We were asked to leave after the second round. That had been my doing. I am strong with adequate stamina but helplessly uncoordinated and quite possibly tone deaf (my point being that singers are generally much better dancers than nonsingers). My agent thought the show would be good exposure. Having not had a paying job in six months, I didn’t question the logic. A week into rehearsals, Melinda and I started dating. That had been my doing, too. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate engaging conversation and the absence of drama as much as the next guy, but the woman who makes me weak, the one who brings the Kryptonite, is the woman who is comfortable in her own skin — that is to say, comfortable out of her clothes, a skill subset seemingly required of all dancers. Melinda is the kind of woman, who, finding herself bored at a cocktail party, thinks nothing of stripping down to her birthday suit and jumping into the pool and wakes the morning after feeling no remorse. She possessed another noteworthy trait, too, perhaps most importantly. Melinda had a blind spot for the brisk rate at which I lobbed tiny tablets on to my tongue. With coffee finished, I felt better, not perfect, the pendulum always swinging, but better. The sun would be calling it quits in a couple hours, putting me on schedule to be in Palm Springs, in my suite, on the balcony, post-massage, with drink in hand to toast its departure. That was my goal, a treat for myself after a six and a half week sentence on a made-for-TV movie shoot. Anticipating my needs, I cracked open my water and downed


a swarm of Percocet. Cluttering the landscape, a neat row of evenly spaced billboards advertized lap bands, men’s clubs, housing from the low 200s. Automotive horse blinders, they penned traffic in on both sides. As we closed upon our destination, windmills rose up on the hilltops, spinning slowly and steadily. In an effort to salvage my American desert thesis, I was doing my best to ignore their breeze-powered activity when in a shivering rush, my bowels turned surly and foreign. It was as if a snake had slithered into my stomach. A psychosexual anaconda, he had mistaken my intestines for a potential mate. I responded with a prudish groan. Highway 111, the most direct route to Palm Springs and our hotel, was just ahead. Preparing to exit, I slipped into the slow lane. “What are you doing?” “Driving to Palm Springs, my dear.” “Did you forget my date shake?” “We can get it on the way out,” I reasoned. “No, we can’t,” she replied, her feet sliding off the dashboard and onto the floor. “The whole point of having a date shake is to have it in the heat.” Fuck, I swallowed. I returned to the fast lane. A few miles later I exited, ducked under the freeway and parked in the Hadley’s lot. Dates and ice cream are not an intuitive co mbination, and I tend to believe they were born not out of some culinary inspiration as much as desperation. Too many dates. Too much hot weather. A dairy farming cousin with an under pasteurized surplus. Still, they do taste pretty damn good. “Want anything?” Melinda asked as she took a spot in the back of the line. “I’ll have what you’re having,” I replied, my voice undulating with the cramping of my gut. The men’s restroom was closed for someone’s version of cleaning, a stained bucket of dim water and the pole ends of two mops acting as sentry. I would have taken my chances in the ladies’ room, but I had seen a woman enter just ahead of me, and with her over-the-knee, wrinkle free skirt, silk blouse, and no nonsense shoes, she did not appear the type to be accepting of a male stall neighbor. There was a gas station a parking lot and a street crossing away, but even if toilet availability had been assured, such a distance seemed insurmountable, so I stuck with the more local door number one. With my colon feverishly twitching, I staggered about in a tight, if inexact, figure eight. “Carter Wall? What the hell?” It was Nora Phillips, moderately influential afternoon talk show host and the woman in asexual heels. “Out of medjools. And how are you, Nora?” “Utterly fantastic, now! Do you believe in fate?” “Not at all.” “Because I’m hosting a celebrity pro/am this Sunday, and I would just love, love, love it if you would play.”

“Who cancelled on you?” “I’d rather not say.” “That seems out of character.” “I made a deal with his manager. We’re getting an appearance during sweeps.” Her torso hidden behind a half dozen illegibly marked spray bottles, one foot coxing the once upon a time yellow bucket along, the cleaning woman dragged her camp ten feet down the hall. By this point, my twitching had devolved into a spasm and edged dangerously close to an irrepressible fit. It was a new feeling — I had only days before graduated from lone laxatives to laxatives plus stool softener — but I recognized it immediately: bowel vertigo was in play. Squeezing my glutes, my last line of defense, I shuffled toward the restroom entrance. “I wish, but . . . leaving Sunday morning,” I managed. “We’ll put you up!” Nora replied, stepping in front of me and taking hold of my arm, her boney fingers hooking my bicep in a distinctly motherly way. “It’s only one day. And it’s for a great cause. Feliciana will be there. I know she’d be happy to see you.” “I guess you didn’t hear about the restraining order. Joking.” “You’re so funny.” We stood, awkwardly, eyes awkwardly fixed on one another, smiles awkwardly frozen, and waited for the other to flinch. I was too close to my goal to put up a fight. One swallow of the wet minerals and butcher counter smells misting out of the men’s room and I was done. I raised the white flag. “Okay. I’ll play.” “Wonderful. You’ll have a blast.” I waddled off in a thin glaze of sweat. Seconds later, like a horror movie monster that refuses to die, her voice boomed in after me, amplified by the wall to ceiling tile. “8 a.m. start time! Come early to get signed in and hit some balls! See ya then!” For her sake, I hoped she did not stay to hear my response. Saturday morning, I sat poolside (pill-side, coffee-side, boxof-donuts-side) reading Marcel Proust, my author of choice exposing a contradictory and most times successfully ignored Puritan instinct to be ever improving myself. This chore, however, coupled with opioids and the resulting dilution of my short term memory, led from the reading to the re-reading, and many times the re-re-reading, of numerous sentences on numerous pages, the words spiraling on and on, echoing about endlessly, causing me to unearth unintended symbols through the repetition I had dubbed in. After twenty minutes, I gave up. When Melinda rested her OK magazine on the table between us, I slipped it inside my open book, feebly concealing it from any passing party. Ever vigilant for glossy images of myself, I fanned through the pages only to discover Feliciana sunning herself on a yacht of high pedigree. The banal Caribbean, I guessed, I hoped. No, the Dorian Gulf, off the Turkish coast, of course, I should have known. When I would see Feliciana, and it was often, or seemed so, those months succeeding our breakup, she continually Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 103


projected a state of ecstasy or near ecstasy or appeared in any case on the verge of achieving such a state. At a charity gala or art opening or dining at a celebrity-owned restaurant, it didn’t matter; she was at all times surrounded by glamorous and interesting company and never far from a glass of champagne. And what feelings would follow these sightings? What jealousies? Mostly this: that she was having much more fun than me, as petty as that may sound (and as foolish as it may be to admit). No amount of alcohol could drown this fire, and trust me when I say that I tried my best. I was, in fact, in such a state when I tore up my knee. My friends were only wishing to cheer me up when they arrived at my house one Sunday morning with street bikes and the intention of cruising the Malibu hills. It being 10 a.m., they could never have suspected how drunk I was. Certainly they took the fumes billowing from my pores as the aftermath of night-before drinks, not a breakfast of Bloody Marias. Ditto my bloodshot eyes and adobo stained, improperly directed T-shirt. Even after I couldn’t start the bike without help, even after I tipped it over in the driveway, even after I laid it down two blocks from my house when I hit a curb at fifty miles an hour and wrenched the patella off the front of my knee, I recognized that I had done it all to myself. Up to that point in my life, my experiences with painkillers had been primarily limited to the trinity of aspirin, Motrin and Excedrin PM. The two non-sequential Vicodin prescriptions I had been given (appendix, broken toe) had been filled, but I never reached the bottom of either jar. Ripping off my kneecap reintroduced me to the drugs. The unexpected side effect was what made this time different. Where alcohol had failed, the drugs succeeded. They succeeded in relieving me of thought, deeply obsessive thought, the most urgent of which was the anguish of being without Feliciana, of knowing that she was someplace fantastic, doing some fantastic thing at the center of the known universe (her very presence defining it as such) and in a company that did not include me. The drugs flattened me out. They erased the sharp edges and blurred the outlines. I felt superhuman, impervious, better. Traffic, the cry of a stranger’s baby, gum on my shoe, it didn’t matter; when I was in that perfect place, I was immune. I imagined that, if administered, water torture would have had a reverse effect. It would have been met with laughter. Not hysterical, not recklessly escaping, not, in fact, true laughter but more a shallow reverberation persuaded into the open by way of overly sedated muscles, one that suggested its creator missed the punch line but longed to feel the physical result all the same. My angst buried under pills, a dumb happiness flooded through me, a flood I came to summon at all non-Ambien moments. Included in my pro/am foursome were two pros, Dustin Chambers, who, judging from the unnatural hue of his skin, had a tanning booth chain as a major sponsor, and Brent “Boomer” Magnusson, a bear of man with a body more suited for lumberjacking than a gentleman’s club and ball sport. The 104 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

other amateur, beside myself, was Albert Norton, an American Idol runner up and serial cameo hound. I met him at the first tee. “Hey, Carter, you want to make this interesting?” “What are you suggesting?” “Let’s play skins on the side. You and me. 10k a hole.” “I didn’t bring my checkbook.” “No problem. I know you’re good for it.” Ahead of us, the fairway cleared. “You guys shoot first,” Boomer said. “Go for it,” I said. “Don’t mind if I do.” Albert grabbed his driver and stepped up to the tee box. After placing his ball, he circled around to survey the hole, a par five, dogleg right. His gloves tightened, his visor position confirmed (dead center, tipped up at 30 degrees), his crotch gratuitously tugged, he approached his ball with a closed stance and swung — light with the hips, heavy with the arms — pulling the ball 200 yards into a sand trap. “Crap,” he snapped, folding his hands behind his head, his club released to convulse on the grass near his feet. “Come on, Albert. You’re better than that!” “You’re up, Carter,” called Boomer. Albert’s beach shot had removed what little anxiousness my morning parade of Demerol had failed to confiscate. The result was a perfectly unhurried and fluid swing, not unlike something you would find at an Olympic-level rhythmic gymnastics meet. Sure, I would have liked my drive to have travelled farther — there is always room for more length — but it flew straight and true, one of those blasts that appeared to accelerate with distance. In my plaid pants, fitted polo and white leather shoes, my club spinning in my hand as I coolly admired my ball, I looked good. I knew I did. Minutes later I was two putting myself to a par. “Nicely done,” offered Albert, six strokes in with three downhill feet remaining. “First ten to you.” To which I smiled, thereby accepting the oral contract. My cocktail came in a slender glass, bubbles fizzing off the top-heavy ice. I squeezed in the accompanying lime wedge and promptly asked the bartender for another slice. I did not drink much in those days. Nothing in the morning and rarely anything before five, and when I did drink, I never had more than three. The pills had allowed me that one compromised self-control. After adding the juice from the second wedge I took a deep drink. The tonic-sweetened gin raced down me like a Swede in a gravity sport. A snow sport, snowballs, capsules of ice — my thoughts rounded Scandinavia and came to rest on the timing to my next dosing. I patted my shirt pocket with all the self-awareness of a drawn breath. I was dehydrated. My stomach was empty. The carbonation and high-proof spirit surging through the ulcerous walls of my stomach had caused, I was certain, a mild female hallucination. “Carter,” she said, taking the stool at the bar beside me. “I almost didn’t recognize you without your champagne.”


“I know, right? Howard’s on the phone. I just had to get out of the room. He’s loud, and he paces.” “I blew ninety thousand dollars today.” “Are you joking?” “Yeah. Of course, joking.” “You can be so strange.” “Shall I order us a bottle?” “That would be rather decadent. I’m only here for one drink.” “One optimistic bottle it is.” The bartender faced us with a pair of flutes, popped open our requested beverage and began to pour. Foam rapidly expanded in the opening glass, scampered over the lip and scaled down the outside to melt and moat around the bottom of the stem. “I believe that’s good luck,” I said, feeling generous. “Why is it that anytime something is spilled, it becomes a source of good luck?” “Words of a persuasive klutz.” “Your mentor?” “You know, you always made me smarter.” “I think you’re confusing me with a new suit.” “I miss you. It might be crazy to admit this, but I was thinking about you this morning while I was having breakfast. About the time I drizzled you with honey…” “Carter, please.” “Too much? Too much. Right. Sorry.” “I should go,” she said, standing. “Thanks for the drink.” “Bye, Feliciana. Cheers.” I love the name calling of pharmaceutical drugs, so scientific and clever sounding, nipped and tucked as they are by the scalpel of market research. Opana, Numorphan, Avinza, they reach out like the names of yet to be discovered planets. Who wouldn’t want to move to Dilaudid with its purpleclouded atmosphere and its quadruplet of moons? Or Kadian, a ringed planet with meek seasons, relatively low gravity and tremendous meteor showers? They sound like the future. Weighted upon by that kind of lonely that typically follows abandonment, I longed for the availability of time travel. I pined for the future. I slid my flute across the bar, stocked myself with a school of Palladones and left the bar. I called for my car. I drove it up the strip, I drove it down the strip, and then I stopped at a KFC drive through window and ordered three biscuits with gravy, which I ate on the way to my hotel. The door stood open when I arrived at the room. Inside, a maid turned down the bed, dimpling the pillows with mint cookies. I shook her down for some extra towels (I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has supplied enough) and said goodnight. After stacking four long pillows against the headboard, I eased on to the bed. It was early, but after a day in the sun with Albert and the boys, my body flagged. I considered taking an Ambien and calling it a night, but, fearful

of sleepwalking, a recent habit, and wanting to wait up for Melinda, I opted for a mini-fridge light beer and a solitary Lorcet. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, I did feel it important to include a variety of controlled substances in my diet.) I flipped on SportsCenter and raised the volume, but it was not long before I drifted off. A getaway. I ran through the desert, barefoot, hurdling cacti, abandoned car parts and small appliances. A vulture swooped down on me. She dug her claws into my shoulders, pecked at my head and tore my clothes. While the huge, ancient bird stripped me clean, a deluge of drool fell from her beak. I aimed to corral the saliva in my mouth, which was dry and packed with pills, but only a negligible sip made it past my lips. “Hello, sleepyhead.” “Rammueses . . . rammurphleta . . . ” “Wake up, gorgeous.” “Wha . . . the fuck?” I was naked, uncovered and sprawled out on the bed. The carrion lover of my dream loomed over me in a negligee of unreasonable candor. The lights had been lowered to a simmer, thereby muting all detail, but judging from her voice (masculine), her hair (piled high) and her boxy shape, I took her age to be about sixty. I grabbed a pillow and laid it across my sex organ. “No need to be shy, my beautiful baby.” “Who are you? Housekeeping? And what did I swallow? Room service? ” “You are in my room. In my bed. Obviously, you were waiting for me.” “Waiting? What? Sleeping. Where are my clothes?” “I know who you are. From the TV.” “Television? Really? Not the movies?” “I’m not much for movies. The theater is so loud.” As my short term sputtered to life, I recalled what I had failed to notice earlier: chunky, aqua and gold bobbles piled next to the ice bucket, a pair of globular eyeglasses on the nightstand, a tablecloth cut into the shape of a one piece bathing suit drying over an upholstered chair, an oversized Steinmart bag on the luggage rack, nothing that would ever belong to Melinda, not in this life or any one previous. “Where are my things?” “You will do what you came here to do. Then you can have your clothes … and your wallet and your pills.” She put a meaty hand on my chest. “What did you give me?” “You can’t tell? It was in your pocket.” “There are a lot of things in my pocket. I need to go.” “Oh, no, sweetie. You will do what you came here to do; otherwise I will call the police and tell them you tried to rape me. Besides, you’re naked. And quite aroused, I suspect.” “What? Hardly. It’s just, argh, Viagra! You gave me Viagra? Are you fucking kidding me?” “Also, here. Just in case you need something else.” Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 105


She lowered a herd of pills onto the nightstand. After confirming them to be Demerol, I ushered them into my mouth, flushing them down with the lukewarm balance of my beer. “I don’t need anything.” “Come to me.” She rolled on to her back and I rolled on top of her. Better to play along than run into the bright hall on who knows what floor in my condition, the drugs reasoned within me. Even with the re-re-reading, or perhaps because of it, I had absorbed a bit of Proust. It came to me then. “Just as a patient, by means of an anesthetic, can watch with complete lucidity the operation being performed on him, but without feeling anything . . . ” That being quoted, I was thankful she had not repositioned any mirrors for the occasion. I like it here. I do. The staff is attentive. The food leans organic, unfussy and scratch made. Although there exists a palpable libido awakening, the patients mostly keep to themselves. The building complex is old and, through design and age, airy, with a generous use of windows, especially considering the northern location. Three stories tall and built in a semi-circle, it cradles a lush lawn crosshatched with bands of late season wild flowers; the property is surrounded by a sea of pine. The common areas have been well maintained and the rooms are spacious, if sparsely decorated. I could do without the shared bath, but I am happy to report that an acceptable amount of towels can be found neatly stacked on a bench near the showers. Yes, it is civilized here, and I am making do, in a jacked-up-on-antidepressants-and-going-on-successivesleepless-nights kind of way. I am in the waiting/living room in range of the brooding, stone fireplace. As it does everyday, a fire burns inside. Its heat crisps the side of my face, my lower leg and foot, and the edge of my book holding hand (yes, Proust again). An elderly woman I have never previously seen has taken a post nearby to knit and intermittently suck at her teeth. I wonder if she has dentures, briefly, then return to my book, or try to. A flat tang of artificial rose petals, lentils and urine-soaked cotton has me boxed in. I long for the flames to rise up, for smoke to saturate the room and overwhelm her odor, but good fortune sidesteps me. Surely, I think, the old woman is a visitor, there to see her son or daughter, grandchild perhaps. No one would be so cruel as to deny someone so long in the tooth one of her last remaining pleasures. So why am I being so cruel? “Care for some gum,” I offer, holding out a pack of wintergreen sugarless. She squints at me dismissively and returns to her yarn. I try again. “Crystal meth?” “Excuse me?” “I noticed your gums are rotting.” I tuck my book into a shelf and step outside. In my long underwear, jeans and newly purchased boots, I march off the manicured grounds and head into the forest. There is a stream 106 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

at the bottom of a shallow slope at the edge of the property. I join up with it, following it through a palette of compost browns and bog greens, uncurling ferns and conspiring mosses, chevrons of lichen crusting on the trucks of trees. Left alone here, could I survive? What would I eat? Berries? What would I drink? Berry-flavored water? Mushrooms and mead for entertainment, certainly, but which mushrooms? And bees? Down toward the center of the earth I go, looking for protein along the way: deer, newts, slugs, (butter, garlic). I listen for waterfalls and try to keep a steady pace. A zephyr alights upon me and I am transported. Clean, floral but muted, like a bouquet sensed through only one nostril, the accompanying scent is there and never there, pulling with it a flickering memory that hides when pursued, a recollection that shies away behind an earthen note of wood spice, of fungus. It is enough, however, more than enough. The dominoes tumble, and I am overwhelmed by a moment, a moment of drawing Feliciana near, a playful interlude in the delicate infancy of our relationship. The scent resurrects her hair, those strands which fell nearest to her neck explicitly, and from there I am but a shallow breath’s distance to her mouth and our first passionate kiss, her lips and tongue as they arrived so strikingly warmer than mine, as if she had been drinking hot tea. The feeling, like the memory, there and gone, there and never there, mine and never mine, it releases a transient ghost to haunt the halls of my body. Though it may seem unbelievable, because it is, particularly to me, I am not consumed by this memory. I open a door and usher it out. Eleven days in and my physical withdrawal is complete, the pain of it overcome. All the dulling effects I had so coveted have been washed away. My encounter with the lady condor had broken my pride, the last little bit of it, and freed me, allowed me, no, required me by way of newly discovered humility, to admit some difficult truths to myself, truths about my career, my obsession with Feliciana, my growing drug addiction. She never asked for it, but that night, I dumped everything, in one steady emotional monologue, on Melinda. No sooner had I finished than a bellhop was loading her bags onto a cart, and she was pushing her way out. No goodbyes. She had listened to my blathering with uninterrupted attention and that was enough closure for both of us. Eleven days in and I have discovered a new lightness, and, reminiscent of my initial descent into self-medication, I feel free. I do fear that the feeling of freedom may only be the feeling of change in disguise, but I am not dwelling on it. There is one thing though that I cannot seem to shake, one uncomfortable thing (besides regret, and we cannot consider regret, because if we did it would overwhelm everything else). It is as trifling as a day-old bee sting, and noticed only sporadically. I suffer it now on my walk through the forest. I suffer it at night as I lie in bed. Not on my way up the stairs, not usually, but nearly always going down. It has been over two years since my accident, but once again, my knee is aching.


