The Battered Suitcase New Directions in Art & Literature
Volume 4 – Issue 1 – Summer 2011
Stroll Kayla Miller..........................1
Getting Rid of Angus Matt Hoffman........................118
The City Jonathan Golden......................52
He’s In The Walls Asha Morrison.......................127
Saturday, Half Past 2 Dorothee Lang.......................108
The View From Over Here Nina Schuyler.......................140
Losing Found Things Brett Rosenblatt....................145
Elementary Particles Erin Stagg............................6 The Mime Laury A. Egan .......................11 Beefsteak Tomatoes at a Barbeque W.D. Hall............................18 Panties F. Michael LaRosa....................38 All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the Toilet Renee Rod............................42 Walk and Drink Ben Drinen...........................46 Missing Words Natalie Campisi......................59 Stay Here Jason Ehlen..........................70 If We Are Nothing More Nathan Knapp.........................82 The Betrayal Jennifer Houston.....................87 Pen Dates Catherine Sharpe.....................95 Mr. Douglas Adam Gianforcaro....................109
Poetry Kultaseni A. Gonzaga............................3 Poems Katrin Thompson.......................4 When the Heart Ends Sarah A. Chavez.......................9 Swift Peter Branson........................10 Poems Garth Pavell.........................15 Poems David Appelbaum......................17 Poems Ry Kincaid...........................24 Poems James Valvis.........................25 Distance Alexander Motyl......................57 Bryant Park Alice Jerman.........................58 Not Happy but Also Not Weak Robert Wexelblatt....................79
ART Poems Christie Isler.......................80 Poems Flower Conroy........................86 I Read e.e. cummings Often C.A. McDaniel........................90 Class II Double Monsters Joined at the Hip Andrea Spofford......................92 Poems Michael Lee Johnson.................106 Yellow Christina Del Canto.................107 Poems Wynne Huddleston....................139
Non-Fiction Listless Dante Convis.........................36 A Box of Shelves Sarah Rae............................53 Tattoo Kara Carlson.........................76 Shatican Gemma Scotcher......................114 Battlefield Operations Gayle Francis Moffet................123
Raja Krishnan Untitled Digital Photography......26-35 Alison Johnson Contemplation........................62 Nearing the City.....................63 London...............................64 London Horizon.......................65 London Shimmer.......................66 Rush Hour............................67 Moroccan Heat........................68 Shadow Light.........................69 Daria Besedina Blue................................100 Bark................................101 Ceramics............................102 Snakeskin...........................103 Iodine..............................104 Uzbek Pepper........................105 Mark Burchard In the Spotlight....................131 Remembering Rivera..................132 The Red and the Black...............133 Lightning Buds......................134 Explosion with Feathers.............135 Tigers on the Hunt..................136 Bouquet.............................137 Carnations on Hardwood..............138
Kayla Miller Kayla Miller is currently a senior majoring in English Literature/Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She was a finalist in the statewide 2010 Writer’s Festival competition for her creative nonfiction. This is her first published work of fiction, and she hopes it won’t be the last! You can find her online at http://kaylaisfractioning.tumblr.com
he lights of the city are brighter and colder and smaller and pointier than any others. The city, my city, as desperate and harsh as a widow. The thudding of my business shoes on the sidewalk recall days spent dreaming of heat, the coolness of homes, hospitals, harbors replaced with the impenetrable heat of the salty south. The skyscrapers, the highrisers, towering above the meandering, the disappointed, the hopeful, the pessimistic, the cynical, the directed, the lost. In the end, what matters more? The skyscrapers, or those who built them? I pitterpatter along like raindrops, looking neither to my left or to my right, seeing only the blurry, burly, bruised, benign faces of my comrades from my periphery. I only see them because I cannot help it. They see me more than I’d like. I call them my comrades but that implies a shared mission, a war being won, a struggle being struggled against by strugglers companionable. After all, “camaraderie” obviously derives from comrade. I suppose I should instead call my sidewalk neighbors my cohorts — secret keepers, co-conspirators. We leave our lovers behind in empty bedrooms with unmade beds, sheets smelling of sweat and shit and sex and substances, while we walk the streets, prance the streets, search the streets for meaning. We, business elite, business class, first class, elitist. We tiptoe past our lovers’ sleeping heads in the mornings, barely brushing their faces with the hairs of our legs as we grope for undergarments in the dark. We see each other daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. We see each other longingly, pathetically, harshly, truthfully. My attempts at invisibility do not matter, they see me still. And what was I to do? What did you honestly expect of me? I am no more than a shoe, a pant leg, a tweed coat. Who could have asked so much of such a simple wardrobe? My father whispers in my ear as I fall asleep under the covers with my lover in the dark, dark night. My father cannot
stop whispering still. He hides in between the hairs on my head, like a more vicious species of head lice. He does not only seek a home in my hair, but homage. Stylistically speaking, he has impeccable taste. He whispers words more eloquent, more hell-bent, more wordy than I could come up with. My windpipe crushes under such weight, the inhalation of breath lost, the sucking in of air that I cannot claim. I pitterpatter down the street, my father grasping on to the chestnut hairs of my head, whispering a constant whistle I cannot drown out. I look to my left, my right. There is nothing in the faces of my cohorts that suggests any such weight on them. They are light, airy, salty even. I suddenly notice that they have tans, and sparkling white teeth, smiling into hellohello phones and tucking two hundred dollar pens into their two hundred thousand dollar suit-and-briefcase combos. It is December. They are tan, even the nonwhite ones, even the Asian ones, even the black ones, even the Indian ones, even my father boasts a summer glow. Cohorts, my cohorts. They have turned on me. The lights of the city are never darkened, neither by rain or sleet or snow or will or depression or pleading or absolute desperation. They cannot be commandeered, comrades. They cannot be quenched. The lights poke my pupils with a force reserved usually for the most mutinous of eyelashes. My father laughs as I lift a hand, covering my retinas, the threat of scorch and burn and torch too much for my fragility. It is after this point, as I am walking and people around me are walking and my father is singing from the soundtrack of Citizen Kane, that a bright flash of red breaks through and renders itself visible to its audience. She was just walking, just like us, just like any of us, except for my father of course, who was sailing along strapped to one of my hairs. She was walking, but of course she was walking against the flow of my cohorts and I. Comrades, would you believe that she was walking Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 1
against the flow of us? Let’s not let that be too symbolic. Of course she was walking, what else would she be doing? Her strawberry lollipop hair bristled in response to the freezing wind, causing me and my cohorts to pull our jackets tighter. Salt in my mouth, tears in my eyes, what is it that made me move here again. I slough, I slip, I slide, I slug on toward my destination. The snow, at first so becoming, has been abandoned to the edges of the sidewalk, pushed into brown piles of muck, out of everyone’s way. The asphalt of the sidewalk does not glitter, and my feet do not feel light. It is her hair that causes me to look from my business shoes, raising my head as if raising a boulder, heavy. Oh so heavy. I have only the strength to lift it once a day. My lover jealously guards this lifting of the head. My lover would say that, today, I have squandered it. What was once the walk of the confident turns into the run of the desperate. She runs towards something, a something which I don’t recognize because my father has begun singing Lyle Lovett’s Stand By Your Man so loudly that I can’t hear anything, not even the thud of my feet on the ground, not even the chatter of my cohorts talking into their hellohello phones, not even the beating of my own heart. I certainly can’t hear the sound perspiration makes as it exits my pores. I imagine it would make a squeezing sound, and then a pop! Release. Purging. Out, out into the world you go. My palms are sweaty. Comrades, do you understand what I mean when I say that she was running toward me? The flurry of her candy hair in the bitter wind reminds me of blades of grass, bending to the will of the Alabaman wind. Except her hair would be dead grass, bristling up and taking offense at every little move you make. Medusa would’ve been jealous of her hair. She closes the distance between us, and in a moment she opens her tan trench coat to reveal her naked body underneath. I stop. I stare. My cohorts don’t see. Don’t even notice. Time expands. Her cherry colored mop of hair reaches her shoulders, leaving everything open to my scrutiny. Her face is much uglier when seen so close — scores of wrinkles with purple eyeshadow layered on top. Her yellow teeth smile or
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grimace or smirk or snicker or something. My father is having a heyday. Her breasts sag. Her stomach sags. Her entire body is wrinkled, perhaps older than the earth. Her pubes are the color of sand, and she has a bush that covers everything in between her legs. Her bellybutton is pierced. What strikes me most clearly, what resonates with me most quickly, is the darkness of her areolas. She is not tan like my cohorts. She has not been baking. She is lighter than myself, skin stretched over blue veins and purple organs, skin tinged slightly yellow, slightly sickly, slightly off-putting. She has the darkest areolas I have ever seen. Her nipples are as long as pencil erasers, as hard as nickels. Her areolas threaten to overtake her nipples with their darkness. She is off. Trench coat closed, mouth closed, case closed. She turns and walks with my cohorts. They escort her off the premises. Without lifting her feet any faster than my own move in their business shoes, she is out of earshot, eyeshot, heartshot. The lights becomes brighter, the talking louder. My father’s whispers have quieted to a steady buzz, as easy to dismiss as rabies. I open the door to my home, the home that I share with my lover, the home that I go home to after I have spent time not-home, the home that I make love to my lover in. I open the door with trepidation. My lover will see the stain of berry juice on my lips. My lover will see the cookie crumbs on my lapel. My lover will know that I have done something I should not have done. Thief! You have, you are, you will be: stolen. My lover leans lovingly over my lower half, lounged lightly on the loveseat. I cum, bright lights behind my eyes. I cum, red hair beneath my eyebrows. I cum, dark areolas behind my lids. I cum, sandy pubes beneath my lashes. I I I I cum.
A. Gonzaga A. Gonzaga (Oluchukwu Aloysius-Gonzaga Nwikwu) is a Nigerian–born, Nordic–educated essayist, poet, and songwriter. His essays and poetry have appeared in various English–language magazines and anthologies across Africa, Europe and North America, including Helsinki Times, Ovi Magazine, Storymoja, The Slovenia Times, Itch, Story Time, The New Black Magazine, Aunt Chleo: A Journal of Artful Candor, The PM News Nigeria, Newropeans Magazine, Red Lion Sq., Palapala Magazine, Christian Poetry Fraternity SA, Taking IT Global Panorama Zine, Writer’s Haven Magazette, and many others. Work on his debut novel Awakening Path is ongoing, with plans for translation into multiple Nordic languages.
Kultaseni1 i pray my verse confer not on you, the antipode of gratification, kultaseni. to hell with make-believe: it’s sheer cowardice. and let it be known: a poet is in no way the most affectionate. the reason he’s among the most enchanting — i may seek from you later on. at the present time, may my musings proffer you the opposite of uncertainty. they are obliged to soothe, arouse and entertain, not repulse you, kultaseni — the instigator of my first pledge to set off, all-out: you who provoked my obsession over the big wins: you the embodiment of every feminine loveliness! i pray they kindle your tender-heart-as-unadulterated-andsparkling-as-the-finnish-january-snow, kultaseni — the only treasure found all through my days of adventure. who am i to deserve a moment of yours, nwamma?2 kaivopuisto3 will always hold a special place in our hearts. i longed to hear you ask: draw me closer, right inside your strong arms, as if there’s no tomorrow. i longed to watch you insist: sing me those lines, from songs of solomon; bless me all through the night! i longed to hear you pronounce — with audacity: you can say you love me, and cannot live without me, isn’t that why we’re special? i longed to see you grin and speak in a whisper: don’t hide your weakness, i am your stronghold, it’s sound to confide in love. i longed to guide your dreams — knowing you need not to say: i’ll return a favour, for what we had was far from parsimonious. and now i sound in-between insanity and melancholia, but it’s all thanks to what you do to me, kultaseni; it’s all lucid you shouldn’t have gone in the first place — leaving me to erect and dismantle snowmen, drab and by myself. Notes: 1 Sweetheart. 2 Child-of-beauty. 3 A park in Helsinki, Finland.
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Katrin Thompson Katrin Thompson is an MFA candidate at The New School in Manhattan. When asked how third person bio’s make her feel, she replied, “a little weird.” She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends most of her time figuring out what poetry actually is. You can find her online at twitter.com/katrinthompson
The silence begins to build: it gets noisy. The ringing in my head gets louder. The flowers speak.
August I bring blue irises. His favorite color, my favorite flower. They sit in my lap & stare at the sky. I heard somewhere the blue flower is the struggle for the infinite & unreachable.
July I begin to hum “Blackbird,” think about how the strings hurt his fingers & the hours he spent learning that song. Clouds pass by in shapes I don’t recognize until they’re gone.
June I sit cross-legged & stare at my ex’s headstone. Death knows no season (even the good ones).
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September The leaves begin to change colors & run away. The sun begins to drift under the horizon. I place the bundle of blue irises on top of the marble slab.
a rug is a rug is a rug is a rug the floor rug at the pseudo-organic coffee shop down the street from my house is made up of fifteen squares but only two distinct patterns. it is the vintage kaleidoscope of floor rugs, rusted over by dirty feet & angry tennis shoes. the middle of the pattern, circular, whirls around & screams at me to say something. I say nothing & two more sandals stomp three times each over the spinning carpet who’s becoming one of my closest friends. Fred, I say, I call it Fred now because it needs a name. Fred, I say, why don’t you say something about this destructive behavior? it responds by staying bunched up at the short edge, awaiting its next clumsy victim. after the next person steps on his tasseled edge, he flips that side up, a gesture in the carpet world that represents a similar one involving a particular finger in Western culture. the dreadlocked blonde nearly throws up on Fred while she hurriedly fixes his edges, faking distractions so her distress goes unnoticed & I think, maybe that’s why he’s so modest. karma can be permanent with carpet. this is a new thing to me: permanent & immediate karma. a red wine stain, a cigarette burn, a fraying edge, all established scars, all stories of this particular carpet’s sketchy, adventurous past. this wild, worldly carpet I have named Gertrude now. this wild, worldly woman, surely too forgiving now to be a man. gentle & full of life lessons and yet, lies silent, thrown across the wood floor mimicking decoration & isolation. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 5
Erin Stagg Erin Stagg has worked as a dockhand, a waitress, a landscaper, and in a winery during crush. Her story, Blue Eyed Raspberries, won the 2002 Wellesley College Johanna Mankiewicz Davis Prize for Prose Fiction. Her articles have been published in The Taos News, The Snowmass Sun, Aspen Magazine and FIVE Magazine. Originally from Taos, New Mexico, currently teaches skiing internationally, in the US and New Zealand, and is a 2012 candidate for an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
lthough I wake up next to Anita in my own bed, I don’t know where I am. Rays of sunlight creep through the blinds, lighting up the floating dust particles. I recognize my three pairs of shoes, lined up too neatly, next to my too neat stack of physics books beneath the window. She’s snoring softly. Her long black hair obscures the edge of her pillow. Between the sheets, I catch a glimpse of her sepiacolored thigh. The sheets beneath my back are uncomfortably crisp and clean and smell of lavender. I get up, slide on a pair of checkered board shorts and check on the baby. As I hover over Arianna, I’m relieved to see her eyes twitching beneath her eyelids. I go to the kitchen to make coffee. From our kitchen window, you can just see the top of Sandia, its crest shimmering in the sunlight. Arianna begins to make mewling sounds. I run to her and lift her from her crib, surprised by the mass of her and unsure what to do. Her crying resonates off of the walls. Anita drifts out of the bedroom, her eyelids blue, and takes the baby. I pour her a cup of coffee. She tells me she wants to spend the weekend at the lake with her parents. They have a boat there, and we haven’t gone anywhere since Arianna was born. I’d rather spend the weekend relaxing at home. Sleeping in. Maybe playing a couple of video games. But Anita complains that she’s trapped in the house for too long, and I can’t blame her for wanting to escape for a while. We take the baby with us, wrapped from head to toe so the wind doesn’t make her sick. I didn’t know that wind made babies sick. Seems to me that my own mother had never worried much about that sort of thing. “You’re the medic,” she says. “We mostly only treat old people. You know, heart aneurysms, pneumonia. That sort of stuff.” We are driving north on 550, the desert everywhere around us, the occasional Hogan drifting alone near a dry wash. In the backseat, Arianna is trying to fit her entire foot into her mouth. 6 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
The shimmering asphalt stretches out in front of us. “I can’t believe anyone lives out here. I mean, what do they do?” Anita asks. “Ranch,” I say. “You think you’d get sick of seeing the same people all the time. You’d have to drive for hours to go out to dinner.” “I don’t think they go out to dinner.” My parents never go out to dinner. They are suspicious even of wine. “We should go out to dinner together more often,” she says. Maybe we should. Some nights I watch Arianna while Anita goes out with her friends. She comes home drunk, a little after ten, and leaves her red cowboy boots in the hall where I trip over them in the middle of the night. Anita has a law book open on her lap, and she’s turning the pages of it as if it were a novel. She has finished her spring correspondence courses but her summer classes start in a couple of weeks. She plans on starting law school in the fall. I’m not sure how she finds time to do all of this and be a mother, but she was ahead before Arianna was born, so I guess she knows how to get ahead again. I’ve been supportive of her, cleaning and cooking dinner, even though I’m not a good cook. Anita doesn’t seem to mind. She doesn’t eat much anymore, anyhow. My memory of the first night I slept with Anita only comes back to me in bright flashes. Anita in her tight black jeans and red cowboy boots. Music and lights pulsing around us while we danced. Lurching against each other as we walked down Central. The world shimmering. The stale taste of her mouth. Her hipbone jutting up from her flat belly as she lay on the bed. How she made me ache inside. How I slid into her. How the universe had swirled, then ebbed, around us. How our bodies had resonated together, trapped. “Did we have sex?” She had asked the next morning,
rubbing her lips with manicured fingers. “I think.” “Condom?” “Not that I remember.” “Shit. I need some water.” I brought her some water and Advil. She perused my books, which were stacked haphazardly next to the door. Optical Effects with Small Particles. Stochastic Resonance and Noise-Assisted Signal Transfer. Heinlein’s Stanger in a Strange Land. She wanted to know if I was a physicist. “No. I’m an ambulance EMT.” Because I’d always liked science and always been good at math, my parents decided I should become a doctor, but I never finished med school. Riding around in an ambulance combing the city for the sick and dying was bad enough. “I don’t even understand the titles,” Anita said. “They’re mostly about resonance phenomena,” I said, picking up Optical Effects with Small Particles. “It’s sort of an energy trap. Take lasers for instance. By using mirrors that reflect light at certain frequencies they trap and augment the light’s energy.” “That’s some crazy shit. Why are you an EMT? You could be the next Einstein.” “I just like reading about light and particle physics. To be a physicist, you have to do a PhD. That’s like, seven more years of school.” “You could probably do it in five if you were really focused.” “Whatever. I’m not that into it.” When she left that morning I thought that would be the end of it. But then I saw her again, a few days later, running in the foothills. As she ran past me into the juniper trees, I admired her long legs and the oscillations of her curvy hips. She turned and flashed me a smile, but kept running. I couldn’t resist the way she made me feel. I was doomed and blessed, all at once. We met for dinner at Los Cuates. Those red cowboy boots again. Her hair loose around her shoulders. Hot. I asked her where she’d learn to run like that. “My dad’s part Apache.” “You’re Apache?” I asked. “Not enough to claim tribal membership,” she mourned. She wanted to know if Sterling was my real name. It was. I told her my parents had planned on naming me Juan Carlos, after the king of Spain, but that my cousin was born a month before me and my aunt nicked the name. So they settled on Sterling. Picked it completely out of the blue. “I think my parents must have had a thing with silver at the time,” I said. Our relationship evolved. Dinner. Flowers. Sleeping together at my house. I met her friends. She met mine. Once in a while, we went running together. Anita almost always loped ahead, leaving me alone with the juniper trees and dust. Then she learned she was pregnant.
I didn’t think we had anything to decide. It seemed pretty straightforward to me. We were both too young. Anita had at least three and a half years of school left if she wanted to become a lawyer. I didn’t want to limit my options. But Anita wanted the kid. If I wasn’t going to be there, she said, fine. We named the baby Arianna Olivia Cardenas. Her parents are waiting for us at the marina, the boat already in the water. I’m not sure they like me. Her dad’s an attorney turned politician. Her mother’s a retired English teacher. My parents do whatever they can to get by. The first time I met Anita’s parents, I noticed their bookshelf was full of tomes by Dickens and Hemingway, but that they also had a copy of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I wanted to go over and flip through those pages. I wanted lose myself in the theories and equations. It was easy to imagine the conversation they’d had before I got there. They would have asked Anita if she’d thought the whole thing through. Anita would have promised she would only take a little time off school. One semester. Maybe two. Then she’d be back at it. She could still go to Georgetown. In fact, having a kid might help her stand out from the other prudish applicants. And her parents must have sunk silently into their expensive leather couch while they worried about their daughter’s complex future. The boat skips over the waves as we rush towards some secret spot they like to think of as their own. I’ve never been to this lake before. When we wanted to got swimming as kids we swam in the irrigation ditches or, if we were really lucky, the river. Arianna is fascinated by the wind and water. She has a pair of too big sunglasses on and a knit hat. It’s too warm for knit hats. I hold her on my lap while Anita and then her father water ski. They ask me if I’d like to try. They tell me it’s easy but I refuse anyhow. Easy to them isn’t the same as easy for everyone else. We find their beach and set up an elaborate camp with tarps, coolers and our little tent. The sun is fabulously hot, so I take Arianna for a swim, dangling her in the refreshingly cold water. She slaps the water with her tiny pink hands and giggles. But Anita’s worried about her, so we don’t stay in long. Anita’s mother pours us each a glass of some sweet alcoholic drink with a Spanish-sounding name. We sit in the shade and then the sun and let the sand get everywhere. Her parents make me nervous, but I try not to let it bother me. I play with the baby. “I got into Georgetown,” Anita suddenly announces. She’s lying on her belly, studying. Fat from her pregnancy clings to her hips, webbed with pink stretch marks. “Can you defer?” her father asks. “I’m not deferring. I’m going.” With a stick, I draw ripples in the sand. Arianna tries to touch them. I can feel the pressure of everyone’s eyes on my back. I know Anita probably made her decision a few weeks ago. The acceptance packets started ominously arriving more Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 7
than a month ago. Anita wants to know what I think of moving to Washington DC. “I thought you were going to go to UNM,” I say, realizing we should have talked about this months ago. The only fight Anita and I have had since Arianna was born concerned the pink Mexican rug my parents gifted us. I liked it on the couch, but she didn’t like it anywhere in the room. She said it was scratchy. And tacky. I told her we couldn’t throw a gift away. Apparently we could. Before there was the universe, there were oscillating quantum particles with galaxies trapped inside and then, because they couldn’t handle it any longer, they exploded. I didn’t tell my parents about the upcoming baby until Anita was already five months pregnant. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to know. I had tried, more than once, to break the news over the phone. But my mom always chirped on about my sister Clara, or the sheep, or the new Hilton that was going up on the reservation. I let her distract me because I knew they’d be disappointed. I was raised Catholic. Church every weekend. Midnight mass. Easter services. Ash on our foreheads before Lent. Every nook and cranny of my parent’s house was guarded by hand carved santitos. When I was a kid, and my dad was away working somewhere, mom used to pray to her wooden saints every morning. She migrated from room to room asking for favors. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in both. Eventually, I decided I had to drive up there and tell them in person. Mom made tamales. I opened an expensive bottle of wine and filled everyone’s glass. “What did you bring that along for?” My dad asked. The last time I’d brought wine home was when I’d decided to drop out of medical school, one semester in. “A toast to the grandparents,” I said, my wine glass jittering. Blank stares answered me. We could hear the sheep muttering to themselves outside. Trying not to drink my wine too quickly, I told them the baby was due in November. I could tell my mother was doing the math in her head. “What about becoming a doctor?” Dad asked. “Dad. We’ve already talked about this. I’m not going to be a doctor.” “You could still change your mind.” His pinprick black eyes bound me into my chair. “Well, not any time soon. Not with a baby coming,” Mom said. I know they believe in an old fashioned order of things, an order I’m not following. I think they worry that I’ll end up like them. After a couple of drinks and nearly an hour of unbearable silence, we take the boat back out into the lake. I sit in the front with Anita and Arianna and let the wind dry my eyes out. 8 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
“You never answered me,” Anita shouts. An EMT can get a job anywhere, but, unlike her, I’ve never considered living somewhere other than New Mexico. I tell her I’ll need to think about it. I tell her that maybe she should think a little more about it too. But she tells me she’s already made her decision. She’s going. “You could’ve at least told me when you found out. Maybe we could have discussed it, or something.” “You’re lucky, you know. You still have a life.” I tell her I don’t consider working all the time “a life,” but I don’t tell her about how much I looked forward to coming home every afternoon and being with Arianna. I don’t miss meeting my friends for a beer after work. “I pay our daughter’s rent,” I remind her. “My dad could pay our rent,” she says. “No way.” There’s a thunderstorm building above us, but the light refracting off of the water is bright enough to make me wish I’d brought along a pair of sunglasses. By the time we get back, it’s raining so hard that the tarp doesn’t offer much shelter. Anita and I hide in the tent with Arianna, who’d probably rather be playing in the mud puddles forming outside. I ask Anita to consider waiting for just another year, so that we can figure some stuff out. Anita doesn’t think a year would any difference. She reminds me that I’m in no position to be giving her advice. After all, I’m the one who dropped out. “I didn’t plan it this way,” I say. “You didn’t have any plans at all, anyhow.” Until Arianna came along, I never needed a plan. “You were the one that wanted to have the kid.” I say it to be cruel, but the words resonate sickly in my throat. I need to get out of there. Even though the raindrops are coming down hard and heavy, I tell Anita I’m going for a run. There’s a muddy trail the leads away from the beach into the open desert. Darkness floats in the stinging air, and the smell of wet earth is beautifully pungent. My legs pump. My lungs push against my ribs. Water runs down my neck, along the length of my spine. I notice a prickly pear in bloom, four months too late, smelling like ambrosia. Then the sun breaks through the clashing clouds, full of color. Adorning the desert. I grew up under that unfettered sun, amid the cacti and birds and coyotes. When I get back, Anita’s eyes are rimmed with red, but she doesn’t want to talk. I want to hold her close to me and tell her everything will be okay. We’ll figure it out. I want to tell her I love her. Sweat and rain drip down my cheeks. I tell her I’m not going anywhere. And neither is Arianna. Arianna grips my hand as we watch Anita’s jet bank towards Houston, reflecting the sunlight. Later, I’ll take her to the science museum. Arianna will grow up with the desert all around her. Anita will never look back. Nothing, it seems, stays trapped forever.
Sarah A. Chavez Sarah A. Chavez is a Mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley currently making her way through academics in the Midwest. She is a second year PhD student in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Sarah earned her BA in English from California State University, Fresno and her MA in Creative Writing from Ball State University in Indiana. She lives with her loving partner and two riotous cats, Scratch & Talulah. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Bent Pin Quarterly, Houston Literary Review and Spooky Boyfriend.
When the Heat Ends Do you remember the time when you and I went swimming in the middle of that lightning storm? Running to the pool, hoisting me over the fence so I could jimmy the lock and let you in. We swam in our clothes while it started raining. The thick drops like explosions in the chlorinated water. Those Central Valley summer storms just make it hotter, the air heavier than we thought breathable. And remember how you used to smoke and swim at the same time? Even though I made fun of you that was fucking impressive. I was envious of the large breasts you used as buoys, leaning back your head, long hair fanned out across the water, one large, soft arm lazily sliding across the clear surface, the other lifting the cigarette to smiling lips. And you know what I was thinking about the other day? That time I smoked my first cigarette sitting on the patio with you at Krakatoa. Talking through the steam of black coffee, you told me I just wasn’t that cool. Remember how I waited Before reaching over for the pack, popping out a cigarette like in the old black-and-white movies we watched on Sunday afternoons
and lit up? It makes me laugh even now, that wide-eyed look of shock on your pink, fleshy face. How proud you were of how natural it looked when I sucked in the smoke and blew it through my nostrils. Remember the day I left and how you didn’t move to stop me? The whir of the air conditioner losing against the dry heat that rose in waves off the cement outside, that crept through the cheap apartment windows like thieves. The literal heft of your body weighed on the cushions of that brown couch — gravity, too much. It was as if you thought if you didn’t look then I wouldn’t go. If there was no closure, no good-bye, no forgiveness, then I’d have to unpack the truck and lie next to you on the couch, our skin sticky, fused by this heat that I wouldn’t miss. You wouldn’t remember this, but in the truck I cried myself so sick I puked. I cried so hard the capillaries under my eyes burst like sun rays on my cheek bones. It hurt like the times we laughed stitches into our sides, that deliciously painful kind where our breath gets short and we couldn’t stop.
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Peter Branson Peter Branson has been published by journals in Britain, USA, Canada, Eire, Australia and New Zealand, including Acumen, Ambit, Envoi, The London Magazine, Iota, Frogmore Papers, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Nottingham, Pulsar, The Recusant, South, The New Writer, Crannog, Raintown Review, The Huston Poetry Review, Barnwood, The Able Muse and Other Poetry. His first collection was published in 2008, a second collection was published this year by Caparison Press. More recently a pamphlet has been issued by Silkworms Ink. A third collection has been accepted for publication by Salmon Press, Eire.
Swifts The Common Swift: Apus apus Not here this year, lost souls, homes worn away, handhold to fingertips, like spent pueblos. They don’t die back or hibernate, but cruise vast distances above the turning Earth. July evenings, they side-step, scissor-kick thin air, etch pen ‘n’ ink invisible tattoos. These devil birds, wet suit banshees, anchors on skeins of rising light, are soon shrill specks in your mind’s eye. Time lords, stealth craft hot wired to while away brief summer nights, they preen, breed on the wing, use what the wind blows in to feed, fix nests under house eaves. Broadcast, they silhouette the urban sky, shape-shift between two worlds, present and past.
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Laury A. Egan Laury A. Egan is a previous contributor to The Battered Suitcase. Her work has received nominations for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Web, and Best of the Net, and has appeared in numerous journals, including Short Story America, where her two stories were read in 55 countries, and anthologies by Lame Goat Press, Rebel Books (UK), and Sephyrus Press. Two full-length poetry collections were issued by FootHills Publishing: Snow, Shadows, a Stranger and Beneath the Lion’s Paw. Laury is also a fine arts photographer. The following titles are available on Amazon: No Fresh Cut Flowers, An Afterlife Anthology and Battered Suitcase, September 2008. She can be found at: www.lauryaegan.com.
hile sipping a murky espresso at a wine bar, Leah surveyed the crowd of men standing, smoking, and reading newspapers and felt unbearably American. Excusing herself, she edged past two arguing tradesmen to a spot by the open door where she could study the elegant Venetian women walking by on their way to work. Leah observed their clothes, jewelry, and hairstyles. Why didn’t the skirt and sexy blouse she’d purchased yesterday make her look more chic? Or disguise her nationality? But to her chagrin, just a minute ago, the waiter had returned her “buon giorno” with “good morning.” They always did. Leah watched as the sun rose higher, its rays illuminating the myriad detours of the calli and flooding over street stalls, shops, and pedestrians. Across the campo, vendors were hawking brightly colored scarves, blown-glass pens, feathered carnival masks, blue fans printed with Venetian scenes, and purple velvet jester caps festooned with gold balls. The tourists were buying this kitsch, but she wasn’t tempted. Leah wanted something else, though she didn’t know what. She finished her coffee, stepped outside, and plunged into the human swarm wending toward the Rialto Bridge. On Largo Mazzini, a street running perpendicular to the Grand Canal, she avoided a wooden cart by backing up against a building. As she did so, Leah noticed a mime across the street. He was standing on a box, one arm raised, one arm lowered. Every inch of him was molten gold, as if he had been dipped in a vat and placed in position to dry. From the cloak with the padded high collar surrounding his neck, to his face, hands, feet, hair, sandals, and tightly rolled scarf around his forehead, the mime glistened. Leah stared at his perfect mouth, which was tucked with amusement at the corners; at his ears, neat and swept back like his cheekbones; and at his large blue eyes fixed on some point in space. The mime was the most radiant being she’d ever seen. Leah
elbowed through the tourists until she stood before him, below the level of his vision. A gold top hat lay at his feet, upturned for donations. She rooted around in her wallet and placed a generous contribution inside. He swiveled slowly toward her, leaned down, and placed a gold hand over his heart, tapping his chest twice. For the briefest instant, his eyes met hers and sparkled with astonishing intensity. He froze for half a minute before returning to his position, arms extended. Leah was mesmerized. The golden body was carved sculpture, blessed with the serenity of inanimateness, yet standing near him, she felt waves of magnetism pulling her forward. If only she could touch the mime, could create a connection that would transfuse his joy into her. In some inexplicable way, Leah craved him. Intruding upon her reverie, an American family bustled toward the mime, loudly exclaiming and trying to engage him in conversation. The father wore a scarlet Dr. Seuss hat, the mother a black T-shirt painted with a gondola that stretched precipitously across her breasts. The daughter dripped chocolate gelati down her chin. Ashamed to be associated with these American tourists and embarrassed about her fascination with the mime, Leah turned and rejoined the flow of people, glancing back at him once to rekindle the dissipating energy. On the other side of the bridge, she ambled through the market and bought a peach to erase her hunger, although she suspected her hunger wouldn’t be appeased by food. She passed two men paring hearts from artichokes; green leaves filled the barrel that sat between them. She wandered into the Pescheria and admired the red mullet, silver bream, green crabs, and wriggling black eels in the tilted, glistening boxes of ice. Not for the first time, she wished she were staying in an apartment with a kitchen rather than in a hotel. It would be so pleasant to fill a string bag with purchases and go home to cook a delicious dinner, Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 11
but she was here for only four days, an add-on to last week’s architectural workshop in Florence that she had been invited to attend as a replacement for a senior colleague. On the next visit she would stay longer, Leah promised herself, when she had another week of vacation from her tedious drafting job in Sewickley, a position that had once seemed exotic compared to those offered in Altoona, her hometown. Now all she wanted was to shed her boring life like too-tight skin. Crossing the bridge back to the San Marco sestiere, Leah felt a flutter of anticipation, hoping the mime would still be there. She quickened her step, frustrated with the sluggish tide of humanity. Finally, she turned down the street and peered over the bouncing heads. Where was he? Gone. Disappointment washed over her. Then she wondered if mimes moved locations. A wild impulse to search for him possessed her. The piazza. She had seen other mimes there. In a rush, annoyed with the hordes of pokey women who stopped to peer in shop windows, she fought her way to the northern entrance to the square. Scanning the vast panoply of people and pigeons, with little flames of hope warming her, Leah looked in front of the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the outdoor cafés, and along the Riva degli Schiavoni. No mimes. The midday sun was oppressive. Leah, feeling hot and adolescently foolish, returned to her hotel near Campo San Angelo and lay down in the shuttered room. Later that afternoon, she asked the concierge to order a ticket for the evening performance by I Musici Veneziana, a group of musicians who played works by Vivaldi at the Scuolo Grande de San Teodoro. She dressed in a white skirt and sleeveless blouse, brushed her hair with care, added bright red lipstick — a new shade she’d never dared wear before — and set out for a restaurant. After a seafood pizza and a half carafe of wine, Leah walked toward the hall, drawn not only to her destination, but also to the street past it. As she turned the corner, in the gathering shadows, she saw the gold mime on his box, bowing to a couple standing in front of his hat. Suddenly, she felt jealous, proprietary. Without hesitation, she positioned herself where he could see her. As he straightened up, his glance met hers. Had he smiled or was it a trick of the fading light? She stood as still as he did, sensing a transference between them: his blue eyes to her blue eyes. When the couple continued on, she came closer to the mime, unsure what to say. They stood in silence, his gaze fixed somewhere above her head. “My name is Leah,” she whispered, as if it were a sacrilege to speak with a mime. He turned slightly and cupped his right hand to his ear. “Do you speak English?” She asked. He gave a tiny nod that she interpreted as encouragement. “I have a concert in a few minutes. Do you want to have a glass of wine with me 12 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
afterward?” The mime didn’t move. Leah worried that she had been too forward — she had never asked a man on a date before. Then, in a mechanical motion, he tapped his wrist with his forefinger and held up five fingers twice. “Ten o’clock tonight?” She guessed. Another small tilt of his head. “Where shall I meet you? Here?” He jerked his chin a fraction. With his finger, he traced a spiral. Mystified, Leah stepped back, hoping to meet his eyes, but they were focused above her. “Il Bovolo?” She asked, inspiration striking. The circular staircase nicknamed “the snail” because of its construction. He nodded. “Okay, great! I’ll see you then.” The performance in the Scuolo resembled an eighteenthcentury salon concert since the players wore satin gowns, waistcoats, and powdered wigs from that period. Whether it was the cloying heat, the remnants of the wine, or the sweet sound of the violins, Leah felt a romantic dreaminess overtake her. As the bows passed over strings, winging music through the softly lit room, she wondered how the mime would look without gold paint. Would he be ordinary? Was he an actor or a student trying to pay for school? How old was he? She thought he was about her age: 28. Did he live in Venice? Dozens of questions flicked through her mind. After an encore, the octet accepted applause, and the audience filtered out into the warm evening. As Leah walked down the exterior steps, the nearly full moon was visible high in the sky. Her watch said 9:45. The dreaminess disappeared. She was excited. Cinderella meeting her prince. That’s how she felt, although she realized the mime was probably looking for a free glass of wine and some quick sex. She didn’t know what she wanted, if she desired or feared a seduction. She had never dated much, but since starting her new job, with its long hours, the opportunities to meet anyone had dwindled. And if she were honest, in addition to being shy, Leah also felt some ambivalence about men. Would tonight clarify her confusion? Leah headed toward Campo Manin. On the fondamenta, two gondoliers were enticing a group of Japanese tourists to see Casanova’s house. Smiling, thinking of her own Casanova, she turned left into the narrow Ramo della Salizzada that led to the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. Leah paused, listening for footsteps, but heard nothing except a scrappy cat in the distance. The passageway was dark, a little frightening, like many of the smallest streets after the sun went down. She edged into a courtyard, part of which was ensconced within a high wrought-iron fence. Inside the enclosure was a small mat of grass and several wellheads. Leah stared up at Il Bovolo, at its six levels of spiraling stairs attached to five loggias. She had visited it during the daytime, studying its mixed-pedigree architecture, but tonight the place was different, eerie in the silence. A chill passed over her. She wished she had worn a sweater.
Fifteen minutes passed. She was beginning to feel ridiculous. Perhaps the mime was in the shower scrubbing off gold paint and laughing at her. Leah decided to leave, but as she stepped into the ramo, someone was coming toward her. She backed up and saw him, all in gold, cloaked, carrying a wicker picnic case. “Buona sera,” she said, smiling. The mime didn’t reply, but his eyes glittered. He passed her and unlatched the tall gates to the palazzo. Leah wondered why they weren’t locked, but then he beckoned her to enter. He walked to the staircase, bowed slowly, and extended his arm in a grand sweep upward. Leah hesitated, thinking of the exhausting climb to the top. She was also anxious about this bizarre rendezvous, but with the lightest touch on her back, the mime encouraged her forward. Leah began the curving ascent, noticing the shadows of the rounded arches cast across her path. At the third level, holding onto the railing, she stopped to catch her breath. His breathing wasn’t labored like hers, she noted with surprise, as she examined his composed expression. Dipping his head, the mime urged her to continue. The only sound was the clack of her sandals. His were silent, as if he were floating up the stairs. At the fourth level, the view improved. The red-tiled roofs and terracotta chimneys, grayed by moonlight, angled in all directions. Behind her, the mime paused, still showing no signs of fatigue. He must have powerful legs from holding poses on the box, Leah thought. She imagined touching his tight calves and firm thighs and then admonished herself for her sexual fantasy. When she mounted the steps to the final level, the belvedere, the city stretched before her. To the right, the domes and campanile of St. Mark’s were lit by spotlights. As Leah leaned through the opening of one of the arcades, a mild attack of vertigo struck. Quickly, she turned away from the view and focused on the mime, who was setting the case on the floor and opening it. Inside were three flute glasses, a bottle of prosecco, red grapes, and a square gold cloth. He placed everything on the cloth except the bottle, whose cork he released with a hiss. He then poured wine into two glasses and gave Leah hers. After they clicked rims, Leah drank the cool, sparkling prosecco, noting its florid bouquet. She watched as the wine passed his lips, his mouth and cheeks hardly moving, almost as if he weren’t drinking at all, yet the level of his glass had fallen to half. In silence, he removed a pearl-handled knife from his cloak and cut a twig from the main stem of grapes, laying a small cluster of fruit in her palm. He placed the knife on the gold cloth. Its blade gleamed in the moonlight. “Are you from Venice?” She asked in a low voice. A twinkle lit his eyes, but he didn’t respond. Leah wanted to ask him many things, but the mime seemed content with their non-verbal communication. She placed a plump red grape in her mouth, enjoying the pop as the skin burst and savoring the sweet flesh rolling between her teeth. After he ate a grape, he stood and tossed the pits over the
balcony. Amused, she set her glass down and did the same. A second later, the mime moved behind her. His chest touched her back, and his arms encircled her in gold. The moment was dizzying, as he pressed her against the railing. It would be effortless for him to lift her up and throw her into space. A jab of fear pricked the romantic mood. What was she doing here with this silent man? Was she in danger? Within his arms, she turned to face him. As she did, from far below, Leah heard a metallic clang that sounded like the gate closing. She listened intently, observing his steadfast eyes as they observed hers. Who was there? No one would visit Il Bovolo this late at night when the gates should be locked, although how he had arranged for them to be open was a mystery. The mime tightened his embrace. She felt claustrophobic and yet unable to move, bound by his arms and unwavering gaze. Soft footsteps. Did he know who was ascending the winding staircase? He had brought three wine glasses. Perhaps he did. Leah forced herself to breathe, matching his inhalations until she became calmer. Although she was still afraid, she felt herself succumbing to his beauty, like she had imbibed an aphrodisiac that dispelled her fears and replaced them with passion. She stared at his pale eyes and was amazed at how they were illuminated with moonlight, how his gold skin glowed. Then, gently, he touched his lips to hers in a kiss, a kiss that was delicate, otherworldly, exhilarating. Leah shivered with a mix of excitement and apprehension. She wanted to be alone with the mime, to acquiesce to his tender seduction, but she heard someone on the level below. A minute passed, then a slender figure appeared, wearing a floor-length white toga belted with a silken rope and a separate headpiece held in place with another cord. The face was a mask of chalky white with the oval eyes heavily outlined in black kohl. A woman. She was as tall as the gold mime and carried a black wooden box, the one he had been standing on earlier in the evening. The gold mime let his arms fall away from Leah. Without any greeting, he poured prosecco into the third glass and handed it to the woman, then topped off Leah’s and his own. The two mimes toasted each other and Leah. Despite her uneasiness, she accepted the glass and slowly drank, delighting in the wine’s effervescence and the sensual spark that had ignited between the three of them. When the bottle was empty, the man placed it in the wicker case and stepped toward Leah. Turning her to face the woman, he held Leah’s arms firmly. She felt anxious again, impelled to speak. “Who are you?” She asked, but neither mime answered. The woman moved closer, her eyes observing Leah with an eerie intensity. A second later, she leaned down and kissed Leah, much like the man had done: the lightest press of flesh, yet the sensation was electrifying. The woman watched the effect and again brought her lips to Leah’s, her tongue delicately Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 13
exploring Leah’s mouth, a white hand caressing her throat, a thumb pressing the long tendons of her neck. “Oh,” Leah murmured, desire escaping in the exhalation of sound. She had never wanted to touch a woman before, or had she sublimated this urge? Suddenly, the need was overwhelming, but the man’s strong hands held her tight, trapping her against him. A third kiss came, more provocative and erotic. Leah yearned for the woman to make love to her. The white mime’s face shone in the light of the moon, a smile twitching at her composure. The woman then looked at the man, who nodded. She began to unwrap the cord from around her waist. Before Leah realized what was happening, the gold mime pressed Leah’s hands together as the woman bound Leah’s wrists with the silken rope. They escorted her to one of the arcades, and the man tied the cord’s end to the iron-grille door. Though she knew she should resist, Leah didn’t wish to break the enchantment. Standing captive, passively, felt strangely wonderful, as if the weight of making constant decisions, the oppression of her daily life had been miraculously lifted. It was also very exciting. She longed for the woman to kiss her again. When she did, the kiss was sublime. Leah felt as if she were painlessly exploding from a hard chrysalis, soaring beyond the pull of gravity. She breathed deeply and gloried in this new incarnation of herself. As the white mime glided away, the man moved closer and placed his golden mouth on Leah’s, saturating her with his radiance. Then he stepped to her side, brushed Leah’s hair with his hand, and caressed her cheek with his finger. After a moment, he turned to the woman and gestured toward the black box she’d carried up the stairs. The white mime opened it and placed three jars, several small sponges, and a brush beside Leah. With infinite care, they began painting her bare arms with metallic silver makeup, rubbing it into her skin with practiced strokes. They applied the color to her face, hair, hands, legs, and after removing her shoes, to her feet. Then the gold mime sponged the dye onto her leather sandals while the woman brushed her white blouse and skirt until it sparkled. When she touched her, Leah felt a quickening of sexual desire. Sensing this, the woman smiled but said nothing. “What are you doing?” Leah asked, though she didn’t expect an answer and none came.
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The two mimes finished their handiwork and returned everything to the case and box. Then they stood in front of Leah, slowly cocking their heads in unison before leaning over and, one by one, kissing her on the lips. The gold mime smiled, his eyes shining with mischief. “Addio,” he whispered, stretching out the word until it evaporated in the still night. He grasped the woman’s hand, and after a backward glance, they silently disappeared down the staircase. Leah stood tied to the iron-grille door, stunned. When the gate clicked below, she realized the mimes had really abandoned her, that her fantasy of the three of them trooping about the city, performing, and then collapsing in bed, a mass of white, gold, and silver bodies, wouldn’t happen. She felt heavy with disappointment, ashamed that she’d let herself be painted and kissed and petted, but as she considered what had occurred, her mood began to change. Hurriedly, she picked at the knots in the cord and, finally free, ran down the staircase. She searched for them near the Rialto Bridge, then doublebacked to the Basino Orseolo, with its fleet of gondolas bobbing like black horses. Even though it was late, many people were about, but the mimes weren’t among them. Perhaps they had returned to St. Mark’s Square for a last act? Ignoring the looks she was receiving, she hurried into the piazza, which was awash with bright lights, pigeons, and people. As she did so, the band near Florian’s started to play the Carousel waltz. Several men and women began to dance together. Leah stopped abruptly and stared at her silver arms, legs, and clothes. Although she had always been too inhibited to dance in public, she felt invisible in her new silver skin. She closed her eyes and imagined the mimes kissing her. Exhilaration crackled through her body. As the band played more brightly, she lifted her chin and slowly opened her eyes. Swaying to the music, Leah stepped into the square and accepted the hand of one of the dancers. After a few moments, the crowd parted for her and began to clap. She separated from the group and began whirling in ever-widening circles across the piazza, her feet light, her heart filling with joy. She was no longer an American tourist, a woman who held a dreary job in Sewickley. She was transformed into a new incandescent self, glistening with moonlight.
Garth Pavell Garth Pavell writes in Brooklyn, New York. He recently published in Right Hand Pointing, Orion headless, Leveler and Xenith. http://www.myspace.com/garthpavell.
When I was Young When I was young, potent and dumb The night was just as excited as I was Our tie-dyes reeked of canned flowers At the sobered feet of the watery-eyed moon The sky was draped in a cocoon colored coat Its inner black silk lining gleaming a symphony Of stars newly republished electromagnetic fields Unabridged, brimming with experience, anointed to Mesmerize the anarchy in my peers’ perceived possessions Until playing with clay became part of our core curriculum Scribe-eyed, I followed night’s rambling trancelike rhetoric Colliding with the estranged and infinite interconnectedness Sometimes eating breakfast in the dark, feeling the unfelt Sun prepare for the eternal dragnet of a group mind’s tow
Love Sounds Her peppered tongue tricks the salt of skin to bake its fat-lipped finger. Sploonk glubs up seer ja foozes ooh yah spurk and bangle. Popped liquid stars rain flames into the sea slapping into the screaming fuzz. As the night cracks twisted waves roll back the sound of love crashes. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 15
When My Hand Heats The Hip When my hand heats the hip That sways your dress Down to the floor Your embassy becomes the night Near my salamander stocked water Lipstick candles our Picasso shape While you give me a moment’s asylum
My Brain is on the Ledge Threatening to jump the morning rush hour’s distractible devotion. Talked off the terrace, I succumb to read into the moon’s daydream like A serial killer hunting for the perfect happy ending — yet in the distance a surplus of surprise Edits impromptu lovemaking into stilted conversation! Unbeknownst, the earth is on autopilot, hoola hooping . . . Its psychotic inner space fidgeting from the imbalance of an increasingly crowded and whitewashed clothesline. Like stylish war’s inability to outmaneuver the forecast, my heart is back in the shop. I’m in the waiting room watching the world inside a TV mounted to a concrete wall that probably had Unrealistic aspirations just like Tony Hayward. Suddenly my name is called. My mind sips our dynasty’s small print as BP’s oil leaks into drowning waves, salting our bird’s eye into submission.
