Issue 6.4

Issue 6.4

CONTENTS of ISSUE 6.4

—PROSE—

J.D. Hibbits: One Last Rockabilly Boogie

Jack King: Identification Please

Jaren Watson: The Jar

Peter Obourn: Marilee

Joseph Occhipinti: A Knob of Toromiro

James Seals: Swimming the Purgatoire

Michael Welch: Equal to Fertility

—POETRY—

Jeanine Stevens: At the Ruins / Cave Pearls / Moonlight

Lyn Lifshin: Haven’t You Ever Wanted, Sometimes To / Drifting / All Afternoon We / Moving by Touch

Holly Day: The First Step

Mark Belair: Quiet

Ann Robinson: The Orchestra and Chorus from Soweto / Where Grade B Movie Actresses Go

Mark Parsons: What’s With This Anti-Touch Thing With You

Wayne F. Burke: Vacation. 2

Tom Pescatore: This is the first line of a novel

Patty Dickson Pieczka: Regression / Aubade

Ian C. Smith: From here to paternity

Timothy DeJong: A Flight of Sparrows

Celina Villagarcia: A Mother’s Effect on the World

Equal to Fertility

By Michael Welch

U.FINAL.webp to that day, I’d only seen my Bio-Dad (that’s what Ma called him) twice in my life. Neither time did I know it was him until later. Bio, a put-down of the worst type whenever it sizzled on Ma’s lips, though, when I was a girl, it also sounded sort of like a superhero. For all the information I had ever gotten about him, he should have been Null Man.

The first time I saw him was in seventh grade. It was outside the 7-11 over on Plethadora and he nodded at me, which made me mistake him for a perv, look away, and clamp my arms across my chest. I recall a wide-brimmed hat shadowing most of his face, long skinny legs and badly cleaned work boots. Later I overheard Ma and her best friend Dottie attempting to whisper on the phone—that “he” was back to town.

Township is a small enough place that everyone knows everything about everybody, or can think they do, and since Ma was a pretty big figure on both sides of the gossip fence, word spread quickly about the visitation of the man who had disappeared so long ago. You would have thought I could dredge up some info about him then, right? But for about three days people only gave me a wide berth. Ma must have mobilized good, too, because Bio evaporated as quickly as he materialized and by then my mortified reaction was good riddance.

The next time I saw him was when I was legal eighteen, and Dave—my boss, and owner of Dave’s Paradise Club—came up to me after I’d gotten offstage and handed me the business card of a man from Grange. “Says he’s your father,” said Dave, as if he had named some standard occupation, like plumber or truck driver. I recalled a guy sitting in back, beyond the light of the stage, face shadowed and angular, same long, stick-figurish legs—and sure enough, the name matched up: Thomas Newsome. The card only had the place, and a phone number, and the words “Chickens, Ducks, Mostly Rabbits. Since I doubted he’d created some mutant breed of rabbit that wasn’t all rabbit, I decided he simply wasn’t very smart. I sat there in the dressing room for a long minute then left out the backdoor for Dairy Queen to go hug Sam.

Sam took one look at my face, broke away from the Blizzard machine, then pulled me into his meaty chest the way he does. “Fuck him, Hon,” he purred. “What kind of guy goes to a strip club to see his daughter, anyway?”

Bikinis, Sam,” I reminded him, “—it’s ordinance!”

“Listen,” he said, his tone changing and his famous baby blues staring into me with sudden depth and seriousness. “I know you’re going to think this is unnecessary, but I think he and I should have a little talk.”

“No, Sam. You’ll break him.”

“Not that. Just to, you know…”

“No, Sam. I don’t.”

Ask him.”

I stared at him in growing disbelief. Sam was no longer the football star who transformed Dairy Queen into a big display case, girls ogling him through the glass—now he was manager, a solid job. He had even been using terms like “starter home” and “tax deduction.” But, corny as it sounds, and even though I play it down, to me Sam can still glow. “Sam—if you’re going to say you want to go ask Bio for my hand, I’ll kill you. He’s never had my hand. You do!”

“I apologize,” Sam said. “It’ll only take a minute. It really don’t matter what he says anyway—it’s just a man thing.”

I’ll admit, “man thing” looked so adorable on his lumpy lips, I could do nothing but look on as Sam spun, darted out the door and disappeared across the lot. Within two minutes he was back. “Disappeared,” he said. “Thin air.”

“Yeah. He can do that.”

*

The way eighty-five percent of Sam’s big ideas used to, I was sure the whole ask for my hand issue would blow over, thus I sure wasn’t going to mention it to Ma.

But then it didn’t blow over. After putting it off as long as I could, I casually told Ma to meet me over at Dottie’s on lunch break. Dottie’s Halloween Emporium was a fancy name for a long-abandoned Hollywood Video that Dottie rents out every October to sell costumes and what she likes to call partyfanalia, and where Ma and her like to hang out and giggle at what customers reach for but don’t buy, as if this is some huge clue to their hidden longings.

I spotted Ma over in the corner, where she stood in front of a mirror with of all things two Cinderella gowns—one white, one beige—draped over her chest for comparison. Cinderella—maybe a not so subtle clue to her longing. From the side, with her arms raised, Ma looked pretty frumpy. Same big hair, high cheekbones and full buxomness as me, but her lower face given way to gravity, gone loose, its guy wires now reserved only for high drama. Hoping to keep these guy wires slack, I walked up to her, gave her a peck, and bided my time.

I checked one of the tags. “Seventy-nine ninety-five… top rack… since when do you have that kind of money to toss away on one wear?”

Ma smiled demurely and said. “Oh, come on. The Dottie-Discount means forty. And not for me, silly.”

My mind was back on what I needed to tell her, I was only half-listening. “Ma,” I said, lowering my voice. “Sam, he’s such a sweetie, he—”

“No cold feet, hmm? Oh, why would you have? You two were forged in heaven for each other.” She nodded at the white dress and returned the beige to the rack, then faced me with brimming, sparkly eyes. “Well, what do you think?”

Something about the way she said it. “You have to be kidding me, Mother,” I said. “Got to be. You want me to wear a Cinderella dress for my wedding?”

“Oh come on—you said it was top rack.”

“For a friggin’ Halloween dress!”

Ma made her pouty face. “One wear. You said it yourself. Truth is, we’re pretty broke—which is not pretty at all.”

Before I could stop her, she held the dress up to the mirror and shoved me up behind it.

I stared blankly at myself—for the first time as bride. At my knee, a miniature Dracula had appeared. I picked him off his feet, spun him, and shoved him in the direction he’d come. “Ma, Bio showed up at the club, left me his card,” I blurted. “Sam isn’t budging on this one: he’s going to drive to Grange and ask him for my hand.”

Ma looked at me, panicky, then deep sad. I lifted the Cinderella dress off the floor from where she’d dropped it, dusted it off, and as a concession stood beside her and slowly brought the dress over me again.

We stood there, eyes weary from exertion, looking at ourselves in the mirror. “We just don’t need him back in our lives, Sweetie.”

“He won’t be, Ma. It’ll be alright.”

Ma straightened herself. “Your neck looks like a swan’s.”

*

When I heard Sam’s pick-up pull up to the house, I sprung up and checked through the window for his gait. When Sam is worried about something, his heels drag. But this time I couldn’t tell. His movement was as impenetrable as the Grange mud on the truck’s running boards. Impenetrable Man.

By the time Sam reached the door, I was back on the couch. I called “Come in,” and rubbed my eyes like I had dozed. It wasn’t that I was being sneaky, it’s just that the best way to get Sam talking is to remove all pressure. If he senses you have questions, he’ll just wait for them, and then you’ve entered monosyllable and grunt territory.

“Oh, hey,” I said to him casually, as he came into the room and stood.

I stared at him without staring him—I felt him. I felt his shaggy hair, his muscled cheeks, his tentative shuffling, knowing well that despite talk of “tax deductions” and “customer outreach”, what he most longed for was to be back at my ninth grade locker, catching a quick kiss, readying to walk me to my next class even though it will make him late for his. My gaze went to the living room window where—across the street and two down—I could see his mom’s house, the one he was finally ready to move out of. In his upstairs bedroom, still there by the curtain, was the Young Astronomers telescope I gave him for his fourteenth birthday so he could watch me undress. Later on, I would hang a butterfly pendant from my curtain rod when the coast was clear.

Sam stood there, thumbs calmly in pockets, until I couldn’t take it anymore.  “So…?” I said.

“Well, it’s a rabbit farm, alright. Lots of rabbits. Didn’t see many chickens or a single duck.”

“Uh huh. And what about humans? Maybe a strange skinny guy you were going to ask an important question to?”

He gauged me hesitantly then shrugged. “Sure. I just didn’t know if you wanted to get into it full throttle.”

It…? I didn’t quite get the “it.” It sounded way more specific than what I was prepared for, which was a basic Sam-rendition of a 10-hour roundtrip to a place called Grange with an awkward 5-minute conversation sandwiched in the middle. “I’m just asking, Sam. I had no idea it was a question of changing gears.”

“It’s not. I guess the trip went real well. Yeah, it did. He was a good guy, your dad. We talked.”

“Well good, Samuel, I’m really glad talking occurred,” I told him, as my heart sort of sucked in and held its breath at this new something in the air.

I can’t remember exactly where things went from there, I really can’t. There was blur. He said a few things, I felt myself getting tenser and tenser, heard my voice yelling, and then I was running down the road. It was about a mile to the True Value Ma worked at, and I ran nonstop, the whole way listening for Sam’s truck so I could turn and kick dirt at it. But he didn’t come. Nada. By the time I burst upon Ma in the gardening aisle I’d had time to boil everything down to three leaden words.

“Wedding is off!”

An eerie calm—either shock or before the storm—settled upon the shelves of lopping shears, hoses and sprinkler heads. “Just… tell me,” Ma said, with shocking restraint.

I sat on a stack of soil bags and tried to piece together some of it. I told her how sing-songily Sam and her “Bio-ex” had evidently gotten on. What a—Sam’s friggin’ four-dollar word—commendable guy he was. How he had even offered Sam some delivery work. But Bio hadn’t stopped there. He had offered up his thoughts on marriage. About how a marriage could get away from a guy. How, once they started to slip, sometimes there was nothing much a guy could do. How you could even lose your daughter. Get your heart broke. How he had longed to see me, even sent money all of these years, but been barred. “It’s like he put Sam under some kind of spell. Now Sam says he thinks we should wait. He said ‘things are perfect as they are.’”