George Bishop George Bishop lives and writes in the central Florida area. Recent work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Evening Red Press and White Pelican Review. His chapbook Love Scenes was published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press and new chapbook Marriage Vows and Other Lies is forthcoming from Flutter Press.

Answering the Question I was thinking of the lizard walking on water in the pool, how it can dash across a mirror or scale a wall — yet, it couldn’t find a way out this sky-blue cell. There it was, doomed to die while I watched. Of course, my friend wouldn’t let that happen and neither would I — she performed the rescue, setting it free to live out whatever was left of its tiny, prehistoric life. Returning to what she asked, if I believed in the afterlife, I said yes, without life. I heard someone call it The Hereafter somewhere and something inside nodded its bare, inside head. She told me they were just words and that it was either the water or the rat terrier. I hadn’t noticed the dog, just the lizard and how deceptively clear it can be to touch two surfaces at the same time.

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Homeless In . . . center city, somewhere, sleeping off an alley, one of my many dressing rooms. I shed the cover of a dumpster, emerge — the stray dog deep inside shaking off certain stars, ready for any scent of sympathy, the con of a new owner never more than a dash of obedience away. I’d become a master at throwing out the family bones, retrieving each one as if I stole it from a king, sure to hide the fractures with some teeth or trash. I’d learned there are no excuses but there are stories. And after so many years facts break off like limbs that didn’t make it, that life really did desert. You wait for someone to find one, throw it. A new best friend. Maybe. If you’re lucky, they’ll name you Lucky. For awhile you’ll only run away from home in your sleep — but you’ll run away. You’re just the lost mail of someone who never changed his address. A postcard with just enough room to lie.

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Madelaine Caritas Longman Madelaine Caritas Longman was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan and currently resides in Calgary, Alberta. Literature has always been a major part of her life, and at age fourteen, she discovered her enjoyment of writing. Since then, she has experimented with a variety of styles and genres. She appreciates art in a variety of forms, and also paints and takes photographs. In her spare time, she goes on adventures in her city, listens to punk music, and writes many, many poems.

movie on mute for years she was a sleepwalker in someone else’s dream, a mirage pulled from the smoke of who she was told to be as sleepless nights turned her eyes to stop signs. the tv hums and sends blue light flickering down the hall and she thinks of the last light filtered through water into the windows of a sinking ship before the pressure becomes too much and

adrift in an age where it’s safe to say ‘i know what it’s like’ without taking the time or the risk to remember. but all i can say that i know is true, is I know how it feels to wake up in a movie on mute,

all her walls cave in. she swims through white noise, drinks it like poison to slow the hammer of her heart.

with no music to tell you what to feel or do, but you woke up , don’t forget that, it’s what matters.

and i wish i could promise she’ll be okay,

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Laura Bogart Laura Bogart’s work has appeared in Ne’er Do Well, 34th Parallel, Xenith, and Full of Crow, among other publications. She has work forthcoming in the new Limp Wrist. In 2009, she received a Grace Paley Fellowship from The Juniper Institute at Umass Amherst. She’s currently at work on a collection of linked stories about violence and reconciliation in an Italian family, and a novel that can best be described as Kill Bill meets Lolita in a carnival sideshow. Laura lives in Baltimore.

Thaw

P

eople in town called him Whitey and Casper, and, when they weren’t feeling too creative (which was often enough) Albino Boy. Marge hadn’t even unpacked her new house before she’d heard of him. She didn’t go for gossip, but she was curious enough to consider going to the grocery store where he slopped his mop over bleached-bright tile. Though she’d been a police officer for twenty-nine years, Marge had never heard of anybody so naturally unique. She’d seen a tweaker ram a pencil through his palm and a drunk try to eat her own foot, but she’d never seen a man who’d been born with skin the color of his bones. Marge found him in the snow bank that had been the hill behind her house. Winter was vicious, sheathed the town in ice. Not that color-catching ice, crystalline-pretty. This was opaque ice that hid under soft yet thickly packed snow; even her dog skidded through the drifts. If Rex, the dog, hadn’t tumbled into him, he would’ve frozen to death beneath her plum tree. Nothing braced her for the shock of his body. His skin was the merciless white of blank paper. His eyes were thick stones whitened by river silt. He was stripped to the waist. The hair tufting thickly from his chest was like pale gold straw. She couldn’t say why, but she’d always thought those people were hairless. Smooth as dolphins. His chest sagged gently into a plump, goatish belly. His mouth was oddly delicate, fleshy yet well defined. It made her think of petals, nakedly sensate. She felt that stiff clicking in her lower back when she bent to give him a sternum rub. Her nerves yawned back to life as she leaned over him. The cold bit through her glove. He must’ve been outside for hours. Instinctively, her free hand fell to her waist, seeking a radio. Though she’d always lived on her own, Marge had become accustomed to the idea of backup. She studied his chest, hoping for the shallow rise of breath. Nothing. His lips were a parched blue. Rex sniffed his face insistently; suddenly, he moaned. Marge took off her glove for 110 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

another sternum rub. The jolt of skin on skin coaxed another low mumble out of him. Her fingers stung as she snapped for Rex to assume down position across the man’s chest. Thaw the heart. She thought of his heart as a tea kettle swelling with warmth, pushing steam through his veins. While he slept, his cells bloomed with color. He’d read enough to know that freezing would feel like burning. His body incinerated by a greater whiteness: this thought laid him down in the deepest drift and stilled his tongue when the cold wrung his muscles like rags. He’d snapped his glasses, and without them, the world was a series of shapes without edges. Whenever the kings of the schoolyard would snatch them, everyone around him became a specter zooming into view. Nothing had boundaries; he’d break his nose against flagpoles, against door frames, and against the collarbones of the boys who charged into him for sport. Now, it was a comfort that he couldn’t tell tree from cloud or car from tree. His body pinched itself shut from his fingertips to the soles of his toes. Sudden warmth in the center of his chest turned his cells into mouths, they lapped up the warmth, and the warmth flushed them with color. He opened his eyes to greet his new skin, but was met by a haze. “Am I blind?” His voice cracked like a boy’s. “They didn’t say anything about that.” The voice that responded was older, female. Leathered — but not by cigarettes, it lacked that phlegmy heft. “You’re safe.” Safe: the word thrummed through him. She said other things he couldn’t quite understand. Wake swam through the static. When he focused, he could glean the colors of her clothes and her general shape. Blue on a bottom that drooped


like a spoon from her thinnish middle. Her chest was swaddled in gray. He couldn’t make out her features, just the dandelionblonde hair that haloed her face. His hand slowly rose up, but the only color was liquid pink coursing through the tube fixed to his skin. A sharp cry splintered from his lips. “Stanley.” His name brought the room into view (as in-view as could be): the twin hills of his feet under lint-pocked blankets, the monitor that mocked his heart with those cheerful beeps, and the window glass that reflected an unforgiving fluorescence. A male voice introduced itself as doctor. Stanley searched for the woman’s voice through a thicket of words. “Is there anyone we can call for you?” she asked. Stanley supposed he’d waited until his father was dead just in case he failed. The old man wouldn’t even have approached Stanley’s bedside; he’d stand in the doorway, sucking his teeth. The words he would’ve said were hammer-strikes through Stanley’s head. You’re going to lose that damn job. They’re the only people who could stand to look at you, and now look at what you’ve done. His mother was that third chair at the dinner table that had never been filled. She’d expected a boy-child with her eyes and his father’s nose, but the nurse brought her a living ghost. The doctor said something about new glasses, and Stanley shook his head with tearful vigor. “Psych will be down in a few minutes. Visiting hours are over, Officer Marsh.” The doctor’s shoes squeaked their retreat. “I’m Marge, by the way.” Her breath was sweetly stale from hospital coffee. She’d been waiting. Hours — maybe days — of her life spent watching him breathe. “You’re a cop?” She cleared her throat, a blunt, awkward sound. He thought of a new substitute writing her name on the chalkboard. “Retired.” The word seemed to sour her mouth. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Tomorrow, people with good-bye kisses lingering on their lips would preach life. He’d need to be less artistic next time. Better to be brutal, effective. She’d been in many hospital rooms, but none felt as stark as his. Even the hookers who’d been beaten beyond belief had friends to feed them ice cubes. The only sound in Stanley’s room was the clicking of the monitor. Marge thought of the blood making its reluctant trudge back to his heart. If she were back on the job, she’d know exactly what to ask. She’d only have to care about the why if he was an immediate danger to himself or others. She wouldn’t have to feel anything when looking at his face. “Poor kiddo, he’s got nobody. They’ll probably send him to

Shepherd’s Hill.” Shepherd’s Hill didn’t ring a bell for Rex, who nosed at the card table she ate her dinners on. Salisbury steak nights were his favorite. She tossed him strips from the half-nuked patties. Watching him root around for the ones he’d missed was more entertaining than watching the assholes who ate insects or jumped out of airplanes for the chance to open a briefcase holding half a million dollars. Marge hadn’t watched nighttime TV for twenty-nine years, and clearly, she hadn’t missed anything. She thought about Stanley. The charge nurses must’ve thought she was his grandmother. Hers was the lone name beside his in the visitor’s log. “State hospitals, boy, are home to the better-off and mightas-well-be dead.” His plan, once he got to Shepherd Hill, was to start tucking pills under his tongue. On the ride over, he puzzled out how many days’ worth would do him in; this was mostly (he’d have to admit) to smooth down his fear. As potholes jostled the ambulance, Marge’s words returned to him: “Fear is a good thing. That first touch of it tells you you’re alive. Then the coming rush of it tells you that you want to stay that way.” His fear wasn’t the quicksilver fear of instinct; it was dread, a new place meant an inquisition. Popped-wide eyes blinked ceaselessly, as if they needed to take him in to believe he was real, then had to shut out the sight of him. An attendant led him to a brickwork tower with barred windows. Stanley heard the wrought-iron gate close behind him; inside, he stared down a hallway painted a white his skin couldn’t even dream of achieving. Patients — his fellow patients — poked out of their rooms. Most regarded him blankly, but whenever an expression threatened to become all-too-familiar, the attendant cleared his throat. Stanley moved to his room in peace. The bed sheets matched the pajamas, which matched the walls, which matched the hallway. Supper time tempted him to take off his glasses; rows of faces turned up from their plates as he entered the airplane hangar of a dining room. One girl sniffed in his direction. Her arms were all elbow and her legs were all knee; she was nearly bald, but her forearms were furry. He’d never seen someone so thin. So this is what it’s like . . . There were so many someones he’d never seen. So scarred, so burnt, so dead-in-the-eyes, so riddled with odd marks. They were outside at some point; how did I miss them? Every day, he was so distracted that he simply swallowed the pill he was given. “You may want to, but above all else, don’t take off your glasses.” He should have thanked her when she called, but he was distracted by her question. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 111


“You need anything, kiddo?” The kiddo felt hesitant, shyly tried. This unfamiliar uncertainty in her tone somehow sweetened the word, his first term of endearment. None of the grandmothers who haunted the bakery ever called him honey. Or even sugar — sugar would’ve suited him. Most of his fellow patients must’ve been a sugar to someone down the line. “I’d like a notebook and a pen, please. Wait, so, then, you’re coming to see me? Here?” “I’m not going to send them via messenger pigeon.” He flushed. When he was a boy, Stanley used to stand in front of the mirror with his eyes closed, thinking of the most embarrassing things he could: running his hands over the dimpled thighs of the girl who sat in front of him in math class, streaking through the stadium, starting a fight. When that first rush of warmth came, he opened his eyes. Nothing. His skin was like rain-battered rock, stripped down to its pores, soaking in everything but never releasing anything. He was a kid on Santa’s lap, asking for that notebook. At least, he sounded like kids do in the movies. Marge never cared much for children, and she hated malls; she’d only gone when a call came to take in a shoplifter or break up a fight. Still, she didn’t want to get him one of those marbled grade-school notebooks from the grocery store. So she ventured to the paper store — a whole goddamn store for paper products — and blinked helplessly at aisles of notebooks. Recycled notebooks, notebooks with embossed gold foil, hand-stitched notebooks, notebooks with textured paper; finally, she got him one with a red cover, because she thought she’d seen his last name written out somewhere: Redding. At least she had his name to ground her, she’d been adrift at the paint store. Three long rows of nothing but yellow. She knew they were all different, but she couldn’t tell which ones were wrong. So what the hell was she supposed to go on? When she saw him in the flesh, he thanked her for her advice, told her that he was getting on well at the hospital. “Stan,” she said. “You don’t get on well at the hospital, you get well at the hospital.” He looked down, coughing awkwardly into his fist. The guard who stood by the door was probably fresh out of the academy, on reserve with Phoenix County PD. The buzz-cut gave him away. Marge remembered watching the guys in her class line up for the barber. She thought she’d been so cunning, so brave, sneaking toward the back. Took all she had not to match the stares she got, some quizzical, others steaming with hate. Finally, the lieutenant pulled her out of line by her shoulder: “Jesus, Marsh, do you know what you’ll look like?” “This is beautiful,” Stanley said. He held the book like it was some delicate broken-winged thing he was lifting out of a trap. His exaggerated tenderness 112 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

embarrassed her. “How did you describe people? You know, when you were writing your reports,” Stanley asked. “Police reports?” The guard tried to mask his interest by narrowing his eyes and pursing his mouth. A common rookie error: giving away too much by trying too hard to not give anything at all. “Race, age, physical description.” “So you would be: White female — “ His smile was chagrined; he had a sense, probably from television, that age was something he shouldn’t broach with her; as if, after forty, your age was counted in dog years. “White female,” she continued. “Fifty, medium build, blond hair —” “Mole on right cheek.” She nodded, absently rubbing her thumb over the mole. More like a beauty mark, really, it was so small — not that she cared what it was called. “Now try him,” she said, cocking her thumb at the guard. “You don’t know his age, so you give your best guess. Early twenties, late forties, and so on.” He spoke with a confidence that actually startled her. “White male, early twenties, muscular build, brown hair in a buzz cut, scar at the corner of right upper lip.” The guard did have a faint white crescent near his lip — a bottle-rocket mishap, perhaps. No doubt he’d told himself that only a lover could get close enough to notice that scar, which would make her cherish it. He turned his face away, faking concern for a woman who’d tucked herself in a corner of the hallway. “Now try her,” Marge said. “She’s your suspect, so you also need to describe her actions.” “White female, late twenties, thin build, black hair. Suspect is tearing hair from her temples and attempting to consume it.” “That’s pretty damn good, kiddo.” When his eyes brightened at the kiddo, his irises looked faintly blue. He’d have probably been a redhead, what with the freckles smattering his cheeks. One of those awkwardly handsome men who still looked like he hadn’t grown into himself well into his thirties. “I’ve had a lot of time to observe people,” he said. Then he cleared his throat. “So, Marge, if you were writing a report on me — I guess, well, there was a report written after, you know.” “I didn’t write it,” she said. Her fear surprised her. It wasn’t fear of hurting his feelings, it was fear that for a moment — only a moment — she’d considered sugarcoating. White male is technically true. “If you had to.” “Albino male, mid-twenties, medium build.” Stanley didn’t say anything. He took off his glasses, knuckled his eyelids. The gesture made her swell with protectiveness, not a serve and . . . kind of protectiveness. It was a protectiveness


without direction. The way he blotted his fragile sight, just for a moment to think, made her want to scuttle him up to a safe dry space above everyone else. She imagined him smiling down at her with bemused confusion. But that wasn’t right. That wasn’t life. “It’s just a descriptor, Stan. Like white or black.” “Of course it is,” he said, struggling to keep the of course it’s not out of his tone. A few patients were milling about the hallway. Everyone was washed out, the same sallow shade as their faded pajamas. “I can’t let him drop anchor,” she told Rex later that night. Rex yawned as she tucked the sheets across an over-large bed in a room she already regretted painting “butterscotch yellow”. At my age, I should paint my walls a prim color, not a little girl’s first-bedroom color. Marge dropped the dirty linens into an overfilled hamper; she wasn’t doing her back any favors by letting it get so heavy, but laundry was so damn tedious. She tried telling herself that it was like police work: a lot of waiting around interrupted by moments of action. Rex loped after her into the kitchen, flopping to the tile with a sigh. “I know, boy; it’s ugly.” She’d painted the kitchen the same color as the bedroom, which was the same color as her living room and the same color as her den. At least I don’t have to worry about what goes with what. Marge scooped her fingers through a jar of chunky peanut butter to let Rex lick the tips. The ticklish rasp of his tongue made her think of Stanley’s hand. He’d offered it to her when visiting hours were up, and the pads of callus along his fingers surprised her. She hadn’t expected any part of him to be rough. His handshake was uncertain at first, then he pressed down with a solemnity that told her he believed that this was the last time he’d see her. “He’s about to drop anchor,” she said aloud. Rex ambled over to his dog bed. He wasn’t one for too much chatter. The days now were, if not pleasant, then comfortable enough. After all the days he’d had before, comfortable enough was quite all right. He nodded through shrink sessions, studying the doctor: Black male, mid-fifties, medium build. Left eye bulges slightly. The subtleties of ugly were so rich. Stanley spent hours in the rec room, just watching. One time, a nurse snapped her fingers in front of his face, asked him if he was there. Stanley had been insulted enough times to know the question she suppressed: or did you blend into the wall? He waited for the heaviness that spread through his chest whenever anyone reminded him of who he was, but all he felt was a sweet tingling fingering the back of his skull. White female, early thirties, obese, black hair. Chest area larger than waist-to-hip ratio would suggest. Suspect hit herself in the chin when she stood up too quickly. When he wasn’t writing, which was only when he wasn’t

eating, sleeping, or on the can, he hid the notebook inside his pillowcase. He’d never taken sleep aids before. His waking came in stages now, and he was pretty sure he hadn’t reached full consciousness when the attendant told him he’d gotten a day pass. When he asked for what, the attendant laughed, said that is lady cop pulled some strings. “Enjoy your day as a free man.” He was given soap and a razor, ushered toward a sink. The razor shook in Stanley’s hand; the mirror offered only the mist of his breath. I can’t — The attendant handed him his glasses. His features eased out of the glass. There was nothing distinct about them. Nothing worth noting. Marge came to pick him up wearing a flannel shirt and new jeans. He could tell she hadn’t worn them in yet because she was stiff in the knees. Unless that was just her age — which he only really noticed when she didn’t move well. He imagined her spine as a snarl of roots planted too closely together. She’d pulled her hair into a high ponytail, which, along with the ladybug pin on her turtleneck, was oddly touching in its misplaced girlishness. He’d never been in a pick-up truck before. Just his father’s low boat of a car, and from the back, he always felt all the blemishes in the road. Up high in the passenger seat, he watched concrete streak by as though was chasing after them. Record stores, pizzerias, and auto-repair shops were all stacked together like the teeth in a crooked grin. OPEN signs washed the snow pale neon. Strangers milled about the curbs; in their winter clothes, they were only faces. This part of the city was foreign. The farthest he’d ever been from those two blocks that held the grocery store and his father’s apartment was over to Marge’s house — though he hadn’t known it was her house; the chipped siding and dead, stripped trees promised him solitude. “Where are we going?” Marge parked near the dealership with a giant inflatable dog jumping through a giant inflatable tire on its roof. The building beside the dealership had been painted white, with red and blue splotches patterned around the windows. Through the glass doors, he saw people squinting at paint samples. Standing so close to someone else was such a luxury. The grocery store, at least, was one of the few places where people shopped alone. “You like hot chocolate?” “You mean the packets?” “No, not that crap,” she laughed. “Real hot chocolate — powdered cocoa and steamed milk.” He didn’t answer her, just stared at the people going in and coming out. His heart beat a tattoo inside his skull. White male, early seventies, thin build, slightly hunchbacked. Brown female, late thirties, large build, birthmark on left cheek looks like a thumb. “When I was a kid, my father would say he was taking me out for a snowball or a hot chocolate. We just always had to make ‘a quick stop’ at the hardware store first.” Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 113