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David Appelbaum David Appelbaum works as the editor for Codhill Press. He is the former editor of Parabola Magazine, whose poetry has recently appeared in Harpur Palate, APR, 2Rivers, decomP, and Rhino.
Advice to a Young Poet
Don’t start with a no crime is counter-diction
set up a heroic cry good unknowing and get a print over
be the vow that breaks the camel back of wisdom writ on Spam tins
make no evil with this charm I give you — don’t end with a yes
Minerva at Dusk Flies
Carl is the last owl to glow in the night he is almost nothing a godward here ho
stars from their sockets fall under his watch at dusk fall into sky forms the horror of dawning down
he is child of the dark tree stranded on the stand cross feather at the base where souls fell dead
he too is on this tree hinged or nailed a cross and cries about nothing waist of a limb on limb
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 17
W.D. Hall W. David Hall teaches English at an early college high school in Ohio. During the summertime, he is also director and an instructor for the Kenyon Young Writers Program, sponsored by The Kenyon Review. His short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, and The Best African American Fiction 2010 anthology. He is currently working on a novel.
Beefsteak Tomatoes at a Barbeque
ariana arrived at the Free Rondell Stevens Rally at dawn, her TV mother dress accented with pearls and a waist apron, bearing a tray of mini breakfast burritos. She circulated through the crowd, nearly a hundred deep, and pressed against the prison fence, pausing at the men, the blond yuppies, the bespectacled redhead fathers of the victims, the pimply teen boys with nothing better to do but follow the scent of blood like the pack of bloodhounds that cornered Rondell Stevens in an abandoned farmhouse in Eastern West Virginia, just minutes before he was about to slit the throat of his 27th victim. She sauntered over to the men, tray held just below breast line for maximum enticement, the tip of her tongue playing with her lips. The men would pause in mid “Free Ron-dell, Free Ron-dell” sentence, catch a glimpse of Mariana, who would always glimpse back, laugh nervously at her “Care for a taste?” tease, and then gobble up a burrito. One guy, early twenties, tall, lean, out-of-state liberal hippie college-trained lawyer written all over his new Abercrombie and Fitch jeans and “Rondell Stevens Is The Real Victim” T-shirt, reached for Mariana’s breasts, winked, then reached for a burrito. Before his fingers landed on a curled tortilla shell, however, the woman nearest him, small with squirrel brown hair pulled sharply back in a ponytail, her clothing matching his, elbowed him. With a theatrical sigh, he withdrew, returning to the crowd. Squirrel Girl shot Mariana a “Best step back, bitch” look; Mariana shot it back, then followed Hippie College. Hippie College stopped every so often, fist pumping tight spaces of air to reignite “Free Ron-dell, Free Ron-dell,” hands patting the shoulders of those crying, index fingers and thumbs shooting the fingers at other soldiers in his Free Rondell army. But always, he kept a lustful eye on Mariana. Soon, it became a game; he’d point and shoot at a fellow protester and she’d rush over to give the man a burrito. With that level of arrogance, Mariana thought, he had to be the one in charge. What an idiot. 18 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
Hippie College paused his playfulness as he stood in front of an older black woman, riotously out of place in a dark blue pants suit and wilting African violet church hat, creaky, tired wrinkles cascading down her face, eyes searching the crowd as though she lost something precious and it landed among the people. “Welcome,” he said, thrusting a flier at the old woman, his voice filled with too much concern. Her hat sliced his gaze as she looked over the half slip of paper. Statistics. Snippets of the Constitution. Italicized bites from the West Virginia Penal Code. Boldfaced lies about defining moments in the life of Rondell Stevens. Her stomach soured. She should have just stayed in the car. That would have been enough; no need to be accosted by this bunch of crazies.Mariana strolled over to the pair. She glanced at the old woman, but beamed at Hippilose College. “Now maybe you can have that burrito . . .” Hippie College beamed back, caught himself. “In a minute. I was just about to explain to this nice woman —” “Faith,” the old woman said. “— Ms. Faith here about the atrocities of the West Virginia prison system. The more informed we all are, the better chance we have of bringing justice to men like Rondell Stevens.” Mariana nodded as though his thick, New England accent filled his every word with deep meaning. “As a woman of color, too, I’m sure you understand the highest implications of race when it comes to the West Virginia prison system. We say that these men are the criminals, when, in fact, all of our black brothers and Caucasian brothers are the real victims —” Faith had wanted to slap the man silly. ‘All our black brothers’? Did he really just say that? “What do you know about it?” Hippie College smiled warmly, welcoming the chance to impress two women at the same time. “I’ve studied cases like
this for nearly 15 years. If you go back far enough, historically speaking, you see that —” “No —” Faith’s voice was clear now and getting louder. “I mean, what do you know about being black?” Her fingers curled into fists. “Talkin’ to me about going back historically speaking. You just a baby. You got that funny accent and your Applecrummie and Fish clothes on, looking like you ain’t worked a day in your life except to tell people what to do, and you act like you know what black people go through because you saw some black people march on that GlueTube or whatever it’s called. But you don’t know a damn thing, not one damn thing, about it, and this — always — happens —” She took a breath, inhaling his shock. “I didn’t get up this morning, arguing with my husband, just to have some scrawny little white boy tell me what it’s like to be a black woman. I came here to see Rondell and that’s exactly what I plan to do.” But she didn’t move; neither did Hippie College. Mariana interjected herself into the standoff, standing beside Faith. Hippie College looked crestfallen at Faith’s tirade and Mariana’s possible betrayal. Mariana nudged a smile from him by nudging him with a corner of the tray. He grabbed a burrito and took a big bite. The other half disappeared by bite number two. He winked; his spirits had risen to arrogance level once more. Faith started to step away from the action. Mariana slipped a hand around her arm. “Wait,” she said. A few minutes after Hippie College ate the burrito, he staggered, slurred a call for help, and collapsed. Faith, startled, looked at the heap that had been a roadblock, then at Mariana, who grinned with pride. “My grammama’s recipe. Nobody’s dead. They’re just — quiet for a while.” She looked around at other men staggering, falling. The baritone chanting was replaced by an alto “Dwayne, what’s wrong?” and “oh, my God,” and cries for help. A few of the female cops hovered powerlessly over a few of the men, fingers twitching to radio for backup. The squad leader, a large brunette with thick glasses, motioned that she, and only she, would issue the call. “The sergeant lives in my building. Can only buy us about ten minutes at the most. Come on. Let’s see if we can get to Rondell. I’ve got a special one for him.” The pair weaved through the crowd of chaos, men laying, deflated, on the ground, women next to them shrieking, crying, attempting CPR. Faith stepped over a man, sound asleep but with foamy drool oozing out of his mouth, and wondered about the insanity that followed a man like Rondell Stevens. Mariana walked straight to the security fence, chin and tray held high, stepping on men as she went, and she regretted not making the recipe strong enough for what she really wanted to do. By the time they reached the fence, both women wanted to leave this all behind but couldn’t. Two chain link fences, each 15 feet high and tightly entangled within the other, allowed only inch wide glimpses
at any activity across the prison yard. In an instant, a glimpse revealed six and a half feet of orange jumpsuit, straining to contain bulging muscle and rage, scars and tattoos replacing hair, flanked by four corrections officers armed and armored as if expecting a riot. Orange Jumpsuit turned to look out at the crowd gathered at the fence. Mariana nearly vomited, her willpower evaporating like ice water in Hell. Faith shook, cried, tried to hold his gaze just long enough to understand Rondell Stevens. But a corrections officer jabbed Orange Jumpsuit with a rifle butt, moving the moment along. Faith reached for Mariana then withdrew. Suddenly, she was exhausted. Sirens wailed behind them as ambulances hurried to the scene. Time was up. The two women instinctively huddled close, hoping not to be seen. Mariana held the tray in one hand, fiddled with the buttons of her blouse with the other. “I could get a guard over here, probably get us inside —” “No.” Faith glanced around, began walking Mariana away from the chaos. “You just cover yourself up. It’s all right.” But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t going to be. Mariana stopped. Her blouse was half undone, but she was too embarrassed to do anything about it. “My therapist says I need to talk to somebody, get a support group going, or make new friends or something.” “Oh, no.” Faith saw where this was clearly going. They’d meet for coffee or dinner somewhere one time and the next thing she knew, she’d have a stray puppy on her hands. She had enough trouble just looking after herself and her husband. The tray clattered to the ground. Exasperated, Mariana picked it up. “I don’t mean anything big. Just go for coffee, you know? Walk around the park. That kind of thing. Just to get the therapist off my back.” This hardened Hispanic woman had just become a child before Faith, a child wanting a safe place to hide. She had lost one child to demons; maybe this was God’s way of helping her save another. “My doctor’s always complaining I don’t get out enough. Don’t suppose a cup of coffee every now and then would hurt anything.” On the day Rondell Stevens was buried, Faith stayed in bed, crying herself into immobility. Obligated to attend the service, a graveside affair on the site of the family plot, her husband came back to report back that the weather had been good for a day like today. He then went back to his regular routine. On the day Rondell Stevens was buried, Mariana served a spicy pasta dish to the appellate judge on the Stevens case who had been trying to get her into bed for weeks. Before he had finished his third bite, he rushed to his chambers to call an emergency press conference to announce he was stepping down after confessing to molesting his six-year-old son. He had never touched the boy, inappropriately or otherwise, his entire life. Angry and unsatisfied that the judge wasn’t going Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 19
to kill himself, Mariana called her only real friend. Angry and unsatisfied that this day should have moved her to action but didn’t, Faith answered, relieved that her only friend would call her. They had only talked a few times throughout the past ten years after meeting at the protest rally, met a few times for coffee, walked a handful of laps around Greatview Park, caught up on life, talked about the news, shared revenge fantasies. They even planned a big picnic — complete with fried chicken, potato salad, and sangria — all to be spread out on a gingham tablecloth covering Rondell Steven’s freshly dug grave. The day had come, though, and neither woman felt much like eating or celebrating. So they decided to do something else. They decided to have a barbeque. The next morning, Faith stood at the kitchen sink, looking through waves in the old glass pane at the gray outside. Her coffee, resting across from her husband, who was fiddling with the newspaper, was growing tepid. It may have been the best cup of coffee she’d had in ten years, maybe longer, but it was all ruined now by him and that damn newspaper. She tapped her fingers on the sink’s edge, followed a blue-gray cloud as it thinned through the sky. Finally, her husband wiped his mouth, though he hadn’t eaten a bite, and checked his watch, though he had no appointments, then he left the house for the day, though he had nowhere to go. He had taken the bulk of the paper, but left behind a single article, every side measured and trimmed to precision producing a halo of white space, his architectural training always present. She waited until the scent of his aftershave had dissipated before she moved. Why did he have to have that paper? Why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone? She’d been doing it in the years before and after Rondell and she was almost able to forgive herself. She and Mariana would just walk a few extra blocks around Greatview Park, on sidewalks where corner paper vending machines were either smashed beyond repair or just non-existent. She would just hold her head high, as if on a perch, when they walked into the Barnes and Noble, breezing past the racks of Herald-Dispatches and News and Sentinels, on their way to their occasional coffee, cream and two sugars, and gossip over Good Housekeeping. At church, the right Reverend Jefferson Jackson, famous for aligning parallels of local headlines with the Book of Revelation, nearly chapter and verse, found a whole host of other sermons condemning gossip, and backstabbing, warning that Satan could overpower even the best of us at any time so we had to be vigilant. Even with their extensive access to just about every cable channel known to man, there was always an episode of M*A*S*H or Diagnosis: Murder to watch, instead of the speculation and half-truth that passed for local broadcast journalism these days. So why did he have to bring that damn newspaper in here, today of all days? She feigned wiping the table as she looked at the article. ‘Burial of Serial Rapist-Murderer a Quiet Matter,’ a short piece this time, accompanied by a grainy mug shot that could have 20 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
been one of a million young black men. Anger slammed her fist on the page. How dare he tell me I have to take care of this once and for all. It was one thing for Mariana to talk about blame, but it was quite another for her husband to thrust this all on her. Rondell had been his mistake, too. Mistake. Faith had grown tired of recoiling at that thought. It was supposed to be a horrible way to look at your child, that precious bundle of blessing from God like the billboards celebrating families with retarded children would have you believe. No matter the quality, each and every collection of blood and bone, mind and muscle, wrapped in skin no matter how thick or thin, red and yellow, black or white, they all were precious in His sight. But Rondell was the exception. Faith wanted things to be different, by God; hadn’t she prayed for a good, wholesome family? She had miscarried their first child. Being so young and small and damaged, surely conceiving Rondell, carrying him for seven months, surely that had to be a blessing. And it was until he was ten, then the strays in the neighborhood ended up as mutilated experiments in their basement. She performed a lot of late night burials that year and learned her mother’s art of transmuting the truth. Boys with be boys. He just working out some frustrations. God works in mysterious ways. At twelve, the mutilated experiment was a white girl. Faith hoped that burial would have changed her, would have moved her to do what had to be done. She thought she would be prepared, finally, to bury her own son. They were there, in the basement, and she had her husband’s hunting knife at the ready. He saw the knife and didn’t cry. What kind of child sees a knife and doesn’t cry? “Can she come back and play?” was all he said. Heartbreak moved the knife toward him, toward his stomach, just a clean slice and the family would be out of their misery. He stood steadfast, but she flinched and the knife slid lower. Faith abandoned the morning cleaning and walked across the kitchen to the basement door. She opened it cautiously, then eased down the rickety wooden stairs to the basement, clicking the bare bulb on, scattering mosaics of shadow and light across the room. She walked through the hardware clutter and could imagine what Rondell liked about this space — its isolation, its nearly endless supply of tools, its quiet — a mind could so easily wander to fascinating dark places — she inhaled; she exhaled. She was here to get the tools, the proper tools this time: the right crowbar, the perfect saw, the best mallet, and the tomato stakes. She was all set for that barbeque. That morning, the gardeners at the Greatview Area Community Garden were buzzing with elation at the crowd. Another rapist-murderer had been buried, the gardeners said. This part of the world is a bit safer, they said. Number 27 had gotten away with her life and that good fortune is something we all share in, they said. That is what brings the people out today. Mariana stood near the tomatoes, rolling her eyes. Number
27 is what they are calling me now. Years ago, after the protest and the sentencing, it was whore, slut, or, simply, The One That Got Away. Once a villain, now a savior. Faith would have a field day with these hippies. That is, if Mariana ever got to tell Faith. She had been waiting for 15 minutes to get to the tomatoes and hadn’t moved three feet forward during that time. The gossip about this Number 27 having beaten her attacker must have been really juicy, but she didn’t have time to be flattered. She pushed her way to the check out counter, threw apologies at the people in line and a ten dollar bill at the proprietor at the front, and marched to the tomatoes. Most were red and plump, organic basketballs waiting to be picked, but Mariana poked, prodded, and massaged each offering until she tore The One free from the vine. She squeezed her thick thumbs into the center, juice and tomato pulp erupting from the rip in the tomato’s flesh. She held it to her nose, breathed in, drifted on the candysweet, acidic smell back to her grandmother’s recipes. “I want a recipe for English class so I don’t have to go back to school at all, ever,” her seven-year-old self would say. Her grammama would laugh, stoop shouldered and skeleton frail, agitating a pot of bubbling red brew with a wooden spoon, into which the elder woman sprinkled parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. “I don’t make recipes for what you can do on your own, Mariana baby. I make recipes just for things out of your control, like chocolate chip cookies that force a boy to fall in love with you or banana bread that heals a broken heart, things bigger than you and your English lessons, things only God knows about.” Disappointed, she breathed in again and this time, she was older, teen-aged, filling out in womanhood, listening less to her grammama and more to her vanity. The village women whispered reverence for Cosmopolitan and Glamour, Allure and Maxim and Vogue. They whispered their wonder at “How to have Humidity-Proof Hair like Sarah Jessica Parker”, “15 Minutes A Day to a Tighter Ass”, “Eight Sexy Upgrades for Frayed Jeans, Weathered Shirts, Chewed-up Cutoffs, and Chesty Little Vests.” And underneath the salon gossip, they whispered ancestral secrets in Spanish so ancient, it blistered your tongue and burned your soul just to roll the r’s the correct way. “You have God’s gifts,” they would say, stroking her long hair, squeezing her too large breasts, patting her ample bottom. “God’s secret weapons. When you attack, even the Americans cannot win.” And that was her future: to be the beauty that would tame, not just the village or the countryside, but the entire world. One day, Mr. Ortiz, her grammama’s husband, known for getting girls quick passage to America with very few questions, came calling for Mariana, hat in hand, thinning hair slicked sideways. ‘The Fraternity Brothers are staying at The Orchid, the best suite. This is your chance to go to Texas, California, wherever. Surely, you must clean for them, but we all must pay something. Besides, you will like them. Catholics, I believe. Big family. Many, many brothers.” Mariana had never been
inside a hotel, let alone The Orchid, and was intimidated by its sheer size. It was a village — no, it was a stack of villages — in and of itself, villages populated by a small army of sunburnt bellies gorged on colonialism, hangovers, and overindulgence. Mr. Ortiz said strip; Mariana obeyed. Money changed hands, but none of it Mariana’s. Instead, she found herself scrubbing a toilet showered with puke, scraping sand and suntan lotion out of the shower drain. The brothers passed Coronas and video cameras around, shouting, hooting, hollering. One brother pantomimed stroking himself to climax, then pulled down his boxers and did the real thing across Mariana’s back. When he was done, the other brothers joined in. They even filmed her shivering and crying in the shower, pulling on her weathered shirt, chewed-up cutoffs, chesty little vest, scrambling for the fives and tens they threw at her feet. But Mr. Ortiz didn’t lie; one of the men, who fed her a constant diet of alcohol, violence, and speed, adopted her as his personal travelling companion, only to grow tired of her in the backlot of a Walmart in Beckley, West Virginia. She was tired, hungry, and high, drug withdrawal and cold mountain air making her shiver uncontrollably. Frostbitten thumb poking the icy air, she hitchhiked up the turnpike until Rondell Stevens pulled over. He smelled of shit and stale blood and ranted about getting fired from the same Walmart she had just walked away from just because he liked to sneak a peek at some Latina hoochie when he was on break, you know what I’m saying, right, and hey, you look just like one of them bitches on Mexicanwhores. com yeah that is you, thought that was you, See, I ain’t picked up your freezing ass just cause I’m I nice guy cause I ain’t, believe you me. Some of the shit I been through make you wanna die. You ever have your moms pull a knife on you, trying to cut things offa you? Anyways, you gotta show me a little sumpen-sumpen when we get to my place, you hear? I show you whatever you want, baby, she said. Just keep me warm. She faded out. When she faded back in, he was dragging her into a farmhouse. Mariana sniffed at the tomato again, but the memory stayed static this time. Rondell was on her before the door closed, knocking two teeth loose with a single punch and shredding what was left of her clothes. His penis was unnaturally thick, like it was wrapped in scar tissue, and his penetrations were so brutal, she prayed he would just kill her when he was done. Then he finished, he held a blade at her throat and she smiled. For once, her prayers would be answered — then the door collapsed as police dogs swarmed the farmhouse. The heroes had saved the day and started her nightmare. She inhaled again and she was back with her grammama. “Please, I need a recipe that will get rid of him once and for all. Like you did with Mr. Ortiz. Will you show me?” “Mr. Ortiz?” Her grammama laughed. “I only subdued him, managed him. Never managed to ‘get rid of him,’ as you say. He got rid of me first.” Her grammama sighed, adding salt, garlic, pepper, frog eyes, bat wings, grasshopper legs to the Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 21
brew. Mariana took careful notes, even though she wondered why she was wasting her time. Maybe this barbeque wasn’t such a good idea after all. Faith arrived first, wrapped in her trademark dark blue pants suit topped with a wilting African violet church hat. She anchored a lantern to a tombstone nearest the freshly packed mound of dirt and hoped her long-dead Uncle Franklin didn’t mind. She lowered a gingham tablecloth to the ground and the items rolled inside clattered together, cutting through the still night. She leaned two shovels against the tombstone with the lantern, then waited. Even after two trips to the car for all this stuff, she still felt ridiculous. Maybe it was too soon to meet Mariana for that barbeque they had talked about for ten years now. No. She promised she would be here. After all, she had to see what humanity, if any, was left in Rondell Stevens. Besides, Mariana promised she was cooking up something good, just for tonight. And boy, could that girl cook. Mariana, in a flowing full-length skirt and an expensive offthe-shoulder angora sweater made her way across the grave yard. With each solid step, the parched grass crackled beneath her feet and her expansive purse rang out, announcing her approach to the old woman, her partner in this moment and a lifetime. She stumbled over a rock she could have sworn hadn’t been there a second ago when she saw the grave of Rondell Stevens, the reality of this night sinking in too quickly. The two women hugged, then Faith handed Mariana a shovel, grabbed the other. “You been taking care of yourself ?” Even in the dim lantern light, Faith could see that Rondell had cheated her out of sleep too. “I’ve been doing okay, you know?” She wanted to ask if Faith, too, had screaming dreams, but thought better of it. “I know what you mean,” Faith said. They started digging, energetically at first, clods of dirt flipping and flying as they were freed from gravity. Then the work slowed: age and arthritis catching up with Faith’s arms, hands, back; lack of any really strenuous work attacking Mariana’s knees and elbows. Eventually, they found their rhythm, each finding ways to take up the slack for the other. Before they knew it, they had cleared the dirt from the coffin’s lid. They tossed the shovels into the night then climbed out of the hole themselves. Mariana looked expectantly at Faith, but Faith was frozen. For years, all those times Faith had imagined digging the thing out of the ground, she never gave any thought to the amount of strength that was needed to lay memories to rest. Just seeing the polished wood gleaming in the moonlight changed things completely. “I’d do it. I got a saw and everything.” She rushed to unroll the gingham tablecloth, revealing a handsaw, a mallet, a crowbar, some tomato stakes. “See? I’d really do it, but I don’t have the strength.” Mariana recognized the lie but would never hold it against her. “No problem.” Mariana fished through her purse, and 22 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
pulled out a battery-operated contractor’s handsaw that felt colder and heavier in her hand than she remembered it being earlier that night. “Homebuilder I used to date had selective amnesia. Forgot to tell me he had a wife. Cost him just about everything he owned, including this baby.” Mariana slid into the hole. The coffin gave a little when her feet touched down, but she secured her footing after a quick two-step shuffle. She clicked the saw on and went to work, carving the wooden lid into planks, handing them one by one to Faith, who quietly piled them several feet from the grave. Then, almost too quickly, there was nothing between the two women and the dead man, now resting, eyes closed, face gaunt, complexion painted into a peaceful caricature of a human being. Mariana climbed out of the hole. She was bleeding under her chin and below her left eye, but she didn’t seem to care as she wiped sweat and dirt and blood onto the sleeve of the white angora. Faith eased over the edge of the grave and there he was. She blinked and saw him as only a mother could: he was a fouryear-old peeking out at the world from under a hand-me-down blanket, then he was ten, then he was twelve. When she saw the mug shot version, she cried out against her heartache. This had to stop once and for all. She grabbed the mallet and stakes, slipped into the hole. Tears doubling her vision, she twisted and turned the stakes where Rondell Stevens’ heart should have been. She heaved the mallet over her head and hammered the stakes home, the points tearing through suit jacket, vest, shirt, skin, through muscle, bone, through her own guilt at his shame. She hammered and hammered and hammered, until embalming fluid oozing from the blowhole in the monster’s chest smeared her clothing. She scrambled out of the hole, biting in big gulps of night air. Mariana stood at the edge of the hole, impressed by the old woman’s strength to follow through with her plan. She, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. After Rondell, she had made a comfortable life for herself just like her grammama, protecting women by devouring men. No violence. No big drama. No real sex. Her weapons were just a few of her grammama’s potions and the fine art of seduction. But, for all of her family’s recipes, her grammama was never able to cook up separation from the man who hurt her most. Mariana had to improvise a recipe, something she had never done before. If this potion didn’t work, she’d be sleepless for the rest of her life. She gathered in strength, then fished a glass jar out of her purse, opened it slowly, recoiled at the smell. A frog’s eye floated to the surface. As she leaned over the body, pouring the chunky liquid over Rondell Stevens’ mouth, she thought she saw his crotch twitch. “Oh, hell no.” She began pouring again, but this time, the lumps of red tomato, bits of bird beak, a smattering of rabbit fur, and sprinkles of substances only Mariana’s grammama could identify, all floating in a soup of lighter fluid and orange juice and a day’s worth of Mariana’s tears, blopped and oozed over Rondell’s genitals. “Get thee behind me.” Then she lit a match.
The lighter fluid was the first to ignite, throwing a type of blue firework excitement over Rondell Stevens’ crotch. Then the cheap suit simmered and succumbed to smoke. The embalming fluid caught fire next, causing the body to smolder and burn from the inside as well. Within minutes, Rondell Stevens, serial rapist-murderer, was reduced to charcoal and ash and memory. Faith eased back into the soft ground, a smile beginning to blaze across her face. She could now mourn her son. For the first time in 38 years, Faith Stevens felt human again. Mariana rode a whiff of burning flesh and boiling tomato back to her grammama’s kitchen. The old woman was stirring a pot, lost in her own inadequacies. Mariana gently took the wooden spoon from her and began stirring, sprinkling in bits of ingredients as she went. Moments later, the two women sat shoulder to shoulder, watching the fire rage as the dark sky became lighter. Neither had experienced a moment greater than this and both knew that they never would again. Mariana spoke first. “Nice technique with the stakes.” Faith replied. “Been growing tomatoes for years. You learn
a thing or two. Well, between that and reading Dracula. Only book besides the Bible I ever read straight through.” A pause. “What kind of tomatoes you use in that zombie sauce of yours?” “Beefstakes. Grammama would swear by them. The lighter fluid was my idea.” Faith laughed. “She sounds like my kind of woman.” Another pause, then Mariana winced. “Dammit.” “What?” “Should have brought s’mores. Can’t have a decent barbeque without s’mores.” The women laughed at the absurdity of it all, they laughed through tears, they laughed at their friendship, they laughed themselves into silence. Then Mariana reached for Faith’s hand. “No need to be touching me.” Faith’s tone drew the line. “That’s still my son in that hole in the ground, don’t forget.” “I know all about your son,” Mariana said. “Hell, I’m the only one.” The first sunlight of the morning glazed over the horizon. Again, Mariana reached for Faith’s hand. And this time, Faith took it.
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Ry Kincaid Ry Kincaid’s poetry has appeared in Tipton Poetry Journal, The Honey Land Review, Spokes, and others publications. Sheltered from Purpose was featured in The Battered Suitcase, December 2008. Kincaid wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Not Just for the Birds, a family stage musical that premiered at 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Kincaid is the author of Sexycash, a collection of humorous writings. He lives in Kansas City. Sexycash is available on Amazon, and he can be found at www.rykincaid.com and on twitter at @rykincaid.
Fancy Feet Old man in hoodie asleep on the E train dreams he wears matching shoes . . . this faded black All-Star should have a mate Forest Hills jerking he swills from a forty nestling his head on the railing again
Dinner I knew the Scottish eggs would do until the Aussie barbecue. And English toffee wasn’t awful following the Belgian waffle. The German cake stood not a chance, but neither did the toast from France. Swedish meatballs, how they tasted (before Virginia ham, well basted)! I then tried goulash (Hungary), and downed the Indian curry. Finishing with Danish kringle, my stomach now was multilingual. My World of Meals in just one sitting cooked up something sorely fitting: Because of global foods I scarfed, I internationally barfed.
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James Valvis James Valvis lives in Issaquah, Washington. Recent poems or stories have appeared in 5 AM, Blue Lake Review, Confrontation, Nimrod, Rattle, Slipstream, and are forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, Los Angeles Review, Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, River Styx, South Carolina Review, and many others. A collection of his poems is due from Aortic Books. http://www.nyqpoets.net/poet/jamesvalvis
1 Minute Love Poem
All right, let’s make this quick. What I want to tell you is I love you, but I don’t want to do this in a Hallmark fashion, so throw in a metaphor here, and maybe something about Zeus, possibly Hermes, anyone but Cupid, to mix my Greeks and Romans, and maybe an image or two, something to do with air or water. Anyway, I love you. See you in bed.
I heard you have no yoyo
so I’m giving you my head
which you can use for a yoyo
you must supply your own string
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Raja Krishnan Raja Krishnan was born in India in 1986. His creative skills include sculpture, painting, clay and wax modeling, photography and sketching. He has a BFA in Sculpture from the College of Fine Arts, Chennai (Madras University) and is currently pursuing his MFA in Sculpture at the same place. He began exhibiting his work in group shows in 2007 and has collaborated with French artist Remuix Patric and assisted London-based sculptor Andrew Logan on sculpture projects in Chennai. Raja speaks three languages: English, Tamil, and Malayalam. Further work can be seen at www.artoysraja.blogspot.com and www.flickr.com/photos/rajaartoys
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Dante Convis Dante Convis has been practicing the art of leaping, panther-like, from speeding buses. He has yet to perform this act of athleticism without injury. He can be found at http://the4077th.blogspot.com/
rite a list,” said my doctor, “of all the things you think you could improve about yourself.” He was suggesting this because I told him I was feeling a bit restless and bored with things. I wanted change, but I also needed guidance. Change for change’s sake is never a good thing. I wanted dynamic, vibrant, fulfilling change (I wanted a threesome), but I had pathetically few ideas of how to bring about such radical alterations to my life, aside from fantastical notions of becoming an assassin or an adult movie star or even better, a porn star assassin. Doctor Blight’s list idea, despite being offered through a yawn and an “oh, I don’t sodding know” gesture (he was picking his nose at the time), was at least a good place to start. I set aside a couple of hours (I have to fill these long, lonely, sleepless nights somehow) and I made myself a salmon sandwich. Then I got down to the business of making my “self-improvement list.” First of all, I had to decide how to write the list: would I use pen and paper, or would I type it into my computer? The pen and paper idea was attractive, but I couldn’t decide which type of pen to use. Fountain pen? Biro? Crayon? And which colour? Red for “dynamic change,” or black for “serious?” The computer, on the other hand, offered up all sorts of choices: I could create a database (“My Inadequacies”). Or I could type my list into a table, attractively bulleted with smiley faces. Or I could create some sort of magazine set-up, and use clip-art to illustrate my points (“no sense of fashion,” for example, could be illustrated with a photograph of my collection of tasteless ties). The magazine could be called Why, I Am Rubbish (the comma would lend the title a faux Victorian respectability and self-deprecating air). Eventually, I just opened up a word document. Straightaway, top of my list, I wrote: “Procrastinate too much. I must stop farting around, and actually do something.” Then I had another salmon sandwich while I decided on number 2. 36 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
Number 2 came a couple of hours later: “Eat too many sandwiches. Salmon industry relies on my business. Eat something else.” I had a cup of coffee while I considered number 3: “Apologise too often.” I felt sorry about saying that about myself, so I rejected it in favour of: “Drink too much coffee.” But that didn’t seem too bad a thing to admit to, so I regretfully went back to the “sorry” thing. So far, so good. I had established that I ate too many salmon sandwiches, said “sorry” too many times, and that I never actually got around to doing anything, except making lists. I rolled a cigarette, and pondered number 4. “Smoke too many cigarettes?” That, at least, was something I could do something about: I could cut down, or give up. Giving up would piss off Doctor Blight, though, cause he’s a sixty-a-day man. And I’d already pissed him off by losing a lot of weight. But still, the prospect sounded appealing. I decided to give up. Ten minutes later, I gave up “giving-up smoking” and I hurriedly deleted “Smoke too many cigarettes” from my list of inadequacies. I had a cigarette while I racked my brains for a substitute. Then I had an idea: I could ask my friends (those that were still talking to me) what they think my biggest faults are. But, the idea horrified me . . . what if they actually told me them? In detail! “Well, I think you’re a complete tosser, actually . . . .” And they’re the sort of friends who wouldn’t hesitate to let rip into me, because they’re a bunch of sadists. I briefly considered “have sadistic friends: meet some new, nicer people,” but my social skills are somewhat lacking these days (I do apologise for that), and such a venture seemed to me doomed to failure. The night was dragging on, and my list was still limited to salmon and apologies. Perhaps I could combine the two, I thought: saying sorry to salmon? I realised that I was hallucinating, and I snapped out of it immediately. Too many
cigarettes, I thought to myself, I must give up one day. Too many cigarettes, and too much coffee. By this point, I was beginning to hate Doctor Blight. What sort of stupid advice had he given me? Had he ever sat down to write a list about himself ? After all, he smokes too many cigarettes, he is dangerously overweight, and he offers ridiculously bad advice to his patients. He’d surely have no trouble composing a list of his own inadequacies. But if he
had found composing his own list ridiculously easy, then surely he would have expected me to find it equally simple? Could I therefore blame him for his advice? Arrrgghh! It was suddenly all so complicated. I gave up, eventually. But not before I had finally decided upon one thing that I was absolutely certain of: I’d change my GP.
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 37
F. Michael LaRosa F. Michael LaRosa, perhaps the only un-closeted liberal Democrat living in beautiful Gaston, South Carolina, is a writer, sculptor, licensed practical nurse, licensed massage therapist, and life-long lover of words. He is always awed by, and, if pressed, to be honest, often pretty seriously jealous of, a really good read. He can’t help it. I mean, have you read Erskine Caldwell’s short fiction? James Brown’s memoirs? Raymond Carver? Damn those talented bastards! Michael’s short stories have most recently appeared in Underground Voices and Yellow Mama, two online publications.
he panties she found wadded under the seat of his ’93 Escort did not belong to “some little twat,” but to her husband who, occasionally, for reasons unknown even to him, liked to slip into a dainty pair. A silky little secret. Innocent, really, yet ominous. Ominous, and yet again, humorous. He pondered what the fuss was all about — wondered what is so awful and yet so comical about a man pulling on a pair of cool, shiny panties or a dainty thong and prissing about the house for an hour or two while the wife is out tending her business. And then he would look in the full length mirror that hung on the bathroom door. Panties always felt better than they looked. Without the mirror to remind him how ridiculous he looked, he might wander boldly about the upstairs wearing nothing but a pair of his wife’s underpants. Does that make him a monster? The butt of a joke? A queer? Understand, it’s not his daily practice to wear them. It’s not even what one would call a habit. And even if he found himself alone in the house more often, he doubted he would spend that time lounging about in his wife’s underwear. What with his busy life. And yet, it seems, he begins to anticipate donning her panties at the slightest hint that her future plans do not include him. “Saturday morning,” she says, “Sandra is going to color my hair.” And then his heart is all aflutter over Saturday, with its promise of opportunity. Though lately, digging his wife’s panties out of the hamper had left him feeling less than 38 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
satisfied. Not only was she perhaps twice his weight (he could have probably put his waist though one of the leg holes), but she didn’t seem to care much about lingerie anymore. When, he wondered, had cotton replaced polyester? It was all about comfort with women these days. Breathability, he supposed. Had he been born a woman, he would appreciate it more. And he would show his appreciation by expressing his femininity. Women took it all for granted. They didn’t realize how lucky they were. So lately he has wanted his own panties. Sexier ones. That fit him. He had spotted a pair while doing some light shopping at a nearby Walmart — a little pair of black low riders — shiny wisps, really — bikinis that were little more than a thong and with the tiniest bit of lace, or maybe it was embroidery — embroidered roses? He wasn’t absolutely sure. He only really glimpsed them while passing and then, pretending to scrutinize knit shirts on a rack at the edge of Menswear — as though he could seriously shop a rack designated “Big and Tall” — attempted to examine them using his peripheral vision. They were, how would one say it, designer panties? High end panties? He laughed to himself about that. “High end.” He imagined Leno saying it, then giving the audience one of those looks. Since then, though, he had become somewhat obsessed. He really wanted those panties. Why, he wondered, should he be too self-conscious to actually buy them? It was as though the cashier would know he was going to wear them. Of course she wouldn’t know. How could she? And what business was it of hers anyway? The nosey bitch.
Why, he would ask himself, can a man not buy a pair of panties? Buying them doesn’t mean he’s going to wear them. He could be buying them for his wife. They could be a birthday gift. Sexy little panties in the bottom of the gift bag — a notso-subtle hint that he desired intimacy. Of course, he was an older man. Not old. Older. And his fifty-six years, God knows, had not been all that kind, though he was not in the worse shape for a man his age. And an older man like him could have a young, thin wife who could wear — who would look halfway decent in — panties like that — a young thing who was exasperated with the fumbling sexual ineptitude of socalled men her own age. He was an experienced lover who knew how to please a woman. How to adore her. How to take his time. “You are,” he would tell her, “delicious.” “Sumptuous.” “A feast.” He would cover her with kisses. Or the panties could be for his mistress. That sexy bitch. That smug, cool tigress. Aloof. Demanding. Indifferent to his embarrassment. “Go to the Walmart,” she would command, towering over him in spike heels, her balled fists resting indignantly on her hips, “and buy me some panties. Just panties. Don’t be buying a lot of other stuff and trying to slip them in so the cashier won’t notice. I want her to see you buying me panties.” But, of course, there was neither young wife nor sexy mistress. There was just him, secretly yearning for those panties, and his wife of thirty years who knew nothing of his secret desires. He imagined himself buying them. He would drive right past the Walmart on his way to work and think about them and imagine reaching for them, taking them from the peg, and placing them in his buggy. Just a casual purchase. No big deal. Size six, he thought. Could he wear a six? He really had no idea, except that his wife wore what? Elevens? And they hung on him. He might be a six. Of course, it would be an awful thing to spend nine dollars on a pair of fancy designer panties only to find that they didn’t fit. Too small would be better than too big. But then he would be hanging out of them. Up front, he meant. Women’s panties didn’t have much in the crotch area to support a man’s package. He could buy them on the way to work. Leave a few minutes early, slip in, and pick them up.
Pick them up. Just like that. He could put them on in a stall in the men’s room. Wear them all day under his trousers. Who would know? He could stop somewhere on the way home — McDonald’s maybe — and take them off. It was his business. It would make him happy. He deserved it. I mean, God damn. Was he not going to be fifty-seven years old in two short weeks? And did he not still work like a twenty year old? Bad decisions, he thought. His own fault, maybe. But hell, had he not always paid his bills on time? Had he not always paid his taxes? Supported his family? He did what he was supposed to do. He deserved a little pleasure. It actually went rather well. Went pretty much as he, at his most positive, had envisioned it. True, he worried over the short line of patrons behind him — had imagined being unexpectedly accosted by a coworker or a neighbor or fellow parishioner — and he blushed when the cashier caught his eye. But no one he knew surprised him, and the cashier seemed flat. Tired, he thought. Sick of scanning item after item and counting change. She didn’t seem to notice his purchase at all. He could have been buying a gallon of milk. A drill bit. A package of tube socks. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” She asked. He nodded a response as he handed her a ten dollar bill, feeling impatient about getting his change, wanting to grab his panties and get the hell out of there. But sure enough, she clumsily dropped his coins on the conveyer. Or was it he who dropped them? “Sorry,” she said. She seemed to have trouble picking them up. What was wrong with this girl? For a moment he felt like telling her to keep the change and bustling on out the door. But such a move, he knew, would make him more conspicuous. And then, finally, he was shoving the handful of change in his pocket as he moved toward the parking lot and, almost miraculously, was in the sanctuary of his battered little car, panties in hand. He had abandoned both the scheme of trading his boxers for the panties in a public restroom and of wearing the panties under his trousers to work. Both ideas, though exciting, seemed fraught with danger. He had imagined, for instance, getting caught in the act just as he pulled those delicate panties up around his package — had seen a clear image of a father and his young charge Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 39
throwing open a defective stall door he was certain he had locked — had seen the father’s shocked and angry expression as he demanded his mentally defective and sexually perverse detainee freeze while he dialed security on his cell. “A man in woman’s underwear right here in the bathroom. Yup. Fucking half-naked queer bastard right here. No . . . he’s not going anywhere.” And there he would stand, pants in hand, explaining to an off-duty sheriff ’s deputy that he had indeed purchased the panties, not stolen them, had the receipt to prove it, and simply wanted to put them on before he went to work. A man caught in public wearing women’s underwear, he thought, could be grist for the tawdry mill of the local news, which counted as headlines those stories of youth counselors and Baptist preachers suddenly revealed as voyeurs, exhibitionists and child molesters. He imagined an official photograph of himself, looking disheveled and somehow basically evil, flashing time and again on television screens across the entire state. He would be branded a sex offender for the rest of his life. His marriage would be over. Where would he work and live? And had he successfully changed into the panties undisturbed, there was always the worry of splitting the seat of his pants at work — embarrassing enough under normal circumstances, but absolute hell if someone recognized the silky polyester that peeked from the open seam as a pair of women’s briefs. No, such a treasure as these panties needed to be enjoyed in the privacy of his home where he could relax. Which is what he planned to do as soon as his lovely wife left him alone for a few short hours. While still in the parking lot of Walmart he took the panties from the bag, removed them from the little plastic hanger, bit the little plastic string in two to remove the tag, placed all that incriminating evidence back into the bag along with the receipt, and shoved the whole thing into an overflowing garbage receptacle. Then he wadded the panties and slid them under the seat. He had worn the panties only once, for a brief few minutes, on a Saturday morning when his better half had zipped to the store for vanilla extract, of all things. Cookies. For the grandkids later that day. And seeing an unexpected opportunity to try on his new panties, he had hurried out to the carport, extracted them from what he had decided was the perfect hiding place and spent a few exquisite minutes modeling those dainty jewels before slipping back out to replace them under the seat. That was, he supposed, his big mistake. But how was he supposed to guess that, of the many things he wanted and needed — of the many gift ideas at which he had subtly hinted — his wife would decide to have his old 40 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
clunker of a car detailed? For his birthday. It was a thing he never thought about — would never have asked for. Not the cordless drill kit he had pointed out at the Walmart last summer. Nor the re-mastered collection of Beatles favorites on CD. Nope. It was a surprise. A God damned surprise. And that’s why she had insisted he take her car. To hear the rattle she kept hearing from the left front. Clever. And the detailer had done alright by him — had apparently moved the panties, vacuumed the floor under the seat, and replaced them. She had seen them while checking the detailer’s work. “Missed a spot,” she had probably called merrily as she pulled them from their little nest. And then what? He wondered what her expression had been. Shock, he thought. Confusion? Whatever it was, it had, by the time he returned home from work, become red-faced rage, and then, after a blazing confrontation during which he, thankfully upon later thought, had not been able to get a word in, a stony tight-lipped expression of contempt. “Asshole,” she called him through clinched teeth. “Philandering dickhead.” “Philandering dickhead.” It was odd, he supposed, that he enjoyed the connotations of such a supposedly derogatory remark. “Philandering,” he repeated to himself. “Dickhead.” Like his wife, and probably everyone who had ever known him, he had never seen himself that way. And though the supposedly disgraceful moniker was based on false pretense, it was his pleasure to imagine himself a philandering dickhead — a strayed husband exploring the tender and forbidden treasures of a younger woman. Of, perhaps, two younger women. Or even a string of them. He had slept on the sofa in the den since the day she found the panties. Had cooked his own meals. Packed his own lunch. Done his own laundry. He could do such things with little problem, while she was ignoring him. He had overheard her conversation with various women. Her mother. Her sister.
The beloved Katherine from the down the road, who knew, God damn it, when he farted and what it smelled like. He had often reflected on the idea that he shared certain qualities with the so-called fairer sex, but he had never understood why women must discuss everything with one another. There was, he swore to God, never a secret between gal pals. Never a stone unturned. Never even a pretense of privacy. “Cheating,” the wife had told her friend. “And with who, or better, with what?” “A whore, that’s what,” she had continued. “Who else would have him?” A comment derived from spite, he thought, pure and simple. She had gone through his dresser, through his pockets. She had searched his car top to bottom and questioned the detailer about possible evidence he had inadvertently thrown away. There was, of course, nothing in the way of such evidence, though he had considered buying a tube of lipstick, wearing it down a little, and placing it between the seat and backrest in
case she searched the car again. More fuel to the fire. Was he, he asked himself, crazy? Regardless of the state of his mental health, he loved that his alleged tryst with “some little twat” or a jaded, sexed-up hooker had given him a certain air of decadence and mystery. Suddenly his wife knew nothing of his life — of his affairs. And, God knows, he was, he thought, capable of much worse. Oh, yes. He had imagined all sorts of sexual escapades a man of his age could become involved with. Swingers. B&D. And though he sometimes considered telling her the truth, he knew he never would. Because then he would no longer would he be a philandering dickhead husband who took a dainty souvenir from “some little twat,” but a guy who liked to wear women’s panties. And though it might cost him his home and his marriage, he rather liked his sudden manly notoriety.
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 41
Renee Rod Renee Rod is a Licensed architect, city planner, and writer who lives in Chicago. When she is not designing buildings and cities, she writes fiction and non-fiction short stories. Her work has appeared in The Write Place At the Write Time and Word Catalyst Magazine.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the Toilet
he toilet was my elegant throne and my wise teacher. Whether I squatted in the cozy comforts of the family bathroom at home, the sterile environment of the girl’s bathroom at the elementary school, or the malodorous disrepair of the toilet stalls at the local park, all I really need to know I learned on the toilet. While my friends attended after school and summer classes, played interactive games, and watched PBS programming to supplement their education, I enhanced my intellect and cultivated a well-rounded and selfconfident persona by spending the majority of each childhood day on the toilet or in the stall. With a tiny bladder that swelled to capacity after just one hour, I quickly acquired my newfound knowledge. 1. How to Expand My Vocabulary By the time I entered kindergarten, I had learned how to read a greater number of utilitarian words and at an earlier age than my peers. While they obsessively viewed Sesame Street (sponsored by puppets forming the Letter “B” and Number “3”) and pored over their SAT inspired vocabulary flash cards at the $8,000 a year Montessori pre-school, I obtained an education grounded in reality. Did Big Bird really enrich a child’s vocabulary when he bellowed, “B is for Bongos?” And how many times did the Montessori pre-schoolers use the word “chisel” in a sentence during their lives? As I crouched on the toilet in the glorified outhouse at the neighborhood park, the unwound toilet paper roll dangling from the mangled metal dispenser and tiny yellow puddles flowing over the cracked concrete floor, several scribbled four letter words on the stall wall jumped out at me. The scene was colorful — a black pen, a blue pen, even a pink pen to disrupt the monotony. “Love,” “call,” “suck,” “blow” and numerous other related terms. This was my personal chalkboard of 42 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
learning, a diamond among the cubic zirconias, which enabled me to construct a grand lexicon replete with four-letter words. I also received an ancillary reading lesson in the privacy of the bathroom at home, surrounded by an oil painting of a woman’s naked breasts, as well as 1970s olive green soap dishes and toothbrush holders. Prominently positioned three inches from the toilet was the most sacred accessory to my family — the burnt orange particleboard magazine and book rack. Nobody could take a shit without his or her favorite reading material. My mother perused The Nation, my father scanned Sports Illustrated, my sister fantasized with her Harlequin romance novel and I, not to be left out, pored over a homemade book aptly titled Goin’ Poop. As I moved my bowels daily, which I understood to be a natural phenomenon thanks to Goin’ Poop, I flipped through not only my book but also all of the intriguing literature in the rack. I learned the words “hypocrisy” and “political suicide” in The Nation, “steroids” and “corked bat” in Sports Illustrated, “caress” and “unbuttoned” in the romance novel, and “poop” and “wipe” in Goin’ Poop. For the few minutes I was perched on the toilet with both dry, nonfictional discourse and erotic, dreamlike drama, I was transported into an eye opening and sometimes magical world outside of a five year old and her Easy Bake Oven. 2. How to Tread Water to Prevent Drowning While the other toddlers cautiously dunked their heads under water and practiced kicking with the aid of a flotation device in the “Little Guppies” class at the YMCA, I learned how to tread water in the toilet. As their knees wobbled and their toes curled tightly around the edge of the pool, they thought twice before taking the plunge. But not I. Without hesitation, I jumped. Well, actually I fell in — not the pool, but the toilet.