I knew there was accusation in my voice, like a lot of this was Ma’s fault—that whatever she had long ago let this waxy creature pull over on her was living on to haunt me. “And what’s he talking about—been barred? Money?”

Ma was ready for the question, readier maybe than she should have been. With her eyes set on a sale card for boxes of bat guano, she said, “You just never mind that. Aren’t you getting a good taste of what his influence does?”

Before I could get a word in, she announced, “He’s like jungle rot, cutting off a toe isn’t enough—all ten got to go. Then don’t forget to set him on fire!” And with that she turned and began marching for the door, left me right there sitting.

“Where the hell are you going?” I called out behind her.

She turned and looked back at me, puzzled, like it should have been plain. “To set him on fire.”

 *

Although she resisted, I told Ma that it was me had to go hash things out with Bio. Ma’s occasional fits were well known around Township (pretty much every cashier, bank teller, and meter maid had experienced her short fuse first hand), but I knew she was more bluster than bite and this time her anger seemed even more brittle than usual, as if what she really wanted was for me to calm her down and forget all about the incident. My anger wasn’t brittle, and when she saw this a worried look came into her eyes. Three days later—once Cheyanne agreed to take my lunch shift at Paradise—I left Ma marching between rooms like she was picketing, popped in a Lady Gaga CD, and set off in my Bug for Grange.

I don’t know how much of my anger had to do with now, and how much had to do with forever. What kind of man would walk out on his family, then after all of these years choose to meddle in his daughter’s marriage plans? And what had he done to Ma that made her still scared of him? And now Sam was calling him a nice guy? It was weird, Sam having met my so-called father, and me, never.

Grange was a long drive, too long. By the time I reached the small sign off a winding, two-lane road, I was sweaty and soon had to crank up my window against the dust as the Bug took ineptly to the rutted dirt road. I’d had way too much time to mull things over, lost a lot of my edge, and lapsed into wondering exactly what I was going to say when he popped open his door. I tried to reassure myself that after all these years I was at least finally going to find out something about him, or find out that there wasn’t much to him—but what was it that I wanted, his friggin’ blessing? What the fuck.

Some of my anger, or maybe it was concern, had more to do with Sam (who’d spent the whole week calling to mend things, but each time, still hypnotized, slipped into talking about rabbit delivery as if there was actually an opportunity there). I loved Sam, but for the first time I felt some fear. Sam should have sloughed off Bio’s opinions as easily as he used to shed linebackers, and yet he’d been duped. I had never gotten quite this image of Sam—rather than hard-working guy who never meant anyone harm, a guy who might be consistently being taken advantage of by the duplicitous.

Grange, it turned out, wasn’t even a real town, but no more than a general store, hub to more dirt roads that headed upwards into even deeper woods. The proprietor of the store knew Bio’s farm and gave me directions. As the car began to climb, I decided on a new tack, to at least start off light, treat Bio as the nonentity he was and to gloss over his negative impact on Sam until I got a sense of how things were going to go. “Hi,” I practiced. “I heard you met my fiancée… yeah, we’ve been together forever… great guy, isn’t he?”

Up ahead at a fork in the road, a faded, dangling wooden sign read “Rabbits.”

After another quarter mile along an even narrower road, branches snatching at my windows, a house appeared, really more an accumulation of connected, sagging sheds. To one side was a fenced-in, wide dirt yard with clumps of dirt that looked like cow turds, until a few of them moved. Rabbits. Slow-moving rabbits. A lot of them. Hopping everywhere, including in and out of an assortment of long dead pick-ups and rusty machinery. The lone shack inside the fenced area that the rabbits were avoiding must have been the slaughterhouse.

I climbed from the car and was met by the sweetish smell of decaying rabbit crap, then began walking toward the closest thing I could see to a front door.

I knocked, but the hollow, rattley door seemed to absorb the sound. I hit it again with the side of my hand.

At first I heard nothing. Then came what might have been very slow footsteps, moving around inside but not necessarily for the door. I wondered how often anyone visited, how long Bio might have been ambling around the property alone. There was sure no sign of a woman’s touch, though I didn’t know what kind of woman would live on a remote rabbit farm.

Then the door swung open and I was looking up at a long, narrow face, not at all what my mind had placed on top of the lanky, stick-figurish body I’d seen those two other times. I’d imagined a pocked, hard-looking face creased with lines, but the face above me, looming down, was gray and sort of ghostly, with wide-set moony eyes, eyes that winced as they fell upon me. I watched a thin-lipped mouth form around my name. “Jenn,” it said, formally, politely, no question mark, which made it far too intimate.

I hadn’t prepared myself for the spasm that came with standing before my technical-father for the first time. “Sam’s a great guy,” I said, like an idiot. “We’ve been together forever. So why the fuck are you meddling!”

Bio stood there, awkwardly hunched, stilled, his face frozen where he’d set it in a painfully welcoming half-smile. “All this,” he repeated, quietly, with concentration, as if he knew they were important words but needed more time to translate them. In a vain attempt at clarity, he said, “I know. I just showed up at your place of work out of nowhere and left that card. I can see how that was unfair to you. I almost didn’t. So many times, I didn’t.”

I straightened my shoulders to keep the conversation from going further sideways. “I mean with Sam.”

“Sam,” he repeated, and fell into chewing on this word too.

“Sam!” I shouted. And there it was, a flash: that this is what happened to certain men who married and spawned only to stumble into feelings they couldn’t handle and run away—they became obsolete and brain dead.

Bio’s face seemed to be struggling not to let me down, I’ll give it that. “We talking about a muscular kid? Real good-natured?”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Uhh—yeah. Also, the guy I was set to marry before you steered him away. The one decent enough to drive all the way here and treat you like a legitimate father, crazy as that is.”

“I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and held his temple. “I remember it clearly now. He showed up and seemed curious about the farm. I did my best to be polite, figured he was after some work. Then, you’re right, he did start to ramble about a fiancée—he just never mentioned you per se. Now it all makes more sense.”

“Never mentioned me?” What the fuck? “But he said you told him all about how your and Ma’s marriage got away from you… how in the process you even lost me, blah-blah-blah… even some bull about being barred and sending me—”

“Well, I guess I did say all that. I just didn’t know we were talking about the same person, about you. Even when he just called.”

“Called,” I repeated, in new disbelief that Sam was following up on a career in rabbits without consulting me.

“To see if maybe he—I mean, you two—could have the ceremony out here.”

“Here.”

“He said, ‘Rabbits equal fertility.’ No secret there.”

I stood with nothing to say. Beneath my feet, the old, dull-painted porch planks seemed thin. Something about Bio quoting my potential husband, the both of them weighing in and agreeing on issues of fruitfulness, well, it was worse than fucked. But all I could manage was, “He said he wanted the wedding? Here?”

Bio nodded in the direction that my finger was evidently pointing.

“Well, not there,” he said, “the turd. He mentioned that far hill, beneath that big willow.” He measured what must have been my alarmed face then became cautious again. “Don’t worry. I totally understand if you don’t want me there. The idea is just the hill itself. The day’s about you.”

It took me about a minute, but finally I nodded my agreement. “Yeah. It is, isn’t it? Where it should be… if it should be. Whether I would ever have it anywhere near you or this stinking turd.”

What a concept: about me.

*

Driving home, my body felt spent while my mind raced. What lingered the most was: if Bio hadn’t known Sam was talking about me, this meant that he’d confessed what he had—how losing his daughter had broken his heart… how he longed to see—without ulterior motive, and with a sincerity that had moved Sam. I didn’t know what to do make of this, and when it really started to get to me, I pulled into a truck stop. I had only gone 61 miles.

I knew this much—Ma and me had to have a serious talk, and not the usual kind, all zigzags with a bunch of yelling. I needed to know more about why Bio had left us, the circumstances, and whether there was ever any barring.

I must have dozed off. When I stirred awake, the brick bathroom in front of me had fallen into foreboding darkness and my cell on the passenger seat was vibrating. It was Sam, and I saw that he had called six times, Ma four. The phone read 3:11. I picked up, told him I was fine, would be home in a few hours. Ma I decided to leave on ice.

When I finally pulled along Plethadora, the sun was coming up, the line of fast food stores appearing pastel and vulnerable in the soft morning light. Paradise was sealed-up tight and I wondered who had taken my night shift (Dave was going to be pissed). The one place that was lit was DQ, where even from a few blocks away I saw Sam’s sturdy shape moving about beyond the rectangular serving window. He was busy with morning prep, all the countless tasks I’d heard so much about over the years.

Sam was nothing if not consumed with details, from the necessary heat of the deep fryer, the benefit of a 10lb. versus a 25lb. dumbbell slid down a mop handle to aid cleaning, or, before that, the right technique to deliver a shoulder pad just beneath an opponent’s collar bone. I recalled his first managerial decision a few months ago—to open DQ during prep before any other places were open. “Why not?” he had said. “Even if it means just a few extra sales. I’m in there anyway. It’s the little decisions increase business. What do you think about coffee with a Blizzard shot?”

Sam was also nothing if not a creature of pattern, which meant that my absence would have thrown him off his game, if not made him downright injury prone. As I turned into the parking lot and my headlights flashed the glass, his face looked desperate as he stared into the glare.

I walked into the restaurant as I had about four thousand times. Sam came out from the kitchen to hug me and sent a glance toward the corner to let me know we were not alone. At a table, in her usual bathrobe, near-sighted as a mole, Mrs. Abercrombie patiently fished with her fork for floating chunks of Reese’s. She was his lone Blizzard-Dolloped Coffee success story.

As Sam hugged me, I felt the heat of his breath on my neck, but the hug wasn’t our usual collapsing sort of hug. In his mind, the wedding was potentially more on than ever, and he may have been jittery about how to re-propose. Me? It’d been a long drive. Two long drives, actually, the last slightly aided by a car-seat-snooze. I felt stinky, unkempt, and confused.

“Hi, Sam,” I said.