Marge as a girl: he could only imagine her grown-up face, with its lean, hawkish features, atop the body of a dimplekneed little kid in a party dress. He would’ve laughed, but fear held him tight; she’d decided that going inside was for his own good. “No,” he said. “This’ll be quick. Then you’re in for a treat.” She didn’t get out so much as slide herself from her seat. White female, fifty, medium build, favors right side. Suspect walks with a limp. Still, the pressure she put on his arm said something firmer than it’ll be okay. Aisles of eyes made a specimen of him. Blotter descriptions flurried through his mind. Soon, the race, age and build fell away: bald with small dent in back of skull; razor burn on chin; giant cold sore on lower lip; left breast larger than the right. He forced himself to stare back at them until their flaws became as apparent as his own pulse. Marge handed him palate strips, and as he focused on the variations among custard yellows, he could almost pretend he was there like anyone else. Then again, he was, wasn’t he? “I need a color that isn’t too froofy,” she said. “For which room?” “You mean you paint them all different colors?” When she laughed, her upper lip peeled up, revealing picket fence-posts of teeth. No doubt she hadn’t thought twice about how they crowded her mouth. Her shame was pain. He could tell she wasn’t stroking her jaw in contemplation, she was pressing back a wince. She lifted her right foot like a freshly-shod horse afraid to test her weight on a new shoe. Stanley found himself mirroring her as she flattened her foot fully against the ground — a pleasant stretch for him was a firecracker up her spine.

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“I don’t see any difference,” she said, handing him two shades of lemon. One lemon was sharper than the other, too shrill for a bedroom wall. “Maybe for a bathroom,” he added. “Someplace you want people in and out of.” “At least one of us has taste.” I’m in an “us.” Before his smile spread, he heard a woman’s whisper: “That man has no color in his skin!” The woman was still turned toward her companion, a teenager with a dumb, puppyish look in his eyes — probably her son. In profile, her chin creased into her throat like folds in an accordion. “And you have no chin.” When daydreaming, the voice he used when he finally spoke back to the gawkers was the kind of voice you saluted. Now, he spoke with the placidity of fact, which was infinitely more vindicating. He steeled himself for some pushback — then, as he stared her down, he realized he didn’t have to be done. She’d used her only ammo — though her frizzy hair, flat ass, and pitifully thin thighs would let him keep reloading. Marge touched his arm, and the pressure said that’s enough, kiddo. And it was. He wouldn’t be the one interrogating his face in the rear view mirror. They’d buy some paints, and then they’d go for hot chocolate — the real kind. That’s what people did in winter. “So, then, this yellow for the bedroom? Or maybe eggshell, whatever the hell that is.” He started to tell her what the hell he thought that was. The blood-rush in his head slowed down, spread out, until he felt its warmth stroke through him.


Roger Regner

Self-taught artist Roger Regner was born in Goiania in 1968, raised in Brasilia, Brazil, and now lives and works in New York City’s melting pot. The city’s great mix of people has been a major influence in his work, as has music — the invisible form of art. “My goal is to translate what is ethereal and materialize it. I try to enter a universe that exists beyond matter and then turn it into something palpable. I try to portray sound waves, like the ones in music, or the invisible footprints of the wind. Knowing this to be an impossible task, I call it art under construction.” Find is full gallery and CV at http://www.underconstruction.bz

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Rob Doyle Rob Doyle was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1982. Since graduating with first class honours in philosophy and receiving a master’s degree in psychoanalysis from Trinity College, Dublin, he has travelled and lived abroad in Sicily, South America and Asia. He now lives in London, where he teaches English and philosophy. Rob has written an incendiary and shocking novel set among alienated Dublin teenagers, another novel set on the backpacking scene in Bolivia, and numerous short stories.

Shiva

H

e had dropped the acid half an hour ago or maybe longer, maybe three hours. He looked at the dark sea and he could hear the crash of the surf, but it couldn’t have been, for the entire beach boomed with psychedelic trance, sinuous and sinister, a beat like the subterranean heart of the world. No cloud blemished the liquid blackness of the night sky over Goa, and the moon was huge and glowing. Like a god, he thought. Like Shiva. He held her hand — her palm chemical-sweaty — and they walked over the sand. In rising excitement, they saw lithe figures swinging flaming pois that left spiraling after-trails streaked across the night. He laughed for no reason, enchanted by it all. He turned to her and squeezed her hand and laughed again, and she smiled back, quiet and enigmatic. They walked on, aimless and full of joy. Like every backpacker and hippy in Goa, they had been looking forward to this night, anticipating the moment when all would converge to offer themselves in revelrous tribute to some nameless deity. The full moon — climax of the cycle, a high-tech pagan revival for those with no creed more viable. Now they were outside a beachfront bar, one amongst many, and dancing in a steaming heave of flesh and sweat, tattoos and dreadlocks, piercings and pois — a den of vipers! On thinking them, he saw the words zoom from his eyes and streak across the night. He smiled again and then he whooped; it was all very beautiful to him and astonishing too. He had taken some ketamine before they left the hut (she hadn’t). He had bought it in a pharmacy and dried it out on the veranda, on the small tin plate that he carried in his backpack. He had sniffed up almost the entire bottle, significantly more than on previous occasions. And it was powerful, dear God. This is the most peculiar effect of Ketamine: everything stays quite the same, yet is rendered suddenly, utterly profound and uncanny, even menacing. As if the Beyond were voicing itself through all that is familiar, so that any situation, any bedroom or club or beach or any girl, and anything she says

is awesome and unthinkable, simply because it is that which it is. She didn’t like ketamine because she said it encouraged narcissism, solipsism. Maybe, but how could I need more when I’m a world within a world? He turned to her and saw her dancing in weird slow-motion, while everything around her was a smear of streaking colour. He suddenly grew afraid. Who was she? I have no idea. And then she was swallowed up in a writhing cloud of vipers, and a solar flare of screams ripped through his mind. Jesus Christ. He closed his eyes, The acid is strong, I need to keep it together. And then he felt better, because he knew that it had only been an intense moment with the drugs, maybe a sudden jolt from the MDMA he’d taken that she had given him. A harmless spasm, let’s hope so. So many chemicals roaring across his neuron. A holy war! It made him feel better to edge out from among the throng of dancers, and to move away from her, because that jolt had come out of nowhere, and it had frightened him. He walked down the beach, towards the dark waters. The sea was alive, it was vast and unknowable, and he loved and feared it, and it felt for all the world like everything that was happening tonight was just too real, too much itself, not to have been spawned from his own dreams, weaved from the fibre of his own psyche. Could it be? Could it be? It could be, it was. He recalled what he had read earlier that day, while reclining on his hammock in palm-shade on the beachfront. The book was about Hinduism and the philosophy of the Upanishads. Shiva, he had read, was lord of the universe, the god of destruction, which was as vital to life as its opposite. There was a balance to things: birth and death, rise and fall and rise again, the tides charging then retreating — you needed destruction to keep it all alive. Shiva danced, too. Shiva was the dance. Shiva’s dance was the motion of the cosmos itself, the whirring of atoms, the restless swarming of particles, and the winds and Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 121


the raindrops and the movement of all things, ceaseless; for stasis was an illusion, existing nowhere, and all things were kinetic, were dancing. And Shiva danced and he danced beautifully, with long slender limbs and a smile of deep, quiet joy and a kind, androgynous face, a lover for everyone. And his dance was what we call universe, and he never could stop dancing, for his dance was the cosmos and the balance of all things, even as they soared and dived and sped and fled and whooshed and swooped and fell away. If Shiva ever stopped dancing, the universe would crumble, collapse. And so he kept dancing and he never tired of it, for it was his greatest love, to dance, and you knew this was true because of his smile, which was gentle and radiant, and let you forgive life all its wild abusiveness. But now his consciousness was an Armageddon and I’ve never been so high in my life. It was coming on strong, stronger than ever before, what the hell was it? It was the combination, obviously, the cocktail - and then he was scared because the phrase “lethal drug cocktail” flew at him from lurid headlines scattered among the vapours of his memory. No, don’t think like that; go with it, go with it. You’ve no choice now. Go with it and it will be okay. He went with it. He drank in the flaming world through saucer eyes and moved down the beach. Forgetting himself, he took the bag of MDMA from his pocket, dipped a wetted finger in and licked it. He stood for a while, contemplating the harshly chemical taste that numbed his mouth. Then he took another dab. He was among bodies again, no longer afraid. He danced and danced, and the music grew harder, more intense, less comforting, but he was ready for it — I am creating it! He danced in a frenzy, crashing his body against every beat, flailing his arms like a madman challenging the ocean. He was no longer thinking of anything. His body danced, and he was the dance, and it was as natural as breathing and as elegant as a fractal. His eyes were half-closed, and through them poured colours transmuted into visions of splendour, and his heart was pounding more than it should have been, and to anyone looking on he would have caused alarm, but he was oblivious. He didn’t stop dancing, he speeded up. Because now something had become suddenly and fiercely clear to him — he was Shiva. He was Shiva, and he had to dance, he had to dance and he couldn’t stop, because his dance was the cosmos and the walls of the world would come crashing down the moment he stopped. Without ceasing his serpentine dance, he reached into his pocket for the MDMA and took some more.

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And he danced and danced, his face and his body all streaming with sweat, and something wasn’t right, but he didn’t stop, because he was Shiva and his dance was the cosmos, and he couldn’t stop because if he did the universe would end. And so he danced. She was looking for him. She was high and happy as she followed the line of the surf, her feet licked by the longestreaching waves, seeking him among the crowds. She spotted him; he was dancing, almost alone. She frowned with affectionate puzzlement and giggled. He was mad. So wildly he moved. She approached him, calm, relaxed, hovering above everything even as she moved in the midst of it. And she was standing near and called to him, smiling. He didn’t stop dancing — leaping in the air, arcing his arms in huge spirals — but he turned his head to her. Her joy vanished, a terrible coldness enfolded her — his eyes were huge and monstrous, he was hardly there at all; she was afraid for him and afraid of him. She said his name, pleadingly. She said it again, softer. He looked at her, aeons away. His body didn’t stop even for a sliver of a second. Then he was shouting something. “What?” she cried. “What did you say?” “I have to keep dancing!” And then he turned away and lost himself in the dance. She sat down on the sand and pulled her knees to her chest and began to weep, and he kept on dancing. And it was just the two of them now, no one else in sight. She trembled and wept, glancing at him fearfully. And then, without warning, she saw him collapse, his face a ghastly purple. And he wheezed and gasped as she ran to him, crying his name. And he was writhing on the ground, jerking and flopping. His heart must be exploding in his chest. And she was frantic, hysterical, calling to him and shaking him and looking wildly around for someone to help. But she saw no one. What she did see stilled her. This wasn’t calmness restored; it was the quiet of awed horror: from the moonlit vanishing point at the farthermost end of the beach, the tall palm trees were falling. They came down in a great, silently crashing row, like giant looming dominos. And now the earth was trembling, and birds and animals poured from the jungle fringing the beach in squawking, shrieking clouds of panic. A great noise rose up from the bowels of the earth, a lurching, abysmal groan, as if the very world was being rent apart. She looked out to sea, and in the distance, lit by the calm solemn moon, was an enormous black wave, rising ever higher, a dark heaving mountain bearing in towards the shore. She wept and wept and hugged him. He was dead.


Sahar Delijani Sahar Delijani was born in Tehran, Iran in 1983 and has a bachelor of arts degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Sahar has been writing for nearly seven years and has been published in Perigee Publications, The Beginning Literary Magazine, Current Literary Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine, Berkeley Poetry Review, Sangam Review, and Pezhvak Literary Journal and is a regular collaborator of Iran-Emrooz (Iran of Today) Political and Cultural Journal (www.iran-emrooz.net). She now lives in Torino, Italy and is working on a novel. You can also find her online at http://sahardelijani.wordpress.com.

Aida in the Mirror

S

hirin slips into the chair gingerly so as not to upset the pieces on the chessboard. Her hands emanate a sweet whiff of coconut soap, which makes Aida feel, not that they were in Tehran, with its frost-enameled streets, but on a tropical island. “Whose turn is it?” Shirin asks. “Yours.” Shirin runs her fingers through her curly blond hair, places her chin into her cupped hand, and observes the battle scene with the placidity of an experienced general. They are sitting in the center of the lemon-yellow living room, at a round glass-top table. Olive green velvet curtains have been drawn across all the windows. Except one. Through the mist rising, Aida can see the grubby wall of the notorious political prison Evin running adjacent to the dust-ridden slopes of the mountain, like a nightmare of bricks and blood.

that swept forcefully, quickly, across the prison, the slope, the thorns, and the ghosts of men and women who never returned from behind those walls. That was also when Shirin told her about Siavash’s return. About Siavash and his wife Elnaz. Aida stood still as she listened. Dazed, like a woman in an old photograph who does not know how the camera works. “I’ve asked them to come over on Thursday. Babak will be here too.” Shirin’s voice pulsated with a cautionary tone. She wished to prepare Aida. To prevent accidents. Shirin liked things to go as planned, like a stream that never changes its flow. Never runs astray into unknown terrain in search of adventure. As Aida listened, she felt a shiver run up her spine, like the ground cracking open after an earthquake. She clasped her hands, nodded, and said, “That’s wonderful.”

When she first arrived in Tehran a few weeks ago, she was startled by how close Shirin’s apartment is to the prison. She could not believe the city’s expansion. Newly constructed buildings were springing up everywhere like mushrooms after the rain. The city has stretched its limbs, burrowed into the thorny edges of the mountain, become neighbors with a once isolated prison. “It’s a city of 17 million,” Shirin said, obviously enjoying Aida’s surprise. “What did you expect?” Aida watched a man climbing up the road toward the prison’s entrance. With flowers in his hand. And a small bag. What did it contain? Warm clothes? Letters? Cigarettes? Dribs and drabs of a strangled life. He walked with difficulty, half-limping, half-hobbling to the gates. A hunched figure, as though the hovering shadow of the walls was a weight he was doomed to carry forever. Her gaze trailed behind, until he vanished in the darkness

Inside, it was as if her heart had been soaked into a pond of freezing light. Shirin wraps her manicured fingers around the head of a black pawn and slides it across the chessboard. “Check,” she says. Aida presses her feet on the rug and folds her hands on her lap. Her feet are warm in her wool stockings. She is wearing a white dress with white flowers in green outlines. It rustles as she moves. It took her a while to decide what to wear for tonight. She leafed through her clothes hanging in Shirin’s closet over and over again. She could not imagine how he would like to see her. How she would like to be seen. What does love look like after thirteen years? In the end, she went with this dress. Elegant but neutral, she decided. The white of the dress brought out the black of her eyes, the olive of her skin. She refrained from wearing any Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 123


jewelry. She wished to look simple. Not look as if she wanted to please. Not to give herself away. Not when there is the wife involved. It is odd how little curious she is about his wife. She deems her as insignificant. No, not insignificant. More like irrelevant. Irrelevant to the story that was hers and Siavash’s. She is the one who came after. After the end of the story. The territory had already been trodden, explored, lived by Aida. The territory of his body, his love. Aida was its true mistress. No land can be owned twice. She checks the time on the numberless clock. Shirin watches her with her perfectly almond-shaped, green eyes. Aida smiles and averts her gaze. The ticking of the clock reverberates into her ears. She returns her attention to the game. She knows her next move. She knows that victory is nigh. Even after so many years, she still cannot look at a chessboard and not think of those hot summer afternoons in the stuffy cultural center where her mother insisted on taking her. It still fills her with anguish. The anguish of planning, plotting, of reading the opponent’s mind, of making the wrong move. The early awareness of that most cruel fact of life: you either win or you lose. There is no middle ground. There is no space where you can float. Undisturbed. Hers was the angst of fatality. She gives a last sweeping look to the chessboard. A complacent smile runs a soft wave through her lips. She picks up the rook from the far end of the board, flies it over the black and white squares, and knocks Shirin’s pawn over. “Check mate.” Shirin frowns. “What?” Her mouth curls downwards at the edges. She looks intently at her pieces, as if she meant to pierce them with her gaze. The shrieking sound of the doorbell makes them both jump. “They’re here,” Shirin says as she gets up and heads down the corridor. He is here. Aida watches Shirin spring out of the room and does not know what to do with herself, her heart hammering its way to the outer edge of her chest. She lives a few moments of agonizing quandary when she wavers between following Shirin to the door and waiting in the living room, wringing her fingers until they’re red. She walks to the window. A glossy layer of ice unfolds across the black and blue streets and on the long, bent necks of lampposts. Slowly coming to light. White. Yellow. Mingling with smoggy twilight. The trees look asleep. A hazy halo of light around their scanty leaves. 124 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