In my earliest days of potty training, I was on the toilet one minute and in the toilet the next. Because I measured in the bottom one percent of height and weight for two year olds, my buttocks was quite petite. As I quietly urinated, I slipped through the seat and splashed below. Flailing my arms and legs, I tread water in what was my first introduction to swimming. My sister heard my shrill screams and fished me out of the toilet. Consequently, unlike the “Guppies,” I was never again apprehensive when near water. After all, once I had been submerged in my own urine, there was little else to fear. 3. How to Negotiate a Good Deal I perfected my negotiating skills while ensconced on the toilet, where I rubbed my fingertips over a five hundred sheet toilet paper roll as if it was gold. I was keenly aware of the high value of toilet paper as a commodity. People could survive without food and water, but not toilet paper — it was sacred. With numerous sheets at my disposal, I was the queen of the bathroom. I possessed the power that other nine-year-olds so longingly desired and envied. As I was finishing on the toilet one afternoon, frantic knocking on the stall wall startled me. “Umm. Can you help me? I’m out of toilet paper,” a faint voice whimpered. “Maybe.” I paused. “How much is it worth to you?” I chuckled. “A lot. I need to wipe,” she snapped. “How about you do my spelling homework for one week and I’ll give you a square or two?” My voice quivered briefly, as this was a bold proposal. “Alright. You’ve got a deal.” She acquiesced and flung her hand under the stall wall. As a smile engulfed my face, I ripped off two sheets and shoved them into her palm. The next time the situation arose, I upped the ante. I negotiated for a Hello Kitty pencil case and two weeks of completed math homework. No longer would I strain my brain to determine how many buckets of cherries Mary could carry up and down a thirty-foot-high hill during a span of five minutes if she traveled at a speed of one thousand-feet-perhour and transported two buckets per one way trip. By the end of the third grade, I completed a total of only five weeks of homework — two weeks of essays on Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, two weeks of grammar exercises and one week of questions about the tadpole’s transformation to a frog. With my extra free time, I played with my Atari and Barbie sports car, both of which I received as “gift exchanges” from my newly created “business”. 4. How to Hide from the Authorities While the hyper, overactive third graders played “Hide and
Seek” at recess and predictably grunted and flapped their arms enabling them to be easily located, I learned how to hide on the toilet. During gym class, as all twenty-five of us panted and clutched our inhalers after a grueling hour of freeze tag and dodge ball, the teacher yelled, “Ten laps and we’re done.” With my tongue hanging out of my mouth, lapping up the recirculated air, I whispered, “This is crazy.” Next to me, Timmy floundered as he leveraged a coat hook to drag himself off of the parquet floor. A droplet slid down Betty’s nose, as she wiped her clammy forehead. And I shuddered from the throbbing pain in my big toe. The torture had to cease. Before the gym teacher blasted his whistle, I darted inside the girl’s locker room. I leaped into the middle of five toilet stalls and left the door unlocked so as not to arouse suspicion. A nervous, clumsy novice would have chosen the last stall with the hope that an investigator would quit after searching the first few stalls. And an amateur would have locked the door to evade capture. So I discovered a safe haven in the middle stall with the door slightly ajar, just enough to stymie any doubt. I climbed on top of the toilet with one shoe on either side of the seat, careful not to strike the toilet flush lever. Luckily, automatic flush systems did not exist when I was a child. I bent my knees because if I stood upright, I risked being spotted above the stall door. As I crouched, I rested my ankles on my thumbs to assist in balancing. My breathing was still sluggish, as my overworked lungs were recovering from their Olympic workout. Above the thunderous pounding of forty-eight shoes on the hard surface, I overheard a vociferous dialogue. “Can you check the girls’ bathroom to make sure nobody tried to duck out?” The gym teacher shouted to his young, voluptuous, eager-to-please assistant. “Sure. If anyone sneaked out, I will find her,” she proclaimed in a stern tone. “I’ll check out the boys’. If anyone is caught, he will have to do fifty laps. And he’s not gonna make it,” he chuckled. Upon hearing the boisterous exchange, I nearly gagged on globs of phlegm that clogged my esophagus. And retching would have lead to my demise, so I wrapped my fingers snugly around my lips. As a clip-clop sound grew increasingly resonant, I clenched my cheeks so forcefully that I ripped a nugget of skin from the inside of my mouth. The hair on my arms stood on end like soldiers at attention and my forehead wrinkled. But I did not utter a peep. I recognized the unique noise, which resembled an ailing horse trotting. It was the listless stride of the gym teacher’s assistant, who was an intern from the local community college and whose primary responsibility was to carry the teacher’s clipboard. Every day, she donned a skimpy, tight skirt and wooden clogs. She was definitely not a fitness enthusiast. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 43
My heart pounded so intensely that I feared she could sense the pulsating echo throughout the bathroom. But when I realized she had not kicked in any stall doors, I pursed my lips and exhaled. As I waited, my gaze was glued to the gap below the stall door. But before I could glimpse even one clog, beady eyes and a pug nose fully occupied the space. Her head tilted and shifted from side to side and when no legs were visible to her, she continued onward. I stared at the flickering light on the ceiling, as if a higher power had answered my prayers, and my face glowed. The clip-clop sound faded away and the blaring of the teacher’s whistle sent my classmates crawling into the locker room. They stumbled and nearly collapsed, as their ankles and knees succumbed to the agony and their inflamed lungs hastened the wheezing. I nodded and smirked, as I had prevailed in the battle. 5. How to Reuse Objects to Save the Earth While the other studious elementary school kids meticulously colored within the lines of the Woodsy Owl (“Give a hoot, don’t pollute”) and Smokey Bear (“Only you can prevent forest fires”) color-by-numbers, and as they sat wide eyed, attentively listening to the former hippie-turnedmayor espouse the virtues of the waste disposal hierarchy in saving the earth, I learned about reuse while squatting on the toilet. The sun scorched and moistened my tank top as I frolicked on the teeter totter and tornado slide at the nearby playground during summer camp. My mouth was parched and I had barely enough saliva to swallow. I lunged for the canteen my mother had packed but I abruptly yanked back my arm. If I quenched my thirst, my petite bladder would compel me to spend the remainder of the day in the moldy, spider-ridden bathroom rather than allow me to chase Roberto, the four-foot two-inch, dimpled, bronze skinned god at camp. Leaning my limp body against a tree, I coughed to purge what felt like sawdust floating inside my mouth. As perspiration trickled down my blistering neck, I wrested the cap from my canteen and gulped pools of lukewarm water. Ten minutes later, I leaped off of the jungle gym and dashed to the bathroom. As I reclined on the toilet, the urine gushed like the Colorado rapids and I murmured, “Ahhh.” As with many publicly funded projects, maintenance was a low priority and the playground was no exception. The “bathroom fund” had been depleted years earlier and a visitor was more likely to encounter a dead raccoon than a paper towel or toilet paper. Not even the creak of a damaged stall door interrupted the silence that pervaded the bathroom. I hummed and focused on a family of crickets scurrying across the broken wall tiles as I awaited the arrival of a rescuer with toilet paper. Showing my 44 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
face at the playground with a smeared yellow spot on the back of my pants would rival wearing the Scarlet Letter. But after several minutes when the toilet seat became inscribed into my buttocks, I finally surrendered. The time had come to search my belongings for any discarded object that I could reuse. Poking my hand into my front pocket, I plucked a used tissue. Because of my allergies to pollen, ragweed, mold, grass, trees and essentially anything green living outdoors, I always carried one tissue for nasal emergencies. I had recently blown my nose after a roaring chorus of sneezes, so the tissue was still moist and ripe. Although distasteful, the tissue was a possibility. However, before I could commit, I scavenged for additional useful items. I grabbed the backpack from the muddy concrete floor and flicked off the ants. To my delight, as I rummaged through, I discovered a wealth of potential materials. An old crinkled gum wrapper, a used post-it-note with a “to do” list, and a two inch square piece of sandpaper. Because I had borrowed my father’s backpack for the day, I was unsure of what treasures it housed. While the sandpaper was most similar in texture to the toilet paper provided by the park district and the gum wrapper was fairly clean, albeit tiny, I opted for the germ-filled tissue. I rationalized that not only were the germs already mine, but also the perfect-sized tissue was dry along the edges. And with one flush, the tissue could no longer be reused, its long life finally ended. A feeling of pride swelled in my gut (or maybe that was gas), as I fulfilled my small, yet significant role in preserving the planet for my great-grandchildren. 6. How to Eavesdrop and Blackmail After I stuffed my stomach with greasy tater tots, an overcooked hot dog and slightly coagulated chocolate milk, I resumed my daily routine and marched directly from the school cafeteria to the bathroom. Surprisingly, the oils, reconstituted meat and milk curds did not churn my intestines and bowels and drive me to my post-lunch jaunt. Instead the chocolate milk had stretched my bladder beyond its tipping point. I hustled into the last stall because I preferred the privacy it afforded. It was my serene slice of heaven where I could meditate, think and relax for a minute before facing the real world again. As I steadied my hand to flush, catty chatter shattered my peace. “I can’t believe that!” Number One shouted. “Are you sure?” Number Four interrupted, her voice escalating. The “Fourth Grade Five” huddled around the sink and conversed so rapidly that their dialogue sounded like a used car sales commercial on fast forward. “The Five” was the most popular clique in the fourth grade and everyone begged to join, even though “The Five” repeatedly shunned the idea of a sixth addition.
I recognized their voices from the few times I bumped into them in the hallway. Yes, I tripped over Number Two’s foot and smashed Number Four’s tuna sandwich. Needless to say, “The Five” offered a few select words and informed me that if they ever spotted me again, there would be hell to pay. Refraining from flushing, I rested silently on the toilet while I pondered my next move. If I exited the stall, I would encounter a dangerous rendezvous, so I leaned my head into my hand and waited patiently for “The Five” to depart. “Hey, is anyone in here?” Number Three growled. I elevated my feet a few inches from the floor and scraped my knuckles over my teeth. After a brief pause Number One replied, “No. I don’t think so. It’s safe to talk.” “It’s true. Jimmy has a huge crush on you,” Number Three giggled. “Wow! That’s so cool. He’s really dreamy,” Number Five yelled, as her eyes grew wide and her cheeks glistened. “I have a crush on him, too.” “What are you gonna do about it?” Number One asked matter-of-factly. “Probably nothing. I think I’ll play hard to get.” Number Five winked. “Oooh,” they chimed in. “I totally agree. Let him chase after you,” Number Two sang. “Whatever you do, don’t tell him that I like him. That will
ruin it,” Number Five explained, pointing at the others. “Alright. It stays between ‘The Five,’” Number Two whispered. They all snapped their fingers five times, one for each of “The Five.” In mere minutes, I possessed priceless gossip that would bolt me toward popularity immortality. It was time for the reveal, so I flushed the toilet to draw attention to myself. “What the . . . ” Number Three shrieked, her voice rising an octave. All ten eyes focused on the last stall, as a toothy grin spread across my face. “How long have you been in here?” Number One’s icy stare pierced my soul. “Long enough to know that Susie really likes Jimmy,” I declared, nodding my head. “You’re not going to say anything, right?” Number Two asserted, as she flipped her hair. “How about I’m the new Number Six and we call it even?” I proposed, stroking my chin. “That’s crazy,” Number Three cried. “Are you serious?” Number Two squealed. “We don’t have much choice. Jimmy can’t find out,” Number Five argued. Strutting out of the bathroom, I felt as if I was floating. I rubbed my palms together and raised six fingers.
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 45
Ben Drinen Ben’s fiction has appeared in 13E Note Editions, The Big Stupid Review, Full of Crow, and Zygote in My Coffee and has been accepted for publication in October by Underground Voices. Ben was a finalist in the 2007 and 2010 First Person Arts Storyteller of the Year Competitions in Philadelphia. A sample of his storytelling can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFZgUp-kvk8
Walk and Drink
hiladelphia. Spring Garden Street in Summer. Lots of green trees. Lots of square mats covered in trinkets, covered in pornographic novels. Guns on the covers. Asses on the covers. I stood there with the street vendor, looking at his dreadlocks, looking at his beads, smelling his sweat. I looked down at his books. Spread out there on the ground. On the concrete. He motioned with his finger to the one he wrote. Long gnarled finger. Told me it was a masterpiece. I picked it up. Flipped through the pages. Asked him what it was about. Sweat was coming out of my shirt, and it itched. He told me the book was about the bottoms. “What bottoms?” I asked. “Huh?” “What do you mean, the bottoms?” “Man, I mean the bottoms, where I do my research. North of Allegheny Avenue in squatter towns and tent cities in vacant lots, where people are desperate, brother.” “Where north of Allegheny?” “Whaddya mean?” “I mean, where north of Allegheny? Like Westmoreland? Like Tioga? Like how far north?” “You know that area?” “Yeah, I know that area,” I said. I had been living there ten years. I wondered what he knew about it. Not a lot of people knew about it downtown, except for the information they got from dumb shit that was written in newspaper articles. I was getting tired of those articles, but I couldn’t put them down. “Why, you a junkie or something?” The book seller asked me. “What’s it to you?” “I thought maybe we’d do an interview.” I looked at him. Looked back down at the book. Looked at the back cover. “Hey wait a second, man.” 46 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
“What?” “This shit ain’t about the bottoms,” I said with a smirk. “Whaddya mean?” “Says here this shit is about an English professor who falls for his Italian graduate student. What the fuck is that about?” “Well, yes, but the professor is investigating a tent city from a literary perspective at the time that he falls in love.” “Fuck this bullshit. It’s just about you. Give me one of those hemp bracelets.” “Yeah, okay, two bucks.” I walked down Spring Garden Street. Past the buildings of Community College of Philadelphia. I wandered into Westy’s Tavern. Sidled up to the bar in the heat. Nodded at the white hair slumped on the stool. Looked around at the drab décor. Drank a beer fast. Drank a whiskey fast. Drank another beer fast. I sat there thinking about that guy and his hemp bracelets and his dreadlocks and his candles for sale and his smell and his book. I thought about going back to buy it. Walked out into the heat. I walked back to Spring Garden and looked around. I couldn’t find him, and I wondered if he had even been there at all. The sky was pale blue, streaked with clouds, but it didn’t seem like the sky. It didn’t reach all the way to the horizon or to the mountains like the sky I knew. It didn’t have Air Force jets from Litchfield streaking back and forth across it, and there were no vultures circling, circling, circling. There were flocks of birds that seemed to chase each other, moving in unison. Between the buildings, behind the tower of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the white tower and its clock. I watched the birds for a while, and then I caught a bus. The number of the bus? 23? 32? Who fuckin’ remembers? Who fuckin’ cares? It probably told me the number in a computerized voice as it lurched along, but it doesn’t matter. All the buses were taking me to corners and sidewalks and through tunnels and under bridges, and no matter where I got out, it was the same bricks and buildings
and strangers and storefronts and bars and shit. I got off at Second Street and went into the Standard Tap. It was dark and smoke-free. Young business types, out early from their office jobs, were standing around a jukebox picking obscure punk numbers, and the noise was deafening. I drank another beer. Some sour as hell microbrew. Fishball Ale or something like that. It was warm and horrible, so I had a shot of bourbon to chase the beer. Another whiskey? Sure. Walked out into the heat. Stumbled out. Right across left across right. Shit, stumbling. “Stay on the sidewalk, ya damn feet,” I said to my feet and kept walking north up Second Street. I got to Girard. It was familiar territory. I went in the Wonder Years. Yeah, that’s what it was called in those days. Sat next to a man. Listened to him mumble. I looked around and saw they had put in new mirrors. I wondered what they did with the broken ones. I wondered if they smashed them up with hammers and put them out in plastic bags, and I wondered if the trash men had been cut. “I’m Tommy,” the mumbling man mumbled. “Yeah, I know your name is Tommy. Sure do. It‘s me, Simeon, we talked about the Army last week.” “Yeah, Tommy, that’s me,” Tommy said, his eyes rolling about in their sockets. “Fuckin’ Tommy.” I slapped him on the back, and he grinned big, the way he always did when he told me his name was Tommy. I nodded at the bartender. “Little pitcher?” He asked. “Two bucks?” “Yeah, bud.” “Gimme that. Gimme that little pitcher of cold beer. That’s the one I want. With the froth on top.” The cold sweat of condensation running down the sides of the pitcher puddled on the shine of the brown bar. I swallowed fast, and the beer burned its way down. Cold on the tongue, more sweat on the brow. I took a handful of stale popcorn from a red plastic basket. Yeah. Salt. “More beer?” “Yup. Yup.” “Hot one huh, bud?” “It is hot, Pop. Way too fuckin’ hot. When you getting air conditioning in here, Pop?” “Shit’s broke,” the bartender said with a groan. “Broke, huh?” “Yup.” “Shit.” “Another pitcher?” “Yeah, Pop. I’m a fish. I’m a fuckin’ fish, Pop. You hear that Tommy? I’m a fuckin’ fish. Yo, Pop, here’s a ten, keep the change. Keep it all.” I wished the fish line was my own, but I stole it from my friend, Max. He was a forklift operator I met in a bar on Frankford Avenue, and he invited me over now and then to play cards in his filthy living room. We’d gamble with
his neighbors, and he would suck down can after can of Bud, pounding his fist on his chest yelling, “I’m a fish! I’m swimmin’ in it here, Simeon!” It was his line, but I used it when he wasn’t around to get a few laughs. I didn’t like it, though. It was better when Max said it. He had more gusto. “Good lookin’ out.” “Yeah, take it easy, Pop.” I drank the last pitcher slow and silent and listened to Otis Redding on the jukebox. Yeah, Otis, these arms of mine are lonely too. I went out and looked around. A green trolley was lurching by on Girard. I saw eyes staring back at me. I thought they looked empty, and I figured they figured that my eyes looked empty too. Everywhere I went, and every shop window I looked into, I was seeing glazed eyes whether I was drunk or sober, and I was having a hard time figuring that out. I thought about a McDonald’s chicken sandwich. Decided against it. I wasn’t drunk enough to gorge on that, the salty mushy chicken, the salty mushy breading, the burping, the nausea, wow. I went up the Avenue. Kept it straight. One pole to the next. Train overhead. Rumbling, booming, terrifying. And the cars swept by. Thumb out. I imagined the driver thinking: “Not in this town, motherfucker. Walk those dogs.” I got to Berks Street and went into Tony’s Way. The sign had a wheel with flames coming off. The background of the sign was white. The wheel and the flames were bright, bright red. I drank Coronas. I peered back into the dark rooms. One had a pool table. The other had nothing. Salsa and bachata were on the jukebox. “Yeah, I know Senora, no hablo tanto espanol,” I thought toward the bartender. “Si Senora soy Americano. I know, I know, this ain’t my place. I know, I know Senora is for Mexicans and Spaniards. I know. You’re Boricua. Yeah, I’m supposed to call you Mami or something. Sorry Senora, calling you Mami is too fuckin’ weird. Okay, I’ll get out. Don’t worry.” It was like she was a person in my head. I was always making speeches to other people in my head. Their faces were in front of me, real, fleshy. Like you could reach out and touch them. And I talked to them inside my head. Like they were listening. “Just one cold Corona, first,” I said out loud. “A little lime. Like a lemon, except green. What? It’s the same word, just with an accent somewhere else? Okay, whatever, just give me the green lemon. Limon verde. Yeah, I know. It’s not the right way to say it. Come on Senora, a Corona with a green lemon. Okay, fuck it, just the Corona then. Just the Corona, then. Yellow lemon, green lemon, blue lemon, for all I care. Appreciate that. Three bucks? What the fuck? This is highway robbery. Okay, okay, Senora, three bucks. Three bucks. Take it easy, Senora. No need to pick up that bat. Just gonna drink this Corona and get the fuck out. Sure I will. Sure I will.” She looked at me like I was crazy. I went out on the stoop and lit a cigar. Berks and Front Street. I looked over and a fat man with an old Phillies hat, sweat-stained and rimmed with evaporated salt, was next to me. I was a fat man with a fat man by my side. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 47
“How’s it going chief ?” I asked in greeting. “Go Sixers! Go Sixers! Go Sixers!” “Yeah, go Sixers, sure bud. NBA Finals, right?’ He looked at me. He pointed out an emaciated woman in the corner between the sidewalk and the tower of steps down from the El on the east side of the street. She was crouched down into the corner where the blue tiles met the grey concrete, smoking crack. “Look at her!” He screamed. “I’d pay her five bucks, put a bag over her head, and fuck her just like that. I don’t like to look in a crackwhore’s face!” He screamed. “I don’t like to look into her face.” His breath stank through his piggy shrieks. “She’s a whore! A whore.” He screamed that she was a whore. She looked up and smiled through broken teeth. He elbowed me in the ribs. Why was he doing that? Why didn’t I get another Corona for the walk to the next bar? I knew better than that. “Oh shit, what if the buzz goes away before I get there?” I thought. “Then what?” Oh, shit, he was poking me again. “Okay, what man? What do you want to tell me?” I mumbled angrily. “One time I killed a guy for trying to mess with a little kid. I took a shotgun and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. And his brains went against the wall. And I said, that’s what I do to dirty pervs.” “You’re full of shit.” “What?” “You didn’t kill no child molester,” I said. “Fuck you.” “Yeah, fuck you, too. Dirty old man.” I had to get away from that screaming round man. He was fucking up my buzz. I put one foot in front of the other. “Faster,” I told myself. Yeah, I had it. I had it. Eight more steps. Eight more steps. Pounding out time on this pavement. Counted ’em. I counted the steps 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Eight count beat. Good. I did it again. Eight more steps. “Man, why do they put the bars so far apart?” I yelled to the structure of the El. All the steel was painted blue above me, and it was a tunnel, and the sun was coming through here and there, and the blue of the steel and the blue of the sky was all above me. I didn’t know what was steel and what was expanse. “Please man, please let there be a bar around this bend. Please, man, I swear I’ll do only good things my whole fuckin’ life if you just put a nice little bar around this bend with cheap Budweiser and air conditioning. Please! I’m fuckin’ beggin’ you! Oh my fuckin’ feet! Oh, I’m sweating here in your sun! Please! Oh thank you. Thank you so much. Padilla’s Bar. Yeah. Now I remember. Just got to get to York-Dauphin. Padilla’s. Everything’ll be okay if I can get to Padilla’s.” I was praying like that all the way to York-Dauphin. Praying to the blue. When I got to York-Dauphin, there were little party stores lining the avenue. Hustle and bustle. Pizza Shop. Stelio’s 48 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
smelled good. “Yeah, a slice. No, two slices. Yeah, that’d be perfect. Two slices. That’d be perfect,” I thought. Man it was hot. Oh, wow, it was so hot in there. I hung in there and waited for the pizza man to give me a slice. He was swirling that sauce around the dough. That looked perfect. If they would just have had beer in a little fridge. Cans and bottles in a little well-lit fridge beckoning, beckoning, beckoning. Why can’t they have beer in Pizza places? Stupid ass Pennsylvania. “Can I help you?” “You got slices?” “Right there.” “Two plain.” “Two fifty. Coke?” “No, thanks.” I sat down at the table. Rickety little cast iron table. Red cracked plastic upholstery on the seat and back of the chair sticking to my back. A little bit of tan stuffing sticking out of the tear in the red plastic. I was sweating bad. Trying to get it out of the eyes with a napkin. But it wouldn’t stop coming out of my head, or from my pits, or from my back. I could feel the shirt soaking it up and sticking to my skin, and I was so thirsty. Pizza was taking forever. Why couldn’t they hurry up? I looked at the little vine hanging from the ceiling pot. Its arms were hanging down, and they were limp in the heat. A few leaves on each arm. A few wilting leaves. “Hey man, I don’t care how hot it is, can I just have the slices?” “Whatever you want, chief.” The cheese was not re-melted all the way. The sauce was so salty. Grease dripped on my shirt. Fuck, that looked stupid. Like a big idiot. Big grease spots. So stupid. Nobody else walk and drinks. Who else? Who else? Second slice. Yeah. Second slice. Perfect. Folded it. Perfect fold, perfect fold. Orange grease on my knuckles. Dabbed my knuckles on the napkin. There it was. Little absorbed orange pools on the coarse napkin. Low quality napkins. Took three or four. Man, it was hot in there. I wiped my hand on the napkins, and it reminded me of working in a napkin plant outside of Williams, Arizona. The buzz of the conveyor belts, the blaring of sirens. Paper flowing out of the machine in the form of napkins. I had to try to guess when 100 napkins had come out, and then I had to jam them into a paper bag and throw them on another belt. I grabbed and jammed, grabbed and jammed for four hours, ate a cheese sandwich and went back at it, the plastic pump cap on my head keeping me safe from something. At the end of the shift, I would walk out of the plant and slowly cross the parking lot, the pines swaying at the edge of the clearing, blanketing the hills all around. I would look up at Mount Humphrey’s blue in the distance, and I would listen to the wind while I sat on the hood of my Oldsmobile drinking a can of strawberry soda. I would drive the highway fast back into town, feeling the 350 engine respond as it pulled up the hills with ease, swerving around slow moving pick-ups filled with firewood.
I had to get to Padilla’s Bar. No, forget Padilla’s. Walk all the way up to Bentley’s Place. Yeah, maybe Stretch would be in there. Suspenders and stories about Vietnam. Watch some wrestling re-runs, drink some Jacquin’s Rock N’ Rye. Yeah, forget Padilla’s. Presidentes are too sour, anyways. Coors Lights are too watery, anyways. I walked on. I jogged a little, my gut bouncing up and down, the change in my pockets rattling and jingling. The alcohol absorbing faster. I thought of Phoenix. Living alone. Getting out of work at six in the morning and buying a twelve pack of beer. Drinking two beers fast and then doing fifty push-ups. Two beers doing the work of eight. Saving money by pumping blood. Two beers buzzing me all the way to sleep. Who cared? Who cared? Asleep on the bad, sharp carpet of my dead grandparents’ home, the neighbors not knowing they were dead, the sun beaming through the crack in the drapes. The television blaring. The hot sleep. The hot drunken sleep. Waking up in the afternoon and going out on to the green spray-painted pebble lawn of my grandparents’ house. Sitting on the cracked plastic lawn chairs. Smoking a corncob pipe in the summer heat. Chicken grilling to a dried horrible crisp on my little grill. The pipe catching and dying, catching and dying. Beers going down one after another. I thought about that while I ran up the avenue. Thought about places like Phoenix and Chicago. Thought about all the dead-eyed motherfuckers in the world pacing here and there between buildings. Looked into the eyes of hookers and pimps and drug dealers as I ran. Wild-eyed running through the corridors of the avenue. Under the belly of the great blue millipede of the Market Frankford El. Like the big motherfucking fossilized skeleton of some ancient monstrous millipede. “Why you running, Pop? You motherfuckin’ Forrest Gump? Five-O, Pop? Five-O coming, Old Head? Why you running, baby, ain’t you got a light? Why you running, motherfucker? Why you running in the street?” I couldn’t run very far. I was in bad shape. The years of beers were getting to me, sneaking up on me. I gasped for air. Put my hands on my knees. Wondered if I was going to puke the pizza. Burped. Tasted the pizza. Oh man, how far was Bentley’s? Farther than I remembered it. Looked back. I had only run two blocks. The hookers were still laughing and pointing at me. Laugh it up, girls. A thin emaciated heroin addict. Male. Probably seventeen. Denim jacket. No shirt. Torn cut-offs. Mascara. “Hey, buddy? Where you running to?” “Trying to find some beer, bro.” “Want to go upstairs?” “No, kid. I don’t.” “Spare a quarter.” “You got it, kid. Take a buck.” “Don’t want nothing back?” “Naw, kid. You be safe, okay?” “Yeah, you too, bud. You too.”
We shook hands. We were agreeing to be safe. Like we had some authority over the whims of the avenue. Over the booms and rumbles of the train. Over the long knives of all the werewolves lurking in alleys. I hoped he would be okay as I shook his hand. I hoped he would make it through that hot night alive. I hoped I would make it to Bentley’s Place without puking my guts out onto somebody’s front steps. Man, I wanted to puke or piss in a toilet and flush it down. I didn’t want to leave my mark on someone’s private property. Didn’t want some old grandma coming out on the hot Sunday morning, stepping in my puke pile, and cursing me in absentia. Please hold it in, I begged my stomach. Hold it in. Bentley’s was less than a mile away. I thought about catching the bus as it came along, lurching along, hissing air brakes, grumbling engine. I decided it wasn’t in the budget. I just wanted to keep every dollar I deserved. I wanted every little glass of beer possible. I wanted to save. What was the point of getting there quicker if I couldn’t afford to pay the tab? I knew Maria would hit me with the bat if I tried to sneak out. I owed her, anyway. I owed her plenty. It was getting bad, though. Real bad. Buzz wearing off. I didn’t know if I’d get it back again. Or if I’d just be in a hot bar, drinking one after another without effect until my head hit the cool bar and Maria or Stretch pushed me out into the street. I was getting nervous, and I was sweating like a pig. Like a goddamn pig. I walked past the boarded up Kensington Grille and smiled at the Go-Go-Go girls sign. Some kind of erotic diner in its day. Eggs and go-go-go girls I guess. I guess that was the combo. Bacon and eggs and a lap dance. All boarded up. Broken glass on the sidewalk. Faded paint on the sign. A school being built in the background. Signs of progress everywhere? I walked on by and thought about winter walks at midnight hours. Coming back from the Prevention Point groups with heroin addicts walking six deep. Men in the snow warming their hands over trash burning in barrels. Singing and drinking by the barrels. The addicts excited. One guy had twenty bucks, and everybody wanted to suck him off. Good for him, I remembered thinking. Man of the hour. So I turned off Front Street and stayed under the El on Kensington Avenue. Past the discount furniture stores with the big yellow signs announcing deals on bedroom sets and living room sets and both together and each in half. Every kind of package deal you could imagine. I came down the little hill toward Lehigh Avenue and smelled the onions grilling in the Mantecado Inc. All-night cheesesteak stand. I looked over my shoulder and saw the cook, his back to me, and the steam rising up from the grill. The smoke of his cigarette mixed with the steam, the ashes of his cigarette and the sweat of his brow mixed with and marinated the meat. All the hungry eyed people shuffling back and forth in front of the window waiting for their food. The roaches running round their feet. Big, red, slow-moving, evil vermin with wings. Big-winged roaches that would fly into your chest as you tried to bat at them in the Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 49
darkness. Floating at you like helicopter demons oblivious to your blows. I crunched the roaches with my feet as I walked through their ranks. I looked back and down and saw them squished there on the grey concrete, and I grinned. “That’s nasty,” a little girl said. “It sure is,” I said. “Nasty roaches.” “They’re even nastier dead,” she said. “The living and the dead are all the same,” I said. She rolled her eyes and pulled on her woven braids. “You’re drunk,” she said. “That’s true,” I said and watched as she skipped rope on up the way. I stood on the corner, hating everything about America. I stood there thinking that I hated America a lot. And I was thinking that the roaches, and the girl, and the bad sandwiches, and me being drunk, were all one and the same. That America was, in fact, one big whirl of the living and of the dead. I looked all around me, and I looked at the buses and the cars and the trucks and the train over my head, and I was afraid of all those big machines, and I was afraid of the smell of the meat cooking in a brine of human sweat. I heard a German Shepherd barking from the used car lot. I saw him baring his teeth and charging the fence. So damn angry that he couldn’t tear me limb from limb. I saw the cage, but I was still afraid of the dog’s wrath. Afraid that he was that dedicated to keeping me away from a couple of used Hondas and a used Astro minivan. And I was afraid of the infected needles on the ground that were mixing with the guts of the roaches that I had squashed. And I was afraid of a little girl with a jump rope who could tell I was just another drunk walking up the avenue. I crossed Lehigh, getting closer. Closer to Bentley’s. Closer to the cool darkness of the bar. Getting ready for the feel of the cool sweat of the beer bottle. I was planning on drinking Miller High Life. I was ready for the champagne of bottled beers. I was looking forward to it like it was the champagne of champagnes. It was going to be great. I heard a man retching loudly, and I knew that I should walk on by, but I couldn’t. It was so violent, the sound of his retching, so I turned the corner and another corner and stood there gawking like a tourist. I looked at him doubled over on a busy drug corner, and I saw that his hand was all the way in his mouth and that he was periodically shoving it farther in to induce the puking. I saw four skinny Puerto Rican kids around him cheering him on, and I recognized them. They were kids who sold drugs there. We played football in the park on Sunday nights under the lights on Westmoreland Avenue. I was known as Tank Abbott because I was fat and had a very long goatee. I was known for rushing the passer with ferocity, but being fairly useless on offense. They called me Pop or Old Head, and I said nothing in return. Play after play, coming hard at the quarterback. Swim move, rip move, bull rush. Whatever it took to throw some kid down and stand over him. Knowing 50 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
that over in his gym bag, he might have a loaded 9 millimeter, but knowing, too, that the gun was not for football games, and that the ferocity of my pass rush made me okay. Football was football anywhere. It was the same in any park. Broken glass or not. Whether the legs bled from the broken glass, jammed in there deep, while the dust rose in your nose. While you stood over Hector and said, “yeah, motherfucker”. Or whether you stood over Casey in the green grass of Flagstaff, Arizona and said, “yeah motherfucker!” What was the difference? The rage of football was the same everywhere. It was limb from limb everywhere. So it was the badlands instead of God’s country. So what? So what? I smiled at Hector, and he shook my hand. I noticed that his front teeth had all been replaced with stainless steel when he grinned at me, and his teeth glittered at me. I smiled and he smiled. “Metal fuckin’ teeth, Tank,” he said. “Cool fucking shit, Hec,” I said. I remembered the time that Hector came to my house and asked if I had a dictionary, and how we wrote a rap together. About how he promised that he’d pay me fifty ones when he mixed the song. I remembered his favorite lyric from the song. “I’ll play your ribs like the piano, punch you in your face, break your motherfuckin’ mandibles.” How we’d smiled together over that line and shook hands. I remembered how we came upstairs and my roommate, Elias from Switzerland, was sawing away on his violin. And Hector said “Yo, Elias, that’s good fuckin’ shit. I love that violin shit.” And all three of us sitting there on the bad futon, grinning about violins and bad rap lyrics. I had a feeling that Hector was remembering the same thing, when I saw him on the corner. I asked him if he had my fifty ones, and he rolled his eyes. I saw the other guys crowded around the junkie, and I heard him retching. I saw him puking up liquid, and in the liquid were little vials. The junkie knelt down in his puke and picked the vials from the puddle, wiping each glass bottle delicately on his shirt. They were inspecting it. Making sure the rocks were not soaked with puke. And the dealers cheered him on. I knew that they kept the vials hidden in the sewer drain, and I wrinkled my nose at the thought of swallowing a vial of sewer crack for purposes of smoking it once the cops left. And they had left. The move had worked. The crack was saved. Glory be to God. I wanted to salute him. To shake his hand. For being that dedicated to 12 dollars’ worth of crack cocaine. I wanted to snatch the vials and throw them into the train tracks and give him 12 dollars. I wanted to say: “Get some clean crack, brother, and anytime you need some crack so bad that you’ll swallow things out of the sewer, come on to my house and I’ll give you every dollar that you deserve.” But I looked at him, and I looked into his eyes. And I assumed that it didn’t really matter that much. Where the crack had been. Where it had been before. Because the only thing that mattered was that it got to its destination anyway. So fuck this guy. Puke it up, young-bo. Puke it up and smoke it up. Good work, young fella.
Good work. I left the little scene. They were still cheering him. Apparently, he had swallowed seven or eight vials. I could hear them cheering as I walked on back to the Avenue. I looked into the windows of the row homes, but they all seemed dark to me. They all seemed a long way away. They all seemed foreign to me. I knew the people in them, and I knew that the furniture was protected by plastic. I knew that the floors were linoleum and cracked and that an ugly half pit-bull was in many of the basements, just waiting for his chance. But I couldn’t see through the darkness of the panes. I didn’t really know anything other than names and addresses. I was just passing on through. I got back to the Avenue, and my feet were hurting. I leaned down and tied my fraying shoe lace. My shoes had been falling apart for a long, long time, but they felt good when I first put them on, so I kept them. I cinched them on as best I could, and I knew that Bentley’s Place was so damn close. I could taste the High Life. I could almost taste it. I came past the Vietnamese restaurants, men perched on barstools eating bowls of noodle soup with peanuts and lettuce chopped in, little bottles of hot sauce for sprinkling on the noodles. It smelled so damn good. I looked into the little Internet café and saw the teenagers playing Doom. I heard each computer shaking and roaring with the sounds of the games, and I saw the teenagers happy in the darkness. I wished them well. I walked on up the avenue, and there before me was the redpaneled wall of Bentley’s Place. The white sign with the beer mug and the name Bentley’s Place in red. I smiled, and I pulled open the door. I saw them all there. All the regulars. Steve the Cripple, begging change for Silver Thunders. Handle Bar Moustache Mike with his bowling jacket. Maria, behind the bar with her towel. The grumpy old white-haired bar owner hag with her little glass of gin at the end with the remote control. I looked over at the old pinball machine in the corner and the rows of refrigerators all stocked full of cheap American beer, cold as ice. I looked at the empty place where the taps had been before they ceased to be profitable. I looked at the long row of green bottles. Taylor Port. Ah, yes, the big, old gallons of cheap gasoline wine. “Hi Maria,” I said. “Simeon. The usual?” She said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said. I drank that High Life all the way down. I drank it the right way, and I enjoyed it. Like it was the first beer I ever tasted. I drank seven or eight more and tipped Maria two dollars. She grinned at me and patted me on the back. “Sleep it off, Sim.” “Give me a six-pack for the road, Maria.” “You’re all out of money, Sim.” “Yeah, Maria,” I said. “I’m all out of money.”
I came out of the bar and found myself in a crowd. I elbowed a skinny addict next to me and said, “What’s the fuckin’ deal?” He pointed through the crowd and said, “Look at the big bastard, he’s eatin’ pigeon.” I pushed my way through the crowd, many of them holding cell phones up in the sky and clicking away. Addicts and dealers and pimps and prostitutes and johns all gathered around. I pushed through them all. Swim move, rip move, bull rush, to the inner circle. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, trying to clear my senses. I looked down, and I saw a Marsh hawk on the sidewalk, his yellow feet standing in a pile of grey feathers, as he ripped the flesh from the pigeon’s skeleton. I watched him looking around, challenging any motherfucker to come and take that pigeon away. I waited and I watched and I wondered alongside all the rest of the Avenue crowd. I marveled at the strength of the hawk, and I wondered if he was getting soft and sick feasting on pigeons. I wondered if he’d die of cancer. I wondered if the whole motherfucking food chain was being poisoned by trash-eating pigeons. I stood there a long time. I stood there until the hawk bounced a couple of times, flapped a couple of times and rose up off the ground, circling a few times. I watched the hawk. I watched it soar over the houses and perch up on the tower of an abandoned hat factory. Up there on the chimney. No more smoke. Up there. Probably had a nest. Maybe he was raising a family. Maybe he was a she. I walked up the hill toward my house, watching the little dark figure of the hawk on the chimney. I wondered how he found his way all the way into the urban nightmare. I wondered who told him about the pigeons, and I thought about the street vendor on Spring Garden Street. I couldn’t decide if I liked his word or not. The bottoms. I hadn’t heard it described that way before. The bottoms. It sounded like something British, for some reason. Like some description of an English slum. Like some kind of Charles Dickens bullshit. I stumbled up Somerset, and turned on to Tusculum Street. I looked over into the ditch where the freight trains ran iron ore twice a day, and I saw two men struggling in the weeds. I saw a man in gray denim kicking another man, who was on his back in the weeds. The weeds were brown and dead, and the man on his back was screaming for help. The man in denim kicked and kicked and kicked again, and then he tried to dig through the other man’s pockets. Then the other man would struggle, and the man in grey would kick him some more. Then the man on the ground would scream. Then the man in gray would try to go through his pockets. I watched them a long time. I watched the man in gray punch the other man in his face a lot of times. And then I crossed over to the other side of the road and finished walking home. I sat on my couch and drank a six pack of beer. I felt unconsciousness coming. I was glad.
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 51
Jonathan Golden Jonathan Golden was born and raised in Norwood, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He attended the University of Massachusetts where he played rugby and majored in math. His work has appeared in Big Pulp, Hulltown 360 Literary Magazine, and Death Head Grin. He has a dog named Noel and no matter what he does, the dog has bad breath.
The City Let me tell you about the city. The city might have been beautiful if it weren’t for the char. It covers everything, from the people to the cracked and broken buildings that stand against the sky. It spills down the walls like old blood. It covers windows and faces. Sometimes, when the wind picks up, it dances around us in a sickening circle, taunting us and laughing, drawing closer and closer until we are forced to inhale it. Let me tell you about the girl. The girl might have been beautiful if it weren’t for the fires. She’d been outside when the first bombs hit, drawing on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. There’d been no warning, not for any of us, but the ones who were outside got it the worst. Those who had died immediately were the lucky ones. Just ask those of us who hadn’t. Let me tell you about the preacher. The preacher might have been beautiful if it weren’t for his voice. He sings with the depth and clarity and resonance of a whale, his song reaching every smashed and fractured alley and bridge, every crippled and forgotten street. His voice is powerful and terrible, and the song is always the same. “Welcome to the horror of the revelation,” he shrieks in a haunting melody. I walk toward the house with the preacher’s voice surrounding me. I pass by the spot on the sidewalk where she had been when the bombs hit, her chalk drawings replaced
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with a sickening silhouette, the bright pinks and yellows and blues washed away by the dark gray of the char. I bend down and lightly run my fingers over the rough, closing my eyes. I imagine her laughing brightly and smiling at me. “Of course I’ll be careful, silly,” were her last words. I imagine holding her, and I squeeze my eyes tightly, trying to choke out the smell of the char and the sound of the preacher. I get to the house and knock on the door. A young boy answers. “Hello,” I say, “is your sister home?” The boy’s face wrenches, and he begins to cry. A woman comes from deeper in the house and picks him up, running her fingers through his golden hair. “Shhhh,” she says, “it’s okay, sweetie.” He buries his face in her chest, and she looks at me. “Is your daughter home?” I ask. Tears begin to well in her eyes. “Oh, Dean, why are you doing this?” “Can I see her?” I ask. “She’s dead, Dean. You know that.” Far away, the preacher sings. “Well, maybe I’ll come see her tomorrow,” I say and turn and walk toward the street. “Dean?” The woman says. I turn to face her. “We hope you come home to us soon.” And she closes the door. The preacher’s voice continues to flow around me as the wind picks up. The char dances and reminds me of everything that might have been beautiful.
Sarah Rae Sarah Rae was born and raised in New Orleans. She completed her BA in English at the University of New Orleans despite Katrina’s best efforts to destroy her senior year. She moved to Brooklyn, New York, to complete an MFA in fiction writing at CCNY and is now a Masters student of psychology at The New School. Her previous publications include Dew on the Kudzu, Oracle Stories & Letters, Big Muddy, Ramble Underground, and Inscribed Magazine. You can find her online at www.sarahrae.net.
A Box of Shelves
ell, there’s my girl!” Maw-Maw exclaimed to her friends. With the holiday lights reflecting off their thick bifocals, they all agreed. I was her girl. Amid the shrill voices exclaiming my name and kisses on my cheeks, I let my grandmother take my coat. She fussed about it being too warm for the weather. She was right, it was extremely mild compared to New York. Once she had the coat, she didn’t know where to put it. My mom took it from her and hung it on the door to the garage, then hustled us into the kitchen. The smell of andouille and corn mixed with the cinnamon Christmas candles in the den and for a moment I was happy to be home. I was happy to feel that familiar softening that occurs when I set foot in the house I grew up in. Like settling into a place that will always belong to you even if you haven’t seen it in a long time. Mom gave me a glass of red wine. I was sure she was on her second. At least. Surrounded by Mom, Aunt Toni, MawMaw, and her two friends from Arkansas, all their focus turned to me. Maw-Maw leaned on the bar in the kitchen and looked at me with eyes glazed over in pride. No sooner did I gulp my syrah before I was mobbed with questions. How have you been? How’s Peter? How’s New York? Did you cut your hair? Did you lose weight since we saw you last? It was like holidays in the movies. Relatives who haven’t seen you all year stand around and fuss over you. I don’t think it would have been that way if I hadn’t moved so far from home. Without practice, it was kind of difficult to stand all of the attention. But there was a glimmer of satisfaction on their faces, and I was happy not to disappoint them. “Twenty-five years old,” Maw-Maw said and shook head in disbelief. Since my folks divorced, I didn’t have to worry about Dad’s insidious side of the family ruining it this year. This was a Christmas Eve just for the ladies. There was a fresh pot of
red-beans on the stove and sweet potato pie on the counter top. I knew we’d all sit around the Christmas tree getting drunk while we watched It’s a Wonderful Life or Walker Texas Ranger. Whatever Maw-Maw decided she was in the mood for. After they were finished interrogating me, they were naturally ready to eat dinner. I sat down at the pub table in the kitchen and studied the backdoor for a moment. There were things, big boxes perhaps, piled in front of it. There was no way to open the door without moving the boxes. On top of them, Mom had put Christmas table cloths and a poinsettia. Now if that wasn’t colluding, I don’t know what is. I smiled at Maw-Maw as she sat down next to me with a mug of eggnog. A woman of eighty who grew up on a farm in Blytheville. We often don’t know what to say to each other, so we just smile. My Aunt Toni sat down on the other side of me with the same smile, and I pretended not to feel my sunken heart filling with sand. It was 2001, I remember like it was yesterday. Pat was nineteen and I was seventeen. I remember just about anything that I did with Pat. I was that kind of little sister. Even when he would tie the arms of my sweatshirt together and I was stuck inside it, it would always make me laugh. I can still remember riding in his Civic, the way it smelled of cigarette smoke and Tommy Hilfiger cologne. Death Cab for Cutie in the CD player competed with the gush from the air vents. We went to the movies on a Sunday afternoon just to get away from our parents. It was the premier weekend of a Wes Anderson film called The Royal Tenenbaums. Pat had chosen the film; frankly I knew nothing about it. I was happy enough to go to the movies at all, I didn’t care what we saw. We bought tickets at the box office and proceeded upstairs to the theatre. But once we got there, we saw a roped-off queue to get in. “It’s opening weekend,” I explained to Pat. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 53
He gave one of those gruff sighs that told me he was overwhelmed. There were little more than five people in line, and our odds were still good at getting a nice seat. But he said, “Look, can we just go? I’ll make it up to you, if we can just go. Here,” he handed me some cash to pay me back for my ticket. He promised again, “I’ll make it up to you.” I shrugged my shoulders and we went back home. Pat didn’t like lines. He didn’t like waiting. He was the type of guy that liked to get in and out of a place fast. He didn’t go to a store without knowing what he wanted first. He could get in and out of a shopping mall in five minutes flat. But there was more to it than that. No one realized. Changes came so gradually that he always just seemed like same-old Pat. He was in college then. Home on weekends, probably just to keep me from running away from home. But back at school, apparently, he wasn’t leaving his apartment much. He emerged for cigarettes and sandwiches only. Doctors would later call this the prodromal phase. None of us noticed the change, Pat’s movement from extrovert to hermit. All I know is that the following Christmas, Pat gave me a DVD: The Royal Tenenbaums. By the time I was in college, Pat and I were renting a house together in New Orleans. I guess there was a never time when we didn’t get along. In fact, it was like moving in with one of my best friends. No arguments, no bad ideas. He never ate my leftover Chinese food, and I didn’t care that he rarely put anything away. Our parents came over to our house for holidays, and that was the only time Pat cleaned up the place. We invested in a big flat screen television and Netflix accounts, but it took a while for me to realize this was also when Pat stopped going to the movie theatre altogether. The house was a large space with a great porch. The perfect place to have friends over. But we didn’t. Pat seemed to be annoyed by guests. He’d sigh and make sideways glances at us. He took to sleeping on the living room sofa instead of his bedroom. So having someone over often meant Pat had to stay up late. I started to leave the house to see my friends, and he would play video games by himself long hours into the night. Pat didn’t even like to go to the grocery or the gas station for cigarettes. In exchange for doing all the yard work, I usually did all our shopping. He ordered most of his clothing or books on the internet. I came home to a porch of packages every afternoon. His last semester in college, I noticed a book he was reading laying open on the kitchen table. It was Kierkegaard, but the material wasn’t important, it was the marks he made in the book. Lines, arrows, nonsensical notes, highlighting. The page was almost unreadable. His older books were unmarked, not even underlined. I had borrowed almost half of them before. I figured he had gotten this Kierkegaard used. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, there was a string of unusual incidents that were harder to ignore. He came in one day with a scowl on his face and told me someone just drove by 54 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
the house and took his picture while he stood in the front yard. Angry, accusatory, his eyebrows spoke volumes. “Pat, you must be mistaken. I mean, lots of people are taking photos of storm damage.” He said no more, but walked away, still fuming. He began eating the same thing everyday. Lettuce, canned tuna, and yellow mustard mixed together in a bowl. After a month he was the thinest I had ever seen him. Because he rarely went outside, he was so pale he was nearly see-through. He exercised a lot. He’d run on a treadmill twice a day, an hour each time, and in a pitch dark room, with his contacts out. I thought it was the exercise at first that made him so pungent. But it was because he did not shower for weeks at a time. One day, I found him in the living room with a book in his lap. He was reading, but the radio and television were also blaring. “How can you read like that?” I asked him. He looked up at me, agitated, “I don’t know.” He accepted an award from the philosophy department when he graduated. Excellence in the field of Hegelian aesthetics. At least he finished the degree. His ability to concentrate on one thing at a time was now completely shot. The radio, the television, the constant inundation of information became Pat’s permanent state of being. Too much coming in too quickly to be made sense of. Doctors would later call this the active phase. He wouldn’t talk outdoors. I’d sit on the porch with him, smoking cigarettes as usual. But all of the sudden, I was forbidden to speak. If I did, he wouldn’t answer me, he’d just glare at me like had given something away. I was taking an undergraduate course in abnormal psychology, when my best friend leaned over my desk and whispered, “Sounds like Pat.” I looked down at my notes on schizophrenia, and shook my head. “No, no. It’s not all — like this.” At the time it was too difficult to see all of Pat’s problems under one umbrella. Besides, it seemed more likely that he was secretly abusing drugs than he was stricken with an illness. I spent my senior year in college studying in coffee shops. Home was too unpredictable to work in. He would knock on my door at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to ask me, “Who put the cameras in the living room?” I’d shake my head, and go back to bed. “Who put the microphone in the remote control? I know it’s happening, why won’t you just admit it?” I almost admitted a million times that Pat was being surveilled in our home, just to put an end to it. But he wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t being watched. “Pat, why would people be watching you?” “I don’t know. You tell me why they’re watching me?” There was no way to reason with him when he was like this. But then there were days when he was perfectly normal. Days when he was reserved, but calm. Nothing was wrong. We lived this way for a year. I had trouble convincing anyone that Pat’s behavior was any more than simple eccentricity. I
called his former psychiatrist repeatedly, but he never returned my calls. My own psychologist assured me that Pat was acting out. Probably because I had gotten into graduate school and he had yet to apply to any himself. When I told my parents about the paranoia, their eyes would get big, they’d shake their heads. Somewhere in between processing information and taking action, they would start drinking wine and forget. Pat wasn’t diagnosed until his illness affected his job. He began accusing a coworker of sifting through his emails, screening his voicemail messages, tampering with his paperwork. He was asked to take a week off from work, and I got him a new psychiatrist who answered telephone calls. Anosognosia. It means a lack of insight into one’s illness, an inability to acknowledge an illness at all. It sounds like denial, but it isn’t something that can be worked out. My life is split in two. There’s the part of my life when I didn’t know what anosognosia meant. Then there’s the part where where I do. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalty disorder. No matter how many times I explain that, there still seem to be people who think these illnesses are one and the same. Schizophrenia is much more. Things are taken away from the ill. Social withdrawal. Poor hygiene. Hobbies are no longer kept, sometimes jobs or college, too. Attention span becomes short. Ability to self-reflect is gone. The face becomes slack and expressionless. Other things are added. Inappropriate responses, like laughing upon finding a dead bird in the yard. Delusions of persecution, grandeur, and thought broadcasting. Visual or auditory hallucinations. Now I could say Pat never has had any hallucinations, but then there are many things that he never tells me. The mind of a schizophrenic is so jarred by unreal stimuli that they are entirely preoccupied with these stimuli. Paranoid schizophrenia means living in fear tantamount to that of a heroin addict left to detox on the moon. And we don’t know why. Most patients undergo misdiagnoses for years before getting the correct treatment. Onset occurs at different ages in many people; the illness itself is personal. It is different for each person diagnosed. When I moved away from New Orleans to go to graduate school, I left him in the care of our mother. Our plan to go off into the world and collect as many degrees as academic institutions would give us was now only mine. Pat lived purely in the present. Never organizing or planning, never reminiscing, unable to self-reflect. A feature of his illness, is the inability to recognize that he has an illness. So when you ask him what he takes medication for, he’d make something up. On the antipsychotic, he’s still quiet and withdrawn. Trying to hold a conversation with him is like pulling teeth. Asking him what movies he’s seen, what music he’s listened to lately. Those questions will only elicit a skeptical expression and an ambiguous answer. He has no capacity for idle chit-chat. He doesn’t talk on the phone, respond to emails, or even send birthday cards.