“Hi, Babe,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re back and okay. So glad that—”

He paused as Mrs. Abercrombie scuttled to the bathroom. Or so I thought, hearing the click of the bathroom door. But then a voice echoed down the hall.

“Why she can return a call to you, and not to me, leaving me to worry myself sick for those extra hours…”

“Your Ma,” whispered Sam, as if it were necessary. “She was camped out at the door when I pulled up.”

Ma appeared, stopped and stared at me. Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, hootie-hoo. Look who’s back. What have you got to say?”

“Ma—lower your voice a little, will ya? Give Mrs. A some space to eat in peace. She’s a paying customer.”

Ma paused and looked at me in a strange way, her mascara-heavy lids falling as she tried to re-gather herself. Maybe, there before her, I looked more formidable than usual—Formidable Broad. Anyway, I wasn’t about to let her think this was going to be some apologetic debriefing. “Ever think it’s me in need of some info?” I told her.

Ma continued to look strange, sort of stunned and unable to meet my eyes. She could only stare over my shoulder instead, like the trick kids use in staring contests. Maybe I had come on too formidably.

“No way. No damn way,” she said finally, recovering.

Yes way, Ma. Absolutely-friggin’-way.”

“Crap,” said Sam.

It wasn’t until I saw Mrs. Abercrombie pause from eating and, spoon stilled, stare beyond my shoulder too, that I sensed something might be wrong.

I turned and looked beyond the bank of windows to the parking lot, to where Bio was nearing the DQ front door.

“No damn way…” Ma said again.

A group of boys who looked like they were on their way to Township High, pushed through the door just ahead of Bio and stared at the overhead menu.

“Out!” said Sam.

They stared blankly at him.

Out!” Sam shouted.

Then they were gone.

“How manly of you, Sam,” I whispered, surprised by my own calm. “Now let’s see how you do with adults.”

“You’re here for no good reasons, Tom Newsome!” came Ma’s shriek. “Unforgiven and unwelcome is what you are!”

Bio had stopped, puzzled first by the quick-exiting boys, then by the sudden sight of Ma marching toward him. His jaw dropped. He managed to say the word, “Bet.” Then, “I didn’t expect you to be here. You neither, Jenn. I was only going to talk with this young man, make sure he understood the gravity of”—he paused here, clearly afraid of what he was stepping into—“of the location he was considering.”

“You didn’t call me Bet, did you? You don’t call me Bet, Tom Newsome. You don’t call me anything!”

Bio turned and looked at me, unsure what to do next. I wondered how long it had been since he had even laid eyes on Ma (my entire life, minus a few months?) much less be bum-rushed by her under the stark lights of a fast food restaurant. If a photo had marked the moment, I bet he and Ma both would have studied it over and over again, but there in front of each other they could barely raise their eyes now.

“Now, it don’t have to be like this,” Bio said, clearly avoiding any proper noun. “It never did.”

“You found a wormhole and like a worm you’re slithering back through!”

There was a pause. I knew I had to quit marveling over these two humans in front of me (that they were actually rejoining something from before… that it was the first time we, as a family unit, had ever stood together) and to step up as the unintended organizer of the event.

“Ma,” I said. “Hold on. Why he’s here—whether worm, lonely, or just in need of a damn road trip—isn’t the issue. Let me fill you in. It seems that the wedding”—I glanced over at Sam and shrugged lamely—“might be back on. And this location thing you may have just missed, well, I can’t say I was ever thrilled at having my wedding in the lot of Ben Franklin’s, free tent or not. So. We might possibly have it out at Bio’s, on a hill, under a nice tree.”

Possibly?” said Sam.

“Bio?” asked Bio.

These I ignored.

I looked back at Ma, who looked even more jittery than before. Her eyes darted back and forth between my eyes and mouth, as if wondering who I was.

I remained determined: “Now, Ma. I need to get to the bottom of a few things while we’re all here together.”

Ma’s lips parted slightly, in shock, convinced now that I had switched teams on her. “You want to do that here? Under glass in a gossipy place like Township?”

“Ma—you can’t put it off forever. Sam’s not going to let anyone in, and it’s only Mrs. Abercrombie. …CAN YOU HEAR US, MRS. ABERCROMBIE??

Mrs. Abercrombie’s full attention had returned to her cup and remained there.

“See, Ma? No witnesses. No lip readers, no hidden mikes. So I gotta know here and now—was he just a dead beat, or was there more to it?”

Bio stood unmoving, moony eyes wide, absently hunched forward as if he wanted to know too. I thought of the rumors that had circulated about him over the years, not only dead beat but more glamorous ones—bounty-hunter, doing a stint in Folsom Prison for a string of bank robberies, spotted strung-out beneath a bridge in Memphis. Never rabbit farmer in Grange.

The guy wires of Ma’s cheeks loosened and slipped, and her face fell into a look of candidness I had only seen a few times, and always when she thought she was alone. Quietly, she said. “He never loved us, isn’t that enough? We would have been on our own either way.”

“Now that’s not true, Mame. I never wanted to leave, especially not then. I loved this girl. And you too,” said Bio. “And then you kicked me out and kept me away, you and that lawyer, those threats of legalities that would have made life here impossible. For me and her.”

Ma stood silent and still, stared into the linoleum, until finally, as if she owed and explanation, said, “Inappropriate was what he was.”

Bio, with a firmness I hadn’t heard, said, “I don’t know what you think you saw. I’m only hoping you have the decency to tell her that maybe you got it wrong.”

I stared back and forth between the two faces. The space between seemed like a veil, too charged to touch. I must have ceased breathing because my throat felt dry and constricted. I felt Sam’s hand on my arm.

Never loved me. You didn’t have love in you! And then I walked into that room and you were kissing that little girl. Kissing her all over. You looked at me and the guilt was written all over your face!”

“That maybe you got it wrong,” Bio said again, but weaker this time. He turned to me with pain etched on his face. “Maybe she’s right about the marriage. But you, you broke me open. For the first time in my whole dumb life, I… ”

But whatever he wanted to say, he couldn’t finish. And then he was turning for the door.

*

I can talk about it now—but that next week was a silent and terrible one for me. I didn’t know what to think, or to feel. I stayed over at Sam and his mother’s place and didn’t go out, didn’t even look out the window in the direction of my house. But the truth was everything might have slowly blown over, if only because it got to the point that I just wanted the whole situation behind me (as I had back in middle school after my first glimpse of Bio).

Might have blown over. Until, week’s end, when I finally ventured out, I began getting word about what Ma had been up to. Freaking out was more like it—and with far more edge than ever before. First she got in a shouting match with a bitchy young bank teller that escalated to the point that a cop had to walk Ma out by the elbow. Then she dialed Dave, called him every reprobate-word she knew, and accused him of luring me down hell’s path. She even marched into the DQ and called Mrs. A a “spy.”

When I finally entered our house, Ma was over at the kitchen counter cutting on a cutting board. I moved across the room and kissed her on the back of the hair. Through her shoulder blades I felt her stiff motions. When she didn’t turn around, I went and sat on the couch. Finally, the cutting stopped, and Ma came and joined me.

Her eyes looked different, sort of like when she used to smoke, that calm tiredness after she took a drag. “You’re going to ask me,” she said, “and the plain answer is, I saw what I saw.”

“Well, then why are you acting so crazy lately, Ma? It makes you look suspicious. Like, blame or be blamed.”

Ma waited, looking into her lap as if studying an equation. “You don’t get it, Hon,” she said slowly, with only mild defensiveness. “Things were bad already. We were on our own, him just walking around like a big nuthin’, not even working, spending all of his time down at The Office.” She sent me a firm glance, like what she was about to say would hurt, but was necessary. “He didn’t even want a kid. Was dead set against it. Believe me, you only had a couple chances—but you were determined. When you delivered, he wasn’t even around.” When Ma looked up and saw me studying her, she seemed to realize this was stuff she’d told me before. “Anyway, the other, all I’ll say is someday you’ll understand a mother’s intuition.”

Ma’s neck straightened, the way it did when she knew she hadn’t quite proved her point, but expected you to believe her anyway, out of loyalty.

“But that’s not enough, Ma. That doesn’t get the door closed. You lobbed the grenade—now I need to know exactly.”

She tested the word, “Exactly…” didn’t seem to like it the taste, then said, “I already told you. Kissing you. On the back… on the butt.” Ma was shaking her head, though I don’t know if she realized it. “Like I said, the way he looked up at me when I walked in, the guilt. From a man who’d never bothered to look guilty before.”

I must have said something to her with my glance—again: that doesn’t get the door closed. More defensively, Ma said, “What did you want? Be raised in a loveless marriage? I just thank the stars you aren’t up against what I was. Don’t I wish I had a man with the body of Hercules and goo-goo eyes for me.”

“Stop, Ma,” I told her. “Just stop!”

Ma gathered herself, gave me a brazen look, and said, “Well, I was going to save it as a wedding present. But that money you mentioned? All twenty years of it, in a bank account, in your name—enough for a big down payment on a starter house.”

*

The sun was just tipping down, a washed-out pink due to field-burning season. We—Sam and I—were parked at The Point. A local joke. A mogul heaped and packed in the middle of the interminable cornfield by a farmer named D. Rhodes, in the expressed interest of providing a safe haven for high school kids looking to make out. Over the years, D. Rhodes had also—unsuccessfully—applied to the City Council for everything from a BMX track, to a Ferris wheel, to a small castle with moat.

“There she was, treating it like a wedding gift from her. Our money, all along. And do you remember that Cinderella dress idea? Because we were supposedly broke?” The words, as I spit them, tasted sour on my lips. I knew I wasn’t talking about what I needed to be talking about. “Let’s just do it, you and me, Sam. City Hall. Or Vegas. Or right here. Parentless.”

Sam too, knew I wasn’t talking about what I needed to be talking about. I could tell when he humored me. “City Hall… is the same building I got my hernia exam for fifteen years. Vegas… too glitzy and Elvisy. Here? Rhodes would treat it like the royal wedding, sell tickets.”

I shrugged. Sam waited. Then he let out a sigh, to signal a downshift. Gently, he said, “How could you not be confused about it all, Babe? Worse than confused. And whoever you do or don’t want at the wedding, and where—it’s your day.” He looked at me and, there against smoky pink sky, meditatively puffed his lips. “But maybe you need to talk to him. Just to get some closure.”