The prison is drenched in darkness. It cannot be seen. From the voices sprinting into the room, she tries to decipher that of Siavash. She cannot hear it. Shirin’s highpitched voice drowns everything out. Then she sees him. Walking into the room. Her first negotiation with happiness and loss. The same brown beard. The same warmth in his eyes. The same lean shoulders. The same nervous half-smile. But his hair is much shorter than she remembers. He looks tense, screwing his eyes the way Aida used to know so well. Used to love so much. A tremble winds round her chest. His tall wiry body covers the length of the room with a few long rapid strides. Aida has barely enough time to unravel her pressed fingers before he grabs her hand and places two hurried kisses on her cheeks as he says, “You still kiss, don’t you?” “Yes.” Her voice plows through the anxious knot in her throat. She has not really understood his question. Behind him, his wife is standing. She raises her tattooed eyebrows as she shakes Aida’s hand, and her small mouth opens into a slow, lazy “nice to meet you.” With her other hand, she unwraps her headscarf, revealing shocks of silver highlights. Aida is glad to avert her face from Elnaz and her unsettling highlights and turn to Babak, who embraces her in his strong arms. “Were you planning to come and visit us when we were all grandparents?” Babak with his hefty body and bushy eyebrows and loud laughter. Aida looks at the graying hair spreading across his temples. “Well, you’re well on your way.” Babak laughs, revealing small, uneven teeth. He opens the black bag in his hand, turning to Shirin. “Look what I’ve brought.” He smiles triumphantly as he places two bottles of wine on the table next to the chessboard. “All the way from Mr. Vahidian’s basement winery!” Aida carefully removes the chessboard to the top of a small cabinet and sits down on the sofa. “I don’t know how you do it, Babak.” Shirin places five wineglasses on the table. “I’d be too afraid of driving around with two bottles of wine in my car.” Siavash uncorks one of the bottles. The air inside is released with a gentle blop. “You should never be afraid of wine,” he says. The wine gurgles softly as it streams out of the long, black neck of the bottle into the glasses. Watching him, an unexpected sense of calm embraces Aida. She wishes she could sit here forever. Inside the carapace of an interlude. Time standing at a corner, waiting for her to give it a signal to go on. It is as if all her life she yearned for this peaceful moment


of nothing and near. When he is with her in the same room. When she does not have to make a decision. When everything seems like a hallucination about which she does not need to worry. The sweet numbness spreading across her limbs. Not to feel excited, nervous, entranced. To be perfectly still in a moment of pause. Like the moment before a storm hits. They were both sitting, cramped in the front passenger seat of a taxi. The window was half-way down. The streets were clogged with cars and buses and motorbikes and their diesel drenched fumes. The tentative white lines on the asphalt demarcating each lane were ignored, simply overridden. Pedestrians and cars were all moving in the same space, with the same flow. Looping around, circumventing, dodging each other. A wild, vibrating sea. Cars honked, engines croaked, people shouted over the traffic. An all-encompassing, overpowering, window-rattling din that swept into the taxi like a sandstorm. It was hot. The air-conditioning was not working. Despite the smog-filled mayhem outside, Aida stretched out a hand to roll the window all the way down. But the handle was missing. The driver must have hidden it. It was the same in many other taxis on the ever-jammed streets of Tehran. The drivers hid the handles because they were afraid passengers would break them by the excessive rolling of the windows. Once in a while, a daring passenger would ask for the handle. The taxi driver would grumble something about costs, the window being at its best height, too many demands. If the passenger insisted, then the driver would have no choice but to open the glove compartment with an exaggeratedly irritated gesture, extract the imprisoned handle, and hand it reluctantly to the demanding passenger. Aida did not dare to ask. “There are poems that would have been much better off written as essays,” Siavash said as he stretched his arm out behind her on the back of the seat and placed the warm palm of his hand on her shoulder. “If it is anything that can easily be articulated in an article, then it is an insult to put the same thoughts and ideas into the language of poetry. It sullies its essence. Because poetry is there to say what cannot be said. It is there to speak of the hidden, the secret. The sacred.” He lowered his head and looked into Aida’s eyes. His eyes shone with a particular light. His soft, curly hair covered the sides of his neck. The gaze in his eyes had nothing to do with the words he was uttering. It spoke of other emotions. Tacit. In flames. Blazing away with desire so overwhelming, with affection so penetrating, that Aida could only call it love. She jumped at the shrill of a honking car that was about to collide with the taxi. The taxi driver muttered something angrily under his breath as he changed gear. He did not even glance at the driver of the honking car, who waved his arm

frantically in the air, yelling out some curse or other. The taxi stopped a few times as the passengers on the back seat got off, and new passengers got in. “Poetry has no mission beyond itself,” Siavash continued, “Don’t ever listen to those people who ask what message your poetry means to convey. That’s all nonsense. Poetry is only poetry when it reveals the depth of your soul. That’s all. Not the reader’s soul, but your soul, the soul of the poet. The reader is secondary.” He turned to the driver. “We get off here.” The taxi stopped in front of a recently built white condominium complex with a white cement fountain in front of it. “Parsi raa paas bedarim!” The taxi driver said with a smile as he took the money from Siavash’s hand. Protect the Persian tongue! Siavash nodded. He looked annoyed, as if he had just realized someone else other than Aida had been listening to him. In the ascending elevator, he pulled her close. She liked the touch of his beard against her skin. She laughed. His hair and her fingers entangled. “What?” “It’s strange. I’m so happy. It feels so easy to be happy.” Their breaths raveled into a knot of surrender. Below the bright neon lights. Throughout the night, they held on to each other like children afraid of the dark. The dancers around them stumbled upon each other. Tipsy smiles. A few started singing along with the song spurting out of the speakers. The voices bounced against the thick layers over layers of curtains, drawn to keep the noise from seeping outside into the streets. Where men with guns patrolled the nocturnal silence of the city in search of signs of happiness to repress. To flog silent. The undesired laughter of a revolution. Siavash grasped her hand and led her to the kitchen, where bottles of vodka exchanged hands. Aida watched as he poured the transparent liquid into two plastic cups. He handed one to her. His smile spoke of growth. Exciting hinterlands. “I’ve never drunk alcohol before,” Aida shouted over the music. “Really? Isn’t there any vodka in California?” “There is,” Aida laughed. “I’ve just never had some.” She was beaming. She had an inkling that he found her unusual innocence enticing. “I’m not twenty-one yet. I had to come all the way to Iran to get drunk!” He held his cup up. “Then here’s to your first drink in the land of No. Be salamati!” They gulped down the shots. A burning sensation hurtled from the tip of her tongue all the way down to her stomach. She gave out a laugh. Joyful. Untethered. He pressed his vodkatasting mouth to hers. “Next week is the anniversary of Shamlou’s death,” Siavash said as he pulled back, without pulling away. “People gather at Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 125


his grave every year to commemorate him, to read his poems.” “Are you going?” “Are you coming with me?” “Yes!” And your eyes are the secret of fire And your love is the victory of man When he runs to fight destiny. His face has matured. Vestiges of stories, unknown to her, engraved upon the fair skin. He tilts his head as he speaks. He holds his wineglass with both elbows on his lap. He is not wearing his shirt in that indifferent, rebellious manner of the past. He is tidier. More self-conscious. More in line with the demands of the world. She watches him, her back basking in the warmth floating out of the silent heater. Her nerves on edge. The first moments of excitement wearing off, reality has begun to settle in. The reality of Siavash sitting only a meter away and yet blocked from her by years of separation, by a wife with tattooed eyebrows. By her own inertia years ago. By having made the wrong moves. Having held on to the wrong decisions. By letting time conquer all. She runs her finger down the length of the glass, places them back up against the edge, runs her fingers down the length, over and over again. Once, after they made love, they wore each other’s clothes and observed their reflections in the mirror. They giggled and touched and breathed into each other’s bodies. You make a nice woman. You make a nice man. There was something arousing in the novelty of the other’s body in the familiar clothes. They pressed the palms of their hands against each other’s mouths as they made love, again. I want to carry your breath on the palm of my hand. Aida sinks deeper and deeper into the cushions of the sofa. She tries to straighten her back. She cannot. She feels pressed in. By the past. Memories. By emotions she is too afraid to recognize. Like wet cement between bricks. “I hadn’t expected to find so many Iranians there,” Siavash says, looking round the table. Aida expects his eyes to settle on her, for his gaze to cross paths with hers. But it doesn’t. It moves on. “There were many Iranian restaurants and Iranian concerts. I guess we have moved on from Turkey and Dubai.” Murmurs of agreement gyrate round the table. Shirin takes a slow sip from her wine. She glances at Aida and gives her a smile. There is something exaggerated in her smile, as if she meant it to break a spell. “The funniest thing was when we saw Khordadian,” says Elnaz, dragging out the words as if they were stones she had to carry with her tongue. 126 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

Why does she have to drawl that way and not speak naturally? Aida thinks, irritated. “You won’t believe how short he is! I had never realized how short he was when I watched him perform. He is like half my size.” “If he’s half your size, then he’s officially a dwarf,” says Babak. There again. That half smile. Spreading across his face like the tilted crescent of the moon. “I think dancing is easier if you’re small.” Shirin joins in. “At least, that’s what my teacher would always say. Small people are lighter on their feet.” “The size of ballet dancers confirms it.” Siavash places his glass next to Elnaz’s on the table. It is empty. “Just imagine a giant like Babak jumping around on tip toes.” Everyone laughs. Aida too. But she resents the calm in his face. Without a trace of reminiscence. She resents her own composure, the way she smiles at his wife. She resents all the well-mannerism and placidity that comes with the lull of time. They have both been behaving so well that Shirin, who at first looked from one to the other with that gaze full of apprehension, is now tranquilly drinking her wine. She seems reassured that Aida and Siavash have both forgotten things that need not be remembered. But Aida remembers everything. As clearly as the sheet of ice taking shape behind the window. She is hedged in by memories. She wishes she could look at him and see nothing. I wish you were here so I could squeeze your hand. So that I would know there is something real around me. You’re far. From inside the car, I hardly ever see the sky. He once wrote in a letter. Elnaz crosses her legs. She is wearing a short jean dress with a massive black belt encircling her curvy body. A row of silver bracelets on her solarium-tanned arms glints under the light. She has taken off the black leggings she was wearing when she first arrived. Aida can see the cellulite clinging on to her naked thighs. “The first time I went there, I felt being there somehow reconciled me with Islam,” Aida says, looking straight at Siavash. A prickly sensation at the back of her neck. “I saw this lady at a bar, who was wearing a hejab and dancing. At the same table, there were all these girls with their miniskirts. And then I thought to myself, if this is a Muslim country, then Islam does not look menacing at all.” Shirin shifts on the sofa. Elnaz watches Aida with an uncomprehending look. Babak gazes at her with a fixed smile. It is not easy to speak of religion in a theocratic country. Aida knows it. She would have never said anything if Siavash wasn’t there. She would have never dared. The tourist speaking of reconciliation with religion on her


holiday break. But Aida wishes to awaken something. To draw something from a world that has been lost. From her world and Siavash’s world. “I know what you mean,” says Sivash after a few moments of silence. “I had a similar feeling, I felt so lighthearted. I even started to enjoy the sound of azan the few times I heard it.” He is leaning forward now, looking at Aida. She notices Elnaz’s hand slink behind his back and tug at his shirt. As if she wanted to stop him from speaking. Does she know something? Aida wonders. She cannot repress the urge to interpret this as a sign of Elnaz’s jealousy. Siavash seems to not notice, or as Aida hopes to be true, to ignore his wife’s hand ever-so-stealthily tugging at his shirt. He continues, “And to see all these retired men and women who sat around talking, waiting for the azan, and then slowly started walking to the mosques. It was all so peaceful. And so picturesque.” This is not the answer Aida wanted to hear. She wanted to hear him say that Islam is not just about the hejab. To tell her that she should not simplify things in this way. To argue with her, smile at her. She wants to see his eyes shine with that light when he felt he was teaching her something. The first time they made love, he held his head full of wild curls on top of hers and said, “You’re a woman now.” “That is good news I guess,” says Babak, winking at no one in particular, “For Siavash to be at last reconciled with Islam. We no longer have to worry about losing him to a revolution.” Siavash laughs and lapses into silence. Shirin looks distracted. Elnaz checks her watch. “It’s getting late,” she says to Siavash. “We should go.” They all get up. Siavash helps Elnaz put her coat on and turns to Aida. “Maybe we can go up to the mountains next weekend.” Elnaz looks on with uninterested eyes. “I’m leaving in four days,” Aida says. She feels the heat of regret rushing up to her cheeks. Four days. What is four days in the span of a lifetime? A pause between resurrection and forgetting. Like death. When it comes to Siavash, time has never been on her side. “Four days?” Siavash’s eyes widen in disbelief. His long eyelashes cast a shadow over the sadness of his eyes. She cannot withstand his stare, which makes her feel as if she is betraying something. She mumbles a few words about coming back again next year. No one says anything. When he shakes her hand, she cannot hold his gaze. He flees her. Shirin locks the door behind them. Back in the living room, Aida cannot stay put. She feels

disoriented. Lost. Shivering. She stands by the heater and holds her hands on top of it. The photo above the heater is of Shirin as a child, squinting in the sun. Shirin slouches down on the sofa and pulls a tiny blanket over her shoulders. “So, does he look different?” Aida turns. She walks back and lowers herself on the sofa. She is rigid. Wavering. Clasping at her flesh from the inside to keep herself from coming apart. “He’s cut his hair.” “His wife probably likes it short.” “It looked like he doesn’t remember anything.” “Don’t be silly.” Shirin’s mouth twists into a yawn. “Of course he remembers.” “There was really no sign that he did,” Aida says as she fiddles with a piece of thread hanging from the edge of her dress. “He was so normal. Everything was so normal. I really started to doubt that he remembers anything.” “Did you expect something to happen?” Aida leans her head back. Her gaze drifts away to the wet darkness outside. “I don’t know. I wish there had been something. Some kind of an awkward moment. A glance. A smile. Something private between the two of us. Some kind of acknowledgment of the past.” “And what were you going to do if there was a glance? Or a smile?” Shirin looks at her. Unamused. Apprehensive. Aida does not respond. She watches the reflections of the lights on the window. Like eyes of sick pigeons. Staring. “You’re getting married in two weeks Aida,” says Shirin after a few moments of silence. Her voice is aloof. She does not wish to be confided in any longer. She gets up, dragging the blanket with her. “And you’re leaving in four days. I would focus on Keyvon if I were you. On your future together.” Shirin’s voice follows her to the bedroom. Aida listens to its last remnants lolling in the air. Shirin is right. Keyvon is waiting for her. A clean-shaven face. Strong aftershave. Confident. Easy. Secure. There. She has to live with the past stored away somewhere in the back treasure chests of her mind. Slippery. Unreliable. Like melting snow on marble stairs. She closes her eyes. She is overtaken by such dejection, such emptiness, that she sits slumped on the sofa, unable to move. The overcast sky casts a pallor over the living room. Aida is sitting on top of a cushion down on the carpeted floor, holding a cup of tea clamped between her fingers. Pressing hard. As if were she to let go, everything would rush, crumbling down onto the spotless, creamy carpet as effortlessly as a mudslide. The morning sun is veiled behind ashen-colored clouds. She is sore. She has not slept a wink. She is haggard with doubts. Fears. The weight of a voiceless past. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 127


She sips the lukewarm tea. Tiny floating, brown stains cling on to the inside of the cup. She places it on the table and looks around her as if she was looking for something. Her gaze is automatically drawn to the sofa and the artifacts Keyvon has ordered for their summer house: There is Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on a handwoven silk rug. God seems to be frowning. Adam has a vine leaf covering his genitals. Aida is not sure if the leaf is there based on Keyvon’s orders or it is there to ease the rug’s passage through Iranian customs: Adam cannot be seen naked when a woman is around! Aida thinks of the hands behind the silky knots. With tiny, calloused fingers. The unknown artists of an ancient land. What did they think of this rug? Did they like it? Did they enjoy stooping over knots in God’s slanted hand? Did they giggle, behind closed doors, at that tiny little vine leaf ? On top of the rug, overturned, there is a replica of the head of an Achaemenid king in a material that looks like bronze, but is really brass. Next to it, leaning against the arm of the sofa, another replica of the head of Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi, the alchemist, the discoverer of alcohol. Also in brass. At the foot of the sofa, a glossy painting of an old man with a white, flowing beard and a thin waist, a long-haired young woman with protruding lips offering him a blue ewe of wine. Next to the two, there is a ghazal by Rumi written in calligraphy. Keyvon did not care which ghazal, as long as the painting was nice. Looking at them, Aida’s face grows taut with disapproval. Everything looks so kitsch. So false. So hypocritically selfcongratulatory. She has to suppress the urge to throw them all out of the window with one sweeping motion. All these fake tributes to theatrical nationalistic pride. How could he want any of this? She thinks. Exasperated. He has never even read Rumi! She bristles with the thought that soon she will have to display all of this in her home and pretend to admire them. She scrambles up to her feet, banging her knee against the table. Paralyzing pain shoots from her kneecap up her joints with the speed of a bullet. Grabbing her knee, she thrusts the other hand out to keep the rattling cup from overturning. Her face is twisted with pain. Inside the cup, the tea is trembling. The brown stains fluttering like muddy butterflies. Aida catapults on the sofa, rubbing her knee, muttering curses against the table, the weather, herself. On the other side of the window, the yellow leaves shiver under the onrush of celestial bullets. Aida hoists her body up and hobbles to the bedroom. She starts getting dressed, swaddling herself against the cold with quick, jerky movements. What was it that Milan Kundera said about kitsch? She tries to think as she buttons up her overcoat. She cannot think straight. An unfathomable rage blazes away 128 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

through her body like a firestorm. And sadness, acute, demanding. And pain, whispering. No one can turn back the hands of time. Aida observes her face in the mirror. She applies the cold moisturizer to the bluish skin under her red-rimmed eyes. Her long nose is more pronounced than ever. as if someone had dug out the flesh around it during the night. She looks at the tuft of hair peeking from underneath her scarf. Black. Simple. Intact. How could he marry a woman with such ostentatious highlights? She snatches her purse and the umbrella from the hanger and sprints out of the apartment. Outside, the frosty breath of winter is ready to strike. She shrivels inside her overcoat like a dry apricot. She begins walking. Past gray and white buildings looking dismal under the rain. Past a long line of naked trees dying slowly. Past a clothes shop not yet opened. Past an old, wrinkled man selling boiled beetroots, warming his hand on top of the steaming pot. Past a few women chatting at the doorway of a grocery store. Past dead flowers on the sidewalk, dripping. Along the gray and black water running in spate down the wide drain. Aida does not know where she is going. The rain drops are much larger and heavier than they seemed from behind the window. She quickens her steps, keeps her eyes glued to the ground to sidestep the puddles on the uneven asphalt, orange and shinny with condensation. The violent battering on her umbrella makes her feel jittery. The cold sneaks through the layers of her clothes and glides against her body. She feels numb in her chin that pokes out of the hermetically wrapped scarf. Her nose is running. She begins to regret having left the warm sheltering walls of the apartment. Sidestepping a puddle, she runs into another umbrella making its way through the wet streets. She pulls her umbrella back to apologize. It is Siavash. Looking as if he does not know where he is. His cheeks and the tip of his nose are red. He stares at her, stunned. He does not move. “What are you doing here?” she asks. She can hear her heart galloping. A tamed horse gone wild. “I was just dropping something off for work,” he stutters. It makes her happy to hear him stutter like this. She feels strangely compensated. “And you? Where are you going?” Aida thinks of lying. But she knows her eyes will give her away. She smiles and drops her shoulders in relief. “I don’t know.” The rain drums against their umbrellas. Her shoes and the