Off the medication, he’s more apt to talk to people. But what he wants to talk about is who, what, why he is being watched. He never shaves nor cuts his hair. He doesn’t leave the house, and he lost touch with all his friends. He can’t focus on anything but the delusions that consume him. And worst of all is the look of desperation. For him, this is all a matter of survival. For him, real and unreal are indistinguishable. Now every winter, he goes off his meds. And every spring, with luck, we get him back on them again. Once the delusions wear him down into sheer exhaustion, he’ll usually accept help. The tactics used to treat addiction are no good here. Being honest and extraordinarily genuine is not going to help untreated schizophrenia. He’ll never believe that he’s ill, anymore than I would believe than I’m made of marshmallows. Mom keeps me abreast of what’s going on with Pat. In New York, I go to NAMI support meetings. I keep a blog about his treatment. An anonymous one, in the off chance that Pat ever stumbled across it. Every year I form a team, raise money, and do the NAMIWalk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I was just accepted into another graduate program for a Masters of Psychology. I’m sure Pat doesn’t even know. I gravitate between advocate and bereaved. On days I can’t think about anything but the past, I write him letters. But they can never be sent. Twenty-seven and living with our mother, I know that Pat can’t be happy. But there’s no way to talk to him about it, if every time I visit he’s secluded in his room. I touched the table cloth gently, trying to feel what was underneath. I knocked on it lightly. It seemed like cardboard. “It’s a box of shelves,” my mom whispered. She refilled my wineglass, leveling her eyes at me, although I already knew not to mention it in front of the old ladies. Over the phone she’d told me Pat suspected people were coming into the house. He kept asking if there were any copies of the house-key floating around. I don’t even have one. Since then, apparently, he started piling random objects in front of the doors. Another unmedicated Christmas. At least this time, we knew he was noncompliant. Aunt Toni told me a story about when she visited New York City in 1962, and asked if the same diner is there today. I shrugged my shoulders and my mom laughed so hard she had to cross her legs. “How would she know that?” Everyone laughed at Toni. “Well, I don’t know! New York’s a small world!” They all cackled around the eggnog bowl and then Pat entered the kitchen. He lifted his eyes and nodded to me. Then he nodded to everyone else and awkwardly exited through the garage. Mom looked at me expectantly. “I’ll see if he’ll bum me a smoke.” The garage smelled like wet dog. He let his three boxers out, and they scattered into the yard, panting. “Hey,” I called to him. “You got a cigarette for me?” The look on his face Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 55
was one of annoyance. It was the same face he made when he saw the queue at the theatre. But he held out a cigarette to me anyway. “You changed brands,” I noticed. He nodded, only glancing at my face for a second. Injecting oneself into Pat’s routine is much like a city-slicker trying to interact with an isolated old cowboy on a ranch. I inhaled and coughed wildly. I quit smoking two years ago. But if it meant I might get a chance to talk to him, I would have smoked the whole pack. When I caught my breath, I asked him, “You gonna eat any red-beans?” “Perhaps,” he exhaled smoke. Mom told me he had stopped giving straight answers. Probably because he didn’t want anyone to know his next move. There was a mountain of things to discuss, but none of them would fit into this puzzle. There are days I wake up, and I only remember summertime when we were kids. He’d hit tennis balls onto our roof and I’d try to catch them when they rolled back down. Summer nights we watched horror films and ate pizza while our folks went to dinner parties. I wanted to tell him this. Tell him there are movies I can’t watch or songs I can’t hear now. I wanted to tell him I have dreams where he comes to visit me in New York. But I knew the face he’d make. It would seem strangely non sequitur to him. Or he would think I was trying to send him a message, a hint about his being surveilled. All input somehow heaped into the pile of paranoia.
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In silence, we stood under the flood light. The only sound was the jingle of the dogs’ tags and the sigh of smoke coming out of our lungs. I watched the sky because I never see any stars in Brooklyn. When we went back inside, he never reemerged from his bedroom. He never ate any red-beans. Maw-Maw fell asleep in a chair, glasses perched on top of her stomach. My aunt and her friends retreated to bedrooms to get some sleep. Mom prepped for tomorrow’s dinner in the kitchen. Oyster stuffing, shrimp and mirliton stuffing, sweet potato soufflé. A glass of wine still in her hand the whole time. “Try to be here by one tomorrow,” Mom walked me to the door. “Can’t wait ‘til he sees what I got him for Christmas.” He saw a movie years earlier and ever since he was fascinated with Shinto and Japanese samurai. A $400 Japanese statuary from a designer in the Tribeca. Made entirely of copper and heavy as can be, my friend Chris had to carry it home for me. Pat wasn’t around for me to say goodbye. As I removed the chair that he had propped against the front door, Mom gave me that level stare again, one of fear and passivity. “See you tomorrow,” I kissed my mother on the cheek. No matter how much of a mess it all seemed, at least I took solace in my proximity to him. Backing out of the drive-way, I saw the light still on in his room. I wanted the fact that he slept in what used to be my bedroom to mean so much.
Alexander J. Motyl Alexander Motyl is a writer, painter, and professor. He is the author of four novels, Whiskey Priest, Who Killed Andrei Warhol?, Flippancy, and the forthcoming The Jew Who Was Ukrainian; his poems have appeared in Counterexample Poetics, Istanbul Literary Review, Orion Headless, and New York Quarterly. He has done performances of his fiction and poetry at the Cornelia Street Café and the Bowery Poetry Club. Motyl’s artwork has been exhibited in solo and group shows in New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto. He teaches at Rutgers UniversityNewark and lives in New York.
Distance The distance from my door to his door couldn’t have been more than thirty feet, but in the sixteen years I’ve lived on the same floor as he I suspect I passed him in the hallway or in the lobby or in front of the building (but never, I think, coming in or out of the elevator) no more than one hundred times, and each of those times he nodded and may have said hello and I nodded and may have said hello. That was it — just quick nods and may-have-said hellos. I remember that his skin was black and that his eyes were doe-like and that his voice was as soft as a donut. Last week the door to his apartment was ajar and music was playing and I knew that something wasn’t right, because his door was always closed and music would never be playing. Two workers in white overalls were scraping and painting and removing trash, and I caught sight of a picture from some opera on the floor near the garbage chute. George the doorman told me he passed away — those are the very words he used — but, to tell you the truth, if it hadn’t been for the workers in white overalls and the picture from some opera, I would never have noticed.
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Alice Jerman Alice Jerman is a senior at New York University, studying English and Creative Writing. She is proud to say this is her very first publication in a literary magazine and wants to thank The Battered Suitcase for giving her a chance! While working through the foggy world of academic writing and reading (or: the life of an undergraduate), Alice retains an unabashed love for poetry. She also loves bicycles, birds and travelling home. A native of the Garden State, she hopes you enjoy this Jersey-inspired piece.
Bryant Park “Just like we used to do,” I’d say, “in the backseat.” But this now makes him blush like he’s never he’s never he’s never. That’s where he puts the car-seat when he takes the kids to Bryant Park. “I have one of those,” I say, “it’s on 42nd behind the library.” “That’s New York City,” he says plainly, “our Bryant Park’s here at home.” Of course I know little town New Jersey has the same name as big town New York. “That’s funny,” I say and sit real straight in the backseat so he can see the arch of my eyebrows in the rearview. “You’d better get out,” he says not starting the car, and so I lay on my back thinking that if he can’t see me, it’s as good as if I’m not there. He says that doesn’t mean anything because those days when he can’t see me he’s reminded how much I’m not there. “It’s like you are there when you aren’t,” and I marvel at his ability to express himself through the spoken word. “Coming from a man who graded my English papers for the last four years,” I start, and he shushes me repeating, “That’s where I put the car-seat when I take the kids to Bryant Park.” “I have one of those,” I tell the ceiling, which is fascinated by all it has seen in the last years that it winks back at me and says, “Don’t worry, he’s lying, he takes his wife’s car places in town,” and I tell it I knew it all along and what can you trust of a man whose wife can’t even trust him. “Why are you quiet?” he asks and I make him come back here to find out.
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Natalie Campisi Natalie lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, Gordon, son, Miles and Turbo the Wonder Dog.
aybe that’s why you’re the way you are,” she wondered aloud, fingering the lace camisole that was not hers. It was too small, too delicate. She wasn’t envious, bad taste, she thought to herself, immediately relegating the owner of the camisole to a breed of women so tawdry and boorish, they couldn’t possibly be competition. She tossed it aside. The light was pale and the man, Frank, wanted to enjoy its inherent sadness. He didn’t want to answer insipid questions. He turned on the radio. Bebop. Every night; he was glad for it and there weren’t any commercials and he didn’t have to bother himself with choosing a song or finding a scratch. “Do you even want to know?” She asked, arching her back, the light sadder now across her chest, every bone nestling a faint gray shadow. Frank was trying to concentrate on the song; it scattered around the room in puzzle pieces. Was it Parker? It sounded like Parker. He wished he knew, the way his dad could pick out Vivaldi in a waiting room. He chuckled to himself. Parker on the radio, or close enough. The dingy apartment. The half-naked girl. Except now he was a lawyer. An attorney. Which sounded better? He wondered. He hated both. She wouldn’t even be here without those words. She said “lawyer.” The only thing missing was a cigarette and one last glass of wine. She didn’t know his cigarette vice. Things would be different if she did; graver. There would be talks of lung cancer and premature aging and how it’s really just a blue-collar, college-girl habit now. No one smokes anymore. Not even the French. He regretted telling her anything. As soon as he said it, practically. He had too much to drink. It was fall. Things felt more significant; he got sentimental. He hadn’t had a woman around in a few months. She wasn’t a soft, listening woman. She had a list of requirements. For herself and her men. Her
nails were always polished, that was the first sign. Red mostly, sometimes shades of beige. Never chipped. You can’t trust a woman with perfectly polished nails; he knew that. “Let’s get out of here,” he spoke, finally. His legs were big and strong and pale; they spread large across the wrinkled sheets. She moved out of the way, just enough. “Where?” Her thoughts were grand: Paris or Lausanne. She read a lot of magazines. “A diner . . . a cafe?” He said. They were in New York. He was ready to move. She didn’t know that. She assumed he was just getting started. He had a law degree from Brown, a good school. He must be cheap, used to money, she surmised. “We’re already in bed,” she whispered, recoiling, a small harmless snake, cool and tired. His twin brother, Bax, was also a lawyer. Except he lived in Connecticut, near the rest of the family. Bax was already engaged — to a lawyer. He had an impressive home. One of those old, set-back houses; sprawling front lawn where Easter games could be played. He had a boat, too. Everyone in the family had a boat. Sailing is what they did. After law. Bax was humble and good and seemed to relish in tradition. This girl here, Frank thought, would love Bax. She would eat him up. She would wear that cheap lace camisole if he asked her to. That was the kind of guy Bax was and the kind of girl she was. “Do you have any pictures . . . of him?” She ventured, her eyes wide and sympathetic. Frank looked at her for a second; the light was so flattering, he thought. In the restaurant, she wasn’t this pretty. She was one of those plain Dutch-looking girls with skinny legs and good hair. She loved to show off her legs. They were long and smooth and half made up for her face, which was ordinary. Small, blue eyes, thin lips, roundish nose. Even now, in the fall, she wore short plaid skirts to show off her legs. She didn’t wear stockings. He wished she did, that would at least be interesting. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 59
“Pictures . . . ?” She repeated, catching Bax drowning in a stare. He couldn’t concentrate, not in this apartment without a cigarette and glass of wine. He had to get out of there. It felt like being an undergrad, his first shithole apartment containing all that was important: books, cigarettes, wine and bread. Sometimes cheese, too. He was a long way from then. If Bax saw me now, he thought, this place, he chuckled to himself again. There were a couple years between undergrad and law school when the brothers traveled together: the Czech Republic, Nicaragua, South Africa; places like that, places guys like Bax and Frank are wont to visit. Frank was the one who applied to law school first. It was ironic in a way. He knew the end was coming. His folks weren’t going to float them forever. Bax knew that, too. Frank occasionally wondered if he hadn’t applied to law school if things might have been different. They talked about opening a surfboard rental shop in Chile. They talked about hiking the Fitz Roy, the Shackelton Crossing; mountain climbing, moving to China, opening a restaurant, buying a small newspaper, spear fishing, living off the land. They drank wine and did ayahuasca and picked up women and hitched rides. They never talked about Sam. Some days, Frank wondered if Bax even remembered Sam. They got so good at not talking about him, they both wondered if he even existed, mostly when they were on acid or some other psychotropic they were apt to stumble upon from new acquaintances. They were skilled in making friends like that. Sam was sacred. As sacred as a thing got for them. More sacred than any god or curse or fear or taboo. She was yawning, her body twitching with tiredness. She was trying to stay awake. She had an in. The captain fell asleep. She was at the wheel. She had to navigate this ship where she wanted it to go while she had the chance. Frank stopped looking at her. She wasn’t Bax’s type either, even though he was prone to like plain girls. He always picked the quiet, mousy one. The one who looked like she hadn’t rubbed more than two sentences together her whole life. Girls like this one, Frank thought, are worse than whores. At least a whore defies something, rallies against everything people tell them they ought to be. This girl doesn’t care who I am or what I want, she’ll do anything to put an esquire on her wedding invitations. Doesn’t she know she’s not my type? Frank thought, full of annoyance now. People know. We’re animals, for Christ sake, he thought, his mind going in a million directions. “You were so talkative at the restaurant; anything wrong?” She asked, her eyes wide again. “I’m good. I’m just fine . . .” Frank smiled. He got out of bed, his white boxers sticking to his legs. He was tall and broad. Frank picked her up at a bar. He was there with a bunch of guys from his firm. They were all married or engaged or about to be engaged and Frank had this shithole to come home to. He knew her type before he said hello. A few dates later and a whole lot of liquor and he told her about Sam. Not everything. Just that he had a brother named Sam who died when they were kids. Sam was the third one, the triplet. He was 60 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
the middle one, right between Bax and Frank. He looked like a cherub from a Renaissance painting. A cherub with small, wire-rimmed glasses. She was still asking about pictures when he finally tuned her back in. The music was so good. They didn’t stop playing it all night, too. Frank thought he might donate money to that radio station. No commercials, no bullshit. Just jazz all night. “Listen . . . I’m tired. I’ll call you a cab, okay . . . ?” Frank offered softly. “What? A cab? Are you serious?” She raised her voice. There wasn’t a tender thing about this lady, Frank thought. Bax would’ve asked her to leave and then called the cops. Bax liked things neat. He didn’t mess around. He would’ve just called the cops and waited for them in his little rocking chair while she wailed and demanded and looked all insulted. Not Frank. Frank liked to draw things out. He liked the pain of it, he knew that. So he told her that he regretted everything he said at dinner. He told her to forget what he said. He told her he was dumb and drunk and it was better if she found someone more stable, more ambitious. “I won’t forget it! I care about you . . .” Her voice trailed off. She wasn’t going anywhere. She was planted in his tiny bed, pushed against a dirty wall, beneath a window facing bricks. You can’t look for infinity in a place like this; he knew that, too. He was looking for that small gap between the platform and the train, between standing and moving. That suspension before gravity remembers to do its job. He couldn’t talk about Sam, about what happened and what didn’t happen, if he wanted to. Not even if a gun were pointed at his head. Not even if he didn’t care if he died. Because those boys don’t exist anymore and if they don’t exist they can’t remember. It’s a funny thing, memory; you can ignore it into silence. Into death maybe. That’s what Frank hoped for anyway. The closest he came to remembering was when he was in some old shack down in Tennessee. It was raining and he and his girl at the time, Martha, were on the porch, sticking their bare feet out in the rain. Frank loved Martha. She was crazy. The thing that bothered Martha more than all his drinking and cussing and feeling sorry for himself was that Frank said she was gray, like old books. She hated that, especially after he told her that her best friend (a tall, beanstalk girl with blonde hair and beautiful full breasts that pushed against chiffon every time she left her house) was lavender, like a cool sky. Martha hated being gray, but Frank thought it was a compliment. Grays are serious and stormy and interesting. Grays are sad alleyways and faraway horizons and days that feel so miserable you wish they’d never end. When they broke up after a couple years of never getting serious, she asked him one last time if he still thought she was a gray. Truly, that was the foremost thing on her mind. And he told her the truth, a gray she is and a gray she’ll always be, can’t change your color. She left, thinking he
didn’t know her at all. “Maybe I would like to go out . . . a diner?” She said, grasping. “I’m going to go. In a minute,” Frank said, searching for matches. “I have to work in the morning,” she said. She was in sales. He never could remember what it is she sold, despite her telling him a few times. It was something you can’t buy at the corner store, like circuit boards. She was a burgundy, Frank thought. Dusty and old-fashioned. The thing is, she wouldn’t even flinch, probably. He could tell her she was shit-brown and she’d laugh and ask where they were going to dinner next Friday. He could never be with a woman like that; a woman who didn’t care about the important things. Frank and Bax were practically identical-looking, it was Sam who looked different, the blonde hair and all. Sam was tall like his brothers. As much as Frank didn’t think about Sam in the past, he sure did think about him in the future. He figured Sam would be an artist and better looking than him and Bax, maybe a faster runner. He could run faster when they were kids. All the way to the end of the dock, to the end and beyond. To the bottom of the lake, to the bottom and then gone. They were racing and then the brother pushed Sam. There was a push. Mrs. Jerome came running because she thought she saw something from her kitchen window. One time she said she saw a push, but then she stopped telling that story. No one wanted to hear it. Even though it was an accident. His head hit the boat propeller. Mrs. Jerome couldn’t tell the difference between Frank and Bax; most people couldn’t who didn’t take time with them. One of them pushed him off the dock, I think . . . that one . . . no, maybe it was the other? They allied themselves against Mrs. Jerome, against her
story. If she wouldn’t have pointed, they probably would’ve cried and told everything. Maybe they would’ve been different if they did tell. Maybe it was her pointing finger that drove them into silence. All they knew was that there was no going back. They made an unspoken promise. It was funny to Frank for a lot of years that this one most important thing in both their lives, this one crucial fact, was sealed without words, without a nod or a handshake. Bax was better at it, Frank thought. “It doesn’t matter what happened!” His mother screamed. She screamed like a lunatic. She was at the end of that dock, her skinny body bent crooked. She scared both Frank and Bax and Mrs. Jerome. Her face was dark and grim and if they didn’t know better, it was almost as if she grew fangs, the way she screamed. Her head shook and her arms were straight and strong, locked at the elbows. Frank never forgot that. Never. He knew that she didn’t want to know. And that scared him more than anything. That scared them both. Frank put on his shoes. He poured himself a glass of wine and took a long, steady drink. She was out of bed now, scrambling for clothes, afraid of being left in this terrible apartment. He finished the glass. He grabbed his coat and thought of Bax, probably asleep long ago in his big, warm Connecticut house. Probably wrapped in an expensive down comforter, everything quiet and peaceful. It was almost four in the morning. Frank wanted to be passed out before the sun came up. He pulled out the pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. She was half-dressed. Frank picked up his single key, the only key he had in the whole world. She was scurrying. Her bag. Her shoes. Her phone. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” She demanded. Frank chuckled again. He was ready to leave. “I smoke.”
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Alison Johnson Alison’s work reflects experiences, which explore the power of nature and layers of inter-connectivity, anatomy, mortality and the fragility of life. She loves to create work that is decorative and surreal. Light is very important too. Alison layers her paint, building gestural marks. Turner is a great influence upon her work. Her work is not limited to one particular subject although city and landscapes do dominate her work. She loves experimenting with colour transparencies and textures and applies media mostly on canvas or board. Creating atmosphere and mood of a place are key. Visit her at http://www.alisonmjohnson.com.
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Nearing the City
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Jason Ehlen Jason Ehlen was raised on the Jersey Shore but spent most of the last 12 years living on Miami Beach. Currently, he lives in Nanjing, China and is trying to understand what the hell people are saying while dodging crazy Chinese taxi drivers. Thankfully, he likes rice.
ain poured down in that tropical Miami Beach way. Everywhere water, as the gutters swiftly filled and overflowed, and I extended my arms out from either side of me. I stood like that for a few moments, feeling the rhythm of the rain against my face and the way the water ran off the indentations of my lips and chin. When I opened my eyes, she was standing in front of me. “What are you doing?” Her long black hair clung wetly to the sides of her pale face. “What are you doing?” “Standing here.” She smiled. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Waiting for you to notice me.” Shorter than me by a head and so skinny that I thought her frail, she walked up to me and touched me lightly on the arm. “I’m getting soaked.” Later in my hotel room, a dirty and palmetto-bug-infested place with water damage on the ceiling and on the walls, she told me her name was Aimee. Flat-chested and so skinny that I could almost see her ribs, she looked like a child, and I asked her age. “Don’t worry baby, I’m twenty.” Smiling and watching me with her light blue eyes, she pulled me down next to her on the bed and laid her wet hair against my chest. Running her pointer finger in lazy circles across the soft skin of my stomach, she asked me where I was from, and what I was doing here, and why I was staying in this dump. The first question was easy. The other two I didn’t have good answers for, but she surprised me by unbuckling my pants and taking me into her mouth before I could answer her questions. When I was done, she looked up at me and smiled. She became my girl like a stray dog becomes yours after you find it. It was convenient. She knew the town and found me work at a neighborhood bar and helped me find a studio 70 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
apartment with palmetto bugs but no water damage. When we walked around town, she would latch onto my arm with both of her small hands and lean against me and pull gently on my elbow and talk softly in my ear. Pointing, she would tell me how long that clothing store had been open, or what movie star was doing coke in that club’s bathroom last week. When I asked her how she knew so much, she would ignore me and continue on to another story. Late at night, tired from walking up and down Washington and Collins, we would lay on my bed and talk and have sex. Often, she asked me about my family, about growing up. I told her stories about my mother. My mother hated shoes. “That’s crazy. Most women love shoes,” Aimee said. She didn’t hate owning them. She owned a whole closet full of shoes. Tennis shoes. Extravagant high heels. Tall black boots. It was wearing shoes that she hated, which wasn’t so bad because we lived near the ocean, so all summer long she could get away with going barefoot. But in the wintertime, her stubbornness on this issue would drive my father crazy. My father would plan a dinner for all of us at a local restaurant, and my mother would stalk the house, rearranging flowers and dusting tables and generally delaying the time when she would have to put on her shoes. Finally, my father would stand in the doorway and call to her, and she would appear at the top of the stairs with a rag in her hand but impeccably dressed, and she would tell him to go along without her, that she really needed to clean the house, that she could use some alone time, and they would argue, my mother loudly and extravagantly and with a lot of hand waving, and my father, with his even, insistent tone and maddening calmness. I would sit outside on the steps and wait for the discussion to be over. The result was always the same. My father and I
would go to dinner, and my mother would stay home. “It couldn’t have been the shoes,” Aimee said. Throughout these stories, Aimee would sit with her head on my stomach, twirling her pointer finger continuously around my belly button. If I asked her about her family, about her life, she would laugh and climb on top of me, reaching expertly down between her legs to place me inside her, and she would tell me that she had something better in mind than her life story. She would grab me by the back of the neck with both hands and place her forehead against mine and stare into my eyes as she pushed herself against me. “Stay here,” she would implore me, and I would look into her eyes for as long as I could before losing control and flipping her onto her back, and she would giggle as she wrapped her legs around my hips. Months passed like this, then a year. The work was steady, and the weather was beautiful, even if the air clung to you like a wet shirt. I grew used to the ebb and flow and found the places where I liked to drink and to play pool. I began to recognize the homeless: ranging from the morbidly obese woman under the umbrella on 14th Street to the shriveled hunchback street sweeper manically stalking from block to block, pushing before her a battered and rusting shopping cart. There were no homeless in my small northeastern town of square yards and simple small churches. If I had been more aware, I would have seen them as a warning of how out of place I was. Instead, I grew used to them and began to view them as a necessary extension of the art deco architecture. Bright colored facades on old buildings with a bum panhandling out front are my lasting impressions of Miami Beach. And Aimee, of course. “Where’s that little girl of yours?” Bobby drained the last drop of beer from his dark bottle and pushed the empty across the bar towards me. Reading the newspaper, I ignored the question because I didn’t know where she was. I never knew where she was on the nights that I worked. I just knew that if I called the phone at home no one would answer, and she never turned on the cell phone that I bought her. “A few of us were discussing whether or not we should call Division of Family Services on account of your being with such a young thing. Let me ask you this, does she have her driver’s license yet?” He watched me from over his reading glasses, a half smirk on his face. “Not that we can blame you, mind you. She’s a beautiful girl, but the law’s the law.” “She’s 20, Bobby.” “Of course, she is. That’s what I was telling the guys.” A smile stretched broadly across his weathered and craggy face. Getting up from my stool to fetch his beer, I waited for him to offer his services as a bona fide age checker or as a driving instructor or as any number of things that he used nightly to amuse himself and pass the time sitting at the end of my bar. “Because you know me, Jimmy, I don’t judge, but the guys”
— as he said “the guys,” he gestured with his hand at the rest of the empty bar — “are not so, shall we say, understanding. But, I just might be able to talk them out of it. It’ll be difficult, but I think that I can handle it.” “For a small fee, I’m sure.” I rattled the newspaper and returned to my article about another Dolphins season full of misery and failure. “Maybe a twelve pack a night. You see, I’m not a greedy man. I’m sure that the love of your young life is worth a case a night at least, but I’ll settle for half.” “I’ll think about it.” “Please do. I don’t know how long I can hold these guys off, though. Seriously now, these guys feel really strongly about looking out for the kids.” I threw my newspaper at him and walked over to the phone and called home. The line rang six times before I heard my voice over the answering machine telling myself to leave a message. Returning to my perch across the bar from Bobby, I lit a cigarette and let it hang from the corner of my mouth. “Who do you like tonight?” “The Lakers and whoever is playing the Heat.” “Playing the long shots, huh?” Bobby replied. “Have you ever been married?” I took two quick puffs from my cigarette and released the smoke out the left side of my mouth. “Yeah, once.” “What happened?” Pulling the cigarette from my mouth, I flicked the long ash into a circular black plastic ashtray. “It didn’t work.” “Why?” Taking a long drag, I held the smoke in for a few seconds until I could feel it scratching my throat. “I didn’t want to stay in Chicago anymore. I didn’t like her family. She was a bitch. There were a million reasons, but not one.” Bobby took a long pull from his beer. “Why, are you thinking about getting hitched? I didn’t know it was legal to marry fifteen-year-olds in this state.” “Piss off.” I put out my cigarette and told Bobby that I’m not sure, that I felt like I didn’t even know Aimee all that well sometimes. Smiling, Bobby told me that he was married to his wife for fifteen years and realized that he didn’t even know her at the end. He told me that I’m a man, that I’m not supposed to understand a woman, but it sounded like an outdated philosophy to me, like something from Freud, sounding so brilliant, but so off. I told him that I was thinking about law school. I told him that I thought maybe it was time to move on, that maybe I should be doing something more than bartending at a dump listening to broken down old drunks philosophize about life all night long. “Hopefully the next bartender will have big tits.” Bobby lit a cigarette. “What game do you want to bet on tonight?” We ended up betting twenty on opposite ends of the Duke/ Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 71
North Carolina basketball game. I took Duke because I hated North Carolina. He took North Carolina because it was only twenty bucks and it would give us a reason to watch the game. When I got home, Aimee was asleep on the couch. I leaned down and brushed her long brown hair out of her face, and when she smiled at me, I asked her what she had done all night. “Nothing baby. I waited around for you.” “I called.” “You know I never answer the phone.” “Why?” “Oh, baby.” She grabbed me by the belt and pulled me on top of her. I was young then. It didn’t take much to distract me. Later, lying in bed, she asked me to tell her another story about my mother. My mother was tall and beautiful and vain. Vain, is that something you can call your mother? “I guess,” Aimee said. She had long, thick, black hair, and she flaunted her figure by wearing string bikinis to the beach and short skirts out around town. Often my father would ask her, “Are you really going to wear that?” Rolling her eyes, she would ignore him. I often caught her looking in mirrors. Examining the creases around her eyes and practicing smiles. Sometimes, I would imitate her, and seeing my reflection in the mirror, she would turn and chase after me yelling that I shouldn’t make fun of my mother. Usually, she would catch me quickly, and holding me down, she would tickle me until I promised not to tease her anymore. Are you a mime? She would ask. What’s a mime? I usually shot back. She always doted on me and always smothered me with attention, but often on the nights that she refused to go to dinner we’d come home, and she’d be gone. My father, tight jawed, would put me to bed, and I would lay awake in my room and wait for her. Eventually, a car would pull up, and I would hear her laugh, then the slamming of a car door, and her uneven steps up our walkway. My father always opened the front door for her. I would fall asleep to the sound of her laughing in the kitchen as she told my father some story about her night. “Would your father flip out?” Aimee asked. “My father never yelled at her. At least not that I ever heard.” “That must have driven your mother crazy,” Aimee said. Summer came with sudden, violent thunderstorms and heavy, thick humidity. Every night that I wasn’t working, Aimee dragged me out to walk up and down Collins and Washington Avenue. As we walked, she would comment on the architecture of the buildings or the placement of the mannequins in the store windows. She told me that by looking 72 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
at how the mannequins changed, she could sense how life was for the store manager. “That’s crazy.” I told her. “They’re just trying to sell clothes.” “That’s so boring,” she said. “People are so much more interesting than that.” Before I could say anything else, she turned into a walkway between two hotels. “Baby,” I said, following her. Lounging against the wall, she stood, hips pushed out, and told me that she was waiting for me. “But there are people everywhere,” I said. “Stop being such a puss.” She grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me to her. Halfway through, I looked up at the window above us and saw the dark face of the desk clerk looking down at us. Before I could stop, Aimee pulled my face down to hers and said, “Stay here. I need you here.” So, I focused on her and let the clerk leer at us from his brightly lit window, while I grabbed her by the small of her back with my left hand and gripped the window sill with my right hand for leverage. When we finished, Aimee led me back out onto Collins and walked directly into a shopping cart, knocking it over and spilling empty beer bottles and warped bent packs of cigarettes onto the cement sidewalk. The street sweeper, wrinkled and hunchbacked, ran towards us, waving her arms and croaking. Leaning over to right her cart, I told her that we were sorry, but she ignored us and grabbed the cart from me and started off down the street, leaving behind a pile of refuse and the stench of sweat. “We should follow her,” Aimee said. “Why? Shouldn’t we go home?” “Come on. It’ll be fun.” She grabbed me with both of her small hands and pulled me in the direction of the homeless lady. Walking with quick, forceful strides, the street sweeper led us north on Collins before turning left on Fourteenth and left again into the alley halfway up the block. Pressing against me with her hip, Aimee told me to slow down and when we reached the dark and wide alley, it looked empty. We walked around opposite ends of a large puddle at the entrance. “Where is she?” Aimee whispered. Feeling a little ridiculous, I didn’t answer. Sensing. more than seeing, I stopped walking and could make out the figure of the old homeless woman squatting to shit behind an oversized, green trash bin. I waved to Aimee for her to stop, but she didn’t see me. Surprised, the woman pulled up her black pants and returned to hurriedly pushing her rickety shopping cart down the uneven asphalt. The wheels made a metallic clanking as she ran over rocks and loose asphalt. Giggling, Aimee kept following her. Halfway down the
alley, Aimee turned to me and asked me if I could believe that she went to the bathroom in an alley. “Where did you think she’d go? In a five star hotel?” Turning right at the other end of the alley, the stooped woman led us back to Washington Avenue. Walking faster than should be possible on such shriveled legs, she maneuvered the cart around the other pedestrians and weaved her way down the sidewalk. At least twice a block, she stopped and pulled her broom and a long handled dust pan from the cart and swept up empty soda cans, cigarette packs, and discarded paper plates. Returning to her cart, she deposited the trash in a plastic bag and resumed her trip south. The motions looked practiced and fluid, as if we were watching the same frame of a film over and over. “She’s amazing. Look how fast she moves. Look how she never stops going.” Aimee’s light blue eyes followed the old woman’s movements. After six blocks of sweeping and walking, I asked Aimee how long she wanted to do this for. Looking up at me, she asked me if I was bored, and when I said yes, she seemed a little disappointed and looked at me intently — almost how she was watching the homeless woman, as if comparing. “I’ll follow for as long as you want. I’m just saying that she just keeps doing the same thing over and over. That’s all she does. Kind of like the traditional hamster in a wheel.” I touched Aimee on the arm to make sure she was paying attention. “Don’t you find that interesting though? What if life were like that? Just doing the same thing over and over with no other options. Wouldn’t it be horrible?” Aimee turned her attention back to the old woman, who was in the middle of depositing an empty potato chip bag and a half-eaten slice of pizza into her cart. “I mean, life can get routine for everyone, but we have options. We chose each other. What options does she have? Do you know what I mean?” “She’s crazy.” Rolling her eyes, Aimee told me that I was missing the point. “No that is the point. She is chemically unhinged. You talk about her situation as if she was capable of understanding. It’s like asking if a fish realizes that it’s in a bowl. Who gives a shit? It’s a fish.” “You’re so simple sometimes.” Aimee turned away from me and started walking home. A few months before my mother died, my father went on a weeklong business trip. My mother kept me home the whole time he was gone. She called the school and told them that I was sick. “You’re growing up too fast,” she said. “I want you to myself for a little while. Before long you’re going to forget all about me and leave me alone in this house with your father. Then what the hell am I going to do?” “I’m never going to leave you.”
“Soon enough, you’ll meet some pretty young girl and won’t even remember my name. How old are you? Ten. I’ve got four more years tops, and I intend to enjoy them. You’re lucky your father doesn’t travel more often or you’d flunk fourth grade from excessive absence.” “I like school.” “How strange you are,” she told me and started laughing. I threw a handful of cereal at her. “Remember, don’t tell your father. Life shouldn’t only be homework. Maybe you should learn how to surf.” We spent most of the week lounging on the couch. We watched cartoons in the morning and soap operas in the afternoon. We ate cereal dry out of the box. My father would have gone crazy if he had seen us sitting there in rumpled, dirty clothes, spooning Cheerios into our mouths with our hands. “I wish my mom was like that,” Aimee said. When my father came back, I kept my promise and told him how much work I had done at school that week, and that summer my mother bought me surfing lessons. That was the summer when she died. She had been at a party on the beach while my father and I sat at home waiting. She had gone swimming in the ocean. Three days later, she washed ashore. Naked and blue. A lot of people that I didn’t know were at her wake. Guys with long hair and earrings and women who introduced themselves as friends of my mom who told me that my mom always bragged about me, how my mom loved me, how sad they were that she was gone. I nodded a lot and tried to smile. Eventually, I snuck out the back and stood against the back wall of the funeral home. The continuous stream of well wishers was driving me crazy. After a few minutes, two women came out for a smoke. “Can you believe Brad didn’t come?” “Of course he didn’t.” “But he’s devastated. He totally blames himself for staying on the beach and not going out there with her.” “It would be so disrespectful though. You know that. Regardless of her thing with Brad, she wouldn’t have wanted her son to be upset by it.” The women walked off, and I didn’t hear anymore. I never found out who Brad was. “Did you ever tell your father?” Aimee asked. “Of course not. Some things are better left unsaid.” “You’re probably right,” Aimee said. Walking in from the empty, late-night streets, Aimee surprised me with a visit at work on a Thursday close to Christmas. She smiled at me as she made her way around the wooden bar. “Hey, honey, I’m over here,” Bobby yelled. Aimee waved at him before climbing up onto a stool to kiss me. Bobby made gagging sounds and clanked his empty beer bottle against the bar demanding another, loudly. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 73
I gave him the finger. Smiling, Aimee climbed back down and made her way to the empty stool next to Bobby, while I got the old drunk another beer. “Viejo, do you miss me?” Aimee sat on the black stool with her knees pulled to her chest. “Every day.” Bobby smiled at me and said to her, “I’m still waiting for you to dump this loser.” “I kind of like him.” “Kind of ?” I walked over to the well and made her a rum and coke. “Seriously though, what have you been up to? We haven’t seen you much lately.” Bobby put his arm around Aimee’s shoulders and shooed me away with his other hand. “I’ve been around.” Aimee sipped gingerly from the glass, holding the liquid in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it. She asked me for a lime and then turned to Bobby. “I don’t want to be one of those girls sitting at the end of her boyfriend’s bar all night long. You know what I mean. How suffocating must that be? I mean, damn, let the man breathe. Let him make a little money.” Squeezing the lime so the juice trickled off my fingertips and into her glass, I told her that I wouldn’t mind if she was around more often. She smiled at me and turned and asked Bobby how his kids were. Lighting a cigarette, I sat down and watched the two of them talk. How comfortable they were together surprised me. It was in the way that Bobby smiled at her and how she reacted to his routine. She seemed to know the jokes before they came. Sometimes, she would reach across and touch him on the arm as she laughed. Growing angry, I walked to the cooler and made myself a shot and drank it. I started to ridicule myself for being jealous of Bobby, an old man, when I realized that I wasn’t jealous so much as bitter at how comfortable Aimee was with him. I stood there for a minute, watching the empty street on the other side of the plate glass window. Later, after she was gone, I asked Bobby how long he had known Aimee. “I don’t know. A couple of years or so, maybe more. She used to date this guy, Danny, who worked here a couple of months before you started.” “What happened to him?” “I don’t know. One week he was here. The next week he was gone. This town is like that.” “What about her?” “Aimee? She’s a good girl. You have to know a good thing when it’s right in front of you.” Bobby lit a cigarette in that old sailor way, cupping the match against a wind that wasn’t there. When I got home that night, Aimee wasn’t. I sat and waited for her. Eventually I fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t think that anything bad had happened. She had disappeared for a 74 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
night a year earlier. The next afternoon she had shown up looking tired but with a big smile. I had wanted to be angry, but couldn’t stay mad for very long. She always knew how to divert my attention. I woke up late the next day. Someone was knocking loudly on my door. When I opened it, I saw two plainclothes police officers. The female police officer was short and pudgy, with long wavy black hair and a friendly smile. “Hey. I’m Officer Martinez. This is Officer Hansen. Do you live here?” “Yes.” I said. “Does anyone else live here with you?” “My girlfriend,” I said. “Is this her?” She showed me Aimee’s driver’s license. I nodded. “We have some bad news,” she said. At first they were nice. The man told me that Aimee was dead. He didn’t tell me any details, just said that she was gone and watched me. I didn’t know how to act. What to say. I sat down on the couch and looked at my feet. I got up and looked for a cigarette. I wandered around the apartment. I asked them if they wanted coffee. The woman asked me if I could go down to the police station with them. She flashed her friendly smile at me and said that they needed someone to identify the body. They also had some questions for me. I agreed. I didn’t really know what else to do. I only lived three blocks from the station, and I asked if we could walk. They both looked at me with surprise, but they agreed. I remember it was windy and a little cold for Miami. Not a northeast biting cold, but cold enough that I wished I had worn a long-sleeved shirt. At the police station, they sat me in a room. There weren’t any mirrored walls like on television, just three metal chairs, a metal table, and a video camera in the upper corner of the room above the door. After a few minutes, the woman cop came in and sat across from me and put a folder on the desk. She told me that she didn’t think I had done it, but she needed to ask some questions just to rule it out. “Whatever,” I said. “Whatever you need to do.” She asked me where I had been last night. I told her, at work. She asked me where I worked, and when I got off, and if anyone could vouch for me during that time. I told her that Bobby had been there until closing. I told her that the bar had cameras. Then I paused for a minute and asked how she died. “She was strangled.” She said it so simply. So straightforward. Like she was telling me what she had for lunch. “Something isn’t working for me here, James.” “I didn’t kill Aimee. I wouldn’t. I’m not that kind of person.”
“I can tell that, already. I’ve got a good feel for people, and I just don’t see you as a murderer. I’m having a hard time seeing you as a papi chulo either.” “As a what?” “As a pimp, James. You don’t strike me as the type.” “Why would I be a pimp?” She cocked her head and looked at me for a minute. Her eyes had dark circles around them, but they weren’t mean or angry or stern. I’ve never been able to forget her wide, brown eyes and how sad they looked. “Why would I be a pimp?” I said again. “Aimee was a prostitute, James. She got picked up last year for solicitation. All of the vice guys knew who she was.” She looked at my face for another long moment and then halfasked, half-said: “You really didn’t know? Pobrecito. You really didn’t know.” I left Miami the next day. No notice to work or to the landlord. Just another person moving in and out of Miami Beach. I went back home to quiet, calm south Jersey. My father took me back in without any questions. I went to law school and became an attorney, just like him. A few years later I met a woman, fell in love, and got married. Life progressed the way it was supposed to, as if I never lived in Miami Beach at all. As
if Aimee had never existed. The bartender, a short man with wavy gray hair and thick glasses, is starting to give me that “I need to cut you off ” look, and I can feel my phone vibrating for what must be the tenth time. I pull it from my pocket and look at the miniature picture of my wife looking at me from the screen. She’s smiling. At least the picture is smiling. “Hey.” “I was worried,” she says. “You haven’t done this in awhile. Where are you?” “I’ll be home soon,” I say and hang up the phone. I could have told her that I’m sitting at a bar thinking about my longdead ex-girlfriend and how Aimee reminded me of my mother in ways that my wife never would. How I still miss both of them very much. But some things are better left unsaid. Finishing my drink, I look at the bartender to say good night, but he’s watching a basketball game on television and doesn’t notice me as I turn to shuffle towards the door. He probably should have cut me off an hour ago. It’s cold outside. Pulling my jacket on, I hurry across the dark parking lot. Then it starts to rain. Slowly at first, then faster. Not a torrential Miami downpour. A steady, cold Jersey sleet that stings my ears as I climb into my car.
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Kara Carlson Kara Carlson has been published in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry by inTravel Magazine, BootsNAll.com, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, the WHL Review, and Denver Syntax, among others. Over the past two years, she has traveled through nine countries. Her story Tattoo was inspired by her experience in India. In California, she works as a real estate agent. However, she currently lives in New Zealand working as a nanny. The family has five children under the age of nine. http://www.shotjot.com.
Tattoo I sit on the cream marble balcony. A cigarette drips from my mouth. Cascading leaves gasp in the breeze. An Indian man cleaves a coconut with a machete. A woman ambles along the dirt path below me, balancing a twenty-kilo burlap rice bag on her head. A motorbike drums past. Smoke scratches my throat and coils into my lungs. Tobacco smoulders my blood and captures my brain. My body basins into calm and my heart decelerates. Ashes blend with the breeze, a calloused song. The cheap cigarette flames my fingers as I inhale the final drag. My identity as a smoker commenced twenty-eight days ago on India’s Goan beaches. Surrounded by tobacco-laden travelers from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK; I grasped the habit. Smokers succumb to potential consequences. Smokers aren’t afraid to die. We are all running from something. Twelve months and twenty-eight days ago, my reality dissipated. Dissolved. I have not talked to my dad in a year. Ash encloses my life. Slide. I slither in circles in my grandmother’s hot tub. My arms stream over the circular seating, pulling. My legs stroke the surface. My body traces my arms, following, a subdued feud. I teach myself how to swim. My limbs sketch spheres in the water while my siblings and cousins ravage lunch. Uncle Ryan’s heroin-thin corpse treads to me and asks why I’m in the hot tub instead of the pool. I reply that I like the hot tub better. He says the pool is much nicer. He accuses me of being unable to swim. I’m in the hot tub because I want to be, and I can too swim. I sit at the pool’s edge, and next thing I am in the air, next in the water. Uncle Ryan’s laughter ricochets through my temporal lobe. Water washes my eyes. The pool shrouds me, a leaden liquid tank. I don’t know which way is up. I don’t know how 76 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
to get out. I kick. My arms punch liquid weight. My lungs sear, suffocation in sprawling strands. Sun-stained blue blankets me. I mask my head with my arms. My fingernails burrow into my skull. I sink. I remember my eardrum bursting last year. I couldn’t stop screaming. My dad rocked me back and forth, back and forth, in the rocking chair. He held me, his fingertips fluid over my forehead, my hair. His whispers scampered, echoing that it would be okay in muzzled murmurs. I screamed and screamed and screamed. Hercules arms, fingers, handcuff my body. I launch through my flooded life. My flesh slashes the liquid plane and flags onto the flushed poolside concrete. “Baby, are you okay? Baby, talk to me. Kelly. Kelly.” My dad’s voice eases into my pores. My back blushes the concrete. My eyelids angle ajar into my dad’s spasming eyes. His hands border my face. He ascends from his knees. My mom bombs to me. My dad strides to the other side of the pool. He punches his brother in the face. He returns and corrals me in his arms. Little known facts: Tom Petty’s band was first named the Sundowners; in 1966 the military drafted two members of Creedence Clearwater Revival; in 1970 the Doobie Brothers’ most prevalent fans were Northern California Hells Angels chapters; and Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” while in his car. My dad worships music like I obsess about Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. I made James and Lucy watch Sleeping Beauty every week for three months. My dad takes my brother, sister, and me to The Last Record Store on a Sunday morning when dewdrops polish leaves and mist lingers, filming the hills. Records paint the store’s windows. The cashier bellows as we enter.