The word closure, coming from Sam, was about like tax deduction, it just didn’t fit. But I knew what he meant. “I don’t know, Sam. What would I get but more hard-to-trust words? We’ll see.”

Sam moved his hand to the inside of my thigh; not to start up anything, that was just a place he liked to keep it, absently, like a security blanket. Sam and I had come to The Point since the first day he drove, which would have been fourteen, but even back then we mostly sat back, looked at the horizon, talked. When other kids were all excited about groping and making out, we were already on to sex, but used my room for that.

I said, “He told me, rabbits equaled fertility. No secret there.”

“Who?”

Bio.”

“Wait,” Sam said. “He said ‘no secret there’—or are you saying it?”

“I don’t know, Sam,” I said, wondering how it had gotten so complicated. “He said it when I was out there, after getting off the phone with you.”

Sam didn’t say anything right off, which brought some claustrophobia into the Bug’s tight cab. Then I realized, with the talk of our new nest egg, he must have thought that I was trying to talk about kids. Kids were the last thing on my mind, but I found myself waiting, just to see what he’d say.

Then I changed my mind. I didn’t want to play games like that. I knew that Sam didn’t play games like that with me. “Maybe it’s just the word that’s on my mind. Fertility. About who or what’s in charge of it. Sometimes it seems like it just happens, on its own, no one in charge. I mean, your folks never even fought, then—poof—kid or not, marriage done with. Ma tells me, ‘he never even wanted a kid—but you were determined’, like it was something I did. Now, her and Bio can’t even look at each other, and instead of wisdom Ma and of Dottie play their snickery little games over at the emporium, spying on customers as they reach for costumes like the ones they put back are huge clues to secret identities. But who’s to say that some of those hidden parts don’t need to come out, to know ourselves fully enough not to make so many mistakes?”

“Whoa,” said Sam, doing his best to translate. “If by knowing yourself ‘fully enough,’ you mean dancing at Paradise, I sure hope you don’t think that’s a hidden part that needs to come out.”

I stopped and stared at Sam, as if he had just become a foreign object: a foreign object labeled Possessive Husband Suddenly Laying Down Law. “Now Sam, if you’re setting up to start telling me what I can or can’t do…”

Sam turned to me and fixed me with his wide eyes. “Let me finish, Babe,” he said. “Cause if you’re thinking you are perfect as you already are, if you’re thinking you are a mistake, well… I just want you to know that the way you handle yourself at Paradise, it’s a gift. It’s like you’re part work-of-art, part businesswoman, part cop—the customers all know not to disrespect you. How you work that, I’ll never know, but it’s amazing.”

I stared at Sam all over again. “Why Sam,” I said. “I always gave that credit to you, to them knowing you were a few doors down at the DQ ready to protect my honor.”

Sam remained serious, almost angry. “No, Babe—it’s all you. Even out-of-towners, who don’t know me from Adam, get it. You just have this graceful muscle to you. You’ve always had it.”

I smiled—how I was marrying the right man—and tried to let the sweetness of the moment linger, though that’s difficult for me.

“Anyway, Sam,” I said, quietly going back to my initial thought. “By hidden parts, I was thinking more about where people seem to get stuck. Him. How way back when, there in my room, there’s a possibility Ma caught him feeling something pure and innocent, maybe for the first time since he was a baby himself. But it was all too brittle. And next thing you know, she’s freaking out, and—lowest common denominator—he’s seeing what she’s seeing, and down the drain it all goes. Washed away. And twenty years later, last month, there’s Ma and Dottie giggling over Mrs. Sorvino reaching for a Mother Theresa, while across the street Bio’s working up the courage just to hand me his business card.

“Well, don’t worry,” Sam said, adjusting his hand on my thigh. “Cause we’ll be fifty. Still coming to this hill or some other. Just to talk.”

Nice, Sam.”

“And, Babe? I really think you two should talk.”

“Okay, Sam, I will.”

 *

It was probably a crazy idea, to try and talk to Bio and have the ceremony on the one-tree hill on the same morning. But even though he never quite put it into words, it became clear to me that the distant spot Sam had first glimpsed eons-ago when he’d driven nobly to Grange to “do the right thing,” remained his heart’s choice, a place pure and unique, his and mine. My ultimate thinking was, that it was a nice spot, and free, and far enough from Township for us to sneak away without much notice. And, sure… if we were going to make the long drive anyway, it only made sense to get it all done.

When I finally dug into the bottom of my purse for his crinkled card, and called, I kept it brief and sort of to an outline. I mentioned that, if it weren’t a bother, his hill might work after all. That what we were doing was really more of an elopement: just Sam and me, a few witnesses, and a minister Sam was going to dig up on craigslist. When I told Sam, “Yes, this Saturday,” he at first scrunched up his face at the rush of it, but by the time the weekend rolled around, he was all grins, optimistic as for a playoff game. We drove out to Grange early, the two of us, and before I knew it he was coming around to open the driver’s door for me, to gallantly stand aside in his tux and offer me the route across the muddy parking area toward Bio’s lopsided front door.

I didn’t feel at my best, light in the head, maybe because I hadn’t eaten. There are times, I think, when you slip into a slight altered state, but don’t know it until later. So I wouldn’t go off track while talking, I’d made myself a little mantra from a relaxation website I’d consulted earlier in the week, that claimed the key to staying thoughtful and open was lips-throat-heart. “Lips, throat, heart,” I whispered, as I rapped on his hollow door.

The footsteps inside came more quickly this time, as if he’d been sitting there waiting for me. The door opened and Bio stood above me, moony eyes batting against the morning light as if he hadn’t been out yet. “Are you alright, Jenn?” he asked. “You look a jittery. Real nice, but jittery.”

I rolled my eyes. “Long story.” I stepped back. “It’s a Cinderella dress. Ma’s idea. Sam and I are saving money.”

“Oh,” he said. “Is your mother…”

“Here? No—just Sam. Ma actually won’t be… well, like I said on the phone, it’s just going to be real small. Thanks for it, by the way—the money. It’s going to really help.”

Going to?” he said, with a puzzled look.

“Forget it. Another long story. But would you like to sit down a minute, talk about other stuff?”

We decided to sit on the porch.  To my relief, Bio was dressed in dirty overalls, not at all like he expected to attend a wedding. He offered me a bench then settled himself not far away on a cut tree stump, long legs angled outwards like a grasshopper’s, a patient expression on his face like he was intent on honoring anything I wanted.

I wasn’t just jumpy, but I noticed my hands were chilled and clammy. Obviously, it was my wedding day, but the reason I’d bothered with the lame mantra was in fear that I’d forget what I’d decided earlier that week, or that I’d freeze up and go numb when I said it. I’d decided to let go of the big picture, all the murkier questions that promised only hard-to-trust responses and more questions, questions that were maybe too big or bearable. I’d decided on just one question, which also put a lot more pressure on delivery.

I cleared my throat and adjusted myself to speak, placed my hand on my satiny, corseted stomach. I was about to ask it, but a vehicle arriving through the woods made me stop.

Through some bushes, I could see a sliver of the muddy lot. The truck was Coach Granville’s, Sam’s last minute pick for a best man, who arrived a half hour early for everything. What surprised me though, was to hear the chatter of my bridesmaids—Tina, Cheyanne, Lisa—then to see their big perms bounce from the truck like cotton candy. Lisa hooted as she negotiated her way from the truck’s high running board. It was an odd combination: the Coach, my girls. Odd enough at least to distract me for a moment.

When I turned back to Bio, I just said it. “If I ‘broke you open,’ if you cared about me so much…” Lips-throat-heart. “How could you just disappear?”

Bio lowered his eyes to the rotting floorboards. He must have known the question was coming, but maybe not so suddenly. Finally, he looked up and set his wide eyes upon me. When he saw how closely I was studying his face, he wilted and looked down again.

For all I know, only fifteen or thirty seconds elapsed, but they felt like five minutes. Lips-throat-heart—but this time it was to stop me from saying something, to wait for an answer.

And then there came a sort of breathless dip, when I realized he wasn’t going to say anything at all, nothing adequate at least. And sure enough, when he finally spoke, what he said didn’t even matter. What mattered was that as his lips moved his eyes never settled on me but darted around everywhere except me.

I felt myself relax—far more relaxed than most brides, I remember thinking—and I leaned back, and for the first time since I’d arrived took in what I could see, beyond the muddy lot, beyond the muddy rabbit field hopping with rabbits, beyond the small valley… the hill with the lone willow.

But another car had arrived, a strange, Edsel-type one with the outline of a face with top hat and mole—Old Abe’s Ceremonials—on its door. Next to it, for the first time I noticed the old John Deere that had been sitting there all along, coated with fresh grass cuttings.

“You mowed,” I said to Bio.

Bio nodded, and while my wedding troupe gathered at the rim of the muddy lot, we sat there, he still unable to look at me. A prolonged sensation came over me then: how I could actually be too meaningful, too special to look at. I tried to think of a super-heroine name for that, but didn’t come up with anything exactly right yet.

Coach Granville, the girls wavering in their five-inch pumps, and Abe Lincoln descended into the valley, linked like a comical line of old world explorers. Sam stood in the middle of the lot, brushing off his sleeves, waiting for me.

“I’ve got to go, Dad.”

 

___

Michael Welch is a recent graduate of the Pacific University Writing Program. His recent publications include “New Room” in Soundings, “Papatoto” in Midwifery Today, and “Letters from the Front” in The Mankind Project Reader, an essay about his work in Folsom Prison; his story “Calcium” and short “The Rental” were finalists in New Millennium writing contests this past year. “Calcium” is upcoming in Stealing Time. He grew up in the Bronx and now lives with his family in Eugene, OR.

The Jar

By Jaren Watson

I.FINAL (2).web’m hoofing it home on my birthday, and I can’t stop staring at my face. Half an hour ago the machine spat out my license. Driver’s Ed. finished up two months ago and I’ve been counting the days. It’s official now, I can drive. Or could if I had a car. Soon, I tell myself, it’s going to happen. And it will. There’s three grand wadded in a mason jar in my closet. I keep the jar locked in a small cedar box that I built in junior high shop. Eight months of laying sod and I haven’t spent more than a few hundred bucks. Learned that by watching my old man. What not to do. Money is the slipperiest thing in the world for him. I heard Mom tearing into him about it this morning before I left for school.