bottom of her pants are soaked. The cold grips her feet in a fierce clasp. “I have my car parked right here. I can give you a ride if you want.” He points at her shoes. He does not stutter any longer. “You can’t stay in the rain like this. You’ll catch a cold.” His voice is warm. Familiar. Unchanged. Aida has to gather all her forces not to burst into tears. His car, a red Peugeot, is parked just a few meters away. They walk next to each other in silence diluted with rain drops. A middle-aged couple walks past them. The man’s palm is at the woman’s lower back. But it does not touch her. It is as though he holds his hand there in case she topples. Siavash opens the door for her. Aida gets in. A whiff of old leather and cigarette smoke fills her nostrils. She did not know he smokes. For a fleeting instant, the thought of Keyvon inveigles into her mind. But it is far. A muffled whisper behind a closed door. “Where should I take you?” Siavash asks as he starts the car. “To Shirin’s.” He turns the heater on full blast and directs the heat to her face and feet. He avoids her eyes. “So what is work?” she asks. She revels in the warmth embracing her feet, stroking her face. The sharp change in temperature makes her slightly giddy. “What?” “What do you do? You said you were dropping something off for work.” “Oh, yes.” He pauses. He looks distracted. Nervous. His anxiety has a tranquilizing effect on her. She rests her head on the slight curve of the seat. “I work for a fence company.” He sounds evasive. Unwilling to pursue the topic. “Oh, okay. That’s great.” Aida loosens the scarf around her neck. She is afraid of looking directly at him. She steals sporadic glances from the extreme corner of her eyes. Which after a while begin to hurt. He never came to say goodbye. He left her a notebook in the mailbox instead. Their photos together were glued to the pages. Next to each photo, he had written, in a neat careful handwriting, his favorite lines of her poems. “Shall I turn the heat down?” he asks. “Yes, thank you. I was getting roasted over here.” He smiles. He always liked it when she made jokes. He would laugh at all her jokes. He glances at her for just a quick moment with that gaze she once believed it was hers to possess. Soon he turns into Shirin’s street. He drives slowly. I didn’t go that far after all. Aida thinks. They pass by the clothes shop that is now open. The bald manikins at the display window have tiny scotch tapes on their noses. As if they have just had a nose job done. The woman

inside is wrestling with the cash register. Siavash brings the car to a halt in front of the black door of the apartment. Aida listens to the sound of the grunting engine, wondering if Siavash is going to turn the car off. Her mouth is dry. She sighs with relief when the engine’s croaking comes to an abrupt end. The silence around them swells with confusion, with cautious feelings. Rain drops glide down the window, leaving smooth oily traces behind. A pigeon flies past. Haggard. Wet. It will soon die. Like everything else. “I haven’t written a single poem for years.” The words escape through her mouth. She is startled by the ring of sadness in her voice. She turns her face away from him. She does not expect him to say anything. A few moments pass before Siavash speaks. “You used to write beautiful poems.” She hears uncertainty bobbing up and down the cadence of his voice. “I don’t anymore.” She pauses and turns to look at him. He does not say anything. Set jaws. He looks distressed, impatient to get away from her. She would like to shake him. Put an end to his half-hearted utterances. Her hands clasping his shoulders. A rude awakening. What was it that we lost? “I work for a bank, and I’m about to marry a man seventeen years older than me who has a summer house in San Tropez,” she ploughs on. What is she trying to do? To save? To ruin? She can’t stop herself. “It’s a beautiful house, really. Right at the beach, with a boat always waiting. We have to decorate it, the house I mean, not the boat. So, he’s asked me to bring him souvenirs from Iran. But he’s ordered them all himself. All I had to do was to pick them up. Replicas of Achaemenid kings, Michelangelo on a rug, a painting with a ghazal by Rumi on it.” She pauses. A brown leaf is trapped between the wiper and the windshield. It shivers in the wind. “Even though he has not even once in his life read a poem by Rumi. I buy them, even though I hate them, their falsity, and I hate myself for not being able to tell him that. As I collected them one by one, I felt I was tearing something into pieces.” She tries to laugh. Her voice cracks between a smothered sob and a titter. The top of Siavash’s cheek is brightened under sudden timid sunbeams. But the light vanishes before Aida has time to reach out to it. His prolonged silence unsettles her. A tightening in the chest. Her voice continues on its path, detached from her body, like feathers in the wind. “This morning, I was trying to think of what it was that Milan Kundera said about kitsch. But I couldn’t remember.” Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 129


“About kitsch?” “He says something about it, doesn’t he? About kitsch being a self-congratulatory feeling or something.” “He says many things about kitsch,” Siavash says, looking out of the front window, as if seeking an answer out there in the cold. “But I remember one in particular. He says something about kitsch being the stopover between being and oblivion.” A grateful smile unfurls across Aida’s face. “I guess it has nothing to do with the gifts I’ve bought.” Siavash looks lost for words. He fiddles with the key chain hanging despondently from the ignition switch. Once again, silence coils around them, pressing tighter like a snake on the verge of breaking their bones. “I’m sorry,” Aida says, “I shouldn’t have bombarded you with all this silliness of my life.” “No, not at all.” She cannot hold back any longer. Her body is breaking open without warning. She lunges forward and buries her face in the collar of his coat.

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She can feel his body stiffening against hers. He smells of the cold. Of uninterrupted presence. He smells of not having the answers. Not any longer. Of being on the other side of time. After a few moments, he places a tentative hand on her shoulder. She inhales his sweet, unscented aroma and wants to scream. “I have to go,” he says. Aida lifts her head. Heavy as a granite. A stifled sob jostles harder and harder up against her throat. She looks at him. All he has to offer is a smile. Embarrassed. Quiet. “It was really nice seeing you again,” he says. She pulls back. A broken wave receding to the sea. And opens the door. Shame, regret, and grief gobble her up in unison. Something inside her shatters. Splinters bleeding. She climbs out with feet that feel no longer part of her body. Outside, the only thing that awaits her is the lonely wetness of the air.


Joseph Kerschelbaum Joseph Kerschbaum has published five books of poems and two spoken word albums. His most recent book, Your Casual Survival, was published by Plan B Press in 2010. His work appears widely in print and online. Joseph is one quarter of the poetry troupe, the Reservoir Dogwoods. You can learn more at http://www.ThirstyOcean.com, http://www.facebook.com/kerschbaum and http://www.twitter.com/joekerschbaum

Present Absent Voices (watching me watch you)

I’m watching you smile. Your laughter familiar as my own, a fading echo like my own. The warm breeze mussing your hair brushes my skin again. I can feel it even if it’s not here. Outside a blizzard erases the world. My fingers skim the shadows around the television screen like the surface of a black lake. The summer sun shines as if night or winter will never return. You, trying to coerce me into the ocean. Warm as bath water, you say. I hear myself

Why did I not join you? That moment. I wanted to capture you. Swimming away, eyes closed. Marco, you call. Marco. Polo. I whisper to the empty room. Saying this a thousand times will not summon you back. The sun shines through the dim glow of the television emitting no warmth. I caught you. I lost you. I turn the video off. Polo.

refusing. My voice sounds unlike me.

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Life of the Party (splitting a second) Somewhere a power line snaps like a neck. Laughter that drowns out the thunder stops. Faces of my friends disappear like keys to a house in which I no longer live. Darkness severs this second in half. Quick as the last blink before blindness. There you are. A shadow wearing a shadow. Staring at me with funeral-grade eyes. Your cold breath against my ear, this is how you will take me, you whisper. Bolt of panic, sightless disorientation — then darkness. You could be anywhere. You are waiting everywhere. Even at a cocktail party. The lights flicker. The party continues as if nothing happened. You don’t have to say it, next time the lights won’t save me.

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Andrea Judy Andrea Judy is a recent college graduate from Georgia College and State University, where the ghost of Flannery O’Connor still runs wild on Thursday nights. She is a freelance writer, firecracker, photographer and poet who is inspired by the grotesque and the beautiful in the world all around her. Andrea is a member of Sigma Tau Delta and Omicron Delta Kappa and has been published in The Peacock’s Feet. She currently resides in central Georgia where she lives with her family. Andrea can be found at http://twitter.com/judyblackcloud or http://www.behance.net/ajudy13.

Origin Two Hospital Mortuary Workers Detained for Allegedly Taking Money to Dispose of Deceased Babies’ Bodies but Instead Dumped Them in River. ABC News 21 dead babies in the river their parents drink from. Tags with numbers tied to the curling, swollen toes count them off. The parents couldn’t afford to say goodbye with flowers, mourners and a box wrapped in the earth. The parents paid to make it disappear; the babies cut out too early, too late, with intent. A child, alive and whole, found one; a bloated, gray-blue ball in a yellow plastic bag that smiles and says Have a Great Day. The child moved the plastic to the shore, looked with interest — the way little boys will — told his friends he had found the grey shore where babies come from.

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Alana DiGiacomo Alana DiGiacomo is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for the cultural journals The Idler, Pilchard Teeth, and www.look-look.com. Alana has been awarded study and writing grants from Earthwatch, Americorps, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and received writing residencies and fellowships from the Santa Fe Art Institute and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. Alana is writing a non-fiction book about students at the alternative high school where she taught for seven years and a collection of short stories. She lives with her husband, Nick, and their seven-toed cat, Syd.

Gifts

“T

his,” he said, cradling the once-shiny goblet in his thick, chapped hands, “will keep your enemies away.” He paused. “As long as you leave it upside down.” I still have it, there on the ledge built into the stained, offwhite wall of my dining room, the ledge above the fireplace that has never worked, not for as long as I’ve lived there. It is scattered amongst the detritus of a few years, emerging from old, curled-up stamps, briefly glanced over holiday and birthday cards that are piled on top of each other and fanning out, and game dices of varying shapes and colors. I have, as he told me to, kept the goblet upside down. More out of a sense of obligation than anything else, since he lives half-way across the world and would never know the difference. Still, I want to take him seriously. No one else seems to anymore. The goblet is one of the gifts my friend’s father gave to me when she and I visited him in his tiny and remote village in northern Finland, one village among thousands of others, populated more by lakes and trees than by people. My friend hadn’t been to the village for a couple of years. It was my first, and only, visit. Since we’d met ten years earlier in London, I’d visited her in Finland about once every two years. Living together in a house in London, we hit it off immediately, both strangers in a strange land, desperately needing people to talk and laugh with. Both creative and ambitious, I was trying to write and she to direct. We drifted back to our far-apart homes after a few years, but our friendship remained. I had met her mother, stepfather, half-brother and half-sister, her oldest and newest friends and exes, and her beloved French bulldog. But never her father, although I had heard more about him than about any of the others. I never thought I would meet him. I don’t think my friend did, either. With her father, nothing was certain. But that August when we were both 30, we finally made

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the seven-hour bus trip north, to where the roads got wider and emptier and the trees cast darker, taller shadows along that wide emptiness. It wasn’t just a goblet that I left with. Her father gave us a few gifts over the two and a half days that we spent in his small, wood cabin, the one he shared with his elderly mother. First, the food and the drink. His devoted but weary mother cooked the food, Finnish staples like crispy salted fish and potatoes, with creamy sauce, and he presented it to us ceremoniously. “Sit here,” he beckoned. “Eat this.” He swept his fleshy paw over the carefully arranged ceramic serving trays. It was after dinner and before the punch when my friend’s father gave me the gift of his compassion, a gift he bestowed tenderly, as though it would shatter into little ineffectual pieces on the kitchen floor, before it made its way to me. We sat around the table, he, my friend and I forming a crooked triangle, but the earnestness of his gaze as it settled on my face made it seem like just the two of us. “Well,” he said, “my daughter tells me you’re a Jew.” He smiled to himself, then shared the smile with me. “What they did to the Jews,” he whispered, “it always hurt me.” Crinkles around his concerned brown eyes. His English was still very good, although he hadn’t had occasion to practice it in years. “I was in Italy once, “ he told me, “with a Jewish friend, and the waiter was very rude. I could tell instantly he was an anti-Semite.”  “I hate anti-Semites,” his voice hardened. He leaned in. Close. Close enough so that I could see the long, copper hairs pushing out of his nostrils and the sides of his large earlobes. It felt like he was staring deeply into my eyes, searching for something else that lay behind them. I felt his hot breath on my face.    “I said to the waiter, when he brought the food, ‘Did you cook this . . . WITH GAS?’” He laughed, delighted at the memory of his joke. “Ah, hah,


hah, hah, hah, hah,” laughter like all the enjoyment in the more than 50 years of his life had gathered right there at the base of his mottled throat and then erupted outwards toward me. I could feel my friend squirming in her chair, but I couldn’t look away from her father, his gaze surrounded me, keeping me all to himself. I wanted to draw her in, but I didn’t know how. Her father’s laughter drifted away. His voice quieted; there would be a secret between the two of us. “You remind me of Anne Frank. You look just like her.” He brushed my arm gently with square fingertips. Tears gathered on his lower eyelids; he blinked them away, gulped slowly, then got up and left the room. I looked at my friend; she was staring in the other direction, her neck twisted away from her father’s empty chair. She was so quiet and still when he was around. Just like his mother, who shuffled in and out of rooms to do her chores, washing dishes, and peeling vegetables, wiping down counters, around us, so far receded into herself, into her worn flowered housedress and open-toed wool slippers, you felt her like you felt the air around you, only noticing movements with the silent opening and closing of doors. When she wasn’t there, I forgot to ask why. But we didn’t do too much talking in those two and a half days. Later, in the evening, he prepared the sauna for us, not the indoor one, but the special wooden one outdoors, the one that smelled like pine. He used it first, and afterwards walked through the yard in his tattered and unwashed terrycloth bathrobe, singing,  his sweating beer rocking in his hand, so we knew the sauna was ready for us. My friend had told me that, when she’d saved up her money and taken her father to Greece for a holiday two years earlier, he’d sung then, too. He’d sung while walking up and down the beach, then the streets, then the halls of their rented condo, and then the space outside of the bedroom she and her boyfriend shared. He’d sung and he’d yelled and he’d paced, and the next day when she woke up and walked out of the room, she saw a knife like an unwanted clue, lying alone on the kitchen counter. She and her boyfriend checked into a hotel that day. In the middle of the night, waking with a start, she had felt that her father could hurt her, though she didn’t know why he would. She’d had such high hopes for that trip, a vacation with her father and her boyfriend, the first man she’d ever thought she might marry. The first man who had ever really spent time with her father and liked him. The first man whom her father seemed to like, too. It wasn’t that she had the money. She was still a struggling filmmaker; she’d never made a little more than what it took to get by. But she always had more than her father, and she wanted to share with him, to share more than just her money for two ocean-filled, sunlit weeks. Now, a year later, and she hadn’t seen him since, we were in the outdoor sauna that her father had prepared for us. We

stayed there, steaming and shampooing and chatting about anything but. Peaceful  until he called us in for the punch. “Come, come, my punch is ready,” he yelled from inside the cabin. The punch. It was a celebratory punch, prepared just for our visit. It hadn’t been easy. He had to order the vodka for the punch, more than a week in advance, from the village post office. There was no government-run alcohol shop in this village. It was too small. But, the day before our visit, when my friend and I stood  in line at the Helsinki bus station to buy our tickets to go and see him, he called her, frantic. His voice burst out, too large for the small phone, and became the clench in her shoulders and the hardened line of her jaw. “It was going to be special,” he said. “I wanted it to be special for you.” The bottle of vodka had arrived, on time and as he’d planned; everything in Finland ran like clockwork. But her father got home and dropped the bottle of vodka on the floor. On the phone, he stood amidst glass-sharded pools, amoebas of failure along the floor. My friend listened until her father calmed down; then, we went to the closest ALKO and she bought the vodka for his punch. The punch floated in a crystal bowl in the kitchen, light pink and strong, a bright half-moon in the dim, grey light of the cabin and the pitch blackness of the North that waited outside. My friend and I each had one small glass, in cut crystal, then a second, which he urged us to take. “More,” he said, “more.”  We drank it, not speaking, while we watched the Olympics on TV. He sat alone in the kitchen. We could see him because the cabin was small, with no door between these two rooms on the ground floor. He smoked his pipe and dipped his glass into the bowl to fill it to the brim again and again with the syrupy potion that he’d worked so hard on. His sauna-heated red hair stuck to his forehead and against his cheeks, then hung limply to his shoulders. His blue sweatpants sagged off him, their untied waist strings hanging toward the floor, collecting stray drops of punch and pipe ash. Her father stared into the space between the kitchen walls and smoked and drank and then, when there was almost no more punch, he announced, looking at us, “Like Joe Louis said, only one more punch, I promise,” and he took his full, nearly spilling cup and pressed his uneven footsteps upstairs to his bedroom. The next day, he gave us another gift. It was a little excursion he’d planned, a walk through the tall trees of the village, past a stream to a serene lake, with tiny islands in the center, which we watched from the large, wooden patio of the local pub. We were the only ones there; each of us had a pint of cold beer, even though it was also cold outside. He was distracted. I tried to make conversation, but he didn’t respond, aside from Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 135


the distracted nod of a head or a low indifferent murmur. “Do people swim in this lake or is it too cold?” Shrug. “Do tourists come here a lot?” “Sometimes. Yes.” Taking us there was the plan. But he didn’t go out much, and he certainly never socialized. His mother was his sole companion in the village, and they only shared mealtimes, she moving about to serve and clean, he static at the table, waiting. That early afternoon, he’d waited outside the cabin for us, excited. He hopped on one foot, then the other, his eyes nearly obscured by a lopsided peach canvas hat that was too big for him and fell crooked against his sweat-beaded forehead. His eyes seemed connected by a straight line to the water’s edge, a five-minute walk away, where the pub sat. He dared not look away as we approached, as if he, himself, had willed it into existence just for us and if he blinked, it would disappear. Her father left after one drink. He wasn’t feeling well, he said, and had to take a nap. When my friend and I walked home later, she explained to me again about her father’s hats. Usually, she talked about him a lot, but this was the first time she’d mentioned him since we’d been at the cabin. Her father, she told me, started wearing hats when she was 11, about six years after he’d split up with her mother. First, he wore them occasionally, and then every time she saw him. He never took them off, even slept with them on. They stayed on his head during her weekends with him, while her mother got her during the week. The hats protected him, he told her, when he would speak after hours of silence, from the chips that spies were trying to put in his brain to send him treasonous messages. So, he could never take his hats off. It was just too risky. Over the years, he bought more and more hats, until he had less and less money to spend on them. Or on anything else. Until they covered the walls of his room in what my friend once thought was a hotel, and what she later realized was a homeless shelter. A few hours after we’d returned from the pub, when her father had not yet emerged from his room, I accompanied my friend to the library to check her email. It was hardly a library, more like a large room, with a desk and a few metal shelves stretching from wall to wall, about half a hill up the white curve of road from the cabin. She disappeared within the narrow aisle between two rows of books and emerged behind me where I typed at the one tiny, old computer shoved on a table facing the window. “Look,” she said, holding a book before my face; when I turned toward her, she was smiling for what struck me as the first time that day. “I found it.” Inside, he wasn’t smiling like she was, rather the face in his jacket photo looked serious and thoughtful, but the

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resemblance was still unmistakable. Their long noses that stretched from distinctive, sloping brows, their deep-set, almond-shaped brown eyes. He was either not quite handsome or too handsome for words, or both. “My father’s first book,” she said, “when he was 30.” The same age then as we were now. On the cusp of something, something his eyes searched for from the back inside cover of the book, something that meant possibility, recognition, maybe even success.    “Have you read it?” I asked her, flipping through its pages, though I couldn’t read the Finnish words. “Once I did, a long time ago. I don’t remember it that well, though. But I remember him being a writer when he was young, and having lots of like, artist friends, around. For a while.” We stared at the photo for a little while longer, then she closed the book and put it back at the dark end of the shelf, close to the inside wall. “Ready?” she asked. Finally, it was our last morning at the cabin. We would go back to Helsinki, she to her temporary job for a consumer affairs TV show that she hated, and to the boyfriend she barely saw or spoke to anymore. Me, with her, and then to New York, to my teaching job and to continue trying to fix my troubled but slowly recovering marriage. Before we walked to the bus stop, her father sat us down on the lumpy, old couch in the common room where we’d spent most of our time. He said, with much fanfare, in a grand pose, like a man in a velvet robe, drinking his scotch and pontificating, “I have some gifts for you.” He gave us his gifts, his chest pushed out with pride. First, there were the matching off-white towels, folded neatly into rectangles, so we would remember that we were, he said, “Friends who are like twins, with matching things and matching lives.” “You will always be connected,” he beamed. He gave us little, embroidered coin purses to save our money in, so we “could always afford to travel together.” He gave my friend a flowered lipstick holder, so she “would always look pretty.” He gave me the goblet to “keep my enemies away.” I smiled; I nodded. I thanked him; I was touched. My friend grimaced. She let out a thin laugh, but said nothing. Later, she told me, slumped against the bus window, her eyes looking out at the trees now like green and black streaks, that he’d gotten these gifts for free at the village thrift store where the government put him to work a few days a week, to give him something to do. I thought this was sweet. I appreciated them, the gifts he gave us. But then, he’d never taken anything from me.