“Mark! I haven’t seen you all week. We got The Who’s A Quick One in for you. I’ve got it up here whenever you’re ready.” To him, “Thanks Jim,” and to us, “Can you guys say hi? You know Jim.” My dad’s right hand stretches in my hair. He carries my sister in his left arm. Our faces splinter into smiles as we greet Jim. The Last Record Store tastes of old records and dust. Loud posters and record covers wail from the walls. CDs and records collect on racks, in boxes, and in stacks on the stained concrete floor. I pillage through CD racks of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Queen, the Allman Brothers, AC/DC, and the Beach Boys. When I see the disc Blowin’ Your Mind by Van Morrison, vestiges of my dad’s voice boomerangs through my brain. “’Brown Eyed Girl’. You hear that? He’s singing about you, baby.” The orange-yellow-brown cover clasps me. I ferry my brother to a corner and jam the CD down his jeans. I tell him not to tell anyone. I tell him I’ll get it from him when we get home. Jim scans three CDs. My dad comments on the refurbished flooring, and Jim replies that concrete means no beer stains. I aviate anxiety. Minutes later my dad lifts my brother to his car booster seat. Blowin’ Your Mind descends from my brother’s butt and plummets to the parking lot. I feign interest in a white-walled building. “James, what is this?” He asks my four-year-old brother. “It’s Kelly’s,” he says. “Kelly? Did you steal this?” The words dash from his ajar face like darts dissecting my morality. My dad lectures me on integrity and truth, honor and honesty. He quotes The Bible, the Ten Commandments, his own ethical code. You do not cheat. You do not lie. You do not steal. I brood back inside and apologize. I blink at the floor as I surrender the CD. One foot in front of the other. Right. Left. Right. Left. Breathe. Accelerate. Do not lose. I’m two miles in, one to go. My feet forge into the earth, transient compressions on decayed organic matter and pulverized rock. Right. Left. Right. Left. My lungs growl heat. Downhill. Momentum. The path severs. Right or left. My sense of direction is as useless as my Uncle Ryan’s newfound Christianity. He still snorts cocaine. He still injects heroin. He’s still in-and-out-inand-out of jail. But he has relinquished to God. His savior. I stop at the dirt crossroads. My swelling breath pulses through my carcass. My inhale-exhale envelops my ears and reverberates through my brain-heart-lungs-legs. I drink air. I don’t know which way to go. I turn left. I tear ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five steps. My feet box soil. I would choose the wrong way. I stop and rotate. Two runners seep downhill. They turn right. I thrust my thighs, pursuing my teammates. I am better. My biceps compel my arms, drive my legs in energized symbiosis. I am better. I launch towards them. Pebbled ore
pours from beneath my feet. My dad stands at the finish line, his flesh firm, his face a spotlight. Forty steps away, and I shorten my strides. Only my toes connect with land. Sprint. Breathe. Right. Left. Right. Left. Thirty steps. My heartbeat and legs expedite in speed. My two friends and classmates dash towards the finish line, five strides and five breaths ahead. Twenty steps. Iron blood barrages my mouth. Do not lose. My dad elevates his arms. Ten steps, and my dad’s blue eyes shower rich. I hurl my legs-arms-heart at the white finish line. It is a three-way tie in the first cross-country meet of the season. Our eighth grade girls’ team places first. Five of our runners finish before five from any other school. The judges rank us. I place third. Sweat spooling from my pores, legs liquefied, devoid of thought processes and walking, my dad blitzkriegs me in a hug. His football linebacker chest and arms blanket me. He whispers into the side of my neck, below my ear, how proud he is of me. He doesn’t care what place I got. On my sixteenth birthday, my parents endow the King Kong-sized white molester van to me. I would rather try to teach a fruit fly Mandarin than drive the soccer-mom-mobile. The molester van’s sliding door ruptured when I was thirteen. Eroded rope stationed the door shut for six months. The cloth seats advertise the ancient presence of child terrorists. Pens went rogue in our palms. A burn mark ornaments the nickel ceiling from the time my brother’s friend purposefully lit his hair on fire while in the van. My mom has the driving skills of my legally blind grandma. Dints, dents, scrapes, and scratches engrave the exterior. A month after I receive my license, I sit in the front yard. Vegetation-entwined hills pulp beneath a bruised sun. When I answer my cell phone, my dad’s voice frolics. He tells me there’s a stop sign lying on the side of a major intersection. He wants me to steal it with some friends so the sign can acquire a new life ambition: game room wall decoration. Laughter buoys my voice as I agree. While my dad plays his weekly softball game in an old man’s league, four friends and I drive the stalker-mobile to find the stop sign sprawled in the dirt like a midget after a sumo match. A seven-foot pole ribbons the sign to utilitarian orbit. We lie down the molester van’s seats and my friends and I position the sign over them with feminine petty theft efforts punctuated by grunts and expletives. Passing car horns discharge while mutters and howls coat the saliva-steeped spring air. The molester van drums into the driveway, harassing the wind chime. We slant the sign against the house. The stop sign strokes the second story. I’m in bed when my dad returns from the Nutty Irishmen. The Nutty sponsors his softball team, and his softball team sponsors the bar. As he inclines forward to kiss my forehead, I smell his beer-twined breath. Sweat and dirt adulterate my Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 77
dad’s shirt. He details his three home runs and two RBIs, and the five teammates that bought him drinks. His hand sweeps my cheeks-chin-forehead. My dad tells me how happy he is with me. “You’re my daughter. God, you’re my daughter,” he says. My mom’s words are a tendril tattoo that flay my skin-brainheart, “Your dad’s been cheating on me.” Outside the office where I work, the street swallows my sobs. I quiver agony. What. Is. That. Noise. A ring. My eyes mask my cell phone’s screen. Three o’clock. My dad calls again. I shepherd the phone’s tone to silent and cage my eyes. Bank statements surface. Women materialize. Facts emerge. Money evaporates. My dad’s lies impregnate my life. The man, the father, the husband, the poet, the lawyer, the perceptive, receptive family man, radiating into a falsity, a sable skeleton of the man I knew. My tears slip, slow as glass. I live memories of my dad. Guillotined apparitions inhabit my mind. My mom drives us in the molester van to my dad’s office. Outside, brown shingles jewel the law firm walls. Inside, brown carpet uniforms the floors. My mom, brother, sister, and I startle the building’s silence and harass my dad’s office door. He opens it with embraces and smiles. We jump and jive past him, assaulting my dad’s office with shouts and shoving. We flash about, disrupting law books, pictures, paper drifts, the standing oversized globe that opens to champagne flutes. We hunt quarters. My sister’s screeches jounce off walls when she locates quarters under the clock and inside one of my dad’s gloves. I perspire excitement when I find a quarter tangled with pens. We plummet and plunge across the room under my dad’s vaulting smile. When we each find two quarters, my dad escorts us to the soda vending machine. We obtain our weekly soda. This tradition survives until I’m ten, and my dad alters jobs to an in-house counsel for a real estate development company. My breath buffets my body. Brandon’s truck detonates out of the driveway. The Ford vomits his pain. I cement my forehead to my knees and cry. Tears writhe in my hair. The sun’s elastic heat hugs me. A hand kisses my shoulder. Loyalty.
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I don’t look up. My dad’s coffee hair ridged with grey sits next to me on the slate deck. He doesn’t speak. I liberate my legs to mirror his. Our legs trail over the slate edge in stifled spontaneity. His arm bands across my shoulders. I lean into my dad’s side, serenity accented by rattling, lamenting roils. Seconds, minutes, subside into severed sorrow. My dad never asks. I never tell him that Brandon told me he loved me. I never tell my dad that I broke up with Brandon because he didn’t compare to him. I have not talked to my dad in a year. I sit on the cream marble balcony. A cigarette drips from my mouth. A bamboo fence spirals to my left; a leaf-thatched roof stands to my right. Smoke scratches my throat and coils into my lungs. Tobacco smoulders my blood and captures my brain. My body basins into calm and my heart decelerates. Ashes blend with the breeze, a calloused song. I meditate on friends and family I haven’t seen in the eight months I’ve been in India’s refuge. I missed the birth of my cousin’s child, my mom dating again, a friend’s wedding, another friend’s break-up after five years, my aunt’s kidney failure, and diminutive details of lives of those closest to me. Traveling, I initiate an identity. I mutate. I am the hippie, the author, the real estate agent, the alcoholic, one convalescing from a lost love. I am infinite. I sit on the cream marble balcony and inhale. My body descends into the liberation of a mind-altering substance. My mind surfaces from the smoke spirals curling through blood and veins. My heart distends. A battery of emotion amputates my thoughts. Affection for friends and family charge my cranium. I drink and smoke, lost in the anonymity of a wanderer through India. I surrender my half-smoked cigarette to the sanctuary of an ashtray. I elevate myself from the bamboo chair and my tobacco vapor. I stride past orange and pink Keralan houses, my ears forfeiting to the laughter of tourists and locals, a multinational cocktail of mirth. I pass cliffs cloaked in vegetation and scrutinize translucent cerulean waves beating the beach, fashioning a temporary necklace of scars into the sand. I remove my sandals and enter a glass-front store. I email my dad.
Robert Wexelblatt Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; and his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. Life in the Temperate Zone. Professors at Play, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, and Zublinka Among Women are available on Amazon.
Not Happy but Also Not Weak Not happy but also not weak cut into an oblong strip braved the bumper of his VW, earned a sneer: blessed are the meek. Magnified, exalted, thrice-blessed the night before the sunlit day he first saw her and she saw him seeing and what those looks confessed. It was on the stairs, she above, he below, a moment dropped into eternity at ten fifteen: so that’s what’s called true love. Give us this day our daily day, our Cheerios, maybe a bagel, play us a toccata to smooth our sordid trespasses away. We all know less than what we feel: in thoughtlessness we wrong the world and carelessly it hurts us back. Faith heals only what faith can heal.
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Christie Isler Christie Isler teaches 10-year-olds during the day and writes poetry and short fiction around the edges. To date, she has published several pieces, both poetry and short fiction, in a variety of online journals including Shoots & Vines, The New Flesh, Identity Theory, Infinite Windows, Bolts of Silk, Four and Twenty, Poetry Quarterly, All Things Girl, Every Day Poets and Every Day Fiction. Christie makes her physical home outside of Seattle, Washington and her online home at www.thetriptakesyou.wordpress.com
Moth on Water Its rice paper wings spawn a slick of eroded mortality, spinning captive, crucified on the surface tension of water. I see it in an outdoor pool with the filter broken and the surface has filled with bugs I’d prefer to drown except the moth, as if painted on, reminds me of times when only the barest of films traps me turning and buoys me against sinking to the bottom.
The Time it Takes to Mow the Lawn Forty-five minutes, is all it takes. A few hands short of an hour, the engine vibrates air a block around, like cotton, radio static or bees, smothering
is dull. Up the block, a heart flags and fails, vessels closed by years of superficial satisfaction, years of waiting. Finally, he finds time to lay face up in new cut
all the softer sounds of Summer. The growl blankets squeals like a sheet, so her parents, downstairs, don’t hear the panting followed by sounds of egg penetration, the gunshot
grass, gasping breaths of spring air like water, thinking, Finally, this is the day. Forty-five minutes, then the engine cuts and quiet blooms like fireworks across the fences so that
to daddy’s little girl. Across the street, papers slide across the table, papers served and signed as crisply as a business deal, but the blade slicing the marriage knot
people all across the neighborhood look up, feel it like a subtle dawn. Somewhere, grass is shorter. Somewhere, something’s changed.
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Two Methods For Eating a Cherry Cordial I. Nibble its lid, the nipple left by an absent chocolatier, ’til cherry sits exposed, a watching eye in its cocoa cup, bathed in humor, pomegranate pink of slow ripening seeds. Invasive kiss extracts the fruit, teeth crunch flesh each cell, jewel-like, pregnant with sugar. At last, the cup, licked clean of sap, tastes of soil-soused cocoa grains.
II. That solid bark of chocolate, dark, fractures until juice runs out, a heady sweet of viscous blood. Clamp lips to trap it, grind the shell so cocoa tempers syrup on the tongue. Savor summation of man’s work: the strike of night lightning on distant hills, illumination then, a ragged shadow cast deep in your throat, the after image of the whole outshining its parts.
The Book Signing I shook Sherman Alexie’s hand. I could have had his signature, too, but, hell, I know what I’ve signed. I’ve tossed my three words on Visa receipts for midnight vaginal anti-fungals and back tax payments to the IRS. I’ve signed divorce decrees and checks to people whose cars I’ve scraped. Oh, I know the pages I’ve signed where I’ve lain my name on people hungry for a sheath of me. I know how I dismiss those words, like dandruff, an effigy of me so I need not be present, just my words, slapped on paper. And I already bought his words,
At the Stoplight Mouse runs terrified, wet and brown between tires, until I lose him in petals gathered at a bend in the current, white against asphalt — cherry blooms fallen softer than rain in spring squalls, waking the sleepers.
the ones saying novels more than his name. So I looked Alexie in the eyes, put out my hand and he let go his pen. And spoke to me.
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Nathan Knapp Nathan Knapp is a poet and fiction writer living in Seattle, Washington. He has published pieces in little magazines like Lark(!), Third Wednesday, and Spilled Coffee. He just graduated from Seattle Pacific University and is getting married in the summer. He would say he’s at work on a novel, but, truthfully, he’s probably having a beer instead. Nathan can be found online at: sequencesometimesmetaphysical.blogspot.com
If We Are Nothing More
ometimes I think this is just a bloodsucker’s world. That we are, in fact, no better than parasites. This leaves out the possibility of symbiosis, of living and loving together equally, which I still believe in on my better days. But the past few days have not been those. Our breath, when it comes, comes in short bursts. Tilly’s tongue on mine tastes like Skittles, a few of which have spilled on the floor next to the mattress. My shirt has come off, and the afternoon sun gently warms my back, with Tilly furiously — beautifully — warming the rest of me. Oh, the warmth. Like coming home. We struggle against each other as if at some sort of intimate war, and my hand creeps up her T-shirt and her hand unbuttons my pants as we match each other, move for move — and we laugh in the hollow parts of our lungs. I look into her and see her eyes as green as the depths of the sea, lean down and drink from her mouth again. “Oh, come on.” These words do not belong to Tilly, who presses herself against me. Who is that, she mouths. I look over my shoulder and see the intruder, standing with her hands on her hips. In her leather jacket and blonde hair, she looks and sounds like some sort of Nazi femme-fatale. “You said we were going to get groceries. At two.” “Chelsea, do you mind? I’m kinda busy.” “You said. At two. You should put your pants back on and get out here. I’ve got shit to do today.” “You do not,” I say. She is unemployed — God save us all — and living with me at the moment. Over twenty-two hundred miles from the town where we both grew up. “Besides. My pants are on.” “They don’t have to be much longer,” whispers Tilly. “Look. Give us a few minutes.” “You’re a horny asshole.” “I’m giving you a fucking place to live.” 82 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
She raises her eyebrows and bobs her head, a posture that has been familiar to me since she first struck it at age two, at first to be cute, and then, later, as an expression of anger. “Then why don’t I do any of the fucking? Oh, let me see. Because you seem to have it under control.” And with this, she walks away. Tilly erupts with laughter. Somehow this is all funny to her. Not to me. Nothing is funny about having your younger sister walk in on you during the early stages of lovemaking. Tilly touches me again, and we resume our match, move by move, touch by touch. We exchange life through our fingertips, through our mouths, our tongues. We know each other right here, in each other’s arms. Chelsea showed up two days ago, her left arm covered in a sleeve of tattoos that wasn’t there the last time I’d seen her, six months before on Christmas break back home in Oklahoma. She buzzed, and when I came down to let her in she made no move to hug me, unlike most sisters meeting brothers after a long absence. At least, those who have previously been friends with one another. She makes it clear that that is over. Or at least, on hold. She said “hi” and asked if she could crash at my place for awhile. No explanation for what she’s doing over two thousand miles from home; just a demand in the form of a request. I said “sure,” expecting some sort of verbal communication, but instead she simply walked up the stairs, into the living room, dropped her bag on the rug and threw herself on the couch, facing the cushions. I looked around for some sort of Greyhound ticket stub, anything to tell me how she’d managed to get all the way to Seattle. Mom said she’d disappeared. All she had was the old teal backpack that she’d had since eighth grade. (Later, I would find out she took a bus to Denver and hitchhiked from there, first with a trucker and then — briefly — with a couple of swingers, and finally with a seventy-four-year-old former
hippie grandmother-type who’d saw her walking west on I-90 outside of Butte, Montana.) She was wearing a hoodie and a pair of jeans ragged from wear and not fashion. Yet under the grimy veneer of transience, it didn’t take much looking to figure out she hadn’t made a life of it: it was the way she slept so quietly, as if she wasn’t sleeping at all. I light a cigarette as we walk down the hill. The familiarity of having Chelsea next to me paired with the oddness of her new persona and the fact that we are both here, in Seattle, Washington, over two thousand miles from where we grew up makes me weirdly nervous. My clothes feel as if they’re hanging off of me at all the wrong angles, too tight in the wrong spots. Chelsea won’t look me in the eye, but she asks me if she can bum a cigarette. “Since when do you smoke cigs?” I ask, handing her my pack and lighter. “Since when do you care?” We walk in silence after that, down to the organic market on Thirty-Fifth Avenue, where I grab a basket and Chelsea grabs a cart. “We’ll probably only need this,” I say, gesturing toward the basket. “You don’t have anything in your fridge. I — we — need food. The entire contents of your fridge consist of pickles, mayo, bacon, cheese and eggs. That’s it. I looked twice.” “Well, that’s life for the average collegiate male. I thought you could get the experience while you were here, so you’d know what you’re in for.” “Thanks for being considerate.” “No problem.” She puts the cart back. I am victorious. Things started to unravel between Chelsea and me when I went to off to college at the beginning of last year. I’m sure it didn’t help that Mom and Dad decided to start the divorce proceedings the first weekend after I’d left, and then Dad taking a job in San Francisco. Chelsea was stuck with Mom in South Shitsville, Oklahoma and Mom wasn’t exactly in a good frame of mind either. I didn’t call much — which might not have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Chelsea only had one friend at the time, a girl named Sperry, with whom her one common bond was that they both wanted out of that town if it was the last thing they did. I remember going home for Christmas break and discovering they’d found another thing in common: smoking weed seemed to make the whole place better. This was something that all three of us could agree on. We spent nearly every free moment that holiday season getting stoned out in the tool shed, until a couple days after New Years’ when Dad found Chelsea’s pipe and neither of us would confess who owned it. After that I returned to school and started dating a girl who would end up ruining me at the end of the following spring.
I spiraled into a spree of binge drinking that even the most seasoned alcoholic could be proud of. Then three weeks ago I met Tilly. She took the edge off, wrapping herself around my world like a familiar winter quilt. We go down to the canal and sit on a bench. We watch little, very expensive boats going by with tanned older men and dignified second wives, and the very big yachts and the incredible tugboats (their size compared to their power has always compelled me) pushing barges. We watch a houseboat full of UW students drinking beer and Chelsea asks for another cigarette. I light it for her. “So why’d you leave without telling Mom where you were going?” She takes a drag and lets loose a coughing fit, recovers her dignity, and takes another drag. She stares across the canal but doesn’t seem to see anything. I look at the tattoos that now cover her right arm: a serpent wrapping itself around an anchor; a tree with black, rugged branches; a few lines from a poem by Sylvia Plath that are etched onto the blade of a butcher knife which is rendered in such a way as to appear to actually be piercing her arm; as well as a few other things that I can’t quite make out without staring. “You have no idea,” she says, “what it’s like to live with that woman. Alone. She found my pipe again, did you know that? She was going through my dresser and found it in my fucking underwear drawer. But she didn’t tell me about it for a few days. No. She just sat around moping. And then out of the blue, she asks me if I’m trying to ruin my life.” She takes a drag of her cigarette, inhaling deeply. The plume of smoke swirls in the air above us like a ghost. Immediately, she takes another drag, speaks through the smoke. “I’m standing there in the kitchen making a pot of coffee and she comes to me in tears and asks me if I’m trying to ruin my goddamn life. I swear I could have slapped her. I don’t really wanna talk about it. I came here so I wouldn’t have to.” I take two more cigarettes out of the pack. She takes one. “I mean, I haven’t admitted it to myself, and still probably won’t, but they fucked me up.” “You mean Mom and Dad getting split up?” “Yeah,” she says. “I could take living alone with the two of them together because they kept each other from going completely insane. Dad keeps Mom from getting so fucking freaked out; Mom keeps him from losing himself somewhere up in the clouds.” “Dad’s not so great by himself either, you know.” “How do you mean?” “He came to see me a couple weeks back. His arm caught on fire.” “What?” “He was trying to talk about my problems with me while we were eating dinner at a restaurant and leaned so far over the table his sleeve caught fire on the candle. It made conversation Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 83
even more difficult than before. You know, trying to have a serious conversation while your sleeve is blazing. It’s hard. He was a bit put out.” “I bet,” she says and smiles knowingly, and at that moment I know that she is thinking of the same expression of Dad’s as I am — the one he gets whenever he feels something particularly unjust has occurred, which is usually something like when an umpire makes a bad call against the Giants, or when he gets on his rant about Fox News. “Anyway. Things got really horrible between me and Mom after school ended. Mostly I just smoked a lot of weed. About three weeks ago I realized how much I was smoking — something like three or four times a day — and decided something had to change. Also I realized I only had a hundred bucks left.” “You’ve spent that much? Holy shit.” She nods, her face devoid of emotion. “So I decided to leave. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to come to. It was either spend all my money and get a bus ticket all the way here or buy weed and get a bus halfway here, so that’s why I had to hitchhike.” “You’ve gotta know where your priorities are, I guess.” “Nobody in our family knows anything about priorities. Dad was running around fucking that accountant lady the entire past year until Mom finally decided to pay attention to what was going on and make him move out. And you’re a fucking alcoholic.” “How do you know about that? I haven’t had a drink since you’ve been here.” “Your recycle bin.” “Oh.” “And then of course there’s me and my weed . . . and if I’m not ridiculously mistaken the bottle of vodka in the cupboard was a lot fuller when I got here.” I take a drag of my cigarette, flick ash onto the sidewalk. “How about your tats?” I ask. “What about them? You’re changing the subject.” “If you said you only had a hundred bucks there’s no way you got them recently.” “Well, TJ paid for one of them,” she says and points at the tree on her lower forearm. “And I kind of borrowed the money for the others. One of which I got while I was in Wyoming.” She points at the one of the knife with the Sylvia Plath lines. “Who’s TJ?” She laughs, but her face sobers immediately as she mutters, “no comment.” I decide not to pursue the subject. The grass around our bench is yellowing with the cessation of the rainy season and it occurs to me how odd it is for things to die in the summer of their lives. After awhile, she says, “You never called.” I flick my cigarette into the grass, watch the yellow wisps begin to smolder, and then stamp it out with my foot. “Dad called, at least,” she says. “He told me I could come 84 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
live with him, if I wanted.” Now it’s me that can’t look at her. I’d meant to call. But what was I going to say: I feel the lack of what I have to say so acutely, it stings; this gap where there should be an excuse, where there should be some apology, but there’s nothing in there. “You’re here instead.” She coughs, clears her throat. “I looked up to you more than anyone in the world. Not Mom and not Dad. I hoped your life was something more than what I had, I guess.” I find no words on my tongue to reply to this, only the grass slowly deadening in the brightness; only the tugboats with their strength that I can’t imagine; only a half-sense of what love means. We go back to the apartment, each with a plastic sack in both hands. That first Christmas after the divorce we existed in the tension between having been raised “right” and having seen that righteousness degenerate between the two people who’d spent our whole childhoods showing us what they thought was the best way to live. I don’t think either Chelsea or me thought we had found the best way to live, but we were doing the best we could — or maybe just trying to not think about it altogether. When we parted ways again, she couldn’t take the fact that I was leaving again, and I think she compared me to Dad — and found those judgments, in her mind, to be valid when she found me ensconced with a beautiful blonde girl named Tilly. Or when she thought about the fact that I never call. The truth is I don’t know what to say and haven’t known in years. But neither has Dad and that last summer at home, I hated him for it. He ran away and so did I. When, last month, he finally thought of something to say and came up here from San Francisco and ended up catching his arm on fire in the restaurant right in the middle of his big speech all I could do was laugh for the absurdity of it. And now Chelsea’s here and there’s no well of cynical laughter for me to draw from, nothing with which to splash the wellspring of uncomfortable sincerity in all our evasions. Sitting next to each other, we know both know all our faults. Chelsea and I climb the narrow stair to my apartment with bags in hand. A weird, almost physical silence has come between us. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but I feel as if we’ve reached a vein of communication that is both bringing us home and showing us how far from home we are. Chelsea drops her bags in the kitchen and I start putting the groceries into the fridge. When I go back into the living room, she’s standing at the window, looking out across Seattle. Her hands are empty and limp at her sides. “Do you still believe in God?”
“I think I do,” I say. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the effort after all the good it’s done me.” “Is it that simple, though?” “No . . . it’s not. And that’s why it hurts my head. It’s easier to just check out with a bottle in your hand, most of the time, than it is to try and put the pieces together. That’s what alcohol does for me; it just puts the pieces into place.” “By tearing them apart.” “Yeah. It stops you from feeling guilty,” I say as I step past her and onto the balcony. I light a cigarette and hand her one. “We’re a rare breed around here. In church three times a week right out of the cradle. Then you get out of the cradle or maybe the cradle falls apart. That’s when you’re left feeling lost.” “Did you know Mom still insists — insisted — I go with her?” “To church? After all of that?” “I always get high first. Makes Pastor Toby incredibly more interesting.” “Sounds like you use the same methods I do.” “It does sound like it, doesn’t it? The one downer about getting high is it makes the services really long. But I guess you win some and you lose some.” We stand silently and I watch the traffic down on FortyFirst Avenue; a tall woman wearing sunglasses pushing a stroller and smoking a cigarette. I wonder if she’s aware that she’s blowing the smoke directly into the baby’s face. Light paints the buildings on the other side of the street a deep sunflower yellow that inexplicably reminds me of home. “You wanna start cooking?” she asks, and we go inside. “Tilly’s coming over later,” I say. I take a drink of my coffee and try and gauge Chelsea’s response. The plates from our lunch of cheap pasta mix lay discarded on the table. So far, her exposure to Tilly has been limited to walking in on us getting it on. Not actually having sex per se — though earlier today we were well on our way — but if you walk in on people getting into each others’ throats often enough then it can do a lot to skew your perception of a person. “Is she coming for another rousing session of sucking and fucking?” “No reason to be hostile.” “I was just asking about the nature of her visit. So far, that seems to be the totality of you guys’ time spent-together. No hostility here, certainly not.” Her eyes are sparking, burning in the corners. I sit down and cup my hands around my coffee. “Tilly’s not just a fling, okay? I’m not sure how to make that clear.” “How many days were you together before you slept together?” “A couple weeks.”
“Okay. So maybe so.” “Thanks for allowing the possibility.” “I’m a champ like that. Really.” I smile. “You still don’t believe me.” “No. I really don’t. I wonder if you even really know her. But if she’s the ‘life raft in your raging sea,’ then by all means, do what you have to do.” Tilly won’t be here for another half hour or so. I sit in the kitchen and contemplate cleaning the dishes, but don’t move. Chelsea’s in the bathroom showering and her words about Tilly being “the life raft in my raging sea” are repeating in my head like the echoes of a child calling for her mother down the hallway of an empty house. I think, if we are nothing more than bloodsuckers, then what Chelsea says is true. I am a collection of emotions trying to save myself from self-destruction through an endless pursuit of healing, sucking life out of the people and things I think I love . . . and in light of that pursuit, I’m not sure if it’s as completely reprehensible as it is utterly devoid of hope. But I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t have an answer for most things. I have a sister that I barely know anymore. Our most common bond is that we both engage in substance abuse to make our minds quit the screaming that keeps our anguish alive. I have a father who lives in blissful oblivion of the world around him and a mother who is lonely and betrayed and more neurotic than Woody Allen could’ve ever dreamed of being. I have a girlfriend who I haven’t been with long but seems to me like the first light after an Alaskan winter. But I don’t have an answer for the things that split us apart or the things that make us use each other. When Tilly comes in, I hold her in my arms for a second longer than usual. She raises an eyebrow at me and smiles as I go in for a kiss. We go out onto the balcony, and sit close together on the couch and don’t talk. There’s nothing but the sound of traffic but an uncanny quietness has settled on the city. I look down through Tilly’s blonde hair glowing slightly red with the sunset and try and find my way into her eyes. She looks at me, her expression blank, yet satisfied — this is enough, she seems to say. There is nothing in her that wants. Do I know you? My eyes are asking. I haven’t had enough time to know you. But I do know you, I think. (Touch for touch, the expanse of perfect skin that covers her back, centered by her vertebrae as if she is a work of art: a chain of forgiving hills on which I can move my hands, her nakedness like an offering, like an open hand. How can this not be pure?) The way she leans into me. The trust that is here, in the energy created by our separate warmths coming together.
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Flower Conroy Flower Conroy’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in: American Literary Review; Serving House Journal; Psychic Meatloaf; Ghost Ocean; Sweet: A Literary Confection; Labletter; Saw Palm; BlazeVox; Interrobang!? and other journals. She will be attending Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA program in January.
Caution: Turtle Xing If you were a turtle crossing a New Jersey highway in the ’80s I may have met you. It was a knee-jerk reaction; if my father saw your slow bowl eking across the asphalt — the car would veer into the shoulder, lurch into park, door’d fling open & he pop out into oncoming traffic & snatch you up presto. Cradle you like a trophy. Then you’d sit in my lap while he’d divine where in the woods’ swampy neck you were trying to get back to. Then we’d shuttle you to your approximate destination. Little drum, helmet, little dinosaur in a traveling camouflaged igloo. To the woods — you were sinker, nomad & sage. In my lap you were compass, grandfather clock, crusader in a cloak of evergreen rock. Your secret? You were: burdened, like a bomb implanted in a toy; the weight of the world upon your shoulders; not mindless — but mute; maybe a delicacy; upturned teacup, landmine.
Unanimous Decision to Love You I. I will love you then A. Gun to the head real 1. like a gun tip positioned in the mouth a. sweet & sour metallic zest b. sardine caviar metal taste of gun c. upon tongue behind enamel & gum II. I will make it A. Impossible 1. For You a. love me b. love me not c. love me d. love me not Arouse 1. Instinct: to withdraw one’s touch from fire 2. Intuition: to know another’s limits 3. Innovation: to create worth from worthless III. I will not leave you then A. I will learn 1. Tethered & Discretion a. tightrope b. rock-climb c. tug-a-war IV. You will not leave me either I will make 1. impossible 2. for you 3. to leave me B. Where you are found, I am found 1. I will not be able to return elsewhere after this 2. shy we will not leave after all 3. hot shiny fin of the gun in my hands
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Jennifer Houston Jennifer lives in Placitas , New Mexico. She rides horses for a living. Several of her stories have appeared in Word Catalyst Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, South Jersey Underground, Rising Indigo, and recently in Barrier Islands Review. Jennifer also writes under the pen name of Jennifer Aarons, and in this guise, her work has appeared in TheEroticwoman.com, Every night Erotica, Hustler, and in an anthology by Hill Press: 365 days of Flash Adult fiction.
am sitting across from Beth, half listening to her go on about her job canvassing for Greenpeace and how it is so rewarding. We are out on the patio of her favorite hangout, the Jarvis Café. The place is filled to the rim with poser hippies and wanna-be- deadheads. The café sits right under the El tracks, and every fifteen minutes a train thunders over head, moving up the red line. The place is not quaint; in fact, it reflects its occupants perfectly — grungy and greasy. If I did not feel obligated to meet up with Beth, I’d never be caught dead in this place on a humid, hot summer day, where I can already feel the sweat trickling down my back. And it doesn’t help my cankerous mood that a pressing headache is forming behind my eyes from the foul smell that is coming off the lake front. It only contributes to the nauseating odor that is already whirling around me as I try to stomach a veggie burger. “If you need a summer job,” she says, “I’ll put in a good word for you.” “No thanks.” I say, pushing away my half-eaten burger. “Why do you have to be that way, Gwen?” Beth whines. “Because I have no desire to save the world,” I admit, as I glance around the café hoping to see at least one cute guy in this dump of a place. Beth continues muttering about how I have changed. How I am so removed, less enthusiastic about things. Two guys with dreadlocks strum softly on their guitars. A dude still lost somewhere in the sixties recites poetry to an uninterested crowd. I get a whiff of clove smoke coming from behind me. Before I can say something rude to her save-theworld bullshit, she shushes me, because HE, the boyfriend, has just walked in. My back is to the door, so I have to turn myself around to get a look at this boy who Beth is so in love with. “For God’s sakes Gwen, don’t do that,” Beth hisses at me. I accidentally knock into the chair behind me, and the occupant, a big dark Rasta with long dreads chimes, “No
worry.” As I scoot back to the table, I resist the urge to say “how fucking original — ‘be happy,’” but I know it’s sarcastic and mean. So, I keep my obnoxious comment to myself and turn back around to stare at Beth. Technically, they are not dating, and Beth even admitted to me that they have not really even kissed. Beth has had a crush on Mark since the eighth grade, a blast from the past, she told me, in her weekly letters to me after his reappearance in her life while I was still away at college, “He always had a girl-friend . . . .” They were close friends all through high school; they only lived two blocks apart and would hang out after school in the same group of misfits; the types that are not quite punk rock, not quite nerds, but a combination of the two: posers, really. Beth felt that she and Mark shared a strong friendship, even if it was mostly based on him confiding to her about his sexual experiences with his girlfriend or gossiping about the morons that they had to deal with at New Trier High School. Beth had always been a good listener and felt that Mark finally needed her after his break-up with his last girlfriend. The story I got was that Mark and Jill just needed to move on from each other. They still liked each other, but both needed to branch out. The relationship had stalled, and Mark needed a girl to just hang with for awhile. “A peck on the cheek, sometimes on the lips, never any tongue. Nothing too passionate,” she complained in her last letter. Her tone in this letter really bugged me. It wasn’t what she said, but the way she said it. It was too cutie, too bouncy for my personal tastes, and not like how I remembered her being. Oh, I know her choice of words was just an indication of her newly rekindled crush on Mark. How great he looks, and how, “I was really going to like him.” She wrote this out in big red letters to make sure I got it. She also put in big capital letters in the same red maker — “HEAD OVER HEELS.” This was not my friend from last summer. Beth never said Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 87
things like “cutie pie” and “totally incredible.” That was not her at all. She is more reserved, more stoic, about her emotions. And now as I stare at her across the restaurant table, I can’t believe her transformation: her brown curly hair is brushed back in a pony tail. She is wearing a colorful prairie skirt with Birkenstock sandals and a bright blue halter top that is very revealing. Last summer, she only wore faded blue jeans and some old, worn T-shirt she had inherited from me or her older sister. Before sitting down for lunch, as we gingerly gave each other a hug, she informs me that she no longer eats meat and no longer shaves her legs or arm-pits. To prove it, she pulls up her skirt, revealing pasty white legs with little black hairs all over them, causing me to abruptly loose my appetite. I hadn’t even noticed he was beside me, until I felt his finger on my cheek. “Hey, you got mustard on your cheek,” he says, as he causally wipes it off for me with the tip of his index finger. I flinched involuntarily. It was too informal, like we had known each other for years, like it was just another day in the neighborhood, and all of us were getting together for a friendly bite to eat after hanging out at Wrigley Field. But when I look up at him, I get a strange feeling, like I am going to do something, something I am going to regret. It was instantaneous. He is very good-looking with his intense green eyes and his sandy blonde hair, but it isn’t just his looks that attract me to him; it is his energy. He has a playful smile, sensitive lips to match, and when he looks over at me, I feel comfortable enough to grin back. “Beth, you didn’t tell me that Gwen is Goth,” he said, taking a seat between us. I shifted in my chair to stop his knee from touching mine. I feel Beth staring at me. “Oh, I didn’t tell you that she only wears black?” I am wearing a short sleeved black tank top with no bra and a pair of black, faded Levis with flip- flops; I had let my brown hair fall loosely down my back. “You should have seen her last year; her look now is very tame compared to last year.” “Really? Were you all vamped out last year?” Mark asks, staring straight at me. His fingertips brush against the side of my wrist, letting them linger just long enough to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I know he felt it, but I didn’t give him a chance to say anything else because I pull my arm away and tell him with a smile to keep his hands to himself. He smiles back and leans over and gives Beth a sloppy kiss on the lips; a first, Beth later reveals to me. The kiss makes me jealous. Here I am back in Chicago for my summer vacation for less than a week, and I am already restless and annoyed. I wasn’t even supposed to be back in Chicago. I had had plans to be in New York City, hanging out with some college friends, living in a loft in SoHo. But, the 88 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
plans had fallen through at the last minute. One friend hadn’t gotten enough money saved in order to pay her share of the rent on the loft. And I was needed back home, despite my wishful thinking that I could just hang out in New York doing nothing for a summer. My mother was sick, dying in fact, but it’s something I don’t like talking about. New York was supposed to be my escape, not my best friend’s boyfriend. Smoking my fifth cigarette, I feel a little abandoned as she chats away with Mark about how she and I met. He eyes me all over, up and down, as Beth rattles on about how we didn’t go to the same school or know the same people. We rode horses at a barn outside the city and saw each other on weekends or during holidays, and how we were envied by all the rest of the girls for being able to ride the rank horses in the barn. I listen, not really encouraging her to continue. In fact, I want her to stop talking about our past — that past no longer means anything to me. I have changed, Beth is right about that. But so what, we both have. Ever since my mother got sick, I no longer look upon events as leading to any future. There is no chain, no thread, and no continuity, only isolated moments and trying to feel something other than pain. The kind of pain that sneaks up on you when you think you got a handle on it. The kind that kicks the breath out of you when you least expect it and makes you wonder if you might be going insane. That’s how I felt today, like I was a little bit crazy. As if the world was turning in slow motion, and I was trying to reach out and crank it up a bit. Sitting next to Mark is making me anxious. I want to get up and leave, to excuse myself, to be anywhere but where I am. Two white girls with dreadlocks and big fluffy shirts float by our table; the hippy dude is still strumming away on his guitar with his eyes closed. A couple of Rastas sit along the bar, but for the most part, the place is littered with rich kids who came down to the city from the North Shore, who think that if they buy a tie-dye shirt and hang out in a grungy café instead of a country club it means that they really do care about the world. Our waitress comes by our table and takes away our plates, as she reaches across me to clear the table I get a flash of her unshaved arm-pit. “Hey, Gwen, where did you go to?” Mark asks, tapping my arm with his fingers. I feel the rush of energy between us. I smile up to him. He has a thoughtful way about him. I can see the attraction that Beth has for him. I envy it. Mark asks me what I am studying at school. I sarcastically remark that I am an environmental studies major, and I am joining forces with Beth to save Chicago from paper waste. He laughs, showing off straight, white teeth. “Your friend here has quite a sense of humor.” “You think?” Beth takes Mark’s hand and moves over into his lap. “I find it exasperating. And you better watch out; Gwen’s clever little quips have a bite to them.” She says this with a smile, kissing Mark gently on the cheek, while looking over at me.
I feel a little dizzy and close my eyes wishing I wasn’t back in Chicago, wishing I didn’t have to deal with my family and the insane confrontations that occur when someone you love is dying, and there is nothing you can do to stop the inevitable. I open my eyes and Mark is staring right at me. I give him a quick smile, and he smirks back. Sometimes, I wonder if chance encounters really do happen for a reason. I wonder if fate does have a role to play in life. What am I doing here back from college, sitting in a restaurant on the north side of Chicago, wondering how my best friend’s boyfriend kisses? Despite my lustful thoughts about Mark, I was not going to act on them; this isn’t how it was supposed to work. Well, that’s what I kept telling myself as I drove home. Three weeks is all it took. Three weeks of hanging out with Mark and Beth almost every night at the Jarvis Café. Beth and her Greenpeace friends all gathered there to talk about politics and how they were going to save the world. Three weeks of watching Mark play with my emotions: trying to make me jealous by fondling Beth at the table — kissing her, taking her hand, and holding it; always looking at me right before he gives her a long, drawn-out kiss. I play along, laughing at them — telling them to get a room. I flirt with the Rastas, letting them buy me drinks and watching Mark’s reaction; feeling his eyes on me. I feel them watching as I walk across to the bar and chat up the bartender. I feel them on me as I walk to the bathroom. Beth tells me that only since I got back in town has Mark become affectionate toward her in public. I know it is all a charade because the affection ends the moment we all walk out together. Because Beth complains to me that when she drives Mark home, he just gives her a quick kiss on the cheek, saying he will see her again tomorrow. No invite to come in, no long drawn out kissing in her car — nothing. It always makes me smile to myself when we all sit together and he plays it up in front of me, because I know Beth’s complaints. I know that he is just playing a game, and I play along too, waiting until Mark grows bored with the whole routine of hanging out with a bunch of people that neither one of us would ever have talked to had it not been for our association with Beth. The only thing that the Jarvis Café has going for it is that it does not card. If they did, even my prurient thoughts for Mark would not have kept me there. The place is really not my scene, but then again, I really don’t have a scene, anymore. I don’t really like leaving my apartment. I don’t like hanging out, anymore. I feel as if I am biding my time, only existing, not really having a purpose.
I don’t have a summer job, and I don’t want to get one. My father whines to me, telling me that I need to do something with my summer. I ignore him. My days are spent contemplating my wanton feeling for my best friend’s boyfriend, and quelling those feelings by reading any smut I can find. In between my self-absorbed universe, I visit my mother in the hospital, wondering what happened to my beautiful mother, who now resembles a withered flower from all the radiation and chemotherapy that was supposed to save her, and has only sped up her impending death. I haven’t called any of my high school friends to get together. I haven’t done anything; I just continue to meet Mark and Beth over at the Jarvis Café and pretend that it doesn’t really matter that my summer is going by without doing anything worthwhile. I feel nonexistent to the world, to my family, to myself. I keep on telling myself that I am not going to act on my lustful thoughts about Mark. I keep praying that my conscience will kick in and get the better of me, and I’ll walk away with no regrets. A part of me knows it is wrong to lust after him; I feel as if I am betraying my friendship with Beth. Yet Mark is obviously asking for it. He tries to be so discreet, asking me if I have a boyfriend, hinting if I want to be hooked up with any of his friends. I ignore him, which only makes him lean in closer. I jokingly say I am not interested in men. He laughs, saying he can change that for me. We banter back and forth. I flirt, but not enough to let him be sure where he stands. I touch him ever so lightly with my hand as I ask him to light my cigarette, letting my fingertips brush gently across his arm. I know it is wrong, especially when Beth confesses to me all of the insecurities that she has when she is with Mark. How she feels fat and how she wonders what he is thinking when they kiss. How she feels that she might just be a rebound for him after breaking up with his girlfriend. I console her, telling her not to worry about it. But secretly, I know that she is just a rebound girl. I know she is just a passing thing for Mark. I continue to lie to her, telling her that from an outsider’s point of view, I think Mark really likes her. I even stress that the only reason he is going slow is out of respect for her still being a virgin. She confesses to me that she wants to loose her virginity with him. I only smile, not revealing my true intentions. And I think maybe there is something really wrong with me that I could so easily misguide her. I believe I am a bad friend, but, I continue to hang out at the café. I continue my bantering and flirting with Mark. I know he feels the sexual tension between us. I know he can sense it coming from me. And all I can think about is how I want him to taste it.
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C.A. McDaniel C.A. McDaniel is 34 years old and originally from a tiny town in northwestern Alabama. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Mississippi University for Women in 1998 and holds a master’s degree in English from The University of Alabama. Her primary academic interests are in Queer Theory and Lacanian Analysis. She has taught English at the college level for many years and works as a technical writer to make ends meet. She lives in the Ghent area of Norfolk, Virginia with her two cats, William and Gracie, and is currently in search of love in all the wrong places.
I Read e.e. cummings Often I read him almost as often as Emily and with passion and reflection and desire. I read him to feel-not-think, while prone and sweating from a too-hot bath, wiping my palms on the sheets around me. I read him curled, meek, and heart-broken on my living room rug. I read him while smiling next to the river, listening as a fish leaps, flies, and then returns to his watery home. I read him with purring, warm-bodied cats resting their heads upon my chilly feet and then it feels like home, tender home. Cummings disregards the rules. He knows when the rules are needed. He is conspiratorial arrogance — the wry wink and nod, with his hand forever in the cookie jar. He is humility and reverence for the puddle-goodness of the Earth. He, too, is a body-worshipper, drinking in skin and eyes and lips and tongue. He is a man who knows flesh and bone and what to do with them. He is a lover and friend. He is a lover of lovers. He is hands, hands, hands and strong arms and shoulders and a smile that always says, Yes, sweet Yes. I read e.e. cummings to remember that things aren’t all that serious and to remember that laughter is contagious. I read him to remember that reverence is key. I read him to remember that blushing is good — a red-hot cheek an invitation.
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I read him and know that loneliness is a choice and that hope is forever in our back pockets — if we could only remember not to sit down on it. Cummings taught me that pretty is a noun and that beauty is a verb. He told me that wordssometimesruntogether just like thoughts — and that it is quite alright when they do. He whispered to me that a pause . . . is sometimes all that’s needed. His poems are on scraps of paper, colored and plain, scattered about my space. They are scrawled in journals and notebooks on my desk. They are in my head when my throat aches with longing. His poems are on my tongue when I cry and my stomach hollows-out. I read e.e. cummings and my body sings as my mind shuts off for a few blissful moments I like my body and it is home before the mind’s electric static returns.
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Andrea Spofford Andrea Spofford is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. A Western transplant, she is exploring the South one day at a time. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and is currently working on a hybrid book of nonfiction/poetry based on American freak shows.
Class II Double Monsters Joined at the Hip Daisy dies first. They are sleeping side-by-side. Violet wishes to turn, awakens. She listens for the breath of her sister. Not steady just gone. In the human circulatory system, deoxygenated blood enters the heart through the right atrium. It flows through the tricuspid valve and into the right ventricle. The movement of blood becomes consistent, right to left, and back again. For a moment Violet’s own breath stops. It is three or four o’clock but it is dark. Violet is awake. She is, for the first time in her life, not doubled just alone. In the case of pygopagus conjoined twins, the circulatory system is shared. To what extent, and whether the nervous system is also involved, varies from pair to pair. If one twin dies, the other will soon follow, however closely they are bound. When the sun rises, as dawn creeps through the curtains, Violet sits up. She pulls Daisy’s arms around her neck. She is not separate just chained. Daisy and Violet Hilton closely shared a circulatory system. They were, by all accounts, unable to be separated without causing harm to one or both of them. 92 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
Violet struggles into the bathroom. She avoids the mirror but then catches a glimpse. Daisy is frozen. Her eyes are closed. Violet sees herself. In the mirror they are, have always been, just reflections. Pygopagus twins have two distinct hearts. They may share a gastrointestinal system or reproductive system. Violet arranges them on the couch. The pressure, the tension, against their bond is not painful just constant. In some cases the bond which unites them is flexible, stretchable. In others, the twins are conjoined by the spine itself. She takes the telephone from the stand. She places her fingers into the rotary dial. “Daisy has died,” she says. “Please don’t call the hospital,” she says. “Just wait.” Exsanguination is death by bleeding — bleeding out. Exsanguination is fatal hypovolemia, or blood loss. From the Latin ex and sanguis, meaning “out of ” and “blood” the term refers to a body’s extreme lack of blood. It is a draining. Violet is tired. Her heart is beating, right atrium to ventricle, lungs to left atrium, left ventricle, through the aorta and through her body, arteries and veins connecting into Daisy, just slow. Symptoms of hypovolemia include bruising, shock, paleness of the skin, dizziness, rapid pulse, low blood pressure, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, confusion, and weakness. Violet’s heart beats quickly. The blood that enters Daisy stops and pools. Daisy’s muscles are stiff. Her face is a death mask. Violet sits on the couch and just waits.
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Exsanguination can be caused by either an external or internal wound. It is a means of death caused by trauma, not a cause within itself. At two o’clock she stands to open the door. She holds Daisy’s arms around her neck. She finds a piece of string in the kitchen to tie them. The dogs follow her to the kitchen door. The wind trickles through the jamb, just cold. When Daisy Hilton died, the blood from Violet’s heart continued to circulate. At five o’clock she fixes dinner. She carries a sandwich into the living room, arranges herself on the sofa. She does not eat. The telephone rings. She watches it until it is just silent. The human body contains an average of five liters of blood. Violet once again locks her sister’s arms around her neck. In their bedroom she pushes Daisy onto the bed. She lies next to her, eyes opened just awake. In the case of internal exsanguination, the blood pools. Violet Hilton’s heart continued to pump blood throughout her body for an estimated 48 to 72 hours after Daisy’s death. Violet bled out into the body of her sister. Violet is faint. Violet is cold. Violet awakens, wishes to turn. She listens for the breath of her sister not steady just gone.