But I’m not worried about that now. Another two months, and I’ll be in business. I could get something right away, but I don’t want to spend my time tooling on a junker. Seen the family car busted down too many times to take that route. Even though I’m itching to get behind the wheel, I’m holding out.

I’ve got the license in my fingers. I look a little older, I think. When the lady behind the counter handed it over, I slipped it into my back pocket, but as soon as I got outside I pulled it out again. The clerk’s office in the courthouse handles licenses and registration. We live just better than a mile down the road.

First hour at school, Mrs. Bennett had everyone sing to me. It was a wreck, but nice. It’ll have to do for a celebration until Sunday. Dad said he had to work late and Mom’s stuck in bed again. When she and Dad were into it, you could barely hear her. Even without making out the words, you could tell she was pissed. Everybody says money’s what wrecks marriages. Everybody hit the nail on the head.

I’m about a block from home and I take one last look at the license before shoving it in my pocket. You could say I’m a little disappointed about not having a party on my birthday. But of the two things that I really want, one is riding on my hip, and the other I can just about see on the horizon.

Dad’s car is in the driveway. There’s a dent caving in the rear fender. It was there when he bought the car three years ago. If the dent was on the front of the car, he’d get it fixed. That’s his style, flashy from the front.

When I open the front door, he’s asleep on the couch. An open bag of beef jerky’s in his crotch. The TV is on, some golf tournament, and the sound is muted. I go in the kitchen. Scissor’s backpack is on the table. On the front is sewn a patch in the shape of a skull. She’s fourteen, but she’s three grades behind me. Not because she’s stupid, but because of her birthday. Her real name’s Meredith, but we’ve been calling her Scissor since I was like five. Before that it was Sisser when I was butchering sister. You know how it is. That’s how Mom tells it, I don’t really remember. Scissor’s at the age where she hates everything about the family, or acts like she does, but she’s never minded the name.

Even with Mom’s door open I hardly hear her when she calls to me. I go in there and she’s sitting up in bed, a bunch of pillows behind her back. The blinds are up and sunlight is coming in on her face and the window is open a little. There’s not much of a smell. She’s still in her pajamas. You can barely tell about the bandages. She’s got her arms out. I lean over the bed and hug her. She presses her cheek against mine. I pull away and she pats the bed beside her and I sit.

“How’s my birthday boy?” she asks.

“Pretty good. How are you feeling today?”

“About the same.”

I nod. “I’m sorry.”

I’d give up if I were her. I don’t know how she does it.  She was pregnant three times after Scissor. All three ended way premature in emergency c-section but she and Dad just kept trying, said they felt God had another one to send. None of them made it a day. After the last one, Mom’s belly wouldn’t heal. Ever since I started junior high she’s had a hole straight from her gut to the outside world. It’s called a fistula. Fancy name for a hole.

She did pretty good at first, just kept it wrapped up with gauze. She was in constant pain, but it wasn’t that. It was because every time she got around other people, sooner or later somebody would say something about the smell. No amount of perfume or lotion covered it. Eventually, she got tired of dealing with people. At first we all tried to encourage her, but it didn’t last too long. The worst I ever heard my parents fight was when Dad tried telling her the stink wasn’t that bad. They were in the kitchen, and she looked like she was going to slap him. Instead she yelled, “There’s a reason people shit in the toilet instead of the street, Rex.” They kept at it through the night.

I can remember them fighting before all that happened, but lately that’s all they do. Dad just keeps working longer hours driving a forklift at the warehouse. But he brings home less money, so it starts up again. Mom wants to know where it all goes, and he’s always got an answer.

The other day Scissor said to me, “It’s only a matter of time.” She may be right.

So now Mom keeps herself locked up in the house. Once in awhile, if she’s feeling good, she’ll swing on the back porch in the afternoons and watch the finches in the feeders. Mostly, she totters around, cleaning the house and clipping coupons. Right now, she looks as happy as I’ve seen her in weeks. She asks me if I got my license and when I say yes she makes me show it to her.

“You look so handsome,” she says. “I can’t believe my baby’s sixteen. Which reminds me, your dad wants you to wake him up. He took off early so you guys could go out.”

“Out where?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “He didn’t say. Is there any place special you’d like to go?”

“Not really. Why don’t we just order pizza and do something here?”

Mom smiles, her mouth closed. “I’d like that. I’m not sure it’s the best idea though.”

I shut my eyes and take a deep breath. “Can’t you two pretend to get along for one night? It’s my birthday for God’s sake.” I don’t need to see the look on Mom’s face to know she’s hurt. She can’t take it when it comes from me. Between Dad and Scissor I’m the only one she can talk to. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it.”

She looks out the window. “I know it hasn’t been pleasant lately. But that doesn’t give you the right to talk to me that way.”

I walk out of her room, through the kitchen and don’t stop in the living room where Dad is still asleep. In my bedroom, I dial the combination on my lock and fish out the money jar. In my pocket I’ve got a few bucks change from getting my license, and I stuff this in the jar and lock it back up. Scissor’s got her stereo on and the wail of bagpipes creeps through the walls. Our rooms are right next to each other and before she got on this kick we used to talk for hours before falling asleep. I knock on the wall. She doesn’t answer. I knock louder and the music softens.

Through the wall I say, “Since when do you listen to Scottish music?”

Through the wall I hear, “It’s Celtic, dipshit. Happy birthday.”

I lie down on my bed and stare at the ceiling, which the sunset through the window paints white to purple to black. I slide my thumb back and forth along the edge of the license in my hand. Accompanied by Scissor’s piping, I fall asleep.

When I wake up, my dad is standing in my room. It’s dark outside and the light is off. I hear his breathing. A jangling of keys in his pocket. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“Dude, you were supposed to wake me up.” A couple of months ago, Dad started talking like he was a teenager again. He gets it right about half the time. I’ve asked him to stop more times than I can count.

“Sorry. I was tired.”

“Well, get up and let’s go. Tonight’s the big night. Righto?”

“I guess.” Going out on the town with my Dad tonight is about the last thing I feel like doing, but neither am I up for arguing with him about it, so I get out of bed. “Give me a minute.”

When he goes out, I shut the door and get a few bucks from the jar. I have a suspicion that wherever we end up I’ll be footing the bill. Dad has a way forgetting his wallet.

In the driveway, he tosses me the keys. “You’re up,” he says and opening the passenger side door, gets in the car.

I just stand there. A week ago I was looking through the classifieds at the kitchen table when Dad came up behind me and said, “I hope you aren’t thinking that you’ll be touching my wheels, cheese puff.”

I wasn’t. I know how he is with his things. “I’m not.”

“That’s my boy. Man’s got to earn those things.”

Dad shuts the door. I walk around to the driver’s side. As I fasten my seatbelt, it hits me. “Dad, it’s nighttime.”

“A real sharp one, I’ve raised.”

“Stop. I can’t drive at night for another six months.”

“Give me a break. Let’s roll.”

There’s no arguing with him. “Fine. But you have to talk normal.”

It’s the first time I’ve driven in the dark, and I have trouble at first. I can’t see anything. It looks a lot darker from behind the steering wheel, and I say so. Dad just laughs. We’re four blocks down the road, and I realize I haven’t turned the headlights on. When I turn them on Dad says, “Way to go, dillydo.”

I ignore him and ask, “So where are we going?”

He doesn’t hear me. He’s fiddling with the window, which is stuck. He bumps it a few times with his elbow. It comes unstuck, and he puts his hand out the window. I ask him again where we’re going.

“I was thinking Mr. C’s, get a couple steaks.”

“Mr. C’s, are you sure?” Mr. C’s is the fanciest restaurant in town. I’ve only been there once. It was the best food I ever ate, but I’m worried I don’t have enough money in my wallet to cover the bill.

“Would you rather go to Subway?”

“No, Mr. C’s will be good.”

Inside the restaurant are vines growing all over the place, up the walls, and they’re real, not plastic. It’s like being in a jungle, pretty cool. While Dad’s looking at the menu, I slip my wallet out and check—I’ve only got twenty bucks.

The waiter takes our order, and Dad speaks up before I can say what I want. “We’ll take two of your tenderest filets, please.” I figure, we’ve come this far, we may as well go all the way. When the steaks come they practically fall apart. Mine’s nearly the consistency of chocolate. It’s so good.

We finish eating, and the waiter brings the bill. There’s a hundred dollar bill in Dad’s hand and he slaps it down on the table. He’s smiling. “We don’t need any change,” he says. “It’s my son’s birthday.”

“Really? You should have said so. Don’t go anywhere.”

In just a minute he returns with half a dozen other waiters. He’s carrying a huge piece of chocolate cake, which he places on the table in front of me. It’s mammoth. Then he and the others begin singing in Italian to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” All the people in the restaurant are looking at me. It’s kind of embarrassing, so I just look at the cake. Towards the end of the song Dad joins in the singing. He doesn’t know Italian and is just singing, “la, la, la.”

After the singing waiters leave I say, “Dad, you’re going to have to help me with this.” The piece is large enough for six people, I swear.

Dad shakes his head. “Nope, you’re the birthday boy. You’ve got to tackle that one yourself.”

I try. I don’t even come close. I’ve never had this much chocolate, ever. I’m so full it hurts. But the cake is so good. I’ve got so much sugar and caffeine in me that I’m a little buzzed. “Dad, please. You’ve got to help me.” More than half of the piece remains.

“No. Let’s take it home and you can share it with your mom and Scissor.”

“Good idea.”

“Okay. You ready? Wipe that chocolate off your face.”

I can’t believe it. The meal was fantastic. Best steak. Best cake. And Dad paid for it all. I’m thinking but I really can’t remember the last time I had such a good time with my father.

Back in the car, I start to drive home, but Dad points the other direction so we go that way. “Head for CVS on Third. I’ve got to pick something up.”

So he does have some cash. When we get there he says, “Park along the curb here. Here, come with me. We’ll be quick.”

In a town as small as ours you couldn’t really say there’s a bad part. But if there were, this would be it. The blue white fluorescent lights of CVS are the only bright spots along the road for blocks. There used to be a bunch of stores down here when I was a kid. Most of them have closed. Run-down apartments sit on top of abandoned shoe or electronic stores and about every third window has a sign that says For Lease or For Sale. A Styrofoam cup blows down the sidewalk.  A yellow street lamp flickers, and the wind is blowing.