Sandra Hunter Sandra Hunter’s short fiction has appeared in a number of literary magazines. Her novel Leaving to Come Home won first place in the 2010 Southwest Writers Contest, Literary Novel Category, and placed as a semi-finalist in the 2010 Dana Novel of the Year Award. She received a 2010 Pushcart Prize nomination. She’s currently working on a novel-in-progress titled Waiting for Heaven. You can find Sandra at http://www.sandra-hunter.com

30 Below

I

don’t want to go. Hamad smells bad, and he will push me against the dirt walls, and he will go far ahead and leave me behind with the cold earth smell in my nose, and not knowing if I can go on. Hamad knows I hate the tunnel, even though I have never been inside. The other carriers, all adults, are calm. But they trick us, the younger boys like my brother, Abir, into doing all the hard work. But when the tunnel opens, the young ones are sent home. “Go and rest,” they say, “here is fifty dollars.” That’s what they did with Abir, but he is tall and even though he is only 18, he insisted to carry. They said: “He is now a man. The father isn’t working. Someone must feed the family.” Abir brings cigarettes and oils and medicine and coat hooks; all the things we used to buy in our shops. Microwave ovens and brazil nuts and dresses the colors of sunset. Everyone crowds around Abir as he comes out of the tunnel. It’s like a feast day. One day, I will buy my little sister a sunset dress, and she will stand on the roof top in the evening and you won’t be able to tell where the sky ends and her dress begins. Abir says digging the tunnel made him calm. It isn’t a job that goes quickly. It has its own rhythm, he says, like this: dig and dig and dig and push the dirt backwards. It took one year to dig through from our side into Egypt, where those dogs crouch, waiting for our Kalishnikovs. A year of sneaking out before dawn, three streets across and four houses down, sneaking back after dark. Abir’s eyes changed. He wore dark glasses and my father was angry. So now you are an American gangster. But Abir was only thinking of going into the hole, and how he must not touch the electricity. And now he is sick. We can’t lose this job, Sami. It’s up to you. My father hasn’t worked at the bakery since those dogs cut off access. My bakery. Gone. My father’s hands, once always covered with flour, are bare and empty. He sits, hands hanging between his knees, no longer knowing what to do with them. But at least he has his hands. Khalid-across-the-street had his hands blown

off when he picked up the yellow bomb. Stupid. Everyone knows to leave those things alone. I shouted for him to stop. For a moment, the world went deaf, and Khalid flew one way, and his hands flew the other. He is lucky it is the hands only. I am 13. Abir is five years older than me. He is big from all the digging. I am thin. His nose is much bigger, and his skin is terrible. But I am the only one who can go. Abir says I am now the man in the family, so I will wear his shirt and jacket and his dirt-grey pants that I will tie with a string around the waist. Everything smells of darkness, and I am already inside the tunnel when I shrug the shirt over my head. I put on his dark glasses and look in the mirror. Abir looks back. I will wear the glasses and smoke a cigarette, until I am at the mouth of the tunnel. Abir has told the guards on duty that I am coming. I will wrap his green and white scarf around my head, throw the cigarette to one side like I don’t care that it is half-smoked. My mother knows all of them, these guards. She knows all their families, has given food to many of them, dressed their wounds from gunshots or other accidents. She has gone to the funerals of their brothers and fathers and uncles, after the killings that happen almost every month. They will watch over me, as I climb down next to the two winches, one to send boxes into Egypt and the other to pull boxes back. As I climb down I think, Now, it is my first time. I won’t think about how deep I am going. Nine meters. Hamad is already crawling ahead, following the boxes as they are winched through. Abir told me, “Don’t think about it. Just go.” It is easy for him. He has dug this tunnel, so he is used to it. But it is very small in here. The tunnel roof is barely two feet above me and three feet wide, lined with boards and wooden supports. I could almost crouch and walk through, but I don’t like the idea of the tunnel touching my head. It is a good thing I am so thin. The tunnel owner says it is safe. He says he stays in the shaft all the time. He bids me “go well.” I don’t think about what will happen if he goes to lunch or to the bathroom, or Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 137


who will be there if the electricity goes out, or what we will we do with the boxes if we are left in the dark. Or if I touch the electricity. These questions are for babies. Abir, hard lean arms, long muscled back, is strong like this tunnel. I can see Abir there, just ahead, peering over his shoulder as he digs up more dirt. Come on, Sami. Get going. So Abir might be older, but he’s not a fast runner like me. He can wrestle anyone, but he can’t run for more than twenty yards without coughing. Too much hookah, I tell him. The smell of earth. It is cool down here. That is good. Much better than being up there in the heat. “Pleasant,” Abir calls it. It might be if I don’t think about the nine meters of earth above my head. Some people say they can smell the water. I get only the red smell of earth, something like blood, the way it catches in the throat. Some of these tunnels you can stand up in. There’s one you can drive a car through. That makes me laugh. A car driving underground, shaking the dirt walls so the whole tunnel falls down? What fool would do that? Even so, I would like to drive in that car. I would put my foot down so hard that we’d be at the other end before they’d finished giving us Allah-Go-WithYou. Hamad is far ahead. I can only just see the soles of his feet. Pale fish, swimming ahead of me. The electricity crackles and buzzes. Keep low, keep away from the wire. This is nothing like a grave, even though Abir has joked about it. Does a grave have electricity? Does a grave see goats being pushed through, smell the oranges, hear the rattle of plastic pill bottles we will bring back? This is a doorway to life. And anyway, Abir says our tunnel has more wooden supports, so it is more secure than others. It is just near Salah Al-Dain Gate in Rafah — too far south for those Israelis to bomb. Sometimes the Egyptians send death into our tunnels with gas, or even water, so that people will drown. I used to think the Egyptians were our friends. Okay. I’ll admit I am scared of the gas. You can’t smell it. It creeps up and sinks into your lungs and then you are dead. Can you go to Jannah, paradise, if you are gassed in a tunnel while you are smuggling? Surely, it is a greater sin to kill someone. Perhaps the Egyptians can argue that they are only trying to stop us, so if we die it is by chance and not intention. Is accidental death a smaller sin than smuggling? We wouldn’t smuggle if the borders were open. So, we are forced into sin because of the Israelis, and the Egyptians are forced into sin because of us. Abir says he doesn’t believe in the rivers of milk and wine and honey in paradise. But even so, I still pray for Abir to be there with me and taste the many fruits that we won’t have to smuggle. I used to wonder what would happen if a goat or a sheep fell into the river of milk. Would it still be pure and clear? Perhaps the goats and sheep will be clean all the time, so it won’t matter. It must be a terrible thing to drown in honey. Some faint, sweet smell comes, and I cry out and put my 138 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

hand over my face. Is this the gas? Will I die now? I will never see my mother or father again. I will never see Abir or my sisters. I have failed the family. I will surely not go to Janna now. There is a bright light coming toward me. Death is coming fast, so I must prepare. Oh Allah, forgive me for my sins of smuggling and failing my family and . . . The smell becomes very bad, and something hits me on the side of the head. It is Hamad, who wants to know if I am going to cry like a baby in the tunnel forever while he does all the hard work. Hamad says that if he didn’t fear the wrath of Allah, then he would call down curses from his dead mother on me. He has to struggle to turn around again, and I can see that by coming back, he has even left the boxes for me. But then, he has no choice, because he may not abandon his family. It’s in the top ten major sins. I don’t like Hamad, but he is my third cousin, and it’s because he talked to the tunnel owner that I was allowed to make this trip instead of Abir. So, I must do as he says. As he squirms around to face forward, he reaches one arm and pushes my head hard against the tunnel wall. I don’t cry out. Hamad goes quickly ahead to catch up with the boxes, and I wait until I can’t smell him anymore. The sweet smell comes back, and I realize that it is Abir’s aftershave that lingers on the scarf. I want to yell ahead to Hamad, but I don’t think he will be interested. Soon, it is just like before. No sound except the faint shuffling of Hamad ahead, buzzing of the electricity, my breathing and the scrape of knees and hands against dirt. I try to think of good things, like beating Yousif at soccer. He thinks he’s so good because he can kick hard. Everyone knows there’s more to soccer than kicking. Suddenly, I realize Hamad has committed the number one sin: he has prayed to his mother. But then, he didn’t really pray to her because he fears Allah. But he almost did. And it is my fault. If I hadn’t been so stupid about the gas, I wouldn’t have cried out and Hamad wouldn’t have been forced to come back and become angry with me. So, really, it is my fault; I have committed the number one sin. I immediately pray for forgiveness. Allah will know I didn’t mean any harm. There are sins of intention and mistake, and mine is just a mistake. And, I add hastily, Hamad, too. He didn’t mean it either. What is it about the tunnel that makes me think so much about sin? I don’t usually think about it at all, except if I forget afternoon prayer. I play soccer with Yousif, Basim and Raed, or we listen to American rock music. We spend most days on the other side of Rafah in the bombed out shopping center. Mama still thinks I go to school. All we talk about is digging, and how we’re going to make the next big tunnel. The tunnel is 2200 feet long, but it feels like I have been crawling for days. When I see the daylight at the other end, I’m so happy, but it is so bright I think these Egyptians have brought a spotlight. I can understand why Abir had to wear dark glasses now.


I crawl up the ladder and hands reach down to lift me out. I breathe in the fresh warm air and everything is so full of color. Like so many others back in Rafah, the shaft opening is in someone’s house. A tall cupboard with a mirror sprays silver light. I strain to see the titles of the books on the long book shelf. These are rich people. Music is playing very loud, and I think I recognize the song when I see the men are laughing at me. Hamad is telling how I cried out like a baby. Someone almost like Abir’s age says, “Don’t worry. They are laughing now, but everyone has fear of the tunnel.” Even though Hamad is also laughing, he is angry and he cuffs me hard around the head. “What will I do with this boy? He should stay with the women.” The others add comments, and I shrug to show I don’t care even though I wish Hamad could say I was brave to come anyway. I don’t have a passport, so I must stay right here. Abir says I mustn’t be caught. I will not think about being caught. The men are working quickly, lowering the boxes that we must take back through the tunnel. They tie them onto the platform that will run back along the pulley system. Hamad will follow that one. I am to wait and then follow with the cow. This is a punishment for me because the cow is much more work. I will have to make sure it doesn’t thrash around and break its legs. I don’t know what I can do to calm a cow. I wish they had put it to sleep. Hamad throws a look at me. I feel its edges across my face like my father’s shaving razor. “You are a problem.” “I will learn.” Hamad shakes his head, “What use is learning if you are dead?” “I will do better, Hamad. I promise.” The one who is Abir’s age says, “Come.” We go to the kitchen, and I wait while he goes out. Outside the window is Egypt. Grey dust blowing. A girl in a burqah walks past. I thought the girls would wear skirts and t-shirts like I have seen on television. Two men sit at a wooden table that tilts. They have glasses of tea. Near them, a woman ties up a bundle of clothing and shifts it onto her head. But, still, here I am in a foreign country. Egypt. It sounds so foreign in the mouth, like a strange fruit. The one who is Abir’s age comes back with a plastic carton of milk. He pours some into a bottle and screws a teat on top. He hands it to me and lifts his chin indicating that I must feed the calf. I go back to the other room where the calf, tied to a table, is making little leaps at anyone who goes past. Maybe someone will buy this one and keep it, or maybe they will slaughter it for a feast. It is very small, perhaps only a week old. It tugs at the bottle and I have to put a hand on its back so it doesn’t tug itself over backwards. The calf continues to tug when the bottle is empty, but there is no time for more milk. Hamad should be close to the other end and we must leave. The men tie a rope around the calf and lower it, like a sack

of flour, into the shaft. It is crying and its eyes are rolling. I can tell this is not going to be an easy journey for us. They will turn the power off, so the calf can walk through the tunnel safely. This is good since we won’t have to worry about touching the electricity. But there will be no light. I will have to persuade the calf through the tunnel. I climb down the ladder into the shaft. Hamad will complain to my brother about me. The calf is whimpering. I haven’t heard this sound before; this one is crying almost like a puppy. I put a hand on its head. The calf pushes at me and licks my hair with its slobbery tongue. I pull away and talk to it. “We are going through the tunnel. You have to be calm. Don’t go breaking your legs or they’ll just kill you on the other side. We’re going to be fine. You see? I have a flashlight.” I shine the light away from the calf and it stares at the black hole ahead. The men call to me. They are shutting the power off. If Hamad is still in the tunnel, they will have to pull the boxes along from the other side. But I cannot think about Hamad. I have to ease the calf into the tunnel. It moves forward, but slowly. It is crying again. I crawl behind and talk to it. What should I say? I had better not mention its mother or it will be even sadder. I talk about the grass that it will eat in Rafah, about the sky that is so much bluer and the nice bucket of water it will have to drink. I talk about the kind family it will live with until I remember that it may end up on someone’s feast menu. My flashlight shows the bumpy ceiling and walls, and throws jumping shadows ahead of us. The calf begins to panic and kick. One hoof catches me on the ear, and it is like a bomb has exploded. I clutch my ear and switch off the light. Instantly, the calf is quiet. I realize we will have to go through the tunnel in the dark. But the calf will not move. I try pushing it gently, but it digs its hooves in, its bony bottom pressing against my head. I try to push more forcefully but it releases a jet of urine and I am drenched. I am annoyed with the calf, even though I know it’s just a baby. “Look what you’ve done.” I lie down and pull the calf on top of me. I have to be careful, holding it close in case it panics and breaks a leg. The calf is not cooperative, and I am kicked in the face, throat, elbow, chest, stomach, privates, shins and ankles, but I finally manage to get it behind me. We breathe together in the dark. It starts to crawl on top of me again and I struggle onto my front and begin crawling ahead, calling as I go. It follows for a little, its nose bumping my heels. Then it stops again. I realize that it could easily run back to the other end of the tunnel. We must have been down here for almost half an hour, and we have barely moved twenty feet. I have to think of something to calm the calf. I remember the music that was playing from the Egypt end and I try to sing the tune as I crawl along. I can only do la-lee-la-la but the calf doesn���t seem to mind. Just as I am wondering if making the calf go through the tunnel is a sin, it starts butting me from behind. I try moving Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 139


faster, but the calf continues to trot along and butt me. I scramble along and I can hear the calf ’s feet and feel the hard little head against my feet, my thighs, my rear end. I stop to discuss this butting business with the calf. But the calf is happy for an opportunity to nuzzle my face and chest, and licks my ear, the sore one. I know if I try to go behind the calf again, we will make no progress at all. I have to put up with this herding business. We continue, me crawling ahead as fast as I can go, and the calf butting me along. The rumbling sound, I think, is the electricity. I am angry that they would turn it on while we are still down here. I reach back to grab the calf but there is no buzzing, no flickering light, and I know exactly what it is. It must be quite far away, I think. If it was closer we’d already be dead. Earth shakes off the walls. I hold the calf close to me, and it sticks its head under my arm. I say “sshh, sshh. It will be all right.” Ahead of us, towards the Rafah side, small pebbles of earth begin to slide down the narrow walls. We have to go back the other way. I push the calf but it wriggles back under my arm. There is no time to coax it. I have to go through being kicked in the head and chest and stomach and legs, so I can crawl in front and lead it back to Egypt. All the time the calf is crying, this terrible hopeless sound. We are going fast, fast, but not fast enough. Finally, I hear faint shouting from the Egypt end, and I think I can see the light. The wall boards are groaning and jostling as we grab our way over the shifting earth. I can’t tell what is ahead and what is behind. The calf ’s head is right up on my back like it wants a piggy-back. I can hear the men’s voices more clearly, and we can’t be more than ten feet from the light when there is a hard, fast series of cracking thumps and the tunnel above us collapses. I hold the calf under me. It is going to die of fright, and that is better than dying of suffocation. The hailing clods of earth beat me over the head and back and shoulders, just as two of the tunnel wall-boards fall together, creating a temporary tent above us. I know this small refuge will also break. I don’t want to die. Forgive me for my sins. And please bring Abir with me to the rivers in paradise. And spare the calf, too, even if it just an animal. The earth is folding us into itself. The quick warmth of the calf breathing beneath me. I try to shift so I am not lying directly on top, but the earth presses me down and down. The breath pulsing quickly from the calf beneath me. I don’t feel anything else, just the small in and out of our breaths. Soon I will not be able to breathe. Soon we will both be still. I don’t want to know when the calf dies. Something smashes into the boards and I am jabbed hard in the back. It smashes again down on my shoulder and I am being cut in two. Shouting and earth pushed into my eyes and ears and voices calling out, “He is here! He is here!”

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We are birthed back into the loud world. We are choking, blinking, and blind from the sudden light, and so weightless we could fly. There are cheers and hugging and they bring water. Someone tries to take the calf from me, but I hold on to it. We are carried to a different room. Someone peers into our eyes and ears and throats. We are full of tunnel. Abir’s shirt is full of blood. Someone says I am lucky that it is only cuts and bruising. It hurts to breathe and the breathing that was so small under the ground is still small up here. My shoulder is bandaged and someone holds a stethoscope to my ribs. They say maybe cracked ribs, but I should be glad my lungs are working. Someone brings a cell phone and I call my mother. She is screaming and crying and I have to shout to make her understand I am all right. My father grabs the phone. He says nearly everything on that street is gone. I try to imagine what that is like; skeleton houses, broken stones and wires ripping up the rugs and the sky coming in through the walls. Hamad. Did Hamad make it? He doesn’t know. My father says that Abir needs to speak. I can’t hear him very well. He tells me that he will come and get me. There is another tunnel. He will give me the information. But we must wait a few days until this stupid bombing is over. I am not to worry. I will be taken care of and if not, he, my brother, will want to know why. He makes his voice loud, and I can hear how he would reach out just one long lean arm and bring me back. I am calm and I say “yes” to everything. Tell our mother and father that I am fine. Tell everyone I will be back soon. He hangs up. The calf still has its head in my armpit, even though we are here in the open air. It presses close against me, shaking all over. I am also shaking all over. Hamad’s strong shoulders as he lowered himself into the shaft, his eyes bright and his hands grasping the rope. Surely someone must have dug him out. Surely they found him? I am crying into the calf. I don’t want Hamad to die. Maybe it’s because I was too slow. Everything on that street is gone. If Hamad is gone, who will tell our story of the tunnel, how I imagined the gas had come, or how we saw the sunlight in the many mirrors? Who will repeat these things with me and tell Yousif, Basim and Raed that it all really happened? For now, I will have to stay on this side, in Egypt, and wait for Abir. Two other men are in this room with me. One has a broken leg and lies quietly as the other binds it up tightly. There is dirt everywhere. I settle the calf on the floor. It is hard to stand up. There is a broom by the door. I pick it up and start sweeping slowly. This is the broom in my hands; these are my arms moving the broom, sweeping the yellow dirt into piles. Each movement hurts. Each movement says I am here. When Abir comes, he will hug me and that will hurt too. Maybe I will go ahead of him, in case I need to show him how we move fast in a collapsing tunnel.