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Catherine Sharpe Catherine Sharpe wrote mostly for live performance in the 1990s before turning her attention to gay marriage, in vitro fertilization, gay divorce, parenting, dating, fiction, and nonfiction. Her first collection Ambition Towards Love hasn’t yet been published, but you can read some of the interlocking essays and fictions in Opium Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, Weave Magazine, A cappella Zoo, and Word Riot.
fter a year or so, Pen seriously considered dating. She reasoned that after the dissolution, modeling healthy adult relationships would be good for her daughter, impressionable at six, but not easy to fool. Kate, that traitor, had dumped Pen, half-dumped Carly, and started seeing someone else almost immediately. Maybe sooner. Pen practiced casual with her new hair stylist, “I’m dating. Online. Nothing serious.” Nikki-Just-Nikki nodded, then noted that Pen must have been wearing her bangs slicked back for quite some time. “Thirteen fucking years,” Pen answered. Nikki suggested an update. Jig-jags of razor-cut black and silver bangs now bisected the skeptical furrows of Pen’s forehead. So hip, so current! Ready to jack into lesbianmatrix. com where hearts and minds meet online. Dating could mean someone to try out new recipes on, a little self-esteem booster, an affirmation. I am not a loser. I am a dater, I am a winner, Pen repeated. Sharing custody of her daughter untethered alternate weekends from her schedule. And she was no longer busy with the puzzle of family counseling appointments, child custody appointments, attorney appointments, therapy appointments, and financial advisor appointments, allowing her to implement a rigorous skin care and exercise regime. Routine exfoliation cost nothing but time, but anti-wrinkle cream cost $108 for two scant ounces. Over the past year, she’d plugged thousands into the local yoga economy — reminded to breathe despite the autonomic nature of respiration. Some things were no longer automatic, much less autonomic. Was it possible to yoga yourself to death, Pen wondered? Rereading her profile on a Saturday night, Pen sat in front of her computer. Accepting some help from one of her friends in book club, a corporate marketing professional, she’d already
posted it online. I wax, wear eyeliner, but insist on a manual transmission. Perhaps this defines me as a femme top. What side of the bed are you? Is your dishwasher half-full or half-empty? I plant tomatoes every year but always get them into the ground late. I often cry. But just lately! Did I mention that my upper lip is a little too thin? That I know the difference between broth and stock? I love weddings, especially when there’s a good band, and always want to sleep just once with the tallest bridesmaid. Religion permitting. Do you love oxygen? I do, too! Honesty is very important to me, especially yours. Kate had said in uncouple counselling, “Nothing happened after Laurie kissed me. It was fantasy, we never went beyond fantasy. I’m her boss!” And then later, “I’m sorry I can’t be the person I want to be. With you.” Poor Kate. Trying to find herself untangled from Pen, from family, from habitual love passed back and forth like a ball in a basketball drill. Enough practice! Pen had posted a headshot with her profile — bangs soft, dimpling with deliberate ease — despite the ridiculous fear that someone she knew might recognize her, might feel pity, might tell Kate. But Kate had moved out, or moved on, or, at least, moved over. There was plenty of room. Kate with her brandnew Calphalon (Pen kept the old set), her tidy little house, her new girly girlfriend — maybe second wifey wife. Little Carly called her Auntie Laurie without a hint of familial confusion. Kids are so credulous. Well, Pen could get back in the game now, too. She logged onto lesbianmatrix — her profile was an enormous success! Not a Fortune 500 success, but definitely a Small Business Owner success. Randee4u, SqueekyClean, Hotmama23, ParisUmbrella, GeekGirl, etc., had sent the opening gambit — a winking smiley face with a bubble of dialogue, “Your profile made me smile!” What a giddy bunch! Pen smiled back until her face hurt Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 95
and she was thirsty. She kept confusing names and profiles — perhaps she should create an Excel chart, be organized? Irritated by the unfamiliar tickle of hair on her forehead, she brushed her bangs back and back again, her sense of self beginning to blur after so many repetitions of introductory chit-chat. Time to get down to business. She saw her dulled reflection in the kitchen window as she poured another glass of wine. Her hair — sticking straight up! She made a movie date with RightAsRain, a transaction attorney. It seemed like a good idea to begin with a professional, someone Ivy League, or some similar perennial, financially stable. Opposites attract. Coincidentally, RightAsRain was the same age as Kate’s girlfriend, much younger than Pen. Not absurdly young, Pen reasoned, just fresh. Tortured by past love gone wretchedly awry, but still fresh. The two women agreed to meet at a wine bar before an early showing of the new James Bond movie. “But perhaps we should have martinis? Shaken, etcetera?” Pen suggested on the phone. “I’ve never tried a martini,” said Rain. “Aren’t they kind of strong?” “Just kidding. Sorry. Looking forward to meeting you!” And Pen hung up before she could say or hear anything else awkward, or damaging, or deflating. On Saturday, Pen wore a Dating Outfit — a tight melon tank top and white capris. She had exfoliated and polished her miscellany of rings — like brass knuckles, only silver. She was running late because she could not decide on underpants. Was it more embarrassing to suffer panty lines, or risk being perceived as unnaturally flawless? Walking fast towards the broad, glassy entrance of Ripe On Vine, Pen was relieved when she first saw her date, a slouched sentry near the curb. She stood taller as Pen approached with a smile and a hand out for shaking — the business of dating! Rain shook, not very firm, like an awkward seventeen-yearold boy with her blonde crew cut, crisp pink button-down shirt and harmless khakis, lacking only topsiders and Wrigley’s cinnamon gum breath. Did people still wear topsiders with those little leather ties? Or those eerie, rubbery boat shoes? It had been so long since Pen had dated, much less boys. Rain looked like someone who might deliver your groceries, or take your movie ticket, or fuck you repeatedly without hesitation for the sheer joy of counting. Pen liked to count, too! After the movie, Pen was invited to Rain’s house, where she inspected her real estate and met her dog, Dolly. On the couch, they continued to explore their shared interests and experiences. “So, did you like the new Bond?” Pen said. “He was awesome, I thought; what about you?” Rain said. “Skinny. I still think Sean Connery was the best. Isn’t it so 96 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
amazing, so many different actors?” rallied Pen. “Sean Connor?” Rain said. “Oh, yeah! I think I saw him — before he died?” Rain’s dog kept dropping a defuzzed tennis ball in the gap between them on the sofa. Rain kept tossing it across the room. With some small part of her detached, Pen watched the slobber accumulate on the ball, and then darken the beige ultrasuede of the sofa cushion as it rolled between them. They switched to favorite foods, followed by musical artists, then Pen asked for the bathroom. On the way through the house, Pen catalogued Rain’s apparent disinterest in housekeeping — an upholstered sofa just barely clean enough for your mechanic’s waiting room, cobwebs in every corner, a jumble of poorly framed photos on the walls, an astounding illogic of drawer and cabinet use in the kitchen, an unnecessarily elaborate mechanized wine opener, one ugly, pear-shaped flower vase, a gummy mess of bar soap by the bathroom sink (no soap dish!), and no bathmat. However, the toilet paper was quilted. She returned to Rain. The game had apparently stopped, Dolly lay panting gently on one of her many dog beds scattered throughout the house, the tennis ball glistened next to Rain’s thigh. Pen sat and had Rain’s full attention. “Can I get you anything? I bought gin!” Rain leaned a little forward, but then her voice scurried. “That’s right, isn’t it? I could make you a martini! Is it too late? Or tea! I can make tea. I’m not usually shy, well, that’s not exactly true, but —” Rain leaned more forward and kissed Pen, which forestalled any reassurance that Pen might have attempted. Although she was not, in fact, accustomed to staying out so late. Some people were simply never given adequate training, Pen reasoned, or the tactics necessary for maintaining a home. You get busy. Your priorities shift. Despite her shortcomings as a housekeeper, Rain was a valuable person. Pen, much more of a cat person, extracted the slobbery tennis ball from between them, let it drop to the floor. This was enough to encourage Dolly, who followed them from the sofa. Pen slept with Rain and Rain’s dog all in the same bed. Pen thought sex was the best four-letter word she hadn’t pronounced in a very long time. Now that she thought about it, Rain was a sweetheart. She admired Pen’s puns. Pen fell in love with herself all over again — with her own wit, her charm, her incredible spirit and strength and grace — and positivity! — under such painful, life-shattering changes. Her maternal fortitude. Rain was the perfect lubricant for Pen’s love. She had an innocent astonishment for Pen’s enthusiasm for repetition. Keeping score became fruitless — never easy with math, Pen newly understood exponents. Starved for sensation outside the realm of dismay, sex with someone else was a pure act of self-love. And Rain came equipped. With equipment. And invested
in more equipment as the clock ticked and the calendar pages flipped. Longer equipment, thicker equipment, detachable equipment, equipment that demanded special batteries, that really did remind Pen of toys, the kind her eight-yearold nephew collected — Transformers? — with things that clicked into place here, retracted, snapped on there, flipped out here, until, with the same erotic appeal of a machine gun broken down and then rapidly reassembled, the equipment would transform from something as innocuous as a chip-andsalsa platter into a double-headed, persimmon colored, selflubricating vibrating snake dildo with harness. And optional hammock. On alternate weekends, Pen retreated to her familiar role as matron to Carly — homemade pizzas with kitty-cat faces, bribing with Pez, zoo expeditions to the meerkat enclosure and impersonations of the hyper-vigilant rodents. Emails full of frustrated longing slithered back and forth across the internet. Supervising coloring best practices. Showing off — staying inside the lines. Saturday seems never. Whose fucking idea was Wednesday, Thursday, Friday anyway? Because Pen was bent on this love affair, it was no bother that Rain, a sports enthusiast, couldn’t bear to miss any of the U.S. Tennis Open, even when it fell on one of their weekends. There was a TV at the end of the bed. “Federer! Like the best volleyer ever, shots like a whip! Gotta see him take down Roddick. He can’t lose, trust me. You’ll get into it, I know you will!” The televised pruck of every returned ball during volleys, followed by the trinity of BowFlex and Vitaminwater and Miller Lite ads, made Pen happy. The commercial breaks came and came again; so did Pen. It was an uneven match — Pen was always thrillingly ahead by some accident of easy neurotransmitters, some inexhaustible nitric oxide action at the cellular level. Unfortunately, the perfect score of love-love, with love a zero for both sides, couldn’t go on forever. The players took a water break, and Rain muted the TV to talk. “I think I need to rest,” Rain said. The bed sheet had been kicked over Dolly at the end of the bed. Pen helped straighten the sheet. What Rain couldn’t understand, after confirming for the third or fourth time that Pen was not dating others, was why, given the whipped and frothy passion of their coupling and uncoupling, she could not meet Pen’s daughter Carly, see Pen in her real life. “Don’t you think she would like me? I play CandyLand with my nieces, I let them win, they love me!” Rain said. “That’s not necessarily good,” Pen replied. “Learning how to lose is just as important —” Pen stopped herself from launching into a parenting lecture. The commercial break was almost over. She explained that her therapist advised at least six months
before involving Carly. “To make sure this is real, too.” Rain was sulky but considerate, admitting that her own therapist agreed with Pen’s therapist. Thank goodness. And six months was soon! They each gripped their slippery autonomy. But more and more with Rain, Pen kept catching the sneaky whiff of her own maternity, unmistakable like the smell of onions and peppers cooking together. Very early one Monday morning, Pen was hurrying to get herself dressed and home before workday traffic snarled. Rain stood in front of her closet in a sports bra and sad underpants. “I don’t know what to wear,” Rain said, as if this summed up her life. “You want my help? You can’t wear men’s pants, anymore. You’re a grown woman. We’ll shop. And those shoes.” One day, to cheer Rain up between baseball and football season, Pen took her out for ice-cream. Rain could not decide between Pumpkiny Pie or Chocolaty Fudge. Pen bought one scoop of each on separate cones. She held one while Rain worked on the other, and kept up with the drips. Because Rain’s awe at Pen’s kitchen skills felt lopsided, Pen shared cooking tips and improved Rain’s knife skills, teaching Rain to use her left knuckles to guide the blade, curling her vulnerable fingertips towards her palm as the knife rocked through a zucchini, a cucumber, a red pepper, an onion. She taught her some mother sauces — Béchamel, Veloute, Hollandaise, and the all-star Tomato. But it came to a terrible climax when Pen found herself ironing Rain’s pajamas. On a drizzly Sunday morning, Rain had taken Dolly out for a quick walk. Pen rummaged in a basket of clean laundry for a long-sleeved t-shirt to borrow. Automatically, she folded while she searched, until the basket was empty save for a pair of red, silky pajama bottoms and matching top. They looked as if they had been at the bottom of this basket for a good long time, crosshatched with myriad, awkward wrinkles that would not be smoothed. Pen could not control herself. She could neither leave them in the basket nor cram them out of sight in a drawer. She found a little travel iron tucked back behind the toilet paper in the bathroom and laid a towel on Rain’s bed. She unplugged the TV and plugged in the iron, setting it on a stack of Golf Magazine. She lost herself in the soothing mechanics of smoothing and tugging seams flat, applying the heat. Rain snuck up behind her and leaned into Pen’s back. Unbalanced, Pen toppled the iron. Flat, it scorched the red silk-like fabric that poorly imitated the real thing. Rain was unaware, busy burrowing like some frightened baby marsupial into the back of Pen’s neck. Pen righted the iron, admiring the perfect footprint, the uncanny likeness of the iron embossed meltingly onto the left front panel of Rain’s pajama top. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 97
“What’s that funny smell?” Said Rain. The following weekend, Pen avoided Rain. She insisted that she must attend to routine maintenance around her own house, with gutters to be cleared, roses to be mulched. These things did need to be done. Pen also left a message for Leslie, one of the newer members from book club — movie date? Leslie called back and admitted a terrible migraine in concert with a forlorn loss — her twenty-seven-year-old boyfriend had just broken with her. Leslie, thin with shortish, dark hair and not a few threads of gray, had a gorgeous bloom of clavicle and ridged sternum between tiny breast buds. She was fortytwo, divorced with two children, inventively caustic about her ex-husband, and often prone to bouts of migraines. Though the kids were with their “sand-trap of a father,” Leslie lacked the energy to cook or even leave her house. Every other week, Leslie would suffer the ministrations of an alternative health practitioner who would attach a series of three-inch, motorized suction cups to her upper torso and neck. When removed, the suction left perfectly round, dark welts, like a hot frying pan on a cutting board. The welts, displayed with only some modesty during a book club meeting, lasted for hours, although the relief was less predictable. The latest treatment had been unsuccessful — Leslie was in pain, she was in need, she was hungry, but unable to eat. Pen brought her homemade macaroni and cheese in a small Pyrex bowl and Chunky Monkey ice-cream. Pen watched Leslie cry, rubbed her feet, handed her tissues, and leaned forward and forward and forward on the couch until she kissed her. Something about the situation demanded it. “Don’t you have a new girlfriend, what’s her name, aren’t you exclusive? What do you put in your macaroni and cheese?” Leslie said, spooning in a mouthful. She had collected herself and her tissues at the other end of her couch. “Black truffle oil. And, no, not really. No girlfriend.” Pen lied so easily, as if anxious to show off a new trick she had just learned. Because at this point, she was falling ever more deeply in love with her own failures at love, and could not resist herself, and so she lied and organized Leslie into bed, what with both of them free free free of boyfriends and girlfriends and children and husbands and partners and expectations and why not, why not try it? An adventure. Leslie hummed and kissed with hard little tongue-darting forays into Pen’s mouth, Pen softened and then sucked, easing into a familiar rhythm, repose then effort. Pen explored Leslie’s passages, her fingers finding them so smooth, uncannily smooth, perhaps so well travelled, was that it? Pen’s own sense of ripening age and routine was somehow a broader boulevard than the narrow, ecstatic sex with Rain. There was certainly less media and equipment. Too soon, however, Leslie had satisfied her own anatomical curiosity. She eased Pen out of bed, and bedroom, and down 98 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
the stairs, with, “this can’t really work for me,” and “I worry for your heart!” which only made Pen laugh, recklessly in love with herself as she already was. But the thrill of her own boldness quieted as she drove home through the wee hours and the heavy mist — almost rain, but without the weight. Rain had left a note on the back of her business card, slipped into the crack between the front door and the jamb. I miss you too much, it said, and among other things, where are you when I want just you you you? There was no way to know when Rain had stopped by — early evening, midnight, 1:45, just minutes ago? Pen looked up and down the street, her heart bumping like a jazzercise session. What should she say? This kept Pen up the rest of the night in the company of her own wickedness — apparently, Pen needed this crisis of conscience for her spiritual development! In the morning, her face was a swollen, sodden mess of disorganized eyes and nose and mouth. She expected maturity from herself. An accounting. Permitting Rain the dignity of truth. She called Rain early that morning. “Can I come and talk to you?” “Now?” Rain asked, suspicious. “Yes, please.” Pen was certain. “Okay.” Rain’s voice was quiet, muted. “I’ll be here. There’s football.” Pen sat across from her on the abused upholstery of her sofa. So much happened on couches — that place between standing and lying. Hunching forward, Rain rolled a tennis ball up and down her thigh while Dolly seemed to watch the game announcers wag their lips. “I got drunk and sort of fooled around with one of the straight women in my book club,” Pen cried. “But I’m sorry.” Rain dropped the ball and muted the TV. “Well. That hurts.” Her tears trickled down, her face little-boy sad, her heart a pinball. “Just making out? You didn’t actually sleep together.” She looked at Pen’s face, away from the TV, even as Pen saw a flag go silently down on the field. This was how Pen achieved certainty. Kate lied. Of course Kate lied — all part of the uneasy chemistry of guilt, half-truth, self-justification, and relief. Kissing was enough to confess if you were already lost between loving and leaving, and Kate did at least love Pen’s regard. Kate could not bear to be mistaken for a bad person. With so much integrity at stake, one bad call was the same as forfeiting the game. “We didn’t sleep together,” Pen said, watching one of the coaches — why were there so many? — storming, covering his mouth, then throwing his arms, turning away. Rain showered Pen with forgiveness. Who didn’t stumble, who didn’t have a glass of wine or four and fumble a kiss, after all? “That happened to me one time in law school. After, she ended up with our Civ Pro professor — a jackass — we didn’t
really stay friends,” Rain ventured, eyebrows lifting up. “I’m by no means perfect, either.” “Rain, Rain. No, you are perfect. Just the way you are,” Pen cried some more. “Love yourself.” The end could be tasted. The book club would never be the same. Leslie didn’t bother to return Pen’s Pyrex — refilled or even clean. This was poor form, but Pen, intent on dispassion, could hardly muster
indignation. Pen tried, but she couldn’t recover from Rain’s injury, Rain’s innocence. Several weekends later, Pen cooked for Rain’s birthday and played hostess for all her young friends. Rain wanted baby back ribs so Pen made baby back ribs. That same night in bed Pen gave Rain a copy of her favorite cookbook, with the best recipes tabbed. Rain cried thankfully. Pen cried and patted the dog’s head. She longed for her daughter.
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Daria Besedina Daria Besedina was born on the 12th of January 1982. She started to make both traditional and digital collages toward the end of 2001. She also explores photography, creates original toys, and works as an assistant animator. Her exhibition ‘Flowers and Dragons’ took place in 2004. Her first kaleidoscopes appeared in the summer of 2010, using digital programs to manipulate photographs of various household trifles and textures. The kaleidoscopes have since been featured in a cartoon movie by Oleg Dobrovolskiy. Further work can be seen at http://besedina.deviantart.com
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Michael Lee Johnson Michael Lee Johnson is a poet from Itasca, Illinois who lived 10 years in Canada during the Vietnam era. His work has been published in 23 countries. His published poetry books are available through his site as well as Amazon.Com, Borders Books, and Lulu.com. You can find him at his website: http://poetryman.mysite.com.
Kansas House bashed in grays, homespun surrounding yellows and pinks on a Kansas prairie appears lonely tonight. The theater, the lives once lived alive inside are gone now, buried in the back dark trail behind the old outhouse. Old wood chipper in the back, rustic, worn, no gas to thunder. Old coal bin open to wind but no one to shovel the coal in. Pumpkin patches, corn mazes, hayrides all gone. Deserted ghostly children swing abandoned in prairie wind. All the unheated rooms no longer have children to fret about, cheerleaders long gone, the banal house chills once again for winter . . . while three lone, skinny crows perched out of sight on barren-branched trees silhouetted in pink wait with hunger strikes as winter snow start to settle in against moonlight skies. Kansas becomes a quiet place when the first snow falls. The dance of the crows. The lonely wind. The creaking of doors, no oil in the joints.
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Mexican Street Children Repentances, the night after: children of obscurity from dusk to dawn, Mexican street children, they still have scars inside the sounds of them. Empty Budweiser cans, used condoms, newspapers scattered, cancer sticks, ditch weed, seeds and buds, poetry and verse lie dormant on the antique oak wood floor apartment above the bar, Mexican music playing, 1:30 a.m. an open door. Abandoned with their sins and steps away with their lives.
Cristina Del Canto Cristina del Canto was born in Fribourg, Switzerland. She grew up in Singapore and speaks English and Spanish fluently. She graduated from Houston Baptist University and is working on a collection of short stories and poetry, as well as a novel. She currently resides in Houston, Texas as the public relations manager of an IndyCar race team and is a freelance writer.
Yellow When I was 12, you asked me my favourite colour — Black I said — like my soul. You laughed, because you were yellow and wise like the feather pen you bought me. “To write yellow poetry,” you said. Your eyes green and proud And I wrote, about the yellow icing those cupcakes we made so long ago. the yellow cotton towel you used to wrap me up in. Then I took a photograph of your yellow hair — the sun's glare reflecting off it Until, cancer stripped it away and left it in a yellow mess on the floor. Then you understood why the cupcakes turned to metal in your mouth and why I plucked the feathers from my pen as you lay paralyzed, unable to stop me — feathers around us, floating
when I stood naked, a towel-less child without — a mother’s womb you could no longer speak — your yellow words stolen, floating through and through the cold hospital room “Pretend we’re in Paris,” I said When the feeding tube was not enough to keep you alive “We are now walking into the Louvre.” And I knew you were standing in front of the Mona Lisa when you smiled — But you did not laugh Because you knew — I would never be yellow and neither would you.
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Dorothee Lang Dorothee Lang is a writer, web freelancer and traveler. She lives in Germany, edits BluePrintReview and Daily s-Press, and has been published in numerous online and print journals. She keeps a sky diary, and currently is into collaborate projects of both the visual and novel kind. Recent publications include elimae, Metazen, Referential, The New Yorker (book bench), Otoliths and qarrtsiluni – and her first story collection is in transit. Her website is www.blueprint21.de and her publications can be found on Amazon.
Saturday, Half Past 2 She almost drives on; she is tired and just a minute from home but something about the old man makes her stop: the way he stands there, in the bright Saturday sun, in the midst of the pedestrian walk, with jacket and hat and all, as if he had fallen from the sky and was looking for directions. The way it could have been her father, standing there like this. “Can I help you?” She says, still wishing the answer was no. “Could you take me to the town centre — to some supermarket?” The old man asks. “Sure,” she answers, still not sure if had been a good idea to stop. What if it is some set-up? What if he smells? He climbs into her car in slow motion. When she drives on, the car starts to beep. “You better put on the security band,” she says. The man does. “The train here used to sound like this,” he tells her. “Went all the way, jingling.” They discuss which supermarket to drive to. There are five in town, but none in the centre, none in walking distance of the part of town the man lives. At the crossing, she turns right and notices the police car that follows them.
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What if ? The question pops up in her head again. It seems silly. It’s a small town. But the police car keeps up behind them, even when she turns into the side street to the supermarket. “How will you get back?” She asks. “No worries. I take the bus,” he explains. “Or otherwise, ask someone,” she says, to her own surprise. “It’s good that you have the courage to ask.” He smiles, and there is both pain and acceptance in the smile. “Had to learn that when I moved here,” he says. “We had a whole life, and lost it all. Had to flee back then. Had to learn to ask.” “When was that?” She wonders, but knows the answer already. “1946.” When the car comes to a halt, the man gets out in slow motion and thanks her three times. The police parks not far from them, two officers get out and walk into the supermarket. Either someone has stolen something, or they are getting some refreshments and sweets to get them through the day.
Adam Gianforcaro Adam Gianforcaro is the Social Media Editor for Philadelphia Stories. He was a Writing Arts major at Rowan University, and graduated summa cum-laude in December, 2010. He is busy applying to graduate schools for Creative Writing. Adam has been concentrating on adult realist fiction and contemporary poetry. He is working on a poetry collection and is in the process of writing and revising his first novel. Adam currently lives in New Jersey.
y watch reads 5:56 a.m. I ground enough coffee beans for a Monday, and the four pots are already brewed: House roast, decaf, dark roast, and the seasonal coconut blend. I don’t even know why I have to brew the seasonal blend. We have a ton left over from the summer. No one likes it. The beans are shiny with a piña colada flavored coating, even sticky to touch. I decided to rename the brew “Coconut Cum Coffee.” I set the coffee containers in their square platform, put the scones out on their long porcelain plate, turn on the radio to that contemporary bullshit my boss makes me play, and wait patiently for my manager to open the front doors and go back to hiding in the back office. After my boss flops his fat ass in the back, I see Mr. Douglas’s bus squeal to a stop at the corner of Broad and Mifflin. This reminds me to look at the bus schedule later today. My bike rides here from Fishtown have been brutal with this weather lately. I continue to stare at the large Septa bus outside. I spot Mr. Douglas’s four-legged cane before I see him, with tennis balls on three of the legs and the front right leg naked, struggling to reach the cement. Then, I see a leg of brown corduroys. The same pair as yesterday and the days before that. I can see him struggle down the last of the two tall steps from the bus to the street. Today he is wearing his yellow flannel; I like that one. By the time he gets off, two men who came from the same bus are already halfway down the street, one fumbling for his pack of cigarettes as they pass by my work. Mr. Douglas struggles, waddling his way over to his daily morning coffee shop, Half Caffé. Yeah, it’s really corny, but I didn’t name the place. My boss thinks it’s so fucking clever. The Half Caffé, like half caffeinated, hence the two Fs in “caffé.” I hate telling people where I work. They always ask me why I don’t work at a whole café or is it because I only do half the job. I’m not one for bad jokes. I’m not one for people in general, really, except for this decaying old man coming through the door.
Mr. Douglas is the smartest man I know, which is why I like him so much. He’s not like those goddamn 40-year-old, hipster, liberal women coming in to get their large soy lattes with caramel and extra foam. Yeah, I like Mr. Douglas, but he’s a bit off his rocker from going through Vietnam, seeing his brother blow into pieces. He told me that once. We usually talk for a bit until someone else comes in. That’s our bonding time. I always wonder what he does after he leaves the café. I know he’s lonely. His only son lives in Kansas or some shitty place like that. I’m pretty sure the rest of his family is dead. I know his wife died a couple years back. I think he stays in the city to be around people, to keep his mind busy. I observe Mr. Douglas through the glass door, still a couple yards away. His face is clean-shaven and wrinkled, kind and observant. His thick eyebrows rest quietly above his bold brown eyes, the right one a bit sunken in. I study his broad nose, his thin lips and his square chin. He’s a bit too distant to really study. The collection of spider veins on his left cheek could be mistaken for slight irritation from the cold. I watch him stop, wipe snot from his nose, then continue to drag his feet, struggling with his cane. I should probably get his usual order ready, but I cannot stop staring this morning. I feel perverted staring at him, like some voyeur in the locker room at the gym. I know I have approximately 4 minutes and 25 seconds from when he gets off the bus ‘til he reaches the door. I probably have a minute or so left, so I quickly pop up the website of historical dates on my computer before Mr. Douglas reaches the door. He loves that stuff. We aren’t supposed to access the Internet on the computer, only do transactions and such, but they are pretty lenient with the rules around here. I pull up the dates to see what famous birthdays or assassinations or wars ended on today’s date. Mr. Douglas is obsessed with dates and really gets a kick out of thinking I know them too. Today is Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 109
December the 5th. I hear the bells jingle on the door, as if I wasn’t waiting. He falters inside, and I initiate our customary conversation. “Little Richard’s birthday today.” “Yes. Born 1932. And Martin Van Buren. Do you know who that is?” I try to look at the computer out of the corner of my eye. He is only half-way to the counter, so I turn my head quickly to the screen. I swiftly look down the list of names and dates but I don’t see his. “He’s a composer, right?” “Oh, come on, Jake. He was the eighth president of the United States. Born in 1782, president from 1837 to 1841. Only served one term. He was vice president before that. What about Walt Disney. Born today in 1901. I’m sure you know who Walt Disney is, don’t you?” “Of course I do. He was that poet guy right? Oh wait, that was Walt Whitman,” I say, pulling a big smile across my face. I grab a large cup and fill it to the brim with dark roast coffee. No cream. No sugar. I walk around the counter and put it on the closest table. I pull the chair out for him, and he flops down. “Montgomery Bus Boycott today. You remember on the 1st when we talked about Rosa Parks? Good for her, I say.” Mr. Douglas has the mind of an old history textbook — highlighted and bookmarked, with faded strips of Post-It notes and the hardback cover withering. The spine cracks more with each page flipped. Some pages are dog-eared with sloppy notes jotted in the margins. I always tell him he should’ve been a history teacher. He says he never really thought about it, and kids don’t want to learn like they wanted to in his day. “The good ol’ days,” he calls them. After sipping his coffee a couple times, he says, “You know, when I was a kid, we were all segregated. Couldn’t even drink out of the same fountain. I thought that it was stupid, but I always obeyed the rules. I didn’t want to get beat up for something I said, so I kept my thoughts to myself. You know, kids these days never keep their mouths shut. I think they need to start listening. They aren’t ever going to learn anything if they keep on rambling.” I begin nodding my head in agreement until I hear the bells on the door jingle. I get up and pat Mr. Douglas on the back. “Have a good day Mr. Douglas. Be careful out there and stay warm.” He stays silent and sips his coffee some more. I expect him to leave like he always does when the second customer arrives, but he stays seated, I guess, until he finishes with his drink. I walk around the counter to wait on a lady with a frilly hat and an expensive coat. Before I even get to the register, she demands a large cappuccino. Her voice is deep and stern. “And can you make it snappy? I’m late for work.” “Sure,” I say, stretching an obviously fake smile across my face. Thankfully, steaming the milk is loud. I can see her tapping 110 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
her fake nails on the counter, and God forbid if I had to hear that terrible tapping. I rush her drink, brewing the espresso quickly and just making sure she knows I’m hurrying. I don’t care really, but I could use the tip. When it’s done, I put the drink in front of her. She already has $6.00 on the counter for me. I take the bills, and before I could wish her a spectacular fucking day, she looks me straight in the eyes. “There is barely any foam in this. If I wanted a latte, I would’ve asked for a latte. Cappuccino is supposed to be at least half foam. But I don’t have time for this.” She shakes her head and stomps out of the shop. As I put her change in the tip jar, another lady comes walking in. This lady is becoming a regular. She’s been in a lot the past two weeks. She looks like a model for Urban Outfitters. Her clothes are all faux vintage. Her heavy coat would probably cost me two paychecks but is supposed to look like it cost near nothing. She trots in with a smile and looks up at the chalkboard above my head with all the drinks and prices on it. I want to scream at her, “You know what you fucking want. I see you all the time. A godamn medium mocha latte with skim milk and whipped cream.” But I don’t say it. “Hi, can I get a, umm…hmm. Can I get a mocha latte with skim, please?” I nod my head. “Can I also get some whipped cream on that, too.” “What size?” “Oh, hmm. Just a medium, I guess.” I start steaming the skim milk and brewing the espresso, wondering why Mr. Douglas is still here. I’m not complaining. I really do like him. I like him a lot better than this bitch I’m waiting on, in her $400 coat and her snakeskin boots and her fucking $4.50 medium mocha latte, so she can tell her friends she went to Half Caffé because she really likes to support local business. “Excuse me,” the woman says politely as I’m pumping the chocolate syrup into the hot milk. I look up in acknowledgement. “I was wondering if it would be okay if I hung up a couple of my photographs in here. I know you sometimes have local artists hang up their work, and I just recently finished a series called A Sleepy Walk in the Dim Lights of a Post Apocalyptic City. It’s all black and white prints, eleven by fourteen. I actually have some in my car, if you want to see them.” “No. I don’t want to see your shitty photographs of the godamn run-down buildings in the city, high contrast with scratched edges.” I don’t say this. I want to spit on her powdered face and ruin her expensive mascara. “I don’t see why not. I have to speak with my manager, though. I can take your name and number and give you a call when some wall space is available.” “Oh, that’d be great. Thanks.” I take her name and number and watch her skip out into the streets with her godamn medium skim mocha latte with a swirl of whipped cream. I hope her minivan crashes and her photographs burn in the
wreckage. But I hope she lives, because as much as I hate my customers, I need this job to pay rent. “Hey Jake, could I get another coffee?” Mr. Douglas’s voice is scratchy, talking over the clanking dishes I am fumbling with in the sink. He is struggling for his wallet in the front pocket of his corduroys. “Of course Mr. Douglas,” I say, trying not to sound surprised that he’s staying for a second cup. “It’s on me. Put your money away.” I give him a new cup, mainly because I don’t feel like walking around the counter to grab his. They are recyclable paper cups, not that I care, but our customers think it’s great. Not so much with Mr. Douglas; I just think he likes the coffee, or because we are the closest shop to his house. He lives right on Broad, only two blocks away. He used to walk here, but his hips started giving out sometime last year. Now he has to take public transportation a mere two blocks just for his cup of coffee.Then takes the bus two blocks back. Luckily, Half Caffé is the third store in from the bus stop. I walk the fresh cup of black coffee to his table and take a seat across from him. I don’t expect another customer for another fifteen minutes or so, so I might as well be social. “Thanks Jake. I really appreciate it.” “Yeah, no problem.” “No. I really do appreciate you treating me so well over the years. You’ve given me a reason to wake up every morning.” “Hey. Don’t talk like that. But, thanks. And you’re welcome.” I try to change the subject. “So, anything else historical happen today?” “Not that I know of.” “Hm. So, are you doing anything exciting today?” “No. I don’t really do anything exciting anymore. Haven’t for a while. I’ll probably just read some. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry again.” “Well that sounds cool. Anybody in particular or just some collections?” “I have a book of Manuel Acuña. He’s Mexican. Have you ever heard of him?” “Nope. I don’t think so.” “I like him a lot. And I like Mexicans too. I’ve been hearing that a lot of people are prejudiced against them. I don’t get it. It really drives me up a wall, you know. I can’t take people anymore. I used to love them. I mean, people complain that these immigrants are taking our jobs away. They work harder than any other man, doing jobs we don’t want anyway. You know?” “I know exactly what you mean.” I said it, but I didn’t mean it. Mexicans skeeved me out to, be honest. “Yeah. I’m rereading Acuña’s collection of poems. Remember that name, Jake. Manuel Acuña.” “Acuña. Acuña. Got it. I like the name. A-koon-ya.” “¡Resucita y levántate! Aún no lleg/ la hora de que en el fondo de tu broche/ des cabida al pesar que te doblega.”
“Whoa, I didn’t know you knew Spanish. What does it mean?” “You have to read him and you’ll figure it out. Most of it is translated. That’s from his most popular poem.” “Oh really? What;s that one called?” “In English, it means ‘To A Flower.’” “Hm.” “Seriously Jake. Do not forget his name: Acuña” I don’t know why he is getting so serious, but I try to act blissful. “I got it, Mr. Douglas. Manuel Acuña. Mexicano. Poet.” “Not just a poet. He wrote a couple books and some really great plays. The books were, eh, mediocre. I only read one. The play, on the other hand, was pretty good. Never saw it live, though. Wish I had. The only play I saw live was a civil war play in the ‘70s. It was all right. Don’t remember much of it. I went with my wife.” He stops and looks into his cup of coffee. His droopy eyes sadden. Every muscle in his face relaxes, causing some wrinkles in his face to vanish. I begin to mutter something comforting, but he interrupts me. “Listen Jake, I really appreciate you as a person. I come in here everyday and you are always friendly. I value that. You know, I don’t even like the coffee much here. You keep me coming back. And to be honest, I know your schedule and I don’t even come in on the days you don’t work. The girl here is, excuse me for saying this, but she’s kind of stuck up. And your manager’s phony. You, well, you’re just a good guy. Real nice to me, and I want to thank you.” My eyes start tearing. When anyone spoke highly of me, which has only happened two other times, both times from my mother after my brother died, I couldn’t hold my emotions. My chin begins tightening, my lips pout, and then come the waterworks. I try to hold it back, and I do well enough to only let a couple tears fall. Mr. Douglas’s eyes tear up, too. We have a moment of silence. I stare into his eyes — those lonely sagging sockets staring into mine. He wipes my face with his yellow plaid sleeve, and I thank him. I want to hold his hand. His veiny, old hands in my soft palms. The bells on the door jingle, and a group of three come in, laughing. One is a thin man with black-framed glasses, a Burberry scarf and a buttoned-up pea coat. The other two women, a bit older than him, both in black Northface coats, one with a colorful snow cap and tight jeans, the other with her hair down, long and blonde, with vintage-looking khakis. I walk behind the counter, pretending my contacts are bothering me, making sure they notice that I am rubbing my eyes and I am not crying. I take their order: a cappuccino, two lattes, a bagel and two scones. $17.25 plus tax. The man pays the tab with his debit card, thanks me with a flamboyant tone and leads the women to a table on the opposite side of the café from Mr. Douglas. I see Mr. Douglas attempting to stand, but I rush to his table and sit down, causing him to ease and sit back. “So where were we?” I ask. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 111
“Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?” He is almost whispering. Taken back, I responded as nice as possible. “My mom used to tell me that when I was little. She used to call them ocean eyes.” “Ha! Ocean eyes? Have you seen the ocean lately? Your eyes are pure. Not like the ocean at all. Bright blue is not the same as industrial waste green.” “I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to the ocean.” “I remember the coast of Vietnam. The waves crashed in blood red.” I didn’t know which I wanted to talk about least— the war or his love for my eyes. “But really, you have kind eyes. It suits you well.” “Thanks.” I didn’t mean to sound to off-putting, but I know it came out wrong. “Well, I am going to get going. I just wanted to thank you for everything. You know, people don’t say ‘thank you’ enough. I don’t mean the involuntary thank you. I mean the we-sitdown-and-I-am-sincere-about-it thank you. I thought about that last night, and I wanted to come in today and say it to you.” His face expresses such sincerity with each spoken word. In our brief silence, I listen in on the group of three’s conversation. They are talking about some lay the woman in the colorful hat had last night. His cock was too small or something. I hated that about my generation. Promiscuous and lustful. Everyone so fucking selfish. And here I have an old man confessing his love to me — lustless, selfless, thanking me for being kind to him. I focus back on Mr. Douglas. “I don’t know what to say. I’m flattered. I appreciate you taking the time to thank me, but I don’t deserve praise. I’m just like you. I look forward to you coming in every morning. You’re a good guy. Most people come in, grab their drink and leave. I couldn’t care less if they left and got shot a minute later. But I really care about you. You’re real. You know what I mean? Just you, not trying to be anyone else.” He cut me off. “Can I ask you a question, Jake?” “Sure.” “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?” “Oh man. That’s a hard one. One thing?” “Just one.” “I guess that ... I guess that people were less selfish. I mean, I’m selfish, and I think that’s why I’m unhappy sometimes. I wish I could do something and make a difference. I know I never will, and it makes me feel really insignificant. Like no matter what I do…” “You have made a difference. Have you forgot our conversation already?” “I mean wholly. I guess that’s not the word, but ––” “But you have. A person can only do so much. That’s why there are so many of us. It’s a shame so many people settle for mediocrity and think change can’t be made.” 112 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
“Interesting. What about you? What would you change?” He stares at me, as if the answer was obvious. The silence at our table welcomes the conversation from across the room. I can’t quite understand exactly what they are yapping about over there now. Mr. Douglas’s sad eyes still stare at me. “I better get going.” “No, not yet. You need to answer my question.” “Can I sleep on it?” “Oh. Come on. First thing off the top of your head.” “Okay. Okay. First thing off the top of my head. Hmm.” He pouts his face in thought, pushing his upper lip into the top one, causing his chin to wrinkle more. “Don’t think, just say it.” He speaks fast, “I wish I told you I loved you. I wish I met you when I was able. Able to walk. Able to go places. Nothing physical. Just, you know, go places. Talk and enjoy each other’s company. I am a lonely man, falling apart in a hideous world of routine. I’ve lived the same day over and over and over for years.” He slows up, bringing his tone down. “Listen, I’m sorry, I better get going now.” I sit there. Still. I don’t know how to react. I can feel the eyes of the table behind me. The room falls silent. I want to crawl out of my skin, but I feel as if I am glued to the chair. I see a tear drip from his left eye, making its way down his face like a tiny river. I can’t help but cry. Not just cry, but break down. “Good day, Mr. Douglas,” I say, choking out the words. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As I’m walking toward the bathroom, I hear him say, “Remember to read Manuel Acuña.” I can still feel all eight eyes on me, Mr. Douglas’s and the six from the other table, all gawking at me. I yell for my manager, probably whacking off in the office, to watch the register. I throw up half way to the bathroom. My watch reads 5:54 a.m. I ground enough coffee beans for a Tuesday and the four pots are brewed. I set the coffee containers in their square platform, put the scones out on their long porcelain plate, turn on the radio to that contemporary bullshit my boss makes me play and wait patiently for my manager to open the front doors and go back to hiding in the back office. Sound familiar? This is my routine. This is my hell. I woke up before my alarm this morning. What a piss poor sleep I had. My mind was wandering like those hippie nomads across Europe, as my body was dead weight against my mattress. I swear my alarm went off five minutes after I fell asleep. I feel like a zombie today, so I take three shots of espresso to wake me up. I shake the mouse to wake the computer up, going to the website I visit for Mr. Douglas. I double click on 12 for December, and then click the 6 in the dropdown of days of the month. I have a couple extra minutes, so I try to put the celebrity dates into my short-term memory for him. I thought
about him a lot last night. I was a bit disgusted at first, but I know it took a lot out of him. He’s a good guy, and I feel sorry for him. The best thing to do is put it in the past and treat him like before. I go through the dates on the screen. John Singleton Mosby, Confederate commander, born 1833. William S. Hart, actor, born 1870. Manuel Acuña, poet, committed suicide in 1873. I have a flashback for a split second, like one of the old soldiers in war films. Only, this wasn’t on the battlefield. It was right here, at the table in front of me to my right. Mr. Douglas is there, serious and expressionless. “Seriously Jake. Do not forget it. Remember to read Manuel Acuña.” I shake my head and zone back to the computer screen. My eyes are glued to the unnatural glow of the monitor, to that single line. Everything else around the words ‘Manuel Acuña, poet, committed suicide’ is a complete blur. I am possessed by tunnel vision and become nauseated. I already got shit for puking yesterday on the floor, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the bathroom. I run to the sink, thankful
that all the dishes were cleaned last night, and my stomach lets loose. Espresso and oatmeal paste, reeking like stomach acid, coat the tin-colored sink. I wash it down and run back to the computer. I kick the modem, watching the screen shake on the counter. I kick it again. This time, I hit the on/off button and the computer precariously shuts down. I scream. I scream at the top of my lungs. “Fuck.” My head is spinning. I feel drunk. Angry and belligerent, uneasy and shaky. The radio is spitting some bullshit indie shit, a female with a high voice playing a minimalist tune on the piano. I squeeze the top of my head, gripping my hair. I feel sick again but I stomach it down. I stand, bent over the counter with my belly pressed hard against the corner. I feel the needles in my forehead, but I can’t rip them out. I stare out the front windows of the café. I see snow flurries floating down and melting on the shiny cement. I finally spot Mr. Douglas’s bus and I straighten up. The bus slows down, almost to a complete stop, and continues down Broad Street.