Next to the CVS is a two-story brick building. Its front door is glass, and it’s rattling on its hinges from the wind. The word satori is written in purple letters across the glass. Dad points to that door. I look through and see a stairway, lighted from the top. “What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s a surprise.”

The door is unlocked and we head up the stairs. There’s a landing at the top. To the left is an apartment. A seam of light shows under the door. To my right is a dark wooden door with the purple letters. Dad knocks strangely on the door with light under it, knocking in a pattern.

I hear footsteps and the door opens. A woman with long brown hair stands in the doorway. Her breasts are nearly spilling out of her top, and I’m instantly stunned, trying without success to look anywhere but there.

“Is this the one,” she says.

Dad says, “He’s the one.”

My confusion about what is happening lasts only for a second before I’m horrified.

“No,” I say. I head for the stairs but Dad stops me with his hand on my shoulder.

“Not so fast, buckaroo.”

“Let me go.” I try to squirm free, but he’s stronger than I am. Always has been though I’m four inches taller. With his hand on my shoulder and the other in the small of my back, he twists me around and walks me into the apartment. It’s a studio, a bed against one wall, a small fridge and table and one chair against another. I don’t see a bathroom. Clothes are heaped at the foot of the bed.

The woman follows us inside. “Rex, I don’t know about this,” she says. “If he doesn’t want to . . .”

“Well, he does,” he says. “He’s just shy.”

She’s got her arms folded across her chest. “He’s just a kid.” She turns to me, “No offense, kid.”

Dad walks to the door. “Yesterday he was a kid. Today’s he’s a man.” He breaks out into a big grin, and he looks like someone I don’t recognize. “I’ll be waiting outside. It shouldn’t take little buddy too long,” he says.

I’m scared of Dad and I’m angry, but I’m more afraid of this. I start after him. “Dad, don’t do this.”

He turns around again. He’s not smiling. He sticks his finger in my chest. “Don’t make a bigger deal out of this than it is. I’m doing this for you.”

“Dad.” My voice cracks.

“You’ll thank me later, trust me.” he says and shuts the door behind him.

I don’t turn around to face the woman. It stinks in here. Like dirty plates left in the sink too long. I hear her move behind me. “I don’t want any trouble,” she says. “Let’s just get it over with.”

I just stand there, facing the door. I wonder if there might be something wrong with me. Maybe I am making too big a deal out of this. I imagine other boys my age, boys from school. It seems like they’d be happy about this, see it as an opportunity. But I don’t see it that way. I’ve been betrayed. More importantly, Mom’s been betrayed. Dad had been lying to all of us. This is where his money has been going. I think of Mom, stuck at home and miserable. Dad’s coming here isn’t why she’s sick, but in this moment, the two are connected. No way am I turning around and facing this woman, this old lady. After a few minutes, she says, “It’s probably been long enough. You don’t tell, I won’t tell.”

In the car on the way home Dad is driving, and the only thing he says to me is “Better keep this our secret. It’d break Mom’s heart to know what her boy was up to tonight. But you don’t need to worry. I won’t say a word.” It is an echo of what she had said, but I shake my head realizing that when my father says it, it means nearly the opposite. For the whole of the drive, my body burns with shame. And then anger at being forced to be shamed.

It’s late when we get home, and everyone’s in bed.

I’ve been crying a lot lately, and tonight the tears come easily. I put my pillow over my head so Scissor can’t hear. How do you live your whole life with someone and still not know them?

In the morning Mom and Dad are into it in the kitchen. She’s waving a bank statement at Dad and talking about being two thousand dollars overdrawn. I don’t want to hear it, and I go outside.

It’s Saturday, the day I normally get the most hours in at work, but I can’t handle it today. I’ll call in tomorrow. I just walk. I’m not headed anywhere. I’m thinking about last night and trying to make sense of everything. I’m aware that I’m both shocked and unamazed. Bewilderment at how Dad could do such a thing is answered by, because it’s Dad. I know what will happen if I tell Mom. Dad and Mom. They’re not a couple—they’re opposing forces.  I feel the weight of both of them, as if on a scale.

I’m still a bit in shock over last night. I can physically feel it, a numbness in my legs and arms, my hands. It was so stupid of Dad to bring me there. Didn’t he realize I would figure out that’s where he’s been spending his money? And it hits me, he wanted me to figure it out. But why? I can’t think of a good reason for his wanting me to know. The effort of walking is doing me good, so I keep going all the way to the end of town and back. There are a lot of people out. It’s a nice day.

It’s dinnertime when I get home and I’m starving, haven’t eaten all day. Scissor walks into her room as soon as I get in the kitchen where Mom is sitting at the table. It’s the first time she’s been out of her room in weeks. She’s got a huge smile on her face. A plate of tacos sits on the table and Mom motions to them. “Scissor made them. They’re good. Sit down, I’ve got the most wonderful news.”

I sit down and start eating. “Where’s Dad?” I ask.

Mom smiles again. “At work. Listen, I know you heard what’s going on this morning.”

“About the money?”

“Yes. I’m sorry you had to hear that. But you’ll never guess what your father did.”

“What did he do?”

“He came home from work at lunch and gave me this.” She lifted an envelope from her lap and opening it, pulled out a wad of cash. “All those extra hours he’s been putting in. There’s enough here to pay the account and have some left over. Isn’t that great?”

A piece of taco shell sticks in my throat. I swallow hard and it scrapes going down. “Just a second.” I go to my room and when I see the shackle of the combination lock unlatched I don’t have to look but look anyway and see the glass of the jar shining smooth and empty. My license is next to the jar where I put it last night. I feel the blood in my head and I’m almost dizzy. I’ve had enough. Dad’s gone too far. I know stealing my money isn’t as bad as what he did last night, but one thing after the other is more than I can take. I feel the weight again. One side slips. Wait, something in the jar. I grab it. Inside is a slip of paper. I take it out. It’s a note from Dad. “I never wanted to hurt your mother. But a man has needs. It’ll be our secret. I know you understand.”

I walk back into the kitchen and look at my mom. She’s sitting there, quietly smoothing out creases in the bills. Her hair is done up in a braid for the first time in I can’t remember how long. She doesn’t see me and I watch her stack the money on the table. My money. She starts to hum something and then she sees me. I open my mouth to tell her, but I stop. She smiles at me and keeps humming and I think, this is what I’ve bought.

 

___

After completing an MFA at University of Arizona, Jaren Watson moved back to Idaho where he was raised and now teaches creative writing and technical communication. Recently, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming with Terrain.org, Irreantum, Carve Magazine, and Furrow. Last year he had a piece nominated for a Pushcart Prize and this year he won second place in the twelfth annual Eugene England essay contest.

A Mother’s Effect on the World

By Celina Villagarcia

Looming overhead

we swarm

about          like millions

 

of butterflies

 

tracking invisible footprints

in flowerbeds

 

graceful

sway of wings

 

force that pulls

the ocean out to sea

 

then back, again, to land

 

___

Celina Villagarcia’s roots are in the Rio Grande Valley, San Benito, Texas. She earned her B.A. in Sociology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and most recently a Masters of Arts in Theology at Oblate School of Theology in May 2012. She has lived in San Antonio, Texas for the past twelve years where she and her husband, Paul, find great pleasure in raising their four children. An emerging poet, her work has appeared in Texas Poetry Calendar and San Antonio Express-News. Her forthcoming collection of poetry, Pulp, will be published in Autumn, 2013 by Mouthfeel Press.

Moonlight

By Jeanine Stevens

After Verlaine

 

Your spirit is a living landscape

where charms obscure rows of birch.

Revelers in evening dress move to a lute,

seem melancholy in their leafy disguise.

 

In a lower key, they chant melodies

of victorious love and the wonders of life,

yet, they do not have l’air of happiness,

and their songs sink to nocturne in the moonlight.

 

The same calm and lovely light inspires

jets in the fountain to sob with rapture

at water’s gush, the holy spouts

that spray the streaked and marbled statues.

Cave Pearls

By Jeanine Stevens

You tumble and lift, moist pink

incubation, caldron of young moons.

 

Unseen by knights, pilgrims,

even armies overhead,

you rumble in deep, dark, wet.

 

Under my flashlight, you squirm

in a whiter bath, a hint of pale birth.

 

An adolescent’s footprint,

male they say,

dances nearby in soft clay.

 

Random fingers flute reddish ridges

on the rock wall, hesitant

to touch dark vestibules.

 

Tallow torches made of Silvestre Pine

quiver. A flutter.

Someone says murciélago!

We duck under the flap of black wings.

 

I imagine the ardor of light

splitting the next archway,

hands daring to slip in and send

 

a tiny quiver up to this street

where now I sit late, sip my café noir

and wonder at such complexity.

 

 Pech Merle Cave, 2004

At the Ruins

By Jeanine Stevens

   All men are ruined Gods.

 —Emerson

 

Humid today, still

the air smells of sun and dust.

We climb another hill

to what remains of Zeus’ temple.

A sarcophagus yawns open

with yet another Medusa carving.

Always fascinating

what remnants remain

from wars, earthquakes, aging.

Along the road,

locals sell goods and wares.

A young family displays

honey and figs. I give them a coin

for their photo.

Our guide says,

“See that old woman to the left?

Twenty years ago she cheated someone.

Don’t buy from her.”

In tatters, she sells

baby booties knitted in bright

polyester colors

and faded scarves hanging

from an olive tree.

I don’t buy anything,

but give her a coin

because she endures,

and because

she lives

among the Gods.

 

Western Turkey, 2012

From here to paternity

By Ian C. Smith

When she leaves their first-born in his care

while releasing their next from his silken sac,

he nearly burns their home down, cooking.

He has priors for misdemeanours with fire.

 

When he supervises their second at play

the child takes off, a bare-arsed angel

mingling with aged tourists off a bus

while its dad bullshits with the lads.

 

When she is away earning their bread

he has to grip their squirming third-born

while a nervous intern sews a cut eyelid.

At the end of her day his face is still grey.

 

In Maternity, sated by her fourth birth,

she receives an out-of-hours visit.