Ana J. Somewhere between full-blown, torment-stricken life and a basket of yellow kittens exists an oddball room where Ana J., fueled by coffee, wine, and occasional fries, is laboring with simple ingredients to tie the noose in order to kill the stereotype. Ana J. can be found at http://www.nowblackoctober.blogspot.com.

Perhaps The dream still lived in the center of insomnia sheltering tornadoes and dandelions, and the stars on her shivering skin — ­ cold in ghost light — as if chill was a lure to crush. Perhaps, its death lay in the impenetrable thoughts of penetrable thrusts that conditioned madness into analytical speculation. Perhaps, its cause was a culmination of more yesterdays than tomorrows eclipsing the manner of today; perhaps, reality was trapped in circling chaos that attempted to explain this by a way of that. Everything was like magic and then not. Especially, the moon beams through the window, morning tangles in dancing night hair, drizzling moisture on chiseled shoulder blades, entwined fingers in the empty room where the people that dreamed it are no longer there to want it.

Icarus Amnesties hang by his flesh Like scars echoing back from a fractured dissidence Like a wet cloth clinging to the imperfect helix of his crooked heart Some days he is conscious of more fuss Others he pisses away in monotony Would his passion ever have been able to obtain such a dogma as this? The wasps plunge into his ink and become the pattern of his bedspread Fabrication of desires those wasps decipher and breed It is the simultaneous and delightful sensation of being rugged enough to take on the world yet having the wax wings.

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Neurosis of Nora Roberts She gave up her dreams for translucent precision that would exhaust her memories till she was drained vapidly dry of any innervations but the frenzy of self-slaughter took possession of her again and she began to spiral worry, drink whisky and altercate irresolvable ideas of a moral reasonable nature while indulging in insomnia; dried-out tears running through her deranged veins as she perished in her dementia every night and woke up to be reborn again only to look in the mirror and say, “Dear Lord, I look mad.”

Space She’s moving labeled boxes scores of evening sky fire broken black bird songs winter corpses and miscellaneous nails chipped over china marbles, cards and purple gloves deaths by morning rain broken lawn mower things assorted pegs and holes matchless socks and missing buttons To rearrange her mind so there’s more room for her to stretch her legs.

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Nathan Tavares Nathan Tavares is a writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a graduate of Stonehill College and is currently pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University. He is currently working odd jobs here and there to support his addiction to both writing and coffee.

Salvage

T

he house looked like some huge, injured animal. Burnt out windows. Charred door and blackened roof. I rolled up the gravel driveway in the white company truck, with Macmillan Home Services stenciled across the side. The second I opened the door, a woman stepped out of a well-traveled minivan and walked over to meet me. She looked skeptical. My name was stitched on a grey collared shirt, above my heart. I think it was supposed to make me feel important. Instead, my mouth felt full of sandpaper, and there was the familiar thud, heart pumping at the sides of my neck. “Are you from the salvage company?” She cocked her head to the side in a way that made me toe the gravel. She eyed the large, plum-hued bruise on my forehead but then looked away, not wanting to make me feel self-conscious. Tight auburn curls framed her face. “That’s right.” I tipped my hat to her. I don’t know why. It made me think of old TV shows or something. She was an older lady, and I thought she would appreciate the gesture. “I’m here to be your fire salvage technician. And you must be Mrs. Watson?” “That’s right. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I just expected someone older.” “No, that’s ok. I’m just here for the initial consult. My dad sent me.” “Ah.” That seemed to calm her just a little. “That’s nice,” she started, then leaned forward and squinted at my nametag, “Cooper. Is that a first name, or a last?” “First?” I shrugged. Even the questioning of my own name sped my heart rate up, into staccato beats. “Well. Cooper, here it is.” She turned and gestured to the house and quickly turned back to me. “Home sweet home. I can’t go inside. Not yet. You understand. My daughter is here to help you out with whatever you need.” “Right,” I answered. My dad had given me this clipboard of information which I grabbed from off of the passenger seat.

Here, take this and pretend to be a responsible, functioning adult. I tucked a pen behind my ear and tried to look comforting. I cleared my throat and hated the way it sounded echoing through my jawbone. “I’m just here for the initial consult,” I repeated, then tacked on to the end, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I followed Mrs. Watson to her van. I had a hard time pegging her age. She looked nearly sixty, but it might have been just because she looked so tired. There were shadows under her eyes. I knew about having trouble sleeping. “My daughter, Isabelle, is inside. She can deal with this mess.” She gestured with one hand, vaguely, as if the mess could have been the house, or the surrounding five-mile radius. She snuck one look at the house, her blackened, uninhabited home, before driving off. Fire recovery technician. My dad had told me, passing me a clipboard of information so I could pretend to know what I was talking about. What to do after a fire. How to classify and clean burned objects. Important records. Photos. Furniture and books. Are the objects completely burned? Are they partially burned, but dry? Wet? Damaged by soot? Curled by the heat? These things were easily classified, with varying degrees of treatment. I looked down and could see the buttons of my shirt swaying with my heartbeats. Spelling words backwards helps, according to my psychiatrist, the man who wrote my prescriptions in a neat, looping hand. I thought of the house I lived in with my parents and its address. Cardinal Lane. I pictured the word in my mind, white block letters projected on the black screen of my closed eyelids. Cardinal backwards is lanidrac. I stood before the stoop of the house and tried to disconnect my body from the swell of panic bubbling from my heart. One semester of college, paid for and wasted when I dropped out two weeks before finals. My anxiety attacks that kept me awake at night, staring at my ceiling with my heart pounding, feeling my pulse in my eyelids. Then the attacks Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 143


would pull out, like the tide, and I could feel my breath return to me. My dad pushed me to work for him, after realizing that I had somehow become this weird creature with problems he couldn’t deduce. I had been seated with him in his small, cluttered office. I tugged at a thread in the sleeve of my hooded sweatshirt while he wheeled his chair over to me. He had leaned forward and turned his wide, rough palms up to the ceiling. His hands, that were more used to unclogging drains and hammering nails than turning upwards in resignation. “Coop, just what are you afraid of ?” His tone was quiet, and he was trying to understand something about myself I didn’t fully. My dad, who didn’t grasp problems that couldn’t be solved by tossing yourself into your work or going for a quick jog, leaned closer and squinted at me like he was staring at the sun, and fixed me with a half smile. The answers rushed at me like static. Everything. Everything. I can do everything I can and nothing matters. I once pissed myself at a track meet because I had pushed myself as hard as I could running the two-mile, and when I finished, I collapsed on the ground and lost all muscle control. My body rebels against me. How can my heart beat without me telling it to? How can it not calm down when I ask it, so nicely? How can I stay anchored to this chair without flying to the ceiling? How could the earth be blown to ash tomorrow and any evidence that I ever had an original thought in my brain be gone? How could I think these things every passing second of every day, but still be terrified at the notion that one day the thinking stops, because I will be gone? Instead, I had answered, “I don’t know. I’ll try to do better.” He didn’t have a response. He just smiled again and cupped my shoulder with his calloused hand. MacMillan Home Services had its world headquarters in a one-room office. It was a company that my dad had built from the ground up, that offered home care services for busy homeowners who didn’t have time to worry about contractors or repairmen. I spent my afternoons in his office poking around on the Internet. When he sent me on the occasional job, looking at clogged toilets or helping someone trim tree branches, I felt entirely expendable. Then Dad got a call about a fire nearby, a house caught fire at some cookout, and suddenly his company expanded. The operation that he ran with a few cell phones and trucks, took on a fire recovery branch. And I was the head of this new project, he had informed me after a quick Internet search of recovery techniques. He passed me a clipboard of information with a firm hand and brightness in his voice that the responsibility would be good for me. I know he meant well, but some title and a steady paycheck couldn’t convince me (or him? Or both of us?) that I wasn’t a complete fuck up. There was a small bottle of Lorazepam in the glove box, which would help dull the corners of my vision and spikes of panic. One would let me sigh. Two would make my shoulders feel heavy, some invisible body hanging on them. Three would 144 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

let me lay back in the truck for the rest of the afternoon, phasing in and out of consciousness, playing with my tongue against the roof of my mouth. But I was still queasy from the night before. The front door of the house was charred, looked like it could break to the touch. The wounds of the house looked so fresh that I half expected the doorknob to scald, but it gave way, easily, to the twist of my hand. I thought I would find silence in the house, but instead, I was greeted by a blasting stereo and a young woman sitting on a stool with a photo album in her hands. It’s important to recover photo albums, the clipboard had told me with neat, bulleted text. Even I could have deduced that information. DVDs can be replaced. But that picture of you and Flopsy, your dog when you were four, can never be replaced. Mrs. Watson’s daughter looked apologetic, and tip-toed over to the stereo to turn it off. “You must be the fire guy. You met my mom outside. Sorry about the bitterness. We’ve been trying to get her to drink and unwind more for years, but no use. I’m Izzie.” “It’s kind of a disaster in here,” I admitted. “Sorry. I’m Cooper.” “So that’s your professional opinion?” She sighed and rested her hands on her hips. “Yeah, the fire department said the water damage was worse than the fire. Most of the roof held up, though.” She pointed up, and I felt a breeze fly in through a gaping hole in the ceiling. “Except in the kitchen. But I always wanted a skylight.” The candor of certain people has always amazed me. How asking someone about their day can open you up to a whole litany about their troubles and ailments, while people like me stuck to mumbling a quick, “good” with no further explanation. Izzie buzzed with energy. She lobbed the photo album to the loveseat where it bounced against the wet foam. I stepped further into the house and the carpet squished beneath my feet. At one point, it must have been white, but it looked dark brown and splotched with black. It felt like standing on top of a moist brownie. “How did the fire start?”It sounded like an important question to ask, and I held my clipboard in front of me as if I was ready to take notes. By the entrance to the kitchen, Izzie pulled at a peeling strip of wallpaper. She looked like she was maybe twenty, her dark hair hung loose around her face and she studied the wallpaper scrap with blue eyes. She was taller than I was. “Family cookout. I was smoking and tossed the butt into a planter when I was done. Then we all went out to the beach. The fire department said the mulch caught on fire, then the side of the house. Then up to the roof. And then the grill propane tank.” “Ah,” was all I could reply. It made sense now, Mrs. Watson’s resigned sigh of “She can deal with this mess” before leaving. Izzie looked as casual as if she had told me she had egg salad


for lunch the day before. Then I said, “It was an accident.” “Yes. But it was still my fault, according to my mother. I’m now looking at a lifetime of guilt and shame ahead of me.” She pulled down a thin chunk of wallpaper, and it fluttered to the floor. “More so than I was already in for, anyway. So. What do we do here?” “I don’t really know,” I said. “This is supposed to be a consultation. I can help you go through some things and clean up.” I felt stupid, but at the same time I wanted her to know that I was with her in life fuck-upery. The way that Izzie revealed her faults so freely helped me unclench my left fist just a little. “But I’m sort of shooting in the dark here. It’s kind of bullshit, to be honest.” There is a breathing exercise to inhale and exhale while counting to ten to slow your breathing. I didn’t have time to do that in front of Izzie, and I didn’t want to look weird, so instead I took in two deep breaths. It helped. “I thought you were a professional?” “My dad gave me this job because I failed out of college. I get panic attacks,” was all I could offer by way of explanation. She cocked her head to the side, just like her mother had minutes before. Instead she let out a single laugh, and then tore another piece of wallpaper away. “Jesus. And who left us in charge?” She looked around the house again, and I only shrugged my shoulders. Another warm breeze floated in from the hole in the ceiling. “Anyway, where are my manners? There are a couple of bottles of water on the counter if you need something to drink. Don’t mind the mess.” I had to laugh. It was like a bomb went off in the house. And it had, basically. The detritus of family life surrounded me. It was a small house, and I stood in the center of the living room, unaware of what to do with my limbs, while Izzie stood a short distance away by the entrance to the kitchen. A mantle above a brick fireplace flecked with framed pictures. Some smiling family members stared at me while others were completely camouflaged by soot. An upright piano was tucked against a wall, doily-adorned and spotted with porcelain knickknacks. The walls were in varying degrees of disaster. Yellow wallpaper that looked older than I was decorated the walls. Some sections of it looked almost untouched, while others closer to the kitchen were blackened and bubbling off. Everything looked damp and smelled like a sweatband. And then there was the kitchen. Probably half of the roof had caved in onto the linoleum. A sliding glass door to the outside was blown in and covered with newspaper. Izzie stood in front of kitchen ground zero and cleared a path with her foot to the kitchen counter. She tossed me a bottle of water, which I fumbled with, thanks to the clipboard, but caught. The clipboard anchored me back to my purpose in the ruined house. The bottle of water was cool in my hand, and I crossed the soggy living room to pull up a stool at the breakfast nook by Izzie. She studied me for another second, now that I was closer. But her stare lacked the judging vibe of

her mother’s. Instead, she was like someone trying very hard to understand a foreign language spoken too quickly. “That’s a nasty bruise you have there.” She tapped her own forehead in a mirror image of where the green and purple splotch marred my skin. “Oh, this. I almost died last night.” I covered it with my hand and shrugged my shoulders. My heart rate picked up, just a flutter. One Lorazepam and it would dull the reaction time between my actions and my brain by a few nanoseconds. “Shut up.” She swatted me in the arm, and I don’t know if she was trying to be flirtatious or if I just willed her hand to linger on my arm a second longer than it needed. The glint of concentration in her eyes and her smile looked almost like she was trying hard to keep track of a fish moving quickly in the water. Her smile fell when she saw that I wasn’t laughing. I shrugged again, my default gesture, and it was her turn to regard me with an apologetic half-smile. Izzie, the one who had burned down her own house, was worried about insulting a total stranger. “Oh. Shit. Sorry.” “It’s okay. It’s kind of weird story.” “Oh,” she took that as my cue to change the subject and then surveyed the room around us. “So, where do we start?” I was stunned for a moment but then shook my head slightly to clear away my thoughts. I hoped that she wouldn’t notice. It was probably better off this way. I couldn’t find the words, hadn’t really tried to explain the odd, shapeless terrors in my head for anyone else. Izzie couldn’t be any different. I would never be as free as her, but it was nice to hold the thought of cracking myself open, just a little, in my mind, even for an instant. Izzie watched as I tried to offer cleanup suggestions in the shambles. I pulled a few rugs out into the yard and hoped that the summer sun would dry them. I rinsed off cleaning utensils and the clipboard taught us that we could clean off pots and pans with salt and a vinegar-soaked rag. I removed the drawers of the desk in the living room so that each piece could dry separately. I showed her how you could clean soot off the walls with warm water and a splash of laundry detergent. The clipboard was my guide. It promised to help me feel useful. Her mother had rented a dumpster, and people were coming to drop it off the following day, Izzie mentioned. I helped her carry a few odds and ends that were well past saving to the front stoop. A few couch cushions, two lamps, an armload of books. Unlike her mother, she seemed readily able to throw away all of these familiar objects. When I stepped back into the house after a trash trip, I found Izzie sitting on the arm of an overstuffed chair, holding a binder in her hands. She held it up for me to see and little windowpanes peeked at me from behind plastic. “Cooper? What about photos? How can we save these?” “It depends how bad they are.” I took the album from her and felt the weight of it in my palms. It was a heavy, black book, undecorated. I leafed through a few pages, black and Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 145


white photos of strangers, color photos of kids at birthday parties and a little girl, undoubtedly Izzie, running around in a sprinkler in the back yard. “Some of the pictures are stuck together. We can soak them in water for a while and let them separate on their own. Or you could bring them to the neighbors and ask to stick them in the freezer and try to thaw them out a few at a time. Some of these are probably lost, though.” I handed her back the binder, and she flipped a few more pages. Plastic crinkled as she turned and ran her hand along the protective photo cover. Her hands stopped on a page. A shot of a smiling boy, posed for a school photograph. Big eyes and messy hair. I didn’t want to pry, but Izzie looked up at me with searching eyes. “He’s my son. His name is Leo.” He looked nothing like her. He had dark eyes, half-hidden through a mop of reddish hair. He grinned at both of us from a school photo with a laser light background. That would’ve broken my heart, having a kid that looked nothing like me. The genetic lottery even fucking me away from feeling connected to my own flesh and blood. I could never have kids. I couldn’t even deal with my own issues. “How old is he?” “Three. Had him when I was seventeen.” She flipped the page, and there was Leo suspended in mid-air, flopping in the pool in the backyard. “I was a mess when I had him. But he changed me. My mom helped me raise him, here. And she jokes about how he is half hers. But he’s all mine. He is my everything.” She touched the picture, brailed her son’s features. “I could burn down a million houses. I don’t care if I am a mess for everyone else. I just don’t want to be for him. You know?” “I know.” She didn’t waste a beat. Instead, she asked, “Did you really almost die last night?” Her change in conversation almost made me dizzy. We were back to sharing again. “What happened? Or do you mind me asking?” As though we were not yet beyond the territory of social graces. This was our burnt-out house confessional. She smoothed her hand across the photo but the crinkles wouldn’t flatten. “I don’t mind you asking.” Asking backwards is gniksa. I drew in a breath. She made me want to curl up on the floor and open myself up like that photo album. I wanted to display snapshots of myself so she could try to smooth away the crinkles. Even if she wasn’t able to, she could try. “It was stupid. Last night I took a few sleeping pills, only that was kind of dumb because I had been drinking. Sometimes when I try to sleep, I get freaked out. I start to panic. My heart races.” “Why?” “I don’t know. I start thinking about weird things. How afraid I am of dying. Or I’ll think about the sun blowing up or swallowing the earth, and how even though that’s like, five 146 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Spring 2011

billion years away, it still freaks me out.” I took a sip from the water bottle and shrugged. “I had been out drinking with some friends but afterward, I couldn’t sleep again. It felt like I couldn’t turn off my brain. I took an Ambien or two. I can’t even remember how I got the pill bottle open. But I remember staring at my computer keyboard, and it was glowing, but liquid. Like there was a chemical reaction under my fingertips. And the Christmas lights around my bed started melting. I guess I passed out. And hit my head. Which explains this bruise.” I hadn’t told anyone about the night before, and how when I had woken up my body had tried to vomit out the contents of everything I had ever eaten. Izzie kept her hand on the photo album page and studied me. She wasn’t taking notes like my psychiatrist or trying to understand what kind of freak I had become, like my dad. Maybe she was trying to do the same thing as I was, trying to chart up our past experiences and piece together how our karmic lines managed to collide here. She made me want to understand. “It was an accident. Mostly” “That’s fucked up.” “That’s fucked up? Why don’t you burn down another house?” Instead of being offended, she turned her chin to the destroyed roof and laughed, just like I had hoped. She laughed at the ceiling, smoothing the photograph curls of her son, in her shattered home. Somewhere along the line, she found a bottle of wine that had been undamaged in the basement. She popped it open, and I drank even though I flashbacked to my retching with burning eyes the night before. We spoke for hours. There was something freeing and wonderful about sharing myself with someone who was all but a complete stranger. Others had wanted me to explain, for me to almost to apologize for my bouts of strained silence and frayed nerves. But Izzie made me want to understand, and connect. I had left my cell phone in the car, and I could picture my dad dialing the number with his rough fingertips. Maybe he would try a couple of times to reach me, send me on some other assignment. But then he would sigh, unsurprised. He would run his hands across his cluttered desk, and reach for the number of someone else. Somewhere along the line of our conversation, she went into the bathroom and found some dry towels that we spread on the floor so that we could sit without getting wet, and prop our backs up against the wall. We sat on the outer edges of each other’s space, sometimes leaning in close so that our breaths mingled. Sitting below a scorched picture window, we talked about everything — music, sex, movies, comic books, what we thought about religion. She taught me some swear words in German. We talked about when we lost our virginity. Izzie, when she was fifteen and went to a friend’s prom. She hadn’t even particularly liked the guy, but she loved the cliché, going all the way on prom night. And me, I was a late bloomer, I told her. I lost it at seventeen to my friend Jamie, right before we left for college, so we both could get it over and done with.