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Gemma Scotcher Gemma Scotcher recently left the rough spillage of streets known and loved as London. She worked in corporate lobbying, and for a couple of Members of Parliament, then dropped out of a masters degree in Russian. She then left for Sussex’s sinful seafront — Brighton (England’s Coney Island). She is now a postgraduate at the University of Sussex, desperately attempting to maintain her creative output. She always has the best of intentions to draw from her political experience in her writing, but usually ends up writing about base-level misadventures. You can find her online at facebook.com/gemma.scotcher
rom the age of 16 to 18, I was in the throws of my first, and to this day only, really serious relationship — certainly the only cohabiting one. It was a truly unfortunate situation in as much as we were both equally disgraceful to each other. Yet, somehow, in the PR war that is the propaganda one spreads to mutual friends and acquaintances when a relationship implodes, he is — seven years later — winning. This is no doubt due to our different aggressive natures. He was a “passive aggressive” and I was (okay, still am) an “aggressive aggressive.” While it wasn’t unknown for me to cause a ruckus in the street, he was far more partial to emotional abuse behind closed doors. Seven years on, I bear him no ill will, but I have a story to tell, and I’ve never been one to scrimp on the detail. Having, to all intents and purposes, left school at 15, I didn’t exactly have my pick of the job market. I worked low-pay, lowskill, blue-collar jobs, usually dish-washing or sweeping floors. I hated it — partly because of the nature of the work, but also due to my (then subconscious) knowledge that I could do better, and mostly because I was 17 and lazy. So I was always calling in sick or skiving. This irked my partner and gradually turned him into what I saw as a nagging, controlling bore. Looking back, he was the core breadwinner on a meagre salary, and I can understand his frustration. Regardless, when I realised that calling in sick didn’t just mean loss of pay and grief from my boss, but also grief at home from my pseudo-daddy-figurecum-punching-bag, I realised that I had to change my ways. I was doing things all wrong. If I really wanted to avoid grief, I had to call in sick from my boyfriend too! Now, skiving work involved the usual telephone conversation with the boss — “I’m sick, I think I ate a dodgy burger,” or maybe “my brother’s been in a fight; I have to go to the hospital.” Standard fare. But calling in sick from the boyfriend required much more finesse. If he was expecting 114 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
me to be at work, I would have to rise from slumber at the expected time (a lie-in, one of the main advantages to calling in sick from work, eradicated, sure, I’ll give you that, but give this a chance) and the telephone conversation with the boss would have to be undertaken covertly. This could take place in the bathroom, while he was out on the doorstep having his morning cigarette. Or perhaps in the kitchen while he bathed, but always keeping volume levels at the front of my mind. And I would have to dress for work, so a spare change of clothes in a tote bag was necessary. The bulging bag in itself wasn’t high risk — he wasn’t the kind of chap to spy rouge luggage when he was at his sharpest, let alone first thing in the morning, un-breakfasted. No, the risk here was packing the bag. That he really was capable of noticing: he was always alert for signs of my flight. Yet, like the phone call, this was simply a matter of timing and ultimately achievable. The tricky bit was when he dropped me off in town for work. Not unreasonably, he would drop me off at a spot nice and close to my place of employment. But then, I ran the risk of being spotted (in uniform remember) by my long-suffering boss whom I’d just fobbed off with a cracking and unique excuse 30 minutes earlier. To avoid getting caught, there were only two strategies. The first was to come up with an ingenious, but fully plausible, reason to be dropped at another spot. I liked, “I need to go to a cash point before work; can you drop me by Halifax, please?” But this could only be pulled so many times a month before he would start huffing, “Why do you even need money when you’re at work?” etc. This resulted in some brilliant quickthinking on my part: “Because I need money for lunch, and there will be queues at lunchtime.” (I said my mind was being wasted, didn’t I?) But, again, there’s only so many times you can have that conversation at 17-years-old without contemplating ending your own, or your interlocutor’s, existence through grisly means. The second strategy shouldn’t really be referred
to as a strategy: that’s a gross overestimation. It was more an expression of my desperation. I’d get him to drop me near my work as normal, wait for him to drive off (which he usually did with appreciated haste), pray no one unhelpful had spotted me, and then bolt in the opposite direction. Although this option was high risk, I preferred it — it got the adrenaline flowing and left me with an afterglow that led me to believe that my masterscheming had all been worth it. So I was left with the whole day to myself. I was queen of my consciousness, master of my domain; the West Midlands was my oyster! I’d like to say that I used these stolen (or reclaimed?) hours for feats of altruism and compassion, trying to redress the imbalances and injustices in the world, but I usually just went to the cinema and/or got drunk (it’s worth noting that the latter required military precision to avoid it being obvious that I was intoxicated, but I really don’t think my dignity can face outlining how I went about that as, well, it was a little too similar to how I hid my early cigarette smoking from my dear mother). I remember I once ended up at the Coventry Showcase cinema, watching Will Ferrell’s Elf. This proved problematic when I later made reference to the film and my beloved had no way of knowing where or when I’d seen it. He was, and still is, a cinema buff. Going to the cinema was his “thing,” and he knew exactly which movies we’d seen together. Having seen a picture without his knowledge was tantamount to cheating — but in my defence, Elf was comparable to a snog in a nightclub; it’s not as though I went to see the Tarantino season at the art house; that would have been like a dirty weekend in Paris with an investment banker. So, when I returned home from one of my illicit sojourns, I would act as though I had been at work all day. I’d moan like my boss had been on my case. I’d create the irritating personality crimes of colleagues — a waiter that said “acrost” instead of “across” and a cleaner that burned the top layer of skin on his hands off by not diluting floor cleaner correctly. It was packed full of the simultaneous, deep-burning shame and lingering, lustrous thrill of a well-executed, brilliantly performed lie. At 16 or 17-years-old, I wasn’t quite sensible, experienced, or brave enough to realise that if a relationship required that amount of deceit, it probably wasn’t good for my soul. I was too wrapped up in the thrill of the performance, and I had no where else to go. Calling in sick from my boyfriend wasn’t the limit to my escapism, however. As trivial and harmless as calling in sick from him may seem, I eventually started to chip away at this guy’s ego with my frequent and unexplained jaunts. The first notable example of such a trip was when I fled to Rome for Christmas. It was Christmas 2004 or Christmas 2003. I had booked a fairly spur-of-the-moment trip to Rome to escape two things: the man and the merriment. I’d already hated Christmas since 2001, and by 2003 or 2004, the hatred, although still newly gestated, was particularly vitriolic. I’d always wanted to go
to Rome, because I’d always wanted to visit all the parts of Italy that Patricia Highsmith flirts with in her Ripley novels. I can’t remember if Ripley went to Rome, but I wanted to get out. I wanted to go to Italy, so that’s where I ended up. I had neglected to consider that Rome is the Catholic centre of the world, and thus, Christmas was going to be pretty high on their agenda. But to be honest, I didn’t event notice their religious version of Christmas until after I left. This was my first time travelling abroad alone. Like everything in my life, I made the decision, but didn’t consider the implications until I was smothered in them. The flight out was fine; finding the hotel was fine; having a little jolly around a new city in the light of day was fine. But when my first night alone hit, I was all of a sudden lonely and in the dark, not knowing the language. I made a panicked phone call to the boyfriend, but he didn’t answer. I hated him for it at the time, but in retrospect it was good because I would have been mortified if he’d picked up. I called my step-dad but he wasn’t around either. His son, my step-brother answered. I burst into tears on the phone, spilling my usually-convincingly-hidden insecure teenage girl guts onto the table. He figuratively stood in front of this bloody pile of guts and bile, asking, “Who the hell do these belong to?” Poor bastard. But poor me. I didn’t want anyone to know how lost I really felt. See why I was glad that the boyfriend didn’t answer? My response to this untidy outburst was to pull my socks up and get out and see the city. I ticked all the main tourist attractions in my guide book off the list. The Trevi fountain is really the only one I remember, outside of the story I’m about to tell. I ate some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, but sadly will never get to fully appreciate again, as I have since developed a wheat intolerance. I got mistaken for a native Italian on several occasions, which boosted my confidence. And I introduced myself to something that was to become a life-long pleasure and borderline hobby — drinking alone in bars and talking to strangers. On Boxing Day evening, I was indulging in some solo cocktail consumption, somewhere near Termini Station where I was staying. I don’t remember what cocktail I was drinking, or how I managed to engage in conversation with them, but I somehow ended up talking to a pair of American men who claimed to be oil rig workers. I would never be able to recall their names, but I remember their faces as clear as day. Both of them had chiselled torsos; not like classically sculpted statues, as the environment might connote — these were the beautiful contours of blue-collar workers. Tight paint-and-grease-stained T-shirts covered huge arms and toned stomachs. Creased, worn-out khaki combats draped over firm, and obscenely high, blue-collar behinds. One was blonde and the other brunette. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to recall their faces after all, just their bodies, and even then, only when I spy similar forms on London streets and think to myself, “Hello, Sailor!” We spent an entertaining evening together. They lathered me up with cheap speed and MDMA, Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 115
but never made a pass at me — true gentlemen. We drank cocktails and talked about the minor differences between American English and English English. We talked of Rome, we talked of love. Come to think of it, they may have been gay. Let’s hope not — those bodies! All evening, I was acutely aware of the fact that the following day was the only time that the Vatican and Sistine Chapel were open during my trip — limited access over Christmas. I had to get back to my hotel at some point to get some sleep before going to see the most beautiful sights in all of Christendom. I invited the guys along, and although they said yes, I wasn’t naïve enough to think it was anything other than an intoxicated gesture of good will that wouldn’t be followed through. I explained roughly what time I’d be queuing to enter and somehow managed to get back to my grotty hotel room. When I got back, I couldn’t sleep for obvious reasons. I lay in bed and basically twitched for five hours. The lack of proper sleep was horrific in itself, but the truly bad thing was that the only English language channel was MTV Europe. I spent five or six hours in a suspended reality that was simultaneously hyper-stimulated and in slow motion, where Bono Vox talking about tsunami victims was my only audio option. I don’t know how much of what I remember of those five or six hours was real and how much was a drug-inflicted dream, but suffice it to say, if I had to go through it again, I would no longer exist. When my Vatican alarm went off, I think I was already awake. I groaned, but I knew what I had to do. I dragged my pathetic form out from my 30 euro-a-night bed, splashed some water on my face, forced down some coffee, and got on the Metro in yesterday’s clothes. When I arrived at the spot where everyone starts queuing for the entrance to the Vatican, it was pouring down with rain. Depending on your experience with recreational drug comedowns, you may or may not be surprised when I say that the rain was welcome. I was the only person in the queue who didn’t have access to, or possession of, an umbrella. I just stood there and let the rain soak the evil out. About an hour later, I entered the Holy See. I can’t remember much of it, but I remember that it was beautiful. I also remember that there was a “no photography” policy in the Sistine Chapel. Everyone not only flouted that, but they flouted it with flash photography. It was as if they had elastic necks, bent right back, ejaculating artificial light all over one of the most beautiful sights on the planet. The whole thing was organised like a museum. You walked through in an orderly fashion, from section to section. There were the kinds of statues that wished they had bodies like my Yankie oil rig workers and there were tapestries. I don’t remember much of it, apart from the final section of the museum’s layout. The final section was full of those incense burners that priests swing down the aisle of a church as they chant. Not just the swingers, but all kinds of incense burners; the holiest incense burners in all the land. I remember noting how thick 116 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
the air was with incense; in my semi-intoxicated state, it was almost as though I could see the scent in the air. Like a cartoon where scent is depicted as a kind of green or brown cloud. As I investigated the last of what the Holy See had to offer, my stomach curdled in the way it’s only inclined to do when I’ve spent an evening indulging in recreational treats. I really needed to fart. It was okay to do so, I reasoned with myself, as my environment was busy enough for the sound to remain undetected, and the incense would deal with the more pungent of crimes. So I farted. It eked out undetected. Excellent. I continued to browse the holy wares and was unsurprised, but slightly irritated, when the urge reclaimed me. I farted again. Rome’s vibrancy and the heavy incense in the atmosphere were my saviours once again. I continued to browse. By this point, I couldn’t differentiate between my actual surroundings and the surreal mental wanderings they prompted. I needed to fart again. Third time a charm? Third time is not a charm. As I went to squeak out a third, and final, intestinal travesty, what I hoped and expected to be gas leaking from my behind, actually turned out to be a torrent of come-down shit, liquid and fetid, all the way down my inner leg, torturing my grey tweed trousers. I froze. Due to the aforementioned trouble with discerning reality, I remained stuck to the incriminating spot for around a minute. Had what I thought had happened, indeed happened, and if it had, was it visible? When I finally assumed control of my limbs and torso, I twisted backwards to inspect the damage. It was visible. Very visible. It looked like Jackson Pollock had tried to do me up the bum and enjoyed it a little too much when I resisted. The Vatican, to the best of my knowledge, is at Ottivina Station. My hotel was at Termini. As far as I can remember, this journey, insofar as it was a straight line of similar length, was akin to going from Camden Town to Stockwell on the Northern Line. Of course, this perception may well be as corrupted as my trousers were that day, but this is how my sorry self remembers it. I chose not to sit on the tube. Although this may seem like an obvious decision, given the contents of my pants, the humiliation of everyone being able to see my unappreciated Pollock was almost enough for me to take a seat and thereby fully acquaint my thighs with my shame. I resisted though. The smell was enough to give the game away. Even if I sat, people would know. Best to spare the thighs. When I finally got back to the hotel, my first priority was to strip. All the offending items were shed from my shame-addled form and given the full heat treatment in the shower — I was ashamed of the garments, but I wasn’t going to throw them away! After peeling off my trousers and pants and subjecting them to appropriate levels of temperature and flushing, I hung them up and did the same to my own body. I scalded myself. This provided multi-farious benefit. I felt that all the necessary bacteria and shame were scorched away, and the come-down was finally down. The drugs were burnt out of me. Reality was
reclaimed. There would be no more horrific caricatures. All I could do now was step back and examine the events of the past few hours. I had fled my less than ideal situation at home only to shame myself on the streets of Rome. I reached for the phone and called one of my delicious oil-riggers. “Where were you guys today?” I demanded. “Oh shit, sorry; we were meant to join you at the Vatican weren’t we?”
“Yes! You were! I waited for you for half an hour.” I lied. “Jeez, we’re so sorry. We haven’t been well at all today. We’ve been in bed all day with the shits. We think it might have been the Mandy. Have you been okay?” “Yeah, I have been fine, hence I managed to get out of bed and make it!” It was a convincing lie. But now the truth is out. I shat myself in the Holy See.
Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 117
Matt Hoffman Matt Hoffman is a recent graduate of Boston University, where he studied film and international relations. He grew up in Connecticut and attended the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. His film commentary appears regularly on the genre entertainment website Mania.com. He is currently living in Brooklyn. This is his first published work of fiction. You can find him online at twitter.com/mjrhoff.
Getting Rid of Angus I’m dreaming about some endless audition when my phone goes off, gradually waking me. Before I go to bed I always turn the ringer all the way up and leave the phone on my nightstand. I’m afraid that if I shut it off, I’ll miss an important call, like my agent with a big offer, or somebody from Wok-Wok Village who needs me to come in for last-minute overdubs. I’ve set the Wok-Wok theme song as my ringtone, so it’s a chorus of high-pitched singing children that I hear calling out to me from the 3 a.m. darkness of my bedroom: “We live in the land of Wok-Wok/It’s such a lovely plaaace . . .” I reluctantly force my eyes open and lean over to check out the phone’s glowing blue screen, currently the room’s only light source. It’s not my agent calling me, and it’s not anyone from the show; according to my caller ID, it’s Jon. That doesn’t seem right. I wonder if he’s dialed my number by mistake. “Hello?” I didn’t realize how hoarse and frog-like my voice would sound until I spoke. “Hey, Felix,” I hear Jon say. He doesn’t sound much better than I do. “Hey, can you come over? To my place?” “Uhh . . . when?” My phone’s screen goes dark, leaving me in pitch blackness. I reach over and turn on my reading lamp. “Like, right now.” “Right now? Why, what’s going on?” “I can’t really talk about it. I just — can you come over?” I rub my eyelids and try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing tomorrow. Nothing scheduled until the afternoon. “Yeah, man,” I say, “I’ll leave now. What do you, ah, is there, should I bring anything?” “No. Well — you’re going to drive here, right?” “Yeah.” “Okay. No, you don’t need to bring anything. Just get here as fast as you can.” “Alright, I’ll be there in twenty minutes or so.” “Okay.” 118 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
I toss off my boxers, throw on some clothes and grab an energy drink from the fridge on my way out. I’m still tired as hell and it probably isn’t that safe for me to be driving. But if Jon needs my help, I’m there. There aren’t many people on the road at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and I’m responding to an apparently urgent call for some sort of aid, so I feel like it’s justifiable to push the speedometer needle on my Audi up a little further than it’s used to. I have to admit that I felt a bit of tingly excitement when the dealer told me that this model could reach up to 140 mph, but in reality I’m kind of a timid driver and rarely get much above the speed limit. It’s appropriate that Jon’s the one giving me an excuse to finally give the engine some real exercise, since I wouldn’t have this car if it wasn’t for him. I pull my energy drink out of the cupholder, take a swig, and continue to wonder why Jon was calling me. I’ve hung out with him a lot ever since The Favor, as I mentally refer to it, since he invites me to the parties he hosts at his penthouse and I always attend. I still wouldn’t call us “close,” though. His attitude of casual friendliness towards me hasn’t changed since college. I can’t tell if he views me as a worthy protégé or a pathetic hanger-on or what. For my part, I sometimes feel like I only spend time with him in hopes of finding a way to pay him back for the help he gave me. I wonder if Jon is experiencing some kind of medical issue, the kind that’s so debilitating and humiliating that — but I shut down that line of thought. My therapist (I can afford one of those now, too) says that I tend to “catastrophize,” which means that I habitually imagine the worst possible outcome of a situation. It’s like universalized hypochondria, and right now I need to avoid doing it. I could invent a whole soap opera’s share of horrifying reasons for Jon to have reached out to me, but the actual explanation probably won’t turn out to be that bad at all.
*** “Oh, Jesus Christ,” I say, “what the fuck? Man, what the . . . what the fuck is this? Man, what the fuck is this?” I know what it is, though. It’s Angus, Jon’s former-stuntman friend, sprawled out belly-up on Jon’s couch like a roadkill opossum, his leather jacket hanging sloppily open over a faded Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. It would look like he was asleep if his eyes weren’t open. The dark stain on the front of his jeans seems like a bad sign as well. I look over at Jon frantically. “He brought over some downers,” Jon says quietly, pointing down at the coffee table in front of the couch. Indeed, there are a bunch of pills — mostly yellow ones, but some red ones and some half-red-halfblue ones — scattered on the table, along with an empty plastic baggie, a half-empty handle of Jack Daniels and some copies of Variety. The whole tableau sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of Jon’s immaculate, palatial apartment. “And,” Jon says, “I guess he had too many.” Mounted on the wall behind Jon is a framed promotional poster for Andy’s Adventures, the Nickelodeon show that’s turned him into a kind of national icon. The poster shows Jon (as the character “Ty”) smiling cheerfully with his arm around Andy, the precocious CGI housecat of the title. Ty and Andy, idols of preschool-age America. I can see the Jon in the poster just over the real Jon’s shoulder, and the happy, slightly airbrushed 2-D version contrasts sharply with the genuine article, whose half-lidded eyes are visibly bloodshot even behind his glasses. I’m reminded of the comedy and tragedy masks. “How many did you have?” I ask. Jon shrugs. “Not as many as he did,” he says, the words emerging slowly. The pills must be the reason why he’s so eerily calm, although, to be fair, he is generally a very chill guy. Maybe that’s why kids like him so much; they just naturally trust him because he has this placid, reassuring aura. Usually, anyway. I’m not feeling too reassured at this particular moment. “So, seriously, he’s . . . ?” Jon nods. “Yeah.” “Jesus Christ . . . you checked?” Jon nods more. “I’m pretty sure.” I feel like Jon’s not really in a stable enough state to be making this pronouncement. I should check. I kneel down and scooch in between the coffee table and the couch so that I can feel for Angus’s pulse. The closer I get to the body the less happy I am about committing myself to do this; there’s the soiled-pants smell, obviously, but I also don’t like the way Angus’s empty eyes seem to be staring off at the ceiling of Jon’s kitchen. I feel like he’s going to jump up and grab me as soon as I touch him — although it occurs to me that if he did jump up and grab me, it would probably mean that this is all just a sick joke, which would be a relief. But Angus doesn’t jump up and grab me as I press my fingers onto the leathery skin and graying beard stubble of his
neck, and his blood is just as motionless as his body. “Yeahhh, he’s dead,” Jon says, like, don’t bother. I quickly pull my hand back, stare down at the floor and just sit for a second, trying to collect myself. I’m shocked but I’m not surprised, and the fact that I could’ve seen this coming makes me feel somehow responsible. I wouldn’t say that I never liked Angus, exactly, but he always made me uneasy. He prided himself on being a connoisseur of illicit drugs (especially painkillers, him having been a stuntman and all), a hobby he shared with Jon and which seems to have formed the main basis of their friendship. Apparently the two of them met while Jon was shooting a bit role in a CSI episode, back before the Andy’s Adventures gig. Angus, who was working as an extra, started chatting Jon up during lunch break, telling all these old Hollywood stories about asshole directors and closeted stars. I don’t know what Jon saw in the guy, but they were still hanging out three years and one smash-hit children’s TV show later. Of course, plenty of people found it odd that this paunchy fifty-something guy with a whitened widow’s peak was always showing up at Jon’s parties, but we all went along with it because he was Jon’s friend. A lot of people probably saw Angus as a kind of mascot, something that gave Jon’s place an amusing local flavor, like a parrot or a comically large bong. Anyway, now none of that matters because now Angus is fucking dead. Jesus Christ. I get to my feet and turn towards Jon. “You called 911, right?” Jon shakes his head. “What? Why not? Why didn’t you?” “I can’t have this getting out, man,” Jon says patiently. “With this . . .” He gestures towards the thing on the couch. “I would be over. I’d be Fatty Arbuckle.” Pause. “I’d be Jon Arbuckle.” He turns his face away from me, and — I can’t believe it — he actually looks like he’s holding in laughter, like he’s cracking up over his own Garfield reference. I yell, not so much because I’m mad but because I need to get this constipated smirk off his face by any means necessary: “It doesn’t matter! You, you can’t just not call 911! You have to call now!” Jon looks up at me sadly; I’ve apparently succeeded in bringing him back from the verge of a giggling fit. “How could I do that, man?” His voice is soft and hollow. “You know . . . ” I stare back at him. I’m trying to stay angry, but I can’t argue with his pleading eyes, or with his logic. TV executives are more protective of their flagship brands than they are of their own children, and there is no way that they would allow Andy the Cat to continue socializing with a known degenerate hedonist drug addict. If Jon goes to the authorities, criminal charge or not, he’s done. No more Ty, no more penthouse, no more Favors for acquaintances from back in the day. As far as the industry is concerned, he might as well swallow the rest of those pills and get it over with. Right now I can’t bring myself to admit all that, though. So Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 119
I stall. “Well, if you’re not calling 911, then, then, what are you going to do?” Jon nods and speaks with a little more confidence, as though he’s glad we can finally get down to business. “I’ve been thinking about that. I think the best thing to do is to put Angus in his car, take the car back to his place and leave it in the garage . . .” I widen my eyes, take a disconcerted step back and nearly trip over the coffee table. Jon doesn’t notice. “. . . and maybe sprinkle a few pills over him, so that when they find him they’ll find the pills, too. This is where you come in.” “Where I come in?” I pace over to the center of the room, so as not to be standing so close to the topic of our discussion. “Your part is really easy,” Jon says like an easygoing salesman, not moving from where he stands by the end of the couch. “All I need you to do is follow me to Angus’s place, and then give me a ride back here. I would do it all myself if I could, but I don’t think I should be seen wandering around his neighborhood or calling a taxi. You know what I mean? Because it wouldn’t look right.” Jon stops talking and I gather that he’s waiting for me to respond. “You’re asking me to help you cover up this, this . . . this death,” I say. I’m trying to sound like I’m shocked, like it hasn’t been clear for a little while now that that was where things were headed. Jon exhales and looks down. He appears to be examining the leather boots on Angus’s feet, but I don’t think he’s really looking at them. He opens his mouth and I expect him to come out with something like, “‘coverup’ is such a nasty word.” Instead he looks right at me and shrugs, although it’s such a weak gesture that he really just seems to be sinking into his shoulders. “I need your help, man,” he says. I manage to hold eye contact for a second. Then I start marching in little circles over Jon’s carpet, like a cat getting ready to lie down. The more I move my legs the more they want to move, maybe because they quite reasonably want to carry me out the door, or maybe just because the energy drink I had on the way over is making me jumpy. I try to restrain myself and settle for shifting my weight from one foot to another. “Why me, man?” I ask. “Why, why did you call me instead of anyone else?” Jon blinks. “I did you that favor once. I got you that job.” Ah, yes. The Favor. As in, the favor in which Jon so generously used his newfound influence in the children’s television industry to get me an audition for the lead voice role in Nickelodeon’s then-upcoming puppet show, Wok-Wok Village. The favor that ended up landing me the first steady employment I had had in years, that allowed me to keep pursuing an acting career instead of finally flying back east with my tail between my legs. That favor. That still doesn’t exactly answer my question, though. “But, 120 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
but . . . I mean, what, I’m the only person you’ve ever done a favor for?” Jon gathers that I’m waiting for him to respond. He shrugs. “Well, why me, man? Why not anyone else?” “Why not you?” He’s got me there, I suppose. “Just a second,” Jon says before striding past me towards the adjacent kitchen. My hand darts up to the back of my neck again. The skin is already getting raw. What would Andy the Cat do in this situation? I hazard a glance at Angus’s body. It is, indeed, still there. I don’t like being left alone with it; I feel like I’m obligated to start some kind of conversation. Over in the kitchen Jon roots through a floor-level cupboard. When he returns he’s carrying a box of trash bags. “The first thing we have to do,” he says, “is get these bags over him, so that he doesn’t leave evidence lying around while we’re moving him. In case his hairs fall off or anything.” He moves over to the opposite end of the couch, closer to the top half of Angus’s body, and takes out a trash bag. The bag makes its traditional fwap-fwap-fwap sound as Jon waves it in the air and opens it. I have to admire how level-headedly practical Jon is being, even as I’m simultaneously horrified. I should find out what was in those pills. Jon looks up at me, apparently interpreting my silence as indicating approval of his plan, and says, “Okay, so you lift him up.” I do as Jon says because at the moment I’m too overwhelmed to do anything but slide down the path of least resistance. Actually, I don’t really do what Jon says; I just walk over to the couch and stand there. “What do you mean, ‘lift him up’?” I ask. “Just grap his torso, lift him up, and I’ll slide the bag over him.” “Oh.” Pause. “Why do I have to be the one to lift him up?” “Do you want to do the bagging?” Jon offers magnanimously. “You can do the bagging if you’re more comfortable with that. I don’t care either way.” I don’t want to imply that I’m comfortable with any part of this, so I just grab Angus around his doughy midsection and pull. His torso is heavy like a sack of flour. As his head lolls back on his shoulders, a reservoir of drool that gathered in his cheek spills out onto the couch. Jon holds the trash bag open and slides it over Angus’s head, as though he’s blindfolding the corpse for a game of piñata. I’m secretly glad that those glassy eyes are finally being covered up. Jon slips the mouth of the bag over Angus’s shoulders and then shifts his hands underneath Angus’s back. “Can you move his arms?” Jon says. “Sure,” I say as I let go of Angus’s sides. I reach for the arms but it quickly becomes clear that Jon doesn’t have as much control over the body as he thought he did. After a second of struggle Angus rolls off of the couch and onto the floor,
banging into the coffee table on his way down, the trash bag still trailing off of his forehead. His face makes a sharp thud as it connects with the carpet, and it’s this sound more than anything else that jars me out of my obedient complacency. I need to get out of here. Jon looks down dumbly at the body for a second, then says to me, “Okay, take two?” I don’t move. “I can’t do this, man,” I say. “You want to do the bagging. That’s fine, no problem —” “No, no, I’m saying, I can’t . . . I can’t help you with this. You shouldn’t even be doing this. I know you’re worried about the drugs and all that, but trying to get rid of a body . . . like, that’s a much bigger thing, you know?” Jon just looks at me. I press on. “Like, there’s getting caught with drugs, and that’s one thing, and then there’s getting caught doing something like this, and that’s a whole ‘nother thing. You know?” There must be a more eloquent way to express the idea I’m trying to communicate, but it’s not presenting itself to me at the moment. “So . . . you’re not going to help me?” I hold up my hands, beseeching Jon for some measure of sympathy or understanding. Jon shakes his head. “Bad karma,” he mumbles. My jaw drops. “What?” “I helped you out,” Jon says, “and now you don’t want to help me. That’s bad karma, man.” I’m glad that I have my hands up, since it’s easy to convert the posture I’m in from apology to indignation. “Bad karma?” I say. “Bad karma? Are you fucking kidding me? Have you been living out here so long that your fucking brain has turned to granola?” Jon doesn’t answer. I step back and around the coffee table so that I can get in his face more without treading on Angus. “You’re trying to hide a dead body, and you’re going to lecture me about karma?” Jon doesn’t meet my eyes. “I’m just saying . . .” “Saying what?” Jon looks so childishly guilty now, staring at his shoes and hooking his thumbs into his pockets, that I almost want to back off. It’s too late, though; the guarana and taurine coursing through my veins have finally found a worthy outlet, and they’re not about to let it go. “What, that because you helped me find a job, now I’m obligated to become your criminal-fucking-accomplice? That, that you putting in a good word for me, and me helping you commit a felony, that those are the same thing? Well, they’re not, Jon! I don’t owe you any” — sputter, backtrack — “I mean, I don’t owe you this.” Jon doesn’t look like he has any response to offer, but regardless, I’m not waiting for one. I turn on my heel and head for the door, hectoring back over my shoulder, “Just call 911, man. I should just call them myself, but I won’t, but you should. Just call 911.” When I get to the door I look back and Jon is still standing by the couch where I left him, watching me go with hangdog resignation. His halogen lamp is casting hard
shadows onto his face, making him look like he’s onstage — in a one-man show, at this point. I want to say a little more, to exit with some pithy parting words. Nothing comes to mind, though, so I just finally leave, slamming the door climactically behind me. Outside it’s quiet and the air is cool. My car is parked by the curb a few buildings down, in front of a tiny taquería that’s currently shut up behind a security grille. On my way over I glance up at Jon’s window. All I can see is that the lamp is still on inside. Above, the big old Western sky is suffused with the purple glow of city lights reflecting off the smog. Some part of my mind wants to feel guilty as I unlock the doors remotely and slip into the driver’s seat. Another part reminds the first one that in prison there are no comfy leather interiors, no lucrative voiceover jobs, no girls at bars who think it’s adorable that my work makes so many children happy. Prison does not offer these amenities — as far as I know, that is, and I intend to keep my knowledge of the subject limited. Besides, what right does Jon have to expect that kind of help from me? It’s not like he ever — And then, as I’m putting my key into the ignition, a thought occurs to me: What if Jon had given me fair warning? I remember the moment he called me. It was around eight o’clock on a clear November evening, three days before I was scheduled to fly back to New York. I had just finished dinner (some pre-packaged microwaveable tray of chemicals, because I had tried to learn to cook but never gotten good at it and since I was giving up on so many other things, why not cooking also?) and was sitting at my little fold-out table in my little closet-sized kitchen. Through the doorway into the living room I could see the cardboard cubes into which I had been cramming my worldly possessions. The window was open, and I could feel a wintry chill seeping into the air; apparently I had acclimated just in time to return to the land of ice and snow. Sitting was the full extent of what I was doing. I wasn’t eating, or getting up, or even really thinking about anything. What was there to get up for? What was there to think about? I was paralyzed by the realization that I could stay at the table for hours like a wax mannequin and it wouldn’t make any difference to anyone, least of all me. I might have stayed there until dawn, just to prove the point, if my cell phone hadn’t rung. Of course this wasn’t the smartphone I have now, the one with the Wok-Wok Village ringtone. This was a scuffed, boxy clamshell with a ringer that sounded like a robot making bird calls. The front screen was cracked, so all it showed was a glowing orange blob shaped like a cat’s eye. I picked up, expecting to hear my landlord asking when I’d have the monthly rent, or my parents asking when they should plan to pick me up at the airport. What I actually heard was Jon’s voice: “Hey, I got your message. You still looking for a gig?” Except right now I’m Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 121
imagining what it might have sounded like if he had just come out and offered me the deal that he now seems to think I agreed to. “I can get you a job, Felix,” he might have said, “a good job, but there’s one condition: Someday you will have to help me secretly get rid of a dead body. I can’t tell you when that day will come, or who the lucky corpse will be, but when the time is right, you will abide by the terms of this agreement or face karmic retribution of the highest magnitude.” He wouldn’t have been forcing me into anything. I would have been free to refuse, to stand by my moral principles. To leave. To give up. To become as dead to this town as Angus is now, only more so, because I wouldn’t even have left a body behind.
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What, I ask myself, would I have said? Presumably Jon saw me through the peephole, because when he opens the door his face is lit up with a soft smile of gratitude. Over his shoulder I can see Angus lying in state on the couch, trash bags scrunched sloppily over his head and feet. Clearly things haven’t been going too well in the ten minutes or so since I stormed out. Jon opens his mouth. I can’t bear to hear him thank me, nor do I want to explain what caused my change of heart, so I cut him off. “After this,” I say firmly as I step over the threshold, “we’re even.”
Gayle Francis Moffet Gayle Francis Moffet writes essays, short stories, plays, novels, and occasionally attempts poetry. She is currently editing the first draft of her novel so that she can edit the second draft of her novel and learn how to write comic books. She is a graduate student at Portland State University, studying Professional Writing with a specialization in Book Publishing. You can find her online at gaylefrancismoffet.wordpress.com
y phone rings. It’s Sunday, half-past five, and I should be reading about early industrial capitalism in Europe during the age of sail. The phone call could get me out of a rather dry section of Europe. I pick up my phone, check the caller ID. There’s only a number, no name. Whoever’s calling isn’t interesting enough to be in my contacts list. Early industrial capitalism wins. Five minutes later, I’m rolling my eyes. Early industrial capitalism is interesting, but the book’s author is trying to make it sound way more exciting than it actually is. My phone trills. Voicemail from the string of numbers means a 45-second break — or, I could be a very good student and finish the chapter first. I compromise. I press the button to automatically dial my voicemail and read two more sentences while the automated voice runs through its greeting. Historians think that some witch hunts occurred to discourage women from working in early industrial capitalism. That’s a twist on witch hunts I’ve never heard. “Hey, it’s me. Call me when you get this. It’s important. Grandma’s okay.” My sister. Crap. We haven’t gotten along in 10 — 12? — years. Her number is in my phone so I can avoid her. When did she change numbers? What does she want? The automated voice is requesting I pick an option; I repeat the message. “Hey, it’s me. Call me when you get this. It’s important. Grandma’s okay.” Her voice is quavery, like an old lady or someone trying not to cry. Double-crap. Someone’s dead. “It’s important. Grandma’s okay.” Someone — I am entirely certain — has died today. That person is someone whose passing got to my sister first. But it’s not our grandmother.
My other options for dead relatives are two cousins, an aunt, an uncle or Fred. Fred is our biological father. I disowned him at 17. My defection to my adoptive father is the biggest, longest battle my sister and I have fought. Fred’s been sick, I know. My sister had passed the information to my mother, and Mother had thought to mention it to me during a conversation I can’t recall outside of the fact that Fred was in it. Could he be dead, I wonder. And how much do I care? Should I care? I’ve spent the last decade purposefully putting him out of my mind. What’s the point of a full-blown, legal disownment if you don’t take the spoils of war that mean being allowed to not think about him? The answer, I realize, is that I don’t care much. I only care as much as it will affect my grandmother. Which is, I realize in another moment of thought, more than I expected to care. But my grandmother is my grandmother — kind, supportive, entirely loyal and loving even during my defection — and I love her unconditionally because she loves me the same. When I told her I was giving up on Fred, she sent me a single letter — sad for your relationship with your father . . . will always be my Gayle . . . I love you — and then carried forward as my grandmother. I will be sad when Fred dies, because it will break my grandmother’s heart if she’s still alive when it happens. My phone rings again. It’s Mother. It’s been seven minutes since my sister’s call. She has assumed my not picking up the phone was done to purposefully ignore her, so she’s stamped her feet at the cavalry and demanded a charge. I consider letting the call go to voicemail, but Mother will call back until I pick up. I answer. “Hi, Mom.” I try to sound slightly busy or at least like I don’t know I’m about to get scolded. “Your sister just tried to call you. You need to call her back.” I wait for her to say something else: How are you? Are you busy? How’s the weather? Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 123
“Yeah, I just got her voicemail. I don’t have her new number in my phone.” All true, so I’m starting out at a pretty good place. I do usually avoid my sister’s calls; it’s nice to be in the right for this skirmish. “She thinks you didn’t answer because you don’t want to talk to her.” Mother is trying to sound neutral, but she snaps the end off her sentence and just sounds aggravated at my outrageous behavior. I look longingly at my history book. I wonder how much witch hunts actually hurt. I wonder if being repeatedly dunked into a freezing cold lake or burned on a pyre could be more annoying than the barrage that’s getting flung at me. “Mom, I just got her voicemail. Like, 20 seconds ago.” “You need to call her.” I lower the mouthpiece so she can’t hear me sigh. I always need to call her. I always need to apologize to her. I always need to think nice thoughts about her; I have never seen any proof the rule swings the other way. “What’s going on?” I ask because my other option is to call my sister and pretend like I’m not doing it with a rifle squad at my back. “Your uncle John died this morning.” She says quietly. Breathe in, I think. Breathe in. “Oh.” “So, call your sister.” “But . . .” I breathe in hard; it burns a little. There are tears in my eyes. “You just told me —” “She wanted to be the one who told you.” I manage not to ask why; I know the answer. Mother will tell me my sister wants to give me the news because she needs support. She’ll remind me how lonely my sister is, how she has trouble making friends and needs her sister. When I relate this story to my husband later, he’ll ask how she can be lonely in a marriage. I will kiss him and feel pity for her before the constant, low-level exhaustion of the idea of her settles in again. In the here and now, I have a limited amount of time and energy. Europe is still having witch hunts, and I need to get to the Age of Reason. “Fine,” I say into a silence I can practically hear my mother counting. “I’ll call her.” “You need to do it now.” She makes it something between a statement and an order. I’m tempted to ask if I need to salute. Limited time and energy, I remind myself. Mouthing off about waiting until next week will get me a lecture I could chisel into marble. “Yes, Mom,” I agree and hang up before she catches the aggravation in my tone. I have, at most, 10 minutes before Mother calls back to make sure the unspoken guilt trip has won her the battle. My history book catches the light as I shift, and the glint off the page almost looks like a wink. It must have been nice to be a peasant in Europe. If you were really lucky, most of your family died before you were old enough to realize the best way to deal with your sister is to refuse to answer her crossed lines. Ever-increasing life spans have a distinct disadvantage, occasionally. 124 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
She picks up on the second ring. “Hi.” The quaver is out of her voice, but she sounds stuffy; I have no doubt she’s been crying . . . . I take a deep breath before I say anything. Sound neutral, I think. I’m not supposed to know, yet. “Hey. What’s up?” “Uncle John died this morning.” “Oh.” I wince and dig for something else. “That sucks.” Greatness. My complete inability to be comforting when someone dies is an issue I can’t fix. I have patted more backs and offered more tea than most people I know, and I still can’t ever seem to drum up an “I’m sorry for your loss.” I know it makes my sister angry; she thinks I do it just to sound tough when it’s just that I’m awkward about death in a way I can’t adjust. “Did Grandma call you?” I ask her, hoping it keeps her from attacking on my response. “No.” She sniffles once, twice; I hear her swallow hard and for a sudden, surprising second, I remember being friends, spending time at Grandma’s farm in the windiest part of Southwestern Kansas and deciding one day to play musical. She had rhymed something with “cataracts in our eyes.” Baking hot fresh pies? Making wicked tie dyes? Flying kites high in the skies? “Dad texted me.” The memory ducks for cover, waiting for the inevitable grenade to fall in the foxhole. “Dad,” to my sister, is Fred. Why she’s been so determined in keeping him, I still don’t understand — all attempts at getting an explanation have ended in her accusing me of purposefully trying to hurt him — and I’m sure whatever he’s done this time is yet another example of his general, manipulative ways. He’s one of those dark and handsome charming types who knows too well that smiling and apologizing lets him get away with everything. He used to call the day after my birthday and argue with me about my date of birth. He’d promise a visit, money for school supplies, some dad-and-daughter time, and something would come up, always last minute, always more important than seeing the kids he put through four separate custody battles to get the chance to see. The worst offense, the beginning of my personal war against his charm, came when I was 14. I screwed up all my courage, told him how badly his wife made me feel. How she was mean, and I didn’t want to be around her; how she said terrible things about me and my mom, and he didn’t stop her. How she would smack me on the arm and how she had once hit me and he’d let her, and how I didn’t want to visit him because his wife was a bad person I didn’t respect, and I didn’t feel safe around her, and I felt like he didn’t love me because I had tried to tell him more than once already, and he never seemed to hear me. My sister convinced me to visit six weeks after that conversation. We stopped at a gas station halfway to Fred’s house to get a snack, and Fred pulled me aside, put an arm around my shoulders, gave an encouraging smile, and told me
I was mistaken, that his wife loved me, and that I was obviously confused. I needed to apologize, he said. Say I didn’t mean it. Explain that I was just in a mood. I yelled at him, in the middle of that store, and then I apologized to her because he was the only dad I had. She yelled at me for 20 minutes, her office door open, Fred just in the next room having dinner with my sister. When I walked out, he smiled at me, hugged me, told me I shouldn’t say mean things, and we should all forget the whole thing. Defection and desertion, I decided, were better than Fred as a dad. It took three more years to rebuild my reserve of courage in the face of his charm and manipulation. “He sent me a text,” my sister says, pulling me away from my thoughts, “and he said I need to call him because he had bad news. I thought —” She hiccups and sniffles and makes a rough sound between breathing and sobbing. I get tears in my eyes again. “I thought Grandma died,” she whispers. Motherfucker, I think. He did it on purpose. “And I know he did it on purpose,” she says. “I know he didn’t just tell me it was Uncle John so I’d have to call him.” I punch myself on the leg so I don’t point out she did nearly the exact same thing to me. She could have just said that John had died, but she’d phrased it so that I’d have to call her back to find out what was actually happening. “He’s a dick,” I state. “Yeah.” And I’d believe the conviction in her voice if I thought it would stick. She tells me, every time I see her, that it’s been so-many-months since she last spoke to him, but those months never manage to stack high enough to become years. Her little battles never become a full-out war. Last time she broke her conversation embargo, it was because he’d sent her an email calling her a hateful bitch. When she’d fired back with the big guns — going as far as threatening never to speak to him again — he’d begged innocence. Someone had hacked his email, he’d said. My sister had immediately apologized. Hearing the story, I’d called him a con artist and an emotionally abusive asshole. She’d defended him, saying that people got their email hacked all the time. I’d countered by demanding to know how many people used an email hack to send nasty notes to the poor victim’s grown daughter rather than — just maybe — stealing personal information. We didn’t talk again for six months. “Aunt Sherry found him,” she tells me. “Uncle John was in the kitchen, and she was in the living room.” I don’t want to know this, I think. I don’t need to know the exact shape of his death. I do not understand why anyone ever needs the exact details of someone else’s death. But if I tell her to stop, she’ll call me insensitive or just ignore me outright. “She heard a thump.” “I really —” “She went into the kitchen,” she continues, speaking a little louder to be heard over me, “and she thought he was joking around.” I can see it. Fuzzy around the edges because I can’t recall their kitchen in detail, but I remember the layout of the house.
The kitchen is off the living room, and I picture Aunt Sherry on the couch watching some show about decorating her spare bedroom. The image splits down the wall. I see Uncle John in the kitchen. Was he making a snack, I wonder. Paying bills? Maybe he was working at the table because his office seemed too crowded for a warm Sunday morning in Texas. People were probably cutting their lawns when he died. Maybe they were in church. “Okay,” I say into the pause of my sister waiting for a reaction. I try to say something else, but all I can do is keep my eyes shut and breathe deep around the knot in my chest. I met him six times in my life; he was warm and decent and caring. How he went before Fred, I don’t know. It’s not right. “I’m going to call Grandma,” my sister says, voice brave suddenly, like she’s prepping for battle, strapping on a breastplate and finding a sword. “I’ll call her a little later,” I tell her. “Everybody is probably calling her now.” It’s half the truth. My hands are shaking at imagining her tone. What if she’s crying? What’s the proper response to your grandmother crying when you’ve always been the youngest granddaughter? It terrifies me, picturing my grandmother in tears over this. My grandpa died eight years ago — old age and Parkinson’s — and she’d barely cried at all, so happy that he was finally at rest after a decade of uncontrollable shakes and deteriorating memory. I can’t find out how she cries when she doesn’t know the death is coming, when she’s just found out her son is dead. I’m a coward. “I’m going to call her now.” “Okay,” I say. “Sure.” I disconnect the call and look around. I’m in the kitchen, somehow. I pace around my apartment when I’m on the phone, but it’s rarely unconscious. Did I drop my history book somewhere? I hope I didn’t lose my page. My phone rings again. Mother. I don’t need this. I want to crawl under the covers, curl into a ball and cry for a barelyknown uncle I lost years ago. “Hi, Mom.” “Did you call your sister?” “Yes.” “Good.” The pause stretches out a bit. I wait again. Say something, I think. Ask how I am, if I need anything, if I want to send a card. Ask me how it feels to know that the uncle who wrote me off after surrendering hope of Fred died this morning. “Your poor Grandma,” Mother says. “I can’t imagine losing a child.” No, Mom, it’s fine. I’ll be okay. No need to check. “Yeah,” I say numbly, squeezing my left hand into a fist. If I weren’t a nail biter, I’d probably have cuts on my palm. More waiting. Ask me how I am, I think. Ask anything. “Thank you for calling your sister. She needed it.” My patience snaps; it’s an audible crack in my mind, like someone firing a warning shot into the air. “You know,” I say, and I’m still numb, but there’s a cannon fuse’s flash up my Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 125
spine, “it really pisses me off that she’s just assumed I didn’t want to talk to her. I could have been talking to someone else, or busy, or my phone could have died. I get really sick and tired of being accused of being mean just because I don’t answer the damned phone.” Mother sighs. She didn’t mean it, she’ll say. “She didn’t mean it.” “She said it.” I snap. “Honey, she’s upset.” “So am I.” And I wait, again, for my mother to ask how I am. “You know how sensitive she is.” I stare at the microwave in my kitchen. I stare at the coffeepot. I look out the window and wonder what would happen if I declared war. If I threw off all of the armor and banned my sister from the land. If I called my mother on her supposedly neutral bullshit. “So she can accuse me of being purposefully mean, but I can’t call her on it because it might hurt her feelings?” The line is quiet. I picture my mother at the house. She’s pacing too, I know. She’s probably in the bedroom playing with the knickknacks on her dresser. “You two used to be best friends,” she says. I thump my head against the refrigerator. “I don’t —” “She used to say you’d be her vice-president,” Mother continues. “I wish you two —” “We were three and five, Mom.” I just manage not to point out that we’re 26 and 28, that stories about being sisters and
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best friends don’t work as treaties after a point. That it’s only the story she ever tells about our supposed loyalty to one another and that it’s desperate and pathetic to hear it — 23 years old — trotted out as proof that we should be able to patch up our differences because in my half-forgotten memories, my sister was gracious enough to present me with first place under her thumb. “Have you called your grandma?” Mother asks. When would I have had the time, I wonder. “Not yet,” I tell her. “I’m giving it a couple of hours.” “Tell her I’m thinking of her.” Battlefield messengers had it easier than this; they were only getting shot at. I’m supposed to call my grandmother and listen to her cry as I tell her Mother and I are thinking about her. I have to tell my grandma that I’m sorry my uncle died, while I recall his dismissal on the grounds that Fred as a brother should have been adequate enough for my requirements for a father. I have to get the same bad news twice because my mother thinks enforced contact with my sister will heal all wounds and hide our history under a new foundation for a gleaming faux-marble front. “I’ll tell her,” I say to Mother. “I have to go finish reading for history now.” “Okay, honey. I love you.” “Love you, too.” I hang up and walk back into the living room. My history book is face down, the page slightly bent. I pick it up, dust it off and try to find my place. I need to get to the Age of Reason.
Asha Morrison Asha Morrison recently graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts with a degree in writing and literature and in economics. Realizing she had the most irrelevant degree in the world, she enrolled part time at Harvard Business School. Without completely committing to an MBA program, Asha spends her spare time making clothes, working in fashion, and writing stories that bring her childhood demons to life. And by demons, she means fantastical representations of hallucinations she’s never actually had. Unfortunately, she’s not that interesting so writes fiction to harness her lies into something positive.