Their eldest has fallen from the peach tree,

he tells her as the wrist is set in plaster.

 

Now, this father alone with their youngest,

lightning shocks them through an open window,

numbing their hands and arms temporarily,

her commerce with the gods of good fortune rehearsed.

 

___

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in Axon: Creative Explorations, The Best Australian Poetry, Island, Poetry Salzburg Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Southerly, & Westerly. His latest book is Here Where I Work, Ginninderra Press (Adelaide). He lives in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, Australia.

Swimming the Purgatoire

By James Seals

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said,

‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

 —JOHN 7:38

 

J FINAL.webim hurled me into the pool. He cupped my armpits, lifted me to his eye level then chucked me over his left shoulder. Jim watched me fly through the air. He had thrown me with apparent ease, except that he had grunted like those Scotsmen—with their green and red or blue and gray plaid kilts—do as they toss kettleballs twenty feet into the sky during Highland-Games competitions.

I was eight. Jim was my father. He was uncomfortable with me calling him Dad or Daddy or even Pa. He said, Call me Jim, or Jay. So I did. I would have been four, maybe five years old, the day that he had told me to call him by name. After our conversation, Jim reached out and shook my hand, instead of hugging me, as if we had just agreed upon an important matter.

Jim disliked being touched. He might have patted my back at the ballpark, saying, No worries. We’ll practice fielding grounders at home, but he wouldn’t have wrapped his arms around me. Sometimes he hugged Mother in public, though those moments were rare. Mother showed me a picture of him once cradling me. He looked proud.  I was an infant. I don’t remember that embrace.

So when he grabbed me then threw me, I was shocked. I still wonder what was running through his mind. Jim knew that I had been somewhat afraid of bodies of water—declining invitations to attend, or suggesting different venues for, outings or parties—up to that point in my life. He had even suggested hosting parties at our house, paying for the cake, so that his son could share in the “good times.” Now that I am an adult, I am deathly afraid of waters—oceans, lakes, kiddie pools—and of rollercoasters and of any sensation of falling or of submersion.

Jim had spent the morning consuming inexpensive cocktails, relishing his time off. We were living in Spangdahlem, Germany, and Jim wore the rank of staff sergeant in the United States Air Force. Each winter he crammed the family—Mother, Cindy and me—into his rusty Volkswagen Beetle. Cindy and I eye-spied with our little eyes or raced to find letters in hopes of winning in the alphabet game as we drove the many hours to a resort in Berchtesgaden, which was infamous because Adolf Hitler had lodged in Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat area that overlooks the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, in 1923.

The resort—surrounded by salt mines and swathed in beautifully decorated murals—included an indoor wave pool, and every half hour the high-pitched siren harkened, announcing the start of the water’s oscillations. Kids—previously too tired or too bored to play—would scurry from plastic, deck-side chairs; enter the limpid, shallow waters; and beckon for the waves to intensify. I generally stood just forward of the black painted one-meter marker, close to one of the white-tiled walls, waiting to bodysurf a perfect break—with the comforts of knowing that I could reach up and pull myself out of the water in a jiffy.

Jim had bought me a soft-serve ice cream, vanilla. I stood near the pool’s edge savoring the rare offering, admiring the graceful swimmers, seconds before Jim seized me. My arms and legs flailed as I descended toward the pool. I don’t remember what happened to my dessert. Jim had lobbed me into the deep end of the Olympic-size structure: the poolside area where he had earlier decided to “set up camp,” the side nearest the wet bar. Maybe for a moment, like some cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote perhaps, I thought that my fluttering-efforts would prevent my body from entering the water.

I was terrified. I had not yet to learn to swim. Jim had promised to teach me. He had explained that his father had taught him to swim. Jim had described the time that he had been flung—from a seven-foot aluminum fishing boat—into a lake.

I was around your age.

No, likely younger, Jim corrected himself, probably seven.

He went on to say, My legs immediately started kicking and my arms began flapping.

I became an expert, and it took only one session.

Jim guffawed as I broke the water’s plane. My back hit first, my legs next, and then my head plunged into the deep. The stinging pain seized my body. Water flooded my nose and mouth. My vision blurred then blackened.

Let him be, Jim said. He’s fine, were the first words that I remember hearing after one of the paramedics had revived me.

Mother later told me, You were dead.

She said, Your face, your body, turned blue. You were unresponsive for a minute or more.

Mother, though, was confused and overwrought by the commotion.

She said, I lost track of time, later admitting that perhaps I was only gone for mere seconds.

Mother explained, Vacationers had beseeched Jim to rescue you, pushing at his back, pulling on his arms, yelling in German and English.

I wanted to ask, Why didn’t the bystanders jump in, but I could see the distress in her furrowed burrow.

She continued to say, You lay at the bottom of the pool near a drain, motionless, suspended as if you were relaxing in an invisible reclining chair, moments before the wave pool’s siren blasted.

Mother said, Guests—young and old—ran around the edges of the pool, worried that not only would you drown but that you would be sucked into the mechanism that roused the water.

The machine, mother said they shouted, will eat him. Then spit him out, piece by piece.

Mother shook her head. She said that Jim had spoken, He’s a strong boy.

Come on, he went on, we’re just starting to have fun.

 

A surge of black river swallows Caylo. Cullen remains afloat, secure in his Scooby-Doo life vest. I leap to my bare feet, spilling the one beer that I brought. I smell lilac as I huff the arid air. I run to the water’s edge, but not into the river. Cullen begins laughing. He begins thrashing, but still, he laughs. Caylo’s head reemerges, five feet from where he had vanished. My heart races.

“I told you I could,” Caylo shouts.

“You didn’t touch the bottom,” Cullen says.

I listen as they banter: Caylo thinks he’s always right; Cullen is never convinced. Their conversation ends like usual. One shouts, I’ll play by myself. The other replies, Fine, distancing himself.

I nearly yell at Caylo. I want to holler at him: say that he frightened me, say that if he ever does that again I will . . . I don’t know what I will. I should have shouted, Don’t you every do that again. Maybe added ‘young man’ for dramatic emphasis, but I don’t. I count to ten, a technique learned from anger-management class. Besides, this is our weekend together, one of our few, and I refuse to return them to their mother feeling hatred for me.

They begged me to take them swimming.

We want to go to the river, they shouted. Mom said you were going to take us.

I asked, When did I say this, but I knew that the decision had already been made: I could not disappoint Caylo or Cullen despite their mother having once again derailed the weekend adventure that I had planned.

I wanted to tell the boys that their mother has no control over me, that their mother is no longer allowed to make my decisions and that she no longer has a say in our fun. They wouldn’t understand, I tell myself instead, especially since they had sprinted to the Jeep, from their mother’s half-embrace, wearing swim trunks, water shoes and goggles.

“Caylo knows how to swim,” Cullen said, hopping into his booster seat, buckling his seatbelt.

I waited for details. I wanted details: every detail—what they had eaten, what they learned, what they enjoyed—the things that happened to them when I’m away. I looked at both the boys through my mirror, glancing at one then the other. I felt unneeded, like a chauffeur who carts able bodies. They sat watching as Denver’s glassy buildings came then went, as we made our way three hours south to Trinidad.

“Caylo, did your mother teach you to swim?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, not looking my way.

Cullen announced, Sean did. It’s during these moments that I appreciate Cullen’s interruptions. Normally I would have told him that I was not talking to him. I would have continued to say that it’s impolite to interject, but lately Caylo has refused to disclose information. He wouldn’t have told me that it was Sean that took them to the pool. He wouldn’t have answered my question, Where was your mother? Work, I would have assumed, like usual.

“Sean’s a good mommy, huh?” I asked.

Cullen laughed then said, “Sean can’t be a mommy.”

“Mommy Sean,” Caylo replied, finally smiling.

 

I perceive the sounds of distant screams, then the sounds of chaos. I know that other swimmers are up the river, but until this point, they seemingly shared the day with us in a quiet and respectful manner. Suddenly, the arrival of a powerful surge of murky water engulfs the boys. Caylo and Cullen wallop the water, reemerging from beneath its surface but they continue to be swept farther away from the shoreline, away from me. June is the month for flash floods, but it’s the end of June and Colorado is suffering from an extreme drought, so I stand, watching, confused.

But I don’t have time to wonder what has happened. I dash eastward. I ignore the burrs and the pebbles that pierce my soles. I chase the fast flowing river. I chase my sons. I run after the boys—Cullen lagging behind Caylo—who have now separated from one another by more than twenty yards.

Caylo fights to remain above water; his arms and hands smack the surface. His eyes blink rapidly and he looks ashen. I can see him gasping for air like a fish in a fisherman’s hand gasps for water. Caylo claws at boulders as he quickly approaches, then passes them. His hands are too slick, too weak, to hold the coarse rocks.

“Grab something,” I holler, continuing to run, jumping brush, dodging stones.

“Where’s your brother?” I ask.

I slow to a trot. “Where’s Cullen?” I whisper.

I turn. Cullen has disappeared. I’m furious. I believed that I had placed myself between the two of them, able to watch both their routes. I planned to follow their course as they rode the current to shallow waters: where I could reach them with a tree branch or a discarded rope, something, anything. I stop. I look round. I investigate each shore: nothing, not even vinyl strips of Shaggy or Daphne or any other member of the Scooby-Doo crew as evidence of tragedy. I want to cry, cry out. I want a cigarette, but I no longer have any, having fulfilled my promise of abstaining. I turn and watch as the distance between Caylo and me becomes greater.

Do I choose to chase after the older son? The one who understood then cried knowing that I would never again live in his mother’s house: the favored one as some have said?

Or, do I search for the little one—with his wide-eyed frightened expression—the one who still likes to be cuddled, the one who still randomly says “I love you, dad”?

 

 

Did you want me to die? I asked Jim, after having recovered from nearly drowning, nearly dying. The blue coveralled paramedics had left, and Jim had assured the onlookers—We’re fine, we’re fine—that we no longer needed, or wanted, their attentions. The paramedics were speechless when Jim signed their forms. Jim said, Yes, I decline to take him to the hospital. Then he waved everyone away, flinging the backs of both hands forward in shooing motions.