I don’t know why. I just felt like I could tell her anything, and she wouldn’t care. She was temporary freedom from my panic, from teetering between being socially hermetically sealed and wanting to tell complete strangers everything about me. I can put my foot behind my head. I hate the taste of pears. I found my dog in the street, hit by a car, a few years ago. All of these things are true. “How are you so strong?” I asked. My speech slurred from the wine. For instant, I dared to raise a hand that shook just a little, to brush a strand of hair away from her eyes. “I made a decision, and I have to stick by it.” She smiled at me again. I didn’t know what she meant, but oh God, I didn’t want her to stop talking. My bullshit fire salvage consultation had turned into a fourhour conversation with a stranger. When I turned to leave the house, after we had finished the bottle of wine and gone through the rest of the photo album, Izzie’s voice called to me from the doorway. “It was Leo.” “What?” “It wasn’t me who burned down the house. It was Leo. We were by the planter, and I left just to get a drink of water. I was only away from him for a minute, I swear to God. When I came back, he was poking his little finger around in the mulch. I found my matches in his shorts later that night. He must’ve been playing with them. He had to’ve been the one to toss the lit match.” “You never told your mom?” “No,” she shook her head and her hair tumbled around

her face. She held on to the door frame and squeezed. I could feel the frame cracking, like my ribs, against the assault of my heart. She disappeared for a moment, into the house, and then returned with a photo that she pushed into my hands. “I can take the anger and the shame. I can be the mistake. But I would never let that happen to him.” For an instant, she made me want to be someone else. Standing in the doorway with her picture in my hand, I imagined myself as someone stronger, with steady hands, to pull her away from the burnt-out house and into a vague haze of the future, uncertain but unafraid. But I couldn’t, and would never throw myself into the motion of life like Izzie could. The girl in the photo could have been her. I couldn’t tell. The colors were smudged but I thought I could see a smile. I fell in love with her a little that afternoon, the two of us sharing whispered secrets and stories in the charred and soaking wet house. I was afraid of everything, of death, but I wasn’t entirely sure I loved life before meeting Izzie. Somehow the fact that someone like her could exist in the same world as someone like me brought me comfort. She balanced the equation of fear and doubt that I radiated everywhere I went. I felt like I could carry her secret around, like it was pinned to the inside of my clothes, close to my heart, and it would give me strength. Slow my heart. Lessen my burden by degrees. She was like a chemical-induced hallucination firing in my brain. Wavering and half-real, but beautiful, beautiful. I remember her especially at night, as I wash down my sleeping pills with mouthfuls of water, my heart racing, begging the sun to burn for just another day.

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Ian C. Smith Ian C. Smith’s work has appeared in The Best Australian Poetry, Descant, Island, Magma, The Malahat Review, Southerly, and Westerly. His latest book is Lost Language of the Heart, Ginninderra (Adelaide). He lives in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, Australia.

Psychobaggage A lad sits in shadow at the station waiting out the night, dreaming of ocean-deafened escapades, of tidesong. This is black char of fire Australia stripped bare, scars livid on its exposed-to-the-bone back where the horizon slices the sun. A guard dog stares from the gravel yard. School was structured savagery but for one exception. A lone adult like a safe house his English teacher never blistered him. The pen is mightier than the sword was that gentle man’s grave motto. The lad’s banshee mother quotes this among other motley saws in her repertoire of shackled despair. His parents will skewer each other he knows, now he has finally gone. They would bite their own tails. He hopes, in the way of hurt lads they might weep or die of plague. He gets on the train, a gipsy, leaves the cyclone wire end of town in a blur believing he has escaped memory’s cud.

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Bruce Bromley Bruce Bromley has performed his poetry and music at the John Drew Theatre (East Hampton), the Berklee Performance Center (Boston), Shakespeare and Company (Paris), The Village Voice (Paris), and at the 1986 Edinburgh Theatre Festival, where the Oxford Theatre Troupe performed his play, Sound for Three Voices. His work has appeared in Word Riot Magazine, Fogged Clarity, Pif Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Fringe Magazine, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and Women and Performance, among other journals. He is senior lecturer in expository writing at NYU, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.

Saying It

“H

ey pretty guy, you got a boyfriend?” the cabbie asks in the rear-view mirror, his eyes flooding its rectangle with that green, bruised light belonging to all the storms I waited for in our Rockland County house, nose stuck to the window, the smell, rise, and whoosh of air squeezing in through the geometry of the screen, while outside, everything somersaulted in answer to forces it could not see. I don’t say that the laminated taxi license has offered me his name, Malik, though he will murmur the gift of it after the long curve home from west to east to the Little India where I live, just off Lexington Avenue. That will happen on my building’s top stair as I am deciding whether or not to unlock the front door, sniffing the musk of him next to me, hearing the cab below us huff because Malik will have left it running, unsure of the “yes” he thinks he wants from me, yet certain enough, almost, to insist, leaning in: “I can fuck you and still call myself a man.” But now, jostling against the back seat, not yet pronouncing the “no boyfriend” he wishes for, I want to tell Malik how I visualize his return, say every six months, to Karachi, to the village-girl he married when she was on the cusp of sixteen, to the three boys she produced for him, who recognize their father only as that man who comes back, the one who speaks too sternly to them in the dark at bedtime, since he yearns to lie with the near-woman who can’t quite know the man she must call her husband. I wish to say: Safiyyah, your wife, knows more than you guess, and she learns it from the gently waving way in which the waters of the Arabian Sea lap and lick and exercise care for the land, bolstering it, propping it up, defining it as not-water, even if, millennia ago, all this ground was liquid, heaving. On a few late afternoons, she walks to where the earth ends, while her sister from the village that Safiyyah continues to feel taut in her bones watches over the boys, steams their rice, and, at the place where sand gives way to sea, Safiyyah knows that the water eats what it struggles to

support, knows that the ground humps itself up behind her in order not to be swallowed by the fluid weight that braces it. She turns her head, sometimes, to look back, thinks that the land would rather be aflame than become this element that will always be its origin. More than once, during his many homevisits, when he comes to her later than she has ever hoped, Safiyyah finds another man’s sweat, acrid, dried quickly to a kind of ash, lingering among Malik’s chest hair, in his armpits, on the fingertips he shoves between her teeth as, down below, he pushes into her. I wish to tell Malik how this preference for burning is the backstory of my, “No, no boyfriend,” that parts, that hefts his lips to the moist ‘w’ of a smile; that all the men with whom I have chafed and rubbed fire into fact have been outdone by a virus that is its own sort of blazing; that, compelled to burnish, spark, and flare, together we chose cinders over reemplacement in ancestral waters, just as Safiyyah’s earth would, if it experienced the capacity to choose. I want to describe for him the ways in which my lovers were fevered, wasted, snuffed out by what their blood could only go on carrying, to confess that I remain here, in the back seat of his cab, due to the democracy of latex in combination with my seeing, in the flesh of every man edging close, the ashes that must come after, to add that the irony of envisioning death in all of them has allowed me to escape the wasting and fastened me to the living “No” I was unaware of having chosen. But the taxi swerves on to lower Lexington, Malik greets it with a hail, and I am thinking of the sudden blazes that shot through those houses neighboring ours in Upper Nyack, under the shadow of Hook Mountain, one late September, when my mother met me with her car outside the grammar school. She is not going to detail my father’s appetite for the woman with saffron-colored hair, his longing for the tributary veins that collect at the seam above her yellow lashes, his noting their duplicates in a whorl around her ankles, so that the skin seems Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 149


to forecast what he might claim to be his, if he were to eat her. She is not going to indicate that my father would have abandoned home, wife, child in favor of these alimentary couplings with a personal assistant in his textile firm, had the former not declared: “Wifehood doesn’t interest me.” She will not explain that my father stands suspended between the marriage he thought he wanted and a freedom for which he will finally be unprepared or, her belly heaped against the steering wheel, present my brother’s forthcoming birth as proof that something can be made of suspension. Yet she will, on our drive to the Hudson, brake swiftly at a traffic-signal, raise her right hand, point through the windshield at what she calls the “albino boy” whose radiance quivers within the crosswalk,

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about to combust, to restore him to the sky, this generator of heat and air and late summer fires that appear to torch each roof on either side of us. I rethink that restoration before my building’s front door, unlocking it now, while Malik aims his, “Take all of me inside you” at my ear, while I touch the meeting-place of his lips with my hand, while afternoon sun descends in angled wands between us, invoking the luminescent boy who tells me that we survive radiating light, without combustion or dispersal, by remembering how the earth that once was water sustains us, its continuity of motion not to be mistaken for seeming stasis, its always moving the “yes” we live by, regardless of our ability to uphold the saying of it.


Libby Cudmore Libby Cudmore’s stories and essays have appeared in The MacGuffin, The Yalobusha Review, The Chaffey Review, The Southern Women’s Review, Sunsets and Silencers, Red Fez, Inertia, Xenith, Pop Matters, Pulp Pusher and the anthology Relationships and Other Stuff. She is a frequent contributor to Shaking Like a Mountain, Celebrities in Disgrace, Hardboiled, a Twist of Noir and Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, where her story “Unplanned” won a Bullet award in 2009 and was nominated for the 2010 Derringer award in flash fiction.

Sing Your Life The Remix

W

e were at the wrong bar. Matthew’s Hungarian sense of direction had put us at the Iggy’s on the Upper East Side instead of downtown. This was a wide-spread mistake, printed on all the fliers distributed for the Celebrities in Disgrace launch party I was attending as both a frequent contributor to the Celebrities blog and as Matthew’s escort. Hey, at least we were all lost together. The bartenders certainly weren’t complaining. With the exception of Matthew and Elizabeth Searle, author of Celebrities in Disgrace, the party consisted entirely of people I’d never met. There was another group that looked as though they’d just come from a Bar Mitzvah. We held down the left side of the back room. They held down the right. We were not supposed to mingle. I made small talk with the stars. I flirted with the guys. I posed for candid photos. I watched Matthew work his magic. I’ve never met anyone as charismatic as him; he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room when he’s talking to you. He was playing the host as if he was vying for an Oscar. I sat back on the wooden bench and took the whole thing in. Iggy’s boasted a karaoke stage. I had still never done karaoke, not since Matthew and my ill-fated trip to Sing-Sing on St. Mark’s back in April. The closest I’d come in recent months was a trip to Bomber’s Burrito Bar in Albany with my boyfriend Ian and our friend Sterling — even in the far downstairs corner, we were not buffered from the group of drunk girls upstairs all screaming Jewel’s You Were Meant for Me, none of them singing the same word or note at the same time. Tonight would be the night. It was the third karaoke date and I owed it this much. There would be no getting out of this. I was an escort, and if I wanted to make a good impression on Matthew’s friends, I had to prove that I was utterly fearless. Picking the song was the hard part. The selection was a

touch on the grim side, no Oingo Boingo, no Human League to duet on, only Girls Just Want to Have Fun under Cyndi Lauper and Panic! under the Smiths. The part of me that has absolutely no shame secretly wanted to croon The Divinyl’s I Touch Myself, but to a roomful of strangers? I’m not that brave. It looked like it was going to come down to Madonna. Madonna is always a safe bet with karaoke; if Madonna can sing a Madonna song, anyone can sing a Madonna song. And somehow I wound up singing Celine Dion. Her cover of Cyndi’s cover of Roy Orbison’s I Drove All Night was part of the catalogue. That was the one. But did I have the range? Could I remember the words? Would I totally humiliate myself in front of my publisher, Matthew, and all of his friends, some of whom were giving me the dreaded “you are not his wife” look? I have let chance decide all the major events in my life. I am incapable of making a decision of my own free will, so I flipped a coin. Heads, Crazy for You. Tails, I Drove All Night. Tails. I put in my slip. Then I went in the bathroom and had a panic attack. What the hell was I doing? I didn’t even know the Celine Dion version! What if it was a different tempo, a different key, a different arrangement of the words I was already starting to forget? I couldn’t even blame any failures on being drunk. I was only halfway through my first glass of wine. And what the hell was I thinking, picking I Drove All Night? I can’t even listen to that song in the privacy of my own home without crying. It’s too beautiful, it reminds me too much of my beloved, the one I would drive a thousand miles for. I had just come down off of my freak-out when the bartender called my name. No turning back now. Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 151


I skipped all the “whoa ohs” and “yeahs.” Already things were looking bleak. It’s against my musical religion to whoa oh or yeah. But I hit that first verse and nailed each one of the rising and falling notes. Each note, dead on, as though I was lip-synching. Hell, I was Cyndi, in my china-doll slipdress and blue eyeshadow. The Bar Mitzvah crowd went wild. Elizabeth Searle’s “whoooo!” and clapping thundered above them all. I cannot remember the last time I felt that rush. The bar was silent of everything but my voice and the cheer of both parties. I lifted my eyes from the monitor and glanced over at Matthew as I crooned, “Is that all right?” And the look of wonder, of pride, of sheer adoration on his face was enough to make my heart flutter, weightless, in my chest. Three minutes later, I was no longer a karaoke virgin. I took a little bow and hopped off stage. The entire cast and crew of Celebrities in Disgrace hugged me, told me I was awesome. But there was only one person whose final approval I sought, and he was mysteriously absent. I pushed through the crowd as politely as possible, smiling and taking compliments with a dry mouth and shaking hands. In a small bar of maybe thirty people, one would think you couldn’t lose someone who stands 6’2”. And, as he so often does, he appeared out of nowhere. He very quietly kissed the top of my head. Sometimes there aren’t words; it’s easy to say, “Wow, that was great!” and leave it at that. He and I so often get excited about small things both good and bad, but there are some moments so exhaustively beautiful, that we are left speechless. I took his silence as the highest praise and carried that small gesture with me longer than any other accolade.

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The Bar Mitzvah crew got the place going with Bohemian Rhapsody and we nearly lost Elizabeth in their sweaty beersoaked mass. Everyone was just liquored up enough to really let loose. Matthew did a knock-out version of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, that, surprisingly, had people dancing. One chubby girl from the Bar Mitzvah party managed to ruin a Madonna song, as though Stephen Hawking was singing Material Girl. The scrawny boy who’d hooted loudest for me sang I’m Too Sexy, and a trio of his pals pulled out LFO’s Summer Girls. Despite their terrible song choices, we were all on the dance floor. There is no DJ alive who could get me to groove to Summer Girls. Celebrities star Julian Finch sang Twist and Shout and dedicated it to Matthew and I, avid anti-Beatles as we are. Then another guy did Twist and Shout right after him and we still kept twisting and shouting. I danced with Mark, the other half of Bravo Sierra. I danced with Lawrence and we talked about the Smiths. I avoided dancing with one of the Bar Miztvah guys who kept trying to take pictures down my dress by dancing Roxburystyle between Julian and Matthew. I didn’t sleep that night. I lay on my pillow, savoring the scent of Mark’s cigarettes in my hair, of dance sweat, of the mingled perfume of a roomful of strange girls. I ran through the lyrics to future songs in my head, Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone, Morrissey’s First of the Gang to Die. My feet ached from dancing in high heels. My head hurt from loud noise and dehydration. Insomnia had never carried with it so much happiness. I had been a star for one night, and I wanted that night to last as long as it could.


David Snyder David Snyder is a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, pursuing an MFA in creative writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Coal City Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Meeting House, Crash, Defenestration, and Farspace. He is always getting lost.

Urban Haiku 1 Lightning bolts outside. I feel the urge to wander. Midnight. Rain. I’m home. “I’m leaving,” I say. “Be careful,” I hear. “It’s dark.” “Yes,” I say, “it is.” I hear a rapping. The rain falls on concrete. Footsteps of phantoms. Thoughts of: escape, and Thoughts of lust, and love not here. But mostly escape. “You could stay,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “but not really.” Cold: “You know you could.” Black tower rises. Lightning flashes. Darkness reigns. Dead souls must dwell here. The dark; the rain, hard. My compass, lost or broken, And I do know fear. A tree limb hangs low, Stretching across the sidewalk. How can it live here? I pick off a leaf, And Another One Falls. Finally, it ends. Not the rain; that never ends. Home, I’m here; what’s new? Spring 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 153


Urban Haiku 2 Walking. Cool, not cold. Compliments, by Bloc Party. This song, perfect now.

“I don’t feel that good.” “What’s wrong?” I ask. “Are you sick?” “I feel like outline.”

Maybe it’s the leaves. Maybe the air, old: a good thing. It feels like the past.

“And all the while Been torn asunder Nicotine And bacteria.”

A sudden flashback: I’m walking home, after class, With a friend, now gone.

The ground’s uneven And I think about each step But my mind is gone.

“We sit and we sigh And nothing gets done So right, so clued-up We just get old.”

Get rid of the cars And the noise that they create And time will return.

Come across a church. The light hits beautiful rock. It feels like the past.

I don’t miss the past; It’s just that I can’t figure Where the hell it went.

Pavement and cobbles, Side by side, forming the street. I choose cobbles, always.

“Are you shivering?” “It’s cold out,” she says. “I’m cold.” “Not that cold,” I say.

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C. R. Ventura C R Ventura uses digital manipulation of photographs layered with his own digital drawings and airbrushing to create refreshed images moved into a transformation of abstraction, a way to turn a kaleidoscopic eye towards the reflection and absorption of his inner world. He has a degree in animation and has worked on animated feature films, as well as a few smaller projects. C. R. Ventura lives and works in the UK. Visit him online at http://worksteady.deviantart.com.

Field Of Electric Smarties

Spring 2011 â–Ş The Battered Suitcase â–Ş 155


Look to the Skies

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The Crystal Wave

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This Reflection of Your Life

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Your Gaze Rests Easy

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I Delight in Your Delight

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The Battered Suitcase Spring 2011