He’s in the Walls
had still not gotten any better; my flu was becoming increasingly worse. I was sitting on my bed reading about ancient Greek mythology when I heard “Scarlett” whispered, seemingly from within my room. My eyes slowly drifted toward the wall adjacent to my bed, and I began to wonder how the girls had made it seem as if the voice were in the room. “Scarlett,” I heard again and rushed toward the door to catch them in the act. I stood in the empty corridor for a moment, then angrily knocked on the door beside mine. After realizing it was dinner and no one was in the room, I went back to my own, put the book down, and began to eat the meal the nurse brought up along with the medication. Upon putting the fork to my mouth, I heard a shriek so revolting that it caused me to jump and my heart to beat dreadfully fast. I dropped the fork from my hand, wondering where it came from, more so, wondering how it seemed as if it came from my own mouth. “I am going insane.” I pushed the food aside and buried myself in the bed trying to force myself to sleep, but found I was too nervous to close my eyes. I stared around my room, convincing myself that either I was imagining it all, or the girls had become quite talented. It had only been four weeks since I made the trip to this place. The ride was dreary, the skies were gray, and apart from the horse and driver, there was not another soul on the pebbled path on which we rode. It was as if I had never had feelings before and finally the chaotic thoughts I allowed to possess my mind were finally making their way to my heart. The path began to thin, the branches and the vines from the trees scraped against my carriage. I had every intention to write in my diary, to capture these moments that I soon would surely forget, but I could not get my heart to stop beating so rapidly and my hands to get back to the steady manner in which I normally kept them. I watched the veins in my hands rise as I clenched my fists, thinking about the idea of Father sending
me away to this school. The crows were beginning to stop their morning calls, the path widened, and I could see riders in the distance. My fear was fading, giving me a sufficient amount of energy to focus on anger. I begged him, pleaded on my knees, that he not send me to Wimbledon, the all-girls boarding school in London. I applied only because of Mother’s final wishes, but I never fancied the idea that I would be accepted. My sister was a far better applicant for a school like this, a school that did not focus on academics but was more concerned with breeding “a fit group of young women that would be the wives of the most wealthy and politically powerful men in all of Europe.” I sat at my vanity, where the light was best, during the latest hours of the night, writing my essay, to ensure that my tone was extraordinarily cynical. As I stamped the envelope with the Callaway seal I smiled, knowing it would be my sister that would be taking this ride alone. But no, it was I. This was not my responsibility, my conscience screamed. I could only bite my tongue, as Father would not change his mind. It was not my fault that this family was in ruin, and it should not be left to me to save the Callaway name. But it was. I seemed to be the only one in the family that found the idea of being married off to some duke or some prince foolhardy. I wanted more than anything to blame Father for putting the family in debt. Yet again, I bit my tongue. I stared out the window, trying to grab hold of the images that flashed by. I could not help but stare at the reflection of my own eyes. I had never felt so melancholy, and the simple fact that my solemnity showed on my face was more frightening than the actual feeling itself. I knew these thoughts would only prolong my two-day journey, so I placed my diary in my bag and rested my head against the window in the hope of sleeping until nightfall. I had failed at every attempt at sleep, could hardly keep food in my stomach, and once I arrived at Wimbledon I was tired Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 127
and nauseated. Not only because I had not eaten, but because I was standing in a corridor of a dreadful place they dared call a school. I was alone for only moments, when my bags were taken by a servant, and I was greeted by the Headmistress. “You are late,” she said, with her dark green eyes staring directly into my pupils. The Headmistress turned and hastened down the hallway, I followed close behind. I looked around the room, gazing at the high ceilings and stained glass. My throat began to throb as I held back tears, remembering the visit Mother and I made to the school before my sister was born. I had not understood what she meant then, but she cried, looking up at the ceiling. “Only God could make something so pleasing,” I repeated my mother’s words. The Headmistress rushed over to me. “I am glad you think so,” she said, pulling me close to the other girls in the room, the girls I had so easily ignored until that moment. I was thrown in a circle of giggling girls and bright dresses. They were all laughing and tugging at each other’s curls. I had become the center of their focus. “Oh, you are so beautiful. Do not be so sad. Do you miss your family already?” “No,” I said, and with that they all turned away from me, some whispering, others glancing back. We were then pulled at and yanked into proper positions. Most of the other girls had been there for months already, preparing themselves for the semester ahead. We stood for hours as the man behind the easel glanced at us on the odd occasion and only briefly before going back to his work. Several girls were released early, but they only lingered, waiting for the result of the painting. I, however, left the hall and went searching for my room. The servant had already brought my bags to my room, and I was greeted by my roommate, Sophie, who was as pale as death and thinner than any person I had ever seen. She was balled in the corner of her bed with her head in her knees. I attempted conversation, but Sophie remained unresponsive. The first time I ever heard a word from Sophie was two weeks after my arrival, when I attempted to open the window. “Never open the windows,” her deep, raspy voice whispered. My heart began to race as I continued to push the window open. I had not known how Sophie would respond, but up to this point I had never heard her voice. I was willing to risk whatever may come forth just out of pure curiosity. I pushed the window open, and for the first time, felt a cool breeze in the room. Sophie grabbed her head and roared in pain. I immediately shut the window and turned around to see Sophie running out of the room. Waiting for my heart to simmer down to its normal pace, I stared at the door, half expecting Sophie to return. I sat on my bed, wondering how she had been accepted to Wimbledon in her condition. Perhaps she had just 128 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
recently gone insane, but had only arrived a week before me, so it seemed rather unlikely. I fell asleep early that night. I had been ill for the past few days, and the Headmistress demanded that I stay in my room and food brought to me. I waited for Sophie to return and finally closed my eyes once I realized she would not. I was awakened by abrupt knocks on the door. My head was heavy from fatigue, and my heart began to beat increasingly fast every time the knocker hit the door. I was greeted by a group of girls, who quickly dispersed once the Headmistress made her way through the crowd. The Headmistress walked in past me. “Welcome, Headmistress Sevigny.” “We have no time for banter. Sit down, Scarlett.” I made my way to the bed, rejoicing somewhat early at the idea of being possibly expelled from the school. I was trying to hold in my ecstasy at the thought of it. “Sophie, your roommate . . . ” The Headmistress paused. There was a dark look on her face and a pitiful look in her eyes. My stomach turned once I realized that this conversation would not be about me. “She has hung herself from the bell tower. You, however, will be expected to recover from this influenza and get back on top of your studies.” The Headmistress walked out of the room, leaving me to deal with my oncoming emotions in pure isolation. I did not move. I only sat on my bed, staring at Sophie’s wall, at the hole she had begun to make. My chest felt heavy from what the Headmistress had told me, not because it was unexpected, but because I had been expecting it. I was in shock and tried to force tears to come, but I was not saddened by Sophie’s death. I ignored the knocks of the other girls, some attempting to comfort, others attempting to scare me. I found myself a bit depressed during the next few hours, not because of Sophie’s death, but because of my complete indifference towards it. I almost felt relieved that I would be able to open the windows and find peace alone in my room. I was no longer comfortable with my new isolation. I decided to spend most of my evenings in the library, which most of the girls had avoided since they had been at Wimbledon. I was in the library’s lavatory when I first saw him. I was locked in one of the stalls when I saw a figure enter the room. I thought to ignore it, assuming it was the librarian, however, I could see a figure much larger than the librarian’s. I tilted my body to the side to stare through the crack in the door. I was instantly nauseated; my head began to ache so badly that I squinted my eyes and tried to soothe it by squeezing it with my hand. My heart began to drum against my chest, and I found myself fearing that he may hear it. I pulled my feet up close to my body so he would not know I was in the room, but as soon as I did that he slowly turned towards me. “He cannot see you,” I whispered to myself as he walked closer to my door. The closer he got, the more revolting he became. He was the largest man I had ever seen, his hands much larger than my head,
and I could not make out his face. The more he advanced, the darker it became. He stopped; blackness filled the room. I could see his feet under the door of the stall. The stalls began to shake so robustly, that I was sure the door would fall off of its hinges. I squeezed myself into a tight ball with my arms over my head. The shaking worsened, I began to scream, tears were rolling down my face. Seconds later the shaking stopped, and the librarian opened the stall. “What’s the matter, Miss Callaway?” Her quizzical expression was a giveaway that she had not seen the man, and she had not heard the shaking; therefore it could not have happened. Or did it? I was so confused, that I had not even bothered to answer the librarian’s question; I rushed past her and ran to my room. As soon as I sat on the bed I heard, “Scarlett,” whispered. I pounded my fist against the wall, an action that did not seem as if it was my own, but some type of uncontrollable reflex. My head shook in a twitching jolt that had become an unruly habit of mine over the course of the week. It was becoming difficult to breathe; my chest felt as if it was expanding, but the shrinking of my throat did not allow me to release the air I was containing. I walked to the window, hoping the air would open the passageway. I stared at the oak tree, whose leaves had been pushed away by the winter weather, but was now covered with a blanket of crows. I had never seen so many crows on one tree and decided not to open the window. I rested my hands on the window and let my body dawdle for a moment, hanging my head close to my chest. My heart jumped when I felt the pounding on the window. I looked up to see the crows were gone and then one hit the window, and then another and another. They continued to smash against the window. I slowly backed away, turned and shielded myself once the glass began to crack, and screamed once shards of glass rushed by me, some scraping the skin on my back. I heard laughter. I ran into the corridor. “Just stop!” The girls looked back at me, some of their faces more distorted than others, almost like an unfinished painting. I could hear them whisper, “She is insane.” “Has Sophie come back for you?” I went back into the room and slammed the door, noticed the unbroken window, looked over at a dent in Sophie’s wall, and grabbed the candle holder off of my desk and began to beat the wall with it. I tried to get through, but only made dents before the nurse walked in. “He’s in the wall,” I screamed as tears streamed down my face. The nurse struggled to take the candle holder away from me. Moments later the Headmistress walked in with the doctor and his nurses, the nurses took me away. I awoke in a bed I was not familiar with. There was nothing else in the room, no windows and no other furniture. The only light came from a candle that was far out of reach. I was surprised at the ease in which the door opened; I thought I may have been in an asylum. I hoped I was. I walked out into
the corridor to be greeted by no one, heard nothing in the distance; it was as if I were the only person in the school. I walked through the empty corridors, trying to make as little noise as possible. I could hear nothing. For a moment I thought I had lost my hearing, so I knocked a vase off the table and the sound echoed throughout the building causing a frightful pain and highlighting the chilling silence. My heart sank as I watched the pores on my body begin to rise, I clenched my teeth, and my eyes began to burn as my eyelids greeted the oncoming tears. I walked out of the school in only my sleeping gown, and my bare feet cried as they hit the cold stones. My head began to feel heavy, and the heavier it got the more faint I felt. My eyes slowly looked around, my vision more delayed than my movements, everything became blurred. I walked back in the school once my feet began to turn a pale shade of purple. I thought this was what I had come to want, that I could find sanctuary in solitude, but the loneliness caused my body to quiver, and my throat swelled as I tried to stop my tears. I stood in the main hall and watched the walls begin to swell and realized what was more torturous than being alone was the simple fact that I was not. He was in the walls and the time would soon come when he would come back out. My chest was engulfed in flames, and my throat was clogged as I walked down the halls trying to find a hiding space. My ears pulled back as I listened to breaking glass. I turned, facing an oncoming blackness that began to conquer the walls. He was coming. I could hear death as the chilling sounds of dying leaves became louder. I could hear him taking the life out of the air that would soon be my lungs. Far too frightened to run and much too terrified to meet my fate, I pressed my back against a wall and slowly fell to the floor. I tried to remember my life before this moment; my eyes began to ache as my memory failed me. I pressed my knees against my chest and rested my head upon them. “Anywhere but here,” I repeated, as I watched the blackness come in closer. I pulled my eyelids down to my face as I began to remember the normalcy of past thoughts, the only memory I could muster was the ride to this place that had become the center of my torture. I was having trouble holding on to my memories. They were all fading. Afraid to lose them completely, I stood and ran down the corridor, my hair trailing behind. I turned to watch the blackness, it was moving at the same slow pace, so I ran up the stairs knowing that I would have more time with my memories if I could make it to my room. My bare feet slapped the marble on the floor and began to redden as I quickened my pace. As I approached the second story, I turned the corner leading to my room. My head jolted back as something got a firm hold on my hair. Afraid it was him, I pulled forward, tearing strands out of their follicles. A few feet later I looked back at my hair hanging from a large golden frame. 1710, I saw engraved at the bottom, that was to be my class. I walked back over to the frame and ran my fingers over the numbers. I traced my face; I could see the solemnity in my eyes even in Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 129
this painting. No, perhaps I just remembered. I closed my eyes while caressing the frame, remembering the day I stood for this portrait. My heart dropped as I drifted away from the memory. I looked over the railing; the blackness had still not made its way to the stairwell. I walked slowly as images from my first journey down this corridor flashed in my mind. I grabbed hold of the knob remembering my first encounter with Sophie, realizing my current agony was her past life. I stood in the center of my now cob-webbed room. Sophie had only lived with him for three weeks; I had been there a month. I walked around the room attempting to gain another memory. I could hear the breaking glass and knew that the blackness was not too far away. I tried to think of my father and tears streamed down my face once I realized that I could not. I fell to my knees realizing that I was not in control of my oncoming memories. I yelled out as my next memory came upon me. I tried to block it out; I attempted to think of the ride to Wimbledon. The harder I tried, the more I failed. I began to claw at my head as I could not control my thoughts. The memory of our first meeting was far more vivid than what I experienced that day in the lavatory. I began to choke, as the memory faded. I was crying so heavily that I could barely breathe. My hands were shaking and I could see the veins in my arms rising. I began to scream. My normal life was taken from me; whoever he was, trapped me inside this school. I stood on my bed and began to dig deeper into the wall with the candle holder. I wanted to see my family again; I wanted to have normal thoughts again. I stepped back once I had revealed what was inside the wall. My stomach grew round and my throat was throbbing at the sight of the mold within the walls. What is this?” I could not take my eyes off the absidia. “Am I hallucina — ”
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“She is in here,” I could hear one of the girls yelling. I looked around the room, it was bright and everything was untouched, except for the wall. I blinked, I was returned to my solitude in the darkness of his world. My mind kept pulling me back and forth between these two worlds. My heart raced as I tried to figure out whether or not what was happening to me was real. Was he real? Outside of the door became black. I could no longer see the light under it. For a moment I saw the Headmistress’s face and my eyes immediately went to the syringe the doctor was holding. I could see my father and sister behind them. Crying? My heart stopped. I choked as I struggled for air. I tried to speak as I felt the needle go through my flesh. My face was shocked and still as my tears dried. They were all slowly taken from me. I was back in my room alone with nothing but oncoming blackness and utter confusion. There was nowhere I could go, there were no memories I could hold on to. My mind, where I used to find refuge, was no longer reliable. The blackness made its way under the door and into the room, my fate was upon me. Tears were useless at this point. Every pore on my body rose. I could no longer feel or hear my heartbeat, my lungs had not expanded for minutes, and my body had become overtly stiff as the blackness reached my toes. I was empty. I had no thoughts, I could hear nothing, my body was now inanimate and there was nothing I could do as it engulfed me. I tried to bring myself back to what I hoped was reality, back to the room with the Headmistress and the doctors. My family: I tried to focus on my sister and father, but it was useless. I could feel the burning of the blackness making its way through my body; I hoped it was the medication the doctor was injecting in me. Then I saw him. He stood before me, larger than any living creature I had ever encountered. My mind was now his. My eyes were heavy and my mouth gaped open. I fell to my knees realizing there was nothing I could do but submit.
Mark Burchard, a motion picture costumer, was inspired by the slaphappy moments in his 29th film, The Silence of the Lambs, to try writing comedy. Moving onto poetry, fiction, and memoir, his work has been published in The Battered Suitcase, WestWard Quarterly, Audience Magazine, and Back In Five Minutes the first installment of Little Episodes’ anthology series. In 2011 his work will appear in Kerouac’s Dog Magazine, Out of Context, Do Hookers Kiss?, and The Stray Branch. Mark’s photographs were shown at the launch of Little Episodes in London, and will appear on the covers of The Stray Branch, and Audience Magazine. His filmography can be found at IMDB. com.
In the Spotlight
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The Red and the Black
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Explosion with Feathers
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Tigers on the Hunt
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Carnations on Hardwood
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Wynne Huddleston Wynne Huddleston is a music teacher with a MMEd from USM, a member of the Mississippi Poetry Society, and board member of the Mississippi Writers Guild. Winner of the 2010 Grandmother Earth Environmental Poetry Contest, Ms. Huddleston’s poetry has been, or will be published in Birmingham Arts Journal, Emerald Tales, Enchanted Conversation, Waterways, Poets for Living Waters, Gemini Magazine, The Shine Journal, THEMA, Camroc Press Review, From the Porch Swing, Raven Chronicles, Calliope Nerve, Victorian Violet Press, joyful!, Purple Poetry Book, The Stray Branch, Mississippi Poetry Journal, Grandmother Earth XVII, New Fairy Tales, and Pond Ripples Magazine. http:// wynne-huddleston.blogspot.com/ and http://wynnehuddleston.wordpress.com/
Catching Cold Your words seem to get caught in the vapor of your cold breath; they separate into letters, float aimlessly around each other, confused, nonsense. I stare at them, hopelessly unable to reassemble them into meaning, as my numb body shakes nervously in the freezing November air. So I search for understanding in your steel gray eyes — the color of the frozen pond in front of me where I see a girl in a black coat trying to skate, but she can’t even stand; it is too slippery. I keep waiting for her to fall hard enough to break through the ice. They say there are fish there, underneath the surface, beautiful vibrant fish waiting to be caught.
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Nina Schuyler Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and was named a Best Book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her short stories have been published in ZYZZYVA, the Santa Clara Review, The Ledge, Fugue, and other literary journals. One of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Her novel, Accidental Birds will be published by Vagabondage Press next year. www.ninaschuyler.com
The View From Over Here The front bike tire hits a pot hole and Julia is flung over the handlebars, arms stretched out in front of her, as if she’s preparing to dive into water, but not water because the hard, black concrete is fast approaching. She tries to remember all those years ago how she learned to fall — tuck and roll? Roll? She squeezes shut her eyes, but it stops nothing. She’s still flying through the air. Except, she isn’t really. She’s at the kitchen window, watching a boy with flaming red hair sail through the air. His shoulder slams first, and he rolls and keeps rolling toward the white center line. By the time she’s outside, he’s brushing himself off. “Are you all right?” she says, out of breath. Luckily he has a helmet. His bright green eyes are sparkling with tears. He limps over and picks up his bike. What should she do? Bring him into the house? Tell him to sit for a while? Call his mother? “Do you want me to call your mother? I can drive you home.” Can she? Still in shock, she looks around to see if someone might help them. The Seattle suburb is quiet, curtains shut, garage doors closed. “Nah. I’m okay.” The boy must be ten or eleven. Though he’s tall and gangly, his features are still baby soft, as if his body is determined to become an adult, but his face would rather not. He’s late for school; he says. “I should get going.” He adjusts his bike helmet and climbs back on his bike. Julia watches him gingerly pedal away. Her shoulder aches, but her head feels all right, at least right now. This is the third day. Of watching something happen and going through it, as if it’s happening to her. But that’s not exactly accurate. There is no speculative “as if.” It is happening to her. Her physical self experiences exactly what she sees. It’s not her imagination either. She knows all about the imagination. When she was twelve, both her parents died in 140 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
a car crash — a TV repair man ran a red light — as they were coming home from a neuroscience conference. An aunt, who Julia had met only twice before, arrived from Nebraska to make the funeral arrangements and put Julia’s parent’s affairs in order. It was decided Julia should live with her, her father’s elder sister. Her aunt was a quiet woman who worked as a dental hygienist. She’d never married or had children and she paid little attention to Julia. So Julia spent hours in her room, lying shut-eyed on her bed, stroking her cat, searching in her mind for her father with his mass of dark hair. Eventually she’d see him, sitting at their scratched kitchen table, reading the newspaper. “For crying out loud!” he’d shout, as he always did, tossing down the paper, as if it were the problem. “Can’t they figure out this awful mess!” He’d storm outside onto the back porch for a moment of furious silence. After he’d gathered himself, he’d come inside and engage her in a spirited discussion about whatever the irksome issue — finance, politics, health care — she’d read the paper too, just so they could do this. Her mother usually appeared in Julia’s mind wearing her short white tennis skirt, her legs skinny and tanned, rereading the yellowhighlighted parts of The Inner Game of Tennis. “Here, sweets,” she’d say absentmindedly to Julia, “eat your cinnamon toast.” But there were limits to how far her imagination would take her. Take the idea of swimming with her father in their indoor, egg-shaped pool until her hair turned green from the chemicals. She could find his warm breath that smelled of coffee, his thick arms holding her, but not feel them physically. When she reached out, sure she could touch her mother’s long fingers that used to race up and down the piano, playing Schubert, she’d touch only a dried out memory. There was always that wall, and her mind sat on one side of it, immersed in another world, while her body sat on the other, waiting, watching, twiddling its thumbs. Ho hum. Oh, sometimes her heart beat a little faster, or her fingertips tingled, but most of the time she
stayed exactly where she was, behind that wall. But this is different. Now seeing something, her body gives itself over to it without her consent. This morning, for instance, she happened to glance out the window. And there was the boy with the flaming red hair. She pours herself a glass of water and takes two aspirin. Hot waves of pain travel up and down her left leg. The boy must have skidded on his left side. She unzips her pants to see, but there are no marks. Not anywhere. It’s sensation without physical evidence. She feels it and that’s what matters. Though probably no one else would believe her. Not that she has told anyone, not even her husband. A very busy lawyer, he handles incredibly important cases for people who’ve been maimed in all sorts of horrific ways. They are a lot worse off than her, for sure. Five years ago, at age forty, he hit it big and won a multi-million dollar case for a man whose arm got chopped off at the elbow by a steel flattening machine. The newspapers praised her husband, calling him the Common Man’s Warrior, and a trade magazine awarded him the title “Lawyer of the Year.” Really, he could retire on that one case alone. But ever since, badly injured people have been pounding on his door and he’s the kind who just can’t say no. There are so many injustices in the world, he rants, pulling on his ear lobe, so many greedy companies cutting corners. He must make them pay because if he doesn’t, who the hell will? Next spring, he says, maybe they’ll go on vacation to Tahiti. Get away from it all — no phones, no email, nothing. But he’s said that before. Something always comes up and he’ll say, “I just can’t lounge around on a beach knowing this person is hurt.” Julia always agrees. “Really, we can’t go.” She means it. Why go to a beautiful place while her husband is worrying about someone’s frostbitten fingers or fractured spine? She’d think about these poor people, too. Probably. And she hasn’t told her children either. Both daughters are married, with children of their own, and they are very busy. She remembers the years of endless diapers and feedings and mindless games of paper dolls. Though her daughters complain about it, Julia would give anything to do it all over again. Julia limps over to the sink, washes her glass and puts it in the dish rack. Now what? The phone rings and she glances at the clock. Holy moley! She has to get to the gym before work. Her office is a twenty-minute drive from there, but she has to time it perfectly, otherwise it’s an hour or more commute. She decides not to answer the phone, then sees it’s her husband. “I forgot to say ‘I love you, MacGoo,’” he says. MacGoo is his nickname for Julia. It has nothing to do with her real name, nothing to do with anything. Maybe he likes the rhyme, she doesn’t really know. “Love you, too.” “Just wanted to say that.” Julia can hear his secretary in the background. He says he has to go. And he won’t be home in time for dinner.
As she listens to the dial tone, she tries to conjure up what he looked like this morning. Maybe from that image, she can feel him, experience what he’s thinking. Most of the time, she doesn’t know what he’s feeling or thinking. She doesn’t think he’s having an affair. He’s not that type. He’s very loyal, a great guy. Everyone thinks so. “I just love Arnie,” people say. She suspects he’s thinking about all those damaged people. It’s horrible what can happen to a person. His most recent case: A canoe fell off a shelf in a sporting goods store and landed on a woman’s head. In bed last night, Arnie went on and on about this young woman. From the blow to her head, she’s lost her hearing, but she’s already taking a sign language class. A real trooper, said Arnie, his voice filled with admiration. “She doesn’t complain about a single thing.” Julia’s hands feel raw, as if the skin has been scraped off. And now her other shoulder hurts, probably out of sympathy for the one that took the brunt of the fall. How will she last all day at work? She swallows two more aspirin. Sometimes Julia wishes Arnie would have an affair. Then they could have a big brawling fight. Maybe they’d be in a restaurant and a woman would walk by in a slinky, black dress. She’d wink at Arnie and he’d blush or stare at his fork. Julia would toss her napkin on the table and scream, “I knew it!” She’d sleep in the guest room. Tell him to move out. He’d have to come up with some pretty creative ways to say sorry if he wanted to win her back. She’d like that. To see what he came up with — not just flowers. Something big. Really big. She remembers when her life began to extend beyond what she assumed were its boundaries. After work, she was standing in line at the grocery store, not really thinking about anything. Then a bottle of Vermont maple syrup came into view and she wondered what it would be like to smear syrup all over her body. She’d read about someone doing that. Maybe it was one of Arnie’s cases. She was thinking about the maple syrup and watching a woman in front of her apply red lipstick when Julia felt pressure on her lips. She looked down at her hand, which was at her side. Well, this was strange. Maybe she was more tired than she realized. The next day at work, she pinned her nametag onto the lapel of her suit coat and prepared to step into the lobby. As a social worker for the Seattle Department of Social and Health Services, Julia handled the elderly who’d become disabled due to aging, disease or an accident. There in the dusty lobby with faded green chairs, she found an old man, the high dome of his scalp bald and above his ears, a light fringe of white, wispy hair, as if he had two wings. “Good morning,” she said, glancing at the intake file. “How are you today, Mr. Gladstone?” Slowly he lifted his head, as if a rope was around his neck that tied him to the floor, and looked at her with filmy blue eyes. His mouth drooped, but she saw him try to lift one side of it into a smile. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 141
She told him they’d meet in her office to talk about his needs. Inching his way to the edge of his chair, he shifted his weight onto his cane. Julia took hold of his elbow to help him. As she set him into the chair across from hers, she saw his right hand was blue and his wrist, swollen. Suddenly she was gasping. He looked at her, his cloudy eyes widening with puzzlement. “Miss, is something wrong?” “I’m fine,” she said, trying to slow her breathing down. Writing down his information, she tired not to think of her hand, which was already throbbing. When he was gone, she sank back in her chair and cradled her hand to her chest. What just happened? Had she worked out too hard this morning? But why would her hand hurt? It felt like she’d tried to stop herself from falling by putting her hand out and all her weight came crashing down on it. And now it was bruised and swollen. The receptionist tapped on the door and asked if she was ready for the next client. Julia plastered on a tight smile and went to the door. By the time she was finished at six o’clock, she’d dropped a vase on her foot, burned her forearm on the stove, fallen on the floor and bruised her hip and injected herself with too much insulin. At home, she stretched out on the couch, her entire body aching. She woke when Arnie yelled his customary, “Hello! Hello! Anyone home?” He stopped in the living room. “Whoa! This is new. You feeling all right?” What to tell him? That she’d experienced all the hurts her clients had — but not really? Not really, because she’d only looked at her clients, and oddly, experienced the same. Maybe Arnie would make her go to the doctor for tests. Psychological tests. Or he’d bring a lawsuit against the department. Find some flaw in the system, sue the hell out of them. She’d lose her job and be put on some blacklist and never be hired again. Arnie had told her stories like that. Then what would she do with all her time? “I’m fine.” She huffed herself up to standing and warmed up his dinner in the microwave. They sat at the kitchen table together and as he ate, he told her about a new case. A young woman had received an electric shock from her microwave oven. She suffered external burns on her hands and now her heart beats erratically. “Poor thing,” he said, slurping up his noodles. She didn’t want to think about the electrocuted woman. “She’s lucky to have you,” she said, thinking about a bath. She’d soak in Epson salt and hot water. Maybe that would ease this throbbing. The third day, she sees the boy fall off his bike. At work, it’s a repeat of yesterday. Each client she sees, she experiences his exact same harm. Though oddly, the injuries from yesterday seem to have vanished. At lunch break, she steps into the deserted hallway and places her hand on the wall to steady 142 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
herself. She’s never left work early before, not even when she had a bad cold. A hard worker, someone who can be counted on, someone who does the job. Always chipper, that’s what her reviews always say. She watches herself write a note to the receptionist. Went home early. Not feeling well. She looks at what she’s written. It’s not really a lie. She isn’t feeling well because she doesn’t feel like herself. She steps outside. When she arrived at work early this spring morning, the air was chilly. But now it’s unusually warm. The sky is bright blue with streaks of clouds. The Douglas fir trees sway in a gentle breeze and birds chatter. College kids are walking around in shorts and flip-flops. Julia undoes the buttons of her coat, unwinds her scarf and tilts her face up to the sun. What a day to get out of work early. Passing the soccer field, she happens to glance over just as a well-built college boy is sprinting down the field with the ball. He’s pumping his arms, kicking his heels up toward his butt, his chest rising and falling. Her breathing becomes labored and her heart pounds as she nears the goal. If she can get around that hulking figure coming up on her right. Which way? Turn left, yes, go around him and toward the goal. The padded figure in front of the goal, which way to kick? The inside of her left foot smacks it right into the corner of the goal. Goal! Goal! She jumps up and down on the sidelines. The college boy who kicked the goal runs by, shouting, fist in the air. Exhilarated, she jogs to her car. Amazing. She’s never played soccer in her life, but she had the finesse and skill to kick that goal. When was the last time she had such a thrill? As she opens her car door and starts the engine, she realizes her world has fundamentally changed. For some reason, her mind has tossed out the illusion of boundaries. It has decided to fuse with whatever she sees. If she can score a goal, having never played soccer before, what else is possible? Anything? Everything? That night at dinner, Arnie goes on and on about the electrocuted woman. Has to be a product defect, he said. A lot of money can be made in litigating product defect cases. This gal, twenty-nine, can no longer really think, he says. Her thoughts come in spurts. One moment she’s thinking about coffee, the next, she’s consumed by an overwhelming desire to meet the goddamn Pope. And the best part, he laughs, she’s not even Catholic. Maybe that’s what happened to her, thinks Julia. She was electrocuted and everything melted inside. And instead of boundaries, she’s experiencing a heightened coherence, merging with whatever comes into view. But really, Julia is only guessing at this. “If I nail this case, maybe we’ll go to Tahiti, like you always wanted.” She watches her husband eat his beef stroganoff. It’s funny how ugly people look when they eat. She looks down at her
plate. At some point, Arnie clears his throat. He’s looking at her, smiling what she calls his transactional smile — lips pulled inward, a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. At that moment, Julia experiences exactly what he’s experiencing: he doesn’t really see her. He is experiencing only the idea of her. And his idea is: here is the object called wife. Wife cooks, cleans, does the laundry, the shopping, she’s attractive, I’m glad she’s here. Wife. That’s it. Part of her wants to get angry, but really, can she blame him? Arnie’s stuck behind that wall where she once was. And isn’t that what she is? What she’s let herself become? A wife who is polite and quiet, who exercises, goes to work, comes home, cooks dinner for the two of them, listens to his stories, watches TV, reads a little, just enough to lull herself to sleep. Then gets up the next day and does it all over again. She feels an aching kind of sadness, but right away a voice in her head says, No longer. A change has happened to you. The charge to the goal. “I think I’m going to quit my job,” she says. Arnie puts his fork down. “All right,” he says slowly, nodding. “Sure. We certainly don’t need the money. And after the electrocution case, we really won’t need it. You can go to lunch with the gals. Take up tennis. Or golf. Enjoy yourself. Live a little.” “Just what I was thinking.” “You’ve worked for a long time.” She nods, smiling. “Over twenty years.” She watches him to sense how he’s taking this news. He’s taking it just fine because he’s not thinking about her at all. He’s back to worrying about the electrocuted woman, expert witnesses and depositions and damages. The next day she returns to the soccer game. This time she scores three goals and after the game is over, she lets the other players lift her over their heads and carry her around the field. They pour beer down her back and she laughs a throaty laugh because it tickles and because she is a lean, powerful machine. Give her an hour, she’ll be ready to play again. Hell, give her fifteen minutes, she’ll be back on the field. She’s an invincible, full-of-bravado nineteen-year-old man. She tastes beer in her mouth; she’s never had beer at noon. God, it’s good. The boy with the shaggy, blonde hair swaggers over to the bleachers, brimming with lustful thoughts about a girl in tight white shorts. A rush of wonderful heat floods Julia’s body. Every cell in her body wants to jump that girl’s bones. She feels alive, mighty, virile. Julia has to pry herself away from watching him talk to her. A routine settles in. After breakfast, she gets into the car and looks at her list of things she’s never done before. Then she picks one. Easy as that. By the end of the week, she’s iceskated with impeccable elegance and grace to Swan Lake, doing backward figure eights and triple twirls; felt her lungs burn as
she sprinted a four-minute mile around the track; painted in oil a fat woman half-concealed by a silk purple cloth draped over her shoulder; scaled a sheer rock cliff using pitons and ropes; and played Mozart on the piano with a level of competence she knows far surpassed her mother’s; her mother always stumbled about halfway through. One night at dinner, she explains to Arnie that a superb pianist feels the music in every part of her body, but he also sees it as colors, swirls of color. “Wow,” he says. But he doesn’t mean “Wow,” knows Julia, because he’s thinking about what he’s going to do after dinner. Check his email. His stomach is tied in a knot, though she can’t sense why, and he doesn’t feel like eating. Julia puts her fork down because now she’s no longer hungry either. “And when you’re painting a work of art,” she says, wondering why she’s trying to engage him, “you want to have some element of surprise.” “Okay,” he says, scooting back his chair. “Boy, what a meal.” After her shower one morning, Julia happens to see herself in the mirror. She’s lost her ugly back fat and her thighs are firmer, more muscular. She turns this way and that to make sure she’s not imagining things. No, she has the body of a superior athlete. Is she not only experiencing what she sees, but having a physical response? Whichever it is, she approves. That night in bed, she tries to rouse Arnie from his slumber. She rubs his shoulder, his inner thigh. He rolls over, groaning. “I just thought,” she says. “It’s been a while.” He’s looking at her, sleepy-eyed. And instantly she knows he has no desire for her. None. But he does for a woman named Ellie. He’s been dreaming about the electrocuted woman. Julia is about to cry, but stops herself. He’s snoring again. It’s just a dream, she thinks, though the words feel hollow. In the morning, he’s gone before she wakes. Forgot to mention, his note says; Gone to Nevada for pretrial hearing. I’ll call tonight. In the house alone, when she thinks about heading out into the world, she feels a dull ache in her heart. She calls Arnie but he doesn’t answer. He’s with Ellie, she knows. But she has to stop thinking because she’s experiencing Ellie through Arnie’s eyes. Her big boobs, her firm ass. God, she’s even thinking in his words. She picks up her list. Both her parents were neurosurgeons, she recalls abruptly, but she was too young to watch them do what they loved. The hospital directory says Surgery, Third Floor. At the nurse’s station, she asks if there is a gallery where she can watch. Maybe a brain surgery. If not, she’ll settle for heart surgery. The chubby nurse with ruddy cheeks studies her. “If you’re going to have surgery, I wouldn’t advise watching it. It’s not a way to calm your nerves.” “I’m thinking of going into medicine,” lies Julia. “I’d just like to watch a surgeon do what he does.” The nurse says it’s impossible. Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 143
“I’d really like to,” says Julia, her eyes tearing up. “Please.” The nurse looks puzzled, then purses her lips. She could sneak in. Just put on a nurse’s uniform, a mask, and do it. But the nurse is frowning at her now, thinking Julia might be crazy and she’ll call a security guard. In the hallway, Julia walks right into the spillover from the emergency room. A man is slumped in a chair. He’s got a wool cap pulled low onto his forehead and he’s wheezing through his red, bulbous nose. The air smells heavy with alcohol. Julia’s thoughts slow way down, and so do her movements, as if the air is molasses. Exhausted, she plops into a chair across from him, inhaling and exhaling the man’s thoughts. A chemical coating covers her brain, trapping his one phrase, Nothing to live for. Her shoulders sag, her chest caves in. She doesn’t know how much time passes before a nurse comes and takes the man away. Slowly Julia pushes herself out of the chair and finds herself outside. She’s driving, nothing to live for still circling, and now she’s at the aquarium. Is this on her list? She can’t remember in her whiskey-laden fog. She wanders around, listening to whiny children wanting this and that. Popcorn, cotton candy, a yo-yo, a hot dog. On and on. Then she is in the Outer Bay exhibit room, looking around astonished. It’s one big, beautiful, million-gallon tank, the walls, the ceiling, everything but the floor home to Blue Fin tuna, hammerhead sharks, sea nettles, silver anchovies, black sea turtles. She’s floating inside a gigantic blue bubble. Two black-and-white striped Angelfish dart in front of her, playing a game of chase. Smiling, she watches the bigger one chase the smaller one. A swish of water tilts her head to the right. The bigger fish swims to the bottom of the tank near the big rocks and the other one flits down beside it, not wanting to be alone, even for a moment. They hover, side-by-side, happy. Happy? But that thought evaporates as the bigger fish begins to clean the smaller one, gently removing parasites from its ear flap and gills. Julia’s spine begins to spiral and swirl. When the big fish is done, the smaller one returns the favor, starting with its lower lip. Julia’s lip tingles, as if it’s being kissed, and she is
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flooded with immense warmth. What is this? A small part of Julia’s brain has some faint recollection of this feeling. The word comes slowly. Wrapped in astonishment. Love. The tight, hard ball in the middle of Julia’s brain begins to relax. She wants more than anything to give the small fish a gift. On the tank floor, a black worm. She grabs it and offers it to the small fish, who swallows it whole. A school of anchovies swim by, a hundred sparks of silver light, and the current pushes her, so she’s brushing up against the smaller fish, who kisses her side over and over. She feels weightless, filled with immense light. Something touches her firmly. She turns, eyes big, as if waking from a beautiful dream. A green uniform. A guard. She reads his lips, “Closing time.” She sees the room is empty. “Boy,” says the guard as he walks her out of the room, “how do you stand so still? Been watching you for hours. You just stand there, grinning.” Can’t speak. Not yet. “You know, we’re open again tomorrow. And the day after that. And after that. You can always come back.” “Thank you,” she says, voice cracking with emotion. “Thank you so much.” That night, she can’t sleep. The bedroom feels sad and airless. She worries about them — are they content? What if a bigger fish, a shark or tuna, eats them? In the morning, she’s there before the front doors open. Only for a moment is she embarrassed when the same guard sees her and winks. But how can he know, she thinks as she rushes to the Outer Bay room. And there they are. Down by the big rocks. She is overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. When Arnie comes home later in the week, he’s full of stories about what evidence he got in, what the judge kept out. She waits until he’s finished chewing his dinner roll. Then tells him she’ll be going away for a while. “Oh? A little trip somewhere?” he says, thinking his faraway thoughts. “Yes,” she says, breathing steadily and easily through her gills, her deep tissues wide awake.
Brett Rosenblatt Brett Rosenblatt lives in Palm Beach, Florida, where he heads a software company he founded 15 years ago. He has also worked as a journalist and as an underground investigator for various Animal Rights organizations, publishing in Newsday Magazine, New York Press, Rose and Thorn, The Barcelona Review, Opium Magazine, Withersin, Spectrum Magazine, Manhattan Perspectives, Lit Up, Susurrus, The Animals’ Agenda and others. He is currently pursuing his MFA and working on a novel titled Rain, about a man caught up in the violence and uncertainty of animal rights activism.
Losing Found Things Summer The pick-up artists forage and roam the dark corridors, hovering and clashing like fluorescent dragonflies. They gangrush well traveled paths, pulsing and bunching, crabbing sideways and bouncing off walls with phones and cigarettes extended forward, trapping suburban sluts in their grapplers and fighting over the scraps until every shred of flesh is tagged and mapped. In the back behind velveteen ropes, drunken models whisper in hairy grey ears, rubbing dormant crotches for answers. Cocktail waitresses glide by on memorized tracks, dressed in translucent black and slinging trays of drinks tinkling with glow-in-the-dark ice cubes. They stumble and curse prettily, their thin arms traversed with colored lines of drainage from the swooping trays, snakes of pricey liquor tinkling down their armpits and disappearing into unwashed bras packed with soggy filler. Miranda rests her hand on my knee, half in conversation with a trust-funder on my opposite side, looking at me while she talks to him. She lights a cigarette but doesn’t smoke, leaning forward and resting it in the ashtray next to the others. She slides her head up to my cheek and kisses me, her hair smooth and cool against my skin. “It’s work, baby-boy. I have to stay.” “No,” I say. “You don’t.” She’s in Valentino, Prada, Gaultier. She wears her work as comfortably as pajamas. The trust-funder leans behind us and does a line. Miranda and I both scrunch forward and laugh at the same time, our foreheads touching. The sharp angles of her face form a complex and intoxicating blend of freedom and need, a mean, unfettered beauty she wields better than any sword. She’s the butterfly that lands on your fingertip one day and the crumpled wings left behind by your caring touch. We
all want to be the first, but we’re not. “If you want to go, go,” she says, irritated. “I’m gonna dance.” She turns to leave and I see the little red line on her knee where she cut herself shaving this morning, naked in my bathroom and complaining of the dim light as she dressed and undressed and dressed again for a 6:00 a.m. shoot. I watch her slide away in silence down the crowded walkway, the depth of her indifference matched only by her desire to hurt and be hurt. She walks through the ropes and I watch, past the demilitarized zone of outer tables of people who pay for drinks and I watch, her turning around, mouthing ‘I love you,’ bouncing on her toes and falling into the crowded dance floor like a rock into syrup, and I watch. The people around me drink and snort. They talk in textmessage sized bites, “pff he’s mad hot,” “I wanna drnk smth,” framing incoherent thoughts in barb-wire grammar, dark murmurs mixing with the wordless music pouring down from refrigerator-sized speakers. I look around for something to do, something to pay attention to, but it’s dark and loud and all I do is fidget. One of Miranda’s college friends at the table next to mine taps my shoulder and talks, describing for me how Miranda’s body has changed over the years, trying to bait me into wondering when it was he last slept with her, and I look back at him and realize that it’s all so…normal. I suppose what I feel would be anger, but I’m tired, and he’s nobody. Minutes tick down like draining water, loud music thickening the air and tightening my sadness. To Miranda’s friends, I’m old and boring and poor, an unwanted and badly tolerated veteran in this place or any other like it, and in the practiced eyes of these beautiful 20-year-old children, I can no longer hide the plague of age, nor would I want to. The pre-dawn turf of sexual imperialism is their command now, and I’m a washed
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up vagrant who fought in another time, with skills and scars unnoticed by them. Yet here we are, Miranda and me. Another gin-and-tonic, another greasy waitress and spilled drink and I’m up tall, navigating on spongy feet through tables packed with whip-thin creatures touching my suit, offering up their dark lies and assuring an evening of uninterrupted beauty and chemically delayed inhibitions as if it really were something new. An hour later I hover in the bathroom, watching unzippered elephants shuffle listlessly into unisex stalls and blast out minutes later on electrified rails. The attendant hands out Dentyne for oral fixations and Q-Tips for bloody noses. I lean into the mirror and don’t recognize anyone, just other unfocused shapes behind me, impatient for my dirty spot in line. Another snowy dawn in August. Back in the club, the soundtrack is mucous and despair. The 4:00 a.m. crowd seeps in like stale drift water, breathing cheap recycled energy back into the club. A dismal merger of exhaustion and desperation and hope. Last-minute women notice me and latch on, converging in narcotized spirals, twisting like old sunflowers towards a fake light. Ugly, used up people, turning like dirty snow, terrified of facing the sunlight alone, of the hour long commuter train home, everyone looking for a few hours of dreamless sleep-sex. I walk faster on wobbling legs, chasing the dim glimmer of a exit sign, my eyes burning from blown smoke and spilled drinks and a chronic hangover that swells and pulses like arthritis. I cross the center of the dance floor, increasingly dependent on misused secondary senses. I read shoulders like Braille. Midriffs become bumpers, elbows spin like turnstiles. There is no singular direction. All roads lead to Miranda. The smoke is the noise and the music is the map and the alcohol is the fuse and I’m nowhere I want to be. I reach the other side bruised and angry, my eyes locking onto the exit sign. People look fresher now, happy and full of energy and intent, and it makes me feel ugly. I look back across the room and all I can see are the lights and the noise and the smoke, covering everyone like a wet blanket, all of us, hiding. Somewhere in the mass of sweat and Prada and lies, Miranda wiggles and glimmers like bait, licking her lips and dancing with half-naked gays, both of us remembering better days. Fall I shake all hands all the way up the crowded stairs. The cold, papery palms of my patrons, the silky-soft fingers of girlfriends or wives or models, occasionally the rough and cracked skin of a sculptor or painter like me. When I reach the top my agent and friend, Rachael, hugs me like a proud mother, slipping me in front of the cameras before shooing me through the doors and onto the gallery floor. The rooms are fully lit now, the first I’ve seen of the finished 146 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ Summer 2011
arrangement. Muted spots on the ceiling and floor cross and cleave in soft ovals of intersecting light, leaving behind random islands of shadow. Each wall contains a single canvas and four lights, life-size portraits in blacks and shadows and smoke and barely detectable colors that I’m incapable of seeing. Some of the subjects are relatively recognizable, others less so. Charcoal and sketches, with painted accents or highlights, all left incomplete, all somehow resembling Miranda. I use other models, but I always see her. Outside the wall of windows, a heavy rain falls sideways against the old brick building, giving waiting invitees a new and false eagerness to get in, and when they do the relief and subsequent enjoyment their faces express is all the more palpable for it. Rachael leads me from group to group, from wall to wall, me faking explanations for work I’d be the last to understand. Hours go by and I meet everyone two or three times. We drink and have pretend conversations. It’s a wonderful show, we all agree, Rachael beaming and counting in her head the monies yet to come. She’s hand-picked the journalists and most of the guests. It’s corrupt in the same way everything is corrupt. The Manhattan art scene had lifted her skirt for me, and the house never loses. I’m alone when I see Miranda emerging from the foyer, half soaked and barefoot. She wears a turquoise straightcut cocktail dress, the patchwork seams curved slightly to accentuate her lanky form, her shoes probably left in a cab or back at the show. She lopes directly towards me, smiling at everyone she passes and leaving small footsteps of rainwater in her path. Everyone turns to watch. The paintings follow her like mirrors. She kisses me on the lips and hugs me hard, her dress soaking my suit as her small feet swing in the air, unwilling to let go as everyone stares. “I’m so proud of you, Nicholas,” she says in wine-scented whispers. She kisses my neck before letting go and lowering her feet to the cold stone floor. “So, so proud.” Her arms circle my back like cables. We walk the gallery holding hands and drinking champagne as the crowd thins, floating from wall to wall and remembering each day she sat fidgeting under hot lights while I worked. After the last person leaves, Rachael has her first drink of the evening, a tumbler of vodka, and begins closing the show, the colored spots snapping off in audible increments. Click. Snap. Click. Miranda and I stand in front of a wall near the entryway, her arms around my neck, both of us swaying and listening to the beat of the rain against the old leaded windows. After a few minutes she lays her head against my shoulder and pulls my head down towards her mouth. “I’m coming home with you tonight,” she whispers, her lips brushing my neck with each word. I feel the familiar tremor in her bones. “I thought you were in Miami.” Nothing. “Miranda?”
Nothing. She swallows hard against my ear. “I just didn’t feel well.” I try to pull back to see her face but she holds me tighter in her strong arms, forcing me to stay close, to not look at her, and I stop struggling and lean further into her embrace. “Don’t worry, Nikko. Everything’s fine.” Flashes of three day yacht parties, rehab, men, women, meth and bulimia, a sharply compressed life of glued-together fragments. Rachael walks by and slips the gallery keys into my pocket as she heads towards the door. The lights are all off, the rooms illuminated only by the rain-splattered windows. “Congratulations, kid,” she says, winking and kissing us both on our cheeks. “You deserve this. All of it. Lock up when you’re done.” Miranda squeezes me harder as Rachael walks out, standing up tall to rest her chin on my shoulder, staring at the first painting we’d ever done together. After a few long minutes she sighs and slips her hands underneath my jacket and shirt and rests her palms against the bare skin of my back, staring at the painting. “Will I always be this beautiful?” she asks. “Always,” I say. Winter The cold creases of uncurving sheets, the greasy click of tumblers turning, Miranda’s bony bare feet sliding blind on the icy wood floor. She scrubs in the bathroom as I lay in bed. Her teeth, face, eyes. I’ve seen her do it a thousand times. The sad smile, the shrug of resignation, diligent in her habits and hygiene, curious in her object examination of passing time treading her young skin. Each minute erodes my tired anger. Her work. Her health. Her freedom. Her life. She comes to my side first, leans in and kisses me on the cheek, then pads around to the foot of the bed, shedding clothes, shivering under the white down comforter and curling against the far wall. I lie still with my eyes closed, breathing in her complex scents. Sweat. Cologne. Wine. Cigarettes. Sex. I feel raw, unfinished. Are you ok? She answers in a strange voice, not hers. Yes, Nikko, I’m ok. She’s not. I’m not. The night breaks record cold, well below zero, sucking out the water from the world and revealing its steady devastation in the mad hissing of ancient radiators, the icy flatness of Miranda’s skin, in the groaning and creaking of the building itself. I bury my head between her shoulders and she pushes back and lets go her crying, screaming into the pillow. I slide closer and kiss her shoulders, her neck, running my hand down her arm. She pushes her small feet against my legs, slowing me, stopping me, and I turn back.
I awaken just beyond dawn, the sun brilliant as it only ever is after a bitter cold night. Next to me on a table is a cool cup of tea, next to that a turned chair. She can’t sleep, she watches me, she lives her life. What I loved most about Miranda, her freedom. I always knew the price. She’s more than the frail, silky web of her puttogether flaws, too beautiful to be human, really; a vaporous ghost that turns to dust when you get too close. You can’t hug a butterfly. I shrug out from beneath the sheets and walk along the cold floor towards the bathroom. Sunlight streams madly throughout the apartment, another cruel joke of winter. As I pass the door, my feet hit warm water, all across the floor, greasy, pink water. I enter the bathroom and the water thickens, heat flowing out through the open door and buffeting against the colder air in the hallway, miniature tornados of steam enveloping me as I pass the threshold. Miranda, peaceful and smiling in the tub, her long legs outstretched, her toes clenched against the dripping faucet, water flowing softly, one arm folded over the rim leaking blackness onto the worn tiled floor. On the clouded mirror, written in clear block letters in her lipstick, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I fall to the tiles and scream until I run out of air. I don’t remember anything. I don’t feel, anything. Spring I put all of my dirty dishes back into the cabinets and seal the kitchen door with plastic and pour my bedding into the bathtub and sleep for the first time in days. The food is gone. The mirrors are taped up, the windows dark. My sister calls twice a day asking if I cry. Making sure I cry. It’s important, she says. My father attends the funeral with his new wife, younger even than Miranda. He says nothing, the wife even less. We’re all thinking of Mom, of course, but suddenly it’s no longer his fault. It can’t be. All the days since are dark, undelineated, unfinished. I’d spent the last of Miranda’s depression in the kitchen, a small, safe place that had become my default during our waning days. We had frozen ourselves in place, afraid of any direction. Her work, my painting, everything stopped. I did all the cooking, Miranda poking her head in to tease me about being the perfect house-husband, her head wrapped in a turban and more beautiful than ever. We were happy, in a way. We had forced upon ourselves the very normalcy we disdained in the lives of others and deftly avoided in our own. I did my reading at the little iron table by the window and the plant, my thinking, my talking on the phone, yelling at the doctors, all the while stringing along the leftover shreds of my own life and building a new one for us both. There are still little marks on the table from my hands where I grabbed the metal as I sat motionless and stared through the window on the bad nights, Summer 2011 ▪ The Battered Suitcase ▪ 147
wading through my own bouts of insomnia, Miranda sleeping a Xanax sleep, barely even a shape in the bed. Today I dream of the bathroom turning to deep-freeze winter again, going back there one last time, the pipes and tiles cracking from the cold, Miranda carrying me to the kitchen and putting my frostbitten hands above the open stove flame and holding them there until they melt, screaming in my wet ears, smooth, mournful screams to keep me conscious. I wake up in the bathtub with my elbows and knees bruised and rebruised. A few hours into the day the phone rings. I’m still sitting in the bathroom. I answer, but I also don’t answer. The food ran out 10 days ago, the alcohol soon after, and I’m down to Miranda’s weight now, staring in the mirror as she used to, examining, appraising, gauging what’s left. I take some valium and a two-hour shower, hacking off my new beard and making sure it’s all gone. I am forty years old. Outside there is no more ice. Small rivulets of water stream down the pavement from an open hydrant a few buildings up. My eyes burn from the bright sun, barely slits behind oversized sunglasses. I fill my lungs in greedy big gulps, the air thick and fragrant with spring. Inside Rosalina’s, people sit in chairs awaiting their takeout like resigned prisoners. Old people, businessmen and women rushing lunch, a mother with two matching children in a carriage. No one smiles. A young woman behind the counter answers the phone and writes down orders, hangs up and then answers again. Next to her an old man looks down at me, familiar; Rosalina’s husband, if I recall, a widower always nicer to us than he needed to be. I walk to the counter and the
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girl asks for my order. I try to speak but my voice comes out cracked and foreign, sounding animal and very wrong to me. She starts to ask again but the old man puts his hand on her arm, silencing her. He puts his other hand on my shoulder, closing his eyes and shaking his big head. I remember him from the funeral, surrounded by children. He speaks to the girl in Italian. She hangs up the phone and looks at me for a few seconds, then runs back towards the kitchen. The old man takes my arm and leads me outside the restaurant to a bench in the sun and then goes back inside, saying nothing. I take the food to a small cluster of rocks in Central Park by the lake where we used to sit and watch the sunset. Rowboats of families and lovers glide by, taking photos, laughing, ignorant of me on my small rock, my small life. I open the container of pepper oil, swirling the rough Italian bread in the liquid. I take small bites, chewing slowly and gagging, watching the trees and clouds overhead and wondering if I’ll ever paint again. I watch the boats for a while and then take out Miranda’s iPod. I scroll through the songs, a roulette with no winners, not caring where I land, so long as it all keeps moving. I remember her by my side so effortlessly. We’d sit together here for hours sometimes, connected with a single set of earphones, our heads mashed together, swaying and laughing, her singing into my ear until it was my turn and then giggling as I sang back. After a few minutes I turn off the sound and lay down across the flat rocks. I can still hear her singing. I feel her laughing. I close my eyes and cry, finally, listening for her voice in the wind. She doesn’t tell me everything will be alright. She doesn’t tell me to go on. We never liked the same songs, but we always listened.
New Directions in Art & Literature
The Battered Suitcase STAFF
Fawn Neun................................ Chief Editor Maggie Ward..... Assistant Chief Editor, Art Director N. Apythia Morges.............. Assistant Chief Editor Alice Bigelow................................. Editor Anne Murphy................................... Editor Tamela Ritter................................ . Editor Ann Tinkham.................................. . Editor Jill Tinker............................ Fiction Editor Kim Acrylic.............................Poetry Editor Odile Noel .................................Editorial Heather Clitheroe........................... Editorial Ruth Lilly.... .............................Editorial Hannah Dunton...............................Editorial Jack Varnell................................Editorial Pamela Andres ..............................Editorial Amy Kimball.................................Editorial Nathaniel Goldman...........................Editorial TygerLily Ernest Wonch......................Editorial
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A journal of intelligent and imaginative art, prose and poetry