Jim, sprawled in a lounge chair, didn’t answer right away. Instead, he took slow sips of his whiskey. I listened as the ice clinked against the resort’s fancy crystal cup—with its green, purple and orange hues—each time he brought it to his lips. I waited. I studied his unshaven face—a sight unfamiliar to me—before I watched the moisture slither along then fall off his glass, landing on his hairless chest and flabby stomach. I watched as each fallen drip traveled toward his belly button, pooling just outside.

Jim looked askance at me. He said, “Stop being a baby.”

I whispered, “Did I really die? Mother said I was dead.”

Jim and I had never spoken of death: we had only watched death on television. Those characters who stood around the dying actor showed worry and seemed to question the dying actor’s mortality. He and I had spent many hours, sitting side by side, watching some of his favorite shows. He had said, These are the classics. This is a real education. I had appreciated those occasions and the popcorn and his running dialog. I guess that is what Jim had meant when he spouted: That’s fake. That only happens in Hollywood, because Jim did not seem to worry nor did he question anything.

Mother had wrapped me in a fluffy white towel. She stood talking to a well-dressed member of the hotel staff—black suit, pink tie, glossy shoes. There was a tall, blonde-haired lady who stood watching the conversation, towering over both Mother and the man. My knees were pulled against my chest and my toes dangled over the edge of my seat. I could smell and taste the chlorine that had inundated my body, the same chlorine that would linger in my system for two more days.

“Why did you throw me in the pool?” I asked.

“You were fine,” Jim replied, sipping his whiskey.

“Jim,” I trembled as I spoke, “I was scared.”

Jim’s eyes met my eyes when I looked at him.

“You need to grow up and be a man,” he said: a statement that Jim often uttered during my youth.

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m on vacation,” Jim twisted his body away from me, “stop questioning me.”

Mother returned. She sat beside me, on the edge of my chair. She was wearing one of the resort’s white guest robes and the yellow flip-flops that she had purchased for our trip. She noticed my crying. “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re safe now.” She quickly rubbed—up and down, not in unison—both of my towel-covered arms. I appreciated the sensation of heat that her hands created. I didn’t welcome, though, the jolting and shaking, which nearly caused me to throw up.

Mother looked at Jim. I could see her anger; she appeared to be studying him. She pursed her lips, like she sometimes did when I forgot to clean my room or when I came home late. I believed that she wanted to strike Jim; her hands opened then closed as she glared at him, but she didn’t lash out. Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Jim focused on the pool. I could hear the racket of children’s play and of children crying, of people laughing and of mumbles of conversations.

“They’ve asked us to leave,” Mother said.

Jim continued to sip his whiskey—now devoid of ice—and at times I could smell the whiskey’s sweet and spicy odor as ceiling fans wafted its scent my direction.

“Did you hear me?” Mother asked. She kicked at his chair. “The resort manager said that guests have complained.”

“He was fine,” Jim replied. “People should mind their own business.”

“Timothy drowned.”

Jim looked at Mother. “I know what he did, and he was fine.”

“Well, they’ve asked you to leave anyway,” Mother said, standing up before walking away. “Your son was dead, and you’re a bastard.”

Jim wagged his hand in the air in an attempt to capture the attention of one of the waiters, but all the waiters seemed to be ignoring him. I observed his skin flush from its usual pale white.

Both of us started when the wave pool’s siren rang out. The noise level increased as children became excited, and I could hear their hurrying feet slap the water as they scampered into the pool. The ground began to vibrate as the wave machine rumbled, crashing water against the tiles of the shallow end.

Jim rolled to his feet. He muttered something that sounded like This is bullshit. I watched him lazily collect his stuff: imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses, tennis shoes, sporting magazine, a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips.

He murmured a few more words before he said, “You know this is your fault.”

“How?”

“It’s just your fault.” He continued, “Get your stuff. Let’s go.”

Jim began to shamble away.

“I don’t like you,” I said.

“Good,” he replied, not turning round.

 

During our drive to the river, I had considered scolding Caylo for allowing Sean to teach him how to swim. I had wanted to tell—no, I wanted to shout at—the boys that it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach a child everything, not some boyfriend who may be gone tomorrow.

The boys should have known better, I thought; they should have realized their mistake and should have asked Sean not to show Caylo how to lock his knees, how to dip his shoulder while reaching forward as far as possible with his lead hand, and other procedures: procedures that I am unfamiliar with—other than having watched swim events on television. But I would not have been the one to have taught them: I would have hired a swim instructor—someone unafraid of water. The boys might have swum and laughed as I shouted encouragement: I’m so proud of you; That’s it; Good job guys, from the bleachers.

I sprint after Caylo, the son who I can see, the son who I tossed into the middle of his parents’ divorce. Caylo is the one who will remember the yelling—I hate you; I hate you, too—the times that I slept on the couch and the times that I blurted, or correctly stated, that Your mommy is not the better parent, withholding the fact that she had been the one who had cheated.

I must save him, I say to myself.

Caylo speeds away.

I tell myself, Don’t worry about Cullen. He’s safe. I’ll find him later.

Caylo struggles to rotate his body, but he turns, facing downriver.

“Caylo,” I shout.

He tries to look back. Water shrouds his face.

 

 

Since the divorce, I have expected to receive that late-night phone call from the boys’ mother: telling me that one or both of the boys have fallen and have seriously hurt themselves. I predicted that one night I would be startled from my dreamless slumber by the ringing of my phone, then would be upset by their mother’s voice: her requesting that I hurry, that I hurry to some county hospital that would take me hours to locate—hidden by mountain roads –and that employs a staff that would not answer my questions because they would believe that Sean, the boyfriend, is the father of my boys, since he’s the male figure hovering by my boys’ sides.

The particulars of their injury, their mother would say, are unclear.

I would ask: Where were you? What were you doing?

Silence would once again come between us.

I often envisioned the story of Caylo and Cullen playing a fierce game of tag on the edge of a precipice as their mother belays Sean, who rock climbs a difficult slab. Cullen may have instigated the game; he tends to provoke others. Caylo, at first, would refuse to partake. As was I, he’s the obedient child. Their mother, who—I believe—should be observing their every move, pays attention to the boyfriend, barking directions to better footing or handholds.

Cullen would have hit Caylo, probably closed-fisted; Caylo would have shoved too hard, quick to anger. They would both fall with Caylo attempting to prevent Cullen from tumbling over the cliff’s boundary. But, this is not the case. I will be the one who’s required to call their mother. I will have to tell her that they are fine or that they are not.

Caylo smashes into a boulder. Rushing water forces him higher onto the rock, raking his face and chest against the serrated mass. A thin string of blood escapes the cut along his brow. He appears lifeless: his arms lay askew and his legs lay contorted. Caylo—my darling son—remains unconscious as I will him to use his hands to scramble up the boulder and to prevent his skin from being ripped from his body.

“Help!” I yell.

My voice echoes, searches, the valley.

“Caylo!” I yell.

I hesitate on the edge of the riverbank. The cold, wet sand forces chills through my sweat-laden body. I breathe shallowly. I shiver out of fear, out of exhaustion. I stare at the lapping water grabbing for my toes. I step back onto the white sand. I scan the onrushing water, hoping to see that Cullen has floated unharmed down the river. Instead, I see bone-colored logs damming routes and blue plastic bags that have yellow smiley faces drawn on them flapping from the arms of trees.

I look at Caylo. He has yet to move. I think, He’s all I got. His swimming trunks have puffed, infiltrated by water and air. I hadn’t noticed the silhouettes of snowboarders and skateboarders until this moment. My attentiveness had always been a subject of contention.

I hadn’t thought about Jim in years; however for some reason, I begin asking myself What would he do? I recall the expression on his face the day that I flipped, or the day that he flipped me, through the air. I remember seeing his blurred profile—red shorts, arms crossed—through watery eyes, and all I can hear is his lazy voice chanting, He’s fine; don’t worry about him.

I take a step forward, entering the water for the first time in thirty years. The frigid river sends goose pimples to my neck. The Purgatoire guzzles my feet. I take two large steps forward: my knees disappear. The river bullies me, pushing me south. The water races up my shirt like a thirsty sponge. I place my hands in front of me: I tightrope along the river rocks. I slip. I adjust my arms, counterbalancing. I stumble. I lean from the waist in the direction of Caylo, and I leap into the water, consumed.

The blackness captivates me, and I am consoled by the silence.

 

___

James Seals earned his Creative Writing and English degree from the Southern New Hampshire University. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction from SNHU. James Seals’ story “White, Like You” was chosen as the winner of SNHU Graduate Student Writing Contest, to be published in Amoskeag Journal, April 2013. His poetry has been anthologized in Measuring Twine: Poetry with Strings Attach.

Where Grade B Actresses Go

By Ann Robinson

Her real name is Rita Piceno, mid-forties,

skin peeling from too much makeup,

she goes home in tennis shoes to a one-room apartment.

 

People recognize her, but can’t recall from where,

though when her leading man signs autographs,

he always mentions her name.

 

Her three-way mirror knows her best.

I am your honey lips, your lady belle,

shot forty-three times, divorced fifteen, lost custody

of thirty-two children, murdered twelve husbands,

memorized thousands of lines.

 

Hung from a shower curtain, slept with thirty men,

although cameras shot only an empty bed.

She’s acted pathos so many times

she no longer feels;

she can’t imagine herself ten years from now.

 

In her next movie, her chandelier earrings

will be lost in the backseat

of Lee Marvin’s convertible,

as the car stalls on a cliff;

 

I am your big blond baby, your one and only, aren’t I?

Platinum hair tucked into the galaxy.

 

___

After receiving a B.A. in English literature from Lindenwood University, Ann Robinson attended the M.F.A. program at the University of Arkansas. In addition to owning a farming operation in Arkansas, she is also a legal clerk in the Criminal Division of the Superior Court of Marin County, California. She had been the recipient of the John Spaemer Award for Outstanding Fiction, a Marin Arts Council grant, and a scholarship to study at a Hofstra University conference. She’s also studied with Kathleen Fraser, Miller Williams, and Thomas Centolella.

Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Coe Review, Compass Rose, Connecticut Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The GW Review, Fourteen Hills, Freshwater, Natural Bridge, New York Quarterly, Passager, Poet Lore, The Portland Review, RiverSedge, Sanskrit, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Weave Magazine, Willow Review, and Zone 3, among others.